1. We have moved to a new forum system. All your posts and data should have transferred over. Welcome, to the new Serebii Forums. Details here
    Dismiss Notice
  2. Be sure to join the discussion on our discord at: Discord.gg/serebii
    Dismiss Notice
  3. If you're still waiting for the e-mail, be sure to check your junk/spam e-mail folders
    Dismiss Notice

Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Hands of Creation

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

  1. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Wow, that's a really thorough essay--and I agree with pretty much everything you're saying in it, too! I obviously can't really get into detail about the issues at play here in terms of what's going to happen going forward, but I will at least admit that going the third person limited route is a very dangerous risk on my part, but also one that I decided upon. The whole deal with Eon isn't as clear-cut as some of the characters think it is, and I think the best person who seems to align with your perspective in this whole thing is--surprisingly--Gahi, aside from him trusting Star less. He still has his biases.

    You're hitting on a good spot here. I'll get to this on my final quote.

    Special Episode 7 and the surrounding chapters.

    I have a funny habit of doing that. Sometimes I wonder if I should capitalize more on these big reveals, but I'm sort of a sucker of just casually saying things to make the reader pause and blink, then reread because "Wait did that just happen?"

    I'll be sure to keep this in mind. I will admit that the narrative framing in its incomplete state makes Eon seem nice and misunderstood to a cursory reader, but deeply problematic under a microscope, but I'll be sure to give this special attention in the coming story arcs. Everything you're outlining is going to be a very big theme for the mid-early stages of Act III. I'm aiming for nuance, and I hope you will be satisfied with the way I address your concerns.

    I know that Brandon is being portrayed as someone that is speaking the truth, but Brandon, too, is someone that has a lot of biases. After all, he was literally a trainer, and apparently knows something about Eon and Owen that the others are trying to keep a secret. But he isn't in Eon's head. He's wrong about some things, clearly, but he also might have a point in others.

    But until then, we'll have to see how it all goes down! This whole Eon-Owen subplot is probably going to be put on a brief hold due to future plot happenings, but don't think it's gone for good. I've got plans.

    Anyway, time to move to the next chapter!
     
    Chibi Pika likes this.
  2. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 84 – What’s Your Name?

    The once pristine labyrinth of silk and glowing halls had holes torn through them to let in the light. Har’s tail flame illuminated what was left, and they soon realized from the night’s rainfall that they had to keep the holes better covered. The water that seeped through the webbing made everything sticky and soggy; without Trina’s Mysticism to keep it regulated, their labyrinth was literally melting around them.

    Snapping Har out of his thoughts was Ani’s sigh. “I don’t think Trina’s coming back,” she said. “Something happened.”

    Having an icy pit in his stomach was never a good feeling for a Fire. “Those explosions made it pretty obvious,” Har said. “How’s Lygo doing?”

    “I healed him, but he still seems shaken up,” Ani said.

    Lygo had been their scout; when the sky had turned black, he had tried to flee. But then the lights had cut through the darkness, and the explosions made nearly everyone pass out—including Lygo, in midair. By the time he had regained consciousness, he’d struck the ground hard.

    Even with his body healed, everyone felt a lot weaker. That explosion in the sky was one of the strongest things they’d ever seen. Har hadn’t seen anything like it, either, even with his past life’s incomplete memories. He did have a theory, though: streaks of light from a faraway place could only be something of divine nature, surely. And if the Book of Arceus was anything to go by…

    “Whatever got Trina, it seems like Arceus himself is trying to suppress it,” Har said, squeezing his claws. He glanced at his bag, which felt so much heavier than usual, and at the three scarves tucked away inside. He hoped they would still be effective if he wound up choosing to give it to them, but—

    No, would he be doing that? Was he supposed to do that by now?

    “Har.”

    “Oh—you’re still here.” Har nodded at Ani. “Sorry. I, um. Hi.”

    “You’ve been lost in thought all day,” Ani hummed, frowning. The mutant Meganium wrapped a vine around his forehead. “You feel kind of hot. Are you sure you aren’t coming down with something?”

    “…I’m a Fire.”

    “Well, yeah, but hotter than usual. I feel like if I could feel pain, I’d be bringing my vine back by now.” She did so anyway, inspecting it, and then showed Har the part of her vine that had touched him. “See? It looks a little burned.”

    “I don’t see anything, and I have Perceive. I’m fine.” Har crossed his arms.

    “Har, I know when you’re lying,” Ani said. “I don’t have Perceive, but I may as well with you.” She prodded him with a vine, making sure one of her thorns dug into his chest’s scales. “So, what’s it going to be, Har?”

    Always with the rhetorical questions. Har didn’t have an immediate response. Instead, he let the slowly collapsing wall to his right, and its unstable silk congealing into a shapeless mess, distract him. Ani, however, was having none of it. She would have said more had it not been for the shout from across the field, audible only because the walls that separated the corridors had long since collapsed.

    “Another mutant’s woken up! S-someone, help!”

    Ani cursed and looked to Har. “I’m not done, but we need to do this first.” Even while she spoke, she pulled herself along, and Har followed, stretching his wings to conjure himself some forward updraft.

    Har twisted in the air and drilled through a thin wall of silk to get to the struggle faster—he could already sense them. The middle of it all was an Umbreon being held down by a Throh and Sawk. Those two weren’t mutants—he remembered their arrival several years ago. Outlaws in hiding that turned a new leaf under Trina. Good. Much more stable than the mutants who were losing it.

    This Umbreon kept struggling under their hold, spewing poison from spikes that protruded from the glowing rings on his body. It was already weakening the two Fighting Pokémon, despite their type advantage. Feral growls and hisses were the only sounds that came from Umbreon.

    “He’s getting loose!” Throh shouted, his grip weakening.

    “Do we have any way to immobilize him?” Har shouted, landing nearby. “Thunder Wave, anything, do we—”

    “This is with Thunder Wave.”

    Har’s throat tightened and he looked down. He saw the madness in Umbreon’s eyes; there was no way they were going to console that unless they put him under or subdue or bind him.

    Subdue, put under—sleep!

    “Does anybody have a Sleep Seed?!” Har shouted, but then tuned his horns to the bags that a few of Trina’s best carried. There was one nearby, but in his panic, he didn’t know whose it—it was his. Right. He kept some of them to help with restless nights.

    Pulling out the Seed and ignoring its vaguely floral aroma, he motioned for Sawk to help with pulling Umbreon’s mouth open. They tried to adjust, but the moment they did, sharp spikes jutted out from all sides of Umbreon and stabbed at the two Fighters’ skin. They cried simultaneously, let go, and Umbreon bolted.

    “No!” Har stretched his wings and conjured more updraft to fly forward, the frantic flight leaving small trails of embers behind him. His tail blazed with the extra oxygen, which in turn gave him a surge of energy like a second breath of air, and soon he was already upon the frenzied mutant.

    First came a sharp, burning pain—and burning was not something that Har was used to. Then came a much more familiar, icy chill that spread dully through his flesh, and he knew that Umbreon had used his strange, poison spikes. Didn’t matter; he had to power through.

    “Calm down, you—” He shoved the Sleep Seed into Umbreon’s mouth and gripped his muzzle firmly afterward.

    “It’s okay,” Har continued, somewhere between a growl and a whisper. “You’ll sleep, we’ll keep you safe, we’ll calm you down, okay? We’ll figure it out.”

    Umbreon wasn’t receptive, but at the very least, the seed went down.

    Har waited. And waited. And waited.

    Nothing was happening. Why wasn’t it—

    Distracted, Har lost his grip on Umbreon, who suddenly broke him his hold, blasted him with a volley of spikes to his snout and chest, and then bolted away. Har roared and spat a gout of fire randomly ahead, hitting only the air. He tried again, unable to see with his eyes but perfectly aware of Umbreon’s trajectory regardless. Umbreon hopped to the left and bolted past a few passerby mutants who didn’t react in time.

    “Get him!” Har shouted, but he knew it was useless. Umbreon was gone. He rummaged angrily through his bag and pulled out a Heal Seed, trying to ignore the cold sting of the poison, and bit down.

    Why did he even bother? Of course it wouldn’t work.

    Please tell me Pecha Berries aren’t broken,” Har begged, turning to face Ani, who had finally caught up with him. He ignored her empathetic wince and said, “Yeah, I know, it looks bad—heal me, please.”

    “I need to take out those spikes first,” Ani said.

    “Fine, just…” Har’s words were slurred, and he realized only then how badly the poison was coursing through him. “Just do somethi…”

    The world was a tunnel of light, and then darkness.

    <><><>​

    Charizard nuzzled Charmander on the back of his neck. In reply, Charmander growled and crossed his arms, looking away. A learned behavior from all his exposure to humans, but Charizard had always said that was a good thing.

    “Humans are dumb.”

    Charizard sighed, looking over at Marowak, who seemed more interested in the boulders in the distance. Marowak understood; Charmander knew that. Because he used to be feral, and he didn’t really get to know humans until after meeting Charizard. But… He still respected them, for some reason. And Charmander didn’t understand that.

    “They aren’t dumb, Smallflame,” Charizard said. “Not all of them. Some humans… are worthy of your time.”

    “Some.” Charmander spat a small ember on the ground. “What if I get a dumb one?”

    “Then leave them.” Charizard smiled, prodding at Charmander again.

    “Then they’ll be too weak.” As far as Charmander was concerned, if he picked a human, he was going to have to stay with them so they didn’t get into any trouble.

    Charmander looked at his other siblings—they were all sparring with one another under the oversight of Redscale. He had never picked a human. He had stayed behind to help the others pick theirs. Why couldn’t he be like Redscale?

    Charizard never answered him. And he knew Charizard wouldn’t answer him if he tried today. So, instead, he tried a new question. “…Fine. Tell me about your human.”

    Charizard looked down. “What?”

    “Your human. What about her? She gave you a name. And she trained with you. So, what about her?”

    In all honesty, Charmander hadn’t paid much attention when Charizard talked about her human. He only knew the basics that every Pokémon in their family knew: That humans had the power to give Pokémon human names. Names that they didn’t know how to say themselves, but the humans could. Their strange language barrier; Pokémon and humans understood each other through feelings, not words, but that was usually enough.

    But to be given a name… Was it really that important to Charizard? What was her human name? He never knew. He rarely heard her human name, because apparently Charizard didn’t like anybody else to use it except for her trainer. And she…

    Charizard’s eyes briefly showed her age. Beneath the eternal flame were ancient embers that had long since settled down: little imperfections under her eyes, faded scales that speckled her face. Old scars from battles and troubles that a simple potion couldn’t heal in time. Charmander rarely noticed them; that was just how Charizard looked. So why was he seeing them now?

    She had a wide smile on her face, but her eyes were sad. The old mother picked Charmander up and cradled him in her arms; he curled up on reflex, ready to listen to another bedtime story.

    “She was wonderful.”

    <><><>​

    Owen groaned, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. It was wet. He grimaced, looking blurrily at his fists. Rubbing his cheeks came; they were wet with tears, which confused him. The Charmander wiped them away and yawned for a second time, trying to understand the cause of the heaviness he felt in his chest.

    Charizard… He looked at the bowl, frowning. He remembered a Charizard, but it was such a fleeting thought. It felt so long ago. Maybe it was just a dream?

    It was never that simple. That was where the heaviness was coming from, but it all felt so vague. The dream had all but evaporated, and it wasn’t like there was anything he could do about it anyway.

    He took one step and suddenly doubled over, grunting in pain. His stomach felt horrible. Had he even slept for long? It felt like his insides were on fire—everything felt like some kind of rushed blur, now that he thought about it. His muscles ached. And he smelled something foul nearby.

    He looked to the left, spotting the remains of the bowl of food he’d eaten. The bowl of himself? At this point he decided that he should just get used to that thought. But the stew had congealed since he’d last eaten it, and simply reheating it probably wasn’t going to be good enough this time around. Out of tiny desperation, Owen inspected the soup, but it radiated a foul presence that made even his feral instincts recoil.

    He stepped back and into something else. The sound of a half-full bowl clattered dully against his ankle. With a grimace, he shook his foot of more rotten food, but a different foul odor still permeated the air.

    Wait—that’s my breath.

    It smelled like bile. And then Owen remembered—in vague, dizzy flashes—what had happened. He had been eating the stew, which had settled badly in his stomach. Then, he’d tried to stuff more of it down in an effort to keep as much nutrition in him as possible… And then…

    That backfired.

    He rubbed at his cheeks, chipping away at dried bits of uneaten—and formerly eaten—food that stuck to his scales. The pain in his stomach, he assumed, was a mixture of emptiness and lingering food poisoning.

    Was he better or worse off than before he found this stew? Psychologically, he was probably better. Physically? Owen wasn’t sure anymore. But he needed to find water next. The closest he had to that was the tree taffy. He probably had to spend another few moments in that forest…

    He looked at the uneaten food—what a waste—but knew that this time, he couldn’t act out of desperation. The next one could kill him. He didn’t even know what that would truly mean this time around, either.

    Trying to spit out the remaining taste of bile, Owen left the cave, felt for rumbles, and continued north to the dead forest. It was far away, like a black line in the horizon across a canvas of purple, windswept fields. The great plateaus towered over him as always, but Owen was starting to notice little distinctions in each one. Lumpy, straight, a little angular. Each plateau had their own personality. The one he just left felt particularly sassy.

    Compared to the walks that he’d taken before, this one felt simultaneously longer and shorter. It was shorter because, as far as the number of steps he’d vaguely counted, they were the fewest by far. Yet between his lingering nausea, his lack of proper food in… a while, and the lack of water, it felt like he’d been walking for longer than all his other trips combined.

    He had stopped caring about the rumbling a while ago, getting a sense of how near and far they were. The small ones didn’t scare him anymore; whatever those titanic things were, they were at least three or four rows of plateaus away when the shakes were at that intensity.

    A defiant-looking plateau had its head eternally tilted upward, challenging the sky to blow it down. Owen wished he could be like that, so tall and unmoving. There had been a lot of people in Kilo who looked up to him. Demitri, Mispy, Gahi—he was finally becoming their leader. Then this happened.

    And Zena… Was she okay? Could she be lost here, too? How many times could she have been killed, the way he had, and the way Amia had? So many others to find, and he had no idea where any of them were—or if they were still fighting in Kilo.

    The defiant plateau was behind him, and up ahead, the final plateau before the forest, was a tired one. The cliffside sagged like an overweight Nidoking, huffing and puffing after climbing the Heart HQ stairs. Owen could relate. He was fit, but he was starting to feel the fatigue of no proper meals—none held down, at least. But he couldn’t stop. They were probably looking for him the same way he was for them.

    He eventually got to the edge of the forest, prioritizing the water first. Without having to worry about going back to Amia this time, he simply followed the forest edge. Maybe he’d happen upon a river.

    But first, he needed something to get his tongue to stop feeling so sticky and dry. He channeled some Steel energy into his claws, slashing at the nearest tree. Just like the ones deeper in, the tree had some inner bark for him to tear away, though not as much, and not quite as juicy. He was tempted to go deeper inside where the ground was moist, but decided, for now, to not risk it. Some basic energy would do for now.

    After tearing enough pieces for himself, he continued along the forest perimeter, silently hoping that he’d find some lead on what he was supposed to do next.

    Water. Everyone needed water. If he followed a river, maybe he’d find the others. And maybe Zena would be inside.

    <><><>​

    Dull, intense pain wracked Har’s body. He groaned a few times until he realized he was awake, or that he had passed out at all. Gentle claws held his shoulder.

    “Stay down,” Lygo said, and the Flygon pressed a little harder to force Har to stop moving.

    “Umbreon…”

    “Ran off,” Lygo said. “It’s too late—sorry. But that’s how it is.” Lygo squeezed his hands together, claws digging into his palms. “We’re trying to keep the ones that didn’t run away stable, but that’s by force right now. They’re all asleep. But when they wake up, what?”

    Har’s heart sank. “Are they stable?”

    “For now…”

    Ax’s voice sounded from somewhere far away. “He awake?”

    “Yeah!” Lygo called back. When he took his claws off Har to wave them down, Har tried to get up again. Lygo’s tail smashed him back into the silk.

    “Get off me—” Har tried to stand again, but overwhelming fatigue washed over him and he collapsed on his own. “Why aren’t I healed?”

    “You need to rest,” Lygo said firmly. “That Umbreon’s poison is persistent, and we’re out of Pechas. The ones we used on you weren’t too effective on that poison, so you just need to hold still.”

    His vision was blurry, but he could make out the vaguely green figures of the Flygon, Meganium, and Haxorus. Lygo pulled him up and kept him level, while Ani used her vines to prevent Har from leaning too far in any direction.

    “I feel like I just ate Ani’s cooking,” Har mumbled.

    Ani let go of Har and let him collapse.

    “Just take it easy,” Ax said. “Har—the whole labyrinth is falling apart. We have no idea what to do. Do we just stay put until Trina comes back? Or—”

    “I don’t think Trina’s coming back,” Har stated. “Something… happened. The whole place wouldn’t be falling apart if she was still around.”

    Somehow, this thought felt even worse than the poison that still ran through his blood, circling through him in toxic waves from his head to his tail.

    “We have to try to rebuild with what we have and salvage the mutants who aren’t going crazy. And… and you guys are staying sane, too, right?”

    Ani nodded. “Don’t worry.”

    Lygo shifted his weight and murmured, “We’ll tell you if we’re feeling off.”

    “I thought Trina cured us of this,” Ax added, tugging at one of his tusks. “We were supposed to be past this, y’know? But—”

    “It was Mystic power,” Ani concluded. “We have to be careful.”

    “Too much stress might set us off,” Har added, feeling a phantom madness settling in his head that felt simultaneously familiar and foreign.

    The poison made relaxing difficult, but he could at least try to breathe. His flame still provided him with a gentle warmth that spread through the rest of his system, and that was reassuring enough. He felt awful, slumped down in a pile of melting silk, but he wasn’t dying. He did sense, however, that the other three were bothered.

    “You guys should help out the others,” Har said, screwing his eyes shut. “I’m useless right now. I’ll help out when my body fights off this stuff.”

    “We will,” Ax said, “but…”

    “Right.” Lygo nodded, shifting to his other foot. “There’s something else we wanted to ask you.”

    “The scarves,” Ani added.

    “Not now,” Har mumbled, rolling over and away, shielding his head from the rest of them with his wings. “Too tired.”

    “Owe—Har,” Ani said, narrowing her eyes. She wrapped a vine around his wing and pulled, but Har refused to budge. Puffing out her cheeks, she pulled harder, but the Charizard growled in response.

    “What part of tired don’t you understand?”

    “Why did Trina give those to you?” Lygo asked. “C’mon, there’re three of them, and three of us. Where’s yours?”

    “They’re—you know, stuff,” Har said. “Was meant for… a ceremony.”

    “A ceremony” Ani said. “One only you know about? We asked about those scarves with the others and they had no idea.”

    “Well, that’s because Trina only got around to telling me about it,” Har explained, weaving an even greater lie. Much like the silk around them, though, he feared it was rapidly deteriorating.

    “What’s it for?” Ani pressed, her grip around his wing getting stronger.

    “I wasn’t supposed to say because—”

    Ani abruptly wrapped two vines around Har’s arm and pulled it back and around, twisting the scales. Har yelped, which transitioned into a desperate whine and wail.

    “Stop, stop, stop!” Har shouted, but trying to pull away only made it worse. “S-stop! I’m already dying—you’ll kill me!”

    “What’s it about?” Ani asked, twisting a little harder.

    Har kicked and flailed his tail, waving flames over Ani’s vines, but she was completely unfazed.

    “Ani, c’mon,” Ax said, backing down. “If he doesn’t want to tell us—”

    “No.” Ani grabbed a third vine and curled it around Har’s neck; he tensed.

    “Wh-what’re you doing?” Har squeaked, realizing that Ani had pressed him down while he wasn’t paying attention. He was too weak to fight back.

    “Negotiations,” Ani replied, bringing another vine up to her mouth. She wrapped her maw around it; Har’s eyes widened with horror as thick globs of saliva coated the tip.

    “Oh boy, here we go,” Lygo rolled his eyes, though he didn’t make an effort to stop her.

    “Ani, wait,” Har said. “C-can’t we work this out? I—AAH!”

    She twisted his arm again, and the wet vine slithered toward one of Har’s earholes.

    “No, no, wait!” Har begged, craning his neck as far as it could go.

    “Tell us,” Ani said threateningly.

    “No!”

    The vine was getting very close. He could smell it. A mixture of cut grass, berries, morning breath—Oh Mew, what did she eat?!—It was about to enter him and rot his brain.

    In his panic, though, a moment of clarity passed through, and he wondered if Ani had sensed it from the start: the flame on his tail didn’t have any blaze of battle. Was he really fighting back? It certainly didn’t feel like it; he didn’t know what he was trying to preserve anymore. He didn’t know why they were so fixated on the scarves; he hadn’t said anything. Maybe he really was still easy to read…

    Ani’s absurd negotiation tactic—it was completely like her to force the truth out like this. He didn’t want to lose that… yet…

    “Fine—” Har said, sucking in a breath. He held it. Then he went on, “I’ll talk.”

    “Hmph.” Ani loosened her hold and drew back. Lygo and Ax both avoided Ani’s slimy vine.

    Har muttered under his breath and rolled to a slightly more comfortable position, eventually stopping on his belly to help his stomach settle. The combination of Ani’s threat and the ongoing poison wasn’t doing his gut any favors.

    “So?” Ax asked, poking his claws together. “What’s it supposed to be for? The ceremony?”

    Har looked the three over, hesitating, like this would be the final time that he would get to see them as they were. Yet, they had this grave look in their eyes that tempted him so badly to turn up his Perceive. He’d know instantly what they were thinking if he did, but…. It would also break their trust. He couldn’t do that to them.

    Not that he wasn’t already going to do that.

    The words didn’t come. He felt like a Charmeleon staring down an endless cliff. No wings to carry him over. If he stepped forward, would that be the end? Or would he evolve? That was too optimistic.

    But a great, saliva-covered monster was threatening his brain. He had to jump.

    “It’s not a ceremony,” Har said, sighing in defeat. It wasn’t even the threat of Ani that was making him speak, at this point. Once he promised to tell them, he couldn’t back out. Because… “You guys are my friends—so you deserve to know. They were… dispel Scarves. Just like how Owen made one to dispel Ghrelle’s power over that Aerodactyl guy, or at least suppress the effects… Trina made one that would completely nullify something she did to you three.”

    “Nullify?” Ax said. “Like what?”

    And just then, the words died in Har’s throat, all momentum lost.

    “Keep talking,” Ani said.

    That was enough. “Y-your memories. Trina altered them.”

    “How?” Ani asked, though it was more like a demand. Ax and Lygo were uncharacteristically quiet, like the shock had rendered them speechless, yet all he saw from them on the surface were downcast eyes and little, sideways movements to adjust their footing.

    “I’m—I’m not the only one who has false memories of being the original Alloy,” Har explained.

    “Okay,” Ani said, her vines curling and uncurling. “So, all three of us used to be them, too?”

    “We were never them,” Har said immediately, trying to rise to his feet, but a wave of dizziness made him fall again. Ani didn’t help him up, and Ax and Lygo were both still motionless. “We were born with fake memories based on their most recent experiences, and that’s all. We were supposed to replace them when everything went wrong the first time, but we were never them. And—and you guys couldn’t handle that, so when we found Trina, you asked her to remove those memories and start fresh, and when she offered it to me, I refused, and—”

    He didn’t realize until the claws dug into his shoulders that Lygo had approached. Shortly after, it was Ax on the other side, while Ani slid to stand in front of him.

    “Breathe,” Ax said softly.

    “It’s alright,” Lygo said. “We kinda figured.”

    “What—” Har tried to look at all three of them at once, but eventually settled on Ani. There was no way they could have deduced that far, yet they weren’t at all surprised. If anything, they looked relieved.

    She nodded, then looked at the bag in the corner of the room. “So that’s what they’ll do?”

    “Yes.” Har looked away.

    A late morning breeze carried the smell of smoke from a distant fire. Har remembered a time when Ani had tried to make a fancy dish he’d read about in a cookbook. It had been the most terrible thing he’d ever eaten.

    “How come you never told us?” Ani asked.

    That one was probably the worst question of all. “I’m really tired, guys,” Har said, but he knew none of them were going to buy it. He didn’t have to look at, nor Perceive, Ani’s glare to feel it. “…I didn’t want to lose you.”

    “Lose us,” Ax repeated. “You mean the fresh start that we had, even though you still had those fake-Owen memories? Because we couldn’t handle it? Why did you even keep yours?”

    “I—I don’t know,” Har said. “I felt like I couldn’t have, or that I shouldn’t have. Because if I lost my memories, too, what’s that going to mean for… anything about what we used to be? I felt like it would have lost something if I did… lost forever if we all forgot. And look!” He motioned vaguely westward. “We knew about what was going on with the real ones that we were based on. Living in endless cycles of forgetting everything—a fog that kept them from being who they really were! I didn’t… want to have all of us go through that. I needed to be the escape. And I…”

    “And you still didn’t tell us,” Ani stated flatly.

    Har suddenly had to swallow, the back of his throat tasting like bile. He’d spent so many nights staring at the ceiling with only his flame to keep him company. Nightmares, recurring ones, about his body dissolving into a great void, and then being reborn as a faceless doll. He never saw the faces of his team there; they had always been blank. He always held masks of them, but the masks were tearful. He couldn’t bear to return them.

    “I just don’t get it,” Ax said, frowning. “You wanted to hold onto a legacy that you hated because it wasn’t yours, but you also didn’t want us to regain it and catch up to you and everything you knew?”

    He swallowed it back down and breathed. Still, no words followed.

    “…Why, then?” Ani asked. “We chose to get rid of it. And after that, I guess Trina planned to give it back to us one day. Left it to you? Never told us?”

    Everything felt tight and claustrophobic. Lygo and Ax were right next to him and somehow it felt like they towered over him. Those vines would squeeze what little life remained in his poisoned body, and maybe he deserved it, because he had no right to withhold that kind of information from them—their precious memories. The very thing he wanted to protect for some twisted, backwards reason, he hid from them.

    All because… “I was… afraid I’d lose the new you. And it’d all just be fake again. Fake us. Fake me. At least this way… you guys were able to come up with your own personalities without the way Eon wanted you to be.”

    Ani frowned, sighing. “Trina’s not here to give you therapy,” she muttered. “…Whatever.” She slid toward the bag, tugging it open. “Then are we allowed to wear them?”

    “Y-you… I can’t…” Har, defeated, collapsed back onto the ground. “I don’t have a right to stop you.”

    “Did you ever have that right?” Ani asked, and Har realized that, indeed, keeping his Perceive off was the best choice. He didn’t want to know how Ani felt just then, because her voice shook for the first time.

    Har wasn’t sure if she would hear him, but he mumbled under his breath, “No. I’m sorry.”

    Ani took the three out and tossed one to Lygo, then another to Ax. All three of them stared at it, then down at Har, who peeked out at them from between his claws. They all waited, and when Har realized this, he rolled onto his back and slowly sat up. The dizziness came the first time and he had to stop; Ani spared a few vines to prop him up afterward.

    “Right now?” Har said, feeling, for some reason, small. “You’re doing this right now?”

    “Should we?” Ani said.

    “It’s—it might be stressful,” Har said.

    “Maybe. But so is anticipating it, right?” Ani pulled the scarf a little closer, a few simple motions away from wrapping it around her neck. Har only saw it as a deadly knot to suck the life out of everything he knew about them… And yet, would it also be a return to what they used to be?

    “Har,” Ani said, and Har willed himself to maintain eye contact again. “What’s my name?”

    “Your—your name?” Har asked the Meganium. “It’s… Ani right now.” Because he didn’t know what would happen after.

    “And you?” Ax spoke up, anxiously plucking and reattaching one of his tusks. “What’s your name? What would we call you?”

    “I…” Why was he shaking? “Just—tell me after. We’ll see. I—just do what you want. I’ll answer to either, just—just do it already. Please.”

    He couldn’t stop his jaw from quivering and he hated it. This was absurd—he was going to get them back! He would finally get his team back! His friends, his companions… their false memories still bound them together. And what else did they have? No—it was with Trina. Their friendship had been recreated under Trina… Was he better off that way?

    His ‘true’ counterpart’s shining eyes flashed in his mind. So happy and full of life despite everything he’d gone through. And then there was him, the fake, with suppressed friends and no true identity. Miserable. But now he was losing even that to another veil of artificial memories…

    But it was what they wanted. And according to Trina, memories, no matter how they were acquired, were eternal. It would be with them forever; the seal would eventually break. This was… inevitable.

    So, he only watched, his eyes trying to remember every detail about them. And once again, he was tempted to use his Perceive to remember even more… But he didn’t. And he instead nodded, claws weakly digging into his palms, and waited.

    Ani did it first, then Lygo, and then Ax. Ax had trouble tying it together, so Lygo helped and brought it around his neck.

    “…Well?” Har choked.

    There were no lights; no gasps; not even a startled blink. More than ever, Har wanted to know for sure how they felt, but with his eyes alone, he knew something was amiss.

    “It’s not working?” he asked, and then a pit of ice pulled his stomach down. “Trina… If she’s gone, then her influence would be—the Mystic aura in those—”

    Ani’s frown deepened, and then she looked to Ax and Lygo. They both blinked in some silent agreement toward her.

    “We already got them back,” Ani finally said.

    The shock left Har numb. He didn’t fully understand the words they had said, only that he wasn’t supposed to be reacting so silently. Yet he couldn’t find it in him to say anything.

    “Our memories,” Ani clarified with a subdued smile.

    Har tried and failed to get up, smashing his face into some of the lumpy silk. It tasted like feet. Sputtering and coughing, rubbing his tongue on his claws, he panted and ignored the quiet giggles coming from Lygo.

    He settled for resting most of his weight on his arm again. “Why didn’t you tell me?!” he shouted, a sudden, seething anger putting a pressure on his neck and forehead. “I—I was getting all worked up over something that already happened, and—”

    “Because now we’re even,” Ani said, her subdued smile becoming a playful smirk.

    “Hmph.” Lygo crossed his arms. “Lie by omission to us, then fine, we’ll do the same to you.” After a second of seriousness, a wry smile broke the façade.

    Ax fiddled with one of his tusks, tugging it out to twirl around his claws. “And if you’re wondering… We don’t feel too different. It was weird to get our memories back, but that was always the plan, even if we forgot. When we first lost them, Trina took us to the side, away from you, for the procedure… But it was actually just to sort out when we’d get them back.”

    “Trina said memories were eternal,” Lygo added. “We’d get them back eventually under Mystic influence, and Trina has a lot of that. But the timing on when we got them would mean a lot… Guess she was right.” He looked at his claws, then at Har.

