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Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Chapter 115 – Espionage and Deception

The walk home was like a new breath of fresh air every step of the way. The further they got from Dark Matter, and the closer they got to the tree, the more everyone’s spirits seemed to be back to normal. It quickly dawned on them all that Dark Matter’s very presence had done that to them—and getting any closer, or staying any longer, could have made it worse.

But those feelings lingered in the back of Owen’s mind. He couldn’t shake them. It didn’t feel like some… external, dark presence. But now, he couldn’t be sure…

Gahi was muttering something to the others about beating Dark Matter up. Trina lectured him about the dangers of that, and how most of his fighting involved making contact. Demitri suggested throwing his tusks, but Trina tried, and failed, to explain that fighting him was a bad idea in general. As a solution, Demitri suggested throwing from even further away. By then, Trina gave up. Gahi suggested Psychic aiming.

Before Trina could reply, Zena cut over the banter. “I think,” she said, “I’m going to stay with Owen today, and… report as sick to work.”

“Lovesick?” Jerry murmured, earning a hiss from one of Mispy’s mouthed vines.

“I want to keep him company. Owen, would you mind that?”

“I—”

“But it ain’t easy, y’know, gettin’ away with that…” Gahi hummed. “And I dunno if they’ll jus’ fire yeh, y’know?”

“Heh, maybe,” Marshadow remarked, hands behind his head. “Employment’s kinda tough sometimes. Where d’you work again? Service? Yeah, yer kinda expendable.”

“I work at a bathhouse,” Zena said.

“As a Milotic? Heh, maybe not too expendable.”

“…You can’t find a better place to work?” Owen asked.

“Not really.” She looked down. “I’ve been isolated in a cave for quite a while, Owen. I’ve lost a lot of my career skills.”

Owen seemed pensive about that. And Zena, when she spoke about work, was starting to look visibly uncomfortable. Marshadow’s quiet laughter wasn’t helping things. Something about that made his feathers puff out.

“I’d probably need some work, too,” Owen said. “At least to keep things comfy while we work out what to do about Dark Matter. Maybe I should take up a job at your place, too.”

At first Zena seemed hopeful, but then she quickly shook her head. “Oh, you don’t need to…”

“Would you like me to?” Owen pressed, and to this, Zena seemed conflicted again.

“It won’t be a bother?” she asked. “It’s… it would be odd, I think. But maybe just for a day, if…”

That was all Owen needed to know. There was more to it, wasn’t there? “Better than sitting around in my thoughts,” he stated.

“W-well. Sure. I’ll see if it’s allowed. But… Well, I still think you should rest. I’ll go in late, send some word to them…”

“Lookit you,” Marshadow said, eyeing Owen with an entertained smirk. “Feelin’ possessive?”

“…I’m starting to think Null Village doesn’t have the best employment practices,” Owen muttered.

Marshadow shrugged. “The world’s godless.”

Says the Legend. Owen glanced at Zena. “Only if you’re okay with it,” he said.

“Just for one day, I think I’d like that,” Zena admitted. “Maybe… at least to find a job for you.”

It was an excuse, but they both knew it.

<><><>​

Owen hopped off of Zena once they were back in their new home and walked down the hall. Enet pawed at the entrance again and Zena helped open the door. The Grassmander nodded a greeting to Amia, who did nothing, and then he hopped onto the bed that had the imprints of Zena’s body. Scaling the hills, he rolled into one of the crevices with his hands clasped over his belly, thoughtful.

“Hello? Yes… yes, this is Milotic… Yes, Milotic Zena. I’m going to come in late for work, I’m sorry.”

Owen, puzzled, rolled so he could get a look at what Zena was doing. Enet was sprawled out and rolling on her bed, snorting and sneezing and subbing her head against the bed. Zena was coiled in the corner with what looked like another strange device in her ribbons, much like the one Marshadow had shared with him before. Was she speaking to it? Was that badge her employer?

No, wait. This was… technology, something he’d only expect from the human world. Or Nevren’s communicator. But Zena had one?

“Yes, I know. I’m sorry. It was a personal matter. …I… Am I supposed to say? Y-yes, yes, it’s—it was for someone close to me, an important meeting, I had to guard him. N-no, it isn’t like that, I—”

Owen’s claws dug into the bed. The leaf on his tail glowed softly.

“Yes. Yes, it won’t happen again. I understand. Yes, I’ll take a late shift. Thank you.” She tapped something on the badge with her other ribbon, but Owen saw that she was trembling.

“Zena?”

“Oh! Right. You’re here.” Zena cleared her throat. “That was my boss. He, er. Well, I did throw this on him short-notice…”

“Was he yelling at you?” Owen asked.

“Like I said, it was short-notice, so…”

Owen hummed a little loudly, disapproving of something. He wasn’t sure what. “Something about this doesn’t sit right.”

“That’s just how bosses usually are, Owen,” Zena said. “I can’t find anything better. And I don’t really have the time, either. Sometimes, I have to clean up after work, and by the time I get home, well, I’m quite tired. I was lucky enough to get this day off, though I don’t have any pay for it. I don’t have that same power as a Guardian. I need to work to sustain things until this Dark Matter business is taken care of. Being hungry isn’t very fun, you know. And decent food here is expensive…”

This sounded like Zena was in a bind not over physical power but social power. Would Zena enjoy if someone else was there to make it more bearable? Even worse, Owen wasn’t sure if the work environment was healthy for her mental health—or if something else was going on that Zena didn’t have the clout to go against.

He didn’t want to impose anything on her, let alone embarrass her, but… Maybe he could get something out of this that was productive, too. Anything to stop stewing in his own thoughts. “I’m fine with working there, you know, until I find another job,” Owen offered. “It’ll help make things easier here, right?”

There was a hopeful look in Zena’s eyes, but it seemed her pride kept her from accepting outright. “Oh, well,” she said, “I wouldn’t want to burden you with that.”

“No, I think I’d want that,” Owen said. “Anything to stop thinking about all this. Maybe a basic job is what I need.”

Again, she hesitated, but it didn’t seem like it was because she didn’t want him there. “It’s a little odd,” she admitted. “You don’t usually… well, perhaps if you’re looking for work, yes. That could be it…” Zena nodded. “Right. Right… But first, let’s relax. After what just happened with Dark Matter, I think I need it…”

“Yeah.” They definitely needed it. Zena didn’t look like she wanted to talk about work in any sort of depth, so he didn’t press it. “When is Nevren going to talk with us again?”

“He said fifteen days at the latest, when we’d seen him before,” Zena said. “Assuming time moves the same here—and we don’t really know for sure—that’s tomorrow our time.”

“How long was I…”

Zena smiled sadly, coiling around the bed so she didn’t take up Owen’s space, though he would have preferred it. “And how are you feeling, Owen? After…”

A fair question to ask, so Owen took the time to think on his answer. “I’m feeling better.” It was technically true. Not great, but better than before. He could tell that Zena knew. “I’m sorry if I let him get to me.”

“He got to all of us, but he was definitely targeting you,” Zena agreed with a cautioning tone. “I can’t believe he’d say such a thing to you…”

“He was trying to make me doubt everything,” Owen summarized. “But the thing is, I think a lot of what he said was… true.”

“It can’t possibly be,” Zena replied instantly, like it had been in her head. “You, aligned with him? With the same powers as him? I can’t imagine it at all.”

Deny, deny, deny, Dark Matter’s words echoed in his mind. It really did hurt to see Zena like that, but wasn’t it the truth?

“Are you sure he isn’t manipulating you? F-false memories? Ah, I’m… I’m sorry if that’s a touchy subject, I—”

“It’s alright. It’s… I get it. It might be, from your perspective, I just—I don’t think that can be it. He takes away memories and he makes negativity, but I’ve never seen him implant memories. I don’t think he can do that. And when I think about what he said, I’m… I feel confident that… at least some of it is true. And I don’t think confidence is something he can implant, either.”

“Confidence…” Zena shifted her weight. Enet was watching them closely.

“Sorry. I promise, I’m not gonna, like, side with him or anything, not after everything he’s done. It’s just, there must have been something different in the past that made me think differently, or maybe Dark Matter himself was different! It’s just like Eon. He’s different now.”

“Just like Eon.” Zena repeated that to herself, quietly, and that put a little light in her eyes. “That’s true. People do change a lot, and perhaps Dark Matter most of all, for you to have once sided with him.”

Hearing it back from Zena reinforced it. That was true, wasn’t it? Perhaps it wasn’t that Owen had once been somehow bent on Dark Matter’s nihilistic philosophies—but that Dark Matter had once been different!

Because he was trying to save the world, Owen realized. But what does that mean for Necrozma?

“You have that thoughtful look in your eyes again,” Zena said gently.

“Y’know, I thought losing my flame would make me harder to read.” Owen huffed, crossing his arms.

“No, I think I just know you well enough by now.” She curled one extra coil around the bed.

He couldn’t hide a smile. “Guess you do,” he said, heart fluttering a little. Then, after a pause, he glanced uncertainly at her. “Are… are we courting again?”

“Well, I—”

“Yeah,” Enet stated.

Zena blinked, glancing at her, then at Owen. “Did she just agree?”

“Oh, was that feral again?”

They stared in a brief silence, and then Zena laughed. “Well, Enet has always been more insightful than she lets on. I… I suppose we might be.” More silence. She was searching for the words.

Owen weighed it in his mind. He had initially been trying to start fresh with Zena. It was because they’d started off out of necessity, to stay sane. Zena was lonely; Owen was confused. They’d defended each other… but they still had things in common after all that. And now, despite everything, it felt… right, this time. Right enough to try.

Zena went on, “I know that we wanted to take things slowly, or, er—”

“Let’s do it.”

Zena’s scales flushed a deep red. “I’m sorry?”

“Courting. Let’s do it.”

Zena visibly relaxed, laughing along with her sigh. “Owen, you really… catch me off guard with your phrasing.”

That one, he hadn’t realized. “Sorry.” Grinning, he sat up. “Does Enet keep watch while we’re gone?”

Zena nodded.

“I know it’s weird for me to go to your work, but I’m too small to be a guard or a scout, and you’re my best reference. It’ll help bring in more money. And I want to try a few things to prepare for Dark Matter.”

“Oh? A few things?” Zena asked.

Owen nodded. “In case Dark Matter tries to force anyone to tell him, I need to keep it to myself. If… if that’s okay with you.”

Zena seemed unsure about that, but then sighed. “Well, you’re the last person I’d expect to keep a secret unless it was for a really good reason. Just… don’t do anything reckless. Okay?”

“This is the opposite of reckless,” Owen assured her. “It’s a plan for if something goes wrong. Speaking of which, will Enet be okay on her own?” he glanced at the Zoroark. “What if someone with Dark Matter tries to get her?”

Enet disappeared before his very eyes.

“Oh.”

“She’s very good at it,” Zena explained, and that was enough.

<><><>​

Aster stood in an empty room, his ears ringing after another bellowing, angry roar from Alexander. Next to him was Mhynt, standing stoically as ever. He had been there for what felt like an eternity. Was he going to stop soon?

At this point, whatever Alexander had been saying was completely meaningless. He had no idea what was actually happening now. What he was saying. Why he was there.

Oh, because he’d failed. Now he remembered…

“Aster.”

“Y-yes?” Finally standing at attention, the Mewtwo stiffened and stared straight ahead. Alexander drifted around him, his breaths coming in low, echoing growls tainted by darkness.

“What did I just say?” he quizzed.

“U-um… that… I’m a disgrace, and didn’t achieve even the s-simplest task.”

“…Mmff. Then you were listening.” Alexander leaned closer, growling

“Your Greatness,” Mhynt said, “I have good news, at least.”

“Good news? And you held it until now?”

“Yes. I did not want this to be over remote communications, and you took me to this meeting straight upon my arrival.”

Alexander’s expression twisted into a somehow deeper snarl. “Are you calling me a fool?”

“No, sir. Your anger is justified.”

“Then what is the report?”

“I lent some of my power to one of the guards of Null Village. I subtly altered his preferences to be partial toward being near Owen as a companion. Subtly enough that he would not realize it. With my latent Psychic power, I can see through his eyes when I focus, and I can read through his memories at will. He will be a valuable spy to keep an eye on Owen’s whereabouts.”

“Hmmm…” Alexander floated back, some of his anger ebbing away.

But Aster couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Was Mhynt really that powerful, all this time? Or did she simply never have that opportunity before? Sure, she only recently got her full power back, but was it really this much that was sealed away?

“That is helpful…” The shadowy haze around Alexander’s body disappeared and Aster relaxed. The Hydreigon’s breathing no longer echoed. “And what did you learn already, then?”

“Owen intends to confront Dark Matter soon. He is likely going to figure out how to counter his power, even though he is weak. I also have learned that those in the living world are going to fight Dark Matter from the outside at the same time. In other words, a two-plane assault.”

“A battle from both sides.”

“If they strike soon, I suspect Dark Matter will be defeated with ease.” Mhynt straightened her posture. “His army is not ready. We will be able to take the remnants of Dark Matter’s army for ourselves and there will no longer be another Void King to challenge you.”

Aster did his very best to suppress a shudder. The only thing that held Alexander back from absolute rule was Dark Matter vying for the same power, and Necrozma across the Abyssal Ocean who was already powerless. If Dark Matter was gone, Alexander could…

But that was what he wanted, right? Alexander would be happy. Then they could have fun. Alexander wouldn’t yell at him ever again.

“That’s great!” Aster said, grinning. “That means Owen would do all the hard work for you!”

“And then we can kill Owen,” Alexander said, rumbling with a new laughter. “Perhaps your mistake was a stroke of luck instead, Aster. Maybe I won’t turn you into a Void Shadow after all.”

The Mewtwo’s blood ran cold. “Y-you were going to do that?”

“Perhaps for a few weeks,” Alexander said leisurely. “But now, I’m feeling generous. I’ll let you remain… intact.”

Aster forgot to breathe. He nodded and tried to speak. No words came.

“You’re dismissed. Mhynt, I want a report every day of your findings.”

“Of course.”

Alexander said nothing more. Aster nodded and disappeared, searching for a quiet space in the castle to cry.

<><><>​

Cipher Castle’s courtyard was an excessively vast space of reddish green grass and glistening, black ponds. It was cleaner than untreated water of the Voidlands, but it still had a tinge of rot that, for the most part, people had become used to. An overweight Swampert was running laps around one of the blackened ponds, struggling every step of the way.

Mhynt strode along a stone walkway, the same color as the blotchy purple sky, and turned her attention to the left. Guards who were chatting next to a fountain in the shape of Alexander spewing water noticed her stare. One by one, they stood at attention, and Mhynt sighed, walking past them. They immediately relaxed, and one of them—a Luxray—mumbled to the others about how scary she was.

Feeling a little impish, Mhynt flicked her hand and launched a spear of darkness over the guard’s head, scorching the upper tip of his mane. The guard yelped, but Mhynt had already gone down a different path.

Alexander was probably watching, so she had to keep the cruelty up. Their fear fed him.

Once she was halfway to the courtyard’s exit, she stopped near a hedge maze and ignored the Void Shadows trapped inside the brambles. She leaned against it and the wraiths shrank away from her. She then flicked her hand, materializing a badge, and flicked through the holographic display with a conjured, shadowy claw.

She found Leph’s contact and waited for her to answer.

“What do you want?”

“I want to go out for some lunch.”

“What? Why?”

“Why not?”

Leph paused and Mhynt heard a small whimper. She hardened her expression and transferred that to her voice. “Is something wrong, Leph?”

“No, I’m just feeling under the weather. Fine. I’ll come with you.”

“I thought gods didn’t get sick,” Mhynt commented dryly.

Leph paused again, then said, “Is Aster coming?”

“If you want.” That was an odd request. Leph usually hated having Aster around since he was so disruptive. “Why don’t I contact him?”

“Fine. But be nice to him.”

“Why?”

“You know why. Alexander has been awful to him.”

“Mm. For failing a critical mission.”

“Mhynt, I’m not having this conversation.”

“Okay.” Mhynt held a breath, sighed quietly, and added, “I won’t mention anything of the sort.”

“Thank you.”

“And how have you been?”

Silence, and that was all Mhynt needed to know.

“I’ve been under the weather. Like I said.”

“Mm.”

“Did you see Owen?”

For only a moment, Mhynt was glad nobody else was around. At least, nobody that could see her face. There was of course that one person a few paces away. They would have seen her stoic mask break for a split-second. She hastily composed herself. “I made contact with him. But he’s nothing like I remember,” she lied. “Lost cause.”

“Oh…”

“It’s nothing to be worried about, Leph. It only reaffirms my purpose here.”

“Right.”

Mhynt said nothing. The Swampert completed his first lap around the small lake.

“Well. I’ll see you at the front of the courtyard, like usual.”

“I’ll call Aster. Goodbye.”

Just as Mhynt ended the call, she sighed and tilted her head upward. “What do you want?”

“Oh? You knew I was here?”

An icy, haughty voice came from the other side of the hedge maze. The Inteleon, Qitlan. While he was by far the weakest, he was considered Alexander’s second in command, if only because he’d done the perfect amount of steady work, reports, useful praise, and general tail-kissing to the Hydreigon’s ego. And he was also apparently one of the best at getting information, and was already hard at work getting what they could from the captive Mew, slowly but surely.

“Of course,” Mhynt said. “You wanted something?”

“Oh, no, no. I was only checking on you. After all, it must be very heartbreaking to see your old mate so twisted and reduced to a shadow of themselves…”

“Get to the point.”

He chuckled. “I’m sorry. I thought you said it was beyond you now. I didn’t think you actually cared.”

Mhynt mentally cursed. She’d slipped. There was no point in hiding it now. “I won’t deny some bitterness,” she said, “but that comes with the territory. It changes nothing; he’s still gone. The one I knew is buried forever in his memories.”

“Of course. I’m sorry.” And Mhynt thought for just a second that it was genuine. “I’ll admit, though, I was worried about this. Alexander has more faith in you than I have for a mission like that. Granted, if you actually had come back with Owen, I would have been entirely convinced of your convictions…”

“Mm. It would have been convenient for me. Unfortunately, my powers were stalled. It is Owen, after all.”

“Yes. Your only true rival at the moment. One with Light and Shadow…”

“The Shadow half is still sealed,” Mhynt said. “I suspect Dark Matter will try to draw it out, but Necrozma’s light will win. Owen will kill Dark Matter, and then we will be one step closer. There was no risk of Owen being claimed after all, if he was able to ward me so easily. It was a strategic retreat. Why interfere when the enemies are fighting one another?”

