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Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Hands of Creation

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

  1. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    Ahh, a taste of what's to come. Or rather, a taste of what has already been, and how the two of them feel about this chess game they've locked themselves into, forced to use mortals as pawns because they can't act themselves. You know, I actually can't recall if Star ever mentioned how they died, or how they got locked into this game. Still, it's interesting... when neither you nor your adversary can directly make a move against each other, there's no real point to expressing animosity. You both know you're working against each other. Nothing can be said that hasn't been said. The game continues nonetheless.

    It did feel a tad weird that the narration itself called him Barky, when it didn't appear to be from Star's pov. I guess it did correspond with her being onscreen? But then, that does bring up an interesting question regarding how 3rd person omniscient narration should address characters who get referred to by multiple names throughout a story. I do have a lot of fun with alternating names in narration, (names vs identity is a big theme in my writing) but that's solely in 1st person and 3rd person limited, so I can't say what the best method for omniscient is. I feel like my gut is telling me it would follow how the character sees themselves, but that's just me.

    Looking forward to the start of Act II proper!

    ~Chibi~
     
  2. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    You're right, she didn't exactly say how she died or what actually happened there. There will be a small piece of info about that in the next chapter, but "cause of death" is still up in the air.

    Hmm, whoops! I think I'll look into that next time I get around to editing this. This is actually supposed to be in Bark's perspective, but then again, maybe he's slipping after being called Barky all the time~

    Alright, I just need a bit more time to drop this chapter. Fiiiinal touches. Wow it's late.
     
  3. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 40 – Regrets and Reconciliation

    Gawen watched silently as Demitri and Mispy recalled their past, or at least a small portion of it. They remembered bits and pieces of their first lives. Perhaps not all of it, but enough to understand exactly what had happened to them, and why they had been reset. Minds scrambled and left to insanity, spending centuries being slowly repaired by Rhys. At some point, Rhys must have spirited them away so they wouldn’t have to fuse ever again.

    The Flygon-Charizard fusion glanced at the Lucario in question. He was standing as he always had, stoic and silent, but the tension in his body spoke volumes. Compared to Owen alone, Gawen couldn’t sense the extreme details, but it was enough. It was as if the guilt of a hundred lifetimes had concentrated itself into a thick, bitter bile in the pit of Rhys’ stomach.

    “It hurt so much,” Demitri said in a shaky whisper. The Haxorus wrapped his arms around himself, shuddering. “My head was all over the place, and… a-and I didn’t know what was going on, and… and I was just… I just had to move… I had to… I don’t know what I had to do. I just had to… get it all out. F-fight…”

    Mispy, next to him, wrapped her many, many vines protectively around her mate, pulling him close. Demitri flinched away—Gawen was certain it was because he was afraid of fusing with her, but she refused to let go. If anything, she held on tighter, pressing her head against his.

    “It’s okay,” she said.

    “Oh—M-Mispy…” Demitri shuddered again, giving in. He fell toward her, squeezing five of her vines close. The remainder wrapped around him until he was pressed against her main body. She craned her neck, brushing her cheek just above his axes. Even if she couldn’t feel pain, she knew that it upset him if she accidentally cut herself on his axes. The muscle memory of how to hug him despite the axes returned to her immediately.

    Demitri sniffled, relaxing when he was finally enveloped. He remembered her scent. It was always strongly of plant life like this, like grass sliced by his axes. He always liked the smell of cut grass. Now he knew why. Demitri deflated against the monstrous Meganium, still sniffling, but feeling relaxed.

    Rhys and Manny both subconsciously rubbed at their aura sensors. The former glanced at Gawen, briefly meeting eyes.

    “I think we should all retire for the day,” Amia said delicately. “Hopefully by tomorrow, or the day after, Star will have some Orb locations for us to look for. Not too many are left, right?”

    “We know where a few are,” Rhys said, “but I doubt any of them would be productive. Eon is going to send someone to the Frozen Oceanside soon, though. Likely Rim. We should be ready for that.”

    “Do you think if we ask Hecto, he’ll tell us when Eon starts making another move?” Gawen suddenly spoke up. “I mean, by now he’s probably trying to keep an eye on him, right?”

    “No can do there.”

    Gawen glanced around, spotting Star’s faded form hovering just behind Manny.

    “Thanks, bud,” Star said.

    “Heh, no problem.”

    Star addressed the group. “Hecto still hangs around Eon to keep an eye on him, but Eon sorta keeps a lot of things from him. There’s no way he’ll find out if Rim’s gone. I mean, she could probably just be heading out to get supplies for the army, you know?”

    Gawen gulped. “R-right. Well, Hecto can at least check if something’s going on in Frozen Oceanside, right? And Star, d’you know any other spots?”

    “I thought I knew where the Bug Guardian was, but she must’ve moved again. And she’s not talking to me, so I have to go scout around the spirit world again. I’ll let you guys know if I find something. I also want to get a better read on where the Ice Guardian is in Frozen Oceanside. That place is huge. You’ll freeze before you find her if I can’t get a good read, so sit tight, alright? That’s probably one reason why Eon didn’t go there right away.”

    Gawen nodded, looking at the others. “I guess that’s the plan. Thanks, Star.”

    “Gonna head off. Thanks, guys!” Star disappeared into Manny.

    Amia tilted her head at Manny. “Now, why does she always pick you to get summoned?”

    Manny shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe she feels safer since she’s got a Type advantage. I know she hates goin’ through Anam. Fits the pattern. Besides, I dunno. I don’t mind. It’s kinda cute. Don’cha just wanna scratch under her chin?”

    Zena stared. “…No.”

    “Bahh,” Manny waved a paw at them. “I’m gonna go train. Gotta try summoning Yen again. Figure if I can half-summon Star, ain’t too hard ter make’m solid.”

    Demitri was composed enough to nod at Mispy. “I think we’re going to take a… nap.”

    Rhys made a motion to go after them, but Mispy was already sliding off to their room, carrying Demitri with him. Something held him back, feet planted firmly in the ground. Others in the group dispersed as usual, and Rhys, looking lost, turned and walked to the training grounds.

    “Hmm…” Gawen saw that while everyone was dispersing, nobody quite paid attention to Rhys, perhaps because the Lucario was very good at leaving without being followed. He always was quiet. But something was bothering him. The Owen half was screaming to follow after, and that was enough to convince the Gahi half to take reluctant steps along.

    Watching Gawen from behind, Zena opened her mouth to speak—but Gawen was already too focused on Rhys to acknowledge much else. She winced.

    Amia placed a hand on Zena’s neck. “Don’t worry, dear. Owen is still trying to remember things—and don’t forget, that’s Gahi in there, too.”

    “He didn’t remember me, Amia.” Zena looked at her. “I thought he was supposed to get all his memories back. But I didn’t see a single… a single flash of recognition on his face. I was just another Guardian. What if—”

    “Zena, Zena, dear,” Amia said delicately, placing her other hand on her ribbon.

    Alex stood on Zena’s other side shaking his head. “You can’t force this. Owen’s mind is in a delicate state right now, and memories are probably going to be coming to him in flashes for a while. Maybe a few days, or moons, or… well…” He bumped his cannons together. He wiggled his arms against one another, almost like a hand puppet, like his hands were two heads debating an idea. “I’m sorry you have to deal with this.”

    “We’ll help you, dear.” Amia took her hands off of Zena to clasp them in front of the fin on her chest. “We’ve had to raise Owen for so long. We know he’ll remember you eventually. We just have to jog the memories out of him.”

    Zena could only watch Owen, fused with Gahi, walk away. “Of course.”

    <><><> ​

    “Rhys?” Gawen called.

    Rhys jumped. “Oh—Gahi—er, Owen, er…”

    “I think Willow picked Gawen,” the fusion said, flashing a resigned smile.

    They didn’t quite make it to the training grounds. The cave was still tall and wide, making Gawen’s voice echo. Rhys slowly turned around, though he was looking at Gawen’s chest rather than his face. Eventually, those eyes trailed to the wall instead, trying to look casual.

    It only occurred to Gawen then just how small Rhys was, now. He was at least a head or two shorter than him, fully evolved. After half of him spending almost all of his life as a Trapinch or Vibrava, actually looking down at him was a surreal feeling.

    It also occurred to Gawen that they had been standing in silence for a while.

    “I, er,” Owen’s half fumbled.

    And then more silence flooded in.

    Rhys shifted his weight to his left foot. “Well, if you were looking to train with me, I’m still a bit tired from donating my aura matter to Demitri and Mispy.”

    “Right, yeah. Ain’t a problem,” Gahi’s half said.

    The following silence didn’t last as long, broken again by Rhys. “How have you been feeling? Are you… acclimating to being fused together? Is that how you prefer things?”

    “I mean—either way is fine. I guess we just never bothered breaking up yet,” Gawen said. “And, actually, er… I think right now, I want to be two-in-one for this.”

    “For… this?”

    This time, Gawen shifted his weight, almost mirroring Rhys’ posture. It was impossible to ignore Owen’s dulled Perceive like this, with just one Lucario and everything else motionless enough to satisfy Valle.

    Gawen crossed his arms, and then crossed his wings over them. “I felt how you were when Demitri was breaking down.”

    “Ah.”

    His neutral tone was characteristic as ever, but his body had tensed considerably.

    “Sorry, but you know I can tell.”

    “Of course. I cannot blame you.”

    “I just wanted to say that… even if it’s hard on them, I’m still happy that we can finally remember who we are. It… it hurt a lot. Back then, and remembering it now. But we had to. Because before, it was like… living in a fog. It still is, but… for the first time, it feels like that fog is clearing up. Like my head can breathe again. Like I can actually see, even if it’s still blurry, and there’s still so much left to clear up, and…” Gawen rolled his eyes. “Ugh. You get it. I’m sick of Owen’s side explaining it. He’s too wordy.”

    Rhys allowed a smile to escape him. “Well, that, too, is something I can’t blame him for. He always was the one to read the most.”

    “Yeah.” Gawen grinned, unfolding his wings, then his arms. “Anyway, the real reason I wanted to come here is just, I’m sorry for how guilty you feel for all this. I dunno how hard it must’ve been to raise me—er, to raise Gahi and the others, like that.”

    “You’re sorry? I’m the one who should be sorry for putting you through it all.” Rhys looked away, paws clenched. “I shouldn’t have allowed it to happen in the first place. All the ceaseless suffering… and for what? For—”

    “Rhys.” Gawen thumped his tail on the ground, startling the Lucario enough to break his posture. The thud echoed for several seconds, and in a way, it didn’t seem to stop. “Enough.”

    Rhys raised his arms in some kind of protest against an invisible force, but then lowered them, along with his head.

    “Enough of that already.”

    Rhys nodded. “Of course.”

    “We’re moving forward, got it?”

    “Of course.” His voice was even smaller.

    Behind the red lenses, Gawen’s eyes softened. “There’s one last thing I wanted to say.”

    Rhys listened without a word.

    “The Gahi side of me never wanted to say it, but the Owen side ain’t giving me a choice. I figure it’s a good idea to get it out there.” He looked down, trying to make eye contact, but all Rhys was interested in were the glowing mushrooms in the corner of the cave that gave the hall its light.

    “For all the time you spend raising Gahi, and Demitri, and Mispy, and for all the trouble you went through just to fix us… when it could’ve been easier to just leave us, or to just let us keep being weapons, or to control us, or… anything. For taking the hard route to make us better… I just wanted to say thank you. And… that I love ya, Pops.”

    Far in the distance, like a faint echo, Willow screeched at Enet about playing unfairly, and that she was going to shrink her and stomp her into the ground. Then, the panicked voice of ADAM drowned them both out, followed by blaring an alarm signal. That, too, was so faint that it quickly faded into nothing.

    Rhys brought his paw to his mouth to hide his smile, but a chuckle betrayed him. He looked at Gawen directly for the first time, the Lucario’s expression brimming with a strange light. His paw migrated to his eyes next, tilting his head back. The little chuckles got a bit louder, accented by sniffles.

    “Pops,” he repeated. “Oh, such an informal nickname, Gahi. And you’ll never call me that as yourself, will you?” He laughed again, his mouth some strange combination of a smile and frown. “Oh! Pops…”

    Gawen stepped a bit closer, bringing a hand on his shoulder. Rhys couldn’t see, but he felt it. His body immediately leaned forward, though his free arm didn’t move just yet. Gawen wrapped his wings around the small Lucario, pulling him closer. He had to lean a bit awkwardly to get at a good level with him, but that was okay.

    Rhys’ laughing eventually died down, replaced by quiet, undignified sniffles. Gawen took care to avoid the spike on his chest, but otherwise kept the Lucario in a full, warm embrace. His undercoat was so matted. He smelled vaguely of Pecha Berries that had long since gone bad, but it was only noticeable when he was right next to him. Little imperfections.

    Rhys finally composed himself enough to speak, still holding Gawen close. “That’s all I ever… that’s all I ever wanted to hear. Oh, Gahi…”

    Gawen slowly let Rhys go. He resisted at first, so he stayed that way a while longer. The sobbing Lucario eventually relented, releasing the mutant fusion to stand properly. He stretched, cracking his back once.

    Rhys made one last sniff, wiping his nose with the side of his paw. “In any case,” he said, accompanied by a sigh. “I did intend to meditate. I may spar with Manny again if he is not too busy with summoning his mate.”

    “…Wait. Mate? Yen?”

    “Apparently so, from chats I’ve had with him,” Rhys said.

    “…You guys chat?”

    “Why wouldn’t we?”

    “You guys are, like, complete opposites.”

    “Two sides of the same coin, hm? There is a lot to empathize between two Lucario.”

    Gawen still seemed unconvinced, but he nodded anyway.

    “Would you care to join us? Perhaps we can spar or train as well.”

    At that moment, the two halves had completely different answers. Gahi wanted to lean forward to speak, while Owen wanted to look back. The result was a Flygon’s head moving forward, while a Charizard’s head pulled back, the original head splitting in a clay-like two before solidifying to normal.

    “Hah, you bet I wanna—”

    “Well, actually, I think I’m—”

    The disorientation of two heads trying to control the same body made the partial-fusion fall over, caught only because Rhys was quick enough to break the fall from below.

    “W-wait! Stuck! Can’t—Gahi, quit moving the tail!”

    “Stop movin’ my arm!”

    “F-focus! Just focus!!” Rhys said from below, holding them up. “Perhaps it’s time you separated, yes?”

    “Okay, okay. Just give me a second. We did it before.” Owen tried to turn his head, but his neck muscles weren’t quite cooperating. “Gahi? A little help?”

    “Hang on, hang on,” Gahi muttered. He planted his feet on the ground. “Rhys, grab Owen’s arm. Owen, wiggle yer arm. Yeah, that one. Got it? Okay, now pull… little more…”

    With a tug and some focus, they separated out into two halves. Owen stood up, making sure that his flame was singular and his scales were orange. Gahi made sure his tail wasn’t on fire and his body was sleek. “Finally, yer outta my headspace,” Gahi snorted.

    Owen grunted, holding back his own words. Instead, he nodded at Rhys. “Um—thanks, again. I’m gonna head back and… read something. I need to relax. A fight sounds nice, but… I don’t know. I don’t think it’s healthy.”

    “I understand,” Rhys said.

    “I don’t.” Gahi snorted. “See ya, nerd!” In a green blur, he flew deeper into the caves.

    Rhys watched, then followed, a noticeable spring in his step. It didn’t take Owen’s Perception to see it. The Charizard smiled at the thought, returning to the rest of Hot Spot. It wasn’t a very long walk, and in no time, he spotted his home, the gentle glow of Alex’s shoulders illuminating the inside of the home a bit more than the rest of the mushroom-lit caverns.

    “I’m home,” Owen called, tapping his claws on the doorway. “Everything alright?”

    “Owen! You didn’t go training with Rhys? And what about Gahi?”

    “That’s who went training.” Owen laughed, heading to his room. He plopped onto his bed belly-first, tail raised in the air while he rummaged through a little alcove near the back of his room, searching for a good book to read. Something light. Academics were nice, but he wanted something a little more on the entertaining side.

    Maybe The Steel Chemist—he couldn’t remember a few of the volumes, so it would be worth reading again. Or maybe he could reread Perish Book? That sounded better. He grabbed the comic and placed it delicately at the edge of his bed, but then another thought crossed his mind. He couldn’t read without getting it taken care of first.

    Owen sighed, sliding the book away. He quietly stepped out to see Amia preparing dinner with Alex. Small portions, since they didn’t really have to eat; it was mostly for Owen. “Hey, Mom? Dad?”

    “Yes, dear?” Amia asked.

    “I just wanted to say, um, since I don’t think I said it before… I mean, er…” Without Gahi, somehow the words were a lot more difficult to come by. Let alone being able to say it. “I…”

    Amia and Alex both turned fully this time, the Magmortar of the pair hesitantly approaching. “Are you feeling okay? What did you want to say? Does it have to do with… your memories?”

    Gahi was always someone to take action. To step forward without really thinking about it. It was stupid and reckless. But sometimes, was it the right thing to do? Was he overthinking this?

    Amia stepped forward next. “Owen, if—”

    Owen brought his arms and wings out, grabbing them both. He pulled them in, wrapping around them, and closed his eyes. Alex suppressed a yelp in surprise, while Amia let out a quiet “Oh!”

    “Thank you,” Owen said.

    Amia and Alex looked at one another over Owen’s shoulders. They both smiled, returning Owen’s gesture as well as they could. Alex leaned in, gently tapping his left cannon on Owen’s back.

    Far away, watching through the simple window into their kitchen, was a Milotic. And while there was a pang of envy and longing at the sight of Owen having such a close moment with two others… Zena still smiled and retired to her home.

    <><><> ​

    The rest of the day passed with little happening. Hecto indeed kept an eye out for any possible movements from Rim, but nothing suggested that she had headed to the Frozen Oceanside, or anywhere else, all through the night. Still, that didn’t keep some in Hot Spot from getting antsy while they waited for Star to talk about any leads on where they could be.

    “Can’t we just go to the places we know about?” Owen had said.

    But the reply was simple. They were too exhausted from the fight against their berserk fused form to do much of anything for the day. Instead, they spend the night recovering, and felt refreshed by morning.

    And to their fortune, Star had returned with news, summoned once again by Manny. “Gather everyone up! I’ve got three places we can look!”

    Gahi and Owen had been in the middle of practicing their fusion technique again. They were getting better at the transition, though separating still took a lot longer than fusing. Demitri and Mispy were a bit more hesitant, more content with spending the day sparring with one another.

    “Oh, hey, you’re fused together again,” Star said. “Feeling alright? Who’s active right now?”

    “Uh… both?” Gawen said. “I guess we sort of just shift around when we need to, but right now I’m feeling pretty fifty-fifty.”

    “At least he took on Owen’s vocabulary,” Demitri mumbled to Mispy.

    “I heard that,” Gawen said. “Don’t think Gahi isn’t still around, y’know.”

    “Kept Gahi’s attitude,” Mispy giggled.

    Gawen grumbled, shaking his head. “That reminds me, Star,” he said, noticing that the others had yet to fully gather, “in our memories… you were solid. How come? I thought you were dead even before all this happened.”

    “Oh, I was… I was actually there,” Star said. “I’m… not allowed to do that anymore.”

    “Wait… you mean…” Demitri said. “You mean that’s why you never, um, physically visit this world anymore? Because Arceus doesn’t let you?”

    “We don’t let each other,” Star said. “Barky came down after I split you four up, and… and he wasn’t very happy. So, we sealed each other off, trapped in the spirit realm until we both agree that we can both descend without a summoning. So… basically neither of us can come down at full strength anymore.”

    “Wow…” Demitri said. “So, you guys are… in a standoff, kinda?”

    “Pretty much,” Star said. “Isn’t really any other way to phrase it than just a divine deadlock between the two of us…. Which, by the way, is probably why he’s so obsessed with this Orb business. If enough Orbs get into either of our hands, well—we’ll overpower one another, and who knows after that. Whoever gets all the Orbs will tip the scales.”

    Gawen nodded. “…But… I’m not aligned with you, Star. Or Ba—or Arceus. Why would you want me to have an Orb? After all, you were the one who….”

    “I guess,” Star said, “I… think you’d know to make the right choice, in the end.”

    “That’s not part of my design, is it?” Gawen said.

    “No, no, nothing like that,” Star said. “Just, once you guys all get together—”

    “We’re going to just put an end to what’s happening and live peacefully,” Gawen said firmly. “No pooling the power together. We’re stopping Eon, and then we can be done.” Gawen frowned. “When can we do that, anyway?”

    “Once we have everyone we can have,” Star said. “This is gonna be the last of it. Barky’s Trinity isn’t gonna help, but I want to at least give one more shot to the second person there. The Dragon Guardian’s a no-go, but the Poison Guardian is… maybe there’s a chance? I say we try. Don’t worry—I’ll go over that when everyone else gets here.”

    It didn’t take long for everyone to be gathered, but Star’s instructions were quick. She sighed, sitting on top of Gawen’s head. “Alright, here’s the deal. We’ve got the last three Guardians that we want to check out, and hopefully these can go without a hitch. Bug, Poison, and Ice. The last one is Dragon, and we ain’t gonna touch that one yet.”

    “Why not?” Gawen crossed his arms, incredulous.

    “You wanna die?”

    Gawen frowned, tri-flame tail flicking. “Y’know, if this Dragon Guardian is so strong, how come Barky doesn’t just send that one to Eon and be done with it?”

    “Ask Barky that one,” Star said. “Maybe we can have a talk with her after Eon. I’d rather take on a known evil than her. Alright?”

    “I bet the Dragon Guardian is just cool and you don’t like that.” Gawen growled.

    “I can’t… tell if that was Owen or Gahi,” Star said. She looked at the others, but they seemed equally unsure. The Mew rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Let’s keep going. So, here’s the thing. Poison Guardian, I have a team set up for that. I know how she is, and I think it’d be a good idea if the most agreeable personalities went there. So… just from my guess, that’s gonna be Owen, Enet, and Amia. Oh, and, uh, I guess Gahi, since… you know.”

    “You sure Gahi won’t be a bad influence?” Amia said.

    This earned an offended look from Gahi’s half, nearly splitting their heads apart; he slammed his hands on either side of his skull, as if that helped to physically keep them in place. “Not funny,” Gawen muttered.

    “Perhaps I should go instead.” Rhys raised a paw. “As a Steel Type, I would—”

    “No, no,” Star said. “Bad idea. You four are fine,” Star said, “And, Rhys, I think you should go to the Bug Guardian instead. You will be more useful for that. Manny, maybe… you, too. Demitri, Mispy, I think it’d be a good idea for you to go with.”

    Amia frowned. “Well, Anam could still go to the Poison place, right?”

    Gawen, exasperated, said, “How come yer so against me?!”

    “Gahi will be fine,” Star said. “And about Anam, I know I said that, but…” Star looked up. “Where is he? He’s still at Kilo Village, and I dunno if he’ll be back for a while. I thought it’d be a quick little trip, but something must be keeping him. Is Nevren answering any of you?”

    “No, not yet,” Amia said. “Should we try contacting him again? Perhaps they’re caught up in paperwork again.”

    “Yeah, try that,” Star said. “I’d go try talking to Anam again, but those Ghosts play pranks too much in their realm… It’s hard enough to go through them, but they’ve been pretty antsy lately. Anam was just about to summon them against you, Gawen, but once he held back, well, they’re still pretty angry about it. If I go now, I might have a problem leaving.” She shuddered. “Something about that place… doesn’t sit right with me.”

    “Must be your Type,” Manny said in a half-joke.

    But to Gawen, it still didn’t settle right anyway. Anam was their strongest Guardian—shouldn’t he be accompanying them? “Hmm, well, we should probably keep Anam in mind once we’re done with these Orbs. While that happens, we can check out the Poison Orb.”

    “Sounds like a good plan to me,” Star said. “Rhys, how about you go to the forest with Demitri and Mispy?”

    “Eh, I’ll tag along, too,” Manny said.

    “Okay, that works. Another team of four. Zena, you think you can handle the ice?”

    “Oh, er…” Zena glanced at Gawen, then at Amia, who gave her a small, apologetic smile. She sighed, looking back at Star. “Very well. If it’s necessary.”

    “I wanna go too!” Willow said. “I said that last time!”

    “I shall go as well,” said ADAM. “I feel that a team of three is adequate for that location. Valle will accompany me; four will be a redundant and secure amount.”

    The Shiftry statue was unmoving as always, but finally spoke up. “I did not agree to this.”

    “You will accompany me.” ADAM turned his head, and only his head, to the Shiftry statue.

    The cave rumbled quietly. “Very well.”

    “Okay, okay,” Star sighed. “You two Luvdisc can go. Someone leave a note for Anam to see when he gets back so he doesn’t freak out that everyone left, alright? You know how panicked he gets if he feels alone.”

    “I’ll get to that,” Amia said.

    “Okay, team. Let’s break! Don’t forget your communicators!”

    <><><> ​

    “You know, Owen,” Amia commented, “you’re very obsessive about everybody’s inventories. I think you were starting to rub people the wrong way.”

    The forest was an odd, hazy purple color. The trees were dark, and the leaves were a sickly violet. The ground felt cold and sticky, despite nothing actually sticking to their feet. The Dungeon itself was not a labyrinth like the normal variety they were used to; instead, it seemed to be by the Poison Guardian’s personal design, a simple, flat, and open field of trees.

    As they passed by, a hazy Pidgey watched them from above, flying away when they got too close.

    “But—but you saw how they were preparing it! They had clear holes in their inventory.” Gawen, with Owen as the dominant mind, pleaded his case. “Willow didn’t even pack Oran Berries! Who goes on a mission without Oran Berries? Even if you’re Mystic, you can’t go unprepared. A single Oran Berry can mean the difference between life and death, you know. It’d be even better if you brought two. Or three.”

    Enet nodded. “They taste good. And things that taste good are good.”

    Amia rubbed her head. “Well, that’s true, but did you really have to sort through their items one by one?”

    “Well, I found that empty Elixir bottle in Demitri’s bag, didn’t I?” Owen said. “I knew something didn’t feel right. What if he ran out of power for Dual Chop, tried to restore his aura, and got nothing but an empty bottle? They’d be done for!”

    “O-okay, Owen, you made your point,” Amia said.

    “And Rhys! I can’t believe him! I thought he’d be better about it, but he didn’t even bring a Petrify Orb with him. It’s not as if he has crowd-control techniques, either. Just because he has super cool aura powers doesn’t mean he might get hit from behind. One ambush and—okay, okay, she said she gets th’ point already! I’m takin’ over, yer actin’ up!”

    Amia sighed. “Thank you, Gahi. I think Owen was getting more worked up than he needed to.”

    “Yeah, no kidding.” Gahi snorted. “I was considering de-fusin’, but af’er that, I’m gonna let’m simmer down.”

    “He talks a lot,” Enet said. “Big words.”

    “Feh, worse ‘n Rhys,” Gahi said.

    Enet nodded. Uneasy, the Zoroark took in their surroundings. They had been going through a forest, and the last river they passed was quite clear. But now it was starting to smell a bit different, and while she at first thought they had passed by a river, it was actually a thick stream of bright, purple sludge, the consistency of flowing mud.

    Something dripped from a branch above them. Amia reflexively touched her shoulder and shrieked. “Oh—GROSS!”

    “Wh-what?!” Enet’s fur puffed up, making her look twice her size.

    Amia flicked her hand against a tree trunk; purple goo spattered against the wood. “Poison Guardian indeed—oh, where’s my Pecha Scarf, I’m just going to mmmnfff…” Amia tied the scarf around her face.

    “Stinky,” Enet complained, grabbing her own scarf.

    “Good thing I prepared for this…” Owen said, taking over the body. He grabbed a scarf and wrapped one around himself. There was a spare in the bag in case they decided to separate.

    They weren’t even sure where the goo came from—inspecting the trees above revealed nothing. But they were certain that the Poison Orb was here. They felt the Mystic aura getting stronger, corresponding directly to the prevalent, purple fog that polluted the atmosphere. But Owen sensed another presence nearby that didn’t get stronger nor weaker. Were they being followed? It felt… vaguely familiar. It was recent, compared to his long, long life—but it still felt distant. Probably a reset before his current memories, or two, or maybe three. Someone he met in a previous ‘life,’ in a set of scattered memories.

    “Is that…?” Owen mumbled.

    “Is what, dear?” Amia asked.

    “I think someone’s following us.”

    “Oh? W-well—we wouldn’t want to frighten them. Maybe you should separate.”

    “Frighten?” Owen asked. “What, I’m scary er somethin’?” Gahi asked.

    “…You… are very kindhearted,” Amia said delicately. “You don’t seem very scary since we know you.”

    Owen’s wings drooped. “So, I look kinda…?”

    “Big and strong and scary.” Enet nodded.

    “Oh, Owen, it’s not your fault!” Amia said. “Or you, Gahi, it’s just—how the dragon Pokémon tend to look, usually! It’s just how you are, but it has nothing to do with—”

    “Okay, okay.” Owen sighed. Despite it, he smiled. “I’ll de-fuse. I think I still sense—whoever it is…. I swear I know who it is, but…”

    After a bit of focus, Gahi stepped forward from the malleable body of the fusion; Owen closed up behind Gahi, rubbing his chest to make sure everything was where it should have been. He didn’t feel as empty. Maybe he was having an easier time fusing and parting, both mentally and physically, now that they were more in sync—or perhaps because he was starting to get sick of sharing a mind with Gahi.

    “What d’ya see?” Gahi asked.

    “I see…” Owen closed his eyes. “…It’s an… it’s someone sneaking around, I know that. And he’s been following us for a little while… W-wait! Hey!” Owen shouted, pointing at a nearby bush. “It’s—it’s Aerodactyl!”

    “Eh? Wait, yeh talking about the one from way back then, ehh… that was the life befer this one, right?”

    “Y-yeah. Yeah, I was a Charmander, but it was before the last time our memories got reset. H-hey! Aerodactyl! I thought you were serving time!?”

    At first, there was no reply. But then, a moment later, he emerged, smirking. “Well, look at you,” he said. “All evolved in such a short time. Guess you were a late bloomer after all… eh?” He snorted. “…I escaped. Turns out it’s pretty easy to just fly away if you find the right opportunity.”

    “B-but… but you could’ve gotten a job! And everything!” Owen opened his wings and arms completely, as if protesting reality. “Wouldn’t that be better?”

    “Ugh, what sort of bleeding heart are you?” Aerodactyl said. “Look, Charizard, I dunno what your deal is, but that boring kind of life isn’t for everyone. I’m a Pokémon—and I can live off the land as I please!”

    “Um, Owen, who is this?” Amia asked.

    “Smells mean,” Enet said, growling.

    “He’s that outlaw, remember? The one I got on one of my last missions before all this Orb stuff happened. He must’ve escaped and hid here where nobody could get him….”

    “Yeah, well,” Aerodactyl hesitated, “That’s exactly it. Problem is, this place isn’t exactly the best place to hide, either. Can’t get too close to the center without feeling sick. Nobody comes here. No food to steal. And all the fruit tastes… tainted.” He looked off. “But it’s still better than how I was living after you caught me.”

    Owen held his chest in a similar way that Amia does, with his right arm against his heart. “B-but I was trying to help! You can’t live this dangerous life! There aren’t enough… resources to keep living that way!” Owen looked Aerodactyl over, realizing that he seemed skinnier than an Aerodactyl should be. He could see his ribs pressing against his skin, and his legs looked like they were barely able to hold him up.

    “Pah! It’s better than struggling just to make ends meet. You have it easy. You’re strong, and part of the Thousand Hearts. Did you ever wonder why so many people want to get into such a dangerous business? Or why there are only really a thousand of you at any one time?”

    “B-because of standards? Right? And because it’s for people to help everyone! What else would you put yourself at risk for? And—and you could take a job that isn’t rescuing, too! You could help clean the buildings, or gather food, or—”

    Aerodactyl snarled, cutting Owen off. “I can’t live off of that without living my whole life doing it. Look at you, all pampered and groomed to be a Heart. And don’t think I don’t know your story.” He pointed at Amia. “You used to be a Heart, too! Now I don’t know why you’re still alive after all this time, but you guys are part of a long line of Hearts. The elite class! And then there’s us, at the bottom. As if we ever had a choice.”

    Amia flinched. “I—I’m not who you think I am,” she said. “Gardevoir simply don’t live that long.”

    “I’d bet you come from that line, though. Am I right? Of the Fire Clan? My family line was at the bottom ever since our little feud with yours. That’s how the story goes, and it seems pretty obvious, even now, that it’s true!”

    “Fire Clan?” Owen said. He had no idea what that was. He deduced that this was how the Fire Orb was presented to the general public, and based on how Amia had suddenly flinched and closed in on herself—even if it was slight—perhaps Aerodactyl was saying the truth after all…

    Aerodactyl snorted again. “I’m in a bad mood. I haven’t had a good meal in days. But you know what really fuels me? It’s seeing folks like you who don’t know how the world really is. It’s time to even the playing field!” He got into a battle stance, wings forward and jaws clenched. “Give me all you have, and I’ll let you go. Otherwise… You’ll die, right here!”

    Enet hissed, fur on end.

    “Honestly…” Owen rubbed the back of his head, playing with his left horn with the tip of his claw. “Aerodactyl, c-can’t we talk? It sounds like we have like three layers of issues to go over here! Maybe we can—”

    “I’ll talk if you hand over everything you have.”

    “That’s not right, either, y’know!” Owen said.

    Gahi beat his wings, kicking up a small cloud of hazy dirt. “Bah, ferget this guy! Let’s beat ‘im up!”

    “Gahi, we can’t—this isn’t a normal Dungeon. If we defeat him here, he might not get sent back—and we don’t even know if he’d be able to survive an ejection anyway. Look at him!”

    “What, scared?” Aerodactyl said, maintaining his stance, but it didn’t take Perception to see his trembling form. He was fueled by pride alone.

    “Ngh… then we’ll beat ‘im up gently,” Gahi muttered.

    Owen considered their options. What Gahi proposed, at this point, was probably the best thing they could do. “Enet, stay back,” he said. “I don’t think you can attack softly, and I don’t want to hurt him.”

    “Attack… softly?” Enet asked. “Like playing?”

    “Not… not really. We’ll handle this one, okay?”

    “Hmph…” Enet didn’t fight it. She took a few steps back; her foot landed in more of that purple slime. She winced and kicked away; it stuck between her paws. She sat on a nearby rock, picking away at the goop with her claws.

    Owen stepped forward.

    “Oh, really?” Aerodactyl said. “Hah! Charizard wants to fight?”

    “Yeah,” Owen said.

    “I’m a lot stronger than before, you know,” Aerodactyl said. “Don’t think this’ll be some easy repeat compared to last time!” He slashed at the air, making a small shockwave that nearly knocked him off balance.

    “That’s cool,” Owen said uncertainly. It was a strong hit, but he had nearly fallen over from pushing too hard just with that. “I guess that training helped you out, huh? You know, with all that work, you might’ve even made it into the Association…”

    For some reason, this made Aerodactyl’s face screw up into some strange mixture of anger and desperation. He opened wide and chucked a Rock Blast straight toward Owen. The Charizard ducked—the blast hit Gahi, standing behind him, instead.

    The three consecutive blasts broke open against the Flygon’s head. “Ow,” he muttered, rubbing the small wound.

    Owen started to walk forward; his lithe frame, for a Charizard, allowed for easier movements, even up close to his opponent. Aerodactyl took a nervous step back. “S-stop dodging!” He took another step. “How d’you know where all my attacks go?” But then he smirked. “Heh… got you!”

    Nothing happened.

    “E-eh?!” he said. “But—but the—” He looked down. Owen’s legs had a small tint of green; vines had covered the pitfall he had set. “Where’d those come from?! Y-you—got lucky!” Aerodactyl tripped on another vine and fell backward. His wings beat frantically to stand up, but by then, Owen was right in front. In a panic, Aerodactyl lunged forward. His teeth sank into Owen’s arm—powerful jaws that could split logs in half, normally. And yet… when Aerodactyl crunched down, nothing broke. No blood spilled; not a scale got dented. Owen’s body simply resisted the attack—bending against the teeth, yet not breaking. The aura behind his strike was gone.

    “Aerodactyl… A lot’s changed. I’m not that weak Charmander anymore. And you’re… starving. This just… isn’t worth my time. Please, just go. If you go back… I’ll tell Anam to go easy. You can get a second chance, okay? I’ll… I know. I’ll buy you something to eat, too. You… you feel so hungry. I know that sounds weird, but…”

    All the while, he gnawed as hard as he could against Owen, but it was as if he was immortal. Even with his strength, even if he was a little weak because of the miasma he’d been living in for so long, how could he be doing almost no damage against this Charizard? Owen felt his disbelief, and he saw the subtle blotches of poison that spread beneath his skin.

    Aerodactyl let go and fired toward Owen, point blank, with a Rock Blast. Owen felt this one—he winced, but he still took the blow. A small blemish on his scales was left behind when the five consecutive blasts connected.

    “Y-you’re crazy! Y-you’re some kind of—some kind of—freak!”

    “W-well, I mean…” Owen, caught off guard, glanced away for only a second. That was all Aerodactyl needed. He jumped away with a single wingbeat, panting.

    “This… this isn’t over!” Aerodactyl searched for a way out; this deep, the forest looked the same in all directions.

    “Hey, you ain’t gonna get away! I’m faster’n you’ll ever be!” Gahi threatened, taking a single, quick step forward. His foot landed right in a large puddle of purple sludge. “Aw, c’mon!” he shouted, stepping away. He glanced at Owen. The Charizard had it covered. Disgruntled, he sat next to Enet and picked at his foot with her.

    Owen turned his attention back to the escaped outlaw. “Please. Just… think about it, okay?” Owen said. “I know where you’ll be.”

    “It’s… it’s not worth it!” He shook his head, swinging his wing sideways at the air. “Just—leave me alone! And I’ll figure out my life on my own! I don’t need you to tell me how to live, you—you pampered little—”

    Another glob of slime fell from the tree, landing on Aerodactyl’s right wing. “Ngh—I hate this forest!” he shouted. “What is all this?! If you go even deeper into this place, what happens?! Purple goo falls from the trees! Disgusting!” He pointed toward Owen; it seemed like the purple goo was getting larger, sinking into his wing. “I hate all of this! I hate you! I hate this life! I…! I…!”

    A long silence filled the air just then, like Aerodactyl couldn’t find the words. He shook his head, locking eyes with Owen. The Charizard almost flinched—there was a strange… emptiness in them, like the desperate eyes of a hungry feral.

    Those eyes glistened with tears at the very edges. “It’s just—not—fair!”

    Enet looked up for just a second. Her eyes bulged. “Wing!”

    Owen focused on the wing of Aerodactyl and saw the membrane… melt away—turned into more of that poisoned goo. Aerodactyl didn’t even notice it, not until Enet said so. He bent the stump of his wing back. “Wh-wh… what—”

    It advanced; the goo that dripped from his wing landed on his leg, which melted next. He screamed; it didn’t look painful, but the Rock-Flying Pokémon was panicking. He flailed, and that caused more goo to spatter on different parts of his body. Aerodactyl only had one leg to stand on; he tried to hop away. “S-stop… make it stop…!”

    “A-Aero—it’s okay!” Owen scrambled toward him, digging through his bag as if that would help.

    “N-no! You get away from me!” he said, swinging his other wing. The melting was advancing rapidly—he couldn’t move with his legs anymore. Even his tail had dissolved; his upper half remained, just his one wing and head. He dragged what remained of his body across the ground to keep running.

    “Stop!” Owen said. “H-hang on!” He dug through his bag, his mind racing. There had to be a way to help. Had to be! And then Owen saw it—a Pecha Scarf. Could he—

    Aerodactyl’s wing was gone now. Without a chest or even a torso, he had no means to speak—just fearful eyes staring ahead. Owen wrapped the Pecha Scarf around his head. “Th-there!” he said… but nothing happened. It kept going; his long neck dissolved next. Just the head. Desperate, Owen stared a bit longer. “No, no…!”

    He closed his eyes tight. He had an idea. He focused on his power a bit more—deep within him, that divine energy held within that Orb. He channeled it from those depths and pushed it into his claws, and then into the scarf. It was all he had left to try. All he was thinking about was trying to save this outlaw’s life. He wasn’t going to forget that fearful look in his eyes. What a horrible way to die. He refused to let it happen. Stop it—make it stop. Owen commanded it to stop.

    And the melting… stopped. The Pecha Scarf was glowing. Not even Owen could believe it at first. With his heart racing, Owen checked to see if Aerodactyl was alive. It was hard to tell; the only indication was that he blinked. He wrapped the scarf around the stump that was Aerodactyl’s neck and turned his head. “A-are… are you okay?” he said.

    He opened his mouth and, somehow, was able to speak. The Scarf glowed a bit with each word. “What happened? Why am I…? I… I can’t feel… I can’t feel my body…”

    “It’s okay,” Owen said. “I’ll—we’ll get you to Mispy, okay? She’s a great healer. I bet she can patch this right up…”

    “Is—is that gonna happen to me?” Gahi said. “H-hey, wait a second—ain’t that mine!?” he shouted, pointing at the scarf.

    “I—I feel like this is a little more important, Gahi!” Owen said.

    “Ngh… yeah, I guess,” he relented.

    “A-Aerodactyl, sir, does… does it hurt at all…? W-we can go back right now if you want!”

    “N-no, it… it never hurt. B-but I can’t feel… my body anymore. I’m just a head….” His voice raised with confusion. “What happened to the rest…?”

    “I—I don’t know,” Owen said. “But we’ll figure it out, okay? We’re just going to carry you with us for a little while.”

    Gahi sighed. He looked at his foot. “…How come that never happened to me?” he said. “I… I dunno. I feel fine. Am I in one piece?” he looked at his tail, then his wings. All fine.

    “It touched all of us,” Amia said. “but it only affected Aerodactyl…. That’s so strange. But we should still be careful. Gahi—are you Mystic?”

    “Nah,” Gahi said. “I think Owen’s still got all that. Still, eh… good thing I ain’t a puddle yet. I don’t wanna melt… Looked painful…”

    “It wasn’t,” Aerodactyl said irritably. “Do you even listen?”

    “He’s not the best listener,” Owen whispered.

    “Oy, what’re yeh sayin’ about me?” Gahi growled. “Meh, let’s keep goin’. If he ain’t hurt he’s fine.”

