The golden Piede bled into brown mountains which bled into endless swathes of vibrant green which bled into rugged peaks, rocky hills, and vast plains of tall grass drenched in constant rainstorms. It lent the illusion of Hoenn coming to life beneath him, a great composite organism with mountains and forests and prairies upon its back.

Hoenn was a land ruled by nature, something its people knew well. Yet, from Ash's seat in the sky, the earth and sea passed beneath him in a blur.

Plume carried him to the limits of Hoenn's vast mainland in less than an hour. After their trek through the desolate sands of the Piede he scarcely knew what to do with moisture, and the green, the life, but his thoughts couldn't linger on it, as thin, snaky lines of tan and white marked the beaches which heralded the beginning of the archipelago.

Ash noted far more urban sprawl as they reached the farthest reaches of the mainland. Civilization shone like a gem beneath the sun, sparkling centers of glass and steel like pearls in the enormity of Hoenn's untamed land.

Cities dominated the landscape more and more as they roamed the coast, though mangrove forests and waterways had a habit of lacing through the urban centers like veins through a beating heart, intertwined to the point that to separate them would be to destroy them both.

Lilycove rose to the north - and it must have been Lilycove, for no other city in the area could have entangled so much of the coastline and crept its way into nature mile by mile while somehow seeming to merge seamlessly into the plains and swamps at its edges.

Every League balanced human settlement carefully against the needs of the environment, yet Hoenn above all others had a well-earned reputation for going above and beyond in that mission.

Ash couldn't say how much of that was careful planning and delicate growth and how much wasHoenn's storied history of natural disasters, constant internal warfare, and unusually organized wild pokemon community. It couldn't necessarily be said that virtue and good intention was the driving force for such care. But all of those things had a habit of adding up in the end.

Soon enough there were nothing but emerald waves beneath him. Ash could have sworn he caught a flash of silver like the moon in the waters below. He sighed as the Song washed over him… no, it was gone. Swallowed up by the endless ocean, or perhaps it was just an errant trick of the eye.

But he had his doubts.

Islands dotted the sea here and there, some small enough to cross over in the blink of an eye and others large enough to catch his attention from miles and miles away. Little masses of villages and towns and even the odd city stood out like beacons. What truly struck him was the simple immensity of the archipelago: vast, scattered, and untamed.

It was no wonder the Ever Grande League struggled to manage it all.

A beautiful sight for sure, but Ash found himself unable to properly appreciate it. The new additions on his belt weighed heavily, though one in particular might as well have been a large stone.

…Not inaccurate, actually.

He'd tried steering his thoughts in a dozen different directions since he and Plume had shed Sandygast's treasures and returned his desert robes to Catarina, but in the end they always returned to Spiritomb.

What should he do with it?

The question gnawed at him incessantly; from Cynthia he'd learned that such relics originated in Sinnoh. Their creation was the ultimate culmination of the centuries-long cesspit of cruel warlords, power-mad nobility, and mad visionaries mingling in the vacuum left by the crumbling Alfa dynasty.

How, then, had this one ended up beneath the Piede?

He'd come to a few simple conclusions so far. They'd wished to hide it away, obviously. That wasn't in question. He'd struck deeply into the memories and impressions etched into the strange tomb to learn that much. It was hard to reconcile that Spiritomb, a soul-sucking terror in its own right, was just a guard.

A deterrent.

What was it protecting?

His thoughts filled with images of the blood-soaked titan, an engine of war that literally waded through the thick-packed lines of its foes, clicking and groaning and shrieking like nothing of this world.

Whatever that thing was, Steven had taken it away. Or the League had, at any rate. Ash hadn't found mentions of such a thing in the League archives - did he even clear for that level of information? What else could be outside the purview of an Elite Four trainee, and why?

Questions upon questions…

Ash strained to imagine anything worse than a Spiritomb, particularly to the ancient folk of Sinnoh. From what Cynthia had told him, Spiritomb were army-killers, of a different sort from what it was protecting. Trainers hadn't always carried small armies on them after all. In the olden days before training and technology had advanced to this point, Spiritomb would have been nearly unstoppable.

That was the power he'd tasted just hours ago. Ash's eyes squeezed shut beneath his goggles the memory of Spiritomb's hollowing pressure struck him like a lance; where Cynthia's Spiritomb projected fury and hatred and pain, flaying the world with the storm inside so the universe might feel its sting, this Spiritomb was an altogether different beast.

Just the memory left Ash hollow and empty like a void that yearned desperately to be filled. Spiritomb had reached inside his brain and scooped out everything its tendrils could hook into. A shudder ran through him, visceral and unpleasant, and for a moment that memory left him teetering on the edge of an abyss.

And then Plume adjusted her flight path and Ash felt the sun on his skin again, the bracing wind on his face, and the warmth of a friend beneath him, and the phantom feelings faded into a distant echo.

His hand clasped over Spiritomb's Ultra Ball and clenched. What to do, what to do?

The sentiment sounded awful even to himself, but part of Ash was fascinated with Spiritomb. Its unique and terrible power, combined with its strange legacy, intermixed to concoct a unique allure. The ability to lock things in time was incredible, and it was enough to set his mind ablaze with its countless possibilities.

He pointedly thought back to the nightmare of Spiritomb's creation in order to nip those thoughts in the bud.

Spiritomb had suffered terribly.

The full details eluded him, but Spiritomb had revealed enough of what had gone into its nightmarish forging. It felt the need to impress upon him the raw chaos of its creation so someone would know what it had gone through, and that little frenzied fragment was enough to leave his stomach turning. It couldn't escape the urge even in the midst of battle.

What else had it seen, felt, done? It was made as a weapon - who had it been fielded against? Had it killed? Was it aware, could it still remember empathy or understand loss?

It must. Spiritomb was a person… people? The spirit may have been rendered down and reduced to something less than it was, but it could never be a thing. So many questions like that were tied up in Spiritomb, integral to its nature and state of being.

Ash expected it would never offer easy answers.

Despite it all, Ash wanted Spiritomb.

It was a pitiful and terrible thing, one hundred and eight souls shattered and stitched together into a misshapen mass of apathy and grey-tinged feeling, but Ash had also seen a glimmer of hope in it as well, buried as it was beneath the rest. He couldn't forget the briefest glimpse of relief when Sneasel finally forced it back into its keystone, a hint of something deeper than its outward shell.

Cynthia had offered a lifeline to hers, hadn't she?

It had been ferocious, but Cynthia's Spiritomb wasn't quite so suffocating. A blunted sword, Ash supposed. Deadly in its own right, but not so liable to cut everything it touched.

'Why can't I do the same?'

His own fascination was a powerful temptation, but he also had to remind himself that this wasn't a decision to take lightly, and certainly not without consulting his team. Taking on the mountain that was Spiritomb might prove beneficial to them all, but Ash couldn't quash the uneasy feeling that thought stamped him with. The opposite might be true as well.

Just its direct attention had forced Aron into evolution. How could it ever interact with Seeker? She'd just begun to claw back a few shreds of confidence. Ash would never risk setting back that milestone.

Nidoking's blood pressure would skyrocket.

Dazed might find it suffocating.

It might encourage the worst of Sneasel's impulses, or even rob him of his drive.

It could hurt Tangrowth - could Tangrowth even understand why his joy fled around Spiritomb?

He didn't even know how Infernus might think of it.

And the others…

Ash reflexively stroked Plume's smooth feathers as those doubts plagued him. They were hardly new concerns, all echoes of the teetering feelings he'd wrestled with alongside Torrent in the aftermath of the battle. They were valid, though, and couldn't so easily be put aside.

Doubt became a leaden weight, but Ash resolved to think on it later when things weren't so raw. His thoughts still felt as though they'd been buffeted by the sandstorms of the Piede, all raw and red and hot.

What struck him off-balance was the simple fact that he had options. He had not one choice to fill that ghost-shaped hole, but several. The League had resources to help any and all of the ghosts he'd captured that night, even Spiritomb. He could say no.

That realization hammered into him like a hurricane.

But before anything else, he had to speak with his team before making any final decisions. They would do this as one, or not at all.

He sighed.

When did things get so complicated? The horizon beckoned him, and he was quick to follow that urge before he could become lost in his inner quagmire yet again. Ever Grande City hung far, far away, still little more than a distant speck, though it grew minutely with every passing minute.

Well, Ever Grande City might have been a bit of a stretch. An overgrown fortress might be more apt. Decades ago, it was an ordinary island that perhaps merited a short sentence or two in a history book, one more in a long list of places to be picked over like carrion by petty lords and city states in their unending contest for supremacy.

That changed when Drake the Dragon Master chose it for his lair as he waged war against the Unovans.

A force of destruction like nothing in living memory, his legendary dragons and his famed students chiseled away every landing point on the island with claw, fang, and might. White beaches warped to black glass beneath blue-green dragonfire and the porous underbelly of the isle was sealed with stone. Wild pokemon remained as sentries, paid handsomely for their service in shelter and supplies, and the forests crowding the summit became impassable beneath the eyes of the League and their allies.

When Drake Teach was done, Ever Grande City stood alone like a vast mesa in the Nuomara Sea. Any who sought entrance had to ascend by flight, teleport atop, or climb sheer walls ready to be brought down at a moment's notice.

It was a fortress unlike any other.

Plume rode the winds faster and faster now that the end was in sight. Details came into focus with startling speed and Ash felt the familiarity with which Plume swept forward. She made minute adjustments at the sight of each distinctive landmark. Ash couldn't help but wonder how many times she had flown these skies to build such ease, and found it remarkable how accurately she could anticipate thermals and other wind patterns based on the complex mental map she'd constructed of the region.

It was humbling to realize she could do laps of Hoenn in a single day of training, particularly without Ash burdening her.

Ash soon realized that he had to correct himself. There was a small city planted near the edge of the steep cliff sides. Thick tangles of trees and a handful of jutting mountains dominated the remainder of the island. Final Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in the world, cascaded down the cliff just by the city.

Unovan saboteurs once attempted to climb under the crushing spray during the war as part of an assassination attempt on Hoenn's leaders, but had the misfortune to run into Drake's Kingdra snoozing at the top.

Its roar would deafen anyone at its base, but from here Ash could appreciate the natural wonder in silence. White clouds of vapor billowed up where the foamy waterfall hammered into the rocky outcrops that peeked out from the ocean below. The clash between land and sea shrouded the base of the island in a thick coat of mist.

Beyond the modest city rested a bright blue lake, placid as a mirror in comparison to the Final Falls. Within the peaceful expanse towered a gargantuan stadium, massive in scale even from miles away. Several rings occupied the remaining space in the lake and circled the Ever Grande Stadium. Each ring was filled with smaller arenas, a dizzying array of shops, housing facilities, and other amenities for travelers.

Anticipation stirred in his gut as his eyes swept over the sunny scene. It seemed so quiet now, but in just over six months it would be bustling with hundreds of thousands of humans and pokemon alike. This upcoming spring would invite a great pilgrimage of competitors and enthusiasts from the world over.

He had no clue what his involvement might be, but Ash had no doubt he'd find himself here in some capacity.

Something to bring up to Steven. It had been plotted out for months, knowing him.

Impressive as the Ever Grande Stadium might have been, however, it wasn't the true seat of power in Hoenn.

No, that honor belonged to the great tower that dominated the central island. Its modern skyscraper style was a symbol of the Ever Grande League's relative youth, and its warm orange coloration reminded Ash of a gentle campfire. It rose thirty stories from its base and housed the vast majority of the Ever Grande League's administrative staff, standing too as a proud dedication to Hoenn's victory and establishment thirty years ago.

It was the beating heart and pulsating brain of the Ever Grande League all in one.

A massive platform crowned the tower, with several, smaller rings dotting its sides every few floors. It was obvious to Ash's eye that they were meant to stage and receive various fliers. That was a natural consequence of the first Ever Grande Champion being a Dragon Master, he supposed.

It must have been quite the sight all those years ago - had it been built before, or after the war? He could imagine the sky blanketed with hundreds of flying-types flying in and out each day, ferrying personnel and sealed documents to wherever they may be needed as so many people toiled together to forge a nation from so many disparate parts.

Now the platforms were bare and deserted. They were little more than decorative white rings these days. It was tough to compete with teleportation, though Ash was certain they still saw some use. The League wasn't wasteful.

A relatively small castle sat at the tower's base. It toed the thin line between vibrant and garish, all lively oranges, soft greens, and even a great golden pokeball symbol that marked the gates of the Ever Grande League. At first glance, one might expect the bright colors to clash, but through some miracle of design they managed to complement one another and stand distinct but harmonious.

Ever Grande City had sprung up around this castle. This was the original Ever Grande League, a holdover vacation home of a Duke of Mossdeep that conveniently doubled as a fortress in the olden days.

As an empty mansion on relatively neutral ground, Drake had found it quite useful to commandeer. Even better, it was still standing by the time the Dragon Master brought the city-states to the negotiating table, which was really all the qualifications needed at that point. Most of the archipelago's great cities couldn't have boasted the same.

History was forged there. Alliances cemented, treaties signed, and the skeleton of a united Hoenn arranged with painstaking detail by a firm hand.

Gnawing thoughts still nibbled at him, but Ash had to marvel at the scene.

Ever Grande might not hold the same grim austerity as weather-worn Indigo Plateau, hewn into Mt. Silver as it was, but it possessed its own magnificence nonetheless. In time, it might wax to become the Plateau's equal in grandeur.

And he was welcome here.

That took a moment to digest. How many people could pop into Ever Grande's airspace without a formal invitation? How many would be ushered in? It boggled the -

Something brushed his mind, tentative and feeble, then, as suddenly, vanished.

He frowned as the process repeated, then again, and again; and then they all went blank. Ash winced. League psychics, no doubt. Normally they only recoiled away, but this was different. It felt as if he'd buried a candle beneath a landslide.

"Down there!"

Ash hugged Plume's neck tightly and pointed at the long stone walkway that led to the castle's doors. The stone was so old it must have been a part of the original structure.

Plume banked left and swept past the little specks of Taillow and Wingull that hovered around the tower. At least the old flight platforms still saw some use, even if just as a perch. Ash had no doubt there were hundreds of eyes on them now. There was no way they hadn't attracted the League's attention by now.

They descended over the course of a minute. Something he loved about flying with Plume was how quickly all sorts of tiny details came into focus when they landed. What seemed like miniscule specks from above may be looming trees or rising hills as they returned to earth.

Plume landed with surprising gentleness, though the deceleration still jerked him around in the saddle. Ash rubbed Plume's face as he hopped off and quickly undid the saddle. She crooned and leaned into his touch, but chirped at him after a moment. He couldn't blame her for being worried.

"I'm fine," Ash said as he undid a few more straps. Just a bit longer… "I'm heading in once I get this off of you. Want to come in, or do you want to spend the day on your own? I know this was just a little warm-up."

Plume studied him for a moment, then looked pointedly to the sky as she spread her vast wings. He laughed, then hoisted the saddle off and stored it away with a flash of light. "Gotcha. Have a good flight!"

Ash stroked her feathers one last time before she vanished off into the sky. She made a few circles over the tower before leaving, but he knew Plume would wait for Ash to enter before she allowed any real distance between them.

He briefly entertained the thought of attaching a camera to her one day when she went on one of her flights. It would be amazing to see what she could do without him weighing her down!

That curiosity had to be reigned in for now, unfortunately. Ash shifted his pack and turned his eyes to the foundations of Ever Grande. This perspective made the three-story castle appear far more impressive, and the tower itself benefited as well. It swallowed the sky as an indomitable bastion of Hoenn's power.

Plume had deposited him just a short distance from the castle, so it was no skin off Ash's back to take his time. He shouldered his bag and released Nidoking, who blinked at the sudden sunburst. His eyes were still adjusted to the dim crypt.

Ash appreciated the warm oceanic breeze with Nidoking as it swept through. It was impossible to describe the sheer relief they experienced after their time in the sunscorched, sand-infested winds of the Piede or the despairing darkness of Spiritomb's lair.

He was quick to fill Nidoking in. "We're at the Ever Grande League. Seeing Steven. I thought we should have a talk about our new friend."

Nidoking grumbled and spared Spiritomb's Ultra Ball an ugly look. His tail swept back and forth with enough force to bowl Ash over, but he wasn't agitated enough to produce toxins.

Small mercies.

There was nothing he'd rather do than spend some time with Nidoking, but duty called to them both. "We'll talk later," Ash promised, then nodded to the castle.

Both started when the great doors were swept open by an invisible hand (no blue or purple glow, so he suspected ghosts) and their eyes focused upon the pale figure that emerged. It only took Ash one look at her for him to know with certainty that she was far, far more intimidating than the grimacing Glalie that hovered alongside her.

Glacial blue eyes pinned them down and then raked over them. Ash's tattered hat earned a flitting frown, but she showed no sign of displeasure beyond that. Of average height, perhaps a bit less, her skin was pale as marble, and between that, her flaxen hair, and her periwinkle dress, she appeared at stark odds with the warm air and the lively orange of the castle behind her.

If Ash didn't know better, he'd think someone had dropped an ice sculpture into Ever Grande by mistake. He half-expected her to start melting when she stepped into direct sunlight.

The two came to a stop just a short distance from Ash and Nidoking. Her Glalie never ventured far from its trainer, and frosty air wafted off its hide to cool the surrounding area. Ash took a moment to suck in a breath of that refreshing air.

Glalie glared at him, flat teeth bared in a permanent snarl, but Ash couldn't take it personally. Even the PokeDex was fond of mentioning Glalie's famous sneer. It didn't mean anything by it. Nidoking wasn't so understanding, unfortunately, and eyed the ice-type with ire.

The woman spoke flatly. "Elite Four Ash."

Ash 's instincts demanded he straighten his spine immediately. Even Nidoking's irritation faded away as he quickly did the same.

He swallowed. "Yes ma'am?"

She didn't blink. "You have basic manners. Excellent. Allow me to introduce myself."

The pale woman needed no introduction, but Ash didn't dare interrupt her. She matched his mother at her strictest.

"I am Glacia Galanis of the Ever Grande Elite Four and scion of the Snowpoint Galanis," the Ice Master spoke, her voice heavy with formality. "This is my partner, Arkepagos. It is my pleasure to welcome you to Ever Grande City."

"Thank you," Ash said slowly. Given the situation, he chose to say as little as possible to avoid an inadvertent faux pas. He suspected her standards stretched taller than the Ever Grande tower. Who knew? He and Plume may have flown right by them on the way here.

Glacia folded her hands across the front of her stiff dress. "Champion Wallace and Mister Stone are currently meeting with Elite Four Sidney and Elite Four Phoebe. I will show you to them shortly, but I must inquire into your arrival first. We were only made aware of your visit when several of our sentries fell unconscious."

"Are they hurt?"

Her frigid stare softened a degree. "No. We have been assured their condition is only temporary. Several have regained consciousness already. The rest ought to follow soon enough."

Ash sighed in relief. "Ste - Mr. Stone," he changed his tune quickly when Glalie fervently shook its head from behind Glacia's shoulder, "Dispatched me to the Piede on a mission."

"I am aware. Report 6940.c5. Disturbances in the Arid Zone, I believe."

He didn't believe the equivocation for a moment. How to explain the absolute mess the job had turned into? It would take some creativity unless he wanted to start going off like Gary would. "There was an… unexpected engagement during my mission. It is very important that I speak to Mr. Stone as soon as possible."

Glacia processed that.

"Very well. Follow me, please. I will guide you to Mr. Stone."

"Thank you."

She struck the figure of a noble lady from the old stories as she swept around with her hands folded primly before her, just so, and led him into the lively orange castle. Glacia's long dress conjured up an illusion of the Ice Master levitating smoothly along the uneven cobblestone path, prim and untouchable.

Ash stuck close to Glacia's heels with far less grace.

Doors swept open at her approach, though Ash had already turned away from his ghost theory in favor of the much more likely possibility that reality itself bent to the will of the Ice Master's authority.

His vision swam the moment he stepped foot into the Ever Grande League. Space rippled, dimensions twisted to and fro, and the only path he could bear to look at without feeling nauseous was the one Glacia led him down. It wasn't as elaborate as Indigo Plateau's labyrinthine defenses, but Ever Grande didn't have the benefit of centuries behind it.

…Then again, he supposed Chinatsu might play a role in the intricacy of the Plateau's designs. Small wonder the newborn Ever Grande League couldn't compete.

The nausea and twisting was an irritant all the same, and so he focused for a moment. Steeling his will, he looked past the world as Cynthia had shown him, looking… searching for… and there!

The illusory world snapped away in an instant. There was no grand reveal or slow steady dissolution as the false reality crumbled away, only a sudden surge of clarity as his eyes flooded his brain with previously veiled stimuli.

It was actually pretty disappointing, he thought, blinking hard. All that for a wide open atrium as elaborate and warm as the castle's facade. Fancy and pretty, but nothing really worth masking. They'd hidden it just as a matter of principle.

Tiles in the shape of orange diamonds criss crossed across most of the floor, shiny and sleek and new as artificial light danced off. Glacia and Arkepagos led them down a long straight path of crimson touched only by a great golden League symbol in the center.

Fanciful thoughts entrapped him, and he considered the castle like a flame corralled and hammered into a solid structure. It was bright, cozy, and lively as the sun itself. A pair of Grumpig, previously blotted from view, watched them warily as Glacia led him to a pair of soft green doors lined with brilliant gold.

The grey creatures' pearls glimmered softly as the group approached, but wilted away the moment he looked at them. Nidoking snorted, amused by their sudden hesitance, and paid them no heed as they dipped their heads in recognition of Glacia and her partner.

Ash offered a quick smile, which one of the Grumpig managed to return. Then the moment was stolen away by Glacia's quick pace and fluttering skirts.

Ash soon found himself lost in the lively orange halls of the castle proper. Ancient portraits of great heroes, traditional landscapes of Blackthorn, Viridian, Celadon, countless other territories, as well as the occasional epic poem adorned Indigo Plateau's walls. Ash had spent a fair amount of time perusing them in some of the spare time of his last visit.

Ever Grande took a different route and lined the halls with all sorts of treasures and relics.

Exhibited historical artifacts immediately caught his eye. They were stored away safely in climate-controlled glass cases: displayed scrolls and first editions of the finest literature and masterpieces Hoenn had to offer. He espied collections of ancient Volumo manuscripts bound in shed Seviper skin.

