Ash kicked aside sharp stones and debris with his shoes, scattering shards of rock to clear a path for his team.

Orion sneezed from the cloud of dust kicked up by Ash and Aurora gave her trainer a dirty look for soiling her coat by kicking up dust. The trainer gave them both an apologetic look for irritating them.

At least Titan didn't mind him doing it. If anything, he seemed appreciative of the gesture since he would be less likely to stumble on loose debris – something that had been plaguing him throughout the trip.

Ash gave him a toothy grin and flashed a thumbs up. Titan shrunk down and cloaked himself with an Iron Defense, prompting an amused whinny from Orion and a gentle nudge from Aurora to get the rock type to keep moving.

Ash turned his focus back to the path ahead. A seemingly long stretch of winding road separated the group from their destination – the mountain in the distance. Mt. Moon still felt distant even with all the progress they made.

He trudged the rough terrain of Route 3 and dragged his feet the entire way up the gradually sloping path. The burning in his lungs and legs slowed him to a Slugma's pace until he finally slumped forward and plopped down on the ground.

His chest heaved as he tried to regain his breath. Four straight hours of travel was setting in. His legs felt like they had been lit on fire and his knees wobbled like gelatin. Even his joints and bones ached from fatigue. It didn't help that the path was now on a slight incline. Distance and incline were an exhausting combination.

His team was visibly gassed as well. Aurora's eyes drooped and Orion's trot had become more of a sluggish plodding. Titan wasn't fairing any better if his labored breaths and slumping posture were any indication. Anymore and he would probably keel over from exhaustion.

Not that Ash was surprised. The rock type was nowhere near accustomed to this much strenuous activity. Certainly not to the extent of his teammates. However, the trip was a good start for him in the long-term because of the endurance it was helping him build.

They were all building endurance.

Ash gave Titan and the rest of his team a sympathetic look. Exercise was good but the team earned a break.

He pulled his backpack off his shoulders and tossed the bag on the ground in front of him. Ash's lips curled up into a mischievous grin. At least, they could pride themselves on the fact that they were more accustomed to making long treks than Gary was.

The Oak meandered up the trail and grumbled indiscernible strings of profanity under his breath. He gasped for air, panting and heaving as he finally managed to catch up to Ash and his team. "The moment I catch my breath, you are a dead man."

Ash raised his eyebrow. "You said you wanted to get to Mt. Moon at a decent hour." he said innocently.

Gary gave him a glare full of murderous intent with his eyes narrowing to slits. "Arceus, Ash, there's a difference between fast travel and torture."

"I'm not even walking that fast," Ash replied, reaching for a water bottle in his backpack to quench his thirst.

Gary glared daggers at him, clearly disagreeing with him.

Ash smiled a bit after sipping down some of the refreshing water and poured some into bowls for his team to drink and wash up with. "Shouldn't this be an easy pace for an experienced adventurer like you? I'm just a city slicker, remember, you should be way faster than me since you're an adventurer."

Gary glared daggers at him while reaching for a bottle of water strapped to his belt and taking a drink.

Ash smirked as he watched Aurora lap at the water in her dish before plunging her face in the bowl to clean her dirty fur.

"I can't help it that you and your team can't keep up with me."

"I'm totally having Rhyhorn trample you now."

Ash snorted, finding his threat amusing. He would have to do this more often if it got this much of a reaction out of Gary.

A loud hiss caught his attention and caused him to shift his focus from his banter with Gary to Orion firing small wisps of Ember into his water. Ash rolled his eyes at the plumes of steam wafting from the bowl. A small splash turned his attention from Orion to Larvitar prodding his water dish to create tiny ripples on the surface of the water.

His team once again found a way of amusing themselves and unwinding.

"Are you ignoring me now? Think I'm joking? I'm totally having Rhyhorn jump on you in your sleep or something!" Gary seethed.

Ash ignored the threat and looked to Gary's team lagging far behind him. They were in worse shape than he and his team were if the exasperation on their faces was any indication. Jangmo-o looked like he was about to pass out.

It made him wonder about Gary's traveling habits since he and his team seemed out of shape. Not that it really mattered – Gary's personal philosophy for training wasn't any of his business.

"Enjoying the trip, Gary?" Ash asked, adopting a chipper tone to make the question even more annoying.

Gary opened his mouth to fire off a snide remark, but thought better once he realized Ash would likely find more amusement out of it. "How much further?" Gary whined, sitting cross legged on the ground.

"To Mt. Moon?"

"No, Mt. Silver." Gary sneered.

"I could look that up for you." Ash replied, gesturing to his Pokenav.

"Sarcasm!" Gary all but screamed, frustration oozing from his voice. "How much further do we have to go?"

"Well, that depends on whether you mean the tunnels or the league checkpoints. I mean there's no way the league hasn't blocked the road off." Ash replied. His lips curved upwards into a smirk.

Giving complicated replies was fun. He started to see why Gary loved sarcasm so much.

His smirk faded and contorted into a grimace from the sharp pain in his arm. "Ow!" he yelped, rubbing his sore arm thanks to a punch from Gary.

"I owed you one," Gary said smugly.

Ash ignored the remark and shook his head. He supposed he did deserve that for being an idiot.

"About ten minutes ago there was a sign marker saying that Mt. Moon was about a mile away, so we're about a mile away give or take." he said, finally giving a serious response to his question.

Gary chugged down more water before pouring the rest in some bowls for his team like Ash had. "Good, so we're almost there."

"Yup, we'll rest up and get moving again after some lunch. I'm also considering a light training session with my team."

Gary nodded. "Sounds good, anything you want to work on in particular?"

Ash reached for his Pokedex and flipped it open to take a look at several things. "Yeah, just thinking ahead here, what's the best way to deal with airborne targets?"

Gary raised an eyebrow. "Airborne targets? Well, here's what I would do."

Ash stared intently at the glowing soot blended with wisps of flame spewed into the sky by Orion. He supposed it wasn't a bad start. The attack had some distance to it and it had a decent radius.

Was it enough to take on aggressive Golbat or frenzied Zubat at Mt. Moon, much less something trained by the league?

He doubted that. Zubat and Golbat were light, aerodynamic flying types known for speed and maneuverability. Whatever the league had, whether it be Fearow or Pidgeot, would likely be faster and more agile than even the strongest wild flying types they would encounter.

That meant Orion needed more training, not necessarily in strengthening his attacks but in increasing their radius.

Hitting a flying type required either fast attacks or techniques with a large radius. Orion's Ember was neither of those things – at least not presently.

"Try it again, but fan it out even more. Launch it in a sweeping pattern and scale back the power to about sixty percent of its usual intensity. We want duration opposed to full strength."

Ash wiped a bead of sweat from his brow due to the increasing air temperature. The idea worked, at least to a certain degree. From what he could tell, the cloud of burning ash covered more area.

Ash turned to Aurora. "I want you to do the same thing with Freeze-Dry and Powder Snow. Practice dousing each other's attacks, you can improve your accuracy that way and practice hitting airborne targets if you're both aiming towards the sky. Afterwards, I want you both to work on Double Team."

Aurora woofed in acknowledgement and inhaled. Goosebumps formed on Ash's skin as the temperature shifted from a weak gust of cold air sailing into the air to meet the fire.

Fire and ice collided with a vehement hiss, resulting in a haze of steam. His older teammates could handle themselves. He would return to them with the new stuff he wanted them to work on ater. For now, he needed to work with Titan.

Ash stepped back from the steam and turned his attention to Titan.

With every hiss of steam, Titan lurched back and sunk into his crouch for protection only to pop up and stare at the next streams of fire and ice with excitement.

"Thoughts?" Ash asked, peeking over his shoulder to his rival lurking behind him.

"Still think target practice and head-to-head fights are better. There's no substitute for actual battle scenarios and sparring."

"Target practice is for later, I want them to be able to defend against foes in the air and potential attacks fired from aerial opponents." Ash replied, taking a sip of water. "The only reason I'm not holding some sparring matches is because I'd rather not have my team wear each other out any more than they have to. We have a long trip and I'd rather not have the group get hurt."

"I get it. I mean that is not a horrible idea. Having them counter the opposite element of their own has its own benefits – I've done variations on that to help my team compensate for their weaknesses and improve their elemental attacks. Having them hit each other's attacks once the attacks are in the air will improve their accuracy. It should also acclimate them to fighting aerial opponents. Still, too much finesse training and they'll get soft."

Ash snorted. As if he or his team would ever grow complacent, much less get soft. "You would know a lot more about that than me, Gary. I mean, your pace is slower than a Torterra."

Gary groaned and facepalmed, realizing he had walked into that insult. "Well, maybe I am a bit out of shape; but what's that say about you? You lost to us."

Ash chuckled at the comeback and shook his head, conceding the battle of wits for the time being. He turned his attention to Gary's team. "What are you guys going to work on?" Ash asked, pointing to Rhyhorn, Jangmo-o, and Magby.

"Beating sense into Rhyhorn, if he acts up," Gary growled, leering at the rock type before looking back at Ash. "And some target practice, likely aerial target practice like you suggested. You really think the league will have that many sky units?"

Ash nodded. "I wouldn't put it past them. Air surveillance has a better view and covers more than ground patrols so we need to be prepared for that possibility."

"How can we be sure of that?" Gary asked, giving Ash a skeptical look..

"I looked up ACE units and Ranger units online to get an idea of what kind of units there are on my Pokenav. Ranger task forces and even ACE task forces have units that specialize in navigating certain terrains. There are air specialists with flying type squads for patrols; underground and seismology specialists with ground types attuned to setting traps and sensing vibrations for tracking and navigation purposes; and units with psychic types and Pokemon that can use Supersonic and other soundwave techniques for radar purposes that act as sensors. There are teams built for jungles, aquatic operations, and volcanoes; but that's not really applicable here."

Gary rubbed his temples as if he had a headache. "Slow down motor mouth, I can't keep up." he scolded.

Ash paused to let Gary process everything and let himself catch his breath again after his long-winded exposition. He hadn't meant to ramble that much, but then again he had done about an hour of research.

"So you read all this stuff when and for what reason?" Gary asked.

"I researched it the other day at the Pokemon Center because if we're going to sneak past league checkpoints and have to run from patrols, I thought it might at least help to know what's going to be chasing us. I mean, unlike some people I'd rather not go into this blind and fly by the seat of our pants."

"Fair enough," Gary replied, conceding the point he hadn't actually bothered thinking his idea through. "In my defense though, Ashy-boy, you volunteered to be the plan guy."

Ash glared at Gary and shook his head before continuing.

"With all this in mind, we're most likely to encounter air units, underground units, and sensor units. They would have aerial surveillance on the outside of the mountain to watch for people approaching the checkpoint and trying to sneak past, underground units would be used inside the caverns since they can navigate the terrain and darkness, and sensor units such as Golbat or even Kadabra might be used by units in the caves to track."

"Look at you plotting and planning! Anymore of that and I might mistake you for a criminal mastermind. You've thought this thought through like a criminal planning a heist. And you said that I scare you with my plans?" Gary snorted.

Ash rolled his eyes. "It's not a heist. I mean, we're not robbing people of something. I just want a course that gets us to and through Mt. Moon without getting us caught by the patrols."

Gary gave him a patronizing nod and smirked. "You sure I shouldn't be worried about your activities outside of training? Sounds like the research prep for a heist plot to me."

"At least I did research for this, unlike some people I know."

Gary laughed. "Why work when I can have you do it for me?"

"Lazy jerk," Ash fired back.

Gary's face quickly shifted to a serious demeanor. "Ash, one last thing."

Ash raised an eyebrow.

"Count me out if you start some sort of heist on Celadon's Game Corner." Gary deadpanned, earning him another punch from Ash. "Okay, okay, I'm done!"

"Anyways, I don't have time to loaf around. My team and I are supposed to be training."

"How long until we leave so I know how much time we have for training?"

"Thinking about an hour or two, it'll give me time to get Titan familiar with the new move I want to teach him and work on additional target practice with Aurora and Orion."

Gary nodded. "Sounds good,"

Ash turned his attention back to Titan once Gary left to return to his own training grounds with his team.

"Alright, Titan, I wanted to work on something with you."

Titan clearly hadn't heard him. He didn't reply or even look at him. His attention was still glued to his teammates as they unleashed dancing wisps of fire and ice skyward.

The Larvitar leaned forward with bated breath in anticipation as Orion and Aurora danced around the battlefield and formed substance-less clones that trailed behind them. Aurora yipped and exhaled to unleash a cutting gust of arctic air that dispersed Orion's clones.

The Ponyta brayed and snorted defiantly before retaliating with wisps of fire and ash that cut down Aurora's copies. Titan's eyes widened as the copies dissipated into wisps of smoke and steam that wafted away with the breeze.

Seeing Titan watch Aurora and Orion gave Ash a sudden surge of nostalgia. Memories of his younger self leaning forward at the edge of the couch with his eyes fixated on the television flashed through his mind. The first feelings of grief when trainers he rooted for lost and the first feelings of triumph from seeing trainers he rooted for win flooded his mind. He could still feel his heart pound from adrenaline flowing flowing through his veins and the hair stand up on the back of his neck from excitement.

The early emotions of his youth from watching trainers paled in comparison to the excitement and emotions he experienced as an actual trainer; but it was a unique experience that served as just another reason he had been drawn to becoming a trainer.

Back then he could imagine standing in the trainers' place and guiding his team to victory, but now he was making that dream a reality. And if Titan would let him, Ash would help him to reach his own goals.

Although that was the issue wasn't it? Titan's main flaw was not external but internal. Larvitar's fear was holding him back and he imagined getting beaten by Gary's Rhyhorn hadn't helped his already fragile confidence.

Ash knelt down beside Larvitar. "Pretty amazing, isn't it, Titan?"

The Larvitar flinched, prompting Ash to raise his hands defensively. "Didn't mean to startle you, Titan."

Titan eyed Ash with suspicion for a moment, but let his guard down after the initial shock from Ash's unexpected appearance wore off.

"You know, Titan, one day you'll be that good too one day."

Titan gave Ash a skeptical look. His eyes immediately flittered to Aurora and Orion. Ash noticed Titan's gaze and tilted his head.

"Something wrong?"

Titan grumbled, pointing at the other Pokemon for a moment before stomping his feet on the ground. The Larvitar shook his head and looked down at the ground in disappointment. Ash frowned at the gestures, catching onto their meaning fairly quickly. Comparisons to the rest of his team would not help Titan. His species didn't develop at the same rate as his other teammates since they developed slower.

