Hey guys! I was hoping to get this one out a little sooner, but I ended up accidentally losing some of the chapter by forgetting to save it properly... Thankfully I could remember what I'd written, but it did little for my enthusiasm. I managed to get it finished though, and now I'm looking forward to writing out the next few parts of the story!

I hope you all enjoy!

The War of Shadows


Chapter 7

Kanto Region – Guardian's Settlement

Blinking several times as she pushed herself up, Leaf groaned, feeling an intense pounding behind her eyes that threatened to smash her skull open. Wincing at both the pain and the brightness of the day, she realised that she was covered in detritus and leaves.

"What…?" She asked herself in confusion as she brushed off the dirt and branches. Several leaves and twigs were stuck in her hair and her skirt had become damp under her bum where it had been in contact with the ground. She panicked, thinking maybe she'd had an accident while she was out, but sighed in relief when she realised the culprit was the damp grass and soil.

Running her hands over her jacket, her fingers caught on something hard and metallic. Curious, she glanced down to see a small button like device with a red light attached at the near her waist. She plucked it free and brought it up to her face for a closer look.

"What the hell is this?" She asked, squinting at it.

It was making a faint beeping noise at regular intervals, but other than that, it gave no clues to its purpose or function. The first thing that occurred in Leaf's mind was that it appeared to be some sort of tracker. Why would I have a tracker on me…? Wait… What happened before I passed out here…?

Pressing through the pain in her head, she dragged up the last things she could remember. I was patrolling… checking the Waystones… Oh shit! I was attacked! That's right! There was that stranger in black… she put her hands on me and everything went dark…

A wave of nausea washed over Leaf as she tried to remember the details, forcing her to stop and bend over double, projectile vomiting into the nearby thicket. When she was done, she took a deep breath and leant against a nearby tree, the incessant agony in her skull seemingly amplified by her stomach rejecting its contents.

Feeling irritated and in pain, she summoned her Aura to her fist, crushing the strange device in frustration. "Tracker or not, I honestly can't be fucked with this right now…" She said, stumbling forwards.

Immediately after the device was destroyed, a film like veil that she hadn't noticed before dissipated from before her vision, vanishing like steam into the air. It looked incredibly strange to her, as though someone had removed contact lenses from her eyes and said lenses were composed of vapor. "What in Arceus…?"

Determined to figure out the details later, she walked from the thicket in a shambling manner, one hand clamped on the side of her head in a futile attempt to stem the pain. Taking a second to steady herself and preparing for any blowback, she closed her eyes and once again called upon her latent powers, allowing her Aura to flow toward her ocular organs. When they snapped open, and the world lit up around her in all its mysteries.

"Now then… let's see if we can figure out what happened last night, and who our mysterious Guardian friend was, shall we…?" She asked, scanning her surroundings.

Despite having her Aura vision activated, all she saw was the normal flow of elemental energies and natural forces. Nothing looked out of sorts. Frowning at this, she forced more power into her eyes, increasing the effect to the point that the Unseen World unfolded before her. The pain in her skull was increasing proportionately with the power she was summoning, but she grit her teeth and pushed through. They potentially had a traitor amongst their number now. One that had assaulted her, no less. You won't hide from me… no matter how much pain your ability has left me with…

With the Unseen World visible, all things became clear. It allows its user to peer in to the recent past, and even the near future, of their close surroundings. It reveals all things hidden, any tampering of the natural forces, any lingering emotions left behind. It was an ability locked within the upper echelons of Aura users, one that enabled them to peel off the veneer of reality itself and peek behind the curtain of spacetime.

Almost immediately she saw the disturbance. Playing out before her was a recreation of last night's events, remnants of their emotions and Aura making out an outline of their bodies, mimicking the actions taken when those feelings and powers were used. The struggle from her hazy memory unfolded once again, just as she had remembered it, and she watched the mysterious woman effortlessly overpower her, pinning her to the floor. "Well, that's slightly embarrassing… Arceus… This woman contains so much hatred!"