Most were marked by flowing Unown-based script and epic scenes of ironclad warriors clashing with lone men and women bearing the features of monstrous dragons.

Others depicted various men and women clad in blue scale armor decorated with jagged fangs and red cloaks tearing through armies with Salamence and Flygon at their sides. He recognized the forceful, angular script of the Draconids all too well.

There were weapons aplenty on display, many of which hailed from the long millennium of competition between Hoenn's fiercely independent city-states. Such conditions and a plethora of would-be conquerors ensured a ripe harvest of simple, efficient human weapons such as swords, hammers, and spears, alongside quite a few that had been crafted specifically for the use of pokemon.

Most pokemon couldn't benefit much from armor and weapons crafted by human hands, since their own physical strength would normally shatter steel and tear through modern protective gear with ease. Most metals would crumple long before a pokemon's body would.

Many regions overflowed with legendary tales of master smiths imbuing arms and armor with something more, something that worked the steel into something beyond mortal limits, but it was easy to dismiss those as fables. Equipped with the knowledge of what Aura-users had done with the tomb in the desert… Ash couldn't discount them so easily.

It couldn't be a coincidence that so many of those stories were born in the hidden valleys and mountain passes of snowy Sinnoh.

But when did humans ever listen to practicality?

He dragged his eyes away from an absolutely enormous club cast in heavy brass. It struck him as less of a shaped weapon and more of a simple block of shiny metal. The crudely forged weapon's plaque said it was designed for use by a Machoke.

Ash couldn't decide whether he should be fascinated or utterly horrified.

This was just the tip of the iceberg. Hoenn's long and storied history since the Volumo Empire's fall meant there was a rich variety of relics to examine. Most history prior to that point died in the continent-spanning kingdom's swift collapse, but a few treasures had been preserved against all odds.

It meant it was far easier to find rich white-and-turquoise tapestries of Sootopolitan nobles or impressive (albeit ceremonial) suits of armor. According to the labels, it appeared most were recovered from minor lords killed in ancient wars only remembered by professors and the most dedicated of students.

Some of the designs were… questionable. Nidoking snorted at some of the exaggerated codpieces on the oldest suits.

He still skimmed every display as they passed by - Nidoking wasn't entirely without his own curiosity - although every now and then one earned an eye roll.

More recent exhibits were mixed in with the ancient. Some carried solemn accounts of Last War veterans, and presented twisted scrap metal salvaged from old airships and carriers. Others housed spent and defunct cryo and pyrobomb shells, their launchers hanging on the wall behind them, and others still various treasures pillaged by the Unovans and seized in turn by National League forces. These were presented above all the others, a bright memory of victory and pain.

This lucky handful had been brought back, Ash thought, but who knew how many of these priceless items were lost forever during the conflict?

One piece, a beautifully wrought dagger claimed as Mari's Needle, stole his breath away as he passed. He couldn't guess at the secrets of its creation, but it looked like some master craftsman had shaped it from a shining yellow topaz through some secret, potentially forgotten technique.

That was only the surface, though. When he peered closer, Ash found himself staring into the depths of a living flame dancing and flowing within the glass like blood.

Fire pulsed in his veins. The scrap of entombed flame within the dagger responded with an orange glow of its own and danced quicker in response.

Realization struck him.

It was a Fire Stone! Ash had never heard of one being shaped like this, and he had to wonder how on earth its maker had managed to chisel it into anything usable. Elemental stones could be… volatile.

He'd have to study this one later. Carefully. Ash would be driven out of Hoenn if he accidentally blew the treasure to bits.

Ash tried to keep his glances surreptitious, but little escaped Glacia.

"The illusions don't affect you."

It wasn't a question, but Ash had begun to expect that from the Ice Master. She spoke with such certainty that he didn't contemplate slipping an excuse by her. Ash didn't know Glacia beyond reputation, but that was enough to recognize that she demanded total honesty and would offer it back in turn.

"No… well, I felt them at first, but I decided to break them."

She betrayed nothing beyond a flicker of curiosity as she glided through the halls. Her pace picked up as she guided him since she no longer had to worry about Ash falling behind. It took real effort to catch up with Glacia, mostly due to his soreness after trekking through the desert. Navigating the sifting sands worked muscles he hadn't known existed.

Aron headbutting him earlier in the day hadn't helped either. His shin felt like one giant, throbbing bruise.

Glacia soon took a left turn and brought Ash and Nidoking to a flight of stairs. They groaned beneath Nidoking's weight as they plodded up to find a pair of heavy doors much like those that guarded the castle's interior. It was unguarded, but who was going to break through a door with two Champions and several members of the Elite Four behind it?

They came to an abrupt stop and Glacia whisked around to face Ash. Her partner hovered just over her shoulder with the same surly expression as before. Muffled voices sounded through the thick wood. It didn't sound like anyone was shouting, but they were clearly heated.

"Champion Wallace is within. Please do not interrupt the proceedings."

The doors swept open just as smoothly as before. He still couldn't detect any psychic power, so the theory of the castle obeying Glacia out of fear steadily gained ground in his thoughts.

Steven's voice buffeted them the moment the doors opened. His words were harder and flatter than normal, and he knew Steven well enough to know he was extremely frustrated.

"- Rocket activity in the archipelago has been increasing for weeks! Five raids on three different breeding facilities. Villages are being extorted by any criminal worth six badges or more. Rangers have reported dozens of young trainers harassed and robbed in the last month alone. The Pack's network warns of wild pokemon scooped up by the hundred."

The former Champion took a deep breath and rubbed at his temples. His cheeks were flushed bright red.

"We've seen this before," he concluded harshly. "They're mobilizing for something massive."

Glacia made their entrance as subtle as possible, so the inhabitants hadn't registered them yet. He absorbed the room in an instant and paid particular attention to the occupants.

The room itself was decorated in a style similar to the rest of the castle. Orange dominated no matter where he looked, balanced with traces of green and rich brown wooden paneling. Some of the decorations were interesting; Ash noted a bit of a nautical theme to them.

Yellowing maps of various islands, sea routes, and regions adorned the walls. One case near Wallace at the end of the table displayed a strange clockwork device comprised of various interlocking gears barely distinguishable beneath a layer of seaborn rust. An enormous fireplace crackled lowly to one side of the room, untended, and above it hung a spear carved from a thick femur, tipped with an enormous Gyarados fang, and… and was that a human skull bolted to the mantle?

He stared, but couldn't waste his time wondering about that morbid curiosity. Steven was still on his tirade, but they would notice Ash and Glacia in seconds.

His teacher sat on the left side of a great polished table that dominated the center of the room. The table was carved in the shape of Hoenn's mainland, and Steven had not-so-coincidentally taken the seat nearest to Rustboro.

A moment later, the former champion turned and revealed the dark bags under his eyes, a pinched expression of fatigue hanging over him like a shadow. Ash was reminded of Lance's burnt-out state and felt a pang of concern.

He'd noticed Steven first, but of the rest, the most recognizable of the occupants sat directly across from Steven in the Lilycove spot.

A floppy white hat hid most of the turquoise hair, but not the matching eyes that immediately reminded Ash of Lisia. Champion Wallace appeared much more dour than his adored niece however.

This took Ash only somewhat by surprise.

Hoenn's reigning champion was known for his bright smiles and endless zest for life, but right then he didn't look any better off than Steven. Mostly hidden beneath his stark white Champion's mantle - his preferred avant-garde style obscured for the moment - Ash could read the slouch in his shoulders and the tired lean of his chin against a propped-up fist: he was just as worn down as his predecessor.

He was just better at hiding it, Ash noted, as the man straightened subtly under a concerned Phoebe's inspection; his slouch disappearing, and an enigmatic half-smile curling his lips. If he wasn't looking for it, he wouldn't have noticed the difference.

You don't become a Champion Coordinator without understanding the value of appearances.

A young woman sat between Steven and Wallace. Bright pink flowers in her hair clashed with the orange pervading the room, and she shifted her blue, floral-printed skirt with the dull rattle of a jiggling knee as she listened raptly to the proceedings.

Ash thought most of her attention was devoted to the snoozing Sableye sprawled over her lap, though. Its purple body was practically armored in gems of all sorts which clad its vaguely-corporeal form in a shimmering coat.

Her attire wasn't conducive to a belt, so the dark-skinned woman wore a necklace of pokeballs that swung over Sableye with every movement. Sneasel wouldn't have been able to resist batting them around.

Elite Four Phoebe presented a playful air, but she had a reputation for playing with her food in battle, in a way resembling her ghosts… but hopefully not in the same form as Agatha.

He knew the last face. Unfortunately familiar, Sidney had his feet kicked up on the massive mahogany table, although Ash couldn't be sure it wasn't just Zoroark under an illusion. He had the bored, oppressed air of someone forced to be present, but not inconvenienced enough to do anything about it.

Of course, he noticed Ash first.

Glacia was obscured behind Nidoking's bulk, but Ash stood awkwardly in the doorway, taking in the sudden rush of information and the familiar feeling that he'd walked into a roomful of living legends.

Sidney smirked, finally offered up a fine new toy.

"Shh!" He cut Steven off. "Quiet down, boss man! Don't put that filth in the baby's ears!" He cackled as Steven's face went redder than ever, his countenance might have been carved from granite for all the warmth it held.

Sidney ignored him in favor of Ash. "Should've known our own little walking disaster was coming around! Absol's been such a -"

Ash tuned him out. His friendship with Gary had trained him well.

This was why he wasn't looking forward to seeing Sidney again. He was an amazing trainer, but his personality fell somewhere in the mucky territory between George Grey and Gary Oak.

It lasted until Glacia swept up behind him in a flurry of skirts. One frown was all it took for Sidney to cringe, offer a muttered apology, and yank his black loafers off the polished table and onto the floor.

Glacia didn't spare the man another look. She circled the table and sat primly at Wallace's left with all the grace befitting a noble lady.

"I apologize for the interruption. It is my pleasure to introduce -"

"Ash! Nidoking!" Steven greeted them with warmth he hadn't shown the others. It only lasted a moment before he frowned. "What are you doing here?" His eyes widened. "Wait, what happened? What went wrong? Are you all right?"

"What? Nothing. I finished the job." That came as a reflex, and his hand went to Spiritomb's Ultra Ball. Steven was too meticulous to miss the motion and frowned subtly. "Uh, maybe. Yes? Definitely yes."

He hated stumbling over his words in front of the Ever Grande Elite Four, but given the circumstances…

Ash spared the Champion and Phoebe a polite greeting before he continued. They seemed more bemused than anything, and Ash even nodded to Sidney. That was gracious of him, wasn't it?

With pleasantries dispensed, he cleared his throat. "'Do not enter by command of Ever Grande League and Champion Steven Stone. Unknown presence within. Suspected hostile.'"

Normally he might take pleasure in stirring a reaction from Steven. This wasn't one of those occasions. Ash was worn to the bone and one look at Steven proved he felt the same.

Steven's face was chalk white as his shaking hands clutched at the table as if seeking to throttle it. He looked like he'd seen a ghost, which Ash supposed was a fitting reaction.

"What - how - why?"

"When? Where?" Sidney added unhelpfully.

Glacia tapped the table. "That is enough, Elite Four Sidney. Mr. Stone, please compose yourself."

Sidney leaned back in his luxurious armchair like a sulking Growlithe. It lightened Ash's mood just a little, although Sidney's eyes soon lingered on Steven like a Mightyena eying crippled prey.

"Thank you, Glacia," Steven pinched the bridge of his nose. "I - this was supposed to be a routine mission, Ash. What happened?"

Ash offered up an abridged version for the sake of time. "I met a wild pokemon contact in the Piede during my mission. She offered us a scout to help us with their ghost problem. We tracked down a few ghosts last night and pinpointed their source."

Wallace and Steven shared a look. "The tomb. How? Brandon assured us the protections were still in place!"

"They were," Ash confirmed. "But the Aura - protections eroded since the tomb was opened. Spiritomb wore them down."

"Spiritomb!"

The name sparked two wildly different reactions. Steven was all wide eyes and slack mouth, but Phoebe's eyes gleamed like she'd just been handed a winning lottery ticket. She'd been the one to exclaim.

Ash smiled humorlessly. "I can release it if you need proof."

"Do it!"

Wallace quickly took the situation in hand and shut down Phoebe's suggestion, cutting in with soft, lilting tones that softened the abruptness of his command. "That won't be necessary."

Ash sensed a shadow in his words. No doubt Wallace remembered some unfortunate experience with Cynthia's corrosive Spiritomb.

How would Wallace react if Ash did release Spiritomb? Could he stand the unfettered power of a Spiritomb unsoftened by years of love, attention, and trust?

The intrusive thought was soon discarded. Ash decided to blame Spiritomb's influence earlier in the day.

"A Spiritomb… I never would have imagined!" Steven muttered. His face twisted as he comprehended some unknown mystery, and then his lips flattened as the anger resurged. "Ash! I left that warning for a reason. I -"

He abruptly stopped halfway through his tirade. Steven glanced around the room and took stock of the others. Phoebe's dark, fascinated eyes currently burned a hole through Ash, while Sidney just seemed amused. Glacia was unreadable at Wallace's side.

"I apologize, but we'll need to continue this meeting another time. The Champion, Ash, and I require privacy."

Not one of the Ever Grande Elite Four moved. Three heads swiveled to Champion Wallace, who sent them away with a brief nod. Sidney slunk out first, though Glacia scolded him to correct his posture as he left, and Phoebe drifted in closer as she passed by Ash.

"Please, please, please show me Spiritomb later!"

Her overwhelming enthusiasm was difficult to handle right now, so Ash nodded along just to get the Ghost Master out the door. Phoebe beamed as she skipped out with Sableye prancing along behind her.

Glacia rose like a queen from her seat to Wallace's left. Arkepagos the Glalie dutifully escorted her as she strode to the exit.

"A pleasure to meet you, Elite Four Ash. I look forward to conversing more. By your leave, Champion Wallace."

The white-clad Champion dipped his head and Glacia swiftly left them. He could finally breathe with Glacia gone. She wasn't cruel or malicious in any way, but she loomed much larger than her average height would suggest.

Wallace chuckled at Ash's reaction, his eyes gleaming knowingly, which left him a little flushed. He'd hoped no one would notice…

Steven could speak freely with the other Elite Four members gone. He appeared outwardly calm, but Ash knew Steven.

The former Champion was drawn taut as a steel cord right now. One good pluck was all it would take to make him snap.

"We didn't know what was in that tomb," the Steel Master's voice was cold stone as he resumed his tirade. "But we did know it was dangerous!" Steven's calm cracked at the end. His knuckles were white as he gripped the table's edge. "What possessed you to ignore the warning? It was right there, plain as day!"

Nidoking's rumble failed to garner a reaction from Steven. Ash scowled. "My mission was to fix the problems in the desert. I found the source of the problem, so I handled it."

"But why would you go in alone?"

What? He fought to keep his voice level. "My team was with me. I wasn't alone. We've hunted worse than Spiritomb before, and I don't just mean Legends. It was nothing we couldn't take care of."

Nidoking grunted his agreement.

A vein bulged in Steven's forehead. Steven massaged his temples. "I - Ash. I want to know why you didn't call for backup. League backup!"

Oh. Ash sighed internally and summoned up his patience.

"We sealed that tomb with metal! Buried it in sand! We carved warnings into the walls… and believe me, that was much harder than it sounds! Nobody was supposed to enter. If anyone did, we thought they'd have the sense to walk away!"

Nidoking snarled. Ash wasn't far from it. "The protections were fading. One of the locals tore the metal open. It was still an issue! I wasn't even the first one to check it out - just the only one to go deep enough to deal with it. I handled it, didn't I?"

Ash unclipped Spiritomb's Ultra Ball and slammed it on the table. It rested alert and lifeless, just like Spiritomb itself.

"It's in here. No more ghosts. Mission accomplished."

"That's not the problem! I know what Spiritomb are like, Ash! Cynthia didn't skimp on the details - I've spent more than enough time near hers. You could have died!"

"But I didn't. We handled it," Ash bit out. "Did you know what was behind that wall? I didn't. I had my job, and I did it. It was tougher than we thought, but we figured it out. This conversation wouldn't be happening if I found a Gengar back there. Spiritomb is no Legend."

It was like he'd flipped Steven's off switch. One moment he was red and tense and angry and the next he collapsed back into his comfy armchair like a puppet with its strings cut.

Steven's stare was hard as stone. "That's not something to measure a threat against. Legends aren't the only thing that can kill you. Did you ever fear for your life? Did you ever consider that maybe you and your team might have died down there?"

Ash's hesitation was all Steven needed. His voice was soft. "You made it out, but what if you didn't? What if I'd gone looking and found you down there… or worse, what if I hadn't?"

He looked away. "I survived. I won. We're still here for a reason, Steven."

Despite his words, Ash imagined the grim alternative. What would his family think if they heard that news? His friends?

"We had a job to do." He said instead of what he was thinking. "There was no reason to think it would be anything stronger than us. It wasn't. We couldn't just walk away!"

Steven considered him. "No, I suppose you couldn't. You had to see it through. That's who you are. But did you have to finish it then? Did you have to finish it alone? Was Spiritomb going anywhere?"

Normally silence was Ash's favorite companion. Not now. Steven seemed content with it, although Wallace was busy reading something on his PokeNav with the single-minded intensity normally reserved for the battlefield.

At least Ash wasn't alone. This must have been even more awkward for Wallace than it was for Ash. It stung that the Ever Grande Champion was here to watch his dressing down, but at least the rest of the Elite Four had been ushered out.

He considered it. Genuinely.

"No."

Who knew it could be so difficult to say one word?

"Correct." Ash flexed his fingers. "What could you have done instead?"

It was always a learning opportunity with Steven. His instincts urged him to look anywhere but Steven's impassive stare, but Ash steeled himself.

Nidoking was agitated, so Ash brushed his hand against his friend's shoulder to calm him. It steadied him, too. The huffing and grumbling slowed, but didn't stop.

Ash grit his teeth and swallowed his pride. "I could have secured the entrance. Called for help. Alerted you."

"Yes."

The word hung over them.

"I wanted this to be a routine mission," Steven grumbled. "Something simple. Fun, even... I wanted you to get experience in the field without dealing with me hovering around. You weren't supposed to find anything important… although I suppose I should have known something like this would happen. It always does."

Steven pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a great sigh.

"I digress. My point is that you aren't alone. When the mission changes, you request assistance, or at least clarification. You're a part of the League now. "Why did you join us if you won't ask for help? We're all part of the same family, extended as it may be. You aren't alone, Ash. You're never alone."

Ash swallowed, taken somewhat aback. "I - I understand."

Steven looked away. "My intent isn't to make you feel bad. I'm sure you did well. I just - I want you to know it's not you alone against the world. We're here to share that weight."

Silence fell as Ash processed that.

"I am truly sorry, Ash." Steven cracked a little. "I've sent you into danger so many times and… I thought this was safe. It's my job to protect you, and I've failed time and time again."

Neither of them could make eye contact anymore. By now Wallace had given up on his pretense and lounged back in his chair with his eyes squeezed tightly shut and headphones clasped over his ears. He'd withdrawn totally from the scene.

Ash envied him.

He considered Steven's words.

His mentor's point was valid, he had to concede. Lance and Steven made the offer, and it was Ash who'd signed the contract. The perks were wide and varied, but there were obligations that came with it. Perhaps he should have reached out at least to clarify his objective - Steven was only a single call away.

Yet something inside Ash resisted. The League was his ally. Ash trusted them. He would trust them with Spiritomb, he realized. He'd trust them with the Rockets. He would trust them with Durand and any worldly threat.

The League was composed of strong people. Good people. The best.

But Ash was no fool. His encounter with Spiritomb was only the tip of the iceberg. He'd done well, and he challenged anyone to say otherwise. But Steven's normal lack of subtlety came down like a hammer in this instance. Steven had perceived a pattern, and he wouldn't let it go so easily.

He could trust them with so much, but they could never shoulder the burden of the Legends. They couldn't understand like he did. Couldn't glean insight into their nature, couldn't even sense them.

Even Lance…

Explaining that to Steven wouldn't accomplish anything. He'd tried. He could accept the League's help, but Ash knew the truth. When it was time, and the stakes were highest, it would be himself and his family where it mattered - where they were called - not the League.

Ash shoved those miserable thoughts away though. They wouldn't help him here.

"I understand," he said, letting some of his genuine contrition bleed through the frustration. "I'm sorry. If it helps, I really never thought it would be something like Spiritomb. The others were newborns. Harmless. I was confident in our ability to handle it, but I still should have checked in to be safe. I'll be better."

Steven looked ten years younger. "Good. I can't ask anything more of you. There are so many people in your corner, and we care about you. We want to help you. Please let us."

Ash's throat tightened. He managed a nod.

Neither felt especially comfortable with all the mushy talk, so they sat in silence awhile.

Ash rocked back and forth on his heels, seeking any possible outlet for the wellspring of nervous energy writhing beneath his skin, and gripped Nidoking's clawed hand. Nidoking squeezed back gently, his beady eyes glinting in understanding.

It was fitting, Ash supposed, since Nidoking knew something about interventions himself.

Steven appeared lost in thought, and Wallace was content to wait them out until the fireworks were over, so this went on for at least a minute.

He stood there until he couldn't stand it anymore.

It was his turn to ask the questions.

"Why didn't you take down Spiritomb?" Ash asked. "You knew something was there."

Steven and Wallace shared a look, Steven looking somewhat pained, though not shamed. The Champion nodded.

"Well," the Steel Master began, "My expedition was aware the tomb would be protected. A Distortional entity was a prime suspect, but we couldn't gather enough data to verify its nature. We actually managed to achieve our objective with minimal effort and much faster than projected, so we judged it best to withdraw without disturbing it. We saw no need to interfere with the protections. In fact, we'd hoped to keep them intact to dissuade future intruders."

Ash snorted. He grabbed Spiritomb's Ultra Ball and clipped it back to his belt. "You don't say."

Steven pretended like he didn't hear Ash. "We didn't judge it a priority, ultimately. The potential danger outweighed any benefits, particularly given our extensive efforts to ensure the tomb remained hidden. Its natural protections had kept it well-guarded for countless centuries. We expected them to last at least a few more."

