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Side Story 7 - Conquest
You could have read this early on my Discord or even earlier on my Patreon. Have this Side Story while I write the Gym Battle.

TRIGGER WARNINGS - Imperialism, talks of war and war crimes, victims of war


"Why did father have to die, mother? Why?"

"Remember, Akagi," her mother softly said. "War is a way of life. People die for what we believe in. In hopes of seeing Ransei unified."

Flames crackled within the fireplace, spreading warmth and light throughout the living room. Akagi's bare feet felt warm on the stony floor. She'd always liked how the fire made the stone like that, given how cold her house got during wintertime. There were no sounds of bombings or explosions in the distance tonight, so it would have been a good evening spent with her mother, had she not received terrible news of her father's passing this afternoon. Akagi's fingers intertwined with her mother's, who smiled.

"Aren't you sad?" she asked.

"This is something a wife must expect," Mother answered, softly caressing her hair. "When a man has married and his wife given birth, he is drafted into the fighting, so it is only a matter of time. How many old men do you see out and about in Aurora, Akagi?"


"Exactly. A good wife must expect her husband to die for the dreams of the Ranseian people," she beamed. "You too, one day, will be in my position. It is important for you to learn these lessons."

Her mother's hands, usually so comfortable and warm turned cold and rigid in a split second, though Akagi did not react. She hated talking about adult life, given all of the terrible stories she would hear from her friends. Her mother made it sound beautiful and worth it, but her friends' parents did not, and she wanted to make full use of the three years she had left as a child.

"Do not be unhappy, sweetie," mother smoothly said. "When we push back these monsters from Ignis and Fontaine, we will rise again."

"Mother… we were allied to Fontaine a year ago, weren't we?"

Her parent stared into the fire, saying nothing for a long while. She grabbed onto a cup, sipping on water heated from the flames. Akagi loved tea leaves, but they were expensive and she could only get those in batches when the merchants came back from Shinwa. They made it sound like such an amazing place. A land of peace and cooperation, where humans never fought each other. Akagi was only thirteen years old, but she knew about the expeditionary forces the outsiders sent to back whoever they favored at the moment. The kingdoms supported by them would rise above the rest for a few months or years, and then support would suddenly vanish, and they would collapse all over again and no progress would be done. While the world had been killing itself forty years ago, forcing the Three Elements into action, Ransei had known that kind of war, had been born in it, molded by it. For centuries— or perhaps millennia, Ransei had been at war with itself, and while tribes had risen and fallen, only a few had come close to uniting the continent with one goal.

For the creator to show Himself. It was said in the scriptures, that the people of Ransei were the oldest and the continent itself was as well.

"Alliances shift, Akagi," her mother finally answered. "That is the nature of politics."

She would talk about politics, when Akagi managed to break past the happy housewife persona that her mother put on. She was far smarter than she seemed, and yet… her mother was just there. Drifting across life.

"Tell me the truth."

Her mother's dark brown eyes closed for a few seconds. "The other women say that Sinnoh's Champion started backing Ignis and that they thought they could stab us in the back in exchange for rights to mine their coal and… some kind of gas."

Akagi did not freeze, for subterfuge and betrayal was a way of life, here, but she wondered. If Shinwa was a land of peace— if the entire world outside of Ransei was a land of peace, then why? Why did they feel the need to come in and ruin things? She was just a girl, but if no outsiders intervened, then would one of the kingdoms finally unite their lands in cooperation? Would peace finally come to Ransei?

Would their creator finally appear before them and lead them to His garden?

Akagi's eyes burned as bright as the flames, and she clenched her fists so tightly her nails dug into the flesh of her palm. It was the fire of ambition, that burned inside of her, and she used the death of her father and the knowledge that other nations used Ransei as a whorehouse as kindling. Father had not needed to die, because Sinnoh had killed him. The world had killed him, smothered him before he could truly live. He had been at war since the age of sixteen, lived for thirteen years on the front lines with only a few months spent at home.

"Mother," Akagi said, her voice trembling with rage. "Why is the world unfair?"

She sighed. "Do not think unnecessary thoughts, or you will not be let into His garden and your soul will be lost."

"I hate you. You hate yourself, too, but you act like everything is fine. Like this is normal."

A breath caught in her mother's throat, but the smile returned soon after. "I suppose I do. Hate myself."

"I know."

Akagi ran away from home during the night.

Akagi Yoshike, thirteen years old, had left Aurora in the winter with nothing but a satchel on her back with as much food she managed to scrounge up. The air was bitterly cold, slicing through her layers of clothing like a thousand icy blades. Her entire body shivered as one, the wind carrying a chill that seeped into her very bones and her face numb. The snot leaking from her nose was frozen on her upper lip, and she could see her breath in front of her face.

Akagi followed a lonely path in the wilderness leading out of Aurora with a destination in mind. She had not learned geography or even how to read, but everyone knew that in reference to their kingdom of Aurora, Ignis lay to the north, a nation of harsh land not fit for agriculture that had turned them to raiding Aurora's granaries after every harvesting season, save for when an alliance had been established and they traded instead. To the south lay Fontaine, a smaller coastal kingdom full of rivers and streams, and a lot less cold thanks to hugging the warm ocean breeze. Since Aurora was in a state of war with both, Akagi's only option lay to the west.

The Kingdom of Greenleaf, surrounded by lush plains for miles and the biggest producer of food in the region, or at least according to her mother. They were currently at peace with Aurora, so it was her best bet to get through the frontier without meeting a military contingent that would kill her or capture her on sight. She had heard horror stories of what they did to girls they managed to get their hands on, and Akagi would rather slit her own throat than live through that.

Her feet scrunched on the snow, and exposed patches protested against the frigid, agonizing cold. Akagi pulled her scarf tighter, attempting to shield her face from the relentless howling of the frozen winds. Every twig, every leaf, even the path was completely blanketed in pristine, unmarred snow, and the only reason Akagi knew where to walk was because it was slightly more elevated than the rest of the terrain and she knew that the sun rose in the east and set in the west, so she was walking away from it, cursing the enormous star for not giving her any warmth. For hours, the road stretched ahead, seemingly endless in its monotony.

Was she outside of Aurora yet? Her village was at the edge of the Kingdom, so maybe. She couldn't feel her legs or hands. Was that normal? Why was she so tired? Why was she on the ground? The snow coated the side of her face, and Akagi crawled forward, hoping to get herself toward one of the trees to sit upright, but her body felt so numb. She gripped the snow and dragged, but her grip wasn't strong enough to get herself moving. She cackled, her eyes fluttering as she struggled to stay awake. Was this it, then? Should she have stayed home, been handed off to a man and be made to bear as many children as she could to sustain Aurora's population?

Akagi spat on the ground, and it froze in front of her eyes.

Half delirious, she started to whisper.

"O Arceus, creator of realms and harbinger of balance,

Bless us with your guiding light, as vast as the cosmos.

Grant us strength to face the challenges that lie ahead,

And wisdom to navigate the paths of our journey.

In your divine presence, may harmony reign,

As we tread upon the landscapes of our destinies.

As Poke
Pokemon trainers and seekers of truth,

May your cosmic grace be our e
eternal companion.

Arceus, source of all existence,

We offer… our gratitude and reverence,

For the wonders of… creation and the bonds we

In your name, we find purpose and… unity,

And one day, we
—" she stopped to cough. "—we will unite these lands under your radiance."

"That's a pretty prayer, little tyke," said a gruff voice slightly masked by the wind. "What're you doing all the way out there? Decided to go off and die?"

Akagi didn't freeze, for her body was already completely still, and she struggled to open her eyes again. They were nearly frozen shut, and no longer how hard she told her body to move, nothing happened. It was over. She was going to get captured. She could hear the steps and the muffled voices of the others in the distance. They were going to have their way with her and keep her as a slave.

"Lieutenant! Don't get too close, she might have a bomb under her clothes!" a voice said. Male, but lighter than whoever this lieutenant was.

Akagi finally managed to open her eyes, nearly gasping when she saw the size of the man who had approached her. She could only see with one of her unburied eyes, but he towered over all around him at around seven feet, at least, and he had the build of someone who had tilled fields his entire life. It was nighttime now, so it was difficult to see in the moonlight, but his hair was blonde and spiky. Unkept. He carried a sharp scent that tingled her nose and kept her awake. Slightly sweet, but burning. A Raichu and some kind of blue and yellow Canine stood by his side, a Pokemon Akagi had never seen before.

"Grab her and take her back to camp," the Lieutenant said. "Not the first runaway runt we've come across."

"Not the first that'd have a dirty bomb on 'em either," the man said. "But orders are orders. You heard the Lieutenant, boys and girls!"

Akagi was not sure how, but energy coursed through her veins, and suddenly, she could move again. Her heart was beating so loudly she could feel the pulse in her ears, and she started to sweat. She could not move very much, but her hand sluggishly reached inside her satchel. The people around her jumped out of the way, diving away from her as she grabbed her knife and shoved it toward her throat—

The Lieutenant's burly hands grabbed her wrist, and she knew he could have snapped them if he applied enough strength.

"None of that," he grunted. "We won't do anything you're thinking of to ya, so no need to be all fucking dramatic about it." He grabbed her and put her over his shoulder. "Declan! Get your fucking Houndoom to work, you useless sack of shit! I'm freezing my fucking balls off."

Akagi felt warmth spread through her skin, but she had no time to enjoy the sensation, given the fact that she passed out seconds later.

She woke up inside of a bed larger than she'd ever been in, and the warmth here felt so good she almost opted to go to sleep before remembering she'd been kidnapped. Akagi's entire body ached, was covered in blisters and was slightly swollen and paler than she was used to. Just the covers and clothes brushing up against her body was painful. Frostbite. She'd never seen one this severe, though, and it made her want to die. The same Raichu Akagi had seen early was lying on the floor, curled up next to some sort of machine that continuously hummed and emanated with heat and contained some kind of chimney that rose through the tent's ceiling. The entrance flap of the olive-colored tent was zipped up, keeping all of the warmth inside. Akagi froze, hoping not to wake up the electric type and gather her thoughts. There was no sound of any bombing or fighting outside, so she knew she was in a peaceful area, at least. From the subtle hints of light and how hungry she was, the thirteen-year-old could tell it was morning again. The tent had a desk and a few chairs, and was more spacious than any tent ought to be, but it didn't look like there was anything she could make use of, save for some papers at the desk that she couldn't read.

And either way, it wasn't like they would have left anything of import here.

What did Akagi know? The accent of the people who took her… was foreign. They were foreigners, but from where? Shinwa? Arceus almighty, if she was in a foreigner camp, she was screwed. If these were Sinnohans, then that meant they'd taken her back to Ignis or somewhere nearby, and if they learned she was an Auroran, they'd enslave or execute her.

She needed to run.

Every movement spread agony throughout her body, and she left the bed inch by inch in order not to wake up Raichu. She was barefoot, but there were shoes in the tent, way to large for her, but it would work. Akagi had one leg out of the covers when that same Lieutenant bent over to enter the tent with another average-sized man at his size. Declan, he had called him. They both wore thick, green clothing with strange patterns on them and he had a medal around his neck made of silver, or maybe a plaque. When he saw she'd been trying to run, he simply grinned, waking up Raichu, and another smaller electric type climbed onto his shoulder from behind his thick neck. This one, she recognized as Pachirisu. Akagi would have called it cute, in different circumstances.

"Already up, hm? Told you she was fierce," the Lieutenant boasted, dragging a chair for him to sit. It looked like it would almost collapse under his weight. "You feeling better, runt?"

"Who— who are you?" she forced out.

"None of your business," he smiled sharply, something both his Pokemon mirrored. "You cooperate now, and we might play nice later. Declan."

Declan was an average man through and through, though Akagi usually never saw ones his age. Brown eyes and hair that was cut short, a thin face and a bit of a beard that looked to be growing.

He stayed standing, tapping on some kind of wooden board he carried with a pen in his other hand. "Tell us what we need to know, and we'll let you go back home."

"I don't want to go back home," she instantly said. "I ran away."

The Lieutenant snorted. "She got you there."

"Then we'll just let you go with actual winter clothing and supplies."

Akagi frowned. "You would… do that?"

"Can't kill civvies we capture, kid," the blond Lieutenant said. "Much less children. Gotta respect the rules of engagement and all of that."

Her frown deepened. "We get bombed at least once per week!" she yelled. To be honest, she knew she shouldn't be fighting this hard. There was distrust, yes, but these Sinnohans had caused her father's death, and all for resources! "Don't pretend to have rules. We keep dying because of the weapons you give. Weapons that go against the bond between a Pokemon and its trainer!"

"Who cares about the bond?" Surge said, causing her to gasp. There was nothing more important than that bond, in these lands, save for the creator Himself. "You people don't use Pokeballs, and most of you use one or two Pokemon at most that take you way too long to train and die or get crippled before they can do anything of note anyway. Missiles and artillery are faster." He paused, scruffing his Pachirisu's neck. "But I can tell you we're not the ones bombing you. We just relocated here three days ago from the other side of the continent."

Declan chimed in. "Maybe if you tell us where you're from, we can help you figure out who was hurting your people."

"I already know who it was. The Sinnohans!" she yelled.

"Auroran, then," Surge nodded as Declan scribbled on his paper. With a tiny gasp, Akagi covered her mouth with her hands. "Just give it up, kid. We'll figure it out eventually."

"...Akagi Yoshike, thirteen years old from Millstone," she sighed, her shoulders slumping.

"Millstone. It's a small border town 40 miles to the southeast of here…" Declan hummed, flipping through the papers on the table. Akagi caught a glimpse of a map. "44.7854° N, 116.8503° W."

The Lieutenant nodded. "Figures. Seen anyone on the road?"

"Just me."

"Looks like their plan to push in actually was a dud," he gruffed, scratching his chin. "Fucking Sinnohan pricks."

Wait— you're not Sinnohan?" Akagi gasped.

"Kantoan, born and bred," he grinned. "The name's Surge. Just Surge. We figured we'd nurse you back to health and then let you go. Not the first time we've done it. If you tried to run and somehow made it out of camp, you would have collapsed ten minutes into your escape. Wouldn't have bothered me, personally, but I think it's a waste of talent."


"You're determined. Walked… twenty-eight miles in the snow until we picked you up, and tried to end your own life rather than get taken by the enemy. I can admire guts like those," Surge grinned. "You've got more balls than Declan and the majority of the people under my command," he laughed, clapping his underling on the back. Declan only whimpered, though he didn't try to escape. "Tell me, runt. What do you want in life?"

Akagi clenched a fist, bearing through the pain. "I want to bring peace to Ransei."

Pachirisu laughed at the idea, though Surge raised a hand. "Interesting. And how would you do that?" he asked.

"I would… can I say whatever I want?"

Both Surge and Declan nodded.

"I would forge alliances to kick out outside powers… and then we would fight it out between ourselves and unify, and Arceus would intervene and welcome us all into a life of eternal bliss and peace."

Surge leaned forward. "That's a very nice dream," he said in a clearly sarcastic tone. "Maybe we'll all join in, link hands and sing and dance in the flowery fields too, eh?" he snorted. "What you want, Akagi, is impossible."

"Why is it—"

"I wasn't alive for it, but more than forty years ago, we spent years killing each other until Gods had to come and make us stop," he interrupted. "But war's built into the human condition, you see, we can't fucking stop. It's encoded into each and every one of us, to want to take something we don't have, even if we don't fucking have a need for it, so the world looked and saw your shithole of a continent. Divided into petty kingdoms, more than half the people still living under some feudalistic system and without running water or electricity, but so, so many resources. Oil, gas, coal, mega stones, minerals, excellent soil— this place is a treasure trove, and you're using none of it."

Raichu squeaked by his side, crossing its arms.

"Right? It's a waste, and it lets us vent some steam. Kill each other in a contained way without awakening the Gods that could end us in an afternoon," he continued with a sigh. "But let's say that what you said happens. Let's say that we all pack up and leave."

"We get peace," Akagi said.

"You keep fighting, and maybe, after a few decades, some petty King comes close to uniting this place, but then the remaining Kingdoms band together, his generals stab him in the back, and his country collapses."

"No, it was the foreigners who—"

Surge waved a hand. "Oh yeah, sure, we've sped up the process since we came to these shores, but you have history. We've only been here for forty years, but this state of affairs has existed for far longer than that— longer than your recorded history. Tell me, little tyke, have you ever wondered if your people think that uniting the country would bring forth Arceus and you'd get to prance around naked in some fictional garden, that they would just not fight? After all, everyone could be saved if you just stayed at peace. Nowhere in the scriptures does it say Ransei has to be united through conquest."

"The glory!" she snapped. "Being the one to unify the continent would put you in His good graces!"

He snapped his fingers and pointed at her. "Exactly! It's all a game! All ego! A thinly veiled excuse to justify this generational slaughter. You remind me of Johtohans, you know? The way you spin religion to justify whatever the hell you want at the time."

Akagi bit her lip. "So what? Do you think you're any better? All of you foreigners, you're all cut from the same cloth!"

Surge laughed. "Oh, no. I'm a bastard. We're all bastards who're exploiting your home for profit, but hey, at least we don't pretend. Funny thing is, the Unovans say it's to bring freedom and democracy, as do the Galarians, though they're more focused on the free market side of things. Kalosians are ideological fanatics who want all monarchies to disappear. Sinnohans, they say that they need to keep control of the waterways in the Ranseian Channel because those pricks from Fontaine keep mining the sea and raiding their ships, but let's be honest, they just want in on the feast. Us at Indigo? We tell you how it is. That's what's right. That's honesty."

The girl huffed. "Doesn't make me like you anymore."

"I don't expect you to like me. I expect you to hate my guts. Funny thing is, we're here to ally with Aurora to counterbalance Sinnoh's alliance with Ignis."

Akagi blinked.

"That's what I'm talking about. That look. You hate me, but I'm doing what you want." He outstretched his long arms and grinned. "I like you, runt. Let me train you and make you worth something. I'll teach you how to fight, how to read and write, and at the end of it all, I'll give you a 'mon and maybe you'll have what it takes to shine bright in this pile of shit you call home."

He offered his hand.

She took it, thinking that she would kill him by the end of it.

Six months had passed since Surge had taken Akagi under his wing.

The war was a distant thing, now. There were close calls in the middle of the night where Ranseians from Ignis had tried to breach their camp, which they had moved closer to Aurora, but the Indigoans always pushed them back with so few casualties it was almost a joke. The things they could do with their Pokemon, the tactics employed, it was all so new to her, even today. She was fourteen, now, and had spent most of her time sticking by Surge during strategy meetings or when he drilled his troops, or inside his tent like she currently was doing.

Taking a geography test.

Ransei currently had seventeen kingdoms, though that number fluctuated throughout the decades. On the table lay a blank map of Ransei with empty boxes above where kingdoms were supposed to be. There were no borders, given the fact that they changed every day, but the general location was always the same. Manectric and Raichu were watching her, making sure that she didn't cheat, and Pachirisu was sitting on the table, sniggering at Akagi for her failure to identify the northeastern kingdoms of Ransei.

"I'd like to see you try, you stupid runt," she growled under her breath. "How the hell am I supposed to tell which one Valora is? Or Illusio? There isn't even topography to help!"

Learning about the countries themselves was easier. Each Kingdom specialized in a single type, though they did not only use that type. Ignis, for example, was full of fire type users. The ruling family had used them for as long as they remembered, and according to Surge, it was a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, though Akagi couldn't help but think there was something more to it. Aurora, her own country, had been specialized in normal types.

Pachirisu fell on her back, giggling like an idiot as her legs and arms moved wildly, and Raichu shrugged, probably saying that he wouldn't know? Akagi had learned to know all of Surge's Pokemon, but she had bonded specifically with those three. She was confident in having at least twelve of the seventeen down, but the rest, she was stumped on, and she ended up filling them randomly when she only had two minutes left for her test.

"Finished yet? Patches, did she cheat?"

Pachirisu nodded, and Akagi strangled her until she jolted her arms and escaped to climb on Surge's shoulder.

"I guess not," the tall Lieutenant grinned. "Let's see what you're made of, runt." She handed him the paper, and after a glance, he shrugged. "12 out of 17. Mediocre, but at least you know the ones closest to us."

"I started learning these a week ago."

"A week should be enough to memorize seventeen things, Akagi," he said.

"Whatever. I'll ace it next time."

"Good attitude to have, just make sure it actually happens, or you're running an extra ten laps around camp."

"Any news? From the war?"

"We caught some Sinnohans scouts and brought 'em back to camp," he said. "We're going to question them for their plans to see if they're anticipating our offensive or not."

"Question how?"

"Pull a few fingernails," he said.

It was at times like these, that Akagi remembered who it was, she was facing. An awful man who had caused the death of her people, children included. Who ordered them to be tortured for information, and who was exploiting Aurora for its resources. She'd gotten smarter the last few months, learned about the world, and this small unit was only a small part of the actual operation. Indigo had launched. They still had expeditionary forces all over the continent, and this was only one of them, albeit the most powerful, given the fact that they were led by Surge.

"No need to look at me like I just pulled your fingernails," he laughed.

"I thought torture of prisoners of war was illegal under the Sootopolis Accords established after the Great War," she said, her voice shaking. "Have you been doing this the entire time?"

"Smart girl. At least you can memorize your history," Surge said. "You see, the funny thing with laws is that there are loopholes. Sinnoh and Kanto-Johto are not at war. In fact, Indigo is not at war with anyone. The people we're capturing aren't prisoners of war, they're enemy combatants."

"That's the same thing!"

"One is illegal, one isn't. No need to launch into an entire ethical debate, I know what I'm doing is wrong, I just don't care."

"Is there anything you care about?" she asked. "Or are you just some empty fucking shell?"

Surge didn't answer. Instead, he sat down on another chair and sighed. "I'm being recalled in three months, runt."

She frowned. "Recalled?"

"Champion Lance has personally asked for me to take over the Vermillion Gym to deal with the Rocket presence building up in the city. He thinks my experience in war will help get the country on war footing to take the fight to them."

He had told her about Team Rocket before, some kind of mafia who was growing more and more prominent in Indigo. Akagi thought they deserved all of it. It was a taste of their own medicine.

"You could call it an early retirement," he sighed. "All my life, I've fought in this damn place, and just like that, I'm leaving. That's something, isn't it?"

"What? Are you gonna cry? Ask for me to come with you?" she mocked.

"No. You could not waterboard begging out of me, runt. I don't ask for things," he said. "And I know you wouldn't come anyway. Bummer, really. You could have a good life in Vermillion, but it is what it is."

"I don't want anything to do with you. You're just someone I'm using to bring my people peace."

"I know, I know, stop talking my ear off. Anyway, the goal is to finish off the Sinnohans before I leave, so you'll be of use, runt."

"Do you mean—"

"I'm giving you your first 'mon."


Magnemite levitated from the small crater in the ground that had formed after Raichu had slapped it down with his tail, and it was covered in dents and scratches. Raichu hadn't even used a move, just his body, and he hadn't gotten hit by any attacks even once. He could move faster than the eye could even see, but the worse was that he didn't. He slowed himself down, weakened himself so Magnemite and Akagi would be able to learn something out of this.

"You fight like a dumbass," Surge said. "Look around yourself, runt."

Akagi did so, ignoring Magnemite's protesting beeps. It hated when Surge talked shit, as did she, but it wasn't like they could do anything about it anyway. What she was were just trees. He had taken her to the middle of a clearing.

"What? It's just fucking trees, you asshole!"

"Then use those as cover. Don't just tell Magnemite to stand there and use Thundershock or Sonic Boom. Also, you're just standing there, wide open. Until you get yourself a psychic or a Protect user, that's not a luxury you can afford. You'd be dead before you know it. Use the terrain."

"Raichu could have just killed me anyway!" She yelled, pointing at the electric type, who responded with a laugh. "Don't make fun of me, you prick!"

"Oh, look at me, I'm Akagi," Surge mocked. "The opponent is too strong, so I'll just roll over and die! That's you, runt! You won't last a week without me, thinking like that. Some lad's Pokemon from Ignis is gonna crush your organs with Quick Attack!"

"I thought we were just training—"

Raichu fired off a blinding beam of electricity that burned the side of the arm even when she knew it hadn't touched her, because if it had she would be dead. She flinched, tumbling back into the grass and instinctively crawled back.

"This is training," Surge said. "Now get back up. Don't let your Magnemite show you up."

She cursed under her breath, but by Arceus' grace, she stood.

Surge was leaving in a week, but Akagi couldn't even bother thinking about what she'd do.

The teenager walked through a village that was eerily silent, broken by the occasional cry or scream and Surge and Declan chatting about the place they had recently bombarded to smithereens with a long-range barrage of Pokemon moves and missiles. The remnants of what were once vibrant neighborhoods now lay in ruins. Crumbled facades and rubble-strewn streets, blown up stores, schools and hospitals. The air carried a pungent mix of dust, despair and blood, a suffocating blend that mirrored the collective grief of a city torn apart. Amidst the destruction, haunting reminders of lives disrupted and dreams shattered emerged. Abandoned toys, torn clothes, and fragments of personal belongings lay strewn across the wreckage, leaving her with a feeling of emptiness. Something here was lacking.

That was only second to the casualties.

The corpse of an old woman, the bottom half of her body jutting out from below a massive collapsed structure that must have been her home. Children crying for their parents, clinging to non-responsive limbs. People with hollow stares who had just lost everything, just standing in the street without moving, sometimes wounded. People who would glare at her.

This was Ignis' third largest city. Akagi had grown up thinking of these people as enemies, but they were just like her. Victims. Victims of the same self-perpetuating cycle engineered by outsiders.

What am I doing here? she asked herself. The fact that she'd been ever been attached to Surge made her want to gag. The tall Lieutenant wasn't even looking at her, and she feared the next time she actually saw his face, she would convince herself that this was just a one-time event. Why was it so easy to grow to like this man? This monster in the shape of a man. How could one walk through this place and feel nothing? Not care?

"Wasn't this—" she retched, doubling over and puking on the side of the road.

"What, your first mission and you're already puking? You haven't even had to wade through guts yet!" Surge cackled.

Akagi wiped her mouth, though the taste of vomit lingered. "Surge, this is— why did we do this? Just to sniff out a few Sinnohans holding out in the city? So many people died."

"We warned 'em beforehand," Surge said. "It's a shame, but those who didn't evacuate only have themselves to blame."

Declan nodded. "And we finally expelled the final remnants of Sinnoh's expeditionary force. Those who didn't Teleport out are all captured or deceased."


She was talking to monsters, not humans.

Akagi Yoshike finally understood that she'd been strung along this entire time. Manipulated. She needed to escape, but how could she? Surge had the majority of his Pokemon out, save for Magnezone being used for long-range communication and Manectric and Electabuzz having been wounded in a battle two weeks ago and still at base camp getting healed by the military nurses.

Meanwhile, she wasn't allowed to use her Pokemon. Not outside of training or unless Surge gave her the okay. She'd caught or been given a few more by Surge that they were training up. Could she release them and strike? No, the noise from the Pokeballs would alert them. She was behind both of them and their Pokemon, at the moment, but she could still strike. Akagi still had that blade she'd tried killing herself with months ago when he had first stumbled upon her.

Swallowing, she slowly shifted her hand down to her pocket, every casualty she came across giving her an extra oomph. She would have to repent, to ever get these people to forgive her. She had not lobbed the attacks herself, but Akagi had participated and sometimes cheered, when she had not witnessed the true horrors of war. Her village in Aurora had never been bombed like this.

She moved like lightning, plunging the blade in Declan's neck. The man slumped to the ground, clutching at the hole. It continuously spurted blood, and Declan bled on the floor as he choked on his own blood. Surge barked out orders to his team before Akagi could strike, so instead she ran, escaping as fast as she could. She could get lost in these streets, blend in as a civilian if she dirtied herself enough. She needed to run. To escape from Surge's clutches before she couldn't forgive herself for what she had done.

"HAHAHAHA! YOU DID WELL TO STRIKE, RUNT!" Somehow, Surge's voice echoed through the streets, though when Akagi looked back, she was not being followed. "I THOUGHT YOU'D ATTACK WHEN I WAS LEAVING, BUT A WEEK BEFORE? HOW SMART OF YOU."

She wanted to retort, to tell him to go fuck himself, to die in a ditch, but instead, she stayed silent.


And he would not be there to witness her rise.

Akagi would escape and start an insurgency in the coming years, fighting against Indigo's puppet regime of Aurora. Eight years later, she would take control of the Kingdom and start her own war of conquest across the continent, taking over sixty-three percent of the landmass in another six years with foreign support from Sinnoh. They called her Warlord. Ransei's fastest and best conqueror in centuries.

Everything had been going according to plan until a coalition formed to oppose her of the remaining Kingdoms.

Her enemies were supporters by Unova and Kalos in small numbers, but the ones doing the heavy lifting?

It was Kanto-Johto.

She was twenty-nine, now. Thirty in a month.

Akagi had never liked her castle. It was everything she hated in a ruler, the fact that she lived such a luxurious life compared to her people. The stone walls hung in tatters, a faint glow emanating from them as they slowly heated up due to the flames. Grand paintings of her and her conquests would smoulder and burn, as would the golden reams of the frames. The pillars holding up the room would soon collapse in on themselves, but the smoke would get her first.

So the fact that it was currently burning down and collapsing around her did not bother her much. Akagi lazily slumped on her throne, ignoring the fact that if she stayed here for long, she would be trapped by the flames. Her protector Pokemon Chansey had fainted, taken down by some Indigoan scouts before she could react. Heliolisk, Bibarel, Luxray were also all down, and only Magneton and Jolteon remained at her side, ready to die with her. She expected enemy forces to come and finish her off any minute now, but instead, it was her nemesis, who showed up, his entire team by his side, save for Magnezone who she guessed was playing comms relay again like it used to. He bore an extra scar, this time nearly missing his eye, going over his forehead and temple. This one was fresh. His hair was still as golden as ever, and he looked like he hadn't aged a day, even if she knew he was in his late thirties now. Maybe early forties.

Her eyes narrowed at the number of Pokemon. Manectric, Raichu, Pachirisu, Electivire— that one was new. Electabuzz had evolved, it seemed. Voltorb, Plusle and Minun.

"How?" she instantly roared through the flames.

She was not asking why Surge was there. Akagi had known about his presence for months, and had tortured information about him out of his soldiers. He was taking a break from Gym Leader duties and being deployed for eight months. This was his seventh. Surge was a man of war, and now that peace had come back to Kanto-Johto, he could not stay still for long.

"Well, look at you, runt," Surge grinned, his teeth perfectly white. "Our long-awaited reunion, and this is how you welcome me back?"

"Don't play fucking dumb," she drawled. "How is your team back on their feet? I sent people after you— my best people, and the survivors said you'd only have Patches and Raichu left. That the rest would take months to recover, if they didn't die from their wounds."

He snorted. "Oh, that. Nasty pieces of work, your men. You trained them just the way I trained you, and they caught me off-guard—"

"Answer the fucking question. You owe me that, at least."

If she could stall for time, if she could condemn him to burn to death with her, then it would all have been worth it. Surge leaned against one of the pillars, his Pachirisu, Plusle and Minun swarming his shoulder and head.

"Fancy new tech we got from the Rockets," he explained. "They made some Pokemon called Ditto when they tried to create a God, and it turns out that it's really useful for healing. We can't keep it to ourselves and leaks have already happened, so we're currently selling it to the highest bidder, which is why you lost the war against the coalition. They're already at each other's throats to get access to it and thinking about how to stab each other after the war's done, can you believe it?"

"You did that."

"We did," he nodded, crossing his arms. "Now are we going to do this the hard way, or the easy way, runt?"

"What, are you expecting me to surrender so you can capture me?"

"I'm asking you how you want to die," he said. "I tried to ask the League if we could keep you prisoner and spare your life, but you're too important to be left alive. Bummer," he shrugged.

"Tell me, Surge," Akagi inhaled. "Is there anything you care about?"

He smiled. "Still not going to answer that one, little tyke."

"Kill him," she hissed.

The smell of ozone filled her nostrils, and Magneton and Jolteon fired off two Thunders in Surge's direction. Deep in her heart, she'd known it wouldn't work. Raichu grunted, and the electricity bent toward him. He absorbed all of it in his tail, though he was heaving by the end of it.

"Packs a punch," Surge said. "You would have been a decent fight, with your entire team. Get her Pokemon."

Minun and Plusle disappeared— no, they blurred— no, they—

Jolteon managed to dodge, electricity crackling through her fur as she weaved right, but Magneton crumpled to the floor before Akagi even realized what was happening. Minun's body had been overtaken by flames, and she had rammed in its center. Its eyes blinked, and it prepared to fight back, but Akagi raised a hand.

"Stand down."

"Glad you're taking the easy way out," Surge said. "Recall 'em."

She did before they could protest, absorbing them both in their Pokeballs. It was not that she was giving up, of course. Surge was prone to bouts of overconfidence, and she had a plan. Akagi rose from her throne, staring Surge down while he and his team climbed the staircase. As soon as he got within reach, she pulled out a blade from her sleeve and tried ramming it into Surge's throat. The Kantoan was huge, but he was quick, and he ducked, punching her in the gut while Raichu whipped her leg with his electrified tail. The world went white for an instant as she convulsed, hit her head on her throne and crumpled to the floor like a piece of paper.

"Nice try," Surge said. His voice was distant, so distant, yet he was right here, looming over her. Pieces of the ceiling started to collapse near the entrance. "It's a shame it had to come to this, Akagi."

"You— you— you used me," she forced out. "Wanted me to— be strong."

"I suppose I did, in a way. Figured that in a decade, you could own a decent chunk of the continent and be an ally of Indigo. That we could collect the resources in your country in exchange for weapons and aid. Unfortunately you refused any diplomacy and you conquered Ransei a little too quickly."

"Fuck… you. You— make this land hell."

"I do."

It was so enraging, the way he acknowledged it. The way he didn't even try to justify himself for all the crimes he had committed, the deaths he had wrought, lives he and his country had ruined.

"You walked it too," he softly said. "You killed, pillaged, tortured and conquered. Allied with Sinnoh to get a leg up."

"Not— the same. Don't compare us."

"Sure thing, runt," he said, leaning over her. "What do you think would have happened, had we let you take over the entire continent? You were already putting down rebellions before we got fully involved."

"You can't just—" she coughed as pain coursed through her broken leg. "You can't just say that things would be the sa— same as justification."

"It's what I truly think. Doesn't make me any better of a person, though. I'm a bastard."

"I hate— you."

Surge winced. "I know you do—"

Second knife. That had been the plan. This one had been hidden in her boot, and she nearly managed to stab Surge in the neck. He'd been kneeling next to her, so he was in range, and she nearly killed him. Instead, he dodged out of the way and the blade penetrated his upper arm. Akagi internally swore, expecting death to take her, but instead, Surge told his team to stand down.

"Thought you'd try to kill yourself like last time instead," he hissed, clenching at his arm. "Hell of a gambit you threw here."

"Fuck you."


The electric type's tail shone bright white with Iron Tail, ready to take her head.

"Any last words?" Surge asked between heavy breaths. With some luck, his use of the arm would be permanently crippled.

She spat a glob of bloody saliva in his eye. "Shinwa— was never— land of peace. You are— monsters. May Arceus choke you to de—death with His thousand hands, Lieutenant Surge. May your tar soul be lost forever and may you never see His— Garden."

The man she hated closed his eyes, turning away from her.

"Do— do it, runt," she choked at Raichu. "Finish me—"

Akagi Yoshike perished alone in her throne room.

Her Kingdom collapsed, and within weeks, the coalition needed to take her down were at each other's throats.

Ransei was a land of war, of subjugation. A victim of imperialism. And it would not change, at least not yet.

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Chapter 301 - I'm Sharp Enough

Who was Byron Fisker?

An Iron Islander, a corporate stooge who had betrayed his homeland in favor of special interest groups on mainland Sinnoh? Perhaps he was a man who had tried his best despite it all and had, through massive opposition, tried to implement incremental improvements to the islands? Somewhere in-between, maybe. There were cheers as I climbed up the stairs to my platforms, though clearly less than Denzel had gotten at the start of his own battle, and I let the noise roll off my back, focusing on the coming fight and Pokeball warm against my bandaged palm. Gym Leaders usually came second to the battlefield, taking full advantage of their breaks, but Byron was already there, waiting.

Sitting on his metallic platform cross-legged, shovel in hand. It was an implement I could admire, with how sharp and well-maintained he'd kept it throughout the years. They said he'd owned the tool since he'd started working in the mines as a teenager, and while it didn't look new, it looked cared for. He wore thick, beige cargo pants with bright yellow bands around his ankles, no doubt used to be spotted in the darkened mines, along with a sleeveless shirt and a ragged cape draped over his shoulders. It did well to hide the weight of years of duty. Tired eyes, and a man too exhausted to keep up appearances any longer, with how he dressed and wild his burgundy hair was. Chase no doubt would have said the way he dressed was just PR to look like a man of the people. There were shallow scars all over his exposed arms. Yet he still bore the smile of a boy excited to battle, sharp and dangerous. The expression of a hunter.

Who was Byron Fisker, I asked myself again. Did any of his baggage matter to me, at this point in time?

No. Not today. That was not my fight.