"Aurora and Orion have natural talent, but it took them a lot of training to get them to where they are. I promised to help you get stronger and I meant that. It'll take some hard work, but if you're willing to put in the effort there's no limit to what you can accomplish."

The crackle of fire caused Titan to jump from fright. His eyes darted towards Orion again as he cloaked himself in a Flame Charge before unleashing a string of fire aimed for more Double Team clones. Titan's eyes narrowed and he let out another frustrated grumble, slightly envious of the Ponyta's firepower.

"I know it's daunting to think about catching up with them since they seem further ahead in their development, but that's what training is for. You can't catch them today or even tomorrow, but we can narrow that gap day by day. You just have to be willing to put in the work. Are you willing to put in the work?"

Titan nodded and grunted enthusiastically. Ash smirked. Even if he doubted himself, Titan was still willing to work to improve. He could work with that.

"I have something that I believe will help you improve. It'll be the first step towards our goal of getting stronger."

Larvitar perked up and peeked over at Ash with curiosity.

Ash reached into his backpack in search of a certain item. He rummaged through clothing, medical supplies, and Poke Balls before finally finding his TM case.

He took the disk out from the case and held it up for Titan to see. Titan's eyes narrowed and he let out a soft grumble.

"This is a technical machine," Ash explained, helping clear up the confusion. "It helps a Pokemon learn a technique. I want to try to teach you Rock Tomb because it's fairly simple and I think it will be beneficial going forward. You need something that can help you with ranged combat and Rock Tomb sort of fits that description."

Titan offered an approving grunt. Ash reached for Larvitar's Poke Ball and lifted the capsule, aiming it at Titan. A tap of the button on the front caused a bright red beam of light to draw the Larvitar back into his Poke Ball and caused the capsule to shrink in size for storage.

Ash set the shrunken Poke Ball in the center of the TM for Rock Tomb and pressed down on the capsule until he heard a soft click. A flicker of rust-colored light coursed through the Poke Ball for a few seconds. A soft ping announced the successful use of Rock Tomb.

Ash pressed a button on the side of the technical machine, causing Titan's Poke Ball to pop out of the TM. He tapped the release on Larvitar's Poke Ball to release him from stasis.

"Did it work?"

Titan answered with a contented grumble and a stomp of his foot.

"Good, give me one second here," Ash muttered, sliding his hand into his right pocket and pulling out his Pokedex.

There was a catch to technical machines. Far too many trainers believed that TMs automatically gave Pokemon mastery of powerful techniques and ended up disappointed when the devices didn't make the powerful fighters they expected.

While the device would teach Pokémon the technique stored on the disk by placing the technique in their mind and a basic visual of how to use it, only hard work would lead to mastery of the technique taught by the TM.

If Ash wanted Titan to be proficient at using Rock Tomb that meant he would have to study the basic physics behind Rock Tomb and the Movedex app of the Pokedex was the best option for studying Rock Tomb.

Ash scrolled through the menu to access the Movedex app and tapped the icon on the touchscreen to pull it up. Detailed profiles and video of every known attack along with the variations of its form was now at his fingertips.

He watched the first three videos in the archives – a Rhyperior tearing up chunks of earth and whipping them forward with a combination of brute strength, a Magmortar firing glowing spheres of light into the ground to send clumps of earth at an Arcanine, and a Probopass raising itself higher in the air with levitation before slamming down on the ground to cause a shockwave to force shards of rock up from the ground to surround a Hitmonlee and trap it in a cocoon of stone.

Ash selected the first video again and paused it at the start to watch the video again. He had an idea of what to do. He would have Titan focus on ripping up the earth and throwing the stone. Focusing on the second and third versions of the technique would be a waste of time. The advanced forms of the technique required precise control that Titan didn't have yet and energy projection which was something else he lacked.

Besides, they could always work on advanced versions in the future and refine the technique after they got the basics down.

"Titan, I want you to watch this." Ash instructed, playing the video for him on the Pokedex so he could see.

Titan's eyes widened from excitement and he leaned forward in anticipation. His crimson eyes fixated on the screen and the Rhyperior's actions to use Rock Tomb.

"Is that what you saw after I gave you Rock Tomb?"

Titan gave an affirming grunt.

"Think you can try to replicate that?" Ash asked.

Titan gave him a skeptical look and cloaked himself in Iron Defense, prompting a frown from Ash. There was the timidity and lack of confidence again.

"It doesn't have to be perfect," Ash assured, flashing Titan a smile to help him relax. "Just need you to try the first step and lift stone from the ground. Take a deep breath and relax and then give it your best shot."

Titan took a deep breath and held it in for a second to try to gather his thoughts. His body relaxed slightly after calming his nerves.

Ash took a mental note. Lowering the expectations seemed to help Titan relax. He apparently liked pressure like he liked surprises and loud noise.

Titan grunted and stamped the ground with his legs, sending a weak tremor through the ground that caused Ash to lose his balance for a second. He stuck his arms out to steady himself and stared at the ground, partially expecting the weak tremor to cause rock to spring from the ground.

Ash blinked. It wasn't working.

"Try it again."

Titan stomped the ground again to send a weak tremor through the ground. Ash stared at the ground with bated breath.

The ground shifted and the earth beneath Titan an inch. Maybe?

Ash's face contorted into a grimace. That was definitely not what Rock Tomb was supposed to look like.

Titan cloaked himself in Iron Defense and slumped to the ground in disappointment.

"Come on, Titan, it wasn't that bad." he muttered. "Get up and we'll try again."

Larvitar lay there completely motionless, refusing to even budge when Ash gently prodded at him with his foot. Ash resisted the urge to facepalm from the pathetic display. Titan was even more dramatic than Aurora trying to avoid taking medicine, if that was possible.

"Titan, you don't have to get it right on your first attempt, let's try it again," he muttered, kneeling down beside the rock type and helping him back on his feet.

Titan reluctantly stamped the ground a third time and sent another weak earthquake through the ground. The dirt and stone beneath Larvitar's feet shifted and cracked from the weak shockwave running through it, but unfortunately the earth did not rise.

The rock type groaned, conceding defeat again. He hid himself with Iron Defense and his stubby arms by covering his face.

Ash looked at the ground with an incredulous look. So much for the third time being the charm. Titan was getting nowhere with Rock Tomb and it simply didn't make sense. What were they doing wrong? A single stomp from a rock type had the force to shatter rock, especially when they put their weight into it.

According to the video, Rock Tomb's most basic form required force that broke fragments of earth from the ground for the user to use as projectiles. If the shockwaves Titan created from striking the ground with his legs were enough to nearly knock him over and crack the ground, wasn't it enough force to break loose pieces of the ground?

Ash opened up the Pokedex entry on the Larvitar species and skimmed the information available about them for any hints of what could have hindered the technique from working. There had to be some biological or mechanical flaw.

He raised an eyebrow at the average weight listed for the species and double-checked the average weight. There was no way Titan was 158.7 pounds. Fifty pounds was a possibility, but he was nowhere near the average weight.

Ash chuckled. It made a bit more sense now why Titan wasn't able to break rock loose from the ground – he simply didn't have the weight. He couldn't throw his weight around like a Rhyperior could.

They had approached this wrong from the start. Titan needed more force if he wanted to use Rock Tomb properly and the only other way to generate the type of force that could tear up the ground was by using his jaws.

"Titan, let's try this again! This time I want you to lift heaps of earth by tearing up the ground with your mouth."

Titan's red eyes widened in shock.

"Just trust me on this, we can use Rock Tomb this way until you gain enough bulk to extract rock from the ground the normal way."

Titan reluctantly obeyed and he chomped down on the ground. His powerful jaws cut through the rock and soil, allowing him to lift a chunk of earth from the ground.

Titan grunted and teetered back and forth from the weight of the material he held in his mouth. Balancing with a massive boulder was not an easy feat.

Titan stared at Ash longingly, hoping for additional instruction from his trainer.

"Drop it on the ground in front of you, you don't need to carry it around."

Titan enthusiastically tossed the boulder in front of him and let out a relieved gurgle, glad to rid himself of the extra weight.

"I want you to hit the boulder as hard as you can with your arm."

Titan took a deep breath and pulled his stubby right arm back. He thrust his arm forward, unleashing a powerful haymaker on the chunk of earth that launched the stone and dirt into the air.

Ash smirked. "See that?" he asked, pointing to the hunk of rock before it landed in the grass a few feet away with a thud.

The clump of earth practically exploded as it hit the ground. Fragments of dust, dirt, and stone flew up into the air from the landing and from the boulder crumbling upon impact.

Titan stared at the boulder with wide eyes and shuffled over to the pile of shattered rock to examine it. He poked at the pile of stone with his arm, causing the debris to shift.

"We're going to work on that until it becomes routine for you. Think you can handle it?"

Titan grumbled, voicing his agreement.

"Good, do it again!"

Titan meandered over to his position in front of Ash and tore a chunk of earth from the ground to drop in front of himself. Another swift punch, this time from his left arm, launched the chunk of earth near the debris from the previous boulder.

The stone and dirt landed with a soft thud and shattered into a million pieces. Ash couldn't help but grin. Titan's Rock Tomb took a bit too much time to prep and had very limited range, but it was the thought that counted. Titan was making progress and that was what mattered. Speed and range would come with practice.

"Again!" Ash instructed, prompting a third use of Rock Tomb with Titan tearing up the earth with his jaws.


Ash glanced at his Pokenav. He spent more time working on Rock Tomb than he wanted, but considering Titan needed the practice he couldn't complain too much. Titan was the least developed member of the team and required more hands-on training.

He needed more instruction than the more independent members of the group. It also didn't help that Titan got flustered and frustrated when he failed. He required more affirmation than the rest of the group.

Fortunately, he still had some time left to work on other stuff with the group.

Aurora barked at him to snap him out of his thoughts. Ash glanced up from his Pokenav to the Alolan Vulpix standing in the midst of dozens of massive icicles protruding from the ground she created using Powder Snow and Freeze-Dry. "We're going to need a few more targets than that."

Aurora nodded. She took a deep breath and exhaled a prolonged blast of frigid gusts to freeze the moisture in the air. In a matter of seconds, at least a dozen more icicles formed around her..

Aurora repeated the process over and over until there were far too many icicles to count.

"That will do for now."

Aurora scampered over to his side and yipped. He leaned down and stroked Aurora's side. Ash ignored the numbing chill radiating from her body and scratched the side of her neck, causing her to tilt her head and causing her back leg to twitch. She loved having her neck scratched.

"I appreciate you setting that up for me." Ash said, finally withdrawing his hand due to the burning sensation from the cold.

Aurora looked up at him with a grateful look before turning her gaze to her teammates.

Titan grumbled and marched over to one of the icicles to examine it further. A gentle tap of the ice with his stubby arm sent a chill through his arm, prompting him to leap back and cloak himself in Iron Defense.

Orion ignored the icicles entirely, opting to entertain himself by setting grass on fire and stomping out the blaze. Ash winced. That was definitely one game he would have to convince the Ponyta not to play.

"Orion, cut that out. We don't set things on fire for fun." he scolded.

Orion leered at him for ruining his "fun", but reluctantly conceded to his trainer and stopped setting fires.

Aurora glanced at Ash with a worried expression.

"Yeah, we should probably start the training session to give them something productive to do."

Ash clapped his hands to get Orion and Titan's attention and motioned for his team, prompting his Pokemon to huddle around him as they waited for him to speak.

"Alright, time for some target practice. All the practice we've done is going to be put to the test. I have some target practice drills that I want us to work on. We're going to start with simple accuracy drills with the icicles Aurora has set up. This will get you warmed up for the next drills." he explained. "So who wants to go first?"

Titan stepped back from the team, clearly uncomfortable with the idea of going first leaving Aurora and Orion to stare at each other. Orion whinnied and stamped his feet, eager to face the challenge set before them. The Ponyta channeled a burst of adrenaline through his body and cloaked himself in Flame Charge to help add strength to his Ember attack only for Aurora to step in front of him.

She was going to lead like she usually did, like she had been asked before by Ash.

Aurora formed a small, pink sphere of light in her mouth and unleashed the potent blast of energy. Moonblast exploded with a blinding flash and shattered the icicle into dozens of tiny ice chips. Orion brayed furiously at Aurora for upstaging him and stealing his shot.

She changed targets and formed another shimmering sphere in her mouth, firing it at another icicle near her first destroyed target. The ice practically disintegrated in the explosion of light.

Unwilling to be shown up by his teammate, Orion unleashed a sweeping string of fire and hot ash upon several targets to reduce them to a puddle of water. What had begun as a simple training exercise had become a competition.

Aurora charged up an even stronger Moonblast than her previous ones and launched it in between several of the targets, letting the burst of energy wipe out four icicles simultaneously to match his feat. Orion stamped his hooves on the ground another Flame Charge enhanced gout of fire at the targets, cutting down at least seven icicles.

Aurora smirked and pumped even more energy into Moonblast. In a split second, a dozen icicles shattered into hundreds of tiny pieces from a massive blast of energy.

Orion huffed in frustration. He knew he lacked a technique with the radius of Moonblast and opted for a brute force approach by torching every icicle in range of his fiery breath.

A fifth Moonblast whizzed over Orion's head and took out at least a dozen of the targets in a single blast. Orion cloaked himself in the most powerful Flame Charge he could muster to increase his speed and frantically torched every target in sight. He would not be beaten by his teammate.

Ash took a deep breath. He wasn't sure whether to scold Aurora and Orion for turning target practice into a personal competition between them or be amazed by the fruits of their training. Multiple targets wouldn't be an issue. He was sure they would at least be able to hold their own long enough to secure that the group could escape.

Aurora prepped another Moonblast. Pink light flickered inside Aurora's mouth and coalesced into a small sphere of light only to fizzle out almost instantly, prompting a frown from Ash. Was that a misfire?

Aurora focused on gathering the energy needed to create a Moonblast again with flickering light coalescing into the shape of a tiny moon only for the construct to dissipate entirely as if it ran out of steam.

Ash folded his arms. Definitely a misfire if he ever saw one. He hadn't ever seen one in person, but there was a first time for everything.

He saw it in the Movedex while researching Moonblast recently. Misfires appeared to be characterized by fairy energy fizzling before it could fully charge and coalesce into a sphere.

Moonblast required light from the moon which was converted into energy. The energy could be stored from basking in the moonlight, but once the supply of energy ran out it required a recharge and Moonblast couldn't be used until the energy was replenished.

