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Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Chapter 1

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


'Most' Charmander, huh?
:sceptical~1:


I take it that that Grass-type morph he picks up at some point isn't completely unheard of in this setting, then. Since that implies that he knows Charmander that know what complete darkness is like.

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


Getting major 'Cavetown from Power Trip' vibes right about now. Did that influence this design at all, or was that independent evolution arriving at the same destination?

“Oh, Owen!”

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

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

That is the most East Asian thing ever. I distinctly remember running into that in some circles of my family while growing up. Though given your story in other places and times behind how naming works in HoC and how it's basically the story of how surnames developed in that region of the world, I guess I oughta keep my eyes peeled for other influences of that sort.

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

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

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

Image


I'll believe it when I see it, really.

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

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

That... feels like a really particular thing to notice about him of all possible things. Wonder if Arcanine was being metaphorical there or if there's something literally up with Owen's eyes?

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


I'm pretty sure that in the context of caves, that "secret" usually heavily overlaps with "dangerous and not trafficked for a reason" so... might wanna be careful about what you wish for there. ^^;

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

“Oh, come on.”

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


Oh, so a pressure switch, huh? Guess that would explain why this place is a secret.

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


I'm pretty sure that's not how genetics works, but okay. :V

Owen: "It's muscle, not fat!" >_>;
Elty: "Oi! That's my line there!"
:eltyunamused:


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

Click.


That doesn't feel like a remotely robust security system if you just need the equivalent weight of a Charmander holding a rock to trip it. Though I suppose being an exit switch would explain a few things on that front.

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

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

... I just realized, but why on earth do they all need a pressure-sensitive exit like that anyways? Since if Amia is a wanted 'mon and is holing up in a place like this... that would seem to imply that the villagers at large have someone gunning for them given that they aren't content with just leaving a normal cave entrance.

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


Yuuuup, they're all hiding something, or from someone. Can't tell who/what, though.

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

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

I mean, "night visibility" for the glorified teleportation pad seems like a pretty non-trivial practical function, just saying. I might be nitpicking, but it might make sense to specify that this applies to those lights by day.

Though I see we're getting the first good look at the teleportation network of this setting. Can't harp on the shortcutting utility of it too much, since I'm using a worldbuilding device to a similar end for "skip ahead to where the plot needs you without feeling too BS" in some of my own writing now. And hey, you can't say that literal fast travel isn't convenient for yeeting characters around.

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

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


... Wait, so nobody regulates the flow of traffic on those things? How does that not result in regular telefragging incidents?
:unquag:


I mean, the answer from elsewhere is apparently “aura tiebreaks” arrivals, but it would probably make sense to at least allude to that in a passing sentence. Kinda like a “miracles of modern technology these days” throwaway.

Though "any other Waypoint to the central one", huh? Meaning that everywhere in the network is at most two jumps away, with the hub being one of them. Guess that would explain why Kilo Village is apparently the center of the universe in this story.

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


... Why am I suddenly thinking of Sootopolis right about now? Since barring the Waypoint this setup literally sounds like Sootopolis. Like all that's missing is the offhand mention of the patch of sea that links to the outside via a subterranean tunnel.

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

Owen decided not to think too hard about it.

Owen: "Well, I don't know if I'm lactose intolerant or not as a reptile, but I don't think I'll be drinking any milk anytime soon."
:TailsEww:


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


Owen: "Whelp, I'm pretty sure that I'm broke right now, so we'll just keep moving along-"

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


Ah yes, what every Hunter's Guild equivalent needs. A place to eat up, get boosts, and then go and do your missions. All that's missing are the catmon chefs.

Owen: "... Dammit, those restaurants are making me hungry right now. Also moving along."

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


Owen: "Or end terribly, since you know. Experimental materials. Anyhow, also moving on."

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


... I might be misremembering things, but I could've sworn from the crossover with GL that the leader of TH was Anam. Not sure how heart motifs figure into that, but guess we'll find out pretty fast.

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


I mean, yeah. Usually when people are nervous and insist that everything is fine, something is really, really not.

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

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


Least of all since I’m pretty sure that you’re cockblocking traffic from like a hundred different locations right about now, Owen. :V

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

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

In other words, tell me that your upcoming mission is going to be a disaster without outright telling me your upcoming mission is going to be a disaster. :V

“Kid. You’re in the way.”

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

The Golem sighed and wobbled away.

... Can't tell whether Owen's being legit or coping like crazy right now. Guess we'll find out pretty quick, huh?

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


That... sounds an awful lot like coping. Though hey, if you managed to bounce back from getting run through by a mutant Seviper the other day this well, there's clearly more to you than meets the eye, so I'll withhold judgment for now.

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

“Ahh, it is not a problem.”

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

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

Owen: "... How do you not trip over that thing anyways?"
:what:

Nevren: "I'm psychic and can levitate?"
:joltyshrug~1:


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


Is it even possible to miss an Alakazam with a 'stache that big? Like you'd think that even blind 'mons could literally feel it and go "oh yeah, that's Nevren" if it's big enough for a small 'mon to walk on.


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


Ouch. "I'm sorry, do I know you?" can't possibly be good for one's ego. :V

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

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


... Do Pokémon normally not retire from TH unless they die/seriously get messed up? Since that feels like quite the assumption there.
:fearfullaugh~1:


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


Oh, thank goodness, I was getting worried there for a moment.
:sweats:


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

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

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

Yes, yes you are, Owen.

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


That turned out a lot better than I thought it would, but that's still judging. And 'I see potential' is literally one of those non-answers that can very easily be warped around into something a lot less flattering than it sounds on its face.

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

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

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


Kiiiinda wonder if this bit would've worked better to describe Owen's mood shift / body language a bit more. Dunno whether it'd work better prior to the first or the third paragraph or both, though.

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

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

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

I mean, an Eviolite does sound handy for a rookie, just saying. Though I wonder how common they are in this setting if Nevren is just casually giving one to an Entry Heart that he doesn't remember from the past.

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


... Have you ever considered just hiding the Eviolite underneath some sort of garb or accessory you normally wear? Sounds like a handy way to trick your mind into forgetting about that.
:joltyshrug~1:


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

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


So 'sections' are floor analogues in this setting, huh? Though I see that KV has a fairly literal way of handling how the games deal with jumping to missions in the canon mission select screen.

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

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

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

Ah yes, our first of the four party members depicted on the cover art. Let's see who we're dealing with here...

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

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


Just how much of those memories did coming back from the opening scene nuke anyways? Since that's the third Pokémon that Owen's gone "wait, have we met before?" to.

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

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

Y’mean the Wooden Wilds?” Gahi asked.

“Y-yeah, that.”

Well, that's an omen for faceplanting hard on your first mission if I ever saw one. I'm pretty sure that if you don't know the name of the MD you're trying to go to, that that's a sign that there's other things you don't know about it.

Gahi: "... You sure you're going to manage on your own out there?"
:what:

Owen: "I'll be fine. Seriously, I'm tougher than I look!"
:judgemander~1:


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

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

Oh lol, literally the very next lines.

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


Oh, so 'late evolvers' is just a legit thing in this setting, huh? I mean, I can understand the tactical considerations of it if move learning takes after the games, but that sounds like a fast way for some dumb kid trying to sound tough getting way, way in over his head in this world.

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


... Sounds like Owen might be one of them, really. Since I can see that 'Is that real?' there.
:loltias:


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

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

“Meganium…” Mispy said, leaf drooping. The three collectively sighed.


Owen: "... Wait, so what's the story behind why you haven't evolved anyways? Cheaper food budget?"
:joltyshrug~1:

Gahi: "Pretty sure that wouldn't stop Mispy, just saying-"
Mispy: "I heard that!"

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

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


Wait, but I thought that the established term was "Entry Heart(s)". Or are the two interchangeable with one another in this story?


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

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

“That’s so cool! How’d you get in?”

“Hard work,” Gahi said.


Small little nitpick there for Demitri's line that IMO sounds a bit more natural, but eh. Authorial decisions.

Owen: "... I mean, I've been busting my tail for forever and still need to pass my exams. So... maybe narrow that down a bit for me-?"
:joltyshrug~1:

Gahi:
Image


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

“What? Who? Which one?” Owen asked.

“Lucario Rhys,” Demitri said.

Yeah, that does sound like it'd help a lot for getting your foot in the door. Even if it kinda undercuts the mystique of getting in by hard work... which might have something to do with why Gahi didn't reflexively bring it up as an answer.

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


The "his" there made me double-take since originally I thought Owen was saying that they were his students, as in that he himself was their teacher. I'm pretty sure you meant spot edit related, though.

Though how many times has this kid gotten his memory nuked anyways if this sort of "I know this about you but don't know how" has happened to him if he's worrying about looking crazy today? Implying that he's looked crazy before. .-.

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

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

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


- Owen calls out after Gahi -
Owen: "B-But it would take all of five min-!"
Gahi:
[*][2:24 AM]
Image

Owen: "Seriously, do you just live to make that expression?" >_>;
Gahi: "When it's for unreasonable asks like that, yeah. Focus on toughening up a bit more before you try to make a first impression with our mentor."

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

Image


“Peh! Pah!”

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


Preeeeety sure that PWCH vividly demonstrated how this sort of mindset can get really messed up really fast in short order, but I'll refrain from raining on Owen's parade since I'm sure something will in short order given the amount of tempting fate that's been going on.

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


inb4 there's other ferals just camping at the Dungeon entrance waiting for free dinner from encounters like this.

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

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


You probably want to explicitly mention in passing somewhere that Owen grabbed that apple, since it kinda comes out of nowhere at the moment in the second paragraph of this block and doesn't exactly require a ton of words to acknowledge. My understanding is that you actually had a sentence that did that originally, so make sure to drop it back in at some point.

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

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


Again:
Image


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

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


Well that worked out better than I thought. Though boy has Owen forgotten a lot of things if he can't remember when he learned his own moves. Like just how many times has this kid gotten his memory reset? And how many times has he almost bitten it, if not outright bitten it like in the opening scene to this story? .-.

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

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

“Rrr… rrrn… rpphhf…”

You see, this is exactly why you don't say stuff like this in a dangerous environment.

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


Ah yes, one of the mutants that Alex and Amia were worried about, since you just knew that something like this was going to happen between all the fate-tempting that's been going down this chapter.

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

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

Owen: "... Pretty sure that this is a really good time to pop that Escape Orb!" O_O;

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


I mean, not bad. But if you'd thought to bring a Stun Seed, you could've minced off at your own leisure while making cheeky gestures on your way out. Sounds like the more enjoyable experience compared to this. :V

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


- Beat moment -
Owen: "... Considering how I'm struggling to remember things as basic as when I learned my moves, how sure am I of that?" .-.

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


Owen: "Well, okay, I might be crazy, but that was definitely real."
:fearfullaugh~1:


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


I'm pretty sure the rational course of action is to just say to hell with this mission and "nope nope nope" out of this MD in light of the Swolax sighting and then report it to TH. Kinda wonder if it'd have made sense to play up why Owen decides to stay the course when he just ran into something that by his own estimation could've reduced him to red mist, even if it's just a sentence or two. e.x. he'll fail his mission and Escape Orbs aren't cheap or something like that.

Given that my understanding from offsite commentary is that Owen’s being driven along by pride and a warped sense of self-preservation here, I'd suggest considering something along the lines of the following:

Owen continued on without looking back. The Snorlax was just an aberration, and it was probably long gone by now. The rest of the dungeon had been the easiest thing in the world, there was no sense in throwing away a mission he knew he could do with his eyes closed over a freak encounter. And so, he advanced.

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

Basically, explicitly showing off "well, that was weird, but I've got this!" in Owen's thought process/narration.

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

“Hey. Kid.”

Pretty sure that this is a recipe for you being in for a bad time, Owen. Should've bailed while you could've. ^^;

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

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

Ah yes, Owen runs into Air Marshal Reisenbach Jerry. Just who he needs to see right about now and a fight that he can totally take on his own. Though how does he know that this guy is an Outlaw anyways? Since there was no mention of him being the target or passing poster of his mug in Kilo Village or anything like that.

Like if he's assuming Jerry is an Outlaw, it probably makes sense to explicitly state that somewhere in paragraph 1 of this block.

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

[ ]

“Y-yeah. Really easy, ha ha…”


It probably makes sense to show off some body language from Owen here given that he's going full nervous titter right about now. Given how big of a jump that is from his last described body language / dialogue, it probably merits some explicit description.

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

“Y-yeah? What?”

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


Owen: "F-Flying-types?"
:fearfullaugh~1:

Jerry: "Guess harder, kid."
:dusknoir_smirk:


“F… Fire and… Flying?”

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

Owen: "I... really don't like where this is going."
:uhhh:

Jerry: "Wouldn't expect you to. I certainly do, though."
:nyehehe:


[ ]

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

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


It might make sense to drop in a paragraph here where you show the gears turning in Owen's head and him going "oh crap, oh crap, this is bad" a bit more explicitly. Since while I gathered that Owen's bravado has kinda exited the room right about now, it feels like we don't really get a solid sense of how things look from his perspective.

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

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

All that was left behind were a few stray embers from his tail; Owen bolted.

Jerry: "Hey! Get back here, you little brat!"
:seviAAAAAAAAAAA:

Owen:
Image


Though that seems like a good place to leave off, guess it's time for the post-mortem recap:

I think that the prologue and first chapter did a pretty good job at establishing an initial hook. It does a good job at selling the sense that something is really weird and amiss, and then shows off Owen as a character. I know that you've compared HoC's target vibe to shonen shows, and... honestly, I can see it, since Owen's mannerisms feel pretty "shonen protagonist" from an initial impression. Not sure if any of the other characters got as solid of a read off of them, though there were definitely some tantalizing hints, especially for Alex and Amia, and I think you picked a pretty decent note to leave things off on for Chapter 1, since it does a good job at encouraging readers "hey, come back and see how Owen has a bad time pulls through this”.

As for the stuff I was a bit less hot on... some things about the prologue and first chapter felt pretty accelerated. Like I get that part of that is just your fundamental style as a writer and your world is fundamentally set up for a fast-paced plot with stuff like the Waypoints lying around, but there were a number of parts that struck me as places that would feel more complete by taking a moment to drop in a little bit more detail or description, especially since these two chapters aren't exactly big to begin with. The tail end of Chapter 1's last scene in particular was where I noticed that dynamic the most.

But yeah, I can see how you built a following for this thing @Namohysip , and it's definitely a better first impression of what's going on than my experiences getting a first taste of HoC from the GL crossover, since... that kinda threw me into the deep end and I had no idea what was going on there when I read it, while it's a bit different seeing things built up a bit more properly. Dunno how frequently I'll be crossing paths with HoC for the near future since I’ve kinda got other things blocking the queue, but I could see myself coming back to this story here and there. ^^
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Thanks for the review, Fobbie! We had a lot of chatting on discord over it, so you already know my responses, but overall glad you enjoyed yourself!

--

Act IV – A Humble Spirit

Finally, Arceus could rest.

The vortex had gone completely inactive, showing no signs of expanding. He would know if it was active again. Now, it was only a small hole into another, terrible world.

He drifted to the back of the Hall of Origin and allowed himself to collapse, eyes closed. He floated there, as if on an invisible bed, as the light around him faded.

“…Ahem.”

The light reignited, and Arceus quickly spun in midair to face a Salamence and Altaria.

The Salamence spoke first. “There’s no need for formalities. Rest.”

“Aramé.” Arceus nodded. “Ghrelle,” he added to the Altaria.

“You did so well,” Ghrelle said, her body purple and melty from the Poison element that coursed through her. “Please, rest.”

Aramé looked relatively normal, but her scales were hardened like her stare. “We wanted to congratulate you now that the fighting is over, for the time being. I will be leaving, if all you want is rest.”

“Of course. And how is Ire?”

“Well.”

“Good. Good.” Arceus settled down in the air again, so exhausted that he decided to discard some of that grace in exchange for extra comfort. Gods, if Star saw him now… “Where is Brandon?” Arceus asked.

“He fled Kilo Village with a small team,” Aramé explained. “At least, that’s what I’ve been told. Lugia was chasing him.”

“Lugia…”

“I would not worry,” Ghrelle said. “He wouldn’t fall so easily. But we’ll tell you if we learn anything more.”

“I haven’t been able to contact him lately. Perhaps I’ll try again later, when I have… more energy.”

“Then I will allow you some rest.” With a formal stiffness, she turned around. “Summon me if necessary.” Without any fanfare, she disappeared.

Ghrelle did not. She stepped toward Arceus. “Ano is doing well, by the way,” she added.

That strange Gastrodon flashed in Arceus’ mind. He nodded at Ghrelle apologetically for forgetting.

She draped her gooey wings over his head, and Arceus was glad Star was not there to ruin the moment this time. Ever since Star left, Ghrelle had been getting quietly closer to him. It was nice.

“Would you like me to sing a song?” Ghrelle offered.

Arceus’ eyes glazed over at the thought, and despite lacking a full face, he seemed to smile. “Please.”

<><><>​

In Null Village, floating around the Radiant tree that gave it new life, and the Voidlands new light, countless spirits flowed through the branches like blood. They went into its fruits and bloomed as flowers with black centers to see the world around them, like windows from a great skyscraper. They sprouted from the roots, drifted from higher leaves, all to see the village as it recovered, like a rainbow after a storm. And when the leaves that fell eventually wilted, those spirits returned to the tree.

Amelia watched with Klent in one of those far-reaching branches that oversaw a more ruined part of the town. They stood in a mostly white, prismatic void with a circle in front of them that saw the Voidlands beyond, and conjurations of false spirit grass under their feet.

The Lilligant adjusted the orange flower on her head. “Dad?”

The Jumpluff was relaxing, eyes closed. “Mm?”

“Is Owen going to be okay?”

“I hope so,” he said. “We just have to trust his plans, for the one carried away to that city.”

Amelia shifted her flower again. The image of that Hydreigon plunging his teeth into the tree, drawing power from it, draining their very energy for his own gains…

One of Klent’s pom-poms enveloped her arm. “Are you okay?”

“Sorry.” Amelia turned away. “I’m thinking back to that Alexander guy. Not Owen’s dad, his… dad’s dad.”

“He was quite frightening,” Klent said. “But he’s gone for now. We can prepare ourselves for the future.”

But that wasn’t what was bothering Amelia as much. “I feel like I’ve seen him before,” she said. “But that’s impossible… isn’t it?”

Klent frowned, looking concerned. “How?”

But it seemed that they were equally confused.

She could only send a prayer into the void. “Please be okay, Owen…”

<><><>​

Birdsong accompanied the crisp morning air of spring. Flowers bloomed readily as the sun rose and warmed Amber’s old scales, easing some of the nighttime stiffness that had become worse in recent years. An aged hand rested on her thigh—a Marowak’s, still firm despite possibly being older than her. She didn’t really know.

Blurry figures were running around. Despite her diminished senses, she could recognize each one by the way they wobbled or the flickers of their tails. She was no longer the mother of these Charmander. Other Charizard in the facility took that role now. She had long since hatched her final egg, and all but one had returned to her, one way or another, to assure her of what they’d done with their lives.

A large and long-tailed, red figure—one of the eldest of her sons who never left to go with a human—approached. He held a large leaf carrying bunches of berries and special foods from the humans in the strange building. The providers for her, and her kind caretakers.

“Scarflame,” said Marowak to her, softly so it didn’t startle her.

“Earthclub,” Amber replied, leaning a little against him.

“You look determined again.”

She huffed in response, a small cloud of smoke obscuring what was left of her vision.

“Hey, Amber, Daichi,” a new voice said, just as soft. Amber tensed, trying to recall who it was. A human, from the words. “Over here, Amber.” Sudden changes in colors to her left revealed a waving figure. Amber relaxed.

“You can approach,” Amber said.

Bigtail, the Charmeleon, stepped aside as well and let the human do her morning routine, checking Amber’s responsiveness, her flame, her muscles, helping with some cleaning and brushing. She didn’t like how helpless it made her feel, but at the same time, she’d grown weak. Too weak to care for herself. In the wild, she would have perished long ago… though perhaps in the wild, she would have also been revered as an elder by the younger in her clan.

Amber raised a hand to the sky, as if trying to hold the sun itself. It seemed brighter today, through her weary and blurry vision. She grasped at an imaginary sphere, like harnessing a flame.

“He feels closer today,” she said.

Daichi deflated a little, but she could tell he tried to hide it. He leaned against her. “Smallflame,” he said.

“Closer than ever.”

“He never returned,” Daichi reminded. “He went missing in a faraway land, with many others. He…”

“No.” She closed her eyes, breathing softly. “I feel it… in my flame. His has not gone out.”

Daichi tensed, but nodded. Amber sensed a sorrowful gesture, perhaps a frown, from the human tending to her. The human’s movements were sluggish.

“Come home soon,” Amber said, taking a long, labored breath, “little ember.”

<><><>​

Author’s note: And so, the story continues. This is your short Act Prelude, as usual. Sorry for the usual wait for only a prelude, but I needed to slow my pacing after those two monster chapters.

We are back to our regularly scheduled bi-weekly post rate. See you in two weeks for the first true chapter of Act IV!
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Chapter 129 – New Home

Owen still trembled, leaning against Diyem in the imaginary forest surrounded by nothing.

“That was stupid,” Owen mumbled. “I shouldn’t have yelled at him… He was… just trying to tell me everything. Even if…”

“Mmh. You had every right to be angry.”

“Are you going to tell me more?” Owen gazed toward him. Diyem seemed uncomfortable with the closeness, yet didn’t pull away.

“No.”

“What? Why not? I—”

“You need Necrozma to verify that I’m telling the truth.”

“Oh… Right.”

Owen wiped his eyes, trying to steady his breaths, but it wasn’t working. His own team, ascended as Legends, had taken away everything he had. His will, his emotions, and then his memories, all gone just like that. He was afraid to think beyond that. Necrozma had said it led to his life as a mutant.

But that left so many questions afterward. What happened to all the Legends? Why were they here, but also in Kilo? What split them in two?

Diyem knew the answers and he was frustratingly close. He could ask for the information now. Could he trust Diyem to give the full truth? He would eventually remember them anyway, right? Or would the lie, however briefly he fell for it, push him down a path irreversibly catastrophic?

“You’re skeptical. Undecided. Uncertain.”

Owen winced. He was too distraught to hide anything, especially from Diyem.

“I don’t care.” He crossed his arms, staring at a random, fake tree opposite to Owen’s gaze. “These memories are not yours anyway. Your time as a mutant was inconsequential, as far as I’m aware, and they aren’t for me to tell.”

“What?”

“I do not know what happened to you after, and I doubt Necrozma did, either. You were simply taken out of the picture. The war went on without you. I fought without you… But there is no point in giving you my word.”

“No, I—”

“Because I am already tired… and I will at least tell you what’s important.” Diyem faced Owen, finally, with a serious look in his dark blue eyes. “Remi fell into the Voidlands during the war… but it was only part of her. And the rest never went across the aura sea.”

It didn’t register to him at first, but eventually he took a shuddering breath. “Then… she became Cosmog.”

“No, actually.”

“What? But—”

“There is no reason you cannot split yourself, even as a mortal spirit.” Diyem studied Owen. “You did the same, didn’t you?”

“O-oh. You knew about that.” He glanced away.

“All you need to know is how to manipulate the spirit. That technique was acquired the moment you gained Necrozma’s blessing, and you, of course, learned how to harness it. It came back to you without realizing; while your mind forgot it, your spirit did not.”

“Right.” Owen sighed, refocusing on what was important, “Where’s Remi now?”

He shook his head. “I would have told you, if I knew. But she hid herself even from me. She would have revealed herself to you long ago if she could, which means…”

“She’s trapped somewhere.”

“No. Certainly she would have been discovered by now.”

“What? Then…”

Diyem shook his head. “Perhaps she is hiding on purpose. Or perhaps someone is holding her captive. Or any number of things like that.”

“But she’s alive.”

“She must be.”

“She’s not… just… gone, right?” Owen asked, cold dread filling every part of him at the prospect.

Again, he shook his head. “Every soul is cursed with immortality. It, like the memories tied to them, are eternal. I have tried to defy this. Believe me.”

Somehow, Owen could. Perhaps this, with everything he knew of Diyem, was a truth that proved itself.

“So, if you can’t destroy a soul, you can hide one, or seal it, or…”

“Or make them forget, for a time,” Diyem completed, “much like your fate.”

More silence. Owen wasn’t sure what kinds of questions he could ask. Should ask.

“Where is the part of her in the Voidlands?” Owen asked. “You must know where—”

“I do not,” Diyem said. “I only know that she escaped it, somehow.”

“Then she’s… she survived leaving the Voidlands? I thought people who did that… burned away and returned here.”

“She was able to sustain herself.” He frowned, as if pensive. “I don’t know how.”

Or he was choosing not to tell him, but… No. He’d have no reason to withhold that at this point.

Owen noticed that Diyem was starting to fade out. They were out of time.

“…That’s all, huh?”

“I need to recover my strength.”

“…I have to deal with Alexander now, don’t I?”

“You do.”

“I’ll hang in there.”

“What is your plan?”

“Watching and waiting,” Owen said. “My friends… won’t be sitting still. I’m going to wait for them.”

“After what you learned about their past?” Diyem asked skeptically. “Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi betrayed you utterly.”

“They did,” Owen replied. “…But I had betrayed them, too.”

“For what you considered to be the right thing to do.”

Owen stared, frowning. “And they thought the same, right?”

“Tch… Only one of you can be right, at most.”

“At most,” Owen echoed, mostly to himself.

He was taking this very well, and Owen knew it. Because he simply did not have the time nor energy to try to reestablish who his enemies were, who his friends were, or what halves of his friends were one or the other. To him, he had too little information. And he would just block it out until he had time alone to think. And meditate. Until then, they were still his friends. That hadn’t changed.

Besides, it didn’t really matter until they were in danger of reuniting, right?

“…What matters is they’ll try. We can talk about the rest of it… later.”

Diyem rolled his eyes, and that was the last he’d seen of him before his presence disappeared from the forest.

After what felt like reliving his whole life as Wishkeeper—that whole millennium and then some—it was finally time to wake up and face the present.

<><><>​

The strange atmosphere of Cipher City had been messing with his battleheart instincts. Every mean look given to him by the guards, every impartial glare, made him reflexively conjure up ideas on how to strike them down, how to fight each one, how to kill them in three different ways. It was savage. It was something from his mutant self, spiking his desire to fight to unhealthy levels. A defiant pride that he wouldn’t be weak. Even as a Mystic, that didn’t leave him. Would he always be broken in that way?

“March,” growled one of the guards behind him. This one was a savage Arcanine with matted fur and the splash of a wound from some recent scuffle.

“I am, I am,” Owen murmured. He had no means to resist them, even if he could give them trouble if he wished.

They didn’t want him dead, after all.

Regrettably, Owen hadn’t gotten to see much of Cipher City on his way in. He’d been asleep for all of it. By the time he was awake, he’d been tossed to the ground like trash for the guards to escort inside. He had only seen the black-purple castle made of some Voidland-borne stone at the heart of the city. Behind him had been crystal-engraved buildings tens of stories high on roads paved with black obsidian.

While a little dark, Owen had to admit it was pretty in its own, mysterious way. A shame there was no mystery to it, in truth. It was only the capital of the Voidlands’ half-ruler, Alexander.

“MOVE!”

Strong arms hurled Owen across the ground where he rolled and coughed. The Pangoro that had tossed him snarled and marched forward, ready to kick him next.

“Hey!” Arcanine shoved himself in the way. “We were ordered not to kill him.”

“I wasn’t gonna kill him,” Pangoro dismissed readily. “But he was standing there, daydreaming.”

“Just give him time. He’s not going anywhere,” Arcanine said back, and then gave Owen a sympathetic glance. “It’s his last days of freedom. Can’t you give him that?”

That gaze from Arcanine reminded Owen of Auntie Arcanine, back when he had been blissfully ignorant of so much. Back when he was still trying to become a Heart.

Pangoro growled and grabbed Owen by the arm—Owen realized it was back to red scales, no longer leafy—and then shoved him forward again, but it was noticeably gentler.

“Just keep walking. What, you want a tour?”

“Is that an option?” Owen asked.

“I was being sarcastic, wise guy.”

“Oh.” Owen glanced to his left, toward a black lake with a few swimmers playing in it. Nearest was a Swampert doing exhaustive flips and dives out and into the dark surface. Absently, he wondered if the water tasted foul like their rivers. To his right was a courtyard of plants of varying shades of red and purple, just like basically everything else that was ‘natural’ in this realm.

“Can you stop daydreaming for five seconds?” Pangoro grabbed Owen by the back of his neck and picked him up.

“Hey—hey!” Owen flailed and Pangoro deliberately dropped him. He landed on his feet.

“March.”

“How come I’m not tied up, anyway?” Owen pressed as he moved.

“We were told not to,” explained Arcanine. “That’s all we really know.”

It was a long walk, but they’d eventually gotten to the castle’s proper entrance. The doors were perpetually open and nearly thirty feet across and twice as high, as if a whole fleet of Pokémon could pass through effortlessly if they wished. Owen wondered how often that was actually the case.

But rather than walk down that great entrance hall, he was guided to the left immediately upon entry, where stairs led downward, into underground levels of the great building. There, waiting just by the entrance, was an Inteleon that sent a shot of painful familiarity through Owen’s forehead.

Alexander’s most devout follower. So, this was where he’d ended up.

“My, my.” Inteleon stopped leaning against the wall to approach. “And to think, you used to be so large. Now you’ve been reduced to an awkward, middle-form Charmeleon. You know, I’ve never seen you like this before. As a Charmander, certainly, but a Charmeleon? How novel.”

Owen squinted. Something about that sounded wrong, but the thought was shaken from him with a jab from Pangoro.

“Forward,” he commanded.

“You are dismissed,” Inteleon said with a shooing motion.

“Sir.” They both straightened, and then departed.

“Inteleon Qitlan,” he said.

Owen stared, frozen in place as a strange hotness bubbled in his chest.

“Oh? No introduction?” Qitlan asked.

“Why is Mhynt working for you?”

“Hm.” Qitlan gave a light bow. “You aren’t in a position to ask questions. Now, come with me. Perhaps with good behavior, I can answer that. But as of now”—He gestured toward the downward stairs, like it was some luxurious red carpet—“your new living arrangements await.”

Owen weighed his options in that moment. What could he do, now, to wait things out, gather all the info he could, and then find an escape? If he went down there… would there be a way out?

“And if I refuse?” Owen asked, arms crossed.

“Oh, please, do refuse,” Qitlan said with a wry smile.

The way his fingers tensed suggested he was eager to use force, but had been told not to unless deemed necessary. Could he take Qitlan on? No.

“What counts as good behavior?” Owen asked as he descended the stairs. He could sense that the third step was uneven. He could use that.

“Simple, really,” Qitlan answered. “Obeying any commands given, not showing defiance—”

Owen missed the third step and fell forward, slamming hard into the stone a few more stairs down. Something cracked and he went tumbling further down half the flight before coming to a rough stop. There, he lay limp.

“Oh, for the love of…” Qitlan growled. “You really need to be more careful. Stairs can’t be that complicated…”

Owen did not reply. He was completely still. The flame on his tail was starting to dim rapidly, and as it did, Qitlan’s pace quickened. Owen could feel that panic in Qitlan’s movements, even if he was keeping his tone even.

“How can you possibly hurt yourself that badly?” he hissed. “Get up!”

It was a demand, but behind it was a desperate plea. Qitlan was afraid.

Owen opened his eyes and coughed. “Ugh… Fix those stairs,” Owen groaned. “How long was I out?”

“No time at all. Enough with the dramatics. Stand.”

Owen obeyed, ignoring the limp he had developed. That wasn’t a façade; those stairs could hurt a weak Pokémon. How hard was this stone?

But as Owen descended into the dungeon, he realized he had acquired another weapon to use later: his own wellbeing. Even within the very heart of Alexander’s lair, he had at least one card left in his hand.

<><><>​

Angelo was going to take a long, long break from pastels, assuming he survived. They’d set up a makeshift camp in a small clearing of Fae, Fae Forest. Its colors sickened him. The wraiths did not bother them; Spice had, indeed, warded them off. That was Spice, wasn’t it? Phol had been suspicious of her, and Angelo still didn’t know what to think about it.

She was still monstrous, hardly a Salazzle in appearance by now.

“How’s everyone holding up?” Spice asked, glancing in particular at Leo.

The Delphox nodded and patted his arms. “Better,” he said. “Much better.”

“You really did order all those wraiths to leave and they listened,” Brandon murmured as he scanned the area. “You some kind of wraith commander? Lead wraith?”

Spice tilted her head back as if rolling her eyes, but it was hard to tell now that she lacked pupils.

“Sure, call me that. Privately. Not publicly.”

“I dunno if anything is going to fix the PR of you literally commanding spawn of the underworld,” Brandon said, waving his arms around ominously.

Again, Spice seemed to roll her eyes.

“But now that we’re feeling a little better…” Brandon rested his elbows on his thighs, leaning forward. “Spill. What are you?”

“Rude way of phrasing it, but fine,” Spice said. “I’m… a wraith. Just like any other.”

“Well, that’s not true,” Brandon retorted casually. “No wraith we know spends years living as a normal citizen until the world flips itself over… and then helps normal people like us afterward.”

“Normal like you, right,” Angelo muttered.

“I… don’t really know how long I’ve been in that place. The place where wraiths are from. But I know that I used to live like a normal person, or something close to it, before becoming one. I still don’t know who I used to be, but—I also didn’t want to be there. Something was screaming for me to get out, and so… I did. I don’t know how, I just could, when no other wraith can exit a Dungeon. I did. And when I was escaping the place wraiths came from, there was also a family in the same Dungeon. They’d been forced to flee from bandits and passed out from exhaustion, or something. I stepped in to save them and warded away the other wraiths, and…”

“So, your mother,” Brandon said.

Spice nodded. “And her daughter. Her only daughter.”

“Y’know, two Salazzle twin sisters is one of the rarest things I can think of,” Brandon said. “I should have thought about that.”

“How did you… convince them?” Angelo squeaked. “Surely, they would have figured…”

“I was just following my instincts,” Spice said. “I… I made them think I was always there. That it was normal. It… was kind of easy.”

Angelo’s blood ran cold. “You… manipulated their memories? C-c-controlled their minds?”

“Well if you phrase it like that—”

“How else would I—” Angelo wheezed. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You… you’re not evil, you’re just… different. You—aren’t going to manipulate us, right? You… haven’t, right?”

“No. I can’t. you’re… too strong for that. My parents were never fighters, so they’re just… average citizens.”

“Even average citizens can be formidable,” Phol hummed. “Especially southerners.”

“Seems I was stronger than average.” Spice shrugged dismissively. “I just had more powers than the average wraith. To the point where I was able to escape a Dungeon and not fizzle away instantly. And I… guess I took my chance.”

“That’s awful… I—I mean, that’s… impressive?” Angelo tried to look small. “I’m sorry…”

“Why?” Phol asked. “You obviously haven’t hurt them. Anise and Whystle are a happy couple and, even if it involved some strange… mind altering, you gave them a second happy daughter, yourself. You played the part of a talented sibling. Before all this”—Phol gestured around the Dungeon—“your family was in a great position. Nothing like what I’d expect from a wraith if they had this kind of power. So, why?”

“I… desperately wanted to be part of a family,” Spice replied, looking away shamefully. “That’s it. Didn’t care how.”

“Wouldn’t it have been easier to kill Sugar and replace her?” Brandon asked.

“I’d never do that!” Spice jumped, eyes wide. “Why would you—”

“See, that’s interesting to me,” Brandon said, pointing at Spice. “Think about it. Why would a wraith like you not go for that easier option? Replace someone who already has something established, just like that. But you didn’t. Unthinkable.” He tapped a metallic finger on his arm. “You’re something other than a wraith. Obviously, the way you can escape Dungeons, there is something different about you.”

“Well, if you have any answers, I’d love to hear it,” Spice said, standing up. “But until then, I… just want to live normally. Once I can find a way to reactivate my disguise, or get my false appearance back, I’d like it if you kept all of this a secret from everyone.” She brought an arm to her opposite elbow. “If… that’s alright.”

“Tall order,” Brandon said. “I’d rather just break it to higher authorities and spread the news downward. You’re a Heart, right? And Kilo Village is a real understanding sort. I think with enough vouching, having it out in the open would be better than keeping it a secret so rumors will spread, in the long run. The truth’ll win, I promise.”

“They’ll drive me out.” Spice looked away. “They…”

“Not with us supporting you,” Brandon said. “Not to mention your family, right?”

“The family I invaded,” Spice mumbled.

“Now—now, don’t get like that.” Finally, Leo spoke up, having been resting near the corner all that time. Angelo tried to urge him to stay down and rest, but he waved him off. “Spice… I’m sorry for all the looks I gave you. I’ll admit, I don’t understand all of this, but it sounds like you didn’t, either. And for someone with all the powers you had, what you used them for instead is… Well, I don’t know. But it wasn’t evil.”

“What a high bar I’ve set,” Spice said, smirking. Her smile then softened, and she lowered her guard. “But… thank you.”

“Um.” Angelo raised a hand meekly. “So, you don’t remember why you were a wraith, or… anything like that?”

“I knew I had a past life,” Spice said. “I just don’t know what. I can’t… remember any of that. I want to. But it’s not… opening for me. Drove me nuts. I try not to think about it anymore, focus more on this life…”

“I suppose I understand,” Angelo said.

Leo nodded as well, reaching for Spice’s shoulder. She didn’t flinch away, though Leo still seemed to have trouble holding the wraith so close.

“I’ll do everything I can,” he assured. “I’ve seen past the appearance. You’re still Spice.”

She nodded again, mouth quivering.

Leo pulled her in for another embrace and she leaned into him, eyes closed. Her hand was rubbing Leo’s shoulder, and Leo was doing the same to her.

It was only for a flash… but Angelo could see, even though she still appeared like a horrible monster, that Spice was a Pokémon again.

<><><>​

It was one of the most awkward breakfasts Zena had ever experienced. Eon was still in a Charmeleon form, looking exactly like Owen as a painful reminder of what had happened the day before. At least he wasn’t bawling, but… she wouldn’t blame him if he was.

Then there was Hakk, who had somehow been convinced to sit at the living room table as well, but he was staring directly at his plate of food. There was a strange berry in the middle of his plate no larger than his claw. Zena recalled that he usually gave it to Xypher… Now where would it go?

Suddenly, Hakk’s eyes filled with tears and he turned away, completely silent. Gods, she had no idea how to help him, but she wanted to. What could she say? He was too prideful to accept any help, and… it would probably hurt more to remind him.

Then there was Amia, who had taken Xypher’s old seat. Or, “Evelyn,” as she preferred now, for some reason. But Zena checked, double checked, triple checked, that it was Amia, and her aura felt the same. Exactly the same. The Fire essence helped, too. So, what, was her name false, too?

She also wasn’t bothering to disguise her hair as blue anymore. It was a green-haired Ralts, as normal.

At least she enjoyed Alex nearby. The doting Hydreigon was making sure every need was attended to, and after what his father had done, it was so strange to see that tender gesture from someone who’d come from…

Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi were mourning the loss of their team leader. Zena was with them. Would they be torturing Owen, now? Interrogating him, forcing him into some kind of service? They wouldn’t kill him, and that somehow made things worse. Death would have been advantageous at this point; they could find him someplace else.

And then… of course… there was Dark Matter, or “Diyem” as he’d requested. A name Owen had given him in a dream.

Could she trust that?

The Charmander with a black flame was poking at his meal, furrowing his scaly brow.

“Um,” Demitri said, “is something wrong with it?”

“What?” Diyem stared at Demitri. “Mm.” He looked back at the food. “No. Nothing seems to be wrong with it.”

“You had a few bites…”

“Yes. I did.” Diyem took a berry and inspected it suspiciously. “Yet I’m not dead.”

“Um. M-my cooking isn’t bad…”

“And you did not lace it with poison?”

“No!” Demitri said.

“We could have,” Mispy commented, munching on the empty vegetable can that Demitri had used for breakfast.

“Yet you didn’t. Strange.”

“Do you think that lowly of us?” Zena growled.

“Do you think that highly of me?” Diyem replied. “I’m surprised. That’s all.”

A beat of silence passed as everybody started eating again.

“D-does it taste good?” Demitri asked.

“Yes. Which is also strange.” Diyem took a big bite, nearly choking until Gahi hesitantly patted him on the back. “…Good. It is ‘good.’ This feeling is a good taste.”

“Oh, come on,” Gahi said. “No way you don’t know what good food tasted like.”

“I didn’t have a mouth until yesterday, Flygon,” Diyem grunted. “Everything before had been borrowed. A sense of taste was never relevant.”

“S-so this is… yesterday was the first time you’ve ever tasted something?” Demitri brought a hand to his chest. “A-and I cooked for you…”

“Yes. You are my first introduction to the culinary world, formally. I’ll let you know if it’s awful when I have more frames of reference.” He glanced at Hakk, like he wanted to say something, but then looked at everyone else. “You want to see Anam.”

“We do,” Zena replied. “You know where he is, and you said he’s fine?”

“Physically.”

“…Is he still Anam?” Zena asked, hesitant.

“Yes.”

Zena waited for an elaboration that never came. Sighing, she finished her well-made meal of dubious ingredients and pulled away. “Who will be coming with you, then?”

“Don’t you have work?” Diyem asked.

“…The building collapsed in the battle, so I’m… suspended without pay until it’s ready.”

“I see.”

“Oh, did everyone… survive?” Demitri asked.

“Some did,” Diyem replied. “Others didn’t, but they should be fine enough now.”

“E-excuse me?” Zena asked. “What do you mean?”

“Well, the Vaporeon was killed and Voided. But it was by my army’s hand. I restored her.”

Zena squinted, incredulous, and leaned forward. “And you only tell me this now?”

Diyem stared, dead-eyed, at Zena. “Why?”

“…Because I cared about them! I may not have worked long with them, but when I heard the news… It was devastating!”

Diyem rubbed his chin, brow furrowed again. “…I see.”

Gahi growled next. “You’ve been inside Anam for, what, a hundred years?”

“Five hundred.”

“How do you not know how people care about others!?”

“I’m aware of this.” Diyem rolled his eyes. “It slipped my mind.”

“W-well, that was very kind of you,” Demitri said. “M-maybe recovering from this will be easier because of it?”

“If that’s what you need to recover,” Diyem replied.

“Oh, you did to them what you did to me?” Amia asked, leaning forward. “Does that mean they’ve lost a lot of memories, too, dear?”

“You… were different,” Diyem said. “You were Voided for longer. New memories let the old ones fade from prominence. For them, they were Voided for hours at most. Less time to fade into a dream.”

“Right…” Amia nodded, sighing. “That’s a real shame. All the stories I hear about myself seem so familiar, but I can’t feel them the same way. I can recall them, yes, but…” She let out an even longer hum. “Well. Maybe it will return eventually to how it was.”

“And Xypher…”

It took Zena a moment to register where that had come from. At first, she thought it had been a phantom’s voice, but no, it was Hakk’s whisper.

“…Xypher was killed by Alexander’s hand,” Diyem replied. “I have no power over his fate. The only way to free Xypher is to strip Alexander of his power.”

“Can he be restored?” Hakk asked, daring to look up.

“…There will be many difficulties in—”

“Tell the truth,” Hakk begged.

“He will never be as you remember.”

Zena wished she could forget the pained look in Hakk’s eyes just then. But she knew she never would.

“…But we can save him,” Zena urged. “And… you can make new memories. He’ll still remember Hakk, won’t he?”

“I suppose he will.”

Gahi’s tail whipped behind him. “Then why’d you phrase it that way?!”

“If you set your expectations low, the disappointment will not exist,” Diyem replied, taking a bite from a piece of bread with dusty ingredients. “When we are ready, I will guide you to Anam.”

The rest of their breakfast went by quietly, though near the end, they got a piece of mail—Zena was surprised the system still existed—that requested a meeting in the main hall.

“…Null Village has a main hall?” Zena asked.

“It still has a main hall?” Diyem asked, looking insulted for some reason.

“…We gotta bring ‘im, don’t we?” Gahi asked, prodding Diyem on the top of his head. His black flame popped.

“To keep an eye on him?” Demitri asked. “What if he, like, gets some intelligence from us, or something?”

Mispy looked among the group, then shook her head. “He’d already know.”

“I believe what Mispy meant to say,” Diyem said, “is that there is little intelligence among all of you.”

“Eh, guess so. Don’t got any new info.” Gahi shrugged, starting toward the door.

Diyem stared at Gahi with a dull expression, then glanced at Mispy, who just shrugged in resignation.

<><><>​

Owen’s new abode was a concrete cell with a leaky pipe near the top corner, a hole in the corner of the room, and a moldy cushion that was intended to be a bed. Presumably.

The walls were affixed with chains of varying sizes and were not recently cleaned of whatever had once been there before. But when Owen inspected it a little more closely, he realized that the smears were artificial and meant for intimidation than history.

He could get the thoughts of his friends out of his head. Team Alloy, and then the embodiments of mind. What would happen if they combined? What would be left of either? Threads of guilt wrapped around his chest. And would they forgive him once those memories returned? Could he forgive them having known what they took away?

Would… he ever see them again for who they were? They’d… be gone, if they disappeared into their Legendary forms again. More gone than Diyem could ever hope to make a soul.

The only one he could trust to stay the same was Zena… and he was beginning to wonder if she would want to be with him after all he’d learned. She hated Dark Matter, hated Eon, for what they’d done—rightfully so—and for a time, he’d been willfully aligned with both. Happily, enthusiastically!

Would she learn the truth? And if not, did he have the strength to tell her? He had to. He may not have become Reshiram, but he’d almost been. He’d uphold the truth, especially after everything that had been kept from him.

Fire-Dragon would have been nice, too.

Heavy doors opened on the buffer between the main dungeon hall and the cell Owen currently occupied. He stopped his pacing and stared. The door closed, though he’d only heard the harsh clanging. Whoever was walking had light footsteps; he couldn’t hear a thing.

He wondered who it could be. Qitlan, maybe to interrogate him, get more information? He’d be ready for it; he already knew how to take advantage of his subservient nature to Alexander.

But what about Alexander himself, ready to try to claim his spirit as another peon to control? He’d just have to never give in. Easier said than done, but there were too many people counting on him. Or maybe it was just delivering food… not that he needed it. He was probably beyond that again; he could feel some of his old Mystic powers returning.

But then the cell opened, and he saw the one person he wasn’t prepared for. The one he’d compartmentalized out of his mind until that moment, like it was the one he still didn’t know how to deal with. The person who, as far as Owen knew, was still whole… and the one who knew everything about his betrayal.

Mhynt stepped through the door, closing it slowly behind her.

And suddenly, all of Owen’s planning dissolved into the aether.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Chapter 130 – Gateways into Void

In the past, Owen had only known Mhynt as a Sceptile. Seeing her as a Treecko now was surreal. She wore a pensive frown, walking forward casually with her arms crossed. Owen felt an impulse to pin himself against the wall, but held strong. She probably remembered everything. And he’d just gotten most of those memories back.

“Hello,” Mhynt said, “Owen. I’m glad to see that you still have that look in your eyes.”

“Hi, Mhynt… I, uh… Hi.”

“Same social skills, too.” She stepped a little closer and uncrossed her arms, looking him over a second time. “Charmeleon,” she remarked.

“I’m working on it.”

“You’ve been working on it for quite some time, haven’t you?” Mhynt hummed. “How much do you remember?”

“I remember enough,” Owen replied vaguely. “Why are you with Alexan—”

Mhynt moved so swiftly that it didn’t even register until after she’d stabbed him. A false Honedge blade had been conjured from nothing and plunged into his chest, filling him with searing pain moments later. His eyes bulged.

“I am the one asking questions,” Mhynt said. She pulled the blade out, then plunged it again in a different spot and Owen gritted his teeth.

He fought back tears; why was she doing this?

“Really, you still haven’t mastered getting rid of your pain?” Mhynt mocked. She pulled the blade out again, taking aim for another spot on his chest.

Getting rid of his pain? Right… He did that before. He could dull it. He focused on that, easing it, making it no longer relevant. His body was just a body; his spirit had moved beyond the need to feel its pain. He just had to tell himself that, and—

The blade struck again. No pain. He felt the pressure—he knew he was being cut—but none of the pain followed. There was no need for his body to inform him that it was in danger.

It was uncomfortable that he couldn’t breathe, though.

“Tch.” Mhynt dispelled the blade and remnants of his blood, which had clung to it, fell to the ground.

Why was she doing this? For what purpose? What did she want to know for Alexander, and why was she working for him?

Or was she truly being forced?

He tried to talk, but no words came. That startled him at first, before he realized she’d pierced his lungs. That knowledge, without the pain, was still disorienting. He didn’t know how to talk without them yet, and he was too flustered with Mhynt there to think about it.

“You’re going to answer with a nod or a shake,” Mhynt commanded. “Do you understand?”

On reflex, Owen nodded, but then stopped himself. He couldn’t fall for that.

Mhynt looked displeased, fist clenching a little. Her pupils narrowed. “Will you align with Alexander?”

Owen shook his head.

“Do you know how easily they can invade your mind?” Mhynt said. “How readable your flame is?”

His flame… It always gave him away.

“As long as you breathe, that flame will give away all of your secrets,” Mhynt stated. “It’s pointless to fight back. Once you accept allegiance… your treatment will change from how it is now. Just as it did with me.”

Change, but not improve. What was Mhynt trying to tell him with this?

Owen glanced down at his chest. Still bleeding. He focused a little as his scales turned green; vines twisted and wove between his wounds, solidifying until they sealed up and became flesh again. Leafy feathers grew over them.

He could breathe again and, therefore, speak. “Sorry. No deal.”

Mhynt snorted and turned around. “That was all I was assigned to speak with you over. If you ever want to change your mind, speak up. You’re always being watched.”

His eyes darted upward and around, where he saw, in two opposite corners of the room, cameras. He could also sense… something lining the walls in neat little rows behind the concrete. The enchantments in them were dark, yet familiar… Reviver Seeds?

The door opened as Mhynt began to leave. “Goodbye for now, Owen. Perhaps I will return if I am assigned again.”

“…Remi is—”

“Not another word,” Mhynt spat. “Don’t speak unless you are spoken to first.”

Owen flinched, nodding. With Mhynt out of the dungeon, she gave him one last glance as she stood out of the camera’s line of sight. And then, and only then for that split-second, did Owen see a pained look in her eyes as the door shut.

Owen kept a straight face and remained there in silence, taking a seat against the wall.

Mhynt was powerless to say much. But she had given him a few hints; he knew it. He just had to figure out what those were for, and why. He took a slow breath, glancing toward the cameras. “Well, uh…” He hummed. “Get ready for a boring watch session. If there’s nothing for me to do, I just meditate… so…”

The cameras, of course, did not reply.

<><><>​

As it turned out, there was a town hall to Null Village, though it did not have the same glamor that Kilo Village’s Heart HQ did. It was just another building with a sign at the front saying “SVPNHQ” in shimmering crystal.

“SVP…” Zena repeated.

“Southern Voidlands Protection Network Headquarters,” Marshadow said, stepping through a doorway so large it made him look like a pebble in front of a cave. Only a few blocks behind them was the Radiant Tree, and a few of the roots snaked their way between some of the nearby buildings.

“Quite a mouthful,” Trina, atop Gahi’s head, remarked.

“Eh. Just call it S’veepin HQ.”

“Oh, that’s cute,” Demitri said, fidgeting in the new building.

The main hall was also a misnomer. While there was indeed a long and large hallway with tall ceilings encrusted with multicolored gems, it was more like a great central, indoor plaza. The ground near the back had a podium for someone to speak, acoustics for the voice to carry far, and a decorative, light crystal pattern on the ground in a grand spiral.

“Guessing we weren’t allowed here before because of the quarantine stuff,” Demitri said.

“You got it. And then I turned traitor,” Marshadow added. “Not a whole lot o’ overlap there.”

Atop Mispy’s back, Diyem murmured irritably. “Half the town is still up, most critical infrastructure is being rebuilt, and your capitol is still standing.” He leaned forward. “Between Null Village and Hot Spot, I think I’m losing my touch at omnicide.”

Many eyes, including Zena’s, glared at the Charmander.

“…I was joking,” Diyem murmured.

“Having some sense of humor is technically an improvement,” Trina growled. Still, the Snivy glared at him and tapped Gahi on the cheek, gesturing for him to continue ahead, which he obeyed.

“Guess I shouldn’t be surprised that’s yer sense o’ humor.” Marshadow shook his head. “Yer really him, eh? Dark Matter, reduced ter a Charmander…”

“A fragment of him,” Diyem said, “…but, yes.”

They entered another oversized room far down the indoor plaza. They were surprised to see it was already filled with several large bodies.

Demitri nearly collapsed from the surprise, had it not been for Mispy right next to him. “Th-th-that’s…”

While some were in better shape than others, several Pokémon from that great war had been found, and Diyem looked largely unsurprised by all of it. All of them seemed larger than life, but were all spoken of in the Book of Arceus. A great, blue deer with prismatic antlers; a six-legged dragon with spectral wings; an emerald serpent that swam through the air; and, of course, Dialga and Palkia from before. Floating near them as well was Latias, looking like she’d been woken up in the middle of a deep slumber.

“Good, you’re here,” greeted Xerneas with a formal nod and hum. “We’ve discussed all that has happened, including the current predicament with the usurper Wishkeeper now being in the hands of Alexander.”

“Usurper… Wishkeeper,” Zena repeated. “Owen was who Alexander took.”

“Ah.” Palkia glanced at the others. Some shifted in place. “Well. This is quite awkward.”

“You’re talking as if I would know what it means that Owen goes by that title.” Zena furrowed her brow. “Usurper? In what way?”

“Y’gotta know,” Marshadow said, “Owen doesn’t remember anything. And it’s probably better it was kept that way, eh?”

They all collectively nodded.

“Excuse me, but I think that is the exact opposite of what Owen wants,” Zena said. “You will tell the truth to him, and you won’t withhold it, either.”

“The truth isn’t… very easy to divulge like this,” Dialga said. “You should keep quiet about such things for now.”

“…Owen told me once about Wishkeeper, but Marshadow, you said you didn’t recognize it. Was that a lie?”

“Tch. I dunno how I phrased it. Owen’s real perceptive, but, thank the red, blotched sky that he couldn’t read me fer that.”

“I’m sorry, who are you, by the way?” Xerneas asked, growing impatient. “You’re… familiar.”

“I am Zena. I am Owen’s… close partner.” Zena paused at that final comment. “And… I do not know you, no.”

“Oh, another one.” Xerneas rolled his eyes. “Wonderful.”

“I beg your pardon?” Zena’s heart hammered from some budding anger. This was Xerneas, the supposed guardian of all life?

“Forgive me for being so dismissive,” Xerneas said. “Perhaps I’m in a bad mood. But last I remember, Owen had a tendency to betray his mates.”

“Xerneas, let’s… not get into that,” Dialga said delicately. “Owen has been through quite a lot since then. He’s a changed person.”

“By choice?” Xerneas asked.

“He’s been changed by force quite a lot,” Zena growled. “He has been trying to find himself since then. And if this meeting is about him and his current status, then let me say this: I am going to rescue him.”

“…You?” a new, rumbling voice said, and all heads turned toward Giratina, who was studying Zena from afar. “A mere, common Milotic? You will rescue Owen?”

“Do you doubt me?” Zena asked.

“How will you rescue him?”

“I must admit,” added Rayquaza, coiling a little tighter in the air as his emerald scales brushed against the wall from lack of space, “even I would be quite… hesitant to, er… challenge Alexander this instant.” A few glanced at him, and he lowered his head. “I’m sorry. That probably wasn’t very encouraging.”

Dialga gently nuzzled Rayquaza, murmuring something gentle to him.

“Well, I’m not a common Milotic. I am the Water Guardian, and have been by Owen’s side for a lot of the recent trials, along with Team Alloy.”

Another wince seemed to come from Rayquaza, who was becoming someone that, while new, was a good litmus test for Owen’s presumed, buried status among these Legends.

“Team Alloy. Is that familiar to you, Rayquaza?”

“A-ah! Oh, why me? I… am just a bystander in this conversation.”

“Just send the green tea noodle out,” Giratina said, sighing. “There are some things that are better left unknown, Milotic.”

“Hmm.”

Diyem’s voice was so small and quiet that only Zena and the others on her side had heard it, none of them, so small, able to truly get their voice in. The Legends continued to murmur amongst themselves as if they hadn’t even arrived to begin with, and Diyem murmured something to Mispy, who, to Zena’s surprise, nodded.

Mispy charged a Solar Beam and fired it skyward. It left no mark, but it got everyone’s attention, silencing them.

“You could have spoken up,” Xerneas growled. But then, he saw who had done it—Mispy. His face seemed to twist into a half-realization, half-apologetic grimace. “…Speak, Mispy.”

“I actually wanted to speak,” Diyem said as Mispy rotated so he could face them. “Do I have your attention?”

“And who are you?” Rayquaza asked. “Not Owen, obviously, but…”

“I am a small and harmless fragment of Dark Matter, the instability. Killing me will do you no g—”

Xerneas was already charging an orb of pink energy above his head when, suddenly, Zena stood between them, and Mispy took on a defensive stance.

“Cease,” Giratina snapped at Xerneas, who snorted loudly and dispelled the attack.

“Really, is that how the Legends spoken of behave?” Trina asked, tiny arms crossed. “I was never much a believer, but at this rate, you’re going to be making a lot of people realize they should never meet their heroes.”

That earned a few glares, but the little Snivy still apparently believed she was the Bug Guardian Serperior.

“…As I was saying,” Diyem said, “I am a fragment. And unlike the rest of me, I am willing to help. I have seen the light, and have some within me. Literally. It is painful. But it allows me to feel… positive things. This was an impossibility before.”

“Ah… I recall Wishkeeper saying something similar,” Rayquaza said. “Light…”

“I suppose this is as good a time as any,” Diyem said, “for me to inform you all that your efforts at secret-keeping, while very admirable”—it was no secret to anyone that he was mocking them—“are pointless. Necrozma and I told Owen everything in a dreamscape.”

Their expressions, in their own ways, universally darkened.

“It was quite clever,” Diyem said. “He forced the truth by having both myself and Necrozma tell it, side by side. So, there is no need to hide it any longer. He knows everything you tried to hide.”

Complete silence. Zena didn’t know the full extent of this ‘truth,’ but for their behavior, it was… grave.

“Owen told me something curious after I told him everything,” Diyem said. “He said that his plan was to wait for his friends to rescue him. After all, there would be no way Alexander would allow him outside of his clutches, and Owen does not have the power to escape on his own. It is up to us now. And he believed we would do it.”

“Do you know who he was thinking of,” Xerneas said, “when he said friends?”

“I do not understand in any sort of detail what it means to be friends, or what nuance there is behind that phrase,” Diyem said. “But the way he phrased it…” Diyem pointed at Mispy, Demitri, and Gahi, and then at Zena. “These four, I am certain. And perhaps everyone else, too. I personally would just call them tenuous allies, but Owen is perpetually optimistic. You know how disgusting he can be.”

Zena glared at him again, but Diyem only rolled his eyes, holding his hands up. “Force of habit. Forgive me.”

“Then… he knows,” Xerneas said.

“Um…” Demitri hesitantly raised a claw. “We—”

“How come you guys’re talkin’ like we’re in trouble?” Gahi said, flaring his wings. “Owen’s our team leader! What gives?!”

Mispy whispered something to Demitri, who seemed shocked at first. Then he asked, “Did… as our ‘other selves,’ did we… go against him?”

“Yep.” Marshadow sighed, shaking his head. “Well, ain’t this awkward.”

“Why would they go against him?” Zena asked. “Did they get tricked by Dark Matter?”

“Try again,” Diyem said. “Owen was the one defending me. They stripped him of his will, emotions, and memories in order to make him completely useless in the efforts against me. It was, obviously, a great act of betrayal, and I imagine Owen would have been very upset about it if he remembered.”

“B-but… but we don’t want to betray him now, so it’s okay, right?” Demitri asked. “Where’s Uxir, Azelf, and Mesprit now?”

“East Null Village,” Marshadow said. “Speaking o’ that… I think we oughta get ter plannin’ things out. We’re startin’ ter piece things t’gether, and… Well. We dunno how it happened yet. The memories’re all foggy and scrambled. Maybe you c’n help…” Marshadow looked at Mispy with an amused smirk, though she wasn’t smiling back. “Ehh… Anyway, how ‘bout you?” He looked at the wall, like there was something there.

There was a growl, and then a Zoroark appeared as if from under an invisible veil.

“Gah!” Demitri jumped. “H-how long have you—I thought we left you at home to relax!”

“Got bored.”

“And she infiltrated security, eh?” Marshadow shook his head.

“I mean, if all she had to do was go invisible…” Demitri frowned.

“No, we’ve got protections fer that. Not bad, not bad.” Marshadow nodded at Enet. “Anyway, ehh… Giratina, how about you outline fer us what our goals are?”

“Of course.” Giratina stood a little straighter. “We have several goals to cover before we can hope to attack Alexander directly. First, we need to gather our power. It appears, from our deductions, that we have been halves for a very long time. Some of us do not remember our mortal lives, while others do; some of us have our mortal halves and our immortal halves existing at the same time. We have wondered, for a while, why we are so weak… It is because our spirits have not been whole. We do not have our complete power.”

Did not,” Xerneas corrected, scoffing. “I just became whole.”

“Right.” Giratina nodded. “Our goal will be to find our other halves and become whole. Owen may have knowledge of that, or we can find it scattered around those of us here. For example, we are pretty confident that the trio of mind—Uxie, Mesprit, and Azelf—are in East Null Village… and right in front of us. Two halves that must reunite.

“Wait, but—” Demitri started, but Giratina raised a wing and glared.

“I understand your reservations. We can discuss that later. First, let’s map out all of our goals.”

Demitri shrank back. Mispy glared at Giratina, comforting Demitri with a few vines, but didn’t otherwise protest. Demitri looked like he was trying to hold back some kind of panic, and Mispy had a grave look on her face. Gahi… didn’t seem to get it yet, unsurprisingly.

But what would it mean to reunite with a Legend? Would they die?

Zena hoped she didn’t have a Legend half of some kind. She didn’t see any eyes going toward her, so… perhaps, somehow, she was normal in all this. No, she had to be; she was born and raised fairly recently, and there was no odd gap of becoming a Legend. It was the Water Orb, and that was it.

Though, now she felt horribly out of place amid them all… was she the only normal one there? Did Trina count as normal, too? Nobody mentioned her, either.

“Next,” Giratina said, snapping Zena out of her thoughts, “we need to find out how to survey Quartz—or, Kilo, as it’s called today. If we can get support from the surface the same way you did against Dark Matter, that can help us against Alexander. And, of course, we must also try to locate and rescue Necrozma himself. He is far ‘north.’ I can feel his presence, even now. He can also help us defeat Alexander.”

“Seems pretty straightforward when y’say it,” Marshadow said. “Get support from the surface. Make the Legends whole. Rescue Necrozma. Get enough help, we beat up Alexander.” Marshadow’s eyes trailed to Diyem. “Any objections ter that?”

“Alexander is one of four threats,” Diyem replied simply. “I will add to our pile of missions: Find my components, and eliminate them. If you kill them, their memories will return to me like a dream, and I can suppress it. If I die, then I suffer the same fate, and I become faded instead.”

He paused, then, to make sure they understood. Zena did. If they could eliminate all the other pieces of Dark Matter, then the ‘Diyem’ here would become dominant. They could fix Dark Matter that way, the way Owen wanted to. Was that Owen’s goal when he spared Diyem?

“I want to cooperate. I have…” Diyem hesitated. “I’ve seen joy. I want to keep it.”

Silence.

“Please.” Diyem closed his eyes and dipped his head. “I don’t deserve it. But it’s all I ask, to allow me to help.”

“And can anyone else corroborate this?” Giratina said. “Does anyone here trust this… Dark Matter… after everything he’s done?”

Another silence followed, and Diyem looked, briefly, hopeless. His black flame shrank; his shoulders sagged; next to everyone else, he was so tiny.

“I will.” The words tumbled from Zena’s mouth. She saw Owen, who had risked his life for Diyem. He knew joy. Owen knew something that she didn’t, that perhaps none of them did. Perhaps there was more to this; she had to put her faith in that judgement right now.

And if that turned out to be wrong… they would get that from Owen. Diyem was weak like this anyway.

And they’d already defeated him once before. This was the best course of action. No more infighting.

“I trust Diyem, too,” Demitri said next, earning a skeptical glare from Mispy. But Demitri hardened his gaze ahead, locking eyes with Giratina. His legs trembled, but he still spoke. “I mean, maybe not trust him, but… I trust Owen.”

There was a sad look in Dialga’s eyes.

“If he wanted to do something ter us,” Gahi said, “he woulda done it already! Diyem’s fine.”

Mispy glared at Gahi next, but then stared Diyem down. Diyem wasn’t looking at her, so Mispy wrapped a vine around him and forced him to face her direction.

Enet crawled a little closer, on all fours, as if creeping in. She sniffed at Diyem’s shoulder, tilting her head.

“May I help you?” Diyem whisper-growled.

Enet clasped her claws under Diyem’s arms, holding him skyward. Mispy let go, and Diyem didn’t have time to react as he flailed uselessly.

“Reborn!” Enet declared to Giratina and the rest of the Legends. She held him a little higher, staring directly at Giratina, before leaping onto the table—earning a groan of protest from Diyem—and she held him up more. The height difference was still insurmountable, and Diyem still had his eyes downcast.

“Do you expect shoving him in my face will help?” Giratina asked, leaning forward as if to humor the gesture. They were still several feet apart.

“Yes.”

Zena could tell that was complete honesty.

Diyem stopped his struggling, daring to look up at Giratina, then at the others all around the table. His black flame dimmed more, but he kept a steely gaze this time.

“…Enet,” Xerneas murmured. “Your aura…”

Enet tilted her head at Xerneas.

“…Never mind. In any case… set him down. This isn’t necessary. Enough of you trust him for now. We don’t need to waste time on this.”

Giratina’s glare had barely softened by the time Xerneas spoke, and she nodded. “Yes. Do as you want with him.”

Enet nodded firmly and started walking back, carrying Diyem under her arm like a bag. For some reason, he didn’t protest.

Giratina huffed. “Then add defeating Diyem’s… other selves to our mission statement. That is everything.” Giratina looked them over. “We will now spend some time dividing resources.”

Gahi was already pacing around the room, restless, and Demitri suddenly looked tired and overwhelmed. But before the logistics could be outlined in any detail, someone knocked at the door. Trina was the first to notice, frowning.

“Yes?” she called. “We’re sorry, but this is an important meeting.”

“A-ah, I’m sorry, really. But I think this is also important. A delivery? There was a message with this flower…” A Typhlosion held up what looked like a daffodil haphazardly placed in a ceramic pot.

The flower bobbed in a way that was unnatural. There was no wind and Typhlosion hadn’t moved very much…

Zena’s eyes bugged out. “That’s… Owen!”

The flower ducked and waved, bashful.

<><><>​

Spice led the rest of her team down Fae Fae Forest without incident, all the way until they got to the dark, distorted core of the Dungeon. Here, pastel colors washed away into twisted, darker colors, as if drops of black paint had been mixed with the colors meant to paint an otherwise bright canvas.

