"What did you do to this Machamp?"
Bruiser stood still as a statue as the doctor poked, prodded, and ran all sorts of tests. Up close, he was even more massive than he had seemed on the beach. He was nearly seven feet tall now from toe to the tip of his crownlike crest, and the massive hump of his new shoulders bulged from his neck.
The doctor's office could barely contain his sheer size. Bruiser's mass seemed to fill up the entire room, even though he'd gone to great efforts to keep his additional arms fairly under wraps. His new size made him clumsy, though, and the extra set of arms constantly knocked against things as he passed by on his way here.
It reminded Ash of when Nidoking evolved. A new tail and skeletal structure was a dramatic, abrupt change to happen to a person. Two new arms and a hundred or so pounds of bulk wasn't too far off from that.
He'd grow into it.
Ash shared an amused glance with Bruiser as Dr. Mia gawked at him. His chest warmed to see Bruiser so relaxed. He rested with an easy confidence now, truly at peace with himself. A tension had built up in him over this past year like pressure within a volcano. It was gone now, and whatever little insecurities and anxieties had gnawed at Bruiser had finally been shed.
Bruiser had truly come into his own.
"His evolution was… different."
"You mentioned that he'd evolved during battle-" Dr. Mia's mouth snapped shut as the massive needle that she had attempted to jab past Bruiser's thick hide bent, then broke at the base. He rumbled an apology and tried to have one of his new hands grasp down for it, but his fingers were too big and clumsy. Every time he'd nearly snared the metal pieces they would just slip out.
At last one of his lower arms pulled it off. Dr. Mia still seemed too stunned to do much more than take the pieces out of Bruiser's inelegant grip.
"We were battling a Master-level opponent." Ash couldn't stop the surge of pride that filled him with those words. It muted his silent frustration at his failure. He was so close! "We have a technique - Rampage - that puts an incredible strain on Bruiser's body. It breaks down his muscles -"
Dr. Mia's eyes widened. "And the metamorphic process rebuilt them…" she murmured. The raven-haired doctor immediately began flipping through the little clipboard with Bruiser's file. "Insanity! His other tests appear clear. How are you feeling?"
Bruiser smiled and offered a thumbs up with one of his upper arms. He nearly punched through the ceiling as he adjusted it.
"Well, that's a relief." The doctor frowned. "This is an unprecedented situation, Mister Ketchum. It's fairly common for the stress and desperation of battle to trigger evolution. What's not common is to specifically hold a self-damaging technique like that through the process."
Ash glanced at Bruiser. "He'll be okay, right? There won't be any permanent damage?"
"I believe so," she said. "Toxins, paralysis, and chemical agents tend to be the primary culprits for damage retained post-evolution. The metamorphic process is phenomenal at regenerating damaged cells. It's less efficient at clearing chemicals and working around temporarily blocked nerves. No, he should be fine as long as he takes it easy for a bit."
He exhaled in relief. "Thank you."
"Training a Machoke for strength of all things…" Dr. Mia shook her head at them, clearly exasperated. "That's a choice, I suppose. You're quite the specimen, Bruiser."
The doctor paced the room a bit, clearly unsettled. She turned the broken syringe over in her hand, unscrewed the glass vial meant to collect his blood, and then tossed the remains of the syringe at Bruiser. He fumbled it, but managed to close his fist around it through some miracle.
Bruiser sheepishly presented the plastic and metal back to Doctor Mia. It had crumbled to fragments in his mighty grip.
"As I expected," Dr. Mia brushed the mess from Bruiser's hand into a sharps container. "Machamp generally have poor dexterity post-evolution. The increase in strength is significant. In your case, I'd avoid touching anything softer than a rock for a week or two. It's cliche, but you truly don't know your own strength yet. I'd have tossed a Watmel Berry your way so that you can see what would happen to a human head, but that would just be cruel."
Both of their faces fell. Ash knew that Bruiser wished nothing more than to wrap Seeker up in a hug, but it seemed that would have to wait a bit.
"There are some exercises for newly evolved Machamp." Dr Mia said more softly. Ash nodded along with her - he'd already saved a few from the Pokedex over the last few months in preparation for Bruiser's eventual evolution. "I'll give you access before you go. In the meantime, just be careful. The leap in strength for an ordinary Machoke is immense. For one that is Master-level and using this Rampage technique during evolution…"
She didn't need to finish her sentence.
"How do you think he compares against other newly evolved Machamp?" Ash asked the question he'd been dying to get answers for. "He would've been stronger than most regardless, right?"
Dr. Mia scanned the reports in her clipboard again. Her eyes widened. "Based on previous physiological data, that's an understatement. For a Machoke… my goodness!" She stared at Bruiser again. "It's impossible to say without more tests, but his physical state is fairly unmatched. I expect he already would have been setting records without his unique evolutionary state."
Satisfaction filled Ash. Dr. Mia was still boggling over his old tests (probably from the ones taken at Indigo Plateau during their stay there) when the door shuddered under a firm knock.
Rap. Rap. Rap.
An uncharacteristic change came over Dr. Mia then. He'd only known her for minutes, but Ash thought that he'd gained a basic perception of her character: a professional placed just a wee bit out of her comfort zone by Bruiser's unusual circumstances.
"Come in!" She squeaked even as Ash beamed at their newest guest.
He'd reached out to Bruno personally for his expertise on the Machamp line, given the potential risks posed by Bruiser's battle-forged new body. Of course, he was most interested in Bruno's aid for the… practical applications.
"Ash. Doctor," Bruno inclined his head as he strode into the room. His Machamp, roughly six feet tall, followed behind him. It was odd seeing them together given that Machamp was actually several inches shorter than Bruno himself. It was no less fearsome for it, however.
Bruno eyed the Black Belt tied neatly around Bruiser's waist, then craned his neck to look up at Bruiser. A smile passed between them.
"Bruiser. You look well."
Even Bruno's bulk paled in comparison to Bruiser's sheer mass. But the fact that Bruno could even compare to a hulking Machamp said enough. He really was a monster of a man.
"I wasn't sure you would be able to come." The Elite Four were busy, after all. Even with the Rockets largely excised from Indigo's underbelly, there were a hundred other forces vying to reclaim the power that the filthy group had once held.
"This is a momentous occasion. I would not miss it." Bruno said evenly. "Champion Lance was excited to hear that I would be using my vacation days at long last."
"A vacation?" Ash arched an eyebrow. "At least you didn't pick Orre."
"I lack Agatha's courage." Bruno's stony voice softened a tad there. For a moment they both wondered about the Revenant Crone and whatever misadventures she'd dashed headlong into. He hoped that Professor Oak had managed to reconnect with her. Ash knew that they'd met up, but details were scarce. "Doctor, may we have a moment alone?"
Dr. Mia tore her gaze from Bruno's chiseled figure. "I, uh, yes. Of course! I'll be outside. Just let me know if you need me - need medical attention. Bye!"
She fled from the room with her clipboard of medical results. Ash squinted at her back as she slipped through the door. Weird.
"You have grown." Bruiser inclined his head at Bruno's words, a proud smile slipping across his face that was mirrored by Ash. "I am proud of you for overcoming your limits. This is only the next step of your journey, however. Do not grow content with what you have."
"We won't," Ash promised. He cocked his head at Bruno. "You aren't just coming to Hoenn for us, are you?"
Machamp scoffed as Bruno shook his head. "I've come to provide aid to the Ever Grande League. It is a worthy use of my time, although I truly have come to enjoy the sights and scenery of Hoenn for a time."
"I have a few spots that I can recommend," Ash thought back to some of the sights and scenes of Forina, along with the Piede and Sudmauna. Bruno enjoyed the peace and serenity that accompanied gorgeous natural landscapes. His normal meditation haunts were high up in the Ore Mountains, but he knew Bruno well enough now to have an idea of what would appeal to him. "And a few to avoid as well."
Bruno inclined his head.
Ash shared a glance with Bruiser, who nodded eagerly. "While you're here… what would you say to a battle?"
"No." Bruno sent their hopes crashing down with a single word. "Not yet," he said to bring their spirits back up. "Bruiser, you are mighty. I look forward to testing your strength and skill against our own."
The scariest part was that Bruno himself was likely included in that, our. He'd never forget the sight of Bruno clashing against the Crystal Entei with Lucario at his side. It was the stuff legends were made of.
"But you lack control as of yet. We will cross fists before we leave for Hoenn," Bruno said. Machamp cracked his massive knuckles. "You have our word. But we would face you at your best, not as a newborn trying to discover his legs. Or arms, as the case may be."
