Two days made a world of difference. Steven lost some of his deathly pallor and could finally stomach real food again. He still looked vaguely queasy whenever a happy townsperson offered him another mai tai or margarita (often with a knowing wink), but he at least seemed like a real person again.

It was still impossible to take him seriously in his garish outfits, though. Ash pointedly reminded him several times that everyone knew exactly who they were, but Steven either remained stubbornly in denial, or had somehow grown fond of his eye-scarring tourist garb.

Ash couldn't decide which was worse.

"Catch me up, please. I must admit that I wasn't in my best state when you informed me of Cynthia's correspondence."

That was something of an understatement. If Ash's memory served him right—

It does.

—Steven had been kneeling in front of the toilet while Ash fetched him water and Metagross glared balefully from the living room. Tangrowth was the kindest of them - he'd rubbed Steven's back with a few vines and kept Sneasel from poking too much fun at the miserable man.

Ash had exhibited enormous self-control and only took a few pictures, mostly at Claydol's behest.

"It wasn't much," Ash admitted. He flipped his PokeNav open regardless, well-aware that Steven was much too meticulous to be satisfied with that.

Steven squinted to make out the text under the harsh sunlight. Ash read along with him. There was something so satisfying about having a Champion write a personal letter to him. It sounded absurd, didn't it? He'd known Steven since he was a little rookie with a stubborn Nidoran and Lance since before he'd finished his first Gym circuit, but getting to know them had worn off some of their luster.

Only some, though.

But Cynthia was something else. No doubt he'd grow more comfortable with her over time, but he'd only met the Sinnoh Champion twice now. She was still something of a mystery to him. Nothing killed awe like familiarity.

He followed Steven's gaze to track his progress.

- an enormous challenge, and one I am happy to help with however I can. My own responsibilities keep me in Sinnoh at this time, but I will offer some advice before I return to my research. I've informed Lucian that your messages are a priority for me, so you should not have so much difficulty reaching me in the future.

Now! Before we can address the matter properly, you must fully comprehend the reality of a Spiritomb. As you know, Spiritomb are the amalgamation of one hundred and eight mortal souls rendered down to their rawest state and bound to a physical anchor, their keystone.

They are truly unique. Spiritomb stand as a bridge between ancient mastery of Aura, the entropic nature of Distortional power, and the rigidity of our universe. The scant records I have discovered in the Lakebed Archives and the recollections of Champion Calanthia in the Canalave Library suggest there were various experiments on Spiritomb, as you hypothesized in your letter. Different permutations arose as the Artificer experimented.

Early efforts were less refined. I believe the resultant proto-Spiritomb were destroyed. The Artificer grew more skilled with practice, though, and learned to create specific Spiritomb variants, although the majority of those records were scoured by later custodians. My own Spiritomb was modeled after wrath. Its abilities are primarily offensive in nature, although they have softened over time and compensated for this in other areas. You are likely to see a similar shift in the natural abilities of Spiritomb if your rehabilitation is successful, although it is impossible for me to provide true answers with such limited information.

In the end, my advice is simple, and I believe you may have already begun to touch on this yourself: remember that Spiritomb are living, or at least were. They have met with a terrible fate, but you can only twist so much. My Spiritomb does not remember its previous lives, but they are still buried within it. It is not so different from how our minds will occlude unwanted memories from us, I would imagine. Even buried, we can still feel the effects of trauma despite the source itself being unknown. Repression is a strong force, and one that takes even trained professionals a great deal of work to discover and undo.

So: Be patient. Embrace it. It will lash out. Don't try to bear it alone. There is no shame in it. You are not a professional psychiatrist. Doing so nearly destroyed me. Your team will make it all bearable. Steven will do everything in his power to help you. He is a wonderful friend, and has been a guiding light during my darkest moments. Friends, family, they make this hard journey bearable.

And at the end of the road, Spiritomb will make it bearable as well. It is worth it, Ash, I promise. Your path will be far different than mine, and I am hesitant to offer many specifics. What I did for my friend may only send yours deeper into the abyss. But if you stay true to yourself, protect yourself, and always treat Spiritomb with empathy, I have faith.

I eagerly await further news. I hope that I may prove more helpful as you gather data and come to understand your new partner more thoroughly.

Sincerely,

Cynthia Carolina.

Steven smiled as they finished, although it was brittle. "I'm glad she was able to respond. I know it's not much, but…"

"It's something," Ash said as they traversed the streets of Sudmauna. There were still a few shattered sculptures, torn straw, and various relics from the Origin Festival, but the majority of the mess had been cleaned up by devoted crews of humans and pokemon alike. He'd helped out where he could. "More than I'd hoped."

"I've known Cynthia for a long time now. I have no doubt she's drowning herself in musty old texts trying to discover something relevant. You've provided her with a compelling problem to solve."

Ash snorted. Yes, he could see that all too easily. Maybe his next letter from Cynthia would come in the form of a massive novel on rehabilitating Spiritomb. Who knew what the Learned of Uxie kept locked up in their temples near Lake Acuity?

Something nagged at him. "What did you do to help Cynthia while she rehabilitated her Spiritomb?" Ash asked, then frowned as Glacia's disapproving stare seared into him from hundreds of miles away. "If you don't mind me asking, of course."

"...I suppose she wouldn't mind. Cynthia isn't one to shy away from difficult memories. Very well," Steven said. "I mentioned a few of her difficulties with Spiritomb."

Ash nodded alongside Dazed. It was hard to forget a warning like that. "Emotional difficulties. Post-traumatic stress. Nightmares."

"That doesn't quite encapsulate the reality of her struggles. Training Spiritomb was like sipping poison each day, and then going back for more the next. Cynthia spent some of those early days in Hoenn with Lance and I for a change of scenery. Like clockwork, she'd spend time each day with Spiritomb, just sitting with it and soaking up its hatred. It was vile."

Steven lowered his voice as a few villagers passed. "Lance dragged us everywhere he could when he had a spare few hours from Drake's training. We'd spend a day off at a beach or exploring a museum and Cynthia would be glowing. Ten minutes with that thing would ruin her."

A morbid curiosity dawned on Ash. He already knew the answer well enough. Ash had spent his own fair share of time with a Spiritomb, after all, and had encountered the corrosive spiritual pressure that emanated from Cynthia's companion.

In Johto, it tugged on his worst memories. Years of training hadn't kept it from inflicting its nature upon him.

Now, having experienced another Spiritomb in its full, terrible power…

Poor Cynthia.

"What did it do to her?"

Steven's expression soured even further. "What didn't it do to her? Sometimes she'd come back sporting bruises. Cuts and scrapes would deepen. Sunburns would blister." They passed a shop owner pulling in chairs for the evening, closing her storefront. "Cynthia would pass out half the time and need one of us or one of her teammates to drag her out of there. She couldn't make it through a night without screaming bloody murder… I don't think she slept more than an hour at a time for the weeks she was here… She was killing herself trying to break through to Spiritomb."

His stomach twisted. It wasn't often he saw true anger brimming in Steven, who was normally cool and collected as the rocks he so loved. But this was an old pain, an old anger, and it had been waiting a long time to roar again.

"I'm surprised you didn't stop her."

"Stop Cynthia?" Steven frowned as though Ash had just suggested plucking a star from the sky. "She didn't ask for a savior, she asked for help. We patched her up and gave her a shoulder to cry on when she needed it. It wasn't unlike… well."

He shook his head. "No need to dig up ancient history."

Ash absorbed this all slowly, trying to reconcile the sunny image of the Sinnoh champion in his mind with Steven's reminiscence.

He frowned. "It won't come to that with me."

"You're right. I won't let it," Steven said firmly. There was a ghost hiding behind his eyes though, memory and sorrow and fear. "We're better prepared now. You have no one in the world who could guide you better here than Cynthia. Juliet will be of help as well. It's just…"

"Unknown unknowns. You don't know what it will be like, so you can't comprehensively plan for it. I understand."

Steven sighed tiredly and nodded as they approached Amiri's home. He paused to release Aggron, who noticeably brightened at the sight (and the smell of fresh-baked cookies on the wind). "Just… take care of yourself. Please. Don't set yourself aflame to keep another warm. It… it never works. Not in the long term."

Ash considered what it had cost Steven to stand by and watch a friend destroy herself for another's sake. The advice weighed heavily with hard-won personal experience.

He thought about what Cynthia'd said - that he'd been a guiding light in the dark for her. He thought about what Steven was courting with his open offer to help Ash with his own Spiritomb.

Ash looked at his mentor. "You're a good friend, Steven."

The man blinked. His mouth opened, then closed, and the corners of his mouth lifted in a weak, but touched, smile. "Thank you. I… I try."

Ash nodded and left it at that, content to have lifted the mood, and continued to mull over his future plans as the wooden house grew closer and closer. He brightened at the thought of seeing the elder again. She'd been in a far better mood now that the festival had passed.

Stress could turn the kindest person into a monster, and Amiri had been under quite a bit. Now, she was chipper and warm… well no, she'd always exuded compassion and kindness, but now the dark cloud that had hung over her head in the week before was absent.

Nidoking's ears twitched as they neared the home and he urged them forward with a huff. He didn't quite charge, but he picked up the pace. Ash and Steven shared a confused glance as they began to jog beside Nidoking to keep up.

It wasn't long before they realized the cause of Nidoking's concerns. Raised voices - not shouting, but there was something going on.

"–absolutely not! We know nothing of it. If those rotten men are causing trouble, then they need to be put down. What does it matter who swings the axe? Gather up your Rangers if you must. That's your job, isn't it? If you won't, we will. Now, let me -"

Steven shed all his previous concerns and adopted the ironclad persona of Steven Stone, (former) Champion of Hoenn,his lips thinning and the weight of duty settling upon his shoulders like armor.

Ash dashed after him with Nidoking plodding beside and they burst through the draped cloth that acted as Amiri's door. Aggron was too bulky to fit inside, but Nidoking was able to squeeze in with them. The cramped quarters made him seem even larger than he was, and he glared daggers at the woman speaking with Elder Amiri.

"That's the plan. I don't need your advice, Amiri. Leave it to my Rangers. Like you said, it's our job. What I do need is for you to send for Champion Steven immediately while we organize. Time is of the essence!"

The speaker whipped around with a glare, only to freeze at the sight of them. She had shoulder length black hair tied up in a practical bun, a ropey red scar that ran diagonal from the corner of her jaw to the opposite temple, and a scowl that was quickly masked as she snapped to a salute.

Ash recognized her immediately as one of the local Ranger higher-ups, either the Ranger Captain or one of their trusted lieutenants. She was only a few inches taller than he was, but held herself in a way that demanded respect. He'd seen her cow a few brawling Sudmaunans at the Origin Festival's afterparty with nothing but a glare.

She hadn't even needed the help of her Golem, which currently stood lazily snacking on some of Amiri's cookies with Mawile while their trainers argued. The massive creature offered a lazy wave to Ash and Nidoking, but immediately dipped its head to Steven.

"What's going on here?" Steven demanded. "Captain Parisi, report!"

The captain (at least that question was answered) stiffened. "Champion Steven!" Ash couldn't help but note the use of his old title. Steven didn't correct her. He was pragmatic if nothing else. Relying on his old authority to get things done more efficiently was right up his alley. "I'm informing Elder Amiri about a Rocket incursion in the Pourifalli Atoll. I have been sent to organize our forces to provide support and collect you to assist."

Steven may as well have been carved from stone at the moment. Although Ash could feel the fury that filled him - his vision wavered, he saw from two sets of eyes, and blue hair, a cruel smile, a dozen mad, mangled Metagross stolen by one of their own! - the former Champion betrayed nothing to the others.

But Ash? His blood went cold. His nails bit into his palms. His teeth gnashed. The bitter scent of poison filled the air as Nidoking mirrored Ash's feelings and leaked toxins from his horn and spines.

"I'm here. Collect the Rangers. Do you have transport?"

"Yes sir!" Captain Parisi said. "The outpost's Gardevoir is working out the coordinates now. I've given the order to leave in eight minutes. Alicia will be able to carry you along as well."

Steven shook his head. "Unacceptable. My team and I will travel independently. Juliet!"

The commotion had attracted the attention of an unwelcome visitor. A familiar power reared its head in the back of Ash's skull, a flicker of interest pouring forth. It was always lurking, but it seemed something had happened that was finally worthy of Mewtwo's attention.

He did his best to ignore it as Juliet materialized. Mawile and Amiri flinched at the Gardevoir's sudden appearance, but it was old hat for the rest of them.

"Contact the outpost's teleporter for the necessary information," Steven said as he returned Aggron. "We leave as soon as possible. Captain, give me a rundown."

Parisi wasted no time. "Sir! Allied wild pokemon reported an engagement in the atoll one hour ago. Local Rangers assessed the situation and have organized a staging ground. A call has been sounded throughout the archipelago for League and Pack support."

"And what of the Rocket numbers? Who are they fighting?"

Captain Parisi hesitated. "Reports vary, but it appears to be infighting between the splinter factions. We suspect a priority target to be located on the island. Preliminary recon suggests a fortified center, perhaps a main base or supply station, near the center of the island, with most of the fighting in the forest around it. There appear to be several hundred Rockets in play, not counting pokemon, but it's nearly impossible to determine which members belong to which side."

"Several hundred!" Amiri gasped. She clutched her hands above her chest. Mawile appeared similarly shocked.

Steven offered no reaction, but Ash and Nidoking shared an eager glance. Several hundred Rockets was absolutely insane! The vast majority of all the Rockets in Hoenn must have been involved. No doubt skeleton crews still occupied their scattered fortresses and hideaways, but only fragments had made it to Hoenn in the first place.

His mind raced ahead.

It didn't matter how much recruiting they'd done from Hoenn's supply of lowlifes, no criminal underworld was entrenched enough to replenish the numbers they'd had in Indigo. There couldn't be more than a thousand or so Rockets split between both of the remaining factions.

A lone village may balk at the numbers, but Ash only saw opportunity. The Rattata skulking in the shadows had strayed into the sun, and now it was time for the boot to drop. All sorts of predators would take note of that.

This was that time Ash's blood pumped as he imagined unleashing the might of his team upon them. This is what they trained for. Day in and day out, they fought and trained and perfected their abilities. They would have pushed regardless, but the Rockets were the genesis of their drive.

Too many memories. Rockets trying to steal Nidoran before they were strong enough to fight back at Mount Moon. A gory hole in a grunt's chest, and Nidoking's first kill. A colossal ship drowning thousands. Test tubes, and the threat of what might've happened had Petrel had another minute with Ash and his team alone.

Viridian. The Rocket War. Mewtwo. New Island. Their headquarters was barely a stone's throw from Pallet Town.

They'd trained to fulfill their dreams, but one of those dreams was to put an end to Giovanni's legacy. Kill it and salt the remains.

