Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Battle Tower

"Welcome," boomed a voice, the smile on his face bright and eager as he watched the crowd of trainers assembled before his eyes. "Welcome to your first day at the Sevii Battle Tower! For the next several days, you will hone your skills in this compound and do your best to rise above each other to come on top as the Battle Tower's strongest."

Ash felt his spirit blaze within. It might've even been fuelled by the flames of Moltres itself. He'd been waiting for this day ever since he'd registered his team for the Battle Tower's challenge, and he was going to do everything in his power to win the competition and get Kratos the metal coat he deserved.

The announcer eyed each of the assembled trainers speculatively, his eyes twinkling. "At the end of the challenge, the trainer with the most battle points accumulated will win a TM of their choice and three ultra-balls! The runners-up will receive two ultra-balls each. Now, without further ado - let the games begin!"

The trainers roared, and Ash's scream could've been the loudest. Before he knew it, the trainers had all scrambled to their designated arena, where they would be paired with their opponent.

Since this was their first day of the challenge, the registered trainers were all assigned opponents, spaced out through the day - which meant Ash wouldn't get the chance to beat Gary until tomorrow, when they'd be allowed free reign to challenge whoever they wished.

Right now, Ash found himself being led to a standard, earthen arena - one he'd fought on so many times that he'd lost count. The trainer opposite him - a girl clad in baggy, green clothes - smiled as she watch him take his place in his trainer box.

"I'm Cheri!" she exclaimed, waving. "I hope we have a fun battle. Good luck!"

"Thanks - you too!" He couldn't help but return the smile with his own. "And I'm Ash!"

"Nice to meet you!"

The referee cleared his throat. "If the two of you don't mind," he said, smirking. Ash felt his cheeks colour.

"This will be a two-on-two - no time limit, no substitutions. A coin toss will determine which side will release first."

Cheri, who was eager to pick her side of the coin, went first and chose heads. Ash watched the large screen on the sidelines come to life, with a simulated coin flipping as she called it. It landed on the pokéball side of the coin - which meant Ash would send out her pokémon first.

He exhaled - he already knew who he was going to choose first. "Infernape, let's go!"

A flare of light, and Infernape barked his way onto the field with a flip. The beat of his chest made his flame crackle violently with each thud. It certainly impressed Cheri, if her wide eyes were anything to go by.

"I've never seen anything like it," she yelled. "But I've got the perfect counter for a fire-type. Kabutops, it's time to slice and dice!"

Now, it was Ash's turn for wide eyes. Fossil pokémon were a bit more common than a few years ago thanks to the rapid advancement in that type of technology, but they were still a rare sight to behold, given how expensive it was to unearth a fossil and clone it.

The Kabutops in front of him seemed well-adjusted to battle, its armour dark and smooth with experience and its claws sharpened to perfection. The spines on its back shifted and clicked with cheer - maybe trainers really did imprint their personalities onto their pokémon.

"It would've been the perfect counter. Unfortunately, Infernape is also a fighting type," informed Ash, smirking with crossed arms.

Cheri blinked. "Oh. Well, looks like the playing field's even," she said, "but you'll find Kabutops' armour to be a tough opponent by itself!"

The referee slashed his flag down. "Begin!"

Piercing its claws into the earth with a shriek, the Kabutops tore the field with rows of Stone Edges zigzagging their way towards Infernape. Ash didn't pay the rock blades any concern - he knew that Infernape could pulverise them in a single punch. "Destroy any that come your way. Hit it with your own Stone Edge - aim for its feet," he told Infernape, who snarled and rolled his wrists.

A shower of pebbles peppered the air as Infernape drove a single Brick Break through the Stone Edge bursting his way. With a tap of his feet a cluster of stalagmites erupted at the Kabutops' ankles, angling in a way to lock its foot in place. It hissed and snapped and sliced the Stone Edges in half with a few swipes of its scythes.

"When it's tripped up, hit it with a Thunder Punch," murmured Ash. Infernape grunting, clenching his fists, and punched the earth with a roar.

More stones burst at the Kabutops' feet, but they only served to annoy it. Until a particularly large blade smashed into its back - while the Kabutops' armoured spines blunted the stone's point, the force behind it was enough to knock it to the ground.

Infernape had already leapt. In a few jumps he'd crossed over to his foe, a bolt of electricity sparking at his fists as a scream rippled at his throat. The Kabutops hissed, panic evident in its sharp gaze, and with a flick of its free arm raised a barrier of green that absorbed blast of lightning.

Infernape recoiled, wringing his wrists as the Kabutops rolled back, the green layer of Protect flickering out of view. It watched Infernape, eyes calculating and wary, until a whistle from Cheri made its claws glow a blinding silver.

The sound that blared out as it clanged its scythes together made even Ash keel over in discomfort. It felt like his skull would bust from between his eyes. Infernape fell to his knees, roaring, but the intensity of the shrieking noise made drowned out the rage behind his scream.

The silvery glow vanished, soon replaced with a brilliant iridescence as Cheri yelled, "Psycho Cut!" Ash cried for Infernape to dodge, but crescents of purple energy were already arching through the air with a slash of the Kabutops' scythes. Psychic light flared out in a wild explosion as they burned along Infernape's ribs, blowing him away in a rough tumble that only came to an end as he crashed into one of the stone blades protruding out of the earth,

But it wasn't going to take Infernape out of the fight - Ash was amused to see a snort of half-respect slip through his snarl, as if impressed with its gall. His fists burned with brick-red energy that flowed across his entire body - the tough muscles hidden beneath his regal fur began to bulge and harden as the fire of Bulk Up fuelled his strength.

"So we're powering up, huh?" exclaimed Cheri, giggling. "Iron Defense, Kabutops!"

"Get it with your Mach Punches," Ash muttered as the steely hue over Kabutops moulded itself within its armour. "Stay on the defensive, though. I don't want you cut up by its claws."

Infernape growled, and he was off. The shockwave from his jump made the dust around his feet billow out in ripples. The Kabutops hissed, tensing up as Infernape's glowing fists snapped into the side of its head. The second hook to the Kabutops' jaws knocked it off balance, and it stumbled away.

Infernape was as nimble as a Ninetales, his jabs tossing the crustacean from side to side. Every once in a while its scythes swiped out at random, but Infernape was quick to hop back before testing his foe's armour with another fierce Mach Punch. Ash could see that the Kabutops was getting irritated.

Finally, it snapped. Despite Cheri's protests, frothing water spewed from its mouth and flowed over its entire body. With a piercing shriek, it lost itself to the Aqua Jet and Infernape was caught in its path, rocky skull crushing into his chest.

Infernape was quick to act, however. Still hanging from the Kabutops head as it flew up in its cocoon of water, his hands tightened as they blazed with electricity, and with a mad grin he slammed them into the Kabutops spine. There was a loud bang as the sparks exploded in a split-second, and the two of them sailed back to the ground covered in wisps of smoke.

Infernape was smart enough to slow his fall with an impromptu Flamethrower, even though his crash was rough. Kabutops hit the ground hard enough to leave a furrow, and one of its scythes had cleaved straight through the hard mud. It shook its head and got back up, however, a bit dazed as it blinked the blur out of its vision.

"Sandstorm!" yelled Cheri, a sliver of anger seeping into her tone. Kabutops tittered; as its claws danced, the air was suddenly churning with heat and clouds of sand that simply grew until a funnel of dust strained against the psychic barriers, so dense and powerful that Ash could barely see anything of the arena.

He cursed - Infernape would be pretty much blind within the duststorm. It would impair Kabutops vision as well, but not to the extent that it wouldn't see anything, thanks to its rock type.

It was only ground-types that could have true vision in such a climate - that's what he proudly remembered from school. Rock and steel type pokémon were similarly unhindered, but not to such an extent - they could see, but a ground-type pokémon would have the obvious advantage in such a fight.

If he didn't think of something fast, Infernape would be out of the fight.

The sandstorm raged.

Ash heard a gush of water, then a scream from within - Infernape's. His pulse raced. "Surround yourself in Stone Edges so that they cover you!" he yelled, hoping his voice would pierce through the roar of the winds. Then he heard the earth burst; Infernape had heard his command, protecting himself with a cluster of Stone Edges as a Rock Tomb would.

"Okay," Ash murmured, thinking quickly. "Okay. Infernape, create a tower with your Stone Edge. It has to be big enough for the storm. Give it everything you've got!"

He heard the shatter of rocks - probably Infernape breaking out - and then he could almost feel the earth make space for the stalagmite growing at Infernape's command. He could feel the effort making Infernape's veins pop, he could feel his roar thrum in his bones as the gigantic stone structure rose and grew with every thud of Infernape's fists, making the barriers shudder as the sandy clouds blew angrily - until finally, after an eternity, everyone watched in awe as the peak of Infernape's obelisk broke through the canopy of dust and sand clouds ravaging the sky.

Pride and disbelief made Ash's heart swell, but he didn't dare dawdle. "Climb it!"

Infernape didn't need to be told - he was already scaling up the gigantic tower of stone, and with the dexterity of his calloused hands it didn't take too long for him to sit atop the peak, disgruntled yet satisfied. He looked just like he did when he climbed Pallet's redwoods.

But Ash could also see how tired he was - while sand flowed freely down his back and fur, Infernape's eyelids fluttered as he struggled to catch his breath, his arms tense with fatigue. But even he knew that he couldn't take too long to rest - the battle was still on.

Ash noticed the sandstorm jumping - as if trying to engulf Infernape once again. He smirked. "Drown it in your fire!"

He could feel the heat even through the psychic barriers around him as Infernape lit up the sandstorm in a single breath of his flames. All of a sudden the world was red and orange and white as the cyclone of dust was ignited, and now he could hear Kabutops shriek from within, for it was so hot that now the sand was melting into crystalline specs shredding the air-

And then, as the sandstorm burned up out of existence, the inferno fizzled out. Sand and pearly liquid razed the earth - it looked like a field of diamonds. Kabutops, covered in slivers of molten glass, winced and hissed as it stumbled - tinier gouts of glass were turning solid in the chinks of its armour.

"That was clever," admitted Cheri begrudgingly. The Kabutops' glare was clear even as a cocoon of water swirled around it in attempts to wash off the glass and sand.

"Earth Power!" she yelled. As the water fell apart with a splash, the Kabutops struck the earth with its scythes. Golden cracks zigzagged out and the tower of stone splintered as they struck it, but Infernape had already leapt off, aimed directly at the Kabutops. A dome of green light bubbled around it and Infernape's Brick Break only made it shudder.

He bounced off, and the instant he touched the ground a blade of stone erupted from behind the Kabutops and cracked into its back. The Protect flickered out and he lunged in, bowling his opponent over with a Mach Punch to the gut. Kabutops' scythes slicked into his back on instinct, but he bore the pain and sent it falling on its knees with a chop through its ankles.

As Infernape wound his fists back for a final Thunder Punch, the Kabutops clicked its scythes into the earth. Cracks expanded for a brief second before the ground beneath them exploded in a cylinder of gold light, sending them flying apart.

They hit the ground in a rain of dirt, gasping and growling, but to Ash's relief Infernape was the first to get up. He rolled his shoulders, flickers of bright electricity lighting up his fists as he slipped into his fighting stance while Kabutops pushed off the ground in a fluid flick of its scythes. They watched each other carefully, as if waiting for the other to move, until Kabutops' impatience shone through with a shriek.

It struck the ground with its scythes, and at once there was a geyser of sea-green, salty water bursting from the ground mere feet from Infernape. It was so fast and so sudden that he didn't even get the second to brace himself before he was thrown off his feet and into a pair of boulders with a crack!

Before Infernape could even slump to ground in pain, the Kabutops was upon him. "Liquidation!" yelled Cheri, and water gushed around scythes at the ends of its arms, moulding themselves in positively massive lances. Fur flew out as it slashed Infernape across his chest - it was visible only for the split-second before the blades of water exploded violently, with such force that Infernape was blownthrough the boulders he was slumped again.

Infernape felt like throwing up as he staggered to his feet. Kabutops swung its claw again and it knocked him in the side of his head. He stumbled away, tripping over his own feet, but managed to keep himself from falling as he struggled to clear his vision.

Cheri whistled. "End this! Psycho Cut!"

Sickle-shaped energy rays flew at him with a swing of the Kabutops' arms. The first exploded into Infernape's shoulder, flipping him back to the ground as he screamed when the second crushed into his ribs.

But he didn't give up. His fists cracked the earth as he fought to push himself up in frustration. Ash watched in worry as his friend's breath quickened, the flame on his head crackling with smoke.

Infernape's eyes snapped in Ash's direction. There was crazed desperation in his eyes, as if fearful of what was to come - and that's when Ash got it. "No, Infernape!" he ordered, nervous. "You need to control it. I'm returning you!"

A flash of guilt - then the desperation in his eyes changed to anger, as if towards Ash, his gasps turning to snarls. Then, without warning, the flame on his head flared into the sky like an erupting volcano, sending a shockwave out with the sudden force of it all.

"What the hell is that?!" exclaimed Cheri, more in worry than awe.

In a split-second, Infernape's fists had smashed into Kabutops' chest. A crack ran through one of its plates as the sheer power behind Infernape's punch knocked it off its feet. Even Ash had to wince as it hit the ground at an awkward angle, but he couldn't allow it to go on any longer.

Infernape's pokéball was already in his hand. A red beam of light pulsed out as he pressed the return button, but not before Infernape drove Brick Breaks into his opponent's spine with a roar. The horrifying shriek of pain that tore through Kabutops' throat seemed enough to satisfy Infernape's rage as he was recalled.

Ash sighed, irate as he turned the ball in his hand. He really needed to deal with this soon…

He heard Cheri recall her Kabutops, its gasping form vanished in a ray of red light. "Your pokémon just lost control," she stated, her eyes narrowed with annoyance.

Ash forced a sheepish smile. "We're working on it."

She huffed. Gone was the excited girl that had welcomed him with a jovial grin; her worry for her pokémon had turned her friendly smile to a frosty stink-eye. "Well you need to do better," she scoffed. "That could've been dangerous."

Ash grit his teeth. He wanted nothing more than to say something smart to her, but he had to keep his calm. "I have to release first, right?" he asked the referee after a long exhale.

"Er, yes." The referee nodded. "Since you returned your pokémon first."

He'd already gotten a second pokéball out, tapping the release button smoothly. "Saur, let's go!"

His Venusaur appeared with a mighty roar and the familiar sweet smell of his gorgeous flower. If he wasn't his starter, Ash would've lost his mind with the scent. "Let's stretch those muscles of yours, buddy. It's been a while."

Saur roared in agreement, his claws curling in the dirt. He hadn't felt the thrill of battle since Viridian, and his vines were arching to trap an unsuspecting foe.

"No playing fair this time," Cheri remarked, twisting a ball on her finger. "Rapidash, you're on!"

Ash felt his eyes narrow as the stallion pawed the earth, its whinny making the mane of fire crackle with it. Rapidash were fast and their flames weren't any less of a threat. He needed hit it where it hurt for Saur to finish it quickly - its speed.

The referee slashed the flag down. "Go!"

"I want you to test its speed with your vines," Ash murmured, and Saur rumbled. Those thick, green tentacles snapped from his back with the crack of a whip, but the Rapidash just snorted in contempt at the sight of them. Fire blew from its mouth in a steady stream as Saur's vines shot closer, scorching the tips of them. He returned them with the smallest twitch in his eye; it was just discomfort, akin to feeling a sharp breeze on a cold winter's day.

Ash clicked his tongue. "Razor Leaf, then Spore Burst in the direction it heads for."

The air whistled with the sound of blade-like leaves flying out from Saur's fronds at supersonic speeds. A sneer crossed the Rapidash's face as it galloped away from the Razor Leaves, just as Saur spewed a stream of spores in its direction; but the Rapidash was quick to spit a fireball that ignited the spore cloud in a glittering display of crackling embers and smoke.

With the Rapidash momentarily blinded by the fumes, Saur smote its face with an Energy Ball, head snapping back. The Rapidash looked furious as it reared, more annoyed than hurt by the energy orb.

"Fire Spin!" cried Cheri. At once, the Rapidash neighed and spewed a steady stream of flames that ran around the Venusaur in a circle, flickering and rising. Saur was growling, feeling the heat begin to singe his fronds and flower as he tried to curl up in the center as quickly as possible, but Ash had an idea to get him out of the fiery vortex.

"Use Earth Power around you," he ordered, swelling with calm. Through the whirlpool of flames he saw Saur's silhouette rear on his hind legs, then stomp the earth with a roar. Cracks of yellow light expanded from under his feet like an ever-growing spiderweb and then made the earth explode like live mines. The Fire Spin was put out almost instantly, but Saur looked a bit shaken up by the mud and rock falling down at him. That was alright.

"Wrap this up quickly. Sludge Bomb," said Ash, hands in his pockets. Cheri raised an eyebrow at his brazen confidence - as if he'd already won the bout - but she didn't have the time to analyse his every twitch as the disgusting stench of sludge brought her back to the field.

The Rapidash leapt as a glob of sludge sailed its way, bursting like a water balloon as it hit the ground. Toxic goo splattered everywhere and sizzled on the field. Cheri smirked, hands on her hips. "You'll always miss Rapidash. She's too fast for your Venusaur!"

Ash held back a smile. "Keep it up, Saur!" he said. "You can hit it!"

Saur wasn't stupid - he saw right through Ash's plan, but he played along with a roar, spitting out glob after glob of sludge. The Rapidash's was simply faster, and Ash didn't expect anything less. It was simply too nimble, too quick, too used to weaving through attacks, even with marksmanship as expert as Saur's. And when any sludge blobs came too close they were simply devoured by bolts of fire, combusting into puffs of rancid smog.

Ash wrinkled his nose as he observed the field. There was bubbling sludge stretching across nearly every inch of the arena - Cheri's eyes narrowed as as realisation hit her like a bag of rocks, her mouth set in a thin line. The Rapidash, picking up on its trainer's worry, screeched to a halt, its nostrils flaring in frustration and disgust with the puddles of venom curdling around it, their toxic fumes making its eyes water.

With its greatest asset now compromised, Rapidash could've been just a sitting duck. But it still had its flames, and Cheri was intent on making that known.

"Flamethrower, Rapidash!"

Saur, however, was swift in extinguishing the jet of fire roaring his way. A fissure of golden light melted through the earth, exploding in a geyser of mud and a cylinder of yellow in the Flamethrower's face. A few embers flew and fizzled at his feet, but Saur's growl sound more like a guffaw.

Saur ruled the field. The Rapidash pawed the earth nervously, afraid to stick its feet in a puddle of venom. Saur's vines slithered out, taunting the fire-type with their slow dance slowly in the air. A powerful, jade glow made the tentacles hum with the energy as they rocketed forth with the speed of vipers.

The Rapidash neighed out ropes of fire, but Saur's vines carved through them in a blur. One struck its fetlock with the crack of a sonic boom, knocking it to its knees. A second Power Whip swung between the creature's eyes and it's roar of pain made Cheri flinch. Fire swelled in its jaws, but a third vine wrapped around its mouth, its nicker muffled.

But then Cheri yelled, "Overheat!" and Ash couldn't help but blanch. Saur hissed, withdrawing his vines as plumes of incandescent fire flew forth from the Rapidash, wriggling wildly like the tentacles of a Tangela, before curling into a flickering ball at the Rapidash's mouth. Embers launched themselves off the creature's fur like passengers on a sinking ship.

Saur tensed; then, when the orb of fire exploded into a cone of pure white, he stomped his feet and the earth ahead of him burst open.

Unfortunately for Saur, the wall of dirt shooting at the fires could only do so much. They blew past and the Venusaur was engulfed by the storm of white flame. His roar boomed through even as his forest scales blackened, the ends of his fronds crisped up as a cloud of smoke curled around him and the flames fell to the ground as dying embers.

It was only when his nails cut into his palms that Ash realised the ferocity with which his fists were clenched. His eyes lingered on Saur, smoky and charred, but the sound of coughing drew his attention to the battlefield. Rapidash was nowhere in sight, engulfed in a roiling cloud of noxious fumes. The raw heat of the flames had caused the pools of sludge to evaporate, trapping the equine pokémon with their dangerous odours.

They could all hear it retching and coughing within the cloud of smog, hawking up fireballs that glowed ominously within the darkness of the fumes. Ash and Saur weren't keen on letting it leap out in its fiery glory. "Tear up the ground with Earth Power," murmured Ash.

