Chapter Thirty-Two: The Scientist
Despite the cool spring breeze whistling through the garden, the air of the Caldwells' living room was hot and heavy. Ash shot another frantic glimpse at the wall clock. He couldn't count the number times hoping that the hands had sped forward since his last glance.
But every passing second felt like an eternity. Each tick of the clock resonated with a maddening insistence, as if time itself had slowed to a torturous crawl. His heel began to click against the mat floor with fervour.
His nails gnawed at each other. Sweat made his palms uncomfortably sticky. He could feel agonising itches crawling at every other inch of his arms and neck and back and head, with tendrils of anxious desperation pulling at the threads of his sanity.
Jack was taken. Abducted, by the Rockets. Ash didn't know how or when or why - but he knew that they'd cross the line far too many times now. The knowledge that the Rockets still fuelled their schemes with whatever feeble resolve was shared between their fractured factions made him want to storm his way into Attila's cell and pry his teeth off until he sang like a Pidgey. He'd take even the most indiscernible whimper as prize information. He wanted to-
Slow breaths, Ash reminded himself. Thinking about them made his knuckles turn white. Lorelei had a much better chance at extracting information from the Rockets, but it felt like he'd spent eternities awaiting her return.
A soft moan disturbed his tangling emotions; Ash turned to look across the room, watching Cole yawn with a hint of annoyance. How could he be falling asleep at a time like this?!
Cole noticed Ash's stare through his own teary eyes, and bit his yawn in half with reddening cheeks. He cleared his throat, blinking the haze out of his vision, and met Ash with awkward hesitance evident in his wringing hands.
"Something to drink?" he asked genially, holding his own mug of lukewarm coffee tighter.
"No," Ash replied instantly, realising a bit late that he sounded rude. "Thanks."
Cole pursed his lips. "Right."
Awkward silence filled the space between them again, disturbed only by the soft tinkle of Cole's fingers against his mug.
"So," Cole drawled, "did you find Icefall fun? I mean, apart from the poachers-"
"How much longer?" Ash asked shortly, fighting the urge to grind his teeth as the tempest within him grew once more. The tapping of his feet grew faster. Louder.
Cole seemed relieved that his attempt at small talk had been cut short. "Any minute now," he muttered, stifling another yawn as he watched the clock. Boris crawled out from under the table, spraying diamond dust as he ruffled his coat, and tiptoed over for Cole to playfully twist his wispy tuft.
But that answer was a feeble attempt at satiating Ash's frustration. More minutes crawled, and the walls around him drew closer. His impatience multiplied like a virus with each passing second, gnawing at his mind with relentless ferocity while thoughts and images of what Jack was going through haunted his eyes.
Jack could've been bruised. Tortured. Did it matter if he was a kid? The Rockets kept their morality holed in an abyss; they would always sink lower.
Suddenly, they heard the door swing open. Sharp clicks accentuated every footfall in the yawning silence, and Ash's incessant tapping ceased.
Colour bled into his bleak surroundings and his anxiety scampered away like a Zubat from light as Lorelei strutted in. She'd been in better moods, but the anger in her eyes seemed to be tempered by a grim satisfaction.
Ash shot up from his chair, and Cole followed slowly. Boris barked with excitement and ran, hopping at her feet, but Lorelei only spared the snowy Vulpix a warm glance. She went to Cole first, squeezing his hand as they shared a soft look - long enough for Ash's impatience to blow past his pursed lips and cut through the suffocating air.
"What did they say?" he snapped, wincing at the roughness of his own voice.
Lorelei sucked in a sharp breath. "We have their location," she said after an eternal moment.
A flame of hot anger burned brightly in that instant, pushing away the walls that had been suffocating his will. They knew where the Rockets were. Where Jack was! His mind raced with plans, a storm of thoughts battling for supremacy.
A hesitant grin crawled its way across his face. "When are we heading there?" he asked simply.
Lorelei blinked away her surprise as her eyebrows pinched together. "You're not coming," she told him, as if it was an obvious fact.
The flame in him sputtered at her words. His blood ran cold. "I am," he said after a moment of disbelief, but he sounded unsure.
Lorelei's jaws tightened. "This operation calls for League intervention. Reinforcements are on the way as we speak. There's no need for you to put yourself in harm's way, Ash."
Ash's mouth twisted. Didn't she understand what the Rockets had done to him? His family? "I've dealt with Team Rocket before-"
A scoff, tinged with a hint of derision, cut him short. "Oh yes, I've read your file," Lorelei murmured, her words ringing out with a melody of mockery. She stepped forward, ignoring Cole's feeble pleas to the both of them, as her eyes sharpened with a cunning glint. "Saved by the Lieutenant at sea, rescued by Fuji's volunteers in Lavender, poisoned and left for dead in the Silph building…"
Pink filled his cheeks. "I held my own in Icefall," he protested still, not willing to let the Elite embarrass him into submission.
"Against a skeleton crew," Lorelei corrected, raising her voice. "The base we're raiding is a fortress that houses over a hundred Rockets. What can you do against an army?"
"I- I don't know!" Ash yelled back, every word ragged as they climbed past the lump in his throat. He raised his fists that shook with the rhythm of his body's tremors. "Something. Anything! I can't sit by while they run free!"
He expected Lorelei to meet his rage with her own, but the only thing that followed his cries was silence.
He felt small, no longer hidden by his anger as it deflated. "They can't be back," he whispered, looking at his feet. "I won't let them be back!"
He could never let them go after everything they'd done. He wanted them gone, erased from the earth forever.
A glimmer of understanding sparked with the depths of Lorelei's eyes, and her harsh gaze softened. Her lips parted, hesitating until she carefully decided on the words she was going to speak.
"I'll let you in on guard duty," she finally said, suppressing a sigh. "But I won't have you in the middle of the operation. A battlefield is no place for a child to be."
He deflated, with a sigh that released the tempest of emotions as a soft breath. "Thank you."
Lorelei's nod was simply terse. Her eyes hardened behind her glasses, hiding a river of indignation that was frozen solid by her composure.
"Let's keep quiet until then," Cole muttered, but it was more of an order than a suggestion. Boris was wrapped in his arms, whining softly as he pawed at his frosty nose. "You're worrying Boris."
The crinkles around Lorelei's eyes reappeared, but they vanished as she turned them on Ash once more. "ACE will arrive in two hours," she announced crisply. "Stay at the pokécenter. I will call for you when we're ready."
There wasn't anything more to be said. He mumbled a goodbye to the Caldwells and Boris and took his leave, nearly racing towards the pokécenter, as the realisation of what was to come began setting off along his nerves.
He had to fill in his team. They needed to know, too. They needed to be prepared.
He stormed past the reception, grabbing Glaceon's ball in a huff as he exited through the back of the pokécenter and into the grounds. His fingers raced along his belt - eight cold pokéballs, but he could still feel the warmth of his friends - and released them onto the field.
Seeing them brought a smile to his face, and his anxiety receded for a moment. "I'm happy to see you guys too," Ash greeted, surveying their gleeful eyes with his own.
A feather-light touch prodded his mind. Eevee…evolved? he heard Delphi ask, awed and surprised.
The other blinked at her squawk - and then they felt their own surprise as they saw Glaceon sit upright, nose raised as she wagged her flat tail excitedly.
Ash grinned. He realised that they hadn't seen her since before yesterday - she'd spent the night and the whole of this morning under the pokécenter's supervision. After what happened with Atlas, he didn't want to risk post-evolution complications rising with Glaceon. "She did," he said, and he swelled with pride. "Yesterday, in Icefall Cave. Hydrus and Snorlax were with her."
Hydrus nodded fervently, as if confirming his statement, and Snorlax rumbled at the sound of his name.
The others drew closer to the ice-type, marvelling at her snowy cloak. Glaceon seemed nervous by their staring, but she welcomed the praise a little sheepishly, and let them examine her with a soft bark.
Kratos seemed a bit miffed at the spotlight being taken from him, but he masked that with a little metallic growl and prodded her with his pincer. Infernape didn't come too close - he assumed Glaceon would shy away from his fiery crest like Kratos had done, but his fanged grin raised her spirits. Zeus reached to pet her with a little static running along his paw, but he reeled when a sheen of frost spread around it and Glaceon twisted away with a scowl.
He was a little embarrassed at being rebuked, but Zeus took it in stride and shrugged as Delphi walked in front of him. She chirped something soft and proud and Glaceon bowed, pawing at her icy crest.
Delphi looked like she was going to say something more, but the lustre in her eyes drained away as Screecher swept around her and began cooing over Glaceon. She teleported away in an instant - Screecher stopped, her eyes shifting with embarrassment, but Glaceon's hopping made her forget about Delphi's abrupt leave.
When their excitement began to simmer, Ash called for their attention with a harrumph. "There's something I need to tell you guys," he said, twiddling his thumbs. His team crowded around him. "Yesterday, in Icefall, we came across some poachers. Hydrus, Snorlax, and Glaceon were with me. We took them down. Well…Turns out they were Rockets."
They reacted as he'd expected. He felt Delphi's psychic energy ionise the air. Smelled the sharp heat of burning oxygen as Infernape's crest burst like fireworks, heard roiling crackles as Zeus' tail lit up. He saw Kratos' pincers tighten and and his pupils slit.
Ash felt his own chest heat up. "They're still alive. I don't know how - but that doesn't matter. What matters is that they're here. In Sevii."
He felt Delphi enter his mind with controlled fury. Where?
Ash shook his head. "I have no idea. But Lorelei does - she's called in reinforcements from the League for a raid, and…And I asked her if I could help. I'm not going to force you guys to fight them for me, but I wanted to ask if-"
We'll always fight, hissed Delphi, and the others agreed with screams and roars that evolved into a frenzied cacophony as rage lashed out with their every movement. With you. For you. Give us the Rockets. Show us where they're hiding. We'll rid them together, once and for all!
Her words made his blood pound. His own heart raced with the rise and fall their ragged breath. "Soon," he promised, meeting everyones' eyes. His word tempered their impatient rage with resolve, but they were restless. Itching for the moment of action.
"But for now, we wait until Lorelei calls us. Prepare yourselves for the raid. Nothing intense. Keep your blood pumping. We've only got a few hours until it all starts."
It took more than two hours for Lorelei to announce the arrival of reinforcements, but not in the way Ash had expected. One moment he was sitting at the edge of his bed, spinning Hydrus' pokéball as bolts of nervous anticipation made his hands quiver and sweat; the next, an Alakazam roared into existence in the empty corner of his room.
The twisted and bending of space made Ash jump and throw Hydrus' ball in the air with a squeal, and he toppled onto the floor in an awkward heap.
Ash felt the wind fly out of him. "What the hell!" He scrambled to his feet, grunting as he saw the Alakazam turn towards him from the corner of his eye. Had the Rockets sent it after him? Did they know the League was coming after them? His hands flew to his belt-
Static raced across his skull and Ash tensed, hissing as the Alakazam formed a telepathic link before he could release any of his friends. I am Sergeant Bell of Indigo, said the Alakazam, sitting cross-legged in the air, and its words dismissed his fears in an instant. Please be calm.
Ash sagged at once, breathing a sigh of relief, but he still winced at the mental pinch of its words. "Is it Lorelei?"
The Alakazam's moustache bristled - as if irked by his choice of words. Elite Lorelei, remarked the psychic, making sure to stress on the title, calls for your presence. We must go at once. Are you prepared?
Ash stood on one knee, nodding as he adjusted his his jacket and hat. His eyes scanned the floor for Hydrus' pokéball - it was right by the Alakazam. "I just need to-"
There is no time for any delays, Bell the Alakazam declared, now sounding clearly annoyed. Its spoon twisted as psychic energy flowed from its tip.
Ash felt an invisible lasso tighten around his waist. His eyes widened. "No, my pokémon-!"
Too late. His surroundings collapsed into a spectrum of sickly purple bubbles that squashed and squeezed in a hypnotising rhythm as the hum of psychic energy roared in his ears. Pressure hugged every inch of his skin, and-
Sharp light made him blink out the white in his vision, and the warmth of the overhead sun greeted him gently. Grassy plains unfolded all around him, flattened by a whistling gust that twisted along the edge of the cliff Bell had transported him on, as waves crashing against the rocky shoreline roared behind.
Ash spun on his heels, finding the Alakazam with a scowl. "I left my pokémon back there, you-"
Then he felt his hands closed against something solid and round - a pokéball, flecked with tiny scratches. Hydrus'. The Alakazam had conveniently teleported his pokéball along and into his hand.
We're here, Ash heard Bell murmur into the side of his mind. Ash felt his stomach curdle - an annoying side effect of teleportation - but, surprisingly, it wasn't as unpleasant as his experiences with Delphi and other amateur psychics. He had to give it credit for that.
Still, he couldn't help but let sour feelings surge as he glared at the Alakazam. "What's the point of asking me if I'm ready if you're just going to ignore me?" he grumbled. Bell ignored him again.
Instead, Ash winced as Bell's hiss ricocheted in his skull. Manners! the Alakazam chided, unfolding its claws, and Ash looked around.
A slew of uniformed men and women turned their scrutinising gaze on him. They all looked to be around Red's age - some a bit older or younger than the others, but just as competent. There was a particularly burly figure hunkered behind the crowd. Each one of them was clad in the same form-fitting attire - dark and striped, seamlessly blending functionality with a touch of sleek professionalism, hidden under rugged, tactical vests with. Their expressions ranged from steely determination to calculated vigilance, conveying undeniable power and skill - ACE trainers.
Ash gulped. He couldn't help but feel like an intruder. They were the best of the best that Indigo had to offer - type experts, Conference winners, even budding masters - while he was just an eleven year old trainer with less than a year of experience. What was he doing here?
He surveyed the ACE for a fleeting moment, but it was more out of awe than anything. They stared back, their features hidden behind an emotionless mask - but their gazes also held faint glimmers of amusement, curiosity, and confusion.
And then their stares shifted, broken by a wordless order. The ACE parted - some dipped their heads, either in respect or fear - as Lorelei strode past the sea of them, her elegant outfit forgone for an immaculate purple battle-suit. The crinkles around her eyes had melted away, and in place stood the Ice Queen of Kanto. She might as well have been carved from ice.
Lorelei gave him one swift look and nodded shortly. "You're here," she remarked, sounding all business. "Put this on."
She handed him a heavy, tactical vest that he quietly accepted, wondering how some oversized armour was going to help him. He threw it on, but it was nearly twice his usual size, and Ash couldn't help but feel silly as he stood there like a hanger for the vest.
Lorelei held back a smirk for a second. But then she pressed a contraption that made it compress around him until it was perfectly tight against his ribs.
Lorelei turned her back to him, and the ACE trainers straightened as she faced them. "ACE trainers," she acknowledged, her voice strong and commanding. "Intelligence has provided us with valuable information regarding a faction of Rocket personnel situated deep within the Chrono Meadow."
She paused, her gaze sweeping across the faces of her squad, observing their unwavering determination.
"We also have suspicions that there could be a hostage in the enemy stronghold. A child, to be specific."
Tension gripped the air with her words. Ash could see the gravity of the situation in every eye, understanding that a life was entrusted to their hands.