This was what he'd come to Hoenn for.

"Very well." Steven looked to Ash. "My team and I will head out shortly. You are to remain here and assist any remaining Rangers with securing the town –"

"No."

Steven blinked. "Excuse me?"

"I'm going with you."

"Absolutely not!" Steven growled. His eyebrows narrowed and a flush of pink filled his cheeks. Ash tamped down on his own impatience and met his eyes evenly.

It was odd seeing true anger from Steven. No, more than anger, Ash realized. Fear. "Ash, this is an order: you are to remain here! This is going to be a dangerous operation. I will not risk you coming along. My team and I will be more than sufficient to handle this. They're only Rockets. The League and I will be more than capable of taking care of them."

Cold fury filled his chest - it was hard to tell whether it was his own. Nidoking rumbled beside him, his tail thrashing from side to side. He opened his mouth to retort, to vent some of the force threatening to blow within him.

Aggron poked his head back into the small home, sensing the rising emotion and distress of his trainer.

Amiri and Mawile shared a glance, and Amiri opened her mouth to say something soothing to defuse the tension.

Captain Parisi scowled, words of harsh rebuke for Ash on her tongue, seeing the direction his thoughts had turned to.

Steven's trembled, and Ash felt his anger recede.

"Half the reason I chose to come to Hoenn was to fight the Rockets," he said quietly. Steven flinched, although Amiri and Parisi only looked confused.

"That was before," Steven whispered. All the anger fled his mind. He looked like a beaten Poochyena, as if all the fight had left him.

"Before what?" Ash said. He didn't want to give away too much to the strangers, but he couldn't hold his tongue. "Before they raided the Stone colony? What about the Sevii Islands?"

"This is different."

"Is it?" Ash lowered his voice to a whisper so that Amiri and Parisi could not hear him. "You knew what I would do when I heard that the Rockets were in Hoenn. They were bait, and I took it. You can't take it away now! Give me guard duty, have me scout on Plume – nothing can catch her! – But don't keep me out of it. It's too late for that. You know that."

"I –"

"It's too late, Steven."

Aggron rumbled something. Steven looked as if he wanted to say something, as if he wanted to shout, but then he deflated like a balloon. He tapped one of the storage compartments hidden in his suit and handed Ash a small device. It was small and silver, roughly the shape of an egg.

He recognized it immediately. It was a simple communications device, one with a simple receiver in it.

"See this button?" Steven said tersely. Ash nodded. "Press this if you're in danger. There will be psychics with you in order to help protect you, and they'll be able to contact me if there are any surprises, but this will be our failsafe. Touch this and I will be there immediately."

Relief flooded him. He opened his mouth to thank Steven, but Steven was having nothing of it.

"We will discuss this further once we've arrived at the staging ground. Captain Parisi?"

"Yes sir!"

"Do you know what League forces are already present?"

"I do not have confirmation, but I know that there has been a general call to all Ranger stations in the area. I believe that ACE operatives are on their way in order to manage the situation, and Elite Four Sidney answered the call. Members of the Pack should be incoming as well, but that is all I know."

It was a sign of the severity of the situation that Steven didn't even react to Sidney's name. Despite his unpleasant personality (or perhaps because of it) Ash couldn't think of a better person to throw at the Rockets. He hoped that they suffered.

"We will return for our things later," Steven directed at Amiri. She nodded fervently. "I hope that you will take care of them for us. Stay safe."

"May the winds be with you. We will take care of Sudmauna. You eliminate this threat for good. And please, stay safe! Both of you." Amiri looked worriedly at Ash, as did Mawile, but neither said anything.

"Very well, then we must be off. Juliet?"

"Elder Amiri!" A new figure dashed into the room, slipping past Aggron with admirable dexterity. They were so frenzied that ash could barely keep track of their features. He only spotted a hastily tossed on uniform that consisted of a blue and white striped shirt and a black bandanna as the newcomer shouted. "It's the Rockets! They've made their move – Rawiri is organizing our men. He sounded the Blue Bell, but – oh."

"Oh indeed," Amiri said with a scowl. "Don't you see that we have important guests? Perhaps this news can wait for a moment, yes?"

Steven shook the interruption off, although his eyes gleamed with suspicion and realization. They had more important things to do, however.

"Juliet!"

Space twisted around them as the psychic bench reality.

XX

Ash first noticed the sweltering heat. Sudmauna was uncomfortably warm at the best of times, but this new island was ablaze with both the heat of the sun and the frenzy of military activity. Trainers and Pokémon bustled around, rushing to and fro. Shouts, snarls, and the ring of distant explosions greeted him.

It was nothing unusual for a trainer, but even Ash was struck by the intensity of the battles. They must've been at least a mile away, but between the noise, the rumbles like thunder, and enormous plumes of black smoke in the distance, it felt as if they were only a hair away from true combat.

"Champion Steven!"

Although Ash was still trying to gain his bearings, Steven had no trouble adapting to their new circumstances. He easily caught track of the voice's owner and spun to greet them. "Captain! Report."

She saluted smartly. "ACE Captain Bella, sir. I am the officer in charge of this operation. Our scouts and psychics have confirmed two hundred and ninety-four human combatants and almost fifteen hundred pokemon. We suspect that there are multiple ghost and dark types in play as well, although we have not been able to determine the exact number."

"Understood."

The League agent, a short, cheerful woman with an easy grin despite the severity of the situation, glanced over at the devastation in the distance. She shouted out a few hurried orders to some of the trainers running around then returned her focus to Steven.

"It's a madhouse out there, sir," she said. "Estimates have roughly one third of the Rocket force on the defensive. The rest appear to be from a separate faction. No prisoners are being taken, and collateral damage appears to be a non-concern. We aren't certain what's being held at this location, but whatever it is must be a top priority for Archer's faction to eliminate."

"It's likely Domino's group that are protecting the installation," Steven frowned. "Have either of them shown their faces?"

"No sir, not yet."

The champion and officer continued trading information like this. Ash looked back and forth between them both, intently following along with every word. The captain spared him a glance, but didn't dare say a word while Steven was still considering the scenario. "Has Sidney arrived yet?"

"Yes!" Captain Bella's eyes narrowed as a savage grin ripped across her face. "He took ten of my best men with him. They are ripping through the Rocket lines right now. They've established a landing point and are currently trying to lock down the area. It's hard finding out their exact position due to the forests and high number of combatants, but Elite Four Sidney is making do. He brought along four of his CLAW operatives to support him."

"I'm sure he's enjoying himself," Steven muttered. He released Metagross, whose red eyes immediately took in the situation. The metallic behemoth's body flashed with psychic power and the remaining members of Steven's team immediately materialized. Its eyes continued to glow a fiery blue. Ash had no doubt that it was already giving orders and preparing them to move. There wasn't a moment to be wasted.

Steven paced back-and-forth amidst the chaos. Ash suspected that Metagross was feeding information to him in real time. He murmured to himself a bit, then looked again to Bella and the Exploud that rushed up to her side. Exploud looked at Steven's team with awe. Its ears twitched as if hoping to hear the telepathic communication rushing between their minds.

Ash wished it the best of luck.

"Sidney is making good progress," Steven said finally. "He and his squad have penetrated the rear lines. The assaulting Rockets are torn between the defenders and the League. It appears that most wild Pokémon have already evacuated due to advance notice from the Pack, so we won't have to worry about displacing them."

His frown deepened. "He might be applying too much pressure. We have to ensure that no Rockets escape. I expect the defenders will attempt to slip away the moment they have the opportunity."

Bella nodded. "We have several Rangers preparing to intercept any flyers that attempt to enter or exit the airspace."

"And Sidney's CLAW agents are setting up a Distortion Field," Steven grimaced. It wasn't hard to understand why. On one hand, the field would serve to remove teleportation entirely or to make it significantly more difficult. On the other hand, it would play havoc with psychic communications.

It would be a great boon in disrupting the Rocket communications, but it would also make things much more difficult for trainers who relied on psychics such as Steven. A useful technique, but a double-edged sword.

"Very well. Metagross and Claydol have identified several weak points in the Rocket lines. Myself and two Rangers will exploit those vulnerabilities. We must move swiftly, however. I expect Aqua will be here within the hour. We don't need them getting involved."

The mention of Aqua immediately caught his attention, though it didn't appear surprising for Bella. She just nodded along as if she'd expected it. He supposed it only made sense for them to be active in this area, not to mention it didn't take a genius to pick up on the links between Aqua, Rawiri, and perhaps even Elder Amiri to some extent.

That sent his thoughts into a conflicting spiral, so he did what he did best and suppressed it to deal with later.

The camp was still in the frenzy, but more and more Rangers had been dispatched to the battlefield. Ash could see them materializing on the distant shore with their teams and quickly moving into position. He had no doubt that the Rockets would fall within the hour. The Ever Grande League may be scattered, but they had brought their full force to bear.

Ash wondered if Champion Wallace or any of the other Ever Grande Elite Four would make an appearance. This might be their one chance to crush Team Rocket in one fell swoop. Having Sidney along would make a massive difference, but he prayed that he would get to see the glory of the Ever Grande Elite Four united as one.

The legendary Drake, mighty Glacia and her cold hardened team, Phoebe and her wicked ghosts… It was difficult to imagine a grander sight. But Steven and Sidney would be more than sufficient. Anything else was just Ash's fantasy. A beautiful, violent fantasy.

"Understood! I will continue to organize incoming Rangers," Bella gestured to several of the teleportation staging grounds where more and more humans and Pokémon flooded and together. "Securing the perimeter will be our priority."

Steven took a look at Ash and grimaced. "I hate to do this… But I need to have two of your spare ACE trainers for an important duty."

"Spare ACE trainers?" Captain Bella blinked. Considering the value that a single ACE trainer would add to any battlefield, Ash doubted that sentence had ever been uttered. She quickly regained her composure, however. "I – I will see what I can do."

Claydol levitated a little bit closer and flashed a bright blue. Two trainers suddenly materialized in front of them. The first one was a large, burly man with blond hair cut close to his skull. His massive arms were left bare by his sleeveless blue jacket that had a layer of protective mesh woven into it. He was accompanied by a tiny Leafeon that appeared utterly unshaken by the sudden teleportation. It sat back on its haunches and allowed its tongue to loll out of its mouth as it took in the scene with an easygoing air.

The second was a fierce woman with skin bronzed by the sun and a wild made of black hair tied up into a loose ponytail. Her dangerous features were drawn up into a pitched glare as she assessed them all, but soon smoothed out when she realized who she was reporting to.

Her own companion was an absolutely enormous Dodrio that towered above them all. Two of its heads spun around this way and that to take in the entire spectacle here on the island, acting as sentries for the central head that kept its sharp eyes trained on Steven, Ash, and Captain Bella.

ACE Trainers Rupert and Iliana. They have been assigned to the main force seizing the island. We are requisitioning them for a more important task.

"Champion," Rupert acknowledged Steven's presence with a nod. Iliana shot him a frown, but still showed deference to Steven. "Where would you have us, sir?"

"You will be holding the rear. Metagross has informed me of a small cove hidden near the base supplied with boats. Several pockets of Rockets have begun to fall back toward it. No doubt they intend to escape the Distortion field using the vehicles. You are to seize control of the zone and apprehend any Rockets who attempt to leave the island."

Rupert and Iliana shared a glance. His own eyes glanced down to their waists. Each only had five pokeballs - Ash had no doubt that they were formidable trainers indeed, but at a certain point numbers could be damning… until you hit the next certain point where they ceased to matter once again.

"We appreciate the confidence, sir," Iliana's words were clipped, "But with our recent… our recent losses, we request additional support. Four Rangers should suffice -"

Claydol took over as Steven's eyes shut, no doubt processing more information from Metagross as the mighty psychic scanned the battlefield. He strode over to Captain Bella and whispered urgently as Claydol spoke to both humans and pokemon.

Oh, don't worry about those Rangers. We have something even better. Behold!

Psychic energy formed into a giant blue arrow pointing down at Ash. He met their eyes levelly, though he felt all the more a child beneath their wide eyes and fierce scowls.

"Sir," Rupert scratched his blonde stubble and searched for the words. "With all due respect, this is -"

"Bullshit!" Iliana cut in. "No way are we bringing a kid in there! It's a damn warzone!"

"Not the wording I was going to use, but…"

"I won't get in your way," Ash said. He tapped his fingers against the ten pokeballs on his belt, lingering on Infernus'. This would be a treat. "I'll be your support. Muscle. Having me here frees up those other Rangers."

Iliana scoffed. "I know who you are, kid. I've seen that video from Lavaridge. You can hold your own out there, no arguing that. Your team can, anyways. But I am not bringing you out there. My baby brother's your age! You should be crushing on girls and laughing at dumb jokes, not -"

Claydol's whole body flashed blue. Whatever he shared with Iliana wasn't expressed into Ash's thoughts, but it seemed to do the trick. She shivered, looked at Ash with something strange in her eyes, and said no more.

It didn't seem to reassure Rupert, but was quicker to fall in line than Iliana. He simply offered Ash a short nod that he returned.

Prepare yourselves. I've sent the command. The Distortion field will adapt to offer you a brief window of teleportation.

"Understood," Iliana said shortly and stalked off a short ways away with her ponytail swaying in the island breeze. Dodrio strode off after her, although one of its heads eyed them warily. This wasn't a great foundation for Ash to work with during the battle, but he'd take what he could get. At least Rupert seemed agreeable, and it wasn't like he didn't understand her trepidation.

Claydol revolved slowly in midair and its psychic power brushed Ash's thoughts.

Steven has strict parameters in place for you to follow. You are to follow Iliana and Rupert's orders and avoid direct combat whenever possible. You are not to pursue targets. Your purpose is to stay back, allow your team to hold the position, and to keep Dazed with you at all times for protection. Unnecessary aggression or taking risks will result in a suspension or dismissal from your apprenticeship and a disciplinary report filed with the Indigo Elite Four.

His blood chilled at that - a swift, immediate, and bitter consequence to ensure his compliance, he bet it had been Metagross' idea - but quickly regained himself. There was nothing to worry about. Ash would prove that he could follow orders. Being here was a privilege, one that Steven was loath to have offered in the first place. He couldn't waste this opportunity.

Claydol's voice lightened.

That was Steven. Here's me! Ignore everything your warped instincts tell you and don't die. We've put a lot of work into you. Don't waste it. Starting over would be awfully inconvenient.

Ash snorted, nodded, and readied himself.

Have fun!

The world spun and Ash found himself righted quickly by soft white sand beneath his feet. Both ACE trainers materialized a short distance away with their partners already prepared. They immediately released their teams to prepare for the battles to come.

He did the same, though he had a much longer process.