    “Okay,” Owen said. “Oh—here, Gahi. Take this,” Owen said, handing his Scarf over. “If you’re not Mystic, this purple fog might hurt you anyway. I’ll be fine.”

    “Thanks,” Gahi said, wrapping it around his mouth. “M’kay. Let’s go.”

    And so, the five advanced through Dark Mist Swamp.

    “…Your name is Owen,” Aerodactyl said.

    “Yeah. Um—what’s your name?” Owen asked.

    He snorted. “Like I’d tell…”

    Owen nibbled at his tongue but said nothing.

    “…It’s Jeremy,” the head said. “Just call me Jerry.”

    Owen nodded. “I’m glad I could help, Jerry.”

    “Don’t celebrate just yet,” he growled. “If I have to live like this forever, just kill me.”
     
    Last edited: Apr 17, 2019
    Chibi Pika likes this.
  4. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    Ah, you weren't kidding when you said this chapter was a long one! In a way, it almost felt like two chapters in one, what with the first half having such a different tone than the second half. But I appreciate Act II kick-starting the plot right away rather than waiting until next chapter.

    Anyway, gah, first half was just full of adorable moments. Rhys getting choked up from Gawen calling him pops, Owen having that moment with his parents. Gahhh, my heart can't take it. (Of course, I'm sure you're getting all these cute moments out of the way during the lull between acts before things immediately jump back into making everyone miserable.) :P

    I liked the atmosphere you set up with the poison forest, as it felt successfully weird and unsettling long before any body-melting happened. And I totally didn't expect Aerodactyl to return! I did enjoy the way you used him to kinda flip the script on the way the PMD games are like "outlaws are bad Pokemon who... uh, like being bad I guess" by bringing in heavier aspects like systemic inequality. Pitting Owen's naively well-meaning but unhelpful bootstraps ideology against Aerodactyl's destructive, self-sabotaging cynicism. I kind of had to chuckle at Aero picking a fight with him, like "oh dear, this is really not going to be much of a fight." And I think you did a good job making it feel more sad than anything. And, of course, the body-melting bit was nicely horrifying (really though, not even a little bit of pain? ;P) Weird as it is to say, I think Jerry being turned into a head and carried around by Owen might just be a bit of a turning point for the better.

    Until next time (or rather, tonight, lol)~

    ~Chibi~
     
  5. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Yeah, in hindsight, this chapter probably could've been split into two teeny chapters, but... ehh... then they're too smaaaall, and it helped just wrap things up before moving on. The first half used to be a lot shorter before I took on some feedback from previous drafts on scenes that could have happened, etc. to give folks their moments.

    Well, aren't you a cynic~ What if this is just a good moment of respite for them to get everything working out for them, huh?

    ...Okay, fine, we're only at the start of Act II, so of course there will be trouble. Still! Let's just give Owen and Rhys their moment. They need it.

    Oh, I'm glad! I was a bit worried about that, so at least it had an effect for someone so the melty bit didn't come too out of the blue. I've got beginning-of-act privileges right now, so I can throw a few random curveballs as setup, but hey. Best to keep it nice and built up.

    I was trying. So. Hard. To keep this under wraps. It's not a huge thing in the grand scheme of things, kinda, but "Jerry" and who he is is sort of... I don't know. Something I want to keep unknown to Act I readers.

    Wow, you are...

    ...REALLY catching onto that quickly, aren't you? Guess I made it more obvious than I thought. Still, you're right. We're taking a look at the other side of Kilo, after that idyllic view that Owen has been exposed to all this time.

    Believe it or not, the painless nature of it is a bit relevant a few chapters down the line! But first, we need to see how the others are doing...

    Soon. Have to do a few quick things (like stream) before I upload the next part. See you then!
     
  6. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 41 – Frozen Over

    The northwestern corner of the world was covered in a perpetual, thick layer of ice. The white field was dotted with black rocks and sloping hills of snow and ice. The ground wasn’t stable, and there were a few incidents early on where Valle had fallen into thinner portions of the ice and had to be hauled out before he sank to the bottom. With some levitation, they were able to manage their way through the worst of it—as Mystics, the cold didn’t bother them too much at first. But the deeper they went into this icy territory, the more it seemed that their Mystic powers lost their effect. The cold’s horrible fingers crept into Zena and Willow the most.

    “I can’t f-feel my… e-everything…!” Willow said.

    Zena nodded. “It is… quite cold. I am glad that I can deal with such things normally… but it may be a bit much if I go any further… I feel like my Water form would solidify completely if I transformed…”

    “I guess then you’d be a pretty Milotic ice sculpture, a-at l-least,” Willow said.

    “System processors are functional,” ADAM said. “The current temperatures are allowing my CPU to overclock safely without additional cooling.”

    “The temperature has little effect on me,” Valle said. “But I would want to avoid water. I do not want the ice to break through any cracks in my body. The expansion may destroy my limbs.”

    “You could always m-move, you know,” Willow said. The tiny Joltik hopped from Zena’s head onto ADAM’s. The bitter cold licked at Willow’s fur during the jump, and she, for that split-second, worried that she’d turn solid right then. Thankfully, she landed and dug a claw along the side of ADAM’s smooth head—he buzzed in protest. “Mmmm… that’s so much better….”

    “Adam’s warmer?” asked Zena.

    “Mhmmm…” Willow nuzzled up against one of ADAM’s smooth eyes. The optical lens flickered nervously. “It’s like Owen’s head. I wish he came with us. Owen feels nice…”

    “He is nice…” Zena hummed.

    “Huh?” Willow asked.

    “Hm?” Zena blinked, looking back at her.

    “Be careful,” Valle interjected. “The ice ahead of us is quite thin.”

    Indeed, it seemed like the ice in front of them was clear, the water below a lot darker. Valle levitated off of the ground, gently floating above the frozen floor.

    He rotated his body. “You should do the same.”

    “O-okay.” Zena contorted and twisted her body, and then moved up, slithering through the air, reminiscent of a Rayquaza. “Well, this isn’t so bad…” she said, wobbling unsteadily in the air. The bitter cold not only got through her Mystic aura, but it also seemed to interfere with their levitation. “We simply continue onward like this?”

    “Yeah! Um… but what are we looking for?” Willow asked.

    “Scanning…” ADAM said. “No Mystic Aura detected. The next scan will begin in 200 seconds.”

    “Oh, right, Mystic auras…” Willow said. “I wonder what the Ice Guardian is like. I hope she’s at least a little warmer…”

    “I have my doubts,” Zena said. “It has been getting… c-colder every step of the way.”

    Willow pressed her body as hard as she could against ADAM. “But you don’t step.”

    “It’s an ex-expression,” Zena grunted. “Is it—getting even colder, by chance? I—I f-feel as if my v-very blood will be… solid soon…”

    “M-maybe,” Willow said. While her belly was nice and warm thanks to ADAM’s heat, ice crystals formed on the fur on her back. The wind howled around them; this frozen tundra wanted no life to advance any further. Perhaps even Ice Types would struggle in such low temperatures. If it was this cold for Mystics, how cold was it for a normal Pokémon?

    “I’m positive the Guardian is ahead,” Zena said. “It—it just has to be. Even for here, this cold—just isn’t n-natural. Any colder, and we may s-solidify…”

    “Even our Mystic power has no effect against this cold,” Valle observed. “It indeed must be from another Mystic, in that case. Perhaps we should make our presence known. The cold may subside if we express that we are—” Valle’s arm abruptly fell off, landing on the frozen lake with a dull thud, leaving a crack in the thin ice. It slipped through and sank into the abyss, and the group all stared at it, mesmerized. “…I just replaced that arm.”

    “L-letting ourselves be kn-known…. That m-might be a good idea…” she said. “G-Guardian of Ice! We are—the Guardians of—Water… Fairy… oh… what are the other two…?”

    “Normal and Rock,” said Valle. “We wish to speak with you in peace. You seem to be a very skilled Guardian—I’m sure you can, in some way, read our intentions.”

    They received no reply but the wind. Willow winced when a particle of snow got in her eyes; she rubbed one of her legs on the lens to clear it up, and then attempted to burrow against ADAM’s smooth body. It didn’t work, but she tried anyway, just to keep moving. “I can’t… f-feel… my…”

    “Willow?” Zena asked.

    Willow stopped moving, frozen precisely on top of ADAM’s head, expression caught in frigid desperation. She carefully brought her ribbons over her body, delicately picking her up even as icicles formed on her pink brows, pulling her up. The Joltik was completely stiff.

    “That isn’t good.” Zena checked her aura; it was still there, thankfully. Even without Mysticism, she supposed Pokémon were durable enough to withstand a little cold. More worrying was the fact that if they didn’t hurry, the same thing was going to happen to them. “I think I’ll just…” She carefully wedged the frozen, yellow fuzz between ADAM’s head and shoulders.

    “W-we need to hurry,” Zena said. “S-Star said it was j-just ahead.”

    “Valle and I can go ahead,” ADAM proposed. “You shall stay back with Willow so your organic bodies do not freeze completely.”

    “N-no, it’s fine,” Zena said. “We just need to…”

    But then, before they decided to fall back, the cold let up. It was still freezing to a mortal, but to a Mystic, they could finally resist the bitter frost. They first tried to discern any sort of difference between the snow that had fallen before compared to now, but between the total whiteout conditions and the howling wind, nothing had changed. Just the Mystic disruption that nearly froze them over.

    “Thank Arceus.” Zena sighed. “Let’s keep going.” If anything, perhaps that meant the Ice Guardian accepted them.

    With the Mystic cold gone, the normal ice was nothing to them. Willow slowly thawed, twitching back to life. “What happened? Did I sleep?”

    “You froze. Are you okay?”

    “Mmm…” Willow shook off some water from her body before it re-froze again and hopped off of ADAM’s head, landing on Valle next. He protested halfheartedly, but at this point gave up on the tiny Joltik hitching a ride on the others. She offered to chip away at the layer of ice that had formed on his stone body, using her little legs as ice picks. He accepted this as payment.

    A thought occurred to Valle. “Have you ever considered taking on your evolved form?”

    “No, because they aren’t cute,” Willow said. “As the Fairy Guardian, I have to keep up an image of being cute and deadly. You wouldn’t understand.” She stuck her tiny head in the air. “Now hold still, I need to pick at the ice on your joints. Oh, right, you don’t move!”

    “Somehow, I think Valle, of all of us, would understand keeping up appearances,” Zena thought aloud. “But really, cute and deadly? Why can’t a Fairy Type be… well… just cute?”

    “Some are.” Willow hummed, thinking. “But that’s less fun. I wanna be both! That way, I can scare people or make them coo at me, and I get to choose what and when!”

    “Hm,” Zena said. She wanted to remark that Willow was one of the least deadly of the group—but recalled her little talent of shrinking her opponents. Perhaps she could be trouble if they upset her.

    “I like how quiet it is,” Willow said. “It reminds me of home, except it’s ice instead of grass. Do you think there are little ice demons here?”

    “Oh, home?” Zena said. “My home was quiet, too. But I didn’t enjoy it as much. I used to speak with my spirits a lot more often, but… in hindsight, perhaps I depressed them with my loneliness.” Zena blinked, glancing at Willow. “Frost demons?”

    “Yeah! I turn my spirits into screaming mushrooms to scare others away. It’s really funny! We all get a good laugh out of it.”

    “Oh, I see,” Zena said. “Unfortunately, my spirits were never quite as adventurous. They must take after me. Bit of a… cycle of inaction… We felt lonely, together. Even now they aren’t very enthused about, er, doing much.”

    “You were lonely?” Willow asked.

    ADAM buzzed. “My input sensors, too, were lacking stimuli for very long ranges of time. The log files of my arrival to that strange temple have corrupted long ago. In fact, such a large amount of time passed in my lifetime that I had to add a byte to my time counter in order to accommodate for my logging. My species was not built for such large timeframes.”

    “I dunno what any of that is, ADAM,” Willow said. “What do you mean, built? I thought your kind came from Ditto getting creative.”

    “…I believe that humans made my kind originally,” said ADAM. “But I do not know how that is possible, if humans are from another world.”

    “That is curious…” Zena said. “Perhaps they used to exist… but died off?”

    “Maybe we ate them,” Willow said. “Humans don’t sound very strong. I bet they were secretly at the bottom of the food chain, and eventually we just realized that and ate them!”

    “I’m not so sure,” Zena said. “Remember what we heard about from the others about Brandon. They have other advantages…. Apparently, they’re smarter than Pokémon, or perhaps have something else to give them an advantage over us… The way he was described, Brandon seemed very skilled, even if he isn’t human anymore.”

    “He sounds weird,” Willow said. “I dunno how I feel about humans. I don’t think I like them if they’re all like Brandon.”

    ADAM buzzed uneasily.

    “There appears to be an obstacle ahead,” Valle said.

    Everyone stopped their advance.

    Zena squinted at the obstruction. It appeared to be transparent, but something was inside, too. A silhouette darkened the core of the large lump of clear ice. At least, she imagined it was clear; there was a layer of frosty snow that made it impossible to see through it clearly. “What is…?” she said. Was it some sort of rock with a thick layer of frost? Or…?

    “O-oh no!” Willow said. “Someone got frozen over in the ice! I can see their aura still trapped in there!”

    “Aura? How could someone survive such a freeze?” Valle said. “Most bodies would perish under such cold for so long. That’s why I suggested going back for you organics, like Willow.”

    “It’s alive, so we should try to help,” Zena said, accelerating her slithering pace. “What is it…?” She closed her eyes to focus her senses entirely on the aura. It was weak, but it still had a shape. How horrible—it must have been awful to freeze over in such a way. Would they even be able to speak? A brain on ice didn’t sound like a good thing… “It appears to be a… Torkoal, is it not? Though he’s quite large…”

    Indeed, it was a large, orange Pokémon with a brown shell, frozen in ice. Based on the aura strength, he wasn’t conscious, and based on its compact shape, he was hiding in his shell.

    “A Fire Type on Ice,” Willow said. “That must be a really strong Guardian to do something like this.”

    Valle floated a bit closer, tilting his entire body to get his face closer. “Hmm… How can we free him?”

    “There is no need.”

    A deep, metallic voice filled the air this time. They turned and saw a remarkable sight—something entirely see-through, made of the very same sort of ice that surrounded the Torkoal, like glass. Zena realized that Valle might have, in some ways, made a new friend—though, unlike Valle, this Pokémon moved. An Aggron made entirely of clear, see-through ice, covered in a thin layer of blizzard snow.

    “Welcome to my home,” she said. “Do not stay long.”

    “Uh—” Willow bristled and sparked with pink dust. “Are you the Ice Guardian? We’re Guardians, too! Don’t we kinda have that in common to be friendly?”

    “Hunters have Orbs, too. Hunters are Guardians. I wouldn’t consider myself to be… that, you see.” She nodded and motioned to the clump of ice that contained the Torkoal. “He doesn’t have an Orb—but he is still a Hunter, the one called Elder.”

    She had an odd accent. While not broken, there was a sort of tough disconnectedness about the way she spoke, as if the nouns and adjectives and verbs were being placed next to one another forcibly, rather than in a flowing rhythm.

    “Elder…” Zena said. “That sounds… familiar. Isn’t that the one that Rhys…?”

    “Rhys?” repeated the Aggron. “I do not know of any Rhys, but if he is also a Hunter, and you are with him…”

    “No, Rhys is no longer a Hunter,” Zena said.

    “You sound certain.”

    “He made a Promise to me that he would not kill another Guardian,” Zena said. “A Divine Promise.”

    The Aggron flicked her tail, bumping against the ice that encased Elder. Her arms crossed pensively. “I see…. And how do I know you are not lying to me?”

    “I could Promise to you that I did not just lie,” Zena offered.

    “…No. Not necessary,” she said. “You have truth in your eyes.”

    Willow’s sparks died down. “Oh. That was easy.”

    “The Joltik will speak with grace.” The Aggron glared, her intense, icy eyes threatening to freeze Willow over for a second time.

    “Eep—!” She hopped onto ADAM again and hid in the gap between his head and torso.

    Step released her glare, but remained guarded. “Hm. Which Guardian is she?”

    “Fairy. I suppose her personality fits,” said Zena, sighing. “She means well, I assure you. My name is Milotic Zena.” She moved one of her brows forward like a hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

    “I am Aggron Step,” said the Ice Guardian, bringing her right hand forward for a shake. Contact made Zena’s brow freeze, but Step didn’t realize it. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I apologize if your trip here was daunting, but I stopped my Mystic blizzard so you could approach.”

    Zena glanced at the frozen Hunter. She also used her other brow to rub off the ice from where Step had made contact. “…Could you release him?”

    “The Hunter? Why?”

    “I believe he is harmless,” Zena said.

    “Of course he is harmless. He is frozen.”

    “Wow, ADAM,” Willow said. “She’s even more literal than you are.”

    Step growled, resuming her glare. “I shall make a frozen Joltik next if she does not watch herself.”

    “Nnn—!” Once again, Willow hid away, though this time it was behind Zena’s head, shrinking until she could fit between her scales. Her tiny voice said, “Call me when she’s not scary!”

    “Hmm…” Step relaxed her glare again, though not without an unamused snort. “Well. I suppose I will let him out. I intended to use him as a bargaining chip when the other Hunters came, but if you are sure it is safe…”

    “Ah—about that,” Zena said. “That is somewhat the reason why we came. You see, we were trying to gather the Guardians together as a sort of… strength in numbers against the Hunters, to defeat them should they try to attack us all at once.”

    “Oh? The opposite approach, then, to the original plan?” Step asked. “I was quite happy with my quiet solitude.”

    “Y-you… liked that?” Zena winced. What sort of Pokémon could enjoy that horrible loneliness, and crave more of it? Zena recalled many long nights cursing her existence within those damp caverns, thrashing about in frustration, yet also her fear of dying. She had stagnated in there, until Owen put his feet into her lake. That was when it all changed… Zena shook her head. The cold must have been getting to her.

    “I did, yes,” Step answered. “I could spend an eternity here with only myself and my spirits. There is no need for others. My mate is with me; my children visit. I even met a few of my grandchildren. I need little else.”

    “Wow…” Willow said. “I mean… I guess so…”

    Only Zena could hear Willow, given her size. “I suppose we all react differently to the plan, but for now, we do need to change. Step, would you come with us? We can bring Elder, too.”

    “Hmm… You understand why I am hesitant.”

    “Y-yes, well, what if we… bring him frozen, first? And then we will… thaw him at home, where we can be in a more controlled environment.”

    “Hmm…” Step crossed her arms, considering. “That will have to wait.”

    Valle slowly rotated until his back faced Step. “Yes, it will.”

    “What?” Zena asked.

    ADAM buzzed with three rapid beeps. “My aura sensors indicate a team of synthetic auras as well as one Hunter is approaching.”

    “W-wait—ADAM, can you tell what it is?” Zena asked.

    “…An Espurr… is the Hunter,” ADAM said.

    “Rim…” Zena growled.

    “Synthetic auras are more difficult to identify.”

    “It matters not,” said Step, slamming her fists together in a loud crash. Zena flinched at the noise. “They shall all perish by my frost.”

    “W-we will help,” Zena said.

    It didn’t take very long for Rim to arrive; behind her was a set of three synthetic Pokémon. One was a Tauros with tails that were literally on fire; the next was an icy Ninetales with luminous, white fur; the final one was a Roserade with frost that fell from its petals, rather than poison. Rim herself was bundled up in thick layers of cloth such that only her big eyes were visible, floating above the three mutants like a haunted Tangela.

    “For them to get this far, they may be strong,” Step observed.

    “Very,” Zena said.

    “They must have been waiting for me to halt my Mystic blizzard. How clever of them…”

    Willow, returning to her normal size, said, “I can take ‘em! Just let me get close and I’ll shrink them down to little pebble-sized versions of themselves—and then—squish!”

    “You don’t actually squish your victims, do you?” Zena said.

    “Well—how else am I supposed to beat them? They’re tiny!”

    Valle shouted to Rim, “What are you doing here? Have you come to kill the Ice Guardian?”

    Rim looked down but shook her head.

    “…Well. That’s good, at least,” said the Milotic.

    The wind howled; the Espurr shivered and desperately rubbed her paws together, breathing into them. Frost dotted the outside of her layers of scarves.

    The gray feline puffed again. Zena felt a pang of empathy for her. Neither of them were in a good condition to fight.

    “Have you… d…d-decided?” Rim asked, her faint voice even more muffled beneath her cloth. It was a miracle that Step had heard her at all.

    “Decided?” Zena asked.

    “I have,” Step said, nodding. She looked back at Elder, frozen in ice. “Elder has been speaking to me in the spirit world for quite some time. And while I agree with much of what he says…. I must point out,”—she stared at Rim—“that you brought those three synthetic Pokémon with you. Is that a threat?”

    Rim flinched. “N-no, I… like… company.”

    “What’s wrong with company?” asked the Roserade, flicking a bit of ice off of her petals. “Hmph.”

    “I’m sure you knew what you were doing,” Step said lowly. “…And I have to say, I don’t agree with any of your practices. I believe Eon has lost his way. I don’t intend to follow him down his confused path.”

    “So… you are an enemy….”

    “I suppose I am,” Step said, “though I do not agree with the agenda of Mew or Arceus, either. So that puts me nowhere, doesn’t it?”

    “No, that puts you, uh…” Willow paused. “I guess that puts you with Owen.”

    “Owen?” Step repeated.

    Rim frowned, but then pointed a paw forward, though it was hard to tell at first. But that gesture was all that was needed for the three mutants to rush Step at once. The time for talk was over, and Rim planned to harvest Step’s Orb instead.

    The icy Aggron opened her mouth and fired a chilling wave of frost toward the trio; the blast was so potent that the Roserade had to immediately fall back. The other two remained. Tauros rushed over the ice and rammed directly into Step, tails blazing with enough heat that the snow around him melted, creating a crater with steamy water at the bottom. Step grunted, holding her ground as much as she could, but at the same time, struggled to stay completely in place.

    “How powerful…!” she muttered. “But… this will be… not enough!” She grabbed the Tauros by the horns and twisted her arms until it was on its side. She didn’t realize the third Synthetic had been preparing a Moonblast all this time. She took the blow directly, falling down with Tauros.

    “Guess that’s our turn!” Willow announced.

    “Of course,” Zena said. She opened with a Hydro Pump at the Tauros while it was down.

    Willow jumped in the air and tried to blast some of her pink mist at the Ninetales, but she was too fast. She avoided the mist easily; Rim swept away the mist with a routine Psychic wave. Willow screamed angrily.

    “Fully charged,” ADAM announced. He fired a Hyper Beam at the Ninetales while she was in the air; unable to redirect her trajectory, the icy Pokémon was blasted backwards and against a soft barrier put up by Rim. She coughed from the blow and struggled on her feet.

    The Espurr, realizing that these synthetics were outmatched, raised her arm in the air and formed a strange, cyan aura in her paw. The three synthetic Pokémon stopped immediately and looked back. They glanced at their targets, and then ran toward one another, with no sign of stopping once they made contact. It could only mean—

    “S-stop them!” Zena said.

    Valle controlled many icy rocks to tumble their way, but a Psychic deflected the attack entirely. The three synthetic Pokémon slammed into one another and meshed into a single being—one with the base of a Tauros with a bright glow, the color and flaming tails of a Ninetales, and thorns and petals adorning its body like scales. The fusion was in total control—not berserk, not even shaking. Rim held her paw forward; the fusion nodded and rushed them.

    Valle fired another volley of rocks; Zena blasted them with a Hydro Pump; Willow launched a Moonblast; ADAM didn’t have time to fire another Hyper Beam. Instead, he buzzed with thought, watching the attack, in addition to Step’s Ice Beam, and waited to see how the fusion would react. All four attacks hit it at the same time—it roared in pain and stumbled in its dash, but still rumbled forward, even after taking so many hits. They didn’t have time to evade the strike. There was no telling how powerful their attacks would actually be, considering how much damage it could take and still keep coming.

    With this calculation, ADAM announced, “Switching to evasive procedure.”

    “What?” Zena said. “W-we’re running away?!”

    “The storm may have weakened us considerably. We cannot fight at our best here, and they are taking advantage of it.”

    “I am still fully capable of fighting!” Step said.

    “Your Ice techniques are useless,” ADAM reported. “In fact, it seems to be making the fusion stronger.”

    Step slammed her tail on the ground, creating a glacier just in front of the Tauros-amalgam. He spat a plume of fire on the ground, banking off of the indent it left, and ran around the rising glacier instead. Step hissed, slamming her tail down again to create another, but she could only hope to slow it down.

    With some kinetic force, he pulled out their Badge remotely and thrust it in the air; it shined, but it couldn’t operate immediately. It was still building a charge to warp them away—they just had to last a few more seconds…

    Between glacial uprisings, Tauros launched a giant cloud of fire toward Step. She staggered back, holding her arms up as a pathetic shield, even though those would surely melt against the incoming fire. Yet, the blast never connected. Instead, she opened her eyes and saw three Ice spirits in front of her—three Kommo-o.

    “Ow,” said one of them, bursting into an ember that returned to Step.

    The largest of the three looked back at the Aggron. “Are you okay?”

    Step grunted, shaking it off. “I got careless.”

    “We noticed.” The Kommo-o gave Step a little smirk. “You! Porygon! Will we be evacuating?”

    “Species: Porygon-Z!”

    “Ra, ahead!” Step shouted.

    Ra and his daughter looked forward too late; a second Fire Blast incinerated them, their embers returning to Step. She slammed her fist into the ground, creating another wall of ice, but flames from the Ice-Fire Tauros melted through the layers rapidly.

    “The Badge is ready!” ADAM said.

    “Then hurry!” Zena blasted the ice with water, hoping to slow down the fire’s advance.

    In an instant, the group, and everyone within that range, vanished in a flash of light. The fusion skidded to a stop, slipping on the ice.

    “Did—did they really…?” He stomped on the ground angrily. “Running isn’t any fun! How could they?!”

    Rim bit at her lower lip anxiously. The frozen Hunter, Elder, had vanished with them. The hunk of ice that he had been suspended in was gone, leaving nothing but a hole for fresh snow to fill.

    Rim gulped, tightening her mass of scarves. “Oops…”

    <><><> ​

    “Toss him in the lava. He will be fine.” Step shrugged.

    “But he’ll melt!” Willow squeaked.

    “The ice will melt. The shelled Fire will be just fine.”

    “But he’ll… drown…?” Willow protested, less enthusiastic.

    Step, and the frozen Hunter, and the four other Guardians all stood in the middle of Hot Spot square, the first to return from their missions. They were all gathered around the Hunter, still in a block of ice, withdrawn in his shell. Far away, beyond the glow of the mushrooms, was the orange glow of a lava river.

    “Rocks in liquid motion disturb me,” Valle stated.

    “Well, I obviously cannot get close to the lava,” Step said, motioning to her icy body. “Valle, if you refuse to move, and Willow, if you’re too small, we just have to rely on… what are you, exactly, again? Ra mentioned your species, yet it’s too foreign.”

    “I am a Porygon-Z,” ADAM stated. “I refuse to further overheat my processors.”

    “Overheat?” Step parsed. “Then perhaps you can use the ice to stay cool while you move it forward. Will you do that?”

    “You do not have the necessary user permissions.”

    Step blinked, but suddenly narrowed her eyes. “Are you refusing me?” she said in a growl. “You are the most capable. Do you wish for me to melt? Perhaps I should freeze you next.”

    ADAM buzzed with alarm. “Fear levels increasing.”

    “How come you want to unfreeze him?” Willow asked. “The Torkoal could try to kill us! Hunters are all super powerful!”

    “This Hunter was… underwhelming,” Step stated flatly. “I have little to say about his strength, as his aura exhumed no power, and he did not fight back.”

    “Oh.” Willow moved closer to the ice, shivering when a bit of frost collected on her fur. There was a pool of water near the base of the melting ice. “I guess Hot Spot is already warm enough to thaw him out.”

    “This is taking far too long,” Step said impatiently. “I’ve isolated myself for decades, and yet this feels like an eternity longer. I shall shatter his prison myself.”

    She stepped back—Willow and ADAM cleared the way. Valle remained where he stood, though he was already out of the way and in his usual spot in Hot Spot’s central square. Step sent from her chest a single aura ember. It grew and solidified into an icy Kommo-o, taking on a battle stance toward the ice.

    “Prepare yourselves for a loud noise,” Step warned the others. “Now, Ra!”

    Zena tensed, quickly bringing up her ribbons. “Are you sure this is a—"

    The Kommo-o slammed his chest, clanging his scales. Dragon-enhanced ripples of sound reverberated across the ice, leaving countless small cracks and fissures behind.

    “Hmph,” Ra said, crossing his arms. “It was sloppy, but that will do.” He looked back to Step, nodding. She nodded back, withdrawing the spirit back into her realm.

    She held her chest briefly, knocking her claws against her icy armor. “It was just fine,” she mumbled to herself.

    Willow tilted her head at the gesture. “Are you okay?”

    “Hm? Yes, I’m just fine. Go on and help the Hunter out of his prison. If I get too close, I might accidentally freeze him all over again.”

    “Oh! I have an idea!” Willow jumped toward the frozen Torkoal, spurting her pink wings to complete the gap. “Maybe this’ll help!”

    Pink mist formed around her body. After a few seconds, the hunk of ice—and the Torkoal inside—shrank down until it was no larger than Willow herself. She crawled toward the block of ice and prodded at the many cracks that Ra left behind, pulling the walls apart. With him in his shell, it was very easy to free him safely.

    “Oh, oh!” Willow said. “His little legs are moving! Aww, isn’t he cute? I wanna just—”

    “You will not harm the Hunter,” ADAM said. “I am detecting malevolence from the Fairy Guardian.”

    “Are not! I was just gonna poke him a little!”

    “That is enough, Guardian,” Step growled. “Return him to his normal size.”

    “W-well, maybe I don’t wanna!”

    “You shall return him to normal size,” Step said, “or you will be frozen for a century.”

    “Mnnn! I can take you on… but I’m gonna do this because I’m being nice.” Willow stared at the ice block a bit longer, waving her tiny legs at it, and then jumped away, landing skillfully on top of ADAM’s head.

    The ice returned to its normal size, as did the Torkoal within. Now that he was bigger, they could hear weak, tired groans from within his shell. “Hello…? Ah… it’s quite cold…”

    “Torkoal Elder,” Step said with a cold gaze. “I hope my spirits treated you kindly.”

    “Your mate is quite frightening,” Elder said. “Such intense eyes.”

    Step smirked. “It is why he is my mate.”

    “Elder…” Zena said, watching him carefully. “You spoke to me before. And Owen met me not long after—you told me… that if I gave up my power, I could finally leave this cave.”

    “Ahh… Milotic Zena, correct?” Elder asked. “Yes. I told you as much. You would be free.”

    “And then I refused. In fact, I believe I killed you.”

    “Ahh… not quite,” Elder said. He brought his foot toward his neck, but then frowned. “Oh, where is my bag…?”

    “The bag? I froze it and discarded it into the ice,” Step said.

    Elder frowned. “That had my lunch… I haven’t had a lunch in such a long time. I was looking forward to it.” When he was met with nothing but a cold stare, he relented. “Well… it had my Badge, and a Reviver Seed, Zena. I always use that combination to escape if I ever run into trouble. I may have looked injured when you fought me—you have a very powerful Hydro Pump, I might add—but… yes. I escaped. I typically do.”

    “Well, you failed this time,” Step growled. “And we will be keeping you here as well.”

    Elder bowed his head. “Very well. I cannot fight back. And… I understand that Rhys is here, too. I cannot complain.”

    “You know Rhys, then.”

    “Yes. We…” Elder hesitated. “We are very familiar with one another. We speak often through the spirit world. And, when fate allows us, we exchange letters and gifts. Why, I know just the perfect Pecha patch… ahh, he certainly loves his Pecha Berries, but only certain kinds, you know…”

    Zena felt herself getting older merely listening to him. “You do understand that Rhys is no longer a Hunter. He abandoned his role.”

    “He has for a while.” Elder, unfazed, nodded at what Zena thought would be a shocking remark. “I do not blame him.”

    “And yet, you remain one.”

    “I did,” Elder replied. “I did because I wanted to try to end this nonviolently. Without fighting.”

    Willow sparked with pink electricity. “So much for that!”

    “Yes…” Elder sighed. “But now that most of the Guardians are with the Trinity, or with Owen, or… dead, I suppose my purpose has ended.” He trotted in place, his huge body—much larger than any normal Torkoal—swaying with the shifting weight. “Eon will be very upset at my departure.”

    Step stared Elder down, but then looked back at the others. “I know little of this. Does he seem trustworthy to you?”

    “No deception readings detected,” ADAM said.

    “He moves very little,” Valle remarked.

    “I dunno, but Owen will!” Willow said.

    “Yes, if anything, Owen would be able to tell if he’s lying or not. He must have some memory of you, so perhaps he’s familiar with your body language.”

    “Owen. Who is this Owen?” Step said.

    Willow giggled, hopping onto Zena’s head next. “He’s a super-cool mutant Charizard that gives rides on his head! Right, Zena? And you have a crush on him!”

    Zena inhaled sharply, but said nothing.

    “Ahh, Owen,” Elder said. “Yes. He has the ability to expand his aura into the surrounding area, becoming aware of everything it touches. This includes body language. For someone he is familiar with, he can tell if someone is lying, or how they are feeling. He will certainly know if I am lying, Step.”

    “He is familiar with you?” Step said. “And he is a mutant? Then how can I trust him?”

    “Because Owen’s nice!” Willow said. “He’s friends with all of us! I’d rather listen to him than to Star!”

    “Really? Then he doesn’t care for Star, either?” The Aggron’s face, unable to show proper expression, seemed at least slightly contemplative. “Owen…”

    “He’s the Grass Guardian,” Zena said, nodding. “I trust Rhys because he made a Divine Promise to me, but I trust Owen because…”

    Step eyed Zena curiously. “Because of your crush?”

    Zena looked down, finding the words. Then she looked back at Step. “Because he is genuine. You will see it in his eyes.”

    Seeing as Step did not have Owen to reference, she instead looked at Zena’s eyes. Her gaze did not break. “Hm,” the Aggron said. “Very well. I will see what this Owen says.” She turned to Elder. “Until then, we shall wait.”
     
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  7. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 42 – Royalty

    “Y’know, it’s kinda hard ter hate this place,” Manny said. “Nice air, strong trees… Could do without all the spiderwebs, though.”

    Arachno Forest was brimming with life. The trees were thick with dark leaves and strong trunks; very little light reached the forest floor. The ground was lush from recent rainfall. Every boulder hid a plethora of Bug Pokémon beneath it, something that made Rhys’ aura sensors tingle.

    “I don’t like it,” Mispy mumbled, also able to sense the auras of the many Pokémon hidden away. Her many vines delicately glided over the mud, hesitant to touch any rock for fear of getting bitten by whatever was inside. It didn’t hurt her, of course—but it was a very spooky feeling to get bitten by something she didn’t expect to be there.

    Demitri, riding atop the mutant’s back, wondered if it was a good idea for Mispy in particular to come here. “You’re weak against Bug Pokémon, right? And I think, like… half of them know a lot of Poison moves, too.”

    “None of these choices were favorable for Mispy,” Rhys said. “Ice, Poison, and Bug—if you want my opinion, this may have been the best option. At least this forest is healthy.”

    “Infested,” Mispy corrected. The petals around her neck glowed dimly.

    “N-no Solar Beams yet, Mispy.” Demitri gently, yet frantically, stroked the back of her neck; this was enough to calm her down.

    “I just… want to go home,” Mispy said. “And cuddle…”

    Demitri blushed. “W-well, that doesn’t sound too bad… But let’s get this Guardian, first.”

    “Heh,” Manny looked back. “You two’re close.”

    “Well, we trained together!” Demitri said. “We were both created, like Gahi and Owen, and we were supposed to work as a team. So, I guess in a way, this was meant to happen. I don’t mind.”

    “Mm,” Mispy said. “Demitri’s cute.”

    “I—I am not,” Demitri said, clicking a claw against one of his face-blades. “Don’t I look scary and gruesome? These things detach, you know!” He tugged at his right tusk, pulling it clean off. A small hole, like a giant nostril, was left behind where the tusk had been securely in place. “I think I look awesome, not cute.” He wedged it back into place with a dull click.

    “Both,” Mispy said, turning her head back to nuzzle him.

    Rhys hummed, nearly jumping at a Spinarak that had skittered across the ground. “Now, let’s focus.”

    “Heheh, what, too mushy fer yeh?” Manny teased.

    “It’s simply not the appropriate time,” Rhys said, turning up his nose. “Besides, I feel the presence of another Mystic aura far off. But… it’s difficult to tell where. It’s a powerful aura—my senses are being disrupted.”

    “Oh, so it ain’t jus’ me,” Manny said. “I’ve been trying ter sense any life that might be stalking us down… but fer the life o’ me, I can’t. Not a single aura. Feh…” Manny went on to mumble under his breath. “Guess it’s all the spiders ‘n stuff.”

    “Mispy?” Rhys said. “Your sense of aura is more precise than either of ours when you focus. Can you sense anything?”

    Mispy shook her head. “Blind.”

    “This Guardian must be deliberately masking any major auras nearby,” Rhys surmised. Suddenly, a strange creature skittered past them, darting from one bush into the next. It looked like an Electrike with more limbs than it should have… “At least we know we found the right… general area.”

    Mispy shuddered, looking at the sky for something that was at least vaguely cute. Her eyes relaxed when she saw a Pichu lounging in the treetops a bit further ahead. But then it rolled in its sleep, revealing huge, insectoid mandibles and chitinous claws where its arms should be. Hopes crushed, the Meganium elected to focus on the back of Rhys’ head.

    Something rustled in the bushes far to their right. Mispy jumped; half of her tendrils writhed defensively; the other half crawled over her own body and wrapped around Demitri like a cocoon.

    “M-Mispy—can’t see—gnck!”

    “Who’s there?” Rhys immediately widened his stance and held his paws up, flaring with aura. “We—have no intention to fight, but will defend ourselves!”

    “Speak for yourself,” Demitri, muffled, said. “I wouldn’t mind some sparring, but—we aren’t hostile or anything!” He squirmed until at least his head was free. “Mispy, can you see anything?”

    Mispy didn’t answer, still spooked at the sight of what appeared to be a Whismur with insect legs sprouting from its back, its normal limbs dangling uselessly while it crawled from one tree to the next.

    “Who are you guys?” someone called, shrouded in the darkness of the trees’ shadows. “And why do you look like… us?”

    “Us?” Demitri asked. “Wait, that voice sounds… weird. I don’t like it.”

    “…Familiar…” Mispy glanced at Demitri.

    There were two Pokémon on the other side of the trees. If only because they were curious, the first one stepped aside to get a better look—it was a mirror image, an exact copy, of Demitri, down to the last detail. Moments later, an identical copy of Mispy emerged next, writhing vines and all.

    “I… I don’t believe it,” Rhys said breathlessly. “Nevren made… another set. Or Eon, or…” He shook his head, looking back worriedly at the two mutants on the team. This wasn’t going to bode well for their psyche after what they had just been through.

    “A… another…” Demitri repeated slowly. His voice became quiet. “They’re… they’re us.”

    “No, they aren’t,” Rhys said firmly, knowing what path Demitri’s mind was taking. “They look like you, but they’re different entirely. That isn’t you—Haxorus, what is your name?”

    “Ax,” said the clone of Demitri.

    “And you, Meganium?”

    “Ani.”

    “They’re… less creative,” Mispy noted. “Wait, but if…”

    Demitri nodded. “If there are copies of us, then—um—hey!” He pointed at Ax. “Do you know a Charizard and a Flygon that, um, come with you guys?”

    “You mean Har and Lygo?”

    Mispy had no words for their naming convention, and instead looked down, feeling what she could only guess was disappointment in her kin.

    “Yeah, eh… actually, hang on,” Manny said. “Why’re yeh guys here? Yer… synthetic, ain’t ya? Most o’ my spirits’re synthetic. And they were all crazy until I helped calm ‘em down.”

    “We were like that, once,” Ax said. “But Queen Trina helped us. Now we serve her.”

    “Queen… Trina,” Rhys said. “Interesting—and this Queen of yours… may we meet her?”

    “Why?” Ax asked.

    Ani glared, vines already tense for battle.

    Rhys spoke slowly, knowing that anything sudden could provoke them. “Hm… we believe that she is a Guardian, perhaps of the Bug Orb? We are forming an alliance of Guardians to protect ourselves against the Hunters. If that’s agreeable to her, then we would like her to relocate to our… base, of a sort.”

    “Hmm…” They both hummed. They stared suspiciously at Rhys; the look they gave him seemed to put the Lucario off his rhythm. He’d never seen Demitri and Mispy look at him so suspiciously before. Even if these two weren’t them, it still looked like it. He’d expect such skepticism from Owen, but Demitri and Mispy were much more rigidly loyal.

    Mispy shifted her weight. “Um…”

    “What is it?” Ani, Mispy’s double, asked.

    “…Can we fight?” Mispy asked.

    “Heheh…” Manny shook his head. “Never change.”

    There was a glimmer of temptation in Ani’s eyes, but she scoffed. “I don’t do things so childish for no reason. You won’t get a fight from me unless Queen Trina makes a request for it.”

    “Well, all the more reason to meet her, right?” Demitri said. “Can we?”

    “Well,” Ax said, fiddling with his claws in the same way Demitri did. “…Fine. We will inform her that you are here. But it will be up to her if she can meet you at all, you know.”

    “Sounds fine ter me,” Manny shrugged. “Lead the way.”

    The both glared at Manny.

    “Wh-what my colleague means,” Rhys said, “is that we would be honored to meet your queen, and humbly request that you lead us to her domain.”

    “That’s better,” Ani growled.

    Ax hopped on top of Ani’s back. The Meganium slowly spun around on her vines and crept forward into the forest depths. Demitri and Mispy watched them uneasily. Even his habit of riding atop Mispy was something they did. But—no, that was just a natural reaction. Mispy’s body was great for traveling and carrying great weight on foot, or vine. If anything, Manny and Rhys should’ve been on top of her, too. If it wasn’t for the Waypoints that Nevren had organized the scouts to set up for them to these locations, he would’ve been riding on Mispy’s back anyway.

    On the way to the Bug Guardian’s domain, Manny mumbled to Rhys, “Well, ain’t they proper… Ain’t nothing like my spirits.”