"Our mission," she continued, even louder, "is to infiltrate the base, neutralise all threats, and bring that child back to safety."
A ripple of anticipation swept through the ACEs. This was the first true emotion Ash saw in them - their eyes were bright with excitement and glee that unnerved even him.
But Lorelei seemed pleased with their response. A light smile played across her lips. "Elite Bruno will assign your tasks."
Ash wasn't sure if he'd hear her right, but then he saw him - a hulking silhouette that even the crowd of ACE couldn't hide. They gave way again, and when the man walked through them, Ash couldn't believe his eyes.
This was Elite Bruno. Kanto's Fist.
He was a gargantuan man, even taller than what he looked like on television during the Conference broadcasts. He wasn't wearing his trademark gi - his battle-suit was a rich purple like Lorelei's, but it looked more like vein-webbed skin as it fought to contains his bulging biceps and triceps and every other string of muscle that looked fit to pop. His mane of messy dark hair was tied into a spiky ponytail that swung with every heavy step that brought him closer to where Lorelei and Ash stood.
His features, though youthful, were set in stone even as he met Lorelei's nod with a crisp one of his own. His pallor was befitting of a man of his stature and position. Stoic. Firm. Disciplined.
But when his eyes caught Ash's cowering gaze, his face broke into the most benevolent smile that could've ever graced him, and it filled Ash with warmth.
"ACE Squad," Bruno boomed in a clear baritone. His voice rang across the cliff like a thunderclap, and the crashing waves behind them only made him sound more intense. "The mission is straightforward, but not without its challenges. The Rockets are broken - they are cornered animals, and they will react like one. Which is why we will take out our targets with extreme prejudice. We also have word that this particular base holds one of their high-ranking executives - they are a valued asset to Indigo. We must ensure that we extract our target with no harm."
"I'm sure a few scratches won't impair our target's ability to speak," interjected Lorelei with a wicked smile. "Neither will a missing arm."
Murmured laughter rang among the ACE. Even Bruno spared a hint of a smirk, but Ash couldn't help but feel a twinge of morbid discomfort.
"Our plan is simple," Bruno continued. "Get in. Immobilise the Rockets. Get out. Understood?"
"Yes, Elite!" The ACE yelled in unison.
"The Rocket base has psychic scouts, so we can't teleport in without alerting them - but they aren't great in number, and so we can avoid a more tactical strike. Alpha Team will push in and neutralise the scouts. Set up an anti-teleportation field so that the Rockets can't teleport out. Karen, I want you to run point on this."
One of the ACE nodded - a tall woman with sly features and long, silvery hair tied into a tight bun. "Sure," she muttered, grinning as she twirled a twig between her teeth. A couple ACE around her hollered lowly - her friends, probably - and cheered her on, shaking her by the shoulders and slapping her back.
Lorelei gave her a disapproving frown, but Bruno didn't give Karen much of the attention she'd wanted. "Bravo Team will stand guard. Charlie Team will then rush in, lead by Elite Lorelei and I. Half of you will cover levels three and four with Lorelei. The rest will follow me."
Then he glanced at Ash through the corner of his dark eyes, losing some of the punch in his words. "Delta Team will be on scout duty. Help Bravo Team lock down the area. Fliers, runners - no one is allowed to escape. Any questions?"
The ACE with silver hair - Karen, Ash guessed - raised a hand. Bruno raised an eyebrow. "Yes, ACE?"
"What's the kid here for?" she asked, her words sharp with mockery.
A few of the ACE snickered. Ash's cheeks coloured, but he didn't say anything.
"He's here as another set of eyes," Lorelei answered, her words clipped yet hurried. "He will shadow one of you as the operation is carried out. Any takers?"
Karen smirked, twirling her hair. "Like anyone's going to want to be on babysitting duty…"
Lorelei inhaled sharply, and Ash felt his cheeks grow hotter. "Says the whining grownup," he growled - but it was louder than he'd intended, because Karen's eyes widened and her lips parted to spit venom.
"Enough, both of you," Lorelei snapped, a clear warning in her words. Her sharp glare bore no room for interruptions. "ACE Frank - you'll be guarding the boy. Ensure nothing happens to him."
A short, but burly ACE nodded as he stepped up front, flattening his crew cut. "Yes, Elite Lorelei."
"Any more questions?" Lorelei asked, looking pointedly at Karen, who grew a sudden interest in her boots. When it was clear that no one would dare to utter a word, she nodded. "Good. Let's begin."
"ACE trainers!" Bruno bellowed, and everyone's attention snapped to him. His glare was as hard as iron. "You have your orders. Karen, take the lead!"
Karen followed his orders in a beat. Any crease of snark on her face has been ironed out by the determination that made her features taut. Her whistle was low, but sharp, and the rest of the Alpha Team assembled behind her, grabbing pokéballs of their own.
The pokémon they released were perfectly designed to counter psychics. There were several dark and ghost-types - a Gengar, two Haunter, a ghost that Ash couldn't recognise and a…bug? He'd never seen it before. It was the colour of a Kakuna, except for its grey abdomen, but it held itself in the air without the flutter of its tattered wings. Its eyes were pitch-black holes that punctured its face, and hovering above its head was a crescent of white scales, almost like a halo.
The unfamiliar ghost - short and round with stubby legs and mitt-like hands - bored at him ominously with its single red eye as it caught him staring. It looked like it was wrapped entirely in bandages of dark ectoplasm. Tails of miasma spewed out from its shoulders, almost like grey smoke, while a wisp of it billowed from its head like a pointed hat.
The dark-types were clearly Karen's - a Houndoom, a Honchkrow, and a Weavile. She graced them with more affection that Ash thought she could have, and they welcomed her pets and scratches with silly coos. There was also another dark-type that circled her anxiously - a lithe beast with a coat of snowy-white fur, although its face was a dull blue, and so was the sickle-shaped horn sticking out from the side of its head. There was an equally curved tail flicking warily at its rear, as if the upcoming raid had set off its nerves.
There were also three other pokémon present in the Alpha Team, such as a Hypno, an Electrode, and a Venomoth, but Ash assumed they were more for support than anything.
The other ACE had also begun releasing their pokémon, and Ash figured that it would be a good idea to follow in their footsteps. For now, he simply sent out Screecher, who quickly melted into his shadow when he reminded her of the mission at hand.
Karen whistled for the Alpha Team and their pokémon to huddle closer, going over the plan again - and then she gave the order to move. The mission had begun.
The Honchkrow leapt into the air with a mighty flap of its wings, disappearing above the forest up ahead. Karen headed forward with the rest of her dark-types flanking her, utterly silent. The rest of the Alpha Team followed swiftly, and so did their pokémon, while the ghosts turned intangible and flew ahead to scout the forest.
The forest was unnaturally silent. Ash would've hoped to hear at least the chittering of Oddish, or the buzz and flutter of Beedrill and Butterfree, but it was as if the forest pokémon, had sensed them and decided it would be best to give them a wide berth. Still, the silence was unnerving. He could barely here the crunch of twigs underfoot, which set off his every sense like as if they were gunshots.
Sunlight cast intricate patterns of shadow on the soil, filtering through the dense foliage that towered high above them like guardians of the forest. Thick undergrowth clawed at their legs, tangled vines unbuckling his shoes until he finally tied his laces around his ankles. Ash stuck close to ACE Frank, but the tension was heightening his senses with every passing second.
The ACE seemed unbothered by it all - years of brutal preparation would do that. Only a select few made it past the treacherous trials set forth by the League every year. After all, their job was to protect Kanto from every unimaginable threat the rest of the world had to offer.
If becoming a pokémon master was out of his reach, he would definitely become an ACE trainer. They inspired him. The good he could do - like taking down Rockets, for one. There had to be more people like the Rockets in this world, and someone had to take care of them…
Suddenly, Ash felt the ACE collectively halt. He frowned, balancing on his toes to get a good look - Karen was exchanging glances with the Hypno, her clenched fist raised; then she circled the air with her fingers and snapped them forward with measured caution.
The rest of her unit nodded. They murmured something to their pokémon. The Electrode flew, weaving through the trees. And-
The silence shattered. Gurgled cries sounded in the distance, echoing through the woodland. Branches snapped off with thunderous cracks. Ash froze, his body tensed, eyes darting in every direction - and then he saw the bodies fly through the canopy.
The first was a Noctowl, its head pinned to its chest as it bumped across the forest floor. Then came two Kadabra, limp like marionettes as the duo of Haunter tossed them into each other with sick laughs. Then the Gengar flew out of the woods, reduced to a tornado of toxins and shadows that spun towards the platoon. Then it unfurled back into its corporeal form and out flew a convulsing Exeggutor, leaves and bark scarred with poisonous burns as it rolled at the ACEs' feet.
"They're blind," an ACE called out.
Lorelei nodded. "Good work."
"Honchkrow has eyes on the location," Karen hissed. Ash looked for her - her head was twitching and shifting, her eyes squeezed shut in painful concentration. "Says its a bunch of- gah- warehouses."
"That's what our source had to say," Bruno confirmed, smiling. "Any Rocket guards in out way?"
Karen bit her lip. Her eyelids were still wrinkled. "N-No. May- Maybe electrical-"
"Electrode has that covered," another ACE cut in.
Bruno hummed, considering their words for a moment, but Lorelei made the decision before he could. "That's good enough. Move in."
And they began pushing again. Ash cast the Rocket pokémon a look a pity - he couldn't tell if the Noctowl was breathing - but he kept moving. While the ACE walked right over the sizzling Exeggutor, Ash sidestepped around it, pinching his nose and blinking out the water from his eyes as the noxious vapours of its burn filled the air.
They walked for another half mile until the forest began to thin out and yielded a sweeping expanse of budding wildflowers. Ash stepped out of the dappled sunlight and into the verdant canvas that stretched for miles and miles all around. The intoxicating fragrance of nature and the riot of colours would've made for a beautiful picnic, if it wasn't for the stretching warehouse that rose through the meadow.
It stood like a solitary sentinel against the ethereal backdrop, a black stain on nature's tapestry. Solid grey brick, a dark roof, and a single, iron door that could fit in a Nidoking. Its stoic walls concealed a mystery, but they all knew what it was - Team Rocket.
Ash heard a soft flutter above. Karen's Honchkrow eclipsed the sun and crowed a single, sharp squawk.
With practiced precision, the ACE fanned out, movements fluid and synchronised as they scanned the horizon for any sign of danger. Karen and her team stealthily moved through the tall grass to surround the warehouse, while Lorelei and Bruno closed the distance between them and the warehouse in measured strides with teams B and C.
ACE Frank tugged Ash by the arm, beckoning him away. The rest of Delta Team had already begun taking their position closer to the forest line. "Stick with me, kid."
He made sure to skulk behind Frank and his Rhydon, which eyed him warily. "What's about to happen?" Ash asked in a hush whisper as they watched the ACE approach the warehouse door. The beauty of the meadow had faded into his periphery, his focus solely centred on the mission at hand.
Frank's chubby face broke into a wild grin. "You're going to see two Elites mess these Rockets up," he answered, sounding giddy with anticipation. "You got anymore 'mons apart from that Mismagius of yours?"
"Then send them out!" Frank groaned. His Rhydon rumbled - a sound that Ash could only assume was laughter. "What're you waiting for, kid? New Year's eve?"
Ash's shadow churned angrily. Frank simply scoffed, but he didn't antagonise him any further, although he did continue to stare at Ash imploringly.
"That's the spirit," Frank muttered, when Ash released Delphi, Zeus, Hydrus and Glaceon. He would've released the others, too, but it didn't seem to practical. Snorlax would garner too much attention. Kratos was still getting used to his new body, and he didn't want to tire him out by releasing him. Besides, he didn't want Infernape accidentally starting a fire.
For now, his friends huddled around him, waiting for an order. "We're going to attack the Rockets now, so take your positions," Ash whispered, his eyes shifting from one to the other as he gave them instructions. "Delphi, you're my eyes in the sky. If you see anyone fleeing from the base, alert us. No one can escape."
"Hydrus, guard us," he continued, sighing when the Golduck opened his beak to protest. "Of course, apprehend any Rocket you see - that's a given. But you're the only one with Protect, and that's going to be invaluable to keeping us safe."
Hydrus was a bit mollified at the compromise, and he gave a crisp nod. "Zeus- no pranks!" Ash suddenly snapped, and the Ampharos froze before he could send a lance of static through Glaceon, who hissed angrily back. "Not at a time like this!"
Zeus bleated lowly, and Ash softened with a sigh. "Look, just Thunder Wave the Rockets on the ground, and support Delphi if you see flying away. Glaceon - support them all if they miss anything. And Screecher…" He snorted at his shadow. "You stay put. Got it?"
His team responded with soft cries, and they spread out to cover angles. Delphi teleported into the sky with a sharp pop that made a nearby ACE look over with a glare. Zeus levitated a bit further away, while Glaceon and Hydrus flanked him at either side, and Screecher simply shifted in his shadow to get more comfortable.
"Dang." Frank whistled, folding a blade of grass in on itself. "Maybe you should be in charge, kid."
Ash scowled back. "The name's Ash."
He turned back to the warehouse as Frank sent out a Pidgeot. Bravo Team had spread out, forming a semi-circle as the Charlie Team huddled behind Lorelei and Bruno. The Elites had released pokémon of their own - Lorelei's Jynx and a huge Slowbro, and Bruno's famed Machamp, flanked by his Hitmonlee and Hitmontop. They backed away from their pokémon, nearly twenty feet away, and shouted something as-
With a booming yell, orbs of blue light grew at Bruno's Machamp's four hands. At the same time, a sphere of golden fire hummed at Lorelei's Slowbro's jaws. In one second, they were the size of basketballs. In two, they'd doubled. After the third, there wasn't a point in building up any more energy.
Slowbro's Hyper Beam cleaved through the warehouse door like it was a stick of butter, with a deafening explosion that could've torn the sky apart. It dragged the energy beam across the building, disintegrating the walls in massive swathes.
Machamp threw the Focus Blasts with a flick of its wrists, pulverising any bit of the warehouse's entrance that still remained standing. Debris flew out like missiles and ricocheted against the psychic barriers protecting the Elites and the ACE, while smoke and light splattered across like water against a windshield.
The dust and darkness cleared with a flick of Jynx's hands, unveiling the destruction its comrades had laid upon the warehouse. It had looked like an enormous excavator had dug through the building in a simple swipe of its claw.
Keening sirens shrieked from within the warehouse. Then came muffled screams, terrified and enraged and confused.
The raid had begun.
The Elites flew it without a second of hesitation, swallowed by the darkness and smoke billowing out of the building. Light and heat flew out in chaotic flashes, but their thundering grew more intermitted as the ACE surged further through the building.
The Rockets had presumably sent out pokémon of their own, but their resistance would be futile. They could all hear the din roar of pokémon clashing, and every now and then Hyper Beams tore through the warehouse roof and walls, polluting the beautiful scenery of the meadow with plumes of smoke and a rainfall of burning debris.
"Get ready," Ash heard Frank mumble. He frowned at the ACE through the corner of his eye.
Frank rolled his eyes. "Target practice," he explained, slapping Ash on the back. "What, you think the Rockets are gonna sit tight and take Hyper Beams up their asses? Some of them are going to make a run for it. And we're there to welcome them with closed fists!"