She watched the struggle of her past self continue, waiting for the moment where she blacked out. "Here we go…" She said, watching her assailant pacify her past self with a strange ability. The strange woman's Aura sank into her very being, worming its way into her brain and effectively short circuiting her consciousness. "An Aura that can affect other people internally…? Wait! Where have I heard of an ability like that before…?"

Leaf didn't have long to ponder on this, however, as the image of the attacker dragged her body over to the thicket and concealed her with loose foliage. She then stood back and planted the strange device to the bottom of her Guardian's jacket. About five seconds later it activated, and Leaf's past energy signature vanished from sight.

"What?" She said, in surprise. Try as she might, even in the Unseen World, she couldn't detect her past energy signature anymore. Her presence had been utterly erased. "Impossible… that little device was able to conceal me to such a degree…? No wonder no one found me!" Although if they had merely stuck to regular means they probably would have by now… it seems that device works only on masked my energies, not my actual body. We really need to not lean on our powers too much if it can be used against us this easily… Still… I wasn't aware there was such advanced technology out there in the world…

"Shit." She said as the sudden realisation washed over her that she'd destroyed the device in annoyance mere moments ago. "We could have studied that thing for clues. Oh well."

After hiding her past self, the assailant suddenly took off at breakneck speeds towards the settlement, taking Leaf by surprise. "Woah! Steady on there Speedster!" She said, funnelling the rest of her Aura to her legs and running after the trace of the woman. "Why would you make me run with a hangover!? This isn't fair!"

She chased the figure for several minutes over vast distances, until she came to a sudden stop at the outskirts of the settlement. This sudden halt took Leaf by surprise and she nearly ran straight through the dark-clad woman. Slamming her right foot into the ground, Leaf brought herself to a halt by entrenching her boot about a foot into the earth.

"Why'd she…?" Leaf asked, glancing up at her assailant. Her words were cut off as she glanced up at the reflection of the other woman's eyes. Even though what she was looking at was merely a recaptured image of the recent past, the heartbroken sadness seen within the eyes of the invader took her breath away. "Huh…?"

What baffled Leaf even further was the fact that the woman stood there for a few minutes more, just… looking over at the homes of the settlement, all the while holding that soul-shattering sadness in her eyes. A look that could only be gained by experiencing emotional pain and turmoil the likes of which breaks people at a fundamental level. It was the look a parent has when their children are mercilessly killed before their eyes. A look of someone who had lost everything they held dear in the world.

Tracing her vision, Leaf was able to single out a particular house that the invader was focusing on more than the rest, and she made a mental note to visit it later. I have no idea why she looks so heartbroken right now… but something tells me if I go sniffing around that house later, I'll be able to pick up some clues…

Without warning the woman took off again, at the same insane speeds, forcing Leaf to dig into her Aura reserves again to keep up. Incredible… She thought as she chased after the image of the invader. She's only using trace amounts of Aura in her legs to stop her bones shattering from impact… she's hardly using any to increase momentum… this level of power… it reminds me of the Pillars more and more… As the thought occurred to her, she began making a mental list of all the female Pillars the settlement had ever had. When I get back to the others, I'll check our records of the causes of death for all of our past female Pillars. I'm damn sure that at least one of them will be inconclusive…

After making a full lap of the settlement, the invader pulled out a rolled-up parchment and a strange pencil. Her eyes began to glow with Aura and the pencil floated up into the air before her, where it began scribbling manically on the paper. Within only a few moments, a detailed sketch of the entire village was imparted onto its surface. Nodding in satisfaction, the figure then took off back to where she'd knocked Leaf unconscious.

Briefly checking Leaf's body to make sure that she'd not been found, and making sure there were no other patrols nearby, the invader then made her way to the supposedly dead Waystone and stood upon it. It burst into life, its engravings glowing brightly with their azure energies, and then she was gone, vanishing into thin air as the ancient mechanisms whisked her away to its partner stone.

When the invader had gone, Leaf deactivated her enhanced vision and relaxed, letting the thrumming pain inside her skull die back down to somewhat tolerable levels. Despite the agony however, her mind was racing. What she had just witnessed gave her more questions than answers and she needed to do some immediate investigating, despite her condition demanding that she get herself some rest. "Just what in Arceus' name is going on…?"

