Light - faint as it was piercing the woven canopy between the ring of standing stones - struck him like a hammer to his temples, scorching his retinas, though they adjusted quickly to the new light as he left the caverns which hid Desire far below their feet. His bare skin tingled as it warmed, and fresh air scraped his lungs free of the dank scent of the long-dried rot and death.

Those memories summoned the briefest trembling in his hands, but in the sun's warmth he found the strength to force his mind to a happier place.

As if aware of his desperate desire to turn away from the crypt, a whisper in his ear tempted him to turn around and brave the rotted depths again. Insubstantial wisps of thought wormed through his mind, grasping at him, reminding him of wishes unmade. Even with the fresh air brushing him, he still felt the leathery skin and claw-like nails exposed by their cuticle's recession dragging against his skin.

Perhaps he always would. Ash knew he could never forget the Wish Maker's crypt - knew that simple fact as he knew the Song in his soul or his heartbeat in his ears.

"Ash!"

His breath left him as a red-haired rocket smashed into his chest. Ash wheezed and stumbled back as Flannery's arms locked around him like a vice, even though she pulled back quickly to hold his shoulders and look down into his eyes.

"You're back!" She shouted to the heavens, her voice touched by relief and panic intertwined, her grip tightening until it bordered on pain.

Ash blinked at her, unsure of what to say with another human so close.

Flannery seemed to realize the same in the next moment. Her face went red, and the iron grip loosed - Ash dropped to the ground with a grunt and then she was glaring down at him. She was only a few inches taller than him, but right now it might have been Lance looming over Ash with a disapproving scowl.

"You're back! What happened? You took forever! I had to call Steven - he'll be here in just a few minutes! It's been an hour and a half - what took you so long?! What was down there?! Do you know how worried I've been?! How worried Steven was when I told him what was going on?! Well?!"

Her questions came out like Bullet Seeds, and it was all he could do to keep up with them.. He couldn't tell her what he'd found, not in full, but one thing he did know was that she didn't need to be touching him right now. Not after what he'd just done.

But first... His palms itched, and his eyes locked onto Flannery's pack. "My team!"

They were back on his belt soon enough, though Flannery burned holes through him with her eyes every moment he spent fervently returning them to their rightful places.

Ash exhaled. His team was back where they belonged: With him.

Flannery fidgeted impatiently. "Come on!"

Ash thought for a moment - how was he supposed to describe what he'd seen down there? What words would do it 'justice'? In the end, he decided not to even try. "Something awful was down there," he said at last. "You were right. If you'd gone down that passage as a kid you'd be dead. Anyone with you would be dead."

Flannery blanched, and her right hand reflexively went down to Piper the Torkoal's pokeball. Ash had hoped that desperate realization would have snuffed out her curiosity like a candle doused with water, but he'd underestimated her.

At that moment, she changed. Fear, the sickening realization that she'd dodged a terrible fate by a hair, and despair melted away - no, not melted away, but used. Those initial emotions faded, weaponized and stoked to a fury not unlike the simmering volcano that Flannery had spent her life around.

The Lavaridge Gym Leader fixed him with a stern look, channeling all her uncertain authority into it. He thought it was a good attempt, even if she hadn't quite gotten the menace of someone like Surge or Koga down yet.

"What is it? Details!" She scowled as Ash began shaking his head. "This is my territory. It affects my people and the land under my protection. I don't care how big or scary it is, Ash. It's my responsibility! You might not get it, you might not have anyone to protect, but I do!"

He raised a hand to calm her for just a moment, even if it did nothing to quell the fire blazing in her. Part of him prickled at the accusation, irrational anger rearing its ugly head. She didn't know anything!

It doused his anger as if Steven had poured another bucket of icy water over his head.

She really didn't know anything. That realization sobered him. Anger still simmered, tied to his mother, to Professor Oak, Lance, Karen, Amelia, Jon, his family - but Ash forced it away. Never gone, but held tightly in check.

Much as he hated it, she was right. This was her responsibility. Flannery might not be much older than he was, but she was the Lavaridge Gym Leader for a reason. She'd been chosen for her strength, her determination, and an unceasing dedication to the people she loved.

She was no Fino Moore - not yet. She was still learning to fill those old shoes. She wasn't yet burdened by the full weight of the responsibility while her grandpa slowly, painstakingly shifted that weight to her. She was a trainee - the League's investment in the future. Groomed to be a pillar of an entire territory, but not yet ready.

And here she was, fuming and scared and desperate to act for her land, her people, and the pokemon that called these hot, rugged lands their home. The League might not have given her the full weight of Lavaridge, but Flannery had already learned to take those responsibilities onto her own shoulders without a second thought.

Neither of them were ready, he realized. Unready, but condemned to meet their respective challenges regardless. Flannery knew the razor-blade hanging over the region, felt the doom ticking closer and closer with every passing moment, and was prepared to accept the obligations that came with her position regardless.

At that moment, Ash knew Flannery would be a great Gym Leader. She already was, really. Flannery wouldn't give an inch if he glared or grunted or growled. Flannery would just dig in her heels, glower right back, and push him back just as hard. Where the world shoved, she would shove back.

His lips twitched, subtle enough that Flannery wouldn't catch it.

Ash had made his decision.

He couldn't offer the full truth, but he could at least give her something. Ash chose his words carefully. She was still an inch away from blowing up on him (well, blowing up on him again), and he was unwilling to outright lie.

For one, Flannery would call him out on it. He knew she wouldn't hesitate.

For two, she deserved better than that.

Part of him, the stubborn, secretive side that clammed up when he thought of sharing his discoveries - the gnawing, greedy thoughts eager to hoard knowledge and clutch it to his chest - balked at the idea.

A better part of him was relieved. It was a part fed by love, and friendship, and a thousand offers to share his burdens.

His tongue still felt heavy in his mouth, but he supposed it was now or never. At least his last encounter with Steven had taught him something of tact… possibly. He could chalk it up to knowing how not to reveal something of Legendary weight, although he couldn't be certain of any other social scenario.

Ash gestured to a small boulder poking its grey head out of the soft dirt not just a few steps away. "You might want to sit down for this."

Her fists balled, but at least she was willing to humor him. Even Ash couldn't miss that Flannery's temper only barely allowed her to listen, and when Ash saw her glance back, eyes lingering on his shoulder for some reason, he knew part of that anger was fueled by worry.

Nevertheless, she plopped down on the rock. She raised one fist to rest her chin against, staring daggers at him, while the other rapped against her seat.

That added pressure stole his words right off his tongue. Confidence and certainty still filled him, but it sure had seemed much easier before it was actually time to speak. In the end, as he always did, he went with his gut.

"What do you know about Greenfield?"

He couldn't be sure what he'd expected from him, but that threw her off guard.

"What?" She shook her head. "I don't get - whatever," Flannery huffed, apparently deciding to just roll with the question. Ash breathed a sigh of relief.

"I - not much," she admitted, frustration apparent. "I still don't have full access to classified reports. I've picked up the basics, though!" Flannery defended. "Two Entei were involved, the other Legendary Canines, the Unown, you…" she trailed off, curiosity briefly overcoming her annoyance. "Well, the whole world knows you were there."

Ash shifted uneasily over that bright spark of curiosity. Knowing there were hundreds, thousands, of people just as eager to uncover the truth as Flannery didn't help bring him comfort. Her burning stare felt ready to peel back endless layers of mystery away from him, and that incessant need to know struck a chord with Ash.

Of course, then Ash responded reflexively to the most inane of Flannery's comments.

"Legendary Beasts."

"Whuh?" Flannery cocked her head, replying both eloquently and intelligently.

Her grandfather was a poet. Flannery… Well, she might have to spend a decade or three to catch up on that front.

"Not Legendary Canines," Ash corrected, well-aware he was probably testing the limits of the Gym Leader's frayed patience. She'd cooled off the moment he'd been willing to talk with her, but that probably wouldn't last. "Legendary Beasts. That's what they're called in Johto."

Flannery's left eye twitched. "Really? That's what you're focusing on?" Her fingers tugged at her red locks. "And I've seen the pictures! They look like big dogs! Like, Entei's basically a bigger, fluffier, browner Arcanine!"

He snorted. It was hard to compare the heaping mass of fur, muscle, and fang that filled his memory to an Arcanine. Even the Crystal Entei (thoughts of the construct and Not-Ash left a sharp pang in his chest) was enormous, and the true Entei dwarfed it. From front to back the Beast of Fire must have been seventeen feet long, and stood eight feet high at the shoulder.

Arcanine was a puppy beside that.

"Sure," he waved Flannery on. "Let's go with that."

His remark didn't earn him anything but a quick roll of her eyes. Despite the seriousness of the talk and the steam practically pouring from her ears, it brought a thin smile to his face.

"So you know what happened in Greenfield, then. The Unown caused trouble. The League could barely handle it," Ash said as diplomatically as possible. "You know the Legends are waking up, then."

She wasn't smiling anymore. "Yeah," Flannery muttered, tugging harder at her hair. One of her hands clenched at the belt with her pokeballs on it. "I hop onto Grandpa's computer sometimes when he's not there," she admitted with a touch of guilt. "He'll go to the hot springs for hours sometimes. Lots of bad stuff going on in Indigo, huh?"

"Yeah," Ash echoed. "Lots of bad stuff. No more, hopefully." He rested on a lonely stump across from her. It was a relief to sit after the exhausting time in the caverns, and he held back a groan as his muscles finally got a break. He was going to be stiff tomorrow.

Part of him thought it wasn't too late to turn back, that he could take this conversation in a different direction that wasn't half as treacherous, but one look at Flannery ensured he couldn't.

Ash wanted to glance away from the girl and spare her.

He didn't.

"Hoenn has its own Legends," he muttered, but did her the favor of meeting her eyes. She needed to know how serious this was, and he'd say she was already realizing given how her pale skin was absolutely pallid now. Within the shadows and scant light of this spire-ringed place she appeared like a ghost herself. "One of them is right under our feet."

Emotions flickered across Flannery's face just as they had Steven a few days ago. Fear, fury, determination, a terrible fragility, and countless other sensations that would rip him apart if he tried to reach out to feel them for himself. Part of him wanted to embrace the raw self-flagellation, to truly share Flannery's pain so that she wouldn't have to shoulder it all alone.

He didn't.

He couldn't. Not after today. Not after Jirachi and the crypt and the - no, he just couldn't.

As it was, he just felt it like a faint blow to his gut. Ash waited for Flannery to process it all, then continued once her face went flat and expressionless. He hadn't known Flannery for long, but it was enough to know that was wrong. Flannery was loud. Flannery was vibrant. Flannery was curious.

Flannery was never dull.

"We're going to do our best to stop it," Ash promised, but what use was a promise in the face of the Earth itself? "But that's why I had to go on and investigate. It's dangerous, but my luck is bad enough that I've built up some experience. Better me than anyone else."

She looked at him, then nodded. Ash was still uneasy with how quiet she was, but listened as the Lavaridge Gym Leader spoke. "What can I do to help?"

He blinked.

Flannery repeated herself, a little more frustrated this time, and Ash rapped his knuckles against the stump in thought. His brain was exhausted, drained entirely by the experience with Jirachi, and to be honest he wasn't ready for this. If he could make a wish now, it would be to sleep a dreamless sleep with his team at his side.

But it couldn't come yet, so he answered the question. What could Flannery do?

"You can't fight them," Ash murmured low enough that Flannery had to lean forward to hear. I've tried was left unspoken, but Flannery must have realized by the widening of her eyes. "But you can be strong. You can't fight them, but you can survive them. You can help other people survive them. You can help - prepare people, organize safehouses, train the Gym pokemon for an eruption. Give yourself the best odds possible."

And that was what it came down to, wasn't it? You couldn't beat a Legend down (well, unless you were Infernus) but that didn't mean they were powerless. They didn't just have to stand by and watch.

They could act, and that's all Flannery needed.

"Yeah, yeah," she muttered to herself, growing more animated by the second. A bit of color came back to her. "That's gotta be why they're moving stuff out of the city. I can run evacuation drills, set up fundraisers, get the Gym Trainers into shape…"

Flannery was lost in her own thoughts, and Ash was content to watch. While she mumbled and ran over whatever was filling her head, he just ran his fingers over the pokeballs on his belt. Each that was currently occupied trembled at the touch, eager to be released and greet him, and he basked in it.

They were here. They were with him again.

Crack.

Both Ash and Flannery leapt to their feet as leaves shook from their stems and rained down on them, branches splintered and shattered, and the awful shriek of metal scraping metal -

Skarmory slammed into the soft soil just a few feet beside them both with a piercing hiss. Its wings spread out, glittering like gleaming swords even in the barest light, and she fixed him with ferocious eyes as her razor-sharp talons clawed into the earth. Steven rolled off her back, legs unsteady and eyes wild, and dashed up to them both.

"I saw your message! Details, now!"

Flannery snapped to attention, but had forgotten she was still sitting. She nearly toppled off her boulder, but caught herself and leapt to her feet to give Steven a sloppy salute. "Yessir, Mr. Stone, sir! Ash finally came out of the cave, sir!"

The former Champion pinched the bridge of his nose. "Yes, I gathered - thank you, Flannery." He turned to Ash, deadly serious. "She said you went down to a strange part of the cave. What happened down there?"

Ash hesitated, mind still too raw to think properly. Even if he wanted to tell Steven about Jirachi, this wasn't the time to do it. Flannery didn't need to know just what lay down in the tomb. His heart skipped a beat as he remembered the bones, and especially just how easily there could have been a tiny skeleton with crimson hair down there with all of them…

"I was investigating. It turned out to be our friend from the other day." Ash felt slimy and unclean for entirely new reasons as he misled Steven. He hoped the man would understand.

Flannery's eyes narrowed - Ash wasn't exactly subtle at the best of times - but Steven took a moment to process before it clicked. "Of course," he said lamely. Skarmory watched Ash with the eyes of a raptor. "How is our friend?"

If he kept this up, he was pretty sure Flannery was going to spontaneously combust out of frustration. Best to wrap things up. "Fine. A little cranky, but not too bad."

"Oh come on! Ash, you'd be an awful spy. I'll plug my ears if you need to talk but please stop!" Flannery groaned. She colored as both Ash and Steven sent a look her way. "Err, if you want to, of course, Mr. Stone!"

Steven cleared his throat. "Well, I suppose Flannery is right. We should discuss things later. If there's nothing else, I'll see you at camp later. Enjoy your day off."

It was a little too late for that, but Ash nodded. Steven hopped back on Skarmory, then was off just a moment later. Most likely they were headed back to one of the training grounds. For a moment Ash yearned to go with them and see his team to fill that void, but fought it down.

Later.

There was a moment of awkward silence as the young trainers watched Steven vanish through the canopy, then Flannery frowned at him. She stared at his shoulder - the same spot from earlier - and cocked her head. "Hey, you've got something on you. Right there!"

Flannery poked helpfully at a spot on her own black and red shirt, and Ash looked down. He picked off a scrap of something dry and brittle from his shoulder. It was fragmenting between his fingers, and when he looked closer he could see it was a light tan. Familiar, almost like -

He cast it away immediately, careful to throw it in the opposite direction of Flannery. A huge knot filled his chest and bile rose in his throat - it took all of Ash's willpower not to lean over and retch.

"You good?" Flannery poked him. "What was that? It looked pretty weird."

"Nothing," he said tightly, and swore to never tell Flannery. That just brought back memories of the bones. "It was nothing."

Flannery looked at him doubtfully. "It doesn't seem like nothing," she frowned, then looked him up and down. "No offense, but you look like crap. You okay, Ash?."

He could only imagine what a mess he must be. Clothes and skin covered in a fine layer of dust, grime, and whatever stitches of the corpses had clung to him. Face pale and hands still shaking. Part of him had just gone numb, numb in a way both like and unlike the distance Ice offered, but the rest of Ash was still screaming.

"I'm okay."

"You're a liar, is what you are. If you're okay, then I'm the Ever Grande Champion!" Flannery seemed to perk up at the thought, but quickly pulled back from her fantasy. She shook her head and sent her ponytails flying around - one nearly hit Ash. After a moment's thought, she smiled brightly and grabbed his wrist to drag him alongside her. "C'mon, let's go! I have an idea."

Ash was too exhausted to put up much resistance. "Where are we going?"

"You need to relax," she said easily. "Normally a battle would do the trick -"

Yes, yes it would.

"- but you're kind of filthy, you look like you'd pass out halfway through the fight, and you smell all musty and weird. We're going to get you cleaned up."

He allowed her to drag him through the narrow passageway that would take them back out to Forina. "There's a stream not too far from here I use," he muttered. "Nobody should be training in it now."

Flannery scoffed. "Oh come on! A stream? You're in Lavaridge… or, uh, you will be. It's a crime not to visit the hot springs!" She nodded to herself, pleased with the thought. "I wonder if I could make it an actual crime? Probably not, but it can't hurt to ask."

Ash frowned as they left the little ring that hid Jirachi's resting place. He cast a tired look back, but Flannery jerked him forward.

"So where are we going?" He asked, resigned to it all. To be honest, the hot springs did sound nice. Maybe he could feel physically clean, even if he sort of doubted he could ever feel that way again after what he'd just done. "Do you know a place nearby?"

The girl shook her head. "Well, there's a few places not too far away, but wild pokemon usually claim them." Flannery recalled as she raised one of her pokeballs. She clicked the release, and a moment later the familiar form of her mighty Rapidash materialized. "Brick! You're looking handsome as ever."

Brick the Rapidash whinnied and butted the side of his head against Flannery's. She smiled fondly and hugged his thick, sinewy neck back. One of her hands went to pat his creamy fur. "Hey Ash, is your Pidgeot with you?"

"Not today," he shook his head. "She's out training."

She'd been getting close to a breakthrough with their 'special' training. Lugia's power still eluded them, but she had been able to embrace and detect Suicune's to the point that she and Ash could connect to each other through the North Wind. It was a fleeting thing (much like the North Wind itself) but feeling the surface emotions as the winds whipped over them was a transcendent experience.

Her perception of it was still faint and inconsistent, but with the special affinity she had with the air he doubted it would remain that way for long. Not with the way she'd thrown herself into their training.

If he wanted, he could probably reach out and detect her through the Concepts. A tempting thought - he needed his team right now - but one he decided against. She was training, and he didn't want to disturb her.

"Gotcha," Flannery said as she hopped astride Brick's massive back. "Brick, think you can carry two?"

The Rapidash snorted, then cast Ash an uncertain look. His gaze lowered to Ash's chest where the Feather sat, but ultimately nodded. Ash watched the heatless flames of the equine's mane flicker and dance in the wind as it brushed through, but didn't give into the temptation to channel Fire like he wanted.

Could he stoke the fires of Brick's mane? Curiosity tugged at him (he could practically feel Professor Oak frothing at the mouth at the thought of the experiment) but he held off. No need to cause an issue like he had with the Eruption.

"What are you waiting for? Hop on!" Flannery grinned, and Ash did. He hopped on behind her and clutched his legs tight to Brick's muscular body. Red-orange flames licked at him, engulfing nearly his entire body as they danced down the Rapidash's back, and would have been harmless even without his connection to Fire itself. Brick shivered the moment Ash got on, but didn't try to throw him off.

It was a wholly different feel from when he rode Plume, and Ash suspected his legs would be in no shape for a run tomorrow. There was an excitement to it, though, and his heart rate picked up a notch as Flannery leaned forward and wrapped her arms all the way around Brick's neck.

"Hold on tight. I didn't bring his gear, but Brick'll get us there safe and sound in no time!" Flannery shouted, then waved an arm in no particular direction. "Onward to Lavaridge my noble steed! Hya!"

Brick rolled his eyes, but still snorted in amusement. Ash barely had any time to react before Brick pushed off to a canter. That motion nearly knocked him off, but Ash tightened his legs around the equine's sides and yelped. He had to wrap his arms around Flannery's waist - ignoring the discomfort of touching another human and the sudden spike in his anxiety - just to hold on, and Flannery cackled as Ash struggled to stay on.

The trot was just the beginning, though, and Brick then built up speed faster and faster - trees blurred by, obstacles were dodged with ease, and wow, flying was much less terrifying than this.

Flannery looked back at him with a manic smile. "Isn't this great!" She shouted above the din of the wind - they were clearing out of the forest now, and charging through the fields of stone spires. He vaguely recognized a few blurry places, but squeezed his eyes shut after a moment.

"Yep."

She didn't seem to notice his hesitance. "It's too bad the ride is only another hour. It always goes too fast for me!"

Ash held back a groan.

These hot springs had better be worth it.

XX

Hiss.

Thick, roiling clouds of steam billowed out from the sauna in a great rush as Flannery eagerly flung open the door. Ash awkwardly slunk in behind her as she charged through the small crowd of people waiting to enter the hot springs themselves - most were wrinkled, shriveled elderly people, and quite a few scowled in annoyance before quickly recomposing themselves once they recognized Flannery.

A good number waved or offered greetings, and Flannery was quick to beam and shout out hellos to most of them by name. Her brightness seemed to attract attention like a Venemoth to flame, and it felt good not to have people staring at him for once.

"Leader Flannery! It's an honor to see you today!" A black-haired young man, perhaps fifteen or sixteen and tall and thin as a reed, stammered from behind the counter. "We weren't expecting you -"

Flannery smashed her fist on the red cedar wood counter. The boy flinched, but smiled nonetheless. "Of course not!" She declared to the whole room - if she was much louder, it would have been to the whole city. "My friend here needed to relax, and what better place than the famous Lavaridge hot springs? I'm here to show off our city!"

The boy nodded good-naturedly even as the six or seven others in the waiting room peered over at them with blatant curiosity. Ash tugged his cap lower, even if it was horribly uncomfortable. He'd been in here for just a minute or so and was already dripping sweat. Ash couldn't imagine how bad it would be once he actually entered the hot springs.

It had been a while since he'd visited Cinnabar, after all. How long had it been? Just after his training with Lance (and their ill-fated battle with Fire itself in the Sevii Islands) and just before New Island… practically a lifetime ago, or so it felt.

"And what is the name of your honored guest?" The sauna attendant was laying it on a little thick for Ash's taste, but it was all in good humor. He smiled at Ash quickly, then shifted over to Flannery, who was quick to rap her knuckles on the counter again.

"Ash Ketchum!" Flannery's loud, cheerful voice carried. Not all the people waiting reacted, but the boy certainly did. His eyes bulged and he quickly peeked around Flannery's frame to steal a glimpse at Ash.

For his part, he wilted beneath the attention and grumbled something unintelligible at Flannery.

"You might have heard of him - he's already an Indigo Elite Four trainee, and he's, like, thirteen or something," Flannery bragged. "Isn't that cool?" She looked back and squinted at him. "Huh. How old are you?"

"Twelve." Ash grunted.

She blinked. "Really? You're so grumpy that you seem way older." Flannery shrugged. "Whatever. Do you have the normal room set up?"

"Of course!" The attendant snapped to attention, quickly scribbling their names down into the guest book. "The Leader's room is always ready. Give me just a moment to send word, and I'll take you back."

"The Leader's room has enough space for our teams," Flannery whispered to Ash as the attendant's Kecleon appeared from nowhere and scampered into the back rooms. "After… whatever happened back there I thought it would be good."

That might've been the most relaxing thing she could've said. Tension drained from him. "Thank you," Ash smiled at her. Not all of his team would appreciate the heat, but it would be a good experience for most of them. Infernus was a no-go, of course, and Sneasel and Seeker would both suffer in it, but for the most part his team could at least be out for a bit.

With that, the attendant called them back and led them through the sweltering halls of the hot springs. Ash pointedly didn't look into any of the side rooms. There were things he really did not need to see, especially given the clientele. Despite the heat, he shuddered.

At least Dazed wasn't here to pick up on those mental images.

The attendant perked up as they stepped into a small changing room. It was made of the same soft, hearty wood as the rest of the sauna, and a doorway at the end must have led to the Leader's room. He stared at it for a moment, more uncomfortable than ever, but the attendant stole his attention with a polite cough.

"Swimsuits of all sizes are located in the cabinets over there," he directed them with the easy words of someone who'd done this a hundred time. Flannery was already over in the cabinet rifling through a great assortment of red clothes, so Ash suspected this was more for his benefit. "See that one? You can grab towels for yourself and your team there."

Ash nodded his thanks as the attendant left, wishing them a good time. The door clicked shut, and all of a sudden it was just Ash and Flannery. She was still digging through the cabinet, resting on her hands and knees amidst rapidly growing piles of clothes, and a note of discomfort pulsed within him.

Maybe he should've just stayed in Forina.

It felt strange with just the two of them, so he released Tangrowth to ease his discomfort. The grass-type wriggled happily when he appeared, bouncing up and down on his big red feet. As usual, he was instantly at ease in the humid environment. It was probably a bit hotter than he'd like, but Tangrowth were tough as a species and used to the oppressive heat of jungles.

Tangrowth peered down at Ash from where he stood just a foot or two away, seemingly taking up half the room with his bulk and happily wiggling vines, and Ash winced when a vine wrapped around his wrist. When Tangrowth recognized something was wrong... awful memories and that deep, deep hunger gifted by Jirachi flickered through Ash's mind. Then the pressure of Tangrowth's vines looped around his arm in a hug eased him, and he spared his friend a smile.

"I'm fine," Ash whispered, resting a hand against Tangrowth's rubbery arm. "Later, I promise."

Naturally, Tangrowth was appeased by that, especially when he realized there was another person for him to love.