Ash sighed. The logic was sound, of course. Dr. Mia had just finished explaining how Bruiser lacked control. It boggled the mind, but it might actually be dangerous for Machamp to face Bruiser as he was now. There was no doubt in Ash's mind that Machamp could manhandle Bruiser with vastly superior skill and decades of experience, but Bruiser's raw strength was unmatched.
Not much could seriously harm a Machamp, but an untempered Bruiser might do the trick.
"Understood. No battle yet." Ash said forlornly. "Will you help us with some exercises, then? We need to determine Bruiser's limits before we rejoin the others. Steven will be back in an hour or two, and then we'll have to head out to Rustboro."
A fire lit behind Bruno and Machamp's eyes.
"That will be acceptable," Bruno said. "Very well. Show us to the nearest battlefield. I will show you a few exercises that aided Machamp after his evolution…"
Ash was still a little rattled after the events earlier in the day, but Bruno's even, steady rumble soothed the frayed edges of his nerves. For a time, Ash felt as if he were far away from the muggy clime of Hoenn and back home in the Indigo Plateau.
Things were simpler there.
If only Hoenn could take a page or two out of the Plateau's book.
Steven's apartment in Rustboro was a welcome sight after months roughing it in Forina, a particularly awful night full of the Piede's sand in unmentionable places, the soulless elegance of the guest quarters in Ever Grande City, and their lodgings in Sudmauna.
Little made him happier than to lay beneath the stars, but even Ash couldn't deny that the luxuries of Steven's apartment made a nice change of pace on occasion. Monogrammed grey towels and all.
He reclined lazily on the soft slate couch that took up a fair portion of Steven's vast living room. It was a corner couch and dominated His mother would kill him if he kicked his boots up on the finely polished granite coffee table set just a few feet away, so Ash had his feet raised up on a snoozing Lairon instead.
Ash might have appeared entirely relaxed to an unfamiliar observer, but the truth couldn't be farther off. His aching body desired nothing more than to laze around and recover, but his mind screamed for action. Steven had limited Ash to the apartment while they planned their next move, but that didn't mean that he had to sit and twiddle his thumbs.
His family was arrayed around him. Ash felt nothing but relief that most of their injuries had been superficial. Their battles had been fierce, but Durand's team had only rarely fought with the intent to cause critical injury. They'd pulled their deadliest blows even as their precious time trickled away.
Courtesy? Honor? Or was it some game to them, a test, to sate their eccentric trainer's whims?
Sneasel sprawled contentedly out on the couch near Ash, somehow managing to take up far more space than Ash did despite their size difference. Thick black hairs had already clung to the smooth fabric and discolored the otherwise pristine grey. It looked like he'd have to bust out the lint roller that he had saved away for just this sort of occasion.
Sneasel's fur got everywhere, especially in the tropical heat of Hoenn. Any time he'd spent the time to pet or stroke his friend's fur, he'd come away with a handful that clung and never seemed to simply float off when he tried to brush it off. Ash suspected that his friend just enjoyed watching Ash's attempts to limit the damage. He certainly made no attempt to clean up after himself.
Tangrowth also managed to squeeze himself onto the couch somehow. A dozen of his squirming vines crawled all over Ash, Sneasel (who resolutely bore the indignation), and any other of their friends that they could reach. Most were far too exhausted from yesterday's battle to mind.
Steven's apartment was vast enough to accommodate the rest of his friends without much issue. Torrent, Oz, and Nidoking stood clustered together in an empty stretch, though all were so large that they seemed to take up the entire space. Dazed collapsed onto the couch cushion to Ash's left, still exhausted.
He'd pointedly decided not to include Infernus in this first meeting, mostly because Ash knew that Infernus would be raring to fight Bruiser the second that he laid eyes on the Machamp. Normally Ash would love to watch a clash like that, but not right now. He was just too tired to manage the fallout of that match, and it would be weeks before Bruiser would be able to take on challengers.
Ash groaned at the thought of trying to force Infernus to accept that scenario. If he wanted to fight a Machamp that badly, maybe Ash could send Infernus off to Forina with Bruno for a week to get some sense knocked into him.
Plume was off on a flight, no doubt throwing herself back into training. She'd paused only to nuzzle him, nip his fraying hat, and clip him affectionately with a wing when he'd released her. Ash suspected she'd gone off to hone her connection to the North Wind, or perhaps one of the other Concepts that he'd introduced her to. She was as restless as he was.
Fortunately for Plume, Steven had no trouble with her wandering wherever she would.
Ash envied her for that.
Of course, the center of their attention was laid on their newly transformed brother. Bruiser's crown scraped the ceiling (well, technically Seeker did since she'd insistently taken a perch on his head the moment they saw each other) as he stretched to his full height.
Nidoking ran a critical gaze over Bruiser's new stature, chiseled muscles, and (lastly) the Black Belt that had finally found its proper place. He rumbled, peeled his lips back in a threatening gesture that Ash knew to be his equivalent of a smile, and reared his arm back to slap Bruiser on the shoulder with his blunt claws.
Bruiser didn't even budge at the force. He just grinned back and slapped Nidoking's shoulder right back with one of his lower arms.
"Bruiser, wait -"
They all started as Nidoking's knees slammed to the floor. He wheezed miserably. Full-fledged attacks from lesser pokemon would have done less damage. Someone in the apartment below yelled up at them, obviously caught off guard by the thunderous smash. Ash was just happy that the floor hadn't given way beneath the extreme force carried by several hundred pounds of Nidoking slamming into it.
Bruiser stared aghast with the others… except for Sneasel, who cackled and slapped one of his velvety paws against the couch. Seeker chattered comfortingly into Bruiser's ear.
"Dazed?" Ash rasped. He rushed to his feet and crouched down near Nidoking. "Can you…?"
She was too worn out to waste focus on telepathy, but her pendulum quivered limply as Nidoking's body was encased in a wavering shell of blue power. He was still stunned, so accepted the help gratefully.
He snorted once he recovered. Ash exhaled, glad that Nidoking was more amused than annoyed. With that initial reaction out of the way, Bruiser was essentially swarmed by the rest. Tangrowth's vines snaked from below to prod curiously. Seeker exulted in the attention paid to her friend, clutching his crown proudly like a queen as she chittered happily to the rest.
One of Bruiser's arms went unconsciously to pat her, but froze. It descended down to his side instead. Bruiser's eyes shone wetly for a moment, but he blinked the unshed tears away.
Torrent kept a respectful distance, but rumbled something to Bruiser that made him smile. All the rest practically clambered over him: Oz's tails twitched as she curiously poked one of his massive muscles only to find it hard as iron, Lairon yawned and rubbed his metallic chassis up against Bruiser's leg like an affectionate Growlithe, and even Sneasel clambered up to his shoulders once Bruiser gave him a considering nod.
It warmed Ash's heart. He allowed them a few minutes to admire Bruiser (and for his friend to soak up the admiration) before he cleared his throat.
"You should all be proud," Ash's words brought a stillness to them. Bruiser straightened. The others all trained their eyes upon him. A surge of flame filled his chest. "We fought a Master. We nearly won."
That was the rub, wasn't it? A burning satisfaction blazed through his veins. They'd fought Jacqueline Durand! They'd fought a true Master and pushed her. It wasn't a fight to the death, but such a tangible milestone left him so proud that he wanted to scream and wrap his friends up in one big hug.
For now, they had to deal with the shadow hanging over them all. Ash couldn't help but painstakingly toss over every single moment of that battle. Every call, every retreat, every loss, every victory. They all muddled together in one great ocean of memory.
They'd done well. Every single one of his team had fought with everything that they had. A strangling noose of guilt tied around his throat as he brushed against Spiritomb's pokeball, but he buried it for now. He wouldn't trouble his family with that mistake.
It was his burden to carry. His call. His failure. His betrayal.
Yet it was just as Durand had said. They would not, could not, rest on their laurels. It wasn't enough to be satisfied with what they'd achieved. Almost winning would never be enough. They all demanded victory, and it slipped through their fingers.
They had given everything they had. It wasn't enough. Ash didn't care that they were measuring themselves against a mountain. It was only the first, and there were greater past it.
So where could he have done better? What mistakes had he made that might have cost them the fight? They would reflect on that together. He knew every other member of his team might have the same thoughts rushing through their heads, but Ash found no fault with them.
Next time they would win. Jacqueline Durand had revealed their strengths, but she had also revealed their faults.
"I've made a mistake."
He raised a hand to cut off their protests. Nidoking's tail swished, though he was careful not to damage the apartment.