Information in hand, Leaf rushed back toward the settlement. She needed to inform the others.

Kanto Region – World Government Headquarters

The corridors were extremely busy. Too busy for an early Friday afternoon. Numerous servants, retainers, diplomats, Pokémon experts and trainers were rushing from one place to another, and most were moving with determined purpose.

Although I'm in the exact same boat as them… Cynthia mused as she passed quickly between them. Noticing whom they were passing, everyone gave her a courteous nod or bow as was customary for someone working directly under a World Leader. It was a custom that to this day made her feel uncomfortable. I only became a Pokémon trainer to have a fun adventure and uncover secrets of the past, after all… Speaking of…

As she passed through a set of heavily armed guards and an ornate door, the clatter and clamour of the busy hall behind her rapidly died down. This was the Royal Suite, the home of the three who sat upon the non-existent World Thrones. Its existence was a kind of irony, one that wasn't lost on anyone other than the extraordinarily dumb. The World Government was founded by overthrowing an Emperor, yet the replacement still sat on imaginary thrones and lived in a royal suite. The crown never even left… it was merely split into three…

Today was different, however. She wasn't summoned by her lady, rather it was Lord Odasa whom requested her presence in his private accommodation. Whilst it wasn't unheard of for a World Leader to seek the presence of a Pokémon Master under the wing of one of their peers, it wasn't something done flippantly. It usually only happened because the World Leader in question needed something done without it being on the books. What could Odasa possibly want to hide?

The marbled floor made each step of her heeled boots clatter and echo, giving her that extra presence and weight. It was extremely difficult to walk here and not make a statement. Which is absolutely by design,Cynthia mused. She ascended a patterned marble staircase with a dark, rich mahogany railing, passed under an exquisite golden chandelier, and past several portraits of all those who'd occupied the job since the fall of the Old Empire before finally finding herself in front of Odasa's personal chambers.

Taking a deep breath, she knocked, announced herself, and opened the door.

Odasa was sat at his desk, looking much like he always did. He had one leg crossed over the top of the other, his dark suit utterly creaseless. His dark hair was tied up in its customary ponytail. He glanced up from a report he held in his gloved hands as she entered, fixing his stern, unflinching gaze upon her. "Ah, Cynthia. Thank you for coming."

Going down on one knee, she lowered her head in respect. "Sir! I came as soon as I received your summons."

"You can rise," He said, lazily motioning with one hand for her to do so. "Your punctuality is what makes you so reliable. I'm sure you have a head full of questions, so I won't beat around the bush."

Standing up, Cynthia stood at attention without saying a word, listening intently to what he would tell her. The World Leaders are often involved in things that span the entire globe. It's no exaggeration to say they literally run the world, in every aspect… Just what will he have for me…?

"The first bit I need to ask you of might seem strange, but I need you to become a double agent. You must spy on Amelia for me." He said bluntly, his tone and words at total mismatch.

The request struck Cynthia in the gut with a wave of dread. "Spy on My Lady? Why?" She spurted, forgetting her usually impeccable manners.

He held up a hand. "I'm not asking this of you for trivial reasons. This isn't some power play where I am trying to one up my colleague. Recently Amelia has… changed…

"She's always been different to the other World Leaders. Compared to her predecessor, it's like night and day. Dante dotes on her like his own daughter, but I have no such reservations. I don't know what it is, but for the last two days I've detected a massive shift in her demeanour. She has been avoiding her duties and won't update the government with her activities. While it hasn't been long, it's rare for someone as detailed as she to suddenly become so lax. She's up to something. I know not what it is, none of my agents can sniff anything as she's locked her quarters down tight, her own people keeping mine at arm's length." He sighed, shaking his head slightly. "She knew I'd be the first to get suspicious and has already made moves against me."

Swallowing, Cynthia nervously licked her lips, her brain trying to figure out the correct response. "My Lord, I'm afraid I haven't any idea what you're talking about."