It went unsaid that those efforts weren't enough to keep Ash out, but that was hardly a fair criticism. Most humans and pokemon would find it impossible to recognize the ruins. The method by which those Aura-forged protections operated still remained a seductive mystery to Ash.

He found it frustrating for another reason as well. After all, who knew what other forcefully inconspicuous places he'd passed over in ignorance?

There could be countless sealed ruins all over Hoenn for all he knew. Indigo might even have a few! Taimu's tomb was just one he'd become privy to in his time traveling there. Who knew how many more secret places might be tucked away in Sinnoh's mysterious nooks and crannies, much less the wider world?

Speaking of which…

"I caught glimpses of the thing Spiritomb was guarding," Ash said. "Not much, but I know it was strong. Was it some kind of weapon?"

Steven appeared disturbed, but Ash had finally caught Wallace's interest. He realized it was the first time Wallace had spoken to him directly, and there was a marked intensity to him, a sort of manic energy belied by his cool, soothing tones. "Truly? How interesting!" the man exclaimed softly. "In truth, it would be simple to tell you and leave you with a shade of understanding, but perhaps a demonstration is in order. You might be able to answer a few long-standing questions of ours! Steven?"

The former Champion nodded. He closed his eyes, then Juliet appeared seamlessly with a single, delicate step through space-time. She curtsied to Champion Wallace and Steven both, then offered Ash a warm greeting.

Welcome to Ever Grande City. I hope you are enjoying your stay. It's lovely to see you again.

He projected all the warmth he could into the mental link she'd forged, and then Juliet severed it before she could suffer any backlash from their connection.

Ash turned to Wallace with undisguised curiosity. "You still have it?" he thought back to the vision he'd snagged of the League contingent trekking across the Piede. "I have to see it!"

"Soon!" Wallace finally showed the good cheer he was known for. His smile was just as blindingly white as his mantle. "It might be unfair to say that I still have it. You'll understand soon enough."

"Let's go!" Ash pressed.

He needed to hunt this mystery down and unveil it with his own eyes. Its identity eluded him, but it was, if not responsible for, then at least the reason for Spiritomb's imprisonment. Someone had seen fit to haul the thing half a world away in times where traveling past one's native region was a grand accomplishment, just to bury it in the earth, to be forgotten.

There was a story there, and Ash found himself desperate to know it for himself.

Steven rose from his seat. "It's buried beneath our feet. An extensive network of tunnels and caverns runs beneath our feet. We normally use it as a training ground, but there are other uses for such an isolated and well-protected place.

His blood boiled with anticipation. "What are we waiting for?"

Wallace smiled indulgently. "Only a word! Juliet?"

Psychic power filled the air with a gentle hum. Azure light burned within the Gardevoir's large eyes, and Ash sensed something twist -

He and Nidoking materialized alongside Steven and Wallace on a confined, grey platform. It looked like a boulder that had been shorn in half, leaving a flat plane to stand on. The platform opened into a box-like hallway of more rough-hewn stone. It was plain, perfectly straight, and lit with a handful of sterile, faintly buzzing white lights reminiscent of those found in hospitals.

"This way!" Wallace gestured forward. "Your answers await beyond this threshold!"

The reigning champion took the lead with a flourish of his brilliant white cape and a swiftness of step. The accessory appeared too pristine to leave the safe confines of the castle, but the Ever Grande Champion held no reservations about drudging through the dust and dirt.

Ash shot a look at Steven, who simply shrugged as if saying 'What can you do?'.

They followed cautiously. Steven didn't seem worried - he was smiling, in fact - and wasn't in a rush like Wallace seemed to be. Ash had no trouble stepping into the tiny, cramped corridor, but Nidoking found it a chore. His sides scraped the walls and blotted out the light behind them.

He offered to return Nidoking, but wasn't surprised when Nidoking firmly declined. His partner was still agitated after the conversation with Steven, and it soothed him to be able to protect Ash, just in case.

Absent anything else to think about - he wasn't going to reflect on his argument with Steven until later - Ash instead wondered about the hallway's purpose. Most League installations were designed with fairly large pokemon in mind, but this design was positively claustrophobic. It was shaped with meticulous care, but was only five and a half feet high at its tallest, with odd dips that forced Steven and Wallace to crouch every few feet. Nidoking only squeezed through by shambling on all fours.

At least his own smaller size was finally coming in handy.

He felt a prickle of curiosity spark when something caught his attention from the corner of his eye; dark and smooth and glistening. Ash leaned down closer to see where it was embedded in the wall.

Barely larger than his hand, the… stone, he realized, fell into a strange, blurred category between velvet purple and pitch black. Looking at it spawned a terrible itch within him, like nails on chalkboard within some primordial corner of his brain. It appeared to slurp up any light that struck it.

His new discovery opened the door to many others like it. More of the dark stones were pressed into the stone walls at regular intervals, but it wasn't until he focused on one, pushing past the primal urge to recoil, that his suspicions were confirmed.

Dusk stones. Dozens of them. They must have cost a fortune.

A long straightaway. Tight confines. Distortional influence.

"Steven."

Steven was unable to twist his head around fully, but craned his neck back as far as he could. "Yes?"

"Are we in a kill zone?" Ash's tone rang with morbid curiosity, dulled by the fact that he knew nothing down here would threaten the Ever Grande Champions. "This is a natural chokepoint."

Ash could practically hear the wry smile in Steven's reply. "You'll see soon enough."

He sounded more cheerful than Ash would have expected, though there was still an edge of grim humor there - the satisfaction of a well-laid plan, or trap, that experience told Ash he should tread carefully lest he stumble into it.

"There's still a way to go," his mentor said. "What else have you noticed?"

Ash's fingers brushed against a Dusk Stone. It was cool to the touch, but the brief contact shrouded the Concepts within him in the same way as a blanket tossed over a lantern obscured the light and warmth of it.

"The Dusk Stones."

"Of course. What is their purpose?"

"Blocking teleportation. Psychic interference." He couldn't see much past Steven's back, but the hallway stretched on for ages. "How many?"

Steven radiated satisfaction. "Enough," he said. "And that is correct. We've isolated this chamber from the subterranean network, but the stones help hide it from prying eyes. Wild pokemon tend to avoid Distortion-saturated areas, and only those intimately familiar with the vault may teleport in safely."

"Doesn't it cast a shadow?" He struggled to translate his thoughts into words - psychics thought of these things differently than he did. It didn't translate easily. "Dazed can sense ghosts and dark-types through the hole they leave in her senses. Is it the same here?"

"Few are that capable. Noxoceptory skills are rather specialized, though quite valuable. A good question, however," Steven acknowledged. "In theory, a skilled psychic might perceive the cavern. The rock surrounding the vault is enough to block some of their senses though, and the concentration of Dusk Stones makes the task even more difficult. Piercing the vault at all would demand an intimate familiarity; this can all be considered insurance."

Their little group neared the end of the tunnel by the time Steven finished his explanation. Another chamber lay beyond. Ash noticed that their tunnel seemed to grow more cramped as it went on. He could only imagine how difficult it would be for intruders to squeeze through tripping over the divots in their haste. They'd be stuck shuffling along, trapped and cramped.

No teleportation to pull them out. No way to protect themselves. No way to call for help.

His sense of claustrophobia only intensified. It hadn't been helped by his experiences in Spiritomb's crypt, nor Jirachi's. The Dusk Stones cast a shadow over more than just the stone, and Ash found that their proximity soon left his mind haunted with paranoia and eager to twitch at every shadow.

Ash shoved it down to deal with later.

"Voila!" Wallace's delighted cry echoed throughout the vault ahead. He'd escaped the tunnel and turned to face Ash with his arms spread wide. There was a hint of relief in his eyes. "Behold our treasure!"

Steven wasn't so dramatic, but he seemed just as excited as Wallace. Ash might be able to pick up on the sensations if he pushed outward rather than inward, but was too overcome by his own curiosity to try and snag a sense of Steven's feelings as well.

Nidoking struggled through the last few feet of the kill zone and groaned in relief. Vertebrae popped as he stretched back to his full height and his great tail swished happily along the floor. Ash showed his sympathy with a quick pat before he took the new chamber into account.

He froze.

The vault was simple, just like the sealed tomb beneath the Piede. It was rectangular, clearly chiseled out of a natural hollow, and was dotted with lanterns that hung from the walls. They washed the chamber in the same sterile white light as the tunnel behind them.

Functional and practical. Ash approved.

Why pretty something up if no one was meant to see it?

That thought lasted as long as Steven stepped aside and the vault's centerpiece appeared behind him.

A stone titan rested beneath Ever Grande.

Both could only stare, Nidoking with an instinctual wariness, Ash with his mind heavy with memories not his own, plucked from history and the sands of time.

It was an eternity before he shook himself and sucked in a breath. Ash stepped forward.

The Champions might as well have vanished for all the attention he paid them. A dark shape - a Probopass? - levitated over to Steven, but that only distracted him for a moment before the towering monolith dragged him back.

It loomed with the presence of a mountain. The titan was immobile and lifeless, which was a relief as memories of a bloodsoaked statue clicking and shrieking and crushing enemy lines came to mind, but still offered the uncanny sensation of life.

He'd seen performers in various city squares who acted like statues. They'd sit motionless for hours before a twitch - inevitable, a failure of the flesh - would give them away.

The titan left Ash with the same impression, but it was not so flawed.

It scraped the vault's ceiling, standing just under twenty feet tall, and suffocated the chamber with its bulk. The titan's form was that of a chiseled - literally - humanoid, comprised of a thick trunk of stone that ended with short, stocky legs. Enormous, club-like arms were connected to the main body by jutting, russet shoulders.

A thinner 'head' hewn atop its pillar-like trunk cemented its appearance. Dull dots in a familiar pattern sat on the titan's featureless face, and the sight sparked another vision from Spiritomb's crypt.

Old, foreign memories of this monolith in action came to the forefront of his mind.

Club arms crushed a Steelix like a Caterpie, mighty feet trod over snapping bone, bodies popped like overripe fruit, the empty shell's eyes burned yellow with dread purpose.

This was an engine of war.

He couldn't imagine the effort invested into trapping it beneath the sands of the Piede by those who sought to remove a deadly tool forever. How many had it crushed beneath its feet before those ancients discovered a way to deactivate it? What price was paid to transport it so many leagues from its homeland? Why bring it here at all, and not simply drop it into the sea to weather away?

Why, why, why?

Now it was held by another great power hundreds - thousands? - of years later.

History did love to repeat itself. Nothing remained buried forever.

He found himself grateful this titan was found when it was. Ash couldn't estimate its strength in the modern day, but the League had evidently deemed it valuable enough to invest significant resources into safeguarding it. It must still hold some degree of power, despite the centuries of technological and training advancement.

The Last War had been bad enough without throwing ancient superweapons into the mix.

Thirty years ago, the titan might have rampaged through Unova. It would have been set to work shattering enemy lines and weathering artillery strikes and elemental storms. Would have spilled blood of hundreds anew, unthinking, an automaton set to task.

But then, who could know? Maybe it would have been used in the reconstruction efforts as well. Rock-types had been invaluable there. Ash's League was not the cruel, capricious kingdoms of old.

It could be different.

For now though?

For now it gathered dust. He was grateful for that.

His curiosity couldn't be sated with just a look, though. Ash yearned to touch it. His gut demanded he reach beyond his skin and fill this silent stone statue with his spirit. Its secrets needed to be sought out. He needed to take them for himself.

He needed to know.

"May I?"

Ash already stepped closer to the golem, but Wallace happily waved him along.

"Magnificent, isn't it?"

It certainly was.

He walked circles around the titan. His eyes took in every facet and crack and imperfection, and there were many. It was weathered like an exposed cliffside, a patchwork of different varieties of stone, but Ash couldn't pick out any individual battle scars. At first glance it appeared crafted from ordinary rock - crafted, because it definitely wasn't natural - but….

Ash hadn't tried to extend his senses yet, but he didn't really need to.

Authority bled into the world from the titan's skin and exuded power. The desire of a starving man filled him. What secrets had been buried within the titan by the ancient masons?

At least Wallace seemed pleased with his awe, like a collector showing off his favorite trophy.

Steven beat him to the punch. His hand rested on the silent Probopass with surprising familiarity, and Ash wondered what connection they held. "See what you can learn. Chemical analysis revealed little useful information. It's proven unreactive to everything from hydrofluoric acid to - oh, nevermind. It's composed of various stones, primarily common types such as granite, sandstone, and limestone. Samples match up with specimens from Sinnoh, especially those sourced from certain parts of Mt. Coronet, but there is no apparent pattern to the composition itself."

He didn't respond.

"Battlefield simulations revealed its physical properties aren't in line with the quality of its materials. It's too strong and too durable. Drake's practical demonstrations turned up similar results."

Ash pressed his hand against it. He half-expected it to lurch and kill them all the moment he brushed it, but the titan remained inert.

That was a pleasant surprise. His day hadn't exactly gone to plan so far.

"What do you call it?"

The rock was exactly what he'd expected. His touch corroborated it as simple stone. No heartbeat pounded beneath the lithic skin. No core burned hot beneath its carapace. It really did feel like a big statue.

For now.

"Champion Cynthia visited at Steven's request when it was first unearthed. She was hesitant to make any bold claims, but she was confident it was a Sinnoan relic from the days before the League."

"The Weeping Centuries."

Wallace blinked. "Yes! There are fairy tales of golems shaped by their mythical God-King after his supposed pilgrimage to Snowpoint. Others mention a Ponderous Mover, whatever that may be."

He treated the subject more flippantly than Ash would expect. After all, he supposed, if you went to the right villages you might hear old ghost stories of tormented spirits tied to keystones. Ash wouldn't be so quick to discount all of Sinnoh's legends.

Wait!

Ash dug through complex webs of lore crisscrossed with historical fact from his readings. He called brief passages to mind - myths and legends interested him for obvious reasons, and Sinnoh was infested with them.

Dense mountains, hidden valleys, and the general oddities of Mt. Coronet combined with truly ancient legacies ensured countless stories were passed down the generations.

He remembered one of those tales now. Three golems molded from the elements. One shaped of frost, one of metal, and one of…

Ash examined the stone golem again. His curiosity burned even brighter now. It was impossible to describe the realization you stood in the presence of history. The relics preserved in Ever Grande Castle were amazing, but they might have been shaped yesterday compared to the stone titan.

Assuming the legends were correct, of course. They might hold a grain of truth, but they were hardly a sturdy foundation to build a hypothesis off of.

What were their names? Ash couldn't quite recall. He looked to Nidoking for help and received a blank stare and a halfhearted shrug in response to his question.

Dazed would know for certain. Plenty of his team loved to be around while Ash read, but Dazed took the content to heart. She'd probably even make fun of him for losing track. He could remember reading the words aloud to her while they studied.

Ash spent a good bit of time trying to teach her to read human script since they'd returned to Hoenn, but they'd met with limited success. Personally, he thought she was downplaying her capabilities so they could spend more time -

Maybe Spiritomb had messed with his head more than he'd thought. It felt like he couldn't go five seconds without getting sidetracked.

Those memories were the key, though. He thought about it more.

…Ah.

"Regirock. Regice. Registeel."

He'd look up their specifics later. Ash doubted the little scrap he'd tracked down would be very useful, but any information was better than none.

"Cynthia came to that conclusion as well!" Wallace seemed happy enough to stand aside while Ash investigated, but he edged away whenever Ash circled closer. He might have been offended, but given his luck… "She spent half a week poring over Regirock, but she encountered limited success. Please continue to examine it. Your particular talents may turn something up."

Steven sent Wallace a dirty look.

Ash focused back on Regirock as the Champions watched. Steven whispered to Probopass, but Ash ignored it. His whole world was twenty feet tall, built thicker than a brick house, and silent as the dead.

His hand pressed his hand harder against the unyielding stone. Ash breathed deeply and closed his eyes. The vault was still and silent beyond the faint breaths of himself, Nidoking, and the two Champions.

He fell deeper into the silence.

Dark. Quiet. Alone. Sleep. Don't fight. Aren't you tired? Lay down. Embrace the end.

Ash's breath hitched as he teetered on the abyss inside him. His hand twitched towards Spiritomb's container to reassure him it was safely sealed, but Ash knew this was his own doing. The cursed spirit couldn't affect him from within the Ultra Ball.

No, it was just his mind playing tricks on him…

His self-awareness helped him regain focus. The gnawing emptiness within him threatened to rise again. It was a relic of Spiritomb's hollow nature, empowered, perhaps, by the Dusk Stones cloaking this place, scooping out the joy and life and everything else within him. Good or bad, positive or negative, fair or foul… it was all gobbled up by the yawning void.

Without action - something to occupy his thoughts, his hands, his focus - and the absence of any stimulus, Ash was alone with himself.

It couldn't catch him off guard this time, though. He skirted around the gaping void threatening to swallow him. Ash pressed harder against Regirock's solid form and brought all he could to drag up to bear; the curiosity, hunger, the thirst for whatever knowledge the titan elicited to the surface.

When his urge for self-improvement wasn't enough, he grasped Nidoking's clawed hand.

Nidoking was warm and alive and everything Ash needed. His blunt claws clenched around Ash's smaller hand, and that one action centered Ash.

They stood together for a long, long time. Ash had experimented a bit and never stopped poking at his limits these last few weeks, but he'd only picked up so much. He pressed outward, but there was no tangible connection to draw on.

With Plume, they had a bond broad and deep as an ocean, filled to the brim with shared victories and failures. Most of all, they bore a mutual love that bound them together. Steven was his first real teacher. His guidance and actions had paved the way for everything Ash had become.

Regirock offered an intellectual curiosity. All that tied Ash to the golem was a passion for the legacy this lifeless creature embodied, and an endless desire to know what it could truly accomplish.

Ash soon realized that that wasn't enough. There was… something… there.

It was akin to the sensation of staring into someone's eyes and finding only mysteries lurking behind them. There were hints, the beginnings of something greater, but not enough to discern insights into Regirock's past, or its true nature.

The realization earned a disgruntled frown. He wasn't about to fail here. Not with Steven around and Wallace's rapt attention on him.

What else, what else, what else?

Ash delved into the tomb which was Regirock's home for countless years. Centuries washed over Regirock like rain drops off a mountain while it rested there. Empires rose and fell. The ordinary lives of pokemon and humans rushed by in the blink of an eye, only to be replaced by fresh life, an ever-flowing river of change that touched all, save it.

The world moved on without Regirock.

Could it be lonely? Did it feel? Ash frowned.

He'd pierced the veils anchored in Regirock's tomb as only a handful of others had managed. He was able to sense the true nature of those embedded ideas and emotions and memories. He knew the minds of those men, women, and pokemon who carved them into the stone and sand.

Ash and his family had bested Regirock's pitiful, terrible guardian and whisked it away from its empty tomb. It hung on his belt! Who else could say they'd seen this titan in action? It was faded and swift like a dream, but he remembered the bloodsoaked war machine's implacable stride across a dozen battlefields.

Feel me, he pressed into the titan. Tell me your story.

He clung to these ideas. Ruminating for a brief eternity, tethered to himself by Nidoking's reassuring presence, searching, and -

There! Information flooded his mind, difficult to describe and murky as a bog. Not thoughts and not quite memories, but feelings, impressions, and ideas. And beneath it all, a reflection of something so much greater.

"For my children when I am gone, and my children's children…"

His hands, those of a common man, took ordinary Michinan stone and made something extraordinary.

"Be mighty, perpetual, and unchanging. Do not falter and do not break! Endure! And if you must break, you will not remain broken. You are an empty vessel waiting to be filled. Live! Live and serve!"

Serve serve serve serve serve

His hand threatened to slip away from Regirock as the rush of knowledge carved through his brain like an oncoming storm. Painful? No. Overwhelming? Very. It strained him like those long nights planning for Fino, training his team to their limits, or reviewing the Pokedex to ensure his knowledge stayed fresh.

Face after face filled his mind. Most grinned and laughed, ecstatic with their new servant. Many shared a resemblance, but others quaked in their boots. Those faces never lasted long. A new master would replace them soon enough.

Ash tasted their souls and sipped their thoughts. He felt the commands carved into Regirock's core. They'd entangled themselves there and infused the mighty shell with their will. Regirock was a canvas to a hundred different shades, a drop of each master's unique color added to cement their bond.

They were all gone, but a shallow trace of their legacy lived on in the golem.

No… not all were gone! There was still one, fresh and young and strong - and close! One who had traversed the sands and unburied a relic of times long past. Silver!

Ash followed that silver thread, traced the familiar presence, and swiveled to face him.

"Steven?"

"Yes?" Steven looked up from doting on 'd carefully picked over Probopass' every inch for any nicks or scratches.

All he could do was stare. His hand slipped away from Regirock. The golem remained dead stone, but he knew the truth now. Ash sensed the depths beneath its calm surface, if only barely, and wondered if the firm bond between Steven and the titan might become visible like a knotted thread if he imagined hard enough.

"...How?"

Wallace made a pleased noise in his throat.

"Ah. You figured it out." Steven looked pointedly at Wallace, who waved him on as if graciously admitting defeat. There was definitely a story there, but Ash couldn't care less at the moment.

Until he had the stubborn thought that he'd been subject to yet another bet, anyway.

He'd have to start taking a cut of all this eventually. It sounded like he was the only one not benefitting from the rampant gambling plague infecting the Leagues.

"How? Something to do with Aura. Some kind of bond," Ash said, every synapse filled with fireworks.

He theorized what he could, based on the impressions he'd received. "But you aren't trained," he continued. "Cynthia would have mentioned it, and I've never sensed anything from you. So you don't need any experience to command it?" He shook his head. "Or it's not a conscious pairing. Can you control it? You should. It's like a little piece of you is in there filling up all that empty space. Can you give it conscious commands, or does it respond automatically? That would be much more efficient -"

Steven looked rather overwhelmed with the flood of questions and raised his hand to placate Ash.

He flushed, but felt more impatience than anything else. Normally Steven could handle questioning like that. Was he taking longer than normal, or was it just in his head? Ash wondered if it was a consequence of not having Metagross' processing power linked to him.

"To answer your questions…" Steven began. "No. I didn't intentionally bond with Regirock. I was just the first to touch it. A link formed when I did, one that remains beyond my own understanding. It obeys my commands, but requires conscious direction."