“Before we go through,” Spice said, “I need to warn you guys to be careful. Whatever you do, don’t die when you’re in there.”

“Oh, death was kinda high on my list of things to do,” Brandon said. “I’ll bump that down a few notches since you warned me.”

Spice growled. “I’m serious. If you die in there, it’s not the aura sea or whatever you believe. You’ll wind up trapped in there, forever. I was an exception to that. Okay?”

“Right, got it.”

“And while in there… you’ll probably be weaker than you expect.”

“E-even weaker?” Angelo squeaked. The trembling Smeargle had practically clung to Phol’s side all the way through the Dungeon, despite the wraiths leaving them all alone.

“Yeah. I don’t know the whole story, but I’m a lot stronger there, even more than when I’m just in Dungeons. Meanwhile, you’ll probably be weaker. Don’t overestimate yourself. In fact, underestimate yourself. Play cautious.”

“Got it…” And to this, Brandon seemed to be taking it more seriously. He glanced at the Poké Ball in his other hand. “And this one?”

“She should… be alright. Just keep her safe.”

“And you’re sure that if we find another Dungeon… core of some kind, we can use it to avoid Emily by simply… emerging in a different spot?”

“That’s the theory, at least.” Spice didn’t feel as confident. She took a slow breath. “But it’s better than going out and that thing killing us all. I’ll take this risk of death over certain death.”

Leo waved hand forward, along with his new, pastel stick from the forest to help channel his flames. “I’ll do my best to keep everyone together,” the Delphox said.

“Guess we’re ready,” Brandon said.

“Alright, boys.” Spice whipped her tail, which caught all their attention. “Let’s go!”

Just ahead was a fissure in the air itself, like a passageway that had no hallway beyond it. This tear in the Dungeon itself had once been sealed and hidden by Anam, but now, it was open again. The gateway into her ‘old home.’ The first home she could remember, because her previous one was erased from her memory.

In the end, she was going back. But hopefully it was just for a visit.

“Something wrong?” Leo asked. “It’s… alright if you’re scared, Spice. Maybe we can find another way around.”

“No, we have to,” Spice said. “I… I have to.”

But she still hesitated.

“Um… s-so do we just walk through?” Angelo asked.

“Ladies first,” Brandon said.

“I suppose that means you go,” Spice growled at Brandon, gesturing forward.

“Excuse me, I’m far from a lady. I’m a handsome, muscular dude.”

“Pretty sure that Steel body is just compensating for something.” Spice approached the Dungeon’s core. Without another word, she passed through…

There was something terrible on the other side. From what Spice knew, the other side of these cores tended to shift around, drawn to powerful auras or spirits. Where would this take her…?

<><><>​

A ghostly song echoed throughout a little home in North Null Village. Far from the horrible battle that took place in South Null Village, the clash there was nothing but a report from Cipher City’s representatives. Usurper Owen was captured; Alexander was victorious; Dark Matter, destroyed.

Some good news, some bad news. But in the end, it was all the same, wasn’t it?

Darkrai sighed as he gingerly pushed the last tray of dough into the oven, closing it and making sure the heat was just right. Cresselia would appreciate those after the news.

He headed down a small hallway lined with abstract art and purple plants to lean in on the living room, where Cresselia was lounging on a cushion, curled up for a nap. Darkrai briefly, in a panic, clutched at his neck, but felt the Lunar Wing charm around it and deflated with relief.

She could wake up to cookies!

But for now, he had time to relax and do nothing. He’d done some training with the soldiers in preparation for whatever Dark Matter might have tried—especially after their near-encounter—but it turned out to be for nothing. Training exercises were always good…

Still, he was filthy! It was time for a bath. Drifting through the halls, he quietly—to not disturb Cresselia—opened the door to a smaller, white room of polished tile and filled the tub with water, but only after closing the door, also to make sure Cresselia slept soundly.

Darkrai quickly placed the Lunar Charm from his neck onto a special slot in the doorframe, which seemed to amplify its effects with a gentle, pink glow. Slowly, he sank into the tub of water and let his mind and hazy head drift.

Owen… How long had it been since he’d heard that name? Since it was ever relevant to anything they did in the Voidlands? Then there’s news of him descending here, trapped like all the others. Then a new Tree of Life forms and blasts a hole in the sky! Oh, if only he could see it. He’d forgotten what stars looked like, or a clear blue sky… The best he could simulate now were artificial lights from Water crystals.

Darkrai reached for some soap, opening his eyes to see how much red dust had clung to his spectral form.

A Salazzle Void Shadow, submerged in the water up to her eyes, stared back at him on the opposite side of the tub.

They locked eyes for a full second.

“…Hi?”

“EYAAAAAAAGH!”
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Chapter 131 – Half Death

Cresselia smashed through the door to the bathroom and locked eyes with Spice. The only reason the Salazzle wraith wasn’t immediately torn to shreds was because of some quick thinking with a black Protect barrier. Instead, whips of pink energy twisted the metal of the tub and left cracks in the wall. All of it passed harmlessly through Darkrai, but even with the Protect, Spice winced as her arms felt numb.

“Wait!” Spice shouted. “I’m not hostile! Talking! I’m talking!”

“Advanced wraiths can talk just fine,” Cresselia said as Darkrai scrambled out of the tub, dripping wet as he floated behind her. So startled, he seemed to struggle with just staying off the ground.

But Cresselia wasn’t attacking again, and Spice let the barrier down. It took too much energy to keep it up the whole time.

“Sorry for barging in,” Spice said. “I won’t make any sudden moves.”

Cresselia said nothing, keeping an alert stance. Her wings were pulsing with energy, readying another Psychic blast at any act of aggression.

“Why are you here?” she asked, stern, as bubbles started to follow behind Spice. The others were coming.

“We’re from Kilo,” Spice said quickly. “I look weird, but they look normal. You’ll trust them, right?”

“If I can sense their spirits… and they aren’t tainted… then fine. But yours… Yours is completely corroded.”

Spice winced. So it really did look that terrible, did it? “My name is Salazzle Spice. I am a Heart who helps rescue Pokémon in need. I live with my parents, Anise and Whystle, and I have a sister, Sugar. We run Sugar and Spice. Mostly selling chocolates. There was a big attack from Dark Matter lately, and… hopefully everything is still standing, but we want to go back.”

Cresselia glanced at Spice’s right, where the bubbles got even bigger. Spice held up a claw to Cresselia, and used her other hand to reach down and pull someone from below.

Angelo gasped for air, sopping wet. “I thought… I was… going to drown!”

Moments later, Brandon’s steel form rose up, Angelo sitting on his head. Quickly following was Phol, who only snorted and grumbled at the water, before rising higher to reveal Leo carried under his arm like baggage.

“Why is there a portal in my bathtub?!” Darkrai squeaked.

“Guess it got attracted to your strength, or something,” Spice said.

“Then the barrier between the Voidlands and Kilo is weakening…” Cresselia frowned. Upon seeing the other, uncorrupted members of Spice’s team, she lowered her guard. “Your auras do not feel tainted. In fact…” She eyed Phol, then Angelo, then Brandon. “I sense blessings from some of you.”

“Well, if that’s your way of saying we’re safe, mind if we dry off?” Brandon asked. “We’ve got three Fires on the team. The water’s probably killing them.”

“Don’t exaggerate,” Phol said.

“Please get me a towel,” Leo croaked.

<><><>​

After assessing the damage to the bathroom, and then drying everyone off, Spice and the others were led into the living room. Cresselia still seemed cautious of Spice, which of course made her self-conscious of every little thing she did, but at least she wasn’t killing her on the spot.

“So, it’s true,” Cresselia finally opened as they all sat, or floated, around a small dinner table. The room was lightly furnished with tables to hold plants, some odd screen in the back of the room, and seats that did not look like they were used very much. Just down the hall was the bathroom, and Darkrai had gone further into another room that smelled of somethings sweet.

“It is,” Brandon said. “Kilo’s in trouble. We don’t really know how it all turned out, but we were being chased by Lugia before coming here for an escape. All that other stuff, we don’t really know.”

“I h-hope not too many died in all this,” Angelo said. “Gods, just recollecting all of that…”

“It sounds like the situation is dire indeed,” Cresselia said. “I’m sorry that we can’t be of much help, but… in the Voidlands, we’re basically stuck here. If we leave, our bodies evaporate—painfully—without a way to anchor ourselves to that world. We’re of the Voidlands, now.”

“D-does that mean we’ll also be trapped here if we stay too long?” Angelo asked. “Am—am I stuck here now?!”

“No, you’ll be fine,” Spice said. “Passing through a Dungeon’s core is a safe way to go through. Just don’t die in here.”

“Oh, just don’t die, of course,” Angelo breathed, looking halfway into passing out.

“I have to ask,” Phol said. “Your… are you the exact same Pokémon spoken of in the Book of Arceus?”

Darkrai and Cresselia exchanged a look. Darkrai seemed nervous.

“Yes, but we were not around when that was written,” Cresselia said. “Those were likely stories passed down about us, perhaps twisted by time, before being transcribed. But there were no… books in that way about us before the Void King’s War.”

“I see… Stories, and that’s all.” Angelo seemed to slump down. “Well, that’s disappointing.”

“You say while talking to living Legends,” Brandon said. “…You’re living, right?”

“Not really,” Cresselia said.

“Darn.”

Spice sighed and placed her hands in her lap. “This has been nice,” she said, “but we have to get going. We need to find another Dungeon exit—any one, doesn’t matter which—so we can escape Lugia. We have her other half with us right now, but she’s too weak to be out.”

“Other half?” Darkrai repeated. “What does that mean?”

Spice shrugged. “It doesn’t make sense to me, either. That’s just what she’s saying. That if Emily takes her, they’ll combine, and Lugia will be complete… and completely unstoppable.”

“Lugia…” Darkrai looked pained. “She defected against Necrozma a long time ago as guardian of the sea. She wanted to protect all life… and fell into the hands of Dark Matter because of it. Now look at her…”

“Sounds like a real history lesson,” Brandon said dully. “I dunno if that’s all that important right now, though. Spice?”

The Salazzle wraith seemed lost in thought, tapping on the green gem in her chest.

“Spice,” Brandon said.

Leo touched her shoulder.

“Huh? Oh. Right, Lugia. Well, what’s important is keeping her away for now. We don’t know how to beat her because she’s basically immortal.”

“Most who take Dark Matter’s blessing are that way,” Cresselia confirmed. “The only way to defeat someone so thoroughly corrupted by darkness is to use Necrozma’s light. Unfortunately, the two are mutually vulnerable to one another.”

“Necrozma’s light,” Brandon repeated. “Necrozma… Why does that sound familiar?”

“I believe he has been wiped from history, somehow, in the living world,” Cresselia said. “You… feel familiar.” She squinted. “What is your name?”

“Uh, Brandon?”

Cresselia’s eyes widened. “By Star…”

Brandon tilted his head. “Uhh?”

“Brandon, with a team of six loyal feral Pokémon who learned to speak?”

The metal Machoke shifted uncomfortably. “Kinda creepy you know that.”

“You’re Reshiram. You need to find him.”

A long pause was followed by an incredulous grunt. Spice didn’t know how to react, so she could only imagine how Brandon had felt in that second.

“Sorry, I think I had something crazy in my ear, try that again?”

“I—I don’t know how it’s possible,” Cresselia said, “but you’re another one. Reshiram is somewhere in Void Forest, right now, as a Titan. But if he can be freed…”

“Rewind, rewind, time out.” Brandon put his metal arms in a T. “Can you take me back to the part where you’re treating me like the Dragon of Truth? Since when am I truthful?!”

“You are easy to read,” Phol said. “And I believe you once bragged about telling that Owen fellow the truth when your superior said otherwise?”

“Oh, sure, one or two examples makes me the ultimate embodiment of all things true!” Brandon raised his voice a little, but then sat back down. “…I’m gonna pretend I didn’t hear that while I come to terms with it.”

Beeeeeep!

“Oh!” Darkrai perked up. “Ah, um, let’s pause on this. The cookies are done!”

With a little pep, he floated down the hall, and Brandon stared incredulously. Spice shared the expression, or at least she hoped she was.

“…So, that’s the King of Nightmares,” Spice said. “Gotta say, wouldn’t be my first guess.”

Cresselia huffed. “Don’t believe every story you’re told,” she said. “Darkrai is the embodiment of fear. He harnesses everyone’s fear to make them stronger for the real thing.”

“What’s that around his neck?” Angelo asked. “It’s beautiful.”

“A Lunar Wing. A charm from me,” Cresselia said. “As long as he wears it, his… atmosphere is suppressed. We figured it out a long time ago.”

“Oh, that’s beautiful…” Angelo put a hand to his chest. “…May I draw it one day?”

Cresselia looked like she’d almost flinched. “Y-you may, if… What?”

Angelo fidgeted. “Er, never mind.”

Spice sighed. This was her team. But… at least they were in someplace safer.

Somehow.

<><><>​

It was surreal to finally see Owen again after accepting that he had been taken away, ready to rescue him. But part of that still didn’t feel real, mostly because now he was a flower.

Zena had stared in total disbelief for a while, before Mispy confirmed, indeed, that the flower’s essence felt the same as Owen’s, and they even asked a few basic questions to him to see if it would answer as Owen would. And, indeed, it did. It was Owen.

“Well,” Xerneas said with a conclusive huff, “that changes things, doesn’t it?”

“In what way?” Zena asked.

Owen bobbed his flower affirmatively.

“Well, rescuing Owen is no longer of extreme urgency, if he is not even whole,” Xerneas said. “In fact, it seems that Owen has split himself into three pieces. Very clever of him…”

“Uh, three?” repeated Zena. “Oh, you mean… I thought Owen left the Tree behind when he hatched, though,” Zena said. “And it was only being sustained my the spirits he’d left behind to keep it up?”

“I don’t know what you mean by spirits,” Xerneas said, “but that, ahem, replica Tree of Life contains Owen as its base. Another, small part of him is within this flower. And lastly, there is the one with Alexander. Since his spirit does not feel fragmented otherwise, I’m confident that these are the only fragments of him to worry about… unlike yours, Diyem.”

“Mmff. Yes. Five pieces, as I said,” Diyem muttered.

“So you generally can’t tell at three or less, huh?” Demitri hummed. “I hope that doesn’t mean there’s a third of us out there somewhere, too. I’m still trying to come to terms with Mesprit being my other half…”

“I doubt it. Even if it’s hard to notice, you still become weaker, and you’re far from it.” Xerneas looked down at the flower. “You planned this all this time, hm? Alexander could not have you entirely, even now. So, you bought us some time. I suppose that will make up for some of your past… mistakes.”

The flower shrank back.

“You certainly aren’t afraid to speak to openly of those,” Dialga said with a sigh.

“Diyem already admitted to revealing as much,” Xerneas said. “Now then… Let’s return to planning.”

<><><>​

The new normal was a life of reconstruction for Har and his team. Buildings were still largely toppled over, but the people who once lived in them were not. Displaced, but recovering, it was nothing short of a miracle that their casualties were so few. It was almost as if the battle had never truly been aimed at Kilo Village, but at certain individuals inside.

Every day, Ani would leave to help with healing any rescued Pokémon that had been found in other parts of the world. Lygo, with his great speed, would scout ahead and find and return as many as he could, and guide carriers to handle the rest. Ax and Har, meanwhile, teamed up for heavy lifting, converting their efforts from rescue to recovery. Thankfully, very few bodies had been found underneath the thick rubble of Kilo Village and other settlements north, closer to Hot Spot.

And after every day of that, they would return to their new “home.”

It wasn’t as comfortable as the web that Trina had made, and it wasn’t big enough, either. Makeshift. A simple building in Kilo Village made from some kind of reinforced clay or brick, lined with wood, and a stone tile floor. Boring. Functional. They hadn’t really gotten any furniture beyond the essentials to rest in. Never saw the need, yet it still felt lacking.

“I’m beat,” Har said, flopping onto his bed of hay. It was the simplest kind of bed but it reminded him the most of home. It was usually meant for ferals living with normal Pokémon, but he couldn’t resist the lure of something that was like a forest. Ax, Ani, and Lygo had opted for normal bedding instead, of fabric stuffed with soft things to curl on top of.

At least it was better than a Poké Ball, he lied to himself.

Har curled up a little tighter. Nothing felt good anymore and he didn’t even know why. Casualties were miraculously low. The town was recovering. The ceremonies for the departed were over. And yet, he felt so empty. Why?

“Home,” someone called, stepping into their home from the main entrance. The sliding noise told Har it was Ani. A vine opened the door and the tendril-legged Meganium slipped through. “Wow. You look awful.”

“Thanks,” the Charizard replied in a huff as he rolled onto his back, flailing his arms uselessly. “That’s just what I wanted to hear.”

Ani rolled her eyes and tossed her bag of stuff in the corner and crawled his way next. “Want to talk about it?”

“No.”

A beat of silence. Ani slid a little closer and wrapped several of her vines around him. Har grumbled and curled up again, turning away, but Ani just pulled him into an embrace. He leaned into it.

“I don’t know how to talk about it,” Har said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m just not happy.”

Though he did like having Ani there. He felt a little less empty. He breathed in, then out.

“We could fuse, if you want,” Ani offered. “We hadn’t done that in a long time.”

“I don’t want you to catch whatever I have,” Har replied. “But… but thank you. I’m really glad that you’re… still you. I still think about that sometimes.”

Ani smiled and nuzzled against his back, and Har leaned against her more. His heart eased. His friends were always there, his team. He thought back to how much he had cried, then, when he realized he wouldn’t truly lose them.

“You’re okay,” Ani whispered. “It’s going to be okay.”

Don’t cry, don’t cry. Not this time, it’s ridiculous.

He couldn’t find it in him to speak. That would break him down.

Ani gently rocked him left and right. The exhaustion started to hit him. He slowly drifted off, his mind finally slowing down, despite never having any thoughts to begin with.

<><><>​

Har awoke to the mumbles and shuffles of Ax and Lygo returning from some other job in town. Ani had, at some point, gotten off of him to help with making dinner, and Har briefly wondered how long he had been out. After spending some time silently in bed, he sat up, which was enough to alert the others.

“Hey, sleepyhead,” Ax greeted. “Busy day?”

“A little,” Har admitted.

He felt a little okay.

“I miss anything?” the Charizard continued.

“Nah. More recovery. Rescued some people from a village northeast. Most escaped a while back, so this was just the fighters who were holed up and weren’t sure if it was safe yet.” Lygo listed off more of their rescues, and Har fell into a relaxed little stupor while he half-listened to what he was saying. He was mostly just paying attention to the fact that they were there.

But before they could properly get started on dinner, Lygo’s antennae twitched and he glanced at the front door.

“Something wrong?” Ax asked.

Har stood up.

“There’s some kinda commotion outside,” Lygo mumbled.

“Let’s check it out,” Har said, thumping his tail on the ground once, like it would energize him.

Just beyond their home, which was a little north of the central Waypoint that was no longer operational, they saw a crowd of Pokémon forming and converging from all directions. Along with the normal Pokémon were the black blobs with varying numbers of eyes—the ‘Nates’ as they were being called.

All of them were converging to a spot in front of Heart HQ.

Lygo, predictably, sped ahead and left the rest of the team behind. When Har finally caught up alongside the others, he gaped at the sight.

Arceus was standing right there, head held high, and several onlookers simultaneously trying to get closer and yet afraid to be too close at the same time.

“Yes,” Arceus said with a booming voice, “I am thankful that so many of you are doing well. My duties atop Destiny Tower have, for now, come to an end. I found it only appropriate to visit the center of civilization as it recovers.”

Pokémon were praying, bowing, kneeling, and Har could only see a god who was just making a show of earning praise. Still… he did fend off Dark Matter for the duration of the battle and, as far as they had been told, dealt the finishing blow as well.

Arceus met Har’s eyes and he spotted a flash of surprise.

“Owen?”

The day couldn’t possibly get better. “Har,” he corrected bitterly.

“Ah. My apologies.” Arceus drifted toward Har, as if walking would be beneath him, and nodded at the Charizard. He politely requested that the other Pokémon resume their day, and they seemed, at least, to listen to him. Perhaps that divine status was good use after all. “I trust that you are well. As is the rest of your team. Rest assured that Trina still doing well. We are working on how to extract them from the Voidlands as we speak.”

“That’s a relief,” Ani said, looking encouragingly at Har. Admittedly, that was good to hear. He only hoped that progress in bringing her back would be just as optimistic.

“What about the others?” Har asked. “Is Rhys still missing?”

Arceus nodded gravely. “We are still looking for him. I was actually going to see Elder now to give him updates, even if… Well. Elder had specifically asked for updates, no matter the news. Morning and evening. And we’re getting close to evening.”

“Right. Makes sense.” Har hummed, thinking about him. Elder. Of all the Hunters, he had been the most peaceful. And while he was passive, and therefore complacent to all that they had done, perhaps there was some merit to what he was doing now.

“Would you mind if I came, too?” Har asked. “I haven’t seen Elder in a while.”

“We have,” Lygo said. “Uh, kinda be awkward to visit again, so… How about you do that, and we go and finish dinner back home?”

Har nodded. “Leave me the spicy stuff,” he requested, and after some nods, they split paths.

Har walked alongside Arceus with an awkward gait. He didn’t really know what to say to Arceus, and the more he thought about it, the more surreal the situation was. The Creator. Floating up the same stairs. Was Har even under his dominion? He’d been artificially created, after all… A copy of someone else.

“…Arceus,” Har said, “am I, uh, you know, an abomination by definition?”

“What a very direct way of asking,” Arceus said with a little chuckle. “Perhaps by some definitions. But I do not think you are, if you are asking me that question, in this context.”

“Oh. Good.” He fidgeted again. “…Sorry, I don’t… I’ve never been that… reverent.”

“Not to offend,” Arceus said, “but considering your counterpart, I am not surprised.”

Har snorted. “Yeah… He’s fine, right?”

Arceus hesitated.

“…What happened to Owen?”

“We are… working on it. He is alive.”

Being ‘alive’ hardly meant anything anymore. Har decided not to press for now. Pivoting, Har asked, “So, are Owen and I, like, soul twins, or something?”

“Hm.” Arceus tilted his head as they began to ascend Heart HQ’s stairs. “I don’t believe you are. From how it was described to me during my… interrogation of Nevren’s crimes against nature, what Nevren did was take a feral soul with little background and implanted all of the memories he could extract from Owen, and place them into that soul.”

Hearing about it said so matter-of-factly left Har feeling cold inside, but he nodded shakily. “R-right. So, I used to be… some random feral Pokémon before Nevren… o-overwrote that. That’s… that’s… k-kind of terrifying, actually? What did I used to be?”

“Perhaps with some deep meditation, you can remember,” Arceus said. “Do your past self a service by holding onto that legacy, hm? It’s… somewhat like the concept of reincarnation.”

“Do Pokémon reincarnate normally?” Har pressed, suddenly realizing that Arceus could outright give him the answer.

“Not typically, no,” Arceus said. “Well, we have certain systems at play for it, but not normally. They cross the Aura Sea where they persist there. Reincarnation is… messy, for aged spirits. Memories are eternal, you see, and Pokémon are very attuned to the spirits that hold them. The mind has physical memories, but there are deeper ones within the spirit. And sometimes, old lives can reawaken suddenly, and… clash with the current one. In general, it is better left avoided.”

“Right…” He sighed. “Nevren probably tried to get test subjects with the least ‘memories’ to work with, so he could easily… craft it as he liked.”

“He’s practical like that,” Arceus said bitterly.

Har winced.

“Ah… I’m sorry. It is not your fault. I do not resent your existence toward you at all. Please… think nothing of it from me.”

They were about to enter the main hall of the Heart HQ after a long flight of stairs when Arceus stopped advancing and looked up. Har tilted his head.

“L-Lord Arceus, Your Grace.”

Descending from the skies was a Dragonite holding a letter. “A delivery from Hot Spot Vortex. It’s a letter addressed to You, intended for Elder, from Dialga.”

“Addressed to me, but intended for Elder,” Arceus clarified.

“Yes. I’m sorry, Your Grace, but I do not have any elaboration on what that means.”

Har glanced at the letter in Dragonite’s hand as it was passed over, floating in front of the Creator. He glanced nervously at Arceus, and then tried to sate his curiosity. His Perceive heightened; it was a mundane letter. It was curious that mundane objects could pass through the Voidlands into Kilo, but the living could not. Or was that parchment delivered into the Voidlands, to be delivered back?

Har shook his head, getting distracted. He tuned his Perceive to the letter again as Dragonite left with a deep bow. Har could sense his nervousness and elation at speaking to Arceus and tuned that out, too.

The writing was heavy. Someone with heavy penmanship, or at least heavy telekinesis, if it was truly Dialga. That made it easy to read. He couldn’t see color with his Perceive, but he could see the grooves in the paper and piece the letter’s words together that way. As Arceus read, so did Har, silently.

He wished he hadn’t.

Arceus,

It is with great sorrow that I must inform you that two of your companions have perished, and several more may be departing soon. I have known this for some time, but did not have the courage to report it properly until now, and for that, I must apologize.

Lucario Rhys is gone. Dark Matter killed him within the depths of the Voidlands, and filled his spirit with darkness. It was an attempt to corrupt me… his other half. You may not remember this incident, as it was wiped from history and even from your knowledge, but in order to protect the powers from falling into darkness completely, the mortal and immortal halves of much of the pantheon had been split during the war against the Void King as insurance. This was done by Necrozma, who saw a bloody battle at the time.

I nearly lost myself, but Rhys’ spirit was strong, and I was purified by Owen shortly after. He is a master of Shadow and Radiance, and used both to free me of those chains. But ‘Rhys’ is no more. I have his memories, but they are faded. I must focus to recall them well. When he was killed, he was weak. Perhaps, with time, I shall be able to recover more of ‘him,’ but I am the dominant personality. The ‘Rhys’ within me does not feel a strong need to surface. I do not know how to articulate this feeling further, and this letter is not the place for it.

Elder will be devastated. I do not know how to tell him. A small part of me, the part that is Rhys, is pained by this news. But I fear that if I see him, I will not know what to do, and it will only worsen the situation for everyone involved. I defer to your judgement as my commander of all things.

Ra has also reunited with Xerneas in the same way. Only he knows how prominent each half of him has become in his reunited state. Step and her whereabouts are unknown; she is likely chasing the invisible link that ties her to Yveltal, her other half, without realizing it. She will surely face the same fate.

Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi will soon set off to meet their halves, the trio of mind. Eon, as you know him, shall be joining them to see his half, Jirachi. Owen has no corresponding half, if you are wondering.

I wished to send this to you as a letter, rather than through Nevren or other mediums, because Nevren is someone we must capture as well. He is Palkia’s other half, and with Palkia, we will be able to more easily transport us to various locations. We would use Hoopa, but we cannot find him yet. And he is Hoopa… so I’d rather not deal with him, to be quite frank. His other half is apparently just as unstable.

As for Elder himself, please be kind to him during this troubling time, as his days are also numbered. We are very confident in what Elder is. Rayquaza will need his half one day, too. Perhaps then, he and Rhys may still be together in spirit.

I apologize again for withholding such information for so long. Send correspondence when you can for your judgement on our actions.

Dialga.


At some point, perhaps Arceus knew Har had been reading the letter, because when Har glanced at Arceus, they locked eyes.

“…Har,” Arceus said.

“I—I’m sorry.” He lowered his head.

“How well do you know Elder?”

“Not… as much as you’d probably want.”

“…I would like some assistance regardless, if you would.”

Arceus, asking for assistance? That wasn’t something to refuse… but he wished he could.

<><><>​

Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi accompanied Diyem as a team of four through the eastern side of Null Village. There, he led the way into what seemed to be a cave in the middle of the forest that led downward into the purple ground. Void Shadows were squirming inside…

“I think I’m gonna be sick,” Demitri whimpered.

Even Mispy felt a little sick from it. She glanced at Gahi, then at Demitri. “It’ll be okay,” she said.

“Feh! So Anam’s in there?” Gahi asked.

“Yes. I tossed him inside to have the swarm keep an eye on him,” Diyem said. “They will be docile with me around.”

“And these are… these are all Void Shadows. They all used to be people, and… and you just…”

“Are you still dwelling on that?” Diyem muttered. “Restoring them all isn’t practical. I barely have the power, and if I did, suddenly they will all require food and shelter and companionship and other tedious needs. As a Void Shadow, they don’t care about any of that. They aren’t suffering. Can’t it wait?”

While callous, Mispy couldn’t deny the practicality of it. Amia, now that she was restored, had showed no signs of real trauma from the ordeal… aside from the memory loss. It was an ugly thought… but they didn’t have time to restore the countless lost souls in the cave when they were still battling Alexander and all the other Dark Matter fragments.

But Demitri was still disturbed. “Will we eventually help all of them?”

Diyem rubbed his eyes. “No wonder they made you Mesprit,” he muttered.

“Wh-what’s that supposed to mean?”

“You seem like the kind of person to feel bad for scaring ferals away from a campground.”

Demitri fidgeted for a while. He was probably rolling a sentence in his head. “…They probably just want to be warm…”

Diyem stared at Mispy, who stared back. Not that she had a defense. She liked that about him. In fact, it reminded her to think more compassionately…

“What can we do?” Mispy asked Diyem.

“Yeah,” Gahi echoed. “I don’t wanna just say ‘ferget them,’ y’know?”

Diyem sighed loudly. “I’ll tell them to relax, and they’ll listen. They won’t care, they won’t get into fights. They will just… stay here, in the cave, and sleep.”

As they walked, several clumps of Void Shadows watched them from the corners of the cave, staring at Diyem, then at the three, and then at Diyem again.

“I think some of them have different personalities,” Demitri said. “See, that one looks a little more nervous. And that one’s lazy… And that one might be more restless, you know?”

“You’re personifying a blob of evil sludge, Haxorus,” the little black-flamed Charmander said.

“Well, they used to be people…” Demitri gulped. “It’s… it’s just so horrible. There are so many of them, a-and… and they all used to have names, and families, and dreams, and…”

Mispy wrapped a vine around his shoulders and squeezed gently, grounding him. “It’s okay,” she whispered. “It’ll be okay.”

Demitri’s eyes were a little watery, but he nodded.

Gahi was hiding a snarl when he looked at Diyem. “And you did all that,” he growled.

“I did.” Diyem looked ahead. “I intend to reverse it when I have that power.”

“How’ll that be done?”

“Well, defeating me,” Diyem said. “Or giving me time to release and restore all of them… And I do not have the time nor energy for it. And, no, killing me here won’t help. You have to take out all the other pieces, too.”

“Bah, long answer,” Gahi complained.

“And a short wit,” Diyem muttered.

Mispy considered bashing him for that… but decided against it.

They walked for a little longer through those horrible passageways before Diyem made another little hum. “He’s ahead.”

Under a tense silence, they approached. They saw a heap of what looked vaguely Goodra-shaped slumped over in the back of the cave, moving downward, as if crouching.

“Heart of Hearts?” Demitri asked. Everything else was so quiet that his voice seemed so loud. Yet, the walls were so coated in Void Shadows that there was no echo. “Anam?”

The figure jumped slightly, then froze. Like he was afraid to turn around. But eventually, he did, slowly. Glowing, green eyes stared at them, wide and tearful and somehow puffy despite his odd biology. Zena wasn’t really sure if those were truly eyes to begin with, or…

“You’re here?” Anam whispered.

His voice… it was hoarse. Scratchy. Small.

The Goodra stood up and wobbled toward them, reaching toward the air just in front of them.

“You’re… really here?”

Most of the group stepped back nervously, but Demitri stood his ground. Gahi shoved him forward as a shield just in time to block Anam’s advance. A great, slimy hug enveloped Demitri, who groaned but did not resist, as Anam wailed hollowly into his shoulders, swinging him left and right like a toy.

“I missed you guys so much!” Anam wailed, squeezing harder.

“Can’t… breathe…”

Anam let Demitri go, a thin trail of slime connecting the two all over. Demitri had a mixture of disgust and relief on his face.

“I’m glad you’re alright,” Demitri said. “Um, it’s safe to come back, now.”

“H-huh? But… they aren’t going to let me out,” Anam said, gesturing to the Void Shadows. He slumped his shoulders and drooped his horns. “That’s why I was stuck here… I’m not… I’m not strong like that anymore. There are too many in this cave…”

Not strong anymore? Anam was one of the strongest, if not the strongest, in all of Kilo, barring perhaps Arceus himself. So, it was true, then. Anam’s true power had been drawn from Dark Matter all this time. Now that she looked closer, Anam also appeared… solid compared to his usual self.

Something about that seemed sobering to her. Though, she could still tell that his body wasn’t quite normal, either. There was still some Mystic influence within.

“We should return,” Zena announced. “We have a lot to catch you up on, Anam.”

“Such as myself,” Diyem said.

“Huh? Owen? How come you look sad and grumpy?”

Diyem stared. Then, wordlessly, he turned around and started walking back. The rest of the team followed him, returning to Null Village with their old leader.

“Owen! How come you’re grumpy?!” Anam called desperately, chasing after him. “Would a hug help?!”

Diyem walked faster.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Chapter 132 – The Hardest News

Dialga sat in front of the Radiant Tree, still thinking about the letter he had sent to Arceus. Elder… He tried to meditate, tried to reach for those little bits of memory of him as a Lucario, but they were so frustratingly distant. Dark Matter really did a number on him. He wondered if that was just how they were, so small against his long life, but he knew that Rhys had spent a great deal of time alive, too. And he had his own dreams and desires that were at the edge of his mind, and yet… not.

“Ah, there you are.” Palkia sauntered over and gave a firm pat on Dialga’s back. “Was wondering where you decided to wander off. Speaking with the Tree, are we?”

“No, only thinking,” Dialga replied, looking at the bank that glowed dimly with prismatic light. “Besides, it’s quite awkward when I know he can hear me, but can’t answer. Not effectively, at least.”

“Well, apparently, that isn’t very different from how it used to be, hm?” Palkia asked, staring past the leaves and into the portal that led to Kilo. “Well, go on. Tell me what’s wrong. It isn’t like you to stray from Rayquaza if you can help it.”

“I’ve strayed from him for a while,” Dialga murmured. “Been a Void Titan for world knows how long.”

“Ahh, I suppose, I suppose.” Palkia snapped his claws and formed a tiny portal. He pulled a journal from it and flipped through the pages.

Dialga squinted. “Did you find your old diary?”

“No, I’m recreating it!” Palkia chirped. “Oh, how I missed journal writing and notetaking.”

“I’m surprised you’ve found the time for it.”

“Well, with how much planning Giratina insists she does, there’s plenty of space on the schedule for leisure.”

They shared a smile, resting by the tree, and shared a quiet moment of silence together.

“Well, you must tell me,” Palkia insisted. “You know how bad I am with reading people. But certainly, you are behaving abnormally.”

Dialga sighed. “I do not know how to tell Rayquaza,” he said. “Palkia, I’ve… become whole, as you know. And I’ve determined, and wrote to Arceus, that Rayquaza’s half is… Rhys’ significant other.”

“Oh, well that works out perfectly, does it not?” Palkia tilted his head. “No drama about whose love shall dominate, or what will is stronger between the two personalities. Your strongest material obligations are perfectly aligned.”

“If only it were that simple,” Dialga said. “I truly wish that was the case. But… I feel quite distanced from that mortal half. However, that may have been due to the circumstances of Rhys’ arrival to me, or… perhaps, more aptly phrased, his departure from, er… dominant existence.”

“Ah… ah, I believe I understand.” Palkia brought a claw to his chin. “You fear that Rhys’ other half will have a stronger personality within Rayquaza, causing a mismatch…”

“It’s a valid concern, is it not?”

“Yes, very much so!” Palkia balled up a fist and slammed it into his palm. “Well, I’ve got just the solution! We merely have to replicate the same conditions with Rhys’ other half. Kill him utterly and crush his spirit!” Palkia grinned confidently at Dialga. “Then things will align just right.”

“Sometimes I wonder if you lost part of your soul during ascent, Palkia.”

“Well, that’s also true, isn’t it?”

Dialga was about to object, but then bobbed his head in defeat. “No killing Rhys’ lover. That’s my request.”

“Ahh, always giving the challenging puzzles. Very well! I shall think of another solution.”

“And, in the meantime… do you suggest I speak to Rayquaza about it?”

“Perhaps, perhaps. This is part of our primary goal of speaking to our halves to reunite. I believe we have deduced that mine is a Nevren fellow. A shame the name isn’t familiar to me! But, that is part of the split’s properties, it seems. Hmm, speaking of which, I believe Anam may be in possession of Giratina’s other half. Should we witness the reunion?”

“Already?” Dialga slowly got to his feet. “I suppose so. We should see how the process goes for… future reference. I imagine we will be dealing with this a lot, and I’m quite concerned about how it will be received. Many of our halves seem totally unaware of their status.”

“Quite awkward. Though, I’m certain my other half will be very cooperative.” Palkia nodded. “After all, who wouldn’t find being me good news?”

Dialga chose not to answer.

<><><>​

“I would like some peace and quiet, if you don’t mind,” Xerneas muttered, tapping his hoof on the tile. “That includes you, Owen.”

The flower reeled incredulously. How was he making noise?

“Your leaves are distracting. Hold still.”

Owen drooped sadly.

“Oh, come on, it can’t be that hard,” Gahi protested, thumping his tail on the ground. “What, god of life can’t turn a plant into a Charmander? I thought that’d be, like, a morning task er somethin’.”

“Keep up the sass and I’ll turn you into moss.”

“Feh! I’d like ter see yeh try!”

“Wh-what Gahi means,” Demitri said when Xerneas’ antlers brightened, “is that… we are very confident in your abilities, but… wonder if you might still be weaker? R-recovering! That you’re still recovering.”

“Just give me time to focus and I’ll restore him,” Xerneas grunted. “I’m keeping most of my power for myself, but restoring him to a proper body is at least adequate for…” He shrugged. “He did save us. This time.”

Xerneas’ antlers brightened even more, and a gentle warmth flooded the flower’s systems. Owen was quickly feeling the insatiable urge to move and twist in the soil he’d been planted in, curling his stem downward as his vision went dark. Moments later, amid muffled sounds and a strange, cramped feeling, Owen kicked away at the ceramic pot that he stood in and stumbled forward, only to be caught by one of Mispy’s vines.

“Ugh—” Owen took his first breath and coughed. “Oh, look, lungs again,” he wheezed.

“Too used to being a plant, are we?” Xerneas hummed.

“That could be it.” Owen rolled over onto his back, thanking Mispy with a nod. “I… shared that dream with the other me, kind of. I didn’t really have much to do while being a flower. I’m… doing alright.” Not that Xerneas was wondering.

“Then you know what you did as Wishkeeper,” Xerneas said. “Your betrayal, raising an army to usurp Necrozma, leading a wave of darkness to consume all of Quartz?”

“Wasn’t… my intent, but… we’re thinking of the same thing,” Owen said with what little defensiveness he could muster.

“Yeah, yer gonna explain that,” Gahi said.

“Where’s Zena?” Owen asked.

“The Milotic?” Xerneas asked with a subtle sneer. “She left. Something about a spa.”

“Oh, work,” Owen said with a nod. “I think I want to see her next. Get everyone together so we can talk—you know, for those who don’t… have the full story yet.”

“You’re going to willingly tell her about your hand in why we’re all stuck in the Voidlands? All cursed to the same fate?” Xerneas stared with an icy gaze. “Hmph. Well, you’ll at least save me the trouble.”

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to explain everything,” Owen said. “It’s a lot. But I can give the summary.”

“The summary won’t give the full impact of how monumentally you destroyed everything you hoped to save,” Xerneas replied with a low growl. “Summarizing it is disrespecting the countless souls that have been lost to the Voidlands.”

Owen’s throat tightened, but he nodded stiffly. His hesitation left Xerneas an opening to continue.

“But I suppose that’s to be expected. You were always someone more on the efficient side. You don’t have time for morals in favor of the greater good.” He shrugged. “Do what you want. They’ll hate you later.”

“Alright, that’s enough,” Gahi slammed his tail on the ground. “Where d’you think yer comin’ from, spittin’ at Owen like this? He betrayed us, too, an’ I don’t give a rip!”

“You don’t remember your own involvement,” Xerneas snapped back. “You are nothing but a mortal half who will one day cease to be.”

“I’ll show you ceasing,” Gahi said, crouching down.

“Gahi, don’t!” Demitri begged.

“Stop,” Mispy said, but her voice was too soft.

“He’s right,” Owen said, and that made Gahi stumble.

“What?” Gahi hissed, swinging himself backwards.

“Look, Xerneas is… blunt about it, and there’s a lot I want to protest about it, but… but he’s right. In the end, that’s what happened.” Owen rubbed his left arm. “But right now, it’s time to fix it, and I need to help. Xerneas, how much power do you have? Can you bring me up to Charmeleon?”

“Why Charmeleon?” Xerneas pressed.

“My Perceive starts showing up then, and you don’t have enough power for Charizard, do you?”

Owen saw what seemed to be a flinch. “I can bring you up to Charizard if you want,” he said. “The power of evolution is my most basic skill. But it would be at a very early stage; a forced, early evolution. You will be incredibly weak.”

“Then the smaller size of a Charmeleon is better for now,” Owen concluded. “But I need my Perceive. It’s the biggest jump I can get.”

“Fine. You’ll still need to get your power back, though. And the best way to do that is tear down that tree, and take back the fragment Alexander stole.”

“I won’t be doing the first part,” Owen said. “Not yet. Sorry. I know it… offends you, but right now, it’s making Null Village happy, and I think it might be maintaining the portal to Hot Spot, too.”

“Yes, yes.” Xerneas dismissed it all. “Hold still. Let’s get you to your second stage…”

<><><>​

How long had it been?

Owen didn’t need to sleep. He didn’t need to eat. There were no clocks in the dungeon room. That left the Charmeleon with little reference for how much time had passed, and he didn’t want to bother Diyem with any of that. His spirits were too far for him to communicate with, or he did not know the method to reach out to them, either. And, in truth, he didn’t want to bother them, either.

When he meditated, he lost all sense of time. It could have been seconds. It could have been days. Nothing disturbed him in this dungeon cell.

So, when he finally heard the first door beyond his cell opening, he perked up with interest, suddenly realizing how bored he was.

Then, Qitlan entered, the usual, smug look in his eyes. He had a satchel on his hip. The Inteleon closed the door behind him and leaned against it, arms crossed. “You haven’t moved very much, Owen. You’d think we had actually chained you up.”

“Why didn’t you?” Owen asked with genuine curiosity, though that had been the first time he’d spoken in a while. His voice sounded a little scratchy.

“We believed there was a mutual agreement between us that so long as you stayed here, your friends would be safe. You did not need literal chains. The metaphorical ones were… adequate.” He uncurled his fingers as if gesturing to something beside him. “We could probably leave these doors unlocked and you’d still stay within Cipher City’s perimeter. Oh, and don’t worry. We are looking into ways to make your stay here very comfortable, as long as you remain cooperative. Really. We aren’t cruel… by default.”

Owen said nothing in response.

“So, I think for your first exercise in cooperating, and not forcing my hand, I’d like you to do a few minor services for me.”

Still, he said nothing, but he was attentive. He slowly got to his feet, cracking some of his joints in the process. He’d definitely been sitting for most of the day. So stiff. He had wanted to bring the feeling back to his body to feel a little normal again. That meant some aches and pains, too. It reminded him of being alive.

The satchel opened, and Qitlan placed a few stones on the ground. They looked ordinary, about fist-sized, and otherwise about as interesting as a lump of stone could be.

“You’re familiar with blessings, correct?” Qitlan said.

He nodded.

“I want you to do something with these, but not anything random. Something very specific. Something that only you can do with ease.”

Owen furrowed his scaly brow and stared at the stones for a little while longer. “Eat them?” he asked, thinking back to the Everstone.

Qitlan’s cold gaze flashed with bewilderment, but that was all. It went back to neutral. “No.” He gestured again to the stones. “Think about the most precious thing in Kilo for a moment. I think I want you to puzzle this out. The concept, if you find it on your own, will help you create these blessings.”

“The most precious thing to Kilo,” Owen said, humming in thought.

“Yes. Think, to the average Kiloan… what is the most precious thing in the world?”

Owen’s mind was drawing a blank. This seemed like such a simple answer, but so many precious things flitted though his head. Their friends, their family? Their pride? Their safety?

“Precious to nature itself,” Qitlan hinted.

“…Life?” Owen guessed. “Life.”

Qitlan nodded. “Life is precious. But in the Voidlands, we have already died. And to die again is in our destiny. Eternally. So, life has… less worth. What, then, is taking its place?”

Owen looked at the pebbles, and then thought more. Life, his own life, was not that precious anymore. He’d lost it so many times; death did not frighten him. In fact, sometimes he used it strategically. But one thing he did treasure… Could that be the same in the Voidlands?

“Memories,” Owen said with certainty. “You want me to make Gone Pebbles.”

Marshadow had mentioned those, and he’d put it off in favor of being turned into an apple, among other things.

“So, you already know of them,” Qitlan said. “Very good. Gone Pebbles… they are often found when Titans are defeated by the energy from a light crystal, but that energy bounces just the right way against solid objects. They usually need to be very sturdy, so stones tend to be how they’re found. Little pebbles from the impact. But you can simulate the same thing, can’t you? That raw power to shake loose the hold Dark Matter has on your memories… You can manipulate both energies, after all. So, surely, you can create Gone Pebbles the same way.”

“I’ve never done this before,” he said, “but I’ll try.” It was to their mutual benefit. Owen figured he might need this in the future.

When the corruption of a Titan and the radiance of a light crystal collided…

That was when light and dark met. If Owen had to guess, it had something to do with the darkness resonating with Dark Matter’s hold on the victim’s memories, and the light being able to pierce through it with that guidance.

Powered by the simple dream of getting a memory back? Was that all he needed? A wish?

It wasn’t unlike when Owen had tried to save someone before. Jerry had been melting away to nothing, and Owen had saved him with the pure, desperate need to keep him alive, to normalize his aura. Maybe the same would happen now.

But, no matter how much he tried, nothing seemed to happen. Not with Qitlan standing there expectantly, distracting him.

“Can you come back later?” Owen asked. “I can’t just… do it. I need to figure it out. Why doesn’t Mhynt do this?”

Qitlan scoffed. “You aren’t privy to that information. But, fine. I’ll leave these here, and return later. We have some interrogating to do with you later.”

“Interrogating?” Owen echoed.

“Of course! It’s almost ready. We hope you’ll be cooperative.”

Owen tensed, but then nodded. “Fine. Time for me to get to work.”

“I’ll leave you be, for now.” And with a polite bow, Qitlan stepped backwards and out of the dungeon cell. Once again, Owen was alone.

<><><>​

Zena slithered home feeling confused and conflicted.

She got fired, but only to free her up to save the world. Preparing to head out. And probably to get whatever a ‘severance package’ was, but Zena didn’t really care about that. It freed her up and that was what mattered, in a bittersweet way.

But when the door opened, the last thing she expected to see was a Charmeleon in the kitchen. At first, she just scowled to herself and slithered to the other room, passing by another Charmeleon who looked exactly like the first.

“Hello, Enet,” Zena greeted the Zoroark in her room, who growled back affectionately. “…Diyem.”

The black-flamed Charmander was sitting in the corner, reading a book. “Welcome back,” he said without looking up.

Zena thought about something cordial she could say, but then paused.

Enet was there, lounging. She’d passed by Eon. Diyem was there and not evolved. Who was that second Charmeleon?

Another beat passed. Then, she whirled around and nearly toppled over the second Charmeleon.

“Owen?!”

The one helping with cooking jumped, and then pointed at the one in front of Zena, who had tripped and fallen.

“Owen!” She leaned forward and helped him up with her ribbons. “You’re—so Xerneas restored you?!”

“Kinda,” Owen said with a nervous titter. “Good to s—hrgk!”

Zena pulled him in for a tight embrace, coiling around him once. This time, she was gentle about it. “I barely recognized you,” she said. “There have been a lot of… yous I’ve been seeing lately.” She glanced at her room, where Diyem had been, and then at Eon, who nervously waved at her. “…Eon has been getting better at maintaining his form, hasn’t he?”

“I’m just always on his mind,” Owen said. Zena wasn’t sure if he was joking. “Anyway, how have you been doing?”

“Oh, I’ve been doing… Well, I don’t have a job anymore, but it was to free me up for leaving here. My boss was… shaken up and thankful. I’d like to go with you, if that’s okay…”

Owen tilted his head in that semi-feral way of his that seemed so nostalgic to Zena. “Right, I… Before we do that, I need to talk to you about a lot of things. Everyone, actually, if we can. It’s about… my memories. Things I’ve gotten back. We’ll probably want to hear it before we go to West Null Village to meet Jirachi and the Trio of Mind.”

Zena felt a little cold at their mention. “Of course. Right. I remember that.” Her gaze trailed to Demitri and Eon, who were putting the finishing touches on their meal. “Over dinner?”

Owen looked uncomfortable, shifting on his feet and grabbing at his tail. “I guess so.”

She wasn’t sure how to feel about his reaction. Was it really that bad?

<><><>​

Diyem was there to supplement some of the things Owen said, or details he’d missed, and Owen didn’t object when he did. So, it had to have been true, as much as Zena didn’t want to admit it. Hakk wasn’t at the table—he had gone to his old house to check on the rebuilding progress—but everyone else listened closely.

Owen started to explain to them everything he knew. He talked about Kanto, this strange land with humans as the dominant species and Pokémon as creatures that could be trained alongside them like ferals. That Owen himself was feral, just like Enet. Eon, of course, confirmed it all. A twisted, conflicted feeling tied itself in knots in Zena’s gut at the sad gazes the pair gave one another. Eon had been responsible for so much, and yet now it seemed like they were overlooking him for Dark Matter, and now, Alexander.

But Zena kept quiet. It wasn’t the time for that. Eon had been making efforts to change, anyway.

Owen took a break for some food. He looked exhausted just from that tale, but apparently there was still so much more to tell. And at that moment, it occurred to Zena that she was remembering significantly more about Owen than last time.

“…Diyem,” Zena said, “when I died, were my memories claimed by you?”

“Yes.”

“You restored them to me.”

Diyem crossed his arms and paused his meal. “Mm. I did do that. I guess I wasn’t paying attention.”

“You forgot you restored my memories,” Zena said flatly.

“Mm. I restored countless memories of those nearby. I forgot that also included you.” He glanced at her. “At some point you’re all just statistics to keep track of. Tasks to complete. My apologies.”

“Um… thank you for restoring so many with what little power you had,” Demitri said.

“Mrm.” Diyem grunted. “Don’t thank me.”

“No, but really! It’s one of the greatest things you’ve—”

Stop,” Diyem spat, “…please. It was a request.”

Demitri flinched, looking confusedly at Gahi, then Mispy, who seemed unsurprised.

“Mm.” Trina tapped a leafy hand on the table. “It hurts, I presume?”

Gahi, next to her, twitched one of his antennae. “Aw, that’s right, eh? Good stuff hurts. Well, alright. I hate ya fer puttin’ us in this situation in the firs’ place!” Gahi made a growling noise. “Yer scum!”

An awkward silence followed, filled only by Enet chomping on her meal.

“You have to actually mean it,” Diyem deadpanned.

“Feh… killjoy.”

“Yes.”

Owen sighed, smiling a little. Zena wasn’t sure what was going through his head just then, and she looked between the Charmeleon and Charmander.

“I’m glad you’re okay, Diyem,” Owen said.

Diyem flinched, eyes widening a little. Then, he seemed to wince and cover his mouth, dark fog seeping through the corners of his mouth.

“Oh, uh—sorry.”

“I hate you,” Diyem said, wheezing, as the darkness seemed to slow down. After several more breaths, he straightened again. “Go on. Continue with what happened next.”

“Right…”

Owen continued, now moving on to his life with Tim, and how he had died the first time. Star, Barky, and what they had done to Quartz Isle—the literally earth-shattering revelation that Kilo was constructed from that destroyed island. A recreation for those killed to live in a false world, like some imitation, because those gods did not have the means to revive those they had killed.

So, they had instead made a new world. One where while they were weaker, they at least could let those who died, ‘live.’

Zena’s blood boiled, but she kept her voice even. “Our world was the result of some divine mistake,” she spat.

“Why no humans?” Mispy wondered aloud.

“My guess is that Star was too scared of humans after what they did,” Demitri said. “Maybe when constructing this world, all the humans… went away, even though Star also felt bad. So the result was… everyone became Pokémon.”

“Selfish even when being selfless,” Zena muttered. “Star…”

“Well, it’s all in the past, now, ain’t it?” Jerry finally spoke up, wings crossed. “What’s this got to do with today? That was, what, a thousand years ago?”

“Two thousand, probably,” Owen corrected, and Jerry flinched.

“How old are you?” Jerry murmured.

“I’m older than Kilo,” Owen pointed out.

Gahi scoffed. “You were sittin’ on that line.”

“The past is writing the present,” Diyem said, answering Jerry. “Old sins that came with this world’s beginning are causing its strife today. And that includes, of course, myself.”

“Diyem…” Owen sighed, solemn, and Zena looked between them again.

“You… were created from those shadows, weren’t you?” Zena asked. “That strange technology that the humans performed on Star… That must be it. The way it was described is very similar…”

“I don’t know for sure,” Diyem said, “but that is certainly a contributing factor. I can’t deny the similarities. Creation is… a delicate thing. A single stray thought from a flawed god, and something like me becomes embedded within the fabric of the new reality. A wonderful way to learn of your purpose, isn’t it? An accident.” He shrugged.

“Diyem…” Owen wasn’t looking at anyone in the eyes, now. Zena could only imagine why, after all that happened, but she listened carefully.

He eventually continued, talking about his role as Jirachi’s assistant. This unreal, larger than life tale of mortals climbing a place called Destiny Tower to become Legends. Owen remarked that it was all just to tie things over until its eventual end, because Star and Barky knew the world wasn’t meant to last. It was only a temporary reality. The requirements to become a god were, therefore, lighter.

The very idea that everything Zena had lived in was intended to be a temporary world, meant to eventually be wiped away… The sheer arrogance of the gods for thinking that…

Owen explained to Eon and the others about the Reincarnation Machine meant to bring him back when he died. And how that eventually led to being the Wishkeeper, and how eventually, after a thousand years passed, it became time for the world to end.

That wish. That horrible wish…

“I don’t remember any of this,” Eon said with an uncomfortable gulp. “O-of course I wouldn’t… Jirachi does… my…”

“That’s when I met you, Diyem,” Owen said. “Isn’t it?”

“Mm. And it is also when you betrayed everyone else. They were loyal to Necrozma and Arceus, or Star, I suppose. Following the way the world would go, so they could remove me from it. You wanted to save me instead. I suppose I corrupted your mind in subtle ways to let that happen, to let you doubt them enough that you’d side with me.”

“W-w-wait,” Demitri said quickly. “You… you mean Owen… defended you back then, to the point where…”

Diyem shrugged. “Perhaps if Owen refused, I would have found someone else. But, that is how it happened. Owen wanted to save me. And he was the first person to reach out to me. Perhaps he was the first one who thought to try. The world wasn’t that old, after all.”

“…I also… had to betray my mate. Mhynt. And also… my daughter.”

Gahi choked on his food. Mispy helped pat it out.

“WHAT?!” Gahi yelped.

Zena flinched. “W-wait. Xerneas, when he said…”

“It was her.” He glanced at Gahi briefly for some reason. “And it was also Gahi for a little while after that. L-like… like a rebound.”

“Us?!” Gahi said, pointing at himself.

Trina looked between the Flygon and Charmeleon, almost like she was appraising it.

Zena wasn’t sure she saw it. Perhaps they had been different in the past.

“Well, you did fuse together in your sleep,” Demitri said, poking his claws together. “That’s pretty intimate…”

“Well, yeah, but that was dif’rent!” Gahi said. “I was all, y’know, emotional ‘n stuff. He was jus’ bein’ a good friend ‘n stuff.”

“Um, fuse?”

The small voice caught them off guard. They turned their attention to Amia, staring up at them all.

Owen looked pained again, but he forced a smile. “I guess you don’t remember the details about that. It’s alright, Mom. Not too important right now.”

“By gods,” Alex whispered after a silence, “a daughter…” The Hydreigon fidgeted. “But then, where… where is she?”

“Split apart spiritually, not unlike the Legends we’ve seen,” Diyem said, “though, she never became one herself.”

“Remi…” Owen took a long breath. “Sceptile Remilia. I need to find her.”

He was avoiding Zena’s gaze. At first, she was confused, but then it dawned on her that perhaps he was feeling… conflicted with these new memories. Her first instinct was fear, from somewhere deep, but she also reminded herself of what Owen was going through. She had to be there for him.

“Do you have any ideas?” Zena asked, breaking that hesitation with helpfulness. She only then realized that several of the others had already been looking at her.

“Huh?” Owen glanced at Zena. They’d locked eyes, but then he quickly looked away again. “No, I don’t. Just that part of her had been in the Voidlands, but escaped, and no part of her is across the aura sea. Somehow, she’s been trapped, or sealed, or something else.”

“But how could that be, for so long?” Alex asked. “Surely we would have noticed something like that… Er, by ‘we,’ I mean, well, everyone.”

“I don’t know,” Owen said.

“Before we get into theory crafting, don’t you have one more thing you’d like to go over?” Diyem asked.

Complete silence. Owen’s flame had dimmed considerably. Then, it crackled once, like a warning. “No,” Owen replied.

“If you don’t, I will,” Diyem threatened.

“If he doesn’t want to talk about it, I won’t hear it,” Zena said before others could protest.

Diyem scoffed. “Trying to appeal to him now that you have competition?”

“That isn’t it at all,” Zena hissed, hearing someone mumble. “Owen has been through enough. Stop putting him through more.”

“I’ll say it!” Owen snapped, and Zena flinched. She thought back to the past few seconds. Owen had been mumbling and she’d talked over him. His voice had been so small, she’d…

“Of course,” she replied guiltily.

Diyem rolled his eyes and muttered something Zena couldn’t hear.

“Owen?” Eon asked quietly.

“You already said your daughter’s missing, not even death rescuing her,” Trina said with a hesitant lean forward. “What could be worse?”

“That doesn’t affect a lot of people here, but this…” The Charmeleon stared at his plate, nearly untouched. “…Team Alloy. As the Trio of Mind, they… had been sent by Arceus, or Necrozma, or one of them. And even though Azelf was close to me, I guess he was closer to what he thought was right for protecting the world. And it wasn’t agreeing with me. So, when I wasn’t expecting it, they… erased me.”

That word. Erased. Not killed, not sealed… erased? “What does that mean?” Zena asked.

Owen was trembling. Tentatively, she brought one of her ribbons to him, and he flinched at first, so Zena pulled away. Then, almost out of desperation, the Charmeleon defied his own reflexes and held her anyway. He toyed with her ribbons for something to grab.

“Mesprit is the master of emotions. He could quell powerful ones, and bring about new ones. And… and he could also take them away. Uxie had knowledge. She could grant knowledge directly to people, like information, just, right into the mind, and they would know it as well as she did. And she can take it away. And Azelf… could embolden anyone. Fill them with the willpower to try anything they put their mind to. And…”

“…And he could take it away,” Zena finished darkly. She brought her second ribbon over, draping it over his shoulders. Owen was warm. He leaned against her, but his breaths were light and quick. She squeezed him a little, rhythmic, and his breaths matched her rhythm.

“They took those away from me and made me nothing,” Owen finished. “They took away ‘me.’”

SLAM!

Zena yelped, as did several others. Heads turned to Gahi, who had smashed his fist into the table. He was glaring at Diyem. “That’s a fake memory,” he snarled.

“Necrozma confirmed it,” Diyem replied coolly. “There’s no—hrk!”

In the time it took to blink, Gahi had gone from his seat on the table to choking Diyem against the wall. A gust of wind knocked over some of the plates, which clattered on the ground.

“Then yer workin’ t’gether,” he hissed. “We’d never do that. Yer givin’ him fake memories! ADMIT IT!”

“Gahi, stop!” Demitri begged, but he was shaking too much.

Mispy was calm. She only watched.

Diyem, still with his neck squeezed, strained to say, “Owen… would know more than anyone… what faulty memory feels like. Owen… it’s too vivid… isn’t it? Because those memories… are etched into your spirit. You cannot fabricate those… They are eternal…”

“Let him go, Gahi,” Owen said. “Please.”

“It ain’t true!” Gahi roared, squeezing even tighter. “It—”

A beam of light struck Gahi precisely on the wrist. He swore loudly, dropping Diyem on the ground. He didn’t even clutch the wound; he reached for Diyem again, but that opening from Mispy’s tiny Solar Beam had been enough for others to spring into action. Diyem had suddenly disappeared, and Demitri finally got to hold him on the shoulders in a gentle but inescapable grip. Enet appeared moments later out of arm’s reach, cradling Diyem in her arms.

All the while, Owen only watched. Zena was the only one close enough to see the tears he was holding back.

“It’s true, Gahi,” Owen whimpered. “I’m… I’m sorry.”

“What’re you apologizin’ fer?!” Gahi shouted, smashing his fist against the wall next.

“G-Gahi, please…” Demitri spoke like his mouth was dry. “Just calm down. It… we just need to listen to this. He’s telling it to us for a reason, right?”

Mispy was only watching intently. Her petals were glowing.

But, finally, Gahi stood down. “And they’re in West Null, eh?” he said, sounding breathless.

“Yeah. They’re… still around. Your other halves. And…”

“Then I don’t wanna see ‘em,” Gahi stated flatly.

“Gahi, we—if we want to fight Alexander, we need all the power we can get,” Owen pleaded. “But…”

“We’ve got, what, five Legends with us already?! Use them! I ain’t goin’ back.” Gahi waved his arm in front of him, as if shoving the idea aside. “If I see that Azelf, I’m tearin’ him apart, y’hear me?”

“Well, if you want to make his half as diminutive as possible, killing him yourself would be one way to do it,” Diyem confirmed idly.

Gahi looked at Diyem like he was taking that seriously.

“That was a joke. I was joking.”

“But that’s true, ain’t it?”

“Do not kill your other half. It is not ideal.” Diyem gestured behind him. “Rhys was killed and Dialga hasn’t recovered his full strength because of it. That will take time. Far more time than we have.”

Silence.

More silence. Like everyone had frozen in place.

“…Did nobody figure that out yet?” Diyem asked. “Mm. I forgot to mention that.”

“Rhys is dead?” Demitri whispered.

“He’s Dialga…” Mispy seemed to be staring at something invisible on her plate.

Gahi began to walk toward the doorway. Demitri did the same and, perhaps seeing the rest of her team doing so, Mispy followed last.

“Where are you going?” Zena called.

“I gotta go on a walk,” Gahi mumbled. “Need… air.”

“Don’t fly away from town, Gahi,” Owen said.

“I won’t, I won’t…” There was no life in his voice. Owen looked like he wanted to follow, but he was still shaking. He was in no condition for that.

“I’ll keep up with them,” offered the other Charmeleon in the room. Eon stood up and continued for the exit. “Will that be alright?”

“Y-yeah, okay,” Owen replied automatically, like he hadn’t thought about it.

Zena gave Eon a warning look, but it softened a little when the Charmeleon shrank away.

Despite everything, Eon… probably knew how to keep Gahi in check if he had to. It sickened her to admit it, but she nodded at him. “Just keep him safe.”

The false Charmeleon left, and Enet finally set Diyem back on his seat.

“Is it safe for them to be alone?” Zena asked.

“Alexander isn’t here, and the Void Shadows in the area are mine. Docile.” Diyem prodded at his plate. “Physically, they will be fine.” He took another bite of Demitri’s cooking. “But it doesn’t take someone like me to sense their feelings. Does it?”

Zena winced. Everything felt awful, even though the battle felt like so long ago. “I suppose not.”

Owen was leaning against her. Despite everything, she forced a smile for him, and he smiled the same way back. It lasted less than a second.

“Must be hard on you, too,” Owen said quietly.

Zena didn’t know how to answer, so she followed her instincts. “I’ll be fine.”

Because amid all of this, the way Gahi had reacted, the way Owen was shaking… Zena’s problems were nothing. Suddenly, it all seemed so petty. As she took one last bite from her stew, she resolved something quietly in her mind, and then said, “This doesn’t change our goals. Rescue your other half, and defeat Alexander. Right?”

Owen nodded, but something still seemed to be bothering him. Zena had a good guess.

“And what should we do about Mhynt?” she asked.

The way Owen was looking away from her again, Zena knew, bitterly, the answer.

“Be honest,” she said. “It’s okay. I’ll be fine.”

“I just want to know why,” he said. “She’d never side with Alexander willingly. Something’s… wrong. Changed. I need to know.”

All fair questions. And if they could find a way to get Mhynt on their side, it would be a serious blow to Alexander’s forces.

“I’ll help,” Zena said. “If we can snap her out of it, we’ll be that much closer to overthrowing everything here. Right?”

She squeezed him a little tighter.

“If you still have feelings for her, I… will understand, Owen. You have a daughter with her. That…”

But Owen looked pained. She stopped.

“Sorry,” she said softly. “I… said too much.” And in front of everybody, no less. This should have been a conversation in private. Yet, she’d gone and ran her mouth.

“No,” Owen finally said. “It won’t be the same, Zena. She’s… changed. And so have I. Even before all this, I… left for a reason. I can’t go back to that. There are a lot of things I can’t ever go back to.”

“But…”

“She still needs to be free,” Owen said. “That’s… that’s what I want. Does that make sense?”

Such a loaded question. But after a pause, “I think it does, Owen.”

They had their resolve. They had their plan. But as Zena’s eyes trailed to the doorway, she figured the last thing they needed before setting off was their team. But perhaps most of all, they all needed to find their fire.
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Heya, dusting this off for V-Wheel and what I presume will be the "mugged" part of your story's summary given the note that Chapter 1 ended with. So let's pick up right where I left off with by cracking open…

Chapter 2

“Stupid kid—get back—pfwaaagh!”

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

Is that supposed to be an Explosion Trap? Or is that a unique tile/trap to this setting?

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

... Wait, Owen can do that and just finds it the most normal thing in the world? .-.

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

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

Well, that would certainly explain why Owen is whining about this being unfair right about now. Should've brought a Tunnel Wand. ^^;

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

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

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

Jerry, you're supposed to clock the kid and then pick through his stuff afterwards. Or if that "warp to the start" thing would also work on Owen, hit him with a Sleep Seed, take his stuff, and if you're the douchey type, then sit and wait for a chance to point and laugh at him after he comes to.

Fortunately for Owen, he rolled a cockier Outlaw for this encounter, even if I wouldn't go so far on betting money on him coming out the better of the two here.

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

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

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

Oh, that's your take on how Escape Orbs don't work in boss arenas.

Jerry:
Sticker, smuglandit,

Owen: "..."
:uhhh:

Jerry: "Now, where were we, kid…?"

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

Okay, filing that one away for setting-specific tech. But it makes sense that a setting with casual teleportation would have something that messes with the effects of Wonder Orbs.

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

Jerry:
Image

Owen: "Yeah, I... honestly shouldn't have expected him to care about that."
:failmander:


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

... Wait, does this Jammer also work on Seeds? Or did Owen just not have the foresight to bring something like a Stun Seed for exactly this scenario?

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

Oh, well. Never mind then. Owen will totally have the foresight to bail from the dungeon if he manages to yeet Jerry away with that thing... right? ^^;

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

He even saw the Aerodactyl emerge from the hall next to him. Owen fought against his own momentum and scrambled backwards.