“Hm!” Qitlan sounded surprised. “You’ve told Alexander already?”

“I have. He was happy.”

“Now that’s the true surprise.”

Mhynt chuckled at that one, and Qitlan did, too.

“So, to half-celebrate,” Mhynt continued, “we’re going for lunch. I have to call Aster, now.”

“Of course. Enjoy yourself.”

“And what about you?” Mhynt asked. “Progress with Star?”

“She’s a tough one,” Qitlan said. “Her mind is a maze and none of our psychics have been able to break through her memories. I suppose it’s to be expected… but it’s cumbersome nonetheless. Ah, well. We will break her eventually.”

“Mm.” Mhynt nodded. “Good luck with that, then. Now, if you don’t mind…?”

“Ah, of course. Goodbye, then.” Qitlan stepped away, his lithe footfalls even softer before, finally, she couldn’t hear them at all.

Star… Mhynt searched for Aster’s contact. Hold on a little while longer.

<><><>​

Cipher City was the largest settlement in all of the Voidlands. Kilo Mountain’s crater was large enough that it took an afternoon to walk from one end to the other; Cipher City sprawled across the center of Void Forest, destroying the dead trees to make room for more buildings for its growing population. Two, perhaps three Kilo Villages could fit inside the city, and that was ignoring the fact that the buildings were tens of stories high in some places.

Mhynt was accompanied by Leph and Aster, two of them riding on the former. They had left the aged Cipher Castle to go into more modern and less traditional parts of the city. The buildings were square and dotted with depleted light crystals, looking like stones dotted with rainbow geodes. Some of the fancier buildings got more extravagant with their crystal work, shaping the colors of each one to depict a picture if far away.

The roads were wide enough to accommodate even Groudon’s wide stance and still have room to spare. Everything was some shade of purple or black at its base, though the dark buildings and colorful lights gave some flair to the dreary atmosphere. Far ahead was a great pillar with an orb of light at the top. It didn’t do much for Mhynt’s scales, and staring at it was not nearly as harmful as the true sun, but it at least provided some light and a sense of time to Cipher City’s inhabitants.

Mhynt sighed, looking down at Leph’s fur. She hadn’t washed lately and it felt matted and thick. How low the gods had fallen.

“Oh! Is that where we’re going?” Aster asked, leaning forward and pointing over Mhynt’s head. She leaned left to see past Leph’s neck. She was at least glad that the holy ring around Leph’s abdomen made a proper, tangible divider between her and Aster so he didn’t accidentally knock her over.

“It is,” Leph said. “I thought we would go somewhere a little more energetic.”

“Energetic, hm?” Mhynt eyed the building’s decorations, unimpressed. It was mostly a bunch of green crystals in the shape of a Tyranitar in a suggestive pose. The Tyranitar’s Tail. “Why?”

Leph only shrugged.

“I think it’s neat!” Aster said.

Mhynt could already smell something vile inside and masked it with a snort. She’d have to get used to that scent later.

The interior of the bar was no better. Sickly brown wood, polished and brightened artificially with some dubious paint, covered the walls, and the tables looked like they were only washed with water for the legally required amount. Mhynt wasn’t going to look under them. After ordering a large booster seat for her table, and for Leph to clear out a spot where she could sit on a mat without a seat to even their heights out, they got situated.

It was different, speaking at near-eye level to Leph and Aster alike. It felt like she could actually get a word in.

“Come here often?” Mhynt hummed, glancing at the patrons that still watched them. There was a light buzz, but it was quieter than before they had entered. Eyes of countless patrons stealing glances at Alexander’s finest. Of course they would watch.

“Not too often, but I was curious about its energy,” Leph replied.

“Energy. Mm.” No, there was more to it. A noisy place. They were getting eyes, but not many were coming close. Hiding in plain sight? Was that what Leph was doing? This area was wholly unexpected…

Occasionally, Leph made a glance at the entrance. Nobody of particular note came in, and with how far in the back they were, did it matter?

No, it didn’t. And that was important.

“Hey, there.” There was a hint of nervousness in the waitress’ voice—a gruff looking Mightyena—but she at least had the courage to approach. Mhynt could respect that. As she used a free paw to pass the menus on her back to the trio, she asked, “Can I get you anything to drink to start off?”

“Oran juice!” Aster said cheerfully.

“Just water, please,” Leph replied.

“Your strongest drink. Titan sized.” Mhynt didn’t look up, so she didn’t see the waitress’ expression, and instead looked through the menu’s appetizers.

There was a pause, and then the Mightyena nodded. “Of course! And would you like to hear about our specials?”

“Only one,” Mhynt said.

“Oh! Erm. Yes. Well, er, we, um…”

“Mhynt, stop being so intense!” Aster laughed, patting Mhynt on the shoulder, who barely moved.

“Hm?” Mhynt glanced up. “How do you mean? I think I only want to hear the best special right now.”

“Oh! Well, the best one.” Mightyena visibly relaxed. “I’d recommend the spicy rocky wings. They’re a new item made with extra crispy batter, and real meat!”

“Real meat, hm? And just how was that acquired?”

“Legally,” Mightyena said, like it was rehearsed.

“I’ll order that, along with the bottomless chips. I’d also like the Tyratail Sliders.”

“Me, too!” Aster added. “Oh! And can I have the Cheri burger to go with it?”

“The cheese-veggie salad, please,” Leph finished. “That’s all for me. Titan sized.”

With their orders taken, Mightyena left, and Mhynt faced Leph again. The Creator’s daughter was always so polite. Mhynt figured she must have gotten it from the holy father’s mannerisms. So, why here? The Treecko’s yellow eyes bore holes into Leph’s face.

“Well, I guess with that look you’re giving me, you know something must be strange,” Leph finally said.

Mhynt said nothing.

Aster, too, said nothing.

“…I wanted to talk to you about Alexander.”

“Oh?” Mhynt asked. “I thought you preferred not to speak about work when on a break.”

Leph’s expression was inscrutable. She wasn’t nearly this unreadable during poker. And Aster was being remarkably quiet, too.

“There’s a resistance brewing,” Leph continued. “They’re done with his rule. I’ve… kept it a secret for a while. But I’m their leader, and… I got careless. I defied Alexander too openly and he nearly Voided me. I think he’s afraid. And I know you hate him, too. Even if you follow all his orders, I know you hate him. If we all work together, we can overthrow him. But we have to act fast. It has to be tomorrow.”

Mhynt’s face was like stone. She heard the words, and she understood the impact, but she did not let it move her. “I see,” she replied. “You’re keeping this resistance stronghold a secret even here, so it does not get out, then.”

“I am.” Leph was intentionally hiding her movements, tensing her muscles to keep still. Aster was less subtle, fidgeting nervously. They were afraid of something. That she would betray them after all this trust they’d built?

“Aster?”

“Y-yeah?”

“You’re part of this as well?”

“M-mhm.”

“I see.” Mhynt nodded. “That was very smart of you to do this here. Alexander’s spies wouldn’t already be here, because it is not your usual haunts. But you made sure to see everyone coming in. Very good.” Mhynt sighed. “But by now, one probably came. Let’s enjoy our food.”

Leph and Aster were silent again, glancing nervously at one another, then back at Mhynt.

“You—” Aster hesitated. “You mean, you’re fine with it? A-after all the work you’ve done for Alexander?”

“Hm?” Mhynt didn’t look up again, reading aimlessly through the menu. “You seemed confident about your deductions. Why doubt it now?”

“Well, we… I…” Leph fidgeted. More silence. Yes, something was wrong. How much of what Leph just told her was a lie? “It’s nothing.”

“Then it was nothing,” Mhynt agreed, and just in time, their waitress returned with drinks and appetizers.

“Enjoy!”

“We will.” Mhynt slid her drink—which was larger than she was—toward her and then forward, and then grabbed a chip the size of her hand and nibbled at it, piece by piece.

Mhynt would have enjoyed the relative peaceful respite after that exchange, perhaps savoring some of the food the bar had to offer—it was a guilty pleasure—but all of that came crashing down when a cross-eyed Ursaring wobbled toward their table.

“Hey,” he said in a slur thicker than Aster’s head. “You’re that Minty Treecko everyone knows about…”

She considered ignoring him, but the stench was getting to her. She would shoo him away. A warning first. “I am Mhynt, yes. And you’d best—”

“Y’know, I always had a thing for small, powerful Pokémon like you…”

The warning expired. With a flickering motion, Mhynt produced her Honedge blade from thin air and pointed it just under Ursaring’s chin. “Leave.”

Ursaring’s smile broadened, but there was a tinge of fear in his eyes. “Feisty,” he commented. “Y’know, maybe I’ll buy you a drink or two and we can go to my place tonight…”

He grinned again, though his smirk held a bit of hopeful fear in him. Was he really asking her out? She really needed to work on her ‘go away’ default expression. With a sigh, she said, “Fine.”

Much to Aster and Leph’s surprise.

“Um—Mhynt? Are you feeling okay?” Leph asked. Any attempt at stoicism had disappeared from Leph in an instant.

“Of course. Ursaring, why don’t you come with me to the washroom?” Mhynt stepped off of her seat and landed far to the floor. “Leph, Aster, feel free to start eating if your food comes before I return.”

She didn’t look back as she stepped past the other patrons and into the back corner of the room. Ursaring followed, fidgeting nervously, giggling to himself, while a few nearby waitresses sighed and seemed to play fire-water-grass against each other for who had to perform cleaning duty next.

The washroom hall had several doors, but Ursaring kindly opened one of the larger ones so she could step in. The strong, chemical smell of cleaning liquids wafted toward her and made her inner Grass shrivel.

“So, uh, why here?” Ursaring asked, followed by a deep giggle.

Mhynt kicked off the ground and leapt onto a sink, turning so she was closer to his height. “I didn’t want anybody else to see, of course. I like leaving things to the imagination. Now, why don’t you give me a kiss?”

“O-uhuhu-ohoho… a kiss?” Ursaring, flustered, shifted left and right. “S-sure, sure! And, um, a kiss?”

“We’ll see what happens from there,” Mhynt said. “Maybe we’ll hold hands next.”

Ursaring’s fur puffed out and he nodded quickly.

“Now, close your eyes.”

He obeyed and leaned forward. Mhynt concentrated, watching his wobble… Her eyes flashed with pink light.

She saw an Ursaring working in heavy lifting in a company a few blocks from the bar. He was supposed to be at work, but he often shirked it. He went to the bar for extended breaks and spent a portion of his money on drinks and treats for random ladies he’d see. Then, he would go home to a makeshift family, and he felt powerful around them, often because he did still make the most money. But they also resented him, and he liked that look in their eyes.

She saw flashes of the things he did to them.

A rotten spirit, like so many in Cipher City. Only the rotten survived.

She’d seen enough.

Mhynt broke her concentration; only a few seconds had passed, and Ursaring was still waiting, eyes closed, for his prize. Mhynt reached up and pressed a finger to his lips, and he stopped breathing. Seconds later, bits and pieces of his fur fell off of him like dust in the wind…

Hopping off the sink, she made sure her movements were lithe, and she eagerly left the chemical smell and returned to the table. During that short time away, their food had indeed arrived, and Mhynt gladly returned to her seat with a quick hop.

Leph looked unamused, staring. The Treecko, in response, took her first extra crispy wing, savoring the taste. It really was crispy. Good crunch. Just the right flavors to balance it out. No wonder the bar was so popular. Crunch, crunch.

“You aren’t going to explain yourself, are you?” Leph asked.

“Hm?” Mhynt tilted her head.

“Can I have some?” Aster whispered.

“I’m far too small for all of this,” Mhynt said, gesturing for Aster to go ahead. “By the way, we should leave soon. Have we paid?”

“I paid in advance,” Leph confirmed, a small pouch levitating next to her to reveal a small, glowing card inside.

Mhynt nodded back. “Good. The smell of this place is starting to get to me. Though, I will admit, the food is good. But I’d much rather enjoy it at home.” They even had the courtesy of putting the food in some to-go boxes. Wonderful. Maybe they just didn’t want more tables to clean, or they wanted fresh customers to occupy them.

Just as they were finished packing up, a high-pitched scream sounded from the bathroom, calling the attention of about half of the patrons. The huge doors to the larger washroom opened, but no large creature emerged. Instead, it was a disoriented, frightened, confused Teddiursa covered in dust, staring at his paws like he was in a nightmare.

“I suppose that’s our time to leave,” Mhynt said, closing her box. “Let’s go.”

<><><>​

Mhynt was not sure where Leph and Aster had gone after their fun at the bar. They had gone back, business as usual, spoke to a few guards, asked why that Swampert was still swimming around the lake, and then headed back to their quarters. Mhynt had a lot to think about, mostly to do with what Leph had told her. A rebellion, really? Centered right in Cipher City, where Alexander’s influence was the strongest? She wasn’t going to believe that, but the reason behind telling her in the first place interested her. Leph wouldn’t be coming up with some false narrative just to throw her off without any good reason. No, in fact, this sounded more like a setup.

Leph had been ordered to say that, and then Aster had been told to keep quiet. It was the only way it made sense. This was a test from Alexander. So, with that in mind, it was trivial enough to know what to do next—tell Alexander and throw Leph under. On her way to Alexander’s quarters, she’d tried to find where Leph and Aster had gone, but for some reason she was unable to find them.

Leph’s door was askew down the long hall. There was a table that had been overturned, when she leaned over to take a look at what was in her room. Not good. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time that Aster had gone in to pester her, only to get an angry Judgement in response. But this time, Mhynt didn’t think that was the case.

More likely, they were ordered to avoid her until she turned them in, like a sort of test to make sure she wouldn’t ask for more information and get it wrong, or catch them in a lie. But there was still a sinking feeling in her gut that they’d been sent off to another mission, which would leave her alone with Alexander. And she hated nights like those.

Mhynt shook her head. Time to see Alexander. She had no choice.

The halls on this floor of the castle were ornate with regal blues and purples. Black stone was the dominant color, and it narcissistically represented the Hydreigon’s natural colors. There were even flecks of red here and there, like his eyes would be watching her no matter where she went. He wasn’t omnipresent, but he certainly liked to give off that impression.

“Your Darkness,” Mhynt said, rolling her eyes. She knocked on the door, knowing that at this hour he would be awake. But she always made sure to keep her knocks gentle, so he didn’t have a reason to yell at her for being too loud.

One problem with Hydreigon is that she had no way to tell where he was in the room. His wings made no sound when flying, and his levitation meant no footfalls. Maybe he enjoyed that small twinge of paranoia it gave her. For all she knew, he was down the hall. Her scales felt colder behind her and she spared a glance back. Nothing.

After a long while, Alexander finally answered. “Enter.”

Because he wanted to make it all the more inconvenient. These doors were meant for large Pokémon. At least she could conjure a Shadow for that. She held her hand up; over her shoulders, the silhouette of a Sceptile appeared and mimicked the motion. She pressed forward and the Sceptile did the same, pushing the door open, before disappearing. Mhynt stepped through and regarded Alexander’s room idly while he rose from his desk.

This was his bedroom. It was big enough that Mhynt could make a large house and yard for herself out of the square feet, and probably have a little shed for Aster, too. Near the back of the room was a large bed fit for a king, obviously, with enough pillows to satisfy Groudon himself. They towered over themselves, and Alexander must have recently toyed with them, because a few had been torn open and shredded. Mhynt wondered what he did in his sleep.

“This had better be important,” Alexander said, checking his badge for the message she had sent. It was a curt, businesslike one, simply that she had to speak with him, nothing more.

“Yes,” Mhynt said. “I wanted to report to you about a rebellion effort.”

Alexander’s scaly brows furrowed. “And you didn’t quash it immediately?”

“I did not know its full headquarters nor did I know the full extent of it. I was hoping to gather more information… and to inform you of it quickly. The participants involved made the circumstances… strange.”

“Strange? Who are they?”

“Aster and Leph. With Leph as the leader. Or, at least a figurehead. I do not know how they managed to do that without your detection until now, nor do I know how even I did not see it, but they disclosed it to me during an excursion into the city. They were careful to evade any possible retainers that you sent along with them, as well. They had planned to inform me of this in a coordinated manner. In fact, I would not be surprised if they had some kind of contingency should I have disagreed, not that I am confident in their ability to apprehend me.”

She’d rambled for longer than she should have. That would make her seem nervous. She hid her irritation with a firm stare. “I seek your advice on what to do next.”

Alexander listened with an amused smile. “They really thought that, did they?”

“I believe so. They appeared to be genuine; while I would not put such a prank past Aster, Leph was the one leading the discussion.”

“I see. Well, Mhynt, that is wonderful. I had suspected for a while that they were planning something; that is why I took the liberty of going ahead and apprehending them preemptively. When you told me that you wanted to speak to me about something… yes. I was certain that it would have had to do with them.”

“Apprehended?” Mhynt repeated, keeping her tone as even as possible.

Alexander grinned even more, a malevolent twinkle in his dark eyes. “Follow me. It’s time you saw them.”

Alexander drifted out of his room, his tail flicking in the air. He did that when he was eager, excited. She hated that. So many horrible memories. But she knew how to disguise those emotions, even from Alexander, as they continued through the halls. Down the spiral staircase with the red and purple carpet that looked like rotten blood. Down the darker, duller halls that were decorated far less. Where the windows stopped appearing because they’d gone underground, and where the damp air made Mhynt’s scales wither on reflex.

They walked along the dungeon’s first floor. Metal bars glowed softly with the aura of Protect energy, meant to nullify any elemental attempts of whoever was there. The air inside some of the inactive cells smelled vaguely of nullifying gas. Not potent enough to have an effect anymore, but she was certain that particularly troublesome Pokémon would get it. After taking a few glances at some of the Pokémon sitting inside, she decided instead to keep her gaze forward. Some of them looked malnourished; others still had wounds on them. A few looked like little more than lumps of darkness, as if Alexander had descended upon them on a whim. He probably had.

In the very back, as Mhynt tuned out the groans and whimpers of some of the dungeon Pokémon, Mhynt realized Alexander was leading her to a door that was closed off by solid, glowing metal. A high security room that not even she would be able to break out of with much ease.

An Inteleon—Qitlan—was standing right next to it, looking at something on his badge until they’d arrived.

