A/N: Many apologies for the wait! This came out about 25,000 words longer than I expected. I hope you enjoy Ash's next adventure! As always, please reach out to me through PMs if you would like.

Cw: suicidal thoughts (near end of chapter).

Ash limped into the Lavaridge Gym with an unsteady sway and a smile. His legs were still adjusting after the quick flight from the campsite in Forina, but every passing step had him growing steadier and at home on solid earth once more.

"Excuse me!"

Ash paused to turn and cock his head at the voice.

"I'm afraid Leader Flannery is taking a brief break for lunch. Challenges will resume in thirty -" The mousy-haired attendant's eyes bulged as he recognized Ash. "Oh! Uh, sorry! Leader Flannery is -"

She slammed the heavy doors open and burst out from the Gym's arena with a radiant smile. "Right here!"

Ash rolled his eyes. By now he knew Flannery well enough to say with certainty she'd planned this. How long had she been waiting?

Flannery strode over, doing a poor job of concealing the plainly wrapped package clutched in one hand and hidden behind her back. The attendant seemed to make himself as tiny as possible behind the counter as her presence filled the entire room. "Hey there, Ash! I hear you're leaving us."

He winced regretfully. "Yeah."

Flannery sighed. "Well, that's a shame. It was a good month though, right?"

"Definitely," Ash smiled. "I'll have to come by again sometime."

She cheered at that and sent him a thumbs up. "Alright! Good stuff. Now…" Flannery grinned and brandished the bundle in her hand. "The Lavaridge Gym has a surprise for you!"

It was rather small. Just larger than the kind of gift-box you might put a gift card in for a birthday.

Ash blinked. "Okay?"

Flannery deflated.

"You could stand to be a little more excited, you know!" She complained. "Sure, we're obligated to give you supplies for this job - it's kind of the bare minimum, you know? - but that's not the point!"

She pressed the package into his face and gave it a rattle. "I could have shoved this off on Robby-" she pointed with her other hand at the receptionist, who was currently doing his best impression of a Sandshrew trying to curl up on itself. "To bring this out, but nope. Leader Flannery decided to be nice to a friend and do the grunt work and say goodbye! Personally!"

"Oh." He didn't really know how to respond to that. "Thanks for your patronage, Leader Flannery."

"You've ruined it. Thanks a lot, Elite Four Ash," Flannery grumbled. Still, she tossed him the package. It was heavier than expected, and he let out a small grunt as he caught it. "Guess what's in it!"

His mind ran over what little he knew about the mission, which he'd reviewed over the flight here. Steven hadn't known much more than what was on the paper, which Ash had found out after constantly poking and prodding during the quick bout they'd had between Infernus and Armaldo.

Still. It was enough to make a proper guess.

"Pokeballs?" It was the only thing that made sense given that he'd probably end up facing down whatever wild pokemon was responsible for the disturbances at some point.

Flannery's nose wrinkled. "One for two. Not bad!"

She gave him an (overly sarcastic) thumbs up, then hurried him along. "Now open it!"

He didn't bother with any delicate attempts to unwrap the box, which looked as if someone (probably Flannery) had haphazardly slapped enough tape around the bundle of brown packaging paper to protect it from one of Infernus' Flamethrowers.

Instead, he tore it open, then stuffed some of the thick, crinkly paper in some of his pockets.

"For Sneasel," he explained when he caught Flannery's questioning glance, then proceeded to rip the rest of the paper off to reveal a hastily wrapped bundle of ten standard pokeballs. None of the advanced models were included, but they would get the job done.

Below those, Ash found something more curious: a small set of red-lensed adjustable goggles that reminded him of the helmet he'd worn during the Stone colony raid. He picked them up by their elastic band and dangled them in front of his face - he'd definitely have to keep these away from Sneasel. They'd be much too tempting to steal and play with.

"Go-Goggles?" Ash read off the label.

He tried them on, adjusting the tightness so that they didn't squeeze too hard and leave him with a headache, or snag on his hair. It was pretty simple, thankfully, and they proved to be fairly comfortable. "I'm guessing sandstorms are in my future?"

"You know it!" Flannery laughed. "I'm sure you'd get through them just fine anyways, but it's better to be safe than sorry. I've had to take a few expeditions there to meet with some of the tribal leaders and the Go-Goggles have always been a huge help."

He turned the Go-Goggles over in his hands and read the logo on the back. Devon Corp.

Of course.

Ash offered Flannery a genuine smile despite the urge to let a smirk overtake it. "Thank you. I appreciate it." Then he hesitated. "Should I get anything for my team before we head out?"

She tossed her head, smiling back. "Nah, they'll be fine! Just recall them if a sandstorm picks up. Nidoking should be able to take it, but make sure Seeker is put up. She'd get tossed around like a toy by the wind alone, and probably pretty roughed up by the friction."

He made a mental note of that. Seeker was far, far too delicate to be exposed to whipping winds and grinding sands. Sun exposure would be bad enough, but at least they could work around that.

A new voice cut into their conversation. "Ah, you're here earlier than I expected!"

Ash turned to the newcomer with a smile. "Juliet picked Steven up just a few minutes ago. I didn't want to waste any time."

Fino adjusted his spectacles as his Simisear lazily came to a stop alongside him.

The fire-type hardly spared Ash a glance, though he could tell by the momentary flit of the simian's droopy eyes to Ash's chest that it knew something of the Feather. He focused for a moment, drawing deep to force Fire to the surface despite Earth's oppressive weight, and took a small pleasure in Simisear's choking gasp as heat flooded his blood.

"Oh dear, I told you not to scarf that lava cookie down so quickly," Fino chided his companion, who chattered out a protest. "Goodness! But I appreciate your enthusiasm, Ash. We received another report this morning from a Ranger out in the Arid Zone."

A flicker of worry panged in his chest. "Is it serious?"

"No, no!" Fino raised a hand to reassure Ash. "I wouldn't say it's good by any means, but it's just an additional report of local pokemon being harassed by these newcomers. None have been hurt so far, but there's been an additional exodus from the southern dunes."

Which meant his targeted area had expanded significantly.

"I suppose I should start there," Ash mused. "I saw the coordinates for where to make human contact. Do you have any leads on where I should bring Dazed to meet with wild pokemon, or should I just ask the locals?"

Fino smiled at that. "No to the former, but I'm certain they'll find you. They've been rather attentive to newcomers as of late. I know Caterina - Matriarch Caterina to you, myself, Champion Wallace, and anyone else who crosses her - might be able to bring a few to you."

Ash nodded, already curious about the hardy people that called the desert their home.

The Arid Zone was a harsh, desolate land, but he knew that in the past civilization had thrived there amongst the rolling sea of sandy dunes. By now those glory days were long past, eroded by frequent wars and the migration of the desert folk to greener pastures, but a number of people still clung to the old ways.

They reminded him of the people of Pewter's rugged territories. Old names, old customs, and older thinking. They'd never quite grown comfortable in the modern world, though they'd forged an unbreakable bond with the land and native pokemon for it.

Suffice to say that while Ash didn't particularly want to live like that, those were all things that piqued Ash's personal interests.

"I'll be sure to contact her," Ash replied as he stowed away the pokeballs and Go-Goggles in his pack. He cleared his throat. "I should go though. I - thank you for your help. For everything," he added, eyes straying from Fino to Flannery.

How odd it was to feel so profoundly for people he'd shared just a few weeks with. It reminded him of his time training with Lance at Mt. Ember. In just a month he'd come to know the man beneath the Champion's mantle.

Ash hadn't spent his short life buried in tales of Fino Moore or Leader Flannery, but in them he'd found that same bond.

"Of course," Fino smiled kindly, the age-lined creases of his face wrinkling. He patted Ash on the shoulder. "You're a friend of Lavaridge. You're always welcome here."

Flannery gave Ash a brief hug, then pulled away to look him in the eyes. "Yeah! And don't forget to swing by if you're in the area. My team and I are coming for you! Plinia's already promised to help - I think she's holding a grudge."

Ash barked out a laugh. "Good. I'm looking forward to it," he said, then fought back a surge of longing to stay just a little longer. "I - until next time."

Ash dipped his head to them both, and smiled when they returned the farewell.

With more regret than he expected, Ash left the Lavaridge Gym to go meet Plume back outside. Fino and Flannery followed behind, waiting just outside the Gym along with Simisear.

He cast one last look back at Flannery and Fino's smiling faces, waved one last time, and hopped onto Plume's back.

She leaned back to rub her head against his outstretched hand, let loose a keening cry as a goodbye to both Fino and Flannery, then took off in a rush of wind and wings.

Plume seemed eager to leave Lavaridge and the cumbersome weight of cloying Earth behind them, and Ash closed his eyes and relaxed. Tension and anxiety and the thump thump thump of the beast's heartbeat buried beneath Lavaridge faded away, blown off by the freedom of the skies as if he was casting off a heavy cloak or shaking loose a heavy coating of dust acquired over the course of a long, tiresome journey.

Lavaridge soon became little more than a dark dot hidden amidst the enormous slopes of Mt. Chimney, and Ash left it all behind him.

Sweet as it was to leave the awful burden behind, to fly far, far away from the troubles of the world and Mt. Chimney's red-rimmed mouth, he couldn't help but linger on the bitter partings as well. It had been a month well spent, full of warm memories and new connections, and Ash knew he'd miss them soon enough.

But for now?

For now he looked forward to the great stretch of golden sand visible on the horizon.

He'd return to Lavaridge and Forina one day - he must, for he couldn't imagine leaving this beautiful land for good - but for the next few days he belonged to the desert.

XX

Less than half an hour later found Ash and Plume waiting amidst a small collection of squat, sand-colored buildings carved into an eastern region of the Arid Zone rich with firm, starkly-protruding sandstone.

The dwellings never rose higher than a single story at most on the surface, but Ash could see window-wells scooped out beside the foundations that indicated they extended deep below the earth into the cool, dark recesses beneath the desert's sun-baked crust.

Ash longed to explore them and poke around these fascinating dwellings - no doubt Nidoking or Sneasel would get a kick out of it themselves - but stopped himself.

He had a job to do.

He couldn't stop the little knot of worry burrowed in his gut. They'd left Mt. Chimney and Lavaridge behind, but something about the sands still left Earth roiling up within him - he'd escaped its immediate resting place, but these golden dunes were still stained with the lingering press of its power.

A voice interrupted his musings. "Elite Four Ash."

A slim woman shrouded in a breezy, hooded white robe dipped her head as she approached with a spinning Baltoy at her side. Ash had to crane his neck a little to meet her eyes - she had the tall, gangly proportions of someone hitting a late growth spurt, and towered above him as a result.

She looked at him with slightly widened eyes. Her gaze lingered on his arms bared under the sun with something between criticality and veiled amusement. "The honored matriarch will meet with you soon. I will stay with you in the meantime and show you to her when she is ready. I am Ilaria."

Ash shifted uncomfortably at the formal address, but didn't correct her. It was inconsequential, and this was business. "Thank you," he replied simply. "Will it be long? I'm not in a hurry," he interrupted her before her lips could part. "Just curious."

Ilaria blinked. "No, I do not think so. Perhaps you would like to step inside while we wait? Out of the sun?" She stared not-so-subtly at his uncovered skin and head. Ash could only imagine how Karen would have reacted if she saw him on League business with his well-loved hat.

"Sure. Do you have somewhere in mind?" The Fire laced through his being might do a bit to protect him, but he supposed it was best not to tempt fate when the next few days might be spent baking under the sun's glow.

What was her name again? Ilaria? Something like that. For now, he decided to assuage some of his curiosity. "May I ask a question?"

She nodded, obviously nervous beneath Plume's raptor gaze. "Of course!"

Ash recalled Plume with a whispered word of thanks. He nodded to Ilaria. "I'm ready."

Her long strides forced Ash to move quickly just to keep up with her walk into the settlement. It wasn't large - hardly larger than a village like Littleroot - but its architects had chosen this place well. It was situated in the lee of a canyon which offered plentiful protection from the infamous sandstorms that swept across the Arid Zone's expanse.

It was amazing they'd managed to eke out a living in a desolate place like this. His view from Plume confirmed the lack of any major rivers or water sources in the desert, but they had to get it from somewhere. Underground reservoirs, perhaps? He'd read of desert civilizations with extensive qanat networks to transport water across vast deserts without suffering evaporation.

"How do you make your homes?" Ash asked his guide, inclining his head to the sandstone buildings, a few of which had been carved directly from the canyon walls.

A few people moved in and out as they made their way through the small village, often casting Ash mistrustful or bewildered glances before they scurried back into the cooler lower levels. Not even the Trapinch, Baltoy, Sandshrew, or the odd Cacnea that dwelt in the tiny settlement were willing to be out beneath the pounding midday sun.

Ash couldn't blame them - he was already sweating as badly as Sneasel had when they'd first arrived in Hoenn

The only saving grace was that at least it actually did something in the desert. Nothing was worse than going on a run with Steven through sweltering, humid Forina and just becoming a sticky mess of hot sweat that refused to cool him off like it was supposed to.

It didn't do much, but it was something. His skin was tan thanks to long hours spent under the sun, but without any shade or cover to speak of he knew the desert would prove harsh.

Ilaria's Baltoy spun suddenly, kicking up a slight breeze with a rush of its psychic powers, and Ash sighed in relief as the punishing heat slackened a bit. Its body flashed with the azure of psychic energy, but it didn't dare brush his mind.

Ash should count himself lucky that the lesser psychic remained conscious.

"We rely on our companions to dig," the desert woman said slowly, glancing down at her Baltoy curiously. "They are familiar with these lands and know the earth like their own bodies. Better, maybe. Many of our homes are connected beneath the sands to offer relief. There, we keep the cisterns, and our growing things, such as we have." Her voice turned wry. "We rarely wake during the day. Night is safer."

He winced. "I'm sorry for disturbing you."

Ilaria's eyes widened, as though she had not considered the implications of her statement. "No! No!" She gesticulated wildly. "It's an honor to have you visit us, Elite Four Ash! A true honor! We never imagined the League would send such a powerful trainer to help us. It's a pleasure to host you."

The sheer earnestness - and panic - in the woman's eyes made him decide not to reveal this was just a training mission for him. Given how high-strung she was, he might not have been alone in that.

"The League is always here to help," he said instead, now quite uncomfortable.

A firm psychic presence, solid like stone, dared to brush his mind and recoiled like a hand pulling away from a hot stove.

Ash sighed, the hair on his nape already lowering. He'd never get used to that.

Still, he turned to the newcomers, who'd emerged from a set of shadowed stairs within the largest of the surface dwellings.

Nothing out of the ordinary - a Claydol that swayed drunkenly at the side of a figure hidden almost entirely in sand-colored robes. As they approached, he caught sight of a few interesting details on the building they'd just vacated.

The dwelling was taller than its neighbors - only by a few feet, but sufficient that Ash suspected it must either have a high ceiling, a loft, or some sort of storage. The walls were primarily sandstone like all the rest, though tiled in a wide stripe with glazed blue ceramics in ornate patterns both elegant and simple.

With the Unown-sourced script tracing with the patterns, it cut a blaze of unlooked-for color through the largely earth-toned settlement.

It took Ash a few moments to discern the words, though they were in a language or dialect he'd never seen or heard before. Perhaps it was something he could decipher with enough time - surely the desert folk couldn't be that isolated from the other mainlanders - but he did notice with no little curiosity that a few Draconid symbols he'd seen in Jirachi's caverns were intermixed in a few places.

Images of Cacturne and Cacnea adorned the right side of the home, carved masterfully into the sandstone to depict scenes of the grass-types standing above robed humans and pricking their thick skin to release streams of vivid blue into the vessels carried by the humans.

To the left were etched a dozen humans bowing, with a woman of much larger stature kneeling before the unmistakable image of an immense Flygon. It shrouded the people protectively within its enormous wings as a stylized sandstorm whipped fruitlessly against it. Its eyes were glazed of a different shade; vivid crimson orbs set in a sculpted skull, as well as the characteristic outlines of its outspread wings and tail.

And in the center, above the main door which was guarded by a simple flap of pale cloth, the imposing shape of a tower with strangely faded edges rose. It was surrounded by humans and other pokemon of the desert, all kneeling in supplication or worship, and images of Claydol and Baltoy rose above them all.

His eyes noted a distinction in how the different figures were carved - humans tended to be a little finer and more precise, likely hammered into the stone with hammer and chisel. Pokemon, however, were a bit rougher and carved with a different style, like tooth and claw had been used to shape it into a separate - though no less beautiful and well-crafted - image.

The exceptions were Claydol and Baltoy, however, which were emblazoned upon the stone in the same style as humans.

"'Tis a representation of the three pillars of our ancestors, the Siculus."

He found himself distracted from his examination by the short, rail-thin woman who approached them both. It was difficult to discern her frame beneath the oversized tan robes she wore, but the little glimpses of narrow wrists and the drawn, sun-baked skin of her face told Ash that she was hardened and shriveled by a long life in the desert. Whether she was naturally dark-skinned or if her earthen tone was acquired with time and sun was anyone's guess.

"Cacturne, Flygon, and Claydol," Ash murmured, more to himself than to the desert folk. "Water, shelter, and -"

"Service," the tiny woman interrupted, a little flap of loose skin beneath her chin (perhaps the only part of her that wasn't drawn taut as a wire over her bony frame) twitching with her words.

Ilaria's eyes bulged as she made a choking sound. "Ah! I was just bringing Elite-"

The woman shot Ilaria a silencing glance. "The Piede is a harsh mistress," she continued. "And hardly a fair one. Bitter Old Hoenn came stomping by and left his ugly mark on the place."

He blinked. "Old Hoenn?"

She waved his question off.

"The Dessicator - are you simple?" Her sharp question left Ash with a frown, less from her tone and more by the insinuation. Ignorance wasn't stupidity.

Ilaria's hands disappeared into her voluminous sleeves, though little twitches and shifts in the fabric spoke of anxious fidgeting.

The crone took no notice of it - or if she did, she gave no indication of it, too busy shuffling into Ash's personal space as she was. "Groudon, boy!" she snapped. "Blind, soft green folk!"

Ash's frown deepened. "I know Groudon."

She scoffed. "Just look at you! Fat with water and pale as a Sandshrew's belly. How can one of the green folk know the Dessicator?" The shriveled woman slapped her thigh - a thin, sharp sound in itself.

Iliara hid her face behind her hands.

Ash couldn't help but recall another acerbic crone, and realized with more than a little horror that Agatha would adore this desert-hardened old woman.

Or kill her. One of the two.

He met her eyes, but didn't bother stoking anything to strike the fear of something more into the woman.

There was no need. Much like when he'd last met Chinatsu, he merely looked, set his jaw, drew in his expression, and waited.

What she saw, whether it was the dark rings below his eyes as a relic of his sleepless nights, or a lingering ghost of the waking nightmares he'd seen, or just the physical tolls of a dozen deadly experiences, seemed to finally satisfy her.

She harrumphed, then revealed a gummy smile - her mouth was a black pit marred by two yellow teeth; one brittle, jagged canine and the other a lower incisor. The rest had likely abraded away by a tough, plain diet contaminated with too much sand.

She didn't seem to notice his curious stare. "Perhaps not so soft after all," she muttered thoughtfully, leering up at him and craning her neck forward to get a better look at him. "Still one of the green folk, though, if only just. Now-"

The matriarch cast a dirty look back at her Claydol, who reluctantly sailed closer through the air.

"What brings the League nosing around the Piede and her people? And to send a not-child!" She scoffed with a dismissive flick of her wrist beneath her robes. "I see the islander Champion still knows nothing of our ways."

"I'm here to help." Ash said simply. Patiently.

"Help!" the woman exclaimed. "Ha! It's been years since your ilk poked your noses into our affairs. Last time you swept over the desert like a plague, sniffing around for who-knows-what, sifting through the sands like you owned them and leaving all sorts of nasty places upturned and buzzing with trouble for us to clean up!"

Ash blinked, bemused by the matriarch's onslaught. Glancing to the side, however, he couldn't help but smile faintly at how horrified Iliara was - she'd surreptitiously shifted a few steps backward, angling closer and closer to the village's underground sanctum, her hands frantically twisting together over and over again beneath the linen of her sleeves.

He cleared his throat, doing his best to ignore the pounding sun. By now he firmly regretted not making it to whatever place Ilaria had thought to take him to before his curiosity had gotten the better of him. "Our rangers reported a series of attacks on travelers in the area by a wild pokemon. I've been sent to investigate and help."

An edge slipped into his voice. Could anyone blame him?

Sadly, his words just earned an indignant snort from the matriarch (and he realized now that she'd never bothered to introduce herself - but he felt comfortable with the assumption) and she looked half a moment from turning on her heel and striding back into her home. "Good! Far be it from me to stop the Piede from pushing out those too weak or unprepared to wander it. We have no need for weak blood."

Iliara gasped, and her Baltoy flickered with psychic power, letting loose a high-pitched keen.

"Matriarch Caterina!" She scolded, looking scandalized, though the look on her face spoke of immediate regret as she became the target for a new glare. Still, she seemed emboldened when her sharp-tongued elder didn't immediately bite her head off, and took a step closer. "Gilo ran afoul of the shadow just the other day! You'd discount your own grandson so easily?"

The matriarch snorted. "If he can't handle a little shade, what use is he? We ought to send him packing out in the dunes until he toughens up. And I would!" She added, rounding on and scowling at a nonplussed Ash. "If only I didn't think the empty headed boy would run off crying to the greenlands the moment he left the village! Your Rangers have infected him with silly dreams."

"He could grow strong away from here," Ash said to the leathery old woman. "My team and I have."

A pale tongue, more white than pink and dry as the sands themselves, swept out to lick at the matriarch's incisor, which wobbled dangerously beneath the gentle prod.

"Bah! You might be strong, but for what? Your League can't even rule its own lands!" She spat against the sandy stone the village was built upon… or tried to, anyways. There was hardly enough moisture in it to even blot the sand. "We followed the Dragon Master to foreign shores with dreams of glory, and now his successors feel it slipping through their fingers - the folly of great men and little boys!"

Don't scowl, became Ash's mantra. Don't disappoint Steven. "It's better to dream than to hide away in the desert thinking that your suffering puts you over anyone who has it better."

Her sunken cheeks hollowed as her lips pursed, and her eyes narrowed, assessing. There was a distinct canniness to her now, like a Mightyena sniffing out concealed prey… or his mother when she'd held him under interrogation for some mischief or another.

It laid him bare in a different way from before, and he shifted beneath it.

Then the dangerous glint twisted to amusement. The matriarch snorted softly.

"So this soft flower has thorn after all!" Her lined face wrinkled even further with her thin smile. "There's wisdom in the desert, little boy. Lessons oft forgotten in this new, united Hoenn. You won't find them elsewhere, of that much you may be assured. They'll do you good, I think."

"So where should I learn them?" Ash challenged. He was tired of these games. The desert sun wasn't doing much for his patience. "If it's in the direction of this 'shadow' then I'm sure I'll come away a little wiser."

"Hmph!" Caterina grunted. She cast a look at Claydol, who was still eager to keep its distance. "Dispense with that certainty, for one. It rarely serves you well, and makes you sound like an idiot besides. I can't say where you'll find it, but I suppose I can tell you who might."

Ash leaned forward. "I'm listening."

The matriarch turned her back to him, shuffling towards her home. Ash wanted to shout at her, to demand she stay until she'd pointed him on his way, but held his tongue.

She stilled for a moment, and then, apparently satisfied, hummed. "You want to learn the desert? Igigi, show them."

The Claydol flashed a brilliant blue, but Ash never felt the expected psychic tendril make contact. Instead, he took a bit of pleasure in the way the matriarch suddenly wheeled around (Iliara flinched back, probably expecting a tongue lashing) and peered at him with glittering eyes. "What? What do you mean he - ugh, tell me then, doll!"

His mouth flattened. "What is it?"

She waved his question away. "Just the old doll speaking nonsense," Caterina said with disgust. "Spouting about Storm-Tamer this, doomseeker that! Superstitious tripe."

Her nose wrinkled beneath her hood, and she pointed a long, shriveled finger to the east. "Four miles that way. You'll find one of the Piede's elders. Well-informed enough, a prominent set of eyes and ears for the Pack here. It will know where these desert shadows are hiding, and then you can be on your way. Release the bird you arrived on, Igigi will give her precise directions if your own sense of direction falters."

Ash nodded and immediately released Plume. The Pack? He'd have to inquire later, maybe when the matriarch had a few days to forget this whole conversation. "Thank you."

"Best to get it over with," she replied smartly. "You seem like a stubborn one. You might weather the biting sands better than most, but even the tallest rocks can be ground to dust. The faster you're on your way, the faster these specters leave my people in peace, and the faster my niece can stop playing with her hands like a child!"

Iliara squeaked and yanked her hands away from her sleeves, stammering an apology for the older woman. Under a harsher glare, she stepped forward, and bowed her head to Ash, seemingly eager to keep her distance from the prickly old crone's temper. "W-we thank you for your help, Elite Four Ash! Are you properly equipped for the desert?"

He tugged the Go-Goggles from his pack. "Flan - Leader Flannery," Ash corrected himself. "Provided me with these to help with any sandstorms."

"Ha! Those little goggles may help, but are you really going out in those?" Caterina barked, gesturing at his athletic shorts and his t-shirt, both of which were made from a lightweight, breathy fabric. "If so then you are as much a fool as I initially assumed; I don't suppose the desert might be kind enough to spit you back out once it's done chewing you up."

"What the matriarch is trying to say" Iliara shot a dirty, nervous look Caterina's way, not that the old woman gave a lick about it. "Is that there is potential for severe sandstorms over the next few days. It might be best for you to wear more… suitable clothing."

His eyebrows rose. "Like yours?"

"Like ours!" Caterina snapped impatiently. "I don't suppose you carry the price for such things?"

Ash touched his pocket. "Your currency is stardust, right?"

She sighed, aggressively rolling her eyes, and then swept around with her robes catching in the slight breeze that whisked through the village. "'Currency' he says! As though we would use such precious material for such mundane matters… Bah. Very well. Come along, little hunter. Bring what they gave you, flax isn't free in these parts. You're about my grandson's size…"

XX

"We must be close," Ash said to Nidoking as they trod across the sweeping golden dunes of the Hoenn Piede.

