A/N: Just letting you all know in advance, I DID make the decision to remove Froakie from the story. Well, sort of. He's not on Ash's team anymore and that's the important thing. It was a tough decision, but it's the one I've made and I'm going to stick by it. He didn't fit with the vision I had later on in the story and it was really forcing me to split up attention on the other new members of Ash's team that are in dire need of character development. I've gone back and edited the chapters where Froakie has been involved, so those chapters should be updated soon enough.

Other than that, here's a list of Ash's current team! I have a more complex list of all major trainers' teams in Challenger complete with their move sets on my profile, which you are free to check out for yourselves! I will be posting Ash's team at the start of every chapter from now on so everyone can remember who is who a little bit easier. Enjoy the chapter!

Ash Ketchum:

Pokemon on-hand:

-Pyro (Male Charizard)

-Sobek (Male Krookodile)

-Espeon (Female, no nickname)

-Douse (Male Poliwrath)

-Spectre (Male Dusclops)

-Jasmine (Female Dratini)

-Arctus (Male Cubchoo)

-Rhydon (Male, no nickname)

Pokemon undergoing rehabilitation:

-Pikachu (Male, no nickname)

-Gyarados (Female, no nickname)

Chapter Twenty-Eight: To Each Their Own Path

While they waited for Nurse Joy to heal up Ash's team, (with the exception of Spectre, who was well enough to simply rest and recover in Ash's shadow) the three young trainers enjoyed lunch together in the Pokemon Center. Most of their time was spent discussing Ash's battle with Sabrina.

"I can see why so many trainers stay away from her Gym," Luna remarked, one hand absently stroking Cinder. The Torracat was resting on the booth beside her, content and sleepy after feeding. "All of her Pokemon were crazy!"

"That Slowbro and Mr. Mime really came out of the left field," Silver agreed. "I've never heard of either of those Pokemon taking such aggressive stances in battle. I still can't believe Slowbro defeated Sobek so easily."

Ash nodded. "Yeah, that surprised me, too. It was just as much of a monster as her Alakazam."

"It's a good thing Spectre is so well-equipped to deal with psychics, or that could've ended badly," Silver added.

"Don't I know it," the other boy grimaced slightly. "That Alakazam of hers is really strong. We got pretty lucky that it never hit Spectre directly."

Luna sipped on her drink while they chatted back and forth, but when she was done she interjected. "So, where are we going now?"

Ash pursed his lips in thought. "I think Celadon is our next best bet. I need to drop by the Department Store to pick up some new TMs for my team and maybe get a rematch with Erika. She'll probably be good practice for you guys, too. You'll need all the experience you can get before you fight Surge—he's a monster in his own right."

She nodded in agreement. "That might work out. I'd like to catch another Pokemon or two before I fight him, anyways. You said he fights challengers four-on-four, right?"

"That's what he did for me, but I honestly think it depends on his mood," Ash shrugged.

Luna snorted. "Yeah, I guess the Gym Leaders might switch things up now and then to keep themselves from getting bored."

"Something like that," Silver agreed mildly. "I know my father usually prefers six-on-six battles, but if he's in a bad mood he usually just does three-on-three fights and lets Rhyperior mop up whoever challenges him."

Ash couldn't help but grin at the mention of the stone behemoth. "I can't wait to beat Rhyperior. That'll be a real battle."

"Good luck," Silver chuckled, his eyebrows raised. "You're gonna need it."

Ash suddenly heard his PokeNav alert going off and pulled the device from his bag. He blinked at the call coming in and accepted it quickly. "Hello?"

"Hey there, brat," the familiar, sardonic voice of Lieutenant Surge answered him. "It's been a bit."

He brightened at that. "Hey, Surge. How's it going?"

"Meh. All the wimps challenging me lately have been fodder. Zeus and Raichu are getting bored," Surge grumbled. "What about you? Pick any good fights lately?"

"My team and I actually just got out of a match with Sabrina," Ash replied, standing up from the booth to talk a bit more privately. "We won."

"There you go! Damn good job, Ash," Surge laughed raucously. "Nice to hear you're actually challenging yourself! Sabrina's as notorious as I am! Your average trainer wouldn't stand a chance against her team of monsters."