Alongside Rupert and his tiny, cheerful Leafeon stood a delicate Delcatty that eyed Ash with open disdain, a buzzing Illumise that swiftly fluttered its wings to ascend to a high palm tree to scout out the area, a jittery Minun and Plusle pair, and a surprisingly muscular Wigglytuff that waved happily at them all.

He returned the wave only for Iliana to interrupt. "Get over here, Ketchum! I have orders -"

Dazed's eyes flashed blue.

Elite Four Ash, or Trainee Ash. Not Ketchum.

Iliana's eyes hardened but she didn't disagree. He didn't want to push her any further, though he sent a surge of gratitude to Dazed for making the point known.

She does not respect your age, but she will respect you. We demand it. She should offer gratitude. King would not be content with words.

A brief look at Nidoking's slit eyes and swaying purple tail confirmed it.

"ACE trainer," Ash filled his words with respect to soften whatever edges Iliana still had. She looked as if she'd rather be anywhere else, especially as a series of violent explosions rang throughout the island and the thick plumes of smoke billowing up from the forest ahead of them grewer denser and darker. "What can I do?"

She rattled off a few hurried commands to her Victreebell, Dodrio, Slowbro, Starmie, and Manectric. All except for Manectric quickly hurried to positions on the left side of the beach. It stretched on for a quarter mile and bled into the overgrown forest ahead of them. To their right the beach was cut off suddenly by a vast, sheer cliff that towered above the bay and helped to conceal it from the air.

Their surroundings were beautiful, a classic example of Hoenn's tropical biome, and Ash thought it would be a lovely place to visit under most circumstances.

"Rupert is going to take the right flank over there," Iliana pointed to a small outcropping at the base of the cliff. It offered a good angle on any Rockets that might emerge from the thickets. They'd have no clue what hit them as Rupert's powerful team rained down a storm of attacks.

"My team will pressure them from the beach and attract attention while Rupert does the bulk. I'm taking Manectric to comb over the ships for any contraband while we wait. Don't let them be destroyed, you hear me?"

"Understood," Ash glanced at the docks behind them. They were small but expertly constructed to withstand any wild pokemon that grew frustrated with them. Metal would only last beneath one or two attacks, but it was better than the alternative. Three tactical ships were docked, although they were thankfully unmanned.

Each must have been able to hold perhaps ten people. When you took storage technology and pokeballs into account, just one of these ships could act as a formidable force against most villages. If they were properly outfitted, they could steal about half a village's contents as well. It might even be fitted with a pokeball transfer suite to send their spoils to a secure location immediately.

They were also outfitted with a small complement of weaponry. All three had a sonic cannon installed on the bow along with a turret that could be fitted with pyro, cryo, or electro shells. It wouldn't do much more than scratch a powerful pokemon, but it made the ship a far more difficult target for an opportunistic Gyarados or other pokemon.

All in all, Ash wasn't impressed. One good Hyper Beam from a pokemon of average strength would tear their hulls apart like wet cardboard. That was the problem with technology like this - offensively it was fine, but relatively inflexible. Defensively? There weren't many materials that could stand up to a determined pokemon. Give a young Rattata five minutes with this thing and you'd have a ruined boat.

These belonged to Team Rocket, so he was tempted to just have Torrent drag them off into the sea. The League might be able to use them, however, and he doubted Iliana would look kindly on his proactiveness.

"So what about us?"

Iliana cast a glance towards the forest. The sounds of battle were growing nearer. He expected some of the cornered Rockets to be pushed onto the beach within ten to fifteen minutes. There was just no way for them to hold off against a coordinated League assault.

She bit her lip, looking utterly displeased to have to figure out what to do with him. Ash tried to be patient, he really did, but his heart was already pounding in anticipation of the battle to come. His team wasn't the same that the Rockets had faced in the past.

He looked forward to breaking them.

"You're going to stay out of trouble. Where can you add value?"

Ash couldn't convince Iliana to keep him on the beach. Even a fortification constructed by Tangrowth's Ancient Power would likely just become a target for the desperate Rockets, and Ash wasn't so arrogant to assume a lucky shot couldn't ruin everything.

No, the cliffs would be best, and he told Iliana so. "I'll have Tangrowth wall it off. The Rockets," Ash couldn't help but sneer at the name, "are cowards. They'll have tunnel vision where all that matters is escape. They won't try to push past any obstacles. Actually…"

Iliana was ahead of him. "Have him construct funnels in the forest if we have the time. Nothing obvious, just barriers to keep the Rockets bunched together. We don't need them spreading out and taking advantage of their numbers."

In terms of firepower the Rockets were utterly outclassed, but that didn't mean they couldn't be dangerous, especially to humans. One attack slipping past would be all it took to seriously injure one of them. The world would be a much, much different place if humans were just as tough and durable as their pokemon partners.

"Torrent, you should stay out in the bay. They'll have no chance of getting out of here with you on guard, and this way you can provide support from the water. What do you think?" Ash glanced over to the Kingdra, who loomed over them with his head held high. Torrent considered the proposition for a moment and then dipped his head in acknowledgement. He hovered out to the sea and soon disappeared into the picturesque waves.

It really was lovely out here. What a shame that it was about to turn into a battlefield - that had its own sort of wild beauty, but it was better suited for a safe stadium. He took a glance at the whispy woods and wind-sculpted dunes and hoped they'd survive the battle to come.

"We need your Pidgeot as an aerial scout. My Mia can -" Iliana's hard features twisted into something unpleasant as one of her hands clutched at one of the empty sockets on her pokeball belt, shook her head, and moved on like nothing happened. "Just have her feed information to your Hypno and pick off any fliers. Push them towards the beach if they begin to scatter."

That was about what he'd had planned, but he nodded along. Ash had been in enough of these situations that he knew where his family would work best, but it seemed to offer Iliana some security to call the shots.

"Nidoking will stay with me on the cliffs." Ash said without hesitation. Nidoking offered a nod of approval, though his ears twitched as the clash of battle came nearer and nearer. "Dazed, same with you. You'll keep us all organized."

"Make sure you stay in contact with Starmie," Iliana directed Dazed, who simply nodded. Neither seemed interested in speaking with the other more than necessary.

"Oz, Lairon, and Sneasel will be with me as well. Bruiser, Sneasel, and Lairon, I'll send you guys down as needed to patch up any holes. Oz, you'll just hit them from above and keep them disorganized. Thunderbolt should do the trick - don't use Lightning Bolt unless there's a hardened target. We want to conserve your stamina."

Her black and gold tails swished behind her, spraying out sparks as her thick arms flexed in anticipation. Oz might not have been around for most of their confrontations with Team Rocket back in Kanto, but she'd heard enough. The Stone colony raid hadn't left a good impression on her either, and no doubt she was looking forward to extracting a little bit of justice.

Ash looked from Iliana's scattered team to Rupert's clustered bunch. They moved completely in sync, trained to perfection to complement one another, but Ash thought that the beach looked awfully empty with just the eight of them. They would exploit the terrain and their enemy's weaknesses to their utmost, but he knew just the person to help take up some space.

A dangerous smile split his face as he tapped Infernus' pokeball. "What do you think about a little extra firepower?"

XX

Preparations fell into place quickly. They knew what needed to be done and there was little time to waste. Soon Ash and those of his team staying with him were all lined up high on the cliffs, ready to strike as soon as their enemies found themselves pushed to the beach.

Tangrowth and Nidoking had used their power to control the terrain to construct a few small trenches and traps to stymie and confuse the Rockets, as well as a few inconspicuous barriers in the forests that would keep any of them from slipping away in other directions.

This was their chance to ruin the Rockets. There could be no mistakes.

"You guys ready?" Ash crouched at the cliffside, eyes raptly trained on the green canopy below him. He could see little dots in the distance. Flashes of light, screams, the clash and clang of battle - it was incredible. It would have been nicer to see it from Plume's back, but he would slow her down too much.

Nidoking just grunted. The others seemed excited, but had little input to give. Lairon's baby blue eyes were trained steadfastly at the battle below - he'd been protected and hidden away during the raid on the Stone colony.

Not anymore. Ash wouldn't throw him into the fire, but Lairon was strong. He could take care of himself, especially against the Rockets. It wasn't as if he'd ever be alone.

He tried for a moment to find Starmie and Torrent in the crystalline waters lapping against the beach, but that was an exercise in futility. Both were far too careful and used their camouflage well. Any Rockets that miraculously slipped by their walls would soon find a nasty surprise waiting for them in the waves.

Infernus was content to lurk down in a pool of lava sequestered away from the rest of them. His head poked out like a Feraligatr in a swamp as he eyed them, eagerly waiting for the chance to go down and rampage in his own private festival of war.

For his part, Ash was just as excited. The minutes crawled by at an agonizingly slow pace, the tension building higher and higher until he thought he'd explode. It was so, so close! Iliana and Rupert had assured him that they'd signal when they needed his support, so to burn time he fiddled with the small radio that Iliana had loaned him.

"C'mon, where is it - there!"

His team all crowded around, though he had to dissuade Lairon from nibbling on the radio's metallic chassis with a firm "No!" before he could take a chunk out of it. They all listened to constant streams of communication going on between the League forces. Some of it was so obscured in code and jargon that it was practically meaningless, while others were actually informative.

Every now and then decorum slipped amidst the chaos of battle, which was either amusing or horrifying. Ash learned several interesting new words he couldn't wait to ask Steven about later. He might have to record it for Lance… and maybe Phoebe.

He listened for a long while as intermittent communications and updates on the battle's progress came through. Some of it he had no reference for, but it at least allowed him to put together a picture of the overall scene.

"This is Ranger Anaru. We need reinforcements in Sector 2. Sidney is advancing too quickly! We can't keep up and our flanks are exposed - Kenoi, watch out!"

"Woah, where did that Pidgeot come from? It just annihilated that whole squad! Was that a Hurricane? I've never seen anything like it. Secure, secure! Lock down their pokeballs! Hurry!"

"Ah! They're coming from the left, the left"

"We've encircled the island's perimeter and have corralled them into the central areas. Objective secured. Secure vulnerable points and key positions. Let both Rocket factions continue their infighting - Champion Steven's orders."

"Unknown contact, unknown contact engaging Rockets in sector 3. Advise?"

"Aqua ships are on the horizon. Fang Matt has made contact. Let's get this wrapped up."

"Shit, there's Domino! Engage. All units in Sector 6, converge on our position. Wait! There's the kid with her, watch out, that Gallade"

"ACE Trainer Pio reporting. We have confirmed that Executive Proton is leading the Archer Rockets in their assault. This appears to be a Domino installation, perhaps a major supply station or headquarters. Our new primary objectives are to secure the depot and capture enemy leadership."

"This is Sidney. We've entered the base and captured the surface entrances. No, no please hold your applause. I'll wait. Still looking for Domino and the kid, but I don't think they're here. Too bad. I'd love to - oh?" Static. "Ooh, that's a lot of Gastly. Haunter too? Just for me!? You shouldn't have! Absol, Cacturne, eat up!"

"Fall back! Hold your positions, psychic barriers down, physical up! Don't let the ghosts through!"

"Rockets are regrouping! Looks like they've realized we were letting them wear each other down and have banded together - Holy shit, where did those Gastly come from? There's hundreds!"

"Hold the line! We've got them. Keep the pressure on, let them fall back"

"Shit, it's Proton! Keep him pinned!"

"Who is that? The whole Rocket line just collapsed! Psychics, anything? Sector 9, keep an eye out for the unknown. Press forward! Take down that Aggron!"

"Perimeter teams, you have Rockets incoming."

Ash shook himself out of the chaos he'd become immersed in. It sounded like the battle was still under control, but the Rockets had done something to throw everything into a big mess. Ghosts could be dangerous on their own, let alone in huge numbers. Was that their failsafe against invasion?

The Unovans had been known to open vaults of starved ghosts when they had to abandon a position to sow discord and sap at their enemy. Every minute the League spent forcing those poor, frenzied creatures out and capturing them was a minute the Unovans had bought for their retreat. Perhaps the Rockets had adapted that strategy - could they have even discovered an old unopened vault from the Last War?

It was impossible to say, but he wouldn't put it past them. There were all sorts of Unovan outposts hidden out here from their campaign. He'd heard stories from the people of Sudmauna about discovering little stations or artifacts from the war in obscure locations of the archipelago. That included weaponry as well, which usually meant the League had to come out and lock it down.

Then again, knowing how far Aqua's influence reached, he wouldn't be surprised if they were called instead to come acquire some fancy new equipment.

His radio crackled.

"Trainee Ash," Rupert's voice crackled over the radio. "They're here. Get ready."

Ash and his team watched as the trees swayed. Infernus began to rise from his pool, the molten stone sloughing off him like clumps of skin, but didn't yet teleport down. No need to reveal their trump card.

His heart skipped a beat when the first black-uniformed figure stumbled out of the trees. It was a woman, though it was too far away for Ash to pick out any details other than the hated 'R' on her chest, and she soon broke into a full sprint as she caught sight of the boats.

Rupert didn't strike. Not yet. They couldn't give away the element of surprise. Iliana would signal them if they were necessary, although Ash had already made up his mind to take action regardless if it appeared necessary. He'd stay safe, but the mission's success came above any distractions on Iliana or Rupert's parts.

Dazed's eyes flashed as she broadcasted a telepathic message to them all, no doubt in the midst of a network established by Starmie or Slowbro.

Hold. More are coming.

Her words soon proved prophetic. The one Rocket soon turned to many, although whatever forces pursued them would soon arrive as well. In less than a minute the beach was covered with around fifteen Rockets and eight pokemon. All bore signs of injury, although most of the Rocket pokemon appeared spitting mad and eager for a fight.

They were probably drugged out of their minds. Drugged or broken. That was the Rocket way. His stomach turned in disgust as the exhausted Rockets abandoned the more severely injured, not even bothering to return them to their pokeballs. Apparently they thought their critically wounded slaves would prove more valuable as distractions here while they made their escape.

Disgusting. He longed to send Infernus into their midst and watch them burn, but he couldn't. Not yet.

It hurt, though. Those poor, broken creatures below might have been Infernus if he'd never been rescued from that lab below the Game Corner. Nidoking - well, Nidoran - and Plume as well. Jonathan and Amelia's pokemon. Almost all of his team if he'd failed at certain points of his journey, if they'd been just a fraction weaker or a bit less lucky.

He turned his mind from those dark thoughts. They were possibilities pruned away with long months of training and dedication. None of them would ever befall that fate.

A few Koffing were left on the beach along with a Grimer that had fallen unconscious into a puddle of noxious ooze. It would be useless in battle, half-dead as it was, but might pose an environmental hazard. He expected the Koffing would be left with the order to Explode when any pursuers appeared.

Most of the Rockets were already on the boats, although they'd find escape impossible now that Iliana had sabotaged them. The Victreebell was still hanging around there somewhere. It would knock them out with a spray of Stun Spore whenever the time was right.