“Hello, Mhynt,” Qitlan greeted with a bow. “How interesting to see you a second time today. Usually, we don’t cross paths often. Sometimes I think you schedule lunches around me.”

“Don’t be silly.” She did. “Are you here tormenting someone else? Star is down the other hall.”

“Oh, I’m giving her a break for now,” Qitlan said. “There’s something much more interesting behind here. Your Mightiness?”

“Open it.”

“As you wish.” With a few taps on his badge, he pressed the device next to the door, which slid open. There was a second door on the other side, keeping whoever was in the main chamber completely trapped. Once they passed through again, the door closing behind them, Mhynt saw what she’d been expecting, and dreading.

Tied in chains, energy and elements suppressed, and pinned uncomfortably against the walls, were Leph and Aster. Both looked exhausted, but uninjured; they’d been here for a few hours.

“All over a mere suspicion?” Mhynt asked Alexander.

“They’re rarely wrong.”

“Mhynt…” Aster winced, like speaking was a strain to him. His voice was raspy. “What’s going on? I don’t get it…”

Leph said nothing, but she was staring at Alexander with a seething hatred.

“It seems pretty clear to me what should be done here, Mhynt,” Alexander said. “What do you think?”

Mhynt stared at Alexander with her usual, blank face. Her yellow, reptilian eyes then trailed to Leph, then Aster. He, in particular, looked at her with desperate, confused, hopeful eyes, all at once.

“I agree,” Mhynt said. “All this time, they had been preparing for an overthrow. To be this far into their ranks, there is no telling how much they have leaked to them. And how much more they will leak.”

“W-wait, I don’t—”

“Enough, Aster,” Leph said quickly. “Don’t… say anything.”

“But—”

“Silence,” Alexander hissed, pointing one of his smaller heads toward the Mewtwo. A chain of darkness shot from its mouth and into Aster’s throat, coiling around it and squeezing. His eyes bugged out and he tried to breathe; he only let go once Alexander was sure he’d lost his voice again.

Mhynt flicked her hand; from the darkness, an empty Honedge appeared and placed itself in Mhynt’s right hand.

And then, with a low rumble, Alexander said, “Kill them.”

Mhynt moved deftly. She began her motion with a crouch, and then she’d disappeared, snapping in front of Aster just as her upward swing completed, cleaving him in two. Aster didn’t even have time to react, and her blade was coated in his blood and the dim glow of light and shadow. Mhynt was surprised at how easy it was; Alexander must have weakened him considerably.

Leph cried something. Mhynt didn’t hear it over the sound of her blade cleaving the stone behind Aster’s body.

Mhynt hopped back and shook her blade, spattering excess blood on the wall.

Something golden shined behind the wall. Tendrils of darkness jutted forward and around Aster’s halves, pressing them together. The body stitched itself back, leaving a fading, black line where Mhynt had cut, Aster’s face frozen in unaware horror.

And then, he blinked, and gasped, and tried to break free on reflex. He cried from the overwhelming phantom pains.

Leph screamed, “MHYNT! YOU—”

“Was that all you wanted?” Mhynt asked Alexander, annoyed.

“Well, well.” Qitlan idly clapped. “She didn’t even hesitate, Your Greatness.”

“She didn’t.” Alexander grinned again, lowering until he was closer to the Treecko’s level. “Tell me, how did that feel? I’m sensing… something from you that’s unpleasant.”

“Yes. I’m annoyed.” It was a lie; she was terrified. That could have gone horribly, and she’d taken a gamble with Aster’s life. But there was simply no way Alexander would want to dispose of Aster so readily, let alone Leph. None of it had added up unless it was all a ploy. So now, she had to keep with the act. Her heart threatened to explode.

“Annoyed?” Alexander asked, looking briefly and genuinely confused.

Good. She could lull him in. “I have a report to do, and I am being pulled aside to not-kill a not-treasonous person. I don’t have time for torture. Leave it to an underling. This is beneath me.”

“Ah. Of course.” Alexander nodded, looking entertained. Perhaps he’d even laugh later. “Well, Mhynt, since it’s fine now, I’ll tell you. I ordered Leph to fabricate a story about a rebellion, and then she would report to me on how you reacted. This was a test.”

“What did I do to question my loyalty?” Mhynt said with a bite to her tone.

Alexander raised his smaller heads disarmingly, but he still grinned, like he had all the cards. “It was just a suspicion that your drive wavered after seeing… him again. After what happened with Aster, I had to be sure, after all.”

“The Owen I knew is dead,” Mhynt spat. “Nothing will bring him back. He lives only as memories. What he became now is…” She was giving away too many genuine emotions. Stopping herself, she turned away. “There is nothing to salvage. My loyalty continues to be toward Cipher City and you.”

“Then you really were caught off guard?” Qitlan asked, still leaning against the wall. “I find that surprising, considering how easily you complete just about any other mission or target we throw at you.”

“Alexander would know better than you that Owen is a unique subject, along with any allies he enchants.”

“Yes. He has the same properties as Mhynt,” Alexander said.

“Actually,” Mhynt added, raising her blade before dispelling it. “I forgot to mention something during by verbal report. It is going to be in my written synopsis. Owen has lost his power over darkness. It has atrophied.”

“Hmm.” Alexander’s tail flicked again. “Then perhaps he isn’t a threat after all…” Alexander hummed. “But weakened does not mean gone. Dark Matter is there, too.”

Mhynt nodded. “He may be trying to reawaken that power. If it is, then he will become a threat again. However… Owen does not realize this. He intends to defeat Dark Matter.”

As Mhynt spoke, Alexander’s grin—all three heads—grew wider. “That is our time to strike,” he said. “Qitlan. Unbind the two. Mhynt, finish your report. I will be making arrangements to time our assault for when Dark Matter is at his weakest.”

He drifted out of the dungeon.

“In one swoop, we will eliminate two of our greatest threats.”

The door shut, leaving Mhynt alone with Qitlan, Aster, and Leph. She spared a glance back at them, out of Qitlan’s vision, and flashed an apologetic frown. But then, she hardened it again, and faced Qitlan. “Clean them up. I have a report to finish.”

“Of course.” Qitlan gazed at Mhynt. “But do not think I am fooled, Mhynt. I know you still have feelings for Owen. Don’t let that shake your loyalty. Otherwise…”

“I’m aware.” Mhynt stepped past him, pushing the dungeon door open. “Goodbye. Also, if it is true that Leph and Aster are still allies… I expect you will not treat them in the same way you are treating Star.”

“You have my word. I intend to only free them.” Qitlan flashed two glowing cards in his hand. “Speaking of which, you asked if you could see Star. After all you’ve done… why not? Pay a visit. Perhaps you can get more information from her.” Qitlan tossed Mhynt a third card, this one heavier than the two meant for the chains.

“Thank you.” With a flick of her wrist, the card disappeared. “I will do that after my report.”

She walked through the dungeon, silently pondering her options. She’d escaped that test unscathed, but at what cost? She could only pray that Aster and Leph would understand when it was all over. And soon, it would be. Soon… she hoped. But to whom she hoped, she no longer knew. Perhaps it was just to the aether.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Chapter 116 – Call of the Void

Owen had a few reasons for going to the bathhouse that Zena worked. For one, he wanted to see what kind of lives Pokémon had in Null Village properly, now that he was out of the evaluation room. Along with that, he wasn’t sure if Zena was tolerating possible mistreatment at work; something about the place gave him a bad feeling, just from how she’d talked about it at home. If he could help her see that, or at least ease the burden if he worked with her, perhaps that would be enough. And lastly, he needed to clear his head someplace that wasn’t right by his reduced shell of a mother.

The bathhouse was further down the road, along a street that still had small signs of that battle in the skies between Migami and Aster. That felt like such a short time ago, and Owen reminded himself that he had been dormant for longer than he remembered.

Plumes of steam constantly blew out from the bathhouse, which was blocked off by a thin curtain. Owen wondered, if the facility they were in had baths and wash areas, did some homes not? Or was this more of a communal thing? As Owen’s mind wandered, they headed inside, where a Carnivine with a kind smile and seething eyes greeted them.

“Ah, Zena!” Carnivine greeted with a saccharine bite. “You’re here earlier than expected!”

“Yes, I’m sorry for calling late,” she said. “I was able to finish what I had to do early. I can take up my shift now.”

“Wonderful, wonderful!” Carnivine brought his leafy arms together.

Something about this Pokémon made Owen’s feathers rise defensively.

“Well, and who is this? The one you need to guard?”

“Yes. I’m sorry if it’s a bother.”

“He is… a bit odd looking. I’ve never seen a Pokémon like him before.”

“I’m a southern Charmander.”

“Oh! My apologies.” Carnivine bowed his massive head, his whole body floating up and down with the momentum. “Well, it’s a bit unorthodox, but if he’d like to help sort towels and assist with cleaning, I’d be happy to pay him for the day.”

“I can do that,” Owen agreed, wanting to give Zena as little trouble as possible.

“Good, good! Then, Zena, why don’t you get ready? I’d like to talk with you before you start working.”

For a fraction of a second, Owen felt a pang of fear from Zena. He wasn’t sure how he knew that. The way she tensed, perhaps? But then it was gone, and she steeled herself.

“Yes,” Zena said, “of course. Owen?”

“Right that way,” Carnivine said, gesturing to the left, in an area that had a misty sign that said ‘Employees Only.’

Zena followed Carnivine across the hall to the other side, into her office. As she passed, a few patrons stared at her, and one asked a receptionist at the front when she was going to be available. Available, for what? Just to tend to the baths?

Zena slithered around one of the early customers, giving him a stiff smile. The customer returned it with a hungry grin, passing by much slower, taking up part of the hall. Zena had to squeeze by, and he apologized for taking up all the space, but the Nidoking was smirking. The back of Owen’s head felt hot, feathers puffing out, but Zena glanced at Owen—like she knew—and shook her head placatingly.

He held his breath. One, two, three. An old mutant instinct told him ways to attack. Four, five, six. But he knew he shouldn’t do that.

Clearing his mind, Owen hesitantly made his way through the halls on the opposite end, careful not to get stepped on. Navigating the way through the employee only area was easy enough, and soon he found his way to the laundry room, where towels upon towels waited to be loaded up for washing. He’d never seen so many in one place, and some of them looked filthy, purple and red with void dust. Maybe that was why Pokémon went here—so they didn’t have to spend the time cleaning it themselves.

A Gardevoir passed by Owen and his heart leapt in his throat. On reflex, he looked up, but saw that she had green hair, and a different face, and he winced, feeling like an idiot to even consider it. She was at home, in a cage. She was gone.

“Oh, sorry, kid—wait. What’re you doing here?” The Gardevoir’s voice was harsh and she leaned over. “Can’t you read?”

“I-I’m not a kid,” Owen said.

“Look like one. Even the ones who died don’t look young like you.”

“Well, I’m not. I’m a Charmander.”

Gardevoir looked his leafy body over, then rolled her eyes. “If it makes you feel better.” She turned and headed down the hall. “What, you a new hire?”

“For the day. I’m here with Zena. We’re courting.”

“Oh, her.” Gardevoir grunted. A Lopunny, Braixen, and Vaporeon giggled with one another.

“What?” Owen asked.

“Nothing. She’s just new. To the Voidlands, too, obviously.” Lopunny sighed, shaking out void dust from a crumpled towel before tossing it to a tub in front of Vaporeon, who washed it down with a jet of water.

“She is. We came here only a few weeks ago.”

“Mmhm. She thinks she’s above it all, but we’ll see how that lasts.” Gardevoir twisted one of the washed towels with Psychic energy before lobbing it next to Vaporeon for another cycle.

“Above it all?” Owen repeated.

“Are you just gonna stand there? Help out!” Vaporeon growled.

“S-sorry! Where, what, is there a place to—uff!”

A pile of towels covered Owen in several layers. Once he struggled his way back out, he saw Braixen standing in front of him, tapping a blackened, wooden stick on her arm. “Fold those. Just got done drying it off.”

Owen shuffled to a free spot in the laundry room, which was starting to feel cramped even for his size, as Braixen started to load up more damp towels from the basin.

After getting into a decent rhythm with folding towels several times his size, Owen went on to ask, “What’s wrong with Zena?”

“Oh, sweetheart.” Gardevoir hummed. “Nothing’s wrong with her. I’m not gonna say your girlfriend is some horrible person. She just needs time to fit in, that’s all. Milotic from the living world are always like that, y’know. Prim and proper and elegant because that’s how they need to be. But here in the Voidlands, white scales don’t last.”

“I don’t understand. Do you mean that this, the, uh, the way everything is so harsh here, you’re saying it’ll… change her?”

“That’s how the world works, child,” Vaporeon said.

“I’m not—“ Owen stopped. “I get it. Okay.”

“Still, she’s getting us some extra profit, so that’s nice,” commented Braixen, slapping another damp towel on the pile before frowning at the next one, tossing it back into the tub. Vaporeon scowled, like she was offended her cleaning wasn’t good enough.

“Extra profit?”

“Oh, easily. Milotic like her?” Gardevoir twisted another towel and tossed it over Vaporeon’s head. “Sure, they don’t last all that long, but that elegance is a rare sight. People have been paying just to have a look at her, not that she reciprocates. A shame. We’d probably get more if she did. But that’s part of the purity act, I guess.”

Owen’s stomach twisted in knots. He stopped folding briefly, but Braixen slapped his head with her stick and he quickly continued. “Isn’t this just a bathhouse?”

“Here’s the thing, Charmander, yeah, this is a bathhouse, but it’s the sort that people come here just to wash up and get some company, you know?” Braixen sighed. “Not sure if you noticed, but the boss has a certain taste in who he hires. Hmph, and apparently Milotic is getting paid more than me and she just started…”

“I see…”

“What?” Braixen growled. “Don’t get judgmental on us, here.”

“No, I’m not! I—it’s just not something I think Zena would—er, I mean, Milotic would be interested in.”

“The money probably got her interested,” Braixen said. “If she just got here, she’s probably desperate to get some kind of established home and shelter.”

“Heh, that’s how they get ya.” Gardevoir shrugged. “It’s not that bad of a job, when you get down to it. We’ve got protections. And if any of the guests decide they want more than they paid for, the girls here know how to rough someone up.”

Braixen and Vaporeon both smirked.

“Next load!” Lopunny grunted, tossing another pile of towels near Vaporeon. “Watch out for that top one. A very fine guest used it.”

“Oh, gods,” Vaporeon groaned, “please don’t tell me it was the Skuntank.”

“Okay, I won’t.” Lopunny left again.

The conversation died away, the smell of that towel too distracting for anything else. Owen got into a calming routine with his folding to help distract himself until that smell went away, and he felt almost meditative. He could think about other things. Zena and what she was doing worried him… but he could see how she felt about it when they were home. She agreed to him coming for a reason. Maybe she wanted a second opinion?

A stray thought crossed his mind and he tried to concentrate, folding blindly.

Are you there? He waited for a response.

Silence at first, and he moved onto a second towel, then a third.

Owen? replied a familiar voice.

He smiled. Hey. Sorry if you’ve been in silence for a while.

Oh, it’s all right,
Klent said. We were resting.

How’s Amelia?

She’s fine. We’re… vaguely aware of what you’ve been through. The memories are coming to me now. How awful…

Yeah… But it’s not so bad. I think we’re going to defeat him soon.

Mm.


That was an odd response. Something wrong with that?

I’d ask you the same. You sound conflicted about it, and there’s no hiding that from me, you know.


Right. Klent, Amelia, all the other spirits must have felt what he felt, no matter where he was. I don’t know what I’m doing anymore, Owen said. I don’t want to slip back into following what everyone else wants, but now that I can actually try to make a choice, I’m… lost. M-maybe Dark Matter was right about that. Maybe I’m just… built to follow directions.

Now, Owen, that’s not—

No, I’m not gonna do that,
Owen replied quickly. He’s right. That is how I’m built. But I need to move past that. I need to… make choices for myself. I just don’t know what yet…

I see… And were you asking for opinions? Not choices, just opinions.


The way Klent spoke so delicately… He was trying not to press. Trying to give Owen the opportunity to choose for himself. It was patronizing… but he appreciated it anyway.

What do you think? Owen asked.

I think no matter what alliance you may have had with him, Dark Matter lost his way, Klent said. You surely don’t want Kilo destroyed. And you surely don’t want some eternal darkness, either. If you can choose to fight against it…

I don’t want that,
Owen agreed. I just wonder if…

Klent didn’t answer. Owen felt a new presence bubbling up—Amelia, this time. You’re trying to save Dark Matter, huh? Just like Anam?

It sounded silly when it was told back to him. Yeah.

Well, we want to help, but you gotta figure out how to do that, first. He’s kinda bent on world destruction right now.

Right.
He sighed. I’m thinking about ways to help, but I have no idea. I have a backup plan if he really does try to kill me, or something, but… I don’t want to give that away so soon.

Yeah, we won’t tell,
Amelia assured dismissively. But I’m more worried about what everyone else will think if you went off to see him alone.

Yeah…
Owen sighed.

“Hey, you okay?” Vaporeon asked.

“Huh?!” Owen had forgotten he was working. “Y-yeah, sorry.”

“Look, if you’re worried about Milotic, don’t be. She’s probably got some toughness in her. We all know what happened by that big tree and how she fended off that weird guy! Word spreads fast, y’know.”

“That weird guy,” Owen said. “You mean Dark Matter.”

“Pbbbt, sure.” Vaporeon laughed. “Good one. I mean, with how creepy he was, he may as well have been.”

Maybe it was better they didn’t know.

Braixen cursed and slammed her stick on a strange machine in the corner of the room.

“S-something wrong?” Owen asked nervously.

“It’s this blasted—look. My fire power is good, but I use a fire crystal for a conduit to keep the distribution even. See?” She opened a lid on the side of the machine, revealing a red crystal under the top of the machine with the symbol of an ember in the middle. “Keeps it controlled. But it’s starting to go out, but Boss doesn’t want to replace it, saying it still works. I’m tempted to break it myself, but…” She sighed. “Then we’ll go without a regulator and that’s no good.”

“Can I take a look?” Owen offered.

“What’re you gonna do?” Braixen asked skeptically.

He stepped away from his folded towels and climbed into the chamber.

“Hey, careful,” Braixen said. “Those things can get kinda volatile if you mess with them.”