Steven's eyes squeezed shut. Nearly thirty seconds passed before Regirock lurched to life with a whistle. Its patterned dots burned orange like hot coals and soon after greeted the world with clicks and stuttering chirps.

Ash and Nidoking both startled - his partner immediately shifted to gently, but firmly, yank Ash behind him. Nidoking was cognizant enough of the situation to show some restraint, but still adopted a defensive stance that secured Ash entirely from any direct danger. Ash allowed it, his attention too enraptured by the titan to protest.

Regirock didn't move again until Steven's face scrunched up. One enormous clublike arm lifted, and then it took a single step forward and shook the cavern. For a moment Ash feared the entire vault might come crashing down around them.

He noted that Regirock's movements grew smoother the longer Steven commanded it. It gradually shifted from the shambling of a newly reanimated creature to something more fluid and natural, however bizarre it was to apply that word to such a monolithic creature.

Steven further demonstrated his command over Regirock for a minute or two - making it raise and lower its arms, turn around, and even lift a few errant pebbles with whatever rock sense it possessed - before allowing it to slip back into unconsciousness.

Regirock droned loudly and clicked once, twice, three times before it complied, shifting back to its original position and returning to stasis. Its arms lowered to scrape the ground as the animative force fled and left it nothing but a lifeless statue once again.

Ash watched raptly. Every twitch of Regirock's mighty form fascinated him. Power, vigor, and strength radiated off of it, and the only thing he could imagine right now was facing it with his team. He wasn't sure if they could truly damage it given the mysteries of its creation, but they would have a great time trying!

What a fight that would be!

Wallace gently supported Steven as his eyes snapped open. The man swayed, but then steadied himself on Probopass, who levitated its Mini-Noses beneath Steven's arms to hoist him up.

"Thank you!" Steven gasped, sucking in a few grateful breaths. "It's a draining experience. I find it grows easier over time, but I haven't connected with it in months. I used to manage for an hour before the strain would overcome me."

Ash nodded, but remained silently adrift in his own thoughts. Regirock must be a phenomenal force to command, but he had to question its use on a real battlefield… at least with how Steven controlled it. It took forever to get moving! One good ambush would leave him defenseless.

That begged his next question. "Has it seen any use?"

"No!" Wallace said firmly. "We've tested its capabilities, but we can't share it with the world! Besides, we are long past the days of monolithic, sluggish armies. Regirock is ill-adapted for the conflicts we face today."

"Our current methods are sufficient for Rockets," Steven interjected. "Regirock would invite questions. There are too many wagging tongues and cameras are everywhere these days." He looked pointedly at Ash, who agreed. Greenfield had proven that many times over. One good look at the truth and the whole world would want to scrape it bare. "There are the practical considerations as well, as I'm sure you can understand."

Ash could read between the lines well enough. Regirock was too big. Too unwieldy. Too slow. It was designed to tear down a fortress and uproot its foundation, not to engage in the kind of asymmetrical conflict that the League found itself bogged down in.

Hoenn was a vast land. The mainland alone was the size of Johto, and when you took the archipelago and surrounding waters into account it was just as expansive as Indigo itself. Criminals could hide anywhere, and subduing them was a matter of flexibility, quick action, and stealth rather than strength.

The League already had strength in spades. Regirock might not be likely to be overpowered unless something like Mewtwo was skulking around, but…

A cold fire flickered, then went dim. It scanned Regirock for just a moment, but didn't seem overly interested in it. That only reinforced Ash's own thoughts about the golem.

"You mentioned tests," he asked. "What did the League find?"

"It's nearly invulnerable to physical force," Steven seemed rather perturbed by that, probably due to his comments earlier about Regirock's composition. He was a logical man, and Regirock defied sense. "Elemental attacks have minimal effect. Cryobombs can't impair its movement and regular explosives barely scratch it. I encountered limited success with Metagross' Mega Evolved form and Railgun, but it only managed to snap off two of its limbs."

Ash blinked. "Only?"

"Regirock remained combat capable. It repaired itself within a minute," Steven explained with a furrowed brow. "Its regenerative abilities and durability combine to render Regirock nearly indestructible. If I remember correctly, Drake enjoyed putting that theory to the test."

Ash narrowed his eyes. "Physical force and elemental attacks don't work, so psychic attacks should be pretty useless. Telekinetic abilities, anyway. They could attack your mind, but you have Metagross to handle that. What about ghosts and dark-types?"

They were masters of circumventing conventional protections, as Ash knew well. It was hard to imagine Regirock susceptible, though. Sinnoh had experienced entire plagues of weaponized ghosts courtesy of Hearthome.

"Useless. Phoebe and Sidney worked as a team and couldn't break down its defenses. Regirock's regeneration slowed, but they left no lasting damage."

Nidoking eyed Regirock curiously and snorted. Ash could easily imagine what was going through his head. Maybe Steven wouldn't be averse to letting his team work out some frustration on the golem. It wasn't like they could break it, right?

Perhaps he should ask Wallace first. He seemed invested in learning more, and Ash could spin it as testing Plume's new technique on it.

Getting it out of this vault would be a nightmare, though.

"How'd you even get it out of the tomb? Regirock is…" Ash struggled with words. Instead he just stretched his arms wide like he was trying to give Nidoking a hug. Which he then did, because why waste the opportunity?

Steven smiled and rapped his knuckles against a plain pokeball hanging from his belt.

Ash's eyebrows rose. "Really?"

But, he thought, answering his own question, if Regirock had no will to resist the capture, it was no surprise. At least now he knew how they managed to smuggle the giant thing out of the desert with no one the wiser.

"Isn't technology amazing? A century ago, it would have been almost impossible to extract Regirock. We certainly wouldn't be able to blast through the walls." The Steel Master's eyes took on a distant haze. "They must have placed Regirock and then built the tomb around it. My father should -"

"It's amazing you can learn so much from a single touch. Fascinating!" Wallace interrupted Steven pointedly. The man studied Ash with blatant fascination. "You remind me of the old stories. What do you feel? Bah! Time for that later," he said before Ash could respond. "But I have one more question before we leave."

Seconds ticked by.

"...Yes?"

With Wallace's dramatic flair satisfied, he pointed to Regirock. "Is it a Legend?"

Now that was a hard question. Ash hesitated for long enough to turn the question over in his mind.

"...No."

He could have said that no legend could have been created by mortal hands, but the cold presence lurking in his mind put that thought to rest immediately.

Regirock though, was not.

He couldn't tell whether that relieved the Ever Grande Champions or introduced new distress. Something clicked into place and Ash sighed. "Neither of you have seen a Legend, have you?"

They shared a glance. Ash had caught them doing that several times now. They looked for guidance from the other, like neither man could determine which held the true power.

Steven had been Champion until recently, after all, so perhaps Wallace hadn't quite filled those boots. It was something to keep an eye on.

"I - well…" Steven stammered.

"We've received footage of recent events in Kanto, and also had the privilege of witnessing Johto's Legendary Beasts in Greenfield! In fact, your name was attached to most of those files." Wallace said, though Steven winced at the reminder.

Ash ignored the memories attached and toyed with the Unown tablet looped around his neck. For a moment he missed the nexus of knowledge and power he'd held for just a few brief minutes. What wonders would he have spun if he clung to their power?

Seductive as the thought was, it was one he had to scoff at.

What nightmares, more like.

"The Beasts are newborn," Ash relished the look on Wallace's face, but reminded himself of how much he missed Suicune. He would give so much for the wind against his face and cooling rain against his skin. "I've had… visions of Regirock. Flashes of battle. It was unstoppable. For mortals. But a true Legend wouldn't leave a battlefield to fight on. There's no comparison."

"I see." Wallace muttered. He really didn't. "Well… there's that plan for Lavaridge, then."

It took a second, then Ash fought down his snort of derision. They'd hoped Regirock might stand a chance against the beast beneath Mt. Chimney?

They really had no idea.

"As expected," Steven sighed. "Data from Project SCRY indicated Regirock would be of limited use. It was still nice to hope they were wrong." He stroked his chin thoughtfully. "We might be able to use it as a guard. Ash's recent information indicates it's advisable to fortify the Ranger position on Mt. Pyre."

Ash filed that tidbit away for later.

"It may be necessary," Wallace agreed. "But only if you can learn to automate it!" He jabbed an imperious finger at the former Champion. Steven offered a long-suffering sigh, but listened intently. "Steven, it's your responsibility to manage it more effectively. Regirock is an underutilized asset, and we may require its services sooner than we'd like. If your ability to puppet it has degraded, we must correct that immediately."

Steven sighed. "I'll update Fino and Flannery. Would you like to speak with Phoebe, or should I?"

Ash soon drowned out their exchange as it slipped into the mundane. He was interested in the logistics and concessions and arrangements they discussed, but it was hard to focus with a twenty foot tall golem occupying the room.

They discussed Lavaridge, Mt. Pyre, and a dozen other contingencies and potential uses for the golem, and an obvious fact slapped Ash in the face.

Regirock's master was Steven.

Steven, who stepped down from his Champion's throne.

That certainly complicated things. Did that play a role in Steven's current closeness with the League, or did he just prefer being a close affiliate? Lance spoke all-too-often of the burden shouldered by a Champion, and Ash had seen the toll it had taken on him.

Steven left to chase after Pierce, and the man was locked away for good now. He'd devoted himself to bringing his blood to justice and relinquished an envied position to accomplish it.

But what had it cost him?

It wasn't something he'd thought of before, but Steven's strange half-position in the League drew more of Ash's curiosity. Steven had authority, certainly, but his word wasn't law. Had Wallace fended off any recent challenges from Steven? Had he not attempted to reclaim his title at all? Would he ever?

Questions for later, Ash supposed. Steven's expression would be priceless if Ash brought it up now with Wallace in the same room, but he wouldn't do that. It would be clueless, if not downright rude.

Claydol would love it, though. He might be able to barter some extra lessons for Dazed if he shared the not-memory with Claydol.

And Dazed would love that, so he might convince her to work more with Nidoking…

"- hope you realize why this matter is held to secrecy," Steven said. How long had he been talking? He'd been utterly lost in his own world. "Information on Regirock is shared on a need-to-know basis. In hindsight, I should have included you on that short list. You're our resident expert, after all."

Ash snorted. "Let me know if you have any other superweapons. Or Legends."

"Just the one for now!" Wallace laughed. "And you'll include us in any new discoveries, I hope."

Guilt blossomed in his gut as Jirachi's purple chrysalis filled his thoughts. It was so lonely beneath Forina, smothered by Earth's overwhelming presence and encircled by an audience of corpses.

"I've been in Hoenn for six weeks. It took me around three to find a monster underneath Mt. Chimney, and three more to find a Spiritomb. Check back with me in a few weeks."

At least he wasn't directly lying, he thought as Steven smiled painfully at him and Wallace laughed delightedly.

It didn't make him feel any better. Half-truths were just lies with a pretty face. He knew how he'd feel if faced with one - he was standing in front of the subject of that very kind of omission - and the deception raked at every fiber of his being.

It's important, he justified it.

Yeah, that was what every liar told themselves. Twisting the truth just meant you were too cowardly to face reality… Ash absolutely despised the realization that it was accurate.

Steven was white as a ghost. He settled one hand on Probopass. Ash would have to dig up the story about those two later. "I hope not," he muttered. "Thank you for your assistance, Ash. We have more to work with thanks to you. There is one last matter I'd like to address before we leave."

There was only one possibility. Ash tapped the Ultra Ball, which Nidoking grumbled at.

"Spiritomb," Steven frowned. "The Ever Grande League will safeguard it. I believe Phoebe has a fascination with them. We'll have to get Cynthia's expert opinion on how to treat it. In the worst case scenario, we can give it peace without harming others."

"No."

Steven blinked. "Excuse me?"

Ash steadied his nerves. His fingers went white as he squeezed the Ultra Ball. One twitch of his and Spiritomb's power would be released back into the world.

He kept his finger far, far away from the release.

It was hard, but he forced all doubt from his mind. Nidoking twitched as he realized where this was going, but went back to glaring at the Champions. "I'm holding onto it."

Steven looked at him aghast. "You… want to keep it? Why?"

"I have to get my team's thoughts first," Ash said. "But yes. I think I can help it."

Wallace backed away, his face a neutral mask. It was plain as day that he wanted nothing to do with this discussion, and that emboldened Ash. Spiritomb couldn't be that important to the League if the Ever Grande Champion wasn't willing to take a position.

Steven pulled his hand from Probopass, who stared at Ash with its blank eyes. The little dots of iron held tight to its face with magnetic force danced around as though a stiff breeze had rushed through the silent vault.

"Ash…" he trailed off, obviously exasperated. "You've seen what a Spiritomb can do. I met Cynthia's when it was freshly caught. It takes a terrible toll on you! You're already unsta - "

He cut himself off with a cough.

"You're already burdened," he continued more gently. "Cynthia walked an easier road than you, Ash. Training Spiritomb still left her a husk for months. Insomnia, post-traumatic stress, emotional imbalances… she'd be the first to tell you how dangerous and unhealthy it is. It won't be like Infernus when you first received him, and it won't necessarily get better."

"Then I'll speak to her."

Ash held himself straight with all the self-control he could muster, though he felt himself vibrate with restless frustration. The day hadn't done much for his patience. It would be so easy to embrace Fire to let the storm run wild or numb himself with Ice to steel himself with cold objectivity. They were the undercurrent always with him and ready to be drawn on.

He didn't call on either.

"I'll get Cynthia's opinion," he repeated, louder, when Steven opened his mouth to argue. Then he saw Wallace's frown. "Champion Cynthia's opinion," he corrected himself. "Can you put me in contact? I'll need time to get my team's thoughts as well. I want to see what she has to say, what she'd recommend."

A thrill shot through him at the thought of speaking with Cynthia again, but Steven's words soon whisked him back.

"For the record, I'm very unhappy," Steven said tightly. "This isn't a good idea. An undiluted Spiritomb is a disaster waiting to happen. Any average person would fall apart. And you, Ash…"

"And me?" Ash clamped down on the challenge in his words. He needed to win Steven's approval, not convince him to dig in his heels. "What about me?"

Steven's paced in front of Regirock now, the titan's silent presence hovering over them all. He spoke gently.

"You're too young to have seen the things you have, Ash. Far too young. And much of it is directly my fault," Steven grimaced. "What if this is what breaks you, and I don't do anything to stop it?"

Wallace was fully turned away now and tapped his foot rhythmically to the vault's floor. He quietly whistled a cheery tune while muffled music blared from his PokeNav into the white headphones from before.

"It's too late for that," Ash said. "If I was going to fall apart, it would have happened already. That ship's sailed."

He'd been tempered by the Concepts. Mewtwo's oceanic mind had flooded his own. Legends had touched his spirit. Something small as a Spiritomb couldn't devour him, not now that he knew its power and how to counter it.

It wasn't something to treat lightly, but he was better armed than anyone else for the challenge.

Steven looked close to despair, but must have seen something indomitable in Ash. His mouth open and closed, then he cocked his head as if to say something insightful, and finally Steven seemed to give in altogether.

"We'll be having a discussion later about how unhealthy that attitude is, but… I'm allowing it.."

Ash grinned.

"On a few conditions!"

"Name them."

"Cynthia's approval is a must. That's non-negotiable," Steven said. Given resolution, he was falling back into his role as a mentor. Ash could already see the wheels turning in his mind as he made plans and contingencies "If she supports your decision, you'll need to maintain regular correspondence so that she can ensure you aren't in any danger."

Oh no, how terrible. Ash hid his delight behind a neutral mask.

"You will also submit regular self-assessments on your emotional state. If you notice any serious changes you are expected to come forward immediately. Additionally, I will require weekly check-ins with a psychic to monitor your emotional state."

Ash raised an eyebrow. "Finding a psychic capable of working with me might be tough. Who's reading these reports?"

"There are a small number that can handle you, although the list grows shorter every day. Not Dazed, of course. Claydol would also be a conflict of interest. So would Metagross. I'm not familiar with the wellness department's current specialists, unfortunately."

Ash nearly cringed at the thought of Metagross digging around in his thoughts. Metagross pointedly ignored Ash's existence most of the time. He couldn't remember an occasion it had connected telepathically with him. Normally it was too intertwined with Steven to bother.

Did Metagross even know what feelings were? Ash doubted it.

Claydol wouldn't be too bad. They got on well, although that connection may be too intimate for Ash's liking. At least Steven hadn't suggested Bob…

That actually brought an idea to mind.

"How about Juliet?" He suggested. "I trust her."

He only needed to make sure that Mewtwo wouldn't interfere.

"I'll discuss it with her," Steven nodded. "As for your reports, they will be filed here and left unread unless Juliet - or whichever psychic you're assigned - believes there is cause for concern. It is primarily for you to reflect on your emotional state and become self-aware of any changes."

Well, that was a relief.

He'd put up with a lot to keep Spiritomb on his team, but imagining another person - a human, of all things - skimming over his private thoughts was disconcerting. The idea of making himself so open - so raw, exposed… that was uncomfortable. They could dissect every word and compare it to other entries, build patterns around his behavior… ugh.

He didn't want a file on him to be tucked away in some bureaucrat's desk.

Ash shoved it down. "Anything else?"

Steven hesitated. "There are no additional official requirements. I will keep you informed of any updates to our arrangement."

"And unofficial?"

"I know you'll do this anyway, but make sure your entire team supports you on this. I would expect nothing left for you, but they must know what they're getting into."

He thought back to the reactions they'd displayed in the face of Spiritomb's unbridled presence. "I don't think that'll be a problem."

"Good." Steven sighed. His hands trembled slightly. "Ash… please don't be afraid to come to me."

His throat clenched, but Ash nodded stiffly.

An awkward moment passed.

Nothing else sounded satisfactory, so Ash decided to change the subject entirely. That sounded like the easiest option. "We'll be in Ever Grande City for a while, then?"

Steven looked as relieved as Ash… as did Wallace, if the cautious removal of his headphones was anything to go by. The former Champion brushed against Probopass again. "Yes. A week, if not more. I have our course charted out, but there are matters here I must attend to."

That was fine with Ash. Spiritomb gave him plenty to prepare for, and he had a few things he'd like to consult with Sidney and Phoebe about. If he could pick up pointers from more experienced Masters such as Glacia, Wallace, or even Drake himself… well, it was tough not to salivate at the thought.

Ever Grande already fascinated him. He couldn't wait to walk its halls and hunt down every scrap of knowledge it had to offer. There was enough here to keep him occupied for months. This week would just give him a taste.

"Juliet is scheduled to return shortly. She'll return you to the castle. Wallace and I will remain down here."

No doubt they'd be down here for hours discussing a thousand different subjects. It was hard to imagine a more secure location for sensitive topics - Regirock certainly wasn't going to be eavesdropping. With a land as diverse and rife with conflicting views as Hoenn, there would always be plenty of fires to douse.

He didn't envy them that.

Ash wouldn't turn down a free pass to get out of here though. Nidoking's presence was a constant reassurance and Regirock fed the fires of his fascination, but the vault felt suffocating. The walls were too close and Regirock too large. Ash hungered for fresh air, bright colors, and the salt spray on his skin… but he would make do with an empty grey room over spending another moment underground.

Besides, he had all sorts of things to attend to. He suspected there would be little rest in his future.

Steven's eyes squeezed shut as he processed something. His lips twitched. "Phoebe's waiting upstairs to show you to your quarters. Don't mind her too much… you've presented her with an intriguing mystery and she can be quite enthusiastic."

His stomach sank. More talking? At least he might be able to needle some information out of her. Still, there was one last curiosity he could satisfy here before Juliet whisked him away.

Ash's eyes settled on Probopass. "What's up with Probopass? You two seem pretty familiar."

Probopass blinked sleepily even as Steven smiled fondly at the steel-type. "We have a long history. She's one of my old teammates, actually," and Probopass rocked happily into his touch. "She's never been fond of people, and didn't enjoy my duties as Champion. She elected to guard Regirock and take a well-earned vacation."

Ash blinked. She'd been down here for five years? He couldn't imagine living in this vault for five days without going mad, let alone five years! Probopass were largely sedentary, generally reliant on blending into their surroundings and ambushing whatever unfortunate pokemon passed by, so they weren't often keen to roam around aimlessly, but it still boggled his mind.

And for trainer and pokemon to be apart for so long… no wonder Steven was so content down here. Sending his teammates back to Pallet before he'd had his carry limit removed had been painful.

Five years apart would be utter agony. That was over three times longer than he'd even been training!

He clutched Nidoking's wrist again protectively. No poisonous spines there, thankfully.

Ash snuck a look back at the narrow, cramped hallway lined with Dusk Stones. It was the only way in and out of this vault unless you wanted to dig through countless tons of stone and Probopass was at the end of it.

The little iron flakes beneath her massive red magnetic 'nose' twitched a little as she caught him staring, and a few levitated around with ease. He looked from her to the kill zone, and it all made sense.

He'd seen Steven's Aggron manipulate a plain iron bar like a deadly projectile. It was simple to accelerate the hard material to the point where it would crack most rock-type's armor like an egg. Anything not wrapped up in a thick carapace of steel would be shredded to pieces by just a few of those metallic filings, and he was certain it had plenty of other tricks up its figurative sleeves.

A Champion-level guard just as formidable as Regirock's last protector.

Ash pitied anyone who ever made the mistake of trying to break into this vault.

His senses stirred suddenly, and he felt a comfortable presence brushing his mind. Juliet had arrived.

"We'll speak later," Steven promised, then waved him off. He turned to face Regirock again, and Ash had no doubt that he'd be spending countless hours down in the vault trying to master it in full.

It was hard to feel comfortable going through the narrow hallway with Probopass at his back, but Juliet's spindly form beckoned him from the entrance chamber.

Well, if it was the only way out…

XX

His quarters in Ever Grande City were a far cry from his room in the Plateau. It reminded him of Hoenn itself, as much of the room was draped in warm, vibrant colors - bright orange detailing and ruby walls - but was accented with various patterns of deep sapphire and spots of emerald. The room was bright and lively like the sun - infused with a zest for life - while the large, luxurious bed, soft armchairs, and wide sofa were enveloped in blue covers.

The floor was crafted of the same rich wood as the rest of the castle and provided a nice bridge between the fiery orange and softer colors.

All in all, it vaguely reminded Ash of the nights he'd spent watching the sunset over the ocean with Daisy while they traveled from Sootopolis to Dewford.