He cackled and rubbed his palms, whistling for his Rhydon's attention, while Ash quickly turned to his own team. "Get ready," he told them, nervous and full of anticipation. Frank was too crass for his liking, but he would absolutely trust the word of an ACE.
And then it happened. As bursts of energy continued to pepper the Rocket base with the carnage of battle, an unspoken warning hung in the air with intangible heaviness. It made the hairs on his arms stand on end. His friends noticed it, too - they hissed and growled uneasily, and he could feel Delphi's worry crawl across his skull like spiders.
Frank's radio suddenly crackled. He frowned, holding it to closer his ear. Ash could hear a fuzzy string of anxious communications through the transceiver, but it was too fast for him to catch anything.
Frank pursed his lips. "Roger that," he snapped back, sounding serious for once. "Delta Team, take defensive-"
Boom! A surge of energy erupted from within the warehouse, blowing it to oblivion as a chain of violent explosions seared the sky in a blinding flash. Ash couldn't make out much through the shield of green that Hydrus' instincts conjured, but when the spots in his eyes faded he could see raging infernos leap from the crumbling fortress, consuming everything in their path in a hungry shockwave of heat, and a violent tremor that made Ash stumble with a panicked yell.
He felt claws tighten against his arm, holding him from falling over. Hydrus' gem blinked with worry, and Ash gratefully grabbed his fuzzy arm back for support. "I'm fine!" he shouted, wincing at the hazy ringing in his ears. His words seemed incredibly soft for the way he was yelling.
But instead of worrying over that, he turned his eyes back onto the chaos. This couldn't have been the ACE's doing - what purpose would annihilating the entire base serve? It had to be a failsafe of the Rockets, but it seemed like a terrible plan.
The sea of grass had turned into a tempest of smoke and fire. Everything was burning, razed to a blackened earth. He could barely see past rows upon rows of flames, billowing and dancing across the blurry plains and wildflowers as the crumbled remains of the warehouse finally began raining down like deadly confetti.
Frank held his radio close and spoke, every word hurried. "Charlie Team, this is Delta! Report, over," he barked, his voice cutting through the cacophony of chaos.
Seconds stretched into eternity. The radio crackled with a flat fuzz.
Frank cursed, blinking as he breathed in burning oxygen. "Charlie Team, do you need reinforcements-"
Then a response came, haggard and ridden with a fit of coughs. No! Delta Team, this is Charlie Actual. Hold your position. The enemy is en route. I repeat, hold your position!
Ash scanned the burning sky for any sign of the Rockets, his heart pounding with adrenaline. Dark shadows twisted in the roiling flames, growing larger and sharper like inhuman phantoms. Shrieks and roars were beginning to ring through the fierce crackle of the wildfire as a relentless drumbeat began to crescendo.
Ash frowned. No, not a drumbeat. A symphony of pounding hooves, wild shrieks, the collective heartbeat of a charging army. A stampede.
Hundreds of pokémon burst through the flames. Some took to the skies, parting the wildfire like fiery curtains as they spread their wings. Others scrambled in a panicked frenzy, a maddened run for survival.
It wasn't just pokémon. There were Rockets, too, hidden behind shimmering ribbons of scorching air. Their black jumpsuits were torn and ripped, littered with burns and embers, but their crimson insignias were unmistakable.
But this wasn't an organised attack. This was unbridled fear and chaotic rage that had sent the Rockets and their pokémon into action. As Ash's gaze swept over the scene, he began to notice the little things. A flailing Doduo disappeared under an avalanche of Graveler. A Golbat tumbling into a Pidgeotto and knocking themselves into the stampede in a heap of wings. A screaming Ursaring breaking through a line of fleeing Vileplume. And the Rockets, screaming and wailing as they were inevitably trampled under the stampede.
Amidst the madness, Ash found a fleeing Rocket grunt - only a few years older than Ash, scared and lost as the surrounding fires made his locks dry and stringy. He hesitated as they locked eyes, and in that moment a Nidorino's horn tore through his chest with a sickening squelch and carried his dying gurgle for the ride.
Delta Team, engage! screamed a voice from Frank's radio, and the ACE responded with swift precision. Their pokémon moved with lightning-speed, releasing a medley of their elemental powers at the Rockets. The Rocket pokémon turned with fury, but they fell faster than they could react, forming mounds and heaps of their unconscious bodies all across the fires.
Rows of stalagmites plowed through the stampede and tossed an Arbok in the air. Lightning bolts cracked the sky and speared flying Golbat. Cones of water tore through a line of Houndoom. Psychic blasts sent a Graveler bowling back into its comrades.
Ash's own team flew into action. He gave them a few orders here and there, but he knew they could handle themselves. Delphi scoured the skies, teleporting to Golbat, Fearow, Murkrow and Noctowl, and spearing them between the wings before they knew it. When there were too many foes in the sky, she caught them in a howling tailwind that had them screeching against the currents, giving Frank's Pidgeot and other ACE fliers the chance to easily pluck them out of the sky.
Zeus picked off any stragglers he could find. His Thunderbolts inspired even more panic amongst the stampede as he sent the Rocket pokémon tumbling back at random. Geysers of dirt tore the air as he flooded the earth with electricity, and convulsing pokémon lay where he struck.
A horde of Graveler and Rhyhorn suddenly roared into view, their earthen hide drinking in the lances of electricity with only a snarl. It gave the pokémon around them a glimmer of hope, but only until a jet of boiling water swept across the ground-types and left their armour soaked and steaming.
Hydrus' screech alerted them to his presence. They spun in his direction in a frenzied daze, watching a globe of swirling water balloon at his claws with the dangerous, crimson hum of his gem. One Graveler rumbled in panic, raising its four arms to trap him in a pyramid of stone - then Ash heard the air whistle, then the sound of shattered glass muffled by a heavy bang as a spear of ice exploded in the Graveler's face.
The others gave way as it rolled to the back, but before Glaceon could spit another Ice Shard at them, the earth trembled, roiled with the movement of something carving through the soil and rock under their feet. Ash took a step back, feeling a million needles caress his skin.
Ash, watch out! he heard Delphi scream into his mind - and then the earth exploded open!
Geysers of soil and stone flew out in every direction, spraying Ash and his team with mud as they dove for cover and, in his panic, Hydrus threw the Surf at the first thing he saw and drenched everything in a deluge of roaring waves. Ash could only hear deafening roars that sounded like rockslides amongst the sudden turmoil that had torn his world apart, and the seismic energy sent him rolling amidst a rain of earth.
"Get up!" someone yelled through the commotion, and then he felt a thick hand pull him up from all fours. Ash stumbled, feeling dirt and grass soil his drenched clothes as he was spun around to face Frank, dirt rubbed into his pores. "You okay?"
He felt his head bob up and down on instinct, despite the ringing in his ears and the blurring edges of his vision. His periphery picked the floating form of Screecher - scared out of his shadows by the tremors - approach him, but Ash glanced back to the ravaged fields to see twin chains of grey stone spinning into the sky.
But the rumbling under their feet hadn't stopped. It boiled and bubbled, a hair-raising warning to everyone in the chaos. The two Onix twisted around each other, toppling to the earth where the Rocket pokémon attempted to crawl and scream out of the ravaged meadow, as a third earthen serpent tore into the open sky, its screech terrible and and rattling Ash's bones.
To call it a Steelix was an injustice. It was gargantuan, larger than Attila's could ever dream to be. When it reared to full height, the grinding of its steel boulders rang out like earthquakes, and it fell upon the land with no regard for the pokémon and Rockets pulverised under its body. The layers upon layers of indomitable metal hide took on a dangerous glow under the burning sky.
But when Ash took a closer look, it looked…different. It's head was wider. Slabs of metal jutted from its jaws. The spikes along its body had turned crystalline, like iridescent diamonds. Ash frowned. He'd seen something like this before, somewhere…
But there was no time to dwell upon half-forgotten memories, as the Steelix thrashed through the sputtering wildfire, crushing Rockets and their pokémon without a care.
The Onix roared at its arrival. At first, Ash thought they were sounds of challenge - but then when they turned, he understood the undertones of fear in their screams as panic made their pupils slit.
The Steelix shifted easily despite its incomprehensible size. Its rainbow spikes glittered in the orange sky as it turned and snaked right towards one of the Onix - and, in one fell swoop, it twisted around the rock snake, constricting it in an unyielding grip. And then, as the Steelix tightened, there was a nexus of thunderbolts - the terrifying sound of the Onix's rocky exterior crumbling under the effortlessly immense pressure of the Steelix's colossal coils.
The other Onix didn't wait to watch as Steelix slackened and let the crushed Onix cascade to the ground, loose and lifeless. It moved with all the swiftness its hasty slithering could provide, but only in vain.
The Steelix sneered. Its scream was a thunderstorm as the tip of its tail, also prismatic, suddenly flashed, glowing hot-white in a half-second, and exploded with a surge of molten light, faster than the Onix could react or even realise. It consumed the back of its fleeing head, blowing the stone crest off its skull, and carved out the entire length of its neck.
The Onix's face was frozen in an eternity of painful shock, its serpentine form shuddering as it tried to cling onto the last threads of consciousness, but it couldn't. It fell to the earth just like its companion, as a lifeless chain of boulders.
Silence, disturbed only by the fires that still rose and dance around the devastation. Steelix watched, triumphant, waiting for a sign of defiance from anyone so that it could lay further waste to the plains.
No one was stupid enough to give it that chance. It turned away, almost with a scowl of disappointment, unintentionally swatting and crushing pokémon in the way as its tail brushed along the earth.
And Ash simply watched in awe, disregarding the dunes of rock and soil and puddles of water all around them. "Was that…?"
Frank simply nodded. "Elite Bruno's," he confirmed, his own eyes carrying a glint of reverence. They watched it burrow back into the earth, dragging the Rockets around it into the tunnel it was disappearing into. "Got no idea why he had to mega evolve it - he's never one to show off. I guess these Rockets must've pissed him off with their shitty self-destruct sequence."
Something impossibly cold rubbed against his leg. Ash nearly jumped out of his skin, but it was only Glaceon, her misty fur matted with dirt and rubble, nose wrinkled in distaste. Behind her was Hydrus, spitting angrily as he walked over, with Screecher not too far behind. "Are you guys okay?"
They murmured tersely. Hydrus inspected his dirty fur and bled a coat of water, spraying a Water Gun wherever it was particularly caked with mud. Screecher tossed rubble from her hat as she fervently shook her head.
"Where's Zeus?" Ash asked - and on cue, he hear an annoyed bleat from behind. His Ampharos climbed over a toppled tree with a huff, hiding a grimace, but the errant swish of his tail betrayed his calm features.
There was only Delphi left to find- and a feathery touch in his mind put it at ease, sharing the the relief that his Xatu projected into his mind.
A crackle of static - but it wasn't from Zeus. ACE Squad, this is Alpha Actual. Come in. Over.
They all turned to Frank, who fished for his transceiver with a fickle frown, opening the lines for communication. "This is Delta reporting," he breathed in. "Over."
We've got a beta-level threat on the fly. Pursue with caution. She's got a Honchkrow.
At that, Ash scanned the skies. He could see the Honchkrow flitting amidst the towers of smoke and weaving through the flames with calculated precision, and perched atop its back was a Rocket dressed in stark white. An executive.
"Roger that," Frank muttered, sheathing his radio. His Rhydon roared, drill spinning as the ACE whistled. His Pidgeot pulled into view, squawking terribly as it caught Frank's eyes for a split-second before giving the escaping Honchkrow a chase.
He heard the Honchkrow's shriek clash against Pidgeot's in a discordant harmony, but Ash turned his focus back to the land where the remaining Rockets and their pokémon stirred, only now realising that the behemoth of a Steelix had sank back into the earth.
They were utterly defeated. Ash couldn't see much amidst the still burning fires and the rolling mounds of excavated earth, and he wasn't sure he wanted to.
It was a massacre. Only a few pokémon - Rhydon, Graveler, a fair amount of Nidorina - had managed to escape relatively unscathed. The rest lay in mangled heaps, their bones and limbs torn and jutting out at awkward angles, while others were squashed into pitiful purees of blood and flesh.
The Rockets were far worse. Several wailed as the ACE pushed in, reaching with burnt arms and groaning for help as they rose from piles of rubble drowning them out of sight. The ACE and their psychics put them to sleep with no remorse, without even deigning them a half glance in their direction.
He wanted to press down upon the well of pity churning in his stomach. He shouldn't have cared for the Rockets! They'd made their choice. This was their bed…But a painful lump made him question his emotions-
And then a bang in the sky caught Ash's attention. Pidgeot had made its mark, with red marring the Honchkrow's snow-white breast as the ACE pokémon struck true, sending it spiralling helplessly towards the forest crowning the battlefield.
Ash could hear the rustle of leaves and swaying of branches as the Honchkrow and its rider broke through the canopy. His mind raced over the executive's fate - the trees must've halted their descent, but only by so much.
Pidgeot shrieked; Frank whistled, beckoning Ash with a snap of his fingers. "Stick with me, kid," he muttered tersely, before speaking into his clicking radio. "This is Delta Frank. The target's in the forest. We're pressing in."
"Let's go!" Ash hissed to his team.
They picked their pace as Frank broke into a slow run, his Rhydon galloping by his side. Its unmistakably thunderous footfalls were deafening to Ash's ears, but it parted through the trees and gave them a clear way through the gnarly roots and branches clawing at the air.
Every step piled onto Ash's already growing curiosity and sense of purpose, guided by the the low cries of a wounded bird, and the faint rustling that emanated from the undergrowth only strengthened his resolve to find the executive - he wouldn't give them even a second to escape-
And then they found them minutes later, tangled amidst the underbrush. The injured Honchkrow, once elegant, now crumpled and broken. The executive, her ripped clothes battered with dirt and mud as she slowly crawled onto all fours with a groan.
"Don't even think about moving," Frank snapped, snarling as he breathed.
And then the canopy was torn open, bursting beams of light onto the grass and shrubbery as Frank's Pidgeot crashed through with a shrill squawk, emboldening his words.
The executive coughed, hissing as she stood on a limp foot.
Frank took a step forward. His Rhydon sneered, its horn beginning to twist. "Return your Honchkrow, now!" he ordered.
She spun with a stumble to face them with half-lidded pupils. Blood dried at the cuts over her face, her crimson hair a singed mess. She licked her split lips, eyes fluttering across the pokémon surrounding her with fading adrenaline - and then they widened and froze as they met Ash's.
"You," she breathed in a shocked growl, plucking a frizzy hair that tickled her nose. "You're the- Ketchum boy."
Ash stiffened. He could feel his team's rage before he heard their growls and snarls when she spoke to him.
"It won't end well for you if you refuse to comply," Frank hissed.
But the Rocket ignored him, just like she ignored her Honchkrow's raspy squawks. Her eyes were reptilian as she stared at Ash, who refused to look away. "You-" She coughed. "You did this."
Frank glanced at him with clenched jaws. "Tell your Ampharos to paralyse her-"
And then he stopped, cut off by sudden snaps and bursts of light that he noticed out of the corner of his eyes a little too late - her pokémon were out in a second.