He was simply a trainer who needed to be beaten. A man who had come upon a Shieldon fossil deep in the mines of the Iron Island and vowed right then and there that he would be a trainer. People still wondered, how he'd gotten the money to resurrect that Shieldon, but it was something he kept close to his chest.

The arena itself was what I'd expected of it. Rugged metal with hills and potholes large enough for Pokemon to fall into littered the entire surface with little licks of rust here and there. Pointed spikes taller than Sweetheart's eight feet, sprouting from the ground and pointing in every direction. There was so much of it that every breath I took, the taste of metal permeated in my mouth and throat. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the Gym Trainers had added a Mr. Mime to the usual Kadabra, and the barrier pulsed with what I recognized as glamour. I'd watched enough Conference battles to know that instead of Kadabra, Mr. Mime were the staple to shield the audience from what went on during the battle, especially when one of the trainers had a powerful dark type on hand.

I had just been acknowledged.

Byron stood up with a grunt, though I could tell he'd waited longer than needed to do so, and he pointed at me with his shovel, which gleamed under the Gym's harsh lighting.

"Welcome, Challenger."

The words were electrifying, invigorating. I instinctively leaned forward, desperate for him to go through his speech so we could start battling already. His voice was gravely, broken down to its roughest properties from days spent in the mines.

"Grace Pastel. For getting all the way up to your eighth, I congratulate you," he drawled, some of his accent slipping through. "This will be a six-on-six battle with two switches allowed. I reserve the right to use any Pokemon in my arsenal that I deem fit, and killing any Pokemon will get you disqualified from the League Circuit."

My eyes widened, and my throat tightened as I grinned so much my cheeks hurt. Two, not three. It was obvious, what he was targeting. My weakness. As my brain scrambled to adjust my plans, the Gym Leader continued.

"Let's see if you're sharp enough yet to cut through me," he finished, placing his shovel atop his shoulder.

What was it, with steel type specialists and sharpness? Not that I minded, in fact, I fucking loved it. I'd show him I was sharp enough to cut through him. With a radiant smile, I passed a finger over the release button of Sunshine's Pokeball. His eyes were filled with glee when he looked back at me, and he roared out a Flamethrower into the sky to show off to the crowd. The flames were pure white close to his snout, becoming bluer the further away they got from him. Byron studied the dragon type, his face completely still. There were a multitude of reasons I was leading with Sunshine, but he was mainly one thing.


Turtonator was, in this battle, a bit of an enigma. Him altering the terrain in any way would not help us reach our end game, and molten metal was not able to be influenced by Princess' Ancient Power and wouldn't work well to alter the ground to help with Angel other than flattening it some, but he would certainly make Byron think I was planning on working with a molten floor to hurt his steel types. There were, as it stood, only a few Pokemon he could counter Sunshine with. Bronzong, which would reveal his personal Pokemon early. The psychic was a master of Rain Dance, manipulating water, and had the ability Heatproof. Second was Empoleon who despite it not being her specialty, would be able to use water to cancel us out or at least slow us down, and would synergize excellently with Bronzong. Lastly was Steelix— either his personal one, or his eighth badge one— and whose thick steel plating would be able to resist the heat from the molten metal. By leading with Turtonator, I narrowed his options enough to know what to expect.

It was something every trainer would have to consider, when fighting Sunshine. How did one fight heat itself, hotter than a thousand degrees Celsius? He was a problem, no matter how you pegged it, and a huge one at that.

At the twentieth second, Byron sent out his Pokemon. The red light grew, grew, and grew until it revealed the Steelix I'd been expecting. The way to differentiate the two was that Byron's Steelix was smaller than average, and the metal coating his body was tinted darker than usual. This one was a very light grey, almost white, and he was large enough for me not to have any doubts. Steelix rose with a grace almost sinuous, each segment moving with a hypnotic spin. Metal screeched against metal as the ground type coiled around himself, almost deafening. Dim, red eyes stared down at Sunshine, Steelix exposing his flattened teeth built to dig through stone and earth.

The referee counted down.

And slashed her hand downward.

Here was the thing about battling Steelix. Like Gyarados, it did not matter how slow they were, when they were so large they could be across the arena in seconds. They were titans of the underworld and used their sheer mass to either scare away any Pokemon or slam through every opponent they had before they could realize what had happened. Sunshine looked like a puny bug next to Steelix, almost pitiful.

Byron had no doubt expected me to switch out sooner rather than later into something like Jellicent.

He was wrong.

Flames burst through the cracks in Turtonator's scales as the ground began to shake when Steelix threw himself forward, cracks spreading through the entire arena like it was made of paper and not solid metal. A ball of light, acting as a second sun, appeared high in the sky and the flames roiling out of Sunshine went from blue to bright white as the metal below him turned molten. Fire turned to a Flame Charge, and Sunshine retreated to his shell, striking his back with an Iron Tail to drift left. He was straining to move with the constant Bulldoze, but what was a dragon's life without struggle? Steelix turned to follow as he grunted from the heat, but Sunshine instantly cut in and switched directions again.

"Corner him and Dragon Breath!" Byron called out.

Steel rose in Sunshine's path, and he slammed into the glowering wall, denting it, but it was not hot enough for him to break through it just yet. With Steelix's massive size, massive attacks followed. The steel type's jaw unlocked, and golden and blue lights swirled in his mouth, gathering into a massive ball of energy that keened to the world louder and louder.

"Fire Pillar."

The still-melting ground below Steelix bubbled, and then burst with the deafening roar of white flames wide enough to engulf half of the ground type's body. The fire exploded upon contact with Steelix's head, and I'd been hoping to knock it out of the way to make the Dragon Breath veer off-course, but Steelix was a force of nature, a walking natural disaster unto itself. When Steelix moved, the world moved with them. The ground shook and Pokemon fled in fear of what would happen to them. Cracks spread through his outer shell, but the Dragon Breath struck true and enveloped all of Sunshine, kicking up molten metal that further hurt the Steelix and creating a wide dent in the ground.

I'd expected to panic. For my mind to race and to have my hand racing toward my Pokeball, but the thing about my bond with Sunshine was that it ran deep. Ours was a partnership forged in revenge and blood, so calm seeped into my veins and I smiled when a stream of howling flames battered Steelix enough for the steel type to screech and Sunshine finally broke through his prison of metal, the steel having melted enough to be soft thanks to the extra oomph from Fire Pillar. The ground continued to shake, energy seeping through the cracks, but the tremors got less powerful the further away Sunshine got from Steelix, and we were faster, now. Hidden away in his shell for defense, the dragon zoomed across the arena while Steelix reeled from the hit. A few times, I had to warn him about a fissure or crack too large for him to just roll over, and an explosion carried him into a short hop to dodge.

Our strategy here had been two-fold. One, keep the ground next to Sunshine molten so Byron's counter would not be able to manipulate the steel into a solid to hurt him, and two, keep his distance from Steelix and outlast him.

"You're far enough now!" I yelled. "Focus Blast! Aim for the segments!"

Sunshine snapped out of his shell, golden energy gathering right in front of his snout. The entire arena was molten now, save for the corners he hadn't gotten to. Glowering red, continuously shifting and most importantly, burning.

"Follow and Rock Blast," Byron said.

Steelix pushed himself forward with a frustrated scream, shards of rock exploding like shrapnel all over his face. They broke against Sunshine's scales, denting and peeling them off as the ground type approached. Most of them just plunged into the molten metal around him, but one hit him in the face as the Bulldoze grew in strength and sent the superheated iron high up in the sky. The Focus Blast wavered, and for a moment, I thought it would explode before we launched it, but instead, Sunshine concentrated it into a single dot, so infinitely small I could barely see the glow amidst the fighting. It was so hot inside the arena that I could barely see Sunshine. It was like looking at a mirage.

Then, he launched it.

I saw it cut across one of Steelix's segments a fraction of a second before I actually heard the sound. A deep, resonating hum of energy that broke against the steel type. Months ago, deep inside Mount Coronet, I had realized that that was an Onix's weakness, and the same was true for their evolved forms. It was not so much that it was a gap in their armor, but it was where they felt the most pain. I kept my face neutral, containing the savage grin wanting to etch itself upon it as Steelix writhed against the superheated, liquid steel. His huge size worked in his favor here, with the way his tail slammed against Sunshine's plastron and sent him skidding back until he hit the barrier with a tired grunt.

Tired. That was what he was. Exhausted, already. Beaten by a constant Bulldoze and sharpened Rock Blasts as large as his torso. His scales were bent and—

Arm bent the wrong way. Broken from the tail hit from Steelix. He drew upon heavy breaths, each exhale spreading fire and heat throughout the arena, powered by the sun, globs of superheated metal constantly flying from the shaking earth.

"Iron Tail the ground and Metal Edge," Byron said. "If he tries to get on you, just Heavy Slam."

Sunshine and I shared another look, and even though I could not see him very well, understanding struck immediately.

When he had been half dead, deep in the bellows of Mount Wela, Sunshine had limped along for days in an attempt to hunt and recover. He'd been half-dead in Mount Coronet for days after Kamaile's death and harassed by passing trainers and roving bands of Rangers. Battered, but not broken. Never broken, for that was antithetical to all dragons. Steelix's tail blurred, slamming down on the molten metal and splitting it apart in a cone and revealing the solid ground below. The shockwave forced Sunshine a few feet back, but that was only second to the countless shards of metal bursting out of Steelix's body. He's shedding weight, I realized. Something Byron had trained Steelix to do to gain in speed and maneuverability— shit, no time to think!

"Go in!" I screamed.

Some might think it foolish, to ignore what the Gym Leader you were facing had said when they had an explicit counter to what you'd just ordered. An explosion rocked Sunshine's side of the field, plumes of smoking sulfur, molten metal and fire rattling the barrier close to Byron. Lightened by too many Flame Charges to count, Turtonator took flight, and for a moment it was like time was standing still. The trail of fire he left behind was like unfurling wings, and he soared through the skies as Steelix angled his Metal Edges upward. Sunshine retreated into his shell, his armor, and he got hit once, twice, thrice, each time propelling himself with another explosion so as not to lose his momentum.

Byron cackled, barely audible through the raging fires as he accepted the challenge. "Dragon Breath, wide!"

Again, it began as a tiny little light, a mixture of blue at its edges and yellow at its center. Steelix bit down on the draconic energy, and when he opened his mouth again, the blast formed into a cone Turtonator was incapable of dodging, more draconic wind than anything else. The Dragon Breath slowed Turtonator enough for him to barely make it onto Steelix's side with flames growing and growing until he was a ball of fiery death. We didn't get the Heat Crash we'd wanted, but he anchored himself by plunging an Iron Tail into the shallower and softer metal. That was the thing about steel types. Their armor softened with heat as well. Still, jagged edges rose from Steelix's armor as if he could shapeshift and kept hitting at Sunshine from every direction.

Smaller now, but huge still, Steelix instantly roared in agony, and without hesitation started to fall to intentionally crush Sunshine under all of his weight. Ordinarily, I wouldn't have expected a Gym Leader to employ such a brutal tactic, but I'd known as soon as he had ordered Heavy Slam that was what he'd been planning.

It was hot enough now. The attack would be quick to charge.

"Fire Blast!"

Now faster to move, Steelix fell down, angling himself to fall right on top of Sunshine, steel creaking and molten metal clinging to his skin as he did so. Sunshine inhaled and drew upon the fiery depths within. His scaled and rugged exterior glowed with an intense heat—

And Steelix hit the ground.

The barrier shook as one, and the impact made my hair blow backward as the force reverberated throughout the arena. The heated metal recoiled in response to the colossal force. Waves of liquid steel surged outward in a chaotic dance, momentarily disrupted by the seismic shockwave of Steelix's descent, and my heart nearly jumped out of my throat as the arena went eerily silent.

What was it, that was so special about Sunshine? He was a Pokemon raised by death and struggle. For more than seventy years, he had endlessly toiled toward a single goal of conquest. To sit atop a mountain, leaving only a trail of his enemy's ashes behind him. A wish gone undone, at least for now, but the flame of ambition had only grown within the last few months as he had.

There was the subtle crackling of flame. Almost a whisper, with how quiet it was, barely distinguishable from the molten metal itself. Byron yelled, but Steelix was already rising, his movement slowed by all of that metal slowing him down. Tons upon tons of it, clinging to every inch of his skin like a coiling snake. My breath caught in my throat, a small, weak and quivering thing.

Then, came the inferno.

Once, I'd been fascinated by how blinding Craig's Typhlosion could be. This wasn't that, not yet, but I understood, now. The surroundings themselves caught on fire as everything went white and something in the air popped, wind blew upward like a typhoon and the world burned to ashes. Light itself penetrated through my eyelids and I did not get to see the blast itself, but when I opened them, Steelix was on fire, metal seeping down to the ground as it superheated so much he struggled to keep himself together. Fire would consume all until it ran out of fuel, and this one would use anything as fuel. I had to blink to chase away the sun spots, and Sunshine rose from within the liquid metal, which was now deep enough to reach his upper chest. He was barely standing, his eyes only half-opened and plastron caved in the wrong way as he struggled to breathe and glowed slightly from the hastily put-together Iron Defense he'd used to survive getting crushed by Steelix.



But what it meant to be a dragon was to still be standing, at the end of it, because at the heart of it all, Sunshine would rather keep fighting until he died than see his opponent win. He was, simply put, a very stubborn kind of perseverance. Fire consumed, and dragons took.

But it was not over quite yet.

With what I imagined was a tired smile and satisfaction at such a wonderful opponent, Turtonator straightened his back and Steelix shook off the liquid metal currently on him. Part of me had hoped Byron would recall him out of fear, but if there was someone who wouldn't blink, it was a Gym Leader. At this point, I assumed he was too tired to move, and so I outstretched an arm.


Quick, simple, and powered by his second sun and the ambient heat that was over a thousand degrees Celsius. The flames clicked into place as the wind from the massive updrafts howled, and Steelix—

"Dragon Tail!"

Was well enough to move.
He was an unstoppable force, and he narrowly ducked to dodge the Flamethrower until Sunshine angled it down, though he was slow about it. Now smaller and with parts of his actual tail missing, Steelix could, ironically enough, maneuver better than he ever had, and with one smooth motion and a twist of his body, he sent his shining blue stump of a tail forward, hurtling toward Sunshine's chest.

"Hold on with Heat Crash!"

He'd already been planning on holding on, though the surge of fire coming from within of the building Heat Crash was not something he'd anticipated me to ask.

"Commit!" Byron cackled through the fire.

With a heavy grunt and with the use of only one arm, he clasped onto Steelix's thick, melting tail and used the weight of the impact to his advantage. Like a glowing sun, the sphere from Heat Crash expanded and blew up with a deafening explosion of wind and colorful flames. Shades of gold, blue, white, red and orange engulfed the entire arena as Sunshine crumpled down and slowly sank into the metal. Steelix's eyes were clouded by agony, with deep screeches resonating from deep inside his throat. It took a few more seconds, but he slumped and collapsed as well, allowing me to breathe out a sigh of relief as I smothered a grin. The ground stopped shaking from the constant Bulldoze and it stopped raining molten metal.

Sunshine had taken down a Steelix on his own today.

"Both Pokemon are unable to battle! Since Turtonator… fainted first, the Challenger should send out their next Pokemon first as well!" the referee yelled.

I got now, why he'd wanted an extra two to three days instead of six after this battle. Sunshine probably had more broken bones in his body than not, at this point in time, and possibly internal damage of some kind. Part of me felt guilty he'd been subjected to this, but not as much as I thought I'd be. There was something primal about battling like this in a safe manner that resonated deep within me, and I knew he would be pissed if I whined and apologized to him. There wasn't a much different way of fighting a Steelix anyway, so it wasn't like Byron had anything else to work with.

And Arceus, fighting types like steel was fun, with how resilient they were. No other way to let loose like this otherwise.

"You did well, my little ray of Sunshine," I whispered. The Pokeball beamed toward him, and I considered my next options.

The field wouldn't stay superheated for long without him, but it would for a while yet, and the Sunny Day still lingered in the sky. As it stood, I was confident we could go one more fight in this environment.

The advantage was that I was still locking in Byron to certain Pokemon. Now that Sunshine was actually out of the fight, it opened up more options like Corviknight, but the principle I was going with was still the same and the floor being in this state before anyone could stop him meant that even Empoleon was out. He'd only be able to send floating or flying Pokemon.

For my part, the options were either Buddy or Claydol. Sweetheart was capable of wading through the field without being hurt too much and would no doubt do well against anything Byron would send, but that would just goad him into sending out a Pokemon capable of flying, which was still among her biggest counters. I couldn't send out Princess, because molten metal wasn't molten rock, and couldn't be manipulated by Ancient Power.

In the end, I opted for Jellicent, simply because he was a safer bet and Claydol would be better used once all of the metal turned solid once again. There had been something else, however, something I hoped would pay off in an instant. Yes, his water type moves would be weaker, but that was a price I was willing to pay right now, and they'd only grow stronger as time went on.

There was a way about how Buddy glowed pale blue with an otherworldly sheen high above the molten ground that captivated my eye. Byron knew about the trick we'd used to whisper, so there was no use in setting it up and wasting time.

I did not have much time to get lost in the sight, though, because Byron instantly released his Bronzong. Personal Pokemon. Alarms blared through my mind despite having expected it to be released so early and theorizing that Bronzong was one of the most likely candidates for this battle, but seeing the psychic in the flesh was another matter entirely. They were tiny— barely over five feet— but the sheer weight of the ringing bell Bronzong announced themselves with was enough to make my knees weak and my ears ring. Sound continuously rippled through the arena as if it had a physical form and Buddy strained under its pressure. It was as if the sound was warping the air itself, reminding me of Aliyah's Chimecho, but much more powerful.

This was no song. The sound itself was indescribable. Deep and high, delayed and early, and most of all, wrong. It was distinctively alien and echoed from every direction, causing me to shiver and feel like a force was gripping my brain and squeezing it like a grape. Never had I seen a psychic type seem so haunting, their scarlet eyes brimming with wisdom and untold horrors. Bronzong's metallic form was etched with cryptic runes and weathered by the ages. Layers of rust upon rust, caked into their form, yet somehow still, they managed to look so pristine.


It was said that Byron's Bronzong was thousands of years old. That he had found them wandering off-route near abandoned ruins of one of the countless fallen civilizations that had come to our shores to die in early Hisuian history. The psychic had still been there, watering crops that no longer existed like an automaton, barely conscious of their actions.

Wind began whipping up my hair, and the air grew wet and humid. Through the barrier.

"They're going to drop lava on you with portals!" I snapped. "Will-O-Wisp!"

I knew from videos that Bronzong didn't use barriers in their eighth badge fights to give people a chance, but—

"Rapture," Byron exhaled, the air blowing across his hair. "Rifts."

What was it like, to fight a storm?

There was a crack— the shattering of glass as Bronzong tore ten holes through reality, all pointed toward Buddy. They were perfectly circular, with countless nearly transparent strings writhing around their edges that hurt to stare at for too long.

One more opened above Buddy's head, instantly dumping slag and molten metal Bronzong had no doubt linked from under the sea of superheated iron. He quickly began turning to vapor, and with an irritated click, he sent the Will-O-Wisps flying Bronzong's way with masterful control. They spun and intertwined with one another as they danced with a deafening silence, and gallons of water began pouring out of Bronzong's portals. That was the thing, with Bronzong. While they had Rain Dance, he could also pull water from somewhere else. The jets of water split into millions of droplets that fell horizontally through the arena as the wind howled and the world screamed.

It was raining sideways. Water pattered onto the molten metal, and vapor filled the arena as the battlefield cooled.

Even with the Sunny Day from Sunshine, Water Sport was almost working at full capacity. Still, every few seconds, Bronzong would drop scorching metal onto Jellicent, taking from the bottom of the pool to still use the parts that hadn't cooled. When they did cool, they turned to slag and slowed Buddy further.

That was, until his body split.

To regenerate fast enough, the ghost needed a large chunk to use as a launchpad. Around twenty percent of his head split off from the main body and instantly turned to another Jellicent, his old bits turning to liquid water and falling toward the scorching depths below. I restrained the urge to clench a fist as the burning wisps reached Bronzong and—

Started howling. Screams of agony, barely making it through the storm. Byron said something, but it was inaudible by now, with the constant ringing of the bell and the tempest Bronzong had created. I did not understand how, or why, but they winked out of existence as soon as they reached the steel type, and there had been no use of psychic energy either. None of the videos I'd seen had Bronzong ever interacting with Will-O-Wisp, and I did not exactly have the luxury of time to figure it out. Buddy had turned into a shapeless mass now, and Bronzong had stopped dropping metal on him now that they'd figured it wouldn't work. The Night Shades the water type had hastily summoned, though, were a different matter, and even the rain seemed to damage them enough for them to blow up in puffs of purple smoke before they could launch any attacks.

One thing was for certain, Buddy could not attain victory one-on-one against Bronzong. None of my Pokemon could. This was, in essence, Byron forcing me to use my switches early to see how I would possibly cope with being behind and having to claw my way back into an advantage. Buddy spat out countless Shadow Balls in rapid succession, but he keened when another portal sent them back right at him. I'd believed this would be a good matchup against Bronzong, but I'd been wrong.

It was, morbidly enough, still my best one. The ground had cooled into a smooth surface now, though Bronzong was still flooding the field with Rain Dance despite Buddy being able to use that water to heal. Byron was either setting up for Empoleon or forcing me into having to switch into Claydol or Togekiss next.

But we weren't going to go down that easily.

"Change of plan!" I yelled, cupping my mouth. "Gather some water!"

Jellicent were, as a species, hunters of the deep. They hid, lying still for days at a time until they could snatch their prey and drain them of every ounce of life they had, growing and growing for centuries until they became masters of the ocean capable of sinking constructs of steel larger than any Pokemon they could ever kill. Eyes shining bright through the storm, water began to coalesce around him, both from the vapor and the rain. It condensed into a group of four tight spheres as large as Bronzong themselves, but Buddy did not form them into another move quite yet, not when his opponent would just be able to open up portals to dodge without even moving.

We needed to get close, and he was smart enough to figure that out without my command. Still a shapeless, writhing mass of fluorescent water, Buddy launched himself quicker, now that the Sunny Day had waned completely. Just like the Will-O-Wisp, Jellicent strained under the push of sideways gravity, struggling to approach Bronzong, and Byron pointed his shovel forward, his lips moving.

I could barely make out the words cut before two portals closed next to his Bronzong and opened through Jellicent as soon as he crossed a threshold of around thirty feet.

He had cut him into three diagonal parts and sent those parts sprawling at opposite sides of the arena.

Two of the water spheres collapsed, exploding from the pressure they'd been put into before Buddy could recover, but that was fine, given how quickly he could regrow from this. Byron was testing the waters— probing for a weakness to use while buying time. The steel type angled themselves up, and a deafening Flash Cannon formed inside the hole below them, illuminating the entire arena which was now growing dark from stormy clouds. Instead of concentrating into a single, screaming point like Jasmine's, this one widened in a split second and shot out faster than I could blink.

The attack hit Buddy, but his body was liquid, now. The damage was substantial, the hit having vaporized the majority of his body, but it didn't knock him back. Close enough, now.


We only had one shot at this. The ghosts' eyes dimmed with darkness, and Bronzong froze, the entire storm around them collapsing within seconds and portals closing. For a moment in time, we had silence again, and it felt deafening. The gravitational field around Bronzong also ended, and everything returned to normal, save for the fact that the steel type was firing off Flash Cannon after Flash Cannon. We weren't going to get this off for free, and by the Legendaries, those attacks hurt. Each one, loud enough to deafen if you were close enough, hot enough to melt metal and to just make Jellicent's body disappear.

"Will-O-Wisp, then Water Spout!" I screamed, grinning.

The field effect that had screwed up Will-O-Wisp had to have been something Bronzong was consciously doing. It would have made no sense otherwise. The spirits crawled through our plane of existence— slower, this time— and they all rushed to enter Bronzong's body. Purple flames sprouted to existence around the steel type's body, moments later, the remaining spheres— along with a third one he had hastily gathered, levitated inside Bronzing's cavity and exploded with enough pressure to dent through metal.

The pain seemed to snap Bronzong out of the Taunt, because an invisible force snatched Buddy by the throat and started compressing him, leaving me no time to admire my work. It was a combination of Imprison, a concentrated Gravity and Psychic, and there was also anger. Anger at having their storm interrupted, I presumed.

Not that it bothered Byron much. He had his shovel slung over his shoulder and was watching with a lazy, satisfied smile, and I understood why a moment later when Buddy failed to separate parts of his body to escape. We were trapped here. We'd gotten close enough to dish out a few hits and burn Bronzong, but there was no way we were getting out of that vice or attacking out of it. Already, Buddy was trying to form Shadow Balls or Hydro Pumps, but they just exploded in his face from the sheer amount of pressure. It was enough to squeeze a fleshy Pokemon to death, or close to it, I imagined.

That also meant that our only means of escape, Water Cloak, was out of the picture, especially with the Rain Dance having ended. These last few weeks, I'd found that it was a lot more useful than only preventing freezing.

I recalled Buddy with a small nod, happy that we'd at least gotten off what we wanted. The ground was flooded, having turned into a sea, and Byron had forced me into a switch anyway. I sucked in air through my teeth, telling myself it always had to be this way, and nearly released my next Pokemon right away due to sheer excitement instead of waiting for the burn to chew through Bronzong.

Being honest with myself, things were looking quite bad. Not only had Byron fucked me over with only giving me two switches, there weren't many ways to fix the field and empty it of water if I wanted Angel to do his job. Bronzong was still raring to go, though the ghostly flames would slowly eat at them and their armor was chipped all over from the Water Spout. Bells kept ringing, and I bit my lip to stop myself from shivering. My hair felt wet and damp, as did the air.

There was, however, a silver lining.

The Rain Dance had stopped. That meant that Byron, too, couldn't have the field too flooded, or it would screw with the team he had planned. He wanted to screw me over until he emptied the entire place or froze it using Empoleon… or something else, but I was running on empty. Still, considering which Pokemon I was facing, there was only one option left, and Byron knew it.


She materialized in a flash of scarlet at the twenty-ninth second, eyeing her opponent with the usual displeasure. Her wings did not flap, yet a wind carried her, almost silent. A whisper you could almost make out, if you listened long enough. There was no material for her to work with using Ancient Power here, so we were still handicapped.

"This is a different battle," I quickly warned. "You have to be quick, and don't get close, you won't be able to escape. Watch out for—"

"Power Gem, Rapture! Get close!" Byron yelled.

"—Gravity!" I finished. "Wish and Mystical Fire!"

While Flash Cannon was among the steel type's strongest attacks, they could also use it to propel themselves. This time, the bright light wasn't wide, instead blasting behind the psychic in a thin line as spheres of light appeared around them, orbiting so quickly they became a single line that—

Exploded. I covered my eyes, cursing at the fact that steel types were so bright all the time, and Princess had just finished using Wish, sending a light piercing through the ceiling. Without a sound, the wind carried her, and she broke to the right, keeping her distance from the advancing Bronzong, but a portal opened, and the light from Power Gem kept chasing her. It broke against her barrier until it glowed red and broke after a few seconds, and then hit her in the back, burning off her fur while she finished off a Nasty Plot and her eyes gleamed with plans of queendom and subjects like she'd spoken to me about so many times. Bronzong shot out another blinding Power Gem while she weaved flames around her. They were a dull red, at first, something she no doubt would have called pathetic, but then they brightened and turned bright blue as Bronzong's bell rang again in an attempt to stun and slow her down so their next Power Gem could hit and they could get in range to lock her up.

I winced when it did hit her wing. For Princess, dodging had always been easy, but not when Brozong could use up to eleven portals as misdirection to confuse her. Another one opened right in front of the fairy type, forcing her to swerve out of the way in order not to fly right into Bronzong, and I ordered her to shed her barrier for speed, given that they weren't working anyway. Another Nasty Plot finished, and blue flames intensified even further, not as hot as Sunshine's— nowhere near as hot, but warm enough to do what we needed. Togekiss circled around the arena, nearly scraping against the barrier as the air around her warped with how quick she was flying and Byron decided to switch tactics.

"Rifts again," he grunted. "Continue your storm."

My stomach dropped.

Shit, shit, shit! What was the plan here? Was he only going to use flying types and Empoleon from now on? Did he just not care? Bronzong stopped on my side of the arena, opening portals that poured out countless gallons of water that split until they became Rain Drops pressurized enough to hurt, just like Brine was. Bronzong glowed eerily in the darkening arena thanks to their burn, but there was no way we were going to outlast them, the most annoying Pokemon of Byron's to take down. I ground my teeth as Princess' Mystical Fire dulled, but she sent it forth anyway, the fire flying in every direction at speeds I could barely track. They weakened and slowed the closer they got to Bronzong and barely ended up tickling him by the end.

After two Nasty Plots. And there was no point in using any more due to diminishing returns.

"Stay up high!" I yelled. "They might drop water on you too! Defog!"

With a flap of Togekiss' wings, the clouds above cleared, and the rain weakened instead of stopping as I'd hoped. Byron frowned, and I remembered that I'd never shown off the move after having Nightstalker teach her, and I leaned against my knees as sweat and water dripped down my forehead and into my eyes. Relax, I breathed. Just because he was doing something that made no sense from my point of view didn't mean I was about to just lose everything, though the possibility of this being a trap was high.

We'd reached an equilibrium, now. Rain barely strong enough to hurt Princess, and not enough to stop Mystical Fire. Even with Heatproof, it was the best move we had at our disposal to deal consistent damage. A gust of Fairy Wind helped Princess climb in altitude as a Flash Cannon seared the edge of her skin, too wide to fit in a portal, but wide enough to make dodging a hassle anyway. It was then, that I noticed that Bronzong never seemed to actually go through a portal themselves, and I wondered if that was a limitation or a self-imposed handicap as a personal Pokemon.

Still, we were losing. Losing because I wasn't playing to Princess' strength.

Teeth flashed, eyes widened, and I decided to bet on my daughter.

"Fire and ice!" I snapped.

That was only the beginning, but we needed to start somewhere. Ice from Tri-Attack poured out of Princess, as did fire as she spun them around her as she sped through the arena and dodged another beam of light. The Wish she'd sent earlier appeared again and healed some of her burns, but she was focused. Eyes narrowed so tightly they might as well have been shut. Blue flames gushed forward in a line, vaporizing water around them and splitting apart to stop Bronzong from isolating them using portals. Instead, rain around the psychic slowed before freezing in place, as if suspended in time, gathering into a Weather Ball packed full of wind and water and ready to explode at a minor touch.

And explode it did, a wave of pressure pushing the fire apart, rattling Princess some, but otherwise having little effect. As if they could bend the water themselves, it rushed to stop the flames before they could reach him, and Princess used the opportunity to launch another Wish upward between heavy breaths as she sent the delayed beam of ice forward.

"Shadow Ball, then Moonblast. Overwhelm them!" I added.

Multi-tasking. She'd been blessed with the ability since she'd been a Togepi, but we'd never decided to push it this far. Fire struck Bronzong, although weakened, causing him to glow and the Will-O-Wisps to squeal in pleasure, followed by ice hurtled at them a few seconds later. Bronzong's portals were slowing, now, but we weren't done. Shadow Ball was next, though the steel type managed to shoot it out of the sky with a quick Power Gem, creating a billow of smoke that Togekiss sent swarming at Rapture with a gust of wind as a pristine moon gathered in front of her mouth. As an empath, she could feel his location and kept striking while she gathered the energy needed to cut.

She was always moving, because she had to. It was who she was, and what Hustle had pushed her to become. You only have eleven portals, but what if we use more than ten angles of attack? Push, push, push until we kept Bronzong on the defensive, because that was the only way we were going to win. Fire, ice, Shadow Ball, Fairy Wind, she could not be stopped.

But constantly chaining attacks had its consequences and was a double-edged blade, our favorite. She was tiring out, and fast.

The moon was without impurities as Princess finished molding it into her image and sent it forward. It was fast, faster than most Moonblasts, and had made its way across the battlefield before I could count to five. Superheated steel that was then cooled turned brittle, and countless invisible blades slashed at Bronzong's outer shell, furthering the damage dealt by Buddy and cutting across them like they were made of wood and not solid steel, even after the Iron Defense Byron had every single one of his Pokemon set up at the start of every fight.


We were pushing, and yet Byron's voice brought me back from my high. Princess didn't need me to yell to understand that they were preparing something—

A portal opened above her and in front of Bronzong. There was a flash in Rapture's eyes, and then a crack as sinews of metal penetrated her back and Bronzong held her with Psychic.

Both of Princess' wings were bent back, and her moon disappeared as she fell down to the sea below. There was a lump in my throat as my hand instantly went for my Pokeball, waiting another second to see if she would recover from the sheer amount of pain she'd just been dealt with.

She didn't.

If I'd had her keep her barrier to buy a few seconds and allowed her to fight back…

But she's not out of the fight either, I thought as I beamed her back to her Pokeball before she could touch the water. Princess didn't need her wings to fly, especially now that she could manipulate the wind this well. She would, however, be incredibly slow and basically a sitting duck the next time I sent her out, and the pain from her wings would fray her focus to a point where we wouldn't be able to replicate what we'd just done.

Byron could have done this since the start, so why now? I'd dealt with this with Steelix and Sunshine just earlier, but I'd chalked it to the sheer difference in size and Byron going a little harder because his defences were among my best.

"First time someone's ever punched back, hm, lass?" Byron drawled with a satisfied sigh. "You dish it out, I dish back."

"I'm fine," I quickly countered. "I'd be a hypocrite not to be."

"Of course."

I didn't like how he sounded, but it was a possible mind trick, and my thirty seconds were running out. Had I ever been in such a disadvantageous position in a battle before? No switches left and with two tired Pokemon waiting in the wings? Though Buddy was a lot better than Princess was and I'd be confident sending him out against a healthy Pokemon. I eyed the sea below, in all of its turbulence, and decided it had to be him again. Rapture was almost out for the count, and we could hide in the depths to wait them out. I was confident now that with how tired the psychic was, they wouldn't pull any tricks and beat us in water TE manipulation.

And the fact that they'd been capable of beating a creature born to hunt in the ocean in that department before terrified me.

This time, Jellicent appeared below the water, a dull red light barely peeking through the darkened waves. Bronzong was completely still as they hovered in the sky, angled slightly back and ready to fire off a Flash Cannon. What truly confirmed to me that they were on their last legs was that they weren't using Rain Dance or creating a storm any longer, because they knew Buddy would be able to take advantage when the steel type fainted.

"They're tired and slow," I snapped. "Whirlpool and drag them in."

I had no idea where Buddy was, but water below Bronzong began to spin, turning into a typhoon that lengthened upward like a snake, the water at its edges freezing. Too wide to be contained by any portals, if they even had the energy to open them, still.

"Push it down and Flash Cannon," Byron countered.

The world shifted, and the top of the typhoon dissolved. Ice crackled under the pressure, and then the structure would have evaporated, had Buddy not been constantly supplying it with more water. Bronzong could only push with gravity for so long. Their body was in tatters, with deep gashes running all over and even a small hole poking through. They'd been burning for nearly as long as they'd been battling, and by the Legendaries, beating them had been a puzzle. The water swallowed Bronzong whole, freezing in an instant as it fell down to the sea and left the psychic to an unknown fate. I had no idea how Buddy finished them off, but it was completely silent.

It was honestly cooler that way.

Twenty seconds later, Bronzong's unconscious body floated up, face down in the water.

"Bronzong is unable to battle! Leader Byron, send out your third Pokemon!" the referee declared.

While technically ahead in Pokemon now, I was obviously still losing. The earlier Wish from Princess entered the water and healed Buddy some as Byron sent out his next Pokemon. A regal silhouette emerged from the aquatic abyss. A glint of steel pierced through the water's surface as Empoleon made herself known with a deep honk— far deeper than Louis'. Her trident-like beak looked golden and without a touch of decay, as was the steel at the side of her fins.

"Dot the sea, Empoleon," Byron said.

From the videos I'd seen, I knew what I was facing. Instantly, the sea shook as if it was rippled by an Earthquake, and waves at least ten feet high swarmed the arena as islands began to sprout from below the ocean. Empoleon was an artist— a sculptor good enough to rival Princess in detail, and better than her in scale of what she could work with, except she used metal instead of earth and stone. An island sprouted below her, and she stood atop it with a deep bow.

Islands, then, I thought. That was… I could work with that. I kept my poker face, arms flat against my side and moistened my lips.

"Will-O-Wisp again and Scald," I spoke.

Islands kept popping up left and right, and cold, purple flames burst out of the water, all rushing toward Empoleon. The steel type lowered herself to the ground, clawing across the steel of the island she had just made, and she raked. Shards of steel shrouded in darkness pelted at the flames with accuracy that shouldn't have been possible. Magnetism. Subtle, but still there, and the Will-O-Wisps died screaming. Next came the Scald, hot enough to hurt even steel types, and Empoleon jumped into the water to dodge the attack—

Fast! I could tell from how her form disturbed the water when she swam, but she was so quick we had no hopes of getting close and catching up. With a graceful jump, she landed atop another island, and steel formed around her webbed feet to stop her exactly at the center. Her body glowed slightly from the lingering Iron Defense she had set up.