    “And—and your accent,” Har said. “Gahi had a—”

    “Ehh…” Lygo shrugged. “I feel it slipping, but I think I’ll stick with speaking properly. Leave the broken speech to Gahi.”

    “And Ani,” Har said. “Your…”

    Ani shrugged. “I’ve never had trouble talking. I don’t really know why the real Mispy can’t. Maybe Nevren got around to finding out what was going on with my speech center.”

    “Then… then which ones are you?” Har asked, wings drooping.

    The three looked at one another, perplexed. When it seemed that nobody had an answer, Ani asked, “What do you mean? I thought you didn’t tell us because you were scared to lose us, or something?” She leaned forward, several vines creeping over Har’s legs. “What, did you want to be Owen again?”

    “I—” Har paused. “I don’t know.”

    “Well, who do you want us to be?” Ani leaned forward. “Ani, or Mispy?”

    “I don’t know!” Har blurted, trying to pull away, but Ani didn’t let up. She kept staring with that intense glare in her eyes. “I just—you pick! It’s not my choice!”

    “What do you mean?” Lygo asked, standing on Ani’s right. Ax stood to the left.

    “I—” Har’s words echoed in his head, everything feeling askew, like the whole world was tilted to the left. “I chose to be Har,” he began slowly, “because I wasn’t Owen. But I sorta wished I was Owen, too, because—I mean, duh, it’s what I started off with.” He watched their eyes and paused. Despite the fact that they were waiting for him, Har felt lighter.

    “It’s wasn’t fair to leave you guys without memories. Now that you have them all… Pick.” He lowered his head, trying to suppress his shaking. He was at their mercy, after finally telling them the truth. He remembered how horribly they’d screamed at Eon, how they had blasted him away and fled the lab. Would the same happen now?

    Perhaps the artificial apple didn’t fall far from the rotten tree.

    “Why?” Ani asked.

    He thought he felt Ani’s vines digging into his scales, but it was all in his mind. A quick glance verified she was just watching him, not advancing nor backing away.

    His flame felt so cold.

    “It’s not my choice,” Har whispered. “I already lied to you guys once and tried to manipulate you into… something. I was afraid of change—that was it.” The realization was enough for him to latch onto, even if he wasn’t sure it was true. “But now it’s done, and… I’m ready to just see what happens.” Lighter and lighter; he was shaking, but it was easier to breathe.

    Ani eased her stance into something taller, looking down at Har with narrowed eyes. “So I can be Ani or Mispy?”

    Har nodded. “Whichever.”

    Ani looked to Lygo, who nodded. Then to Ax, who also nodded.

    “Does it matter?” Ani asked.

    Har blinked, looking up. “What—” He didn’t know how to finish, so he let them continue.

    “We weren’t able to handle it, so we ran away to hide in our minds,” Lygo said. “You weathered the storm for us. I don’t think the name you pick, or we pick, matters anymore. We feel like… us.” He smiled a little wider. “And you’re still you, to me.”

    At this, Ax and Ani nodded firmly.

    Far to their right, a part of the silken maze sagged, even more of Trina’s abode collapsing gently around them with a soft sigh. Har couldn’t see. Everything was a blurry mixture of white silk and green bodies; Ani’s form faded into Ax’s, and then Lygo, those red flecks for his wings, got closer.

    He hadn’t realized it until then, but his breathing was so quick that he was becoming lightheaded again. Deep, rumbling whimpers escaped his throat against his wishes. He tried to speak but it came out as a babble. His expression twisted into an ugly grimace, shaky gasps parting his jaws. “I—I’m s-so…”

    “By the stars,” Lygo said, and Har could at least hear him. “You’re a mess.”

    And then Har wailed, covering his eyes with his claws. His wings shielded him from the outside world, his sobs amplified within the protective shell. Two sets of claws held him by the shoulders and vines wrapped around his torso; three heads pressed against him on all sides, and in that instance, those relieved, sad sobs became happy tremors. He opened his wings enough to let them in, then his arms, and he cried into their shoulders. Tears weaved between scales and onto the damp ground. Their pressure relieved him, and he wanted to pull them even closer, even if it crushed his bones.

    “I’m sorry,” Har sobbed. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry—”

    “I’m sorry, too,” Ani replied.

    “You cry too much for a Fire,” Ax whispered.

    “I know, I—I know.”

    Little murmurs and gentle nothings eventually brought Har down to an occasional sniffle, but now he was grinning more than he’d ever grinned before. “I—I really don’t know,” Har admitted. “I’ve been Owen, but I feel like Har, too.”

    “Same,” they all admitted.

    “But the real ones are still around, too,” Har said. “And we have our own n-names anyway.”

    “So, stick with Har?” Ani asked. “For practical reasons.”

    “Are we sure the real ones are still okay?” Ax said. “Trina went to where they are, and she’s not back…”

    Har didn’t want to think about that, but his tail flame dimmed anyway. “Let’s stay optimistic.”

    “Guess I’m Ani, then.” The Meganium relented.

    “Yeah,” Ax agreed. “I’ll stay as Ax—I’m used to it.”

    “Yeah, and Lygo sounds cool,” Lygo said, grinning.

    Har frowned and rubbed the back of his head. “I’m sorry I prolonged it for so long.”

    “Aah, who cares,” Lygo dismissed with a wave. “We’re as whole as can be, so now all that’s just the past.” He cracked his neck, then nestled a little closer to Har. “I’m just happy I don’t feel lost anymore.”

    Har flinched, staring at Lygo, wordless.

    “…What? Did I say something weird?” Lygo asked.

    And just then, a thousand pounds left his shoulders. “No,” Har replied, a smile creeping from the left side of his face into a full grin. “I think you just helped explain something I couldn’t.”

    They stayed together for a while longer, and Har didn’t complain. There was something special about being next to one another, rather than being fused or fighting or simply in the same room. He needed more of this. And for the first time, it didn’t feel like a lie.

    “No more secrets,” Ani said to Har.

    “None,” Har agreed. He basked in their warm silence for a little while longer as he played the conversation in his head over and over.

    “We’ve got a lot to fix around here,” Ax hummed, glancing at the last of the silk ruins.

    “Yeah,” Har agreed, sighing. He had no idea what the path forward would be like for them. But at least they had each other.

    “I think we’ll manage it,” Lygo affirmed.

    Amid the collapsing silken labyrinth, the sunlight shined through the dewdrop treetops. Bright skies warmed their scales and Har’s flame returned to a vibrant orange.

    ____________________________

    Author's Note: Special thanks to a new beta reader to my beta team, this time Ambyssin, author of the completed Guiding Light, and the in-progress Path of Valor! You should give his works a read!
     
    Kindoflame and git-it like this.
  3. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 85 –A Bright, Dark Storm

    As it turned out, God appearing in the town square led to much more activity than usual. Rhys hadn’t heard Arceus’ name said so often since he’d actually been mortal, blurry as those memories were. Scouts had announced another town to the southwest had been attacked, and the assumption was another rogue mutant or two. Rhys was less certain; it was near the strange, dark blotch on the map that was rarely visited, after all. Void’s Basin, they called it. Not even plants grew there.

    Still, perhaps there had been a mutant wandering around that area without supervision. There was a Dungeon there, but explorations turned up nothing, not even a wild Pokémon. Then again, it was just a lifeless crater from the first war. With everything going upside-down, perhaps it warranted another check.

    But that wasn’t important now. What was important was the result: another group of badly injured Pokémon on a voyage that may have lasted the entire day or longer. Fliers had come first, claiming a whole village was coming for help, and in return, Elder had coordinated for their fliers to return and bring the injured back.

    One of the Hearts, a Donphan, approached Rhys. He had no badge, for he wasn’t a true Heart, but he was with their administration. The countless assistants that kept the organization running, even if they did not participate directly in the rescue efforts. His words were grave.

    “We’re running out of supplies. We don’t have the space or the power to heal another wave of them.”

    And when he asked again if there were any stray supplies, extra donations, anything, he got the same answer: They didn’t know what worked and what didn’t.

    That only redoubled his resolve. After locating him at the top of the Heart HQ, Rhys tapped Elder on the shell. “I’m leaving to find Emily.”

    Elder understood within seconds. There was a flurry of activity around them, extra Pokémon at the front desk to gather up and triage Dungeon missions. Elder glanced at his own bulky shell in the way of everyone’s footwork and hauled himself to the edge of the room, nearby a small, potted Chesto bush that was stripped recently of its berries.

    Rhys knelt down and wrapped his arm around Elder’s outstretched neck, careful of his spike like it was muscle memory. Even after all this time, he still remembered to do that. Rhys smiled faintly at the thought.

    When Rhys pulled away, he asked, “Will you be able to handle things while I’m gone?”

    “Oho, they’ll handle themselves.” Elder nodded in the direction of the Hearts. “Anam taught them how to self-direct quite well. Even without their leadership, they know where to go, what to do…”

    Rhys decided not to comment on the fact that it was probably because Anam rarely gave direct orders to begin with. James had been the main director. “They still need central leadership. Elder, that isn’t something you’re used to.”

    “I will last the day,” Elder assured him, a confident plume of white smoke escaping the top of his shell. “I have Willow, ADAM, and even Manny and his spirits to help. Manny seems to have experience being a leader, too. So, one Lucario for another, hm?”

    Rhys smiled back. “All right. Then I’ll be back with Emily.” He stood, though he hesitated again, wondering if going alone would be a good idea. But he couldn’t afford to bring anybody else with him for something as simple as getting Emily. Everyone else was needed to help with stabilizing Kilo Village.

    “Take care,” Elder said. “If you aren’t back by sundown, I’ll send for help.”

    That only made Rhys’ anxieties worsen. “You don’t think it’s that perilous, do you? Granted, ocean flight may take some time, and I suppose it might be a strain…”

    “Would you like me to get someone to help?” Elder offered. “Perhaps Willow? She’s a wonderful flier, after all.”

    “Perhaps that would be wise. But that would take Manny away; we shouldn’t risk him transferring to another realm…”

    “Could we ask ADAM? Though, he isn’t a very fast flier…”

    Rhys hummed, mind flashing back to that Smeargle. Perhaps he could check on him one more—no, his aura had been so small and reserved. He wouldn’t be of much help should something go wrong. And seeing Lugia might overwhelm him.

    “Then I’ll be cautious,” Rhys finally concluded. “I’ll try to call out to you should something go wrong, Elder. Take care.”

    “I suppose you could also call upon Arceus for assistance,” Elder said.

    “He may be occupied.” Rhys walked toward the Heart HQ exit. “But I will keep that in mind.”

    With one last smile, Rhys stepped out of the Heart HQ and down the stairs. He passed by an Electrode cautiously rolling down the steps, and then a nearby Ariados looking conflicted about one of the missions that she had claimed.

    They were all going to be fighting for Kilo, both the town and the world. Rhys clenched his jaw. This was no time to admire the hard work of the others.

    He descended the worn-down, stone stairs, walked the long-flattened streets, trodden by countless Pokémon going in and out of all the buildings and Heart facilities that were, at this point, at capacity.

    “Good luck,” Rhys murmured to nobody. Then, aura concentrated under his feet and in his paws, and finally, he jumped. In seconds, Kilo Mountain was a small mound behind him, the southern forests emerging from the horizon.

    <><><> ​

    Nobody was coming to check on Rim. Nevren was really busy, but did that mean he had to forget about her? That wasn’t fair.

    Lavender tried to keep his steps soft, though his hard talons didn’t allow for a lot of noise reduction. He’d transform into something quieter, but of the spirits within him, his go-to stealth Pokémon weren’t with him, and frustration kept him from trying other forms. Silvally it was.

    The backup power he’d provided to the lab’s main generator was doing well; the lights no longer flickered, and none of the active incubation chambers had warning lights. However, according to Nevren, whatever species he had accidentally turned Rim into, it was taking up a lot of energy. It was a fully evolved Pokémon instead of the lowest form, which would have been much more energy efficient.

    Instead, she’d become a Cherrim, and now, her body was almost completely formed. Hidden behind thick, huge, purple petals, Rim stirred weakly inside the fluid, occasionally trying to move, but never getting very far.

    “Auntie Rim?” Lavender said, leaning against the cylinder, pecking gently. He was careful that it wasn’t hard enough to leave any cracks or dents in the container.

    Rim didn’t answer. Lavender’s eyes shifted to a cosmic pink, reading for any vague feelings or thoughts that might come from her. It was garbled; Rim must have been drifting in and out of consciousness. Frowning, Lavender backed away and turned toward the sound of heavy paw pads.

    “Lucas?” Lavender fanned out his head crest, switching to Fire to help him feel more welcome.

    The Houndoom—his Mega state gone—growled in a subdued but happy greeting and nuzzled under Lavender’s cheek bolt.

    “Aw, hey, Lucas,” Lavender greeted, bending down to bump his beak against his snout, and Lucas replied by playfully nipping at the metal. Lavender didn’t really understand why Lucas did that. Nevren had said it was some kind of pack respect instinct among feral Houndoom to bite at the muzzle, or maybe it was playfulness? Either way, Lucas’ tail wagging was enough of an indicator that he was in a better mood than before.

    Lucas got on his hind legs and pressed his paws against Rim’s chamber, tilting his head with concern.

    “It’s okay,” Lavender assured. “She’s gonna be fine. See? The light’s green.”

    Lucas followed where Lavender pointed, but then looked back at Rim and whined.

    “Aww, Lucas.” Lavender dipped his head under Lucas’ chest and pushed him away from the chamber. “She just needs more rest. It’s probably going to be a few weeks before she’s out and about again. We just have to wait, alright? Besides, we need to help the mutants take care of themselves. With just Uncle Nev taking care of us, it might be hard to, you know…”

    Lucas whined again, his tail between his legs.

    “I know,” Lavender said. “But don’t worry—Dad’ll be back one day. He’s strong! He’s just fighting! Same as Nate. He’s still resting, right? Does he seem okay?”

    Lucas whined again.

    “Oh… He’s still weak.”

    Another whine confirmed it, and then a longer, extended one that nearly became a howl. Lavender sighed and nuzzled him again, trying to stay positive.

    “Look,” the Silvally said, “everything seems kind of crazy right now, but, umm… but we still need to stay positive! Otherwise, um, otherwise we won’t really be doing any good for anyone, right? So… I know!” Lavender perked up. “Let’s go see how Uncle’s doing! He might know what to do. He’s super smart about it.”

    With a bark, Lucas was already sprinting down the lab, and Lavender followed, empty green cylinders flying past him in a blur. That quickly transitioned to white halls and closed corridors, eerily empty now that most of the mutants were under curfew to keep them calm. At least they were obedient there, each one hiding away in their Poké Balls. That always seemed to calm their minds enough to not escape and cause trouble.

    After making their way to the teleportation wall, they took a good guess on which floor Nevren was in and headed to floor nine. There, Lucas sniffed the air and then barked, leading the way.

    “You found him?” Lavender kept pace easily, conjuring some tailwind while his eyes flashed into a baby blue.

    After a few more turns they stopped in front of a locked door. For an extra second, Lucas’ panting and the clicking of Lavender’s talons echoed back to them. Lucas whined loudly and pawed at the metallic, flat blockage, but it didn’t budge.

    “If it’s not opening, he must’ve locked himself inside,” Lavender said. Then, raising his voice, he called, “Uncle Nev! You okay in there?”

    He pecked at the door. His eyes darkened to a blackish purple. “Maybe I can sneak in,” he told Lucas, sinking halfway into the shadows. Before he could go further, the door slid open, revealing Nevren and a medium-sized device that was about as large as his star-shaped head.

    “Ah,” Nevren greeted, nodding. “Hello. Sorry for scaring you with my silence. I was deep in concentration.”

    “What’s that?” Lavender pointed his beak at the device. It was mostly transparent with a few glowing wires attached to tiny, pebble-sized orbs, one pink, another cyan.

    “A prototype using a few knick-knacks around my room,” Nevren explained leisurely. “I just need some of the components for a proof of concept. You see, while a lot of chaos has come up, something peculiar that I can actually investigate is Hot Spot Dungeon. And since Step is handling the recovery of the mutants, and Arceus and Nate and such are handling Dark Matter… why not dabble in some research?”

    “That sounds fine,” Lavender agreed, having no idea what he’d said.

    Nevren placed the strange device on his work bench, and Lavender peeked inside. It was surprisingly barren; most of his equipment must have been in Kilo Village. Too bad traveling there wasn’t going to be easy anymore…

    “Uncle Nev,” Lavender said, moving to the side to allow Lucas through the doorway. “How come the sky’s falling?”

    “Ah, just an incoming war at best,” Nevren said. “Nothing we can do for now, but perhaps with some ingenuity, I can change that.” He didn’t even look up from the notebook on his desk.

    “Um… what exactly are you gonna do with that?” Lavender asked, pointing at the odd device with pink and cyan stones.

    Nevren raised the device with an aura of Psychic energy. “Well, assuming all goes as planned, which it usually doesn’t,” he explained, “I’m going to create a Dungeon.”

    <><><> ​

    Zero Isle was far behind Rhys; far below, the vast ocean. He knew that, far to his left, Brandon’s factory sat in the middle of the ocean. Based on those vague landmarks, he knew where to look for Emily, even as the sun settled into an orange sky. Emily’s unique aura, perplexing as it was, but surely due to her Legendary status, was also easy to trace.

    Despite this, the closer he got to the other side of the world, the more a horrible, sinking feeling fell over him. His aura felt disrupted, but only subtly. He hoped that was as bad as it would get.

    He looked down to make sure the aura he used to push forward through the skies still seemed healthy. Indeed, it was; cyan propulsion trailed behind him. Finally, far ahead, he saw Emily’s island.

    And what luck, he also saw Emily’s silhouette lounging in front of her cave. No having to wait! He could just tell Emily what was happening, and then—

    How was he going to convince Kilo Village to submit to Emily’s healing methods?

    The shadow of Emily shifted. Rhys slowed down, suddenly rethinking his strategy. Practically speaking, Emily was their best bet at restoring the town and minimizing casualties. She was the ultimate healer, even if her methods were undesirable. Would they need someone to demonstrate?

    …Would he have to demonstrate?

    Suddenly this proposition seemed worthy of a second thought. But no, he was already too close, and the sun was already setting. Still, it gave everything a very nice, orange glow. The sea was beautiful and sparkling like fire, and Emily’s island had a wonderful shine to it. Emily’s dark form complemented it nicely.

    Something didn’t fit there. Sunset. Orange glow. Everything was orange. Why was Emily so dark?

    Rhys lowered in altitude and prepared to land, the blasts of aura coming from his feet leaving a rift in the ocean behind him.

    “Emily!” Rhys called, but the wind carried it away.

    Up close, the titanic Lugia’s body lost its white colors, replaced instead by a deep purple.

    “What…” Rhys drifted forward, but a foul aura made his sensors crinkle in protest. He didn’t want to get closer, but he had to.

    Why did this aura remind him so much of the wraiths in Aether Forest?

    When the water was shallow enough, Rhys flipped and landed in the water, running for a few paces to slow down to a cautious jog.

    “Emily?” Rhys called again, unsure if he wanted to call any louder.

    “Who’s… who’s there?”

    The wind felt like it had been forcibly squeezed out of Rhys’ chest. Emily’s voice was so horribly warped and garbled—despite the fact that her tone seemed normal, it sounded like she was screaming it through several sheets. It reverberated in his ears and into his bones and through his aura.

    “Please… run away… I…”

    The thing curled up, huge wings dripping a black mass into the water, which corrupted the sand near her. Thick, black fog surrounded Emily—the source of most of the darkness—while her body itself was a mixture of purple and a dark silver underbelly.

    And then something burst out of Emily’s side, screaming. Rhys couldn’t recognize it at first; it was some blackened creature, covered in wraith material. But he also saw a blue paw struggling to free the rest of itself.

    The Vaporeon—Tanneth—screamed and pulled herself out more, making eye contact with Rhys. She screamed even more, reaching helplessly toward him; her blood was black, and wraiths within Emily were dragging her back inside with barbed tendrils.

    Completely stunned, Rhys only stared. He didn’t know whether to advance or flee.

    Emily groaned; Rhys made eye contact with the Lugia’s red, bloodshot eye. There was a flash of recognition in them…

    Then Emily stiffened, her pupil rapidly dilating.

    Tanneth was still screaming; wraiths tore at her just to pull her back inside.

    The recognition faded. With a quiet whimper, Emily went limp. Then, she stood up, slowly; sand and water drifted down her body, wisps of shadows coursing through them. Tanneth’s incomprehensible screams became more and more panicked, half her body dangling partway out of Emily’s side.

    The corrupted Lugia—Rhys had no idea how this had happened—raised her wings. Clouds formed above the island, blotting out the sun.

    Then, she beat them once.

    Flashes of white light accompanied thick, purple clouds. Waves as tall as Rhys churned the corrupted sands; a cutting wind forced Rhys into a bracing stance, digging his feet into the ground.

    “Emily!” Rhys shouted.

    He couldn’t differentiate the sounds Emily made from the howling wind until she screeched. Bolts of black lightning crystalized the sand through the ocean water. He held still, paralyzed with the sudden sensory overload. One bolt hit uncomfortably close, deafening him, and he quickly learned that the white flashes were always followed by black bolts.

    One flash later, and Rhys saw the image of Tanneth trying to escape from Emily’s side. He had to flee; Emily, once harmless, was radiating an aura that he simply couldn’t overpower. But he could at least try to save Tanneth.

    He didn’t know if Tanneth would reemerge again. Falling back to his training, he called into his aura and drew out all the power he could. Then, he channeled it around his body, turning it into a flexible, solid armor, and collected the excess into his paws, sharpening them into blades. But he also knew that his cyan glow would attract Emily’s attention. Before she could glance at him, he sped forward, using the boost of an Extreme Speed to slam into her side.

    He didn’t expect to sink inside. She had the same consistency as Anam. Startled, hurriedly wiggled out, blasted an Aura Sphere to further dislodge himself, and grabbed Tanneth by her forepaws.

    Tanneth yelped in pain—the wraiths were pulling back. He hissed and channeled extra energy into his free paw and his blade sizzled with heat.

    “I’m sorry, Tanneth,” he muttered.

    He jammed the blade into Emily’s body and carved; loud hissing followed, black ooze spilling out and onto him. It still moved and pulsated against his armor, and Tanneth gasped in frantic pain when Rhys accidentally sliced part of her thigh.

    He pulled again. Loose. He pulled more, but another flash made him realize that Emily’s great wing was looming over him. He braced just in time. Her wing wrapped around his body. Refusing to let go, Rhys pulled one final time at Tanneth, and this time, something broke free, the rest of Tanneth’s body falling out of the shadowy wound and into his arms. Her body twitched, half-melted into black sludge, but it was stable and reforming.

    Writhing desperately, Rhys held Tanneth with one arm and used his other to slice Emily’s wing. It didn’t do anything but leak more black fluid, partially blinding Rhys in one eye. It was sticky like honey and stung the Combee it came from. Emily’s grip became tighter around him, pinning his arms against Tanneth.

    Everything went dark. The storm was muffled by the thick wing-fingers that threatened to snap his body in two if he let up on his armor. Tanneth whimpered weakly, the breath leaving her from the pressure.

    “H-hold on,” Rhys hissed, gathering his strength. Just one blast was all he needed.

    He curled around Tanneth and channeled the energy into his back, toward the opening below him where her wing had not yet covered. He hoped that some trickery would work. His body brightened, and then he fired a thick glob of aura between Emily’s fingers and to the ground. The glob quickly shaped into a copy of Rhys, pure cyan—but it looked so similar to Rhys wearing his armor that it was enough to trick Emily.

    He briefly thought back to those happy moments when this very same technique had been used to free Demitri and Mispy of their forgetful prisons.

    Emily’s grip loosened, distracted, as she tried to grab the stationary aura copy.

    Rhys had channeled some of his power into that aura. If Emily destroyed it—and she certainly would—that power would transfer to her. But it was negligible compared to what strength she’d already demonstrated. Even as the weak aura copy fought back against Emily, lobbing Aura Spheres at her wings, Rhys waited for his opportunity.

    Her grip loosened more. That was his chance.

    Rhys fired from his back, landing on Emily’s foot and out of her grip. Then, he slammed his palm forward and blasted her toes; she didn’t even flinch, but that didn’t matter. He used the propulsion to send him rocketing backward, where he skidded along the shadowy, glass sand. Pieces of it broke into his armor, and a cut in his fur—which immediately stung from the salt water—told him that his protection was waning.

    But there was no time. With one more burst of strength, he propelled himself along the shallow water and toward the horizon’s light. He squeezed his other arm around Tanneth, making sure she was still there—and still in one piece—before looking back at Emily.

    She wasn’t pursuing. Instead, Emily roared, firing beams of dark energy into the sky. Light clawed down from above, but even more darkness twisted it away. Now, the only light that covered Emily’s abode was from the crackling, white-purple lightning that crawled through the black clouds.

    Emily flailed, one wing slamming against her head. Another beam shot out and slammed into her cave, blowing huge chunks of it in random directions. The rest of the cave collapsed inward.

    Emily doubled over, wheezing. She was muttering something—it sounded like pleas for help, or for something to stop. Her fleeting clarity turned her movements back to something vaguely natural.

    Her wings wrapped around her head and then weakly grasped at the top of her neck. She held still for a second, hesitating. Then, a jerking, twisting motion followed, and Rhys heard a noise.

    Rhys gasped, nearly sinking beneath the water’s surface, and stared in horror. For a second, Emily looked relieved and serene, her massive body about to collapse.

    And then she stepped forward, catching herself, and the immortal Lugia roared. It was loud enough that Rhys nearly let go of Tanneth to cover his ears. Another shadowy blast carved the water, exploding in a white flash eclipsed by a black circle.

    So transfixed by it all, Rhys didn’t realize his armor had faded completely until the harsh chill sank into his fur. Tanneth was still in his arms, though he couldn’t figure out her condition. She was at least alive; he sensed her flickering aura.

    While Emily was distracted, Rhys used a steady stream of aura from his feet to swim further away from the island, realizing that he had no strength left to fly.

    “Tanneth,” Rhys said, only then realizing how winded he was. “Are you okay?”

    The blackened Vaporeon made a sound, but he couldn’t understand it over the ocean’s loud whispers.

    “I’ll get you somewhere safer,” Rhys promised, though technically he had already fulfilled it. Anywhere not near Emily was safer.

    Still, they were in the middle of the ocean, and while falling to a wraith was probably a lot worse than dying, they still had to deal with the lesser evil. He didn’t sense any hungry ocean dwellers yet, but there was no telling when that would change.

    He didn’t have the energy to swim across an entire ocean. Not anymore.

    Emily’s roars were getting softer; he could at least take solace in that she probably wouldn’t be able to track him now. Precious seconds to think.

    A large wave disrupted his thoughts and he held onto Tanneth a little tighter. “I’ve got you,” Rhys said, but he didn’t think she heard him.

    The cold was getting worse. How much had his powers depleted? He shouldn’t have gone alone. Elder was going to worry, and perhaps rightfully so if he didn’t find a way out soon.

    Arceus, Rhys said, half in realization, half in a plea. Arceus, can you hear me? I’ve run into trouble, I—

    I have already sent Brandon for you.

    Don’t send him to Emily! She’s become hostile!

    What do you mean? I can’t sense her. My vision there is… obstructed.

    Wraiths. They’re inside her. I was barely able to get Tanneth out, and she’s not doing well.

    Wraiths? How? They’re supposed to only appear in Dungeons… Where did you go?

    I’m off the coast of her island. I don’t know which direction. But don’t let Brandon draw near the island.

    A long pause followed. Rhys felt a chill splash against his feet as his aura propulsion flickered on him. He held Tanneth a little tighter. After bracing through another indifferent wave, Rhys took a gasp of air, kicking to maintain above water. Even without Mystic power, he still had a great amount of natural energy in him, but the cold was rapidly sapping that away.

    Tanneth’s pulse was weak, but stable. Her breathing was more difficult to determine, but her occasional gasps and mumblings meant she was at least conscious. If she stopped, that was when he decided he’d worry.

    I’ve told him. He’s searching for you on the outer coastline. Don’t drift too far.

    How can I help him find me?

    How much power do you have left?

    Very little.

    Enough for an explosive Aura Sphere?

    I don’t know.

    Rhys kept kicking, tentatively channeling aura into his right paw. It glowed brightly, to Rhys’ surprise. He still had energy left after all. He gritted his teeth and channeled all the energy he could into it. Faint, but if he really pushed, it would light the sky in a small flash. But there were also several flashes already in the sky from Emily; would that throw Brandon off?

    I can, but Emily’s aura and her power would make it hard to find us.

    Try anyway. I will try to guide him.

    Putting his faith in Arceus somehow felt ironic. The Aura Sphere flew far into the sky, and then, with a tired clench of his paw, it exploded in a blue flurry that forced him to close his eyes. He hadn’t realized until then just how dark everything was.

    Did he see it? Rhys asked.

    Yes. Do not move from your location if you can help it.

    He held Tanneth a little tighter and scanned the depths below, but the Pokémon of the sea were wise to not surface while Lugia was rampaging. His lower body felt cold; his aura was going out. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t swim from his location, so he kept kicking, if only to keep his head above water. His body was too dense to float passively.

    The sluggish response coming from his legs was a concern. Did that mean he was starting to lose feeling in them, or that he was running out of even the most basic amount of energy?

    Another harsh flash in the sky left stars in his eyes. He hissed and tried to block it out; was it raining? Yet the rain felt like flashing, stinging, purple bolts against his fur. This wasn’t normal rain. Whatever it was—it not only disrupted his aura sense, but it was sapping him of his energy, too.

    Keeping a rhythm was all he could do. Kick, kick, kick, and occasionally turn to search for Brandon. He checked Tanneth’s pulse again. Stable. Her breathing—still too hard to tell, but she had stopped making noise some time ago.

    “Tanneth?” Rhys called.

    Tanneth said something in return, but it was drowned out by another flash and bang. He dipped underwater and frantically kicked harder to stay afloat, gasping for breath when he surfaced.

    Where is he? Rhys asked.

    Where are you? Arceus said.

    Impatient and desperate, Rhys formed another Aura Sphere and burst it too low. The shockwave sent him sinking several feet and he took in a mouthful of saltwater. He squeezed Tanneth too hard, earning a weak squirm from her. Trying to swim up with one arm, Rhys felt his paw hit cold air, then fell back underwater. More kicking—his chest felt like Emily was still squeezing it—and he grasped open air again. He tilted his head upward and kicked more, surfacing halfway.

    He took a breath too early. Water went down his throat and he coughed—a head-splitting pain throbbed when he did—and sank back underwater.

    Up and down were indiscernible. He held Tanneth again, trying to keep calm. Panic, now, would do nothing.

    I’m underwater.

    He saw you.

    Hurry.