Sunlight beat down on them both, but Nidoking bore it with stoic acceptance while Ash was sheltered from its worst effects by the long white robes gifted to him by the desert folk - they were a little long - Caterina only had her grandson's spare clothes because he'd so quickly begun to grow out of them - so he had to take care with every step to avoid his feet getting tangled up, but Ash had to admit it made the desert far more bearable.

Long clothing might have seemed miserable at first glance, but the fabric was soft from use and breezy. Wind easily rushed through to and carried away heat, and without the direct touch of the sun on his skin and hair he found it significantly easier to push along.

He would be hot no matter what, but at least this way he didn't have to worry about sunburn as well. Not even Fire's influence would save him from here.

Nidoking grunted, and Ash smiled over at him. His legs burned as they climbed yet another dune, the loose sand making it a challenge to move as quickly as he normally would, but it wasn't so bad after all the running that Steven had put him through in Forina.

"Think it's going to be there?" Ash pointed forward to a massive outcrop that rose up from the desert. It was made up of several great jagged spires of windworn, russet stone, not unlike the great towers of Forina, and he could make out the faintest traces of movement amidst the rocks.

His friend peered, shrugged, but seemed content to follow along at Ash's side.

They came down to the little valley between the dunes, and Ash looked with no little curiosity at the (relatively) tiny Trapinch hiding in the bowl-like pit. Its orange jaws were just barely visible amidst the yellow sands, and it quickly realized that they weren't prey - the sand shifted, filling in, and soon enough the Trapinch was totally invisible.

"At least it's not trying to ambush us," Ash observed.

Nidoking's nostrils flared at the thought. He glared down at the pit with beady black eyes, snarled, and the sand shifted again as the pokemon dug ever deeper to escape his glare.

Ash snorted, and they gave the Trapinch a wide berth and began to climb the next set of dunes, Nidoking's great tail leaving a distinct trail behind them.

Nothing would have a hard time tracking them, though Ash wasn't worried about that. They weren't hiding from anything - couldn't have if they wanted to - and anything hunting them would run into a nasty surprise… or ten.

They moved across the desert in companionable silence for the most part, although every now and then Nidoking would grumble at half-buried Trapinch or roar out a challenge at the odd Cacnea which passed by carelessly, each of which were often preceded by a wonderfully sweet scent that was incredibly out of place in the arid desert.

Ash made the occasional comment too, of course, especially as they neared the outcropping. It grew larger and larger the closer they got - distance had proven deceptive in such a vast, featureless space. It wasn't much in terms of height, but the rugged stone formed something of a platform in the desert, like an island in the sea of sand, and Ash could make out several shallow hollows and dark tunnels shaped into the spires where several pokemon had made their home.

A golden head poked out of one of the pits - a Sandshrew, and a surprised one at that - and he heard it loose a keening cry. Several other Sandshrew that had been lazing about on the stone or digging through a small pile of berries, shrubs, and tubers in the shade of a stone tower perked up, grabbed their haul, and scurried to safety.

Then - buzz!

Ash winced as the unmistakable sound of a Vibrava's vibrating wings tore through his ears. Normally, they attacked prey with the frequencies they produced, stunning them long enough for the Vibrava to belch stomach acid over them to begin the process of digestion, but from personal experience with Lance's Vibrava he knew it also doubled as a phenomenal warning system.

Anything within several miles would know they were here now. Even Caterina might catch it if her hands weren't stopped up with the sand and grit she loved going on about.

Well, he figured. This must be the place. Ash held his hand to stop Nidoking, then went ahead and released Dazed. She appeared in a flash of light, and her distaste was evident in her expression the moment she took in their surroundings.

Will we tarry here long?

He snorted. "Just until the job's done. Don't worry," he reassured her as she squinted beneath the sun's harsh rays. "I just need you to help make contact with a wild pokemon population, then I'll return you."

Understood, Friend-Trainer. Perhaps this will go better than our most recent attempt at diplomacy.

Ash cracked a smile. "I hope so."

Nidoking grunted softly and inclined his head to the sand ahead of them - it took Ash a moment, but he soon caught sight of a ripple in the fine grains. Seconds passed and the presence grew closer as it wound towards them. He could tell Nidoking was more than ready to unleash a mighty Earthquake or Earth Power to stop it in its tracks if necessary, but Ash didn't give the signal just yet.

It was slow and steady.

Whatever this was, it wanted them to know it was coming.

The tunneling creature came to a stop just a few feet ahead of them. For a moment the earth seemed to quiver, trembling as it was rent and rearranged, and then a pair of distinctive digging claws appeared.

Ash smiled as a truly massive Sandslash dragged itself from the dirt. It was difficult to discern its features when first it emerged and was covered in dirt, but then the creature casually shook off most of the sand to reveal its formidable shape.

Sandslash weren't the largest of pokemon, but this one stooped around four and a half feet in height and had impressive bulk for an inhabitant of such a heat-blasted waste. What it might have lacked in stature it more than made up for in width and muscle.

The Sandslash's creamy belly was mottled with small nicks and cuts, though the most standout bit was the massivecord of knotted scar tissue that ran from its pelvis all the way up to its neck.

If he had to guess, he would guess that it was a relic of some territorial dispute with another Sandslash, although whatever Sandslash did thatmust have been even more massive than this one. Nidoking chuffed as both his and Ash's eyes fell on the old wound, and Ash felt a grudging respect from Nidoking at the sight.

Several of its thick brown quills were missing, though all but one were in various stages of regrowth, and the Sandslash stretched for a moment before finally peering up at them with intelligent blue eyes.

To be honest, Ash was impressed that it had come out to confront them on its own. The Sandslash was undoubtedly powerful, but it was no Eruption, and wild pokemon were seldom so trusting of outsiders, whatever the reputation of the League might mean to them. Though the Piede felt distant and remote, the League still watched over this place.

Ash's eyes and intuition told him that this Sandslash was experienced, tough, and a veteran of countless battles, but at the same time that would only buy it a few moments against Nidoking's might.

So it was either overconfident, or stupid, or it was clever, and Ash was missing something. This Sandslash was mighty by mundane measure, but it couldn't approach a titan like the Eruption.

It didn't look overconfident or stupid, so it hadto have some kind of backup. Ash would wager there were others more subtly hidden beneath their feet - maybe even subtle enough that Nidoking couldn't fully detect them, though he wouldn't need to to do what he would need to to protect Ash if things went poorly.

Dazed's telepathic voice echoed in his mind.

Seven of the Arid Lady's kin wait in the tunnels should conflict prove inevitable. Others beneath its protection watch from the rocks. They fear us.

Ash nodded. As they should. Not them, per se, but it was smart of them to be wary of pokemon as powerful as Nidoking and Dazed. Just one of them would be enough to tear their way through this entire community. At least they had the right attitude if the Rockets ever set their sights here.

"Hello!" Ash smiled as the Sandslash - or the Arid Lady, as Dazed named it - as her keen eyes glanced at him. The Arid Lady lowered her head in greeting and offered a low-pitched rumble, which Nidoking returned. "I'm sorry to disturb you. We mean no harm."

The Arid Lady allowed some of the tension to drain out of her form at that - her quills lowered just a bit, and let her wicked claws drift down to lay against the sands. She was still ready for a fight, no doubt, but at least it seemed peace was the preferable option for all of them.

Speaking of which…

"A gift for your hospitality."

Ash made a show of slowly pulling his pack from his back, then clicked the storage compartment to materialize a brown cloth sack of rich, fleshy berries. The Arid Lady's nose twitched and she eyed the bag greedily.

There was movement from the rocks, and he had no doubt he'd snagged the attention of each and every one of the Lady's brood. He didn't make a move to approach the Sandslash, but gently tossed the bag closer to land in the soft, windswept sand with a dull thunk.

After the experience with the Eruption, Ash figured it would never hurt to have a few bags of berries and other foodstuffs prepped to bribe wild pokemon with. It would be a win-win for all of them, and he was pleased it was coming in handy.

It was incredible how many problems could be solved by filling an empty stomach.

The old Sandslash's nostrils twitched again, but she didn't move to accept the food. Instead, she made some quick motion with her razor-sharp claws - a brandish so quick his eyes could barely track it - and a small squad of four Baltoy spun out of a little den carved into the brown rock around fifty feet away.

They were strangely silent as they spun over the stone to the rock island's edge, then as one they held their arms aloft. Rainbow-hued psychic power erupted from their earthen bodies, and Ash's eyes remained on the Arid Lady as her psychics levitated the woven bag safely away from the meeting without coming too close to Ash, Dazed, and Nidoking.

Dazed's eyes flashed, and the largest Baltoy lingered as its fellows carried the foodstuffs away in their psychic grip - it thrummed, waggled its arms a bit, then rushed off to join them. The group cast a fearful glance backwards to Ash.

The Arid Lady snorted, and all at once the tension drained from the meeting. She didn't visibly relax, but some sixth sense of Ash's could feel her sudden ease. Although the Sandslash didn't invite the party into her domain, she didn't make a show of shooing them away either.

Now she waited, head cocked and eyes glimmering with curiosity.

The Arid Lady accepts your offering. She awaits our inquiry.

He nodded his thanks to Dazed for the confirmation, and felt Nidoking shift next to him as Ash cleared his throat.

"My name is Ash Ketchum. These are my partners, Nidoking and Dazed," he said, trying to remain direct and to the point."We're with the Hoenn League. We're investigating reports of travelers and wild pokemon in the area being attacked."

The wizened Sandslash nodded, eyes closing thoughtfully, and Ash didn't think she seemed particularly surprised. No doubt they'd run afoul of whatever had been behind the attacks.

"Matriarch Caterina pointed us your way," Ash explained, and took a little pleasure in the way the Arid Lady's narrow muzzle scrunched up at the crotchety old woman's name. Well, at least he wasn't alone in his opinion of the woman.

Then he hesitated, thinking back to her mention of shadows stalking the sands. "From what she said… it sounded like ghosts. Have you run into anything like that?"

The Arid Lady sniffed the air, then the rows of thick brown quills along her back rose and fell in a shrugging motion. She grumbled something to Dazed, whose eyes immediately flared blue with psychic energies as she cast forth a tendril of thought to connect to Ash's mind.

Wisps haunt the southern sands - his eyes squeezed shut as foreign images and experiences and concepts flooded his thoughts, rushing through like a river bursting through a shoddy dam. These thoughts weren't attuned to his own like Dazed's were. They lacked the warmth, the familiarity, the traces of his own thought patterns that had left their mark on his friend.

Dazed's shared memories, granted to Ash secondhand and indistinct and wavering relative to their normal fine-tuned communication, were colored by gnawing worry, an unrelenting sense of duty, and the warmth of a mother's love that left his heart aching in his chest.

New-kin found half-dead in the desert, Not woven through their thoughts, bound to pile more of the gold-earth to the Sandbound - wisps flitting about seeking dark thoughts to devour - the family followed by desperate, starving Not-kin lost - parties tunneling, contacting the free and Skybound, Thorn-Stalk and all the others too slow to catch the disruptors.

It cut off abruptly, and he blinked away the foreign thoughts. He was used to such communication now, however, and mastered himself soon enough. Ash took a deep breath, found his center, and dipped his head to the Arid Lady.

"Thank you," Ash rasped, his white robes hanging low with his bow. Though Nidoking refused to offer any sign of submission to the Arid Lady, he was generous enough to send a somewhat grateful grunt her way. She should consider herself lucky. "We'll put a stop to this."

She nodded once, seemingly satisfied, and turned away at that. With their business concluded, the Arid Lady waddled back across the sand to rejoin her kin. They waited for her just out of sight, Ash knew, and he smiled.

It felt nice to help.

Then she stopped, raised her muzzle high to the sky, and let out a fierce, keening cry. Ash frowned, muscles tensing just as Nidoking lowered his long horn, but no ambush came.

No, all that changed was the sudden appearance of a grinning Cacturne from the shade cast by the towering outcropping. Its dour countenance contrasted harshly with its 'smile' but Ash supposed that half of that was probably just the Cacturne - Thorn-Stalk in the Arid Lady's thoughts, Ash recollected as strands memory rushed to the fore - being forced awake during the day.

Cacturne were normally a fiercely nocturnal species. Every little drop of water was precious in this unforgiving land, and the sun was greedy and eager to slurp up every bit of moisture it could scorch away with its incessant rays. For this one to emerge from whatever shaded den it had tucked away in… well, it spoke volumes to the Arid Lady's urgency.

The Piede was stubborn and clung to its age-old order with a grip like iron. Any disruption was to be snuffed out relentlessly, and if Thorn-Stalk hadn't been so lumbering and its greatest advantage of stealth removed against its quarry, then Ash had no doubt he'd never have gotten this report at all.

"I'm Ash. Nidoking. Dazed," Ash listed them off, nodding at his friends. Though Dazed could no doubt dominate Thorn-Stalk with minimal effort, he didn't miss that she still seemed unwilling to let her eyes linger on it for more than a few moments - no doubt it was unsettling to deal with an entity with a shrouded mind and murky thoughts… at least when it wasn't Sneasel, who she'd known from hatching.

Nidoking just huffed, and Thorn-Stalk seemed content to ignore them all. It kept its head angled to the sun to ward off direct sunlight from its face with its 'cap' and paused for a moment to pull up a brief spray of sand that showered it and clung to its green, thorned flesh. Once the protective coating was there, it set off abruptly without waiting to see if they followed.

He shared a glance with his teammates, then prepared to follow. Ash hesitated, casting a look off into the dunes, and glanced Dazed's way. "We'll be walking for a long time without cover."

The Hypno polished her pendulum (which sparkled particularly brilliantly in the harsh rays pounding down on them) as her eyes flashed with an air of put-on sufferance.

I will be of little use with my strength sapped by a long journey.

Ash nodded, having suspected as much, and decided to recall her. Not yet, though.

He shot a look at Thorn-Stalk's sandy back, frowned as the Cacturne continued on without them at a glacial pace, then released Plume with a laugh as she greeted the world with a fierce shriek - and sent Thorn-Stalk lurching forward a little faster. Her plumage was soft and glossy as ever as he stroked her shiny feathers, though she nearly sent him sprawling back into the fine sand when she butted him with a coo.

It would have been nice to spend some time with Torrent or Tangrowth, but neither would fare well in this environment. Torrent would be miserable even with protective wax coating his plated scales, and Tangrowth lacked a Cacturne's adaptations. He'd shrivel up and wilt and be utterly miserable… for Tangrowth, anyways. No doubt he'd still make the rest of his team seem dry and humorless.

Nidoking, Plume, Infernus, Bruiser, and Aron were really Ash's only realistic traveling partners in the Piede. The rest of his team could be released briefly, but were either vulnerable to the environment, struggled to travel long distances, or would quickly be worn down by the heat.

They'd be good for quick bursts of action, but prolonged activity would be a mess.

Thorn-Stalk was still just a few hundred feet away and hadn't bothered to look back once as it plodded south, so Ash felt comfortable enough to spare a bit longer to speak with Plume.

"We'll be crossing the desert on foot."

Plume scanned the horizon and found nothing but sand, sand, and more sand with her superior vision. She tested the fine grains with her talons, shrieked with all the irritation of a deathly insult (or a mild inconvenience, as anyone else would perceive it) as it slid easily through the tight grip of her talons, and spread her wings. At the very least the thermals rising from the sun-baked surface would make it easy to coast on above them.

"I know, I know," he said, rolling his eyes at her rather disgusted look. Nidoking stepped closer, grunted something, and Plume regained some of her normal proud bearing in short order. "We're being led to whatever's causing this mess. Our view will be limited from the ground, though. Can you warn us if you see anything interesting?"

She nodded swiftly, leaned forward to gently nip his hat's bill (Ash hid a wince for his poor cap), then took off in a massive rush of wind and an even larger shower of sand that rained down on Ash and Nidoking both. His friend was mostly unbothered by it, though he did snort to get a few specks out of his nostrils, but Ash just knewhe'd be shaking it out of his clothes for the rest of the day.

Well, at least he could be grateful for the robes, and that they weren't his.

Ash shared a look with Nidoking, then they set off, following Thorn-Stalk's awkward, lumbering gait as it stalked its way across the desert.

We appear to have advanced in our diplomatic abilities.

"Thankfully," Ash snorted as Nidoking chuffed in a way suspiciously similar to a laugh, and then recalled Dazed after a brief goodbye.

He turned to look out on the dunes, drawing in a lungful of hot air.

Something in his stomach tightened as they looked off to the horizon, where the jagged mountains which surrounded the Arid Zone like great, sharp claws. For a moment, Ash felt as if they rested in the open palm of a titan.

Then he set the fanciful thoughts aside and smiled.

"Let's go hunting."

XX

Hours had passed since they'd left the Arid Lady and her little island of stone behind them, and Ash was beginning to understand why the desert folk preferred to hide away during the day.

Learning firsthand pounded that understanding into his head like a dull, hot hammer.

Although a firm, whipping wind constantly rushed between the dunes and sent his robes billowing, the unrelenting sunlight left its mark. While the robes helped, his skin was still red and inflamed as blood flushed the surface and sought to deposit the excess heat in the thin, constantly evaporating layer of sweat gathered there.

Everything was hot. He wished he'd waited now - that he'd listened to Iliara's recommendation to wait for the sun to begin its descent toward the horizon in one of their cool cellars with its cool water and well-ventilated, cool air.

No, he had a job to do. Too restless to wait, he'd waved her off and set out despite her concern and exasperation.

Caterina hadn't said a word.

'Desert's wisdom.' He spat, feeling grit on his tongue, and took a swig of dull, lukewarm water from his canteen, unsure of whether he was more irritated with himself, or her, or the heat, or…

He was just irritated.

Ash counted himself lucky that no sandstorm had come tearing across the desert. The Arid Zone was famous for them, and they could build up to enormous sizes with frightful speed and unpredictability. There were countless tales of travelers crossing through traditionally safe paths and then being buried beneath the shifting sands.

He'd prefer to avoid such a fate, not that his team would let it happen in the first place. Nidoking would dig them a burrow of their own first.

It would have been a thousand times worse if he'd been trekking across the Piede desert in his normal clothes, though, and he found himself grateful to Iliara and (reluctantly) the ornery matriarch for outfitting him properly. They'd taken the worst edge of the desert's bite away, and now the only truly terrible part to deal with was the sand infesting his boots, socks, and clinging to him like a scratchy second skin.

But bearable overall, though impossibly irritating.

It took the better part of the second hour of the trek, but Ash eventually conquered his temper and found himself counting his blessings rather than cursing his misfortunes: the robes protected his skin, and at least his sweat was doing its job for once, and he had enough water (and crackers, for the salt) so that he wouldn't dessicate himself during the journey.

He couldn't quite say it was beautiful.

The harsh sunbeams left him squinting as it bounced off the yellow sands, painting them nearly white as it reflected into his eyes, but overall the Piede was an entirely different sort of experience than the humid forests of Forina.

He found it intriguing, if nothing else.

Ash eventually began to tire though, his strength sapped from the miles and miles spent trekking across the sands. Thorn-Stalk was implacable, never speeding up and never slowing down, and had only cast a glance back at them once or twice. Sour thoughts filled him when he considered the Cacturne hopedto see them lagging behind, frail and weak and unprepared for its native lands, and that had kept him going the last two hours.

By now he was starting to doubt whether that pride was worth the price.

A sigh left his lips as they passed through the trough of two great dunes and climbed the next. When they reached its crest, Ash turned to the west and its setting sun, and as he did so he swore he caught the glimpse of a great tower jutting from the sands like an enormous pillar of shaped sandstone…

When he blinked, it was gone.

Ash blinked again, wondering if it was a trick of the light on his sun-scorched retinas, and when it didn't reappear he shook his head tiredly. Mirage, probably.

It refused to leave his thoughts - not like there was anything else out here to distract him - though eventually he turned them to the mission at hand.

They must have followed Thorn-Stalk for another five or six miles by then, though it was hard to tell with the only measurement of distance being the slow passage of the mountains surrounding the Arid Zone and the painstakingly subtle turn of the glaring sun. The shadows had shifted as mountains blotted out the fading rays and cast the rim of the desert in long, leaning blots of darkness.

That, Ash finally had to admit, was beautiful. Purples, golds, and a light like flame itself painted the Piede's vast expanse. Though it was an arid, lifeless waste, it was still like stepping into a painting, rather than any place he would have imagined seeing with his own eyes.

Cacnea quickly became a more common sight, finally stirring to hunt and seek out whatever water they could under the cover of dusk, though they always kept a safe distance between themselves and the party crossing the sands.

Thorn-Stalk, seemingly pleased in its own, strange way by the setting of the sun, was kind - or pragmatic - enough to guide them around the vast stretches of desert filled with countless Trapinch pits - not that Ash thought them any threat, not with Nidoking plodding along resolutely beside him, but he'd rather not disturb the little ambush predators.

That wasn't to say they didn't attract attention. They were an anomaly in a largely unchanging, cyclical world, and as such they were interesting.

Thorn-Stalk, of course, wasn't much of a concern for most desert inhabitants - Cacturne were dangerous, eager to take any meal they could and absorb as much fluid as they could from their unlucky targets, but most desert natives were too canny to fall for their slow, steady tricks.

No, they tended to follow after unlucky pokemon or travelers that had strayed into the desert and found themselves wildly out of their element… well, at least before the League set up watering stations throughout the desert to provide for the needs of the scant wild pokemon that lived here.

Pokemon with their needs provided for tended to be much, much less dangerous. There was a reason so much of the League's resources went towards maintaining good relationships with the wild pokemon populations. Full bellies meant few pokemon desperate or cruel enough to go after humans - and those that did it for sport tended to be regarded as unstable and dangerous by wild pokemon as well, who normally took care of that problem amongst themselves.

The world could be cruel, but the symbiosis between humanity and pokemon had softened its sharpest edges.

But, by contrast, Ash and Nidoking were in the opposite situation. Humans perhaps weren't so strange a sight, but Ash would guess that Nidoking might well have been the first of his kind to cross these sands, especially so far from their edge. To a wild pokemon, that usually meant an easy target, or a terrible threat.

He smiled. It was the latter, if they tried anything. But he could feel dozens of eyes on them regardless, watching, waiting. Some perhaps wondering who would be the first to try their luck, and whether they would be able to capitalize if it went poorly.

The shadows lengthened further as twilight hour began.

Ash panted as they climbed a particularly steep dune, taking care not to step too firmly and slip on the fine grains, and glanced to the sky. Plume had come down to check in with them a few times over the last few hours, but for the most part seemed content to fly overhead.

She'd outright vanished from his vision several times before, which Ash suspected to be boredom at the agonizingly slow pace set by Thorn-Stalk. Plume could have circled the entire region in the time they'd been walking.

"Think we'll find anything soon?" Ash asked raspily, looking at Nidoking. Most of their time had been spent walking in content, comfortable silence, though every now and then Ash had shared a little comment on their surroundings or tossed training ideas for Nidoking to mull over and offer feedback on.

His friend chuffed as he raised one claw and pointed to the shadows off in the distance. A tiny bit of unnatural grey power flickered atop the blunt tips, hurting Ash's eyes to stare at for long and stirring a faint stomach-turning nausea this close, and understanding flickered.

"They're more likely to come out during the night," Ash agreed. He frowned as he tossed what information they'd managed to amass from the report, the villagers, and the Arid Lady around in his head.

"Everything points to a surge of ghosts," he said, trusting the Arid Lady's memories, particularly once he compared them to his own experiences with Lavender Town. "Shadows in the desert. Not. Most ghosts won't hunt during the day. Easier to build fear and feed when everything's already jumpy."

Nidoking grunted and set his shoulders forward. Ash laughed. "Not that you're jumpy. In fact…" Ash trailed off with a frown. "You'll probably scare them off."

The hulking poison-type nodded as if that made perfect sense. Well, nobody had ever accused Nidoking of modesty.

Well,Plume. Probably. But then, who wasn't modest by her standards?

With that said, they continued following Thorn-Stalk.

It had sped up a bit, emboldened by the sun's descent as the mountains began to blot it out, and pushed onward with far more pep in its step. They shared few words as the red and gold finally began to leech from the land entirely, the remaining light dimming to deep purples and finally a cool blue illuminated by the twinkling stars and crescent moon wheeling overhead.

Wind and shadow left the desert growing cooler and cooler, a welcome reprieve from the daytime. Without water to soak up and trap heat, the desert could flit between hot and cold in mere hours. It didn't bother Ash whatsoever - he could deal with the cold, especially cold of this sort. The desert's chill nipped at him, but it would never freeze his core like the true bite of winter.

No, he was mostly eager for it because it opened up a few new options.

All the while Nidoking and Ash moved in tune with one another, their bond honed by their long friendship. Ash frowned as he tried to think of ways to bait the specters in. They fed off strong emotion, of course, but it was… difficult to try and create that in himself. He'd prefer to set himself as bait - the only other options were Aron or Tangrowth, who might pour off enough positive emotion to attract them, but that was obviously unacceptable.

He would neverput his friends through that, and especially not the most innocent among them.

Instead, he decided to do things the old-fashioned way. Plume was still high in the sky, though he fully expected her to come down to earth soon. She had excellent vision, but it faded quickly in the darkness. The desert was quickly becoming an inky pit lit only by the scant silver light of the crescent moon and stars, and he doubted she'd care to navigate under the cover of night.

While he waited, Ash went ahead and released the two members of his team most fit for their task.

Sneasel appeared with a yowl, the sudden noise sounding far throughout the desert. Thorn-Stalk twitched, sent them a dirty look, but hurried away faster than before when Sneasel snarled its way with his hooked claws unsheathed. That Sneasel blew a little puff of frosty air told Ash it was still a little too warm for his thick fur, but at least it was bearable.

An hour or two ago it certainly wouldn't have been.

Next came Dazed. She blinked for a moment at her sudden appearance in the dark, but adjusted quickly enough.