"Aha!" She crowed. Ash jerked his head up, only to grunt softly when a pair of dark red swim trunks (not unlike the shade of Flannery's hair) collided with his face. He caught them as they fell, and rubbed his fingers over the soft fabric. "Hop into the changing room real quick and throw that on. I'll meet you there!"

"Sounds good," said Ash. "I'll be over in a minute. Tangrowth, can you wait here for me?"

The grass-type gurgled happily, vines extending all over the place to scout out this fun new place, and rocked back and forth on his red boot-like feet. Despite the massive burden Jirachi had left him with, all the impossible questions and half-truths and suspicion and bone-deep exhaustion, that earned a smile.

Flannery sent him off with a cheerful wave, then started digging through all the swimsuits again. The last thing he heard before he shut the door to the changing room (one of Tangrowth's vines which had trailed behind him quickly pulled back) was Flannery's saying to Tangrowth, "Hey dude! You are a dude right? Awesome! I need a little bit of help getting all the towels and stuff together…"

Hearing Flannery's muffled chattering and Tangrowth's happy gurgles welcomed in a rush of warmth to fill the exhausted void in his chest, like a great gust clearing out a noxious miasma or stirring up a pocket of stagnant air with motion and life.

Maybe Flannery was onto something...

XX

"Ah, this is the life!" Flannery sighed, sending the clouds of steam swirling as she reclined against the carved stone rim of the hot springs. "Whatcha think, Ash?"

His eyes cracked open as he sucked in a cleansing mouthful of scalding air. It was pleasant, searing his body from the inside out and burning all the rot and corruption that stained him away. "It's pretty nice."

Flannery scoffed. "'Pretty nice?' Puh-lease! Hot air, hot water… what else could you ask for? You'll never feel cleaner!"

He could think of a few things, but was content enough to not say anything. He'd had enough of desire for one day.

Ash just sunk under the hot water, ignoring the slight discomfort. It was nothing compared to the feel of Fire beneath his skin, and the Concept stirred to life anyways with the hot touch.

Unfortunately, that just drew more attention. "How are you doing that?" Flannery asked, voice distorted. Her shoulders and face were already streaked with sweat and she looked at him with disbelief, features indistinct and blobby through the water's refractive surface and the steam beyond it. "It's nice and all, but I'm not sticking my face under it."

Ash blew bubbles for a moment, too relaxed to give into the knot of anxiety dwelling inside. "It's not so bad," he said, pulling his face just over the water to peer at her. "I spent some time at Mt. Ember and it was way hotter."

Flannery perked up. "Mt. Ember? Grandpa told me some interesting stories about that - uh, shouldn't that thing be put out?"

He blinked, then stretched his hand to his chest. Ash was still wearing a shirt to cover his Feather, but it was easy enough to feel the golden, rainbow-tinged flames brushing against his hand beneath the steaming water. "Don't worry about it," he shrugged, rolling his shoulders.

"You realize that's just gonna make me more curious, right?" Flannery rolled her eyes. "It's like you don't know me at all."

Ash snorted. "I've known you for a month. Less, actually."

"But we've gone through so much! You beat my team up, Itore my hair out for an hour while you played in the dirt… all the usual stuff. And hey! I'm even letting you hang out in the Leader's room with me. That's got to count for something."

He sighed. It was pretty nice. All the filth and horrors of the day just seemed to melt away in the scalding water.

"Fine!" Flannery groused. "If you aren't going to tell me about the cool glowy thing, at least tell me about Mt. Ember."

Ash's eyes narrowed at that. "I trained there for a month with Lance -"

Her eyes bugged out. "Champion Lance?"

"Champion Lance," he confirmed.

"I heard you'd trained with him, but people say a lot of crazy things," Flannery confessed. Her eyes gleamed. "What's he like? Ooh, ooh, what are his pokemon like? Is it true his Dragonite can shatter a whole battlefield with one attack?"

He thought back to Earth Wrecker. "Yes," Ash said slowly. "That part's definitely true. I don't think anyone can rival Lance in that department," he finished, then frowned. "Wait, do you want to hear about Mt. Ember or not?"

"Yes! C'mon, tell me already!" Flannery beamed. "The legends say Moltres rests there, but that can't be true, right?" She narrowed her eyes suspiciously at him as their previous conversations came to mind. "Right?"

Ash pinched the bridge of his nose and sank back beneath the searing waters.

This might take a while.

XX

A locomotive's whistle sounded, piercing the stillness of the air with a grating shriek that drove like a knife into his ears, and it was over. Piper's charge had flung the howling Loudred to the hard-packed ground with tremendous force, then the formidable normal-type lay still.

"Match!" Ash droned out from the sidelines and half-heartedly waved the flag to signal the end. How he'd ended up in this position he'd never understand, although Sneasel seemed to enjoy watching the fights and Seeker was happy to cling around his neck. "Victory to Leader Flannery, 4-6. Challenger, you may recall your pokemon."

"Yeah! Good girl, Piper. You nailed him!" Flannery cried out, pumping her fist fiercely into the air. "C'mon, girl. Show mama some love!"

Piper slowly, painstakingly plodded back to her trainer, occasionally having to take a short detour around heavy clods of uprooted earth from the challenger's Geodude, or small spots still slick with ice spat by his Sealeo. That had actually been a clever little maneuver against Flannery's Magcargo, although the resulting explosion of steam hadn't done much good for either of them.

The challenger, a burly third-year trainer from Mossdeep, sighed and kicked at the dirt. Ash couldn't help but feel a little sympathy for him. He'd fought hard, and his team hadn't given in until Flannery's fighters had smashed their faces in… if Ash didn't know any better, he'd say that they fought harder once they saw Ash as referee.

Given the glare that the pokeballs on his belt got, they still held a bit of a grudge for their loss.

Still, the boy jerked out of his stupor when Flannery appeared right in front of him with a brilliant flash of light and crack, courtesy of one of the Gym's resident psychics. He scratched at the back of his head, mumbling something out, but Flannery just beamed at him.

"Good fight, man! You pushed us hard. Look at Piper - she's on her last leg!"

The trainer stood a little taller at the compliment, even as Piper grumbled at him. "Really? Uh, I mean, it was a good fight for sure. I learned a lot from you, uh, Leader Flannery."

Flannery brightened at that and stood proudly with her hands on her hips. "Of course you did!" She agreed without a moment's hesitation. Ash snorted. "Come back in a few months and I have no doubt you'll get your Heat Badge. In the meantime, I'll keep it nice and safe for you."

"Uh, thanks, Leader Flannery!" The challenger seemed a little more at ease now, even if the sting of losing was still plain as day on his broad face. "I'll, uh, see you in a few months then."

She waved him off with a few words of encouragement, then spun to grin at Ash. "Ha! Did you see that? We clobbered him like he owed us money!"

Even after their sojourn to the hot springs hadn't completely shorn away the fuzzy layer of fatigue creeping at the edges of his consciousness, but he still managed a smile. "He almost had you at a few points. That Pelipper of his was tough - if Caldera hadn't managed that lucky shot with Stone Edge, he'd have been up one more. Might've been enough."

Flannery let loose a loud peal of laughter. Piper whistled quietly (for a Torkoal) beside her. "But she did, and we won! It was a good fight, though," she said, suddenly serious. "I wasn't lying about that. If they suck, I'll let them know. If he was weak, I wouldn't be so happy!"

"Hopefully you don't tell them like that," Ash rolled his eyes. His estimation of his own tactfulness was starting to rise just a tad, though it was still well below sea level. That fiasco with telling Steven about Groudon proved that much.

"Of course not! Didn't you see me back there? I can be nice."

"And then immediately brag about 'beating him like he owed you money'.

Her resulting cackle reminded him of the sniggering Mightyena that just loved to harass them from just outside the borders of their camp in Forina. Ash suspected it had become a game to them. "Didn't I, though?"

Ash acknowledged her point with a slight nod. He let the exchange fizzle out, then tugged at the make-shift scarf she'd made for him out of a towel they'd snagged from the hot springs on the way out. It was soft and pleasant against his skin (he'd definitely keep it for Sneasel or Seeker to cuddle up in) but that didn't mean it wasn't hot.

"That was the last one, right?"

"Yep! I don't take challenges after five o' clock. We're normally wiped by then, plus grandpa likes to take us back to review footage. He'll probably swing by any minute now."

Well, that was a relief. Ash sucked in a breath of sweet, sweet oxygen - and after what happened earlier today, he knew just what a precious treasure it was - and let the red towel drop down for Sneasel to greedily snatch up. Right now, he'd give fifty-fifty odds that Sneasel would either treasure the gift forever, or that he'd end up shredding it within an hour. There was no in-between with him.

"Finally."

"Maybe you should keep it on. That was a good look for you," Flannery teased. "So what was worse? Potentially being recognized as the famous Elite Four Ash Ketchum, or having to wear a scarf around a bunch of fire-types?"

Ash grunted, reaching up to scratch Seeker's ears as she sniffed at his suddenly bare skin. "Still trying to figure that bit out."

"Fair, fair. Lemme know what you decide on!" She sniggered. Piper whistled up at her, and Flannery jerked to attention when the Torkoal poked her head towards the Gym entrance, where Fino Moore waited. "Oh! Sorry, Ash, but we've got to go in a minute. Thanks for being my ref today! I can't wait to pick your brain later."

He smiled. With Flannery, it always came back to training. At least somebody got it.

"Sounds good," Ash nodded, then hesitated, thinking back to the moment he watched the dust and grime caked onto him from the Wishmaker's crypt wash off into the steaming water, and with it the horror of the day. The mind-numbing dread, the mummified claws scraping his bare flesh, the communion with Desire… never gone, but washed away. "I - thanks for showing me the hot springs. I needed that."

She peered more closely at him, a flicker of something dangerously close to concern running across her face. It made Ash tense, each muscle clenching tight as if to ready him for a marathon. "You know it. Feel free to stop by whenever you want. I'll make sure you have access, okay?"

"Thank you."

It was all that needed to be said. Her smile shifted to something a little more wild. A little more feral. "Ready for grandpa? You've got what, two days?"

"Yes."

"You'd better use them! I'll be there, and I told grandpa you'd give him a good fight - don't prove me wrong, you hear?"

That earned her a snort. "I wouldn't dream of it," Ash said. He glanced at Sneasel, who was nibbling at the corner of the surprisingly still intact towel, and back to Seeker, then down to the row of empty pokeballs on his belt. "I don't suppose you have a way for me to get home?"

She perked up, then winced as Fino poked his head in and stared at her. "Uh, you can take Brick! He'd love the chance to stretch his legs some more." Flannery reached for his pokeball even as Ash uttered a low groan. Just hearing the Rapidash's name reminded him of the many, many uncomfortable places he'd be sore tomorrow. "Or, if you're going to be a big baby about it, I'll have you teleported back."

"Teleport, please."

"Fine, fine," she squeezed her eyes shut, and a moment later a silent Gardevoir appeared seamlessly into existence. "Rosaline, would you mind doing the honors?" The Gardevoir's eyes flashed a wan lavender, and Flannery scowled. "Wait, don't you have some fancy, super special League teleporter waiting on you hand and foot?"

Ugh, Bob.

Rosaline's eyes blazed again, and he felt her airy mind brush against his. It recoiled away at first, but tentatively brushed out after the Gardevoir had recouped. Memories, emotions, raw information… it all flowed, and soon enough the Gardevoir had everything she needed.

Say no more, Storm-Tamer. Our friend Robert - my apologies, Bob - has quite the reputation. It isn't often our friends in Indigo complain loud or often enough to reach us here. I am happy to do the honors.

He had just barely a moment to return Sneasel and Seeker, then wave Flannery goodbye -

And he was back in a sparse forest clearing, awash in evening's fading reds and golds, surrounded by great stone spires.

More importantly, his bedroll was right there. It was still a good hour or so before the sun set, but Ash couldn't care less.

A minute later and the campsite was silent save for the rustling of the trees, distant roars, and the soft snores of a world-weary boy.

XX

Ancient skin brushing his, a monstrous mountain of the dead, DESIRE -

Ash awoke in a daze. What was that - dreams.

When was the last time he'd dreamed? With that thought stuck in his head, he slowly became aware of his surroundings.

The familiar buzz of Ninjask and Nincada was joined by the yipping of Poochyena packs, occasional screech of a Tailow disturbed in its nest, and the solemn, droning cry of the Absol filing their way into the green-topped spires of Forina.

Many nights had been spent resting in the darkest hours with his team, reminiscing over old adventures and planning future victories. Listening to the abundance of life in the valley had shifted into something of a simple pleasure over time, and finally into a dear part of their routine.

Unfortunately, that familiarity could do little more than provide a comfortable backdrop as he lurched up for his bedroll scrabbling at the earth, gasping and staring up into the stars twinkling above.

A cold sweat left his skin moist and uncomfortable, and it would only get worse in the heat. Ash snarled uselessly - was this region ever cold? Even at night the air was hot and wet, utterly saturated with moisture, and seemingly insistent on trying to smother him beneath the blanket of warm, humid air.

Fog still filled his brain, and he forced himself not to call on Lightning to dance through his muscles and energize his nerves. If there was one good thing about Forina, it was that calling on the Concepts wasn't such a casual thing anymore. On one hand, it felt like a part of himself was scooped up and gouged out, leaving Ash incomplete and crippled. On the other hand, it forced him to rely solely more on his own body.

But those thoughts cleared quickly. What had woken him?

A shadow hovered over him, blotting out the glittering starlight, and polished a loop of gleaming crystal with trembling fingers. His vision focused just enough to see a second not far away, massive and solid - Nidoking. Worry filled him.

"Dazed?" The words came out slow and groggy. "Nidoking?"

Friend-Trainer. Come.

The telepathic communication lacked its usual focus. It wavered a bit, somewhat indistinct, and echoed as if it was bouncing around inside his skull. Concern practically spilled out of him, but Dazed refuted his questions and whatever prodding he had. She was a brick wall here, and he quickly rolled out of his bed.

It was pitch-black outside other than the scant light which beamed down from the stars (and little enough of that managed to pierce through the verdant canopy) but he could easily spot the enormous shadow of Metagross resting in front of Steven's tent about fifty feet away. The rest of Steven's team was visible as well, though only Claydol seemed to still be awake.

Then came the realization that his team were not resting around his bedroll as usual. His hair stood on end, and Ash quickly rose from his bed with a thousand jumbled thoughts going through his mind.

When Dazed offered a mental gesture for him to follow her and Nidoking, he did as she asked.

Thankfully, it was just cool enough that he wasn't sweating much more than he had when he was asleep. It was annoying, but he just wiped his brow as Dazed led him down a worn trail of flattened bushes and broken trees that the local pokemon had beaten down over years and years of roaming. Every now and then he spotted a glimpse of glowing eyes at waist-height thanks to the scant light burning off of Dazed's pendulum, though they usually scurried away when he looked at them.

Poochyena, Mightyena, and Absol, he thought. It was difficult to differentiate at these distances and with so little to go off of, but quite a few were in packs. The solitary sets of eyes were always a little slower to drift away, and often seemed less concerned with escaping his gaze and more with angling behind him to remain out of sight.

Of course, when Dazed led him to a well-lit clearing (thanks to Infernus being released and resting safely in a small pool of lava) where each and every one of his team was arrayed before him, those thoughts fled his mind. Sneasel, Seeker, and Aron all rested at the end to his right, huddled together peacefully with Oz, Bruiser, and Tangrowth looming over the tiny pokemon.

"Dazed…"

She shuffled, still hunched and clutching her pendulum with clumsy, shaking fingers, and stood in the midst of the group. On her left and right were Plume and Torrent, respectively.

Silence. Tension filled the air, so thick that even the distant choir of bug-types had gone silent. Glowing eyes littered the darkness, and in the light offered by Infernus' heat it was easy to catch the snow-white coats of the Absol that had come to watch.

Ash knew what this was.

They all knew what this was.

He didn't disrespect them by feigning ignorance. They deserved better.

Nidoking remained at his side, but was utterly silent. All Ash could hear from him was the gentle, erratic swaying of his immense tail as it flattened the brush behind them.

Dazed's eyes flashed.

I speak for the family, Friend-Trainer.

Immense weariness settled upon his shoulders. His eyes were still red-rimmed with exhaustion, but he forced himself to meet Dazed's firm gaze, then swept across to the rest of the team. What few hours of sleep he'd managed to snag (when he wasn't jerking out of unconsciousness to fear and a racing heart) hadn't done much more than heal his physical fatigue.

There was little that could be done for the spiritual toll that had been exacted.

"I'm sorry," Ash whispered. His voice was rough and scratchy as always, but came out clear enough for them all to hear. His team waited patiently, even though some of them - Torrent, Oz, Plume, and Sneasel especially - looked positively ferocious in the moment. Oh, some of them hid it well, but he knew them. "You weren't with me when I went to Desire - Jirachi," he corrected. "There was no way to know what I was walking into."

You left us.

His eyes squeezed shut. "Yes."

You were in mortal danger.

"Yes."

When has silence ever been so deafening? Nidoking, Dazed, Torrent, all of them, just watched him, content to let the weight of his words sit and marinate. Part of him - an immense part of him, in fact - wished they would yell and roar and rage at him, just like he knew he'd want to do.

This, though? The disappointment?

Ash couldn't bear to meet their gazes any longer. His eyes drifted to the ground as he wrung his hands.

Dazed's mind filled his own thoughts, gentler now.

Why?

His eyes swept up to run across his team. "Because I'm the one with the protection," Ash felt the acid drip from his tongue. His team didn't flinch, well-aware it was directed within, not without. "The Concepts are mine. I can touch them. They've changed me forever. Made me a little more and a little less than what I was when this all started. But you all…"

Those were different nightmares entirely.

"Zapdos might have killed you all in the power plant. Moltres did kill Infernus," he stared at the fighter, who stared measuredly - calmly - right back.

Ash's voice trembled, but he didn't break the gaze locked between them. "You've almost left us - me - three times. Mt. Ember, New Island, then Shamouti," he said to the Magmortar, then looked to Plume. "You nearly died in Shamouti as well. Not even intentionally - as a casualty of the Blizzard. As collateral. If Mewtwo hadn't - I…"

His esophagus clenched as he choked on his words - a reminder that at any moment, any of them could be snuffed out like a candle beneath a hurricane.

"It's getting worse," Ash said through clenched teeth. "We know so much more than we did before. For so long we were just flailing against things we couldn't understand… and now we do. That means we know - I know - how easily things could fall apart. If I make the wrong choice - I… I just don't want to be the one to put you in danger."

Oh, Ash.

Dazed's voice was kinder now, softer, and he felt the mental caress from her, and the warmth from the rest of his team.

Your body may be older than ours, and your mind may seem it, but it's easy to forget how young you are.

Before he could say anything back, she continued.

You wish to keep us safe, but remember that we have seen the unthinkable as well. We watched you fall lifeless to the ground, a pawn in the Guardian's game. I felt your death. Your mind was there… then it wasn't. We've suffered just as you have.

Ashamed, Ash couldn't bear to meet their eyes any longer. An awful, ragged sound came from his throat.

Dazed's warm mind touched him once again.

We are one, Friend-Trainer. Whether we live or we die - what matters is that we are together, yes?

"Yes," he whispered, and finally raised his head to look every one of his family in their eyes - even Tangrowth's wide, innocent eyes were sharp and aware now, more so than he'd ever seen them.

Ash's face was hot and wet, and his throat spasmed so much it was nearly impossible to get the words out. "Together. I won't - I won't leave you again. I won't make you feel like that again. If you're off training, I'll find you. We'll find each other. But you'll always be with me."

Still, a note of steel entered him. "But…" his voice strengthened. "This goes for all of you too. You'll always be with me," Ash repeated, affirming it to himself as much as to his team. "You have to let me be there with you. Even if it's not safe, even if we're afraid for each other…"

Dazed's eyes quirked up into one her smiles, and her eyes flashed. The team looked to her as one, privy to a line of communication that Ash had no access to. Earth-stoked anxiety ate away at him as he stole glimpses across the line - Aron warbled something, and Bruiser grunted. Torrent levitated silently and sternly, and even Infernus snarled some indistinguishable thing.

All the while, Nidoking was utterly quiet except for the steady breathing that fed him oxygen. It was Ash's one comfort, and Nidoking leaned into Ash's touch when he rested his bare hand against the rough leathery plate of his shoulder.

The warmth that filled his mind was a relief, and bright enough to drown out the lingering worry as that familiar ice-cold flame reared up in the back of his head.

At last, Dazed's eyes flashed brighter yet again, and the team went silent. They turned as one toward Ash, who stood tall as he could under the weight of their attention.

We are one, as we always have been.

Despite it all, his lips curled up into a small smile. "And as we always will be."

And with that, the tension broke.

Ash stepped forward, and was welcomed by his team once again. He was still worn to the bone (and then some) from the last day, his thoughts jumbled and disorganized by their normal standards, but he groaned gratefully and offered his thanks to Tangrowth when the grass-type yanked a small pillar of earth up for Ash to rest against. It was just far enough from Infernus' magma pit for Ash to not worry about going up in flames.

He settled in, smiling as Nidoking laid down at his side and Seeker fluttered up to rest atop the earthen wall. Aron and Sneasel cuddled in beside him, Oz and Bruiser stepped closer, and Tangrowth's gurgle was the only warning they all got before a dozen vines came to coil around them in a tight hug.

Ash laid his head back against the cool dirt and welcomed the first true peace since he'd left the Wishmaker. The hot springs had relaxed his body and scoured the filth of the day off his skin, but knowing his team was here for him eased his spirit and mind. It brought a simple comfort which couldn't be likened to any other.

This was all he could ever want.

His eyes squeezed shut as Ash felt Dazed and the rest of them crowd in even closer, as if enveloping Ash in a protective shell to ward off the rest of the world. Torrent stood guard, glaring at the watching eyes in the dark, while all the rest made themselves comfortable. A gentle coo from the trees told him Plume's location, and Infernus' silence said enough.

"I'm sorry that I left you," Ash said. He put as much of the thoughts and emotions and impressions of the day into his next words as he could, hoping against hope that they would feel them. "It's just - I didn't know what was down there. All I could think of was what if? What if the Legend attacked? What if I lost you?"

Mountains and mountains of corpses down there, all a slave to whatever desire possessed them, and it would have been so easy for both he and his family to be another soul lost in the labyrinth beneath Forina…

Just a few more lost souls waiting to greet Jirachi until the end of days.

Dazed's mind brushed against his thoughts once again.

What would we do if you had been lost?

"The same things I'd do," Ash grimaced, and tore himself away from those dark thoughts. He steadfastly refused to think of them. Those simple words said enough, and he comforted himself by taking Sneasel's soft, fluffy shape under his arm.

Nidoking grumbled at that, foreboding enough that most pokemon would have shied away, and Ash reached out to comfort him. "What I saw down there, the Wish Maker -" he trailed off, unsure what all to say, and Dazed cut him off.

I consumed your dreams. I saw.

Ash's eyes snapped open. No wonder she was so haggard. She'd taken that horror into herself. "Dazed…"

Let us not speak of it. Not here, not now.

He nodded, unwilling to press her on this, and allowed himself to rest again surrounded by the warm forms of his team.

Before sleep could take him again, he spoke one last time.

"Don't eat my dreams. Not tonight. I - I need to face this."

Only the briefest flickers of connection told him that she heard, and Ash drifted off into a restless slumber beneath the stars.

XX

Plop.

Ash's eyes barely darted away from the tiny screen of his PokeNav as Steven gently placed Ash's gigantic stainless steel thermos down in front of him. The bitter tang of coffee filled his nostrils, and he absentmindedly fumbled around to take a long, deep drink of the scalding liquid. It seared his mouth and throat, but he welcomed the pain.

Right now, it was all he could do to stay awake.

The caffeine would take effect soon enough, but for now the burn would get the job done. His eyes didn't turn away from watching one of Fino Moore's last exhibition battles as a member of the Ever Grande Elite Four from a few years back, but he did grunt out a "Thanks."

Aggron was Steven's escort for the day, it seemed. The lumbering steel-type's heavy footfalls shook the ground for a few feet around, and each step absolutely obliterated whatever brush and vegetation was in its way. He'd noted that it tended to take the barest path as a result, usually choosing to take a longer route over exposed, lifeless rock than a shorter one through lively areas.

He could appreciate that.

Steven stood over Ash with folded arms, though Aggron offered a light rumble in greeting. Torrent and Plume both hung over Ash's shoulders while they all watched the battle, taking note of Fino's expert reactions whenever the beat changed and the fascinating dance between enormous assaults of flame, force, and smoke and the clinical application of inch-wide columns of flame that reminded Ash of a plasma cutter.

It actually reminded Ash of the fine control of Infernus' fire that they'd been working on. Perhaps there was something to learn here.

"Perhaps it's time to take a break?"

Ash shook his head. "I can't. The battle is tomorrow. We have to be ready."

He could practically hear the frown in Steven's voice. "You've been working for the last two days. Have you even slept?"

"Yes," Ash replied shortly, more interested in how Fino's Camerupt had just blown up half the battlefield against a Water Master than in Steven. The Camerupt was a core part of Fino's team, along with his Torkoal, Typhlosion, Flareon, and Magcargo. From what he'd seen, those were the oldest members, as they'd been in frequent use even before the Last War.

What made Fino particularly interesting (and what made planning for him such a fascinating challenge) were his later additions. None were entirely new to Ash, not since he'd put work into memorizing the entire Pokedex forwards and backwards, but he certainly wasn't as familiar with them. The foreign additions were ones he expected Fino to feature in their battle in an attempt to exploit Ash's likely ignorance, though Ash wouldn't be surprised if the Fire Master did the exact opposite and was banking on Ash coming to expect his more exotic teammates.