You see, this is why you should've whigged the seed at Jerry since he'd have been the disoriented one, and you could've used the opportunity to bail.

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

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

... Wait, do Jammers affect the entire floor that they're present on? Since if not, why didn't Owen just pop his Escape Orb the moment he thought he was out of range from Jerry?

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

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

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

inb4 the seed was a buffing item, since blindly throwing seeds at other Pokémon sounds like a recipe for a bad time.

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

Ah yes, TM moves. How those work here is still TBD, but filing that one away for later.

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

>staying and actually fighting the giant flying death lizard with a type advantage and not just trying to bolt past him for the exit

This kid's a serious glutton for punishment.

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

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

And this is why staying and fighting Jerry was a terrible idea.

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

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

Jerry: "Oh hey! You have Oran Berries in here! Don't mind if I do!"
Owen: "... Dammit." >.<

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

Lol, I did the Oran Berry thing as a joke. Though it makes sense if Jerry is just casually healing himself right in front of Owen.

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

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

I personally feel that Jerry's retort there might work better if the mention of selling the Eviolite came last. e.x. "You're right, I don't need it. But I do need the cash from selling it." in sentiment.

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

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

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

Owen: "N-No?"
:eltyscared:

Jerry: "Too bad! Here, this'll all be over nice and quick..."

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

... Oh so ferals do just camp MD entrances for free food in this setting.
:fearfullaugh~1:


“Please,” Owen said.

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

Jerry: "For the record, this is more cruel since at least someone could find you after a jump in from the Waypoint at the entrance, but hey. Whatever floats your boat, kid."
:gardeshrug~1:

Owen: "How about giving me back my stuff-?!" >_>;
Jerry:
Image


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

“No way!” someone shouted.

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

Ah yes, Peanut swoops in for the rescue. And this is why you don't stop to gloat, Jerry.

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

11 words spoken seconds from disaster.

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

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

Owen: "Team Alloy?"
:what:

Gahi: "Oi! That's my expression there! Get your own!" >_>;
Owen: "But not a single one of you are Steel-types!" .-.
Demitri: "Er... I think the idea was that it was supposed to be 'parts combining into a whole', like an 'Alloy'. Also 'Team Combo' and 'Team Blend' both sounded dumb, so..."
:joltyshrug~1:


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

Oh, so “Thousand Heart” was deliberate earlier.

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

Jerry:
Image

Demitri: "L-Look, we are top tier, alright?! W-We're just late evolvers!" >///<
Owen: "(Boy this was sure the heroic entrance I needed right now.)" >_>;

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

Not far off from the cutaway gag, really. :V

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

“Guys!” Owen shouted hoarsely.

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

Jerry: "You four do realize that if I used Rock Slide right now, the lot of you would probably keel over regardless, right?" -_-;
Owen: "Wait, then why are you bothering to grab for the bag, then?"
Jerry: "To do this."

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

Wait, what are the 'rules' in this setting for whether or not someone gets affected by a Wonder Orb. Since while this is game-consistent, that makes me wonder if you can affect teammates via collateral damage.

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

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

“Stop,” Mispy mumbled, shutting her eyes.

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

- Meanwhile from the distance -
Jerry: "Oh, so you are new!"
:hoodLUL:

Owen: "Sh-Shut up! We're just having some technical difficulties!" >///<

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

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

Should've used Whirlwind, brah.

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

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

... How did that not leave a nasty gash behind on Jerry considering that Axew use those things for hacking attacks? ^^

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

I'm honestly surprised that Jerry is so persistent for Owen's bag in particular. Guess Eviolite must be worth a pretty penny in Kilo Village.

“Mispy! Now!” Demitri shouted.

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

Owen jumped when he felt something brush against his back.

Owen: "Wait, did you actually manage to beat that guy, or...?"

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

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

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

That wasn’t a dream.

Owen: "... Wait. How and why is mom doing this to me while I'm in the middle of a Mystery Dungeon?" .-.

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

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

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

“You’re fine,” Mispy said. “Shut up.

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

... Those are happier thoughts? ^^;

Owen: "No, really. What are you doing to me right now?"
Mispy: "Trying to patch you up if you'll just pipe down and stay still." >_>;

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

“Mm.”

Aha, so we Egg Moves nao.

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

Owen: "... I'm sorry, did you just say 'Mispy's blast'? Since when do Chikorita use 'blasts' of any sort?" .-.
Mispy: "Since this story, now quit moaning about a good thing here!"
Owen: "(Me losing most of my items is a 'good thing'?)" >_>;

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

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

Owen: "... Isn't that that same 'Rhys' Lucario that you said would laugh me off?"
:what:

Gahi: "Yes, and he probably still would laugh you off. But he'd at least fix your bag first."

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

Again?

Owen’s own thoughts gave him another pause.

Owen: "Have... I met your mentor somewhere before?" .-.
Team Alloy:
:joltyshrug~1:

Owen: "... Must just be me getting shaken up from the mugging back there. Anyhow, let's move on."

“You okay?” Demitri asked.

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

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

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

Oh, so the plot actually goes there. Let's see how on the mark I was for the follow-up.

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

“You’re weird,” Mispy said.

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

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

Bit different than I expected, but Owen's not the only one who's getting his memories reset, huh? Since I can see Demitri's line there.

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

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

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

Gahi: "Owen, you're a Fire-type and they're Paras."
:what:

Owen: "... Well, they were still alive, at least?" ^^;

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

“W-wait, how badly were they—”

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

Translation: It smelled like a mushroom barbecue out there.

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

“Made it,” Owen said, relieved.

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

Oh, so that's how the Guild badge analogue works in this setting. Guess we'll find out what location it's synced to really fast.

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

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

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

... Wait, how on earth did those three pick up Jerry anyways given that we never saw him since that moment where Team Alloy made him blip out.

Kinda wonder if some of those blows ought to have been more described earlier given that 'flashy shonen' is a decently big part of HoC's brand as a story, since I didn't realize until just now that Mispy used Solar Beam. And it'd have given a lot more for readers to grasp with to realize that 'Team Alloy' being 'late evolvers' isn't totally a cope.

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

Hilariously, it actually does control Pokémon as of PMD DX if you use it twice consecutively. Lots of vivid memories of having to deal with that from random encounters.

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

The Aerodactyl whimpered and ducked his head down, defeated.

Narrator: "He's totally going to do it again."

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

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

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

“Like I’d tell you,” he hissed.

Demitri: "It's 'Jerry', for the record."
Jerry: "Oi! What the-?! How on earth did you-?!" O_O;
Gahi: "We can see your speech tags riddled throughout the entire review?"
:what:

Mispy: "Yeah, all we needed to to was peek up!"
- Beat moment -
Jerry + Owen: "Wait, you can do that?!" o_o;;
Gahi: "Is it really that hard to believe we can see a few extra things on this side of the fourth wall?" >_>;
Demitri: "Also, I could've sworn that we somehow ran into this guy at some point before and 'Jerry' just came to mind as a name."

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

Well that wasn't hugely ominous at all there.

And so, he was escorted away.

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

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

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

You see, with a name like that, I am not convinced that that isn't significantly more sinister than it sounds at face value.

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

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

I mean, alternatively the world sucks for them and it becomes an attractive option for keeping one's head above water. Wouldn't be the first story I've seen take that tack.

Though I suppose we haven't seen enough of Kilo Village and its surroundings to come to a conclusion on that front.

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

That... is a bold assumption to make there, Gahi. Especially for more seasoned Outlaws.

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

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

:sceptical~1:


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

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

“Eh?” Gahi said. “What fer?”

“Just to check on something.”

Image


“Yer serious.”

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

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

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

Gahi: "Owen, they're ferals." >_>;
Owen: "Yeah, well that doesn't mean I'm just alright with burning dozens of them and leaving them for dead!"
Gahi: "Look, I know that it's a shonen trope to have a lovable idiot with a big heart as the lead character, but that doesn't mean that you also need to-!" >.<
Mispy: "... Wait, but I thought I was the lead character of this story."
:what:

Demitri: "So did I, really. But... I don't think it can hurt to check things out. Not like we had anything better to do back in Kilo Village..."

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

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

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

Gahi: "What was that about not having anything better to do right now?"
:what:

Demitri: "... It'll still be on the table for us when we're done?" ^^;

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

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

You see, the way that Owen's saying that makes me strongly suspect he has gone overkill in the past. Even if he doesn't remember it right here and now.

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

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

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

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

Owen: "A courtesy thing. Accidental burns of companions happen more often than you think." ^^;
Gahi: "Yes, which these chittering bugs are not." >_>;

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

Yuuuup, called the logic there.

The Paras all hissed at him, poisonous clouds thickening.

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

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

Gahi: "We could be eating dinner right now!" >.<
Mispy: "Gahi, quit whining and give the 'mon his Pecha Scarf."

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

... Wow, I didn't even see this line before I wrote that last one.
:loltias:


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

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

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

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

- Beat moment -
Owen: "Wait, Demitri? What are you even trying to-?" .-.

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

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

All: "..."
:TailsEww:

Gahi: "We could've just ditched the bugs and had dinner, but noooooo..." >.<

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

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

Filing that nickname away for later.

Owen: "Wait, 'Torch'?"
:what:

Gahi: "(I swear, is everyone stealing my expressions today?) Yeah, it's a nickname. Don't wear it out."
Owen: "Who on earth would think 'Torch' is a good name for a Charmander?" >_>;
Demitri: "I mean, if you want a re-roll, we could go with mine. I wanted to call you 'Flame'."
Mispy: "Pretty sure that's already taken by some 'Cornelius' 'mon in town, Demitri."
Gahi: "Look, 'Torch' is fine, okay? I'm sticking with 'Torch'." >_>;

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

“Good going,” Gahi mumbled.

Gahi: "Look, can we just ditch the berries in front of 'em and bail-?" >_>;
Everyone Else:
Image


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

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

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

Gahi: "Owen, I swear to gods if this shonen protagonist complex of yours comes back to bite us..." >_>;
Mispy: "Gahi. Relax. It's one checkup on a bunch of ferals. It's not like Owen's going to make us do this repeatedly in the future."
- Beat moment -
Owen: "..."
:fearfullaugh~1:

Team Alloy: "..."
:unamusedwott~1:

Gahi: "I stand by my comment from earlier." >.<

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

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

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

Translation: That was either the Swolax or else there's another mutant prowling around in that MD.

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

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

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

- Beat moment -
Demitri: "Wait a minute, since when were Charmander dragons-?"
Owen: "Since when we got added into the Dragon Egg Group and Mega Evolve into them, so shut up. We're dragons." >_>;

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

He ain’t,” Gahi confirmed.

Demitri: "G-Gahi! You're not supposed to agree with that publicly!" >///<
Gahi: "Well, shouldn't have brought it up publicly, then."
:gardeshrug~1:


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

Wouldn’t have expected that one given moves like Outrage and Draco Meteor, but filing that one away.

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

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

That now makes me wonder if you can start a brush fire from Dual Chop or Dragon Claw in this setting.

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

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

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

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

Kinda feel that this section could've used one or two paragraphs of reaction interleaved between the lines of dialogue to better visualize movement and reaction, but that might just be me.

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

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

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

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

Gahi's just rubbing it in there, I see. :V

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

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

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

Owen: "I'm... about to regret setting foot into your home, aren't I?" .-.
Mispy: "Ignore him. Just don't act like an idiot and you'll be fine, Owen." >_>;

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

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

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

Owen: "Is it really that abnormal to meditate once in a while?"
:joltyshrug~1:

Gahi: "Yes? Who ever heard of a Trapinch meditating?"
:what:

Mispy: "Well, we did as of Rhys making us do it as our mentor."

Mispy, too, was disappointed. “Boring.”

“I—I’m not boring,” Owen squeaked.

Well, he's not wrong from what I've heard of this story secondhand. Not that anybody knows that at this point in time.

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

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

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

... Wait, have they just been standing in front of the cave this entire time? Or were they supposed to be walking and talking going deeper into it? If the latter, you probably want to drop in some description of the cave interior here and there over the earlier part of the scene.

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

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

“Rhys?” Demitri said.

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

Yeah, okay Rhys, everyone saw that reaction earlier.

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

See, I'm not the only one who found Rhys to obviously be lying through his teeth there.

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

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

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

Makes me wonder if Rhys can make a decent tandoori with that thing. Since he's got the implements to make it...

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

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

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

Yeah, Mispy can see it too. There's no way that she can't with that reaction.

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

“Y-yes, Owen, why do you ask?”

Owen looked at the pink cloud. Gone.

Wait, was that Dream Mist there, or...?

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

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

Oh huh, so I was on the mark with the logic the gang used to pick out their name. Even if I still did a double-take at the lack of Steel-types on it at first.

“Hmph,” Rhys said.

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

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

Give it like a chapter, Owen, and you'll find out for yourself.

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

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

Yes,” Mispy blurted.

:VidriBlink:


... Wasn't expecting that for an answer.

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

“It’s true!” Mispy said.

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

Owen: "(Seriously, what is with that mist and having the world's worst timing?!)" >.<

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

“Colors? Like pink?” Owen said.

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

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

Image


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

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

Demitri: "... Isn't it evening right now since we're eating dinner?" ^^;
Owen: "Nighttime evening. You know what I meant!" >_>;

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

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

Owen: "..."
:fearfullaugh~1:

Mispy: "... I don't even want to know. Let's just finish up and get going." -_-;

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

Mispy: "I said that I didn't want to know." >.<
Owen: "Yeah, well that's not canon. Plus you might as well understand as to why I need to get home soon."
:uhhh:


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

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

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

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

I mean, Rhys just might from that nonchalant answer he gave.

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

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

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

I'm pretty sure that Rhys just flatly knows Owen's parents from the way he reacted to him walking into his home. But guess we'll see what comes up once those three properly gather together.

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

Demitri: "So it's not just me who's getting the weirdest sense of deja vu-"
Gahi: "Demitri, just shut up and eat your soup." >_>;

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

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

Most likely because Rhys and your parents probably already know each other, but I digress.

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

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

“Nope! The Waypoint is really close.”

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

So how
:TailsEww:
is everyone else right now at the food particles just flying around from Owen's end of the table?
:lultias:


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

:absus:


I am keeping Nevren on the radar, since """fix my brain""" feels like it'd take on unintended meanings fast given Owen's vague inklings that he's been through stuff before that he has no memories of.

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

Filing that one away as a setting cosmology note.

Owen: "Guys! The pink mist is ba-!"
- Cue everyone turning back and seeing Rhys' room empty -
Owen: "Oh come on!" >.<
Demitri: "It's supposed to be green or brown. Pretty sure you're just seeing things again, Owen."
- Owen facepalms and turns to his soup -
Owen: "Yeah, I don't even know anymore. Maybe I just need some rest and everything will make sense afterwards..."

Alright, and onto the recap:

I think that it was a pretty decent follow-up and transition out of Owen's first mission. We get introduced to his immediate teammates even if the story hasn't explicitly confirmed that yet, get introduced to concepts regarding tech and the workings of this world that I'm sure we haven't heard the last of, and get our first real sense that something is really, really off with Kilo Village and its surroundings.

I'm not fully sure just how quickly things just go mask off in this story, though just 2 proper chapters in, things are already visibly wobbling, and it does a pretty good job at hitting the "wait, what the?" buttons that make a reader want to come back and see what else is going on.

As for things I wasn't as fond about... there were a number of sequences where things honestly could've benefitted from more description. The sequence where Team Alloy goes to town on Jerry and bits of Owen's visit to Rhys' place both come to mind. But I'll give it a bit of a pass, since by your own admission, HoC has some EIW in its first arc, and what was there still pulled off its job pretty well.

Hope the feedback was fun and helpful to read through @Namohysip , I certainly had a good time with this chapter. I'll definitely keep an eye out for where things shake out the next time I cross paths with Owen's Bizarre Adventure.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Thanks for the feedback, Fobbie! Replied to you on discord, and I'm glad for all the hints you've been picking up~

Chapter 133 – Six Chips

Chasing Gahi down was hard when Demitri was so slow. But, thankfully, Gahi was not going at his full speed. He drifted in circles, going around and down into the roads, and then back up again when he was feeling restless.

“He’s just gonna do that all day, isn’t he?” Owen asked. He’d caught up with them, asking Zena and the others to stay behind for now; it would be fine if just Team Alloy had been together.

“Or whenever he gets tired,” Demitri said, panting. “Oh, wait, we have days again, don’t we?” He glanced back at the Tree, where evening sunlight made the prismatic leaves shimmer a brilliant orange.

“You know, since we’re on the road, and he’s just… going to be flying around, I think I want to check on Hakk,” Owen said. “Aside from Anam, he was the only one of us not really at dinner…”

“Well, there’s also the Legends,” Demitri said. “A-and… that includes Rhys.”

The quiet that followed, filled only by the steps or sliding from their walk, subdued Owen once again.

“Yeah. Rhys… He was—he wasn’t really in the Voidlands before, though. It’s not like he suffered when he… I mean, I don’t think he did.” Owen didn’t want to ask Diyem for the answer. The very thought… Diyem killed Rhys. Killed him, and not even in a way they could see him again.

No, maybe he was still there, in Dialga. They just had to reawaken that part, right? Owen played that memory in his head again, when Dialga had nearly gone berserk. But he’d averted that because a familiar-feeling voice helped him. That voice was Rhys, wasn’t it?

But he didn’t want to give his team any false hope.

“He can’t just be gone,” Demitri said in a whisper. “We can still talk to him, can’t we? He’s… just somewhere in Dialga. So, he’s… It’ll be fine.”

Mispy wasn’t one to speak much, but Owen could see in her eyes that she thought otherwise. He didn’t want to acknowledge it, though. He couldn’t. Not now.

“Hey, what about Hakk?” Owen asked. “We’re near his place. Maybe we should see how he’s doing, y’know?”

“Hakk…” Demitri nodded. “He wasn’t even at dinner. I’m worried about him.”

“He won’t do anything stupid, right?” Gahi murmured, landing next to them. Owen deflated with relief. So, he at least got curious about their conversation and stopped moping in the skies… “Should’ve kept an eye on’m.”

“We can’t watch him every second of the day,” Owen said, “but… you have a point.”

The Charmeleon started down the road, trying to ignore any buildings that weren’t Hakk’s. His Perceive was starting to come back to him, and with it were glimpses of Pokémon in their private homes as he passed by. If knowledge of his abilities became widespread, he’d probably be banned from every urban area in the Voidlands. He decided to keep quiet about the extent of that power.

They soon made it to Hakk’s home, and Owen did focus on his Perceive then to make sure Hakk was inside before entering. The walls were half-finished, but the door had been repaired. It was unlocked. Hakk was sitting in the basement, looking calm and unharmed, so that was the second good sign. Everything was still too dull for Owen to figure out more details than that, though.

“He’s down there; he’s fine,” Owen said. “He’s not moving a lot, though. Might be, you know… reminiscing. I don’t think we should crowd him.”

“I still want to see him,” Demitri said.

Owen nodded. “I’d… like to come, too, if that’s alright. But, Mispy, Gahi, are you fine with staying out here?”

Mispy shrugged. Gahi looked restless.

“What do I do ‘til then?” the slim Flygon asked.

After a pause, Owen hummed. “Why don’t you two see if there’s something to do around town?” he offered. “This is kind of a time to rest until tomorrow when we set off for the Legends.”

“Feh.” Gahi snapped his tail on the ground, scales against the stone road. “Wait t’morrow, wait t’morrow. Always t’morrow. I wanna go now already. Ain’t Step still out there somewhere?”

“Latias is out there doing the scouting already,” Owen said. “She’s probably better at it than… Well, I mean…” Now that he thought about it, Gahi could probably cover more ground. But he was also not that smart if he ran into trouble; he’d sooner try to take on whatever Titan Step ran into than fly back to get the others.

“Mispy, Gahi, if you two fused, do you think you’d be able to scout quickly?” Owen offered. “Maybe that’s something you two can do.”

“Me, with Mispy?” Gahi said, glancing at Demitri, who looked unsure. “Ehh. Sure. Hopefully y’don’t slow me down too much,” Gahi stated to the Meganium.

Mispy sighed, looking reluctant as well.

“What’s wrong?” Owen asked.

“She’s just gonna make me hold back,” Gahi complained. “Can’t I go on my own?”

“He’s an idiot,” Mispy stated flatly.

“Gahi, you can’t go alone,” Owen warned. “It’s still dangerous out there. And Mispy, Gahi can handle himself a little, too. You’re fast, but those Shadow attacks are no joke. You’ll want Mispy’s durability.”

“And sense,” Mispy added knowingly.

“What, you think I won’t have the sense ter run back?!” Gahi challenged.

Silence.

“…Feh! Underestimatin’ me again!” Gahi snapped his tail on the ground.

“It’s just to be careful,” Owen said. “You’re reckless. Promise you’ll stay safe, Gahi?”

Gahi still scowled, but his stare softened a little when Owen pleaded. His shoulders and wings sagged and he gestured for Mispy to follow him down the road.

“We think Step headed east,” Owen informed Gahi, pointing. “Can you fly that way?”

“East, eh? Alright. Quarters my ground ter cover. Not bad.” The rest of his murmuring faded out as he got limber for another flight exercise. As Mispy tried to catch up after a quick love bite on Demitri’s shoulder, Demitri and Owen headed down into the basement.

There, the icy Sandslash was sitting in the middle of the room, head staring at the wall. Demitri tensed at the eyes kept in jars of preserves, never decaying, never changing. Xypher’s legacy was in this room, hidden away and undiscovered by the general public. In fact, only Owen really knew about it, and he’d only told Team Alloy and those closest.

The secret didn’t really matter anymore, did it?

Wordlessly, Hakk turned his head to spare a glance, but then he stared at the shelf again, soulless.

“Hello, um, Hakk,” Demitri said gently. “…Staying here for the night? I don’t think your home is fully rebuilt yet…”

“Gonna sell it,” Hakk whispered.

“Oh. I guess I understand that…” Demitri approached; when Hakk didn’t object, he sat down and toyed with the axes on his tail. “Want to… move on?”

“Just thinking of what to do with this,” Hakk said, his voice only audible because everything else was so quiet. “Bury it. Leave it. Seal the room… tch… Only I understood why.”

“His, um… collection,” Demitri clarified. “I guess it’s a hobby. Xypher still seemed like a very nice person.”

“These were once his friends, right?” Owen asked, his voice a little louder than both.

Hakk flinched a little. “He didn’t kill them.”

“I guessed he didn’t,” Owen said. “But people that he liked, he kept their eyes if they died. Right? And that happened a lot.”

The Charmeleon’s gaze trailed to one of the more recent additions on the far shelf. Big, striking, reptilian, blue eyes that seemed to stare right back at him.

“And I guess sometimes he collects them just because,” Owen added.

Hakk followed Owen’s attention to the same jar and grimaced. “It’s how he remembered,” Hakk said. “He wasn’t that expressive, but I knew when he was happy. It’s in the eyes, the way they widen or narrow. Seem a little brighter, sometimes. And I think that’s how he saw it in others…” Aimless, Hakk ran his claws on the ground. “He wanted to remember how they smiled. So, in his twisted little way, he tried to cope with losing someone by… keeping that part of them.”

In its own misguided, distorted way, Owen could understand that. Xypher had a strange way of thinking, but it was toward a very relatable goal, in the end…

“He was D-class, but he really wanted to remember everything,” Owen concluded.

“Yeah.”

“And… you’re going to be moving out?” Demitri asked.

Silence. Hakk seemed to curl inward a little.

“Sold it already? Pretty fast,” Owen remarked.

“Well. I put it on sale, I guess. Or, I said I would. I dunno.”

More silence. Owen and Demitri glanced at one another, but it seemed neither knew what to say.

“Maybe I shouldn’t,” Hakk murmured again. “Maybe one day Xypher will be back. And these eyes can help him remember, I guess. I’ll just… keep it safe. Not like it’s illegal. Just scavenging. I think.”

“Well, I won’t tell,” Demitri said.

When Demitri looked at Owen, Owen straightened nervously. “Uh—yeah. This, uh, I get it. I guess I have kind of a say, since one of those jars has my old eyes…”

“Mmyeah, that’s still kind of weird,” Demitri admitted.

“Of course it’s weird,” Hakk muttered. “Xypher’s weird. Always was. I bet he was weird even before getting halfway Voided. That’s just how he was, and how I… how I knew him. He was just weird. A weird, big bird who just wanted someone to be with. Who…” He curled again, like he was falling back to his instincts to get into a tiny, spiky ball for safety.

“It’s okay,” Demitri said first. Tentatively, he reached for Hakk’s shoulder, and the Sandslash didn’t resist this time. In fact, he leaned a little into him. The ice made the Haxorus cringe, but he powered through. “You’re still here. Xypher wouldn’t want you to be too sad about him. You’ll have to remember his smile, right?”

Owen wasn’t sure why, but for some reason, that was what finally broke the Sandslash. It started with a little shudder, and then a quiet sob, but finally, Hakk no longer cared about his pride. He rubbed his eyes, sniffled into his paws, and leaned against Demitri without restraint. Forcing himself past the cold, Demitri wrapped his arms around Hakk and rocked with him. Owen, not wanting to interfere, just smiled at his partner.

Ten long, eternal minutes passed in that silence, and Owen didn’t mind. Hakk needed this. And even though his sobs had calmed down enough by the first minute, he needed more time to decompress and calm down afterward.

And for a while, that was all they really did. Occasionally, Hakk sniffled a little, and seemed to resent, or present resentment, toward them hanging around. But never did he ask them to leave, and as the minutes passed, he relaxed more. He leaned against Demitri more. There were a few moments where he cried again, but Demitri only rubbed his shoulders, ignored the frost, and kept nearby.

Owen couldn’t ignore the thought: perhaps this was why Demitri had become Mesprit. Some of the Legends’ mortal halves didn’t make a lot of sense to him. But this one… made a lot of sense.

Finally, Hakk pulled away from a thoroughly frosted Demitri. He was calmer. The sorrow never left him, and every gesture was somber, but he was stable. Inspecting the rest of Xypher’s abode one more time, he finally spoke.

“How come you came here?”

“Just to check on you,” Owen said. “We needed some air, and we were in the area.”

Hakk nodded knowingly. “Did you guys have a fight at dinner, or something?”

“Well… sort of.” Owen shifted awkwardly, toying with the flame on his tail. “We didn’t really fight each other as much as… took some pretty bad news.”

“Bad news,” Hakk echoed. He didn’t sound indifferent—more like he didn’t know what that meant.

“It’s sort of a long story,” Demitri explained.

“What isn’t with you guys?” Hakk snorted weakly, starting for the stairs up; the pair followed. “Do I need to know?”

“Maybe only the basics,” Owen admitted. “But our goal hasn’t changed. We’re still going to be doing what we can to stop Alexander, and all the fragments of Dark Matter, too.”

Hakk nodded. “Fine,” he said. “Tell me the basics. I want in.”

Owen saw a brief flash of determination in Hakk’s eyes. There it was. The smile Xypher saw on that scowling face… Now, Owen understood.

<><><>​

Gahi stood awkwardly in front of Mispy. “So, what,” the Flygon said, flapping his wings once like he wanted to take off. “We going?”

Mispy frowned expectantly. She nodded. But she could already tell that there was still something bothering him, so she waited patiently. Her vines curled and her body sank a little lower; it was her gesture of sitting down.

“…What?” Gahi challenged, but Mispy only stared. “Oh, so you think I’m just bottling it all up inside, this whole thing? Is that it?”

Gahi shifted around, flicking his tail as he paced.

“First I find out that Owen and I used ter be t’gether fer stuff, an’ then what, I took his will away? Who tells someone somethin’ like that?! I ain’t ready fer that! An’ I don’t believe it, either!”

His wings were undulating cosmic colors from his Psychic influence. They slowly settled back down, but he was still agitated. Mispy slid after him as he continued to pace, heading aimlessly for the town exit. They were going to be scouting anyway, so as long as they did some walking out of town, she wouldn’t protest.

“Maybe Owen was jus’ fed some lies er somethin’, an’… I dunno, maybe he…”

Mispy only frowned when Gahi looked back, and his shoulders sagged in defeat.

“Yeah, guess he doesn’ got a reason ter lie… but if that’s the case, what? I’m doomed ter… ter go back ter Azelf? I ain’t gonna do that…”

Mispy could agree there. If Uxie had stolen Owen’s memories—his memories—then Owen had been a true monster, or Uxie wasn’t someone she would ever want to become again. There was also the possibility that both hypotheticals were true.

“We’re gonna find ‘m, and then we’re gonna show’m a piece o’ our minds,” Gahi stated firmly. “Gotta find other ways ter beat Alexander, ‘n… I dunno. Ignore that we have a second half forever.”

That was unrealistic, and the shakiness in Gahi’s voice confirmed it to her. He was lying to himself. Mispy gave him a sad smile.

Gahi’s wings drooped. “Wonder how Owen feels about it… ‘bout me, ‘bout… y’know…”

Mispy thought back as Gahi did. He’d been close with Zena, even if he was trying to come to grips with himself. And according to Xerneas, Zena was whole, thank goodness. Amid all of this, she was something grounded and easy to understand… relatively speaking. Though, in Mispy’s opinion, Zena was a little too assertive for Owen. Maybe he had a type.

“We’re gonna be alright, yeah?” Gahi asked. It was the first time Gahi asked a question that she suspected made him feel vulnerable. Yet, it was something Mispy didn’t know the answer to.

She opened her mouth, but no words came. She first worried if she couldn’t speak to him, like anyone else, but no… She just didn’t know.

“It’s alright,” Gahi dismissed, looking guilty. “Sorry. Whatever. I’m gettin’ all bothered, ‘n…”

“It’s okay,” Mispy finally said, which startled Gahi into silence.

It was empty. But if there was one thing she knew about Gahi, it was that he didn’t need logic or evidence or things that actually made sense to be assured. He just needed firm words and a smile. Confidence. Gahi always had that, so seeing him doubt like this frightened her. She had to lift him up.

“What, just by challengin’ them?” Gahi said. “Challengin’ the Trio of Mind?”

“Of course,” Mispy replied, smiling. “And w…” Her words failed her, but Gahi’s pleading eyes tugged the last ones out, “We’ll win, too.”

“Win? Against them?” Gahi thought about it. “Heh, well. I’ve got an Orb. And we were made ter fight Legends. Maybe it’ll work out. Er maybe… I dunno, maybe they won’t be so bad. Sounds like something Owen would say, eh?”

Mispy smiled, trying to assure him.

“Heh. Yeah…” He sighed. “Alright. Whatever. Let’s get scouting, eh?”

And with a sigh, he hopped back, and Mispy wrapped her vines around him. Perhaps now he’d be in better spirits to focus on searching for Step.

She only hoped his stupidity wouldn’t stick after they split.

<><><>​

The cell door opened and Owen jumped to attention, once again completely ignorant to how much time had passed. He tuned his Perceive through the wall and sensed a tall figure holding several things in his hands. Lanky. Qitlan again.

The second door opened and then shut behind the Inteleon, who gave a polite bow. “Any progress on your Gone Pebble?”

“Almost,” Owen replied. “I think I’m getting it. What’s that?”

“Straight to the point, hm? I thought you’d be excited for some activity. Well.” With a shrug, he set down a small bag, but Owen already knew what was inside. It jingled like rocks. Six small, ceramic tokens and a deck of cards.

“I assume you are familiar with poker,” Qitlan said. “I doubt the rules have changed very much.”

“I think I know it if you let me look at the deck,” Owen replied.

“Oh? Well, of course. I’ll let you look at it.” Qitlan said, but did nothing to hand it over to Owen. The Charmeleon, meanwhile, stared at Qitlan, and then at the deck of cards in his hands.

A silence, filled only by his flame, permeated the room, and then Owen said, “Alright. I looked at it.”

“Then you would be willing to play a game with me?” he offered, setting the six tokens down next.

“Sure.” Owen furrowed his brow suspiciously. Qitlan would play a game with him, despite how obviously he’d just read the entire deck?

“Good. But first, I would like to put some modifications to the rules. It won’t affect how the game is played, but it will affect your reward.”

“Okay.” Owen said neutrally, attentive but trying to mask his emotions.

Qitlan set down the six chips individually, placing them in a line between them, and pointed at each from left to right. “Can you see the writing on each chip?”

Owen read through it. Each one had different words on them, written in black marker. Six months of safety; freedom*; a break for Star; Remi’s location; alone time with Mhynt; your own servant.

“What does each one mean?” Owen asked, unable to completely hide the tightness in his throat.

“Six months of safety. That means that Alexander will not lay a finger, directly or through orders, on any of your friends, so long as they do not attack first.

“Freedom—do note the asterisk—will allow you to explore Cipher City and most areas of the castle at your leisure. You will be given a room and some traveling privileges, but you will of course not be allowed to leave the city, and you will be watched.

“A break for Star… I’m sure you know that she has been put through a thorough interrogation process to get into her mind. She’s quite stubborn. But we will eliminate our interrogation of her for a month, should this chip end with you.

“Remi’s location is quite self-explanatory. We know where she is. We will tell you. Not even Mhynt knows this answer.

“Ah, and speaking of which, time alone with Mhynt… For an hour, you will be allowed to speak to her, alone, with zero surveillance. The timer will start when the door closes, but you will have all the time you like to inspect it for bugs.

“And, lastly, your own servant. Alexander has any number of Pokémon who work under him. You may choose any one, even myself, to serve you however you see fit. And, of course, they must listen.

“Do these all make sense?”

“How do I know that you’ll follow through with any of these?” Owen asked flatly. “If I win all of these, won’t Alexander just overrule it?”

“Oh, Owen, why would I work against him?” Qitlan smiled wryly. “Surely you noticed by now that the tokens are in his handwriting.”

“…He has handwriting?”

Qitlan’s eye twitched. “You have no choice. There is no point in this game if the prizes are not real. Are you willing to play?”

Owen sighed, reaching for the chips. “Fine, I’ll play.”

“Ah, ah. Two more rules.”

Owen stopped and waited, though he did not pull his arm away. He had to admit, the sheer possibility of these prizes being real was… exciting. It certainly broke through the monotony of the cell walls.

“We will choose our chips one by one. Since I am proposing this game at all, I will get first pick. Then, we must bet any one chip of our choosing that we own, and the game of poker will go as normal. We can call, raise, and so on, as the normal rules follow.”

“Okay…” Owen nodded. “And what’s the second rule?”

“The rule only applies to you,” Qitlan said, “and it is that, after chips are selected and the game begins, if you lose a chip—that is, it goes into my possession—that prize is erased from play. You may still earn the chip back, but the prize is gone entirely. You may, of course, end the game early with your winnings, and any preserved chips in your possession will be redeemed. But any you lose are simply gone.

“And, of course,” Qitlan clarified, “if I lose a chip to you, the prize is not gone. You will win it properly, so long as I do not take it back.”

Owen rolled those in his head a few times, mapping it out. He had to pick the chips he wanted the most, and then win any that Qitlan took first. Then, he could quit before he performed any odd games with him, or he could just use one of the disposable prizes to wager against the winning one. He’d know exactly what Qitlan was drawing, so it was just a matter of luck. And luck was in his favor, too, because he’d also be able to read what was in the deck, which—

“And what counts as cheating?” Owen suddenly asked.

Qitlan’s smile was still polite and thin, but it seemed firmer. “So long as you draw from the top of the deck, and do not shuffle dishonestly, everything is fair game.”

Then he was allowed to read the cards. It didn’t seem like there was any funny business with this game. The cards didn’t feel rigged.

“Alright,” Owen said. “Let’s play.”

“Very good.” Qitlan hummed, hovering a finger over the tokens one by one. “We will have, oh… twenty seconds to choose a token, before you get to choose for me, or vice versa. Is that fair?”

“Sure.” He had to agree, but he knew Qitlan had already planned out his priority list long ago. He had seconds to do the same.

“Hmm, hmm…” Qitlan made a show of it, looking so conflicted on which one to pick, despite the bored look in his eyes as he anguished. His finger finally landed on ‘six months of safety.’ Owen’s jaw tightened, but he said nothing as the token slid toward Qitlan’s side.

Qitlan probably knew that was the one he wanted most. That had been his entire point for surrendering himself. That also meant he would probably wager that token last.

That was fine. He still had odds in his favor. Even if he had an absolutely terrible setup, he could still win in the end with perhaps three or four chips sustained.

He could risk a few.

With five seconds to spare, Owen placed a claw on ‘alone time with Mhynt’ and pulled it toward himself.

“Ooh,” Qitlan cooed with what almost looked like genuine amusement. Then, returning to a neutral gaze, he placed a finger on ‘Remi’s location’ and pulled it in.

Owen only had three left. A break for Star, a servant from Alexander, and freedom. All three were good choices in their own way, and ultimately it was his final choice, too. Star… probably didn’t deserve whatever was happening to her. And she probably would be holding information they really wanted. He couldn’t really risk that, right? Even after all she did, she wasn’t… wouldn’t deserve that. And if he could help her even a little bit…

But what would freedom grant him? Could he sneak around? How thoroughly would they watch him? Questions he had no time to ask, curse that limit he’d agreed to. Owen didn’t really know what a servant would do for him; it seemed cruel.

“Five seconds,” Qitlan warned.

Owen followed his feelings and his strategy, pulling Star’s chip in.

“Interesting,” Qitlan said. “After all she’d done to you?”

Owen didn’t reply.

Qitlan gave a little head-tilt like a shrug and pulled in ‘servant,’ with a little chuckle. “Well, I’m certainly not going to risk working under you, now am I?”

And so, the final chip was freedom, thrust upon him by default. Owen had freedom, a break for Star, and time with Mhynt; Qitlan had six months of safety, a personal servant, and Remi’s location.

“Shuffle,” Qitlan said, sliding the deck forward stiffly.

Owen looked at the cards thoroughly without touching them, and then sighed. He used one hand and split the deck into four piles, one card at a time, following something systematic. Then, he combined two piles randomly, and then the other, and then put the whole deck back together and slid the stack to Qitlan.

“Cut the deck,” Owen stated.

“In the name of fairness,” Qitlan replied. “You can’t trust yourself to shuffle neutrally with that sense of yours, can you?” He cut it, placing some of the deck beneath the rest. “Very good. I’m confident that this is a fairly shuffled deck. And, of course, I will deal; five to me, five to you, and then I shall draw first, and you right after. Now.” Qitlan shuffled out just as he said. “Choose your first token to bet.”

Owen, predictably, slid ‘freedom’ in first.

“Serving under someone or another all your life, I suppose it makes sense you wouldn’t mind risking your autonomy first,” Qitlan said with a shrug. “Very well. But I do value this servant token too much. I was silly not to pick it first.”

Liar.

“Let’s go with this one.” He slid the ‘Remi’s location’ token first, and Owen’s pupils narrowed in on it.

He could afford to lose this one. But he would much rather win it immediately.

Owen read his cards, picking them up if only to be polite. A pair of sevens and junk. Bad hand. But the fourth card from the top of the deck was also a seven. He could get three of a kind, easily, as long as Qitlan drew at least one card.

“Any bets?” Qitlan asked.

“No,” Owen replied.

“Same as well. Hmm, hmm.” Qitlan set two cards down and drew two more.

Perfect. And just above the seven was a five, which he also had one of. He could get a full house. Owen discarded two and drew two, giving himself three sevens and two fives.

“Any further bets?” Qitlan asked.

He knew he’d won. There would be no point in betting more. Qitlan had three eights, but it wouldn’t be enough.

“No,” Owen replied.

“Reveal.”

Just as Owen predicted, a full house against a triple. He acquired Remi’s location.

“Impressive,” Qitlan said with a wry smile. “How very lucky of you.”

Qitlan placed the next token down. This time, it was the six months of safety. That surprised him. If he won that, he could end the game early, no need to risk truly bad hands. Owen slid the ‘freedom’ card forward again, but then hesitated.

Was Qitlan getting a read for his priorities this way? Yes, of course he was. Maybe he could switch it up. He slid 'Remi's location' forward instead, and Qitlan’s wry smile got a little wider, like he was holding back an entertained laugh.

Qitlan drew his five, and then Owen was given his. Junk. But it wasn’t all bad. Qitlan only had a pair, and he—

Qitlan placed his cards down, face-up, for Owen to plainly see.

“Uh, what?” Owen asked.

“Oh, I’m just doing that for convenience,” Qitlan said. “You can already see it, after all. The subtle indentations of each pressed card, giving away its value. Perhaps only one, two millimeters deep. It’s a very special kind of deck, you see. It’s hard to print them the normal way, and Alexander likes the feel of cards with texture instead of flat pictures. Quite convenient that you can sense them that way, too, hm?

“Still, they’re awkward because of that. A little bumpy. It’s so much more comfortable to place the cards down solitaire style, no?”

Owen was too focused on that, but then he glanced at the deck again, and then at the cards in his hands. He wasn’t obligated to show them. That wasn’t part of the rules.

Right. Qitlan had a pair. He could see that plainly. His Perceive also revealed the deck of cards had what Qitlan needed for three of a kind, and Owen knew he would discard three to keep his pair. Qitlan would get a triple. However, that would put Owen in place for turning that junk into a higher three of a kind. There were two tens tantalizingly close, right after the three Qitlan would draw, and he only had to discard four of his own cards to get to them.

“Any bets?” Qitlan asked. “Ah, no. Actually, I do have a bet, hm, hm.” He slid his final token forward.

Owen smirked and reached for ‘a break for Star’ without thinking, but before he could do anything, Qitlan interjected with an idle sigh.

“I wonder how many cards I should draw.”

Owen froze. “What?” he asked.

Qitlan gestured vaguely to the five cards he owned. “Do I gamble with that king, go for two pairs? What are the odds that there will be three of a kind? I should probably have a higher card for safety…”

Owen held his breath, but then focused on steadying it. If Qitlan only drew two, Owen would only get one of those tens. A pair of tens. But Qitlan, would he get anything from that? Yes! A pair of—if he kept the highest card, that would become two kings. Which would trump him. But what if it was a bluff?

“I’d like a bet or not,” Qitlan hummed, annoyed.

He couldn’t risk it if Qitlan was going to toy with him like this.

“Fold,” Owen said.

“Ohh, what’s so frightening about a pair?” Qitlan teased, pulling the token for Remi’s location away. He rubbed his finger on the top, and the lettering disappeared. A plain token remained.

Everything felt cold.

“Well, let’s continue,” Qitlan said, and he slid the blank token forward as his next bet. Owen slid Star’s break forward instead.

Cards. Good cards. Qitlan had bad cards. Deck had no hope. “Any bets?” Qitlan asked, and Owen shook his head and didn’t even bother to draw.

“Well, I suppose I won’t bother, either,” Qitlan replied, and they revealed. “I fold. An easy win for you.”

He took the token back, and Owen tried to will the lettering back onto it. But it only stared back at him, blank.

There was a sickening, cold feeling when Owen slid the corpse of Remi’s token back into the playing field, like he was using her empty body as currency. He shoved the feeling away, and realized that Qitlan was placing the servant token up next.

“Hm? Oh, I was varying it up, like you were,” Qitlan said. “Well. Let’s get to drawing, shall we?”

After another routine shuffle, the cards were set out, and Qitlan had a wonderful set. But Owen had what seemed like junk… until he realized he was only one card away from a flush. Four hearts. And the card he needed had good odds depending on how Qitlan decided to vary it up. He could do this, but he had to look uncertain.

“Any bets?” Qitlan asked.

“I do,” Owen said. Qitlan had two tokens and he had four. Two that he could dispose. He could afford a little risk.

“Well, I suppose I have to fold,” Qitlan replied with a hum, grudgingly sliding the token forward. “For the record, you cannot order me to give you the last token. These rules were set up by Alexander, and trump me. They aren’t in effect until the game is over, anyway.”

Owen hadn’t considered that at all. That was clever. Maybe he could use that in the future if these prizes were actually real.

They were probably not real. He didn’t just lose Remi. It had all been a ruse. Of the fake prizes, Owen now held five tokens. Four of them still had writing on them—A break for Star, freedom, time with Mhynt, and a servant. Qitlan only had six months of safety. The grand prize.

“Just one little token,” Qitlan said with a sigh, but the gears were turning in Owen’s head. A servant, time alone with Mhynt, and freedom. Would he… be able to speak freely with Mhynt? Figure out what she wanted, why she was here?

Could that be the key to fixing all of this?

Owen moved Remi’s blank token forward, and Qitlan moved the six months of safety forward. Cards. Bad. Qitlan would win. Why bother?

“Fold,” Owen said without looking at any of his tokens.

“You’re no fun.” Qitlan pouted, taking the blank token away. “Why not try some mind games?”

Owen moved Star’s break forward, and Qitlan placed Remi’s token forward. Shuffle. Draw. Even hands. They both had two pairs this time, but Owen’s were higher. What could Qitlan do then? Maybe if he—

“Any bets?” Qitlan said.

“No,” Owen vocalized. The top card was useless to Qitlan, and he could get something decent afterward if he discarded his whole hand except one of the aces.

“All right.”

Qitlan grabbed one card, then two—Owen’s flame sparked—and then a third, and a horrible icy feeling ran across Owen’s scales again. He wasn’t supposed to do that. He wasn’t supposed to do that. No no no. That took away the card he needed. No no no. What would he draw next?

Could he win?

He could bet.

He could bluff. He could bluff and Qitlan would fold because he wouldn’t want to lose. Right?

He had four prizes. Qitlan had two. He could risk one. Freedom? But without freedom, how would he speak with Mhynt? Servant? But then how would he be able to get closer and truly learn what was happening?

He already lost Remi.

There had to be another way.

He couldn’t bet.

He drew his cards. Loss.

“I’ll bet,” Qitlan said, sliding his final token forward. There was an expectant glint in his eyes as he stared at Owen. The Inteleon’s face was neutral, but there was a smirk. He knew there was a smirk in his mind.

He knew.

He knew. How? How did he know?

Was he just guessing?

“Fold,” Owen croaked.

“So close,” Qitlan said with another sigh. “Really, I’m surprised.”

Owen stared at the three chips he had. Freedom. Servant. Mhynt. Three chips. He lost Remi. He lost Star. His friends still needed help. Freedom. Servant, Mhynt. He had to get it all back to save the rest.

Qitlan slid a chip forward, and Owen realized it was not a blank token. It was six months of safety.

They made eye contact as Qitlan shuffled the cards.

“Is something wrong?” Qitlan asked. “You need to place a bet.”

Owen had a flash of thought, a vision in his mind. Qitlan was going to place the chips, one by one, and force him to play. Perhaps even force him to bet everything now that they were even. One loss and he would lose everything. He didn’t know what the deck would resolve to anymore. He didn’t know what strange things Qitlan would do to draw.

The Charmeleon’s eyes dulled. He slowly reached for one of the tokens, his freedom, and then hesitated. It moved to Mhynt, and then hesitated again.

With an empty tone, he said, “I want to end the game.”

Silence. Even his flame was muted. Owen tried to tune it out, but he couldn’t ignore that satisfied smile Qitlan now wore.

“You’re certain?” Qitlan asked, giving no extra information.

Owen nodded, unable to look up.

“I see. Well. Those are your winnings, then.” He pointed forward. “A servant of your choice, the freedom to explore, and some alone time with Mhynt. I will have those prepared in the coming days.” He chuckled quietly, gathering up the cards, but leaving the chips with Owen. He made sure to wipe the token of six months’ safety clean.

“How interesting, though,” Qitlan remarked as the cell door opened. “Under that pressure, you sacrificed everyone, and wound up with all the tokens that helped you.”

The door shut. The blank tokens leered at him.

Qitlan’s steps echoed a little as the other door in the dividing room opened, and then closed again. There was a faint murmuring as he spoke to the guard that was stationed at the entrance to Owen’s cell.

The little Charmeleon curled his legs to his knees, pressed his back to the wall, and wept.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Chapter 134 – Incompatible

The cell doors opened.

“Well,” Qitlan said, gently closing the door behind him. He curled his fingers together, tenting them in a mock-prayer. “I believe you saw all of that?”

In front of the Inteleon was a Mew, bruised and chained to the wall. A specialized metal band strapped around her forehead subdued any psionic powers. Qitlan had made sure of that.

“You could have been saved for a month, a whole month.” Qitlan sighed and made a show of his shrug. “One whole month, but Owen decided you were expendable. That’s really how it is, you know. That’s what he thought of you.”

No reply. As usual. The Mew only stared vacantly downward, mouth slightly agape. But Qitlan knew she was listening with the little twitch of her tail.

“There’s no point in protecting him. He isn’t bothering to protect you. And he’s been captured. If you turn first, then you will surely be rewarded.”

Yet, no reply.

Qitlan narrowed his eyes, but then looked behind him. Surely their visitor would be arriving soon…

“This will all be over if you just tell us what you know,” Qitlan said. “What is the key to resetting Owen? You know the aura signature. We know that’s what was done. Show it to us, and you will be released.”

It was so frustratingly close. They knew that over the centuries, Owen had been reset over and over, and it was always with some strange aura that could bring him back to an innocent, naïve Charmander. That strange mutation he’d gone through had implanted that backdoor into his very aura.

If they could reset him in that same way, they could convince him that Alexander had always been his father. Oh, how perfect, too, because of course, his father all that time had been an Alex as well. The memories would write themselves!

But none of that would work unless they were shown the required aura key, and Star had it.

And she somehow had grown enough of a conscience to not give it up.

The cell doors opened again, and in came an Alakazam. Qitlan noticed how Star tensed a little when he entered.

“Oh? Bad experiences with Alakazam?” he said.

The Alakazam was gruff and spoke with a low voice, looking annoyed. “Why specifically me?” he questioned. “…Sir.”

“She knew an Alakazam in the living world. Perhaps she would be more vulnerable to mental invasions. And, of course, you are one of our best… psionic interrogators. Don’t you think, Star?”

No reply, of course.

“…Break her,” Qitlan instructed, his words like ice. “She talks, or her mind becomes pudding. One way or the other, we will extract that knowledge. Owen is here. The time for going gently is over.”

Alakazam seemed hesitant at first, glancing at Qitlan.

“Well?” Qitlan said.

“This is… against several of my codes.” But the words were feeble, and Qitlan knew he would not object in any practical, meaningful way. “And it is dangerous, too. Not just for her, but it risks recoil on myself, as well.”

“She has been fatigued for months. You will be fine,” Qitlan dismissed. “Begin.”

Qitlan stood to the side and took a seat on a nearby stool, watching Star continue to be motionless and Alakazam getting set up. He stood before her ominously, but she still made no eye contact, staring emptily downward. There was a guilty look in Alakazam’s eyes. One that, if it persisted, Qitlan would be sure to remind him that Alexander would have his head if he refused.

But, finally, it began. There was a rippling of pink light that connected their foreheads, becoming more and more intense. For a few seconds, Qitlan watched that rippling light turn transparent as a mental link formed between the two minds. They were like transparent skewers going from Alakazam into Star.

Star seemed to be providing no resistance. Alakazam seemed briefly confused, his brow furrowed, and Qitlan waited a little longer. Those seeds of doubt he’d given Star, the sense that Owen wasn’t even worth protecting… Perhaps Star had finally given up.

Optimistically, he wondered if they would have the Mew under their ranks.

There was an ethereal ring, and the connection halted. Snapped out of his thoughts, Qitlan looked back at Star and Alakazam. Already?

“That was fast,” Qitlan said. “Did you get the signature? Go on, to my mind next.” Qitlan gestured toward his temple.

Alakazam’s arms slackened. Blood dribbled from his nose. A second later, he fell back, hard, on the ground, convulsing.

And Star, faintly, was smirking.

Qitlan stood up in alarm and rushed to Alakazam. “Wake up,” he hissed. “What happened?!”

Completely unresponsive. His tremors had stopped, but he wasn’t even blinking. Qitlan checked his pulse. It was there, but fading fast. He looked at Star again, and then at Alakazam.

She wasn’t even saying anything, but he knew everything he needed. Star had toyed with him. His fist clenched and he took aim at her shoulder, firing an extremely concentrated blast of water at it. He pierced a purple barrier that had appeared and shot straight through the bone, to the point where Qitlan could see the stone wall on the other side of the hole. It earned a wince, but nothing more.

That was all he allowed Star to see of his fury. “Very well,” Qitlan said evenly. “If your mind is so defiant, then the standard interrogations will continue.”

Leaving Alakazam’s body behind, Qitlan left the cell to inform the guards.

<><><>​

Plap, plap, plap. Anam’s heavy footsteps echoed through the main hall and into the conference room that the Legends had reconvened. He heard a few voices murmuring in his mind, namely those of his parents. James and Madeline had kept him company during his time in the caves, and now they were giving him tips on how to speak to literal Legends. Like they were just important people and not gods.

Remember, Anam. Speak properly, James said gently, and Anam could imagine the Decidueye—or was he a Salandit, now?—straightening his posture.

They are Legends, but they are still of flesh and blood, just as you are, Madeline continued.

Mostly flesh and blood, also just as you are, James went on. Somewhat.

Anam smiled a little at that, but he knew, now, that his body was much more tangible than usual. He still had the power of the Ghost Orb, but the darkness that had once eroded his body into a shapeless mass that only imitated a Goodra had left him. He was weak. Much weaker than the others would know.

Could he even lead Kilo anymore, without Dark Matter telling him who was evil and who was good? But with how Nevren had been, had Anam ever been able to rely on that?

Plap, plap, plap. Just a few more steps, and he would be facing Pokémon far larger than he’d ever been, in more ways than one. He steadied his breathing and put on his smile, but the anxiety never left him. Dark Matter would not be there to tell him if he approved or disapproved, if they were scheming or being honest. He was blind. He’d spent several lifetimes with the knowledge of everyone’s darkness, and now he was blind when facing those who had been plunged into it like hot tar.

What if that darkness still corroded them? Would he know? What did people look like when he couldn’t sense the darkness, but they still held it inside?

Step forward, Anam. We will help you, Madeline assured him.

Worry about everything else later, James said. Right now, you were summoned for a meeting. That is all that matters.

“Hello?” Anam called. “I’m here…”

He entered the room and saw four Pokémon present, all of them seemingly larger than life. He knew them from the Book of Arceus and quickly bowed.

Dialga, Palkia, Giratina, and Xerneas. All in one place. It was straight out of a dream.

“Goodra Anam,” Xerneas greeted. “Welcome.”

“I do hope you’ve had time to recover!” Palkia said, waving.

“Oh, yeah!” Anam straightened and waved back. “I had, uh… some time to sleep. I liked sleeping. I don’t sleep a lot.”

Did they like that comment? Anam wasn’t really sure. Palkia seemed openly friendly. He liked him. Dialga looked stern, but his eyes were kind. Giratina scared him a little. And Xerneas looked irritated before he’d even talked for the first time.

The Lifebringer spoke next. “Mm. I sense more than one spirit inside your body. So, it’s true. You hold a fragment of Necrozma inside you, energized by fallen spirits.” Xerneas look soured. “Quite the necromancer.”

“Don’t be so harsh on him,” Dialga said. “It isn’t as if they had any knowledge of that sort of thing.”

“Anam, I will be straightforward,” Xerneas said. “Summon the spirit of your mother.”

“Uh?” Anam blinked, but complied with a confused nod, holding out his arm. A dark wisp of fire dripped from his grabbers, and then coalesced and enlarged into another Goodra. The form shifted and grew, larger and larger, and Xerneas’ antlers lit up and channeled further energy into it.

Before long, a Goodra nearly twice Anam’s size—which had already been imposing—stood before them, and Giratina’s eyes flashed with primal recognition.

Madeline and Giratina stared at one another through some other instinct that Anam didn’t understand.

“Well, go on,” Xerneas said impatiently. “Reunite.”

“Uh?!” Anam stepped forward, reaching toward Madeline. “Mom? M-maybe you should come back.” But when he tried, her body was completely solid.

“I don’t think I can anymore,” Madeline replied coolly, not breaking her gaze with Giratina, who was silent and still.

“Madeline and Giratina are two halves of the same soul. We need all of the Legends to be at their full power, and that includes becoming whole. I can already tell I’m going to be very tired with giving this explanation each time, so please, reunite and it will make sense innately.”

He made a dismissive gesture with his hoof and looked between them again.

Another stunned silence followed. Palkia and Dialga looked at one another, then at Anam.

“I’m sorry if this is a lot for you, Anam,” Dialga said. “How much of this were you aware of?”

“N-none of it!” Anam stuttered. “Mom?! You’re… Giratina?! You never told me this! I… I mean, you… what does it mean to reunite? A-are you going to… disappear?”

He felt like he was dreaming. No, it had become a nightmare. Was this some kind of test from Dark Matter to make him give in? Was that possible?

James was saying something within his mind, but his voice was too soft amid his panic.

“Stop staring at each other and do it. Giratina, claim her!” Xerneas demanded.

Giratina’s eyes flashed red, and then two black tendrils lunged for Madeline. The Goodra made a simple gesture with her arm, and a wave of light deflected the tendrils like a parrying shield. Giratina recoiled only a few inches, then looked back at Xerneas.

“She resisted,” she stated.

Anam trembled and didn’t know what to do. This was usually when Dark Matter said to let him take over, or to do some battling, or guidance. But Anam didn’t know how to fight anymore. Was he supposed to do something here?

“I don’t think I will be reuniting with anyone,” Madeline said. “Giratina. I believe I need to be satisfied with what you are, and you need to be satisfied with what I have become. This reunion… what is the nature of it? Will I be disappearing? Will you be disappearing? Or is this just some grand joke?”

“Oh, I assure you, it isn’t a joke.” Palkia patted Dialga on the back. “Dialga here is already whole. He is Rhys! Ah, was. Was Rhys.”

“Rhys?!” Anam’s eyes widened even more. “You’re Rhys? But you aren’t a Lucario!”

Dialga looked disappointed for some reason. “Er, yes, Anam. The memories are faded, but I was indeed Rhys. I’m sure this is a lot for you to take in, but rest assured, you are whole, as is your father.”

“Yes. My mate,” Madeline said. “Giratina, do you have anyone significant to you? This may become awkward.”

“I do not,” Giratina replied, and then lazily turned her gaze to the others. Anam wondered if Giratina had even bothered to use her full strength. “Xerneas, I do not think the reunion will work for now. Madeline and I need to get to know one another.”

“Just claim her. I know you can overpower her,” Xerneas said. “She is a mortal half-soul. She doesn’t matter. I am already whole. I can speak with full confidence that my mortal half was nothing but a ball of hubris and regrets.”

“It’s no wonder you’re so bitter,” Giratina stated dully. “Let me be clear, Xerneas. If you force anything upon us, we will personally shove one antler into each end of your body.”

Xerneas flinched, befuddled. “What is wrong with you? Do you not realize what’s at stake here?” He snarled at them both. “The world and beyond is in danger if we cannot combat the dark forces against us, and to—”

“Madeline,” Giratina said with a gracious bow, “would you care to tour around Null Village? The scenery is dull, but I have been indisposed for a while. I want to sightsee.”

“That sounds lovely, Giratina,” Madeline replied with a lengthy enunciation. She gave a polite, diplomatic smile to Xerneas. “This will be goodbye for now, Xerneas. I do hope your antlers remain healthy.”

“What does that mean?” Xerneas squinted, leaning forward. Giratina and Madeline began to leave the conference room. “Do not leave. The meeting isn’t over! You will explain what that means!”

They, of course, did not respond as they left, and Anam, not knowing what more to do, started meekly stepping back as well. “Um, it was nice to meet you all,” he said. “Is… the meeting over for…?”

“Come, Anam,” Madeline said. “Perhaps we can use the other Tree to restore James to something more corporeal in this realm. I believe the host of that power is more agreeable.”

That struck a nerve. Xerneas, fuming, said, “How dare—”

The door shut, and the walls were soundproof.

<><><>​

“Oh, this is so exciting!” Palkia clapped his hands. “I can finally put my first experiment to use!”

“Well, I suppose we have to start somewhere,” Dialga stated dully, prodding at the necklace he’d been given with a hoof. “It’s not exactly an invention, though, is it?”

“Perhaps not, but it’s the theory behind it that I want to test!”

They stood at the base of the Radiant Tree of Life, each of them wearing a necklace that held a light crystal, both an indigo hue. Apparently, the theory was that as creatures of darkness, they required a source of light to sustain themselves in the living world, being the source of power that had created Kilo in the first place.

And if that failed, they would evaporate and wake up near-powerless in the Voidlands, if they weren’t quick enough. Palkia certainly liked his high-risk experiments… He could still remember that time he’d turned himself into a Dwebble for a few days.

“Well, this will be a very simple excursion. And after that awkward reunion between Madeline and Giratina, perhaps we can beat her to the punch and unify with Nevren.” Palkia pressed his palms together. “I wouldn’t mind rubbing it in Giratina’s mandibles that I came first.”

Dialga sighed and lifted off of the ground, levitating toward the portal.

First, they braced for any burning sensation. When that didn’t happen, Palkia eagerly checked their necklaces and saw that the gems were glowing faintly. His arms trembled with his delight.

“It worked! It resonates! We can exist outside of the Voidlands!”

Despite everything, Dialga smiled at Palkia’s contagious enthusiasm.

“Ah! But the next step, now. I still do not quite have my power for extreme long-distance spatial distortions, so perhaps some divine intervention is in order… Oh, Arceus! I call upon your aid!”

Five seconds. Ten seconds. Nothing. The two Legends floated above Hot Spot Ruins.

“I think you did the intonation wrong,” Dialga said. “You should be giving it with more, er… grandeur.”

“Ah, of course. A proper prayer would be the answer. Ahem.” He coughed into a closed fist, and then raised his arms high. “O, Arceus! I call upon Your aid!”

Two seconds. Then, a distortion of light twisted the air, and a flash later, Arceus stood before them with a surprised look in his eyes.

Dialga hid a smirk by bowing deeply. “Apologies for being absent for such a long time, Arceus,” he said. “If you do not recognize us, we are Dialga and Palkia, under the Void’s curse.”

“I see.” Arceus nodded back. “At ease, then. It is good to see you of sound mind, even if you are not of sound body.”

“We look like Void Shadows to you, I imagine?” Palkia asked. “That’s a shame. I hope to fix that later without need for being within the Tree’s radius.”

“Palkia has not yet gained his strength to travel where he pleases,” Dialga explained. “Would you be able to warp us to Nevren’s current location? We shall be able to take it from there.”

“Of course.” Arceus paused. “I was… about to deliver some news to Elder, if you wished to go there as well.”

“Ah.” In all honesty, Dialga had forgotten. “Yes. After we speak with Nevren, we shall do that next.”

“I would like to request that you take on Nevren’s research duties when the time comes, Palkia,” Arceus said. “Will you be able to?”

“Oh, with great pleasure,” Palkia said with a hungry spark in his eyes. “I foresee no grief in our reunion if Nevren is the great inventor I’ve heard he is.”

“And treasonous, don’t forget treasonous,” Dialga muttered. “If what we were told during that debrief was accurate, and what I recall is not distorted, Nevren had been working to usurp Arceus for quite some time.”

“That’s just a sign of good ambition!” Palkia said with a wide smile. “A little friendly competition is nothing harmful, yes?”

Dialga and Arceus shared a hopeless look.

“Just don’t slip into the same habits,” Arceus said. “I will have no choice but to smite you otherwise.”

“Understood!” Palkia saluted, and despite everything, Dialga had a sense that he was genuine. Somehow.

“Nevren is currently performing research in Quartz HQ. I will take you there. Come near, please.”

They huddled together, and in a flash of light, the temperature went from cool to tropical, and the winter ocean air filled their senses.

“Ahh, a wonderful location. He has good instincts,” Palkia said, pacing around.

Arceus nodded. “Call upon me when ready. I shall be… preparing things in Kilo Village.” And with another flash, he disappeared.

“Well! Dialga, would you care to do the honors of introducing us to one another? I do believe you have memories of Nevren in the present day, through Rhys.”

“Faded, but yes,” Dialga replied with a pang of guilt. “I do wonder if Nevren cares. There’s a small part of me that is still quite upset at him.”

“One way to find out, yes?” Palkia asked, still smiling with that eager curiosity in his eyes.

It only took a few steps before a surge of foul energy stopped Dialga in his tracks. The air was stagnant. There was a scent like electrocuted fur. Even the ground felt filthy just then. No, all around. It was everywhere.

This was—

“Dialga? Are you all right?”

Dialga accelerated his pace, but when he did, that foul sensation became even worse and he snarled. The line of brighter scales along his body pulsed a dark orange with his throbbing heart.

“Time,” Dialga said in a low snarl. “We have gone through this time already.”

“…I’m afraid I do not get that particular pun, my friend.”

“Someone… has tampered with the flow of time. And it was not me. It has been tampered with several times, over and over…” He snarled into the air. “This era has been rewound and rewritten, this very moment, countless times. Who dares abuse this kind of—”

But then, the memory came back. He recalled giving Palkia a piece of his own gem, and Palkia the same in return. He had been given it as a Lucario, taking on a mortal form. And then… the memory was too faded after that. And he was too enraged to think about what Palkia’s mortal half had done with that parallel blessing.

“Inside. We must find it,” Dialga said, his rage driving him forward. “We must—”

But in a blink, Dialga was no longer in front of the hidden., underground facility, and was instead by the beach. The air was still foul, everything was foul, and he could sense the source of the distortion made.

“Palkia,” Dialga snarled. “How dare you—”

“Is this ocean not wonderful?” Palkia asked, pointing at the vast horizon, startling Dialga into silence. “Why not take a few breaths and… enjoy the view, Dialga? Let some time pass.”

“Time… pass…” Dialga could still feel that headache coming on. No, not a headache, some kind of… fury at…

“When was the last time you saw an ocean, Dialga?” Palkia said again, his voice a little lower.

He took a few breaths and humored him, staring at the horizon. The ocean sparkled with light and warmth. The sand was a hot white. Nearby, terrified beachgoers were fleeing the shores.

“I suppose… I haven’t in a while,” Dialga relented. His vision was clearing. He hadn’t even realized it was tunneling in. “Seeing the sky through the Radiant Tree must have… helped me transition to it again.”

The foul atmosphere was fading away. It had only been for roughly ninety seconds, perhaps some extra time afterward. He could hear his thoughts clearly again. Apparently, his muscles had relaxed visibly as well, because Palkia gently patted him on the shoulder.

“Feeling better?” Palkia asked.

“…I’m… I’m sorry for that,” Dialga said shamefully. “That was… unlike me. I lost myself.”

“It’s quite fine,” he said. “It seems that we must have done something to cause time to loop repeatedly upon approach. Do you have a way to recover what had been undone and redone?”

“It’s my own power,” Dialga said. “I can’t counter it until I reclaim it. But… I need some time to relax.”

“Of course.” Palkia nodded, taking a seat. “Come! We shall construct a grand castle of sand!”

He seemed like a huge child just then. But, as Palkia leaned forward and began to scrape together wet sand into a lumpy pile, it slowly dawned on him that the Spacekeeper was a little nervous.

“Fine,” Dialga said with a placating smile, sitting next to him. “A grand castle it shall be.”

<><><>​

Gahi and Mispy had spent a surprising amount of time as a fusion deliberating what their new name was. Eventually, they settled on Gami. They figured, absentmindedly, that meant the second ‘mi’ in ‘Migami’ was Mispy, and the first one was Demitri. These useless, distracting thoughts annoyed the Mispy half, but were apparently commonplace in Gahi’s half.

It was a miracle they’d stayed fused at all.