Ash was quick to skim it over, but all it really ignited was a forlorn longing for his home at Indigo Plateau. This was neat and beautiful, but so impersonal. Lance, Karen, and the others had all had some input on tailoring his room for him and crafting it to be perfect.

Even the raw luxury felt a little off. He'd spent a month roughing it with Steven and last night stalking the sandswept Piede in search of ghosts. Steven may have been partial to his fluffy carpets, cold granite, and monogrammed grey hand towels, but at least his apartment felt like home. It felt like Steven. This room was just a hollow shell, bereft of any identity and designed for transient guests.

He wouldn't miss it.

"Not a fan?"

He quickly shook his head. "It's fine."

"You sure? You kind of look like someone just tried to tell you that you couldn't have a really cool, fantastically rare ghost that will crush your enemies and make you the Indigo Champion at the ripe old age of thirteen."

Ash blinked. "That's… really specific."

"But am I wrong?" Phoebe toyed with one of the flowers wound through her hair as she poked around. Something about her casual demeanor put Ash instantly at ease - she was remarkably easygoing, and he found himself reminded of some unholy love child of Karen and Will.

The undammed enthusiasm that rolled off her the moment Spiritomb became a topic might have played a part in that. Ash's morbid fascination with it paled in the face of Phoebe's unadulterated delight.

"Well, Steven wasn't a fan of me keeping Spiritomb," Ash said with a frown. "But there's no way I could become Indigo Champion yet. One pokemon, no matter how strong, isn't going to close a gap like that."

"Tell that to Steven," Phoebe said with the barest hint of scorn. He watched her closely, a little put off with her attitude, but she brightened up within another moment. "Oh well! Maybe I should recommend the room get a makeover to Champion Wallace? One look in here and he'd probably tear the place apart. That rug? That countertop? 'An assault to the eyes!'"

He snorted at Phoebe's good-natured impression as he took a closer look at the room. The aforementioned rug was thick, blue, and fluffy with stylized white depictions of various water-type pokemon woven into the fabric. Ash picked out the simplistic forms of bulbous Wailord, thrashing Gyarados, graceful Milotic, and even a regal Kingdra with a bowed head.

Ash quite liked it.

As for the countertop Phoebe pointed a trembling finger and… it was a countertop.

But no one would reach out to Ash for advice on interior design. His room in Pallet was relatively bare beyond a handful of trophies, various training materials, and the odd treasure he'd collected. While his room at Indigo Plateau was amazing, he hadn't exactly picked its decorations out himself.

He definitely hadn't picked out the calendar Lance had pinned up on his wall when he'd first arrived from Blackthorn.

That was no complaint, though. Ash loved his room. It really was the complete package - big enough for his team to sprawl out comfortably, the tangled masses of branches that let him drift off to sleep under the pretense of resting out in a forest, and the sheer comfort the thought of returning granted him.

Best of all, it had been made for him. Lance had personally attended to it, Will and Karen had brought in plenty of little quality of life improvements, and it was all done by people who knew him.

Basically, Ash knew as much about decorating a room as Infernus did about ancient Kantonian poetry, so he just nodded along with Phoebe's faux-critique and remained silent. There was no point in speaking without anything meaningful to say.

"Oh well," Phoebe plopped onto the sapphire couch with a yawn. "Champion Wallace could use a pet project to indulge in. He's a bit of a perfectionist, you see, and keeping that attitude up in Hoenn will drive the best of us mad."

A perfectionist? Yeah, Ash could picture that.

Everyone knew Wallace. It wasn't often anyone could ascend the peaks of two disparate worlds, after all. Competitive battlers and Coordinators had plenty of overlap in their skills, sure, but most learned to walk one path or the other.

Champion Wallace considered specialization beneath him, though, and thus synthesized the two worlds into a sum greater than their parts.

Plenty of battlers dipped their toes into the Contest world out of simple practicality. Control and complexity were valued highly there, and so it was an excellent way of honing those skills in your own team. The displays put on at the highest tiers of Contests were said to be magnificent - he'd have seen it himself in Slateport if Greenfield hadn't stolen that day from him.

He might not have been in a good place to appreciate it much - not in that outfit and half-sick over competing - but…

Ash grimaced. Daisy had already hinted in her messages that he'd be making that up to her at some point.

"Is it just the current situation?" Ash asked, genuinely interested but also eager to move things along. Nidoking still towered at his side and offered Ash his quiet confidence, but he still wasn't quite sure what to make of Phoebe.

There were so, so many questions he'd like to ask, but he needed to speak to his team first about Spiritomb.

That prospect weighed heavily on him, though Ash was certain his team would support him. As of the moment, Ash planned on approaching his teammates individually (or in small groups) over the next few days. He wouldn't want any of the quieter voices to be drowned out in a full meeting.

Phoebe kicked her bare feet up on the coffee table, which left Ash's eye threatening to twitch. He'd thought that sort of behavior was limited to Sydney. Sydney at least wore shoes and pants.

Maybe Glacia had a good reason for being so insistent on manners. He could only imagine his mom's reaction if she saw one of the vaunted Elite Four like this.

"Sure, sure," Phoebe waved errantly. "Mainland's bad enough with the hordes of angry senior citizens holding onto two-hundred-year-old grudges like a bunch of geriatric Mightyena, but the archipelago really screws us. It's chock full of hidey holes for the bad guys to play in."

"Rockets."

"Mhm! Other nasties too. Runaways, fugitives, poachers, killers… it feels like human garbage the world over likes to wash up on Hoenn's shores when things get too hot back home." Phoebe blew a raspberry into the air. "Even psychic surveillance can only do so much out there. Aqua helps, but not really, because they're a bunch of seditious Carvanha just waiting to tear a chunk out of us. Folk are tight-lipped around our Rangers too nowadays… unless Drake's sailing nearby. Everyone loves Drake."

So he'd gathered.

"But that's a bunch of depressing junk and I'm on break, so I'm not being paid to think about it. Let's move onto the good stuff!"

He rolled his eyes at her sudden enthusiasm. Trepidation filled him as his hand went to the Ultra Ball, which he unclipped, tapped to return it to full size, and placed on the table. Phoebe perked up, eyes like saucers as she stared down at it in rapt fascination and tugged at one of the giant flowers in her hair.

Ash didn't release it. Not yet.

"It's not like other ghosts," he said quietly. "If I release it, it's going to attack you mentally. I don't think it will do it consciously, but there's no getting around it."

"Really?" Phoebe only looked more eager. "That's fascinating! All sorts of ghosts have an affinity for punching you right in the brain, but this sounds even cooler."

Ash blinked. Cool? "Are you sure you can handle it?"

She scoffed. "Are you kidding?"

Phoebe tapped one of the pokeballs to release a Chimecho, which swayed delicately as it levitated just by her shoulder. It chimed happily, though recoiled when it tried to brush Ash's mind.

"Sorry," he muttered, but the Chimecho just whistled cheerily at him to show there was no harm done.

"I grew up on Mt. Pyre. A little trauma is good for the soul! It builds character."

Ash snorted. Well, if she was that confident…

"Just for a second. I don't want to overstimulate it."

He tapped the release.

The keystone appeared, sitting inanimate on the smooth wood of the coffee table. No trembling, no shaking, no life at all - Ash worried for a half-second, then Spiritomb's dormant presence slammed down on them like a sledgehammer.

For his part, Ash only took an unconscious step backward as the draining presence touched him.

Little lavender spirals rose from the keystone, froze in place, and then the emergence of the spirit from its keystone flooded the room with its devastating power.

His eyes closed halfway, Distortional energy filling his skull with the dull, hazy buzz of a bad dream, like a pressure pounding at the edges of his skull, and…

And he glanced at the cozy looking bed just a few steps away. He was so tired… all he had to do was take a few steps, then he could rest…

Too hard.

Maybe the floor would do.

If he was lucky he would sleep and sleep and never wake up -

No.

He was adjusted to Spiritomb's presence by now, and found it easier to throw off the foreign influence. Ash was the master of himself - he was - and nothing would steal that from him. It just took a moment - just a moment! - to forge his will into iron, and then the harsh clarity returned and the haze of apathy and misery slipped away like oil from water.

…Part of him missed the brain fog, though. Everything seemed so simple with that overpowering urge to rest. The promise of an unending sleep, an invitation to lay his burdens down and see them erased, never to return… It bothered him, how tempting that was.

He shook himself.

Coming back to himself felt like waking from a dreamless sleep or ducking his head in a barrel of ice-cold water. That seductive urge to turn away and forget everything frightened him more than the actual danger.

Phoebe didn't fare any better. She was paler than he'd thought possible, a tinge of green on her dark face, and her eyes were stretched wide as she beheld Spiritomb. The Ghost Master kept her awareness, however, and after a moment, every muscle in her body tensed.

Something within her flexed, and a dark haze of Distortional power bled from her, rising like steam from her skin.

She reached into a small satchel hidden beneath her blue skirt - Ash noted a belt wrapped securely around her thigh - and withdrew a handful of magenta, fan-like leaves with practiced ease. They devoured the Distortional miasma as it steadily bled from her pores, leaving her looking as though she was drenched in smoke.

Ash stared, leaning into his bafflement and fascination to temporarily ward away the effects of Spiritomb's presence.

Then, Phoebe grunted once, twice, and then the remaining Not-smoke sucked into the leaves as if vacuumed up, leaving her looking fatigued, but otherwise relieved.

"A little trick from Pyre," she coughed, seeing his expression, a little trickle of void-smoke escaping the corner of her mouth. "Chimecho, are you going to help out any time soon?"

Chimecho shuddered once, then rang.

The high, clear jingle swept through the room, a conduit for some great, purifying power just as the wind and rain was for Suicune. Ash could finally breathe again as the presence swept away the alien power gnawing at their minds.

It came back in an instant, though, overpowering and noxious and darkening the edges of his vision, and though he felt fortified by Chimecho, Ash quickly returned Spiritomb in a flash of light.

He had his doubts as to whether the spirit was even conscious, but it was going to ruin their day either way if he wasn't careful, and he thought they'd had enough already.

Everything stilled as the tension vanished abruptly.

And was equally shattered a moment later.

"That was awesome!" Phoebe trilled the moment she could think clearly again.

She reached out to brush Chimecho's head before planting a kiss on its cheek. Chimecho fluttered a bit, clearly exhausted, and Phoebe reluctantly returned it. "Did you see that? Did you feel that?"

"Yes, and that was just a little taste." Ash quieted while Phoebe listened on with excited, saucer-like eyes that reminded him of Tangrowth. "You should visit the tomb we found it in."

"That's a great idea!" Phoebe bit at her lip. "Hmm, I'll just have to wait until Steven's gone to corner Champion Wallace. He's a little cagey, but if Spiritomb is already gone…"

Ash didn't think Phoebe would find much there beyond stone, sand, and a bit of lingering corruption, but perhaps the last of those might be of some interest to her.

Who knew, after all, what gifts or secret knowledge she might possess to peel back layer after layer to see what he'd missed? It was obvious she'd learned more than training techniques at Mt. Pyre.

She didn't worry about it for long. "You said Steven didn't want you taking the little cutie on?"

Little cutie? Ash and Nidoking shared a bemused glance. That sealed it - he wasn't going to bring up that Steven originally wanted Phoebe to take Spiritomb. She might murder him in cold blood if it ever came out that he'd kept it from her.

"That's right. I talked him around, though. Just have to do regular check-ins with Juliet and get Cy - Champion Cynthia's input."

Phoebe winced.

"What?"

"That first one's pretty routine, especially for your first ghost," Phoebe explained. "There's a bit of a problem, though: Champion Cynthia's currently holed up at Lake Acuity hunting down something or other. She prefers not to be disturbed when she's doing research, so it may take some time for any messages to reach her."

"Lake Acuity?" Ash murmured. He knew it well. The Lake of Knowledge, home of Uxie to those who knew the old tales. The Learned of Uxie were an ancient order devoted to the Legend who made their home there, recording every scrap of knowledge they could in their vast annals.

Sages, philosophers, kings, and countless common folk and pokemon had spent long years studying and meditating in its frigid waters in search of whatever answers they sought. Between the Learned, the legendary Snowpoint Temple, and the universities which had cropped up there, it was no wonder Cynthia ended up on its shores.

"It'll get through. Eventually, anyways," Phoebe reassured him "Even Champions - especially Champions, really - can't just vanish off the grid. She'll get back to you. Just don't expect a response immediately."

He frowned, unwilling to wait a second longer than necessary, but Ash supposed it wasn't something he could control. Besides, another Spiritomb capture just might be enough to break through Cynthia's fervor and ignite a sense of curiosity about the situation down in Hoenn.

Who knew? She might even come to examine his Spiritomb herself!

While Ash's spirits had fallen, he supposed it at least offered him a little bit more time to get his team's input on things. It wasn't like he was forced to sit around twiddling his thumbs.

Ash sighed, though brightened as an idea quickly came to mind. "Do you know where I can turn in the ghosts I caught?"

"Of course!" A greedy look more at home on a mustache-twirling cartoon villain than Phoebe's cheerful face appeared. "Don't suppose you caught a second Spiritomb for me?"

"Afraid not."

Phoebe groaned. "Oh well. Let's see what you found!"

He quickly unclipped the extra pokeballs from his belt. It was far more comfortable with them off, more similar to the weight he'd grown so accustomed to. Ash listed off the occupants as he gently placed them onto the coffee table.

"These two are Shuppet. Both have a mean streak. That's Gastly. It was an easy capture - I think it's happy to find a way out of the desert. There's Misdreavus, and…" he hesitated as he came to a quick decision. "Here, let me show you."

It only took a moment to release the ghost. Sandygast appeared in a flash and its sand pile clumped together into a more compact form as it nervously scanned the room. The grains of sand shuddered beneath their gazes. This world of fabric and wood and brick must seem so alien after its entire short existence was spent in the Piede's dunes.

"Hey," Ash knelt to be on Sandygast's level. It relaxed a little when it recognized him, the ancient trowel embedded in its 'head' bobbing slightly, and some of the sand grains spilled away as it expanded. "You remember me?"

Sandygast groaned softly and its trowel waggled in a clear affirmative.

"Good. We're with the League, just like I said. You're safe."

Though it took some effort, Sandygast finally looked away from Ash and Nidoking to focus on Phoebe, who smiled brightly and waved. "Hey there! I'm Phoebe. It's so lovely to meet you. You're absolutely adorable!"

Sandygast moaned and stirred a little, obviously uncertain of how to handle Phoebe's unrelenting friendliness.

"This is all new to you, isn't it?"

Scattering sand was her answer, which earned a laugh. "It must be so scary appearing in a new place like this. It's hard talking this way, isn't it? Do you mind if I -" Phoebe mimed reaching for Sandygast's trowel. After a few seconds the animated sand hesitantly nodded. "Beautiful!"

With that, Phoebe grasped the ancient stone trowel embedded in its head and shut her eyes.

Ash watched with Nidoking, fascinated by the display. There was no surge of power or dramatic flood of darkness, yet he felt the connection forged into existence between them at the moment of contact.

There was a sudden temptation to throw his hand on as well to peer into the bond, but Ash didn't dare interfere. That would be… well, rude felt like an understatement. Ash remembered the intimacy of that contact all too well. Baring his soul to Sandygast left him exposed, naked, and vulnerable.

Anyone barging in on that connection would have earned whatever they had coming.

Phoebe's smile was radiant as she communicated with the young ghost, and after a moment even the gaping black abyss in Sandygast's center curved into something far happier than Ash could have expected. It leaned into Phoebe's touch, trowel quivering, and allowed itself to relax entirely.

A sound reminiscent of Sneasel's content purrs escaped it and Phoebe finally pulled it away. She cracked one eye open. "You're a good guy, Ash."

"What?"

"Let me paint you a picture!" Phoebe flourished as though holding a massive imaginary paintbrush - it was too bad Sidney wasn't here. Zoroark would've made this whole thing much more convincing. "Ash Ketchum, rookie extraordinaire, youngest Elite Four trainee in history! Mysterious, impossible to track, and heartthrob to all the baby trainers!"

His face colored while Nidoking wheezed like he'd been punched in the chest by Bruiser. Traitor. "What have you been reading?"

"Trendy Trainer!" Phoebe said matter-of-factly. Her eyebrows waggled. "They claim to have an exclusive, anonymous source with the juiciest, most up-to-date information on the mysterious Ash Ketchum. I wonder who that could be?"

His teeth ground together. "A prick."

Phoebe laughed.

"Maybe so! But back to the pretty picture. So, you have this unknown trainer appear from who-cares nowhere, win silver in the Indigo Conference in front of millions of people, and vanish back into anonymity! He almost never smiles, and when he does it's like watching a cripple relearning how to walk. He's described as 'intense' and 'single-minded' by his opponents, and getting an interview longer than five minutes is like pulling teeth."

Ash was vaguely offended, but something about Phoebe dulled the impact. She was too earnest about it, sort of like how it was impossible to get mad at Will for anything.

Phoebe let them sit in silence for just a moment, then continued with a smile for Sandygast.

"See what I mean? If more people saw you like this adorable little beach bum does, you'd be setting the tabloids on fire. I can see the headlines now, 'Ash Ketchum, grumpy prodigy with a heart of gold! Does his hard exterior hide a warm, gooey center? Who might crack the prickly shell of this rough-and-tumble trainer? Find out next time on -"

Ash groaned. "Are you done?"

"Am I?" Phoebe sounded all too pleased with herself. "Huh. Guess I am."

She poked Sandygast's trowel again to feed it a treat of whatever flurry of warm feelings she'd concocted, which made it shudder happily. "I'll take these guys and get out of your hair. Enjoy your stay in Ever Grande! Dinner's in an hour."

It was abrupt, but he had the feeling that spontaneity came naturally to Phoebe. He waved her off as she quickly gathered up the pokeballs in a big pile, though she allowed Sandygast to pull itself along after her. Ash smiled at Sandygast, said his goodbye, and laughed when the ghost waggled its trowel his way one last time.

Maybe it would find a home here after all.

XX

They fell into a pleasant routine over the next few days.

In the mornings, Ash allowed himself the luxury of waiting until dawn broke to drag himself out of bed. His team would eat a quick breakfast - Sneasel particularly loved stealing little bites of Ash's fluffy frittatas - and then head over to the training facilities to work on their various objectives.

Unfortunately, snagging the Ever Grande Elite Four for any length of time felt nearly impossible.

Drake was off "playing sailor" according to Phoebe, and would be patrolling the southern archipelago in his ship for some time.

Sidney was investigating rumors of a Rocket cell in Lilycove branching out of their normal habits of smuggling out local pokemon to include family-friendly activities such as robbing young trainers, extorting various businesses, and smuggling in restricted substances…

Spending some quality time with Sidney didn't sound so bad all of a sudden. At least he'd have some Rockets to take his frustration out on. Steven had vehemently vetoed that on one of the rare occasions he emerged from the vault, unfortunately.

Personally, Ash just thought he was bitter that he wasn't able to go either.

Ignoring the obvious problems of half the Elite Four being out on assignments, it didn't help that the ones who did remain here to hold down the fort were run ragged trying to keep things under control.

Phoebe never remained in one place for longer than five minutes, constantly directing her SPECTERs like a madwoman to patch up whatever ghosts or dark-types were causing issues. There were reports every day throughout the mainland and the archipelago of new disturbances.

If you listened to the Ghost Master herself, half of them already knew her personally and just did it out of spite. After a few days here, it was easy to see why they'd needed Ash to go into the Piede in the first place.

Wallace was everywhere and nowhere as he dipped in and out of Ever Grande. He was mercurial and fluid as water as he attended enough meetings, fundraisers, and press conferences to make Lance weep. Whereas Lance was consumed with crisis after crisis and the work of managing the aftershocks wracking Indigo, Wallace spent the vast majority of his time regluing the disparate pieces of Hoenn together.

It was a crueler task than one might imagine.

Hoenn had been a coalition of bitterly warring city-states until just thirty years ago, after all, and the older generation had long memories. Cynthia's book had all sorts of fascinating anecdotes and accounts from those who were too happy to go into extensive detail about how wretched their faithless neighbors were, and still were.

While things ran relatively smoothly nowadays and the Gym Leaders did all they could, maintaining harmony between the smaller towns and territories required constant upkeep.

And where Wallace ensured the League itself ran smoothly, Glacia's presence at Ever Grande ensured the capital worked like a well-oiled machine. Ash saw Glacia more than anyone else.…If only she had enough time to give Ash more than a brief nod or polite salutation.

Honestly, Ash was left wondering when on earth the Ever Grande Elite Four had time to actually train. With the Rockets and other groups purposefully straining the League to its logistical limits, especially in terms of manpower, each and every Elite Four member felt like a rubber band waiting to snap.

Indigo was hardly in the best state at the moment, but at least by comparison it had the foundation and manpower to run its well-established territories effectively. There was little to no internal dissent. The Elite Four had been run ragged over the past year, but at least that was 'only' due to the literal forces of nature awakening beneath their feet.

If the same happened in Hoenn, he feared they would crumble.

When it happened here in Hoenn, not if… t

He bit down on that uneasy thought. There was nothing he could do for now. Nothing he could do but train, work with his team, and grow.

So that was what he did.

He'd learned that there were countless things to worry about that he couldn't control. They would eat him up if he let them. All that mattered was that he spun what he could in his favor.

"A little wobbly," he commented as Lairon jerked through the air like a rock skipping across a pond. His eyes scrunched up in concentration as he levitated with Magnet Rise and skimmed a foot or so above the stone.

They'd found their way into the extensive network of tunnels beneath Ever Grande occupied with strong wild pokemon that the League left open for training purposes. Regirock was buried down here as well. "Definitely not as smooth as you were before. Do you think it's a lack of power, or a lack of control?"

Lairon shot upward nearly a foot and held it for a second, though it took everything he had. It wasn't long before he was resting at a more comfortable height.

"Control, then." Ash hummed. That made sense given Lairon's recent evolution.

Part of why they'd started him so early on his magnetism training was so that he'd reap the benefits of evolution rather than have to try and catch that skill up with his others. With any luck it would be as natural as breathing by the time he evolved into an Aggron, but power spikes from evolution could throw him out of sync for a while. "We'll work on that. See if we can't get you back up to snuff."