Pidgeot had already swooped into motion, colliding with the Rocket's Arbok before it could even hiss. They tangled with each other in a fury of venomous fangs, flashing talons, a snapping tail and beating wings - but, despite it all, the serpent was caught in Pidgeot's clutches and thrown into a tree with a ferocious crash, splitting bark in half.
A trilling Heracross took flight at Rhydon, who met its glowing horn with its own. There was a rippling shockwave as the collision sent the both of them flipping to the underbrush, although the Heracross' took flight right as a blade of rock exploded in its place.
A hiss to his right, and Ash turned for a glint to blind him. He felt an icy rush race up his arms and heard the air being sliced, and then a bloodcurdling quack leapt past his shoulders, stopping whatever it was in its path.
Ash's eyes fluttered open. He saw Hydrus interlocking an army of blades with his claws. Only they weren't blades - they were razor-sharp talons, attached to spindly arms that belonged to a slick, dark creature with a crown of blood-red feathers and a collar that matched. The Weavile spat and snarled, the yellow crystal on its forehead shimmering, only for a bolt of lightning to crack into its hip and send it tumbling.
The Weavile recovered quickly. It leapt away from another Thunderbolt that charred the grass in its place. A barrage of icy shards flew out with a swipe of its arms, but Glaceon and Hydrus tore them to pieces with Iron Tails and Psybeams.
Ash looked for the Weavile - he spotted it hanging from a tree, but it disappeared in a flash again as Zeus fired another blast of electricity, already in search for where it had moved to next. His friends weren't going to give it a chance to rest, nor an opening to attack.
In all the chaos of keeping up with the dark-type, Ash noticed another of the Rocket's pokémon amidst the trees - a drowsy yellow fox stretching its tiny claws and yawning, as the redhead executive snapped for it to pay attention.
"Stop!" shouted Frank, his eyes finally catching the Abra as a crackle of psychic energy finally hummed to life, making the grass under its feet stand upright. Pidgeot had already understood - but then the Arbok leapt onto its back, wrapping around the bird as the fell to the ground, and holding its bind even as Pidgeot fluttered against its coils with all its might.
The Rocket met Ash's eyes as she touched the Abra's spine - and a laugh of pure derision broke wrinkles across her face.
And it made Ash's heart burn heavy with nothing but hate. But even as he screamed "Stop her!" to his team, he knew that she was going to tele-
The light behind the Abra began to twist, to thicken into murky clouds that rolled and frothed before thinning out to carve a void of murk in the air. The psychic and its trainer spun and stared, too slow to do anything but watch in silent panic as Screecher rushed out of the portal with a maniacal wail and careened into the Abra without a care.
It was sent flipping across the clearing, its yelp of surprise heard only for the half second before it smashed into a pillar of bark. The Rocket peeled her horrified stare from her crumpled Abra, meeting Screecher's cruel glare with a flinch.
Screecher's necklace fuzzed with static as she loomed over the Rocket with a guffaw, but a jet of black rings suddenly ripped into her neck and gave the Rocket a chance to slip under her Thunder Waves.
Screecher whipped around with a scowl. She ignored the scurrying Rocket as her middle gem shone, but the Weavile had already changed course, filling the grass with clones of itself as the Rocket shrieked, "Get him!"
The illusions moved at once. Dazzling zigzags of electricity struck down several. Glaceon left a trail of white at her heels as she ran through a few, and Hydrus erected a shimmering green Protect that shielded Ash from a lightning-fast volley of Ice Shards.
But then he heard the rustle of grass and the tinkle of metal behind him. A distraction. The Weavile's yowl get louder in his ears, just as a hand painfully shoved him to the ground.
A scream pierced the forest.
Something fell with a wet thump. Ash crawled to his feet on wobbling elbows. The smell of iron crept up his nostrils, but it wasn't of the Weavile's Metal Claws…
For a moment, it was curiosity that made his senses focus. His ears sharpened to a piteous moan, nose scrunching as the coppery tang in the air grew earthy. His eyes followed the splatter of murky scarlet soaking the grass and roots that trailed the forest floor, all the way up to the bloody stump at Frank's elbow and the severed arm down amidst the grass.
Time seemed to freeze as Ash's mind spun. Then Rhydon broke the silence with a roar that was splintered with shock. Pidgeot screamed, twisting free from the Arbok's coils with all the desperation that boiled at the sight of its mutilated trainer.
There was an terrible fury in Rhydon's eyes, something Ash hadn't seen since Infernape had mutilated Giovanni's Golem. Its horn spun into a blur and it lunged at the Weavile with another scream, but it was sent stumbling to the side as the Rocket's Heracross stabbed its flank.
Rhydon brushed off the pain with a snort and caught the bug by its horn before it could fly away. It struggled in the rock-type's claws, but Rhydon only held the Heracross for a second before swinging it right into the jagged tip of a Stone Edge that burst out of the earth.
The Heracross was sent hurtling across the floor, its fractured exoskeleton a bloody mess, but Frank's Rhydon had set its eyes on the Weavile - a dark blur as it leapt from tree to tree, now realising that the ACE's pokémon were out for its blood.
A sonic boom ripped through the sky. The Weavile glanced over its shoulders mid-leap - and Pidgeot rocketed into its back with metallic wings. It shot through the air with a yowl, snapping into a pillar of bark with a thunderous crack that gave Pidgeot the chance to devour it in a flurry of talons.
Unlike Rhydon, Pidgeot had no control. No calm.
It attacked the dark-type with a maddened frenzy that helped it brave through the hurricane of claws. Arterial scarlet sprayed the trees and branches around them. Crimson feathers were torn out as Pidgeot hammered the Weavile into a tree, again and again and again until it snapped and fell amidst its brethren with a rippling groan.
Ash ripped his gaze away. The Arbok was twitching on the ground, but that wasn't what caught his eyes. The Rocket executive was making a run for it, hoping to use the chaos as her chance to escape, even though her twisted ankle wasn't taking her far.
And Rhydon wasn't going to let it take her anywhere. It growled and stomped, shooting a fissure of golden light that burned straight for the executive.
The Rocket glanced back, quickening her pace when she saw the golden crack in the earth racing for her. She was fast on her feet, despite her limp - maybe it was a surge of adrenaline, or simply the fear of imminent death that helped her brace through her injuries.
But the crack of bright energy caught up to her in the end, and the earth splintered. She jumped to the side right as the Earth Power detonated, but it was devastating enough to catch her in the fray, and it sent her soaring into a mossy log like a rag-doll.
She was motionless as she slithered to the ground. Rhydon stepped forward with cold fury - but Frank's weak voice made the creature freeze.
"We need her alive!" he cried, throwing his head back with a grimace as he squeezed his wound tighter.
There was a long, tense pause - but then a guttural growl answered the ACE, and the air loosened.
Pidgeot's visceral squawks continued to echo through the forest, but that wasn't what Ash needed to focus on. "Hydrus, watch over that Rocket! Disable her if she tries anything," he ordered, and he rushed to Frank's side before he could get a response.
It was so much worse when Ash got a closer look. Frank's face was white and covered with sweat. His eyes struggled to stay open. And his wound…It was severed clean at the elbow, drenching the ground with blood while his arm, only a few feet away, fingers twitching with fading death throes.
Panic surged through Ash's veins. Horror and guilt mingled within, and it was too difficult to swallow it. Frank had saved him - but he'd lost his arm in the process.
He fought to keep his composure. He could've give into his despair now! "We need to stop the bleeding," he sputtered.
Frank's laugh fell into a cough. "No shit," he whispered, blinking for a bit too long.
"Do you have first aid?"
Frank glared. "'M not a medic."
"Your radio!" Ash exclaimed, already unclipping the transceiver. "We have to call for help."
It took Frank's help with finding the right button before Ash held the radio to the ACE's mouth with shaking hands. "ACE Squad," Frank slurred, "this is ACE Frank. I'm- hit. Requesting for immediate support. Over."
A voice came through after a few seconds. ACE Frank, this is Delta Team. Hold your position. We'll send reinforcements shortly. Over.
Hot anger surged up Ash and he snatched the radio with a snarl. "His arm's been cut off! We need reinforcements now!"
Static. Then the voice returned. Reinforcements are en route. Send us a beacon.
"Pidgeot!" Frank screamed with the little life he still had.
It arrived in a gust of wind, with sorrow in its soft chirps as it hopped closer and pressed its beak against Frank. "I know, boy," he muttered, a faint smile working its way across his lips. "Help's on its way…But I need you to guide them here."
Courage and determination filled the bird's eyes. It leapt into the air, gently flapping its wings and squawked something angry to Rhydon, who was lumbering towards Frank, before flying through the gaping hole in the canopy.
Ash looked back to Frank as the bird disappeared. "Screecher, bring me Delphi!" Ash cried, and the Mismagius warbled as she took off past the trees. Frank's wound continued to stain the grass, with little sign of stopping.
Frank caught him looking. He winced, snorting morosely. "Yeah…It's- It's bad."
Ash chewed his lips. "There has to be something we can do," he urged, his mind racing. "We could- I could tie it up to stop the bleeding-"
"Like a tourniquet," Frank murmured. His eyes were beginning to glaze. "Yeah…Yeah. We can do that."
"I don't know what a tourniquet-"
"I'll teach you," the ACE breathed quickly. He groaned and sat up straighter in Ash's trembling hands. "First, hold my arm up. It'll slow the bleeding."
"Okay," Ash said, ignoring the blood trickling down his fingers as he grabbed the stump. "What's next?"
Frank's face twisted for a moment. "A cloth," he spat through gritted teeth. "Get the sleeve from my arm. That'll do."
"Zeus, help me keep his arm raised," Ash called. Zeus began moving over, but suddenly Rhydon roared protectively, pounding its claws in the earth, its eyes filled with warning. Zeus bleated back, and although Ash held out his arm for him to stop, he still kept the anger on his face for the Rhydon to see.
"Stand down," Frank yelled. Rhydon blinked, moving back with a mollified rumble, although it followed Ash's with a sour glare as he crawled to the torn arm on the forest floor.
He stared at Frank's arm for a moment, sitting in a pool of crimson, gulping as he grappled with the morbidity of it all. This was too much for him - how was he going to undress a severed limb? His stomach bubbled, and the stench of blood and bone made his head swim.
Ash exhaled slowly, drawing on the depths of his courage as he squinted and held Frank's arm in place by the fingers. With his other hand he grabbed the frayed end of the sleeve, slowly tugging it off, hoping that his squeals and yells would help him brave through the task.
Then he felt his arm fly out, yielding the cloth free. His hands trembled, but he quickly positioned himself besides Frank, whose half-lidded eyes rolled in their sockets.
"Hey, hey - eyes on me," Ash stammered, stretching the sleeve as tremors ran through his nerves. Frank hummed. "You need to tell me how to do this thing, remember?"
Right then, the air cracked. Pure instinct took over Ash as he whipped around, but he was relieved to see Delphi landing softly, her snowy wings folding over herself. His Xatu looked worried, but when she saw Ash cradling Frank, it had turned to full-blown panic.
Rhydon's horn twisted at her arrival, but Ash shut it down quickly. "She's mine!" His snarl cut through its bellow, and the rock-type drew back with a sullen swish of its tail.
How can I help? Delphi asked, levitating over to Ash and Zeus.
Frank winced, pain etched across his features, but he found to resolve to keep instructing Ash. "Wrap it around my arm. Keep the pressure even. It- it needs to be as tight as it can."
Ash held the cloth, ready to knot it around his wound, but Frank spoke again. "Get- get me a stick. Thick enough that it won't snap. It'll help with the tightening."
Ash shared a look with Delphi. Her wing had already flicked out, shooting a scythe of wind at a branch, and a thick shard of wood fell out. Delphi's eyes flashed, and a blue glow caught the stick and carried it to Ash's hands.
"Okay," Frank gasped, sitting up straighter as Ash and Zeus held him at the ready. "Okay. Ready?"
Ash nodded, ignoring the spurt of blood on his tactical vest.
"Just- just wrap it first." He folded it around the wound with Delphi psychically helping him maintain the pressure, glancing at Frank for the next step. "Good. Now place the stick down the middle. Yes, between the folds. Now…Now tie a knot over it, and then twist it around- W-Wait!"
Ash sent him a frown, but Frank returned with a sheepish smile. "Sorry - I need to brace myself." He gulped. "This is going to hurt."
He steeled himself with a sharp breath, and Ash took it as the signal to make the knot.
With trembling hands, he secured it in place, twisting and tugging it as tight as he could, and Frank screamed.
Rhydon leapt closer, snorting with worry as Frank sagged in Ash's lap. "I'm fine, really," he whispered after a moment, giving his pokémon a shaking thumbs-up, but it wasn't very convinced.
He turned to Ash, with teary eyes and trembling lips as his chest rose and fell with ragged breaths. The fabric bit into his wound, its pressure a painful reminder of his consciousness. "Thank you."
Ash didn't say a word. The adrenaline had left him, and he sat back into his heels as he caught his breath.
He looked up to the sound of a fluttering cloak - it was Screecher. "Hey," he mumbled, his lips twitching as she got closer and chirped warmly, nuzzling against his face in a feeble attempt to cheer him up.
But his eyes wandered across the forest, hesitating for a second too long on the detached limb that still bled on the grass. Delphi stared too, and her eyes flashed.
What can we do with his arm?
Ash chewed his lips. He stole a glimpse of Glaceon, circling the unconscious Arbok, and the gears in his head began to turn. She perked up at his whistle, glancing warily at the snake at her feet, but answered him with a question on her face.
"I need you to keep that- that arm cold," Ash told her, licking his teeth. "Can you do that for me?"
"Wha…What the hell are you doing with my hand?" Frank stammered, frowning as he watched Glaceon recoil as she sniffed his limb.
"We can save it," Ash told him. "Until help arrives. Glaceon will keep it cold. That'll preserve it, right?"
But Frank shook his head. "There's no point. It's…"
He looked away, jaws clenched and eyelids fluttering.
Ash frowned. "We have to try."
Frank pursed his lips, wanting to say something waspish, but he decided against it. "Then you need something that separates it from the ice - like bandages, or whatever."
"Some cloth?" supplied Ash.
"Yeah. Like I said, you can't let it make direct contact with ice." His jaws trembled with a bitter smile. "But we're not exactly at a laundry here."
But Ash had already stopped listening. He rose to his knees, hands flying across his tactical vest as he searched for the mechanism for it to loosen. "Where the hell is it…"
He found it after several red herrings, and it expanded with a hiss, and he quickly shrugged his jacket off and pulled off his black tee, exposing his chest and back to the hot wind. It was drenched in sweat, but it was the only thing he could use for what he wanted to pull off.
Frank scoffed when he realised what Ash was up to. "You're not short on lifesaving ideas, huh, kid?"
Ash hid a snort. "Delphi, help me put it in here," he said, whipping the air with his tee. Blue coated the arm with a twitch of her wings, and she carefully slid it through the hole in his shirt.
"Make sure it's tied tight," Frank called, and Ash nodded. He'd gotten over his morbidity over the entire situation, but it was still awkward trying to wrap such a burly arm in his shirt.