“I know. I’m… a crystal technician before I died, or something kind of like it.” He tapped at the symbol, thoughtful. “Yeah, I think I see what’s wrong with it.”

“Really? Just like that?” Braixen asked, trying to look inside, but Owen shooed her off, muttering something about concentrating. She scowled and turned away.

The coast clear, Owen channeled some energy into the crystal. Not enough to fully power it, but enough to make it more like those inert ones in the wall. Then, he pulled back. “Okay. It’s fixed. But I can tell you now, it won’t last longer than a few more moons—uh, months. You’ll have to get a replacement soon or it might start a real fire.”

“Tell Boss that,” Braixen dismissed, but then tapped her stick on the machine skeptically. She tossed a few towels in, pressed her stick again, and the machine hummed satisfyingly. She gasped. “I don’t believe it! It’s practically good as new!”

The light in her eyes made it impossible for Owen to hide his smile.

“Oh, I—thank you!” She beamed. “This’ll make things so much easier.”

“He-hey, can you fix this one, too?” Vaporeon pointed at the basin. “I dry out like five times faster without the crystal helping me, and it’s totally busted.”

Owen did the same process as before, channeling a tiny bit of energy into the crystal when they weren’t looking. When Owen hopped out, the tub itself filled automatically with crystal-clear water. Vaporeon, thrilled, looked like she had half a mind to hop inside.

“Well, look at that. We’ve got ourselves a repairman on the job.” Gardevoir giggled, and it reminded Owen of Amia briefly. He glanced away, hiding a grimace.

“Really, though, thanks,” Vaporeon said. “Guess Milotic got lucky with you after all.”

“H-ha, yeah…”

“A shame,” Braixen hummed. “Wouldn’t mind someone like you around the house.”

“Uh.”

“What’s going on in here?” Carnivine called, floating into the room.

“Looks like your one-day employee is a repairman.” Gardevoir gestured to Owen. “Fixed up the crystals!”

“Really?” He looked down at Owen, his massive jaws twisting into something of a pensive stare. “How about that.”

“You should replace them soon before they get volatile,” Owen said, and it was only a half-lie. He wouldn’t be around to replenish them again. “You have maybe a month before it’s too risky.”

There was a disinterested light in Carnivine’s eyes, but he nodded amicably. “Of course, of course,” he said. “Thank you, Charmander. Now, about Milotic…”

“Yeah?”

“I want to know why she was off galivanting with you this morning. Now, I know that you’ve recently passed and are probably thrilled you were able to stay together even in the Voidlands, but that’s no excuse to shirk work!”

And this is my problem, slimeball? Owen thought.

This guy reeks of bad news, Amelia commented, and Owen didn’t realize he’d left that connection open. No, he liked this.

“Yeah,” Owen said. “She was doing something important. It’s a classified assignment.”

“Classified? Classified how? She doesn’t seem like someone too important.”

Owen’s feathers puffed out.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Of course, to you, she’s important.” He wrapped his leafy arms together pacifyingly, radiating a false smile. “But I meant in terms of… to Null Village.”

“She and I work with Marshadow and others at his rank,” he said. “I’m one of the lead crystal technicians in the village,” he continued, a total lie. Probably. “But I also have some authority besides that. For example, I was part of the rescue operation for Dialga and Palkia.”

That caught Carnivine’s attention. Suddenly, he seemed nervous. “Well, what’re you doing here, then?”

“Mission finished early. Nothing for you to worry about.”

“Y’know, forgive me for asking,” Carnivine added a little hastily, “but how is someone as weak-looking as you part of a rescue operation for a lost Legend?”

“Want to find out?” Owen asked.

“I, uh, you, uh, what?” Carnivine sputtered. “How would you… prove that?”

“That tree in the middle of town.”

“The one that messed up the sewage system for a little while? Yeah, I know it.”

“That’s warding off Dark Matter as we speak. It’s filled with the same energy that makes up those crystals, but as a constant aura. It gave this village the sky back.”

“Yeah, that… that was nice, but what’s that got to do with you?”

“I made it.”

“Hah!” Carnivine instantly relaxed. “And here I thought you were actually someone to worry about! Well! Sure, kid. You created the second Tree of Life. Why not? Next, you’re gonna tell me you’re Necrozma’s disciple, just like Elite Mhynt!”

Owen clicked his tongue, then walked toward the room’s exit, gesturing for Carnivine to follow. Maybe this show of power would be useful. As far as Owen was concerned, everyone who he didn’t want to know he was here—Alexander, Mhynt, and Dark Matter—already knew. There was no harm in letting more people know. He suspected that Mhynt and her team would return to take the Tree somehow, and he couldn’t have that. Drawing attention away from the Tree and spreading rumors that he was back again… Yes. This would be a good thing.

Geez, Owen, how many steps ahead are you thinking here? Amelia asked.

Even if we can beat Dark Matter, Owen replied, it’s Alexander I’m worried about. And we can’t have him harming the Tree. If he wants me, I want him to think I’m not in it.

They made it outside. He had a small audience, and on the way, he asked if Vaporeon or the others had a lunch that had a fruit or a berry to work with. There was, as it turned out, a spare Oran that he could work with. That would do.

He made a small hole a few feet away from the bathhouse. By the time he was done, his claws covered in purple soil, Zena had emerged from the bathhouse to observe with several patrons. They must have followed Zena, though their attention had peeled away from her and toward the strange, green Charmander playing in the dirt.

“Why’re we all watching this?” asked one, frowning.

“He’s apparently going to do some kind of magic trick.”

“No, he made the Tree of Life in town.”

“That kid? Please.”

“I mean, have you seen him around?”

Owen perked up. “Zena!” He grinned, waving.

Zena flinched; all eyes turned to her. Owen gestured for her to come closer and she did, quickly.

“Owen, what are you doing?” Zena whispered. “We were supposed to keep ourselves quiet.”

“That won’t work,” Owen explained. “Everyone who wanted to know where I am already knows. I need to get their attention so they don’t hurt the Tree.”

“What? Why? What’s so important about it?”

“The town likes it.”

Zena squinted, but then sighed. “You’ll tell me later.”

Good, she understood. Owen gestured to the soil. “Can you put some water over this?” he asked once he put the Oran inside and filled it with dirt again.

“Any special kind?” Zena hummed, a faint glow coursing through her scales.

“Yeah. Put on a show.”

Zena frowned pensively. “What is this for?”

“I have an idea on how to get you out of here, if you want.”

Murmurs around them… “Is she glowing?”

“I knew Milotic were radiant, but I didn’t think that was literal…”

“Can I touch her scales?”

“Careful, she froze the last guy who tried…”

Owen glanced at the patron who said that, then glanced at Zena with a quirked, feathery brow. Zena tittered in response, but Owen only smiled, proud.

Damp soil and an Oran in the ground, Owen placed his hands on the dirt and closed his eyes. By now, the performance had garnered attention from several others in the streets, even nearby buildings. Crowds formed and a few guards came to check if a fight had broken out, only to get caught up in the same curiosity.

When Owen channeled this energy—both of Grass and of Radiance—he felt a little closer to the spirits he housed. A little closer to Necrozma. Taking advantage of the last time he’d done something like this, he tried to reach out.

Are you there? Necrozma? Can you hear me?

He didn’t really think it would work, that he would get a reply.

Whenever you’re able to, I want to talk to you. It’s about Dark Matter. I know what he said is true, so I want to hear what you have to say back. The part of me aligning with him. I don’t know why I can’t remember that, and I think you do. Talk to me when you can. Okay?

No reply. Owen opened his eyes; before him was an Oran bush several times his height. The leaves glowed a brilliant, prismatic color, like the back of a Technical Machine, or Zena’s scales under the sunlight. The rainbow, pastel-like colors reminded Owen of Fae, Fae Forest, back when they’d rescued Willow. And within the bush, dotting the branches generously, were several Oran Berries that had a soft glow to them. Owen recognized them immediately as enchanted, the same way Anam could.

So, he really did have that same power. Dormant all this time, awakened only after he remembered…

Owen’s gaze trailed to the Tree that towered over Null Village, aware of the gawking crowd only moments after. “Uh, here’s your berry back, um, Vaporeon.” Owen picked one and handed it to her, though she was too stunned to say her thanks when she took it. “Is it time for our lunch break?” Owen asked Carnivine.

“Wh, uh, sure. Yeah. Uh. Yeah. S-so you really are with that authority, then? The… with Marshadow, and rescuing Dialga and Palkia.”

Owen nodded. “Why? Is that a problem?”

“Well, no, no, not a problem at all! But I must ask, er, what were you concerned with regarding, regarding your, with your, the stay, with—my establishment?”

“Yeah, I did,” Owen said with a thoughtful nod. “I think you should consider how you treat your employees. You wouldn’t want an inspection to find anything questionable, would you?”

“Of, of course! I take wonderful care of my employees!”

Owen made a glance at Vaporeon, Braixen, and Lopunny. All three shrugged and nodded. Owen hummed, then looked at Zena. “I guess that’s all for this berry bush. Take care of it, alright? Those berries are strong.”

“There is something different about it,” Vaporeon admitted. “What… is it?”

Owen picked a few. “Something that I think would be good to give to the guards once I grow more. I have enough energy to do that a few times a day… Zena, want to get lunch together?”

“Oh!” Zena nodded. “Yes, if I can take my lunch with him…”

Carnivine didn’t object. Perhaps he was afraid to.

“I’m going to go around town.” He glanced at one of the guards. “I need to head back to see Marshadow. Can you take me there?”

“Er, well, I’m not sure where he is…”

“The evaluation building is fine.” With that out of the way, he nodded at Zena and smiled. “Then, after work, we can have dinner together. How’s that sound?”

Zena’s coworkers all gave her mock-swooning gestures, to which she smiled and rolled her eyes. “I would love to.”

<><><>​

“Did I ever tell you that I’ve never actually been to Void Basin?”

For some reason, Leo was a lot more talkative than usual. Spice tried to ignore the Delphox’s ramblings, but with only herself and a few other squads for company—all spread out to cover more investigative ground—there wasn’t much else to catch her attention. There was, of course, the odd, black blobs that had spawned from the many-eyed leviathan guarding Kilo Village, but she didn’t like thinking about them, even as one followed their team.

So, the Salazzle relented and asked, “Is it because of the official restrictions?”

“Well, yes, but even when the Kingdom was still functional, it was forbidden, right?”

“Yeah. Though, I visited it all the time.”

“You did?! Then the rumors were false? They say that Pokémon who come here… go mad!”

“Sometimes they did. But I didn’t.” Spice shrugged. “And that Aerodactyl outlaw, Jerry? He didn’t, either.”

“Right, outlaw…” Leo’s ears drooped. “How far that family had fallen…”

“House of cards,” Spice said dismissively. “I won’t get into details, but behind the scenes, they didn’t have a happy relationship.”

“I see…” Leo shifted uncomfortably, and Spice knew why. They didn’t talk about it often, but Leo knew full well that she and Jerry used to be friends. Possibly more, had they gone different paths… had Jerry not fallen into his criminal lifestyle. Had she not assimilated into the rest of Kilo’s empire the way most of the Kingdom did.

But that was the past, so she shoved past it with a new topic. “You’re feeling alright, then?”

“So far.”

“And your wounds?”

“Oh, those are practically gone.” Leo patted his torso. “See? I don’t even need bandages anymore. Still, those mutant injuries… certainly can make even blessed healing difficult. Now that we’re short on those…”

Spice nodded. “A day in my life, huh?” With a smirk, she went on. “You know, I always wondered why.”

“Hm?”

“Why blessings simply didn’t work on me. Orans don’t have that same effect. I have to be incredibly careful since Revivers don’t, either.”

“Well, it goes to show how strong you are despite that. I can’t recall a single time where you’d been defeated in a Dungeon…”

Spice said nothing, glancing to her left, toward the ocean. The horizon was eternally black with the clouds of the Shadow Beast, as the town was calling it. Rhys claimed it was Lugia. She wasn’t sure which was worse.

“You still haven’t slept, have you?” Leo asked. Before Spice could growl back, he quickly amended, “I know, I know. I’m just asking. You’ve already proven that you’re fine without sleep.”

“Well, I haven’t,” Spice replied defensively. “Let’s drop it.”

“I will.”

It had been weeks. Pokémon died without sleep for this long. She felt perfectly fine. It was starting to scare her.

“Mmbb…”

“Can I help you?” Spice snapped, glancing behind her to see the three-eyed blob trailing after them. Spice hissed and walked faster. “Creepy thing already terrorized Angelo into silence. What do you want?”

“We really don’t know what happened, do we? They seemed friendly, but now Angelo refuses to talk to the one with him.”

“Maybe it ate a piece of art he was working on,” Spice grumbled.

The team to their left, consisting of a Lapras on his own conjured water and a Houndoom and Vileplume on his back, was a minute away. They were getting closer together. Accompanying those three was yet another Shade. That one seemed to only have two eyes, but they were mismatched.

Void Basin was unpredictable, but the approach was not, and they had been ordered to fan out to cover more ground for any suspicious triggers. Once they got closer to the crater’s edge, they would group back up to defend against anything odd.

It was all silly. There was nothing wrong with the place. What was really wrong was the Chasm to the east, where apparently Nate came from. Did the Basin ever house eldritch beings of incomprehensible size like the Chasm? No! That made it better by at least one order of magnitude.

The walk continued. Leo was starting to look nervous.

“You alright?” Spice asked.

“No, if I’m being honest,” Leo said. “I’m getting this horrible feeling…”

“We were just told to go to the edge,” Spice said. “We don’t have to go inside. It’s just to investigate something, maybe get some drawings—ahh, if Angelo wasn’t training, that might have been useful…”

Leo made an uncertain whine, and that’s when Spice knew he was actually nervous. Leo hated making noises that his feral counterparts did. Some kind of pride thing.

“If you’re not sure, you can stay back. It’s alright.”

“What? No,” Leo said. “I wouldn’t be much of a team leader if I sent you on your own.”

Spice wanted to roll her eyes, but her concern was stronger. “Tell me if you’re feeling weird, okay?”

They were a few minutes from the edge, now. Spice had a vague sense that someone was calling her from somewhere, but she ignored it. It wasn’t like it was beckoning her or tempting her or anything ominous. Maybe she was just paranoid.

Spice could see the other end of the crater and a bit of what was inside, but it was, expectedly, just more reddish-brown rock, barren of all life. Though, now that she thought about it, the rocks looked a shade more purple than usual.

“Stop!”

“Oh, what now?” Spice was about to turn back, but a green-black canine ran past her and spun. “Zygarde? Again? Where have you been?!”

“Investigating,” Zygarde said breathlessly. “Hello. You should turn back. This place is not safe.”

“Mmb!”

“Oh, now you tell us?” Spice hissed at the Shade.

“I have already sent one of my copies here and he has not returned; there is not even a trace of his body. Worse, his spirit did not return to the rest of us, either. A fragment of me is completely unaccounted for. This is unprecedented, and you should not continue. You may suffer the same fate.”

“Okay, we aren’t gonna go far,” Spice said. “It was just to investigate.”

“You’ve investigated enough. Turn back. It’s… the curse of this place is true. It is a restricted zone for a reason.”

Spice glanced at the other teams. Both other squadrons had a Zygarde lecturing them, too.

But that feeling of someone calling Spice was getting stronger. She furrowed her brow, wondering if she was starting to feel its effects after all. But, no, she didn’t feel drawn to the Basin. Someone was just calling her. She tried to focus on the voice.

She tuned out Zygarde’s warnings and the Shade’s gurgling.

Only the voice from the Basin. It felt unpleasant—she recognized it as Psychic energy, similar to Leo. But it also felt very far away.

Please…

Spice held her gasp, but crawled forward, despite Zygarde’s protests.

“Do you hear that?” Spice asked.

“Do not follow any impulses,” Zygarde said immediately. “You must turn back.”

“Im—impulses?” Leo said. “In… in what way? To be honest, it’s not as scary up close…”

Please, help… Is anyone there? I’m sorry… what did I do to deserve this?

“Someone needs help in there,” Spice said, slipping past Zygarde. He shifted his paws and tried to draw out green, arrow-shaped energy, but Spice immediately said, “Will you just wait?! Leo, stay back! It’s not safe for you!”

“No less safe than for you,” Zygarde warned.

“I’m immune, okay?!” Spice, with a frustrated growl, crawled the rest of the way toward the basin. Zygarde, for some reason, did not follow, and instead advised Leo to stay behind. The Shade accompanying them pinned itself on Leo’s fur, tugging him back with what might have been a mouth.

Satisfied they were letting her go, she gazed into the crater.

It was like an empty lake, or like a bowl had been carved out from the land, and then time was left to unevenly erode what was left. No grass, no trees. Spice found it nostalgic, because she liked gazing into that emptiness to think on her own. Nobody bothered her there.

But it seemed darker than usual. The red-brown rocks were more like purple, and a dust storm was kicking up near the center. Purple, faint twisters, visible from dust of the same color, spun and spun at the basin’s very center. That was also where the voice was coming from.

Spice tried to answer. Hello? Can you hear me?

Silence. She glanced back at the others. Zygarde and the Shade were stationary; Leo was getting anxious, asking to get closer to make sure Spice wouldn’t fall. Zygarde dug through Leo’s bag and told him to put on a rope, which he obeyed with a hint of reluctance.

Rolling her eyes, Spice refocused on the voice.

Please, someone, anyone. I can’t take it anymore. I… I just want it to be over. Please…

So this voice couldn’t hear Spice. She cursed under her breath, wondering if she should go further. No, that was too risky. But she would have to report back.

One more try. My name is Salazzle Spice. If you can hear me, tell me where you are.

This time, she tried to reach out as far as she could. Leo had tried telepathy like this with her before, using Psychic power. She was never any good at it, and telepathy in general—especially without a mutual Psychic—was spotty at best. But it was still worth trying.

All Spice heard was more of the same. It was more desperate this time, like her thoughts themselves were being interrupted by her real-world sobs. Spice’s claws dug into the stone. Someone was in trouble, and she was just going to walk away?

“Spice.” Leo’s hand touched her shoulder. “Are you okay?”

Spice jerked her shoulder away, but then flinched at the crazed look in Leo’s eyes. “A-are you okay?”

“I’m fine. What do you hear?”

She regarded him for a breath, and then answered hesitantly. “A girl’s voice. Tiny voice. Maybe a powerful Psychic…”

Zygarde’s eyes dimmed. The Shade looked anxious, bobbing up and down, gurgling something urgently. Leo looked… wrong, somehow.