Beams of golden light sifted through the toxic clouds as Saur's stomps ravaged the earth. The tremors ripped open fissures and vents in the ground, hurling out sheets of rock and mud. Another few explosions later, the smog was blown apart, billowing away in rolls.

The Rapidash nickered as the explosions took it by shock, stumbling from one side to another to avoid being caught in the blasts; right then, the ground behind it boomed open and the force of the explosion sent it crashing on its side, groaning.

The Rapidash scurried to its feet, but in its haste slipped into a crack in the earth. With its foot lodged securely in the fissure, Saur didn't hesitate, rearing as he spat out a stream of thick sludge that doused the Rapidash like waterfall.

At once, the Rapidash screamed. Then the slimy sludge soaking its fur glowed violently, thanks to the Venoshock imbued in the poison. Now the Rapidash was convulsing, its scream dissolving into a strangled gurgle; no doubt its nerves felt like they were set on fire-

Sludge dribbled down Saur's chin as he let venom collect in his mouth, but he didn't get the opportunity to hose down his foe with another blast of Toxic Shock. It had already disappeared as a beam of red light enveloped, and its painful croaks fell silent.

Cheri admired the pokéball with a fond smile, but when she looked at Ash and Saur her expression had changed completely. "That attack should be banned. You're going to kill someone with that!" she exclaimed, huffing.

Ash bit back a scowl. He was really beginning to dislike this girl now. What was her problem? "Maybe your pokémon just need to be stronger!" he shot back, and he felt satisfaction as her glare deepened.

"You-"

"That's enough," interrupted the referee, his eyes stern. "You two can continue this outside. For now, Ash Ketchum is the winner, and thus will be among the initial round of trainers to be awarded their first battle point!"

Ash wore his smirk openly - he even let out a cocky laugh. "That was great, Saur," he praised. "Quick and efficient. We need to work on your control over the field though, alright?"

Saur grunted. He was proud, but he knew what Ash was getting at. As soon as he mastered Grassy Terrain, the arena would bow to his whims. But until then…

He eyed the cracked field, scowling. For now, Earth Power was the best way for him to shape the arena to his favour. It worked well enough, but techniques like Grassy Terrain would place him atop the highest peaks that any advantage could offer.

At least that's what the video clip Ash had shown him promised, anyway.

Ash aimed the roughed-up pokéball at Saur and returned him. So much of the red paint had been chipped off that the top half had more steel than scarlet. Ash half-wanted to get the pokéball serviced, but he knew how much silver balls were respected within the upper echelon of trainer circles. Maybe he could just upgrade Saur's pokéball to an ultra-ball…

"Er, Mr Ketchum?"

Ash flinched, quickly noticing that Cheri had already left, and the wrecked battlefield was being withdrawn for repairs. The referee cleared his throat.

"We'll notify you of your next battle. You can leave the arena now."

"Yeah," Ash stammered. "Thanks."

When he walked outside into the tower's assembly hall, he could already see a gaggle of trainers, presumably done with their battles as well. They'd already grouped up, and Ash found his awkwardness rise as he strolled past them, trying to appear busy on his pokégear. Thankfully, Jack seemed to be done too - Ash's face lit up and he felt relief wash over him as his curly-haired friend caught up to him.

"Did you just get done?" asked Jack, huffing.

Ash nodded. "You?"

"I got done with my battle a few minutes ago," he said, smirking. "Pretty easy competition, if you ask me. Einstein and Evian steamrolled our opponent - Evian, my Politoed," explained Jack, noticing the confusion on Ash's face.

"Nice," murmured Ash. "Where's Natalie and Gary? Are they still battling?"

Jack shrugged. "I guess. Not surprised, since they got paired up with each other - their egos must be giving it their all!"

Ash blinked. "They're battling each other?"

Jack nodded. "Yeah- and speak of the devil," he said suddenly, looking past Ash's shoulders.

Ash turned around as he heard doors being slammed open - why did Gary look so furious as he stormed towards the tower's exit? And why was Natalie so smug, nearly making him recoil?

"Gary?" asked Ash, but his friend paid no attention. He was gone a few seconds later.

Jack raised an eyebrow. "What the hell happened in there?" he asked as Natalie approached them.

If possible, her smirk rose. "He lost," she remarked, as if that was the best news she'd ever relayed. "Badly."

Ash frowned. "How badly?"

She laughed. "Not one of my pokémon were knocked out!"

"What?"

Jack struggled to fight the shock on his face, too. "You're kidding. Right?"

He flinched and cowered as Natalie rounded on him, glaring. "Why? You think my team doesn't have it in them to defeat Gary's?"

"No!" stammered Jack, chuckling nervously. "It's just- Well, Gary isn't a cakewalk. At least, his team doesn't seem like it, you know?"

Ash nodded fervently. He didn't doubt the strength of Natalie's team - he'd gleaned enough after spending a few days with them - but he knew Gary's was strong enough to pose a challenge to anyone in this room, even him. Hearing how Natalie crushed him without losing a pokémon sounded…inconceivable.

Natalie sniffed, inspecting her fingernails. "Well you could count a loss on my side since I returned Starburst - but neither of my pokémon were officially knocked out! Details matters."

Ash considered her words for a whole minute. There really wasn't a reason for her to lie…And while that didn't mean she wasn't prone to exaggeration, he wasn't going to take her lightly when they inevitably battled. She was strong. He'd borne witness to that fact, at both the Sevault Canyon and the Water Labyrinth.

Jack shrugged. "Well, that doesn't mean you're going to find it easy when you're up against my team," he remarked, puffing his chest.

Ash nodded. "Same here!"

Natalie cocked an eyebrow. "Maybe you two boys might pose a challenge, but our battles are going to end all the same." She stuck her fingers in her mouth and whistled - well, she tried to - and waved her other hand like a swishing flag. "Another battle point to the crowd favourite, Natalie Lazta!"

Ash snorted at her imitation of the referee, and Jack blew a raspberry. "Whatever," scoffed Jack, pulling at his curls. "Let's get outta here. My second match isn't until four hours from now!"

Ash flicked his neck. "Like you've got all the money in the world to pay those sailors to take you back to the island," he drawled sarcastically. Jack ducked sheepishly.

Ash gazed at the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. "Let's explore this place instead. There's like…" He snorted. "I don't even remember how many floors! There's got to be something that'll keep us busy for a while, right?"

Natalie shrugged. "Okay." Jack didn't even get the chance to yelp as she yanked him by the back of his hoodie. "Let's go!"

XxXxX

They spent a little more than an hour at the gumball machine in the lobby, growing frustrated at the lack of mini toys popping out of the dispenser. Ash didn't care he was ten minutes late to his battle - he was just glad that he'd gotten the Venusaur figurine he'd desired sooner than later, even when the arena's referee chided him for his tardiness. It really didn't affect his match - the battle, against a Hoennese tourist, ended in a flawless victory in Ash's favour, thanks to the unrivalled force that was Snorlax and the foe's general inexperience.

For now, Ash had receded to the the Tower's training grounds until his final assigned match for the day. He was surprised to find Gary already occupying the grounds, with what looked like his entire team laying waste to the earth and rocks. His features were tight in pure focus.

"GARY!" yelled Ash for the fourth time, his hands now cupped around his mouth to mimic a megaphone. His yell followed the sound of a shattering rock and Gary jumped, turning around with a scowl, but his eyes softened as he realised who it was.

"You're here," said Ash matter-of-factly, slowing to a halt.

Gary blinked. "When did you get so perceptive?" he sneered.

Ash rolled his eyes. "I thought you headed back to the island. You know, after your battle with Natalie."

He tensed. "So she told you, huh?"

Ash nodded holding back a flinch at the shockwave of sparks that trailed Gary's Jolteon's as it blurred to its trainer's side.

Gary kissed his teeth. "Don't believe her, alright! It was really close, and if I'd used Blastoise, or- or Nidoqueen, then she'd be bawling her eyes out, trust me-"

"Okay!" exclaimed Ash, holding his hands as Gary stumbled over his words. Gary's mouth cracked open for a brief second, as if wanting to spit another string of hurried words, but decided against it with a clenched jaw.

Gary exhaled through his nose, hands wriggling in his pockets. "Whatever. The next time I see her on the battlefield, I'm leaving no survivors!"

Ash snorted. "You shouldn't have underestimated her," he murmured. "Natalie's strong."

A sigh left his mouth as he reluctantly admitted his agreement. "She is." He ground his teeth. "I guess I should've taken her more seriously. My bad."

"That's better." Ash smiled. "You've got room for another team? I haven't got my last battle until a couple hours from now."

Gary's smirk crept out from his frown. "I've got mine in like, fifty minutes, but there's room. I haven't got a good look at your team yet, you know."

Ash grinned as he unclipped the pokéballs from his belt. "Likewise."

As Ash's team materialised in flashes of light, Gary snapped his fingers for his team to come around. As their respective teams stood apart, Ash couldn't help but be impressed with how well-rounded Gary's team looked. He recognized several of them from their time on the St Anne.

"This is Blastoise. You know her already," Gary said, pointing to the massive blue turtle shifting the cannons jutting from her shoulders. She let a spray of vapour fizzle from her cannons, misting Gary's spiky hair. "This is Jolteon," continued Gary, smirking down at the ornery electric-type as it spat a thread of electricity at the grass. "Again, you met him on the Seagallop."

Blastoise shifted, allowing some of her teammates to step out of the shadows. "That's Pidgeot up there," said Gary, pointing skywards at the majestic flying-type gliding gracefully in the air. "This is Hypno. She's pretty much my second-in-command, even though Blastoise thinks otherwise."

Hypno's laugh was a hum.

"Here's big boy Arcanine!" Gary exclaimed with sudden excitement, his hand disappearing as he ruffled the fire-type's cream fur. "He's the latest on the team to evolve - we got lost near Cinnabar's volcano, and he came in clutch after stealing a fire stone from a flock of Magmar that attacked us."

Ash smiled and waved. He remembered the Arcanine as a Growlithe, fighting under his command for the St Anne's tournament finals. That was a fun memory, in spite of everything that followed.

"This is Machoke," Gary said pointing at the purple-skinned fighter. It rumbled and rolled its shoulders, punching its reptilian fists together. "This is Nidoqueen," he introduced. The Nidoqueen smiled - it was only when it retreated behind Blastoise that Ash realised it was actually a leer.

"Here's Venomoth," he continued, pointing at the five foot tall insect hovering in the air behind Machoke. "We found her in the Safari Zone and she tagged along ever since. Next up is Ferrothorn." Ash was taken aback by the creature resting between Hypno and Blastoise. It was huge, covered entirely in metal and tough, sharp spikes. Its yellow eyes focused on Ash as he admired it. Three vines extended from its head, tipped with spiky discs of metal and grass that it used as legs to rise up and meet his gaze.

Gary snorted. "Awesome, right? We're almost done with the team. This is Omastar," he pushed on, and Ash couldn't help but feel his awe bloom as he watched the ammonite look around aimlessly. He had no doubt that it was a monster in battle, but right now it looked so…clueless. Its fang-like beak closed and opened with every breath, blue tentacles feeling the grass instinctively.

"Got him from the Grampa Canyon. It took ages, but when we found a helix fossil I wasted no time flying off to Cinnabar Island and reviving it." He smirked. "It would've nearly emptied my savings, but Gramps put in a good word, you know."

"Nepotism," agreed Ash, snickering. Gary scowled.

"Anyway, the last one's hiding…here." He pushed past Nidoqueen, shooing out a small, four-legged reptile, dark fur covering its entire face apart from its mouth, and creeping down past its neck. It appeared to be blind, since it followed the sound of Gary's incessant snapping.

"What is that?" asked Ash, already reaching for his pokédex.

"A Deino," Gary explained. "A dark- and dragon-type from Unova. I won her in Celadon's Game Corner. Before all that Rocket shit happened." His face darkened as he mentioned that, as did Ash's. "The stupid League held her for months because they were 'worried' the Rockets did something to her, but they let her go when everything checked out. She only rejoined us a few weeks ago, so consider her the newest to the team."

Gary shook his head. "Anyway, enough of that. Going to introduce your team?"

Ash nodded and said, "This is Saur, this is Delphi, Zeus, Hydrus, this guy's Snorlax, this is Infernape, Screecher, this is Kratos, and this is Eevee," pointing at the respective pokémon in process. His team regarded the other warily as Gary eyed them with slow nods.

"Gotta say, I'm impressed," remarked Gary. Then he frowned. "Wait, I swear you had a Clefairy. What happened to it?"

Ash blinked. "Oh, I traded her away."

Gary choked up. "What?! Why?"

He shifted in place. "She wanted to pursue pokémon coordinating," he stammered. "I wasn't going to stop her!"

"You're an idiot, Ashy-boy," drawled Gary, hiding his head in his hand.

Ash scowled. "Oh yeah? Let's talk about you, since you're so indignant about missing pokémon - I remember you having a Raticate! What happened to it, huh? Care to explain?"

All of a sudden, the colour disappeared from Gary's face. His infuriating smirk fell, now replaced with a sorrowful frown. "What's wrong?" asked Ash, worried.

Gary's melancholy had extended over his team - Blastoise crooned as she let her trainer lean against her shell. "Gary?" repeated Ash. He was beginning to dread his reply.

"Raticate died."

It felt like ice-water had hit him. Ash blinked - for a second, he couldn't believe Gary's words. Then his cheeks coloured as it settled in. "Oh," he muttered, unable to find anything to say.

Gary forced a smile as Jolteon sidled up to his jeans. "It's alright," he dismissed, even though it very clearly wasn't. "It was a few months ago. The team and I are moving on."

Ash picked at his nails nervously. "That must have been very difficult," he murmured.

Gary nodded. He hesitated, glancing at Ash warily, but then he sighed and closed his eyes, reliving painful memories. "We were in Lavender Town for a lot longer than we planned," he recounted, eyeing his fingernails. "We spent days at the Pokémon Tower, but we couldn't find a ghost. Not even a little Duskull. We were going to take the long route to Fuchsia, get some training in along the way, you know? But a local suggested checking out the Rock Tunnel north of town - they said Gastly are pretty common there. So I figured, why the heck not? And that's where we headed."

He exhaled, eyes closed a long second. "It was pretty calm at first. Geodude, Zubat - we took care of them as they came. Then…We found this Haunter, but it wasn't too keen on being captured. The damn thing made us chase it through the deeper levels of the tunnel. I mean, it might as well be our last chance to get a ghost on our team, you know? Besides, the markers would help us get out pretty easily if we decided to give up."

Gary opened his eyes - they were red with rage. "That fucking Haunter led us to a death trap, to a horde of sleeping Rhyhorn! As if they were waiting for us. We didn't even get the chance to leave before the Haunter woke them up with a Dream Eater. And they went crazy. Locked onto the first thing they saw - me, Machoke and Raticate."

Ash could notice the tears welling up, how Gary struggled to blink them away before they formed, but to no avail. "We ran. But you gotta understand - the tunnels were so narrow…I was scared, Ash! I couldn't think of another way to stop them. I was so stupid…"

Gary gulped. "I- I told Machoke - well, he was a Machop then - I told him to block the path behind us with a Rock Slide. I thought, maybe it'd slow them down, or- or stop them. We could see the markers, finally, and the Rhyhorn were slowing down, but-" He sniffled. "I don't know what happened. The Rock Slides were too loud, a-and I could barely hear anything over the Rhyhorn- it just happened so suddenly, Ash. I realised Raticate was missing only when the tunnel collapsed."

Ash felt his heart drop. Everyone was silent, waiting with baited breath for Gary to speak again as Machoke walked over and placed his heavy hand on his trainer's shoulder.

"Machoke and I did everything we could - he even evolved to tear down the rocks and find Raticate," Gary recalled, his smile bittersweet. "But it was too late. Raticate was under the rocks for too long. When Hypno helped us get his body out, his pokéball had already stopped working."

"I'm so sorry, Gary."

Gary shrugged, wiping a stray tear drying on his cheek. "It's okay. He's in a better place now."

Ash scratched his temple. "He is, Gary. I don't doubt it."

Gary looked up, searching Ash's eyes - then he smiled. "Thanks." He sounded like he meant it, too. "I haven't told anyone this. Not even Daisy. Gramps doesn't count, because he figured it out from the PTS records before I even got the chance to tell him." He snorted. "So yeah. You're the first person I've actually told about this to."

"I'm always here to listen, Gary." Ash squeezed his shoulder. "Losing a friend…sucks. If there's anything you need you can count on me. You know that, right?"

"I know." Gary smiled. "Thanks, Ashy-boy." Ash rolled his eyes, snorting, and let his grasp slacken as Gary leaned towards Blastoise. "Enough of the sappy stuff though. You up for some light sparring? It'll help me get my mind off things, too."

Ash looked at his team, all of whom had eagerness for battle in their eyes. "Sounds good to us."

Gary grinned. "Alright, team!" he exclaimed, rubbing his palms together. "Let's get back to it. Time to show Ashy-boy and his little crew how far they gotta climb to reach us, y'know?"

"You wish!"

XxXxX

As Ash collected his pokéballs from Quest Island's pokécenter, he decided it was time for some late night training. It had been quite a while since his team had gotten a thorough workout, and entering the Battle Tower seemed to be the perfect opportunity to renew training. His stomach grumbled as he made way to the grounds at the back of the center, but he figured the cafeteria would still have some scraps by the time they returned.

His team had pleased him with their performance today - not a single battle lost! Apart from him, there were only five other trainers with perfect records - including Natalie and Jack, which Gary seemed annoyed with. Ash couldn't hold back the twitch of his lips as he realised he would now earn two battle points for every win, but that meant he was now going to be a target. He needed to maintain that win streak if he wanted to relieve the Battle Tower of their metal coat.

With a flourish of his arms, Ash released his team into the night. They greeted him with smiles, assembling before him curiously. "I know you guys had a long day today, but I was thinking we could get back into the swing of things, training-wise," Ash suggested. "I know it's a vacation, but don't forget that the Indigo Conference is only a few months away! We still need to get two badges before then."

At that he met Infernape's eyes with a grin. He couldn't wait to see Blaine's face when they had their rematch. He hoped that thought would make a smile crack on Infernape's face, but to Ash's disappointment it remained with no emotion. Frowning, Ash decided to save any words he had for Infernape until after. They were going to have a talk no matter what.

"Anyway," continued Ash, looking back at the rest of the team, "you guys know the drill. Warm up for a bit, and then let's pick up where we left off."

Confused sounds. Ash blinked as his team implored him with quizzical looks. Then he slapped his head - of course they had no idea where they'd left off! it had been so long since then.

"Okay, let me give you guys a basic run down," said Ash, laughing with embarrassment. "Saur - for now, you'll be working on Solarbeam. I know you know the technique like the back of your hand, but until we get our hands on the Grassy Terrain TM that's all you really have to work on."

Saur grumbled, and Ash could do nothing but shrug as the grass-type rolled his eyes.

"Snorlax - continue working on the thing we'd discussed. Flamethrower, Ice Beam and Thunderbolt at the same time. No slacking off!" warned Ash. Snorlax would've torn Ash to pieces if he'd said this a few months ago, but this time he agreed to his directions with a sour grunt.

Ash couldn't help but be pleased with how their relationship had progress - he even flashed the giant a smile before moving onto the next one on the team. "Delphi and Zeus," he exclaimed, and they jumped at him with surprise.

Are you proposing target practice again, Ash? snapped Delphi, squawking.

Ash snorted. "Not yet," he said, smirk deepening as the Xatu scowled. "I need you to learn Light Screen. There's an idea I've been thinking of, so Zeus will be teaching you the ins and outs of creating a Light Screen."

I know how to create barriers. She sounded indignant.

"Light Screens are different," Ash said. "And that makes it easier for you to learn Reflect. I don't want to spend money buying a TM of it when you can master those techniques from Zeus."

She looked away, huffing. Ash shook his head.

"Zeus, once you think she's ready, bring her out to me so I can see it. When that's taken care of, I want you to work on that Magnet Rise variation we'd been working on. Got it?"

The Ampharos bleated, his bulbous horns buzzing.

"Kratos - there's nothing we need to focus on for now, so you can continue with the exercises you've been doing. Hydrus, I have a couple new moves in mind for you, but we'll leave that for another day. Just help out Kratos like you've been doing."