"We're farther south now," Ash explained at his friends' questioning looks. He pointed to Thorn-Stalk, who finally came to a stop just ahead and turned back to face them with its rictus grin. "The ghosts should be in the area now," he said as he quickly pulled out his PokeNav and showed them that they'd crossed into the southern section of the desert. "Plume hasn't seen anything yet, but this is when they're most likely to appear."

Ghosts fed on the Aura of the material world, inanimate and animate alike. It only made sense for them to become more active at dusk here, waking alongside their prey.

He looked down at Sneasel, whose eyes were alight with a predatory gleam. The little dark-type's claws reflexively sheathed and unsheathed, shifting rhythmically in his velvet paws. Dark-types were some of the few pokemon willing and able to hunt ghosts on their own turf - the Distortion pulsing through their veins offered a defense against the alien entities, and consuming a ghost would expand their own strength and abilities however slightly.

"You'll be our main hunter," Ash said quietly, though he snorted at the utter delight shining on Sneasel's eager face. "Scout the sands. Be quiet. Stay unseen. Don't attack first," Ash warned, though it left his friend pouting and deflated. "Remember, we want to make contact with them if possible. Just be ready. If it does turn into a fight… don't let them escape. Keep them pinned down."

Sneasel growled in agreement, stretched his neck out so that Ash could scratch at his itchy feather for a moment, then loped off into the shaded dunes at breathtaking speed for something not adapted for racing on unstable sand. Ash watched him go with a small smile, then turned to Dazed.

I do not need my abilities to know the Brat's thoughts.

"He doesseem pretty happy," Ash agreed as he shared a look with Nidoking. The poison-type's nostrils opened to suck in air, and something in Nidoking's stance shifted. He leaned closer as his friend's large ears twitched. "Do you have something?"

Nidoking's right ear twitched again as he scanned the darkness, then huffed and relaxed as they began to catch up to Thorn-Stalk, who regarded Dazed warily.

A passing stimulus. There are many unfamiliar things in these lands.

Ash nodded along. "And it falls to us to find the most unfamiliar of them all."

Dazed's eyes flashed.

So long as we do it together.

His lips twitched even as Nidoking stepped a little closer to them both, his bulk filling the space. "Of course," he said, then focused again on the task at hand. "Dazed, what's the range you can sense disturbances?"

Dazed's well-ordered thoughts connected with his as she made the telepathic connection. Information trickled in at a manageable rate, far easier for Ash to integrate than the secondhand sensations from the Arid Lady earlier in the day. He felt the incredible precision of her psychic awareness stretching out for around five hundred feet - it was difficult for his brain to process all of it at once, but he still marveled at the utter efficiency of it.

Nine Trapinch buried deep, all scattered in different directions - a lonely Baltoy skulking at the edge of their perception, doing its best to hide from Sneasel as he stalked the dunes - three Sandshrew curled up in a little den, scared senseless by the vibrations and the little peek they'd gotten at Thorn-Stalk.

Then the sensations faded away, and Ash had only his mundane vision to rely on again. He blinked at the loss, then smiled at Dazed. "Thank you. You'll be able to pick out any ghosts without much trouble?"

She polished her pendulum in the brilliant white fur of her mane.

Yes. I will discern the gaps.

Ash accepted her words without comment. She knew her limitations, and between Sneasel, Lavender Town, and their time with Karen she had had plenty of time to master the skill. It was an invaluable one; the 'shadows' cast in reality by Distortion-based entities visible to the psychic sense in its own right.

With that, they moved on for another few minutes. Thorn-Stalk seemed more willing to remain close now, perhaps wary of ambush down here in the southern reaches now that the sun had sunk behind the mountains.

The 'shadows' had become more daring as of late, the report had said, though Ash wasn't sure if they were attacking in groups or individually. If the Arid Lady had known, it wasn't information she'd deemed necessary to impart.

Not that Ash was worried about being attacked. No.

He was more worried that their group would be too intimidating for a lone ghost. It would be best if they massed in groups, honestly. That would make his job easier.

Thorn-Stalk strode with more urgency. Its stubby left arm raised to the sky, brimming with flickers of unearthly Distortion - just the sight sent shivers down his spine, though it was more from the memories of Lavender it summoned than any power of Thorn-Stalk.

He watched with some curiosity as Thorn-Stalk came to a stop, surged some more Distortion through its arm, then adjusted their course. Those minute changes became less and less frequent as time went on, and Thorn-Stalk grew ever more confident. After a few more corrections, it managed to steer them onto the correct path for good.

Ash watched, fascinated as Thorn-Stalk navigated them.

Was it using the Distortion to somehow detect other sources, like some sort of tuning fork? Perhaps there was some resonance or interference that could be detected by a skilled user. Many electric-types could navigate by electric fields and detect other living things through them, though most could only do so through extensive training - he wouldn't be surprised if there was some analogous technique used by ghosts and dark-types.

Still, that raised all sorts of questions.

Could Sneasel do it? Ash thought so. They might just have to train based off of using Dazed or Nidoking to use Shadow Ball or Shadow Claw to give him something to hone his senses on. That alone offered countless uses in battle, especially against dark-type specialists like Karen or Sidney, or even ghost specialists.

Just being able to pinpoint a ghost or dark-type pokemon would be invaluable in battle - all it took was remembering the frustration of facing Karen's team in the utter blackness of that cavern to know that. But if he could train Sneasel to become more sensitive, he may even be able to train him to track Distortion-based attacks. And if Nidoking could learn to sense them as well...

A hunger, always awake inside him, flickered like a light with new fuel as new ideas raced through his head, and Ash felt his lips twitch into a slight smile. If he could make that technique alone usable then this trek would be worth it a thousand times over.

Still, those thoughts reminded Ash again that he was on a mission. And if the way Thorn-Stalk was speeding up said anything...

He surreptitiously took three of the pokeballs given to him by Flannery and Fino and clipped it onto his belt. Best to have them ready. You never knew when -

Nidoking froze. Naturally, Ash did as well. If there was one member of his team he'd trust to sniff out danger, it was him.

He felt his senses all stiffen involuntarily - instincts drilled into humans by countless centuries and millennia dedicated to surviving in a hostile world awakening like he'd been doused in ice-cold water. He called on Lightning, too, to heighten them further, only to realize it was nearly as difficult to summon it in the Piede as it was in Forina, and waited carefully.

Not a word spilled from his lips, and he moved not a muscle. Ash just skimmed the horizon, his eyes briefly the only part of him in motion, and then looked questioningly to Nidoking and Dazed - Thorn-Stalk had come to a stop as well just a few feet ahead of them, its lean green body tense and eager for combat.

A shadow lies ahead.

His heart pounded in his chest and a smile caught his face - it was different this way, hunting a pokemon, rather than simply encountering one. He hadn't felt this way, not properly, since they first tracked Mamoru. Anticipation mounted, and it was all he could do to reign in the excitement and keep his feet planted firmly where they were. One of his hands drifted down to a red-and-white pokeball and rested there.

"Where?" Ash whispered, twitching slightly as a sudden rush of telepathic information slipped into his thoughts.

Around four hundred feet to the southeast, quite close to the edge of the upraised badlands that marked the border between the desert proper and the foothills leading to the mountains circling the Piede. It was barely perceptible even to Dazed's keen senses, but a little psychic nudge from her tipped him off.

It was a faint thing, just a ragged little hole in Dazed's perception - a tiny gap in reality, as if the universe forgot to fill in a missing patch.

A young ghost, most likely. Older ghosts would have a keener sense of their own influence, particularly when a Sneasel's keening hunting cry sounded. This one flickered, gnawing at the heaping dunes which radiated the suffocating whisper of Earth with its unnatural essence.

He couldn't tell what it was, not at this range and with only the vaguest allowances granted by Dazed's psychic abilities. It was no fault of her own, but a limit of psychic abilities themselves.

The alien power embodied by ghosts and wielded by dark-types as their sword and shield escaped psychic power utterly; trying to view it with her abilities was like trying to spy the moon on a moonless night - you might know something should be there, and perhaps might even be able to make out the slightest hints of a familiar form, but everything beyond that escaped them.

It wasn't as though he had more than a handful of personal experiences with ghosts to begin with; only those distant, from the other end of the battlefield, or hunched over the screen of his PokeNav. They remained a frustrating gap in his foundation, and one he hoped to mend with this task.

And that was just fine with him. His curiosity was already piqued, and he felt a thrill race through him.

What would they discover?

Ash motioned to his friends (and Thorn-Stalk) and began their slow creep. He wished now more than ever that it was possible for Dazed to telepathically reach Sneasel, but there was nothing to do for it now. Long, piercing cries that would have made Plume proud - and did, judging from the matching shriek from high above - sounded, bouncing off the dunes and sending the Trapinch scurrying for cover.

They were slow and steady. Ash controlled their gait, ensuring the change to a new angle wouldn't be abrupt. Their little crew was close enough that the ghost had to know they were in the area.

Sneasel hadn't opted for subtlety this time around, Nidoking's weight dragging along the sand was probably noticeable to anything nearby, and Plume was a massive, screaming avian skimming just below the night clouds and announcing her presence to anyone with ears… and considering the native Baltoy, even those who didn't.

…And it could probably taste his eagerness.

He might have to adjust their approach when they found the others.

Soon enough the badlands came up. Their steep, uneven orange slopes and the eroded landscape didn't make them particularly appealing for settlement or agriculture, so he doubted many humans had ever bothered setting anything more than a temporary camp or outpost here. They had their name for a reason.

A great wall of dunes rested between him and the border (and beyond them, the mountains), although it evened out over a massive, flat expanse to make way for the loose soil of the rougher terrain beyond. Two particularly massive dunes caught his eye - they were large enough to appear unnatural, and his eyes narrowed as he took in the placement.

There was no reason for them to be so enormous. He judged them both nearly thirty feet high, piled ten feet higher than any other nearby dunes and covering the area of three or more. They were placed so that there was a narrow valley between them, forming something of a funnel, and in it -

Ah.

Ash smiled fiercely..

Within that little funnel was a hoard.

It was an outright treasure trove, in fact, full of countless little stone carved tools, withered husks of berries that would still hold value in the desert, nearly a dozen silken, navy-toned bags containing a fine red stardust, and a small assortment of medicines, all piled together. Familiar with their use, he easily picked out the Revives, Potions, and even a Full Heal and what looked like a few of the native, medicinal herbs he'd seen drying on a rack in Caterina's home.

A few bags woven by the skilled hands of the desert folk from flax and the discarded fibers of Cacnea and Cacturne laid starkly against the pale sands near the exposed hoard, the vibrant green almost shocking in this inhospitable place. He assumed most of the goods had spilled from those bags, though Ash would have to be a fool to assume they'd appeared here naturally.

Amidst the tools lay one that caught Ash's attention in particular: a simple stone trowel half-embedded in the sand. It looked older than the other tools, and something left Ash's stomach turning as he analyzed it.

The grey tool looked ready to crumble from long exposure to the unforgiving environment around them, yet stood proudly upright from where it stabbed the earth.

He stepped forward.

Something tickled his consciousness, a tickling urge to go grasp it. Wasn't it a nice tool? Old, but useful. Surely he could find some opportunity to use it. At worst, he might take it back to the village and question them about it. Could it be a historical relic, long lost amidst the sands after it was cast carelessly aside? It did seem special…

His thoughts grew more and more fascinated with the deceptively plain trowel, his curiosity building to bizarre heights as he imagined grasping it in his hand and pulling it free of its -

Ash blinked. What was he thinking?

The simple realization that this wasn't right was enough to snap him out of his stupor, and he easily chased off whatever spell had been cast over him. It had only entrapped his surface thoughts. Perhaps someone less experienced with mental influence might have fallen for it. Sadly, Ash couldn't claim that for himself…

Three heartbeats. Faster than expected, Friend-Trainer.

"That wasn't you. Not fast enough," Ash growled, irritation bubbling inside. His fists balled as he analyzed the hoard and the conspicuously inconspicuous trowel, which seemed to do its best to avoid him now. When he tried to glare at the artifact, he found a compulsion laid on him to look away, look away, look anywhere but here…

Ash stared straight at it out of spite as much as any concerns about its danger.

Her pendulum fluttered and shone blue. Nidoking, having not moved a muscle, watched Ash and Dazed for a moment, confused, and then glared daggers at the trowel - for a moment his vision dulled, purpose and sense lost in the tool's insidious whispering, then it sharpened anew.

"Stop!" Ash whispered fiercely, raising a hand to hold Nidoking back even as the beginnings of a Shadow Ball manifested ahead of his snarling visage. His eyes never left the trowel, which twitched where it rested. "Stay here and cover me. I'm going to check it out."

Nidoking rumbled and tossed his head, obviously unhappy with the plan, but Ash smiled and laid a hand on his friend's leathery grey chest. "You're here. I'm in no danger."

Flattery didn't do much to sway Nidoking, but Ash met his eyes and impressed his thoughts, his plan, his anticipation - all of it strained against the bounds of his own spirit. It was through the physical contact, though; through their ironclad bond and long experience, that he found a moment of clarity.

At that moment, the distance between them was bridged.

It was just the one moment, but that was all that was needed. Nidoking grumbled a bit, still unwilling to let Ash get close, but conceded. He still kept his eyes locked on the trowel, though, and Ash knew he would spring forth at a moment's notice.

Not that it was ever in doubt.

"The ghost has to be connected to it," Ash told Dazed, though spoke aloud for Thorn-Stalk's benefit. The aloof Cacturne waited at their side silent as ever, but seemed to nod slightly with Ash's assessment. At least the Arid Lady's ghost hunter didn't totally disapprove. "It's baiting passersby in with the supplies, then snaring them to feed on their Aura. I'm going to attempt contact."

Understood. We are ready.

Ash nodded and stepped forward. Thorn-Stalk kept its distance and began to circle around to the other side, though not at an angle that Dazed or Nidoking's attacks might put it at risk. It was canny in that way.

Sneasel's hunting cries sounded closer now, and a rush of wind came from overhead.

His lips twitched. They had all found him.

Still, he focused entirely on the trowel. It tried harder and harder to throw him off with gentle nudges of confusion and fumbling, inexperienced mental prods. Ash's mind was tempered by contact with entities far greater than this ghost could imagine however, and now that he was wise to its tricks they didn't slow him for a second.

It was like when Molly innocently tried to deceive him, or Spencer, or even his mother, in those quiet, fleeting moments they'd had together at Greenfield, or over voice calls; all wide, guileless eyes and blunt misdirection.

Easy enough to navigate when you knew what to do, and that it was there.

Ash carefully stepped over the green, Cacnea-fiber bags and picked his way across the little hoard. Some of it might be useful for the village, and he thought it would only be right that he returned it to them. He would make sure to gather it all up before he left.

This ghost had probably stolen it from one of their people anyways.

At last, the trowel rested before him, twitching and trembling as though whatever it was connected to desperately wanted to flee, but Ash wouldn't give it another second to contemplate a plan. He knelt before it, reached out, and firmly grasped it in his hand -

Hunger!

His breath hitched as an otherworldly, alien power flooded into him. It poured up through his fingers, his palm, his wrist, gnawing and greedy as a thousand little spectral fangs leeched away at everything he was from the inside out, ready to spiritually flay him to sate its starvation until he was exhausted and hardly able to crawl away under his own power -

Ash sucked in a breath and steeled himself.

The Concepts were in reach, though still muted by the old whisper of Earth that permeated the Piede, and a touch of Fire sent the little tendrils racing away back to whence they came - the way they retreated the moment he offered an inkling of resistance confirmed his suspicions of this ghost's youth.

Any old, experienced predator would have adapted. It would have retreated, then lashed out like a cornered Ekans. This one's feeding tendrils simply recoiled away from the pain and searing Fire, unused to any pushback and incapable of striking again.

Soon enough it had faded away, and he peered unflinchingly down at the little tool.

"Come out," he commanded sternly, and took a step back to give the creature some space.

It waited a long moment, and might have waited longer, but Nidoking stamped his foot and sent a wave of force rippling through the loose sands - it wasn't enough to cause harm, it was merely a warning, but it certainly spoke to his friend's impatience.

The sand rippled.

From the white-gold sand lurched an unsteady creature mostly unfamiliar to Ash. It trembled as it rose, pushing the little mound of supplies away while it rose up as a wave of animate, golden granules.

He smiled down at it in an attempt to put it at ease, though that was difficult when Nidoking was glaring daggers at the thing and Thorn-Stalk's eyes glimmered with a terrible hunger.

It took the form of a living mound of sand, nearly indistinguishable from the vast dunes it had piled up around them. Though its shape was simple, it had a few notable features: pale pebbles for 'eyes', a gaping hole in its center that appeared to act as a mouth, and the ancient stone trowel embedded in its head.

Sandygast. Vast sums of information filled his mind as he made the connection, his long nights spent studying the PokeDex and any other scraps of data he could find now put to good use. Dazed, who had often sat with him on those nights as well, recalled her own memories and added them to his.

Rare. Commonly found on Alolan beaches where the species originates. Odd specimens may be found where unbound ghosts use sand as their corporeal foundation, although they are not of the same lineage as the Sandygast propagated in Alola. A phenomenon similar to convergent evolution, or at least whatever you might call the ghostly equivalent. Professor Oak wanted to study them, of course.

Ash smiled, and though it didn't really come naturally to him, it was kind.

"We don't want to hurt you," he said as he knelt before it, making himself as small as he could manage, and met its 'eyes'. He wondered, could it even see? Or did it just sense things through vibrations or whatever perception its ghostly powers offered?

Regardless, he put extra effort into appearing as non threatening as possible, his hands held open, palm up on his knees. It was strange to consider, but he could tell the creature would have bolted if it could. Its fear bled off of it in rolling waves. "I'm Ash. This is Nidoking, that's Dazed, and then you have Thorn-Stalk."

The ghost discreetly shifted over the sand to block Thorn-Stalk's leering face.

Thorn-Stalk poked its head around Ash's side to stare down at Sandygast again, though it backed off at the dirty look Ash sent its way. It wasn't helping.

He turned back to the specter. "You're young, aren't you?"

Its sandy body seemed to ripple beneath his gaze. It was difficult to describe, but the dancing grains nearly shimmered beneath the moonlight, like a trick of light under water. The Sandygast's edges still grasped and crawled away, obviously eager to flee if it had the chance, but at least it wasn't terrified enough to be forced into a desperate fight it had no chance of winning.

He hesitated. How to convince it?

"Do you know what the League is?"

Sandygast groaned, a low, whistling noise that came out like the crash of waves. The little trowel on its head twitched, waving in a motion Ash took to mean 'no'.

Ash nodded. "That's okay. People like me help pokemon like you. We can keep you safe. Keep you fed. Take you away from the hunters, and give you a home."

The ghost went so still he could almost swear it really was sand.

His voice was still low and quiet amidst the eerie silence of the desert. Only his words, the shifting of sand beneath him as he adjusted his weight, and the steady breaths of his companions broke it. Then the shriek of Plume and Sneasel's gleeful hunting cries sounded, and he really hoped he resolved this before they arrived.

Well, Sneasel more so than Plume. He'd probably leap into Sandygast's funnel in a blur of black fur, flashing claws, and savage hisses and scare the life out of the ghost.

Really, with its trove of shiny things, and it being a ghost, there really was no better draw for something like Sneasel.

Best to avoid that.

Ash extended his hand. He wasn't sure if Sandygast could see it, but he did his best to focus on what he knew Sandygast could feel. His pounding heart stilled as he focused on warmth, and safety, and security, and stability, and family - everything the League was, and could be.

He brought all those feelings to the fore, and hoped Sandygast could taste them.

This can be yours too, he tried to say.

His eyes drifted down to the yawning mouth in the sand-spirit's center, then flicked upwards to the trowel. Indecision, hesitance, this was probably a bad idea - then he cast a look back at Dazed and Nidoking, smiled, and grasped the tool again. His fingers wrapped around it, the writhing, chaotic flux of the Distortion which animated Sandygast trembling beneath his touch, but there was no feeding now.

It froze beneath his touch, probably unused to anything touching it without hostile intentions, but Ash whispered, "It's okay. Feel."

Then a trickle of its power touched him. It didn't gnaw and slurp away at his essence like before, nor did it try to sway his thoughts. Perhaps it had recognized the futility, or perhaps it had calmed enough to avoid lashing out.

No matter what the reasoning, it was gentle now. Gentle as a veritably newborn ghost could be, at any rate. It wasn't comfortable, but it didn't hurt. All it left him with was the faintest emptiness, the slightest sensation of being pulled taut, and at the end when Sandygast had sipped his thoughts and feelings as best it could, he was left with a trace of fatigue.

After a long day trekking over dunes and sweating beneath the sun's glare, that trace of fatigue felt like an Onix coiling around his shoulders.

He pulled his hand away and surreptitiously shook it out behind his back, hoping the unnatural chill would soon pass. "Will you come with us? The League can help you - will help you," Ash promised.

A moment passed.

And then, despite Sandygast's fear, and the harsh days it had spent out here in the Piede - or perhaps because of them - it hesitated, but then stretched a thick tendril of sand up to touch Ash's hand. It was neither warm like the desert's day nor cold as the night, but something fluctuating and alien, as if Sandygast's own body couldn't decide what rules it wanted to follow.

"You're making the right choice," Ash whispered.

The desert was still all around, and even Sneasel had gone quiet. His fingers grasped for one of the pokeballs he'd prepared earlier, then displayed it to Sandygast. A bit of animated sand brushed over it, taking in the smooth surface. Its shape shifted with something like fascination, and he had to pry it away. "I'm going to touch this to you, and it's going to put you inside. It'll be like falling asleep," - did Sandygast sleep? - "When you wake up, you'll be home."

There was still fear. Still uncertainty.

But Sandygast had decided. No matter where it woke up, it would be better than this life spent skulking in the desert and preying on whatever unlucky creature happened to pass by. Better than hiding away from the wandering Cacturne with their rictus grins and hunger for the power anchored in its sands.

Did the sands the young spirit had bound itself to remember the men, women, and pokemon who had trod over it? Did Sandygast remember the struggles the owner of that trowel had faced, however many decades or centuries ago they'd lived?

He didn't know, and neither did Sandygast. But regardless, Sandygast knew it wanted better.

And it fell to Ash to open that door.

He smiled, primed the pokeball, and tapped it to Sandygast's trowel. A brilliant white flash lit the desert, illuminating the sandy funnel and the strewn supplies and his friends, and Sandygast found itself sucked into the pokeball.

The pokeball snapped shut. It shook violently, only once, and then fell still and clicked.

Ash rose to his feet, brushed off the sand from crouching so close to the ground, and clipped the ball to his belt. It felt strange there, but Ash accepted its presence for now - he'd promised Sandygast a better future, after all. It wouldn't do to leave it all alone in his pack.

Ash thought Sandygast deserved a break from loneliness. He hesitated, then shifted it to fit between Tangrowth's and Aron's pokeballs. Purely symbolic, of course, but he thought Sandygast might appreciate it.

Symbolism meant quite a bit to creatures that straddled the physical and immaterial.

"One down," Ash breathed, appreciating the crisp night air, and the sense of satisfaction.

Nidoking rumbled as he plodded over to stand next to Ash. He eyed the new addition mistrustfully, though he didn't voice his displeasure beyond that. Thorn-Stalk just looked vaguely disappointed it hadn't come to violence.

Ash would have to keep an eye on him.

His eyes drifted to the scattered pile of dried berries, silky purses stuffed full with stardust, and the other supplies that Sandygast had gathered in its short life. No point in letting those go to waste. Just as he fell to his knees to start gathering them (helped by Dazed's psychic powers lifting up the Cacnea-fiber bags and Nidoking brushing a bunch of goods closer with his tail) Sneasel poked his head up over the dune's lip.

Sneasel hissed something, then pointed his claw to the west. It wasn't possible to fully translate, but anyone could've figured out his meaning.

It only took another minute to finish gathering their bounty - Ash hoped the desert folk would appreciate this - before Ash and the rest of the group were ready to follow Sneasel towards their next target.

Ash could only hope it was as easy to catch as Sandygast had been…

XX

News flash: They weren't.

Five captures. Five captures in one long, miserable night.

It turned out Sandygast was the most agreeable of them all. On the one hand, he appreciated the living sand even more after all the trouble the rest had put him through. On the other, the Misdreavus he'd spent the last hour hunting had been playful and insufferable enough to constantly skirt their group. Even Sneasel had been outmaneuvered by the crafty little thing, and it had run circles around Thorn-Stalk's Distortional navigation.

Misdreavus had fallen at last when it had grown a little too cocky - under the cover of darkness it was nearly invisible, and had lurked in a small dune they'd passed. When it leapt out to frighten them with a little giggle, Sneasel had snarled and chased it right into Dazed's (weak) Shadow Ball.

The ghost had just been trying to play - and feed, of course - but Ash's patience was fully spent. Misdreavus had been customarily captured with another pokeball, then clipped onto his very, very full belt.

What was that about a ghost-shaped hole?

Still, at least Misdreavus hadn't tried to attack them. Not seriously, anyways. Shrieks and trying to brush the back of their necks with the flowing 'hair' rippling out from its ethereal head didn't count.

Two Shuppet had paired as their second targets, and those had been nasty little things. Sneasel had done a good job of corralling them and preventing them from going too far - of them all, he was the only one they'd shown any fear of. When they tried to outright flee, Sneasel and Plume had barred all exits and trapped them within a particular field of dunes near the desert's center.

Capturing those two had a migraine-inducing affair thanks to their shared ability to use Shadow Sneak. One would toss off a Will-O-Wisp or Nightshade or Hex - anything to harass the party - while the other would dip through reality to appear elsewhere, provide cover for its partner, and then start the whole process again.

A quick, toned down Mind Breaker had been enough to knock them both unconscious, and Ash had captured their flickering forms without a hint of regret.

The desert had once again stolen most of his good mood, and these specimens hadn't made it up to him by at least gifting him new insights.

As for their penultimate capture… well, that had been an easygoing Gastly. Ash wasn't sure where the newborn specter had found a little pocket of toxic gas to take as its corporeal body, but he wouldn't complain. It had put up a token resistance, but that seemed more out of pride than anything else.

Once Nidoking roared, the Gastly became rather docile.

