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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 at 7:36 AM
    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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