The first was Delphox, a strange fire-type from Kalos that commanded its flames with incredible skill and precision thanks to its formidable psychic abilities. It wasn't seen as often in battles, generally left as an anchor in the back, but Ash had found himself entranced by its precise, elegant fighting style.

Another that caught his attention was Simisear, a Unovan pokemon known for its incredible agility and comfort with both physical and elemental attacks. Fino's had proven to be a particularly vicious opponent, generally closing distance and using its nimble body to dance around its foes while beating them down with a flurry of flame and fist. It was reckless, though, and would be easy to exploit if age hadn't mellowed it out too much.

His last two were also interesting, one from tropical, underdeveloped Alola and one from far-off, isolated Galar, and Ash had actually -

"So you've slept," Steven cut his thoughts off. "How well?"

Ash winced at that. That was the question, wasn't it? Without Dazed devouring his dreams each night, he'd only scraped by with four to five hours. What sleep he did manage to grab (often aided by Dazed's Hypnosis) was fitful and restless, though Nidoking had taken to sleeping not far away to comfort him when he woke.

"Well enough."

Steven's frown deepened as he crouched ahead of Ash. Torrent's eyes followed the movement, but didn't seem to find it too quick or aggressive. "Overtraining is just as bad as undertraining. I know I've impressed on you the importance of utilizing your time here well, but I'm afraid you might be taking it too far."

His knuckles whitened as he gripped his PokeNav more tightly than ever. Ash paused the battle (just when it was getting good too!) and sucked in a deep, rattling breath. "I'm -" he cut off before he could lie and say he was fine. It took a moment to recalibrate. "I haven't been sleeping well," Ash admitted. "Not for the last few nights."

It didn't take a genius to connect the dots, especially not with how Steven had been hovering over him recently.

"What happened down there?" Steven questioned, genuine concern radiating off of him. His hand twitched as if he wanted to rest it on Ash's shoulder, but the former Champion thought better of it. "You told me you encountered Groudon again, but…"

Ash's bearing turned guarded. Torrent levitated a tad closer, and Plume fixed Steven with a baleful glare, though Aggron didn't take kindly to that.

He sighed, and hated himself for lying to Steven of all people. At least Lance would call him out on a lie or half-truth the moment he detected it - Steven was too polite, and that just made things worse.

"I don't want to talk about it," Ash said truthfully. Jirachi had to stay hidden, even from the League. "It's just - it was intense. Brutal. I wasn't ready for it this time either, not so soon after the last."

Steven nodded along agreeably. "Of course, of course," he murmured, then cleared his throat. "Well, if you need to speak of your experience - and feel comfortable, of course - then my door is open. Figuratively, of course," the man corrected with a quick glimpse over at his tent. Steven's words were uncertain, and Ash felt much the same.

He appreciated it, though, and smiled up at Steven as best he could under the circumstances. "I know I can come to you, Steven."

That seemed like the right thing to say. Steven was still a little red in the cheeks, but looked pleased. "Very well," he cleared his throat again. "I suppose I should help you prepare, then. Fino certainly has a unique team that may be difficult to counter. He's always fancied himself a world traveler."

Ash blinked some of the fatigue from his eyes. "Really? You're going to help me?"

"Only a bit," Steven shook his head. "This is your battle, after all. You're responsible for your own preparations, but I will allow you to ask questions."

With that, Ash brightened. "Great! I saw that Typhlosion tends to remain bipedal and lead with its right hind foot. Was there an old injury that never healed? Is that still consistent, or has -"

Steven raised a hand as Aggron snorted in amusement behind him. "Soon," he said quickly. "I didn't finish. I'll let you ask questions, but only if you take a short break. You aren't doing yourself any favors in this state."

Ash glowered, his frustration mounting quickly after the nights of little sleep, but acquiesced with a groan.

"Excellent," Steven smiled and rose back to his full height. "Now, if you'll come with me, Claydol and I have tried a new recipe that we'd appreciate your opinion on…"

XX

Dear Ash,

It's so lovely to hear that you're having a great time in Forina! Don't let Steven Stone push you too hard, you hear? If he does, just let me know and I'll come give him a piece of my mind.

Ash's lips twitched at that. As tough as that day in Greenfield had been, he wouldn't forget the sight of his mom tearing the towering Champion Lance a new one. Maybe Steven could use some setting straight.

My studies have been progressing nicely. It's so kind of you to ask. Recently, I've joined a few study groups and it's been such an amazing experience to meet my fellow students! I've said it before, but it's so strange to be around so many people after living in sleepy little Pallet Town for so long. Sometimes it even feels a little claustrophobic, but it's nice having so much to do.

Molly and your Uncle Spencer are doing well now - I'm so glad you were able to see them before you left Indigo last month! They really enjoyed your visit. You're all little Molly ever talks about! She can't wait to become a trainer just like you. Whenever I visit she's always trying to train with Teddiursa. It's adorable, but she really reminds me quite a bit of you!

Oh! I don't want to let this get too long (I know you're too busy to spend all day listening to your old mom rambling) but you'd never guess who visited me in Goldenrod the other day. Gary messaged me and stopped by! Did you know he wants to go into research? He was so curious about everything I was learning. Knowing the Oaks, he probably understood it as well as I did by the end of the day! He's growing up so fast.

Speaking of the Oaks, I know you were asking about Samuel in your last letter. I haven't been able to speak to him much, but it sounds like he's been busy in Orre. I still can't believe that stubborn man went down there all by himself without telling anyone! He's been working with a Professor Krane down there, and I have to admit some of their research sounds fascinating -

"What's up?"

"Gah!" Ash spit out a mouthful of water all over the place, thankfully not choking on any of it. A shadow hovered over him, and he kicked himself for being so engrossed in his mom's letter that he'd lost any awareness of his surroundings.

Sneasel sniggering into his ear from where he rested on his back didn't help his mood.

"Gross," Flannery complained as she hopped back towards Brick, who stood resplendently in a sunbeam. She peered at her boots with a grimace. "C'mon, did you have to spray my shoes with a bunch of mouth-water? I just got these, dude."

"Did you have to sneak up on me?"

Flannery beamed. "Yep."

Ugh, of course she did. Ash just rolled his eyes, then sent a dirty look at Sneasel as the dark-type tightened his furry arms around Ash's neck.

Suddenly, something in his mind clicked.

Flannery was here.

It was happening!

He shot to his feet, unsettling Sneasel who yowled as he let go and landed deftly on his feet. "Where is he?"

Flannery peered down at her nails (painted red to perfectly match her hair, of course). "He?"

Impatience, not helped in the least by sleep deprivation, rose up like a spitting Arbok. "Your grandpa!"

"Oh, him?" She shrugged, then raised a hand to the pokeballs on her belt. A grin split her face. "Actually, I've got good news for you!"

Ash peered at her with more than a little suspicion.

"Grandpa has important Master stuff to do for the League, so I'll be your challenger today!" Flannery boasted. Brick nodded "I've gotten a lot of training done in the last few days, so I'm confident I can -"

It clicked for him. "You're kidding," Ash said flatly.

She deflated. "Yeah," Flannery sighed, kicking at the dirt. "At least I had you there for a second." The Gym Leader quickly flipped out her own PokeNav to check the time. "Grandpa should be getting here any second. Rosaline's going to teleport him out," she explained. "Jumps around here have been tough on her lately, but she can handle this. I just wanted to get here a bit early, maybe see if you were getting some last-minute training in."

Ash tapped the sealed pokeballs on his belt. "Not today. They need their rest."

"They sure do!" She sent him a cocky look. Brick stepped up behind her, towering over the Gym Leader as he nodded along with his trainer's words. "I know you're going to put up a good fight, but I can't wait for you to see what Grandpa can do! He's incredible, you know? I've never seen anyone do the things he can with fire."

He'd already studied Fino's techniques to exhaustion (and beyond) but he wouldn't turn down a firsthand account. Most of the videos he'd seen were years out of date; a glaring flaw in his data like that was painful to consider. "If you're so confident, why don't you fill me in?"

Flannery sucked in a breath and winced. "Well," she stretched the word out, "I was going to do that, but then you got a bunch of gross water all over my boots. Sorry, but it's not happening. You'll just have to see for yourself."

She was so full of it. Ash just rolled his eyes, even if he couldn't help but smile at her, which she happily returned.

"So…" Flannery cast a furtive look around the campsite, but quickly realized it was empty save for Ash and Sneasel, who'd stubbornly refused to leave Ash's side to rest in his pokeball. Once she was satisfied, she continued. "Any idea what teammates you'll be using? Grandpa and I kind of set up a bet, see, and it would be nice to know what to expect."

Was everyone in the League a gambler? Ash might have to find a way to capitalize on that. Maybe he could get something out of it before everyone realized it was best not to bet against him.

"I've got a few plans," Ash said noncommittally. "Just going to have to see what happens."

Flannery stuck her tongue out at him. "Can't blame a girl for trying." Her eyes traced over the campsite, lingering over Steven's campsite with blatant curiosity, then landed back on Ash. A moment's hesitance warned Ash something a bit more serious was coming.

"I know you don't want to talk about what happened the other day, and that's okay. Whatever it was, it was bad. I want to know, but getting anything from you is like pulling teeth," Flannery rambled and scratched her cheek as she peered at him. "But like I said, this is my land. My people. I didn't want to push too hard before - you really looked like crap, you know - but please, if there's anything else, tell me."

Ash wanted nothing more than to glance away, but her firm stare demanded his attention. He bit his lip, mulling thoughts and actions and consequences over in his head, then spoke. "I can't tell you," he grimaced, well-aware of the disappointment welling inside her. Nothing cut so deeply as a question unanswered. Ash moved to assuage it. "Not yet. There are things I need to go over with Steven some more, maybe with Wallace -"

"Champion Wallace."

He nodded absentmindedly at the correction. "Champion Wallace," he restated. "Afterwards, I'll tell you what I can. Okay?"

That seemed enough - for now. Knowing Flannery, she'd keep poking and prodding until either something slipped or Ash lost patience and slipped away. This wouldn't satiate the Gym Leader for long.

Unfortunately, she had him stuck here so long as the battle was going on.

"You remember what we talked about?"

Recognition flickered in her. "About preparing?" She pumped her fist, suddenly full of vigor. "Yeah! Oh, the Gym Trainers hate life right now!" Flannery cackled with an evil grin. "I've been running them ragged for the last few days. But you know what? When the time comes, we'll be ready."

The constant tension coiled in him like a live wire eased a bit at that. "Good," he nodded. When Groudon awoke… well, they'd need scrap of that preparation. Just the thought of Earth itself weighed him down like a physical burden, and he quickly turned his mind to other topics to escape the cloying pressure.

If only he could play the Song…

Still, as appealing as it was, it grated on him to be so reliant on anything.

"What sort of teams do they have?" He asked, wanting to get a bit more information. It wasn't like he was even remotely an expert in matters like this, but if there was anything he could do, it could potentially be a lifesaver.

The Gym Leader perked up, radiating pride that just might measure up to Plume's. "Oh, they're awesome!" Flannery bragged. "We've got a pretty diverse group -"

Crack.

Ash didn't flinch, but he did straighten up the moment he heard the tell-tale sound that heralded teleportation. It was louder than normal, likely intentional to alert them, and he noted that Flannery stood to attention as well.

Excitement burst forth, and it took all he had just to keep his hands from trembling with the sudden bout of energy shooting through him like a lightning bolt.

Fino Moore was here.

He was here!

A Master approached, having found his way here to match Ash in strength, mind, and (perhaps most importantly) preparation.

The uncomfortable surge of emotion threatened to run wild, chasing away all his constant anxiety with all the fury of a territorial Gyarados. His fists squeezed, fire of his own making blazed in his heart, and a real smile carved its way across his face.

Sneasel quickly clambered up his leg to settle on his shoulder, ears twitching and claws ready to be flicked from their velvety sheaths at a moment's notice. The little dark-type chattered and hissed little nothings into Ash's ear, eyes locked on the two forms that manifested before them.

"Steven always did favor the spires. So predictable, that boy. Lay a few interesting geological formations around Steven Stone and he'll be sniffing around them for weeks!" Fino surveyed the campsite with his back toward them. His companion was Rosaline the Gardevoir, who offered a wispy Hello in telepathic greeting as she listened to the Master bemoaning his old student's habits. "Certainly a striking sight, though. Now…"

Fino spun around, first offering Flannery a fond look, then sending a warm smile Ash's way. "Ah! There you two are. I was worried the campsite would be empty," he glanced at the Gardevoir which stood on her spindly legs beside him. "Rosie, would you mind letting Steven know that we've arrived?"

Rosaline curtsied, then her eyes flashed the same soft lavender as the last time he'd seen her.

The old man's eyes glimmered with something like amusement as he looked Flannery's way. "I see you've already started scouting out the competition. How'd your spying go?"

Flannery saluted him, dead serious. Brick halfheartedly whinnied, then seemed to tire of them all and went off to nibble at whatever shrubs hadn't been trampled over by Nidoking during the last few weeks. "Wasn't very successful, sir! He's a hard nut to crack."

That earned a smile from Fino, even if Ash's impatience was mounting by the moment. If this kept up, he was liable to explode - couldn't they just battle already?

"That's a shame. Flannery spoke quite highly of the battle you had the other week," Fino complimented. "I have to admit that I'm looking forward to this! You've held up your end of the bargain - quite well, I might add, nobody's heard a rumbling from the Eruption since you visited - and now it's time for me to honor mine."

Ash nodded, then couldn't hold it back anymore, even if the mention of his ill-fated meeting with the Eruption threatened to deflate him a little. "Let's go!" He wheeled around with Sneasel still clinging to his shoulder. "Plume - my Pidgeot - and I scouted out a good spot. It's not too far away. Steven can meet us there."

"I didn't know we were in such a rush! Well, I hope you haven't rigged things too far in your favor." Fino chuckled as he fell in line behind Ash alongside Flannery. "By all means, lead the way. Rosie, be a dear and alert Steven, will you? I'd hate for the poor man to come all this way just to find an empty campsite!"

He drowned out the conversation behind him, too occupied with the thousand plans he'd made - just seeing the Fire Master's mood had Ash discarding a few and reshuffling others to the forefront of his mind, though the fact that the smiling old man had only three pokeballs on his belt took priority.

Whatever Fino's choices were, they were ones he felt confident in. He was totally locked in, at least if he hadn't stuffed a few backup pokeballs in his pockets or something. While that meant they were likely to be drawn from the best of the best of Fino's team (which didn't narrow it down much given that they were all fine combatants), it also meant Ash had an inherent advantage.

To be honest, Ash had already selected five of his friends that would be most likely to face down Fino. It was a flexible list - no point being more rigid than he had to be - but one with plenty of versatility against an experienced Master like Fino. Still, knowing that he had nine potential options against three of Fino's…

Well, at least now he knew how Michael felt before they'd faced each other in the Finals.

It was nice to have options. Still, his instincts prickled at the certainty Fino showed. No doubt he'd prepared thoroughly enough that he felt all he needed were those three pokeballs at his waist.

Ash remained lost in thought as they took a direct path to the battlefield he'd picked out, fingers brushing against different pokeballs as he thought of the respective teammate. He'd walked these trails a hundred times now, and at this point it hardly demanded a scrap of attention.

That was for the best.

How was he supposed to focus on walking when he had a Master-level trainer at his back? Sure, he'd faced Lance, and Steven, and Cynthia (that fight always brought a smile to his face), and Bruno, and… well, he'd faced plenty of Masters by now. Probably more than any just-barely-not-a-rookie trainer had any right to have battled.

But a good fight was a good fight, and he'd spent three weeks building up his hopes for this one.

Now all he had to do was put all that training to good use…

XX

In Forina, the morning sun beat down like a hammer. Most days, Ash and his team spent time finding nice, shady spots along the myriad creeks and other waterways that carved their way through the stone spire-filled landscape.

Now?

Ash bore the heat better than Sneasel, who panted miserably at his side along with Dazed, Aron, Nidoking, and Torrent. The little dark-type's eyes were sharp and keen though, locked onto the diminutive shape of Fino across the battlefield.

Eventually, he grew desperate enough to fill the air with an Icy Wind, which brought a welcome reprieve.

Lately, Sneasel had been trying to weather the heat to better train his mind and endurance in Hoenn's hostile climate, but in this case both Ash and Sneasel had higher priorities.

Specifically, the one that stood across the field in the form of a small, smiling old man who watched them with a deceptively easy-going gaze.

The effect was more intimidating than it sounded, though that only really served to stoke Ash's eagerness. What intensified it even further was that Steven, Metagross, Aggron, Claydol, Skarmory… nearly all their teachers were over there watching, and Steven was even recording it with some new, slim camera with a giant Devon logo slapped across the side.

Ash's fists tightened.

He took in the field (although he'd gone over it a dozen times already with his team) with a swift glance. It was a nice blend of several of Forina's diverse landscapes, roughly divided into thirds.

To the left lay a dense section of tangled vines, knotted roots interlocked with one another to form a hard, misshapen surface, broken in places by thin, albeit sturdy tree trunks. In the center was an empty section not dissimilar to the arena he'd faced Flannery in - flat, hard-packed earth dotted with small boulders.

And to the right? Well, that was his favorite: a gentle slope at first, but one which quickly turned into the sheer face of one of the mountains which embraced Forina. It was one of the ones farthest to the west, as distant from Mt. Chimney as Ash could manage. The lightened effect of Earth was hardly noticeable, certainly not enough to give a substantial edge in the fight, but Ash figured any help in taking the worst of his nerves away shouldn't be turned down.

A trainer's mind was just as important as their pokemon's body.

"Combatants, are you ready?" Flannery bellowed from the sidelines.

He spared a glance, nearly smiling (and he would have, if he wasn't so laser-focused on his opponent) at the pure delight practically radiating off her. She'd released her full team, who crowded all around the side of the battlefield in a hot huddle, and it looked like she'd brought some Gym pokemon to watch the battle as well. They stood apart from the main team, shifting a little at the tension filling the air.

"I am, Leader Flannery!" Fino dipped his head toward his granddaughter, whose smile widened even more, if that was possible. The Master tugged at a strand of his curly grey hair as he measured up Ash. "Shall we, Mr. Ketchum?"

Ash nodded.

Before he could say anything, Flannery cut in with a roar. "Combatants, prepare your pokemon!" She stabbed a finger in Ash's direction. "Elite Four Ash! As the challenger, you release first!"

She was really getting into this.

Still, it was what he'd signed up for. An ideal situation would have had Fino releasing first, but beggars couldn't be choosers. Ash was the one who'd made the challenge, and it was only right that he be the one to set things in motion.

And how else could he begin this battle but with Infernus?

The moment his friend materialized, a scorching heat burst forth and chased away any hint of cooling moisture in the air. Infernus took only a moment to see Fino and roar out a challenge of his own, recognizing him from the videos Ash had gone over with him.

He spat a great gout of flame into the air, leaving it rippling and distorted and black with lingering tendrils of greasy smoke, and settled into a fighting stance, feet planted and hand-cannons held out at his sides.

"Gorgeous!" Fino admired Infernus, though the Magmortar didn't seem the slightest bit interested in his praise. "My, my. Flannery wasn't exaggerating. Well then," he raised up an older model of pokeball, similar to those that Professor Oak's team was kept in, "I suppose it's my duty to offer a worthy challenger. It's been so long since Plinia had a good scrap."

He tapped the release button, and an arc of red energy burst forth from the antiquated device to slowly, painstakingly materialize into that fierce Typhlosion that they'd seen their first day in Lavaridge.

Infernus roared again, snarling as he took a step forward and heated his body to awful levels, burning hot enough to force lesser pokemon away with ease. Naturally, a Typhlosion which had painstakingly honed its craft for decades didn't shy away. She just watched Infernus with slit eyes, blue-white flame bursting around her neck like a collar, and seemed more curious than wary.

Thankfully, it was a different kind of curiosity than Princess had shown Bruiser.

On the surface, Plinia the Typhlosion was nothing particularly out of the ordinary. Beyond her silver-streaked muzzle and the faintest blue-silver sheen beginning to glaze her eyes, she had no outstanding features. Her frame was long and lean, corded with muscle without an ounce of extra fat to weigh her down. Plinia was even small for a Typhlosion - not substantially, but she was slighter and an inch or two shorter than the five and a half feet that he'd expect from a full-grown female.

But her bearing, the easy confidence with which she moved, the ripple of muscles trained for many, many more years than Ash (and even his mother) had lived, and the spark behind her cataracts left him wary and eager all in one.

"Remember what we discussed," he said as quietly as he could, knowing Infernus had committed their tactics to memory. Typhlosion was one of the members he'd have been willing to put money on appearing in this fight - Ash couldn't miss the way she'd perked up when he'd first made his challenge. Fino would never hear the end of it if she missed out, and Ash knew firsthand what kind of impact that could make on his decisions. "Stick to the plan."

Infernus rumbled even as his heat cracked the ground beneath his feet. Flame already billowed about him like a cloak, the worst of the effects blunted by the psychic barriers that Metagross and Claydol were kind enough to erect. Just being near the Magmortar left them shimmering, casting the battlefield in a faint blue haze.

Silence, then -

"Begin!"

The words had barely left her lips before Infernus had made his move - when facing a more experienced foe, it was essential to take initiative and control the momentum of the fight. Fino and Plinia would pounce on whatever opportunity they gave them, and even with Infernus' incredible strength and stamina he didn't dare let their opponents breathe for a moment.

Naturally, the best way to do that was with a lot of fire.

Infernus' cannons roared, twin Flamethrowers belching forth in wide cones of red fire. The billowing sea of scorching flame covered nearly the entire center of the battlefield, its tongues barely falling short of igniting the forest to their left (helped by an intentional psychic projection to snuff them out), and it seemed that the whole world before Infernus was consumed by the blaze.

"Steady, steady…" Ash called, then the wall of fire rippled, a shadow darkened within the fiery confines, and he shifted. "Focus!"

With a roar, Plinia emerged from the midst of the inferno. She was enveloped in a coat of blue flame that extended from her cerulean collar all the way over her body - the Flame Wheel had protected her from the worst of Infernus' initial assault, though it billowed and trembled and flickered beneath Infernus' new assault.

The jets of flame bursting from his twin cannons ceased spilling so wildly. Ash's heart leapt as the fruits of their training for the last few weeks paid off: the red-orange cones were suddenly bounded at their origin by a sturdy shell of shimmer blue psychic power (he couldn't see Infernus' face, but imagined it was twisted in a grimace from the strain of maintaining his concentration) that shaped and sharpened them.

What had been a clumsy, endless sea of fire was focused now, captured between the firm walls of psychic energy. The cones narrowed, suddenly venting directly ahead of them - namely, the snarling Typhlosion that closed more and more distance every moment.

It would only last for a few moments at most. Ash counted down the seconds with each breath.

One.

Two.

Three.

Four.

Fi -

There!

The shell cracked, and with a silent burst the flames were once again unbounded. It was one of the main flaws and challenges they'd faced in controlling Infernus' flames psychically. Infernus had strong psychic potential for a Magmortar (and Ash could thank the regular use of teleportation for training Infernus' abilities to this point) but it wasn't easy to split his concentration down so many lines.

That was ignoring the massive drain that came from maintaining the barriers in the face of such sustained, high temperatures as well. Dazed could have pulled it off fairly easily (and they'd tested it in some of their training sessions), but that was hardly a fair comparison.

Dazed was no average psychic.

His attention focused on Typhlosion - it must have been brutal to survive the pressures of those temperatures, even with her own resistant physiology and Flame Wheel wrapping around her like a cloak, but she weathered it.

Just as Infernus' Flamethrowers lost some of their precision, the Flame Wheel broke. Typhlosion stumbled, suddenly exposed to the full force of Infernus' fires, and Ash grinned savagely.

She wouldn't get out of this unscathed!

Infernus must have thought so too, for he took a single step forward, braced his cannons, and renewed his assault. Ash's team (not to mention Flannery and Steven) fell back in the face of the scorching heat, but Ash just watched and waited. He embraced the searing brush of the fire-marked air and the faint scent of smoke that made its way across the psychic barriers, allowing it to fuel the Fire inside him.

Even as Infernus unleashed his strength, Typhlosion stumbled again - then, with a snarl barely audible over the roar and hiss of the flames, tucked into a ball when she was but fifty feet from Infernus…

And when Plinia's curled up form struck the ground, she shot forward, accelerating so fast that it might have torn a human's muscles apart.

Rollout.

No time to muster up the focus to teleport away -

"Meet her!" The blur came closer. "Brick Break!"

Infernus charged forward, building up momentum as he roared his challenge, and the air twisted around him as his body heat surged. The Typhlosion's blur came closer and closer even as his right cannon shifted into claws, shone white and bright as the sun with the power of his Brick Break -

Plinia uncurled mere feet from him, pushing off to slide low. Infernus hardly had a moment to react, and his focused strike brushed just over her head as it went high, and the Typhlosion's eyes glimmered with a white-hot ferocity as she slammed into his thick, muscular gut.

He was too sturdy to be knocked entirely off balance, and managed to slash out with his claws as Infernus was forced back in a deadly stumble. Ash barked out orders, hoping against hope Infernus could compensate for the unexpected blow, and felt a measure of satisfaction as Plinia hissed - Infernus' claws had done some damage, marking her with a few red scratches on her back.