That seemed to make Lairon happy - his tongue lolled out as his legs kicked in the air, and he shot back up another foot before Magnet Rise gave out and he landed to the earth with a heavy clunk.

Ash, Bruiser, and Seeker all winced, but Lairon was tough enough to laugh it off. He needed a little nudge from Bruiser to get back on his feet, though, and peppered him with licks in thanks. It was humbling to watch that little motion and realize it would have taken Ash's full strength plus some, but Bruiser made it look easy as lifting a feather.

"And you're still feeling okay? No long-term effects?" Ash said quietly in the dimly lit tunnel they'd claimed for themselves. He leaned back against a sturdy stalagmite as he watched Lairon for any indications of stress or unease.

Lairon shuddered and grunted softly in a way reminiscent of Nidoking, but returned to earth a moment later. For a moment his bright blue eyes grew old, but quickly returned to normal.

That alone was worrying.

Ash laid a hand on Lairon's head. The metal was cool to the touch, which was rather pleasant after the hot Hoenn day they'd braved to get down here.

"I know how that feels," he said quietly as Lairon stared at him. Bruiser and Seeker listened, but made no move to break into the conversation. "Give it time. Endure it. Keep going and it'll just be a bad memory before you know it, okay?"

His partner warbled back resolutely. It was still shocking to hear that familiar sound so deep and resonant.

"Keep working. Never stop moving. If you can't sleep, let Dazed know. She can help," Ash said with utter certainty. "And if you need anything, I'm here. We all are. If it's in the middle of a battle, or the middle of the night, at any time at all, we're here."

Lairon's eyes squeezed shut, and Ash only had a moment to ready himself before his friend practically stampeded over him. He was a little gentler than normal as he butted his head up against Ash's leg, but considering he still wore the ugly purple evidence of the last headbutt…

Bruiser was kind enough to pull him back before he could slam into Ash with his full weight, for which Ash sent him a grateful look. It still earned a low groan from him, and he realized they were going to be in the same boat as Plume was while she evolved from a tiny Pidgey into a magnificent, enormous Pidgeot.

"Love you too, buddy," Ash wheezed and clutched his leg. He reached out to pat Lairon one more time, and his friend accepted one pet before he lifted a few inches off the ground with Magnet Rise.

That earned a quick smile from Ash. If nothing else, Lairon had become more devoted to training than ever these last few days. He was acclimating to his new form with incredible speed, and Ash couldn't wait to see what he could do with his new size and strength.

Still, it almost worried him at times. He'd always been dedicated, but now Lairon was taking it nearly to the point of obsession. It wouldn't be healthy if he kept that up.

"How about you go off and practice for a bit?" Ash suggested. "I need to talk to Bruiser and Seeker real quick."

Lairon offered a determined nod and then sailed off - Ash snorted at the sight of his stubby legs waving around like he was trying to swim through the air. No doubt whatever other pokemon he came across would be horribly confused.

But just to be safe…

"Seeker, there's nothing down that tunnel, right?"

Her furry ears twitched. She faced down the direction Lairon had wandered off and squeaked a few times. Seeker shook her fuzzy little head after a moment.

Ash nodded his thanks, then squeezed his eyes shut. Bruiser rested a powerful hand on his shoulder with gentleness most couldn't have imagined from a musclebound Machoke. He appreciated the support, and whispered another few words of gratitude to Bruiser before he moved on.

He wrung his hands together. "I need to talk to you both."

Seeker squeaked and fluttered over to Ash to clutch tightly at his shirt. Her affection made this easier, and the warmth of her body brought him comfort. Bruiser waited with his usual serenity.

He decided to lay his cards right on the table. No point putting off the inevitable, right?

Ash unclipped Spiritomb's Ultra Ball and rolled it on the stone floor to Bruiser. His reptilian smile flattened away in an instant, but at least he wasn't actively hostile like Ash had feared. Bruiser's clumsy fingers roughly grasped the container and held it up so he could look more closely.

Bruiser looked at him with a dozen questions ready.

He confirmed Bruiser's suspicions. "Spiritomb's still in there."

The Machoke's frown deepened. Seeker just watched silently. Little hooks pressed deeper against Ash's shirt as he ran his fingers through her fuzzy blue fur.

"That's one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. But I wanted to check in on you first. It's been a few days, and I know that was…"

Ash held Seeker tight as she curled up tightly against him.

"Don't do that…" Ash rubbed her tiny head affectionately. Seeker squeaked, and it didn't take his burgeoning perceptions to recognize what she was thinking. She felt ashamed, and that was unacceptable. "Seeker. Please look at me."

… Perhaps that wasn't the best choice of words when dealing with a Zubat, but the point still stood.

Bruiser scooted closer in case he was needed, but Seeker was content in Ash's arms for now. She pointedly kept her head buried in Ash's soft shirt - she couldn't even look at him. He and Bruiser shared a glance. While Bruiser did look worried, he also watched Ash with an implacable confidence.

If only he could take that confidence for himself.

"You wanted to come in with us, didn't you?"

Another squeak was muffled by his shirt.

"Shh, it's okay," Ash reassured her with steady strokes down her spine. Her shivers slowed, then stilled. "You're okay. What happened? I want to understand."

Seeker pulled away from him then and hopped off onto the dusty brown floor of the tunnel. Ash was instantly struck by how small she was compared to everything else. Even one of Bruiser's feet was as large as she was, yet she showed more confidence than he'd seen from her in ages as she clung to the stone.

She managed to point one of her hooks toward her head (quite the feat given her anatomy) and gave an exaggerated shiver. Seeker's meaning was clear enough, and essentially what Ash had expected.

What was important was that she'd chosen to share it with him.

"Memories."

Seeker nodded, then fluttered up to rest against his shirt again. Zubat may be well-adapted to cave life, but they didn't handle any sort of chill well. With such small bodies they depended on huddling together to share body heat.

It was something he was happy to provide. Ash even tugged on Fire for a bit to flood his chest and blood with additional warmth. She chattered happily as she snuggled in even closer than before.

"I don't know what you saw with those pieces of -" His teeth bared, but fell short of spitting out his opinion of Team Rocket. This wasn't the time. "None of us do. But you're one of us. You'll always be one of us."

Seeker was silent.

"I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing."

Her ears twitched. Bruiser snorted. Ash absentmindedly stroked Seeker's head again.

"I don't have any answers for you. Do I know how I deal with things? Sure. But you're Seeker, not Ash. All I can say is… take your time. When you're ready, you're ready. We're in a marathon, not a sprint," Ash said slowly, putting things together for himself as well. "You're strong. So strong, Seeker. Choose to fight, choose to be gentle. All that matters is that it's your choice to make."

Seeker clicked to locate Bruiser and looked at him. Her ears twitched as she chattered to Bruiser, who simply listened to her high-pitched squeaks. It wasn't long before Bruiser grunted and brushed her tiny head with his gentle hands.

"Sorry, I think you're stuck with us," Ash laughed. "This is your choice to make. I love you, Seeker. We love you," he said, and Seeker froze while Bruiser grunted emphatically. "We've spent a lot of this last year fighting, and I'd be happy for you to join us if that's what you want. But what's the point of us being strong if we can't use it to help the ones we love?"

He leaned back against the stalagmite and found comfort in its sturdy presence. Exhaustion tugged at him, and he felt like a bowl that had been emptied of its contents. Ash had nothing left to say. All he could give was his presence.

Bruiser still held Spiritomb's Ultra Ball, but that wasn't what captured his attention. His broad face was contorted in thought as he drifted through his mind. His beady eyes flitted from Seeker to Ash, and finally to the pokeballs on Ash's belt… which was thankfully a bit emptier now that Phoebe had taken the newcomers.

Massive fingers tugged at the black belt looped around Bruiser's neck like a tie and he frowned as he reached some uncertain conclusion. Bruiser looked to Ash and raised his hand to ask a question -

Spiritomb's Ultra Ball twitched in Bruiser's hand.

All three of them froze. Ash's blood ran cold while they waited for another hint of awareness. Did Spiritomb want to escape? Did it grow weary of stasis?

He reached for Sneasel's pokeball, certain that he would be the best option if Spiritomb attempted to break free of its confines. In theory, it shouldn't be able to release itself, but who could really know with something like a Spiritomb? They'd been forged atop mountains of broken rules.

It certainly wasn't something he wanted to gamble on.

Thankfully, that was the end of it. Ash stared at the Ultra Ball, worried because he had no clue what had spawned that little spark of life. What would it take to truly awaken it?

More importantly, how could he avoid it?

"Maybe I should take that back."

Bruiser passed the Ultra Ball back as if it were searing hot. It remained utterly still in his palm, but Ash couldn't trust it. Offering Spiritomb his proposal was going to be… interesting. Phoebe would probably describe it as a delight. "I need your input on something. "

Ash hesitated, a little worried that it was too soon to bring this on Seeker, but what else could he do? She was surrounded by those who cared for her, and he doubted she'd make her opinion known if others like Infernus or Torrent were present to dominate the discussion. "There's something we need to discuss. I was going to wait, but…"

Neither looked surprised. He suspected Dazed had already begun to spread the information around, but it also wouldn't have been difficult for the rest to figure it out for themselves.

They did know him better than anyone.

Ash inhaled, but soon enough the words spilled like water from a burst pipe. "I'm offering Spiritomb a chance to be on the team, it's going to be hard and I'm going to be careful to make sure none of you get hurt, and Nidoking and Torrent and Infernus and Tangrowth have agreed, but I want to get everyone's approval because this won't be easy and you're all going to be affected, and I got Steven's permission, even though I would have asked Spiritomb anyways, but-"

Seeker chirped sharply. Ash stopped talking.

Seeker shifted against him, and chirped and clicked a little more - faster, and directed to Bruiser. Ash struggled to keep up with the streamlined communication they shared.

Bruiser nodded along with what she said, contributing his own grunts and inflections. Whatever was being said - and Ash could infer, even lacking detail - he seemed more perturbed than her by the idea.

He'd suffered Spiritomb's hollowing aura for himself, after all. He knew exactly what Ash was inviting into their family.

Eventually, they seemed to reach an accord. Bruiser leaned closer to Seeker and grunted once before waving his hands in a few motions. She squeaked, gave a firm nod, and Bruiser's face was overcome by the curl of his reptilian smile. The Machoke thumped his barrel chest to indicate his own support, and Ash projected all the gratitude he could.

Even though Bruiser was on board, Ash knelt before Seeker. Of all his team, she was the one he was most worried about. She had to understand.

Introducing her to Spiritomb right then and there would be the absolute worst way to handle this, but Ash held the Ultra Ball up in offering to Seeker. She clicked to echolocate as her sensitive ears detected movement, and once realization struck her she inched closer and sniffed at the capture device.

Not what Ash had originally planned, but it earned a smile nonetheless. It soon slipped away.

"Seeker, this isn't an easy choice. Spiritomb… you didn't feel it. It brings you back to your worst moments. Sucks every shred of feeling away. Hollows you out until you're empty and makes you wonder why you bother to live. It's strong, sure, but that's not the real danger," Ash said. Seeker listened intently. "I'll keep you two as separated as possible, but you know that will only work to a point. I need you to know what we're walking into."

Is this what Steven had felt, given the same situation?

Her wings curled inward and her ears flattened to her skull, but Seeker's hesitation didn't last long. She nodded again, steadfast as before, and Ash glimpsed steel beneath silk. Seeker's intent was clear: she would meet this challenge, and she would prevail.

"I - I'm going to make this as safe as I can, I promise," Ash's voice cracked slightly. "But if you ever feel uncomfortable, or think it's hurting you, you have to let me know. You're my priority. I don't care how strong it is, you understand? You come first. Can you promise me that?"

Tension fled away as Seeker squeaked. He looked at Bruiser. "That goes for you too. One word - well, you know what I mean - and it's gone. I won't risk any of you."

Bruiser nodded and that expression like he was trying to solve a puzzle crossed his features. It killed Ash to not press for details. But Bruiser would bring it up on his own if he wanted Ash to know about it.

He could wait.

The sounds of a clunk and low, distressed warble echoed from the tunnel beyond, and Ash rolled his eyes. Even evolution hadn't dulled Lairon's curiosity, and apparently it had tugged him into a bit of trouble.

"C'mon," Ash groaned as he rose. He thought his bones creaked more than a twelve-year-old's should. "Let's see what he poked his nose into this time."

XX

"Argh!"

Arms strained against the weight, his feet planted firmly against the tile, and at last the heavyset oaken door creaked open. Cool air wafted outwards and swirled against the two intruders as a cool layer of mist that coated their skin. It would be bitterly cold for most humans, but for these two it provided a pleasant chill.

"See? I told you it would work!"

Ash and Sneasel looked out into the training ground they'd pried into, eager to see what lay beyond the heavy doors. Sneasel hissed in delight at the sight of a bright white expanse bathed in light.

Most of the training ground was dominated by a vast blue pool glazed with a hair-thin layer of ice. Black islands dotted it, some simple circles of rock while others curved in great crescent or plain rectangular shapes.

Naturally, Sneasel dashed forward and leapt to sprawl on a thicker patch of ice that coated the water. He stretched his long, lean limbs out and rolled back and forth as he screeched out how happy he was to find a bit of cold in this hot, humid land.

Ash laughed and stepped forward. This training ground was one he'd been hesitant to invade at first, but eventually his own curiosity outweighed the risk. They were technically open to any Elite Four member, and Ash had been invited to use any and all of their facilities by Phoebe and Steven over dinner the other day.

It was almost rude to refuse an invitation like that, and the very last thing he wanted to be with Glacia was rude.

Besides, Sneasel had earned a reprieve. Hoenn's heat forced him to maintain a chilled area around himself. It wasn't especially difficult, but it did prove a constant annoyance. Sneasel deserved a chance to relax in a place that wouldn't cook him in his black coat.

"Having fun?"

Sneasel didn't respond with a hiss or yowl like he normally would. In fact, he didn't respond at all. He was still rolling around on the ice, though, which was all the answer Ash needed.

Yeah, that's about what he expected.

Ash found a seat on one of the many plain stone benches situated near the entrance. There were several dotted all around the pool's concrete rim, likely for Glacia to rest at when she didn't need to be up and moving to direct her team. Well, that or any onlookers lucky enough to witness an experienced Master in action.

He was neither, but he found it comfortable nonetheless.

So far this was his favorite of the training grounds he'd investigated so far. Ash hadn't poked into Wallace's yet - that felt like an overstep - but he'd managed to swing by Phoebe's and Sidney's over the last few days.

They were interesting. Sidney infested his battleground with countless traps, camouflaged trenches, and dozens of fiendishly creative hazards that would punish fighters for a single misstep. Using Zoroark's unique abilities in conjunction with that would be an absolute nightmare for any pokemon.

He wanted it.

Phoebe's was a little less blatantly dangerous, but still posed an interesting challenge. She'd somehow managed to preserve an Ominous Wind - or something close enough to be indistinguishable - in the battlefield. It constantly sapped his strength and was absolutely punishing for any psychic unfortunate enough to be in the area. The entire arena had to remain underground, lest an errant attack escape and generate unfortunate collateral. It went without saying that standard psychic barriers weren't viable.

Sneasel seemed to enjoy it, though, and 'safe' environments with access to such a high concentration of Distortion were fantastically rare.

He couldn't draw those energies to greatly enhance himself or anything such as that, but it did preserve techniques such as Mind Breaker or Night Slash for longer. Plus, it was perfect to work on the pet project he'd thought of after seeing Thorn-Stalk in action. Mind Breaker wasn't perfected yet, but they'd hit a point where Ash felt comfortable splitting their attention.

He'd already drawn up several ways the two abilities could complement one another. Learning to sense Distortion properly like Thorn-Stalk had could open up countless opportunities for Sneasel, and potentially take him even farther than Mind Breaker could if they played their cards correctly.

Speaking of opening up countless opportunities…

"Hey! Come on over. I have something for you."

Uncertainty warred within Ash as Sneasel reluctantly leapt to his feet with a groan. His feather twitched in a clear sign of irritation, but Sneasel soon quelled it.

It still felt too soon… but Sneasel had earned this. He had to remember that.

Sneasel plopped down by Ash's feet with an overly dramatic yowl. He began to scrape little lines into the ice impatiently, likely mimicking whatever instinct it was that led Sneasel and Weavile to develop their intricate system of markings. Ash would love to cross reference it against records of Sneasel pack markers, but this just wasn't the time.

"I have something for you."

Sneasel greedily extended his paws.

"A choice."

His friend whined pitifully and all enthusiasm instantly drained away until he looked like a wrung out melanistic Furret. Sneasel would probably hiss and swipe at him if he ever heard that comparison, but Ash held his amusement back for now.

It was hard to be offended when he knew what was coming next.

"You've grown so much the last few months," Ash began, voice level but warm. "You've fought in the Conference. You've worked every day with Bruiser to be the best you can. You've even won a few games of Catch the Sneasel!" Sneasel snarled at that, claws coming unsheathed, but waited where he was. "But you've shown your true colors this past month. You're strong, Sneasel, and able to fight with the best of us."

Plume's influence showed as Sneasel preened beneath the praise, but shifted uneasily now that the conversation had taken a new turn.

"You fought so hard against Spiritomb. You were the one to strike the finishing blow. Not Nidoking, not Infernus, not Torrent, not Tangrowth. You."

Sneasel idly scraped his claws together nervously.

Ash reached into his pocket and presented Sneasel with a long, hooked length of ivory bone. It had been given to him by Karen, and now he offered it to Sneasel.

"This is a Razor Claw," Ash said softly. "If you take it, you'll evolve. You'll be a Weavile."

A hunger like nothing Ash had ever seen in another filled Sneasel's sharp eyes. His paws stretched towards Ash by reflex, drawn towards the Razor Claw like a Venemoth to a flame, and Sneasel whined pitifully when he stopped himself of his own volition.

That was what Ash had waited for. He closed his fingers over the Razor Claw.

"If you take it, you'll evolve." Ash repeated. His eyes bored into Sneasel as the little dark-type squirmed. "I've had it since we were at the Plateau and I've been saving it for the right moment. You're ready. You've earned it. If you take it, you'll be strong. Incredibly strong."

Sneasel almost reached for it again, but again yanked his paw back.

Ash smiled at him. "Not yet. I haven't finished."

"It's here whenever you want it. Now, tomorrow, a week from now, a month, a year… as far as I'm concerned, this belongs to you," Ash said. "Well, it's loaned to you. Karen would kill me if I didn't get it back to her."

His friend recoiled at that, all too familiar with Karen's displeasure. She'd already raised a Sneasel herself and had little patience for his antics. Sneasel always managed to be on his best behavior around her.

Ash was pretty certain he feared Karen more than he did Weavile.

Quite wise, in his opinion.

"If you wait, you'll be stronger. Every day that goes by you'll keep growing, and that will be amplified by evolution," Ash said. "The stronger you grow as a Sneasel, the further you'll go when you choose to evolve. You'll reach the same peaks, but it may benefit you more."

He opened his palm and Sneasel received the unspoken message.

Choose.

Sneasel moved to snatch it away, then hesitated. His paw remained outstretched just inches from the Razor Claw, ready to pluck it away at any moment. All it would take was a twitch and Sneasel would be overtaken by a bright white light and tap into power unknown to him.

The latent strength in his body would reshape him in his entirety. His bones would stretch and strengthen, his muscles would grow dense and layered to unveil new strength, and his existing powers would find themselves nurtured to new heights.

He would become Weavile and take his place as an undeniable equal next to those who had stood by Ash from the beginning.

All this and more at his paws…

…And Sneasel finally turned away. His every muscle trembled with yearning to claim that strength for himself, but the resolve honed over long, long months of training and struggle won out. It was the same will that brought him back to Bruiser day after day.

Ash closed his palm and tucked the Razor Claw away. Nothing more needed to be said. Both understood the terms of this deal, and both knew exactly why Sneasel had pulled away at the last second.

He didn't whisper any approval, but he couldn't fight the well of pride that sprung forth. This scenario would've been unthinkable in the aftermath of the Conference. More than anything else, Sneasel had mastered himself. That would take him further than any simple evolution.

Sneasel didn't need words, but Ash grasped his furry shoulder, and tried to project all the pride he felt for his friend into that touch.

That was enough.

They sat like there for a time, content with one another's company and drifting off in their own imaginations. He'd seen Sneasel grow from egg to the powerful warrior he was now, and Ash found himself reflecting on their journey together.

Time passed by in a blur until the oaken door suddenly creaked. The sound was so quiet that Ash could barely catch it, but to Sneasel it may as well have been a blaring alarm.

His stomach sunk as he turned around. Glacia stood primly at the entrance to the training field with her hands folded as she glanced his way. They lingered again on his hat, then shifted to Sneasel. Ash peered back and caught a surprising warmth in the crinkling of her eyes.

"Elite Four Glacia. I'm sorry for intruding."

A formal tone wasn't natural at all, but he didn't want to get on Glacia's bad side.

"Elite Four Ash. It is no intrusion, I assure you. I hope that my training ground meets your approval?"

"Of course." His eyes dipped down to Sneasel. He didn't take kindly to the newcomer, and Ash flushed as Sneasel bared his teeth… then he wilted away at Glacia's even stare and hid behind Ash's leg. "It's nice to escape the heat."

Glacia fully stepped into the arena then. Somehow he hadn't noticed the giant that wheezed and snuffled alongside her. Its blue hide bulged with thick layers of blubber and muscle, and Glacia's modest frame was absolutely dwarfed beside it. A pair of mighty tusks projected from the enormous tufts of snow-white fur growing around its maw.

Walrein looked like terrestrial movement should be a strain, but it dragged itself along pretty smoothly. Ash knew it would be terrifyingly adept at navigating the icy water in the pool. If Hoenn was rough on Sneasel, it must have been torturous for Walrein. It was around five tons, after all, and its entire biology was adapted to trap heat so it could survive the miserable cold it was most comfortable with.

His assessment seemed accurate enough given how Walrein utterly ignored both Ash and Sneasel in favor of sliding past them in its rush to dive into the freezing pool with an enormous splash. The sight of such a mighty pokemon acting so childishly was something Ash could find a certain pleasure in..

"I concur," Glacia said as Walrein surfaced again. It groaned with satisfaction as it splashed through the pool.