They'd made camp now, Ash finally surrendering to the complaints of his body, tucked away in a concealed portion of the dunes that would shelter them from wandering pokemon during the night. Nidoking and Dazed had remained outside their balls the entire time, but Plume he'd recalled a few hours before. She'd need her rest.

For now, he only had Nidoking, Dazed, Bruiser, Aron, and Seeker released. Dazed and Seeker made for excellent sentries. Nidoking and Bruiser? Muscle. Aron?

Well, Ash just thought he'd like to stretch his stubby little legs a little bit.

They didn't bother with a fire. Cool as the desert had become - and as the entered the deepest part of the night it was truly becoming cold - it was still warm enough to be comfortable against what little exposed skin he had.

Ash's real concern was his futile battle to keep sand from infiltrating every nook and crevice in his bag, and his clothes, and just about anything else he owned…

For now, he sat atop a towel, though more and more grainy sand snuck into the folds every time he shifted. He'd offered towels to the rest of his team as well, but only Seeker had taken it. Nidoking, Aron, and Bruiser didn't seem too concerned with the grating substance, while Dazed wouldn't need to sleep in the mess.

He occupied his thoughts by staring at his PokeNav as he attempted to come up with their plans for the next day. He'd rather spend as little time in the desert as possible, and today had been… disorganized. Things had turned out well enough, but Ash could do better.

Ghosts tended to be more active at night, and he was rather tired from the extended day already, so sleeping through the next day was probably the best option. He wanted to press forward as quickly as possible though, and Plume was much better equipped to help them during the day when the light was greatest.

The discomfort on his part would probably be worth it twice over if she could spy out unusual happenings or if they needed to move swiftly.

Still, after the long day (and night) he'd had there was no way to keep his thoughts from straying. Lost sleep could always be made up.

'Your team has a ghost-shaped hole in it.'

Agatha's words way back in Goldenrod returned, this time with less sarcasm. He rubbed Aron's shiny metal head with one hand while the other drifted over to tap the new pokeballs neatly organized on his belt. Each twitched lightly, though Sandygast's was the most responsive.

He smiled.

Ash had reservations in adding a new member to the team, at least one like the ghosts he'd encountered tonight. Sandygast could be interesting - very interesting - and both Gastly and Misdreavus had their own advantages. Gastly had accepted its defeat well, but Misdreavus had been crafty. It was cunning, eager to play and run circles around them, and skilled for what must have been a young ghost.

It had a natural affinity for the sorts of techniques that would give the greatest advantages for what Ash preferred in a battle, and Ash had seen the fascinating, unnatural powers of a Mismagius in Ecruteak. Morty's had been a devastating opponent with its crooned spells and ethereal murmurs, and it would be a very, very nice addition.

Mismagius were powerful ghosts in their own right. He could count several renowned ghost-type specialists who favored them off the top of his head… and if they were good enough for Agatha, they were good enough for anyone. But their raw power wasn't what truly entranced him.

That was their ability to warp reality and strike past physical defenses. Even now, the thought of Mismagius' whispered chants summoned the memory of a splitting headache, and Infernus howling with his power overthrown. They could be powerful allies, and one would serve well on his team.

His team was growing more well-rounded by the day, but they were still limited in their reliance on physical attacks. Something with proper defenses - or disgusting skill like Metagross - could weather any amount of physical blows, elemental storms, and psychic strikes.

They needed something that could strike through those defenses. A new friend who could penetrate past the physical, shred psychic defenses like a hot knife through butter, and open those new avenues to him. A 'knife in the dark', as Fino had so aptly put it.

Sneasel was growing and adapting in leaps and bounds. Mind Breaker alone was a massive advantage in that department, and a fantastic step in the right direction, but he needed more. If he was measuring himself against Steven's ilk… well, even Sneasel wouldn't be enough to hamstring Metagross.

Metagross' physical and psychic might, incredible analytical ability, and bond with Steven gave it a very, very reasonable claim to being the strongest trained pokemon in the world. Even Dragonite or Princess couldn't match it one-on-one. It was a titan.

That was what he measured himself against.

And if he ever expected to take down Metagross without sacrificing the majority of his team, he needed to hammer in on its weaknesses. He didn't doubt for a second that Metagross had a thousand and one strategies to take down a Distortion-based fighter, but if it could spare one of his teammates, then it would be worth it. Metagross itself was evidence enough of the benefits of leveraging one's advantages.

There were a hundred other reasons to finally claim a ghost, of course. It filled a particular niche that others couldn't, and the mobility of Mismagius in particular appealed to him. Add its spectacularly flexible incantations and arcane tricks and it could be a vital member of his team one day...

Ash closed his eyes and sighed, quiet and weary, but satisfied.

He was spoiled for choice at the moment, and was in no rush to make such decisions.

Ash smiled and laid back against Nidoking, who was kind enough to have volunteered as Ash's pillow. He wasn't the most comfortable - not with his tough hide and the thick muscle layered over his chest and belly - but the warmth and trust he radiated more than made up for it, banishing chill and loneliness alike.

He turned his thoughts away from team building for now. There was always time for that later, and dwelling on it overmuch would end up leading him down an endless path of hypotheticals.

His PokeNav's yellow plastic cover was cool in his hand as he pulled up a map of the area and checked over the captures he marked. Thorn-Stalk had struggled to find Misdreavus, so Ash hoped that they'd managed to take down the majority of the ghosts flickering around. They would likely be done by midmorning, if they set out with the dawn.

If all went according to plan, he may well be back to civilization by afternoon tomorrow, especially if he took Plume.

Still, though…

Something didn't sit right with him in this, the more he thought about it. Ghosts didn't just appear without reason. They were alien, after all; little sapient scraps of another world lost and desperate for survival in the material. Each of the ghosts he'd found had been particularly young… not that Ash was an expert of the ghost-type, of course, but the vast general knowledge that he'd collected was enough to be applied.

Small amounts of corporeal material: both a sign of a general lack of strength and inexperience in manipulating the matter they'd possessed.

Outright attacks on local human and pokemon populations: A rarity, and concerning. A ghost willing to assault others in broad daylight was either desperate, young, or powerful enough to stand against any coalition of wild pokemon that might form to force it away. The ghosts Ash had captured certainly weren't the latter.

Overall, those they'd found seemed lost and cut loose in an unfamiliar world without an idea of what to do. Their instincts had served them well enough, but Ash thought it fortuitous that the League had sent someone when they did. The local pokemon had been stirred - not quite into the necessary frenzy to banish them, but enough to take notice and concoct their plots to deal with the issue themselves..

Several times that night they'd collected the odd Cacnea or Cacturne willing to hunt with them for a time - and the Arid Lady had just wanted the problem fixed, and had possibly begun to prepare to take care of it herself, or at least delegate it.

If that involved the little ghosts being devoured by Thorn-Stalk, all the better. No spines off her back. Her resident ghost hunter gained a bit of power and experience, and she retained her command of her portion of the Piede.

The League was much, much gentler than the justice served by wild pokemon. A balance disrupted was quickly restored, one way or another.

Those thoughts and more drove him to analyze the map more closely. The Piede wasn't especially vast; despite the strong local culture that had developed and its distinct geography, it only covered a small chunk of Lavaridge's sprawling territory. You could cross the whole thing on foot within a few days if you pushed yourself.

Still, that was only a favor to him now. There was a certain sense of satisfaction in scrolling over the map to chronicle his journey across the sands. He'd marked the approximate location of Caterina's village, the Arid Lady's safe haven, as well as certain landmarks such as the sand-covered wreckage of old caravans, the occasional ancient ruin, or even sun bleached bones belonging to some poor pokemon.

Naturally, he'd marked the capture locations as well. It had been impossible to tell as he tracked the ghosts on foot, but now that he looked at it from a different perspective a pattern emerged: they were all roughly equidistant from the southernmost point of the desert, a place where the vast cliffs and plateaus walling in the Piede desert sealed the rest of Hoenn away.

His mouth twisted into a frown.

"Nidoking?"

His friend grunted, half-asleep, but opened one big, beady eye. Ash shifted his PokeNav closer so Nidoking could see it. The sharp intelligence in Nidoking's gaze drifted over it quickly, taking hold of the map's information in an instant.

"Do you see it?"

Nidoking's massive head nodded, realization settling in. He raised his claws and extended a blunt nail to trace over the capture points, then tapped it to an empty spot between them. It was roughly covering the area sandwiched between Gastly and the Shuppet twins' locations.

Ash smiled. "I agree. If we looked, I bet we'd find a ghost or two skulking around those points."

At the mention of ghosts he saw Thorn-Stalk perk up where it loomed just away from their camp. It didn't take much to set its hunger off. Ash absentmindedly shielded the ghosts' pokeballs on his belt with his arm, as if that would shield them from the Cacturne's ill intentions.

He frowned at the dull glow of the PokeNav's map and shared a look with Nidoking. "We can hit that point as well, but I feel like we'll be treating symptoms of a larger problem. Ghosts… they don't come from nowhere."

Nidoking shifted, tail scraping the sand behind them in agreement. His right claws became wreathed in an otherworldly shadow, the alien power soaking up light and dark alike as if it were the starving maw of a black hole.

Of course, Ash didn't miss the fact that Thorn-Stalk had turned to stare even before the power had materialized.

With that, there was no doubt in his mind that Thorn-Stalk had honed some rare talent for sensing Distortion's presence. It was a shame that between the Cacturne's rocklike personality and the dark power flowing through it that he couldn't interrogate it - at least any other type would be open to Dazed's telepathy. She could pick up a trace or two of its ideas.

Perhaps he'd ask after the mission was over…

Then again, if he kept piling conversations up for after they'd completed their objectives then he might be stuck in the desert forever.

"It's strange for them to form out in the desert. Normally they can only survive the early stages outside a population center. They starve otherwise," Ash commented, more to himself than to Nidoking. Ideas swirled around in his mind, and his friend listened with rapt attention. Bruiser and Aron were resting now, long asleep by this point and happily cuddled up a few feet away.

Nidoking's ears twitched. He didn't rise, but he lazily stretched to extend both arms out past Ash, who waited curiously. On his right he flickered his Shadow Claw again (Thorn-Stalk shivered, offered a lingering stare, then stalked off into the darkness) and then waited a few moments before he activated a far weaker version on his left claw.

Ash nodded along with his display, easily putting the pieces together. "That's a possibility," he agreed. "A strong enough ghost could spawn a few wisps. Still, that raises the question of what. The desert pokemon are tight-knit - unless the ghost just arrived, it should have been noted."

Wild thoughts spun through his mind then, imagining a great spirit of the desert stealthily growing fat and strong like Lavender as it sipped on the overwhelming potency of Earth that covered this place. Perhaps a great spirit had buried far beneath the sands, gnawing and spreading like a fungus and was only now breaching the surface after eons below…

What a fight that would be!

Then he was back in the cold emptiness of the desert. The sand crunched beneath his towel as he reclined further against Nidoking. "I wonder if there are any ghost specialists in the area." Ash commented to his friend, who grunted back softly in response. "They might have isolated themselves somewhere in a cave network or high up on a ridge. The right strength and the right techniques might let a few wisps slip through - it's just a matter of finding them."

They sat in a companionable silence for a few minutes. Ash would occasionally toss out a theory or two to Nidoking, who would mime out a response. He sent a grateful pulse of emotion to Dazed, who waited in the darkness a short distance away. The only sign she was even present was the odd gleam of the moonlight on her pendulum or stark white mane, and she seemed content in the silence - the moon had stolen her attention, and she stared up at it with unblinking eyes.

It wasn't often Ash and Nidoking had the chance to rest and talk, just the two of them, and he was going to savor every moment of it he could. Normally they had training to focus on, or a team issue to hammer out, or were pulled apart by duty before either could relax.

If it took trekking through a desert, chasing mischievous ghosts, and getting sand in places that didn't bear mentioning… it was all worth it.

Tonight they could rest.

Tomorrow?

Tomorrow they would trek south, find the source of these newborn ghosts, and finish their mission properly this time.

Ash smiled, and rested back.

The Piede was no Forina, but it had charms of its own.

XX

'The Piede had charms of its own'.

What a load of crap.

Ash didn't know what he had been thinking last night, but he did know that exhausted, desert-worn Ash was either an idiot or a liar.

Or both.

Any fondness he'd been fooled into having for this miserable place had been wiped clean away by the sandstorm that had borne down on them - Nidoking's frantic jostling had offered Ash just enough time to pull up his hood, slap on his Go-Goggles, and gather up his supplies in a hurry before a howling barrage of tiny sand flecks whipped up and then horizontal and then everywhere.

The desert roared its displeasure at their intrusion, the whistling winds whipped up to a maddened rush as Ash covered his mouth with his gloved hand. It wasn't long before he managed to wrap the mask gifted to him by Caterina over his mouth - he'd already gotten a mouthful of sand and grit, and he was in no rush to repeat the experience.

Nidoking did his best to shelter him where they'd staggered into the lee of a towering dune, but there was only so much he could do, and they would need to keep moving soon once they'd had their respite. Any gap was relentlessly filled with sand and wind, and any hope of visibility had been cut off by a thick black-brown blanket. Even the sun barely pierced through the haze, and then only in tortured fits.

Even worse, it was still hot somehow, though this was a kind of maddening heat born of trillion (quadrillions, quintillions? Ash had no clue) of sand grains stirring and rubbing together in a storm of whipping friction. Breathing became an awful chore beneath the mask and his sweat became a filthy second skin caked onto him.

If Articuno's Blizzard could whip against him like a storm of frozen razors, Moltres' inferno could sear the earth until it cracked under its passing, and Zapdos' storms could flatten forests and crack mountains, then something must command a misery like this.

Whatever it was, Ash hoped to never meet it.

Bruiser and Aron were safely sequestered away inside their pokeballs now. Dazed had initially elected to remain outside, and sheltered them as best she could with a shimmering blue shield. It stopped the wind and sand in its tracks, but Ash argued that she needed to conserve her strength for whatever trials lay ahead. The smooth energy barrier really only redirected the onslaught, and they still found themselves half-buried in the sand as it piled atop their feet.

They'd only plodded a few minutes through the sandstorm before Ash finally recalled Dazed - she wasn't quite flagging, but he knew her. It was difficult enough to maintain shields like that in ideal conditions, and the constant irritation wasn't making it easy on her.

Miserable as it was, it was the right call. Ideally they'd find shelter soon - their previous encampment had been enough to prevent the worst of it, but even Thorn-Stalk seemed surprised by the suddenness and ferocity of the sandstorm that had overtaken them, and the Cacturne had quickly begun to lead them away.

Thorn-Stalk's dark green back was Ash's entire world now. He and Nidoking followed along close as they could to maintain visibility. The Cacturne moved with purpose, and Ash hoped desperately that it knew where to take them.

If this endured, he'd just have Nidoking use his ground-type techniques to open up a new shelter, but for now he'd work his way through the sandstorm.

Despite his reservations, he trusted Thorn-Stalk.

Besides, Ash had to admit - deep down, where the sands couldn't touch and where the fire within him burned ever-bright - there was something incredible about being buffeted by the sandstorm. It was fierce, unrelenting, eager to grind him down to nothing… and he respected that raw power of nature. Even as his thoughts dwindled and he found new focus inward, he couldn't help but imagine what ways he could turn this to his advantage in the future…

And if thinking about it - forcing his mind to work through its usual calculation - meant that he wasn't thinking about sand and heat and their miserable condition, that was all the better.

Sandstorm was always a useful technique, of course, though a draining one if you wanted anything powerful enough to bother a pokemon. The environmental advantages alone would be incredible, especially if Nidoking could exert finer control with the rudimentary earth manipulation they'd been working on. Grinding through the tough armor of rock-types with a flurry of animated sand…

Ash smiled beneath his mask, then it widened as a new thought sprung to mind.

Infernus could turn stone to cherry-red slag with enough time and focus. What could he do to the whipping sand in a storm like this? His smile only grew more eager and feral by the second as possibilities filled his mind: enemies being bathed in fiery glass, team techniques where Dazed could telekinetically capture the molten sand and spray it at opponents…

Then he sealed his lips tightly over his teeth - even beneath the mask, even though it had been just a second, he'd gotten a new mouthful of sand and grit in his mouth and now he'd have to deal with it for the next hour.

His smile now was less feral, but equally determined.

With thoughts like that, their time in the sandstorm passed quickly. Ash entertained himself with wild fantasies of insane techniques, glorious victories, and unsurpassed challenges. It was a comfort from the grinding of the sand grains, the howling of the wind, and the overwhelming darkness that encompassed him - for Ash, the world was a rendering of pale and dark browns.

For a time, that was all it would ever be.

Then, it stopped.

There was no fanfare, no buildup.

One second the sandstorm roared about them, buffeting them with unrelenting force, then it ceased. It was as if someone had just flicked the off switch to end it in a moment. Ash, Nidoking, and Thorn-Stalk all froze at the unexpected change, the Cacturne especially seeming baffled, though Ash and Nidoking soon both readied for combat.

A roar rang as great sheets of sand and dust fell lifeless to the earth, crashing down like a great wave as the winds carrying them died with nary a whimper. An enormous shudder wracked the Piede as the sandstorm collapsed inanimate as one - like they were as one trapped in the bottom of an overturned hourglass. Ash watched the dark walls compress and shorten and pile new dunes tall all around, the desert reshaped by whatever had swept through its blue skies.

All thoughts of battle fell away when a great shadow tore over them - two wings darkened the desert, blotting out the sun with the last remnants of the sandstorm shrouded them from its intensity, and then the shadow dropped. In an explosion of sand, dust, and a great rush of wind arrived a figure.

It was slender, though muscular, and rose to a height of roughly seven feet once it had straightened with the long-suffering cracks and groans of something ancient. The creature bore an immense weight of age and weariness on its shoulders.

Vast, angular, red-rimmed wings jutted outwards from its thick shoulders, and its segmented tail whipped back and forth in the sand as it gazed towards them. One of its red-guarded eyes and long antennae were shorn away, layered, scourged scar tissues a relic of some long forgotten battle, and as Ash took it in he saw that its gigantic wings were tattered and damaged.

His eyes recognized it immediately though, from records and reliefs alike: Flygon.

They were powerful creatures, and in this individual he saw a pale shadow of what Lance's Vibrava would one day become.

This specimen was a brilliant example of its species, of course, but even as the moments passed Ash recognized that it was… faded. Limited by the wild conditions in which it had lived, and the age that wracked its mortal shell. It had been tempered by them, by the Piede, honed into a spectacular master of the desert, but in its bearing Ash could see the toll taken by age and countless trials.

By its eyes, he could see that its spirit was unmatched, but its body was worn to the bone.

That didn't stop it, though. It made no effort to challenge them, but offered a simple, unmatched confidence. Its wings flapped mightily, though not strong enough to kick up a vicious sandstorm such as the one they'd just escaped, and when it did so a sweet, whistling tune filled the air.

Ash had grit his teeth when it first arrived, more out of surprise than fear, but the moment the tune struck him he relaxed. It had a power to it, something deeper than noise and random notes produced by its wings.

Spirit of the Desert. Peace - Friend - GUIDE.

He remained planted on his feet, but Ash felt as though he'd spiritually staggered back in the face of the Flygon's communication. He measured the wizened dragon with an assessing gaze. The Arid Lady may rule the local wild pokemon population, but the Spirit of the Desert was the Piede's true master. It had ruled these sands, undoubtedly for countless decades now, perhaps even measuring its dominion in centuries.

And it had come for Ash.

"Your Aura…" Ash trailed off as the song swept by him again, enrapturing him with little flickers of the Flygon's wisdom, eagerness, and experiences. They touched him as little trickles, though when he attempted to grasp them he only caught the faintest of memories. What was left was lessons, impressions, and patterns.

He processed them as best he could, though he found himself distracted by Thorn-Stalk's reaction - though Nidoking remained firm and belligerent as ever, refusing to lower his horn to this newcomer, Thorn-Stalk had submitted entirely. The dark-type had lowered itself to the sands, its green flesh stained with countless brown grains, and refused to even look at the Spirit.

For its part, the Spirit ignored Thorn-Stalk as well. It seemed more interested in Ash and Nidoking, constantly scanning them with its guarded eyes and sending off new wind-spawned songs to carry their minds and souls away.

At last, Ash stepped forward. He didn't dip his head to the Spirit of the Desert - and he thought that was right, for the creature claimed no dominion - but did smile at it. When its aged mouth (twisted in a gnarled scar from whatever slash had shorn off its antennae and right eye) curled up in a matching smile, he held his hand to it.

Though trepidation filled him - and Nidoking glared with his horn dripping venom - the Spirit raised its clawed hand. The tough nails and scaled flesh touched his palm more gently than expected, and Ash's eyes met the Spirit's as it stared.

A tension filled the air, then a connection -

Gnawing hunger - lurking in its pit - freedom! Wings! - Soar over the sands, devouring prey, sending intruders away in a sandstorm - Discontent - Strive higher, seek the Concept, GUIDE - a new friend, desperate and hungry and furious at the world - the shadow awoke - three little specks wandering the sands - a connection with the Storm-Tamer! -

He supped on the Spirit's existence, measured it, gave back -

A yearning for battle - loss of old companions and connections with the new - a quiet quest for strength filled with terrible trials and testing tribulations - a terrible storm of Concepts wrested into control by an adamantine will - a measure of peace, a mission -

Experiences from both parties intermingled and filled inside and out. Ash pulled his hand away after a time, gasping not from fear or pain but mental strain, and he stared at the Spirit. Guided not by himself but by the Flygon, he'd shared his life. Just as the Spirit had shared its own essence. It was strange to have another direct him like that, just as it had been when Cynthia steered his perception, but liberating all the same.

It was nice to have someone else take the wheel for once, however briefly.

Still, it left him with an impression.

"Spirit of the Desert - Guide," Ash corrected, marveling at the idea of a mortal pokemon striving to embody a Concept to its fullest. Had such a thing been attempted before? Surely it had, but the Spirit of the Desert had come to such a conclusion on its own.

What would his team become if they lived their lives in such a way?

"You know where the ghost is." It was a statement, not a question, and the Spirit nodded silently. The sandstorm was long gone now, having rushed its way across the desert until it was just a distant blot of shadow now. If he listened closely he could still hear its rumbling.

The Flygon nodded.

"Will you take me to it?" Ash asked.

Flygon hesitated. Ash frowned.

"You know me now," he implored. "You know Nidoking," he nodded to his friend, who never took his eyes off the desert-dwelling dragon. "We're strong. We'll take it away from your desert. We'll make it safe for others. Safe for it, too."

Its eyes flashed at the mention of its desert, but the Spirit nodded regardless.

"Lead us."

That was what it had been waiting for. At his words, the wizened guide stretched its tattered wings out. The Spirit smiled down, burst into the air with another spray of sand, and circled above. He admired the sight of the Piede's master's green form stamped against the pure blue above - and how he relished that sight after the impromptu sandstorm - carried by the Flygon! - then shouldered his pack, scraped off the worst of the sand that covered him, and shared a look with Nidoking.

"Ready?"

Nidoking snorted, eyes eager and excited for the first time in ages, and similar feelings roared to life in Ash. He spared another glance for Thorn-Stalk, who seemed utterly petrified by the Spirit's appearance. Of course, it seemed those feelings extended to Ash and Nidoking now as well.

The Cacturne watched them as most would watch Infernus. It fell behind obediently as they followed their guide across the reshaped sands. New dunes were piled high and broad with the initial death of the sandstorm, and it was unsteady and loose beneath their feet as they crawled their way across the desert.

Though occasionally the Spirit launched ahead in a winding burst of wind, Ash always knew where they needed to go. He would hear a call from far ahead, spot the vague flicker of green on blue, and knew what paths to take. Ash would avoid shifting sands with the experience of a desert-dweller, step around Trapinch fields as if he'd always known they were present, and navigate the greater dunes with ease.

All because of the Spirit's songs and sweet whistles and the rhythmic wingbeats that sounded for miles. Desert natives hid away in their cool burrows or lowered themselves in reverence as they passed, and none offered Ash, Nidoking, and Thorn-Stalk a second look as their eyes kept to the sky.

He followed the Spirit's guidance thoughtlessly. At another time he might treat its appearance and help with some kind of skepticism, but he knew the creature now, knew its essence as he did his own. The Spirit's songs and touch had blended them for that moment.

It wasn't the precious, intimate connection he shared with Plume or his other companions. That wasn't the nature of their connection. No, the Spirit shared its Aura with him in other ways. Impersonal and distant, though not without care.

The Spirit had spent its long life striving to embody a Concept itself: Guide. That little revelation had startled Ash, but the more he ruminated on it during their long walk through the desert the more it fascinated him. Legends weren't mortal by any sense of the term - even the Beasts were something more now. They'd left behind their mortal trappings in the ruins of the Brass Tower.

Immortal flesh and spirit and sinew woven over a mortal skeleton.

Perhaps the Spirit could never become a Legend itself, but Ash didn't think that was what it wanted anyways. The value of its path was in the journey, that endless yearning to be something greater than it had been born, than in the destination.

He respected that.

All the same, he couldn't help but imagine the possibilities arising from those little wisps of revelation granted by his connection with the Spirit. So many choices. So many paths. Would any of his friends dedicate themselves to becoming an avatar of a Concept?

Would they lose themselves?

Ash looked to Nidoking. It was hard to imagine Nidoking as anything but what he was: earnest, loyal, and unbreakable to anything in this world. Yet Ash knew all too well the dangers of inviting something greater into himself. He'd felt the Spheres in Shamouti seek to scour away anything that wasn't theirs as their immense power flooded him.

His mind had been nearly lost ten times over since his journey - more, much more, actually - and Ash's mouth set in a flat line.

That really should bother him more than it did. It should invite something more than resignation… or worse, the desire to test himself again. To take his tempered mind and spirit and test his edge against the bones of the universe.

It wasn't as strong as it had once been, certainly. Groudon's simple immensity had taught him wisdom in that regard. He shuddered under the desert sun as memories of the Earth's mighty foundation and that brief, flickering thought he'd felt filled him.

The earth seemed to tremble beneath his feet, and he was quick to turn his thoughts away.

His path was set before him. He trusted his team and knew them to their core. If they chose to strive for more one day, then he would support them in any way he could.