Thanks to Aurora's misfire, they now knew Aurora's limits regarding Moonblast.

With her most effective technique no longer an option, Aurora changed tactics and froze the moisture in the air to form a small ball of ice that she held in place with weak telekinesis. The Alolan Vulpix took a deep breath and exhaled before releasing the ball of ice from stasis, hurling the projectile at its target with pressurized cold air carrying the sphere of ice.

Another icicle bit the dust and shattered into dozens of tiny fragments with a loud crack. She repeated the process over and over, picking off targets one by one with Ice Shards to try to keep up with Orion's mad dash.

Ash smirked.

Her technique for Ice Shard was definitely improving. She was starting to get the hang of the pressurized air aspect of Ice Shard that made the attack faster, but it was still a major work in progress. Not bad for a spur of the moment thing. He would have to dedicate some time to it at some point before the Cerulean gym.

Ash looked to the targets again – at least what was left of them. He would have to change tactics for target practice. Aurora and Orion's competition had used up most of the icicles and the exhaustion in Aurora's body language made it clear that she wouldn't be up for making more icicle targets.

"That's enough!" Ash shouted.

Neither of them heard him, if the fire and ice whizzing through the air and shattering icicles were any indication. He cupped his hands together to amplify his voice. "Aurora, Orion – that's enough!" he all but screamed, snapping his eldest teammates out of their adrenaline fueled frenzy.

Orion skidded to a halt and doused Flame Charge, stumbling and tripping over himself from the abrupt stop. After a few awkward steps, Orion turned and looked to Ash once more for instruction. Aurora followed suit and put her Ice Shard barrage on hold, dispelling the telekinesis surrounding an Ice Shard and letting it fall to the ground.

"You guys are doing great, but we should probably save some targets for Titan."

Aurora glanced at the ice chips and puddles left from their warpath of unhindered destruction. She whined softly and held her head in shame, clearly embarrassed over getting so carried away. Orion snorted in amusement at the situation and exhaled one last gout of fire to melt one last icicle.

Satisfied that he had gotten the last shot in, Orion galloped away from the icicles and began to run laps on the road. Aurora glowered at her teammate over his pettiness for a moment before she curled up in the grass to rest. He hadn't noticed it before, but Aurora was winded if her deep breaths were any indication. Using that many Ice Shards and Moonblasts must have taken a lot out of her.

Ash turned to Titan. How much inferiority complex and potential fear was he going to have to deal with after this incident? He partially expected the rock type to be a in the fetal position, but instead of fear or even envy he looked down to find Titan huffing and puffing repeatedly.

Titan grunted in frustration over not being able to launch elemental attacks like his teammates. He took more deep breaths and exhaled longer until he started to get woozy from hyperventilation. Titan stumbled backwards and landed flat on his back.

Ash shook his head and resisted the ever building urge to facepalm. Of course, Titan didn't realize he could harness elemental techniques yet. He darted over to Titan's side and helped the rock type back onto his feet. "Come on, get up. You're not ready for something like that quite yet."

Titan grumbled in frustration, prompting a scowl from Ash. The last thing he needed was another blow to Titan's fragile confidence. Perhaps it would be best to work on what he could do and channel his frustration in something more productive.

"Let's work on Rock Tomb and hit the targets, okay Titan?" he suggested, guiding the young Larvitar towards the remaining icicles.

Following his trainer's lead, Titan pulled up a chunk of earth from the ground with his jaws, dropped it on the ground, and slammed his fist into it. The boulder sailed through the air for a few seconds before landing on the ground far short of the ice it was meant to hit.

Titan's eyes widened in surprise. He couldn't believe he missed.

"Try it again." Ash instructed, prompting Titan to rip another hunk of stone and dirt from the ground.

Titan slammed his arm into the boulder, but once again the projectile landed short of its mark.

Ash rubbed his chin in thought. This clearly wasn't working. He understood Rock Tomb didn't have a lot of range due to the nature of the technique. After all, boulders did not tend to travel far even when launched with brute strength.

However, Titan shouldn't have had a problem hitting a target at this distance. The boulders he launched in his first reps with Rock Tomb traveled way farther than this.

What were they doing wrong?

"Run through it again."

Titan grumbled and gave him an incredulous look. He had no confidence he could hit the ice.

"Yes, I want you to do it again."

Titan grumbled in complaint but reluctantly followed orders by tearing up the earth a third time. He dropped the stone on the ground before driving his right fist into the rock – far below the center of the boulder.

This time the boulder arced upward, sailing far over its intended target and landing in the distance with a thud.

Titan stamped the ground in frustration.

"Woah, it's okay Titan. You don't have to get this right away." he assured the rock type. "Plus, I figured out what you're doing wrong."

Titan froze and grumbled at Ash with curiosity in his voice. Ash knelt on the ground and scooped up a small pile of dirt.

"See this?" he asked, pointing to the mound of dirt.

Titan nodded.

"Imagine this as Rock Tomb," Ash said, pulling his arm back to simulate a punch from Titan. "When you're hitting Rock Tomb to drive it forward I noticed you're not centering the hit which is causing it to veer off course."

Ash pushed his arm forward, driving his fist into the center of the dirt mound he made.

"You're rushing through the steps and you're not centering your punch. Try it again, but take your time and hit it in the sweet spot."

Titan sunk his jaws into the earth, tore a hunk of rock from the ground, and slammed his fist into the center of the boulder. The boulder sailed through the air and pulverized its target, shattering the icicle into dozens tiny shards.

Titan gave Ash a courteous look and grumbled his thanks for Ash's advice. Ash grinned at him and flashed him a thumbs up.

"Think you can get the rest now?" Ash asked.

Titan grumbled enthusiastically and nodded.

"Alright, then show me what you've got!"

Ash yawned as he watched another boulder plummet to the ground before landing in the grass with a thump for the umpteeth time. He had lost track of how many reps his team had taken after the count passed the fifties and stopped trying to keep count of the reps for each of his Pokemon. He imagined that so long as his team was learning and improving that the rep count didn't matter. Besides, his advice to them was far more important.

Judging by the scores of scorched stone and ice coated boulders, they had gone through a lot of targets. Cleanup was definitely going to take a while and take some effort.

"One more rep for each of you, make it count!" Ash instructed.

Titan grunted as he pulled up a massive chunk of earth with his mouth and dropped it on the ground in front of him. He glanced at Orion and grumbled, checking if the Ponyta was ready. Orion scraped the ground with his front hooves and whinnied at Titan impatiently. Titan pulled his arm back and threw a wicked haymaker that connected with the center of the rock. The force of the impact lifted the boulder off the ground, turning the rock into a clay pigeon.

Orion opened his mouth to exhale the air stored in his lungs and unleashed a long string of flame that engulfed the boulder. Though the attack didn't generate the force required to completely destroy the boulder, what remained was far from a pretty sight. Black soot and scorch marks scarred the stone beyond recognition. Smoke rose from the smoldering rock. If there were traces of minerals or sediment in the stone before, the traces of sediment and mineral were no longer visible. The entire boulder now looked like a large lump of coal.

Ash gave Orion a round of applause. He had only missed twice throughout the aerial target training out of the dozens upon dozens of reps that he had. Even when Titan didn't square up on Rock Tomb properly and gave him an awkward target, Orion usually managed to hit his mark with Ember. "Good work, Orion!" he exclaimed.

The Ponyta bobbed his and let out a haughty whinny. Ash snorted at his antics and shook his head. He was starting to wonder if he was just showing off for Titan at this point. Ash turned his gaze to Aurora and gave her a quick thumbs up.

Aurora waited for Titan to get another boulder set up before yipping at him to let it fly. Another haymaker from Titan launched yet another boulder up into the air. Aurora inhaled, filling her lungs with as much oxygen as she could take in. She exhaled to expel the air from her lungs, turning the gusts into a super-cooled blast of icy winds aimed at the flying target.

A sheet of ice engulfed the boulder in a matter of seconds before it hit the ground with an unceremonious thud. The ice coated stone rolled down the ever growing pile with several of the other similar ice covered boulders Aurora had focused the fury of Powder Snow and Freeze-Dry on.

"Good job, Aurora! You did great!"

Aurora barked at Ash and gave him a courteous bow, prompting a jealous whinny from Orion. The Alolan Vulpix stared at her teammate with contempt for his overly competitive nature.

Aurora blew a wisp of cold air in his face, causing Orion to bristle from the chilly winds. He voiced his irritation with an angry whinny and spouted a wisp of hot ash that singed Aurora's fur in retaliation. Aurora shrugged off the hot coals and growled at Orion.

Her eyes flickered an ominous shade of violet. Ash grimaced, recognizing the technique and prompting him to whip his water bottle at Aurora to break her concentration. He definitely had enough of their petty bickering and infighting.

Aurora yelped from the water bottle bouncing off her side.

"Enough!" Ash boomed, staring down both of his oldest team members. The authoritarian tone of voice sent a shiver down both Aurora and Orion's spine and prompted Titan to drop to the ground in panic. "This is unacceptable!"

Aurora and Orion snapped out of their spat and turned to look at Ash immediately with an astonished expression on their faces. Neither of them were accustomed to seeing or hearing an exasperated Ash, at least certainly not like this.

"Aurora, you know better than to provoke Orion and you definitely know Confuse Ray is not a freaking toy to use whenever you feel like it! Orion, quit taking these practices personally! This is ridiculous, I need you guys to be examples and leaders; but instead you two are getting into petty squabbles over training drills!" Ash scolded, hoping to put an end to the competitions which had gone way too far. He turned as he noticed Titan trying to tunnel into the ground by scraping at the dirt. "See, you even startled Titan."

Aurora and Orion slumped, holding their heads down in shame.

"Arceus, we're a team and are trying to improve as a team! I don't mind a little friendly competition but I can't complete a drill today without you at each other's throats."

Aurora and Orion gave each other an apologetic look for letting their competitive natures get the best of them. Personal glory had distracted them from the larger picture of the team working together to improve. Both Pokemon glanced over to Ash and gave him an apologetic look for their actions. They couldn't help but feel a bit guilty since Ash entrusted them with the task of being leaders and they failed.

Ash smiled at Orion and Aurora to show he held them no ill-will. "No more chaotic practices, okay. A little competition is fine, but just don't go overboard. It's not a matter of life or death."

Titan peeked up from his hiding spot in the tiny bunker he had dug himself to check if his teammates were still fighting. Seeing that the quarreling stopped, the rock type waddled out of his makeshift shelter and let out a pleased grumble to voice his appreciation for the end of the tensions between his teammates.

Ash glanced back at Titan and looked to Aurora. "He's going to need his last rep too, think you can handle setting things up one last time?"

Aurora nodded and looked to Titan. She yipped at the rock type to give him the green light, prompting Titan to pull two last chunks of earth from the ground and drop them on the ground in front of him.

Orion whinnied his encouragement to his teammate before Titan launched the first boulder into the air. Aurora fixated her gaze upon the airborne projectile. The Alolan Vulpix's eyes glimmered with an unnatural light for a second as she concentrated her telekinetic abilities upon Rock Tomb to lock it in place long enough for Titan to fire the second Rock Tomb into the first boulder.

The boulders collided with a loud smack that sent a shockwave through the air that startled the entire group. Both boulders cracked and split, causing dozens of shards of loose rock to rain down upon and around the gang.

Ash nodded approvingly to Titan. "Looks like our work is paying off."

Titan grunted cheerfully before turning to the mess that the team had made. He let out a nervous grumble over the amount of debris their target practice left. Ash glanced at his Pokenav and rubbed the back of his head bashfully. Titan was right to be nervous, they had a lot of work to do.

"Guess you're right, it's almost time to go. We should probably clean up after ourselves." Ash chuckled.

The trainer from Pallet reached for his backpack and pulled out a Poke Ball with a shovel sticker on the front. Ash opened the device to release a shovel from the endless storage space of stasis. He rested his weight on the shovel and pointed to the debris on the ground.

"Alright, I'm going to need help moving all of this. If you guys can put it in the divots we left, I can try to pack it down."

All three of his teammates voiced their acknowledgement before they each took their own pile of stone to push it back into the holes in the ground made from Rock Tomb. Ash couldn't help but smile. For the first time throughout their entire practice, his team was working together as one unit rather than individuals.

Who would have thought that cleanup was exactly the real training that they'd need?

Ash stored his shovel in a Poke Ball by tapping the wooden handle with the device, prompting a small ray of light to pull the tool into the stasis of the Poke Ball.

Ash tucked the capsule away in his backpack with his other belongings before zipping up the bag. He made a mental note to search for deals on stasis storage backpacks online next time he reached a Pokemon Center so he wouldn't have to store everything in Poke Balls.

Ash hoisted the bag over his shoulder and glanced over at the fields to admire his handiwork. The divots were harder to see than he expected. He had to admit that given the circumstances that his team had done a great job. Trying to fill holes in the ground dug up by Pokemon could be tricky, but everything was packed down from what he could tell.

Ash turned to his team. "You guys ready?"

Titan grumbled, voicing his usual reluctant affirmation. Orion snorted and bobbed his head. Even after all the work they had done, the Ponyta was still chomping at the bit to hit the road. Aurora gave a brisk nod and yipped, her eyes fixated upon the mountain on the horizon for a moment before she turned her gaze upon Gary in the distance.

She nudged Ash's leg, almost as if to prompt him to go talk to Gary.

"Yeah, I know," Ash groaned. "I gotta check in with him and see if he's ready."

Orion whinnied impatiently, already growing weary of waiting. Ash took his cue and meandered towards his rival. There was a dark part of him that considered leaving him behind and embarking on the trip alone so he wouldn't have to put up with snide remarks during the expedition, but logic overrode the desire.

They stood a much better chance as a group since they had more firepower as a group. While it was unlikely they could overpower league Pokemon in a direct confrontation, they could slow them down long enough to buy time to escape if the patrols tried to pursue them.

Unfortunately, if they were going to go through Mt. Moon anytime soon they needed to work together.

"Gary, are you and your team finished yet? We're falling behind."

Gary raised his left hand to signal for Ash to wait before throwing a rock into the air with his right hand. "Hold on a second."

Magby unleashed a gout of flame from his mouth that swept over the rock.

Gary turned to face him and tucked his hands into his pockets. "Just wanted to let Magby get one last rep in," he explained. "So, you're talking about leaving now? Sure, I'm ready."

"I also wanted to talk about how we're going to go about this since I imagine they have the road and entrance to Mt. Moon blocked off."