“Do you want to save her?” Leo asked. “I think we should go in and save her.”

And in that moment, Spice decided they had to retreat. “No, Leo. Come on. Let’s tell the others.”

“What? But someone needs to be rescued!”

“What happened to your fear, Leo?”

“I wouldn’t be a team leader if I was abandoning someone in need.”

“Your eyes are wild, Leo. We need to go back. Something’s wrong.”

Leo laughed. “I’m finally getting some courage, and now you’re the one with cold feet?” He gave her a toothy grin. “The basin isn’t so bad! Now that I’m looking at it… it really is just an empty crater.”

The other two teams were heading back. Their Zygarde escorted them, along with their respective Shades. Both squadrons were staring at them with worry.

“Leo, I want you to focus. Get that thought out of your head. Think back to a few minutes ago, okay?” Spice held his hand, clasping one in both of hers. “Remember when you knew this place was cursed?”

“I was wrong. And now we need to save someone.” Leo nodded, then gave her a confident smile. That wasn’t Leo’s smile. Something was twisting it, pulling it up by his lips. Was this still Leo?

“…What’s… your father’s name?”

Leo gave her an odd look. “Tari. Spice, what’s gotten into you? I…” There was a flash of recognition in Leo’s eyes.

Spice tried to latch onto that. “And we need to get back to them, right? Come on. We should—”

“I can’t go back to them and say we abandoned someone in need!” Leo shouted immediately. “Spice, as your leader, I’m ordering you to head down with me.”

“That’s enough,” Zygarde said, and then gave a mighty tug of the rope wrapped around Leo’s torso. Leo wheezed as the wind left his chest, but then he grasped the rope and channeled flames through his hands—to no effect. Leo’s rope, of course, was flame-proof. Instead, he gave a crazed look to Spice and, in a deft motion, flicked his other hand, the hand with his conjuring stick—

Spice was flying before she realized what had happened. The pain came later, first in her chest, then her head. And then she saw the ground far below her, and the crater’s edge rising higher and higher. Spice saw a green flash of Zygarde’s Thousand Arrows, but then she hit the rocks.

<><><>​

With a pained grunt, Spice rolled onto her back. Something was broken. Maybe her arm. Or her shoulder. Possibly a rib. She’d need to sleep that one off for a day or two.

Opening one eye, her vision didn’t change very much. The air smelled stagnant and damp, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Where did the sun go? The way her breathing echoed meant she was inside a solid building. The damp smell, some kind of basement?

Hadn’t she just been in the open air by the crater?

No, then she’d been pushed…

“Leo?!” Spice called, and was surprised at how much her voice echoed back at her. “What—”

Something growled and she heard footfalls. Her instincts told her to roll, narrowly avoiding a snarling beast that bit the air where she’d been. She kicked hard, then blasted a disorienting plume of poison forward. She hopped and her back slammed against a stone wall.

She couldn’t get a good look at what had attacked her. It was small and four-legged and dark. It jumped at her and she caught a glance of green and white hexagons just as she kicked it away again.

Zygarde. But why was she being attacked by him?

A heavy, metallic creak, like a huge, heavy door opening, caught both their attention. Spice was faster; she dug for her bag and found an iron spike. She hurled it toward Zygarde, landing a perfect shot at his upper foreleg. He yelped and Spice ran toward the door, cautious.

“Hey, careful!” Spice shouted. “There’s a feral—thing in here!” No time to explain beyond that.

Spice expected to see someone huge pushing open the door, but all she saw was the hallway. More dreary stone and only dim lights thanks to scattered crystals embedded in the ceiling.

It was a Treecko, staring curiously at her.

“You aren’t supposed to be here,” Treecko said.

“Yeah, I know!” Spice spat, but then realized she’d been ignoring Zygarde for too long. She spun back, but saw that it was only growling. “What’s gotten into him…?”

Treecko paced toward the beast, sighing.

“What’s your name?” Treecko asked.

“What’s yours?” Spice replied cautiously.

“I asked first.” She smiled wryly.

Alright. She could respect that. “Salazzle Spice.”

“Treecko Mhynt.” She took one step closer to the beast.

“Careful, he’s—”

Zygarde roared and lunged. Shadowy arrows conjured around his shoulders and fired toward Mhynt, leaving small slash marks wherever they hit the stone behind her. Mhynt didn’t flinch. Spice had no idea how none of those hit Mhynt.

The Treecko made a waving motion above her; at the apex, a Honedge appeared in her hands. Spice had no idea where she hid it. And then, Zygarde was right upon her, inches away—and then his roar was cut short. The blade protruded through his back, covered in a clear, dark fluid. The blade shined gently with a golden light.

“What did…” Spice trailed off, staring dumbly. That Treecko had singlehandedly…

Zygarde’s body burst in a plume of darkness that swirled around Mhynt, collecting in the blade like water down a drain. The blade darkened; the colors siphoned and collected near the empty, soulless eye of the Honedge’s hilt. A green teardrop grew and landed into Mhynt’s free hand, roughly the size of a baby apple. It reminded Spice of an emerald.

Treecko approached Spice—at some point, the blade disappeared, and Spice didn’t know when—and gestured for Spice to take it. She obeyed without thinking, briefly touching Mhynt’s hand. They were tough and scaly, much like hers, though there was a softness that Spice would never be able to replicate.

“What did you do?” Spice finally finished.

Mhynt seemed to make sure that Spice was holding the gem firmly before she actually let go, patting Spice’s hand for good measure.

“I have great power over spirits of this world. I can shape them and manipulate them as I wish. I have placed your friend in a dormant state while his spirit cleanses. Put him under the care of someone important to him. An acquaintance would do. When the time is right—and you will know—place the gem under soft, radiant light.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“Someone in Kilo will.” Mhynt gestured toward the back of the room. “Go away.”

“How? I’d love to.”

“I will help. Hold that gem tight to your chest. It won’t be able to leave without your help.”

Why?” Spice asked. “What’s going on?! Where am I?!”

Mhynt tilted her head. “You don’t know?” she asked. “But you’re…”

She didn’t finish. But the way her eyes glanced left, behind Spice, and then back at Spice again, she was thinking. This Treecko seemed like the kind of person to think a lot, to have her mind wander. Reminded her a lot of that regular Charmander customer when he was ordering chocolates.

Something flickered, like a shadow in the other hall, and Mhynt’s movements became more urgent. She pushed forward; something grabbed Spice by the shoulders. She only briefly saw what she thought was a Sceptile made entirely of black haze picking her up. It hurled her into the wall. Bracing for impact, she curled up and held the gem tight to her chest.

She gasped for air and suddenly felt uncomfortably hot, like she’d been baking in the sun. The air was dry. Her mouth tasted of iron. With a painful breath, she knew she was still alive and rolled onto her back, squinting at the sun and the crater’s edge high above her. A few things were broken. Definitely. But she was alive.

Had that all been a dream?

“Ugh… What’s…” She wondered if she’d fallen asleep, because she was starting to forget what that felt like, but no, she’d passed out from the fall. She heard some activity higher up.

“Hey!” Spice called. “Is anyone there?”

No answer. Whatever activity there was had gone quiet.

Growling, she searched for her bag. “Oh, for the love of—”

Scattered, smashed, most of her supplies ruined from the fall. Her edible vials had been destroyed or disorganized, but a few still seemed good. She grabbed an intact Oran infusion and bit down. It would ease the pain, even if the healing blessings didn’t work on her.

It seemed steep, but her nimbleness, even with one of her arms not totally cooperating, let her climb. She felt at home with the ground. The ground spoke to her, like she knew just where to step, and the idea that such a thing was strange didn’t occur to her until she was at the top. She’d heard that Ground Pokémon had this kind of affinity with soil at times.

“Hey,” Spice shouted, realizing that Zygarde, the shade, and some of the team wasn’t very far away. “Did you guys not hear me?! I nearly died! Leo! What’s gotten into—”

Spice ducked and rolled past a Hydro Pump from Lapras that had narrowly hit her. The water sailed into the crater.

“H-hey!” Spice shouted.

Zygarde was next, preparing many green arrows over his shoulders. Spice knew that one. She dashed forward and waved between the first volley, then crossed her arms for the next. A black Protect deflected every blow as she advanced.

“Guys, it’s me!” Spice shouted. “Hello?! What’s going on?!”

And to this, they all looked startled. They stared at one another, then back at Spice.

“What’s your name?” Zygarde asked.

“Spice. Is Leo okay?”

Leo had been staring at her for a while, but she noticed, now that she was closer, that his arms were tied up. There was a crazed look in his eyes.

“We need to leave this place,” Zygarde said. “You… How are you feeling?”

“I’m feeling just fine,” Spice said, putting a hand to her chest. “But I—"

Her hand struck something hard and she looked down.

In her chest, embedded where her heart should have been, was an emerald gemstone surrounded by plate-like, hexagon scales.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Chapter 117 – The Shell

No matter how many times Spice ran her claws along her chest, the stone did not go away. She’d wondered if it was all a hallucination all the way back to Kilo Village, a long trek that had taken the bulk of the day. It was evening, now, in one of Kilo Village’s hospitals.

She was afraid to pry it off of her, and some core part of her instincts—an instinct she was sure she didn’t have before—told her that she shouldn’t ever try to remove it. This time, she listened. The sense of dread she felt at the thought was equivalent to removing her own heart.

Leo was next to her, restrained in powerful, glowing bindings while sitting on the adjacent bed. Currently in front of her, inspecting the gemstone, was Phol, who asked her several questions. How she was feeling, if this hurt, if that hurt; all of it felt mundane to her. They’d brought in a Psychic or two as well, and found Spice to be of sound mind, but they had trouble with Leo. His own psionics interfered with theirs, and they eventually said that he was not stable and needed to be put under observation.

The Basin’s effects were never this acute, not when they weren’t even within the crater. Had its influence expanded? Yet, the only ones who would have been able to warn them… Anam, perhaps, or even Jerry… They were gone.

“All right, Spice,” Phol said, “you seem to be healthy.” The Incineroar looked over his charts, flipping a few pages. “But I want you to visit every few days. Do you want me to set up an appointment?”

“Yes, please. I may not care about the whole sleep thing, but this… this is different.” She ran a claw around the emerald’s edge again.

“Mm. Of course. And, your appearance…”

Spice winced. “I don’t think I can face my family like this…”

“Hmph. Then I will go with you.”

“Sugar would be terrified, and her poor kid, I don’t really know if I want him to see…”

The gem wasn’t that bad. The hexagons were probably ‘cool’ on some level. But she’d seen her reflection upon her arrival. She wasn’t a Salazzle anymore. She had the vague shape of one, and when she looked with her own eyes, she seemed to be the same. But in her reflection, in the way she appeared to others, she looked like some kind of wraith. Her whole body had become a deep black; her eyes, featureless yellow lights.

Why, then, did she look normal to herself, yet not to anyone else? Was this some kind of curse?

“And about what you saw in the Basin,” Phol went on, humming. “Do you want me to make a copy of everything you said, so you can remember?”

“Yeah. Just so I don’t get it wrong. I need to put it to a report or something, maybe to Nevren when he gets back from his research.”

“Mm. The basement of some building, a powerful Treecko, and Zygarde in your chest. If I didn’t know you, I would have assumed you were coming up with some kind of elaborate prank.”

“I still don’t totally believe it,” Spice admitted. “If it wasn’t for this”—she gestured at the gem—“I would have thought it was all a dream.”

“Mm.” He nodded. “I’ll get you a copy. As for him…”

During this whole exchange, Leo’s eyes were darting between the speakers. Spice wasn’t sure if he had blinked. He looked simultaneously afraid and eager of… something.

“He’s… staying here.”

“Leo… can you answer me?” Spice asked.

“Answer?” Leo repeated, his voice raspy. He cleared it. “Why am I here? What’s all this for? Don’t we need to go to the Basin to rescue someone… We need to save that voice, don’t we? We’re wasting time…”

“We can only hope that time away from the Basin will let his mind heal,” Phol said gently. “He is in good hands.”

“Right. Leo… don’t run off, alright? I’ll take care of that part of the mission because I’m immune to the Basin’s effects. How’s that sound?”

“No, no, no, no, I need to go, too,” Leo whispered madly. “I’ll bring someone else, too. We need a whole team to go. This is a great effort. That’s fine, right? I’m the leader. So, that’s my strategy. Tactician. Strategy. We’ll go soon, right?”

It took every ounce of her will to not scream at him then, but she knew it wasn’t any use. He’d babbled like this the whole way home, but at least he wasn’t screaming it anymore. Maybe that meant the madness was fading. She glanced at Phol. “I’ll take care of letting his folks know,” she said. “Do you think he’ll… ever be suited to have visitors?”

Phol hesitated. That was all she needed. But before she could leave, he quickly said, “Yes. Once we have better measures in place. Perhaps some family would help him recover.”

It was a grasping hope, but hearing it from Phol, of all people… Maybe it was true.

“Okay,” she said. “If that’s the case, I’ll wait for that copy. Thanks for everything.”

<><><>​

On her way across town, Spice tried to ignore the looks she was getting from the others. Hushed whispers, a few frightened cries… This was much more than the usual reactions she got from her scar. She never had a good look at it in her reflection; was that gone? She could still see it when she looked down, but to everyone else, she was a shadowy wraith.

“They’ll get used to it,” Phol muttered. “You’re a Heart. That’s more than enough reason to trust you. Keep your credentials handy.”

“I will,” Spice muttered, holding her badge in one hand.

“…By the way, have you heard anything new about Angelo?” Phol asked. “He’s been shut in his home all day. He missed his training with Rhys, but he didn’t seem concerned. Said he wouldn’t want to bother Angelo. But I’m concerned. It was ever since he was spotted talking to the Kilo Guardian.”

“…We’re calling that thing the Kilo Guardian now, are we?” Spice had missed the memo.

Phol and Spice exchanged a glare; Spice silently dared Phol to remark about her being the one to call someone a ‘thing,’ while Phol seemed to be weighing his options.

Spice huffed. “And Angelo talked to him?”

Eventually, he said, “It seems so. Which is surprising. Based on the rumors, Nate said something truly horrible to him before that sucked the morale right out of him.”

“Well, I doubt it would take much, coming from… Nate.”

“Is something wrong?”

“It’s such a normal name,” Spice said. “That’s a human-era name, isn’t it? Or, associated with them? How’d he get it?”

“Apparently, Anam named him,” Phol said. “That’s what he’s said, at least.”

On reflex, Spice thought it was absurd. Then she thought about everything else that Goodra had kept hidden, and it all made sense. “I’d buy that.”

They got closer to the crater’s edge where the flood channels on either side of the roads led into a carved-out, wide path through the mountain. From there was a long path that led down. Still more walking, but it would give Spice time to think.

Nate enjoyed resting the upper portion of his body near this passageway. The many eyes that dotted his form stared at them as they passed, and Spice decided to focus ahead. In response, Nate waved one of its five upper tendrils at them.

Unsure, Phol waved back, but continued on his way.

And as they descended the mountain, yet another newcomer bounded upward.

“Oh, what now?” Spice wasn’t sure what to think of the figure from far away. Four legs, but a mismatch of body parts. No—a mutant? “Phol—get back.”

“You can’t heal,” Phol countered, flames dancing around his wrists and waist. “That’s a mutant, no doubt. Get ready.”

Spice opened with a warning shot, balling up a Sludge Bomb in her hands and lobbing it forward. Phol pointed at the ball of sludge in midair and the emblem-like embers on his waist shot forward, enveloping the bomb in fire. The chimera didn’t even bother to dodge, powering straight through it. Poison and flames licked at its metallic beak to nearly no effect.

“Gah! It’s tough!” Spice readied another.

Phol went for a Flamethrower directly this time, but this time the beast leapt high into the air, landing a few feet in front of them.

Spice launched a Sludge Bomb from her hands, then in desperation one directly from her mouth. It dodged both with a quick roll, then pounced on Phol.

“NO!” Spice shouted, readying a good shot.

“Hi! Hi!” the beast said, talons pressed firmly on Phol’s shoulders. It was taller than them both and had a massive crest on his head. Spice had never seen anything like it… “You look important! Is this Kilo Village?”

Spice noticed, on the thing’s back, there was a Cherrim, nervously shuffling and trying to stay situated. Down the mountain, a hulking Houndoom with an oversized skull-chest plate bounded toward them.

Phol was trying to push the beast off of him, but not only was he heavy, he was pressing his full weight onto Phol. But he wasn’t attacking and, once the initial rush wore off, Spice realized the thing wasn’t actually fighting.

Grumbling, she eyed the incoming, strange Houndoom next. “He with you?”

“Yep! That’s Lucas!”

“Get—off me!” Phol pushed and rolled away, grunting as he straightened the fur on his shoulders.

“I came with a message from Nevren! Are you a Heart?”

“I am,” Spice said. “Nevren? Where is he?”

“He’s in Quartz HQ making sure all the mutants are being taken care of and stuff!”

“I thought Nevren dispatched them, not took care of them.”

“He does both!”

For some reason, Spice could easily imagine Nevren doing questionable science experiments on his captures. “Right. Okay. The message?”

The Cherrim wobbled closer and held out a small paper. Spice recognized Nevren’s handwriting…

To the Thousand Hearts,

I trust that all is well! Very good work keeping the town properly managed. I am very proud of my organizational preparation and your execution of my plans. I have delivered to you one Silvally Lavender and his companions. Within this Silvally is information that should be delivered to the leviathan, Nate, who should be stationed around Kilo Mountain. If you have further questions or clarifications, seek out a Zygarde Hecto, who will be able to provide further guidance.

This message is void if not delivered before the twentieth day of Autumn’s third moon, and plans have already been set that would render this message unnecessary.


“What day is it?” Spice asked. Without sleeping, she’d lost track.

“Nineteenth of Autumn’s third,” Phol said.

“Well. Nevren planned out when you’d arrive, too,” Spice mumbled, looking at Lavender. “Talk to that thing.” Spice pointed at Nate.

“Thanks, creepy lady!” Lavender happily bounded away with Lucas.

“Creepy…” Spice felt her blood pressure rising. “Whatever. Let’s go. Those two freaks can do what they want.”

<><><>​

A sharp cry put Spice in defense mode immediately, ready to block anything that might be thrown at her. But, to her luck, that had been all—Sugar had been the one to answer the door.