The Typhlosion needed no orders from Fino, who watched steadily from across the battlefield. Even as Infernus recovered, finding his footing on the cracked earth, Plinia hunched, the blue collar of flame around her neck intensified, spiking out an extra foot or so all around, and she seemed to smile just as she lowered her head to Infernus.

Ash's eyes widened at the surge, desperation took him - Infernus couldn't be fast enough - "Confuse Ray!" He roared, and only saw a faint ripple of grey-purple haze burst forth from Infernus as he tried to steady himself before Plinia had prepared.

Then -

Boom.

Ash was forced back by the explosion, supported by Nidoking's sturdy form, and the psychic barriers shimmered and strained to hold back the bone-rattling force behind Plinia's Eruption. He was star-struck, one hand going to rub at one eye while the other watched the battle, but was soon blinded by the follow-up burst of flame that followed the shockwave.

Part of him yearned to reach for Fire, to take hold of the flaming geyser born in Plinia's collar and wrench it out of the way so he could see Fino and Plinia's eyes widen in disbelief, but he restrained himself.

He grit his teeth and steadied himself, thanking Nidoking with a nod, and returned his focus as the Eruption's aftershocks faded away. In a matter of seconds the air was clear, the flaming spire curling away into red-hot wisps, and soon after that all that was left were tendrils of smoke rising up above the battlefield and a few cinders raining down.

The aftermath was clear as day: Plinia stood dazed and disoriented, unsteady and wavering as Infernus' Confuse Ray (a pale imitation of the mind-ravaging horror wielded by Karen's team) left her nauseous and rattled. She was a Master-level fighter, though, and it was obvious she was already shaking the short-lived effects off.

Now, where was Infernus?

It only took a moment to catch sight of him - Infernus had been flung to the side by the force of Plinia's Eruption, but Ash had little more than a brief glimpse of a bloody chest (Infernus would definitely need a magma bath after this) and a vicious snarl before he blinked out of existence.

He appeared with an ear splitting boom behind Plinia, the thunderous noise a mark of his lack of focus and unbridled fury, and Ash had to give the Typhlosion credit. Despite her confusion and the nausea left by Infernus' Confuse Ray, she still tried to whip around the moment she heard him teleport behind her.

Unfortunately for her, it wasn't fast enough.

Infernus' lips curled into a nasty smile. His claws burst to life with crackling electricity, the little arcs jumping between his three-pronged claws with malicious intent, and he stabbed it into her back. The little victory left Ash roaring with his team for Infernus - Plinia wasn't downed, but the Thunder Punch certainly hadn't left her better off.

She stumbled forward as the electricity wracked her lean frame, spitting and snarling in a way that left Ash no doubt that they would be the worst obscenities imaginable if Plinia was human.

Still, she wasn't helpless. Infernus shoved her forward, pulling the tips of his claws from her fur-protected hide, and readied his cannon. A brilliant glow lit up from within the barrel, the Magmortar raised it… then, naturally Fino and Plinia made their move.

"Francesca!"

Despite her confusion, Fino's words brought Plinia back to the battle. A great plume of black, oily smoke burst from her in hacking coughs - the Smokescreen quickly exploded outward, shrouding her form immediately, and left Infernus blind and exposed. He still sprayed his Flamethrower, the gout of flame bursting viciously through the Smokescreen and striking the psychic barrier about ten feet to Ash's left.

Plinia had vanished, though. Her darker fur left her practically invisible given how thick the smoke was, although occasionally Ash thought he caught sight of her shape stalking through it as little ripples revealed her location.

He hesitated. Was this it, or was there more to whatever Fino had shouted out? In previous battles he'd said as little as possible, and Ash hadn't been able to decipher a pattern to whatever code phrases he used with his team other than that most were seemingly random names…

Ash refocused. Nothing to do about it at this point.

Plinia laid low for now, probably trying to shake off any lingering effects of the Confuse Ray and the electricity that surged through her body. Ash's gut twisted as he caught sight of a great glow within the smoke, casting it all in a hellish red light.

Infernus.

His body heat left him like a beacon within the Smokescreen, while Plinia's collar had faded to nothing. She was like a specter haunting the darkness, skulking around until the perfect opportunity to attack presented itself.

Ash was going to shout out orders to teleport or pick a direction and run out of the veil, but there was no need - Infernus had already teleported out to a position near the cliffs, probably wary of the Typhlosion picking out his footsteps had he tried to run out.

While Infernus might have been surprised for a moment at the unexpected move, he knew just how exposed and vulnerable he was in the Smokescreen. Plinia appeared half-blind anyway based on the cataracts Ash had seen, and no doubt had trained to compensate for that.

Knowing what he'd seen from Fino's other battles (long ago as the most recent had been) Ash wouldn't be surprised if they'd leaned heavily into the Smokescreen strategy just for that reason. There was a certain elegance in turning the weaknesses of an aging team into one's strength that Ash could appreciate.

Infernus's head reared back, then he spat out a fast, condensed fireball into the midst of the smoke. It exploded with a roar, and the smoke billowed outward for a brief moment - the Smokescreen settled rather quickly, but they'd seen enough when the flat ground of the battlefield was exposed.

Plinia had left the Smokescreen, most likely through Dig. What was more annoying was that she'd been careful enough to smooth it over, preventing them from pinpointing where she'd tunneled.

Part of Ash wanted to order an Earth Burn right now - with Plinia below the surface, that would win the battle right now. She was a Master-level fighter as well, so she could probably nullify it somehow and emerge (relatively) unscathed.

Unfortunately, the risk was too high. Earth Burn couldn't be used against just any opponent, especially not a relatively vulnerable one like a Typhlosion. Honestly, the only opponents he was really comfortable unleashing it would be fliers or behemoths like Onix or Steelix.

No, instead he had to stick to alternatives.

"Tephra! Set them up in a few locations," Ash commanded, and Infernus quickly set to work building up a few of the traps all around, teleporting from location to location in order to avoid Plinia from striking from beneath. All it would take was one good blast to ruin her day.

There was an inherent risk, of course, but even if Plinia turned them against Infernus, he would be hardy enough to take it. The raw force and shrapnel-like effect of the earth and stone bursting up could be a problem, but the heat and lava would be shrugged off with ease.

Ash scanned the battlefield as Infernus finished his work over the course of a minute or so, but couldn't pick out Plinia. She was playing it safe, likely trying to scout out the magma pockets herself so that she didn't accidentally run into any of them. Even if she was prepared, Infernus' traps would lock Plinia into certain areas of the battlefield.

He glimpsed Fino, who looked frustratingly serene amidst all this chaos. The Master offered Ash a brief wave, which did nothing for his mood.

No, he couldn't let Fino get to him. Of course Fino wouldn't show if he was worried - not like Flannery did, nibbling her nails to nubs over on the sidelines. Control of oneself was as important as control of the team.

Infernus was silent as he finished his last magma chamber, and clambered a short distance away. He was tense, ready for attack from any direction, but kept his eyes focused on the thick, noxious plumes of smoke still settled about the center of the battlefield.

Unease grew inside Ash. The more time that passed, the more likely it was that Plinia would recover fully and press the attack. For them to win, they had to keep her on the back foot. She'd already proven to be a wily, vicious opponent. Ash had no desire to see what she would do as the aggressor.

"Earthquake!" He commanded, hoping that would at least put some pressure on her. No doubt she'd be able to surface or protect herself, but at least it would put the impetus on her to defend.

He watched with razor eyes as Infernus leapt up, then crashed down to the earth with a furious roar - a rippling wave of force carved its way out, tearing the earth asunder wherever the force swept. Gaping chasms opened up nearer to Infernus, while only the splindliest threads appeared at the distant corners of the battlefield.

Ash's eyes caught something. "There!" He alerted Infernus to the sudden flare in the midst of the Smokescreen. The fumes were cast a dim blue, with the barest shape of a Typhlosion in the center. His instincts prickled - this was too easy. "Careful! Flamethrower, don't commit."

Infernus knew as well as Ash that the words were just bait - it was rare for him to be so specific in battle, and the Magmortar played his part to perfection. One of his cannons spat a roaring Flamethrower, the rippling stream kept steady and even as Infernus carefully swept it across the veiled portion of the battlefield. The golden flames were difficult to stare at directly, so Ash kept his eyes traced on any hint of movement, any sign that Plinia was forced out of a comfortable, hidden position -

Not a moment later, twin flares erupted in the smoke, both mere feet from each other. Blue light exploded outward, consuming the Smokescreen in a blinding flash, and Infernus roared out his fury as both cannons spewed white-hot Flamethrowers directly into the midst. Ash grit his teeth, shouted out a warning about Double Team, but before they could react, a third figure, totally extinguished to complete the feint, dashed towards them with the unstoppable blur of a Quick Attack.

Razor claws and a maw full of roaring fire lashed at Infernus, a hundred feet closed in an instant, but he met the Quick Attack just as fiercely - a wild spray of fire, then a shimmering green shield which manifested just as Plinia's assault would have met him. Her natural weapons rolled harmlessly off the Protect, the momentum carrying her awkwardly to the side, and she allowed herself (she certainly wasn't forced) to stumble and expose her side.

Infernus' claws crackled with electricity, he lunged forth to strike another Thunder Punch into her vulnerable left side, and Plinia punished him with more than a little glee.

He roared in agony and fury and a dozen other violent emotions when Plinia's glowing fist decked him in the gut with a Mega Punch. Infernus fell to one knee, stunned just a moment by the blow, but was too cognizant to stay still and let her press the advantage. Less than a second passed by before his eyes flashed blue, building focus and power to teleport to a more advantageous position far, far away from the vicious Typhlosion, when savage claws wreathed in a fiery black-purple haze met his bleeding chest.

They raked deep, augmented by Distortion that allowed them to cut deeper and deeper into flesh and spirit alike. The psychic power he'd gathered faded instantly, dispelled by Plinia's well-timed Shadow Claw.

There was no escape for Infernus now, no teleportation to whisk him away to safety.

Ash only had a grim moment of satisfaction to relish before Plinia's widened with the realization that she'd made a terrible mistake.

Before, Infernus had planned to put distance between the two of them. They would begin their dance anew, trade bursts of flame at range, then brawl for a bit before breaking apart. So it would go again and again until one of them broke against the other.

Now? They were stuck together. Neither would let the other go, not when one of them was still conscious.

On one hand, Plinia had cut off Infernus' escape.

On the other hand, Plinia had cut off Infernus' escape.

This all processed in one moment, and by the next Infernus sneered - Ash couldn't help but notice his eyes were alive now, really alive - and tensed his legs, then pounced.

Plinia leapt forward as well, and the two fighters met in a flurry of ferocious fang and fire. Ash could hardly keep track of them both as they wrapped up in one another, snarling and spitting, spouting flame whenever they could - Infernus outweighed Plinia by at least a hundred pounds of thick muscle, but she was like quicksilver in his grasp, slipping out of grapples and weaving in and out of blows.

But for every blow she avoided with superhuman grace and dexterity, Infernus inflicted two. He was a frenzy, glowing white-hot and stabbing again and again and again with his claws, forgoing his cannons in favor of beating the life out of his cunning foe. Part of Ash - the weak part - recoiled away from the violence, grimacing with every blow Infernus smashed into the Typhlosion's body and face, or with the poison-tipped claws that carved into the furrows left on Infernus' chest from earlier in the battle.

The other part of him rejoiced.

Desperation, rage, glee - he could feel them bleeding off the fighters in waves, each eager as the other to have encountered an opponent who could take the worst they had to give. Plinia especially fought more ferociously with every passing moment, leading up to her slender jaws latching against Infernus' shoulder while her back feet kicked and kicked and kicked, ripping into Infernus' belly like she was trying to dig up the earth for a den.

They rolled, punching and kicking and scrabbling in the blackened dirt beneath them, and neither heeded a single one of Ash or Fino's orders, too lost in the rush of blood through their ears and the fire stirring in their spirit.

He'd nearly accepted letting Infernus finish this on his own as the Magmortar found himself on top and smashed his burning elbow into Typhlosion's nose, dislodging her from his shoulder with an agonized, thrilled shout… well, up until he noted that they'd rolled dangerously close to a slightly upraised bubble on the battlefield. It was a subtle thing, barely visible if you didn't know to look for the swelling of the earth, but Ash knew exactly what it meant: one of Infernus' traps.

Unfortunately, someone else picked it out as well.

"Lorenzo's Folly!" Fino barked, a note of discord slipping into his words for the first time. The moment the noise reached Plinia through the hissing and thunder of the frenzied blows, she stopped scrabbling at Infernus' belly.

The faintest recognition slipped through Ash - he knew that phrase, and part of his mind grasped all through his memory in search of it - but his own hurried warning didn't make it out in time.

Plinia found herself beneath Infernus' heavier weight and roasted alive by his extreme body heat. Pain was obvious, especially when one cannon pressed down against her cream underbelly (stained black with soot and ash and smoke by now) to keep her from escaping.

Infernus' other cannon raised, the golden glow of a Hyper Beam roaring to life within, then Plinia's eyes squeezed shut, her head smashed back against the earth with terrible intent -

Boom! He was flung off with a familiar explosion of molten stone, gas, and earth. Ash's ears rang as the trap was set off - and not by Infernus, but Plinia - and a burst of lava gushed forth where Infernus' trap had rested. Most landed on Infernus where he had landed, but he wasted not a second in grasping a thick glob of the lava and brushing it across his front as he struggled to rise to his feet.

It wasn't perfect, but soon enough most of Infernus' wounds were packed with at least a little lava. That wouldn't heal them, especially not while he was fighting, but it would alleviate some of the pain and prevent blood loss… not to mention prevent Plinia from being able to strike him as easily. She was resistant to fire, but couldn't stand up to lava for more than a second or two.

"Up!" Ash roared. Plinia had been flung away as well by the detonation, though she'd managed to act just a moment before Infernus realized what had happened. The Typhlosion had rolled away from the worst of the explosion, and had already found her footing. "Protect!"

Only the barest shimmers of green light had manifested before Plinia struck. She was quick as lightning as she dashed forward in a blur, smashing into Infernus hard enough to bowl him over. His legs weren't steady yet, and he paid for it.

Infernus roared out a challenge as he struck forth with a Thunder Punch, but Plinia slid around the blow like she'd expected it. She wove around his follow ups, ducked beneath his Flamethrower, slashed his knee with poison-tipped claws, and shone with satisfaction as Infernus' head reared back, fire already spilling from his lips.

As quick and vicious as she could be, this battle had stolen a great deal of Plinia's strength. She was still keeping up with Infernus, but her movements slowed with every passing minute. Age had been kind to the old Typhlosion, but that didn't mean it had left her entirely untouched.

While Infernus was largely going strong, only flagging a bit after their vicious exchange, Plinia wore her wounds more heavily. They stuck with her longer, and Ash could see it with her every strike. Powerful as she was, a battle of attrition would only favor his friend.

Plinia was getting tired, and that made her dangerous.

As if to prove that thought, the wily Typhlosion eyed Infernus' mouth as fire built up, ready to swallow her whole in an immense inferno. Heat burst from his skin as the cloak of flame about him flared, and Plinia waited just a moment with the eerie precision that decades of experience lent her.

Just as the Flamethrower began to spill from Infernus' lips, she moved.

Ash's warning fell on deaf ears. Time seemed to slow as Plinia's claws curled into a ball, and she thrust forward with a strike that appeared almost gentle to him. It sailed through the air, suddenly wreathed in an understated purple glow, with terrible ease.

There was nothing gentle about how it landed, or where: Plinia's strike landed squarely in Infernus' throat.

He stumbled back, gagging, spitting aimless spouts of flame and smoke as his eyes bulged in their sockets. Ash and the team grimaced as one at the strike - powerful as most of Plinia's attacks were, this was the first one that stuck - and he ignored Flannery's totally unbiased cheer.

Naturally, Plinia wasn't letting this opportunity go to waste. She was in this fight to win, and it didn't seem like she was going to disappoint her trainer here.

Before Ash could get a word in for Infernus, she struck like a coiled Ekans - she was little more than a green-blue and cream blur of coarse fur, blue flame, and savage delight as she shot forward, latched her jaws around his wounded stomach (a tiny area that wasn't drenched in lava) and a golden glow spilled out…

He barely had time to recognize the fiery glow of a Hyper Beam before her technique was unleashed. Dread filled him as Infernus was sent flying with a noise - not a snarl or roar, but a pained grunt - only to land on his back, then scramble to his knees. Plinia's Hyper Beam didn't have time to charge to its full power, but it had done a number on his friend.

The damage was bad, but not crippling - surface layers of skin had been peeled off, exposing sensitive flesh beneath, and molten blood dripped down his bulbous front. It was already intermingling with the lava, meeting in a hiss, and Infernus still wheezed agonizing breath after agonizing breath from the Throat Chop.

…and despite it all, he rose to stand on his own two feet. Unsteady, certainly, but aware, alive, and angry.

"Confuse Ray!" Ash commanded, hoping against hope that they could break Plinia's momentum, slow her down, anything to give Infernus a chance to recover. Infernus spat another sickeningly grey and purple ripple that trailed forward, only for it to go high - Plinia dashed forward with Quick Attack again, though this time Infernus was ready and barely budged, sending the lighter fire-type bouncing off, only for her to recover and launch forward to strike at his throat again, only to sock him in the mouth with a vicious blow, step back, try to circle -

Well, she had it all planned out.

Too bad for Plinia, even all her experience didn't prepare her for Infernus to rear back his head and spit. Rather than flame or a Hyper Beam, Plinia found herself showered in a spray of agonizing, magmatic blood from the wounds she'd dealt him - the Typhlosion shrieked, scrambling away and scraping it off her fur and face as quickly as she could.

She'd handled herself well throughout the fight, especially given her proximity to Infernus' fiery body, but it took a toll on her now. Quite a few patches of her fur were left bare or stripped off by Infernus' blows and flames, and no doubt she was covered in first and second-degree burns that left her sensitive to further damage.

Ash felt a little bad for her, but the rest of him exulted in this little victory and the sweet, sweet revenge for that wonderfully dirty blow to Infernus' throat.

Still, she was recovering quickly - give it another few seconds and she'd no doubt close the distance and rip into Infernus again, cutting him down over the course of a thousand little strikes. Plinia's strongest abilities and fire-type techniques were of little use against Infernus (part of the reason why he'd unleashed him against Fino's cornerstone) and so she was left with cunning, tricks dirty enough for Ash and Infernus both to respect, and every scrap of vicious battle-lust she could spare.

Which had turned out to be a lot, as they'd found out.

"End it now!" Ash called, projecting his voice just enough. Plinia was slowing down, but that didn't mean she didn't have any nasty surprises left. They'd nullified her most dangerous abilities with this matchup, and she still fought like a monster. One chance, one opportunity was all it would take for her to turn things around.

Infernus' lips peeled back, revealing a red-stained maw, and he leapt back to put just a bit more space between the fighters. He raised both cannons, leveled both at her with savage delight, and focused.

He wouldn't be striking her with useless flame this time around.

At this point, Fino deemed it necessary to step in once again. "Steven vs. Drake!"

Ash blinked - What? - but watched carefully nonetheless. That last order Fino had given, Lorenzo's Folly, had struck a chord with him, but he hadn't managed to figure out the pattern yet. If he could just pick out the logic to Fino's orders… well, it would do his team quite a bit of good in the upcoming matches.

So he watched and waited. Infernus' cannons burned gold, twin Hyper Beams forming deep within each barrel, and Typhlosion had no time to dig or dodge - they were close enough that even the detonation would send her flying and open to further attacks, and her stamina wouldn't keep her going for long after that.

Unable to run or fight, she waited. He studied every twitch, every rise and fall of her chest. Anything could betray Fino's intentions. Ash was already thinking of the Championship bout between Steven and Drake years ago, recalled a time when Claydol had unleashed a double Hyper Beam against Drake's Salamence when it had been grounded -

It took all he had not to smile.

The Hyper Beams charged fully, tightly coiled spheres of power practically begging to be unleashed, and Infernus was all too eager to grant their wish.

"Stagger them!" Ash called out at the last second, and Plinia twitched.

Plinia's face screwed up in concentration as the first Hyper Beam released. A rippling Protect manifested before her, the nigh-impenetrable barrier nearly opaque in the moments before the golden lance struck, crumbling beneath the explosion -

She stood unscathed, but only a breath before the next Hyper Beam was fired just two to three seconds after the first. Once again she erected a Protect to shield her from the blast, but Ash could practically feel the strain now. It was draining enough to raise one Protect, especially one sturdy enough to block a Hyper Beam from Infernus, but multiple in such a quick succession?

Just as the Typhlosion stumbled back, panting with the effort she'd expended but already tensing to leap forward and take the fight back to Infernus (and finish him for good this time), Infernus' grin burned gold.

The look on Plinia, Flannery, and Fino's face would be a sweet, sweet memory for a long time to come.

Their foe had barely a moment to react, and when she attempted to manifest one last Protect, the green light barely managed to coalesce into the suggestion of a shield before disintegrating - she'd thrown all she had into that last one.

Plinia had only a moment to regret before Infernus' final Hyper Beam landed - like quicksilver, she duck and wove around it, moving just enough to avoid it, but Infernus had aimed it a bit low intentionally. If it went high, it would just shoot harmlessly until it crashed against a tree or psychic barriers.

If it went low?

Well, it could still affect the fight.

With her injuries and exhaustion finally taking their toll, Plinia fell back, flung away a few feet in the face of the sudden, concussive blast of the explosion and speckled by painful, earthen shrapnel. Dust and smoke curled around her, highlighting the glow as she flared her flaming collar up with a snarl, but it was clear she was on her last run. The Typhlosion definitely favored her right leg now, just as he'd noted, and Ash felt a little satisfaction at picking that out.

It seemed to have healed up better than he'd expected - just as Steven had claimed while Ash more-or-less interrogated him on the subject - but that old injury was still a vulnerability.

...Unless this was just a ploy which Fino and Plinia had rehearsed, which was frustratingly possible.

"Teleport back!" Ash commanded, unwilling to have Infernus close distance. He'd done massive damage to Plinia, pushing her to the brink, but in a melee she had options. At range, she was toothless. Most fire-type techniques would wash off Infernus, and Ash doubted she had the stamina for another Hyper Beam.

From a distance he could drive her into the Tephra magma chambers, chip away at her now that she'd already suffered minor burns that rendered her vulnerable, and control the battle. If she went underground, he could force her out with an Earthquake. If she used Quick Attack to close distance, he could teleport away.

At a distance, they were in control.

So Ash watched with satisfaction as Infernus disappeared with a flash of light, then reappeared at the other end of the battlefield, not far from Fino himself. He was exhausted, likely unable to do more than one or two more teleports and still fight, but Plinia could barely walk.

"Why don't we finish this battle like true warriors?" Fino's offer rang across the battlefield like the crystal clear notes of the bell. He blinked, staring at the Master with a scowl. "Haven't they proven their strength and skill? If we continue like this, then I fear the entire battlefield will be ruined!"

The Master trailed off thoughtfully. Ash and Infernus shared a look, both as lost as the other, then he turned his eyes to Flannery. She was the referee, so surely she'd have some kind of input?

Flannery shrugged, then beamed at him and offered a thumbs up… it wasn't as helpful as he would've liked.

Steven's face might as well have been carved from marble.

"What I propose is simple!" The Fire Master declared. Plinia inched closer to Infernus, eyes locked on her foe. "Our allies pit their strongest techniques against each other, matching fire with fire, and -"

At that moment, Infernus moved.

Unfortunately, Plinia had the same idea. At the same moment Infernus raised his cannon to lash out at her with a testing stream of flame, she shot forward on her injured legs with a Quick Attack, grimacing all the while. She was little more than a dark blur dashing across the battlefield in a handful of swift movements, carving through the Flamethrower with little more than a pained cry, and met Infernus in one last frenzied tackle -

"Teleport!"

"I should've known that trick wouldn't work!" Fino beamed just like his granddaughter as Infernus carried Plinia the Typhlosion twenty feet into the air with his last teleport. They scrambled against each other, hooking into old wounds and striking one another with fierce blows charged with electricity and fire and raw power. "Talk is cheap!"

Plinia used her claws to hook into Infernus and pull him close, sticking her muzzle right in his face and spewing a massive Smokescreen that filled his lungs and blinded him, then pulled back to spray Infernus with a few trickles of black-tinged Will-O-Wisp that earned a vicious cry from Infernus.

Ash wanted to scoff - in a battle like this, anyone talking was a massive red flag. Even if he hadn't spent too much time with Karen at the Plateau, his hackles would've raised at an offer like that.

Those thoughts vanished as Infernus kicked Plinia off, hurling her heavily into the dirt, and retreated back to put some distance between the two of them, still gagging on the oily residue - he was resistant to smoke inhalation, but a full dose like that would damage anyone. He was limping as he staggered away, losing more and more blood with every moment, but still able to fight.

Plinia was still consumed in the black smoke, leaving Ash sharp-eyed and watching carefully for the slightest sign of subterfuge, but when the dust and Smokescreen cleared, it revealed her shape hidden beneath it all.

Unlike Infernus, she only just pulled herself to her feet.

She wavered, trembling with effort, but stood tall and proud in the face of her younger foe. Plinia's fangs were bared, stained red with Infernus' blood (and more than a bit of her own, Ash'd wager), and her cataracts seemed to stand out more than ever as the sun struck the milky gaze.

Ash took a moment to admire her silver-streaked fur and the dignity she still held even when bruised, bloodied, and (almost) beaten. She eyed Infernus for a moment, then seemed to grudgingly lower herself from her bipedal stance onto all fours.