"First off, you're the plans guy, remember? I'm just a spectator here." Gary chuckled. "Second, should we cross that bridge when we get to it? I mean for all we know they could have left by now."

Ash sighed. He was completely missing the point, but he supposed Gary had a point. Taking the main road until encountering patrols wasn't a bad idea.

"I'm not saying we don't check to see if the league checkpoints are gone, I just want a plan to get around them once we get there."

"Again, you said you were in charge of that, remember?" Gary repeated. "I'm just going to watch and criticize if everything blows up in our face."

Ash resisted the urge to facepalm. He was clearly getting him back for him giving less than transparent answers earlier.

"Let me rephrase that," Ash groaned, rubbing his chin in thought. "Here's my plan."

Thirty more minutes of walking uphill on Route 3 quickly gave the trainers an answer to the question of whether the league still had Mt. Moon on lockdown. A line of striped barricades, yellow caution tape, and a squad of at least a dozen Pokemon Rangers clad in distinct orange jackets were visible on the horizon.

Fortunately, he wasn't seeing any ACE Trainers with them which made things a bit easier since they were usually more skilled than Rangers. Not that it really mattered here.

There was no way around the Rangers and running wouldn't do them any good. They couldn't escape even if they tried. Even the diversion he planned was unlikely to work. There were too many Rangers to try diverting them somewhere else.

Even if he set Orion loose as a distraction, they could leave units at the checkpoint and still have enough manpower to investigate. Not to mention they would likely catch Orion with this many units, regardless of his speed. He would be outnumbered and quickly caught – more than likely in both scenarios.

Ash gritted his teeth. There had to be a way they proceed.

To think that he was so close to Mt. Moon. The mountain range couldn't be more than a few hundred yards away. He could even see trail markers for the slopes and signs giving information about the tunnels, yet it was just out of reach.

Ash stared at the forest with disappointment. It was supposed to be an endless labyrinth that bogged down the Rangers trying to pursue Orion. Unfortunately, the terrain gave them no advantage at all.

"I don't like that look, Ash."

Ash frowned. "I just don't see how we're going to pull this off. There's just too many."

Gary scowled. "Really? Just gonna give up like that?"

"What else are we going to do, get ourselves arrested?" Ash growled. "I don't really see any other options…"

He paused and smirked at the sight of a trailhead and winding path through the trees.

"Change of plans, follow my lead." he whispered.

Ash took off his red sports coat and tucked it into his backpack. Gary took the cue and immediately took off his blue sweatshirt leaving him with his black t-shirt beneath it. Ash lowered his cap to cover his eyes as best as he could and gently nudged Gary in the ribs, prompting him to lower the pair of sunglasses on his head down over his eyes as he led the way.

One of the rangers spotted them and stepped out from his post, strolling over to them to meet them. "How are you two gentlemen doing today?" the older man asked, smiling at the trainers.

Ash smiled back. "Good, me and a friend were just out for a walk. You wouldn't happen to know if Mt. Moon is open yet?"

The gray-haired league official sighed. "Afraid not, league orders are that Lance wants everything on lockdown still after the incident in Pewter. I apologize for any inconvenience."

Ash frowned. "That's too bad, it looked like pretty nice weather to hike on some of the trails. My friend and I have been going a bit stir crazy cooped up in our homes so we were hoping to go for a hike. Suppose we'll have to come back some other time."

Gary tilted his head. They weren't cooped up in their homes.

"Again, sorry for the inconvenience boys," the older gentleman repeated. "I wish things were different. I know the lockdown has been a bit tough on residents. We're hoping to have things opened back up in a few days."

"It's disappointing but there's always next time, I guess. We can always find somewhere else to hike." Ash sighed, turning to leave and shifting his gaze on the trail he had seen. He pivoted back around and looked at the man again, feigning hesitancy. "I probably shouldn't even ask, but are the hiking trails still open on Route 3?"

The older man looked to the trail and rubbed his chin absentmindedly. He took a deep breath. The veteran Ranger leaned in close to Ash. "Between you and me, the league probably wants us to shut down the trails but we've been letting the locals hike on the trails. People in Pewter can't just sit in their homes all day. It's travel between towns we're more worried about so we've left the trails alone."

Ash smirked. He got the exact answer he wanted which was more than enough to work with. "Thanks for your time, we'll take one of the trails for our hike instead."

Gary glared daggers at Ash as if he had lost his mind and opened his mouth to protest. Ash immediately cut him off. "Come on, Gary," he said rather forcefully, motioning for his rival to follow him. "We've got a trail to hike now."

Gary reluctantly followed him if only due to his desire to rip Ash's head off.

"What in Distortion was that?" Gary seethed through clenched teeth. "Where's that magnificent plan of yours? You promised a big distraction that would get the rangers looking the other way, but instead all I saw was small talk."

Ash gritted his teeth. "If you'd shut up for a second and let me explain, that was our distraction."

Gary's eyes bulged in anger. "What kind of trash distraction is that?"

Ash smirked. "We parted on amicable terms and we learned they let locals hike the trails."

"We're not locals, idiot," Gary grumbled.

"They don't know that. If you were paying attention I even told them we were locals." Ash replied with a smirk. "I told you, I would assess the situation first before we took any action. Resorting to Orion was a last resort. Turns out that them thinking we're going to hike the trails is a distraction in and of itself."

Gary sputtered momentarily. He almost didn't know what to say. Ideas like Ash's plan had never even occurred to him. And why would they? Hiding in plain sight was too obvious, but if they played their cards right it could work.

Gary lips quirked upward into a grin. "By Mew, Ash," he gasped. "Looks like my crafty ways are rubbing off on you after all."

Ash rolled his eyes. There was no way Gary was anywhere near as clever as he thought he was if he hadn't seen what he planned from the get go. "We still have some ground to cover, we better get moving." he said, pointing to the trail ahead of them.

Ash stumbled over a tree root jutting from the ground, but managed to right himself so he didn't fall flat on his face. Sloping terrain and tree roots protruding from a dimly lit dirt trail was a bad combination.

Gary snickered at him and stepped over the root to avoid the same fate himself. "You know, Ashy-boy, you can step over those."

Ash leered at Gary for his remark. "No one asked you." he snapped.

"I don't need to be asked to provide great commentary." Gary retorted, looking back at Ash and flashing him a smug grin.

Due to him looking back at Ash, Gary was completely oblivious to the second root a few feet away from the first one and stumbled over it. Ash burst into a fit of laughter as Gary screeched in shock and landed flat on his face in the dirt.

Gary spit out some dirt and scowled at Ash, prompting Ash to laugh even more. "Laugh it up, Ash, this isn't funny. I could have been hurt."

"Please, the only thing hurt is your pride."

"How do you know, I could sprain something or break something from a fall like that. You didn't even ask if I was okay, some kind of friend you are!"

Ash rolled his eyes. Gary was giving off more drama than a bad soap opera. He offered his hand to his rival. "Are you okay?" he asked in the most patronizing way he could muster.

"I'm telling Gramps the wilderness has made you callous."

"At least I'm getting tougher and not going soft. You're definitely showing signs of decline."

Gary snorted and shook his head. "Think you need some new material." he said, quickly changing the subject to a more pressing issue. "Why in the name of Mew does it seem so dark in here?"

Ash pointed to the forest canopy above them. Despite the sun being nearly directly over them, much of the sunlight was blocked by the trees and their leaves blocking out the light. What pin pricks of light did make it past through the canopy gleamed through like rays of light from heaven.

"Rhetorical question, Ash,"

"You asked so I answered." Ash shrugged. "But yeah, it takes a bit getting used to."

As amazing as the forest was with its sea of lush green stretching as far as could see both on the ground and above, he couldn't fault Gary for disliking the environment and terrain. For all its beauty found in the moss growing on the trees, the leaves of the trees practically glowing due to the sunlight behind them

He wasn't fond of having to tiptoe around to avoid tripping and falling. It also didn't help that the shadows made him worried. They could easily stumble upon ACE Trainers or Pokemon Rangers and not even know they were around. Or even worse, they could be ambushed by wild Pokemon.

Just ten or fifteen minutes into the trip showed him the forest of Route 3 was far different than anything he had experienced in his journey. It wasn't like Viridian's forests where the forest was teeming with the sounds of chirping birds.

Ash could hear the soft tap of his soft footsteps along with the plodding steps of Gary.

He supposed that the silence was an advantage. They would be able to hear anything out of the ordinary such as the chatter of a radio or the sounds of a Pokemon. The only sound was the occasional rustle of the leaves overhead so anything else would be out of place.

"Got a flashlight?" Ash asked.

Gary reached into his pocket and pulled out a metal flashlight. "I always carry one with me. I was hoping to save the battery for the caverns if Mt. Moon. Any particular you need it, we might need it for Mt. Moon more."

"We should use it now, we can always use Orion and Magby for natural light in the caverns if worst comes to worst. I'd rather not trip anymore."

Gary nodded. He didn't have to be told twice. Gary flicked the switch. A bright beam of light illuminated the path before them, showing them every bump and turn of the trail.

It was nice to have clarity again. That much Ash was sure of.

"Any particular direction we need to go, oh fearless leader?"

Ash ignored the barb and opened his PokeNav's map application along with the GPS feature to gain his bearings. "Let me check."

The trail was leading them South when their desired destination was East. It certainly explained why it felt like the main road of Route 3 seemed distant and why Mt. Moon was moving further away as well.

Ash pulled out a compass from his backpack to determine which direction to go. He blinked as he looked towards where the compass pointed was East. Of course, the East just happened to be through the thick brush and undergrowth.

He had planned on cutting through the forest, but not this early in the trip. He hoped that he could find a trail that would get them closer and make the expedition through the thickets of the forest short. Unfortunately, Ash would have no such luck.

"Can you figure this out faster? I'm not getting younger here, Ash!"

Ash pointed off trail at what seemed like an endless sea of green undergrowth. "This way."

Gary gave him an incredulous look. "Seriously, we gotta go through that?"

Ash nodded. "Got any other ways to Mt. Moon?"

"No." Gary sighed, accepting the inevitable.

"Then follow my lead."

Ash pushed a few branches from saplings and shrubs out of the way as he took his first steps off trail. He winced at the feeling of dew soaking soaking his tennis shoes. He hated the feeling of wet shoes on a trip. It made dirt cling to them easier and often made his socks cling to his feet which could make it annoying to remove afterwards. Not that taking off wet shoes wasn't already annoying.

Ash grimaced again as several brambles and tree branches scraped against his arms and legs, scratching his arms up. If only he had long sleeves to protect him like his jeans had protected his legs. Gary hissed as he experienced the same issues with his first steps into the woods, but held his complaints in lest he be razzed again.

He pushed one of the tree branches out of the way only for it to spring back and smack him in the forehead, prompting a muffled string of curses from Gary.

Ash snickered as Gary grabbed the branch and snapped it in half out of frustration. "Feel better yet taking on something you could beat for a change?"

"Aren't you a funny guy?"

"Maybe I should be a comedian." Ash replied, stepping over the remains of a decayed log.

"Well, you are kinda funny looking. Ever considered being a clown."

Ash rolled his eyes.

"Hey, Ash, can you remind me to do something?" Gary asked while stepping over the log himself.

Ash nodded. "Sure, what do you need more to remind you of?"

"To get myself an Abra or something that can teleport around this kind of crap."

Ash snorted. "What?" he exclaimed, feigning a gasp. "And miss this? Where's your sense of adventure Gary? Going off the beaten path is one of the privileges of traveling."

Ash stopped to observe the large ferns growing around him for a moment. He had never seen any quite so big. He glanced down at his PokeNav to double check and make sure they were headed in the right direction. It would be so easy to stray from the correct path and not even realize it.

"You really believe that crap?" Gary asked, giving him an incredulous look.

"To an extent," Ash replied, pointing to the ferns and trees. "Where else are you going to see all this?"

"Television," Gary deadpanned.

"Some field researcher you're gonna be."

"Nah, I'm not doing any of that. Definitely gonna stick to lab work."

Ash clicked his tongue and shook his head. "For shame."

He was surprised Gary could not see diverting from the established path was where all the fun began. He could get tired of the wilderness as much as anyone, but there was a beauty to nature that made it enjoyable. The wildlife, the sights, the sounds, and even the smells. There was something refreshing about the aroma of a pine tree and something calming about the sound of Pidgey chirping.

So much for Gary being an adventurer.

Whereas the flashlight had been helpful in the peak of the day because of the amount of shadows, it was an absolute necessity in the twilight of the evening. Even the small rays of light that managed to slip through the canopy were gone.

Ash felt his eyes grow heavy from exhaustion. What would have been a ten minute walk on the main road was an hour of travel in the forest. Not only did the dense undergrowth bog down travelers, but it was too easy to get lost and lose the course.

Several times Ash had to correct their course after being forced to go further north or south to find a spot where the vegetation was more manageable. The areas where poison ivy was growing or the labyrinth of tree limbs and brush were simply impossible to cross, making detours a necessity.

Fortunately, Ash noticed a gentle slope in terrain, an increase in pine trees, and a habitat change from dense undergrowth to rocky paths. He smirked and nudged Gary in the ribs. "Point the flashlight at that sign," he instructed, eyeing the silhouette of a trail map board.

Gary pointed the beam at the signs ahead. The narrow beam of light lit up a massive map of the trails surrounding Mt. Moon and the hiking paths on the slopes.

The map only confirmed his suspicions. They had arrived at their destination.

"So this is it?" Gary whispered.

Ash nodded.

"Delta-4, this is Bravo-9, I see what looks like light near the first trailhead. Need confirmation if that is you."

Ash's heart sank at the sound of a distant voice and the chime of a radio. He held his breath. Their guiding light betrayed them by revealing their position. Ash threw a hand over the front of the flashlight to douse the light long enough for him to find the power switch. He hoped that was enough and that the patrols wouldn't investigate. There was always a small chance they'd disregard it as something else. A few seconds of silence passed before another masculine voice came from the radio.

"Negative, Bravo-9, I am currently returning from a sweep of the main interior tunnel of the mountain. There was unusual seismic activity within the tunnels and I was the closest to the area to investigate."

Ash's heart raced in his chest. The flashlight had given them away and the voices were getting closer by the second.

"Okay, Delta-4, I'm looking into a possible breach on the Pine Trail at the western slope. The light disappeared, but I want to investigate the area. Might be interlopers."

Ash cringed at the term, but shrugged it off. He could complain about that later. They needed to find cover and fast.

"He's getting closer." Gary all but whined.