    Rhys nodded and spoke leisurely, just loud enough for Demitri and Mispy to hear. “Synthetic Pokémon are just like we are, when you take away their modified instincts. As such, they can be raised and influenced to behave in ways you wouldn’t expect. It seems that this Bug Guardian is following a feral Vespiquen’s approach to raising an army… How interesting. I’m curious what species she is.”

    The more they walked, the more the forest became blanketed in webs and silk. He could hardly see the trees through it all at this point. In fact, for a moment, that they weren’t in a forest at all anymore. Even the sky was blotted out by the web; they were in some sort of bug nest. A cave out in open air.

    “Hey, eh…” Manny said. “You ain’t… turnin’ us inter lunch, are yeh?”

    “Lucario don’t provide very much meat,” Ani said. “Eating your kind wouldn’t be worth the trouble.”

    “Th-that’s right, good thinking. ‘Cause we’d give you way more trouble than it’s worth.”

    “That’s one way to put it,” said Ax. “But should you give us trouble anyway, perhaps we will reconsider. I’ve never had Lucario before.”

    Manny puffed out his chest. “Feh, yer queen doesn’t sound so tough. I bet I could take ‘er down with just—”

    Rhys was about to warn Manny to hold his tongue, but before he had the chance, both Ax and Ani spun. The mutated Haxorus sprung from Ani’s back, pulled from his face one of his bladed tusks and held it against Manny’s side. At the same time, Ani wrapped her vines around Manny and squeezed, making sure her thorns left a mark. He didn’t have time to react to the vines; Ax and his blade was just an additional threat. At first, Manny just gave a confident smirk; a few mutants couldn’t do much to him as a Guardian.

    His frame cracked in three places.

    “Hrngk—!” Manny wheezed, eyes wide. How did they—

    “You will not threaten the queen,” Ani and Ax said in a hiss. “Got it?”

    “Yeah,” Manny rasped. “Got it. No threats.”

    He was released, and then he collapsed to the ground, groaning. Demitri hastily got down and helped Manny onto Mispy’s back to recover.

    “Idiot,” Mispy mumbled. This Fighting Guardian was indeed where Gahi got his attitude from. He used to be such a good guy, too. But after that rebellious runaway phase, he was a delinquent.

    “Good thing I don’t eat…” Manny said. He coughed out a glob of blood and rubbed at one of his broken ribs. He felt it healing. “These guys ain’t no joke…”

    “They’re us,” Demitri said, looking at Ax. “Of course, they’d be strong.”

    But strength alone from some mortal wasn’t enough to break through Mystic protection. Manny knew not to speak up, though. Perhaps the Guardian was enhancing them in some way.

    “He gets it,” Ax said, smiling at his counterpart.

    Mispy giggled, bumping her head against Demitri. “Um… Who’s… the queen?”

    “Queen Trina,” Ax said, “or the Bug Guardian, like you said. She’s a Serperior, and she’s probably the strongest one in the world, even if you excluded her Mystic Aura. That’s how strong she is.”

    Manny looked like he was about to question this claim, but then remembered the immense pressure applied to his whole body. He decided against it and, perhaps for the first time in centuries, held back his words.

    “Is she a merciful queen?” Rhys inquired.

    “Absolutely. Queen Trina is the most reasonable Pokémon in the world. We owe our lives to her; we would be dead without her guidance.”

    “Oh? How so?” Rhys asked. “You are Synthetic Pokémon—that likely means you were created by Nevren, yes? You came from Quarts HQ?”

    “That’s right,” said Ax. “But… we don’t really… remember a whole lot about that. It’s sort of fuzzy. I think it comes from the fact that we had to be calmed down.” Ax stared back at Rhys with a hint of suspicion. “How do you know that?”

    “Er—I happened to know about the area. We’ve been investigating the synthetic Pokémon and… those associated with them for quite some time now. It’s only natural that we would be familiar.”

    “Hm.” Easily convinced, Ax continued. “A lot of us were sent here on a mission to take an Orb with us. We were led by Espurr Rim. That’s probably what happened to us, too, before the Queen took us. Do you know about her?”

    “I certainly do,” Rhys said. “We’ve fought one another in the past. She is very powerful.”

    “Not as powerful as our queen,” said Ax. “She and her army were able to take down Rim’s onslaught—including us, I guess. But instead of killing us, she took us in.”

    “She… took you in?” Rhys asked. “Were you not in your battle modes? I doubt Rim would return you to a neutral state in the middle of a battle.”

    “We were still in that mode. But she took us in anyway. Her army of Bug Pokémon and her servants restrained us and dragged us to the deepest part of her cavern, the place we’re leading you now. And once we were brought there…”

    At this point in their walk, the forest path gave way to walls of silk, lit only by the Mystic glow of the web and the little light that could shine through the cavern’s ceiling. It truly was a place made by, and for, Bug Pokémon. Massive Bug Pokémon. The cavern’s ceilings were high enough to fly in, and even if they all walked side by side, they wouldn’t be able to touch both walls.

    A cold, twisting feeling made a knot in Rhys’ stomach. He couldn’t see anything by aura, even within here. He could only rely on his eyes. The way the cavern was constructed absorbed almost all echoes; sound traveled only through vibrations in the webbing. And that could only mean that everyone in the cavern knew they were here. It was too quiet. He felt thousands of eyes staring at him from all directions, yet he couldn’t see a single one.

    “Mm…” Mispy said. “What are… those?” She pointed a vine ahead. It was darkest there. Less and less natural light reached these parts of the labyrinthine corridors, leaving them to rely on the glow of the web instead. And with that glow, Mispy saw oval-shaped cocoons a bit larger than Rhys lining the sides of the large cavern. One of them moved. Another one twitched. The rest were completely still.

    Manny tensed. He saw something else moving in that darkness. Something long, slow, graceful. It reminded him of Zena. “I think we found her.”

    “Yes,” said Ax. He and Ani lowered their heads; Ax went on one knee, while Ani, lacking knees, sank lower to the ground and deeply bowed her head.

    “Hm…” Rhys said. He followed suit, kneeling with his eyes closed. Demitri and Mispy, thankful to have references, mirrored the poses Ax and Ani took.

    Even blind, Rhys couldn’t ignore the sheer aura presence radiating from the approaching Guardian. He peeked through his left eye—Indeed, it was a Serperior. The gaze from her red eyes pierced through them. Even without talking, Rhys felt like he wanted to speak every lie he’d ever said. Every sin he’d ever committed. He wanted to stay kneeling to her forever.

    Rhys shook the thoughts from his head and maintained his composure. Queen Trina indeed—her hypnotic spell wouldn’t work on him. He glanced at Demitri and Mispy; they seemed a bit more susceptible, gazing emptily at the slithering royal.

    Rhys quietly spoke, “Demitri, Mispy. Remember your meditation.”

    That was enough to snap them out of it. Realizing what had happened, they watched Trina with extra caution.

    “So that’s yer game…” Manny wheezed. He wasn’t affected at all, but between his still healing ribs and the immense pressure she radiated, he could hardly breathe.

    “Queen Trina,” Ax said, “we brought the guests that you desired.”

    “Desired?” Rhys asked.

    “Yes. When you requested to see her, we felt her will, and her will was to allow it.”

    Ani nodded and continued for Ax. “We can feel her thoughts and commands, no matter where we are. One day, if we die, our spirits will be bonded to her will even more. Spirits that server a Guardian are quick to become like them, or to become loyal to them. It’s only natural.”

    Trina spoke deliberately. Her voice was neither loud nor soft, but perfectly controlled, like it had been practiced countless times. Her volume was enough to command attention, yet not distract with its loudness. “You have fulfilled your duties for the day. You may rest.”

    “We thank you.” The two synthetic Pokémon moved backwards, raised themselves, turned, and departed through one of the many corridors in the maze of webs.

    “…That was weird,” Manny said. “That’s calmer than I’d ever seen a synthetic like’m befer.”

    “That is because I tamed them,” Trina said, staring at Manny. She observed the plethora of crimson patches riddling the Lucario’s crushed body. “…What have you done to elicit Ani’s wrath?”

    “E-eh, nothin’,” Manny said. “Yer highness. I ain’t meanin’ nothin’.”

    “…You spoke badly of me.”

    “E-ehhh.”

    “I could turn you into a mere drone for that,” Trina said, staring right into his eyes.

    Manny quickly looked away, some primal instinct inside of him telling him to avoid eye contact. The spirits inside of his body roared angrily, outraged that someone would intimidate Manny so much. “Feh…”

    “Hmm…” Trina said, looking him over, but then shook her head slowly. “It is not worth my time. I can sense that you, too, are a Guardian. It would be unbecoming of me to harm your spirits. They have done nothing wrong. But I do sense something curious… Many of the auras within your body are… also synthetic, are they not? No aura ancestry whatsoever. Actually, now that I take a closer look, all of your auras seem odd.” She looked at the two Lucario and two mutants.

    “Feh, not important.” He tentatively moved his arm; it was back to normal. During their walk, his body healed roughly halfway. “Sorry, yer highness. Not important ter look at that, but yeah. They’re synthetic. I kill ‘em, and then sate their hunger fer battle. Now they fight with me instead.”

    “Interesting… Perhaps that is another way to heal their damaged auras. You are smarter than I expected.”

    Mispy giggled.

    “And you two,” Trina said. “Your auras feel fully repaired. Just how did you do that? What treatment did you two go through?”

    “We meditated a lot,” Demitri said.

    “…Is that a joke?”

    Rhys shook his head. “It is the genuine truth. Based on my theories of calming broken auras, and without any Mystic powers like you have, I had to put them through an intense meditation, regression, and training regimen.”

    “Meditation… fascinating,” said Trina, eying the two. “And with just that hard work, they were able to maintain their sanity? How did you get them to meditate in the first place?”

    “They were not always in these forms. I put them in their larval state—in other words… their pre-evolved forms. Thankfully, in that state, their instincts are almost entirely dormant—I was able to train them when in that state, so when they returned to their—”

    “How did you revert them to a pre-evolved state? Evolution is a one-way path. Only with divine influence can you reverse it. The power of a Guardian, or perhaps a Pokémon of Legendary proportions, blessed by Arceus…”

    “Not quite,” Rhys said with a little smile. “I have been blessed by Mew Star, in a sense. I have a tiny fraction of the same divine power you have within me, as a… former Hunter.”

    Trina narrowed her eyes. “And how can I be sure that you are a former Hunter?” he said. “At least now your knowledge of ‘synthetic’ Pokémon makes sense.”

    “Actually, maybe modified Pokémon is better?” Demitri asked.

    “Modified? But you weren’t changed at birth. You were created from scratch. Your resemblance to other Pokémon is a mere coincidence, perhaps for the ease of creativity. You are Synthetic. You are Pokémon, all the same, yet you are different. Be proud of that.”

    “P… proud?” Demitri repeated.

    “Why would we be proud of that?” Mispy said.

    Rhys felt a pang of guilt and looked away. Even with his talk to Gahi and Owen, he knew that Demitri and Mispy had still be harboring some resentment. If only it was just as easy to smooth things over with them. “That’s—that’s not a way to look at it, Mispy.”

    “We’re fake,” Mispy said, eying her counterpart.

    “That’s hardly a healthy outlook. Hmph.” Trina shook her head. “Have pride that you are powerful.”

    “Does Star even like us?” Demitri asked.

    “Demitri—where is this coming from?” Rhys said.

    Trina stared closely at both of the mutant Pokémon. “Yes, Demitri. Where are these thoughts coming from?”

    “Enough games,” Manny said. “What’s yer influence on ‘em? I know it’s you.”

    Trina glared; Manny’s tail involuntarily sank down, and he winced. He clenched his paws and brought his head up again, but little was going to bring his tail back to its original height. He just stared ahead. “You mess with the mind. Yer makin’ their inner thoughts stronger. I know how you work, Queen Trina.”

    “…But… it’s true,” Mispy said.

    Rhys frowned. “…So… that’s truly how you feel about yourselves? That you’re…?”

    “We’re strong,” Demitri said. “But… I guess…”

    “…Maybe we’re… lesser souls.”

    “Preposterous,” Trina said, and this time her voice was a lot firmer. Demitri and Mispy both shrank down like children. “You are artificial, but your soul shines like any other. Your aura may look different, but you are a life all the same. I may not care for Star’s attitude…” Trina gave the pair a small, regal smile. “But I believe that she treats you at the same value as all other lives.”

    Demitri and Mispy didn’t seem very convinced, looking away.

    “I… I had no idea,” said Rhys. “I thought that they enjoyed themselves.”

    “W-we do!” Demitri said. “It’s just—you know, sometimes, it’s nighttime, it’s quiet, and you’re just… alone with your thoughts… You start thinking about things… you know?”

    “And it’s… wrong.” Mispy nodded. “We’re… wrong.”

    “I—I don’t… I wouldn’t dare consider something like that,” Rhys said.

    “Rhys…” Demitri said. “You spent centuries trying to fix us.”

    “That’s…” Rhys hesitated, thoughts rushing to find some sort of counter. He couldn’t. Demitri was right—they were broken for the longest time, trapped in their own fighting, self-destructive instincts.

    “Out of respect for your teacher,” Trina said, “I have no interest in taking you into my hive. You seem to trust Rhys very much, and I see no reason why he would be a bad influence on you, if he is so dedicated to restoring your spirits. And for that, Rhys, I must praise you.”

    Rhys did his best to hide his wagging tail. “I appreciate it.”

    Just then, a muffled roar echoed from one of the cocoons. It heaved from powerful punches from within, thrashing against the wall the cocoon was attached to. A clawed fist burst out from the silk webbing.

    Without missing a beat, Trina turned around and slithered toward it, hissing soothingly. The hiss reverberated in Rhys’ ears, making them twitch and sink down. It was like a blanket that wrapped around his mind. He could’ve fallen asleep where he stood. It was even stronger on whatever was struggling inside; it let out a weak roar, and then the arm went limp. A vine emerged from her back, wrapped around the hand, and eased it back into the cocoon. She then mended the silk, slowly wrapping it back up. Her entire front secreted more of the white lines, and with each lap, the cocoon thickened. Demitri and Mispy shuddered.

    “What…” Demitri said. “What’re you gonna do to them? I—I thought Mystics didn’t have to eat!”

    “Oh, I’m hardly eating them,” said Trina. “I am storing them away so they can calm down. Every night, I help them sleep. And every morning, I wake them. Slowly, they grow accustomed to my voice and my presence.”

    Mispy grimaced. “Creepy.”

    Trina scoffed. “It tames them. Most of them are quite fine once they are awakened. If a moon passes, they are tamed, and they wish to leave… then I let them leave. It isn’t as if I force them to stay.”

    “Y-yeah, but, you brainwash them, don’t you?” Demitri said. “I can’t imagine myself ever calling someone a queen, and Ax was…”

    “You shouldn’t compare yourself to Ax,” Trina said.

    “Wh—bu—we’re literally the same person! I mean—body!” Demitri protested.

    “Yes, but you were raised in a completely different way,” Trina said. “Instincts can only take you so far. In the end, I was able to soothe their minds and their auras, and then I introduced myself. Your kind are fiercely loyal to any leadership you deem worthy. So, me convincing them that I was worth their time was all I had to do.”

    “Well…” Demitri said.

    “How did you convince them?” Mispy asked.

    “Well, after their auras were calmed,” Trina said, “I offered to battle them. After beating them—”

    “W-wait, you beat them? Even when they fused together?”

    Trina chuckled. “Do you really think such a petty maneuver will work on me?”

    “P-petty? That’s hardly petty! We remember what happened—fusion was Nevren’s ultimate design, or something! It took our best features, and combined them! We were, like, unstoppable.”

    “Oh, I’m sure, in a battle one against one, you would certainly give the average Pokémon some trouble,” Trina said. “But I am not a normal Pokémon, and they did not fight against just myself, either. After all, four against one is hardly fair, hm?”

    “W-well… that’s true…” Demitri said.

    “A coordinated team of four could still defeat your fusion. There are limits, even to the ultimate fighter. From what I have observed, even Nevren’s design is limited by how many components fuse together, and how that can weaken the peak strength of any of those individual powers you listed. And to add… Against a Mystic such as myself, there was truly no competition.”

    “Well, aren’t you full of yourself,” Demitri mumbled irritably. A bit of his pride was scraped away at Trina’s matter-of-fact remarks.

    Manny was prodding at the walls, marveling at the strength of the webbing. “So, eh… did yeh make this all yerself?”

    “Of course. As the Bug Guardian, it is my obligation to make a home for my hive.”

    “…Where’s it all come from?”

    Trina glared. “It is uncouth to ask a Queen where it all comes from.”

    “Y-yeh, okay, sure,” Manny said. He rubbed at his muzzle nervously, but then looked up at Mispy, who was fixated on Trina. “Hey, yeh feeling alright?”

    “H-huh?” Mispy asked. “Oh—yes. Um…” She sighed, but then looked at Trina.

    “…You wish to fight me,” Trina said.

    “Mhm.”

    Trina smiled. “Perhaps later. I would like to return to the subject of your arrival. You wish for me to join you all?”

    “Yes, we do,” said Rhys. “It may be cumbersome, but… we believe that the Hunters’ strength is increasing. We cannot afford to sit passively while Eon gathers them one by one. Even now, he has three Orbs under his influence. Even with your great power, Trina, I do not believe it would be wise to fight him, should he feel the need to confront you directly. That—is no insult to your power,” Rhys said quickly, noticing her strengthening glare, “but more a testament to his, simply due to his ruthless nature. He has thrice the number of Orbs, Trina. It is a matter of numbers.”

    “Hm. Numbers only mean so much,” Trina said. “…But I do understand your sentiments.” She looked up, studying the woven cave around them. “I must consider my options. You will arrive tomorrow to receive my decision. I will allow you to leave a personal Waypoint here so you may return easily.”

    Rhys knew that this was the best he was going to get. Considering Trina’s haughty nature, persisting any further would lower their chances. He was also getting sick of the web between his toes. “Very well. We thank you for the opportunity.” He bowed his head, and then turned to set up a waypoint near the wall of the inner chambers—though he made a conscious effort to keep away from the cocoons. He wondered if there was another Lucario somewhere in these chambers, sleeping away in Trina’s prison… He wondered if it was enjoyable.

    Rhys shook his head. Her influence was strong. He stopped in the middle of the chamber and held his badge up. He pressed his claw on the heart-shaped insignia twice in quick succession. It flashed. Then, Rhys lowered the Badge to the ground, and pressed once. The flash stopped. Waypoint registered, though only for this Badge. Rhys turned around. “We should go,” he said. “We will return tomorrow, Trina, in the morning. Is this agreeable?”

    “It is,” said the Serperior.

    In a flash of light, they were gone from Trina’s labyrinth, and returned to Hot Spot Cave.

    Trina stared at the empty space in front of them, but then turned her head back. “Why so shy, Har?”

    A snort answered her, earning a sigh from Trina.

    “Is he moping around again?” Ax said. “C’mon, Har! It was just more of us!”

    “It wasn’t just more of us,” Har said, stepping out from the shadows with his wings low. The Charizard stared at Trina. “That was… those were the prototypes, weren’t they? The…”

    Trina frowned, but then sighed, shaking her head. “I suppose they were,” she said. “Come. I shall arrange for lunch to be made. We can’t have anybody upset on an empty stomach.” She slithered deeper into the caves. “It’s not healthy.”

    <><><> ​

    The mushrooms glowed brightly, suggesting that it was late in the afternoon outside. Rhys shivered. “Goodness, what is that feeling?” It quite warm in the labyrinth of Trina’s silken maze, but Hot Spot Cave was freezing. The instant they returned, a wave of cold air brushed under his fur; every exhale let out a frosty cloud.

    Mispy and Demitri huddled close; Manny rubbed his arms. What kind of cold could pierces their Mystic protections? Unreal.

    Rhys looked to his right and saw a home where the rocks were encased in ice. An Aggron was sitting inside, also made of ice. He thought it was a statue before it started moving. She stepped outside to greet them.

    “Hello. You are also Guardians?”

    “Eh, just me,” Manny said.

    “Are those two giving you trouble? I shall freeze them,” said Step. Clouds of frost formed around her hands, and it looked like she was about to popsiclize Demitri and Mispy.

    “N-no, that won’t be necessary!” Rhys quickly said. “They are—safe. Allies. Yes?”

    “Allies. Of the Guardians? They are mutants.”

    “Y-yes, friendly mutants,” Rhys assured her.

    “…Your aura is of a Hunter,” Step said. “Perhaps I shall freeze you next.”

    This was not a good day for Rhys.

    Manny stepped forward this time, “Oy, lemme vouch fer ‘em, they’re fine. Yer from Frozen Oceanside? Zena, Willow, Adam, an’ Valle saved yeh?”

    “My name is ADAM.”

    “Oy, there they are!” Manny waved.

    The group of four approached, with Willow atop Zena’s head. The Joltik hopped. “It’s okay, Step! These four are our friends! Oh! Rhys! I’m glad you came back!”

    “Oh? It wasn’t as if I was leaving.”

    “No, because, um—we have a friend who’s thawing out further in the caves!”

    “A friend? Thawing out?”

    “Yes,” Step said. “A Hunter approached me, and I froze him so he would not cause trouble. However, I was convinced that, perhaps, he is not so bad.”

    “I… I see. This hunter—who—?” Rhys asked a bit hastily.

    Step tilted her head. “An old friend of yours? He is known as Torkoal Eld—”

    Rhys was gone in a blink; only a bit of his blue fur remained where he once stood.
     
  8. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 43 – Holy Poison

    Owen didn’t know what it was like to slog through poisoned gunk until that day. It was thicker than water, but not quite as thick as mud. Between his scales and his thighs, it had a jelly-like feel to it in some parts, and a vague resemblance to the slime of Emily’s insides in others. Every move he made, he could feel it squishing between his toes. Electing to walk through this swamp was possibly the worst decision Owen had ever made.

    Amia was on his shoulders, her thin frame squeezed between the two horns behind his head; Enet was on Gahi’s shoulders, legs wrapped carefully around his neck, awkwardly leaning to the side due to Gahi’s backwards-facing antennae. Her fluff interfered with them, inhibiting his hearing.

    Enet growled irritably. “Too thin. Can’t sit.”

    “Oy, ain’t my fault I don’t got no shoulders,” Gahi said. “That’s just how m’ body works.”

    Amia adjusted herself; Owen figured his back wasn’t the most comfortable seat, but it would do. “It’s a little easier for me. Owen’s wings and shoulders are just enough for me to stay on.”

    “I want Owen!” Enet said. “You’re lighter! Gahi’s slow!”

    “I’m what?” Gahi hissed.

    “I—I think what Enet means,” Amia said delicately, “is that you have more trouble walking with someone on your shoulders. I think I’m lighter than Enet.”

    If Gahi had fur, Owen was sure it would have been even puffier than Enet’s natural fluff. Trying to ignore his offense, the Flygon glared ahead. “Meh…”

    “Your bickering is tiring me out,” Jerry mumbled. “You, Charizard. Tilt me so I can look forward. I’m tired of staring at your chin.”

    “Oh—sorry,” Owen said.

    They had been walking in silence for so long that Owen had forgotten he was holding the head of Aerodactyl Jerry—the only part of him that remained after the poisoned swamp somehow melted him. Every time he talked, the scarf wrapped around his neck glowed softly, as if it was what was allowing him to make sound in the first place.

    “You know, I never realized just how heavy a head can be… But maybe that’s just because of how strong your jaws are.”

    “Is that a compliment?”

    “I think so,” Owen said. “You guys are known for strong jaws, right?”

    “Sure.”

    Owen nodded.

    “This place still gives me the creeps… And I don’t get why we ain’t melting like this guy was.” Gahi looked at the Aerodactyl head. “I ain’t that different from him, terms of powers and auras. I mean, sure, I got super speed… and I’m artificial… but that… eh…”

    “As far as I can tell, your aura should behave similarly to other normal auras, dear,” Amia said. “So, you’re right. I’m not sure why Jerry here was the only one who melted. Though, now that I get a better look at you, your aura is a bit different, Gahi. Must be the lack of ancestry, like Star said.”

    “Maybe they don’t care for ancient Pokémon species,” Jerry muttered. “Ugh, I feel like I have a cramp in my neck.”

    “Oh—sorry,” Owen said. “Here, let me just…” He carefully loosened the Pecha Scarf, but made sure it remained wrapped around him. “How’s that?”

    “…Better. Thank you. Mmnh… And you’re sure you can return me to normal?”

    “I have a few ideas, definitely,” Owen said. “Too bad it’s still kinda hard to test it out while we’re here. Once we’re done with meeting the Guardian, we’ll see if Mipsy can help—that Chikorita, remember? Well, she evolved, too, and her healing powers are her specialty. And if not… maybe Emily?”

    “Oh! So that’s your plan, is it?” Amia looked down, giving Jerry an encouraging smile from above. “You know, I think that just might do the trick.”

    “Emily? Who’s she?”

    “She’s a really, really good healer that we know about,” Owen said. “If anybody can restore your body, it’d be her, no matter how damaged it is.”

    “Hmph. I’ll believe it when I have wings again. Hey, can she fix my back, too? I threw it out a long time ago. If I twist it funny, I can barely walk after for the whole day.”

    “She should,” Owen said.

    “Oh yeah? And how about the clicking I get on my left leg? Ever since I got in a scuffle with someone, that leg has been bugging me if I bend my knee weird.”

    “Probably.”

    Jerry squinted, incredulous. “What kind of miracle worker is this Emily?”

    “Like I said, she’s a healer. If Mispy’s work doesn’t fix you, Emily’s definitely will.”

    Jerry used his jaw to reposition himself slightly, and then turned his eye toward Owen. “Who are you?” he asked. “All of this. None of this is normal. You saved me by some miracle, and you’re saying some other miracle is going to fix all this damage. Why am I not screaming in pain? How am I talking? Is this some Fire Clan ancient art?”

    “…Kinda?” Owen said.

    “Um—Jerry, about that,” Amia said. “I really don’t… think that…”

    “Save it,” Jerry said, closing his eyes. “I was upset. It’s… it’s not entirely your fault. But I definitely could have become a Heart, if it wasn’t for failing that one test…”

    “…Test?” Owen asked. “What test? The exams?”

    “The preliminaries,” said Jerry. “Did you not take them? They were three tests in total, when I applied. The academic exam, the practical exam, and, apparently, a hidden aptitude exam.”

    “Yeah, I did those… and we went through test missions after that, too… but an aptitude exam? What’s that?”

    “The one I failed,” Jerry said. “I scored the highest in the mock-mission classes and had the highest score among the incoming Heart candidates, and yet, I was rejected. James himself told me that I wouldn’t be advancing to the practical exams right before I’d’ve been given my assignment. That is how I learned that Anam himself can veto any applicant’s approval, if he wants. Like he has some sixth sense about whether someone is okay to have or not. The rumor is he can sense the darkness in your heart. What a load of—” Jerry grunted, looking down. “And according to him… I just wasn’t Heart material.” The Aerodactyl gritted his teeth. “Anam singlehandedly put me in this life. If I ever see him again…!”

    Owen thought back to Anam’s presence while he was assigned to that cold, thin-air cave in the mountains. He shivered slightly at the memory. The altitude was so bad he had some sort of hallucination of Nevren trying to kill him. It felt so real! He had no intention to go back there. But he also remembered Anam shaking his head at a few of the applicants. Was that the veto? He thought he was just judging their test scores…

    Owen also remembered that he had failed the Heart exam countless times before, despite scoring well. It was foggy, but he had been through that song and dance countless times before being accepted. Did Anam sense… darkness in his heart? Perhaps that was his old mutant self. Maybe he sensed that he wasn’t ready yet, unlike now.

    “I—I’m sure he didn’t do it out of malice,” Owen said. “Anam’s one of the nicest Pokémon I know. Right?”

    Amia frowned, rubbing her chin. “He is, but… he is a little eccentric. And childish…”

    “And slimy,” Enet said.

    “Ehh, something about him rubs me the wrong way,” Gahi said. “Nobody’s that nice fer no reason.”

    “Well… at least his heart is in the right place,” Amia relented checking her hair to make sure no gunk had accidentally fallen into it. “We should really focus more on what we’re walking toward. It’s starting to feel… more and more ominous. Does that make sense?”

    “Yeah,” Owen said. “I think it’s the fog.”

    “Smells awful…” Gahi mumbled. “Glad this Pecha Scarf’s keeping me safe, ’cause I think I’m gonna die if I take it off…”

    They fell into another tense silence, the fog becoming so thick that they could only see a few feet ahead of them, following vague, mumbling paths through grime-encrusted trees. Amia shivered above him, no doubt her Fairy side on instinctual overdrive at being surrounded by the fog.

    And then they heard singing.

    “H-ha ha…” Owen inhaled deeply through his scarf, eyes widening coupled with an unnerved smile. “You guys hear that, right?”

    O Light, by your eternal power…

    “I definitely hear it,” Amia confirmed, trying to locate the source. The fog not only obstructed their vision, but also their aura senses. Owen, however, could still get a vague sense of everything around him, at least within a short range.

    Strange blobs littered the ooze, moving on their own. The singing came from those.

    One thousand arms, guide my path…

    “Isn’t this the Psalm of Creation?” Amia said.

    “The what? Which Book was that from?” Owen asked, having no familiarity with much of the Books’ contents. Despite how much he read, he had never been particularly interested in those. In hindsight, perhaps he should have studied up.

    More voices joined the song. Ancestor, my form is yours to mold…

    “Do they want us to sing along?” Owen said. “I don’t really know the lyrics… also, I’m not much of a singer…” He shifted uncomfortably. Why couldn’t this Trinity Guardian be like Brandon?

    The fog was getting very thick. He was starting to feel it through his scarf. “I—I don’t think we should be in this for much longer,” the Charizard said, glancing behind him. He couldn’t even see his flame in this purple haze, which sent his instincts into a swirl of panic. He closed his eyes, easing his breath. “M-maybe we should just go. The Guardian doesn’t want us here.”

    Gahi and Owen both stopped, but Amia shook her head. “Let me try this. Get your Badge ready in case this doesn’t work.” She then held her two hands together in prayer, just in front of her chest, and stared at the dull glow in the sky that was most likely the sun.

    She sang along with them, following the gentle chorus. When Amia started to sing, even more voices joined them. The chorus started again:

    O great Light, immortal power

    Thousand arms, undying duty

    Ancestor, our flame eternal

    We thank you for the gift of life!

    Owen wanted to cover his ears at how loud the chorus of voices was becoming, but he was holding Jerry. He glanced down at the Aerodactyl head, but to Owen’s surprise, the bodiless Pokémon was grudgingly singing the psalm, too. He glanced at Gahi, who seemed lost, and then at Enet, who was howling out-of-tune with the song.

    On the final note, the voices trailed and faded, and with it, the fog lifted. Owen felt like he could breathe again and risked removing his scarf. Nothing happened, so he took a deep, refreshing breath. “Finally.”

    Now able to get a good look at their surroundings, he saw that they were in a small clearing, though the sludge was still knee-high and looked even deeper in the middle. The trees were a bright, glowing purple, though that was certainly not the normal color of the wood. There were no leaves, and whatever was the source of those voices, they were gone, now.

    The ooze ahead bubbled, giving the team pause. “Uhh,” Owen said. “I think… something’s there?”

    From the sludge, a purple mass distinct from the rest rose.

    “A-are… are you the Poison Guardian? Like… there’s maybe a 99 percent chance that we’re in the Poison Guardian’s place at this point, so I just want to make sure for that last percent!”

    “Nah,” Jerry said. “That whole fog and psalm was just a random feral who got enlightened. Seriously, how can you think this isn’t one of you Guardian freaks?”

    Before Owen could retort, a single eye formed in the center of the top of this mass of sludge, with a pupil that strongly reflected the light in the otherwise dim swamp, making the pupil appear white. Then, two more appeared just below and beside the original eye. This strange, sludge-made creature had an ill-defined shape, but from what Owen could make out, it appeared to be a Gastrodon. “Hello…”

    Owen watched sludge fall from the open mouth; his voice was a mixture of a childish song and a gurgle.

    After a silence, the Gastrodon went on. “You look… interesting.”

    “Here’s ter you,” Gahi said with a wry smile. “You the Poison Guardian, Gastrodon?”

    “No… But I am the Poison Guardian’s bestie!”

    “…Bestie.” Amia repeated. “Well, um—my name is Gardevoir Amia, and this is—”

    “Oh, I know who you all are!” he said with what may have been an attempt at a smile on his strange mouth. “And my name is Gastrodon Ano! I’m the lead spirit of the Poison Orb, under the rule of Guardian Altaria Ghrelle.”

    “Altaria…” Owen repeated. “That’s a pretty interesting Pokémon to have control over an Orb, huh? But I guess it makes as much sense as my Orb.” Which, Owen realized, would be completely useless in an environment like this. Why did Star want him to come to this one, again? Owen shook his head. “Can we speak to her, please? I know she’s part of the Trinity, but… I think it’d be okay to just talk, right?”

    “Hmm.” Ano tilted his head to the left, and then his right. “I dunno. Ghrelle’s usually very busy. So many people like to come to this place, you know. And she has to make sure that nobody impure can get through!” Ano blinked. “Hey! How’d you get here?!”

    “Sh-shouldn’t you have opened with that?!”

    Ano giggled, sending small bubbles of poison in the air. They popped into more of that haze, evaporating just as quickly. “I guess I’m a little absentminded… But it felt really funny having others walk through my body!”

    “WHAT?” Owen stared at the Gastrodon, but then realized how seamlessly its body blended into the sludge. Owen turned green, not due to his Orb, and said, “O-oh, you’re kidding.”

    “It’s okay! Lots of people are here.”

    “I’m gonna… no offense, but I’ll just…” Owen focused—hard—and levitated above the sludge, creating an invisible platform to separate his feet from Ano’s body. He grabbed Gahi by the hand and pulled him onto the same platform. He was thankful that the fog’s lifting allowed him to actually perform levitation again.

    “Thanks,” Gahi said. “When we get back, I’m gonna ask Rhys ter wipe this memory.”

    “Don’t even joke about that…” Owen mumbled. “Um—A-Ano, if this is your whole body, wouldn’t that make you the Guardian?”

    “Oh! Well… I’m just possessing Ghrelle’s body. She likes to spend her time in the spirit world.” Ano closed his three eyes. “But if you want… I think she’d like to talk to you! Yeah! Okay. Hold on. Mmmmmmmm…!”

    The sludge next to Ano bubbled and churned; out from it formed another pile, which, in turn, shaped itself into a melting, delicate figure. Despite being entirely purple, the shape was unmistakably Ghrelle’s.

    Unnerved, Owen could only say, “U-uh, Altaria… Ghrelle…?”

    She stared at Owen, right in the eyes. Even from their distance, Owen felt something electric shoot through his body, from his head to his feet. Owen couldn’t place it—why did Ghrelle make him feel so uneasy? He couldn’t feel anything from her body language that suggested malice. But he couldn’t feel anything that suggested benevolence, either. Wait… He couldn’t feel anything from her. Her body language was so perfectly masked that she had nothing for him to work off. Her consistency reminded him a lot of Anam and Emily; no real organs to work with. It was just an Altaria-shaped wad of poison.

    “Greetings,” the unreadable Guardian said.

    “Bad.” Enet growled. Her fur puffed out, making her look twice as large. Her eyes narrowed to slits against the Altaria.

    Ghrelle looked at Enet with an amused glint in her eyes. “Electric Guardian Zoroark Enet,” she said. “Have you spoken at all with your spirits as of late? They are still watching, you know.”

    Enet blinked, tilting her head.

    “While you are simple at heart, you are also not a very good Guardian. You should consider giving your power up to someone worthier.”

    Enet hissed and snapped her teeth at Ghrelle.

    “H-hey, let’s not…” Owen paused. “W-wait, about that—Ghrelle! Uh—I think you melted Jerry. Can you turn him back?” He turned the Aerodactyl to face her.

    “…Hmm, interesting,” said Ghrelle. “That isn’t my doing. Ano is the one who takes care of this forest.”

    “Takes care, huh? That’s an interesting way to phrase it,” Amia said. “There isn’t much of a forest left in this place, is there?”

    “Hmm. Yes. I suppose here it is more a field.”

    “Field of… poison, you mean,” Owen said.

    “Yes, that is exactly what I mean. This is known was the Swamp of Purity.”

    “Um.” Amia raised her hand. Owen sensed that Amia was trying to choose which battle to take. “Ghrelle, if you know about Enet, and the rest of us, does that mean you’ve already considered joining our group in Hot Spot Cave? Because it would really help us out if, um… you know.”

    “I have pondered your request,” Ghrelle said. “And I will have to refuse. There is no need for me to go with you while I have the blessings of the Great Creator, Arceus.”

    “Okay, so, since we’re talking about that guy,” Owen said, “when you say blessings, do you mean that in a figurative way, or, um, literally, he blessed you with some sort of… protection spell?”

    “You don’t study on your psalms, do you?” Ghrelle said.

    “My what?”

    Ghrelle shook her head. “All is blessed by Arceus. That is simply how the world operates. So long as you follow His will, the right way will always be forward.”

    “Oh, that’s, um, that’s good,” Owen said. “I think that’s… a good way to look at things, if it works for you. I think. Um, how old are you, again, Ghrelle?”

    “It is rude to ask a lady her age.” Despite this, Ghrelle’s tone hadn’t changed at all.

    “Oh, quit being coy…” Owen crossed his arms.

    “Well. I have been here for a long while, as Arceus’ disciple. I am at least one thousand years old, though, if I must be honest, I have lost count a long time ago. I may be off by a few hundred. In this miasma, in this tropical climate, it can be difficult to track the days, let alone the seasons, as they pass.”

    “I know a few folks who can relate to that,” Owen said. “That must mean you’re around the same age as Klent, or maybe a little older. Klent protected the Grass Orb for half a millennium or something. After that, I spent… a few more centuries getting sane again.” Owen rubbed his head. “Wow. I think you’re the oldest Guardian I know.” Then again, he never asked the others how old they were.

    “Hey, quit the chit-chat, you gonna turn me whole or not?” Jerry asked. “Getting kinda sick of laying around!”

    “The sinner will remain silent,” Ghrelle hissed. Her sudden change in demeanor made Owen’s scales prickle.

    And then he felt like he’d been punched in the gut. For a split-second, Ghrelle had radiated some sort of power that came from her, and then reverberated off of the field of poison around him. Her aura was immense—he thought she had spread herself too thin to have any real impact on any one area, but that proved him wrong.

    “What was that…?” Gahi mumbled, scratching his arm. “Felt like I got a bad case of scaleburn fer a sec…”

    Amia was catching her breath. Enet’s ears shrank behind her head and her fur puffed up even more.

    Owen looked down. The Pecha Scarf wrapped around what remained of Jerry’s neck was losing its Mystic glow.

    “Gh-Ghrelle, hold on!” Owen said quickly. “It’s okay! Jerry will be quiet! Right?”

    “Y-yeah, whatever,” Jerry said, feeling his neck liquefy. He knew his place. It seemed that despite it all, the Aerodactyl would rather lose his pride than his life.

    The scarf slowly regained its glow. Owen sighed.

    Ghrelle tilted her head, trading glances between Jerry and Owen. “Why do you wish to save him? He is below you.”

    Owen immediately countered, “No, he’s not. Sure, he made some wrong choices, but… he’s still a Pokémon. And I don’t think I have any right to judge someone after all the mistakes I’ve made, and the… sure, the sins I’ve done. Bet you know about that, too, huh?”

    “Your sins,” Ghrelle repeated. “Yes. I am aware of them. I am also aware that they are not truly your own, when you were designed by one that is perhaps the most blasphemous of them all.”

    Owen tapped his claws on his arm. “Wouldn’t that make me a demon? Or something?”

    “Perhaps, in a way, you are one. But you are noble and climbed your way out of such a status. It is for that reason you were allowed to come this deep into my abode intact.”

    “…What?” Owen said. “Wait—hang on. Is that the difference between Jerry and us? The reason he melted and we didn’t?”

    “Yes. Jerry has a dark heart. I can sense it. Therefore, Ano’s body rejected him, and he is destined to be purified. You four… are much more redeemable, and therefore are worthy of the living.”

    “B-but… but that’s completely arbitrary!” Owen said. “You can’t just judge if someone is good or bad! There’s no metric for that! So, you just decide if someone’s worth melting or not? Is that it?”

    “Yes. My judgement is what decides the worthiness of a soul. I have final say in their fate.” Ghrelle stared at Owen, empty, purple eyes suddenly cold. “Star was wise to send you four. While nobody can be truly perfect, you are all pure in your intentions, and lack doubt in your goals. Except for you, Owen… but that much is understandable. You are at a crossroads that nobody else will face. Perhaps, if in your scales, even I would have my doubts.”

    “I don’t… know what you mean,” Owen said flatly.

    “Your power, Owen,” Ghrelle said. “And your unique position in this world. You have an Orb, and you also are a synthetic Pokémon. Never intended to possess this divine power, and yet here you are. And most importantly… you have not decided on who you wish to align with. No allegiances, no ancestry, no direction but ahead. Your soul is colorless. You do not know what to do with this power, do you?”

    “Of course not!” Owen nearly dropped Jerry to raise his arms, but managed to keep from letting go. “I mean—well, I kinda do. I want to use this power to help others. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do—to fight, yeah, but also to use that fighting to be good. Fight bad guys.”

    Jerry grumbled something unintelligible, followed by, “Bad guy, huh?”

    “I… I guess in a way, it’s what Anam did with his power, don’t you think? He’s one of the strongest Guardians I know, and he made the entire Thousand Hearts.”

    Ghrelle’s eyes flashed at the mention. “Anam… I cannot fault him for his intentions. But he is a bit shortsighted, in the end. His ambition will ultimately prove fruitless.”

    “Fruitless?” Owen said. “What do you mean?”

    “Well,” Ghrelle said. “You are holding an example.”

    “Holding?” Owen looked down.

    Jerry snorted, looking up at Owen as well as he could. “Anam is a naïve Pokémon who happened upon great power. He thinks that the world is happy and everybody can be happy together. But that just isn’t how it works, kid. Pokémon are different. Some fight. Some are lazy. Some take advantage of the kindness of others. Some just… don’t care. That’s just how things are.”