That got a reaction out of Hydrus. He quacked in protest, gemstone flashing with annoyance. "I can't believe you're still going on about this," groaned Ash, palming his face. "Kratos is so much more mature about this, you know. You really should learn from him."

That shut Hydrus up. Ash hid a snicker, but he couldn't help but smirk in triumph.

"Whatever." Ash snorted. "Screecher…We're going to test how good you are with Phantom Force. Be ready, because you're going to be put through the wringer. I've got something new for you."

Her trill of excitement made Ash grin. Screecher didn't care about the promise of exhaustion; she was just happy that things were going back to how they'd been.

…Well, at least that was the case with Ash. She glanced hastily at her teammates, lips pursed. Most of them still denied her existence, steadfastly looking ahead as Ash muttered something about 'manipulating dimensions'. Only Infernape watched her with side-eyes as she was addressed, and Eevee wagged her tail and looked up by her shadow.

Screecher shivered, nodding as Ash asked if she understood his directions. She had a long way to go along the road to forgiveness and being truly accepted into the team once more.

Ash scratched the bridge of his nose. "Eevee, you're coming with me. You've been with us long enough so I want you to start training like the rest of the team, okay?"

Eevee jumped, pouting. She preferred doing the easy exercises and watching the rest of the team huff and puff as their sweat puddled at their feet. She looked up at Screecher, who smirked at her. She hoped this didn't mean she wouldn't be babied anymore. She quite liked it…

"That's all. You guys can go ahead and get started. Infernape," called Ash as the fire-type turned around to follow his teammates with a grumble. "Come with me. We need to have a talk."

The others murmured. Infernape felt their gaze burn into his back as he shrugged and followed Ash and Eevee to a spot far from the fences of the training grounds. He had an inkling of what Ash wanted to talk about, but he maintained the scowl of indifference on his face.

The silence in the air felt heavy, accentuated only by the whoosh of a breeze. Ash stopped under the shade of a tree, turning around with narrowed eyes. Infernape wrung his hands nervously, indecisively looking at the ground and back at Ash.

"Right," started Ash, folding his arms. "Do you want to tell me what's going on?"

Infernape blinked. Feigning innocence, he frowned and tilted his head, but Ash saw right through it. "Don't do that, Infernape," Ash grumbled, scowling. "Everyone's noticed how you've been lately. Look here," he snapped when Infernape turned away with a 'tsk'. "What's wrong?"

Infernape exhaled. "This isn't going to get better if you don't open up to me," Ash explained, sighing irritably. "Do you not like the Sevii Isles? Or is it something I've done?"

The fire-type looked back, incredulous. "What?" asked Ash, confused.

Eevee took a step back as Infernape snarled, leaning forward. His hands trembled as he grabbed his own chest in a fistful of fur. Ash felt his confusion wane as Infernape growled, flinging his arms at his side - he was talking about the everstone.

"Is that still bothering you?" asked Ash, a little annoyance trickling through his concern. "Infernape, we talked about-"

He jumped, heart skipping a beat as Infernape stomped the ground in frustration. He half-expected a blade of stone to burst out of the ground and split him in half, but that didn't happen. Instead, Infernape jabbed at his temples with his forefingers - and then Ash stumbled back with a yelp as the flame on his head burst violently with embers blooming out in a crackle.

When he felt like he was catching up to his heart, Ash realised what Infernape meant. "Are you…Is this about Blaze?"

And then, as he said those words, the look of frustration on Infernape's face dulled and his features untwisted. The fire blazing on the back of his head receded to a flicker of dancing flame, embers flying as he spun around with a soft, affirming grunt. Ash stepped forward, but he stopped when he saw Infernape tense with his movement. "You're upset that you haven't made much progress?"

Infernape looked at him. Ash felt his heart race but he didn't stop staring with the imploring glimmer in his eyes until the fire-type responded. He slammed the sides of his fists together with a thud that made Eevee jump - and then, with a guttural sound creeping up his throat, flung them apart, as if breaking an invisible twig.

A frown made Ash's eyes narrow. "Breaking what?"

Infernape snarled, pointing at him.

Ash blinked. "You want to break me?"

He rolled his eyes. He jabbed a finger at Ash again. Raised his pinky, then curled it down. Ash understood.

"Oh," uttered Ash, finding it hard to form words. All of a sudden, he felt his annoyance being replaced with embarrassment.

He knew exactly what Infernape was talking about, and he couldn't fault him for being angry about it. He'd failed Infernape - not just as his trainer, but as his friend. He was beginning to feel horrible.

Ash gulped, hesitating as he reached out to Infernape. "I'm sorry," he stammered, the lump of shame thick in his throat. Infernape reacted by snarling as he stepped too close. Ash could feel the scorching heat of his embers, and although he flinched he didn't back away. He'd betrayed Infernape by not keeping his word, but he wasn't going to shy away now.

"I'm going to do better. I promise you that," he said quickly, keeping the determination in his voice unwavering. "And this is one promise I'm going to keep. Trust me."

Infernape scoffed. Ash could feel heat blow over his face as the fire-type exhaled, pulling away with a huff. The anger on his face was still evident, but it had receded as he held his arms questioningly.

Ash ran his fingers through his hair. "I don't know," he murmured. When Infernape's lips curled once again, he scowled in frustration. "I know I said I'll do my best, Infernape, but I don't know everything. Maybe we could do that memory thing the professor did, I guess!"

Infernape grunted. Ash's eyes narrowed. "The last time Alakazam did that, you went berserk in a heartbeat. Don't you think it's a bit risky?"

He held up his pinky, pointing at Ash with his other hand. You promised.

Ash glowered. "Tomorrow," he suggested, grinding his teeth when Infernape protested with a growl. "I need to think it over, Infernape. I'll give Professor Oak a call, and we'll go through with whatever he suggests. Okay?"

Infernape's lips unfurled, nodding curtly. Ash sighed, looking at the flattened grass under his feet. "You can skip out on training if you like. You've had a long day."

Embers flew with his grunt, and Infernape left without sparing him a second's glance. Ash cursed himself as the bright flame on Infernape's head disappeared out of sight with him. He felt horrible for making it look like he didn't care about Infernape. He was going to do everything in his power to make it up to his friend.

He'd almost forgotten about Eevee until he felt her press up against his leg. She was looking up at him in worry. "I'm fine," he said, putting on a big smile. "Come on. Let's get you started, okay?"

XxXxX

"Ash, you need to understand," pleaded Professor Oak, leaning closer. "This is a dangerous measure. I mean, you saw what happened the time we did it in the lab, and that was under Alakazam's watch!"

"I understand the risks, Professor," Ash echoed, nodding fervently, "but you have to know that Infernape's trauma hasn't gotten any better. He needs help, really bad and I…I don't know of any other way to do that. I thought he'd get better with time, but…"

He stood up from the grass, scowling as he adjusted his grasp on the pokégear. As he stepped out of the tree's shade, warm sunlight made him squint with discomfort. He could feel the heat of Infernape's flame prick the back of his neck as he followed him.

Oak sighed. "I sympathise with what you're going through, Ash, but you cannot handle his trauma in such a reckless way. MEMRE therapy doesn't work the same for every patient. What if it goes too far, and your Infernape acts out in a way that he'll always regret?"

Ash shook his head. "No. He'd never hurt me. I trust him with my life," he exclaimed, looking over his shoulder. Infernape looked away, studying his feet as he gulped.

"You can't be sure-"

"My team's always there to protect me, Professor!"

"That's besides the point!" yelled Oak, exasperated. "You're not even taking into account that you need a skilled psychic who can maintain the link long enough for Infernape to process his memories."

"I have my utmost faith in Delphi," remarked Ash.

Oak buried his head in his hands. "I'll tell you what. The instant you get back to Kanto, I will set up an appointment with Sabrina herself. I'm sure her Hypno will be more than adept at helping you and Infernape get through this issue. How does that sound?"

Ash hesitated. On one hand, that was an offer he couldn't refuse - but he hadn't seen Sabrina since the Silph Tower incident, and he had the feeling that she was still furious at him. "That's really kind of you, Professor," he said, "but we won't be back until after the end of next week. That's too far away."

He could sense Oak's ire growing. "Please," he implored, bowing. "Is there nothing I could do here, in the Sevii Isles?"

The professor fluttered a ballpoint pen between his fingers, glowering. "I'll have a word with Celio," he muttered finally, and Ash could tell he was frustrated. "See what he can do. Perhaps the psychics of Kin Island still live there." His eyes were stern and full of warning as he looked up back at Ash. "I hope you won't be foolhardy and try anything in the meantime."

Ash shook his head. "I won't, Professor. You can trust me."

Oak nodded. Then, without a word, the screen went blank.

"Ouch," said Ash, cringing. The professor must've been really irritated to end the call without even a goodbye.

He shrugged, pocketed the pokégear, and turned to face Infernape. "The Professor is looking for ways he can help," he told the fire-type. Infernape's lips twitched when he grunted, as if satisfied.

Ash rolled his eyes as Infernape walked away with a sluggish lean in his gait. "I'm so sick of everyone being annoyed with me," he growled.

He looked over his shoulder with a sigh. He needed to get back to his team and wrap up their training before he headed over to the Battle Tower. Waking up at the crack of dawn turned out to be a good idea - by the time his team would be done with their workout, there would be a whole day to earn battle points at the facility! Ash wasn't going to let even a second go to waste.

As he walked over the Screecher, he flinched at the ripple of energy that came as she tore up a spectral rift in the sky. "Okay, that's enough!" he yelled, before Screecher could vanish into it. She looked grateful at the order, floating towards him with her breathing all raggedy.

"That was good. Now - onto phase two." Ash found himself grinning at the fear on Screecher's face. "Don't worry, it's nothing rough. We're going to figure out how you can manipulate Phantom Force. Just go up ahead and take your position. Here's a sitrus."

Juices wet the grass as she gorged on the berry hungrily, and Ash giggled as she burped. He was really pleased with how less awkward they were with each other lately. He only hoped things would get equally better with the rest of the team. Ash wasn't blind - he noticed how disconnected she was with the others, how they always gave her the cold shoulder. He couldn't fault them and, while he was a bit miffed that they hadn't gotten over it by now, he figured letting them deal with their feelings on their own time was safer.

Ash watched Screecher levitate several feet into the air, and snapped his fingers to gain her attention. "Okay, Screecher!" he called. "So far, you've done a good job at keeping Phantom Force as long as you can. Now, as you create the opening, I want you to create an exit. Do you understand me?"

She didn't, and directed her confused gaze at him with a tilt of her head. "Let me explain," he said. "There are two parts to Phantom Force - you disappear into your portal, and then come out of it with an attack. Those two portals - they have the same passage, like a tunnel. Isn't that right?"

Screecher nodded, her eyes widening with understanding.

Ash grinned. "That's what I want you to do, but without the disappearing part. I want you to hold up two portals at once, with a single connection between them. Does that make sense?"

The Mismagius tittered, nervous and unsure. If she could shrug, she would.

"That's why we're here to find out," Ash told her soothingly. "Alright! At the count of three."

Screecher nodded, looking at the air with determination. Ash, hypnotised with the latent hum and glow of her jewelled necklace, took a second to begin his count.

"One, two…three!"

Scarlet light flared out from Screecher's neck as demonic, purple energy bubbled in front of her, coiling around a ring of cloudy miasma. As an oval of darkness grew to size ahead of her, a second portal hissed into existence not too far away, the ring of smoke around it frothing violently.

Awe and shock surged through Ash, and he couldn't help but dedicate a few moments to admiring the sight. It felt like one of those video games he'd played as a kid, watching his character create portal ends to his heart's delight. While Screecher's attempt was impressive, he could tell that although the 'entrance' looked solid and focused, the 'end' looked like it could implode in a few seconds. Her technique would need some work…

Smirking, Ash reached for a stone peeking out from the blades of grass. "Screecher!" he called, weighing the rock before he wound his arm back. "Catch!"

Months of throwing pokéballs had honed his throwing skills, and he watched with a smile as the stone sailed right into one of the portals. A split-second later, it flew out of the other end, right as both portals collapsed in on themselves and Screecher lowered herself as her breath gave out.

"Okay, that was a good first try," Ash praised, barely hiding his excitement as he walked over to Screecher, who dropped to the ground like sack of rocks. "We'll have to work on this a lot more, but I'm really happy with how good this already looks."

Her eyes flitted over to him, a half-smile on her lips. Ash grinned back.

"Take a break. You've been working hard since we woke up," he told her, unzipping his backpack, and he took out a container of pokémon food. "Have this. If you want to, you can keep working on this technique while I check on the others. Okay?"

She nodded, but her eyes lingered on the food he'd placed next to her. Ash snorted.

If this really worked out, Screecher would be the epitome of adaptability. He hadn't seen anyone employ a technique like this - not even the Revenant, Agatha, and her army of spectres! He could already imagine in what ways Screecher could dominate battles with something like this…

He patted her leathery 'hat', giggling as she cooed in delight. Time to check on the others, he told himself, grunting as he got up with a push.

XxXxX

"Okay, Kratos," muttered Ash, grasping the bug-type by his shoulder. "When I give you the go-ahead, strike with Brick Break. Easy."

The Scyther raised his arms and grunted. Ash smiled, patting his friend before walking back.

On the other side of the field, Delphi took her mark, eyes shut in meditation. She didn't respond when she was asked if she was ready; Ash took that as a yes.

"Go!"

Delphi's wings flared out, wisps of energy shooting out from her feathers as a wall of yellow light expanded in front of Kratos. Ash didn't have to time to eye the Light Screen for long, as Kratos thrust his scythe out with a roar, brick-red energy glowing around it. The Light Screen splintered as Kratos drove his arm through it, like a glass pane flying out in tiny golden shards.

"Amazing!" Ash clapped his hands excitedly. "Delphi, I think you're good to go with Light Screen! That was quick."

He heard her scoff in his mind. I told you, she grumbled, but she sounded smug. I know how to create barriers.

Ash rolled his eyes. "Zeus, you did a good job of teaching her, too. I'm proud." He could almost hear Delphi's scowl when he said that, but Zeus didn't really care. He still puffed up with pride.

"Zeus, you can head on over to your spot and warm up. I'll be with you in a moment - no walking!" Ash said quickly, a frown crossing his face. Zeus groused, reluctantly letting a magnetic field generate as sparks and threads of electricity trickled out from under him.

"You two are going to be working together until Delphi learns Reflect," Ash told the two of them. "You know how Light Screen works, so learning Reflect won't take too long. The energy you need for them are on the same spectrum; they're just different wavelengths. I'm sure you know what I mean, but you'll know for sure if you've got it when the barrier is a more of a physical force against Kratos' Brick Breaks."

I understand, said Delphi, bowing.

Ash smiled. "Good. I'll be back in an hour. If you need a break, take it!"

He wheeled around on the balls of his feet, and the sound of squawks and hisses faded in the distance. He hoped the rest of his team were training with the diligence they had last night. Saur was with Snorlax, keeping the beast awake as they trained, while Hydrus was busy whipping Eevee into shape to keep up with the rest of the team. She wasn't too happy about it, but Ash couldn't let her get too used to the easy training she used to do. He had to maintain standards.

Infernape was…on his own, for now. Ash didn't want to bother him too much, given their moods around each other lately, but he knew his friend well enough to believe he was still training on his own. That brought him some solace.

Ash was glad to see Zeus' progress as he approached him. Rings of stones and mud levitated around the Ampharos, his face frozen in a rictus of concentration. When he saw Ash, he grinned - and consequently, the rock around him fell to the ground in soft thuds.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Ash mused, crossing his arms. Zeus grunted, a lone rock floating up into his palm as he kicked up another electromagnetic field. "There's a lot on your plate. Which means, you're going to work the hardest. I know it doesn't sound fun, but that's the price for strength. Are you up for it?"

Zeus nodded, his horns twitching. Ash smirked. "I know. I just wanted to see you get worked up."

The Ampharos rolled his eyes, and when Ash was done snickering they looked at each other seriously. "Here's our plan of action for now. You're going to keep up Magnet Rises until it hurts. When you're outside, or training, or even thinking of taking a break. I want you to know the technique like the back of your hand- uh, flipper."

Zeus snorted.

"Sorry." Ash smiled sheepishly. "But yes. I know it sounds like I'm pushing you past your limits, but that's because it needs to be done. The more intimate you are with Magnet Rise, the closer we'll be to perfecting the technique I told you about."

Zeus grinned. His smile was infectious and Ash couldn't help but share it. "That's not all, though," Ash continued. "When you're not practising Magnet Rise, I want you to keep attempting Dragon Pulse. Follow what Surge and the professor taught you. That's all we can hold onto. Unless we find a dragon master who's kind enough to train us for free, I guess." Ash snorted, envisioning a particular red-maned trainer with a brood of dragons.

"Be prepared for me to be on your heels," Ash warned. "I'm not going to be easy on you. Are you in?"

The Ampharos snickered, shrugging. Ash cracked another smile.

"Good. Now, I want you to circuit through every move while using Magnet Rise. We're going to go through them until you tire out. Come on!"

As Zeus floated away to a lone boulder that he'd chosen as his target, Ash reached within his backpack, his forehead creasing as he pulled out two lustrous spheres. The ampharosite shone like a lilliputian sun as he placed it on the grass, right next to the twirl of the keystone's double helix. The soft hum of the megastone's light caught Zeus' attention - Ash could see him steal glimpses through the corner of his eyes. He picked up the keystone, tossing it absentmindedly, his features lost in deep thought.

"What do I even do with this?" asked Ash to the sky. The book on mega evolution Oak had given him had been informative, but it provided no concrete information on how to achieve the state. There were two of the three prerequisites that Ash knew he had - the keystone, and the megastone - but he couldn't be sure of the third. There was no benchmark, no passing grade to certify whether his bond with Zeus was strong enough to unleash the glory of mega evolution. He didn't even know where to start!

Ash had only ever seen Sabrina mega evolve her Alakazam, but he couldn't exactly ask her for directions. He wasn't on speaking terms with the gym leader - not after the Silph tower debacle.

He drummed the ampharosite with his fingers, clicking his teeth. He didn't know if he'd ever trigger it, but there was no harm in keeping it around Zeus. Maybe if they did something right, the stones would react. At least that's what he hoped for.

XxXxX

When his team had sweated so much that it looked like another round of morning dew on the grass, Ash decided it was time to give his friend their well-deserved rest and continue his challenge against the Battle Tower.

He'd decided to stay at the tower itself, rather than go back and forth from the main island. The rooms were a lot less cheaper and, even if the speedboat rides were a steal, Ash would rather bear the cost than spend another second among those insufferable sailors. Just thinking of their leers made him shiver.

He knew he was going to be a target in the tower for a while. Being one of the few people to have a three win-streak meant that there'd be a line of challengers waiting to break it. Ash wasn't looking too forward to that - no, he was going to battle as many tower trainers as he could and maintain his undefeated record! Challenging them was worth the risk of losing two points - and apart from his hunger for battle points, he'd been having an appetite for blood-boiling battles.

The trainers had already assembled way before time in the main hall. It felt like he was late to the programme, but there were still a few minutes before time! Ash had underestimated his opponents' eagerness, but maybe that was a good thing. Perhaps he'd get a few fun battles out of them, too.

When the clock hit eleven, one the attendants on the floor raised his microphone. "The battlefields are now open!" chimed the attendant, and the waiting trainers cheered. "For the next week, the Battle Tower arenas will be available from eleven to nine every day. You can also head up to the fourth, fifth and sixth floor to challenge our tower trainers if you want a challenge and earn more battle points. If you have any queries, you can always reach out to us on the first floor. Good luck, and happy battling!"

The cacophony of footfalls clouded the air. Trainers were stampeding towards the various battlefields, fighting to be the first ones in the trainer boxes. Ash snickered, watching Jack slink and weave through the others like a particularly slippery Ekans. But unlike Jack, Natalie and Gary waited back like Ash, and began sneaking off to the elevators at the other end, no doubt ready to head up to the higher floors. He shouldn't have been surprised.