Their form was monstrous and accomplished neither of their proper roles. Mispy’s half took the form of tendrils for the lower half of their body, made from vines that lashed out at any attackers, strong and powerful. The upper half was that of a Flygon’s, though with floral shoulder blades.

Gahi’s and Mispy’s thoughts continued to swirl around, never quite coalescing, as they flew in search of any kind of sign of Step’s movements. The problem was, she moved with ice. Ice melted and dissolved and evaporated. And even though this place didn’t have a proper sun, and even though it was technically some kind of netherworld divorced from the living realm, it still seemed to follow basic physics. And water evaporated into drier air. And it was certainly dry.

When was the last time it actually rained? Where did the water come from?

One convenient thing about the Voidlands was that its horizon curve was a lot further. Gahi didn’t know what that meant, but Mispy did. And the fact that they had to spend days flying in the past just to get to a new location meant the Voidlands was vastly larger than Kilo. Impossibly so. Was it even normal for a world to get this large? They could see for miles, even from the ground!

They had to stop getting distracted. With an annoyed grunt, she sped forward again, tendrils curling before unfurling and straightening for better aerodynamics. Then came the Teleporting. Much easier after the first few times.

Then came the aura sense. So far, nothing. The sensation for auras had migrated from Mispy’s antennae to Gahi’s, though the sense didn’t improve very much.

But then she felt it, that horrible rot—a Titan was near. But there were also occasional bursts of something else… familiar energy. Cruel and cold, imposing and commanding. That was Step’s Ice energy.

Silently, Gami sped up, the ice against rot becoming more and more acute until they no longer needed their aura sense to see what it was.

A flying Titan clashed against an Aggron of ice straight ahead. The Titan blasted the Aggron with beams of reddish black energy that deflected off nothing more than glowing ice shields. The forest all around them was torn apart and riddled with gashes and fissures from previous blasts. Columns of ice were surrounded by fields of snow. Whole, gnarled trees had been frozen and shattered to accent the cold wastelands. Portions of the land were flecked with spattered Void Shadows and dark sparks.

How long had they been fighting? Step was truly a force to be reckoned with… or that Titan was weakened ever since Dark Matter’s fall. Or was something else driving her?

What were they supposed to do? Latias wasn’t here yet. Or had she already gone back, and they happened to miss one another?

She’d been traveling for a handful of kilos at this point. Traveling back would be shorter with a direct route, but would it be too late? She had to fight now!

No, but that was reckless. They had to get backup. Someone with light powers, like Owen, or dark, like Diyem, to subdue it.

But didn’t they also have a light crystal of their own? In fact, now that they’d fused, they had two. One glowed with the violet radiance of psionic energy, and the other was a calm green like the forest they’d once lived near, in times gone by.

She knew Gahi’s side was what encouraged her to fight. But the Mispy side didn’t feel right about falling back when Step was already locked in battle.

They could at least get in to heal her.

“Step!” Gami cried, but her voice was too soft amid the blasts of ice and shadow. The Aggron was snarling at the beast twenty times her size or more, behaving as if it was just another common foe.

And the way Step was parrying those attacks, it may as well have been.

With another resounding crack! the Aggron struck the flying Titan in what might have been its head with a log of ice, hurled toward it like a giant javelin. Its malformed head split open and Void Shadows spilled onto the ground like blood; no longer able to keep flight, it spiraled downward and crashed into a cluster of brittle trees.

She didn’t stop. More and more volleys of ice coated over the thing as it fell, and Step’s grunts were audible enough that Gami slowed down to get a better vantage point.

Step held her arms up and swung them together. The ice that had collected around the flying Titan squeezed and levitated up, pinning the thing inside. Step slammed her arms down and the ice did the same, shattering apart and sending the Titan’s wing parts scattering. It broke down into even more Void Shadows, and Gami spotted what appeared to be a solid core in the middle.

That was it! “Step! Move!”

Only then did she realize they were there. Her icy eyes were wide and frenzied, but there was enough lucidity in her to step away as Gami channeled Grass energy through the green crystal.

Radiant flower plumes and leaves encircled the downed Titan as it tried to gather itself up. Swirls of light further brightened the patch of green in the wasteland of a forest before a blinding explosion overtook it all, accompanied by a great screech. Gami bowled over and tried to tune it out, but it rattled her head.

Eventually, it was safe to open her eyes. The ground had become a beautiful field of flowers, pinks and lilacs dominating the landscape amid the bright green plants. Gami was… drained. She didn’t have it in her to walk for a while.

But in the middle of all that life was a curious thing. A bird with long, narrow wings and a red-black body, as well as a long, prehensile-looking tail that acted like a hand. The Mispy half of Gami recognized it in moments—and the realization that followed made her hop back in the defensive, barely able to keep from collapsing.

Yveltal, the Deathbringer.

“Mmnhh…” Yveltal groaned, flopping onto the grass. All around her, the plants so freshly grown instead wilted and died.

Step looked between Gami and Yveltal.

“Who are you?” Step commanded an answer.

“Me?” the Deathbringer replied. “I, ah… oh, please give me some time…”

Quite soft-spoken, Gami noted silently. Oddly enough, Step and Yveltal shared a slightly odd enunciation.

“I am Yveltal. How long have I been…? Oh, you probably would not know… Who are you?” She gazed at them, tilting her head. “I would like to thank you for… waking me up. I believe that is what happened… It was all a long nightmare…”

“Then, you are not hostile?” Step cautiously approached, holding out a hand. “Where is my mate, then?”

“Your… mate? I’m sorry, I do not know what you’re talking about.”

Step’s tail slammed into the dirt, making Yveltal flinch to attention.

“His spirit went flying in the direction of two Titans. When the first one was felled, I did not find him. Surely, then, he is within you. I felt a particular draw to you. Answer me, now. Where is my mate? He is Ra, a Kommo-o. You will answer.”

Step was, if anything, brave. And possibly stupid, to be speaking in this way to the embodiment of death itself.

“I am very sorry,” Yveltal said again, bowing her head. “I would not know. I was… filled with so many strange thoughts, I could barely see myself for a while. I don’t recognize any of them anymore. They were never my own, but those of the poor souls attached to me.” She gestured to the Void Shadows around her, now milling about aimlessly, or laying there, inert. “If you cannot find him, then he may be one of them.”

“Absurd,” Step said. “You… are hiding him somewhere. My Ra would not be so weak as to become those so easily!” But despite her voice, Gami sensed a flare of anxiety in her aura. She was trying to convince herself.

But they already knew where Ra was, didn’t they? Mispy had deduced it a while ago already, and Step’s remarks confirmed it. Step was drawn to Yveltal, and Xerneas was already whole. If Ra was missing, then…

“Let’s return,” Gami proposed. “We found Ra.”

“What?!” Step whirled around. “How?”

“That’s why we wanted to find you,” Gami said.

Step stared at them for a little while longer, but then snorted and looked at Yveltal. “Can you fly?”

“Oh, I, er, yes. Eventually. Can I have a moment? And… what of all these poor souls?” She gestured to the Void Shadows.

Step shook her head. “They are too far gone. Not a problem for us, for now. We have more important things to deal with.”

“But to be abandoned…” Yveltal protested, already bringing her wings over a few to scoop them up.

“And how will you fly with your wings full of them?” Step pressed, looking unamused.

“Well, I…” Yveltal paused while squeezing them against her chest. “I… suppose they could go on my back.”

“They will, at best, wander and slide off, and at worst, try to… corrode you again,” Step growled. “Leave them. They do not care.”

Yveltal seemed conflicted for a few more seconds, but finally relented. The shapeless, blobby things milled about, still dazed.

Gami wondered if Yveltal and Xerneas had somehow switched roles at some point. They simply didn’t match their career choice. Was that intentional? A question for Barky later.

“He-ey!” someone new called, and all heads turned to see Latias revealing herself. “I saw a huge light, and—oh! Yveltal!”

“Latias!” Yveltal bobbed her head. “I am… weak, but better. Thank you for freeing me. Is this part of some larger effort…?”

Latias seemed overjoyed, but caught herself and nodded. “Y-yes. Something like that, ah, I… Why don’t we go back to Null Village? There’s so much we can, er, talk about, catch up on…”

Gami looked awkwardly between Yveltal and Latias, and then decided not to intrude on their catchup. After a glance at Step, she took to the skies and returned to Null Village, all the while thinking to herself how Step would take the news of Ra’s fate.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Chapter 135 - Reconnecting

It had been several days since the battle against Dark Matter had ended. The strange creature known as Nate was starting to recover and gather up the many little wraith-like things that crawled around Kilo Village. Rebuilding efforts were slow and steady. All was well.

And yet, Elder did not know why everything felt so off. Rhys… How was he doing? He hadn’t heard any news about him lately, only that he had been sent to the Voidlands. Surely by now he would have been sent back, right?

It seemed that while he was in the Voidlands, he could not even communicate with him in his dreams like he used to. That little, strange psychic link allowed to him by Mystic resonance did not work from Kilo to the Voidlands.

The loneliness was new. Even when they were working opposite sides of the Hunter-Heart conflict, they could speak to one another that way.

His tired eyes finished reading over the last report of the evening. It was starting to blur together, but with Nevren researching, Rhys gone, and James and Anam in the Voidlands, it had somehow landed on him to maintain things at the Guild, along with a few other Elites. Even stranger was this lingering feeling that he was missing something. The feeling had always been there, deep in his mind, and yet only recently had he realized it. A matter of since the end of the day, and no earlier.

He felt a subtle tug to the north, toward Hot Spot. It… bothered him. But, without Waypoints, he had no means of going there in a timely manner. He could only wonder… Could it be Rhys?

Lifting his shell off the ground, he slowly lumbered out of his makeshift office in Anam’s quarters. Then came the slow walk out of the office, where Elder began to fantasize about making some dinner and what a good berry salad would be like, and if there would be someone waiting for him in his quarters as a little surprise. Perhaps he would go to the hospital to see how others were doing there, have some conversations with visitors to pass the time. It would be nice to socialize outside of a business setting…

As he emerged from Heart HQ, however, those fantasies were shoved aside when a giant, serpentine wraith flew over the skies, evading several shots from the ground. Elder took a few steps back in an effort to find a place to hide—he was no fighter—when he realized that this serpent in the sky was heading straight for him. In fact, he was almost positive that he’d made eye contact. Glowing, yellowish-white eyes on that thing…

And that tug, that ethereal tug, was pointing not north generally, but specifically toward that serpent. That monster was what had been calling him?

“E-excuse me!” the serpent cried, his voice warped and unpleasantly buzzing in his head.

He had half a mind to fall for his instincts and tuck into his shell. His instincts always were a little strong. “Yes?” he called back, voice hoarse from lack of use all day.

“Elder, correct? My name is Rayquaza, er, oh, this is quite awkward, but… Well, ah, oh, oho, I suppose I forgot my words. How silly of me…”

Seeing this gigantic shadow serpent writhing in the air from awkwardness left Elder fully disarmed. Whatever resonance he felt toward this creature, it wasn’t hostilities. Maybe it was some civilized wraith? Nevren had mentioned several of them were innocent spirits corroded by the land…

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Rayquaza,” Elder finally said.

And then they stood there, awkward and silent. The terrified crowd had died down after seeing that they were only talking, and with hushed voices at that. Between Nate and all the other oddities going around lately, the villagers collectively went about their business, accepting this as yet another strange thing the Elites dealt with. At least, Elder hoped that was their thought process.

“I suppose I’ll get it over with, Elder,” Rayquaza finally said. “I understand this may be difficult to grasp, but… we are halves of a whole.”

The awkward atmosphere turned into cold confusion. Elder tried to run that in his mind again—not wanting to be rude and ask for a repeat—but it was absurd. He figured that it was something to brush off. Yet, he couldn’t deny it. A small part of him told him it was true. Why?

“I’m… sorry?” Elder asked, and Rayquaza curled up and offered a hand to him. Goodness, he was large.

“Why don’t we go somewhere private?” he offered. “Don’t worry. It won’t be long. We will return to Kilo Village before sundown.”

Elder looked at the sky. It was already late into the evening… A quick meeting. That would be fine. A strange, tiny part of him trusted this serpent. Inexplicably, he knew no harm would come to him. This was deeper than an instinctual thought, so he trusted it.

Obliging, Elder carefully got within Rayquaza’s grasp as they soared through the skies, completely ignoring the alarmed elemental blasts coming their way from those who had not been wholly calmed by the lack of action prior. Elder wondered how strong Rayquaza was, or if he was simply too far to strike effectively.

Elder was tempted to squeeze into his shell again, but instead tried to call over the wind. “Rayquaza, is there a reason you arrived so suddenly? For me? Halves of a whole. I’m sorry, but my better half is with another, if, er…”

Rayquaza seemed to wince at that. “No, that’s not quite it, I’m afraid. I do wish it was that simple…”

They were already near the bottom of the mountain. The altitude change was dizzying. Elder noted a little necklace with a cyan diamond hanging off of Rayquaza. He wondered what that was for; it was far too small to be a proper accessory for him.

Gingerly, Rayquaza set Elder down, and they were facing one another again, horribly opposed in terms of size. Rayquaza had to bring his head far, far down, practically laying on the ground, while Elder had to stand tall with his neck out just to be at conversation heights.

This was a lonely little hill by the rocks at the mountain base. Pleasant, quiet, the sort of spot one would go on a long hike to enjoy the payoff. He still felt alone, even with Rayquaza next to him, but it was a pleasant sort of aloneness. The first time he’d felt it in a very long time.

His thoughts trailed to Rhys again, but the concern was gentler this time. He wondered, was this what he meant, about feeling alone together with someone? He’d never understood that until now.

“…Elder,” Rayquaza finally said, breaking that tranquility, “you and I… are the same. We share the same spirit. It is difficult to truly feel our full power. The immortal half is, of course, severely weakened, while the mortal half… may consider themselves stronger than average, simply due to how much power they contain.” He spoke slowly, and more and more as Elder listened, he began to realize a subtle connection between them. It really did feel as if they’d known each other for years.

Yet nothing he said made sense. The wind blew along, the words rolling inconsequentially in his mind… “I… am having trouble understanding what you mean,” Elder said. “What does that imply, for us? How much of us do we not know of one another? Am… I’m sorry, I think I need some time to wrap my head around it, really. Oh, I do hope this isn’t a concept too high for how I used to be. Feral was a very long time ago, but…”

Rayquaza, despite his shadowy, wraith-like form, seemed to smile. “Do not worry. I believe it will make sense eventually. But, Elder, I do have some other news.”

Elder tilted his head. “Yes?”

“It regards… Rhys, you see.”

Another breeze. The chill of autumn and encroaching winter. In that moment, Elder studied every part of Rayquaza’s body language, obscured as it was. This was not news that he would be hesitant to share if it was not terrible. Which meant…

“Where is Rhys, then?”

He didn’t want to know, but he needed to. He had to. But somehow, deep down, with how he’d been feeling… That emptiness, and the news Rayquaza had just shared, something he could still barely wrap his mind around…

He tried to get ahead of the news. He choked out, “Who is his half?”

“Dialga,” Rayquaza surrendered all too fast. “I’m… I’m afraid that Rhys fell in battle. And when he did, he reunited with Dialga.”

“Then, he is fine, yes?” Elder asked hopelessly. Why would Rayquaza hesitate if he was fine?

“He says that the memories are there, but… distant. And, he wished to deliver the news to you, but it seems he’d been sidetracked by other obligations right now. Ones for the world, and… Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sure he would have phrased it so much better.”

Rayquaza was babbling on after that, but Elder couldn’t hear him. Rhys had fallen in battle. Taken into Dialga. Faded. A dream.

He was gone.

Rhys was gone. And he’d known it, but now he couldn’t deny it. Told to him by some wraith, his other half, and not Dialga himself.

That was the emptiness. He’d known from the start.

“I… I see,” Elder said. At some point, he hadn’t realized how long he hadn’t breathed. The tension he was waiting to go away… simply did not.

Everything stopped. Elder’s vision curled up into a tight little ball.

<><><>​

Spice couldn’t believe how advanced the underworld was. Buildings that lit up from holy crystals, signs made from them like the sacred was now mundane, strange screens that beeped and booped depending on what people did… That sort of technology was only seen in the most advanced Heart tech, hospitals, military—not common appliances! She’d never been allowed in cities as a simple Void Shadow, devoid of memories and operating on little shards of feelings. This was all new to her. Something she’d only seen from a distance.

If it wasn’t for the fact that they were trying to get back home safely, they would have spent some time exploring and touring around. Instead, she could only see it all through a window. Staying in the Voidlands was a possibility, but it came with its own perils and dangers. If they died here… Spice wouldn’t forgive herself. If it was Tanneth they wanted, they could keep her safe, and perhaps Spice could pay personal visits on her own.

They had decided to spend a ‘sleep’ with them. The Voidlands had no such thing as night and day, so everything was measured in sleeps and by the internal clocks of certain Pokémon. Brandon even let Tanneth out of her Poké Ball now that it was safer, and to inspect her condition. She was still incredibly weak, but stable, thank the stars.

“Goodness, she’s definitely a half-soul,” Darkrai said gently, giving Tanneth a bowl of broth that looked tinged purple, but otherwise smelled nice. She didn’t have the strength to speak, but she had enough to take small drops for now. Darkrai helped slowly and at the Vaporeon’s pace. “It seems like Emily had tried to absorb most of her, but she still retained a small bit of her spirit, and now it’s trying to regrow back. But all that power…”

“Tanneth would have been taken completely if she wasn’t rescued,” Cresselia remarked next. “…And Emily is still with Dark Matter, too. That’s a shame.”

“Lugia, right.” Angelo was making a little sketch on a spare piece of paper to pass the time. Maybe it calmed his nerves. It looked like the page to a comic book.

“Is there any way to stop her?” Brandon asked. “She’s practically invincible. Nothing we threw at her worked.”

“A Legend with the power of Dark Matter? I have no idea,” Darkrai said. “Emily was always durable, and the power of Shadow multiplied that. I don’t really know the details aside from that.”

“You know, that’s kinda weird,” Brandon said. “Why does Emily have a name? You know, aside from her species. What’re your names?”

“Oh, we, er, we don’t remember,” Darkrai said.

“As part of our ascent, we discard our mortal names from memory.” Cresselia nodded “It’s a rite of passage that Arceus had given us, and that part of our memory is sealed so long as we retain these forms. I used to be a Venusaur, actually.”

Spice gawked. “That’s a big transition.”

“What we ascend to has little to do with our species,” Cresselia dismissed. “But Emily… defied the tradition of names. Dark Matter empowered her to do so. Her name was a symbol of that. I don’t totally understand it myself, but it was important to her. Important enough that she declared it as she wiped whole villages from the world. Carved a whole segment of Kilo away in an instant.”

“…War’s End,” Phol concluded instantly. “The story is that there was some great blast of energy from an unknown Legend that had put an end to a terrible war. A lot of that story was lost to time. But that’s what it is, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know,” Cresselia admitted. “Perhaps that’s what it’s called now, but I’ve lost the details myself. Either way… That is the status of things, it seems. Tanneth is… an alter ego that must have been created, somehow, from Emily.”

“And it’s what’s keeping her from fully unlocking that destructive potential,” Darkrai said, shuddering. “How awful. If only there was a way to take the darkness out of her, but as she is, she’s indestructible…”

“Thanks for the information anyway,” Spice said. “But we should get going. If you don’t have a way to get Tanneth’s strength back, she—”

“Wait…” Tanneth looked down. “Can… can Emily get here?”

“To the Voidlands? I’m… not sure.” Cresselia hummed. “Emily herself is a walking Dungeon in the same way anyone possessed by Dark Matter is. And, well, Dark Matter can manifest inside the Voidlands. It makes him vulnerable, but he does… But can others? I’ve never seen it before…”

“…I can feel her…”

“You… can feel her,” repeated Cresselia. “Where?”

Tanneth shifted weakly. Then, she pointed in a direction, right at the wall.

Cresselia checked something on a device that had been in a small satchel. Her expression darkened. “North…”

“North?” Spice asked. “What does that mean?”

“This place has a north?” Brandon said, skeptical.

“Er.” Darkrai nodded. “Right now, you’re in North Null Village. Even further north is more forest, followed by the Abyssal Sea. It’s a vast expanse of black water that eventually leads to a small island guarded by all kinds of demonic forms that Dark Matter had sent to guard Necrozma. They cannot kill Necrozma, but they can suppress him, and that is… how things have been. Only his closest, light-filled disciples can slip through, but not Necrozma himself. His power to traverse dimensions has been shattered.”

“Necrozma…” Brandon hummed it, like he was trying to get familiarized.

“Then Emily is somewhere there,” Leo spoke up. “Is that good? Bad?”

“Neutral. It means it’s probably not going to come here to take Tanneth.” Phol huffed and crossed his arms. “Not coming closer. It’s standing guard. And if Tanneth can feel it, she’ll be able to warn them and probably… be sent someplace for us to pick her up.” Phol frowned. “How long does it take to go from this Abyssal Sea to here?”

“Oh, days.”

The Incineroar nodded at Cresselia and stood up. “Perhaps we should try to stay in touch for now. We are not in the best position, but we need to send word to Kilo Village about our wellbeing, and Tanneth’s status. We can’t stay here. There’s a risk we won’t be able to leave with too much exposure. Is that right?”

“Don’t really know,” Spice said. “Not something I want to risk.”

“Mmm… Please return safely if you can,” Darkrai said. “I suppose you know where to find me, at least…” He glanced in the direction of the bathroom and sank a little. “I hope nobody else shows up while I’m trying to relax…”

“Well, thank you,” Angelo said. “Can you point us in the direction of, er, the closest… gateway into Kilo that isn’t your bathroom?”

“We don’t really know where it will lead,” Cresselia said. “In fact, it might lead somewhere different each time, for all we know. But the next nearest one would be just south of here. Another distortion, but… be careful. If you feel a burning sensation, return immediately.”

“B-burning?” Leo asked. “Why? What?”

“Void spirits who stray outside of a dungeon can’t exist outside of one. They evaporate and return to the Voidlands, like dying. You might even lose some of your memories, and all of your power, too. Like starting over.” Cresselia frowned warningly. “So, if that happens, turn back. Okay?”

Angelo looked like he was about to faint.

“Thanks for the warning,” Spice said with a nod. “C’mon. Let’s go before they say something that makes Angelo die anyway.”

<><><>​

Cresselia had been right; the gateway into Kilo was only a short trek through the forest. As a team, they were able to handle any hostile Void Shadows. The gateway manifested as a strange distortion of light that resembled a darker spot in the forest that suddenly cut off, like a bubble of ashen soap. After making some uncertain glances at one another, Team Alight and their temporary escorts stepped through the distortion.

The stagnant air of the Voidlands exchanged itself with cooler air. It was a colder day in Kilo, with their breaths leaving little fog streams in front of them, especially the Fires. Dark leaves and treetops were an immediate indicator of where they were, and flashes of lightning suddenly filled Spice’s vision, but only hers.

“Spice?” Leo asked, not seeing the lightning in the Salazzle wraith’s memories.

“Y-yeah, I’m fine. Sorry.” Spice rubbed at her chest, which was starting to itch again. “I know where we are. This isn’t too bad a Dungeon when it’s not storming. Let’s just get out fast.”

“Lead the way,” Phol said. “You’re practically a natural at navigating this place, wraith.”

Spice growled at him, but then she saw his wry smile. She relaxed a little at around the time he frowned instead.

“Sorry. I was trying to joke about it this time.”

“I’m just high-strung. It’s alright.” Spice tried to navigate. Something was still bothering her, though, and she turned on her heel to look backwards.

“…So, the way back is through… that gateway,” Angelo said, pointing at what seemed to be a dark tunnel floating in the middle of a clearing. It led, no matter which angle they looked, into the purplish-red atmosphere of the Voidlands.

“This must be one of those fabled Dungeon Cores,” Brandon said. “A pure black void that spits out wraiths.”

Spice squinted. “Excuse me? Pure black?”

“Uh, yeah. Pretty dark and spooky here,” Brandon said, gesturing vaguely forward at the tunnel.

“It’s a tunnel. It just goes back home.” She paused. “B-back to… back to…” She trailed off, her heart racing. The crystal in her chest pulsed lightly.

“It’s okay,” Leo said. “You just slipped a little. Home is in Kilo Village, remember?”

“Yeah, I do. Sorry. Just, I…” She couldn’t look at any of them.

“Don’t worry,” Phol said. “I’m sure it felt like home to you, given your condition. I’d feel the same if I visited a fiery field, or something, I suppose.” He crossed his arms, flicking his tail. “…Are you feeling ready to go, Spice? Or is something calling you?”

“Something is, actually,” Spice said, “but not the Voidlands. If you’ll humor it, can I go someplace first? Then we’ll start finding out where exactly we are.”

“Calling you?” Angelo asked worriedly, but Spice was already heading down an offshoot path of the Dungeon, navigating through the forest and along some of the walls that were shifting ever so slightly. The Dungeon seemed more active than before, perhaps because it was no longer blessed. Thankfully, the monsters inside avoided them.

“Yeah just… something I want to investigate.” Spice could feel an odd pull, like she wanted to explore somewhere. She’d felt it before during that lightning storm, but had been repelled when it actually struck her. It was leading her astray from rescuing those who had been trapped by the fire. But now? There was no true urgency. Her team was in hiding. They could afford to investigate a little more.

“I think I recognize this place,” Leo said. “You were insistent that I go back, but you… wanted to keep going.”

“Guess I was stubborn,” Spice dismissed.

The Salazzle-wraith followed her instincts. The gem in her chest felt warmer than usual, like it was giving her a sense for something more than sight or sound. It wasn’t quite smell, but it reminded her of it. There was something here that drew her closer, and it was only as she crawled through a burrow, over pits and through narrow passageways, that she realized she’d gone too far ahead of her team.

“Keeping up?!” Spice called, impatient.

Faintly, she heard, “What are you doing!?”

The tunnels muffled a lot of the noise. It was a really elaborate labyrinth…

“Just hang on! I’m almost there!”

This wasn’t very far from where they’d found the Dungeon Core. It was just ahead. What was this place? It had the smell of some kind of feral burrow, but it was abandoned.

There were so many turns, and yet she was able to navigate to the end with confidence, not a single doubt on where it was. She didn’t know why; it was starting to frighten her. A small part of Spice wondered if she should stop listening to these instincts, but most of her wanted to press on. She was too curious to stop now.

She stepped on something crunchy and recoiled back, looking down. Bones. Old bones picked clean. She grimaced and looked ahead to see similar bones in a discarded pile, and she could only hope that they were feral. Definitely a carnivore or omnivore who had lived here.

But that was all. There wasn’t anything here but that lingering feeling that something important was once here. Drawing her closer. Residual… something.

“Spice!” Leo called, worried.

“I’m coming, I’m coming!” Spice called back, spending a few extra seconds poking around the depths of the burrow. She found nothing. Muttering an annoyed curse, she finally departed, more confused than ever on why this feral burrow resonated with her so much.

But just as she left, a glint of something caught her eye. She stopped and crawled over to a corner, where she found a pile of shed fur that had been crafted into a nest. Beneath it, nestled under some dried leaves and more fur, were two spare, shiny rocks that had been carved oddly. They reminded her of those odd baubles Zoroark knew how to create by instinct.

Weird. Spice decided to keep one of them in her bag. She didn’t feel anything strange from them, but if she wanted something to remind herself of this odd feeling, it’d be that.

…She had a feeling this was going to be something deeper later. With a frustrated sigh, she growled at the gods that were busy elsewhere to get her answers soon.

<><><>​

“Where are my daughters?”

Despite it being a question, it was phrased as Step’s first command when she’d returned to Null Village, and it was one they were quick to comply with. Step had the sense that Gami didn’t really want to deal with her for too long, and that was fine. Those mutants were probably doing scouting again, and were far too eager to leave and satisfy more of their primal, Battleheart needs.

So, after being directed to Cent and Ana’s temporary home in Null Village, she was alarmed to see how faded their icy bodies had become.

“Mom!” Cent said, looking more faded than her taller sibling Kommo-o. They had emerged from their little home, but there was an odd, foreign glow inside that she didn’t recognize.

Immediately on guard, she said, “Is someone visiting you?”

“Oh, um.” Ana fidgeted, nodding. “Um, yes, Mother. Xerneas is visiting. He’s…”

“Hmph.” Step nodded. “Convenient. Yveltal was looking for him, but went to the main hall. I was told to speak to Xerneas. Lifebringer! Why are you visiting my daughters?”

“Hmph. Your daughters.” Step heard a voice grumble as he emerged, nearly getting his antlers caught in the low doorway. “Aggron… Step.”

Step crossed her arms and studied this apparent Legend. Something about him bugged her. The way he spoke bothered her and she couldn’t place why.

“Yes, that I am.” She had to ask it. “Who are you? Why do I… know you? I remember you. I remember a ‘Xerneas’ in… in some ways. Ra always spoke of knowing a Yveltal once, like a dream. Explain to me what this is.”

When Step said ‘Ra,’ she had noted Xerneas’ eyes light up in the smallest ways, even when the rest of his expression was a stern frown.

“I am Ra,” Xerneas stated flatly. “When he was sent to this world as nothing but a spirit, he gravitated toward the Titan that I was the core of. We reunited. I am whole. We were halves of one another.”

Xerneas closed his eyes, as if thinking back. Step felt cold. That was supposed to be impossible. She was of Ice; she couldn’t feel colder than that.

The Lifebringer continued, eyes still closed. “You and Ra met by happenstance and the whims of Mew Star, because by some instinct or feeling she felt that you two would have done well together. This was not unfounded, as indeed, our other halves were a pair in the same way. But your mortal halves did not get along, especially after you had children, and disagreed on the way to raise them amid the dangers of the Hunters who aimed to cut you down and take away the power imbued into you. You separated, and remained as such until his death, where he became an Ice Spirit within you. Your daughters visited as well, and eventually stayed permanently within your Core in an effort to help the cause you currently fight with. Does all of this sound accurate?”

Step’s daughters were slack-jawed. Only when Step looked at them did they straighten their backs.

“Wait!” Cent said. “You walked into our home and sat at the table like a creepy old weirdo because you’re actually our dad?!”

“I was not creepy and I’m immortal. I can’t be old in that way,” Xerneas growled back. “Show some respect.”

They both flinched at that, still horrified. “But you don’t look like Dad at all!” Ana protested.

“Dad looked cooler!” Cent amended. “Dragons are better!”

Xerneas’ eye twitched.

“This is absurd,” Step spat. “I have no memory of being partnered with Xerneas.”

“Yes, because that is your immortal half. You are meant to reunite with Yveltal. Frankly, I’m surprised she hasn’t done so already.”

“That’s… just as absurd!” Step moved back. “I do not need to hear this. None of this makes sense. Ana, Cent, we are leaving for Kilo. Come, return to my Core. You are already faded.”

“…I do not like what you’ve become,” Xerneas said slowly, and when Step glanced back to glare at him, there was a hint of sadness in his eyes that filled her with an odd dread.

“No. This is pointless.” Step marched out. “Cent! Ana! We are leaving for Kilo.”

She felt a tingling feeling, like Xerneas was charging a powerful strike, and she glanced back. But when she did, she instead saw his antlers dying down, dimming. Had he hesitated? Of course he would. If she attacked, he would be the one regretting it… He would. He would…

“Mom?” Cent asked. “What’s he even talking about? I—I don’t get it.”

“Nothing important,” Step muttered. “If you are close to Yveltal, she is looking for you in the main hall. Go there, and do not seek me out. Understood?”

Xerneas seemed focused on Cent and Ana and appeared to get a brief headache. He shook his head and turned away.

“…Do as you want,” he said, a little quieter now. “I’m sorry. Goodbye, Step.”

She had no heart, and yet something seemed to pain her in her chest. The way he said that. It… No. It couldn’t be. Ra was still somewhere. Maybe he was back in Kilo. Yes, he’d just been taken in by a different Guardian. That was the real reason she couldn’t find them. This was all Voidlands trickery. No matter how true it was, she just had to be sure.

It was possible it was all just one big nightmare. With her kids, Step faced the vortex and kept marching home. She blocked out any other thoughts.

<><><>​

Another Owen calmed down.

Alone in the cell, he ran over what had happened during that simple game of poker over and over. He’d lost, from the very first move. He realized that Qitlan had solely done that to get a feel for his priorities, and yet the stakes that he’d believed in gave away what he wanted. Qitlan could have lost all six of those chips to Owen and he still would have gotten what he wanted.

That was the last time he’d play a game on his terms, Owen resolved. Perhaps a game at all. He was too dangerous.

But as he stared at those six chips, three of them blank and empty, Owen did wonder in a small way if any of those prizes were real. If they were, would he have an obligation, a benefit, for trying again? Or would it be a deception for later, building him up to trust them, only to betray him at the very end?

He missed therapy. There was probably something in those scattered memories that would’ve helped him here. A shame so much of that had been wiped from his ‘endless reset’ phase of life.

The cell door opened. So lost in thought, Owen jumped a little this time.

“All right,” Qitlan said. “How has progress been with those Gone Pebbles?”

“Oh, I…” He’d forgotten. “I’ll… keep working on them.”

“Mm. We’ll move what you’ve done so far to your new quarters.” Qitlan gestured behind him. “Go on. You’re free to go.”

Owen blinked, wondering if he was dreaming. He covered his snout and tried to breathe through it; when he couldn’t, he figured he was probably not dreaming. Qitlan, now giving him an odd look, handed a small bag to the Charmeleon.

“A map, an insignia of authority, and a CCD, or ‘Seed.’”

In the bag was what seemed to be a tourist map of Cipher City—which baffled Owen, the fact that something like that existed at all—a badge that looked like a dark star with three dragon heads, and one of those communicators that were used in Null Village to contact one another.

“What’s CCD stand for?”

“Cipher Communication Device.”

“Oh.” Owen figured it worked the same, so he tried to turn it on. It responded, and even had his name as the registered profile. No picture, though. Maybe he could fix that. He flipped through the little lights on the screen and poked at one of them, and suddenly a new screen with a circle destroying several rectangles appeared.

“Ahem.” Qitlan cleared his throat. “You may play games later. Honestly…” He turned around. “Your other winnings are still being arranged. Enjoy Cipher City and return to your room when you want. By your next sleep, you should have more available to you.”

“…So, those prizes… were real,” Owen said.

“Yes. As I told you. And remember, if you leave Cipher City, we’ll know. And don’t let that badge leave you, either.” He pointed at it. “If it does, we will know you left, and we will immediately send massive forces to eradicate Null Village. It’s not strategically viable to do that, but if it’s to make sure you have no home base to return to, it will suddenly become very viable. Does that make sense?”

“I guess it does,” Owen replied coolly, ignoring the knot forming in his stomach. Freedom never felt so restricting. “So, I just can’t leave the city perimeter?”

“Yes. Otherwise, explore as much as you like.”

He took the bag and slipped it over his arm, then shoulder. “Thanks, then. I’ll get to that.”

He was absolutely going to be tracked and monitored at all times. He had to be careful. No escaping that, but he still had to find a way to make use of this, somehow.

At least he wouldn’t be as bored meditating all the time.

Meditating…

That was it. This was a distraction. Did they suspect he was meditating and advising his friends from in the cell, and now they were trying to keep him busy with other tasks? Was that their plan? No, they couldn’t think that far ahead. He hadn’t even done that yet. He’d left that to the copy he’d left behind.

The cell door opened again and Qitlan gestured for Owen to leave. “Go on,” he said impatiently. “I’m going to be late for a meeting.”

“Oh, uh—sorry.” Owen shuffled out, still feeling surreal. The guard gave him a nonchalant nod. In a blur of incomplete thoughts and planning, he ascended the stairs, left the castle from the grand hall, and was staring down the castle gardens the same way he’d been escorted inside.

He was free.

Yet, he had nowhere to go. Despite this, there was an odd elation, a little smile, that he couldn’t hide. Then, a determined fire followed from his tail and in his eyes. They were trying to psyche him out, somehow. He wouldn’t let that happen; he was going to take this opportunity to see where it would carry him.

Everyone, he thought, hang in there. I’m doing fine.

He hoped his words would somehow reach the others. Perhaps, at the very least, his fragments could feel it.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Chapter 136 – What Time Has Done

They really just let him out of Cipher Castle. He walked free. The guards even gave him a firm nod when he walked.

It was surreal. If he wanted, he could, potentially, walk out of the city. But that wasn’t something he truly could do, because it would endanger the team.

Once he set foot on the strange, dark pavement of Cipher City’s streets, he suddenly felt overwhelmed with choice. It was far larger than anything he’d ever seen before. There were buildings that felt like they could touch the red clouds, streets wide enough for several Pokémon to walk side by side, and buildings so far away that it felt like it’d take a whole kilo just to get to them.

The density of it all forced Owen to dull down his Perceive. He was getting so distracted if he didn’t focus on little things first. Kilo Village was nothing compared to here.

In just his first few moments in the city, free to walk and roam, he saw restaurants bustling with activity and strange smells that he recognized as food, yet had no idea what the dishes were. It was a hodgepodge of different ingredients, cooked together from different eras of Kilo and spiced with what little the Voidlands had to offer. Or, somehow, they’d discovered other ways to cultivate different foods?

He passed by places called game corners that seemed to hold all sorts of table-based activities, and even some that used larger versions of the technology he now held in his hand, the communicator. He’d expect that sort of technology from Kanto or Orre.

Also surprising was how many Pokémon weren’t fully evolved. That was very common in most of Kilo, if only because it was natural for Pokémon to strengthen themselves at least to the point where they reached their final stages. Here, he was positive he’d seen Pokémon where the parent was at their first stage, while the child stood tall and fully evolved.

Curiosity finally got the better of him. He had to listen in on some of the conversations. He passed by a few restaurants and tuned his Perceive, entertaining the idea of getting a meal to know the local culture more… but then realized he had no funds. Qitlan had failed to provide any, even when he checked through the bag more thoroughly. Frowning, thoughtful, he realized that very few others seemed to carry much cash in their bags, either. Most seemed to just have something like a communicator and other little trinkets. Somewhere, he missed where the goods were exchanged…

But then, he spotted a signpost near the far end of one of the dark streets, just past a crowd who’d just gotten out for lunch. ‘Now hiring!’ He had no idea how much it paid, but he only needed some funds for a quick meal, right? He could learn a thing or two about Cipher this way.

“Um, excuse me,” Owen called, raising his arm to get the attention of a very tall Scizor. “Are you hiring for one-day jobs?”

“A day?” Scizor asked. “Eh, sure. Fifty for an hour, five hours.”

That was probably an unfair amount, but it would definitely be enough for getting into a decent restaurant. “Sure! What’s the job?”

“…You scared of water?”

“I’m fine with it.”

“Dishwashing. I’ll even throw in a free meal when you’re done.”

“Oh! Thanks!” Owen smiled genuinely at that, and Scizor motioned to the back room. As he passed by, a little purple cap was plopped onto his head that said ‘Dishes.’ Something about it made Owen feel a little more dutiful, and he walked into the back of the room with pride.

“Eh?”

Owen was met with the gruff voice of a Feraligatr, slimmer than the one he had met in another life. “Hi,” Owen greeted. “I’m working dishes today.”

“Sure. Take a spot.” He gestured vaguely toward a pile of dishes that still had to be washed, and Owen dutifully got to work. The water was uncomfortably cold, but as promised, he could deal with it. This wasn’t as bad as drowning, after all.

And once he fell into a routine, he could finally do something that he’d been hoping to for a while. Such a menial task, not really being watched all that closely, not at risk of being surveilled, suppressed, aura checked… He could only hope the communicator he’d been given couldn’t track what he was about to do.

Hello? Owen called. Other mes? Are you there?

Silence. They were too far, weren’t they? But he had his power back at a little higher capacity, now. Surely that would be enough, right?

Owen glanced around. He noticed that the station one closer was just under a crystal used for illumination. He wondered…

He projected himself to the light crystal, just a fragment of his aura. It brightened and flickered, getting the attention of the nearby employees, but eventually it stabilized. They stopped paying attention.

He tried again, Hello? Other mes? Are you—

Wah! H-hello?!

Hi! Don’t worry! Just me!

You sound like me!

Yes, I am you!

Wait, which you are me? No, wait, which me are you?

Uh… Cipher City.

Oh! How are you…?

I think we can use light crystals to amplify our telepathy.

Oh. Huh.

…So how are things at Null Village?
Owen washed the dishes a little more, glancing around. Nobody was paying any attention to him, so it seemed he was safe to go along with this.

Well, Null Owen replied, I think everything is going alright.

Cipher Owen got several flashes of visions that nearly made him falter while washing. He saw an imposing Xerneas and several other Legends. Flashes of voices that stood out in Null Owen’s memories.

But, Null Owen went on, the worst thing is probably that… er… Rhys, he’s… I don’t think he’s gone. But, he’s—

Dialga. He reunited with him… That’s what happened, wasn’t it?

Yeah…

It’ll be alright.
Cipher Owen wasn’t really sure how true that was, but ‘Rhys’ was with Dialga. And Dialga was fine. That meant Rhys was fine, right? What are you guys focused on right now?

Well, we’re about a quarter of the way to East Null Village. That’s where Uxie, Mesprit, and Azelf are. Oh, and Eon’s coming, too, so, Jirachi’s also there.


Cipher Owen’s flame crackled once, earning a glance, but he smiled nervously to disarm the other employees. He had to keep his emotions in check.

Do you know about what happened to Wishkeeper? Cipher Owen asked.

Yeah. There was a graveness to his voice. Gahi and the others don’t like it, either. I don’t think any reunions are going to be pretty. But a lot of Legends didn’t reunite when they wanted, so I think it’ll work out, for now.

What do you—
But then, he got an update about Giratina and Madeline, and news of Yveltal and Step. Two failed reunions, for one reason or another. So, the mortal halves were not necessarily helpless to the Legend half? Or were they just being nice?

The Trio of Mind didn’t have the best track record when it came to asking to erase someone.

Please be very careful, Cipher Owen urged. Okay?

Um… right. Okay.


Cipher Owen squinted. Was… he skeptical of himself? Was that possible?

I’ll try to keep you updated. Light crystals, right? I’ll try those more.

You don’t have to hold them, either,
Cipher Owen added. Be careful, alright? Tell me if anything’s going wrong.

Sure. And good to hear from, um, me-you!

Yeah. Good to hear from you-me, too…


He decided not to go over the details of his game with Qitlan. It wouldn’t help morale. He could let him know later, when he didn’t need all of his resolve to deal with the Trio of Mind.

Owen grabbed the next dish but only reached empty air. He blinked and looked at the pile of cleaned dishes, and then the empty pile before. “Oh. Where are the rest?” he asked.

“That was all of ‘em.”

“Oh.”

“Heh, don’t worry. Now you get to relax a little. Look busy and they won’t give you a new task.”

“But can’t I spend that time doing something else?” Owen asked, which earned a look back at him like he was an idiot. He shrank back, murmured, “I’ll go ask…” and skittered off.

He walked out of the kitchen and spotted the person working the front. But before he could, someone headed into the office and Owen realized that was probably the actual manager.

“Um, excuse me,” Owen said, catching the Floatzel just as he entered the office.

“Eh?” He looked back.

“Are you the manager? I, um, I’m doing a one-day employment.”

“Oh, yeah, told me ‘bout that.” Floatzel nodded. “Want your pay?”

“Oh, the shift isn’t over yet,” Owen replied politely. “I was wondering if there was something else I could do. I finished the dishes.”

Floatzel tilted his head, as if surprised and curious. “…Sure. Clean under the tables.” He gestured to a closet that had cleaning supplies inside. “What’s your name?”

“Smallflame,” Owen replied.

“Heh. Name doesn’t fit anymore, does it?” He gave a polite nod and headed into the office.

It had been a spur of the moment decision, but he figured ‘Owen’ may have been a name to watch out for in public.

Cleaning the tables turned out to be a lot grosser than Owen thought it would be. The things he’d found stuck under the table made him wonder what kinds of horrible acts could have led to them being stuck there in the first place, let alone what species had been responsible. He tried to distract himself from a bit of gunk he had to soften and scrape off. The light fixture above him was another crystal, so he took the time to channel his thoughts to someone else.

Hello? Necrozma? Are you there?

No reply for a while, so Owen sighed and kept cleaning the tables. The tops were much more tolerable.

…Owen…

He kept calm, taking only a breath through his nose. At least this part of the table didn’t smell.

You still have to recover a lot of energy, don’t you? That’s okay. I’m just saying… I’m sorry I snapped at you. It was a lot for me. A-and I’m still mad about it! But… we can talk about it later. Okay?

…Okay… Thank you. It is… a relief, for…

Just rest. I get it.


He didn’t get anything after that, but it was enough. He felt a little lighter.

Eventually, all of the tables were done, and during that time, he’d seen a few Pokémon pass through the restaurant to order something as takeout. Despite the poor conditions of the front of the restaurant, it seemed the food was at least decently prepared.

“Hey,” the manager called, and Owen perked up.

“Huh?”

“Lunch break.” He gestured to the menu. “Pick something that’s a hundred or less. Doesn’t look like you have any food on you.”

“Oh! Um, sure!” He hastily approached the menu and looked over all the items. He eventually settled on what looked like a simple plate of meat and rice. “Say, um,” he said after placing the order, “where does the meat come from?”

“Legal sources.”

That was possibly the worst answer he could have been given.

“Most of it is synthetic, so if you’re one of those ethics warriors, I’ll make sure you get it from that pile.”

He decided not to kick up a fuss and nodded quickly. He wondered if he should ask. Did they have farms here? How did they ‘farm’ in the Voidlands?

…Did ferals get stuck in the Voidlands, too? No, of course they did. He was here. And Enet had been, too.

“Thank you,” Owen finally said, and then awkwardly walked in the back to see the others on their break as well, sitting in a back room eating their meals.

“Oh, it’s the little guy,” commented a Blaziken with a little smirk. “What, still coming back from a death?”

“Yeah, actually,” Owen said with a nervous titter.

“Nah, happens to the best of us,” Blaziken assured him. “I died eighty years ago, I think. Eighty and counting. Eventually got back to standing at my full height.”

“Congratulations on recovering,” Owen replied automatically. “I’m just, uhh, finding my feet.”

“Well, good luck. You’ll probably find some odd jobs to do to get your footing. There are some shelters you can go to, y’know. Gonna bother with that?”

“I have a shelter,” Owen replied.

“Good. Figure they would’ve pointed you in the right direction anyway.”

“How come?” Owen asked.

Blaziken shrugged. “Keep more Void Shadows from appearing, I guess? If they send you off, you’ll just become another problem in the forest.”

“Oh, right…” Maybe Cipher City’s friendly policies in public had to do with keeping that problem under control…

“Got any memories?” Blaziken asked as Owen took a seat.

“Yeah, I think I have all of them, actually,” Owen said.

There was a hint of an amused, sad smile in Blaziken’s eyes. “Died recently, and you think you have ‘em all, huh? Well, sure. Maybe you got lucky.”

Owen could tell he didn’t believe those words. That was the fate of those who weren’t fully evolved, was it? It meant they’d died recently… and, therefore, lost a lot of themselves to Dark Matter.

“Y’know, that’s not always true,” commented the slim Feraligatr from before. “I heard that if you can really get Mhynt mad at you, she’ll just dust you right there.”

Owen flinched. “She’ll what?”

“Seen it myself once. Some drunk thought it’d be a good idea to harass her, not realizin’, y’know, who she was. She tapped him right on the snout and his whole body turned to dust! Except, in the middle of the pile was a real sobered-up first-stager. No memory loss, but he was down to zero just like that.” He shook his head. “She’s a scary one. Mhynt. One touch and that’s it.”

Owen gulped. He hadn’t seen that power from her before. Would it work on him, too? She could have done that to a lot of people… Maybe she was holding back? But why? Or maybe it didn’t work on someone with blessings… Too many questions, too many risks. Maybe when they talked, he could get an answer.

“Smallflame!”

Owen perked up. He briskly walked ahead to see a small box of food, which he gratefully took and walked back to the others, smiling.

He just noticed that not very many others had a meal from the restaurant. Feraligatr, in particular, smiled wryly. “Lucky you’re a one-day worker,” he said. “You get sick of the food real fast, spending all day smelling it.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Owen said. “Uh, I’ll eat a little away.”

A few shook their head politely, but more of them seemed grateful, so Owen followed through. All things considered, the food was greasy, heavy, and a little too spiced… but it was also the first good meal he’d had in the Voidlands in a long time. He almost giggled, and some of the workers stared with fascination.

“Wow. You must’ve been out in the wilds for a while to like that junk,” remarked one in the back.

“Junk? But you work here!”

“That’s how I know it’s junk!” And several more laughed with him. Owen tittered along, but finished eating anyway. Eventually, though, he was done and made a little bob of his head. “It was good,” he informed them, and as he reached for his bag to get ready again, the little badge fell out of it. It had been stuffed inside without much care, so Owen quietly chided himself as he placed it more carefully inside.

He folded the disposable box and glanced around for a bin for trash, finding it quickly, and waved his tail. He didn’t really need food anymore, but it was oddly energizing to have a meal anyway, heavy or not. He wasn’t sure how long breaks usually lasted, so he spun around to look at the others. “So, when do we get back to work?”

“R-right away,” Feraligatr said quickly, standing up. He wasn’t even finished eating. All of the others followed suit.

“Wait, huh? You aren’t finished with your meals yet.” Owen didn’t want to be rude, but he focused on his Perceive. All he could see were half-empty bellies and tense muscles from all of them, and some of their eyes were focused on his bag. What had…

“Nah, we took too long anyway. Break time’s over,” Feraligatr said.

“Is this about the badge I have?” Owen asked.

“No! No! We’re always like this,” Feraligatr explained, and despite being calm, there was a hastiness in his voice.

“Look, uh, I’m saying, officially, that you guys can still take a break,” Owen said. “I’m just a fast eater. Promise!”

They all looked calm, but their hearts were racing. That little badge was giving them so much fear. An icon of status. If Owen had to guess… it gave him a lot of authority.

He felt so… dirty.

“I, uh, I’m going to head out. Sorry for scaring you,” Owen said. “Really, nothing bad will come from this. Okay? I, uh, I’m just…” Every word he said was just making them more anxious. “Just don’t worry. Everything is fine.” He stepped away, and started to head out.

“Uh, hey?” called their boss. “Wait! Uh, done already? Don’t forget your pay! Half-day, I guess…”

Owen halted. “Oh, okay,” he said, feeling awkward and all out of place. He couldn’t make eye contact.

“…Hey, if you were just working for your next meal, er… you were pretty good at your job. If you wanted to be a full-time hire…”

“No! I’m just fine,” Owen replied. “I’m testing the waters for, uh, a bunch of jobs before I settle on one. For… practice. Trying to remember what I used to do.” The lie came so easily.

“Oh, I get it.” He nodded sympathetically. “Well, alright. Where’s your ID card? I’ll swipe it to give you some money.”

“ID card?”

“Usually a card, or a badge, some people use a badge if they’re stylish…”

His heart sank. “I lost mine,” Owen said. “I’ll ask for another, though. Didn’t know pay goes through those.”

“Ahh, hey, it’s alright…” But there was a twinge of annoyance in the Floatzel’s neck. “I’ll get you some hard cash.”

He just wanted to leave. He could tell that the employees were hiding behind the wall, listening with pounding chests, and he hated it. He was sick. His guts churned with his recent meal. He could see his own muscles tensing uncomfortably, ready to churn it right back out if he got too upset.

“Here.” His one-day boss placed two coins and five smaller ones on the desk, which Owen quickly shoved into his bag.

Owen bowed politely, shakily. “Thank you.” And he left before he could get any more questioning. Even as he left, he could sense their rapid relief.

Just like that, he was associated with Alexander. Another of his underlings. Someone elite that they couldn’t mess with. He could probably get away with anything in the city and they’d just let him.

He didn’t want to be out in public anymore. Not like this. He had to go back. Hastily, Owen made for Cipher Castle again, too disgusted with himself to look back.

<><><>​

Everything was a little too small for Rayquaza. A tiny tea kettle, a tiny beanbag he decided instead to coil around, a tiny room that he was thankfully able to enter by slithering through lengthwise…

Elder’s abode, temporary and only recently furnished, was built for someone of the giant Torkoal’s size. But even someone like him was small compared to most other Pokémon, and that went double for someone like Rayquaza. His emerald scales, he knew, looked black and twisted to everyone else, so he tried to be extra polite to anyone who saw his tail sticking out of the home.

“Ah. There you are.”

Rayquaza smashed his head against the ceiling and winced, curling his neck downward to look upside-down at who had talked. “Ah.” He saw a steely blue hoof outside the home. “Dialga. There you are…”

“Have you… combined?” Dialga asked, leaning down to peek inside. “Ah, no. You haven’t.”

“I have not. He passed out when I… told him the news.”

Indeed, Elder was asleep in his bed, which was another beanbag, but larger, good to rest his shell in a lonely indent. There was a second beanbag near it, unused but filled with unanswered hopes.

“Rhys…?” The shell moved. The Torkoal within stirred.

“Ah.” Rayquaza eased away. “Elder… are you well?”

“I thought I heard Rhys…”

Dialga winced guiltily. “I doubt my voice is similar anymore…”

Elder seemed dizzy, but he tried to shoot awake anyway and stared at Dialga with hope. “Rhys?” he asked quickly. “Y-you’re Rhys. You are.”

“I am,” Dialga replied awkwardly. “You… are… Elder. I remember you. I cared about you deeply.”

“Y-you did. You really did. And… you do, right? I-it will… be normal again, yes? Oh, I… perhaps I was worried for nothing…”

Rayquaza knew that Dialga was not the sort of person to lie to Elder. Dialga cared for him, but…

“Oh, it’s such a complicated issue,” Rayquaza said, realizing that Dialga had gone completely silent.

They may as well have stabbed Elder in the heart.

“I… I—I see.” Elder nodded weakly. “I see…”

“I care for you,” Dialga said. “And Rayquaza and I do as well. So, nothing will change… don’t you think?” Even Dialga seemed melancholy when saying it.

“I’m very sorry for this,” Rayquaza said. “This must be so terrible.”

Elder was about to answer when the heavy steps of some four-legged beast ran over to them, growling.

“Er—hello,” Dialga said awkwardly, raising a hoof when the huge thing ran toward them. It was a fiery Houndoom with an oversized chest plate that almost resembled a skull.

“Lucas?” Elder said. “Oh, Lucas. I’m fine, I’m fine. They are… friends.”

The strange Houndoom growled uncertainly and crept past Rayquaza, who waved awkwardly. He realized Lucas was a feral of some kind, so he tried to adjust his body language, moving a claw forward for him to sniff. He didn’t seem pleased by the scent, and Rayquaza wondered what a wraith smelled like to someone of Kilo.

“That is Rayquaza,” Elder explained. “He is… a very close friend of mine, you see…”

Lucas seemed to understand, but it confused him, based on how his head tilted.

“Hey, hey!” another person called, and Rayquaza slithered out to get a look this time. It was a strange chimera with a Cherrim balanced atop his back.

“Ah, you must be a friend of Elder’s, too,” Rayquaza greeted. “I’m sorry if my presence alarmed you…”

“We were on our afternoon walk and Lucas ran all the way here!” the chimera said. “I’m so sorry! Um, are you talking to Elder? He’s really tired…”

“Ah, I know. I’ve been caring for him.”

“Oh!” The chimera’s fishtail wagged. “Well, good! I’m Lavender. Silvally Lavender. And this is Auntie Rim, and that’s Lucas!”

“Rim…” Rayquaza squeezed his eyes, trying to remember. So familiar. So very familiar.

“Ahh, Celebi,” Dialga murmured. “I think I remember, now… Rim. So glad to see you, er… Hold. Were you not an Espurr?”

Lavender nervously looked down. “Um. I had an accident and turned her into a Cherrim when I put the wrong species in the Reincarnation Machine.”

Dialga blinked. “Goodness. That’s… quite a mistake.”

The Cherrim, bright and sunny and pink in the afternoon sky, smiled nervously and tried to wave it off. “It is… okay,” she whispered. “Getting… used to it.”

“Well, that’s good,” Rayquaza commented. “Though, I do sense that you’re quite weak now.”

Rim seemed downcast despite her sunny appearance, nodding.

“Well, that’s alright,” he said. “I’m just happy you’re alive.”

His gaze went back to Elder, who had been so quiet. The Torkoal was laying on his bed again, neck out of his shell, listless.

“Elder?” Rayquaza asked.

Elder wasn’t looking at them. “I… I am ready,” he said. “Please. I’m ready to reunite.”

“O-oh.”

An uncomfortable silence followed.

“There is nothing left for me,” Elder said softly. “It is better this way.”

He lowered his head in resignation, and Rayquaza found himself reaching and leaning forward. Lucas, Lavender, and Rim all seemed confused, while Dialga could only watch with solidarity.

Rayquaza felt an odd pull, a resonance, between him and the Torkoal. But just before he could tap into that pull, he instead pushed past it and held Elder on the side of his head. Elder still remained resigned, but when nothing further happened, he looked up with slight confusion.

“I cannot,” Rayquaza said. “I simply cannot.”

“What?” Elder asked. “Why not?” He almost sounded insulted, impatient, but most of it was empty lethargy.

“You are just in such an awful state,” Rayquaza said. “I cannot in good conscience take you away with that kind of mindset. I would—you feel so awful. It wouldn’t be right. I cannot. But…” Rayquaza coiled a little, looking guilty. “It does need to happen eventually. Can’t we spend some time? To grieve, to reconnect, to…”

Elder only looked tired and rested his shell on the ground. “I suppose I have no choice,” he said. “I do not know how to… reunite. That must be up to you.”

“Stop!”

Again, Rayquaza jolted up and smashed his head on the ceiling, wincing as he turned back. He hoped the ceilings were well-formed, because he didn’t want to know if he was leaving cracks. “Goodness, you startled me…”

It was an icy Aggron who, despite the temperature, seemed to be fuming. “Do not fall for their trickery!”

“Oh, hello, Step…” Elder squinted. “Trickery?”

“Ah… Step. Or, Yveltal’s other ha—”

“You have no proof of that,” Step snarled immediately, her thick tail lashing on the ground to leave a dent in the road.

Rayquaza sighed. “I suppose I do not. Such proof is… self-evident in the draw you feel toward Yveltal, and she to you. It is not something I feel… though, I do feel it toward Elder.”

Torkoal nodded. “It’s an uncomfortable truth,” he said. “We’re spiritually attuned to these things. Mysticism. I… I know it is true.”

The Aggron was about to make another rebuke, but then she stiffened and turned around. She spat a curse and leapt into the air, flying away.

Rayquaza blinked. “Goodness me. A flying Aggron, oho… She’s very talented with Necrozma’s essence, isn’t she?”

“Where did she go?” Elder asked.

Lucas yelped and hid behind Lavender, who tilted his head curiously. “Ooh!” He pointed a talon over Kilo Village’s crater edge. “Bird!”

The distinct shape of Yveltal was hard to miss after that. She was flying, looking worried if Rayquaza squinted, over town. Accidentally scaring the natives, surely, which was nostalgic in itself.

“It seems Yveltal is trying to catch up with her other half. Oh, how awkward…”

“Other half?” Lavender asked. “Oh… She’s scary. A few months ago, she tried to hurt us. And she covered the whole town in snow, too!”

“Really?” Rayquaza asked. “That doesn’t sound like Yveltal at all. She was always so kind and gentle. Really, I always thought that Yveltal and Xerneas should have had opposite roles, but I do wonder if Arceus made it that way so they would be less likely to overuse their great power.”

“Huh?” Lavender asked. “Yveltal was gentle? But I thought Yveltal in the Book of Arceus was the god of death.”

“Well, essentially, yes. The destroyer. But it’s quite rare for a god to be called for destruction, so perhaps the temperament of someone who doesn’t wish to destroy would be the best person for that power. And, er, well, regarding Xerneas…”

“Xerneas hated life?” Lavender asked.

“Ahhh…” Rayquaza glanced helplessly at Dialga, who seemed lost in thought about something. “Dialga, can you help?”

“Hm? With?”

“Xerneas.”

“I’d rather not deal with him for longer than I must.”

“Er, no, as in, explain his disposition.” Rayquaza gestured to Lavender’s confused expression. Lucas, meanwhile, had gone to keeping Rim warm again, curling around her and licking her face. Faintly, she was smiling.

“Xerneas… dislikes interacting with others. He’s disillusioned from mortals because of how selfish they had been toward his life-granting power. He often assumes that those who seek his power are only doing it out of self-interest, and not the interest of others. It truly is a shame, but it makes him reluctant to gift his powers. Perhaps that’s for the best. Can’t have too many immortal Pokémon wandering about, now can we? Oho… ah. That has been happening a lot lately, hasn’t it?”

“I believe everyone here is immortal, yes,” Dialga remarked, looking at Elder, then Lucas, Rim, and Lavender. “Ah, Houndoom may not be.”

“Should I follow them?” Rayquaza asked, watching Yveltal fly further away from Kilo Village, where Step had likely gone.

“Hmm…” Dialga shook his head. “No. This… this feels like something those two need to work out on their own. Yveltal will be okay. If anything…” He grimaced. “It’s the mortal half that I’m worried for.”

<><><>​

“Aggron, ah, Step, please!

The wind swept over Yveltal’s face, cold from the climate as well as the ice volleys that her other half was recklessly lobbing her way. She was glad that she wasn’t being followed; the path of destruction was only going to get them caught in the counterassault.

“Begone!” Step commanded, firing a beam of ice that Yveltal weaved just below. Step then landed in an open field that was rapidly cooling down from her mere presence.

The chill, despite Yveltal’s strength, was starting to get to her. “Honestly…”

“I will not fall for your simple tricks! Where is Ra? How dare you hide him from me!”

“He is exactly where you think,” Yveltal said, holding one wing to her chest while the other stretched wide, as if pleading. “He and Xerneas have reunited. He cares for you! He cares for me, because… we’re the same!”

“I felt his power,” Step snarled. “My children did, too. He was going to smite us had we lingered any longer. I refuse to believe that is truly the god of life. And therefore, I reject you as the god of death!”

Several beams of ice curled around Yveltal, but she did not fly. She expected another volley would strike her from above if she did.

“Please… just listen,” Yveltal begged again, her words a little gentler. “Just a little, please?”

“Explain,” Step demanded. “Explain how he can be Ra!”

“You can feel it, can’t you? You’re attuned to spirits. You know he—”

“An illusion of the gods,” Step said. “A… trick. A trick meant to lure me in.”

“Then where is Ra, Step?” Yveltal asked. She dared to advance, but the Aggron retreated the same amount. “You must know.”

But she had no reply. Her fist was trembling despite her immunity to cold. Yveltal knew she’d gotten somewhere. Progress! Oh, but if she could just convince her…

“I refuse to believe he is gone. One cannot… disappear like that.”

“He didn’t,” Yveltal assured her. “He didn’t. He cares for you. Xerneas can be… imposing… much like you can be—n-no offense. Truly. But the reason he did not strike you in that way is because he cares. Xerneas is powerful. Far more powerful than before, now that he is reunited and strengthened. Especially to half-souls like us. But you, Step… he would never want to harm you, because… I’m sure he remembers.”

“R… remembers,” Step said. Her voice lost some of its flame.

“I do not know what you went through with Ra,” Yveltal went on. “But I’m sure that was ‘him’ holding back. Visiting your daughters, even if he didn’t completely understand. He is still there, only… part of another. Part of a whole. The Xerneas I knew would… have hesitated much less. Been much firmer.”

“Then it will be the same for us?” Step asked, as if her original denials had evaporated. “I will not be as weak-willed and delicate as you? I refuse such… temperament. The world calls for caution and strength, and you have shown neither. How can you be my counterpart?”

Yveltal blinked at that, the great god of death dumbfounded by the words of an ice sculpture. Weak, delicate…

“Oh… Step,” Yveltal whispered, taking a slower advance this time. She did not back away.

And for a moment, they seemed to lock eyes. She couldn’t pull away. Yveltal’s breath hitched. She saw so much fear just then—a primal fear like prey freezing at the sight of its killer. And Yveltal could only feel… pity. Confusion, sorrow.

“Step,” she said again, so much softer. “What has time done to you?”

“I…” Goodness, she was shaking now. “I need to be strong. We have an enemy to destroy, we… must. We can use our powers together to destroy them… can we not?”

“Not everything requires destruction,” Yveltal said, bringing a wing over her other half’s back. Despite how imposing she’d been earlier, she did seem small up close, at least to her. “But sometimes… yes. That is my job, after all.”

“And Ra is not destroyed.”

“Certainly not,” Yveltal said. “The spirit cannot be destroyed. It can inhabit new bodies, it can learn new things, but you cannot take from a spirit. He is there, deep inside. I am sure Ra will be happy to see you again.”

Comforting words, and Yveltal truly believed them. And she hoped against hope that Step did, too.

“I… I do not want to disappear, either.”

“With how strongly you want to remain… you will not,” Yveltal promised. “You have a strong will, correct?”

Step seemed to hesitate then. And in her eyes, Yveltal saw realization and vulnerability hidden behind that icy core. The fear to open up. She couldn’t have that. Gently, she pulled her in for an embrace. Uncomfortable to Yveltal—so cold!—but Step was leaning into it. That, above all, surprised her.

“I am… tired,” Step finally said. The shaking stopped. “I want to see Ra again. But I cannot abandon my daughters.”

“Far from it,” Yveltal assured. “They are mine, too. Please, summon them. I am sure they are speaking to you.”

Again, she hesitated. But again, she complied. Two motes of light expanded and solidified into ice sculptures of dragons clad in scaly, icy armor. Both seemed pained, but not by any physical wound.

“Oh, kids,” Yveltal said.

“W-we haven’t been kids for decades,” the smaller one said, yet could not look her in the eyes.

“It’s just, she’s our mom! How can we…” And the larger one couldn’t tear her eyes away from the Aggron.

“I suppose a spirit will always move to a mentality they most prefer, deep down,” Yveltal said. “The same can be said for us. Step… if you do not wish to abandon them, then we will not. That is how things shall be. It does not need to be the end for you. Now… please. You may rest.”

The Aggron trembled again, but she nodded hastily, like trying to rip off the world’s most painful bandage. “Then do it,” she said. “I refuse to disappear. I… You will face a great battle as we unite. You will… not destroy me.”

Yveltal stroked her back, nodding. But then, she looked at her wing, tilting her head. Little orbs of light were falling off of her like down on winter’s end. The same was true for Step. Their bodies were losing form. Idly, Yveltal wondered if this was what evolution felt like.

Step was still terrified, but there was no stopping it now. At the very least, Yveltal could make it more comfortable. She fell back into an old practice she did when harvesting a dying Pokémon’s spirit, putting them to rest.

She cooed a cold, gentle, wordless lullaby. They swayed to a rhythm that they knew in their hearts, and Step was humming it, too. They were already resonating. The two daughters, transfixed, only watched, fearful, worried, but a little more at ease at the same time.

“I know that song,” the smaller one said. Cent. The memories slowly came to her. “It was the one Mom always sang. You really know it, too?”

Yveltal smiled with her eyes, but continued the lullaby. The larger one, Ana, held Cent’s hand in solidarity. Step spared them one last glance, seeing the two of them, and Yveltal could feel her spirit embolden.

Good. Yveltal wanted her to persist. Time had eroded her into a bitter core, but perhaps in this moment, when it really counted, some of that kindness had emerged.

Everything dissolved into light, and Yveltal and Step closed her eyes.