Ash scanned his surroundings frantically. He immediately pointed to the pines. "Over there."

He sprinted towards the first large pine tree he could find and practically dove inside the cover it provided. Needles poked and prodded his body and he felt a branch scratch his face. Ash rubbed at the scratch and brushed away the limbs near his face, only for him to notice the stickiness of his hands from all the tree sap.

He hated the feeling but was more than willing to endure in exchange for not getting caught. He quickly glanced over to his left. The rustle of a pine a few feet away gave him sufficient reason to believe Gary had made it to safety as well.

Ash clung to the trunk of the tree. Some safety this was though. He hoped the pine was enough to hide him. A few missing branches or sparse needles and it'd be over. The patrolman would find him. Not that the cover of the pins could save him from getting caught anyway. All it would take was a single tracker like Growlithe or Arcanine with a good sense of smell and they were as good as caught.

Footsteps echoed from the trail that were far heavier than those of their own. Each large plodding step inched closer with a telltale thump. A bright beam of light lit up the path as the league trainer turned on his own flashlight to illuminate his path.

Ash held his breath as he saw the light sweep back and forth. The man was almost upon them. He winced from the light being pointed at him – the moment of truth had arrived.

Was the cover enough? The beam was fixated on him and his position. Each second seemed to last for an hour and the trainer's steps were getting closer.

Ash's hand instinctively sunk to his belt. He wasn't sure what his team could even do to help him, but it couldn't be worse than doing nothing.

The very faint outline of a person stood mere inches away from his hiding spot. "I see you, you cannot hide from me!" the man shouted.

Ash's gulped. His mouth felt dry and his heart beat in his chest faster than he knew was possible. He wanted to act but his nerves didn't permit him. Ash opened his mouth only for no words to come out. What could he say anyway that wouldn't him in trouble?

He cursed silently.

How did he even see him?

The distorted shadows of a human reached for the tree only to dip down as the man bent over to pick up something off the ground. "There, can't have that on the ground." the man remarked, crushing up what sounded like a tin can. "Too much littering around here."

The league trainer pointed the beam away from the pines and continued further down the path. The light gradually moved further and further away as the trainer moved further and further away from their hiding spot.

Another chime of the radio, albeit quieter than the closer ones like man holding the walkie-talkie was far away.

"Alpha-5 here, checking in on the situation on the pine trail."

"Bravo-9 reporting, that's a negative on my end. Looks like a false alarm."

Ash let out a sigh of relief. They were in the clear, at least for now. He looked down to the map of Mt. Moon.

A faint whisper caught his attention. "Psst, Ashy-boy? What do we do now? These needles are killing me."

Ash groaned. Only Gary could completely ignore them almost getting caught and find something to gripe about. "Give me a second to think, I cannot concentrate with you talking."

He looked at the map again and raised an eyebrow. A tunnel into the mountain wasn't more than half a mile away. Unfortunately, the darkness made it hard to navigate and there was the possibility of running into an ACE trainer or Pokemon Ranger at any moment.

They were lucky to have the pines to hide in after their first run in. Ash imagined they might not get so lucky a second time.

"Well, Ash, got any bright ideas?"

"We need a way to navigate the trail and a way to know if we're about to stumble upon anyone."

"We could turn on the flashlight again or have Magby and your Ponyta light the way. Worst case scenario we bail and hide in the trees again."

Ash gave Gary an incredulous look. "I'm sticky enough from that tree sap, thanks. Plus, we might not get so lucky next time. What if they have Arcanine or we try to hide in a pine with sparse cover?"

Gary frowned. "I suppose they would see us coming rather than the other way around so forget what I said." he chuckled.

Ash slid his hand onto Aurora's Luxury Ball. He knew exactly how he was going to get them inside Mt. Moon.

A pair of bright blue eyes scanned their surroundings cautiously.

"Anything Aurora?"

The snow-white fox looked back at Ash and shook her head before putting her nose to the ground again. Aurora sniffed the ground, leading the way for the group. Her senses were perfect for navigating the darkness.

Her keen sense of smell and excellent hearing would allow her to detect incoming league personnel on patrol. Her sharp eyes would also be helpful to make sure they didn't wander off path. Considering the fact it seemed like they were gaining elevation made it more important than ever they didn't wander off the trail.

Mew only knew potentially how sharp a drop there was off the trail, even if they hadn't officially hit mountainous terrain.

Still, rolling down a hill wasn't exactly subtle and the last thing Ash needed was for either of them to hurt. Even something as simple as a sprained ankle would make the expedition tougher. Carrying another person while trying to evade league patrols wasn't feasible. At that point, they'd likely be forced to retreat or they'd get caught trying to retreat or progress.

Aurora stuck her nose to the air and growled, prompting Ash to freeze in his tracks. "Got something, Aurora?" he whispered.

Gary raised an eyebrow and frowned. "Something wrong?"

Aurora pressed her nose to the ground and snorted. The dust tickled her nose and forced her to sneeze. Ash squinted – Aurora was onto something but what he couldn't make heads or tails out of what it was.

She pressed her front feet on the ground causing the rock and dirt to shift. The path gave way, revealing a massive hole in the path.

"What is that?" Gary gasped.

Ash bent down to examine the hole and ran his finger around the edges. He raised an eyebrow. The edges of the hole were smooth – far too smooth for plain erosion. More than likely it was a pit trap of some sort, albeit a crude one. The pit had a larger width than it had depth.

"Something dug this hole, right Aurora?"

The ice type nodded and sniffed again, demonstrating she picked up a scent.

"Any idea what dug it?"

Aurora shook her head. He supposed it was a tall task even for her to give the answer to what dug the hole without a reference to go off of.

"Thanks for catching that,"

Aurora brushed against his leg affectionately and gave him a contented whimper. Ash shivered. Her cold touch made goosebumps form on his skin even through his jeans.

Gary clicked his tongue. "Someone doesn't want us here."

Ash stared at the hole. "You can say that again. Any idea what would dig something like that?"

"Bet you twenty bucks that it was a Diglett or Dugtrio, whatever dug this had to be a natural digger and tunneler. The hole's too neat to be made by something without experience."

Ash nodded. Those were his exact thoughts. Gary took a step forward to step over the large hole, only for Ash to grab his arm. His rival wheeled around. "You're slowing me down, Ashy-boy." his rival growled.

"Just hold on a second, we don't know if there's any other traps like these around."

The pit trap was fairly big and he wasn't fond of the idea of trying to jump over the hole, especially with the potential of more traps being around. Going around it could be just as big an issue.

"Well, I'd send out Rhyhorn to check by sending out seismic waves but he neither has the precision for that nor the subtlety. He'd more than likely roar and wake the neighborhood."

Ash smirked. "Don't worry, we'll handle it." he whispered before looking to Aurora. "Can you freeze the path? Add weight to it with a coat of ice. It should weigh on any ground that is unstable and collapse it."

Aurora nodded and exhaled with Freeze-Dry, covering the path ahead in a thick coating of ice. He waited a few seconds to see if it caused any changes.

"Again." he muttered.

Aurora doused everything in cold gusts a second time, adding weight to the sheet of ice. Ash waited a few seconds, listening for the slightest crack that would hint at something giving way.

Not that it would likely matter. The thick ice would serve as an extra safeguard by creating something to walk on.

"Alright, Mom, am I allowed to go now?" Gary asked, mustering as much sarcasm as possible.

Ash rolled his eyes and released Gary's arm. "I'd rather not have to hear you whine about getting stuck in a hole."

Aurora led the way, gliding across the newly created ice road with glee. Ash followed his starter. They were getting closer to their desired destination, but he had the feeling that the path to get there would be anything but easy.

Ash took a quick glance at his PokeNav to gauge the distance left to travel. From the looks of it, they couldn't be far. The mountains were getting closer and more defined.

"We're almost there, Ashy-boy, looks like your navigational skills aren't too bad." Gary remarked, pointing to a trail marker for the path to the Onix Tunnel path.

"Close and arrived are entirely different things, we still have some ground to cover."

Gary rolled his eyes. "Relax, we haven't even seen or heard so much as a Rattata on these trails since the pit traps. I think we're in the clear."

Aurora immediately came to a stop and tensed up almost as if on cue. Ash frowned. "Great going, Gary, you jinxed us."

Gary snorted. "It's probably nothing,"

Aurora's ears twitched and she growled softly, prompting Ash's heart to race. She definitely heard something she didn't like. A blood-curdling shriek came from the darkness above. "What was that?" Gary all but shouted.

Ash looked skyward scanning the skies for the slightest movement. He flinched at the sound of flapping wings and soon met a pair of scarlet eyes staring down at him from above. Ash leapt back to narrowly avoid being grazed by its massive talons. Aurora snarled at the bird for threatening her trainer and unleashed a blast of frigid gusts aimed at the bird's wings in retaliation.

A pressurized gust of winds descended from the sky and clashed with the Powder Snow forcing the arctic air back towards Aurora. The wind gusts pushed her back, but Aurora planted her feet and retaliated with an Ice Shard aimed at the interloper who interrupted her fight.

The second bird stretched its wings, revealing its brown plumage and large wingspan as it soared high into the sky to dodge the Ice Shard. The tan bird let out an eerie screech to call out to the other bird. The shadowy bird squawked back, prompting a short exchange between them as if they were communicating.

Ash frowned. They definitely were part of the same team if the communication skills were any indication. His eyes narrowed to slits. He hadn't gotten a good look at his attacker and still couldn't make out what it was due to how well it blended in with the shadows; but he definitely recognized the second bird due to the feathers sticking up on its head to form what looked like horns.

That was a Noctowl if he'd ever seen one.

"Careful, Aurora, Noctowl are skilled with illusions and we're not sure what its teammate is." Ash whispered. Aurora whined softly in acknowledgment. "Also they're league Pokemon, don't hurt them too badly."

Aurora growled at the command, but reluctantly nodded. She took the attack of her trainer personally, but she wouldn't defy orders. Not that it really changed her mindset on how she would handle the threats, she just wouldn't use "lethal" force.

Gary gritted his teeth. "Noctowl, huh? They really thought this through by using a bird that can navigate in the dark. I can't make out its partner though," he remarked, squinting to try to make out the silhouette. "Whatever it is blends in with the dark!"

"Whatever it is, I need back. Aurora can't take two at once."

Gary nodded unclipped a black and yellow Ultra Ball from his belt. "Alright, we've got your back," he chuckled as he tapped the button on the front of the capsule twice, causing it to expand and release the Pokemon inside just as Noctowl unleashed another pressurized blast of air by beating its wings.

Ash winced from the flash of light and lost his night vision for a few seconds. He cursed at the loss of vision because he knew he should have covered his eyes before the flash. Fortunately, he knew Gary and Aurora would have his back.

Aurora exhaled, blowing a powerful blast of pressurized air to intercept Noctowl's attack. The strong arctic gusts were nowhere potent enough to overpower Noctowl's attack, but they repelled the winds from Noctowl long enough for Ash to regain his bearings and leap out of the path of the gusts.

Ash winced from the dust, dirt, and pebbles kicked up by the wind. He shielded his eyes to try to keep the debris out just in time to avoid being blinded by another flash.

"Magby, I've had about enough of this crap, blow that Noctowl out of the sky! Make Noctowl barbecue!" Gary ordered.

Ash felt his stomach sink and cursed under his breath. Gary just sent out Magby?

The volcanic Pokemon carefully scanned his surroundings taking in every bit of information about the terrain around him before fixing his gaze upon his foe. He took a moment to examine his flight patterns before smirking and belching out a bright trail of fire and red hot ash.

The cloud of soot and streams of flames forced Noctowl to climb into the sky to avoid being singed.

Ash gritted his teeth at the sight of Magby's Ember. Was Gary trying to blow their cover? He understood Gary wanted something with ranged attacks and battling experience, but was Magby really the best option given the circumstances? He doubted that the fire and glowing coals had been missed by any patrolling league units in the area.

The sound of barking in the distance tore Ash from his thoughts. The Ember definitely hadn't gone unnoticed, but he didn't have much time to dwell on it. Sparks formed at the tip of the other shadowy bird's beak finally revealing what their second opponent was.

The fedora-like plumage around its head was all they had to see to recognize it. "That's a Honchkrow, isn't it?"

Ash nodded.

"Two for one deal on flying types today?" Gary chuckled.

Ash rolled his eyes. How he could be so nonchalant amazed him, especially with the sound of barking Pokemon in the distance. They needed to finish this quickly.

"Ember!" Gary ordered. "Take out Honchkrow!"

Magby meticulously observed his foe's erratic movements getting the pattern it was circling above him down to the second before spewing another stream of fire into the sky while leading his foe.

Honchkrow repelled the fire and ash with a beam of spiraling violet rings that cut through the flames. Magby grunted from the impact and stumbled momentarily from being exposed to the unnatural energy blast.

Aurora rushed to Magby's aid and took aim at Honchkrow with another Ice Shard.

Honchkrow plunged into a dive to narrowly avoid the projectile and unleashed a wave of lightning from its bill aimed directly for Aurora. The Alolan Vulpix yelped as a wave of electricity surged through her body. Aurora spasmed repeatedly from the current coursing through her body and making nerves fire uncontrollably.

Magby shrugged off the unpleasant experience caused by Dark Pulse and spewed another gout of fire into the air – this time meant for Noctowl.

The owl flapped its wings to douse the fire and blow Magby backwards with the wind gusts. Honchkrow charged up another Thunder Wave and released the power against Aurora as she started to form another Ice Shard.

Aurora channeled a short burst of adrenaline through her body to enhance her speed for a quick Agility to narrowly avoid the crackling electricity.

Aurora retaliated by launching the hunk of ice at Honchkrow. The bird veered left and straight into an Ember from Magby and a Freeze-Dry from her.

The soot singed the left side of its body while the frigid air from Freeze-Dry shocked the right side of Honchkrow's body into spasm from the absurd cold. The body was never meant to be exposed to such polar extremes, even that of a Pokemon.

Honchkrow plummeted to the ground for a few moments before righting itself and making a sweeping turn. Honchkrow squawked at its partner.

Ash smirked as Honchkrow and Noctowl fell back. They could finish this – they needed to finish this if the barks getting closer were any indication. The birds were on the ropes and there was no way they could let them make it back to the patrols to inform them of anything they saw. He reached down to his belt for Orion's Poke Ball.

Screw stealth, they needed firepower to finish the job and knock out the birds.

Ash unclipped Orion's Poke Ball from his belt and released his fire type from stasis.