Ash couldn't even remember how long he took to make it to the fifth floor of the tower. All he knew was that the doors of the elevator slid open and led him and a couple other kids into the pristine expanse of the fifth level. Unlike the lower rung of the tower, which held several gym-sized battlefields, the tower trainers were given a league-standard battlefield to tear up. Ash had battled on league-sized fields a few times, but it always inspired awe. To think that in a few months he'd be battling in the Indigo Conference…

The tower trainer hanging by the sidelines walked across the field as he saw Ash and the others walk in. He couldn't be older than Red, but his heavily-scarred countenance made it difficult to ascertain his age. Despite the ruined skin of his face, he seemed to have all the cheer in the world. Ash couldn't help but feel a certain sense of ease as the young man approached him and the others.

"Hi! I'm Camden, one of the Battle Tower's battling executives. You guys can call me Cam." He flashed a grin. "I assume you guys are here to challenge me as part of the Battle Tower program, yeah?"

Ash stepped forward, but he was suddenly pushed aside by a taller, bigger boy, his sausage-like fingers gripping a pokéball tight. "That's right!" he cried, piggy eyes blinking furiously.

Camden backed up, laughing. "Whoa, relax!" He wrinkled his nose. "Alright, if you're that eager…Let's make our way to the battlefield."

Ash blinked. "But I…"

He trailed off, feeling snubbed and half-angry. He couldn't believe he'd allowed someone to push him around like that. He was supposed to have the first battle!

Ash wore a scowl as he walked to the bleachers with the rest of the waiting trainers. He continued to seethe even when the others accepted that he would be up next as he furiously informed them.

The executive, Camden, appeared nonchalant as he and the challenger walked up to their boxes. The rules were clear - three pokémon, no time limit, no substitutions. The challenger already had a ball in hand, but Camden took a moment to access an odd vending machine near his corner, and clipped the three pokéballs that the machine dispensed.

Ash sighed, resigning himself to being a spectator. Maybe he could find a way to counter Camden's battling style during this time. Several staff members of the Battle Tower had hyped by the tower trainers since the programme had begun, and he wanted to see the truth in their words.

The challenger sent out his pokémon first, and an Tangela took the field. It looked fairly young, with its vines greener than blue, but it hopped around with the same detached curiosity the rest of its kind were known for. Its trainer crossed his arms, smiling with an air of arrogance that Ash didn't think he should've had.

Camden smiled and released an Azumarill. Its presence made Ash remember Misty, and that soured his mood. The gaggle of trainers sitting around Ash raised their eyebrows, gaping, confused with the battle executives choice - a water-type against a Tangela? Ash couldn't tell if it was arrogance, stupidity, or both.

The challenger had a smug expression on his face as the battle started. With a loud yell, he ordered his Tangela to kick things off with Ancient Power. Its thick vines struck the earth, imbuing rock and mud with silvery energy as they were plucked out from the field in massive chunks. With twitching ears, the Azumarill raised its arms - three massive globes of water fizzled and bubbled to size and circled it, before they went shooting forward like cannonballs.

The blocks of Ancient Power were eroded away by the Water Pulses almost instantly, falling to the field in a rain of murky debris. The challenger snapped his fingers and whistled out a second command - this time, the Tangela's vines snaked out with the speed of vipers. Camden was smiling, and even the Azumarill snickered as it was sent stumbling backwards as the Tangela struck it across its face.

The Azumarill fell to all fours, wagging its tail. As confusion flashed through the air, the Azumarill bled out an aura of red. Everyone winced as it smashed its stomach with its bulbous tail - each thud rang out like a thunderclap, its belly rippling with shockwaves. Ash knew what the technique was, however - Belly Drum, which opened the floodgates to absurd strength, but dealt devastating blows to the user.

Azumarill was pretty much a glass cannon - a few Vine Whips from the Tangela would take it out. But Ash suspected that Camden had a couple tricks up his sleeve.

The Tangela's vines lunged forward, wrapping around the unbothered Azumarill's joints. Camden reflected his pokémon's calm - and Ash failed to understand why. Jade energy formed at the Tangela's face and it spat the Energy Ball with a shriek, right as it tossed the Azumarill away like a rag-doll, and smote it right in its face.

But then as the mist from the Energy Ball faded away to reveal Azumarill, the water-type looked just fine - perhaps roughed up by the landing awkwardly on the rugged terrain, but fine nonetheless. In fact, it was smiling. Something clearly wasn't right.

The Tangela's trainer blinked, clearly shocked and confused. But the few seconds he took to command his Tangela to fire another Energy Ball was enough time for the Azumarill to scurry forward, its paws leaking mist and leaving frost with each step.

There was a ring of smoke, a flare of frozen crystals - the Azumarill drove its icy paws into the Tangela with a horrible squeal. Never in a million years did Ash expect the raw ferocity behind an Azumarill's blow. The shockwave of the Ice Punches left scorch marks of ice along the field and the Tangela was sent flying away like tumbleweed. A sheen of ice had already crawled across the vines around its face, leaving them frozen.

The challenger was too dumbstruck and scared to command his whining Tangela. Green electricity crackled at the tip of its frozen vines in a futile attempt to drive its foe away, but the Azumarill simply snickered in the face of the Energy Ball's heat. A ray of icy blue blitzed across the earth like a rope of lightning, flecking the arena with frost and rime. The Tangela blasted away by the Ice Beam, frozen to the ground in a spiderweb of ice, thickening and misting until it was hidden under a crystalline dome.

Ash watched as the red beam of light from the challenger's ball fluttered within the globe of ice as it returned the Tangela. He looked furious, pocketing the device and hastily picking another. Ash knew better than to let his emotions take control in battle, but it seemed that the challenger didn't.

This time, he sent out an Electabuzz. It looked bigger than the rest and seemed as strong as Paul's, the last time he'd met Ash. The sparks flaring out from its whirring arms were no doubt an intimidation tactic, but Camden and his Azumarill were unimpressed.

The challenger didn't have to say a word - instantly, the Electabuzz fell to the ground on all fours. Sparks whirled around it in rings and its antennae made the air fuzzy with static as blue electricity flashed out in a lightning-fast bolt. It would've blasted Azumarill right off its feet if a shield of emerald energy hadn't flashed out with a squeal. The Shock Wave bounced off the barrier with a pitiful sizzle, and the Azumarill leapt through the Protect with a gasp right as it vanished.

The Electabuzz roared as it rose, curling its arms with a huff. It snapped them outwards, whirring and producing a tornado of electricity at its hands as it broke into a heavy run. The Azumarill rounded back, as if retreating, but Ash could notice its trainer murmur out a command even with one hand shielding his mouth.

They watched the Azumarill wag its tail - taunting, mocking - and that only made the Electabuzz madder. It slammed its whirring fists together, pushing out a shockwave of electricity, and the thunderclap of it made everyone jump. But right then, the Azumarill roared, striking the earth with its tail, and two grassy vines sprouted out of the earth and knotted around the Electabuzz's ankles.

It tripped to the ground with a painful yelp. Whatever the move was, it had taken the creature by surprise - as it breathed dust and dirt, it took the Electabuzz a few seconds to try and push itself back up. But by then, the Azumarill had already attacked.

Its mouth grew to an almost comical size a ball of mud formed at its lips, packed hard like a boulder. The Electabuzz's head turned up only to be hit in the face with the Mud Shot. Its scream sent a sliver of ice running down Ash's spine - mud flew out everywhere with the intensity of a blood splatter.

Ash could smell the Electabuzz's rage as it sank its claws into the arena. Its snarl made its whiskers tremble, fur caked with dirt, as a flash of electricity burst from it in its fury. Flames trickled at its arms and it scorched the ensnaring vines around its ankles in a single grasp. They writhed like dying worms.

Sparks flew across its body and suddenly the Electabuzz was wreathed in electricity, fur standing on end and brilliantly illuminated. The Azumarill shifted, lounging like a Persian poised to lunge - and then its paws struck the ground with a shockwave powerful enough to kick up a wedge of dirt that surged forward like an ocean wave.

The challenger screamed in horror as the Bulldoze slammed into his Electabuzz's thighs - it flipped forward and was sent stumbling to the ground once again. The flare of lightning around it fizzled away, stamped out by its painful fall. Its antennae buzzed faintly - as if desperate to keep its spark going.

The Electabuzz crawled onto all fours, but the ground it was upon snapped open and tendrils of grass flew out, tightening around its wrists and ankles. The struggle against its bounds was visible to all, from its gritting fangs and clenched claws. But as the Electabuzz fought to break free, the Azumarill wasn't staying still - with a dance it its step, it leapt forward and suddenly sprang into the air as if it had been summoned to the heavens. The Electabuzz, a frown of dawning horror on its face, struggled against the ropes of grass around its limbs - managing to snap the vines slicing into its right wrist - right as the Azumarill crash-landed right into the creature's back.

Lightning bolts flashed from the Electabuzz's forehead - that was the last defiant act it conducted before slumping. The Azumarill pranced away with a hop and a snicker and Camden cheered it on with applause.

The challenger, dumbfounded, only blinked; Camden snorted and wiggled his fingers at him. "Come on; fork over the last one and let's get this over with," taunted the battle executive.

Ash laughed. The challenger directed his beady glare at him and Ash stopped, only to resume silently when the challenger enlarged a third ball with trembling fingers. His last pokémon was a Nidorina - roughly the size of a Nidorino, but with more of cunning than a short temper. Its intelligent eyes rolled back at its trainer, fanged mouth curving into a smile that the challenger returned for a second - then it was back to his grumpy, embarrassed scowl.

The Nidorina immediately fell to all fours. Dark spikes, like miniature spiked maces, flew out and planted themselves into the earth, wiggling into the soil until only the black dots of their spines poked out. The Azumarill, aware of the Toxic Spikes crawling the earth, came to a nervous halt, eyes shifting. Even a single misstep would be treacherous.

The field was now tilted in the challenger's favour - the Toxic Spikes littering the earth had reduced Azumarill's prance to a wary trot. The Nidorina recoiled and spat out a cannonball of poison. The Azumarill, visibly frightened by the Sludge Bomb, scurried away as the blob hit the ground where it once was and exploded.

Drops of water oozed out from beneath the Azumarill's fur, condensing into a a steady, glittering ring of water - Aqua Ring. The slivers of water slithering out from the Aqua Ring every now and then, would rejuvenate the Azumarill bit by bit.

But it turned out to be meaningless. In its haste to avoid the Sludge Bomb, it had stepped on a Toxic Spike. With a limp in its gait and the poison weathering its will second by second, the Azumarill was defeated - and everyone knew it. Its trainer chewed his lip, frustrated, but not too much. He still had two more pokémon to go.

The challenger, however, took this glimmer of hope like an assurance of his victory. The Nidorina carved into the earth, disappearing behind a shower of rock and mud as it dug a tunnel into the field. The Azumarill, shuddering and nauseous, shifted around in worry and anticipation. One second, then two-

Boom! The ground beneath it crumbled and the Nidorina burst out with a shriek. The Azumarill flailed and commanded an icy flare around its paws in one last attempt, but the Nidorina dug its spikes into the creature and fired off a barrage of Poison Stings. They sounded like firecrackers - several people jumped, and Camden returned his pokémon before it could fall to the ground.

"Nice one!" he exclaimed, although his face didn't show the enthusiasm in his voice. He already had a pokéball ready in his other hand. He tapped the release, so quick it was almost invisible, and released his pokémon.

Both the challenger and his Nidorina were unnerved by the Hypno levitating on the field. Everyone knew how the battle was going to end - even the challenger, and most of all Camden. The Hypno sent out a psychic blast so strong that it fractured the ground below it. The Nidorina was sent flipping away, only a shockwave left in its place.

It twisted and turned, desperately attempting to land on its feet, but the Hypno didn't waste a second. It was clear that Camden - his eyes shining blue from his psychic link - wanted the battle over quickly now. The Hypno imploded out of existence, materialising near to where the Nidorina had skid to a halt. The poison-type reacted with inhuman speed, claws leaking shadowy energy, but the Hypno had premeditated everything. A beam of red hissed out from its forefinger, and the Nidorina was frozen in its half-pounce. Its eyes were shaking with fear, but they soon glazed over - the Hypno's pendulum had lulled it to sleep.

The Hypno let go of the Disable and the Nidorina slumped to the ground. Its trainer, half-furious and half-anguished, struggled to recall his obviously defeated pokémon - even the Hypno's deadpan stare held enough emotion to urge him. When he didn't, the Hypno simply turned on its sleeping foe. Red coloured its hands - suddenly, the Nidorina was screaming, thrashing in place, as if unable to wake up from a terrible nightmare-

The Nidorina dissolved within a crimson beam. Its trainer, face red and puffy, refused to meet anyone's eyes. The Hypno leered at him.

"That's two points off for you," exclaimed Camden, smirking as he skipped onto the field. "Better luck next time, I guess! Who's next?"

Ash could hear everyone looking at him. He gave them a half-scowl, rolling his eyes as he resigned himself to battle. "Guess it's me," he yelled, lumbering down the bleachers.

Camden grinned. "Nice. Come on over! Give me a moment - I've got to reset the field."

The arena sunk into the floor, replaced with a fresh, earthen field. Camden had walked over to the pokéball vending machine on his side of the court, while Ash's fingers rattled along his bandolier. He needed to make smart choices.

"You can go first," Ash said, and Camden snorted.

"How kind of you. Very well - let's get this started!"

A Ninetales pounced out from the pokéball, its smooth bark sending a shiver down Ash's spine. It flourished its tails - like the rays of a morning sun - and pawed about with a sneer on its face. Arrogant, like most other Ninetales.

Ash frowned. He thought of any tricks Camden and his Ninetales would have up their sleeves - but as far as he knew, Ninetales were know for their ghost-type affinities, apart from being traditional fire-types. He didn't think he had much to worry about.

The Ninetales snarled, frustrated with the wait. Ash released Hydrus. He was the best option against a Ninetales. The Ninetales was eyeing the jewel on his forehead - it glowed ominously in response, punctuated by Hydrus' quack of challenge.

The Ninetales leapt forward with fearsome flames billowing out from its mouth. A cone of fire flew through the air, scorching a line of earth below as it grazed past. Hydrus sneered - he wasn't afraid of it for a moment. He swished his tail, suddenly covered in veils of water; with a turn so fast that it left even Ash blinking, he slapped the Flamethrower with such force that it burst into a puff of steam.

The Ninetales, eyes narrowed, took a step back. It let out a harrowing howl - its tails stood on end, light pouring from its gaze. A miniature sun fizzled in the center of the sky, bringing with it a blinding light and waves of scorching heat. Hydrus' eyes were in a squint, his hands over his face as he recoiled from the sun's incandescence. The Ninetales, its fangs peeking out from a smirk, hunkered over as it absorbed the sunlight and produced ball of bright emerald.

Ash's eyes widened at the sight of the Energy Ball - all of a sudden, he realised that Ninetales were one of the many fire-type pokémon that could learn Solarbeam. He cursed, hastily ordering Hydrus to stop the attack with an ice beam. There was a noisy explosion and a cloud of smoke not unlike a smokescreen covering the field.

"Water Pulse!" yelled Ash. Hydrus brought his palms together and summoned a sphere of glowing water - but for some reason, it seemed…smaller than usual. It only took a second for him to remember that the harsh sunlight of Sunny Day made water attacks weaker.

"Shit," he muttered, scratching his fingernails. The Ninetales leapt out of the way and barked in annoyance at the water splashing as the Water Pulse hit the ground.

"Okay. Hydrus, use Rain Dance!" said Ash. The Golduck's eyes shimmered, almost white, and with a wave of his claws and the flash of his jewel, stormy clouds began roiling in the sky. The stadium darkened, and the sphere of light hanging above the field was hidden behind an expansive, thick grayness.

Rain began to fall. The Ninetales, it's bark now raspy, shivered and spat embers at random. The downpour had left its previously fluffy fur now plastered against its body.

Ash snorted at the weather - he'd never experience something like this before on the battlefield. Behind the darkness of the clouds, they could all witness the beams of light tearing through. Even with the cool mist of the rain, he could feel the heat flashing from above.

The sheets of rain drizzling from above filled Hydrus with new vigor, but the never-ending incandescence of the Sunny Day was still an irritating presence. "Let's end this quickly," Ash muttered. Hydrus quacked, listening intently. "Knock it down with a Water Pulse and then hit it with Surf."

He held out his webbed claws, producing a sphere of water in no time. The Ninetales tensed, snarling as another Energy Ball grew at its maw. Scowling, Hydrus threw the Water Pulse with a shriek, right as the Ninetales fired the Energy Ball, barking, and leapt to its right.

But Hydrus was already two steps ahead of it. As an explosion of water and light rocked the center of the arena, he had already fired an Ice Beam at the ground, leaving a sheet of smooth ice in place. The Ninetales yelped, but there was no time for it to spit embers. It landed on the ice, heels slipping awkwardly, and it stumbled to the ground.

Right then, Hydrus hit the earth with his biggest Surf yet. The globe of water hit the ground and a massive wave burst out upon impact. The Ninetales, shrieking, whipped up whatever solar energy its sun could offer and screamed out a hasty Solarbeam in the face of defeat.

It ripped through the monstrous wave like a laser, but it hit nothing else. Hydrus rolled away and the Solarbeam hissed past his shoulder, burning into the psychic shields with a force that left them shaking.

The wave crashed down, and swallowed the Ninetales whole. It disappeared within the froth and foam of the water until it surfaced, kicking and screaming, spitting dying embers with every breath. Hydrus slipped into the makeshift swimming pool, kicking up another wave with a swish of his arms. The Ninetales, pushed underwater by the second wave, vanished into a ray of red light.

Hydrus quacked with laughter, lounging in the waves. Despite the proud smile cracking through his beak, his eyes showed his true emotions - a taunting, mocking glitter dancing in them as he watched Camden pocket the ball with a frown. His tail slapped the water, kicking up a geyser of droplets. He was awaiting his next target.

Camden didn't bother wasting a second before taking another pokéball from his vending machine - out burst a blue fish, scales of yellow stretching across its face and tail. At first, Ash didn't recognise the creature, as it dove into the depths of the water as soon as it was sent out - then he saw two bulbs of light floating racing with its silhouette, and he paled. It was a Lanturn.

"Protect!" he screamed.

Right as the Lanturn spat a bolt of electricity, Hydrus surrounded himself in a sphere of green energy. He bobbed in the water like a beach ball as electricity surged through the pool with every slosh of the waves. He was forced to keep up the barrier, or else face the wrath of Lanturn's electric blasts, and Ash could see the veins bulging on his forehead. Hydrus couldn't keep this up longer, and so Ash had to think of something else to get them out of this.

"Freeze the water under you!" ordered Ash. Hydrus blinked - then he realised that he'd scooped up a fair amount of water inside his spherical barrier, almost till his knees.

With nothing but sheer willpower, Hydrus levitated himself above the water, while still keeping the ball of green energy around him. Icy bolts blasted from its beak, ricocheting off the Protect's inner walls. Frost crawled across the water, then roots of ice, transforming the water into a block of ice.

Just then, Hydrus' concentration gave out. The jade globe around his melted away, as did the blue aura of psychic energy holding him up, and he fell with his floe of ice with a wide splash. But he was safe, held above the water by his makeshift icy raft, while the Lanturn slithered in the water with its antennae rising through the surface.

"Clever!" praised Camden, looking impressed.

"Make more of them," Ash murmured to Hydrus, ignoring his opponent. "The ice blocks. You'll need a way to manoeuvre the field, or else you'll be a sitting Golduck."

Hydrus nodded. More bolts of ice flared out from his beak, turning circles of the pool into floes. It reminded him of the Cerulean gym now - stepping stones drifting in an arena of shimmering blue. Hydrus was a bit miffed that he couldn't escape to the waters, but it was much better than being electrocuted.

The Lanturn surfaced, its narrowed red eyes meeting Hydrus' in a glare. Its luminous antennae, sparking with light and electricity, snapped forward as they expelled a fearsome Thunderbolt. Hydrus leapt out of the way, feeling his fur stand on end as ionised air brushed him, and he landed with a grunt on a nearby floe.

The Lanturn tittered, swinging its antennae in Hydrus' direction. The Golduck shrieked, then threw a Water Pulse into the waves right as the Lanturn sneezed out a zigzag of lightning; the pool heaved, hitting the Lanturn in the face with a powerful wave, and sent it tumbling back like a beach ball through the aquatic field.