Two, now one, took her first breath. Opened her eyes. Looked down.

Her body was now a bright blue, coated in feathers of white and cyan ice. She was still Yveltal, but there was recognition in her daughters’ eyes.

“Mom?” Cent asked.

And she smiled.

“Who… are you?” Ana added. The cautious one.

But to that, she frowned. “I will need time to decide,” she replied. “But… you are my daughters. That has not changed.” She held out a wing. “…We have work to do in the Voidlands. Will you come with me? The Ice Core is still within me.”

Apprehensive at first, but ultimately, having no choice, the pair approached. And then, finally, the cold god of death was alone in a field of dead, icy flowers.

Yet, somehow, the world all seemed a little bit warmer. She looked up, puzzled at this, and caught the sun’s rays peeking through the clouds and against her glistening form.

“The sun,” she whispered. “Oh… I must show it to Xerneas.” She stretched her wings, lifted from the ground, and made a wide arc to Hot Spot Ruins.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Chapter 137 – One Hour

It was more awkward than he’d wanted, but soon, he was nodding at guards and walking into the castle. Cipher City was behind him, and Qitlan was just ahead, like he knew he’d be back, smiling wryly.

“Good to see you. What wonderful timing,” Qitlan said. “Your prize with Mhynt is ready. Would you like to redeem it now?”

“…Yes,” Owen said, figuring any time overthinking this would lead Qitlan to getting even more information, somehow. “I’m guessing I’ll be redeeming my servant prize last?”

“Of course. Whatever happens in there… I certainly won’t pry.” He chuckled. “Do at least have some decency. I know how primal you can get, and such a reunion would be very tempting.”

Owen’s flame sparked several times and he tried to steady himself. He was glad Qitlan’s element was Water, because he may have been tempted to incinerate him otherwise.

His chest hurt a little.

“Show me the way,” Owen finally said.

“Of course.”

This time, Owen got to ascend this castle and take ornate, carpeted stairs to an upper floor. The stairs went up in a zig-zag pattern, and he idly wondered if this was inspired by something from the human world or an old Kiloan invention. Perhaps, in some ways, it was both.

The upper halls were lined with little bowls of candy that made Owen wonder how often they were secretly picked from, and why they were there. Was it for Aster? Probably for Aster, if his vague memories of the Mewtwo were anything to go by.

“Just this way, that door.” Qitlan pointed. “She’s waiting. Once the door shuts again, the timer will begin. Don’t squander it… Make every moment count.” He winked. “Of course, if you wind up asking her to be your servant, you’ll have all the time in the world.”

Owen suppressed an eyeroll and thanked him with a hum. He reached up to the door handle, briefly wondering how Mhynt did it when she was so much shorter, and turned.

The inside of the room was lined with colored stone and wood, appearing more like a cottage, and a red-and-brown carpet in a square-striped pattern. Brown rhombuses decorated a few of the squares. Standing on the opposite side of the room, which would take Owen a full thirty seconds to pace across, was Mhynt. She was reading a book, seated by a small table meant for her size, on a stool meant for someone a little larger.

He closed the door. To the right, there was a little timer that turned on, counting down from sixty minutes.

“So, you’re here. You played his little game. How do you feel?”

Her words were icy. Owen couldn’t keep the cold off of him; Step would be jealous.

“I feel, uh, confused and frustrated, I guess,” Owen replied numbly. “But we have an hour to talk and he said that nobody’s really watching us right now. He kept everything else as the truth, so maybe that’s true here, too?”

“I suppose it is,” Mhynt replied. “…But I have nothing that I want to say to you.”

“I—I figured that might’ve been it,” Owen lied, eyes searching for some hidden signal. But it seemed they were both in agreement that Qitlan was probably still listening to them. They couldn’t afford the risk. “Then… if that’s the case…” He sighed, sitting down. “Can I just be with you?”

“Hmph. You’ve already moved on to another.”

“No, no,” Owen said again, “I… I know that. I can already tell that no matter what we used to have, things are… different. For both of us.”

Mhynt scoffed, but Owen noticed her hand tense against her arm. He’d said something that hurt her. He wanted to apologize, but couldn’t find the words.

After a silence where Owen didn’t follow up, Mhynt replied, “Then why would you bother asking to be with me? Why did you prioritize that over the others?”

“I don’t know,” Owen said. “It just… happened. I can’t even remember how. Maybe Qitlan…” He shook his head. “I just wanted to ask you how this all happened. Why are you working with Alexander of all people? He was the one who… Even when I was working with Dark Matter, he was worse! I expelled him! He—”

“He was the one who ended it, Owen,” Mhynt spat. “Alexander saved Kilo when you couldn’t. The world owes him a great debt, even if he’d been eroded by the malice he’d been forced to absorb.”

Owen flinched. Something about that didn’t sound right. “Really?”

Mhynt turned her head away. “I… can’t go against him for that reason. I pledged myself to him. That’s how things are now. I don’t intend to go back. Understood? Is that clear?”

Not even slightly. “Yeah. I won’t fight it.” Owen’s shoulders sagged a little, but he approached anyway. “Well… so much for spending the full hour talking. I… can I still just be here?”

“I can’t leave. So, fine. We’ll… sit against the wall. In silence. And watch the clock. Maybe I’ll get a board game. Qitlan left a few in case we wanted to do something like that.”

“Oh. Sure.”

Awkwardly, Owen took a seat, and Mhynt grabbed a few boards before noticing that one seemed to be a word game, getting random letters to make words on a grid. “Let’s try it as a team building exercise,” Mhynt said. “We play from the same set of letters… try to use as many as we can.”

“Oh. Not against each other?”

“I’m tired of opposing. Besides, you’d prefer that, wouldn’t you?” She scowled at him, looking up. But in her eyes, she saw a pleading glimmer that puzzled him.

“Fine,” Owen relented, answering her plea with a puzzled look of his own.

She set the board down and sat next to him.

And the moment their scales touched, Owen felt a warm, electric-like shock run through him. Mhynt didn’t say anything when Owen jolted. She was… a lot smaller than him. He shook his head and refocused on the game.

Seven letters. They were engraved, so he already knew what every other random letter was going to be depending on where Mhynt picked.

She scooted a little closer to him again. “Alright,” she said. “You’ll start. I’ll pick the letters, so we don’t cheat, hm?”

“Uh, sure. Right…”

Did you know I used to be the Psychic Guardian?

Owen froze. Those were not his thoughts. They were pressed against his head like he’d thought them, but he also recognized them distinctly as not his. He glanced at Mhynt, who glared.

“Come on. There are three vowels. Make something basic.”

He steadied his breath. Kept things cool. He made a simple word first, ‘bore.’

The voice continued. Necrozma shattered his power across all the elements. But of course, his own element was the strongest. Psychic and Dragon elements were imbued with more inherent strength. And all shards hold that Dragon resilience and Psychic prowess. The strength, telepathy, even that little glow… I have a bit of it, even now, separated from that power. I internalized it from my own blessings.

But do they know?
Owen asked worriedly as Mhynt placed another word down. He followed up.

They believe I lost my light, and therefore most of my powers. I’ve kept it… hidden for a while. I had to. I’ve… done a lot to keep it hidden until the time came. Sometimes, I think I truly did lose it.

Owen’s heart was pounding. He looked at the clock, which suddenly felt like it was ticking down much faster than it should have been. If only Dialga was here…

For what? Owen finally asked. Why are you working for him? What… did you do?

Mhynt didn’t answer immediately. She was choosing her words, which meant she was probably responsible for atrocities of her own under his command.

Because I am under his control, Mhynt said. Even this is a risk. In a moment of weakness, I… submitted to him. He’s cunning like that, Owen. And what I said… was a half-truth. He did save Kilo from Dark Matter, if only because he wished to rule it instead. That’s all he wants, even before that power corrupted him further. He wanted power.

Then, he was always this way?

You know for yourself, don’t you?
Mhynt slid a long word in place.

That was true, Owen thought darkly. Even before he’d been involved in actually using Dark Matter’s power, Alexander had acted on horrible thoughts during the war, against Owen’s orders. That had been what led to his exile to begin with.

He put another word down on the board. What led you to following him?

Mhynt looked ashamed. He had Remi. I… freed her. But it was almost like a trade, because he claimed me after.

Had Remi. She’s free?

…Yes. I think she is, even if she doesn’t remember.


Owen’s heart raced. All of the prizes so far had been real. One was Remi’s location, which he’d failed to get. With that blank token in his mind, he asked, Do you know where she is?

I do now. Or, part of her. I think I met her a little while ago, and sent her away so Alexander wouldn’t take her again. She took the form of a Salazzle wraith.

A Salazzle?
Owen squinted. How?

She must have changed her form somehow. Void Shadows can do that.


Diyem had said part of her was in the Voidlands, but then got free. This was adding up. A Salazzle with dark powers… Owen didn’t know anybody quite like that.

I only know one Salazzle. Her name is Spice. She has a sister; her name was… Sugar.

Mhynt tilted her head. Salazzle sisters, around the same age? That’s incredibly rare.

I guess? Why?


Mhynt shook her head, like it was unimportant. Why do you remember them so well?

They run one of my favorite shops. Chocolates and other treats.

You aren’t much of a sweet tooth, Owen.

Well, I guess… I just liked shopping there. Even across Resets, I tended to remember going there. I just figured it was a good place to get food.
Why was he rambling about it so much? So fixated… Are you s-saying…

Did either of them have something odd?

Well… Spice… was… She had a lightning scar from… something…
Owen rubbed his head. I think I remember… she had trouble healing with blessed berries, so she used natural salves and her own body’s healing, or something.

Blessed… Necrozma’s light, then.

You can’t mean she’s Remi.
But she did, and Owen knew it. His heart was racing again. Then why didn’t she… tell me anything?

She doesn’t remember. She was Voided. She made a new life for herself. Remi is… gone. Maybe she might remember later, maybe that’s why you remember her even across resets, but that isn’t Remi anymore. And besides… it’s only part of her.

Diyem told me something similar. She’s—in parts.

I know another part of her. I had to get her out of the Castle before Alexander realized it. Thank goodness I did.

What?
This was all too much. It was a deluge of information. Mhynt had been planning to tell him all of this somehow, all behind their backs. Owen wondered if this was planned, but he had to take this chance anyway.

When was this? Owen asked.

Before I went to Null Village for the first time, Mhynt said. The Zoroark. Her spirit… had the same essence. A powerful feral, cunning and proud. She had Remi’s essence, even if she lacks the memories. I do not know how she wound up there. I suspect… she planned this, somehow.

N-no. No, it can’t… How? How is
Enet also—

And I found the final part of her, too. There are three pieces of her.


Owen felt faint. All this time, Mhynt had been trying to track her down, doing so much from under Alexander’s orders. It was all a great ploy. But how could he get Mhynt out next?

Owen, you’ve had her the entire time, Mhynt said. I couldn’t tell who, but she’s within the tree you left behind in Null Village. That’s her final piece. I felt it when I tried to connect. I’ll never forget how her spirit feels… Though, clearly, you have.

The Charmeleon winced and tried to disguise it as placing a weak word on the board.

“You know,” Mhynt said, startling Owen when actual sound filled the room, “I wonder why you are keeping yourself a Charmeleon. You can evolve, can’t you?”

“Uh—” Owen blinked. “I… uh…”

“And you were always so obsessed with wings when you were in your Reset phase, too, weren’t you?” Mhynt chuckled. “Ironic that you’re in that form now.”

“Y-yeah, well, it’s just… it’s more convenient to be this size right now. Less energy. Unsuspecting. A little more agile if I had to hide… And I don’t really know how to go down a stage. I’ve never done it before on purpose.”

“You’ll get used to it. Maybe you should practice that,” Mhynt commented.

“You can do that?” Owen asked.

“I can do far more than become a Sceptile,” Mhynt said. Shadows crept beneath her, expanding into motes of darkness that clouded into a Lunala’s silhouette behind her. Owen’s heart filled with dread at the sight, but it disappeared before he could comment on it.

“Then… why Treecko?” Owen asked.

“Happiest memories,” Mhynt said. “…For a time.”

That wasn’t the full story, but it seemed like she wasn’t interested in elaborating.

A new silence fell as they filled out the word grid, and it occurred to Owen that they were vocalizing small talk so anyone listening in wouldn’t get suspicious.

Owen thought back to the information about his daughter. They touched side by side again, and the connection renewed. What do I do with this? Owen asked. Why does it matter?

Alexander has some kind of obsession over Remi. Almost as much as he does with you. I think it’s because Remi did something to him in the past that I don’t know about… She might have a way to counter him the same way you do. That I used to.

Powers over light and dark at once… But Remi only had light…

That we know of.
Mhynt glanced at Owen. Did Dark Matter tell you anything?

I… had an outburst when I learned about Wishkeeper, and how he was erased. Afterward, Diyem only told me that part of her escaped the Voidlands… I don’t know how he knew that.


Mhynt seemed displeased, but placed a long word on the board. It was about half-filled by now with playable space, but they were running out of letters. That was a good thing, wasn’t it?

“I lost track of time down here,” Mhynt hummed.

“Oh? Well, I guess I also lost track of time, with how much I’ve been turned into a Charmander over and over. I’m still not used to how things are measured in ‘sleeps’ down here, even if you also have timekeeping…”

“It’s natural to me.” The Treecko sighed. “But to stay healthy, a lot of Pokémon go to artificial sun buildings to get something for their leaves. Thankfully, I have no need.”

“Dark powers,” Owen guessed, though he stated it like a fact.

“Mm. Just as you don’t need to eat. But apparently, you went to a restaurant, hm? Trying to emulate mortal life?”

“A little. I wanted to know the city. But…” Owen looked at his bag, then pulled out the emblem. “This terrified them.”

“Of course it would.” Mhynt flicked Owen’s wrist. “That means anyone who harms you would be facing Alexander’s wrath… normally. I want to think that Qitlan gave it to you as a prank just to see you squirm with that power.”

“Squirm,” Owen repeated bitterly. “I hated it.”

“That doesn’t surprise me. You don’t like being seen as a god. You never have.” She gave him a wry, mocking smile. “Silly, when you still tried to command authority over the world’s fate when standing against them.”

“Maybe I didn’t want to be seen as a god because I stood against them,” Owen defended automatically, but then flinched at his own words. Where did that come from?

Mhynt gave Owen an odd look just then. “…Your eyes changed.”

“My—what?”

“They got darker… when you said that. Maybe not physically. But I saw it.” Mhynt placed another word down. ‘Dreary.’ “Just like when Wishkeeper became the emissary of Dark Matter. You didn’t physically change. But everything else did.”

“Sorry.” Owen also didn’t know, not immediately, why he’d said that. But a few seconds later, he knew why. Mhynt wasn’t talking, so Owen put another word down. ‘Spear.’

“I’m… I’m sorry. For… all of this,” Owen continued.

And still, there were no words. Owen wondered how much time they had left, but he felt like it would be rude to glance at the clock.

“It’s all my fault, isn’t it?” Owen asked Mhynt. “I’ve… thought about it a lot in that cell. That if I didn’t make that little wish to find a way to stop the world from ending, I wouldn’t have found Dark Matter. And if I didn’t align with him to try to convince Necrozma otherwise, you know, by force, to put things back… to let kids be born again… then the war never would have started.

“And if I took Necrozma’s offer to let the world end, and then be rebuilt without Dark Matter’s influence, then I never would have had to be erased. Alexander wouldn’t have taken over; the Voidlands would be empty; everyone would have been spared.”

Owen couldn’t see the board anymore. His vision was clouded, but his voice remained even.

“There were so many times that I could have turned back and stopped all of this, and I didn’t. Whole eras of people are suffering here… because of what I did.”

He blinked at the letters, trying to focus on just a single one, but he had to rely on his Perceive to properly read them. He carefully put a simpler word down to pass the time. They were out of vowels.

“At least you recognize that,” Mhynt said. “And now, you’re focused on trying to fix it. Even more focused than before, perhaps? To repent? To absolve yourself of your guilt?”

“I… I guess so,” Owen replied halfheartedly. “For the longest time, I didn’t even know I did any of that. I was just doing it because it was the right thing to do. But now…”

“You need to?”

“No,” Owen said. “I don’t think anything’s changed. I still need to do what’s right… and I still need to save Kilo. Now I just… know more ways to do it wrong.”

“Hmph.” Mhynt put two of the five remaining letters down. “Nothing’s changed, then.”

A twinge of guilt and frustration bubbled up in Owen’s chest. What was he supposed to do? All of this was thrown at him and he could barely remember his old self anymore. A small part of him wished he could go back to just being a naïve little Heart who wanted to evolve. He didn’t know anything, but at least he was happy.

But a much larger part of him would never want to have any memory suppressed again. The pain it brought to recover them was too much, and even if he could be confident in it being sealed away forever… some significant part of him couldn’t bear it.

One letter left, after Owen was finished with his turn. Mhynt had to find a place to put a ‘Q’ and nothing else.

Their legs touched again. You’re right, but you’re also too hard on yourself. Don’t let Alexander’s words fool you: he is the one who never had good intentions. You said you saved Dark Matter, or part of him, didn’t you? Alexander has no interest in that.

Owen could register the words but not their meaning. Then, But I still could have stopped all this by just listening to Necrozma. He could have… killed everyone, removed Dark Matter, and then restored the world back.

And for the first time, Owen felt Mhynt smiling. It seemed like a sad smile.

Do you really think he would have done that?

He… he wouldn’t have lied about that, would he?

Believe what you want.
Mhynt seemed to lay off the subject quickly.

I thought you were loyal to him.

I was a lot of things. Look where we are now.
Mhynt leaned against Owen, and he had a sneaking suspicion that she didn’t realize it.

Necrozma used to be where all external spirits went, Owen said. Just… asleep, within him, until some time way later. May as well be forever. Is… would that have been better than what we have now? These Voidlands, where people wander around until they lose everything…

I don’t know what’s better… but Necrozma never gave you a choice. He was a god, making choices for mortals. And for that, a mortal rebelled.
She took the final letter and placed it before an ‘I’ on the board. Or, as mortal as you’d count yourself, reincarnating over and over. Certainly less godly than him.

“Qi isn’t a word,” Owen said flatly.

“What? Yes it is.”

“Just because Qitlan is spelled that way doesn’t mean you can just—”

“It means life. Or… the energy of life, in some cultures.”

Owen squinted. Perhaps it was something carried over by Orre or Kanto or some other human element. “Alright, fine. It’s our last letter anyway. Let’s look over the board so we didn’t make any mistakes.”

A deflating silence followed. Owen could breathe a little. Thanks for trying to make me feel better, but I still need to fix things. I’ll… get therapy later, or something… again. Maybe this time I won’t forget it all. Remi, Alexander, Necrozma, Diyem… I feel like if I can take care of those things, we might be able to fix all of this. Dispel the Voidlands. Make things right. One step at a time, right?

How straightforward,
Mhynt commented dryly. Do you have anything else on that itinerary?

Well, I also need to—

Keep it to yourself. I was joking.

Oh.


He still needed to work on that. Sighing, he focused on the board, and then stood up to stretch. “Maybe we can try another game,” he murmured. “Still have some time left… and, er…”

“Why not solitaire next?” Mhynt asked.

“The game with ‘solitary’ in its title?” Owen questioned.

“We’re alone together, aren’t we?”

“It was a prize.” Owen rummaged through the bag to grab the deck of cards, grimacing a little at the feel of it on his scales. He had to wash the horrible thoughts of his last game with cards away with something more pleasant.

“Working so hard just to get me as a prize,” Mhynt said, sighing. “You’re hopeless.”

They settled next to each other again, and Owen started to deal out the cards. But then, he stopped suddenly and frowned.

“We can’t win this game,” he stated.

“What?”

“The cards. They’re in an unwinnable pattern if we play it out like this.”

“How do you mean?” Mhynt pointed at the deck. “They’re all just cards, can’t you just stack them in order like any game?”

“Never played solitaire in a while, have you?” Owen asked. “You have to make sure the cards alternate in the main field, and you can only start stacking from the lowest number. You can only cycle the deck three times, and draw three cards each. You’ll run out. The king is—”

“Now that’s cheating,” Mhynt said, frowning.

“I just know how it’ll go,” Owen said. “Do you want to try?”

Mhynt huffed. “Fine. Let’s see how it goes.”

“Oh.” Owen frowned. “Wait, we forgot to take out the jokers. That would change things to… No, still a losing game.”

“What? Those are left in.”

“What? Since when do you use jokers in solitaire?”

Mhynt gave Owen an odd look, but then shook her head and started to deal them out.

“Err… I’ll watch you play this one,” Owen said. “Figure out the rules…”

She was leaning against him again. Slowly, she analyzed the playing field, Owen knowing full well that there was an ace tucked away in the depths, and nothing but red cards to work with on immediate access, and a joker, whatever that would do.

So, who is Mew to you? Mhynt asked.

Owen gave Mhynt an odd look. Back to this, it seemed.

She’s sort of the reason I’ve taken so long to remember everything, in a way.

Alexander seems pretty interested in her,
Mhynt said. But I wasn’t told why. Which makes me think… they do not completely trust me, even now.

Owen frowned at that, nodding. Well… it depends on how much they know. But it makes sense that they’d want to try to get control over someone like Star, right? After all, she’s… one of the two remaining gods in Kilo. If they could control Star, then that means they’d be able to take down Barky, and… from there, Necrozma, right?

Yes. That’s true.
Mhynt began to play the cards out, drawing three. Predictably, there was no match to play anything on the field. She drew three more. But it bothers me. There’s more to it, for them to keep it such a secret.

Owen tried to think while she played. He was glad the game didn’t usually require much talking, nor input from him, so he could totally concentrate. What did Star have that would have them so keenly interested, and also keep it a secret from Mhynt? That could mean a lot of things… but Star hadn’t been in the Voidlands for a long while. He also couldn’t think of anything notable about her that they couldn’t get from combined powers elsewhere.

Really, if they were able to detain Star so easily—or at all—that meant they could already overpower her. So, it wasn’t power. Could it be the Hands? But that was related to power, and that wouldn’t be much of a secret for Mhynt.

Was it knowledge? If Star was being interrogated for something, what would they ask her to give up? Perhaps they could try to read her mind, but if so, surely by now they would have gained knowledge of that. Hints, visual cues, body language… Qitlan was a master of that. He would have gotten the knowledge he wanted by now.

It had to be something Star had. But it wasn’t like she kept anything on her person.

Something she had that Mhynt would act out if she learned about it…

Mhynt was leaning on Owen a little more than usual. She seemed comforted, in a small way.

The kings of this deck of cards were just Alexander in different poses. The queens seemed to be of four different Pokémon, but they all had the same eyes. Owen recognized one queen as a simplistic depiction of a Sceptile with golden eyes. It reminded him of Mhynt… well, the old Mhynt.

…Me, Owen finally said.

What? Mhynt asked, drawing three more cards.

Star knows more about me. She knows… He nearly gasped, but suppressed it. That’s… that has to be it. Oh, gods, it’s… the aura. The Reset key.

The… what?
Mhynt asked, and for the first time Owen caught a sense of worry in her mind’s tone

But Owen needed time to collect his thoughts. He noticed Mhynt had done something odd with the first joker card, placing it at the bottom of the field, away from anything else. “What’s the joker do?” Owen asked.

Mhynt blinked. She’d been playing without thinking, it seemed.

“Oh,” she said, “well. It’s storage. If I find a joker, I can place it on the bottom of the field to hold onto a single card from anywhere in play.”

“…That isn’t how solitaire works,” Owen commented.

“Two jokers, total,” Mhynt went on. “It gives the game a little more strategy, since we can only cycle through the deck three times.”

Mhynt placed one of the black nines in the storage spot, which freed up a the face-down card on the far right side to be revealed. That led to a chain of more reveals.

“Wow,” Owen mumbled. “And you can just do that. Jokers are powerful like this…”

“You do have to be careful, though,” Mhynt commented. “You can’t take it out of storage until a place is on the field for it to go. That’s a black nine, so I can’t do anything until I see a red ten.”

“What if you get a red eight?”

Mhynt shook her head. “Too bad. The nine isn’t in play, so you can’t place the eight on it.”

“Then, you might miss your chance if you pick the wrong card?”

“Jokers are strong, but you have to use their powers right, even if they can hold onto anything.”

“Right… That does sound more fun. Even if it’s easier.”

“It turns some hopeless decks into something possible, though,” Mhynt hummed.

Owen smiled wryly, nodding. He tried to think about what was left in play, and realized that it was harder to tell what Mhynt would do, now. He didn’t know if she would win this game or not. It all depended on how wisely she used her storage.

…Reset, Owen finally started. It’s… it’s the aura that turned me into a monster, but any time I went totally berserk, I’d be hit with it. It would turn me back into a Charmander and I’d forget everything, so I could be raised again. I only went berserk when I was fully evolved. As a Charmander, I just liked to fight a lot.

That was always the case,
Mhynt said. Always a battleheart.

Y-yeah. Just, more pronounced…

And it… Reset you. With just one touch?

Like what you apparently can do to civilians,
Owen commented, which made her tense. Er… but you don’t take memories. My Resets did.

Down to being raised from scratch.
Her fingers tensed. This was bothering her. Owen wasn’t sure how to address it, but they both knew he could see it.

Star must be holding out on them, Owen said. But if her will breaks and she reveals that… Oh, and they probably told her that I lost the token that would’ve given her a month of breaks from whatever they’re doing to her…

Of course.
Mhynt was tenser than ever. …That’s their plan. They want to take you the moment they are given that knowledge. Star has been… enduring so much just to keep them from getting what they want. She probably knows, in some small way, how important your position is as a free-floater in this war. You aren’t strong yet, Owen, but you are the only one… with the potential to oppose everyone. You never took a side, yet were granted boons from both. The only person in all of reality… to claim rights to both powers, and yet be claimed by neither side.

That’s it?
Owen asked, surprised he was right, even if the details were a little off. The whole reason everyone has been trying to get my favor is… just because I got lucky and have both. That’s… all.

Luck,
Mhynt said, frowning at him as she placed another card on the second joker she’d acquired. I don’t really know if luck is the only factor here. Not every person would… do what you did, so foolishly, yet so decisively. Not everyone can gain the favor of gods at their times of weakness, and not actually swear any oaths to them.

Never swear to them, Owen. You… are the only one who can break this balance, but not by choosing a side. Because if you do, you’ll only… blend in with all the rest. You’ll become a puppet.
Mhynt hesitated, trying to choose between two cards that seemed, to her, equally important. Owen was tempted to show her the right card, but knew she would be upset if he did. It’d be cheating, wouldn’t it?

Like you, Owen said. He tried to say it gently, but the frankness seemed to make her wince. Owen only saw it because he was so concentrated on her; to an untrained eye, nothing had changed.

Mhynt finally chose the card, but it was the wrong one. Winning was going to be more difficult now, but Owen sensed that it wasn’t necessarily impossible yet.

So they are trying to Reset you. Probably so they can shape you as one of their soldiers…

Owen winced. No response.

The cards were more than halfway face-up. The deck was thinning, and Mhynt was on her final round through it. Things weren’t looking good.

“So, you can place any one card on an empty joker at the bottom,” Owen repeated. “But that doesn’t seem to be helping a lot…”

“Sometimes a joker can get stuck with one card and nowhere to put it,” Mhynt explained. “Then it’s just a dead slot, and it can be useless for a while. But if I can just get it freed up…”

Owen nodded along. “Well… I guess you can try taking a risk with the other one. You’re running out of draws, right?” He gestured to the field. “Look, there’s a stack of face-downs on the rightmost column still.”

“Do you think that would—” Mhynt growled. “Don’t… give me hints.”

Owen smiled a little. “Just pointing it out,” he said gently. “Never said anything about what’s in it.”

“How would I even open that?” Mhynt said. “It’s an eight with five more cards under it, down to four. I can’t just put all that on a joker.”

“There’s the other eight here that’s alone, aside from the ten above it,” Owen said.

“…Fine. Not like I have much to lose in this game anyway.” She pulled the lone nine down and occupied the second joker, and then migrated the other pile over. She flipped over the freed card, which quickly went to another pile. Another card was freed, then another…

“Kinda feels like you can breathe again, huh?” Owen remarked. “Field’s almost totally clear now.”

“…Thank you for pointing out the eight,” Mhynt said. “That pile was bugging me, I suppose. I didn’t notice it.”

“Second pair of eyes?”

Mhynt continued the game, and they fell into a slightly more comfortable silence again.

I want to help you, Mhynt said. But I can’t. I’m… a servant of Alexander. He can control me to my core if I go against him.

How is he controlling you? That… dark power that you submitted to?

Yes. Just as you can control your spirits as a Guardian, Alexander is a patron in the same way.


Owen paused. …I can what?

You’re… you’re kidding me.
Mhynt stared at him, but then quickly looked back at the cards. All this time and you’ve never controlled your spirits?

Why would I do that?


Silence, both in the air and in the mind. Owen sensed a smile on the side of Mhynt’s face away from his eyes.

Some things really don’t change.

Mhynt looked at the final card in her hand, then at the field. Every single card was face-up; technically, she’d won. But, as was tradition, she slowly and meticulously began to move all the cards in ascending order into the winning pile.

So, if that darkness was removed from you, then he wouldn’t be able to control you, Owen said.

Once power is granted, it can’t be taken away, Mhynt said. Suppressed, weakened, maybe. But you can’t simply take away power.

Power. But what about control?


Mhynt’s snout seemed to crinkle in consideration. Then, she shook her head. Well, I don’t know. It’s not like that sort of power’s been removed before.

It has. Jerry resisted Alexander’s power, and he might’ve had darkness in his bloodline. But Alexander couldn’t control him.


More silence. Then, Mhynt slowly nodded. Then… maybe it is. But Dark Matter isn’t here, so—

Dark Matter gave me some of his power a long time ago. I didn’t submit to him, but I did borrow it.

And you can’t control darkness anymore, can you?
Mhynt countered, frowning. I appreciate you trying to help, but—

You just said power can’t be taken away. I’m going to try.

What—


Owen touched her shoulder. Mhynt tensed, but continued to place the cards, one by one, slowly, into the winning piles. Halfway. Owen searched… deep within himself. He thought back to his time as Wishkeeper, those divine javelins, tinged with darkness. His claws squeezed a little tighter around Mhynt’s shoulder, and he envisioned how he’d touched Dark Matter’s core. Ready to infuse it with light.

His chest tightened again, and he wasn’t sure why. That had been happening a lot lately.

And then, he saw it, in his mind’s eye. He forgot to breathe as he focused on the vision of a bright, golden orb floating within Mhynt, smudged and drenched in tar. He, mentally, reached toward this tar, and it sizzled in defiance. This was a malice that felt very different from Dark Matter. That was cold and reclusive, hopeless and pained. But this, this taint from Alexander, lashed out with anger and greed, demanding that it stay latched and curled around Mhynt.

You can’t control her, Owen stated, and his arm plunged into that darkness. He tore and ripped at it, expecting it to be fruitless. The light dissolved some of it, but even more covered it up, threatening to seep onto his arms in this mental void. He thought it was too late to back out, but then his heart skipped a beat. His chest squeezed with an odd pressure against his heart, and then a cold, cold wave radiated from it and through his shoulders, down his back, and out his arms again. He wondered if his flame had darkened.

The tar listened to him. He peeled it away—

STOP.

And Owen suppressed a gasp, back in reality. Mhynt was staring at him with wide eyes, the emotional mask totally gone, but then she quickly gathered herself.

The final king was placed on the piles. The game was over.

He… he would notice, Mhynt said. He’d notice if he couldn’t control me anymore.

Then, I can do it,
Owen said. I can free you.

But he’ll notice. If he notices that’s missing, he’ll know it was you. And—

Does he always control you?
Owen repeated. Why? For what? Don’t you just follow his orders? Maybe he won’t bother.

And briefly, Mhynt looked like she was trapped. Owen had struck… something, something bad, terrible, just then. He was hesitant to press further.

I do, Mhynt replied. Short. Stiff.

Mhynt? Owen asked again. How far away can he control you?

Usually only up… close.


As Mhynt picked up the deck, a card fell down, fluttering among the others. Its papery rustle was the only thing that filled the air of the great, empty room. The Sceptile queen card.

Mhynt seemed so much smaller than everything else.

Owen had another question. But he knew the answer. It felt like ice water had been forced straight down his throat, settling there in his chest and guts.

Can we talk about something else? Mhynt asked.

Sure, Owen replied automatically. Sure, we can.

The minutes ticked by in complete silence. Thoughts swirled in Owen’s mind and the flame on his tail was crackling with some strange, new depth of rage he couldn’t remember feeling before. It was a heat in the back of his eyes and the center of his forehead, and it traveled to his arms and throat like whatever was in front of him should burn. They weren’t even words. Something primal was twisting his insides around.

Leph, Aster, and Star. We’re freeing them, freeing you, and getting out of here. Today.

Don’t be silly,
Mhynt said, but she was trembling against him. But she was also smiling, joyless. Or… be silly. I want to hear more.

How can you be so…
Owen couldn’t lash out at her. Please, one more time. I’ll free you, and—

And then he’ll only repossess me again. He’ll do even worse to you. This is dangerous, Owen… Even if you can, you… can’t.

So, I wait until Star breaks? Then I become Reset?
Owen asked. Mhynt… you’re stronger than that. You’ve waited for so long and now I’m here to change things, okay?

Mhynt tensed. She had no response.

I think you’ve become used to that cold, Owen said. …To… Alexander.

He shouldn’t have said that. He shouldn’t have at all. That was cruel. Mhynt’s muscles were tensing in some kind of internal agony.

Sorry, Owen said.

He got no reply.

Will you help me? Owen asked. I want to help you. I don’t care what it takes. But… this can’t stand. We can’t wait for him. That’s how he wins.

What… do you mean? If we risk anything, he’ll… If we fail, it’s…

I’m done playing Alexander’s games.
Owen kept his mental voice firm, but gentle. Encouraging. Mhynt was teetering, and he couldn’t let her back down now. But after what she’d been through, no matter how strong she was… that kind of helplessness could break anyone. I think… it’s time I made my move. I still have one more prize left…

I…
She was trembling again. Tentatively, cautiously, Owen reached for her again. She nearly flinched, so he stopped. Mhynt gave him an apologetic glance, and then returned the gesture by holding his hand. But then, she let go, like it was wrong, like she was confused with herself.

You won’t have to listen to him anymore, Owen said. Isn’t that enough?

Owen tried again. Slowly. She didn’t flinch. In fact, she leaned into it, so he leaned back. She leaned harder. He could sense tears bubbling up in her eyes, but he made no comment.

It’s going to be okay. No matter how little Owen knew about the truth, she needed to hear that.

Silently, she nodded. No words from her mouth or her mind, but the way her eyes moved meant she was thinking a lot in her head. Maybe about everything that could go wrong, or what Alexander would put her through.

Let’s work on something.

That finally snapped her out of it. She always was a fixer. Mhynt glanced at the clock. She was compensating for her fear with exaggerated nods and glares at nothing. We only have fifteen minutes left…

That’ll do, I think. So, Mhynt. Are you ready?


Silence again. There was something else in the way she moved just then. Her chest swelled, her eyes brightened, and Owen saw what felt like years wash away from her soul.

Alright. Fifteen minutes. Let’s make the most of it. Mhynt held a breath, then released it. But if we start, it’s a final gamble. Failure means Alexander won’t give us even the slightest freedoms.

Owen smiled wryly. Then we have nothing to lose.

<><><>​

The door creaked open, and out stepped the Charmeleon and Treecko.

“Well, you two look happy,” Qitlan said.

Owen had a small smile, while Mhynt only crossed her arms and started to walk away.

“Oh, hold on, little Mhynt,” Qitlan called. “I think you’d want to hear this.”

“What?” Mhynt asked, sounding bored.

“Actually, I was wondering if we could see each other again like that,” Owen said. “It, um… was nice.” He avoided looking at Qitlan and his flame sparked.

“Oh? Nice, was it?” Qitlan asked with a drawn-out lilt, like he knew what Owen was talking about. “Maybe next time, I’ll include a bed, too. I’ll be sure to inform Alexander.”

Owen nearly slipped, nearly slipped, but he put on a confused face instead.

Qitlan dismissed it with a wave. “Nothing, nothing. Tell me, Owen. Have you decided on a servant?”

“Oh, right.” Owen nodded. “I have, actually.”

“Well, don’t hold me in suspense!” the Inteleon urged, hands on his knees as he addressed the Charmeleon. “Who will be your servant?”

“Anyone in the Castle, right? Or under Alexander’s guard?” Owen asked.

“Of course, of course.” Qitlan nodded, like he already knew the answer.

“I want my servant to be Remi,” Owen said, nodding confidently.

And then Owen saw it. That brief pause that Qitlan couldn’t hide. Maybe it wasn’t even for a tenth of a second, but Qitlan couldn’t take it back.

“She isn’t a servant,” Qitlan said. “She doesn’t qualify. Is that really the most you could think of?”

“She’s not in the castle?” Owen asked. “Not under Alexander’s command?”

“She doesn’t qualify for this prize,” Qitlan said evenly.

“Right, okay… Then I pick Star.”

“Star,” Qitlan said. “No, of course not.”

“Why? Isn’t she under your command and control?”

Qitlan stared at Owen like he was an idiot. He glanced briefly at Mhynt, who was wearing the thinnest of smiles, and then back at Owen. “How is that relevant? She is not employed under Alexander’s guard.”

“Employed? Wow, I didn’t know I’d get paid. How much?”

“Salaries are on the job postings,” Qitlan said. “Star doesn’t get one, obviously. She’s a prisoner, not a servant.”

“You said, in the castle,” Owen pointed out.

“A worker in the Castle. Do you really think—”

“Okay.” Owen nodded, and then marched down the hall.

“Where are you going?” Qitlan asked. “Aren’t you going to redeem your prize?”

“Just a second,” Owen said, turning and walking down another hall, and then down the stairs.

He made it all the way to the great hall at the entrance to the castle, where he finally spotted a guard walking in, looking like he’d just gotten out from a swim. A large, bulky-build Swampert, more gut than muscle.

“Him,” Owen said spontaneously, pointing at Swampert.

“Eh—uh?” Swampert asked, blinking.

“He’s my servant.”

Swampert’s cheeks darkened like a bruise.

By now, Qitlan’s expression told Owen he was somewhere between befuddled and irate. He was barely hiding it anymore when his cutting question was, “What game are you playing here?”

Owen mimicked the smile Mhynt had made. Polite, with an undertone of mocking. “I’m serious. He’s my servant.”

“Do you think this is some kind of joke?”

And Owen’s grin only became wider. “This… isn’t a joke,” he said. “Go on. Make it happen, Qitlan.”

He could feel Mhynt’s smile, though he didn’t look at her as she walked away again, shrugging at Qitlan.

But I guess in some ways, I’m a little joker.
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Alright, this might be stretching it for a workweek review, but eh. Might as well try and go for broke while I'm on a reviewing roll and I've got reasons to want to try and clear the deck before the weekend.

Sounds as good a reason as any to dive straight into…

Chapter 3

With dinner finished and plates cleaned, Rhys dismissed the trio to their rooms. Gahi wobbled into the left, deeper room. Demitri and Mispy headed into the left room that was closer to the kitchen. Owen noticed that Mispy was being quite pushy with Demitri, playfully prodding at his back with her vines on the way into their room. Demitri, meanwhile, meekly bumped against her with his tusks, flicking his tiny tail against her front legs, which earned a giggle in response.

“Bah, get a room,” Gahi muttered.

Oh, so you're already shipping those two this early on in the story. :V

“We are,” Mispy teased.

Gahi: "Your own room, Mispy." >_>;
Mispy: "You see, you didn't exactly specify that, so..."
:wellyousee:


Owen chuckled nostalgically at the three. He decided, for now, to ignore why he had felt like reminiscing on memories he did not have. Seeing the three head into two bedrooms answered the use of part of the house. Figuring one of the remaining two was Rhys’ quarters, that left one unaccounted for.

Owen: "Wait, why am I feeling nostalgic over Pokémon that I met literally just today?" .-.
- Beat moment -
Owen: "... I did meet them just today... right?"
:ohnowen:


“Uh, Rhys?” Owen pointed down the hall. “What’s that room supposed to be? The one there?”

“The furthest, right room? That is for storage of our supplies,” Rhys said. “Extra items that aren’t supported as easily in the official Heart storage facilities. Spare furniture, and the like.

Sticker, sceptilisk,


I mean, it sounds like a decent explanation on its face, but I saw the narration and how it kept hinting that Rhys wasn't shooting straight with the kids. So I'd frankly be surprised if that really was just a storage closet.

“Oh, so the glowy room is yours?” Owen asked, leaving no question unasked.

“Yes,” Rhys said.

“So,” Owen said slowly, “why’s it glow?”

Rhys: "Owen, has anyone ever told you that you ask too many questions?" >_>;
Owen: "... No? I don't think anyone's ever told me that one. Or at least I don't remember it."
:joltyshrug~1:


“I have a few items in my room that glow,” he said. “It is nothing else, really.”

Image


“Oh, okay.” He wasn’t convinced. “Nothing about any ghosts, maybe? Spirits, little,” Owen paused, “pink clouds?”

[ ]

“Pink,” Rhys repeated. “Are you sure it was pink?”

This feels like a little spot that might benefit from showing Rhys more explicitly stiffen up or freak out or something like that, since I kinda get the vibe that Rhys is supposed to be a bit on-edge here, but it's not shown much.

Owen: "That's... quite a response for just a few items in your room that glow, really." .-.
Rhys: "Look, Owen. This is important. Are you sure you saw pink clouds in there?"
:tessohno:


The right side of Owen’s lips twitched upward. He got him this time. “Yeah, definitely pink.”

“Hrmm.” Rhys’ ears twitched, the aura sensors accompanying them rising just slightly. “Owen, what was this pink cloud doing?”

Live look inside Rhys' head rn:
200w.gif


“Kinda, well, bobbing around when I looked at it. And then it went into your room.”

“I see.” He spoke analytically, but it felt forced. “Thank you, Owen. I will investigate this later, but it’s far too late tonight. I will take you home.”

Owen: "Wait, but I'm right here. I could literally just poke my head inside and help you find out what's-"
:what:

Rhys:
Image


After a few quick warps—one to Kilo Village, and then another to his usual Waypoint, Owen led the way. His tail flame helped to light the path. “So, this is Hot Spot Road,” Owen said. To the left was a rocky hill with boulders the size of Rhys. To the right was a great field of light green grass that went up to Owen’s chest. With the sun already down, it was hard to see much more than a sea of wavy blackness in the fields and jagged darkness in the mountains, though the tops still stood out against the barely-lit sky.

“If you take a left into that cave,” Owen said, pointing at a small entrance, “there’s actually a Dungeon that you could explore. A lot of Fire Types live there, and even some Rock and Ground Types. But mostly Fire Types.”

I kinda wonder if you ought to have put in a hard scene break, since the fast forward on its own already jumps ahead a decent amount in terms of time and space. Enough so that it feels kinda disconnected with the paragraph right before.

“Yeah! Good thing we aren’t going that way.” He continued, waving his fiery tail left and right. The ember at the end fluctuated in its intensity, going from a blazing flame to a shrinking ember. He thought it was just a lingering feeling because he’d seen Rhys all the time as an Elite, just walking through the halls, but the familiarity still felt too strong. He felt so at ease with Rhys, almost like how he felt around Amia or Alex or any of the other villagers.

Translation: Owen has been around Rhys a lot in the past, he's just been mind lazored enough that he doesn't have solid memories of any encounters with him prior to the present day's.

Should he say it? No. He’d look like a complete lunatic. But if he didn’t ask, it’d bother him all night, and then the next night. He had to ask. So, he stopped walking.

Rhys stopped, too, as if he knew it was coming.

“Rhys…” He turned to face him. “Do I know you?”

Rhys: "..."
:riowtf~1:

Owen: "Look, I'm just not convinced that we haven't met at some point in the past since you feel really familiar for some reason."
Rhys: "Or you've been watching too many edgy magical girl cartoons lately." >_>;

For just a second, it was as if the very wind had stopped between them. For that iota of an instant in time, nothing else mattered but him, the Lucario, and the empty space between them. The rustling, tall grass quieted. The sun set, and twilight ruled the world, save the flame that lit Owen’s back.

The Lucario’s eyes, which glowed just barely in the darkness, held no expression; that, in itself, was abnormal to Owen. Why would someone not react to such an outlandish statement unless they were prepared for it?

Narrator: "Because he was prepared for it."

Owen: "... That's a 'yes', isn't it?"
Rhys: "More like a 'decline to comment'. Look, do you think we're living in an anime or something like that?" >_>;
Owen: "I mean, I'm pretty sure that our writer has explicitly said in other parts that our story vibes after shonen anime, so..."
:wellyousee:


Rhys blinked a few times. Owen’s heartbeat picked up in both frequency and intensity. He tried to get a read for Rhys and his tension, but it was too hard. He was too controlled this time. Owen had a knack for being aware of these bodily cues, but he couldn’t get anything from Rhys.

Finally, Rhys answered. “I do not believe in love at first sight.”

Owen: "What? Ew! Rhys?! Why would I think that when there's a massive age gap between us?!" >///<
Rhys: "(Well that's an understatement if I ever heard one...) Look, I'm not the one who's slinging around pickup lines, alright." >:|

Simultaneously, Owen’s tail burned white, and his heart skipped a beat. “N-not in that way!” he squeaked.

:LULgia:


And thus begins a story tradition for this fire newt.

He turned around and walked again. He puffed into his hands, letting the flames escape through cracks between his fingers. How could he have said it in that way? As if he was trying to propose to Rhys some sort of—lifelong—Owen shook his head fiercely, imagining a scenario where Rhys would have blushed and said yes. He’d’ve had to let Rhys down nicely, say that wasn’t what he meant. And then, for all eternity, any interaction he’d ever have with his idol would be awkward.

Rhys: "Owen, seriously. Stop while you're ahead."
:tessohno:


Slowly, color returned to Owen’s scales. “Sorry,” he finally said. “I guess I’m just a little tired after the day. I didn’t expect to get pelted by rocks in that forest, is all. I don’t think Aerodactyl are supposed to know Rock Blast. Maybe I’m just delirious.”

Rhys: "No, I'm pretty sure that that's just a Move Tutor move."
:lucariothink1:

Owen: "... Look, it wasn't at the time this chapter was initially published, so you know what I meant." >_>;

“Mm, that could be it. I’m glad that I can give off such a friendly aura, though. Thank you, Owen.” Rhys chuckled. At least one of them got to be happy….

“Ha! Totally,” Owen agreed. [ ] He was screaming inside.

I kinda wonder if more of Owen's body language or the like ought to have been described to sell the idea that he's screaming internally. Something like mentioning offhand that he's stammering or forcing an overeager smile or something like that.

He didn’t know what to make of it, so he just smiled and laughed. He saw no other opening to probing Rhys for those odd feelings of familiarity. He’d have to deal with tossing and turning at night anyway.

Rhys: "By the way, Owen. I'll be sure to keep your feelings between us. It's a touching thought, but I'm kinda taken right now."
Owen: "Oh sweet Mother of Mew, I can't forget this night fast enough." >///<

Owen, after verifying that Rhys wasn’t watching, turned toward what looked like an innocuous boulder next to the road. Each syllable was accompanied by a motion. He whispered, albeit loudly, the words:

“Hot! Spot! Hot! Spot! Open up, Hotspot Cave!” Owen had raised his left arm up, then his right arm, and then brought his left arm down, and then his right arm. This was followed by swaying to the left, and then the right, and then the left and right again; next, he stepped backward, finally advanced forward.

Oh hey, I remember this scene from my MOTHER 3 playthrough years ago:


Rhys was rubbing the top of his muzzle, cringing. He wasn’t the only one. Every time Owen did this dance, a tiny part of his Char heart withered away.

... Rhys totally turned and looked, I can already tell.
:hoodLUL:


“There,” Owen said. He looked back and saw Rhys trying to hide from the world with his paw. “What? It’s not too bad. And nobody would dare do it, so it’s the perfect disguise!”

Owen, I don't think you understand just how shameless some types can get. :V

Rhys: "... I mean, you just did it."
Owen: "Yeah, don't remind me." >///<

After a brief delay, the boulder rolled to the right, revealing a hidden passageway into the ground. It was dimly lit by blue mushrooms that gave off a soft, cyan glow.

“Thanks, Rhys!” Owen said. “That was a really safe trip. You should get home now, huh?”

Owen: "And... uh... you really didn't see the dance I did to open up the entrance, right?" >///<
Rhys: "Nothing at all. (Boy is that going to be a pain to get out of my memories...)"
:tessohno:


“Yes. Thank you for letting me guard you, Owen,” he said. “Stay safe. Be sure to keep up your meditation.”

“Oh, sure!” Owen said. “Yeah, you make Team Alloy do the same thing, right?”

“Yes, I do, that’s right,” Rhys said. “It’s very important for everyone.”

“Yeah. Okay! See you, Rhys!”

... That actually makes me wonder what meditation even looks like in this story, since we've heard it talked about a couple times, but I don't think it's actually been depicted yet.

Owen watched Rhys leave for a bit longer. No, it wasn’t just some delusion. Unless he completely lost it, Rhys was hiding something. And perhaps Nevren, too. But then again, he probably just heard and saw them a lot. Both of them. They were Elite Hearts, after all.

Owen: "Also, he totally saw me while I was doing the dance to open up Hot Spot Cave, didn't he?"
:ohnowen:


Owen closed his eyes. There was no use focusing on the negative. Every night ended like this, wondering if he’d done something, or everything, of that day before. A lot of this felt new, yet he still had that lingering doubt. Maybe he was just getting paranoid.

Just saying, Owen. Paranoia is sometimes justified.

He refocused on the positive. “Oh, wow,” he said. “I met two Elites in one day! That’s so… cool!” He bounced slightly, but then remembered the timer on the boulder. He ran in the cave; a few seconds later, the boulder rolled back onto the passageway.

Owen: "Let's... not think too hard about how I almost got stuck doing that humiliating door-opening dance a second time tonight." ^^;

He ran past a few other inhabitants in the cavern. There was Auntie Arcanine—an old Pokémon who always had an apple or two for him to eat. She waved at Owen as he passed. There was also a Fennekin, Chimchar, and Flareon trio that often played near the entrance at night, before their parents would tell them to pack it in for the night. If anything, he knew he had the townsfolk to see, even if he wasn’t particularly close to any of them. They were all good friends, the village as a whole, no matter the age.

I smell a cameo, even if I don't recognize where that species grouping is from.

Owen’s house was near the back of the village, where it was even hotter. He wasn’t sure how his mother, in particular, handled this heat, but for all his life, she wasn’t bothered by it in the slightest. Blue mushrooms lit the entirety of the cave; now that Owen thought about it, the glow reminded him of the aura fire in Rhys’ paws. The home itself was like a cave within a cave; it was a circular entrance—big enough for his father’s bulky, Magmortar frame to fit through—that led into larger, dome-like rooms. Owen then realized the parallel it had with Rhys’ home.

Owen: "... Wait, so my own house is built in the same style as Rhys'? How am I just now noticing this? And what are the odds of that happening by chance?" .-.

“I’m home, Mom! Dad!” Owen called, stepping into the first, largest room.

“Ohh, Owen!” Amia called back. The Gardevoir adjusted her blue hair; there was a bit of ash remnant on the right side, perhaps from one of the kids’ pranks. She greeted Owen with a scratch under his chin—something Owen always enjoyed. “How did your little exploration go? We heard about what happened. You got in a bit of a scare, didn’t you?”

- Owen blinks -
Owen: "... Wait, who told you that again?"
:ohnowen:


“Just a little,” Owen said. Should he ask? He was going to ask. “Hey, how’d you find out, anyway? Nobody knows how to deliver letters here!”

“We checked the, er, the bulletin board at the crossroads,” Alex said, stepping inside from the bedroom to Owen’s left. “Someone in town must have put it there.” He tapped his cannon-arms together. “Y-you… you did fine, right? You aren’t hurt?”

Owen: "... Okay, no really. How did you find out?"
:judgemander~1:

Alex: "I mean, I'm pretty sure someone's taught the mailmon how to open the door by now. The dance isn't that difficult-" ^^
Owen: "Okay never mind then, I believe you! Just stop talking about the door dance! I don't need that mental image in my mind right now!" >.<

Both his parents’ eyes widened with alarm when he mentioned them, but Owen was so mentally exhausted that he decided that this was one battle he’d choose to ignore. He didn’t even want to bring up his dream of Alex literally exploding. Too much. Later. Another day.

Wait, 'them' as in his parents or Rhys and Team Alloy? I assume you meant the latter, but the sentence prose is a bit ambiguous.

The two nodded. “Oh, I heard of them,” Amia said. “It’s nice that you made some new friends, Owen! But you know what we also heard?” She rapidly clapped her hands together. “Tomorrow is another big day for you.”

Owen: "Wait, wha-? It is?" .-.

“Oh, yeah!” Owen said. “I might become an Entry Heart, too!”

Owen: "... Right, that'd be a pretty big day. Kinda forgot about it in between all the excitement. (Oh, and almost dying of embarrassment in front of Rhys on multiple occasions.)" ^^;

Alex watched him go and then glanced at Amia worriedly. She shook her head and held his shoulder.

“I trust Rhys,” she said quietly. “His students can interact with Owen. It… I don’t think it’ll result in… I mean…”

Yeah, I kinda figured that Rhys and Owen's parents knew each other. Though boy is Amia's line ominous there.

“It won’t happen all at once,” Alex said. “Let’s just be very careful. I’ll come up with some chores that will keep him here when we need him close.”

Image


The next afternoon was cloudier, much like Owen’s mood. He’d slept for perhaps a blink or two. Aside from essential missions for lost Pokémon or dangerous outlaws, there weren’t any Hearts going out that day. Instead, the southern portion of Kilo Village was packed, waiting for a big announcement at the top of the stairs to the main Heart building.

Wait, so Kilo Village just shows up for every time a new 'mon joins the TH? A little surprising if so, though I suppose it's called Kilo Village...

The southern side of Kilo Village was usually only sparingly populated with passerby Pokémon entering the line of warp pads along the roadway. Now? It was a sea of Pokémon of all shapes and sizes. A Pachirisu was balanced atop a Rhydon’s head. A school of Magikarp hopped as high as they could to get precious glances at the stairs that led to the Heart. A pair of Girafarig chatted while their tails nipped at one another.

So their tails are trying to give each other hickeys, huh? :V

Alakazam Nevren stood at the top of the stairs, assisting with setting up a new technology of his with the help of one of the Heart members—an Exploud. After making that Exploud hold two hooks and keep his mouth open, he handed a strange, black, rod-like device to the leader of all the Hearts, who finally emerged.

Owen had to pause only to admire the significance of this gathering. The sheer number—almost all of the thousand main members of the Hearts were right there, in Kilo Village, at the same time. That wasn’t to mention all the peripheral assistants, organizers, and suppliers that worked from the sidelines. A sea of shapes and sizes and colors and energy. He shook himself to his senses. He had to get closer for a better view!

Can't tell if that 'energy' is supposed to be 'energies' as more of a parallel, though oh, so it's equivalent of an all-hands meeting for the TH.

Owen was in the middle of the crowd, trapped between a Tyranitar and a Hippowdon. He stood near the back, trying to get a look—but with all the bigger, stronger Pokémon in the way, this was impossible. “C’mon, c’mon—can I get a little room, please?” Owen begged, pressed between a rocky thigh and a sandy hide.

So quite literally between a rock and a hard place.
:mewlolz:


“Hey!”

Owen struggled to look back, finally slipping out from their crushing bodies.

Demitri waved at him from a little hill. His green, scaly body was barely noticeable—he was just so small! His darker color scheme made for a nice complement Mispy’s light-green body; she assisted him, waving her vines to stand out more.

Owen: "Wait, how did you even see me in the first place?" @.@
Demitri: "Well, you jostling around and squirming kinda helped. Also, orange stands out a lot against tan and green." ^^;

Owen thought it was a bit too far away, but he complied anyway, if only so he didn’t get stomped on. He rushed over, weaving between the crowd with a series of ‘sorry!’ and ‘excuse me!’ mumbles.

When he finally arrived, he sighed, picking off some remaining sand from between the scales of his arm. “Thanks.”

Owen: "Proooobably not the best impression I could've left on all those Pokémon, but I'll have chances to make up for it?" ^^;

“Here, if you want to get a better look, Rhys brought a Zoom Lens.” Demitri handed Owen a bulky pair of white glasses.

Owen: "... How's that supposed to help if someone super tall happens to be standing in the way?" .-.
Mispy: "Owen, we're in a Mystery Dungeon setting. Surely you've heard of teams making towers atop each other, right?"
:what:

Owen: "That was a gimmick from one game. That was unlocalized." >_>;
Demitri: "Technically, it was three games-"
Owen: "Whatever! You get the point I was trying to make!" >.<

“Wh-what? These are pretty valuable, aren’t they? Aren’t these for being more accurate with your less reliable techniques?”

“Yeah, but there are better items to use in battle, so we just use this for times like these.”

Mispy: "Also, taking stuff you don't want to lose along with you on missions is literally one of the first things you're taught not to do as a Heart." >_>;
Owen: "Alright! Alright! I get it! So... I just bring these up to my eyes, right?"

“Where’s Rhys, anyway?” Owen asked, looking around.

“All Elite members are supposed to be up front to send off the retired Hearts,” Demitri said. “So, we’re standing here for now to watch. All the front seats are for the Elites, anyway.”

... Wait, if that's the expected distribution of Hearts in this gathering, how are they not doing this in some sort of bowl or natural amphitheater? Since wouldn't this setup on flat land basically guarantee that the guys at the back would have trouble seeing and hearing the front stage since they’d be heavily slanted to earlier morphs while Elites would be slanted to later ones?

Owen nodded and put the Zoom Lens on. He saw a bird-like Pokémon with a green, grassy hood. “Oh! There’s Decidueye James!”

“The second-in-command?” asked Demitri.

Filing that one away for the future, since if James was mentioned in the HoC x GL crossover, I honestly completely forgot about him.

“What’s there?” Gahi asked, struggling to use the Zoom Lens on his huge head. “Bahh, these tools ain’t good fer Pokémon like me. Where’s the Trapinch-friendly gear?”

That actually makes me wonder now if Zoom Lenses come in multiple form factors in this setting such as one where the lenses are connected by a telescoping cord of some sort. Since now that Gahi mentions it, glasses-style Zoom Lenses would basically only be usable for Pokémon with eyes oriented like humans/IRL predatory animals.

“Probably the same place you left half your vocabulary,” Demitri muttered. This earned a swat from Gahi’s head.

:burned~1:


“Enough,” Mispy said, using her vines to pull the two feuding Pokémon apart. They were strong enough to hold Gahi in the air.

“Oy, oy, l-lemme go!” Gahi wiggled his tiny legs uselessly.

Mispy: "No, you can just stay there for a while. Also, are you seriously complaining about getting a better view when you're the one not able to use a Zoom Lens at the moment?" >_>;

Demitri huffed and leaned against Mispy’s vines, rolling his eyes. He turned his attention back to the ceremony preparations. “It looks like he’s just working on that Exploud guy so we can all hear the Head.”

Oh, so Exploud is the gathering's loudspeaker, huh? I mean, I hadn't ever considered that in the past, but if you have a way of piggybacking off one's noisemaking abilities like that, it's actually pretty clever.

Gahi eventually calmed down enough for Mispy to set him back on the ground.

“Oh, oh!” Owen said. “There he is!”

Gahi: "Where who is now? I'd like to remind you all that I'm the one with the side-facing eyes here!" >_>;

Anam took the device attached to the Exploud and looked at the crowd. He gave off a big, happy smile to them all. Owen didn’t need a Zoom Lens to see a smile that big. Anam waved, and slime shook off from the arm; James respectfully backed up to avoid dirtying his feathers.

I can already tell that Anam winds up pegging people in the face with slime by accident from waving his arms around with an intro like that.
:LULgia:


“Thank you, everyone, for coming!” Anam shouted from the top, his voice surprisingly high-pitched and as cheerful as the rest of his demeanor suggested. “I’d like to first welcome our Elite Hearts to the front, so that we can see the best of our Hearts—role models that I hope you all will aspire towards!”

Owen: "... Is a 'mon that big supposed to sound that squeaky?"
:ohnowen:

Mispy: "Owen. Anam's a Goodra. They're literally designed to be visually cutesy. Are you really surprised that he sounds high-pitched?"
:sceptical~1:

Owen: "I... was just expecting something deeper and more dignified from a pseudolegendary dragon, really." >_>;
Gahi:
Image

Owen: "Wait, what's that supposed to mean?"
:judgemander~1:

Demitri: "Er... well, Anam's... kinda still a big kid at heart." ^^;
Gahi: "At heart? Though, honestly, just pay attention to Anam, Owen. It'll be easier to explain that way."

Claps, stomps, and cheers echoed from the audience while the Elites all walked up. Owen spotted that Golem from before, and Rhys, and even Nevren. “Hey, what’s that?” Owen asked. Rhys was holding onto a small bag. Nobody else had one—why did Rhys bring a bag with him for this event?

“Feh, he brought that weird glowing ball,” Gahi said.

“Glowing?” Owen asked, recalling the strange glow when he had dinner with them the night before. “What is that thing, anyway?”

It's the green orb thingy from the cover art, isn't it? Since I'm pretty sure you mentioned that that wound up being important to the early plot in short order.

“No idea,” Gahi said.

“It’s this weird, green, swirly thing, like a giant orb, y’know? But Rhys always says that we’re never, ever supposed to touch it,” Demitri said.

Mispy nodded. “Ever.”

Yuuuuuuup.

Owen: "... Wait, but if you're never supposed to touch it, why on earth is Rhys bringing it out to a gathering of almost every member of the Thousand Hearts?" .-.
Team Alloy: "..."
:joltyshrug~1:


“He moved it with a thick cloth and then sealed the bag,” Demitri said. “Not even he wants to touch it.”

“I once made ‘m slip, though,” Gahi said. “He told me it’s really strong, heh. So, I guess he doesn’t wanna get too strong.

“He keeps it on the highest shelf,” Demitri said. “Too tall for Mispy’s vines to reach, and Gahi’s too short.”

Gahi’s line technically doesn’t follow there. Since we go from Gahi talking about the orb being very strong, to Rhys not wanting to get too strong. I think that you meant to have Gahi say that the orb makes Pokémon very strong, but can’t fully tell.

Also, I kinda wonder if there should either be some background events or internal thought process on Owen's part in all of this. Since I'm honestly surprised that Owen didn't 'wait wut' internally after being told that Rhys apparently brought along some glowy orb that Team Alloy is told repeatedly to never touch.

Flame: "... And you all don't find any of this the least bit weird?"
:judgemander~1:

Mispy: "Nope!" ^^
Demitri: "Not at all!" ^^
Gahi: "I mean, it's not like it's the first time Rhys has done this, so..."
:gardeshrug~1:


“And you hate heights,” Mispy mumbled.

“D-do not!” Demitri said.

:EzeraSus:


Demitri absolutely hates heights, doesn't he? Especially since I'm pretty sure his name's a variant of Dimitri, which semantically is a name that means "devoted to/dedicated to/follower of Demeter(/more literally 'mother-earth')"

Anam continued. “I would also like to take a moment of silence in acknowledgement of the hard work that our departed Hearts have done for Kilo Village, and indeed, the whole world.”

That... doesn't bode well for what their retirement entailed, really. ._.;

This was a lot more formal than how Owen recalled most of Anam’s speeches. It must have been rehearsed extensively. The Charmander could only imagine James exasperatedly trying to get Anam to remember the words properly.

Those practice sessions must've been quite something.
:mewlulz:


Anam lowered his head. He then listed off a set of names, some of which Owen caught as familiar. They were all very old Pokémon that had worked at the dojo. Owen also heard names of other Hearts, and realized that all of these ones had, over the year, died one way or another due to a mishap or other fatality in the line of duty. His tail dimmed in solemn respect; as noble as the job was, it didn’t come without risks. That was the whole point of their line of work, after all.


Yup, I just knew something was up about those 'retired' Hearts the moment Anam said they were 'departed'. Like that's not the language one brings up for people who are about to retire.

Owen scanned the crowd immediately near Anam with his Zoom Lens. There was a Granbull next to a Nidoking, shoulder to shoulder. The Granbull was trembling, but remained stoic. The only sign of emotion she showed was when she leaned against the Nidoking. He, meanwhile, was staring intensely at nothing, tears streaming down his face.

Whelp, guess we found a few buddies of some of those 'retirees'

Anam spoke up. “We would like to thank Granbull Jin for his line of work, and grant him the title of Eternal Heart.”

I did a double-take at that name at first. I blame the fact that I've been playing a bunch of XB2 lately.

Owen remembered reading about this story moons ago, during the winter. A strange mutant that had been described as a Golduck by some and a Toucannon by others had gotten dangerously close to Kilo Village. Jin had gotten there first, and he fought it alone, buying time before the Elites had arrived. A freak accident where everything had gone just slightly wrong. Despite Owen’s foggy memory, a vague image crossed his mind of seeing Alakazam Nevren passing through the town the day after, visibly upset, yet silent. He had acknowledged no one.

“His sacrifice saved the lives of countless others. For that, we are eternally grateful, and we wish upon him eternal peace in the welcoming arms of Arceus.”

:absus:


I'm not convinced at all that that is really the full story of how Jin bit it.

Owen shifted uncomfortably, keeping his head down.

“By His blessing,” Anam said, raising his arms slowly.

“By His blessing,” some of the audience echoed; Owen followed, slightly out of sync.

Filing a mental note that HoC's cosmology is apparently Arceus-centered, though I suppose that would have something to do with his presence on the cover art and the title being 'Hands of Creation'.

Owen glanced up, thinking that it was over, but then realized that nearly the entire crowd had their heads down in silence. Flame sparking, he quickly brought his head back down—but the corner of his eye caught something. He dared and looked up again.

Anam was glowing. It was subtle, but under the dim light of the cloudy sky, the Goodra had a weak, blue glow. Rhys’ bag, too, had an ethereal radiance. The Lucario was trying to cover it up with small movements of his paws.

Oh, well that's totally normal and not suspicious at all. Not.

As soon as it came, it faded. Anam and Rhys looked normal again, and the moment of silence passed.

“Thank you,” Anam said.

I—I’m not the only one who saw that, right? Owen said. No, everyone had their heads down. But someone else had to have—


Owen: "Guys, am I tripping, or did Anam just glow there for a moment?" .-.

He glanced at Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi. They were all looking down, too. He then looked to his right. He saw a pair of Pokémon murmuring to one another. He tried to listen in.

“Glowed? Did he glow?”

“He did. It was weak, but I totally saw Goodra Anam glow!”

Owen: "Oh, so I'm not going crazy here."
:sweats:


“Maybe the rumors are true. They say Anam used to be a priest of some sort.”

“Maybe he really is holy? Oh, thank Him, the whole town is blessed!”

:mizuDoubt:


“And now,” Anam said, “I’d like to have all sixteen Old Hearts come up.” He clapped at the incoming sixteen. “You all have done a great job for all of us, haven’t you? All of your work. None of it will be forgotten! The many Pokémon that you’ve rescued, the many outlaws that you’ve corrected… th-the fun times that we all shared together, training, talking… all of that… a-all of…!” Anam sniffled. Rhys rubbed the top of his muzzle; James visibly sighed; Nevren’s left eye twitched.