In another minute, he was done knotting it at the hem and the neck hole, and he snapped his fingers for Glaceon. "Alright, girl - just cover it with Icy Wind. Not too cold! We don't want to freeze it over, okay?"
Glaceon chittered with understanding, but she was nervous as she approached it. She took one sharp inhale, and then breathed - gently, softly, like Ash would when faced with a spoonful of hot soup. A frosted mist enveloped the arm, crawling across the cloth like spiders as her arctic breath worked its wonder, until a thin sheen of frost had encrusted it whole.
He didn't know how well it would preserve the arm's vitality, but Ash was satisfied with Glaceon's precision. "Good job."
He would've petted her, but he didn't want to paint her icy pelt with dried blood…and by her distasteful sniffs, she preferred that too.
Sighing, Ash leaned back into the forest floor. With his jacket discarded to the side, he felt almost naked with only the vest on. And with the hot air beating against him despite sweat rolling down his skin, he didn't think he could wait for the ACE any longer.
"I hope your Pidgeot gets back soon," Ash muttered, easing the painful silence. He saw Frank perk up, lifting his head off the grass to nod with all his strength.
He snorted as Rhydon nuzzled his face and whined as best as a creature of its stature and appearance could. "He will," he whispered after a long, drawn-out sigh, and it was clear that even those two words were a struggle to speak.
They fell back into silence that was marred only by the rustling leaves and Frank's laborious breaths. Ash's eyes danced across the expanse of trees with boredom, from the still branches, to the dappled sunbeams-
And then to a flicker of movement.
Ash blinked. His gaze focused.
A lone figure ran amidst the verdant hues, cloaked in white, and Ash rose to his feet as disbelief and recognition surged. A Rocket executive!
"Someone's on the run," Ash growled, his hand instinctively moving to tighten his tactical vest.
Frank stirred. "What's that?" he mumbled, pushing away from Rhydon's licks against his face.
"Screecher, stand guard," Ash ordered. His ghost spun at his command, but she murmured her understanding and moved closer to Frank. "The rest of you, with me!"
A grunt of confusion escaped Frank as he rolled onto his good arm to get a better look at Ash. "Hey, hold- hold on."
Ash spun on his heels, impatience burning in his chest. The rest of his team had already assembled by him, waiting for him to lead the way.
"A Rocket admin's on the run," he explained hurriedly. "We need to stop them!"
Frank's eyebrows narrowed. "No." He scowled. "We wait until the ACE arrive. They'll be here in a minute at most-"
"By then, that Rocket will escape." Ash licked his teeth in distaste. He glanced to the distant trees, watching the figure fade in and out of sight. "Look, we're wasting time!"
"Look, you're in no position to purse them," Frank said, grimacing. "They could be a beta-level threat, or an alpha at best. I mean, you saw what happened against that one!"
He cast a disgusted glare at the redhead Rocket slumped amidst the shrubbery, and then his clothed arm near his feet.
A torrent fought within Ash. He understood Frank's desperate plea veiled behind a tapestry of concern. To stay, to be by his side while they waited for the ACE to rescue them, and he couldn't help but feel a pang of guilt for what Frank had had to go through to keep him safe.
But deep within his soul, a fiery ember of justice burned, ignited by painful memories of what Team Rockets had done to him. They flashed past his eyes, again and again and again-
-Atlas' broken wings-
-Oak clawing at his cage-
-his mother sobs when no one was around, thinking that her sons wouldn't hear them-
"Kid. Ash," Frank remarked, snapping him out of his stupor. "I can't let you go after them. If something happens to you-"
But Ash growled, his mind already made up, and he silenced Frank with a groan of frustration. "I won't let them get away!" he snarled, and he leapt into a run.
Frank's cry of "Ash!" had faded into the distance. All he could hear now as his feet raced was the crunch of twigs and dry grass underfoot, and the pounding feet and beating wings of his team around him.
The trees blurred past them, but Ash had eyes only for the Rocket. He leapt past every root, hissed past every branch that whipped his shoulders. His lungs burned as he gasped for air, but the memories of his pain and suffering flashed again, taunting him. There was nothing that would allow him to let the executive escape.
The Rocket was so close now. His silhouette grew larger as their paths converged, and Ash felt his rage finally reach its limit. His mind whirled with the thought of what to say, but all he could say was, "Stop!"
"I said stop!" Ash shouted, his scowl deepening when the Rocket continued to run.
A scythe of wind flew out from Delphi's wings with a squawk and exploded into a tree at the Rocket's feet. Bark splintered out as the tree groaned; the Rocket flinched to a halt, and so did Ash.
"You're not getting away this time," Ash hissed between pants, a dangerous smile on his face as he shook his head.
The executive turned - but, to Ash's surprise, he wasn't a Rocket, not really. What he'd mistaken for the signature admin garb was actually a coat - a scientist's coat - tattered, frayed, burnt. There was no Rocket insignia, not even a hint of crimson, apart from a spray of scarlet over scorched fabric.
Something else caught Ash's attention - a case of metal, held tight against the scientist's coat. There was nothing spectacular about it, but they way it was clutched in blackened fingers and gritty nails told him that the man would probably kill him without thinking twice for its safety.
The scientist didn't seem to be like many others of his profession, though. He was a bit gaunt and soulless, but despite the weariness etched on his face, he still moved with an air of authority and arrogance. The mop of brown hair on his thin head was barely tousled even in the aftermath of his desperate run. His glasses were cracked, sitting too low down his nose, but he stared at Ash with a hint of a frown in spite of the impairment.
"I know it's hot," began the scientist, pushing up his glasses, "but I think it'd be better if you wore more than just this…glorified tank top."
He waved his hands with a sharp smirk, but Ash was not amused. "Shut up, Rocket scum."
The scientist blinked. Frowned. "What makes you think I'm 'Rocket scum'?"
"Then what the hell are you doing here?" Ash sneered, his voice dripping with accusation.
The scientist smiled a dry grin. "Wrong place, wrong time?"
Ash growled. His face contorted with disdain. "Zeus, Thun-"
"There's no need for that!" exclaimed the scientist, watching Zeus' glowing tail warily. He took a step back, and Ash took a step forward, so he cleared his throat and straightened the torn hems of his coat. "I've been rude. And I apologise. But, I assure you, I am no 'Rocket scum'."
Ash resisted the urge to chew his lips. The lack of a crimson R supported his claim. Maybe he wasn't a Rocket through and through…but there had to be a connection.
Ash's curiosity got the better of him. The scientist wasn't going anywhere - it was five against one. It wouldn't hurt to ask a few questions of his own before Lorelei and Bruno threw the scientist into a hole.
"So who are you, then?"
The scientist straightened his glasses. "I'm Gideon. A…liaison. A trader. Whatever you want me to be…as long as you've got the right amount."
Ash ignored the twinkle in Gideon's eyes. "So you work for them," he guessed.
"I work for the highest bidder," Gideon corrected.
"And what did the highest bidder want?" asked Ash swiftly, looking pointedly at the box of metal in his hands.
And at that, Gideon's expression hardened, a mixture of defiance and something darker flickering in his eyes. "It doesn't matter," he said, voice full of warning. "Because they just blew up - thanks to you and your ACE friends."
Ash stayed silent. It was clear that Gideon wasn't willing to part with his package, whatever it was.
Gideon cut the silence. He sighed and leaned forward, but when Hydrus roared at the shift of his feet he stopped. "Let's not be rash," he quipped. "After all, now that there's no business for me to conduct…shouldn't you let me be on my way?"
"No," Ash spat swiftly, quelling his friends' furious noises with a wave of his hand, but their cries only soothed to growls and hisses.
Gideon frowned, his glasses askew again. "That's going to be a problem-"
"For you," Ash said easily, and he felt his confidence bloom. "I've got my friends with me."
The air to his left ionised and turned chilly at his right. Even Delphi shrieked in agreement, too angry to be collected.
Their standoff hung between them, thick with tension. Ash could tell through Gideon's eyes - frantic, thin, flickering in the light - that he was calculating a way out of this mess…but there wasn't.
Still, the defiance on his face allowed only a sliver resignation, as he hissed a sigh through clenched jaws. "I'm only offering my advice because you are a child," he warned, voice dangerously soft. "Don't be a hero. If you make me an enemy, your age won't stop me from killing you."
Suddenly power flooded the area. Hydrus' scream silenced them all, his anger no longer reigned by his gem, tail whipping with the same ferocity - and a fractal of psychic energy burst forth with a boom, barrelling into Gideon's shoulder, and sent him flipping with a scream.
"Hydrus!" Ash cried, slapping his Golduck's wrist as Gideon hit the grass with a painful snap.
Hydrus glared back - but the raw fury in his scarlet eyes dimmed as he met Ash's gaze. There was a quiver as he looked away, sniffing with stubborn shame as the blinding shine of his gem slowly began to dull.
He would've said something if it wasn't for the screams and groans from the other side of the clearing. Ash turned to Gideon, watching him rise to his knees with pursed lips, but he didn't go forward to help.
"You…" Gideon's breaths came in sharp and ragged. He leaned on one arm - the other dangled at an unnatural angle, and the flash of jagged bone made Ash hiss.
"You broke my arm," he mumbled meekly to Ash, as is trying to get past his own disbelief - but when his gaze spun to Hydrus, his words were alight with venom. "You- You broke my fucking arm!"
"He didn't mean it!" Ash glanced at Hydrus, who sneered at Gideon with unapologetic eyes. "But- But you threatened us," he added quickly, getting on the defensive . "Did you think my friends would take that lightly?"
Gideon said nothing. He was stuck staring at his mangled bone, in half disbelief, half shock.
Then his eyes flashed to Ash. Wide, full of calculated fury, but tempered with reluctant compromise and a dash of fear. "You- You can still get out of this," he gasped, staggering to his feet as he held his arm tight against his side. "I don't even know who you are- but, but-" He licked his lips, wiping his cheek with his shoulder. "If you let me go, I won't care to find out. I won't come after you. I- I'll even turn a blind eye to this…transgression."
Ash let his scowl in the open. Did Gideon really think he was that naïve? "Do you really think you have a choice?" he exclaimed, scoffing as he stormed forward.
"I'm Ash Ketchum," he yelled. "From Pallet Town. Now that you know who I am, there's no way out for you without your surrender. And I'll take it by force if I have to - because even if you're not a Rocket…you're still a piece of shit for working with them."
His heart drummed against his chest with his words. He expected Gideon to scream, to snarl with animalistic rage and quiver with trepidation, or even fill the silence with strings of expletives.
But Gideon had frozen. His eyes were wild, face white, crooked arm swinging idly by his burnt coat, pain forgotten.
It was almost a whisper. Like he was seeing a ghost. It made Ash more than a little uncomfortable as he stood there, searching for even a sliver of coherence in Gideon's movement, trying to understand what was going on in his unhinged mind.
A flicker of unease tingled in the air as the moment stretched.
"Ketchum, like Red Ketchum?" Gideon hurried, his words lowering into a guttural rumble.
That threw him for a loop. What was he- Why was Gideon bringing Red of all people into this?
Ash wasn't going to respond - but Gideon had his answer. "You're his brother," he murmured, voice ruined by tremors of realisation.
Ash tensed, scowled in defence. "What does that have to do with-"
"Everything!" Gideon barked, and he returned Glaceon's growl with one of his own. "It has everything to do with this!"
The forest stood still.
"Ketchum," Gideon muttered with bitter scorn. "The Champion's Heir - isn't that what they called him? The people of Kanto thought he was going to lead Indigo into a new age."
He spat at the ground, face full of revulsion. "But all he was was a holier-than-thou coward who gave two shits about no one but himself."
Ash's cheeks burned. "Shut up about my brother," he snapped out of familial instinct, but Gideon paid him no heed.
Gideon recoiled, as if Ash's demand had disgusted him, as bitter memories crawled through the splinters of his facade. "Why?" he breathed. "He- he stripped me of my reputation and credibility. Destroyed my ambitions and dreams. Reduced me to- to this," he hissed, hot tears burning his eyes as he looked over himself with self-loathing. "To working with the likes of Rockets- for scraps!"
Ash's mind spun. Struggled to process Gideon's scathing words. What the hell was he talking about?
But he refused to falter under the weight of Gideon's vitriol. "You made the choice of working with the Rockets," he shot back after collecting himself, finally finding something to say, but Gideon simply sneered.
"Just like your brother," he hissed, brushing the tears from his slitted eyes. "Standing there, all righteous and indignant. But he's got blood on his hands, yes," he suddenly snapped, his pupils now black holes. "So much, I'm sure he remembers! Oh, I'm sure he remembers Green's, because I do - yours might be next-!"
"I said shut up!" Ash repeated, his balled fists hot. Where the hell were the ACE? Frank must've told them to find him! "Or else when my friends hurt you again, I won't stop them!"
Just give me the word, Delphi begged, and the rest of them rumbled in agreement. She was visibly shaking, and twigs and dirt levitated around her as she exhaled.
But a cruel smile curled upon Gideon's lips despite the threat. The tears had gone, leaving his eyes red and raw. "You know," he said, licking his lips, "I never really got to exact my revenge. There was always something, someone taking the fall for Champion Red Ketchum. I'm proud to admit those losses broke him…But they were never too important to keep him from rebuilding.
"But you!" Gideon laughed, a bitter sound that betrayed a forgotten anger. "You've made me believe in fate! You will pay the price for your brother's sins. Right here, right now. Perhaps then dear old Red will truly understand the ruin he brought upon me-"
"Disable him," Ash said, wrath staining his trembling voice, and a beam of crimson flew from Hydrus' gem with an instinctive surge of anger.
He fought to keep a check on his emotions, but if Gideon spoke another word he feared he'd lose it all.
Gideon stood paralysed, his veins bulging against a prison of scarlet, but Ash couldn't look at him any more without his mind swimming. Whatever he'd said had forced a whirlwind within him. Confusion, anger, an insatiable thirst for answers - but he knew that getting them from Gideon would only make things worse.
What the hell was he talking about? Why him? Why Red?
Red…Red had all the answers. Once he was out of this damned forest…Ash would get them from him. He deserved to know. Needed to! And this name, this- this Green- he'd heard it back in the Viridian Gym, Red himself had cried it out- what did that have to do with Gideon?
A soothing gust of cold wind brushed the tip of his fingers. He looked down upon Glaceon's worried eyes, her ears flat against her head as she nudged his leg with a whine.
He managed a trembling nod, but Glaceon was less than convinced. Even Delphi joined in, her fierce eyes now soft with worry. Stay calm. We're with you, she murmured with a wave of worry, but Ash could feel her previous fury slips through the cracks.
He took her words with little comfort, rubbing his face with exhaustion. "Let's take him in," he muttered. "We've spent too much time out here. If the ACE can't find us…" He sighed, biting his teeth in frustration. "Well, we just have to find them."
Ash whistled for Hydrus, who snorted for him to continue. "Keep him disabled while I search him. We don't know what he might have up his sleeve."
He definitely didn't want Gideon to show off any surprises when he handed over his custody to the ACE. They'd already suffered one injury too many…
Ash growled those thoughts away and focused on the ones at hand. Anything he found on Gideon's person…Pokéballs, weapons - hell, he'd relieve him of even a pack of gum if he had it. He could already see the silvery box nestled in dirt by Gideon's feet, almost hidden by the blades of grass crowning it.