"They were monsters, alright," he agreed. "So what's going on? Why'd you call?"

"The obvious reason. Your rodent is good to go."

Ash's eyes widened and his lips curved up in a huge smile. "Really?"

"I don't do prank calls, kiddo," Surge snorted in amusement. "Get on over here and pick the little brat up. Gimme a good fight while you're at it."

"Of course!" Ash exclaimed. "I'll head straight there!"

"Good. See you soon, then."

Surge cut the call and Ash couldn't help but pump his fist in excitement. Pikachu had fully recovered! His second friend was coming back to join the team!

Ash returned to the booth quickly and Luna raised an eyebrow at him. "What's up? You look excited."

"One of my Pokemon has been staying with Surge for a couple of months," Ash told them. "But Surge just told me he's ready to rejoin my team, so we've gotta drop by Vermillion. Let's get all of our stuff ready—we can cover a fair bit of ground today, but it'll still take us about a week and a half to get there."

Silver was quick to nod and get up and follow Ash, but Luna watched the boys go in silence for a few moments before she sighed and went after them.

When they were at last prepared and Ash had recovered his team from Nurse Joy, the three young trainers left the Pokemon Center together. Ash pulled out his PokeNav and checked the map. "I've been down this road before, so I think I can get us through the shortcuts easily enough. We should be able to cut a few days off of this trip…"

"Ash, hold up," Luna interrupted, garnering Ash and Silver's attention. She took a breath and then looked at him steadily. "I'm not going to Vermillion."

"What? Why?"

"Because I want to go to Celadon and challenge Erika before I go anywhere near Surge," she told him. "Look, you've got six months of training on us, so I know you're not in a rush, but…"

"But what?" Ash almost demanded, frowning.

"But this is your journey," she said after a moment, trying to decide how best to express herself. "Don't get me wrong, I've loved traveling with you and Silver, but I want to focus on my journey. I don't want to spend all my time training and growing in your shadow, you know?"

"That's not how it is," he protested.

"Maybe it doesn't feel that way to you, but it does to me just a little," Luna replied, smiling a little sadly. "I want to train my team independently. I really appreciate how much you've helped us so far, but we need to grow on our own at some point. You can't babysit me forever."

"I'm not babysitting you!"

"I'm joking," she laughed a bit, trying to lift the atmosphere somehow. "But I'm serious. There's a chance I'll end up battling you in the Indigo Conference. And when that happens, I want it to be because my team and I earned our place there on our own terms."

Ash wanted to protest more—he really didn't like the idea of Luna wandering about Kanto while Team Rocket was still active. But at the same time…he did understand where she was coming from. If he'd tried to convince Leaf to stay with him for the same reason, she'd have been furious with him for assuming she couldn't take care of herself. Gary would have outright laughed at him and Paul wouldn't have even bothered formulating a reply.

He understood, but…

"Are you sure?" He asked weakly.

"I'm sure. And who knows?" She shrugged. "Maybe sometime we can travel with each other again. But right now isn't that time. I want my team to grow with me, and the best way I can do that now is for us to be independent and travel together."

"Well…" Ash hesitated before he eventually gave in. Even if he refused to accept Luna's decision, chances are she'd run away at some point, anyways. This was probably cleaner, and he wouldn't have to worry about her getting pissed off at him. "Okay. If that's what you really want."

"It is," Luna told him simply. She suddenly grinned fiercely. "You won't recognize us the next time we meet. I'm going to catch up to you and mop your team up one of these days, cousin."

That made him snort and crack a smile. "Don't hold your breath."

She laughed and bit her lip for a moment, then moved forward suddenly to hug Ash. "I really will miss you. But I want to do this."

"I know," he sighed, hugging her back and squeezing tight enough to make her complain weakly. His mother's crushing hugs were hereditary, he was sure of it. "Be careful, yeah? And message me on your Pokedex."

"Yes, mother," she snarked, grinning. Luna glanced at Silver, who had watched the event unfold somewhat awkwardly. "Same to you, Silver. Next time we meet up, let's have a battle. Cinder will beat down Vibrava eventually."