The Goodra broke down in a wail, rubbing his eyes with his free arm, flinging off slime and gooey tears in many directions. The combination of paying his respects to the dead, and then saying goodbye to so many heroic Pokémon, was too much for the leader of Kilo Village.

Owen: "... Was that all supposed to happen back there?" .-.
Gahi: "What, Anam breaking down crying onstage? Meh, he's been less composed before."
Owen: "And that freaky blue glow he took on right before that?"
- Beat moment -
Mispy: "... Owen, did you not sleep well last night? Since you do know that sleep deprivation can bring on hallucinations, right?"
:what:

Owen: "Oh for crying out loud, you were hearing the same 'mons in the crowd I did notice Anam glowing!" >.<

Gahi clicked his jaws and bumped against Demitri’s tusks. “Every time with this guy.”

- snerk -
Though I figured.

The Axew picked at his tusks thoughtfully. “It’s hard to believe that the leader of the Thousand Hearts has such a… bleeding heart for all his members.”

“Not really,” Mispy said, pulling Demitri’s claws away so he stopped chipping at his tusks.

Gahi: "No, no. It's completely believable if you've spent five minutes in the same room as Anam."
:what:

Demitri: "... I mean, yes, but it just sounds like one of those things that nobody would believe if you explained it to them without them seeing it for themselves." ^^;

Demitri awkwardly lowered his claws. “Yeah, I guess when I say it that way, it makes perfect sense.”

Demitri: "And... yeah, I guess it really is kinda obvious after you've spent five minutes in the same room as Anam." ^^;

It sounded like James was finishing up the speech that Anam was too scattered to finish. Instead, while James read out the retiring Hearts’ names, Anam shook the hands, paws, hooves, and wings of those retiring or—in the case of a Magcargo—giving a respectful, sniffling nod.

“Th-thank you, f-for all you’ve done!” Anam sniffed. “Nn… nggooh… mmbbbn…!

Well that didn't sound normal at all there. ^^;

A few of the Old Hearts were a bit misty-eyed, too. Perhaps it was contagious. Someone approached Nevren on the side. Whatever was said was enough for him to discretely descend the stairs to talk away from the crowd.

Oh nevermind, it was just Anam doing blubbering onomatopoeia.

Anam’s very compassionate,” Owen admitted. “I think that’s a good trait in a leader, even if he takes it a little far.” His fire brightened. “To think I might one day be standing in front of him, retiring after decades of hard work. And then I’d start teaching new Hearts how to fight in a dojo, or something like that. Yeah. That’s what I want. Maybe not the whole Arceus thing, but I’d like to be remembered a little.” He couldn’t wait to start.

You see, the fact that Owen is bringing this up this early on into a story whose brand is a steady stream of shocking reveals makes me think that Anam isn't really like that at all once you get past the outward childishness.

“Ain’t you thinkin’ ahead,” Gahi said, an amused glint in his eyes.

I mean, you all are protagonists. I don't think you're going to have problems on the being 'remembered a little' front given a bit of time.

“I would also like to announce,” James said, scanning the crowd, “that with these sixteen Old Hearts leaving, we now need sixteen new members. To all those, ngh, Heart-working individuals with Provisionary Badges, we will be holding preliminary tests throughout today in the many dojos in Kilo Village.”

That pun was physically painful.

“Heh,” Gahi said. “Well lookit that, Owen. Guess that means yer gonna—where’d he go?”

Owen was already sprinting to the dojo. He passed by Nevren, overhearing a passing conversation about a strange Pokémon in the woods near the western exit.

“. . . Some kind of mutant.”

“Say no more. I will take . . .”

... It's the Swolax again, isn't it?

Apparently Nevren volunteered to take care of it—and at any other time, Owen would have been interested in finding out more. But this time, his priorities were hyper-focused on examinations.

Can't tell whether that's a good or a really, really terrible sign given that I know Nevren's supposed to be around in this plot for a decent amount of time, but he gives some serious "something's up with this guy" vibes.

Stiff silence filled a wide room near the training district of Kilo Village. Owen sat on the floor with a small, raised lap-desk in front of him, going just above his belly. His flame was dim with concentration and his claws glowed with residual fire. In front of him was a sheet of paper with thirty questions on it, each one more difficult than the last, though all of them were multiple choice. The dreaded five-option multiple choice, of course.

Owen: "You know, when I heard that we were having examinations in a training ground, I was kinda expecting something with a bit more combat than this." >_>;

An irritable buzzing sounded on his left. He glanced over and saw a Voltorb staring very hard at his paper, which was on a similar desk, though at ground level. His eyes, narrow, stared at the third question, electricity coursing around his body. Then, with a pop, a bolt singed one of the bubbles.

That sounds like it'd be really, really easy way to wind up screwing up your paper, but it's a neat workaround to how Voltorb can write with no limbs to speak of.

To his right was a Gyarados, mouth closed in intense concentration, staring at a supersized version of the paper below him. His huge, serpentine form was pressed against the corner of the building so he wasn’t in the way, and he was using his whiskers dipped in ink to answer the questions. He was on the fourth, it seemed.

Little surprised Mr. Fish isn't using a mouth stylus there, but eh. If his barbels have that sort of precision of movement, can't argue with what works.

The questions were changed around this year, so Owen couldn’t just blaze through it like last time. He sighed against his pointer claw, maintaining a small ember at the tip. He scorched his answer into the sixth question. Despite there being thirty of them, they had a large tank of water at the very end of the room, slowly draining into the bottom portion. It was meant to last a thousand seconds—for some reason, Anam had a bit of an obsession with a thousand—but that wasn’t nearly enough time to answer all of the questions. Every single one was tricky in some way. Policies intermingling, rare situations, but they all mattered. Equipment management, dealing with ferals morally, an outlaw with a hostage, survival tactics…

... Who on earth hands out a multiple-choice quiz and gives you less than 17 minutes to answer 30 questions that are meant to be difficult?
:riowtf~1:


Can't tell if this is meant to weed out how certain recruits operate under pressure or if Anam's just being Anam, but this sounds like it'd wind up running into "I don't test well" scenarios really frequently.

Before Owen knew it, the Scyther at the front of the room clicked. “Time’s up!”

“Urgh…” Owen breathed, hissing inwardly, and churred at the four empty questions at the end. He turned his paper over and slid it forward for the assistant Grumpig to collect. Stealing a few glances around, he felt at least a bit more confident that he’d pass. The academics were always easy for him; it seemed that most of the other test-takers could only answer a little over half the questions in time.

Wow. 26/30 questions with barely over 30 seconds to spare for each one. That's honestly kinda impressive assuming that Owen didn't just bomb his way through that exam.

Wait. Did he put his name on the—Yes. He did. He saw his name when Grumpig took his sheet. She even checked herself as part of the routine.

Owen: "Boy would that have been embarrassing if I didn't pass because of turning in an unnamed test."

Owen sighed, standing up. That’s one test down. Time for the fighting. With a quick walk outside—pressing against the wall when Gyarados stormed through, barely able to keep his sobs from becoming wails—Owen went across the dirt road and into the next building, wiping his feet on the grass just by the entrance.

Oh, so there is a combat phase to this. And guess that's one sign that someone didn't make the cut.

Owen breathed slowly. He was going to be fighting James, was he? But he seemed a lot weaker than usual. As Anam’s second-in-command, he could probably beat all of the Heart candidates at the same time.

Translation: He's holding back, Owen. If he didn't, there's decent odds that none of you would be leaving the training grounds alive.

Just next door, Owen heard the faded voice of James speaking to another set of candidates. “Substitute…” Owen mumbled. Curse his foggy memory; it was all coming back to him, now.

James was one of the best Substitute users around. It wasn’t just some doll or some lookalike statue. It was the real deal, making an actual, weaker copy of himself with a part of his own aura. That was how James had described it, at least. He wasn’t sure how he was able to do something so intricate that not even the books had records of it.

... Oh, well that would explain it. Though I'm not convinced that that's how Substitute normally works in this setting given how Owen's going through the trouble of highlighting to the reader just how weird James' is.

The fight after Dewott—it was a haughty Nidorino this time—didn’t last much longer. He staggered to Audino for a heal, and Owen realized that he had left early compared to other groups. He was next.

Owen: "... Ulp. No pressure."
:uhhh:


“Charmander,” James said, giving a nod. “Ah. Owen. Welcome again.”

Owen grinned. “Hey, Decidueye James. Er—just like last year, right?”

“Yes. I hope you do well this time.”

Owen... got smeared across the floor last time, didn't he?
:fearfullaugh~1:


Owen suppressed a wince. Last time, he had been so nervous that he tripped over his feet and busted his snout before the battle even started. There had been blood everywhere…

Wow, I had some low expectations, but Owen managed to exceed them in the wrong direction
:hoodLUL:


“Yeah. I’ll be fine.” Owen raised his hands in front of his chest, balling them into fists. Fire blazing, he stepped into the makeshift arena within the sparring room—surrounded by a few observers, and nothing else but sturdy walls to withstand particularly intense battles. This would not be one of them, Owen was sure—particularly because it seemed like even as a Substitute, James was holding back.

“Ready?” James asked.

Owen’s fire flashed a bright yellow. That was enough of an answer.

Image


James brought his wings forward, forming a bow-like weave from his wing. An ethereal arrow appeared where his feathers touched the bow. James tugged backwards; the string of light stretched, arrow aimed for Owen’s chest.

Owen reacted with a bubble of fire, though James deftly sidestepped. Owen’s attack missed completely, not so much as a singe on his feathers, and James retaliated by firing his feathery arrow. Owen knew what a Spirit Shackle felt like and he’d rather not repeat it. He dove out of the way, the feather grazing the flame of his tail, and then rolled to his side. James was already preparing another arrow.

Owen: "Oh come on! How on earth does he manage to get off three attacks when I managed one and a dodge?!" O_O;
James: "Agile Style, gotta love it." ^v^
Owen: "That... didn't exist at the time this chapter was originally written." >_>;

Owen’s Fire Traps would be useless like this. James was too fast and too dangerous to get close to plant one nearby—that aside, he also had no time to set one up in the first place. He just had to wait for an opening. But how was he supposed to find an opening from the Thousand Hearts’ second-in—

Owen didn’t know his legs could send him so high into the air, but he almost made a flip over the ground to dodge another arrow. He landed on all fours, puffing. He had to get James off his guard. He only really knew one way to do that.

... Wow, maybe Owen actually can pull this off with whatever freaky voodoo his parents are trying to keep under wraps.

Bitter darkness welled up in Owen’s throat. While James prepared another arrow, he spat a black, cloudy sphere toward him. James sidestepped it again, but that wasn’t good enough. It burst into a thick cloud of smoke, enveloping James.

The Decidueye grunted, evaporating his arrow in favor of blowing away the smoke. Now was his chance! Owen rushed toward James, closing the gap, and stomped on the ground, channeling his Ember through his foot. Then, he jumped away, right when the smoke cleared.

I can't tell if this is actually going to work or if this is going to result in getting brutally humiliated in about five seconds.

Owen spewed a small plume of fire to taunt James. He couldn’t do much after spending so much on the trap, but it had to be enough so James wasn’t suspicious that he did nothing while he was blinded.

The heat scorched a few of his feathers, but that was all. He wordlessly readied another arrow; Owen retaliated with another blast of fire, this time veering it slightly to James’ left. He sidestepped again—right onto the trap.

... Wait, so Pokémon in this setting can basically leave moves waiting to go in the ground for others to step on as a regular thing? Or is that a party trick specific to Owen there?

Fire erupted from below James, the Decidueye hooting once in surprise. Owen lunged with fire in his throat, spewing flames at the Substitute, but just then, he saw a ball of darkness in the heart of the fire.

Eyes wide, Owen had no time to think or block the attack. Instead, the Shadow Ball came straight at his chest, exploding on impact. The force sent Owen flying across the room in a spectacular spiral, ground and ceiling rapidly exchanging positions. He hit the floor three times, bouncing twice, and eventually stopped near the corner of the room.

Owen groaned, the world spinning around him. “I’m okay…”

Whelp, brutal humiliation it is. Even if it took a bit longer than 5 seconds for it to roll around.

But his fire burned happily. He landed a good hit on James, and historically, that was more than enough to pass. The Heal Pulse that washed over his body—he was starting to worry about how used to this he was getting—only added to his satisfaction.

inb4 Owen gets DQed for that whole "Ember Trap" stunt he did, since I'm not fully convinced that was a normal or legal move there.

By the time his senses returned, he saw a few Pokémon standing over him. James, a Delphox, and the uncannily familiar face of Axew Demitri.

“Oh, hey,” Owen greeted. “Did I win?”

James straightened out the last of his feathers. “You didn’t win, but you passed, if that’s what you’re wondering. You nearly broke this Substitute.” He hooted again, inspecting one of his burned feathers as if it mattered. “I’m quite impressed, but I’m going to have to return myself to James so this Substitute can be replaced. Excuse me.”

Huh. I wasn't expecting things to go so smoothly, but score one for Owen, I guess. And will have to keep that trapmaking party trick in mind for the future.

The Substitute dissolved in a cloud of black mist.

Delphox sighed, rubbing the back of his head. “You must have really startled James for him to do an attack like that on you,” he said, pulling Owen up. “Still, you should’ve guarded that attack. Don’t you know Protect?”

Owen: "... Am I supposed to? I don't think I know a ton of TM moves?" ^^;
- Delphox pinches his brow -
Delphox: "I'll take that as a 'no'." >_>;

“I was trying to follow up with my Trap!”

“You got greedy,” Delphox said. “Just remember that next time you fight someone that completely outmatches you.”

To quote TTGL, "your bravado will get you killed". Even if I'm pretty sure Owen has some advantages on being able to come back from that a lot of others in this setting don't seem to have.

Owen grumbled, breathing flames into his hands. This was going to be at least another session or two of meditating. Still, Delphox had a point. “Oh—er, Demitri.” Speaking to someone more his level was a bit more reassuring. “Guess I did pretty well here and in the exam portion, huh?”

The Axew nodded twice, clutching at his tusks excitedly. “Yeah, good job!” Demitri said. “So, you’re going to get into the preliminaries! That’s nice, right? That’s gonna happen later in the afternoon, y’know. And then, after that—uh, if it goes the same way as last time—you’ll find out in the evening if you’re in or not. Fast!”

Owen: "W-Wait, 'preliminaries'? Just how many Pokémon are competing for these 16 Entry Heart positions?"
:fearfullaugh~1:

Demitri: "... A lot? But the point is, if you had that good of a showing, I'm sure you'll have smooth sailing through the rest!" ^^

“Yeah… Yeah!” Owen’s eyes were almost as luminous as his fire. “That’s right! This is my shot!”

“We don’t have any urgent missions to take care of,” Demitri said, “so we’ll be there to cheer you on when you take them!”

Gahi:
Image

Demitri: "Gahi, Owen's going to be a teammate of ours if he makes the cut. Seriously, be a little supportive!"
:EzeraSus:

Gahi: "Just saying, we could be going out there boosting our rank and getting paid right now!" >_>;

The Charmander nodded, his flame brighter than ever. Even if he was a bit careless in a fight against someone as strong as James, he would be able to prove himself in the mock-mission. Then they’d see—after that, he’ll finally be a full-fledged Heart.

On one level, this is seriously tempting fate, but on another, aren't you finding it the least bit strange that you're doing this well in spite of never having made it to the battlefield in the past, Owen?

Owen: "Guess being a late-evolver's really paying off for me!" ^^

Owen took a short breath to gather his thoughts. As excited as he was about the exams, he still had some time to kill. The lingering thoughts of the orb in Rhys’ bag returned to him.

“Hey,” Owen said to Demitri. “Where’s Rhys? I want to talk to him again.”

There... is exactly zero way that Rhys is going to give a straight explanation of what on earth that orb is, though I suppose the plot does need to head in that direction in short order, and I can already tell from the way it was dealt with this chapter that it's not just a shelf-warmer.

Alright, onto the recap and outro:

It was a bit of a slower chapter, but I suppose I can't really fault you on that front, since the primary purpose of Chapter 3 seems to be to soak the reader into the world a bit, get some lols in at Owen in moments like his embarrassing dance sequence, and tee up the 'hey, lookit the shiny orb from the cover art that will become plot relevant in the near future'. The chapter also pulls off a pretty strong sense of things not adding up, and I can already tell that this chapter is going to read fairly differently at some point down the road. Since pretty much every character outside of Owen and Team Alloy this chapter gave off "dude's not shooting straight" vibes.

As for things that I was less sold on... there were a couple bits where I'd have liked more description, especially to see more of Owen's thought process as he attempts to cope with "I'm not going crazy, that's totally normal" about some of the topics that Team Alloy and the other characters have dialogue sequences over. Other than that, I don't think that I have a whole lot of bones to pick. Perhaps the ending could've had a bit more punch to it, but meh. It's chapter 3 of 151. Things don't necessarily need to be earth-shattering at this stage of the story when the reader's still figuring out how things work in it.

Though good show, @Namohysip . I was a little worried that I might have been a bit out of things coming back to this story after a while, but nope. It was pretty easy to get back into things, and it definitely made me curious as to where things were going to go in the near future. Hope the feedback was fun to pick through, and I'm sure that finding out more about this orb is going to be quite an experience when I cross paths with this story again. ^^
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Thanks for the feedback, Fobbie! Replied to you elsewhere, but I'm glad you enjoyed yourself.

Chapter 138 – West Null Village

Two-thirds of Migami were nervous about where they were flying. In a patch of barren land that interrupted the featureless black forest, there were mountains and empty fields of rock and dust. Those were the same fields that had left Demitri and Mispy stranded and starving for what felt like moons.

Apparently, not far ahead of here, opposite of the way they’d gone previously, was West Null Village. It wouldn’t be long now. It was surreal that they now had the strength and rations to make the trip. The amount of mobility that wings granted them…

“Any word from your other self, Owen?” called Eon, still miraculously maintaining his form of Jerry during the flight. There had been a few times where his mind had wandered and he had to land on Migami’s back to make sure he didn’t revert.

“Not yet,” the Charmeleon replied back. “Guess he’s busy doing other stuff. He seemed a lot more tense… I guess being cooped up in a cell or whatever would, you know, mess with someone…”

“How’s that work, anyway?” Migami asked, Gahi’s distractibility getting the better of them. “Do you… get angry when he gets angry? Or something?”

“I don’t think so,” Owen replied, though now he seemed puzzled, too. “I think what’s going on is we’re just living different lives right now. I guess when we reunite, we’ll… average out? Hopefully, uh, we don’t get too different. That’ll get complicated.”

Migami winced. “Complicated,” they repeated. “Like Rhys. Or… everyone else.”

Owen’s expression darkened, but he nodded. “Yeah… I, uh… When this is over, I think we should talk to Dialga or something. Just set Palkia’s pearl down and set up the Waypoint thing so we can get right back, and then relax a little. I think the other me is taking care of things for now, maybe? Or at least, he’s not in any danger…”

Zena curled around Migami’s body again, reorienting herself. “We can’t let you suffer, though,” she said. “Is taking a break really something we should be doing?”

“I think so,” Owen said. “I get it. It’s dangerous to be anywhere near Alexander. But… what can we really do? We can’t take him head-on. Marshadow is probably trying to develop an opening or something, too.”

Zena was tense around their body, but the Milotic nodded and sighed.

“Alexander… I can’t believe how horrible his aura was. How can the world be this way, where someone so awful can be so powerful?”

Owen nodded. “I think it’s because he’s so awful that he’s so powerful. I don’t think you can gather that kind of dark power without being able to… mentally handle it.”

Migami gave Owen a skeptical look. “Didn’t you?” they asked.

It was probably a comment better left unsaid, because Owen flinched and looked away. Migami sensed guilt in his aura. “Well… I guess that’s true, too.”

“Then it’s not just the power,” Migami concluded. “It’s how he used it.”

“Some power is just naturally evil, though,” Owen said, and Zena nodded along. “How can you use something from Diyem… for good?”

“Well… Anam used it to—”

“Don’t go there,” Jerry growled.

Owen seemed a little smaller as they continued to fly.

Jerry sighed. “Look, maybe Kilo is peaceful, but I lost my home and livelihood to him. Don’t care if it’s because I didn’t try hard enough,” he added, flashing a glare at Migami. The Gahi portion felt it was directed at him. “My life was ruined.”

A tense, awkward length of time followed as they flew over the valley.

“…You resisted Alexander’s attacks, though,” Owen added. “So, the place you used to live in the south… it was…”

“Yeah, I guess it was powers like that.”

“And it ran in your family?” Owen asked.

“Yeah. Mew’s blessing, and Void’s blessing, or something,” Jerry said dismissively. “Mom had the first part. Guess that’s why it’s so easy for me to channel all kinds of techniques on the fly. Others take a while to switch out what they can call quickly.”

Migami thought back to Owen’s account on how Amia had struggled to channel a technique she hadn’t prepared… A Shadow Ball to defeat Star, or at least disrupt her. How that had been what sent her to the Voidlands in the first place. If Amia had Mew’s Blessing, that wouldn’t have happened…

“So, your dad’s side had Diyem’s blessing in the bloodline,” Owen said.

“Guess so,” Jerry said idly.

“…Was he bad?” Migami asked, overriding Mispy’s caution thanks to Demitri’s curiosity and Gahi’s boldness.

“I maybe killed him,” Jerry spat. “Maybe. There’s no proof. So, I’m pretty much hoping he’s a blob here in the Voidlands, so he doesn’t get to live some cushy life oppressing someone else.”

“O-oh.” Migami nodded. “Sorry.”

“It’s whatever.” Jerry beat his wings a little harder to gain altitude, then settled into a glide, conjuring some updraft.

“That’s hardly whatever,” Zena said. “Is… is your mother well?”

Even Migami knew that was a terrible question. Owen, too, cringed, and Zena shrank away.

“You don’t need to answer,” she added awkwardly.

“No. It’s fine,” Jerry clearly lied. “She’s dead, too. But, it was peaceful. A little early, but… peaceful. She survived the whole thing after I allegedly killed the guy, and had some good years after that. But, she had medical problems she was born with, and you can’t really heal those off. Her life expectancy wasn’t the greatest. But, I made it comfortable, and…”

“And… lost your way after that,” Owen said. “But it’s good that you cared for her, right?”

“Let’s talk about something else.”

“Right. Um, sorry.”

More awkward silence.

“Well, she died peacefully, in her home, then?” Zena asked. “You feel she was… that she was at ease, when she died?”

“Yeah,” Jerry replied, not looking at any of them. “Yeah, I think so.”

“Well… perhaps we could…” Zena glanced at Owen, who tilted his head. “See… her? Later? When we have the… time, and ability, when we leave here. Perhaps, if we contacted Hecto, I do believe he…”

Between breaths and a sigh, Jerry said, “Yeah, I thought about it.” He took another one, tired and strained. “Not interested.”

Eon beat his wings next, then clumsily conjured his own updraft. He had trouble keeping pace with their flight. He was sometimes too fast, and other times too slow. “You wanted to end off on a good note,” Eon guessed.

“Finally, someone gets it,” Jerry muttered. “She’d… hate what I turned into. If she’s really out there somewhere, I hope to something that she wasn’t watching me fall. I’m… gonna just stay strong.”

Those words swam around in Migami’s mind. Stay strong. Had they heard that phrase from him before? It seemed so familiar.

“West Null Village is ahead,” Zena reported, leaning forward like it would help her see more from Migami’s back. “Do you see it?”

The wasteland of mountains gave way to a collection of sparkling gemstones just by a mountain base, where the forest met the hills. That sparkling place must have been the crystal-embedded buildings that warded off Void Shadows. There must have been a lot of people there to fight.

No, no, that wasn’t correct. That wasn’t the correct line of thinking.

“Hey,” Owen said, patting Migami on the neck. “Feeling alright?” He gave them a concerned look and patted a little longer.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Migami replied weakly. Sometimes they really hated his Perceive. Couldn’t hide a thing from him.

“Once we land, you can defuse and not worry about it,” Owen assured them, and that was a small relief. Just a little longer and they could keep calm again, and not worry about losing their minds.

They shifted their formation for a glide down. At around the same time, as they had been informed, some Null guards flew toward them from the town. Owen climbed atop Zena, waved them down, and the guards flew to the top of a hill.

“I think we should land there,” Owen said. “Just to let them know we’re friendly.”

The landing kicked up dust and Owen coughed a few times from it. Migami, feeling self-conscious and worried about being set off, avoided eye contact and acted like some pack Pokémon meant to carry supplies and not speak to anyone. That kind of feral existed here, right? Oh, to be that simple-minded… In some ways, it was easier when they weren’t aware of their slipping sanity.

“We’re from South Null,” Owen said with a polite bow. “Did anyone let you know about us coming? We’re here to set down a Waypoint from Palkia himself.”

“Palkia, yeah. We got that,” replied a Staraptor guard, though his intense gaze was scrutinizing them with every word. “But how do we know it’s true?”

“Well…” Owen trailed off. “Uh… we’re… not attacking you or anything?” He smiled nervously.

Staraptor glanced at his Noctowl partner, who nodded. They both routinely pulled out a crystal each with their beaks and flashed it at all of them. This only accomplished confusing Migami, who tilted their head at the light and tried to grab at it.

The Staraptor scowled and dropped it back into his bag. “Well, they aren’t Void Shadows,” Staraptor said. “Fine. You can come along, but don’t wander until we’re sure you’re safe.”

“Tight security,” Jerry muttered. “Guess that’s smart. What, ran into trouble lately?”

“There were Dark Matter sightings. That isn’t very often, and we aren’t taking any risks,” said Staraptor.

“Oh, Dark Matter shouldn’t bother you right now,” Migami said. “We put him out of commission.”

“Wh-what my friend here means,” Owen explained, “is that he… came to South Null Village, and—”

“Look, we heard the story. We’re just skeptical,” Staraptor said flatly. “Tree of Life in South Null? Legends being restored? Dark Matter, defeated? Yeah, right. That’s got ‘too good to be true’ written all over it.”

“But it is true…” Migami frowned. “I’d swear, like, one of my souls on it.”

“Migami, maybe… don’t talk about that,” Owen whispered, though that earned an odd look from Noctowl.

“You are strange looking. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Pokémon as big and… warped as you.” Noctowl stared even more, his gaze intensifying. “You practically look like a tiny Titan.”

“They’re vines,” Migami said as a few of them involuntarily opened up, revealing their serrated, thorn-like teeth.

They all seemed to recoil at that, and Owen quickly interjected. “It’s fine! It’s fine! He’s, uh, just… Southern! Southern Kiloan, lots of strange things down there, you know?”

Strange doesn’t cover it,” Staraptor growled, “but I get it. South had all kinds of twisted life. Whatever, fine. We got advanced warning and it adds up, so feel free to head in. Just don’t cause trouble. Got it?”

He looked right at Migami when he said that, so Migami scoffed back. The Demitri part of them had enough sense to nod with more politeness a few moments later. With everything ready, they took to the skies once more and glided the rest of the way to West Null Village.

They landed, mercifully, without incident, though they got quite a few stares from many Pokémon that lived there.

“Nice, warm welcome,” Jerry muttered. “Alright, where are we putting this Waypoint down? Let’s just slap it on the ground there and leave.”

“I thought you wanted to get away from Null Village?” Owen asked.

“We’re in a Null Village.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Just wanted to clear my head a little with the flight,” Jerry said with another grunt. “Days of flying helped with that. Turns out seeing some possible ancestor being the evilest king in the whole world can get you thoughtful and nostalgic.”

“Nostalgic,” Migami repeated. “…Why is that nostalgic?”

“Look, I—” Jerry sighed. “What, did I never explain it to you? Dad was… a higher-up in the South before Anam took over. He had Void’s Blessing, so I inherited that. I also inherited Mom’s Mew’s Blessing.”

“Two blessings?” Migami said, not familiar with what either blessing specifically was. Or what a blessing meant in this case. It sounded familiar…

“Yeah. Apparently, getting a bunch of blessings was something the family line always wanted, but it’s hard to track those ones down, especially a Mew’s Blessing. There were some Pokémon who had it, but they also had some kind of third property that made it impossible to pass on the Void part, I guess? Look, I sort of… don’t care about that. Never did.”

Migami didn’t either, so they nodded.

Zena, however, persisted. “Your family line had Dark Matter’s power, then,” she said. “And Star’s power, in one. That’s interesting, but the power that counters it… That might be Necrozma’s.”

“Guess so,” Jerry said dully.

Owen was riding on Migami’s back, so they noticed when he tensed. They turned their head back, tilting it at him, but then followed his gaze down the road.

Eon’s form shifted suddenly from Aerodactyl to a star-shaped sprite, which then quickly shifted back to a Charmeleon, but with a yellow hat shaped like a star. He desperately tried to pat it down.

West Null Village’s landscape was very similar to South Null’s, but rather than roads of ceramic clay, it was dirt embedded with gemstones, just like the walls. They all glowed dimly.

On the far end of the street, past several light crystal-dotted buildings, were four Pokémon with similar shapes but very different temperaments, just at a glance. A yellow, star-headed Pokémon that Migami recognized as Jirachi. He looked nervous and trailed behind the other three, who were the Trio of Mind. The other yellow-headed one, Uxie, was the furthest in the back, her eyes closed. The red one, Mesprit, looked the most fearful, nervously playing with his hands. And the last one, blue and somehow much larger than all the others, was Azelf, far ahead of them with an intense look in his eyes.

Migami was briefly conflicted on what to do. Defensive stance? Attacking stance? They were small, so they could probably attempt to crush them. But they were also Legendary Pokémon, so they likely had much more durability than their bodies suggested. Psychic barriers were also a possibility.

That moment of hesitation was all Azelf needed to close the gap Azelf not only flew straight past Migami at incredible speeds, but also slammed directly into Owen, his tiny arms wrapped around him. Thanks to his larger frame, they were around the same size.

Zena was too startled to do anything, but after a moment, she relaxed. Migami followed suit, though the tension was still in the air.

“A-Azelf?” Owen squeaked. “It—yeah, it’s me, um… I…”

Azelf pressed his forehead against Owen’s chest. “’m sorry,” he mumbled.

“You’re… sorry?” Owen asked, but realization seemed to hit his eyes a moment later. Then came the same conflict Migami felt, just from the stories Owen had told them.

Perhaps out of reluctance, perhaps from uncertainty—Migami couldn’t get a read on the aura coming from Owen—the Charmeleon wrapped his arms around Azelf next.

“Right,” Owen said. “It’s… it’s alright now.” He tried to pry Azelf off, but he was stubborn. And somehow Migami knew that stubbornness wasn’t going to fade any time soon. It reminded them of Gahi, which only made sense.

Jerry, meanwhile, muttered a few curses under his breath before saying, “It’s never simple meetings, is it?”

“I suppose not,” Zena said with a little laugh. “Owen?”

“Oh, uh—” Owen tried again to push Azelf away, but that only made Azelf’s tails wrap around him. He sagged his shoulders in defeat. Uxie was shaking her head disapprovingly, while Mesprit offered a nervous smile. Jirachi waved at Owen, who winced and waved back.

Migami wondered if awkwardness was edible.

“Let’s find someplace to sit and talk,” Owen said.

“Uh, well, there’s—the main headquarters,” Jirachi said. “Or… our place…”

“Let’s do the headquarters,” Owen said.

“R-right. Right.”

<><><>​

Similar but different was the running theme for comparing South and West Null. More crystals embedded the walls here, but the buildings themselves seemed to be made of wood rather than stone. Owen wondered why, then, they seemed so sturdy. Maybe they were coated in something that made them more resistant to the elements? It certainly didn’t look like Protect insulation…

The headquarters for West Null Village was made of that same material, but the walls seemed thicker, and there were odd crystal patterns inside that seemed to be for some kind of programming. There was a screen at the far end of the main room that was currently unpowered.

At the center of the room was a long table where they all sat. Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi, now split apart, were stealing glances at their counterparts. Owen watched all eight of them—Jirachi and Eon included—with morbid fascination.

They really did share a few little quirks. Mispy and Uxie were both completely silent while observing the rest. Mesprit and Demitri were fidgeting nervously, perhaps sensing the tension in the room. Jirachi and Eon kept looking at him, which he could do without. And Gahi and Azelf were busy sizing each other up.

“Well,” Mesprit finally said, “this is… more awkward than I thought it would be.”

“I’m just glad you guys didn’t try to kill me,” Owen admitted. “We didn’t exactly end off on the right foot…”

“Times change… and, well, it’s not like you were responsible for what happened after,” Mesprit said. “Once you were out of the picture, someone even worse rose up. Alexander…”

“Even worse, huh.” Owen deflated.

“A-ah. Sorry…” Mesprit bit his lip.

“It’s worse in some ways. You were still an enemy,” Uxie replied, speaking with her mind. Mispy stared at her enviously. “You still led the fight against Necrozma, siding with Dark Matter for the fate of the world.”

Owen kept quiet, several arguments rising in his mind, but he knew that wasn’t the place for it.

“Go on, Owen,” Uxie said, and Owen jumped. “Explain why we’re wrong.”

“Now you’re just taunting me,” Owen muttered, bringing his hands to his lap to be as closed as possible. His flame dimmed.

“No,” Uxie replied. “I want to know.”

Was this a trap? Was Uxie just going to try to pick apart his logic, a thousand years later, to explain once again how everything he’d done was a big mistake? He already knew that. He didn’t want to get it told to him again.

But, this was their home. And they were supposed to make amends. And… they’d been trapped in the Voidlands for—Owen wasn’t really sure how long it had been to them. An incomprehensible amount of time to a mortal, he was sure.

“Let me just ask this,” Owen said first. “Do you really think that, if I let Necrozma end the world, he would have brought everyone back with Dark Matter purged?”

“No,” Uxie said.

Owen flinched. Okay, that wasn’t what he was expecting. He glanced at Mesprit and Azelf, who both didn’t object. Then, he looked at Jirachi, who seemed pained.

“Okay, you’re… going to need to give me a second,” Owen said. “I wasn’t expecting that answer.”

“Why do you think so?” Uxie asked.

“Well, because, uh, Owen just knows,” Gahi said. “He’s smart like that.”

“He had to have had a reason,” Demitri added. “Owen?”

Mispy’s eyes were closed, like she was considering why.

Owen answered first. “It was because of the compromise he made.”

Uxie nodded, like that was the correct answer.

Feeling emboldened, Owen continued. “If Necrozma actually planned to revive the world, he would have ended it completely and then did it all at once. Assuming he had the power to do that, at least. But Star and Barky didn’t think so, or maybe they thought it wouldn’t go that way… so they instead wanted to let the people who lived in the world have their final century instead. No new souls would show up—so, no new life would be born—but nothing already alive would be killed. They’d just die off. And he had the Legends provide for the final generations the things that no new life took away from the natural order of things.”

“What?” Demitri breathed. “You can’t be serious. That’s the world you lived in?”

“Near the end of my time as Wishkeeper,” Owen confirmed.

“That’s… terrifying! Imagine being, like, an adult, but you’re the youngest person in the world. No kids. Ever? Is that how…”

“Yeah,” Owen said. “I remember. It happened just before you two were considering settling down to have a family, actually,” Owen said to Demitri and Mispy. “But then you ascended, so that was off the table. But if you wanted to ever go back to that…” He looked down. “But, my daughter also wanted a family. I think that… might’ve, um, contributed to driving me over the edge. That she could never have a family. I don’t think Necrozma realized that his solution was just going to cause pain anyway. But it was telling in other ways.

“Because it meant he didn’t intend to bring the world back. Imagine living your whole life where no kids were born, and then suddenly all these generations would just… come back? Restarting the world from some random point after the slow apocalypse? It’s… weird. Complicated. Like Necrozma didn’t really consider what would happen after the end… because he wasn’t going to bother with it.”

Uxie nodded again. “That’s correct. I came to that conclusion as well… but by then, it was too late. I was clouded by the fear of what Dark Matter would have done instead that I solely listened to Necrozma, and assumed you had been taken by darkness.

“In fact, it was who came after you that made me realize you were not taken by Dark Matter. You were the one keeping Dark Matter at bay.”


“Alexander,” Azelf spat. “Apparently, in the power vacuum that we left behind by takin’ Wishkeeper out, Alexander took over with Dark Matter’s full power. Became some… screwed up feedback loop o’ negativity’n lust fer power.”

“R-right.” Owen hummed. “Do you know why that happened at all? How Alexander… did all of that?”

“Nah. Only that he became a problem pretty soon after,” Azelf said. Then, with a snort, he added, “Definitely would rather fight you th’n him. Least you didn’t send troops ter raze the whole place…”

Owen didn’t want to know the details. He knew enough from how Alexander was—

“Wait,” Owen said, “how did Alexander get defeated, then?”

“We aren’t actually sure on that, either,” Azelf said. “Someone did him in and it wasn’ us.”

“What?” Owen leaned forward. “Everyone keeps saying they aren’t sure how this all happened. Are you saying that Necrozma wasn’t the one who, I don’t know, pulled Alexander into the Voidlands to keep them both from escaping or something?”

“You’ve been reading too many comics,” Jerry mumbled aloud, earning a glare from Zena.

Azelf only shrugged again. “We dunno.”

“Hm. Well, maybe my other half will have an idea,” Owen said. “He’s at Cipher Castle right now.”

“He’s WHAT?!” Azelf nearly hit the ceiling.

“You can’t just drop that on us casually!” Jirachi said.

“I—I thought you knew?” Owen sputtered. “I guess that part of the news didn’t get across… I left behind a potted plant that held some of my spirit, and that’s what I grew out of. Most of me got carried to Cipher City. I’m also a tree.”

There was a beat of silence where nobody moved.

Then, Jerry said, “Your friend’s a freak, you know.”

“Point is,” Owen said, shrinking, “I’m going to be getting some information. The reason we came here was to set up a Waypoint from Palkia, and… to gather some power.”

“Right. That part we know.” Jirachi glanced at Eon, who avoided his gaze. “We’re… getting back together, I guess. I don’t really know the whole story about what happened to me after the war, but I take it, not good?”

“You could say that,” Eon mumbled. It would have been to himself, had the room not become so quiet.

Each of the four pairs of halves stared at each other again, and that tension was back. The tension that, one way or another, this room of so many bodies was going to shrink by four one day. Perhaps even this day.

“Do we know what that’s like?” Mesprit asked first. “Does—does it hurt?”

That’s your first question,” Azelf growled, pointing an accusatory finger at Gahi. “Look what happened ter us! We’re all… mutated! Twisted around!”

Eon looked like he wanted to disappear.

“I’m… kind of surprised you’ve been alive this long, actually,” Mesprit said. “Normally, when a half dies, they’re pulled across the Aura Sea, into the Voidlands, and then toward whoever their spirit corresponds to. That’s the memories they get, at least. Kinda like a dream… Which means something’s been keeping you tied to the living world.”

“Most of this is news we’ve pieced together,” Uxie added. “It has been so long that the most recent person to recombine did so many centuries ago.”

“Centuries…” Demitri rubbed his forehead. “H-how much time that would do to someone… How different have we become?”

Uxie turned her head to face Demitri, then Mesprit.

“Surprisingly, not very much,” she stated flatly. “I don’t know why you have changed so little. But Legends tend to change at a slower rate. It comes with having a mind built to withstand eternity. For better or worse, that helps us here.”

“Oh, something similar happens for Mystics,” Owen said. “I think a lot of the Mystic Pokémon we know just set up a realm in a Dungeon and went dormant…”

“Oh, that sounds… lonely,” Mesprit said. “But it makes sense, if that’s a piece of Necrozma influencing them. They would probably tend toward stillness and stasis. B-but that’s good! That means, err, when we combine, the changes won’t be… horribly jarring… I hope…”

“Now, hang on,” Gahi said, leaning forward. “Y’know, we’re talkin’ like we’re gonna be doin’ that right away, but I’m wise ter that.”

“Yeah,” Azelf agreed, leaning forward in the air, as if there was an invisible table in front of him. “I think these guys’re tryna pull a fast one on us!”

“Oi! I’m sayin’ you Legends’re tryna pull a fast one on us! Yer gonna eat our souls and lock us far ‘n away!”

Uxie and Mispy both covered their faces with their hands or vines respectively.

“Who would that benefit, Gahi?” Owen asked patiently. “If you’re two halves, then that means anything we do badly to one will also come back to the other. Right?”

Part of him was hopeful that was true, but from what they’d seen briefly of Dialga, it wasn’t completely the case. Rhys’ memories were there, but deep within Dialga. They had no idea if they would surface fully, or…

But Rhys had been killed in a peculiar way. Maybe that didn’t have to happen.

“Well, we don’t really know one way or the other,” Mesprit admitted. “It’s not like this happened all that often… It’s only when we had a talk with Latios, and heard about you all, that we put it all together…”

“Oh, Latios. He’s fine?” Owen asked. “Latias is okay. She was possessed for a little bit, but we fixed her up.”

Uxie shook her head, smiling. “You say it so casually. Yes, he’s fine. I think he’s resting right now. He’ll definitely want to follow you back through the Waypoint.”

“Easy to do,” Owen said. “…Then, I guess we should try to sort out how this… reunion part works. Because we need to keep the bodies, a-at the very least.” Owen shifted uncomfortably. “It’s needed for… something we could use, possibly, to counter Alexander. A massive spike in power…”

After taking a breath, and getting some confirmation from the others, Owen explained everything. Occasionally, Eon hesitantly perked up to explain some technicalities, or Zena would explain how it all looked from a bystander’s perspective, but by the end of it, Owen had explained the Alloy project. The Reincarnation Machine, the mutants, the fusion of their minds and bodies, and how it had all gone wrong.

“…So, in the end,” Owen said, “even if it was meant for Arceus, or something else I can’t remember, we can use it against Alexander instead. So, if we do this spiritual reunion, we need to keep the bodies on our side.”

“I understand,” Uxie said. “We can tell at a glance that your bodies have more physical capabilities… if imbued with Legendary power. As it stands, though, we are stronger.”

“R-right.” Owen nodded nervously.

“Oi, wanna say that again?” Gahi growled. “You li’l pixies ain’t got anythin’ on us!”

“It is nice to see that the reunion between you and Azelf will not be turbulent.” Uxie then faced Owen again. “But I believe we will need time to process this. Jirachi?”

“Huh? Yeah, I’m listening,” Jirachi mumbled, looking lost.

“…A lot of time,” Uxie concluded.

“That’s fine,” Owen said. “Our main goal was setting up the Waypoint. But, be careful, alright? Maybe you can come with us, or something? Since… it might get dangerous around here soon if Alexander figures out our movements.”

“That is also something we will need to consider,” Uxie said. “But we may take you up on that offer. Lately, the Titans have been much less hostile.”

“Oh, that’s because—”

“Alright, about now’s when I’m getting tired of talking,” Jerry said, his spaded tail jabbing Owen in the side. Owen chirped in surprise. “Can we, like, rest somewhere while the Waypoint’s being installed or whatever?”

“Oh. Um.” Jirachi looked awkwardly at the others. “I guess you can go in the same facilities we have Latios in, if you want. Temporary housing?”

“Sure.” Jerry jerked his head back. “While the smarties get the Waypoint installed, I’m taking a nap. Did nothing but flying and sleeping on rocks for days. About time I sleep on something proper.”

“Uh, sure…” Owen nodded again, unsure why Jerry was insisting on ending the meeting early. That jab seemed meaningful.

“You know, you’ve all been through a lot,” Mesprit said. “How about we resume fresh after a good sleep?”

Uxie nodded. “Get some rest. We will send for you in twelve hours.”

And as suddenly as they’d started the meeting, they ended it. Owen wandered after Jerry with the others, sparing only a glance backward as Uxie, Mesprit, Azelf, and Jirachi looked at one another wordlessly. Mesprit nervously waved at him.

It occurred to Owen just then that they might have been speaking telepathically the whole time.

<><><>​

…Oh, so you’re worried that they might have been conspiring mid-meeting? And Jerry spotted it?

Owen, in his new room in Cipher Castle, listened to Owen’s recounting of their arrival in West Null Village. His bedding was soft, the pillows fluffed, and the room remarkably spacious. He felt guilty about it all, but it was also a guilty pleasure to be in that kind of soft bedding, to feel it under his belly and arms, to feel a warm blanket over his back. He’d curled up and nearly slept the day away, despite having no need for sleep anymore.

That’s basically it, Null Owen replied. I don’t… want to lose them.

Cipher Owen winced, nodding before realizing that Null Owen wasn’t going to see it. Right. That’s hard. I, uh. I don’t know either. I guess asking each other for advice doesn’t help when we’re basically the same…

They at least aren’t trying to kill each other for dominance,
Null Owen said. That’ll be fine. Maybe tomorrow, we can talk it out. Or we’ll just go back and… get to know each other. A lot of the pairs are doing that, actually. You know, to ease in to being the same again.

That’s scary to think about,
Cipher Owen admitted, curling around a pillow to stare at his flame. Living two totally different lives, and then suddenly you need to get together to live one? That’s, like, a reverse-Hecto or something.

…Hecto… Hey! That’s a great idea!

Wh—oh! You’re right! Hecto would totally have advice for this sort of thing, right?
Cipher Owen sneezed against the flame on his nose.

I’ll do that! I’ll tell the others, too. Tomorrow. Oh, and you also said you had some other news for me?

Right. Actually, it’s kind of… kind of similar news.


A pause. We don’t have a Legend half, right?

No, no! We don’t. We’re whole. Just you, me, and the Tree.


Null Owen seemed relieved. Just so you know, splitting more than three parts causes some instability or something, or it makes each part a lot weaker, so we should avoid that.

Yeah, I know. Speaking of threes… You remember Remi?

How could I forget?


A beat.

Uh, never mind. Anyway, what about Remi?

Cipher Owen wasn’t sure if he should continue, but he’d already broached the subject. Do you remember Spice?

The Salazzle? …No, she’s… not… What?

Part of Remi was lost in the Voidlands. And Spice wasn’t ever able to get Orans to work on her well enough, remember? The ones that were made from Anam’s light—so, Necrozma’s—to have stronger healing properties. Apparently, she’s also been acting strange lately, right? When all the darkness was rising up?

Yeah, that’s what the Kilo side reported to us at least, but that was more like a footnote…

It’s because she’s a Void Shadow. But, one that was able to hold onto a few things, or something. She might have some of our light in her that let her persist. She’s… She might be Remi. No, not—she’s part of Remi. She’s also in three parts.

Spice… Wh-who are the others?

Mhynt knows that one is in our Tree self right now. I’m trying to reach him, but he’s not all that talkative. He must be focused on… Tree things, or something.

Are… are you sure?
Null Owen seemed hesitant at that. Sometimes I feel like he’s listening in. Let’s keep talking. Tree-me! Try to look around for a spirit that might be Remi, and maybe doesn’t remember?

And Cipher Owen couldn’t blame him. To think that Remi was right with him that entire time… She might not even realize it.

Null Owen continued. Who’s the third?

Enet.

Okay, but how?

We don’t know. But Mhynt could sense her spirit there, too. She had to get Enet out of there immediately, before Alexander and the others found out. Something’s… strange about all of this. Spice, Enet, and whoever’s in the Tree, all being here. Mhynt doesn’t know why or how. Obviously, we don’t, and Eon would’ve told us if he knew
anything about Remi. Nobody knows why Remi is like this now.

I feel like there’s still more to all of this than before. Something… happened to Remi. Call it a gut feeling, but it feels important.

Then… that’s our next goal. Talking to Enet and Spice, and the third fragment.

But be careful,
Cipher Owen added. We don’t know what it’ll do to them. Or to ‘Remi’ inside. If it’s anything like what happened to us, or to the halves…

A grave silence descended upon them. They imagined the centuries of Resets, the pain of getting it all back. Their mind shattered and sewn back together time and time again. If they said too much to any of Remi’s parts, would she suffer the same fate?

I want to see Remi again, Null Owen said. But if it means hurting Enet or Spice, what… what do we do?

Just telling them wouldn’t hurt, right? Maybe… maybe start with Spice. She might be wondering about herself a lot. Maybe it’ll give her some closure, or something…

Or it’ll make her go insane,
Null Owen added, sounding conflicted.

Cipher Owen winced, nodding for Null Owen to not see.

This must’ve been how everyone felt when hiding memories from me, huh? Null Owen said. I guess now I get it…

A wave of strange guilt and empathy washed over Cipher Owen as he curled a little tighter around the pillow.

And we felt awful when it was revealed to us, and we resented them for not telling us sooner, Cipher Owen said. That means we need to tell them, but find a way to do it… carefully.

Yeah. I don’t want to repeat that kind of history. Not when we know.

Right. Okay, well. Get some rest, alright?

And what about you?
Null Owen asked. How much time do we have?

I think I’ll be fine for a while. I have a plan that’ll buy time for you guys. And if all goes well, I think we’ll be able to escape soon… All of us.

Alright. But I’m still checking in every day, alright? We can’t drift apart. Otherwise it’ll get even more complicated.


Cipher Owen chuckled. Drifting apart… He trailed off, wincing. Mhynt and I… definitely did that. We’re working together, but it’s a little painful. Oh—and how’s Zena doing?

She’s doing great! Don’t worry about her. I think a lot of this halves stuff is going over her head, though… Actually, I think I might talk with her about it.


Cipher Owen let out a sigh. At least some things are going well. Make sure she’s holding up, alright?

Oh, I will.
Null Owen paused, and Cipher Owen had a feeling he was putting a fist to his chest.

Suddenly, the door opened, and Cipher Owen glanced at the doorway. A blast of water sent him tumbling off his bed and hard into a wall. Ugh—

Other me?

Sorry, I’ll talk to you later,
Cipher Owen called as another beam of water shot through his chest.

Qitlan shut the door behind him, glaring icily. Owen had a good idea that he was still fuming over being outsmarted, so it was going to be another round of playing dumb.

Have to do a meeting.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Chapter 139 – Gone, and Remembered

“You must think you’re perfectly clever,” Qitlan said, sneering, but Owen could see the hostility in his eyes. “I’ve already figured everything out.”

The Charmeleon slowly got up from the wall, glancing at his shoulder that now had a hole going through it. “I just made that bed,” Owen mumbled to himself, noticing that the cushion had been similarly pierced.

“Playing the role of chaos in an attempt to throw me off will only result in your ruin,” Qitlan continued, pacing into Owen’s room and closing the door behind him.

At least twenty of Qitlan’s long strides separated the two of them. They’d generously given him a room far too large for the Charmeleon to ever need. He could sprout wings and fly freely if he wanted.

“Role of chaos?” repeated Owen. “No. I’m only… cashing in what you gave me. Thanks for the prizes… by the way.”

Another beam of water smashed through Owen’s other shoulder. Owen’s vision was muddled for a moment, but then he came back to his senses enough to see Qitlan casually striding forward. Only ten steps separated them.

“Go on. Heal yourself,” Qitlan said.

Owen was tempted to defy him, but he knew there was little need for that now. Qitlan was trying to intimidate him. Or maybe he was just upset.

Still… he could try bringing this to his advantage.

Slowly, Owen’s wounds began to heal. Red scales turned to green feathers; flesh seeped into place with vines. Slowly, that grass weaved its way into the wound before shifting back to red, hard scales and bone and blood.

“Don’t think that picking some random soldier will give you an advantage,” Qitlan said. “Every single one of their souls is held under lock and key. They will not go against Alexander no matter what trickery you try to do with them.”

It was odd of Qitlan to warn him about that. Wasn’t that obvious? Or was he feeling vulnerable? No, Qitlan was too experienced in this sort of thing to let a little chaos get to him in that way. Perhaps this was yet another trick. Trying to get him vulnerable.

But that left Owen with two options. Act unintimidated and show his hand? Or act fearful and give Qitlan what he wanted?

“Speak,” Qitlan said sharply.

“Uh—I, uh…” Owen still needed time to think and Qitlan gave him none. “Why’re you so mad?”

“Mad? I’m not mad. I’m disappointed.”

“And you… shoot people if you’re disappointed?” Owen asked.

“It’s a hobby.” Qitlan took aim with a finger, paused, and then sighed. “Not even worth the energy.”

He was definitely toying with him. Qitlan was trying to get a rise out of him again. He could act nervous, so he did, fidgeting and letting his flame spark a few times. “Well, uh, I, uh… oh!” The surprise was genuine. “I finished the Gone Pebbles. Two, actually.”

“Oh?” And it seemed Qitlan’s was as well, but even his Perceive had trouble determining if it was genuine or not. “Alright. No more shooting. Why don’t you show me?”

Owen nodded and scampered to a small bedside table, opening the drawer below a dimly glowing lamp of crystal. Inside, there were two mundane pebbles that resonated well with aura. He grinned and presented two of them to Qitlan. “I finally got the hang of making them,” he explained, “and I was able to make two before getting tired.”

After tossing the first one to Qitlan, he pulled out the second, hanging onto it.

“Hm.” Qitlan studied it. “And I simply tap into the energy stored within to activate it, just like channeling the energy into a Geo Pebble for energized throwing?”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m assuming,” Owen said. “Seems obvious to me.”

Owen stood nervously. As mundane as it was, now, and as little as he respected Qitlan, he was still being evaluated for his work. And it was a lot of work and spare time.

Qitlan seemed to scowl at Owen just then, but he clutched the stone all the same, focusing his energy into it. Trails of water spiraled around Qitlan’s arm and into the stone, and then out again. Trails of golden light followed the water as it seeped back into his arm and shoulder. There was a pause… and Qitlan was, however briefly, in a trance. His eyes relaxed, closing. His whole countenance had changed, like he had been taken to another world.

When tears fell from Qitlan’s cheeks, it left Owen in staggered awe. Qitlan was coming back to his senses, so Owen straightened his back and tried to look formal again.

“So… so, did it work?” Owen asked delicately.

Qitlan gently placed the depleted pebble on Owen’s bed. His eyes finally opened, and that cold stare returned. But Owen couldn’t ignore that little light flickering in his eyes.

“It did,” he replied simply, curtly. “Very good. You’ll be able to make more?”

“Yeah. Do, uh, did you want the other—”

A jet of water pierced Owen through the heart. He staggered back, wanting to shout in surprise, but only blood came out. He struck the shelf and collapsed to a knee, squeezing his eyes shut to focus before the blood loss forced him to pass out. He wasn’t sure if that was possible, but he couldn’t afford the risk. Not now.

“Did you really think light would ‘purify’ me?” Qitlan said, wrapping moist fingers around Owen’s head, pulling him back to his feet. He forced Owen to stare back at him. “That a little light would put me under your domain?”

Unable to talk, Owen only stared at Qitlan with exaggerated confusion, as if that would somehow convey more effectively how absurd Qitlan sounded.

“You should know, Wishkeeper, that your deceptive tactics do not work on someone who used to operate under your command. I know your tired strategies. We’ve had centuries to sharpen them against you. You are useless. Helpless, like a hatchling still wearing its shell.”

He tried to talk again. Getting there, but it was only gurgling coughs.

“Alexander lays claim to my soul,” Qitlan said, pulling Owen off the ground by the head so he dangled there, straining his neck. “His power dominates me and will snuff out whatever pathetic influence you try to sneak inside… Do not forget that.”

Once again, he tried. This time, raspy words came. “I wasn’t… trying. I just made… a Pebble.”

“That warmth is not how it feels,” Qitlan said. “I’m going to have it analyzed. If this was your plan… consider it an abject failure.” He dropped Owen to the floor, taking the second pebble with him. “If you are truly telling the truth… you will make more. Memories are precious here, after all. They can extend an identity’s life.”

He walked to the end of the room, analyzing the stone. “Goodbye, then.”

“What did you see?” Owen rasped, air flowing easier again. The vines growing around his chest enclosed around the flesh, transitioning back into familiar bone and blood.

“What?”

“What… did you see?” Owen asked again. “The memory. You were crying… What was it of?”

Qitaln was just barely within the range of his Perceive. He felt his heart pounding a little harder, his lip quiver, his tail imperceptibly twitch.

“I have no reason to tell you,” Qitlan said icily, fingers turning to doorknob.

“Someone you loved?” Owen asked. He felt another little twitch, the fingers barely flexing as the knob turned. “Someone who Voided?” The fingers relaxed, a smirk twitching on Qitlan’s face by a millimeter. No, he was getting colder. “Or someone not here at all… that you haven’t seen?”

The smirk was there, but it wavered, and that may as well have been a cry that he was right.

“Don’t… don’t you think they’d be upset at how you are now?” Owen asked.

He fired another jet of water, and Owen was tempted to block it with a Protect, but knew not to. That wouldn’t be good right now. Instead, his arm twitched, but he feigned it to be a failure to react, and the jet hit him in the shoulder, leaving another clean hole into the wall.

“I’ve had enough of this.” And, hastily, Qitlan left, fleeing from his Perceive.

The door shut. Owen Perceived Qitlan rushing down the hall at a brisk pace, his emotions a little more visible. Pain and shame, maybe. Denial, trying to forget. Regret? Was that regret? Owen didn’t know Qitlan well enough to place those body movements to any particular emotion yet. Maybe he was just projecting, assuming Qitlan would have reacted the same way he would have. The same way Wishkeeper must feel about all that happened.

At least, that was Owen’s hope.

“Guess he has a heart after all,” Owen said to himself, laughing a little. It’s really too bad… he doesn’t want it to beat…

<><><>​

Without a rift in the sky to reveal the sun, the time for rest came whenever their bodies called for it. Team Alloy and their partners were all given a large, spare room in an area that felt similar to the quarantine rooms when checking for Void Shadow doppelgangers. Thankfully, they were touched up to be homier, even if it was temporary housing.

Still, could they not have at least given them a few extra rooms besides just the one? Zena couldn’t help but think it a few times, but she also knew it was on short notice. That they got shelter at all was a kindness in a world like this.

“Well, I think that’s everything we have at our disposal,” Zena reported, her ribbons placing a pile of blankets forward. “All one size. Smaller Pokémon can share. Larger Pokémon can double up.”

“So in other words, you ‘n Owen,” Gahi said with a skeptical stare.

“W-well, I wouldn’t demand it…”

Mispy rolled her eyes and pulled Demitri and two blankets closer, nibbling his shoulder.

Gahi crossed his arms, glancing at Jerry.

“Nope,” Jerry replied.

“Feh… Whatever.”

Zena tilted her head. Didn’t Gahi always enjoy resting alone? Or… After glancing at Owen, she saw that he seemed concerned, too. Something was bothering Gahi again.

“…Oh.” Of course. She hadn’t realized it. During their rests between flying, they’d always slept as a large group while taking watch over the rest so they weren’t ambushed. Back at Null Village, Gahi had been spending his nights with Team Alloy or…

“What?” Gahi growled. “Look, I, eh… I dunno. Place is cold, ‘n stuff. Blankets ain’t gonna do it all.”

“It’s too bad Trina didn’t come with us, but she’s still weak,” Zena said, nodding. “You two have really taken a shine to each other, haven’t you?”

“A shine?” Gahi asked. “Well, sure. Y’know, she’s a lot nicer when that whole Bug control thing ain’t front ‘n center. Well, nah. Figure she’s always been that way…”

“Really?” Zena curled around Owen habitually, giving him time to adjust and get cozy. “What makes you think that?”

“What, you think she ain’t?” Gahi asked.

“I think she’s nice,” Zena clarified. “I didn’t think you two would… get along.”

“Y’know, I agree,” Owen admitted, finally situated enough that he leaned against Zena like a pillow. “Gahi, Trina’s sort of, like, a ruler of her own community of mutants, and don’t you usually hate being ordered around?”

“It ain’t like that. She respects’m and stuff. We had a talk about it. She doesn’t see it as her servants, more like people she takes care of ‘cause they were mistreated. Sure, maybe it’s a li’l high ’n mighty, but when I said I didn’t wanna follow her, she listened.” Gahi crossed his arms, turning his head. His antennae twitched. “Changed m’ perspective on ‘er.”

Zena and Owen exchanged a look. Then, they both looked at Mispy and Demitri. They had the same look.

“Um, Gahi,” Demitri said gently, “do you miss her right now?”

“Eh?” Gahi looked confused at first, but then stared at his belly, as if it somehow had the answers. “Never thought ‘bout it that way… How come?”

Jerry rubbed his eyes and glared at Eon. “Would it kill you to give ‘em some social awareness to go with the killing machine stuff?”

“I—I didn’t do that part of any designing,” Eon stuttered.

“Of course you didn’t,” Jerry muttered. “Does seem more like something Nevren would do, with how you guys talk about him… And how Palkia is.” He shuddered. “Can’t believe Barky picked someone like him to control space.”

Owen was settling a little more against Zena. She recognized that he was getting sleepy. Distantly, she wondered if this Owen was properly mortal. That meant the one in Cipher City was the immortal one. Well, that just meant he had to be guarded more carefully.

Gahi’s tail flicked. “So, we’re headin’ back t’morrow?”

“Gods, you’re hopeless.” Jerry flopped onto his beanbag and tucked under his wings.

“Just come over here,” Owen said with a sigh, gesturing for Gahi to come closer. Zena smiled a little sadly, deciding that if Gahi wasn’t going to acknowledge himself, they would have to do it for him tonight.

“Mmff, fine, if y’need me,” Gahi murmured, rolling with his beanbag until he was next to Zena.

Demitri and Mispy were already cuddled up. Jerry was drifting off. Eon had melted into a pile of pink slime in the corner, bubbling peacefully.

The windows were closed; the lights within the room were dimmed. It was as close to ‘nighttime’ as they could manage, and even then, red light gently crept through cracks in the window veil. Zena had gotten used to that kind of light.

There was a slight glimmer from Gahi’s body from that stray light. It caught Zena’s attention any time he shifted his body or moved his wings. Gods, he really was glossy with those scales.

Another glare of light caught her attention just as she was drifting off. That was when she realized Gahi was staring at her. Intensely.

Gahi was a strange one. All of Team Alloy had their quirks. But staring at her at night was downright creepy. She was tempted to snap him out of it with a little pop of ice, but it was too weird. Her eyes darted to the others, who were asleep, and then back at Gahi, who continued to stare intensely at her. Focused. When they made eye contact, he tilted his head, looking almost conversational.

But he said nothing. And she didn’t want to reply. Everyone was asleep, even Owen.

Gahi’s brow furrowed, like he was concentrating hard on staring at her face.

Oh, skies. Zena suppressed a sigh. She wasn’t familiar with this, but the Flygon’s twinkling, starry wings in the dark room gave it away. “Gahi? Can you hear me?”

“Oi, there y’are!”
Gahi looked more pleased than when he won sparring matches. “Took y’long enough ter answer!”

“That isn’t how telepathy works, I think, Gahi. Are you trying to tap into your Psychic Orb?”

“Sure it is, I’m Psychic now, so I gotta know how ter do that. Half you guys have telepathy anyway.”


Patience, Zena, patience. “Was something bothering you?”

“Eh… no.”
Gahi glanced away.

Somehow Zena had a feeling she was the one being psychic here. “Tell me what’s on your mind that you had to speak specifically to me, Gahi. It’s about Owen, isn’t it?”

“No.”


Zena waited.

“…But y’reminded me about somethin’.”

“What did I remind you of, Gahi.”

“Like… so… you’n Owen… and me’n Owen… and Mhynt’n Owen… ‘n Azelf’n Owen…”

“He’s lived a long life,”
Zena said. “To be honest, I can’t wrap my head around it, but it’s not as if having relationships that… ended is unheard of.”

“M’yeah. Guess so.”
Gahi’s eyes looked around randomly, and even in the dark, it was easy to see his shiny limbs moving around in search of a comfortable position that always changed. “Look, I just wanted to say, ‘m kinda… probably not gonna be lookin’ fer Owen in that way. Dunno how ter break that ter Azelf. But Owen and I, we ain’t… I mean, maybe we were, but we’re just buds, y’know?”

“You don’t have to be so nervous, Gahi,”
Zena said.

“Well, sure I do! You c’n blast me with ice!”

“Do you really think I would do that?”

“Yer, like, intense. I dunno! But yer always lookin’ out fer’m and stuff… I dunno…”


Why now, of all times? Zena couldn’t even remember if she’d had a long conversation with Gahi before. If Gahi had these conversations with anyone. Now that she thought about it, if Gahi was like that, then it must really be bothering him…

“This must be confusing for you,” Zena said. “All of this… other-half business, and your feelings for Trina. Are you worried?”

No reply. She got him, but she didn’t know how to help. This was Gahi’s battle.

“Just talk,” Zena offered. “Communicate. It… helps. I think talking and making sure everyone understands each other is more important than ever. Keeping secrets and hidden agendas… That’s what got the whole world in this mess in the first place, isn’t it?”

“Y-yeah, sure. Talk. Like it’s that easy…”

“We’re talking now. And weren’t you afraid I’d ice you?”

“Yeah, yeah…”


Zena attempted a warm smile, unsure if he could see it in the dark. “Did you want me to help in some other way?” she offered. “Talk to Trina? To Owen?”

“Dunno… Like, ain’t that fer me ter do, er somethin’?”

“Maybe. I’m not very experienced with this myself.”

“Eh? What’s that mean?”

“Well… Unlike all of you, I don’t have any… amnesia, or past life, or second self. I’m just Milotic Zena. I’m… pretty normal, actually, compared to all of this. Makes me feel small, if I had to be honest.”

“Small? Yer huge!”
Gahi said, and Zena wanted to feel insulted, but knew by now he didn’t mean it that way. “And fer bein’ normal, yer the one stickin’ up ter th’ gods practically as easily as Owen does it.”

“Well, if only because I’d been wronged by one or two in particular…”

“Yeah, but, it still counts. Y’were there befer we ev’n came back.”

“Owen was there for me before I was there for him,”
Zena pointed out. “I remember that much. All those memories coming back… Looking at it now, when I’m more—more, well, distanced? Distanced from it. The way I was toward him… wasn’t healthy, was it?”

Gahi stared blankly. A gust of wind could have blown through the back of his eyes cleanly.

Zena sighed softly. “Owen and I were together out of desperation. I was hopelessly lonely, and Owen happened to rescue me. Owen was desperate for something solid and tangible, and I was… there for him. But I don’t think we actually got to know each other until us being together was something we were working towards, instead of the other way around.”

More empty staring. Then, “I don’t get it.”

Zena sighed. “It’s just why we’re starting over. I’m trying not to get too attached.”

“Why?”

“Well, because… the way things were, how would that sustain itself once we were actually out of a crisis? We only knew how to be together when people were trying to keep us apart…”

“Doesn’t that mean you’ll jus’ be t’gether easier when that’s done?”

“Gahi, it’s… not that simple.”

“Well, yer doin’ a bad job explainin’ it. Sounds ter me like maybe yer back t’gether because y’like each other and that’s it. I don’t get it. Yer try’na be nice ter each other by lettin’ each other go, but y’both wanna go back t’gether.”

“Yes, Gahi, that’s the point. I think… I think I was obsessed. I don’t want that.”


Gahi looked at Zena, then at Owen, and then back at Zena. He just shrugged. “He say the same thing?”

“What? I haven’t told him this!”

“Why not?”

“Because—well. He has a lot on his mind.”

“Tch. You just told me communication is important. Lookit you now.”


Zena clenched her jaw, unsure how to counter that. Maybe it couldn’t be countered. She looked down at Owen, always glowing dimly from his gentle, warm flame. It didn’t burn anymore; his dreams were peaceful, for once.

“I suppose I did say that,” Zena said.

“Alright. My turn, then, eh? What’re YOU scared of?” Gahi wore a smug look on his face like he’d beaten her at a game of marbles.