    He was going to die. That was what his body told him. Despite this, he refused to let the panic show in his thoughts to Arceus or in his movements. He had to conserve his energy and control his body; his mind would not succumb to primal panic, even as death’s wings wrapped around him.

    The shadowy sky felt like acid to not only his body, but his aura, perhaps even that small Mystic power he held. It was useless here. Was drowning a real danger? If he lost consciousness now…

    Even then, Tanneth still needed medical attention, immediately. He had too much responsibility to die now! He kicked a few more times, no idea which way he was going, before suddenly something splashed above him and wrapped around his neck.

    He saw the glint of metal in another flash of light; it looked like a chain at first, but then it twisted and wrapped around his chest with too much carefulness. Out of reflex, he tried to grasp at it, but then the chain molded around his wrist and glued it to his neck, and then something pulled him upward.

    “Hey,” Brandon said, his metallic body glistening in the shadowy lightning.

    The chain on Brandon’s end suddenly twisted and shifted, thickening near the end until it became a Blaziken’s head.

    “Hi, Rhys!” Zeke said. “We’re here to rescue you!”

    Rhys was certain he was hallucinating.

    Brandon pulled Rhys further up with one arm, then dug through a metal pouch slung over his shoulder.

    “Hey, good job signaling us.” Brandon pulled out something spherical from the bag. He tossed it at Tanneth, and suddenly he couldn’t feel her body anymore; she had dissolved into a red light.

    “What—” Rhys tried to feel around for her, but only felt a light sphere where Tanneth had been. It wiggled weakly, and shortly after another thunderclap, it clicked and stopped.

    The ball left Rhys by Mystic force, returning to Brandon’s hand. He mumbled something to the ball and placed it in his bag.

    “Your turn,” Brandon said to Rhys, pulling out another Poké Ball.

    “I—I refuse,” Rhys wheezed, already trying to pull away from the chains, but Zeke held tight.

    “No choice,” Brandon said flatly. “You’re too weak and I can’t fly you in these conditions.” He motioned to the increasing storm. “I’m taking you back to the factory so you can recover. Don’t struggle out, alright? If you fall, I might not catch you.”

    “I refuse to be stored inside a—”

    Brandon tapped the ball to Rhys’ forehead, and suddenly, he didn’t have a body.

    <><><> ​

    Ever patient, Rhys complied with Brandon’s request and did not stir from his prison. While he was tempted to stretch his lack of legs and shake his way free, he also could sense with vague yet certain terms that open air was below him, and they were flying at high speeds away. Every so often, he heard Zeke chattering, and Brandon would reply back, but the fatigue of his constant swimming, combined with the admittedly cozy, bodiless quarters, left him in a sleepy haze.

    How much had he strained himself with that swim? What happened to Emily? Those flashing lights were from no ordinary storm, and that was no ordinary rain; it was corrosive to his aura. Corrupting. Like darkness had been given liquid form. He still felt it.

    It felt bright. Did the storm subside? Rhys wiggled weakly, but then he felt a massive hand pass over him.

    “Calm down,” Brandon’s voice echoed. “We aren’t there yet. It’s a stable flight, but I don’t want to risk anything, and for all I know, you’ll pass out the second I release you.”

    It was demeaning. Disgraceful. Pathetic. How could he be trapped in one of those things? Perhaps he was thinking too harshly on it… But it was some quiet reflex that made him so disdainful. He had half a mind to break out, but the danger of falling, and the humiliation it would ultimately grant him, left him instead trying to enjoy the senseless comfort within the sphere.

    Grudgingly, he could at least admit that it was much like staying under the covers after a very long rest. He understood why Pokémon often didn’t want to leave if they didn’t have to. It played with their instincts; the need to curl up into a ball to recover… The Apricorns and Pokémon had co-evolved in that way, after all. Poké Balls were another version of the same, natural process.

    No, he still hated it. He wanted to move his limbs again before he got too used to that feeling, yet they were still airborne. He wiggled again to voice his protest, but this time Brandon didn’t reply. So, he wiggled again, this time bumping against his thigh.

    “You have a problem?” Brandon growled. “Look, I can see the factory just ahead. Sit tight. Why can’t you behave like Tanneth, huh?”

    Rhys stopped, flashes of worry washing over him. Was Tanneth not moving at all?

    Brandon, perhaps sensing or at least predicting his worry, sighed. “She’s fine. You know as much as I do that as long as she stays in there, she’ll be fine until we can get her out and healed. You’re better at aura than me; maybe you can talk to her and get a feel for how she’s doing.”

    That was true. She was safer in there than anywhere else, even from her own corrupted body.

    They were falling. And then, suddenly, they stopped.

    “Alright, alright, you’ve been patient, but be patient for a few more seconds. Don’t want you collapsed on the sand.”

    Step, step, step, and then finally Brandon grabbed Rhys. “Come on out!”

    A blinding light enveloped Rhys. On reflex, he jerked to the right, and suddenly he had a body again. He took one step, stumbled, and Zeke was by his side, this time warm and feathery.

    “Hi! Are you okay?” Zeke asked.

    “I’ve been better,” Rhys grunted.

    The factory was the same as ever: clean, gray, and filled with machinery that hadn’t been activated in ages. Rhys suspected that it was only by Mystic influence that it remained standing at all.

    The metallic Machoke, meanwhile, asked, “Looks like you lost your bag and your badge out there. Sorry.”

    Rhys jumped and reached for his toolkit, but it was indeed missing. Suddenly feeling bare—and realizing he was still waterlogged—he looked down at the wet concrete below him.

    “Cold?” Brandon asked.

    “Somewhat.”

    “Right.” Brandon looked to his left, then his right. “I’ll check out the back and look for some blankets. I got filled in by the boss on what happened, but what’s going on with Tanneth? Should we let her out?”

    “No,” Rhys said firmly. “She isn’t ready. Get the blanket, and I’ll see if I can heal her aura from the outside. I’ve recently tuned my aura for Heal Pulse.”

    “Right. Do that. I’ll be back.”

    With Brandon gone, Rhys inspected the red-white ball that Tanneth had been captured in. Her aura, within, was so weak… But stable. It wasn’t a flickering flame, only a steady, small candle. Tentatively, Rhys channeled a single pulse of energy into the ball—and tried to ignore the dizziness that followed. He was not equipped for fully healing her, even if he wanted to.

    Are you well? Arceus called.

    Yes. Tanneth is not, but she’s stable.

    What happened with Emily?

    I don’t know, but she’s corrupted somehow. Her aura is like a wraith’s. Like staring into a void.

    I see. Arceus paused, uneasy. Do you know why?

    You don’t?

    No.

    Comforting. Rhys sighed, but then said, Tell Elder that I am well, but I will be resting with Brandon. I do not have the strength to return, and I need to see that Tanneth is safe. I also need to observe Emily’s movements.

    Is it safe to intervene?

    Rhys briefly fretted. If Arceus was asking, did he not have the confidence to take her on directly? Arceus? I must at least try if you cannot.

    I cannot. Dark Matter would expand again if I do, and I cannot spare a strike against her.

    It may not even work. Rhys hoped that didn’t insult Arceus, but now wasn’t the time to sugarcoat things.

    Get well soon, Arceus finally replied.

    Rhys chuckled weakly, channeling another Heal Pulse into the Poké Ball. A cold pit formed in his stomach and spread to his chest. He realized his mistake too late, and his vision darkened completely.
     
    Kindoflame and git-it like this.
  4. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 86 –Titan’s Shadow

    Wheat fields cut by pale grass paths surrounded Leo and Spice. For a whole day, they had traveled on foot, gathering berries to supplement their rations—Leo refused to hunt for ethical reasons—and taking safer routes to ration Spice’s healing supplies further added to their travel time. This amounted to night coming too early, and Leo had offered to take shifts.

    Spice, of course, refused, as she was still not even the slightest bit tired.

    After a sleepless night, Spice led a drowsy Leo through the last of the wheat fields, asking, “And this is Yotta Outskirts?”

    “The wheat district, but yes. Crops must have rotated since I last visited… Used to be sunflowers.” Leo suppressed a yawn. “At least the climate here allows for wheat, even as autumn comes in full swing…”

    “I suppose the local Grass would help with keeping growth steady,” Spice said, careful to keep away from the crops so she didn’t accidentally contaminate them with her element. “Leo, did you sleep at all? You seem…”

    “I’m fine. We’ll use this as a rest stop before…” Another yawn. “What time is it?”

    Spice looked at the horizon, where the sun was starting to peek out from the top of Kilo Mountain. “Barely morning. I want to say we’re a little past the twentieth kilo.” Spice looked back. “You slept right at midnight, with how much you were stirring.”

    “You kept pacing,” Leo let slip.

    Spice flinched, suddenly wincing when a loose sprig of wheat flew into her face. “I didn’t know that kept you up,” she mumbled, flicking the wheat away. “Sorry. I was getting restless again, and I had to chase off some random wild.”

    “It’s fine,” Leo said. “But first thing, we’re getting you checked. How many days, now?”

    Spice was tired of hearing it, so she didn’t reply at all and pointed forward. “Where’s your home?”

    Leo pointed with a limp finger. “Skip the next two acres, then make a left, then a right again, and then it’ll be the fifth house to your left…”

    “…Remind me again when we get closer.”

    The brown field of wheat that waved with the breeze was soothingly normal. Occasionally, Leo stumbled over some lumpy part of the ground, or some imperfection in the path, too tired and too used to the paved roads of Kilo Village when not in combat.

    “You alright?” Spice said.

    “I’m fine,” Leo mumbled. “This walk took a lot out of me. Between avoiding Dungeons, the lack of sleep, and whatever’s happening in the sky… Oh, this way, Spice.”

    A little more walking and the fields were behind them, replaced by rows of homes, each one made of some decorated clay, brick, or other kind of cement. Some were larger than others or in odd shapes to accommodate for the residences.

    Compared to Kilo Village, it was very low-tech. Leo wondered if they had any technology inside yet. Clocks, or did they rely on the sun? Ovens, or Fire and Orbs? Spice hummed.

    Even as they stopped in front of the home Leo had identified as his parents’ abode, Spice asked, “Leo, you don’t think this place was badly affected by most Dungeon equipment going bad, do you?”

    “I’m not sure,” he said as Spice knocked on the door. Fine, old wood. Lasted well in the dry climate. She wondered if it had Passho blessings, or perhaps Occa to resist the Fire resident inside.

    “WHOZZERE?!”

    Spice blinked and stepped back. A low, weak hissing came from the other side of the door.

    “It’s just me, Father!” Leo called tiredly.

    “WHOZZAT?!”

    “He’s… hard of hearing,” Leo said awkwardly. “Try opening the door. Actually, could you stay forward for this?”

    “What?”

    Spice pushed lightly against the door, and to her surprise, it was unlocked. She looked at Leo once more, uncertain. Wouldn’t it frighten them?

    But Leo motioned vaguely to advance, and Spice complied.

    A few globs of poison flew from the entrance. She ducked out of the way and pulled Leo with her; the poison bubbled, inert, on the ground. It was old poison; while toxic, it wasn’t very effective compared to her own.

    “That’ll teach ya! Break and enter this old home! Shameful! Shame on you! Now beg for a Pecha, I dare ya!”

    “Who’s there, Tari?” called another voice. “More villains? Oh, I hope not…”

    “Mother! It’s me, Leo!” He casted a small ember in the air to light the inside.

    With the darkness giving way, a large and pale Arbok, with unevenly patched scales, squinted and hissed in their general direction. Far behind, sitting in an old rocking chair of Occa wood, was a Delphox with clouded eyes and a noticeable layer of fur all around her general area. A half-knitted, well-made scarf lay half-made in her lap. All one color, yet what impressed Spice on second glance was that there was no way she could have seen her handiwork.

    “Leo? Come here, let me feel your paw.”

    “Bah, Leo! As if you can fool me, bandit!” Tari slithered forward and hissed in Leo’s general direction again, blinking several times while his pupils dilated strangely. More hissing—Leo stood still, looking mildly annoyed but tolerant—and finally he pulled back.

    “He’s at least a Leo impersonator,” he said dutifully. “Go ahead and see your mother, if I can really call you her son!”

    Spice could see the hesitance in his words and immediately felt disarmed. Was Leo’s father really trying to save face for his original mistake?

    “Of course, Father.”

    Spice rubbed the back of her head, standing awkwardly by the entryway. Countless trinkets that she couldn’t discern lined the crowded shelves along the walls of this three-room home. The main entry was the largest, with both the kitchen and the dining area, consisting of a cozy table, a stone stove with no power source, a storage cabinet… To her right, the bed, just one, large for at least three Pokémon of this family stature. And the left, a closed door, Spice knew would be a washroom, though she wondered where the water would come from.

    Turning her attention forward again, she saw the ‘face’ on the Arbok father’s chest, glaring angrily at her. Looking up to the true head, she tensed and waited for some sort of ill-made strike.

    “You think you can cozy up to my impostor son that easily? Don’t think I can be fooled, you silver-tongued temptress…”

    “E-excuse me?” Spice stepped back.

    “Father!” Leo hissed, breaking away from some silent communication between his mother. “That is my partner for Heart business!”

    “It’s certainly him, Tari,” Leo’s mother rasped.

    “Gahh, we’re old, who knows if we can tell,” Tari replied, waving his tail dismissively. “…I know, you’re gonna prove it to me. When was the last time you were supposed to visit us, eh?”

    “Two moons ago at the peak of summer,” Leo replied coolly. “I was the only one of your kids who couldn’t make it because I was out on an assignment, but I sent my regards and a gift. I suppose I’m making up for it now.”

    Tari hummed again, hissing and flicking his tongue in the air. “I heard half’a that, you’re mumbling too much. But fine, ya know, that was a detailed answer. I believe ya.”

    “Now, what’s this about bandits?” Leo said, sitting down. “Here, in town?”

    “Oh, it was awful!” Leo’s mother said. “I—oh, and who are you?” She turned her head to Spice, and for a moment, Spice had to register that she could somehow see—no, sense. Psychics. Of course.

    “Er, Salazzle Spice. Part of Team Alight, with Leo. The rest of our team had been taking a break.”

    Leo adjusted himself again.

    “A pleasure to meet you, Spice. My name is Aries. Please, don’t mind Tari. He’s just being careful after the bandits attacked.”

    “What bandits? How could there be bandits here?” Leo said urgently.

    “Oh, it was awful!” Aries said again. “Bandits. They ran through the wheat fields, kicking up the crops and flooding it, burning it, all kinds off damage! Monstrous! Nearly made it to our homes before a few brave souls fended them off, but oh! Some were badly hurt. It was so lucky that we had some healing supplies left. So rare, an attack, so rare, but it happened…”

    “One bandit didn’t stand a chance against me!” Tari said, flicking his tongue confidently. “He was so scared of my power that he didn’t even come close!”

    Spice decided to choose her battles, too. “Leo, do you think it was a mutant?”

    “Did you get a closer look?” Leo asked Aries.

    “No, I stayed inside as instructed. And Tari was sure to lock the doors, too.”

    Spice frowned, looking at the door. The knob had fallen off some time ago, it seemed, and Tari might not have even noticed.

    This sort of environment never would have passed in the south. She couldn’t imagine letting these two live on their own. She flashed a concerned look at Leo, but he deliberately—she was sure of it—looked away.

    “Leo, you sound so tired,” Aries said. “Why don’t you rest for today? You aren’t needed back at the capitol, are you?”

    “No, I’m not,” Leo said. “I suppose I can rest here, if you’ll allow it.”

    “What nonsense phrasing!” Aries reached for a small, wooden stick a few times, then pointed it at Leo. “You’re always welcome! I’m going to rest right here on my chair tonight so you can take the bed.”

    “Now, Mother, that’s hardly necessary,” Leo said. “I—”

    “Don’t you talk back to your mother that way!” Tari drawled hysterically. “You’re heading there and that’s final!”

    “It’s not even noon,” Leo said.

    “I can smell how tired you are,” Tari said. “Now, go on! Get!”

    Leo sighed, nodding at Spice. “I suppose I’ll be seeing you,” he said. “I do need some rest…”

    “And you!” Tari said, pointing at Spice. “If you’re gonna try to tempt my son for grandchildren, you better do it nicely! Now go!”

    There were so many battles to not fight. But this was one she had to speak for. “We aren’t even in the same egg group, you know,” she said, glancing at Leo, who shook his head pleadingly.

    “Bah, you and your newfangled Orb technology makes anything possible! I heard all about it! You’d make Mew cry, I tell ya, changing the gifts ya got!”

    Did he want her to have kids or not?! Spice was about to object, but then realized that she could use this opportunity to speak with Leo anyway.

    “…I’ll keep it in mind,” Spice said to Tari as Leo slipped into his old room.

    “Yeah, and be quiet about it!” Tari said, slithering toward the closed door on the other side of the room. “Have some respect!”

    He brought his tail forward and pulled on a lever, which opened the door and revealed a washroom; Spice caught sight of what seemed to be a Rainy Orb in the ceiling. She frowned, concerned that it was no longer operational… But the moment the thought crossed her mind, she heard the sound of water filling a sink.

    “Oh,” Spice said, relief making her shoulders feel lighter. “Your Orb technology is still working?”

    “Oh, it is,” Aries said. “It’s actually a traditionally made Orb, not one from Kilo Village. Tari is… stubborn and old-fashioned about things.”

    Spice had zero trouble believing this.

    “He’ll refuse to acknowledge when he’s wrong, piling crazier and crazier claims to prove himself right…” She sighed, rubbing her forehead. “I’m sorry you got caught up in it. I promise, he’s much sharper than he presented himself.”

    “I—I wasn’t thinking he was senile or anything,” Spice lied.

    And then Spice remembered Aries was Psychic, based on that gray-eyed, knowing smile. “Well,” Aries said, “thank you. He just wants to be useful. Being an Arbok among a family of Delphox has left him… wanting to do as much as he can.”

    “Oh.” Spice hadn’t considered that. “Well, like I said. He’s probably sharper than he lets on.”

    “I wouldn’t have had a family with him if he wasn’t,” Aries said. “But Spice, you seem… troubled.”

    “Well, who isn’t? The world seems upside-down, and we haven’t even gotten to Kilo Village yet.” Spice crossed her arms.

    “Mm…” Aries tilted her head. “But Leo sounded worried for you, too. Is something wrong?”

    “Oh, that,” Spice said, shaking her head—before realizing Aries wouldn’t see it. “No, that’s nothing. You probably know how much Leo worries for nothing.”

    “Is it for nothing?”

    Right, this was his mother. Delicate words. “He cares a lot for his team,” Spice said. “He’s only worried that I haven’t been sleeping lately.”

    “For how long?”

    “A few days,” Spice said.

    “A few? How many?”

    What was this, an interrogation? Spice kept her voice even. “I stopped keeping track of it. Five, six?”

    Aries’ blind eyes widened.

    “I know, I know, but I really do feel fine.”

    “Does your family have a history of insomnia?” Aries asked.

    “No.”

    “How about… strange mood patterns? Anything like that?”

    “No,” Spice said. “Well—my mother, after my sister and I hatched, used to get episodes of confusion and fear, but I’ve never had those, and also, I don’t have kids.”

    “Hmm… Spice, may I take a closer listen to you?” Aries asked.

    Spice tensed. “What do you mean?”

    “Oh, I’m sorry,” Aries said, sinking into her chair. “I used to be a general therapist. I’m no expert in any one field, but I can help narrow things down to experts if necessary.”

    “It’s not—” Spice frowned, starting to wonder. Six days was bordering on the supernatural. Was this beyond the scope of therapy? “I feel perfectly fine. A little energized, sure, and I don’t get tired, but the most annoying part about it is everyone else worrying about it.”

    “Hmm… May I at least analyze your psyche, then?”

    “How invasive is that?” Spice said tentatively.

    “Not at all,” Aries said. “I don’t read your thoughts. I only see if there is any turmoil in your mind. For me to go deeper, I would need your cooperation.”

    “I’m a Poison, you know. I’m kind of sensitive to Psychic readings.”

    “Not to worry. My mate is an Arbok, after all.”

    She had a point. Deciding to comply—if Leo would listen to anyone, it would be her mother—Spice approached Aries and crouched down. “I just sit here?”

    “Yes. You don’t need to do anything more than answer my questions. Spice, is anything bothering you?”

    “Well, the world might be ending.”

    “Mm… And what about Leo?”

    “He’s got a few wounds that he’s still healing up, because Orans stopped working like they should. But he’s better now, so I’m less worried for him. Now that we’re at his home, I’m actually feeling a lot better about things.”

    “I see, mm… And what else are you thinking about?”

    “How Kilo Village is doing. A lot of strange stuff has been happening there in hindsight, not to mention that Ice Aggron that attacked a superpowered, creepy Espurr. I don’t know. It feels like all of this is somehow related.”

    “Hmmm…”

    “Of course it’s related!” came Tari’s voice as he slithered out of the washroom. His scales glistened with water. The added depth to his color made him look a few years younger. “Bet it’s related to all this nonsense. Those bandits, too, I tell ya. It’s all a great omen! Arceus is here to punish us for straying far from the path! Mew, too!”

    “Now, we don’t know that for certain,” Aries said.

    “Destiny Tower has risen!” Tari declared. “It’s time for new Pokémon to ascend, I tell ya! Why, if I had a few decades off, I’d try and climb myself!”

    Aries smiled, and then said, “Tari, I don’t know if those stories are true. But perhaps if we’re ever lucky enough, we can ask Arceus Himself one day.”

    “Bah! I’ll wait fer death.” Tari waved his tail dismissively. “All those floors sound like too much trouble.”

    Spice had no idea what he was talking about, but it probably had to do with the Book of Arceus. She shrugged it off and asked Aries, “How is my head?”

    “Well,” Aries admitted, “I don’t sense any abnormal turmoil. You… simply aren’t tired.”

    The relief of validation hit Spice first, and then, seconds later, was followed by the same worry. “Then you don’t know why I’m like this, either? It won’t suddenly kill me, will it?”

    Aries frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t know,” she said. “When you go to Kilo Village, you should seek out a sleep specialist. I know the son of a Hypno who is actually a wonderful therapist. You should look for him when you return. His father rarely failed at his treatments—I think the only one he couldn’t help was a Charmander that kept burning his bed from chronic sleep-fighting.”

    “Right,” Spice said. “Sleep specialist.”

    And now, they were doctor’s orders. So much for convincing Leo she’d be fine… “Well, thank you,” she said, turning back toward Leo’s room. “I’m going to try to rest.”

    “Take care,” Aries said.

    “How long do Salandit eggs take?” Tari asked.

    Aries gently bopped Tari on the snout. Despite not seeing, she looked like she knew exactly where he was.

    Spice sighed, slipping inside Leo’s room. “Hey, we need to t—”

    He was already asleep. His body was curled around a soft bed of orange fabric stuffed with cotton, head resting on a large, white pillow. She’d never seen him look so dead to the world and peaceful. A small smile curled along her right side.

    They could talk later. Leo didn’t deserve to be disturbed from a sleep so wonderful. Despite the fact that she wasn’t tired at all, Spice felt envious.

    Then, hearing Tari hiss sweet nothings to Aries—and Aries giggling lowly back—made Spice realize that now was the perfect time for a walk. A long, faraway walk.

    She didn’t dare leave through the front entrance. Thankfully, there was a window. Unlatching it—noting that it didn’t feel very reinforced—she pulled the wooden door open. It creaked like the rocking chair, but they didn’t hear it. She crawled outside and closed it behind her with her tail.

    Her scales were tingling again, this time below her—which was unusual. Usually it was to the southwest. On reflex, she lowered her body to the dirt, squeezing her claws into the ground. Eyes closed, she tilted her head. Far away. It was far, far away, whatever it was.

    …What was it?

    “Erm, excuse me.”

    Spice perked up to see a Scrafty looking worriedly at her.

    “Are you okay?” Scrafty asked.

    “Yes. Sorry.” Spice pulled herself away from the dirt and brushed off her scales.

    Scrafty’s eyes immediately darted toward the scar on her chest, so Spice narrowed her eyes in return.

    “Like what you see?” she growled.

    “N-no! I mean—yes! No? Sorry!” Scrafty quickly brought his head down. “I’m sorry. You must have gone through a lot of trouble.”

    Spice rolled her eyes. “Whatever, look, I’m just on a walk.”

    “Do you sense an earthquake coming?” Scrafty asked.

    “…No? What?”

    “I heard that some Pokémon have a sense for that sort of thing.”

    “Well, not me.”

    “What did you sense?”

    “I—” Spice wasn’t sure why she was answering all these questions. “I don’t know. Been sensing strange stuff lately. First from where that vortex is coming from, and then below me.”

    “B-below? Right under this town?!”

    “No. Feels a lot further away than that. Who knows? Maybe it’s like one of those stories where a great evil is sealed inside the world’s core.” Spice shrugged, though she did hope to get an amused reaction from Scrafty. Regret filled her shortly after: she’d never seen so much terror in someone’s eyes. “Hey, hey, c’mon, that’s stupid. Maybe it’s, I dunno, on the opposite side of the world instead?”

    “Isn’t there nothing but ocean there?” Scrafty said, voice still trembling. “M-maybe it really is a demon in the world’s—”

    “It’s not a demon,” Spice said tiredly, shaking her head. “Come on, don’t be silly.”

    “Duh-didn’t you hear that voice in the sky, and-and the dark clouds, and—”

    He had a point, but Spice wasn’t in the mood to hear about doomsday theories. “Look, forget I said anything. I haven’t had sleep in…” She forgot. “A while. Maybe I’m starting to hallucinate.”

    Scrafty frowned, looking skeptical. And she couldn’t blame him; aside from the first impression, she felt perfectly fine.

    After an awkward silence, Spice eventually said, “Don’t worry. Now, I’m going for a walk. Official… Heart business. So don’t—”

    A distant thunderclap gently jostled the air. Spice couldn’t tell which direction it came from; first it was from the left, then a little while later, from behind. All around like an enclosing shockwave. Her scales felt like electricity.

    “…Probably nothing,” Spice lied. But this time, she saw a little of her own fear reflected in Scrafty’s eyes.

    <><><>

    Owen didn’t have as much luck with finding berries this time around, so he settled for getting as much of the tree taffy as he could to satiate his appetite. His jaw hurt from all the chewing he had to do, and he was starting to get the feeling that his stomach was starting to get wise to the fact that it was being fed mostly fiber and red water. Even after he had taken down what he was sure was his whole head’s worth of wood, his gut still felt empty. He had to find something to eat soon—and something that wasn’t foul from a day of being left to rot, either.

    Eventually, he heard the sound of running water. While he hoped it was clear, he knew not to get his hopes up—and, indeed, the river was red with the same dust that permeated the land. He scrambled to the edge and drank his fill—he was desperate enough at this point that the taste was a mere afterthought—and then tried to decide which way to go.

    The river was only a short way across, but it seemed deep. Swimming through it in his state ran the risk of drowning. It was only a stone’s throw across, perhaps ten feet, but for a Charmander—a starving Charmander—that could spell death. Owen hesitantly glanced at his flame; no matter how much he wanted to deny it, he’d never seen the flame so small. Its width was less than the middle of his tail. Never a good sign if he was supposed to be in decent condition.

    The thought of food had crossed his mind several times. Some Tamato soup—spicy and burning against his tongue. Perhaps some potatoes to go with it, fried in the juices so it took on that same spicy flavor. And what if there was some meat in it? Fake, plant-based, or from a real, living creature—Owen wondered if he’d be able to have something substantive soon. Anything. Did he even have the strength to hunt? Because he likely would have no choice but to hunt; he hadn’t seen a sign of any kind of society in a while.

    Maybe he could eat another patch of berries. Or just a vegetable. Anything? Something to dig his teeth into, to feel it pressing against his cheeks. To have a full mouthful of soft food, or hard food that pressed against his gums with every bite of his sharp teeth.

    He was drooling. The Charmander quickly wiped his mouth—had anybody seen him? But no, there was nobody. As usual.

    The river came from the dark forest; the water flowed away from it and into the black plateau fields. Which way? Going upstream, would he find a settlement of any kind? But the forest was also dangerous. He could run into the same creatures that had hurt Amia—did the wraiths live there? But downstream, it was nothing but a wasteland. Perhaps if he had more supplies, but…

    But Amia was probably still there. Owen couldn’t remember many details about what had happened when he had first died, but the ground was dry. The forest’s ground was damp. If he was reformed somewhere nearby—in a dry location like the plateau fields—then did the same go for Amia? If she died there, was she still wandering around, a Ralts lost and confused? What would she be capable of?

    That settled it. Amia was the top priority—it was the only thing that he knew in this world, and going in some blind direction wasn’t going to help. He had a sense for where he had been last time; perhaps, if he got within range again, he’d find her the same way.

    Owen followed the river at a careful distance; even if he fell or stumbled from weakness, or strayed too far from his wobbly path, he didn’t want to risk actually falling into the river unless he needed a drink. He was tempted to try to clean and freshen himself up, but he didn’t think it was a good idea with how disoriented he was feeling. Thankful that he was lucid enough to realize this, he dedicated what energy he had left to finding signs of life.

    <><><>

    Bigtail left.

    Charmander didn’t want to watch that happen like so many of his other siblings. Charizard was so happy to see him go, giving him well-wishes and a proud Flamethrower. Bigtail had launched an ember into the flames, perhaps symbolic that one day he would be able to match her power, or perhaps that his flame would never truly leave hers.

    When the family tradition had started was unknown to Charmander, just that it was.

    And now Redscale was marching over the burned fields with the other Charmander, each one eager to go and find their human.

    Smallflame remained behind, sitting with his father.

    “You’ve been strong enough to get a human for a while,” Marowak said, tapping his bone club on a nearby rock. Tap tap tap. Charmander knew it was because he was thinking about something. He was always so quiet—Charizard liked that about him—and when he spoke, it always had meaning. Layers to what he said. He was a smart Marowak. Smarter than most Pokémon. Probably smarter than him, too.

    “I guess,” Charmander said. He reached for a stick, burning the end to pass the time.

    “You don’t want to go, like Bigtail?”

    Of course he’d ask that. Ever since Charizard talked to him about her late trainer, all the wonderful adventures that they’d been through together, the eternal ember that she claimed existed in that human… He’d never listened to the story so intently before. But were humans really all that good?

    He still didn’t understand why they interacted with humans so often in the first place. Was there a point to it at all? He wished they’d just gone to some faraway place that humans didn’t bother with, instead of right next to a weird building where neighboring Squirtle and Bulbasaur would occasionally pester them for playdates. Which he also found bothersome. Either he was afraid of getting soaked by a Squirtle that didn’t understand that water was bad, or he was trying to calm down a skittish Bulbasaur that didn’t understand that fire was good.

    “Can’t I stay like Redscale?” Charmander asked.

    “Well, you can…” Marowak looked down. “But don’t you want wings?”

    “I’ll get them.”