They would do the same for him. It would remain their choice, however. Ash would never force it on another. Ash knew what demands came with it.

Their guide led them for miles upon miles.

Its knowledge was shared through the sands and wind, carried with its song and even the way it marked the sand with its passing. Not a movement was wasted as it sailed ahead and then circled around. Time passed in a dreamlike haze, as though they'd breached a place where such laws stood unwelcome.

And then they crested a high dune, and Ash stopped, as he realized they'd passed a line drawn in the sand, and things became clear.

On its surface the landscape was unchanged. Where the sandy hill sloped down it only gave way to more dunes, but they were smaller and sharper. While the empty expanse behind them had felt like walking the great waves of the distant sea, here he felt as if they became more frantic.

Beyond the sea of tiny dunes loomed the great southern mountains that walled off the Arid Zone from the rest of Hoenn. Just past them would be fields and forests and green.

Green things. Growing things. Bark and sprouts and running water and air that did not chafe his throat, did not invite the unending thirst.

It had only been a day in the Piede and he already missed the lush nature which covered the rest of Hoenn.

…Perhaps there was some truth to the matriarch's scorn.

Only some, though. Ash certainly wouldn't turn his nose up at the verdant lands outside again. He'd only learned a new appreciation for them - a feeling that could only come from knowing something familiar's glaring absence.

Not to say the desert didn't have its own beauty, but it was a harsh one. Remote and dry and impersonal. Less beauty of the landscape and more beauty in that anything managed to survive here. Life's ability to eke out an existence in the harshest of circumstances was nothing less than amazing.

The desert was beauty in austerity. It took and took and took and what remained became stark; the kind of beauty one could find nowhere else on the planet, in no other kind of condition.

His eyes narrowed as a new detail of the black mountains caught his attention.

They formed a nearly impenetrable wall of sheer cliffs and forbidding stone, but between two of the greatest lay a crevasse that rested nearly invisible. Something about it demanded his eyes stray away to look at the sands or stone or even the blue sky - anywhere but there!

The mental influence slid off him without trouble. It couldn't hope to dig its hooks into him. Not now.

Ash frowned as he picked out a vague shape in the dark valley. Even when he squinted he couldn't discern much detail, but it was enough to recognize it as… a lump of stone? It was almost like a tiny mountain itself, half-buried beneath the dunes that extended all the way out between the mountains.

And the Spirit was guiding them right toward it.

"See that?" He asked Nidoking, who squinted and shrugged. Ash shook his head - of course they were still too far. Nidoking didn't have the best vision. Part of him was tempted to go ahead and release Plume, but she wouldn't have much of a chance to stretch her wings.

Whatever waited for them... Well, he rested a hand on Nidoking's leathery shoulder plate. They'd be ready. Still, as he began to follow the whispered instructions and little adjustments from Flygon's song, he noticed there were only two sets of footsteps plodding across the sand.

Ash turned back and saw that Thorn-Stalk had frozen. Its eyes were locked on their destination and had opened wide as imaginable. In another situation it might have been comical. If he didn't know better, he'd say the Cacturne had gone pale.

He looked to the mountains, then back to Thorn-Stalk. At last, he sighed. "You've led us far enough. The Spirit will guide us now. Thank you," Ash put all his sincerity into those words. "You were a great help and a great guide. But we'll take it from here."

Thorn-Stalk wasted no time in stepping back, eager to turn away from their final destination. It was gracious enough to offer them a quick nod, a salute, and then it lumbered away to return home. Ash though it had a newfound urgency in its step. That alone ignited a little bit of gnawing worry, but he quenched it and turned back.

Never backward. Always forward.

He had a mission to complete.

XX

Their trip across the remaining stretch of desert was dull. Ash and Nidoking simply kept a slow, steady pace that ate up the distance over the next two hours. Neither were too exhausted by the time they arrived near the base of the mountains, which Ash could be grateful for, but weariness had nonetheless settled into their bones and couldn't quite be banished by the scant rest they'd taken the night before.

It certainly took a bit longer. With the relative flatness of the desert it felt like an eternity - the mountains were visible once they'd crossed the largest dunes, but such enormous heaps of stone and earth had cast an illusion of the actual distance involved. Nothing was more frustrating than realizing you had only just begun to chip away at the journey after an hour trekking beneath the sun's glare.

All the while Ash was consumed with wild imaginings of what might have caused the spirits to flood from this place. He was favorable to an enormous Palossand at this point, preferably one nearly large enough to animate the entire desert with its Distorted touch. What a fight that would be!

His sun-inspired daydreams took on a decidedly fantastical bent as he imagined what fighting the Piede itself would be like, but it was a nice enough way to pass the time while he walked with Nidoking. Occasionally he'd ask for one of Nidoking's suggestions on how they'd tackle the monstrosity, which were usually accompanied by a grunt and then a demonstration of one of his techniques to represent one of their friends.

Ash's personal favorite was when Nidoking channeled his growing psychic power to cast his eyes in brilliant blue while he mimed rubbing his claw up against his neck, feigning to pick grains of sand from an invisible mane. He'd certainly known Dazed long enough to have her mannerisms down.

But now they'd set foot into the heart of the mountain pass. Shadows fell over them now as only a scant few rays of light managed to pierce between the twin mountains in the late afternoon light. Small dunes continued beneath their feet, almost glowing an eerie white rather than the sunkissed gold they'd left behind.

What truly bothered Ash was the silence.

Not a single cry or hoot or chirp was to be heard in the shadowed valley. The sand didn't rustle with subterranean pokemon foraging or shifting within their dens. Even the normal assortment of rock and ground-types that would normally make a nice, secluded place like this their home were absent.

It was still and silent and not a thing was around to disturb the peace.

Nothing except for Ash and Nidoking. This dark valley left them feeling like intruders. Who was the last soul to set foot here?

Of course, that just left him paranoid. Ash could spot the Spirit circling above, unwilling to stray far from them both as it soared high over the sandy valley. He knew it wouldn't mislead them, but Ash found his hand straying towards the rows of pokeballs on his belt.

Wild pokemon wouldn't avoid a place without reason - it was abandoning potential shelter, safety, shade, and whatever sustenance might be found. When even they decided to leave a nice, dark place like this secluded…

He grit his teeth and stepped forward as they finally grew close enough to spy the massive lump of stone from before in real detail. It loomed perhaps thirty feet high and was little more than a massive boulder on the surface - a dark russet not unlike the stone where the Arid Lady had made her home. The boulder held a rugged simplicity to it, a plainness that begged Ash to find something more interesting to turn his attention to, but in the end that was what attracted his focus the most.

It wanted to be left alone.

Nidoking had similar thoughts. For a moment he had looked ready to leave and stray off to find a more likely target, but when he saw Ash still interested in the stone the spell broke. His nostrils flared and he grumbled what might have been a curse at the stone. He rather looked like he wouldn't mind tearing it apart with a well-placed Hyper Beam.

"C'mon, let's take a closer look." Ash said, patting his shoulder comfortingly.

Up close, it seemed even less welcoming, and the shadows seemed to grow darker around it. Sands had piled high at the base, noticeably taller than the short, flat dunes spreading throughout the rest of the valley, almost as if someone - or something- had sloppily attempted to bury the whole thing in sand. Nearby was scraped down to moist underlayers of sand and dirt.

Ash eyed the dark near-mud with raised eyebrows. That pokemon would avoid this place when water was available…

Of course, what really caught his attention as he came closer was the tiny little fissure present in the monolithic stone. It was small enough that even Seeker would barely be able to slip into it, so he couldn't see even a tiny bit of detail. The crack went from the center of the stone down to its base, seemingly running down to the parts of the boulder buried beneath the desert.

There was more, though. As he neared the boulder he saw plenty of sand scraped up near its surface, hidden behind a wide wedge of the piled material. It was dark in the valley, but even the barest light infiltrating it was enough to illuminate the shine of… metal? It was largely a flat layer, but what truly caught his attention was a portion of it that had been violently ripped asunder with extreme force, tearing great flaps of the steel up and out like skin from a flayed man to expose the dark innards of the subterranean lair.

He froze before he went to investigate, quiet instinct warning him.

Nidoking rumbled, his great horn immediately dripping vicious poison, and shoved his way in front of Ash. The enormous poison-type's eyes squeezed shut as he focused. Even Ash sensed it after a moment - shifting of the sand beneath their feet, the fracture of the quiet, and the dangerous growl tearing forth from Nidoking's throat.

Nidoking stamped his foot. A light wave of force burst forth and the sand around them sprayed up. Ash was spared from it thanks to Nidoking's growing control, so he was free to scan the surface in hopes of spotting whatever lurked beneath.

Rustling, then -

Flygon's shrill cry whispered frantic comforts to them - Warmth-Lost Soul-Atoner-Friend!

It didn't do much to calm Nidoking, but Ash stayed him before he could do anything rash. He waited instead, trusting the Spirit to guide them true. His own nerves screamed, but Ash was more than the primordial soup of nerve, bone, and instinct that made him up.

He waited. And waited. And waited. And -

Sifting sands. One, two, three deep intakes of breath as a long and rounded maroon snout broke through the loose earth. A black band followed, then a massive head with unfocused milky eyes burst up, and peered around it, head twisting this way and that.

Ash held his breath.

Though it appeared blind, something about it spoke of danger and blood and violence, albeit only barely remembered. After a moment, it seemed assured that it would be safe, and one arm, then another reached up and pulled the remainder with it.

Out crawled a thick and muscular body, lined with countless scars. Its scales were heavy and strong, more than enough to stop the claws or fangs of a lesser pokemon with ease.

Two of the decades-old scars drew Ash's attention: the first the wicked slice of a great blade or talon or claw across the reptilian's face. Its eyes had been ruined permanently by whatever grievous wound it had suffered. That they remained at all with how the band of ravaged flesh and scales stretched across its cranium was a miracle - he would have expected them to burst like little pockets of jelly beneath that kind of force.

The second was a wicked mass of scarred flesh that layered over the comparatively soft scales of its pale underbelly - it was difficult to tell against the grey flesh, but to Ash it almost looked clean. Still ugly and agonizing, but something about the old injury seemed intentional. Above its heart there were three precise claw marks (suspiciously similar to the creature's own claws, Ash thought) embedded over its heart.

Altogether it only took him a second or two to scan the creature and identify its defining characteristics.

Krookodile. An old one, if the information he'd gleaned from the PokeDex was accurate - their scales deepened in hue as they aged, and this specimen almost appeared more brown than red.

The "Bully of the Sands". Vicious, immensely powerful, and ruthless. It was unknown how long they could live in the wild - they weren't believed to be biologically immortal like Rhydon, Aggron, and select other rock and steel-types, but it was suspected they could live at least a century, and more likely a few decades beyond that.

Too bad they kept killing each other the moment one got too big for its boots and decided to muscle in on another's turf. That tended to put a damper on their potential lifespans, along with all the scientists eager to research such powerful pokemon.

Of course, all that was ignoring the fact that Krookodile was native to the Western Continent - most commonly in Unova's central desert region, although it had proven to be immensely successful and could be found in most any desert on that continent. Small populations of Sandile had even appeared in Orre and Alola thanks to Unovan actions on the Southern Continent prior to and during the Last War.

One place they weren't found, of course, was in Hoenn's Piede desert. Weren't supposed to be found, anyways.

The blind Krookodile's nostrils flared as it emerged fully from its sandy home. Although it appeared standard for a member of its species, he did note the odd addition of a small zipped bag built of old, worn black canvas looped around its neck to hang down over its belly. It must have been a hindrance as Krookodile dove through the sands, but apparently it hadn't let inconvenience stop it.

It made no move of aggression, but Nidoking still took his place ahead of Ash. One wrong move would send him barreling into the newcomer, likely with his venomous horn buried straight into his fellow ground-type's throat.

Ash hoped it wouldn't come to that. He remained safely behind Nidoking (more for his friend's peace of mind than his own concerns) but leveled his voice as he called out.

"Hello! My name's Ash. This is Nidoking. We're here to help with the ghost issue. The Spirit brought us here."

Krookodile inclined its massive head more peacefully than Ash would've expected given the reputation its species had earned. It even lowered its claws as it had dug itself out from beneath the sands, seemingly eager to present as little of a threat as possible.

Nidoking appreciated it, at least. He was still wary, but the psychic glow from his eyes had faded. He snorted, stood straight, and waited for Ash to communicate with the creature.

Despite the situation they were in - and the eye catching monolithic rock set behind the Krookodile's muscular form - he couldn't quell his curiosity.

"We're with the League," he said, and watched carefully at Krookodile's twitch at the name. "Sorry if this is rude… but what are you doing out here?"

The ground-type snorted, its form wracked with a snuffling wheeze of amusement, and pointed to the Spirit. It was unable or unwilling to spend the time communicating itself. But if it was more efficient to do things this way… well, Ash wasn't going to complain.

He waited for the keening cry of the Spirit. It bounced off the rock walls of the valley they were in, sounding one, two, three times in his ears before it faded, and Ash and Nidoking both found themselves plunged into the Aura-imprinted recollections of the Spirit as it guided them into those fragmented depths.

Alien metal-beasts carried strange humans across the waves in their enormous stomachs - battles fought below his wings as it ventured outside home-sands to investigate great plumes of smoke and many screams - red wings and a terrible roar carried a sky-lover as it slashed a brown-black-banded creature's face and turned on the trainer - escape from certain death! - seek a home, find sands, hunt, kill, hollow - lost, seek new way, peace, find a Guide -

It cut off then, the dizzying rush of information nearly blinding Ash as he processed it.

Ash took a moment to recover from the connection, but marveled at the fluidity of telepathic (and Aura-based) communication. He spared the Krookodile another look and offered a nod, which it happily returned.

It took only a few moments to stitch together the impressions and memories.

A lost soldier, huh? From what he'd read, most of the Unovan pokemon left in Hoenn after the war had ended up in the Safari Zone here - he supposed Krookodile had been missed in the sweep, given that few skirmishes had even been fought in Hoenn's interior. It took a cunning foe to evade the League's eyes, especially back then, when fear dominated and paranoia reigned supreme.

A cunning foe, or one with help from the locals.

"You're from Unova," Ash said."A survivor of the war."

Krookodile nodded. It listened to a burst of the Spirit's song, hesitated, then grasped the canvas bag looped around its neck and delicately unzipped it with claws better suited to tearing flesh asunder than fine manipulations. Those same white claws pinched at something inside and tugged out a flattened disc of bright metal.

It seemed reluctant to hand the disc over, but at the Flygon's nod it tossed them to Ash. He easily caught it and took care to avoid smudging it with his dirty fingertips. Whatever this was, it was important to the Krookodile. He wouldn't do it the disrespect of treating it casually.

He spared it a smile. "Thank you."

He tested it with his hands - Nidoking finally took his eyes off Krookodile for a moment, genuine interest sparking to life inside him - and found that it was actually hinged, forming a sort of clasp. An armband?

Ash carefully stretched it out and glanced at the surface. On it was etched three black (and all too familiar) heads of a raging Hydreigon - each mouth was open to expose tiny teeth and their collars all flattened as the beast roared at some unseen foe, seemingly ready to devour whatever had challenged it with three sets of razor teeth.

The symbol was familiar, and expected, but his blood chilled anyways. Expecting something was different from seeing it.

It was the symbol of Unova during the Last War and the age prior to it, the slavering beast, the symbol of the regime that declared war on half the world and nearly won. It was one thing to know intellectually Krookodile's former allegiance (or former master's, Ash couldn't say) and quite another to be slapped in the face with reality.

Krookodile was silent as Ash flipped it over. It was cool against his fingers, protected from the desert's heat by the bag and Krookodile's place under the sand. Strange as it was to hold the old artifact - and strange it certainly was, given that this was a piece of history in his hands - Ash found himself more fascinated than anything, particularly as he found little bits of text etched into the back.

There were two sections that immediately caught his eye. Both appeared almost identical in formatting, but one was composed of the Unovan native tongue - it was still based off the Unown script, but it might as well have been gibberish. The other was more familiar, written in the written words of the Eastern Continent, which had been derived from the wide-stretching trade networks established by Sinnoan merchants and their fleets from Sunyshore and Canalave.

Languages had a fair bit of overlap regardless thanks to the prevalence of Pidgey worldwide - they were successful, and the ridiculous speeds at which Pidgeot could travel meant that populations could appear in new lands practically overnight. In the old days it had been fairly common for the few humans capable of earning the loyalty of a Pidgeot to become great travelers, taking with them language and knowledge all over the world.

Extensive contact was impossible thanks to the dangers of the world (and particularly the open ocean) but for countless millennia there had been lone humans and their pokemon partners crossing seas and treacherous stretches of frontier that divided human settlements.

Humans and their Pidgeot friends had been the most common explorers and cultural ambassadors, but Ash knew quite a few Wataru had also fallen prey to the wanderlust and appeal of the wider world outside their mountainous homeland in Blackthorn.

Cynthia's book on Johto had quite a few records of locals in far-flung Sinnoh, Kalos… even the most distant lands such as Unova had tales of fierce-eyed men and women bearing gifts and wild tales on golden dragonback appearing with the winds.

Ash had to briefly wonder if Lance would have been one of them if he had been born back then… but then he turned back to the cold steel of the armband.

625-90-67-02

'Buster' - Sandile-03

Blood: TG

Trainer: Pvt. Darryl Brown, 525-90-67

Assigned: PUUS Endeavor, 1st Pacification Fleet

There were a few more sequences of numbers and Unown-script letters, but most were indecipherable for Ash. He read them over a few times in hopes of finding a pattern, but ultimately found himself lost. Ash couldn't help the intellectual hunger that roared through him as he skimmed the armband again - a service tag? It made sense that the pokemon would have something to identify it in the case of capture.

He supposed the Unovans had included the translation for the National League - well, Hoennic city-states at the time - as a precaution.

Krookodile apparently decided capture and extradition back to Unovan forces as a trade or postwar deal wouldn't be its fate.

"Here." his examination complete, Ash offered the armband back to Krookodile.

It kept a healthy distance thanks to Nidoking's warning rumble, but seemed comforted once it had plucked back the relic of its past and stowed it away in the black bag around its neck. He hesitated. "I have so, so many questions I want to ask you, but now isn't the time."

The creature (and Nidoking) agreed with a nod and grunt respectively. Ash stole a glance at the Spirit as it carefully fluttered down to the thin sand by them. Little blasts of the coarse grains sprayed over them, but thanks to Flygon's care it was nothing that couldn't be blocked safely by Ash's borrowed robes.

He really, really needed to thank the villagers for that…

"What is this place?" Ash gestured at the stony monolith. It loomed over them all with a weight and presence that weighed on him like something physical, though he still felt that little mental influence prodding him.

There was a lot of that in this desert.

Once he'd broken through the plainness radiating from the monolith and decided that yes, this was interesting, it was far easier to focus on the heaping stone. It still attempted to tug his attention away by stirring his subconscious with all the things of interest around them - the mountains! The valley! Sand! Rock - but Ash wasn't fooled.

This silent valley held only one thing of interest, and that the monolith was trying so very hard not to be that one thing stole his attention like nothing else.

Both Krookodile and the Spirit shared a look with each other, one that spoke of long, long years of friendship. After a moment Krookodile grunted, shifted to turn its back to them, and led them a bit closer to the great stone. Ash followed with Nidoking close at his side, eager to uncover whatever mystery this place held.

Nidoking's shell of paranoia and general grumpiness had finally given way in full. He still kept his eyes on the other pokemon and ensured he was in a good place to intervene if necessary, but Ash didn't think either the Spirit or Krookodile held any illusions about their ability to take Nidoking on.

The Spirit was the old ruler of this slice of sand and stone and sun and the Krookodile was a veteran of the fiercest war in history. Neither would face a sliver of resistance from any of the Piede natives.

Nidoking would destroy them.

They stalked across the flattening dunes, then Krookodile swished its tail in warning. It only took a moment for the Spirit to flap its great wings and cast a gust of wind forward, which carried off more and more of the sand to fully expose the gleaming metal he'd spied earlier… and the section that had been ripped asunder by what he knew now to be the mighty jaws of Krookodile.

He stepped forward and peered down into the utter blackness exposed by the flayed metal, careful to stay some distance away from the edge. The slow, steady breathing of Krookodile and the Spirit eased his own eager jitteriness. Ash couldn't help but marvel at Krookodile's handiwork - the metal sheet was several inches thick and laid flat all the way to the monolith, buried beneath the sand.

Krookodile had savaged it.

Still, that stirred several suspicions of his own. "This leads under the rock, doesn't it?"

His newfound allies nodded as one.

He frowned. "Why not break through the rock instead? It had to have been easier than… that." Ash gestured lamely at the peeled steel skin.

The Spirit shook its head, its one good eye blinking beneath the red carapace protecting it, and allowed a little dribble of blue-green dragonfire to spill from its maw. A moment went by before it cut it off, which certainly got the point across. Not to mention it made Nidoking much, much more comfortable.

Ash's frown deepened. "Nidoking?"

His friend knew exactly what Ash wanted. With a little more zeal than was necessary (Ash thought Nidoking just wanted to impress on the Spirit and Krookodile that fighting them was a bad idea) Nidoking reared back, shaped a mighty swirling sphere of molten gold into existence just outside his mouth, and unleashed a Hyper Beam straight into the monolith.

Boom.

They all shielded themselves from the explosion, and what an explosion it was! Sand sprayed over them all, then came raining down in a pitter-patter of grains as it followed the release of heat, light, and concussive force. Nidoking stepped in front of Ash to absorb its effects, but Ash still found himself stumbling back a bit.

He poked his head around Nidoking's meaty shoulder and found exactly what he expected.

The monolith stood unharmed. It would take more than a single Hyper Beam to fully tear that giant heap of rock down, but it should have suffered under that kind of attack: craters, an open wound, miniature rock slides as stone was split asunder. Something.

It looked pristine as ever. The only difference was all the sand that had been sent flying away to expose more of the rock's base.

Well, that was interesting. The Spirit gestured knowingly at the monolith in silent invitation. Ash stepped around his friend to walk over to the great rock. It truly was massive, and the closer he got the more he realized just how out of place it was in this valley.

Great mountains had formed around the Piede, but this was too even. Too intentional. Too strange.

Ash laid his hand on the dark rock, closed his eyes, and focused.

Time passed by in a blur, or was it slow as molasses? It was hard to tell as he lost himself in the world. The silence was a boon, and he focused in on the sound of Nidoking's breathing. His friend had come to rest beside him, facing outward so that he could better watch their audience, and that was a great comfort to Ash.

He felt… something. It was indistinct, but firm. To be honest, Ash wasn't entirely certain he wasn't just imagining it. That might as well have been the normal feeling of the rocky surface of the monolith against his skin. Firm, steady, and timeless.

Ash needed to focus deeper. He needed an anchor.

His hand grasped out and grabbed Nidoking's heavy claws in his grip. Nidoking started, then settled. Ash felt the great pounding of his heartbeat through Nidoking's thick skin and smiled. That was what he clutched to. Nidoking's heart melded with the sensation of Ash's own and for a moment he could feel the love and trust that bonded them, the long trials and time well spent, and Ash wanted nothing more than to spend an eternity exploring that.

But for now, he simply kept it as his lifeline. Ash sharpened his mind with every passing heartbeat, pressed harder and harder against the monolith as he clutched at it like he was trying to tear into it with his dull nails, and then the Truth came filtering into him -

Intent!

Reinforcement - Perpetual - Unchanging - Stability - Eternal - Reinforcement - Perpetual - Unchanging - Stability - Eternal - Earth? - Reinforcement - Perpetual - Unchanging - Stability - Eternal - Reinforcement - Perpetual - Unchanging - Apathy? - Stability -

Ash tore away from the weighty touch of the altered stone. It had been changed by someone. Something. Made more than simple rock and mineral, made more real. No wonder the Hyper Beam hadn't so much as scratched it! Fractals and fractals and fractals set into the stone by a master…

And yet, it was imperfect. Strong and implacable as the stone had been made, it wasn't invincible. For all intents and purposes the monolith was impenetrable, but Ash had felt the work. There were cracks threaded throughout the immortality granted to the stone, and not just a result of time.

Something had broken the wards. An unstoppable force had swept through, caught upon the immovable object, and found it wanting. And with the cloying weight of Earth that had swept into the array and interjected itself into that previously perfect pattern, Ash suspected he knew exactly what it was.

Strong as the stone had been made, it had faltered beneath the aftershocks of Groudon shifting beneath the earth's skin. Ash wasn't sure if it was an earthquake or simply a waking thought like had nearly shattered his mind and spirit, but it had broken the pattern and plucked out the keystone.

The work reminded him of the barriers surrounding Jirachi's tomb, honestly, and that thought left a shiver racing down Ash's spine.

Grey skin stretched taut…

He shook it off. Similar as it was, he didn't think it was of the exact same make. They had the same product, but a different execution. Then again, it was more than a little strange that he'd run into these so close to each other - he went his whole journey without finding these barriers and secret protections, and now he found two within weeks.

Ash nearly snorted at the absurdity of it. Then… perhaps he had found them before. Perhaps he'd only just now begun to recognize them. To sense them as more than a subconscious influence. Perhaps they'd worked properly on him in the past.

Perhaps he had only just opened his eyes.

Regardless, this left him with more questions than answers. Ash pulled away from the stone, shared a look with Nidoking, and spoke to the Spirit. "Do you know who made this? Was it the Draconids?"

The Spirit cocked its head to stare blankly at him, then shook its head and shrugged its shoulders. Well, that was no help at all. Maybe they'd be able to find an answer or two inside the monolith itself - uninviting as the interior was, Ash couldn't wait to actually explore it. A craving for adventure had grown inside him, welling up alongside the thrill of hunting out whatever truths were to be found within.

"Understood." Ash said quietly, then allowed his hands to trace over the pokeballs on his belt. If he was going in, it wouldn't be alone. Before he released his team, he looked to the two natives. "Do you want to come in with us?"

Krookodile's reaction was immediate - it scurried away, groaning, and made its thoughts rather clear. The veteran scurried over to a nearby dune, dug around for a moment with remarkable precision given its blindness, and plucked out a few discarded little fragments of dark cloth…

Oh.