"I've made a mistake," Ash repeated. "You're all incredible! You've pushed your abilities to their limit. I doubt another team in history has come so far so fast. But we've been training for the wrong fights. Did you see Durand's team? They were one. Wasn't that beautiful?"
No doubt some of his team would hold a grudge, but none of them could deny the fantastic synergy with which Durand's team fought. One soul shared across many bodies. When one retreated, another advanced. When they fought, they moved in anticipation of the other.
"We would have won if this were a regulated match," Ash said slowly. "Individually, you're unstoppable. Look at Fino! But we fought a dozen different battles. Durand fought one."
This wasn't exactly news. Ash had spoken with them (and Steven) about this before. They were champions, individual powers pushed to the extreme. They fought as a vast island: great, but alone.
"We've been training as a team for a while now." Thank goodness for that. This was an issue that he'd already picked up on, but he thought that they would have more time. Durand had shown him the true potential and possibilities, and he was hungry for them. "We've been training for the wrong fights. We'll keep training individually, of course… but my dream?"
He glanced to Dazed, who immediately stole the images coursing through his head and shared them with the rest: Zoroark seamlessly covering each move the opponents made, Shiftry and Farfetch'd compensating for the other, and the tightly woven teamwork that enabled Durand to bring Infernus to his knees.
"Next time, we'll win. She exposed our weakness. If she expects us to be the same team she fought before, then we'll rip her to shreds."
The same went for Durand herself, of course. Her parting words had made that quite clear. Ash wasn't done growing yet, but neither was she. No Master would suffer any form of defeat (and Ash burning as much time as he had certainly counted as that) without pushing themselves to correct it.
"Her teamwork wasn't her only strength, though."
Nidoking pointedly conjured a weak, flickering Shadow Ball at the tip of his horn. Several members of the team shivered.
"Yeah. That." Ash recalled Farfetch'd's void technique. It was difficult to determine its exact mechanics, although it seemed reminiscent of Mirror Move. Whether it was some insanely complex Master-level refinement of it or just a cousin couldn't be said. "So what were its limits?"
He was met with shrugs on all sides. It was clear that it could handle almost any amount of power that they could conjure, but every technique had a weakness. Ash remembered the connection they made as Farfetch'd had come to take him out of the fight.
It wasn't one-sided. Whatever Ash's burgeoning perception was capable of, Farfetch'd had played an equal part.
Farfetch'd had seen the truth as its old life died. It had been stripped to the bone and forced to grow again. Ash was no expert, but those seemed ripe conditions to learn the power of expressing oneself into the world.
"Overloading it doesn't work. It's not a practical option in the middle of a battle, anyway. The capacity is too high unless we can focus on it. Striking from multiple directions might work. It doesn't seem to be able to manifest more than one. Disorienting it to ensure that it can't perceive attacks may work as well…"
He knew Distortion could mute the expression of the Concepts. Perhaps he could weaponize that to disrupt Farfetch'd's void? Ash wished that he knew more about Durand and her team in order to figure out what kind of expression that void represented, but there was no time to pursue that line of questioning at the moment.
Speaking of Distortion…
"Sneasel." His friend lazily opened one eye. "Your perception saved us. We would have never been able to actually find Durand without you. Thank you."
Sneasel preened happily under the praise.
"We'll continue to develop it," Ash said. "I have ideas."
Nidoking and several other members of the team snorted at that. Ash smiled back. "As for the other problems… Noivern. Plume did a good job shutting it down, but it was holding back. One serious Boomburst could have rattled us all—" and could just as easily have left him unconscious or worse. "—and left us easy pickings. We have to figure out how to defend against sonic techniques. They'll cut right through most defenses."
He leaned down to pat Lairon. Even his thick metal armor wouldn't provide good protection against the vibrations. They'd just conduct the attacks.
Dazed held her hand up. A faint bubble of psychic power emerged around it, incandescent even in the stark light of Steven's apartment.
"We may be able to shield against sonic attacks," Ash said slowly. The logistics would be messy. Psychic power was versatile enough to counter nearly anything if the user was skilled enough. Dazed certainly was. It would require special training, however. "It might interfere with our ability to give commands, though. We'd be reliant on your telepathy, plus you'd only be able to encircle us. Anyone at range would be defenseless. That would be a good temporary measure, though."
He glanced around at his team. Ice Storm would obviously block off Noivern and its devastating sonic abilities, but that posed its own logistical problems. The rest of his team wouldn't be able to flit in and out either, and it would obscure their vision. Dazed would counteract that somewhat with her psychic perception, as would Sneasel if he could hone him to detect Durand's Distortion-based team on the fly, but Ash wouldn't be satisfied with stopgap measures.
"Shiftry's Bullet Seed would rip right through the psychic barriers as well. Infusing them with Distortion is a nasty trick." He said. "That's easy enough to stop with Ancient Power or Earth Power," Ash glanced at Nidoking and Tangrowth, who gurgled happily back. "Any physical barrier, really."
That Razor Wind it commanded was fierce, but it was more of an inconvenience than anything. Most of Ash's team were tough enough to weather the slashing blades.
Speaking of slashing blades…
"Aegislash is a priority. We didn't see too much of it, but I don't want to see what it can do in the middle of a battle." Ash frowned. It had fought them head on before, but if he were weaponizing it, Ash would have just had Aegislash Shadow Sneak into a trainer to pierce them through the chest or cleave their head off with a single blow.
Cut the head off the Ekans, as it were.
If Ash were ruthless as Durand, that was. He had to remind himself. Aegislash had tried it on Infernus, but that seemed more of a desperation play than anything. Destiny Bond in its figurative hands was deadly as well.
"Too sneaky," Ash decided. "We have to perceive it and annihilate it as soon as possible. Sneasel, you're going to play a vital role here. Zoroark's illusions, Shedinja's Wonder Guard, Aegislash, countering Malamar's mental attacks… we're going to have to work hard to prepare you. Nidoking, we're going to see if we can train you to sense Distortion as well. That will take some of the load off Sneasel."
Nidoking nodded sharply, but let out a low groan as he realized just who would be training him on the sensing technique. Sneasel stared at him, jaw open for a moment, before he hissed delightedly. It was a rather new experience for him to be doing the teaching. With his new maturity, he might even manage not to inspire Nidoking into a blind rage by the end of it.
"Vigoroth is probably the least of our concerns. It's good support, probably meant to provide a bit of raw strength to balance out her team, but it's still too weak to take any of you one-on-one. That might change though. If I were Durand, I'd evolve it as soon as possible."
Bruiser looked interested in that mention. They'd spoken of Slaking on several occasions; Slaking was one of the few species that might be able to pose a physical challenge to Bruiser, though even that might be out of the running with his new physique.
Still, Slaking would still be able to keep Bruiser occupied and run rampant over the rest of the team in a physical brawl. They were built primarily for sprints, not for marathons, however. Their bodies were enormously powerful and packed with enough muscle to render them capable of wrestling even the mighty Snorlax to a draw, but their thermoregulation was notoriously lacking.
Draw the battle out, and you should be able to win. Slaking were terrifying opponents, but that enormous power came at a steep cost. They had to take care to avoid overheating in the middle of the battle, and a savvy opponent could exploit that. Any trainer worth their salt took steps to compensate for that by training their Slaking to wield freezing techniques like Blizzard or Ice Punch for their utility as much as their damage output.
Naturally, he expected Durand to have little trouble matching that. Still, with her emphasis on subtlety it was possible that she'd prefer to take advantage of Vigoroth's slighter build and greater stamina to assist her team. Slaking was powerful, but that didn't mean that it was always the best option.
"Start coming up with ideas for how to work with each other," Ash said. "We have to fight as one next time. We'll start with what I have planned out already, but you know your abilities even better than I do. If you think of any techniques, let me know, okay? This is how we master ourselves."
They all nodded. He didn't miss the way Bruiser's eyes strayed down to Lairon… more specifically his stubby tail. Maybe Ash should look into training a few more steel-types so that Bruiser could keep every hand occupied with his makeshift weapon.
Then again, maybe a (relatively) runty Steelix might be the best option. Ignoring the likelihood of all that pressure probably tearing its steel carapace apart, Bruiser just might be able to swing it around like an especially long and angry flail.
His friend's scarlet eyes met his.
"We're going to have special training with Plume. You might be able to interfere with Durand's entire team if we play our cards right."
Torrent rumbled at that, satisfied.
Illusions. Nigh impenetrable defense. Potential mind control.
Distortion offered incredible value to Durand, but her reliance on the foul power just might prove to be her undoing.
The front door slammed open. Ash tensed, explosions and screams echoing in his ears, but relaxed as Steven stalked in with Claydol and Skarmory just behind.