He soon realized what Iliana was waiting for. Raucous roars and a barrage of attacks breached the wilderness - sprays of Swift stars that struck the Koffing and elicited enormous detonations, Poison Stings that littered the sand, even the occasional Flamethrower that roared from the mouth of a Houndoom.

The newcomers had arrived. They were in similar garb to the original Rockets, but the 'R' emblazoned on their chests was cyan instead of red. One of the trainers in the front, a hard-set man with a cruel face, wore an additional cyan band around his bicep. He was the one with a Houndoom, which appeared by and large the greatest threat amongst the squad of nine Rockets that had broken the first group.

"On the boats, just like we thought! Cowards."

"Sir!" One of the other Rockets, a woman with mossy green hair, shouted. Crashes echoed from behind them. "The League must be right behind us! Remember what the Executive said."

"Band together with this scum?" The leader sneered at the panicking Rockets aboard the boats. "I doubt that would do much for our prospects." He tossed a considering look behind him as his Houndoom whined. "Ugh, I guess we could use a few extra bodies. They'll make for decent meat shields if nothing else. Colleen, make the offer. We don't have much time before the Rangers arrive. The rest of you, keep an eye out for any traps! Those trenches and pitfalls didn't come from nowhere."

She stepped forward, opened her mouth to shout, and Ash frowned. That wouldn't do at all. It was a decent strategy on the Rockets' part - they could fight together now and kill each other later once the superior enemy was forced off - but that would make their lives marginally harder.

Iliana and Rupert must have agreed. Just as the negotiations between the two Rocket factions began, the ACE trainers made their move. A brilliant sphere of electricity materialized above the beach, crackling with enormous power, and the Rockets only had a brief moment to stare and realize the danger before it erupted with a thunderous boom!

Dozens of small, leading bolts burst from the main mass in an instant, the sphere decompressing into a wild spray of dancing arcs. They found whatever target they could with uncanny precision, no doubt guided by any members of the ACE teams with any sort of electrokinesis or psychic abilities, although some scattered uselessly against the sand.

The lightshow was probably visible for hundreds of feet around the beach, but what did it matter? It was almost indistinguishable from the other sounds of battle (and much less concerning than anywhere Steven or Sidney were involved) and the teams pursuing the Rockets would ensure the beach seemed like the safest place to flee no matter what.

"Ball Lightning a success. Initiate cleanup."

He was impressed with the speed and power of that attack. It was a joint effort between Manetric, Plusle, Minun to generate the raw power from what he understood, assisted by Wigglytuff and other teammates that could provide some electric power, although Plusle and Minun took over the majority of the control and direction.

Starmie and Slowbro helped tip the scales on that front as well.

All in all, the Ball Lightning would give Oz a run for her money. Her Lightning Bolts probably had a similar amount of raw power, but they required additional seconds to charge and struggled to affect more than a single target. She would have had a hard time covering such a scattered group like they did.

No wonder the ACE trainers were considered so effective. They were generally recruited from successful Conference contenders - not actual Conference Champions, but anyone who made a good showing in the first rounds was viable. Ash knew the League especially favored trainers who repeatedly made it to the Top 64 or Top 32 for the role.

While they didn't train as intensely for individual strength like the Elite Four did, they specialized in that collaborative nature.

"I think we've got the Gastly and Haunter contained within the Rocket zone. We'll keep confining them in there to help whittle down the Rockets. There are still substantial pockets within the main facility which are being held back by Elite Four Sidney. The unknown left several packs unconscious, though otherwise unharmed. Continue to scan for a cloaked presence."

Ash ignored the buzz of the radio as best he could, simply surprised at the efficiency with which the Rockets were dispatched. Even the main leader of the cyan faction and his large Houndoom were put down with a simple Signal Beam by Rupert's Illumise once it became clear that they'd survived the initial thunderclap.

Illumise seemed to enjoy mopping up the remainders. All it took was one swipe over the stunned Rockets to knock them out - some of the pokemon were still conscious, but it looked like Starmie and Slowbro had things well in order. All Ash could see were little tiny dots of psychic energy that activated over the Rocket pokeballs to activate them and suck in the pokemon for stasis.

He glanced at the ships and saw swirls of golden powder overflowing from each of the decks and a bunch of black-uniformed bodies slumped over. Well, at least Victreebell had that group well in hand. It was going to be a pain to get those Rockets over to the body pit - which sounded more morbid than it really was, it was just a deep pit dug by Tangrowth to toss unconscious and captured Rockets into so they couldn't escape.

"Fang Matt's fleet is in sight. Accelerate operations. We expect him to lead Aqua here within the hour."

Fang Matt? Aqua had some strange choices in titles, but he supposed that wasn't his concern.

No, his concern was with sending Bruiser down as soon as possible to help move the bodies. He nodded to his friend, who easily clambered down the cliffside with surprising grace. Bruiser seemed quite at home scaling up and down the steep rock walls. In no time at all he'd made a sizable dent as he helped drag off pokemon (gently) and Rockets (not-so-gently).

Some of the ACE teams assisted to make it a feasible endeavor, and Tangrowth whipped down a few vines from up high to speed up the effort, although they weren't long enough to reach the faraway bodies. He was able to fling a few of them heavily into the sand, though, which earned him an affectionate thumbs up from Ash.

If it was up to him, he'd leave the Rockets on the beach. They were always content to take and take and take, and bore no reservations about toying with the lives of others. Save the pokemon, leave the humans to learn how it felt to be at the mercy of something more dangerous than yourself. Wasn't that justice?

Ash thought so. Too bad these awful things might have useful information.

The radio crackled again just as Bruiser hauled the last four (easily stacked over one shoulder) and gently lowered them into the hidden pit.

"Perimeter teams, look alive. We've got more coming your way!"

His eyes narrowed as trees just beyond the beach's edge began to shake. More shouts and more crashes rang out as more Rockets arrived in a panicked frenzy as the League poked and prodded them into the trap. The boats proved an irresistible bait - the Rockets visibly cheered as they staggered through the underbrush, shell-shock and other wounds tossed aside as they saw a chance to escape the living nightmare this battle had turned into.

Ash sighed, took a seat, and watched as the trap was reset.

This was too easy.

XX

Three waves had come and gone. Tangrowth and Nidoking had actually had to draw up a new pit with a quick working of Earth Power and Ancient Power. They weren't pretty, little more than a wide chasm in the earth that would be impossible for any human to crawl out of without pokemon assistance or specialized equipment, but it got the job done.

Their trap was working a little too well.

Ball Lightning remained the snare of choice, although it had its issues. Several Rocket teams were equipped with Graveler, Rhyhorn (one that bore the insignia of the Viridian Gym on its hide, which set Ash's teeth gnashing), and a trumpeting Donphan that proved resistant to it.

The ACE teams didn't let that slow them down more than a second or two, of course, but it still showed the difficulties that came with relying on one type of technique.

To be honest, Ash was bored. They hadn't even needed his assistance beyond taking care of the unconscious bodies. He didn't think that Bruiser had even broken a sweat. Tangrowth had gotten bored of helping and opted to soak up a bit of sun instead, although Ash knew he'd snap to action in a heartbeat if he thought he was needed.

Competent allies made things boring. Rupert and Iliana might as well have been mowing their lawns for all the concern they showed. Perhaps the Rockets might have whittled them down in open battle, circling around and taking advantage of superior numbers to bring down their masterful opponents.

But the Rockets were fleeing from a battlefield that they had no hope to survive. All they wanted was out. They'd been beaten down by the opposing Rocket factions, the League forces, and the ghostly hordes released from the supply depot, and at this point a stiff breeze probably would have left them flat on the ground.

Perhaps Plume could help him test that hypothesis sometime today.

He still made a point to diligently observe, but this was proving far less exciting than he'd expected. The radio reports gave him something to focus on, as the battle had more or less stalled while Steven and Sidney coordinated the League to entrap the remaining pockets of Rockets and ghosts so as to secure them before Aqua could arrive to offer their 'support'.

No one wanted to give Aqua more political capital to rally around. He could only imagine Rawiri cackling like a loon as he told the tale of the brave, gallant Aqua forces sweeping in to save the pitiful League Rangers and their soft silver Champion Steven from the scary ghosts and wretched Team Rocket.

Yeah, screw that.

Iliana's voice buzzed over the radio. Her words were clipped and taut as a wire.

"Trainee Ash, prepare your team. Priority targets inbound. Two BB threat-levels are dueling - Gym Leader-level. We can take care of the lightweights while you focus on them. Keep your eyes open. There's something off about this. Over."

A thrill of excitement burst through him like an electric current, though he kept tight rein over the Concepts so that wouldn't become literal. He sent back his acknowledgement and turned to his team. Not too many Rockets could even pray to become as powerful as a Gym Leader. That meant they were somewhere around Pierce's own strength.

They were important. And if they were important, that meant they'd done awful things.

"Infernus?" Ash said. His friend grinned madly from within the lava bath and rose to his full height. Glowing stone dropped from him sluggishly, his body clad in an armor of molten rock. "Don't worry about being gentle. We begin on my order. Everyone else, you know the drill."

Their eyes all gleamed. Lairon in particular appeared eager for his first real fight, although Ash knew him well enough to pick up on the slight trepidation that still plagued him.

He crossed over to sit next to him. Ash still had a good view - wow, there really were a lot of Rockets headed this way - of the battlefield, but he wouldn't leave Lairon to wallow in his anxiety.

"Got a lot on your mind?"

Lairon sat on his haunches just as he would have as a tiny Aron, although it looked a little uncomfortable thanks to his greater length. His broad tongue hung from his metallic mouth as he panted in anticipation. Bright blue eyes assessed Ash, beautiful as the open sky above them. Nidoking hovered nearby, torn between listening in and preparing himself for the battle ahead.

Eventually Lairon nodded. It stung that it took nearly a minute for him to open up, but Ash supposed that was all part of him maturing. At least he wasn't busy tormenting them all with pranks like when Sneasel had begun to go through puberty.

Small mercies.

Ash laid a hand on Lairon's silver skull, marveling at how cool it was to the touch despite the heavy Hoenn heat that they'd come to know so well. His fingers tensed as the first Rockets breached the line, tripping over one of the hidden trenches that welcomed them to the beach, but relaxed as Lairon's eyes closed blissfully and he leaned into the touch.

"We'll be okay," Ash said with the utmost confidence. He pointed to the Rockets, who appeared to be the standard bunch rather than the cyan-banded faction. They'd already marshaled their pokemon and prepared a defensive fortification thanks to the three Sandslash in their line. These were better trained than most.

"See them?"

Lairon's eyes snapped open. A grumble like the clanging of a hammer and anvil rose from deep within his chest. The enormous steel-type levitated just an inch off the sand, pawing furiously at the air as if to charge, but Ash calmed him with a light tap.

"No need for that. You'll get your shot, don't worry. Just watch."

The Rockets numbered perhaps twenty. They had the look of hardened veterans, as did their teams. Ash couldn't help but notice the small things - a light tap from a female trainer to her Seviper as she gave it orders, the familiar ease with which several of the Rockets assisted their pokemon with digging a trench and organizing a line of defense.

These were real trainers. His eyes locked onto a Rhydon with the Viridian symbol carved into its armored plates just as the Rhyhorn from before as it used its abilities to pack sand into thick walls. A Nidorina clambered at its side alongside a tall man who seemed to speak pleasantly to them despite the harsh circumstances.

His eyes locked on the man and he could only blink as he saw the Earth Badge, a green sakaki plant, tattooed onto his right cheek with startling clarity. Ash soon picked out more and more Viridian references amongst these Rockets, although not all bore the sigil.

But almost all of them had real bonds with their teams that couldn't be faked. These weren't slaves, these were partners! There were a few regular Rockets with the normal master-slave relationship scattered in there, but they looked ill at ease amongst these elites.

"Dazed…"

On it, Friend-Trainer.

Iliana and Rupert had made no move to attack these Rockets. Part of it no doubt had to do with the abundance of ground-types working with the Rockets - Ball Lightning would hurt the humans, but would only wash over the majority of the real fighters - but he wanted to confirm before he engaged.

The radio came to life.

"Hold on, Trainee Ash. We need to let this play out. Those belong to Domino, her Earthen Fist, gathered up from some of that garbage Viridian Gym Leader's traitorous crew. If they're here, then -"

"She can't be far behind."

Ash had no doubt they could defeat this 'Earthen Fist'. They were likely Viridian Gym Trainers who'd chosen their loyalty to Giovanni over their commitment to the League and its justice. Pathetic!

It was just a matter of whether they could beat them down before the next wave of Rockets arrived and joined in the fray.

His tongue itched with the command to unleash Infernus upon the rotten traitors. Let's see if their devotion to that evil man would keep them from screaming as they were engulfed in flame and smoke! Ash's fists clenched - Lairon whined, and he soon regained control of himself.

Nidoking licked his cheek. It tingled thanks to the minute concentration of toxins in his first friend's saliva, but Ash felt his anger cool to a simmer. The heat faded, condensed to a much more practical cold steel's edge ready to plunge in at the correct moment.

Ash exhaled. "Thanks," he said quietly as he spied on the Rockets. His whole team was waiting now. Furious sounds of battle and brilliant flashes of light came closer and closer, and it was clear that it was what the Earthen Fist had been waiting for. They tensed and that tall man from before began to bark out orders.

The Earthen Fist had arranged themselves efficiently. Ash didn't mind acknowledging that. Their teams had set up a low wall that was an even four feet high in most places, but was packed nearly six feet thick. They had space to fire off attacks into the woods, but also cover to duck behind.

Sand and soil wouldn't stand up to truly powerful attacks, but it would blunt the casual collateral damage that came with so many pokemon fighting and provide an obstacle to anything that tried to rush them. It would be easy to repair as well - Ash spotted two Sandshrew and a Vibrava rotating around and making quick adjustments to the barrier. No doubt they'd fill in whatever gaps appeared during the battle.

"Those are the best that the Rockets have to offer," Ash sneered down at the line. He nudged Lairon with his elbow, although he did it a tad too hard and rubbed at it. "See that? How'd you take them on?"

Lairon cocked his head as the rest of the team listened in. His bright eyes took on a darker cast as they narrowed. Ash could see the gears turning in his head - Lairon wasn't normally one to plan, but this would be essential for his future growth. He had to take control of the battlefield for himself rather than wait for Ash's orders.

Eventually he had his solution. He mimed pawing at the cliff, though had to catch himself with Magnet Rise to avoid tumbling over and falling the fifty feet down to the sand, then stirred the rocky sides with Rock Tomb before he made a false charge.

Rock Slide onto them to scatter. Use Rock Tomb to take control of the terrain, then charge into their midst. Not bad. Simplistic, but it was hard to be complex with the tools that Lairon currently had. He'd been limited by evolution before, but now that he had a bit more power and size to work with Ash could expand his repertoire while they continued to hone his magnetism.