When the waves settled, Hydrus already had his eyes on the recovering Lanturn - it was hard to miss such a creature when it had two beacons pulsing frantically in the water. The swimming pool thrummed as a terrible Screech rippled from his throat - even Ash was feeling like a blood vessel was about to burst. A discharge of electricity splintered through the water's surface, striking anything in its path. Hydrus ended his blood-curdling shrieks and somersaulted away, right as his icy podium was blown apart by a branch of lightning.

Ice seeped from Hydrus' beak as he fortified the floating platforms around him. The Lanturn, twisting in the water, glowed an ominous yellow, like a drowning sun - and then electricity splintered the water. Thick trunks of lightning burst into the air, smashing into the ceilings overhead, their concussive booms leaving Ash's ears ringing and spots in his eyes. Hydrus thrust his arms out, surrounding himself in a dome of green energy as the Thunderbolts knocked him into the water, still surrounded in his protective orb. He looked like a Rattata in its ball, spinning in a wreath of bubbles as strands of electricity ricocheted off the barrier. But he couldn't hold it for long, and it was only a few seconds before his focus gave out and the Protect faded away.

Almost instantly, the Lanturn seemed to transform into a feral Sharpedo. Its tail fin was a blur as it swam all the way across, wreathed in flashing electricity. Hydrus, only recovering from the electrified water, spat out a fearsome Ice Beam, leaving streams of slush and icy shards floating with the sloshing pool. The Lanturn weaved expertly, bracing itself for impact, but Hydrus suddenly realised he had psychic abilities. He swept out his claws and a wave of iridescent surged out, it's shockwaves tearing apart the water with destructive ripples.

Ash could see Hydrus' jewel flash through the water, like a flare, as he flew out of the pool in a cone of water. The telltale crackle and mist of an Ice Beam fizzed at his beak as he conjured another disc of ice to land on. It cracked under his weight as he landed down in a graceful arc, and immediately began gluing it together with more sprays of frost-

The Golduck paused, frowning as froth bubbled around him. His scarlet eyes glittered with dawning realisation, snapping his beak shut, as the waves suddenly moved in the completely other direction, as if the water around him was…churning. It was far too late before Ash noticed the impending Whirlpool. Hydrus surrounded himself in frothy water, ready to propel himself away, but a flicker of electricity thumped him in the chest.

The Whirlpool swallowed him within its vicious currents, roaring like it contained a Gyarados. Hydrus was struggling against the vortex, almost breaking through with his powerful swimming abilities, but suddenly the maelstrom was lit up by dazzling thunderbolts of blue. They looked like a great banyan tree, branches of lightning splintering through the whirlpool for the briefest of seconds before it burst apart in a violent thunderclap.

Ash didn't want to look at Hydrus' unconscious, convulsing body floating in the waves any longer. He'd already whipped his pokéball out, pointing it wildly at the water. His heart continued to pound even as his Golduck returned to the device.

"You did your best - get some sleep now," he murmured, holding the sphere tight. Saur would've been the perfect counter for Lanturn, but Ash didn't think he had much practice swimming. He cursed under his breath. None of his teammates had experience battling in water. That was something he'd never considered before.

Note to self - let Hydrus train with the others in the lake today, he muttered in his head. For now, his only options were Screecher, Delphi and Kratos. The latter two were a risky choice against an electric-type. But he was already thinking of a way he could get the Lanturn out of its element…

"Delphi, you can do this!" yelled Ash, putting his faith into his words. The Xatu almost fell into the pool, but quickly realised it was water and held herself up with her psychic powers. She looked back at him with a glare.

A little warning next time!

Ash winced. "Sorry."

"That's a brave choice," commented Camden, his eyebrow raised. "Brave, not smart."

"We'll see," muttered Ash lowly. He felt the electric tingle of Delphi's mental link intensifying in his head. "Be quick on your feet. If it hits you even once, you're done."

I'm well aware, she groused.

"Good." Ash sniffed. "Get on it's nerves. Ominous Wind - but be careful. It knows Whirlpool, so don't get too into it."

He really wasn't looking forward to any waterspouts in case Camden and his Lanturn got the chance. For his plan to work, he'd need to play smart and bide his time. They couldn't dive headfirst into the fight.

Streaks of wind manifested, howling with dark and violet energy, with every flap of Delphi's wings. The pool sloshed roughly, and the waves began kicking up much higher. The Lanturn hissed out bubbles in the water, shooting a whip of electricity at whim. Delphi sneered at it for the briefest of seconds - then she collapsed in on herself and teleported away.

The Lanturn gasped as a Night Shade hammered into its spines. Delphi, unfurling her wings as she reappeared, renewed her ghostly assault. The Lanturn, righting itself in the water, swam to the surface in a fury of sparks, spitting out fiery thunderbolts that stretched out like a nest of serpents. Delphi flinched, and a dozen clones warped into view at her sides. They stood in front of bolts like the front lines of an army and filled the sky with the smoke of their explosion.

As the dust vanished, so did Delphi. The Lanturn spat out another Thunderbolt in haste, but Delphi had already imploded with a pop! In the midst of the confusion, the Lanturn appeared panicked, sweating sparks as the water around it began shifting currents. But suddenly a gale of scorching heat swept down from the sky, like a glorious call from the heavens, tearing the budding whirlpool apart.

The Lanturn, shocked with the lack of effort and startled by Delphi's Heat Wave, took a moment to realise her reappearance in the skies. Delphi didn't wait a second longer to revel - she was unnerved by her foe's bobbing antennae, as if afraid of any sparks that flew off them. She shrieked, feeling her wings burn as she pushed down a jet-stream of pure heat. The air between Delphi and the Lanturn shimmered - like looking through gloss. It was only the force of the gale that really hurt the water-type, and not the heat within it, but that wasn't Delphi's endgame.

Instead, she doubled down on her efforts. Camden, the battle executive, had his eyes narrowed, frantically wondering what Ash and Delphi were up to. It was now so boiling hot in the arena that the heat was permeating through the barriers. Dots of sweat began rolling down Ash's face, but whatever Delphi was doing seemed to be working.

The Xatu trilled, amused with the Lanturn's irritation. It was so hot now that the pool was evaporating at a rapid pace. Everyone could see the water level dip inch by inch, slowly but steadily.

The Lanturn swung its fin ray, hooting with rage as it sent out a crackle of electricity. It seemed like a sure hit, but another stream of red hotness billowed out from the flap of Delphi's wings. The lightning bolt crackled, then dissipated with a sharp sizzle, leaving the Lanturn and Camden stunned.

The Lanturn, now frantic and panicking, raised its luminous antennae. Storm clouds festered in the middle of the sky as their ends shone softly, like moonlight. The musk of fresh rain began wafting through the rain clouds, but suddenly they were pulled apart like cotton as a raging cyclone formed through the centre. Delphi's Whirlwind left cloudy strings hanging in the air, and then she cut the cyclone down with a band of sharp Air Slashes.

Delphi laughed. This is easy, she told Ash, eyeing the furious Lanturn with mocking amusement.

"Don't get too cocky. Just focus on taking it out of the water," muttered Ash.

Give me a second, she exclaimed, now irritated. It's tiring! How about you give it a try?

"I don't have wings," he said smarmily. He could feel the rolling of her eyes in his head. The Xatu shrieked, drowning the pool below her in Heat Wave upon Heat Wave. The Lanturn realised that it's time was coming to an end, and was doing everything it could to knock Delphi out of the sky - from Thunderbolts to erratic Discharges - but they always fizzled out as she directed the scorching heat to protect her. Ash was surprised - and proud - with how quickly she had learned to use the heat to her advantage.

The pool was little more than a oversized puddle now. Fish-like pokémon, if Ash remembered correctly, could survive on land for quite some time before passing out, or dying. Due to their innate ability to generate water for offense and defense, they could use those water reservoirs to run water over their gills, allowing them to survive a lot longer when out on land. Of course, performing that function required a lot of energy and made them far weaker when out of water, and it really varied from pokémon to pokémon - for instance, Magikarp and Remoraid could only survive several minutes in such conditions, but creatures like Whiscash could spend a couple of hours before experiencing fatigue.

Ash didn't think Lanturn were in the same category as Whiscash. It was already panicking in the drought it was facing. The last remnants of the pool pearled its skin, savouring their last moments before they sizzled into the air.

Camden knew it too, and so his orders were full of frustration. "Waterfall, Wild Charge!"

Bubbles frothed around the water-type and suddenly it was sent flying up atop a column of water. Delphi, taken aback by the suddenness of the Lanturn's ascent, flew away as the water-type wrapped itself in a cloak of bright electricity. It missed by a margin, but with the last vestiges of its quickness, it flipped around mid-air and pointed its luminous fin ray at Delphi - a bolt of electricity flared out from it.

Delphi cursed, knowing that the Thunderbolt was traveling too fast for her to focus on the energy to teleport. Instead she tensed her wings, a grimace on her face as she braced herself for the blow, instead erecting a golden-yellow barrier - Light Screen, filtering out the Thunderbolt heading her way. It still knocked her out of the sky as it struck her chest, but she could shake it off in a moment or two.

As she righted herself and glided to safety, Delphi directed her rage at the descending Lanturn. A Tailwind whistled at her feet and she blitzed at her foe, falling into a corkscrew, her hooked beak glowing and growing. The only thing in her line of sight was the creature that had dared to fry her feathers.

The Lanturn shrieked and arched as Delphi's powerful Drill Peck cracked the scales of its soft belly. Camden returned every last molecule of his pokémon, but a sliver of its blood still tipped Delphi's beak. She wasn't bothered by it in the slightest.

The Xatu lowered herself to the wet earth, ankle deep in the water, and suddenly hunkered over as her spine tightened. She couldn't breathe for a second - her wings were almost frozen.

Ash scowled as he saw Delphi stumbled forward with a gasp. She was paralysed - which would make it so much more difficult for her to manoeuvre through the air.

I can still hold my own, she hissed through gasps.

Ash frowned. "Okay," he relented. "Take it easy, though. You did great against a type disadvantage."

That I did, she remarked smugly. Ash snickered.

"You're doing far better than I expected," said Camden, stroking his chin. "I think you might be the first trainer of the day to win against a battle executive! Out of this batch, at least!" he added, looking at his previous challenger.

The trainers sitting in the bleachers laughed. The challenger in question was fuming.

"Let's get back to the battle. Shall we?" He held up another pokéball, freshly plucked from his vending machine.

A great, ferocious Aerodactyl burst from the sphere, its terrible screech making everyone flinch. From the second it had landed on the battlefield, Camden ordered it to attack. Delphi teleported away, evading its claws by a mere inch; it instead hit a rock that was behind her and tore it down in a single swipe. It snapped its gaze to the sky as Delphi appeared above with a pop, and shot up with the speed of a rocket. The glow of hard metal appeared at its skull as it lay chase to Delphi, who warped away in the nick of time. The Aerodactyl clawed the air, twisting and flying in a new direction, this time creating sharp, pointed rocks that circled its wrists.

With a thrust of its arms, the Stone Edges orbiting the Aerodactyl's arms flew at Delphi like missiles. She squawked, turning around to reduce them to rubble with a psychic wave. The Aerodactyl screeched in pain as the Psychic struck its jaws, knocking it off balance, and allowing Delphi to gain a bit more distance between them.

The rage in the Aerodactyl's eyes now overshadowed its cold, calculating nonchalance. Silver energy flashed along its spine, converging at its talons; suddenly, chunks of glowing rock were torn out from the ground. Delphi's eyes narrowed, watching them rise slowly - then, with a swipe of its arms, the Aerodactyl sent the Ancient Power shooting at the Xatu.

"Teleport!" said Ash. She winced, crunching up as she collapsed in on her self. The Aerodactyl roared, snapping around as Delphi reappeared, her feathers tipped in blue energy. A psychic wave exploded from her as the prehistoric beast redirected the magical rocks at her, and the explosion of their collision was terrible. Smoke flew out, streaking the sky, and rubble hailed down like a heavy rainfall. A Whirlwind sucked up the cloud of dust and smoke, clearing the view for everyone, and Delphi sent it flying straight at the Aerodactyl. It hissed, drawn into the powerful vortex, but broke free as a single twist of its body tore the cyclone apart.

Sparks crackled at the Aerodactyl's fangs, and suddenly a beam of electricity flared from its maw. Delphi squawked, twisting away - the ends of her wings were singed. Then she suddenly seized up, shuddering and gasping, and the Aerodactyl's eyes narrowed. It dove in for the winning strike.

This time, the lightning in its jaws ran along its rows of fangs. The paralysing currents coursing through Delphi's nerves ceased just in time for her to the Aerodactyl in her face. She could do nothing to stop it - it sank its fangs into her in a single bite, shooting electricity into her once more. She struggled, flailed, screeched, but the Aerodactyl shook her in its jaws like a chew toy.

Finally, she found the might to turn her wings sharp and steely, and smashed them into either side of the Aerodactyl's head. The creature let go at once - as it recoiled, shrieking and writhing, Delphi lowered herself to the earth and fell in an awkward heap.

She grimaced. Her chest felt like an anvil was pressing into it. She could barely move without twitching, feeling a nest of currents snaking through her wings and neck and every other muscle. Her eyelids fluttered open, and her heart thundered as she was met with the sight of the Aerodactyl's talons shooting down for her.

Ash chewed his lips, quickly, flourishing her pokéball and recalling Delphi. The earth shook as the Aerodactyl landed on the ground with a crash, its talons ripping the ground with their pressure.

Ash shuddered under the Aerodactyl's gaze. The malevolence in it had receded, but its predatory slits could intimidate even the bravest. He clipped Delphi's pokéball to his bandolier, shortlisting the rest of his team. He needed to defeat the Aerodactyl at any cost to secure his two battle points.

Hesitant, his fingers grasped Screecher's ball. The energy from her release left the hairs on his arms standing, and a grin formed as his Mismagius materialised on the field. The chill of her ghostly aura was noticeable even in the heatwaves still trapped within the battlefield.

"Okay," said Ash, rubbing his palms. "Quick and easy, Screecher. Spectral Zone!"

Dark mist seeped from her body, her eyes glazing over with violet light. Everyone gasped, recoiling, as black ink crawled across the rocky earth like spiders, leaving the arena a black void. Screecher's technique garnered shocked reactions every time she carried it out, but it never failed to bring a pleased grin on Ash's face. His team deserved the awe they inspired.

"Whatever the hell that is, it's not going to bother us too much," exclaimed Camden, but even he sounded unsure. "Aerodactyl's a flying type. We can take you on from the skies!"

Screecher snickered, her gemstones already humming with latent energy. "It doesn't matter," Ash yelled back. "Screecher - Icy Wind!"

The air was suddenly ripe with crystals and frost as a single exhale from the Mismagius drowned the warm heat. The Aerodactyl snarled, whipping around and flying away - it was desperate to keep its wings from being frozen. Screecher took a second to breathe, and in that moment the winged beast clenched its claws, tearing mounds of rock from the blackened arena. They left earthen spots in place, but they were quickly drowned in Screecher's spectral force.

"Hide," said Ash simply. He watched, grin widening, as the Aerodactyl's Ancient Power simply sailed through where she'd been - in a split second, she melted into the ground like she would do with Ash's shadow. The Aerodactyl scanned the field below, blinking furiously as spots began peppering its eyes - right then, the void began to bubble. Miasma rose, forming a ring, as if an unworldly ship was emerging from ocean trenches.

But nothing came out. Instead, the Aerodactyl whipped around as the sound of frothing smoke grew behind it, just as Screecher flew out with a howl. The Aerodactyl clawed her across the face, but that only worked to her advantage. The red veil of energy around her turned deep crimson, now flickering like fire, and with an ungodly shriek she crashed into the Aerodactyl with overwhelming force, bowling it over.

The Aerodactyl gasped, blinking the blur from its vision, and quickly realised that it was falling - but by the time it regained its flight, Screecher was already upon it. Sparks flew from her jewels, and then a bolt of focused lightning exploded, hitting the wyvern square in its chest. Smoke sizzled from its scales as it descended in a hapless spin.

The ground cratered with its impact - not that anyone could see it. It groaned, flipping onto its front, just as Screecher blew another Icy Wind into its back. Frost and crystals stretched across its wings, then turned into a shell of ice, until they were completely frozen solid.

"Good one!" praised Ash. Screecher trilled, although her smile turned into a glare as she lowered herself to the grounded Aerodactyl. She felt amusement, watching it struggle to break the ice on its wings without harming them anymore. She wanted to have a bit more fun. Her gemstones hummed hypnotically.

"Look away!" yelled Camden, but the Aerodactyl's curiosity got the better of it. One stare, and it had been trapped in the horrible visions of Screecher's Confuse Ray - and that set it off. Hot fire billowed from its jaws with every scream. It was thrashing, flailing, convulsing all at once, clawing at the hallucinations haunting its senses.

Screecher slunk away, wary of the Aerodactyl's panicked thrashing. Even she couldn't predict its frenzied behaviour.

Camden was yelling. That only set off the Aerodactyl further - it whipped around to the sound of his voice, scurrying there with a terrible scream. Its head glowed with a silvery hue as it lowered its skull for a headbutt. Camden could only watch in frustration and rage, backing away slowly, as his Aerodactyl smashed its head against the psychic barriers in a loop.

"Paralyse it," said Ash, hiding a smirk at Screecher's grin. "Then put it down with Hex."

Little threads of electricity burst from her necklace as she flew closer to the Aerodactyl. At once, its flailing stopped and it was seizing in place. Its arms and legs were tightened in awkward angles. It shuddered on the inky black ground, waiting in agony for its muscles to unfetter.

Even still, the Aerodactyl showed no signs of giving up. It spun around, bathing its surroundings in fire. Screecher melted into the ground, emerging safely away while the Aerodactyl rid the air of oxygen. She rolled her eyes, annoyed with her foe's persistence, but excited at the prospect of putting it under her Hex.

At once, as her eyes lit up with violet fire, the Aerodactyl shrieked. It was thrashing within a cloak of purple energy, and its agonising cries made Ash look to Camden waiting to see a pokéball in his hands. Instead, he just continued to grit his teeth, waiting for his pokémon to snap out of its confusion.

Ash scowled. He hated hurting a pokémon that was well out of commission, but such was the game - Screecher, of course, definitely found it fun to some degree. "Hex, again!" he yelled, hoping Camden would take his order as a warning. Screecher hesitated, noticing her trainer's sign to hold - then, he unclenched his fists. She giggled and fueled the purple flames in her eyes once more.

This time, the Aerodactyl's response was not a blood-curdling scream, but a noiseless gurgle. It was as if its breath was caught in its throat. It was completely frozen - there was no movement from even the paralysing currents running through its limbs, intensifying the raw agony caused by Screecher's Hex. Finally, Camden seemed to give up. His Aerodactyl vanished from the field.

The void painting the ground was withdrawn with Ash's whistle, revealing the arena's ravaged state. Camden didn't seem to care about it, as he tread around the craters and toppled spires of stone with a hop in his step.

"Good battle," praised Camden, pocketing his hands. "You know, I really didn't think you'd be as strong as you were. You proved me wrong."

"Thanks," Ash said. Screecher thwacked his shoulder with a leathery tentacle, and his grin turned into a sheepish smile. "Well, my team works really hard." That seemed to satisfy the Mismagius.

Camden snickered, eyeing her as she merged into Ash's shadow. "In any case, you're one of the first trainers to defeat a battle executive. Can you show me your trainer card, for a second?"

"Er, sure. Why, though?" asked Ash, already flipping open his pokédex. Camden scanned his trainer code with his pokégear.

"I needed to record your victory. I mean, if you don't want your two battle points…"

Ash rolled his eyes. "By the way, what the hell was that ghost technique your Mismagius was using?" Camden remarked. "You've got to teach me that, you know."

"I'll get back to you with my hourly rates," Ash joked. "Your Azumarill really surprised me, too. How could it use Vine Whip - and from the ground, too? That was crazy."

Camden blinked - then he chuckled. "That wasn't Vine Whip!" he remarked, doubling over in laughter. "It's a move called Grass Knot. Really useful; you can find it in most department stores, you know?"

"Grass Knot," muttered Ash, burning it into the back of his mind for easy remembering.

Camden nodded. "If you really want it, there's a TM section you can check out in the Tower itself. Costs sixteen battle points, and you can pay through cash, too - but I wouldn't suggest you do that. The markups in here are crazy. You can always check out the Knot Island department store. That's where I get most of my trainer supplies, anyway."