    “How they are, currently, yes,” Ghrelle said. “It is in your nature to be selfish. Ultimately, a sane mind would only do things because you enjoy them, or because you need to do them. Owen, how do you reconcile the fact that not all Pokémon can truly get all that they want, yet will continue to fight for it?”

    The Charizard’s eye ridges furrowed with uncertainty. “What? I mean… what do you mean?”

    “Well. A simple example,” Ghrelle said, raising a wing. Poison dripped thickly into the main body below. “There are only a thousand positions in the Hearts at any given time. It is to accommodate for the size of the world, small as it may be, to rescue all the Pokémon that are in trouble. A constant force to maintain order. Yet, many Pokémon desire that position, do they not?”

    “Yeah, because who wouldn’t want to help others?”

    Jerry mumbled, “More like, who wouldn’t want to be set for life? The pay’s insane.”

    “The pay?” Owen said. “Oh—yeah, I guess it does pay a lot. We need a lot of money to keep our supplies at their best. And I guess all the extra is to help us feel secure and help out at home.”

    Ghrelle looked at Jerry. “How is your home life, Aerodactyl?”

    Even without a body, what muscles remained in Jerry’s head and neck segment tensed enough for Owen to feel them.

    “I—I mean, he’s an Outlaw,” Owen said dismissively. “He didn’t want to work the normal way, so of course it wouldn’t be that good, right? I—I mean… Jerry, you could’ve turned your life around!”

    “He could have, certainly,” Ghrelle said. “With hard work to claw his way from the bottom. Because in the end, his family line was one that could never quite get out of their position.”

    Jerry cut in, “How do you know all this?”

    Ghrelle chuckled. “Well, how else am I to judge a soul?” she asked. “Jerry, your family was put in their position many generations ago by the so-called Fire Clan. Is that what you were told?”

    “Yeah. Is that true? D’you somehow know that?”

    “The Fire Clan… is a fabrication,” said Ghrelle. “But the group in question does exist. Amia, you are the latest in that line, correct? And the longest-lived. An ancient artifact that crosses lineages that constantly rip it away from each other. Bloodied claws grasping for a fragment of Arceus’ holy power.”

    The edge of her mouth, where her beak met the soft, poisoned goo of her head, slid into a smirk, but then she returned to neutral.

    “Apparently, the Orb is meant to be passed from parent to child once they’re strong enough to defeat the parent. Stronger and stronger Fire Guardians. And then… you.” Ghrelle tilted her head, her voice possessing an air of faux-innocence. “How did you acquire your Orb, Amia? Whispers of the spirit realm tell me that it used to follow a Hydreigon lineage. Did an ancestor kill the Hydreigon Guardian… or did you?”

    Owen didn’t like the tension Amia suddenly felt. Her blue hair pulsed with a dim, fiery glow. “If you can see my past, then you know I didn’t kill anybody.”

    “I can’t see the past. I can only sense your darkness. I feel… guilt surrounding this topic.”

    Silence.

    Ghrelle hummed, breaking her stare to continue speaking. “It must weigh heavily on you, whatever it is. Did you plan to pass that guilt to your child? The child you never had. Well.” She looked at the Charizard below Amia. “Until Owen came along.”

    Owen flinched, jerking his head up, nearly knocking the Gardevoir over. “M-Mom? You… you would’ve had me kill you?!”

    “N-no! It’s—it’s not like that,” Amia said immediately. “It’s… it’s not killing when we’ve already lived for so long, don’t you think? And—and I wasn’t going to do it until you were sane, like you are now. Oh, Owen, what am I saying—perhaps I considered it, but after all this time, I wouldn’t!”

    “You wouldn’t have told me… and then you’d’ve made me be all alone! Is—is that what…?” Owen’s heart raced at the retroactive panic of having to kill Amia. What was she thinking?! He’s refuse it outright! He never got that impression from her. It must have been a very old thought.

    “No, no! It isn’t like that at all! If you didn’t want it, I would’ve just… continued to wait.”

    Jerry tensed his jaw, glancing worriedly at Owen’s hands. “Hey, buddy, watch those claws.”

    “S-sorry,” Owen said, loosening his grip. “I guess that makes sense, but you could’ve told me! I mean, you probably couldn’t have told me. That would’ve opened up a whole new set of questions.”

    Amia nodded. “I’m sorry, Owen. In all that’s been happening, I forgot to tell you. To be honest, I wish I could forget I ever thought about that silly tradition. And since you already have an Orb… I guess I have to start looking again!” She forced a laugh. “But… I think I might be the last of the Fire Clan, as we’re called.” She looked at Ghrelle. “But what does the Fire Clan’s history have to do with Jerry’s family?”

    Ghrelle nodded, motioning to the Gardevoir again. “Amia’s ancestor was a close friend of Anam, long ago. This was before he acquired the Ghost Orb, when Anam was the leader of the Ten Hearts. I do not know the full story of this, as I never interacted with Anam before to see his side, but as the story goes, Jerry’s ancestor fought for the Fire Orb all the same. And as part of that, in the savage world at the time, they had to do some… less than desirable things to stay alive.

    “One of those things happened to be an attack on Anam’s friend, Amia’s ancestor. News came, Anam encountered this ancestor… and they were apprehended. Skip ahead to when the Thousand Hearts are still growing… the son of that ancestor wants to join. Anam remembers the parents’ actions… and refuses him entry, despite their qualifications.”

    Owen shook his head. “It can’t be that simple. Anam can’t hold a grudge! He’s… he just doesn’t seem like the sort of person to do that.”

    “I am only explaining Jerry’s perspective,” Ghrelle said. “He comes from a long line of… rejected Heart candidates. With little other talents, and no mobility to get more education to become skilled otherwise… they are trapped searching for scraps, and living off of this ever-shrinking land.”

    Owen furrowed his scaly brow, feeling the little plates between his eyes press against one another. “Ever-shrinking?”

    “Figuratively speaking. With the Thousand Hearts’ influence, the population of civilized Pokémon is booming with the reemergence of lost technologies. Honest jobs once valid, things that any Pokémon could do, no longer bring food to the family so easily.”

    “If you aren’t a Heart,” Jerry said, “or you aren’t related to one… you have to work, and work, and work, just to live, until you’re too weak to work anymore. Then you sit, rot, and die. Alternatively, you have to live like a feral, and hope that the chaotic Dungeon life will give you better luck. Sounds great, huh?” Jerry’s toothy grin was painfully wide. “I’ll pass.”

    “Then… then his whole thing is justified!” Gahi said. “No offense ter yeh, Amia, but—he got the raw end o’ the deal, y’know? So how come he melted, if it ain’t any of his fault?”

    Ghrelle chirped a solemn tune. “He is still weak-willed and blames the world for his faults. He could easily improve on his situation if he took the opportunities granted to him by Anam. Despite his claim, endless toil is not the ultimate fate for all non-Hearts. Yet, he said it himself… he shall pass.”

    Jerry winced, looking like he wanted to say something, yet didn’t.

    Gahi’s fists were clenched tight, though. Owen knew that this wouldn’t be enough of an explanation for the Flygon.

    “You four, meanwhile, are diligent enough to do the right thing, even if that is not always the easiest path. That is the true, godly path. And it is why you are Hearts. Perhaps it is your synthetic nature, Owen, Gahi. You are loyal and dutiful. Arceus smiles upon such traits.”

    Gahi squeezed his claws together again, looking at Owen. “I don’t buy it.”

    “I—I mean…” Owen looked down at Jerry, who seemed more focused on the thick bubbles in the poison pit. What was life like for the average Pokémon? Did he ever have an average life? First, he lived in a lab underground, cared for by disciples of Mew. And then, at some point later, he lived in a fabricated village where he and his immortal mother were the only ones truly alive.

    None of this was normal. It was never normal. Yet… Anam wouldn’t be like that. Kilo was a wonderful place. Jerry was an outlaw, and Ghrelle said so herself that he wasn’t Heart material for a reason.

    But it still didn’t sit right with him, yet most frustratingly, Owen couldn’t figure out the answer.

    More tension followed, nobody knowing what to say in response. “But… can you turn him back?”

    “It seems that synthetics are also very narrow-minded,” said Ghrelle in a growl. “Did any of my words register with you?”

    “I mean, sure!” Owen unfurled his wings as a substitute for his arms. “But Jerry’s still just a head.”

    “What do you even care about me for?” Jerry muttered. “You heard her, I’m just some ‘sinner,’ and you’re a godly path-walking soul or whatever. You’re above me.”

    “I… I don’t think I am.”

    “Pbbt.”

    Another little knot twisted in his gut. He shoved it away, looking back at Ghrelle. He could think about it later. Maybe the fog was starting to get to him. “And you’re not going to come with us, either, huh?” Owen asked Ghrelle.

    “There is no need. I have Arceus’ blessing and require nothing more to be safe here. Like Brandon that you’ve met before, I am satisfied.”

    “Brandon…” Owen said. “Hey! Were you human, too?”

    Her eyes shined with amusement. “Yes. A Pokémon that used to be human… how interesting, don’t you think?” The Altaria churred a soft tune that made Owen’s spine feel like ice. “Perhaps you should ask about that sort of thing more often.”

    “Eh?” Enet said.

    “Yeah, what she said,” Gahi said. “What’re yeh gettin’ at, ask more?”

    Ghrelle closed her tiny eyes. “There is still a lot that you don’t know, Charizard. And I believe you know this. The more you ask questions… the clearer the sky and the stars will be. It’s not my place to answer. Why not ask Star? She could tell you everything if she wanted to. Perhaps then you will make your choice. And I do hope you make the correct one.”

    Owen gulped, looking down. “Y-yeah… thanks.” He felt Amia above him, but then looked at Gahi and Enet. “I guess we should get going. Uh—if you aren’t going to heal Jerry, we’re just going to take him with us, okay?”

    “I won’t stop you,” Ghrelle said. “But don’t forget about his sins.”

    “Yeah, sure.” He held Jerry with his right arm and dug through his bag with his free hand. He found the Badge and gave a little nod to Ghrelle. “I’ll, uh, try to keep in touch?” He wasn’t.

    He then thrust the badge in the air, and then they were gone.

    Ghrelle sat in the silence that returned to the poisoned forest. She churred again. “What a unique position to be in. Torn between all sides, courted by each. All because he refuses to make a Promise.” She chuckled lowly. “Arceus, why don’t we just tell him everything?” She looked at the sky, but didn’t wait for an answer. “A rhetorical question.” She raised her wings, and a chorus of voices hummed into the fog. “After all, it is rude to confess for another’s sins.”

    Nothing answered Ghrelle in the physical realm, but the way her beak twitched after a long silence, and the way the poison around her churned, she received her answer. The poisoned Altaria descended into the muck, and silence ruled the swamp once more.
     
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  9. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    Chapter 41:

    So I'd like to apologize for taking so long to read this one--I'm not sure why, I just had a hard time getting through it. I've put a lot of thought into trying to figure out why, too. After all, it's hardly useful to just say "I'm bored" without any kind of meaningful feedback. I think, at its core, this chapter felt a bit by-the-numbers? The opening scene with them trudging through the ice had a wonderfully desolate atmosphere. But then Rim showed up, and... I'm not sure, but I think it highlighted the way the narrative dances around the Hunters' motivations. Step mentioned that she was speaking with Elder and that she agrees with certain things, but since the reader doesn't yet know exactly how he goes about trying to recruit Guardians, it makes the follow-up conflict feel sort of like, "ok but couldn't they have avoided all of this?" And now there's a fight here but we don't actually know what the conflict of interest is or if it was avoidable, and that makes it hard to get invested.

    I know that's not very helpful, and it's entirely possible I've forgotten various details about the Hunters that would make the fights with them feel less vague. I mostly just feel kinda like the narrative can't decide if I should view the Hunters as ruthless villains or sympathetic antiheroes, and while Eon is obviously too fargone, there's a part of my brain that's like "can't we just have Owen and Rim talk things out." I really want to hear a monologue from Elder as to why we should agree with him.

    Chapter 42:

    Now this chapter on the other hand, this one had me by the collar the entire time. Trina just oozed presence, and I love the way you went all-out in describing her domain and the effect she has on people. Not to mention we got a lot of fascinating new info on synthetics and some amusing moments with Manny.

    I did find it a little odd how quickly everyone accepted that there was an exact copy of Mispy and Demitri there. My immediate thought was that it was an illusion, or a transformation, or some other manner of trick, and it felt a bit odd that that wasn't their first thought too. Of course, that would immediately get disproven (heck, anyone with aura-sense could confirm that they're the real deal) but it seemed like it could warrant a mention, in any case.

    Another moment that felt odd was the fact that, as Manny pointed out, Trina was messing with everyone's head while they were there, most notably by pulling up Mispy and Demitri's buried insecurities (which initially felt like an attempt to make them resent Rhys). But she was also the one talking down those insecurities, and reaffirming their faith in Rhys with her words. So there was a span where I was just a little confused, trying to figure out her angle (which might have been intentional). Perhaps the only reason she tugged at those insecurities was to help the duo overcome them?

    But those are just a few nitpicks in what was otherwise a great chapter.

    Interesting note about the prototypes. Doesn't seem like this group of doppelgangers are necessarily the finished product either, though, given that they also went berserk and had to be tamed.

    Chapter 43:

    Hoo boy, this chapter was unnerving, and in all the best ways. An Altaria as the Poison Guardian is a fun enough play-against-type, but having her be the stereotypical holy Arcean... eesh. Getting more information on the Fire Orb was nice (as was seeing that not all the Orbs have been sealed away in isolation for thousands of years). Not to mention the little family feud that sits within Owen and Jerry's history. I like how Gahi pretty much voices what the audience was thinking, heh. How all Ghrelle's story did was make Jerry's situation feel more sympathetic, like he didn't have a choice. Not that that excuses mugging innocents, of course, but it does mean that Owen isn't in the best position to judge. And I like the conflict that Owen goes through, struggling to find the right answer to a complicated situation.

    Aghh, that ending was tantalizing though. Especially since, out of the three sides in this conflict, Arceus's motivations are the ones that have been explained the least. I think I have an easier time dealing with secret plans rather than secret motivations, lol. Not know what's happening is one thing but, not knowing why is ggghhhhhgfdhjsdf.

    ~Chibi~
     
  10. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Thanks for the feedback, Chibi! Yes, these chapters in particular were a bit of a struggle to write out, particularly the Ice one which, even before, got a bit of a rewrite before coming here. Looks like I still have some tweaking ahead of me for this that I'll look into.

    Of the three, the Ice Guardian's acquisition had the least going on, and I'm ready to admit that. Elder's presence was mishandled at first, and it looks like I still fumbled a bit with it. I'll have to see what I can do to better highlight Elder's deal now, because it looks like I didn't properly convey a few things. Elder's main purpose is to try to get the Orbs peacefully -- basically, to convince the Guardians to give up their Orbs without a fight. He did it to Zena, which I think was alluded to, and he tried it with Step. Neither listened, obviously -- mostly because, well, they don't know what happens if they lose their Orb. Since they're immortal, would losing it kill them? Or worse? They don't know and Star suggests it'd be bad to lose the Orb to the Hunters anyway, hence why Elder is so unsuccessful. These details are scattered about the narrative, but I think I should have condensed it here rather than later. Hmm. I'll see what I can do about it.

    Refer to my above statements for some of this, but to add: the reason they couldn't avoid all of this is because, despite the odd bond that Rim shares with Owen based on their little game, Rim's mission is to still gather the Orbs. If Elder's peaceful approach fails, she'll have to do to Step what she did to Cara and Forrest: Kill them and take the Orb.

    See above. Ugh, why did I have to let Rim show up for this. She's so... not-talky-talky. I need to figure out a way for the above motives to be more obvious in some way when the two people on the other side are either frozen over or Rim. I think I have a way. Maybe Zena can tell the others what Elder had said to her, for example. Ahh! Why didn't I think of that?! Then I can at least show some of the motives.

    Hnnnnng I can't say anything specific here, but this is sort of intentional. I think what I need to do is make at least one explicit nod to the reader that by now they should be unsure.

    I'll look into this, though Elder is admittedly not as enthused about Eon as he used to be, so to speak. I think we'll get more of that later.

    Hmm, that's a good point. Their aura sense is a bit muddled, but up close, they'd probably be able to tell that the copies are real, at least by Rhys or Mispy. I should probably find a spot to drop a one-liner about how it was probably not an illusion, or something like that.

    Between Willow, Valle, and various other strange encounters, meeting twisted Guardians was almost the norm, and they knew they had to convince them peacefully or fall to the level of the Hunters when it came to Orb gathering. Even if it generally didn't work very well for them if a Guardian simply didn't feel like coming along because they felt content or strong enough to defend themselves, like what happened with all but Step in these past few chapters.

    I sorta wanted to leave Trina's intentions ambiguous here. We aren't looking through her perspective so much as we are the team of four that came to visit her, at least until the very end when they left where the narrative's camera lingered behind for a while.

    I do what I can to have an audience surrogate when I can. I think that's partly the issue with the Ice chapter above. I think I should have leaned on Zena (the most sane of the bunch, frankly...) to voice some of the audience's opinions to help contextualize why the fight was happening. Yeah. I think I'm starting to form an idea on how I can polish up that chapter even more, because even I'm not really happy with how... formulaic it was.

    But hey, on the bright side... that's literally all of them. All the Guardians are accounted for. I mean, there's still the Dragon Guardian, but Star has been pretty adamant about not going there or risk death. So in terms of going on a quest to meet a new Guardian and recruit them... I can't do that anymore! The formula, by definition, is dissolving. So what's next? Hopefully I can adjust nicely.

    Haaaa yeah, Arceus is an interesting one. He helps every now and then, and he seems pretty antagonistic at other times. But he also seems to have a preference to just watching quietly from his palace. There are certainly a lot of sides here. There's Barky, there's Star, there's Eon, and then there's the Hearts, who for the most part are following Star, though at arm's length.

    --

    Anyway, thanks for the feedback. I have a lot to think about, but I'm glad you were able to outline exactly why it felt that way. I'll mull over some ideas and jot these down in my todo list for later.

    The next chapter should be coming in the next few days!
     
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  11. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 44 - Overconfident

    Owen, Gahi, Enet, and Amia all returned from the Poison Guardian’s realm. They smelled of the toxic swamp’s noxious fumes, but thankfully didn’t take much of it with them beyond that.

    “Brr—what a cold draft,” Amia said, rubbing her arms. “I don’t think Hot Spot Cave should quite feel like this!”

    Amia held her hand forward and summoned Alex next, who immediately rubbed his cannons together. “M-more like Cold Spot Cave.”

    Owen looked back. “Hey, dad. I hope, uh, I hope you weren’t too scared back there.”

    “S-scared? Why would I be scared?” Alex said with a light titter. “I’m… I’m a, er, Magmortar. I’m quite scary.”

    Amia giggled, rubbing his flaming shoulder. “Oh, dear, you were trembling in the Fire Orb. You aren’t very good with cold personalities like Ghrelle.”

    “I—I suppose so.” Alex slumped. “S-speaking of cold, though…”

    “Y-yeah, what’s goin’ on?” Gahi mumbled, pressing against Owen’s much warmer, fiery body. Without thinking, he rubbed his cheek against Owen’s shoulder; the Charizard just accepted it, figuring Gahi needed it.

    Enet shrugged and smoothed out her fur, clearly glad to finally be out of the swamp. She sniffed the air—doing her best to ignore the lingering stench—and said, “I smell… two. New.”

    “Two new smells?” asked Owen. “Oh—that must be the two Guardians the others got!” At least the others were able to recover their Guardians. Still, that meant they were the only ones who failed this time… Not that Owen was expecting it to work out. The Poison Guardian was part of the Trinity. In hindsight, he could have been seriously hurt if he wasn’t careful. But Star was confident that he’d’ve been fine. He was glad that she was right.

    He concentrated to feel where everyone was. Most of them were near Rhys’ home across the caves, so he walked, followed by the others. A few others were off on their own. Valle was where he always was, in the middle of the town, the centerpiece of Hot Spot. Manny was brawling with his spirits again in the training grounds, though it looked like Manny was a bit tired this time around.

    That meant the two new bodies were in Rhys’ home.

    “Hello?” Owen said, peering inside. “What’s going on?”

    “Hey! You’re back!” Willow said, hopping off of Valle and onto Owen. Reflexively, the Charizard held free hand out, catching the tiny Joltik in midair like some sort of conditioned routine. “Eww—you smell!”

    “S-sorry, I think that’ll wear off. We had to slog through a giant swamp of poison, so we kinda had that get stuck everywhere. Our Mystic powers were disrupted too much to just float over it, I think. I might just hop in the lava to clean up.”

    “Yeah, well, I can’t do that,” Gahi said.

    “We could fuse, and then I could do it,” Owen offered. “Pretty sure I can handle the lava even if you’re half of me.”

    Gahi looked tempted.

    “How about me?” Enet asked.

    “Uhh… lots of water,” Owen said. There was still gunk on Enet’s feet where they had dipped into the poison, and her fluffy body absorbed a lot of the stench. There was no escaping Enet’s particularly horrible odor.

    “Hey, how about me?” Jerry spoke up, reminding Owen that some of his cargo was alive and irritated. “I’m still just a head! You gonna fix that, ‘Zard?”

    Willow hopped near Jerry and prodded his cheek. “How come you aren’t dead?”

    “Beats me,” Jerry replied. “Maybe I am and this is just my dying nightmare. I’ll believe anything at this point.”

    “Uhh—y-yeah. Actually, hold on. Let me find Mispy…” He spotted the mutant Meganium in another room and waved her down.

    Her many tendrils dragged the rest of her body toward them, squeezing out of the exit by contorting and bending the many vines to fit through.

    “Wh-what’s that thing?!” Jerry said. “No way! Nu-uh, those tentacles aren’t going anywhere near me, you hear?”

    “B-but, Jerry, this is how we’re gonna heal you!” Owen said. “Trust me. Mispy’s a great healer, okay? Just… can you be gentle with him?”

    The Meganium inspected Jerry’s head curiously, prodding at his cheek just like Willow. He growled and tried to bite at a vine. She flinched away and glared, wrapping a vine around his muzzle. He grunted, but was helpless.

    “Hmph.” Mispy pulled him close and closed her eyes, channeling her healing energy into him. Owen watched closely, as did the others.

    “What… happened to him?” Demitri said. “Why is he a head? That’s kinda…”

    “We, er…” Alex knocked his arms together in thought. “Had some complications.”

    Owen nodded. “The Poison Guardian melted him somehow. It didn’t work on us—not even Gahi—but it did for him. And so, he, er… that happened. But I was able to stop it with my Pecha Scarf, and… I think some Mystic energy, too. That’s why he’s not totally melted.”

    Zena slithered out from Rhys’ room next, listening in on the explanation. “How awful,” she said. “What a horrible way to…!”

    Jerry stretched his jaws enough to get Mispy to let go. She rolled her eyes and gave him the opportunity to speak.

    “I don’t need your pity,” Jerry grumbled, but then glanced at Zena. “But… thank you anyway. I’m just fine. Didn’t even hurt.”

    “So, er, what’s going on here, anyway?” Amia asked, addressing how everybody was crammed into Rhys’ room, spilling out into the main hallway. “You, um…” She peered inside the next room and saw two new faces. One was Step, the Ice Aggron—quite obvious which Guardian she was—and the other was— “Oh! Are you another Guardian? The… Bug Guardian?”

    “Oho, no, not at all,” the giant Torkoal replied. “No. My name is Torkoal Elder—I’m glad to meet you, ahh… Gardevoir Amia, yes?”

    “Yes!” Amia gave a little bow. She observed that Rhys was sitting close to Elder, practically up against his shell. “Rhys? Do you know him?”

    “Y-yes, I’m… familiar,” Rhys said. “Elder. He’s… he’s one of the Hunters—b-but, there’s no need to be alarmed! He isn’t… a fighter.”

    “Ahh, yes. That much has not changed,” Elder said with a rough laugh. “I was never truly that good at fighting. I just don’t have the mindset for it.”

    “Which one of you is Owen?” Step suddenly rumbled, glaring at the newcomers.

    “Oh, er, th-that’s me,” Owen said, raising a claw.

    Step approached Owen, sizing him up. She was a head or two taller than he was, and it looked like she was taking full advantage of it. “…You are the one they trust?”

    “Sorry?”

    Step huffed a small plume of frost, pointing at Elder. “Do you believe he is friendly?”

    “Elder? T-totally! I mean, er, from how I remember him, even if he didn’t want to be friendly, I don’t think he can actually… do much against us. And Rhys likes him. They’re best friends, right?”

    Rhys’ fur puffed out, aura sensors rising, and then he leaned against Elder again. “A tad more.”

    Step growled, but then settled back in her corner. “You’ve convinced me for now, Hunter,” she told Elder, who simply bowed his head. She looked between them, but then lowered her head, as if talking to someone in her Orb.

    “Elder…” Owen grinned. He took a few tentative steps at first, but then made a half-jog for the thawed Pokémon. “I missed you! I—I forgot you for a while, but now that I look back…!” He plopped down in front of him with his knees bent, feet swaying in opposite directions, rhythmically in the air. “Tell me a story!” The flame on his tail glowed a bit brighter, and his wings were tucked behind him neatly.

    “O-Owen!” Amia flinched, exchanging a look with Alex. She’d never seen him regress so quickly. “Elder—did you raise Owen?”

    “Ahh, I suppose I did. Not just Owen, of course.”

    “Heh, yeah, you raised all o’ us, Gramps,” Gahi said. “All th’ Hunters did. Even Rim…”

    “Y-yeah.” Owen’s enthusiasm faltered, but then he looked at Elder again. “H-how is everyone? Rim, she… She seemed friendly, but what is she really doing? She’s not—she’s not a bad guy, right?”

    “Owen,” Elder said softly. “Some things are… more complicated than black and white.”

    Step tensed, as if she was ready to mock him, but stifled it into a grumble to her spirits.

    “I—I know, but… Rim has been… you know…” Owen thought about their chess game. She seemed happier during that. Was she happy when she was killing Guardians, too… or was that just a duty she had to uphold? Did she want that? Even if she didn’t—she still killed Cara and Forrest. And nearly killed him, too, before he became a Guardian! Or… or was that just trying to scare him away? She only wanted the Orb, not his life.

    “I’m not really sure what to say about Rim,” Elder said, breaking Owen’s trance. “She is still fiercely loyal toward Eon, of course. But beyond that, I’m sure even she has some doubts about whether he has gone too far or not. That, perhaps the means that Eon is willing to take to gather the Orbs… has no longer justified the end goal.”

    “What’s the end goal?” Owen asked. “To usurp Arceus, right? Because… Star wanted to do that, originally. Right?”

    “Yes,” Elder replied, nodding slowly. “Star was not happy with Arceus and the way he is leading the world—or, perhaps more appropriately, not leading it. Star misses mingling with mortals. And Arceus won’t let her.”

    “Sounds kinda petty,” Owen said. “Why can’t she visit?”

    Elder winced. “I’m afraid that is part of the deadlock between the two of them. Neither will allow the other to descend. I’m sure Star has told you as much.”

    “Yeah, but… why? The world’s just fine without all this Guardian fighting, right?”

    “Heh.” Jerry tried to adjust himself, but otherwise said nothing.

    Owen’s wings drooped, and his legs went back to the ground. “Why does Eon seem so sure that what he’s doing is right? Why did… why would Rim… no. Why were you helping him, all this time? Is… what he’s doing actually the right thing to—"

    “Owen…!” Amia breathed.

    The fire on Alex’s shoulders flared up with anxiety, and despite being a spirit, his belly growled with a rapidly forming ulcer.

    Owen flinched at the sudden change in atmosphere. Almost everyone looked surprised, or upset, or even hurt at that one. “S-sorry, I didn’t mean it like, Eon’s being a good guy, just—what’s he actually trying to do? He wants to usurp Arceus himself, right? What would he do with that? What does he want to do that Arceus won’t?”

    Elder frowned, looking at Rhys, and then back at the group. “Are any of you familiar with Orre?”

    They all stared at Elder. A few leaned forward expectantly. Manny glanced at the others, as if waiting for them to answer.

    “Wait, what did you say?” Owen asked. “Familiar with what? Sorry, I think I missed that.”

    Elder, with defeat in his whole body, repeated helplessly. “Orre.”

    Owen watched Elder for a while longer. He heard something, but he couldn’t, for the life of him, remember what he said. “One more time?” he asked in a squeaky titter.

    Elder shook his head. “I’m afraid it’s not my place to tell you much more.”

    “Why?” Owen asked.

    Elder smiled sadly. “Because I already told you, and you all forgot.”

    Owen’s tail sparked irritably. “You mean it’s another one of those Divine Decrees. Like who Emily is. We can’t know, because Arceus made it that way.”

    “Ah, Emily… the ex-Dragon Guardian,” Elder said, testing them.

    “If you said something, I have no idea what you said,” Owen said, knowing he failed the test.

    Elder nodded. “But if you become stronger… perhaps you can overpower the Decree. All of you, together, may have enough to defy it. Arceus’ sphere of influence is wide, but it is not omnipotent.”

    “Hmph… That’s dumb,” Owen complained, flicking his tail, knocking against Gahi. “Oh—sorry.”

    Gahi grumbled and sat next to Owen, crossing his legs. He curled his tail around and inspected the fan at the tip; Zena, curious, slithered toward Owen and coiled in a neat pile on the opposite side. Zena nudged Owen on the side, giving him a small smile. “It’s okay,” she said. “You’ll remember eventually. You’ll remember a lot of things, right?”

    Owen found himself smiling, too. “Yeah, good point. Everyone here feels so blurry, still. Hey, Zena, maybe later, can you help me remember a bit more?”

    Owen felt Zena’s heart flutter. “I’d—love that.”

    A brief silence fell among the group. ADAM drifted away, looking like he was about to leave to speak with Valle, before someone toppled him over and knocked him to the side.

    “VICTORY!” Feraligatr Azu declared, hoisting a battered Manny in the air. Infernape Roh and Chesnaught Verd posed on either side of Azu, their muscles creating small shockwaves that knocked over a few empty cups and Aspear bowls from the table. “We have defeated our master, and can declare ourselves winners on this glorious day!”

    “I went easy on yeh!” Manny said, even when Azu threw the Fighting Guardian on the ground. He landed surprisingly gracefully on his paws, though he staggered a bit when he pushed and landed on his feet.

    Roh wagged a finger toward Manny. “Fatigue from an encounter with the Bug Guardian is no excuse for a loss. A victory is a victory, and we prevailed!”

    Chesnaught posed to show off his biceps again. While the three mutant spirits congratulated one another, Manny wobbled to the others, murmuring something about having to fight off some of his frustrations.

    “Just take it easy, dear,” Amia said delicately.

    “Feh, yeah.” Manny tapped Mispy on the back. ”Y’mind if I sit a spell on yer back?”

    Mispy reluctantly nodded, still focused on trying to heal Jerry.

    Zena turned her attention back to the Torkoal. “Elder… I remember seeing you before. My spirits scared you off, but… You tried speaking to me through them. I apologize for being so hostile.”

    “Ah… The Water Guardian. That was quite a while ago, wasn’t it? Oho… it has been some time, yes. The past few weeks have been quite a rush, in particular.”

    Owen nodded; Amia and Zena, as well as a few others, seemed confused.

    “I’m sorry?” Amia asked. “A… week. What is a week?”

    “Seven days,” Owen said.

    “That’s an odd measure of time,” Amia said. “How does that measure compared to seasons and moons? Years?”

    “Years…” Elder repeated with a slight smile. “A season is a fourth of a year, yes?”

    “Mhm. But weeks. I’ve never heard that measurement before! How odd!”

    Alex nodded along. “Is that another one of Nevren’s inventions?”

    “Yeah, actually!” Owen said. “Nevren gave funny names to seven days, and they always repeat. And each one ends with ‘day,’ but I forget what they’re all called. I think it was Mon, Tues—"

    “They get it, Owen,” Gahi muttered, elbowing him.

    “No, I don’t get it,” Zena said, suddenly fixated on Owen. “Please, go on. What are these days for? What does it mean? I… I feel as if I’d heard such things before, long ago! But then, they must have faded with time… Some ancient terminology?”

    “Oh, uh,” Owen looked at Zena. “I mean… it’s kinda hard to explain it like that, but… if you have a week, you can split up your routine a little better, I think. So, on Saturdays and Sundays—those are called the week-ends, you know? Because they were at the beginning and end of the week, so, uh, I guess those are the days you take breaks?” Owen was unnerved at how wide Zena’s eyes were, like she was learning something completely unfathomable. A whole world of organization. “We have a different system, I guess.”

    He scanned the crowd and saw the faces of the others. Zena wasn’t the only one. Willow was sparking with curiosity; ADAM was buzzing, his core processors overclocking to implement this new data. Even Step, the newest Guardian, tilted her head with fascination.

    “Is this all so new to you guys? I know I just got my memories back, but I dunno. It seems kinda fundamental to me,” Owen said.

    “Well, we never really talked ‘bout weeks befer now,” Gahi said. “Weird. You’d think Nev would mention it ter Anam er somethin’. Say, that means y’guys don’t know what a month is, either, eh?”

    “A month!” Zena exclaimed. “I do not. Is that—two weeks?”

    “No, that’s a fortnight,” Owen said.

    “A fortnight…” Zena said. “Why so many terms? I don’t understand. Wouldn’t just tracking the moon and the seasons be enough?”

    “I guess so, but maybe you want to do something that takes a certain number of days, and those days are longer than just a few, y’know? Say… ninety days. That’s about a season, but it’s hard to keep track all the way up to ninety, right?” Owen rubbed his chin. He grunted and repositioned himself to a sitting position, clutching his tail out of habit.

    Elder smiled, but then looked at Rhys. He gave the Lucario an affectionate nudge. “Owen hasn’t changed much,” he said. “Though… he does seem more…”

    “Subdued?” Rhys said.

    Elder chuckled. “Mature, Rhys,” he said. “He’s still quite… chipper, regardless.”

    “Ah. Well. Being a Guardian tends to force you to grow up. He’s quite overdue, don’t you think?” Rhys said.

    Owen was busy explaining to Zena and the others the idea of a month, or perhaps was more focused on ignoring being called a kid even now.

    The group was relieved to know that something familiar to them—a year—still existed in this strange measurement.

    “Where’d Nevren learn it all?” Amia said. “There are lots of Alakazam out there, but Nevren seems to know more than all of them combined.”

    “I dunno. But he’s also a Hunter, so… I guess that means he had a lot of time to fill that brain of his with all those theories, y’know?”

    “Heh.” Manny looked off. “Real interestin’ system.”

    Owen glanced at Manny. “What’s wrong? You don’t seem as interested…”

    “Eh? Ahh, it’s time, who cares,” Manny shrugged. “Cool system, though.”

    “Hm…” Owen shrugged. “Well, if you guys think that’s cool, wait until I tell you guys about calculus!”

    It was at this moment that Mispy, Demitri, and Gahi checked out. Their expressions glossed over into empty stares in a matter of milliseconds.

    Owen snorted. “It’s not boring. Here, let me show you how you can use it, okay?”

    Owen’s eyes suggested a long and thorough explanation, but the thick silence in the room made him hesitate.

    “I got rescued by a total loser,” Jerry muttered.

    “Am not!” Owen said defensively. “This is really important! You’ll see! N-Nevren said that knowledge is power!”

    “Owen uses big words,” Enet mumbled, blinking herself awake.

    “I’m with you there,” said another voice.

    Owen swiveled his head. “Star?”

    “Yo.” She waved, floating out from behind Zena. “Sorry, uh, I heard there was a get-together. Didn’t wanna miss out. Asked Manny to summon me.”

    “Heh,” Manny flicked a bit of dirt off his claw. The others gave little greetings to Star, nodding or saying hello, and the Mew took the time to mingle with all the others. Jerry eyed Star with narrowed eyes.

    “Hey, is nobody gonna acknowledge this?” Jerry mumbled to Owen.

    “Acknowledge what?”

    “That’s—that’s Mew isn’t it? Aren’t they incredibly rare? That’s Star?”

    “Oh—y-yeah, she is. But we all kinda know her at this point, so… It’s not like we’re gonna revere her or anything.”

    “Wait. Revere? What kind of—which Mew is she?”

    “She, uh… she’s Creator Mew Star. The Great Ancestor? Uhh… I dunno what other titles she has.”

    Jerry stared at her again. “Shouldn’t she be dead? Or do Mew not…?”

    “She lives in the spirit world,” Owen said. “Uh. I guess that’s living.”

    “Oh—and you!” Star said, floating toward him. “Sorry—yes, I’m Mew Star. I’m sorry that this happened to you, Aerodactyl… Jerry, right?”

    “Yeah.”

    “So, eh…” Manny spoke up, raising a paw, “what’s up with the guy, Star?”

    “Jerry? Yeah, uh…” Star crossed her arms pensively. The Mew hummed in thought and checked the base of Jerry’s neck, where flesh was still partially melted into poison grime. “Basically, the poison in Dark Mist Swamp only affects Pokémon that Ghrelle considers… impure. It’s kinda subjective, but if she senses that you’re weak-willed, or someone prone to darkness in some way, you’ll melt into the swamp. And if you’re a little more upstanding… you’ll not melt. Or if you’re Mystic.”

    “W-wait, so Ghrelle really was judging us?” Owen said.

    “What righ’ does she have ter do that?” Gahi growled.

    “What’s a darkness?” Enet said, poking her chest. “I’m Dark.”

    “No, that’s—no, Enet, it’s more, uh…” Star puffed out a breath if confusion. “Wow, how do you explain this?”

    “Hey, wait a second,” Owen said. “Why didn’t you let Rhys go, then? He’s totally noble!”

    “Owen, he used to try to kill Guardians,” Star said. “Not exactly a sin you can wash away that easily. Especially in a Guardian’s eyes, like Ghrelle.”

    Zena nodded.

    “O-oh…” Owen said. He scanned the room, thinking about those that Star said wouldn’t be good to meet Ghrelle. Manny and Willow were the other ones that Star had explicitly denied. He could understand Willow. She was a bit uppity, and that sort of attitude probably wouldn’t bode well with Ghrelle. And Manny, well… perhaps he was too…

    “What’re you looking at?” Manny said, digging a claw in his left ear.

    “N-nothing.”

    Manny looked at Owen for a bit longer, but then turned away. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”

    “O-oh.” So, Manny himself knew why. “Okay.” Maybe it had to do with how he killed all those mutants, even if they were part of his Orb, now.

    Star nodded. “To be honest, I’m not totally sure about Ghrelle’s judgement. It’s similar to Barky—er, to Arceus’ philosophy, and since she’s part of the Trinity, that kinda makes sense.

    “Is Ghrelle super strong?” Enet asked.

    “Hey, you’re getting better at using your words, Enet,” Star said. “Is your, uh, language therapy coming back to you?”

    “Therapy…” Enet repeated. Owen practically smelled her brain working to find the definition. “Yes!”

    “That’s great, Enet. But yeah,” Star said. “Ghrelle’s tough. I don’t know how strong she is because she doesn’t fight in the traditional sense, but she’s up there. It’s just a feeling, you know?”

    “So that means we only have the Dragon Guardian that we don’t know about,” Owen said. His tail swayed slowly behind him, and he adjusted his wings to get an itch on his back. “…Oh! How’d the Bug Guardian go?”

    “Er, we are still pending on those results,” Rhys said.

    “She was cool,” Mispy said.

    “And we met us!” Demitri said. “That was cool! I think… To be honest, I’m starting to feel a little weird about it, but…”

    “Back up,” Owen said, holding his claws in the air. “You met yourselves? What?”

    “Are you guys all just crazy?” Jerry asked.

    Mispy glared down.

    “Hey, Vines! Keep the healing going!” At this point, Jerry was a head and torso.

    Mispy’s eyes narrowed even more. “I’ll eat you.”

    “E-eh…” Jerry looked away. “Whatever. How come this is taking so long, anyway?”

    “Yeah, Mispy, is something wrong?” Owen asked, hoping to diffuse her anger. He wasn’t sure if she was serious or not about turning Jerry into lunch. She ate plates.

    Mispy inspected Jerry’s torso, leaning over to get a better look at what was developing. She gently prodded at one of the organs.

    “Hrk—what’re you doing? Don’t do that. That’s weird. What are—”

    Mispy adjusted another one, but then furrowed her scaly brow. “It’s not…” she said, but then briefly stopped her healing. She watched his body slowly turn purple, melting away again. She quickly resumed the healing.

    “Wh-whoa, whoa, what was that?! Why’d everything feel warm? Hello? I can’t see past your stupid—Someone, tilt my head!”

    “It’s—it’s okay,” Mispy said, but then shook her head at the others. It wasn’t okay.

    “Ghrelle’s influence is still there.” Owen winced, looking helplessly at the others.

    “Ghrelle,” Elder said slowly. “Ooh, she is a scary one. Even if I may be pure enough for her swamp, I would not want to go there. The Trinity in general is quite… formidable. Her Mystic power must already be implanted within Jerry. It would take a lot of power to counter it.”

    “Power, huh…” Owen said, but then flicked his head upward. “Mispy!”

    “Y-yes?” Mispy asked.

    “Let’s fuse!”

    “Wh-what?!”

    Gahi looked, for just a moment, betrayed. “What’re yeh gettin’ at?”

    “If I fuse with Mispy, maybe I’ll get a little Mystic power to enhance her natural healing abilities. What if those two things combined can counter Ghrelle?”

    “Ahh, that may work, depending on how strong you are, Owen,” Elder said. “Yes! Do try it.”

    “W-will your auras be stable enough?” Demitri asked, grabbing one of Mispy’s vines, fiddling with it. “I—I mean…”

    A few more of the vines wrapped around Demitri gently, one patting his head. Mispy then looked at Owen and nodded. “Let’s try.”

    “Okay,” Owen said, standing up. Mispy’s many vines writhed and crawled toward Owen—he couldn’t shake the unnerving image—and he stood there, awkwardly. He glanced around. “Can you guys, maybe… not stare?”

    “Eh?” Manny smirked, but his eyes were a bit wide with interest. “No way, I wanna see this.”

    “I’m a bit curious as well,” Zena admitted.

    “What’s wrong?” Enet asked.

    “It’s… it’s personal…” Owen said.

    Gahi glanced off. “Feh. It’s just something we do. Just do it.”

    Alex turned around and closed his eyes. Amia smiled at Owen and did the same. Rhys turned his head, too, but the rest were too curious to not look.