"That works. You know what? Do that when you drop. I trust you, you know? You can take them."

Well, at least with Sneasel and Bruiser's support. Ash thought Lairon was more than a match for any one or two of the Rocket pokemon, despite their superior ability compared to the rest of their ilk, but numbers would wear him down. Even Nidoking would probably struggle against all of them.

He snorted as Lairon warbled happily, overcome with glee, and made to fly off the cliffs into the enemy. Dazed snatched him up with a psychic grip, thankfully, and forcefully cooled Lairon's enthusiasm with her abilities until he had settled down.

"Soon," Ash said. "We'll be attacking -"

They're here.

Ash straightened immediately alongside his team. The battle had arrived - two humans surrounded by a well-trained cadre of pokemon and several other standard Rockets were in the midst of a fight and were being steadily pushed back by a crack team of blue-banded Rockets - and the Earthen Fist roared.

Stone Edges, Sand Tombs, Mud Slaps and Bombs, even a Bonemerang - all were hurled from behind the wall in a storm of projectiles. They all focused in on the blue-banded Rockets, though most of them failed to connect as they were absorbed by the thick brush and occasional tree trunk, and offered the newcomers the opportunity to dash through a small gap in the wall opened by a Sandshrew.

"Sir! Ma'am! Extraction is on its way. We just have to hold out -"

The tall Earthen Fist Rocket ducked beneath a dozen venomous needles, then rose to finish his instructions, although Ash couldn't make this out.

'Ma'am' was clearly Domino. He would recognize that blonde hair anywhere. She was drenched in sweat and mud, littered with dozens of scrapes, light burns, and a few white bandages that must have covered more severe wounds. Ash could barely make out her features thanks to the soot and dust that darkened her face, but he could feel enough to know that she was coiled tight like a spring ready to explode.

Despite her rough appearance, he thought she might actually be enjoying this. She wore the same white skirt and boots as in her dossier picture - though there weren't many available given how slippery the elite Rocket operative was - but her blonde hair hung short to her shoulders rather than the distinctive curls he'd seen before.

Ash did have to admit that she had a pretty nice hat, although it was nearly in tatters. Such a rotten person didn't deserve it.

Her brilliantly white teeth were bared in a vicious snarl Ash found vaguely familiar. Domino clung to her weapon, an electrified black tulip currently elongated into a bizarre staff, as her sharp eyes took in the situation.

Unfortunately, the Black Tulip couldn't keep his attention for long. She didn't even have any pokemon with her!

No, Ash locked onto the 'Sir' and sucked in a breath.

Who let a kid onto the battlefield?

His team normally would have suggested a veteran trainer of many years, someone like Corey or Fergus… or one of the Pallet Four. They kept their distance from Rocket and pokemon alike, even their own trainer, but appeared well-trained as an organized unit. The kid's team fired back at the aggressors, though the blue-banded Rockets seemed to have the situation well in hand as their leader pressed forward.

It was hard to determine exact details from this distance, but Ash had a lot of practice.

The boy - he could be nothing else - stood in the middle, shifting uneasily as Domino snapped orders to the Earthen Fist. A white bandage was wrapped around his face and was dotted with red that had seeped through the gauze, though otherwise he seemed largely unharmed.

Deep red hair a shade darker than blood. Pale skin seared by the unrelenting Hoenn sun. A red 'R' on his black uniform.

Rocket!

What the hell was wrong with this kid? Ash wasn't the best at figuring out humans, but he could tell this red boy couldn't be much older than him! It was hard to tell with his uniform, true, but Ash was willing to put money on it. Let the League bet on that!

Worst of all, he was actually strong. He commanded a team of six, and they were nothing to scoff at. This must be one of the Gym Leader-level threats that Iliana had warned him about, though Ash had to admit he'd expected someone a little… older.

Oh, Friend-Trainer? Really? How familiar.

Yes, he knew he was a massive hypocrite at the moment. They could deal with that later.

One of the new Rockets, a grinning man with a swoop of cyan hair hidden beneath his black hat, soon took prominence. He lunged from the back lines, surrounded by a vanguard of powerful Rockets and their teams, and his eyes lit up like a starving Houndoom at the sight of easy prey when he caught a glimpse of Domino and the boy.

"Yes, there they are! No more running. Rip them limb from limb! Boss Archer demands it."

Dozens of pokemon, all well-trained enough to tangle with Rangers on even footing, rushed forward. It was dizzying and impossible to keep track of - Ash caught sight of common pokemon such as Weezing, Houndoom, Mightyena, Arbok, and other Rocket staples along with more exotic fare such as a Kadabra, Absol, Camerupt, and a host of others littered within the battalion.

"Shields!"

The Earthen Fist constructed new barriers in just a few instants. It only took the cyan-banded Rockets (Archer's faction, Ash supposed) a few instants to break it down, and a pair of Wartortle doused the sand with streams of water to weigh it down and make it more challenging for the Earthen Fist to manipulate.

It bought them time, though. Ash blinked and all of a sudden Domino and her young companion were shielded by thick walls of hard earth and compacted sand, erected in a similar method to Tangrowth's Ancient Power walls. They were sturdy enough to weather focused attacks from the hunting Rockets, but it took both of the Earthen Fist's Sandshrew to keep it maintained.

He knew it wouldn't hold for long, but the Archer faction's leader (Executive Proton, if Ash remembered correctly, a savage brute of a man who had been near the top of Indigo's most wanted for years now) just belted out a mad peal of laughter while his forces rained down devastation on the fortified Earthen Fist. Some of the assaulting teams had begun to circle around to seek high ground and flank Domino's forces, but Ash saw little flashes of lightning as Rupert and Iliana dispatched them.

"Trainee, stay put. Proton's not one to care for collateral. Let him make a mess and it'll make our lives a lot easier."

That didn't sit well with Ash, especially not with that boy on the battlefield, but he sent back his acknowledgement through Dazed. She watched the battlefield with luminous eyes, her power saturating the world around them to warn of any Rockets that might discover them.

"Infernus, get ready. If things get too nasty down there…"

He grinned. Smoke dripped from his maw.

In time, Proton would surely break through the Earthen Fist's defenses. He outnumbered them, and it was clear he commanded the cream of the crop of his faction. Most Rockets were useless, little more than bullies equipped with broken pokemon. Their power came in their coordination and ruthlessness. A well-equipped and prepared trainer could fend them off fairly easily.

Not all targets were so easy. The grunts were enough to rob and harass travelers and lone victims, but the Rockets were a paramilitary organization. Ash supposed that was where these more skilled teams came in.

Even so, an Elite Four member would reap them as a farmer did a field of wheat. A Gym Leader would plow through them with a few Gym Trainers for support.

While Proton and his soldiers would batter the Earthen Fist through attrition, it appeared that he wasn't patient enough. He still hadn't released his team other than a nasty specimen of a Weezing that peppered the Earthen Fist with toxic sludge, but that soon changed as his blazing eyes locked upon the little fort that hid Domino and the boy.

Proton raised a pokeball. It flashed behind the Earthen Fist - Ash had only a moment to witness the appearance of a shuddering Electrode -

It suffers terribly. It only seeks its end.

The poor creature's eyes flitted to and fro, the Earthen Fist dove behind whatever defenses their teams could erect (or behind particularly sturdy pokemon such as Rhydon), and the scene went still for a moment. Ash grit his teeth, weathered himself for the inevitable -

BOOM!

Dazed and Rupert's Girafarig acted just before the explosion. Their immense psychic power flexed, strained, and encapsulated the battlefield around Electrode in an ironclad shield of blue energies.

It did little to contain the devastation.

His skin was battered with heat and he stumbled backward from the blow, although Nidoking dove in front of him to absorb the majority of the force. The beach erupted in a conflagration as the sun's light was briefly drowned out by the flash of Electrode's Explosion. Ash's squinted eyes caught sight of little fragments of the pitiable creature scattered throughout the area, shredding flesh and cracking the earthen defenses.

Rockets on both sides were torn to shreds - Ash couldn't see much detail from this height, but he saw enough. Red, torn stumps. Slashed bellies. Ruined faces. Most pokemon were tough enough to escape with just moderate injuries, and some like the tough Rhydon and the trainers hiding behind it were almost entirely unaffected, but Proton struck without care.

The Rockets never hesitated to make sacrifices when it wasn't them on the pyre. Giovanni had done the same with his Steelix during their Gym battle.

A dozen bodies lay limp and still, contorted in awkward angles. Ash stared, processed, and felt nothing for a moment. Jirachi's tomb was far, far worse than this.

Men and women wailed. One of the Earthen Fist clutched their wounded Sandslash.

A crack.

They were Rockets. He shouldn't care. Shouldn't care!

A Nidorina screeched at the sight of her mangled trainer and threw herself over him, keening for anyone to help them.

His facade broke. With the elements clawing beneath the surface, surging with the emotion bursting forth like a wellspring, he failed.

Ash lost control, felt his gag reflex kick in and swallowed hard (the smell…!), then regained himself just as swiftly as Ice filled his thoughts with a blessed, startling clarity. His brain and the wild impulses leaping between his synapses chilled and numbed like a cold pack against fevered flesh. Everything fell into place.

Proton's gambit had paid off for both himself and the League forces. He was strong enough to look past the ravaged bodies, strong enough to ignore the splintered bone and detached wails. They were his enemies, stains upon the world. Fourteen were gone, or would be soon. Only a few pokemon had sustained serious damage. They could still be salvaged if their masters were ended.

He heard Iliana speaking over the radio. "Ash, Ash! Are you okay? Were you caught?"

"I'm fine. Orders?"

She was silent, probably trying to comprehend his lack of reaction.

Finally… "Engage once they've worn themselves out a bit more. They're in disarray. We won't get a better opportunity."

Ash didn't smile, not with Ice threaded through him, but something like satisfaction filled his gut.

It would soon be time.

Still, the Rockets hadn't just sat around twiddling their thumbs. Rockets on both sides sent their teams forth to drag back their wounded, a momentary ceasefire, but Proton wasn't one to hold back. He leapt on the opportunity like a feral, opportunistic beast - the little fort was shattered, Domino and the redheaded boy were exposed, faces blank with surprise, but were otherwise unharmed.

Proton charged forth with a predator's gleam and finally released his team.

A Golbat swooped above and ravaged the shattered Earthen Fist and their leaders with a Supersonic, sending them all stumbling for a moment before they regained their footing. His Weezing spewed forth Sludge, which was ignited into another fireball by a blank-eyed Magmar that materialized at the trainer's side.

They were assisted by a beefy, snarling Azumarill who cracked the Earthen Fist's Rhydon's armor with a high-pressured jet of water before leaping into the fray, but they all paled in comparison to the monstrosity that surged forth with an awful groan -

Hate-Kill-Ravage-End-Diediediediedie! Kill me! Kill me! Kill me or I kill you!

All but Ash, Dazed, and Sneasel reeled backward as the psychic scream shredded through their vulnerable thoughts. Rockets and pokemon alike howled as the telepathic wail dug deep, twisted, tore!

Even Ash's eye twitched. A brilliant presence flared in the back of his mind, brighter now than ever, watching as a mangled tangle of trunklike metal limbs rushed forward, carried by undeniable psychic might. Hateful scarlet eyes lay embedded in a thick carapace of blue-gray steel.

Proton had a Metagross, with all that implied.

Rhydon howled, then sputtered as a blue-wreathed metal limb cleaved its arm off. A Sandshrew was clutched in a vicious grip and hurled into the sea - Ash hoped Torrent would save it. Proton was the only one to ignore its savagery, egging it on with demands and insults.

Ash wasn't sure if he was a manipulative genius or just an absolute nutcase with a deathwish.

Pokemon and humans were both tossed aside like nothing as Metagross surged forward, shredding anything that came near and easily turning aside any of the Earthen Fist's (and a few of Proton's own forces) desperate attacks. It was merciless.

There was no skill there. No finesse. Metagross was a wrecking ball and nothing else. Its psychic cries sounded like a discordant chorus of singers mashed together. Most minds were defenseless and could do nothing to protect their bodies as Metagross leapt from foe to foe. The Earthen Fist was shattered, but Metagross paid little heed to the faction.

Azumarill shrieked as one of Metagross' slashing limbs hammered into its gut and threw it far away, near Rupert's encampment. It lay still, though Ash could tell it was strong enough to survive a blow like that.

It hammered into one of the bloody Rockets, set its eyes upon the frozen forms of Domino and the boy, and fell upon them in a bloody frenzy as Proton urged it on between peals of gleeful laughter. Trails of bodies were left in its wake - Ash finally reacted, uttering his first commands, as it struck.

All of this devastation had occurred in a matter of seconds. Metagross was a metallic, psychic-empowered whirlwind.

No wonder Pierce had been so feared. Ash was no fool - he knew exactly where the Rockets would have obtained a Metagross like this. This was one of the original Metagross stolen from the Stone colony, composed of Beldum stolen by Pierce and forcefully fused together before they could handle it.

The result was a maddened, ruined wreck of a pokemon. It would break Steven's heart to be here and see this.

"Kill them, you stupid thing! When was the last time you ate? Enjoy your meal!"

Metagross' psychic scream redoubled - Ash was surprised it hadn't torn Proton limb from limb. Perhaps he had protection of some kind.

"Oz? It's time. The rest of you… prepare yourselves."

Ice faded with the crisis done. He was in control. He was fine. He could function again. Ash's stomach turned, but he was ready for what was to come.

But it was too late. Even as Oz charged herself, attracting the first Rocket eyes as she glowed a brilliant gold, Metagross fell upon their prey. One of its claws plunged through Domino's head and reduced it to slime. Her body wavered, then fell back lifelessly.

The redheaded boy stared. Metagross' mad strike missed, tearing a deep gouge in the earth, and they grew frustrated. Ash's mouth opened in horror as the kid was locked in a psychic grip, blinked once, and was crushed into a mass of goo.

No! He was too late - "Infernus! Kill that thing! Put it out of its - wait. What?"

His keen eyes locked onto the remnants of the Rocket leaders as Metagross flung itself away in search of the fleeing Earthen Fist. They'd both been reduced to puddles of slime.

They'd really been reduced to puddles of slime. Pink slime.

Pink slime with disgruntled faces as they pulled themselves together again. 'Domino' melted fully, her detached head and body slowly fusing. The little blob did a small stretch once it was whole. The 'boy' was more or less unharmed, having abandoned its previous shape once Metagross began to crush it. With its gelatinous structure it probably hadn't felt a thing.

Instead of a mangled pair of corpses, Ash was staring at mildly annoyed Ditto.

And if Metagross had attacked the Ditto -

"Find them! I don't give a fuck if Stone himself comes through those woods. We're killing the bitch and the bastard today!"