Those were Shuppet. Three of them all unconscious and limp where they'd been stuck beneath the sand. All seemed relatively healthy beyond being knocked out, which wasn't nearly as worrying for ghosts as it was for more material organisms.

Still, they seemed just as young and helpless as the pair that Ash had captured earlier. And if Krookodile had already done the hard work… well, he supposed he might catch these as well.

Better than than letting them escape and having to hunt them down across the desert later.

Krookodile waited patiently, seemingly aware of what Ash wanted, and crossed its muscular arms.

Another realization struck him as he pulled out three pokeballs to contain them. "You didn't eat them?" They were small and helpless, both of which were things most pokemon wouldn't want to be around a hungry Krookodile. He doubted they'd be much of a meal, but any advantage might be useful out here.

Krookodile snorted and pinched two of its claws together to leave just a tiny sliver of space empty between them.

"Ah," Ash said. Too small. Still, it was more mercy than most wild dark-types would offer a helpless ghost. Krookodile really had adopted a new path out in these harsh lands. He wasted no more time before he captured all three Shuppet and safely stowed them away, though he was definitely starting to run out of space on his belt now.

Hopefully whatever lay within wouldn't be a horde. He only had a few pokeballs remaining, although he still had an Ultra Ball or two from that tournament on the St. Anne way, way back. That might be a necessity against a more powerful ghost, though it might be tricky landing the pokeball against an experienced foe's phasing in and out of reality, were that to become an issue.

He'd figure it out, though. Ideally it wouldn't come down to a fight at all.

As he captured the last Shuppet, he noticed something else buried beneath the sand nearby where Krookodile had dug these last few out - two familiar rounded, earthen bodies with an array of reddish faces atop their circular head.

Claydol. They were alive judging by the pathetic twitches they offered, but appeared entirely crippled and incapable of movement, speech, or attack. Had they emerged from the monolith as well? Krookodile must have neutralized them with its dark-type abilities.

The dark-type didn't offer any explanation and simply stepped away from Ash, always ensuring it had at least six feet between it and the chasm it had opened up in the metal. Ash moved closer to it out of curiosity, though didn't enter quite yet. Not without his team.

Still, there was one question that remained.

"Spirit… who covered this place up?" He asked. "Not the monolith," Ash hastily corrected, then pointed down at the metal coating that had been torn up by Krookodile's mighty jaws. "The steel. Has someone been here before?"

A burst of sand-song was his response, and Ash's eyes squeezed shut as the Spirit guided him through its own experiences. Visions, rich and blurry and distinct and faded, a rush of colors, a new curiosity -

Humans - Rangers! - stalking through the desert, guided by a stone faced man with dark green hair and bright green clothing, and with him walked a silver-haired man accompanied by a terrible steel titan - Eternal rock, shattered by Earth, was made vulnerable to the titan's blows - the humans entered, emerged, and returned to seal their entry with gleaming metal and cover it with sand.

It was all too fast, and Ash wheezed when the song flitted away. Steven had been here? His mind went ablaze with a thousand and one questions, thoughts leaping all over the place as they took in the information, rearranged it, and tried to fit it into his current schema. Nothing quite worked, and Ash held back a grumble he might have vocalized, reserving it for his thoughts alone.

…He had a bone to pick with Steven.

The former Champion should have known better than anyone to warn him there was something unnatural out here. At this point his track record spoke for itself.

Regardless, he'd be hunting down his teacher promptly once this was all said and done.

He pulled away to release his team one after another - Ash didn't plan on taking all of them down into the chasm with him, but they deserved to know what weirdness he'd found himself in this time.

Ash would never make the mistake of leaving them behind. Not again. Those that remained in their pokeballs would still be held close. All those on his team, that was.

His mind went to the new souls added to his belt. After a moment's consideration, Ash unclipped them and carefully laid them into a neat pile atop a nearby sand dune. They sank an inch or two as their weight pressed down, then Ash shared a look with Krookodile and the Spirit.

"I'll be fine, but just in case…"

Comprehension lit in the Spirit's good eye and the wizened dragon nodded. Ash smiled his thanks, then released his team in full. Bright flashes lit the ancient valley one after the other and brought rare light to the shaded pass.

As they illuminated the darkened monolith and cast its size in stark contrast to the rugged mountains towering above and the flat sands settled around, something sparked to life - something like the little wisps of insight he retained from his brief mastery of the Unown. His hand didn't go to the hewn tablet around his neck, though.

No, this was less a revelation and more a long-forgotten piece of a puzzle slotting into place.

Old stone ruins collapsed into a rolling sea of sandy dunes.

Lavender branded the image into his spirit once upon a time in the Lavender Tower. Now it came back again, and for a moment he thought he heard a little girl's giggles - Chieko- carried on the wind.

But then he knew it must be all in his head, for the air in the shaded valley was still and heavy.

The thought of old Lavender earned a pensive frown and then a shake of his head as he turned to his team. They'd waited patiently as Ash fell into his little lapse. By now they were used to his wandering mind, particularly in times like these.

Ash coughed, then began his assessment. "We've tracked something to this place," he gestured to the rocky monolith and then the gaping chasm of rent steel and inky blackness. Nidoking nodded along with him and grunted something to Dazed to earn her attention. Dazed's eyes flashed as she picked up whatever thoughts and memories he'd sent her way, then her pendulum trembled with psychic power as she transmitted a concise packet of information to the rest of the team.

He allowed them a moment to process the rush of knowledge and then continued.

"The Spirit and… Krookodile?" He sent the reptilian ground-type a questioning look. Krookodile nodded, though remained guarded as his team's attention fell on the veteran.

"Krookodile." Ash repeated, "They uncovered the ruins. The Spirit led us here. Whatever is bringing the ghosts here should be down in that pit. It could be a ghost itself, a powerful dark-type, or some artifact spawning them. I don't know. We've narrowed things down, but honestly, we're going in a bit blind."

Bruiser wasn't exactly raring to go in and challenge a powerful ghost on its own turf, but he pounded his chest regardless. The sentiment was echoed by the rest - Infernus had been released a safe distance away (far enough that he wouldn't bring any harm to Krookodile or the Spirit) and eagerly bared his teeth.

Infernus was more than ready to earn a bit of revenge on a specter or two. Unfortunately, Infernus was the last teammate Ash wanted in an enclosed space or in a situation where diplomacy was still an option.

He'd be on standby, though. The ace in Ash's pocket.

His eyes skimmed over his team as a burst of warmth filled his chest. They stood strong and proud and ready to face the unknown.

Then again, why wouldn't they? He felt his own nerves firing up, but that was more excitement than anxiety or fear. Whatever waited within that darkness… They were ready. Hadn't they already seen the worst that the world had to offer? Certainly some of the most powerful.

Treating any ghost carelessly was the height of foolishness, but they weren't the inexperienced, stumbling beginners they'd once been. They were ready.

After all, they'd encountered the Ghost of Lavender and parted on friendly terms (as good of terms as you could get for something like that, anyways). It was somehow comforting knowing they wouldn't find anything more potent. Lavender would gobble up whatever spirit lurked below like a crumb.

They could handle anything else.

Now it was time for the bad news.

"I can't bring all of you." Ash winced at the rush of protests that greeted him, but raised his hand to placate them. "Caves and fire don't mix. Unfortunately, I need oxygen to breathe." Ash looked pointedly at Infernus, who scowled back sullenly and kicked at the sand. It warped and melted beneath his white-hot feet.

"So far we've been able to do things peacefully. Mostly," he corrected as he recalled some of the more troublesome ghosts. "I'd like to keep it that way. The goal is to wrap this up peacefully. We aren't trying to pick a fight."

Infernus scoffed at that, as did Sneasel. The little dark-type scraped his white claws against each other while his lean muscles tightened in preparation of a good scrap.

He skimmed his team quickly and took note of mood, possibilities, potential injuries, strategies. It only took a moment to weigh them all. Ash pointed at each in turn. "Dazed. Tangrowth. Sneasel," he laced his words with a tad more severity. "Torrent as well. Bruiser? I'll leave it to you."

A ridiculous question in hindsight, but that didn't matter. Ash liked giving his friends autonomy. It took less than a second for Bruiser to dip his head and smack his chest a thump.

Ash pounded his chest right back. It didn't make quite the same impact as Bruiser's meaty fist, but it earned a quick smile.

He would take it.

"I'll recall the rest of you. If anything goes wrong, I promise to - ow!"

A curse rolled off his tongue that would have his mom scrubbing his mouth with soap if she'd heard. Ash hopped back on one leg while his team stared silently as the culprit warbled, stared up at Ash with baby blue eyes, lowered his metallic dome head, and readied for another valiant charge into Ash's other shin.

It was all he could do to keep his balance as Ash managed to dodge the second attack. For once his warbling war cry didn't seem quite so adorable. Ash let loose a sigh when Nidoking grunted, strode over to Aron as he circled around for another go, and casually rested his enormous foot against Aron's shiny head.

The immense weight sent Aron sinking slowly into the loose sand. He grunted fiercely as his stubby little legs scrambled to break loose, but that effort only made him sink faster until his lower body was totally submerged.

"Thanks," Ash grunted. Nidoking just snorted and seemed more entertained than anything. Ash thought that was a good thing despite the throbbing in his shin. Not so long ago any attack on Ash, even one regarded as an inconvenience, would have sent his protector into a blind fury.

An attack from another member of his team might have sparked frustration or worry that some psychic was plucking their thoughts to its own tune. But this was Aron. His other friends seemed to share that feeling going by the odd looks they shared. Seeker poked her head out from behind Bruiser's shoulder to whine at Aron, who responded with a fierce warble.

"Hey! What's going on?" Ash knelt before his friend. Nidoking released Aron, who immediately ceased his squirming as Ash brushed some of the sand off him. His baleful blue eyes turned up. For once it wasn't just good cheer filling them. They were (relatively) hard now. Ash's shins might be safe, but his heart ached.

He'd missed something important.

"I'm sorry, Aron. Can you talk to me? Please?" He extended his fingers to Aron, who tentatively licked his exposed skin with his rasping tongue. The stinging as layer after layer of skin was scraped off was well worth it when Aron finally calmed. Ash finally laid his hand against Aron's dome when Aron was done sniffing at him, and smiled as he felt some of the tension ease. "What's wrong?"

Aron chuffed in a way that reminded Ash of Nidoking and then turned to butt his head at the metal rent by Krookodile's jaws. He didn't even try to nibble at it.

Ash's brow furrowed. "You want to come down with us?" Aron grumbled, pawed at the dirt, and tossed his head. No, that wasn't the whole picture.

After a moment the pieces fit together and Ash wanted to smack himself. Idiot! He gently nudged Aron's chin up so that he'd look at him. "You don't want to be protected."

That earned a vigorous nod and another lick. Little specks of blood dotted his fingertip, but Ash didn't pull it away. It was a small price to pay.

Conflicting feelings warred inside him. A mote of fear. The tightening of anxiety. Then pride grew taller than them all.

Ash wanted to keep Aron hidden. He was so small, so young, so inexperienced! But then… wasn't that exactly how Lance and Steven must have felt about him?

Was it wrong? Absolutely not. But that little insight made up his mind.

He brushed against Aron's dome and offered the steel-type a firm look. "Well… okay. You'll be with us. It doesn't matter what's down there. We'll face it together, or not at all."

Aron's eyes lit up and he did a little buck, but Ash wagged his finger at him. "I want you in the back, though. Only get involved if the others are tied up. Deal?"

His friend tried to wag his hindquarters, but resulted in his whole body wriggling back and forth. Ash glanced Dazed's way, whose eyes and pendulum flashed.

He will be safe. We are here.

"Thank you." Ash rose, though rubbed at his aching shin. That would leave an ugly bruise and he certainly wasn't eager to fly later. "Move to the chasm if you're coming with me. Otherwise…" he hesitated as a little blue-furred head poked up from behind Bruiser. His voice softened. "Seeker? Do you want to come with us?"

Squeak.

The Zubat froze at the question. Her thin coat puffed up as she shivered and her hooks clutched tighter to Bruiser's solid form. Even the Machoke cast a tentative look back and laid his heavy hand against her small body with an encouraging grunt.

Ash waited patiently. She'd processed the question quickly enough, but she needed a moment.

Something shifted, and Ash knew she wanted to. Seeker wanted to join them with all her heart. In that moment, he knew that he could reach out and make a connection just like he had with Plume.

He knew Seeker.

A breeze swept through the stagnant valley. Seeker clambered higher on Bruiser's frame and spread her wings wide until the faint light could pass through and illuminate the intricate network of veins crisscrossed through the membranes. The little bald patch on her chest was exposed and Ash's eyes were drawn to it.

In that moment Seeker opened herself to the world and all the possibilities therein. Sand and wind brushed against her to ruffle her fur and course over her shape -

Then Seeker went still as a statue as something reared its ugly head. She squeaked and scrambled back down to clutch at Bruiser like a lifeline. What-could-have-been was broken and both Ash and Bruiser wilted.

He'd seen it! For a moment all the healing, all the comfort, and all the love had restored her. That slow, steady restoration had borne fruit. Seeker's strength had shone like a beacon, and then it flitted away like dust in the end.

Disappointment swelled. Not at Seeker - never at Seeker - but for the lost moment.

"It's okay, Seeker." Ash stepped close and gently stroked Seeker's ears as they laid flat against her head. He lowered his head to whisper low. It wouldn't matter to most of his team, but Ash hoped it felt more personal. Ash brushed her soft blue fur and smiled as she leaned into his touch. "There's always next time. We'll be back soon, okay?"

Seeker was still petrified, but he sensed a tacit acceptance. Ash shared a look with Bruiser and then returned Seeker. Infernus followed next with a last puff of flame, then frowning Oz, and then the rest who wouldn't be delving into the chasm.

Ash arranged his family carefully back on his belt and turned to his remaining team.

"Plume?" She cocked her head and cooed. "I'll need you to be our eyes in the sky. If we don't come out by nightfall…" Ash trailed off, then shook it off. "If it happens, return to Lavaridge for help. Fino or Flannery. We should be fine!" Ash assured her as she stared disapprovingly. "I just want to play it safe."

Plume nodded at last, then leapt up into the sky with a rush of wind. She was just a distant speck above in no time at all.

He smiled at Tangrowth, then focused on their mission.

"Lower us in, Tangrowth. Bruiser, Torrent, Sneasel, Dazed, then Aron. In that order, please. I'll head in last."

Tangrowth bounced up and down at first, vines wriggling eagerly, but each passing name left him more and more perplexed. By the end his eyes were totally glazed over.

Ash sighed. He had no one to blame but himself.

Best to do this one at a time.

With things simplified, it wasn't long before the others had been passed down into the abyss. Only Ash, Tangrowth, the Spirit, and Krookodile remained topside. Dazed signaled him to come down with telepathy once the team had cleared the area, although Ash noted it lacked her normal clarity.

He wasted a few seconds staring into the dark pit before he gathered his wits. The Spirit and Krookodile received a brief nod, then Ash waved at Tangrowth.

Warm, comforting vines enveloped him, squeezed him once, then twice, then a third time in a bone-straining hug. It reminded him of his mom's embrace, and that was his last thought before he found himself surrounded by darkness.

XX

The chamber he'd been lowered into was far simpler than he'd expected. Somehow he'd thought to find a labyrinthine network like Forina's lurking just below the Piede, a bizarre maze full of twists, turns, and dead ends that would send him on a wild hunt.

Instead Tangrowth him down and down and down until his feet gently touched the plain rock floor of an open cave. It was dark. What little light entered the shaded valley above was unable to penetrate so deep, but that was an issue easily rectified as Tangrowth's vines unwrapped after one last affectionate squeeze.

What Ash first noticed was the cavern's air. It was cool and dry. Rather comfortable, really. Not quite musty, but it still smelled of dirt and stone that had been trapped for ages. Krookodile's work allowed some circulation, but the Piede's warm air wasn't so eager to fill this old place.

Tangrowth swung down twenty feet or so to plop down on the cavern floor and broke the room's foreboding nature with a cheerful gurgle. One of his vines looped around Ash's wrist and a little snarl from Sneasel and exasperated rumble from both Torrent and Bruiser told him that they'd been wrapped up as well.

His lips twitched.

Ash's eyes shut and he reached for the excitement, the thrill of the hunt, and the burning desire to seek out whatever lurked within this dark cave.

Fire stirred, subdued in this place due to whatever malign influence lingered, but still leapt to his command. A brilliant glow erupted from beneath the robes. The Feather was slightly obscured, but that was still enough to cast the darkness away.

Rather than a simple cave, Ash had found himself in a plain chamber. Ash looked around and found himself struck with severe déjà vu. The Feather's light didn't fill the entire area, but it served its purpose. Ash spotted the edges and lines and knew this was a place carved by human hands.

Not by artisans or skilled masons either. The cavern hadn't been shaped with skill and certainly hadn't been made beautiful. There were no artifacts or murals or old texts that he could see. This place was made for simple functionality.

But what could that be?

No adornments graced the chamber aside from six small boulders placed in the same pattern as those around the monolith. They'd been placed deliberately, which was enough to pique his curiosity. There had to be some meaning to it. A religious site for the people of the Piede?

Who knew?

The desert folk certainly hadn't mentioned anything of this sort. Perhaps it had been forgotten, or maybe they'd been caught in the protections layered over the stone. It was the power imbued here to ward away any and all investigators that really ate at him.

Nobody would bother going to the trouble of doing all that without reason.

What hid here?

By now he was reasonably confident nothing was skulking in the chamber's corners, although he looked up to scan the ceiling for good measure. It wasn't in most human's natures to look up.

Still, none of his friends had detected anything. Sneasel and Dazed's senses would have caught any concealed ghosts at this point, although he would've felt better if he could have dragged Thorn-Stalk down here. He'd have to look into training Sneasel in that Distortional sensing.

He still asked his team. Better safe than sorry.

"Can you feel anything?"

Bruiser tossed his head from where he rested at Ash's side.

Ash would have to keep an eye on him. His face was twisted into a slight grimace. Thinking about Seeker, no doubt. They'd need to talk once they got out of here.

No, Friend-Trainer. Nothing living has ever made its home here. There are… echoes. Traces of something I cannot place. Old. Mighty. Sturdy.

His eyes narrowed. "A Legend?"

If he found another less than a month after stumbling onto Jirachi and Groudon…

Dazed's large fingers squeezed against her pendulum, which flickered azure in the light glow cast by the Feather. She wrung her hands around her focus and clenched tight. That alone spoke volumes to Ash. It demonstrated more uncertainty than Ash had seen from his friend in ages.

I do not know. It is jumbled. Lesser than one would expect. It has not stained this place with its essence as Fire or Ice or Lightning would. Or Earth. If it is of their ilk, it stands shorter than any other.

There was no accusation in her words, but it still stung regardless. His breath hitched and his mind sharpened and the thrill of the hunt faded to a grim sense of duty.

"And now it's gone."

Ash stepped out of the circle. Bruiser and Torrent flanked him to his left and right respectively as they accompanied him. Although Bruiser appeared distracted, he did seem curious about the stones embedded in the rocky floor. His nature wouldn't lead him to disturb the tranquility of a natural place, but it was clear now that this chamber was the farthest thing from natural.

Bruiser pushed gently against one of the boulders out of curiosity.

It didn't budge.

Ash scanned the room again for any sign of civilization. Any artwork or tool or relic of those that came before. Any scrap that might offer any kind of insight as to what was once kept here.

There was nothing.

The walls were bare. The floor was empty aside from the boulders. Whatever had once rested here had been left in a barren chamber. It was as sterile as a temple-tomb-ruin could be.

Still… he supposed he should be grateful for finding just an empty tomb. He knew how much worse it could have been.

"This place is empty. No sign of anything that might spawn the ghosts…" Ash murmured, then glanced behind him. Torrent had been oddly silent, barely offering a rumble other than when Tangrowth had looped a vine around his tail. Tellingly, he hadn't tried to remove it. "What are your thoughts?"

Red eyes took in their surroundings, then squeezed shut. Ash knew the arid environment couldn't have been comfortable for him, but Torrent never complained. He shouldn't leave him out for much longer, though.

Those thoughts slipped away as Torrent levitated ahead to one of the six stones and looked pointedly down at it. His curled tail flicked out to tap it.

"Worth a shot," Ash hummed. He knelt beside the boulder and laid his bare hand against it. A bit of the blood on his finger that wasn't dried yet stained the stone.

He knew what to look for after his experience with the monolith, but there was something else - something wrapped up in the stone. A warning?

Ash pressed past the hesitation and immersed himself into the layers of intent bound to the stones. He recognized the links and similarities and the touch of humans on it, then used those to strengthen his connection. This time, Tangrowth was his anchor. Tangrowth kept him attached to the real world.

A flood of information rushed through his mind.

Another might have found it overwhelming. Another may have been left unconscious and gibbering and groaning with a splitting headache.

But Ash had borne the weight of the world, if only for a moment, and this was little more than a tickle.

Reinforcement - Perpetual - Unchanging - Stability - Eternal - all the same ideas and wishes carved into the essence of the monolith above, but then it changed - Stasis- Boundary - Reality - Remember!

A rush of images trickled through his thoughts. They were hazy, indistinct, and faded with time, but Ash still found himself enraptured.

The titan waded through their lines at the Alfa heir's command, viewed through battle-haze as it towered above them all, dripping in gore and viscera, its pulses and groans and nonsensical clicks and whistles shattering their morale

His fellows stalked through the night at his side, they found the heir in his camp, throat slit by the girl as promised, they secured the titan, whisked it away to the ends of the earth

Six Aura Guardians encircled the God-King's lifeless titan in its final resting place, imbued the place with their will, and left the golem sealed forever behind a fouler abomination

Never would it find another master, never would it be a tool of kings

He sighed as he came to and Ash stared at the place around him. Those impressions had already slipped away, only the surface most bits retained, but it left him with the lingering vision of a resting colossus standing tall between the stones.

"What is that thing?" He whispered as he imagined the colossus' silhouette. Colors, size… all gone. Any true detail had been lost.

No, all that remained was a vision of burning orange dots. It was arrayed in two lines of three vertical spots and linked by a single touch of fiery light, and inhuman noises no living thing could produce shrieked from its enormous body…

It is gone, Friend-Trainer.

"I hope Steven's already finished his business. I have questions." Ash grumbled.

He stared to the center of the circle where the titan once stood. Tangrowth had bounced between the circles and replaced the colossus as he snaked his vines all around them. He opened his mind to Dazed as she brushed against his thoughts. "I have no clue what that thing is, but I do know it's not here anymore. It's not spawning our ghosts."

He glanced at Sneasel as his friend sniffed around one of the walls. The dark-type's fur drank up the light radiating from Ash and made Ash imagine him as a little blot of living ink prowling around.

"Sneasel… do you feel anything?" Ash's brow furrowed. "There has to be something beyond this chamber. We're not supposed to be here; the titan was sealed behind something. Something powerful. I think we might have taken a shortcut into this chamber."

No doubt the architects of this place hadn't expected the monolith to crack and weaken their precious seals. They certainly hadn't planned for Krookodile to tear its way in.

The fragments he retained were summoned to the fore of his thoughts and his every neuron strained to fire and recall whatever scraps he could. Ash tried to trace the wisps and cling to the long-dead figure who had invested those pieces of themselves into the guarding stone, but could barely imagine anything other than the vaguest impressions of the titan as it was sealed away.

If he couldn't do it that way…

Ash glanced back at Sneasel and found that he was a bust. Sneasel growled and scraped at the rock walls with his razor claws, but bone had no effect against the fortified material. A thought came to mind. Could a Distortional ability like Shadow Claw weaken the protections embedded in the foundation?

It was a sound idea, but Ash was loath to damage this place if he could help it. That would remain a last resort.

Even after the sanctum had been cracked open by Earth's fitful breath it still retained incredible fortitude. Part of Ash dallied with the thought of preserving this place for his own use. Most would never bypass its lingering aura of misdirection. The thought of a private hideaway far from the troubles of civilization and celebrity held quite a bit of appeal.

He and Gary had constructed a few secret forts and dug out the occasional burrow to hide out in as kids while they roamed the limits of Pallet Town. 'Secret bases'. Ash smiled at what Gary would say if he found out Ash might be continuing that tradition.

That could come later. He had other priorities now.

"We're missing something." Ash scanned again for any hidden entrance or chamber that might lead them elsewhere in the monolith's interior. Torrent remained by his side, but Bruiser had ventured off to press against the wall and tapped rhythmically against different sections of the stone.

Ash watched him curiously for a moment as he moved his way around the wall. Was this something he'd learned in the Fuschian territory? He had run into Bruiser in a cave, after all.

Just a minute or two afterwards Bruiser grunted softly with satisfaction and poked at a certain section of the chamber's wall.

"Can you feel anything past the stone?" Ash turned to Dazed. Her eyes squeezed shut and burned blue. Her crystalline pendulum quivered as her psychic awareness swept over the place and dug past the protections -

There. A passage.

She helpfully filtered the information directly into his mind. Dazed had pinpointed an imperceptible shift in the grain and fit of the stone. It would've taken the rest of them hours to find it without her and Bruiser's aid. It would have been too easy to be misdirected by its similarity to the rock and the inhuman perfection in which it had been slotted in.

Nothing about this place was natural. This discovery just confirmed it.

"There! Let's go!"

Bruiser strode ahead of him to shield him from an ambush, but none seemed forthcoming. Instead he leaned forward and squinted. Ash powered the Feather to greater heights in order to illuminate the patch of rock.

Even with Dazed's guidance he found it almost impossible to determine the exact boundaries of the hidden passage.

Still, there was something odd as he pressed his hand against it. Not a message woven into the stone. Nothing supernatural at all, actually.

Just a bunch of etchings into the stone, sharp and crisp and recent.

It felt as if it had been carved into the stone just a few days ago, but Ash knew better than most that appearances could be deceiving. The writings in Jirachi's caverns had seemed timeless as well. Still, Ash felt distinctly unsettled as he read it over and realized it really was modern.