“Who’s there?!” a booming voice called from inside, and a Rampardos stomped in next.

“Calm, enough,” Phol spat. “It’s Spice. I came to let you know that she’s back from her mission. With a new look.”

“It’s really me, Sugar,” Spice said with a frown. “I’m sorry for giving you a scare, but… I mean. I still live here.”

The other, normal Salazzle held her chest, sighing. “That really scared me,” she said, “Spice! What happened to you?!”

“I don’t know,” Spice said. “But I feel fine. That’s… all. Where’s Saffron?”

“Sleeping,” Sugar’s mate said.

“Let’s hope he still is!” Spice growled, flicking him on the nose. “Dezz! What’s with shouting when it’s his nap time, huh?!”

“I—I—I mean—Sugar screamed, and—”

Sugar relaxed more. “It really is you.” She tried to giggle, but it was nervous. “Spice… You know, Mom’s been even more nervous than usual. I think she’s aware of what’s going on.”

“She is?” Spice asked. “I thought she didn’t care about all this.”

“Maybe it’s big enough that she’s paying attention. But she’s been saying some really odd things lately, when I visited. I’m… worried her mind’s starting to go.”

Phol shifted uncomfortably. “Er, well. I suppose I should be going. I don’t think I should overhear family matters.”

“Oh, I’m sorry—you’re Phol, right? Thank you for bringing Spice to us.” Sugar nodded.

“And, uh, sorry for the scare,” Dezz added.

“Mm.” Phol left. “Take care, Spice. You know where to find me if you need anything.”

“You got it.” Spice waved him off, and then looked to Sugar again. “What was Mom saying?”

“Strange things, I don’t really remember,” Sugar admitted. “Just that something was… wrong. She said to look out for wraiths. Which, well…”

Spice tensed. “I’m not a wraith.”

“I—I know. I know. Sorry, I shouldn’t have… mentioned it.”

But it was obviously on her mind. Just as Spice came home looking like this… She sighed. “I need a drink.”

She let herself in, leaving for the kitchen.

After all that, it was quiet, and Spice could finally take a moment to breathe. She dipped a ceramic cup in a bowl of water and took a long, lukewarm drink. It was a shame their cooling Orb had broken during the cataclysm. Those were too expensive to get new ones, for now.

Sugar gasped when she entered the kitchen, then held her chest. “Sorry, still getting used to it,” she said with a strained smile.

“Yeah, yeah.” Spice dismissed her with her free hand. After getting something from storage, Sugar offered to make dinner, which Spice obliged. Saffron was napping; he’d probably be startled, too, but he was a resilient kid. He probably knew some friends at school who were just as scary-looking as her anyway, right? He’d be fine if Sugar was there to prompt him.

Setting the cup down, Spice stared out of her home and toward the clear, orange skies. The wind blew and a flurry of autumn leaves danced across the window. It was a beautiful evening, like always.

Thunder boomed distantly. It was a regular occurrence by now. Spice knew that her innate sense for the stirring beneath the earth was actually Lugia on the other side of the planet. Every day, it got a little stronger…

<><><>​

After work, Owen ended up having a very productive day. Thanks to the sun in Null Village, he now knew that it was actually afternoon. First, he asked Marshadow where the crystal refineries or whatever equivalent was, and he was taken to a spot in Null Village that was in the manufacturing district. He offered to energize some of their most necessary equipment, but quickly tired out after only a few fully energized crystals. He wasn’t sure what it was for, but it would perhaps help, and more importantly, it seemed to impress the guards.

Owen then tried to purify Marshadow, and apparently Dark Matter did not give him any commands to resist. He held Marshadow’s shoulders and hoped for the best. If he did anything, Marshadow didn’t react. He had only shrugged. “Eh, maybe next time.”

Then, he tended to the Tree of Life in the center of town which, after speaking to some locals, he learned had completely grew around the sentinel tower that protected the village. It had been what fired those beams of ice at Gahi when he’d first arrived, and apparently was also used as emergency fire against a violent Titan. But now that the Tree took it over, the Titans avoided Null Village entirely.

Owen felt a little proud, but he tried not to brag.

On his way home, Owen walked familiar roads and decided to take a route that passed Hakk and Xypher’s old home. Repairs must have been continuing, but with nighttime approaching, they must have stopped. It was funny how quickly Null Village had adjusted their schedules to day and night.

Owen was about to pass by, but then noticed that a few of the gems installed in the walls were too dark. Depleted. What kind of shoddy crystal installments were these?!

Shutting his eyes, Owen marched onward. Maybe they’re just busy with other parts, he rationalized, but then glanced back. No, that wall seemed complete otherwise. And there were other parts that also seemed fully installed. Like they’d given up on those ones. Those weren’t going to get fixed, were they? Forever dim unless Hakk complained about it. He probably would. But it might stress Xypher out. He seemed peculiar and might notice the depleted crystals first.

You’re thinking way too much on this, Amelia commented.

It’s your equipment inventory all over again, Klent added, sighing.

H-hey, proper equipment is important! Especially now that I’m weaker than ever!

Just fix the darn thing if it’s bugging you so much!
Amelia growled. All this obsessing over a freaking wall…

Maybe I will!
Defiantly, Owen spun on his heels and marched toward the crystals.

In the end, they weren’t very urgent, but Owen was feeling too restless to go back home. He felt he still had to do things, to fix things where he could to make up for lost time. And after Gahi and the antics of the team in general had led to Hakk’s home getting destroyed, pitching in for some fixes would be worth it, wouldn’t it?

The door was still open and most of the valuables were already taken out. It was dubbed inhospitable until the walls were repaired, and so far, they were only halfway complete.

“…Owen?”

“GAH!” Owen nearly leapt out of his feathers. He spun around and gasped again. “D-Demitri! Mispy!”

Mispy frowned disapprovingly. “Looting?”

“What?! No!”

The mutant Meganium slithered forward; Demitri looked around the empty rooms.

“He-hey, hang on, I didn’t do anything here. It, uh, it was empty when I got here. I was energizing the crystals and stuff and—what are you doing?”

Mispy prodded at the ground with one of her vines, which opened to reveal a hissing mouth. “Hunting,” she murmured.

“Mispy senses the aura of a Void Shadow underground right here,” Demitri said. “The way it’s moving, it must be some kind of chamber. It wasn’t here before.”

“It snuck in?” Owen asked. “Doesn’t this place have a basement? I think Hakk mentioned that, but there aren’t any stairs down…”

“Hmm… hidden passage,” Mispy said, and then leaned her head down to the ground, sniffing. She followed the corners of the room, and Owen decided to try the other corner. Demitri stood awkwardly in the room, playing with his claws and cleaning some perceived dust on the wall.

“Here,” Mispy said, pointing. “Demi.”

“Oh, okay.” Demitri ran his claws along where Mispy pointed. “Oh, hey, this wall goes in… Hang on.” He gave it a firm push, and after some initial resistance, it gave way. The wall slid open on a hinge, revealing a wide, short stairway. They all silently listened… Movement downstairs in the dark.

“It’s pretty dark down there,” murmured Demitri, gulping.

“I’ll help,” Owen said, scaling Mispy’s vines before turning around so his tail faced forward. He focused on the leaf, calling back some of that radiant energy… Yes. The autumn leaf began to glow like a dim flame.

Demitri and Mispy seemed mesmerized at first.

“…Um. You can go ahead now.”

“Oh.” Mispy nodded, then used Owen’s light to descend. Demitri followed from the back, looking behind him nervously.

“Maybe Void Shadows go to places like this if it’s abandoned. That’s… creepy.” Demitri toyed with his left tusk, ready to pull it out in case they had to fight.

“Don’t hurt it yet,” Owen said softly.

“What?” Mispy asked.

“It might still be a person… or multiple people… I don’t know. Sorry, if it attacks, attack back.”

Mispy frowned, looking skeptical, but didn’t press.

The basement wasn’t any larger than the upper floor, but it was too dark to see many details. Owen shined his leaf brighter and saw shelves filled with jars of unknown contents—maybe some kind of storage? But what got his attention next was the blob of dark sludge wriggling around in the corner, hissing.

“There,” Mispy said, readying another Solar Beam.

“Mispy, wait—” Owen put out his leaf, making it too hard to aim.

“Why?!” Mispy hissed back.

“It didn’t attack.”

“It will.”

“I…”

“It’s not Amia.”

“That’s not—” It was. And that gave Owen pause. “Can’t we just shoo it away?”

“Mispy’s a guard. Her job is to kill these things. Besides, they’ll just wake up someplace else in the Voidlands… There’s nothing left of them, so…”

“So that means we can mistreat them?” Owen argued.

This time, Mispy paused, and the petals around her neck dimmed. “…Okay,” she said. “But… I don’t know how.”

Owen gratefully lit his tail again. “…Excuse me,” Owen said. “You can’t be here. Can you leave?”

It hissed in response and slid toward them, but Owen recognized it as a slower, cautious approach.

“Guys, move aside.”

“And let it loose?!” Demitri said.

“It’s just a weak Void Shadow. It can’t hurt anyone.”

“These things are mean, Owen,” Demitri squeaked.

“Hey. You won’t hurt anyone, alright? Just go back to the forest. Otherwise, you’ll have to answer to her.” Owen pointed at Mispy, who growled and opened one of her vine-mouths threateningly.

It opened its face, or some equivalent of a face, in response, hissing, as it skittered off.

Mispy seemed to be watching its aura, so Owen took a moment to relax and breathe.

“That was… Maybe that was a higher Void Shadow than the ones we’ve had to deal with,” Demitri said. “They usually just attack blindly.”

Now that they were deeper in the basement, Owen could properly see what was on the shelves and nearly gasped again. “What—”

“What’s wrong?” Demitri asked, following Owen’s eyes. “Ah—!”

Eyes.

The jars each had single pairs of eyes in them. All staring, unblinking, frozen and floating in some kind of thick, clear syrup. Owen wasn’t sure how many there were. A dozen on each shelf, and quite a few shelves… Some looked recently placed. Some were dusty and untouched. Small eyes, big eyes, black, brown…

Demitri squeaked. “W-wait, those are…” He pointed a shaking claw at one on the far end, one of the most recent additions based on how clean it looked. There was even some damp residue of that preserving fluid on the outer, metal seal. And in it were striking, reptilian, blue eyes. The shape of the pupil wasn’t like the normal sort of its kind. Slitted, narrow, forever focused on something far away.

Owen didn’t realize it at first because he often didn’t look at them. Instead, he looked through them. Those were his eyes, from his first body that had died in the Voidlands.

“W-we should go. We should—”

“Too late.” Mispy’s head jerked toward the entrance. Someone had just come into her range of vision, and that could only mean…

“Oh, why now?!” Demitri squealed.

“It’s the end of the work day. They must have been on their way back…” Owen hissed. “We took too long in here.”

“Do we hide?” Demitri asked frantically. He searched and searched, but the way things were, they were simply too large. Mispy grabbed Owen and shoved her in her vines; Owen protested at first, but then he remembered what he’d just seen. What if Xypher wanted another set?

Hakk cursed from above. He’d seen the open door. No hiding now. In seconds, he was down, staring at Demitri and Mispy while Owen put out his leaf’s light.

“…Hey,” Hakk said.

“Please don’t eat us,” Demitri begged.

Owen just remembered that they both had a weakness to Ice. And so did he.

Hakk looked insulted. Xypher squawked from the first floor.

“I’m not gonna eat you,” the huge Sandslash said. “Look, just… can you keep a secret?” there was a nervous waver in his voice.

“Why?” Mispy challenged.

“Because he didn’t hurt anybody.”

So it was Xypher’s collection. That strange Corviknight, Class D, with barely any memories to his name, did this? He collected… eyes?

“H-he didn’t—he didn’t—but! But!” Demitri pointed at the jar. “Those are Owen’s!”

“Yeah, so?!” Hakk spat. “Not like Xypher killed him! We found him during scouting and Xypher, look, this isn’t important. Just—promise, you won’t spread any rumors about this? Xypher’s safe. He won’t hurt anyone. You don’t need—this is okay, alright? Don’t tell anyone.”

“What happens?” Mispy asked. “If… if…” She stumbled over her words.

“If you do? Then… Xypher will probably be sent away. He’d be considered too at-risk for Null Village, too dangerous and at risk of fully Voiding, and they’d send him off. And then he really will, alright? But he needs this, alright? Just—you don’t get it. Do you have any idea what it’s like to not…”

“But why?! What’s the point?!” Demitri’s voice cracked. “This—this is wrong! It’s so… creepy, I—”

“Will you get over it?! People die! What use is a dead body?! Xypher keeps them, okay, who cares why, he doesn’t take it from living folks, so—”

“What if he starts to?! W-we don’t know, we—”

“Is he dangerous?” Mispy pressed.

No, he’s not. I said he’s not!” Hakk roared. “Just leave! Okay?! Don’t—don’t tell anyone!”

Mispy regarded the shelves, then Demitri, who was leaning hard against Mispy’s body. Owen felt all of these movements, and how tense Mispy felt, as he tried to get a good look at Hakk’s expression. He wasn’t familiar with Sandslash, and he once again cursed his lack of Perceive, but he still sensed… panic. Fear. But there was more to it. He couldn’t place it, but…

Speak up, Klent encouraged.

C’mon, Owen. Don’t just watch.

“Wait,” Owen said, and all eyes—it felt like the jars were watching, too—were on him. Owen climbed out from Mispy’s hold, even after she tried to pull him back for safety, but a quick glare made her reluctantly relent.

“Oh.” Hakk glanced at the jar, and he suddenly looked trapped and desperate. Ice was swirling around his claws whether he wanted it or not. Like a trapped feral with no way out. Would he do something so terrible just to protect Xypher?

“I want to talk to Xypher,” Owen said. “Alone.”

More hesitating. Hakk shifted his weight. “Fine.”

“You guys all go up. I’ll stay here.”

“But what if he kills you?” Demitri asked.

“Then report it and I’ll see you in the morning.”

Owen wasn’t sure why they looked so disturbed by that, but they shuffled out one by one. Some chatter and squawks later, as Owen tried to keep his tiny heart rhythmic, Xypher descended.

He seemed significantly bigger than before, but that, Owen knew, was all in his head. The Corviknight’s steely scales reflected the dim light his tail was giving off to keep things visible, as did the jars’ edges and the glistening eyes within. The collection, of which Owen had become part of. This was all some strange, walking nightmare, and yet…

“Hey, Xypher,” Owen greeted, bowing lightly.

Xypher squawked. “Hello. Hello, hello.”

“Sorry for, uh, coming into your room. We sensed a Void Shadow here and didn’t want it endangering anyone.”

“Oh.” Xypher’s head twitched into a tilt. “Thank you.”

So many questions from such an incomprehensible Pokémon. His mind wasn’t all there and Owen knew it. He felt silly just for asking for this meeting, but…

“Do you know why you collect these?” Owen asked.

“I like them. They’re bright. Bright, bright…”

Owen wasn’t sure how to reply to that. Bright eyes? Maybe, under the right kind of light, but it was pretty dark in the basement. How did Xypher see them normally?

“I don’t want to forget,” Xypher said. “I can’t. Can’t, can’t…”

“What?” Owen asked. “Forget?”

“I can’t forget you.” Xypher shook his head. “I can’t. I can’t.”

He glanced at the jar, then at Xypher. The Corviknight’s eyes were… there, yes, but vacant. A shell. Maybe, somewhere deep inside, the true Xypher was calling upon this shell to give an impulse or two to collect eyes. Eyes were important to him, and Owen couldn’t know why. Not even Xypher did.

That understanding suddenly washed over him. Xypher was one death away from being Voided, and this was his effort to remember people. A small, desperate attempt… even though these jars were covered in dust, some so old that perhaps Xypher truly forgot them, he still wanted to ‘keep’ those memories. Owen wondered why Xypher, then, wanted to honor Owen’s when they hadn’t even met when he must have found his body.

“I thought I was put in a stew,” Owen murmured.

“Found you before,” Xypher said. “There are others. They live… in that place. They eat what they can. What they can, what they can… But I saved you first. I saved you, I saved you.”

“You saved me…” Owen glanced at the jars again, at his own, judging him, or perhaps only watching and wondering. “Do you hurt anyone?”

“No. Only save. So you’ll never die. Never, never…”

“What about people who are alive?” Owen asked.

Xypher looked confused. “Then they don’t need to be saved.”

He probably didn’t have the capacity to lie. That… was enough. It wasn’t like Xypher had any ‘missing people’ associated with him… And while it was… strange…

“Xypher, can you come close for a second? Lean down.” This was silly. This was stupid. This was going to hurt. “Can you look at me?”

Still confused, the Corviknight approached and leaned forward—leaned so much that he fell onto his chest with a light chirp, and even then, his eyes were just barely level with Owen’s.

And Owen leaned close until he could see his own, dim reflection in his shiny beak. He stared into Xypher’s eyes. Xypher stared back, blankly, curiously, but there was a little glint in them, like he was pleased.

“Thank you,” Xypher said. “I like your smile.”

“Uh.” Owen decided not to comment on it. “And… thank you for… keeping my old eyes safe. You can keep them. Just, don’t do that too much, okay?”

“But how will I remember?” Xypher asked, and a flash of distress crossed his expression. “I… I can’t forget. I can’t. I can’t.”

“Hey, hey, it’s alright,” Owen said, putting a hand on Xypher’s beak. It was cold and hard, not quite like ice, but close. “Why don’t you… draw them? Work on drawing them?”

“Drawing…”

“That way, you can draw the eyes even of people who are still alive.”

“Drawing…” Xypher said it again, but with enthusiasm. But then he deflated. “I’m bad at that. Bad, bad…”

“Aw, well. Maybe you can practice for now on the ones you see here. How about that?”

“Mm. Maybe. Maybe.”

Owen stepped back and Xypher stood up. “I think that’s all,” Owen said. “Let’s go back upstairs.”

“Can I help?” Xypher asked, lowering a wing.

The motion startled Owen not because of how sudden it was, but how fluid and naturally it came to him. There was an ancient grace in the way Xypher leaned forward—the motion so ingrained in his core—that, for a split-second, Owen thought he saw the true Xypher awaken.

He couldn’t refuse. “Sure.”

Xypher gave Owen a ride to the first floor, where Owen smiled at Mispy and nodded once they got to the top. Demitri was a nervous wreck as usual, but Mispy was glaring at Hakk the whole time.