Glacia was close now and eyed his attire curiously. It was hard to blame her given that he was wearing shorts and one of the T-shirts he'd gotten with Karen. This one was bright white with a teal depiction of a Kingdra, and wasn't exactly ideal for hanging out in a winter wonderland.

Well, it passed for an odd look from Glacia. From anyone else it would be a subtle arch of a pale blonde eyebrow.

"You are remarkably well-suited for the cold. Most southerners find my training grounds uncomfortable."

Ash kept his face straight. "I have an affinity for the cold."

That was vague enough to not be a lie while also not going into any awkward truths.

"I see." Her tone didn't change one iota. "You might enjoy my homeland, then. Snowpoint's climate is a far cry from Hoenn's. My compatriots found it difficult to enjoy their last visit to Sinnoh."

That piqued his curiosity. Sinnoh had frequently occupied his thoughts recently for obvious reasons, and his interest soon got the best of him.

"What's it like up in Snowpoint? I've heard all sorts of stories about Snowpoint Temple, Lake Acuity, the Learned of Uxie, the Knights. Why did you come to Hoenn - if I may ask?" he coughed when he realized how rude he must have sounded.

…by Glacia's standards, anyway..

"Stand up straight," Glacia ordered, and he did without thinking. His mother had trained him well, and Glacia somehow hit her exact notes. "I encourage curiosity in all its forms, but it behooves you to remember the conduct expected of your station, Elite Four Ash."

Sneasel hissed at her, and Ash sent a sour look his way. That certainly wasn't helping his case.

"Sorry - I am sorry," Ash swiftly corrected. "I will do my best to remember."

This way of speaking was stiff and formal and uncomfortable for Ash, who preferred to keep things as succinct as possible, but it was a price worth paying for the opportunity to learn from Glacia. Ice Masters were relatively rare due to the limited conditions in which they thrived, and it was rarer still to find one in a tropical land like Hoenn.

Of course, Indigo once had an Ice Master from the warm, summer-blessed Sevii Islands in Lorelei. Maybe the National League had a monopoly on them?

"Sufficient."

Glacia's icy blue eyes burrowed into him. It was easy enough to meet them, though he still felt like he was being scolded. He found it difficult to pin down just how old Glacia was at a glance. Realistically, he knew enough to say she was in her early forties at the most, but she held an ageless quality that reminded him of an ancient statue or expertly carved sculpture.

"It is my understanding that the Indigo League has entrusted your training to Mr. Stone. I am disappointed that he has not seen fit to begin your schooling in etiquette. Many eyes are on you, Elite Four Ash."

"Steven - Mr. Stone," Ash said, though it still felt wrong to call Steven that. It made him sound so old. "Has taught me a lot I know how to write reports. I can fill out forms properly. I can requisition resources!"

Glacia was patient, but she interjected as soon as he was done.

"I did not mean to imply he has entirely neglected his duties," she said. "However, it is essential for League representatives to communicate well with those outside the League as well as those within," Glacia paused to let him think her words through. "As a ward of the Ever Grande League, it is our responsibility to educate you in these matters. As Mr. Stone is occupied with his own duties, I have deemed it my duty to ensure you are properly prepared for whatever situations you may encounter."

Her tone was businesslike, but Ash still felt a little worm of dread rise up in his gut. Maybe this wouldn't be worth the little nuggets of wisdom from the Ice Master…

Still, he wasn't about to try and evade her. He wasn't eager to learn, and he found it difficult to imagine a time he might need fancy words and meaningless rules, but Ash suspected Glacia would hunt him across Hoenn if he tried to escape her tutelage. She wasn't one to be trifled with.

"I understand, Elite Four Glacia."

Her gaze softened ever so slightly. "I expect it will not be the burden you expect. Your manners are pleasing thus far. Our time together will simply reinforce those lessons and ensure you are aware of certain expectations you might not have encountered before. Who taught you?"

"My mother. Delia Ketchum."

"I see that she did an excellent job."

Ash thawed a little and found himself smiling.

"Your lessons will take begin tomorrow, here. We will meet promptly each day at noon for the remainder of your time in Ever Grande City."

"Yes, Elite Four Glacia."

His response seemed to please her, and she peered down at Sneasel, who still hid behind Ash. It was probably the wisest thing he'd done all day… and that included his choice to hold off on his evolution.

"Have you chosen a name?"

Sneasel poked his head out, shook it, then retreated back to safety. Glacia's lips thinned. "Your trainer does not hide away like a sulking child. Why do you?"

Walrein poked its head out and laid it atop an ice floe, which swayed precariously under the sudden weight, but didn't so much as grumble when Sneasel growled at Glacia. To be fair, Sneasel did ruin the effect since he refused to leave his safe spot behind Ash. The massive ice-type just seemed vaguely amused.

"Very well," Glacia's words dripped with stiff politeness that she wielded like a thin dagger. "You will require your own lessons. I expect you to accompany Elite Four Ash each day."

Sneasel refused to respond until Ash not-so-subtly nudged him with his boot. It took a moment, but he finally groaned his agreement. Ash flushed a little at Sneasel's antics, but then he realized how much worse it would have gone if she'd met a hormone-addled Weavile fresh from evolution.

Maybe this wasn't so bad after all.

"I will leave you to your training. Please enjoy the facilities."

Ash scrambled for words. "Thank you for allowing us to use your training grounds, Elite Four Glacia."

"It is my pleasure," Glacia glanced at Walrein, who seemed rather content in the vast expanse of the pool. Her lips twitched. "I will return to collect Agepetos once he has had his fill here. In the meantime, I am certain he would be eager to participate in whatever training exercises you see fit."

The enormous Walrein eagerly slapped his flippers together with a clap and came crashing back down onto the ice floe. It soon crumbled beneath his mass and left Agepetos to float leisurely. He waggled his furry eyebrows at Ash, who grinned back.

Sneasel and Torrent could learn so much, and even Nidoking might pick up a few tips for his ice-type techniques.

"Thank you!"

She allowed the slip this time. Glacia swept away, no doubt hurrying to resume her enormous list of duties, but stopped just before the door.

"You inquired earlier regarding why I came to Hoenn," Glacia said. "I saw endless potential here as a girl and endless challenges for myself and my family in its foreign climate. The world is too large and too beautiful to see only one small corner. Life without challenges is rather dull, don't you agree?"

"I do, Elite Four Glacia."

With her piece said and some of Ash's questions answered, she said her final farewell. Ash dutifully returned it and was left alone with a ten thousand pound Walrein doing its best impersonation of a human grin. It dragged itself from the pool with a little huff, then groaned out a challenge.

Ash smiled back and glanced at Sneasel, glad he'd finally recovered from Glacia's reprimand. "Looks like he wants a challenge. Think you're up to it?"

Cruel white hooks flicked forth from their velvety sheaths. Sneasel raised them in challenge to Agepetos, and just like that their battle began.

XX

Days and nights passed by in a blur.

Steven assured him they'd depart within three or four days, but Ash had little time to think about what came next. Every waking moment was consumed with training, theorizing, consulting, and otherwise doing his best to make use of the resources he had available.

Without Dazed even his unwaking moments might have been used the same way.

At least it was time well spent. Ash's well-established routine was a comfort. He clung to the order like a lifeline to pull him out of the anxiety-ridden thoughts fraying the corners of his mind.

Breakfast. Training. Etiquette. Lunch. Training. Dinner with Steven. Training. Relax. Sleep. Repeat.

Despite how much Ash had on his plate, he still had time to worry for Steven. He spent the majority of the day down with Regirock and Probopass, but at least it didn't seem to take too harsh a toll. Steven was exhausted, but he seemed relieved by having one clear, concise task to throw his full energy at.

Steven wouldn't speak too much on the topic, but it sounded like he was making progress. This sort of task was right up his alley, so it didn't surprise Ash. Complex, open-ended problems such as the Rockets or the diplomatic challenges of managing the region strained him, but Steven blossomed as his rigid nature was offered its best opportunity.

Every day had Steven in better spirits, which in turn rolled over to Wallace. The Champion had even found time to attend the occasional meal with his Elite Four.

Ash found a mote of his own peace in Ever Grande City, but there was one shadow hanging over his head like an executioner's axe. It was felt by his friends as well, but none seemed willing to bring up the taboo topic.

Ash couldn't blame them. Even he wasn't eager to address the problem, though the thought that he was running away drove him a little mad.

He still hadn't released Spiritomb from its pokeball.

Steven continuously reiterated the importance of Cynthia's permission. That requirement grated at Ash more and more by the day given her self-imposed isolation Lake Acuity. What was her purpose there?

The Learned of Uxie were no stranger to transient guests. But did she live with them on the shores of their frigid lake? Did she scour their ancient codices in hunt of answers? Did she sit on the cold beaches seeking sparks of inspiration or enlightenment from the sacred waters?

Who knew? Certainly not Ash. For all he knew, the isolation may be a convenient excuse to go write in peace for a few days… personally, he wouldn't mind that explanation at all. Ash had to split his time between her various works, but he'd almost finished the monolithic Hoenn text given to him by his mother.

Around one hundred pages crammed to the brim with detailed, complex explanations of Hoenn's modern political, social, and civic trends remained, but after that the wellspring would run dry and he'd have to hunt down new reading material. He would still have her unpublished notes on Johto, of course, alongside the Drakes' journal given to him by Elder Yari, along with countless archives in the PokeDex, but it was odd to realize he'd nearly made it through.

Then he thought back to the other reading material he needed to review and work through.

Steven's physics cheat sheet, his manual on raising fossil pokemon, his own training notes, homework for Glacia, Phoebe's notes on raising ghosts, mail and personal messages so his friends and loved ones didn't think he'd gotten himself killed in the wilderness, and the League handbook Steven was so insistent on…

Okay, so maybe he wouldn't run out of reading material any time soon. But the League handbook - minus then-Champion Drake's contributions, of course - left the Piede looking like a lush oasis in comparison.

He needed more of Cynthia's work if he wanted to make it through that monstrosity.

You're doing it again, Friend-Trainer.

Agh, he was!

"Thanks, Dazed," he sighed and forced the self-imposed distraction away. Ash ceased pacing around his room and stared at the innocuous Ultra Ball on his coffee table. It appeared inert as ever.

The shake during his conversation with Bruiser and Seeker was the only sign of life he'd detected. Ash dissected that moment over and over again, but he still wasn't entirely certain what led to the change.

Heightened emotion? Spiritomb's latent consciousness having a particularly active dream?

…Did Spiritomb dream? It must have. Right? But would it dream of its own experiences, or would it be lost in tattered threads of those individuals who made it up?

Ash sighed, refocused, and stared daggers at the pokeball.

This stalemate was lingering on for too long. It had turned into a battle of attrition with Ash and his team on one side and something that spent thousands of years in an isolated tomb on the other. He didn't fancy their chances if this kept up. Every passing day added to their stress.

Cynthia hadn't responded to Steven's missive yet, but the longer he waited the more Ash found that he didn't care. He had about ten thousand questions for her (and was excited to hear from her for entirely professional reasons, no matter what Dazed's lingering amusement said!) but this wasn't the time to wait.

It was time to act!

You don't leave a wound to fester. You suture it, cauterize it, whatever. All that matters is you don't let it rot and grow.

He was tired of waiting.

Ash had handled Spiritomb before. He could do it again.

His hand stopped inches away from the device.

He was eager to confront the specter, but wisdom prevailed.

He was still going to release it. Training it wasn't an option, But this wasn't sustainable. Were it any other pokemon, leaving it in its ball for so long would qualify as cruelty on its own. The anticipation - or dread - were killing him in slow degrees.

Ash needed to speak with it.

Would any of the questions plaguing him be answered? Most likely not. Ash was reluctant to even try at this stage. Better to build up some mutual trust and respect before he went prying.

But he could make contact. He could put the possibility of working together in Spiritomb's mind… minds?

Ugh. Things got so complicated with composite organisms. Who would have thought anything could make Metagross seem straightforward?

Dazed watched over him silently. For once she wasn't polishing her pendulum. Instead she was brushing her fur with fine uses of psychic power instead. Her yellow fur was short enough that little maintenance was needed, but it never hurt to pluck out any bits of dust or mud that clung to her after training.

"I could release it right this second."

Yes.

He could do that. Of course, that would also probably send the local psychics into a panic attack. He'd heard about it when he'd let it out with Phoebe.

More importantly, what would Steven think when he inevitably got that report?

What would Steven think of him?

In the best case scenario, Steven would see that Ash hadn't retained a single word of their conversation in Regirock's vault. At worst, he might think Ash was deliberately rejecting his input.

Ash wanted to just rip the bandage off, but that would be pointless. It would do more harm than good to everyone involved.

He crashed back against the luxurious navy couch and just stared at the Ultra Ball. Still no movement. "Dazed, can you put in a request for Phoebe to stop by?"

Of course.

Ash detected a distinct note of pleasure in her words. At least it seemed Dazed approved.

It will be some time.

"I figured," Ash said. It would have been a shock if Phoebe could drop her duties at a moment's notice. But she might just make an exception for Spiritomb.

He knew how he wanted to spend the time while they waited, but it would have to wait. There was one topic he still needed to broach with Dazed, and what better opportunity could he find?

"Dazed, can you look into my mind?"

Her eyes lit up with brilliant power. Ash focused on all his hopes, plans, and worries for Spiritomb potentially joining their team. He allowed time for the negatives, a vague awareness of Dazed's own mind lingering on them, before turning to the bright hopes he had for the future, a chance to help and offer a new chance -

I believe in you.

Warmth flooded him and his cheeks went a little red at the trust that radiated from her like the sun's light. "I - thank you, Dazed."

She said nothing, but instead watched him with her pendulum held tightly between two stubby yellow fingers.

Huh, that went much faster than he'd expected.

Well, if they had time to burn… Ash cleared his throat.

"Want to get some reading in?"

He plucked the Drakes' journal from his pocket and brandished it at Dazed, whose eyes immediately twisted into one of her smiles. Warmth flooded their bond, and he was quick to flip it open to where he'd left his bookmark.

They'd almost caught up to the present century, but their progress had slowed substantially. The accounts recorded in the journal grew more and more complete as they made it further into the book.

Ash cleared his throat as Dazed shuffled closer, then began to read aloud for her. He'd normally release the rest of the team to listen in, but the majority were off training. Bruiser, Seeker, and Tangrowth were off to explore the tunnels, Sneasel and Torrent remained in Glacia's battleground with Agepatos, and Nidoking and Lairon had accompanied Steven to train with Probopass for the day. Plume was probably halfway across Hoenn.

Oz had situated herself down at a rocky little outcropping near the base of Final Falls running a few experiments for Storm Surge. She'd been a little cagey about it all, so Ash hadn't pressed too much.

As for Infernus? Ash had made a mistake by mentioning that Phoebe had a Chandelure. They'd been ripping a few practice fields apart for hours now.

Oh well. Ash wasn't going to complain about a chance to review the entries twice.

His lips twisted up into a smile when he read the name of their Drake for the day. Definitely one of Lance's ancestors.

"Drake Naginata's account of the Saffron Subjugation in the Secession," Ash read the entry's label, "Let's see… second of the Elite Four at the time, well-established, noted Indigoan loyalist… Okay! With that out of the way, let's get started!"

The Ultra Ball remained lifeless on the table.

XX

"It's significant! I know it doesn't make any sense to you, but it's important to humans."

Dazed rolled her eyes, which flashed blue as she made telepathic contact.

Humans are strange.

Ash nodded in agreement.

The Drake changed what others called it? Why? It was Drake. That is its place. That is what it remained.

He kicked his feet up on the coffee table while he struggled to translate his thoughts into words. "Humans put a lot of worth into names."

Dazed's pendulum twitched.

I struggle to understand.

Ash frowned. "You've called me by my name before… just a few times," he admitted. "But it's happened."

She cocked her head.

It is what you are.

"I thought I was Friend-Trainer?"

That is also what you are.

"Is Lance what Lance is, or is he just Champion-Mentor?"

He is Champion-Mentor. That is his place.

Ash hummed to himself. He had an instinctual understanding of Dazed's naming sense by now, but it interested him to hear her own perspective. To be honest, hers made more sense to him. It was certainly simpler.

"It's different for humans," Ash said at last. "We like to complicate things. It's not just your role. Not just what you act as. A name… it's like your own concept. It's your family, and when people think of it, they think of you as an individual, not just your place. It can be something to aspire to, or a reminder of something lost, or a statement; it can be more or less. But they're seldom simple."

It seems unnecessary. We are our actions. A name cannot reveal more than what one has created. You cannot choose your place without taking action to become it.

He snorted. "You aren't wrong. Still, that's just how it is for humans. I don't think it's changing any time soon," Ash cocked his head as a thought sprung to mind. "What do you think of yourself as? Is there something you'd like me to call you instead?"

Dazed's eyes twisted into another smile.

I am Dazed.

His heart filled with warmth which he made sure to project outward, certain that Dazed would sense it, and smiled wider than he had in a long, long time.

"So," he said quickly, "with Drake Naginata, she was making a point when she changed her name… well, changed what order it was in. She was the Drake, yes?"

Dazed nodded.

"Things were different back then. No Gym Leaders, only Lords of Indigo. Same role, same purpose, but power was passed down from generation to generation for the most part, not earned."

You have explained this to me before. I repeat: humans are strange. Birth does not indicate success.

"People used to believe all sorts of stupid things. Some still do," Ash scowled. "But back then, it was all about the clans. The League was in charge, but they had to balance their power with the Lords. The Lords held the local authority, and the League usually wasn't strong enough to fully control them."

"Clan members put their family name first back then," Ash said. "Wataru Lance, for example. The family was put above the individual. Ketchum Ash," he said, although that brought some dark thoughts forward.

In another life where Giovanni had gotten his way, his name might not have been Ketchum at all.

Disgust filled him, but he quickly buried it away. Later.

"Drake Naginata was a loyalist. She wasn't the Champion, but she believed in Indigo. Didn't seem like she was in it just for the practical benefits," Ash ran his fingers over her entry again. Her passion bled through every inked word as she went on tirade after tirade - Naginata believed in the individual above all else. Perhaps the Wataru custom of crowning their strongest Drake had colored her view there.

Just like the Champions, no one was born Drake. You had to earn it. You had to fight every day for it, prove to the clan that you and your partner deserved to command, and claw it for yourself. Birth might smooth your path, but it didn't confer the right to rule in the Wataru, nor in the League.

Drakes who attempted to change that custom rarely even managed to kick off bloody civil wars - their traditions were sacred to the Wataru, and the rite of becoming Drake was held precious beyond all others.

Ignoring the idealistic explanations, he had to imagine the pragmatic ones came through as well. What Wataru with a single scrap of ambition would allow the chance (however slim) that they may become Drake slip through their fingers? It was a point of pride that any family may give rise to a mighty Drake.

"Anyway, it sounded like she was fed up with the Lords. Tired of clans, tired of the great families. She introduced herself as Naginata Wataru from then on. Wanted to put the focus on the individual, not the name behind them. Fit pretty well with the League, and I guess everyone else ended up doing the same."

It is the proper way. I still find human traditions odd, however.

"Same here, Dazed, same."

Both twitched when the door suddenly slammed open. A beaming face poked in, and Phoebe rapped her knuckles against the entryway after she'd already sprung in. She soon loomed over him with the same intensity from the other day… at least when Spiritomb was involved.

"You called?" Phoebe's hands were planted firmly on her hips, although her attention immediately flicked to Spiritomb's Ultra Ball. "Aww, look at the poor little thing just sitting there. So… is it time? Has Cynthia gotten back to you?"

Ash and Dazed shared a look. "Not exactly."

Phoebe appeared delighted as she connected the dots

"Oh! Teenage rebellion in Ever Grande City?" She clucked her tongue, waggled her finger at him, and grinned. "It's been too long. I'm here for it."

Well, when she put it like that…

"I'm twelve," Ash protested, but Phoebe paid him no heed as she circled the table and knelt to poke at the Ultra Ball. It didn't even twitch. He'd have told her to knock it off if he thought her prodding would accomplish anything. "And it's not rebellion! I just need to talk to Spiritomb. That's it."

"And you thought having a mature, responsible adult like me to chaperone you would look better to Steven?"

"Pretty much."

Phoebe's lips curled into a smile. "Champion Wallace doesn't have an opinion on Spiritomb, so that's just perfect. No sweat off my back if Steven gets his Metagross-spotted panties in a wad."

"It'll be fine," Ash said, though now he didn't feel as confident. "I'm not asking it to join the team yet. I just want to make a good first… third," he corrected. "impression in it. Make the offer, see if it's interested, return it."

"Sure," Phoebe drawled. "Whatever you say."

"Do you want to be here or not?"

"Wouldn't miss this for the world! Not often I get to see such an amazing ghost. My kuia would kill for this!"

"Kuia?"

"Grandmother," Phoebe explained. She plucked one of the compressed pokeballs from her necklace and returned it to its active state. One tap released a Mismagius' familiar form, which hung suspended by Phoebe's side.

It took in its company quickly, winked at Dazed and whispered eerily to Ash, and turned to the Ultra Ball with a grave expression.

"Well, what are you waiting for? Let's do this!"

"Here?"

His initial plan was to go with Phoebe to her battlegrounds for their chat. It felt strange to release it here, but he supposed a (barely) more familiar environment might be good. Any comfort they could offer was essential.

"Of course. Tick tock!" Phoebe tapped her bare wrist. "I've got stuff to do. Let's go!"

"You don't have a watch."

"It's metaphorical. Mismagius, you're responsible for limiting its influence. Suppress excess Distortion. Feed off what you can, warp away the rest. No need to give the poor surveillance team a heart attack… oh wait, too late for that with you around, Ash."

Ash sighed and returned Dazed. He regretted it, since she was his only teammate he had access to at the moment. Part of him wanted to re-release her immediately, but that would be doing her a disservice. Spiritomb would carve through her defenses in an instant.

This was the right way to do it though. Spiritomb had fought his team. They'd hurt it and pushed it to the brink. One glimpse of them might trigger a reaction, and he needed to keep Spiritomb calm.

Phoebe's orders begged a question, though. He couldn't pass up the chance to interrogate her for scraps like that. It might be invaluable for Sneasel's new project. "How does Mismagius control the Distortion?"

"Specialized incantations mostly," Phoebe replied impatiently. "Acts like a focus for ghosts. Enhances Distortional control, so she can tear a little hole in the world for it to slip away. Takes the stuff back to where it originates. Neat, clean, and not too difficult with the right skill."