The Magmortar squared himself, both cannons held aloft, and matched her with a guarded look. After everything they'd seen from her, neither Ash nor Infernus trusted this new action… and they trusted it even less when her whole body tensed, each lean muscle drawn taut as a wire, and her collar blazed, still a deep azure compared to the normal red-gold flames a lesser Typhlosion would project.

Infernus, still marred by the cursed fire she'd sprayed him with during their aerial tussle, allowed new flames to surge about his form, layering over him in a fiery blaze. Compared to their earlier intensity they were sad and flitting things, but Ash was just surprised he was conscious at this point.

After all this, there was no build up. No stare off. Only a surge of Fire within him as Plinia's collar blazed a glorious azure and her old body trembled, legs threatening to give out, and Ash and Infernus only had a moment to realize what was about to be unleashed, only a breath to comprehend it -

Then Plinia acted.

It was a sign of her mastery that there was no charging necessary, no visible strain beyond the subtle shake of her weary muscles. Compared to the amateur fumblings of Jonathan's Charizard, she was a well-oiled machine.

There was nothing, and then - Fire!

Infernus could not run, could not avoid this without leaping through space-time, and so he matched it. Even as a massive sphere of swirling flame burst from Plinia's maw, white at the edges and blue in its core, he raised both cannons and prepared to pour everything he had against his foe.

He never got the chance.

What started out as a massive surge of fire condensed into a fist-sized cylinder. It burned brilliantly, then struck out with incredible speed - the attack lanced out unerringly straight, more like a Hyper Beam than a Flamethrower, and struck Infernus dead in his chest.

Fire couldn't hurt him, not really.

Force could.

Before Infernus could even release a Flamethrower, the attack detonated with an almighty rush of force and wind that reminded Ash of a video he'd watched of a pyrobomb going off, and Infernus was ripped from his feet - as he landed, Ash saw him land awkwardly on a leg, nearly breaking it, and he laid limp.

Plinia nearly collapsed, eyes squeezed shut beneath the strain, but howled out victorious as Ash dumbly recalled Infernus.

It happened so fast…

"I saw you face that boy in your Indigo Conference!" Fino shouted from across the battlefield. He didn't sound particularly pleased, though the Master did offer Plinia generous words of praise before he continued.

"Clumsy though it was, that Charizard of his had indeed been trained to use Blast Burn. I'd hate to know what he paid for that knowledge," the Fire Master shook his head ruefully. "Whatever it was, I'd say he ended up on the losing end of that deal. Power is only one side of the equation, and a small one at that. What marks Blast Burn is finesse. It isn't an attack, or a technique. It's an artform. It takes a Master's eye to properly appreciate, and I'm afraid that friend of yours was no Master."

Ash's eyes narrowed at that, mulling over the information. So Jon was just playing with building blocks, huh? There was something fitting about that. Still, he couldn't help but watch the Typhlosion with renewed interest.

Refined Blast Burn. Not an unwieldy hammer or a sea of flame, but a blue-cored cylinder of fire that shone with the precision and intensity of a laser cutter. It had erupted in a massive detonation when it landed, but seeing such an understated technique belonging to a Fire Master stirred something deep in Ash to life.

Precision and power brought together to make something greater than the sum of its parts.

It really was beautiful.

"You go, Plinia! Grandpa, you've got this!" Flannery cheered with all the pokemon at her side. She went red when Ash glared at her. "Uh, the current score is 1-0, favor to grandpa - er, Leader Fino. Challenger, release your next pokemon!"

Before he continued the battle, Ash offered Infernus' warm pokeball a quick smile. "You fought fiercer than any Legend," then clipped the pokeball to his belt. It trembled just a tad, then went cool and still. A dark, icy flame flickered in the back of his head, but didn't take action beyond a gentle pressure.

Ash raked his eyes over Plinia. At this point, he knew in his bones that she wasn't faking the exhaustion as she stared his way with her milky eyes. Oh, she was probably playing it up, but Infernus had put her through one of the worst beatings she had been through in a long, long time.

Still, he had no doubt Plinia had some nasty tricks just waiting for them to walk into. Ash would put money (ugh, maybe Lance had been a bad influence on him) on her pulling off some sort of sacrificial play to strengthen Fino's position.

With that in mind, he already had his next choice ready.

She appeared just a few feet ahead of him. Plume's eyes raked her surroundings, more than a little curious at the devastation unleashed on the battlefield: a great, gaping, smoking crater where Plinia had burst Infernus' Tephra magma chamber, littering the field with cherry-red and black droplets of molten stone. Fissures rent across the earth's crust in every direction. The greasy residue of settled Smokescreen that had been blown this way and that.

"She's tired, and will likely to tunnel to hide," Ash whispered before Flannery could begin the battle, absentmindedly nudging Aron with his boot to keep the little steel-type from rushing out onto the battlefield to greet Plume. Once he was more occupied with licking the shoe than smashing through the psychic barrier, Ash continued. "Keep your distance. She likes Smokescreen. Several long-range fire techniques. Fights dirty. Don't give her a chance to hit you."

Plume cooed, spread her wings in preparation, and then: "Begin!"

He shielded his eyes reflexively as Plume burst into the sky with a shriek, kicking up a massive wind, though it turned out to be unnecessary as all the dust and debris found itself blocked by the psychic barrier. Ash immediately tried his best to track Plume, but she'd already soared high.

They'd planned out a few basic tactics for this battle over the past few weeks in Forina, so he could at least estimate she was somewhere with the sun at her back. Typhlosion - most fire-types, really - possessed evolutionary adaptations to let them quickly react to sudden increases in light to avoid being blinded by their attacks, but Ash figured every slight advantage helped.

Those thoughts went by the wayside when a sudden column of fire struck the shimmering barrier directly in front of him, the hot flame spilling over the psychic wall until the Flamethrower was cut off. Ash squinted, grateful that it wasn't another Blast Burn, and contented himself with the knowledge Plinia had just wasted more strength even as his team roared and hissed at her from his side.

Not that Plinia cared, naturally. In fact, the last glimpse he caught of the Typhlosion was her hind legs and the spiky fringe of dark fur shielding them disappearing into a tunnel. Ash shook his head, but didn't allow the frustration to infringe on his calm.

She could try to delay, but it was only a matter of time. Plume was too wily to come down and exposed herself to Plinia's attacks, so it might seem a stalemate for a while.

They'd planned for this, however.

Plume circled lazily overhead, a black dot against the sun as Dazed's psychic awareness filtered into his brain, and watched the barest shiftings of earth with raptor eyes. She was trained to recognize the subtlest twitches of prey, and for now that's all Plinia was.

To Plume, she may as well have been a particularly stubborn Magikarp. A Magikarp with fiery breath, a whole arsenal of supplementary techniques, and a particularly nasty attitude.

...He just described a Gyarados. This metaphor might have slipped away from him.

Indeed.

Ash shook him away from those idle thoughts as the waiting game commenced. These slow periods of battle often invited strange ideas and bizarre imaginings, but it was essential he remained focused on the here and now. It wasn't wise to give Plinia time to think - who knew what wily machinations were at work in her old, cunning mind?

He scanned the ground again, confident at least that Plinia wouldn't dare skirt too close to Infernus' magma chambers in her state (although she might detonate them for cover), and -

"There!" Ash roared even as Plume's shriek filled the skies - she'd seen it too! It was faint, little more than a trickle of earth moving near the base of the sheer cliffs, but it told Ash all he needed to know. Those fissures probably made tunneling a tad easier with the earth conveniently broken up, but it also meant Plinia would have had to go deeper than before to avoid being seen.

One of the narrow pillars of earth still standing in the midst of the new ravine shifted, and that tiny motion gave her away.

Plume lowered, diving down hundreds of feet in a few seconds then bracing herself against the sudden deceleration with her mighty wings, but stayed far, far away from where Plinia could strike her. The Typhlosion could scale the cliffs, fire off another Blast Burn, and it still wouldn't have a hope of reaching Plume.

Not before she put a thousand feet between herself and the blazing spear, at any rate.

Still, only an idiot would underestimate Plinia. Fino was silent (worrying in itself) and seemed content to rest with his hands clasped together over at the other end of the battlefield.

No, Plinia had to be planning something, and Ash wasn't about to give her the chance to execute it.

Plinia was still burrowing near the cliffs, winding closer and closer to the hard rock, probably hoping for shelter from the raptor in the skies, and Ash saw his opportunity.

"Hyper Beam! Bring the cliff down!"

Before any more reasonable minds could cut in - Steven turned white beneath the bright sun, face twisted into a dismayed grimace - Plume swooped a few feet lower. She locked her eyes onto the cliff face below, Ash's own fixed on her glorious crest and felt her intent as his own, and her beak snapped open with a certain amount of glee.

Gold power swirled within her maw, Plume's own power given form and direction, and a brilliant, eye-searing spear of molten power burst from where it had condensed into an unstable sphere. It blazed forth with a roar in a stream of brilliant yellow plasma, forcing air away in a sizzle, and smashed into the very edge of the cliff face just above where Plinia had burrowed.

Fino stared. Steven hid his face behind his hands. And Flannery whooped.

The cliff?

It fell.

Stone and pebbles and dirt showered the flat-packed battlefield beneath the vertical rock wall, pelting it in a painful rain, but that was all the warning Plinia might have received. Moments later, the cliff groaned, age-old bonds shattered beneath the force of Plume's fury, and great heaps cascaded down in a tumultuous tide of grinding rock.

Great chunks of stone and soil, glued together by old trees and their stubborn roots, hammered down against the fractured battlefield with an overpowering sound like thunder - enormous boulders shuddered as they landed, some bursting apart when they struck the land like a comet slamming down, and soon enough he could see nothing through the thick haze of dark dust clouding the air. Tons and tons of material had been dumped upon the battlefield, and his thoughts already turned to ways he might turn it to his advantage.

For a moment, they all stared. Ash pointedly didn't look Steven's way - destroying a geological feature was never going to sit well with him, even if it was just a tiny portion of the cliff - but at least Flannery seemed excited. He couldn't quite make out her rambling commentary to her team, but it was punctuated by plenty of cheers.

No, he was too focused on picking out any shifting of the rock. The area Plinia was sniffing around in had been absolutely devastated, smashed apart by the impromptu rock slide. Most of the broken earth had been compressed, and much of the gaps had been filled in entirely by the rain of sand, soil, and stone.

It would be loose in most cases, easy to shift aside, but even a tiny movement could cascade into a small rain of -

Plinia halfheartedly drug herself out of the fissure with a brown, dirt-stained coat, and fell limply against a firm section of the battlefield that still remained on the edge. Her eyes squeezed shut, undoubtedly to protect from all the loose dust, but her breath still came in short, rapid bursts. Ash's eyes narrowed as his sharp eyes caught sight of dust failing to deposit on her broken form.

Plume had seen her, naturally, but kept her distance at Ash's command. Fino hadn't recalled her yet, and that had done nothing to allay Ash's concerns.

"Air Slash!" He ordered, and Plume's wings beat forcefully to send a blade of air to smash into Plinia's form. Dust parted, chunks of dirt shattered, and Plinia's form… disappeared.

He bit his lip to avoid cursing. What would it take to put her down?

The answer to that question was soon answered - Plume didn't hang suspended in the air for long, well-aware that in battle hesitation was defeat, and it proved a valuable lesson. Just as she dashed away, tearing through the skies with a fierce scream, a terrifyingly familiar blast of condensed blue fire shot to meet her -

Plume easily swerved away from the refined Blast Burn, and the remnants of the devastating technique quickly faded into azure embers. They hung for a moment, coiling and twisting like a predator lashing out for its prey, but the wind shifted with Plume's passing, and they were swept away in the breeze.

Naturally, he'd traced the source of the Blast Burn the moment it was unleashed. He had full confidence in Plume's ability to evade, and decided to do something more useful than wringing his hands and watching her avoid the advanced technique.

Plinia had leapt from the rubble just a moment after the Double Team was targeted by the Air Slash, and now she had collapsed atop the rock from where she'd made her last stand. High in the sky, Plume wheeled around. She shrieked, talons grasping as though she wished to pluck Plinia in them and toss her from the cliffs, prepared to unleash an attack to finish the Typhlosion for good -

At that moment, Fino recalled her. Ash's eyes swept to the man, caught up in the moment and nearly outraged at Plume's victory being stolen, but quickly cooled.

He would do the same thing to spare his friends the final blow. The battle-fury drifted away from him as Fino closed his eyes, cradled Plinia's old pokeball to his chest, and recited something (a poem, perhaps) to the Typhlosion before lovingly placing the device back onto his belt.

"Plinia was eager for this battle, you know. When was the last time I saw her with that kind of fire blazing in her eyes? It must have been years ago, now! Steven, brilliant and spectacular a battler as he is, never quite embraced the battle-lust to Plinia's liking. Difficult to do that when you live in the head of a Metagross," Fino sighed, sparing the former Champion a brief smile to take any sting from his words.

Claydol's body flashed, and Steven's frown deepened at whatever comment the psychic made. As usual, Metagross was silent and still. Always watching, always waiting.

Fino glanced at his granddaughter. "I hope you were paying close attention, dear."

Her salute satisfied him. "Well, it seems you've done your research. I'm glad Plinia could blow off some steam. That Magmortar of yours gave as good as he got!" he laughed. "She's a brawler at heart, after all. Not all of my team fight to her tastes however, and I think that might be just what we need against such a magnificent Pidgeot!"

Ash snorted. Buttering Plume up wasn't going to make her any less eager to fight, though he was certain she was pleased with herself up in the sky. Still, he waited eagerly to see what would be released next. Part of him hoped for the Talonflame that Fino often used to combat other fliers - wouldn't that be a vision? Plume and Talonflame dancing in the skies, trading blows and cornering the other through skill, experience, and the artistry that came with such magnificent flying-types?

And what's best, Plume would pluck Talonflame from the skies in her great talons, crush, and conquer. She had fallen to Karen's Honchkrow, but that was in a confined, dark cavern. Here?

Open, sunlit skies were Plume's domain.

Unfortunately, Fino's next choice revealed that he must have had a similar thought process… or, Ash supposed, that he just hadn't expected Talonflame to be as useful against Ash's team.

Instead of Talonflame, out came the slender form of Delphox. It hunched over slightly as it materialized, the fire-type's taut muscle hidden away by a veil of thick orange, gold, and white fur that draped its form like a thick robe.

Delphox's tail swayed back and forth, held aloft to avoid tracking up dirt, and its massive, furry ears twitched with every tiny sound that reached it. From the voluminous, sleeve-like fur near its right hand slipped a thin brown branch that was forked at the end.

The Delphox lowered its gaze to the little stick lovingly, brushed the tip against the golden fur of its chest, and seemed to smile delightedly as the tip of the stick gently ignited with a brilliant red flame. It stared at the flame, not unlike Dazed with her pendulum, and gave it a gentle wave to send golden sparks showering all about.

Ash spent the whole time analyzing it. He knew Delphox well enough, now. Fino relied quite heavily on it, though it seemed to be a far newer addition to his team relative to Plinia or his Camerupt. It had joined Fino's well-oiled team decades ago, but still seemed eager and vibrant. Only a few silver strands could be found in its shining fur, and Delphox's eyes were like dark pools without a hint of Plinia's cataracts.

The psychic was a staple of Fino's team, capable of fascinating feats of twisting flame to its bidding with its mental powers, and had proved its worth time and time again in every fight Ash had seen from it.

A warmth touched his mind, gentle and comforting as a campfire in a cold, lonely night, and Ash allowed it to brush deeper after it initially recoiled.

Dazed's presence touched him as well, vigilant as always.

Greetings! This one is called Starlight-Radiance-of-Chosen-Path, but your kind refers to me as Lucille. Master knows me as Lucy.

"Ash Ketchum. Nice to meet you."

Amusement.

This one knows you by many names. Your being sings them into the world. A loud chorus, full of conflict and discord, all yelling over one another demanding to be heard above the rest. Many names, names old and new, and that is the one you choose?

Ash shrugged. "Call me what you want. I know what I am."

Silence, then a laugh.

Perhaps so! Take care of your name, Ash Ketchum. It may not remain yours forever.

With that ominous warning, Starlight-Radiance - Lucille slipped out of his mind with a parting sunburst of warmth, and Fino finally spoke. "Lucy's a delight, of course. She brings an artistic touch to battle, though it's no gentler than Plinia's."

"The score is 1-1. Battlers… begin!"

Plume had circled lower, landing on a tree in plain view of Lucille, but took off in a rush of air the second Flannery's words reached her. Ash smiled as she vanished into the sky in an instant, unwilling to test this 'artistic touch' of Lucille's.

And Lucille… did nothing. Well, not exactly. She held her burning stick aloft, red eyes gazing deeply into the flickering flame. Nothing he could do would offer the same revelations she found in the flame, though a part of him found a certain academic interest in what would happen if he snuffed it out from here.

He knew Delphox used their flame as a focus. It was a tool to ground themselves, to anchor themselves to as they directed their psychic power in whatever they wished. They were particularly known for precognitive abilities, though it would be difficult to follow even a single future path with the pressures of battle.

Against a Master-level opponent, however, that was a dangerous line of thought. Assumptions were a great way to be surprised.

Lucille's eyes were locked on the flame even as Plume circled, the great Pidgeot taking the opportunity to remain in Lucille's blind spot. It flickered, surging in size for a moment with a roar, then crackling as the little fire intensified and shrank to the size of a lit candle. Her fur coat rippled in the breeze as a great wave of heat poured out from the stick - only a moment passed before the Delphox was shrouded in a twisting nexus of air.

She was veiled behind the heat-warped atmosphere, barely visible as a distorted shadow. The Delphox continued staring into the stick, and the heat field seemed to thicken and bloat with each passing second, branching out to the edges of the forest. It slowed then, likely to avoid igniting any dry tinder in the woods, but Delphox continued to stoke the heat higher and higher until she was practically invisible within the warped area.

Ash kept his eyes locked on her shadow nonetheless. Precision attacks would be a pain now, although he wouldn't want Plume getting in close to such a powerful psychic regardless. Potent psychics like Lucille could exert their power across great stretches of distance, but it grew exponentially more difficult with every inch.

Still, giving the fire-type more time to prepare would be a terrible mistake. She was still working now, gracefully moving her stick with swift flourishes and pointed arcs as if it were a conductor's baton, and Ash wasn't foolish enough to miss one of the few opportunities they may have.

He whistled once, twice -

Plume swooped down like a rocket, her high, clear shriek the only warning they got. Ash could hardly keep track of her as she shot down a thousand feet in just a few seconds, sailed over Delphox, and beat her wings with another cry. The testing Air Slash carved its way through the air as Plume dashed overhead, already putting another hundred feet between her and their foe, and it tore through the dust on its way to its target.

Naturally, Delphox didn't even spare it a glance. She was turned away from the attack, but a simple swish of her focus to the left swept up a great rush of psychic power - it was small, but precise, and seemed just potent enough to disperse the Air Slash. The condensed wall of air broke apart on contact with the force with less a roar and more a breathy sigh, and Lucille went back to stoking the heat around her.

Ash frowned at the casual display. That psychic awareness was going to be a pain. Plume might be almost impossible for Lucille to strike, but she was going to have to expose herself with each offensive maneuver.

One good hit would be all it took, but Lucille's flexible psychic abilities and heat-based abilities made that a dangerous prospect. Still, Plume would fare well. They'd managed to collect a working knowledge of the Delphox, so they had a base to work with.

He chewed on those thoughts as Plume wove in and out of battle, striking with an Air Slash or the occasional Hurricane to help pressure Lucille and interfere with her heat field. There was no guidance needed here - Plume was smart, and rarely chose the same angle of attack.

She was all too happy to mix in a Double Team when needed, or burst forward with a rush of Agility when Lucille made a viciously quick counterattack with her psychic powers - Plume even forced Lucille back a few steps when she used Mirror Move to return a devastating lance of psychic power the Delphox had cast at her.

No, she had this handled.

Normally, Delphox was used to counteract particularly aggressive opponents. She'd somehow managed to intertwine the rippling lens of heat stoked by her powers with the illusory abilities of a psychic - now that some time had passed, he could even pick out… uncertainty around Lucille.

When she moved, it was as though there was another Delphox superimposed over her, but just barely off. A ripple of fur here, a strange motion there, but enough to warn him that she was already beginning to manipulate their perceptions.

What was worse, it was physical. Rather than directly interface with their minds as Dazed would, Lucille created physical tricks of the light with the air in flux - a technique that cost a bit of time and attention, but practically no raw power. A Distortion-based technique like Curse wouldn't break the illusion, though he planned for Plume to get a bit of use out of the technique once things picked up.

Their game went on for a while, but in each moment of peace the Delphox was able to rebuild and reforge any damage that Plume had done to her rippling dome of sweltering air with just a few flicks of her focus. It stretched further and further with each passing moment, too hot for most pokemon to fight for more than a few seconds within, and more and more subtle illusions were added as Lucille wove her bizarre domain.

They couldn't let that stand.

Ash's following three whistles reached Plume, and she was quick to act. Her distant black dot slowed for a moment, lingering in the air like a human wading through quicksand, then burst into motion. He grinned at the brief sight of Super Speed (and it only widened when her sonic boom reached his ears) before Plume escaped his vision entirely.

Fino had stayed silent for most of the current bout, content to let Lucille handle things in this case, but finally stepped in. "Battle of Mistralton!"

He frowned, more and more clicking together in his mind, but watched and waited for just a tad longer.

Lucille ceased the endless flourishes and stilled her baton. Rather than repainting reality the way she saw fit, her eyes shone a brilliant blue as enormous quantities of psychic power were channeled through her thin, hunched frame.

Ash watched with fascination as she stared deeply into the flame, eyes bleeding endless rivers of light into the world. Power grew and mounted, massed to a critical point, and from that tiny little candlelight she conjured up an inferno.

Fire surged in his chest - Lucille's eyes squeezed shut as she swung her cherished focus in a wide arc, spilling enormous torrents of flame from the tiny stick. In mere moments she'd made a full revolution and held her focus aloft with the slightest smile on her fur-covered face. Brilliant, crackling flame exploded, bursting forth like a geyser, and soon the fiery psychic was hidden entirely behind a wall of flame that hung suspended in the air.

And that was what caught his interest.

Where Infernus' fires would surge, spread, and dissipate into countless little tongues of flame, Lucille's seemed frozen in time as soon as it spurted from the stick. It still moved, constrained within a faint haze of psychic power, but at times rippled and shifted like a living thing eager to escape its confines. But it never went out, fed by the Delphox's endless skill and flare.

Plume was still nowhere to be seen, naturally. Some part of Ash was amused with the thought that she could have been miles upon miles away by now if she'd just lost interest in the fight. That sort of freedom was addictive.

Still, the beauty of Lucille's technique kept his attention on her. She was invisible now, cocooned entirely in the suspended flame, but he could tell she was still working her magic: flame animated, roaring to life with tangible eagerness as its mistress commanded it, and spun out all around.

The flames stoked brighter, blazing white as Delphox intensified them, then simultaneously separated into countless tiny spheres that hung suspended around the newly revealed Lucille. Her critical eye swept over each and every one of them, then with a great flick of her focus sent the spheres cascading in all directions. They remained within thirty to forty feet of their mistress, but were swiftly arranged in some pattern that escaped Ash - it seemed to please Lucille, however, if the happy sway of her tail was any indication.

With that work done and her arcane spheres scattered, the Delphox returned to staring into the little flame of her focus and digesting whatever revelations it offered.

Ash scanned the placement of the fireballs, certain Plume had already picked them out. She wouldn't have attempted an attack with Delphox actively preparing for it. Most likely she was hoping he would offer some sort of guidance.

He had to give Lucille credit - of all the strange fighters he'd come across, she managed to carve out a special niche for herself.

Any ruminations he hoped to linger on flicked out of his mind the moment he noted certain spheres (perhaps one in every four scattered across the low atmosphere) subtly shifting into long, thin projectiles that reminded him of arrows. They remained suspended, but seemed to constantly twitch to new angles, always aiming in the same direction.

That was when it clicked, and a stupid smile found itself plastered over his face.

Was it really so simple?

Fino's orders - particularly the 'Steven vs. Drake - were clear references played straight in execution. What was that first one?

Lorenzo's Folly.

"Thanks," Ash said absentmindedly, still lost in thought as the battle hit a lull with both fighters preparing for the next engagement. He'd managed to decipher Steven vs. Drake (was that a test, a low ball thrown by Fino to check if Ash had come to understand his code, or a simple mistake in the heat of the moment?) easily enough, even using it to his advantage, but Lorenzo's Folly escaped him. He knew he'd read about it somewhere, but couldn't recall exactly what it was.

But this one? 'Battle of Mistralton'? That was easy.

When the National League besieged Unova, the prospect of the Unovan Landfall was daunting. Castelia had been fortified by the regime the moment the war turned against them, well-aware that it was an essential target and necessary for the National League to open up Unova's heart.

While the League poked and prodded several defensive positions, holding Castelia as the fulcrum upon which the rest of the invasion hinged upon, they took action to weaken Unova in any way possible and prepare it for assault.

Part of that involved the Battle of Mistralton - a distant corner of Unova, but one where the majority of their flying-type specialists were trained and housed, airships were based out of, and which remained a central fixture of their supply lines.

League forces (quite a few of them Wataru, along with several of Champion Drake's students) assaulted from the air while the resistance fighters, led by future Champion Alder, took advantage of the chaos to steal resources, destroy military equipment, and force the regime out of Mistralton for a time.