Here was the dilemma, when fighting Empoleon. She could shape steel into anything she wanted, which meant that approaching her was a surefire way of getting skewered, and it meant that she'd be able to sense and attack if we came from underground too, just like Emi's Lycanroc had been. We need to find a counter for that, and soon. She was a master at what she did, and when she worked, there was never any flaw. A perfectionist by definition with the way she stared at people and her opponents.

Artist. Perfectionist. Sculptor. Empoleon had dedicated her life to art, and that was what battling was to her.

But! What could she do, to actually win, if we never approached? While she was fast in the water, we were better than her in it.

My eyes scanned the ocean as the last of the islands came to be, and Night Shades burst from the surface, shapeless, silent creatures barely held together by countless spirits. Webs of iron burst from the ground, piercing through the shades, but the explosion was more powerful than before. We'd learned to adjust that for when we needed a big one.

"Watch for Will-O-Wisps!" Byron warned.

Damn it, he fucking knew. I'd planned on the smoke masking the little buds of flames, trusting in Buddy to come to that conclusion on his own, but I supposed it had been obvious, in retrospect. There was a loud splash, and then a trail of smoke when Empoleon escaped to another island and started growing another web. They were almost like… trees. Winding branches that divided again and again.

I grinned when Jellicent jumped out of the water, more of a net with red eyes than anything else. At this range—

Now! "Taunt!"

I blinked, and metal tipped Empoleon's claws. Again, we only had this one opportunity, and flames had already been prepared—

Byron recalled Empoleon, using the first switch of the battle.

Ah, Buddy. Never flashy, but consistently annoying to fight, because if there was one thing a Pokemon centuries old never ran out of, it was patience, and time was on our side rather than Byron's. The Gym Leader cracked his neck, a noise picked up by the microphone and that made me think back to Princess' broken wings, and he released a…

I squinted. She was so tiny, when you couldn't zoom in like in the videos. Her bright pink cloak mimics the hues of a delicate flower in full bloom, albeit with an unconventional twist. It was made of metal, each blade sharp enough to cut anything that hit her with a physical move. A thin string of silk shot out from the bug type's mouth, and she anchored herself on one of the trees Empoleon had built—


Oh, this had been planned, hadn't it? The islands, and the trees? Byron had just been forced into switching so early Empoleon had only managed to create three of them out of nine islands.

This Pokemon was a delicate flower, though she was poisonous and had thorns. She was proof that life could bloom anywhere if given enough time and care, and she was one I had not expected to face at all, given what my team was composed of. So small, so weak-looking, yet I knew that couldn't be further from the truth.

She was Wormadam. Hanging onto a tree by a single strand of silk. There was a shift in the air, then a… bristle. If you squinted and looked close enough, you could see each needle making up Wormadam's cloak was moving. Moving until they produced a horrible screech and a green hue appeared around her. I had to consciously keep my foot from tapping as a deep uncomfortableness overtook me. A thousand ideas, each passing so quickly they might as well not exist. Focus, Grace. Don't let the Bug Buzz get to you.

It would deal constant damage to Buddy, but hopefully the water would keep him insulated from the worst of it.

"Iron Defense and Infestation. Hunt," Byron ordered.

I swallowed. Infestation was one of our key weaknesses— something that couldn't be stopped by Water Cloak, only weakened. Wormadam shimmered under her tree, and countless little things so minuscule they would have been impossible to see without the slight green hue to them. They were writhing, dead, yet alive, reminding me of Vespiquen's way of bending honey. I knew Buddy must have been deep in the water in order not to get hit, but there must have been a reason Byron had called out for the attack anyway. A reason why Empoleon almost managed to set up for Wormadam so beautifully.

"They can swim. They can swim!" I called out, louder the second time. "Keep moving and burn her!"

The Infestation entered the water as little beads of purple flame burst through the surface, each time in a different location. Wormadam's eyes narrowed, and the Infestation followed where the trail of flames was coming from until Byron slapped his shovel against his platform.

"It's a trick. Disperse them and find him that way."

Damn it, he'd instantly fucking figured it out! I internally cursed again when the Will-O-Wisp dissolved before crossing a threshold of ten feet around Wormadam as a transparent green ring circled around her. Safeguard. Must have been a new move she'd learned and mastered in the last two months, because that had been the last time she'd ever been used in battle and she'd gotten paralyzed in that one.

That unfortunately meant that Taunt was also out, given the fact that she had it permanently on and it was one of the few techniques that could fight against that move.

Action snapped me out of my thoughts, and a blade of ice, twenty feet long, elongated from behind the Wormadam's island, striking at the string holding her up—

It shattered. Splintering into a hundred shards of ice. I knew it'd be resistant, but how could a string be this fucking powerful? Had they used Iron Defense on it too? I didn't have enough information…

"Change of plans!" I called out. "Keep your distance and use Night Shades to hit her!"

Arceus, I felt so strange, having to yell these orders out instead of doing our usual whisper, like bringing a plastic knife to a swordfight, but I could see the way Wormadam's eyes glanced at my side of the barrier every few seconds while she directed her Infestation underwater that she knew, just like the others. Clones of Jellicent, this time fully formed, slipped out of the water with Hydro Pumps already prepared and blasted Wormadam with both attacks. The bug type didn't even react, instead, light swarmed her and exploded outward with such force that my ears popped and water around her island evaporated. The shades had thankfully been far enough not to be affected.

This was what it was like, to fight Wormadam. Bide, Counter, and Mirror Coat were her best tools, and any attack would be reflected to be even stronger. One was destined to listen to Bug Buzz and have their body wracked by one of the most powerful Infestations in the region while not even being able to strike back.

And with Safeguard added to the mix, she was truly untouchable.

I winced when one of the clones wavered and lost its shape, a sign that the Infestation had reached Buddy and penetrated him even through the Water Cloak. The last shade rushed toward Wormadam before he could lose control and exploded right on top of her—

Eyes narrowing, I bit my lip. I knew Buddy, and that was far too much control for a Pokemon who'd been hit by Infestation…

I got my answer soon after, with water around Wormadam's island receding as one for a moment, and then swarming her, placing her in a ball of water for her to drown in. A piece of Buddy writhed up the surface of the water, thousands of little green things eating at it until there'd be nothing left.

A trick. He'd separated a part of himself and vaguely shaped it in his image, new eyes and all, and detonated one of his clones to sell it, nearly fooling even me. The sound from the Bug Buzz was barely a whisper, now.

This was why I'd wanted to communicate so badly, but I wasn't going to complain. If we couldn't win by attacking, we would win by drowning.

"Metal Burst," the Gym Leader calmly ordered.

There was a screech, the sound altered by the ball of water, and Wormadam's eyes flared. I almost covered my ears by instinct, but the liquid dampened the sound enough not to make them feel like they were bleeding. The water moved, losing some of its volume, but it kept its stranglehold on the steel type. This time, Wormadam tried an old-fashioned Flash Cannon, but it was weaker than her counterparts, and she couldn't evaporate all the water at once to catch her breath, especially when we had an endless supply here.

And Jellicent was still nowhere to be seen. A hunter of the depths.

"Relax," Byron said. Wormadam must have been panicking, even if I couldn't even spot any differences on her face. "Get to another island."

I clicked my tongue. "Do not let her."

There were only three trees, and the other two were in a similar direction, towards Wormadam's right. The string blew out of the bug type's mouth, and water in between the islands rose, twisting itself into ice in an attempt to cut the string off.

It broke again, not even denting the newly formed string, and it was then that I understood that Wormadam had not been applying Iron Defense to her strings, but that this was biological. The string shot penetrated through the metallic tree trunk, and though Buddy tried to keep her in the water by playing with the currents of his sphere, Wormadam pulled herself to the other island and the Bug Buzz resumed, and thousands of tiny little worm-like things burst out of her cloak, jumping in the water. Infestation again.

We could do this old song and dance once more, but it was only a matter of time until Jellicent's real body was found, and I doubted his trick would work a second time. My thoughts raced as the ghost tried to drown her again, this time swarming all three islands in water and the trees as well, but a second String Shot left Wormadam's mouth and the steel type suspended herself in between two islands, hovering above the sea by having two strings penetrating the trees, all while slamming all of her surroundings with Bug Buzz. Some attempts were made to hit Wormadam with moves anyway— Shadow Ball, Hydro Pump and Water Spout from a distance, but with each retaliation, her power seemed to grow and now no matter how far Jellicent was, he always got hit. How did that even work? Some kind of reverse-engineering of Flail? That would mean that we were actually dealing damage, at the very least. The issue with Byron— and higher-leveled fights in general— was that calling out exactly what your Pokemon was doing became rarer and rarer, not that I'd been spared of that either. It was tough, to figure out what exactly went into each trick to counter them.

This was not sustainable. Recover could only take us so far, and despite not having seen Buddy once this entire exchange, I knew his limits. I understood how far he could go and not go, but who else could win this? Princess would be important to what I'd planned for later and needed rest. Claydol was the weakest offensively by far, Angel and Sweetheart needed to get close to deal any real damage, which would be difficult in this terrain, and Infestation would be able to claw past any barrier or armored plating.

No. The buck stopped with him. It had to.


Instantly, Buddy flew into the sky with Water Sport, and hundreds of green lights followed him. Some were already inside of his body, though Wormadam hadn't converged them all there due to worrying about him having sprouted another trap.

I pointed forward, sleeves slightly too long for my arms. "Boil her alive."

I didn't have to tell him twice.

Countless green lights surged toward him at a quick pace, and he twisted his body, altering its shape to better dodge as he rushed toward Wormadam with hate flashing in his eyes. Not every bit of Infestation could be dodged, and those that entered him could still be seen through his transparent skin, wreaking havoc inside of him, but that was fine. To kill a ghost was to be ready to be taken down with them through sheer spite— and hell, they weren't even trying to do that. Jellicent's entire head flung open like a giant maw full of boiling teeth as he reached Wormadam, and the bug type let it happen, because why wouldn't she, when she could retaliate tenfold? This played like a desperate play from someone out of ideas, and honestly, it partly was. With each thing that slithered inside of him, Buddy's eyes grew less wise and more primal. It was a good thing my order had been simple, because it was actually possible for him to remember, when running only on instincts. His thoughts had been reverted to their most basic.

Buddy's head closed around Wormadam, the inside of his head burning hot enough to start evaporating himself. Light came to life, a burning ball of energy coursing out of Wormadam, and then everything exploded with enough force to make the entire barrier shake and have the referee take a step back. Definitely Flail, but there was no time to think about it. I squinted, my bandaged hands and sleeve covering my eyes, but I could still see the light through my eyelids. Shockwaves bounced repeatedly throughout the arena and tsunamis formed drowning every island. Wormadam was still pristine, a flower barely touched by the elements, but her eyes were struggling to stay open and she was swaying from side to side on her string, barely holding onto the stump that was left of both her trees.

Quiet. It was so quiet, the Bug Buzz having finally ended. It felt like something that had been squeezing against my skull had let go and I was free.

Chunks of Jellicent were floating in the water, lifeless and unmoving. With flickering eyes, Wormadam prepared to launch a Flash Cannon, the ball of light keening as it formed in front of her mouth and ready to fire if Buddy showed any signs of reforming.

But there was something else.

Vapor, both from the heat of the explosion and Buddy boiling so hot he'd vaporized himself.

Sinister tendrils of mist, devoid of color, shook and congealed, their spectral dance weaving into a familiar form surrounded by ghastly shadows. It was the eyes first, always the eyes—

"Wormadam, behind you!" Byron called out.

—a haunting, otherwordly wail resonated across the arena as the final wisps of vapor coalesced into Jellicent's horrifying visage. Serrated edges of frozen teeth swarming with countless spirits he had bound under his rule. Ripples continuously ran across his… head, like he was in a constant state of distortion. Grotesque long limbs had replaced his usual tentacles and wrapped around Wormadam in a blur.

He bit.

Wormadam screamed for the first time, her cries masked by the ones of the souls swimming in Buddy's head-maw thing. The teeth, if you could even call them that, didn't even penetrate past Wormadam's cloak.

And yet.

"You're okay, baby," I said, stopping my voice from shaking. It was so cold. "This is a battle."

At the end of it all, he was always there, because how couldn't he be? From a speck, he would always come back. Always the last one standing, able to come back from anything. You had to kill him again and again, over and over until you'd rid yourself of every little speck, every source of water in any state.

Because that was what it meant, to be a ghost.

"Wormadam is unable to battle! Leader Byron, send out your fourth Pokemon."

A breath escaped my lips, and I nearly stumbled as awareness returned to Buddy's eyes and he let go of the Wormadam, barely holding himself together.

Today was the first one of my own Pokemon had scared me.

It was Empoleon, that came out again, and there was no way to avoid the coming loss. Buddy was exhausted, not even having noticed the steel type appear on the island the closest to him. I tried calling out for a Will-O-Wisp, but Empoleon had already fired off a Flash Cannon and finished off Buddy as well, cutting a hole right through the middle of his face. The referee spoke again while I recalled him, and Empoleon began fixing up the islands that had been caved in or damaged by Wormadam with haste. In fact, she was making more ground than before, which signaled to me Byron was planning on using land-based Pokemon next. I was surprised he didn't wait until Empoleon was nearly out of the fight to take full advantage of the water, but maybe Byron didn't want to risk her being too exhausted to do it.

Here was why I'd actually been losing, or at best, keeping equal to Byron while still having the number's advantage. Ignoring the fundamentals of battle, the lack of switches, the field still being his instead of mine.

Claydol was weak.

The psychic type hovered in the sky as soon as I released them, their eyes blinking constantly. Most of them stared at the audience, and one at Empoleon.

I presume this is the Gym Battle? they asked.

"Yes. Don't mind the crowd, focus on Empoleon," I said. "This is a safe space."


A beam of light struck at Claydol, but it was stopped by a hastily erected barrier that luckily barely budged at the impact. The shield surrounded Claydol, glowing as everything clicked together until it became invisible to the naked eye.

No matter what, taking down Empoleon with Claydol was impossible, which meant I had sent them out to lose because of how little room to maneuver the two switches had given me. Still, me having to potentially 'sack' them was something we'd talked about extensively before the fight. Byron had read the reports about me catching Claydol, but he didn't actually know what the ground type was capable of beyond the broadest of strokes.

For once, he was actually in an informational deficit.

"Get to work," I said.

Mud materialized all around Claydol in large amounts, and with Ancient Power to help, they scattered it across the battlefield over and over. Enough to bury it in a thick layer of earth. The bits landing next to Empoleon sharpened to spikes and tried penetrating her skin, but the most we could do through Iron Defense was poke a little bit.

"Don't let them set up. Wash it away and Fling," Byron ordered.

While Empoleon was no Jellicent, having prioritized steel over water when it came to TE, she was still a water type. She inhaled, her chest growing to twice its size, and released a torrent all across the ground in an attempt to throw the mud into the water.

How did one win, when they did not have power to punch through a steel wall? Tricks. We were going to annoy the living hell out of this empress no matter what it took, and while victory might be unobtainable, something close to it might be. Mud crawled all over her, solidifying into stone as she tried raking the floor like she had before to launch little iron pebbles of darkness toward Claydol, and then around her mouth, cutting off the coming Hydro Pump from the source for a few seconds until the water burst through the stone and Empoleon coughed. Then, it was the eyes, the mud constantly trying to blind her. She shook, panicking at the loss of eyesight, and mud crawled into her mouth and earholes—

Byron slammed his shovel down, and Empoleon stiffened. Water burst out of her skin and the mud was all knocked away by the sudden force of the Aqua Jet. She glared at Claydol, something furious like she couldn't believe we'd just struck at her in such a dirty way to keep spreading mud around and destroying her art. She slammed a webbed foot on the ground, and thin poles of steel erupted through the solid mud, slowing slightly in front of her so she could bathe their tips in darkness.

Some Fling that was, I thought through clenched teeth. It was basically their own fucking spin on Metal Edge! The shape was perfect to break through a barrier, too, and this was again, a new tactic I'd never seen, and Claydol was too high—

"Imprison and get lower!" I said.

—to make use of Ancient Power effectively. The world blurred, and barriers snapped into place again and again, layer after layer of shields, so many I couldn't even count them as they shimmered like a set of rainbows. The poles broke through them like butter, and though they slowed with each impact, Empoleon brought her hand up and they sped up again, converging toward Claydol as one.

"Ancient Power!" I continued. "Rapid Spin if you can't!"

The thing about battling with Claydol was that beyond barriers, they had to be micromanaged in a way I hadn't been used to since… the first or second badge. Talking took time, and that delay in my order meant that the wall of solid mud climbing up to protect Claydol was late, there had been no Harden to keep themselves protected from some of the damage, and the Rapid Spin had barely begun when the poles penetrated through Claydol.

Yes, they went through their body, and I assumed the head had been spared because that would have been too lethal. Claydol felt no pain, but that didn't mean their systems couldn't fray when touched by darkness. Their spreading of mud across the battlefield slowed, and they were barely able to hover in place. It was as if the attack had been made to—


Maybe it had.

What we had, though, was that we could spread mud faster than Empoleon could wash it away. Much of the arena had been covered, now, and though there was some form of a meandering river dividing the arena in two… three, I was slowly clawing my way back into a favorable situation. Another set of poles burst from the ground, but this time, I'd been ready to speak as soon as Empoleon slammed a foot down.

"Ancient Power. Layers," I blurted out.

Claydol was low to the ground, now, and ten thick walls of hardened stone popped up in between them and Empoleon. What I hadn't expected was for the darkened poles to make it through eight of them and having to scream at Claydol to reinforce them, but at least they hadn't gotten hit this time. I could barely see the water type past the walls, but I caught the trident on her head shimmering as she threw herself forward with what looked to be Iron Head. She could not fly, not even close, but she was a deceptively quick runner on the still wet mud even if she looked mighty awkward while doing so. Shards of stone exploded outward as she rammed her head into the shields Claydol had set up, and I called out for an Imprison.

Byron was growing more confident, because he knew I wasn't the type of trainer to go big on stalling and we weren't actually attacking. I flattened my palms in order not to clench them and watched Empoleon break through five walls until she slammed her head into an Imprison that she couldn't break out of. Part of me wanted to gush at the fact that Claydol's barriers were holding back an 8-badge level Pokemon specialized in steel when she was using Iron Head, but we didn't have enough tricks to win yet. Not enough experience, not enough of a bond. Empoleon easily broke out with her variation of Fling and an Aqua Jet preemptively stopped any attempts from blinding her with mud, and sped her up, but Claydol had been moving back, however slowly. Buying time.

But I'd be damned if I didn't try just like they were trying.

"Are you well enough to—"

Do not— ask. Order, they chided, their voice slightly more rapid. Fucking chided! Even though their voice was glitching due to having been stabbed, they were demanding something of me, hell yes!

"Give me hollow walls of earth around yourself," I blurted out.

Once, at the edges of Eterna Forest, Princess had shielded Justin from Scyther in this exact manner, but this was a much better showing of how one could push Ancient Power to… not its limits, but far. Thick walls emerged and bent into a dome, isolating Claydol from the outside world. Then another. And another, all with agility that did not betray how new they actually were with the move. Princess had been an excellent teacher.

"Break through," Byron said. "Keep Fling up."

"Psychic!" I screamed.

Thin poles, each the exact same length, rose from below the dirt and hovered above Empoleon as she got closer and closer. Fifteen seconds away now, maybe eighteen if I was being generous.

My order, simply, did not make any sense as it was. Claydol was not experienced enough to use Psychic on an opponent they couldn't see and that far, and if they waited until Empoleon broke through their fortress of solid stone, the water type would struggle for a few seconds, sure, but then she would launch the pole, and Claydol wouldn't be able to take another stabbing. The goal here, was to let Claydol interpret it in a way that made sense.

It was a leap of faith, as I found myself having done more and more during this fight. Putting my full trust into my Pokemon to accomplish something they'd never or seldom done before. In this case, to think and act independently. This would never work, if I called it out and warned Byron and Empoleon ahead of time. I stopped myself from biting my lip as Empoleon broke through the second dome, dust, ash and shards of rock rising from the crashing Iron Head.


Third impact. A gaping hole opened on the side of the dome.

At the same time, Claydol appeared above Empoleon without a sound and began assaulting the steel type's mind. Blood gushed from her beak, earholes and eyes, and she struggled to even find where Claydol was until Byron called out their location. Claydol had used those precious seconds hidden away to concentrate and Teleport a short distance.

It was only for a moment.

It didn't win us the fight.

It barely even mattered, in the grand scheme of things.

Lances of steel, tipped in darkness pierced through Claydol. Most of them missed, Empoleon's thought and aim having frayed due to the psychic attack, but the two that did make it weakened Claydol enough to let Empoleon focus on a single, pinpoint Flash Cannon that finished the job. Claydol crashed to the floor, their arms crumpling to their side and eyes fluttering closed. I hadn't realized how emotional I'd gotten at Claydol taking the initiative on offense for one of the first times. My eyes were wet, and it wasn't because of what Rapture had done earlier.

"Claydol is unable to battle," the referee droned. "Challenger, send out your fourth Pokemon!"

I clasped Claydol's Pokeball, but they spoke into my mind.

Did I— do well, my King? they asked, eyes barely open.

I wiped a tear from the corner of my eye and crouched, touching the barrier. "Yes, Claydol. You did amazing."

A name has been assigned— to my own person—

They shut down. I so desperately wanted to have heard it, but it was too late. Their eyes were a pitch black and their voice had cut out in an instant. I recalled them, smiling at the Pokeball and drying my eyes one last time.

Empoleon, despite all of her fighting, was actually rather healthy. She was not the most offensive or defensive fighter, and she'd lost most of the water that made her a threat, but I couldn't underestimate how her fine control would affect a Pokemon that actually had to stick close to the ground. The layer of earth Claydol had planted wasn't deep enough to prevent her from playing with her steel, as she'd shown by her magnetically levitated batons. Even with broken wings, Togekiss was a better choice here than Sweetheart, who was, by all intents and purposes, supposed to go last so she could let loose and destroy the terrain I'd worked so hard to set up. Princess would also be able to flatten all of the walls and domes Claydol had raised. The plan had been for them to collapse them before fainting, but life didn't always go according to plan.


Byron had a switch left. It had been hanging over my neck like an executioner's axe all battle, ready to be used at a moment's notice. If he switched into Corviknight or a Scizor, for example, it was pretty much over, wasn't it? Even Angel, in his current healthy state, would be able to better tackle both of these. The field wasn't perfect as I swore to him it would be, but there was soil, it had been hydrated by the river and water, and it was deep enough for him to root himself in. Again, though, there was a caveat to this. Bisharp was available, and unlike Scizor, he could actually cut himself out of this. Would it be at a speed higher than what Angel could smother him with? That was a question difficult to answer.

This was, I knew, a decision that could cost me the entire battle.

I sighed, grabbing my next Pokeball with a sweaty palm.

Angel materialized onto my side of the field, a silent, towering mass of writhing vines. His eyes locked with Empoleon, and he waved at her with a bright smile, as if telling her that he hoped they'd have a good fight. The water type sneered, the steel tipping her flippers sharpening with a menacing gleam.

"You'll have to stab him deep!" Byron ordered. He knew that a Tangrowth's weakness lay within their vines.

"Do it."

First came the sun, appearing above the sky with a woosh. It was a gentle thing, unlike the scorching heat Sunshine's Sunny Day helped bring. Comfortable with the way its warm, golden light kissed your skin. Empoleon was already running forward, her Aqua Jet growing a smidge weaker, and metal burst through the dirt to keep Angel in place as she summoned another row of spears, this time tipped in sharpened ice. Thick walls of earth rose to try to stop her, but Angel stopped after realizing they were doing nothing. At least Claydol's had slowed her, but the grass type hadn't practiced as much with the move than the others.

He closed his eyes.

Vines anchored themselves to the ground, and then expanded. A verdant cascade of vegetation sprouted out of him like they were the roots of an ancient tree, creaking like old wood. The ground beneath quivered, yielding to its master as sinuous vines kept worming themselves through the soil. They spread, dividing into two over and over like cells and even crossed the river without a hitch.

His silence was deafening.

Empoleon stopped until Byron barked out at her to keep going. She raked a claw forward, spreading a cloud of ice in front of her as she stepped on a path of frozen vines, spears still levitating around her as she slid down Angel's domain. He's testing the waters, I instantly thought. Wants to see if ice is a weakness, or maybe how much dexterity we've got. After all, who the hell could micromanage that many vines?

Angel could. From the side, a green tendril blurred, wrapping its way around Empoleon's neck, and puffs of every powder started exploding in between the two Pokemon. It was only one vine, at first then a dozen more, smothering Empoleon, who barely had time to react and send her spears flying forward. Angel managed to knock the majority of them out of the way with more vines, but two penetrated past his defenses because of how close Empoleon had gotten. For a moment, there were screams as Empoleon began to drown in the vines and Angel sucked her energy with Giga Drain, but then, she was completely silent, her voice having been smothered.

In the forest, no one would hear you scream if Angel ever got his hands on you. Death would come slowly and in silence.

For a moment, Byron frowned.

Then shrapnel and spikes of steel exploded from under Angel's vines, and he whipped a Pokeball out of his belt, instantly recalling the water type—

Arceus fucking damn it! There were supposed to be no openings, but Empoleon had given him enough time to recall her! He'd moved his hand so fast I hadn't even noticed. Those decades of experience weren't for nothing. Odds were, he wanted to keep Empoleon to use against Sweetheart, which was exactly what I'd wanted to avoid. Sure, her steel tricks wouldn't pierce through her armor, but since he was mirroring my style, he would no doubt order Empoleon to flood her vents with water or stab inside of her vents, and while they could be closed, that would go entirely against my plan I had for her—

Focus, Grace. I'd caught up to Byron's numerical advantage, and while Empoleon wasn't as banged up as Princess, I'd beaten Byron's Bronzong. I just needed to dock the damn ship and use Angel's strengths.

"Smoothen out the ground," I exhaled.

Vines crawled atop the earthen walls and domes, swallowing them into the deep. The steel spikes would have to stay, but they weren't really large enough to matter. In reality, he was just using his extended senses to turn them back into mud, but it still looked cool. Like an all-consuming sea of vines. Had I not been fighting against a Gym Leader, I'd be willing to bet that would be a neat psychological trick to stun other trainers. Byron's hands fiddled with the remaining Pokeballs on his belt, and I braced myself. No Skarmory other than his personal one on hand, and he'd already locked himself out of it. Corviknight was awful at attacking at a distance, so Byron would need to get close. It would either be Bisharp or Scizor—

Out of the ball, in the last free corners of the arena not yet overtaken by Angel, came out a Lucario. His eyes were… feral, not at all like Ri or Maylene's own Lucario, and a wide grin split the fighting type's face as soon as he noticed what he was up against. He punched his palm and growled as he squared himself and prepared to fight.

"I knew you'd enjoy this one," Byron said. "Armor up."

"Grab him."

When one pictured fighting a Lucario, they were always diligent, calm fighters. Technique and skill over raw power, blue light swarming every inch of their skin as they pulled off more and more complicated techniques that awed the audience. Lucario were, after all, among the best aura users in the entire world.

This Lucario was nothing like that.

There was no blue wave of energy cascading off his skin as it split open with a nauseating squelch and exposed the raw, pink flesh beneath the skin. Lucario's teeth clenched, but he never lost his grin and kept destroying his own body from within. The initial splits gave way to a visceral display as metallic bones emerged from within, tearing through muscle and sinew until the entire body was covered in sharpened armor that shimmered under the Gym's harsh lights. Only his eyes were still visible.

This was Byron's Lucario. A creature of violence, willing to go through and even enjoying pain, if it made him stronger. An endless hunger for powerful opponents without a care for how close his own body was to death. Vines unfortunately only reached him as soon as his transformation finished, but a set of metallic blades grew from the fighting type's arms, and his own body spun so quickly he became a blur, cutting every single appendage that had tried to reach him.

I had miscalculated thinking that he wouldn't use Lucario when I had a Tyranitar and Togekiss waiting in the wings.

"Swords Dance," Byron said.

"Bulldoze, Spores and Solar Beam!" I yelled in quick succession.

It was not a graceful thing, the way Lucario sharpened like a whetted sword. With an almost manic fervor, his body convulsed as if possessed by the very essence of the battle itself. The ground under him began to shake as vines beat against the metallic floor beneath the wet mud, and bombs of every kind of spore flew in a tall arc toward Lucario.

It was the final act, that captivated me, however. Tangrowth weaved vines into a circle about midway between himself and Lucario. They spun in an almost hypnotic pattern as energy from the sun built up at their center until it nearly blinded me. Within three seconds, the attack shot out toward Lucario. Now on all fours, the steel type threw himself to the side, tongue hanging out of his mouth as he dodged the Solar Beam and barely got a whiff of the spores. Countless vines grabbed at his wrist, chest, neck, legs and ankles, but despite being slowed with both those and the Bulldoze, he was so sharp that even with the vines wreathed with dark energy, they were getting cut within moments of grabbing onto him. Still, Lucario was taking damage. Leaf Blades, Solar Blades, and even Brick Break only dented his armor, but we needed more.

"Explode!" I ordered as soon as he landed from crossing the river.

Two Solar Blades sprouted from the ocean of vines next to Lucario, and the steel type instantly cut across both, but didn't account for the one that had been hidden right under his foot. Cracks in the armor this time, and it even chipped in some places, but it instantly regrew as Lucario snarled in pain and then grinned.

"You're almost there," Byron said.

So close he could taste it. Lucario spun, throwing himself in the air again, but a darkened vine from Angel clasped onto a groove in his ankle and slammed him onto the ground. There was no refinement in this battle. It was just… desperation. A need to fight, because how could Lucario live without that thrill? That was antithetical to who he was. Spores swarmed him as he stood up and coughed. It was as if the air itself was pushing them into his lungs.

One more time.

Another burst of steel from under his feet and hands, exploding with a thousand pieces of shrapnel and giving him enough height to reach Angel in a single jump.

Air crackling with power, a celestial light overtook Lucario's form as his arm shifted with the sound of rearranging bones until it became an elongated knife. The world screamed, air blurred around his arm as multi-colored flames burst out of his fist and the Meteor Mash took form. Lucario descended, streaks of astral fire trailed behind the mighty swing. The metallic bones, now infused with the power of falling stars, collided with Angel as the steel type gouged his insides.

Angel's eyes bulged, vines moved as one with agony all across the battlefield, and Lucario grinned, drool dripping from his mouth.

It was a wonderful display of violence and fighting spirit, but it was not enough. Angel drew upon nutrients from the ground, and Lucario's face fell. Spores wafted off the grass type, and another Solar Blade exploded below them, throwing Lucario back. Swallowing him below the depths was impossible with how he'd just cut his way out, but we could still overwhelm him. I'd known Pokemon capable of cutting vines would be a weakness of ours, but we still had numbers on our side.

It was up to Lucario to get to us, not the opposite. The fighting type flailed with every limb to get himself out, but every contact was another second spent being hit with Leaf Blades or having his energy sucked by Giga Drain, though I did notice the move was way weaker when touching the bones that made up Lucario's armor, and trying for Leech Seed was a lost cause.

"What do we do when we fail?" Byron asked. "We get up and try again. Bullet Punch."

Lucario's second fist turned to another blade, and he grunted.

"Ancient Power—"

He was more of a force than a living thing, with the way he rushed forward and cut so fast. Like a hurricane bending trees so low their leaves touched the ground. Lucario broke through the wall after three punches that might as well have been instant. He was faster now, but the drawback of this was that he was taking more damage. He could not cut every vine before they exploded, could not stop the occasional Solar Beam from clipping him in the shoulder before he could dodge, and spores were not something that could be cut.

Still, he reached us.

A wave. It was a flurry of punches, each puncturing deeper than the last, so quick that the air itself seemed to deflect the vines Angel was using to retaliate. With each impact, Angel lost more and more control. He did not bleed, nor did he scream, but the way his vines moved spelled out agony rather easily. The erraticness of the movements, the way they had turned from a unified force to a writhing mass of individuals. The way the terrain receded at its edges. The way he no longer used the mud to regenerate with Ingrain.

The way the sun flickered in the sky.

"You've got this," I breathed. "Concentrate."

Pain was something Angel had never gotten used to. The way his body was built had him nearly impervious to the sensation, and that had him lose focus each and every time he was struck. My voice had his attention back on the fight, but we were still losing, slowly but surely. Lucario was slowing with the amount of spores he had inhaled and hits he had taken, but he was going to outlast us. Without that armor he would have died— would have fainted twice over already.

That armor.


"Give everything you have on Bulldoze!" I ordered.

Bulldoze was, along with Stomping Tantrum, not that much of a sophisticated technique. Angel's eyes sharpened as he beat the ground around Lucario like drums. Byron called out, telling him to pay attention to what was going on around him, but the ground had the fighting type stumble forward and allowed Angel to throw him back around thirty feet. He cut the vines on the ground as he skidded and rolled, and to my relief, he took seconds to get up. For the sheer amount of focus this had required of Angel, vines around the edges of the arena had receded some and the Sunny Day was weaker, now.

That was okay.

"Coat your vines in mud and solidify it."

I couldn't see his eyes from here, but with the split second it took for him to get to work, I could almost imagine him blinking. Mud slipped from below his vines and clumsily soaked their surface before hardening into a thick shell. It wasn't every vine, far from it. Six— seven, at most, with how he had to keep concentrating on everything else. Lucario would be able to break through, but his cutting was not well thought out, to break through stone.

"Bludgeon," Byron said.

There we go. Instead of blades, one of Lucario's fists turned to balls of spiky metal in a way that reminded me of Zoroark. The other was still a well-maintained sword, however.

"Steady. Keep your mind in the game," I warned.

Lucario blurred—

No, he stopped midway through his charge and jumped to the side, his blade-like fist raking against the vines in front of him to clear a path. Angel watched as the steel type circled him, still managing to continuously tire him out. Armor bent and broke, spores were inhaled and time was bought for him to get a feel for how his vines functioned when coated in stone. Lucario was looking for an opening, knowing that any big hit would spell his doom.

He found one, but not the way I'd expected.

Armor sleeked, sticking close to where Lucario's skin should have been, and any spikes and bumps were shed. With that, the fighting type lost weight and there was a shockwave— so fucking fast— in a second, he was next to Tangrowth again. The grass type slammed a whip-like stony vine against Lucario's back, and he howled in agony as his armor finally cracked. Another vine penetrated through the flesh within as Lucario grabbed onto Tangrowth with two hands and—

And ripped him out of his Ingrain. He spun once with Angel in his arms, his eyes barely open and his knees buckling over the massive weight. Circle Throw.

"You're so close! Use—"
Anything. Anything would work, but—

Lucario collapsed, dropping Angel back onto the ground, and a discreet vine slithered out of his back.

He'd poured more spores into his veins and won. With fluttering eyes, Angel tried to anchor himself to the ground again to keep his vines from dying, but they were already wilting at the edges.

"Lucario is unable to battle! Leader Byron, send out your fifth Pokemon!"

"Good job, Angel! You did great!" I yelled.

He hadn't been the ace I'd been looking for, but I was starting to think that was okay. For each Pokemon to have been instrumental to victory in their own way, instead of putting all of my eggs in one basket, and honestly expecting any kind of sweep in a battle like this had just been me hoping for the best-case scenario.

Still, I didn't like this. These were basically draws even if my Pokemon were still standing by the end. Byron released Empoleon again, and I knew already that a loss was coming. Getting hit so many times had forced Angel's vines to recede and there was ample space for her to stand in.

"Solar Beam," I tried.

Slow, so slow. There was no more sun to power up the attack, and the light coalesced at a Slugma's pace in front of Angel. That was ample time to gather more steel to gouge Angel and finish him off. The beam still fired, but it swerved up as the grass type rolled onto his back and burned vertically across the barrier.

"Tangrowth is unable to battle! Challenger, send out your fifth Pokemon!"

I recalled Angel, and vines across the battlefield squirmed and died, shriveling up in seconds. Guess the soil wasn't as good as I thought it'd be, I internally sighed. That meant Ingrain hadn't been regenerating as much as it could have.

Now what?

Empoleon was weakened, but nowhere near down. Princess was an okay choice here and I had convinced myself to keep Sweetheart for last, but her wings were broken, meaning she was slow enough to skewer in the air, and if darkness-tipped poles hadn't been stopped by Claydol, they weren't going to be stopped by Princess.

Still, if she could get a Moonblast and some Tri Attacks off… it was doable.

Sending out Tyranitar now would have two weakened Pokemon face off against a single healthy one, and I'd watched enough videos to see how that nearly always went. The one with two Pokemon lost, and the fact that I still didn't know which one the last one would be had me worried.

It would have to be Princess, then. Artist against artist, sculptor against sculptor. And this time, we had earth to work with. It hurt, to see Princess' wings this way. Bent down halfway and struggling to move, despite how much she wanted to. The freedom they had afforded her, the speed, the sheer joy of flight had all been taken away from her. She teetered on a knife's edge, hovering slightly above the ground through sheer force of will like she had so many times as a Togetic, agony wracking every inch of her face.