"...Skarmory, will you mind keeping an eye on the apartment with Claydol while we're gone?"
A screeching noise somewhere between an offended squawk and the shrieking of steel on steel grated their ears. Nidoking's sensitive hearing left him twitching.
"I know. But you know as well as I do that they won't -" Steven came to a stop as he entered into the living room and found Ash and a small army staring at him. "Ah, you're already awake. Perfect. Has your day been productive?"
"Just discussing Durand's team. Working out counters."
Steven nodded, unsurprised. "Of course. She will be doing the same."
Ash felt a feral smile stretch across his features. "I hope so."
His teacher offered a long suffering sigh. "She's a slippery one. Durand normally avoids anything reminiscent of a fair fight. It's been years since we've gathered any real data regarding her time. You'll need to include your assessment in the report."
Yes, that sounded about right. Durand wouldn't reveal her cards so easily, and certainly hadn't expected Ash's family to pressure her as much as they had. There very well may be even more that she'd kept hidden for fear of the League learning more about her skills.
"I have it half-written already!" Ash waved his PokeNav at Steven. He nodded at Ash in approval, though he squinted at him in the bright lights. Skarmory somehow managed to peck the light switch in just the right way to activate the dimmer. "How's the concussion?"
"Irritating, but manageable. It was only minor. I've been assured that I'll recover quickly."
"That'll make Metagross happy."
And Steven as well, but that went unsaid. Steven had been uncharacteristically twitchy since the archipelago raid. He'd been so busy in its aftermath that Ash hadn't gotten to spend too much time with him, but Steven seemed slower. A little lost, perhaps. It must feel as if he were only half a person with his nearly permanent bond with Metagross temporarily torn away.
"Quite. Now…" Steven sighed. Claydol's faint amusement prodded at them all. "I apologize for the short notice, but it's time."
He sat up straight, suddenly all business. "The Trench?"
"The Trench." Steven confirmed. "We leave in five minutes. Juliet?"
She manifested from nowhere, though had little space to herself given the number of gigantic pokemon devouring all the space in the room. Juliet's spindly form was perfect for slipping into the mix, however, and her eyes curved upward in delight as they caught sight of Bruiser.
My sincerest congratulations.
Seeker squeaked happily back, then was brave enough to flutter over to Juliet, who held her arm outstretched for Seeker to latch onto. Ash smiled at Seeker's surprising courage, then grew serious yet again.
"We're ready to leave now. Just say the word."
This was what he'd been waiting for all day, after all. As important as it was to cover their flawed execution from the other day and make plans to correct their weaknesses, it was just an exercise to burn time. It had to be done, but it might have waited.
But he needed something to keep his restless thoughts occupied.
He shared a look with his team. "We're ready now."
Steven didn't look surprised. "Very well. Juliet?"
Ash had only a moment to return his team. A new energy brimmed within him now, coiled up and ready to strike, and he welcomed the snare of Juliet's psychic power as it took hold of him and warped them far, far away.
Welcome to my facility, Stone-Inheritor.
Cunning old eyes, wrinkled and lined with exhaustion, strayed to Ash. A yellow hand went to its steel pendulum and rubbed it lovingly between large yellow fingers. The Hypno cocked its large head at Ash.
"Warden." Steven inclined his head. "A pleasure to meet you again. It's been some time."
You were still Champion then, if I recall. How times have changed.
Steven glanced away. Whether it was the telepathy wreaking havoc in his concussed brain or just discomfort, Ash couldn't tell. Hopefully the Hypno was keeping a light touch."Indeed."
I hear that I have you to thank for the influx of new guests. We've had so few as of late.
"We had quite the victory in the archipelago," Steven puffed up a little. Ash nodded beside him, eager to support his mentor here. "The Rockets are scattered. Perhaps even broken."
The Hypno's eyes crinkled in delight. It polished its steel pendulum a little faster.
Wonderful! My first wave of guests have begun to grow… frail. We hate to see Drake's Hoard diminish.
"Drake's Hoard?" Ash raised an eyebrow. Did that mean what he thought it meant…?
"That's enough!" Steven warned. The Hypno ignored him.
Quite so. The League doesn't like that nickname, but I will not call a pearl a grain of sand. Why deny your victory? You won! Enjoy your spoils.
"They're prisoners," Steven said stiffly. "Not trophies."
The Warden shrugged. The two trainers that flanked the old, silver-streaked Hypno just rolled their eyes. Ash doubted that this was the first that they'd heard of it.
"And what's your name?" He asked. Glacia's diplomacy lessons shrieked in his brain, but this Hypno didn't seem the sort to appreciate a delicate touch.
You would be correct. And my! Your mind is quite the prison, isn't it? It even rivals my fine facility. You may call me Warden. It is not what I was, but it is what I have become. That is enough.
Ash nodded back. The Hypno turned and gestured for them to follow. They were in a bare, empty room now, stark and steel and sterile. Whatever the Trench was, it clearly wasn't meant to be a home. Every inch was designed to imprison the foulest criminals that Hoenn had ever seen within its walls.
It was buried thousands of feet beneath the waves. Ash could hear the Song's gentle melody in his ears, though it tinged with something rawer. More primal. If he listened close enough, he could hear the edges of a Roar pounding through the steel… no.
His heart skipped a beat as he recalled the sensation of connecting with slumbering Earth. He'd been burnt inside and out, spared only by some whim of Mewtwo's. Ash wouldn't put himself in that situation again.
You have come at a fine time!
The Warden seemed eager to show off his home. Where Dazed normally shuffled, he practically frolicked. A wave of his hand opened most doors with a rush of psychic power, though Ash couldn't help but notice it took seconds longer for the Warden to focus it than for Dazed to do the same.
He couldn't help but feel a stirring of pride at that.
"And why is that?" Ash questioned.
Luminous eyes craned back to stare at him raptly. The Warden's eyes crinkled up in a smile reminiscent of Dazed's. Steven hid a shudder.
I have you to thank for it, actually. See, your arrival disrupted a legion of my hypnotists. I've overseen this trench for Drake-Friend for thirty years now. Never have I seen Drake's Hoard so alert! Their pleasant dreams have broken and they realize the steel trap around their ankle for the first time in months, if not years. It grows monotonous here beneath the waves. This is a pleasant surprise!
Steven frowned at Ash. "I knew I shouldn't have agreed to bring you here."
Ash shrugged. He probably should've seen this coming if the League were employing lesser psychics to watch over the prisoners here. Oh well, it was too late to worry about it now.
"There's no chance for anyone to break out, right?" Ash couldn't help but ball his fists as he remembered who else was imprisoned here. Pierce. "They're still contained?"
Of course. I take every precaution. Still… if they broke containment, where would they go?
The Warden gestured to the stainless steel walls, which continued down the corridor for what seemed like an eternity without seam or interruption. Apparently the League had decided windows were far too much of a structural vulnerability. If he lacked context, he would never even begin to guess that the Trench had been constructed underwater.
Living in this place would drive Ash mad. What a terrible fate.
The abyss might seem a tempting lure to any who caught awareness for too long.
This conversation was rapidly becoming unpleasant. Ash tried to switch topics to more pleasant pursuits. Steven seemed to have retreated within his own mind, no doubt worried about his own blood within these walls… not that Steven would ever consider a monster like Pierce his kin.
"So how did you end up here, Warden?" Ash prodded. "Did you have a partner?"
Drake-Friend, perhaps. I have never journeyed with another. We were only neighbors in his long retreat in Meteor Falls before the invasion. He asked for my assistance when he flew to war. I like Drake-Friend. I like new challenges. I like new minds to explore. It was a wonderful match. And when it was over, Drake-Friend had all sorts of secrets to keep buried here. This time I offered my services.
Ash nodded along, but all he could wonder was if he would recognize any of the old names from the war. Hoenn had bled the Unovans dry above Lilycove and a dozen other battles… Drake's rampage had torn the region from the jaws of defeat. In doing so, quite a few Unovan commanders had vanished from the annals of history.
How many had ended up here?
"More than you can imagine," Steven said quietly. Ash realized that he must have said that last part out loud. "Of the Unovans? Butchers. Pillagers. Those who passed down the orders. But almost as many of our own nowadays. Those who opened our borders to the invasion. Those who disobeyed Drake's orders and sought to inflict pain, not justice, on Unova's shores. Traitors and monsters alike."
Ash had nothing to say to that.