    Marowak frowned, looking at the human building down the path. “Redscale is our oldest child, Smallflame. He wanted to stay, and that was fine and his choice. He wasn’t interested in wings. He was interested in letting all his other siblings have wings, but… So many of his younger brothers and sisters already have them. And we don’t know if he will become strong enough, fast enough to get them before he is too old.”

    Smallflame grumbled. “Because humans… make us stronger.”

    “There’s something special about humans that lets Pokémon get stronger, faster. And that’s especially true for us. If you want wings in time to live your life as a Charizard… you need a human. Your mother, and your mother’s mother, and so on… They all followed the tradition of joining a human so you can grow, together.”

    “Then what about when I become a Charizard? Can I just leave my human?”

    Marowak’s bony mask made it impossible to read his expression unless he wanted it read. But this time, his eyes were smiling. “If you want to, you can leave whenever you want, Smallflame. But when you meet your human, I don’t think you will.”

    <><><>

    At some point, Owen referred to them as ‘days,’ because he didn’t know what they were otherwise. They felt shorter than days, but he tired quickly, and used the opportunities of stopping for a meal of wood, drinking from the lake, and finding a safe cave to sleep a day. He didn’t have the fortune of running into another abandoned pot of stew—not that he’d want to risk that again. But soon, as his wood dried and his supplies dwindled again, he grew more and more desperate for something to eat.

    He had visited a few caves and happened upon two more of those odd crystals. One was red with a flame emblem inside. Another was a curious white with a circular emblem. He still didn’t know what they were, but they were shiny, and pretty, and his hands weren’t very full with anything else at that point.

    The sparse landscape allowed for a lot of time to think. His thoughts were starting to become repetitive, obsessive. They circled around Zena and how she might have still been fighting somewhere in these wastelands. He wondered if she was able to find anything to eat here, like berries, or at least something better than wood. How were Demitri and Mispy doing? Mispy was always hungry. Hopefully she wouldn’t try to eat Demitri.

    That—that wasn’t a real danger, was it? She wouldn’t dare. Then again, she dared to eat her bed. And did. Owen wouldn’t mind eating a bed at this point. Or maybe a bed of leaves in a salad. He wasn’t sure what would kill him first, the hunger or the wraiths that were surely hidden somewhere, watching him. Waiting for the next moment he had a chance to eat. Were wraiths edible?

    He rubbed his forehead roughly and growled, but he didn’t dare release an ember. He didn’t know where the energy for Ember came from, but he was sure that at least some of it was drawn from his food, maybe. He should have asked Star back before she became horrible.

    The ground rumbled again. It had been so long since the last tremor that Owen didn’t know what to do with himself. He searched for a large boulder to hide behind, but then realized the nearest one was too far away. His pulse quickened. What was he supposed to do now? He spun around when another rumble got to him, and then he saw—

    It saw him.

    It was at least three plateaus away, but it saw him. An orange speck in the purple dirt. His flame—could the giant thing see it? And those colorful crystals in his possession—were they bright? Did the titans sense them?

    Owen ran—no need for stealth now—and searched for a cave to hide in. But would that even matter? It would just pull him out if he tried.

    That shaking was even louder. Owen looked back and squeaked. This titan had four legs and was bulkier than the first one that he’d seen. He didn’t know if it had a face; it didn’t seem to have a—no, its head just grew out of its shoulders, not unlike Elder emerging from his shell.

    It was walking toward him. Directly toward him. Every stride took it across the plateaus by at least halfway between them. In just ten of those slow strides, it would be right on him.

    Another thump, and then another, each one shaking the ground a little more. Owen noticed that the very dust on the ground was disturbed by them, now. Tiny shockwaves that went ahead of him and faded into the distance.

    It was running. Running toward him. Owen’s heart pounded, the little energy he had left going all into his legs.

    And then it roared. It was that same roar—this was the same titan from before, had to be, that sounded like the entire world whispering through the air, screaming at him.

    He also felt the presence of another crystal—a dull one, like when he had sensed Amia. It was coming from the titan; perhaps a few of the crystals were lodged inside its body. Owen didn’t want to find out; any closer and it’d probably crush him.

    His heart skipped a beat, that dull feeling, that Mystic pull, tugging at the back of his mind. Did that behemoth have a Mystic aura? It was so close, now, that he could feel it. It was faint, but it was there, the same way Amia had felt. Why did it feel like that? What would happen to Owen if he got captured?

    He had to hide, and it was right behind him, and if it got him, some primal part of his mind told him that he had to avoid it more than death itself.

    So, he jumped into the river.

    The painful heat that ran through his legs suddenly became a bitter cold that stabbed at his chest. An instant later, it spread to his tail, but by now he was used to the concept of water shock. Waking up at the bottom of the lake was already bad enough—what more could be done here?

    He didn’t remember to take a breath. Could he risk surfacing? He tried to look up, but he had no idea where it was. Instead, Owen went to the riverside, keeping his tail in the water against all instincts, and pressed the tip of his muzzle out of the water. He breathed deeply—surely he was too small for it to hear him—and sank underwater again.

    The ground shook—he felt it when his claws dug into the riverside, but the water was so thick with red that he couldn’t see clearly. Only brightness, and darkness, where the sky was and where the riverbed was.

    His lungs burned again. Before he had the chance to take another breath—he was so frantic—he heard the rumble again, and stopped. If he raised his head now, it would surely try to take him. He pushed his body downward, a bit below the water’s surface. His tail bubbled, struggling to stay alight, not that it mattered anymore. It was already producing steam, but the bubbles, he prayed to a god that probably didn’t hear him anymore, wouldn’t be noticed.

    He had to stay calm. Calm so his breath could last longer; calm so, if something happened, he could outlast it.

    The rumbling shook his body, and then he heard a splash. For a split-second, Owen thought that was it, that he’d be taken, especially when a huge wave overtook the water above him, bringing huge lumps of mud over his body. His entire body went up, and then fall, fall, fall—slam into the ground, but his fall was cushioned by all the water and mud around him.

    The thing had dug out a whole segment of the land, and Owen was caught up in it. He was out of the lake, but now he was under an insurmountable pile of mud.

    And then everything was quiet. Owen couldn’t see anymore; he kept his eyes closed. He didn’t know which way was up. Mud covered all parts of his body.

    His chest burned. No time; even if he outlasted it, if it left and he was stuck, there was no use in trying to stay hidden. He reached forward—he still had one of the crystals in his hands, the green one. It was a struggle against the mud, but if he moved slowly enough, it parted for him.

    He kept moving. More resistance. Was this even the right direction? He didn’t know which way was up—he had to breathe—but was he just going deeper? He couldn’t see anything—just one breath, a little air—but could he sense up and down some other way? The mud was too thick—could he breathe mud? His body thought so—no, that was no good. Maybe the crystal—yes, the crystal!

    The mud wasn’t all that compressed. He probably wasn’t too deep in the mound. He had to go up. The crystal, if he made some room, would go down. He wiggled his arm—HE NEEDED AIR NOW—and released his grip. There was open air above the crystal—it felt hollow as the mud lost its moisture—but it stayed in his hand.

    What did that mean? Was that up? Crystal, in hand. Crystal, hand. Air. Air. AIR. AIR. Hand, crystal. Hand below crystal. Hand, down. Crystal, up. So up was behind him? No. Front. Up was front. Push front.

    Using the crystal to guide him, he pushed his hand forward and followed it. He used the sharp end to dig a hole, and then his hand broke through. He was squeezing so hard that the crystal fell out, but that didn’t matter. That was an opening.

    He pushed his arm, then his shoulder—he wanted to cry, as did his lungs if they had eyes—and then out came the head.

    Why did air hurt so much?

    It was such a relief at the same time, though, but he’d breathed in too fast. He coughed and sputtered—he still couldn’t see—and had forgotten about the titan. At some point, the rumbles had stopped. The mud came off easily, at least; after a few globs from his face, he could open one eye to see—blurrily—that the titan was on the other side of the small river, digging in the dirt. Realizing this, he quickly brought the mud back over his face, leaving only a small hole to peek through.

    The water spread across the dusty ground, turning it all into some strange, sea of thick red, like coagulated blood. It reminded Owen of mashed berries, or ground meat, maybe both at the same time. The crystal shined near the bottom of the mud pile; hopefully the giant wraith-thing wouldn’t notice it. It seemed more occupied trying to find him, anyway.

    Eventually, it must have lost interest, because it stopped digging and wandered away. The relief that followed almost outweighed the general heaviness in his chest. With his remaining strength—at this point didn’t know where it was drawn from—he pulled himself out of the mud and rolled limply to the bottom of the mound, landing on the crystal with an annoyed grunt.

    A small ember filled his body with warmth, starting from the tip of his tail, spreading to his gut, and finally to his chest and head, like sinking into a warm pit of lava. The soft, usually imperceptible drone of the flame was like music. An indifferent wind blew over the destroyed riverside, chilling the water and leaving small ripples over the puddles beside him.

    Owen didn’t realize until later that he was laughing.

    How many ways did he just avoid dying? First, there was the obvious threat of getting eaten, crushed, or who knows what else by that giant wraith. Second, there was the simple act of drowning, or water shock, or anything to do with a Charmander being submerged under water. Did starving also count? That was a third one. He was still at risk of that. But the fourth—perhaps the worst of it all—was suffocating under the mud. Even after escaping from everything else, what a way to go.

    His laughter settled down from fatigue. Everything was blurry. Perhaps just a short rest was in order; after all, he didn’t really have anything else to…

    Something was flying across the sky. It was a black dot—no, gray. Black was the wraith he had just evaded. Gray? The Charmander narrowed his pupils, focusing on the distant object with more clarity.

    That’s an Aerodactyl.

    It came circling around again. The wide bank suggested he was scouting for something, but was also cautious of the wraith, though by now it was far into the plateaus. The altitude suggested he was flying below the plateaus, probably so he didn’t get spotted.

    Owen wondered if blending in was the best option now. He wiggled his tail, trying to push it out of the mud. The gentle warmth of his flame was there, but weak. Jerry probably couldn’t spot him… It had to be Jerry.

    Weakly, Owen brushed away at the wet mud, hoping that some of his cream and orange scales showed in the mess. Jerry circled around again, getting closer this time.

    Did he have some other way to get known quickly? He didn’t have the energy for a flame. If he tried, it would probably just be smoke and—

    Smoke…

    Owen breathed in, wondering if he still had it. Surely, he did. A technique he should probably rely on much more often now that he was so weak. What felt like cloudy bile collected in the back of his throat, and then he spat.

    Messy, but it got the point across: A wobbly, black sphere escaped him and popped in midair, sending huge plumes of smoke all over the area. He could only see the vaguest of silhouettes, now, but the Aerodactyl was coming a lot closer.

    If it wasn’t Jerry, would he be food?

    “You better be Owen somehow,” the Aerodactyl said with a murmur.

    At least he wouldn’t get eaten twice. Owen laughed, raising an arm to wave in what he was certain was the wrong direction. “Jerry…”

    “I can’t believe it. Which one should I remark on first? The fact that you’ve got a foot in the grave, or that you’re a Charmander for some reason?”

    A winged claw grabbed him by the arm, pulling him out of the mud, which had come close to solidifying around his warm body. After setting him on his feet, Jerry looked Owen over and growled with concern. “You’re a mess.”

    Owen plopped onto his rear and slumped over. “Sorry,” Owen said, though he was still grinning. His voice, in the back of his mind, surprised him. He lost track of how many days he’d gone without talking. After the first two, when he had run out of food, he had stopped speaking to conserve energy. And that had been several days ago. A handful at least. A Charizard’s handful, not a Charmander’s handful. Tiny hands. Tiny Charmander hands. At least he had better fingers. “Ran into a lot of trouble.” Owen said at some point.

    “A lot of trouble! Understatement of the century. Which probably means you made five more of those, huh? Mister half-millennium.”

    “I might be even older,” Owen mumbled absently.

    Jerry tried to help Owen up, but nothing he did was enough to get him to his feet.

    Owen laughed again, still leaning his weight against Jerry’s wing. It hadn’t fully registered to him that the Aerodactyl had even arrived; everything felt like a dream. A happy, relaxing dream. Jerry felt so warm.

    “Hey, HEY! Owen, you idiot, don’t—aghh, there we go…”

    Everything was dark. The mud felt so cozy. So cozy. Just a small nap…

    <><><>

    That was odd. Owen was starting to get used to the feeling of confusing dreams and his memories of some other time returning to him. But this time, he felt like he was nowhere, floating yet heavy on a ground that didn’t exist below him.

    Hello? Owen called to nothing.

    And, predictably, nothing replied back.

    So dark. Was his tail flame extinguished? He felt alive. Then again, between the Orb, eating his old body, and being Mystic, the idea of death had lost its meaning a long time ago.

    So bright! Owen squeezed his eyes shut and it still shined through his eyelids.

    He saw a star, but he couldn’t tell how many sides it had. Unable to hold on any longer, Owen slipped away again.
     
    Kindoflame and git-it like this.
  5. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 87 – Sunken Eyes

    “Alright, Charizard. Why did you want us to come over? You don’t usually go flying all the way to the lab unless one of your kids is sick…”

    Charizard grunted, looking at the remaining children she had. She held her belly once, feeling the telltale signs of another egg coming, but then looked at Redscale, Smallflame, and two other Charmander—the latter two still not ready to go with a human.

    “They look healthy to me. You have another egg coming, don’t you?” The human with the fireproof coat rubbed Charizard on the shoulder. “You aren’t getting a little egg-protective, are you?”

    Charizard grumbled and sat down next to Smallflame, using her tail to nudge him forward.

    “Oh?” The assistant looked down.

    “Smallflame wants to challenge you,” Charizard said. “I made a wager with him. He wants to see proof of the strength that Pokémon gain from humans.”

    “Hmm…” It didn’t seem like the human fully understood her. Instead, she looked at Smallflame. “What do you want, little guy?”

    Smallflame spat a flame on the ground and stomped his foot. “Fight me!”

    “Oh! Well, that’s pretty obvious.” The human laughed, digging through her pockets. “I think I understand. You want to see how strong Pokémon can be, huh?” She pulled out a clipboard. “Why don’t you wait here? I know just the thing.”

    She left, and Smallflame spent a good while kicking the dirt and huffing angrily.

    Charizard smiled and bumped her tail against Smallflame again. “Think you’ll win?”

    “Of course,” Smallflame said. “I trained under Redscale. I’m unbeatable.”

    Charizard shrugged, adjusting her position to get more comfortable. “I think the egg’s coming soon,” she murmured to herself.

    Smallflame nodded, but then looked back at the facility. He heard the door opening, and out came two humans. The first was the same as before; the other was a young human with long hair. Curious eyes. What did she want? Was that his opponent? She looked weak.

    “Okay, found your opponent! You ready to go, Charmander?”

    “Always.” Smallflame hopped on his feet.

    “Wait.” Charizard carefully stood up. “This isn’t going to be a simple fight. Smallflame said that he needs to be convinced that a Pokémon with a human is stronger… and if he’s convinced, he’ll go with one, too.”

    Smallflame’s chest tightened at the prospect, but he nodded firmly.

    “What?” the human asked. “I don’t understand… Sorry. You don’t want to fight?”

    “Oh, I think I know what’s going on,” the unfamiliar, younger human said. “If I had to guess…” She dug through her bag, pulling out an empty Poké Ball.

    Charizard smiled.

    “Yep!” The young trainer looked at the lab assistant. “They want this to be a battle to catch Charmander.”

    “Oh! So clever.” The lab assistant nodded. “Would you mind doing that for us? A simple fight to get things going, and then I can take him to the lab if he decides to come with us. Can you and your partner do that?”

    “Oh, um… Well, let me ask. Maybe he understands the situation?” She dug through her bag and pulled out another ball.

    Smallflame growled. He was never going to wind up in one of those things; there was no point. Crammed up like that, just because some stupid human needed a guard while they went on a self-serving adventure? So, what? His siblings could do that. Not him.

    “Alright, let’s do this!” She tossed the ball forward; in midair, it burst open, and the ball went flying back to the trainer. The zigzag of white light materialized into a Bulbasaur.

    Smallflame’s apprehension suddenly switched to confusion, and then his face twisted into a smirk. This would be easy.

    “My, aren’t you confident?” Charizard said, smiling.

    He looked back, daring to glare, and then looked back at Bulbasaur. He seemed ready to fight, so Smallflame roared out a challenge. “Alright, you dumb Bulbasaur! I’ll beat you in two attacks! Just watch!”

    “Wow, two, I’m sooo impressed.” Bulbasaur rolled his eyes.

    Charmander crouched down and ran forward, flames erupting from his throat. Bulbasaur’s vine came whipping out quickly—it suddenly transformed into sharp claws, slashing at his shoulders.

    <><><> ​

    “Kid, wake up already,” Jerry said, his wing-claws grasping Owen’s shoulders.

    Owen shook limply, eyes fluttering open. “Huh? Wuh?”

    “Finally.” Jerry stopped. Owen’s arms felt sticky—no, not sticky. Crusty? That was a good word for it. With blurry vision, Owen tried to wipe away at that crusty feeling, only to realize that it was dried mud caked on his scales.

    “Ugh, you couldn’t even try to clean me a little?” Owen mumbled, his vision slowly clearing. His orange and cream scales were covered in a thin layer of purple dust, occasionally with patches of thicker grime.

    Jerry snorted, jabbing the spade of his tail in the dirt. “This is after I cleaned you a little. But I wasn’t about to risk dunking you in water when I don’t like the stuff either.”

    A rumble shook the cave and Jerry quieted down, glancing behind him. While the cave was abandoned, there was no telling if a wraith would find them in their sleep. It was a good thing Jerry had been awake to scare anything off.

    Owen sighed, turning to get up. It was only then that he realized there was a wraith right next to him.

    He screamed and sprang to his feet, ready to fight—but a wave of dizziness followed, and Jerry had to grab him under his arms.

    “Calm down, calm down! It’s dead!” Jerry pointed at it. “Most of those things just dissolve away, but that one has some shape to it. Didn’t know what to really do with it, so I chucked it in the corner.”

    “Next to me?! What’s wrong with you?!”

    “Bah, get over it!” Jerry waved him off. “Besides, you should be thankful. That’s our meal.”

    This did not help the situation. “What do you mean, our meal? I’m not eating that thing! It’s—is it even edible?”

    “I dunno, but I haven’t eaten a thing here except for wood and red water, so if I’m gonna take my risk on some meat, I’m gonna do it. I told you before—my gut needs meat, not wood. And I’m pretty sure so do you.”

    “Um—Charmander can handle a lot of things, and I think we can go vegetarian if we—”

    “Kid, have you had a look at yourself lately?”

    “I’m not a—what do you mean?” Owen followed Jerry’s claw, which was curled over so the curved top pressed gently on his chest. He blinked in surprise, realizing that there was barely a layer between his scales and his bones. Jerry ran it from the bottom of his chest up; his claw bumped against every rib.

    Owen looked at his arms; the scales had a lot of extra skin to them, and he saw the bones of his wrist. The details along his hands where the soft, tiny scales followed the contour of his depleted muscles and joints. He turned his head and checked his shoulders, but all he saw was a faded scar where he had been attacked by the fanged wraith.

    Oh, right—he hadn’t found a single Oran Berry since then. He had given them all to—

    “Jerry, we need to keep going,” Owen urged. “Mom’s out there, and so are the others. We have to go and—you can fly, right?”

    “Barely. I’m running on an empty stomach.” He pointed at the wraith. “We eating or not?”

    “We can’t just find some berries or something?”

    “No,” Jerry snapped. “First, like I said, berries for food just doesn’t cut it for me. And second, all the berries here are poisonous.”

    Another cruel wind blew across the wastes outside. Some of the dust kicked up and flew into the cave, littering the ground and adding to its dry layer. Jerry used his wing to shield himself from a small cloud that blew into the cave, and then the wind settled. Through it all, Owen stood in complete stillness.

    “Poisonous?” Owen repeated.

    “Yeah. It happened in the south before annexation, actually. I don’t know the details, but berries in southern Dungeons—before Anam got in and did renewed blessings or whatever mumbo-jumbo he calls it… Sometimes the distortion corrupts the berries and other items inside. Oran Berries in particular were notorious for their false healing. We called them Oren Berries, because they looked just like ‘em, and you had to really inspect it to tell that it’s fake.”

    “Poisonous…”

    “Uh, yeah. So don’t eat them if you find any. Long time ago, I found out the hard way.”

    A rumble followed, a bit louder this time, and that made Jerry look back nervously. “We should get deeper into the cave,” he muttered. “C’mon, Owen. Stay behind me so your flame doesn’t give us away. Sometimes those things bend down and stare inside, so we gotta keep to the dark. Don’t make any noise.”

    Owen said something in reply, but he didn’t remember what he said the moment it left his mouth. Maybe just an affirmative, because Jerry kept going, prodding him to walk. Owen followed on reflex, but his eyes were empty and aimless, mind elsewhere.

    “C’mon, kid, focus.”

    The dead wraith remained where it was—it looked a bit more deflated than a few seconds ago.

    Jerry draped a wing over Owen, hiding the Charmander completely from the mouth of the cave. His flame, dim as it was, gently lit up the inside of the Aerodactyl’s wings. He reached toward it out of sheer curiosity, but a shadow looming over the cave’s entrance made him freeze.

    That was a big rumble. Was it the same one from before, or a different one? It seemed somehow bigger. And then came a deep groan, a grunt, and then air whistling through huge nostrils. Jerry had his head turned back, watching intently. His body was ready to bolt in any direction—even though they were completely trapped.

    Owen heard a heart, but it wasn’t his own. He glanced at Jerry and saw his chest throbbing to each beat. Jerry’s expression wasn’t clear from Owen’s angle, but his jaw was clenched, ready for battle. There hadn’t been a shake for a while.

    Jerry smelled a lot like the dust. But there was a bit more to him, too, that Owen couldn’t really describe. It was oddly comforting, though… If only because it was something different. He was tempted to lean closer, but didn’t want to distract Jerry or accidentally make a noise.

    And then, the shadow left the cave, and the shaking ground indicated the titan was moving away. Jerry still didn’t move, each beat of his heart echoing in Owen’s ears—it made his own pulse quicken and deepen.

    After what felt like forever, Jerry finally loosened up and took his wings off of Owen. “Didn’t even look into the cave,” he said. “Maybe they just aren’t interested, or they didn’t see it. Don’t care. Let’s eat and bail.”

    Jerry made a few shaky steps to the fallen wraith and sat down, giving his legs a rest.

    Owen wobbled to the wraith next, prodding at a deflated portion of its body. He felt something hard deeper inside, something that vaguely resembled bone. Aside from that, the skin was completely black and slimy, and whatever was inside…

    “What, you want me to eat first?” Jerry said. “Quit poking it.”

    “Sorry.”

    Owen grasped at the edge of one and pulled, but it slipped out of his hands and left a black residue on his scales. He grimaced, not even wanting to taste it, and tried again, digging his claws into the slippery flesh. Claws punctured skin; sticky, black fluid oozed out of the hole like a molten chocolate cake, and even more gushed over the ground when he tore away. It didn’t make a sound, like ripping at gummy candy.

    The scent was bitter, with a hint of blood. So it was blood. But it was black, like the innards of a Bluk Berry. Now he had a chunk, about the size of his fist, to work with. He nibbled on the edge; the slime outside didn’t have a taste, but the black blood was like iron and stale water. Still, it was water.

    That was enough to convince Owen to go for a full bite. The texture—the tough, slick exterior was rubbery and chewy, and the inner flesh was chunky and watery at the same time. Bits of softer flesh bounced around on his tongue, surrounding tougher, springier pieces that reminded Owen that what he was eating wasn’t natural.

    Jerry was having similar luck, but he was forcing it down in huge gulps, his expression barely changing with each bite.

    “Food’s food,” he muttered, black drops pouring out from the sides of his mouth in streams. “Anything tastes good when you’re starving.”

    Owen had to admit, as foul as it was, there was some small part of him that wanted to keep eating. But his mind kept wandering to other foods he could be eating instead, and then rapidly back to berries, and then to the fact that the berries here were poisoned.

    “How did you find out they were poisoned?” Owen asked.

    “What, this? I dunno if it’s poisoned. Guess we’re finding out. I’d rather die from that than starving to death.”

    “No,” Owen said quickly. “Berries. How do you—”

    “I said, they look different. It’s really subtle, but they do. And every one here looked the part. Sure, you might not’ve known since they were only really that way in the south for the longest time, but eh, once it happens the first time, you get more careful.”

    Owen’s expression darkened again, not realizing that he had dropped his wraith slab. He clumsily picked out the stones and pebbles that had gotten stuck to it, then, in futility, brushed away the dust that mixed with the slime. He eventually gave up, setting it down.

    “Hey, hey, no,” Jerry said. “Don’t waste food. Every bit of it.”

    “But it’s dusty.”

    “And it’s food. The dust is in the water, too, so it’s not like you’re getting anything weird out of it.”

    “What?”

    “The dust turns red when it’s wet. That’s what’s making the river its color, I bet. Now eat your food already.”

    “But it’s…” Owen tried to protest, but Jerry’s glare gave him pause. “Okay.”

    The chalky texture didn’t add much to the experience. With a few grunts and coughs, he finished the rest, the dark, inconsistent thing slowly making its way down his throat. It settled into his stomach like a rock. He somehow felt emptier than before.

    “Once we’re done eating,” Jerry said, tearing off another huge chunk with his jaws alone, “we’ve gotta find out where to go next. Outta here. Away from those giant things, for one. Tried flying into the forest—got shot at.”

    “Shot at?” Owen repeated. “By…”

    “Those dark blasts. Flying above the trees’ll get you shot by those things. And last time I tried flying above the plateaus, I got spotted by a giant and it did the same thing to me. Even saw one try to jump at me. Those things can leap. Let’s hope we don’t meet a flying one.”

    The Charmander tried to get rid of that aftertaste, which was arguably worse than the actual flesh, and coughed up dust that had collected in the corners of his throat.

    “Use the blood to wash it off,” Jerry advised, pointing at a bit of the flesh that still oozed.

    “I—I’ll be fine,” Owen said, but that just made Jerry scowl. “I know where I want to go next.”

    “Oh?”

    “Mom’s out there somewhere.” He pointed to the mouth of the cave. “I need to find her, and—and I know that I can sense where she is, and also where my crystal—” Owen gasped, searching the immediate area, and then stared at Jerry, horrified. “Did you bring my crystal?”

    “What?”

    “My—it was kinda shaped like two triangles stuck together, a diamond? And it was green—I mean, I had three, but my favorite one was green, and—and it was shiny, and it kinda glowed, too.”

    “Alright. And?” Jerry tore off another piece—there wasn’t much left of the wraith by now, and Owen had only taken a few bites. He didn’t really want more, though. “What’s it matter?” Jerry asked.

    “I—” Owen tried to answer, but realized he didn’t have one. It was pretty. That had been the main reason, but also, well, he had been drawn to them. They called him. Didn’t that mean something? “I found it because it felt like, I dunno, it was drawing me toward it. If I left it behind, I’d still feel the call from it.”

    “You’d feel the call from it? Right. I didn’t feel any kind of call, so as far as I’m concerned, you’re nuts.”

    “I’m not—I’m serious, maybe there’s something to it! Right? You don’t just feel that kind of thing for no reason, do you? It’s like Perceive, but not.”

    “Sweet Mew, where’d your head go?” Jerry shoved a piece of wraith at Owen. “Eat so you stop talking like you’re a thread away from falling into the abyss.”

    “I—I think I’m full,” Owen said.

    Jerry snarled—the sudden hostility enough for Owen to flinch. The Aerodactyl waved a bit of the remaining wraith in front of him, flecks of black blood spattering randomly. “You don’t get it, do you? This is all the food we have, and there’s no telling if we’ll get more of it later. You got that? Eat now, eat until you’re at least a little full, because—”

    “I am full, I—”

    “Don’t lie to me. Eat your food, because if you waste away, I’m gonna force dust down your throat instead. Got it?” Jerry shoved the slab in Owen’s chest; he staggered back.

    Owen stared at the rotten food, squeezing it between his claws. For a moment, he had a flash of anger—how could he eat something like this when he could barely hold it down?! He glared at Jerry, but he was already tearing at the last piece.

    “I’m giving you,” Jerry said between bites, “every opportunity to not die. So if you do, that’s your fault.” He swallowed the final bit, then pointed at the piece in Owen’s hand. “Now choose. That’s either yours or mine.”

    Owen let out a growl at the threat—yes, that was now a threat to Owen—and shuffled away, holding it to his chest. But he still wasn’t keen on eating it, even as the mess stuck to his cream-colored scales.

    Jerry scowled again, looking down like he was dealing with some kind of feral. In a way, he was. “Make your decision. We can’t stay here for long, got it?”

    It took a while longer of hesitating, but he finally shoved the rest of the ‘meat’ down, chewing a lot faster—not like it mattered, since most of it was soft and mushy to begin with—and gagged as it slid wetly to his stomach.

    Two mouthfuls. He wouldn’t have been able to stand a third, even with how hungry he felt. Tree taffy was a thousand times better.

    “Get on my back,” Jerry said. “We’re gonna fly. I guess we’ll go and find your stupid crystal again, but after that, what?”

    Owen approached Jerry, hesitating on actually climbing up. Jerry growled impatiently, and that was enough for Owen to finally clamber on. “I want to find Mom. She’s got to be around here somewhere, and I’ll feel her.”

    “Sure. Not like I have anything better to do.”

    Once Owen was situated firmly on his back—despite his rapidly deteriorating grip strength—he beat his wings and took to the low skies.

    <><><> ​

    Smallflame lay battered and bruised on the ground, flat on his belly. He groaned and stared at Bulbasaur, who was nursing a minor burn on his vine, and then glared at Smallflame. “I think I won this one,” he said to his trainer.

    A few cheers followed from the humans, but they seemed solemn. Smallflame was in disbelief more than anything; what happened? Bulbasaur… always lost to Charmander. That was just the natural order of things. How could he lose? There was nothing special about him! Nothing except…

    Bulbasaur happily pranced to his human and leapt into her arms with unseen strength. She giggled and swung him around in a gleeful spin, then set him down. “That was great. But, um… Did we do what you wanted?”

    Smallflame slowly got up, keeping most of his weight on one foot. Marowak and Charizard were both watching in silence, and Smallflame couldn’t bear to look at them for very long. He lost to a Bulbasaur. That wasn’t… right.

    “Do you see now, Smallflame?” Charizard said. “That is the power of a human.”

    Smallflame didn’t respond; he only stared at the young trainer, then at the lab assistant, who was holding another, empty Poké Ball. She was waiting for him, occasionally rolling the hollow sphere in her hands. His flame shrank; he didn’t want to go. His mother would miss him, and the fields were warm, and there was no telling how stupid his human would be if he took the risk.