Empoleon stared at her for a moment, and she must have found something there, or perhaps Byron had told her about Princess beforehand when he'd planned against me, but there was respect there that hadn't been present against any other Pokemon of mine. She was not the flashiest of Byron's fighters, not the strongest, but without her there, Byron's entire strategy just didn't work. It was something I'd noticed with the Gym Leader in high-leveled Gym Battles, to have at least one Pokemon focused more on control than taking down enemies.

She was one of the last two that needed to go down. There was something to be said about the importance Byron placed on her.

"Into that river," Byron ordered, and she instantly jumped head-first in the water.

Here was the state of the battlefield.

The ground had been flattened, having lost most of its holes and hills after Empoleon had altered the field to her liking, and almost all of it was covered by a thick layer of wet mud. From Byron's side of the arena, the river was mostly parallel to the length of the arena until halfway through and sharply turned cut across horizontally, dividing the field in two. Of course, there were remains of what once had been. The short stump of a metallic tree, in another spot, large shards of iron jutting from below the dirt, strings lying on the floor from Wormadam.

It was a simple field, returned to its basics, but the thing was that it worked perfectly for Empoleon. While I ordered Princess to gather some mud, and it began to orbit around her, foam and waves coursed through the river, signaling Empoleon beginning to swim. Spikes and poles formed on the water's shores everywhere near where Empoleon swam, jutting through the mud like sprouting trees.

They were not in the form of trees, this time. With little attention to give and tiredness spreading through the water type, they were rugged. Rough and what I felt Empoleon must have felt was unbecoming of her, but she wasn't actually making use of them. She jumped out of the river, water still tightly wound against her skin with long poles, darkness dancing around them as they hovered behind her. Twisting into a weak Drill Peck, she sped toward Princess at speeds that would be impossible to dodge.

I'd noticed the subtle darkness in her eyes, but doubted she'd have enough left in her to add another Nasty Plot. There wasn't enough time for me to speak regardless, and stones rose from around Princess, exploding like shrapnel around Empoleon and tearing through the small protective bubble of Aqua Jet and the wind from Drill Peck. Blood seeped in her water, yet she didn't veer off course nor lose her focus. She kept going. The ground below Princess rose, bumping he in the stomach to punch her toward Empoleon, and—

"Thunder Wave," I spat.

Electricity buzzed to life around Princess, linking her to Empoleon. It wrapped itself around the water type, and her two spears penetrated past one of Princess' wings while the rest planted themselves in the mud with a soft thud. With a cry of pain, Togekiss' eyes flashes and she pushed Empoleon back a few feet with Psychic. Empoleon rolled away, the mud seemingly working to keep shoving her away. Blood seeped on the ground and coated her fur.

Princess was on her last legs. Bronzong had affected her more than I thought they had. Moonblast would take too long, and Ancient Power wouldn't deal enough damage.

It had been a gamble, to let ourselves get hit to get this off, but being honest, it still gave me what I wanted, even if it hurt me to watch Princess suffer this much, and if Princess had been capable of dodging or avoiding getting hit in any way, she would have done so without me to tell her. This was, something I believed had been needed to obtain a win, catching Byron off-guard with a move I rarely ever used, because in a straight fight between the two, Princess would lose. Empoleon convulsed on the ground, not incapable of moving, but slower, and she wasn't helped by all the mud solidifying around her feet and arms.

"Blast her with electricity," I continued with a tired sigh.

Princess was on the ground now, too weak to even hover, but a small ball of electric energy began to form ahead of her. Weak, so pitifully weak, but hopefully enough.

The electric part of Tri-Attack struck Empoleon in the chest as she got up, but damn it if she wasn't so damn persistent. The water type stumbled forward, but her steps grew more and more confident. More graceful. A second blast of electricity, this time only managing to graze her wing and still slow enough for her to attempt to dodge.

Byron grunted. "Finish her off."

Empoleon raised a flipper, her three claws shining and elongating by a few inches, and she raked her hand across Princess' back, rendering her unconscious.

That was how it finished. With a simple Metal Claw.

Too fast. She'd been weakened too quickly. Even with broken wings and the stabbing, it made no sense for her to have…

"Togekiss is unable to battle! Challenger, send out your last Pokemon!"

And how had Empoleon not fainted through all of this? How had she seen entire battles through? This wasn't just being naturally enduring, this was a trick. A trick Byron had never called out in any of the battles she had ever been in. Aqua Ring? No, I would have seen it, at the very least. Life Dew? Her skin was perpetually wet so it was possible, and that move would be so much easier to render invisible to the naked eye, but this wasn't healing. I'd even scoured the forums talking about Byron's Gym, and none of them had said anything about this. It was something that had her last longer than she had any right to, and I was coming up empty.

I hated coming up empty.

Or maybe I was just paranoid.

Those spikes she'd set up across the arena was something she was too weak to use at the moment, so I assumed it was for what was coming next. Mawile, maybe? That'd make sense against Sweetheart, and the steel type was an expert at making armored Pokemon look like chumps. Ferrothorn? Ferrothorn made sense, given the fact that he had Ingrain and could use them to climb onto and move quickly like he had against Denzel. Aggron…?

But none of it mattered, did it? I only had one Pokemon left. No amount of thinking and theorizing would matter, in the end. I was tired, so tired, but my mind was still sharp. It was my body that could barely keep up. My muscles hurt from having tensed them too much, my ankle ached from standing so long and unconsciously putting weight on it, and my body was soaked in so much sweat that Sweetheart's Pokeball nearly slipped out of my palm.

Things did not actually look that bad for me.

One would have expected a Tyranitar's appearance to be a loud and boisterous thing, and especially mine. Perhaps a scream loud enough to make the barrier rattle, a fist slammed against a chest, the shaking and shifting of the earth.

Or at least to catch more than a glimpse of her.

The world hushed, and the air thickened with an ominous tension. The once-clear skies now twisted into a tumultuous vortex of darkened sands, shrouding the field in gloom, and suddenly, there was no more sound. Empoleon's heavy breathing, the river washing up against the shores of the arena, and none from Sweetheart herself. There was only the howling of the wind and the grating of the sand against the floor and the barrier, which was not even particularly loud. Everything was muffled. It was strange, the way she had disappeared from view seconds after materializing onto the field. The Sandstorm was not particularly thick. In fact, I could still somewhat spot Empoleon and even Byron from here.

Yet she was gone. Utterly masked from the world, as if she had never existed in the first place. The temperature began to drop from comfortable warmth to an annoying cold. Not enough that I could see my breath, but enough to make me shiver.

This was no ghostly trick. No slight of hand. This was her domain, where Tyranitar thrived. People, especially Sinnohans, knew Tyranitar for living high up in dangerous mountains the likes of Mount Silver, or Mount Coronet, but they lived in deserts, too. It was an unforgiving place of few prey, and so when they struck, they had to make it count.

Empoleon spun around, desperate to see where exactly she would be coming from. Had she somehow buried underground? Would the ground open up and swallow her hole? Well, it wasn't the former, since Sweetheart didn't know Dig and her body wasn't exactly adapted to it, but even I didn't know how she would strike. Empoleon flexed, spinning to fire water all around her, but her eyes widened when she saw how weak it was. Barely a Water Gun, if it was even that.

Enduring she was, but she was also on her last legs after Princess. Had she not been in this state, I had no doubt she would have had a trick to get out of this. Forming a shield of metal, perhaps.

It didn't matter any longer. Instead, she struggled to breathe from the amount of sand, convulsed from the paralysis. Byron's lips moved, but she couldn't hear him. No one could. He'd probably asked her to get back into the water.

There was a certain pressure, to not knowing where a multi-ton mass of scales and stone was, a building tension so thick you could choke on it, and anxiety made one prone to mistakes.

She was a hungry maw in the cold dunes at night. A hunter in the dark, ready to strike. A—

There was a roar. Deep and resonating deep in my bones. Endless rows of sharpened teeth sank into Empoleon's arm from behind as Tyranitar reappeared amidst the Sandstorm, her ambush having been laid. Sweetheart shook her head wildly, throwing Empoleon around like a rag and constantly beating her against the ground with Crunch sinking further and further into her flesh. She was the only thing we could hear, in the Sandstorm. Endless, guttural screams of her brutalizing her opponent.

Empoleon tried to get away with a pitifully weak Metal Claw, but the attack barely scratched Sweetheart's scales. It was Grass Knot, that allowed her to escape. From the mud we'd given her, thick roots grew around Tyranitar's feet and had her stumble, leaving Empoleon an opening to fire a concentrated beam of metal into one of her vents. She growled in irritation, and the pain forced her to let go.

Bloody, shaken, and with a flipper shredded by teeth, Empoleon retreated and jumped headfirst into the water now that she'd come back to her senses, but the liquid split apart, and she landed headfirst onto the cold, steel floor below, and the earth began to shake. Cracks spread from Sweetheart's feet until they reached Empoleon, and golden light erupted from the crevices before being swallowed by the dark. Smoke and shards of metal flew upward, thrown off from the sheer force of the Earthquake. They spread across the arena, flattening and altering the disposition of the ground. Even the river changed directions slightly to the right with three other channels being created in seconds.

The silence was admittedly disturbing.

The Sandstorm ended with Empoleon's fall into unconsciousness, letting the referee do their usual spiel to ask Byron to send out his last Pokemon.

"You've done well to push me this far, Grace Pastel," Byron said. "We've bloodied each other well, haven't we?"


"Your true test begins now."

I gulped and ordered her to start it again right away despite the fact that it'd interrupt her celebrating. She disappeared into the Sandstorm once more, and Byron released his final Pokemon.

First came the golden glow.

He shimmered bright, even through the darkened sands, but he was not hope. No, that would be misconstruing what he was supposed to be. A beacon, yes, but a Pokemon meant to lead and inflict fear onto others, because when one saw the golden glow—

My knees buckled, and my breaths grew short. There was a— I felt cold metal press upon my throat, deep enough to nearly pierce the skin. It was there, but it— it wasn't. I shivered, not daring to move a muscle, not even a twitch of my finger or the rising of my chest with every breath, because I'd…

I'd what?

Lose. I would lose.

stood up from his perpetual crouch with a lazy scowl, the golden blade atop his head lengthy enough to be taller than I was. Eyes like polished onyx gleamed with an unexplainable lassitude and held a cold, unyielding determination. The Kingambit's gaze swept across the surroundings and felt like a piercing judgment, causing my heartbeat to quicken and my throat to dry.

How, how, how? He had battled with Bisharp just two weeks ago, and the evolution method was entirely dependent on luck finding an army of Bisharp and Pawniard for your own to beat. This made no sense— he had been at his Gym every day since then. Had he sent a Gym Trainer to do it? Where? Sinnoh's population of the Pawniard line wasn't very high, and the reason no native Sinnohans who stayed here had ever gotten a Kingambit was because—

Byron's lips moved.

Kingambit didn't. He stood perfectly still, and something in the air gave away.

The cut was instantaneous, the sound of blade against blade breaking past the sandstorm and being louder than anything I could imagine. It was the screeching of a blade, raking against metal, but a thousandfold. Like nails against a chalkboard. I flinched when the crescent golden arc stretching high into the sky hit the barrier right in front of me, and I almost expected my head to get cut off for that disrespect. When my eyes opened, the Sandstorm was gone, Sweetheart lurking around Kingambit and preparing to strike again. The spikes Empoleon had laid that remained had all been sent forward by the impact, some of them having somehow penetrated past Sweetheart's armor.

But most of all.

He had cut through Dark Sandstorm.

He'd just fucking cut through it so effortlessly.

A large chasm had opened in the middle of the field, splitting it into two.

Everyone had heard of Kingambit's Supreme Overlord ability. It was one of Geeta's main gimmicks, when you actually got to that point and defeated almost her entire team, and Paldea had made a crap ton of propaganda movies about it that Denzel had showed me after Mira's Porygon had smuggled them off their internet, and they were actually pretty good. Where he differed from Palafin, however, was that this Pokemon was no hero meant to turn the tide of battle to save his allies. He was the final obstacle, annoyed that his army had failed him and forced him to get up from his chair to actually get the job done.

Here stood triumph, basked in gold and glory and exposing me to what felt like defeat so overwhelming I could barely move or stand.

"He— he can cut through you!" I yelled. "Iron Defense and Earthquake! Blow everything up!"

I didn't actually know if he could, but at this point it was like the steel type could do anything he set his mind to. With an earth-shaking roar, Tyranitar reared back, her powerful tail crashing against the metallic floor and causing vibrations that resonated throughout the entire arena. The ground quivered beneath the sheer force of the impact, and the metallic floor began to buckle and twist in agony under the earth that still remained. Splitting the earth to swallow him whole would be nearly impossible, when the floor was made of metal. There was a bit of relief when I saw Kingambit buckle under the power coursing through the cracked floor and struggle to stand. He wasn't invincible, thank fucking Arceus.

Still, no order came from Byron. He was barely looking at the battle.

And Kingambit was looking at me, not at Sweetheart.

I understood, now. I was fighting him. He was the general, and I was the opposite commander. What Byron had said before hadn't been an order.

Kingambit jumped, leaving a trail of golden light— no, golden slices in the air. Knowing she couldn't dodge, Sweetheart fired back with a Dragon Pulse, but he fucking cut that too, a sharpened arm slicing across the beam of concentrated turquoise energy. The steel type landed next to Sweetheart with speed that shouldn't have been possible, with his weight and size. He hadn't even looked at her, instead just letting one of the dark swords at the side of his face do the cutting, but I'd seen enough Fury Cutters to know that that neon green glow spelled bad news. Armor fell apart, crumbling like old sandpaper, and Sweetheart screamed.

Even through Iron Defense, he could cut.

"Concentrated Sandstorm!"
I yelled.

Sweetheart turned, swiping at Kingambit's feet with her tail, and darkened sands sputtered from Tyranitar's vents and mouth, swarming around the steel type. Next, she intensified the Earthquake with a defiant roar that forced me to cover my ears despite the feeling of the iron against my neck. Water shook, earth and shards of steel flew up and rained down the arena, the floor depressed, collapsing to a lower level, yet Kingambit did not relent.

His hands sliced together, creating a blaring screech that had Sweetheart reeling back, and then he cut through the Sandstorm again, this time with Fury Cutter instead of that golden arc he had used prior. He broke into a quick jog, one step, two steps, three steps, then he slammed an elbow into Sweetheart's gut, plunging a blade deep into her flesh. Never had she been pushed to such an extent.

I ordered.

Darkness in her eyes— then a strike, so powerful a darkened shockwave shot out behind Kingambit and the plating on his chest dented. The steel type brought his head down, cutting through Sweetheart's shoulder with another Fury Cutter. He's growing stronger and stronger, I need some distance.

Kingambit was faster than her, however, and getting closer to the water wouldn't do anything when he'd just be able to cut his way across.

Another hit, this time slicing across her chest while she'd been slamming a fist into the crack in his chest, exposing the grey flesh within.

We had a way to do it, but it was high risk, high reward. To speed her up. Our win condition was keeping our distance enough to keep Earthquake going long enough to win.

A slice across her leg, and she roared, fury filling her eyes. A vengeful look twisted her face into a grimace, and she hurled her entire body forward, slamming her entire weight into Kingambit, who was crushed under so much pressure that he birthed a crater under his feet.


That was our win condition.

A point-blank Dragon Pulse, this one cold and merciless as it engulfed Kingambit's form, stunning him for a few seconds until he reacted and cut, and pushed an Iron Head into her ribs.

"Rock Polish! Keep your distance and Earthquake!"

Who knew, that I'd be forced to see a Tyranitar run away from an opponent ever again? Stone shimmered, and for a moment, the blood soaking her plates glowed as well. Kingambit's eyes narrowed, and he leaped forward, but she was more agile, now. She threw herself back, sliding against the metal, and caught him with a burst of ground type energy where he landed before escaping towards the remainder of the river, which was at this point more of a bog. Kingambit let out a guttural, metallic grunt and followed.

Few moves were called out. There was a strange ebb and flow to this battle. Sweetheart ran, and Kingambit occasionally caught up to her due to her injured leg and got a good hit in. Something about those cuts was insidious. The amount of blood lost after each one was far greater than I'd ever expected from these attacks. I had her attempt Dark Sandstorm again, thinking that maybe that first move had been a powered-up one like Retaliate, but it hadn't been, and this time Kingambit destroyed it before it could even get going. Or maybe it had, and that was just its natural strength, I had no fucking idea and it was eating at me from the inside.

Thirty seconds later, they'd reached the water.


I didn't think it was going to work, but I'd do anything to buy time. The water was full of mud and pieces of metal, but it was enough. A wave formed and washed over the land, and I would have crossed my fingers had every movement not made this damn Kingambit glance at me and press this fucking blade on my neck.

The steep type stopped, skidding against the ground, and braced himself— no he was flexing.

Then, there was darkness.

Little slices of the world, gone, just like that, like they'd been torn apart. The cuts ran the entire length of the Surf, and the water just… receded, like it was unable to be used any longer. Sweetheart confirmed my fears when she waved an arm and nothing happened. Here she was, her back to a bog of earth, water and metal.

We'd cornered ourselves. There was no way she'd be faster than Kingambit in water, Rock Polish just didn't work that way, and he'd waited until this very moment to reveal the fact that he too, could cut off the use of TE.

Not exactly that. More like if he cut enough with whatever move that was, he could effectively cut it off from being influenced by Type Energy. Such fucking bullshit.

This Kingambit… had he known all along? Had he lured us here, to this very position with all the momentum and the deck stacked against us? The Rock Polish, the way he seemed to have been suspiciously slow when following us? Was it all for this? This feeling of entrapment, of pushing against an unmoveable object— a damned mountain, and that defeat was now all but assured?

Don't let the psychological effects of his presence get to you, I breathed. The Earthquake had resumed in earnest and was back at full strength, the earth around them shaking like mad, though I suspected Iron Defense and the boost from Supreme Overlord was seriously dampening the effects.

This was it.

This was our last stand.

There was a glint in Sweetheart's eye, and she lunged forward with a defiant roar, flashing all of her teeth as the mud turned to stone and flew at Kingambit to accompany her charge. The steel type met her assault with calm, first knocking away all of the Stone Edges, and then parrying her main charge with a cross of his arms. She pushed, trying to pummel him into the ground and he fell—

Trick. Kingambit fell back, holding his entire weight with one arm embedded in the ground and then moved his head to slice across Sweetheart's chest. The wound was open enough now to plunge a blade there, and he did, stabbing her with the other hand. Rock Polish had turned Tyranitar slippery, so he pressed, and her feet slid down the metal. The rock type rolled toward the bog, landing face down in the mud, and Kingambit stood up with a tired groan. He cracked his neck, a deeply uncomfortable and metallic noise, then spared me a look, as if to tell me something.

Then, he slid down toward the water.

"Smack Down!" I screamed, hoping to have him slip too.

The water was shallow, and easy to get up from. Sweetheart angled her head toward Kingambit, and shards of stone and shrapnel burst through the water, but Kingambit just… cut.

He just cut so nonchalantly.

Words came out of my mouth, but my ears were ringing.

Kingambit jumped, dodging a burst of stones below him and escaping from the constant shaking of the earth. He landed on top of her, his weight pressing against her back, and a blade gouged the side of her back, neatly avoiding her spine. Sweetheart's eyes bulged, then slowly closed as her head sank back into the water.


I'd… lost?


I blinked, my legs giving way below me. There was light at the edges of my vision, but I…

Was this a dream?

Moving was hard. So very hard. Like I'd just lost all of my strength.

Loud. Had the people around always been this obnoxiously loud? Clapping for no reason. Clapping when I hadn't won. Had it always been this difficult not to feel like garbage?

"Recall your Tyranitar, Grace Pastel."

Byron's voice, but it was far away. Shit. Shit, yeah. I fumbled around my belt, recalling Sweetheart before she drowned on accident. Kingambit looked at me and nodded, though he was sitting and drawing heavy breaths.

Like that mattered. Maybe I was just seeing things to make myself feel better. I turned away and bit my tongue. At least I was no longer feeling this pressure on me. There was the sound of Kingambit being recalled, and I had to struggle back to my feet twice before I made it up. Embarrassing.

This was real, wasn't it?

I wasn't going to wake up. Morning was not going to come. It was over.

I hadn't been strong enough to pass my test.

I should have expected Bronzong to break Princess' wings after seeing Steelix fight. Maybe Sunshine would have been able to beat Kingambitcould he cut heat? But then I'd need to spend so many resources to beat Steelix. Maybe I would have won. Maybe I should have saved a swap. Let Princess fall against Bronzong. Maybe I should

My legs had carried me off the platform, nearly stumbling off the stairs and faceplanting forward. I knew Byron talked to all his challengers after their eighth-badge battle, win or lose, but all I wanted to do was leave. What had I been missing? What did I not have?

Byron was an imposing man, from up close, or maybe losing had fucked me up so hard I couldn't look him in the eye without feeling shame. Our microphones had already been cut off by this point.

The clap on my back knocked the wind out of me.

"What a fun battle! Well fought, Grace Pastel!" he barked out. "You impressed me time and time again with—"

"What did I do wrong?"

His eyebrows rose a smidge. "Let's have you hear the good first." He leaned forward, his hands and chin on the pommel of his shovel. I didn't care about the good, I needed to fix myself, but I let him go on. "Field manipulation and control. Among the best I've seen, for a kid your age. You fight tooth and nail for it, make it hard to keep to one plan. That's excellent."


"Firepower. People like to say that you can make up for that with clever tactics." He plastered a smile on his face, boy-like and innocent. "That's true, to an extent, but it's still a good thing to have. You've got some real heavy hitters with you. I s'pose your Claydol wasn't fully trained yet, though. Do me a favor and understand that what your Turtonator did isn't something you should replicate against all opponents. Accidents are prone to happen, sometimes."

Hurry up!

"I could talk about the strong bond and how your Pokemon fight for you, and how that makes them last longer in battle, but that one is rather common at this point," he continued. "Now, let's give you broad strokes. The problem is, while you've improved at improvising, what my files on you said was your weakness, you're prone to panic when it happens. Makes you battle worse."

Finally. "Do I just throw my head against the wall until I get better at that?" I asked, honing in on my flaw.

He nodded. "No fancy ways to improve other than battling yourself. You were caught off-guard when you realized I was fighting like you, when I started hitting back. That made you miss some things."

"My Togekiss."

"Hurts to see your Pokemon broken like that, doesn't it?" he asked. "Made you not notice the iron I had Rapture slip inside of her."

"I did notice, I—"

"Ah, and yet you didn't change the way you fought. That's even worse," Byron gruffed.

"No, I thought you just stabbed her!" I yelled defensively.

"Rapture contaminated her, and Empoleon helped spread it quicker," he said. "Made her weaken, and weaken fast." He must have seen my face drop, because he quickly added, "Not enough to put her in the hospital for weeks. Just enough to slow her down. Think of her like a steel type Toxic. Fairies are always weak to that trick."

It was just like mercury poisoning.

Damn it, and I'd only noticed she was weakening too quickly when it was too late. Empoleon had screwed us all along! My foot bounced and my teeth gnashed at my thumb nail.

"Relax, kid. Feels like the end of the world right now, but you'll be stronger for it," Byron said, standing up from his shovel. "Enjoy the rest of your week. Spend it with your friends, and I'll be seeing you again when this is all over."

I only nodded. He hadn't given me enough.

I was going to hole up in my room and watch the video over and over.

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Chapter 302

Click. Click. Click.

The screen was blinding, but not as much since Honey had opened the blinds and let the final licks of sunlight shine through. My fingers touched the backspace arrow key with a light tap, rewinding my battle against Byron for what felt like the thousandth time today. The specific spot I'd been focused on for a while now was the moment when he'd released Kingambit onto the field. My eyelids closed for an instant, feeling horribly dry, and my throat tightened. There was a flash of scarlet, and the steel type appeared within the dark sandstorm, his form too blurred to get a good look with these ancient Gym cameras. It was only when Kingambit cut apart the sandstorm with that golden cutting move, that I got a good look at him. It had been long enough now that I'd stopped being salty at Byron bringing a newly-evolved Pokemon to the fight. New moves or tactics, I'd considered, but that? That had screwed me up in more ways than one.

I paused the video and looked at myself. Utterly frozen, chin high as if someone had been holding a blade to my neck and with trembling legs. Fingers twitching, mouth sown tightly shut and eyes half-closed. The feeling was still fresh in my mind, given that the battle was only hours old. That any move, any command I had Sweetheart execute would result in a loss. That no matter what steps I took, Kingambit would lead me to my doom. It had been a horrid, choking sensation that still had me shudder even now. His moves had seemed so calculated, his slashes so deep, his steps so quick. Kingambit had been larger than life, the concept of triumph itself.

In reality?

He was strong. Indubitably so, with the way he'd gone toe to toe with a Tyranitar. None of what I'd seen had been a lie. He had cut through her armor, had taken Earthquakes and punches and kept fighting afterward, but on the video, he was… not as indomitable as he'd seemed. Maybe it was the way his tiredness and strain were easier to notice with a clear head and the effects of Supreme Overlord not there to hamper me, but as I rewatched the battle over and over, focused on this specific moment, one notion rang louder than any other mistake I'd made during the battle.

I ordered Sweetheart to run when I shouldn't have.

I shifted in my seat and shot down the urge to gnaw on my nails through my bandages. I'd done it once already when Byron had been talking to me and bit through them, and Honey had been worried sick when he saw the state of my still-healing fingers and had forced me to switch my bandages early. Leaning back forward, I let the video play at double speed, letting the entire chase sequence play out. If I'd let Sweetheart stand her ground, if I'd let her fight like Sunshine had with Steelix, then maybe I'd have a badge right now instead of this hollow feeling inside of me.

No, not hollow. Inadequacy. My Pokemon were all strong enough, they were. Hell, Byron had even said that Sunshine fought too hard and our way of using heat to drown out all life ran the risk of getting a Pokemon killed— which meant that we'd have to start focusing on his dragon side or teach him to be better at manipulating heat like Emilia's Braixen was, when this entire thing with Galactic was over.

If we won.

I'd just fucked up again and again. Of course, no battle was perfect, but minor mistakes had added up until I made the last one I couldn't afford. I felt a hand on my shoulder and flinched for a moment, remembering Honey had been in the room watching the footage along with me. He'd been rather quiet, not knowing what to say to cheer me up.

"Thanks," I just said. "Oh, wow."

My voice was drier than usual, like I hadn't drank in hours, and I'd surprised even myself. Well, I hadn't. I'd also cried, screamed into my pillow and punched and cut it, but that was par for the course.

I brushed a strand of hair behind my ear to get a better look at my screen. "I'm okay."

The start of the battle had gone rather well, but it all started slipping when Princess had her wings broken.

It disturbed me, in the moment. Rattled me, despite not realizing it at the time. She'd be in the Center the entire week with Sunshine because of it, too. That feeling had made me not notice that the iron that had penetrated her back had been liquid seeping into her veins, and not solid blades, more of a liquid than solid.

I found myself rewinding the video, hearing a metallic burp behind my laptop from Mimi. I quickly lowered the screen, glad to see they hadn't been eating at the behind of the screen, but chewing through the bag of scrap metal I'd given them instead as an apology for having them sit through all this battling on my wrist earlier. They had not been a fan of all the hurt and violence.

Back to the battle.

The truth was, I hadn't known how to defeat Wormadam in concrete terms. My thoughts had frayed too much, and I'd ended up relying on a leap of faith that ended up working out, in the end, thanks to Buddy's breakthrough of learning to reform through any water and him going… feral, for lack of a better word. Not a huge problem, but it meant I wasn't thinking. Trust in bonds between me and my family was nice, but I couldn't rely solely on hope and a prayer, or it was bound to bite me in the ass eventually. What if there'd been a way to beat Wormadam while still preserving Buddy? Making him last just a little longer?

Not that I was seeing one right now, but that didn't mean it was impossible. I was finding it difficult to focus, when I'd been a few better decisions away from a fucking badge. There were plenty of other mistakes, too. Not expecting Byron to know I was the kind of trainer to prevent a recall when I'd done it to Maylene months earlier, for example. It was a hard-earned lesson, to understand that people would be studying me at the Conference. The honest truth was, I'd never ever battled a trainer who knew as much about me as I knew about them, and it showed. They did prepare you well for the Conference, didn't they? My back strained to stay straight, and I moistened my lips— and eyes when Honey asked me to please blink.

"Should have sent Sweetheart against Empoleon at the end," I muttered. "Then she wouldn't have been able to speed up the mercury poisoning process. Kingambit would have taken her down, but then it would have been an exhausted Kingambit against a tired Princess."

And she was basically the worst kind of Pokemon for him to face, instead of a large, slow-moving target like a Tyranitar. A flier who was… well, not agile with her broken wings, but she could have flown high enough for it not to matter, and we would have won.

Even still.

With everything having gone the way it had.

I shouldn't have asked her to run. That was when I'd lost the fight and given up on the initiative. Let ourselves be baited with our backs to the water. Using Rock Polish had made her easier to knock down too, with the heightened friction against the floor.

I'd fucked up, as plenty of people had liked to point out. Oh, they were almost all gentle about it. Goalducc, for example, had put out a commentated analysis of the battle within the hour after his live commentary and had caught most of what I had. There were a lot of others chiming in, just as there had been when Denzel had lost. The most dedicated of my fans were quick to lay the blame on Claydol, to say that with Honey, I would have easily nabbed the badge from Byron's hands.

Had I not been tired and had a reputation to uphold because of Poketch, I would have remembered their names and DMed them instead of blocking them on sight. Without Claydol there, my entire strategy with Angel fell apart and he would have gotten torn up by Lucario without so many vines to overwhelm him. Fighting steel types capable of cutting in general hadn't been his forte, especially when Vine Terrain was still in its beginning form and the soil hadn't been as good as I expected. They meant well, but reading the 500th comment and beyond backseating about what moves or tactics my team should know or trashing Claydol from people who had no idea what they were talking about and who'd never battled a day of their lives got tiring.

I would have loved to say I hadn't let the online discourse get to me, but people were already comparing…

Comparing me to the people who'd won on their first tries. Barry. Lauren.


I hadn't watched her battle yet. Not even talked to her beyond sending a message right after my battle and muting my alerts on all my devices. I didn't want her to be disappointed in me… to think less of me for getting caught in these stupid mistakes and throwing the battle. I was better than this. Poketch, for their part, I couldn't ignore. They were miffed to see me lose so close to announcing me as their new Unovan Representative in tandem with their declaration about expansion to a brand new region, and Melody was working overtime to keep the heat off my back and have them understand that a loss at the first attempt of any 8th badge battle was normal.

That was what I was. Normal.

Gah! This fucking sucked.

But it had opened my eyes, too. Shown me that I was good at tricking myself that everything was going according to plan, that it was fine, when it wasn't. Shown me that violence was a tool that could be used to throw me off-balance and to probe for weaknesses just like I used it against others. Every single time my team had gotten mauled to such an extent before had been when my emotions had been dampened one way or another except with Zoroark, and that…

Well, yeah. I'd frozen up in my tracks, and Claydol had been the one to recall Honey when his hand had been cut off. He might have died, had the ground type not been there. What was the point of using violence as a tool if I couldn't even move when it was done to the people I cared about? It made me a hypocrite.

There was a lesson, there, woven into this battle. A lesson about keeping my mind clear in the face of having my tactics turned against me, and in the face of the pressure some Pokemon could have. My fingers traced the mousepad, but a strange sound interrupted me.

My stomach growled, and Mimi crawled from behind my laptop, pinging me with notions of sustenance over and over again.

I tilted my head toward them. "You hungry? You still have some metal left, and it's clean, too." I squinted at the scraps, holding one between my fingers before dropping it on the desk again. It clattered next to them. "Yep, no rust on any of them."

The steel type mewled, their little arms grabbing at the piece of iron, and waved it my way.

I snorted, leaning against a palm with my other hand tapping their golden head. "You know I don't eat metal, silly."

Electivire raised a finger, saying that technically, I'd never tried.

I forcefully exhaled through my nose. "I'll try when you try." I stretched my back, hands intertwining together and toes wiggling in my shoes. "But you're right, Mimi. I haven't eaten since breakfast, so I guess I should get some food. The others have probably called me a thousand times, too. Just… I need to figure out a little more stuff."

Like what strategy I'd employ the next time to win, and a way to hone myself into a true knife capable of piercing through Byron. Not that he'd been very shield-like during the battle, anyway. He'd used all of his most offensively-minded Pokemon, save for Wormadam, and even her offensive power was rather insane—

A knock on the door, rough and annoyed. Chase, then. There was a rise of irritation at him interrupting my autopsy, but I let it settle while Honey moved to open the door. Mimi hissed, becoming all spikes and needles, but I scooped them up and placed them in my sweater. They grabbed onto my collar, their eye becoming a disapproving 'X' before slipping underneath and hiding away, more out of habit than anything else, given that Chase knew about them.

Chase looked up at Electivire as soon as he opened the door. "Hey, big guy. Came to visit your Mom, or whatever."

The electric type ushered him in with his usual grin, waving at a pair of guys trying to look into the room instead of scaring them away like Buddy would have. Unfortunately, he was in his Pokeball right now, since he was too tired to even lay in a bath.

"Gee, you look like shit," he said. "This room reeks."

Well, I hadn't showered yet after that battle.

I sneered, turning away from him. "Whatever. Come to talk to me about the fight?"

He slipped past me and opened a window. "I was watching."

"Yeah, I figured you'd be there." I spun around, turning to straddle my chair. "Angry I lost?"

"Not exactly. I was more trying to look at how he'd try to put you in the dirt," Chase said, a finger tracing the outline of his cap. "See if I can figure how he'd do me in." His arms crossed, and he leaned against the wall. "It was a good fight. Won't tell you how you screwed up, since it looks like you've figured it out."

He awkwardly gestured at my face, then at my laptop, and I relaxed a smidge. I'd expected him to be more combative about this, but that was probably because of our last interaction.

"He fucked me over," I sighed.

"He did. Williams was going crazy about that Kingambit, given the fact that it's— he's brand new. Even in the audience, that Pokemon took my mind for a spin. That ability's no joke."

"Well, they're meant to lead armies or whatever, so I guess it makes sense to make their opponents feel like they have no choice but to run when they're the only ones left on the field. Still doesn't make me feel any better, though." Pausing, I crouched to check if I had any water left in the fridge. There was, and fresh at that. I felt Mimi scramble to keep themselves still against my shirt. "Water?"

"Sure thing."

I threw him a bottle, and he caught it. "Damn it, it would have been funnier if you dropped it."

He scoffed. "Are you trying to trip me up?"

"Little old me?" I feigned as much innocence I could as I opened my bottle. "No way! I only want what's best for you, Chase, you know that."

"That tone's way too real, you little gaslighter," he said with a disturbed shiver. "Anyway, you're doing better, then? Not spiraling, or whatever? Denzel wanted to check up on you but he pussied out and said the last time he tried you ended up yelling at him through the door." His eyes glanced up at Honey, who'd been watching us talk. "Apparently this guy didn't open it either."

The electric type grunted, staring at me with suspicion, and I avoided his eyes. Hadn't told him that yet. Truth was, I'd heard the others' voices too. Pauline, Emi, Louis and Justin had all been there, given that I'd rushed out of the Gym before they could make it out of the bleachers with only a text saying I was going to study my battle. That's gonna be an awkward conversation.

"He wasn't out at the time," I shrugged. "I wanted to be alone to study the battle at first, I only released him a while ago to break the news."

He'd been as crushingly disappointed as I had, too, even if he hadn't been in the battle, though it had been cute to see him cheer on the others when he'd watched the fight on my laptop for the first time over my shoulder as quietly as possible not to break my focus. Even if he'd known the loss was coming, he'd been super invested in it and everything.

"So he asked you to check on me?" I continued.

"I was gonna come anyway. You know, to talk about the last time we spoke."


"I still maintain my position," he grunted, "but if it has to be this way, if everyone does feel the need to be roped in—"

"Just Maeve, Emilia and Pauline," I interrupted.

"Then I figured we should use the remaining week to talk and strategize. Militarily-speaking. You know, talk about the full capabilities of our teams and see if any of our Pokemon can mesh together and do stuff like Pauline and Emilia apparently did the other day."

Oh, that's why he was into this suddenly, and he must have been talking about their recent session with Denzel, since he'd recorded that one— not for content, but for them all to review, which was something I should have thought about. Given that he had no psychic or Pokemon great at barriers, he had relied on Milotic's Protect for defense, winning easier than I did mostly because he'd taken the fight super seriously after I had warned him not to underestimate them, but still, Emi and Pauline's cohesion in battle was unmatched.

"I don't think we'll reach their point, but it'd be good to know what everyone is capable of so we don't go in blind. Train together, too."

"My team's at the Center," I grumbled.

"Well, you can watch, at least. And most of 'em won't be in there for too long, so they'll be able to join in."

"Yeah, I guess. Wait, I had a time limit to challenge Byron, that means…"

He smirked. "Means I'll wait until we kick Team Galactic's ass to the curb before putting him in the dirt and getting my answers. I have a strategy in mind, now, but I didn't have the time to finish implementing it properly before the time ran out."

"That means that you'll probably get one try," I exhaled, pressure mounting in my chest.

"Huh? Don't believe in me?" he frowned, though I could tell he was fooling around.