Orion emerged from his Poke Ball with a triumphant whinny. "Ember!" Ash commanded, pointing to Noctowl.

Orion stamped his front hooves and spewed a prolonged gout of fire and hot ash into the air to force both birds to retreat by climbing further into the sky. He was a bit surprised that neither of the birds appeared to be tapping into their full abilities. Either they weren't well trained or their development was rushed much like Team Rocket Pokemon.

Honchkrow and Noctowl seemed like they were on the defensive constantly and were just keeping Ash and Gary's Pokemon off balance. If he didn't know better they were stalling.

Ash's smirk turned into a frown at the sudden realization. The birds didn't overpower them because they weren't meant to. They had been played – Honchkrow and Noctowl were ploys to stall them so the patrols could close in. Judging by the yelps of Growlithe or Arcanine getting closer, the plan was working.

"Do we have the whole league after us now?" Gary hissed.

He swore under his breath and looked to their intended path. "I have no idea, but I don't intend on sticking around to find out!" Ash exclaimed. "Let's go! We need a diversion!"

Gary nodded. "Know what happens when hot and cold collide?"

Ash smirked, catching his drift. "Aurora, Freeze-Dry!"

"Magby, Ember, full power!"

Aurora's icy gales clashed with a stream of fire from Magby with a woosh and in an instant a massive cloud of steam obscured everything in sight. The group sprinted down the path with reckless abandon with Magby and Orion leading the way with their fire lighting the way.

They needed to lose the patrols after them and they could lose them in the labyrinth that was Mt. Moon's tunnels. They just needed to get there.

Ash grinned as he eyed what looked like another trail marker. Had they arrived?

He looked to his PokeNav said they were in the right spot and the trail marker even indicated they were in the right spot. There was even a map of Onix Tunnel in front of the stone cliffs in front of them. Ash's heart sank as he approached the cliff face where the tunnel should have been only to find large boards where the entrance to the Onix Tunnel trail through Mt. Moon should have been.

"What is this?" Ash gasped, noticing the boards.

"I don't know, is this not Onix Tunnel?" Gary asked.

Ash held up his PokeNav for Gary to see, prompting a scowl from Gary.

"This is the right place alright," Gary grumbled. "They must have boarded it up though."

Ash felt his heart nearly skip a beat. The patrols couldn't be far behind because the whines and barks were getting louder. There would be no hiding this time, the Pokemon would pick up on their scent. There was no doubt that their only way of escape was to get into Mt. Moon.

"Orion, ram it with Flame Charge! Aurora, Tail Whip!"

The Ponyta cloaked himself in flame and Aurora twirled through the air to hit the boards with her tail. They rushed at the blockage and slammed into the boards simultaneously, only to bounce off the wooden boards like they ran into a wall.

Ash frowned. Even with full force, at best the thick plywood had been dented and nothing more. Aurora and Orion's brute force hadn't been enough to break through.

"Need more firepower!" Gary exclaimed. He unclipped Jangmo-o's Poke Ball from his belt before tapping the release button twice, sending out Jangmo-o to support the rest of the group.

The dragon grunted and bowed his head to the rest of the group.

Ash followed Gary's lead by unclipping Titan's Poke Ball from his belt and releasing him from stasis. "No Rhyhorn?"

"Do we really need him deciding to attack us?" Gary replied.

Ash conceded the point and looked to Titan. The Larvitar shrunk down in fear due to the unfamiliar group around him and the sounds of howling Pokemon in the distance.

"Titan, it's okay. We're here for you." Ash assured in a calming voice, pointing to himself and the rest of the team.

The rock type inches closer to Orion and relaxed if only a little due to his teammates being with him.

"We need your help, the group is going to try to break down that barricade all at once."

Titan grumbled in agreement before their combined forces unleashed attacks upon the wooden boards. Even the combined force of Flame Charge, Mach Punch, Headbutt, Tail Whip, and a Bite only cracked the boards.

"What?" Gary exploded, completely shocked their combined forces failed to break through.

"Great, now what do we do?" Ash groaned, a hint of panic leaking into his voice. The barks and howls were practically upon them.

"I dunno, but we need to know fast!" Gary exclaimed.

Ash rubbed his chin absentmindedly.. Scatterbrained plans to destroy the barrier flooded his mind, but none of them even seemed worth trying.

Physical force wouldn't work, it would take too long to burn up the plywood with fire, and Moonblast wasn't an option at the moment due to Aurora having used up the stored energy for the technique.

If only they could blow apart the boards with the explosive force of Moonblast or something of a similar nature. He smirked at the thought.

"We need explosive force!" Ash blurted out. "Maybe if we combine attacks or something it will generate the force needed?"

Gary's eyes widened. A manic grin formed on his face as he reached into his backpack. "Step back, I've got this one."

Ash frowned as Gary pulled out five canisters of what looked like Pokemon repellant and set them in front of the boards.

"What. In. Distortion?" Ash sputtered.

Gary grabbed onto Ash's arm and yanked him backwards. "Everyone get back!" Gary shouted, prompting Orion, Aurora, and Titan to scramble for cover. "Magby, Ember!"

Ash felt his heart sink upon finally realizing what Gary was up to. Gary was going to kill them all. "You idiot – no!" he screamed.

He barely had time to finish his scolding before a fireball ignited with a loud whoosh. Ash shut his eyes and winced, expecting a wave of fire to sweep over them. The air temperature increased drastically.

One second. Two seconds. Three.

Ash's eyes widened in shock. He was still alive and he hadn't caught on fire – definitely a good sign. He popped up and brushed himself off before looking to the boarded up tunnel. Fragments of charred plywood left from the blast showed Gary's plan worked.

"Problem solved!" Gary beamed, grabbing Ash's arm and dragging him along with him into the cavern as the sound of wings beating grew closer.

Honchkrow and Noctowl were gaining on them as well. Ash blinked and followed his rival at a hurried pace, finally reorienting himself to the world around him again after the shock of wondering if he was going to die in a fiery explosion.

"There's no time to drag your feet!" Gary scolded.

Ash frowned. Easy for him to say. "You can't just blow something up without telling me the plan ahead of time!" he snapped.

"Too late!" Gary retorted. "Ember!"

Magby spewed another stream of fire at the entrance, igniting six more bottles of repel. A weak shockwave rattled the world around them and jarred loose tons of rock, blocking the entrance off with stone.

Ash raised an eyebrow. He had to admit that detonating repels was a pretty ingenious idea, albeit outright insane.

There was a reason the bottles were labeled with warnings about exposing them to flame. The contents could explode and turn the containers into grenades. Toying with explosive chemicals, much less chemicals under pressure, had so many bad ways the experiment could end. They just happened to have it go in their favor – at least he thought it did.

He looked around frantically for their team members.

"Don't worry," Gary assured nonchalantly. "They're all fine!"

Ash let out a sigh of relief at the sight of Aurora, Orion, and Titan standing off to his side. He was so fixated on the explosion he lost track of them.

Reassured that his team was safe, he whipped around and glared at Gary. "Are you out of your mind?"

Gary crossed his arms. "Did you have any better ideas on how not to get arrested and deal with those boards?"

"I was thinking!"

"And I reacted! You're welcome, we're not going to jail!"

Ash groaned and buried his face into his palm. Gary technically did have a point. He sort of froze up in that situation after his plan to bash the boards failed. Not to say a random explosion was a great idea, especially with how close they were.

"You know how much trouble we're going to be in for this if we ever get caught?"

"For trespassing, evading arrest, and then that last stunt? Oh yeah, we're screwed. But they aren't gonna get us. Besides, we can always get the charges dismissed when one of us grabs the champion spot. Screw the rules if you make them, right?"

Ash shook his head. "And you say I scare you."

Gary smirked. "Come on, it is just like old times. Breaking into Gramps' stuff, having Gramps' Arcanine set the meadow on fire just to watch the grass burn, and climbing trees for honey from Beedrill hives."

"Except we didn't have the league after us those times."

"Hey, they couldn't ID us or catch us and there's a wall of rubble between them and us for the time being that will probably take them a while to dislodge – out of sight, out of mind!"

Ash snorted. "Ever the optimist. You're a bad influence, you know that?"

"Isn't that what brothers are for?" Gary retorted with a mischievous glint in his eyes.

Ash rolled his eyes and punched Gary in the arm again. "Just try not to blow stuff up without warning me first,"

"Alright, I'll give you at least a ten second heads-up." Gary replied, picking up speed and putting distance between him and Ash.

"Hey, that's not funny!"

Gary gave him a dismissive wave and motioned for Magby to pick up the pace.

Ash slumped, eliciting a supportive nudge from all three of his teammates.

He petted Aurora and Orion as they brushed against him and flashed a thumbs up to Titan. The heat from Orion on his right and the chill from Aurora on his left was a mind numbing contrast. Having one side of your body hot and the other cold was weird to say the least.

"This trip has been something else, huh?" Ash whispered.

If nothing else, his trip at Mt. Moon had been anything but boring.

Aurora nodded and Orion bobbed his head in agreement while Titan gave him an incredulous look like he had made the biggest understatement in his life. "Just make sure to have each other's back, we can't be too careful. I don't think anything here will give us too much trouble, but you never know."

His team nodded, prompting a grin from Ash. He looked into the darkness of Mt. Moon and felt adrenaline pumping through his veins as he charged ahead. Adventure lay before them and all they had to do was seize it.

Ash hissed as he slammed into a low hanging stalactite and rubbed his now aching head. Aurora gave him a concerned look and nudged him with her icy nose, prompting him to wave her off and give her a reassuring smile.

"I'm fine." he muttered, turning to look for his other teammates. "Wish the ceilings were a bit higher and there weren't so many stalactites through."

Aurora barked in agreement, staring at the stone above with disdain. Ash squinted, straining to see what lay ahead of them due to the darkness. They definitely needed light. Where was Orion anyway? It wasn't like him to linger, if anything he usually led the way.

"Orion, where are you?" Ash called out, turning to look for the Ponyta who seemed to be lagging behind.

Orion stood beside a panting Titan sitting on the floor of the cave while munching on part of a stalagmite. He gave Ash a sympathetic look as if to try to get the trainer to go easy on the young rock type. Ash chuckled at both of them. "Break time? Well, I guess Titan does have a point."

He couldn't say he blamed Titan. The Larvitar wasn't accustomed to long distance travel yet and they had covered quite a bit of ground. Ash decided to follow his youngest teammate's lead, stopping and leaning up against a wall. He flinched at the touch of the cold rock against his skin and tensed for a moment before acclimating to the coolness of the stone.

Ash sighed.

Mt. Moon was exhausting. The sloping, jagged terrain was quickly becoming Ash's nemesis. It wasn't at all like what Ash pictured the place being like. The idealized picture of smooth stone floors and pristine paths groomed by the league was not at all what he was now navigating. Instead, he found himself treading across uneven floors with crevices that one could practically break an ankle in if they got caught up in it and ducking to avoid hitting his head on the occasional low hanging rock.. It certainly didn't help that aside from Magby and Orion and artificial light, the caverns were dark. The unending darkness made the tunnels seem even longer.

"Come on, Mr. Adventurer," Gary jeered. "Can't be tired out now, we've only just begun."

Ash glared daggers at his rival. "An hour and a half, Gary," he sputtered. "Plus, whatever the time was between the forest trails and this labyrinth. We've been on the move for a while."

Gary laughed. "Getting soft on me now?"

Ash gave him an incredulous look. "You're just doing this out of spite because I did it, aren't you?"

Gary grunted, quickly letting his energetic facade drop. "You know me well." he snorted, following Ash's lead and leaning against a wall. He unscrewed the lid from a water bottle and took a sip. "Think we've lost them?"

"I don't know, I find it hard to believe they wouldn't have found a way to dislodge the rubble by now." Ash replied before reaching into his backpack for a water bottle and taking a drink. "Still, an hour and a half is a decent headstart on them."

Gary nodded. "That it is, but is it enough to stop for a moment and grab a bite to eat?"

Ash glanced down at his PokeNav. His eyes widened. He couldn't believe it was 11:30 at night, although it did explain the exhaustion. Whatever adrenaline rush he had from fleeing from the patrols of ACE Trainers and Pokemon Rangers and the excitement of adventure had long since worn off.

"Come on, Gary, we gotta stop at some point,"

Gary nodded. "Yeah, I know, I was mainly just messing with you. My team probably could use a break as well." he replied. "Besides, we all know you lazy slobs will pass out if you have to go any further."

Aurora growled at the remark and Orion brayed in protest. Even Titan was agitated by the remark if the death glare he was giving Gary and his team was any indication.

Ash rolled his eyes. He had long since grown accustomed to Gary's remarks and boasts, but apparently his team wasn't quite used to his more abrasive characteristics if their scowls were any indication. He couldn't exactly blame them for being upset. Gary's trash talk about endurance was getting old. It stopped being funny an hour ago when Gary kept hounding him on how tired he looked and kept cracking jokes every time his eyelids drooped.

"Just try not to end up sucking wind and ask me to carry you," Ash fired back, prompting a chorus of amused snorts from his team.

"Big talk, Ash, considering your battling track record I'm starting to think that's all you're good at."

"Clearly I'm just letting you win so you don't feel so bad,"

Gary snorted. "Oh, so now you're letting me win? Sounds like bad excuses to me,"

"Well, I learned them from you so…"

Gary clicked his tongue. "No, no, I have perfectly good reasons for things."

"I dunno, Gary, claiming the sun was in your eyes in the Poke Ball throwing contest back in school wasn't exactly a believable reason for losing."

"Looks like you have to go back a long way to find a win, huh, Ashy-boy?"

Ash smirked and waved him off. "Just making up for all the times I whooped you back in school. I was starting to feel bad for you."

He reached for his backpack and set his team's bowls on the ground one by one before pouring food into their dishes. He peeked over at Gary's group as he did the same and filled up food dishes for both Magby and Jangmo-o.

Ash sat down against a wall and reached into his bag for the pizza trainer meal in his backpack. He eyes the picture of a tiny pizza crust with tomato sauce and shredded cheese dubiously. If these were anything like the tiny sandwiches, he was certain that he was in trouble. What he would do for an actual pizza fresh from the oven. In fact, he would have killed for a hot meal right about now; but he supposed the cold pizza imposter would have to suffice.

Ash tore the box open and stared at the round crust, tiny strands of mozzarella cheese, and squeezable pouch of tomato sauce. It technically contained ingredients for pizza. That had to count for something.