Silver smirked. "We'll see. Good luck."

She shook his hand and nodded. "Same to you."

Luna backed up then and started walking west, away from them. She looked back just once to grin at them wildly, then turned away and picked up the pace, eager to return to the road.

Ash watched her go and it was then that he suddenly remembered what Sabrina had told him not hours ago.

"Several roads lie before you and your friends. They will take you each down your own path—one out of want, the other out of necessity."

She'd been right. The psychic master had told him already that Luna would choose to go down her own path. Did that mean Silver would leave soon, too?

"You ready to go?" Silver asked when Ash remained silent.

Perhaps not yet. Ash would enjoy his friend's company as long as he could, just in case he had to leave at some point as well. He glanced at Silver and nodded. "Yeah. Let's get moving."

"What are your plans after you defeat Koga?" Silver asked Ash curiously a few nights into their journey to Vermillion.

They were camped out by a small pond in the forest between sections of road. The normal path to Vermillion had a tendency to zig-zag around the dense woods and plains where wild Pokemon resided. The road was more convenient for young trainers or people who just didn't want to worry about being attacked, but Ash and Silver's teams were powerful enough to dissuade most wild Pokemon from jumping them.

Any Pokemon that was powerful enough to present a challenge to them was one Ash wouldn't let escape without good reason.

Ash unrolled his sleeping bag as he responded to his friend. "I want to head to the Seafoam Islands for a while. Arctus needs to train somewhere cold for a while and I think it'd be a good experience for the rest of my team."

"That makes sense," Silver bobbed his head in agreement.

Ash glanced over his shoulder at the other boy. "What about you?"


"Do you want to go to the Seafoam Islands with me? It's kind of out of the way for you since you're still looking to gather Gym badges."

Silver was silent for a few seconds. "It's not high on my list of things to do right now, but I wouldn't mind going. I'd like to catch an ice type—or at least find something to give my team a challenge. Gawain, Drillbur, and Golbat are all weak to ice moves, so it could be a good experience for them. We'll see."

Ash recalled what Luna had told him and sat down, turning to face Silver. "You know you don't have to put your journey on hold just to be a part of mine, right?"

"I know I don't," Silver replied, shrugging. "But I want to travel with you. You really caught my father's attention and that…well, that never happens. He's a hard person to impress—trust me, I know. So when he told me that you were someone worth watching, I couldn't help but want to travel with you."

He seemed a bit embarrassed by the end of his spiel, but Ash only blinked in surprise. He knew Giovanni had been interested in him and his team, but he didn't think he'd impressed Kanto's strongest Gym Leader that much. He was just a trainer six or seven months into his journey.

"I know at some point I'm going to have to go off on my own," Silver went on, breaking Ash out of his thoughts. "But I'm happy to travel with you right now if that's ok. I want to learn as much as I can so I can compete with you some day."

Ash flushed a bit at the statement. He was certain he wasn't exactly a figure to aspire towards, but Silver seemed determined. How could he say no to that?

"Well, I'm happy to have you with us as long as you want to travel," Ash told his friend, who grinned at the admission. Shaking off the awkwardness he was feeling, he stood up and glanced over to a clearing nearby where their teams were warming up for training. "How about a spar before we crash?"

"You're not about to hear me turn down a fight," Silver chuckled as the boys walked over to their Pokemon.

The remaining week or so of travel it took them to reach Vermillion was a relatively quiet affair, only broken up by the odd trainer or wild Pokemon. Most of the local species were smart enough to avoid Ash and Silver once they spotted the Charizard flying overhead.

They'd had one odd incident when a Drowzee had appeared one night to eat their dreams, but Ash was able to calm his team before they could attack the psychic—Drowzee were harmless when they were feeding and he knew it likely had to fight for its meals most of the time. Espeon and Spectre stood guard overnight, as did Golbat, but Espeon seemed content to speak with the Drowzee using her telepathy while the team slept dreamlessly.