“It’s okay,” Owen said. “It’s fine. Xypher is totally safe. How about we go home and get dinner?”

Mispy gave Owen a skeptical look, but Owen returned it with a firm, confident nod. Mispy kept her skepticism, but her expression softened enough. Owen knew what that meant. She would ask later… but for now, would take no action. She was too smart to operate purely on Owen’s judgement, and that was fair.

And as Xypher marched outside, Owen couldn’t get the sight of the jars out of his mind. Not because of their terror, but because of what they meant. There was no telling how many of them were like that in Null Village, desperately grasping for any way to hold memories down, no matter how strange.

That was what he was fighting for. That was what Dark Matter took away. And as Hakk remarked on the construction workers ‘finally’ getting to fixing the crystals, Owen couldn’t stop looking at the back of Xypher’s head.

<><><>​

Finally, he returned home.

They’d all gathered again for dinner, and it occurred to Owen that this had become somewhat of a tradition. Team Alloy helped organize an extra seat to fit Owen in properly, and he sat between Zena and Mispy. That evening, Demitri cooked for the team a Null Village staple of void plant salad with purple spice and red dressing. The result was a surprisingly appealing tapestry of dark leaves and red-purple sauces and powders.

“It’s cheap,” Demitri said, “but you kinda get used to it. These plants grow really well in the Voidlands and are actually pretty full of nutrients!”

“Most of your energy comes from the sauce, so make sure you eat all of it,” Zena added, holding a fork in one of her ribbons tentatively.

“Mm.” Owen eyed the plate, then glanced at Jerry down the table, who had previously expressed a preference for meat. Even he was eating it with a stoic expression. Owen wondered, as an outlaw who had to steal to get money and food, if Jerry was used to eating what he could.

Hesitant but not wanting to seem ungrateful, Owen tried his own, the fork unfamiliar in his claws. How much had changed in the few weeks that had passed. Some of the group were using technology that were more reminiscent of what he’d see in Kilo: special equipment that stuck to paws or appendages just as well as he could work with his hands, including the utensils. Even the bowls seemed to be crafted with fine materials procured in the Voidlands. Polished stones, ceramics, a lot of it totally smooth to the touch.

“Owen, are you okay?” Zena asked. “You seem… distracted.”

“Just getting used to everything,” Owen said with a smile. His eyes were tired, but Zena’s had even less energy. Must have been a long day for both of them.

“Eh, makes sense.” Gahi chomped on one of the leaves. He offered one to Trina, who was sitting on his head and eating her own, tiny plate, and she happily took the offer before exchanging for what looked like a tiny, blackened cherry tomato. Gahi caught it with his tongue and continued eating.

Finally, Owen tried it. Bitter. Very bitter. His tongue shriveled up. But he powered through and tried some of the dressing with it. Salty, sweet, actually not that bad. He had flashes to when he’d tried the red river water when he’d first arrived in the Voidlands, but it was brief.

The second bite was easier, and he took more of it this time. Somehow, bigger bites made it tastier. It was tough and crunchy in some parts. Bitter fluids were in the stems, and he wondered if it was supposed to be that way or if Demitri hadn’t cooked it all out.

Owen felt like he was being watched. Glancing up, he caught three pairs of eyes on him. One was Zena. Comforting, concerned, and he smiled to try to ease her worries. The next was Eon, the other Charmander at the table, who smiled at him before he could react. Stars above, he still had to talk to him. Maybe later.

“You know, I actually got paid for that day of work,” Owen said. “I think he might have given me a bonus for the repairs, but, uh, it might also have been for… giving him a scare about inspections. I hope I don’t get in trouble for that.”

“I think you’ll be fine.” Zena gently rubbed his shoulder.

“What, the bathhouse?” Jerry asked. “Anybody try and put the moves on you yet?”

“A few times,” Zena said before Owen could object. “If anyone tries to get touchy with us, though, we’re free to retaliate as we like.”

“So, Hydro Pump.”

“Ice Beam, actually.”

“Y’know, that’s better.”

“Are all of you guys treated, y’know, questionably at work, or anything like that?” Owen asked.

“Well, some of us,” Zena said, sighing. “But… we can defend ourselves. And Null Village is just like that. It isn’t… like Kilo Village. People are different here.”

“I heard some talk about that, actually,” Jerry said. “At least before all this stuff with Dark Matter happened, the Voidlands was usually a place where lost spirits went, I guess. Those that died but had too much ‘negativity’ in their heart, or whatever. Personally, I don’t buy it. But if it is true, then maybe the culture here is more hardened from harsh lives.”

“Hardened,” Owen mumbled.

“What, you think you’re above it?” Jerry pressed. “You’re right here with us, buddy.”

“No, that’s not—” Owen winced. “I’m sorry. I just didn’t think… I mean, it’s just a shock. That’s all. I’m hoping that I can try to make some money or at least get some better living conditions for us if I find a job, too.”

“Hmph. If you can prove you made that tree, or maybe show that you need to maintain it or something…” Jerry leaned forward. “I bet that would make you a killing.”

“Maybe…”

“It’s all temporary anyway,” Zena dismissed. “All until we can be free from the Voidlands, right?”

“Yeah! Right.” Owen nodded, taking another bite. The food wasn’t too bad, but it was still bitter.

Xypher cawed nearby and Owen remembered that he was the third pair of eyes on him. The creepiest ones; did Xypher even blink? And he had two whole plates of Demitri’s cooking, too.

“They say that the lower your Class, the more this weird food tastes good,” Hakk said. “Guess that’s why Xypher loves this stuff.”

The Corviknight screeched.

“Y’know, that reminds me,” Hakk said, “we oughta pay a visit at home again once we’re through eating.”

“Not done moving out yet?” Owen asked.

“Nah, just checking repairs,” Hakk replied leisurely. “Anyway, let’s eat. Here, Xypher, grab this weird thing.”

Hakk tossed Xypher a squishy, purple fruit, and Xypher caught and swallowed it in mid-air. Owen realized that one was on his plate, too, but the smell made him suppress a retch. He glanced at Demitri, who wasn’t paying attention. Owen hastily tossed it to Xypher next. Zena did the same.

And for a fleeting moment, everything felt normal.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Chapter 118 – Just Acquainted

Dark Matter stood face to face with Anam. He took on the form of a familiar Charizard, blue eyes tinged with streaks of darkness. Anam didn’t like looking at those, and Dark Matter knew it.

All around them were Void Shadows. Under the ground, in the trees, and all around the forest.

“I did everything you asked,” Dark Matter stated. “Nothing came of it.”

“You just need to wait. He’ll find a way to help.”

“They’re going to kill me. And I know, from the recent arrivals, they are planning an assault soon. I will not wait while they plot my demise.”

“Please. Just one more day,” Anam begged. The Goodra squeezed his hands together.

“No.” Dark Matter redoubled his glare. “I will not allow you to stall for any longer. I am going to fight. I refuse to be erased. Not until I am done.”

Another stare down. How long had they been at this pointless exchange? Dark Matter turned around. “When the time comes, I am going to fight you. I will overwhelm you with so many Void Shadows that you will not be able to catch up to my main army. By the time you arrive, it will be too late.”

“I won’t get in your way,” Anam said, and there was a suspicious weight behind his words. “I know that we can’t… we can’t hurt each other. Because we’re linked. Because I’m the Guardian, and you’re the spirit.”

“You can still seal me. I know what you will do and I won’t allow it this time. I will not be held back.”

“You’re sealed… but you can also draw from my power.” Anam held his chest. “…I’m… not going to let you do that. You can’t use my power anymore. Necrozma’s light… I… I’m going to make you fully vulnerable!”

Dark Matter quirked a scaly brow. “Oh?” He faced the Goodra again, looming over him. “And just how will you do that if we are linked?”

Anam closed his eyes. “…I’m going to release you.”

The false Charizard narrowed his eyes. “Then I’ll kill you. Nothing would stop me from overtaking your spirit.”

“You will still become weak to Necrozma, fully. Even a touch…”

“They won’t be able to get close.” Dark Matter stepped closer to Anam. “Do it, then.”

Anam stared, eyes wide but not with fear. They glowed as they always did, those green irises etching themselves into Dark Matter’s mind. Even now, they were bright. Always bright. How he hated and envied that light. If he could blot it out…

“I trust you,” Anam said.

A stabbing pain went from Dark Matter’s chest to his forehead. He snarled, withholding a wince, as a dark haze leaked from the corners of his mouth.

“I’ll kill you the moment you let me.”

Anam finally closed his eyes. Dark Matter wondered if Madeline and James were readying a counterattack. If this was all a trap. Perhaps it was. But he couldn’t sense it from Anam.

“It’s going to be okay,” Anam said. Dark Matter didn’t know who he was talking to.

A thread of gold appeared between Dark Matter and Anam, connecting their chests. The end attached to Dark Matter severed… and he was released.

<><><>​

The rest of Owen’s meal passed without much incident. Quietly, they all regarded one another as they stacked their bowls by the counter, and it seemed to be Eon’s turn to do cleaning. “Oh, and I can help, too,” Owen offered quickly.

That earned a concerned look from Zena, but Owen stared, stone-faced. Their eyes didn’t leave one another for a few moments, but then she silently nodded and slithered back to her room with Enet.

Eon got a few booster pillows from nearby to climb, careful that they were stacked securely, and Owen climbed up with him on the opposite side. Eon turned the faucet; purple water flowed out and Owen winced.

“We use the filtered water after the first rinse,” he explained.

“Right…”

It was odd to work with running water. Back in Hot Spot, most of their cleaning for dishes involved flames and burning away the mess, then dusting off the ashy remains. Not that the tradition continued once non-Fire spirits were—

What happened to Amia’s spirits? Auntie Arcanine, all the false kids that used to inhabit Hot Spot? Were they stuck inside Amia? No…

“Owen?” Eon asked.

“Oh, sorry. I… Right. Dishes.”

“If the water scares you, it’s alright,” Eon said gently.

“It doesn’t. I’m not Fire right now anyway.”

“Right…”

Despite Owen’s current state, Eon was still a proper Charmander. At least they looked different this time.

“So, you’re getting better at holding that form?” Owen asked.

“Yeah. Not the best, but it helps to have a default. Being smaller uses less energy anyway.”

“Mhm. Not a lot of energy to spare here when everything’s so expensive, huh?” Owen glanced behind him. Their home was barren aside from the absolute essentials, if that. For how many people lived in the communal home, it seemed like there hadn’t been much space. Maybe Trina sat on Gahi’s head because they’d run out of room once he’d arrived…

Enough small talk. Owen knew why he wanted this.

“I remember everything about Kanto,” Owen said. “And Almia, and Orre.”

Eon nearly dropped his dishes, but he nodded quickly and said, “Y-you did, huh? Just like that?”

“While I was a tree, I had a lot of time to think about things and, you know, remember.” Owen passed a plate for Eon to rinse. “You’ve changed.”

Eon was no longer interested in washing the dishes, but he still made a halfhearted attempt.

“The Tim I knew wouldn’t have done anything that you did,” Owen said. “Raising a whole army of artificial Pokémon just to get me back? Trying to fight the gods themselves and throw Kilo into… just, centuries of fear of those mutants? Turning me into one?!”

“I know, I know,” Eon said quickly. “I—”

“If you knew, then why’d you do it?!” Owen had wanted to keep his voice down, but it all spilled out the second he’d said even a small portion of his thoughts. Now the flood was unstoppable. He wanted to stop but didn’t. “Did you ever think that I would have hated what you did to me? How many lives you ruined all because of me? How do you think I feel?”

No words from Eon. Despite the false Charmander being twice Owen’s height, Eon seemed a lot smaller. Owen hated how he looked like ‘Smallflame’ even now.

“I hate,” Owen snarled, “what you did. And what you kept doing, like there was no other solution. I just want to know… why. Why did you do all of that? Was it really just so you could get me back? Was it because you wanted to go to Kanto? Because Kanto’s gone. We’ve been on Kilo for centuries… m-maybe longer. Everyone we knew there, assuming Arceus didn’t just destroy the whole planet, is—”

“Still there,” Eon said hastily.

“What?! What are you even—”

“Kanto is still there. W-we found out. Nevren found out.”

Owen was still in the mood to argue. He searched for somewhere to counter that, but it was so surprising that he only stumbled over his words. Owen stayed on guard, but he listened.

“Nevren has a room,” Eon said. “It’s… it’s a room where he puts down notes about things he can guess about the world. Things about the Divine Decrees that affected even us. Parts of history that are being suppressed so nobody can remember. It’s like a property of the world itself and happens automatically by some… logic of the gods who put it there. Secrets to keep things hidden. And while we can never know what those secrets are directly, Nevren can leave instructions to himself on what to do about his findings, while he’s in that room.

“A-and one of those things was that Kanto still existed. That whole world still does; he only destroyed Quartz Isle, and then erased the fact that he did. For all we know, we’re just… missing, or we died some other way. And most of all… this world, Kilo, follows a different time flow. We don’t know by how much, but… time in Kilo is so much faster. Even after all this, if we go back now, if we can align the worlds, we could go back to Kanto and… and it’ll all go back to normal. We can live normal lives again.”

“Wh…” Owen stared, slack-jawed. “How can we live normal lives after all this? How can we even think to go back when we’ve been doing this for so long? That’s… stupid! And you know it! I’m not gonna pretend all of this didn’t happen!” Owen chirped and roared at Eon, completely disregarding the dishes at this point. “I’m guessing you never bothered to tell us because the Decree made it all hidden away, and we should just blame Star and Barky for all of this, right? Well, maybe, but I’m not… not after this. Not for all you did. Some of that’s on you, for taking it this far. You chose to do all of this, and you could have stopped at any point, but you didn’t. You even made a copy of me just to try to have me back some other way!”

That one looked like it hurt Eon the most. He held back a gasp and turned his head away hard, biting his tongue.

“You tried to copy my memories and put them in some other artificial body just to have ‘me’ again. And then you created my friends to do the same thing, didn’t you? My ‘team,’ just like in Kanto.”

“I wanted you to be happy,” Eon choked.

“No, you wanted ME!” Owen spat back. His eyes felt hot. It hurt to say. He couldn’t believe that he was saying it to him at all. Flashes of his memories echoed in the back of Owen’s mind of that fateful day in the forest. The day he decided to partner with Tim for good, to leave Kanto behind when he could have easily gone back home with his wings.

Owen wondered, if he went back now to tell his younger self about what would happen, would he have gone back? Would he have let Tim go with Ayame and Ire, and would he return to the lab to live a quiet life?

Deep in his heart, he knew he wouldn’t have, no matter who told him. And even deeper, Owen felt a strong, bubbling, hateful realization that he wouldn’t try to avert it, either. Why? Why? After spending so much time trying to shove Eon away, that instinctual drive to go back plagued him.

“I’m sorry,” Eon finally said. “I… I…”

Owen hadn’t been looking, so he was surprised to hear a loud thump, and then Eon not there when he looked up.

On the floor was a blubbering puddle of ooze. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Eon said, unable to focus on any form at all. “I just kept going, little things led to big things, I just kept going, I’m sorry…”

It was pathetic. Owen could only stare. He wanted to leave, to let him wallow in that regret that he was finally feeling…

But he couldn’t. Because Owen also knew that Eon had been regretting this for a long time. Driven helplessly by his own willpower.

Eon was saying something more, but Owen was too focused on his thoughts to register any of it. He climbed off of the platforms and walked toward Eon, sitting nearby while he cried it out. Owen wanted to cry, too, but it was quieter. Relieving. He’d finally gotten to say something he hadn’t even known he’d wanted. But it was still a wound; he still felt so empty and lost. He also wanted Tim back. And he wasn’t sitting next to Owen anymore. He hadn’t been for years and years…

“I just don’t know what I would have done,” Eon said. “But this was all wrong… I did everything wrong… I lost everything… A-and… and I failed you.”

He had. He really had. But… “You didn’t fail me before. You just… lost your way. I don’t remember when it happened or how it happened, but you did. And you became a monster.”

“Y-yeah…”

“I can’t ever forget that.’

“And I don’t want you to,” Eon said. “I n-never wanted you to lose your memories.”

Owen lost his breath. He forgot whether he’d just let out one, or took one in, and was stuck there, frozen, as those words echoed. That was right. Eon had been driven to near madness trying to restore Owen’s memories. Gahi’s, Mispy’s, and Demitri’s, too. But every time he did, it brought out that instinctual madness, too. And they’d get reset, over and over, by some dark power that wrapped around their aura.

Eon was vulnerable, here. Owen could ask anything and he’d probably get the truth. He composed himself, navigating carefully. Owen knew that just as Eon was vulnerable here, so too was he.

“Eon…” Owen sighed. “No. Tim. I… don’t want you to try to win me back. It’s…” Say it. Say it. ‘It’s over,’ say it. Tim had done far too much for him to ever be Owen’s partner again, say it. Owen knew that he just had to say, ‘I don’t want to be your partner,’ and be done with it. He could leave Eon to despair about it, and then he’d move on one day. Or he’d become a Void Shadow, whatever. But Owen owed Tim nothing. Say it. Say it.

“What are you going to do now?” Owen asked.

“What?”

“You did all that. Can’t change it. So, what now?” Owen felt some of his anger ebbing away with each careful breath he took. Eon talking slowly, and taking so long to reply, was doing wonders for calming his emotions.

Owen helped Eon regain some semblance of a body. He solidified and shifted until he was at least reminiscent of a Ditto. His dotted eyes still had a sorrowful glint to them, and he couldn’t look at Owen directly. As a Ditto, his voice was high pitched and scratchy, not unlike a child. No wonder he tried to avoid it. But for now, it suited him.

“What have you been doing in Null Village?” Owen prodded again.

“I’ve… I’ve been trying to help out here. I don’t have a lot of power. I think… most of it is sealed, or something, like yours. But what I can do, I’ve been trying. Helped rescue Palkia, a-and rescue you, er, not that you needed it…”

On the contrary, he did. But at least Eon was trying to downplay it.

“And,” Eon continued, “I’ve… I’ve been avoiding you a little. I figured you didn’t want to… see me right now.”

“I didn’t,” Owen agreed. “I noticed that a little.”

Silence. Eon looked like he wanted to transform again, but couldn’t think of anything to become.

“It’s alright,” Owen said. “Pick what form you want.”