He squeezed the pouch of runny tomato sauce and sprinkled some cheese on top before taking a bite. The trainer sighed. It was about what he thought it would be. He would probably have had the same results if he had bought ketchup, bread, and cheese.

He looked over at his team devouring their food. At least they could enjoy their meal. If nothing else, they would be ready for the next leg of their trip. They all needed the rest and food.

Ash gulped down the last few bites of his food and shut his eyes. "Wake me up when you guys have finished."

Ash scowled at the cavern walls of Mt. Moon. He hated the tunnels because it felt like they were walking around in circles. In fact, if it wasn't for a compass giving him direction, he would have assumed they were lost.

Up, down, left, right – it didn't really matter. Every single path they took seemed the same. Each tunnel had the same uneven stone floors with crevices the explorer needed to avoid twisting an ankle in; the same cold air with a musty, earthy smell; and the occasional stalagmites or stalactites that he had to avoid running into.

The only things that really changed in the caverns were slope and space. Fortunately, most of the recent paths didn't slope like some of the first few tunnels that they had explored. Adding ups and downs to the already treacherous trek was like rubbing salt in a wound. Unfortunately, the tunnels narrowed which gave off the constant impression the walls were closing in due to the narrow paths and shadows. The tunnels were not for those that were claustrophobic.

He longed for the warmth of his sleeping bag and some rest. As sweet as his fifteen minute nap had been, it was nowhere near enough rest.

In fact, five more hours of travel with no breaks was probably not his best idea; but they did need to keep moving. They had lost their privilege of rest when the league spotted them entering Onix Tunnel.

Ash felt his eyes grow heavy only for a cold sensation nipping at his leg to jolt him awake. Aurora brushed up against Ash and blew a wisp of cold air in his face for good measure.

He brushed snow flurries from his face. "Thanks," he whispered.

Aurora blew another weak stream of cold air in his face again for good measure and leered at him as if to warn him to stay awake. Ash staggered backwards upon being blinded by snow flurries and rubbed his eyes. "I'm good, I'm alert, I'm awake!" he hissed, prompting Orion to snort in amusement.

Ash leered at Orion. "It's not funny."

The Ponyta whinnied in amusement again and puffed a small ring of smoke in his face. Ash sputtered from the smoke and stumbled backwards.

"I liked you, but now you're just a jerk." Ash grumbled at the fire type, prompting another snort from Orion. "And to think that two of my closest friends are ganging up on me like this."

Aurora smirked. This was far too much fun.

Titan gave Ash and the rest of the group a perplexed look. He wasn't entirely sure what to think about the exchange between the three of them. Hurling projectiles and weak elemental attacks at their trainer seemed rather unnatural, but it seemed to be how the group enjoyed themselves. The rock type tore a small chunk of earth from the ground with his jaws to follow Aurora and Orion's lead.

Orion immediately kicked the hunk of rock away with his hoof and Aurora trapped Titan in stasis with a Disable, prompting him to shrink down in fear and cloak himself in an Iron Defense. Ash frowned and tilted his head.

"What are you guys doing?" he groaned.

Orion spewed a wisp of flame towards the projectile he had kicked away. Ash raised an eyebrow. Had Titan planned on using Rock Tomb? Even with his mind clouded by exhaustion, he quickly put two and two together. "Woah, Titan, we don't wake people up or play with Rock Tomb!"

Aurora nodded in agreement as she released Titan from stasis. The Larvitar grumbled in disappointment. Ash knelt down and patted Titan on the head to try to reassure him. Unfortunately, the gesture simply caused the rock type to tense up and stumble backwards into the cavern wall as he tried to get away.

Ash groaned at the sight of a stunned Titan lying on his back. That definitely could have gone better. He extended his hand and pulled Titan back onto his feet. "Sorry, didn't mean to startle you." he apologized. "It's just not safe to use Rock Tomb for messing around, it could hurt someone."

Titan looked down in shame.

"Don't worry, we're not mad. You just scared the group a bit."

Titan perked up a bit and looked to the others for approval. Aurora and Orion nodded to reassure the younger Pokemon they weren't angry.

"See, just a learning moment!" Ash beamed.

"What in Distortion is this? Taking a break again?" Gary laughed.

Ash flinched at the sound of Gary's voice. Was his voice always this grating or was he just less tolerant of it because he was tired. "Just talking with the team." he answered tersely.

"Why were you asking them to carry you now that you're too tired to walk yourself?"

Magby grumbled gleefully at the remark, a glint of mischief in his eyes. Jangmo-o didn't seem to share quite the same glee in gloating over a foe, but still held his head up with a sense of superiority over them.

Arceus, it looked like Gary had rubbed off on them too.

Ash rolled his eyes. "No, were you? I thought I heard you sucking wind back there." he taunted.

"I'm good, this is nothing more than a morning jog for me!"

"Huh, you lag behind people in your morning jogs?"

Gary opened his mouth to fire another witty retort only for a powerful tremor to shake the earth and knock both of the trainers off their feet. Ash gritted his teeth as he landed on his rear with a thud. He sat up immediately and looked over to Gary to see how he was doing after the sudden quake.

"You okay?" Ash gasped, noticing Gary lying flat on his back.

Gary groaned, rubbing his head and sitting up. "Did you get the number of the truck that went through here?"

Ash snickered at the joke. "Was about to run a license plate number actually."

"Just what in Distortion was that?"

"I don't know, but whatever it was we should get moving."

Gary's eyes widened. "You don't think they know where we are now?"

Ash frowned. He hadn't thought of that, but it was a vague possibility. Fortunately, he didn't hear any barking or yips from search Pokemon and he doubted the league would have any reason to send seismic tremors.

Even if they demolished the stone blocking the entrance, there was no way they would have felt the tremors where they currently were.

"No, but we should keep moving. Not sure we want to know what that was."

Gary nodded. "Knowing our luck it's like Golem mating season or something."

Ash cringed at the unpleasant thoughts in his mind from Gary's remark as he pressed onward in hopes of reaching their destination. Gary quickly followed suit, taking advantage of the fact the tunnels were starting to widen by walking alongside Ash instead of following him.

Ash rubbed his chin in thought. Something else had to have caused those tremors – something much closer to them and something large.

Ash's eyes widened from the disturbing thought in the back of his mind. He suspected that the place got its name for a reason. There were occasional rumors of Onix nesting grounds in Mt. Moon shared between veteran trainers; but he never really heard where those nesting were.

The name of the path they had taken was beginning to make him wonder. The websites hadn't indicated anything dangerous and it was considered a popular hiking and expedition path; but the tunnel was boarded up when they arrived. A famous trail wouldn't be boarded up without a good reason.

"Gary, you don't think..." Ash began, his voice trailing off. He didn't even want to finish the thought. Everything made too much sense.

"Onix in Onix Tunnel? Yeah, I was just thinking the same thing. I mean, what could do something like that?" Gary replied, pointing to the walls and ceiling ahead of them.

Ash frowned at the sight of fissures in the stone. Not a single spot of the tunnel had been spared from the seismic force – the floors, walls, and ceilings all had cracked in multiple places. Long fissures on the walls and ceilings stretched out as far as the eye could see.

Ash couldn't help but wonder if it was even safe for them to be traveling in the tunnel any longer since the ceilings and walls didn't even look structurally sound with the cracks running through them.

Ash felt his heart sink. The evidence was irrefutable. Only two wild Pokemon were capable of that type of destruction – Golem and Onix. Considering the fact Golem were almost unheard of in the wild and that Golem were more reclusive made it easy to determine they were dealing with Onix.

His fears were soon confirmed by two freshly carved tunnels and massive gashes in the ceiling.

"Onix?" Gary muttered.

Ash gave him an incredulous look. "Could it be anything else?"

"Don't know about you, but I am not just going to stand around – let's get moving before it can even think about coming back here!"

Ash snorted. "Woah, it's not like it is going to turn around and target us now that we've seen the tunnels! We do need to get moving but panicking isn't going to help anything."

Before he could even finish, Gary was gone – sprinting through the tunnel like a complete madman.

Ash rolled his eyes. What good would wearing themselves out further do? There wasn't much they could do now that they had entered these tunnels and sprinting towards the main path didn't make them any more or less likely to encounter Onix on the way.

Besides, it wasn't like they couldn't handle an Onix. Aurora had taken one down before. The combined firepower of his team and Gary's team could be enough of a deterrent to chase off even more territorial Onix. It was multiple Onix they would have to fear.

Multiple Onix tunneling at the same time could potentially collapse walls and ceilings burying them in rubble.

"Alright, Aurora, listen for anything that seems out of the ordinary! Orion, lead the way with your light so we can see where we're going! Titan, tell me if you sense any seismic vibrations in the ground." he instructed, playing to each of his teammates' strengths for surveillance purposes.

Aurora nodded and looked ahead to the faint glow of Magby in the distance before giving Ash an incredulous look. Even she was questioning why Gary was moving at his breakneck pace.

Aurora had the common sense to know it was not safe to leave the safety of numbers when dealing with the type of threat they were confronted with. What was Gary's excuse?

"Yeah, I know, he's stupid and he shouldn't be that far ahead."

Titan grunted in agreement while Orion snorted at the remark in amusement and galloped ahead to lead the way.

"Let's go before he does something else stupid." Ash groaned, following Orion's lead.

With any luck this expedition would be over soon. Traveling with Gary was certainly an experience. His rival was perhaps the only person whose drive matched or exceeded his own. It certainly made him wonder – was this what it was like for other people who had to keep an eye on him?

"Gary, wait up!" he called out, trying to keep up.

Ash squinted to try to make out his surroundings with little but the light of his PokeNav's screen – it was weird navigating without the flames of Orion's mane lighting the way but his team needed the break. He could manage without them for a little while. Besides, even without light, he could tell the terrain was shifting again.

He could feel the cavern floor beneath his feet and the floor felt like he was walking down a slope. There was a pressure in his ears that served as a telltale sign of a drop in elevation. The tunnel even appeared to be widening even more giving them at least three or four times the room to space.

Had they reached the main path?

They certainly had walked quite a distance. He was pretty sure the last stretch of cavern had taken at least another hour and a half; but judging by the faint glow from the artificial lights on the cavern walls, he suspected they had arrived at the right place. From what he remembered from his research of Mt. Moon online, the league had recently installed lights on the main path to help distinguish the main route from the other paths to help prevent travelers from getting lost and wandering onto other paths.

Gary smirked. "It'll be nice to get out of this stuffy cave, huh?"

Ash nodded. "The refreshing sea breeze will be a nice change from Mt. Moon, that's for sure."

"So first thing you've got planned for when you're out of here?"

"I'm headed to the Pokemon Center. I probably will rest up a bit and get the team ready to go with some intensive training before we take on the gym. How about you?"

"I'm probably going to Bill's place. It was on my list of places I wanted to stop by."

Ash gave him a confused look. "Really, didn't take that as a place that you'd care about?"

"Actually, it's more like a list of places that Gramps wanted me to stop by," he chuckled.

"Makes more sense. Any particular reason that the professor wants you to check it out?"

"I don't know, probably some sort of lab research project. It also probably involves me serving as a go between since Gramps is too lazy to do his own work."

Ash leered at him for speaking ill of Professor Oak.

"Hey, you know it's true! How many times did he send us to do his errands and fetch stuff for him when we were headed somewhere?" Gary exclaimed, raising his hands defensively.

"At least three times a week," Ash admitted.

"See, so it's an established precedent that he had us do a lot of retrieval for him! You have to admit getting out of the lab for a few hours to pick up a few things would do him some good!"

"Fair enough," Ash shrugged. "He could use more fresh air."

"That's what I keep telling him, but do you think he listens? Absolutely not, Gramps is too stubborn for his own good!"

"Huh, sort of like another Oak we know?"

"I'm not stubborn, not like Gramps."

Ash smirked. "Whatever you say, Gary,"

Gary scowled at the remark and folded his arms. "How much longer do you think we've got?" he asked, changing the subject.

"If Onix Tunnel actually ends where the map said, we should be a little beyond the halfway point."

Gary flashed Ash a thumbs-up. "So I imagine that leaves us with another four or five hour trip afterwards?"

"Four at the most, definitely not five."

"Alright, then what are we waiting for? Let's get moving!" Gary exclaimed.

Ash grabbed his rival by the collar to keep him from taking off. "Slow down, Go Getter," he chided, pulling him back towards him. "Think this through for a second. We're not traipsing around some side route – we're on the main route through Mt. Moon and this place could have patrolling league trainers anywhere."

"And? That didn't stop us earlier." Gary retorted.

"That's because we went around the league checkpoints." Ash growled. "At the very least, there's probably a checkpoint between Route 4 and Mt. Moon. The law enforcement, or whatever you want to call them, over there likely know about the incident yesterday. Do you realize how much trouble we'll get in if we're caught? It'd be suicidal to take the main route if there are checkpoints. We're going to have to find a way around any potential checkpoints."

Gary sighed. "Okay, you're right, so what do we do now?"

"That's what I haven't figured out yet, but I'm working on it." Ash answered with a sigh.

"Well, work faster! I'm getting sick of this place." Gary whined.

"Give me a second to think!" Ash snapped.

His eyes fixated on the Ultra Ball clipped to his belt. All of their plans hinged upon whether there were checkpoints between them and their destination. They needed eyes to check for them and Aurora's eyes were capable.

"I'm going to have Aurora scout the path for us. She can see what we're dealing with."

"How does that help us?" Gary hissed.

"Aurora will be able to assess the situation…" Ash explained, only to be interrupted.

"Even you should realize that with the artificial lighting your Alolan Vulpix doesn't blend in with a single thing. She will stick out because of her coat."

Ash unclipped Aurora's Ultra Ball from his belt before tapping the release. In a second, the Alolan Vulpix emerged from the orb in a flash of light.

Aurora yipped at Ash to greet him, sitting on the ground and staring up at him in eager anticipation.

"I want to see how well you're camouflaged here for a second." Ash whispered. "Think you can stand against the wall in the shadows?"

Aurora nodded and followed orders by practically clinging to the wall to try to hide herself to no avail. In the shadows she was difficult to find, but with artificial lights lighting up the cavern there was no way for her to hide.

"I told you so," Gary jeered.

Ash glared daggers at his rival for his smug grin and eagerness to prove he was wrong. "Yeah, yeah," he groaned, waving Gary's jeers before kneeling down beside Aurora and stroking her head. Aurora tilted her head, slightly confused by the entire situation. "I just needed to check if you could blend in with the cavern."

Aurora nodded in understanding and yawned, still clearly tired after exploring the caverns.