"This facility was a nightmare to build. Perhaps that was fitting, given what is held within it. You can't imagine the expense… even with hundreds of water-type pokemon, even with three dozen League psychics offering their support, it was a titanic feat of engineering. It may appear like standard hallways, but we're submerged in an enormous sphere right now to maintain structural integrity. This prison serves its purpose well enough, though."
Well enough? I take offense to that.
Steven pursed his lips. One of his hands strayed down to the worn pokeball which held Metagross, but he only tapped it. The Warden's steps seemed to pick up a little extra frolic, as if he were about to break out in dance.
Perhaps Dazed would join him, although Ash nearly shuddered at the look she would probably give him if she ever heard him entertaining that thought.
Here we are. Our newest guest.
The Warden paused. Two trainers stood farther down the steel hallway, eyes alert, but only offered respectful nods to Steven. Ash attracted some odd looks though.
His eyes flickered with psychic power, more magenta than Dazed's icy blue, and a viewing screen slid open. It wasn't exposed to the ocean. All it revealed was a solitary holding chamber. There was little to describe. It was almost entirely bare besides a long rectangular table, a few metal chairs bolted to the floor, and a bruised, damaged blonde-haired woman sitting with her eyes closed.
The life seemed to have been sucked out of her. All the defiance and focus had been taken from her by her capture. The razor edge had been blunted to a safe dullness. It was clear that the League had allowed her to wash up and addressed any injuries. Her hurt arm had been treated and was currently hanging in a sling. While she wasn't in the best condition after the earlier battle, she was covered in bandages and had a small meal laid out in front of her.
"We still have no luck with the red-haired boy. Our scouts have detected no trace beyond the atoll. As previously hypothesized, we suspect that he teleported away."
Steven's words weren't judgmental in the least, simply stating an observation, but Ash still felt like gnashing his teeth. That was one failure he wasn't happy about. Whoever that boy was, he needed to be taken far, far away from the Rockets. He was too strong to run free.
Even with the Rockets broken, Ash would not allow anyone to reband that filthy organization. He'd help the League hunt the dregs into the deepest cracks of the earth. He and Plume would chase them across the sea.
"And we still aren't sure who he was?"
"A symbol." Steven stated simply. "He was certainly a formidable asset. From your report and those of Rangers who encountered him on the island, we judge him to be capable of contending with a Gym Leader. Juan, Norman, and Winona," Steven softened a bit on that name, "should be able to apprehend him with little issue, but we don't take chances. He will be found. We are simply here to gather information. Proton has already been questioned."
Ash could only imagine that the Ever Grande League would be very, very busy for the next few days. Weeks, rather. Proton was one of the Archer faction's most capable commanders, and no doubt he was full of useful information. The Rockets would be hunted. Quite a few would probably find their way down to the Trench.
He couldn't quite pity them, but Ash couldn't imagine a more miserable fate. Locked down in the deep in this prison of gleaming steel, never to see the sunlight again…
Steven tapped Claydol's pokeball and the construct manifested in a quick flash of red light.
Oh, we're down here again. Lovely. There's nothing like knowing there's billions of gallons of ocean pressing down above our heads to settle the mind.
The Warden polished his steel pendulum.
Welcome again to our fine facility. I hope you enjoy your stay. Sadly it will not be a permanent one.
Claydol spun lazily in the air.
You're a creepy little thing, you know that?
Despite the insult, the Warden seemed to smile at that.
It gives me undeniable satisfaction.
"Enough!" Steven barked. He exhaled. "We're going in. Ash, I hate to ask it of you, but would you like to come in as well? She's exhibited a tight control of her emotions. She's remained focused. It's been difficult to pry much from her. I hope the sight of her capturer will allow Claydol to slip in and snare any useful information."
"Absolutely." Ash narrowed his eyes at the woman. She seemed so peaceful sitting there, almost like she was just taking a nap. It was a far cry from the skilled commando that had tried to teleport on top of him and strike him down. "Should I say anything?"
"No. I'll send you out if there seems to be any issues. Ideally, we won't have to actually discuss much with her. Claydol will take whatever escapes her self-control. I hate anti-psychic tactics," Steven complained. "They make things far too difficult."
The League was pretty reliant on such things, so that was understandable.
Ash had no doubt that they could take whatever information they wanted from Domino. He knew there were ways to limit a psychic's ability to slip in and peruse your thoughts - though you couldn't actually keep them out without some sense of Distortion, such as what Agatha, or even Morty could muster.
A 'polite' psychic - one bound by morality, common decency, or what laws and regulations were set in place to protect the rights of prisoners - would be limited to what was currently passing through your mind.
Memory was a vast interconnected web. Activate one memory and it would shine light on a hundred connections. A psychic could detect and tug and encourage specific threads to guide thought patterns, perceive the memory directly, and all sorts of other mental techniques. Interrogation accompanied by a psychic usually revealed far, far more than the recipient intended to reveal.
It was easy enough to put people in a trance and seek out that information directly, but it was far less efficient. A psychic manually had to create an impetus to spark the memory through telepathy, then sort through a jumbled mess. Slow, time-consuming, and fairly inconsistent.
A less-polite psychic could also just crack their brain open like an egg and scoop out whatever it wanted, but the League wasn't a huge fan of that method. Too messy. Too much permanent damage. It was on the table when desperate times arose, but too many remembered Unova's trail of drooling, broken victims to treat such actions lightly.
Too many of the last generation knew exactly what it did to a person.
Too many remembered Unova's trail of drooling, broken victims to become remotely comfortable with that, for all it might simplify some problems.
Regardless, all this was doing was delaying the inevitable. Domino was just buying time.
As for what… well, that was what they were here to find out.
A moment, Storm-Tamer. You train one of my sisters, yes? I would speak with her.
"Take a moment. I will begin our discussion. Enter when you are ready." Steven said, then slipped into the prison cell.
Ash was a little hesitant to leave Dazed with the Warden, but he also trusted her to take care of herself. He had no doubt that she could tear the Warden apart with just a thought or two.
So he released her. Dazed was still exhausted, but she'd managed to recover a little over the past day. She stood straight and tall the moment she realized that they were in the Trench, and refused to betray a hint of her exhaustion.
Greetings! I would have words with you, Eye-of-Storm.
Dazed cocked her head, glanced to Ash, and nodded. Even in this state she could turn the Warden into a pretzel.
With that taken care of, Ash opened the door and stepped in to join Steven and Domino. He caught the very beginnings of the Warden's words, then the door sealed shut behind him.
Tales of your might have spread far and wide, Eye-of-Storm. You have become a legend to our kind. Yet you have strayed from our talents… let me guide you, in this short time we have -
The Warden's voice was soon replaced with Steven's.
"- will not be released, but you can be given pleasant dreams. It's better than you deserve."
Claydol hung over them ominously, psychic power ablaze. It tingled against Ash's skin. Domino adamantly refused to even glance at the creature. She wouldn't risk a single stray thought allowing Claydol entry.
But she saw Ash. Her eyes widened. Her jaw dropped. Her face paled. The bruises that covered her stood out in stark contrast to her ghastly appearance. A psychic presence bloomed in Ash's mind, dark and terrible and vast as a mountain as it perceived through Ash's senses.
Oh my. That is interesting.
Steven didn't spare Ash a glance. "We need to find him. The League isn't the only entity hunting him, you know. Only the kindest."
Ash froze at that. Aqua, the opposing faction of Rockets, Durand… half the eyes in Hoenn were searching for the boy.
Domino's lidded eyes cracked open. She was too good to slip up much. As a previous lieutenant of Giovanni's, she'd no doubt been trained extensively for situations like this. Still, Ash's appearance had rattled her. He frowned. Was it just a second look at the trainer who had captured her? Was it his age?
Questions upon questions.
"They won't find him. I trained him well."
"And what future does he have? There are no Rockets left to regroup. He's only a child. Do you think Executive Archer will have mercy?"
"Archer is broken as well," Domino spat. "He devoted nearly everything to hunting us. He's a cunning one, but too greedy by half. The fool always was. His organization is in tatters."
Steven steepled his fingers. He was always a reserved man, but Ash could feel how pleased he was. Any information was a treasure.
"The boy, Silver," Steven corrected himself. "He's an important asset, guarded by the Rockets for years. A talented trainer, but that does not explain the protection offered to him. We have it on good authority that you fled Indigo with him. Why?"
Domino snorted. Her eyes strayed to Ash again with a flicker of something inscrutable hidden within their depths. She did her best to hide it, but Ash could tell that she calculating something, working out the best possible solution to some unknown problem. "His strength is useful, but idiots thought he was more than he really was. He was a symbol. The lost needed something to rally around, and I needed tools. Silver ensured that everyone won."