He stared into her eyes, his narrowing ever-so-slightly. His piercing stare holding her prisoner for a few moments more, eventually he simply nodded. "I figured as much. It would seem Amelia is keeping this on a needs-to-know basis. I doubt she ever dreamed you'd suddenly go prying into her affairs, especially without a justifiable reason. You're her loyal subordinate, after all."

Cynthia felt sweat run down the side of her face at that. Well… except for where I betrayed you all to help Ash and May escape with the Guardians…

"It's also why you're the perfect woman for the job." He continued, glancing back down at his report. "You'll be able to get into Amelia's inner sanctum and find out what she's up to. World Leader or not, I won't have her threatening the security of the entire World Government and the Pokémon League system!"

Sighing, Odasa deflated back into his chair. "Their race is a disease upon this world. A genetic mutation of humanity that allows them to use primordial power. The Cyrus Incident six years ago was caused by someone trying to replicate that process."

Cynthia blinked in surprise. "Cyrus was trying to replicate Guardians, My Lord?"

He glanced over at her, narrowing his eyes slightly before answering. "Yes. I thought you were aware of that, given that you helped put an end to it."

"While I was working with Ash and his friends to put a stop to Cyrus, my main concern was keeping Sinnoh free of danger. I knew not what he was up to, only that it would result in untold death and misery."

That caused Odasa to smile. "It's for that very reason that the Albian race must be exterminated from the world."

"Albians, My Lord?" Cynthia asked. "I've never come across such a name in all my historical research."

"That's not surprising," Odasa chuckled. "Their name was scrubbed from history four hundred years ago. Following the Succession War, Albians faded from public knowledge. However, some of them survived… scurrying around like rats! We've tried many times to finish what was started back then, but they've always managed to cling on."

Cynthia remained silent for a moment, unsure as how to respond to such information. So… Guardians must have been known as Albians back in those days… "These Guardians… these Albians… are they human? How is it that they can command the power of Pokémon? It's something I've always wondered."

"From my own knowledge, they are indeed human, but their bodies contain a subtle difference that even our top medical experts are baffled by. The corpses they left behind after their many scuffles with us have been thoroughly examined, yet for all intents and purposes nothing seems amiss." Odasa shook his head, almost as in disbelief. "Whatever separates Albians from the rest of humanity is either spiritual in nature or takes the form of a substance that dissipates from their bodies upon death."

What ghastly stuff… just what the hell has been going on in the depths of the government all this time…? Cynthia thought as she listened on in growing horror. Trying her hardest to not let it show, she instead diverted the subject away. "You believe Lady Amelia knows something related to them?"

"Of course," Odasa said condescendingly. "Why else would I have called you here? She's up to something and it stinks. For the good of all citizens in our fair world, you must discover her schemes, before we all pay the price. Now go, both you and I have work to attend to. Do not fail me, Pokémon Master."

"Sir!" Cynthia saluted, bowing forward. Quickly, she heel turned and hurried from his private quarters and the Royal Suite. A cold chill ran down her spine as she went, giving her the urge to break into a full sprint. She managed to reign in her panicking emotions and force calm upon herself, however kept walking at a brisk pace. There is something awful about this place… The secrets kept in the depths of the government are far more chilling than I ever realised…

Moving quick and with purpose, Cynthia rushed through the governmental headquarters, ignoring all those giving her their bows of respect as she passed. Her face was scrunched up in deep thought, the possibilities whirling within her mind. Who should I trust in this situation…? Both World Leaders are acting extremely suspicious, it's totally unorthodox… Just what should I do in this situation…? What would Ash do if he were here…?

Her eyes suddenly widened as an idea formed within her mind. If I can't trust anyone, then I'll simply investigate what's going on here myself… I will find out what darkness lurks at the heart of the government… one way or another…

Kanto Region – Tower of the Guardians

Taking a deep breath, Ash's glowing eyes snapped open, and he thrust his palms forward. "Aura Sphere!"

The azure ball spun rapidly through the air before slamming into a nearby boulder, exploding upon impact and reducing it to a shower of stony shards and rubble.