DO NOT ENTER BY COMMAND OF THE EVER GRANDE LEAGUE AND CHAMPION STEVEN STONE

UNKNOWN PRESENCE WITHIN

SUSPECTED HOSTILE

… Of course. On one hand, he should turn back, contact Steven, and try to figure this whole mess out.

Son of a bitch, Steven!

…And on the other hand, curiosity gnawed at him like a Growlithe with a bone. Or Professor Oak's Arcanine and wrapping paper. Those hungry thoughts ate at him - what could be down here that was so dangerous the League itself had sealed it off?

"And why write the warning on the secret door?" He griped to Dazed, who just shook her head.

Torrent snorted. This was blunt enough that it could only have come from Steven himself. Claydol must not have had a chance to add to the plan; there was no way the psychic would stand for anything so unsubtle.

They'd meant for this place to be buried in sand and tossed from living memory, but it was fairly clear that hadn't gone to plan. Things here had degenerated to the point of shredded protections and newborn ghosts flooding out to roam the desert. The Spirit and Krookodile had deemed it necessary to guide him here ahead of time rather than challenge whatever lay within.

Despite his misgivings, Ash felt ready to press onward. His heart pounded, anticipation stirred, and he felt no fear.

This was his mission.

This was his duty.

Most importantly, he wasn't alone.

That didn't mean he would be reckless, however. He expected they'd have to blast down this door. Given the warning left by the League, that probably meant they'd be walking into a fight. Whatever lay behind the wall was dangerous one way or another.

It wouldn't be easy, but it shouldn't be impossible either. Steven had chosen not to press forward, but that could have been for a dozen different reasons. The protections must have been sturdier then and sufficient to prevent any influence from leaking out of this prison. It was clear the ghosts were a recent problem.

Ash suspected the League had grabbed the colossus and ghosted it away. They had their prize. Pushing on for another fight against an unknown opponent would have been futile.

"Back up!"

They all shifted away as one. Ash glanced between his teammates and saw they'd all tensed and readied for battle. "We don't know what's waiting for us. Give it a chance, but be ready for the worst."

Any levity had drained from them. Even Sneasel nodded his agreement and stood with his claws unsheathed. Tangrowth almost certainly did not understand but seemed happy to be included nonetheless.

He steeled himself. "We have to break through," Ash brushed his hand over the hard stone. A plan quickly came to mind. "Dazed, strike it with a Shadow Ball once I give the signal. That should dispel any protections for a minute. Bruiser, do you think you can break through the wall?"

Bruiser nodded.

"Good. Just be careful. This place is tough, but I don't want to bring the whole structure down on us. Once the wall is down we'll give it a moment before we enter. I don't want to put it on the defensive."

That would probably be the case regardless, but Ash would do everything in his power to avoid a fight. Ghosts were tricky and this one was likely to be particularly tough. While his team were the ideal opponents and he'd have Nidoking's pokeball at the ready just to be safe, he also hoped they could approach it without setting off alarms in its head.

If it hada head, that was.

He'd chosen his partners for this fight with good reason. Dazed's Shadow Ball and shields would be useful, as would any telepathy she could manage. Sneasel's resistance against any dark power would be essential, as would his ability to shred its essence with his claws. Bruiser could pummel whatever corporeal bits it had into submission.

It was difficult to think of a scenario where Torrent wasn't useful.

And in the worst case scenario he could rely on Tangrowth to rip the whole monolith apart with Ancient Power. It might be difficult, but its protections were failing. He had faith in his friend.

He sucked in a deep breath, reigned in his excitement and used it as fuel - "Now!"

The entire structure shuddered as Dazed slammed a Shadow Ball into the secret door. Grey energy splashed across it and crackled furiously as it ate away at the material. They gave it just a moment to shred its defenses.

Bruiser wasted no time when Ash nodded. Muscles grew taut and swollen while blood pounded through them, veins and arteries bulging and pumping and burning. A guttural roar erupted from Bruiser's throat as he took two steps and hammered the door with one of his massive fists.

He thought it might have been for nothing at first. The chamber shook beneath the force of that strike. A human's arm would've shattered into a million tiny splinters of bone and streaked the room red under that kind of strain, but the door stood firm.

Then ancient stone and old protections fell apart beneath Bruiser's raw might and Ash heard a deep note like a groan burst forth from the emptiness. The sound rushed outward, swept through them, and died just as soon as it arose. An otherworldly chill lingered about them like an invisible miasma that seeped past skin and bone, but it showed no signs of strengthening.

His nostrils flared as ancient air infiltrated his airway. It was dry, musty, and seemingly relieved to finally be released from its prison. It rushed out and was soon swept out by the air circulating in the hole to the surface.

Silence.

They shared a glance and asked silent questions, but Ash shook his head. There was no time to wait.

He must move forward. Always forward.

Now his way forward was an abyss. The door shattered quite cleanly, all things considered. Dazed's efforts to strip away its defenses had left those on the surrounding walls relatively intact. Bruiser's punch had only left a bare rectangular window into the void beyond.

It was there they'd find their target.

"Hello?"

No response came, but the chill curled its claws deeper. His Feather's light dimmed, then returned to its full brilliance with a flex of Ash's will.

Aron clutched close to Ash's leg. He shivered from the unearthly presence that waxed and waxed and waxed with every passing second. His fear was plain as day, but his baby blue eyes didn't stray from the passageway. After a moment, Aron warbled and stepped out from behind Ash on his wobbly legs.

He stood beside Ash now, not behind him.

Despite himself, Ash smiled.

"Can you sense anything?" Ash whispered. Dazed's eyes and pendulum flashed, but no explanations or packets of information slipped into Ash's thoughts. Her focus quivered ever more fervently with Dazed's will, but after a moment it hung limp.

Dazed's eyes narrowed to slits.

Well, that wasn't good. It was mighty enough to dampen Dazed's telepathy. No, not just that. It had managed to utterly silence her. Its presence would ruin attempts at finer psychic manipulations, but she should be able to fight.

There were other ways to communicate, however. Dazed pointed a thick finger at the door, then shook her head.

Nothing.

"We're with the League!" Ash called out into the darkness, then winced at his own stupidity. This thing might be millennia old! What would the League possibly mean to it? "We're here to talk. Nobody wants to fight. May we enter?"

Nothing.

Hesitation took hold. After a moment (and especially once he sensed the shadow in his mind's growing curiosity) he laid his hand on Nidoking's pokeball. It wasn't time to release him just yet. They could still resolve things peacefully.

Better to have a knife in his hand than in its sheath, though.

He loved Nidoking, but Nidoking wasn't exactly a diplomat. Perhaps one day, but not now. If a threat reared its head then he would end it. Against an unknown specter creeping in the dark… well, his paranoia would show in full.

This was no Arid Lady or Krookodile (or even the Spirit of the Desert) that Nidoking could crush into the dirt.

"Please don't attack us. We're coming in, but we just want to meet with you. It will be me and just two of my friends. The rest will stay outside." Ash stressed his point again.

He signaled Bruiser, who snagged Sneasel by his scruff and pulled the uncharacteristically silent dark-type up to his shoulder. He was in the best position to break any attack that came through while Sneasel could rush in and attack while the spirit was distracted.

The Feather's light couldn't penetrate the darkness. It was swallowed up and devoured whole. Bruiser and Sneasel stepped forward and brushed the void. They were ready for anything.

Or so they thought.

They crossed the threshold. When they did, it began. Something shifted. That tentative weight redoubled. Cold seeped through his robes, then coated his skin like a slick oily film.

Something hidden in that abyss flickered with life.

His first sight of it was a venomous green light flickering. Its hue reminded him more of a sizzling Acid attack than the chlorophyllic hue of a grass-type or the natural wonders of Forina. It spilled upwards and coalesced into a few hanging orbs that waited still and lifeless within the shadow. They reminded Ash of ripe, poisonous berries.

He had the odd feeling he was being watched.

One. Shudder.

Two. Shudder.

Three. Shudder.

With every pulse the pressure filling the room suddenly redoubled. An exhaustion bore down on him - on all of them! - and the strength sapped from Ash's limbs. His knees weakened and his arms grew heavy. Even his mind's hectic flurry of thoughts slowed to a crawl as if they'd been trapped in a sea of molasses.

Ash's vision blurred until even his team were only insubstantial mirages. They slipped away from him. Were they real, or was this just one terribly long dream? Who knew? Who cared?

Thinking was too much effort.

So tired. So sleepy. What he wouldn't give for a real bed right now.

The full weight of his long travels hammered down now with every burden imaginable. Last night's long hunt for the ghosts. The incessant training and inexhaustible efforts he'd poured into Forina. Hours and hours spent working and walking. All of the work spent becoming human again.

Four.

Every scar ached. His cheek. His face. His arms. His throat. His spirit.

Five.

He'd come so far. And for what?

Six.

Hadn't he earned his rest?

Seven.

The floor was cold. Hard.

Eight.

It would do.

Nine.

Eyes shut.

Ten.

Something wrong. Not him.

Eleven.

Too much to do. Can't rest.

Twelve.

Mission.

Thirteen.

Fight fatigue. Twitch finger. So hard.

Better to sleep?

No!

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Open eyes!

Was it worth it? Why care? Tired.

Eyes cracked.

Flickers of awareness. Other shapes around him. His team!

Real. Not dream.

Team not moving.

He squeezed his fist. It felt like climbing a mountain..

He did it again.

It was easier now.

He propped himself up on shaking forearms. Why was he so tired? It wasn't like that before.

That was what he clung to. All he had to do was remember that this wasn't right. If he could just remember that, he could reach down to Nidoking's pokeball. First he had to look. See what was happening -

The innermost sanctum wasn't pitch-black anymore. It was the first thing he noticed.

Still dark. Almost inscrutable.

Inscrutable except for a still ring of evil green orbs filled with a sulfuric yellow. Pulsating, or at least trying to. Still more lifeless than he'd expect.

A gently glowing cloud of ghastly lavender gas emanated from something still hidden in the dark. It didn't roil or shudder or waver in an invisible breeze, but stayed constant and eerily controlled as it framed a familiar that stirred something.

He strained his eyes and picked out a spectral face of horrid green embedded in the lavender gas.

The last time he'd seen a creature like this it had been twisted in a hateful, wrathful rictus. Malice had poured outward, so thick as to be tangible.

This one was different. No jagged scowl or baleful glare, but a 'face' flat of spirit. Empty. Lifeless. Its unwavering features reflected nothing at all. Its slit green eyes stared past Ash and the rest who were still scattered across the floor.

It looked through them, not at them.

Was it even conscious?

Did it know they were here?

His groggy mind watched it for a moment. It was wrong, so wrong… and he knew it didn't belong. Alien and abominable as it spilled forth from the cracked stone briefly illuminated as its green spheres pulsed -

"Shit."

Spiritomb.

All it took was that brief recognition and the spell was broken. He'd fought his way out of its corruptive power just barely with his force of will, but his team began to stir as well. Tangrowth appeared to still be trapped in a deep sleep.

No! There was Sneasel. He'd already scrambled to his feet. His claws shone in the dark.

"Sneasel…" Ash groaned, overcome as another wave of exhaustion nearly bowled him over. His friend looked back and snarled. His eyes were wide and frantic. "Wake the others!"

Every word came just a little easier than before, but still left him wishing to do nothing more than lay back down and close his eyes until it all went away… "Hurry! They only need a nudge."

His friend cast a hateful glare Spiritomb's way, but moved swiftly when he saw that Spiritomb hadn't moved to attack. Somehow the hate brought Cynthia's horrid yarn of their creation to his dim thoughts and Ash felt a pinch of pity beneath the panic.

Spiritomb didn't even twitch at Ash's sluggish movement and frenzied words. Its dispassionate lack of concern struck a chord in Ash, and he stared.

The lavender gas of its 'body' didn't flicker. Didn't twist and coil. It stayed flat. Even its sinister eyes remained blank. The ring of odd green spheres which had circled and remained in flux on Cynthia's Spiritomb were stagnant.

At a glance Spiritomb appeared frozen in time. It was stagnant. Unmoving. Unfeeling. He could imagine Sneasel rending it apart with a Shadow Claw and not even elicit a flinch.

But Ash felt the pressure emanating from it and the oily film that clung to his skin. Tasted the unearthly presence. Watched the subtle cracks in reality, the wavering of shadow and strain in the air.

The shadow in his mind had fled.

His team still hadn't risen. Sneasel dashed to Bruiser first and slapped him with his velvety paws. When that didn't work, Sneasel hissed in his ear and even spit on his face when that failed to wake him fully. Bruiser sat up and blinked slowly as his muscles flexed slightly and one of his open palms swung to swat at the little dark-type.

Sneasel danced away, though his motions seemed slow and unsteady still, and went to the next.

As Sneasel raced to Torrent, Dazed's fingers clasped around her pendulum. Her eyes stared blankly above. She wasn't asleep, just overwhelmed by the enfeebling presence. Or so Ash hoped. If Spiritomb could bring sleep to a Hypno… no. She would rise soon.

She must.

Tangrowth's vines twitched. The one around his wrist had fallen limply away, but still strained for Ash. A soft gurgle came from within the wriggling shell.

Then his vision pulled to his left and there was Torrent. His great body sagged, but his red eyes were sharp beneath the haze of exhaustion. Torrent drifted sluggishly Ash's way and almost seemed drunk as he dipped and sagged, but steadily appeared at Ash's side. He spared a look for Aron, still asleep, and waited for Ash's command.

"Wait," Ash murmured and wrapped an arm around Torrent's tough scales. His friend provided an anchor for Ash as he rose. Every second he stood felt an eternity and taxed his stamina to its limits, but Ash only had eyes for Spiritomb. One hand drifted down to Nidoking's pokeball.

It hadn't technically attacked them. He'd give it one last chance.

"Spiritomb! Listen - agh!"

The spell broke once that name left his lips. Ash felt some tension uncoil, felt the world itself grow dark around him, and the lavender haze flickered for just a moment before it returned to its unnatural stasis.

Green spheres quivered, no longer paralyzed by the Spiritomb, and those flat eyes looked at him -

He handed over Nidoran at Mt. Moon lest he be killed (how could he?!) - Accepting oblivion beneath Muk - The Rocket grunt smashed his face into the wall, his nose crunched, he was too weak and confused to stand up -

Burning lungs! Why fight? He was going to die - Freezing in the Seafoam Caverns, why had he come down here? Why not spend the night resting and then turn back? - Sit at the Pokemon Center, watch other trainers together, go numb - Infernus limp. The fight leaves him - Accept oblivion - Tuck it all away - Deal with it later -

Memory after memory of despair, hopelessness, submission, apathy - all those rushed by in a blur. Spiritomb's gaze struck a melancholy chord and Ash looked back. It roiled now, false serenity shattered by a reminder of what it was, and the pressure rolling off it cracked reality, sent the temperature in flux, set the air alight with a lavender tint cast with ugly green.

Spiritomb screamed.

Its power pressed against his spirit like a torrential downpour attempting to snuff out a bonfire.

Another Ash, a younger Ash, might have succumbed to the unstoppable force. Spiritomb's mental howl tried to batter down the guard around his thoughts, tried to carve through and share its pain. Not just with Ash, but with his team, with the world - everything had to know!

Everything must know! Everything must feel!

The sustained second wave wracked his team. Aron yipped and cried as his stubby limbs kicked back and forth. Dazed's sensitivity left her limp. Even Sneasel stumbled back and clutched his heart. He let loose a mewling cry as if he were a newborn again, and looked tearfully to Ash.

Bruiser's muscles went rigid, taut as an iron rod, but he still rose, as did Torrent. The great Kingdra was bent but unbroken.

In Ash it met an immovable object.

Ash grit his teeth as Spiritomb shrieked, an unearthly sound like the cracking of stone and the wail of a high mountain wind and something horribly reminiscent of a baby's cry, and a third wave rippled forth. It cut deep.

Never hunger never thirst just enough to survive keep them on the edge of death and only darkness and time in the pit until they were pulled by the Lucario and welcomed what was to come as a break in the monotony end the tortures end the eternity please end the torture the end is here it is almost over almost free no no no no no no not free no no no no no no no

He hissed as the foreign experiences poured in as a jumble of impressions and emotional desolation wrapped up in a demanding cry. It beat down on him incessantly, every moment an age, and the Feather dimmed but he let it. Ash didn't need its strength! Not for this!

Sit down. Curl up.

Life was cruel.

Why continue? Suffering lay ahead.

Why fight?

Just sit and wait for the end.

Remember New Island? Just a pinch and all the pain and fight and effort was gone.

Close your eyes. Find your peace.

It was a kinder fate than he'd get out there.

No!

Ash broke the insidious thoughts - products of his own mind, not demands of Spiritomb, all hidden desires and secret weariness Spiritomb's sympathetic power had hooked into and dragged to the surface - and glared at Spiritomb, who still seemed barely cognizant of him. It watched him, but was content to just blast them with its malevolent presence.

It wasn't even really fighting them!

Still, he found it easier to bear with time. He recognized the influence as foreign now and found it easier to move. The exhaustion broke (his team was ready to rise) and Ash found the strength to steel himself for the fourth wave of misery that struck him to his core.

Empty his fears. Fighting is pointless. Just accept it.

Let the end come.

Let the end come.

Let the -

Ash threw the mental influence off again with a titanic struggle of will that left him gasping for breath. He hissed something unintelligible that stirred his team, and finally found the strength to move.

He snarled as he tapped Nidoking's release. That rage born of his team's suffering was good. It was good as a sword and shield against a creature composed of raw emotion. He clutched that, burned it as fuel and purpose and direction to fight off the intoxicating lure of apathy and oblivion, and a savage smile came to his lips as Nidoking appeared with a roar.

That roar fell away in an instant. Hope fled.

Nidoking sagged forward, burdened immediately by the crippling apathy and emptiness and misery that Spiritomb shared with them. He wheezed, whined, and see, why were they even bothering? Fighting was useless. There was no point wasting energy like this.

Their end was inevitable. They would die here. Perhaps someone would find their bones one day like Ash had discovered the corpses piled high in Jirachi's crypt. Was it really so bad? His bones ached. His scars twinged. His eyelids felt heavy as lead.

Ash's insides felt like someone had scooped them out and left him hollow, just skin and bone and the ashen remains of a flame that had burnt too long and too bright.

One final breath and Ash shut his eyes as Nidoking knelt beside him.

He was ready. At least he was here with -

His team!

"Agh!" Ash wrenched himself upwards, tossing off Spiritomb's insidious influence with a roar. He stared into those murky lavender depths, eyes locked on the poor creature's viridescent gaze, and steeled himself.

Not a single tendril of its power could slip by or it would rot him from the inside out.

The power might not be so overbearing outside this tomb. But Spiritomb had stained this place with its pain for an eternity. Even the stone itself felt strained to its breaking point, the fortifications placed here eroded after countless centuries of exposure to the creature's gnawing presence. The pressure seeped into Ash from all corners.

Remember the sun and the sands and the winds. Remember the warmth of his team. Remember his mom. She was waiting, but then wasn't she broken? Did she even remember him? He shouldn't even bother trying. You can't glue a shattered window pane back the way it was -

"Nidoking!" Ash hissed and slapped at his friend's shoulder. The poison-type stared blankly ahead, trapped within his own thoughts, and Ash shook him again. He might as well have flicked an Onix for all the reaction it bought. "Nidoking! Please! Help me!"

That earned something. A twitch. Glimmers of awareness. Nidoking rose, but still stumbled under the wave of seductive apathy. Of all his team, Nidoking had carried their burdens the longest and closest to heart.

Leaving that behind under Spiritomb's spell must seem sweeter than any victory.

"Nidoking…" Ash saw the rest of his team still struggling. Even Sneasel was overburdened by the dark power. He grabbed Nidoking's great claws and rose to his feet to whisper into his ear. "I'm here. Listen. I need you - we can beat this together."

Another wave of soulsucking apathy hammered against them. Ash threw it off this time. It twisted his thoughts for a moment, but he knew Spiritomb's game. He wouldn't be taken off guard so easily.

Spiritomb's power was like a great flood sweeping everything else away, but that was all it was. The tortured creature was strong, but it was simple. A flailing beast. Ash had survived its initial assault, and now he had its measure.

That didn't mean he would find it easy.

His breath slowed to a crawl, his strength fled, but he retained his sense of self. His team struggled, but they weren't so easily struck down this time. They could recover.

They were finding their senses.

But it would take time. Time they didn't have.

"Together, Nidoking! To me."

Just as he prepared for a desperate play to draw on Fire and Lightning to break the mind numbing spell stealing their will - not cold Ice, which might spell their doom - his words finally reached Nidoking, and a smile split across his face as true awareness filled his oldest friend's expression.

Awareness and fury. Rage at his thoughts and feelings being twisted and plucked to dance at Spiritomb's tomb. A roar filled the tomb that stirred the rest, and it all clicked for Ash even as he reached to his belt to unclip a pokeball. Ash primed it and prepared to throw it to buy his team a moment's reprieve. Nidoking had already shaped a Shadow Ball to fling.

He couldn't be sure what horrors had been visited upon the poor humans and pokemon stripped of their identities and rendered into Spiritomb, but he knew that it had left them empty. They had nothing. Now they were just a void of misery, surrender, nihilism, and apathy.

And it was that nothing that Spiritomb bled into the tomb and his team.

It was no wonder they'd been used to bring armies to their knees. Frightened peasants and greedy lords of Sinnoh would have collapsed and been left easy prey for whatever monster commanded this nightmarish power. They'd be hollowed out from the inside and welcome death as an old friend.

His eyes caught sight of a cracked rock at Spiritomb's base and he knew what they must do.

"The keystone!" Every word came easier than the last despite Spiritomb's power falling down on them like a hammer. Its spectral face remained flat and emotionless still, and that was what bothered Ash the most. Could he truly consider Spiritomb malicious, or was it just empty?

He wasn't sure how long its passivity would last once he targeted its keystone, though.

Nidoking's aim was true. The Shadow Ball went low, sucked whatever scant light rested in the tomb into it, and -

Faded away?

Ash blinked, though it seemed he'd finally gotten Spiritomb's attention. Its green rings and blank face deepened in hue, darkened until it had become emerald, and the power redoubled. He grit his teeth as a focused expression of Spiritomb's will hammered against his own, but that did spare his teammates from the pressure and they began to rise.

For just a moment he bore all the Spiritomb's oppressive apathy on his shoulders.

He wheezed, thought of meeting a little Nidoran and Pidgey and Horsea, thought of his friends, thought of his mentors. He even thought of Team Rocket and Giovanni! Clung to how furious he was at what Molly had done to his mother. A limp body burning atop Mt. Ember.

Anything that stirred emotion, good or bad, fair or foul, was his lifeline.

Feelings acted like an aegis against the slothful, apathetic appeals Spiritomb attempted to insinuate into his spirit.

It was enough, but only barely. Tears filled Ash's eyes as misery and little flickers of stitched together lives that weren't his own trickled into his mind, that horrid emptiness amplified with the wretched silence in a single mind forged of one hundred and eight, like watching a roaring crowd go utterly silent -

He felt bile and grit burning like acid in his throat, setting the scarred tissue aflame, and that pain was good too.

Ash fought through it, pulled his arm back, and tossed the pokeball at Spiritomb. It sailed through the air at the perfect angle, reached the midway point, and froze as Spiritomb's emerald gaze landed upon the red-and-white device.

He gaped.

The pokeball didn't just slow beneath Spiritomb's pressure. It petrified under its empty stare, like time itself had been torn from it and told to come back later. Ash watched for any signs of subtle movement, but it didn't so much as twitch.

Well, that was something.

Spiritomb vanished from reality, then reappeared just a few feet to the side as its Shadow Sneak took effect. It was slow, like attempting to move and act was horribly taxing, but Ash had no doubt it could leap hundreds of feet with the technique if necessary.

When Spiritomb slipped away the pokeball unfroze and slammed into the ground uselessly right where Spiritomb had been.

"Keep it off balance!" Ash hissed to his reawakened team. Nidoking responded with a Thunderbolt that leapt from his horn to Spiritomb, though it was devoured whole by the shroud of Distortional power emanating from the keystone.

Then came Torrent's Hydro Pump. It froze beneath another empty stare and was slowly nibbled away by Spiritomb's radiant power.

Their attacks turned the tide and kept it on the defensive, though none of their assaults had a hope of making it through Spiritomb's protective shroud and freezing stare at this rate.

They didn't have to, though. The unending flurry of attacks from every direction kept Spiritomb from mounting another assault, though, and that bought him time. His thoughts slowly cleared without Spiritomb's power bringing his worst parts to the surface.

His clear eyes couldn't miss Spiritomb's flat gaze as it sparked with something other than emptiness.

Ash glanced around. Dazed was still out of commission, though he couldn't recall her yet. If there was any chance she might be needed... Ash hated himself for it, but turned his gaze to Tangrowth, who stirred just as Spiritomb turned its gaze on Nidoking as he readied another Shadow Ball.

A bulky grey rocket leapt through the air with a roar, fist poised back to hammer into Spiritomb's material keystone, and froze. Spiritomb moaned, finally displaying some kind of discomfort, but kept its stare locked on Bruiser as it shredded time around the Machoke.

Bruiser didn't even twitch under its power, but something about him must have been straining still. With every passing moment Spiritomb's pressure lessened, all bound up in silencing Bruiser's time and protecting from the relentless blasts of electricity and water and darkness that came down on it like a storm.

Spiritomb still held them back, but without its power actively pounding through their minds and twisting their thoughts the momentum shifted fully in their favor. Ash could breathe again, and so could his team.

Dazed was only twitching, but at least she was safe.

He took their measure (Tangrowth whined, rocking back and forth, and Ash recalled him as the grass-type still seemed lost in his own mind) and new orders spilled from his lips.

Sneasel had the right idea, though. Before Ash said a word, Sneasel threw off the final shreds of Spiritomb's influence and leapt at the spirit with a deadly hiss. He ripped through its petrifying stare in a frenzy of flashing claws and struck at its keystone directly with a Shadow Claw.

With that, Sneasel drew first blood (or the equivalent when dealing with an ancient Sinnoan ghost) and Spiritomb howled. Bruiser came free as they all moaned as it lashed out and this had gone on long enough it was time to give up -

"Keep at it!" Ash roared. His words snapped his team out of their own stupors.