But what was important were the anti-air tactics the Unovans used… namely, filling the air with pyrobombs and hoping for the best, then picking apart fliers buffeted by the explosions with precision attacks.

Part of Ash was offended. Did Fino think he wouldn't know history? The rest was just eager to put this into motion, already toying with thoughts of how to twist the situation to his advantage.

There was a very real chance Plume was too fast to actually hear him, so he remained silent for now. She was smart enough to handle things, and he'd tweak a few of their strategies once she'd slowed down enough.

Thankfully, his chance came soon after - Plume came rocketing down from the sky once Ash signaled her with a wave of his hand, and the tan blur shrieked soundlessly as she swept down, flapping her wings once to unleash a mighty gale of wind that hurtled through the sky.

Plume slowed just a hundred feet or so above the battlefield, circumventing some of the dark clouds that had gathered with all the flame and heat being thrown around thanks to Lucille, Plinia, and Infernus' massive techniques, and waited patiently as Lucille effortlessly swept her focus down in a vertical slash. A brilliant azure followed the motion, surging out like a blade to intercept the Hurricane with ease. The roaring rush of wind came to a halt, curling out around the wall of force to harmlessly dissipate.

"Fly low - we need a physical strike! Your wind won't do anything!" He shouted, forcing his raspy voice much, much louder than he'd prefer. His vocal cords strained after all the yelling he'd done this battle, but he put up with it resolutely.

It would be all worth it.

To finish (and to stop Plume from tossing him an odd look that made him feel insane) he drew a quick circle in the air with his finger. He caught a faint glimpse of comprehension, then she was gone.

Lucille chased her away with a rainbow-hued Psybeam, though they all knew it was a half-hearted gesture at best as the technique diffused into nothingness. There was no catching Plume with a projectile, not with that much distance between them.

Unless you were Metagross, that was.

No, he was much more focused on the speeding Pidgeot that appeared from nowhere, blurring just overhead the Delphox's dome of heat and arrangement of fireballs in a rush, the massive displacement of air forcing Lucille to hold her focus aloft to stabilize it with a flex of psychic power.

The movement left her distracted for just a moment, and that's all Plume needed.

She pulled up just before she might have gone crashing through the woods (Ash suspected Lucille might have taken cover there if it weren't for her reliance on fire) and pulled a sharp turn back around that would have sent him flying into the trees if he'd been on her back. Plume's eyes glimmered with satisfaction as she turned to the distracted Delphox, fired off another Air Slash to disrupt the heat dome -

Plume just barely dodged the flaming missile that shot towards her with insane speed. It went wide, then, still held together by Lucille's psychic power, wheeled around back towards Plume -

"Behind you!"

A dozen more arrows shaped from animate flame shot towards her at breakneck speed, pressuring Plume to weave in and out of the frenzied volley of fiery projectiles. When one missed, three more would line up and thrust towards her. She had not a moment to breathe, and her mighty wings took her up and up and up, but the arrows followed.

More and more of the fireballs were sent after her, several shifting into the flaming missiles mid flight, but not one struck Plume. She had trained with several of the best fliers of the world, and this was nothing. Plume even let out a mocking cry as she gained more and more altitude, effortlessly dodging another series of the arrows animated by Delphox, driven by her incredible psychic abilities as she stared unflinchingly into the flaming tip of her focus.

By now, the sky was marked with countless glowing darts dashing to and fro, too high to be picked out easily. They were visible as nothing more than starlike specks. Perhaps fifty of them had been cast up now, though at this point it seemed like Lucille had hit her limit. Only a few fireballs remained suspended in the air around her, likely as a failsafe.

Still, the growing number of red-orange darts had taken a visible toll on Delphox. When she'd only had to split her attention between a dozen of the things, they moved in amazing harmony and intricate patterns, always weaving around Plume from every angle to pressure her in the low altitude.

Whether it was the distance, quantity, or a combination of many factors, the darts lost some of that cunning. Ash couldn't imagine the power required to move fifty of the things at hundreds of miles per hour, but it was clear Lucille compensated by reducing the complexity of her maneuvers.

Plume was still pressured by the darts, but the Delphox had grouped them into several separate volleys, perhaps ten of the flaming arrows in each set, and each moving in synchronicity. The wider area meant it was a greater challenge for Plume to avoid being trapped, but Ash couldn't help but shake his head and think that Lucille would have been better off maintaining just a handful.

More wasn't always better.

Fino's face was flat and expressionless. Ash had the funny feeling that he was dying to say something, but was unwilling to disturb Lucille's meditation to do so.

Well… now was time to make Fino regret it.

Plume banked a hard left, dodging a flurry of the darts even as two other swarms shot at her with incredible fury. All three groups overshot, flying nearly fifty feet past her before Lucille reined them in, and two others circled back around to launch her way.

She could outrun these all day, but that wouldn't do much. "It's vulnerable - come down now!"

The Pidgeot didn't announce her decision with a shriek. No, she simply swept to angle directly at Lucille (at Ash's words, the psychic's eyes had snapped open, and the fiery arrows all merged into one group to follow their target) then pressed her wings to her side and dove at incredible speed. She closed hundreds of feet in seconds, growing larger and larger as she was pursued by what looked like fifty comets streaking down the sky.

Plume slowed as she got within just five hundred feet of the battlefield, spreading her wings just enough to catch air and break her descent, and Delphox's whole body blazed with a flickering aura of psychic power as she stared intently into the little flame of her focus.

With Plume slowing, Lucille pressed the rain of arrows down with incredible fervor. The missiles left little streaks of cinder in the sky behind them as they caught up with Plume, whistling through the air like rockets, and before Plume could launch into a Quick Attack to hammer into Lucille with terrible force they stuck -

A silvery shimmer that manifested just behind her as she came within two hundred feet of the earth. Lucille had whipped the darts into a frenzy, and though a few managed to swerve away and loop around in an attempt to strike Plume's slowed form, the majority were sucked into the Mirror Move and vanished… only for Plume to flick away in a burst of speed, pausing only to send an Air Slash carving down at her foe, and then from the shimmer came nearly all fifty arrows.

Their momentum was preserved, and Lucille only had a moment to react before her own arrows peppered her with holes. She was caught off-guard, but the Delphox wasn't considered a Master-level fighter for show - as the arrows rained down against her, she raised her focus to meet them.

For a moment, the world slowed. There was only Lucille, clutching the flaming twig tightly in her black-furred grip while a storm of missiles neared, and then her eyes flashed. Her twig's little fire erupted forth like a golden river to form a shield-like projection that spouted from her focus. Where the arrows landed, they dissolved into the mass of roaring flame, merging with it and leaving the Delphox unharmed.

With that, she tracked Plume, who was still 'slow' and near the surface as she skimmed the surface of the woods, and jabbed her focus forth with uncharacteristic ferocity - the disc shaped into a searing pillar of flame that lunged forth like a striking Seviper, twisting to and fro in an effort to incinerate the Pidgeot.

A wan smile appeared on Delphox's face as the gout swallowed Plume whole, having cut her off when she tried to flee -

Her cry was especially satisfying when another Plume, having successfully distracted her foe with a convincing Double Team, hammered into her with a Quick Attack from a separate angle. The frail psychic was no match for the brutal strike, far too slender and delicate to weather Plume's terrible speed and large bulk, and found herself tossed from the sweltering heat dome she'd maintained this whole time, skipping once across the earth before her reflexes came in and caught her in a gentle blanket of psychic power.

She stabbed her focus at Plume again as the Pidgeot blurred away - Plume was too smart to stick around and let her enemy catch her - but yowled out a curse when the flaming spear missed. The Delphox's eyes widened when she realized where she was, out and exposed amongst the ruins of the previous battle, and immediately swept her focus out in a circle to conjure up another dome of searing heat.

Momentarily protected, though still in danger from the unseen Plume, Lucille quickly peered into her focus' flame yet again. Ash caught her eyes glowing with psychic power, then his sharp ears picked up the faintest chanting over the roar of flame that burst from Delphox's focus.

Rhythmic and slow, each arcane word guiding the fire spilling out of the twig into something that resembled Tangrowth's vines. They curled out, splitting again and again and again as Lucille's Lucky Chant continued until they had divided into nearly a hundred thin, whiplike growths that burst outwards to form a small cage with bars of flame around her.

Not a conventional use of Lucky Chant, but Ash supposed it would do. Plume could probably dash through the flames fast enough to strike the Delphox harmlessly, but he wouldn't put it past Lucille to harden the flames with psychic power the moment Plume made contact. At those speeds… well, that would certainly cut the battle short.

Plume circled above, watching carefully, then something seemed to trigger. Her eyes sharpened, and she swept closer with a shriek. A golden sphere burst into existence ahead of her opened beak, the condensed power roiling with barely controlled force, and she cut a sharp descent as she dove closer.

Lucille never let her eyes drift from her flame. Several of the bars of her self-imposed prison lurched forth, extending out like the crack of the whip to narrowly miss Plume, but failed to stop the Hyper Beam from lancing out. It blazed through the air like a bolt of lightning hammering down from above, devoured several of Lucille's passively defending fire tentacles, and -

Another Lucille manifested just outside the fiery prison as though stepping out from a second reality (psychic enhancement of heat illusions? He'd have to ask) and stabbed her focus upward. Plume shrieked, eyes sharp as a razor, and swept her Hyper Beam to strike just between the two Delphox.

Not a bad plan since she didn't know which was which, but Lucille seemed eager to punish Plume for it. The one in the cage flicked her focus - a shimmering wall of psychic power appeared between it and the Hyper Beam, absorbing its indirect force with a shudder, then traced a tiny circle in the air with her focus as her eyes locked on Plume.

Before Plume could swerve away and come back for another attack, a large ring of animate flame spouted from Lucille's stick: Mystical Fire. Ash shouted out a warning as his mind flashed back to the dozen times he'd seen the Delphox use this exact technique in the recordings, but all Plume could do was twist to the side.

The ring of fire held steady as Lucille stuck her furry head through it and spat a brilliant burst of white flame from her maw. It was a massive stream, thicker than he expected, but went high. Plume swooped lower to avoid it as Lucille tried to follow her, then held her wings wide to slow and let her flap to gain altitude, but Lucille kept the pressure on her.

"Get in close!" His sharp words pierced the air, hoping a distraction would shatter Lucille's attention and allow Plume a brief chance to escape. Plume twisted in midair, thrust backwards at Lucille in a brilliant display of aerial acrobatics, and shrieked as she shot forward like one of Lucille's fiery darts from before. The flame grew wider and swept closer, bringing Plume lower out of desperation, and that's when Fino made his appearance.

He chose the worst times, in Ash's opinion. And what was worse? He didn't even hide his command this time.

"Trick Room!"

His blood ran cold. That wasn't in the battles he'd watched!

Delphox's mouth curled up in a smirk as she cut off the Mystical Fire in an instant. Even as Plume accelerated to smash into her with all the fury of a storm, Lucille held her focus with its flaming tip to the sky, and the world changed.

Something - Ash couldn't say what - shifted inside of him. An unpleasant sensation crawled over his skin as Lucille's eyes flashed blue, bleeding azure light which gushed forth to illuminate the sun-stricken battlefield anew, her whole body flickered with psychic power, and the power burst forth. It swept over everything, stretching to encompass a shimmering dome around fifty feet in both height and diameter that cast a blue haze over everything within it.

The moment the power swallowed up Plume, she froze.

Oh, not exactly.

If Fino and Lucille wanted to freeze Plume, there were easier ways. A lock of psychic energy, for one. But that was difficult, actually easier to do in a real fight where they wouldn't have to worry about Plume's safety.

Immediate, massive deceleration of something like a Pidgeot in flight tended to be… messy. It was a nightmare to try to focus psychic power on Plume, manifest it, and keep her relatively unharmed.

Naturally, their opponents decided doing something much, much more difficult was a brilliant alternative.

Which, Ash had to admit, it was.

No, Trick Room didn't freeze a pokemon within its translucent walls. It slowed. It angled the hourglass so only the slightest trickle of sand could pass through the narrow neck - all while the user experienced time at a normal rate, of course.

Time: Only the most skilled and learned psychics dared to delve into its mysteries. Few trained pokemon had ever managed it, and those that did guarded their secrets jealously. Trick Room was one of the few techniques with that knowledge distilled into a TM by a human psychic of Alamos Town, though it remained one of the techniques simple knowledge couldn't replicate.

Give a lesser psychic the knowledge of Trick Room and you'd get about as much out of it as if Ash had tried to teach Infernus Hydro Pump. Trick Room demanded specialized training, immense power, calculating precision, and (ironically) time to master to a usable form.

Spatial techniques such as teleportation were a bit simpler on an individual scale, and its massive application in the world led to its knowledge being widespread. But temporal techniques? Aside from their sheer difficulty, they just weren't able to be passed on as quickly. Most temporal techniques originated from secretive enclaves of psychic-types which had delved into the mysteries of the universe for centuries, if not longer.

Little of that precious knowledge ever left the psychic sages that made their homes there.

It was one of the reasons Sabrina was so highly respected. For a human, even one of Sabrina's immense powers, to cast her mind into the timestream and survive (mostly) unscathed was unheard of. Even psychic pokemon came to her to seek out wisdom.

And now that esoteric skill had been turned against Plume. She moved at a crawl. Ash caught her wings forcing her powerful body forward, spied the deadly focus of her eyes as she locked onto her target, and the sluggish outstretch of her savage talons.

Despite the spike in his blood pressure and Ash's momentarily frazzled mind, he couldn't help but appreciate Plume's beauty. In battle, Plume was like a whirlwind. He rarely caught sight of her as anything but a blur, often keeping track of her by her shrieks and the buffeting of wind cast from her wings than by sight.

But here he could admire the power and grace intertwined in her frame, the noble ferocity of her talons and curved beak, and the shine of her sleek feathers in the azure light.

Then, as always, he turned his mind back to practical things.

Unsure of how she'd perceive time within the Trick Room, Ash both whistled one of their signals repeatedly and signed to her as well - Curse!

Plume's dark eyes swiveled at a Slugma's pace to catch sight of him - confusion stood out starkly - and that was when Lucille finally made her move. The fire-type's eyes remained locked desperately on her focus, lost in the twisting flames that guided her power like a rudder, and her hunched body trembled beneath the strain of maintaining the Trick Room.

As the Pidgeot inched closer with every second, Lucille stoked the flames flickering at her focus' tip into an inferno, and they gushed forward like a red river undammed -

Just as they billowed out, Plume's body became encased by a grey glow. Every muscle flexed with the effort of channeling the sickly, otherworldly power that ghosts and dark-types subsisted off of, and as more and more flowed through her, the psychic effect trapping her in time found itself gnawed and dissolved.

First she moved from a crawl, then to a rush, then a frenzied shot forward.

Lucille caught it, acting almost before Plume had freed herself through whatever prescience she found within the flames of her focus, and tried to yank her flames back to form into a defensive wall. Her opponent was too quick, though, and even with the strain of maintaining Curse and wreathing her shape in a cloudy grey haze, Plume reached Lucille with a victorious screech.

The bars of the flaming cage she'd animated around herself flared to life with psychic power that would solidify them and make them hard as iron, but Plume's sickening haze allowed her to rip right through the technique with only a tiny bit of resistance - Lucille used the time wisely, though, and wrapped them both up in a swirling column of roaring flame while Plume's talons gouged into her body.

Ash couldn't track anything for a moment amidst the cacophony of howls, spitting, and the boom boom of Plume's wings. Lucille was dragged out of the fireball by their momentum, all psychic powers forgotten as she scratched at Plume's legs with her claws and stabbed her focus into Plume's chest with a snarling hiss, a vicious smile appearing on the Delphox's face when Plume shrieked at the touch of the fire and pointed wood.

Then Plume thrust her beak down, snapped the focus up, and tossed it to the side as she slammed Lucille into the ground. Ash roared with Plume as the Delphox wheezed, unable to react to the frenzied orders Fino recited to her like a song or epic poem, and Plume snapped down against the frail arm raised to ward her off.

Lucille howled - a psychic shriek that left Ash's vision blurred with the sudden onset of a headache - and spat a stream of flame into Plume's face. The Pidgeot reared back, though she kept a wicked talon plunged down against the Delphox's gut, and Lucille left all pretense of politeness and refinery behind her.

When Plume tried to snap back on Lucille's arm (which hung at an odd, jutting angle that would've left Ash feeling a little nauseous if he weren't beaming like a madman) the Delphox sneered, allowed her entire broken arm to be engulfed in flame, and shoved it into Plume's throat.

Plume screamed like he'd never heard before. Ash stepped forward, fury in his eyes, but Dazed's soft, soothing words slowed him down. Though Lucille held her good hand up and her focus sailed through the air back into her waiting hand, already blazing with power to end this battle once and for all, Plume wasn't done quite yet.

A familiar molten glow burst from her beak, bleeding out from around Lucille's arm where it was stuck down Plume's throat, and the Delphox had hardly a moment to yank her arm free (groaning as she did) and whip up a blazing psychic barrier before Plume's Hyper Beam speared out - it shredded through the barrier like Aron through a pokeball, and Lucille was forced away by the remnants of the explosion.

She staggered back, reflexively whipping a searing whip of flame from her focus to lash against Plume's right wing, which filled the air with the nauseating scent of burnt keratin. It lingered there for a moment, wrapping around with malicious intelligence, and Plume found herself grounded.

It didn't stop her, though. She fought through the pain, flapping her wings hard enough to shatter the psychic flame, and charged forth with a shriek and outstretched wings - it was a lot more intimidating than it sounded, given her wingspan left Lucille looking like a helpless, cornered Vulpix.

Lucille quickly erected another heat field as she retreated, weaving it to stymie Plume, and Ash saw the beginnings of heat illusions being produced, little tricks of the light in the rippling air that made it impossible to track the real Delphox -

Plume slowed just outside, still unable to fly, and shut her eyes. He frowned, but a few familiar, haunting notes spilled from Plume's beak and moved something terribly deep inside him. The melody did nothing at first beyond resonating in his bones and mind, but then he sensed it.

A change.

The Song's melody, laced with Suicune's own mournful, serene influence, rang throughout the valley of Forina. Air stirred as a swift breeze rushed in from the north, the cloying presence of Earth ebbed beneath the sudden gust, and Plume's little speech to the world trickled away.

She still didn't get it, not like Ash did. Plume could make the world listen, but could only stir the faintest of reactions.

In this case, it was enough. Ash sucked in a greedy mouthful of the fresh, clean air as it caressed him, then bid it goodbye as it streaked past them.

It swept the heat field aside for just a moment before the searing air settled down again, but that was all Plume had needed. She outstretched her wings, shrieked out one last war cry, and leapt forth as she was carried towards Lucille by the last vestiges of her own strength and the last trickles of the North Wind.

Lucille's eyes widened, she raised the focus in a warding gesture -

Plume hammered her into the ground just as an enormous conflagration erupted about them both in a brilliant flash of heat and light and sound, and they were lost. Ash held his breath, anxiety knotting deep inside him, and then the last flickers of flame shriveled away.

He exhaled.

Where there had been two, now there was one.

Plume stood triumphant above Lucille, her talons locked around the mighty psychic's neck. She was bloody, burnt, and beaten, but not broken. Never broken.

A victorious shriek pierced the air, sounding all throughout the valley as Plume raised her head and shared her victory with the world.

"YES!" Steven's cry took him by surprise, but brought a stupid smile to Ash's face. His cheeks colored and he didn't dare look over his mentor's way, lest the storm of feeling in his chest crack his face open entirely. "YES!"

His lips quirked upward, but he turned to check Plume out instead. Lucille might be a beautiful artist in battle, painting the landscape and her opponents red, gold, blue, and white with the tools of her craft, but she was a nasty opponent.

Ash glanced to the wing Lucille had snared with the whip and winced at the sight. A thick black band of black, fused feathers circled the center of her wing. There was no flight left for her today, and that meant she'd done her part.

When given the open skies, Plume could outmaneuver nearly any opponent. But hobbled and landlocked? Well, Ash had no doubt that she would fight. What he doubted were the results, at least against opponents of Fino's caliber.

Those thoughts fled when he realized Plume's desperate eyes had found his, and he let himself slip from the heat of battle and his analytical haze.

He smiled, and forced every bit of love and feeling he could into his gaze. Thoughts of Plume as a fierce little Pidgey, her evolution into Pidgeotto to protect him, Jon, and Amelia in Viridian Forest, then again in their first battle against Mamoru…

"You won," Ash said softly, and the subtle relief in the softening of her eyes and the slackening of her body told him that she'd heard what she needed. "Plume," he said firmly, "You're amazing."

Plume's head rose higher, and she stared at him with seeming offense. Of course I am! He imagined she'd say.

If only you could hear her thoughts. She will be insufferable now…

Ash grinned. That was fair.

Still, he found himself distracted when Lucille's form disappeared in a flash of light. Plume's talon crushed down a bit of stone where she'd been, and they both faced Fino. Flannery was shaken enough, staring at Plume with an open jaw, but Fino was blank-faced.

For a moment he feared that Fino would shout, or rage, or indulge in some other pettiness. Instead, the beginnings of a wide, intrigued smile spread across the man's face. His wrinkle-lined features stretched as he acknowledged Plume with a bow.

"Forgive an old man his vanities," he raised Lucille's pokeball to his chest before clipping it onto his belt alongside Plinia's. "When you reach my age, you begin to think you can predict everything, that everything's all the same pattern with just a few off-colored threads for variation. Lucy is young, a Delphox in her prime, and well… I suppose you're quite the artist yourself, Ms. Plume."

"She's more than that."

Fino inclined his head, though he seemed amused as the brutalized Plume still managed to preen beneath his praise. "That she is," he murmured. "Still, we aren't done quite yet. Plinia is my warrior. Lucille is my artist. I suppose it's time for you to meet my knife in the dark."

And just like that, Ash knew Fino's last teammate. His hand instinctively twitched towards the member of his team best equipped for this fight… Ash's eyes glanced up to the storm clouds brewing above from all the flame.

Yes, his planning had paid off.

This last enemy would be a dangerous one, capable of dealing devastating strikes and slipping away unnoticed, but he had a plan.

If only Plume hadn't burnt her wing - Lucille had been sure to remove her as a threat, even if she hadn't been able to bring the Pidgeot down herself. Ash couldn't help but hold a grudging respect, although it was hard to get past the fact that PLUME HAD BEATEN A MASTER!

Indeed. Please, Friend-Trainer, calm your thoughts. We are with you.

Ash cast an apologetic glance back at Nidoking, Dazed, and the rest, but quickly turned his eyes back to Plume. "You've done more than enough. Are you sure you want to -"

The Pidgeot glared, and he smiled.

It faded away as Fino released a slender creature near his side of the battlefield - black with vibrant purple eyes, a purple underbelly, and a magenta tail. The creature from far-flung Alola stretched lazily, smirking as it assessed the battlefield and found Plume waiting for it, and huffed a noxious mix of toxic fumes as it waited for Flannery to begin the battle.

Ash took its measure, recognizing it instantly as a Salazzle (its entries and social dynamics were fascinating) as did Plume. They'd trained for this.

Still, he couldn't help but notice Plume's neck crane forward a bit, eyes locked hungrily on the Salazzle's tail in the same way she stared at a Wurmple or poor Caterpie that had caught her attention. Ash didn't let her act on those urges, but Plume never bothered hiding them.

Too bad this Salazzle would put up a bit more fight than a little bug-type petrified with fear. Her battles were always particularly fierce, and Ash thought the Salazzle particularly enjoyed creeping across a landscape bathed in smog and ash, then cutting a psychic or ranged fighter down with a single blow.

She'd also relished bringing down fellow poison-types as well, generally peeling away their outer defenses with regular fire, dragon-type techniques, and the occasional Iron Tail to pummel them into unconsciousness or expose their vulnerable insides to her venom.

Toxin-infused flames were her favored method of attack, and he'd seen a glancing blow from that bring a mighty Girafarig fielded by Lucian of Sinnoh's Elite Four down in less than a minute. It was brilliant, honestly, reminding him somewhat of the dark fire wielded by Karen's Houndoom. There was something to learn there.

It was hardly her only tactic, of course. Drenching her lumbering opponents in thick heaps of toxin, striking with a Thunder Wave to lock them down and expose their defenses, and unleashing formidable blows augmented with draconic power all fell well within her comfort zone.

He allowed his breathing to slow and even out. It was still a little erratic with the adrenaline pumping through his bloodstream after the excitement of the last battle. Ash needed utter calm. He needed focus.

"Meet Kalena!" Fino announced from across the battlefield. Ash's ears trained on every word, hoping for any slip. The Salazzle stretched long, whipping her tail back and forth as if ready to launch into action at any second. Her forked tongue flicked out to taste the air as purple eyes trained on Ash and Plume with much the same look as Plume had sent her way.

Good. She might find them fiercer than her normal prey.

"She's adapted quite well to Hoenn's climate," the Fire Master continued. "Dear Kalena's the youngest of my team - only a few years older than you, actually! - but she's quite formidable. A gentle soul, really, more partial to sunning herself atop warm rock than battle. Don't underestimate her, however!"

Kalena the Salazzle rolled her eyes, flicked her tongue out again, then lowered herself to all fours. A bit of toxic smoke burst from her nostrils, and Ash could track her eyes, already taking note of the ruin of the current battlefield and all the different roads that may lead her to her crippled opponent.

"The score is 1-2, favor to Ash. Battlers… begin!"