Gideon's eyes bugged as Ash got closer. It wasn't because of the agony running through his broken bone, or the humiliation of being helpless. His rigid features tightened as best they could when Ash picked the box with a smirk.
It glinted in the light, and Ash made sure Gideon got a look of it held tight in his palm. "You're not getting this back," he hissed, grinning when he saw the cords in Gideon's neck tighten.
It was too wide to fit into his pockets, but it wasn't like he was going to lose it in his own hands. "Does he have anything else on him?" Ash asked Delphi.
Her eyes flashed.
Pokéballs in his left pocket, he heard her say after a moment, and he delved into Gideon's coat. Soon enough, his fingers closed around a clutch of minimised pokéballs that he tossed back for Delphi to catch.
There's something else in his right, Delphi said, and Ash glanced at her questioningly.
She looked embarrassed. I…don't know what to call it.
Ash stifled his loathing as he rummaged through Gideon's coat again. Even being near the man filled him with disgust, and it wasn't just because of the earthen scent of his mutilated arm.
Then he breathed in relief as his fingers struck something. Thin and plastic, cold to touch. Curiosity piqued, he fished it out, but a frown flickered across his face as he realised what it was.
A flip-phone of all things?
Ash figured it made sense for a criminal like Gideon to use something as cheap and outdated as a flip-phone for communicating. He didn't think Gideon was sitting on mountains of money to afford a pokégear or a pokénav, if he had to resort to selling to the Rockets for a living.
"Were you going to call for some Rocket backup with this?" he taunted, wagging it by Gideon's glasses.
Gideon - of course - was silent, but Ash could hear the chagrined wrath that roared in his exhale.
Ash turned away with a scoff. He'd had his fun - it was time to regroup. Delphi would help them find their way back…
He whistled for his team, giving the flip-phone a spare glance as he tossed it in his hand. He hadn't seen one in a long time, and it did look ancient - worn and yellowed, its enamel coat scratched off at the corners.
On instinct, Ash snapped the flip-phone open, watching the screen flicker to life with a sharp, blue glow.
Then it exploded.
Well it didn't really explode, but the brilliant flare of light that burst from its screen did make it seem like that. It caught all of them off-guard - Delphi's wings launched her a foot in the air, and the string of light from Hydrus' gem broke in a shocked quack. But instead of burning Ash's flesh off, the energy twisted into the sky and coalesced into a toy bird of magenta and baby blue.
A Porygon- no, a Porygon2, Ash corrected when he noticed its smooth, bulbous frame. It materialised with a cacophony of electronic chirps and whirrs, pupils dilating to size as it scanned the forest with confusion.
Then its eyes turned to it back, where Gideon lay sprawled on the ground on his good arm, and they slitted.
The Porygon2 locked onto him. A trio of orbs ballooned at its oval bill, but Ash's team rallied to his side as they exploded into energy beams. Zeus cancelled the flare of electricity with a Thunderbolt. A ripple of frost consumed the air as Glaceon's Ice Shard intercepted an icy ray. Hydrus leapt with flashing claws, extinguishing the spray of fire with a focused jet of water.
Ash crawled away on his rear. Delphi zoomed in front of him, shrieking as a psychic wave rippled from her in a snap of her wings and rushed straight for the Porygon2. It turned and blinked, seconds away from pain, but for some reason it didn't look worried.
His doubts were answered when black tiles flashed across the Porygon2, sweeping along its shell like a wave, and the psychic blast dissipated just as it touched creature's bill.
And then it hit him like a train - Conversion! Or 2, he couldn't tell the difference now - but that technique had changed its type and rendered it immune to psychic energies.
Which now meant it was probably a dark-type - and Hydrus was ready to put that to the test.
With a piercing screech, blue wisps flew from his claws and formed a crackling mass of light. The Porygon2 turned without so much as a care, but it was knocked out of the sky by frozen shrapnel before it could even begin changing again.
The Porygon2 twisted to a stop, eyes blinking out glitches, only to be blown into a tree by a Focus Blast. It skipped across the grass with another whirr, while Ash caught Gideon scrambling for something.
Buttons of red spotted a circle of ground. They popped to size as Gideon snatched them, and a bolt of dread cut through Ash.
A string of flares blinded him, and when Ash's vision returned he saw Gideon's pokémon poised to attack. An Electrode, a Gallade, a Mr Mime, but he didn't immediately recognise the remaining two. One looked like a mix between a snake and a bird, its reptilian head covered in red and green scales, while the feathers along its wings and body were tawny with blue accents. The other was gigantic dragonfly nearly six feet long, its scales a rich green and spotted crimson, eyes blood-red, and its buzzing wings tipped scarlet. He knew it was the evolved form of Yanma, but its name was lost to him in that moment.
The Yanma-thing - was it Yanmega? - produced a shockwave in a single beat of its wings, sweeping Hydrus away as he pounced at it. Gideon's Gallade exploded into view by Zeus, who parried its blades with an Iron Tail, and his snake-bird hissed and spat as it took off running.
His team didn't miss a beat, but Ash quickly realised that they were fighting on uneven grounds. The snake-bird gouged silver chunks of rock from the earth and threw it at Delphi with a snarl, but in her haste to avoid it she flew right in the Porygon2's path and teleported away just in time.
Ash primed a pokéball as he saw the Mr Mime trick Glaceon into taking the Electrode's Thunderbolt. Then he readied two more as Hydrus fended off the Yanmega's fangs while the Gallade teleported to him.
Kratos and Infernape leapt into battle, hissing and barking. Snorlax was slower to respond, but Ash trusted him to not dawdle. Regardless, the sight of him was enough for Gideon to blanche and step back - but it rejuvenated the others and the tide began to turn.
Infernape breathed fire into the world with a brilliant Flamethrower, and the Yanmega sprang away from Hydrus with a pained screech as it was wrapped in embers and heat.
Kratos lunged at the feathery raptor as it pounced at Glaceon and rammed a glowing pincer across its jaw with a resounding crack that sent it sailing away. It snapped to its feet with a shake of its head in seconds - but a frenzied lance of electricity burst from Zeus' tail and flooded it with burning agony.
Snorlax wasn't having that great of a start - the Gallade teleported as quickly as it raked him with its blades, but Delphi came to his aid. She whipped a ghostly hurricane with a beat of her wings, disrupting the Gallade's psychic abilities before it could teleport away again - and Snorlax pinned it to the ground under a swathe of ice and mist.
It took only a moment for Gideon's pokémon to realise that this wasn't going to be as easy as they thought. Growling and scowling, they regrouped, inspecting their bruises with one eye on their foes.
Gideon shifted behind his pokémon, pushing his glasses into his face. "Gallade, get me out of here," he ordered, seeming a lot more confident now that he was separated from Ash and his team.
But Ash wasn't having that. "Hey!" he boomed, his voice cutting over the sharp implosion of Gallade teleporting towards its trainer. "Are you really going to leave without this?"
The metal case shone as he held it up in the air. Gideon blinked, and the Gallade hesitated as his eyes narrowed. "Bring it to me."
Crack! The air to Ash's right vanished as Gideon's Gallade took its place. Its raised arm lengthened and sharpened into a blade that would've hacked his hand off- if a whirlwind of vacuum hadn't drove into the horn in its chest and blown it off its feet.
His friends' roars and shrieks drowned out the thud of Gallade spinning into a tree - and Gideon's team joined them, the battle resumed.
Ash ducked under the volley of attacks and ran for cover. Fire and lightning roared past thickets, scattering splinters and cinders across the clearing. Psychic waves rang out in booms as they clashed while the snarls of their pokémon dared to cut through the din cacophony of battle. With his back pressed to bark, Ash couldn't tell what was going on-
He stole a glance from behind his tree - Gideon's pokémon were hopelessly outmatched. It filled him with savage satisfaction - and maybe some pride, too. Infernape leapt from tree to tree as he gave the Yanmega chase, spitting fireballs that set branches alight. The Yanmega shot Sonicbooms to throw him off its tail, but Infernape was made for this - his nimble grace, muscled arms, even his tail swung him off branches as the Yanmega twisted past the canopy in a desperate escape.
The sky thundered. Delphi flashed into existence amidst the leaves without a warning, twirling into a corkscrewing descent that shattered Yanmega's back and rendered it momentarily flightless as it clawed the air.
But it was enough. The branch snapped under the force of Infernape's jump and he crashed into the the bug's underbelly, engulfing it in the inferno that wreathed him. Its screams were shrill even through the flames' roars, but they extinguished into a dry croak as it tumbled against a skyscraper of thorny branches in its plummet.
Gideon returned it before it hit the earth, adding another member to his fallen pokémon. Electrode was already hissing between scorched grass, its explosion absorbed by Hydrus' Protect - and the others were struggling to weather the onslaught.
The bird - clearly a rock-type - broke into another sprint, but Zeus never gave it the chance to take flight. His Thunderbolts either forced it away, or cracked into its wings with expert marksmanship. Ash didn't know how many more it could take - but he hoped it wasn't more than another.
While Snorlax and Glaceon froze the Gallade within a glacier, Hydrus bled dark shadows into the Mr Mime with his claws, and Kratos blew his pincers into the Porygon2's shimmering protect with an unwavering determination to break it down, Ash found the moment to step out of his cover.
His eyes found Gideon past a stray flicker of lightning. Anxious, angry, his glasses now askew and his coat shrugged down one shoulder. No longer the confident and arrogant man he'd been in the beginning.
But then the baleful wrath returned when he caught Ash's gaze. His shoulders pinched, lips parted as he cried something, and then the ground fractured at the rock bird's stomps.
Trees groaned as the forest floor was shredded, sending earthen plates snapping into the open.
Zeus soared higher upon his electromagnetic plane, grumbling as sprays of muck and dirt came close, while Delphi and Infernape shot for the trees again. Glaceon leapt to Hydrus as a globe of emerald energy shielded them from the seismic waves - but the magnitude slammed Ash, Snorlax and Kratos flat on their backs.
His mind spun as he hit the ground. His throat curdled as he rolled to all fours, hands clawing past gnarly roots and crumbled rock in a search for something stable.
Dread filled him- then determination as his hands flailed to find it even though his vision hadn't fully sharpened. When it did - a second later - he saw an unmistakable metallic glint bulging through a mound of soil, and he pounced to snatch it-
And then his hand was nearly cleaved off when a wall of psychic light slammed into existence, scooped the mud and flicked the case into Gideon's hands like a hockey puck.
Or would've- a scythe of wind cut through the air and blew the projectile off-course. Gideon turned to the source, as did his Mr Mime, rumbling with shock and fury as Kratos stepped over Gideon's unconscious raptor with a war cry.
He shattered a barrier thrown his way without so much as a huff, ducking under a stray flicker of lightning that Porygon2 evaded. Another barrier, this one head-butted through, and the Mr Mime changed tactics. Sharp flames billowed at its fingers, but Kratos simply sneered at the challenge.
He didn't move as Mr Mime charged, Fire Punches reared - simply raised his pincers that snapped open and whoosh! Twin torrents of pure nothing roared out in a flash and swept over the psychic's fists, blowing it to the floor. The flames didn't hold for a second - faster than a split-second, they were suckered into themselves with a soundless pop.
Mr Mime blinked, closing and opening its fists until the flames returned, and so did its glower. It rose, charged, and this time Kratos let it get closer.
Kratos ducked under the first swing, hissing at the heat, but he rocketed a fearsome punch into the Mr Mime's chest. The blow was softened by a reflexive barrier, but it was still powerful enough to bowl the psychic over.
Silver flashed across his pincers, and Kratos struck again - once in the shoulder, and then across its face, and Mr Mime was sent flipping into a fallen tree. It rose, scowling with a bruised cheek, but the Scyther gave it no chance. His claw clamped into its shoulder with a snap and clenched until blood spurted.
Ash looked away from the screams.
Instead he turned to a distraction. He couldn't let Gideon get his hands on the box. His eyes flew across the ravaged earth, over and under broken branches and littered logs, until he found the crumpled remains of ruptured lead cradling a-
He couldn't call it anything else, because that's what it was - just a shard of something rough and uncut, grey and duller than even an everstone. It could've easily gone unnoticed if it wasn't for Gideon eyeing it like it was the world's biggest diamond.
Despite that hurricane of energies flickering past the skies, Ash couldn't help but feel disappointed. Were the stakes really this low?
But Gideon ran for the rock, a mad, desperate gleam in his eyes, and it made Ash's blood rush. "Hydrus!" he cried, and his Golduck spun around with a glare.
Ash pointed at the stone. "Get it!"
Gideon turned white at the sight of Hydrus' crimson gem. "Don't, you fool!" he screeched, and even Delphi's sudden presence in his mind screamed warning - but Hydrus' psychic powers had already caught the rock in an iron grip.
The rock shot into the air for a moment, outlined in a blue glow - and then it changed. Its grey shell disintegrated, burnt away by a radiant brilliance of fiery orange that rippled across its surface.
Then everything went pear-shaped.
The air puckered. Then it grew heavy with electricity, crackled with an impending force that sent static down Ash's spine as pressure built within the gem - then it rushed out through veins of blinding heat in a burst of sheer intensity that shook the forest's foundation.
Shattered debris flew out with the expanding shockwave. Ash's ears nearly burst, his eyes tumbled in their sockets as he was blown off his feet with everything around him, and then a branch spun into his face-
Something hummed in his ears.
He woke with a groan. It wasn't his ears, he realised - a voice was screaming in his mind. A familiar voice. Delphi's voice.
Ash's mind swirled as he came to. Everything hurt! Even blinking! The feeling in his arms returned as an ache as he tried to sit up, but a freezing lump and a webbed claw helped him lean against a wall of bark.
Ash, can you hear me?
"Y-Yeah," he hissed, wincing as he became aware of how much pain his face was in - an odd amalgamation of burning agony and numbness. Even his grimace set his nerves on fire.
The rest of his senses slunk back. There was a low ringing in his ears and afterimages in his vision, but he could hear and see his friends well enough. Glaceon curled under his arm, Hydrus squeezing his shoulders, Infernape and Snorlax looming behind the others, and Kratos with eyes ripe with worry, hidden behind his metal husk. But they were all worn from battle.
Hydrus swayed in his spot. Kratos held himself up on his pincers, while Delphi's crest drooped and a nasty burn spotted Glaceon's flank. Snorlax let Infernape lean on him while he tried to get rid of some cramp in his neck.
Then he looked around - it was as if a horde of Rhyhorn had ran through the copses. The trees lay strewn like matchsticks across the upheaved earth, their massive trunks cracked and broken, a haunting reminder of the forest's former glory. Even the wind had receded to an eerie stillness broken only by shifting rocks and crackling embers.
And then, amidst the ruin, he could see the bodies. A yellow wing and talons peeking out from under a tree. Bladed green arms that almost blended in with torn branches. Gloved hands, hanging limp from an unconscious Mr Mime. Gideon's pokémon.
But someone was missing. Not from Gideon's team, but his. "Where's Zeus?" Ash gasped out, blinking hurriedly. He sounded surprisingly nasally.