    Owen shifted awkwardly, but then wondered if his fire would make Mispy uncomfortable. Probably, especially if it had been a while—a long while—since they last fused in the first place. He decided to make things easier. His scales turned green and leafy, and the flame on his tail went out; in its place, a great, white flower sprouted. He wasn’t sure what felt worse—everyone marveling at the flower, or everyone watching him fuse.

    Demitri shifted his weight again. “Wait, so, can I fuse, too?”

    “E-er, let’s not have a three-part fusion just yet,” Rhys said. “We should practice with two at a time first, before we push your auras further. Just in case.”

    “Oh—o-okay. Just him and Mispy, then…”

    “It’s fine,” Mispy assured Demitri with a little nudge. Then, she wrapped a vine around Owen—who squeaked in surprise—and pulled him into her matrix of vines. His body was lost to it almost immediately, and after some shuffling, the creature’s colors changed to a slightly darker green. The flower around her neck turned white, and wings—useless on her heavy body—sprouted. Two horns grew from the back of her skull, and the transformation was complete.

    “Uh…” Demitri said slowly. “How’re you guys, uh… feeling?”

    The Meganium-Charizard fusion took a steady breath. Then, she exhaled. “…I feel… okay,” she said. “That wasn’t so bad.”

    “Nope. Stop.” Jerry rolled his head. “What’s wrong with you guys?” His voice steadily rose. “You guys just stand there and act like it’s normal? What kind of nightmare is this?! I want out! Wake me up! Is this some kinda fever dream before I die? Get it over with! I’m done! You’re all nuts!”

    “You,”—the fusion picked Jerry up with a vine, wrapping it around his muzzle—“need to be quiet.”

    “Mnnfff…”

    “Let me heal you.” And so, she closed her eyes and concentrated, channeling both Mystic and healing energy through the quarter-Aerodactyl.

    The spectacle over, everyone settled back down to chat amongst themselves. Willow scuttled toward a few of the vines and hopped onto the nearest one. “Um…”

    “Willow?”

    “What’s… your name?”

    “My name…”

    “Yeah. Owen and Gahi made Gawen. So, Owen and Mispy make…?”

    “Hmm…” As the first time they ever fused, they never really thought of a name for themselves. And the idea of thinking of names for all the possible combinations sounded tiring. Owen’s half quickly calculated that if they were to find the names for all the fusions, they’d have to keep track of eleven different fusion names!

    “I don’t care,” she eventually shrugged. “Too tiring.”

    “I’m gonna call you Omi!” Willow said.

    “Oh,” Omi said. “Okay.”

    “Do you not like it?” Zena asked.

    “No, it’s fine,” Omi nodded. “I just… don’t know if I’ll use it a lot.”

    “Oh, is it because the Mispy half likes sticking to Demitri all the time?”

    Omi and Demitri blushed. Gahi snorted and smirked. “Sounds about right. They’re just doing this ‘cause they gotta.”

    Jerry, resigned to his fate, tried to wiggle his wings. He was surprised when he actually got feedback, and he turned his head to see the bones and muscle being wrapped in skin and scales. “It’s—it’s actually working.”

    Amia clapped quietly, yet quickly. “Hey! We didn’t have to go see Emily after all!”

    “Emily, right. Who’s she, some master healer?” Jerry asked, sitting up once he had a bottom to sit on.

    “Um… yes!” Amia said.

    “Could we see her anyway?” Zena asked. “Perhaps… just to be sure that Jerry is okay.”

    “Ohh, Zena, we should see if we can get Anam to spare an official Waypoint tile for there so we don’t need to use our Badges,” Amia said. “Hmm, speaking of Anam…”

    “I’m kinda starting to get worried. Been a while since he heard anything from them. Did anybody try contacting them through a communicator?”

    “Tried, but guess they don’t have one on ‘em,” Manny reported.

    Star flicked her tail. “Maybe we should fly over and see what’s the holdup? Between his agitated spirits and how long he’s been taking, I dunno…”

    “Agitated spirits… Is that possible?” Amia said.

    “Not usually,” Star said. “Spirits are pretty happy following their host’s desires most of the time. So, them acting up the way they are is… kinda strange to begin with. I…” she paused. “I dunno. Anyway, if everything’s fine here, Jerry, how about we—”

    “Wait,” Jerry said. He turned completely so he was facing Star. “Before you go, can I ask something? To you. Mew. Are you…?”

    “Oh, sure, shoot,” Star said. “Am I what?”

    “Book of Mew, right?” Jerry stared at Star.

    “Sure.”

    “What’s that supposed to mean?”

    “I mean, it’s written about me, I guess,” Star shrugged noncommittally. “But if you’re looking for some sort of spiritual lecture, I’m not that kinda girl.”

    “I don’t need any stupid lectures, don’t worry,” Jerry said, and briefly, the god and mortal shared a smirk. But Jerry’s faded first. “I just… wondered if there were any connections you had, you know, because of your role.”

    “Uh, yeah, that’s true.” She flicked her tail around and inspected the very tip. “Why d’you ask, Jer?”

    Jerry’s jaw locked in a tight, closed position. He remained that way for what felt like an eternity. Willow sparked a few times to break the otherwise total silence; Enet dozed off again. Amia gently held her chest, as if sensing something from Jerry; Omi felt it, too, both in Jerry’s body from Owen’s half and his aura from Mispy’s half. He didn’t want to feel it for long; the way Jerry’s new body’s heart was beating so frantically, it was like he was afraid of Star, or something that Star would say.

    Star’s eyes softened. “She’s fine,” she said. “And she wants you to stay strong.”

    Jerry’s jaw finally unlocked. “Alright, then.” He hadn’t even paused after Star finished.

    Owen’s half never felt such a strange reaction from Jerry’s breathing. Perhaps it was because he had lungs now, but the relief that she felt billowing out of that breath. “Jerry?” Omi asked.

    “What?”

    “…Nothing. Um—so how are you feeling?”

    Tentatively, the Aerodactyl moved his wings. Then, he flicked his tail and stretched his legs. “Mrrgh, that’s actually a lot better.” He nodded at Omi and then stepped away. There was a flash of a glare in his eyes, and then he looked back at Star. “Stay strong, huh?” Then, he looked at Omi. “I want you to de-fuse again.”

    “U-uh?” Omi asked.

    “Yeah. So, I can see that kid again.”

    “Kid? You mean me—er, Owen?” Owen, taking over, asked. “I’m not a kid, you know. I think I’m close to five hundred.”

    “Whatever. You don’t act it. I want to fight you again, ‘Zard.”

    “That’s…” the fused behemoth laughed. “I just patched you up.”

    “Owen…” Star said warningly.

    “What?” He glanced at Star with a half-smirk. He was trying to hide it, but he couldn’t deny how sad it would be to just beat Jerry up all over again, just because he wanted to ‘prove himself’ against a Heart. A Mystic Heart, no less. Jerry was already defeated before when he was just a Charmander—sure, he had help from the others, but they were all sealed and weak back then. Now, he wants to fight him not only unleashed, but also as a Mystic?

    “Yeah, and I want a rematch,” Jerry said. “I was weaker from all the smog, and I was hungry, too. Actually, you know what? I need food. What kinda eats you have around here? You owe me that. For letting me get melted.”

    “Y-you did that to yourself!” Owen protested. “I—I mean, Ghrelle did, but—either way! That wasn’t our—”

    “Ohh, we can spare some food, dear,” Amia sighed, clapping her hands together. “Come, Jerry. Why don’t we talk this over some steamed fruits?”

    “Fruits?” Jerry asked, wrinkling his snout. “Do these teeth look like they eat fruits? I’d rather go hunting again.”

    “Beggars can’t be choosers,” murmured Star.

    Jerry stomped on the ground. “Look, I refuse to let that battle count! We’re fighting for real, one on one! I don’t lose in one on one fights—especially not to some weird little wannabe Dragon mutant!”

    Excuse me?!” Suddenly, the Charizard burst forth from the fusion, leaving a startled Meganium behind. “No, that’s not fair. I can’t help that. J-just because I’m Fire-Flying doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to just call me a—”

    “Then you want to settle it in the field?” Jerry taunted. “C’mon, let’s fight. One on one.”

    “Is this really necessary?” Rhys said impatiently.

    “Yeah,” Owen and Jerry both said.

    Owen continued, “I don’t want to have to beat you again after just healing you. Jerry, it’s just…” Owen sighed, rubbing his forehead. “You’re sorta out of your league.”

    Jerry snarled, looking between all the others. Some in the group were looking at Owen uncertainly, like they wanted to say something, yet didn’t. Owen, sensing this, felt a bit of the wind under his wings leave him.

    “…Y’know what,” Star said, breaking the silence, “go for it. I think I want to see this, Owen.”

    The Charizard blinked rapidly. “A-are you sure? I—I’ll destroy him.”

    “Oh, what makes you so sure?” Jerry said. “Just because you have some fancy-glowy-powers, you can beat someone like me, who lived in the rough all his life? Please. I don’t care how strong you think you are; once I get to full strength, I’ll win. I have something to prove.”

    Owen flinched, looking at Star, then at the others. “He can’t be serious,” he said, addressing the group at large. “Aren’t we—just beyond mortals at this point, kinda?”

    Daggers. Like an iron spike hitting him right at the side of his skill, Owen felt a glare from Star. His whole body felt frozen from it. He didn’t expect that from her. “R-right?” He thought about Manny’s lesson on Mysticism, and how it contributed to the normal strength imbued in all Pokémon. With how much he’d trained, Mystic-wise, and now that he was in his fully evolved form, Jerry wouldn’t be able to do a thing!

    “Yeah,” Star said slowly. “I think you two should fight.”

    “S-Star?” Owen said. The only reason Star would be like this would be to prove him wrong. But it just didn’t add up. There had to be some other reason.

    “And none of that stupid Mystic-whatever business, either!” Jerry said.

    “Th-that’s not fair, then I can’t use my full power, either!” Owen said.

    “Yeah, that’s not fair, Jerry,” Star said, eyes closed. “Let Owen do his thing.”

    “S-Star, why does your voice sound like ice?”

    “Hmm…” Alex hummed, but then nodded to Amia to get something for Jerry to eat. “I think I understand what Star is talking about.”

    “Dad?” Owen asked. The flame on his tail flickered, shrinking as if he’d gotten in trouble. “What are you talking about? You hate when I fight!”

    “I do,” Alex said, nodding. “But I would rather you fight in a controlled environment than get in trouble when it counts.”

    “What’s that supposed to—" Owen looked back at Jerry, who was making mock-wingbeats, as if practicing one of his techniques. Could Jerry actually be strong enough to hurt him? But his attacks in the swamp were nothing!

    “You know, hang on,” Star said, holding up her arms. “Let me help. Jerry, you can eat after. I’ll give you some energy to tie you over; that’s just as good as eating. How’s that?”

    “Oh, a divine blessing from the Ancestor herself? Thanks, but no thanks. I want to beat this kid with my own power.”

    “Pride’ll get you nowhere,” Star said. “I’m not giving you any sort of boost. I’m just restoring you to good shape.”

    Owen gulped. Maybe he could back out if he worded something just right. “I, uh,” he said, “I think, maybe this isn’t super productive. Maybe we should…”

    Star glanced over to Manny and jerked her head. The Lucario approached and held her shoulder. “We doin’ it like this?”

    “Just a little.”

    Star then held onto Jerry’s shoulder and focused; Manny’s paw glowed briefly, and Star’s paws glowed next. Jerry’s stance straightened considerably, and Manny hunched forward.

    “Ugh, that didn’ feel good,” Manny said, rubbing at the spike on his chest.

    “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jerry said, beating his wings. A powerful shockwave of wind blew Owen’s way, threatening to put out the fire of his tail. “I feel great!” He beat his wings a second time, and Owen had to hold his stance to keep from toppling over. “So, this is what it feels like to fight on a full stomach.” He crouched down, wings spread. “Heh… well. Let’s get this done, huh?” Jerry’s eyes shined with something that Owen couldn’t recognize. It wasn’t the same desperate gleam of an outlaw trying to survive. Somehow, this new shine made the Charizard’s heart seize.

    A fire burned in Owen’s chest, ready to battle. But—his instincts still haunted him, and he didn’t much care for that elation he felt for the fight. He channeled that instead to Jerry’s challenge. If he wanted a fight, he’d give it to him. Then he could put it all behind him, shake hands—well, wings—with Jerry, and move on with the real dangers.

    But Star’s glare worried him. He glanced at Amia, but she was too busy murmuring something to Alex. He then looked at Rhys, but he was walking with his eyes on the ground, pensive. He dared to look at Star one last time on the way to the sparring grounds.

    Star gave him a sweet smile.
     
    Last edited: May 19, 2019
    Chibi Pika likes this.
  12. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    Alright, I might have spoken too soon in my last review, because this chapter did help clear up a lot of things. I don’t think it necessarily revealed a lot, but having a lot of the things that we don't know get laid out on the table does help prevent confusion.

    So I'm gonna take this moment to try to lay out for myself what we know about the history of this three-sided conflict:
    • Arceus splits his power into the 18 orbs so that no one, including himself, could have absolute power.
    • At some point Star and Arceus died, not sure when, so I’m tentatively sticking it around here. (Not sure if one died before the other; if so, then my guess would be Arceus first. I also can’t tell if Star was already dead in the flashback at the end of Act I. If so, then move this down.)
    • Star stars trying to gather the orbs, to usurp Arceus and take a more active role in leading the world.
    • Star creates the Hunters to aid her in this task (not sure if they got any orbs during this time?)
    • Star regrets the decision to gather the orbs (why?) and stops leading the Hunters.
    • Star instructs the Guardians to remain isolated and not allow any contact with the outside world, to prevent the orbs from being gathered.
    • At some point Arceus approaches the orb holders and has them Promise not to gather the orbs. (Interestingly, this Promise doesn’t exactly go against the above request that Star made. Actually, in general, Arceus’s stance in this three-sided conflict is the one of least action, which also kinda makes it the least objectionable, heh.)
    • At some point, Rhys leaves the Hunters (can’t remember if the reason was revealed.)
    • After some time, the Hunters resume trying to gather the orbs (they stopped at some point?)
    • Realizing the threat, Star starts the collective effort that the fic is following.
    If I got anything wrong that has already been revealed, please let me know!
    I'm interested to learn why Elder himself is still dedicated to Eon's goal. He's obviously not fond of violence (given that he's their first line of approach, to settle things nonviolently.) It must really seem worth it, huh.
    Ahahaha, ah man, this really would clear up a lot, wouldn't it? I mean, we've known all along why Star originally wanted to do it. But like, what does Eon actually want.
    Ah snap, another one of those unknowable things, like what Emily was trying to say. Dangit. :mad:

    But man... Orre. Like the region? Is that here? In Kilo??? Or is he referencing something that happened there in the human world (there are humans-turned-Pokemon here, after all.)
    Whooaaaaa. I am extremely surprised you let the reader in on this. All the other times that unknowable words were mentioned, we were kept in the characters' heads, and we missed it just as much as they did.

    Wait. But this proves that an orb-holder can lose their orb and live, doesn’t it? (Or… maybe it doesn’t… After all Emily is… special.)
    idk, the SU fandom seems to get on fine
    Ahaha I gotta admit, I’d been thinking the same thing. It is kinda how the fic's been gearing all this time. what's a human gonna do to a Saiyan Man, Star's really not too pleased with that mindset, though. Should be fun to see where this goes!

    ~Chibi~
     
    Last edited: May 5, 2019
  13. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Full disclosure, I actually had done some editing to map things out a bit more clearly specifically because of your feedback from the last review! Less unspoken stuff and more on like a sort of... recap, in a way, without being too recappy.

    Pretty much the same thing here, yeah. Plus, the squad needs to regroup a little now that they're all together and they're gearing toward next steps. After all, bar the (current) Dragon Guardian, they know where everyone is, and they already know where all the Guardians stand, aside from Trina. The looming idea of a clash with Eon is fast approaching.

    Now then, you decided to map out what we know so far, so I'm gonna pick out some of them to clarify if anything nuanced may have been lost.

    This is close. Barky got rid of two thirds of his power. A third went to Star; the other third is currently in those who are holding an Orb. Barky retains the final third. Additionally, it seems some sort of blessing or piece of Mysticism is also within the Hunters, despite them not having an Orb.

    Yes, both Star and Barky are trapped in the spirit world (that's a euphemism for being dead) though when they died is unclear, and it's also unclear if Star is "alive" in SE3 at all, or just visiting by Barky's graces.

    I never said it explicitly, but they currently had no Orbs with them at the time. This can be deduced by the fact that all the Guardians are still around (well, aside from Cara and Forrest, but they died near the middle of Act I) The only one that was in the Hunters' possession at the beginning of the story was the Psychic Orb, and based on reactions from others, that was a recent development.

    This, too, wasn't really said explicitly. All that's known about this so far is that when Rhys left, he took Team Alloy with him, and later on, they had to split up, Owen going to Amia.

    Indeed, there's a large gap in time between Special Episode 3 and present day where no orbs were being gathered. Over that gap, Eon apparently grew an army of mutants under his command, including Team Alloy 2.0. As for why the Orbs weren't gathered again until the story began, that has not yet been outlined, though there are hints at the very beginning that suggests beforehand, the Mystic auras were a lot weaker and undetectable. There were only recently odd sightings of strange glows from Zena's cave, for example.

    --

    So overall, the general timeline is there. At some point in time, Barky cut his power in thirds, gave some to Star, scattered the rest in the Orbs, and then left the world to do its thing. Later, Star decided that was a bad idea and started trying to gather them again. Something prevented her from doing that on her own, so the Hunters came into the picture, but they, too, struggled. Then the mutants came, SE3 happened, and eventually, Rhys defected, Nevren joined the Thousand Hearts, and present day came along, and the story began for real.

    Oh, and during that time, Eon kept paying incognito and unsolicited visits to Owen as his doppelganger friend, Deca.

    What is being referenced is indeed Orre, the region. I wasn't really sure how to make that clear or too on-the-nose, so I'm just hoping "Orre" is a unique enough name to work on its own. Everything else in this line of questioning hasn't been confirmed, though I wouldn't place any bets about Orre being across the sea or anything. Emily's there, for one, and for two, the planet's too tiny for Orre, which I imagine is... fairly large?

    You can actually thank Amby for this one. I've decided that it would be too irritating to the reader (mystery overload) to keep them just as in the dark about these Divine Decrees as the characters are. It has no effect on the story itself if the readers know. I just converted some of the overabundance of mystery in this story into some dramatic irony.

    The knowledge doesn't prove much, you're right. Something's off about Emily. For example, why has the fact that she used to be a Guardian been erased from history? Though at the very least, it does mean it's possible in some way to dissociate someone from their Orb (though SE2 also confirmed that, albeit with a side effect of death, though it's sorta a Torchic-and-egg situation there)

    Yeah, it was at this point in the story that I've decided to start taking measures to define the scope and limits of what these guys are like. In my opinion, it's long overdue, even if there were hints in past chapters (since mutants, which aren't Mystic, are a threat somehow.)

    So next chapter will largely be about how despite the Mystics are unquestionably stronger, they are not necessarily invincible. But that'll not be until at the end of this week~

    Hoo. I wrote a lot on this one. Let me know privately if you want a further back-and-forth, since last time it was immensely helpful to get a feel for what I should better outline, and what seems clear enough.
     
  14. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    This chapter contains a moment with more intense violence than usual.

    Chapter 45 – The Balance of Power

    Everyone, aside from Anam, his spirits, and Nevren, was gathered around at the large, rocky cavern. The warmer air made it difficult for non-Fire Types to fight for long; Step, sensing this unfair advantage, breathed out a frosty cloud, cooling the room in a matter of seconds. Alex protested quietly and rubbed his cannons together. Most of the others consciously or unconsciously huddled a bit closer to him while the room’s temperature averaged out.

    It was here that Owen had trained as a Charizard fighting Manny; where he had lost against the Fighting Guardian. But Owen knew he would have won if he didn’t hold back. He was just trying to control himself. That’s why he lost. He was already past Manny, right? And Jerry would be no different, only this time, he was in total control. He had no reason to hold back. This battle would be over even faster than their encounter in Ghrelle’s domain.

    “Make sure he has a Reviver Seed!” Owen remembered.

    “I don’t need one,” Jerry said.

    “Oh, for the love of—yes, you do, Jerry!” Star said, rubbing her forehead. “And so does Owen! This stupid thing is for a purpose, not for killing each other! Now make sure you have one on you, and you know the rules from there, right?”

    “Pfft, rules. I’m going by street rules,” Jerry said, bouncing from foot to foot.

    Manny tossed a seed to Owen; he caught it and slipped it into the bag tied around his shoulder. Amia ran over to Jerry and handed him a small bag as well, containing just the seed. Realizing that Jerry’s wing-hands may struggle with working something and tying it around his neck, she helped and slipped it over his head. With that, the combatants were ready.

    “So, are we really doing this?” Owen asked, looking at Star.

    “Yes,” Star said.

    “Why?” He glanced at the others, who were sharing either Owen’s confused expression, or Star’s stoic eyes. In particular, he was unnerved that Rhys had his arms crossed, focused not on Owen or Jerry in particular, but the battlefield as a whole.

    Owen then looked to Jerry. The way his heart beat, and the way his lungs inflated and deflated with such depth… Owen could only interpret that as a flame. A fire that he thought only those of his Type could get, but no. Jerry had a fire in his heart, too. He never felt it before; Jerry had felt cold, desperate, and hungry. But now? That must be it, Owen realized. They energized him, so now he’s feeling better. Hmm… maybe I should be more careful after all, even if he’s not Mystic.

    It wouldn’t be right to act haughty with Jerry anyway. He had a rough day. He thought back to how he had fought before—he often used Rock Blast. He wasn’t sure how an Aerodactyl could know such a technique, but that didn’t excuse the fact that it would be bad news for his normal form. He kept his Grassy self in mind, which would dull the blow, at least compared to his Fire-Flying default.

    “And…” Star raised her tiny arm up, “begin!”

    Owen beat his wings in the air, creating a flurry of pinpricks of Fire Traps in all directions. Jerry doubled back, recognizing the maneuver from their first encounter.

    “Don’t think you can get me with that again!” Jerry shouted. “I know your trick!” He opened his mouth and fired a set of rocks at the first one, detonating it. This caused a chain reaction, every single blast fizzling into a bright flash. Owen pushed through a gap in the explosions, mouth aflame, the back of his throat aglow. He blasted a jet of flames straight to Jerry. The Aerodactyl flew into the air, glancing at the ceiling to get a feel for how much room he had, and then dove down, straight for Owen with his jaw outstretched.

    Owen couldn’t help but roll his eyes. Despite his initial psyche-up to not get confident, he had to marvel at the one-track mind that Jerry had for battle. He shouldn’t have expected much from an almost-ex-criminal, though.

    With his Mystic power, evolved form, and unleashed aura—Jerry wouldn’t stand a chance. The power behind Jerry’s aura and his Crunch technique, no matter how much darkness was imbued in it, wouldn’t get past Owen’s natural aura shield. The Charizard grimaced at the thought. Was Star punishing Jerry with this fight? That seemed a bit cruel—he already had a hard life, and now Creator Mew herself was…?

    So distracted by these idle thoughts, Owen forgot to bother guarding against the inconsequential approach of the outlaw. He could have created a Protect shield, but that seemed like overkill.

    He held his arm out to block Jerry’s assault. Owen prepared for when the Crunch attack would squeeze his arm, just like before, and do nothing. After that, he’d just counter with a point-blank Flamethrower, and end the—

    The Aerodactyl’s jaws crushed Owen’s arm like a twig.

    Alex and Amia both turned their heads away in unison. Demitri, Mispy, and Gahi all gasped. Willow sparked with surprise and hopped angrily on ADAM’s head, declaring Jerry a cheater. Enet agreed, pointing an accusatory claw at the Aerodactyl, having also witnessed that same attack having no effect in the Dark Mist Swamp. She rushed to Amia and shook her for an answer, but the Gardevoir only winced and said to let the battle finish. Manny rubbed his forehead. Step, Valle, and ADAM watched without reacting.

    Zena bit her lip worriedly. “Owen…” She glanced to her right. “Star… why are you doing this?”

    Star didn’t answer.

    Mispy’s vines glowed brightly, ready to heal him. Rhys placed a paw on her back and shook his head.

    “But—”

    “No,” Rhys said. “They will be fine.”

    Owen’s eyes bulged and he jerked his arm away, screaming in surprise and pain; the Aerodactyl beat his wings to daze Owen, gaining some distance.

    Trembling, he held his broken arm, fractured in multiple sections—it was useless, but that didn’t matter. He could fight without it. Blood trickled to the ground from deep gashes.

    “H-how…?” Owen said. “I’m—I’m Mystic! I’m invincible to—!”

    Jerry pointed a wing at Owen. “I don’t care what you say about your so-called divine blessings. As long as you have a body, it can break!”

    “Th-that’s not how it works!” Owen said, flashing a look at Star. “Y-you! You—you gave him some—some sort of blessing!”

    “I didn’t,” Star said. “I only restored him to be in fighting shape. Go on, Owen. You can sense if I’m lying. Feel my body language. Hm?”

    Owen puffed. It was hard to concentrate when his arm was throbbing and stinging. But he tried, and Jerry waited.

    “Yeah,” Jerry said. He folded his wings to his side and shifted to his right leg. “I want to know if this strength really is mine.”

    Of course, she could be masking her lies. If they had no tell, then Owen couldn’t know one way or the other. Nevren was like that. He could never get a good read off of him unless Nevren was relaxed. But Star was exhibiting some sort of emotion. And it wasn’t that of deceit. In fact… Owen felt something else from Star. Tense jaws, her little paws clenching and unclenching. Her tail flicking, her ears twitching. And that stare she had, directed right at him. Star… was nervous. But it didn’t seem to be because she was lying. In fact, when Star had said she didn’t enhance Jerry, she felt a bit less nervous. Relieved that Jerry was putting up a fight?

    “S-Star…?” Owen said. “I—I get it! I think I get it now!”

    “Battle’s not over.” Star looked off.

    Owen looked at Jerry again. The pain was fading; his Mystic power was patching up the wounds. Bones mended themselves, and flesh bound together. The blood had clotted up, and was no longer painting the rocks. But he still couldn’t use it.

    “Can we go on, now?” Jerry said. “It’s time I finished this.”

    “A-as if!” Owen said, stepping back. He flexed his wings and flapped them in powerful, consecutive bursts, sending waves of compressed air toward his opponent. Jerry answered with a left hop, opening his mouth. He dodged the Air Slash while firing another volley of rocks from his throat. The first one hit Owen square in the chest—the rest missed.

    “What an odd move for an Aerodactyl to know,” Elder remarked.

    Owen, winded, was trying to get his bearings.

    “Rock Blast… They can’t normally do such things.”

    “Yeah, pretty cool, huh?” Star said. “Not the best move, but it catches people by surprise. Apparently, his family line had it for generations. All the way back to the… you know.”

    Elder nodded. “I suppose you once gifted an ancestor of his with the technique, then?” he asked.

    “That’s probably it,” Star nodded. “I was a bit of a rulebreaker… I mean, I made some of those rules, so I guess it’s a little different…”

    Elder gave Star a wry smile, and then looked at the fight. “You didn’t have to do this to Owen, you know,” he said. “You could have just told him. He’s responsible.”

    “Maybe.” Star used the end of her tail to clean out her left ear. “But this is payback.” She moved on to the right ear.

    “Payback,” Elder repeated.

    With a pop, Star pulled her tail out. “Yeah. For running off and acting stupid when I told him specifically not to, back when he first got the Orb.”

    Elder stared at Star. “Goodness. I thought Barky was the one to hold grudges.”

    Star’s left eye twitched. “Don’t make me start holding another.”

    “O-of course…”

    Star huffed, brushing some perceived dust off of her arms. “Fine, here’s the real answer: Owen’s a mutant. And no matter how tame he is, he still has some mutant instincts growling in his head. Subconsciously, I dunno if anything but a fight will convince him that he’s not invincible. And I don’t want that happening when it counts. May as well get it over with now.”

    “Gnnnck…!” Owen clutched his chest when a second volley of rocks hit him. Some of the shattered pebbles knocked against his chin. Why wasn’t this working? He was supposed to be able to dodge these attacks easily! He saw every attack coming. His body just couldn’t react in time to the erratic firing.

    “What, getting tired?” Jerry said. “C’mon! Where’s that super-Mystic-power of yours?”

    “I’m—I’m getting to that!” Owen hissed, putting most of his weight on his right leg. Now he knew why. His arm. It was still distracting his movements. Even though he could see every strike, and even though he knew exactly where he had to go to dodge—he just didn’t have the speed or agility to execute it. It was the fight against Gahi all over again.

    He had to get clever. And so, Owen closed his eyes, slowly… and focused. His body turned green again, and his scales became leaves, his flame a flower.

    “There it is,” Jerry said, a sick grin spreading across his face.

    “Yeah, there it is.” Owen glanced at Star. He still didn’t understand. He was supposed to be completely beyond Jerry’s league by now, wasn’t he? Or… or was Jerry just always weak and starving, until just now? He thought about his fight against Manny, and then against Gahi, and then against other synthetic Pokémon. How different were they, in the end? How great was the gap in power? Why would—

    “Stop daydreaming!” Jerry fired three rocks.

    “Ngh—" Owen brought his wings forward and blocked the blast with a sturdy shield. Past his barrier, beyond sight, Owen sensed Jerry closing in. He opened his wings to the sight of the Aerodactyl flying straight toward him. His fangs were bared, and they were surrounded in an icy fog. Owen tried to move, but Jerry’s momentum outpaced his acceleration. Jerry crunched down on Owen’s other arm—but this time, something much worse than a few fractures coursed through Owen. A stinging, freezing, crushing force pierced his muscles and spread to his chest; the Ice Fang mixed with the blood and flesh and leaves of the Grass-Flying Pokémon’s body.

    Owen wailed and swung his frozen arm to get Jerry off, and he complied. He released his hold and flew back with the same dazing wingbeat. Then, Jerry rushed forward for a second time. Owen sensed it, and this time, had the reflexes and adrenaline to react. He opened his mouth wide and launched from his throat a sphere of green energy. Overconfident, Jerry couldn’t stop his momentum in time, and the Energy Ball exploded on his chest. The explosion sent the Aerodactyl flying backward; he beat his wings frantically to regain some control in the air and skidded to a stop once he hit the ground again. A black, circular mark colored his chest.

    “Got careless that time,” he grunted. But he still had fight left in him. It looked like Owen did, too. But while there was fire in Jerry’s eyes, it didn’t take a special power for the Aerodactyl to see the fearful, frantic confusion in Owen’s. Jerry brought his wing to his neck, gently stroking at the Pecha Scarf. He didn’t feel any power coming from it, so that wasn’t influencing his power, either. This was his… and it was shattering Owen’s Thousand-Heart pride. And he loved that. “Let’s finish this,” Jerry said.

    Owen slammed his tail on the rocks, sending shockwaves through the cave. Vines burst from the ground in huge, monstrous columns that dwarfed even Mispy’s frenzy, writhing toward Jerry. The living fossil took off, weaving past the first two vines. Vine Trap, was it? They couldn’t float in the air like Owen’s Fire Trap. That made them easier to predict. More importantly, they were slower. Owen, knowing this, had to find some way to make them unavoidable regardless.

    Jerry spotted one in the corner of his eye, threatening to stab him with its sharp tip. He banked hard to the right, earning just a graze. Then, he banked to the left, and then moved unpredictably to the right again. The vines flicked uncertainly, hitting where Jerry would have gone just a few seconds earlier, had he continued in that trajectory.

    Jerry paused as if rather than a vine, an idea had struck him. He fired five Rock Blasts again, but this time, they went in totally random directions. Two went forward. One to the right. One straight up—and another diagonally down. The two that went toward Owen were the first to catch his opponent’s attention. One hit the ground and shattered into tiny fragments; the other, Owen dodged. One hit Owen’s rightmost vine, getting lodged inside. The remaining two shattered into countless tiny pieces.

    Those many tiny pieces falling around them like rain—the many, many rocks. Owen’s eyes were wide, vacant. Watching every single shard fall like it could do harm, analyzing where each one could go, how he could use them to his advantage. Accelerations toward the ground, velocities either toward or away from Owen. Owen couldn’t stop. He could only stare and count and analyze, and he briefly forgot how to move. Owen’s trance lasted for only a half-second. But that was all Jerry needed.

    He spiraled down and twisted his body in a cork-screw. At the last minute, the claw at the edge of his wings tensed, and he spun until he could get a good angle. He wouldn’t miss this one, so close. Aerial Ace would be Jerry’s finishing blow. “Street rules,” Jerry mumbled, twirling with his claws outstretched. He hit something; Owen felt something. But it happened so fast in the middle of his stupor that he didn’t know where it had landed.

    Jerry spun around and landed behind Owen, staring at the blood on his wings. He even caught a few of the leaves.

    Owen staggered back, a sudden wetness all over his chest. Everything suddenly felt dark and blurry. His neck hurt. A lot. He stared down dumbly at the blood that spilled from his throat. It hurt doubly so with his current Typing—the sting propagated throughout his body. His vision faded—Jerry had struck something vital.

    Owen didn’t even have a moment to properly think. His legs crumpled beneath him and he fell to the ground, limp. The seed inside his bag flashed, washing him in a golden light. Owen’s wounds healed, but the exhaustion of battle remained; he groaned, unable to roll over.

    That was the signal to Jerry that he won. He puffed out a sigh of relief, and then looked at the others. “Okay,” he said. “I guess he put up a good fight.” He tapped at his chest, wincing. “Hey,” he shouted, “Vines! Can ya give me a little healing!?”

    Mispy glared so harshly that Jerry looked like he’d faint anyway. Gahi’s arms were shaking with rage; Demitri looked like he was about to cry.

    Amia and Alex rushed toward Owen to help him up; Star leisurely floated along with them. It was Rhys who ended up giving Jerry an Oran Berry to aid in his wounds. He gratefully chomped on the blue miracle, perhaps the one fruit he’d happily eat.

    “Owen, Owen, dear,” Amia said. “A-are you okay? Owen?” She pushed him.

    “Wh-whuh… what… what happened?” He rubbed his left horn. Owen gathered enough strength to roll onto his back, grunting. “Ugh, my neck…” He still felt a phantom pain from the slash. His chest wasn’t doing any better. Something blurry and pink floated in front of him—the see-through apparition of Star… She was coming closer, staring him right in the eyes, upside-down. “Star, I’m… I’m sorry. I didn’t think I’d lose to—"

    Never,” Star said, her tone lower and more venomous than he’d ever heard, “talk like you’re above mortals. Don’t even think that you can’t be beaten by one. And do not assume that just because you’re Mystic, you have the favor of divinity on your side.”

    “S-Star, I…!” Owen shook his head, but that only made him dizzier. “I didn’t mean it like I was better than—”

    “I don’t care,” Star said. “And you didn’t care when you said it. You just assumed you were stronger. That Jerry couldn’t beat you. You’re better than that, Owen. You knew Jerry was weakened. Yet, here you are. Beaten and bruised, on the ground, after getting your chest cracked and throat slashed. You got beat by an outlaw, and he beat you all on his own. I didn’t enhance him. That scarf he’s wearing is a Pecha Scarf, and it only protects against Ghrelle. I doubt she was helping you in that fight. No. It was just you, and him. And you lost.”

    “S-so, what?!” Owen said defensively. “H-he—he had a Type advantage… Rocks… and then Ice Fang! How was I supposed to know that?”

    “You’re right,” Star said. “Yet, look at how you were before. I saw that eyeroll.”

    It suddenly became a lot harder to look at Star directly.

    “I think your memories coming back made you overestimate how strong you really are. Think of how badly that fight with Jerry would have gone if he wasn’t weak—if he had the fire to pierce through your Mystic powers back at Dark Mist Swamp. Wouldn’t have been very cool then, huh? Then you’d be injured, in the middle of the poison, with Ghrelle watching your overconfidence. What if she melted you then? Maybe Jerry would become the Grass Guardian next.”

    “I…” Owen said. “Why’re you being like this? I don’t… I don’t get it, I’m just—I’m just trying my best…!”

    “You aren’t, Owen,” Star said. “You’re slipping. You’re getting too cozy with your power. You think it makes you invincible? If these Orbs made you so strong, I wouldn’t be worried about some test-tube experiments hunting the Guardians down. If your Mystic powers made you invincible, Cara and Forrest would still be alive. But they aren’t.”

    Owen puffed. The phantom pain of the battle was fading. It was replaced with a knot in his gut.

    “How’d Jerry beat me?” Owen said. “I’m still Mystic, and he couldn’t have become that much stronger just from being revitalized.”

    Owen didn’t expect Star to react with silence. He had been expecting another quick retort.

    “To be honest,” Star finally admitted, “I didn’t think he’d beat you so soundly.”

    “Gee, thanks,” Owen huffed. That was even worse than he’d been anticipating. He refused to look at Jerry, even though he could feel his proud grin.

    “But I knew he’d’ve given you trouble. Because he’s a lot like you, Owen. Resourceful, clever, that sort of fighter. And he’s also got a Type advantage on you, no matter how you slice it.” Star shook her head, sparing Jerry a small nod of approval. “But I think what gave him the win… was the light in his eyes, I guess. You saw it, too, right? The fire? He had something to prove.”

    “What, so Jerry won… not just because his energy was back, and he had a Type advantage… but also because… of his sheer will?”

    “Yes.”

    Owen stared. “…Willpower doesn’t… do anything, though. It’ll motivate you to do a little better, but the body’s the body.”

    Star smiled slightly. “Yeah. Normally.”

    Owen waited impatiently for the answer.

    Star obliged. “Mystic Pokémon have some advantages.” She raised her hands in a shrug. “They can warp reality to what they desire, in some small ways. Change their form.” Star glanced at Manny. “Evolve and un-evolve.” Star nodded at Willow. “And of course, strengthen their auras. And all the other little tricks that Mystic powers let you do, by nudging the world around you a certain way. But that doesn’t apply just to the Mystic.” She nodded at Jerry. “In battle, Pokémon draw from their auras and tap into divine energy. That’s what makes their techniques possible—and their ability to survive them from others. Their offense and defense is enhanced by the aura. This all sounds familiar, right? Rhys’ aura theory?”

    “Y-yeah…”

    “That was by my design. And when a Mystic is in battle, that Mysticism permeate the whole field, and that Mystic aura becomes a constant presence. If a mortal’s aura fire burns bright enough, they can take advantage of that in battle, too. Because in the end…” The Mew trailed off, nodding. “Drawing from that divine energy is what all Pokémon do. Mystics just have a better connection. But since Pokémon do the same thing… their auras can draw from the Mystic atmosphere. Too. And that,” Star said, “is how Jerry beat you.”

    Owen gulped, but then he brought his head down. He understood. Mystic Pokémon were powerful in a lot of ways, and he encountered so many others who dwarfed even his power. With how much he’d been training, and how honed his aura had become, he thought he was totally beyond the average Pokémon’s power.

    He looked down at his chest; there were still subtle stains from his own blood. “That’s why the Synthetics, who aren’t Mystic at all, can still give Guardians trouble.”

    Star nodded. “I need to remind you of that. Sorry that I made an example out of you, but… I felt it getting out of hand. This goes as a reminder to you as much as it does to everyone else. Don’t forget, yeah? No matter how strong you are, and no matter how many defenses you think you have… The moment someone gets an upper hand? And you aren’t ready for that? That’s it.” Star made a little flourish with her tiny hands, creating little, purple bubbles of Psychic energy. “You lost.” The bubbles popped.

    <><><>​

    Anam’s office was quiet except for the occasional sound of papers flipping and pages turning. Then, the dull noise of a pen scribbling away.

    “Ah. That must be it,” Nevren said, circling his findings. “Well. I should probably dispatch someone to rescue them.” He placed the paper on one of the piles. “James does good work, Anam. It’s a shame he can’t help me right now.”

    “Nn… nngg…”

    Anam was slumped against the wall, eyes wide, holding his head. The feelers that sprouted on the top of his skull were throbbing uncontrollably, overwhelmed by some invisible, internal sensation.

    “Yes, yes, I understand you want to help, but that’s not something I can allow at the moment, either.”

    “Get… get out… of my…” Anam said. “P-please… Nevren…” Gooey tears hit the ground. “I thought… you were…”

    “Unfortunately, that isn’t part of my plans,” he said. “You need not worry, Anam. This is an uncomfortable transition, but you will grow used to it soon. However, I must be honest, it would have been a lot easier if you just accepted it outright. I shouldn’t have been so reckless. I would have simply revised the moment… but given how close we already are, well. Eon is impatient. I’d rather not have him upset. This will do. I’m positively giddy that it is finally working.” Nevren’s tone remained neutral throughout, and turned another page, reading through the next report.

    “All this time… I thought…” Anam said, but his eyes were becoming empty. Vacant.

    “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea,” Nevren said, flipping a page. He didn’t spare Anam a glance, far too invested in reading the report in front of him. “I genuinely value this town and this world. And I do value your outlook, Anam. The charisma you overflow with and the morale you provide to the town has been invaluable. There is no use in destroying what you have built, let alone take it over directly. But some things have to be done for the greater good. Sacrifices are necessary. With any luck, they will only be temporary. But it is better than our current trajectory, yes? Yes..”

    “No…”

    “Mm, I believe you mean yes, yes?”

    “N… nn…” Anam’s eyes stared at the floor. “Y… yes…”

    “Very good, Anam. I’m proud of you.”

    “Thank you… Nevren…”

    Nevren suddenly glanced up, and then glanced at a small badge at the bottom left corner of the table. The badge was a sapphire color, with a gray, dim circle in the center.

    “Elite Heart Alakazam Nevren!” someone shouted, rushing into the office. Nevren didn’t even glance up, but he knew it was a Golem. “Th-there’s a sighting of another one of those mutated Pokémon! It’s running wild in the—wh-what’s going on?”

    The Pokémon saw the scene before him—the Association Head slumped on the wall, and Nevren, standing there, without a care, with a disturbingly neutral, indifferent expression. “E-Elite Heart Alak—”

    “There is nothing to worry about here,” Nevren said with a casual wave of his hand. “You won’t remember any of this. Let’s just wipe that mind clean of the past few moments… ahh, there we go.”

    Golem stared dumbly ahead.