"Yes!" He exclaimed, crunching his fist into a ball from the exhilaration. He turned to his yellow companion perched nearby. "I'm getting so much faster at this now, huh buddy?"

"Pika pi!" Pikachu chirped back, giving his long-time friend a thumbs up.

Grinning, Ash looked down at his open palm where the roiling ball of destructive force had just been launched from. "It only takes me three seconds to create and launch them now, and that's the progress a couple of days' worth of blood, sweat and tears has bought me."

"Pikachu, pi pi, pika!" His companion agreed, nodding enthusiastically.

Images of Sir Aaron firing them off rapidly flashed through Ash's mind, each projectile packing enough strength to level forests and disintegrate houses. He furrowed his brows, glancing up at the not-sky ceiling of the First Floor. "Still… we have a long way to go."

"That you do," Came a familiar female voice from behind him, causing him to whirl on the source in surprise. "But the progress you've made in such a short time is commendable. Indeed, you've done far more than I ever thought possible during this period."

"Charlotte?!" Ash gasped.

She laughed, looking at him with amusement. "Who else?"

Blinking several times to clear his disbelief, Ash shared a look with Pikachu, who merely shrugged in reply. He shook his head and looked back at the Pillar of the Guardians. "What are you doing here…?"

She tilted her head to the side, amused. "To check on your progress? What else, dumbass?"

"Ah…" Ash said, laughing sheepishly. "Of course!"

"Pikachu pi pi…" Pikachu said, facepalming.

Charlotte laughed. "Ha! Your little friend there gets the gist of it! Still though, being able to totally obliterate a boulder only a week into your training? That takes guts, kiddo." She said, glancing over at the destroyed rock.

Looking up at the ceiling, which resembled a perpetual blue sky with clouds, Ash tightened his grip. "Yeah… I have to get so much stronger though, and quicker, if I have any prayer of climbing to the summit in such a short timescale."

"You're right about that." Charlotte agreed, glancing up with him. "This tower is monolithic. Not even I nor any of the current Pillars have reached beyond the ninety-fifth floor. It gets progressively harder the higher you climb, and certain parts are totally out of some people's reach. You need to be born with certain amounts of Aura to even access some floors. We've taken to calling these parts 'Gates', since they gate you from going any further if you were simply born with less power than your peers."

"That doesn't sound fair…" Ash lamented. "Hard work and skill should count for more than what your born with."

Charlotte shrugged. "I agree, but then I didn't make the tower. No one knows what the Great Founders were thinking when they designed this place, but they must have had a reason."

A flash of the vision he'd seen of the four legendary founding members of the great Aura Families popped into Ash's head. He thought about telling the Pillar about it but decided against it. Best not divulge that info just yet… I have no idea what kind of ramifications that might hold for me if they found out… They might even stop my training! I cannot allow that!

Watching his face intently, Charlotte smiled. "You are close to passing this floor."

That snapped him out of his reverie. "Really?!"

"Yeah," She nodded. "Seeing your bond with this little one here, I feel you'll love the next part. You have a Lucario, dontcha?"

"Yeah, but he's stuck back at Pallet Town in Professor Oak's ranch. There is no way I can access him or any of my other Pokémon for that matter." Ash said, a tinge of melancholy audible in his tone.

"Piiii…" Pikachu said, mirroring his friend's sadness.

"I got good news for you on that front. Sabrina has managed to set up a… different… system for us to use. Using a mix of her psychic and Aura powers, we've established a link with your hometown." Charlotte said.

Ash's eyes went wide, a large grin splitting his face. "Seriously?! That's fantastic news!"

"Pika pi!" Pikachu cried out, fist bumping into the air. He hadn't seen his friends in forever and was missing the gang outside of Ash's current line-up.

"It will only work with Pokeballs though, since anything living wouldn't survive such a long journey using such unstable methods, but we've tested it extensively from the day after you arrived here." Charlotte said before laughing. "Knowing how excitable you get, we didn't wanna tell ya until we knew for certain it would work."

"I can't wait! I've missed my friends so much!" Ash said, visibly shaking with emotion. "But what does this have to do with my Lucario? Is he linked with the Second Floor's challenge?"