His eyes followed Kratos' badly dented pincer, and he saw it - an unconscious Ampharos, spread-eagle on the ground, the red orb on his tail dull and muted.
He was in the middle of it all, Delphi supplied, sounding sombre. The wave hurt him more than the rest of us.
Immediately, Ash tried to get onto his feet - but as soon as he turned there was pain, sharp and insistent, clawing its way through his side, and it dragged him to the edge of oblivion like an anchor.
His friends clamoured with worry. Every fibre of his being screamed in protest, his eyes wide in a mix of disbelief and agony as he tried to calm himself with sharp, quick breaths, until the searing stabs tamed to dull, pulsing flares.
Ash groaned. He gingerly touched his ribs - and a jolt nearly sent his vision swimming once more, screaming at him to stop.
Yeah - something was definitely broken. He didn't know if it was more than one rib, but he wasn't going to continue his examinations.
First, he needed to take care of Zeus. With Infernape's help, he managed to unclip the ball from the side of his belt, and aimed it at his Ampharos. A beam of red flickered out, and Zeus was safe in his grasp.
Delphi stepped closer as Ash held himself up on shaking wrists. He licked his lips - they tasted like dirt and copper. "What happened…?"
Her eyes shifted. Wary, almost spooked. The stone, she began, and his memories rushed. The flash of a branch barrelling towards him in an instant made him shiver, but he continued to listen intently as Delphi explained - or tried to.
It is something…foreign. But powerful. Destructive. I could feel it even when it lay dormant. She shuddered. When Hydrus picked it up…
"Something must've set it off," Ash guessed.
She nodded. Like a…a bomb.
Ash shuddered, wincing. Was that was Gideon was really carrying? A bomb? No wonder he was so territorial about it. And downright terrified when Hydrus triggered it…
"Where is it?" he asked, curiosity getting the better of him.
Delphi was scared to even point in its direction. But he saw it - sitting in the epicentre of a wide circle of scorched and blackened earth, its fiery lustre gone, seemingly innocent in the chaos it had wrought.
If it wasn't for the way he'd seen it explode with light, he would've mistaken it as part of the rubble and ruin of the forest. He'd never seen anything like it - but he knew that it was bad news.
After all, the Rockets wanted it. If they were involved, there couldn't be even an ounce of good intentions involved.
What had Giovanni said?
There is only power, and those with the willingness to attain it.
This would've definitely brought them power. Or maybe it was power - raw and unbridled, waiting, hoping to be let out of its cage by anyone who was foolish enough to underestimate its destructive potential-
He wasn't going to speculate now.
For now, he had a dying urge to get out of this place.
Everything that could've possibly gone wrong for him did - and Ash wasn't going to wait for anything else to turn sour. A broken rib was good enough…
A rustle to his right, and everyone froze. Ash sucked in a hiss as pain struck him once more when he turned to the noise. His team shifted, positioning themselves ready for the worst.
They couldn't deal with another Rocket. Not right now. With the way his friends looked…They were ready for a fight - they always would be - but it would only be a waiting game for the Rockets to play…and win.
The footfalls grew louder - so did snapping twigs, muffled murmurs, slow clops. Kratos' pincer creaked open. The embers in Infernape's crest roused with a sluggish ferocity. Ready to brawl, but grudgingly eager.
Ash's heart raced, juggling the weight of his pain and terror as long shadows parted the copse of trees, and something tall and dark emerged - carved from wood, a with a shaggy white mane of splinters and fur cascading down its back, and long spindly arms tipped in fan-like leaves that looked like they could cut steel.
A Shiftry, Ash recognised, its sinister veneer softened by the dappled sunlight dancing along its leaves-for-arms. They were thin and long and sharpened to blades as it waded past the tall trees and towards the scattered logs, with a crackle of caution in its sneer as it surveyed the devastation.
Ash's ears roared. His friends' first instincts were to leap into action, but the Shiftry's amber eyes revealed something unexpected - a glint of intelligence that soothed its ferocity. Different from what they'd seen in the Rockets and their feral pokémon, and their apprehension began to dull with curiosity.
The Shiftry's leaves receded, broadening in the sunlight. Then it whistled to the trees behind it - a soothingly coarse melody that pierced through the silent skies like a lance, beckoning for the forest to respond as it moved into full view.
Two figures - one a man, the other a woman - emerged. Wrapped in skintight black jumpsuits, padded with athletic vests, their nimble hands resting carefully on the radio clipped to their belts.
But there was no dreaded R on their uniform sounding the alarm of battle, only a stylised L stitched on the shoulders of their clothes - the Indigo League insignia.
Instant relief flooded Ash. It numbed the agony wracking his nerves, but it drained his senses of the adrenaline that had kept him awake. His eyes fluttered, struggling to stay open, and his elbows strained under the weight of his exhaustion as he slumped back against his log.
The ACE trainers stopped in their tracks, eyes shooting across the array of unconscious pokémon amidst the fallen canopy. "What the hell is an Archeops doing here?" asked the girl, eyeing Gideon's unconscious raptor poke from the rubble with rugged breaths.
"Screw that," the male ACE snapped in hushed tones, never leaving Ash's blurring gaze. "Kid's hurt."
He snapped his fingers. "Shiftry, secure the area. Make sure those pokémon stay down." Then his radio was in his hands, crackling as it transmitted his hurried words. "This is search and rescue. We've got eyes on the trainer."
There was a certain harshness in the Shiftry's eyes as it trotted over, raking its leaves through the mud. Ash numbly watched as green vines sprouted in a trail behind Shiftry's walk, twisting around the fallen pokémon's feet like shackles in the event they woke up to renew their assault.
As they ACE drew nearer, Ash's guard rose instinctively - and so did his team's, greeting the trainers with a collective hiss that charged the air with tension.
The ACE pulled back with caution. "Hey, calm down." Their eyes locked with Ash's, undeterred by his friends' worried glares. "We're only here to help."
"And you look like you really need it," the boy supplied, ignoring the female ACE's glare.
Ash's fluttering eyelids were his only response. Anything that would get him out of here. He was tired.
The ACE's eyes shifted to meet her companion's for a fleeting moment of permission. "You need to return your pokémon," she said, in a manner as if hoping it wouldn't sound like an order, and earning a round of protest from the pokémon surrounding Ash.
Ash glanced to his team. Delphi's eyes were sharp as she regarded the ACE - but then she caught Ash looking and her pupil relaxed, understanding flooding her wings. She turned to the rest, chirping something soft and imploring, and soon their taut shoulders relaxed, their sneers simmering to a stop.
And so Ash recalled them with the ACE trainers' help, watching them vanish into their pokéballs in crimson bolts until he was only left with the sharpness of his own breaths.
"Close your eyes," the female ACE told him, aiming the nozzle of a potion at him.
There was silence as she spritzed the medicine on his face. It stung - of course it did - but Ash tried his best to keep any gasps or winces at a minimum.
When the ACE was done, Ash blinked his eyes open, resisting the urge to lick up any dribbles of the potion. "Come on. Let's get you up."
Ash shook his head. "My- I think I broke a rib…" he murmured when she raised an eyebrow, hovering trembling fingers over the pinch in his side. "H-Here."
The ACE chewed her lips. "We'll have to take you the old fashioned way," she hummed, lost in thought. Then she blinked. "Where'd your shirt go?"
A faint heat rose to his cheeks. "I- I had to give it to F-Frank. His arm-"
"Not sure what it is, but I found something," the other ACE suddenly called, and Ash turned in the direction of his voice. He was holding something for his partner to see, pinched between his thumb and index finger, and the sight of it drained the blood from Ash's face - the same rock that Gideon was after.
"You got yourself a rock for a friend, Nic?" the girl teased.
"No!" Ash barked, biting through the twist in his belly. The ACE jumped at his voice - even the Shiftry looked over in a hint of alarm. "Don't touch it!"
Nic the ACE blinked.
"It's dangerous," Ash begged. When had his heart began to race? "It- That's what did all this. I don't know what it is. Just- Please, you have to listen to me. Don't do anything to set it off."
Nic looked like he wanted to say something smart - as if he couldn't believe something as unsusceptible as this pebble could wreak so much of the mind-boggling havoc all around them - but then the side of him that had undergone the treacherous trials of Indigo shone through, taking his words to heart.
Only when he set the rock down where it had been did Ash let go of the breath he'd been holding. Nic reached for his radio again, opening the line once more with a click. "E-1, this is search and rescue, requesting for backup. There's a bit of a…rocky situation."
Ash had a lot to thank Chansey eggs for.
It had only taken a day for his shattered rib to be mostly healed - as was his broken nose (he didn't even know he had a broken nose until he'd been taken for medical attention) - and now, after a long day of sleeping and recovery, he was actually finding his hospital room to be rather enjoyable.
Until Lorelei stormed in with an aura that quite reminded him of his angry mother.
He was touched - and a bit proud - to see worry seep from the cracks in the Ice Queen's veneer. Her frizzy hair was tied into a messy bun. She sported a scabby cut across her right cheek. There was no fierce eyeliner guarding her frazzled scarlet eyes, no glasses balancing on her dainty nose. Even the crimson paint glittering across her fingernails was scratched and spotted.
"What were you thinking, going off on your own?" she shouted, sounding more angry than horrified. "You weren't even on the frontlines - I specifically kept you on watch duty! What possessed you to leave your post and fight a Rocket executive?"
Ash gulped at her words. It didn't help that she was looming over his bed with her heavy breathing. "Frank was the one who went after her," he tried to protest. "I was just following-"
Lorelei exhaled so sharply that the lock of hair between her eyes flew back to her head. "Oh, ACE Frank is going to get it from me," she growled, hands on her hips. "His only job was to protect you - and he royally screwed that up! The only thing keeping me from tearing him a new one is the fact he's in the middle of being pieced back together-"
"His arm's fine?" Ash asked, nearly jumping out of his bed. The sting in his stomach stopped him in his tracks, though, and he slowly leaned back against his pillow.
His words took Lorelei out of her fiery daze, however - even if it was for a moment. "Barely," she murmured, and he could hear genuine relief and exhaustion in her sigh. "He's still undergoing emergency surgery, but the doctors say that his arm's replantation looks promising. He has a lot to thank you for."
The nagging knot he hadn't known was there in the back of his mind vanished as he sagged in his bed, his lungs finally deflating. But despite the news putting him at ease, the guilt he felt just thinking about what had happened to Frank made the pit in his stomach even wider; if they hadn't been lucky…
There fortunately weren't any other serious injuries among the ACE - but that wasn't to say they'd gone unscathed. The Rockets - and this infuriated Ash - had seemingly prepared for an attack like this, letting loose a horde of Gastly and Haunter to self-destruct in the league forces' faces. Several suffered from first and second degree burns, while an ACE he'd passed by when he'd been first brought to Chrono Island's hospital had a nasty wound right through their shoulder.
Even the Elites hadn't been left unhurt. Despite Slowbro's and Jynx's best efforts, the overwhelming ghostly presence had weakened their nigh-impenetrable barriers just enough for some of the explosive energy to breach through, leaving Lorelei with a minor concussion that returned to irritate her in sporadic migraines.
Bruno took the brunt of it, though. He'd suffered a torn tendon, although he claimed that it felt more like a mere cramp.
Despite Lorelei's rolling eyes as she told him this, Ash didn't doubt its veracity.
The hospital seemed to have gotten it all under control, though. There was no longer any yelling or cursing from yesterday, no tension bleeding through every crevice and corner of his room. Everything around him exuded calm - well, except for Lorelei.
From the little grumbling he'd heard from passing nurses, Chrono's trauma centre had reached full capacity - which meant that the few unfortunate ACE trainers that didn't make the cut had to be transported all the way to Fortune and Floe Island for immediate treatment by sea.
But it all seemed to be worth it. They were all alive - which couldn't be said for the Rockets.
He didn't worry himself with knowing how many were dead, but, in total, around eighty Rockets had been captured - including a few high-ranking admins and that redhead executive whom thinking about left Ash a bitter taste in his mouth. Regardless, it meant that the League now had some way to gain intel on the whereabouts of the other Rocket forces that had scattered after the Viridian Takedown. It put a smile on Ash's face.
There were hundreds of pokémon captured, too - owned and trafficked - that were on their way to the Indigo headquarters to be evaluated and rehabilitated if needed. At that, his glee dimmed.
Lorelei's gaze hardened again, and Ash found himself struggling to meet it once more. "You're going to give me the whole story," she demanded, not that Ash would've refused. "I won't wait to hear it from that idiot Frank."
So he told her everything. How the Rocket executive took them by surprise. How her Weavile injured Frank, and how Ash saved him. How he saw Gideon racing away, gave chase, broke his arm then let his Porygon2 out, and how that stupid rock threw a wrench in the middle of taking the rogue scientist down.
That's when Lorelei leaned forward. "I really didn't know something like that would happen," Ash said, recounting the rock's fiery glow. He'd been mostly out of it all when the rest of the ACE had arrived, but he could still recall almost fearful manner in which they'd secured the object in a handy glass flask. "But it just- exploded. In a second. We didn't even see it coming."
"It could've been worse," Lorelei chided, her frown returning. "Count your lucky stars you lived to tell the tale."
Ash narrowed his eyes. She sounded like she knew exactly what he'd run into. "What is it?" he ventured.
"Classified," she snapped at first, almost on instinct - but then she pinched the bridge of her nose and relented within a moment of hesitation. "But…I guess it wouldn't hurt to let you know, given you were in the middle of it all."
He leaned forward. Lorelei looked conflicted once more, but the flash of it vanished as quick as it came.
Lorelei held in a sharp breath. "What you found was a meteonite."
"Meteo-nite," she corrected, stifling a smile. "A shard of it, that is. You do know that, nearly a hundred million years ago, a mass extinction event wiped out nearly all life on our planet?"
Of course he did - it always fascinated him to know how the impact of a massive asteroid had devastated the ancient world. It was only the mind-blowing advancements in technology that allowed their modern world to revive creatures from the past into their present. Gary's Omastar was a testament to this…and more and more fossils were being discovered across regions every so often.
"It wasn't just any asteroid that burst into our atmosphere," Lorelei told him. "It was this titanic, extraterrestrial rock that hit our young world and shaped it into what it is today. This meteonite - even a tiny fragment, like the one you encountered, can unleash an enormous amount of energy. And when one the size of a battlefield struck…"
Ash shuddered, and Lorelei nodded grimly. "Endless eruptions. Colossal tsunamis. Earthquakes that tore continents apart," she told him. "You know the rest. And when the meteonite made impact, it broke apart and scattered its remains across the globe, resting for millennia while the world rebuilt.
"By the time humans evolved into existence, there was little evidence that alluded to the meteonite's presence," Lorelei continued. "But of course, humanity has a knack for seeking answers to questions that were never asked, to seeking power they should never know, to wielding power they never deserved."
"They found the meteonite," Ash guessed, and Lorelei's nod made him scowl.
"Civilisations rose, and when they discovered the meteonite's remnants, that was their downfall. The Sinnoh-Kalos War was the last recorded instance of the meteonite's presence.