Zena resisted the urge to ice him and said, “Nothing I can’t get past.”

The smug smirk appeared to soften. “Yeah? Well, good. Figure Owen would want someone real strong.”

“Hm.”
Zena agreed with the statement, but not the follow-up. She did wonder if she was strong enough for him. The way he fought was frightening, but even he was frightened of that. But how he cared for others, was she able to emulate that same compassion? Had she been in his position… there was simply no way that she could be so forgiving. To Eon, to Diyem of all people, where did it end? Where was his limit?

“Oi,” Gahi said. “Yeh got that distant look in yer eye.”

“Ah. It’s nothing.”
Zena tried to break the psychic connection, turning her head away. Gahi seemed to notice and frowned. She was sure he’d try to prod more, but he didn’t. His head turned, he curled up, and that was the end of it.

A small part of her had hoped he would continue. Now she was alone with her thoughts, glancing down—only to realize that Owen was staring right at her. She nearly seized up at the concern in those bright eyes. He reached up to her gently, questioning her, but not forcing an explanation.

Zena forced a little smile and shook her head. It was far, far too late into their sleep. She lowered her head, and Owen rested against her cheek.

“Tomorrow,” she promised quietly.

“Okay.” He gently stroked her forehead. She wasn’t sure when, but at some point, she’d managed to fall asleep.

<><><>​

Owen prompted Gahi and the others about what he’d learned from the other him in Cipher City. They spoke in a small common area that all of their rooms had connected to, over a simple breakfast that Demitri gladly cooked up. The ingredients were a little fresher here, though there was still that bitter Voidlands aftertaste everything had.

He stated most of the news quickly, only going over the very basics, and tried not to make it sound too grave. Unfortunately, Team Alloy was far too perceptive.

“So we’re on a timer,” Gahi stated flatly. “Either we get Other Owen outta there, er they turn’m inter a Reset soldier like befer, and fer all we know, that’ll carry over ter you if they blast yeh with the same energy.”

Zena was hiding her terror with an angry face at the ground. Owen knew that would happen, but he had to let them know. “It’ll be okay,” Owen assured them. “He has a plan, too. In fact, er—well, I shouldn’t give the details about it yet, in case, you know, some people with Alexander might be listening in here, somehow.”

“Here? All the way in West Null?” Gahi pressed.

“You never know,” Mispy stated. “Alright…”

The door from the main entrance into the common room slid open. “Hey!” Jerry called, waving at them. “Waypoint is set up.”

“That was fast,” Owen commented.

“Palkia’s instructions were, uh, surprisingly easy to follow,” Jerry said.

“…Somehow, out of everything,” Zena said, “that surprises me the most.”

Owen had to agree. “Well, lucky us,” he said. “That means we can probably get back soon. But, that just leaves one question… Who will be coming?”

“Between the fairies and stuff?” Jerry said. “They’re all coming.”

“A-all?” Owen said. “Won’t that leave West Null defenseless? They’re all of the Legends…”

Jerry only shrugged. “That was their decision. Sounds like they’ve got contingencies.”

“If they say so…”

Maybe they had time to prepare for things like this. They could only hope. At least the Void Titans weren’t as active anymore, if at all, in the area.

“So, we headin’ back?” Jerry asked impatiently. “Nothing’s stopping me from heading back, actually. So I’m gonna go do that. You guys do whatever.”

It was nostalgic to think about heading ‘back’ someplace being only one Waypoint away. How long had it been since they’d been able to enjoy anything like that?

“Um.”

But a single, deep voice got their attention, and Owen turned to face Zena. “Oh.” He nodded. “Guys, can Zena and I stay back? You all can go ahead. We’ll catch up.”

Zena and Gahi had exchanged a look for some reason, but for once, the Flygon was the first to agree, leaving silently.

Jerry looked vaguely annoyed for yet another reason and said, “Whatever.”

“Good luck,” Mispy mumbled, sliding out.

Owen tilted his head. But soon, as they all shuffled out and the door closed, they were left alone.

It seemed a lot different when it only had two people. The large table seemed excessive; all the facilities were far too much for just two people to work with. And with it all cleaned, there was a distinct sense that they were no longer welcome there, overstaying after their tenancy had expired.

Still, in an attempt to make it feel a little roomier, Owen approached one of the seats and hopped on. Zena slithered to another and coiled around it.

“Is this about last night?” Owen asked. “That wasn’t a dream?”

“It wasn’t.” Zena sighed. “I was speaking to Gahi telepathically.”

“Oh? Wow, he’s really getting better with that Psychic Orb. I mean, the Teleport stuff was a big tipoff to that, but—er, sorry. About what?”

Zena was smiling a little when he rambled, but it faded when she talked again. “I don’t really remember the specifics. Just the feeling. Of… of…”

Owen leaned forward, trying his best not to use his Perceive. It was rude. He knew it would make people uncomfortable, able to so thoroughly read everything that they felt, even if it wasn’t actually their minds…

“I-in all honesty, I think you’d know my feelings better,” she admitted.

“Huh?”

“Your, er, your Perceive. What do you feel right now?”

“I’m trying not to read into it,” he said openly. “It’s, I mean, I think it spooks people.”

“Oh. Does… Oh, I think I see why that’d be true…”

“…I… just sense that you’re tense. And your chest and heart seems, what’s the word, uh, tighter. And I think I know your body type better now, so it means you’re… conflicted?”

“Conflicted.” Zena relaxed a little. “Yes. That’s the word.”

“What about?”

She paused again. Her throat was tense, now. Wanting to say something, yet for one reason or another couldn’t find it in her.

“This is silly of me,” Zena finally said, exhaling. “We have this world, we have Kilo, so many things to save, and I’m focused on this.”

“Well, it’s going to distract you if you don’t get it out of the way,” Owen replied patiently, having a good idea where this was going. “Come on. You can just say it.”

“R… right. You probably already know, don’t you?” Zena smiled sadly. “I guess it would be silly of me to try to hide things like this.”

“I don’t really know about that,” Owen said. “I’m old, but a lot of that time was spent being reborn and scattered… It’s not totally the same, you know?”

“Maybe so…” Zena finally exhaled. “All right. I’ll just say it.” She closed her eyes, like she didn’t want to look at him when she said it, but something must have convinced her to stare directly at him when she spoke next. “If you are doing anything just for the sake of my feelings… Please, set them aside. The world is more important. If… partnering with Mhynt is better, or leaving me behind to work alongside Gahi is needed, or anything where I… do not fit in. Please. You must do so without…” She gestured to herself.

…That actually wasn’t what he had been expecting, so he wound up staring dumbly at her for a while to reorient himself.

“Er.” Zena glanced away. “I think I made it sound too dramatic…”

“No, I—wasn’t expecting it, that’s all.”

“What? What were you expecting?” Zena coiled a little tighter, puzzling over it with a furrowed brow.

“I thought you were just gonna ask if I still had feelings for Mhynt or something,” Owen said. “I said he—uh, other me—was a little different, and he was with Mhynt, and, well, I guess that’s the conclusion I thought you’d make. I mean, I did for a little while, too, before he told me that wasn’t what was happening.”

“What? He did? But… weren’t you two…”

“We were,” Owen agreed. “We had a daughter, a family, yeah. But… that was a thousand years ago. I don’t even know how many resets it was for me, but I changed since then. And… so did she.”

“Oh.” Zena sank a little.

“What’s got you sad?” Owen asked. “I figure that would make you happy.”

“No, I…” Zena tilted her head. “I don’t know. It’s… hard to put to words. But that idea, that… that change. How people can change so much that even a happy family you once had can turn to something less. It must be awkward, too, if you’re trying to save Mhynt at the same time.”

“A little,” Owen admitted. “That’s how he described it. There’s that feeling, sure, but there’s a bigger feeling that it’s not the same. My Perceive is all about seeing through illusions, right? And looking instead at exactly what things are. May not be able to Perceive relationships that well”—At this, Zena seemed to titter a little, and Owen felt a little nostalgic—“but I can tell that it’s just while we’re captive. I don’t think I can… or should… try to rekindle things with Mhynt.”

Zena still looked conflicted. She was coiling around something invisible, and Owen had a decent idea what that meant.

“And it’s not because of you,” Owen assured. She loosened some. He got it right. “But… you wouldn’t be against her and I being friends, right?”

“N-no, I wouldn’t,” Zena agreed, though she was tense again. Pushing past something. And perhaps she realized this, too, and shrank guiltily. “Really. You have every right…”

“Thanks,” Owen said. “I get it, though. It’s complicated. I mean, when has anything not been?” Owen rubbed his cheek, sighing.

“It’s all so overwhelming,” Zena admitted. “I don’t know how you deal with it. I only have my one life. You…”

“And that’s what I need the most right now,” Owen said, a little firmer. “Please. You can ground things for me, right?” Because right now, Zena needed a sense of purpose. He was starting to piece together exactly what seemed to be bothering her, and it really had nothing to do with Owen at all, did it?

“Ground things,” Zena echoed. “You mean…”

“Zena, you’re… normal. Yes, you’re a Guardian, and you lived for a while, but most of that time was spent dormant. Before, you were friends with Emily, sure, but before that you were… just raised as a normal Feebas, and then a Milotic. Xerneas knows your spirit is whole. There’s no Legend waiting to unite with you. You don’t have some crazy past about some countless lives you lived before. You’re… a Milotic, who lived in Kilo, and happened to become a Guardian when Emily gave hers up.

“I need that right now. I need someone… normal, who can handle all of this anyway, and remind me that… I need to remember what normal is like when going through all this. That I shouldn’t be trying to do all of this divine stuff when I’m not even close to ready for it. I just have to, but… when it’s over, I can’t lose sight of what I’m really fighting for. Especially when, as Wishkeeper, I…”

“Remember what normal is like,” she once again echoed. “Because… that’s who you’re trying to save?”

“Exactly. If I lose touch of that… I don’t know how that’ll go for me if this is over, if we win, if we save everyone. Because—what then, right?”

“Right.” Zena was quiet, eyes darting here and there, but she was thinking it over. “Right. I think I understand what you mean.”

“Say it to me,” Owen asked.

“Because I’m actually normal, without anything bogging me down except Guardianship, I’m someone closer to normal that can remind you of… what you’re really fighting for. So you don’t lose touch with what it means to live in Kilo.” Zena smiled, and finally she seemed to relax. “You never did like the gods. It must be frightening to be so close to being like one.”

He exhaled, nodding. “Yeah. That’s exactly it, huh?” He played with his tail, admiring the ember. “…So, don’t worry, Zena. I’ve thought about it. Other me thought about it, too. He’s worried about you, he asked how you were doing, all that. And Gahi, er… don’t worry about him. He’s sorting out his feelings, but I think we know where that’s going.”

They both nodded at each other at that.

“He has strange tastes,” Zena commented.

“His taste used to be me,” Owen pointed out with a scaly brow quirking.

Zena leaned forward to nuzzle him. “I stand by it.”

“You can’t even stand.” Owen leaned into it. “Should we catch up with the others?”

The Milotic wrapped her ribbons around him, setting him on her back. “Remind me, was the plan to meet with everyone in the South Null Town Hall?”

“Yeah. I think Xerneas wanted to get us for something.”

“Xerneas. He won’t be happy if we take any longer. He’ll probably assume the worst in how we’re wasting time.” Zena rolled her eyes as she advanced toward the door. “Really. I barely know him, and I can tell none of the gods could stand his attitude.”

“…What’d be the worst?” Owen asked.

“Something I considered every so often,” Zena replied. “I’m sure your Perceive would tell you the answer.”

Owen tilted his head and assumed that was permission.

“…O-oh.” His flame flashed blue.

Zena giggled and continued along. “It’s only normal, after all.”

<><><>​

Most had gathered in front of the Radiant Tree of Life. Dialga, Palkia, those from West Null Village, and Xerneas and Yveltal. The god of death had taken on a new, icy form, and despite her intense stare, there was a newfound kindness in her eyes that surprised Owen. Some were not yet present; Trina, Alex, and several others were still handling other tasks in Null Village, and Xerneas apparently only had the energy to work with some of the team, not all of them. He refused to elaborate on exactly what that was all about, though.

“Very good, you’re all finally here,” Xerneas grumbled. “Hold still. This will only hurt for a few hours.”

“H-hang on!” Demitri raised his hands up. Mesprit did so at the same time. “What exactly are you about to—”

“You first, then.”

Mesprit tried to shield Demitri, who tried to shield Mesprit, and they both wound up getting hit by a radiant blast of energy from Xerneas’ rainbow-colored horns. The screams were drowned out by the loud, deep buzzing of the attack shaking the ground, but when it finally subsided, Mesprit and Demitri crumpled on the ground unchanged, Xerneas puffed and looked at the rest.

“Next,” he commanded.

“What did you do?” Owen asked.

“Good, keep volunteering.”

Owen was tempted to cross his arms, but he spotted Demitri returning to consciousness. It was at least not lethal. Despite being annoyed, Dialga and the others didn’t seem alarmed, either. He endured.

Searing hot pain rippled across his scales and then plunged straight into his heart and bones. It was like everything all at once was being jabbed with needles, and yet for some reason none of it truly hurt. The next thing Owen knew, he was on his back, staring at the sky. Demitri was next to him with Mesprit resting in his lap, both of them still looking out of it.

“Huh?” Owen mumbled. “I was standing…”

“Don’t move too much, Owen,” Zena said, rubbing his shoulders.

He leaned against the ribbons. “What happened?”

“Xerneas is reviving everyone,” Zena explained, and Owen tiredly turned his head to see if Zena looked similarly tired. And, indeed, she did, though she still had the strength to hold him.

“Revive,” Owen repeated. “Because… Right. He’s the embodiment of life itself…”

“It doesn’t seem to restore memories very easily,” Zena explained, “but it at least allows us to leave the Voidlands without evaporating. He said that some of us, those who already had ‘light,’ would be able to do it naturally… but he didn’t want to take any chances.”

“I remember being on the surface. It was a little… hot, but I don’t remember evaporating the same way,” Owen agreed. “Maybe if I concentrated, I’d do better… but Demitri, Mispy, Gahi? They had more trouble.”

“Nah,” Gahi murmured. “I remember that.” He was on Demitri’s other side, adjusting his wings. “Felt like Demitri ’n Mispy had it th’ worst.”

Owen nodded absently, but he could only think about what that meant for Remi. Spice. She was from the Voidlands, but was able to sustain herself. That could only mean… she had light within her, too. A Void Shadow with light…

Owen jolted upwards, only to get too dizzy to stay standing. He collapsed against Zena and slurred, “Where’s Anam?”

“Not here. Busy with Giratina ‘n his mom.”

“Same thing twice,” Mispy groaned.

“I don’t envy that one,” Demitri said with a little titter. “She was… scary. I can’t believe Anam’s related to her. He’s nothing like her.”

“Where’s James, anyway?” Owen asked. “Is he still in Anam?”

“Think so. Maybe he’s summoned fer their outing.”

“Ahh, good. You’re talkative.” Dialga greeted all of them from one of the buildings. Demitri and the others couldn’t look at him directly, but they all hummed a greeting, leaving the Timekeeper to stare awkwardly. “Er, yes. Well… I’ve also been revived while you were unconscious, of course. And, ah, that did… happen to restore one of my other little features for the time being as well. If it would please you…”

He had their attention. Without true confirmation, Dialga only nodded awkwardly again and said, “Right. Well…”

The god’s body brightened to a blinding white and shrank down, down, down. In a pulse of wind and light, his shape changed from four legs to two, revealing a painfully familiar, lithe frame.

Lucario cleared his throat and smiled at them. Demitri tried to stand to see better, or at least pay some form of respect, but Owen’s heart could only sink deeper. It was his body, but all the subtleties of his muscles and body language were… off. Distant.

It wasn’t really Rhys anymore. Yet, as far as Owen could tell, he was the only one who knew. He wanted to say it right then, and yet, hearing Demitri sob with relief, hearing Gahi whisper ‘Pops’ under his breath… he couldn’t. No amount of will would let him point it out. Not yet.

“Well,” Lucario said, clapping his paws together, “shall we go home?”

Gahi disappeared and reappeared in front of him, collapsing a second later from strain.

“Ah—!” But Lucario caught him, holding him gingerly. Gahi refused to let go, squeezing him tight, and even Lucario was stunned by how open Gahi was about it.

“Missed you,” Gahi murmured, shaking. “Thought y’were…”

And finally, Lucario’s and Owen’s eyes met. Owen wasn’t sure what expression he was giving, but it was apparently horrible enough for Lucario’s to shift to one of a sad, warm apology.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Chapter 140 – The Last Remnant

Sun. Sky. Warmth. Light. It was approaching winter, and yet somehow even the bitter cold felt warm in the afternoon daytime. Because it was the first time many of them had truly been able to experience daytime at all.

It didn’t matter that it was just outside of a collapsed cave. It had once been Owen’s home. Yet, that history was small compared to the feeling of freedom and proper air on their real scales and living bodies.

It was different. It was something Owen hadn’t realized he missed. This whole time, when he’d visited the living world for however brief it had been, they were shielded by the light crystals. Their bodies could not stand living beyond a Dungeon, let alone in the world itself. They were not “alive.”

But that also shielded them from the pleasant elements. They never truly felt the sun. What they felt from within the Voidlands was a sad echo of what they had been torn away from. But with Xerneas’ blessing, with that final power to push them back to living, Owen finally felt the sun again.

He cried. He didn’t sniffle or sob, but the overwhelming sensation of warm stone under his feet and fresh air over his belly was too much. He went to his knees, felt the little pebbles. Then he wandered just outside the remains of the cave and touched the grass and the dirt, fascinated by that familiar sensation of green blades along his scales. He dug his claws into dry soil and marveled at the healthy, firm roots that clung to the earth and refused to let go. He laughed at that valiant effort and let it stay.

The others were reacting in their own ways. Mispy was stretching her sharp flower petals and plunging her vines like roots into the soil, basking without a care. Demitri was hugging the ground like an old friend, spreading himself to absorb more of the sun. Gahi had taken to the skies, flipping through clouds high, high up with whoops and hollers.

They were alive.

Next, he checked on Zena, who had also been freed of the Voidlands’ bonds. The sea serpent had coiled around a warm rock to enjoy it in some basic, instinctual way. When their eyes met, she jolted and tried to look regal.

“I, er—”

“It’s so warm,” Owen said.

“Oh, it… yes. It is. I’m… not sure why I…” She relaxed her stance, less graceful. Owen smiled at that, and she smiled more.

“I could just stay here forever,” Owen said, falling onto his back to stare at a partly cloudy sky. Delicate wisps of cotton across a perfectly blue canvas.

“We do still have work to do,” Zena admitted. “I don’t want to lounge around all day when we could be doing something productive…” But despite this, she made no gesture to give the warm rock some space. And Owen couldn’t blame her, not when he was using the grassy hill as an infinite bed.

“Goodness…” Lucario took a long, long breath, stretching his limbs, soaking the sun. “Eons, so many eons it must have been… Well, perhaps not literally. From studying the calendar, it had only been a thousand years or so…”

That pang returned, that strange dissonance of staring at ‘Rhys’ yet knowing it wasn’t actually him. Owen still didn’t know if the others could tell or not.

They had been part of the second wave to emerge from the Voidlands. Jerry, Eon, the Trio of Mind, and Jirachi had gone ahead to Kilo Village to see if they could use their powers with Jerry’s guidance on the area to help rebuild quickly. That left Team Alloy, Zena, and their mentor to investigate Hot Spot.

“Hey, Rhys!” Demitri called, sitting up. “Are we ready to go through Hot Spot and, um, recover a few things?”

“Recover?” Lucario asked. “Ahh! Of course. It may be in ruins, but there is still certainly a chance to rebuild. Some Rock users can certainly help with the cavern reconstruction…”

“Should we wait for anybody else?” Owen piped up. “I mean, you know, since Xerneas is probably reviving more of us…”

“From what I understand, Xerneas will need time to revive more of us,” Lucario explained. “Unfortunately, even though he has been made whole, he spent a great deal of time as a Void Titan. His powers are diminished.”

“Do you know when they’ll be back in full force?” Owen asked. They all faced the entrance to the cave—one of the few spots that hadn’t collapsed into itself—and began to walk.

“Don’t know,” Lucario said. “This is unprecedented. We’ve never been ‘fallen gods’ on the road to recovery. I can barely do anything timewise. I’m sure artifacts from my being are more powerful than I am at the moment.” He paused. “Oh, that reminds me, do I have permission to kill Nevren later?”

“Uh, I, uh…” Owen blinked. He said it so nonchalantly… “What?”

“Nevren. He’s Palkia’s other half, you see, and he’s quite evil. I’d rather Palkia be the dominant personality, even if he’s a little misguided at times.” Lucario hummed, nodding.

“I mean, that still sounds like it might be a problem,” Demitri said. “Rhys died, but you’re still here, after all.”

Mispy’s expression darkened. She avoided looking at anyone. But she happened to look at Owen, who must have shared the same grave expression because she winced.

“Ah.” Lucario continued to walk ahead. “Well, yes. But, I do think… in certain circumstances, it’s… There are, ah…”

Gahi’s antennae twitched. Owen avoided looking at anyone.

“We should trust what he’s saying,” Owen explained quickly. “There must be a way to, uh, make sure Nevren doesn’t cause even more trouble when he reunites with Palkia, that’s all.”

Lucario gave a thankful nod to Owen before continuing into the caverns. By now, he had to hop and skip over a few rocks and stones that had been part of the complex. Sunlight shined through large cracks in the ceiling of the cave. Those who were more soft-footed had to be careful where they stepped.

Owen had to admit, silently, that even the uncomfortable walking and wading through their old home’s remnants was better than the Voidlands.

“It’s all ruined…” Demitri fidgeted with his claws, head low. “I know we only spent a few months in there, but it’s still hard to accept that it’s all gone…”

“It’s not all gone,” Gahi said. “We c’n rebuild it, easy! Especially now that it ain’t all shrouded in evil anymore!”

Mispy glanced at the sky, where there was still a tear in reality that led to the Voidlands. “Mm…”

“Bah, yer all pessimistic” Gahi stretched his wings and sped forward, which in turn made everyone else try to pick up the pace.

“I wonder if my tub-bed is still intact,” Zena mused aloud. “Owen, would you like to check?”

“Yeah, and then after we can see—”

Demitri let out a shriek of terror. Everyone immediately entered a battle stance and rushed over to him, only to find that he was staring at a beheaded stone copy of himself, the head settled nearby and cracked in a few places. “W-w-w-wh… what… h-happened? That’s… me?! Is this a threat?!”

“Oh, it’s your old body,” Owen hummed.

“Don’t sound so nonchalant!” Demitri said. “That’s… me! I’m… I’m dead?! I thought Xerneas…”

“Demitri, Xerneas made a new body for you,” Owen said. “The Voidlands is a place where the living and dead are, like, interchangeable. I think what happened was, when we were attacked in Hot Spot… Dark Matter must have stolen our spirits, and our bodies… turned into this.”

“Lifeless stone…” Mispy approached the statue of Demitri, but then peered over it and stared into where the head had been.

“Mispy?” Demitri asked. “Something wrong?”

“Detailed,” she commented.

Zena was looking at Owen now, expectant.

“Uh, yeah.” Owen rubbed the back of his head. “It’s his body turned to stone. All of it. Guess it kept everything inside the same, too.”

“Could be useful,” Mispy explained.

“Useful how?” Zena asked.

“Oh, you’re right, it could be useful,” Lucario commented. “If you’re careful enough, you could chip away at the outer layer and study the—”

“I don’t,” Demitri interjected, “think I want to hear this. It’s weird. And creepy.”

He couldn’t stop looking at his own statue, so Mispy picked him up and advanced through the caves.

Gahi gave Lucario a disapproving look. “I’d expect that from Nevren, not you.”

“Ah.” Lucario winced and bowed his head. “Sorry. Voidlands insensitivities, I suppose.”

Owen gave Lucario an uneasy look, but then went ahead with Mispy. Zena followed closely behind, searching for her old home.

After a few more minutes of walking, Mispy looked distracted by something else. She glanced occasionally back at Lucario, but said nothing and nudged Demitri.

“Huh? Oh.” Demitri nodded. “Hey, everyone? Mispy and I are going ahead to check something. We’ll catch up with you guys later, alright?”

“Not gonna come with us to Rhys’ old place?” Gahi asked. “We’re pretty close to it, what’s goin’ on that way?”

Demitri shrugged. “Mispy senses something that she wants to check on. It’s safe around here, right? The Dungeon part is further in?”

“Wait, there’s a Dungeon?” Gahi asked.

Mispy looked unsurprised but still disappointed. Owen sighed; they should have figured Gahi hadn’t paid attention during the briefing.

“Just meet us soon,” Owen said, nodding at the pair.

Lucario nodded in approval. “Right. And I believe your old home is not far from here.”

With Demitri and Mispy splitting off, the rest of Team Alloy and Lucario continued down the ruined pathways. All they needed now were the Fire Spirits, but Amia was still in the revival queue for her to be there.

Maybe, Owen thought idly, he could clean up their old place as part of the recovery process and use that as a pleasant surprise.

“Found it!” Gahi called, zipping toward them again and gesturing ahead.

Finally, their old home. To Owen, it was still foreign aside from when he had spent some time visiting. To the rest of Team Alloy, it was where they’d lived once before, and where they’d returned to during this whole Guardian business. The same format they’d always enjoyed.

There was an empty room for Demitri and Mispy; Rhys’ overfilled room of hoarded trinkets and memories; Gahi’s sand pit; the storage room, which was probably going to be desperate for a cleaning; and, of course, the kitchen and living area they’d just entered, miraculously untouched and unharmed.

It was all still there. For once, Gahi was moving slowly, opening a few cupboards gently to marvel at the intact cups and bowls. He ran his claws over some of them, mumbling about dust. Then, he went into his room and called Lucario over.

“Oi, Rhys!”

Lucario was frowning at the cupboard, pulling out a bowl and blowing into it. “Time has not been kind to these.”

“Rhys!” Gahi called again.

Lucario raised his head, as if reminded of something. “Ah! Yes, Gahi?”

There was an uncomfortable silence as Gahi grew suspicious. Owen held his breath. Zena must have picked up on it, because she subtly slid closer to Owen.

“…Wanna check my room?” Gahi asked, enthusiasm wavering. “Figure it looks nice’n all, was thinkin’ about makin’ a bigger sand pit er somethin’.”

“Ah, of course.” Lucario nodded. “Well, certainly. Better sand. You know, sand is sometimes used as a symbol for the constant march of time. Hourglasses, erosion, eternity… I do like sand.”

“Ehhh sure.” Gahi’s enthusiasm was visibly eroding.

Lucario started to advance again, but then Gahi spoke up. “Hey, so… eh, yer really… Rhys, right?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Yer actin’ different. Real different. Y’got his voice an’ his body, but it ain’t…”

“Ah, well… yes, you may call me Rhys.”

“How come yer phrasin’ it that way, though?” Gahi asked. “Yer all… weird.”

“Gahi, uh,” Owen said, “maybe it’s because he’s… not… He’s still out of it.” Was he supposed to lie about this? He glanced at Zena for the answer, but she looked just as conflicted.

And the silence that followed felt too tense for Owen to even breathe.

Gahi’s antennae twitched. Owen could sense the tension rising in the Flygon’s chest, nearing some kind of fight or flight response.

“It’s been quite a few days,” Lucario explained. “I assure you, I’m… I have Rhys’ memories. The same soul, the same spirit. Just, as you know, I’m also Dialga, now. And my mortal body had been that of a Lucario, hence why I’m able to take this form.”

“Then,” Zena said cautiously, “is there a reason that you speak… so distantly about Rhys? You can’t even say that you are Rhys. But you must be.”

Owen’s expression darkened as he looked away. Well, I’m not really Wishkeeper anymore, even if I have his memories.

Lucario let out a little sigh and brought his hands behind his back like he didn’t know what to do with them. “I apologize,” he said. “It’s quite a lot of memories to sort through.”

“Whose?” Zena asked.

“Wh’d’you mean, whose?” Gahi protested the very concept. “This’s Rhys! Right? Rhys? Pops?”

Owen couldn’t see the expression Rhys gave Gahi just then from where he was standing, the subtleties of whatever color or shine might have been in the Lucario’s eyes. Even with Perceive, he wondered if he could truly see whatever it was that made Gahi’s wings droop and his expression fall. Like he’d been awash with tar right where he stood.

“Rhys?” he asked again. “How come… how come you don’t react to the name anymore? That’s yer name… it’s…”

“I need time, Gahi,” Lucario replied placatingly. “Everything is going to be fine.”

But the damage was already done, and Gahi wasn’t going to be forgetting it any time soon. Owen saw that pain in his eyes. He looked away, teeth pressed gently against his tongue. The weight of the realization was starting to crash over Owen, too. Rhys was standing right there, and yet he was so, so far away. Same body, same memories, even the same very soul, and yet he was gone. Forever.

Why? How was this even happening? Why did he have to be Dialga?

Why couldn’t Dialga just let Rhys exist?

That simple, selfish thought crossed his mind only briefly. The scared little breath that followed was when Owen realized how Eon must have felt. Eon may not have remembered his life as Wishkeeper, yet his fragmented mind had done everything in its power to restore Owen to something he ‘remembered.’ Owen wondered, if he had the means, would he have seriously entertained the idea of trying the same to Dialga… just to see Rhys again?

In that moment, Owen wasn’t sure of the answer. But in the moments that followed, he knew, with all the knowledge he had now, he would never follow through with it.

Instead, he had to help Gahi manage his grief. They were out of the Voidlands, but the damage it caused would not leave them.

“What a mess!” Lucario exclaimed.

Owen jumped—had he been lost in thought all that time? He scanned around to see that Gahi had been pacing uncomfortably around the halls, while Lucario had wandered into his old room. Despite having the memories of the place, he seemed startled by what had happened.

The sad part was it didn’t look so bad compared to what Owen remembered.

“Well, this just won’t do,” Lucario muttered as he set right to work. He looked through a few busted objects and frowned at them, waving his hand before forming what seemed to be a waste bin made of cyan aura. He tossed several objects on the shelf into it with little hesitation.

“What’re you doin’?” Gahi asked, wings perking up again.

“I’m cleaning up?” Lucario said with bafflement. “I can’t believe what this mess looks like. How very distorted was—”

“Stop that,” Gahi said. “What’re you gettin’ at?”

“What?” Lucario paused, but only so he could stare at Gahi. “Surely you’d be glad for this. It must be such a mess.”

“That ain’t… that ain’t right.”

“Gahi…” Owen wanted to reach out, but his arms didn’t move. It was a mess. Rhys had a problem with throwing things away. A lot of problems with that sort of thing, with how much of a mess his room was. This was an improvement.

But… Owen knew Gahi didn’t see it that way.

“Wait, how about that, why’re you tossin’ that?!” Gahi protested when Rhys picked up a busted, failed technology of Nevren’s, some kind of bracelet.

“It’s unusable. Junk. No use having it.” It rumbled as it was tossed with more trash that Owen, admittedly, couldn’t recognize or discern the use of.

Lucario reached for another on the shelf, but by now Gahi had stepped into the room to look through the trash.

“Rhys loved this!” Gahi said, holding up a beaten-up looking doll with smudges and stains on it from the many years it had endured.

“It’s filthy. I’ll get another if I must.”

“They don’t sell’m anymore, this is old! Y’gotta keep it.”

“Well, perhaps it’s from a time gone by,” Lucario dismissed. “If I keep everything from that long ago, this room would be hopelessly overfilled.”

“But this one is important,” Gahi said, enunciating and speaking carefully, like that would somehow make Lucario hear him more clearly.

“All right. If that’s what you insist, I’ll consider it. But please, let me continue cleaning. Surely there are other things you can do?”

Lucario gave Gahi an apologetic look, but Gahi only shook his head and stepped back again, watching intently.

More trash got thrown away. Rhys’ old room began looking unrecognizably tidy. He had to go out a few times to place the aura bags somewhere else before conjuring a new one.

But then Rhys picked up the letters. The letters Elder had sent to him for years and years.

“What?” Gahi said. “What’re you—”

He tossed them all into the bin.

Owen wasn’t sure if it was that action alone, or if it was the final straw, but something switched in Gahi’s mind just then. Owen wondered if he would even need Perceive to have sensed it. Regardless, he wasn’t fast enough to react to Gahi, who grabbed him by the neck and slammed him into the wall.

Rather than look hurt, Lucario seemed only stunned and confused.

“Who are you?!” Gahi demanded.

Lucario stared back, a calm frown growing on his face. “Right,” he said. “I’ll… have to talk about this now, I suppose.”

There was a strange, blue aura, but a different color than what Owen was used to. Lucario raised his paw…

<><><>​

Demitri went down the ruins with a sad sense of nostalgia. He occasionally bumped against Mispy, if only to remind himself that she was still there, while carefully inspecting the walls for signs of Void Shadows he knew rationally were not there.

But this had been there they were originally claimed. Where he’d been turned to stone and plunged into the Voidlands. This wasn’t even his own body. It was a ‘new’ body forged by Xerneas. His old body was still petrified. Forever. The very organs were still there. His old… his old brain was probably still in there, to, wasn’t it? Was he the same person? Gods, was this how Ax and the others felt?

Something wet snapped around his shoulder and Demitri jumped. “Oh, M-Mispy…” It was just one of her vines, which had opened and nibbled on him.

“It’s okay,” Mispy said. Her voice came a lot easier when it was just the two of them, barely a stutter to be heard. “We’re alive. Remember?”

“Yeah. Just trying to get used to it,” Demitri said. “We’re still us, right? E-even if our bodies are…”

“We are.” Mispy nodded. “Don’t think too hard about it. We are.”

“Okay.” That was all he needed for now. He could sort out how that all worked later. “Thanks, Mispy. By the skies, it’s been so long since we’ve had the chance to just be alone together.” Living space was so cramped back in Null Village. Now? Demitri almost felt aimless. What were they supposed to do anymore? Gather power?

No, that was true. Gather power, sure, but more specifically they had to get Owen back from Alexander. Everything else was secondary.

But for now, they had to wait for everyone to recover their Legendary strength. And that meant… he and Mesprit would have to reunite.

A second vine wrapped around Demitri and pulled him close into a tight embrace. Mispy nuzzled him just under the chin, and he sighed, giving in.

“I’m sorry,” Demitri said. “I’m just all worked up over everything again, aren’t I?”

“Just a little.” She nipped him on the snout and continued ahead. “It’s a lot… huh?”

“A lot a lot,” Demitri agreed. “In some ways, I hope Mesprit can have a better handle on it. Do you think he and Uxie are close? That’ll make this a lot easier…”

“I think so. Little ways. So…”

“We’ll still be together. That’s my biggest worry, um, actually. If that’s how it works…”

Mispy smiled, but her eyes seemed sad. Demitri wondered if she was scared, too. No, she had to be. But it would be alright, right?

But before they could talk more, Mispy’s antennae twitched. The Meganium glanced ahead and frowned, as if confused.

“Mispy?”

“Mn.” She advanced, so Demitri stumbled after her, nearly tripping over her vines.

“What do you see?”

She suddenly gasped, staring at the ground. Through the ground, in a way. She spun around and grabbed Demitri, planting him on her back. “I’ll explain on the way,” she said, crawling as fast as she could back to the others.

<><><>​

“Gh—” Gahi had tried to throw Rhys, but the moment he tried, the Lucario just disappeared! How did that work? He was supposed to be the fastest Pokémon on the team, not Rhys!

Growling, Gahi scanned the room and some sixth sense felt the presence of a mind behind him. He swung around, only to see that Rhys was standing right there, holding both arms up placatingly. “Please, Gahi. Let’s talk this out.”

“Talk it out,” Gahi snarled back. “Who’re you supposed ter be?! Owen, use yer Perceive, he—”

But Owen was standing completely still, reaching toward where he and Rhys had been seconds earlier. He wasn’t even blinking. In fact… his flame. Even his flame was frozen in place. Next to Owen was Zena, out of the way of the entrance, a disappointed frown eternally on her face.

“Whuh?” Gahi breathed out, but then glared at Rhys again. “What’d y’do?!”

“They are fine,” Rhys said. “I stopped time. Your, er, old commander, Eon, had a similar power. I granted a weaker version of it to him, and a different sort of power to Nevren, long ago as a sort of… kinship. A gesture of trust. Which, of course, had been betrayed later, but I digress…”

“Y-yeah. Dialga, right.” Gahi’s tail flicked, mind buzzing with thoughts that felt foreign. Calming little thoughts that he tried to tune out and ignore. It was probably the weird-talking letters in his Psychic Orb again. He didn’t need their advice. “Yer Dialga, but yer still Rhys. So what gives?! Why’re you so… different!?”

“Gahi…” Rhys reached out helplessly, but then let the arm fall. “I… I’m sure you’ve had… experiences in the past where you knew someone, and then perhaps spent a long time away from them. When you meet them again, they seem so different. Has that ever happened to you?”

“I dunno,” Gahi replied honestly. “Kinda don’t remember a whole lot. It’s all scrambled so I just live in th’ moment, y’know?”

“Live in the moment.” Rhys gave him an odd smile that Gahi didn’t understand. “Oh, to live in the moment. I think that’s quite against how I am, in some ways. By my very nature.”

The tension was building in Gahi’s chest again, but in that silence, Rhys began to pick up trash. Every time he touched something, time seemed to flow again for that material.

Gahi wondered if Rhys had done the same thing for him, for the air, some other strange time magic that kept everything from being broken apart from the forces at play. Things that Owen would have probably spent kilos trying to explain to him, and Mispy giving up explaining the same after the first sentence.

“You use that body like it’s all second nature t’you.”

“Well, it is,” Rhys admitted. “The body you see now is my mortal form. Temporary. Compact, too, so I can actually fit in this cave. I suppose if we had a talk with Willow, she would have also been able to help, but…”

He didn’t like the way ‘Rhys’ talked. Was this why Owen seemed so distracted? Why Demitri seemed close to crying the whole walk?

“But y’got his voice, an’ his fur, an’ his fightin’ style,” Gahi said. “Y’got time magic now, sure, but…” His chest felt tight as it slowly sank in that the odd feeling he had… was the fact that he was looking at Rhys, but who he was talking to was not ‘Rhys.’

And as this foreign Lucario stood up and gathered more of the letters, stacking them into another bin made of aura for trash, for discarded trash, Gahi asked one last time, “Can’t y’keep just one letter?”

“Gahi…” He gave the Flygon an apologetic smile. And just then, it seemed the pause on time had come to an end. Owen and the others were moving again, looking briefly startled because, if he had to guess, everything had probably jumped, and the room was suddenly a lot cleaner.

“Uh—what happened? Did I zone out?” Owen asked.

“No, I believe I had a lapse as well,” Zena said. “Gahi? Rhys? Are, er, are you… making up?”

Gahi’s eyes felt hot. His jaw clenched. “He’s… n-not Rhys,” he said. “He’s… not Rhys…”

And the look, the look that Owen just gave him. That bright, sad pity in his eyes. Gahi couldn’t take it. For an irrational instant, he hated Owen because it was obvious they all knew, and he was the last to find out. Always the slowest one to catch on, as usual. The slowest to realize that Rhys was dead. The slowest to realize that it was just a body Dialga was controlling to make him ignorant.

All lies.

The Lucario was about to say something, but Gahi didn’t want any of it. His wings and legs and all of his energy was singularly focused on getting away, away, away. Gahi became a blur, everything was a blur, as he sped past Owen, past their home, past Hot Spot, into the sky.

And he screamed for anyone who could hear.

<><><>​

Mispy had seen Gahi depart, but she didn’t have to see him to feel the massive waves of passion coming from his aura. So much pain.

“I think he found out,” Demitri said sadly, leaning against Mispy’s back while riding her. “Oh, Gahi… I should have told him…”

“It’s okay.” They could talk to him later. First, they had to tell the others about what they’d just found deeper in the ruins. “Call them,” she whispered.

“Oh, right. Um, hey, guys!” Demitri called. “We kinda found something you need to see!”

Zena, Owen, and Lucario emerged from the caverns, all three looking different kinds of solemn. Zena, pensive; Owen, concerned; Lucario, guilty, and a tinge of pity.

“Uh, so it’s… further down in the… Is everything okay?” Demitri gestured toward them.

“Gahi is coping,” Lucario said with a sad nod. “I’d like us to reach him, but, ironically, he is the only one with wings out of all of us, and I do not think he would appreciate speaking to me if I flew after him.”

“Ah. Well. Wait—can’t you two fly?” Demitri looked at Zena and Owen.

“Oh, yeah, I can…” Owen tapped his chin. “I keep forgetting that. But he’s also really, uh, fast. I wouldn’t be able to catch up to him if he doesn’t want to talk, and if he’s not here…”

“Not necessarily,” Demitri said. “He might have just panicked and left, and maybe now he doesn’t know how to come back.”

Mispy nodded along. She hadn’t considered it, but that seemed very likely, knowing Gahi. Maybe now he was trying to think of a way to save face.

Still, that could wait. He would return when he wanted, and as stupid as Gahi could be, Mispy doubted he would be stupid enough to flee and never be seen again. He needed time, and for now Kilo was safe.

“Let’s be fast about this,” Owen said to Mispy. “Can you take us there? What is it?”

“I think you’ll want to see it instead of us just telling you,” Demitri said. “Mispy?”

“Mn.” She led the group down Hot Spot again, and the team made occasional glances back to see what Gahi was doing. He had stopped flying some time ago, but Mispy could sense his presence nearby on the ground, emotions still running high. In some ways, she was glad that Demitri couldn’t sense auras, too. It would surely be too much for him to handle.

Occasionally, Mispy stole a glance or two in Rhys’ direction. Or… no, it wasn’t Rhys, Mispy reminded herself, staring at the body of who had once been her mentor. It was Dialga, who was once Rhys, who was now taking on his mortal form. Someone similar, yet so very different, despite having the same exact aura. Just stronger. Stable. Those little imperfections in Rhys that had been so familiar to Mispy weren’t there anymore.

Why did she miss those? They’d always been so unsightly.

“Mispy?” Lucario asked. “Are you alright? I… am sorry if I am doing something to offend you.”

Mispy’s throat locked up, and she only shook her head and picked up the pace. Only after a minute did she allow herself to breathe normally again. Demitri put a hand to her back and pressed. That calmed her.

Then, she felt it just ahead, but that in itself wasn’t right. It had been underground…

Just around the corner was a dim cyan glow, characteristic of aura energy. She glanced warily at Lucario, who had a knowing, tense look on his face.

That confirmed it.

“Here,” Demitri said. “It’s… right there.”

Owen stopped. Zena gasped, ribbons over her mouth, as she stared first at Lucario, and then at the aura in front of them.

Because aside from the colors, it was like seeing double. Standing before them, made entirely of solid aura, was another Lucario, with matted fur and a serious expression.

It was all that remained of Rhys.

“What… what is that?” Owen asked, taking a shaking step forward. “Rhys? But he’s…”

Mispy remembered, though. She remembered fighting something like this before they’d fallen into the Voidlands. She wished she could explain it to them, who seemed to have forgotten this technique Rhys had been capable of.

“Ahh… now I remember,” Lucario lied. “Yes. I had spent a lot of time looking into the ways to manipulate aura and the power that flows through all Pokémon. It got to the point where I was able to channel all of my energy… into something solid to pass along to others. The best way to open those channels… was through battle, and to have that power funnel into them with each blow.

“I knew that my time was at an end when facing Dark Matter. Knowing that if I lost in some terrible way, Dark Matter would try to gain my power for himself, I had taken nearly everything I had and plunged it into the earth, dormant, waiting for a time when it would be safe again. That time is now.”

He nodded, sighing. “Owen,” Lucario said. “Out of all of us… you need that power the most.”

“What?” Owen asked. “Wh-what do you mean?”

A cold sense of dread washed over Mispy’s back. And at the same time, that autonomous aura copy of Rhys entered a mindless, practiced battle stance.

Owen had to kill what remained of Rhys.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Chapter 141 – Final Wings

There he stood, the final remnant of Rhys, mindless and operating on the basic instructions that he had left behind. His battle stance was the same; Owen knew it all too well, even though the memories would be even more painful and prominent to Team Alloy. But Owen, too, had trained under him for a while.

“But… it’s Rhys,” Owen said quietly.

“There is nothing left of him in there but instructions, Owen,” Lucario said. “Please, I understand it looks like him, but I’m Rhys, now. And I know precisely what I wanted at the time this was created: for the power to go away from Dark Matter, and toward someone who is supposed to carry us to victory. Owen, I believe you are the most in need of this power, among Team Alloy’s quartet.

“It must be you.”

“It… it can’t.” Even in this part of Hot Spot, the caves had collapsed, revealing the clear and bright skies. It still felt so good on his scales, but somehow it couldn’t fill that empty feeling in his chest when he stared back at Rhys’ remnant.

“Is there,” Demitri said, “even a trace of Rhys in that we can talk to?”

“I’m afraid not,” Lucario said. “It’s all with me. That aura is nothing but power and instructions, and it won’t last, either. Over time, it will decay and weaken. Now is the best time for you to strike it down.”

It all spoke to reason, and Owen knew he was correct. That didn’t make the pain any better, though. With an unease in every step, Owen approached the aura Lucario and crouched, tail up, knees bent, arms forward and a little wide. Alert, ready, defensive for now.

“Alright,” Owen said. “Come on, Rhys. One… one last battle.”

For the first few seconds, neither of them moved. Owen wondered if Rhys was waiting for the first action, or if it simply hadn’t ‘activated’ yet. Eventually, Owen lost his nerve and shifted his weight, spitting a small ember toward Rhys.

That was enough. It weaved past the ember and sped toward Owen with a paw outstretched, aura forming at the end. Owen brought his arms up and deflected it with a gold barrier. He countered with another ember, this time closer, and it struck true. Cyan flames exploded out from Rhys’ shoulder, and the mist that it became drifted toward Owen, seeping into his scales with a strange, energetic warmth.

The effects were instantaneous. Massive power and clarity, familiar to Owen but unfamiliar to his current body, rushed over his muscles and all the way to the tips of his claws. His flame was hotter, and everything seemed easier to do. All of that happened in an instant, and when Rhys tried to strike him up close, Owen brought an arm up to stop the swing. The spike on Rhys’ paw was inches from his cheek. A gold sheen coated Owen’s arm from a hastily conjured Protect.

Owen countered again, this time with a point-blank explosion of fire. More aura poured from Rhys’ chest and into Owen’s body, and his strength immediately reached new and familiar heights.

This spike in power should have left Owen feeling elated, but unlike so many sparring matches that he’d had in his long, long life… there was no joy he could feel from this fight.

Owen landed another strike. This one was easier than the last, and it also occurred to him, with dissatisfaction, that this aura wasn’t much of a skilled fighter at all. Every single movement, which he couldn’t Perceive well since it was aura and forces rather than actual matter, was very clearly telegraphed. It wasn’t Rhys at his best. Owen wondered how much it had already decayed…

A punch landed in Owen’s gut followed by a blast of energy that sent tingling paralysis through his body. Another weak one; he’d seen it coming and elected to take it directly to counter with more fire. Owen wondered if the ease of battle was because it simply didn’t have the same smarts that Rhys did. He wondered if the copy Demitri and Mispy had fought was more advanced because Rhys was directly controlling it from afar…

Could Dialga do that, or was it now a lost art? A skill that he only remembered as a dream?

More blows were exchanged but it wasn’t satisfying anymore. There were a few times where Owen wanted to remark something to put some emotion into the fight, but, of course, the one time he tried to speak, it did not reply.

“You can do more than that, can’t you?!” Owen called, speaking at first to the remnant, but then spared a glance at Lucario. He blocked one of the remnant’s attacks before hopping back to gain some ground. “Rhys controlled these, didn’t he?! Gave them more advice?!”

Lucario’s eyes widened a little at that. “Oh?” he repeated. “You knew?”

“It’s obvious after fighting it now,” Owen said. “He… made it tough. He made it so we really had to work for our strength, that it wouldn’t just fall in our laps. Why isn’t that happening now?!”

“Well, this method of strength transfer is quite straightforward. Making it difficult was… just a matter of flair. Style. Considering how dire things are, perhaps we should keep things basic and only get the battle pathways of your aura flowing enough to pull the energy in. Nothing more is necessary.”

“It is necessary,” Owen shouted, parrying another blow. “It’s how we fight! It’s… how I get to know him! How I can get to know you, now, too!” He shoved Rhys away and sustained a stream of fire over the aura. An equal stream of aura went toward Owen, energizing him.

Lucario tilted his head. “How you get to know me,” he repeated. “As in…”

“Don’t Pokémon communicate through battle?” Owen said desperately, cutting the flames. “That’s… just how things are! Sure, a lot of our ancient ancestors used to be human, so maybe it’s not the same, but I have always been a Pokémon, and my bloodline… works like that, okay? And I don’t… feel anything from this battle. There’s nothing because it’s not being controlled.”

“I… I see.” Lucario shifted awkwardly. “I hadn’t thought of it that way before. To think I could lose sight of that… Yes, I used to be human. How could I forget? I’d trained Elder himself for a time.”

“…Wait, you what?” Demitri asked. “Aren’t you a couple now?”

“Er. Well, yes. We’d forgotten about… that aspect of our past, so things developed quite differently…” He shook his head, as if refreshing himself, and breathed. “Fine, yes, I’ll train with you, Owen. A sparring match against what remains of the aura?”

“Yes!” Owen said, flame doubling in size. “I—er, I mean… yes, please, Rhys.”

Lucario smiled a little. “Mm. Rhys. So long since I’d… well. Fine.” He made a simple gesture with his paw, and the aura duplicate went back into a fighting stance. Owen mirrored it.

And for a moment, Owen felt like things could be okay.

That was all it took for Owen’s vision to go white. Owen ran forward, arms ready for another strike against his Protects. His body felt malleable; his back was hot and tore painlessly apart; every step became heavier as the world around him grew smaller. Suddenly, he towered over the Lucario by at least two heads. His arms felt shorter but his strength had redoubled. By instinct alone, he beat his restored wings and knocked the remnant off balance and then tossed an orb of fire at its chest.

Owen landed heavily several feet back and made a gesture with his hands, summoning a pillar of fire below the remnant’s feet. It fizzled and leapt out of the way before it could dissolve completely, but so much of that power siphoned into the new Charizard’s body.

Something green caught the corner of his vision. An instant later, something entered his Perceive range, too fast to get a lock on, and that could only mean it was Gahi. Crouching, Owen’s wings projected a golden shield, narrowly parrying Gahi, who snarled while inches from the barrier.

“What are you doing?” Gahi spat, using his speed to press further, straining the barrier.

“What?!” Owen groaned, briefly startled by his deeper voice.

Gahi suddenly disappeared. Owen’s Perceive caught him on Owen’s opposite side and below, but Owen was too slow to counter it. Gahi slammed into Owen with claws wrapped in psionic force, which then exploded and sent him flying ten feet across the rocks. He kicked his legs and beat his wings to right himself, but Gahi reappeared on top of Owen and slammed down.

“Why’re you hurtin’ Rhys?!” Gahi roared. “That’s… that’s him, ain’t it?! An’ he’s disappearin’!”

“Gahi, it’s training! Rhys left that behind for training, don’t you remember seeing something like this before?!” But Owen could already tell just by Gahi’s body language, his twitchy movements and wide eyes, that he wasn’t about to listen to reason. He was too far gone.

They should have gone after him. He’d seen the sparring, assumed the irrational worst, and…

“Just try’na steal his power fer yerself, jus’ ter get stronger?” Gahi hissed.

He disappeared again, but Owen predicted the reappearance and lunged toward the incoming flash.

“Geh!” Gahi disappeared again just as Owen’s claws scraped at his chest. Instead, Owen grabbed at the lingering aura behind and internalized it, eyes darting around now that he’d taken that Teleport for himself. He saw Gahi in the air.

“I’ll be back,” Owen muttered to the others.

“Er, right.” Lucario focused on the remnant, sustaining its power.

Now, he could focus entirely on Gahi. With a blink of light, Owen disappeared into the sky, spread his wings, and conjured another updraft to keep afloat. Just ahead, Gahi snarled at him, treating the sky as an arena.

“What’re you doing, Gahi?” Owen called tiredly, still trying to get familiar with flight again. Proper flight, not the strange Mysticism that granted an imitation.

“Was gonna ask you th’ same thing,” Gahi said. “Rhys… that was Rhys. You ain’t gonna… just kill him like that! He’s all that’s left of’m!”

“Gahi, he’s going to fade anyway,” Owen said. “It’d be better to—”

“NO!” Gahi was at his side, clawing into his scales and breaking through into flesh. Owen only snarled and whipped his tail at Gahi, scorching his side before blipping ten feet away. Gahi closed the distance in less than a second, but Owen parried him with a Protect.

“If that’s how it’s going to be,” Owen snarled, staring at Gahi through his shield, “then fine. We’ll understand each other the old… fashioned way!” He pushed, overpowering Gahi. Then, he Teleported behind him and conjured a wisp of indigo flame instead, which burned much hotter against Gahi’s back.

The Flygon screeched. His wings became constellations of stars, galaxies impossibly floating in the afternoon blue, and he disappeared before the fire could do any real damage.

That was their battle. Owen kept reading every single strike that came, mitigating or completely parrying what Gahi tried. The Flygon refused to let up; his stamina was far higher than Owen’s, and that meant to Owen that he had to conserve his energy. He had to parry with minimal movements, minimal exertion, just to ensure that Gahi wouldn’t take advantage of him slowing down.

It helped that the hits Gahi did connect were not very strong.

The sun continued its trek across the sky. Some time during the fight, when Owen entered a strange sort of rhythm, he’d noticed that Demitri and Mispy had been sent off to Kilo Village. Owen figured it was because they had to let the others know they weren’t dying or in any real trouble after splitting off. That meant only Lucario and Zena were watching them. He felt a little guilty for making them wait for so long, but what else was he supposed to do?

“Why?” Gahi finally said, puffing between his breaths. “How come y’ain’t goin’ down?”

“Is that what you care about?” Owen asked, hiding his own exhaustion.

“What’s that s’posed ter mean? You… were hurtin’ Rhys. Weren’t you?”

“It was something he left behind to be taken by me. That was his intent, and Dialga said the same thing.”

“Dialga…” Gahi’s fists squeezed. He disappeared again and Owen easily parried the attack from the left, having sensed Gahi’s brief glance in that direction. That only made Gahi more frustrated, slamming his claws against his shield over and over.

“Just tell me how you feel, Gahi!” Owen shouted, rushing forward until he Perceived Gahi’s telltale preparations for a Teleport. It was going to be behind him.

Just as predicted, he disappeared and reappeared, so Owen brought a hand backwards and blasted more indigo fire in Gahi’s face.

He roared in pain and covered his snout, disappearing several feet backwards.

Owen didn’t let up. He beat his wings and flew backwards, twirling at the same time until his hands were locked onto Gahi’s shoulders.

“Answer me!” he shouted. “Do you think I’m killing Rhys?!”

“What else is it?” Gahi roared. “I just wanna see’m again and yer killin’ the last o’ what he had left off! Y’saw the way he fought, that… that copy, I was watchin’! When I realized what was happenin’, I…”

“You panicked and attacked me.” Owen held firm. “Gahi, it’s… I get it. I get it.”

Gahi kept afloat with psionic energy, but it wavered. He said nothing.

“But Rhys is gone. He’s with Dialga now. He’s in there, just… different. Like friends we never saw for a long time.”

“But why?” Gahi snarled, squeezing his claws against Owen’s shoulders, but he wasn’t pushing away. It was more like he was desperately clawing for something solid.

They were descending, slowly. Owen let it happen.

“Why does it gotta be like this?” Gahi said. “How come… how come Rhys’s gone, ‘n Dialga’s still all here? How come they ain’t…”

“I think Rhys is still here, in a way, Gahi,” Owen urged, ignoring the pain as Gahi held him even harder. “It’s just, maybe they’re both different. We barely knew Dialga, so maybe he’s also a little different. I bet Dialga wouldn’t have turned into a Lucario, or cared about how we felt as much, don’t you think?”

“Like he ev’n cares…” Gahi’s grip loosened a little.

“He does care, Gahi,” Owen said gently. “He really does. That’s why he was trying to be gentle, but it’s hard for him to relate. That’s probably it. I mean… imagine us trying to explain anything that we’re doing to the average person.”

“Average… person,” Gahi repeated. “What’s that mean anymore?”

“Just someone who wakes up, goes through town, maybe works a shop, goes home, works on some hobbies, and… that’s all. A simple, daily life.” A pang of envy swam in his chest. “A normal life. Imagine explaining even a little bit of what we do to them. Maybe that’s how Dialga feels when trying to explain how he has Rhys’ memories now, how he is Rhys, just… with more responsibilities now. More on his mind. Dialga’s probably a lot older than Rhys, when you think about it, right?”

“How?” Gahi asked, voice trembling.

“How…?”

“You’d know. H-how much older is Dialga than Rhys? World ain’t that old, I know yer older’n it!”

“I… well, I…”

That was a good point, wasn’t it? Rhys… How old was Rhys? He had his brief human life in the world with Kanto and Orre. He didn’t seem too old then, maybe a few decades on him. Then came his time as a Lucario for a little while before ascending as Dialga. So, a little less than a thousand years for Dialga, after a few decades as a mortal Rhys.

In terms of what would have been said about gods in stories and fables, that was nothing at all… And after what happened with Wishkeeper, something terrible happened that split the immortal half from the mortal half, even if it left the mortal half with barely enough power to remain immortal. The Hunters, the Mystics.

There was still a blank spot in Owen’s memories, a haze, where he’d been reincarnated again as a Charmander, and then revived over and over until he became the mutant Charizard he was today. That could have been for decades or centuries. But at the very least… Owen knew he’d been reset, over and over, for five hundred years.

Suddenly, Rhys’ fraction of how long ‘Dialga’ had lived… was far more significant. Owen’s heart sank. Why, then? Why was Rhys so weakly present?

“You’re killin’ him.” Gahi sniffed again. “All that was left fer him… it’s…”

Owen stared at his claws. That… couldn’t be it. Could it?

“We can ask,” Owen said. “I… I know Lucario mannerisms, body language. If he lies, I’ll know.”

“Huh?” Gahi pulled away, sounding surprised. “Y… you’ll listen t’me?”

“Of course,” Owen said. “Fighting is understanding for both of us. Maybe I need to listen to you, too.”

Gahi looked stunned. Owen wondered why. Was it because he expected himself to be wrong? Did Gahi… always expect that? That was what the total surprise in Gahi’s body language suggested.

“But you need to talk to him,” Owen went on. “With words. I don’t know if he’s interested in fighting it out; you know how he is.”

“Do I?” Gahi asked.

“He may not be exactly the same,” Owen said, “but he still has similarities… don’t you think?”

Gahi didn’t answer. Finally, they touched the ground, and Gahi’s wings returned to their normal colors. He slumped against Owen, who slowly guided him along.

“Can we fuse?” Gahi asked weakly.

“No,” Owen said, this time firm. “You need to confront him as yourself, but… I’ll be by your side. Okay?”

It didn’t satisfy him, but perhaps Gahi knew enough that he wouldn’t budge.

Zena waved them over once they’d gotten within their sights. Lucario was still maintaining the aura remnant, looking focused.

“Hey,” Owen said. “Uh, sorry about that. But… can we talk to you, Rh—Dialga?”

Lucario had a knowing frown, but nodded.

“…So yer really Rhys,” Gahi said. “What’s left.”

“I am. I have all of his memories, because they are my memories,” Lucario replied coolly. But then, there was a soft sincerity when he added, “And I’m sorry that I act so differently. I’ll really try to be more like him. I think… he meant more to you than I did.”

There was part of Gahi that Owen knew wanted that. But the way Gahi deflated meant he might have seen it another way.

“Don’t fake it,” Gahi finally said. Owen noted silently that his throat was tense.

“I’m sorry?”

“If y’ain’t feelin’ like how y’used to… then don’t fake it. Jus’ be yerself, but… if yer really Rhys…”

“I am. Gahi, I’m… I really am. Maybe, with time, things will start to feel normal again…” By now, Owen had a sense that Lucario was becoming fatigued with this, and Gahi was searching for an answer that just wasn’t going to be there.

Eventually, though, the despair seeped into Gahi’s posture, and he finally nodded, voice hollow. “Alright.”

“Gahi…” Zena reached out, but stopped herself and looked to Owen for the answer. He had none that could heal Gahi now except for, ironically, time.

“In any case, we do still need to, er… complete this matter.” Lucario gestured at the remnant. “I’m barely maintaining it. Just one touch will get the rest, and there isn’t much left …”

“Right, I…” But Owen felt Gahi’s gaze go toward the remnant, longing, wistful, but ultimately crushed. There was no fight left in Gahi. Owen wondered what could possibly help. He was a very hands-on Pokémon. Gahi couldn’t understand the concept behind things that were purely mental or through words. He had to… feel it.

“Gahi,” Owen said. “Why don’t you do this?”

“Eh…? Y’mean…”

“That’s Rhys’ power. He wanted it to go to someone who needed it.”

There was a blank stare from Gahi, like he was trying to understand.

“A little bit of him will be with you forever this way,” Owen explained. “Some of his power.”

“What d’you… y’mean…?”

“It’s only fair,” Owen said. “Demitri and Mispy trained this way a few months ago, remember? And now I trained. Now, it’s your turn.”

“Hm! Quite true,” Lucario said. “I have no objections. In fact…” He held his chest, nodding. “Deep inside, something feels… very pleased by this.”

Gahi was holding his breath, like he was wondering if that was true or not. The way he glanced at Owen confirmed it, and Owen was confident. “I think so, Gahi. You should.”

Owen wondered how Gahi would do it. He was fast, so maybe it’d be a jab, or some kind of claw… But Gahi would also probably want to honor his memory. But he couldn’t sense any fight from Gahi at all.

Just one touch, the words echoed in Owen’s mind.

Gahi stepped toward the remnant, sizing it up. His jaw clenched, his wings folded back. “…The last o’ Rhys,” Gahi mumbled, crouching down to get to its height. “…I know yer behind me… but this is what y’left jus’ fer us ter be stronger. Until the very end, y’always… were thinkin’ about us, huh?”

The remnant stared blankly forward.

“I figure I treated ya pretty hard. Maybe I should’ve… said more, ‘n stuff. Maybe I still can, if yer really in there. But I ain’t gonna…”

Owen didn’t know for sure what Gahi was going to say after that, but he never finished. Owen wondered if he’d ever know, even if they fused, what Gahi meant to say. If Gahi would know his own words.

The Flygon leaned in and pulled the hollow Lucario copy into an embrace. It accepted it passively, its whole form fizzling.

“Thanks,” Gahi whispered. “I’ll miss you.”

Something strange followed. Just as the remnant’s body dissolved, Owen thought, perhaps a trick of the eye, the arms raised to reciprocate. But it was so blurry, and as an aura Owen couldn’t Perceive any of the details that his eyes didn’t see.

But maybe believing that it did was good enough.

A warm breeze caressed the ruins of Hot Spot. Wings and fur blew with the gusts.

Gahi was alone. A cloud of aura sank into his scales, and he took in a slow, long breath. He didn’t turn around.

“Gonna stay here,” Gahi said, “fer a li’l.”

Zena sniffed and wiped her eyes with a ribbon. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah.” Gahi still didn’t face them.

There was a hint of uncertainty… but all things considered, Owen trusted that he’d be safe. Null Village was right there, Hot Spot Dungeon showed no signs of expansion, and the ruins were easy to flee from.

Maybe Gahi needed this.

“Well, I suppose we should stay, too, Owen,” Zena said.

“Uh?”

“Safety,” Zena explained. “And… I wouldn’t mind some quiet before returning to Kilo Village. Maybe we can greet the next wave.”

“Oh.” She also had a point there.

“A fine idea,” Lucario commented. “I will return to Kilo Village to inform the others. Will that do?”

“Sure,” Gahi mumbled. He was trembling, barely holding it in.

“Right. Thank you, then. And, Gahi…”

Nothing in reply.

“…I do still love you. Call me as you like, when you are ready.”

Gahi breathed in, but only Owen could tell. The Flygon merely nodded, eyes fixated on the wall. Owen gave an assuring, somber smile to the Lucario, and he gave a hesitant nod back.

Without another word, he left. It was just Zena, Gahi, and Owen who remained.

Zena was staring at Owen, who glanced at her. Zena jerked her head in Gahi’s direction.

The Flygon was still staring at the wall. Zena urged Owen again, so, obeying blindly, he approached.

“Er, Gahi…”

“Yeah?”

“How about uh…” The sand pit was probably going to give Gahi too many bad memories. Owen wasn’t sure if he was ready to confront his old home with Alex and Amia just yet, either. “…Want to stay at Zena’s place tonight?”

Gahi sniffed. “It ain’t a wreck?”

“Well, we could take some time to clean it up,” Zena piped up.

Another sniffle. “Alright. Y-yeah. That’s fine.”

He didn’t start walking. Owen brought a wing over Gahi’s shoulder, and Gahi leaned against him. Zena slithered over to Gahi’s other side, and Gahi abruptly pulled her in close, too.

They didn’t say anything. Slowly, they walked through the ruins of Hot Spot until Gahi could regain at least some of his stride.

“Thanks,” Gahi mumbled. “Y’don’t think Trina’ll think this is all stupid, do you?”

“Trina?” Zena repeated.

“Yeah. I tell her about a lotta stuff.”

“Oh, I see. Well, then she’d understand more than anyone, don’t you think?” Zena asked.

“Guess so,” Gahi said, his muscles relaxing a little.

“…Hey, so,” Owen said, seizing the opportunity, “tell us about her a little.”

Zena’s eyes lit up. “I’m curious, too. I didn’t think you two would be so close, but you even share meals together, don’t you?”

“Heh. Yeah.” Gahi rubbed his cheek. “Pretty easy when she’s so small, but she really wants ter be a Serperior again.”

“I can relate to that.” Owen flexed his wings unconsciously. “Think Xerneas will feel charitable about that?”

Gahi scoffed. “Didn’t ev’n bother with you. But she’s regal. Maybe she’ll know how ter work ‘im over.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Zena commented. “Serperior evolve fairly early, don’t they? Maybe it won’t be as hard for him.”

Word by word, Gahi’s pace gradually quickened. It was never his normal, brisk pace. Still, it helped that they were able to calm Gahi down. There was still a little hope that, after all that had happened, they could find a new normal for each other.

<><><>​

News from Null Owen—he supposed, Kilo Owen now. Kilowen. Kilowen said that Gahi was taking the news about Rhys badly. Cipher Owen could relate; he was still coming to terms with it, or maybe it simply hadn’t hit him.

But the important, tactical news was that Xerneas was able to revive a good number of the team and send them out of the Voidlands. It was a start, and it would be a boost in morale, which was probably the strongest part about this move. They wouldn’t really be getting much stronger, at least for the ones who hadn’t died. Trina and Amia, and even Owen himself, would benefit from the power boost to get back to their final forms again, though…

It had been a few days. Owen was still biding his time. Keeping Qitlan wondering, but not making any major moves. Occasionally, Owen would fake cry a little, or look like he was hiding some distress. It was all to make sure Qitlan thought he was still under some control. But Owen couldn’t let them feel too confident, either. Too confident and they may try to interrogate him again, but if Owen showed too much confidence himself, they would get too paranoid and do something drastic. Unpredictable.