    “Now, close your eyes,” Nevren said, not even looking up.

    Golem shut his eyes.

    “You will turn around and walk. Your mission will be to gather two Elite Hearts to neutralize the mutant. If it is close to the village, there is no other choice. If it is far, try to subdue and relocate it to the Evergreen Prairie. I will handle it from there. Go on, now.” Nevren shooed him away with a gentle flick, and the hypnotized Pokémon opened his eyes.

    “Understood!” He was back to normal and didn’t even look back.

    Nevren returned to the report, circling another bullet point. “Modifying memories is so cumbersome,” he murmured to himself. “At least I had practice when Owen ran through the town as a Grass Type.” He shook his head. “Perhaps I could have done that better. Ahh, but how would I hide Anam? No. What I did was best for that one. He will forget. Ahh, Anam. How are you feeling?”

    The Goodra was silent.

    “Hm. This is a difficult rewrite. Oh, well. It’s only a matter of time. Very persistent, Anam. But I already have you. There is no way to counter me at this point. It’s a losing battle, yes?”

    Suddenly, a black fog emerged behind Nevren. James burst from the shadows, ready to fire a feather-arrow directly into his back. But he didn’t. His body was frozen. Nevren looked at his hand; the Petrify Orb in it evaporated. Shortly afterward, the sapphire badge at the corner of his table brightened; the gray circle became a bright blue.

    “In another time,” Nevren said, “that would have hurt quite a bit, James. I am surprised you still have a will of your own, with Anam in such a state.” He put his pen down, finishing the final document of the day. He picked up his spoons and turned to address the frozen Decidueye directly. “But then again, your spirit realm has always been… curious. Spirits usually become like their vessels. You are nothing like Anam.”

    James’ eyes were filled with the malice of a thousand vengeful spirits. Yet, he was immobile.

    “I’m sure you know as well as anyone that the wills of spirits are strongly linked to the will of their host. And, to a much weaker extent, vice versa. Perhaps that is why Anam took so long to control… If I could go back far enough, I would have tried it all again with someone else, perhaps someone less powerful, but still useful. Still, orders are orders.” Nevren held his arms up in a nonchalant shrug. “In the end, this is the payoff. How are you feeling, James?”

    The Decidueye kept glaring, but now there was a flash of fear, and confusion, too.

    “There is no need to be afraid, James. I have no intention of rewriting your personality, or even your sense of self, let alone Anam’s. I am merely altering a few goals and desires. That is all. …Hm?” Nevren turned his attention to Anam again. He was standing up.

    “Ah, Anam,” Nevren said. “How are you doing?”

    He shambled forward. Every heavy step left behind slime and black fog.

    “Hm. Abnormal,” Nevren commented, though he did not move.

    The Goodra held his arms forward and grabbed Nevren by the neck.

    Very abnormal,” Nevren said, feeling a light pressure against his throat. “This isn’t Anam anymore, is it? Ahh…” Nevren stared into Anam’s eyes. That was a different glow. This glare was something Anam wasn’t capable of. How fascinating to finally meet her again. “I’m very sorry if this upsets you, Madeline.”

    “I… will… KILL… you…”

    “I’m afraid that is no longer a choice on your part,” Nevren said. Slime went down his neck, down his chest, and onto the floor. The Goodra’s grip tightened. This possessed Pokémon could easily crush his neck, yet it never happened. Because that part of Anam’s mind was already wiped away, replaced by an instinct to never harm Nevren. And so long as this spirit was a part of Anam, that instinct was part of her hard-wiring, too.

    The fact that she was being so forceful was interesting. So interesting! The power of the spirit to defy their own design by sheer will alone. Extraordinary! This was truly the power of Mysticism, of divinity itself. Yet, it was still just a ripple against the inevitable. A small disturbance that faded into the expansive lake, into oblivion. Even now, her grip was fading.

    “Why…?” Madeline asked. “Anam… trusted you…”

    “He trusts quite a few people. In fact, it would not be much of a stretch that Anam trusts everybody. It was that trust that allowed him to acquire the Ghost Orb in the first place, was it not? Yes… an Orb too powerful to fight, acquired by a Goodra that knew only to befriend. It was that same openness that allowed me to slowly rewrite his subconscious mind. Quite underhanded, I know. But there is no need for honor when all that matters are the results. You may let go of me, now.”

    The Goodra instantly let go of Nevren’s neck.

    With a gentle Psychic blast, the slime flew off of his body. “After five hundred years of careful subconscious writing,” Nevren continued, “and constant reworking and retrying, I believe we are ready. Quite a few of the pieces are in place. The prototypes are stabilized. Their leader has the Grass Orb. Over half of the Guardians are gathered in one place. Now, if only we could penetrate the Trinity…”

    “Your sins… will never… wash away…!”

    “Sins?” Nevren questioned. “What a fascinating term, Madeline. Anam speaks very fondly of—ahh, but you know that. Hm. Well. In any case, I believe you are nearly gone, now. I suppose I will give you the opportunity for your final words before the rewrite?”

    The Goodra’s eyes were becoming vacant again. His mouth opened once to say something, but only a little breath came out. Black fog surrounded his body, swimming restlessly in his slime like an infestation of bugs. Lumps of shadow-like matter danced beneath the surface of his amorphous form.

    The words that came from Anam was in an amalgamation of the thousands of spirits within him. The voice was corrupted, every single one speaking over each other in a garbled cacophony, yet they all said the same thing. “I will… cast you… into… the void…”

    Nevren wasn’t expecting that, leaving him in a hesitant silence. “I see,” Nevren said. “I hope you considered that a productive use of your thoughts.”

    And then, the Goodra fell back, asleep.

    The office was quiet again. Nevren gently scratched at an itch on his chin. “…Ah! I forgot about you. I apologize.” Nevren reached forward and tapped James on the forehead. The Decidueye blinked and shook his head, the effects of the Petrify Orb ending upon contact.

    “What… happened? A-Anam?”

    “Do you not remember? You were helping me with the daily reports. Anam mentally exhausted himself, slipped into the pool, and fell asleep.”

    “Hrmnh… I do not,” James said. “I must have exhausted myself as well. That’s… worrisome. Are the reports finished?”

    “Yes! They are, certainly. Once Anam wakes up, you can return to the others. Until then, perhaps you can survey the building. It has been a while since we performed a status check on the general missions, considering the… Orb gathering.”

    “Hm, that is true,” James said. “Very well. Thank you, Nevren, for your constant help.”

    “It is not a problem, James.”

    The Decidueye sank into the ground; the resulting fog trailed out of the office.

    Anam quietly mumbled in his sleep. Nevren arranged the papers into a neat stack, leaving only the summary page at the very top. They had quite a few new assignments to take care of. The Alakazam sighed. Speaking of assignments, he just finished his longest one.

    “Like a weight off my chest,” Nevren remarked. After nearly five hundred years, it was over. Everything was falling together.

    All he had to do now was wait for enough of them to be in one place.
     
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2019
    Chibi Pika likes this.
  15. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    You know that content advisory a chapter ago? Please prepare yourself for much more violence and disturbing imagery than usual. I'd go so far as to say this chapter has a temporary M rating.

    Special Episode 4 - Revise the Moment

    Rotwood Fen was a cursed place.

    The ground was covered in a thin, patchy layer of dark grass. Surrounding this grass was black mud, fungus, and grime, cold to the touch. Rocks were covered in mold and moss, various shades of gray and bluish-black, or some strange mixture of both. Bug Pokémon hid beneath the largest boulders, in little pockets of air and dirt, seeking shelter from the many feral predators that roamed the woods.

    The trees were sparsely populated. Each one was no more than a foot in diameter—flimsy things that had few leaves. The bark flaked away to the touch, and had a fuzzy, soft texture on the surface. It wouldn’t take much to push one of these damp, decaying structures to the ground. The roots were gnarled and twisted through the dirt like tentacles. Some of the trees had scraggly, vine-like, yet wooden accents to the trunk that wrapped around the main bark like Tangela or the limbs of a Carnivine.

    Two Pokémon walked through this dying forest. One was an Alakazam, holding his two spoons in one hand, and a strange, square device in another. The device had a minimalistic interface, with a few numbers in the top corner that slowly decreased as they moved, and a dot near the top of the screen that moved closer to the center.

    The second Pokémon was huddled behind Nevren—a small Chikorita, nervously avoiding any of the trees. She saw herself in them, and what this forest could do to plants. Would she rot away in a place like this? If she wasn’t careful, she’d end up becoming some wild Pokémon’s next meal. And then what?

    “D-Dad,” she said.

    “Yes, Mispy?” Nevren asked, looking back.

    She gulped. “I—I don’t… like this place.”

    “Ahh, I understand. Not to worry. As long as you are with me, we will be perfectly safe.”

    “Why couldn’t Demitri…?”

    “I only needed you, Mispy, for the purpose of healing,” Nevren said. “The others are still training. You want to evolve, after all, yes? And healing is a great way to practice your special abilities.”

    “Mnn.” Mispy sniffed. “It’s scary…”

    “I understand,” Nevren said. “Granted, we are a small team. Just the two of us. And you’re quite used to cooperating with the other three. But ever since you fused together and lost your minds, well—” Nevren realized too late that he’d slipped.

    “H-huh?” Mispy’s head jerked up. “What… what d....? I—I fused? What does…?! I don’t remember… I don’t…” Mispy’s wide eyes became even wider. Her leaf trembled—memories came flooding back. “A… Aaaa…! AAAAAHH!”

    Nevren dropped his spoons to the ground and slipped the now-free hand into the bag slung around his neck. He grabbed a small, blue device with a circular, bright emblem in the middle, and clicked on the center button.

    The world was dark for less than a blink. And then, the world returned to normal. Nevren was walking forward. Mispy was walking behind him. Nevren scanned his location and made sure to not lose his rhythmic steps. The tree that they had passed moments ago was ahead of him again.

    “D-Dad,” Mispy spoke up.

    “Yes, Mispy?” Nevren asked, looking back at the Chikorita.

    She gulped. “I—I don’t… like this place.”

    “Ahh, I understand,” Nevren said. “Not to worry. As long as you are with me, we will be perfectly safe.” Nevren didn’t pause this time. “I imagine you want Demitri and the others here, but they’re still training. Your healing will be invaluable on this outing.”

    “Oh,” Mispy said. “O-okay…”

    Nevren nodded. “Very good, then. Let’s continue.”

    They continued their walk through Rotwood. The trees were starting to get a bit denser, but they were no less rotten. The sky was darkening rapidly, and Nevren suddenly stopped his walking when he sensed a change in the atmosphere. “Mispy,” he said, “you should stay close to me, yes?”

    “H-huh?”

    Nevren turned around. Just as he thought. Behind him was a great expanse of repeating trees and mossy rocks. Not the same trees that they had just passed. The entire world around them had shifted and changed, and he could already feel the mystical effects take place through his body.

    “We entered a distortion. It seems that we can only advance to our destination by completing it.”

    “Distortion? But…!”

    “There is no need to worry.” Nevren raised a spoon. “Remember. The greatest danger of a distortion is getting lost. The next greatest danger is being defeated in one, losing contact with the rest of your team.” He inspected the distortion. “It seems that the Divine Dragon already blessed this place, since it seems to have its typical, labyrinthine arrangement instead of something more unpredictable. That’s a good start.” He turned and advanced through the paths. “Being defeated in a distortion, or rather, a Dungeon, will cause you to be rejected from it. You will be away from whatever danger caused you those injuries, but anything that you brought with you, now belongs to the Dungeon. But, more concerning—” he looked back, “—is that you will still be weak. Assuming you do not succumb to the strain to begin with, many predators live at the entrance to Dungeons for this reason, preying on the defeated. While you escaped your captor, what happens afterward is… less than desirable. You must be careful to not fall victim to these opportunistic inhabitants.”

    Mispy sniffed, but suddenly stopped. “L-let’s go back,” she said. “I—I don’t…! I don’t want to—” She sniffled again. “Die…! B-be… eaten…!” Her red eyes filled with tears.

    “There’s no need to cry,” Nevren said. “Come. There is no way out of a Dungeon once you enter it, but to go forward. Perhaps it won’t be very long.”

    With Nevren’s back turned toward Mispy, he continued. Mispy timidly followed in a light gallop, trying to keep up. She tripped over a root and squeaked in surprise. Nevren stopped again. “Mispy, you shouldn’t—”

    When Nevren turned around, he spotted a small tree moving. No, not a tree. Between gaps in its wooden armor was a black mass that made up its core; false leaves covered its large hands and head, and a single, great, red eye stared Mispy down. At first, Nevren thought it was a Trevenant, but something was different about it. No, that was just his eyes playing tricks on him. Surely it was just some feral Trevenant.

    With a single strike, dark claws slashed through Mispy’s body, tearing her plant-like flesh, straight to the bone. She cried out and collapsed, and a second claw through her back finished it. Her mangled body disappeared from the Dungeon.

    Nevren stared dumbly. He didn’t have time to react. A second Shadow Claw went right along his chest—a splitting, yet numbing pain coursed through him. He saw red gush from his body, and the second Shadow Claw going straight for his skull. The shadowy fog wasn’t the normal Ghostly sort. It felt worse.

    The next thing he knew, Nevren was lying on the ground, a horrible pain gnawing at his chest. He must have been rejected from the Dungeon, but—he was too weak to move. His head felt light. But he forced himself to open his eyes. He saw a swift motion against his chest—a Mightyena, with its black fur and sharp teeth, was tearing away at him. He couldn’t gasp. His lungs were filled with blood—and the realization of what was happening doubled his pain. His arm twitched, and he attempted a reflexive Psychic attack on the Pokémon. Nothing. He should have expected as much. He turned his head, searching for Mispy. She’d be here, too. The Mightyena crunched down; a gurgling gasp escaped Nevren’s throat.

    His vision was blurry, but he saw something green and red crumpled up a few paces away, motionless. More dark shapes surrounded this figure, shuffling around.

    “Distortion? But…!”

    Nevren jolted where he stood, losing his rhythm. He blinked a few times and held his chest. Nothing. He looked around to gather his surroundings. He had just entered the Dungeon. Mispy was behind him. His heart rate picked up, and he slowly clenched his fist. One breath was all he needed to steady himself.

    “There is no need to worry,” Nevren said, remembering his own words. “Remember. The greatest danger of a distortion, that is, a Dungeon, is getting lost. And—” Nevren hesitated. “For that reason, you should stay close to me. Understood?”

    “Y-yes! Okay,” Mispy said, trailing off.

    “For example,” Nevren said, and then his eyes flashed with energy at a nearby tree. It screeched and wailed; its body twisted into a spiral, splitting apart at the wood. And then, it vanished from view. Unsettlingly, more of that black mist remained where it had once been. Was that a wraith? But this place is blessed… Isn’t it?

    “That was a Trevenant,” Nevren lied. “Quite territorial, if I had to guess. But it can’t hurt us anymore.”

    “Oh…!” Mispy beamed. “Dad! You’re,” she paused to find the right words, “so cool!”

    Nevren chuckled. “Come, Mispy. Let me hold you for this Dungeon.”

    She happily complied, jumping into his arms. The Alakazam made sure that she was in one piece, the blurry vision of her mangled body still fresh in his mind. Nevren held her a bit tighter.

    He looked into his bag, staring at the cyan device. The dot in the middle was gray, and he slowed down, scanning his surroundings. It was still the same, dreary atmosphere of endless, repeating walls of gray mud and black trees. He stopped walking, and Mispy looked up at him, confused.

    “What’s wrong?” she asked.

    Nevren stared at the device. A few seconds passed, and the gray dot brightened again. “Nothing,” he said. “I was just waiting for my device to start again. It helps with Dungeons. A bit of a good luck charm.”

    “Oh!” Mispy nodded. “Okay.”

    Nevren gently inspected that cyan device again.

    Mispy shifted uncomfortably in his hold and leaned against his left arm. “Weird.”

    “Hm? What was that?”

    “Dream,” she said slowly.

    “A dream? Of what?”

    Mispy trembled, shaking her head. “S-scary.”

    Nevren looked down at Mispy briefly, then at his device. Then, back at Mispy. He gently rubbed at her head, wrapping his fingers around the base of the leaf atop her skull. “There’s nothing to worry about, Mispy,” he said, and sent a subtle, weak energy into her. “Now, what were you talking about?”

    “Hm?” Mispy asked, looking up. “Talking about what?”

    “You were dreaming. Do you remember?”

    “Dreaming?”

    “Ah. I must have misheard.” Nevren nodded. He looked forward again. “Ah, look, Mispy. Do you see that?”

    It was subtle, but the passageway ahead of them had an odd distortion of light through it, like thick, rippling water. Unless one was paying close attention, it would go completely unnoticed. It took Mispy twenty seconds to see what he was talking about.

    “Oh! Water? In the air?”

    “Not quite. That is a passageway into the next section of the Dungeon. Watch.” He stepped into the distortion. The world around them blurred, and the trees rearranged themselves in a blink.

    He was also surrounded by five Pokémon in a small, cramped space. Mispy yelped in surprise and flailed helplessly in Nevren’s arms; he couldn’t react in time and felt another rotten claw slash through his spine. He lost feeling in his legs instantly. He immediately searched for the device to try again, but then saw a sphere of black energy hurtling toward him. He raised his arm reflexively to block it. It seemed like Shadow Ball, but the way it reacted to his body was anything but. Almost instantly, the black energy exploded, the mist sealed inside wrapping around his arm. It infested it down to the very marrow, rotting it from the inside-out. He hissed and tried to use it to grab his device again, but the Shadow Ball did its work perfectly—he couldn’t use that arm if he tried. He desperately used his other arm, dropping his spoons and Mispy in the process. She squeaked, and he hit the button.

    Nevren stood still, staring at the passageway. The little distortion in space beckoned for him to enter. He steadied his breath and looked down at Mispy; she was squinting at the oddly refracted light.

    “Oh! Water? In the air?”

    “Not quite,” Nevren said. “That is a passageway into the next section of the distortion. However.” He closed his eyes. “I am having a, hrm, Psychic premonition about this passageway. We need to be ready for anything, Mispy. I would like you to prepare yourself. Once we pass through, I want you to perform two of your techniques, yes? A Reflect, and then a Light Screen. I will handle the rest.”

    Mispy whined, nuzzling against Nevren’s chest.

    “It will be fine. I will protect you if you protect me.”

    They stepped through. Instantly, Mispy waved her leaf in the air, making a psychic barrier around the two of them; Nevren deftly stepped forward and spun around, twisting the air around the Pokémon that intended to claw him in the back. It was turned to ghostly wood chips. Mispy waved her leaf again, screaming; a second barrier reinforced the first, significantly weakening the explosive wad of darkness that hit Nevren on his back.

    He felt the rotting pain, but he could work it off. He turned around and warped the air again, splintering that one next. The three remaining Pokémon rushed at him, tree root legs flailing against the dirt. They left angry gashes wherever they moved. Nevren had to improvise. He focused and held Mispy tight. With a wash of psychic light, the two of them vanished, reappearing inconveniently only a few paces from where he had started.

    “Ngh—just my luck, I suppose,” Nevren said. But it bought Mispy enough channel a warm, healing energy to Nevren, ridding him of the injury on his back. Rejuvenated, he dispatched of the third Pokémon next, leaving just two more to deal with. Mispy puffed out her cheeks at the aggressors.

    “M-my turn!” she said, and her leaf lit up. A powerful beam of light—even in the dim sunlight that this cursed forest provided—seared through one of the remaining Pokémon, completely incinerating it. It died so quickly that the Dungeon didn’t even eject its carcass. The remaining wilds stared at the smoldering mass before them. Flaming pieces of wood crackled on the dirt, becoming one with the ash. The remaining one turned around and fled.

    “Kill it,” Mispy hissed.

    “If you wish,” Nevren said, and held his arm forward. In a twisted sense of revenge, Nevren generated a similar ball of rotting energy from his palm, chasing the final Trevanant. The black sphere engulfed it, and Nevren watched its body darken with a scream. The Ghostly blast split its wooden body apart with surprising ease. Within, the black mass remained for longer than its armor, but it was too badly damaged. The wraith evaporated.

    Mispy huffed. “Evil.”

    “Territorial is more accurate. But perhaps it is for the best,” Nevren said. “That one may have requested backup from others like it. We couldn’t allow that. Now.” Nevren checked his bag. The button was alight. “That was very good, Mispy. Let’s continue.”

    Nevren had to be careful. He checked at his device again. They had two close calls and one verbal slip-up already. He was beginning to suspect he was getting reckless. It was tiresome, trying again and again. But he had a feeling that he was going to have to use that button quite a lot more once they got through this perilous, dreary place. Particularly if there are wraiths here. Why here? The Divine Dragon should have been right at the core of this place, if what Hecto said was true.

    Mispy’s leaf twitched, brushing against his chest

    “Are you okay, Mispy?” Nevren asked. “Do you see any strange auras? Your sense is quite a bit stronger than mine.”

    “Mn, no,” Mispy said. “It’s… hard.”

    “Yes, Dungeons tend to do that,” he said. “With the warping of space and time within these fields, well, even your sense of aura is going to be somewhat distorted. Particularly beyond each section.” He pointed at the next distortion. “Get ready, Mispy. The same as before, just in case, yes?”

    “Do you have a… premonition?”

    “Not this time, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful.”

    He passed through the section barrier and then quickly turned around. Nobody. He checked behind him again, where he had been facing. Nobody. But he still refused to move, listening for any sign of movement, any marking of an ambush waiting to happen. But, there was nothing. Mispy couldn’t detect anything, either.

    He sighed slowly. “Very good. As I expected, there is nothing here to worry about, Mispy. We will continue.”

    To their fortune, the worst of the Dungeon was actually near the beginning, where they had been ambushed and killed—though only Nevren remembered. He held Mispy a bit tighter again, pressing her back against his chest.

    Mispy tilted her head up, tapping her leaf against his neck. “It’s okay.”

    “A-ah? Ah. Yes, I’m just fine, Mispy.” He looked down. “Be on your guard. There could be an ambush around any corner in a place like this. The ferals are quite territorial, it seems.” He eyed a suspicious tree. Hoping to conserve his energy for more important battles, he held his hand out and said, “Close your eyes, Mispy.”

    She obeyed immediately, and a bright, blinding flash of light pounded into the tree. A strange force accompanied it, like little pinpricks of needles—the tree shrieked and twisted in agony, crumpling to the ground. But he held back to verify something. After the tree’s armor was split apart, what was left behind was a black, angry, featureless blob that radiated a strange, black mist “Hmph, of course,” he said. He twisted it with a Psychic, destroying it completely. That confirms it. This place is infested with wraiths.

    Mispy blinked a few times, adjusting to the residual light. “Dazzling…?”

    “Yes. It’s quite handy, don’t you agree?”

    “How’d you know?”

    “Perhaps I was a bit paranoid. I don’t trust the trees here any longer.” He continued through the corridors, noting that the mud of the Rotwood Fen was getting simultaneously thinner and deeper. They were nearing marshlands of some kind.

    “And how are you feeling?” Nevren asked.

    “I’m… okay.”

    “Very good.”

    Between the thickening black fog, the darkening sky, and the general distortions that accompanied such an exploration, Nevren had no idea how much time had actually passed since his entry into the Rotwood Fen Dungeon. He did know, however, that Mispy had fallen asleep in his arms after a few more segments, and he did his best to fight the remaining Pokémon quietly. Every so often, she was startled awake by a shriek, and Nevren had to make a second attempt at the same moment a few times the further he went. The worst was when a Haunter had paralyzed him from behind with a single brush of its tongue, and he could only watch helplessly as it dug its claws into him afterward. That one wasn’t even a wraith; that was indeed just a feral. He was glad only he would remember the mishaps.

    Frankly, he couldn’t wait until this was over, but he still had a small section left to go. He saw, far ahead, the powerful distortion associated with a Dungeon’s end. And it was in this final section that Nevren stopped his walking, and instead started sloshing through the ground. The water, by now, was waist-deep for the Alakazam, and Mispy migrated from his arms to the top of his head, wrapping her vines around his chest to stay secure.

    “Bad,” Mispy said softly.

    “Yes, quite bad,” Nevren said. “I do hope there isn’t anything crawling through this water. It’s quite murky. I may need to bathe for an entire day.”

    Mispy hummed, pressing her cheek against Nevren’s mustache.

    “Ah, Mispy. I do have a bit of an injury near my shoulder from that Haunter’s strike. Would you mind?”

    “Oh—okay.” Mispy closed her eyes, channeling a bit of healing energy into him.

    The pain eased itself away. Bruises faded, and only a dull tingling remained. He sighed softly. “Very good.”

    But that didn’t rid them of the ominous fog that polluted the atmosphere. It obscured their vision; there was no escaping its omnipresence. Mispy moaned quietly and covered her face with her leaf, coughing into it. But it wasn’t smoke, and her breathing didn’t push the fog away. It was a strange, ethereal vapor that didn’t follow the wind. It merely floated around them, sinking into and through their skin, through their very auras.

    “Ngh. This is certainly the work of the Ghost Orb,” said Nevren to himself. “Mispy, do not worry. The smoke may feel strange, but it will not suffocate you. It is… This is something else.”

    Nevren stared at his hand worriedly. It wouldn’t suffocate them, but he could feel something influencing his body. His hand was darkening. Patches along his arm looked like what had happened when that Shadow Ball hit it. Something occurred to him and he immediately reached up for Mispy, pulling her down.

    “Dad?” Mispy asked. Her voice was labored and slow.

    Mispy was green as ever. Her leaf seemed a bit wilted, and her eyes were lethargic. But then he saw it—little patches of rot along her right side, first. And then her left.

    “Mispy, you must focus,” Nevren said.

    “Huh?” Mispy said weakly.

    Focus, Mispy,” Nevren said. “Your healing aura. You must use it on both of us. Mispy? Mispy?” He shook her lightly. Her head bobbed limply.

    Nevren tasted something metallic. He brought a hand up to his mouth, but then jerked it away. His hand was black and brown. He didn’t even feel it. The skin was falling off. He spat—blood. He looked at Mispy again. Her eyes stared forward without aim.

    Nevren dropped the dead Chikorita into the muck and dug into his bag. He slammed a rotten finger on the cyan button.

    “Ngh—” Nevren stopped walking. Mispy squeaked, tipping forward atop his head.

    “D-Dad?” Mispy asked.

    “Ah—I’m sorry, Mispy. I had a horrible premonition,” Nevren said. “You must use your healing aura at all times from here on. Is that understood?”

    “All the time?” Mispy said with a whine.

    “Yes. Can you do this?”

    Mispy grumbled tiredly, but nodded. “Okay.”

    Nevren glanced at his arm. The black patches were already forming. But then he felt the energy radiate from Mispy, coursing through him. The patches faded.

    He sighed. “That’s very good, Mispy. Keep this up while we go through this area. This fog is not normal. It’s made of some strange, rotting energy. We must be careful when we approach, as it will only get thicker. Warn me if your energy is weakening.”

    The wraiths did something similar, but the Ghost Orb was enhancing it somehow. Could that be it?

    “Okay.”

    They continued. Nevren attempted to float above the muck, but his Psychic powers were being suppressed by the fog, too. He had to go on foot. His bag dragged behind him, but he made sure that nothing emptied from it—particularly, his device. If he could just revise the moment, he’d be fine. He just hoped that a moment was enough time.

    They continued through. The fog thickened significantly. Nevren could barely see a few paces in front of him, and Mispy was starting to grow nervous. “Wh-what’s that?” she asked, strained.

    “The end of the Dungeon. We’re quite close. Do you see that distortion? It’s a bit different than the others, because the other side is clearer, and the ripples are a bit stronger. That is the indicator that we are at the end of the Dungeon—or, perhaps,” Nevren trailed off. “Alternatively, it could simply be a pocket between the Dungeons’ sections. If that’s the case…” He sighed. “Then perhaps this will be more difficult than I thought.”

    Nevren made a few strong steps to escape from the pond. The mud sloshed behind him, and his bag bumped heavily against his back. That bag was going to be burned when they got out of this place. He didn’t want to look down to know the condition of his mustache, but its newfound weight told the whole story.

    He passed through the distortion of light, and Mispy’s heart sank.

    “No,” Mispy moaned.

    It was a clearing that lacked trees except for a single one in the middle. The clearing itself had a rippling bubble around it. Trees were beyond this barrier on all sides, but Nevren knew those were nothing but a backdrop as far as they were concerned. This small pocket of stability was no more than twenty paces across.

    “Yes, indeed,” Nevren said. “Unfortunately, this is only a pocket. There is perhaps one more part of this Dungeon to go through.” He sighed to himself, gently rubbing at the stem of Mispy’s leaf. “A shame. But we can at least rest.” He looked around. “The fog is weak here. You may relax your healing and recover.”

    Mispy sighed and collapsed; Nevren caught her gently and leaned against the centerpiece of this stable zone, a large tree—after checking that it wasn’t another wraith. There, she pressed softly against his chest again.

    Nevren took the time to clean the left half of his mustache first. Psychic waves squeezed at it, cleaning as much of the cursed mud off as he could. Then, he moved on to the left, until he was satisfied enough with its shade. It was browner than he would have liked. He then tried, to no avail, to clean his bag with the same methods. Unfortunately, the mud was deep inside its fibers. It wasn’t coming out. Lost cause.

    Mispy tilted her head up. “Why are we here?” she finally asked, as if this question had been eating at her the whole way.

    “For the Ghost vessel,” said Nevren.

    “The… what?”

    Nevren nodded. “The Ghost vessel. A few days ago, Hecto gave word that this cursed place was visited by a Goodra and a team of other Pokémon. This is actually a very important Goodra, and we feared that he might not have even made it through the whole way. This happens quite often, and we rarely see anybody return upon entering. The Goodra went in with an entire squad… so I wonder what their fates were.”

    “That Goodra never returned, indeed, but Hecto was able to observe that the Ghost Orb itself had been claimed, somehow. This Dungeon had become blessed. Incredible! I do not know what special talent this Goodra has beyond being a Divine Dragon, but it was enough to tame the Orb. That being said…” He eyed the surrounding area. “I can’t quite say the same thing about the surrounding area. It is still plagued by the rotting aura.”

    “Mm,” Mispy trailed off. “Rot…”

    “Yes. But it’s safe here, at least.” He dug through his bag and pulled out an apple, inspecting it carefully. It seemed slightly rotten on one side; with a precise, psychic motion, the apple split, and he discarded the blackened half. “Here,” he said, offering the half to Mispy.

    She gratefully took it, chomping ravenously. Nevren dug through the bag and pulled out a few berries. Most seemed rotten, and he had to discard them, but a few were miraculously preserved. “Here you go, as well.”

    “Don’t you,” Mispy said between bites, “need to eat, too?”

    “Ah, I will last,” Nevren said.

    Mispy paused if only to ask another question. “Star’s… blessing?”

    “Well, it doesn’t make it so I don’t have to eat at all,” he said, “but, I shall last, yes.” Just then, his stomach let out a horrible rumble, and he was tempted to revise that moment to spare himself the biological contradiction.

    Mispy giggled, finishing the second berry. She then brought a vine over the final berry and offered it back to Nevren—a simple Oran Berry to fill his stomach, at least a small amount.

    “Ah, there’s really no need,” he said, pushing the vine away gently. “You need the healing energy more than I do.”

    “I’m full,” Mispy said.

    “I know when you’re lying.”

    “Just eat,” Mispy said, tossing it to him.

    He caught it in his spoon, sighing. “Very well.” He flicked the spoon upward, tossing the berry right into his mouth with precise aim. He relished the taste, breathing a small sigh through his nostrils.

    Mispy giggled again, butting her head against his side. “Thank you.”

    Nevren looked at Mispy, puzzled. “Hm? For what?”

    Mispy looked up at his star-shaped face, tilting her head. “I don’t know.”

    “Hm.” Nevren looked past a gap in the dead trees. “Well. Thank you, as well.”

    Mispy unsheathed her vines again, fiddling with them to pass the time. Nevren could tell that she was feeling better, but he gave her a bit more time to relax in this moment of calm. Then, she looked up at him again, and Nevren readied himself for her next question.

    “How come we’re here? For the Ghost Orb?”

    “The Ghost Orb? Well. Up until now, it was the only Orb that we were aware of. And we need to gather those Orbs together, yes? For Star’s sake.”

    “Mm,” Mispy nodded, though she still seemed confused.

    “Is something wrong?” Nevren asked.

    “How come… Star can’t get them?” Mispy asked.

    “Ahh, that is the question, isn’t it?” he said. “A number of factors prevent Star from gathering these herself. The first being that she simply isn’t strong enough.”

    “S-Star? Not strong?”

    Nevren shook his head. “She has power, but she doesn’t have the will to use it. She is a divine entity, Mispy. They operate in a slightly different way than we do, when it comes to their ability to unleash their power. And that power is limited further when they take on a physical form.”

    “Oh,” Mispy said. “Physical. As in…”

    “As in, with a body, in the world we live in. Star is alive in a literal sense. By Arceus’ own design, gods cannot overpower mortals when in their own domain so easily. She is strong, but perhaps not strong enough to take this on.” He waved his arm ahead at the fog of rot that seeped from the distorted light. “So, physically obtaining the Orbs is something she is not able to do. So, why not attempt to claim it from the spirit world?”

    “Spirit?”

    Nevren nodded. “The Orbs have a corresponding Core within the spirit world. They are a connection between the world of the living and the edge of the world of the dead.”

    Mispy’s vacant eyes suggested she understood about half of what he said.

    Nevren hid a pang of irritation. “That is to say,” he went on, “It is a special realm, adjacent to the spirit world. Like a neighbor of the real world. A place between our world and the next. What little divine energy is within them is enough to go just far enough to make that connection.”

    “Divine energy,” Mispy repeated, humming. “Weird.”

    “Very weird, yes.”

    “What is it?”

    “Ah,” Nevren said. “Well. They are fragments of Arceus’ original, full power. When reality was created by his thousand arms, Arceus possessed full dominion and power over it. Early on, he created the upper pantheon—including Star. There’s something special about Star, and I’m not quite sure what it is, but he values her above all else. And she was likely the creative force behind, well, nearly all the species common to our lives.” Nevren looked up. “By my current educated guess, each of these Orbs contain twenty of those arms that Barky once used to shape the universe.”

    “Twenty?” Mispy said, poking little holes in the mud with her tiny claws to count. “Grass… Fire… Water… Ghost…” she listed quietly.

    Nevren smiled slightly. “There are just under 400 of Arceus’ original, divine hands within the Orbs in total. Just over a third. Star possesses a little less than a third, and Arceus retains the rest. And...” Nevren held out his hand, palm toward the sky. A single, thin filament of white light emerged, swaying in the air to invisible currents, “I, as well as the other Divine Dragons, possess a single one.”

    Mispy stared at this filament, wide-eyed. “Wow,” she said in a soft whisper. She brought a vine out and tentatively prodded it. It felt like nothing, yet she could still feel its presence. It felt warm, but not to her body. “But, if you have one, and the Goodra has more…”

    Nevren shook his head. “It’s not quite that simple. More of these does not mean more power. Not directly.”

    Mispy tilted her head.

    “In fact, in a small sense, every creature has a small amount of this same divine influence in them. Consider it the original blessing of Arceus, passed onto the rest of the world. The aura, and the enhancements they provide to the body, and the many techniques that Pokémon can learn.” Nevren stroked his mustache thoughtfully. “Yes, that ties all to the aura. Possessing a Hand merely gives you a bit more of that influence, and lets you expand it further, warping and seizing reality just a bit more firmly.”

    “Reality?” Mispy said.

    “Hmm,” Nevren considered this. “Essentially, it makes it easier for you to change the world, at least in a small sense. For example, with a bit of focus…” Nevren stared carefully at a rock. He reached out and picked it up, and then gently tossed it. He held his hand out and squinted, and the rock stopped falling, frozen in time. And then, after a second of that freeze, it resumed its fall. “Things like that can be done. I have been imbuing some of that divine energy into the technology I make. Delayed teleportation is another. I hope to imbue that power in little items, perhaps badges, or buttons, that one can carry around for emergencies…”

    Mispy yawned. “Okay.”

    “A-ah, is this boring you?” Nevren asked.

    “No, um, I just know.”

    Indeed, this was the third time that Nevren had talked about his badges and his theories. He hoped that Mispy was at least slightly interested in how he was able to do it.

    “In—in any case, divine energy is infinite in supply, but finite in output. You need to build it up in order to utilize it properly, and even then, you must practice in how rapidly it can be released, and how much you can store. More Hands simply means you can generate more of that power at a faster rate, to an extent.”

    “Power to… change reality.”

    “Yes,” Nevren said. “To an extent. I do wish I had a few more Hands at my disposal. With enough power, you can consistently ignore gravity, and enhance your attacks considerably, to name a few techniques, and your sphere of influence expands quite a bit as well. The most immediate example being,” he pointed at the fog, “this rotting smoke. It is certainly the influence of the Ghost Orb’s reality-warping properties, honed and mastered for, perhaps, centuries.”

    Mispy stared uneasily at the black mist. What a horrible place. She should have been home, eating food and sleeping with Demitri. Instead she was here, where it was cold, and wet, and dark. No place for a little Chikorita like herself! She needed the sun. “Can you cancel it out?” Mispy asked.

    “Theoretically,” Nevren said. “But I’m not nearly strong enough to cancel the influence of another set of Hands. Not yet.” He slowly stood up. “I’m hoping to use sense and words with this new vessel instead to gain their favor. We can take the Orb from him, or we can negotiate an alliance of sorts. I will use my premonition to determine which would be best. Are you ready, Mispy?”

    “Mhm.” Mispy wrapped her vines around Nevren’s shoulders. She hauled herself up and settled atop him again, resting between the star-shaped horns that jutted diagonally from his head.

    <><><> ​

    The first thing that Nevren noticed upon entering the next series in the Dungeon was how thick the fog had suddenly become. Nevren worried that he would float in it if he wasn’t careful. Mispy was channeling her healing energy as quickly as she could, but even then, he felt a dull, bruise-like pain all throughout his lower body. He just didn’t have the stamina to deal with something like this on his own. Perhaps someone stronger, like Eon himself, would have withstood such a horrible rot, but he and Mispy were too delicate in their current states.

    What a shame that she is a mere Chikorita, Nevren thought to himself. If she hadn’t destabilized upon fusing with the others, perhaps this entire trip would have been trivialized.

    But that was the past. Too far in the past to revise. The process they used to fuse together lasted longer than a moment—and, therefore, once he realized what was going wrong, he had no way to stop it from happening. And for the same reason, he had to be extremely cautious about this fog. If it irreversibly affected him for longer than his ability to revise, he would be finished.

    He glanced above him, seeing Mispy’s vines dangling idly. “Are you doing well, Mispy?”

    “Mhm,” Mispy said. “The fog isn’t up here.”

    “Ah,” Nevren said. “You’re right. Be careful of your vines.”

    “Oh.” Mispy jerked them upward.

    The lack of creatures here unnerved him. Not a single Pokémon remained in this strange place. Perhaps the fog itself was so corrosive that even the wild Pokémon could not survive within it, not even the Ghosts themselves. But what about the wraiths? Surely they would have been swarming in an environment like this. Perhaps his theories were incorrect, and this was exclusively the Ghost Orb’s power.

    That still didn’t explain the presence of wraiths to begin with.

    But then, he sensed another break in the Dungeon. “What is…?”

    “Distortion,” Mispy said, pointing at the light. It was strong, indicative of the end of a Dungeon’s influence.

    “Yes, indeed. But I did not expect this place to be so… short. I was ready for an entirely new half—but that is certainly the exit. Let’s go.” He had his hand on his cyan emblem and passed through the section.

    Mispy gagged and covered her mouth with her vines. Nevren’s eyes watered and the whiskers of his mustache twitched violently when his face wrinkled. The smell was impossible for Nevren to describe. The smell of death. Cold death that lasted for years. Sour rot and salty remnant.

    Sitting in the middle of the exit, in a clearing surrounded by a lake of black mud, was the decaying remains of some large, slimy dragon. The once vibrant, purple form was blackened like the sludge that surrounded it. Pieces of its body were lying near the main lump and its head was crooked back, mouth agape. Its thick tongue lolled out of the mouth, part of it already rotted away. Its eye sockets were empty, black holes that oozed some strange, brown-purple fluid.

    He and Mispy could only stare at the sight for a full minute. “Awful,” Mispy said. “He’s… he’s dead.”

    “A sad fate indeed.” Nevren nodded. This was what the Divine Dragon was reduced to by the Ghost Orb. In the end, they still had bodies, and bodies could decay. Still, seeing someone as holy as him reduced to a carcass… it was a sobering thought. Madeline… I’m sorry that this had to happen to your son. I hope you are together with him at last.

    Nevren cleared his throat, shaking the thoughts away. “Mispy, can you sense any auras? We are outside of the Dungeon, now.”

    “Oh—” Mispy nodded. “Okay.”

    “There’s a high likelihood that the Ghost Orb is still within his body. I’ll have to dig through it. It is perhaps the least hygienic thing to do, but it must be done.” He tried to float above the muck, but the strange aura of the Ghost Orb persisted. He couldn’t levitate here, either, without strain. He elected to descend the old-fashioned way. It wasn’t very far. If the ground had been solid, the distance from the mud’s edge to its center was only four of his paces.

    “Keep me healed, Mispy, just in case,” Nevren said.

    “Okay.” Mispy kept her vines wrapped around his chest for leverage. She couldn’t take her eyes off the Goodra, even as they got closer.

    Nevren waded through the sludge, and immediately realized that its consistency was thicker than usual. It was mud, yes, and rocks and decomposing plant matter. But it was also mixed with the natural slime that the Goodra species secreted, forming a mass so viscous that he could barely slog through it upon entry. It was like honey. The smell was even stronger here. It would take a week, without stopping, of washing to get rid of the grime from every corner of his body that descended into the pit.

    And there he was, face-to-rotten-face with the decaying Goodra. Nevren figured that the Ghost Orb would be in the chest cavity, at the center of mass. He carefully moved forward, pressing his hand against the chest of the carcass. It had a lot of give.

    He figured that Madeline would have preferred a prayer or a burial, but it wasn’t as if she was alive to see this. He had an Orb to recover; perhaps, if they had the time, they could bury his body after they got what they needed.