"Of course, that was nearly three thousand years ago - the League Association has done a very good job of keeping the meteonite's existence a closely guarded secret ever since we stumbled upon it," Lorelei muttered, blinking when she saw Ash's bewilderment. "What, did you think we could let something like that be common knowledge? That we could bank on people to not look for something as powerful like the meteonite for their own gain?"
"Well, the League definitely didn't do a good job," Ash grumbled. "Gideon managed to get a piece of it, didn't he? And if we were late, it'd be with Team Rocket!"
Lorelei brushed his bite. "I know." She sounded weary, but there was a fire in her eyes. "I can only imagine what Team Rocket wants with something like the meteonite, but I don't think they're one to turn over a new leaf."
Lorelei shook her head. "However, there's no need to worry. The League is on it. We've given word to Vertress and Ever Grande to up their security, and we're moving the piece we found to the Plateau. "
"What if they attack Indigo?" Ash asked, chewing his lips. He knew it was absurd given how fragmented Team Rocket was, but they were nothing if not relentless…
Lorelei glanced at him through the corner of her eye. She simply scoffed, and the consequences went unsaid.
Ash was just glad that the meteonite was going to be far away from where he was.
There was a comfortable silence as Ash digested everything. It wasn't too much for him, but to know that something like this existed…It definitely made Gideon seem far more dangerous - despite the League actively keeping the meteonite's existence from the public eye, he'd gotten his hands on it. Was he that desperate for money, to risk the League's wrath? Or did he simply want to watch as Team Rocket burned the world?
Suddenly Gideon's threats rang sharper in his ears.
You will pay the price for your brother's sins.
No, Gideon couldn't do anything to him. He'd trounced the scientist and his team in the forest, and he would do it again if he showed his face.
After all, his team was strong…and they would only get stronger.
"What happened to Gideon?" Ash asked suddenly, growling. He'd only met the scientist once, but he despised him.
"There was no sign of him," Lorelei said, confirming his fears. "We suspect he'll be laying low since his pokémon are in our custody. He's managed to stay under our radar for years now, so I doubt we'll find him anytime soon. Still, if we knew he'd resumed his operations…"
"Who is he?" Ash grumbled, shifting sullenly in his bed.
Lorelei blinked. "A nobody, now a somebody," she told him succinctly. Ash's impatience showed as the Elite took her time to lean back and inspect her nails, before she finally took the sign and continued. "Gideon worked for Silph - nothing spectacular. But whatever it was wasn't paying well, because it turns out he was dealing with Team Rocket on the side!
"He was fired, jailed for about a year; then, because it was a white-collar crime, he was let out on good behaviour…" She shook her head irritably. "That's when he became a real thorn in our side. Mostly financially-motivated crimes, but a lot of them violent. Killings, too - but he hasn't made a peep for the past three years, until you ran into him."
"And what about my brother?" Ash pressed. He didn't care about what else Gideon was up to. "What does he have to do with Gideon?"
"That," Lorelei said, grunting as she stood, "you'll have to ask Red. I've got some reports to take care of." She made a face. "If you ask me, it takes the fun out of demolishing Rocket bases."
She wiggled her fingers goodbye, and swept out of he room.
He thought the calm in his room would return with Lorelei's leave, but the only thing that greeted him was his own frustration.
When the boredom of being all by himself settled, Ash was ready to leave.
Thankfully, the doctors weren't too keen on keeping him back for a bit more rest - although they did warn him to keep his movements light for the next couple of days in case something rose. Chansey eggs, while incredibly potent even in small doses, did their job a little too well sometimes when introduced to patients who weren't used to it.
After a routine check-up, he was free to go. "Here's your discharge certificate, and a prescription for some painkillers," the doctor told him, extending a few documents. "Show these to the nurse at the reception; they'll help you with what you need."
"Thank you," he muttered, rolling the papers in his hands. He couldn't wait to see his friends, but there was someone else he had to meet. "Uh, can I visit a friend of mine before I leave? His name's Jack-"
"Fernandes?" the doctor guessed, and Ash nodded. "I don't see why not. You'll find him in room seventeen, but just make sure you don't forget to swing by the reception before you leave."
Ash thanked him goodbye and made his way down the hallway. Room thirteen, fourteen, then sixteen…
Room seventeen waited a few steps ahead, and Ash spared no time bursting into the room - but he skidded to a stop as quickly as he entered when he realised there was someone else already there.
Elite Four Bruno turned in his direction with a frown. He looked colossal on his stool, his right arm cradled in a sling.
Ash blinked. "I'm sorry-"
"It's quite alright," Bruno dismissed, waving his free hand. "I was just about to leave."
"Ash!" croaked a voice, and his face broke from a smile when he finally saw Jack wave giddily as he laid in his bed. There was an IV pricked to his veins, and yellowing bandages were wrapped tight around his forehead.
Before he could say anything, though, Bruno had already taken charge of the conversation. "I think that'll be all, Mr Fernandes," he told Jack. "Thank you for taking the time to give me your statement. If there's anything more I need from you, I'll make sure to bother you only once you're feeling a whole lot better."
They shared a grin. "You can call me Jack, Elite Bruno."
Bruno laughed. "Sure, Jack."
"Um, Elite Bruno?" Jack piped.
Bruno nodded. "Yes, Mr Fernandes?"
"Could you sign my head wound?"
Ash never thought he'd see Bruno so disarmed. His smile wavered, brows quivering as Jack kept his unblinking eyes and stupid grin glued on the Elite. "Er, I don't have a pen on me-"
"Here." Jack held out a marker in one hand, pushing his hair up with the other.
Bruno blinked, slowly accepting the pen with his good arm. "Oh. Okay."
He seemed to be in a hurry as he scribbled something across Jack's bandaged forehead - not that Ash was surprised. Then he got up, murmured an awkward goodbye, and spun as he headed for the door.
His eyes met Ash for a fleeting moment, though - and then there was a quaint smile. "Mr Ketchum," he greeted with a dip of his head in his calming baritone, before slipping past the slowly closing door in a quick, graceful step.
A long moment of silence followed Bruno's departure. Then Ash's head snapped in Jack's direction. "Bruno knows who I am," he breathed, full of awe.
Jack grinned back. He looked ready to burst with glee. "Bruno autographed my head wound!"
Ash snorted, sitting by the bedside.. "Yeah, you definitely got hit too hard," he mocked, but he couldn't help but feel a bit jealous as he eyed Bruno's signature scrawled across Jack's forehead.
Jack frowned. "I couldn't ask him to sign my hospital gown," he defended. "I've got to give it back when I'm discharged!"
Ash rolled his eyes, but his smile was soft. "How are you?"
Jack shrugged. "I'm not allowed to eat any Twinkies, so I guess I could be better," he joked, joining Ash's laughs.
They shared a comfortable silence for a moment, until their smiles fell, waiting for the other to kickstart what they both wanted to talk about. "What happened?"
Jack's expression darkened. "Nothing interesting. I was just minding my own business in Ruin Valley - because there wasn't anything else I could do at Fortune Island. Caught a Tangela there, too," he added, hoping to add some levity as he spoke. "She liked the name Maddy, so that's what I'm calling her."
He cleared his throat. "Anyway, I spotted Team Rocket, soon enough. I have no clue what they were doing, but I saw them hanging out by this place the locals call the Dotted Hole. Don't ask me," Jack said when Ash's eyebrows jumped with intrigue. "I didn't get the chance to check it out."
Ash frowned. "Did you fight them?" He asked it with hesitance.
"Heck no!" Jack scoffed. "Not at first. I obviously ran!"
His eyes shifted uneasily. "But they saw me. They came after me, Ash. And…There were so many of them, and they caught up to me, and- well, I tried to fend them off, but they were too much for my team."
Jack suddenly looked away. His jaws trembled. "I get it, now."
Ash blinked. "Get what?"
"Getting stronger," he whispered. Ash had never heard Jack sound so solemn - and so he listened. "When I was fighting those Rockets, when we were losing - that hopelessness…It sucked. Maybe if my team was stronger, we could've defeated them all, saved ourselves. But we couldn't. I was- weak."
Jack sighed, chin pinned to his chest as he gritted his teeth. "If I hadn't been able to send that message to you, would my team and I even be alive right now?"
"But you are alive," Ash said hurriedly. He hopped onto the bed, holding an awkward arm around Jack's slumped shoulders. "And that's what matters. There's no need to beat yourself up over the past, because…Because from here on out, our pokémon will only get stronger - and so will we!"
Jack looked up. There were faint embers sparking in his eyes, and Ash needed to set them alight. "I know I will," he swore, his promise a growl.
Jack nodded, blinking furiously. He wiped his eyes as Ash clapped his shoulders, and the darkness that had held the room captive had seemingly slunk away.
"So," Jack quipped, "what was Floe Island like?"
He told him as much as he could - of Glaceon's evolution in Icefall Cave, and how Lorelei was ready to take him on as a student! - until it was clear that Jack was getting too tired to keep talking. "When are they letting you out?"
Jack let out a wheeze. "I guess a few more days," he mumbled after a moment. "I'm going to miss my ferry back to Kanto, but Bruno said they'll arrange a way for me to get back. My parents are worried sick when they heard about all this." Jack laughed at the look on Ash's face. "What, you didn't tell your mom yet?"
Ash shook his head. "I'm not looking forward to it," he groaned.
"Tell Ms Ketchum 'hi' from me," Jack teased.
Ash wrinkled his nose. "Sure, Jackass."
Jack stuck his tongue out, a gesture that Ash returned in kind before hurrying out.
He could always check in on Jack later, but he needed to get out of this place and gather his team. It'd been days since he'd seen them, which meant that he'd have to head over to the pokécenter.
Walking through the hospital brought bad memories. After all, it'd never been for good reasons he'd been in one, but the fact that this was his sixth time in less than a year was ridiculous. Couldn't he leave an encounter with the Rockets unscathed for once?
Musings of battle distracted him from realising he was the only one in the hallway. Despite the gravity of it all, Ash couldn't help but review his fight with Gideon for new strategies - well, at least he now knew what he and Kratos were going to work on…
But then he heard murmurs around the corner, breaking his train of thought. Curiosity got the better of his manners when the voices sounded familiar - it was Lorelei's and Bruno's!
He crept closer, catching only fragments of their hushed conversation.
It was Lorelei that he heard first. "This doesn't make sense. Our Porygon removed all traces of intel related to the energy amplifier. Worldwide. There's no way they could find anything. What's their endgame?"
"Whatever it is, it doesn't bode well," came Bruno's voice. It was incredibly soft, but dangerously so, tainted with tension. "And it definitely involves the meteonite."
Ash's heart rattled in his chest. A million questions danced in his mind.
"No shit." Silence. "Lance is going to throw a fit." Silence again. "I'm supposed to be on vacation, Bruno. If he calls me to Indigo, I'm. Not. Coming!"
"I'll handle it," Bruno promised, sounding exasperated. "Anything else we got from Ariana?"
"I told you, she's in stasis. Whatever we need, we can't get it here. She's got a dark gem the size of a rice grain planted in her head." He heard Lorelei curse under her breath. "Even our Alakazam are useless."
"Then wake her up for some old-fashion interrogation. I need something for when I see Lance."
"Not when she's tried killing herself every time she's awake," Lorelei grumbled. Their voices were beginning to fade, slowly mixing with the clatter of their shoes. "Giovanni must be a pretty good lay if she's willing to go that far for him…"
Ash barely heard Bruno's sound of disgust - because then he heard sharp footsteps behind.
His heartbeat screeched to a stop. Ash spun and ran before the Elites could catch him eavesdropping-
It was ACE Karen that he saw walking towards him from the other end of the hallway. She didn't look the best - there was a faint bruise on her cheek and bandaid stuck to the bridge of her nose. What did she want?
She picked up her pace, picking at the bridge of her jaw. "You got a minute?"
Ash tried his best to not look suspicious as she got closer, but he seemed to be failing miserably given the way Karen looked him up and down, her eyebrows raised. "You okay?" she asked. She sounded genuinely concerned.
"Yeah- Yes, I'm fine," he stammered, wiping the sweat off his face. "What did you want to talk about?"
"I heard what you went through back during the operation," she told him. "Good to know you made it out without anything major."
Ash nodded half-heartedly. "Yeah." He stole a quick glimpse over his shoulder, hoping Bruno and Lorelei weren't heading back here. He just wanted to leave-
"Also…" Karen gulped. She scratched her head through her frizzy, silver hair, her feet shifting before she finally got the courage to speak. "I wanted to thank you. For what you did for Frank. Lorelei told me everything."
Ash blinked. "How is he?" he asked, despite the electricity in his nerves.
"Good." Her hands slipped into her pockets, but she seemed a lot more at ease now. "He just made it out of surgery, but he's all good. The doctors say he'll need a few months of therapy before his arm gets back to working the way it used to, so I guess that way he's going to be on a bit of a vacation…"
Ash breathed with relief. "I'm glad he's okay."
"And I'm sorry for callingyouababyandstuff," Karen added hurriedly, dismissing his shrug. "No. You proved you were as much of a trainer as Frank, or me, or any of the other ACE that day. You've got heart, k- Ash."
He couldn't help but grin. He would've never expected something like this from her given her first impressions, but her words made him swell with pride. To be recognised by an ACE was greater praise than he ever expected. "Thanks, Karen."
"If you were a few years older, I'd thank you with a beer," she teased. Her smirk returned, and it looked far more characteristic than the shy, embarrassed blush that had taken her face hostage for the past several minutes. "But I guess this'll do, huh?"
Then, without warning, she leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek.
His face burned as she pulled away and snickered. Suddenly, she looked a lot prettier than he thought she was before-
And Ash squeezed his eyes shut as he tried to drive any and all thoughts away without her noticing.
Karen laughed and playfully ruffled his hair. "I'll see you later, Ash," she told him with obviously false coy, giving him a wink that made him blush even harder.
He watched her go with a skip in her step. "Um- Y-Yeah, l-later." Why did he sound so squeaky?!
Whatever. He'd scrub the embarrassment off with a scalding hot shower later.
It almost took his mind off the conversation he'd overheard between the Elites.
The energy amplifier…He hadn't heard of it - thought of it - in a long if it worked the way it'd been named, the meteonite sounded like a very deadly weapon in the Rockets hands.
They could decimate towns. Cities. Maybe even the Indigo Guard!
Ash bit back a growl.
First Gideon, now this. It frustrated him to not know anything. What the hell was going on?
His nails cut into his palm. Realisation stung him. They'd won this battle…But it seemed that the war with the Rockets wasn't yet over.
Trainer: Ash Ketchum
Pokémon in possession:
Delphi – Xatu
Zeus – Ampharos
Hydrus – Golduck
Screecher – Mismagius
Kratos – Scizor
Saur – Venusaur
Atlas – Vibrava
I'd planned to get this chapter out a couple weeks back, but unfortunately I met an injury that kept me from meeting deadlines. It's nothing serious, but it killed my drive to write for days on end.
Also, just to clear a valid doubt that a few readers raised regarding a monetary plothole - Ash spent most of the money he got from Silph on rebuilding his home in Pallet Town. I'd mentioned it in chapter 30, but I forgot about it too, lol. I've made it clearer for readers in the future, though!
As always, thanks for reading, and let me know what you think ;)