    “Smallflame?” Charizard asked.

    But at the same time, he didn’t want to lose like that again. And… Bulbasaur…

    The trainer rummaged through her bag, finally pulling out Bulbasaur’s Poké Ball again. “Okay, now let’s start our adventure for real! We’ve done enough training.”

    Bulbasaur grabbed the Poké Ball and hopped away, yelling a playful taunt.

    “Aw, c’mon!” She ran after him and into the lab, laughing.

    Only the lab assistant remained, holding the empty ball.

    “…Smallflame…” Charizard frowned.

    “I don’t want to go…”

    “I won’t be going anywhere,” Charizard said, trying to give him a reassuring smile.

    Marowak, while stoic thanks to the mask, also nodded and tapped his bone club on a rock. “You’ll always be in our thoughts, and I know that once you find your human, you’ll find your wings.”

    The little Charmander looked at the burned ground. He was going to miss how it smelled. And how Charizard felt. And Marowak’s strength and presence. All of it. But…

    “Hold on,” Smallflame finally said. He ran toward his parents, wrapping his arms as well as he could around Marowak. Then, he went to Charizard and blew a tiny Ember at her flame. Charizard responded in kind, blowing a little ember over Smallflame.

    His legs felt like they were weighed down by boulders larger than he was. His claws wiggled uselessly against the dirt, and then, finally—with the strength he had left after the fight—he slowly walked toward the assistant.

    “I’m proud of you, Charmander,” the human said. “Are you ready?”

    Smallflame made one final glance at Charizard and Marowak. The latter held his bone club in a battle-ready stance, but his eyes held the light of a smile. Charizard unleashed a motivating Flamethrower in the air, warping the morning sky in waves of heat.

    His flame brightened. He looked up at the ball, then at the human, and finally nodded.

    The world melted into a haze.

    <><><> ​

    Owen felt something, but he was too disoriented to realize what was happening. There was a firm pressure around his abdomen, and he couldn’t feel the ground. His arms and tail dangled in the air. And that air—it was rushing past him, leaving trails of embers from his tail behind.

    “Ugh—what’s—”

    The ground was far, far below him. Owen squeaked and stiffened, and then Jerry shouted over the rushing wind, “Keep calm or I’ll accidentally drop you!”

    “Okay! Okay!” Owen nodded fervently, wincing when Jerry’s talons readjusted around him. After giving his heart some time to slow down, and after he got used to staring at the ground from so far away, he asked, “How long have we been flying?”

    “What, like we can tell time in this place?” Jerry beat his wings again. “No idea. But I feel like I’m being followed, and I’m not gonna slow down until that prickle on my scales goes away.”

    “Right…” He felt like he should have been more afraid of staring at the ground the way he was, but there was something nostalgic about it. It tugged at the bottom of his chest, and he wanted to take deep breaths of the air, even if there was a lingering stench of rotten dust.

    He had done this before, though not in the talons of an Aerodactyl. No, his mother—his mother flew him around all the—Amber. Her name was Amber. That was her human-given name. It was so clear.

    “Hey, um, Jerry?”

    “What?”

    “Do you know what humans are like?”

    “No.”

    “Oh.” He wasn’t sure why he asked. Maybe it was the lack of food making him babble. Perhaps conserving his energy was best.

    He tried to remember his father’s name next. Amber. Amber was his mother’s name. It was similar to the name he had. Owen, Amber. But his father’s name was different. He had been named by the facility. Daichi. That was his name. But he had only used it when answering the humans; he’d never cared for it otherwise.

    Jerry made gentle banks over the ground, taking wide turns around the plateaus, but knew not to fly above them. He occasionally considered landing on top of them for a break, but didn’t know if he would be spotted by whatever had been following him.

    “Pah,” Jerry suddenly said, waking Owen from a half-nap. “Thirsty. There’s a river ahead, no, a lake, I think. I’m gonna take a stop there.”

    “Okay,” Owen said, though this had been their second stop for water already. First, Jerry lowered his altitude and kept an eye out for any of those titans; finding none, he lowered even more to the ground and warned Owen to get ready for a landing. The Charmander braced, and once the Aerodactyl let him go, he tumbled and rolled to break his fall.

    It didn’t go well that time. With a surprised shout, he landed badly on his arm and rolled against a hidden rock in the dust, knocking the wind out of him. When he got his first breath, he instead took in a mouthful of dust and coughed.

    “Sorry, sorry,” Jerry said, slamming his wing on Owen’s back.

    He sputtered again, but held up a hand. “It’s okay—get—water,” Owen nodded, wiping his tongue of dust since what little spit he had wasn’t enough.

    That feeling was back. That itchy feeling inside his forehead. Was it Amia?! No—it felt different. Still familiar, but different. Someone was nearby. But out here? A quick scan on the barren, red lakeside revealed a great swath of nothing.

    “No, someone’s definitely here,” Owen said. He paced forward at the same time that Jerry grunted in disapproval.

    “Well, they’re probably drowning,” Jerry said. “C’mon, let’s just get a drink. Make sure it’s not some aquatic wraith.”

    “Err, right.” Owen crawled toward the water’s edge and nervously eyed the murky water. Some small part of him said not to inch too close; he was small and weak, and some large predator could be lurking just at the water’s surface to take him under. He shuddered, legs and arms tensed. Flames bubbled in his throat, but he stemmed them so he could at least drink, foul as it was.

    “Don’t worry,” Jerry said, startling Owen. “I just said don’t worry, c’mon. I’ve got my eyes on the water.”

    “Thanks,” Owen said after some stumbling over his words.

    The water didn’t have the best taste, but either his tongue was numb to it or he was just getting used to that foul stench. It coated his tongue and mixed with the dirt; he spat the first rounds out just so his first few gulps weren’t dusty. Then, he drank, carelessly at first, but then calmed down enough to drink with some semblance of dignity. He was in front of Jerry, after all.

    Oh, Jerry saw all of that. Owen glanced shamefully at him, but the Aerodactyl furrowed his scaly brow in response. “What?” he asked.

    “Nothing. I—sorry.”

    “Sorry for what?”

    “Sorry for, uh, I don’t know.”

    “Mew, you’re a mess.” Jerry’s wing made a motion for his forehead, but he stopped, training his eyes on the water again. “Just keep drinking and then keep an eye out when we’re through. I’m thirsty next.”

    After Owen had his fill, they switched places, Owen trying his best to watch the water. Jerry dunked his lower jaw into the water and tilted his head back, red fluid trickling down his neck like blood from a kill. Owen’s mouth watered at the thought—tree taffy was not enough to keep him going, and he hadn’t even had any of that in a while. Was there anything he could eat?

    The image of Amia’s stiff, tranquil body flashed through his mind and he took in a sharp breath.

    It was enough for Jerry to hop away from the water. “What? What happened?”

    “Nothing—sorry. Sorry.”

    “Argh, don’t do that!”

    Owen whimpered and nodded, refocusing on the water. Jerry snorted and took another mouthful.

    But this time, Owen actually saw something in the water. It was faint and only at the surface, but it was the shadow of some small, aquatic creature, swimming tentatively toward them.

    “Someone’s there,” Owen announced.

    “Well, I’ll take care of it,” Jerry said, already preparing a Rock Blast.

    “Wait!”

    Jerry spat one of the stones on the ground nearby, clearing his throat. “Whaaat? What now?”

    The fish had flinched deeper into the water. And when it did, Owen felt that the feeling of something calling him had gone further away. “That’s the thing I was feeling. The—it might be someone! You know, someone we knew? I—I felt Mom like that once, so maybe this… well, not her, b-but…”

    Jerry, perhaps tired of his babbling, groaned and said, “Well, how are you gonna convince it to come closer?” He squinted at the water’s surface. “Doesn’t look all that big. I’ve seen bigger things in the water, but maybe they’re just too small to be interesting to those wraiths.”

    Owen stepped toward the water’s edge, the damp ground curling uncomfortably around his toes. The red water was motionless, the last remnants of Jerry’s drinking far away from their spot. Owen had to pause to admire the dreary beauty of the still lakeside, disturbed only when another cruel wind stroked the water’s murky surface.

    It was moving. It had to be aquatic. Not coming closer, but not leaving, either. Watching from afar? “Hello?” Owen finally called. “Who are you? It’s me, Owen, if… you know who I am.”

    Jerry waited, tapping his foot impatiently. He was tapping loudly; Owen knew he was trying to make it known that he was wasting time.

    “Hang on,” Owen said with a feral growl afterward. He crept closer to the water’s edge, looking for shadows. None. “Hello?” he called, just above the water’s surface, enough that it trembled beneath his chin.

    Jerry took a breath, about to speak, but Owen shoved himself forward and into the water. Against his instincts, he bubbled out another “Hello?” Then, he waited. In the same breath, he added, “I’m Owen!” And then he pulled up for a breath.

    “You’re probably the dumbest person I’ve met,” Jerry commented.

    “Well, I didn’t sense anybody, so it was probably safe,” Owen said, though his creeping paranoia had him stepping away from the water’s edge afterward. Even if he could sense that there was someone out there like Amia, there was no telling if a wraith had been lurking at the water’s edge for someone just like him… Was he lucky just then? No—Jerry would have helped him if…

    And finally, a shadow appeared at the water’s surface. Small, vaguely fish-like. Magikarp, perhaps? But the shape didn’t match exactly. A little closer, but then claws grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back.

    “You idiot, what if it’s a trap?” Jerry growled.

    “That little thing?” Owen pointed at the shadow as it got closer.

    “You never know with a place like—okay, never mind.”

    Sunken eyes on an even uglier face stared at Owen, the Feebas taking a breath of air with an unpleasant, wheezy noise to speak above water. “Hello?”

    Something nagged at the back of Owen, his instincts telling him he didn’t know this Pokémon. Then, some distant trivia he’d picked up long ago rose from the back of his mind. This ugly, aquatic Pokémon. Like Remoraid, or Magikarp, they evolved into something completely unlike their current form. Oh, that’s right, they evolved into—

    Owen choked on his words, trying to say three things at once. He nearly lunged for the water, had it not been for Jerry clutching at his shoulder again. His flailing startled the Feebas, but Owen knew it would all be better once he shouted, “Zena!”

    And her eyes widened in response. She dunked under the water, then rose back up, and Owen could only grin wider; it was her. And that probably meant the strange, tugging feeling he had whenever he wandered these lands corresponded to Mystic power after all. Amia, now Zena. He wasn’t sure what was so special about those crystals, though. Could it be related?

    “Hey,” Jerry said, breaking the brief silence. “Looks like you’re in the same situation as Owen.”

    “Owen?” Zena asked, blinking. Then, she looked at the Charmander. “You’re Owen?”

    “Yeah! I know, it’s sort of awkward,” Owen admitted, laughing. “I think, uh, I don’t really know how to explain how it happened, but—”

    “How did you know my name?”

    Owen babbled uselessly again, starting with an explanation before transitioning into a question seconds later, but neither attempt at speaking was accomplished. Eventually, after several more attempts, he said, “What?”

    “I don’t believe we’ve met before,” Zena said. “How did you… know me? You aren’t some kind of…”

    “No! No, no,” Owen said frantically, waving his claws desperately. “Zena! Did you hit your head or something? It’s me! Owen! You know? We were courting!”

    Zena frowned and hummed, diving under the water again for another breath. She rose back up. “Why would I court with a… Charmander? I don’t see how that would work out.”

    “I—”

    Jerry rubbed the back of his head, wincing. “Guess you just can’t catch a break,” he said. “Hey, Zena. What do you remember?”

    “Remember? Well… I woke up here, but before that, I remember… Mm…” She looked pensive, then shook her body. “It’s all a fog there. Sorry.”

    “Well, I’m part of the memories you lost,” Owen said, hoping this was just something temporary. Jerry turned his head back, likely to keep an eye on whether or not they were being followed.

    “Hey, uh, Owen,” Jerry mumbled.

    “Zena, can you survive out of water? As a Milotic you could, and—”

    “As a Milotic? Are you… oh… oh, I do… but how could that be?”

    “Owen,” Jerry said again, “look back.”

    “Hang on,” Owen said. “Zena, please, you have to remember. We were fighting this thing—this, this shadow demon thing. He was possessing Anam, remember? Anam? A Goodra?”

    “I think I do… It sounds familiar. Owen sounds familiar.”

    Jerry forcibly wrapped his claws under Owen’s arms and spun him around. Owen struggled uselessly, but then caught sight of something black flying in the air. “Oh.”

    “We gotta go,” Jerry said. “Grab Zena or don’t—we’re out!”

    “Um—grab?” Zena said.

    “Zena,” Owen said quickly, rushing toward the water’s edge. Despite the suddenness, she didn’t flinch away. “How long can you hold your breath in the air?”

    “F-fairly long? Why do you—”

    Owen grasped Zena by her belly with one hand, then the top by the other, before quickly realizing that she was practically the same size as him.

    Zena flopped about, slapping her tail against his cheek, and said, “Excuse me! Explain why—oh, that?” One of her sunken eyes stared at the dark avian flying toward them, uncomfortably quickly at that. “Um—please hurry.”

    “I’m trying,” Owen said, returning to grappling with Zena’s unwieldy form. This was somehow more difficult than if she’d been a Milotic. Then he could just—he wasn’t sure, perhaps wrap her around him like a rope? But this, it was just—a fish! How was he supposed to carry a fish the same size as him?

    “C’mon, c’mon!” Jerry said, growling. “Just hug Zena tight, and I’m gonna swoop down and pick you both up! Got it?”

    “Okay! Okay. Zena, are you fine with that?”

    “Just hurry before we become food!” Zena flopped into Owen’s arms.

    The Charmander struggled to keep steady, but eventually managed to wrap his arms around enough to get a firm hold under her fins. “Is this okay?”

    “I think so.” She tried gasping for air, but it was foreign compared to working with her gills, and Owen could tell how labored it was.

    “Are you sure you can stay out of the water?” Owen asked.

    “Feebas are hardy.”

    Wingbeats—two sets of them—accelerated Owen’s heart. One was softer, of Jerry swooping down; the other was from the great, black bird approaching them.

    A second later, Jerry’s talons wrapped around Owen’s back and plucked him out of the water’s edge. Owen held onto Zena, the Feebas stiffening once she was far out of the air, a nervous whimper breaking through her wheezing gasps. Owen could only imagine the primal fear that came from being plucked out of the water by someone like Jerry.

    “Gah! Why is he so fast?!” Jerry looked back, beating his wings harder. Jerry weaved to the left, then suddenly went to the right. “Owen! They still behind us?”

    “Yes!” Owen said. “Stop moving like that! I c-can’t hold onto Zena like this!”

    “Don’t let go!” Zena begged.

    “He’s too fast! I—don’t have the energy to keep this up! We gotta find shelter!”

    “But they already see us!” Owen shouted back up. “Wait, what if I—”

    Fire bubbled in the back of his throat. He couldn’t do a Fire Trap in the ground, but what if…

    His feet. He could still channel it through his feet, and then blast them that way! Owen focused—the warmth went from his chest, through his skin, along his legs, and to the bottoms of his feet. A dim glow emanated from them, then emitted a small ball of orange light. Owen focused, glaring at nothing, and the ball exploded.

    The metal bird squawked and twirled right; the thing on the bird’s back—an icy Sandslash, it looked like—swore loudly, then yelled, “Stop, stop! What’re you doing?!”

    This time, Owen heard it more clearly. “Wait—Jerry, they’re telling us to stop!”

    “Oh, sure!” Jerry said, but then kept flying forward. “Whatever you just did, do it ag—”

    Owen’s load suddenly felt a lot lighter. He looked down and realized that with all the strain, he’d dropped Zena. The air drowned out her screams, but not Owen’s. She flailed, flipping and spinning in the air; there was no water beneath them.

    Jerry dove down in response to Owen’s screaming, but then had to pull up. The Charmander’s eyes bulged even more, completely focused on Zena and, without thinking much about the consequences, tried to tear himself away from Jerry’s hold. The talons dug into him harder, immediately stopping any future attempts.

    “ZENA!” Owen cried.

    The black bird—Corviknight, Owen finally realized—got to Zena first, following her falling speed. The Sandslash on his back grabbed her and held her down, and Jerry was flying further away.

    “Forget it!” Jerry shouted. “We’re out!”

    “NO!” Owen roared, flailing again. He channeled flames into his hands, the explosive energy building. “Take us back! Now! They have Zena!” Owen looked back again; Zena was still okay, but it was getting hard to see specifics. The Sandslash was inspecting her, and they were flying toward the river. “Jerry, take me back!”

    “Or what?!” Jerry looked down, snarling, but his eyes flashed with incredulous worry when Owen showed the flaming sphere between his hands. “Are you nuts?!”

    “Take us back!” The flame orb brightened.

    A few more wingbeats followed, and then Jerry muttered something Owen could only guess was a southern slur. He banked to the left, turning back.

    “If we die from this, I’m haunting you,” Jerry muttered.

    “I don’t think that’s gonna work,” Owen admitted.

    “What?”

    “I’ll explain later.” He trained his eyes on Sandslash, Corviknight, and Zena. Sandslash hopped off of Corviknight and set Zena near the water, but said something to her. She glanced nervously at the pond while Sandslash pulled out an odd, rectangular tablet from the bag, poking at certain parts of the face of it.

    Corviknight watched Owen and Jerry while Sandslash stared at the tablet, tapping on different parts. Little dots flashed on the face.

    Jerry released Owen and, with a tumble and a grunt, the Charmander rolled to a stop near the lakeside. Zena flopped weakly near the water, and Sandslash finally said, “Alright, go in the lake. It’s safe.”

    Zena didn’t have to be told twice, slapping the wet ground. With a splash, she sank into the red water, reemerging several seconds later with a relieved smile. “Thank you,” she said. “What are you doing?”

    “Scanning for Void Titans,” Sandslash said, a puff of frost clouding the air in front of him. “Name’s Hakk, by the way. Feathers over there is Xypher.”

    The Corviknight chirped when his name was mentioned, then tilted his head at Owen. “Hello.”

    “Hi—hi.”

    “You’re tired.”

    “Er—” Owen glanced at his tail on reflex, noticing its tiny ember. Wincing, he nodded. “I am. Sorry for… trying to blow you up.”

    “Energy. Strong. Spirited. Strong, strong.”

    Owen wasn’t sure how to reply, caught staring at Xypher long enough that he realized he was being rude. “Um—thank you.”

    “I forgive you.”

    “Thanks.” Owen wasn’t sure where to go after that, so he looked at Hakk, who put away the tablet. “So, Void Titans. Are those the giant wraith things?”

    “Wraiths, right. So you’re definitely from Kilo, I take it.”

    “Uh—” Suddenly realizing that Hakk was the first person he’d met who could probably answer this question, he quickly asked, “Where are we? What happened? Do you know?”

    Hakk sighed, rubbing his forehead. Then, like a routine, he said, “You’re in the Voidlands. You died. You can’t go back. Come with me to Null Village or stay out here and pray to the god that can’t hear you. That clear it up?”

    “N…”

    A cruel wind gave the group a bath of purple dust. Owen winced, squeezing his eyes shut, and Zena sank deeper in the water until the dust settled. When he finally felt it was safe enough to breathe, Owen shouted, “NO! That doesn’t clear anything up!”

    “Uh-huh.” Hakk walked to his bag and threw it over Xypher’s neck. “So, Null Village or nah?”

    “There’s a whole village out in this middle-of-nowhere?” Jerry asked.

    “Well, it’s still in the middle of nowhere, but at least it’s a village,” Hakk said. “So, coming?”

    “Better than here. Got food?”

    “You’ll have to work for it.”

    Jerry shrugged and looked down at Owen. “No choice. Get the fish and we’ll head over.”

    “Oh, right, her.” Hakk looked in his pouch, then pulled out a strange, grayish ring from the bag. With a few clicks, it widened in radius, thinning out until it became about twice the length of Zena. He pointed the face of the ring toward Zena and closed one eye, then nodded to himself. After placing the ring in the water, he pointed inside and said, “Swim here.”

    “I’m sorry?” Zena said.

    “Gonna help make travel a little easier on you. Some tech based on an Araquanid’s water bubble. Makes it a lot easier for aquatics to go on long trips in the air.”

    After some hesitation, Zena broke the water’s surface inside the ring, and Hakk pressed a small button on the edge. With a click, the ring glowed, and a dome of water surrounded Zena; her eyes widened with wonder at the same time that Owen’s did.

    “You, Aero. Strong enough to fly?”

    “Yeah, I’m good. I’ll carry Charmander.” Jerry nodded down to Owen, who needed a few seconds to register that, indeed, his first name was Charmander again.

    Hakk pulled out a small, tough-looking rope—it didn’t look like it was made from fiber—and snapped it into the edge of another slot of the metal ring. Then, he tied the other side around Xypher’s neck. The Corviknight nodded.

    “Right, we’re all set. Ready to go?”

    “Um—excuse me, but is this safe?” Zena asked, poking her head out of the ring. “I’m worried I’ll fall.”

    “Don’t worry. Once we get moving, the ring’s forcefield will solidify and you won’t be able to fall out unless you’re actually trying to break free. Oh, don’t do that, by the way. Tails and fins inside the sphere at all times. Including now.”

    Zena shrank away, but Owen gave her an apologetic smile. When she didn’t return it, and instead stared at him with the same lack of recognition as before, Owen did his best to swallow the lump in his throat.

    “Wait,” Owen added.

    “What now?” Hakk said, already on Xypher’s back.

    “There’s someone else lost out here. A Gardevoir—no, probably a Ralts now. Can we find her?”

    “We don’t have the resources for scouting any longer,” Hakk said. “We need to return to Null Village, regroup, and then see what we can do.”

    “But I—”

    Hakk’s bag suddenly made a foreign, beeping noise that reminded Owen of something ADAM would have done. Xypher’s head twitched in its direction, then at Hakk, and the Corviknight let out a low caw.

    “No buts,” Hakk said. “Titan’s nearby and coming closer. Might sense us. Time to go. You can tell us about Ralts on the way and we’ll figure out a rescue plan.”

    Jerry helped Owen—in other words, picked up and tossed him—on his back. Xypher took to the skies first, lifting Zena in her aqua sphere suddenly, but securely. And then Jerry followed, with Owen looking back just in time to see a Void Titan crawling around a faraway plateau.

    It roared, the sound turning Owen’s blood to ice, but they were faster. Soon, it was just a big, black dot in the wastes.
     
    Kindoflame and git-it like this.
  6. Kindoflame

    Kindoflame Active Member

    This is just as great as I remembered it being. Two new things that I particularly like is that you split up the cast up and how you depict people/ society responding to a disaster. What I am really looking forward to is an interesting political idea Mew said near the start, but was never relevant, is going to come to the forefront now. Mew created the Rare Hunters because she though Arceus was becoming detached from the reality of the citizen's daily life. She even went so far as to explicitly say that this will inevitably happen to any leader, and as far as I can tell she still hold this position. She denounced the Hunters because of their methods, not their philosophy.

    The reason this is a great time to start exploring this theme is that ordinary citizens of Kilo like Spice are going to start asking a very a simple question; exactly how long has Anam been leader of the Kilo? Now that Mystics have become exposed to the public, it is only a matter of time before they put two and two together and figure that Anam, the most powerful Pokemon in Kilo Village, is a Mystic. Just one person lets slip that Mystics do not age and the public is going to start asking about how old Anam is, which will eventually lead to them realizing that someone has been altering their memories en masse so they don't notice that Anam has been ruling Kilo Village unopposed or with public oversight for centuries.
     
    Namohysip likes this.
  7. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    I'm glad you're enjoying yourself, @Kindoflame and you're asking a TON of good questions! I imagine you'll see some of those questions get answers in the coming handful of chapters.

    Chapter 88 – New Home, Old Friend

    At first, Jerry protested flying over the forest, claiming that the wraiths below would shoot at them. Xypher, undeterred, continued forward, and Hakk shrugged, nonchalant.

    “It’s fine,” Hakk said. “Most of them can’t do much harm. The strong ones, we’ll avoid. We’ve got some Illusion fields just in case.”

    “Illusion what?” Owen looked nervously downward. From above, the trees he had once explored for tree taffy and berry bunches looked more like mangled fingers clawing at the sky.

    “Illusion field. It distorts outgoing light to disguise us. Same way Zoroark cast their illusions.” Hakk looked back at Owen. “Better than just bending light around us, or we’d be flying blind.”

    “Zoroark…” Owen squinted. “Have you run into a Zoroark recently? Or Zorua. She might be scared or confused, but she’s another friend.”

    “Nope. We’ll ask around our network and see if anybody else has info, though.” Hakk looked at his device again.

    “Mm.” Owen’s claws dug into Jerry’s shoulder and the Aerodactyl jostled in response. “Oh—sorry.”

    “What’s up with you?” Jerry growled. “No matter what these guys do to us, we’re better off than before. If they wanted us for food, we’d be dead already.”

    “I—I wasn’t thinking about that at all!” Owen’s flame doubled in size. “I thought they were friends!”

    “Well, aren’t you trusting,” Jerry grumbled. “Just leave the carefulness to me, then. We still don’t know what these guys want from us, and I doubt they’re going to be charitable when we arrive. Look at this place!” Jerry jerked his head vaguely upward. “You think they have resources to spare? Please. Best case scenario, we’re their servants.”

    “S-servants?” Owen squeaked.

    “Yep. But if we’re fed, it’ll be worth it. Better than dying. So look at it that way.”

    “But what about Zena? She can’t…”

    “They probably have something,” Jerry said. “And if they don’t, I dunno, at least we’re alive.”

    “Um—excuse me!” Owen perked up, shouting toward Hakk.

    “Eh?”

    “Are we—”

    Jerry dove down, making Owen scream, and then he lifted back up. “Ignore him,” Jerry said. “He’s impatient.”

    “We’re almost there. And don’t fly down too low or you’ll leave the illusory field.” Hakk sighed and looked ahead again. “Okay, this is going to be a little tricky, so you’ll need to follow more closely. You see that stone spire ahead?”

    Owen leaned to the left, around Jerry’s neck. Far ahead, looking like one of the trees, was a great cone tipped with a white, glowing point. It reminded Owen a lot of the central spire in Kilo Village where the Central Waypoint marked the center of the world map, or the Spire of Trials where Manny had once lived. The tip was probably as sharp as Owen’s claws.

    “Yeah, what about it?” Jerry asked.

    “When we start slowing down, stay behind us until the spire dims a little. Then, fly forward with us. When it gets brighter again, keep flying, but when it dims for a second time, slow down.”

    “…What?”

    “Just follow Xypher’s lead.”

    “Forward,” Xypher said. “Slow, slow, fast, fast, slow…”

    Soon, they slowed down. Zena anxiously swirled around in her aqua bubble, glancing up at Owen, and then at the spire ahead. It dimmed, so they moved forward. When it brightened, Jerry almost stopped, and Owen felt him lurch, so Owen mumbled that he had to keep going. Jerry grumbled something back, probably another curse, and then followed their lead. Once it dimmed again, they stopped.

    “What’s this supposed to be? Some kind of signal that we aren’t hostile?” Jerry asked.

    “Yep,” Hakk said.

    “What, that communicator doesn’t do it for you?”

    “A Void Shadow could’ve stolen it from us,” Hakk said.

    “Void what?”

    “Later. We’re clear for a landing.” Hakk put his tablet away into his bag and leaned forward. Xypher started to glide down, so Jerry followed.

    “Seems like it would be pretty obvious if a Void whatever stole it from you. Sandslash and Corviknight. Not many pairs like those, right?”

    “Some Void Shadows can mimic bodies the way you’d expect a Ditto to. And from far away, sometimes it’s hard to tell. Better to shoot them from far away if they try, since most of them are pretty stupid.”

    “And if a clever one mimics you?” Jerry asked.

    “That’s what the next test’s for. Get ready to land.”

    The tops of the gnarled, black trees threatened to scrape Jerry and Xypher, but they found a clearing soon enough. Xypher landed on a fallen tree, which collapsed partway under his weight. Jerry landed on purple mud, grimacing.

    “Ugh,” he grumbled. “Is everywhere this… what’s the word… vile?”

    “Outside of town? Pretty much. That’s the Voidlands for you.” Hakk marched forward. “Stay close, stay behind, and stay quiet. Clear?” He picked up Zena’s bowl and started rolling her forward, the forcefield maintaining its shape tenuously.

    Owen fidgeted and followed at a faster pace to make up for his leg span. “Um, what’s—”

    “What’s the third thing I said?” Hakk said, glaring at Owen.

    He squeaked and shrank back, playing with his claws. “Sorry…”

    Jerry glared at Hakk, but said nothing. He gestured forward with a wing.

    Satisfied, Hakk nodded back and said, “Follow any instructions you’re given. Play nice and this’ll be easy for everyone, including you three. We don’t like dealing with troublemakers. Any questions you guys have, we’ll answer once we have you inside and verify that everything is secure.”

    Owen nodded vigorously, trying to shake off his nerves. Though he noticed that they weren’t moving forward. He wanted to ask, but then he remembered Hakk’s third command and shifted his weight instead.

    Jerry tensed enough for Owen to notice his wings pinned to his side. Defensive stance, perhaps even noncombative at the same time. Owen felt a phantom sensation of his lack of wings doing the same.

    “Identify yourselves, scouts.”

    The voice was gruff and booming, sending another tight chill through Owen’s chest and into his throat.

    “Sandslash Hakk, Class B,” Hakk replied, pulling out a white badge with a strange, star-shaped symbol with four large points and four small points between them.

    “Corviknight Xypher, Class D,” Xypher cawed back, followed by a chirp. He produced another badge with the same symbol.

    They were so bright; he only now realized that, aside from Hakk’s white-cyan appearance—which was stained reddish purple—those badges were the first pure white thing he’d seen in a while. The symbols were black, and something about them made his chest feel warm.

    “And the other three?” the booming voice said. It sounded vaguely metallic.

    “All rescues. Found them in a group. Yeah, I know, rare.” Hakk shrugged, motioning back. “Feebas, Aerodactyl, Charmander.”

    Another pause. Shuffling. Owen’s scales tightened like feeble armor against his body, like a vestigial remnant from when his hide used to be stronger. They were surrounded.

    “Alright, forward. Sandslash first with Feebas, then Charmander.”

    Jerry tensed more, but continued to say nothing. He glanced down at Owen, who looked up uncertainly. They didn’t have a choice anymore, did they? Owen’s tail blazed; there was no point in trying to fight now, but if he needed to, they had to find some way to escape.

    The caution in Jerry’s eyes suggested he agreed.

    The source of the booming voice came from a Steelix, its shining, steel hide covered in flecks of the ground’s sticky mud. Huge eyes stared down at Owen and even more daunting jaws, frozen and expressionless, radiated a paralyzing aura. He could crush Owen with a tap. Wouldn’t even notice.