He expected 'the right skill' to be Master, so he didn't push forward. That was intriguing, though, and he had to wonder if it would be a possibility for Sneasel one day. So much potential that he was just beginning to brush the surface of…

"Ready?"

"Ready!"

Phoebe was too cheery for someone preparing to face a Spiritomb, but he felt a little thrill as well.

They both steeled themselves in preparation for what was to come, but that was just enough to ready them for the first brush of Spiritomb's potent aura. It washed over them like a freezing tide of black water the moment the plain keystone appeared in a flash of red light.

Phoebe stumbled and clutched at a nearby chair for support as her eyes went wide while Ash's breath hitched. Mismagius' eyes squeezed shut as the specter murmured countless nonsensical words in an arcane flood.

Both withstood it, however, and Mismagius' effort dulled Spiritomb's passive fangs.

Only a few wisps of lavender and venomous green miasma spiraled from the seal like dancing clouds of smoke, yet the power was still enormous and settled around the room like a thick, suffocating blanket. Spiritomb hadn't seen fit to reveal itself (just like last time) and it still almost brought them to their knees.

Even Mismagius looked vaguely ill. It couldn't turn green, but he swore its violet features had darkened to a deep purple that brushed on black.

"Hello, Spiritomb," Ash's teeth clenched as that hollow feeling came back. Spiritomb's power scrubbed away any hint of joy, thrill, and fear. His affect was flattened, his senses dulled, and the world seemed terribly grey.

This was after Mismagius' efforts.

What was he doing here? Why did he even bother? It was so, so hard and all he wanted to do was rest…

No! This wasn't him. But wasn't it?

The worst part was that Spiritomb dredged up his own thoughts and worries and moved them to the forefront. Everything seemed insignificant in the face of the monumental task ahead of him. It weighed on him, he couldn't do it, weren't there better uses of his time and precious energy? Why bother if he was just going to fail -

No! No no no no.

Not him. They might be part of him, but he was more than the emptiness and apathy. He was more than the hollow rot.

He gripped memories good and bad as he had before, impaling the void with spikes of positive and negative emotion. Anything that made him feel, anything that could feed the void inside him and fill it up drop by drop, was fodder.

At last he felt himself again. Still tinged grey, but other colors bled through.

He'd learned to weather it, but that feeling was still wholly unpleasant.

Ash took a shallow breath and allowed tension to drain away, then continued. Phoebe still breathed heavily, but she'd calmed from the initial rush. This exposure had already carried on longer than the first, and he could tell it was draining her rapidly.

Phoebe was able to ward Spiritomb's malign power away with a few symbols drawn in the air. A rush of darkness passed through her and expelled the dark influence for a moment, and she quickly reached into her herb pouch to snag a purple, flower-shaped berry. Kasib, he quickly recognized.

It wasn't recommended for regular human ingestion, but it was a clever trick. The fruit and some of the rind was known to promote resistance against Distortional abilities, although its efficacy was limited against stronger attacks. Ash shouldn't be surprised that Phoebe had so many preparations in place to protect herself from powerful Distortional influence.

"I don't think I've had the chance to introduce myself. That's rude of me, isn't it?" Ash said, still feeling like Lairon was laying on his chest and squeezing the oxygen from his lungs. He tried to put Glacia's etiquette training to good use. "My name is Ash Ketchum."

The keystone laid flat and quiet. Even the gaseous wisps had frozen into place as if locked in time now that Spiritomb had adjusted to its surroundings. At a glance it would appear eerie, serene, and unnatural all as one.

It was wrong for something to be so still. Somehow even an inanimate stone seemed to possess more life, capable of being moved by a touch or brushed by the wind. Spiritomb felt removed from the world, phantasmal, an incorporeal alien eager to vanish away entirely.

"Can we talk? Just for a minute."

No response.

Ash was certain it was listening, though, and continued as if it had. "I'm sorry that we fought last time. We were just defending ourselves, and I bet you were doing the same."

Nothing.

"We won't bother you for long," Ash shared a glance with Phoebe, who nodded but looked immeasurably disappointed. She'd probably use Spiritomb's keystone like a plushie if he allowed it. "I just want to talk for a bit. Is that okay?"

It struck Ash that he was essentially talking to a brick wall, but he rolled with it.

"Just let me know if you want to be left alone."

Still nothing.

"I'm sorry to have disturbed you. But we need to go over a few things. You need to know your options."

Phoebe was still no help at all. She was more curious in analyzing Spiritomb. When she wasn't poring over its phantasmal miasma, she was clutching a strange tag. It was woven of stiff bamboo fibers and inscribed with bizarre symbols unrecognizable as Unown or Draconid script.

It caught his interest, but he had bigger things to worry about. Besides, he'd brought Phoebe to supervise, not to intervene.

But maybe he should just let her deal with it. Talking at Spiritomb (it certainly wasn't with) was so exhausting…

Ash snapped out of it the same moment he consciously recognized Spiritomb had slipped in through some crack in his armor. It was getting easier.

"The first option is to allow you to rest with the League."

"Or I could take you!" Phoebe added helpfully as Mismagius grimaced. "We can travel, train, and have team bonding sessions. It'll be like a big party! Or a sleepover!"

What little wisps remained frozen outside the keystone sucked back in until only the faintest tinge of purple smoke spilled outward. Phoebe wilted, then winked at Ash.

"I'd have to check with a few people, but we could see about returning you to the tomb and -"

Mist came roiling out of the stone, swirling furiously for a single moment before it stilled and retreated. Ash and Phoebe felt an awful touch storm their consciousness, brushing aside their barriers like a green sapling before a hurricane -

"Do you want to be friends?"

His dearest memory filled him with warmth even as Spiritomb sapped everything else away, and soon enough, the storm was over. It had swept over him with terrible force, but he remained standing, although his legs felt they'd turned to jelly.

Ash helped Phoebe to her feet as she stirred, though his weakened muscles strained to support her weight, and her eyes were empty for a moment… of course, then she looked back at Spiritomb, lit up again, and everything was back to normal.

"Okay, not that one."

The keystone was still.

Ash took in a deep, rattling breath. "There's one more option… you can come with me. You can stay in your pokeball all day if you want. I'll need to talk to you sometimes, but I won't make you do anything you don't want to. If you want to be left alone, I'll leave you alone. It can be like taking a long nap."

While Spiritomb didn't react, it also didn't recoil like it had to the other possibilities. He couldn't take it as acceptance, but it wasn't an outright declination either. Ash decided it was worth bringing up to Cynthia when she got back to him. He'd get Phoebe's thoughts as well.

Still, with Spiritomb's power seeping into the room bit by bit and saturating it with its emptiness, it was time to go. Ash didn't want Mismagius to be pressed too hard.

"We could do a trial run," Ash suggested, thinking frantically. "Stick with me for a bit. If you like it, you can stay. If you don't, I'll take you anywhere you want."

A twitch, but the mist did nothing else before it froze again.

"I'm going to return you now. Is that all right?"

Nothing.

He recalled it and clipped the Ultra Ball to his belt… and then collapsed onto the couch. Ash clutched his book like a lifeline. It was real. Ash remembered telling stories of the Drakes to Lairon, poring over it with Dazed to wring out every little detail and subtlety they could, leaning against Nidoking…

Ash could breathe again.

Phoebe sighed loudly.

"Whoo! That was pretty intense. Can't imagine what it's like facing Spiritomb in battle!" The Ghost Master sounded exhausted, but apparently the adrenaline had finally kicked in. She paced around with a ragged smile and never looked away from where Spiritomb's keystone had been. "I know it might be a while, but I'd love to battle you if Spiritomb is up for it."

A thrill raced through him. Phoebe wanted to battle him. Well, Spiritomb, but him by proxy. Technically.

He'd take it.

"So you think Spiritomb will come around?" He asked, not concealing the note of hope in his voice.

"Hard to say." She shrugged. "It's not interested right now, but at least it didn't hide away from you like it did with me." Phoebe clutched at her chest as if Spiritomb had dealt her a mortal wound, then laughed. "How'd you like my acting, by the way? I made you look like an amazing alternative!"

Ash snorted. "Thanks. Spiritomb doesn't seem the type for parties."

"It's just never been to one of my parties." Phoebe sounded offended. "Personally, I think you should just take Spiritomb with you. I only know a little, but it's enough. Spiritomb needs to see the world. Make some friends. Get some positive experiences. It would be hard to do that stuck in Ever Grande City all the time," she finished glumly.

Ash hummed. "I'll see what Cynthia thinks."

He definitely wanted Spiritomb on his team, but the last thing he wanted was to drag it along. But maybe the trial run would be a good idea. Spiritomb could experience a month or two with him, then he could allow it to make a decision.

The real problem would be breaking through Spiritomb's shell in that timeframe. Ash wasn't about to try to force anything, but that didn't mean he couldn't start strategizing.

It was horrifying to consider, but Spiritomb truly didn't seem to care what happened to it so long as it didn't return to Regirock's secret tomb. Pity stirred in his heart.

"A word of advice, Ash."

"Yeah?"

"Remember you're a part of the Indigo League." Phoebe was uncharacteristically solemn. "Steven is your teacher and Champion Cynthia is brilliant, but your duty is to Indigo. Forget Hoenn for a bit and think about your future. What do you want? What would Champion Lance think? What would your brothers and sisters in the Indigo Elite Four say? Will they support you?"

Lance would want him to grow stronger, of course. But what would Lance advise on the subject of Spiritomb? Would he want him to accept that challenge? He couldn't forget Lance' pale, pinched features the last time he'd seen him, nor his haggard spirit and unbreakable determination.

What was it like to burn yourself, bit by bit, as fuel for the Feather? Lance had heaped his hopes, dreams, and even his health atop the pyre in exchange for the strength to push ever onward.

And Ash imagined taking on Spiritomb would be much the same.

But he had to remember why Lance threw himself into the flame and nearly burnt everything he was to cinders. It wasn't for personal glory or selfish desire. It was to help the League. To help his people. To ensure he would be the shield of Indigo.

Spiritomb needed help, and Ash wouldn't be the one to turn away from it.

"You look like your mind's made up. Did you figure it out, or do you just want to punch something?"

"Yes."

"Great!" Phoebe said. Then she yawned. "Wow, Spiritomb hits hard. It's like someone just took a shovel to my brain. Want to satisfy that urge to punch something? I need to clear this fog out or I'll be useless all day."

Thank goodness he'd sent Sneasel off to train in Phoebe's battleground.

It was prime real estate for Sneasel's new training, and he'd love to test the little progress they'd made up against a true ghostly expert… although he'd have to be careful not to reveal too many of their cards until it was time for a real battle.

"Lead the way."

Ash quickly arranged a few things on his bed, winced at the dark power still lingering within the room, and followed Phoebe out the door as she chatted about Spiritomb, which Ash was quickly finding to be a subject she was just as fascinated with as he was.

He still wasn't sure how she saw it as 'cute', but he supposed he'd have time to unravel that mystery if he could convince Spiritomb to stick with him.

If.

XX

Nidoking roared, Sneasel hissed, and Torrent rumbled.

Jagged arcs of frosty light arced forth forth from their mouths and coalesced together as they converged on their target, and Agepetos was encased in a thick layer of craggy, semi-translucent ice -

The mighty Walrein tore through it in an instant, threw its great head back to cackle, and then hurled itself through the water with amazing grace and absolutely terrifying speed. Closing the distance, he launched himself at the trio of opponents, who promptly scattered.

The juggernaut gave chase, and Nidoking quickly spat a long stream of flame to bathe over the Walrein, but he simply dipped deeper into the water and continued his unstoppable pursuit.

Raging flames struck the water and burst into an immense cloud of thick steam that obscured their vision, which Agepetos was happy to take advantage of. He thumped his muscular tail against the bottom of the deep pool to release an Earthquake, and water burst away, rising up in a twenty foot wave that rippled forward to engulf Nidoking and hurl him to the ground -

"Elite Four Glacia, couldn't Agepetos used Surf instead?"

Sneasel climbed up on a floe of ice he'd created, spitting mad and yowling furiously while he brandished his claws at Agepetos, who eagerly turned to address the new challenger. Sneasel would be spitting vile streams of obscenities that would impress Gary if he were human.

He couldn't help his smile, though. Sneasel's fur was dripping wet and completely matted to his skin. All the pleasant fluff he would normally poof up to appear intimidating just made him look like a little Meowth who'd just experienced its first bath.

Glacia sipped her steaming mountain tea as they watched the battle. She'd told him it was Snowpoint stock she imported, so he made his appreciation known when she offered him a cup. He matched her sip with one of his own. It was pleasant enough with its floral, earthy taste with hints of mint and citrus, though he preferred his bitter black coffee.

Ash was very careful not to slurp. Steven would swing by soon to pick him up, and he wanted to say farewell to Glacia on a good note. Her lessons were straightforward enough, even if some of the pointless rules made him want to rip his hair out.

Glacia understood that learning the vast majority wasn't practical, although she insisted that didn't diminish its value, and didn't force him to commit them all to memory. Ash begrudgingly acknowledged her point, and committed himself to what he could to at least satisfy her. He wouldn't want to embarrass anyone at some formal event, even if he made it a priority to avoid them whenever he could. Just the thought of those nightmares left him swimming in anxiety.

Couldn't he just fight things instead?

"He could," Glacia said. "But Agepetos has always had a flair for the dramatic."

Yes, he could see that, although he thought the Walrein might regret it. Nidoking had already flung himself to his feet and readied a Thunderbolt while Torrent had slammed a Dragon Pulse straight into his back as the gigantic ice-type tore after Sneasel, who cackled when Walrein was knocked aside with a groan.

Agepetos twisted with surprising grace, fired off a great storm of freezing wind and ice chips at Nidoking, who cut off his assault in order to manifest a Protect, but soon found himself frozen in the water as he attempted to swim after Sneasel yet again.

It was as if the cold water in the pool itself had come alive and ensnared the Walrein with a mighty fist - he strained and strained, mustache-like tufts of white fur twitching as he roared, and Ash knew it took all of Torrent's will to keep him locked in place. The smallest twitch from a Walrein like that would be enough to tear through ice and crack concrete.

His team capitalized on it in an instant. Agepetos was a mighty opponent, easily amongst the strongest of her team, and just the one display from Torrent was enough to catch him off guard. They'd just have to ensure they had a few new tricks up their sleeves by the time they faced her for real.

"Water manipulation. Most impressive, Elite Four Ash. My compliments."

"Thank you. I will pass them along to Torrent."

His response earned another of Glacia's rare smiles, though he wasn't sure what spurred this one. She sipped her tea again as they watched the battle unfold. Agepetos was an unstoppable juggernaut, but his team harried and prodded from every angle.

There was no certainty to how it would end; this was just a fun little spar. In a real fight he'd have his team fighting much dirtier.

"If you find yourselves in Ever Grande City again, I will recommend to Champion Wallace that he oversees your training. Several of his teammates possess a particular talent for water manipulation, and I believe they may be of assistance," Glacia said, though her eyes were still locked on Torrent as he pulled a sheet of water upwards to block a Powder Snow from Agepetos. "Torrent's abilities are quite refined, however. There is a smoothness to them that I have rarely seen. Where was he trained?"

How to explain that Torrent had honed his talent after lessons from Suicune itself?

The simple answer was that he didn't. While he'd come to like Glacia over this past week, he still wouldn't feel comfortable enough confiding in her about the Legends. She had access to his file, but that was a little tidbit she wouldn't find in any dossier.

"We spent several weeks at the Lake of Rage," he said at last, careful to enunciate each word. Any misstep would have Glacia frowning at him, which he'd rather avoid. Normally she only offered him a sign of disapproval when he made an obvious mistake… or when she looked at his hat. "Torrent was able to practice there."

"I see."

Ash couldn't read any signs of approval or disapproval in her calm gaze, though he was certain she realized he wasn't telling the full truth.

"I am surprised you didn't utilize water manipulation in your battle against Master Fino."

The change of subjects was a welcome one, and he felt himself flush with pride as he recalled his victory over the Fire Master. "I thought it would be too predictable. Torrent attracted attention during the Indigo Conference, and I expected Fino -" Glacia watched him like Plume watched Wurmple, "Master Fino, to have planned for him."

"You did well. Master Fino is a cunning foe with many years of experience. I have heard that Champion Lance is quite excited about your victory," Glacia sipped her tea again. "From my understanding, the Elite Four quarters in Indigo Plateau have seen quite a few renovations these past weeks."

Ash blinked. Just how much money had been on the line for that battle?

"It also taught several of my compatriots a well-deserved lesson about making poor choices in their gambling habits," Glacia sniffed. "You have my thanks."

"You're welcome," Ash said reflexively, still a little bewildered at how much money had changed hands because of him. He slouched unconsciously as he lost himself in errant thought, but a pointed look from Glacia had him straightened up before he could blink. "Elite Four Glacia?"

"Yes, dear?"

He smiled, open his mouth to ask his question about Lake Acuity -

"Ash?"

It took only a second to place the newcomer's voice. Steven.

"We are here, Mr. Stone."

Glacia's curt words led Steven to their small table in just a moment, though he looked distinctly uncomfortable in Glacia's frosty training grounds. His suit was designed for breathability, so Ash had no doubt the cold air and chilled water splashed all around the great pool were miserable for him.

Steven looked at Ash's shorts and T-shirt oddly, but seemed to dismiss it as another of Ash's strange quirks. That was normally a safe assumption for Steven to make.

"Good afternoon, Elite Four Glacia," Steven said stiffly. He appeared a little out of it, though still sharp, so he must have just recently left Regirock's chamber. Normally he'd be in there for a few extra hours.

Had Cynthia reached out? She'd gone into a solitary chamber on Lake Acuity's shores, or so he'd heard, but perhaps she'd struck enough of a breakthrough to address more worldly concerns.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Stone." The words felt very strange in his mouth, but he would be able to return to normalcy soon.

"Ash, I just wanted to inform you that we will be leaving at dawn."

His eyebrows rose. "Where are we headed?"

Glacia's blue eyes bored a hole in him.

"...Mr. Stone," he appended.

The battle had come to a stop now, all of the combatants more interested in what news Steven had to share, and Ash found himself missing the rhythmic crashing of waves and the battle cries of his friends.

"We'll be traveling to Sudmauna, a small island in the southern archipelago. It's not far from Pacifidlog," Steven added. "Fino took me there when I was his apprentice, and I would like to share it with you as well."

Ash's heart warmed. "Are there any missions -"

Steven blanched. "No!" He calmed at Glacia's frown, but remained steadfast. "No missions. We will spend some time with the villagers there - they have a festival I think you will enjoy - and continue honing your skills. We shall begin work with your new companion as well. Sudmauna is sparsely populated enough that I believe we can work without risking anyone stumbling onto us."

That meant… "Champion Cynthia responded?"

"No," Steven sighed. "She's still in isolation. Only critical news is being passed along, I'm afraid. Everything else is routed to Lucian. That wouldn't normally be a problem, but he's hardly an authority on these matters."

He held back a groan to avoid disappointing Glacia, but couldn't help the disappointment that filled him.

"But we're moving forward with Spiritomb?"

"On a temporary basis. You said your team supports your decision, and the more time available for Spiritomb to adjust the better. But!" Steven raised a finger. "Juliet will begin her check-ins while we wait for Cynthia."

Ash nodded. That made sense, naturally, and eagerness rose up in his chest. This whole week had been spent planning on how to work with Spiritomb, and now it was time to put them into action! He was nervous, of course, but the excitement overpowered it.

They chatted for a bit longer, though there wasn't much they could say outside of a truly secure area such as the vault, and eventually the cold grew to be too much for Steven to bear in his thin suit. He left with a formal farewell for Glacia and a swift nod to Ash, and then it was just Ash, Glacia, and the fighters who were all too eager to resume their battle.

The Ice Master sipped her tea one last time, then placed the empty porcelain cup down as she turned to watch the battle.

"It seems our time together is limited. Before you depart, I will allow you to ask whatever questions you would like."

He couldn't refuse an offer like that! Glacia appeared torn between utter bemusement and the faintest signs of mirth as the floodgates opened and a dozen questions at once rolled off his tongue... all phrased very politely, of course.

Ash had been taught well.

This week in Ever Grande City had passed by in a blur and he was eager to go out and explore the world, but Ash had to admit that there would be a few things he missed. Still, Hoenn was ripe and ready for him, and that familiar itch demanded he go out and walk every inch of it.

Steven hadn't been too forthcoming on what Sudmauna was like (beyond his obvious fondness for the island) but Ash found himself curious all the same. He'd traipsed all over the western reaches of the mainland now, seen the great city of Rustboro and experienced Lavaridge's wildlands for himself, but he'd done little more than camp in the archipelago.

The hunger rose up, and it was all he could do to distract himself with thoughts of snowy Sinnoh, the clear waters of Lake Acuity, and Snowpoint's ancient traditions that Glacia was finally happy to share with him.

Not a bad way to spend his last day here.

Not bad at all.

A/N: Here it is! It's so strange not posting another 40-50k chapter… although this one ended up not being so far behind! It ended up being around 97 pages as of the time I'm typing this. I hope you enjoyed it and do apologize for the wait - I know this was more the story taking a breath after Ash's adventures in the desert, but I certainly had a lot of fun writing it despite the many pieces to juggle. I have been splitting my attention between Traveler and my original work, but I plan on focusing entirely on Traveler for another chapter or two to make up for the wait on this one.

Due to some changes in my routine I've made the next chapter should be out faster than this one! I've been able to hit a pretty consistent 1-2k words a day recently between this and another project, which has been very satisfying. I haven't been able to write so much so easily since I was back in high school and still writing Indigo.

As always, thank you so much for reading! I appreciate you all so much for sticking with Traveler for so long and through so much, and also wanted to thank everyone for the awesome feedback from the last few chapters. While I can't manage to frequently respond to reviews or PMs anymore, I do read each and every one of them. It means so much for you to take the time to leave your thoughts behind.

I hope everyone is off to a wonderful 2022! Crazy to think that this will mark the ten year anniversary of Traveler… I officially feel old. When I first started I never imagined it would be going on in 2022!

I'll cut myself off here. Best wishes, and as always I would like to thank Val, Raptor, and Jain for their feedback, suggestions, and efforts in this chapter and many others over the years.