That was really what it all boiled down to. Predictability versus uncertainty. Owen had to keep that up until it was time to put everything into action.

With pangs of guilt, he only wondered what Mhynt was doing to pass the time. The things Alexander would force her to do… Aster and Leph could have been in a similar predicament, too. The two children of the gods, and Necrozma’s disciples, all captives to the Void King.

But there was one thing he did want to do. He had no idea if it actually worked in this godless place, but perhaps that was why it was called faith.

Hey, Star, Owen prayed, eyes closed. He had remembered, a few days ago, that Star, Arceus, and the others could hear prayers. Barky hadn’t heard a thing while Owen was in the Voidlands, but he wondered, if Star was also here, would she hear him?

Living on that, this was the fifth time Owen had reached out to her.

It’s been about one sleep since I last contacted you, if you’re keeping track of time. I hope you’ve gathered up some strength for more of the plan. When the time comes, you need to keep as much of that power as you can, and then we’ll both break out of here, okay? Aster… I don’t know how he feels. Leph doesn’t even speak to me. And Mhynt… I can’t tell her anything or she’ll speak to Alexander. She’s loyal to him.

In about twenty days from now, though, I’ll have something working. I gave specific directions to a servant guard. In about five days, he’s going to do the first step, and you’ll probably see him coming to the dungeons to scout the place out. Try to reach out to him, okay? However you can. Just, be subtle.

I know I told you this plan before, but I just don’t want you to forget. And, maybe hearing a voice would be helpful, right?

Don’t worry. Everything is going to be fine. Keep counting the days. It’ll all be over soon, and I’ll get us all out by then, even if it has to be alone. I have a plan.


That was a longer one than usual, but it was the same story as before.

He could only hope that it would have the effect he wanted…

<><><>​

“Twenty days, he says, hmm?” asked Qitlan, kneeling down next to Star while yet another Psychic—this time a Hatterene—stood next to him.

And they overheard everything Owen had just prayed to her. Star’s heart was pounding in her chest. She struggled to keep a straight face, but nothing was going to hide her distress this time. The only way she could hide more of her thoughts was by mentally cursing and covering it all in profanity.

Her eyes darted left and right, and then she closed them, focused entirely on that.

“A real shame, isn’t it?” Qitlan asked. She could hear his smirk. “You’re so good at keeping your own thoughts private, but you have no hope of hiding incoming telepathy… even if it’s through that strange, divine prayer you have…”

That he somehow figured out. How?! Were they observing Owen, did he let it slip somehow?

“You must be wondering why,” Qitlan said, and Star refused to give him any sort of reaction. “It’s simple. Owen thought he was clever… but we saw through his plans. We saw what he did while meditating, and we saw how it corresponded exactly with when your breathing patterns changed. Not always, though. He tried to shake it up…”

He chuckled. “Well. He can plan as much as he wants. We also know he can’t hear you.” She patted her on the head. “So, I’m going to ask you one last time for the night. Give us what we want… and this will all be so much easier. The aura key. Will you?”

But she couldn’t do that. Even if they knew everything, she still needed… to let this happen and endure. Owen got this far. Would he figure it out?

Besides… she already betrayed him too many times. This was the least she could do to make it up to him.

“Well. You did this to yourself,” Qitlan said, stepping away. “Come.” He nodded at Hatterene, and they both left the cell. When the doors opened, Star saw a Mightyena waiting for her on the other side, fangs bared eagerly.

She just closed her eyes. Just another day.

Just twenty more.
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Chapter 142 – The Life They Live

“Xerneas… What an awful god,” Trina muttered under her breath, riding atop Alex’s greater head.

The Hydreigon wasn’t really sure how he’d wound up as the Snivy’s noble steed, but as he flew down from the Voidlands’ portal and toward the ruins of Hot Spot, he found a strange satisfaction in being so needed.

Also on his back were Amia and Diyem. Between the four of them, Alex was, for once, the strongest of the team, though that didn’t say much when his passengers were all in their first stage of life, technically.

When he made it to Kilo Village after spending some time letting the trio enjoy the sunlight along the way, he landed near the behemoth that was curled up near the western edge of town.

“That’s Nate, I believe,” Alex explained.

“That… creature is friendly?” Trina asked, giving him a skeptical look. “He’s as large as a small Dungeon.”

“Yes, he saved the town, I believe,” Alex explained.

“Hmm…” Diyem seemed troubled by something. “Nate…”

“Do you know him?” Alex asked.

“Distantly. You could say we used to be enemies.”

“Oh.” Alex slowed his flight. “Does that mean I should avoid him for now? Or, you said, used to be enemies. Are things… better, now?”

“I’m trying that new technique called ‘optimism,’ since the only difference is my name is Diyem now.”

“A-ah.”

“You’re both dark creatures with great power, right?” Amia asked, tapping her chin. “Were you two cosmic brothers, in a sense?”

“I highly doubt that,” Trina said, but then stared at Diyem for the answer.

“Yes, in a sense,” Diyem replied, which only annoyed Trina enough for her to scowl. “Nate was born at the same time I was. That’s all I know. I’ve known him, felt his presence, for as long as I could remember. I also remember hating it.”

“Then, Nate knows your presence, and hates you, too?” Alex asked. “Again, should I…”

“I don’t know what his thoughts on me are,” Diyem said. “He won’t harm you. Perhaps I can use you as a shield.”

“Comforting.” Alex bumped his head hands together, but then realized that several of the bigger eyes on Nate’s strange body were staring at them. “Ah! We’re spotted… I suppose I have no choice.” He continued the flight at his original speed, descending for conversation. He still stayed many tens of feet off the ground for a quick getaway, though against something as massive as Nate, that probably wouldn’t mean much.

Nate’s body language was inscrutable. For something so large, there was nothing Alex could understand. He was much more familiar with a Charmander, and could tell that Diyem was tense and bracing for something bad.

“Can he hear us? We’re far from him,” Alex said. “Maybe I should go closer.”

“Do what you want.”

“Well, that doesn’t fill me with confidence at all!”

“I’m still working on confidence.”

Amia hummed. “He isn’t attacking. Why don’t you wave?”

“Wave? Oh, of course!” Hesitantly, Alex waggled his left, lesser head in Nate’s direction.

One of the five… heads that Nate had waggled back. The second from the left. Alex wasn’t sure if that was a head or some kind of face-arm.

“Aww, he waves the same as you!” Amia said. “You know, I’ve never seen a Pokémon like that before. Is he some kind of… alternative entity like you, Diyem?”

“I wouldn’t know. But he’s at least as unique as a Legend is. There is no other in this world.”

“I would imagine so,” Alex hummed. “Ah, hello! Nate, is it? We, ah, er, well… don’t be too startled! But we have a friend with us named Diyem!”

The waving slowed down, but Alex had no idea what that could mean. Once they were closer, he spoke a little more softly, though he still had to raise his voice for how far away they were.

“Do you remember someone called—”

Dark Matter?

“A-ah… yes. He, um…”

“Hello.” Diyem stood up, holding his breath. “I am not controlling them. You may check for yourself, Voice.”

The behemoth’s massive form leaned down, lower and lower, until one of those five heads was only a few feet away from Alex. The sheer magnitude of his size… It took everything Alex had to not pass out from panic.

You’ve changed.

“Mm. I have.” Diyem crossed his arms. “I’m the better fragment. I hope you’ll help me in vanquishing the others?”

One of the other heads slowly curled forward and over Alex’s back. He wasn’t sure if he should go away or remain, so he just froze. Amia and Trina scooted back, but Diyem stood his ground. From the very top of the prism-like head, several little hands of varying forms peeled off and reached toward Diyem.

“Um, wh-what are you doing?” Alex asked. “Why do you… ha-have so many of those, anyway?”

Alex heard… whispering. He couldn’t make out anything of what they were saying, but he felt like if he listened for too long, he’d go mad. He tried to tune it out.

Diyem growled a little and Alex craned his neck. The Charmander was being patted on the head and rubbed under the chin by several of those blackened limbs. Diyem’s black ember flickered and ebbed, which puzzled Alex. That usually meant, from what he knew of Owen, that they were enjoying themselves.

Diyem grumbled. “Nate was what I would once consider to be the embodiment of the… opposite of what I had been. Where I was pain, Nate was resilience; where I was anger, Nate was compassion. He was the defiant voice I had to answer against. Just like me, he was not very well-known, either. A little thing that dwelled within the Tree of Life.”

“Little, you say,” Alex said with a nervous breath. “Wait, Tree of Life? Wouldn’t that make Owen…?”

“Owen is a lot of things lately,” Diyem muttered.

You became cuter.

Diyem’s eye twitched. “Then you’ll allow us inside with no trouble.”

Nate seemed to pause, but then sank back and curled near the edge of the mountain again, allowing Alex to continue past without interference.

“Goodness… Much larger up close,” Alex said.

“It’s all so strange,” Amia said. “I can’t help but feel I’ve met someone like him before.”

“Didn’t we go into that great crater once?” Alex asked. “That’s where Nate used to live until Eon brought him out. I do wonder why he stayed there…”

“Aside from being a terrifying beast, you mean?” Diyem hummed. “Probably because a small part of his instinct told him to stay there. That’s where the Tree used to be.”

“A Tree of Life? Here, in Kilo?”

“Not anymore, obviously.”

Alex started flying over the behemoth and to the caldera that housed Kilo Village. It was going to be a few more kilos of flight before they got there proper.

“So strange… A whole tree that monumental and it’s just gone.” Alex poked his heads together as he flew. “It’s sad to think about.”

“Perhaps even sadder when you realize the one Owen created in the Voidlands is a mere sapling compared to what used to be in Kilo.” Diyem turned to face the southern horizon. “So long as it wasn’t on a totally different side of the world, you could see its leaves. It was a massive figurehead of the world that sprouted at the same time that Xerneas was given life, and when the world was truly established as its own.”

“Xerneas… So, Xerneas was its keeper, then? Tied to it?”

Diyem nodded. “Its guardian, and in some ways, its embodiment. But not the sole occupant. There were others who were born with the world, and the Tree of Life allowed them to manifest as something more than forces and puffs of consciousness between the world’s fabric.”

“Who were they?” Alex asked.

“Mmf. They eventually adopted the names Aster and Leph. Mew and Arceus.” Diyem’s eyes narrowed. “They are the proper inheritors of this world. Star and Barky, as you call them, were the ones who created this world out of guilt over a mistake. But Aster and Leph were born of the world; gods by birthright. They, like me, and like Nate, are exactly as old as the world itself. They will live and die with it, so long as a single soul draws breath.” He snorted, leaning back. “Star, Barky, Necrozma… They have no such obligation. They are free to leave this realm behind whenever they wish, and happily skip off into the Overworld as they like.”

Alex tilted his head. “Overworld?”

Diyem made a dismissive wave. “Ask Hecto.” He readjusted himself and looked forward.

“For someone who used to be the embodiment of darkness and evil and everything,” Amia said, “you speak very well. It’s a little, um… pleasant?”

Diyem grunted. Alex couldn’t see his expression, but he wondered if Diyem appreciated the comment.

“That’s just my resemblance to Owen influencing you,” Diyem stated. “I’m only reciting history and stating facts.”

“Tell us more,” Trina said. “You seem happy explaining this world’s history. Why didn’t you sooner?”

“Mortals are only interested in the present. They don’t care about what the past looked like; they can’t remember it. It isn’t something they feel.”

“We’re far from mortal,” Trina countered, “whether or not what you said is actually true aside.”

“Hmph.” Diyem relaxed. “Maybe later, then. We’re almost arrived, and you have something new to grieve.”

Alex descended at last, though he offered to bring the trio to the Heart HQ before dropping them off completely. Near the top of the stairs, Rayquaza and Elder were both making arrangements with other teams. It sounded like another search and rescue operation for a town that had halted communications ever since Dark Matter’s rise.

Diyem kept his tail hidden while they were moving, and he got a few friendly smiles from those who mistook him for Owen.

“Alex, so good to see you,” Rayquaza greeted. Elder did the same with a light bow. “Ahh, brought some friends?”

“Xerneas graced us with his power of revival, but is rationing his resources to do much more,” Trina replied. The little Snivy bowed with grace. “But it will do for now. My mind is the most important part of my needs at the moment. Actually, Alex, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to see them now.”

“Oh, I can give you their address,” Rayquaza offered. “Your mutants, yes?”

“My family, yes,” Trina corrected. “They all live in the same area?”

“Yes, they decided to live as a collective in a small district in eastern Kilo Village. Ah, hold on, I’ll get it.” He float-slithered into Heart HQ, leaving Elder behind.

Alex gave Elder a hesitant smile. “How have things been between you two? Er, since I heard that…”

“I’ve… been waiting,” Elder admitted. “Rayquaza refuses. I need to come to terms with things first, but I truly don’t understand. If Rhys is with Dialga, he seems happy. I only wish for the same… Oh, what would Rhys say… Perhaps that in time, it would work out…”

He was keeping a strong face, but Alex could see how broken up about it all the Torkoal was. “I’m sure he only wants you to do well for yourself.”

“Mm. He does.” Elder sighed. “He is a lot like me. I understand why he made this choice to delay. By the way, has anyone seen Manny…? I think Willow had been called to the Voidlands for getting some of her spirits revived, including him.”

“I haven’t seen him, no,” Alex said.

“Ah, well… I hope he is fine, then.”

Rayquaza returned and handed Trina a comically small note for her to take. The Snivy, trying to look as dignified as possible, nodded and started walking down the stairs that were nearly half her height. Alex considered offering to help, but that would probably only irritate her.

Diyem, rolling his eyes, said, “And where will I be staying? I imagine I will be monitored closely.”

“Ah, well… We were actually hoping that you would be able to help us with something,” explained Rayquaza. “It has to do with, err, the former leadership in Kilo. Anam.”

Diyem grimaced. “Yes, what about him?”

“He’s simply not himself,” Elder said. “He’s left the leadership work to most of us, and we don’t really know what he’s doing otherwise. He’s… evasive. But we need him now more than ever!”

“And you want me, the embodiment of all that is wrong with the world, to give him a pep talk.”

“Well, Owen isn’t here right now… nor is Madeline at the moment, nor—”

“Just because I look like—” Diyem stopped himself and squeezed his eyes shut. “Fine. Show me the way.”

Alex fidgeted, glancing at Amia, who was quietly and politely observing the conversation. The Ralts smiled at him when she realized he was looking. Even as a Ralts, she had the same smile, at least.

“Just this way,” Rayquaza said.

And as Diyem left to speak with Anam, Alex glanced helplessly at Amia.

“Well,” she said, patting him on the back. “I want to go and see the skies more. We haven’t done that in so long, Alex.”

His heart fluttered a little. “I’d love that.”

<><><>​

Har was having a good morning. His mood was up, nothing was bothering him, and he was finally able to get their house nice and clean even by his Perceive’s standards. Ax, Ani, and Lygo were resting up with an afternoon nap after finishing their work early, and several others were lounging in other parts of the district. He could sense all of them, and he felt nice and in control from being able to do so.

Something new entered his Perceive’s range and he shot up. “Trina!”

And chaos broke loose.

Suddenly, a whole squadron of mutants emerged from their houses and rooms all at once, earning startled cries from bystanders passing by on the streets. Twenty, thirty huge, fully evolved, mutated Pokémon stormed the road and converged around a tiny Snivy. She greeted them with a warm smile.

A flood of questions followed and Trina did her best to answer each one. They learned that she had been in the Voidlands with Gahi and some of the others, and that they would be returning like her. Her diminutive size was because of some of its properties, but in time she would be able to return to her former glory. Most importantly, they asked if she would be their leader again, and she agreed with that same, elegant smile.

But then, it was her turn to ask questions. She only had one before the air seemed to leave the room.

“Where is everyone else?”

And it all came rushing back. The decay of the silk labyrinth. The erosion of the weaker mutants who couldn’t handle themselves without Trina. How they wandered and possibly killed, or got killed, by other civilians in Kilo, or got lost in Dungeons…

“Trina, they… I’m sorry,” Har finally said after some of the others explained in more detail what happened. “This is all of us.”

She was… still. Like she thought it was a cruel joke, but Har could tell she knew it wasn’t. She was just hoping it was. The Charizard shifted his weight, glancing at Lygo, but he was looking too mournful to say anything. Ani seemed a little upset by the reminder, and Ax just shook his head.

“It’s not your fault,” Har pleaded. “You did everything you could for us. That so many of us were able to survive is—is all because of you! We’d be nothing without…”

“I—I understand,” Trina finally replied. What frightened Har was how tearful it sounded despite her calm tone. She looked like she wanted to say more, but she couldn’t get the words out.

“Queen?” asked one of the mutants.

“Don’t… don’t call me that anymore,” Trina whispered, which startled them.

“But…” Har glanced at the others. “But you’re…”

She also seemed to regret saying it, but Har knew it came from the heart.

“Rest with us,” Ani offered. “It’s been too long.”

“I have a free bed!” another one called.

“Can we all sleep in the big community room tonight?”

“Dibs on the center!”

“You had the center last time!”

“I’ll start moving everyone’s beds!”

Trina, looking startled by all the action, gave Har a perplexed look.

Har only smiled. “Like they said… you’re still our queen. One way or another. And a queen needs her rest.”

And for perhaps the first and only time, Har saw Trina’s eyes water. But she sucked in a breath, stiffened her stance, and nodded.

“Tomorrow, we have work to do,” the Snivy finally said. “They may be gone, but we can still save their spirits. Owen has a plan in five days to raid a figurehead of all the trouble that Kilo has gone through. If… you’d be willing, will you fight alongside us?”

“I can speak for everyone,” Har said. “We will.”

<><><>​

Every day, Owen got news updates from the team while everyone planned and got their affairs in order after being dead, missing, or otherwise for so long. The days blended together, however briefly, as the recovery process went into full swing.

It took Xerneas an agonizing four days to properly revive all essential Pokémon that had been in Kilo a few months ago. During that time, Hot Spot was slowly cleaned, new normals were established, and temporary homes were set up in the middle of Kilo Village.

However, housing was not easy to find. Kilo Village had absorbed many town populations that had evacuated during the Dungeon crisis, and shelter was difficult to arrange. With most Elite leadership now gone, and Elder out of commission, it briefly seemed like Kilo Village would not be able to handle the massive influx of displaced Pokémon.

That was until Arceus and a limited pantheon had appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Where the Elites had left them, the gods stepped in and assisted with organizing. In some ways, their mannerisms were strangely familiar, yet nobody dared question them. They were gods, right? Even though Dialga seemed to take on the same duties Rhys had, or Rayquaza was inexplicably working alongside Elder for most of their tasks, everything was still going along smoothly.

There were rumors that Anam had somehow returned, but nobody actually saw him in person aside from passing glances. The conclusion was that he was still recovering from some terrible battle against Dark Matter; he must have been the one responsible for finding all of these gods in the Voidlands. After all, who else could it be?

Hot Spot wasn’t yet in working condition to be inhabited, so Owen and the rest of the team instead took up some temporary housing in Yotta Outskirts. It wasn’t too far of a walk from Kilo Village after Palkia set up a new Waypoint for the nearest outposts, and it was away from a lot of the chaos. After so much time in the Voidlands, the team wanted to train and relax somewhere more rural.

There was a hint of guilt at trying to relax when so many were suffering… but with Xerneas still gathering power to revive the team, they had little more to do than rest and train and keep up with whatever Owen was telling them from Cipher City.

“Hey, Diyem,” Owen said, sitting at a table with just himself and Diyem on a lazy early noon, “do you want seconds?”

“What? No. Why?”

“Well, you’re still a growing boy after all,” Owen said in a playful tone, earning a glare from the black-flamed Charmander.

“You’re enjoying this.”

“I have to find some levity, don’t I?”

“You’ve been resting for four days now. I’m getting restless.” Diyem shifted his weight. “Not that I can do anything…”

Owen slid a small helping of rice and meat over to Diyem, who stared quizzically at it.

“I said I wasn’t hungry.”

“That isn’t what my Perceive is telling me. Stop being so prideful, enjoy it!”

Diyem grumbled to himself and grudgingly picked up the bowl. “I’m removing your horns.” And despite this, he downed half the bowl in one gulp.

Owen decided not to rub it in. He was just glad Diyem was in better spirits than before. It was a little surreal being in temporary housing with him while Hot Spot was being repaired, the very person who’d ruined it and put them through so much trouble, but with how limited space was in Kilo Village with so many refugees, it was a miracle they’d been given space at all.

He had a feeling that had it not been for him, Diyem would have been cast aside or killed by now. But they needed him to defeat the ‘rest’ of Dark Matter. That’s what he told himself. And after these few days, it was becoming a little easier to treat him like an old, possibly evil friend.

Diyem left for the kitchen to put the bowl away, and Owen decided to take an afternoon nap. He’d been taking those a lot lately. It helped rest his mind, if anything.

Yet it hadn’t even been a kilo before he sensed Zena flying through the sky.

“Owen!” Zena called.

Owen groaned and rolled out of bed.

“Owen!” Zena called again.

“Here!” Owen said, wobbling out of the bedroom. He sensed that Diyem had passed out in bed on a full stomach.

“Spice is here!”

That got Owen picking up the pace. “Where?” he called, spreading his wings and taking off without hesitation. Zena leapt into the air as well, slithering with Mystic power to keep up.

“They came in from the east. Seems they had to travel on foot all this time after escaping Emily…”

“Emily…” Owen nodded. “Sounds like they barely made it. Are they reporting to the Hearts?”

Zena nodded, and Owen pivoted there, flying over some familiar faces far below. It was surreal to see so many Legends walking among them now, but that was simply how things were for the time being. Giratina was walking on six legs near the front of the Heart HQ with Madeline, making arrangements during Anam’s quiet leave of absence.

“What good timing,” Zena said. “We were just about to leave tomorrow, weren’t we?”

“Yeah, but let’s bump that up to today.”

“Wh-what?” Zena blinked. “Owen, what’s this plan of yours with yourself where you can just do it a day early?”

Owen stretched his wings to go into a glide and Zena kept pace.

“Alright, I think I can tell you now,” he said. “I’ve been getting information from my other half every night when I visit the Voidlands. He’s been feeding information to Star, who’s imprisoned in Cipher Castle, but it’s all false. Our plans, I mean. We’re kinda hoping that Qitlan and the others are smart enough that they’re intercepting it, so when we do our real plan, it’ll catch them off guard. They think we’re going to attack in sixteen days.”

“But what about Star? Won’t she know?” Zena asked. “They’d get it from her…”

“That’s, er, the tricky part. She doesn’t know. So it’s going to be a surprise for her, too. I don’t know for sure where she is in the dungeons, either, but with a little Perceive…”

“Do you even know she received your prayers, or that they can be intercepted?” Zena asked worriedly. “Owen, this isn’t like you. This doesn’t sound like a plan at all! It’s… all faith!”

“I have backups,” Owen assured her. “And if we take any longer, if we give them more time to plan, we’re only going to fall more behind. I… don’t like it either. But think about what it means if we take even longer.”

Zena still had an apprehensive look, and Owen wondered if this really was the right choice. He began to doubt. But then he thought back to the five hundred years before, the stasis he’d been in while everyone was stuck in a deadlock…

“I just don’t want things to slip back into nobody making a move,” Owen said. “So I’m going to get as many safeties as I can before we take a risk.”

“I’m going to trust you on this,” Zena said, “but if you do anything too reckless…”

“I have three bodies,” Owen said. “If two of them die, we’ll be fine.”

At that, Zena paused. “No, it’s not fine,” she said. “Your power is scattered. Which body has the Grass Orb? Which one has all the power? You can’t afford to have any of your bodies die! It’d be a huge setback!”

“Grass Orb, I’m going to take care of soon,” Owen explained. “And if one of my copies die, the power should transfer to all the others. That’s how it works for Hecto, and Diyem said the properties are similar there. Only way this could get bad is if the parts are killed and trapped. But the only person who can do that is Mhynt.”

“And you trust Mhynt?”

“I do.” Owen nodded. “We may not be able to get back together, but I can still trust her.” He finally landed in front of the Heart HQ, and Zena curled next to him.

“Then I suppose I’ll trust her, too,” Zena said reluctantly. “But you aren’t doing a reckless plan like this for… at least until the next time things get desperate.”

“I never would otherwise,” Owen said with an assuring nod. He leaned against her and then pressed on ahead. “Hello?” he called. “Where’s Spice?”

“You called?”

What Owen saw was startling. It seemed like a Salazzle, but it had bright yellow eyes with no pupils, a strange, emerald gem in its chest, and a trail of silver light crackling along her body like a scar. He recognized that scar—it was the same as Spice’s. It really was her…

She emerged from Elder’s office, which had been Anam’s until only a few days ago. “Oh, it’s… uh… Huh. Evolved again?”

“Y-yeah.” Owen tittered. “Anyway, I actually wanted to talk to you… Spice.”

Without pupils, Owen wasn’t sure what she was focusing on or looking at, but she seemed suspicious of the way Owen had said her name. Good going. Good start. It wasn’t like he’d infrequently interacted with her for years already or anything.

“Hi,” Owen greeted.

“Hi.”

Okay, he definitely was getting this wrong now. Zena was trying to make her massive body invisible by staring at the ground.

“Yeah,” Owen said. “Hi. So, about that talk…”

“Yep, you told me about it.”

“Right.”

Owen wished he could melt like Zena could.

“You know, I’d say you aren’t used to talking to girls, but you’ve got a catch right next to you.”

Zena’s prism scales seemed to shift a shade.

“So how’ve you been?” Owen asked.

“I can’t do this,” Zena squeaked. “Spice, have you been feeling at all strange lately?”

“No, I’ve been feeling pretty normal lately,” Spice replied. “Just your standard wraith-with a-gem-in-her-chest life, y’know?”

“Okay, yes, but more like… more than that,” Owen said. “Anything? How about when you see me?”

Spice squinted. “Are you… asking to hook up?”

“N-no! No, definitely not, that’s not—”

“Definitely not? What’s that supposed to mean?!”

Zena was covering her face now.

“I’m… you…!” Owen grasped at the air in front of him, tilting his head as Spice took an uneasy step back.

By now, a Delphox was peeking out of the office. He tilted his head. “…Have I met you before?” he asked.

“Huh?” Owen blinked. “…Leo?”

“Leo?” Zena repeated. “You know him?”

“Gods, Owen! It really is the same Owen. I knew it wasn’t a coincidence. Er… congratulations,” Leo said awkwardly.

“You know him?” Spice asked.

“Remember that Charmeleon I had gone on a few dates with?” Leo asked. “That was a few years ago…”

Zena gawked, then looked at Owen.

“I, uh, forgot,” Owen admitted. Zena seemed to understand, though she still looked surprised.

“Um, i-is something happening out there?” called a Smeargle trying to squeeze around Leo. Upon seeing Owen and Zena, though, he meekly mumbled something and went back into the office.

“Okay,” Owen finally said. “Sssspice! You… are someone kind of important, but I also don’t want to, like, tell you in case it… breaks something.”

“Breaks—wait. You—” She suddenly glanced at Leo, then Zena, and then the rest of the hall. Nobody else was around for now; it wasn’t often that people went directly to Elder’s office like this. “About my memories?”

“So you already know something’s wrong?” Owen asked.

“Long story. But yeah. What do you know?”

He hesitated. Was this the right time? She was right there, he’d been waiting for this, Diyem told him, it all had to be true.

“Stop… dancing around the freaking subject. Tell me! Now! Do you have any idea how much sleep I’ve lost to this? Figuratively?”

“I just don’t know if—when I got my memories back, they were, it was a shock, and for a while I—”

“Ten seconds.”

“What?”

“Nine.”

“Wh-what are you gonna—”

“Eight.” She drew two spikes from her pack. They were laced with something.

“Y-you’re my daughter and your name is Remi!”

The Salazzle stopped. Owen wasn’t sure why. But now she was frozen.

“You were a Sceptile from a long, long time ago. I don’t know the story on how you got here or anything like that, but you fell into the Voidlands and lost all your memories because of it. But somehow you came back and made a new life for yourself here. Th-that’s all I know for that part, but… but I know you’re my daughter because… a lot of things add up if you are, and, er, someone who’s more in-the-know… confirmed it, sort of.”

As Owen spoke, Spice slowly placed the spikes back into her bag and closed it, standing straighter.

“It’s hard to believe,” Zena said, “but… I hope it’s something we can prove to you later. Do you, er… feel okay?”

Spice was quiet for a while longer, staring at the ground.

“…Remi?” Owen asked.

The Salazzle held up a claw, then brought it to her chin. “…Was waiting for some kind of epiphany to unlock in my head. Nothing.”

Owen’s wings drooped a little, but he supposed it was only natural that the memories wouldn’t come back immediately.

“And… I’ve got a lot of questions, too.”

“Y-yeah, I’d bet. But there’s something that we need to try, too. Something to test.”

“Er—hold on, did I hear that right?” Leo asked. “Spice is… your daughter.”

Owen nodded.

“For a Sceptile, so she was a Sceptile.”

Another nod.

“From long, long ago. How old are you?”

“That’s… another long story.”

Despite lacking pupils, the gesture Spice made was clearly rolling her eyes. “Boy, you must’ve been one annoying father.”

“You could say that.” Owen dipped his head.

“Well, sorry, but I don’t remember it,” she said again. “But… do you have any proof?”

The hint of hope in her voice… She would take anything remotely plausible. But did he have any of that? Some way to validate that hope? It must have been a burning question for her, the way she was reacting. Had she already known that she was missing something? For how long?

“I don’t,” Owen said.. “Sorry. I can’t think of any proof right now. But…”

“I’ll think about it,” she dismissed, and Owen felt an anxious knot forming in his gut. She rolled her eyes—did Owen give himself away?—and added, “I mean that literally. Maybe I’ll see something. You don’t look like a liar. Even if it’s totally insane.”

“Right… right.” Owen shifted awkwardly. “Then I’ll leave you, um, leave you to it…”

Spice held her chest, toying with the gemstone again. “…Can I admit something?” she asked.

“Anything.”

“Sometimes I have the strange feeling that I should do something or another. Like right now, when you’re talking to me… I feel like I can believe you.” She tapped at the green gem. “It was ever since this got lodged in here. So maybe…”

Owen tilted his head, unsure. It was strange. But could that somehow be awakening or guiding her? “You should listen to it more,” he said. “In case it’s something helpful.”

“…Yeah. Sure.” Spice seemed to take that seriously, too. “Thanks. You do your thing. Where can I find you?”

“I, uh… That’s sort of hard to answer. I’m in temporary housing right now until Hot Spot is cleared out…”

“Alright, then… see me at Sugar and Spice. Later. Okay?”

“Of course!” Owen nodded fervently.

This wasn’t really necessary for his plans against Alexander anyway. It could wait.

He just had to return safe.

<><><>​

“Are you sure you’re going to be okay, Owen?”

Zena wished they didn’t have to return to the Voidlands only four days after they’d escaped, but Owen’s plan called for it, and he and his other self had been scheming the whole time for it. Still, she definitely would have preferred at least a few extra days… for Owen’s sake.

“Yeah. I’ll be fine,” the Charizard said. “No time to wait for stuff about Remi.”

“Are things really that urgent in… Oh, of course they are.” Zena nodded. “But once we rescue the other you, we are absolutely talking about this.”

“I want to,” Owen assured her. “I promise. We’ll talk about it.” Owen glanced to the right. “Oh, good, you’re here.”

There was nobody there. Her first instinct was that Owen finally cracked under the pressure, but then she remembered Enet existed.

“Oh, she’s here… Enet.”

The illusion disappeared, revealing the Zoroark crouched down and ready to pounce, looking playful.

“Glad you could make it,” he said.

“I’m helping?” Enet asked.

“No, er, you won’t be coming with us for this raid,” Owen explained.

Enet gave him a skeptical look. She snapped her claws and disappeared again.

“I know, I know. But they have a lot of ways to detect you anyway, and we need to try to keep our team as small as possible. And, well, there’s another reason I want to make sure you’re here. They might have… a specific interest in making sure you stay, or they pick you off.”

“Pick off,” Enet mocked, snorting the invisibility away. “Not weak.”

“Y-you aren’t! You aren’t. Just…”

Owen had told Zena about Enet’s true nature. She still couldn’t believe it. In some ways, she didn’t want to. What would that mean for either of them? Spice and Enet… and the third one inside the tree, apparently.

“Either way, we’re going to be going soon. A small team just to make sure we can get in and that’s it. Maybe in a day, or sooner,” he explained quietly.

“Wait, Owen…” Zena finally couldn’t take it. She brought her ribbons onto his shoulders, a little firmer this time. “You need to slow down.”

“What?” Owen asked, looking befuddled.

“You’re going to get yourself killed, or worse! What is this, why are you rushing so badly? Please, Owen, talk to me… You haven’t been yourself for days.”

“We just don’t have a choice anymore,” Owen said. “If they keep going like this, they’re going to find the key to Reset my aura. And then they’ll probably find a way to… change me to be a weapon again. I can’t let that happen, okay? I just can’t!”

There was madness in his eyes. Zena didn’t know how to console him. Zena always knew that, as a Charizard, Owen was less inhibited, but was it really always like this? She shook her head and said, “But isn’t that all the more reason to be careful and—”

“We’re just going from here, straight to the Castle,” Owen said firmly. “Then it’s over. That’s all. We get my other half out there, at the very least. I’m doing this… with or without you.” His expression darkened, but then he glanced at Enet, who had tilted her head and flicked her ears.

“Owen…!” There was no convincing him. He just wasn’t listening… Was he really going to lose his nerve now, of all times? “Please, just—”

“Illusion up,” Enet announced.

And suddenly, Owen deflated and breathed out a long, steady breath. Zena flinched at the sudden change in countenance.

“That should be enough,” Owen sighed, scratching Enet behind the ears. She growled affectionately and leaned into it. “Sorry for using you, Zena. But it had to look genuine.”

“Wh… wh… what?!”

Owen jerked his head toward something behind Zena. There, a shadow was just barely visible from someone stalking around the corner, listening in. Zena eyed Owen’s horns next.

“Now they’ll think I’m being reckless, and I blabbed the wrong location,” Owen said. “I’m pretty sure that’s one of Alexander’s spies.”

Zena stumbled over her words. Her head was spinning. How much was a lie? Was that all an act?

“We do still need to go soon,” Owen explained, “But… I have more precautions than just rolling in there. I promise.” He dug through his bag and produced three curious orbs. They almost looked like marbles of emerald, platinum, and opal, glowing faintly. “As part of my planning, I got these from Necrozma’s disciples. Bits of Rayquaza, Azelf, and Giratina’s power… Just one use, but they should help me surprise them. Only them and I know what they do.”

Zena nodded slowly, the panic finally leaving her system. She was impressed, though she was also a little irritated that he waited this long. Just for an act to convince the spies? A little cold of him to do that…

“I’m… sorry,” Owen said, dipping his head.

Stars, he could even Perceive when she was upset. There was no hiding from him.

“Wh-what’s wrong?” Owen asked. “I—I’m sorry, I—”

“It’s nothing, Owen,” she said. “Please don’t use me like that again.”

At that, the wince seemed deeper, and he nodded. “I won’t. Sorry.”

“I can act better than you think, you know,” Zena added, defensive. “Part of being a Milotic is knowing how to put on a show. It’s not just elegance. It’s all performance.”

Owen sighed. “Yes, well, you’re just so genuine all the time that I… wasn’t sure. Next time, we can tap into that talent.”

Was that compliment intentional? Owen was still fretting, shifting his weight. She let it go with a sigh. “I’m holding you to it,” she said. “Can you tell me what they do?”

Owen glanced at Enet. “How much longer do you have?”

Enet shrugged. “Standing around. Not convincing.”

“Hmm…” Owen lumbered over to the tree and slid down, gesturing for Zena to follow. She coiled next to him, head resting on his thigh as she stared at the three marbles.

“Rayquaza,” Owen said, holding up the emerald marble, “gave me something that will be a rush of pure power and speed. If I need to power through something, I’ll use this. It should only last a moment, but that should be enough. Giratina’s…” Owen held up the platinum orb. “This one will let me slip into the shadows like it’s water, is how she described it. Lasts the same amount of time. If I need to hide, that’s how, even with my flame. Lastly, Azelf’s…” Owen seemed to hesitate when holding up that opal sphere. “It’s… what he did to me a long time ago. Lasts the same amount of time, but it’ll sap the fighting spirit out of anyone in the area that I want. They just won’t have the motivation to stop me.”

“Goodness…”

“Feeling more confident now?” Owen asked, smiling.

“Y-yes, actually. But why don’t you just bring them with you for that same power all the time?”

“They’re still recovering, and none of them are whole yet, either,” Owen said. “And, aside from Azelf, they’re also a little too… big for stealth or a raid like this. Maybe when we do our full-on assault, that’ll be different.”

“…Then, who will be coming with you?” Zena asked.

“Azelf needs to recover,” Owen said, “but we can’t risk too much by sending Team Alloy there. It’s going to be… me, Mesprit, and Uxie.”

“Not Team Alloy?”

Owen looked uncomfortable, leaning against her. “If they do have the Reset aura, or find some other way to control me, these halves of Demitri and Mispy won’t be affected. They can subdue me and evacuate.”

“Owen…” Zena’s chest tightened. “You can’t possibly think that.”

“Too careful, too reckless, which one?” Owen tried to smile, but she saw the dark fear in his eyes. But she also saw his stubborn resolution. That, despite the act, was real…

“Anyway,” Owen went on, still leaning against her. “There’s one last thing I want you to do.”

“Anything,” Zena said.

Owen pulled his hand away from the tree, and she realized that the sense of aura coming from it had gone down significantly.

“Hold onto them.” He held forward what looked like a bright, white sphere. Enet seemed to strain to keep it hidden.

“The Grass spirits… Why?”

“If we attack the Castle, Alexander is probably going to retaliate and attack the Tree. I… still need to be in it, just in case. But I don’t want to risk my spirits, or whichever one there might be the last third of Remi. If they have her, I don’t… know what I’d do. I don’t want to risk that option. It’s what ensnared Mhynt, and sometimes I think she has a stronger will than me.”

“But won’t this make the Tree weaker?” Zena asked.

“You’ll have to defend it,” Owen said. “Can you do that?”

A beat, but then she nodded. She reflected Owen’s determination.

Finally, something to do.

“Easily.”
 

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Chapter 143 – Fly to the City

Cipher Castle was strangely lonely. There were very few guards actually patrolling the area inside, and all the halls were far too large to be considered anything but excessive. Owen walked down a now-familiar passageway that was at least ten feet in width and hundreds in length. He led a Swampert carrying several vases with roses in them.

Two days ago, Swampert had introduced himself as Servant. He said that because he was Owen’s Servant, that was simply his name. Owen, not comfortable with that, suggested just calling him Swampert for the time being.

“So, uhh,” Swampert said, “any reason why I’m carrying a hundred vases with flowers in them?” He sniffed idly at a few.

“I wanted to decorate the place a little,” the Charmeleon replied, arms behind his back. “And you’re a lot bigger than me, so it’s easier to carry. If you see any empty tables, or those tables with little candies on them, we can put flowers there.”

“That does sound nice…” He hummed. “But you know this is probably suspicious, right? You didn’t… put anything weird in the vases?”

Owen laughed a little and continued on. “Just put them down where you think they seem fine,” he said. “Don’t worry. If they’re suspicious of anything, they’ll take it out on me, not you. You’ll be fine.”

“I hope so… Mhynt gets kinda scary when you disobey her. I h-heard she turned someone to dust with just a touch, you know. And made them reborn at their weakest.”

“She can be scary,” Owen said, hiding a pang of disapproval.

Swampert set a vase down on an empty table. He stared at it like he was expecting it to do something. When nothing happened, he followed Owen again.

“So, uh, what about when you asked me to explore the top floor of the castle? Qitlan gave me some weird looks over that one…”

“Just part of what I need,” Owen said.

“And you asked me to put down those decorative coins… You know they’re gonna inspect every one, right?”

“Yeah. They won’t find anything suspicious, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“…I—I’m not gonna get Voided for this, am I?”

“No. You did nothing wrong. You’re just following the deal, right?”

He nodded nervously. Owen understood the apprehension, and in some ways, he was nervous, too. He was still using this probably-innocent Swampert for some deception and it could have resulted in Swampert being harmed.

Eventually, they made it to the end of the hall with half of the flower vases taken care of. Swampert’s arms were still full, but not overfull, and Owen said, “Hey, how about a lunch break?”

“Oh, uh, yeah. Can we go to the healthier spot again? I—I mean! If it… pleases—”

“Sure. You have that voucher or something, right?”

“Y-yes. Er, Mhynt said… I should make use of it.” He sucked in his gut.

Owen sighed. “Well, it’s good to be healthy.”

“But I understand if you don’t want to,” Swampert added. “Don’t Charmeleon usually put on a few pounds before evolving?”

“That, uh, that’s a myth. Our bodies naturally bulk out on evolution. We don’t really need any extra… a-anyway, sure. Food. Right.”

The eatery in question was called Elegance and it was an installment that had been lucky enough to be placed right in the castle. Even Alexander occasionally visited it, and Owen wasn’t really sure why because the décor didn’t really fit him. Light, pastel colors and a Fairy-themed menu felt like something Alexander would fear. Unless that was his way of asserting dominance.

A kind Azumarill on a tall stool for height greeted them on the opposite side of a serving counter. “Aw, there y’are!” she greeted Swampert, who tittered nervously and rubbed the back of his head. “The usual?”

“Yes, please,” Swampert said.

“And how about you?”

“Oh, uh.” Owen looked over the menu. He couldn’t help but notice that Azumarill was working on an empty stomach. It was probably close to lunchtime for her, too. He didn’t want to make them work too much, so… “Same as him but for a body my size.” And Owen sensed a hint of relief in her muscles when he’d said it. They would probably just make one big batch and divide it up.

“You got it!” she replied with professional cheer. It was fake, except for the thankful relief of his order.

They received a ticket number and they waited off to the sides on stools by an empty table.

“I, uh, my meal’s kind of light,” Swampert said. “A smaller portion might leave you feeling hungry.”

“I don’t need to eat,” Owen replied casually.

“Oh. Right.” Swampert slowly placed the various flower vases on the table.

Owen couldn’t sense any nearby security cameras. At the very least, in the light buzz of lunchtime as other diners began to trickle in, it wouldn’t pick up their voices very clearly.

“So… this is actually going to be the last day I ask you to do things,” he explained. “I… sort of wanted to thank you. For what you’ve been doing.”

“I’ve just been following some basic instructions from you,” Swampert said. “That’s not…”

“But you didn’t have to be kind about it,” Owen said. “I could tell that… you weren’t afraid of me. In fact, a few times, you seemed surprised that I was getting this treatment at all. Like I didn’t matter.”

He flinched, suddenly nervous.

“Oh, sorry,” Owen quickly amended. “I’m not, like, blaming you for it. I’m just saying that’s what I saw.”

“You’re really perceptive, aren’t you?”

“A little.” Owen kicked his feet. The stool he was on was too tall. He rummaged through his bag, opening a secret pocket. “Here. Take this.” He placed a pebble in Swampert’s hands. It was small enough to fit on one of Swampert’s massive, flat fingers.

“…A rock? Er, thanks, if it’s sentimental, but…”

“I think it will be useful,” Owen said. “Just make sure that if you ever run into trouble… you hang onto it, alright? Focus on it, and draw out its power. I think it’ll motivate you.”

Swampert looked at him, puzzled, rolling the rock in his hands. “Er, thanks. But what is it?”

“It’s something that Qitlan finds very important,” Owen said. “Don’t give it to him. He’ll just use it for himself. When you use it, think of someone… or something missing that’s important to you. That you can’t remember.”

Swampert was still puzzled, gears turning in his mind. Then, there was that flash of realization, and then horror at the gravity of what was in his hands.

“Wait, I can’t… h-have this.”

“Well, it’s my order that you do,” Owen said flatly. “You’re my servant, right?”

Swampert winced, squeezing it in his fist. He quietly slipped it into his bag.

“Alright,” Owen said. “Then, keep putting those vases down. And afterward… I’ll have one last thing for you to do.”

Hey, me! Are you ready?

Owen stiffened and sat straighter. You’re coming?

Just about,
Null Owen replied. Team’s set and we’re flying from the… east!

There’s no way they can detect these thoughts, you know.

I know, but… just in case.


“Um, Owen?” Swampert asked.

“Oh, sorry. Right. One last thing for you to do…”

<><><>​

“I don’t want to do this,” Leph whispered to Aster, galloping and teleporting to South Null Village.

“We have to,” Aster replied, slouching over Leph’s back. One hand grasped at the wheel-like decoration around Leph’s abdomen. The other hand listlessly caught the wind as they flew over the gnarled trees of the forest.

She could still feel the cold numbness that had seeped in the last time Alexander had threatened to Void her. Her very thoughts dissolving away with all her memories. Becoming nothing but an obedient, thoughtless shell. But what was worse was coming back from it, realizing how little of her had remained on a whim. How absolutely beholden she was to him, even now.

If she strayed even slightly from Alexander’s orders, she would become nothing. She no longer had any leeway. Alexander had made that… perfectly clear. She had to follow everything he said. Everything.

Forever.

Or be lost forever. Be nothing forever.

But maybe if she followed Alexander, she would eventually be rescued. She could live a normal life. She knew what that was like, right? What was… normal?

“Can’t he let us go?” Aster asked, bringing his knees to his chest. “I don’t want to do this… it’s not fun anymore…”

“You know we can’t refuse,” Leph muttered.

The strange, mutated Mew curled up even more in response, like he wished to shrink back down to before his body had been changed.

“I’d rather…” Aster began, but never finished.

But Leph couldn’t give up. For him, for everyone else, they had to stay alive and themselves.

And so, as South Null Village came into view, Leph channeled her divine energy into an attack…

<><><>​

They’d warped from South to West Null in no time. Owen had given Zena most of the power in the Tree; she took in the spirits. Now, all they had to do was get to the city, specifically Cipher Castle, and get who they could out. Five people, but three most of all. Mhynt, other Owen, and Star.

It was strange to think about how all three of them could fit in his arms. In fact, even Mesprit and Uxie with him right now were small. He envisioned himself carrying out all of them like groceries.

“Have you ever been to the Castle?” Owen asked.

“Are you crazy?” Mesprit whispered back. “Sure, let’s go to the place that’ll turn us into Void slaves…”

Uxie nodded. “It was far too risky for us to get any closer. Null Village was our stronghold.”

Mesprit fidgeted. “Are y-you sure we shouldn’t go back? Xerneas said if we just waited one more day, he’d have something to help you even more…”

“What? He didn’t tell me about that,” Owen asked, flight briefly slowing, but then he pressed on.

“Well, he also said it might make you go berserk…”

“I can’t really afford that right now.”

“That’s probably why he didn’t bring it up.”

“O-oh. Okay. Sorry. Forget I said anything…”

“I can make you forget.”

“N-no! No. That’s fine.”

“I was joking.”

Owen shuddered. “Don’t… joke like that. You literally did that to me, remember?”

“…Right. Sorry.” Uxie’s shoulders tensed a little, like she’d been reprimanded. Guilt. “Sorry.”

“It’s alright. Look, let’s focus on this, okay? If you want people to forget things, try that on guards who spot us. Don’t erase all their memory. Just like… the last hour.”

“That’s easier anyway. I’ll think of something.”

Far ahead, the tall, tall buildings of Cipher City became much easier to see. Something surreal about the Voidlands was that its horizon went very far; he had to fly low in the forest to not be spotted easily, but now that they were getting closer, it was much easier on them to get in the air for mutual sight.

From far away, the buildings looked more like obsidian, rectangular mountains, or geometric crystals in a cave. Little specks of light dotted those buildings. Surrounding the city like twisted guardians were Void Titans under Alexander’s control. He wondered which of them were Legends, and which were simply amalgamations of poor souls that had lost themselves to the realm.

Either way, Owen knew he had to free them when this was over, somehow.

A long, droning sound filled the air. Siren. Some kind of crisis was incoming. At first, Owen wondered if something was going on; a pang of worry crossed his mind.

Then he realized he was the incoming crisis. The worry became adrenaline.

“No turning back now,” Owen said. “Let’s speed up!”

He burst from the tree line and made for a rapid approach, the wind whipping past him. Uxie and Mesprit clung to his shoulders.

“Left!” Uxie shouted, and Owen obeyed, suddenly swerving left. A split-second later, a beam of energy cooked the air that he’d just been in, coming all the way from one of the tall spires located in the city. It reminded Owen of Null Village’s sentry towers.

“How’d you see that coming?” Owen called over the wind.

“Energy was concentrating at the tip of those spires. I could sense it even from here. Can’t you?”

“My Perceive doesn’t go that far,” Owen said, “and it doesn’t sense energy, either. Just material!”

“Well, that’s going to be a problem.”

“Wait,” Mesprit says, “does that mean you can’t see digital screens?”

“What?”

“Go right!”

He barreled right, and this time Owen grasped at that energy to figure out what it was. The residuals flowed through him like a massive burst of energy that, should he counter, might leave him drained.

“Those are Hyper Beams!” Owen shouted.

“Artificial ones,” Uxie clarified.

Eon had something like this in Kilo. The Beammaker, used for training Mispy and other regenerating mutants. Now he had to dodge them…

“Umm, more problems!” Mesprit said. “Feeling a loooot of malice and anger coming from those Titans! They spotted us!”

“He can control them from here?!” Owen glanced at the nearest one. They were sluggish. Maybe they were only reflexive actions, not direct control. He didn’t need Perceive nor energy sense to see the black aura forming at the Titan’s mouth. “Okay, I can dodge this…”

“Do you have Protect active?” Uxie asked.

“Last resort,” Owen said. “Blasts like these… Protect might not be enough.”

Owen sensed surprise in Uxie’s body language.

“What?”

“You used to parry strikes from gods, Owen. Have you gotten rusty?”

“Well excuse me for being out of practice!”

The first blast was slower than the Hyper Beams, which was a relief, but they were also wider and the air around them felt corrosive. Owen wasn’t sure which was worse. But he knew that a single direct hit would take him out.

“Aah! More!”

“Down!”

Owen obeyed. “Demitr—I mean, Mesprit, you need to give a direction, I can’t see these energy blasts!”

“Sorry! Sorry!”

“Forward, speed up!”

Owen hissed and tilted ahead, his claws grazing against some of the tallest tree branches. He beat his wings hard and ascended just in time to avoid another volley.

“The Titans seem to be aiming directly at you. They’re easier to predict. But that Hyper Beam is starting to misfire hoping you’ll get hit.”

“I noticed. I also noticed it’s slower,” Owen puffed.

“Benefits of Hyper Beam!” Mesprit squeaked. “…Is that a cloud coming out of the city?”

Owen’s Perceive didn’t go nearly far enough to see what that was. He was still a few minutes at top speed off from entering the city. Maybe he should have fused with Gahi after all; he would have been in there by now.

But that would make their exit strategy worse if either of them got caught while inside. And if they had a way to disrupt their fusion…

No, no, he had to stop planning around hypotheticals, he was already here!

“Guards,”
Uxie finally said. “Those are guards!”

“A cloud of guards?!”

“I believe the correct term is swarm.”

“Squadron?” Mesprit chirped.

That meant at least a hundred were flooding out of the city, just for him. Those kinds of numbers could overwhelm his Perceive in an open area like this…

“I need to trust you guys,” Owen said suddenly.

“Huh?”

Owen reached toward his horns and tugged them off with a click. Feeling like he was flying blind, Owen sped forward again and shoved his horns in his bag.

“How are you going to take on a bunch of guards without Perceive?!” Mesprit cried.

“I’ll put it on when I’m on the ground. I do better in places with less open air, where things move more… predictably on the ground. I just need to get into the city. It’s complex but at least it’s solid and grounded.” He weaved around another Hyper Beam, and then twisted between two Shadow Blasts. “Time to use one of the gifts.”

Owen glanced down a few times until he grabbed the right one: Rayquaza’s blessing of emerald.

“Okay,” he said. “A burst of pure dragon energy. Should last a minute. That’s all I need to power through all of them.”

“Hey, and you’ll also be a little closer to being a Dragon!” Mesprit added.

“I would,” Owen breathed, feeling a sudden surge of eagerness. And then skepticism. He glanced at Mesprit, who had a delicate hand on his shoulder, pulsing with energy.

He smiled wryly. Fine. A little emotion wouldn’t hurt.

The emerald sphere was deceptively brittle once he was intentionally trying to crush it. It shattered like chalk and then enveloped his body with a bright glow; he could still see, but the edges of his vision erupted in green. Uxie and Mesprit clung to his shoulders, but Owen twisted and grabbed both of them, tucking them in his arms.

When Owen spoke, his voice had an ethereal ring. “Time to go!”

His speed doubled, maybe even tripled. He couldn’t tell. There was a Hyper Beam incoming that he dodged, yet he had the vague sense that he could have smashed through one or two without losing momentum. Was this the power of a god? A fragment of their concentrated power?

An emerald trail was left behind, tracing their path, but now the opposing force had nothing that could stop him. The cloud of guards lobbed elemental blasts of any kind they could muster, but most missed, some he dodged, and the rest dissolved before they could reach him. Wisps of wind knocked blasts off course; a curious barrier covered Owen’s scales like the hardest armor. Owen’s instincts told him to attack to make a path.

Flames welled up in his throat, and hot, green flames carved through the guards’ cloud like a splitting river. Infantry on the ground stood no chance as he directed his flames downward. He carved between the feet of two guards and left an eruption of green fire that forced them to jump away. Owen didn’t have his Perceive, but he had his eyes. He intentionally avoided them.

“Are you sure you want to spare them?” Uxie whispered in his mind.

And somewhere deep, he knew she had a point. These guards were loyal to Alexander, by choice or by compulsion. They would only chase him. Capture him or worse, close in from all sides.

But he couldn’t. He only vaguely knew why.

He sensed a hint of disappointment in Uxie’s next words. “You’re making this harder. But I’ll follow you.”

And maybe he sensed some understanding, too.

And suddenly, they were flying over the city. His emerald haze was about halfway faded, so he was ahead of schedule.

He saw dots on the ground, different citizens staring skyward in horror or excitement. Owen could only imagine what they were thinking. He tried to keep to his best behavior, aside from invading, and flew straight for Cipher Castle.

“Kinda weird, isn’t it?” Mesprit called over the wind. “This modern city in the Voidlands but in the middle of it all is this old castle!”

“They aren’t firing at us.”

“Guess they don’t want to use the beams against us if they think they’ll miss,” Owen remarked, eyeing the sentry tower nervously. Either that or they were gearing up for more precise attacks.

“Well, I think it’s weird…” Mesprit pouted, ignored.

This felt too easy. He knew he’d caught them unprepared so this was only a routine entry, and yes, he’d already blasted through a squadron of elite guards with the power of Rayquaza, but it still seemed too easy once he’d gotten into the city.

“Where’s Alexander?” Owen said. “Shouldn’t he be trying to kill me around now?!”

“I don’t like this,” Uxie said.

But he had two more blessings he could use, as well as his own powers. Now that he was close to land and about to enter the Castle proper, he snapped his horns back on. Nothing abnormal in his senses just yet, even after his Perceive was reactivated.

“Which way in?” Mesprit asked as the residential buildings transitioned into the open fields of the castle gardens. The other Owen had described it to him, but he had never seen it personally until now. The black lake, the wilted purple trees… It was as pretty as the Voidlands could be, but it only reminded him of how pitiful it all was.

“Let’s find a side room to break through,” Owen said. “They’ll be waiting at the front. My Perceive can handle the rest.”

“It’s our only chance,” Uxie said. “Get in, get Star, get out. That’s the priority.”

“Right. Everyone else is a bonus.”

So long as they could get Star, they could afford to lose even his other self. But if Star remained, they would already have the key to getting rid of Owen.

Hey, Star, Owen called. Surprise! We’re rescuing you now. Right now. Get ready, okay?

<><><>​

Qitlan hastily rapped a knuckle on Alexander’s door. “Ahem, we have a bit of a situation on our hands!” he called. “Do you not hear the—”

Several mutters and curses, muffled, came from the other side. Shuffling around. Qitlan tapped his foot impatiently, very tempted to scream, but he knew never to do such a thing to Alexander himself. He surely had a good reason for his stalled response.

Finally, the door opened, the Hydreigon floating in front of him with an irritated look in his eyes. Behind, covered in a sheet, was a Sceptile, glaring at them.

Qitlan glanced downward. “I see you’ve been busy,” he said, and then raised his head back to Alexander’s eyes. “Owen has arrived and is about one minute away from entering the Castle. What are my orders?”

“Whatever you want.”

“Perfect. I know where he will be, but I recommend you chase him down from another path. We can corner him.”

Alexander sped past Qitlan, and then the Inteleon turned his attention to the Sceptile getting off of the bed. As she walked, she shrank and regressed back to a Treecko.

“Distracting him, are you?” Qitlan hummed. “Don’t think I’m not wise to this.”

“He approached me,” Mhynt growled, her fists clenched. “Leave. I imagine my orders are the same?”

“No. You will be staying here. I still think you’re planning something, Mhynt. You may fool Alexander but you won’t fool me.”

“Stating it outright?” Mhynt spat. “I hate that Charmeleon. He has no interest in ‘rescuing’ me and you know it. He sees me as an object to possess and nothing more.”

“Hmph.” Qitlan stared a while longer, but then spun around. “Get cleaned up. You’ve done what you could for Alexander already. Go back to his bed and wait for him to return.”

“You really aren’t going to let me fight?” Mhynt pressed. “Alexander is going to wonder what happens if he gets out and I wasn’t there to help apprehend him. Aren’t we already short because he sent Leph and Aster to South Null?” She crossed her arms. “He told me he wanted me to help.”

“When?” Qitlan snapped.

Mhynt glanced back at the bed, then back at Qitlan. His fingers pressed against his arms.

The Treecko started walking. “Move.”

Qitlan stepped aside coolly, watching her go, a horrible, hot malice twisting his chest. What he’d do to see her fall…

But just as quickly, he closed his eyes and steadied his breath. Watched her go. Whatever, really. Alexander had an interest in Mhynt, sure, but nothing would compare to the bond he and Alexander shared over the years. Maybe he could finally offer something to Alexander instead, after this was over. Then he could put Mhynt in her place.

Something rumbled downstairs. Owen had crashed in.

Qitlan could use hidden passageways to get down faster. Owen surely already knew of them, but he would be too big as a Charizard to use them.

Time to put his own plan into action.

<><><>​

“Hey. You. Metal thighs.”

“I have a name, you kn—GAH!” The metal Machoke leapt back and clanged a hand onto his chest.

“I know you acted that.” Spice whipped her tail on the ground, kicking up some soil just in front of Heart HQ. “It’s not funny.”

“Get a new haircut?” Brandon asked, acting like he didn’t know her. “Didn’t know wraiths could get meltier as time went on.”

“Look, whatever! I need you to do me a favor. Before my teammate catches up with me.”

It was already afternoon. That burning in her chest wasn’t going away. She wasn’t sure how intense her yellow, pupilless eyes looked to him, but maybe it was helping.

“Alright, alright, geez.” He tried to bring her down with a placating wave of his hands. “Why, though? Why are you asking me?”

“You stand out and I know you can fly.”

“Fair, fair. By the way, my name’s Brandon, since I’m gonna pretend I don’t know you.”

“Spice.”

“Wait, for real?” He smirked.

She growled, rapidly losing patience. “My poison melts steel, you know. Then you’ll look as melty as me.”

“Okay, look—explain what you need to do and why, and maybe I’ll do it. What’s going on? Does it have to do with… the Voidlands?”

“Yes, actually, but maybe don’t profile me next time.”

“Profile?! You’re one-of-a-kind, here!”

“You know that giant crater that makes people go crazy? Drop me off there. That’s all I need.”

“Okay, I’ll do that, but you can’t fault me for asking if it’s because you want to go home.”

“Maybe!” Spice yelled, losing her composure as a strange urgency welled up from her chest. “But there’s something telling me I NEED to go there, okay? More than that, though, it’s because there’s… this thing.” She pointed at the green gemstone that was getting hotter. “It… feels like something inside it really wants me to go there, right now. I don’t know why, but it used to be a Zygarde or something. Maybe they’re orders from the other ones.”

“Ever tried asking?” Brandon asked. “Pretty sure I saw one of Hecto wandering town recently.”

“I think I have enough of a picture on my own.” Spice sighed. “Please, just take me there, and maybe wait for me to return.”

“Alright, alright. If it’s so urgent, I’ll humor you, but I’m not taking the blame if you get hurt, okay?”

He stomped on the ground and pulled a slab of metal from seemingly nowhere, hefting it over his shoulder. “Alright, get on,” he said, slamming it down.

“Okay, I need to ask. I know we went in a metal bowl last time, but why a metal board?”

“I call it metal surfing.”

“But you’re on the metal, you aren’t surfing metal. Wouldn’t it be air surfing?”

“…Let’s go already!”

Spice glanced back just in time to see Leo running toward her from many blocks over. She only waved at him, apologetic, and stepped onto the platform.

Leo couldn’t come with her. He’d be driven insane all over again. Whatever this gemstone was telling her, she knew that only she would be able to do it.

<><><>​

“W-w-wait, you want to escape now!?” Swampert squeaked. “No! I can’t do that! I’ll… They’ll kill me! Void me!”

“Then you’re going to stop me?” Owen asked calmly, swaying on his heels while in his bedroom. Swampert was blocking the exit, if only because he happened to step in.

“Well, I… I mean, I guess if I’m Servant, then…”

“Then I’ll give you one last order,” Owen said. “They’re going to blame you for what happened… and then that Gone Pebble I gave you would go to waste. I was kind of worried about you to begin with, you know. You don’t know your own name, and getting in this kind of danger means you’ll Void out even if you just get killed normally.”

“H-how did you know I don’t know my name?” Swampert asked.

“You’re sad whenever I mention wanting to know your name, and you play it off,” Owen pointed out. “I really think it’s in your best interest to help me escape. And I’ll take you with me.”

“You?”

“Well, the other me. He’s big enough for it.”

This only confused him further, but his earlier words seemed to be having an effect. “So, I either die trying to escape or I die because you set all this up and I was complicit,” he said. His eyes widened in horror. “You trapped me from the start…”

Not good. “I want to help. Please… can you trust me?”

There was a distant explosion down below. Shouts of other guards. Owen tried to will his intentions into Swampert’s head, but he wasn’t Azelf, and he certainly wasn’t anything intimidating. And for a moment, Owen wondered if he instead looked downright pitiful and helpless all over again, once again at someone else’s mercy.

Swampert sucked in a breath. “Well, I’ve been exercising a lot lately. I’ve got the stamina to run.” He held a hand out. “Come on. I’ll carry you. Just tell me where to go.”

Owen beamed, not because his plan worked, but because he felt that light of trust coming from Swampert’s eyes. “You won’t regret it.”

Owen hoped, when this was over, that he could ask Swampert what it was that earned his trust.

<><><>​

Expectedly, Cipher Castle was fortified with some of their strongest elite fighters. Without Rayquaza’s power, Owen actually had to be careful with how many he took on at once, but Rhys’ power, his mutant strength, and his Perceive all proved to be very powerful tools.

Sometimes, though, the halls were completely blocked by guards, and he had to find a way to pierce through weak points. And these were the elites of elites of Cipher City, hardened and darkened by centuries of Voidlands’ living conditions.

He’d been forced to take one down with his own flames and not only did they endure, but they’d narrowly gotten a few counterattacks in. Only with Perceive and a quick Protect was he able to dodge the blows—and each one could have severely hampered him.

He had no choice but to dodge as much as he could.

Thankfully, he wasn’t alone. Mesprit and Uxie both opportunistically struck from Owen’s shoulders whenever they could. They tied their tails around his neck, making sure to never lose track of where he was in the frantic flight through the halls. They followed him like psychic balloons.

A crowd of Pokémon were just ahead that had prepared a volley that would flood the whole hall in unavoidable water and ice. Mesprit sent a strange, red shockwave toward them, and suddenly they were all screaming and disorganized.

“Wh-what was that?!” Owen called as he weaved past panicked guards.

“Just gave them the same emotion I’m feeling!” Mesprit squeaked, squeezing Owen’s neck with his tiny arms now. “Just hurry while I recover, please!”

A while later, Owen found the stairs that Cipher Owen had told him about. This would lead to the dungeon floors.

Hey, other me, are you there? Where are you?

I see you! I’m a floor up!

Up?! Oh, there you are, but why up?!

I’m sneaking past guards with a friend of mine…

Does he need rescue, too?

He might…

I’ll—

You go on ahead! You still need to find Star. I couldn’t figure out her exact cell. You just keep going, and then grab me! We can fly out!


Null Owen didn’t like the frantic change of plans, the altering of the order they were supposed to do things. The dungeon under the Castle was the hardest part. They needed everyone’s strength for it. It was narrow; he could get cornered easily. But there was zero time to debate. He followed through, descending down the stairs.

“Hey, stop!” called a set of four guards at the front. A Golem, Aggron, Rampardos, and Armaldo. They were already conjuring rocks above them, and Owen wasn’t sure if he could block them all.

Uxie opened her eyes. A yellow shockwave washed over the four, and the rocks above them disappeared. Owen barreled past them after spewing flames between the crowd.

“What did—”

“Shh.”

“You, stop!” called a Golduck. He breathed in, a sphere of water expanding at the tip of his beak.

Uxie fired another yellow shockwave toward him and the water dispelled. Owen went the other way.

“Golduck!” called someone around the corner. “Hit them with Hydro Pump! Hurry!”

“What in the Void is Hydro Pump?!”

Owen gasped, though he didn’t stop. “Uxie, don’t take away memories like that! That’ll—”

“It’s temporary. I know. They’ll remember in a day.”

Owen let out a harsh sigh, but pressed on anyway. Uxie seemed annoyed, rolling her eyes as she closed them again.

Um, hey, other me? called Cipher Owen.

Charizard Owen sensed a new set of guards coming in. What’s wrong?

Having trouble getting down. They’re gaining. Almost cornered.

Should I come back?

Um, maybe. Just get Star fast, okay?

I’m in the dungeons now. I just need to—


Owen stopped. Just ahead, down a long corridor that was surely where Star had to be, was Qitlan and Qitlan alone. He was too far out of range for his Perceive.

“Having trouble?” Qitlan said, raising his voice to almost a holler to reach him. “Star isn’t very far this way, you know!”

A truth, a lie, no way to tell. He had to get closer, and it was the best way anyway. Maybe it was true.

Some meters later, Owen wondered why Qitlan wasn’t trying to snipe him from afar. Uxie and Mesprit were nervous, too, tense and closer to his cheeks as they got closer.

“Owen, what are you doing?” Mesprit whispered.

“This could be dangerous.”

Finally, Qitlan was close enough to sense. And all he could tell… was Qitlan had a strange sphere in his hand made of glass, and his eyes told him it swirled with a mysterious energy.

“Hello, Owen,” Qitlan said, moving the orb between his fingers. “So glad for you to come so early, but you’ve only accelerated the end of your… current iteration.”

“Current…” Owen whispered, but then his heart sank down to his guts.

That was it. The smug confidence, the nonchalance in his body language, the total lack of care, that strange energy. They’d gotten it. Star had caved.

That was the Reset Key.
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Alright, got 2 chapters on my plate from that Review Exchange in Union that I need to deliver on in -checks notes- ... 36 hours, and with RB4 on the horizon, now's as good a time as any to get in some practice with large batch reading, so let's see how this goes starting with…

Chapter 4