Proton's forces were in disarray thanks to Metagross' chaotic assault, but they slowly regrouped. Several trainers grouped up, some of Proton's team gathered around him, content to ignore Metagross raging across the beach and hunting the remains of the Earthen Fist, and that was when the pair struck.

He'd missed the boy's team being recalled amidst the chaos of Electrode's explosion, but they reappeared now, flanking from the woods. They must have teleported away while hidden within the sand fort… either that or they had the fastest digger of all time on their team.

Ash would put his money on teleportation.

"Let's give them a second. Jump in if it looks like the kid's going to get hurt, okay?"

Nidoking gave a nod, then grunted something to the others. Oz seemed disappointed to not unleash her electric storm, but she slowly drained of electricity. Although a few Rockets had glimpsed her brilliance in the chaos, it appeared they'd soon forgotten her once no attack had come.

The kid was snarling as he commanded his team from the backlines, snarling orders at them. His deep red hair curled out from beneath his Rocket's cap. His face was familiar somehow, as if Ash had seen him before, but he couldn't quite put a finger on it. Maybe if he got a closer look…

As for his team, they were a formidable lot. A dopey-eyed Feraligator spat off a Hydro Pump that knocked out one of the cyan-banded Grumpig in a single shot. He caught sight of a Gallade with noble bearing clinging close to the boy, blades raised and eyes blazing with violet power to shield against any incoming threats.

A Weavile (which Sneasel eyed hungrily) dashed forth into the Rockets' midst, soon joined by a nimble blonde-haired woman who struck at them in tandem with an electrified black tulip. They fared well, especially as they tore into the backlines and opened up room for Feraligator to attack.

The lone Ditto (it was quite large, and Ash suspected those two from before had fused back together into a singular entity) oozed forward to meet Proton and his men in battle as they engaged the boy, although quite a few had begun to focus on Domino as she fought in tandem with the slashing Weavile.

Ash caught a glimpse of a small silvery shard slowly being absorbed into Ditto's fluid body. It vibrated, took on a silvery tint, grew to enormous size… and he got a little glimpse of satisfaction as Proton paled.

A new Metagross had entered the fray, born from a splintered fragment wrenched off Metagross from one of the many attacks that had been fired at it. Ash almost wanted to laugh, but then saw the real Metagross spin, glare, and fling itself back into the fray. It will be here soon.

Kill me! Kill me! Me kill me! Tearkillrip. Me! Me! Us! We!

His head began to ache as the discordant howls ripped through him again, but he fortified himself and laid a comforting hand on Nidoking as he flinched.

Both Metagross came together in a clang of metal, though it was immediately obvious that the true Metagross was far superior to the copy. Ditto relied on a hefty supply of biomass to fuel its transformations, so large, heavy targets like a Metagross put it at a disadvantage.

That wasn't to say the blob was helpless, however. It had gained enough power from its transformation to tangle properly with the original, and was able to slowly pull it away from the rest of the battle so that Metagross couldn't tip the scales.

Ash suspected that Iliana and Rupert wouldn't be eager to get mixed up in that particular duel. Their teams acted as well-oiled machines, but the Metagross' clash would consume valuable time and resources that might give some Rockets a chance to escape.

A Magneton hovered near the Rocket boy, sparks flying as it cast well-placed Thunderbolts into the Rockets' midst as its trainer snapped orders. His voice was cold and calm on the surface, but Ash could detect an undercurrent of fear ripping its way beneath. The boy was a hairsbreadth from collapse.

His Gallade stood just behind him, eyes ablaze, and efficiently manifested psychic barriers to absorb various blows and shrapnel, although the boy's team had ensured that the cyan-banded Rockets couldn't approach quite yet.

"Magneton, lay down suppressive fire! Gallade, cover Domino! Come on!" The boy snarled, keeping the majority of his body behind cover as the brawl continued. Domino and the Weavile wove in and out of Proton's forces, her black tulip crackling as she lanced Rocket after Rocket with it. They couldn't stand the attack and quickly went limp, though they still seemed to be twitching.

Weavile guarded her back. It was lithe and nimble, a solid specimen of the breed, and fought ruthlessly. Lesser Rockets were forced back or slashed with its razor claws, and it leapt about with impunity among the weaker pokemon until Proton entered the mix - Golbat swooped in, narrowly dodged a Thunderbolt from Magneton, and dashed out as Feraligator loosed a roar.

Feraligator rushed forward (though that was a little generous of a description) to assist Weavile as Proton's team rallied the Rockets who were in disarray. The cruel Rocket's Magmar snarled and leapt into the fray against Weavile and Domino, who immediately fell back. Domino couldn't stand against a pokemon, but she did exhibit remarkable athleticism as she avoided gout of flames and black smoke.

She made it back to the boy's side as Proton sneered out vile insults and awful things that would have had Ash's mother scrubbing the filthy man's mouth out with soap.

Ash would like to see that, honestly.

As would I. Is it time?

He watched for just a moment more, curious as the fight shifted - the Rocket boy's team were formidable, definitely a tier above their foes. Proton's team could match them with support, but overall the boy had the superior strategy and fighters.

Numbers would wear him down -

Oh.

Gallade's eyes blazed, Domino vanished, and Proton only had a moment to wheel around with a raised fist before she was on him with her electrified tulip. It crackled as it jammed into his neck - or would have, had Golbat not swooped down and flung one of the Rocket pokemon (a squealing, terrified Marill) straight into the tulip's path.

It shuddered and passed out immediately thanks to its previous wounds. Domino leapt away, but the Rockets were on her. Weavile and Feraligator pressed in, flanking her and fighting their enemies off with admirable ferocity, but the Rockets seized their chance.

Psychic blades flew, bodies flew through the air, and Ash saw the beginning of the end. Metagross had torn its copy to shreds, little worse for wear, and left the Ditto to reconstitute. It charged back into the fray. The poor twisted thing would arrive in a matter of seconds.

Ash clicked the radio. "Moving in."

"Acknowledged. We'll move in once the engagement has begun."

That didn't take long - Ash spared a nod for Infernus, and the grinning Magmortar let out a little whoop of joy that sounded like the gurgling of a volcano. He let out a roar, vanished in a twist and crack, and the chaos began.

Metagross had almost reached them. It was about to plow through the Rockets again, ready to cast them all aside to tear Domino limb from limb. Ash caught a glimpse of muddled determination and fear as she called out to the boy - "Silver, teleport me out!" - and prepared her tulip for the worst.

She was wrenched into midair by a terrible psychic force (much to Proton's glee) and Feraligator and Weavile leapt to her defense. They wouldn't have made it in time.

Infernus did.

The broken Metagross raged its despair into the world almost as potently as Spiritomb did. Its psychic powers raged, hurling ally and foe alike away as its hateful eyes glared at Domino, and it stood resolute as a mad juggernaut amidst the lesser Rockets and pokemon.

Breakbreakbreakrip - AGH!

Its chorus wailed as an inferno appeared above it. Infernus cackled as his searing flesh exploded with flame and heat, twisting and warping the air as he exulted in his own strength. All of a sudden Metagross was made a bit player, thrashing and bucking like a Tauros as Infernus bore down upon it.

Grey-blue steel shimmered beneath the heat. Domino dropped, though one of her arms was twisted at an awful angle, and the others all scattered, though Feraligator hauled her away in its powerful limbs. Metagross wailed again, focused its psychic power, and encased Infernus in a shell of crushing force.

It hurt, but Infernus didn't miss a beat. His body burned white, tinged with blue, and he wrenched one of his arms down to level against Metagross despite the force holding him back. Infernus' thick muscles bulged with the strain, but he fought through it all the same.

He knew what to do.

Infernus scorched the world with his point-blank Fire Blast. Waves of blazing fire exploded with a roar to billow out in a fierce cloud of red flame and inky smoke. Proton was engulfed, screamed, and collapsed against a patch of sand, though thankfully (for him at least) it was still relatively cool and not some of the sand reduced to molten slag beneath Infernus' fury.

Metagross screamed most of all. A stab of pity dashed through Ash's heart, but he quieted it. Infernus wouldn't draw this out - odd as it was to say, Metagross was just too weak for him to enjoy a fight with. He'd knock the poor thing out, take it out of the battle, and then it could be turned over to the Ever Grande League.

His foe thrashed again, but Infernus' legs bunched, then launched him a few feet into the air. He twisted, drew back his other claws as a brilliant white light shone through them, and slammed into the Metagross' body with a mighty Brick Break.

The carapace dented and fractured, and the steel-type shuddered as the wailing chorus went silent. It staggered for a moment, swaying this way and that, but Infernus bathed it in a quick Flamethrower to finish it off. Moments later it laid still as a statue in the glowing sand.

He'd spent dozens if not hundreds of hours preparing for Steven's Metagross. This one just couldn't compare. The tactics he'd drawn up were more or less overkill for this one - a powerful fire-type attack to break its focus and reduce its ability to wield its enormous psychic powers, then a Brick Break to shatter through its armor.

That was just one of a few dozen of the viable options against Steven's Metagross, likely to be just one short exchange of many, but it was enough here. Life was a lot easier when their enemies couldn't just stare a Fire Blast in the face, think 'no' really hard, and have it work out.

Proton stumbled to his feet, swore, and barked out an order. His Golbat, Weezing, and Magmar kept their distance, but launched slashes of wind, streams of sludge, and a trembling spit of orange flame at the fierce Magmortar. He threw his head back with a smirk, disrupted the Air Slash with a quick burst of flame, ducked beneath the sludge, and mockingly allowed the fire to wash over him harmlessly.

Even as the Rocket leader ran, gathering his forces in a desperate retreat from this foe that was beyond them, Infernus vanished with a crack. The Rockets fell back even as Rupert and Iliana made their presence known and Domino and the boy realized the depths of the danger they were in.

Infernus let the Rockets run. He materialized a few feet ahead of Golbat's current trajectory and snagged the flying creature with an effortless slash of his claws. Golbat screeched beneath the remorseless heat radiating off Infernus and Ash's heart ached, but it soon went silent as Infernus channeled electricity through his claws.

Golbat seized, twitched, then was tossed aside. A Sludge Bomb struck Infernus' back as he landed against the sand, but the viscous mess didn't coat him for long. He wheezed as the toxic material billowed upward in a cloud of disgusting vapor, but fought through it. It blinded him for a moment, and the Magmar took its chance.

The fire-type hissed as it threw itself at Infernus in a full-body tackle, but Infernus had readied himself for a strike. Ash winced as one cannon transitioned into its clawed state, smashed into the Magmar's bulbous face, and held tight. The weaker fire-type snarled and thrashed, spitting all manner of smoke and poisonous gas into Infernus' space, but only had a moment to struggle before Infernus' claws latched into its flesh and slammed its head down into Infernus' thick knee.

Magmar stumbled backward, obviously beaten, but Infernus wasn't done. He smirked as if offering his inferior a little credit for challenging him, then shifted his arm back into a cannon. Infernus spat a Flamethrower at Weezing to force it back, then took his cannon and shoved the Magmar's broken face into it.

That snapped Magmar back into some kind of alertness, but there was nothing it could have done.

Light spilled out from behind the Magmar's face, then it thrashed as Infernus unloaded a high-intensity Flamethrower right into it. Every attempt to escape was rebuffed with a rap of claws to Magmar's ears, and finally Infernus grew bored. He yanked his cannon back, socked the Magmar in the gut, and kicked it off to the side.

It didn't get back up, although Ash thought it might still be conscious. He couldn't blame it.

He set his eyes on the Weezing next, but Ash found himself distracted as the Rockets fled back into the woods toward the League. Apparently they'd rather take their chances with arrest than with Infernus.

Proton was in the middle of the pack, eager to make his escape, but it was all for naught. Before Rupert or Iliana's team could separate from their current targets to take them out, a shadow swooped overhead. There was a rush of wind, the crack of a sonic boom, and suddenly the world was ripped asunder.

Shrubs and bushes were torn from the earth. Trees quavered beneath the rush of wind. Sand billowed outward in a heavy, scraping cloud that soon settled back to earth. Bodies were sent flying.

Ash waved to Plume as she circled around. She was soon gone again to support the League, but she could be back at any moment.

Well, that was easy. None of those Rockets were in any shape to fight back now. Ash nodded to Dazed, who quickly teleported Lairon down. Sneasel hung around Bruiser's neck as the Machoke clambered down the cliffside with ease, but soon went to support Lairon as he charged some of the few remaining Rockets that had been separated from the main pack.

Around six members of the Earthen Fist had managed to survive Metagross' rampage and Infernus' appearance, and those soon tried to regroup and head back to Domino and the boy. What had she called him? Silver?

Sneasel and Lairon picked off the stragglers, but Rupert and Iliana had already engaged the Earthen Fist. They wouldn't last for long, especially since Infernus had finished off Weezing so quickly and charged off into the fray.

He shared a glance with Oz, who looked mildly put out. "Sorry," Ash sighed. "I might've overestimated the Rockets a bit. More should come later, though. You'll get the first shot at them, okay?"

Oz sniffed and folded her huge arms. Yeah, he'd have to pamper her tonight to make up for the disappointment. It was getting to be time to replace the flowers braided into her coat, so he'd do that for her. Accessorizing always puts her into a better mood.

Ash eyed Domino and the boy warily. They'd fallen back to a more secure position once they'd realized that their Earthen Fist lackeys wouldn't be making it to them. A hint of a smile spread across his face as he saw them speaking low in hushed whispers with blatant fear radiating off of them.

There was no escape from this island. Perhaps they'd just now realized it.

Shall I, Friend-Trainer?

"Have Lairon and Sneasel ready," Ash said as he watched them tag team a spitting Arbok. They'd finish it off soon. "Tell them that they're under arrest. They won't be harmed if they recall their pokemon and surrender their pokeballs."

Ash took a look at Domino brandishing her black tulip, then thought better of it. "Add any other weapons to that order."

Dazed's eyes burned.

The boy and Domino stiffened, reflexively glanced around, and then tensed. His opponent's mouth was shaped to utter a harsh command, but Ash wasn't having any of it.

This distraction had already taken up too much of their time. The boy needed to be put to bed and Domino needed to be ushered away in cuffs. It wouldn't be without a fight, though. Feraligator, Weavile, Magneton, Gallade, and even Ditto had dragged themselves over to stand in front of him.

The boy's hand tapped the last pokeball on his belt. A large Absol formed, fierce and solemn all at once, and surveyed the battlefield.

Then it froze. The dark-type quivered so strongly that Ash could see it from this distance, and its deep red eyes squeezed shut. A moment later it had its head between its paws, much to its trainer's consternation. Cruel words and curses filled the air, mocking and prodding Absol for its weakness, and Fire filled Ash's heart.

Yeah, this kid needed a beating.