Except the people that the Rockets had hurt, robbed, and killed. Ash's fists clenched as Fire threatened to rear up in his breast.
"He is a child. Why would he be a symbol?" Steven trailed off. His mouth twisted into a scowl. "Who is he?"
Ash's breath froze in his chest as the pieces came together.
Domino picked at her nails too casually. She refused to look at Ash, but he knew the next words would be directed at him. Domino knew. "Silver is Giovanni's boy. I was his protector. He deserved better," Domino said more to herself than to them. Ash could barely hear her, swimming as he was in his own thoughts.
Ash had a brother.
The room seemed far, far away as a million racing thoughts shot through his mind. Mewtwo's presence just lurked, unsurprised, and Ash wanted to scream. He wanted to release his team - he needed to talk to them! - and contact his mother and demand Professor Oak come back from Orre and ask Gary and -
Agh! There was too much! He clamped down upon the Concepts before they could twitch free of his iron grip. This was not the place!
He needed his team! Standing behind Steven galled him. Part of Ash wanted to shake Domino by her collar - damn her injuries! He didn't care - and demand answers. Part of him wanted to walk right out.
"We have to find him."
"And what will you do with the son of Giovanni?" Domino glanced at Ash. Cruel, mocking, but Ash thought there might be a hint of something softer. He could only stare back wide-eyed. "Will you toss him in here with me?"
"We don't imprison children. He deserves a chance, but he won't receive it out there. We'll do better by him than you have. Silver wouldn't be a soldier."
"Really?" Domino scoffed as she looked pointedly at Ash. "Yes, that would be a terrible fate for a child, wouldn't it?"
Ash took a step forward. Steven looked at him warningly, but Ash didn't care. "Where would he hide?" He asked, voice ragged. "Where would he run?"
"The road," Domino said quietly. The edge left her voice. "He would keep moving. With me gone, Silver knows the safehouses are compromised. He'll leave the region if he's smart."
She didn't sound too confident about that. Perhaps Silver would stay around Hoenn in hopes of rescuing Domino? They seemed to have a deeper relationship than bodyguard and employer. He thought there must be some personal bond - she wouldn't have given up this information to him otherwise. Ash had no illusions.
Domino knew who he was at a glance. There were no illusions between them.
How close to Giovanni had she been? Domino had been trusted with Giovanni's son. She knew his secrets. Was she Silver's mother? No, impossible. Too young. The whole line of thought left Ash wanting to wretch, though.
Ash fell back. He stepped away and left the room wishing that he had Giovanni to throttle. What he wouldn't give to leave that man in a room with Infernus and Nidoking… Sneasel too.
He was too angry for this, but that anger disguised a great void opening up within him. Ash had thought this was finished. Now he had yet another thing to occupy his thoughts. Weren't there enough already?!
Easy, Ash. Your secret is safe with me. Tell Steven when you're ready. And relax! He'd be quite the hypocrite if he judged anyone else for psychopathic relatives, wouldn't he?
Ash snorted despite himself. He spared Claydol a grateful glance and slipped out of the room.
…Physical manipulation is excellent, and your spatial manipulation is far beyond most. But we are born to pluck minds and place them under our sway. You outstrip most of our kind in that regard by virtue of sheer strength, but your skill must be developed if you wish to dominate those around you.
"Warden." Ash rasped. A hint of his tightly-bound turmoil slipped past, filled with Fire and Lightning. The old Hypno straightened at his words. "I would like to see another prisoner before we leave."
Dazed looked at Ash strangely, touched his thoughts with her familiar presence, and shuffled over to take Ash's hand in hers. He squeezed as tight as he could. At least he never had to worry about hurting his team.
Of course! We have a fine selection for you to peruse. War criminals? Murderers? Terrorists? The choices are limitless.
"I think this one counts as all three," Ash said. He was a little curious to see whatever Unovan commanders had been trapped down here, though. It would be nice to know something that even the history books didn't! "Take me to former Executive Pierce. I think Steven will be gone for a while."
The Warden's eyes shimmered with delight even as Dazed's hand tightened around his.
A fine choice. Yes, let us go!
And with that, Ash was guided down countless steel halls. He passed a dozen guards with at least six pokeballs on their belt. The metal labyrinth was vast and interconnected at every point, and Ash was fairly confident that the Warden was just leading them in circles half the time just to obfuscate the plain prison's design.
But it gave him time to think.
Time to listen to the Roar pressing down from all directions.
Time to share his thoughts (literally) with Dazed.
New kin? He lacks your strength. He served the enemy. I detected his thoughts. Scared. Desperate. Cornered prey. He is dangerous.
That was something Ash could agree on. Silver had been raised under Giovanni's thumb, it seemed, and he could only imagine the vile beliefs that had stained him. Could anyone raised by evil, toxic Giovanni have a hint of good in them?
He is young. Malleable. Something twisted may be unbent.
What would Ash be like if his mother had never escaped?
He wouldn't have his family, and that was all he needed to know.
We are here, Friend-Trainer. We are with you.
Ash knew that, and he couldn't be more grateful. He sent warmth across their bond and felt it returned tenfold.
They finally reached a viewing screen. It was clear glass - or so it appeared - and it overlooked into a vast chamber designed in much the same way as the rest of the Trench. It was a soulless construction of sharp edges and metal. Cold. Inhospitable. In a way, it reminded Ash of the ocean depths all around them.
Within the room were a hundred humans. Captured pokemon were preserved in another part of the facility, according to the Warden. Some of the people were old, withered and practically translucent after decades of captivity, while others were still bright and angry. Many were sitting in various chairs, their hands bound by black straps.
A large stage (made of steel, naturally) was placed above them all. Several other Hypno, Grumpig, and a lone Kirlia all glared down at the prisoners. Some of the humans were screaming vile obscenities at them. Others stared blankly ahead, lost. Even more kept their eyes firmly shut as if desperate to return to their state of unawareness.
They are designed for comfort. We ensure that no physical harm comes to our guests.
"What about mental?"
The Warden's eyes crinkled.
That is a matter of opinion. They lose themselves, true. But this is not so bad. They get to spend the rest of their lives in a pleasant dream. If only the rest of us were so lucky.
Ash scowled at that. Perhaps it was better than they deserved, but it was a lie all the same. What was the point? He couldn't help but remember the Hale Mansion, Molly's mind made manifest, and knew that he would rather die than spend an eternity in a dreamworld, even if it was of his own making.
Not everyone is so fortunate. The world is a cruel place. It makes cruel people. Who are we to deny them this escape?
"We'll agree to disagree." Ash scanned the room, but couldn't find his target. "Where is it - he?"
Dazed's yellow finger pointed to the midst of the horde. Her other hand squeezed even tighter around his. Ash's breath hitched.
He recalled a tall, blue-haired man with the eyes of a Sharpedo and a cruel smile.
He remembered the noxious scent of Muk as it suffocated him, Jonathan, and Amelia.
Taunts over the St. Anne's intercom. A casual disregard of the five thousand lives onboard.
The rush of water filling his ears and lungs. Blotting out his vision. A nearly vertical deck tipping him into the ocean…
Hands around his throat in the depths of the Hale Mansion, the specter dredged from the darkest parts of his mind.
And for a moment, he saw Pierce through another's eyes. Haughty, human-but-not. He knew his mind inside out. A void seeking stimulation. Desperate boredom. A sophisticated veneer that required only the slightest glance to peel back and reveal the evil within.
Hatred filled him, and a sharp realization struck him. It didn't belong to Ash alone.
Ash's hand strayed to Infernus' pokeball. It would be so easy. So easy…
His vision doubled.
For a moment he was miles away, surrounded by a legion of devoted followers in a sea-wracked spire.
For a moment he was in New Island's highest tower.
For a moment he was a Legend.
And then he was Ash again.
His breathing was rapid. A cold sweat covered him.
Is he everything that you hoped for? He's my favorite. You should see what he thinks of you! We could arrange a meeting. Would you like that?
Dazed's telepathic voice cut like a whip. She glared at the Warden, who peered back with his luminous eyes.
Enough. Friend-Trainer, we should not be here. He is behind us.
"Wait," Ash whispered. Dazed's warm voice snapped him from his dissociation. He stared at Pierce, committing every detail to memory. For a moment he wasn't the monster of Ash's dreams, but a mortal man with lank hair, white skin, and a skull-like face. He had wilted without any innocents to toy with.
He was just a man.
A man that Ash had beaten.
A man that Ash had helped to put in chains.
A man that couldn't imagine the heights that Ash had reached. He would never know the wind against his face again, or the spray of seasalt. He was rabid as his psychopathic Umbreon, and now he had no one left to hurt.