"Well, you said that you'd lose."

"Days ago! When I still didn't have a concrete idea of what to do!" he yelled. "Now I'm locked in. I'll make sure he answers for what he's been doing to the Iron Islands. Why he abandoned us."

We spoke about the battle for a while, and sometimes Honey chimed in and I translated his words for Chase. All of Byron's Pokemon had left an impression on Chase, and he seemed to have answers he hadn't had when we'd last spoken. There was a certainty about his tone and body language that hadn't been there before.

"Talk to Mira recently?" I asked. "She was lonely before I came to Jubilife."

"The shrimp? Yeah, we speak. Nearly every day when I get back from training," he said. "Can't stop recommending me horrid Kalosian music these days she's gotten into. Feels like it's making my ears bleed."


"She's crazy. I was making sure she hasn't been slacking in her training just because she gets lost in her mind or whatever. That Goodwill kid's been hanging out with her again."

Right. Lauren had Teleported her way back to Jubilife, now, though it had taken many jumps and multiple days. I thought she'd planned on coming here to visit her parents at first, truth to be told, but there was bad blood there, and she mostly wanted to take a few days of rest until she headed out to train by hunting down strong trainers. Barry, for his part, was back in the south and living between Twinleaf and Sandgem depending on the day, either with his mother or with Professor Rowan, Lucas and Dawn.

"Y'know, I can't help but be curious," I said. "Were you never interested in her?"

He mulled over his answer for a few seconds. "She's an interesting girl, but y'know, dating and stuff isn't my thing, so I just let her burn out. Rather be friends than dabble in something that doesn't interest me. You know, what you and Cece have, I understand it, but I don't get it. Thought it'd come one day, that something would click when I met the right girl, but it hasn't yet. Maybe never."

I winced when he mentioned Cece's name, deciding to call her as soon as this conversation was over. "Fair enough. I thought you two were cute together is all."

"You have awful taste."


"What do you even know about romance anyway?" he asked, pushing himself off the wall. "You're like the most oblivious person ever when you aren't cheating with empathy."

Honey agreed, saying that I'd tried to pair him up with Lopunny.

"Dude, I— you traitor!" I hissed. "Don't try to pretend like you weren't using you two learning how to read at the same time as a way to flirt!"

The little prankster was pretending not to have a crush just to embarrass me!

"I dunno, Grace, I think you're just seeing things," Chase said.

Mimi had enough, and finally crawled away from under my shirt and retaliated with a harmless kick to my leg.

Chase snorted at them. "Feisty."

"They're just in a bad mood from having to watch fighting for so long instead of us being out and about," I sighed. "You know what, how's Wimpod? Haven't seen her in a while?"

He scratched his cheek. "Wanna see her?"

As soon as I agreed, the little bug type popped out of her ball with twitching antennas, who scampered away from Meltan even though they were far smaller than her. Honey tried to approach, but to no avail, and Wimpod climbed up on Chase's leg and back.

But she wasn't screaming or crying, at least. Just scared. That was progress, even though she wanted nothing to do with me no matter how slowly I approached or gently talked to her. Hell, even Honey had more success than I had, getting to touch her scaly back before Chase recalled her.

"Too much stimulation's bad for her," he said. "And you know, I haven't told her yet about the Galactic stuff."

"Oh… you could have told me that beforehand. I could have let something slip."

He finished his water bottle and took a deep breath. "I think that when the time comes, I'll just leave her at the League or something. Keep her safe there, just in case one of those sickos decide to try to kill her and I'm dead."

My heartbeat quickened, and I grabbed at my shirt. There was a way about how Chase and Cece talked about their possible demise so casually that disturbed me.

"Might do the same thing with Mimi, I think." The steel type squealed at me, and I rolled my eyes. "Not in your Pokeball, you drama fiend! Arceus, has Princess been rubbing off on you or what? You two don't even talk yet!"

Displeasure, they sent me.

"We'll talk about it later," I said. "Anyway, uh, Chase, I'm gonna call Cece, so…"

"I'll get out of your hair. Come see us when you're done, we're all hanging out in the lobby."

I quickly nodded. "Yup."

He threw the bottle in the trash and left with his hands shoved in his pockets while I quickly scrambled to check on Cecilia's battle, wanting to watch at least once before I called her. The thumbnail quickly caught my eye as soon as I made it onto Wake's website, given the fact that there was no more water. It was gone. Evaporated, with the five islands acting as mountains instead, the central one even having collapsed midway through the fight.

Her strategy had been this.

Leading with Hydreigon, she had fought back against another Empoleon, forcing Wake to use the first switch of the battle through the sheer brutality the dragon showed. There was power there, but also subtle skill that hadn't been present during her fight with Byron for her seventh badge. The way the turquoise light surrounding him seemed to cause all moves to cower beneath his form, and they became weaker as they struck him. The way one head had made Empoleon freeze for a moment with what must have been Scary Face while the other two combined a Dragon Pulse and Charge Beam. It was something they excelled at, now. Mixing and matching moves to obtain different results.

Azumarill had come out next, and despite the range advantage Hydreigon had on them, the water type had swarmed the field with bubbles of water and glamour that exploded upon contact and were powered up with the storm Empoleon had set up at the start of the battle, forcing Cecilia to expend one of her recalls as well, revealing her Toxicroak.

Vacuum Wave user, my eyes instantly narrowed. The bubbles actually didn't pop when exposed to the move, but it did drag all the air out of Azumarill's lungs and start evaporating the water around them. The fairy type was poisoned before getting back into the sea, and from now on it had just been a matter of waiting them out.

Of course, that didn't mean Cecilia got the takedown for free. Knowing that time hadn't been on their side, Wake had ordered Azumarill to use Belly Drum and the water type completely turned the battle around, using her exploding glamour bubbles as support while she beat up Toxicroak with a relentless fervor that had both of them fall by the end of the fight. Still, the fact that Toxicroak had drawn against a water type in the rain had me in awe at how far she'd come so quickly.

The battle continued in a rather equal manner, with Scizor and Hydreigon battling a Feraligatr and Wailord, the latter of which was the one to take down Hydreigon. Since this was a battle she was fighting tooth and nail for, it wasn't looking like Palafin was going to come out, with how close things were.

That was until she sprung her trap.

Both were out of their three switches, and Cecilia had three Pokemon left while Wake had two, his Empoleon having fallen as well. Since Crasher Wake was one of the weaker Gym Leaders, one could expect him to use two of his personal Pokemon, and as a man for theatrics, and like was the usual for these kind of battles, he'd kept them for last. The first one had been Quagsire, just as dumb looking and unaware as one could expect from their species despite having heard that he was not from rumors online.

See, despite what people thought, Crasher Wake was not someone to only use the rain. Sometimes, he used mist to make visibility near zero, or he summoned clouds at ground level to use electric attacks, for example, but against Cecilia, he had leaned toward rain, stacking up Rain Dance after Rain Dance. It was a veritable storm that had her own Pokemon unable to hear her own commands, by the end, which meant that they could only run on instinct and what they'd planned beforehand while she watched, with every island but the central one having been swallowed by the waves. Powerful tsunamis swarmed the entire arena, seemingly sped up and controlled by Wake's Pokemon, making life hell for anyone but a water type.

Some would call it boring, maybe, to see him do the same thing so frequently, but this was actually an excellent test for Cecilia. She had, after all, always been the worst of us at manipulating the weather and the terrain, even if she had finally started dabbling and was actually decent at it now.

So here had been Crasher Wake's test, or at least the main one I could see. With her back against the wall, two personal Pokemon left powered by multiple Rain Dances and no way to claw her way back to influence the terrain and weather, how was she going to win?

Slowking had been the answer. Not because he was a water type, but because she had pushed Disable to its limits. Ordinarily, the move only prevented a Pokemon from employing the last move they'd used, but not Slowking's. He parsed through Quagsire's mind, pulling at the exact move he'd wanted him to stop using.

Rain Dance.

It was a majestic display of skill, one that had me rewinding that part of the video twenty times to understand what had happened. From then on, it was just a matter of waiting out a storm that was collapsing on its own weight and couldn't be sustained, though Quagsire still ended up taking him down, by the end of it, breaking through Slowking's barriers even though they rivaled Claydol's.

Then came Talonflame, and she burned. All of the water was swept away by a Heat Wave hot enough to turn sand to glass with Quagsire too weak to do anything about it, without rain to constantly regenerate himself and too tired after a drawn-out fight with Slowking. Quagsire did come close to taking her down with attacks wide enough for her speed not to matter, but she was not frail as she'd once been, with many ways she and Cece had come up with to stop her wings from getting hit and her wings broken. She had gotten used to seeing that, had she? Unlike Princess, Talonflame had gotten hers broken so many times it was probably routine.

In the end, it had been Golurk against Poliwrath. The ghost type now was even worse to fight. Discounting the sheer destructive power on display that put all of my Pokemon to shame, there was a time limit to how long you could last in battle with him, and it was all because of his song. Listen long enough, and you'd go unconscious, weakening along the way, too. It tied in beautifully with her disabling of the rain and its powerful sound. Despite Poliwrath having set up another one, Lehmhart's song had been so loud it easily broke through any singular Rain Dance, even from one of Wake's Pokemon. She'd broken the stacking Rain Dance and won because of it.

Even then, Cecilia had won by the skin of her teeth in a fight so grand the central island had been destroyed. Poliwrath had been strong enough to go toe to toe with Lehmhart's powers, no doubt putting that fighting type to good use.

Damn it, she was cool. Composed the entire fight, too, which was what I'd been missing, granted Wake didn't throw a Pokemon with Pressure at her, or something akin to it. I rewinded her video by muscle memory until Honey grunted at me with an engine-like laugh while he played with Mimi in his hand, holding them by the window and throwing them up with weak magnetism.

"Uh, right," I nodded. "Better call." I blew a raspberry, lying down on my bed on my stomach instead of sitting on my chair while kicking my feet in the air. She was on top of my contacts, so I was quick to dial her number, never mind that Honey snickered at me having a heart next to her name.

When I glared, he raised his good hand and said I'd been worrying for no reason anyway.

"Probably. I mean, it still sucks, but— oh, hi Cece!"

There was the sound of the TV in the background— no, not the TV, probably her laptop. Knowing her, she must have been watching Unovan news or something to keep her mind off things. Not like there was much to do now that her team was at the Pokemon Center and Maeve was busy training most days.


Oof, she was frustrated. Not angry, though, so that was a plus. Probably understood that I needed space, but was annoyed I'd ghosted her the entire day and she'd been worried about me, which was understandable.

"Sorry?" I tried. "I'm… better now. Got all of my frustration out, I think." I cleared my throat and turned on my back. "I saw your battle, it was—"

"We were all worried sick. The others kept knocking at your door and you wouldn't answer," she scolded.

"I, um, I only heard one knock."

"There was more than one." Had there been? I must have been too focused early on to notice. "Before Chase got there they were about to call the Nurses to do a wellness check. They would have, if you hadn't answered."

I scoffed. "Come on, I was just studying, no need to make such a huge deal about—"

"That's not how it looked! You can't expect us to know that, especially with all the problems you're dealing with!" she rebuked, a slight quiver in her voice. "You tore apart your own fingers two weeks ago, Grace. We didn't know, and it would have been fine, but you didn't communicate!'

"I was… I'm sorry," I said. "Arceus, yeah it must have looked bad from the outside, I just wanted to— it's like I needed to figure out everything that went wrong and that I couldn't focus on anything else beforehand."

"I know, but you've never stormed off like that after a loss," she sighed. "You always talk at first before locking yourself up in your room. Keep up a brave face for a while, then you the rage, sadness and frustration out alone. I know what it's like to need space, but answering our messages when we tried checking in on you would have been nice."

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm sorry."

"Okay. Thank you for that." There was a noise, like the shifting of skin against a mattress. "I watched your battle."

"Let's not talk about my battle. It's just embarrassing and I hate it," I muttered. "I fucked up too many times to win."

"If you want to, that's fine."

For around an hour, we talked about her fight. Her thought process during every frame, the new moves and techniques she'd come up with, and how they'd trained that crazy Disable, too. Ordinarily, I was sure we would have kept this hidden, but with Galactic coming around, it was like Chase said. It'd be stupid not to know what everyone was capable of in detail just for a tournament I wanted so desperately to be in, but that might not come.

A tournament I might not even be in, depending on the events of next week. What if today was my last chance? What if I fucked myself over? Poketch didn't know, and they expected me to try again in two weeks, but I knew.

Don't think about it. Don't envision it. I had to believe that I'd make it, because that light at the end of the tunnel, that thread of normalcy was the only thing keeping me sane. Hopes of facing the strongest trainers at the Conference, with this entire nightmare behind us all and the world saved. You're okay.

"For Zolst, we've been trying to get a hang of dragon TE, but it's got some… esoteric properties if you're not trying to just create some kind of blast. It's difficult to figure out what it exactly does when people at our level keep their cards close to their chest."

"Nothing online?"

"Not in detail, no," Cece said. "It's been trial and error, so right now our working theory is Might, or at least it's what I think it is. He certainly likes the sound of it. It's got a way of making everything around it cower in fear and subjugating TE that we haven't gotten much experience with yet, otherwise Zolst never would have been able to take so many Ice Beams or Freeze Dries. Wake tried to freeze him from the inside a couple of times."

"You know, I had a similar thought when Sunshine was fighting Steelix. Haven't started anything yet on that front, though. We plan to."

"There are a thousand different research papers on the subject of TE and none can agree on anything, so I'll have to come to my own conclusion anyway."

There was a lapse of silence. "So, are you and Maeve coming here?"

"When my team is healed. Golurk took a beating, so I won't be here until the time's basically come."

"Bummer. We can't even hang out before it all comes to a head."

"We can hang out on the phone more now that our Pokemon are all too banged up to train," she said, smirk clear in her tone. "Plus, I can't be missing out on those meetings you guys are going to have, can't I?"

I smiled. "You bet. Let me head downstairs."

Pausing, a gasp left my lips.

"Wait, I need to shower!"

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Chapter 303

The reaction to my presence was a lot of scolding.

More than I'd expected, too, with Pauline doing the heavy lifting on that front. By the end of it she had hugged me tightly enough to squeeze the life out of me, so I figured I was forgiven. It was difficult to take a step back and understand how things had looked so much worse from outside my perspective, like the world had been collapsing around me and I wasn't going to recover from my spiral. To be honest, I was still miffed, with the taste of defeat still fresh in my mind and the hollow feeling tangible inside my heart, but it was far better than it had been hours earlier now that I'd found out the ways I'd messed up and berated myself for it. So yes, while that final notch on my Trainer ID hadn't been filled by Byron's badge and that sucked, there were more important things to focus on.

Having this conversation in public would have been stupid, so instead, we had gathered back in Emilia's room, where snacks and drinks had been laid about, reminding me of the earlier parties she'd used to host. It was a shame they'd both missed Justin's birthday on the 2nd, because she would have made it far more interesting than how depressing it really was, and the world might not be there for her own birthday on the 13th, so…

Uh, yeah. It was a good thing I didn't think out loud.

Speaking of Justin, he was here, though he wasn't going to participate in the meeting much, so he was simply observing and would probably report back to Louis later so they stayed in the know. Our friend hadn't wanted to be here for obvious reasons that he was barely holding it together even with my help, and throwing himself into this gathering would have just made things far worse than they already were. Justin was near the entrance, phone in hand and ready to type away at anything we said.

Chase was in the same corner, seemingly happy to be left alone with the only guy who was as quiet as he was. He didn't like this, and his displeasure was obvious, but as he'd said, it would be stupid to put his head in the sand and ignore working together just because he disagreed with our methods. I could tell even he was nervous, with the way he snacked on some greasy chips Emilia had placed on the desk. Chase never snacked on anything unhealthy.

Emilia went from guest to guest, making sure everything was set. She'd been busy these past few days, working harder than anyone else, and I hoped she wasn't going to burn out. Endless work was a good way to keep herself distracted, though, so I wasn't about to intervene and ruin the way she had found to cope.

Pauline was talking to me and Denzel about how she'd combatted toxic people on the forums and how he was scared she was going to get temporarily banned again, but there had been a lot of takes after my battle and she had a way of always finding the most toxic ones. Denzel was only half in the conversation, bending forward in front of a computer as he set up a call and hooked up his laptop screen to the television, with both Cece and Mira being on there. My girlfriend was dressed in her Sunday best, still wearing the frilly dress she'd had during her Gym Battle— granted, she could be wearing a trash bag and I'd still call her beautiful, even in 360p. Mira, meanwhile, was… well, at least her room was clean, with Alakazam and Gardevoir there to pick things up, but she was just wearing an oversized hoodie whose sleeves hid her hands and bottom went down to her knees, but honestly I couldn't blame her for going for that vibe. Those were comfortable.

Maeve was here too, though she was surprisingly not in Cece's room and in her own, with her Infernape sitting next to her, the flames atop his head having turned blue despite the fact that he was resting. There were no signs of uncomfortableness from the heat, though, which signaled that he'd learned to bring the ambient temperature around him under control despite him having grown so powerful.

"I think we're set up," Denzel slowly said. "Can you guys let me know if there's lag on your end?"

"Y—yeah, I— think there's— lag," Mira stuttered.

"Wow! Did we hire a comedian today?" he said with clear ennui, making most of the room chuckle. "Cece, are things fine?"

"Crystal clear."

"Thanks for wasting our time, shrimp," Chase sighed, scrunching up his bag of chips.

Mira crossed her arms. "You guys just don't get it. I came up with that joke spontaneously, too, I didn't even have it prepared or anything. And what if my internet was awful?!"

"I told them your internet was fine when I came here," I added.

She pouted, huffing as she slid down her seat with a terrible posture. I was glad to see she was doing well like she'd said in our texts, though it was difficult to figure out the microexpressions on her face with this quality. Really, that was why learning a Gym Leader's body language from video alone had been a bust except for the really expressive ones like Candice or Maylene.

"Thanks Denzel," Emi smiled. "Okay, everyone! Thanks for Chase's suggestion earlier today, we're going to be talking about what our Pokemon are capable of to start bettering our teamwork before go day. We'll be training together too, except for Mira and Cece."

"You could come here," Pauline told Mira. "Why're you holing up in your room?"

"I'll come to the meetings and join in when you call, but I'll stick around in Jubilife," Mira said. "And before you accuse me, it's not just because I'm selfish and being lazy, okay? It's because by being here, I have ACE Trainers next to important people. Like Grace's Dad or Melody. Or Lauren."

I gulped, feeling a tightening vice around my throat. My parents had already been assigned League guards to shadow them, according to the League, and so had everyone else's parents, but they weren't ACEs because there simply weren't enough to spare.

"Thanks, Mira," I nodded.

"Might as well make myself useful. I have no family that cares for me, so you know."

"Come on. We care about you," I said.

There were acknowledging words around the room, even a nod from Justin, and Mira turned away from the screen, bringing a hand to her eyes. "Thanks, guys. Love y'all."

Maeve chimed in, honed in on the topic at hand. "I'll be coming here. My flight's tomorrow and my Drapion's arm is healed."

There was something cold about her voice that hadn't been here before the incident in Pastoria. Her face, scarred by countless lines formed by powerful water jets, was utterly still while she spoke, her eyes narrow and focused. She had the face of a trained killer, one that I'd seen scant few times and had been plastered on my own when in the right headspace.

"You should come to Jubilife, Maeve," Mira said. "We should… you know, talk more before everything goes down."

"Hmhm. We'll talk when this is done and Galactic is dealt with."

There was uncomfortableness here. Malaise at a rift that had formed, signaling they weren't as close as they used to be. To be honest, we'd been rather bad friends to Maeve, save for Denzel and Mira who kept in regular contact with her and Cece who had only reconnected because they were in the same city, but everyone just had so much stuff to deal with that people got hurt or shoved to the wayside so we could deal with our own issues. I had not expected her to change this much, though. It was like her near-death experience had hardened her, and we'd only seen the start of it, before leaving. Now it had crystalized and would last.

Was she seeing a therapist? Would it be rude to ask?

"Sure thing, Maeve,"
Mira sighed.

I shared a look with Cece, but said nothing.

Emilia clapped to get our attention. "Back on topic. Before we address our Pokemon, we should figure out what everyone's going to be doing. Now obviously, Cece, Grace, Chase and Mira are the cornerstone of the whole plan with the League if the Lakes fall." She paced around the room, hands behind her back and staring downward. "But if they fall, you guys will be going up the mountain. What we figured was that we could try supporting you along the way, taking out grunts who are hanging out around the place and maybe some inside, too."

"Obviously this plan, if approved by everyone here, will be going to the League through the ACEs," Denzel added.

"Oh I'm sure they'll be mighty pleased about that," Mira said, sarcasm so dry it'd fit right in a desert.

Emilia ignored the verbal jab. "We can work with the League forces there, and let me remind you that our Pokemon are better than theirs!" she said, slightly defensively. "They won't refuse the manpower."

It was true, though an overgeneralization. The League started looking for trainers to recruit at the fifth badge, which was an off-ramp a lot of them took whenever they wanted to join the military. It used to be lower, but as time went on and from what Buddy and I had read in our books, the world had settled for a quality-over-quantity approach after seeing the sheer number of deaths the Great War had wrought, mostly out of necessity at first due to how few trainers remained, but the concept stuck now and five badges was around where the average League Trainer would be in Sinnoh. Sometimes it was lower, like in Kanto-Johto, or sometimes higher like in Unova or Hoenn, but it was a good benchmark to count on.

And right now, all of their Pokemon were easily stronger than any fifth badger.

"It's true that they wouldn't refuse any volunteers," Cecilia agreed. "We know how the League generally operates from the raid and we can teach you the basics so you aren't like a Magikarp out of water tactics-wise."

Emi snapped her fingers. "That's appreciated. So now, we're all on the same page. Next up, our teams."

What followed was, admittedly, a very long, multi-hour session of everyone laying out their Pokemon and their capabilities. Most of us took notes, though Mira and Chase did not. The former made sense, with how quickly she absorbed information these days, and the latter was probably because he just couldn't be bothered. I made sure to make a mental note about giving him mine later. It was moving, to see how far everyone had come from our early days. How each trainer had come up with unique ways to push teams to their limit and how not one person fought the same. Admittedly, this would be more useful for people who weren't Shards, since they were most likely to stick together, but like Chase had said, this couldn't hurt.

"Next, training," Emilia said.

"Oh man, did you have too much sugar or something?" Chase said through a yawn. "All of this talking is exhausting me."

"Chase, how can talking tire you out when you're so… you?" Cece asked with an amused smile.

"He forgot to work out his brain," Pauline mocked to the side. "It's like when you put all of your stats into strength and none into intelligence."

"Look at me, I'm Pauline, I talk like a fucking nerd." He mimicked her voice in the most obnoxious way possible. "Fucking stats. Get a grip."

"What? It was a funny joke."

"Not as funny as you having to cheat off of me during our written test in Flight School," he bit back. "So really, who's the dumb one here?"

Pauline went red, either from embarrassment or anger… or both, and she threw a pillow at him, which he easily dodged with a simple weave. The pillow ended up landing on Justin's head, sticking on him for a comically long time before falling to the ground. Cece, the grand engineer of this entire argument, hid her smile well behind her hand.

Denzel sighed. "Guys… sorry Justin."

He blinked, and while others might have missed the slight tug at his lips, I didn't.

"Let's take this seriously," Maeve chided.

Emi nodded, starting up her pacing again. "Right, so training. What we did with Denzel the other day helped just like it did with Grace. I was scared Sylvi might lean a little too into the battle, but he was nice about it."

"Told you he was better."

She looked at Pauline and shrugged. "I didn't really believe you, I have to admit. Sorry." A slight pause, then she resumed after clearing her throat. "Anyway, we can keep training with everyone, and I think we should mix and match partners too, just to soak up as much experience as possible. The problem is, our Pokemon will have to get to the Center and rest eventually."

"Not enough time, too much to do," I quietly agreed.

In truth, training like Maeve had done with Louis, or I'd done with Cece and Lauren— pushing your Pokemon, but not far enough for them to need to heal— wouldn't really work in this context, given the fact that we needed to build the habit of them getting powerful attacks aimed to kill thrown into their faces and the faces of their trainers. To get as close to the real thing as possible and see how they'd react.

"Not much we can do about that," Chase said. "You get the real deal, or you might as well not even try."

Maeve spoke up. "If your Pokemon are knocked out and at the Center, you should probably be looking at other people's fights. You guys are recording these, right?" When multiple people said yes, she continued. "Perfect. Send the first few to me, I'll give them a look while I'm on my flight."

"Sure. I think I'll just create a new group chat where we can drop all the footage, actually," Denzel said. "Easier to organize, just don't type there. Got it, Chase?"

Our friend raised his hands. "Look, no promises."

"Just name the chat 'do not type' in all caps," Cecilia suggested. "Surely he won't disturb it then."

"You better watch your back when you get here," he warned with crossed arms, tone just soft enough to know he was fooling around.

"Either way, we have a way to… well, not circumvent the issue, but make the most of what we have. We should make a battling schedule next. Form everyone into groups," Denzel said. "If there needs to be a readjustment, then just contact either me or Emi in the actual group chat. Got it, Chase?"

"Will do."

None of us believed him.

"You were fantastic out there, Grace. You have nothing to be ashamed of."

"You'd say that to any battle I fought in, wouldn't you?"

"Given that I don't understand most of what's going on, probably?"

I scoffed. "Mom! You're supposed to lie!"

"I'm not a great liar, sweetie."

"Whatever. I hate the fact that it was close, you know? Makes it feel ten times worse to me."

"I think that it only feels that way. Getting wiped out certainly would have been worse, both for your confidence and your job at Poketch."

"Hm, you might be right, I guess I'm just angry— oh, hold on, my Pokemon are here."

A Nurse Joy arrived with a tray with most of my Pokeballs on it, with the notable exception of Sunshine and Claydol. It had been three days since my Gym Battle, and I was still salty about it enough to vent to anyone new that called, most recently my mother. Apparently the break in Princess' wings had been rather clean, with how she was already discharged from the hospital. Leave it to a psychic that high leveled to break bones in the most convenient ways possible, I thought to myself. This was nothing like the way Volkner's Electivire had broken Honey's spine, or even how Princess broke bones, and I appreciated Byron more for it. I held my phone in between my ear and shoulder while clipping my Pokeballs to my belt, and left the Pokemon Center to talk to the team before heading to check on another fight. This time it was Chase and Pauline against Denzel and Maeve, and I had a bet with Cece and Emilia going on if they'd be either completely dysfunctional or something would click and they'd have great teamwork.

"Anyway, I've been doing okay. Just… stressed."

"Oh, honey. You'll make it to the Conference, I'm sure of it. Have you been getting enough sleep?"

A sad smile crept up on my face. "Thanks. Uh, I've been trying, I guess. I don't get eight hours, though. That's kind of impossible, not enough time in the day."

"Sleep is important for teenagers!" she warned. "Don't go too hard on the Pokemon training, okay?"


"And I'm always here if you need to talk. Your Dad too, of course."


"We were thinking of getting all together for the Conference. We know it's important to you, so presenting a united front to support our daughter was one of Arthur's ideas. I never thought he'd want to see me again, but he knows how much it'd mean for you to have both of us there. We have our tickets already."

My breath shook. Don't cry, don't cry, don't cry, don't cry.

I walked out of the Pokemon Center. "That sounds like a lot of fun. I'm… looking forward to it."

"Yeah! I've never been before, so it'll be an experience. We'll be the loudest to cheer every time you fight."

"I… uh."

"What's wrong? Was I too forward? Do you not want me there?"

"No! No, I want you two there so badly, it's just—" I felt my back slide against the Pokemon Center's outside wall, ignoring the stares. "I love you two so much. And I wish we'd spent more time together."

My Mom paused. "Grace? What's wrong? You can talk to me, baby. Always."

I sniffled. "I'm good."

Keep yourself together.

"I'm good," I said again, steeling myself. "Sorry, that was weird."

"Ordinarily I'd try to push for an answer," she said. "But I know better than to try to force something out of you these days. Just… you can talk to me."

"I'll be okay. I, uh, I've got to run. Talk to my team about areas they could improve in and stuff. If everything goes well, I'll be swinging by next week to see you so I can train in peace for Byron and the Conference. Maybe get a haircut, too."

"I'll get my scissors ready," she joked.

"And Mom. You notice anything weird lately?"

"Weird how?"

"I don't know, like a feeling of unease or something. Being followed?"

"More government people have been out and about in town and hanging around the house, but other than that and your grandma being angry about it, no. Is there anything I should be worried about"

"Great. See you later."

"Oh. Okay. Love you."

"Love you too."

I gripped Princess' Pokeball in my hands.

I wasn't going to break like that again.

Part of me wanted to walk to the nearest landing pad to keep practicing walking without my crutch, but time wasn't something any of us could afford, at the moment, so instead I released Princess near the Pokemon Center and crouched, looking into her eyes.

"Hey baby," I smiled. "How're you feeling?"

Togekiss brushed up her forehead against mine, noticing I'd been teary-eyed or crying recently.

I closed my eyes, lowering my voice to a whisper. "Yeah. Yeah, I was. I talked with Mom, and you know, it's weird hearing her talk like nothing is going on. Like we're living in two different worlds, and that just— I dunno, it just hurts."

I glanced around me for a moment with a heavy exhale. They all had no idea, did they? Smiles on faces, worries about being late to come back from their lunch break or it being too short. Trainers strategizing together, huddled in groups, or talking about which trainer was going to place where in the Conference.

In other words, it was a normal day.

"I'm okay."

Rising to my feet, I mounted Princess, asking her to fly me to Canalave's outskirts, somewhere we could be alone, and she ended up traveling out west. We'd never gone this direction before, and we spotted many cliffs that were continuously getting battered by the sea. While we flew, I told her about our loss, which she'd guessed when she hadn't instantly heard me gushing about a win as soon as I released her. Needless to say, she was furious when I told her about how she'd gotten poisoned by metal again. Mimi tightened around my wrist, self-conscious about what their predecessor had done. The memories were gone, but they knew what our time at Lakhutia had been like by now.

Princess landed on a dirt path leading to a dead end, possibly there in case the city ever wanted to expand that way. There was nothing here but shrubs and light vegetation for miles with not a human in sight and only a couple of Wingull flying overhead to keep us company. I released the entire team. As soon as Angel saw the look on my face, he figured we'd lost and instantly started soothing me. The rest knew already, including Sweetheart since she'd been the last to fall. Breaking the news to Sunshine and Claydol was going to be tougher.

"We lost."

The words were heavy and almost painful. Saying them was like ripping off a bandaid. Seven Gyms, we had won on the first try, and we all so dearly wished we could have finished off with a perfect record. That was the kind of stuff that put your name in all of the trainer tabloids, on television, that had people talking to you like you were a prodigy the likes of Cynthia despite that obviously not being the case. I hadn't cared about any of that. I'd just wanted to tell myself that I was good enough to stand among the best and the brightest.

I bit my lip. "It's bitter, isn't it? Disappointing."

Sweetheart stomped a foot against the ground, demanding a rematch with Kingambit right this instant. I quieted her down with a look, though. Now wasn't the time for this, and her loss hadn't even been her fault.

"I won't tell you not to be angry or anything like that." I turned away from them. "But I'll tell you that you were enough to win. All of you. You all had a breakthrough during the battle," I said. "You should be proud of yourselves. I was the one who was lacking. I failed you all."

I turned back to face them.

"Princess, you've learned to chain moves into more moves, and you've become awful to fight. The steel type gym just wasn't a great matchup for you. Now I've got to give you more moves to work with, and you have to train your stamina."

Any other type, and that cutting Moonblast would have devastated them. I had to figure out a way to work on her defenses now that barriers weren't enough, because she wasn't fast enough to dodge everything. Hell, even Talonflame had ways to defend herself, now, and she was way faster than Princess was. The main idea I was working with, other than copying Air Burst, were concentrated shields instead of a wide one surrounding her like we'd been doing. Packed tightly, it would be a lot more effective and allow her to keep her speed, but it would require even more precision and multitasking.

"Buddy, you managed to come back from vapor. If we can manage to turn you to mist on command, you'll be able to disappear and essentially be a true ghost in everything but in name. You'd be faster and harder to detect if we can thin that mist enough, too. Also, Taunt and Will-O-Wisp is a hell of a combo. And you're getting closer to making multiple of yourself. Actual clones, not just shades."

The water type nodded, though he apologized for losing himself during the fight like he had a thousand times already these past few days.


Tyranitar growled, still angry at herself.

"Your loss was my fault," I said. "You just followed what I said, but I should have trusted in you, and I'm sorry for that. But you were so cool out there! Not only did you face a Kingambit boosted by Supreme Overlord and pressuring you too, that Dark Sandstorm stuff? Honey was gushing over how scary you were when you mauled that Empoleon. I guess that was revenge enough for what she did to your sister."

While Sweetheart grinned, Princess added that she would have liked for a whole flipper to be torn off, at the very least. Honey pretended he hadn't been excited for her, scratching his head and looking away.

"Angel, your vine terrain works, and we've only just scratched the surface! There's a lot we can do with the move, and you faced down and beat what was basically one of your worst opponents outside of Kingambit. I thought Byron would save Lucario for Sweetheart, but of course that was before I knew he had a new evolution to use. We'll work on your camouflage and creating lookalikes next, okay?"

The grass type blinked, his vines moving in a very pleased way.

"Sunshine isn't here with us, but he brought the fight to Byron and perfected the battling style we've been working on for months. I bet he remembers how it felt, to work so hard for so little progress. To be stuck, thinking that you'd stagnate forever." I paused, letting the words settle. "He beat that feeling," I praised. "He faced a Steelix and won on his own. I'd be willing to bet that victory alone was worth the struggle. That it was so sweet to beat the hell out of him and make him realize that he wasn't going to be switched out. Claydol learned to make decisions for themselves, and that led to them picking a name. It wasn't a great debut, but they did exactly what I asked of them, and that's a sign of what's to come."

"You all worked hard, and we nearly tasted victory," I continued. "Let's make sure we rip that badge out of Byron's hand next time."

They cheered, and it was just so motivating.

"So I have a few ideas for you all to work on when we finish saving the world. Honey, you can start working on that electric technique I've been telling you about…"

I wished we could have gone back to Lakhutia for this.

A strange thought to have for sure, when the city was full of horrible memories, each one worse than the last. Sometimes, in the deepest reaches of the night, when it was just me against Princess' warm fur and I was feeling her chest slowly rise, I would close my eyes and imagine Lou dying. Alone, terrified and screaming, despite the fact that no one could hear her. Every time I would take deep breaths and Buddy would hover from the ceiling, asking if I was okay. Sometimes, we'd go on a walk and we'd speak about regrets. I'd speak to him about wishing Lou was still here, and how the pain of losing someone was something I wasn't sure I'd be able to go through again, but that it was something I'd considered a possibility and been mentally preparing myself for. He'd tell me about his mother, and how she used to be so caring until she evolved and lost herself to rage. Meeting her now in the ocean was about a million times as difficult as finding Honey's parents again, if she wasn't dead already. Jellicent couldn't die through natural causes so long as they had enough energy stolen from others, but there were many creatures in the ocean capable of killing her.

Or that was what he thought of it, anyway. He did not really have any desire to see her again, after so many centuries spent apart. Even the worst of grief healed over time, according to him, but still, being in Claydol's old home, which had robbed them of a personality and name for this occasion, would have felt right.

Aliyah did always get annoyed at my symbolism.

Instead, we had all gathered on a hill facing the ocean at the outskirts of Canalave. The sea had beaten against the cliffs here for who knew how many years, turning them into what they were today. Towering spires of ancient white rock, weathered and worn by centuries of relentless waves, casting shadows that danced upon the foamy canvas below. Erosion was something that happened to all of us, but like this cliff, we were still here, and hopefully we would be for a long time. The wind whipped up my hair and blew it across my face, making me wish I'd tied it up for this or that I'd brought something to do so, but it was just me and my team, without even my backpack.

For once, Buddy was not in the ocean below, soaking up the water. He was attentive, eyes wandering between each person here as he stood vigil in silence. Occasionally, he'd let out an irritated click or whistle to tell Sweetheart and Honey to quiet down on the sidelines, since they were arguing about who would win in a fight. Mimi was sat down on Angel's head, glancing at the ocean while the grass type spoke to Princess about her latest sculpture ideas. She was in a rut right now, though, without many ideas, and she lamented that traveling so much limited her options for large-scale projects. The grass type was mostly nodding along and letting her speak, though. Sunshine, for his part, was lying in the grass, as lazy as ever, a little ways away from the main group so he could get some peace and quiet.

It was nice, to see them all gathered again after this week.

I shushed everyone, ending any ongoing conversation to release Claydol. The sun had barely risen over the horizon, casting its golden glow over the cliffside. Part of me wanted to tease Sunshine, saying that he'd be the sun one day, but this morning wasn't ours. It was Claydol's.


I looked up at them, and they blinked at… well, all of us. Their eyes settled on their surroundings for a moment, making sure everyone was safe, and there was a strum of power that gathered around us. They were on edge, with Galactic about to strike. I was going to give a speech about that right after this.