Ash took just a moment to relish the tremble in Flannery's voice, drawing deep, deep satisfaction from it, but acted immediately afterwards. "Air Slash!"

Plume was hardly in shape to fly, but that didn't stop her from fighting through the pain. She screeched, then flapped her wings in a mighty beat. A vicious blade of air slashed over the battlefield, stirring dust and kicking up flecks of coagulated lava left over from Infernus' battle, but the distance was too great.

The Salazzle darted around with ease, scrambling to and fro with incredible speed as she dashed over a fissure, ducked another Air Slash, then leapt to cling to a large boulder knocked down when Plume had shattered the cliffside. Honestly, the way she ran was bizarre, nearly comical, with her legs awkwardly splaying out as she sprinted on all fours. It didn't change her speed, though, and Ash grit his teeth as she rapidly closed ground.

A hundred feet - she leapt over an Air Slash in a dazzling display of acrobatics.

Seventy feet - she spewed a cloud of poisonous gas to cover her approach.

Fifty feet - she split into two, three, four copies with Double Team.

Thirty feet - Plume's Air Slash tore through two. One twitched. She reared back. Salazzle leaped forward.

Ten feet - Salazzle closed fast, spat poison-drenched flames tinged purple and black -

Plume fluttered to the side, shrieking at the strain put on her by her damaged wing, and Kalena's snarling visage landed wide. She was thrown back by a gust of wind, but let loose her toxic flames again to rush over Plume, and tenses to dash forward again.

Unfortunately, Plume dashed forth on her talons. They clinked against hard stone as she closed the distance with a furious cry, and Kalena actually blinked dumbfoundedly as the crippled Pidgeot lunged forward with a snapping beak, wings outstretched wide enough to temporarily block the sun.

Salazzle only hesitated a moment though, and smoothly leapt aside even as Plume skittered and spun to follow with her beak opened wide - rather than the molten gold of a Hyper Beam, Plume's eyes flickered blue with psychic power.

Kalena's eyes widened.

A howling Hurricane exploded from Plume's throat in a mighty gale that roared like a tornado. It was confined by the flickers of psychic power that attempted to shape it - their best attempt at mimicking Lugia's terrifyingly-powerful ability - unchained with all Plume's remaining power for fuel.

It still wasn't even a pale imitation, but it was enough for their purposes.

The Salazzle was quick to realize a rush of wind like that would make a poor combination with its low mass, and Kalena reflexively manifested a glowing green Protect to take the force for her. Plume's furious tempest blasted around it, unable to penetrate the firm barrier, but Ash smiled nonetheless.

Her attack didn't need to break it.

Salazzle's Protect held strong, sure. But the earth beneath it?

Not even a little.

Beneath the force of Plume's violent blast of air, the earth before her tore and ripped and came loose. Little flecks at first, kicking up in a massive cloud of dust, pebbles, and scraps of vegetation, but then great chunks were torn up, groaning as they came loose.

And with the chunks went Kalena. She hissed, sputtering as her focus was broken and the Protect disintegrated, but had bigger problems soon after - namely, she might have been the first Salazzle to discover flight. Plume sagged in exhaustion, but managed to maintain the gale for just a few more seconds once she saw Salazzle soar into the sky, slamming into the ruined cliffside with a Sneasel-like yowl.

Kalena withstood it well, however, and somehow twisted to land belly-first. She trembled beneath the force, but wasted only a few seconds to reorient herself - just as Plume attempted to spit one last Hyper Beam, the Salazzle's front right claw scrambled at the thicker scales on her belly, prying a few off.

Before Plume could release the attack, too fatigued to manage it quickly, Salazzle took her deep-purple scales into her mouth and spat them with eerie precision - they were helped along with the iconic blue-green light that marked many dragon-type techniques, and Plume barely had time to react before they slammed into her chest, one after the other.

Plume squawked once, the wind knocked from her as the Scale Shot did its work, and the long fatigue of the battle finally caught up to her.

The light of the nascent hyper beam faded into fast-dissolving particles of golden energy, she swayed back and forth, cried out one last time, and then toppled to the ground.

Ash recalled her with a slight smile. "Beautiful work," he whispered. "They'll remember you."

Kalena scrambled to the ground, rushing back over to Fino, who stroked his chin as he went deep into thought. The gesture was uncannily similar to Steven's mannerisms. "My word! I haven't seen a fighting spirit like that in a pokemon in a long, long time. She just wouldn't quit, would she? That seems to be something she shares with that Magmortar of yours. I wonder if your last teammate will show that same spirit?"

He bared his teeth in an eager, battle-hungry smile. "Just wait and see."

Fino's eyes lit up. "By all means, Mr. Ketchum! By all means…"

As Flannery rattled off the current score, Ash's eyes flicked upwards to the heavens which Plume had claimed as her own. A number of dark clouds choked with evaporated moisture and ash carried up in billows of superheated air lingered over the battlefield. They were low-hanging and cast a shadow over the central portion of the battlefield where Infernus and Plinia had brawled, along with Lucille's greatest feats of pyrokinesis.

Perfect.

Storm Surge was by no means mastered, but they'd at least managed one or two of the most basic, rudimentary steps. It would be months, if not years, before their vision came to completion, but the additional charge provided by the presence of the pyrocumulus clouds would be welcome.

Several teammates fell under his consideration, but were ultimately discarded. Torrent was too stationary and lacked mobility (not to mention there wasn't a water source available), while Dazed would probably be run ragged trying to distance herself from Salazzle's speedy maneuvering. Nidoking would stand up well against her toxins, but Kalena specialized against her fellow poison-types.

Bruiser was just a bad match-up - even with Rampage, Ash doubted he'd be able to lay a finger on Kalena. She was just too nimble. Sneasel could match her with speed, and he would love to see Fino's reaction to Mind Breaker, but one touch of her flames would spell his doom.

With half the set-up done and her Light Screens able to take the worst of Kalena's flames, Oz would stand an excellent chance. If she could just hit Kalena once, perhaps stun her with Flash or Thunder Wave, they could end this. She was too fast for most of his team - Plume would have been amazing against Kalena at full strength, he thought ruefully - but at least Oz could prevent her from effectively utilizing that strength.

And with those thoughts, he held Oz's pokeball high. Moments later, she appeared with a violent whirr, eyes widening at the devastated ruin of a battlefield. That was all she needed to recognize that Infernus had been involved, and little arcs of electricity jumped between her jutting antennae as she tested the latent charge in the air.

Her massive shoulders flexed as she did a quick stretch, rumbled a challenge that came out like thunder to Kalena the Salazzle, and tossed a quick smile back to Ash with her broad, flat teeth.

Ash smiled right back, especially when he saw the poppies still tied delicately into her thick fur. "Ready? You and the Salazzle are the last. Infernus and Plume did some damage."

Oz's eyes took on a curious glint, and he knew she'd be getting the details from the rest of them later. But she grunted, turned back to Salazzle, and readied herself for battle.

He caught Flannery's eyes flitting between both challengers. Her team and the Lavaridge Gym fighters weren't any subtler, and Ash sent another smile her way.

However this ended, they would remember.

"Begin!"

"Shock Wave!" Ash whispered, and Oz's fur shone brilliantly as it crackled with furious electricity almost as bright as Infernus.

That energy released as she punched forward. A sizzling net of yellow electricity exploded from her fist, arcing out and then honing in on Kalena, the technique tracking her via her natural bioelectric signature.

She avoided it anyways of course, canny enough to take cover within a fissure opened during the fight with Plinia.

Kalena moved as soon as the Shock Wave harmlessly splashed against the earth, hardly more than a black-purple blur as she dashed for the cover of the forest. Smart move, but one that Ash had expected. With Oz's quick, powerful ranged attacks it was the only option. She could lurk in there for as long as she needed.

She poked her head out, and all at once Ash saw a shift in the Salazzle's eyes. The poison-type tensed, suddenly overflowing with fury, and barely reigned in a mad desire to attack and tear and savage her larger opponent - a perfected use of Nasty Plot, he realized, and one that would be a nightmare to handle in close quarters.

"Unity Tower!"

That command from Fino earned a frown from Ash. The name stirred his memory, but he couldn't quite place it.

Fino loved his history, his references to foreign lands...

Unovan island tower taken in the initial Landfall - hijacked by National League for a base of operations - center of the Unovan Ministry of Communication?

He grit his teeth, but kept it in his thoughts. If he wanted to match Fino, he had to understand his orders.

Well, at least he had something to keep Fino and Kalena busy in the meantime.

"Oz!" He roared. She didn't dare turn back to him, but she twitched. Silence as she hurled a Thunderbolt at the Salazzle as she flitted between the trees and spat another Scale Shot at Oz, though they went wide at this distance. "Bring the sky down!"

She rolled her shoulders back, threw another spear of lightning at Kalena for good measure, and practically shook with eagerness as she smashed one foot against the earth, then the other, and repeated the motion. Oz's fist shot toward the sky, crackling with power, and a glowing sphere shot up into the clouds, then exploded into a shockwave of pale blue light.

Clouds darkened, then the first raindrops began to fall.

Oz sagged for a moment, catching her breath after the draining technique, but at least the pyrocumulus clouds were already there. That saved a good chunk of energy compared to what it might have cost her she'd had to summon the clouds from nothing.

She'd only recently learned Rain Dance from one of the TMs he'd taken from Indigo Plateau's library in anticipation of refining Storm Surge farther with Steven. It wasn't an ideal situation - preferably they'd have both Infernus to gather the clouds, then Torrent to really enhance them with his own substantially-stronger Rain Dance - but it could have been worse.

Oz whirred ferociously as the rain began to fall harder, steadily building until it came down in a constant downpour, extinguishing the remaining fires and quickly smothering the area in a thick layer of humidity.

She waited patiently for Kalena's next move though. She had that virtue over Infernus even on her worst day.

With the rain, she was at a distinct advantage. While Kalena would certainly have ways to get around the rain itself, it would make it more difficult for her to gain traction, turn the battlefield into a muddy bog to slow her down, and weaken the effects of her flames at range.

That wasn't to say they would just wait around and rest on their laurels. Ash kept up a steady stream of orders even as Kalena attempted a guerilla campaign from the treeline. As Oz received her directives, the low hum of excited electrical currents filled the air - audible even over the oppressive beat of falling water - and the bombardment began.

Tree after tree received a Thunderbolt, the smaller ones exploding in showers of splinters that rained against Kalena, but the Salazzle was too wily to take more than superficial damage and made excellent use of the undergrowth to constantly break Oz's line of sight and cover her own hide from direct attacks.

"Richard's Last Stand!"

Salazzle didn't seem to do anything different as Fino's voice rang loudly over the din, though she absolutely heard it even through her Nasty Plot-induced fury. She kept in ceaseless motion under Oz's sustained assault, eyes darting this way and that for the next few feet of cover.

Meanwhile, Ash struggled to think of what a command like Last Stand could mean. Beyond the obvious, of course.

He came up blank, though. Kalena was Fino's last - he couldn't afford a sacrificial play like that sounded. Had the old Master altered his orders to account for Ash's predictions?

Still, he didn't miss the steady stream of opaque purple smog wafting out from the forest. It lingered, though the wind and rain scattered it faster than it normally would, but Kalena constantly added to it. With her shape obscured by the toxic gas, she grew more comfortable with taking time to fire more accurate Scale Shots, though Oz stepped away from most or blocked them with a psychic barrier.

Yet they still waited, and equilibrium was maintained between the two combatants. Let the rain do its work, Ash thought.

He frowned as his eyes caught the faint shimmer of rain runoff coming in from the woods. It rolled down the gentle slope in a sheet, but looked off, a little oily, and Ash's eyes narrowed suspiciously.

Then -

"Dragon Pulse!" Was all the warning Ash could give before a dense sphere of condensed draconic power shot out of the woods, straight in Oz's direction - she brought up a Light Screen to stop it, but the powerful attack shattered it and the remaining force sent Oz staggering back.

Scale Shot came next, the scales laced with draconic power flinging out to strike Oz in her muscular chest. She easily handled it, but then came Salazzle dashing out of the woods while she was off balance.

Just as Oz charged forward, rearing her fist back to unleash a mighty lance of electricity, Kalena leapt back with a gleam of victory in her frenzied eyes, spat a tiny stream of flame into the rain runoff that had started to soak the mud around Oz's feet, and BOOM!

The force of the explosion hurled Oz back, though she managed to pull up a Protect to shield against the worst of it. Her brilliant green shield absorbed the force easily, though she still had to stamp out the fires raining down all around her, burning with the flammable gas Kalena had secreted even beneath the torrent coming down from the skies.

It hadn't managed much more than to singe Oz's fur and leave it gleaming with cinders, but it forced the Electivire to push forward ever fast lest Kalena take advantage of her weakness.

Oz roared, tails whipping madly and spraying sparks all over the place, and thrust a fist to send yet another Thunderbolt at Kalena as the fire-type dashed across the field in an effort to close the distance.

Kalena made her first mistake, though, slipping in a particularly muddy section of sodden earth. She hissed in irritation, but rolled out of the way of Oz's attack and spat a thick Sludge Bomb straight at Oz's feet.

The Electivire brought up yet another Light Screen just substantial enough to let the Sludge Bomb roll harmlessly off, but then the Salazzle was on her in a scramble of snapping teeth, slashing claws, and vengeful bursts of toxic flame. The poison-type returned the all out offensive with interest, abandoning most of her tricks in favor of ending this fight quickly.

It worked at first - the momentum of the skirmish swinging widely in Kalena's favor as her foe reeled. Oz whirred in agony when the first blast of purple-tinged flame washed over her, the laced fire seeping into her fur and the hide below, but the moment Kalena closed the distance entirely she regretted it - Oz didn't turn her back, but lowered to all fours. Just as Kalena neared, mouth full of a noxious batch of toxins ready to be spit onto the Electivire, Oz's tails flailed out in a whipping frenzy.

Kalena shrieked as one of the oversized livewires struck her and pumped her full of electricity, though she was hardy enough to allow it to roll off of her with minimal lasting damage. Oz wasn't willing to allow the initiative to escape her, however, and burst forward in a sprint, catching the Salazzle with her shoulder with a thunderous crackle of force and latent electric charge, sending the creature sprawling.

It was enough of a moment, however, for Kalena to viciously spit a globule of her toxic saliva into Oz's eyes.

Ash winced as Oz staggered backward, howling and swinging madly with her fists in a vain hope of striking Kalena. She was helpless as her opponent maneuvered just out of range, and didn't see when Kalena smirked and released a quick jet of toxic flame directly into her face, setting some of the striped fur there alight and totally blinding her.

Ah.Unity Tower. Blinding.

Ash grit his teeth and fought back a snarl - a dual meaning. Some Unovan Minister lost an eye in the escape, he remembered now, and the loss of Unity Tower, a major communication and observation center, also 'blinded' the fascists of the previous Unovan regime.

Stupid!

If he didn't - No!

"Storm Surge! NOW!" He roared, voice raw as he projected over the din of combat.

The desperation flooding his voice barely registered as Kalena scrambled forth, a Dragon Pulse shaping in the reptile's mouth to mark the beginning of the end of this fight if they did nothing to stop her.

But fighting through the agony of her seared retinas, Oz heeded his command.

With the mastery she held over her own mind and body, she fought through the pain and confusion and madness of the toxins stinging her eyes and filling her airways, and raised her fist.

Kalena trundled closer, the Dragon Pulse grew to its full potential -

The clouds shuddered, then an explosion of brilliant white light burst into existence, followed by the awesome, ear-splitting roar of lightning unchained.

It blinded them all with its enormity, Lightning itself roaring in Ash's being despite Groudon lurking beneath their feet, and from the low-hanging veil of clouds leapt a dozen threads of thin electricity. One found its way to Oz just as Kalena leapt, the path of least resistance found, it surged -

BOOM

Ash blinked the stars from his eyes as his ears rang from the thunder rolling through the earth and tearing through the air.

Bad, but nothing compared to being near Zapdos.

The psychic barriers around the battlefield trembled, then disintegrated as the psychics maintaining them were overwhelmed by the stimulus. They flickered back into existence quickly, but for a moment Ash caught sight of Oz shining bright as a star as the endless power of true lightning surged through her body.

As an Electabuzz she had nearly broken beneath the immense discharge of an Electrizer.

As an Electivire, she took the full force of a lightning bolt and only fell to her knees.

She smoked, striped coat blazing with charge like a coat of plasma, and shuddered beneath the power - what might have been Thunderbolts in their own right danced off her in a shower of electricity, one even striking Kalena who had been left stunned and smoking in crumpled heap by the sheer force unleashed by the lightning strike, but the majority of the power remained trapped in Oz for much much much much longer than it should have.

Oz shuddered, the charge leaping further and brighter from her kneeling form, and though he could see her curled, determined expression from hundreds of feet away, did not rise.

His heart sank.

By design, the lightning drawn by Oz wasn't supposed to stay in her. Storm Surge relied on lightning, true, but ideally it would just be a momentary absorption, then Oz would redirect it to strike her opponent. She would find herself energized and empowered by the strike, but the majority would be launched like a crackling spear to hammer through her opponent's defenses.

One day, he even hoped to have Oz direct lightning strikes remotely.

They'd managed a few test runs, but it hadn't gone to plan. She could only handle one lightning strike before becoming drained and exhausted (one reason he'd used it as a last resort when Oz had been blinded) but it had begun to build capacity at an incredible rate.

But Oz still hadn't managed to redirect it flawlessly, and today was no different. Instead, the lightning wracked her body as if she were one of her opponents fallen victim to her abilities.

"Oz… you have this. You've trained for this!" He didn't know whether she could hear him, but the words spilled from his cracked lips regardless.

Several dozen Thunderbolts lanced off in random directions from Oz's body, her shaking fists loosing the most powerful of the bunch, and she sagged from the effort.

Kalena, still dazzled by the explosion, slowly stirred.

Neither Ash nor Fino made a sound as the two combatants slowly recovered, each silently willing theirs to rise first.

Oz, her muscles well-adapted to immense levels of charge and quicker to shake off the excess, shuddered, and managed to pull herself up onto both feet.

She allowed a few more errant discharges to escape her smoking, sparking body, before she began staggering drunkenly over to the groaning Kalena, with every step releasing more electricity than most electric-types would discharge in an entire week, and without further preamble collapsed on top of her.

Oz's massive bulk would have hurt the slight reptile badly enough anyways, but the sudden discharge of a disgusting amount of electricity sealed the Salazzle's fate. She was invisible beneath Oz's huge shape, but even through the blinding light he caught the sudden sinking of Oz's torso as Fino recalled the unconscious, paralyzed, thoroughly-defeated poison-type.

Ash's breath caught.

Without a target, the electricity quickly faded out while it surged harmlessly into the ground. Soon enough, there was only Oz left in the lightning-scarred pit of mud. She was limp and unmoving, smoking even as the rain sprinkled over her exhausted form, but raised her head just long enough to look at Ash with bleary, mindless eyes somehow still alight with her desperate hope for victory.

He nodded shakily, mind distant, and with a relieved sigh her head fell into the mud with a thunk, though he immediately raised his arm to return her to a well-deserved stasis.

Ash's blood ran hot and cold and he might have screamed -

His team erupted.

All at once he was enveloped by a variety of bodies and cries, soaked through with the rain yet scorched and tingling with the lingering static in the air, and the smell of ozone and smoke filled his nostrils. Somehow that was right. Of the many pokemon clamoring for his attention, eager to share the victory all as one, Nidoking immediately wrapped him in a crushing hug that squeezed his ribs till they were sore and bruised, and he didn't care (how could he care?) as the others closed in -

Flannery was still off to the side, stunned, then let off a long stream of expletives, earning a "Goodness, Flannery! What has that boy been teaching you?!" from a dumbfounded Fino -

And as time passed into a blur, he felt a slight, silver-haired man slam into the group hug, wrap his arms around him, and shout along with them while grinning like a lunatic. "Ash! Ash! You did it! You fucking did it! How did you -"

Even a cold fire flickered to life in his mind, always watching, and foreign feeling emanated from it -

Then Dazed's svelte voice, brighter and wilder than he'd ever heard, slid into his mind. It was weightier than normal, and from his familiarity Ash felt other presences faintly attached, presences he knew like he knew his own mind -

The first of many, Friend-Trainer. Master-Ash.

The shock faded. Realization - the belief that his team had actually just done that! - filtered into him, and for just a moment Ash forgot the weight of the world.

Their family had beaten a Master.

They'd won.

Ash smiled, and at last leaned into the love engulfing him from all directions.

XX

Below the ravaged cliffside lay a pockmarked landscape reduced to muddy slopes and ashen wastes. Enormous chunks of earth were strewn all over the battlefield, mounded in mismatched heaps, and quite a few of the larger pieces remained green and alive with shrubs, grasses, and the odd sapling.

Ash's legs fell over the side, knocking against the solid stone of this section, and he stared blankly down at his handiwork. His brain was still lost in thought, memories and flashes of intuition and exultant glee all muddying together. All he really had the presence of mind to do was gently stroke Seeker where she laid in his lap, comfortable and content in the shade cast by the thick clouds which still lingered over their heads.

The great dark swathes were so, so close. He could nearly touch them…

"Flannery, dear, why don't you return to Lavaridge with our valiant fallen warriors after lunch? I doubt there will be any more training this evening, and I'd like the chance to speak with Mr. Ketchum alone."

Normally a gentle request from her grandfather would send Flannery scrambling to please him, but she scoffed this time. Ash's lips twisted upwards. "Puh-lease! I have so many questions, and he just started acting like a human being again. He's been catatomic - uh, is that the word? - for like a day!"

An amused huff.

"Catatonic. After that display of colorful vocabulary earlier I wouldn't think you'd have any words left to learn…"

Ash could practically see Flannery's red face as she stammered. "Uh, Lavaridge. That sounds like a good idea! Bye!"

"Aren't you forgetting something?" Fino sounded more amused now, and he heard Flannery awkwardly apologize as the Fire Master no doubt handed her his team with reverence. "Remember, Leader Flannery, you must practice intentionality. Don't be so quick to become flustered. There are plenty of greedy Carvanha out in the world just waiting to sink their teeth into you."

"Yes sir!" The Gym Leader snapped to attention behind him. His ears strained for every word.

He didn't have to try for long. He met her eyes as she glanced his way, hands full with the three antiquated pokeballs.

"Uh, Ash." Flannery stumbled as if she wasn't sure how to address him after his team's victory. In the meantime, he just kept stroking Seeker as she burrowed contentedly into his arms. "Want me to take your team with me?"

He hesitated. Infernus was already soaking in a lava bath he'd managed to draw up with what little energy he'd had left when Ash released him - it was all he could do to stumble into the simmering molten stone before he passed out again. They'd had to get Tangrowth to cover it up with Ancient Power.

Rain and lava didn't mix.

Plume and Oz didn't heal so easily, though. Part of Ash wanted to tend to his friends himself with Full Restores and what scraps of medical knowledge that he'd pieced together through his journey, reading, and the training with Lance on Mt. Ember, but actual medical personnel might do a better job.

"I… yes," Ash decided at last. It wasn't an easy choice, even with no danger looming over their heads like an executioner's axe, but he knew Flannery would treasure them like her own. There was still a gaping emptiness as he handed them over, only made stronger by the commitment he'd made with his team.

This was different, he had to tell himself.

"Ah, there you all are!" Steven's voice came out lighter and cheerier than usual, like he was skipping with every step. "I brought lunch just like you asked, Fino. It's nothing special, just some linguine that I whipped up and a bit of bread we had saved. I did add a bit of Slowpoke tail for flavor, however, so let me know how that tastes."

"Excuse me?!" Came Fino's rebuke while Flannery wordlessly gagged behind him.

Ash blinked, then craned his neck around to stare at Steven, who stood with a wide (creepy, really) smile while Claydol levitated next to him, holding several bowls of steaming pasta in protective psychic bubbles. Thankfully, Flannery and Fino seemed just as horrified. At least it wasn't some awful culinary trend in Hoenn he'd been ignorant to…

"You're joking." Ash said flatly, and Steven seemed particularly satisfied with that.

"I am!" Steven sang - well, it sounded like it by Steven's standards. For the first time, Steven seemed relaxed. To be honest, Ash had no idea what to make of it. "Did you enjoy it? Claydol gave me the idea."

A psychic voice eerily reminiscent of Steven's filled their minds.

You all got off easy. He asked Metagross first. I narrowly averted disaster. It would have been wonderful.

"I see," Fino said, and for the first time since Ash had met the Master he seemed utterly unsure of how to handle this situation.

He just waited silently as Claydol levitated the steaming bowls of pasta over with practiced ease, gratefully accepted his, and sent a measuring look Steven and Flannery's way. "Hmm. I was hoping to speak with Ash for a time. Could I convince you and Flannery to give us a moment before we all sit down to eat?"

Steven frowned, but nodded after a moment's thought. He glanced to Claydol, then at Flannery. "Very well. Let's go, Flannery. We'll discuss the battle while we wait. Perhaps Aggron would be up for a quick bout." Steven added as an afterthought.

Flannery followed after him with starstruck eyes ("Yessir Mr. Stone Sir!"), Piper trailing along behind her. Steven sent Ash a look, then that same smile stretched across his face. "Kudos to you, Ash. We'll celebrate tonight."

That earned a beaming grin from Ash himself, and they waved each other off as Steven and Flannery traipsed off through the woods with their pokemon. After a moment, it was just Ash and Fino.