    Owen stared straight forward, walking past his long, segmented body, the little, gleaming parts reflecting his tail flame, which was a lot smaller. His fire crackled now and then like a wet fire.

    “Aerodactyl next,” Steelix said, and Owen wanted to collapse to his knees. But he didn’t and held strong, though he did ball his fists up.

    Jerry approached just as slowly, occasionally giving a glance at Steelix, and then Xypher took up the rear.

    The walk that followed was silent, save for Steelix’s grinding slither across the ground, light footsteps from the heavier Pokémon of the line, and the occasional swish or blub of Zena swimming in her bubble. Sometimes, a broken branch, a heavy misstep, or some other foreign noise gave away the fact that, indeed, they were still being watched by more than just Steelix.

    “So,” Hakk said, glancing back. “Charmander. How long’ve you been out in the Nil Plateaus?”

    That meant he was allowed to answer, right? “Not sure,” he replied. “I can’t tell time that easily here. No sun, or at least, I don’t think there is. But I’ve fallen asleep maybe… five, six times? I don’t know. Some of them might have been because I passed out…”

    “Passed out?” Hakk asked.

    “Mm.” Owen nodded. “I couldn’t get a lot of food, and there were these… giant things that I had to run away from, and the stress made me pass out sometimes, I think.”

    “Those are called Void Titans,” Hakk said. “You were smart to run away from them.”

    Owen nodded a little too enthusiastically.

    “And you, Aerodactyl?”

    “Same deal,” Jerry said shortly. “Less passing out, though. Wings help.”

    Hakk continued walking. Occasionally Xypher babbled under his breath, but Owen couldn’t tell what he was saying—or if it was comprehensible at all. Whenever Hakk made a light snapping noise with his claws, however, Xypher quieted down.

    “And you, Feebas?”

    “I’m afraid I don’t remember much,” Zena said. “It’s a little blurry. I remember there was a fight I was part of… As a Milotic, if you can believe it, and then… Well, and then things became dark… There was a horrible… presence…”

    “Presence?” Hakk asked.

    “I remember seeing it. When it was dark, I felt something, like it was… pulling me, but not. Like a current. I couldn’t get away at first, and then… I woke up.”

    “Mm.” Hakk nodded. “Sounds pretty scary. Glad you’re still with us.”

    Hakk knew more. Owen could tell. But he couldn’t speak up. He’d remember it for later.

    They continued in silence until the icy Sandslash pointed a claw toward a bright spot ahead, like a small, starry sky in the forest. “There’s Null Village,” he said. “Just keep to this formation, alright?”

    Null Village had no welcoming sign and no clear perimeter. It simply started as part of the forest, little black buildings made out of packed mud and reinforced with some other, even darker material that Owen didn’t recognize. No building was greater than two stories tall, and they looked to be very deliberately below the trees’ height.

    Some had larger doors, likely for larger inhabitants, while others were nostalgically smaller, like the tiny home Willow had once occupied in Hot Spot. Owen always wondered what furniture she would have had. Probably mushrooms.

    Despite the unceremonious beginning to the village, the internals were organized and grid-like. Streets were mercifully solid and packed down like stone. The claws of his feet tapped on it, and the sound reminded him of fine pottery.

    Occasionally, they passed by lighter spots in the buildings that illuminated the whole street despite the dim lighting. The light source came from more diamonds embedded into the walls, just like the crystals that he’d found in—what did Hakk call it, Nil Plateaus?

    But they didn’t have the same draw that those crystals gave him. Disappointing. Even more disappointing was they weren’t able to find the old crystals that he’d lost.

    Most of the Pokémon in the village weren’t fully evolved, which was an odd sight. He was so used to everyone being fully evolved in Kilo Village, most of the kids inside or at school or playing elsewhere than the Hearts’ center of operations. They gave him curious, sometimes wary glances, particularly at Jerry. A Ponyta galloped away from the other end of the street when they’d seen him, while an accompanying Cranidos sighed and followed the Ponyta more leisurely.

    “Alright,” Hakk said, snapping Owen out of his thoughts. He’d lost track of how many streets they’d turned and how many buildings they’d passed, but suddenly, they were in front of one of the larger buildings. At least sixty feet across. Even if Zena was fully evolved, they’d need at least three of her, end to end, to cross one side.

    The Feebas flitted about in her bowl. Owen wanted to get closer, but Hakk’s words continued to echo in his mind.

    They entered, and the inside was a lot brighter. The walls were painted a light brown in a design that was reminiscent of a Dungeon’s twisted wood-warping. He wasn’t sure why that would be a desirable look, though. It just meant danger.

    A few beanbags lined the ground for sitting and resting. A desk sat at the back of the room, which had two passageways to the let and right, as well as a closed door in the back that didn’t have any lever to push open. How did they get through? It was just flat.

    Sitting at the front of the desk was a Jynx, quietly looking at another one of those strange, rectangular tablets like it was a book. Her eyes scanned the rectangle in a slow and steady rhythm.

    It just occurred to Owen that Steelix and the unseen others had stopped following them some time ago. It was just Hakk and Xypher again.

    “We have three. Three, three,” Xypher called, chirped, and then preened.

    “Three more?” Jynx said, bringing an incredulous hand to her forehead. “Sure, okay, fine, just… ahh…” She frowned at the three, but then motioned to their left. “Go ahead and set up rooms and we’ll have them evaluated. Welcome to Null Village.”

    Hakk gestured for Owen and Jerry to follow. Down the hall to their left, several doors—each one without any sort of knob—were separated by several wingspans’ distance. The walls were a polished black, like obsidian. It glistened against Owen’s flame.

    The distance between each door felt a lot longer than it should have. Owen lost count of the paces, and he wondered if there were hidden rooms between them to compensate for all the empty wall space.

    Owen was about to ask a question, starting with an, “Um,” but then remembered he was probably not supposed to be talking. Instead, he tried to play it off as a cough.

    “Alright, Owen. You first.” Hakk stopped at one of the rooms, only a few doorways down from the main lobby. There was a symbol above the obsidian door that didn’t match the others. While the ones behind Owen were red and square, this one was a green circle.

    “In you go,” Hakk said, pressing a paw against the door. He held it there for a second, then pulled away, yet a glowing imprint of his paw remained.

    Owen moved to get a closer look, his eyes reflecting the light. But before he could see how it worked, the pawprint disappeared and the door slid open—into the doorframe.

    Owen let out a feral chirp in response, flinching.

    “Wha? Where’d the door go?” Jerry said.

    “Uh, it slid aside.” Hakk gestured for Owen to go in. “Go on. We’ll get to you later.”

    The interior was a short hall into a large room. The walls were that same obsidian color again, and the floor that similar, pottery texture. A dull heat emanated from the inside that made his flame perk up eagerly.

    Hakk didn’t seem as receptive. “C’mon, I hate Fire rooms.”

    “Sorry.” Owen quickly shuffled inside, ducking his head.

    A deep and unsettlingly familiar voice echoed across the hall. “Where is he?”

    Jerry blinked, looking down the hall, then at Owen. “That your clone?” Jerry said. “Didn’t think Har was in that fight.”

    “Har…” It was Har’s voice. Which meant it was his own voice. Which also meant it might be—

    Eon, as a Charizard, flew across the halls, glancing left and right when he passed their corridor. He halted—overturning a nearby potted void plant with his gusts—and stared at Owen.

    “You’re here,” Eon breathed.

    Xypher squawked. “No interaction! No interaction!”

    “But he’s—”

    Xypher squawked even louder, fanning out his feathers.

    “Back off,” Hakk said, growling. “If you know this guy, we’ll process it later. You just got cleared, so don’t make us revoke it.”

    “But—”

    Xypher screeched, making Jerry wince and shuffle to the left. Zena tried to get as low to the ground as possible while remaining in her bubble.

    Eon didn’t move. Owen, by the doorway, didn’t either. Eventually, he realized Hakk was staring at him, and he backed away.

    “Press the help button if you need something,” Hakk said, and then the door slid shut.

    And suddenly, Owen was alone.

    <><><> ​

    Several days ago, they had followed a burst of black lightning in some faraway forest. That, coupled with the vague sensation that something familiar was there, led Demitri and Mispy to travel across rough, desolate terrain, taking rest stops in little caves and valleys when they could. Over those three days, they had happened upon two wraiths. One dissolved into nothing the moment they were taken down; the other, Demitri couldn’t stomach.

    Now, over yet another chilly, dusty, black mountain, toward the jagged, violet horizon, the mutant Meganium and Haxorus continued. Mispy’s vines crawled over the terrain easily, and Demitri, who felt lighter than ever, rested atop her back, occasionally wincing from hunger pangs. His claws’ grip strength was getting weaker and weaker. It would be time for another break soon.

    “I’m sorry,” Demitri said.

    “What?”

    “I’m sorry… I think you can tell I’m…”

    Mispy frowned, but said nothing. So even he recognized how weak he had become, to need a break just so he didn’t slip off. Maybe she could use a few more vines to hold him in place.

    “I just can’t eat those things like you can,” Demitri said. “Not like it matters. We haven’t found another one like them in so long…”

    That was true. Mispy wouldn’t mind eating something, but seeing Demitri like this was tearing her apart even more. She bit her lower lip, then eased her way over a particularly steep slope. Demitri was slipping, so she quickly wound a few extra vines around him. When she did, she lost her footing below and tilted left; Demitri yelped, and then a few of her vines lost their hold on him next.

    “No!” Mispy shouted, but her voice was drowned out by the bitter wind. Demitri hit the sloped ground and tumbled several feet, coming to a rough stop when his tail’s axe cut into nearby stone.

    Mispy carefully slid down the same slope and picked Demitri up. “Are you okay?” She channeled some healing energy into him, but that was starting to wear her down, too. But she kept going anyway until she felt there was nothing more to aid.

    “I’m sorry,” Demitri repeated quietly. “Come—come on, let’s get going. I’ll… walk. I’ll be fine.”

    “No, you won’t,” Mispy said, wrapping a few vines around him. “Come on.”

    Demitri resisted halfheartedly, but Mispy could tell it was more out of shame than anything.

    “I’m just so weak,” Demitri lamented. “How did it get like this…” He squeezed at his gut, where the scales had started to sag where a healthy layer of fat had once been. Now his form was unhealthily slender. Mispy wasn’t doing much better, but she had ample excess mass to draw from before she’d show any signs of starvation. She had always overeaten. That wouldn’t mean anything, now, though, especially for Demitri…

    For some reason, she kept seeing Demitri cooking in her mind. All those times he’d experimented with all kinds of dishes when Rhys was out on longer missions. Served them to her; she’d never asked if he wanted some, either, or if he wanted more than those small portions that he’d eaten instead. He was so strong; surely, he’d need to eat more.

    “Are you okay?” Demitri asked, and his claws to her cheek broke her from a trance.

    Another gust blew dirt in their eyes; Demitri closed his left one and ducked down, like that would help, while Mispy brought a few vines over her face.

    “I’m sorry,” she said, pressing her head against the base of his neck. “I… I always eat. And you… you always… you don’t eat enough…” The words came after long stutters, but Demitri waited patiently, because he always did. He was always so patient with her. She didn’t deserve it.

    “Don’t talk like that,” Demitri said, rubbing the back of her beck. “Especially not now.”

    Demitri climbed onto Mispy’s back with newfound strength, slowly creeping until he was resting on the back of her neck. Reluctantly, she wrapped her vines around him, securing his position. His Dragon body was warm. So warm. Even now. Perhaps it was his inner, blue fire.

    “It’s going to be okay,” Demitri whispered. “I loved when you ate. And I’ll love it when we get to eat again. It’s gonna happen. We’re gonna have a huge feast together…” His voice was so soft that she had to strain to hear it over another indifferent gust.

    “Promise me,” Mispy said, though she advanced forward again. “Don’t… die.”

    Demitri leaned a little deeper. “If we find another wraith…” He nuzzled her, and that, somehow, relaxed her. “We’ll fuse, and maybe I can stomach it easier. I know it’s risky, but…”

    That was all she needed. “Okay.”

    With more valleys ahead, they continued along the slopes once more. They carefully traversed over jagged gaps and sudden dips, occasionally navigating horizontally until they found a more lenient drop. Demitri mumbled about a time when they had gone on an exploration in Void Forest, which felt vaguely like the dreary atmosphere they had been enjoying for the past few days. How scared he was about Ghosts, of all things. What he’d do to worry about those than wherever they were now.

    Demitri had eventually fallen silent, and Mispy, worried, shook him gently. “I’m okay,” Demitri replied, squeezing her a little more. “Was just resting my voice.”

    But she liked his voice. And it wasn’t like she could speak to fill the air that easily, either. Still, they continued, Mispy occasionally contemplating—if only to pass the time—whether her vines qualified as plant matter or flesh.

    “I feel him,” Demitri suddenly mumbled.

    “Huh?” Mispy looked back.

    “He’s close…”

    Mispy blinked, perplexed, and stopped. Was he losing it? His aura still felt fine; while he was weak, it was still stable. He wasn’t fading—she’d force him to eat if it came to that…

    She closed her eyes and humored him anyway. Whatever he was seeing, it wasn’t with his—

    A Flygon flew over a forest of black trees.

    Mispy’s eyes shot open. How did she… know that?

    “Who?” Mispy asked.

    “Gahi.”

    Then they felt the same thing. “Let’s go.”

    Demitri held on a little tighter, and Mispy moved a little faster, following that strange feeling that guided them forward.

    <><><> ​

    “You’re flying too high,” Trina criticized.

    “Bah, they ain’t shot me yet,” Gahi dismissed. Still, he flew closer to the treetops.

    Trina looked down, inspecting a wound along Gahi’s side. “And how have you been doing with…”

    “What, it look bad again?”

    “It might. Try not to strain yourself too much.”

    “Bah, better ‘n yesterday.” Gahi snorted. “Stupid Druddigon… who would’ve though that we’d get some territorial feral here, too.”

    “It’s too bad the Orans here aren’t blessed,” Trina added.

    “Might be poisoned, too,” Gahi grumbled. “That one I ate messed me up good.”

    “It might have been a cursed berry,” Trina said. “Those used to happen on occasion in southern towns, from what I heard. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore.”

    “Cursed? Sounds kinda familiar, but I dunno. Either way, I ain’t gonna eat another one without taking a long, hard look at it…”

    “Do you still feel anything guiding you?” Trina asked.

    “Yep. Gettin’ real strong, too.”

    “Hopefully whatever it is, it can give you a chance to rest.” Trina frowned, her tiny body feeling vulnerable against the rushing wind. “I don’t want you falling while I’m like this.”

    “Bah! I ain’t gonna fall unless I get shot.”

    Trina half-expected a blast of darkness to hit Gahi just then, but none came.

    “You ain’t gettin’ hungry, are yeh?”

    “Oh, no,” Trina lied. Then, she amended, “Not more than usual. The lack of sunlight isn’t agreeing with my leaves.”

    “Maybe I’ll start lookin’ fer somethin’ later. Better berries. Maybe more wood if we gotta.”

    They flew along in silence afterward, Trina occasionally taking a closer and more careful look at Gahi’s wounds. They were only open because he’d refused to sit still; had he spent longer asleep and not constantly wandering around restlessly, it would have been healed by now. But instead, the wound was reopening yet again.

    Stubborn fool. Trina rolled her eyes and used her arms—it was so strange to have them so long again—to get a better hold around his neck. Her vines anchored her further.

    And then, suddenly, she was glad she had held on so firmly. Gahi twirled and rolled in the air, and everything felt frigid. Frost covered her left hand and she tried to shake it off before it’d damage her flesh.

    “Gahi!” she shouted over the wind.

    “Found Owen,” Gahi spat.

    “You what?” Trina tried to look past Gahi’s neck. She saw a great spire in the middle of the trees with a glowing tip. It radiated a fine mist and cyan energy—the telltale sign of the Ice element.

    “Ice, why’s it always ice?” Gahi growled, shifting his angle in the air as the source of the blast rapidly drew near.

    “You said you found Owen. Is he there?”

    “Yep. Feel it fer sure.”

    “You shouldn’t follow your instincts so blindly,” Trina chided.

    “Bah! Save the lecture fer later.” Gahi twirled around another blast and sped forward. Trina braced, hearing a whistling in the air that came from Gahi’s wings. And then, the sound of metal wind chimes—that was odd. Gahi’s wings darkened with little bright dots, like a sky.

    “Gahi?” Trina said.

    But Gahi didn’t hear her over the whistling and the wind.

    Suddenly, Gahi dipped under the trees and closed his wings. He landed on his feet, ran several paces, and then hopped in the air again, the updraft of his own power pushing him forward. Trina saw a few wraiths in the shadows, yet Gahi was too fast for them to so much as react in time.

    And then, just ahead, a Steelix emerged from the trees to the right, though Trina had seen his massive, shiny form coming for a while.

    “Ngh—!” Gahi abruptly slowed down, spreading his wings apart to further decelerate.

    “Gahi?” Trina glanced at Steelix. He’d crush them if Gahi didn’t move…

    “Barrier.” Gahi poited at the lightly reflective, transparent surface that blocked the entrance to the village. He glanced at Steelix. “Oy, you keeping Owen in there?”

    Steelix glared, and Trina’s leafy scales tingled. They were surrounded. Did Gahi even know?

    “Rushing toward a village like that…” Steelix glared down at Gahi. “What is your name?”

    “Who wants ter know?”

    “Gahi,” Trina hissed under her breath. “Excuse me! We’re looking for a friend of ours. His name is Owen, a Charizard. He may look different from a normal Charizard, though.”

    Gahi grumbled, but said nothing in protest. Instead, he kept his guard up, ready to bolt at any sign of aggression. Trina decided not to comment that he had been the aggressor here.

    “A Charizard named Owen,” Steelix said. “And your names?”

    “I am Serperior Trina,” she said, paused, and then sighed. “…Snivy… Trina.”

    Gahi narrowed his eyes, then said, “Flygon Gahi.”

    “You’re an odd Flygon,” Steelix commented.

    “What’s it ter—”

    “He’s from the south,” Trina explained. “Pokémon have some regional variants there, and Flygon are a rare one.”

    “Mm, I see. The south. Then you’re from…”

    “From? I’m from Arachno Forest. Gahi comes from Hot Spot, an unknown location. But he is also of the Thousand Hearts.” By now, Trina had scaled Gahi’s neck and was sitting between his antennae. “Where are we now? We were attacked and eventually found ourselves here. I had entered a strange Dungeon as a Serperior, but once I exited, my form dissolved, and I woke up as a Snivy.”

    “I see. And what about your family?” Steelix said.

    “Okay, enough!” Gahi snarled, flaring his wings. “I don’t know what yer—get off me!” Gahi tried to grab for Trina, but she ducked and weaved away from his grip. Meanwhile, she wrapped her vines around his mouth.

    She could tell he was tempted to bite on them, but while she had the opportunity, she whispered into Gahi’s earhole, “Do you want to see Owen?”

    Gahi stopped his struggling and glared at Trina with one eye.

    “Then you will cooperate with them.” She rose up and addressed Steelix. “My family is all long since deceased. I was adopted into a family of Spinarak and Ariados.”

    “And I don’t got a family,” Gahi said.

    “You don’t have one, or you don’t remember them?” Steelix said.

    “He’s…” Trina wondered how to phrase it. She’d already said he was southern. “Orphaned. But my memory of his status is clear.”

    Steelix looked to Trina, then at Gahi, who maintained his glare.

    “No sudden movements,” Steelix commanded. “You will follow us inside. You can’t see Owen yet, but we can bring you to where he is being kept for evaluation.”

    “Evaluation?” Trina said. “Is he hurt?”

    “No. But he is a Charmander now, so a similar fate as you, Snivy.”

    “So I don’t gotta go through that,” Gahi said.

    “You do if you want to see Owen.”

    Gahi growled again, but Trina tightened her vines. He relented and motioned toward the town. “Fine.”

    Steelix paused, scanning them one last time. Trina wondered what would make a town so cautious as to have so many scouts in the area just for two visitors. Though, he did dodge those Ice blasts…

    And finally, Steelix slithered into town, the barrier granting access without resistance. Gahi followed behind, and Trina briefly wondered if they’d be allowed to step out again.
     
    Kindoflame and git-it like this.
  8. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 89 – Your Name

    Nothing looked familiar to Owen. Thankfully, an adorably oversized information pamphlet—roughly half his height—did a good job at directing him to where to go and how to operate all of the strange devices given to him in this somewhat cramped living space.

    The sliding door that had locked him inside this windowless room didn’t budge, and he had tried very hard. His tiny, scaly hands clattered against the solid surface while he listened to Eon muttering on the other side. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to talk to him just yet… but he was at least glad he was alive.

    With his back against the doorway, Owen looked over the brochure that was nearly half his height. While it wasn’t very colorful, it was very informational, and after spending so many days in the Nil Plateaus, having any sort of reading material was a mental breath of fresh air.

    Some of the information was… basic, and he skimmed over most of it. He had no idea what sort of Pokémon needed to know what water could be used for beyond drinking. It was embarrassing; of course he’d use it to wash! Assuming they had Passho powder… There wasn’t any mention of that. Only that they had Passho berries in the ‘cold box,’ which they then titled a refrigerator.

    He knew of these things. Nevren had invented them, though prototypes were already moving around in Kilo to replace manual Ice work. Controlled Hail Orbs. Basic, mechanical pumps. Perhaps it was a similar technology here?

    Everything seemed so advanced. It was like he was staring into Kilo’s future, aside from the desolate wasteland everywhere.

    Then again…

    Shaking the thoughts from his head, Owen’s new battle was a struggle to open the fridge. It had some kind of seal on it because he had to pull very hard before the door finally gave way with a sucking noise. Cold air washed over his toes first, then his knees and lower body. Curious, he breathed into the white interior of the lit fridge, creating a foggy cloud.

    There were a few Passho Berries indeed. No powder. He’d have to eat and then be—

    Eat?

    This was food.

    The brochure had warned him not to eat it all, but he was so hungry… Maybe he could just have one, since he probably should wash up, and—

    Knock went the door and Owen’s thoughts collapsed. Before he had the chance to answer, the door opened and revealed Corviknight Xypher and a woven, wooden basket in his beak.

    He cawed and hopped inside; the door slid closed behind him.

    “Um, hello,” Owen said, reflexively trying to sense what was inside the bag. Without Perceive, he saw nothing. “What’s that?”

    “A gi—“ Upon opening his mouth, the bag fell to the floor, and Xypher cawed loudly and beat his wings before ducking down and muttering under his breath.

    “Hey, it’s okay, it’s okay!” Owen said, raising his arms. “Didn’t sound too heavy.” And he didn’t want something that could step on him by accident getting upset. Cautiously, Owen approached and pulled the red cloth back, but he knew what it was before he even opened it.

    Bread.

    A simple, golden brown, tough loaf of bread, its shape long and rounded. Next to it was a slightly overturned, but not ruined, slab of butter. Tiny, but present, only really enough for a few slices at best, unless he really rationed them.

    Owen thought his heart had stopped. Hesitant, he reached forward, “I-is th-that f-for… me?”

    “Yes! Yes, yes.” Xypher nodded.

    Before the phantasm disappeared before his eyes, Owen tugged the bag closer to him and dragged it to a small, raised portion of the dark ground that he recognized—based on the brochure—as a table. He placed the napkin on the table first, and then the bread, and the tiny ceramic plate of butter. There was a flat stick sitting at the bottom of the basket, and a palm-sized, flat clay container of some kind. Inside was an odd, red paste.

    “We were told you enjoyed spicy,” Xypher said. “Spicy, spicy. Cheri jam. For the bread. Tasty. Tasty, tasty.”

    It took every ounce of Owen’s willpower to eat it like a decent creature. First, he broke off a small slice. Then the stick. Butter first, this time. He breathed the tiniest ember over it. Sizzle. The aroma made him drool and he didn’t care.

    His teeth sank in and the smell doubled, savory and dusty, yet in a good way. That bread scent was unmistakable, even here. The tiny amount of oil coated his tongue; at some point, Xypher had left for the washroom and returned with a cup of water, which he gently set down on the table. He cawed again, looking pleased.

    Owen couldn’t see. He was smiling like an idiot and everything was blurry. Even still, he didn’t need sight or Perceive to keep eating, stopping only to take a drink of water.

    “Not too fast,” Xypher said.

    “M—mm,” Owen agreed. It would upset his empty stomach if he had too much, and despite his temptation to go for a second slice, he set it and the Cheri jam down. “Th-thank you,” he squeaked. “I’m sorry. Did you want some?”

    “Oh, no. No, no.”

    The hesitation came nonetheless, but he eventually resumed preparing his second slice, this time with slightly less primal enthusiasm. “And,” Owen asked before taking that tantalizing next bite, “how about the others? Jerry? Zena? They’re eating, too, right?”

    “Yes. Yes, yes.”

    “They’re doing okay?”

    Xypher cawed in affirmative.

    “Okay. That’s… that’s good.” Satisfied, he ate in silence, wondering why Xypher was still there. Perhaps to answer more questions? Xypher didn’t seem like the sort to be very good at… conversations. But the—oh the Cheri jam was—he had to stop eating to savor it. The spice tickled his tongue and reminded him that he was alive. Hopefully. It cleared his airway and warmed his throat. The crunch gave his teeth something to feel satisfaction over.

    “You have a bright smile,” Xypher said.

    Owen flinched, looking up at the huge Corviknight. His eyes gleamed with an odd, simple joy. “Oh,” Owen said, swallowing. “Um—thanks?”

    “Yes. Don’t lose it.”

    “Oh, I—I won’t.” And to prove a point, that smile returned. “Thank you again, I—whoever—whatever this building is for, thank you. I haven’t eaten something good since I came here.”

    Xypher continued to stare, but he was attentive.

    “Um, and how long do I have to be here?” Owen asked.

    “A few days,” Xypher said. “You will be fine.”

    “What for?” Owen tried to keep his voice as docile as possible. He was at their mercy, and they had been nothing but good to him so far. “Is it some kind of… security precaution?”

    Xypher’s bright expression dimmed somewhat. “Mm… Yes. But I am… bad at explaining.”

    “Oh.” So he knew. “It’s okay! I’ll just rest for now, if that’s what you need me to do. Just a few days, right? And your scouts are going to search for my Mom, right? The Ralts, she might be a Ralts now.”

    “Yes. Yes, yes.”

    That was the best he could ask for.

    Before long, with the bliss of finally filling his stomach fading slowly, Owen pushed the plate of bread forward with restraint. “I’ll have more of it later. I don’t want to overwhelm my stomach.”

    “Do you need help with anything else?”

    “No, this helped me enough.” Owen searched for and then raised the brochure. “I was about to have a Passho and wash up. And then, er…” Everything was very bare, and he suddenly realized that the natural heat in the room might have been uncomfortable for Xypher.

    “Oh! The—the heat isn’t bothering you, is it?”

    “No. No, no.”

    He was lying. “It’s okay,” Owen said. “Really, all the information I need is right here. I’ll figure out the rest of it later, y’know? I’m already in way better shape than you found me, and that’s good enough.”

    Xypher seemed unsure, letting out a low, drawn-out caw of uncertainty.

    “I know the room’s probably a little warm for you. Is there any way I can call for help if I need it? Then you can go.”

    Xypher hopped toward one end of the wall and pointed with a talon. “Here,” he said. On the wall was a button that had a similar star-like design in the middle, black with white inside. “Press this, and then speak. Hello. Hello, hello.” Xypher poked the button at the same time.

    “Hello? Xypher? Is Charmander doing okay?”

    It was like a communicator! Owen’s eyes lit up, moving closer to the button and the strange, bumpy part of the wall just above it.

    “Yes. Yes, yes. Showing the help button.”

    “Um, hello, wall voice,” Owen greeted.

    “…Hello. I’m not in the wall. Just security in the other room.”

    Right. Communicator. “Er, sorry.”

    Xypher released the button and nodded. “Do you know?”

    “Yep! Thanks, Xypher.”

    He cawed in approval and hopped to the entrance. He looked back once while Owen smiled. Owen’s little flame was brighter than it had been in days, and he hoped Xypher knew what that meant.

    “Bright smile,” Xypher said again. And then, he left the room.

    Shortly after Xypher left, Owen tried to place the bread, butter, and jam back in the basket for later, gently returning the red cloth over it so it looked more decorative. His stomach still felt empty, but he knew it was a bad idea to overstuff himself after going so long without food. Perhaps after his wash, he’d return to it.

    The Passho Berry was bitter and dry, but it was still food. He already felt that cold sensation running through his body, and knew to take advantage of it while he could. After referring to the brochure again, he entered the washroom, which had tiny stairways for smaller Pokémon to operate the facilities, as well as several buttons at varying heights to accomplish the same task. A little crude, but universal. They probably had no idea what sort of Pokémon would inhabit these rooms.

    These facilities were foreign yet familiar. In many ways, they reminded him of Kilo’s technology, yet several decades, or more, ahead. In other ways, it reminded him of something else in his past, which he concluded was either during his time with humans, or some other gap that he suspected was still missing.

    He sighed. No use thinking about that now.

    The walls were white and covered with red flecks of color like the tips of a campfire. The angular design of the red shapes reminded him of a Togepi’s shell. Passing a tall, tall sink, a few other facilities, and finally reaching the back of the room, Owen prodded at a small button next to a glass door. It slid open; he stepped inside to see a gated drain in the middle of anti-slip textured ground.

    “…Fancy,” Owen had to say aloud, startling himself with how his high voice echoed in the room. Despite how supersized everything was, he had forgotten how tiny he sounded, too.

    Two buttons. Red and blue, as well as a green one in the middle. The information he had read—which was thankfully element-proof—said green first, and then red for Fires.

    Click, and then Owen waited. From above, a nozzle with countless tiny holes showered him in streams of water, and out of reflex, he gasped and pinned himself against the wall, his feral instincts crying, ‘Rain! Rain!’ before he came to his senses. Tentatively, he held his hand out, the water flowing between his scales. It was red by the time it dripped off him; he winced. Was that blood, or Void dust?

    Suddenly feeling filthy, he reluctantly stepped under the gentle flow. Cold. He held the red button. Warm. Hot. Scalding. Not enough. There.

    Owen sighed, steam clouding his vision and rain muffling his hearing. The Passho Berry wasn’t going to last too long, but he could afford to idle under the water. The steam cleared his head. For a few blissful moments, he didn’t think about the Guardians, or the Hunters, or Eon. Just the water, and before he knew it, he was thoughtless.

    A sudden tapping startled him out of it.

    “WAH!”

    Gasping water-saturated air, Owen turned to the transparent shower door and saw the steam-obscured form of an icy Sandslash. Owen held his chest, panting, and approached the shower door. Running his hand over the glass, he saw Hakk standing with a container of something and a rough-looking cloth.

    “You forgot these,” Hakk said. “Also, hi.”