She decided to call the creature Dazed while she spoke to it throughout the night. The Drowzee's dull eyes glinted with some strange light at that, but it didn't respond to the name, content to enjoy the charity Ash, Silver, and their teams provided. Come morning, the psychic type had moved on.

Ash received a message from Luna during that time, letting him and Silver know how she was doing. She'd already made it to Celadon City and crushed Erika's team with Cinder and Beedrill. Ash wasn't surprised—Cinder was almost as powerful now as Pyro had been when he reached Celadon for the first time. The fire cat's constant training with Pyro had done wonders for his growth.

By the time they were within a day's walk of Vermillion City, Ash was nearly bursting with tension and excitement—he couldn't wait for Pikachu to rejoin his team. It felt like it had been years since the electric type had travelled with him. As it was, he messaged Surge to let him know that he'd be there soon.

After a quick stop at the Pokemon Center to reserve a room, Ash and Silver made straight for the Gym.

"Do you think I could challenge Surge?" Silver asked somewhat anxiously. He was fully aware of Surge's vicious reputation as a remorseless battler.

"Maybe," Ash admitted. "Vibrava is pretty strong, but it's a four-on-four battle. Golbat won't stand a chance against his electric types and I don't think Drilbur is ready for him. You've only just started to train him. So if you challenge Surge, you'll have to rely almost completely on Vibrava."

"Hm," Silver mused with a grimace. "Maybe I'll wait a bit, then."

"Might be the smart move," Ash said, smiling a bit. He stopped in front of the Gym doors (which were thankfully empty) and took a breath before he made his way inside.

One of the gym trainers was sitting at the receptionists desk and had his feet propped up on the desk itself. He looked up from a book with a scowl on his face as he regarded the boys and his eyes narrowed slightly. "If you're here to challenge Surge, he's—wait, you're that brat whose Pikachu we've been babysitting, aren't you? Surge said you'd be coming here. Took you long enough."

Ash rolled his eyes at the trainer's bite and just walked for the doors that would lead him to the battlefield. "I know the way."

The trainer just grunted in response and waved them away, returning to his book. Silver raised an eyebrow at the rude trainer, but Ash was only bemused by him—he was familiar with the intense Gym trainers who served under Surge, but none of them possessed a bite that could hope to match the Gym Leader's.

He entered the battlefield room and immediately winced as his eyes were blasted by a flash of intense electricity—apparently, he'd caught Surge training his team.

Ash blinked away the spots in his eyes and just grinned at the sight of Surge's Electivire—Zeus, he remembered—and Raichu throwing bolts of lightning back and forth at each other. It was a common training method for electric types, helping them manage and control larger amounts of power.

He spotted a Magneton and Electrode performing a similar exercise while Surge barked orders at his team, stalking back and forth amongst them, but retaining a safe distance from the massive blasts of electricity being hurled through the air. At his side strode a Jolteon, who barked in turn with its trainer.

Surge turned around in one of his passes and spotted Ash and Silver at the doors. He paused for a moment before grinning dangerously. "Halt!"

Immediately, his Pokemon ceased their exercises and stood ready to do their trainer's bidding. Surge walked over to the boys and whistled to Raichu on the way. "Raichu! Get the invalid! And be quick about it—our entertainment is here!"

Raichu sniggered gleefully and shot Ash a nasty grin before darting away to another room behind the battlefield.

"It's about time you made it here!" Surge exclaimed as he reached Ash. They shook hands and Ash smirked up at the giant, who inclined his head back towards his team. "My team's been getting antsy waiting for a fight!"

"I'll be happy to give them one," Ash grinned back, already feeling the blood rushing in his veins. His first battle with Surge had been intense enough, but now that the Gym Leader actually took him seriously he had a feeling this battle was going to be even better.

"Good!" Surge laughed, his voice booming through the room. At the sound of Raichu's call, they all paused and glanced to the back of the battlefield. Ash's face lit up with joy.

Pikachu was bolting behind Raichu, racing the older electric type to their trainers. Raichu bounded onto Surge's shoulder in one leap, but Pikachu reached Ash in the same instant by pushing off the ground with what might have been a Quick Attack.