"Spot on." She said, reaching to her belt and pulling a Pokeball free. "Without the Aura Pokémon at your side, you'll never get past the second barrier. Being fully in-tune with your Lucario is a fundamental skill of any Guardian, and it teaches you how to link your Aura with any companion you wish to use. Forming such a link binds you together at the deepest possible level and can only happen between two who trust each other absolutely."

"So that's why Sir Aaron and Riley had a Lucario with them…" Ash mused, thinking back on his encounter with the two Guardians.

"Exactly!" Charlotte said, grasping her Pokeball and launching it into the air before herself. Lucario emerged from the glowing white light, immediately bracing into a fighting stance as he fully materialized.

Ash gaped upon seeing him. He'd encountered many Lucarios throughout his journey, but none ever wielded as much presence as the one stood before him. Auric power radiated off him in waves, palpable enough to almost throw Ash from his feet by sheer proximity alone. Everything about it from its presence to its stance screamed a battle-hardened warrior who'd seen endless bloodshed. This Pokémon is on a whole other level! It would win a championship all by itself!

"Come, watch this." Charlotte suddenly said, walking over to a large tree nearby.

Curious, Ash shared a glance with Pikachu who shrugged back. Confused, they both followed her to the base of the tree, which was enormous. In this Aura-generated landscape there were many unnatural things, such as the heavy disposition of large boulders and gigantic forests for the Guardians in training to test their abilities against, but this particular tree was a standout. Its canopy was scraping the sky and the base of its trunk was almost two meters in diameter. All in all, Ash assumed it would take over a hundred of his current Aura Spheres to even leave a dent in it.

With no visible command, both the Pillar and her Lucario became stock still, closing their eyes. As one they both braced their legs, bringing one arm forward and the other back, locking themselves into a sturdy battle stance. Immediately, power began building from their bodies, quickly swelling up into a raging inferno in mere seconds. Their eyes simultaneously snapped open, blazing bright azure energy, as they slammed their palms forward at the speed of lightning, snapping into the large tree with incredible force. "Force Palm!" Charlotte screamed.

A flash of light burst out a nanosecond after impact, followed by an overwhelming shockwave which blew Ash and Pikachu from their feet and back several meters across the grassy fields. As they came to a stop, Ash whirled on the tree to see what the Pillar and her Pokémon had done. His eyes went wide with shock, mirrored by his companion's beside him. "What in Arceus…" He breathed. "Is this the true power of the Guardians…?"

The entire lower part of the tree no longer existed, with what remaining of the upper half now freefalling to the earth, it's support obliterated entirely from existence. It crashed into the ground with an audibly boom, shaking the ground around them with tremendous force.

Letting out a deep breath, both Charlotte and her Lucario relaxed, releasing their internal power and returning to normal. "Thank you." She simply said to her Pokémon before returning him to his capsule. Fastening it back to her waist, she wandered over to where Ash had been sent flying. "Did you manage to catch that?"

Ash was still staring, wide eyed, when she caught up to him. He slowly turned to look up at her, shock and disbelief all over his features. He swallowed to quench his suddenly dry throat. "You did that… so quickly…"

She nodded. "When you're in a pinch and want to unload lots of power quickly, nothing quite beats a Twin Force Palm attack. It's saved my ass so many times over the years that I've stopped keeping count."

"I assumed you needed plenty of wind-up to release that kind of strength… like you did when we first came here…"

"Most say that!" Charlotte scoffed, a giddy grin on her face. "Enemies think it too, which often ends badly for them. You should see their faces when they get hit with enough power to level a house a couple of seconds into battle!"

"Incredible…" Ash could only say, flicking his gaze over to what was left of the tree before the tower regenerated it. All at once he made his mind up and forced himself to his feet. "Teach it to me!"

She grinned at him. "I knew you'd say that. It's why I'm here. I came to train you, personally."

Ash blinked at her, surprise evident on his face. "That's why you're here?!"