Spiritomb's face scowled and its green spheres finally circled like those of Cynthia's Spiritomb now. It spat out misery and curses and dark power that a less experienced Ash would have fallen against easily.

As it was, they weathered it.

Nidoking stepped in front of Ash and manifested a shimmering green Protect to block against Spiritomb's stare, though it eroded quickly under its blank eyes until Torrent struck at it with a Dragon Pulse that shook the room, then Sneasel dashed in to strike, only for Spiritomb to vanish and reappear in the titan's chamber -

Another wave of emptiness wracked them and stole away their will and memories and strength. They fought through it and wheeled around to face their mighty foe. Bruiser was already sprinting with grim determination plastered across his reptilian face, but suddenly found himself frozen in the face of Spiritomb's glare.

Enormous power welled from Spiritomb and a feeling like a placid sea turned to storm filled the chambers. It stunned the rest for just a moment and rolled over them to seep into their spirits, but Ash remained undeterred.

While his team recovered and he bore the force of Spiritomb's spiritual pressure, he grit his teeth and prepared an Ultra Ball.

He didn't throw it. Not yet.

Still, with most of his team frozen he looked to Sneasel, who had already dashed at Spiritomb again. Spiritomb's shell of apathy had shattered entirely and its full strength was enough to petrify Sneasel, though the dark-type managed to crawl forth in slow motion regardless. It couldn't entirely overcome Sneasel's resistance.

The others started to come to again. Victory was so close - Spiritomb stared at Ash.

Emptiness filled his chest. A power born of Spiritomb's fractured minds swept over him - only darkness, only ever darkness, time has no meaning in the darkness- until he broke his way out of the abyss with his own iron will.

Time caught up. Spiritomb's eyes went from blank to wide in an instant as its terrible power slid away from Ash, then a warble filled the air.

Aron, little Aron, charged forth on stubby legs. He roared his war cry, sailed up into the air with Magnet Rise, lowered his head to hammer into Spiritomb's keystone even as Sneasel flanked the creature -

Time silenced.

The full scale of Spiritomb's misery was shared with Aron. He cried out and Ash roared with fury - "Mind Breaker!" - to give the damn thing a taste of its own medicine, and Sneasel tensed. Every muscle quivered as an awful yowl spilled and Sneasel ensured he was turned away from the rest to avoid catching them in the attack.

Aron fell free. He sailed forward as Spiritomb loosened its grip on time, but collapsed to the earth with a cry as Spiritomb's power wracked his mind.

Ash's eyes widened as Aron's body began to glow a familiar white, the brightest and most brilliant light imaginable spilling forth -

Then it was drowned out by a surge of darkness. Aron's little body was left nothing more than a distant star in the void of space when Sneasel channeled his full power into a single Mind Breaker.

Sneasel was only a foot or two away from Spiritomb when he unleashed the Distortional wave. The power filling the room shuddered as all the light sucked away for an instant. It spat dripping slow and steady like a tree's sap from Sneasel's snarling mouth and washed over Spiritomb's incorporeal body of lavender smoke. Emerald eyes that showed a hint of confusion, something like relief -

And then it was done. Sneasel staggered away before Spiritomb could counterattack, but there was no need. It had retreated into its keystone beneath the power of the Mind Breaker. The potent Distortional attack was the only thing thus far to truly damage it. Apparently Spiritomb wasn't eager to experience the same power it wielded.

Lavender gas already seeped out of the keystone, but far more sluggishly. His team rushed forth to keep it suppressed and cover Aron, but Ash had enough. His mind raced as Aron's blinding form shifted and began to grow. He couldn't deal with Spiritomb right now, he had to -

An Ultra Ball smashed into Spiritomb's keystone while it was vulnerable and sucked it up. It shook once, shook twice, and then sealed itself with a little click.

A sweeter sound couldn't be imagined.

"Aron!" Ash rushed forth to kneel by his friend. His thoughts were his own again without Spiritomb's toxic spirit influencing his own, but that meant true panic and unmuted worry could surge through his mind.

Sneasel limped forward, utterly exhausted by his Mind Breaker, and watched from a short distance away. He'd sheathed his claws and seemed curious (and perhaps a little jealous) of Aron's ensuing evolution as the little steel-type seized and froze in the throes of metamorphosis. The young dark type's eyes glimmered in the scant rays pouring in from the hole above, though that was soon drowned out by the light gushing forth from Aron.

It wasn't long before the rest joined them.

Ash absentmindedly recalled Dazed now that the threat was gone, but never took his eyes off Aron. Nidoking laid down at Aron's side and watched silently. After a moment a deep, comfortable rumble came from him like a purr. Bruiser stood behind Ash and smiled broadly down at the steel-type now that the danger had passed.

Torrent simply waited. Perhaps his eyes seemed softer, but he didn't betray his thoughts.

"C'mon buddy," Ash whispered. He didn't dare lay a hand on Aron in the midst of evolution, especially not when Spiritomb had just ravaged his mind. Aron was silent as his body continued to shine bright as the sun. It was that light that finally pierced the murky shroud left over by Spiritomb's presence. "You're okay. Let it happen. We're here for you - see?"

He clicked Oz's pokeball to release her. She looked ready to kill at first, but her eyes soon widened and she growled something soft as her tails whipped back and forth. Once she'd taken her place then Tangrowth and Seeker were released as well.

They should be here for this. If Plume wasn't circling above he'd have called her as well.

Their presence brought some peace to the steel-type. Aron's shuddering form at last embraced the transformation. It wasn't dramatic like Nidoking's final evolution, but every evolution carried its own changes.

Aron's carapace stretched beneath the blinding glare and doubled, tripled, quadrupled in length with a grinding creak. He was around four feet long now and Nidoking had to shift away so that Aron wouldn't thrash and make contact with him.

The changes piled up quickly now.

Tiny little legs (which Ash loved) thickened and bulged. Stubby feet defined themselves and sturdy claws burst outwards. A new ridge at the base of his neck sprouted, followed by several more, jutting out one after another. His whole body grew strong and sturdy to fill in its new length. In seconds it shifted from a small metal shell to one reminiscent in size to a Rhyhorn.

The major changes faded quickly, but small details solidified and shifted and found permanence in Aron's new flesh..

Then the light dimmed and died away until only Aron - no, Lairon remained. He laid on his side just as he'd landed. His mouth hung open, his rasping tongue hung out, and then Lairon's eyes snapped open.

Baby blue set in grey metal.

Ash exhaled. He still didn't reach out to touch him since the effects of evolution were still so fresh. Who knew what was going through his head right now? He'd need a moment.

Lairon groaned as he rolled off his side. It took him a moment to adjust to his new weight. His frantic attempts to find his footing reminded Ash vaguely of a flipped Squirtle, but he soon drifted away from those thoughts when Lairon found himself surrounded by the rest of the team.

He grumbled at them, eyes narrowed suspiciously as he surveyed them from a slightly greater height, but didn't move to attack. They all gave him his space for now, though only Oz's firm hand kept Tangrowth from wrapping Lairon up in one of his patented hundred-vine-hugs.

It took a moment to process everything that had happened. Lairon shuddered as whatever memories he retained from Spiritomb raced through his thoughts, then squeezed his eyes shut. Ash waited as he stretched with the screech of grinding metal and then whispered to him.

"We're here Ar - Lairon. Are you okay?"

Blue eyes snapped open. Lairon grunted softly and scanned them all. His eyes lingered on Nidoking, Oz, Bruiser, and Tangrowth in particular, though they softened at Seeker's tiny shape as well. She had no eyes, but still turned away quickly as Lairon ground out another noise that filled the cavern.

Ash frowned. They'd have to speak later. Still, he was so glad he hadn't left her out…

And then Aron's evolution finally made sense.

Lairon shuddered again as he glanced at Spiritomb's Ultra Ball. It was still and lifeless for the most part, although Ash didn't miss the way it subtly rocked on the cavern floor every now and then. Just the sight of it left him faintly ill, but he didn't dare linger on the awful thoughts it had filled his head with.

Not now. They should be celebrating.

Of course, he was quite distracted when Lairon's eyes narrowed and he dashed forth to try to chomp Spiritomb's ball with his new, much stronger jaws. Ash just barely snagged it before Lairon could release Spiritomb.

A destroyed pokeball didn't kill the pokemon. It just released them before they could die with it. Ash doubted any of them felt up for round two right now.

"Easy!" Ash placated Lairon as he clipped Spiritomb's pokeball on his belt in the last available slot. It felt strange there. Heavy. He hoped that was just in his head. "How are you feeling?"

Another grunt - tired, but acceptable - and then Lairon licked at Ash's extended hand. Well, at least Ash was already very experienced in interpreting random grunts and growls.

Speaking of which, Nidoking leaned down to sniff Lairon. The steel-type froze, but seemed content as Nidoking silently rubbed his cheek against his metal chassis.

The sight was something Ash desperately needed after the terror they'd just experienced.

"You look good as a Lairon," Ash attempted a brittle smile. It seemed to please Lairon, who puffed up under the praise. He tried to toss his head back to look at his new ridges, but unfortunately his neck wasn't quite flexible enough. He was able to catch sight of his longer tail, though, which wagged back and forth.

"Here!" He quickly pulled a chunk of scrap metal from his storage compartment. It materialized with a flash and Lairon rumbled happily at the sight. Ash handed it over to him and smiled as Lairon chowed down in a series of awful noises that sounded more like a murder than a snack. "Enjoy, alright? I've been saving that just for you."

Lairon spared him a brief look of curiosity before he went back to his first meal in his new form. Ash observed him for a moment. He noted the lingering tension in his friend's body, the exhaustion in his eyes, and a faint shadow that hung over him.

It only confirmed his suspicions.

There was no doubt Lairon was born of the same happy-go-lucky Aron he loved, but he was more than that now. Ash had always sheltered him and hidden him from the cruelties they faced while the others fought.

Spiritomb had torn that precious innocence away with just a glance.

"It wasn't the fight that made you evolve, was it? That was just part of it." He murmured as the others crowded in close to watch Lairon nibble at the remains of the scrap iron. Lairon looked up sharply. "Spiritomb triggered it."

The name sent a shudder down Lairon's spine. His baby blue eyes shut again for a moment before he silently nodded. Ash sighed as the impressions from Spiritomb passed through his own thoughts. He gently rubbed at the cool metal of Lairon's defined ridge, marveled at the difference from Aron's dome-like head, and smiled wearily.

"Look at you! You're all grown up."

That sparked a bit of pride in Lairon, though Ash couldn't stop the sharp pang of loss that raced through him. He scratched beneath Lairon's chin (not that he could actually feel the touch) and offered Lairon one last rub before he rose and brushed the dust off his robes.

It wouldn't do to treat them carelessly.

"Take a moment. Catch up here with the others," Ash offered. Lairon brightened at that and looked up at the team before he finally loosed a familiar warble, albeit far deeper. It cracked a little, which made Ash snort. "I'll be back in a minute, alright?"

Nidoking moved to follow Ash, but he shook his head. Lairon needed Nidoking right now. There was no mistaking the pride (and worry, of course) pouring out of Nidoking. Ash wasn't about to disrupt that meeting. Anything that offered Nidoking another tie needed to be encouraged.

He slipped away from his friends and smiled back at them while they marveled over Lairon and welcomed him fully to the team.

Ash sighed as his fingers traced against Dazed's pokeball as he stepped away from the titan's chamber and into the antechamber which had held Spiritomb. Normally she would be his confidant now, but she needed time. Dazed was uniquely vulnerable to Spiritomb.

And if Spiritomb had done that to him, he could only imagine how awful Dazed felt now.

No, she absolutely had to rest.

That didn't mean he was alone. One of his friends came up to rest beside him, head raised high as scarlet eyes scanned the blank chamber. It was empty, of course. Nothing had ever rested here except for Spiritomb itself. Not a single mark marred the walls or a single artifact littered the floor - only the splintered remains of the shattered door cascaded all over the place.

A companionable silence lingered. It was just enough to assuage some of his dark thoughts.

"How are you feeling?" Ash asked quietly. "Spiritomb was… I'm tired, Torrent."

Torrent's rumble nearly quaked Ash's bones. There was something comforting about Torrent's steady strength. Just having the regal Kingdra at his side stilled his racing thoughts and brought his racing heart down to a steady beat.

He detected a kindred spirit in Torrent. That note of exhaustion was something they shared. Something in Torrent's scarlet eyes gave it away. Torrent might pretend he wasn't mortal to the team to act as their mighty monarch, but that veneer could be shed around Ash.

Here in the chamber stained black with a nihilistic melancholy, he did. Torrent tossed a look behind to make sure the rest were still celebrating Lairon's evolution, then sagged as if the day's burden had finally caught up with him.

Ash's hand laid against his rough, heavy plates. His hand appeared dark with sand and dirt against Torrent's pale blue. That touch seemed to restore some measure of strength to Torrent, who lightly pressed into the friendly contact.

He smiled for a moment, then pulled the Ultra Ball from his belt as darker feelings came to the fore. Ash stared at it for a moment and traced the black and yellow as if he expected it to burst open and release the pitiful thing again.

Ash clenched tightly.

"What is this even doing here?"

Torrent watched him carefully, but offered no response. Ash pulled away and paced to and fro around the dark chamber. He kept his voice down, though undeniable anger bled through.

"A Spiritomb in Hoenn? Why?! Cynthia told me -" Torrent rumbled a reminder and he lowered his voice. "She told me they were from Sinnoh. Cursed relics of the Alfa dynasty."

Torrent stared knowingly at him. Ash sighed as some of the fire bled from him.

"I know," he muttered as he stared at the Ultra Ball. It had been more than a year since he'd earned the devices in that tournament on the St. Anne and this one had finally found some use. "I know why. Spiritomb was brought here as a protector, no. Another ward against intruders. A monster worse than whatever they were hiding. It's just horrible. What, they couldn't stand what they'd created?"

That same silhouette of the colossus flickered in his mind, though he'd retained little from the impressions from the binding stone.

His voice tightened. "And whatever that titan is, I'd wager the League has it." Ash scowled as his exhausted brain struggled to piece together the pieces. Torrent echoed the sentiment with a nod. "Steven might even have it. I swear -" Ash stopped himself and breathed. "Forget Lavaridge. We're going straight to Ever Grande City to drop the ghosts off."

The Kingdra rumbled quietly and looked pointedly at the (formerly) white robes draped over Ash. He colored. "After I swing by the village," Ash corrected. "Thanks, Torrent. I'm - I can't think straight. I'm sorry. I need to be better."

Torrent's scarlet eyes softened. He levitated closer to lightly press against Ash and leaned his great head down to rub one of his thin blue horns down against Ash's face. It scraped slightly, but Ash took the embrace for what it was and clasped onto Torrent as well.

They sat there for a moment, two friends relying on each other during a dark time, and Ash felt at peace for the first time all day. The thrill of the hunt, the horror of Spiritomb - all gone now.

For now.

He finally pulled away and tightened his grip around Spiritomb. It was terribly heavy in his hand, but at least this time he knew he was just imagining it.

"Torrent… what do I do with this?" He shook Spiritomb lamely, words failing him. "What do I do with Spiritomb? The other ghosts…" Ash bit his lip. "I can handle them. They were simple. Newborn. But Spiritomb?" Ash shook his head, fear warring with pity as he regarded the unfortunate creation. "You saw it. You felt it."

There was nothing Torrent needed to say. He just waited patiently while Ash spilled his worries and fears to a sympathetic ear.

"It's strong. So, so strong. But what an awful power. Do you know how Spiritomb were made?" Ash glanced at his friend, who shook his head. That wasn't a conversation he'd been present for, and Torrent wasn't Dazed. They'd shared some information on the abilities of Cynthia's Spiritomb, but Torrent wouldn't go digging for every scrap of information he could. Not when it wasn't necessary.

"One hundred and eight living souls broken and Reversed," Ash recalled Cynthia's words. "Forged into a weapon. They were designed to stop armies in their tracks."

After that display, Ash could believe it. His will had been tempered. His friends were mighty.

Spiritomb still nearly struck them down.

It had come so, so close. Ash understood now why the League had chosen not to break into that chamber and left the tormented guardian alone. They might not have known what lay behind the wall, but someone in the party had sensed enough to leave well alone, or else their ignorance had shielded them.

While its raw destructive power didn't appear to be spectacular, it didn't need to be. A Spiritomb's power came from its nature, and from what it could impress upon the world.

Ash held that power in his hand.

"Should I just leave it here?" Ash wondered aloud, though he already knew the answer. "We could walk away. I could release it and toss it back into the pit to gather dust."

Torrent stared silently at him.

"I know," he sighed. Ash's fingers squeezed down. "I don't want to do that - it's hardly Spiritomb's fault. Even if I did, I don't think I could. There's no way we can leave it down here to suffer. Cynthia's Spiritomb… she said it had grown with her. That it grew beyond its nature."

That didn't stop it from being an utter terror. Still, Ash could recall how easily she spoke of it. How affectionate she had been when its keystone - its unprotected keystone! - hung from her own belt.

At the time it had been hard to imagine Spiritomb as worse, but he'd experienced it himself now. Ash felt the raw, unbridled power that composed it and was exposed to its hollowing pressure. If he released Spiritomb right now and tried to clip just the keystone on his belt…

Well, Ash would deserve whatever fate he received. It might be content to hide away behind its shell, but Ash had no doubt its power would still bleed forth and twist the world in its own image.

Cynthia had told him that Aura was the truest form of self-expression. It was taking everything you were, good and bad, and expressing it into the world to share and change and alter.

What did Spiritomb have to share?

He sighed as sympathy welled up. Horror and fading adrenaline still pounded through his veins, but Ash found indecision piled on top. Ash earlier considered speaking with the other ghosts he'd captured about joining his team. Could he really even think of approaching Spiritomb? A cursed being condemned to share its pain with anything it encountered?

Would it even be right to wield it in battle? It had been forged as a weapon, but what if it was just a broken thing like Seeker beneath that raw power and horrifying presence?

"Argh!" Something about the sting stilled some of the emotions rolling through him. Ash pulled his knuckles back from the stone. They throbbed, but that gave him focus just as it had in battle. It cut through the fog.

Hopefully it wouldn't bruise too badly.

He glared off at the wall and wished he could just have Bruiser pulverize it like the first. To be honest, he'd quite like to have Torrent bomb this awful place with Draco Meteor. Nidoking and Infernus could sink it entirely into the sand and Earth Burn it for good measure.

The catharsis would be unreal.

Still, a greater part of him knew he couldn't go through with that. This place carried a history of its own, dark as it was. Ash had no desire to stay here, but he just couldn't find it in himself to destroy it entirely… and that was if their attacks could even have an effect.

"I could give it to the League," Ash mused as he paced. "Sydney," his face twisted with distaste, "Phoebe - even Cynthia! Anyone of them could be trusted with it. Agatha..."

Grief struck him, then he turned his thoughts away from her and back to those options. Maybe not Sydney. He doubted the man's poking and prodding would do Spiritomb any good.

He stared ahead.

Spiritomb would be hard.

It would challenge, and test Ash in a hundred different ways. He could barely bear to be in its presence, though he'd gotten the hang of it after a bit. At least he and his friends could filter its mental effects better now. If he could communicate with it he might be able to get it to learn restraint, though that just begged the question of whether it was even mentally fit to interact with humans or pokemon.

Scratch that. Not a hundred. A thousand!

"And what if it hurts one of us? Just being exposed was enough to trigger evolution in Aron!" Ash hissed to Torrent, who patiently bore it all. He threw his hands up. "There's no way I could let it out around Seeker. Not for ages. If I did bring it onto the team - if it even wants to be on the team - then it could only be out for minutes at a time. Could I even work with that? Argh!"

The hiss spilled out into the tomb's cool air. This time it only brought a suggestion of relief.

It took… he didn't know how long. Long enough for the frenzy of his thoughts to slow a little. Long enough for him to breathe, and tame the roiling emotions within him.

Long enough.

He turned to Torrent with a scowl as his thoughts finally boiled over into a raw hiss. Ash looked at his friend with a sigh. "Can we handle this, Torrent? What should I do?"

His friend cocked his head, then pointed his snout at Ash's heart.

"It's that easy, huh?" Ash laughed, though not unkindly. It did help him a little, he supposed, and more thoughts came to mind. "Spiritomb is strong, but it would be so difficult. I have Ar - Lairon now, the rest of you are working on your own techniques, and I don't even know if I'll have the time to split my focus like that…"

Torrent peered downward at Ash like he was a Ditto wearing the skin of Ash Ketchum. He lowered his horns and tossed his head once, then waited.

The gesture and the meaning behind it sparked a memory in Ash.

When your challenge finds you, do not run from it.

Ageless words etched into his mind by Lavender within the tower's kiln. For a moment he was back there, staring at the ancient spirit's Marowak form while Chieko giggled into his mind and Akemi offered her easy grace and kind words, then he was back in the darkness.

He shut his eyes, sighed, and found his center. Torrent rumbled at his side, pleased at the change he saw come over Ash.

"When have we ever cared if something is easy?" Ash sighed, speaking more to himself than anything else. He could have been speaking to the universe. There was little enough distance between the two, in that moment.

Ash felt a certain clarity now, albeit tinged with resignation to his own nature. Stress of his own creation bled away from him as he stared at Spiritomb's Ultra Ball one last time. "Enjoy your rest, Spiritomb. We'll talk soon."

It quivered in his hand, then laid still. Ash clipped it back onto his belt. "Thank you…" he whispered to Torrent, who dipped his head in return. "I needed that. My head is such a mess right now."

Torrent's rumble sounded more like a laugh now. Perhaps he was still feeling a little off as well.

"When it's time, I'd like you to be there with me," Ash said. Torrent inclined his head again. "We need to talk to the League first. Then we can release Spiritomb. I'd like their input before that conversation. If it doesn't want to come with us… well, we can deal with that when it comes to it. I'll have to ask the others as well. I won't force Spiritomb on them anymore than I'd force us on Spiritomb. This can't be like Golduck."

They fell into a pensive silence then. Ash's shock and dulled mind was finally beginning to give way to his normal thoughts now, and he felt more and more questions (and a little anger to go with it) rising up in his chest like one of Lance's dragons.

What was the colossus trapped behind a Spiritomb? More importantly, what had the Ever Grande League done with it?

He said his farewells, then recalled Torrent. Ash wasn't furious, but Spiritomb had left him in a poor mood, and much joy though there was in his evolution, Lairon hadn't come out untarnished

The lingering echo of misery cast over this place wasn't doing him any favors.

No, he wouldn't feel better until he had answers. Or until he got out of this terrible place. One of the two.

Steven was the one with his name plastered on the ancient tomb containing a monstrous relic of the ancient world, so to Steven he would go.

It was time to pay Ever Grande City a visit.

XX

The sun was painfully bright after his adjustment to the utter darkness within Spiritomb's chambers. It stung at his eyes despite the relative shade of the monolith's valley, but he couldn't care less.

He was free!

Ash refused to even give the exposed innards of the tomb one last glance. That was the second subterranean hidden crypt he'd encountered in Hoenn. He planned on it being the last.

They'd completed their mission. It was time to leave the Piede and finally live again.

Still, he found a welcome sight in Krookodile and the Spirit waiting for him. They peered at him, both a safe distance from the peeled metal layered over the chamber's interior, and Ash finally offered a smile as he tapped Spiritomb's Ultra Ball.

Relief washed over them in an instant. Krookodile's eyes shut as it reclined in the sand as decades spilled off it while the Spirit offered one last keening song before it spread its wings and exploded away in a billow of wind.

He followed it for a moment as it raced out of the narrow valley, though squinted as he caught a glimpse of stark white fur, a dark blue-black face, and matching scythe-like horn out in the desert and staring straight at him.

Ash blinked disbelievingly - what on earth would an Absol be doing out here? - and frowned when it vanished.

A mirage, perhaps? It wouldn't be too surprising given the day he'd had. He desperately needed a long night's sleep, or three.

Disregarding it entirely didn't sit quite right with him, however, and Ash cast another suspicious look off into the desert before a rushing of wings and a piercing cry split the sky. His worries bled right off as Plume slammed into the sand ahead of him and nuzzled up to him with a coo.

Ash spent a moment catching her up on what had happened down there (she seemed a bit miffed that she'd missed Lairon's evolution) and offered her a brief hug that she happily returned. Any touch was welcome now, and he smiled softly as Plume helped him leave the darkness of Spiritomb's chamber behind.

It only took a moment to gather up the pokeballs he'd hidden earlier and just like that he was ready to go.

"Ready, Plume?" He held up her saddle as it materialized from the storage compartment. Plume nodded, lowered herself, and waited patiently as Ash began preparing the saddle and securing it.

Soon enough she was all saddled up and he was only too eager to hop on and leave this place behind him. He winced as he climbed up and strapped him in. Aron's headbutt really had hurt… still, at least he hadn't evolved at that point. Lairon probably would have broken his leg. "Let's head to the village first. One quick stop to offload all that stuff Sandygast was hoarding, then we'll be off to Ever Grande."

She shrieked as she burst into the air. Just like that, their adventure in the Piede was left behind them. A pang dashed through Ash as he realized he wouldn't be able to return to Lavaridge as planned, but he waved it off after a moment's rumination.

Flannery and Fino weren't going anywhere. He'd visit them soon enough.

But now?

Ever Grande City awaited them.

A/N: This chapter has been a long time coming, hasn't it? I'd expected it to come out in early September, but it just kept demanding more and more attention. It ends at 117 pages, around 43.5k words, and two months of writing and editing. As always, many thanks to Valasania, Raptor, and Jain for their help in giving feedback and providing that extra layer of polish. Val was up way, way too late last night going over this!

Thank you all for reading, and I hope that you continue to enjoy the story. I expect the next chapter to come out around Christmas at the latest, but we know how well I keep to my plans. The chapters should be going back to a more normal length (15-20k words) but I've also probably said that a hundred times in the last few years.

As always, thank you so much for sticking with Traveler! I can't wait to continue the story.

**I corrected some formatting issues that came as a result of submitting the doc to Fanfiction.