"Good to know. Thanks, Camden."

"No problem." He flashed a smile. "Anyway…Got to get back to my job." He turned to the remaining trainers in the bleachers, and Ash took this as his cue to leave. "Who's next, huh?"

XxXxX

The clouds stretched across the sky like ribbons of cotton. Still, the light sifting through them made Ash's morning a pleasant welcome despite the dull, leaden-blue sky.

As he sipped from his juice box with restless slurps, Ash made his way to the training grounds as quickly as his feet could take him. The past few days had him holed up in the Battle Tower till dusk, challenging anyone who met his eyes. He felt like an annoying fly, always on the lookout for new, fresh blood, but he couldn't really help it. He was desperate for the Metal Coat stowed away in the Tower's heights.

64 battle points hadn't sounded like a lot in the beginning, but Ash was beginning to realise just how many time's he'd have to win in the Tower.

And any battles lost were just time and effort wasted. They were far and few, but each one still stung. His first loss had been against a battle executive. It didn't just mean losing two battle points - it also meant having his win streak broken, and having to win three times in a row again to earn two battle points with every consecutive win.

He'd lost against Gary, too, but he took solace in the fact that he was the one to win in their first match-up. For some annoying reason, Gary refused to have another battle after his revenge win. Ash really wanted to one-up his rival, but he'd rather continue to rack up battle points that waste time over something that petty.

His hunger for wins was known to everyone in the Tower by now, but Ash was beginning to notice how hungry Natalie was, too. She took every battle she got, steamrolling opponents and returning with renewed vigour after her rare losses. Ash was beginning to ready himself for his battle with her. He knew it was inevitable.

Jack was rarely at the Battle Tower - he spent most of his time in the Sevault Canyon, apparently in search for a Larvitar. He hadn't found one yet, but he was determined to do so, despite Ash's warnings. The few times Ash saw him walk into the Tower, he refused to accept his challenge, and instead battled the battle executives solely.

Right now, Ash was leading the scoreboard, with 34 battle points, with Natalie just a point behind. All he needed to do was double his current winnings, and the Metal Coat was his. Kratos was going to be so happy…

But for now, Ash was going to train. It was the weekend, anyway, and although there were only two more days until the tournament ended, his team needed a day to rest - well, sort of. Besides, he was certain he could catch up in two whole days of battle.

Ash sucked out the last few droplets from his juice box, crumpled it, and tossed it away as he made his way back to the team. Break time was over, and he needed to tell his friends to get back to training.

They were all spread about in the clearing, relishing the aftermath of their break. "Alright, you guys!" yelled Ash, and they jumped up at his voice with yelps of surprise. "Hope you had a nice lunch. Time to see how far you guys have progressed!"

They groaned, but pulled themselves up. Saur helped them with his vines, guffawing as Infernape slapped one of his tentacles away, scowling. The others were not as brash, but they weren't receptive of the Venusaur's help, either.

"Now - let's go through you guys one by one. Saur, would you care to start?"

The Venusaur nodded, lumbering over with an air of authority. Everyone moved away, giving the creature his space, and more. He planted his trunk-like feet into the ground firmly, taking aim at a few boulders in the distance, no doubt left from Infernape's training. Ash readied his voice.

"Solarbeam!"

In an instant the world brightened as the air grew hotter with Saur's roar. Light crawled across the flower on his back and then, a moment later, he spat out a cone of heat and energy. The grass around him flattened as it lasered through the air, scorching the earth that it grazed with its travel - and then there was a boom, a shockwave, and a ripple of light as the boulder it impacted was reduced to a puff of rock and dust.

Ash grinned, his eyes fixed on the stopwatch his pokégear was displaying. The whole process had taken a little over four seconds - which was amazing progress from a whopping ten seconds just a few weeks ago!

Saur looked expectantly, nudging Ash on the shoulder with a vine. "Don't worry, Saur. Just keep doing what you're doing - it's working great."

Saur grunted softly and dipped his head in acknowledgement, but his mouth was wide as a smile played across it. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew he'd done well, but Ash's words always raised his spirits.

Ash beckoned Eevee and Zeus forward. They stepped forward - well, Zeus was levitating - with a little confusion and curiosity. "You two are going to have a friendly battle."

His words got the attention of every single one of his pokémon at an instant. Even Snorlax, who had done a miserable attempt at sneaking naps, straightened with a rumble. They glanced from Eevee to Zeus, murmuring to each other as they waited eagerly.

Eevee shifted in her spot, looking at Ash with puzzlement, but mostly apprehension. "Don't worry," Ash soothed. "Zeus isn't going to hurt you. Besides, I've seen you work really hard this week and I want to see where you stand. Okay?"

She sniffed, nodding. Ash smiled, letting his fingers scratch her behind the ears before looking at Zeus. "Remember your training," he said. "Magnet Rise at all times. And take it a bit easy on her, will you?"

The Ampharos rolled his eyes.

Ash smirked, clearing the area. "Get ready," he murmured, eyeing Zeus with pride as he levitated to his side of the field. He glanced at Eevee, noticing how nervous she was. He put on a reassuring smile, and that seemed to ease the tension in her stance.

Zeus flicked his tail, sparks flying from the orb on it, issuing a challenge. Eevee's eyes narrowed at that. She lounged, hissing and baring her teeth. Ash had never seen such an expression on her face; he hid a laugh after a brief struggle.

"Begin!"

Zeus was quick to let streaks of electricity fly from his ears. Ash knew they were meant to test the waters, to see how Eevee would react. She leapt into a run, leaving a trail of white in her wake - Quick Attack, which Ash figured was pretty standard. Still, despite how quick she was on her feet, Zeus' Thundershocks were only seconds away from bursting into her ankles.

When Zeus ceased his chase, Eevee finally came to a stop. He bleated, zooming forward on his electromagnetic platform with a dazzling sphere of golden electricity growing on the end of his tail. Eevee tensed, the nervousness clear in her eyes, and Zeus flung the Electro Ball with a casual flick.

Suddenly, faster than she'd been before, Eevee jumped away and came to Zeus' side. Ash noticed the red fading from her eyes - Detect, which he wasn't surprised with either - right as she flipped up and smashed an Iron Tail into the back of Zeus' knee. He yelped, more surprised than hurt, and turned around to swat Eevee - but she was already gone.

Ash frowned. "You can make it harder on her," he told Zeus. The Ampharos stiffened, grunting with a nod. Sparks flowed up his arms and lightning burst from his body in wild, frenzied forks.

Eevee gasped, evading the Discharge as red tipped her eyes once more. Watching her jump and weave along the clearing felt like she was two steps ahead, as if she could see a few seconds into the future - but Ash knew it wouldn't last long. Just like Protect, Detect was useful in short bursts. It required immense focus, something that would come only in rigorous training.

Sure enough, she'd relied on the technique for too long. Eevee herself looked a bit surprised when crimson hue flickered from her eyes, and suddenly one of Zeus' bolts popped her in her hind. She yowled; the impact had sent her bowling over, and she rolled to a stop before falling on her side. Smoke rose in wisps from her fur.

Zeus jumped in at that moment. Paralysing sparks flew from his tail and Eevee was now seizing up on the grass. Screecher moved forward out of concern, looking at Zeus angrily - he ignored her like he always did, instead watching Eevee rise on trembling legs. She was gasping, one eye twitching.

Eevee turned to look at Ash. He noticed the worry well up in her and he was quick to flash her a thumbs up. "You've got this, Eevee!"

The others joined him in cheering her. Even Infernape, who'd been sombre for most of the morning, hooted and thumped his chest in support.

It seemed to work. She turned back to face Zeus, her determination intensifying. He smiled, pleased with her resolution, but he wasn't going to make it any easier. The bulb on his forehead glowed as he charged up a brilliant, blinding mass of electricity between his palms, and then it burst forward in a focused ray white-blue.

Right then, Eevee spun around. Ash noticed her tail had pearled over with a metallic coat right as she stuck it in the ground. She bit back a scream with clenched fangs, but the power behind the Charge Beam had mostly been grounded. When Zeus stopped, she picked out her tail and fell to her front legs, her eyes squeezed shut as suddenly waves of minty-green energy flowed down her back.

Ash smiled. Thanks to Refresh, there were no longer any cramps hindering Eevee's movements. She flipped around and barked, filled with confidence now. Zeus' eyes narrowed, looking back to the rest of the team, who were looking at him expectantly. He was determined to maintain his spot as one of the team's strongest.

The orbs on his head and tail glittered; then, with a hiss, beams of scarlet and an ugly green lasered out in Eevee's directions. She snarled and her eyes went red in a snap, leaving white energy where she'd been. Zeus blinked, turning around just as Eevee struck him across the face with an Iron Tail, throwing him off his electromagnetic field for a second.

With a bleat he directed a Power Gem her way, but it was sent ricocheting away as it glittered against Eevee's Iron Tail. His tail snapped forward, shooting an Electro Ball, but Eevee was quick to dodge it. She zoomed forward, screaming out star-shaped rays of energy that Zeus sniped with expert marksmanship.

A cloud of smoke hid Eevee from view, and Zeus floated warily. Suddenly the dust was blown away with a terrible scream. Ash hissed, clamping his ears shut, and even the rest of the team gasped in annoyance as blue rings of energy swept over Zeus, and the sonic blast knocked him over. For the first time during the fight, he'd hit the ground.

"Come on, Zeus!" yelled Ash, a bit louder than he intended - God, Eevee's Hyper Voice was annoying. "You can do better!"

There was embarrassment and irritation in Zeus' eyes as he got back up. He was suffused in pale blue light and then he was blurring forward, faster than Eevee could realise. She tried to jump back as she slipped into a Detect, but she'd reacted too slowly. Zeus whipped around, sending her airborne with an Iron Tail to her face.

She hit the ground with a thud, groaning and whining, but she didn't have a second to recover. A beam of electricity crackled from Zeus' fists and engulfed her in a shower of smoke and light. Even after that, she tried to stand on her legs; Zeus put a stop to that by pinning her back to the ground with his tail, snarling warningly.

Ash pursed his lips. "Okay, that's enough." Maybe he should've kept that last comment to himself, though Zeus could've done worse. Yes, Eevee looked pretty banged up - twitching and shuddering every second - but it was nothing a few cheri berries wouldn't heal for now. He was going to take her to the pokécenter anyway.

"Great work, both of you," called Ash as he approached the two of them. Eevee looked disgruntled, but she swallowed the cheri berries hungrily. "Zeus, your form with Magnet Rise has gotten a lot better, but you still struggle a bit when using powerful electric attacks. But it's going to get better with more practice, so just keep at it!"

Zeus nodded, and the hairs on Ash's arms stood as the Ampharos levitated a foot in the air once again. He was always glad to see his commitment to mastering the technique.

"Eevee - you did really well. I'm impressed with how well you fought without my direct guidance."

She still seemed disappointed, but Ash's words made her feel a little better. "Don't worry. You'll be as strong as the others in no time. You just need to keep at it, okay?"

Eevee nodded. She stood up and shook the dust from her head, watching Ash as he caught the whole team's attention with a miserable attempt at a whistle. "Thirty more minutes of training, and then it's time for lunch. Come on!"

XxXxX

Ash was really beginning to regret taking the day off yesterday.

"Why is there no one around here?" he said in a half-scream, clenching the back of his neck in frustration. One of the Battle Tower's staff glanced at him as he said that, shrugging awkwardly as they got back to their work.

"I mean, it is a Sunday," Gary said, slapping his back. "Do you really think everyone else is a no-life like you?"

He snickered as Ash shoved him away with a scowl. "You know, you could just be a good friend and battle me instead."

"Pffft. What's the point? You wouldn't earn any battle points, anyway."

"Jerk."

Gary snorted. "Besides, I've got what I wanted from the tourney - I don't care about getting first prize. And even if I did, my team is tired. Those battle executives were extra hard on us today."

Ash grumbled. "What did you buy with your battle points, anyway?" he asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.

"I bought Machoke a macho brace," Gary said, patting his backpack. "He wants to evolve pretty soon, but for that he needs to grow a whole lot stronger. It just cost 32 battle points, so it wasn't too difficult."

Ash sighed, plopping down into an armchair. The metal coat seemed so out of reach now. He could just return to the battle executives, but his clumsiness had resulted in a loss and a deduction of two points. He wanted a few risk-free wins before exacting vengeance.

…But there was no one in sight. Except for a few trainers, who rebuked his challenge before he could even issue it, having already tired their teams out. He felt like a tout, with his promises of exciting battles and sycophantic behaviour. He just a few more wins…He was just twenty points away!

"Why don't you just ask Natalie?" chirped Gary, hands behind his head. "I think she'd be more than willing to battle you, y'know. She's pretty much renting this place out at this point."

He snickered at his own joke; right on cue, Natalie stepped out from the lift at the far end of the room. She looked exhausted, with her chest rising and falling with quick, heavy breaths as she made her way to the reception, dropping her band of pokéballs on the counter. It must've been a tough battle.

Gary nudged his shoulder. "Well?"

Ash chewed his lip. To be honest, he was a little nervous with the thought of battling Natalie - she'd made quite the reputation over the past week. He'd only seen a hint of her ruthlessness during their time in the Sevault Canyon, but nearly everyone she'd challenged in the Tower spoke of her with fear. Truth be told, he was a bit curious to see how strong she and her team really were. She and Jack were still a mystery to him when it came to how much they'd progressed since they began their journey together.

"Fine," he murmured, cracking his knuckles as he got up. Natalie spotted him walking in her direction, and she stood a little straighter.

"Hey," she said, her scar becoming more pronounced as she smiled. "What's up?"

"Just chilling," Ash replied awkwardly. "Er, anyway - wanna battle?"

Her smile turned into a smirk. "Still haven't got enough points for the metal coat?"

Ash scowled. "Yeah. I can't believe everyone decided to skip out on battling today of all days!"

Natalie snorted. "Yeah, I know. I've been dealing with battle executives all day, but they've gotten so much more difficult - since today's the last day, and all."

"Yeah," groused Ash. "What are you buying with your points, anyway?"

"A couple TMs. I've got enough for one, but I just need ten more points to get the other, too." Then a glimmer came in her eyes. "You know…How about we make a wager?"

Ash blinked. "What do you mean?"

"Let's bet some points," she said, grinning. "Ten points, to be precise. If I win, you give me ten points from the total you have. And if you win, I'll do you a solid."

"Is that even allowed?" he asked, looking at the nearby staff with wide eyes.

They looked at him, exchanged a laugh with each other, and then glanced back at the pair of them. "We were wondering how long it'd take for one of you guys to ask us about this," said the attendant, "but yes - you can wage points on your battles. It's not explicitly stated in the rulebook, but there's no rule against this."

The other staff member giggled. "Yeah. It started off like a year ago, and the director just allowed it because he thought it was funny," she said. "No one will tell you that you can do it, but if you ask, we aren't going to stop you. It's like those secret menus that keep floating around in restaurants."

"That settles it!" exclaimed Natalie, grinning. "What do you say, huh?"

Ash picked at his fingernails. "I…Well, it's too risky," muttered Ash, not meeting her eyes. "I could just battle the executives instead. The risk is way lower!"

She rolled her eyes, and he hunkered over as she poked his stomach. "Come on, don't be a wuss," she teased. "Look, I know you're taking all the risk here, but I really need those ten points."

He frowned. "What does that mean?" he asked, a scowl growing on his face.

Natalie smirked. "I mean…We both know I'd win, Ash," she said matter-of-factly. "And I'm not saying that because I'm arrogant, but because it's the truth. I saw how good your team was in the Sevault Canyon. They're good…But my team's better. I get why you'd be afraid of waging ten points on battling me."

"Oh shit," gasped Gary; Ash didn't even realise how long he'd been waiting at his shoulder. His cheeks burned red, full of embarrassment and anger. Did she really think she could beat him so easily?

Maybe this was her plan - to egg him on and indulge her stupid bet. Despite how self aware he was being right now, Ash didn't care about falling into her trap - he was overcome by the sudden urge of humbling her. "Fine!" he yelled, balling his fists. "Ten points, Nat. You're going to wish you never opened your mouth!"

Her smirk was full of arrogance and amusement. "We'll see, Ash. Give me an hour until my pokémon are all healed up. I'll see you in arena number five."

As she walked away, Gary let out a low whistle. "I think she baited you, Ashy-boy," he said.

"Like I give a shit," he growled.

Gary whistled. "Alright, calm down. You need to keep a cool head when you battle her," he advised. "You need help building a strategy while we wait?"

"I'm good." Inside, Ash was seething. Natalie was starting to get on his nerves. He didn't know how she'd gotten to be such an arrogant brat, but he was going to do everything in his power to bring her down to the earth.

XxXxX

"You sure you don't want to back out?" mocked Natalie, her smirk even more pronounced.

Ash ignored her. It was better to not give her the satisfaction of responding, but she laughed either way. He looked steadfastly at the referee, who shooed Jack and Gary to the bleachers.

"Give us a good show, will ya!" Jack yelled from his seat, earning a dirty look from the referee. "I got out of bed for this."

"Loser foots the bill for dinner today!" added Gary, cackling.

Natalie shrugged. "You heard him, right?" she told Ash.

Ash laughed at her gall, half-angry, half-disbelieving. "Loud and clear."

"This will be a three-on-three," announced the referee. "There will be no time limit, and no substitutions. The coin toss had determined that trainer Lazta will release first."

Natalie already had a pokéball in her hand. With a nod from the referee, she tapped the release button and sent out her Raichu. Sparks flew from his cheeks as he hissed, and his lightning-bolt shaped tail made swooshes with every flick that sliced the air.

Ash thought over his options carefully. Raichu was fast, and he needed someone who could match that speed. Delphi was out of the question, and Nurse Joy had still advised him to keep Kratos out of intense battling for a few more days. He frowned, scratching his chin. Maybe he didn't…

With a flourish of his hand, he picked Saur as his first choice.

His natural resistance to electric attacks meant that Saur was not a bad option for Natalie's Raichu. Besides, Ash had a few ways for Saur to annoy Raichu and keep him from using his speed to attack.

Saur's appearance brought a crease on Natalie's forehead, but the narrowing of her eyes was more calculating that anything. "Begin!" yelled the referee, slashing his hand down.

He saw Natalie's lips flutter, but he paid attention to them only for a split-second. "Piss it off," said Ash simply. Saur snorted, his fangs peeking out as he grinned. "Chase it with your vines. Don't let it rest. Hit it with Earth Powers in the direction it runs."

Raichu had already started moving, Saur's vines exploded from beneath his flower and shot forward like missiles. The electric-type tracked the tentacles for a split-second; almost instantly, a dozen clones materialised out of thin air to surround him. They burst into puffs of smoke a second later, however, as Saur's vines came driving down like whips, leaving grooves in the arena.

With a roar, Saur willed his vines to rise back up and shoot after Raichu once more. He was zigzagging the field, jaws clenched in frustrations as the vines gave him no reprieve. There wasn't a second's rest, and it seemed like Saur was going to drive him to exhaustion. Saur's vines forced the electric mouse to leap away whenever he dared to come close for an attack, making him flustered with every second; Raichu's feet could only be so nimble.

Suddenly Raichu blurred forward, almost flying, as a surge of psychic energy made itself known in an aura of blue. With Agility, Saur had no chance of catching up, and Raichu took the moment to fry the air with a brilliant lightning blast. The Thunderbolt flashed at Saur with the most sickening zigzag, but Saur was quick on his feet. He stomped the ground with a foot, and the ground up ahead of him exploded in a geyser of earth and golden light.

The Thunderbolt was intercepted as quick as it had been produced, leaving Raichu stumped as it somersaulted to the ground. In that moment, a powerful whip of Saur's glowing vine rocketed into his back. Raichu was crushed in place, pinned to the ground by the stunning force behind the Power Whip, his back arched in pain.

"Earth Power, now!" yelled Ash, his balled fists shaking as Raichu staggered back up with a grimace.

Saur reared himself on his hind legs and stomped the ground with a bellow. Golden cracks fissured outwards like forks of a lightning bolt. Raichu stiffened; he squealed, and suddenly a rectangle of yellow energy expanded in front of its head, just as the fissures exploded around it in cones of gold and rock.

Dust hung heavy in the air. A frenzy of electricity forced it to billow away like roiling clouds. Saur flinched, stamping out the Discharge with another Earth Power, and with a snarl he sent his vines shooting forward at the Raichu.