"It is," She nodded, "we expect great things from you in such a short time, so it's only fair that we have the strongest take personal responsibility for that growth. Had it been any other time, you'd have gone through the normal method of climbing the tower like everyone else. Our current situation doesn't allow us such luxuries."

"Can the Guardians really spare one of the four Pillars for this though?" Ash asked, concerned. "The World Government tried to kill May and I only a week ago, and I'm sure they're looking for our location right now. Plus, what happened with Leaf…"

"Two. Two Pillars." Charlotte corrected, holding up two of her fingers. "Erika is currently training May at the other side of the floor."

"Even more the reason why you shouldn't bother with us!"

She held up a hand, blocking further protest. "All your points are valid concerns, and this isn't a decision we came to lightly, that I can assure you. All four of us agreed to this in a meeting last night. You and May both carry something we do not, and you're going to be crucial in the coming war. If we didn't think you worth the investment, I wouldn't be wasting my time explaining this to you right now. We need you both to get stronger and fast. There is no time to waste. The World Government could be knocking down our door any day now, and there is an unknown out there that is able to breach our barrier, so the sooner our secret weapons can get up and running the safer we will be."

Ash remained silent for a moment, digesting all the information he could. Finally, he nodded. "If that's what you've decided, I see no reason to doubt it. It's funny, if I was going to be trained by a Pillar, I would have assumed it would be Sir Aaron doing it. We do share the same bloodline after all, plus we have that history together."

"A reasonable assumption, but misguided. I was the one picked for you because we share similar fighting styles, same as for Erika with May. You may not have considered this yet, but you're an instinctive fighter, meaning you feel the flow of battle and simply perform what comes natural to you. You learn most from doing and pick up new techniques on the fly in the heat of battle. You're certainly not one to study things in advance from some book or website."

"Well, you're right about that…" Ash said sheepishly, scratching the back of his head.

"Pika pika!" Pikachu said, bursting out in a fit of laughter, earning him a scornful look from his companion.

"We both focus on incorporating physical, brute strength as a primary strategy. That doesn't mean we don't think outside the box when needed but given a choice we'll always trend towards the quickest, simplest option on hand."

"Sounds like you know me quite well already!" Ash laughed. The look in his eyes changed, and an eager grin spread over his face. "I'm now really looking forward to getting stuck into training with you!"

"Good. Now let's work on your form. You're wasting too many movements." She said. "I'll whip you into the best Guardian this tower has ever seen."

Wiping clear a drop of sweat from her forehead, May took several deep breaths to calm her panting down. Her arms and legs were shaking from the exertion placed on her body. She narrowed her gaze at the half-destroyed rock before her, annoyed that her last attack hadn't deleted it off the face of the earth. Still not enough… damn it!

"Much better!" Erika said, clapping her hands together. Her tone was warm and encouraging. "You can already destroy half a boulder with a single hit! That's amazing progress for just a few days!"

"It's not good enough, though." May sighed, glancing over toward the far side of the floor where Ash was training. Although she saw him being scolded yet again for not having correct form by Charlotte, the multitude of rocky chunks in his vicinity were evidence to his own progress. When we started, he could barely create a stable sphere, yet he's already leaving me miles behind… She supressed a giggle as a thought occurred to her. And here I thought I'd finally caught up to you… seems as though that was always a far-flung dream…

Erika followed May's gaze and smiled. "You may not have Ash's latent talent or reserves, but that doesn't mean that you're not incredible yourself. Many Guardians couldn't hope to match the progression you've already made, not to mention you have tremendous amounts of power within you yourself."

A determined look settled over May's face. "I won't allow myself to fall behind. I cannot. This world relies on us right now, whether I like that or not."

"You're on the right track. If you'd like, I can accelerate your training. I know many techniques within the field of Aura which even my peers don't. It will be hell on earth for the next few days, but I can show you if you're truly determined to speed up." Erika said, holding out one of her hands for May.

The young Maple looked down at it quizzically. "You can help me keep pace with Ash?"

Erika nodded. "Absolutely. If you take my hand, I'll use my powers to link our Auras together for a brief period. This will give me the chance to feel how your Aura works. No two Guardians' powers are the same, even amongst the Great Bloodlines, but once I know how you operate, it'll help me guide you."