No one except himself.
Pierce stared blankly ahead like the rest of them. There was no curl to his lip, no sneer. He was like a puppet with its strings cut. The man was bored, Ash could feel it. Whatever atrocities he was free to commit in his dreams had slipped from him like ash between his fingers.
Do you have a dream that you'd care to share with him? My hypnotists ordinarily just place them into the trance and allow their brains to fill in the gaps. But you have given us fine gifts. I don't mind going the extra mile to personalize his experience for you, Storm-Tamer.
A desperate hunger filled him. Ash thoughts of all the things he could make Pierce feel. The panic of his victims. The pain of his skin dissolving beneath Muk's bulk. The agony of freezing water jolting the breath from his lungs and replacing precious oxygen with icy brine.
Ash's hands around his throat.
Nidoking's horn in his gut.
Plume's talons plucking his head from his shoulders.
Torrent's water tearing him to pieces.
Dazed's psychic grip.
Infernus' gentle ministrations.
Seeker's teeth. Bruiser's fists. Tangrowth's vines drawing and quartering -
He couldn't turn his family into his monsters, not even in his darkest fantasies. They deserved better than that - they deserved better than him.
Part of Ash wanted to indulge. He was just so angry. As bad as the Trench was, Pierce had done a thousand times worse. How many lives had he ruined or ended? How much pain had he caused?
The rest of him was tired of being afraid. He'd spent so long remembering this sorry excuse for a man. Ash thought of him every day it seemed, even if it was just a flitting mention. In a way, Pierce had set everything in motion.
"He's finished." Ash said quietly. "Nothing will break him out this time. It's over."
A pulse of icy flame blazed in agreement.
Ash glared daggers at Pierce. It galled him that Pierce would never know that Ash had come here, but he couldn't help but be relieved all the same. He wouldn't be the one to breathe life back into the man by letting him know what a stain he'd left on Ash.
Let him wilt.
Let him be forgotten.
It took all he had, but Ash turned away.
"Thank you, Warden, but that will be all. Let him rot."
The Warden looked disappointed, but accepted his decision. Without a word, they turned and left the prisoners to their solitude.
Anger still burned within, fueled by Domino as much as Pierce, but somehow Ash felt a little lighter.
It sounded a little mean even to Ash, but Petalburg was the opposite of a curious town.
Ash had stopped by briefly with Daisy as they traveled together, but he hadn't tarried long. Although Petalburg was fairly ancient, having dominated the vast tropical forests and coastlines of southern Hoenn for a thousand years, it lacked the powerful identity of true powers such as Rustboro or Lilycove.
It was a prominent city, quite influential due to the wide expanse that it oversaw and the ancient trade routes which had once intersected between Rustboro, Dewford, Slateport, and Lavaridge. Petalburg grew wealthy, but had traded hands multiple times as various greater powers jockeyed for influence in the crossroads. Direct invasion had rarely borne fruit thanks to the wild terrain all around, but gold and power proved effective for tempting internal divisions to tip the scales in one direction or another.
In a sense, that ephemeral nature was Petalburg's identity. Petalburg was mundane. Petalburg was a little dull. Petalburg was safe.
It had never had the chance to develop its own personality.
Several hundred thousand people lived in this city buried within the forests. It reminded Ash of Celadon more than anything - fairly modern, fairly suburban, and fairly scattered. There were a few concentrated downtown areas where the urban environment took full control, but for the most part Petalburg was sprawling. Roaming across its territory would be a pain.
Thankfully, Juliet had taken them directly to the Gym and the hard-faced Gym Leader that awaited them.
Leader Norman was a severe man, a little taller than average and with firm black eyes. He didn't appear cruel, but he was intense. His mouth was twisted into a dour expression, although he expressed nothing but politeness to Steven and Ash as they appeared in front of him.
"Mr. Stone," Norman inclined his head. An enormous Slaking stood at his side, nearly fourteen feet tall as it towered over them on two legs. It was rare to see them standing properly, but Ash couldn't help but admire the sheer power it exhibited with every twitch of its lazy frame. Yes, this would be a proper opponent for Bruiser! "Elite Four Ash. Welcome to Petalburg."
"Leader Norman," Steven said formally. It didn't take a master of perception to realize that Steven was less than comfortable here. "Thank you for your hospitality. We won't be long. I only wanted to introduce Ash before we take our leave."
Norman nodded. He softened a tad as he met Ash's eyes and offered his hand, which Ash quickly took. His grip was strong. "It's a pleasure! I hear that you've met my wife and daughter?"
He recalled Caroline and May back in Littleroot. "I did. I was traveling with Daisy Oak."
Norman laughed. "Ha! Yes, that sounds about right. I'm glad you were there to give my daughter an opposing view. Little Daisy has been whispering in May's ear for years about Coordinating! Someone has to give her the other side, and she's not going to listen to her dear old dad."
Ash smiled back, not really sure how to respond, but Norman seemed happy enough.
"Would you mind showing Ash the Gym and outlining your responsibilities in Petalburg?" Steven requested. "I need to gather supplies. We have a long journey ahead of us."
"You're headed to Fortree?" Norman was cold again. Steven nodded. "The weather has been harsh. Assuming you're on foot the entire way, you'll likely be traveling for six weeks. Would you be able to take a missive to the Pack?"
"I was planning on introducing Ash to the Alpha regardless," Steven's voice was even. "We will take your missive. Urgence?"
"Low priority. Communication of hopes for future goodwill and a request for additional supply needs." Norman said curtly. "Thank you for your service, Mr. Stone."
Steven said nothing to that. He just nodded briskly and hurried away. "I'll find you soon, Ash. Be prepared to head out as soon as I return."
Ash dipped his head and looked oddly at Norman. There was a warmth to him now that hadn't been present just a moment ago. Did he have some sort of problem with Steven?
Norman offered tight smiles and waves to the pedestrians surging around them, then smiled at Ash. "It's a little busy out here. Would you care to come see the Gym? I don't expect to see any challengers today."
He nodded and shared a glance with Bruiser, who had waited patiently at his side. Bruiser stood proudly amidst the humans, soaking up attention as he towered above them all with the Black Belt tied around his muscular waist, and followed behind them as Norman guided them into the Petalburg Gym.
Its design was actually similar to that of Ecruteak's Gym and other Indigo facilities, a stark reminder that Norman was from Olivine City. Ash hadn't memorized everything about the Petalburg Gym Leader (yet) but that little tidbit had stolen his attention when he skimmed Norman's file.
There were parts of the file that he'd steered clear of, such as the psychological records. A personality assessment was fine, but Ash didn't want to abuse his Elite Four access by delving into classified or personal information. His curiosity was dying to dig into all those records for everyone in the League, but his self-control had won out.
"What's Olivine like?"
Norman seemed surprised at the question, but nonetheless smiled down at Ash. "I miss the sea. Don't get me wrong, I love Hoenn, but I spent my life watching the waves. It's always a nice change of pace when I'm called to the coastline and can walk the beaches here."
"I never got to go," Ash said. "I was in Goldenrod for a bit, then Ecruteak, then made my way to the Plateau."
"Mahogany and Blackthorn," Norman inferred. A Gym Trainer in professional attire greeted them promptly as they stepped into the Gym. "They're fine cities, although a little too traditional for my taste. You should visit Olivine the next time you're in Johto! I'm sure Jasmine would love to meet you."
Ash cracked a smile. "Probably more than Clair did."
Norman barely concealed his amusement. "I heard about your encounter. Congratulations on your victory. That is no mean feat. Clair's team is as strong as her personality."
"That's one word for it. So you know Jasmine pretty well?"
"She's a good girl," Norman said fondly. "Strong, compassionate, and determined. Jasmine is young, but she has the making of a fine Gym Leader. I was attached to the Olivine territory as an ACE trainer before I moved to Hoenn."
Ash perked up. "How does it compare to being a Gym Leader?"
Norman considered that for a few moments as he guided them through various training rooms. Quite a few of his own Gym Trainers were sparring there, though most were too focused to spare much more than a curious glance or two. A firm stare from Norman set the most curious back on track.
"Stability," Norman said finally. "You never know where you'll end up in ACE. Your life is spent on call. It makes things… difficult. A Gym Leader's duties carry their own challenges, but at least I know where I'll lay my head each night."
Ash nodded along.
"Petalburg is a good city. I'm proud to represent her people," Norman said. "It's nice and quiet ever since I did my initial purges. I expect that's why Mr. Stone chose to guide you through here."