"Do you want to go back in your Ultra Ball to rest?"

Aurora whined and nudged the Ultra Ball in Ash's hand causing him to withdraw her immediately so she could rest.

"So, now what?" Gary huffed, growing somewhat impatient with waiting for Ash to chart their next move.

"Well, I could send Titan to check things out. He would be more inconspicuous."

"Still means we end up waiting for Larvitar to return to give us information from scouting the area." Gary grumbled.

"So what would you do?" Ash sighed, growing more and more frustrated with his rival.

"We assume that there's already checkpoints like you said and rechart our course!" Gary spat. "You have a PokeNav after all!"

"I'd check my PokeNav but I can't get any signal in here to use GPS."

"So why don't we take one of the other paths to one of the slopes and rechart our course when you can get a signal? When I was exploring the place, I found a couple paths that were pretty isolated near the skiing slopes."

Ash sighed. He supposed it didn't really do them any good to waste time scouting out the rest of the cavern. It was a question of if they had to find a different exit, but more of a question of how to avoid the checkpoints. There was no way the league hadn't set one up, if not from the beginning of the lockdown of Mt. Moon the league certainly would have expanded checkpoints after the incident involving him.

"Alright, we'll rechart," he muttered, looking at the numerous alternate tunnels around him. He wasn't even sure where any of them led, much less which one would put them anywhere near where Gary wanted to go. "How are we going to tackle this? Do you even remember what path you took?"

"Well, I can't remember the exact paths I took but I do know that the slopes were to the north so we should probably head north." Gary replied. "I mean, you do know where that is right?"

"Haha," Ash deadpanned, orienting himself with a compass to determine which tunnels were feasible options to reach their destination. The compass quickly arrowed their options down to three paths leading away from the main path and to the north. "I know directions."

"Just checking,"

Ash looked ahead to three separate tunnels leading to the north. "Any particular one you had in mind?"

"Your choice, Ashy-boy, that way if you screw up and pick the wrong one I can give you crap."

"You know, I'm starting to get the impression you like making things difficult for me."

"Huh, just noticed now? Slow on the uptake?"

Ash rolled his eyes. "Just choose a tunnel!" he exclaimed.

"Middle route then seems the most likely to go straight north instead of veering off."

Ash nodded, leading the way and taking his first steps into the chosen path. "One more round with the labyrinth?"

"Should be fun, that just means more time to explore."

Ash gave Gary a skeptical look. Between the endless darkness, the cold air, the distance of the expedition, and the occasional low hanging rock, Mt. Moon was anything but fun. If anything, they were returning once more to the abyss.


Ash eyed the ceiling with a great amount of suspicion. An additional three hours of travel led them to a stretch of cavern he simply didn't trust. The amount of jagged stalactites hanging above him was unnerving to say the least. Considering that several of the low hanging rock formations snapped off from the ceiling when he accidentally bumped into them, he was hoping that the rest of the tunnel wasn't like this.

He was convinced so much as a small tremor would send the stalactites plummeting to the cavern floor and around him – something quite possible given the fact that they had seen signs of Onix in Onix Tunnel and a few tunnels carved from Onix on their current path.

At least they would soon be where they needed to be, or that's what Ash told himself to reassure himself. The chill in the air and the thinning air had to be signs they were reaching they were close.

"How much longer, Gary?"

"How should I know? I don't know how far this tunnel stretches, all I know is it goes north." Gary replied. "Also can we reach a part of this cave where dozens of sharp spears aren't looming above us? I'm afraid to even look up because one might fall and stab me in the eye!"

Ash chuckled at the remark. Gary wasn't necessarily wrong, even if his reaction was over the top as usual. The stalactites hanging from the ceiling were far from safe. Something that large falling on someone could do serious damage.

He pushed the thought to the back of his mind once they arrived at what looked like a clear fork in the road. Much like the three separate paths at the beginning of their trek north, they had reached another crossroads.

"Decision time!" Gary declared in an almost sing-song voice. "How are we handling this?"

Ash took a few steps into one of the caverns and turned back to inspect the other route. Neither of them seemed to be that different, at least from a surface look. It was definitely going to take more than a quick look to determine which direction to go. "Do you have any idea which to take? Was there anything like this when you headed to the slopes?"

Gary shook his head. "When I ventured towards the slopes there wasn't any fork in the road in that tunnel system; but seeing they both head north they're bound to exit near the same place, right?"

"We don't know that for sure since one of them might lead to a higher slope." Ash pointed out.

"Yeah, I suppose you're right. How do we know which one to take?" Gary asked, staring at both paths intently.

Ash rubbed his chin in thought. What was the best way about going about the situation? He supposed there were only two options – scouting the tunnels themselves or having their team scout the tunnels. Unfortunately, both options would potentially eat up a substantial amount of time and energy unless…

Ash smirked. He had the perfect solution. "We split up for about ten to fifteen minutes and chart out the slope and direction the path leads. Leave no stone unturned, we check direction and the precise angle of slope to get an idea of where these things lead. After we're satisfied with our information, we reconvene here with the information we've gathered from our scouting to make a proper evaluation based on our combined info."

"Sounds like a plan, more proactive approach this time too! I like it!" Gary grinned.

"Alright, now that that's settled let's move and return when we have information to go on."

Gary flashed him a thumbs up before walking into the left tunnel leaving Ash with the remaining tunnel and only the glow of his PokeNav's screen to light his path. He squinted as he stared into the darkness of the path he was to explore.

He pointed the screen at the shadows. The light was adequate, but far from enough for him to feel comfortable about navigating the tunnel. The glow of the screen only lit up a quarter of the space in the tunnel, leaving plenty of shadow for something to lurk in and making it easy for Ash to miss something.

If he was going to explore, he needed more light.

He reluctantly reached down for his belt for Orion's Poke Ball. He hoped to get his team some rest and relied primarily on Gary's flashlight for the latter part of his trip. However, the time for rest was over.

He tapped the release on Orion's Poke Ball and in a second the Ponyta emerged from the device in a flash of light.

Orion stomped his front hooves on the cavern floor and snorted at him. A little rest and he was already raring to go again.

"Think you can help me out and lead the way again through this next tunnel?" Ash asked, pointing into the dark cavern ahead of them.

Orion bobbed his head and took off into the cavern at full gallop.

"Then let's go!" Ash exclaimed, trailing the sprinting fire type.

Ash couldn't help but enjoy the faint tap of Orion's hooves on the cavern floor. It reminded him vaguely of old westerns where heroes rode in on their Rapidash to save the day.

He glanced ahead at Orion. The Ponyta pranced around in a circle each time he surged ahead, waiting for Ash to catch up with him before taking off again.

Orion was definitely enjoying the time out of his Poke Ball. It hadn't taken much time at all for him to be back at one hundred percent. If only he had the same limitless energy and quick recovery of Orion.

Ash glanced down at the Luxury Ball and Poke Ball clipped to his belt. He wondered if the rest of his team would enjoy exploring the path with him. He unclipped both the Luxury Ball and Poke Ball from his belt to send out both Aurora and Titan who promptly greeted him with a friendly bark and grunt respectively.

"Wondered if you guys want to stretch a little bit and do a little exploring with me."

Aurora yipped and nodded her head while Titan grunted in agreement. Ash smiled at both of them. The team would be back together again for another adventure.

"Shouldn't be too long of a trip, just need to gather some information about direction and slope. Gary and I need to know which path is more suitable to reach our destination." Ash explained.

Aurora nodded in understanding before exploring the tunnel for herself by sniffing the cavern floor and occasionally fixating on a particular spot. Ash couldn't help but notice bits of moss growths tended to get her attention as if she wasn't sure what to make of the growths.

He quickly turned his attention to Titan who settled for inspecting bits of loose rock he found and picked up off the floor. Given the possessive look he was giving them, Ash wasn't entirely certain if the rock type was collecting them or saving them to eat later. Considering his species' tendency to eat stone and minerals, he wouldn't have been surprised if it was for both purposes.

Whatever the case, Ash couldn't help but snicker at Titan's funny waddle as he attempted to cradle all the rocks he picked up in his stubby arms. A few slipped out of his grip and tumbled to the floor with a thud.

Titan let out a frustrated grumble somewhere between a high pitched wheeze and a grunt.

Ash raised an eyebrow. Had Titan just squeaked? It was the only thing he could think of to remotely describe Larvitar's weird noise.

Titan grumbled in frustration, trying to scoop up the stones he had dropped only to lose even more of the chunks of rock in the process. The Larvitar threw the remaining rocks in his arms in frustration, clearly losing interest in carrying them around for any longer and settling for taking a bite out of one of the rocks on the ground.

Titan quickly gathered up the remaining fragments of the rock to try to eat them only to drop them immediately and cloak himself with Iron Defense without warning.

Ash frowned. That wasn't normal. He knew Titan was skittish, but there wasn't even anything to scare him this time.

"Something wrong, Titan?" Ash asked, leaning down and looking the timid rock type in the eyes. Aurora growled, fixing her gaze on the wall and ceiling as her ears twitched. She looked back at Ash and gave him a shrill warning bark.

He turned towards the Alolan Vulpix. Were all his teammates going mad? Ash tilted his head and looked to Orion, even the fire type seemed like he was distracted.

"What is going on here?" Ash asked, giving his teammates a perplexed look.

He quickly felt and heard what had spooked his team so badly. Seismic tremors ripped through the cavern and were soon accompanied by the sound of cracking rock.

His eyes went to the ceiling almost instinctively. There were definitely fissures that were growing in the ceiling and walls. Ash cursed under his breath. The shockwaves were not much different than the one he encountered in Onix Tunnel.

Onix, no doubt. Who would have imagined that just them moving around from place to place could cause so much havoc?

An even louder crack echoed through the tunnel and in a second all hell broke loose as an avalanche of debris came plummeting down from the ceiling.

Ash looked up and felt his heart skip a beat as he saw chunks of rock break free from the ceiling. He leapt out of the way to narrowly avoid being crushed under the debris only for more of the ceiling to collapse and start to rain down around him.

Ash darted around frantically to avoid the rock slide. He felt his stomach clench at the sound of the boulders crashing on the ground. Bitter memories of Pewter resurfaced, if only briefly. He quickly pushed the memories out of his mind and clenched his fists. He had to focus.

Shadows formed at his feet as more of the ceiling caved and plummeted down around him. Ash did the one thing that his mind shouted at him to do at the moment and ran as fast as his legs could carry him. He zigzagged through the tunnel, shifting direction repeatedly to avoid being crushed by falling debris. He felt his lungs start to burn and gasped for air. He couldn't keep this up forever.

Fortunately, he wouldn't have to.

A streak of orange galloped towards him and sprung into the air, repelling several falling rocks with a flurry of kicks from its front legs and batting them away from his trainer. Aurora quickly followed Orion's lead by flinging Ice Shard attacks at smaller chunks of rock falling from the ceiling. While the ice wasn't able to destroy the falling rock, the Ice Shard barrage helped bat away many of the falling boulders.

"Thanks, Orion! Thanks, Aurora!" Ash exclaimed as he flashed a thumbs up to Orion. The Ponyta gave him a proud whinny while Aurora yipped in acknowledgment.

His mind quickly shifted gears. Ash frantically looked around for Titan, knowing he'd be most vulnerable. Even with Iron Defense and his thick armor, he could get pinned beneath rubble putting the group in a situation where they had to dig him out.

Without explanation to him, Ash pointed his Poke Ball at him and returned Titan to the safety of stasis. He hated to catch him off guard and return him so suddenly, but he could always explain later.

Ash stared at the ceiling again to watch for more falling rock. A massive boulder broke free from the ceiling forcing Ash backwards followed by another and another.

"Get back!" he screamed, prompting the entire group to sprint further into the cavern as a whole cascade of rock fell from the ceiling and hit the ground with a crash.

Though he and his team managed to avoid getting crushed by the falling rocks by getting out of the impact zone, the debris formed a blockade between them and the entrance. As soon as he was sure it was safe, Ash rushed over to the wall of rock and tried to dislodge the stone blocking their path back to their meetup location. Kicks, punches, prying on loose rocks – even his best efforts proved to be futile to remove the barricade.

Ash turned to his team. If he couldn't remove the stone, his team would be his best option. He tapped the release on Titan's Poke Ball to put the group at full strength.

The Larvitar stared at Ash, giving him a perplexed look as he emerged from stasis once more.

"Sorry about that, didn't want you to get trapped under the falling debris. I know you're not as fast as the rest of the group so I didn't want to risk it."

Titan acknowledged him with a grunt before staring at the wall of rock formed from the ceiling practically caving in. He cloaked himself in Iron Defense, slightly unnerved by the sheer size of the wall towering above him.

"So I'm pretty sure I don't need to address the Donphan in the room, right? There's no way we can reach the meetup spot unless we get rid of this wall and you guys are the only shot we have to remove the rocks in the way."

Orion snorted and barreled towards the stone wall, slamming into the rocks at full speed to try to dislodge so much as one of the stones. The Ponyta winced in pain and staggered backwards from colliding with the wall.

Aurora followed suit by hurling Ice Shards at the barricade only for the spheres of ice to shatter upon impact. While the chunks of ice could apparently dispatch small chunks of rock, the ice was no match for massive boulders.

Titan quickly jumped into the fray by following his teammates' lead and hurled boulders of his own at the wall. Much to both Ash and Titan's disdain, Rock Tomb fell harmlessly to the cavern floor. At best, Rock Tomb managed to chip a few pieces off of the other boulders.

Ash gritted his teeth. The debris was too heavy and too compacted to remove by brute force which meant they weren't going to be reuniting with Gary anytime soon. With the rock blocking their path, returning to the meetup spot was no longer an option.

He shook his head and sighed. It looked like it was time for a change in plans and judging by the stares from his teammates fixed on the path ahead he wasn't the only one who understood the nature of their situation. Ash turned to look in the other direction and the one direction they could go – northward.

Author's Note: Hello, folks, StandingMan here! Despite my inactivity for a long time, I am actually alive and well and I am back with another update! I suppose the only good thing to come out of the solitary confinement of lock downs this year was writing time. It's been a really rough year this year for everyone.

Sorry this one took a bit longer than I'd like, but Mt. Moon has been a tough location to write. I've gone through one retcon and a computer crash wiping out my previous almost completed take on it before ultimately settling on this. So hopefully this isn't a complete dumpster fire. To say I'm tired of writing Mt. Moon is an understatement.

Hope you enjoy the chapter, stay safe everyone, and God bless.