The old man grunted and groaned as he settled down at Ash's side and looked down over the cliff with his lunch in his lap. Ash had already set his own bowl down, and smiled at Seeker as she cautiously sniffed it, and then decided she was feeling bold enough to steal a noodle and gobble it down.

Ash wasn't about to reprimand her for showing some initiative, and fought down a laugh when she snagged a second.

"We made quite the mess!" Fino observed, adjusting his spectacles as they slipped a little on the sweat-slick bridge of his nose.

He nodded, and for a moment they sat together beneath the grey clouds, watching some of the residual dust settle.

Fino stirred. "Facing you brought back quite a few memories, some better than others. I know poetry isn't a hip thing for you kids nowadays - Flannery humors me, bless her - but would it be alright if I shared a poem with you?"

Ash simply nodded.

The Fire Master cleared his throat.

"A shining new world

And inside ev'ry new soul

A revolution"

"Not my best work, but you've reminded me of my first forays into it." The old man chuckled as Ash listened intently. "I was young then. A few years short of forty, if I recall - goodness, I really am old."

"Professor Oak's dabbled in it for a while," Ash mused. "I don't really know enough to say whether he was good at it or not."

Fino chuckled. "That's good to hear. It's a relic of the war for me, or rather the tentative peace that followed. Champion Alder and I wrote it together as an exercise in building international relations. Neither of us were overly familiar with Indigo at the time, and what better way exists to learn the soul of a nation than to study its poetry?"

Well, that was one way to pique Ash's curiosity. "You knew Champion Alder? That never came up in my books, or your files."

Fino smiled. "I thought you were well read. Luck and viewing my old battles alone wouldn't allow you to catch my commands. Good to know I haven't totally lost my edge."

"Not all of them," Ash admitted as he cast a look at Fino. "And some too late."

"I'll be sure to fill you in!" Laughed the Master. "But yes, I knew Champion Alder. I worked with him for a time after the war," his face twisted up into a grimace, though soon smoothed out. "I wasn't a member of the Elite Four then, but I was dangerously close. After all the hatred, all the devastation and bloodshed, the League needed a strong voice to remain in Unova and help the new Vertress League rebuild."

His eyes squeezed shut as long-buried memories crawled to the forefront, thumbs playing along the edge of his bowl, like he couldn't quite keep himself still at all times. "We'd all been cut deep, but some more bore deeper scars than most. They demanded vengeance - 'Crush Unova forever, cripple them financially and grind them into the dust so they can never rise up to threaten us again!'"

The old man looked away. "No matter that the orchestrators of the war were captured, six feet under, or run off with their tails between their legs. Hate begets hate, and they'd set the world's ashes aflame all over again to quench that lust for revenge."

Feeling the need to let the man vent, Ash remained silent.

"Set Blaine on them! Burn them like they burnt us! Kalos is suing for peace? The nerve! After all they did? Crush them like we did Unova!'" Fino recited, voice pitching low and furious, then sighed tiredly. "Oh, Titos. You poor old fool…"

Ash nodded along, vaguely recalling mentions of similar ideals in some of the books he'd read. None specifically on the Last War, but there were plenty of little scraps scattered throughout various accounts, particularly in the modern direction of various cities. "That didn't happen."

"No. No it did not," Fino smiled. "Cooler heads prevailed. Champions Uther, Drake, and Irene… they knew better. Unova rebuilt beneath Champion Alder's good heart would be a great friend, and pursuing war with Kalos would destroy us all. No! Their forces bled dry in Sinnoh's southern territories, where their fae were powerless, but on their own shores? We would win the war, but who would rule the ashes?"

He might not know Fino especially well, but it didn't take a genius to realize Fino's mood wouldn't last long beneath the weight of these memories. "So how long were you in Unova with Champion Alder?"

Ash's ploy worked, it seemed. The Fire Master immediately brightened. "Oh, only a year or so. Long enough to see order restored, the last vestiges of the previous regime forced out to the northern frontiers, and Champion Alder unify his wartorn people beneath one banner and show them a better way. A happier way." Fino smiled proudly. "I'd done my part. War became a distant memory and the seeds of friendship had been sown. By the end, most of my time was spent training a new friend."

Ash perked up. "Simisear?"

Fino blinked, then favored Ash with an amused look. "Well-read. You did your research. That shouldn't surprise me by now."

That one statement made Ash think of countless late nights poring over Fino's old battles, watching individual fights with his friends and preparing counters, drilling again and again for specific matchups… "Like you wouldn't believe."

"Good!" Fino appeared satisfied with his answer and smiled over at Ash before looking back over the battlefield and Forina's countless stone spires. "Genius is one part talent and nine parts hard work. Don't grow complacent or you'll end up like me - an old fool with the honor of being the first footnote in a young man's long list of conquests."

A smile tugged at Ash's lips, but he still flushed a deep red. "Barely. It took me weeks to prepare. Dozens of hours with my team preparing for yours. If you'd brought your full team it could have gone differently." Would have, Ash wanted to say, but stilled his tongue.

"And next time, perhaps you'll only need a few days. Then they will start preparing for you."

"They won't make it easy."

"What kind of Masters would they be if they did?"

Ash's teeth bared. "Not Masters at all."

"Ha! Good answer," Fino laughed. "There's nothing to learn on the easy road. Your team earned this with blood and sweat."

He cocked his head, then loosed a billowy laugh. "Oh, Lucille will be fuming when she wakes up. It's been ages since anything evaded her darts like that."

"She was amazing!" Ash praised the Delphox. He couldn't help but smile as he remembered the sheer complexity and artistry of those fiery techniques. "I never knew fire could be manipulated like that. The arrow technique she used -"

"I'll have to change my orders now that young men are taking an interest in history," Fino shook his head ruefully, though he seemed far from displeased.

Ash continued undaunted. ""It would have been nearly impossible for any other member of my team to face. Even Plume could barely outrun them. And Trick Room!" Ash trailed off. "When did you get her?"

Fino spent a moment in thought. "Oh, just a bit under thirty years ago. How the years flash by!" He sighed again. "Champion Drake rotated me to Kalos after my stint in Unova. Tensions were high - Sinnoh still demanded blood for the invasion of their territories, plus Drasna's head, heart, lungs, and any other organs available - and I was one of the few volunteers willing to poke their head into that mess."

The old man's eyes squeezed shut. "Lucy met us there as a young Braixen. Plinia and I were training outside Lumiose when she ambushed us - Plinia didn't take kindly to that, of course."

He smiled. No, if Nidoking was anything to go by that would have been an utter disaster. "I can imagine."

"She warmed up after a time and chose to accompany us home to Lavaridge," Fino continued. His eyes tracked to Mt. Chimney, and he spent a long time staring wistfully at it before he said another word. Ash's gaze followed, and his gut twisted at what lay beneath the rumbling mountain. "Oh, how I miss traveling! Lavaridge is my love, but there are so many beautiful lands to explore. It's a wide world, and beautiful. I could never settle for one piece of it."

Ash nodded along. "It is. So many places to see, so little time," he frowned. "I've been all over Kanto. I've explored northern Johto. Some of the places I've been -" Champion Taimu's tomb, Chinatsu's grotto, the highest floor of the Lavender Tower, the Tin tower all sprang to mind, and Ash swallowed. "Some of them have been untouched for centuries."

Fino listened, enraptured. "I'd love to hear of them! It's been so many years since I've walked Alola's beaches or dined beneath the Prism Tower of Lumiose. Three decades since I watched the musicals in Nimbasa!" He muttered under his breath. "Now, if only I'd managed to convince them to let me through the Galarian border… if only Kabu had left Lavaridge by then!"

He huffed, exasperated but amused with himself. "So many 'if only's! That's how I know I've been in one place too long. Regrets are for the stagnant."

That last name made no sense to Ash - he knew precious little about isolationist Galar - but he nodded along with the rest. "I can't tell you everything," he confessed. "Some things…"

"I understand," Fino said easily, though he seemed more curious than ever after Ash's admission. "Perhaps I'll have some tales for you one day! Flannery won't need my help much longer. When she's ready, I'll take my leave. Drake spends his days sailing the archipelago, so why can't I go stretch these old legs?" He mused more to himself than to Ash. "The old Dragon Master might even join me. He's always wanted to sail sunken Onulo."

His eyes shone with dreams. "Ah! To pass into the Giant Chasm! To climb Mt. Silver's peak and delve into Coronet. Perhaps I'll even pass through the Seafoam Caverns on my way north. I've heard wonderful things about the Ice Time!"

Ash flinched. Great white wings outstretched, cold passing through his skin, muscle, bone, and deeper. "I… wouldn't do that."

Fino's eyes widened, eagerness drawing his lips back in a youthful grin. "You've been?"

"To the depths," Ash confirmed. Despite the hot weather, he found himself shivering at the memories of long, timeless days spent delving beneath the frozen caverns, the hunting calls of Dewgong sounding and Golduck - when was the last time he'd thought of the little traitor?

Ash's finger traced the bald spot on Seeker's belly where she'd blocked Golduck's attack. She still couldn't grow more than the tiniest bits of blue fuzz there, and a surge of violent anger overtook him. He didn't let it show, though, and let the spike of simmering fury bleed out as Seeker squeaked and nuzzled into his hand.

"What did you find?" Fino pressed, his whole bearing lit up with curiosity. "The tales I've heard are incredible. Subterranean lakes stretching far as the eye can see and crusted with ice, countless water and ice-types living amongst each other - natural beauty unmatched!"

"Just imagine winter. Beautiful and deadly all in one," Ash's face twisted. Even Seeker ceased trying to get after his food to shudder beneath his hand. No doubt she recalled those long, freezing days just as fiercely as Ash. He hesitated. "I found Articuno at the bottom."

Fino blinked. "Goodness. I… Well, I can't even imagine."

For once, the Master seemed tongue-tied. Perhaps that was one part of the reports he hadn't seen.

"You really can't."

"Perhaps that's one sight better left to the stories," Fino's gaze strayed from Ash back to Mt. Chimney. Black smoke belched from its red mouth. "Ah, all those far-flung places filled my dreams. They were my dream. My reward for a life spent in service… but it seems Lavaridge has need of me for a little longer."

Ash's mouth flattened into a thin line. Memories of unifying with the Earth itself nearly frayed his mind all over again, hands clenched to fists as the choking feeling came back, and he followed Fino's melancholic stare to the volcano. Then he glanced at the spires of Forina. Somewhere below there waited the Wish Maker in its silent tomb.

"I'll be here when it happens."

"I expect you will." The man nodded. "We're in a new world - a world where the natural laws we've studied are all being rewritten - and you seem to make a habit of finding the unbelievable," Fino looked his age then. "I'm no Blaine," he said with distaste on his tongue, "and certainly not a scientist, but even an old poet can see the pattern."

Ash scowled in defense of the Cinnabar Gym Leader. "Blaine's not that bad."

Fino's eyes squeezed shut. "Perhaps you know a different man than I do - did. It's been thirty years now. Enough time for the worst of us to change."

They sat for a moment, then Ash said, "I'd like to hear about the places you've been. I've read so much, but I don't really know anything. All I have is words on a page and a few pictures."

The Master smiled over at him. "You'll see them one day," Fino said with certainty. "But we still have a little time before my granddaughter's done interrogating Steven - or throwing herself against the iron wall. It would be my honor to share some of these wonders with you…"

And so they sat, and Ash listened, and questioned, and shared his own stories.

When Steven and Flannery returned, it was to the sound of laughter.

XX

ASH!

I got the news (and video) from Steven yesterday. Phenomenal work. You're just bound and determined to break my record, huh? All of us watched the battle together for movie night - just between you and me, I think you lit a fire under the others. The training rooms have been very active lately. Nobody wants to be the first to be dethroned by you!

Excellent work with Plume, by the way. I'm glad to see that you've been working together to keep pushing. With her speed pushing the limits, it's good that she's becoming well-rounded. That focused Hurricane was beautiful. Good use of thinking outside the box to circumvent Protect.

Is that your current attempt at replicating the technique you told me about? Keep me updated. I may be the Dragon Master, but I'm somewhat familiar with the flying-type…

I know you've been working hard out there. You're doing great, Ash, and I can't wait to see what you do. While I'll be the first to say keep it all up, just remember to live a little, okay? There's more to life than strength and battling. Don't let Steven keep you cooped up!

Speaking of which, tell Steven he's in hot water for using such horrible, awful, terrible language around you. Koga and Karen weren't pleased. (On my end, I don't think he went far enough).

Enjoy your time in Hoenn. We can't wait to see you back at the Plateau.

Your favorite teacher, Master, and Champion,

Lance

P.S. Thanks a ton for the sudden availability of funds to update the TV. We've pooled together a cut of the winnings and left a surprise for you in your room.

Ash smiled at the message as he committed every word to memory. It certainly sounded like Lance was more himself than the last time he'd seen the Indigo Champion. They'd exchanged a few letters since Ash left Indigo Plateau over a month ago, and each time Lance sounded happier and more relaxed.

He hoped that trend continued.

Still, it looked like he'd received several messages over the last four days since he'd managed to defeat Fino. Most were from the Indigo Elite Four, although there was one from Gary and another from Amelia and Jonathan.

Ash made a mental note to give them the good news when he responded.

Ash had taken the rest of that day and the next off to give his team time to rest (and to celebrate with them and Steven) but after that he'd thrown himself into training again.

It had taken weeks and weeks of specific training just to match Fino Moore. Pride flushed in his chest at that, but he wasn't a fool. Fino was a true Master, but he'd shown up with three fighters, one of which was half-blind. Time had done nothing to dull his skills, quite unlike world-weary Blaine, and Lucille had certainly been refined with age.

And at the end of the day, while he'd been declared the victor, it had been by the barest of margins.

But Ash could do better. Fino hadn't come at him with everything he had, and that galled him.

Next time though…

Ash snorted, then decided to check the rest of his messages to take his mind off training for a bit. After the last few days of few breaks and little time to recuperate he needed the break. Steven had taken his narrow victory as a sign that Ash needed to double, perhaps triple, down on his training - not that Ash was complaining.

Most of them were quite short, though they still brought a mad smile to Ash's face as he read them out to Nidoking, Torrent, Seeker, and Aron. They were the only ones still up during these late hours since Dazed was off talking with Claydol about one of the techniques they were working on.

The rest of the team were softly snoozing thanks to the brutal drills they'd been running.

Ash,

It was a pleasure to hear the results of your battle with Master Fino. He is a worthy opponent.

Toil and sweat will carry you far. Give Bruiser my regards.

With friendship,

Bruno.

He glanced at Bruiser, who was currently utterly spent after a long day of sparring with Skarmory to hone his defenses against aerial opponents. They'd made the goal to protect Aron from Skarmory's attacks, which proved to be quite the motivator for the Machoke.

On the bright side, Aron was currently munching on a discarded metallic feather that Bruiser managed to knock off Skarmory before the fierce steel-type knocked him out with a vengeful Sky Attack.

Ash would tell Bruiser tomorrow.

He skimmed over Koga's - just a few lines congratulating him on his win - and Will's, which was so overflowing with enthusiasm and glee that Ash felt vaguely exhausted by the time he was done with the ten (ten!) pages. It left a smile on his face, though, which only grew when he read Karen's.

Dear Ash,

Congrats on the big win. Seeing that made me happy Honchkrow fought Plume in the dark. She's a tough little birdie with a nasty attitude - I'm going to have to spend some more time with her next time you're around. I think I have a few tricks she may like.

Don't get too big of a head, though. You're good, but Will and I aren't just sitting around twiddling our thumbs. If you think you'll take us down like you took down that washed up old man then you've got another thing coming. Weavile can't wait for a rematch with Bruiser - I hope he'll be a Machamp the next time we see him.

Speaking of evolutions, be sure to let me know when you evolve the little squirt. Weavile's got a bit of a grudge, but I was nice and told him he can't go all-out on Sneasel until he's all grown up.

Anyways, I hope you're doing good down there. Hoenn's a sticky mess of a region and we're a little worried. Steven Stone might be a great trainer, but from what Lance tells me he doesn't have a lick of common sense. Make sure he feeds you something besides rocks, and doesn't get you killed.

Get a new hat too! People are going to think you're some kind of Nomad nutjob. It's going to be so embarrassing if some reporter plasters a headline of you with that ratty old thing on your head. And don't ruin your new clothes!

Be sure to stay safe. I've heard those disgusting Rockets have been more active down there. All kinds of infighting from what I can tell. Steer clear.

With love,

Karen

He smiled and reread Karen's again. Ash felt a dark surge at the mention of the Rockets, but quelled it.

The night was too beautiful for his mood to be spoiled.

Around their campsite were woods drenched black by inky darkness, the calming buzzing of the countless bug-types that made Forina their home, and only the occasional howl of a Mightyena and somber cry of the dozens of Absol that had adopted this place.

After all this time, he'd found a certain peace in their melancholy songs.

It reminded him of Lavender.

Ash laid his head back against Nidoking's resting shape, pulled off his hat, flicked off his PokeNav, and closed his eyes after a moment's thought. All sorts of worries and tendrils of dreams rattled around in his head, but after a time he found himself drifting off to sleep.

When the nightmares came, they came faintly. His last waking thoughts were of a lonely purple chrysalis marked by a golden-hued scale, but instead of falling down that pit his mind went another way.

Rather than sinking into the crypt, his dreams surged back with victory, far-flung places, and the warmth of his mentor in the next tent over and his team huddling around him.

XX

Breakfast was a calm affair, but one tinged with sorrow. They'd reached the end of their time in Forina.

This place had become home for a time, and now they were leaving. Ash sipped at his black coffee, barely grimacing at the bitter flavor that had become so familiar over the last few months, and spoke with Bruiser as the massive Machoke guzzled an enormous thermos of nutrient paste.

It wasn't good (Ash's nose wrinkled every time he made it for Bruiser) but Machoke didn't have a strong sense of taste anyways.

Besides, the results spoke for themselves.

"It's been a good month."

Ash looked to Steven, who sat across him on a dull rock. The former Champion had already finished his own meal, and had been engrossed with his own conversation with Claydol (and presumably Metagross as well, given how often they shared mental space).

Ash smiled.

"It has," he agreed.

He and his team were worn to the bone from the past month's racing and training in the confines of the valley, beneath its countless spires, but he felt… satisfied. Ready for whatever could challenge them.

Wherever they went after this (Ash suspected Fortree, given a few 'subtle' comments that Steven made) he knew it wouldn't be an easy adjustment. Still, Ash was ready to travel again. He'd gotten that itch again over the week since the battle. Fascinating as Forina was - full of hidden secrets, caves, and countless nooks and crannies to discover - it had grown a little too familiar.

There were too many places to see for him to remain here long. Too many secrets that needed peeling back. After sharing stories with Fino, he never wanted to be plagued by thoughts of 'if only'.

And, perhaps more than anything, he longed to live outside the oppressive weight of Mt. Chimney.

Steven sent him a measured look. "Do you think you're ready to take on the Ever Grande Elite Four?"

The conversations around them lulled.

Ash blanched. Where had that come from?

"No!" He exclaimed, then shook his head. "I want to fight them. Of course. But..."

Ash trailed off. How to put it into words? "I may have beaten Fino, but all it did is show us how far we have to go. We had to tailor our tactics and train for specific matchups. A six-on-six matchup would be amazing - more than amazing - but we don't have the flexibility yet."

The Steel Master nodded with the ghost of a smile on his lips. "At least you know your limits. When Lance beat his first Master at fourteen, he challenged Drake and…" Steven chuckled, but didn't continue. "You'll get there. Believe me, you'll get there."

Ash sighed in relief - he'd thought the Steel Master was serious for a moment. He leaned forward and took another swig of the scalding hot coffee, a new question burning on his tongue. "Who was Lance's first win?"

Aggron stomped over, rattling the earth with each step, and stood next to Steven as Ash waited. The moment he saw his teacher, Aron activated Magnet Rise to skim over and butt against the enormous creature's thick iron-plated leg with a cheerful warble.

Steven smiled at the sight.

"A half-mad Nomad Ice Master that made his home in the archipelago, actually. He had a habit of having his team create ice bridges to cross from island to island." Steven rolled his eyes. "His name was… Kapono? Kapono Paewei! Yes, that's right. Lance paid him a small fortune to battle him in the Shoal Cave - as poor a place for his dragons as he could think of. He couldn't have anyone tarnishing his victory."

"How did it go?" Ash pressed eagerly. Even Bruiser was paying a bit more attention now that he'd finished his breakfast. "I know he won, but what happened?"

Steven shrugged. "I wasn't there, and Lance was barely coherent when he was telling me the story, he was so worked up. All I know was that it was a full battle, Lance won by a hair, and that Kapono named him Master."

"But not the Dragon Master," Ash observed.

"Correct." Steven nodded approvingly. "That wasn't Kapono's title to give. That came later, when he defeated Drake at the height of his strength."

Ash marveled at the idea, desperately wishing he could have watched that battle in person. There was a reason that Drake's reputation loomed so large, after all. That was a man who'd reshaped the world to his liking and forged the disparate city-states of Hoenn into one functioning whole.

"Speaking of Drake," Steven coughed and Ash's full attention focused upon him. "Given our… Well, let's be fair, your findings, I will need to go to Ever Grande City to discuss the finer details with him and Wallace. They are… troubling."

"Didn't you already tell them?"

Steven nodded. "Yes, but there are certain things that can only be done in person, and these are certainly things I'd rather not send via technology. There are eyes and ears everywhere."

Ash's brow furrowed. "You said I."

"For now," his teacher admitted. "I'd like you to join me. Our last opportunity for you to meet Wallace in Slateport was… sidetracked, let's say, and I'd like to make introductions as soon as possible."

"But?" Ash prompted.

"But I have an assignment for you!" Steven smiled. "Given how the last one turned out, I'd like to give you the opportunity to go on a standard, routine assignment."

His eyebrows rose up, though he sent a dirty look at Oz as she paused her breakfast to give a disbelieving snort.

"Really?" Ash asked, recalling the disaster and how he'd traumatized the Eruption. "What is it?"

"Simple!" Steven raised a finger proudly, then fished out two folded pieces of paper from his pocket. "Here, take this."

Ash quickly unfolded it and skimmed over the single paper. It was somewhat formal, but clearly a rushed report. No doubt whoever filled it out had more important things to deal with given what Karen had mentioned in her letter.

Ever Grande League Report J940.c5

Filer: Ranger Floresco Bianci.

Filing Date: 10.2.999

Beginning 9.24.999, Ranger Station Arid received several reports of travelers through the Arid Zone being harassed by wild pokemon. These pokemon have evaded Ranger patrols, but reports from friendly wild pokemon populations in the area suggest they have continued to harass local groups. There has been a noted exodus of wild pokemon from the southern reaches of the Arid Zone.

Ranger Coppola made forays into the deep desert, but found little evidence of such activity. Current communications with human locals in the Arid Zone have provided little interest, although further contact is recommended.

Upon cursory investigation, no pattern to emergent disruptions have been noted. Due to Rocket activity in the Lavaridge and Mauville territories, however, Team Arid has only been able to perform minimal reconnaissance. A pattern may exist that Team Arid has not found sufficient evidence to discern.

Current recommendations for future investigations are as follows:

Make additional contact with human populations in the area (coordinates provided below).

Interface with local populations of pokemon with psychic aid. Team Arid was unable to make contact with the Spirit of the Desert, but if problems continue it is expected that it may take action.

Seemed simple enough. "Is that it?"

Steven nodded, seeming rather satisfied with himself. "That's it. These disturbances have appeared recently in the desert for unknown reasons. Your job is to hunt it down. Coordinates for sources have been highlighted, and I've forwarded additional information on your PokeNav."

Ash smiled. "I can do that."

"Excellent," Steven smiled. "I've spoken with Fino already regarding your assignment. The Lavaridge Gym technically has authority over the Arid Zone, so they will be providing you with materials to assist with your mission."

He perked up at that. Flannery had been around a few times the last few days to watch him train and question him endlessly (which he'd begun to look forward to) but he hadn't spoken to Fino since the day of their battle.

It would be nice to have a chance to say goodbye.

"Juliet will arrive within the hour to take me to Ever Grande," Steven said, casting a mournful glance all around at the stone spires surrounding them. "Care to work in one last training session before we part ways?"

Ash smiled. "That's sounding pretty good to me. Infernus has been looking for something to take his frustrations out on. He's still mad that he was the only one not to bring down one of Fino's team…"

A/N: This chapter is finally done! It took so much longer than I intended (and ended up about 20,000 words longer than I expected). Originally the Arid Zone mission was supposed to happen this chapter, but that battle kept going on and on and on. I hope everyone enjoyed it! It was definitely one of the biggest battles we've seen in a while!

I really hope to get the next chapter out soon. It will be much more limited in scope, and should have some interesting stuff as we look at the desert!

Also, I wanted to give credit for Fino's haiku - I took the skeleton of it from "A World of Dew" by Kobayashi Issa and modified his haiku in order to make that one. I'm absolutely hopeless at poetry, so I desperately needed a base to work with.

I'd love to hear your thoughts for this chapter! The feedback for the last few has been absolutely incredible! We crossed the 8,000 mark a few weeks ago, and with this chapter we're past 1.5 million words! Not to mention that in just over a week it will be Traveler's ninth anniversary! It's insane that this story has come along for so long, and I thank each and every reader who's stuck with it for so long!

As always, I'd like to thank Val, Jain, and Raptor for all their feedback and for poring over this giant of a chapter. They're such a massive help and the finished product is always better for their input. Now I just need to stop writing 40-50,000 word chapters and everything will be fine and dandy…