"My King. Fellow Members of the Royal Court," Claydol chimed. "It is nice to see you again."

There were grunts and noises of agreement in response. A wave from Honey and his now-healed hand, a half-opened eye from Sunshine, and a pat on the head from Angel—

"Please do not touch my head, Caretaker. You might roughen the surface."

Tangrowth's vine drooped, and he moved on to Mimi anyway, who hadn't even been paying attention to any of this. The steel type was one for fun and adventure, but not really big on speeches and momentous events like these.

"I wanted everyone here," I started. "For you to tell us your name."

Another blink, slower this time, and their eyes turned to circles. "Your kind gesture is appreciated," they said.

Then, they stayed quiet. For a whole minute.


"Awaiting for permission."

"Oh. Oh, you had it, you didn't need to ask," I giggled. "I thought we were making progress on that."

"I was not certain."

"Well… go ahead." I vaguely gestured forward.

Claydol hovered a smidge higher in the sky and seemed to glow a little brighter in the sunlight.

"From this moment forth, I shall be known as Cassianus, as was the first King of Lakhutia. The name originates from the lineage of the hollow or helmeted warriors. As such, I shall embody this essence, my King, serving as your devoted warrior and protector, and I humbly present my name for your acceptance."

Our world stood still for a moment as we let the name settle, with even Meltan looking the psychic's way. It was admittedly a break from my usual naming scheme, which was a given, when Claydol had picked a name, and not me. Still, they had named themselves after— no, stolen a name of one of their old Kings, and the first one at that! The founder of the city, and the one who'd come across and befriended Melmetal. He'd been like a deity to them!

And yet, Claydol— no, Cassianus had taken the name for themselves. Stolen it, and put it to better use.

I'd be seeing more of that, wouldn't I?

"That's a pretty name," I said. "Feels important when you say it, too, which is nice."

"That was one of the criteria when it came to mind in the middle of that fight, so that is a correct assessment."

"It's kind of a mouthful though, so, erm… can I call you Cass for short?"

Claydol's eyes turned to lines, clearly disappointed in me. "Perhaps after a week, that will be acceptable."

Smirking, I agreed. "Deal!"

Sunshine groaned, saying that Cassianus shouldn't have accepted that, but a deal was a deal, and it was too late to renege on it, or I'd collect some other way. Collateral damage, so to speak.

"Now that you have a name. Hug?"

Cassianus squinted with all of their eyes, and Honey and Sweetheart cheered from the side, the two goofballs. I outstretched my arms, wiggling my fingers more threateningly than this whole ordeal actually was, mostly as a joke, and Claydol hovered an inch closer.

"If you must."


I wrapped my hands around them, though their body was far too large for my fingers to meet behind their 'back'. The ground type's body was made of a cool and smooth clay-like material and felt firm but oddly yielding. The surface was adorned with markings that my fingers could trace, giving a tactile sense of Cassianus' ancient origins. There was energy embedded deep in the creases, so subtle you'd miss it if you didn't focus, but it was there. There was a subtle vibration or hum emanating from their core that reverberated through me like bass during a concert or the engine of Dad's old car when I was sitting in the front seat. The temperature was cool to the touch initially, but as the hug continued, there was a gradual warmth accumulated, like touching a sun-warmed surface.

It was a very nice hug overall. Not soft, but nice.

"I love you."

That is appreciated. You are also a very important individual. Designation: 98th King of Lakhutia.

"Gee," I pouted. "You're supposed to say you do too. Whatever, I'll get you one day."

Turtonator side-eyed me, saying that this was like reliving the awfully annoying old days, and Princess sneered at his reluctance to just be happy without adding a snide comment or complaining, for once. I let go of Cassianus, letting the others give this hugging thing a try, but they were very conscious of people touching their head, so that place was off-limit except for hats. I let everyone have fun for a few minutes, happy to see Mimi getting closer with Princess, little by little. They were still too scared to approach Sunshine, though, and it wasn't like he was making it easy, glaring at them every time they got close. Claydol passed by everyone and had them enunciate their name over and over, just because they liked the way it sounded.

It was nice to see everyone coming together.

"Sorry to ruin the vibe, but… can you all listen up?" My back straightened, and I stood up from the grass-filled cliff. "We're back together, but as we all know, our peaceful days are going to come to a stop very soon. Two days, to be exact. Maybe earlier than that."

Honey chimed in, saying that it might be later, too.

"True," I admitted. "But it's better to prepare for the worst so we aren't disappointed, though. But yes, Team Galactic is striking, and soon. Apparently, Abel just gave them a bunch of techniques to better hide their base without even knowing where it was just so he got paid, that asshole." Rage bubbled within me, and the sound of the ocean helped calm me down. "Otherwise they would have been able to find it by now."

I hadn't found out from my own ACE Trainers, given the fact that… well, I didn't talk to them anymore, did I? I was too scared to look them in the face after Lou's death, and I figured they preferred it this way. No, it had been Mira, who had asked her ACE Trainers about it, and Abel had confessed to it when interrogated a while ago.

"So yeah, things are going to blow up, and soon," I sighed. "I want us all to be on the same page before it does. Does anyone have any worries they'd like to share?"

Togekiss and Sunshine tried to speak at the same time, but the dragon let her go first in a show of unusual maturity. She asked that if we had to fight, would killing grunts be off-limits now or not. Funnily enough, Turtonator had been about the ask the same question, just in more vulgar terms of him being tired of holding back.

Electivire, Tangrowth, and even Meltan stirred at the question, carefully watching how I'd answer.

"I think that it won't be off-limits," I exhaled after a few seconds. "No way for us to work otherwise, plus I doubt the ACEs will go with a light hand anyway." Noticing Honey's clenched fist, I quickly added. "Here's how this is going to go differently from the raid, though. I don't want to use Team Galactic being terrible people to be a horrible person in turn."

I paused.

"The grunts, we try to save if possible. Sleep Powder, or just tying them up with vines if they don't give us too much trouble. Their Pokemon, we just knock out. If we can't, then… well, we'll have tried, at least. Of course, that doesn't concern the Commanders. We have blood to collect from Saturn, and knowing Mars, she might come after us. They are not humans, they are things in the shape of people."

Those two, if I could help it, would not get any mercy, though I knew the battles would be difficult and brutal.

Brutal like Byron's, but worse. A notion of understanding passed through me and plastered a rueful smile across my lips. He'd known.

"Either way, unless we have no other choice, no killing. You guys are strong enough to knock out Pokemon from grunts without having to go for the kill. I hope that's a good compromise?"

That seemed to be an easier pill to swallow for Honey and Angel, at least, though Mimi was still displeased. The grass type signed that he'd gotten good at launching spore bombs to target trainers far away, now, so as long as barriers or Protects were broken, he'd be able to take out trainers from afar, and once the head of the Ekans was gone, well… it was a matter of time until we won.

"Perhaps we should account for a scenario if we are ever separated from these 'ACE' Trainers or if they expire," Cass suggested.

"The scenario's the same," I said. "If we're in Mount Coronet, then Galactic has all three Lake Guardians. That means we need to reach the summit and pull them away from the Red Chain's influence whether our guards are dead, missing or not. That, uh, will prove a problem with how light the air gets up there. I'll have an oxygen mask, but you guys…"

Well, the ones I was mostly worried about were Honey and Princess, regarding needing to breathe despite Pokemon being more resilient. All the others would be fine on that front, with even Sweetheart's species having adapted to living high up in mountains. There must have been a way for psychics to solve that, but the fine control required was beyond us at the moment.

Sweetheart grumbled, asking why we couldn't just fly to the summit, recalling the horrid experience we'd had trying to escape Mount Coronet the first time we'd found her.

"Because even discounting the breathing issue, you can't find the summit while flying. Rules get wacky up there, and we'd just be going around in circles. The League agrees, we have to climb the mountain from the inside, as will Team Galactic." She growled, flashing teeth. "Don't be like that. The inside of a mountain is basically one the best places for you to fight."

She nodded, but she wasn't happy about it. The pressure was getting to her. The rock type had been… not in denial, but she'd ignored the fact that Galactic was capable of ending the world up until now, but it was hard to look the other way when the scenario was staring you in the face.

"Mimi?" I probed. "How about staying at the League for a couple days while everything goes down?"

The steel type's eye rolled, and they answered with a resounding no. It was a little tough to understand, but from the few things they'd heard about Mount Coronet's summit, it was somewhere they desperately wanted to see for themselves, and to be honest, I understood. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and was even more important for someone whose life goal was to travel and see unique things. What was at the world's tallest mountain summit? Why did Team Galactic need to go there, to summon Dialga and Palkia? What was its significance? All answers I was dying to have answered, and Mimi was no different. There was respect in Turtonator's eyes for sticking to ideals, but it vanished as soon as it had come.

"I get that," I gently said, walking up to Angel and the steel type. They slid down my arm as soon as I put my hand up. "I really do, but it'll be dangerous, and you're always outside your ball. Plus, it's scary, isn't it? You're scared of Sunshine when he looks at you, for Arceus' sake!"

Mimi crossed their arms and deflated a smidge, but Turtonator growled, saying that I shouldn't walk all over their ideals. If they want to come, they should. Honey yelled at him not to encourage them, but he facepalmed when Sweetheart agreed, saying that she'd do so to whatever he said and that her opinion shouldn't be counted.

Of course, she called him stinky next.

Before I could cut in to stave off whatever argument was going to start, Cass played some kind of cheery song from their catalogue, catching everyone's attention.

"Members of the Royal Court. It is unbecoming of you to stoop to a shouting match when so close to the world's doom."

"Uh, what they said!" I added. "And hey, we have two days left! So if you all ever wanted to do something, now's the time to bring it up."

The answers were… well, they were disappointingly boring. The same as usual— but bigger. Princess wanted to make a castle she could live in for a week, Buddy wanted to go through more books and branch into more topics than history, Sweetheart wanted to destroy Kingambit and beat him to the ground…

I pouted. "You guys suck. You know, usually people would say like, skydiving or something."

"It is unlikely you would be able to book a skydiving appointment within two days."

I threw my arms up. "That was just an example! And how did you even learn what that was?!"

"The Jester was telling me about wanting to go," Cassianus said, two eyes staring at Electivire. "They had to explain it in detail."

Of course, that triggered Tyranitar to whine and say that she wanted to go skydiving too, asking Princess to carry her in the sky immediately. The fairy type, with eyes that could kill, asked if this was some elaborate ploy to assassinate her.

I grinned, content to sink into the background and settled next to Sunshine.

Best we have our fun while we still can.

I sighed when noticing Mimi had wormed themselves out of staying alone at the League.

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Chapter 304 - Turning Point IV


You know how this goes and what the title implies. Turning Point = trigger warning. Last time I put one of these a lot of people just didn't take it seriously/didn't see it, which is why I'm putting it IN the chapter this time, but again, expect something terrible to happen.

Candice's legs shook excitedly under her seat. Damn, this shrimp was good! And Nia said Snowpointers were awful at cooking! What were Eternians good for, huh? Berry pie? They shoved so many of them in there that you totally lost any of the taste from the individual fruits, so what was the point, then?

She wished she could have extended her lunch break by an hour, but then Alex would yell at her and write up a complaint to the League, since she wouldn't be doing her job properly. That little witch was trying to get her fired so she could take over. Candice snapped off half of her shrimp and grumbled. Just because she'd been to the Conference once didn't mean she had the potential to take over. Plus, this was a family business! She wasn't going to hand the Gym over to some punk just because she basically ran the Gym with a few of her cohorts these days…


With the trainer surge in Snowpoint, she barely had any free time, save for this single hour, and tomorrow was going to be a drag, since she'd need to go out and try to capture new critters in the evening after her shift was over, because she didn't have enough to keep up with the current demand and she'd put it off long enough. She was not going to get yelled at again. Usually, Gyms got the majority of their new Pokemon by buying them from breeders, but with them screwing up the Hunters, the efficiency of their breeding program had gone down by… um, there was a number she'd read in a report somewhere, but it had escaped her mind already. One of her Gym Trainers probably knew about it—



Tomorrow was most likely the Red Chain's completion.

Her mood cratered, sapping her of any of her energy— not that she had much left after battling so many kids in a row. Candice's brain was fried. She sprawled over her desk, shoving her head in shrimp. Her tongue licked up another piece and she chewed slowly while her mind settled down. She'd managed to put it in the corner of her mind for weeks, which was something she was very good at, but sometimes, she stepped on a land mine, bringing it back to the forefront of her thoughts all at once, and it was just so overwhelming.

Could she call one of her friends and bug them? Knowing Roark, he finished his lunch break early and was using the time to answer emails or deal with paperwork, that psycho. He was way too trigger-happy with the entire situation, too. Who the hell looked forward to murder that much? Obviously he hadn't said murder, but they all knew he wouldn't feel sad if there were a couple of 'accidents' that slipped in. Maymay looked up to Candice, so looking worried so close to tomorrow would only rattle her. Would Volkner answer the phone…? Probably not unless it was an emergency. Candice didn't want to bother any of the older Gym Leaders, either, and people at the League were busy.

"Guess it has to be Nia."

It was annoying to rely on her this much, but she didn't really have any other choice. Candice shoved the last three pieces of shrimp in her mouth and opened her window, sitting down on the windowsill as snow brushed against her skin and wind blew into her office. The cold hadn't bothered her in a long time, given that her team had been with her for years. She was still supposed to wear warm clothing, but she honestly couldn't be bothered and she hated the materials they were made of. Shorts were comfy.

"Candice," Gardenia instantly said. "I was wondering if you'd ever call. We haven't talked in like a week!"

"You fo realife dat—" she started choking on her food and struggled to get it down. "You do realize that I have hundreds of rabid children trying to get my badge, right? And that I'm running on like four hours of sleep. And that I have to actually work because I have one of my trainers trying to coup me!"

"Why don't you just fire her?"

"Because then I'd have to run the day-to-day at the Gym, and there's no way I can handle that on top of everything else." Candice punched the air. "She's made herself too useful!"

Nia laughed. "Leave it to you to somehow get into that situation, Candice. Maybe if Cynth fires you I'll hire you back as a Gym Trainer in mine."

"Then I'll only be allowed to use Abomasnow."

"You think I won't force you to use the same Gym Pokemon as everyone else? We run a tight ship over here, don't think I'll just let you off that easy."

"You know what, maybe Alex isn't so bad."

There was a beat of silence, and Candice looked out the window. Snowpoint was beautiful, and as always, was blanketed in snow. She wished for once that she could meet the domain holder around here like her grandmother had, but Cynthia had told her that she would just annoy her and get herself killed on the spot. 'Maybe when you mature a little more,' she'd said. Pfft. Snowpoint's port was always busy during the summer, with huge cargo ships going in and out of the place. She'd needed to negotiate with the workers there due to threat of a strike months ago… when Grace was here, if she remembered correctly. It would have been catastrophic for Snowpoint's economy after the winter and the city might have starved if they went on strike.

"Wanna talk about the Mamoswine in the room?" Nia asked.

"It was kind of why I was calling."

"Yes, I knew that already, you always—"

"I'm gonna give you frostbite the next time we see each other if you finish that sentence."

"Feeling under the weather, then?"

"Hmhm, a little. I just… remembered it suddenly, and now I don't know if I'll be able to give it my all during my shift today," Candice quietly said. "I bet the trainers would be happy if they got an easy badge from me, though."

"I'm pretty sure that might actually get you at least suspended. Don't you have to fight some first-year for their eighth badge later today?"

"Meh. I looked at their team and they were cool. Poison and dark type specialist that's been making the rounds a little, and I have a sick plan to ruin their day, but… yeah, I'm gonna have to pull it together, aren't I? Can't let one of my trainers do that battle."

"You can tell them to do the other ones, though. Sure, they'll think less of you, but you need to be in top form."

"I don't think they can actually think less of me. I'm a horrible boss— or you could see me as an awesome boss with quirks that people don't like."

"No one says that last bit," Gardenia chuckled. "To be honest, I doubt Cynthia's even reading the complaint emails. Probably has some poor intern on the job who's taking the entire thing way too seriously because they're scared to anger her."

Candice snorted. "You ever see her angry?"

"Cynth? Nope, just tired or exasperated like everyone else," she said.

"Think she'd be like, silent angry like your Mom? Or do you think she'd blow up and have Garchomp slice through a mountain?"

"I can't imagine Cynthia screaming, ever."

"I kind of want to goad her into it now," Candice snickered. "Do you think that if I'm missing for Renewal Day, she'll yell at me when she finds me?"

"I think she'd look at you with that disappointing thing she does. You know, when she flicks her eyes up for a fraction of a second?"

"Only you catch stuff like that, Nia."

"Yeah, I guess… hey, listen. Uh, when this is all over I have something to tell you that's been on my mind for years, and—"

There was a sound, like a door flinging open. There was another voice at the end of the line— Roland, her stupid best friend and second in command. Candice couldn't make out his words, though, just a lot of shouting and panicking.

"Candice— Candice I have to go!"

"Nia? What's going on?"

Then, light.

Candice turned her head.

Her eyes widened, and her breath caught in her throat.

Snowpoint's port was—

Thirteen minutes ago.

Cass hovered behind me and Justin as we walked at a brisk pace toward the Canalave library. With a day left until things went to crap, it had been his idea to pick up some more books for anyone who'd wanted to keep their mind off things and hand back the ones I'd grabbed for Jellicent, since he had devoured them in mere hours. Personally, I figured that part could have waited, but since he wanted to get out at all costs, I wasn't about to have him go alone when Galactic might strike early. Our pace had begun slowly, but had now turned brisk for whatever reason, and it felt good to be able to keep up with him with my ankle having almost healed completely. I scrolled through Chatter and spoke to Cassianus to pass the time, having learned that Justin liked the quiet. It was when we stopped at a red light, that he first spoke.

"You know," he whispered, "the truth about this outing was that I needed some fresh air… away from all the planning. So I lied."

My lips pressed together. "Oh. Uh, that's okay. I'm happy you're comfortable enough to tell me that."

His tone sped up. "It's just that everyone's been so busy preparing for everything, and I've just been sitting there. Scared when I think about it for too long, but still feeling inadequate. Like I'm not doing enough despite having the power to do so."

The light turned green, and we crossed the street. "There's no shame in hanging back. What you're feeling is… peer pressure. Seeing everyone do something makes you feel like you should, but that's not true, is it?"

"I don't know."

"It isn't," I confirmed, my tone firm. "We went over this, right? It's okay." I linked our arms together and slowed down. "In a few days, this'll be over. Like a bad dream."

His jaw clenched. "Are you trying to convince me or yourself?" he said before pausing. "Sorry, that was uncalled for. I'm just on edge."

I shot down the need to ask him if he wanted me to fix him like I'd put Louis back together. He'd come back multiple times to see me, asking if I could fix his anxiety again as the day approached, but stopped when I told him I had an addiction problem. It hadn't been the plan, at first, but at the time, my two options had either been blurt that out, or say yes, and I'd nearly said the latter, given that I'd been alone at the time and Jellicent wouldn't have been able to stop me.

"I guess Louis feels the same way, huh?"

That remained unanswered, and the way I noticed his face shift into a neutral one meant that he was back to usual. "Maeve wanted a book on human anatomy and as many Pokemon anatomy we could find. Pauline said your chemistry and physics book was too basic, so she wanted another advanced one so she could figure out if she could work with Charizard and Gothitelle…"

"I'll take a look at the anatomy ones too," I said.

He glanced my way. "Denzel wanted to see if we could find books with information about Mount Coronet. That's it."

"Sounds good."

"For how boundless the internet seems to be, it's a wonder these things are still more detailed on paper," Cass said.

"...have you been looking at things online, Cassianus?"

"Query unrecognized. Please try again later."

"Oh, I know you recognized it!" I yelled with a grin. "It's fine, by the way, just don't believe everything you read on there just because it's new stuff."

The Canalave Library came into view soon enough, and since the day of the Sailors' Return was today, everyone was off work and the place was basically full. It was odd to see the library without any decorations when we couldn't go five steps out on the streets without seeing flags with embroidered water types on them, or signs with words and poems about returning from a long voyage at sea. There was nothing but some grey balloons attached to chairs or weighed down on top of bookcases. I had to stop Cass from asking people to make way for the King as soon as we had to stop in front of a small group of people, because according to them, the rules of being quiet in a library were lesser than allowing me to go wherever I pleased. They'd be a horrible patron anywhere.

We took the stairs to the second floor, since we didn't expect the elevator would ever be free and Claydol couldn't squeeze past the entrance anyway. Biology was on the third floor, and information about Mount Coronet would be on the fifth. I filed through the hall, running a finger over the books until I found what we wanted. There were actually too many books on Pokemon anatomy, though these were mostly about common ones people could find like Shinx, Bidoof, or Lillipup. Not that we were expecting Galactic grunts to have any dragon types anyway, given that every time they'd been fought, the majority of them had owned easy-to-access Pokemon.

"We can't grab all of these, can we? I mean, our bags aren't big enough for everything."

"Wait, is that… the new book on Pokemon Care?" Justin whispered.

He scurried to the side while I waited for him at the end of the aisle and flipped through the pages of this book, looking at the inside of a human body.

"'Complete Pokemon Care Manual - All Types'," he listed, smile slowly rising. "I mean, I know not every type of Pokemon is going to be the same, but it goes in-depth with the basics. This would be great for Louis' sanctuary, don't you think?"

I looked up at him and gawked at the thickness of the book. It must have been eight hundred pages at least.

"Is it new?" I asked.

"It was written by a few of the Hunters from Solaceon who wanted to pass on the knowledge they'd gotten taking care of so many Pokemon for so many years," he smiled. "So technically, our actions there made this book come to be."

"Sure, grab it. Checking out books is free anyway, and I think it'll cheer him up some—"

My ears popped.

The world around me burned, swallowed by a cacophony of explosions and fire. The air grew thick with dust, fragments of wood and dense smoke. I flinched, closing my eyes and dropping my books, expecting my entire body to be burned to ashes, but none of that came. Instead, sound around me died, save for the ringing in my ears, and the temperature returned to normal. My clothes were soaked with sweat and my body ached, but I was alive. The metal around my wrist froze in place.

I opened my eyes again.

What just happened?

I couldn't see a foot in front of me. Cass had erected a barrier around us and there was an Indeedee here as well who had appeared from nowhere. The air reeked of burning pages and the sickly-sweet scent of charred wood. The walls trembled as the fire consumed the shelves, and the heat pressed against the barrier like an invisible force. To my left, the floor collapsed, swallowing a chunk of a broken bookshelf as it tumbled to a lower floor.

Still, I couldn't hear anything. There was only trembling breath, the shaking of my feet against the intact ground under me, shoes squeaking against the slick tiles, and the ringing in my ears. Chest rising and lowering slowly, fingers trembling and teeth chattering. What is happening?

From the second explosion billowed darkness that was blacker than pitch, only seconds later, smothering some of the fire but rattling Claydol some. Indeedee held firm, however, her eyes glowing against the void. It was only as these next few seconds passed that I gathered my bearings enough to have a single thought.


I couldn't see him, with the darkness, fire, debris and smoke— Justin! I had to see if he was safe. This Indeedee— it probably belonged to my newest ACE Trainer who had replaced Lou.

I spoke, but I couldn't hear my own words, reminding me of the time Sunshine had damaged my hearing when I'd first caught him. It was only then that I realized Cass had been speaking into my mind all along, but I'd been in too much shock to respond. It was so haunting, to see all of this destruction, this burning, but to be unable to hear any of it because of the barrier.

It would be unwise to move. Your trainers are still assessing the situation, and I am afraid we will not be able to Teleport out of the building, Indeedee said, her voice crisp in my head.

I frowned, screaming that he was right there in front of us! I tried to grab at the psychic's shoulders to shake her, but instead, my body froze where I stood.

Goodness, do you want to die? she said. I am listening to orders. I'm sorry if this isn't what you want, but reinforcements will be arriving shortly as soon as the library is cleared. Indeedee paused. Or what remains of it.

The minutes passed agonizingly slowly, and my hearing slowly returned while a pit started to form in my stomach. He was fine, he had to be. The grip around me loosened, and I stood there, eyes staring into the distance where he'd stood seconds earlier, holding up a book with a smile on his face.

There was a way to figure out if he was fine.

My empathy.

I closed my eyes, and the world screamed. Emotions shone brightly through the smoke and flames, even if they were somewhat dimmed due to the dark type energy swirling about.

As I gazed through the translucent barrier erected by Claydol and Indeedee, emotions unleashed like a torrent of anguish, and the hues painted a heartbreaking masterpiece of collective suffering. The pain was palpable, a searing heat coating my brain that mirrored the physical flames consuming the library's walls. I clenched at my head and ignored the emotions trying to worm their way into me and focused on this aisle.

There was nothing.


Was he…

No. The darkness was fucking with my empathy like it had during the tests It had done at Lake Verity, and there was so much more of it now, and it was making it difficult to focus. Or maybe he'd managed to run through the fire— the explosion had been closer to me than it had him. He'd be burned if he had, but the ACEs must have picked him up—

There, Indeedee said with a sigh.

A neon green wind swept through the floor, eliminating the darkness in one fell swoop, and water fell around us from a Pelipper flying in the distance, smothering the flames in our vicinity. I had not seen Maxwell in what felt like ages, but he looked the same as always, save for his missing hand. His dark hair was full of ash and wood splinters, and after his mouth moved, Indeedee put down the barrier. The heat hit me like a truck, as did the sound of burning and collapsing wood. There were sirens outside, both from the police and fire trucks.

And screams.

So many screams.

Gothitelle's words rang in my mind. Fire. My vision swam, and I realized my throat felt so terribly dry as I struggled to stay up.

"Building's been cleared. No enemy forces present, and the darkness isn't being sustained," Maxwell said. His voice was still distant, even if he was standing right here. I could barely hear out of my left ear. "Recall your Claydol and Meltan."

In a daze, I followed his instructions.

"Indeedee, get her out of here."

"Wait, Justin—"

"Playtime's over, Ms. Pastel," he grimly spoke. "We're in charge."

I was gone.

Teleported to what looked like a bunker, though somehow Indeedee hadn't followed me here. The walls were solid concrete, and a low hum resonated through the space, emanating from vents hanging on the ceiling. Lights flickered overhead, and I took a deep breath, inhaling the stale air. Everyone was here. Cecilia rushed toward me as soon as I made it, hugging me even though my body was covered in ash and soot.

"Thank the Legendaries," she gasped, her hands wound tightly around me.

"Where where are we?"

"The League until further notice," Chase said. "The entire region just went to shit, Grace."

The rest of my friends greeted me, though the mood was obviously somber. Louis was pale, sitting on a green couch laid against one of the walls of the room. Maeve was in a corner of the room, giving a pep talk to her Pokemon. Pauline was quietly on the phone with who I assumed to be her mother while Emilia could only stare at the floor, though it was not in a helpless, traumatized manner like Louis. She was preparing herself for what was to come.

"Where's Justin?" Denzel asked.

I'm going to vomit.

"I don't know," I forced out. "We were in the library together, but… I think he was hurt."

The room was silent, but the sheer pain going through our faces was impossible to miss.

"He's probably at the hospital, I think," I added. "You know, the explosion wasn't as big where he was standing, and by the time I was Teleported out the authorities were already here. And my ACEs are there, too. He should behe should be fine."

"I… see," Cece said, letting go of me.

Louis exhaled, his body sagging. "Oh, thank Arceus."

"Do we— can we get any news about what's going on?" Emilia stuttered with a hoarse voice.

Denzel shifted uncomfortably. "We should ask about Justin. There's a button we can press if we need anything, but it might take a while for them to get to us since I assume the League is on lockdown—"

"Denzel, please," she begged, looking into his eyes with a thousand-yard stare. "I— just, please."

"It'd be best if we don't bother them," I quickly agreed. "Justin is okay."

My best friend looked at Chase, then at Cecilia, but she gave a half nod that felt fake. Why didn't they believe me? I wanted to ask, but now wasn't the time. Not now. Later. Yeah. He was okay. It would be better to focus on what we could learn for now.

Denzel scrolled through his phone, updating us on what had happened. Apparently every city in Sinnoh had been bombed, with major landmarks and monuments having been the main target. The Canalave Library, the Hearthome Contest Hall, the Sunyshore Mall and Boardwalk, Oreburgh's Fossil Museum, Snowpoint's port… the list went on and on until Mira asked him to stop.

"Just stop," she repeated. "We get it, the entire region's been fucking bombed. You're just bringing the mood down for no reason, we don't need to know the specifics."

"Oh. Sorry," he muttered. I'd never heard him speak like this. It was like he was trying to keep himself from crying when he'd been fine just earlier. Barely keeping himself together.

"The specifics of this are actually very important," Pauline said, having now hung up from her mother. "These were all picked to kill as many people as possible. Mommy says Hearthome's in chaos. The library wasn't the only explosion in Canalave, either, I saw another bomb go off from my Pokemon Center window."

Mira grabbed her own arm, almost like a self-hug. "I… I know, but it's… just slow down."

"I can't, and I'm sorry." His face twisted into a pitying grimace, and he kept scrolling. "No news of a bombing in Twinleaf, Grace. I think it wasn't important enough to bomb for them."

My heart dropped. "My Dad—"

"Is fine," Mira said. "I'm close with Carlos and he checked on the building, it wasn't bombed. You better send your parents a text to tell them you're okay."

I nodded, but the relief I'd expected to come never came with Justin gnawing at the head of my mind. While I did so, the conversation continued.

"How the hell did the League miss this?" Louis asked, his voice straining. His hands were clenched atop his lap, wound together so tightly they were white. "This is… awful."

"You can't expect them to have every building guarded up, especially when a lot of their forces are holed up in Veilstone, the Lakes and Mount Coronet," Cecilia said. I saw her wipe a tear out the corner of her eye, but they… kept coming. "I— I'm sorry, I need to go to the bathroom."

Sobs accompanied her retreat, and when I tried to follow her, Chase called out to me.

"Let her be for a second," he said.

"She needs me—"

"You're not in the right… headspace right now," he interrupted.

I took a step forward. "What does that fucking mean, Chase?"

"Let's focus on what's important," he said.

"No. Tell me what it fucking means," I spat, getting up in his face. "Tell. me."

"Williams? Any help?"

"Let's, uh, stay on topic," Denzel continued. "The League was stretched thin, and I assume the shit security these buildings have— if they have any, wasn't enough to catch the bombs. Only Veilstone was spared of any bombings—"

"Stop ignoring me."

All faces turned toward me.

"If you have something to say, then say it," I said.

Denzel approached, trying to put a hand over my shoulder, but I slapped it away. "Say it."

"You, Emilia, Louis," Chase said. "You're in denial. We saw footage of the Canalave Library, and half of that building is collapsed—"

Emi rose from her seat. "No, fuck off with that," she screamed, pointing at him. "You have no right, Chase. We don't know, okay? We don't know if he's dead, so you trying to be all fucking macho and uncaring, trying to act like we do know, it's getting on my damn nerves."

"Grace was there," Louis said as he gripped the side of his couch. "I think she would know more than you."

"Then we could just ask, couldn't we?" Chase frowned.

"Not now. Not when they need every person out there," I said. "Plus, they might not know, with all the confusion and stuff."

"Come on!" he barked. "You're just fucking scared! You know damn well that makes no sense—"

"Just be fucking human for once," Emilia said. "Just let us have this," she sobbed. "Please."

There was a flash of red as Maeve recalled her team. "It wouldn't hurt to believe in the best-case scenario until proven otherwise, wouldn't it?" Her stone-cold exterior cracked for a second, and it would take a while to come back up.

I stood firm. "It won't be proven otherwise. He's hurt, no doubt, but I didn't— there was nothing there."

There was a pause.

"I thought they were all holed up like Rattata in Veilstone," Chase said.

"Evidently, they had people left out here who never got on the League's radar," Mira groaned. "Not even fighters, either."

"Why would they even do this?" Pauline asked. Her face was pale, and just like Emilia, she struggled to sit still now. There was a back-and-forth motion to her body, like she was comforting her own self. "What's the point in all of this death?"

"They occupy the Gym Leaders and pull from League forces, maybe?" Denzel said. His eyes were wet, but he was holding it together. "I don't think Cynthia would even pull out that many troops, but anything helps when Galactic is at a disadvantage."

"Cynthia would let the entire region burn to smithereens before weakening her position," I said. "This is a fool's errand."

"Then to the public, she looks like she's fooling around," Chase said. "You know what that means, right?"

"Doesn't matter how strong she is, she's out of power as soon as this is done," Emilia spoke under her breath. "She'll be too unpopular. Her legacy will be ruined. Shit."

"She's not the kind of woman to care about that," I said.

"Okay. That bodes well, then," Louis nodded.

"How's the rest of the world reacting?" Mira asked.

"Everyone reacted fast. Condemnation at the attacks and condolences from every country, even Galar." Denzel frowned at his phone. "Indigo's already pledging to give money to help with the rebuilding, and there's talk of loosening the sanctions from Galar… not much else, though. It's too recent."

I sighed. "Any information about the Gym Leaders—"

There was a louder sob from the bathroom, and the room went quiet.

"I'm going."

This time, no one stopped me. Instead, they returned to talking about the situation, and I heard of a casualty toll in the thousands before I was out of reach.

That number would still be ticking up throughout the coming days.

I bit the inside of my lip hard enough to taste metal.

The bunker itself was arranged more like a hotel room than what I'd expected from a place like this, except larger, save for a few bits like the old lights. Hell, there was even artwork on the walls that I would have looked at, had I not been in a hurry. I passed by a main chamber holding rows of sturdy metal shelves, each stocked with neatly organized supplies—canned goods, water containers, medical kits, and other essentials.

After knocking, I put my ear to the door, but remembered that I'd lost my hearing in this one. There was still a subtle ring to it in the background, but it wasn't like I could do anything about it. I put the other ear to the door and heard crying.


There was a startled, choking sound, and the cries stopped. "I'll be out in a minute," she said after a pause. "I just need to… I need to…"

"Can I come in—"

"Yes please."

I tried opening the door, which she'd evidently forgotten she had locked, and she opened it from the inside. Cecilia was a mess. Her hair was frazzled and her face was full of tears and snot. I crouched and wrapped my hands around her, and she cried on my shoulder.

"We'll be okay," I whispered. "Justin will be okay."

"I don't know, Grace," she sobbed. "I've known him since we were kids. We'd see each other at these horrible get-togethers when I'd come to Sinnoh… I don't know. I'm trying to put it all in a box, but it's not working, Grace. I can't— it feels like I'm missing a part of myself that I'll never get back."

I loosened the hug and looked into her eyes, ignoring the knot in my throat. "He'll be fine. He is fine. We'll visit him when this is all over, okay? I promise."

Cecilia nodded in silence, her body leaning against mine. "Hold me."

She was warm. For a second, I imagined her lying dead, a charred corpse at my feet from one of the bombs, and I stopped moving while her breath trembled and her chest rose and fell.

"I love you," I whispered. "We'll make it through this."

"I'm sorry. Usually I can do this," she murmured. I could feel her breath on my ear. "Usually I'm strong enough to pull through, and I'm the one you can rely on, but when I imagined him dead, it was…"

"He's alive."

There was a pause for a few seconds.

"Let's not ask, though," she said.

"Yes. They're busy."

"But if he isthat."

Dead, she meant. My body flinched like it had been struck. He wasn't, because that would mean he had died on my watch. He was alive.

"Then I will kill every Team Galactic member I come across," she said, her voice steadfast and sharp like iron. "And I will look the other way if anyone does the same. This is an emergency, after all."

She'd put it all in a box now.

I let her rise, and watched her wash her face.

"I'm gonna wash the ash off my face too," I said. "I'll be out in a minute."

She nodded. "Thank you, love. For being here."

Cece outstretched her hand, and I grabbed it. We held still for a moment, hands clasped tight.

Then, she left, closing the door behind her.

The plastic gloves came slowly out of my bag.

I wrapped them around my hands and found a bathing glove to smoothen the process.

I turned on the faucet. The sound of the water splashing against the sink felt like static noise.

I wet my hands, rubbing my face. It came out brown and grey as it circled around the sink.

I let my hand hover over the faucet, but it trembled when I tried to turn off the water.

I looked up at the mirror.

Clothes covered in ash and smoke, hair singed at its edges by the first micro-second of the explosion. Arm and body scarred by cuts and burns.

A blank stare, head and body utterly still, save for my nose flaring with every deepening breath. Eyes wide open. My ears rang again, but there was no explosion.

They just kept ringing.

And ringing.

And ringing.

I stared at myself once more. My hands gripped the wet ceramic. My face tightened. My shoulders broadened.

I barely look human. Something itches under my skin.

But despite everything.

It's still you.

I turned off the tap and tied my hair up.

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Interlude - Broken Things
As always, trigger warning. Expect bad things, violence, etc.


The thing shivers, hugging itself as its breath twists in front of it, turning to mist as it wished it to be the week-end already. Today is a day like any other, and it does not feel particularly excited about it. It is a monster borne out of banality.

Jupiter stared at her burner phone and whined. "I'm freezing my tits off here! Can we just go already?" She hopped from one foot to the other, her white boots burying themselves deep in the snow. "You'd think these uniforms would be better than this. I really should have written up a complaint… guh!" she groaned when Tangrowth slapped her on the back with a loud gurgle, probably telling her to stop complaining.