"Hey, buddy!" Ash laughed as he caught the electric type, who nuzzled him cheerfully and let little sparks from his cheeks raise the hairs on Ash's arms. "You're better!"

Pikachu looked up at him and grinned mischievously, assuring Ash even more that his friend was ready to rejoin the team.

"He's recovered well," Surge admitted, lifting a hand to pet Raichu. "Once he was healed up, all it took was a steady routine to juice up his charging organs. He spent a fair amount of time with Raichu and my Pikachu as well, so he's stayed in shape for the most part. Assuming you've been training properly, he's probably just a bit behind your main fighters, but he should fit in well enough."

"Good to hear," Ash replied, flashing a grin at Surge before he returned his gaze to Pikachu. "We'll see how much better you've gotten soon, alright?"

Pikachu snickered and nodded, climbing up Ash's shoulder to perch there like he had so long ago. Ash smirked at the sight as Pikachu gave his cheek a playful lick, expressing his own joy at being reunited with his trainer.

Surge finally took notice of Silver and blinked at him curiously. "I know you. You're Giovanni's brat. Are you here to battle, too?"

Silver shifted in place uncomfortably, but stood tall. "Not yet, but you'll be getting a challenge from me soon."

Surge's grin became dangerous once more. "Good answer. I'll be looking forward to it."

"Before that though," the giant's gaze returned to Ash and leered at him like a Fearow eyeing a Caterpie. "You owe me a fight for taking care of your rodent."

"Then we're wasting time," Ash shot back, grinning just as viciously. He was itching for a fight.

Surge jogged to the opposite end of the battlefield, recalling his team as he did so. The Jolteon that had been with him at the start trotted alongside its master and sat by his feet when he reached the Gym Leader's box. Ash caught a brief glimpse of its belly, which displayed what he thought looked like a considerable scar. It was hard to tell at this distance.

"What are the rules?" Ash asked, situating himself in the opposite box while Silver took a position on the sidelines to watch the match.

"One-on-one," Surge called back, already hefting a pokeball in his hands. "I'd ask for a full battle, but I'm running short on time today. I'll release first!"

Ash watched intently, eager to see what adversary Surge would decide to unleash against him.

The Gym Leader hurled the pokeball into the air and from it burst a familiar shape with a foreign twist—a Golem, but a Golem bearing two, massive black spires on its back (the shape was vaguely reminiscent of a Blastoise's aqua cannons) and identically colored stones lining its face, with what appeared to be a beard of jagged black rock beneath its jaws. The beast growled deeply and stamped the field with one foot, electricity sparking between the two huge spires on its back.

Ash recognized it as an Alolan Golem, known for adapting to the water-type rich islands by evolving to possess electric-type attributes. He'd seen them before on the islands whenever he visited Luna and Aunt Sarah, usually helping out workers at power plants. But they were just as good at battling as the native Kanto Golem he was more familiar with.

He pondered the hulking creature for a few moments. smiling idly. Sobek would be the ideal choice against this opponent, but where was the fun in that?

He released Rhydon. Never mind his ground typing, Ash knew that his latest ally was dying to pick a good fight. The latest spars against the other powerhouses of his team had left Rhydon eager and antsy.

Rhydon roared upon his release and spun his drill. He eyed Golem with mild disdain and snorted, rolling his massive shoulders and clenching his dull claws in anticipation.

Surge scoffed. "A ground type. Typical. Rock Blast."

And battle was joined.

Golem shot a series of stones at its enemy from the huge spires on its back. Rhydon simply lifted one arm to intercept the incoming rocks and batted them away carelessly, sneering at the attack. Golem may as well have thrown pebbles at him.

Ash smirked as the rock type's tail twitched with anticipation, eager to see if his foe was actually worth exerting some effort. "Stone Edge."

Rhydon stamped his foot against the ground and a series of long, jagged rock spires erupted in a line in Golem's direction. The waiting electric type sparked a bolt between its spires and responded by clenching one, short fist, then drove it into the spire that arrived to strike him. Ash watched in appreciation as Golem's sheer might utterly shattered the stone. It hadn't even used an attack for that.

Rhydon grinned, baring his teeth. Perhaps he'd have some fun with this one, after all.