Eon flinched, his body jiggling. “I didn’t want to… take you or anything.”

Owen rolled his eyes, sighing. “Oh, don’t be dramatic about it. Just… do it like you’ve always been. It’s fine.”

Slowly, his body shifted again. Scales formed around flesh and a little flame erupted at the end of his tail. By the time he was done and calm, he glanced at Owen again. “Is there something more I should be doing?” he asked. “I… I know I want you back, but… but if… if that’s n-not what you want… then okay. Then, okay. I’ll… Then, okay.”

He kept repeating it, nodding, like he was trying to tell it to himself. Owen knew Eon. He knew every little tic about him, and when he took on the form of a Charmander, he knew it even more. In the end, this let Owen get a good, hard look at how Eon really felt. His flame, his twitches, his eyes…

All genuine.

He really was going to give him the choice to leave. If Owen left, Eon would accept it. If Owen left, Eon would try to move on. He might fail, and he might fail for a long time… but Eon looked, finally, willing to accept that.

“And what will you do for the mutants?” Owen asked.

“I need to help them,” Eon said immediately, and a nostalgic fire was in his eyes for only Owen to see. “I’ve… been thinking, maybe I could find a way to convince Nevren to make a school. We know their psychology really well, and most of their spirits are from feral Pokémon, so we can help educate them. Maybe Trina, she knew a lot about how to temper their spirits, so maybe if we combined those two, they won’t be at risk anymore, and . . .”

He went on and on and on. Always looking forward. Always trying to help others. That… was the Tim he knew. Some of his ideas were silly and frankly wouldn’t work, but that was also the Tim he knew.

So, maybe he was still there, deep down.

When Eon paused enough for Owen to interject, the Grassmander said, “Then you want to repair the damage.”

“I do.” Eon nodded. “That’s what I’m gonna do no matter what.”

Owen wanted to leave it at that, but he took the risk and asked one more question. “Why?”

And, to his relief, the answer came quickly. “It’s just the right thing to do. And a return to form. I liked… when I helped Pokémon, back when I was a ranger. And being a ranger and part of a team for Dungeons, that isn’t too different, right? I think I want to do that when this is all over.”

Owen felt the fanned leaf of his tail flex. It reminded him of his flame growing. “Yeah,” he said. “And… maybe we can start up that partnership again. From the beginning. How does that sound?”

Eon’s flame was blazing, but he kept himself calm. Owen could tell he was trying not to look desperate. “I’d like that.”

“But for now”—Owen wanted to temper that hope—“I’m not doing anything. We’re fighting for the same cause, but… that’s all. Okay?”

“Y-yeah. Right, sorry.”

And they stood in silence again, and Owen wasn’t sure what to do next. He somehow expected this. Maybe, deep down, he knew Eon was still the same trainer he’d trusted his life to. It had to be reawakened… but Owen couldn’t be the one to do that. Eon had to find it on his own. And maybe, later, he could prove himself. This was going to be as hard for Owen as it was for Eon.

“It’s really okay,” Eon added, nodding. “I… I think it’s better this way. I don’t think, after… after everything that happened, it can just… flip to normal. I-in fact, don’t even consider it until this is all fixed!”

Owen let his guard down for a split-second, but then steeled himself, nodding. It all seemed so genuine. And maybe it was. He just didn’t know anymore. But Zena and all the others would be so disappointed if he gave in so easily for his old, long-gone trainer.

“Good,” Owen said. “And… thank you.”

That was it. His heart felt lighter, then. That’s all he had to say. Odd… it seemed easier to be in the same room, now.

Awkwardly, Eon picked up the dishes again, returning to washing, and Owen fell back into the old routine.

“Why Eon, anyway?” Owen asked.

“H-huh?”

“I don’t have that memory yet. Why did you pick the name ‘Eon’ after, you know…”

“Oh.” Eon blinked, like the thought had never occurred to him. “I don’t know. I don’t think I remember, either. One day I just went by it. Woke up one day, my name is Eon, and I thought nothing of it. I knew I used to be called Tim, but… Huh.”

A pensive silence followed. They were thinking the same thing. “Do you think it has to do with a Decree?” Owen asked.

“It might,” Eon hummed. “But what would I have to do with that? Nevren, I—I mean, Michael, he remembers his name the same way. That’s so odd… Madeline apparently never forgot hers. Ayame sort of forgot hers, now that she’s the Dragon Guardian, but…”

“I thought their names were similar,” Owen murmured. “Aramé. I haven’t met her yet. She’s, uh, kinda scary, from what I heard.”

“Y-yeah, she’s… time hasn’t been kind to her.”

“And Brandon…”

“He remembers, too. I think he remembers more than most of us, which is also weird to think about. What makes him so special?” Eon sighed. “Maybe it was just coincidence.”

“I don’t think anything is a coincidence anymore,” Owen said. “There might be more to it. But, Eon, I think your name specifically… Do you think it has to do with the time between Kilo forming, and us forgetting that part?”

“What do you mean?”

“That time when you were a Mew. I’ve only gotten a fragment of that memory so far, but you used to be one.”

Eon stared at Owen dumbly.

“You know, Mew. Like Star? I think you were a little bigger, though…”

“I… have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“It was definitely you. And—oh, and I also think you… No, I’m pretty sure you were also Jirachi.”

“Are… are you okay, Owen?” Eon asked, leaning forward to feel his forehead.

Owen flinched back. “I’m fine! Seriously, I have memories of when I was a huge Charizard, and back then, I knew a ton of Legends! Mewtwo—Aster, I mean—I knew him, and there was this really tiny Arceus, and Azelf was—was…”

“I… think I remember Mispy mentioning something like that,” Eon said. “But, Jirachi? Me? I don’t have any memories of that at all.”

“Nobody does. I think you were split in half. Jirachi was here the whole time, probably with all your memories from that blank era I talked about.” Owen hummed. “And I think that has to do with a few other things going on, too. Legends that are weaker than they should be, or ones that don’t remember their past compared to those that do.”

Eon rubbed his head. “If I’m Jirachi, does that mean we should find him and… I don’t know, figure something out?”

“Once we have a means to get to him,” Owen said. “I think I heard something about him being in West Null Village. I don’t think Dark Matter touched that one. Latias is from East Null Village, too, so…”

“If they’re all the same village, why are they in totally separate areas?” Eon complained. “So confusing…”

“It might be something historical.” Owen shrugged. “Something to think about. Maybe when Palkia is feeling better, we can try going there.”

“Right.” Eon finally stood up and climbed the platforms back to the sink. “Um, I can handle the rest, Owen. Thanks for… for talking. I’m going to think about all this a lot. But you should get some rest, alright?”

Owen nodded. “Okay. We’ll talk later, alright?”

He turned, glad to be let go. He still wanted to talk with Zena a little, and the rest of Team Alloy.

<><><>​

First, Owen checked on Zena and briefly told her that he was going to see Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi. He wasn’t sure where Enet was, but he could catch hints of her scent nearby, and that was enough.

Next, he knocked on Demitri and Mispy’s door—he’d not want to walk in on anything—but got no response. The door was unlocked, curiously, and opened on its own. Inside he saw no bed and a few books that seemed to be about cooking. Owen wondered if Mispy ate the bed, or they didn’t buy one because of the risk of eating it. So, he went down to Gahi’s room next, hearing muffled chatter inside between him and Trina.

“Hello?” Owen called, and soon the door opened.

“Oi,” Gahi greeted with a casual wave. He and Trina were playing some kind of card game. Owen briefly wondered if this was really Gahi.

“Have you guys seen Demitri and Mispy around?” Owen asked.

“Evenin’ stroll,” Gahi said. “They always do it. Probably ‘cause the walls’re kinda thin.”

Gahi passed five cards to Owen; he and Trina shared a stack of small discs—tokens, perhaps?—and he realized they were playing poker. Great, what were the rules again?

“How’d yer talk with Eon go?” Gahi asked.

Thin walls. “Uh, how much did you hear?” Owen asked.

Trina tossed in a chip with a vine and said, “All of it, I think. Though, we only really understood half of it. You were growling and chirping for a while.”

“I—I was?” Owen was mortified. Slipping into feral when he was distressed… Wait, but Eon still responded. Did he just not want to embarrass him, or did he also not realize it?

“Eh, no biggie, we get it,” Gahi said. “That feral thing, right? Bet that’d be pretty useful. Oi, make a bet.”

“Oh—sorry.” Owen tossed in a token. “Two cards. Yeah, I guess I’m sort of… I had a lot on my mind.” He sighed when the two cards he got back were junk. “I want to give him a chance because he said he’d try to fix things. I just don’t want to fall into my old habits…”

“I think what you did was a good compromise,” Trina said. “If you’re anything like Har, it’s simply not in you to push someone out of your life completely. He thought about Eon a lot, you know. I think it still torments him.”

“Yeah… Same for Ax, Ani, and Lygo, I bet.”

“Mm.” Trina looked at Gahi, who shook his head and placed his cards down. Trina and Owen did the same, and Trina collected the round’s winnings. “I think, after getting to know Eon more, he is someone who was not ready for the power he was given. Perhaps nobody is. And he made terrible mistakes over an unhealthy obsession. A good person with bad choices. But it is not any obligation for you to follow him as he makes those choices.” Trina passed out a new set of cards. “While I ensnare wayward outlaws and mutants into my Bug army, I do grant them the will to leave once they have been calmed down. It simply takes time for that to happen.”

“I don’t really like that,” Owen admitted. “It’s kind of… creepy.”

Trina suppressed a scoff, passing Owen the last card. He started off with two pairs. “Well,” Trina went on, “I think I’m far better at keeping the land safe compared to what Eon does with them.”

“Ehh, let’s not do this,” Gahi murmured. “Like, mutants’re all messed up, yeah. But I guess we c’n, I dunno, focus on fixin’ that later.”

“Okay.” Owen decided to drop it. Trina’s methods were weird, but she at least seemed to care for more than just some obsession. He had to pick his battles. “Trina, why do you do that, anyway? You know, the whole Bug army thing. How’d you get around to doing that?”

“Mm. It just happened, really. I happened upon the Bug Orb a long time ago; it seemed to be unguarded. Star was there to help guide me through things, of course, and afterward I left for my own devices. I was hesitant to enter society proper, so I learned about it from lost souls in the Dungeon where I had found it. Curious, really. I didn’t feel the need to leave after I spent enough time there.”

“Why’d you leave so suddenly, then?” Owen asked.

And to that, she paused. “I, hm.” And thought some more as Owen passed in one card and upped the ante by two. “Well, your group asked. It didn’t really cross my mind until then.”

“Because we asked,” Owen repeated.

“Honestly, when I sent Har’s team, it was just a formality. I was already… convinced that I could go with you. Or, that it would be more interesting. Star had prompted me earlier, too. But I wanted Har to help convince the other mutants that it would be okay to go. It’s… too bad that never came to be.”

“Hey, it’s not too late,” Owen encouraged. “Once we’re out of here, we’ll try to pick up where we left off. Dark Matter’s in the way right now, but… yeah. We can still work through that. Okay?”

Trina chuckled. “You would say that,” she remarked. “Fine. No use worrying about what I can’t do anything about right now.”

“What’re we doin’ next, anyway?” Gahi asked.

“Nevren’s coming tomorrow with news, or, he should. After that, we can take on Dark Matter from both sides—Kilo and Void! Just like when Star took me over. Maybe if we get Anam back in control of his body, we can seal Dark Matter and, y’know, think of a way to finish him for good after that.”

Owen placed his cards down, grinning. He’d won, this time. And just then, he heard the door open from the main hall, so he nodded at them and said, “Um, glad you guys are doing alright. Gonna talk with the others before I get some sleep.”

Gahi waved idly and they split Owen’s tokens evenly.

Out in the hall, Owen didn’t see Demitri and Mispy and frowned. Must have been Hakk and Xypher coming back, so he headed to Zena’s room after all. He could talk to the others in the morning.

“Hey,” Owen greeted, smiling at the empty spot Zena had left for him in her bed. Crawling in and getting comfortable, he murmured, “Sorry I drew all that attention to you at work.”

“Oh, it’s alright. I, er, I think I understand what you’re trying to do, at least.” She shifted awkwardly. “Don’t do that again, though.”

“I won’t.” Owen smiled apologetically. “You know, maybe my job can be in farming, or something. A quiet life for a little bit. Dad always wanted me to be a berry farmer.”

Zena giggled. “Farming. And here I thought you’d try to avoid plants.”

Owen shrugged. “It’s growing on me.” He shifted around and sat up, restless. He still wanted to try something, so he leaned into his bag nearby and pulled out a dark compass. It seemed to be pointing to the northern part of town.

Zena’s expression darkened. “Owen?”

“What do you think I should do?” he asked. “I spent a few kilos on and off thinking about this. Why did Dark Matter give me something to locate him?”

“To control you.”

“But he can’t.”

“What if he can with that?” Zena quickly countered. “If you willingly let in something like that into your spirit… what if he controls you from the inside?”

“If what he says is true, I already have that in me,” Owen said. “I don’t feel all that controlled. And I know what that feels like.”

But Zena was still uncomfortable, so Owen frowned and only looked at the compass again.

“You really believe him, then?” Zena asked. “That you used to…”

“I think it’s true,” Owen said. “I don’t have any memories or evidence of it, but I think it’s true. It’s… a feeling. And when I get these feelings, it’s because it’s a hidden memory trying to warn me.”

“What do you feel when you think about Dark Matter?” Zena asked. “…Loyalty? Joy? Power?”

He hadn’t thought of that. He pressed his back against Zena’s coils and thought. Dark Matter, standing in front of him, he’d only felt fear and uncertainty. But if he thought about Dark Matter as someone he’d worked with before, what did he feel? Who was ‘Dark Matter’ in the past? He felt…

Owen held out his hand to a black haze. He said something and it shrank away, lashing out at him. Owen stepped back, frowning, huffing, saying something, but the haze would have nothing of it.

“Okay,” Owen said—this voice was clear, like he’d said it many times. “I’ll try again tomorrow.”


Owen took in a quick breath through his nose, not enough to startle Zena. He opened his eyes, though he stared at the compass only.

“Pity,” Owen finally answered.

“You wanted to help him,” Zena concluded, “because he was hurting. Is that it?”

“Dark Matter can’t feel positive emotions. They hurt him. I… I think I remember that. He’s miserable. I think I wanted to… help him.”

“That sounds a lot like Anam.”

“Yeah…”

“And look what happened to him.”

“He’s sealing him away,” Owen countered gently. “It doesn’t seem like he’s under Dark Matter’s control, does it?”

“That’s… that’s true. Owen, do you really want to use that compass? To… crush it, so that power will…”

Another long pause. Then, sighing, he said, “If you think it’s a bad idea, I won’t. It could be a trap. But it could also be a chance.”

“A chance to help him.”

“…This is stupid,” Owen muttered, tossing the compass aside. “I can’t… help him, can I?” He sighed, rubbing his eyes. “We’re supposed to defeat him tomorrow. What am I doing, talking about helping him?”

He heard Zena moving around while his eyes were closed.

“It really is you,” Zena said, “to want to help everyone. I heard your talk with Eon, and… well, I didn’t understand all of it, but I think you wanted to give him a second chance. And for you to do that with Dark Matter, too, it’s… I think you know what terrible things he’s done, Owen. Not just for Kilo’s present, but so many spirits in the past. This whole world, the Voidlands, all of it. Does he deserve forgiveness?”

“Who said anything about forgiveness?” Owen asked. “I want to help him, sure… but just like Eon, he needs to make up for what he did. He needs to free everyone in the Voidlands, and then he needs to fix everything he ruined. We can help… but I bet it would be a lot easier with him on our side than if we just destroyed him.” He glanced away. “If we can even do that…”

“That’s… a good point. If Dark Matter is some kind of entity, we don’t really know if we can destroy him. But, still, Owen…”

“I won’t defect to him,” Owen added. “If he doesn’t listen to anything…”

“Then you intend to talk to him again, after what happened last time?”

“I—” Owen flinched. “I… don’t know.”

“It sounded like that’s what you wanted to do. Just… Owen, I don’t want to force you. But this is Dark Matter. You need to promise me that you won’t defect to his side.”

“Promise…” Owen squeezed the compass, then nodded. “Right. Okay.” He looked toward Zena. “I can do that.”

He held his hand forward, a golden glow emanating from it. “That’ll keep things secure. I Promise that—”

“Owen, no.” Zena smiled, pushing his hand back with a ribbon. “A promise… between us. I don’t want you to feel forced to follow me.”

“But—but that will guarantee it. If I defect, then I’ll lose my power. It’ll go to you.”

“Perhaps that dark power will, too,” Zena said. “I don’t know if we can afford that.”

“O-oh.” He didn’t know if that was true. But it was possible.

“And,” Zena said, “I think… just a promise between us would be enough. Don’t you think?” She tilted her head, and Owen gazed at her for a few long seconds.

“Alright. Then, it’s a promise. To you, and to Team Alloy. I won’t leave you, no matter what happens.”

Zena nodded, then gestured to the compass. “I’ll be right here.”

Owen sighed. Enough discussing, time for action. He hoped this was the right decision. He squeezed the compass a little harder; Zena held her breath. She was tense. Understandable. He kept calm.

A little harder. The compass was losing form. And then, once he felt a crack, it burst in a sudden plume of dark haze that collected along his arms and chest, sinking inside with a cold feeling. He felt tired and drained, but it lasted only seconds.

“Owen?”

“I’m fine,” Owen immediately said. “Sorry. Sudden. Do I look any different? Sound? Act?”

“Well, it just started, but no, you don’t look different.”

“Not even a little bigger?”

“That better not have been a reason you did this,” Zena growled.

“N-no, it wasn’t.”

Zena didn’t look convinced.

Owen searched for Dark Matter. That was what this compass was supposed to do, right? ‘North’ was Necrozma, but now he had a second ‘North.’ And it did feel different; he could tell who was Necrozma, and who this new presence—Dark Matter—was. North, just like the compass said. But closer.

A lot closer.

In fact, it felt like—

Owen sprang from his bed, eyes wide. “H-he’s outside.”

“What?”

Owen bolted for the door, but a ribbon caught him by the torso and Zena lifted him up.

“What happened to not leaving?” Zena hissed.

“I—I’m sorry, but he’s waiting right outside!” Owen pointed at the building wall.

“What do you… mean, outside?”

Knock. Knock. Knock.
 
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