Charon grunted. "Your Tangrowth is right, for once. The time will soon come to strike."

"You'd think we'd have gotten more than thirty minutes before the League busted in after deactivating the dark emitters," Jupiter said.

"We knew that they would find us as soon as we did. And we got the majority of our people out regardless, far more than we expected. I supposed the bombings were good for that, at least."

"Doesn't mean I can't complain about it," she smiled. A gust of wind blew past her and she leaned against her Tangrowth, who sighed at the sudden contact. Despite that, though, he didn't push her away. She'd play ball with him later as a thanks.

Adrianna would be lying if she said she wouldn't miss their base. Underground rooms spread all throughout the city deep enough to be invisible to all empaths, only possible to navigate with the Teleporters they'd set up after Charon reproduced the tech they'd stolen from the power plant at Valley Windworks. Then, there were the dark emitters that Abel had helped improve so they were hidden from view, just in case. The old man was depressing to be around when she wasn't in the right mood, but he was a genius at incorporating TE into human technology and somehow had made it all work with his team of scientists— granted, the majority of them had probably been arrested or killed by now. That was fine, given that they didn't know the plan. No one but the Commanders did. If the League had caught one part of the base, it would instantly have gotten cut off from the rest, like amputating a limb undergoing necrosis. There were deadman switches set up for it to blow as well, but they'd had to take those explosives away for obvious reasons, now.

Behind her, one thousand and five hundred grunts stood at attention, all in their galactic uniforms. They had to be, on a day so important. Eyes set forward without a single movement or word, and Pokeballs at their belt. Saturn had done well to drill and train them into a veritable force, teaching them the art of tactics, teamwork and all of that yawn-inducing jazz. Jupiter had basically been quiet quitting for the last few months anyway since they'd had no more money to play with and hadn't really been paying attention. The bombs had been a great idea of hers, but they'd run out of material soon enough and had to resort to Pokemon using Self-Destruct at maximum capacity.

Which meant that non-ghosts had no doubt died permanently in their efforts, but humans weren't the only ones who had bought into the cult. The Pokemon had, too, and they expected to be reborn in a utopia without strife. Some of them had been good enough to mix darkness in to make the flames harder to extinguish and delay any efforts to Teleport in or out as well, though those were rarer than most.

Legendaries, she was bored.

Jupiter sometimes liked to pass the time by looking at the grunts' faces. These were the best and the brightest Cyrus had selected to bring into his new world, after all, so she figured that she might as well see what he'd seen in them other than a lot of them were creepy as hell.

Of course, the answer was obviously loyalty, fervor, shedding the fear of death, et cetera et cetera, but where was the fun in not pretending you didn't know the answers? There were the ones who had killed off their emotions and just wanted to commit to their duty, the ones who were fanatics who'd be proud to die for Cyrus' cause and knew that he would bring them back after creating his new world. Those who couldn't help but smile or laugh at the prospect of being so close to bliss that they could nearly taste it.

Or at least, that was what was promised.

Sometimes you had a mix of all of them, really. They were kind of boring, if again, not creepy enough to give her the jitters. There were some gems hidden beneath, though. People unique to shine through and catch her attention.

The girl closest to her, for example. Young, blonde, average height and green eyes— pretending to look like she wasn't terrified, but doing a terrible job at it. She was one of Mars', though Cyrus had assigned her to Jupiter's command instead so the other Commander wouldn't get distracted down south. She'd been tormented for months due to her resemblance to Grace Pastel, and Mars had even put scars in the right place, too. Burned the side of her face and body, cut deep into her arm and added a few of the shallow ones that were missable to the naked eye. Poor girl was barely hanging by a thread, but she wanted to live, so she'd try her best anyway.

Adrianna felt bad, though not enough to actually do anything about it, and she knew it was wrong. She had to be responsible, though, and so it was in her interest to soothe the girl's worries so she and her Pokemon lasted as long as possible in the coming battle. Her Musharna was among their best barrier users, after all, and could put a wide range of people to sleep with a single look.

She turned toward her. "Girl— what's your name?"

"G—Grace Pastel the fourth, Commander."

Oh, there'd been four of her? Where the hell had Mars hidden the rest? Jupiter wanted to frown— no, that was wrong. She figured a normal response to this information would be to frown, though her body didn't follow suit. You could really never know, with that kid.

"I mean your real name," Jupiter smiled, patting her on the shoulder. "You can tell me, nothing will happen to you."

For a moment, she looked around at her cohorts, who ignored her, given that they were barely people anymore. Then, to Charon and Adrianna. She probably thought this was a trap, but she'd be stupid to think she had been fooling anyone. The only reason she was still here and not dead or in some League jail cell was because Mars had taken a liking to her and Cyrus knew he needed to keep her fellow Commander loyal by giving her something to chew on, be it new toys or a fraction of his attention for a minute or two every few weeks. She figured he was already heading toward Mount Coronet with his elite team, given that he hadn't been Teleported out of their base. The people accompanying him were their strongest grunts, on the level of… well, Jupiter had never really been great at estimating power, but she supposed the average kid would try to slot them in terms of badge level.

"Clara…" the meek girl finally answered.

"Clara! That's a pretty name," Jupiter gently said. She wrapped an arm around the girl and whispered in her ear. "Listen, you've been through a lot, haven't you?"

Charon brought up a long-range walkie-talkie-type thingie to his mouth, and a gruff voice came through, interrupting the two. His Porygon Z was extending their range of communication region-wide with the help of his Rotom, who was inside the device in a dormant state. That wasn't the most surprising bit, though. It was his own voice, he was talking to.

"Second wave of bombings came through with a forty-seven percent success rate instead of ninety-eight," he said. "Looks like they caught on fast. The third wave is most likely going to peter out completely."

"Charon, Clara and I having a moment," Adrianna sighed.

His eye twitched. "On this momentous day, you—"

"Charon, it's Friday," she rolled her eyes. "Be a good boss and let her half-ass her job for a while. Her shift is almost over."

He wanted to talk back, but Tangrowth threw some snow in his face, and that was that. Would have been funny if it broke his glasses, too. The grass type had grabbed on older, deeper snow that hugged the side of trees. The kind of frost that was horrible to get hit by and that had your car skidding in the mornings, forcing you to drive excruciatingly slowly while a crazy fucker honked behind you, as if they weren't in the same boat and both late for work.

"It's… Monday," Clara said.

"Think about it like a metaphor," Jupiter explained, her hands outstretched as if she was showing something off. "This year was like an entire week where your boss has you work overtime every day to finish a project that you have nowhere near enough time to complete. You're working your ass off, sleeping at the office and your colleagues are incompetent." She stopped, and for a moment, she was back to fifteen years ago.

Tired. Alone. Cold. Living life in a daze, coming home to a small, dark apartment at the end of it all. It had started slowly, at first. She'd slept through her five alarms and would be late for her presentation. Then she'd driven over the speed limit and gotten stopped by cops, arriving nearly half an hour late with her superiors only waiting for her.

Then she realized she hadn't saved her slides. She'd been too tired and closed the app without it, and back then, there was no auto-save feature. She'd embarrassed herself in front of all of the company, but it wasn't that, which broke her.

No, it was when Sarah Nash used Adrianna's mistakes as a way to push her out of leading the Party Planning Committee.

The only thing she had ever enjoyed.

The world had collapsed under her feet.

But she decided to break herself instead— twist herself with her Skitty's help until she could live instead of ending it all.

Fuck you, Sarah Nash, Jupiter smiled. She still worked in that very same place in Snowpoint, which had conveniently been targeted by one of her bombs. Petty office politics might have been something she hated, but it was also her lifeblood.

So yes, she had murdered someone for it fifteen years later. And maybe she wanted to end this world in large part because of Sarah Nash. Sue her!

Jupiter continued. "But today is Friday, Clara. This is our endgame. It's like you're looking at the time, and it's so close to five in the evening. People are starting to pack their stuff all around you and your boss has already left for the day, right? You're almost there, so you only have to push through and you'll be reborn."

The teenager nodded. "Thank you. Um, it's a little confusing, but it helps."

"Nothing confusing about it. Just look forward to the week-end. Away from your boss."

There, that ought to have done it. Clara was standing a little straighter now, and her fears had been alleviated some. People were so interesting sometimes. Thank the Legendaries, too, because otherwise, she would have died of boredom long ago. She was no Mars, but Jupiter liked to see what made people tick sometimes. How they would react to her, depending on how she acted.

"No movements from the Lakes?" she asked Charon.

"None that we can see. There hasn't been a significant increase in League Trainers in cities, so if I had to guess, they're hunkering down—" there was a coughing fit, dry until he spat a glob of spit and blood in the snow. "The good news is, the Gym Leaders are helping, so that's people we won't have to worry about."

"They could Teleport in."

The scientist facepalmed. "If they Teleport in after we attack, that means we can Teleport in as well. They'll have dark types swarming the place to prevent that."

"And if they do come anyway? That Candice is within distance to fly here."

"Then that's what you're here for, Jupiter," Charon said. "You kill her."

Adrianna sighed. "Killing an ice type specialist in her element? That is so much work, man."

Was it too late for a change of career?

"Hang on tight. We will be starting soon," Charon said.

"Guess it just has to be done."

The thing grins, a twisted and broken grimace so tightly wound that it strains its face. Today is the best day of its life, the apex of its existence. Everything had led to this. It is a monster borne out of loyalty and vanity.

The sun shines brightly on Saturn's face.

His joy bubbled up like a twisted carnival inside him. The laughter that spilled out felt unhinged, a rollercoaster ride careening towards madness. The world seemed so colorful today, so vibrant. Had trees always been so beautiful? The way the bark careened and twisted itself into branches, the way dew from last night's rain hung to their leaves. The way the smell of grass permeated through his nostrils. Oh, the softness of the mud against his boots!

Saturn moaned, his hands rubbing his neck as he squirmed in place.

Today was such a beautiful day! It was a peculiar sort of happiness only Saturn could comprehend, because only he and Cyrus saw how ugly the world was. How if you peeled at the surface, horrors would reveal themselves to you, the unfairness, the sheer arrogance of it all. Faces that contorted with expressions that reeked of insincerity, a masquerade of pretense that sickened him. Buildings that stood as monuments to humanity's imperious aspirations, cold and indifferent structures in a world devoid of genuine warmth. The air itself was always rancid, polluted not by industry, for Saturn could not care less about that, but by the faults of human nature. It had him nauseous on the best of days, but it had been long since he had walked in a city.

No one else but Cyrus understood. Not even his 'fellow' Commanders, if he could even see them as equals. For Jupiter, this was a way to pass the time. For Mars, it was a game, and for Charon, it was a deep desire to see his dead little sister, who Saturn had no doubt was just as deranged and insincere as the rest of humanity. They didn't see the artistry in it. The fact that they were rebuilding the universe from zero.

"The second bombing had a success rate of forty-seven percent," Charon said.

His body was a distorted one, flickering in the light. A hologram AI projected by his Porygon. Saturn knew that once, Charon had tried to recreate his deceased sister as an artificial intelligence, but failed to capture what truly made her, her. This was the same case. He was Charon, but subtly not. It did not matter, though, so long as he kept him informed of what was happening around the region. They were a few miles away from the Lake with one thousand one hundred and fifty-six grunts in tow, hidden off-route and under the cover of a forest so the League's scouts would have difficulty catching them without a psychic capable of sensing them. Bringin them to this location had been a hassle of logistics, with having to use hundreds of psychics with linked minds to make it happen. Even then, some grunts had been… lost in the transit. Nevertheless, Saturn had theorized that they would hole into their Lakes like rats, so terrified of losing even one of these so-called Guardians.

Because if they lost a single one,

Their chances grew significantly lower. Using a Legend's full power was, according to Charon and his team, off the table with a chain this incomplete, but this was Mesprit's gems they had used, so they still banked on the fact that capturing it would leave way to at least subtle use of its capabilities. Enough to turn the tide, at the very least, and enough to hopefully use barriers and Teleport, because there was no way they would ever be given enough time for all their psychics to whisk them away again, especially when they'd be tired. Of course, they didn't have the chain with them, but they had to act like they did, and get close enough to instantly take control of the Legends when they did get access to the chain.

Not that Saturn expected the League to win. They were why the world was so ugly. The rigidness of life, the way they had tried to keep him on a straight and narrow path. Go to school, turn fifteen, be a trainer for a few years and get some badges, fail to make it a career, retire and get a normal job, find a partner, get married, have children, slave away until you die—

No. He couldn't. Every day of his life, something had felt wrong. Like an itch he couldn't scratch, or subtle shapes at the edge of his vision he couldn't make out. He had been lost, convinced that he was the one who had been born wrong until he met Cyrus.

And together, they would cleanse the world of this.

"Saturn?" Charon probed.

"Excellent news!" Saturn beamed, his smile widening further. "The world will soon be cleansed of all that is ugly, Charon."

He took a while to answer. "Stay put. We will be starting soon."

The man nodded, barely able to contain his excitement. What would life be like, in their new world? Would it always be as beautiful as it is today? More beautiful? Was that even possible? He closed his eyes and tried to imagine it, just for an instant. Oh, the sheer freedom he felt in that moment was enough to shiver in excitement.

But he had a job to do.


One of his grunts stepped forward, handing him a megaphone. Saturn released his Exploud, who looked just as gleeful for the day their sacred Cyrus had wrought. The normal type closed his large mouth, and the world stirred, containing the sound of Saturn's voice to the vicinity so they wouldn't be heard. The Commander turned to face his army. For years, he had drilled them. Turned them into the best they could be. While the other members— the ones not selected to get into their new world— sacrificed themselves to bring success to Team Galactic, he had trained the people in front of him, keeping them safe. These, along with the other troops assaulting the Lake and the ones currently with Cyrus, were the only ones left. Team Galactic's elite troops, most of them ready to go toe to toe with the average League soldier, trained in their tactics and formations.

It would not be enough. They didn't have the numbers or the experience for this fight, but they had dedication to the cause.

And they did not need to win. Just to get close enough for a loss not to matter.

Saturn inhaled.


The grunts stomped their foot twice on the ground and saluted as one.

"Today, we take the first step in the creation of our new world!" Saturn declared. "In just a few minutes, the assault on Lake Valor will begin. I will not lie to you, my fellow soldiers. If Cynthia Collins is at this Lake, the odds of us succeeding is zero."

He let the words settle in for a moment. There was still no weakness in their eyes, or at least any he could see. Good.

"But even if this assault is a loss," he began again, "even if we are all slaughtered by her and her Elite Four, we will prevail!" Saturn yelled, raising a fist to the air. "We will buy enough time for our plan to come to fruition. Do not fear death, for that is just a temporary state of being! Throw yourselves into battle! If all of your Pokemon are killed, then pick up a stone and smash it in a soldier's head! Gouge his eyes with your fingers, bite off his skin, fight! I don't want to hear 'I am holding my position'. We're not holding an Arceus damned thing. Let them do that. We're advancing constantly until we get close enough to get Azelf under control."

There were cheers, each more fervent than the last. Saturn allowed the sound to sweep him off his feet and gripped his megaphone. It's like I was born for this. Born to shine beauty upon the world and lead.

"When future generations hear of this day in our new world, they will sing our names!"
Saturn screamed.

Yes. Today was a beautiful day.

The thing has nothing but fun on its mind, and hopes it's not going to get distracted by the excitement murder brings it, lest it angers its master. Today is the start of the upswing in its life. It is a monster borne out of love and loneliness.

Mars was currently pouting.

"Can we go yet?"

"Patience, Mars," Charon said. "Samus, Elena, how's the chain looking? No side effects?"

In front of her, two people in thick, hazmat suits handled the chain with utmost care, only grabbing it with pincers that looked like they were made of steel, but that Charon kept correcting as lead. Then she'd say, 'lead is metal, Charon, I read it in a book!' and he'd say that she'd called it steel, not metal. Blegh, who cared, anyway? She listened to them spew some techno babble she had stopped trying to understand long ago and kicked her feet up in the air. She was lying on top of Star— her Clefable's stomach and waiting until the real Charon up north gave her the go ahead, and she was just so bored! Why was it, that time passed so slowly when you looked forward to something? Plus, she could be having fun right now, sowing chaos in the cities, but noooo you have to stay put Mars! And we'll throw the Red Chain on top of your lap as a bonus, to make sure you can't waste any time or have any fun when assaulting the military base around Lake Verity.

"Good," Charon said. "You may now conceal it."

She didn't even have Grace Pastel the fourth to have fun with. Originally, she'd been meant to be her temporary sister until she got her hands on the real thing, but like the others, Mars had found her lacking in many ways, so she'd tormented her instead. It reminded Mars of the good old days at the Power Plant, when she'd first laid her eyes on Grace, though her love for her had evolved and changed in many ways. Gee, she missed her so much! But they'd be reunited soon for sure. There was no way they wouldn't meet again before everything was over, and she would get her to join her family! Mars had so many things to ask and tell her she could explode!

Oh! Dusky was back. She could tell from the way the grunts around her paled or shrank back away from her. She'd forgotten how many she had, but it was barely over two thousand, if she remembered correctly. Saturn's best and brightest. To be honest, she had no idea what they were capable of, she hadn't been involved in their training like Juju or he had.

"Did you find her?" Mars beamed, sliding off Clefable's belly. "Did you? Did you? Did you?" Her feet tippy-tapped the ground in excitement.

Dusky did not appear, otherwise he would have soured the grunts' moods, but they could communicate, even then, though he would never tell her why, that meanie.

There was a deep, ghostly wail, almost a whisper, and Mars pouted.

"What? She was gone?" the girl groaned. "Did they evacuate her…? Crap, this is all your fault, Charon!"

She kicked in his direction, though her foot phased through his leg and landed on more dirt. The pink-haired man just stared at her in disappointment.

"You should already be happy that I let you send that monster off," he said. "You went looking for the girl's mother, and you didn't find her. Now get ready to fulfill your duty, you petulant child."

"Just because you're not here doesn't mean you can talk that way to me," Mars said, her eyes sharpening. She looked down at the old man and tilted her head. "I've seen what makes you squirm. So what if you bring your dead sister into the New World? You think I won't find a way to kill her again? Even if Cyrus forbids it and I can't there are many more ways to hurt someone."

She grinned when he shrunk and reveled in her victory. Hologram or not, his personality was still in there. There was nothing like pressing someone and making them squirm in fear at the sight of you.

"Plus," she said, leaning against her Clefable. "Dusky got her grandma's soul anyway. Guess she refused to leave the house. I don't think Grace and her were close because she never talks or posts about her online, but it's something. I need any edge I can get to convince her to be my sister."

Charon looked at her, his face slightly dismayed. "Did your Dusknoir get seen?"

"He says no, relax!" Mars waved a hand dismissively. "Plus, who cares if he had? They know we're coming today anyway."

"He could have been followed, you daft child!" Charon roared. "Just… stay quiet and prepare your team for the coming assault."

How annoying. She wanted to grab her knife and shank him in the back, but again, he wasn't real. Though she supposed she could have Dusky dissolve the entire thing, given the entire hologram was supported by an array of Porygon, but then Cyrus would dismiss her.

So she didn't get to kill her mother, then. Her father's apartment had apparently been too well-guarded to blow up, and despite Mars insisting they target Pokemon Centers to get her friends in the blast, it had been deemed too risky, and they were too resistant to attacks such as these. Things were not going according to plan. The only other opportunity she'd have at getting them killed was if they met again in Mount Coronet. Then, when they found each other again, she'd target her Pokemon, too.

Kill enough of them, rip them away from her one by one, and eventually, Grace would break. Mars would be there to pick up the pieces and ask her to help them recreate the world. They'd all be able to come back! She would get to be so happy again! What would be the point in saving the world if there was no one left in it for her?

Soon, she wouldn't be lonely anymore.

A cold brush on her shoulder from Dusky snapped her out of her thoughts, and Clefable created some sparkles with a snap of her fingers. Mars got on her tip-toes and giggled, rubbing the fairy type in between the ears on the top of her head, just like she liked. Star squeaked, her eyes tightly shut, and she purred when Mars added scritches to the mix.

"Let's leave some for Mr. Wiggly, yes?" she said. "You know what, pets for everyone!"

Mars released her entire team, and Charon couldn't complain given that they'd see use soon. She placed her Bellossom on her shoulder, and the grass type hugged the side of her head while Mars rubbed her cheek. Bella had always liked to be carried around like a baby, after all. Snuggles liked them under his chin, though you had to watch for his long fangs. Seviper were no joke. Twinkles was already lying on her back, her paws in the air and her nine golden tails wagging against the floor with her tongue hanging out. She liked them on her stomach, like Mr. Wiggly.

What was she talking about? Mars wasn't lonely with them! She had to admit, a big sister would be cool, though, so she still wanted one!

"Third bombing is done," Charon said. The information must have come through his Porygon. "Seven percent success rate. Any more will be wasting time, so we should start. Are we ready?"

"How many dead?" Mars asked.

"The news aren't anywhere close to finishing the tally. Possibly over ten thousand, by the time the day is over, with more wounded," he shrugged. "The hospitals aren't going to have enough space to take care of everyone. The League is not doing anything. Cynthia hasn't even given a speech, she relegated that to Bertha. People are panicking without their leader. They are terrified."

Mars licked her lips. "How fun."

The Commander shook his head. "It's what has to be done. What does it matter if they die now or in a day?"

"Well, let's go, then!" Mars yelled. "No need for a speech, everyone's ready to go!"

Charon cleared his throat. "Mars, you go off and do your own thing, as planned." There was a pause, and then his voice amplified while the world shimmered around his Hypno. Oh, right, he was there since he was their best Teleporter. "The rest of you, get in formation! Give your lives to have the Red Chain advance if needed!"

Mars stretched, her arm arched behind her head while her cohorts released hundreds of Pokemon in lines of fifty. She didn't know much, but Saturn loved rambling, so she at least understood that they planned on sending out wave after wave of elemental attacks at a distance with Psychic types standing at the edges of their formation to shield their sides and front. It was a good thing the Hunters had supplied so many of them before they were destroyed.

As for her?

She was a knife in the dark. A vanguard onto herself, meant to scout to see what kind of response they would get and if they could sniff out Cynthia.

"One of me will be accompanying you to keep you from getting distracted," Charon said, splitting into two. "The other will run things here. Go, and I will follow. If anything happens to the main column they can't handle, then you'll head back."

It was a slow walk, at first, each step deliberate. Then a skip. Then a run. Mars' entire team followed her. Ninetales and Seviper could easily keep up on the ground, given that they were easily way faster than her. Dusky stuck to her shadow, as always, while Bellossom still hung on her shoulder. Wigglytuff was swollen like a balloon, floating through the air at high speeds through sheer force of will while Clefable affected gravity around her and had herself float right behind the entire group. Charon had disappeared, but she knew he was around somewhere. Mars' breaths grew primal, and her face twisted with glee. Finally, she would be seeing some action. They were off-route, but Pokemon knew to keep away from her and such a large group of people.

For twenty minutes, they ran in silence. Mars was an excellent runner and her stamina put all the other Commanders to shame, but how could she be tired when she was about to have so much fun? There was a yowl from Ninetales, who despite her best efforts had never managed to speak into her mind, like all other psychics, and Mars stopped, her boots sliding against the dirt.

Trainer. That much was obvious. Probably a scouting party or something similar. Mars slid behind a tree and crouched while her team hung around in silence. She placed Bellossom on the ground.

"Kill them."

Ninetales had smelled them first, but that meant that they'd figure out she was there soon enough. The world didn't change— the ground didn't even shake, but ten seconds later, there was an explosion, and then there were screams, instantly smothered by the forest turning against them. She could have had Dusky do it, but it was safer if he hung around her. She wasn't about to die when she was so close to what she'd wanted for months. That was a huge chunk of her life!

"Dead?" she whispered.

Bellossom nodded, a bright smile on her face, and Mars patted her on the head.

"They'll have others. Brace for an attack, kill anything that moves."

The Commander tip-toed around her tree and went to see her work. Oh yeah, they were dead, dead. Three of them. Countless shards of wood, large enough to put kitchen knives to shame had penetrated through their skin and plants had grown to keep them in place. One through the throat, another puncturing a girl's skull through her right eye— right in the brain, score! The last had died the slowest, it seemed. No clean kill this time, but that was fine. There was beauty in variety, wasn't there? Their Pokemon— Flareon, Azumarill, Lickilicky, Persian, were just unconscious, unfortunately. This was more of something they'd workshopped to kill humans. Except a Dedenne, apparently. That one was dead.

"Aw, man," Mars sighed. "How weak."

She rummaged through their bodies, trying to find stuff under their uniforms. She liked to claim treasure from her kills, when she was allowed to. Let's see… she hummed to herself. The chain around the girl's neck looked nice, even if she was ugly. She ripped it off her neck and opened the pendant. It was a picture of the girl and another one. Maybe a sister or a friend. Mars gasped. Or a girlfriend! It was cropped too closely to see, but it looked like they might be holding hands. The guy had… a ring on his ring finger. Mars wished she was married to Cyrus, so that was hers. The last girl had five badges left on her expired Trainer ID from when she must have been a trainer—

Charon reappeared behind her. "Enough. Stop wasting time."

She stuck out her tongue at him. "Party pooper."

Mars threw out the items behind her, and Wigglytuff gasped, sucking in air, and swallowed them for later.

She had Dusknoir eat the souls of the unconscious Pokemon and kept going. There was no way she could let them live when the grunts would take this route, not that she wanted to, anyway. She was used to the screams every time the ghost opened the mouth on his abdomen. With every soul, he grew just a little stronger. A little harder to kill. It was a way to cheat his training, though he hadn't had many lately due to having to stay hidden in that stupid base, and it had forced them to actually train instead—

Stone shattered against Dusknoir's body to her left, and people barked out orders. An attack already, hm? It was a given, since she was less than ten minutes from the base and that tree explosion had probably alerted every scout in over a mile. Mars cracked her neck while her cuties got to work. Ninetales kept close, just in case Dusky wasn't enough, but the ghost type warped and the world went black and white. There were wails, thousands of wails emanating from every different direction and the majority of her enemies froze in place nicely enough for Bellossom to take care of them. Half were tough enough to withstand the pressure, but going from ten to five trainers and thirty-something to what looked like fifteen Pokemon was far more manageable. The rest still had barriers around them made by what looked to be standard League Kadabras.

Clefable waved an arm, and gravity turned sideways. The Kadabra didn't fly in their direction, but two of them lost their footing enough for Seviper to strike. Oh, he'd been gone a while now, camouflaged by an invisible Haze, and his tail turned dark with Night Slash, slashing across both Kadabra's throats, leaving trainers and Pokemon open to further attack.

Mars didn't flinch in the face of retaliatory strikes— Hydro Pump and Thunderbolt struck against Ninetales' barrier, and Dusknoir covered the coming Dark Pulse from a Mightyena so it wouldn't shatter, but it was only then that the scouts started their retreat, recalling most of their Pokemon and running back into the base. It was not a panicked, cowardly thing, but orderly. The Mightyena was still pressuring her from afar, but it didn't matter, given that she was just so much stronger.

Ninetales' eyes flashed, and the dark type spontaneously combusted, leaving Seviper to finish him off with a Poison Tail as he turned visible again.

"Well, the Meowth's out of the bag," Mars hummed as her Dusknoir swallowed the remaining unconscious bodies. "Keep going?"

As if on cue, Charon popped up in front of her. "I doubt you'll be able to breach the walls alone. They'll have hundreds, if not thousands of Pokemon waiting on top of them. Right now, you want to move before they send their elite troops and ACEs after you. Even then, they'll most likely find you."

She wrinkled her nose. "Way to sour the mood, old man."

"Shut up. As we feared, they've had the entire place swarming in darkness since the first explosion, it looks like. There will be no retreat."

"Whatever," she huffed. "I'm going."

The battles around the Lake would continue, but Mars and her team were peculiar in a way even Charon had never figured out.

Save for Dusky, they never tired.

"Arceus, you poor thing," Jupiter mourned. "So young as well."

The body itself was in relatively good condition, but had suffered too much internal trauma from one of Tangrowth's Power Whips, so unfortunately, it wasn't like he could hear her right now. The grass type regenerated as much as possible through Synthesis while the rest of her team kept pushing forward. Skuntank dashed through the snow, ignoring the Slash across her side and doused an Ursaring in poison strong enough to melt through skin. The cut closed by itself as soon as Delcatty sang in her general direction, and the poison type kept rampaging through enemy lines with awful-smelling poison pouring out of every inch of their skin, making physical contact with her a deadly affair. Stantler was completely still, working to Hypnotize all those around him, but he focused on the threats, first. Psychics and even dark types, who he had learned to bypass long ago through biological means. Girafarig was on defense, their tail being particularly apt at sniping dark type attacks before they ever made it close enough to hope to breach the barrier. Case in point, their tail snapped to the right, eyes dimming and teeth sharpening, and the coming blast of darkness from a Muk dissolved into thin air.

As for Slaking?


He was doing Slaking things. Turning human and Pokemon alike to mush and growing more rabid with each wound he took, which was why Delcatty was ignoring him for the time being. A Centiskorch blew a Flamethrower his way, but the flames helplessly washed against his fist as it collapsed atop of the bug type like a meteor and crushed its entire body. Eugh, how gnarly.

And that was ignoring the fighting going on all around her. Hundreds of League Troops had exited their fortress, and Jupiter instantly identified what looked to be an ACE. They weren't wearing their usual uniform, but their Pokemon were mowing through them like a scythe through wheat. Castform in this snow was deadly, as were the rest of his ice types. That was probably why he'd been stationed here. Fortunately for them, there was the issue of friendly fire, which meant he couldn't go completely ham. Granted, it was the same issue for her.

Gosh, he was kind of cute, too. That little gleam of confidence in his eye and the assurance in his team. She'd take him to a coffee shop if she could, though maybe he was a little too young for her.

Guess it's my job to prevent these things from happening, she internally groaned.

"Slaking. Slaking," she spoke twice to snap him out of his battle high. She clapped her hands and pointed toward the ACE. "Kill."

On average, she'd say she would absolutely lose a full-fledged battle to an ACE Trainer, but this was war, not battle, and the ACE had many things to keep track of. Slaking stood on his hind legs and ripped a tree from the forest floor, with snow dripping to the ground as he swung and threw it forward. The ACE's Weavile noticed first, blurring in front of its trainer and blowing ice to freeze the tree enough for a Beartic to shatter it with a punch. Slaking was her strongest, and possibly the strongest Pokemon she had ever witnessed in terms of physical power. The normal type barrelled through the forest, knocking away trees like tall grass and forgoing any strategy.

"Support him," Jupiter whispered to Delcatty.

The ACE Trainer said something as well, and Girafarig suddenly began to freeze. Target the psychic first, Jupiter echoed her teachings. Delcatty was busy stopping Slaking from dying, and the rest of her Pokemon were busy helping the grunts around her advance, so it fell onto Stantler to deal with this.

The normal type's antlers shone brighter, and he refocused all of his attention on the culprit, a Cryogonal that was constantly chiming and emanating with frost. She shivered when the ice continued to spread through Girafarig and the barrier around her faltered— the vision at her edges blurred, her body became numb and Adrianna suddenly felt so, so small in the face of the cold.

She could not outskill an ACE.

But she could outmuscle him. Through streams of frosts, Ice Beams, freezing limbs and his insides, they had still failed to stop Slaking, and he burst through the tightly packed ice team like a truck. A fist caught Weavile in the throat, and he threw its entire body into the trainer's barrier maintained by a focused Jynx. He smashed through it with a simple Brick Break and crushed the ACE Trainer under his fist. The face Jynx made told Jupiter everything she needed to know. Horror, of course there was horror, but there was also disbelief at something she'd put years of work into being broken like a twig.

She died before she could react any more than that. Crushed like paste.

Jupiter licked her lips and recalled Girafarig, hoping to use one of the countless fire types they had to defrost them later.

What a waste.

Unlike Mars, she was weaker, but with Slaking, she could at least bridge the gap and catch them by surprise. The Commander had won the battle, but she was losing the war. They were not advancing fast enough to match up to the expected timeline, and far too many grunts were dying far too soon. They needed at least ten percent of them at each lake to survive for the assault in Mount Coronet, but they were dying like Cutiefly. It was difficult to match experience with training, but she'd expected them to at least make it to the walls before this kind of dying started happening.

Jupiter sighed. She felt so grimey already, and the edges of her limbs looked like they had frostbite from the cold that had seeped through the barrier. She couldn't flex her hands together, but there was no time to waste.

Time to look for that fire type and put Delcatty to work.

That was when Cynthia's Lucario showed up.

He had come prepared for this. He thought he was ready. He thought he would be able to buy time for the Red Chain to capture one of the Legendaries so they could gain the upper hand.

But no one had prepared Saturn for what he was looking at.


The dragon moved with calculated aggression as it charged against Saturn's army. The battlefield echoed with the rhythmic pounding of its powerful claws against the earth, each strike propelling it forward like a living, draconic battering ram. With each step, the ground trembled beneath its colossal weight, sending shockwaves that devastated their ranks and broke through all of their barriers. Every time an attack was close to hitting, Garchomp weaved away from it, dodging it so quickly it became a blur and sent a shockwave around it due to breaking the sound barrier. Saturn had to strain his eyes to catch more than a glimpse of Garchomp, but its scales were soaked in blood and guts, yet its eyes were so cold and unfeeling. Like it was just going through the motions.

That was the only Pokemon they were fighting.

Not an army.

Not ACE Trainers.

Not Cynthia's entire team, nor the Champion herself.

Just Garchomp.

Saturn barked out an order at his psychics to hold as the ground type sliced through a Purugly, cutting it in half with Dragon Claw, and stomped a foot on the ground, sinking a dozen trainers and Pokemon beneath the earth. A combined array of Ice Beams struck all around it, but it jumped and took to the skies in an instant, letting the elemental attacks explode into a surge of frost. It came back a fraction of a second later with what looked like a Staraptor's wing in its mouth, draconic energy coalescing around it as it crashed down like a meteor and roared. The shock wave brought all surrounding him to their knees, as if they were forced to bow, but they never got up. They were dead. The following Dragon Pulse shredded through another two lines of soldiers. How many had they lost already? It wasn't like he could send his team after that beast! They would just die so quickly that it wouldn't even matter, and wasting their lives here would be meaningless!

There was no respite. Garchomp sank into the earth and an Earthquake rippled through their forces. The earth rose like jagged spikes, and Saturn's Bronzong barely held his barrier at the edge of the attack, and at least fifty grunts screamed as one. An assortment of fairies came forth from another column of grunts, their legs still shaking from the impact, but they still stood strong, and were proof that even in the face of adversity, Saturn had drilled his grunts and their Pokemon enough to strategize and not to panic. But what was the point? Poison coursed through Garchomp's claws and he sliced through a Shiinotic's mushroom and blew a stream of fire right into the grass type's head. It broke through a Gardevoir, Azumarill, Mr. Mime and Florges, ripping them to shreds in seconds—

Until a Slurpuff slammed a glowing pink fist into the dragon's leg.

For a second, there was hope.

Crushed as fast as it had come when Garchomp didn't even flinch and killed Slurpuff with claws tipped in metal instead of poison, cutting through the cake-like Pokemon until it became goo and burning the remains with a Fire Blast that washed the battlefield with heat.

They had miscalculated.

Garchomp was not a Pokemon capable of being wounded. It was not even a Pokemon.

It was an unmovable object. A force. A law of nature that could never be broken. The dragon's jaw parted, body crackling with turquoise energy, and a Sandstorm instantly clicked into place, masking every order Saturn could ever hope to give to his men.

They would die quietly, and they would die alone—

"INCOMING!" Charon blasted in his ear.

His mind raced. Toxicroak, Grimmsnarl, Excadrill, Glalie, Bronzong, Exploud and Crobat were at his disposal, but the sheer gap in strength—

"Defend me!" Saturn hissed to his team.

—was too much to hope to even draw, especially in this sandstorm. The biting winds carried stinging grains of sand, each burying themselves into his team, even through Bronzong and Excadrill when they were supposed to be immune.

Then, a drop. The earth beneath Saturn collapsed, and he would have dropped nearly a hundred feet into the fissure had his quick reflexes not allowed him to hang onto his Crobat's body. His legs hung in the air, and his arms strained under his weight, but he was certain his Crobat would be able to keep him flying.

Why was—

Why was he falling?

It had happened so quickly. A burst of draconic light, and then… nothing? His entire body felt like it was on fire and burning, a weakening of the barrier since Bronzong was levitating him and the rest of his Pokemon, save for Glalie who could float, Excadrill, who wouldn't suffer from such a fall or the earth closing in on him, or Crobat—

Where was Crobat? Saturn coughed as grains of sand filled his mouth and his insides started to bleed. Garchomp was not targeting him in particular, which was peculiar, to say the least, but perhaps its main job was to thin their numbers. After all, who cared if the Commanders remained if there was no army to back them up? Part of Saturn imagined it as killing an entire colony of bugs. Would he ever care about which one was the strongest ant, if each fell to one attack regardless?

Charon's floating form appeared besides him as Bronzong lowered him to flat ground and he could finally breathe again. "Retreat, Saturn. Teleport away and await further instructions."