…but they hit nothing by the wrecked arena. His scowl gave way for a frown and confusion slipped into his eyes, wondering where his foe was. Only when he looked at the hole tunneling into the ground that he realised what Raichu had done.

Right then, Raichu flew out from below with a hiss. Saur's head was sent snapping to the side as a ferocious Iron Tail rocked his jaws. He shook his head, recovering from the blow, and sent a clawed foot swinging outward, but Raichu had moved away with a backflip. A Thunderbolt flew from his tail and cracked into Saur's flank with a bang.

"Spore Burst!" shouted Ash quickly. Raichu's paws already began pulling out earth as it tried to dig away, but Saur was quicker - unleashing his hellish spores came instantly after aeons of practice. Grey, yellow, green pollen sneezed out from his crimson flower and made their home in between Raichu's fur - their effects were known at once.

Within seconds, Raichu's previously consistent quickness devolved into a sluggish, sickly gait. The skin under his eyes were tinted with green as the toxins of Poison Powder trickled into his blood. "Tear up the ground with Earth Power," muttered Ash, and Saur's ears twitched with his attention. "It doesn't matter if you hit it or not. Go for it!"

Saur's stomps were the only thing Ash could hear for a while. They were punctuation with earthquakes, of course, shooting rock and lustrous cylinders of energy in the air. Within seconds, the arena looked like a massive whack-a-Sandshrew board. As dust flooded the field, and rubble rained down in quick sprays, Raichu struggled to weave through without being caught in the fray.

"Toxic Shock, and aim it for the holes you've made," added Ash, the gears in his head turning.

Saur exhaled through his nose - and angry, gruff noise. There was a gurgle in his mouth; Ash wrinkled his nose with distaste when a repugnant stench filled the air. Sprays of murky venom sailed through the air, pooling with a sizzle within the holes Saur had forced out. The expression on Natalie's face was one of frustration and confusion, like she was angry with the fact that she couldn't tell what was going on.

Ash smiled. While Saur continued to fill the hollows with more and more sludge, Raichu tried to take a moment to recover - right as the thwack of a vine hit the ground at his feet. Saur wasn't going to let him have a second to himself, he decided with a sharp growl. His vines flew at Raichu again, swishing through the air.

When Ash was satisfied with the poison curdling in the holes, he whistled for Saur to stop. "Use Earth Power on the holes," he yelled, grinning wider at the blood draining from Natalie's face.

The arena shuddered. Saur reared, and the stomp of his feet seemed louder than ever. Splinters crept forth like a swarm of Ariados, lining the earth with golden light. Raichu tensed, taking slow, careful steps behind, as the golden cracks struck the wells of venom and they burst open like dams.

"Yes!" Ash laughed as chunks of sludge soared into the sky like confetti. They hung in the air at their peak; then after the most deliberate pause, they fell back down like hailstones. Splat! The second they hit the ground they burst apart, flying outwards in every direction. Raichu could only leap away, and keep his feet from stepping into the puddles of venom collecting on the field.

But the worst of Saur's devastating blows was yet to come - Ash's eyes were led to the fractures within the ground, quickly growing and spreading despite Saur's feet being firmly planted on the field. Dread began blooming in him, but he didn't have the time to process it - suddenly, the entire arena began splitting apart. Fragments of it began collapsing in on themselves. The battlefield was collapsing.

Ash flinched as the arena crumbled apart, and the venom pooling the ground and the holes flowed out with its collapse. Raichu shrieked; suddenly it was tumbling down as the rock under his feet gave way. Saur snarled, pedalling away in shock, but the ground near him never came close to falling to the same fate.

Everyone could hear the venom in the sinkhole bubble and froth - but they could also hear Raichu gurgle and gasp as he convulsed in the pond of toxins.

Saur blinked, nervous. He half-wanted to pick Raichu out of the toxic pool with his vines, but he held his worry in check with a sniff and a growl of concern, glancing back at Ash.

"Return him!" shouted Ash warningly, knowing how deadly Saur's concoction of poison could be.

Scarlet flashed through the air. The sound of light splashing stopped. Ash breathed a sigh of relief, his hands shaking; he didn't know Saur's actions could've led to something like this!

From the fury on Natalie's face, Ash knew she didn't care for that fact. She screamed and threw a pokéball that ricocheted back in her hand as the white energy that splashed out came with the roar of a large, fiery wyvern.

Ash watched Natalie point at Saur as she yelled something to her Charizard. All of a sudden, the fire-type's pupils thinned to slits as his lips were curled in an angry smile. Ash gulped.

But Saur snarled, wary as he took a step back, though still defiant in the face of such a terrible threat. Charizard's claws clicked in anticipation and the torch on his tail crackled a lot more violently. He was ready to burn everything in his path.

The poisonous goo hissed below the jet of fire that came with Charizard's roar. Saur shook the ground with a stomp, and a golden fissure snapped out in a second, damping out the fire in a geyser of mud and yellow energy. It didn't take a second for the dust to settle before Charizard burst through the smoke, flames tainting his bone-white claws, and he crashed violently into Saur.

Claws and vines flew through the air as they tumbled across the cracked arena. Saur was ducking and weaving under every furious swipe Charizard threw his way, and his vines bounced off the fire-type's scales with booms!

Embers began flickering down Charizard's spine - with a sharp bang and crackle, he was engulfed in flames. Saur bellowed, bracing himself as Charizard tackled him with a Flare Blitz. There was an explosion of fire and smoke and, when it cleared, Saur's shoulder was painted with fierce burns.

"Leech Seed," hissed Ash. Saur, with one eye shut in pain, spat out a cluster of brown seeds as Charizard reeled from the recoil. He didn't notice them crack open against his scales and sink their parasitic fangs in between them.

"Restrain it and use Toxic Shock!" yelled Ash, but Charizard wasn't going to let it happen. He spat a nasty fireball at Saur's vines and took off into the air at a moment's notice, avoiding the spray of deadly venom that flew past his heels.

Saur looked up, scowling. Ash bit his lips, picking at his fingernails in worry as his friend took the time to heal up with the sunlight peeking through the chamber's windows. "Can you go on?"

He jumped as the Venusaur bellowed angrily - a challenge that Charizard accepted with a scream. The air grew hot again as Charizard breathed a jet of fire, but Saur simply cut it short with another cone of mud and light.

Grimacing, Saur lumbered down into the caved portion of the field with a limp. He was wading into the puddles of venom soiling the debris, but it didn't affect him in the slightest - poison did nothing to him. A frown creased Ash's forehead, but he didn't say anything as Saur roared to the sky once again, taunting Charizard with his vines.

Charizard didn't seem to care what ploy Saur was trying to carry out - in the air, he knew he was dominating with fight. He flapped his wings and bathed the arena in fire, giving chase to Saur, who ran through his poisonous surroundings with heavy splashes and a glint in his red eyes.

But as soon as the Flamethrower touched the venom, there was an eruption of thick smog. It quickly rolled out, covering every inch of the battlefield in its thick darkness, and Charizard's roar was one of frustration. His pinched eyes scanned the foggy arena for something, anything-

Columns of vines flew out from the haze. Charizard yelped as they quickly wrapped around his ankles; his wings flapped with a struggle as he was tugged down. A quick burst of embers forced the tentacles to recede, but in their stead came a spray of venom. On instinct, the wyvern blew a Flamethrower in retaliation, but that only covered himself in the could of smog that burst.

He flew out, coughing and retching but by then Saur had sent after him another stream of gnarly sludge. This time, Charizard had learned enough to not burn away the Venoshock; he growled angrily and fluttered away, redirecting his frustrated gaze at the still-foggy earth. Right then, a hole formed within the poisonous fumes, revealing Saur bit by bit, right as he spewed out a stream of spores from the center of his flower.

Charizard's snarl was a half-smirk. His claws curled back and forth as he bellowed out the most fearsome Flamethrower yet, right as the jet of spores came close. But it soon turned out to be a mistake - the moment he cast his flames onto the spores, they ignited and engulfed him in their violent explosion.

Ash blinked - he couldn't believe how smart Saur could be. He'd used the explosive nature of his own spores to turn Charizard's flames back at him. As the fire-type was knocked off his flight, Saur wasted no time in constricting him with his vines, and with a furious scream he drove him into the ground with a thud!

The smoke billowed away as Charizard's impact formed a crater. Saur jumped forward, sludge dripping from his jaws; right then, Charizard's head snapped up and his pupils thinned. He was beyond furious, if his ragged breathing was any indication. "Steel Wing!" Natalie yelled as Saur spat out another wave of sludge. His wings flashed silver, and he spun around to shield himself against the venom with it - it splattered against it without a sizzle and dropped to the floor like a glob of slime.

"Ancient Power!" Ash blinked at that order. He barely had the time to comprehend what Natalie had said before Charizard sank his claws into the earth, ripping out massive chunks of rock into the air - it was most probably one of those egg moves Oak had told them of on their first day.

"Energy Ball," said Ash. As Charizard hurled them at lightning-speed with a thrust of his arms, Saur tracked them through the air while spitting out globes of emerald-yellow energy. They looked like hunks of jade, spinning through the air with a crackle of green electricity, and they consumed the Ancient Power in deafening explosions as they collided.

But then the smoke and dust were obliterated by a five-armed spiral of white flames. From its star shape, Ash easily recognised it as a Fire Blast, one of the more dangerous fire-based moves a pokémon could learn.

"Earth Power!" yelled Ash frantically, chewing his nails. Saur had the right idea by stomping two of his feet, tearing up the ground with gold fissures that exploded forth with percussive force. Despite the raw strength behind the blasts, they only managed to dampen out one of the Fire Blast's arms - and now it was too late for Saur to do anything, except for yell in the face of pain as the flames fell upon him in one swoop.

As the smoke and embers cleared, Ash wasn't surprised to see soot and charred scales adorning his body. His glower was half-hearted, his knees wobbly as raised his head in defiance. Charizard sneered, falling to all fours. Embers flew from his nostrils as they flared.

Suddenly, the earth splintered at Saur's feet with a stomp. Charizard, snarling, took off into the air with a gust of wind at his feet, right as the Earth Power exploded where he'd been. Charizard opened his jaws; a fireball crawled down his tongue as he swooped down, swiping wildly at the vines smashing into his shoulders.

Ash raised his pokéball and returned Saur. There wasn't much more he could do, and Ash didn't want him to get hurt for nothing. Charizard slowed to a stop moments before he would've crash-landed and set himself on the ground gently instead, smirking with Natalie at Ash.

Ash worked his jaws with distaste, already picking out his next fighter. "Snorlax, come on out!" He tapped the release button, and Charizard stiffened at the sight of a much larger opponent in the distance rearing to full height, dwarfing him by a few feet.

Snorlax yawned. "Let's get going, Snorlax!" Ash scolded.

Snorlax turned around, scratching his belly. Ash glowered, exasperated already with his pokémon's tantrums. "Please, just-"

A fireball rocketed into the back of Snorlax's head and he stumbled forward. He blinked - he was more surprised than anything as he turned around, slowly, to meet Charizard's taunts. There was no sound exchanged - then, his expression of shock tightened into nothing less than pure fury.

Ash was slightly happy with what Charizard had done, but even he couldn't help but be annoyed with the disrespect given to his teammate. The silver lining was that Snorlax was finally ready to battle. A little too ready.

The Thunderbolt that exploded from him came without warning. Charizard balked, rolling away as it lasered past him. A single flap of his wings took him to the sky, just as Snorlax barrelled at him with a roar, and his trunk-like arms swept through nothing. Scowling, the normal-type directed his beady gaze at the roof, where Charizard bobbed with his fluttering wings and swishing tail.

"Tire him out with your Thunderbolts," shouted Ash, "and don't give him a second's rest!" Snorlax rumbled in agreement, his fur raising as the air around him ionised. "If you hit him once, he's done for."

The arena was alight with thunderclaps. Charizard zipped through the skies with agility that should've been unseen in such a hulking creature. His wings twitched; then the wind at his feet whistled with the formation of a tailwind.

Snorlax growled, his jaws quivering in rage - his Thunderbolts turned into faster, shorter bursts. Charizard was struggling, his flight wobbly as he fought to control the Tailwind at his talons. Ash could visibly see tongues of wind tearing out and slicing the air as they dissipated into the surrounding breeze.

But still, Ash knew it would be a while before Snorlax would be able to score a hit - Charizard was just too fast, too agile in the air. While most Charizard relied on their flames, Natalie's Charizard seemed to be trained to be fast.

And so he decided to change tactics and try something risky. "Rollout," muttered Ash, keeping his voice low as Snorlax approached his side. "Build up speed, okay? Then when you feel it's right, leap at it with Giga Impact."

Snorlax hesitated - but he was curious to see what he could do. With a grunt, bracing himself, he tucked himself and wheeled forward like tumbleweed, slowly gaining speed with every lap he ran around the entire arena. Steadily, he was become more and more of a blur in Ash's vision - until even Natalie and Charizard were getting nervous at his inhuman speed.

Charizard snapped his jaws. A roaring fireball - Flame Burst - flew from his mouth and at the ground, but Snorlax was now so fast that Charizard missed his target at an embarrassing distance. He bellowed, angry with his confusion, struggling to comprehend what Snorlax was up to; and then, after a very deliberate second, Snorlax wheeled to his right and-

Snorlax jumped.

As he shot into the sky with the speed of a rocket, angry white streaks of energy coiled around him in a second. They were burning with power, leaking from his muscles and forming a cocoon of purple around his entire curled body. He was so fast, his leap so powerful that it left the already ravaged earth cratered, and he had aimed right for Charizard.

There wasn't a chance for him to defend himself. The wyvern only breathed a jet of fire in panic, but Snorlax blitzed through it with a roar, and bowled into the beast with a shockwave. Their impact was so terrifying that they sailed right into the ceiling, shattering it instantly; glass rained down with their plummet and they were picking up momentum with each passing second.

Charizard blinked himself out of his half-unconscious state - just as Snorlax flew into him and caught him around the arms. The fire-type flailed, thrashed, threw his claws and snapped his jaws, spitting fire with every breath, but Snorlax had locked him into submission. He turned him around, forcing Charizard to look at the ground as they fell-

The earth shattered, again, with their impact. Clouds of dust billowed out with a rippling shockwave. Everyone was silent as debris and rubble made their home on the arena. Charizard was bound to be beaten. He couldn't have survived that.

A thick, blue-green arm clawed the earth from the burrow that had formed. Snorlax pulled himself out of the earth, stumbling as he stood on his feet. He looked incredibly dazed - no doubt he'd suffered a concussion. He hadn't had such a nasty fall since the fight with Giovanni - and that wasn't too long ago.

He bellowed in triumph, however, even as he lumbered forward like a drunk. Ash didn't think he could fight any longer, but he figured he could see if Snorlax wanted to…

Suddenly, a shrill shriek pierced out from the burrow. Snorlax blinked, slowly whirling around as orange claws crept out the hole. Ash couldn't believe it as Charizard pulled himself out, the flame on his tail burning blue, and taller than anything he'd ever seen.

Charizard screamed again, shakily charging as he began sweating gouts of flame. Cinders flowed down his spine - the beginnings of a Flare Blitz-

Snorlax smashed the side of his head with a set of brick-red arms. The Hammer Arm knocked Charizard off his feet, punting him to the ground, and the flame on his tail reduced to that of a candle's. The fire and embers streaking his body dissipated as quickly as they'd come.

Natalie waited. When it was clear that Charizard's Blaze wasn't returning, she returned him into the ball, her jaws clenched tight.

Ash was beginning to feel cocky - why shouldn't he? "Keep your card ready, Nat!" he called, rubbing his belly comically. "I'm going to be starving myself until it's time for dinner."

Her fists shook. Ash laughed, even as she sent out Brol, her Golem, who guffawed with delight as he ran his claws through rubble and crumbled earth. His reptilian eyes instantly locked onto Snorlax, and they narrowed to slits just like Charizard's had.

Snorlax's deadpan expression turned into a scowl. He hunkered over, matching the Golem's stance, his claws playing with the pebbles like they were sand. Mist began seeping out from his jaws like puffs of smoke, hinting at Ice Beams.

With a grunt, Brol lifted one stubby, muscular leg; then, as energy focused in his foot, he stomped the arena with all his might. The earth heaved and split open and, as earthen plates snapped out of place with destructive shockwaves, Snorlax was sent soaring into the sky; he twisted and turned but, in the end, he landed horribly on his back.

Snarling and wincing in pain, Snorlax struggled up to his feet. He wobbled, but Ash was quick to encourage him with his words. "You can do this, Snorlax!"

Snorlax nodded, grimacing. It felt like his insides were shifting back into place, but he forced himself to keep going with a harrowing burp.

"Ice Beam!" yelled Ash. His pokémon roared, a sphere of cyan energy crackling in his mouth, then exploding in thunderbolts of ice rays. Brol harrumphed and pushed his fists into the field, and blades of stone punched out in a row. Thick ice flowed across them, crystal clear, encasing the Stone Edges in thick shells of it. Snorlax wasted no time - he barrelled forward and pulverised them with Hammer Arms, bringing him face to face with Brol.

But the Golem kicked the arena with his heels and a wedge of dirt rolled forward like a wave, smashing into Snorlax's ankles and toppling him over. Snorlax groaned; the smell of toxins and dirt filled his nostrils instantly. He rolled onto his back right as Brol drove a glowing, orange-red fist into the ground past his head, kicking up dirt. Snorlax pushed himself up to his knees, figuring he could use the mud in Brol's eyes as the chance to attack, but the Golem was unfazed by it - as he blinked out the dirt he spun around, weathering Snorlax's bone-breaking Hammer Arm with his iron-hard armour, and with another kick of his heel he threw Snorlax back to the ground with a Bulldoze.

This time, Snorlax didn't get back up. His elbows shuddered as he attempted a push-up, but he just didn't have the strength or the energy to continue - they gave out and he slumped over, breathing angrily as he passed out.

Ash sighed. "Still think you should be so confident?" screamed Natalie, a mocking smile on her face as he returned Snorlax.

He exhaled slowly, closing his eyes. His final pokéball shuddered in his hand as he palmed it. "Infernape, let's get this done!"

He leapt out from the sphere in a splash of light, grunting and rolling his shoulders. Then when he saw Brol his gait stiffened, and the hateful way he considered the Golem left Ash frowning.

Infernape held back a glower. He knew this wasn't Giovanni's Golem, but Brol's presence always put him on edge. He was doing his best to hide his distaste for the creature, but he was nervous with the prospect of battling Brol. He didn't want things to get bad again…

His knees buckled and he slipped into fighting position. This time, Infernape was going to do his best to not let things go out of control. He glanced back, gritting his teeth at Ash's thumbs-up. As if his trainer would do anything to help him out…

Ash punched his other palm. "Let's win this fight, alright!"

Infernape grunted. Brol, with a punt of his arm, forced a claw of rocks to shoot out all around Infernape, who tore them down with a single chop before they could close over him. He scowled and leapt forward, crossing over to Brol in a mere few leaps and hopping over the Stone Edges that were sent his way.

A powerful Mach Punch shattered a Stone Edge that came too close to Infernape's liking, and then he breathed out jets of fire with a scream. The ground at Brol's feet was alight and a circle of fire swirled around him, growing taller and taller by the second. But with a grunt and a jump, golden cracks spread out from his feet. The fiery vortex was put out as the earth around Brol burst open with a boom!

Infernape covered his eyes as mud rained over him but, in that time, Brol had already rolled over and barrelled into him at sonic speeds. It felt like a freight train had slammed into him, and he was sent sailing across over mounds of dirt and slabs of earth, landing awkwardly in a mangled heap. He stood up on shaking legs, feeling a rush of oxygen hurt him with every breath. The black in the corners of his vision cleared out, and his anger returned tenfold. He wanted to tear off every rocky plate-

Infernape froze with a scowl. He breathed slowly, hoping it would calm him down. It did. It reinvigorated him with hope and confidence, and he turned around with a drum of his chest and a grin on his face.

Ash snapped his fingers; Infernape's ears twitched. "Bulk Up," he muttered. Infernape grinned; his fingers wriggled and a surge of hormones flooded him. The sweat pearling his arms became more noticeable as they tightened and bulged; his veins were now thick, wriggly lines along his muscles. "Jab and weave, okay? If it gets too close, trap it in a Fire Spin and make a getaway."