"Is something wrong?" Ash asked bluntly. One of Bruiser's four arms reached up to awkwardly scratch at his head, although it accidentally smacked him hard enough to crack most normal skulls. "You don't seem to like Steven very much."
Glacia would probably flash freeze him if she ever heard about this.
"I - no. You should ask Ste - Mr. Stone. It's not my place to say," Norman added stiffly. His eyes focused on a young boy with green hair as they passed through yet another training room. The Petalburg Gym was crammed full of them. Ash approved. "Wally! I have someone for you to meet."
"Sir?" The boy appeared sickly. Ash frowned, concerned. Wally was pale as one of the Trench's 'guests' and appeared delicate enough for a stiff breeze to blow him away. Despite that, Ash thought he sensed something… more.
He was frail, but determination bled through every pore. A tiny Ralts shuffled by his feet, practically drowned in its helmet-shaped bowl of wispy green hair. It peered up at Ash curiously, but flinched as it tried to brush against his thoughts.
"This is Ash Ketchum. Would you mind showing him around the Gym? Something urgent has come up." Norman didn't sound particularly hurried as he handed Ash off with a wink and walked away, but Wally snapped to attention nonetheless. The boy's luminous eyes locked on Ash and his wheezing quickened to a point that he honestly found concerning.
What was he supposed to do if Wally keeled over?
"Ash Ketchum!" Wally squeaked. He looked a little starstruck. Ash was less than comfortable, but Bruiser grunted softly to prod him into action.
"Nice to meet you."
"Yes! A pleasure to meet me - you!" Wally looked as if he wanted to die. Ash took pity on him.
He knelt to look at Ralts. "You're looking pretty strong! Sorry if I surprised you earlier."
Ralts still looked uncomfortable and had one tiny hand clenched around Wally's green pants, but smiled shyly up at Ash and Bruiser. It offered a tentative wave.
"Ralts is amazing!" Wally gushed, only to break off in a coughing fit. Ash wanted to offer some kind of help, but didn't want to offend the boy. Wally didn't seem particularly bothered by it, although the dry hacking sounded agonizing. "We met just a few months ago. He's already gotten so strong! We're working on Calm Mind right now."
"Calm Mind?" Ash arched his eyebrows. That was an advanced technique. It wasn't too difficult, but for a newbie trainer to be working on it… well, that said something about his focus. "Show me. I might be able to help."
Wally's ashen face lit up as he rushed them over to a small training arena. This room wasn't currently in use, thankfully. Poor little Ralts was far too delicate to be around any clashing pokemon.
"Alright, Ralts. Do your thing!"
Ralts shone with psychic power, and Ash watched.
He thought he might know why Norman had been so eager to introduce him to Wally, and Ash approved.
"There. That's it."
Ralts shone briefly with psychic power. Calm Mind wasn't a technique like Psychic that actively drew upon energies to wreak havoc upon an enemy, but the sheer intensity of the glow showed that Ralts had managed to pull it off.
"Keep that focus." Ash circled around Ralts and Wally, who was currently whispering gleeful affirmations into Ralts' ear as his partner channeled more psychic power than it ever had. "Find your image. Find something that will center you. Make that your world. Psychic power relies upon intensity and focus. If you waver, so will your powers. Do not lose it."
The tiny psychic grunted, renewed its focus, and Ash felt a gentle psychic grip encase him. His instincts screamed to break it, to flex and shatter the fragile touch, but he knew better. This was Ralts' best attempt. He wouldn't ruin it so easily.
All it would take was a rush of Fire or Ice. Ralts' control was imperfect.
It pressed down on him a shade tighter and lifted. Ralts sagged, but held its arms out to enhance its focus. Ash floated an inch above the ground. Bruiser huffed with thinly veiled amusement.
WIth that, Ralts collapsed. Wally scooped his little friend up and cheered him on, but couldn't help the hacking coughs that wracked his thin frame.
"You did so well! We'll get the Balance Badge in no time if you keep this up!"
"How long have you been training here?"
"Two months now. Leader Norman helped me find Ralts here! He took me out of Petalburg," Wally's eyes grew starry at that, and Ash could sympathize, "and Ralts just stumbled across us. We were so lucky!"
Ash eyed Ralts as it soaked up the attention. They were known to be drawn to warm and loving individuals. He doubted that much luck went into their encounter. Most likely it had watched Wally from a distance for some time, and only revealed itself when it felt comfortable that they could establish a bond.
"Leader Norman said we could train here. We haven't been able to do much battling yet," Wally looked a little ashamed at that. He coughed into his sleeve. "But Ralts is so strong! He's been getting stronger and stronger every day."
"I can see that." Ash turned to face Bruiser, who watched Wally and Ralts fondly. He probably felt just as nostalgic as Ash did in that moment. "So what do you train for? Do you want to go on a journey?"
Wally wilted. "My parents want me to stay in Petalburg. They worry"
"What do you want?"
"What do I want?" Wally asked in a daze. It sounded as if he'd never even thought of that question before. "I - I want to leave. I want to see all of Hoenn. I want the whole world to see how amazing Ralts is!"
He smiled. "Do it. Show them all."
Wally hesitated, and Ash decided he needed a bit of a confidence boost.
"What do you say to a battle?"
The boy's jaw dropped. "With you?"
"With me," Ash confirmed. "What do you say?"
The tiny psychic shook a fist at Ash and hummed in what he no doubt intended to be a threatening manner. His eyes flashed azure beneath his green helmet of hair.
Wally beamed. "Let's go!"
Who to choose? Lairon would be the best choice, but Ralts wouldn't be able to lift him. Plus, Lairon was many things, but self-aware wasn't one of them. Ash gave it fifty-fifty odds that Lairon accidentally trampled Ralts without realizing the danger it posed.
The rest of his team were obviously too powerful. Some dark part of Ash felt vaguely amused at Wally's reaction to Spiritomb being released, but he quickly quelled that little joke. Speaking of which, he really needed to sit down and discuss things with Spiritomb.
There would be time on the trail. The farther from civilization the better.
Sneasel was an obvious 'no'.
Bruiser grunted softly. His lower left hand pointed a thick finger at Seeker's pokeball.
Ash blinked. "Are you sure?"
Bruiser nodded, smiling now.
It was a smile that Ash happily returned. Well, if Bruiser was confident…
Ash tapped the pokeball. Seeker appeared with a happy squeak, fluttered atop Ash's head, and chittered at Bruiser. He rumbled something at her, pounded his chest, and she froze. For a moment Ash was afraid that her courage had been broken, but he felt her little claws dig into his hat.
She turned to Ralts and chattered something that Ash couldn't understand, then flared her wings out.
Seeker was prepared.
"Ready?" Ash asked her. He lowered his voice. "You don't have to, you know. It's your -"
The tiny Zubat shook her head indignantly, spread her wings, and squeaked her challenge. Ash grinned madly at her, exhilarated, and offered her a quick nod.
"You'll do amazing," Ash murmured. "Win or lose, I'm proud of you."
"Yeah!" Wally wheezed. He jabbed a finger in Seeker's direction. "Ralts, let's do this!"
It wasn't an opinion to say that Wally was in poor health. He was sickly, delicate, and seemed terribly fragile. But in that moment, Ash saw what Wally might become one day. Ash felt the joy, exhilaration, nervousness, and all the intoxicating mix of emotions that melded with what Ash himself felt whenever he went to battle.
There was steel in Wally.
Ash would just have to do his part in revealing it.
And with that, Seeker fluttered off of Ash's hat. Ralts' eyes shone azure.
The battle began.
A/N: Thanks so much for reading! I apologize for the delay on this one. It ended up not being nearly as long as I was hoping - I have a bit more written, but to do everything that I originally had planned would stretch this chapter to something like 35k and probably add another month to this release schedule. This way we have everything nice and ready to push on toward Fortree!
I do hope you enjoyed this chapter! Although it's very, very short I still had plenty of fun reading it. The Trench is an idea I've wanted to expand on for ages, and this feels like a nice little transition to poise Ash for the next phase of Hoenn. Next chapter is going to be jam packed.
We also hit a HUGE milestone with the release of Chapter 64! I am so proud to say that Traveler has officially passed the 9,000 review mark! This is amazing and I want to thank everyone so much for all your support. It's is absolutely insane to think that 10,000 is in Traveler's future. Imagine the dopamine when that one hits!
Because of that milestone, I've also decided to set a challenge for myself. It's currently 2/5/23 as of the writing of this A/N. You will see the next chapter within 30 days of me officially posting this one to FFN. If not, I'll penalize myself by applying my meager art skills to making something special for the Traveler discord. Let me know if you have any suggestions!