    Owen tapped a button to open the door, taking the bottle—smelled like soap—and cloth. “Um, thanks,” Owen said. “…I’m doing okay, by the way,” he added, closing the door again while he tried to comprehend the bottle, which was simply labeled, Scale Wash and Polish. Two in one? Impossible…

    “Good to hear,” Hakk said. “Xypher mentioned you had a few questions.”

    “Oh, right.” Owen glanced back at his tail; the flame ignored the water. As long as it didn’t start hurting, he could afford to enjoy the—why was the ground so red? Owen shuffled his feat, watching the red water flow into the drain. Grimacing, he glanced back at Hakk. “I had a few questions about… this place. And some of the things that happened while I was here.”

    “I figure I’ll answer the ones we always get,” Hakk said. “First, you’re dead. I think I mentioned that before, but I want to reiterate, you’re definitely dead.”

    Owen wanted to contest this, but he felt it would be a pointless battle. “Okay,” he said. “And why am I a Charmander?”

    “Right.” Hakk sat down near the shower. Oh, so this was going to be a long talk, was it? Could he have at least waited until he was done washing? The water drowned out his voice…

    Hakk continued, “Even though you’re dead, you can still die again here. Each time you do, all of your energy is drained away, and you’re reborn near where you had died before. Either from the ground, or in the water, somewhere, you’ll wind up. Sometimes you fall from the sky; better hope you don’t die again when that happens.”

    “I—right.” He couldn’t contest that. He had found his old body. “Right. I found my old body back in these wastes. It was in a huge pot of… of stew!” Owen shuddered, not wanting to think further about it, but he knew he had to ask. “How did it wind up there?”

    “Some tribe must have found your body and scavenged,” Hakk said. “If it was abandoned, probably means they had to run from a Titan. Still, I’m kind of surprised that you’re this lucid after what you went through. Feebas is still really out of it.”

    “Zena?” Owen said. “What do you mean?”

    “Well, she probably got killed somehow, too,” Hakk said. “Each time that happens, you come back a little less… you. Well, a lot of less.” Hakk looked off. “Me, I’m a class B. I died a long time ago, but I’ve been making a slow recovery since then. Used to be C, and that’s probably where Feebas is going to fall under.”

    “…Xypher said he was D,” Owen said. “So, he died a lot?”

    Hakk shook his head. “Doubt it. You can probably only afford to die once or twice at best before you’re totally gone. He forgot most of his past completely, and it’s not an easy climb getting it back. Xypher and I have been scouts for the better part of the last century or so, and he was barely able to talk back then.”

    The water was starting to hurt, but he still had to get the scale wash on. He finally figured out how to work the cloth with the soap and started rubbing between his fingers, then his shiny head, and worked his way down. The water helped temper the grave news.

    Owen tried to keep his voice even. “What makes that happen?”

    Another shake and noncommittal shrug. “There are stories of people who see a red light when they die, and then some oppressive darkness, before they figure out how to fight back. That entity is something that’s got a name: Dark Matter.”

    “Dark… Matter.” He didn’t recognize the title, but something about the description sent a cold chill down his spine.

    “Seems to me that stronger spirits can break away sooner, but if you stay too long… Well. Eventually there’s nothing left of you except a blob of shadows.”

    “A blob of—” Owen nearly dropped the cloth. His flame sparked. “The… the wraiths?”

    “Yep.” Hakk’s eyes trailed to the geometric, colorful design on the walls. “Around here, we call them Void Shadows. Because that’s what they are, when you think about it. Empty shadows of what they used to be. So… don’t die. Don’t get reckless just because you’re immortal. Because ‘you’ aren’t.”

    The coldness of the words overpowered the heat of the water. Owen took a steady breath and pressed the green button again, the rain from above slowing to a steady trickle. He felt a dull pain; he had been in the shower for too long.

    “What’s with putting water in a Fire room?” Owen asked.

    “Dirt baths tracked filth everywhere, and the dust doesn’t wash away to flame baths,” Hakk said. “We threw Passho Berries at it and called it a day.” He tossed Owen a soft, white cloth to dry off.

    Owen was thankful to see that the cloth remained white when he was done drying; grudgingly, he had to admit that water was effective at washing away dust.

    “Thank you,” Owen said again, looking down. “So, what do I have to do to pay you guys all back?”

    Hakk smirked, rolling his eyes. “Well, right to the point, are you?”

    “Yeah, well…” Owen couldn’t maintain eye contact. “I don’t know. Sorry I phrased it that way.”

    “Nah, y’know, I can respect that. It’s practical. Kinda weird coming from you, though. I barely know you and you seem like the type to just give out generosities without thinking about it.”

    The Charmander quickly returned to drying off. “Isn’t this place uncomfortable for you?” he asked Hakk.

    “Downed an Occa before I came in,” the Ice-Steel Pokémon replied. “Anyway, here’s the deal. We keep newcomers cozy while we evaluate their mental stability. After that, we work on integrations, and that’s your repayment. Give back to the village that saved your hide.”

    “Oh. That’s it?”

    “Yep. Fair’s fair.”

    It sounded too fair. “And what else do I have to do?” His flame crackled, and he wished it hadn’t. Charmander were too expressive.

    And Hakk seemed to notice. “What’s that mean? What else? Figure that covers all of it.”

    “Do I have to fight for anyone?”

    “I dunno, maybe if a huge attack comes in, but at that point it’s in your best interest anyway.” Hakk shrugged. “If you aren’t one for the front lines, you can find a safer job. Maybe a berry farmer.”

    Only the residual drip, drip, drip of the showerhead punctuated the silence.

    “Y’know, probably not a good idea to snarl at the hand that feeds you,” Hakk cautioned.

    Was he snarling? He couldn’t tell anymore. His flame was at least three times its size before bread, though, but that might have been because he finally had food in his gut. He tried to calm it. Deep breath. In. Hold. Out. In. Hold, but softer. Out.

    “Sorry,” Owen said, and he realized he’d been saying that a lot. Submissive as always. Squeezing his fist, in an act of defiance, he said, “I’ve just had a long string of being led by others acting nice just to use me.” But he didn’t have the courage to look Hakk in the eyes.

    “Tch.” Hakk shrugged. “Take it or leave. Not my problem.” He turned around, waving noncommittally. “Just don’t cry when you’re becoming a Void Shadow.”

    Hakk’s steps echoed, the door outside opened, and Owen briefly felt the impulse to chase him and slip out and escape. But his feet felt glued to the ground, and he wouldn’t have been fast enough anyway.

    By the time the thought was only half-developed, the door shut, and Owen was alone again.

    After walking out of the washroom and past the sterilized, hard walls—which suddenly reminded him of Quartz HQ despite the opposite colors—he approached the bread basket and quietly ate another few slices. Despite everything, they were still delicious, and he was certain to finish the bread when he woke up again. But now, it was time to sleep.

    Once again, the information he was provided helped guide him. Against one of the walls was another little button, this one a gentle orange, a little lighter than his scales. A press, and part of the wall depressed and slid away, revealing a closet with two items. First, a fire-designed blanket that smelled vaguely of Rawst leaves, like the plant had been pressed into fabric. Nostalgic. And finally, a curious, white bag stuffed with something soft and fluffy. It resembled a nest.

    Owen hopped into the closet and looked around. It was a little cramped; he could only take three paces inside before touching the wall. There were shelves high and well beyond his reach, but it didn’t look like anything was there. Pressing a button from inside, the closet door slid shut, and the only light source was his flame.

    Tentatively, he dragged the oversized blanket onto the nest-shaped bag and curled it over him. The fabric brushed gently against his body and curled around his underbelly. He took in a small, surprised breath; something this soft was unimaginable after the nights he’d spent on dusty, hard dirt. But then, he sank into the bed, like a tiny Oran nestled in custard. The soft nest caressed his back and underbelly at once; his cheek enjoyed the warm, fuzzy kiss of the bed.

    Blurry thoughts melted into cozy darkness.

    <><><>

    Muffled sounds surrounded Charmander. The shuffling of fabric against the ball that had become his new abode. The gentle clicking of the feet-coverings the humans wore on hard ground. Charmander knew this place; he had been here once, when he’d gotten sick. Charizard hadn’t known what to do, and Marowak had gone to seek the help of the humans, despite how much he didn’t care for them. That was when Charmander had thought it was serious.

    Those old memories made him anxious, but it was strange to not feel the usual feelings that came with it. He had no heart to beat; he had no mouth to breathe with. So instead, he stewed in this semi-state of being, wondering exactly what sort of human was going to become his partner. And, more importantly, if he would be worth following on his adventure.

    If he was weak, Charmander planned to leave his new partner at night, just like what happened to Thinclaw and his useless partner.

    Even more shuffling and chattering followed, and Charmander didn’t care about much of it. He wiggled impatiently within the ball, but then suddenly he felt like he was falling.

    “Whoops!”

    Caught in the giant hands of the assistant.

    “Sorry about that, little guy. Careful, you’re on a table!”

    He could wiggle if he wanted! Charmander giggled again, and again, violently this time, because he wasn’t going to be told what to do. The human sighed, but he had a vague sense that she was smiling, too. He was placed on the table again.

    “Look this way, Charmander. Can you see?”

    He could, he thought. She was pointing somewhere, toward the entryway. He never walked out of there. He didn’t know what it was like beyond those doors, where the human buildings were. But at the entryway was also a boy.

    Short. Young. Thin. His skin was pale and his eyes were strange. He must have been a human from a different region. Charizard told him that humans were different depending on where they were from, just like Pokémon. But humans looked the same, so he had to study how they were supposed to tell each other apart.

    Hair. His hair was brown. Brown was okay. It was short. Didn’t go past his ears. His eyes were brown, too. But he liked how this human appeared, too. The human had wings, Charizard wings.

    Humans could have wings? That was strange.

    “Are you Timothy?” asked the assistant.

    “Yup!”

    Oh, Charmander didn’t like his voice. Shrill. He probably screamed when he lost, like all those Bulbasaur that picked fights.

    The assistant giggled. “Based on that costume, I think I know what Pokémon you’re going to choose.”

    Costume? Humans had more than their usual coverings? Humans never made sense.

    “Well, you’ll have to appeal to Charmander first,” the assistant said, and then looked at Charmander. “Are you ready to come out?”

    Not really, but he had a feeling Charizard would be disappointed if he didn’t. And he could only imagine the disappointed stare from Marowak…

    He wiggled in reply.

    “All right. Here we go!”

    Picked up and tossed, Charmander reflexively jerked forward, his vision suddenly flooded with light. Materializing on the ground, taking his first breath, he shook off what felt like a hot wetness from the energy that had surrounded him, and then he looked up at the boy.

    A lot bigger up close. But still short.

    “Hey!” Timothy said, crouching down. “My name’s—”

    Charmander spat a puff of fire in his face. He spoke too loudly and suddenly and closely. He wasn’t anything like the assistants and that meant he’d be a bad partner.

    But the human, startled at first, grinned even wider. “Already looking for a fight, huh?”

    The assistants laughed. “Ohh, look at him. He’s a little defiant, you know. Are you sure you want to have him for your first Pokémon?”

    “I’m sure!” Timothy said, and Charmander couldn’t understand his enthusiasm.

    “What?” Charmander asked. “No! You’re supposed to run away! I burned you!”

    “Aw, it’s alright,” Timothy said, rubbing his thumb on his nose. “I wouldn’t want to get a Fire-type if I couldn’t handle the heat!”

    Charmander flinched. Did the human understand him? Humans didn’t understand Pokémon, not unless they’d been with them for a very long time, like the human with the flame-proof coverings that always visited, or Charizard’s old partner. Through feelings. And this human shouldn’t know his feelings.

    “You aren’t allowed to understand me yet!” Charmander said, pointing angrily at him.

    “What’s wrong?” Timothy asked, crouching down again.

    “You—” Charmander tried to find the words, but the concepts eluded him. In Timothy’s eyes, he saw the reflection of the flames that were leaking from the sides of his mouth.

    “It’s okay. We’re gonna go on an adventure, right? We’ll learn about the world and get stronger, together. It’ll be fun!”

    Charmander’s flame hummed loudly behind him, but that was the only other sound in the lab. How did Charizard start off with her partner? Was it the same? So many of his siblings had gone away and returned with wings, or at least returned with a smile. A few were unhappy. But this… human Timothy. Which result would he be?

    “So what do you say?” Timothy asked. “My name’s Timothy.”

    He stared suspiciously, then spat an ember that evaporated in front of Timothy’s face. He only blinked. Impressive. “Smallflame,” Charmander replied.

    “It’s good to meet you, too,” Timothy replied. “Sorry I can’t pronounce how you might want to be called, Charmander. But I’m gonna give you a name I can use instead. Is that alright?”

    A name. The title that Charizard refused to let anybody else use. And he was going to receive one from this inexperienced boy?

    Well, if he wound up hating him, he could always get a new one.

    “Okay,” Charmander agreed, nodding.

    “Well, you and I are going to go on our first adventures, together, right? And we’re gonna become the number one duo in the whole world!”

    It sounded like he had practiced this. But he had to admit—it sounded enticing. The strongest? Did he really know how to do that? If that Bulbasaur could beat him with just the help of a human… who knows what he could do?

    He realized too late that his flame was blazing with excitement. Trying to hide it, he shifted his weight and stared up at Timothy with more awed hope than he’d ever admit.

    “Heh, looks like you’re already looking for a fight,” Timothy said, grinning. “Number one! I’m gonna call you… Owen!”

    <><><>​

    It was so soft! Owen opened one eye to the dim glow of his flame glistening against the polished walls of the closet. It was a cramped bedroom, but that was really all he needed. After all, he didn’t have to toss and turn at all in a bed he could practically sink into. He didn’t want to move; he only curled his tail around a clump of the nest and stretched inwardly.

    What did he dream about? The humans again. He’d been getting those a lot lately. Timothy was…

    So warm. Maybe if he slept a little longer…

    <><><>​

    Owen had never seen trees so tall and green. He wondered how they burned. But Timothy said that wasn’t a good thing to do, so he had to keep to himself. Keeping his tail high, he glanced up at his human partner, who was panting while going down the forest path. He didn’t know where they were going or why, but Timothy had what he called a “map.” If that flat piece of paper could show Tim the way, then maybe he had some other magic that he didn’t know about.

    But the human roads with the shorter grass were long behind them. Instead, Tim was wandering the woods nearby.

    “Okay, Owen,” Tim said, looking down. “I need you to translate for me, alright? Some Pokémon can’t understand me as easily.”

    “Translate?” Owen asked, frowning. “For what?”

    “Just repeat what I’m saying, but, like, to them. With the grr grr words you use.”

    Owen growled. “What do you—”

    “Yeah, like that!”

    The growl became a snarl. “You could at least TRY to understand me!”

    “I—I’m sorry, that’s just what it sounds like to me!” Tim brought his palms forward. “I’m not some master trainer. I’m working on it…”

    “Better learn fast.” Owen huffed, already missing the lab assistants. Then again, their ability to understand him had been hit or miss, too…

    Tim cleared his throat. “Hello, um, wild Pokémon!”

    The hopeful look that Tim gave Owen was enough for him to reluctantly comply… slightly. “Sorry to bother you!” Owen translated.

    “I’m going on an adventure! And I was wondering if anybody here wanted to come with me!”

    “Ignore us! He’s an idiot!”

    “Thanks, buddy,” Tim said, grinning. “Okay, now try this.” Turning his attention back to the trees, he shouted, “I’ve got food, and shelter, and you’ll get to become stronger with me!”

    “Seriously, just leave him alone and he’ll leave you alone!”

    Silence filled the air afterward. It wasn’t a windy day, and the sun poked glittering holes through the treetops with what few gusts there were.

    “Are you sure you translated me?” Tim asked. “It felt kind of different…”

    Owen shrugged. “Maybe they aren’t intereste—”

    Just then, a Pidgey fluttered out of the trees, sizing Tim up from the air. Eventually, he landed on the ground, and Owen’s tiny shoulders sagged. He perked up when Tim looked at him again, but his flame was dim. Poor fool.

    “An idiot human?” Pidgey asked. “Then why’re you with him?”

    “Well, I still have to get stronger,” Owen said.

    “Hmm…” Pidgey chirped contemplatively, then looked at Tim, and then back at Owen.

    “So, what’s your name?” Owen said routinely, wondering if this Pidgey was really considering joining…

    “Greatwing.”

    Owen stared suspiciously. “Doesn’t seem that great to me.”

    Greatwing chirped dismissively. “What’s yours?”

    “Smallflame.”

    “Yours fits.”

    Owen crouched down and snarled, fire defying his name.

    A loud tapping noise echoed from the tree to his left.

    <><><>

    Light flooded through Owen’s thin, scaly eyelids. An incessant tapping echoed from the wall. He squinted uncomfortably and groaned, sinking deeper into the soft bed.

    There you are,” Hakk said, sighing. “Why didn’t you take your bed out to the main room?”

    Owen groaned and tried to curl up around the soft cushions, squeezing them between his arms and thighs.

    “It’s already one in the afternoon,” Hakk growled again.

    “It’s what in the—” Owen half-groaned, but then stopped. He didn’t have the energy to shoot up, but he had enough to open one eye partway. “You guys use hours?”

    “Oh, right. Some of you guys don’t—wait, you know hours?”

    “Yeah. Can I sleep for another?”

    “1 PM, little guy. C’mon, get up. I need to run an eval on you.”

    “What kind of eval?”

    “On anything you remember. See what class you are, log stuff like that down, I dunno.”

    Owen groaned again, this time a little more loudly so Hakk was sure that forcing him awake after at least a week of almost dying was unjustified. But the icy Sandslash refused to listen, and instead added, “And if you take too long, I’ll freeze your bed.”

    “Then maybe I’ll burn you,” Owen threatened emptily.

    “Joke’s on you, I ate another Occa.”

    A snap of cold bit Owen’s nose and he whined, finally sighing and rolling out of bed with a defeated flop.

    “So, tell me about your parents,” Hakk said. “Do you remember them?”

    “Which ones?” Owen said.

    “Uh.” Hakk’s eyelids lowered, frowning. “You only have two parents.”

    “Nope. I was adopted.”

    Hakk rolled his eyes. “Don’t give me that. Who are your current parents?”

    Owen glared, but it didn’t last. He sighed and went on, “Gardevoir Amia and Magmortar. Well, I mean, not really a M—”

    “That’s one interesting pair,” Hakk said.

    Owen huffed, deciding it wasn’t worth going over more. “And I ran into Mom in Nil Plateaus, so she’s still there. Are you preparing those scouts?”

    “They’re gonna go out today to search for her. High priority, mostly because, you know, she might be able to sense Z-Crystals like you can.”

    So that’s what they were called. Owen nodded and said, “Right, she might. I think the powers I had in Kilo were related to those. That might be why we can sense them.”

    “Right,” Hakk said, but Owen could tell he wasn’t interested. “So, you were adopted. Do you remember your real parents?”

    That one made his tail spark. “They’re both my real parents.”

    Hakk sighed tiredly, rolling his eyes. “Your… other parents?”

    Owen sat in front of the table and inspected his bread. Still a few slices left, so he prepared some for himself and offered Hakk a slice as well. After Hakk declined with a casual wave, Owen said, “Charizard Amber and Marowak Daichi.”

    “Well, at least you remember both sets despite getting killed,” Hakk said. “That’s really lucky of you.”

    At least I got to have some luck, Owen thought bitterly. “Yeah. Actually, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you about Daichi and Amber if you asked me a few days ago.”

    “Eh? Why’s that? Kept it a secret from you?”

    “Well, I don’t really know,” Owen said. “I don’t think so. I’ve just been getting those memories back.”

    Owen nibbled on the slice. The bread had gotten hard since the night before, but it was still delicious, and now that he wasn’t quite as savagely hungry, he took the time to coat the slice in butter and jam at once. He took another bite, savoring the crunch now that he was used to it, but then realized Hakk hadn’t said anything in a while.

    The Sandslash was staring at him so intensely that Owen stopped eating. After swallowing, he nervously asked, “What?”

    “You’re getting memories back?”

    “Yeah, uh, it’s actually been happening a lot lately,” Owen said. “Ever since I got in some, uh, a lot of stuff in Kilo. Been happening a lot more now that I’m here, though.”

    “Right.” Hakk’s composure returned almost as quickly as it had left. “You’re getting memories back, okay. You’re saying you have more memories now than when you’d arrived?”

    Owen nodded.

    “Got it.” Hakk crossed his arms, then clicked his two claws together. “You know that’s impossible, right?”

    “Uh.” Considering it was literally happening to him overnight… “No.”

    “When was the last time you got those memories back?”

    “When did you wake me?”

    “Don’t get sassy with me, when did you get them?”

    “When you woke me. I’ve been getting them as dreams. Sometimes when I meditate, too, I guess? I bet if I tried, I could.”

    “And how do you know they aren’t false memories, or just… I don’t know, tricks your head is trying to do to fill in gaps of what’s missing?”

    Owen frowned, humming. “It’s been happening without anyone interfering with me. I think… I think I know what returned memories feel like at this point. I’ve had a lot of seals, and these are too real.”

    “Hmm…” Now, Hakk seemed troubled, which was odd, because until recently, Owen had been sure Hakk didn’t care about anything. “Okay. Guess that’s it for the eval.”

    “What—just like that? You didn’t have more questions for me?”

    “Well, my part of the eval.” Hakk started for the door. “Just sit tight, okay?”

    Owen’s chest felt tighter, and he was tempted to run out with him, but he knew that’d get him nowhere. He had to cooperate until he could get Zena and Jerry out safely, too.

    While watching Hakk, Owen tried to relax and tell himself things were fine. Even though he had no idea where everyone else was. But it felt like a few of them were close… But then again, that was probably just Zena.

    Why did it feel like there were two nearby, then?

    “ . . . door!” called a feminine voice—Owen recognized it as the Jynx from last night.

    Right when Hakk stepped out, he suddenly slammed his paw on the wall, sealing Owen’s room. Owen sprang to his feet, leaving behind his bread. By the time he was at the door, loud thudding punctuated the air and the ground shook lightly beneath his feet. An odd, yet familiar whistling accompanied the chaos, but only for brief spurts. Was that—

    “OWEN!” Gahi’s muffled voice forced its way through the door.

    “Gahi,” Owen whispered, but then came to his senses. “GAHI!”

    More scuffling, and then Hakk grunted. Some heavy piece of pottery broke, and then ice shattered on the walls. Gahi roared, and then another thud followed—this time against Owen’s door. Owen gulped and stood a little closer. “Gahi, what’s—”

    “Get away from there!” Hakk shouted.

    “Make me!” Gahi shouted back, and then he clawed at the doorframe. Not a scratch, but Owen heard every hard slam.

    “Get over here you—where’d he go?!”

    “Hah!”

    “Hrk—”

    Someone crumpled next to Owen’s doorway and he held his breath. “Gahi?”

    “How d’you open this thing?” Gahi shouted.

    “Gahi? What did you do?!”

    “Stay away from there!” Jynx shouted. An Ice Beam cracked the air, but then the ground rumbled. Jynx shrieked, and then it was quiet again.

    “Gahi, stop!” Owen screamed. “They’re friendly!”

    “—Eh?”

    “Stop right there!”

    “Don’t move!”

    “Try anything and you’re a popsicle!”

    “Gahi,” Owen quickly said, “just say it was a misunderstanding! Okay?”

    “Gahi!” This time, it was a tiny voice that Owen couldn’t help but feel was familiar. Who was that? “You… buffoon! Stand down! Do you want to get us all killed?!”

    “…Did Trina die?” Owen asked.

    “Eh? No, she just became a Snivy,” Gahi said as shuffling sounds grew closer.

    “Okay, star-wings,” said one of the scouts. “Don’t fight back. Got it?”

    “E-excuse me!” Owen called, pressing his hands hard against the door. “It’s okay! This is my friend, Gahi! He’s weirdly colored because he’s just like me! I can sense him!”

    “Hey, lemme go,” Gahi snarled, and then a flurry of voices shouted for Gahi to stand down.

    Owen, no matter what he said, was drowned out by them until they all yelled in surprise.

    “I said let go!” Gahi snapped, but his voice was coming from the far end of the hall.

    “How did he do that?” Hakk wheezed, his voice nearest to Owen.

    “I think he has the Psychic Orb, or at least its power,” Owen said to Hakk.

    “Psychic what?” Hakk said. “What kind of crazy company do you keep?”

    Owen wasn’t sure if he had the time to thoroughly answer that one. Instead, he said, “You know how I can sense those crystals? Gahi probably can, too. That’s how he got here so quickly. He—”

    One of the guards tried something, because there was another scuffle, and suddenly more groans overtook the fighting.

    “Gahi, enough!” Trina commanded.

    “Nu-uh, you ain’t blamin’ that one on me, they started it!”

    “Gahi,” Trina said again, “having your foot on their back is not helping.”

    “Seriously, Gahi?” Owen groaned, shoulders slumping. He bumped his head against the door, screwing his eyes shut. “Have some tact, at least…”

    “Bah, they asked fer it.”

    Just hearing the fighting was annoying Owen, but he doubted they were going to open the door and let Gahi in. They probably didn’t expect a Flygon to be able to teleport, but they wouldn’t be fooled a second time.

    “A’right, a’right,” called another, smaller voice, and for a moment Owen thought Gahi had suddenly become a Trapinch. “What’s goin’ on?”

    “Eh? Who’re you?” Gahi said.

    “The one who’s gonna knock yeh ter next week if yeh attack someone else. An’ that goes fer all o’ yeh!”

    Owen’s scales tingled. He felt something powerful on the other side of the door. “Gahi, be careful,” Owen whispered.

    “I heard that,” the small voice said, and Owen suppressed a squeak.

    The fact that Gahi wasn’t saying anything worried Owen.

    “Now, here’s th’ deal,” the small one said. “You go an’ skedaddle down the hall an’ wait in a room, eh? Gonna talk with yer friend. He’s gonna be fine.”

    This voice sounded familiar and he couldn’t figure out why. Owen was so distracted by rummaging through his memories that he didn’t pay attention to any of the talking until he heard Gahi’s footsteps, this time further down the hall. Two other sets of footsteps accompanied him, and Owen wondered if several more floated in the air.

    Gahi’s tail thrashed on the ground to punctuate his anger, and Owen deflated, sighing. That… could have gone better.

    A patch of darkness coalesced near the center-bottom of the door. At first, Owen thought it was a wraith and hopped back, spreading his arms and channeling fire through his claws and throat. But then, when his instincts subsided, he realized there was no way a wraith could be here. It felt too strong, anyway…

    The shadows shaped themselves into something that vaguely resembled a bipedal body. Big head, wider than his shoulders. Owen was only a little shorter than this tiny, terrifying thing, and that only made him worry more. The last small, powerful creature he’d had to deal with was Rim, or Star.

    Two orange ovals appeared on the creature’s head, centered with a yellow glow. A tiny, thin smile spread below them, smoky wisps drifting off of his head in an ethereal haze.

    “Heh. Heya.” The shadowy creature made a gesture like he was tipping an invisible hat. “Charmander, eh? Good ter meet yeh.”

    “Hi.” Owen’s default wasn’t doing him any favors. “Um—I mean, I’m sorry for Gahi. He’s—”

    “Nah, nah.” He waved dismissively. “I ain’t mad. I know the sort. Heh… Hey. I saw on the feed that yeh were sayin’ some weird stuff.”

    “Oh, right, um, Hakk mentioned that he needed to get something and I had to wait, um, is Hakk okay?”

    “Bah, he’s had worse.” He shrugged. “Yer name’s Owen, eh?”

    “Mhm.”

    “Right, right.”

    A silence that lasted a second too long forced Owen to look at something else. Before he could find something to say, the shadow laughed, sending a chill up Owen’s spine.

    “What’re you so nervous about?”

    “You know why.”

    “Aaaah!” And in a blink, he was beside Owen, patting his shoulder. “C’mon! Let’s have some bread.” In another blink, Owen was next to the table. A gust of ghostly wind blowing the red cloth off of the basket.

    Trying to not panic, Owen took a piece of bread like a normal Pokémon and started to spread butter over his slice.

    “So, Owen,” he said, “I figure I’ll introduce myself. I only got one name, real simple: Marshadow. It’s my species, and I’m one o’ a kind.”

    “Marshadow…” He’d heard that before in his studies. One of a kind. “Wait, you’re a—”

    “Aaah, yer a smart one.” He winked with one of his orange eyes. “Yep. A Legend, in th’ flesh! Er whatever I have. Oy, tell me.” Casually, Marshadow snapped his fingers, and suddenly several clicks echoed across the room. “Cameras’re off. Nobody c’n hear us. How old’re you?”

    Who was this guy?! He couldn’t get a read on him at all, and even if he had Perceive, this wouldn’t—

    “You alright?” Marshadow asked.

    “Yeah, I’m—bread.”

    “Nah, yer Charmander.”

    His tail flared and he grabbed the jam next. “I’m old.”

    “How far back, eh?”

    “I don’t know.”

    “Don’t know.”

    Owen sighed lightly and collected himself. “Sorry, I don’t really know how old I am because my memory still feels spotty. I thought at first that I was around, you know, four, five centuries or so. But recently I’ve been getting memories from even further back, and now it feels like there’s a huge gap in between.”

    “Right, right. Sounds like yeh’ve got a real story.” Marshadow wasn’t making any motions to go for the bread. Was that just an excuse to sit down and talk? That smile on Marshadow was back. “Y’haven’t really changed all that much, Owen. Still analyzing. Still gettin’ reads.”

    Something about that sentence made all of Owen’s analyses stop. Suddenly, he was just staring dumbly at Marshadow, a thousand thoughts tripping over each other, and ultimately none came forward.

    “Bah, darn shame yeh fergot me. Gahi, too. Ah well.”
     
    Last edited: Jun 22, 2020
    Kindoflame likes this.
  9. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 90 – Incomplete Memories

    Today had been interesting. The day before, Owen had been running for his life and afterlife from a creature that had been dwarfed only by the plateaus. And this morning, he had been awakened rudely from a very cozy nap in a very cozy bed. And now, probably still morning, yet it felt like an eternity, he was talking to Marshadow, who not only claimed to know him in some distant past… but also Gahi.

    Three distinct snapping noises in front of Owen’s face brought him back to reality. “Huh? What?”

    “I said,” Marshadow repeated, “how much did yeh ferget?”

    “How can I know how much I—hey, do you know someone called Manny?”

    “Eh?”

    “Manny. He talks just like you.”

    “Eh. No clue.”

    Owen grumbled. “Maybe it really is an ancient accent.”

    “Oy, who has an accent?”

    “Nobody!” Owen said, stiffening, but then he saw Marshadow’s playful smirk.

    “Nah, I get it.”

    Owen deflated and took another bite of bread, sorting through his thoughts. He had so much to ask, but at this point, he had a good feeling that Marshadow wasn’t going to answer. Still… his hopeless optimism made him try anyway. “How do you know me?”