    He pressed a bit further in, and the flesh tore away on both sides. The ribcage was far gone; he only had to pull away at a few of the—

    The dead Goodra’s hand spasmed and snapped forward, holding Nevren’s outstretched arm. For a split-second, Nevren had never felt so frightened in his life. Time stopped in his mind.

    “Aaauuuu…” the Goodra moaned, and its head tilted forward with a deep, horrible cracking noise, twitching with each snapping vertebra. Nevren jerked his hand away, tearing the Goodra’s hand off from the sudden movement. Mispy screamed and let go of Nevren. She violently lashed her vines toward the Goodra’s upper body. With a single motion, she smacked the Goodra’s head clean off. It rolled to the side, sinking into the mud.

    Mispy kept screaming, but Nevren reached up and held her. “Mispy! Mispy, it’s okay,” Nevren said. “It’s okay—y-you knocked its head off, yes? It can’t—”

    The Goodra’s body moved on its own. Nevren took in a sharp breath and doubled back, wading through the mud. He was done. This was too much. He did not agree to this sort of horror.

    The thing had a much easier time wading through the viscous mass, as if it flowed around him by his will. The headless Goodra with the exposed chest waded through the swamp blindly; it was hunched over, feeling through the sludge with its tiny arms. Nevren was completely out of the slime by now, just about ready to teleport away from this place, no matter where his attempt at teleporting would take him. Anywhere but here, in this surreal, undead presence.

    “I want to wake up!” Mispy whimpered. “P-please!”

    “I’m afraid this isn’t a dream, Mispy.”

    The Goodra pulled from the swamp its own head and slapped it onto its exposed neck. It was on backwards, the feelers twitching in front. It grabbed itself by the cheeks and rotated. The bones popped into place with a dull thud. Then, he stared at Nevren with those empty, oozing eye sockets.

    “H… huuu… huuooo…” the dead thing said.

    Mispy’s little buds started to glow. Nevren held his hand on her neck. “It’s okay,” he said. “Hang on.”

    Mispy hopped off of Nevren’s head and landed behind him, hiding behind his legs.

    “H—huu… hullooo…” the Goodra said.

    Nevren gulped. “Y-yes, er, hello,” he said. It was sapient? Nevren looked at Mispy again. “Does it have an aura, Mispy?”

    But she was too frazzled to sense anything. And then again, if it had the Ghost Orb within its being, its aura would look strange anyway. There was no telling—

    “Who are you?” the Goodra asked, sloshing forward through the slime. Every word that he said was extended in a long moan, every vowel taking much longer to pronounce than it should have. “I’m sorry,” he said slowly. “This body feels weird.” The slow pace of his words were agonizing.

    “A-ah, so you are struggling to speak, because your body is not cooperating?” Nevren asked.

    “Mmmm.”

    Mispy was still staring, wide-eyed. “D-does it hurt?” she asked.

    “Hurt? Why?”

    “I suppose it doesn’t,” Nevren said. “What a… strong reaction. I did not expect the Ghost Orb to behave this way. I thought it would be more, hm, ethereal, rather than… this.”

    “Lots of ghosts.”

    “Y-yes, I’m sure there are. Goodra, you… befriended the spirits of that Orb, did you not?”

    “Mhmmm.” He finally got out of the swamp, bumbling toward Nevren. The Alakazam responded by taking a step back. But the Goodra kept advancing until he was right in front of him, arms outstretched.

    No, no—not that habit—why does this Goodra need to follow such a horrible stereotype to—

    Nevren was lost to the squishy, slimy, decayed embrace of the rotten Goodra, pressed between his chest and his arms. He smelled of the deaths of a thousand corpses; Nevren’s eyes watered uncontrollably.

    “Yes, yes, it’s very good to meet you, too,” Nevren said, fishing desperately for his cyan badge. Revise, revise, revise! This must be revised! He cannot allow himself to live through this moment. Anything to cut this short. He could dodge it, he’d do anything to avoid this literal touch with death. Mispy was standing behind him at this point, trembling in a strange, confused mixture of laughter and fear.

    “Mmmnn,” the Goodra said. “It was so scary,” he said. “But… but then…!” he sniffled again, pulling Nevren closer. The Alakazam lost hold of his badge in that instant and instead bumped against the exposed ribcage of the Goodra, which felt even softer than the last time. Was this Goodra melting under his own sheer power? Or was that just more of the rot permeating through every piece of the dragon’s decaying form?

    Nevren finally got a hold of the Revisor. His eyes relaxed, and he heaved a slow sigh. Finally, he could escape. He pressed the button, ready to sidestep.

    At first, Nevren thought nothing had happened. But then he realized he was a bit further away from the Goodra again. He was still wrapped in the Goodra’s embrace, and the smell of decay up close hit his nostrils for the first time, for the second time.

    The moment had passed. And upon pressing the button, he had gone to the beginning of that moment to relive it again. Out of pure desperation, Nevren pushed the button for a second time, and a third, and a fourth, putting his hand in his bag early just to try, not caring about any signs of aggression he may have been displaying to break free. The Goodra was oblivious to it all. And the button did nothing; its gray, indifferent color indicated that there was nothing he could do to revise further than he’d already gone.

    And so, he had to last another moment, repeated, in the Goodra’s dead arms. It was the first time in perhaps centuries he wished to cry. And perhaps he was, if only for the stench—and if only for the experience that he had to relive for the second time, stinging all five of his senses. The air was so thick, indeed, that he could taste it. It reminded him of when Eon had forgotten to empty the broken fridge in storage. It had been a decade. It had its own ecosystem.

    “Mmmnn,” the Goodra said. “It was so scary,” he said. “But… but then…!”

    “I—I’m sure it was very frightening,” Nevren said, returning to his senses. “Please—I beg of you—I am struggling to breathe.”

    “Ohhh!” The Goodra released him, and Nevren fell backwards and onto the dirt. The residual slime on his back made the ground stick to him, and he remained there, staring at the empty-eyed death dragon from below.

    Mispy wrapped her vines around Nevren and helped tug him free, chunks of dirt remaining on his back.

    Nevren composed himself with a steady breath, tuning out—to the best of his ability—the sensations that permeated the air. He then glanced down at his Revisor, then back at the Goodra. It was blue again, but if he pressed it now, he’d have to relive that for a third time. He counted the seconds in his head, just to be sure that he wouldn’t have to, and the next moment revised would be one without the hug of death.

    “Now, Goodra, I—suppose I should introduce myself,” Nevren stalled. “My name is Alakazam Nevren, and this is my daughter, Chikorita Mispy. And you are?” He knew the answer, but it wasn’t as if Madeline ever told her son about them.

    “I’m Goodra Anam.”

    “It’s very good to meet you, Anam,” Nevren said, still counting the seconds.

    Mispy eyed Nevren curiously, but then asked, “Is he… evil?”

    “Evil?” Anam repeated. “No.”

    “I strongly doubt Anam has an evil bone in his body,” Nevren said. He also doubted he had bones at all.

    That was enough time, Nevren figured. He could finally—and safely—put to work what he was intending to do in the first place. If the vessel was still alive, then it wouldn’t do to harvest the Orb right now. They probably didn’t have the power to do it. And Madeline likely didn’t have a lot of good to say about the rest of the Divine Dragons… Eon had tried to bring him over a long ago when she had first perished, and that failed.

    He just had to win him over by force. This was the first confirmed Orb that they could get; he couldn’t squander the opportunity.

    “Goodra Anam, could you face me for a moment?”

    “Hmmm?”

    Nevren’s eyes flashed and a wave of psychic energy infested Anam’s mind. The Goodra’s empty eyes bulged and he roared, clutching his head. Mispy yelped in surprise and hopped backwards; Nevren stepped away, too, but then Anam lunged forward and grabbed him by the throat. Nevren wheezed in surprise, clutching the Badge.

    “You dare,” Anam said—his voice suddenly warped and buzzing with a thousand different voices, “control my vessel?”

    Nevren slammed his claw on the Revisor.

    He was standing again, and Anam was right in front, tilting his head.

    “Are you okay?” he asked.

    “H-hm? Yes. I’m fine. Why?”

    Mispy’s leaf flicked. “You were… introducing?”

    “A-ah. Yes. My name is Alakazam Nevren, and this is Chikorita Mispy, my daughter. And you, Goodra?”

    “I’m Goodra Anam.”

    “It’s very good to meet you, Anam,” Nevren lied.

    Mispy eyed Nevren curiously, but then asked, “Is he… evil?”

    “Eevil?” Anam repeated. “No.”

    Nevren was no longer sure. But he played along. “I highly doubt Anam is malevolent, Mispy. He merely… appears to be scary.”

    With another uncomfortable silence passed, he glanced at his bag. The gray button regained its glow. He could try again. This time, he’d do it with a bit more subtlety. Anam was too strong to control outright. He seemed dim-witted, and his mind was open, but there was more to this Goodra than he had initially given credit. Along with whatever that thing is inside the Ghost Orb. So, he’d have to be slower. Smaller thoughts. Disturb the subconscious mind, and perhaps…

    “Well, Anam, I came here to ask you about something,” Nevren said.

    “Ohhh?”

    “Yes,” Nevren said, sending a much weaker, subtler wave toward the Goodra, this time acting on his deeper mind, pieces that he won’t notice. If there was one thing he could appreciate about having only a single Hand of Arceus, it was that it allowed for very minute, precise changes to his reality. “I was wondering, why did you come in here? Why did you go into this wretched place?”

    “Ohh, I wanted to find mm… mmm…” Anam stared at Nevren for a bit longer, those void-like eyes widening a little.

    Yes, just a little more, Nevren said. Just to be careful, he kept hanging onto his Revisor. “You wanted to see who, Anam?”

    Anam was quiet.

    This sort of pause wasn’t supposed to go for this long. “Who did—”

    Arrows suddenly plunged into Nevren’s back, and the sharp pain nearly made him pass out. He turned for only an instant and saw a Decidueye glaring at him. Mispy gasped, wide-eyed and frozen. The Decidueye said something, but the pain Nevren felt made whatever was said flow in one ear and out the other. Nevren slammed his hand on the button.

    “Evil?” Anam repeated. “No.”

    Nevren was quiet. Mispy shifted uncomfortably behind him, as if waiting for Nevren to confirm Anam’s words.

    “Y-yes,” Nevren said. “Anam is not evil. He is a vessel of the Ghost Orb. Right now, his body is adjusting to its power, and he is taking on a… Ghostly form. It must be reacting very strongly to him, for some reason.”

    “Well, this happened to me first.”

    “Ah, is that it?” Nevren asked. “So, this transformation was only partially due to the Orb. The rest was, ahh, you must have withstood quite a bit to get here.”

    That Decidueye was watching him from somewhere. He knew it. The last time Nevren had come here, that Decidueye tried to kill him all the same. Why did he seem so familiar? He never knew a Decidueye. It didn’t matter. Nevren only knew that the ghostly spirit would be suspicious of anything he tried.

    The modification would have to be a subtle thing, so subtle that perhaps only a single, tiny, insignificant thought could be nudged at a time. Nevren tried that, next. He drew into that single hand he possessed, and tried once again to modify Anam’s mind. Just one thought. A simple thought, implanted: that he, the strange Alakazam before him, seemed friendly.

    And he stopped there. He had to add little faults in his mind like that until Anam was open enough, and vulnerable enough, to manipulate quickly, and outright. Anam, the new vessel of the Ghost Orb, was too strong to fight, even now. He checked the button again. It was back to glowing, so he could try again. Around this time, he had been attacked by the Decidueye. But not now. It went unnoticed. The thought persisted. It was possible, but how long would it take?

    He had to get the Orb, no matter what. Anam was too much of a threat to Eon and the others as its host.

    “I like you,” Anam suddenly said.

    “A-ah?” Nevren asked, and he was ready to hit the Revisor again when he came toward him. But this time, Anam held out his cold, dead hand.

    “I want you to come home with me.”

    Mispy shivered. “S-scary m-monster.”

    “Scary?” Anam asked.

    “Your manner of speech is frightening Mispy,” said Nevren.

    “Ohh, I’m sorry,” He held his jaw, trying to adjust it. “Everything’s broken.”

    “M-maybe I can h-heal?” Mispy asked.

    “Heal?”

    Mispy focused and blasted Anam with a rush of healing energy. Residual fog in the air evaporated into empty air. Anam flinched at the light, and the rest of his body blackened considerably, but at the same time, his jaw and chest closed up. While dark, he looked whole again.

    Anam slapped his cheeks lightly, and then adjusted his feelers. They retracted into his skull and then slid back out to their full length, nearly down to his tail, and then returned to their neutral, limp position behind him. “Wow!” Anam said. “I feel great!” And his vocal pacing was finally normal.

    Mispy sighed, relieved. At least now he didn’t look like an animated corpse. The eyes, though. They were still completely black.

    “Thank you! I can talk a lot better, now! I guess I must’ve been more hurt than I thought.” He giggled.

    “Y-yes, well,” Nevren said, “it’s very good that you’re in better shape. “Now, what was that about wanting me to… come home with you?”

    “Oh, right,” Anam said. “Umm, yes! I live in Quartz Crater.”

    “The center mountain? There’s a settlement there?” Of course there was; it was where Madeline had lived, and where the villagers had likely taken care of Anam since then.

    The villagers…

    “Anam, did you not come here with a group?”

    Anam’s expression darkened solemnly.

    “Ah, no. There’s no need to think about that. Tell me about Quartz Crater, please.”

    Anam perked up again. “Yeah! It’s a big climb, but most wild Pokémon can’t get there very easily, and we can see them coming. Plus, there aren’t any Dungeons there yet, either! So it’s nice and stable. The perfect spot!”

    “I see,” Nevren said. “Quartz Crater…”

    “Do you want to become a Heart?”

    “…What?” Nevren asked.

    “Yeah! Umm—!” Anam turned around and dug through the swamp, pulling out what looked like a little, dull stone. Wiping away the grime, the natural shine of the object pushed through. There was a badly-clawed insignia of a heart on the front. “Here! This is a badge that makes you a member of the Hundred Hearts!”

    Nevren took the badge and rolled it in his hand. “This is solid gold,” he stated. “Anam, how in the world did you acquire enough gold to create these Badges?”

    “Huh? What do you mean?” Anam asked. “What’s a gold? I’ve just been getting as many rocks as I could that I could carve a heart into so it looks pretty! This one is a little lumpy.”

    “I—I see. So, you just happen to have a gold ingot?”

    “Mhm! I prayed to Arceus for good fortune, and I think He answered!”

    “Hm, I see,” Nevren said, unconvinced. He did have a lot of time to find something like this, so it wasn’t too surprising. “So, you’re saying that you happened upon this gold piece by chance? How lucky.”

    “Well, some of my friends helped melt it out of other rocks, too. And we made a bunch of other Badges, too! But this is the only one I could make with this material.” Anam stared down quietly. “My friends…”

    “Well, in any case,” Nevren said, “I would be happy to accompany you home, but I will need some time to prepare.”

    Mispy gulped, looking at the drops of black, sticky slime that plopped on the ground. She followed the source to the Goodra’s face. “Umm…”

    Nevren eyed Anam. “Are you crying?” he said. Had he said something incorrect? His hand hovered over the Revisor.

    “N-no, I’m… not! I’m… happy,” Anam sniffled, wiping his eyes. “It’s j-just been a… r-really stressful day.”

    “I can imagine,” said Nevren. “Well. In any case, once I have my obligations in order, I will meet you in Quartz Crater. It will take a few days for me to travel there from where I live, of course, but you should be able to wait. Is that fair?”

    “Okay! I’ll see you then, and, um, travel safe, okay?”

    “I will.” Nevren looked to Mispy. “Now then, let’s return home, Mispy. Compared to here, the rest of our excursion will be easy.”

    “Um,” Mispy hesitated. “Will… will he be okay?” she pointed her leaf at Anam.

    “Quartz Mountain is quite close to here,” Nevren said. “For a Pokémon of his size, it shouldn’t take longer than a quarter of the day. Our trip will be much longer.”

    “Where do you live, anyway?” Anam asked.

    “Ah, I live in the Southeastern Archipelago.”

    “Oh, wow, that’s a corner of the world!”

    “Indeed,” Nevren said. “So, please understand if we take a bit longer. I promise you, however, that I will return within a week’s time.”

    “A what’s time?” Anam asked, tilted his head.

    “Within seven days. My apologies. The Archipelago has odd terminology for the passage of time.”

    “Ohh, okay. I’ll see you in seven days, Nevren!” Anam held out a hand. Figuring that nothing would be lost after how much grime already covered him, the Alakazam returned the favor, and they shook.

    (Part 2/2 below)
     
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2019
  16. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    <><><> ​

    Dark wood floors met white marble walls, though neither were visible in the total darkness. The whole world was silent in this room, except for a weak, single gurgling noise in the corner, atop a wooden bed and thick mattress, large enough to hold a Charizard. There was a blanket on top of this mattress with a smooth texture, stuffed with cotton. It was blissful, being able to sleep under the covers, letting the dull heat of the body course through the pocket of air.

    And then, a disturbance. Someone knocked on the door, and the peace was broken. “Eon.”

    “Mrrrgh. What is it, Hecto? Star’s not here, get over it…”

    “That is not the reason for my call. I also do not appreciate your nonchalance toward Star’s absence.”

    The gurgling stopped and was replaced by shuffling. A Zygarde, an exact copy of Hecto, slid off of the bed and walked clumsily to the door. He went on his hind legs and pushed it open, eyes straining in the sudden light. “Ngh.” Eon shook his head. “What time is it?”

    “It is noon. You overslept.”

    “What happened to your ribbon… thing?” he asked, observing that the green scarf-like extension on his neck was short, ending in a jagged taper.

    “Trapinch have very strong jaws,” Hecto stated. “I have yet to ask Mispy to repair the damage.”

    “Mispy?” Eon yawned. “She left with Nevren for the Ghost Orb.”

    “They have returned.”

    “A-already?” Eon said, jolting.

    “It has been a week,” Hecto stated. “The Rotwood Fen is quite far, and Nevren does not have the energy to perform Teleport so often. He has not perfected the technique due to the Dungeon anomalies interfering with his power. That was his explanation.”

    “A whole week, already?” Eon muttered. “Where did all that time go?”

    “You have spent the past five days sleeping, eating, and brooding.”

    “There’s no need to remind me,” Eon hissed. “I’m merely thinking about our next steps. Nevren’s first plan clearly didn’t work, and now we have to figure out how to stabilize their auras. And what is Rhys suggesting, again? Meditation? What pseudoscience is that?” Eon rubbed his face with his paw. “I need a snack.”

    “It will take centuries to stabilize their auras that way,” Hecto said. “But it is better than nothing.”

    “Nothing. Hmph. Are you insinuating that I’m doing nothing?” Eon asked. “I was the one to send Nevren off, wasn’t I? Why, without me—”

    “I do not question your leadership,” Hecto said, lowering his head without expression.

    “Well… well, that’s good,” Eon said, straightening. The duplicate Zygarde walked down the marble halls. “We need to renovate this place,” he said. “It’s too… sterile.”

    “Hm. Star expressed something similar.”

    “Yeah… Star…” Eon trailed off. “Curse that disgraced Creator for forcing her to withdraw.”

    Hecto’s left paw twitched slightly. “She wants you to keep fighting, Eon. All of us. No matter what Arceus has to say about it.”

    Eon grunted. “Of course.”

    They continued through the hall, and once they entered a large chamber—complete with a small couch and light fixture—Eon spotted the Alakazam sitting on a chair with Mispy resting on his lap, asleep. “Hello, Eon. Er, I imagine that is Eon. Ah, yes, it is.” He only knew because one of the Zygarde transformed into an Alakazam upon being addressed.

    “Hello, Nevren,” said the Alakazam. “How did it go? I do not sense any new power from you.”

    “Unfortunately,” Nevren said, “the Ghost Orb and its vessel is too powerful to overcome.”

    “Even with that lucky charm of yours?” Eon mocked.

    “I’ll have you know, it’s quite useful,” Nevren said, pulling out his Revisor.

    “What’s a little charm like that gonna do for you?” Eon sighed. “Honestly, for someone so scientific, I don’t get how you can be so superstitious about something that turns gray every now and then.”

    “It doesn’t turn gray for no reason. It can look a moment into the future. If it turns gray, it means I must be cautious. It’s incredibly useful, don’t you th—”

    Nevren was blasted backwards by an intense Psychic blast. The wind was knocked out of him, and Mispy squeaked, crying out in pain.

    “N-Nevren!” Eon gasped, running over. “I—you were supposed to dodge that! I—I didn’t mean to—”

    Nevren slammed on the button.

    “Hello, Nevren,” said Eon. “How did it go? I do not sense any new power from you.”

    Nevren paused for just a moment, but then nodded. “Unfortunately,” he said, “the Ghost Orb and its vessel is too powerful to overcome.”

    “Even with that lucky charm of yours?” Eon mocked.

    “I’ll have you know, it’s quite useful,” Nevren said, resting his hand on his bag.

    “What’s a little charm like that gonna do for you?” Eon sighed. “Honestly, for someone so scientific, I don’t get how you can be so superstitious about something that turns gray every now and then.”

    Nevren sighed, but he mentally braced himself. “It doesn’t turn gray for no reason,” he said. “It can look a moment into the future. If it turns gray, it means I must be cautious. It’s incredibly useful, don’t you—”

    Nevren countered Eon’s surprise blast with his own Psychic; this caused the air around them to abruptly twist into a miniature tornado, startling Mispy awake. Eon grunted and stumbled back, feeling some of the aftershock. He was less experienced as an Alakazam, and Nevren knew this; it was trivial to counter his blast, when it wasn’t a cheap shot.

    “Hm, well,” Nevren said, raising his Revisor. “Would you look at that? My good luck charm warned me that you would try something on me. Do you see the gray color?”

    “You don’t say,” Eon muttered, watching the Revisor turn cyan again. “Nrgh. I’ll outsmart it one day. Just you wait. I’m almost positive I had a dream of actually striking you with that blast, too!”

    “Yes, but that will remain but a dream and fantasy,” Nevren said with a nod. “I imagine you would be very unhappy if you succeeded. You could have hurt poor Mispy.”

    Mispy was already asleep again.

    “Ng—w-well, then, it’s a good thing I held back,” Eon grunted.

    He nodded, but then set Mispy down on the cushion and walked with Eon down the hall. Hecto followed wordlessly.

    Lies. That was your strongest blast. “Well, it all works out. In any case, with my Danger Medallion, or as you call it, my lucky charm, I was able to speak to and befriend the Goodra that became the vessel of the Ghost Orb. He doesn’t seem to know who I am; I doubt Madeline was fond of speaking of us.

    “There was no way Elder would have convinced him to give up that power, unfortunately.” Nevren nodded. “The spirits are too hostile. Additionally, I tried to convince him with a wipe of the mind, or rather, I planned to, but my Danger Medallion warned me quite strongly against it. It wouldn’t have worked.”

    “I see. So, there’s no way for us to take the power from him, at all?” Eon asked.

    This gave Nevren pause. “There is one way.” He stopped walking, and Eon and Hecto did the same.

    “So, you already have an idea?” Eon asked.

    “Yes.” Nevren said. “I do not know how long it will take, and I do not know how effective it will be unless I wait for a very long time, but I was able to implant a single, simple thought that I seemed friendly, without raising any suspicion. If I can do small thoughts like that every few days or weeks…” Nevren hummed in thought. “Over time, I can weaken his subconscious mind, and perhaps then get what we need out of him. We could even get a new ally out of this.”

    “A thought every few weeks? A single thought?”

    “It will grow.”

    “For how long, Nevren?” Eon said. “The way you’re talking about this—I don’t know what will take longer, repairing the fusions’ auras, or converting the new Ghost vessel.”

    “I do not know, either,” Nevren said. “But the Goodra is naïve and trusting. I doubt he will catch on. Yes…” Nevren tapped his claws against the back of his hand. “In time, he will be under my control and not even realize it, Eon. Then we can use his power to claim the other Orbs, once we find them, don’t you think?”

    “That’s a bit reaching,” Eon said. “I’d rather go after the Orbs the normal way, if we can actually find them.”

    Nevren nodded. “But until then, perhaps that will be my plan. I promised Anam that I would meet him once I had my obligations finished at my home. It’s quite a far travel… but the first thing I will invest my time in will be that Waypoint system I had mentioned to you before. With some luck, travel from here to there would not be so burdensome.” Nevren eyed Eon. “You are uncomfortable.”

    “Of course I am,” Eon said, crossing his arms. “You’re leaving this place in order to see Madeline’s son? Isn’t that a bit risky, being the Ghost vessel, of all people? What if Madeline’s spirit finds her way to the Ghost Realm? Then what?”

    “Perhaps we can make amends. It isn’t as if it is impossible to repair relations with her.”

    Eon stared a bit more closely at Nevren, but then sighed. “Madeline’s scary, though… I don’t want to imagine what her spirit would be like.”

    “We don’t have a choice in the matter,” Nevren said. “And there is actually something we can use there, Eon. He is the leader of the Hundred Hearts. With his newfound power, perhaps he can go even further. Not only would we gain an ally in Anam, but perhaps an entire army. That’s what Madeline would have wanted. What if we can use her old blessings in Anam and save the world that way?”

    Eon blinked, and Nevren saw, briefly, that spark of hope in his eyes. That undying light; it was almost contagious. Nevren returned his smile.

    The Alakazam continued. “On my way home, in fact, I sensed an odd presence. Creatures with strange auras scouting the land. We have never seen movement like that before, have we?”

    “What is this? Scouting? What sort of creature?”

    “Various Pokémon. All kinds,” Nevren said. “I don’t think we are the only ones hunting for the Orbs, Nevren. Perhaps the Holy Dragons loyal to Arceus are still around after all.

    Eon hummed, the light in his eyes dimming. “It’s been too long since we’ve seen them. I… I do wish we could have made up. We used to be such a great team.”

    “All in the past, I’m afraid,” Nevren said. “Speaking of things in the past…” Nevren lowered his voice. “I don’t know why, but there were wraiths in Rotwood Fen.”

    Eon’s expression darkened instantly.

    Nevren shrugged dismissively; it was all he knew. They had to be careful. “In any case, aligning with Anam will be my goal. I will return here every now and then to continue my research and assistance, and… Eon. Don’t look so betrayed. It is not as if I’m leaving for good.”

    “I—I’m not betrayed at all,” Eon said, turning away.

    Nevren sighed. “Once I can get the Waypoints operational, travel will be trivial. Can you hold out for at least a little while until then?”

    Eon pouted. “I suppose so,” he said.

    With a short silence, Nevren nodded. “In any case, that is all that I have on the matter. Thank you, Eon,” he said.

    “I believe Eon is becoming increasingly lonely,” Hecto observed.

    “Y-you will not make assumptions like that,” Eon said instantly. “I’m just worried. I don’t want to lose anybody else to silly debates.”

    “A schism between Mew and Arceus is hardly silly,” Nevren pointed out.

    “It’s beginning to be,” Eon said.

    Nevren didn’t have a counter. Instead, he conceded with a nod, and refocused the subject. “We have to focus on ourselves for now. For Star. And if Barky’s Divine Dragons are making moves to gather the Orbs, perhaps we should do the same, as Star’s Divine Dragons. Yes?”

    “I suppose you’re right,” Eon agreed. “Rrmf. Speaking of Divine Dragons. Anam. How is he, overall… would you say? Is he like Madeline?”

    “Anam is… nothing like Madeline,” Nevren said. “For one, she would never be so easily manipulated. And I would never expect Madeline to hug somebody.”

    “The Goodra hugged you?”

    “You will never bring this up again.”

    Eon held his arms up.

    Nevren rubbed at his left mustache. “In any case, that is my plan. I hope you are satisfied.”

    “Wait,” Eon said.

    “Yes?”

    Eon held out his hand. “If you go… we need some insurance should something go wrong.”

    “…I see,” Nevren said. He stared uneasily at Eon’s hand. “A Divine Promise, then?”

    “If… it is not too much to ask,” Eon said.

    “Well, asking me to make a Divine Promise implies that you cannot trust me at my word alone,” said Nevren.

    “It isn’t you that I am worried about,” Eon said. “It’s that Goodra. If he harms you… and takes away your power—we’ll be down a Hand!”

    “One of a thousand. An Orb is perhaps twenty times more valuable.”

    “Regardless, I don’t want to take such a chance.” Eon said. “Nevren… do you Promise not to lose your Hand to another?”

    Nevren stared. “…Eon,” he said calmly, “I cannot Promise that.”

    “Wh—why not?!” Eon said. “It’s perfectly reasonable! If you lose your power, I’ll get it instead.”

    “That isn’t how it works, Nevren. You are asking me to give you power that I would no longer have. The Promise would take effect once I lose that power. Therefore, you will gain zero Hands when I break that Promise.”

    “Wh—well, wouldn’t I get the power that the other person got?”

    “Promises are tied to the person, not the power, Eon.” Nevren sighed, wondering how he could simplify it for the Ditto. “And I am not about to Promise not to be in danger of losing my power, either, because that is so broad—who knows how it would be interpreted. You need to be very careful with how Promises are phrased, Eon.”

    “Nrgh… well then, you come up with a Promise, smart guy.”

    Nevren was at least glad that Eon had the mind to defer to his intelligence. “I don’t think there is one that is good enough to satisfy you, Eon, while still being practical. You will just have to take me at my word that I will return, and—”

    “I’ve got it,” Eon said, slamming his right hand into his left palm. “Promise me that you’ll return in two weeks!”

    “…You are becoming codependent, Eon,” Nevren and Hecto both said.

    “Th-that is beside the point. I do not want a fellow Divine Dragon to be away for too long in a world like that, let alone next to a place where wraiths showed up! C-can’t you send Rhys with you, too?”

    “Rhys has to tend to Mispy and the others,” Nevren said, “and I highly doubt he will leave without Elder, and he’s much too slow for travel.” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Also, two weeks is a bit broad. If a storm arrives or some other impediment, that Promise may break accidentally. But if it will make you feel more secure for yourself…” He sighed. “Three weeks. Will that do?”

    Eon grumbled, squeezing his arms with his claws. “Fine, three weeks.”

    Nevren shook his head, holding his hand out. “Then I hereby Promise that within three weeks, that is, within twenty-one revolutions of the world, I shall return here, indicated by stepping onto these marble floors, or however you renovate it by the time I return. Do you accept these terms?”

    Eon grinned. “I accept.”

    Their hands glowed. The light faded, and the Promise was made.
     
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2019
    Chibi Pika likes this.
  17. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 46 – Weapon

    “Is he still sulking?” Jerry said.

    “Looks like it,” Star said.

    Owen paced through Hot Spot Cave’s main road, waiting for everybody else to settle in and discuss their next steps. Enet was bathing with Gahi and Amia in the cave’s nearby hot springs—courtesy of Zena and Amia combining their abilities—washing off the stench of Ghrelle and Ano’s poisoned swamp. Enet, in particular, was desperate to get it out of her fur. Rhys and Elder had retreated to Rhys’ home again to relax together. The rest were milling about, decompressing after their successful or failed Guardian recovery attempts, followed by witnessing Owen get his throat slashed by an outlaw.

    The current talk seemed to be checking up on Anam, and sending Jerry over to Kilo Village again. While Jerry wasn’t looking forward to it, he also didn’t protest it outright. The way they talked, perhaps Anam was merciful enough to give him another chance, foolish as it may be. If someone wronged him in that way, he wouldn’t have trusted that person for the rest of his life. It seemed like Jerry was still searching for an escape route, however. With so many around—particularly with Star right next to him—it wasn’t easy.

    Owen stopped walking and turned, following the same path in reverse with his head down. He was running the battle through his head over and over, looking for ways that he could have improved, scenarios where he wouldn’t have lost. There was also a pit of guilt in his stomach for looking down at Jerry, but also apprehension. Why should he have thought so highly of him in the first place? He was an outlaw! He was the sort of person Owen was assigned to take down.

    “Bahh, what’s his deal?” Jerry rubbed a wing on his forehead. “One loss and he’s bluer than a Mudkip’s rump.”

    “Well, it was a bit of a beatdown,” Star said. “What, he only landed one hit on you, right?”

    “Hmph.” The victorious Aerodactyl gave a noncommittal shrug. “Look, I fought, and I won, so there’s no reason he should be mad at me for doing what I was asked to do. What, unless he wanted me to lose?”

    “That’s kinda the point of fighting, but, I see what you mean.”

    Jerry glanced to his right. Near the central square, Mispy, Gahi, and Demitri were watching Owen pace. Whenever he met eyes with Gahi or Mispy, the glare they gave him nearly caused paralysis.

    He flinched, deciding not to look at them for too long. “What’s their story, anyway?”

    “Genetic weapons meant to fuse together, but the fusing part broke them the first time, so we’re gonna be more careful about it,” Star said. “It’s kinda a long story.”

    “You don’t say.” He rolled his eyes. “So, Vines is their healer?”

    “Pretty much. Demitri, the Haxorus, he’s most of their offense. Gahi, the Flygon, he’s their speed. And Owen ties it all together with, uh, I guess they call it his Perception ability.”

    “Perception? You mean how he doesn’t need to see to see what’s going on around him?”

    “Yeah,” Star said. “Something about expanding his aura to inhabit the world immediately around him. Pretty crazy stuff. Apparently, it’s something like seeing in three dimensions.”

    Jerry eyed the moping Charizard. “It also slows him down. I think I figured out how to put him in a trance by just breaking rocks in the sky. His eyes were going all over the place.”

    “Yeah, Owen isn’t used to his powers. It’s been almost half a millennium of re-living being a Charmander over and over again. He’ll need time for all those memories to reassemble, even if he thinks he remembers it all. He doesn’t. It’s just too much to absorb.”

    Jerry nodded. “And if they fuse together, they’ll get all their powers in one fighter?”

    “In theory,” Star said. “But in practice, there’s some tradeoff. Gahi and Owen fused together won’t be as fast as Gahi alone. Still fast, though.”

    “Who designed ‘em?” Jerry asked. “You said they were genetic, eh, whatsits. So that means they were created?” He flapped his wings in protest. “Why am I even bothering, at this point? Between the quartet of freaks, the immortal nutcases, and literally God in front of me, I’m starting to think this is just a dream from starvation, and I’m halfway rotting in the swamp.”

    Star sighed, rubbing her forehead. “…Actually, yeah. How come I’m telling you this? I’m gonna have to wipe your memory of the past day, I think. This stuff isn’t supposed to get out.”

    “N-no way, I don’t wanna forget pounding that guy into the ground!” Jerry waved his wing toward Owen. “I won’t tell anyone! Okay? Just let me keep this one.”

    Star hummed pensively.

    Jerry stood there in a tense silence, suddenly realizing that Star hadn’t been kidding. She really would try to wipe his memories. “I—I don’t want to forget what you told me, either,” Jerry added. “About Mom, and…”

    “Had to pull that one on me, huh?” Star groaned, tail drooping to the floor. She rubbed her paws on her face, scratching her eyelids. “Fine. But you aren’t telling anyone, got it? Otherwise, I’ll hunt you down and wipe it all away. I’ll replace it with humiliating memories, too, like, uh… I dunno. I’ll think of something. Getting beaten by a Pachirisu in the final round of a tournament, maybe.”

    “Deal,” Jerry said, folding his wings to his side again. “Alright, well, I guess if that’s the case, I think I’m just gonna bail.”

    “Uh—wait, don’t you still need to serve time? You know, being an outlaw and all that.”

    “Whaaat, you’re still on about that? C’mon, isn’t melting and almost getting absorbed into some crazy Altaria’s muck enough punishment?” Jerry continued walking; by now, he was getting the attention of the others in town, and his pace quickened.

    “You’re still wanted for fleeing your sentencing,” Star pointed out, raising her voice when he got further away. That drew the attention of the rest; it looked like Gahi in particular was about to give chase. “You don’t want to make your Mom sad, do you?”

    Jerry stopped instantly. For five seconds, he didn’t move. The crowd that had gathered held still, too. Then, he turned around. “Don’t you dare. That’s low.”

    “That’s true,” Star countered firmly.

    Owen broke out of his thoughts to watch. He could sense the flare of the Aerodactyl’s aura, briefly wondering if this was what Rhys and Mispy had felt all the time. Jerry’s face was twisted into some strange mixture of—Owen didn’t even know what. Anger? Sadness? Both? All of it?

    But something more worrying came up. Jerry’s feet were starting to look a bit purple.

    “Uh—!” Mispy said, and abruptly brought a vine toward Jerry.

    He reflexively jumped away. “Get away from me!” he hissed. “I don’t need—”

    He fell back when he lost his footing—and his feet. He hit the ground hard and grunted. “Wh-what’s happening?! N-no! I thought I was—!”

    Mispy’s vines extended across the rocky cavern and grabbed Owen. The Charizard yelped when he was pulled all the way to Mispy, plunged into her body. Seconds passed—by now, Jerry was missing his legs. Omi, the fusion of Owen and Mispy, opened her eyes and wrapped her vines around Jerry. His feet returned and he, shaken, stood up.

    “Hmm,” Star said. “Maybe we should take you to Emily after all. Omi’s power can only reverse the effects, not remove the condition completely. Too bad. I guess we can fly you over to her instead.”

    “Wh-what’ll happen if I melt completely? I just—die?” Jerry asked.

    “At best,” Star replied. “You could also just be stuck like that until Ghrelle gets you. Or maybe your aura just gets claimed by her? I dunno. See, here’s the thing: auras that get caught up in Ghrelle’s power don’t go through the aura sea. Hecto never finds them.”

    Jerry gulped and held a claw tightly around his scarf. “Guess I’m a Mew worshipper now.”

    “Yeah, I don’t want that,” Star muttered.

    “Can you teleport us to Emily? Our Badges aren’t charged yet,” Omi said.

    “No can do, bud,” Star sighed. “Thing is, the way I’m summoned right now, I’m kinda powerless. I’d only be able to teleport myself at best. And then, being so far away from my summoner, I’d probably evaporate in seconds. You’ll have to get to her on foot—uh, or by wing.”

    “By wing, huh,” Jerry said. “I’m not gonna fly if I might melt halfway there.”

    “Maybe if I…” Omi grabbed the Pecha Scarf still wrapped around Jerry’s neck and focused on it again. Star tilted her head curiously.

    “Huh, that reminds me,” Star said, “kinda surprised you figured out this technique.”

    “What’s it called?” Omi asked. “I—um, Owen tried to do something—anything—to save Jerry, so… he thought a Pecha Scarf would counter the poison.”

    “Well, that’s one way to approach it,” Star said. “Actually, what really happened here is that Owen sorta… blessed that Scarf to have a different effect.”

    “Blessed,” Omi repeated. “Like what Anam does?”

    “Yeah! I mean, all special Scarves are blessed. Pecha Scarves naturally ward off poison, blessed Orans are way more effective at patching up the body—oh, and let’s not forget the Revivers, especially the full-sized ones… It’s not rocket sci—I mean, it’s not too complicated. Owen just made his own custom scarf with the power of his Mystic energy. Probably something like a, I dunno, something that can maintain your form? Hang on, gimme that for a second.” Star floated over and grabbed the scarf.

    Jerry possessively pressed his wing on it, pinning it on his neck. Star rolled her eyes and inspected it without touching.

    “…Yeah… yeah, y’know, it seems like this thing is some sort of Mystic version of a Heal Seed now. Nifty! I’m gonna call it… a Stable Scarf!”

    “You’re not a very creative god, are you?” Jerry asked.

    “H-hey, I’m totally creative! I made, like, almost all the regular Pokémon species!”

    “Over how much time?” Jerry asked. “Figure you had eons to come up with ideas.”

    “W-well, l-let’s see you come up with something from nothing,” Star puffed her cheeks. She shoved Jerry harmlessly and turned to Omi. “Good thinking, Owen. As long as Jerry wears that scarf, he’ll be okay. You guys and a small team should go to Emily and heal him up. Maybe she can purify his aura of Ghrelle’s influence. While you guys do that, maybe make a quick stop at Nate’s place.”

    “Nate?” Omi asked.

    “The Dark Guardian. Maybe we can win him over? To be honest, he’s another one that I don’t really keep in contact with all that much. He’s kinda creepy, and didn’t align with me explicitly, either. So, I don’t really know where his head’s at. And it’s on the way there, if you take the southern way to Em’s place. Then, the rest of us can go to Kilo Village to see how everything’s going there.”

    “Sounds like a good plan to me!” Omi said.

    “Good. Then let’s not waste any time. Let’s divide up!”

    <><><> ​

    The largest group flew toward the south with the intention of passing over the Chasm of the Void on the way to Emily’s. The trip, by wing, would take them the rest of the day, and they’d only be able to get back home before sunrise if they used their charged Badges from Emily’s cave.

    The ones that could fly easily went on this trip, leaving the ground-bound individuals—Mispy, Demitri, Elder, and Rhys, who refused to leave Elder’s side—headed to Kilo Village on foot from Hot Spot Cave, intending to use the public Waypoint instead. Accompanying the Hunters and their two students were Valle, Enet, ADAM, Willow, and Step, some of whom were curious about what this village would be like.

    Demitri rode on Mispy’s back, absentmindedly playing with one of the petals around her neck. Mispy wrapped a few vines around Demitri and anchored him against her back while they walked, eliciting a chuckle from Elder.

    “Rhys, why don’t you ride atop my back as well?”

    “E-Elder, are you… are you sure?”

    “Well, it would be just like old times, would it not?” he replied. “Oho, I saw that glow in your eye, Rhys. I do not mind.”

    Step puffed out an irritable, frosty breath. “The Torkoal walks slowly. At the rate we are going, we will get to town in two days.”

    “A-ah, I have always been… a bit slow.”

    “It won’t be that long,” Rhys said. “There is a Waypoint that we can take that is public to all.”

    “Waypoint. Hm. Of course; there is one this nearby?”

    “Yes; this isn’t a very well-traveled road, but it helped that Nevren installed one for here anyway for Amia and Owen’s sake.”

    The icy Aggron seemed convinced by this, but then asked, “I’m curious on how such a technology came about.”

    “Nevren invented them, actually,” Elder said, “with the combination of Anam’s work a long time ago. He seems quite talented with warp technology in particular, simply imbuing a bit of his power into the Waypoints to get them working. Wonderful technology; perhaps it has to do with his Teleport technique.”

    Rhys continued for Elder, “You may be surprised to learn this, but many of these items simply didn’t exist. It wasn’t until Anam learned how to enchant and ‘bless,’ as it’s called, certain things that the Dungeon items we’re so familiar with became commonplace. Before then, he only knew to bless Dungeons to keep them, er, stable, as we know them now.”