"Great, then let's waste no time!" May said enthusiastically, rushing forward to take the Pillar's hand.

"However," Erika said, stalling the eager May in her tracks, "I'll take your acceptance of this as full commitment to my training. I may not look it, but I'm quite the fighter. I'm also the harshest trainer of all the Pillars. I will get you results, but many cannot handle my methods. I also don't like to waste my time. So, think extremely carefully about this. Once you take my hand, I consider it akin to signing a contract."

The look of determination never leaving her face, May took the last two steps forward and immediately clasped hands with her. "Let's get started, then."

"No hesitation in the slightest. That's what I like to see." Erika said, the soft smile returning to her features. "Then I shall waste no further time."

May grinned, the fatigue within her body being replaced by a rush of adrenaline. "That's what I wanted to hear!"

? Region – Ember's Hideout

Alone within the executive quarters, the Masked Man stared down at a glowing blue crystal on his desk, his eyes taking in it's scratched and marred surface. The sense of pain and regret that filled his body he got when he looked upon it had faded little. Despite all these years… it's still as raw and painful as it was that day…

Agonizing memories filled his mind, like they always did whenever he was left alone with his thoughts. They will pay this time, no matter what! No one will have to suffer this kind of hurt ever again!

Hacking coughs disrupted any further thought as he fell from his chair, falling to his hands and knees. Blood began to leak from the grill over his mouth as agonizing pain wracked his body with spasms. Not again! I…! Will…! Not…! Submit…! Several minutes later the attack had passed and he forced himself back into his seat, albeit with grunts of effort and exertion. Panting as though he'd just ran a marathon, he clutched his chest with one of his gloved hands.

"Damn it… it's getting worse…" He said, taking deep breaths to calm himself.

A knock at his door caught his attention and he forced himself into proper posture before speaking. "You may enter Achillia. I know it's you."

"Sir, I have lots to repor-" She said, cutting herself off as she saw the laboured breathing of her superior. Eyes going wide, she rushed over to his side at once. "Is it the feedback attacks again?! You have to stop using Dark Aura this much!"

"I'm fine!" The Masked Man said through gritted teeth. "There are far more important things at stake than my health. We have no time to spare to avoid the coming catastrophe! I will not allow that horrendous scene to happen again!"

Achillia glanced over at the crystal, her face scrunching up in determination. "No matter what, I promise you we will put an end to that disaster this time. We've already made changes to this timeline, so hopefully things will go much differently. But if you keep using your Dark Aura without allowing your body to heal, you'll die from Soul Decay long before you can stop anything!"

"I'd gladly give my life to change the world!" The Masked Man said. "The only things they left for me are hate and bile! From its very foundation, the World Government is nothing but a façade for evil! I will burn it to the ground, Achillia, even if I have to use the very blood in my veins as the oil for the pyre!"

Gritting her teeth, Achillia couldn't find the words to say in response. She didn't want to admonish such self-destructive acts when she herself felt the exact same way. Besides… there is nothing for us to go back to… we both knew this was a one-way ticket… Instead, she sighed. "The Historioglyph contained everything you thought it did. We've hacked into the broadcast that will go out for tonight's nightly news segment. The world will know by six o'clock tonight."

The Masked Man laughed. "So, it's as I suspected. Damn that Lentra! He knew all those years ago! He knew and did nothing to prevent it! He's as bad as those traitors that poisoned the throne of the Old Empire!"

Tearing her eyes from the crystal, Achillia took a few steps back, taking her normal respectful distance from her leader. "What do we do now?"

"We've forced their hand." He said, balling his gloved hands into fists, as though he could barely contain his rage. "We know their next move. It's time to put our army into action."

"To think it's taken us eighteen years to build this force. A force strong enough to make a difference." Achillia said.

"They have no idea what's coming for them this time!" The Masked Man said, laughing. "We'll crush the World Government under our heel, rip those pretenders from their gilded thrones, and put an end to four hundred years of injustice!"

To be continued…