    “Well, it’s probably not gonna ring any bells until they come back ter yeh,” Marshadow said, “but sure. Didn’t really know yeh all that much, jus’ by proxy when we got t’gether fer parties and all that. Unfortunately, ehh… that part o’ my memory’s also pretty shot. Been too long, had too many bad encounters, y’know how it is. I do know yeh were real close with us, though. Scaled Destiny Tower, and next thing we know, we’ve got a giant Charizard among us, heh.”

    Owen was so glad he had experience with Manny. Gahi’s accent was thin, but Marshadow’s…

    “So you’re saying,” Owen said, “that I used to go to… parties with Pokémon like you? And I was—giant?”

    “Yeppers.” Marshadow nodded, scratching under his chin. “Dunno which Pokémon were at those parties, though. Just you, I remember real well, fer some reason.”

    “And what about Gahi?” Owen asked. “You said you knew him.”

    “Fer a bit. Taught him how ter fight fer some mission he had. Had a few folks who were students like that…”

    “Like Manny?”

    Marshadow shrugged. “What species?”

    “Lucario.”

    Marshadow perked up. “Y’know, now that yeh mention it…”

    Owen nodded. That much made sense. Manny was Marshadow’s student, somehow? Yet Manny had no memory of it—or at least, he certainly would have mentioned something this substantial…

    “I’m still trying to sort through my memories,” Owen said. “Maybe when I get more, I can start piecing it together. Don’t really know what good it’ll do me, but…” He sighed, finding these thoughts to be going in a circle. He wouldn’t go anywhere by just thinking about what he didn’t know. “Marshadow, do you know why I was associated with you guys?”

    “Y’know, fer someone who doesn’t remember, yer takin’ this real well.”

    “I—well…” He had a point. “Look,” Owen brought a few claws over his closed eyes. “Just two or three moons ago or whatever, I didn’t even believe in gods. Then I met Star and she turned me into a plant—I mean, er, a Grass-type.”

    “Star. Mew Star?”

    Owen nodded, and Marshadow smiled fondly. Owen didn’t.

    “I’ve been going through enough lately that I don’t think this is too hard to believe anymore,” Owen said. “What I want to know is why this was hidden from me, and who did it.”

    “Fer all we know, that was Dark Matter ‘mself. How else are all the Legends down ‘ere, barely recognizing each other?”

    All?”

    “Well, nah, not all,” Marshadow said. “I mean, tons’re unaccounted fer. But figure since yeh said Mew Star, that’s one. Then there’s Arceus, figure he ain’t stuck ‘ere. Eh, dunno af’er that.”

    “Zygarde and Lugia,” Owen said immediately.

    “’Ey, ain’t that somethin’!” Marshadow grinned and nodded. “Well, ain’t that a relief. Okay, here’s the deal. Most of us don’t remember anythin’ about other Legends in Kilo. Like history was just totally cut off fer us. Ter me? Sounds like a Decree.”

    “I was just about to say,” Owen agreed, arms crossed. “So Star and Barky might’ve made a Decree to hide—”

    Marshadow’s face had suddenly contorted into a valiant effort to hide his laugh.

    “What?”

    Barky? He really goin’ by that?”

    “I think Star calls him that, and nobody really listens when he corrects her.”

    For some reason, this left Marshadow trying even harder to stop from laughing. “Haaah! Lookit that! Always had a stick up his white tail. Guess someone’s really startin’ ter cut’m down ter size.”

    “Right.” Owen tried to find a nice way to refocus the topic. This guy was all over the place… “The Decree, Marshadow. Do you think that’s what made everyone forget you guys?”

    “I mean, it’s been a while,” Marshadow said. “Maybe we were just lost o’er time. And here in the Voidlands, maybe we jus’ lost those memories. Still, there is one thing I know fer sure.” Marshadow leaned back, thoughtful, his eyes suddenly serious. Serious enough that Owen was thrown off, wondering if he’d suddenly become a different personality. “I remember you weren’t under Star er Barky. And I remember those two fer sure. Maybe they’re just important memories, y’know, since they’re above me ‘n all that.”

    He could understand that intuitively. Could a Decree hide away the gods of gods? Yet, if he wasn’t beneath either of them…

    “The third one,” Marshadow said. “That’s who you were under. At least, that’s my deduction.”

    “Deduction…” Owen frowned, scaly brow furrowing. “So this is like all the other Legends. You don’t remember, but you know they exist just because of those empty parts of your memory.” Third god?

    “Yeh.” Marshadow waved in the air absently. “And he was strong. Maybe jus’ as strong as Star ’n Barks. Any time I think about’m, I feel… brightness. That’s all I remember.”

    “Brightness…”

    “The third god, dunno what to call’m,” Marshadow said. “Ev’n that was lost. But it’s just… bright. Has to do with the Z-Crystals, too.”

    Owen paused. “Which has to do with the Orbs, maybe? But I thought those were the Plates of Arceus…”

    “Eh? Plates?”

    “Yeah.” Owen motioned to the table and traced out squares. “Arceus made plates of every element, which helped to contain and harness his own power, or something like that.”

    Marshadow tilted his head, humming. “Every element?”

    “Um, yeah?”

    “Includin’ Normal?”

    “I mean, he had to, right?”

    “Huh.” Marshadow shrugged. “Dunno. Vaguely recall he never made a Normal plate since that’s jus’ how he was by default. Never had a use.”

    “Well, we know the Normal Guardian, who had the Normal Orb,” Owen said, wondering how ADAM was doing. If he lost his memories, could they just perform some kind of… what did ADAM call it… system restore?

    Marshadow snapping his fingers brought Owen back to attention. “Dunno about a Normal plate, but there’re definitely Normal Z-Crystals. If these Guardians er whatever’re related ter that, an’ you can sense Z-Crystals, maybe those Orbs came from the third god. The one we fergot…”

    “Forgot…” Would Star and Barky have kept this hidden from him, too? A third god…

    “Can I ask yeh somethin’?”

    “Uh?”

    “You loved usin’ Protect,” Marshadow said. “C’n yeh do it now?”

    That was an odd request, but it was harmless enough. Stepping away from the table, Owen widened his stance and crossed his arms—which earned an amused smile from Marshadow that he ignored—and a golden shield formed around him.

    “Yep,” Marshadow said. “Yer the same Owen alright. Turn around.”

    “Okay, but why?” Owen asked, turning. “Why am I the same Owen?”

    “Gold Protect,” Marshadow said simply. “That’s th’ mark o’ the third god. And speakin’ o’ marks…” Marshadow pointed at Owen’s back, but he couldn’t tell what Marshadow was pointing at. “That splotch yeh got there…”

    “Oh, that’s just a birthmark. I think it came from when I was first creat—” But he wasn’t created. “You’re not telling me this splotch has to do with this third god, do you?”

    “It’s kinda blurry,” Marshadow admitted, squinting, “but apparently it’s a mark left behind if yeh wanna be his student. Eight-sided star, longer on th’ cardinal directions… Maybe y’were in training? Either that er yeh kept it fer sentimental reasons. Looks like a splotch ter most, but I recognize the design anywhere.” Marshadow produced a badge with the same mark, but with a more angular, defined design that wasn’t distorted by scales or flesh.

    “Gahi has the same,” Owen trailed off.

    “He does, eh? Well, y’two were pretty close.”

    “Is it really that noticeable?” Owen asked worriedly. “That’s not going to draw attention to me, is it?”

    “Nah. It’s real faded. Blends in with yer wings real nicely, too. Somethin’ tells me th’ third god ain’t keen on bein’ flashy.”

    For some reason, Owen felt the need to groan, but suppressed it. There was a joke in there, and the deepest recesses of his mind told him as much, but he couldn’t remember why, Still...

    Something was still not settling right with him. This entire concept of a third god, something that Star and Barky were both unaware of. By now he would have seen some sign, any sign, that he existed before now. Why did he not have a Book like the other two did? Surely someone would have known about that. And, more importantly, he would have known if Star was lying about the Orbs’ true origins by now.

    Yes, she’d lied before. And so did Barky. But he’d seen through their deception before, and this felt…

    “I don’t think it’s a Decree from either of them,” Owen concluded. “Something else erased the third god from history. What if Dark Matter did it, somehow?”

    “If Dark Matter has the power ter make Decrees, we’re dead,” Marshadow said.

    Owen stared.

    “…Deader.”

    “Mm.” This was all a lot to take in, but he supposed it was better now than later. But he also didn’t know how much of what Marshadow was telling him was the truth or not. There was nothing to add up because this gap in his memory was still a total blank.

    He didn’t want his head filled with too many falsehoods again. Could he risk it?

    Owen was starting to wonder why this strange Voidlands existed at all. If Dark Matter was so strong that he could claim Guardians, why was he here? What was keeping him from just killing them all now? It didn’t make sense. There was something they were missing.

    “You alright?” Marshadow asked.

    “Yeah,” Owen said, nodding.

    “Yer tail says otherwise,” Marshadow pointed a finger at the flickering ember.

    If he could, he’d’ve cut his tail off by now. “Sorry, I’m still a little… stressed from all this information. Maybe I’ll ask more later, but right now, I just need and see if I actually remember all that. You know, to confirm it.” He shouldn’t have said that last part.

    “Confirm?” Marshadow said. “Y’don’t believe me?”

    He really should have stopped a sentence earlier. Scrambling, but still looking as calm as he could, he added, “Just—you know, so I have the details straight. Even you don’t remember everything, right?”

    Marshadow was still looking at Owen’s tail. If only he could go Grass, but that power felt so far away from him now. He wasn’t ready for an interrogation. Marshadow was too strong. He could punch him into a red paste if he wanted.

    “Alright.” Marshadow shrugged. “Fair’s fair.” He reached forward and offered another piece of bread. “Hey, don’t ferget ter eat. Ain’t doing that enough.”

    “Oh.” At least that was true. Reaching for it, Owen said, “Thank—”

    <><><> ​

    Xerneas sat across an oversized red-and-white blanket, sticking his nose in the air defiantly. Yveltal, next to him, teasingly offered a spoonful of curry with her massive wing-claws dwarfing the utensil. Owen was taller than them both while they were all seated in a circle. Mew was lying on top of a Psychic bubble, while a strange, bipedal feline of some kind stared at it in fascination. He was new to the group, Owen remembered: Mewtwo, a name based on the Pokémon he’d been based on.

    Arceus, who only went up to Xerneas’ shins, trotted next to the second Mew-like creature and rammed into the bubble, popping it. Mew shrieked and landed on Arceus’ back, who bucked and tossed her onto the top of his head. Mew sighed, smiling, and rubbed Arceus between his eyes.

    “Hey,” Jirachi said, floating high to get at eye-level with Owen. “What’s wrong? You aren’t eating.”

    “Oh, sorry,” Owen replied, reaching down.

    Jirachi already had a piece of bread the size of his head in front of Owen.

    “Oh.”

    “Here, at least eat something.”

    “What’s got you so worried?” called a voice from behind Owen—Mesprit, concerned as always. Behind him, on another blanket set up, were Mesprit, Azelf, and Uxie. Azelf was busy wrestling with Uxie for the last dumpling, and something about that made Owen’s heart flutter.

    “Charizard?” Mesprit asked again.

    “Eh? Owen?” Azelf looked back. Too slow: Uxie snatched the dumpling and gobbled it down before Azelf had a chance to react. She then smirked and disappeared in a flash of light, leaving Azelf to grumble to himself.

    “It’s just evals,” Owen admitted. “A lot of people had wishes, and, well…”

    “Hey, no rush,” Jirachi said. “I probably grant too many anyway! Let’s take it easy. You can take off the Wishkeeper hat for a day, can’t you?”

    “Hmm, overworking will only make you less efficient,” Palkia commented, though he was barely paying any attention, his face nearly pressed against the pages of an oversized book. He dipped a spoon in the air in front of him and drew some stew from the bowl by his side.

    “You won’t be at your best if you never rest, Owen,” said a large Goodra across the blanket. “Why don’t you spend a day reading one of those action books of yours?”

    “C-c’mon, Madeline,” Owen begged, trying with no luck to look smaller. “I can still keep it up, no problem! I—"

    Jirachi used a burst of Psychic energy to jettison the bread into Owen’s maw.

    <><><> ​

    Marshadow was repeating Owen’s name calmly, but not without a hint of concern, while he held Owen’s chest. Had he fallen forward?

    “What?” Owen mumbled, ignoring a new, splitting headache.

    “You alright? You looked vacant fer a sec, then fell.”

    “I’m fine,” Owen said quickly. “Just… had some memories suddenly hit me.”

    “What’d you see?”

    “…A lot of… A lot of you.” Owen sighed. “Sorry. I guess maybe some of what you’re saying is true.”

    “Just some, eh?” Marshadow said with an amused smirk.

    Owen wondered if he knew how awkward it was for him to ask that kind of question. Perhaps even more awkward was his answer: “Yeah, just some.”

    Marshadow’s smile faltered for an instant. “Geez,” he murmured. “What’d they do to you up there?”

    He didn’t want to answer right now. He looked down and started to eat at his bread, and Marshadow got the signal. Physically backing away, he settled and pulled out a badge, flipping through the screen it displayed idly.

    It just then occurred to Owen how silent the room was. So quiet that when the cooling device rumbled—the sound of ice being made—he jumped and stared at it with wide eyes. Composing himself again, he hoped his jumpiness wouldn’t be a sign of guilt, and tried to think of something to say. Anything. Anything!

    “So uh,” Owen said.

    And then nothing followed.

    Marshadow waited patiently. Yet that was even worse. If he could just move things along and have some mercy, but no, the silence was already eating into Owen’s heart.

    “Zena,” Owen suddenly blurted.

    “Eh?”

    Finally, something to grasp onto. “How is Zena doing? I—I want to see her.”

    “Eh. Feebas, yeah. See, thing is, we kinda have ter observe yeh guys fer a few days, make sure y’ain’t Void Shadows in disguise.”

    “Well, I’m not,” Owen said. “You can tell that, right?”

    “Th’ Protect proves it,” Marshadow confirmed. “Void Shadows have black shields.”

    “Well, I can sense that Zena’s Zena, too. I don’t know for Jerry, but he was with me for days. Everyone who was with me should be safe.”

    “Well, ain’t you in a rush,” Marshadow commented, frowning. “Look, those scouts’re gonna be lookin’ high an’ low fer Ralts, so—”

    “I still want to help. And there’s still so much I need to do, I—there are still a lot of friends out there that probably need my help. I need to get back to Kilo. I need to stop Dark Matter. I mean—I can’t just stay here!”

    But the more passionately Owen talked, the deeper Marshadow’s frown became. In response, Owen tried to hide his frustration, and instead said, “At least let me out of this room so I can get familiar with the place. And—and Zena, too. And Jerry.”

    “Yer askin’ a lot fer someone who ain’t even done with eval,” Marshadow remarked.

    “I’m important to you, aren’t I?” Owen said. “Maybe I won’t cooperate if I feel like I’m not being treated properly.”

    He had no idea where that came from. The momentum of his passion combined with the strange, casual nature of Marshadow’s behavior, and finally the sheer scope of what he’d just been told… And now he said something that he was going to regret. In that split-second, his flame dimmed, his breath stopped, and he wondered if he could backpedal. Then the flame returned.

    Not this time.

    “Teamwork is all about cooperating,” Owen said. “I’ll cooperate, but you already know I’m safe. It’s not helping anyone to keep me in this room.”

    All the while, Marshadow watched with a stony expression that defied his wispy body. Impossible to read, perhaps even with his Perceive. He wore a smile, but a neutral one, and unlike Owen, Marshadow’s shadowy flames allowed no giveaway to his mood.

    “Guess I was wrong,” Marshadow remarked. “You changed more’n I thought.” He clicked his tongue and hopped off his seat, hands behind his back, and paced toward the wall. Pressing a button, Marshadow said, “That food still coming?”

    “Yes! Very soon.”

    “Great. Move it ter Feebas’ room instead.”

    “Feebas, sir?”

    “Yeah. We’re gonna go there next.”

    Owen blinked, a cold wave of relief rushing down his back. Did he just say that? So stunned, the Charmander didn’t rise from the table.

    Marshadow looked back, jerking his head toward the door. “Well?” He snapped his fingers, and Owen heard several devices turn on within the room. Surveillance was enabled again. “Yeh got me convinced. Yer safe. Now you can help me eval Zena, and maybe Aerodactyl. But if he ain’t a seer, he’s gonna have ter go through the normal eval process. Can’t compromise on that.”

    Owen wanted to protest, to pull for even more, but he had taken far too many unreasonable risks and demands with Marshadow to begin with. He nodded, trying his hardest to break the habit of bowing submissively, even slightly.

    “Bah, relax,” Marshadow said, waving. “Hmph. There’s th’ old Owen.”

    “Stop comparing me to—me! At least give me some time to come to terms with everything!”

    “Oh, now it’s hitting you?”

    “I don’t know.” Owen rubbed his forehead. One thing at a time. So many things were swirling in his head that he had to compartmentalize it. He wondered if returning to therapy was on the table. Did the Voidlands have therapists? Did the therapists here need therapists?

    “Oy.” Marshadow snapped his fingers yet again, bringing him back to the void.

    “Sorry.”

    “I’m gonna walk ya to Feebas’ place. Then I’ll give yeh two some privacy while I sort out some paperwork.”

    Marshadow went for the door and Owen followed after a few seconds of hesitation. There was something different about Marshadow compared to the other authorities he’d dealt with before. His parents, Eon, Star, and even Anam—it always felt like they were keeping the whole truth from him. Yet Marshadow, despite his name, seemed like the one who had shed the most light to his past in a single conversation.

    Too bad he still had no idea what it all meant.

    Feeling guilty for being so harsh on him, Owen followed in silence, trying to find something to say while they walked along the obsidian-like halls.

    “I, um,” Owen started, stopped, and then continued, “how are things in this village, anyway? You’re the leader, right?”

    “Eh, kinda. Yeah, pretty much. Comes with the status and natural power, I guess. Might makes right an’ all that nonsense.” He rolled his eyes and shrugged. “One day into th’ next, just keep things stable and movin’ forward. There’s some other stuff we gotta worry about, but eh, I won’t trouble ya with that yet. Y’heard enough. Enjoy yer time with Feebas an’ we’ll figure out next steps there.”

    “Gahi, too,” Owen suddenly said. “Um, he’s safe, too, if that’s—”

    “Yeah, yeah.” Marshadow nodded and waved dismissively. “One at a time. Start with Feebas.”

    “Can I at least visit Jerry, too?”

    “Ehhh… I’ll think about it. No promises. He ain’t a seer? Then maybe not.”

    At least he was honest.

    Zena’s room was down another hall, and the grid-like nature of the large building concerned him again. Too much like Quartz. The ground here felt powdery, and Owen recalled that a potted plant had fallen here.

    “Hey,” Owen said, “how’s Eon? The Ditto, I mean.”

    “Eh, he’s all hot ‘n bothered,” Marshadow said dismissively. “Dunno what job he’s gonna look fer, but it’s about time he finds one. There’s more’n enough positions that need fillin’ to get the town running with all the new inhabitants we’re prob’ly gonna get.”

    “Do you guys not usually get new ones?”

    “Not in a while,” Marshadow said. “Been centuries since we’ve seen so many.” He placed a hand on one of the doors, nodding at Owen. “I’ll make sure yer food gets in.”

    “Thank you.” Owen tried to smile, but it came with tired eyes, and Marshadow returned them with a reassuring pat on the shoulder.

    Inside was a much cooler atmosphere with blue, shimmering lights on the ceiling, like looking up from the bottom of a river. Not a good sight for a Charmander; it meant he was drowning.

    He wondered, in all his years, how many times had he drowned, or come close?

    Past the same hall, the large room that Owen had seen as his eating and living space was instead a giant pit in the ground filled with water. Lights lined the bottom in little dots that helped illuminate the pool, and, swimming about inside, was Zena, still her humble, Feebas form.

    There was a faint smile on her lips, and she didn’t notice that he was there for a while. He didn’t want to startle her, either, so perhaps he could make a more noticeable noise. He walked to the door again and knocked as loudly as he could against the wall—hoping that nobody was on the other side to hear.

    Thankfully, the vibration must have carried to Zena, who surfaced and blinked.

    “You aren’t allowed in here,” she said, though she sounded more puzzled than anything.

    “Oh, they made an exception for me,” Owen said. “Um, may I come in?”

    “Well…” Zena frowned. “As long as we don’t get in trouble.”

    “We won’t.” Owen grinned and approached the side of the pool, but the unfamiliarity in her eyes dampened his spirits. She still didn’t remember. No! It was still Zena. He had to be positive. Memories returned; they just needed time. Hakk was class C, now he’s B—it meant there was a way up!

    …How long had Hakk been here?

    At some point, Zena had gone back underwater, swimming in happy circles, before she surfaced again. “Oh! Charmander, you must see something while you’re here!”

    Being called Charmander hurt. Small again, and she didn’t even call him by his familiar name… But it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t worth bringing up; he’d only come off as fussy.

    Owen hesitated to lean closer, but he tried. Zena’s fishy form cast fleeting shadows. She bumped her lips against one of the buttons underwater, and a thin stream of air floated through to the surface from several holes along the bottom of the pool. Zena dove through a few of these streams, then pressed another button, and the bubbles came out even faster.

    She broke the surface of the water and wiggled in the air, landing with a decisive splash. “Isn’t this amazing?” she said. “Bubbles! Just like that!”

    He had to admit, it was a spectacle. “It is,” Owen said, though he had no desire to join her in the water. “I never saw something like this before, just blowing air from the bottom like that with the push of a button…”

    “It’s incredible!” She dove under again, and Owen couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across his face.

    Had Zena ever been this happy before? She was diving through the air without a care in the world. Normally, she was so much more reserved… and, well, a little gloomy, usually upset at one thing or another. She rarely yelled, though Owen recalled the others mentioning how she had really gone off on Star once.

    This was nothing like that Zena. So happy and carefree… unburdened by her memories.

    Instantly, Owen lost his smile.

    “Charmander?” Zena asked. “Is something the matter?”

    “Huh?” Owen sat up straighter, inching a little closer to the pool, but still not enough to dip his legs in.

    “Oh, I’m sorry if the splashing is frightening you,” Zena said, shrinking down.

    “No! No, it’s fine.” Owen nodded. “I just got lost in thought. Please! It was fun watching you.”

    “Oh.” Zena hesitated anyway. “Well, I’m… It’s not becoming of me, anyway.”

    “What?” Owen asked.

    “I’m supposed to become graceful eventually, erm, when I become a Milotic. A-again. When I become one again.”

    That was an odd reason to be subdued. “What, so you can’t have fun?”

    “Er… I don’t know. I’m sure I can have fun. But if I want to evolve, I have to be graceful and elegant, not…”

    Was that how it went for her kind? Owen had read that Feebas evolved in a very unconventional way, but he didn’t know how that went. It was like a mysterious secret that only their species knew. Then again, aquatic Pokémon weren’t very well-studied…

    “I don’t think there’s any harm in enjoying yourself,” Owen said delicately. “I never got to see this side of you before.”

    At first, Zena looked at Owen like he’d gone crazy, but then she realized, “Oh, of course, you—right. You knew me before.”

    It still hurt, but Owen smiled. “I did. But you were a lot… well, you were happy. You enjoyed your time with me and the others. But I’ve never seen you… swim with joy before.”

    “Perhaps because it’s undignified, if I was a Milotic.” She closed her sunken eyes sagely. “We have an image to keep up, after all.”

    “You never seemed to care a lot about that… but maybe you actually did.” Owen frowned. It seemed unlike Zena to care about grace. Then again, she’d been alone for so long, maybe that old value had been lost.

    After all, if being pretty or elegant was what was needed to become a Milotic, Owen could empathize with doing everything possible to evolve.

    Owen worked up enough courage to dip his feet into the water, shivering at the first cold bite.

    “Goodness, is water that bad for you?” Zena asked, drifting closer.

    “Well, I mean…” Owen curled his tail forward to display its ember.

    “Ah…” Zena drifted away, like she was afraid she’d put it out.

    “It’s okay,” Owen said, smiling. “I’m used to the water. I’m just a lot weaker like this, so I’d probably get water shock a lot easier if I slip inside accidentally. Nothing like before we found you, though. I had to hold my breath and everything…”

    Now that Zena was closer, he noticed something peculiar about the water around her body. Even now, it looked like there was a small amount of red radiating off of her—he recognized it instantly as residual Voidlands dust.

    “Zena, have you been able to get cleaned?” Owen asked bluntly.

    She flinched, and Owen realized his mistake.

    “No, I—I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “It’s just, last night I was washing up in my room, and the ground was… covered in dirt from the Nil Plateaus. I just, with your fins, and everything, I was wondering if you had trouble.”

    “…Are you hitting on me?”

    A beat of silence followed where Owen only blinked. “What?!”

    Zena frowned disapprovingly. “And you almost had me, too,” she said, turning around with a flick of her tail. “Trying to win me over just to get your claws on me. Honestly!”

    “Wait, no, I—”

    Owen had leaned forward too far and fell into the water. He gurgled in a panic before remembering his training; stiff tail, upward, arms wide, deep breath when he surfaced, and suddenly he was floating. The water’s coldness seeped into his scales, chilling his bones. Something pushed him toward the water’s edge. He reached for it calmly and rolled out and onto his back.

    “Are you okay?” Zena whispered frantically, her voice next to him at the lip of the pool.

    “Yeah, sorry,” Owen said, sighing. “Slipped.”

    “Just so you could—”

    No, because you startled—I mean, because I got startled. No sane Fire would hop in a pool just for attention.”

    “Hmph… Well. Then why did you offer?”

    “You’re still kinda radiating the dirt in the water,” Owen said delicately. “Do you want me to get something to help wash it off?”

    “I’m not even a Milotic and you’re already being so forward with me.” Zena sighed, looking away, though Owen could tell she was hiding a smile. “Were you this bold when I knew you as one?”

    “…I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Owen said. “I’m gonna find a cloth.”

    <><><> ​

    The door to Zena’s room opened, and in came a Mienshao with a rolling table with a platter of food. “Room service!” he called, rolling the table inside and closing the door behind him. “We’ve got something simple for you both, some bread, we’ve got nutrient blocks for Feebas, and—”

    Owen had Zena upside-down in the water, cleaning under her fins and then along her tail, where most of the void dust had collected. The Charmander looked back, startled at first, but then remembered what Marshadow had said about their meal.

    “A-am I, er, interrupting something?” Mienshao squeaked.

    “Oh, no,” Owen said quickly, “we were just—”

    “No, no, it’s fine, I’m just gonna—I’m gonna go. T-take care, er, food, Marshadow sends his, good.” And he was gone.

    Alone again, Owen helped clean the last of the dust off of Zena before he offered, “Want me to get you some?”

    “How will I eat it if it’s all terrestrial food?”

    “Said something about blocks…”

    Owen climbed the mini-stairs next to the table that had been rolled in and inspected the generous platter. That was far too much for just the two of them: A small basket with two thick slices of bread, what looked like slabs of meat—where did they get it?—and cheese. Also nearby were chopped berries and what appeared to be five brown cubes.

    Curious, Owen grabbed one of them. Dense. Heavy. Dry. Crumbly if he squeezed. “These are just blocks of food,” he remarked.

    “They don’t expect me to eat that, do they?” Zena said.

    Owen looked for any kind of labeling or information, then sighed. None this time. “Maybe it’s some kind of nutrient-dense food. We’re both pretty malnourished.”

    “Malnourished. I suppose so. I can’t evolve if I’m not healthy.” Zena dove underwater, went in a swift circle, and looked pleased at the lack of a dirt trail. “You have a very careful touch, Owen. I appreciate it.”

    “Thanks,” Owen said, sitting by the water again. “Here, I think it’s dry because it’s supposed to go in the water first.”

    He delicately placed the first block in front of Zena. It sank halfway in before bulging noticeably in size.

    There was some hesitation, but eventually she opened her mouth and sucked the block, and a lot of water, in. Owen was transfixed at how quickly it had gone away, particles of brown food leaving her lips and floating through the water. It drifted toward a few holes near the pool’s edge—a constant drain of some kind? Clever…

    “How is it?” Owen eventually asked.

    “A little bland, but… I like it. It’s filling. Could you place the rest nearby? I can handle myself.”

    Owen assembled the sandwich next while Zena enjoyed her blocks, and while he had offered the bread and a slice for Zena, she declined, saying she wasn’t interested in that kind of food. They ate their meal almost completely in silence, but this time, it was a cozy quiet. Occasionally, they made eye contact, but felt no need to speak, and instead smiled at one another. Zena wasn’t all there, but her feelings were, just under the surface. Just like when they had first reunited by the red river.

    “Tell me about yourself, Owen,” Zena finally said, breaking the silence. “I’m sure I used to know all about you, and you’re kind enough. You don’t seem like the sort to lie.”

    “It’s hard for a Charmander to lie,” Owen admitted, bringing his tail forward.

    Zena bobbed once. “I see. And how did you end up with someone like me? A Water and a Fire… It’s not a normal combination, you know. Let alone how much larger I may become…”

    Owen paused, looking at the last bite of his sandwich, and then at Zena, who had forced the final block down despite her fullness. They had given her five for a reason, Owen figured, to help get her back in good shape. Her huge eyes had a new, inquisitive light to them, and while Owen could not recognize them as the graceful, red eyes of a Milotic, he still saw Zena in them. It was the same look she had given when they’d read an interesting book together. But back then, Zena had been more interested in being with someone, no matter what the book actually talked about. Now, Zena looked ready to learn about her past.

    But would she want to know all of that? She was so happy now. If Owen told her everything, and the memories came back to her, would she become unhappy again? Would that burden return that melancholy demeanor?

    …But to keep the memories away from Zena would go against everything Owen had been fighting for.

    “Owen?” Zena asked. “Is something wrong?”

    “You didn’t live a very happy life,” Owen said. “…But do you want to know anyway?”

    The Feebas blinked, and for a worrisome moment, Owen wondered if she’d refuse after all. He shouldn’t have said that. It was the same trick Star had performed to keep him from pressing for more information. Was this her reasoning? For his own good?

    “I think I want to know anyway,” Zena said, disrupting Owen’s thoughts. “I may not remember it, but… something about what I feel from you tells me that I can trust you. That you’ll tell me the truth.”

    Warmth spread through Owen’s chest and it showed in his joyous, yellow tail flame.

    “Okay,” Owen said, his tone dripping with relief. “Then I’ll start with when I met you, and everything I learned about you, all the way to right now.”

    “I would love that.”

    She drifted to the water’s edge and stared upward, and for that single, brief moment, Owen felt peace.

    “You lived in a place called Calm Water Lake. I met you as a Charmeleon…”
     
    git-it likes this.

Share This Page