A quick glance was all it took to determine that they were still near full strength. They'd taken a few blows in the battle with Proton and his Rockets, but for the most part they'd eclipsed their foes. It had been short enough as it was, and none had taken on Metagross directly except for Ditto. Ash suspected that would have tipped the scales in Proton's favor.

No wonder the Rockets had offered Pierce up a position on a golden platter. Those mad Metagross might not be disciplined or well-trained enough to slow down a Master, but that was like saying a sturdy brick wall couldn't withstand a tsunami. It just wasn't practical.

They were force amplifiers, plain and simple. Anything less than ACE trainers would struggle against something with that kind of raw power - even a full Ranger squad would be forced back. Rupert and Iliana could have picked it apart, but that wasn't practical in a pitched battle where everyone else would pile onto you at the first glimpse of vulnerability.

"We'll never surrender!" The boy cried out. It wasn't quite as confident as he must've hoped. Rather than an iron will, Ash sensed fear. Projection. They knew it was over. It was time to pounce on that. Domino remained behind the team, but he didn't miss the way she angled herself in front of her.. Partner? Ward? Ash really had no clue.

There was a weakness there. Her chin was set, eyes narrowed. At first she looked ready to bolt, but Plume's shadow passed overhead. Domino's shoulders didn't quite slump, but she called out.

Huh, he didn't think he'd ever had to actually negotiate with anyone before. This really was a learning experience.

"Let us leave," Domino shouted to the cliffs. No doubt she'd seen Oz charging up, although he doubted she'd had a chance to glimpse Ash peeking out over the edge. "See this?" She gestured at the smoke billowing up from the forest beyond and the overwhelming cacophony of battle growing nearer. "It's over. We're done. If you let us leave, you'll never see us again. There's nothing left for us here but hunters. We know better than to fight the current carrying us away."

Fleeing to Hoenn with their tails between their legs was 'fighting the current' as she'd claimed. Fat chance he'd inflict their rotten selves on anyone else. Ash took a glance at Rupert and Iliana, only to see them out in the open further down the beach - some of the final Rockets had pulled together and prepared a final stand against the overwhelming ACE trainers.

They were winning easily even without Infernus, who'd decided a better use of his time was toying with a sickly pale Rocket woman. He'd cut her escape off with flames, teleport behind her with a roar and burst of heat, and otherwise spend far too much time playing with his food.

Ash supposed that showed Infernus' opinion of their opponents.

If this were a real negotiation, Ash would bring his guardians in immediately. But that was never an option, was it? Domino and the boy were Rockets. Scum. Monsters.

You didn't parley with monsters.

"Sneasel, Lairon, Bruiser! Get in there. We're with you!"

His voice rang out from the cliffs. All three of his teammates down below were arrayed against Domino and Silver's team. Lairon took center, a sturdy wall for the more mobile teammates to support, and propelled himself a few inches above the earth, pawing as if ready to charge.

Sneasel eyed the Weavile with glee. It returned the favor with a disdainful sneer, clanging its claws in challenge. Bruiser stood still as a rock. He surveyed the opposing team with an even gaze, then tugged at the black belt looped around his neck.

Silver scowled and took a step back.

"Gallade!"

A flash of light. Ash sensed the familiar twist of teleportation nearby, blinked, and stared as Domino lunged at him with her black tulip extended. Her bad arm was guarded carefully. He stumbled backward in surprise, nearly tripping over a stone even as Nidoking reflexively hurled himself in front of Ash to absorb the blow. She was feral, lithe as a Persian and just as deadly. Her eyes were cold as an Arbok's when she struck -

Domino's eyes widened at the sight of him. Her face was caked in dust and dirt and blood, but Ash still made out something like surprise. He would've gotten a better look at her, but Domino had frozen not of her own volition.

She was encased in a crushing prison of psychic power. Dazed's power flooded the area, whipping up little trails of ascending dirt, and a cold fury pressed down upon them. A guttural growl rumbled from Nidoking's chest. Toxins drenched his skin and dripped from his spines as his tail thrashed.

"Silver, get me out of here! It's -"

Dazed stepped forward. Every motion was cold and controlled. Tight. Furious.

You have made a terrible mistake.

Nidoking lunged forth with his horn to gore the woman through her chest. An order to desist began to roll off his tongue, but it was too late. Ash looked helplessly at Dazed, praying that she'd block it, but what he saw in her expression killed that hope.

Cool, collected, rational Dazed was no more.

Domino's eyes bugged as death came. She thrashed within the prison, or at least attempted to.

Oz dashed forward, ready to stop Nidoking with raw strength if she had to.

She didn't.

Vines thick as Bruno's biceps flung outward and coiled around Nidoking's limbs with terrible strength. He roared, murder in his eyes, but Tangrowth didn't let go. More struck and bound Nidoking up in a veritable green cocoon, but Nidoking ripped and tore only to find that Domino had already been plucked away by four vines that gripped her arms and legs like a vice.

Dazed had focused her Disable with all her might, but Tangrowth had lightly rapped her on the back of the head with a sneaking vine laid around their feet. The unexpected touch shattered her focus long enough for him to snag the Rocket assassin away.

"Enough! Enough! We need her alive. You can't kill her."

Nidoking roared his fury. He lunged, but Oz's meaty hands clenched around his forearms and wrestled him back. They were fairly evenly matched as far raw strength went, at least when Nidoking had no momentum on his side, and her tails whipped sparks everywhere as she strained against his overwhelming force.

He was winning.

Ash snagged Dazed's hand and clutched it between his own. "Dazed!"

She was cold again.

She tried to kill you.

Ash waved at them all. The sounds of battle came from below the cliff. They had to focus on restraining the boy now that they had Domino in hand… or vine, as was the case.

"You're here, and so is Nidoking. So is Tangrowth, and Oz, and all our family. I've never been safer."

Dazed simmered, then cast Domino another scathing look. Her pendulum flailed madly in her hands, torn up by a tempest within, and Dazed turned away to watch the battle below.

I will attend to them. Do as you will, Friend-Trainer.

He nodded his thanks, then leaned in close to Nidoking. Tangrowth held Domino tight, another vine having wrapped around her face to muffle her hisses, but Ash didn't like the look in his eyes. The saucers were fixated on the red 'R' against her chest, and the vines wound ever tighter around her.

"Nidoking, buddy! I need you with me," Ash urged. Nidoking's eyes were dilated and his breath came in quick rushes. He snapped in front of him, careful to avoid the quivering horn and its deadly toxins. "You can't help me like this. I need you, not your rage. She won't just walk away from this."

His words finally reached Nidoking and Ash laid a grateful hand against his chest. No doubt Nidoking was still on the brink, but he had begun to master himself these past few months.

"Tangrowth, hold her tight. Not that tight! We still need her! Let her broken arm go. She won't be doing anything with it." He reminded his friend, who still stared with that empty expression at her Rocket insignia. Something turned uneasily in Ash's stomach, but he couldn't address it now. The battle was underway.

He zeroed in on the most dramatic sight first - two black blurs danced across the sand with inhuman grace, claws slashing and limbs whirling with terrible speed. Vicious yowls and shrieks echoed throughout the battle, but were lost in the raging backdrop of conflict that consumed the entire island.

Still, even at a glance he could tell that one of the combatants was at a terrible disadvantage. It always retreated, never advanced. Every motion was to block a quicksilver-fast strike or to dance away from cruel white claws. It hissed and snarled and panicked - it was losing.

It was Weavile.

Sneasel snickered as he dove around it. Weavile had reach, but it was slow. Every strike was a little too sloppy, a little misplaced. Each parry was manipulated into an exposed limb or belly. Any reversal of fortune for Weavile proved to be a nasty trick that was immediately punished ruthlessly.

Where Weavile had physical superiority, Sneasel had skill and hundreds of hours of battle on his side. Training with Bruiser, sparring with Karen's Weavile, pushing himself to the brink over and over again…

Sneasel relished the results. He picked Weavile apart faster and faster as he learned the patterns, slipping in bursts of freezing air and shadow-wreathed claws to press his advantage. Weavile leapt away, hissed, and propelled itself forward with claws drenched in poison -

His friend rolled, kicked (while miming slashing Weavile's belly with another snicker) and sent Weavile sprawling in the sand. Sneasel sauntered over, long limbs swinging easily, and raised his claws to finish the Weavile off, only to duck beneath a blade of shadow that tore through the sand.

The quivering Absol from before leapt to Weavile's aid. It cast a horrified look up in Ash's direction every few seconds, but it had steeled itself well and fought past its fear.

He could respect that, but not enough to prevent him from channeling a little burst of Fire. The Absol's eyes bugged out as if it was having a heart attack, and squeezed them shut.

Sneasel wasn't one to fight fair. He saw his chance and took it. Wicked claws slashed for Absol's face, only to be parried with a swift motion of Absol's black scythe-like horn. Weavile rose, gasping for breath, and leapt into the fray once more with renewed desperation.

All it earned with a grin from Sneasel.

Meanwhile, Lairon skimmed forward with terrifying speed. Bruiser stuck close by him to account for Lairon's inexperience, but soon found himself faced with a mirror copy of himself. He eyed the Ditto curiously and the shapeshifter did the same. It flexed its new muscles a bit to adjust, seemed pleased, and squared itself in a wrestler's stance.

Bruiser dipped his head, adjusted the black belt, and leapt in.

His first blow nearly shattered Ditto's defense and broke its guard. Greyarms were forced aside, and a crack sundered the air as Bruiser's enormous fist plowed into Ditto's barrel chest. It grabbed a few pink chunks of slime knocked astray by the mighty blow and slapped it onto its misshapen torso, squeezed everything back into place, and swung wildly in an attempt to press the advantage.

Bruiser sidestepped the wild charge neatly, tripped Ditto, and gently (for him) shoved the mimic into the sand. That kindness still sent Ditto so deep into the sand that only his grey ankles could be seen.

Ash's lips curled up into a slight smile despite the circumstances. He shook his head ruefully. "Normal-types."

His friend nodded once at Ditto and then moved into support Lairon, who had charged right at Feraligator. Gallade ushered the Rocket boy away from the conflict, and Magneton fired a lance of electricity to strike Lairon.

Dazed's eyes flashed.

A shimmering psychic barrier appeared to block the Thunderbolt.

Lairon warbled his battle cry, lowered his head, and readied himself. Feraligator roared right back, lowered its shoulders, and spat a Hydro Pump. It shot right at Lairon's skull -

Dazed's eyes flashed.

The Hydro Pump vanished. Feraligator had just a moment to blink, then sputtered as Dazed used Remote Teleportation to send the powerful attack right into the side of its head. She sagged, drained by the difficult technique, but Ash smiled. "Nice one."

Th - thank you. It is a difficult prospect at this distance.

"Take a breather," Ash said as Lairon flew right into the stunned Feraligator and sent the huge water-type sprawling. Lairon squealed his victory, levitated himself above Feraligator's chest, and plopped right on top of it just as Feraligator was beginning to recover its wits.

Feraligator wheezed (he could hear it from here) as the air was forced from its lungs by several hundred pounds of steel and flesh, thrashed for a moment, and then gave up with a groan. Lairon licked its face once as if in apology, then set his bright blue eyes on Magneton… just as Bruiser plowed his fist into the entangled trio of Magnemite.

They scattered, their magnetism no match for Bruiser's physical strength. Ash felt a stab of pity as the little things slammed back together with painful instantaneousness, only for Lairon to knock them out for good with another charge.

He cast a glance to the other battle and found Weavile and Absol knocked out and covered in shallow slashes. At least Sneasel hadn't been too cruel. It seemed like he'd done the bare minimum to finish them off. They'd be easy to collect now.

The boy's furious screams cut above the other sounds of battle.

"You idiots! Why can't you protect me? You're all so weak! I never should have raised you. You'd be better off with the grunts!"

He railed again and again at his team as they succumbed to unconsciousness. Spittle flew from his mouth as his face grew redder and redder.

It was over.

"Demand their surrender. They can't escape," Ash told Dazed. He glanced at her and immediately picked out her fatigue. An apology began to roll off his tongue, but Dazed just shook her head. It was unnecessary. After a moment's thought, he took a look at Domino. She was still bound in Tangrowth's vines, though they were clenched tight enough that she'd begun to lose consciousness.

An idea came to him.

"Tell him we have Domino. Leave it at that. Let his mind fill in the rest."

Dazed nodded.

"No!" Flashes of light shot back into the Rocket boy's pokeballs as he recalled his team. "She'd never lose to some League bootlicker!"

Footsteps. The boy was running. Gallade maintained a steady shield behind them, though it was nothing to Sneasel as his eyes lit up and he gave chase. He bounded after them with long, loping strides, slashed the psychic barrier to ribbons with Shadow Claw, and snickered as he struck claws against Gallade's blades.

Psychic energies whipped with cutting force from the smooth edges, but Sneasel was having none of it. His eyes glimmered as his body bled shadow and void into the material world, gathered power - Ash grimaced at the sensation, all too familiar to Spiritomb's, but it was enough.

Gallade fell to one knee. The boy collapsed, though he'd only caught the edges. Only a moment passed before Gallade regained his composure and leapt to guard his trainer with its lean body, but Sneasel was faster.

His claws touched Gallade's throat in an unspoken threat. The Rocket boy staggered to his feet. Ash had to give him a grudging bit of respect for that, even if his venomous insults to his team left a nasty feeling in his stomach. Mind Breaker deserved its name. Withstanding a brush of it was cause for celebration.

Well, he thought he might know a way to take the fight out of him.

"Can you send a mental image of Domino over?"

Her eyes flashed. Ash supported her as she sagged in exhaustion. Nidoking soon took the brunt of the burden while Oz kept eyes on the ground. He rumbled something to Dazed. Whatever it was earned an eye-smile as she stood straighter.

Silence, then a voice hard as glass and just as brittle spoke. "Take me to her."

Dazed and Ash shared a look, then he nodded. She sent permission over, and Gallade and the redheaded boy materialized in the cliffs. The boy's sunburnt face went white at the sight of Domino bound head to foot in Tangrowth's vicious grip - it must've appeared quite intimidating to someone who didn't know Tangrowth's real personality, although Ash had to admit there was a darkness in his friend now that he didn't like.

He didn't seem to care about Domino herself, but he hated the Rocket symbol on her chest. Ash could sense it, a teeming riptide below Tangrowth's normally placid surface.

Gallade looked as if he was about to have a heart attack as he took in Nidoking, Dazed, Tangrowth, and Oz. Sneasel soon clambered up as well and gave the psychic a mocking wave. Bruiser wouldn't be long behind.

The boy only had eyes for Domino. He looked on the verge of a panic attack. Ash almost pitied him until he remembered exactly what uniform that the kid was wearing.

Some sense of recognition dawned in him as he took in the kid's appearance. There was something so familiar. Something about the jaw, maybe? His eyes? It gnawed at Ash. He couldn't help but study him closer in search of answers.