"Railgun," Surge commanded, watching Rhydon with sharp eyes. "Low Power. Test its defenses."

Golem growled and aimed its dorsal spires at Rhydon more intently. When Rock Blast was formed this time, electricity crackled between the spires and then fired the stone at a significantly higher speed.

It was so fast that Rhydon couldn't react in time and was struck in the chest, but it only stung enough to make him jump slightly and look down. The attack hadn't actually pierced his armor much, but it was strong enough for him to notice it. He scratched at the spot where the Rock Blast had shattered against his hide and sneered at Golem.

Surge raised an eyebrow at the display of arrogance. "High Power."

That was where Ash drew the line. He had no doubt Golem was just screwing around to get a feel for Rhydon's strength, but it looked like Surge was getting bored of the display. To be fair, so was he. "Brace yourself."

Rhydon had just enough time to cross his arms over his chest in defense when the High-Power Railgun slammed into him.

The force was enough to knock Rhydon onto his back and Ash was sure if he hadn't defended himself, it might've actually knocked him out. The explosive impact of the Rock Blast, launched at such an incredible velocity, packed as much of a punch as Brock's Rampardos. Maybe even more—if Rhydon's ground typing hadn't protected him, the electric shock that came with Railgun's projectile would've done severe damage.

Rhydon bellowed as he went down, but he was back up in a moment, snarling and glaring at Golem. The show was over. He'd challenged the electric type in a display of arrogance and it had answered in force. Now he would reply.

Ash grinned dangerously as Rhydon blasted air through his nostrils, the ground trembling with his every step. "Earthquake!"

"Magnet Rise!" Surge commanded, crossing his arms. "Iron Curl."

Golem barely had enough time to generate the magnetic field that lifted its massive body off the ground as Rhydon jumped up and came crashing down to unleash a wave of intense tremors. The earthquake sent cracks all along the field, shattering the ground and leaving few places to stand on even footing. Despite the devastation, they stopped at the edge of the field as psychic barriers flared up into existence.

Golem curled up, its body glowing with the silver light of Iron Defense. Surge was quick to continue his chain of commands. "Gyro Sphere. Slam it."

Ash watched as the electric type began to spin in midair, picking up speed and velocity as it propelled itself at Rhydon with magnetism. Given how much it weighed, the impact would be more than enough to knock out most other Pokemon. It was a spinning, magnetically propelled seven-hundred pound cannonball of solid rock and sparking lightning, with the steel-type armor of Iron Defense just to make it that much more dangerous.

"Catch it!" Ash commanded.

Rhydon roared challengingly and intercepted the immense force of the attack, his bellow shifting to one of pain as Golem's spinning body began to carve into his armor. Ash didn't hesitate to give his next order. "Metal Burst!"

Surge blanched, but didn't have time to order Golem away. Rhydon had managed to curl one arm around his enemy to keep it grinding against his chest while he lifted the other, condensed the damage he'd suffered into a silver sphere of pure energy, and slammed it into Golem's spinning body.

The explosion of force sent Rhydon staggering back and crushed Golem into the ground even with its magnetic force keeping it airborne. The electric type was jolted out of its Gyro Sphere by the counterattack, briefly stunned and only capable of lifting itself back off the ground with Magnet Rise.

Ash pressed his advantage. "Hammer Arm! Crush it!"

"Ion Pulse!" Surge roared. "Back off!"

Golem was just charging a massive surge of lightning when Rhydon rushed forward in two quick steps and crushed it back into the ground with two huge, glowing fists. Rhydon bellowed with righteous fury as he pinned Golem down, fighting against the magnetic forces struggling to bring it back into the air.

Ash grinned, then blanched in horror when he realized Golem had changed its tactics on the fly—the supercharged electricity meant to launch it away was instead utilized to fire a high-powered Railgun directly into Rhydon's face.

The impact jerked Rhydon's skull back so sharply that for a moment Ash feared it had broken his friend's neck, but Rhydon's howl of outrage assured him the rock type was still capable of fighting. Though the force was enough to actually lift Rhydon's great bulk several feet off the ground for a few moments, he somehow managed to retain enough sense as he came back down to grab Golem once again.