    “Ah, the blessings that Star mentioned,” Step said. “How clever. Where does the power come from?”

    “Hey, yeah, where does it come from?” Willow said, hopping from Demitri’s head and onto Rhys. “They’ve always been around, but why? Is it just Anam?”

    Rhys chuckled. “It seems to be an aftereffect of the way Mysticism works. A small bit of Mystic energy from Star and Bar—Arceus is what powers such items within Dungeons. Anam blesses the Dungeon, and that sparks an endless, steady supply of Mystic energy to generate those items within.” He rubbed the bridge of his muzzle thoughtfully. “It also keeps strange, more dangerous things from appearing within the distortions.”

    “Interesting…” Step looked up, tilting her head thoughtfully. “Owen seems capable of enchanting something, too. So I suppose this technique isn’t exclusive to Anam.”

    “I suppose, though Anam is best at it. Perhaps he’s the most well-practiced.”

    “I see…”

    They continued on their walk. The silence was a welcome change; Rhys was particularly surprised that even Willow was being quiet, even after migrating to another host. Perhaps she was just enjoying the ride while nestled within Enet’s ample fur. Rhys glanced to his right. Demitri and Mispy were remarkably quiet, and he sensed a slightly turbulent flare coming from the two. Demitri fiddled with Mispy’s petals a lot more often, and Mispy’s vine-tapestry lower half stumbled over stray rocks and boulders. “Demitri,” Rhys said, “Mispy. Are you feeling okay?”

    “H-huh?” they both asked.

    “You have been remarkably quiet.” He could sense it in their anxious auras. It was the same pattern that came up when they had encountered their doubles in Trina’s domain. Rhys thought back to Gahi and Owen; they had come to accept it, in a way, but these two…

    Rhys didn’t want to leave them wondering such horrible thoughts. “You aren’t any less a creature than us, you two.”

    “Huh?” Willow asked. “Well, of course they aren’t lesser! I mean, I guess they’re a little lesser since we’re Mystic, but—”

    “The bug will be silent,” Step growled. “Can’t you see they are hurting?”

    “O-oh.” She glowed pink and shrank in size, hopping off of Enet. The Joltik sprouted delicate wings and went to Mispy; the wings vanished in a mist when she landed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think you’d…”

    “It’s okay,” Mispy said, looking back. She understood the sentiment, even if Willow was an idiot. But that didn’t wash away her doubts.

    Seeing exact copies of themselves—down to their voices and mannerisms—with Trina… Were there others like them back in Quartz HQ, right now? Were they replaceable?

    “Rhys,” Demitri said hesitantly. His voice was just a bit higher than usual. Strained, like his throat was constricting. “Are we… prototypes?”

    “What’s a prototype?” Willow asked.

    “A prototype,” ADAM suddenly spoke up, “is the first, preliminary model, or perhaps a proof-of-concept, from which other further items or inventions can be designed off of.”

    “Proof-of-concept,” Demitri slowly repeated. “We were just tests?”

    Rhys glared at ADAM. The Porygon-Z rotated his head nervously. “Muting volume.”

    “What that means,” Rhys said, “is that you are the first Synthetic Pokémon to be born.”

    “We weren’t born, though,” Demitri said. “We were—”

    “You were born, one way or the other,” Rhys said firmly.

    “J-just because you repeat yourself doesn’t mean you’re right!” Demitri’s voice cracked. Mispy slowed her walk and the others followed suit.

    Rhys’ face felt hot and his heart raced as if he was readying for battle. But this wasn’t a fight he wanted to participate in. It was simply one he had been dreading for a long time. What a familiar feeling, Rhys thought bitterly.

    “We don’t have parents!” Demitri said. “We didn’t hatch! I remember seeing those—those cylinders that we came out of! Those were our eggs! Made from glass!”

    Rhys winced. He didn’t think they’d remember that far back. Mispy’s walking faltered, but her vines continued. Willow hid near Demitri’s tail, hoping to avoid the confrontation.

    Nobody said anything. Nobody knew what to say. Even Demitri and Mispy didn’t know the full story; their memories were still slowly returning, starting from their lives in Quartz HQ. What happened after was a blurry mess of repeat after repeat through the ages. But those first memories were vivid. They remembered the lab. They remembered the tests. And they remembered Rhys, Nevren, and the others. They were a family… but they, the “Alloy,” were meant to be a weapon.

    Alloy…

    “The name of our team,” Demitri suddenly said. “When we joined the Thousand Hearts, we were trying to come up with a team name. And Nevren came up with… Team Alloy… because we worked so well together. Like a metal, made from other metals, becoming something stronger. Was that just some sick joke?” Demitri said. “Team Alloy…” Demitri’s claws pressed dangerously against his palms.

    “It’s—it’s nothing like that,” Elder said weakly. But Demitri and Mispy said nothing in response.

    And then, more silence. Their walk was even slower. At this point, Elder didn’t have to strain himself to keep up.

    ADAM unmuted himself, floating a bit closer to the pair of mutants. “I am artificial as well. The files pertaining to my origins are corrupted, but I was not born by normal means. I, too, was designed. I have wondered for a long time whether I truly think, whether I truly exist as a being with an aura.”

    “You certainly do, Adam,” Rhys said quietly.

    “ADAM,” corrected the Porygon-Z. “Yes. I do. And I trust Star when she tells me the same, even if she refuses to tell me where I truly came from. Perhaps it is another Decree. It is… frustrating. My processors overheat at the mere subtask of analyzing those circumstances.”

    “W-well, yeah, but,” Demitri said, “Porygon-Z are just like any other Pokémon. Even you have ancestry, right?”

    “I do not know,” ADAM said. “My aura is strange, even to other Pokémon of my line. But regardless, my species is ultimately an artifact of the lost human world. I cannot fully relate to your circumstances. But I can at least inform you that so long as you think, and so long as you feel, it is only fair that we agree that you exist. Therefore, you must be treated like any other creature. It is… only normal to do so.”

    The wind blew. Tall grass bowed to the group in gentle waves; stray petals and leaves of the waning summer, and the first sign of autumn, blew past them. A single petal of a nearby flower, pure white, got caught on Valle’s unmoving face. Rhys helped to pick it off.

    “I’m very sorry that you two are troubled by your origins,” Elder said. “But, if it is any help, even those who were born based off of your early designs are different from you. They have their own personalities, and experiences, and souls that are distinct.”

    “But,” Mispy said, “we’re… replaceable. If… if we weren’t good, you could make more.” She scanned the field aimlessly. “Easily.”

    “You already made more,” Demitri said. “When we broke, you guys must’ve fixed our designs. And tried again. That’s what happened, isn’t it? Rhys? After we went crazy, and Star split us apart? You kept us away from all the training. We didn’t go through tests anymore. Because we were a failed experiment. Nevren and you—you were going to design better versions of us.”

    “That isn’t—that’s not how I thought of it,” Rhys said. “I… I was focused on helping your auras. The meditation replaced your testing—not that you could remember any of that. When you were split apart, you forgot nearly everything about yourselves. You were kids again. I tried to take you on a few excursions. Sealed away, you were safe.”

    “And during one of those, that’s when Owen killed Klent,” Demitri said. “Trying to gather the Orbs. Still using us for your stupid Hunter mission—trying to train us to handle our evolved forms all over again… Y-you were still using us as weapons!”

    “It—it wasn’t like that at all!” Rhys said. “Owen lost control. There was already so much bloodshed, even before Klent, before we got you involved. There was an entire war, Demitri—all over control of Kilo, and the Guardians had become involved in it.”

    “The… the war?” Demitri asked.

    Beneath Rhys’ fur, his face blanched. “No. Don’t remember,” he said. “Don’t.”

    Demitri and Mispy exchanged glances, but they had no recollection. It must have been during a time when their lives were on repeat, or perhaps they simply hadn’t been involved.

    Rhys shook his head. “I never wanted to hurt Klent. I was trying to negotiate, and… and things went awry. After that happened, I had to revert you all so you’d forget, and I had a change of heart, then. I spirited you all away to my next assignment, Amia, and—that was it.”

    “And that’s how it all went.” Demitri said. “You trained us there, quietly. Until we got unstable again. And then, I bet you had to leave Owen behind, so we’d never be at risk of fusing into the Alloy. Right? But… I don’t get it. If you just left the Hunters, couldn’t Rim, or D—or Eon, couldn’t they have just…?”

    The ex-Hunter paused. “She could have. Perhaps. But, to be honest, I am not sure why she did not try to attack. Didn’t pursue us at all. I’m not even sure why she attempted to take the Orb recently, rather than all that time she had before. All that time. It bothers me every day.”

    Despite everything that was happening, and despite their memories coming back in full, it still felt like there was a lot they didn’t know. Every piece of the puzzle that was their past was there, but it was all scattered and scrambled.

    The brief, gentle silence was undercut only by the heavy steps made by their Icy companion.

    “Did you use us in that war, too?” Demitri asked.

    “No,” Rhys replied immediately. Despite the quickness, he showed no signs of lying.

    “Tell the truth,” Mispy said. “I’ll… I’ll kill you if you don’t.”

    “It’s the truth,” Rhys said. “You were in no condition to fight in something of that scale. I promise you, that was one fight you were kept far away from. Eon would have none of it.”

    “So, you’re saying if we asked Eon, he’d say the same thing?” Demitri asked.

    “He would,” Rhys said. While he felt a pang in his heart that they didn’t trust his word, he had no grounds to expect that from them.

    And then, the statue spoke up. “You two are disturbed by your many copies,” Valle said, “but you are also the only Demitri and Mispy that I know. Just as there are many Shiftry in the world, or many Joltik, or even other Haxorus and Meganium. Just because you are of the same species does not mean you are identical. We have living examples among us. Two Lucario, Rhys and Manny. The same species, yet dissimilar. Is that not the same for you two?”

    Enet finally spoke up, catching on to the conversation. “You’re good!” she declared.

    “W-well,” Demitri said, “it’s one thing to be the same species, but they’re… us.”

    “From what I gather, they behaved differently,” Valle said. “None of us will confuse you for another of your design. That would be quite rude. No two souls are the same.” Valle paused, then, as if something had crossed his mind. “Hm…

    “Y-yeah,” Demitri said. “O-okay.”

    Rhys sighed. This was not something that they were going to be able to resolve in one walk. Perhaps not even one moon would be enough to help them cope with their circumstances. But it seemed like, at the very least, Demitri and Mispy understood that they in the group would accept them.

    Demitri returned to fiddling with Mispy’s petals. After a while, he leaned forward and rested against the back of her neck, closing his eyes. He was careful to keep his axes from cutting her accidentally.

    The Haxorus opened his eyes. “Hey, uh, I kinda just thought of something. We’re heading right into Kilo Village, right? But, uhh… I mean… Don’t we kinda… stand out?”

    Rhys stopped walking. Up until just then, the thought had eluded him. Based on the reaction of everyone else, it hadn’t occurred to them, either.

    He was so used to being around the abnormal that it had become commonplace. Step was a walking ice sculpture. Mispy was a complete behemoth. Valle was a floating statue.

    How would they enter town like this?
     
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2019
  18. Ambyssin

    Ambyssin Winter can't come soon enough

    39
    1) Dragon pride is saiyan pride, change my mind. :^)
    2) Poor Zena. One fusion dance is all it takes for Gahi to supplant her as Owen's snuggle buddy. Seriously, the two lay down and talk about not being in control. Out of context, it sounds like they've got raging hormones over each other and are exhausted because they, well... yeah.
    3) In all seriousness, it's a nice, candid conversation. If a bit, uh... late, I feel like? I know the events with Emily were curious and maybe her healing aura or whatever kept Gahi from freaking out, but for me I find it narratively weird you're choosing to do a decompression chapter after we basically had an exposition chapter that (perhaps unintentionally) decompressed the Act 1 climax.
    4)
    We interrupt Hands of Creation to bring you a body positivity memo?
    5) So... Rhys can do Tien's cloning thingamajig, too? Wonderful. Or it's an aura horcrux.
    6) Oh, hey, look, they evolved. I guess it's, uh, unique to go with these low-stakes evolution situations given how Team Alloy's evolving perils is a sort of overarching plot thread.
    7) [ending line] Huh. Didn't think we'd be geting a Steven Universe crossover in this PMD fic. Well, it's obviously supposed to be a shocking tie-in to the next special episode and a big dramatic twist and stuff. But, again, the danger of constantly putting in twists and stuff is that you risk some of your readers becoming apathetic to it on the whole. Or, in my particular case, choosing to react to it with dry humor.

    SE3
    1) Actually, considering this seems to focus on the failed fusion, we really DID interrupt this PMD fic for a Steven Universe crossover.
    2) So, we see their lab rats days. And they were actually lab rats. Looks like I was right about Eon being Owen's dad... so to speak, anyway. The Hunters are a convoluted, dysfunctional family anyway. And I'm also right about Eon being a Ditto.
    3) How can they sneak out when there are a bunch of aura readers and whatnot in this base? No, I refuse to accept Owen's Perceive is that good it can somehow avoid— oh, good, they got caught. I guess this HQ is a mystery dungeon? Sure...
    4) And the blindfold thing Eon does is, I guess, confirmation that he's Deca and that disguise is a way of keeping tabs on Owen.
    5) Oh, huh, Poké Balls? Maybe this HQ becomes the Factory that Brandon ends up squatting in as a result of the fusion failure. :V
    6) And, as expected, it all went belly up. I will say this chapter serves as a good introduction to Team Alloy's full-powered abilities. Foreshadowing of what's to come, I suppose.

    Prelude 2: Prelude Harder
    1) #BarkyDidNothingWrong

    40
    1) Of course both the aura dogs are gay. That's, like, apparently turning into a requirement for male lucario these days.
    2) Real talk it's nice that Rhys isn't so stoic. Gives him some more depth since, for the entirety of Act 1, he's mostly the stoic and/or comically serious cast member.
    3) Whoever gets the Orbs will tip the scales, eh? Boy, Fire Emblem Awakening sure took an odd turn!
    4) I do appreciate that you're doing a much better job in handling the fusions and signifying how they're acting. The exception behind the start of the poison dungeon where you dropped the Gawen and returned to swapping between Gahi and Owen.
    5) Gawen freaking out over items is basically just Owen emulating every PMD player ever.
    6) Oh, look. Aerodactyl shows up to start off an act again. What a coincidence. Honestly, though, while I understand the decision to end Act 1 on SE3, it does make the start of Act 2 pretty underwhelming to just have things starting with the same formula we've been following for, uh, how many chapters exactly? Dunno, but it's enough to where I have to raise an amused brow at the fact that you weren't a fan of the pattern some of my early episodes took, when I'd argue I actually left the "Team Radiance does assorted missions" formula faster than you've been in this pattern here. I don't mean any offense by it or anything, it just made me chuckle. And, I suppose, wonder why you didn't just to end Act I on a cliffhanger and start Act II with SE3 to throw people for a loop of sorts?
    7) This brief skirmish with Jerry is a decent measuring stick of how much things have changed. Also, as an aside... seriously? You made the Average Joe of the group a Jerry? [groans] Jerry. Are you aware there's a Rick & Morty character named Jerry whose entire character is basically being a memetic loser? Expect a "[groan] Jerry" every time this guy appears, now.
     
  19. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    I uh. They uh. Rhys and Manny fought and grappled too, and they aren't Dragons.

    From a narrative standpoint, it was a little odd in the timing. This conversation was more or less meant to be a point where they could relax after everything that happened and they were alone -- Gahi isn't the sort of person to show his cards in front of everybody. But when it was just him and Owen, he finally felt secure enough to wow they really do sound like a ship.

    Yep, "Eon is Deca" confirmed.

    Join the club! Lots of people are in it.

    Yes, this was definitely some payoff for Rhys finally making himself vulnerable, too. He tries to make it look like he has everything together, but sometimes that's just not the case and he has to accept that.

    Preparation! Always!

    This is indeed a bit of an odd spot for me. There aren't really many Guardians left to tackle, though. I suppose pacing wise, I could have put this in Act I somewhere if I squeezed a few things differently, but... well. There aren't many Guardians left. By definition, the formula can't last much longer.

    Jeremy, no less. I guess he got a bit ahead of himself. Hopefully he doesn't lose his head while he's with the group. Head joke.

    Anyway, the next chapter is incoming! Just some final finishing touches.
     
  20. Namohysip

    Namohysip Dragon Enthusiast

    Chapter 47 – All’s Well

    If it wasn’t for the fact that Hot Spot Road was rarely traveled, bystanders would’ve reported them to the Hearts as mutants roaming the world to be contained—or neutralized. Rhys gulped. That wouldn’t do well for Mispy’s psyche in particular.

    “Th-that’s right,” Rhys said. “Well. I suppose if that’s the case, we should, hmm… If only Nevren was with us. He’d be able to seal those memories like when Owen ran off in his Grassy form.”

    “I can revert to my normal form, if you wish,” Step said. “I do not want to cause any trouble if it is not necessary.” The icy Aggron breathed out a slow, frosty breath that permeated the air around them.

    Mispy’s vines writhed from the cold. She shivered and wrapped around Demitri even tighter, squeezing the air out of him—even though he, too, was cold-blooded. She wouldn’t mind fusing with Owen again—at least he had the natural warmth of a Fire Type.

    The Haxorus, increasingly more constructed, wheezed, “Mispy… you’re… choking me…!”

    “S-sorry.” The mutant Meganium released Demitri and he slumped against her back.

    Step’s body lost its transparency and became its normal, gray, steely color. She took one step and stumbled forward, slamming directly into the ground with a loud grunt. “Urngh, how—inconvenient!” she shouted, pushing herself off the ground. Rhys rushed to help on one side, and Mispy brought a few vines back to stabilize the other.

    “A-are you okay?” Mispy asked.

    “I am much heavier in this form,” Step mumbled.

    Rhys huffed from below. “Y-you don’t… say…!”

    He pushed Step onto her feet, where she stabilized herself with her tail and took another step. She wobbled and nearly fell forward again, but a quick jerk of her arms kept her in place.

    “Okay. How about you, Adam?” Demitri asked.

    “ADAM, and I am already the Normal Type,” said the Porygon-Z. “I do not have an alternative form.”

    “I mean, yeah, but Zena’s the Water Type and she has a Water form,” Demitri said. “Don’t you have some sort of special power?”

    “I do.”

    “Oh. So…?”

    “It is not visible.”

    “Oh. Okay.” Demitri and Mispy exchanged a glance, but then shrugged—for Mispy, this manifested as a bunch of her front-facing vines moving upward, parting ways to reveal even more vines beneath.

    “Hmm.” Rhys eyed Demitri and Mispy. Demitri would pass as normal—he was a bit muscular, but as long as he didn’t detach his tusks, he wouldn’t draw much attention. Mispy was the problem. “Perhaps we should have brought the Poké Balls in Brandon’s factory after all…”

    Mispy tried to wrap her vines around themselves to form makeshift legs, but it didn’t work as well as she would have hoped. Not only were they too thick to fashion into proper limbs, but they were so abundant that she’d look more like she belonged with Trina’s Bug spirits than anything.

    “Mispy, you will need to be on your best behavior,” Rhys finally said. “All of us are more or less normal in appearance, but your form is heavily modified from the average Meganium. It may frighten the civilians.”

    Mispy’s eyes widened. “B-but, I can’t help it!”

    “Nor can I,” Step said, her steely gaze fixed on Rhys. “My species is naturally intimidating. Am I also banned from this society?”

    “N-no, not at all,” Rhys said quickly. His tail hid between his legs unconsciously. “We just need to… hrm.”

    Suddenly, Mispy’s body changed shape—from the monstrous vines, to four normal legs, and even a cute little tail that naturally came with a Meganium’s pale green body. Rhys stammered, “H-how is—what is—?”

    “Not scary,” Enet cheered, waving her paws.

    “My goodness—that’s brilliant, Enet!” Elder said. The Torkoal chuckled to himself for several seconds, the group stopping to marvel at the technique. “Enet’s illusions, of course! Were you listening this whole time?”

    Enet may have understood a few of Elder’s words. “Listen. Yes! Listen. Mispy… scary body. I make… less scary.”

    Mispy tilted her head. “What do you…?”

    “You don’t feel your legs, Mispy?” Demitri asked.

    “Legs?” Mispy looked down. “Eek—!” As if reacting to a Bug-Type, she flailed her front legs in a panic—Demitri felt something invisible smack against his head, and then another invisible force squeezed his body tight.

    “W-wait—vines—! Mispy—vines—!”

    “Wh-what?”

    “It’s just an illusion!” Elder said. “Mispy! You don’t have legs! Enet is just making it look as if you have them!”

    “Fake!” Enet said.

    “Fake?” Mispy had been bucking in the air, trying to feel the legs that she didn’t have. Demitri was dizzy from compression. But when she sank back down—and, more importantly, closed her eyes—she felt that, indeed, she just had vines, vines, and more vines. And she sighed, relieved. She didn’t know how she lived with legs for so long—gliding along the ground with the locomotion of her tendrils was so much better.

    “Good! I guess now we look normal,” Elder said. “Ahh, except…”

    All heads turned to Valle, the last of their group to not revert to something more normal in appearance. “You know, Valle, it might be a bit unsettling to see a Pokémon turned to stone. Your statue is too detailed.”

    “Mm,” said Valle. “Well, it is not as if Pokémon turn to stone normally.”

    “Ahh,” Elder hesitated. “I suppose not.”

    Rhys glanced at Elder, but then looked at Valle again. “Perhaps you should revert to your original form, Valle. Surely you remember it?”

    “I will not. I shall be silent in public and will be a statue.”

    “You’re heavy,” Enet said. “Not carrying.”

    “Oho, you may be a strain, even for me, Valle,” Elder said. “Please, is it too difficult to return to normal?”

    “It… it would be,” Valle said. “I have not moved in a very long time.”

    “You moved!” Enet said, bounding toward him. “Your arm! Remember? And attacked Gawen! And, um…” Enet counted on her claws.

    Willow bounced a few times while atop ADAM’s head. “Your arm fell off at the Frozen Oceanside.”

    “I remember this,” ADAM said. “But that was not a voluntary movement. The ice ruptured his joints, and he had to re-grow the arm from the rocks of Hot Spot Cave.”

    “Yes. I hardly count those as movements. Gawen was necessary. But this is not. I am a statue.”

    “Move!” Enet said, gently patting his back. “Not bad!”

    “I… I would rather not.”

    “Why not?” Enet asked.

    Valle didn’t answer. A stray blade of grass blew into Valle’s stone eye. Enet tilted her head and picked it away, but then asked again.

    “Why not?”

    “I,” Valle said, but then paused. “I don’t know if I can. I’m… perhaps I’m afraid to.”

    “Afraid?”

    Valle was quiet again.

    “Valle,” Willow said, “it’s okay to move.”

    “It—it is not!” Valle suddenly said.

    The outburst made Willow shrink to half her size, crawling along ADAM’s eyes to hide between the space between his head and body again.

    Valle continued. “What I mean is, that is…” He settled down again, and then rotated his entire body around. “This is not something that I wish to speak about.”

    “Valle!” Enet said impatiently. “Be… normal!”

    Rhys and Elder exchanged uneasy glances. They looked at the statue again.

    “Valle,” Rhys said, “have you truly become so used to being a statue, that the idea of returning to normal frightens you? What do you mean, you can’t turn back?”

    “Hrmm,” Elder said. “I imagine a lot of our Guardians have warped their minds in some small way in their solitude. Even with spirits to entertain them, the body craves interaction. It doesn’t help that spirits tend to behave like their hosts, if enough time passes within their realm. Valle must have been dormant for so long that the very idea of moving is frightening to him. As if his world would shatter. Is that right, Valle?”

    “I… am… I am stillness,” Valle said. “I cannot move. For I am the Guardian of…”

    “But why, Valle, when so many Rock Pokémon are capable of movement?” Rhys said carefully, yet firmly. “There is nothing to fear with this warped mentality. You can move, Valle. You can.”

    “You have already moved before,” Elder said. “You can move again. You will be fine.”

    “It… it is too much.”

    “Just arm. Come on!” Enet encouraged. “Again! Huh?”

    Valle rumbled angrily. “Insolent feral…”

    The Zoroark’s fur puffed to twice its size. “What’d?!” Her fur sparked with electricity.

    “N-now, now, let’s calm down for a moment!” Rhys said as ADAM buzzed with anxiety.

    “There is no need for infighting,” Elder quickly said, trying to diffuse. “We have enough problems as it is, yes?”

    Enet hissed at Valle and flicked her claws toward him. The statue vanished in an instant.

    “E-Enet!?” Demitri said.

    Enet huffed and turned around. “No.”

    “Enet! Where’d he—oh.” Demitri shook his head. “You just… made him invisible.”

    “Don’t want to see.”

    “W-well… that’s as good as anything, I suppose,” Rhys said. They could discuss Valle’s phobia of movement later. With that final anomaly out of the way, they could walk into the village without making a scene with their mere presence. They saw the Waypoint—a small, metallic tile with a Heart insignia embedded into the ground near the end of the path. Rhys demonstrated first, stepping onto it. He vanished in a flash of light. This was followed by the others.

    It was nice to see a bit of normalcy in town. Pokémon meandered through the streets in search of an early dinner. Hearts who had finished their missions, easy and hard alike, were tuckered out and ready for a nap. The swing shift of the Hearts was out in search of breakfast before their evening mission.

    A few starstruck Pokémon spotted Rhys and waved enthusiastically, and Rhys remembered that he was an Elite Heart. He waved back, and Elder looked back at him, amused.

    “I see you still have quite a reputation with the youth,” he said. “I’m positive I saw hearts in their eyes.”

    “Y-yes, well… I suppose I do.” Rhys blushed and focused on a random pebble next to a building. His tail brushed against the Torkoal’s shell. “Nothing will replace you, Elder.”

    “Oho, I’m hardly worried, Rhys. Let them admire.”

    Step rumbled nervously at the sight of so many Pokémon. “This is a dense population,” she said. “How do you all eat? I cannot imagine it is very easy.”

    “Well, it wouldn’t be, normally,” Rhys said. “But we have developed small farmlands in the outskirts of town, beyond the mountain range. Though, I suppose as the farmland expands, we may run out of habitats to fill before we encroach upon the nearby Dungeons.”

    “Mm. That is a concern,” Step mused. She scanned the buildings again; it had been a while since she had visited here, and it was only for a brief time. She hadn’t paid much attention to what it looked like. “What is that strange structure resembling two ovals?”

    “Two ovals?” repeated Rhys.

    “Yes. Two ovals merging as one. The large, red structure.”

    “A-ahh, the Heart,” Rhys said. “Well. That is the Thousand Hearts Headquarters. That shape? I’m not quite sure why it’s called a Heart, since hearts do not normally appear that way. But that is a cultural shape for a heart; it was part of Anam and Nevren’s designs a long time ago. Anam wished for a heart theme for his little association.”

    “I see,” Step said. “And Anam. Did he design these things when he was a child?”

    Rhys winced. “No, he did not.”

    “I see. And he is your leader?”

    Rhys wished to sink into the ground. “Yes. He is.”

    “I see.”

    Step said nothing more.

    “Oh!” Enet pointed a claw at the stairs to the Heart, where Nevren was stepping outside. “That’s, umm…!”

    “That’s Alakazam Nevren, Step,” said Rhys. “He is also an ex-Hunter, like myself. He spends his days assisting with the daily tasks and management of the Hearts. Every so often, he also handles the more difficult missions, particularly the, er, mutant missions, if they arise. You see, mutants have a tendency to… cause trouble when they stray from Eon’s army. It’s a constant problem, and from what Nevren told me, it’s only gotten worse as they try to hunt down the Guardians.”

    “You mean, strays of our kind?” Demitri said uncomfortably, shifting his weight.

    “Y-yes, well, it isn’t as if it is safe for the hostile ones to be around,” Rhys said. “I dispatch of them, when needed. I do not know their aura key as I do for you, so—there is not a way for me to… revert them to a calmer state. Instead, Nevren and I have found… safe drop-off locations.”

    “Drop-off?” Demitri said. “So… so Rim gets them, or something?”

    “That’s the theory,” Rhys murmured. “…It doesn’t feel right to kill them. They were led astray. We can’t merely…” He thought about Manny and his tendency to kill his mutant opponents. They just became part of his spirit realm. He shuddered.

    “But they’d just try to kill us again,” Mispy said, “Or they’d hurt others.”

    “If they’re taken care of by Rim and Eon, they should be under control,” Rhys said uneasily. “That’s—simply how it is.”

    “Ahh, are you talking about how we handle the Synthetics?” Nevren asked on his approach; there weren’t any others around to hear the conversation other than their group. “There is no need to worry, Demitri. These strays seem to happen from time to time, and killing them won’t stifle the flow. I’m not very pleased with the fact that they are strays to begin with.”

    “Y-yeah, no kidding!” Demitri said. “Those things are scary!”

    Mispy nodded. “W-well,” she said, “we’re scary, so…”

    “Where is the Goodra?” Step asked.

    “Ahh, Anam? He is still inside his office, if you would like to see him. It is a pleasure to meet you. And you are… which Guardian?”

    “I am Aggron Step—of Ice.”

    “Very good to meet you, Aggron Step,” Nevren said. “Now then! Would you like to meet our grand leader of the new world?” He chuckled.

    Rhys winced. “That’s not very funny, Nevren.”

    “Ohh, just a bit of nostalgia, Rhys,” Nevren said dismissively.

    “Let’s see Anam!” Demitri said. Nevren nodded and stepped aside to let them all in.

    The bulky Aggron carefully walked up the stairs, though this proved to be extremely difficult. She didn’t trust the flooring, and wobbled once she was nearly to the top. “This is not an ideal place for me.”

    They steered clear of her path. The last thing they wanted was for their story to end because a half-ton of living rock and metal fell on them. Step was already bigger than the average Aggron; imagining that on top of their bodies briefly reminded Rhys of when Emily subdued him. Sometimes, Rhys wished he could wipe his own memories the way he could for his students.

    After an agonizing ascent, Step entered the Heart and stared at the colorful walls suspiciously. “I have always wondered: how did you make such a strange color for the walls? What special rock is so vibrant?”

    “It’s not rocks, Step,” Demitri said. “It’s paint! I think they crush up special berries or something and mix it with, um, water, and stuff.”

    “Paint,” repeated the Aggron. “I do not know what that is.”

    “It’s like a coating that you put on rocks and buildings so they can look like something else. See the lines? You can’t get lines like those on rocks!”

    “Hm.” Step eyed the pinks, reds, and purples of the Heart’s interior. She observed the dark purple on the ground, and how one of these paths led to a room near the back of the structure. A Decidueye stepped out of this room and locked onto their group. “He appears to be important.”

    Rhys grunted in affirmative. “That is Decidueye James.”

    “He’s boring!” Willow amended. “But he’s Anam’s assistant! And Anam is super nice!”

    “Hm.” Step walked to James and held out her hand. “Decidueye James. I am glad to meet someone of sanity. My name is Aggron Step, of Ice.”

    “Ah—so you were able to be rescued after all? That’s wonderful.” James then addressed the others. “We apologize for being so silent toward you the past few days. There was an extraordinary backlog of paperwork to sort through, and it took my, Anam’s, and Nevren’s combined efforts to sort through it all. We shouldn’t leave the Hearts alone like that for long again.”

    “I don’t blame you,” Rhys said with a grin. “Well, we just wanted to make certain that everything was all right. May we see Anam, or is he busy?”

    “We just finished. He’s just taking some time to relax in the pool.” James turned around. “Come.” He eyed Mispy curiously. “…Why does she look normal?”

    Enet waved.

    “Ah.” James turned and led the way inside.

    There, the Goodra was sitting in the middle of the pool in the back of his office with his eyes closed, a dumb smile on his face. The water was thick with slime—it had been too long since his last good, warm soak.

    Step crossed her arms skeptically. “This is your leader?”

    Anam’s right feeler throbbed and he opened his left eye. “Oh! Hi!” When he stood up, it became apparently that his body was swollen from soaking in the water for so long. Where his body ended and the pool water began was unclear. “Hi! Hi! Um—who are you? I’m Goodra Anam! Ghost Guardian!”

    “I am Aggron Step—Ice Guardian. It is”—Step searched for the word—“interesting to meet you.”

    “It’s interesting to meet you, too!” He climbed out of the pool; slimy water dripped on the stone ground, darkening the floor. He held out a gooey hand, and for just a second, Step looked trapped.

    She hesitantly brought her hand forward and gripped Anam’s delicately, worried that her metal body would crush the amorphous, tiny thing if she pressed any harder. His hand had such an incredible amount of give that she could feel her own claws touching through the palm. She let go when she realized this, and Anam tilted his head.

    “Are you okay?” he asked.

    “I—I think I stabbed your hand,” Step said quickly.

    “Oh, it’s okay! I’m just jiggly.” He held his hand up, revealing no injury.

    “A-aren’t Goodra still solid creatures? I’ve met your kind before, and they weren’t…”

    “I’m a little weird because of the Guardian stuff,” Anam said. “It’s fun being like this!”

    “Fun. Yes. Well.” Step shook her head. “I cannot relate, but I will take your word for it, Goodra. I hope my contribution to this group will be useful.”

    “I bet it will!” Anam nodded. “Oh! Let’s go home! I finished everything I had to do here for today. Where’s everyone else?”

    Valle spoke up. “The others left for—”

    James hooted and beat his wings in surprise—Valle had been standing right next to him, invisible due to Enet’s illusion. A few loose green and brown feathers scattered on the ground. “V-Valle! Inform me of your presence, the next time, yes?!”

    “The others left,” Valle said, “for Emily, due to an extended mission. An outlaw, Aerodactyl Jerry, attempted to ambush Owen’s team in Dark Mist Swamp. However, his impure heart caused Ghrelle, the Guardian of the Poison Orb, to melt his body.”

    “Melt,” James repeated. “Are you certain?”

    “I witnessed it myself,” Valle said.

    “The Aerodactyl,” Step said, “was nothing more than a head attached to a Pecha Scarf when we first saw him.”

    “Goodness,” James said. “How horrifying.”

    “But it’s fine,” Enet said.

    “Yes,” Step agreed. “Owen fused with this one.” She motioned to Mispy. “And that enhanced her powers, between her healing talent and his Mystic enhancement.”

    Mispy nodded. “But he started to melt. Again.”

    Rhys thought back to how helplessly Jerry had begun to melt; it must have been even more terrifying the first time. “He would likely dissolve instantly if he took away that scarf, so going to Emily would be the only way to heal him completely. At least, that is the hope.”

    Anam nodded. “Well, if we’re gonna just wait for them, let’s go home! I wanna try one of those hot springs in the cave!”

    “Oho, hot springs?” Elder asked. “Goodness, why did you not tell me about this, Rhys? I would go there instantly. I’m still feeling a tad chilly from Step’s, er, method of storage.”

    Step’s metallic face could not emote very well, but her eyes held her smirk. “Good.”

    Anam stomped outside. “Let’s go! I’m sick of paperwork!”

    “I must agree,” James said.

    Rhys sighed, relieved. He was glad that their absence was only because of paperwork. He had the most sinking feeling that something had been wrong due to their extended silence—but, from what Rhys could tell, it was just because of some extra paperwork.

    “Oh!” Anam suddenly said. “Wait! We forgot something!”

    “We did?” Nevren asked.

    “Yeah!” Anam said. “I forgot to do my blessings!”

    “Ahhhh.” Nevren clicked his claws together. “My goodness. I cannot believe I’ve forgotten. Very well.”

    “Yeah! You guys should all go back,” Anam said. “I’ll catch up! This won’t take too long.”

    “Blessings?” Step repeated. “Ah. The same as the enchanted scarves and other items, yes?”

    Anam nodded. “We’re running low on Reviver Seeds again. You can’t get very many from Dungeons naturally, so I boost the supply!”

    “How?” Step asked.

    “Blessings are my specialty! Mhm! I learned from Mom a long time ago. She was a really important Goodra.”

    “I see. How interesting,” Step said. “Reviver Seeds… they don’t do very much, do they? They restore your body, but not very much for your energy to keep fighting.”

    “Not the big ones! They’re harder for me to make, though… They’re imbued with healing energy that reacts to weakened auras,” Anam said. “They’re very important. But they’re hard to make. Even with all my power, I can only generate a for the other Hearts. But they’re life savers. Literally! We use the tiny ones for training and sparring and easier missions.”

    “I see,” she said again, nodding. “Very well. That is very noble of you, Anam.”

    “Yes. We will all go for now.” Nevren clapped his hands together, floating his spoons above them. “Come! Let’s not waste any further time here, yes?”

    “Well, aren’t you in a rush,” Rhys commented. “Are you finally tired of paperwork, Nevren? I thought I’d never see the day.”

    “I suppose even I can get stir crazy. Come! Let’s go. To Hot Spot Cave!”

    Rhys nodded, turning for the exit. But then, he sensed it. A presence. So familiar, and yet one that should not be felt here. An Espurr. It was to his left. He quickly turned his head. In the corner of his eye, he saw something purple. But when he looked directly, it was gone. So was Rim’s aura.

    Rhys looked at Mispy. She was heading down the stairs, oblivious. Perhaps her mind was still occupied. All the others weren’t nearly in tune with the aura to sense anything. But an icy pit formed in Rhys’ stomach nonetheless. Why would she appear here so brazenly? Her aura felt calm. And then, there had been a spark of panic. And then she vanished. Why would she panic, if she knew that Anam would be there? Surely, he would be trouble for her. Elder was halfway to the stairs when he looked back, giving Rhys a puzzled expression.

    Rhys didn’t even realize it, but he was now the only one still near Anam’s office.

    “Rhys?” Anam asked, looking back. “Are you okay? Oh, oh! I know! You want to watch me do a blessing, right?”

    “Rhys? Now, why would you want to do that?” Nevren asked. “Come! Let Anam perform his blessings in peace. We can wait for him outside, if we must.”

    “Actually,” Rhys said, “I think it would be a good idea for me to see this. I’m curious if there is a way to replicate it.” Rhys eyed Nevren slowly. The icy pit in his stomach faded into something denser.

    “Rhys,” Nevren said, “are you feeling well? It isn’t as if this blessing would be anything new.”

    “I don’t think we should leave Anam alone, Nevren,” Rhys said.

    “Huh? What?” Anam asked, turning toward Rhys. “What’s wrong? Everything’s fine, Rhys! I’ve done these blessings so many times!”

    Rhys suddenly vanished from view. Anam jumped in surprise and swiveled his head, flinging slime from the ends of his feelers.

    “Eep—!”

    Rhys was right in front of Rim, who had appeared a split-second earlier. Extreme Speed was truly invaluable, but now, Rhys used an even stronger weapon against Rim—a stare. “Why are you here?”

    Rim couldn’t make eye contact. She gazed intensely at the ground with her wide, purple eyes.

    “This is the second time. As if you were waiting. Why?”

    Rim trembled.

    “Rim,” Nevren said lowly. “Do not think you can catch us off guard.”

    After a short pause, Rim spun around and disappeared again.

    Anam fiddled with his slimy fingers. “That was scary…”

    “Hmm,” Nevren said. “It’s a good thing you remained behind, Rhys.”

    Elder sighed. “What would Rim have tried to do? Attack you?”

    “I suppose she was sent by Eon,” Nevren said, shaking his head. “Unfortunately, he is not very happy with our arrangement with Anam. He is a bit of a thorn in Eon’s side, after all.”

    “Ahh.” Elder puffed out a small plume of white smoke. “That’s very true. Hmm—we should be careful about her appearance, Rhys. She isn’t good against multiple, powerful fighters like you all.”

    “Hrm. I still do not know her true strength,” Rhys hummed. “Ever since she acquired the Psychic Orb, that is.”

    “I’m not sure, either,” Elder said. “But she and Eon trained every day.”

    Rhys huffed. “Wonderful,” he said, but then gave Nevren a small jab to the side. “Nothing we can’t handle, I suppose. With how many Orbs we have on our side, including Trina incoming—with some luck—I think we’re almost ready to take Eon directly.”

    Anam excused himself into the room next to his office; it was dark inside, so it was difficult to see its contents. Rhys had been there before—it was lined with unenchanted seeds, scarves, and other useful Dungeon equipment.

    Nevren nodded. “After the Hunters, it will just be the Trinity.”

    Rhys winced. “One problem at a time.”

    Nevren sighed. “I suppose that much is true. One at a time. After five hundred years, Rhys. Can you believe it?”

    Rhys laughed. “I can’t!”

    One of Nevren’s many devices suddenly made a beeping noise. He looked down. “Ah, a Hecto is nearby,” he remarked. “Perhaps this one is touring the town?”

    “You have a tracker for Hecto?” Rhys asked curiously.

    “Ah, yes, it was something I’ve decided to carry with me. Very useful device. I have it tuned to many of our friends, in fact. I used Hecto for testing, as usual.” Nevren pulled out the device from the satchel on his hip—another square tablet with a light-based interface in the front. “Nifty, isn’t it? If Hecto happens to be nearby, I’ll know, and I can give him updates on anything worrisome.”

    “Ahh, that is useful.”

    “Well, it used to be,” Nevren said. “Then I invented the communicators. Using Hecto as a messenger has become less useful. At least he can behave as worldwide surveillance—for the areas he visits, at least. Since we’re in Kilo Village most of the time, it’s rare for him to visit. Perhaps he’s craving one of Ludicolo Café’s smoothies again.”

    “I wouldn’t doubt it.” Rhys chuckled. “Ah, Nevren, perhaps we should stop by there and get something.”

    “Oh, that sounds wonderful,” Elder piped up. “I personally enjoy their Cheri smoothies, oho…”

    A bright glow emanated from the room next to Anam’s office. They turned their heads, seeing the Goodra emerge, puffing as if he’d sprinted around the whole village crater.

    “Phew. All done!”

    “Goodness, that was fast,” Elder said.

    “Then let’s return home.” Rhys couldn’t help it—his tail wagged on the way down the stairs. Everything was finally falling into place. They had more than half of the Orbs. He was finally with Elder again, in person. Owen and the rest of the Alloy were stable and sane.

    All was well.

    Walking beside Nevren, the Goodra stumbled in his steps. The Alakazam glanced at Anam. Gooey tears streamed down his otherwise normal, smiling face. Nevren’s eyes glowed for just one second. The tears ceased.
     
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