Shoulder length hair the color of blood. Pale skin unsuited to Hoenn's tropical climate. Haunted, frenzied eyes that matched his stretched, drawn features. He was healthy, but it was clear that he'd been suffering from stress or lack of sleep. He was even younger than Ash. If he had to guess, the kid was probably eleven. This kid should be tucked into a bed somewhere or setting out on a journey, not getting his ass kicked out here.

Although to be fair, Ash suspected he'd been plowing through quite a few unprepared Rangers and enemy Rockets alongside Domino earlier. That would match up with the reports he'd overheard on the radio.

"You've lost."

Something in the boy's eyes turned sharp. He broke his gaze from Domino and wheeled towards Ash. "No! It's just beginning. I -" His eyes widened, narrowed to slits, and he bit his tongue. "Gallade! Get us out of here!"

Gallade didn't hesitate. The psychic reached for his power, focused, and began to twist space-time.

Sneasel rushed forward with a look of glee, but Dazed's psychic powers snuffed Gallade's out like a candle. He struggled for a moment, but soon gave up.

"Really?" Ash arched an eyebrow. He gestured at his team. "You can't escape from my family."

The boy scoffed. "Your family? What a joke. They're tools."

Ash's jaw set. His fists clenched, and for a moment he wanted to punch the redhead in his sneering face. But what would his mom think if she saw him do that? No, he had to be better.

Why was he even wasting his time talking? There was action to be done.

"Dazed, do it."

Her pendulum flashed. The boy's eyes began to droop -

Pl - ple - please! A word-word-word if you will. Please, Storm-Tamer-Tamer-Tamer. I beg-I beg you.

Gallade was beaten, but his eyes glowed as he powered his telepathy. His words were soft, a little cringing as he recoiled at the touch of Ash's vibrant, roiling mind, and echoed with the telltale sounds of inexperience. Echoes, fragmentary sentences, and random cuts from his train of thought.

Ash scowled, but motioned for him to move on with it. Dazed's pendulum continued to sway as she hypnotized the Rocket boy. They'd just use his pokeball to recall Gallade in a moment. It was no real threat, but he wasn't about to leave a potential blade at his throat. All it would take was a moment's distraction for Gallade to strike.

The psychic's voice grew slightly firmer, though it was still wavering. Ash naturally began to filter the imperfect telepathy as he became used to Gallade's quirks, although every now and then he noticed a flaw.

My master, my friend, he is not what he appears. He is better than he knows-knows-knows. Please, spare us. Let us be free. I must help him.

Ash glanced at the dozing boy. "You call him your friend. Would he say the same for you?"

Gallade looked away.

He cannot. He does not know how.

That earned a frown. "I can't let you go. I'm sorry. You're with the Rockets. The League will sort you out. They'll go easy on him."

Please! Take the Foster-Guardian - your Domino. She has spun her web in this land and sits at the center. She has the answers your League seeks. My Silver-Friend cannot provide anything that she does not know. He is young. He deserves a chance!

The boy seemed so much smaller in his sleep, like watching a spitting Meowth sheathe its claws as it slept. Something stirred in him, something he didn't need now.

He was silent for a moment. "I have to take you in," Ash raised his hand to ward off Gallade's fervent cries and pleas. "I don't have a choice in that, and if I did, I'd still choose to arrest you both. The League is fair. I'll speak for you once I have a chance to talk with him." He jabbed his thumb at the boy, who was drooling slightly as his head sagged forward. "What's his name, anyways?"

Silver, right? He'd caught it once or twice from Domino, but it was always worth double-checking. No doubt Iliana and Rupert would be interested in all the details he could spare.

Gallade sagged.

Your kind call him Silver.

Well, at least he had confirmation. He prepared to say something else when the radio went off.

"Trainee, we've got something powerful incoming from the woods. Unidentified contact. We've secured the last batch of prisoners and are moving to intercept. Be our eyes. Get ready to throw in."

Ash sent his acknowledgement over and sighed as Gallade prepared to implore him yet again.

"I can't talk with you right now. We'll get him sorted out."

He stepped forward, found Gallade's pokeball on Silver's belt, and hit the recall button. Gallade vanished without protest, which was nice. Ash held the belt in his hand for a moment, considered putting it back on Silver, then decided that was a stupid idea.

Dazed had secured him, but it was better to be safe than sorry. Ash didn't want to deal with some stupid desperation attack in the middle of a battle. Even a blunt knife could be deadly.

Instead, he tossed it over behind some rocks. He'd have stored the pokeballs away or buried them if he had the time, but he knew that battle could be joined any seconds. Ash asked Nidoking to toss some rocks over the belt for a little extra coverage and turned to watch again.

Rupert and Iliana were down on the beach and separated by around fifty feet of sand. It was pockmarked with scars of battle, the occasional splash of blood, and all manner of elemental remnants. They were close enough to hear one another's words but far enough apart to not be taken out by the same attack.

Starmie still lurked in the waves alongside Torrent, but the rest of their team were plainly visible on the beach and its fringes. Victreebell hung suspended from several vines latched onto a tree. It bore a few scars from the recent battle, although no serious damage. Slowbro stood roughly equidistant between the ACE trainers to provide maximum psychic coverage. Dodrio and Manetric both stood just ahead of Iliana with their eyes on the coverage. Manetric's fur crackled as it shifted in anticipation.

Rupert dominated his section of the beach. His broad frame and massive arms made Leafeon and Delcatty look puny in comparison. Illumise buzzed a little farther back, probably waiting to run interference once the attack was made. It had put on a good showing earlier.

Wigglytuff was just as muscular as its trainer, and flexed a little as it headed up Rupert's squad. Minun and Plusle poked their heads out from behind the bulky normal-type.

He hit the radio. "What's going on down there?"

Ash saw Iliana tap her own transmitter. "There's something unseen rampaging through the island. It ran through the Rockets like a blender."

"And that's a bad thing?"

"A few Ranger squads have attempted to engage. They were left with minor injuries, but injuries all the same. This individual can't go unchecked."

He frowned. "Do we have any idea of their capabilities?"

"Not enough. They're stealthy, probably a Distortional cloak. With everything else going on that's playing havoc on our sensors' ability to pick them out. That cloak is bad enough news, but nothing's provided significant enough resistance to determine a threat level."

Rupert's voice cut in. It was soft for such a huge man. "There's a team tracking its victims. It strikes fast and moves on. Difficult."

Ash hummed. "Well, we'll stay up above and be your artillery. Infernus will throw in, won't you?"

He laughed at the answering roar from below, which was soon followed by a great spray of flame that burst into the blue sky above.

"You have both prisoners secured, correct?" Iliana's voice was tighter than before. "They're essential."

One glance showed him that Domino was still hidden beneath a tangled mass of green vines and Silver was snoozing. Bruiser had considerately propped him up against a moss-covered rock.

"Yeah, they're not going anywhere."

A noise in the distance! Ash and his team prepared themselves. Shouts and panicked screams. Three black-clad figures sprinted forward without any pokemon to speak of, then dropped instantly as three tiny, insubstantial Shadow Balls rushed right into their backs.

With the sudden clamor gone, Ash picked up a new sound. It was high and clear. He soon identified it as someone whistling a jaunty tune, though he couldn't identify it for the life of him. Something new rustled in the bushes.

Iliana was sharp as a razor. All the ACE pokemon readied themselves for battle. Something tugged at Ash's awareness, an itch that just wouldn't go away, and his eyes sharpened as he took in the scene.

"Halt! This is a restricted operation. You're under arrest under the authority of - oh shit!"

Rupert's radio was still on. Ash heard him mutter, "Oh shit!"

He took a look at the figure that stepped out of the forest.

"Oh shit."

This has rapidly become an unfavorable situation.

Her skin was tanned a golden brown by the sun. Her dirty blonde hair was capped by a small, practical sunhat woven from yellow straw with a green bow wrapped around it. Her clothes were plain and utilitarian, just an olive green tank top, khaki shorts, and black boots.

More importantly, a silent Shedinja and Shiftry flanked her. They both moved with the sort of grace you only discovered with long, long hours of mastering your own body and pushing it to its limits. Shiftry's eyes immediately scanned the beach, then flickered up to the cliffs where Ash and his team stood.

Jacqueline Durand stretched her arms out as if embracing them. She laughed. "What luck! I've stumbled upon fine work." Durand lightly kicked one of the Rockets in the side. He wheezed and curled up into the fetal condition. One of Shiftry's leaves glimmered with power and took on a sharp edge, but Durand shook her head. "Non, non! Evil things, yes, but our friends here might get some use out of them. Their heads are not empty. They must know something!"

Durand still spoke slowly and with great consideration. Every syllable was precise and measured. Whether it was her own contemplative personality or unfamiliarity with a foreign tongue was difficult to tell.

She gave the Rocket one last kick for good measure, then assessed the ACE trainers ahead of her. Ash took a moment to study her despite the chill in his blood. It had been months since he'd last seen Durand during the raid on the Stone colony. What were the odds that she'd turn up again here?

He had his suspicions, given the information in her dossier, but this wasn't the time to consider that.

A Master was here. Where was that cloak that the ACE team had mentioned? She might have dropped it before entering, but something didn't sit right with him. His instincts prickled and he studied the surrounding environment for any trace of what might be setting him off.

Durand had been amiable enough during their last meeting, but he couldn't trust her as far as he could throw her. He'd read her file. She was no Pierce - she was too principled for that - but still dangerous.

Perhaps she was even more dangerous because of the aforementioned principles. "You're under arrest." Iliana didn't convey much confidence. Even her team shifted back uneasily. "Surrender your pokeballs–"

"My family?" Durand's dirty blonde eyebrows rose high. Her hand went to the pokeballs on her belt. Just the slightest shift of her stance radiated danger. "I do not think so! You should think better of this."

She reached down to stroke Shiftry's sleek mane. It was managed expertly and appeared freshly brushed. Shiftry leaned into her touch.

"I respect your organization," Durand said softly as she raked her fingers through the white fur. Shedinja angled to face them jealously. Her other hand soon went to stroke the ghostly husk in appeasement. "Inasmuch as you have earned that respect. You fight well and justly. I have seen the results firsthand. Turn away for a moment. When you look again, I will be gone, and you may continue with your good fight."

Rupert stepped forward and crossed his arms. Wigglytuff mimicked him. "You're our good fight."

Durand spent a moment admiring the muscular Wigglytuff with a look of adoration on her face before she went back to business. "Do we not fight for the same ideals?"

"You're a criminal. You've killed dozens."

The Rogue Master sniffed. "Only the deserving. And do not take credit from my family!" She tousled Shiftry's white fur again with a smile. "They did all the hard work!"

Rupert's lip curled. He and Durand exchanged a few more strands of conversation, but Ash was more focused on Iliana's voice as it whispered through the radio.

"Ash, we can't take her alone. If she doesn't come quietly–"

When she doesn't come quietly, more like.

"–hit her with everything you have."

He could do that. Shiftry had seen them, but Durand couldn't be aware of the team arrayed against her - Infernus had cooled his flames to reduce visibility.

"Dazed, tell Torrent to prepare. We might need his firepower for this."

Acknowledged.

While the beach itself was pockmarked with various scores of battle, it was still largely intact. That would soon change if Ash and League forces took on Jacqueline Durand. Only two of her teammates were visible at the moment, but Ash suspected that would soon change if they made any aggressive movements.

Ash surreptitiously pulled out the small silver communications device that Steven had given him before the battle. He quickly hit the button. Any thoughts of handling the situation on his own had fled from his mind. Jacqueline Durand wasn't a challenge that he felt prepared for. He would love to take on a Master, of course. He would never deny that.

But he'd made a promise.

Jacqueline Durand wasn't just a Master. She was a rogue element. Despite her superficially pleasant personality, Ash knew her crimes well. The worst part was that he actually agreed with some of them, not that he'd ever voiced that opinion to anyone but his team.

She punished abusers. She hunted Rockets. She protected Pokémon.

It was too bad that she did those things in the worst way possible.

But Steven was on his way now. Ash knew that the situation may be tough in certain areas, especially where the ghosts had been released from the tomb, but he knew in his bones that Steven would make all haste here. They just had to last a few minutes and then it would all be over.

Ash looked Durand over – her smile was still bright, her demeanor was still casual. Her team wasn't so relaxed, but they still radiated confidence. Even after wading through the fierce battles that littered the island, Shiftry and Shedinja seemed unfazed. Not that it was an unusual thing for a Shedinja to appear that way, but the only signs of battle that shift report bore were a few specks of ash and a few stray hairs.

The sight of its keen eyes and razor-sharp leaves reminded Ash of that sunny day at the Stone colony. Even now it was all too easy to remember the sound of the Rockets dropping like stones. And what was it that Sidney had said?

Actually, he'd rather not revisit that memory.

This was going to suck.

A/N: So... uh, I was going to update before May, right? I have to apologize. I'm never giving predictions for a chapter release again, although this time at least it came down to some medical issues. My carpal tunnel was agitated very badly by the last chapter and I was unable to write for around two months, but I am pleased to say that I've found a type of therapy (myofascial release) that has been a big help! I've also purchased a voice dictation software that will help me not to be so reliant on my dumb, malfunctioning wrists!

Thank you all so much for your patience and for all of your support! I've seen some really lovely PMs and reviews come in, and I'm excited to finally be able to respond! Traveler will be ten years old in around... two hours where I'm at as of writing this author's note. It's so exciting to see the amazing people I've met and the wonderful community that has been built in the discord server (speaking of which, reach out to me for an invite!) over the past few years.

"Today, he reflected, was the most important day of his life."

That was true for Ash, and true for me (even if fifteen year-old Elf didn't know it yet). My life has changed so much because of this story - writing Traveler and everything that comes with it has made me a better writer and a better person. It's taught me many lessons and I know for a fact that I would be an incredibly different person if I hadn't sat down and written those first few words ten years ago. I've made some incredible friends and gotten to know a ton of lovely human beings through this story. I'd never considered writing as anything but a fun hobby, and now I'm planning original works.

So thank you all for that. Thank you to Raptor, Val, and Jain for providing feedback and spending long voice calls coming up with increasingly bizarre and wonderful ideas. Thank you to everyone on the Discord who's contributed to building such a good community with so many experiences behind it. Thank you to everyone who has followed this story for so many years now. Thank you to everyone who saw the name 'Traveler' and decided to give the story a chance. I appreciate everyone so much, and I hope that you continue to enjoy the story for many years to come.

I won't try to pinpoint when the next chapter will come out. Every time I do I disappoint both you all and myself. But I did cut this chapter a bit short, and a few thousand words have been written for the next. I will get it out as soon as I can!

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts! Have a wonderful night, and here's to another... not ten, maybe four or five (?) years of Traveler!