Ash and Surge watched, one in awe and the other in disbelief, as Rhydon got a grip on Golem by jamming one hand between the huge black spires that charged its electricity, brought up a single fist high into the air, and then crushed it into Golem's skull.

The raw might of the Hammer Arm was enough to immediately knock Golem out and then crater it into the field like a dying meteorite, regardless of the fading magnetic forces. Rhydon had a frenzied look on his face, his eyes blazing with bloodlust and pain and rage as he ruthlessly destroyed the foe that had dealt upon him such wounds.

Surge didn't even bother to check if Golem was still conscious and recalled it immediately. Even Raichu looked a little stunned as Rhydon straightened his great bulk and glared at them from across the field, his breaths coming fast and heavy. His armor was as shredded as it had been against Rampardos and it was cracked at his chin and face from the Railgun he'd taken, but he was standing and he resolutely refused to fall.

Surge grinned madly. "Well, aren't you a goddamn monster!"

Rhydon roared in response, regardless of whether or not it was a compliment. Ash was pretty sure his friend was concussed after taking Golem's fully powered Railgun head-on twice(quite literally the second time). He was probably on the verge of going on a rampage after the amount of punishment he'd taken, but Rhydon had been pushed to the very limits of his endurance during that battle and pulled through, and Ash couldn't have been prouder.

Ash recalled him before the exhausted Rhydon could collapse from his injuries. He lifted the Ultra Ball to his face and smiled at it. "You did amazing. I couldn't have asked for better."

The Ultra Ball twitched once in response and then went still as Rhydon was put in stasis. Ash set the device on his belt as he looked back up at Surge, who was smiling widely.

"That was way more fun than I thought it would be!" The electric type master cackled, as he walked over to Ash. Raichu snickered in agreement, its bolt-shaped tail whipping back and forth excitedly. "Ground types usually bore me to death. Your Rhydon's got a brass pair, taking Golem head-on like that! The last Rhydon we fought went down in just a couple of hits!"

"We've worked hard to make sure his armor can take some big hits," Ash replied happily. "Brock's Rampardos hurt his pride when we fought it back in Pewter. I'm pretty sure that's what's driving him more than anything."

Surge chuckled and nodded. "That Rampardos is a beast. Ain't up there with Zeus quite yet, but it's pretty powerful! I'm not surprised it beat down Rhydon. But still, not a lot of rock types manage to beat Golem when he gets going. You've got my respect for that. Can't wait to see how far you've come when the Indigo Conference goes down!"

Ash grinned back. "You won't even recognize us by then."

"I hope not," Surge snorted. The man suddenly glanced back to a corner not far from the Gym Leader's box, which was seemingly empty. "Well? You ever gonna show up?"

Ash blinked in confusion, but startled when a man appeared in the corner seemingly from nowhere. His wonder at the man's sudden appearance faded when an Alakazam materialized beside him. The psychic creature's mustache twitched as it surveyed the ruined battlefield and it dawned on Ash that it must've been keeping up the psychic barriers during the match. Even as he watched, it moved to repair the field with his powers.

His attention was quickly regained by the man who had appeared, and Ash froze as he recognized the individual immediately. There was no mistaking the tall, powerful form he was faced with—the spiky, light red hair, the dark blue and red combat suit, and the cape billowing behind him could only belong to a single man.

Surge grinned at the open shock Ash and Silver displayed upon realizing who the man was. "Brats, may I introduce a friend of mine. You probably know him as Lance, the Champion of Indigo and Dragon Master of the Elite Four."

A/N: So Traveler updated literally the other day and left us on a cliffhanger...fortunately, I happen to also be a fan of cliffhangers! So here's a surprise appearance! Granted, Lance isn't as impressive as Suicune, but it's about time he showed up in Challenger! This chapter is a bit shorter than I wanted it to be, but I also wanted to get it out there without dragging it on for too long and leave it on a good note. Next chapter will focus on Lance, and then we'll be on the road back to the revenge match with Koga! Look forward to it!

As ever, please review and thanks for reading!