He leapt forth on all fours, just as Brol slipped into a roll in his direction. They were sure to collide and-

As quick as lightning, Infernape smacked the ground with his arms. A slab of jagged rock jutted out from below at an upward angle, like a ramp. Brol only realised it when he rolled up it and sailed above Infernape. With a grunt, he uncurled and forced the ground to burrow with his weight as he landed, right as Infernape appeared next to him and swiped down at his skull with a terrifying Brick Break.

Brol stumbled forward as he was sent to his knees. A clawed arm swept out at Infernape, but he was already gone, flipping his way onto the other side. This time it was a Mach Punch that cracked into his back, toppling him over. The Golem snarled, rolling onto his feet, but then a blade of stone punched out at an angle that tripped him right into Infernape's fist.

Brol's knees were shaking as he fell once again. His lips curled, fanged teeth peeking out as he pushed his claws into the arena. As Infernape knocked him onto his side with a spinning Mach Punch, the ground hollowed like a sinkhole, sucking the both of them in and they disappeared out of view.

Ash could see the ground shake with the sound of booms and thuds - and then Brol was sent sailing out from the hole he'd dug out. Infernape followed soon after, shooting up into view in a single leap as he made his way over as Brol hit the ground. Brick-red energy was wrapped around his fists, but a sudden Stone Edge blew into his ribs and tossed him to the side.

Hissing, Infernape caught himself on all fours. He felt the wind behind him rush, and on instinct he jumped to the side - Brol rolled past him and skidded to a halt as he realised he missed. Scowling, he raised his arms to the sky - glittering, silver light turned into massive hunks of pointed rock that fell with a swipe of his hands.

Infernape's acrobatics were always a pleasure to watch. His leaps and rolls and twists left the Rock Slide crashing all around him with deafening booms; and when they came too close, he forced out Stone Edges to deflect them. Infernape scowled as a great shadow was cast over him; as he looked up, he drove his fist into the Rock Slide and split it into a flare of rubble that blocked Ash's view with the resulting cloud of dust.

As soon as that happened, Brol leapt in with a grin. Ash cried out at Infernape - "Watch out!"

And then Infernape was sent flying out! He twisted and landed perfectly on all fours, but it look less than an instant for rocky spires to burst all around him and take him by surprise. Brol rolled out, slapping the earth with his claws, and the obelisks slammed shut with a heavy thud - but they were torn down in a few blows, and Infernape emerged out of the rubble and dust with his heavy, angry breaths. Then-

Then the ground below him collapsed - he yelped and flailed, but he'd fallen into the pit created by Brol, disappearing out of view. Before he could jump out, Brol closed the hole shut with a massive Rock Slide, sealing him in.

Infernape would've smashed it open with a few Brick Breaks, but those few seconds he took were enough for Brol to jump, his feet shaking with seismic energy, and produce a terrifying Earthquake as he landed.

The earth was fractured with shockwaves. Its already ravaged state meant that the earthquake wasn't as devastating as it was supposed to be…but Ash had no doubt of how terrible it still was. Plates of mud and rock were sent shifting again. Sprays of dirt sliced the air with their speed. Brol guffawed, standing in the center of his own crater as he waited for the tremors to halt.

The dust settled. Something within the mounds of mud shifted; our flew a pair of white, furry arms, shaking as they sought for something solid to cling onto. The hill of dirt crumbled apart and Infernape crawled out with heavy breathing. His fingers trembled as he found even footing, the flame on his head sputtering with embers as it fought to blow steadily. There was a wobble in his right knee as he stood up, glowering.

His eyes met Brol's. They glittered with amusement - mocking, taunting Infernape with his bared fangs. Smoke curled from the back of Infernape's head. He could feel the beginnings of a fiery rage spark in himself.

Infernape balled his fists, his breathing quickening. He blinked out the fury from his eyes, but it was as if he needed it - it was the only thing numbing the pain and soreness thrumming through his body. But his need to stay in control overpowered that, and so he closed his eyes and focused on it.

It seemed to be working…but then Brol decided to lunge in for a finishing blow. The Golem roared and a sphere of blue energy suffused his tightened claws. The thudding of his heavy feet awoke Infernape, who slumped and swayed, his eyes only seeing the Focus Punch.

Brol swung. Infernape, despite his injuries, was quick as always avoiding a Focus Punch that made the air sizzle. But Brol was two steps ahead - as soon as he saw Infernape react, he pressed a foot into the ground. In a split second, as Infernape ducked, the earth below him blew open. A massive Stone Edge shot out and cracked into his chest, knocking him off his feet.

Infernape gasped as he hit the ground. He found it difficult to breathe for a second, then the oxygen burned his lungs as he inhaled. He could sense the ground shake with each step Brol took towards him, his snort loud in his ears. Infernape clenched his fangs, his growl guttural. His eyes were watery - not from the pain, but his frustration with his uncontrollable Blaze. Why was it so difficult? Why couldn't he just take control?

It felt like with every fight, his temper grew shorter. Every blow he took made him more susceptible to his rage. Blaze was like an addiction. It was becoming a necessity for every battle, no matter how close he was to being on his last legs. His anger would take the reins and harness Blaze before he knew it. Why wasn't he getting better?

Ash felt Infernape's eyes on him. He knew what was about to happen, but any words of support he had died in his throat. What could he say, apart from the same, meaningless cries he'd said before? Nothing they'd ever done had helped Infernape. Ash had never been more disappointed in himself than now, as he watched Blaze overcome Infernape in its billowing heat as he let out a scream of bitter rage.

Brol recoiled, arms covering his face as a fireball blew up around Infernape. The air shimmered with scorching heat flying out in every direction. The fireball receded and Infernape stepped out, his head flame blazing like a volcano, bursting and crackling with every beat of his chest. His scream was deafening. His fists shook. Then, he leapt.

Even Natalie flinched with the way Infernape drove his fists between Brol's eyes. That Mach Punch sent the Golem rolling several yards away, like tumbleweed across the muddy arena. Brol rolled to his front, blinking the black out of is eyes. A torrent of fire roared his way. He swiped his arms up, and a Rock Tomb surfaced to protect him.

Within seconds, they turned cherry-red. Brol's roar was muffled, but everyone could sense his pain. The Rock Tomb shifted and Brol's yelling stopped - he'd dug his way into the ground. The Flamethrower trickled to a stop, and embers dripped down Infernape's chin as his eyes scanned the ground. He stepped, and a cluster of rocky blades burst out at his feet. The tremors in the earth stopped.

Suddenly, the earth behind him burst open. Brol's arms were glowing, but he never got the chance to swing them. A Stone Edge smashed into his face and knocked him out of the air. There was a swirl of flames as he fell. A a ring of fire settled on the earth, rising and spiralling as blades of stone punched out and surrounded Brol.

The makeshift Rock Tomb burst open and Brol roared, but he was sent swinging to the ground under the force of a pulverising blow. Infernape had jumped into the Fire Spin, his snarls ragged. Brol struggled to prop himself on his arms, but Infernape was in no mood to wait. His punches were blindingly fast, dropping the Golem back to the floor every time he dared to rise.

A wedge of dirt welled up and smashed into Infernape's ankles, tripping him up. As he breathed in soil angrily, Brol took the chance to blow up the surrounding cyclone of fire with a terrifying Earth Power. Mud and rock rose into the air and the flames shrank out of existence. A massive boulder grew to size between Brol's arms as he grunted, his fangs clenched in concentration, and he threw the Rock Blast with a roar.

But Infernape reduced it to rubble as he swung two chops across. Brol slapped away the flurry of pebbles, his arms glowing as he curled his claws and he swung. But Infernape's palms deflected them to the side, leaving Brol completely open. A Brick Break cracked into his snout. Something sharp and white flew out, sinking in the mud.

Brol blinked and recoiled, blood trickling down his broken fang. It filled him up with rage, but Infernape was not bothered by his scream in the slightest - in fact, he seemed to be reveling in it. He flew in and tossed the Golem to the ground in an effortless heave. The arena shook and it cratered under Brol's weight. Rubble bounced as Infernape sledgehammered Brol with Brick Breaks.

There were sharp cracks - he'd gotten through Brol's nigh-impenetrable armour. The Golem roared and flailed, eyes as wide as as saucers. Stalagmites burst out of the ground at random, a reaction to his pain. Infernape was unfazed as they crowned him and Brol, and his only focus was on the flames slithering up his arms.

Fire Punch after punch left Brol's scales with burns. He groaned, fighting the roll of his eyes as Infernape picked him by his feet and swung him through the spires of rock around them. Dust fluttered out as stone hit the ground like raindrops - and then Brol fell amidst them, thrown down as Infernape shrieked.

"Infernape!" Ash yelled, half-angry, half-shocked by his behaviour. "Stop it!"

His attention snapped away from Brol. Ash shuddered under Infernape's furious gaze, but he didn't let his expression falter.

All of a sudden, Brol struck with the quickness of a viper. His claws flew out against Infernape's ankles, and he whipped around with a scream of angry surprise. "Listen to me!" shrieked Ash, stepping closer to the arena's boundaries.

Infernape paid him no need. Ash felt a blood vessel about to burst as the fire-type drowned his foe in a wave of fiery jabs.

"Listen. To. Me!"

Brol was already half-unconscious. His eyes fluttered, scorched and swollen. Infernape's fists hammered his stone armour - a spiderweb of cracks grew deeper with every blow. Finally, when it was only the force of Infernape's beating that made Brol shudder, did Natalie return her pokémon.

The arena was silent apart from the drum of Infernape's chest. He screamed out a roaring challenge, bathing his surroundings in the flames of his victory. No one dared to interrupt him.

Ash was seething. He was angry with everything. He was surprised pokéball in his hand didn't crumple within his shaking, angry grip.

Infernape whipped around, meeting Ash's glare with his own. The gloating sneer on his face turned into a disgusted glower. Ash continued staring at him, his anger doubling with every slow beat of Infernape's chest. It was like he was mocking, taunting him.

Infernape vanished in a ray of crimson light, and the flames danced alone.

The referee cleared his throat. "Er, Natalie Lazta is out of usable pokémon," came his voice amidst the crackle of dying fire, loud for everyone to hear. "Ash Ketchum is the winner."

But his victory didn't bring with it the happiness it usually did. As he rolled Infernape's ball in his hand, he could only feel his irritation rise.

"What the shit was that, Ashy-boy?" came a snide voice. He turned around, resisting the urge to sigh as Gary and Jack made their way over to him. "Infernape looked like he blew a fuse. Or more like he-"

"I know." Ash clenched his jaws. We're working on it, he wanted to say, despite how untruthful it was. It made him almost laugh.

Gary raised his hands. "Touchy subject. Got it. Anyway, you won!"

Ash was silent. He looked around - a frown formed on his face. "Where's Natalie?"

"She left," Jack said. "As soon as she returned her Golem. She looked pissed."

"Let her go!" Gary slapped Ash on the back, pulling him into a one-armed hug. "We need to celebrate you knocking her arrogant butt down a few levels."

That perked Jack up. "Gary's right," he added, nodding fervently. "Let's go to this really nice Johtonian restaurant. I've heard they've got really good tenkaippin, it puts the one in Saffron to shame-"

Ash threw them off his shoulders, ignoring their shouts and worried cries as he stormed out of the chamber. He was in no mood for their banter. He wasn't in the mood for anything. All that ran through his head was anger and ribbons of expletives. Maybe this was what Infernape felt like every battle, he thought sourly.

XxXxX

"I've already spoken to Celio," said Oak from the other side of the videophone. Ash listened intently, nodding. "There's a nurse at Knot's pokécenter who is also a practising psychotherapist, specialising in MEMRE. There's a fair bit of paperwork needed to be done, but not to worry - I'll take care of it."

He scratched his stubble, his skin crinkling as he frowned. "I have to say that I'm a bit worried of your Infernape, Ash. Just be careful with him. I suggest you to keep him out of battle for a while."

Ash sighed. "Okay," he muttered, sounding defeated. He idly played with Infernape's pokéball, minimising and enlarging it with rhythmic clicks.

Oak sat forward. "I'll let you know the full details of your appointment. Keep your mind on others things until then."

Ash nodded.

"How have you been finding the Sevii Islands?" asked Oak. Ash sat up straighter, grateful for the change in topic, and clipped the pokéball in his hand back to his belt.

"It's been…eventful," Ash decided with a wry smile. "We got chased by a pack of Persian, attacked by a Tyranitar, interrupted by an Onix…Oh, and we got ambushed by a Jellicent in the Water Labyrinth."

Oak blinked. "Just a normal day in the life of a pokémon trainer, eh?" he said dryly. Ash laughed.

"And the Battle Tower? How is that going for you?" pressed Oak. "Gary told me he managed to a acquire a macho brace his Machoke. Quite a good deal, if you ask me."

Ash groaned. "I'm still seven points away," he whined, stomping his feet. Thinking about it filled him with frustration. "What am I going to tell Kratos? He was really looking forward to the metal coat, you know."

Oak tilted his head with sympathy. "Sometimes you don't win no matter how hard you try," he said, "and that's okay. I'll see what I can do. Pull a few strings at Silph Co-"

"It's fine," Ash interjected with a wave of his hand. Most of the gratuity amount he'd received from Cadmus Silph had been spent on building a new home (all thanks to Team Rocket), but he still had a decent amount left over. Although, he wasn't sure how intact his savings would be after buying a metal coat. "I'll figure it out."

Oak pursed his lips, but didn't say anything else about that. "Well, you can still get something else from the Battle Tower, right? Personally, I would suggest you to get something for your Ampharos, such as Bulldoze. I was going over his profile and I see that he doesn't have a lot of coverage against opponents that could defend themselves against his electric attacks."

Ash nodded. "I've taught him Signal Beam to counter that," he said. "And he's still learning Dragon Pulse. I was thinking of buying a TM for Snorlax, actually. Do you have anything in mind?"

"Earthquake would be helpful," said Oak after a moment of thinking. "A Snorlax's strength lies more on his physical capabilities - you should focus more on that. There's no need to blow your money on an Earthquake TM, however. Viridian's interim leader will be giving it away for every win."

Ash blinked. The League was offering an Earthquake TM for winning trainers? "Who is the new leader?" he asked, curiosity gnawing at him.

Oak's mouth twisted in distaste. "Find out yourself," he muttered. Ash rolled his eyes, but he didn't press it.

"If that's all, Ash, I'll take my leave," said Oak after a few seconds of silence.

"Of course, Professor!"

Oak smiled. "Let me know when you reach Knot Island. Take care of yourself."

Ash got up from his seat, whistling out his exhale. He was quite disappointed that he wouldn't be able to buy the metal coat despite how hard he and his team worked, but the talk with Oak did help him feel better. He could always buy one back in Kanto. It just meant that he'd have to be a lot more frugal in the coming weeks.

The wind around him rushed as Jack sidled up to him, joining him in his stride to the Battle Tower's front desk. "So?" he said, wiggling his eyebrows. "Have thee finally finished your quest for the metal coat, Sir Ketchum?" His impression of a pompous lord made Ash suppress his laughter with a snort.

He shook his head. "We tried our best," he said simply, shrugging.

"How many points short are you?" he asked.

"Seven."

"And the tournament ends in two hours, doesn't it?"

Ash nodded, sighing. He didn't think his team would be able to finish five battles in two hours. They'd done their best. He would never ask them for more.

Jack nodded imperiously, his bottom lip sticking out. They'd reached the front desk, which meant Ash could finally cash in his points for some good TMs. He greeted the cashier with a quick smile and slid his pokédex over to her, drumming his fingers.

Jack was lost in deep thought, brows furrowed as he hummed lowly to himself. After a moment or two, he interrupted the cashier by rudely waving his hand under her face. Ash chided him with a scowl.

"How can I help you?" asked the receptionist, unable to keep her tone from being snippy. Jack, either oblivious or uncaring, was not bothered by it.

"So I've got these battle points," he said, leaning forward, "but I've really got no use for them. So, like…can I transfer them to someone else?"

She blinked. Jack pressed on, smiling. "I mean, there's no rules like that - it's like betting points on a match, which just happened yesterday! That means it's allowed, right?"

The receptionist looked from Jack and Ash, stumped. "Uh…I'll have to check, sir."

"Thanks!" exclaimed Jack cheerily, pushing himself off the desk. While the frazzled receptionist made a quick phone call, Ash looked at Jack in bewilderment.

"What are you doing?" he asked, mouth agape. He knew what Jack was getting at, but he didn't want to say it if he was wrong.

Jack grinned. "Look, I've just accumulated fourteen battle points throughout this tournament. I probably can't even buy a freaking potion. I'd rather it all go to you than go to waste. At leas that way, it'll be of some use."

Ash made a confused sound. The click of a phone snapped him out of his disbelief. "Er, you're okay to transfer your battle points to someone else," she said, "but you can't exchange them. So that means no payment, or-"

"Got it," Jack interjected. "In that case, could you transfer all my points to Ash Ketchum?" He flicked Ash's shoulder, as if that would help her identify him.

"Would you like me to cancel your transaction for one Shadow Ball TM and one Power Belt?" asked the receptionist, looking pointedly at Ash.

"Uh, s-sure," he stammered, still staring at Jack like he'd grown a second head. "Why are you doing this for me?"

Jack blinked. He frowned, looking for an appropriate answer. "Because…You're my friend. And you deserve a break, after all that's happened to you - you and your team, both. And I bet you wouldn't like breaking your poor Scyther's heart, right?"

He snickered as he turned away, and Ash couldn't help but feel warm. He forgot how precious Jack could be at times. "Thank you for this, Jack." He gulped. "But I'm more thankful that you're my friend."

Jack spun around. His eyes shifted uncomfortably, as if unable to process Ash's words. "Yeah, whatever. You owe me Twinkies for a month." Ash laughed.

As soon as the receptionist was done adding Ash's points, he wasted no time in making his purchase. "I'll have the metal coat, thanks," he exclaimed, his grin hurting his cheeks. Even the receptionist joined his and Jack's smiling.

And then, in a few seconds, it was in front of his eyes. He couldn't hold his excitement as he cradled the lead container in his hands. It was cold against his palms and quite heavy, but Ash felt like he could lift even a ton with the energy in his veins. He couldn't wait to see Kratos' expression when he showed the metal coat to him.

In addition to the metal coat, Ash had also won the top prize given that the tournament had ended with him having the highest points - which was a TM of his choice, and three ultra-balls. He figured he owed Jack something for his invaluable help, and he decided on letting him pick a TM for himself, which ended up being Hydro Pump for his Rhydon.

"Thanks for participating in the Battle Tower," the receptionist said. "Please give us a good rating on trainerclub-dot-net!"

"We will!"

Ash safely put the metal coat in his backpack - he'd probably give up his soul if he somehow managed to lose it. It was the most precious thing on him right now, along with the megastones secured in the depths of his pack.

Jack tapped his shoulder. "Think you can treat me to that Johtonian place today?"

Ash grinned, nodding. He was feeling quite generous at the moment.

XxXxX

Trainer:Ash Ketchum

Pokémon in possession:

Saur – Venusaur

Delphi – Xatu

Zeus – Ampharos

Hydrus – Golduck

Infernape

Snorlax

Screecher – Mismagius

Kratos– Scyther

Eevee

In Rehabilitation:

Atlas – Vibrava

XxXxX

If you made it all the way through this chapter, you deserve a cookie. Forgive me for the long chapter, and the even longer wait. Work's been really stressful, writing music's been distracting me, and I have to speedrun a course in like, two months. It's going to be a fun June *internally crying*

I really had quite some trouble maintaining my consistency for this chapter, when it comes to passion and writing style. Writing battles has got me feeling a bit burnt out, so I understand if you feel the ones in this chapter have lost their flavour. I'm quite happy at having the Pallet gang back together, so I enjoy writing their interactions; I'm going to be focusing a lot more on Ash/team interactions, too. IMO I'm just beginning to realise how little I've fleshed them out apart from the bare minimum. I hope I've done a better job in this chapter - if not, please let me know.

I've also forgotten how exciting training sequences can be. It's a breath of fresh air and, honestly, this arc is (most likely) going to focus more on training, until the Conference comes into view. I'm excited to continue this story!

As always, thank you for your reviews, follows, and favourites; and - above all - for reading. I can't promise when I'll update next, but I'll be seeing you in the next one.