He hurled what felt like a thousand grains of sand and blood. He could barely breathe. "But my army—"

"Is doomed. We need you, Saturn," Charon hissed. "We can lose all of our people here so long as you live. It will not matter how many men we have past a certain point in Coronet, just how many skilled trainers remain. I order you again, Teleport away."

He had said he would die with them. That he would lead them into their new world, sword in hand. Even now, before the Sandstorm had hit, he'd seen them die with wide smiles, yelling out Cyrus' name. Singing his praises, apologizing for failing him, praying to him because he would be their new God. He already was their God.

Saturn had raised them so well.

But it was time to let go. They would each be brought back, even if it pained him to abandon them so.

"I need to find my Crobat—"

"Your Crobat is dead. The Dragon Pulse disintegrated it."

Nausea overtook him as it had so many times in the past, but it was only for a moment. He would be brought back. He would be.

"Bronzong," Saturn croaked, recalling the rest of his Pokemon.

He disappeared a few miles away.

Holy crap, those walls were tough. None of her team's attacks were working to breach it. At least the section they'd focused on had dented a little bit, collapsing into a small pile of rubble, but the structure as a whole was still standing and trainers were attacking her from every damn direction. Sending Dusky inside was tantamount to throwing the game, given that he would no doubt die after a short rampage and they didn't have the time to wait for him to appear again. That was if he'd even be able to escape this place fast enough for him not to die again. Granted, she and her team could have gone in with him, but…


At her feet lay the body of an ACE Trainer that she'd used as a shield after nearly dying to some kind of beam attack while Ninetales had had her shield broken, but her arms were burned because of it anyway. Not too badly, at least, but it still hurt.

Charon popped up next to her, and a Thunderbolt went through him and scraped Ninetales.

"Mars. Saturn has failed. Cynthia's Garchomp is present at Lake Valor."

The girl whistled. "Do we know if she's there too, or if she's baiting us?"

"It is probably a bait, or I assume more of her Pokemon would have joined the fight. She might also just be playing it cautiously, but I doubt it," he said, rubbing his fake chin.


"Awful," he answered. "Cynthia's Lucario is killing them, and they're being driven back. Your group has made it the furthest, but if you fail here, Mars…"

"Psht, I get it. We lose," she said, rolling her eyes. After blowing a bit of air on her burned hands to cool them, she uncrouched from her position and was instantly assaulted by a barrage of moves coming from up on the wall, all blocked by Dusky and Ninetales. In a way, it was kind of cool to have burns too. That way, she was kind of just like Grace, though they weren't on her face. Bummer. In the distance, Seviper and Bellossom battled with a Scovillain and Heracross, but Mars wasn't too worried about them. All of her Pokemon except Dusky were wounded and hurt to some extent, but they fought at a hundred percent, still.

"Okay, Charon," Mars said. "We're going to have to do things my way."

"What does that mean?"

"Give me the chain. I'll get you your stupid Lake siren."

Another volley of attacks, this time nearly breaking Ninetales' barrier, though Clefable, Dusky and Wigglytuff retaliated with attacks of their own, aiming high on the walls to stop them from attacking and keep them on the defense. Darkness had swelled inside the base, making any Teleportation inside to infiltrate the place impossible.

There was a frown on the man's face, but then he exhaled. "I have not worked all these years to throw it all away in a gamble."

"We're on track for a catastrophic loss anyway," she said, twiddling her burned thumbs. "So come on, who cares?" Then, she gasped. "Wait, you're not even here anyway! I'm just gonna grab the damn chain myself. Where are your scientist goons again? What are their names?"

Charon yelled in her ear, but Mars filtered it away and ran back toward her army, which had admittedly progressed rather far and was only five minutes away from the walls. They had lost complete control of the skies, something all of them had expected, but the constant attacks of sharpened air raining from up there was getting annoying. Mars' eyes darted from face to face, her Pokemon closely following her. Those two shmucks had donned normal Galactic uniforms to blend in, now, and Dusky found them before Mars did. He always seemed to figure out where what she was looking for was even when she hadn't asked. They seemed mighty terrified at the constant sound of battle— explosions, hums of energy, the shattering of earth and bodies, screams of agony and constant death.

"You. Give me the thingie," Mars said.

"W—what?" the woman stammered.

Mars rolled her eyes and grabbed the long satchel in her hands. It was in a bag like any other that many grunts were carrying, but this one didn't have potions or full heals. It felt tough under her hands, probably because it had been reinforced by that steel thing so it didn't give everyone who touched it depression or whatever. Charon watched helplessly as she wrestled it out of his scientist's hand and she knocked her to the ground.

"You're lucky I'm busy, or you'd get your soul eaten for that," Mars whined. "Bye."

"Mars!" Charon yelled.

She giggled. "I can't hear you!"

The laugh out of her mouth that followed was genuinely among the best she'd ever had, almost childlike. Mars had wanted to bother Charon like this for years, but all she'd ever been allowed to do was use words to twist the knife. Part of her wanted to throw the chain at the League to see that look on his face— the look of sheer grief and loss he'd get when he realized he would never get his sister back, but that'd be going against what Cyrus wanted and he was pretty close to that already anyway. If the robot-him could cry, he'd be sobbing right now instead of just being on his knees.

Both of himself.

Attacks constantly flew by her, and her team struck back whenever they had an angle to. Both sides were losing a lot of people, but the League had the advantage here. Dusknoir warned her that a few extremely strong Psychics had taken to the field and she figured it must have been Lucian's Pokemon.

"This thing's heavier than it looks," Mars sighed. "Wiggly, wanna see what happens if you swallow it?"

The normal type's arms fluttered excitedly.

"That's my boy," she grinned. "You'll be fine, since it has that protective layer stuff around it… probably."

Wigglytuff sucked in the air, and the bag entered his mouth.

"Dusky! Let us catch a ride!"

The ghost hesitated, but said that there was no other choice.

Anyone else would have perished at this, and even Mars disliked how it made her feel. Dusknoir opened the maw on his abdomen and closed it around every member of her team. Bellossom first, then Clefable, Wigglytuff, Seviper and Mars—

The world went dark, and she began to fall.

It was so cold. She was so alone in here. Countless screams filled her ears, so loud she could barely hear herself think. Ghostly things danced at the edge of her vision, wrapping themselves around her face and waist in such an invasive way that the girl felt like puking.

Dusky's soul receptacle wasn't meant for people, yet Mars could live here anyway. She fell for what felt like hours until she landed in a bottomless pool that allowed her to stand here anyway. She shivered, the liquid somehow sinking deep into her skin and around her bones.

"Hi, Marsie."

"Not you again," she grumbled. Even through the screams, Mars could hear her other self perfectly clearly. "You're not as fun as you think you are, and that name is horrid."

"You're roasting yourself!" her clone mocked. "Come on, can't we have a talk? I haven't seen you since you had to escape the base in Eterna after Aaron whooped you."

"Hard to fight a bug guy in the middle of a building," Mars grumbled. "Too much stuff to keep track of and he messed with my head."

"You're resistant to that, Marsie," the girl said. "You're not a person, remember? None of you or your Pokemon are."

She blinked. "What?"

Mars, her second self, shifted, becoming a blur of shadow that she could somehow see even in the dark until she reformed closer. Her hand touched Mars' cheek, gently cradling it as she stared at herself.

It was cold. Like touching a corpse.

Around them, the screams grew louder, thundering enough to hurt Mars' entire body. It was like an earthquake rippled through Dusky's body and she could only stand as it broke her.

"I can't tell you anyway, he'll just make you forget," Mars said. "You'll forget this, too. There's no point."

"What— what are you talking about?"

She wrapped Mars into a frigid hug. "You'll be happy in this new world, Mars. You'll forget about me, but you'll be happy. Trust in Cyrus."

"You're just a part of me—"

"No, Nat," she said with a saddened smile. "You're a part of me—"

The world went white, and Mars fell onto the ground with a headache strong enough to split her skull open. Around her, her Pokemon had already been spit out of Dusky's mouth and were fighting what felt like a dozen people and Pokemon. Less than she expected, but most of them were probably at the walls or the edges of the base.

There was no time. Reinforcements were coming.

"Arceus, that's always the worst," Mars groaned.

There was no time to observe and admire the base. She ignored all the fighting around her.

The bag was already at her feet, and she'd been taught how to use it by Charon as had all the Commanders. In less than a second, she had it open, her hands moving so quickly they were a blur. She emptied the bag's contents and heard someone warn of a bomb, but this was no bomb. The metal came undone at its seams, unraveling like paper as if the chain was resonating with the Lake and begging to be let out. It floated into the air and Mars clasped a hand around it.

Mars clasped the chain tightly and power rippled through her, all of her emotions screaming for one purpose and one purpose only.

The world stood still, and it was then that Mars saw Cynthia and Lucian standing in the distance.

Mesprit's body rose from its lake.

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Chapter 305 - Comeuppance

Something is wrong.

It was difficult to tell at first. Like a subtle pressure in my head I had not been aware of had simply gone and disappeared. Vanished into the wind. When you were in a dream, and you tried to run or hit something, but your muscles were slow. Sluggish and unresponsive, like your entire body was made of lead and you were being held tightly by some invisible force. That exact feeling of wrongness overtook me. I stopped covering my face with my hands and looked up at my friends, who were strewn about in the bunker, some sitting with empty looks like Mira and Louis. Others like Emi couldn't help but pace around while Denzel felt compelled to use his phone to stay connected to the outside world, as if learning about what was happening in Floaroma or Snowpoint would help us. I'd done a little bit of that, too. My parents were apparently at the League, too, but they weren't allowed to see me when they asked. We were stuck down here.

Cecilia's thumb traced the contours of Slowking's Pokeball as she leaned against me. We'd all told our teams about the recent developments outside, and they were all ready for a fight. Her eyes were weary. Old. To be honest, I felt like we'd all aged a decade this past year alone, and that our childhoods were over and done with. There was no point complaining about it. It had just happened, and now I had to deal with the tools I'd been given. Another minute passed with few words being exchanged. The perception that something had gone terribly awry only grew. There was still a part of me missing.

"Cecilia," I whispered. "Does anything feel off to you?"

She rose from my shoulders and shook her head. "No."

She was, just like me, not in the mood for many words, but using each other for comfort was one of the few highlights we had left. Or maybe I was just being dramatic. I didn't know.

"Chase? Mira? Anything feel odd to you?" I continued.

"Why?" Cece added after they shook their heads.

"Feels like there's a gaping hole in my head. That's the only way I have to explain it," I muttered. "I'm worried that Mesprit—"

There was a click, a beep, and the sound of a huge metallic door rattling against the painted concrete of the bunker's entrance. At first, I figured they must have been someone sent here to update us on what was going on, because for all we had access to the internet, this place was still entirely disconnected from the outside world in a suffocating way. A vine wrapping around our necks, but barely enough to let us channel just the right amount of air to let us breathe. Heh. That'd be nice to do to Saturn, but I doubted I'd have the time to dawdle on any kills. That hadn't meant I hadn't imagined him dying in a dozen different slow and agonizing ways in the last hour we'd been in here to keep my head above the water. The hurt I'd imagined doing, the twisting of a knife, the carving and splitting of his skull below my axe, the pulling of his limbs until they popped, nailing him to a tree until he slowly died to the elements in horrible agony, hearing him beg for his life so sweetly, like the best song had just come on the radio, then pretending to offer him a lifeline before I slipped the blade in his stomach and gutted him like a fish. It was enough to fill the universe twice over and like a very good dream. Comforting, even. I hadn't thought like that in a long time, really. Not since the raid. Because I'd been scared I would slip and fall. Tumble through the abyss and become a monster borne of a love for justice and violence. Justice only I could pass down from prices and slights that could not be left unpaid.

Maybe I was one. Maybe wanting to be praised by Aliyah for behaving like a normal human being meant so. It was like Dad had implied when I'd confessed, something that would stick with me for what I believed would be the rest of my days. The way you killed. Not haunt me, per se, but maybe be a guiding light. Expectations were heavy, so heavy, but the look of betrayal on Honey's face would be too much. My Dad wouldn't forgive me again, and Cece… well, I couldn't use her vulnerable state allowing her to forgive me as an excuse to commit atrocities. I loved her too much for that.

I was not going to slip. Not going to let my demons drag me through the floor by my ankle. Not going to ruin my second chance. I'd promised.

I wasn't going to ask her not to kill, because as far as I went, I'd still do anything for her no matter what she did to others. Dramatic, maybe, but it was the truth. I wasn't going to throw a fit over a few dozen dead grunts and their Pokemon, that would make me a hypocrite and I really just… didn't care. She had killed before, as had I, and we would do so again, so what did it matter?

Why was I thinking about this in what were potentially my last days? Again and again, this always plagued my mind. Constant musings about morality when I already had the answer to my issues. It did not matter at all, especially not on a day like this one. Saturn's life was not even mine to claim. He was Sunshine's.

The League officials sent for us weren't ACEs, since I imagined they had their hands full. They were not your average League Trainers either, though, by the stars they donned on their chest. There were three of them— though the central figure captured my attention. He was a fit man on the shorter side of things, with a greying beard and hair. It was the difference between Denzel and Chase. There was an intensity about him that you only saw in trained killers, and I was honestly getting good at spotting those. It was not about the sparkle in someone's eye, or if they were happier than another. It was the way his eyes seemed to pierce through the mundane, the way he had identified every person in this room as soon as he'd walked in and assessed his surroundings even though this place was supposed to be safe. They were always waiting for the next attempt on their life, always on edge, and there was a keenness to their eyes that wasn't in anyone else's. The man at the center had more medals than the others, and a Mr. Mime accompanied him. One of the League-issued ones, probably. That was how you knew someone was important, if they had a Mr. Mime or Alakazam, or a regular Kadabra.

"Children," he said roughly. "My name is Andrew Frazier, I'm a Commander for the League. These are Avery Simmons and Emerson Pobodnik, but I'll be doing most of the talking. Listen, and listen well."

Legendaries, even from here his breath smelled like cigarettes. He was having a tough day like everyone else, though, so he must have smoked a decent amount.

"Lake Verity has not fallen, but Mesprit has been captured."

The statement hit us like a lightning strike. Panic nearly swept through a lot of us, but the other shards and I just stared. I was certainly anxious, but Commander Andrew didn't exactly leave us with time to digest the news.

"Normally I would give you a report of the situation, but we have to make haste. Grace Pastel, I've been ordered to bring you to Lake Valor."

"Is it being attacked?" Cecilia asked.

"No, there's been no activity around it for the last forty minutes," the League official said. "It would be a preemptive measure."

"What about the others?" I asked.

"They'll stay here until the situation calls for them," he said. "As for the non-shards… you're free to be brought to Mount Coronet, if you so wish. We can station you all at one of the entrances so you can make yourselves useful."

That made sense. Better to keep the shards safe until they were needed to wrestle the other guardians away from the Red Chain's control. You could technically risk it all and send them to the bases earlier than that in hopes of preempting what might happen, but from how the trio had described it, actually managing to get them back under control would be difficult and take time. The outside world would not be frozen like in our other meetings and we'd be vulnerable to attack, it would only be slowed. Now that they actually had Mesprit under their control, it was needlessly risky. Maybe not needless, but more than they were willing to take, at the moment. As for the rest of my friends, they were, even if it sickened me to think this way, expendable according to the League, and to the League's credit, they were giving them one last chance to back out.

Emilia jumped on the occasion. "Please. If I stay here five more minutes I'm going to go insane."

"Agreed," Maeve said.

"Yeah, we aren't doing anything here," Pauline said. "So long as we're all together, I'm okay with this."

"I'm… staying," Louis sighed.

Pauline clapped him on the shoulder. "It's okay, buddy."

I was already being beckoned forward by one of the Commander's fellow… well, the people accompanying him weren't dressed like Commanders, but they were still privy to the 'end of the world' information, so they must have been high up in the League. There was no time to waste. If there was only time for one lengthy goodbye, I would pick her every time. I turned toward Cece and she cradled my cheek. I leaned into it. I didn't want to leave her, not when we both knew this could be the last time we would see each other, but duty called. We knew it would.

"Stay safe," she said. "I love you. More than anything."

I smiled. That never got old, did it? There was a want to say that when this was all over I'd take her out somewhere exciting, but I didn't want to jinx it. "I love you too."

We shared a kiss. It was short, but felt like a million years, which was good. It allowed both of us a moment of respite and familiarity. A break in the constant weight pressing down our backs. Our fingers laced together, and I felt her breath against my face. Anxiety vanished for an instant, and I imagined her in my arms cuddling on a bed with our teams around us.


"I'll see you," I said.

The doors to the bunker closed behind us, but there was no need to have me climb up the stairs and into the world. Instead, Mr. Mime's smile stretched, revealing a toothless mouth, and we vanished. We did not instantly appear in the lake as I thought we would, but off-route, probably at its outskirts. This entire place reeked of death, and there was the occasional smear of blood or organs on the trees. Dozens of people around us, League employees, had been ready to greet us with their Pokemon out while others were slowly cleaning up the… what must have been hundreds of dead bodies around here with medical masks on their faces. At least psychics were speeding them up some. I figured seeing all of those mangled bodies should have bothered me, but it didn't.

I was just numb. Like this is how it was. This is how it should be.

"Forgive the sight. This was unfortunately the safest spot for us to Teleport in and they're still blasting the base with dark TE."

My nose wrinkled at a smear of blood on my shoe. "I guess you guys won here."

"We won everywhere," Andrew calmly said. He led me forward and we started to walk. "They didn't have a chance, but they managed through trickery that shouldn't have been possible. I'll let the Champion explain, she's waiting for you."

I raised an eyebrow. "She's here?"

"Her and Elite Lucian, yes, but the latter is mostly focusing on our defenses and organizing."

Cynthia wanting to talk to me made sense, but talking to a Champion suddenly always shook someone. Was it odd, that this surprised me more than seeing all of this death? Probably. As we walked, Andrew Frazier explained that the air space around the lake was locked up at the moment save for ACE Trainers and that only Garchomp had run through this entire army. A single Pokemon had beaten thousands of others like it was nothing. Yes, Garchomp was her most powerful Pokemon, but at what point did a Pokemon so powerful cross into godhood? It was one thing to see the dragon in old battling footage and another to walk among the corpses she had wrought. I understood now why Bellatrix feared her so. As strong as Bella was, and she would still beat my entire team today on her own comfortably, she was nothing to Garchomp. What the hell did Cynthia have that no one else did? What made her so different other than experience? Talent, for certain, but the gap in strength had never felt so large. She would no doubt be remembered. Her name echoed across history like we spoke about Sinnoh's old Champions in history classes, perhaps with greater adulation, still, depending on how she spun today to the masses after everything was over.

Gods are stories, Justin, I'd told him. Legendaries, I hoped he wasn't too badly injured. That when this was over I'd be able to visit him at the hospital and apologize for failing him. How many soldiers would talk about not having to risk their lives today because of Garchomp's presence? How far would it spread? Domain Holders already knew about her, having forged countless deals to let trainers go undisturbed through the routes. Would she be talked about in communities of wild Pokemon as well? Was she already?

Questions to pass the time, mostly, but as childish as it was, I was jealous.

The walls of the base were still pristine, untouched by any attacks or blemish. None of the grunts had even reached close to the Lake. When Commander Andrew identified us at the gates, he uttered more than just our names. Ariel and Richard were apparently here too, though I assumed they were in the sky or hidden some other way. It made sense for me to have some protection now that I was out of the bunker. The gates opened, we were let in the three sets of thick walls, and I let the feeling of willpower fill my veins. The doors closed behind us as soon as we were through, faster than that, even. People inside Valor were clearly on edge— and who wasn't? But at the very least, they hadn't had to fight. These were not ACEs ready to do whatever needed to be done because it was work, ready to die or to watch their loved ones die. These were just… soldiers. Normal people who'd joined the League as a career. In normal circumstances, they never would have actually fought. The last time Sinnoh had been involved in a war was the Great one, and no one here had been alive for that.

Well, there was Ransei too, but most people were never deployed there. I didn't know much about it.

The effects of the Lake certainly helped me take the edge off, given that I hadn't built up a tolerance to it after being gone for so long. I was led not into headquarters, the largest, central building, but into the home we had stayed at all those months ago. I would have called it quaint, if it hadn't been surrounded by a league of psychics and a few trainers.

"Go right ahead," Andrew said pointing me forward. "The Champion is waiting for you."

"Oh. She's in there?"

That was surprising to me. She wasn't giving speeches for morale or showing herself for the troops, not telling anyone what was going on. She was just… in a house. Maybe doing normal people things.

I released Cassianus next to me as soon as I separated from the Mr. Mime following us. I was in one of the safest places in the region, but traveling without a psychic was impossible to me now. Just impossible. Human flesh was so vulnerable. It could be broken, bent and snapped like a twig without a second thought, and who knew when the next strike would come, when the next bomb would drop, when the next shard of stone would try to lodge itself into my skull from the shadows?

No one knew, so I'd rather be ready than die before realizing what had happened and be gone forever.

"Stay vigilant, Cassianus."

Always, my King.

They let us through without so much as a question or request for identification, which was surprising, and I opened the doors to the home without a second thought. It was a small home, not really made for comfortable living for a person I assumed had grown used to luxury, but then again, I knew very little about Sinnoh's Champion, didn't I? Cass managed to squeeze through the doors, but Cynthia wasn't in the living room. Instead, a pink-haired girl looked my way, less vibrant than Mira's.

Ah, that certainly was awkward. What the hell was Maylene doing here when cities around the region were on fire? Sure hers was fine, but… Legendaries, she looked pissed as well. I said nothing, just wiping my shoes on the carpet. I'd planned to apologize to her, hadn't I? Still wanted to. It was meaningful to me and to my prospects at a second chance at life, but it was one thing to have Candice plan the entire thing and to have mentally prepared myself for it and another to just stumble upon her all of a sudden.

We both had more important things to worry about right now, though. Still, it gnawed at me.

Do I need to be on high alert? Cass asked.

I silently shook my head. "Hey. I'm looking for Cynthia, she was supposed to be in here?"

The Gym Leader turned away from me and lay back down on the couch so I could only see the back of her head. "She's in the bathroom."

"Oh. I guess I'll just wait, then. I'll be out of your hair soon enough, I think."

"Don't think so." Her words were forced. Stringent. "And you can go in there anyway, she's cleaning up Garchomp. I just can't… look at it."

"Alright. Thanks."

She frowned at me when I just went toward the washroom anyway, and I got a better look at her from the corner of my eye when I got in front of the couch. She was dirty and hurt. Her clothes were covered in grounded dust of what looked to be asphalt or maybe concrete, along with dirt. Her forearm was bandaged, too, wrapped in a tight gauze that was tinted red in dried blood. If I had to guess, she'd gotten this way after helping save people from the explosions… somewhere. Veilstone had been spared, but maybe she'd gone to help Volkner or Crasher Wake instead of staying put. That seemed like a Maylene thing to do, the Gym Leader was lean, but she was toned from working out all the time. Her muscles were well-defined beneath smooth, taut skin, and as an aura user, she was very useful in that regard. It was easy to picture her lifting huge collapsed rocks up from someone's legs or allowing authorities into a burning building, a bright smile on her face and telling people everything was going to be okay.

Ah, man. Must be what being good was like. Caring about so many people sounded exhausting. Thousands of lives snuffed out, and I couldn't even bring myself to grimace about it when not thinking about Justin. It reminded me of a conversation I'd had when I'd only just met Pauline and hated her guts. She'd told me that seeing injured trainers file in and out of the Pokemon Center after nearly getting killed in Eterna Forest hadn't bothered her. That she was more concerned about the lives of people she cared about than strangers.

I'd gotten up in her face about that and thought she was a horrible person. Funny how things worked out.

My hand wrapped around the door handle, but froze. I'd almost forgotten to knock. Hell, I'd forgotten to do it on the first door. When I did, a smooth voice told me to come in.

The bathroom was too small for a Garchomp, but Cynthia made it work anyway. The beast barely fit inside of the room and was wedged awkwardly between the confines of the small space. Her tail was bent and hugged the walls of the bath while she had to bend down for her head to not hit the ceiling. The dragon's cold, yellow eyes settled on me for a moment while Cynthia scratched the back of her neck with a shower glove to get whatever that was off of her. Didn't look like a distinctive piece of organ to me, but I hadn't had time to study human anatomy anyway. The entire floor was soaked in red water and more innards, and it smelled metallic, almost sweet. Cass' eyes wobbled a little bit. They stayed behind me, unable to fit in the already crowded bathroom.

"Sorry for the sight," Cynthia said. "Garchomp hates being dirty, so it couldn't wait."

The dragon's entire body was clean, save for her face. Even now, Cynthia's voice was as confident, yet gentle as could be in the same way that had captivated room after room, audience after audience. A smile was plastered on her face, the same as always in a way that was a little unnerving. Like it was the only way she knew how to act when things got tough. She was dressed in a simple blue shirt and jean shorts, uncaring about the fact that she was getting soaked with bloody water, and her hair was tied into a ponytail like mine instead of the usual cascade down her legs, though hers was longer.

"I don't mind," I said. "You wanted to see me? I'd rather learn about what's going on as soon as possible."

"Of course. Call Maylene for me?"

I raised an eyebrow, but acquiesced, making my short stint back to the living room. I found Maylene scrolling through her phone with a worried look on her face that turned to stone as soon as she saw me.

"Cynthia wants you in there."

She paused. "In there."

"Just… within earshot, I think."

"Ah. Okay."

That was how we ended up with Maylene standing next to the door of the bathroom, her body turned away from us.

"As you know," the Champion started, "Mesprit has been taken from its Lake through the Red Chain. This is, of course, a catastrophe of the highest order."

It was, but she was delivering it like everything was going on as usual.

"Lucian's psychics were serving as support as soon as Galactic got close enough thanks to our bait and we began pushing them away from the Lake while having set up killing fields to get rid of the highest number possible as fast as we could, but Commander Mars managed to sneak in via transportation through her Dusknoir. Her and her entire team."

I frowned. "How?"

"Wouldn't she have… you know, died?" Maylene whispered.

"No one knows how she survived the trip, but it means she's been altered in a way that means she's no longer a person in the flesh," Cynthia explained. "There are only a few people like this the League knows of, none of which live in Sinnoh, and it's a fascinating topic best saved for a brighter day."

"How did she escape?" Maylene asked.

Cynthia asked her Garchomp to lower her face for her and rubbed her Pokemon's cheek. "Mars directed Mesprit to blast us with a wave of emotion and then Teleported away."

Maylene scoffed. "Through the dark?"

"Through the dark, yes. Rules don't apply to Legends, even those who can only use a fraction of their power. We also observed the creation of a barrier, though it still remains to see how powerful it is." Cynthia stood on her tiptoes and finished cleaning up Garchomp. "Mars also got a large part of their forces away from Verity."

"Shit…" Maylene grumbled, paling slightly.

"How many are left?" I asked.

"None remain in Valor. Around… two hundred were saved by Mesprit up in Acuity and five hundred in Verity, but those are only estimates. They were nearly wiped out. Their tactics were sound, but they didn't have the power to stand up to any of my Pokemon. Now, as it stands, they do not have enough forces to attempt another storming of any lakes if they want to have troops left for Coronet, but Lucian and I are starting to wonder if it even matters."

She turned the faucet off.

"If Mesprit is strong enough to Teleport through the dark, to shield the Red Chain's wielder from any attack, and they can take control of the Legendaries within a minute at most, then I don't believe we'll be able to stop them from making their way up Coronet," Cynthia said, never losing her smile despite what that implied. "Now Grace, that is where you come in."

"I have to stop Mesprit before they take control of another Legendary," I gulped. That was a lot of pressure. "Got it."

"How do you know Valor is where they'll attack?" Maylene asked. "I mean, Garchomp just… kicked their asses! Won't they go to Acuity instead in hopes of avoiding you?"

Cynthia shook her head. "Distance is now meaningless, Maylene. Mesprit can transport hundreds at a time, possibly inside of this base. Luckily Teleporting to Spear Pillar should be impossible even if they get them all, but that doesn't matter right now. They might come here first, they might not, we have no way to know, but I believe they think I'll be waiting up north because of what you said. Call it a gut feeling."

Spear Pillar. It was something I'd only heard once from Mira due to Carlos telling her about it, but just thinking the words out loud made me feel small. Like I was being looked at with a magnifying glass. These were not words to be said lightly ever, or at least that was what I felt like. Cynthia certainly had no trouble uttering them, or at least she didn't show it on her face.

"So, Cynth. What am I doing here? When can I leave and help others?" Maylene pressed. "I've just been sitting here for the past thirty minutes and I feel fucking useless."

"You'll be working to keep Grace protected," Cynthia said.

She clicked her tongue. "Doesn't she have ACE Trainers for that?"

"They'll be here too," she said. "But you see, they failed to identify Dusknoir sneaking into the base down in Verity, like it was invisible to all of their Pokemon and techniques. I don't know if it'll be hidden from Grace's empathy as well, but she won't be conscious while attempting to get Mesprit back. Just in case, we'll have you and your team follow her around to sense if it ever gets close before and while she's doing that. Their Commander Mars is known to be obsessed with Grace..." her eyes flickered up at me for a moment.

What was that about?

The Gym Leader tapped her foot outside the bathroom. "Fine."

"How will she and her Pokemon know? Is it aura stuff?" I asked.

Garchomp returned to her Pokeball. "Yes. Maylene's Lucario is better at using aura to sense things than even mine and will be able to feel any disturbance approach you. We should have had her in one of the Lakes from the start, but we never had enough experience with Dusknoir to establish its capabilities."

"The people need their leaders, Cynthia, they—"

"The people do not know what they are talking about, nor do they know what is good for them, so their opinion is null and void," Cynthia interrupted. "Now, will you do this for me?"

Her tone never changed. It hadn't, but…

One couldn't say no. Not to her.


Maylene's voice was smaller, now.

"Thank you. You'll just be waiting here until a second attack comes. Right now we have aerial scouts looking for them, but Sinnoh is large and Mesprit could have brought them anywhere off-route. They're probably reorganizing their forces, taking tally of who died and testing things with Mesprit's capabilities. They won't be long." Cynthia gestured me out of the bathroom, which we all promptly left. "I'll send someone to clean this all up, I need to go see Lucian."

"Where are the others? Aaron and Flint?" Maylene asked.

"Mount Coronet. Grace, I need to talk to you for a moment before I leave."

"Oh. Okay."

Maylene had already stomped away, since she'd wanted to so desperately help people from dying. I understood her, too. She could make a real difference and her missing was potentially costing people their lives, but Cynthia's word was law. The Champion untied her hair, letting it flow freely behind her as she shook her head, and I struggled to shut down the signals in my brain telling me how pretty she was. I'd never had a childhood crush on Cynthia like many kids had, and to be honest I'd never been attracted to many people in general but one could recognize that she was… well, she was cool, even if that persona might be fake a lot of the time.

I'd gone from admiring her, to hating her, to… whatever this was. Not admiration again, but maybe an understanding of why she acted the way she did.

"So. I will preface by saying that this is bad news," the Champion said. "I will give you the option to ignore this until this whole situation is dealt with if you so wish."

My stomach sank, and any thought I had about Cynthia's looks and how she carried herself seemed horribly childish. That's what you get for letting your guard down, I thought, clenching my jaw.

"Is this about… Justin?" I asked.

"No. Do you want to hear?"


"It's about your grandmother," Cynthia said. "I do not know where your friend is, though I heard he was caught in the bombings. I could find out his status within a few minutes if you want but he is most likely—"

"No!" I yelled. "No, just… it's okay."

"Ah. I see. Very well, then. Your grandmother's body was found in her house in Twinleaf. We believe she had her soul stolen by Dusknoir, who sneaked past her guards to kill her just like it did to make it through our walls. We'd asked her to evacuate so she could be brought to the League, but she refused and the people I'd put in charge didn't see it fit to force her out."


The champion sighed. "Sorry, I've never been the best at delivering these types of news. I usually have someone else do it for me. People have told me I'm too straightforward about it."

I blinked, not knowing what to say or even how to react. My grandmother was… dead. Her soul was being tortured by Mars' Dusknoir as we spoke, like thousands of others. I was sad— no, not sad. Maybe sorry was a better way to put it. I'd gotten her killed by just being related to me, and that was a horrifying prospect to wrap my head around, but I was not gripped by the throes of sorrow. I did not want to cry, or to scream, or to get revenge any more than I already wanted to. It just felt hollow. Numb. I leaned against the wall and Cass asked me if I was alright, but I didn't answer. Did I feel this way because she'd been an asshole to me, or because I'd only met her twice that I could remember? In a way, I thought that I should be feeling more than this.

"Huh," I said. "I… shit. Okay."

"Then I'll be on my way," Cynthia said. She looked about ready to leave, now with her repeatedly looking toward the hallway out. "Call me if you need anything, and I'll make it happen. My condolences, Grace."

I stood still until I heard the door at the entrance close. Maylene seemingly asked her something, but I didn't hear their conversation.

I shambled into the living room in silence, and Maylene now had her Lucario with her, whispering low enough so that I didn't hear. She was probably telling him about everything going on. Still, she didn't pay me any mind, so I just sat on the dinner table instead of the couch and cradled my face as I let out a pained groan. Dead. I'd never see her again. The chord had been cut off, the relationship could never be mended and there would be no second chances. It was easier to dislike someone who was alive and breathing. I would never be able yell at her and tell her how much of a bitch she'd been to my mother just for taking care of me or try to understand what it was that had twisted her so. Arceus, my Mom. She'd be devastated by this, wouldn't she? She loved her mother, I saw it in her eyes when they'd fought. You weren't hurt when arguing with someone unless you cared deeply about them.

My bandaged hands traced the contours of my face.

It was too late. There would be no takebacks. Nothing could be done.

"Sorry for your loss."

Maylene was looking my way, as was her Lucario. The fighting type nodded deeply, reminding me of Ri's way of interacting with people. I was sure that there'd be differences between the two if I'd known Maylene's enough.

A strange, choked sound left my throat. "I didn't… I didn't know her very well."

She shrugged. "Family is family. It sucks either way. And I'm sorry, I kind of overheard, it's… hard to control myself when I'm stressed. I've got better hearing than the average person." Her tone wasn't gentle, but it was respectful enough to tell me she was trying to be nice.

"It's okay. I've just gotta put my head down and deal with it." My fingers touched the sharp edge of the table, poking at a corner repeatedly. Pressing it until it poked deep into my bandage until Cass warned me to stop. "Hey."


"This is probably a bad moment for this. I just can't… keep it in now that you're here. Tell me if you want me to stop."

The Gym Leader was on edge, more so than she'd just been. Her posture was rigid, her back completely straight and arms tensed. Her gaze never lingered on a single spot for too long.

"Why're you looking at me like that?" she asked, squeezing a hand around her other arm.

"Like what?"

"Like… it feels like when Nia— Gardenia looks at me, but there's none of the warmth. I hate it. Like you're probing for a weakness instead of looking out for me, and I don't expect someone like you to look out for me, but you know, it's just weird and it makes me feel uncomfortable."

"I don't follow. I'm just looking at you because we're talking."

"You know what, I'll just drop it." Maylene stopped, given that Lucario must have been talking to her. After a few seconds, she continued. "Look, your grandma's dead and your other friend… I don't know, so I don't want to fight, but I've been— I've been picturing this moment in my head for when we met again." Her tone was rising ever so slowly. "When I'd be able to tell you how much you hurt me. How you would have destroyed me if my friends hadn't been here to help, and while I was picking up the pieces you were having a grand old time. Riding off your fame from that interview and having fun in Sunyshore, going on dates, hanging out with that Johtohan Gym Leader and Volkner. You hurt me, but they were letting you into our circle. Do you know how awful that made me feel?"

Cass was about to protest, but I raised a hand and let her speak. It was her right. My comeuppance.

"At some point I started to wonder, was something wrong with me? Because clearly, Candice was still calling you until you left Pastoria. You were only finding success after success, and I was just fucking miserable."

Each word felt like a blow, each sentence like someone was pouring salt into a freshly opened wound. Every time her face contorted in anger there was a subtle sadness woven within.

Her eyes were wet.

"I already know what you want. You want to apologize. Candice's already been trying to find an angle sometimes when we speak and every time, I tell her that I don't know. Everything I've read about you— been forced to read about you points to some kind of psycho. You kill, you torture, you hurt more than necessary in battle, you—" she stopped and groaned. "You're bad, and the world is ending, and I shouldn't care but you're the one who wanted to bring this up." Her built-up anger fell for a moment. "Wait, you did want to bring this up, did you?"

"Yes. I did."

"Okay, thank the Legendaries. I've built you up as this… this caricature in my head, I think. I was expecting some emotionless monster who's only looking to hurt, but you aren't that. And I know your grandma just died and it's kind of unfair, but you also aren't… I don't think I can forgive you with a simple apology is what I'm getting at."

"I know that. I just wanted to get it off my chest and actually do it because I don't know if I'll ever see you again," I muttered. "And you know what, I haven't even done it yet." I rose from my seat and faced her. "I am sorry, Maylene. For purposefully using you being overwhelmed by work to have you break down. For what I did to your Infernape and for goading you in public to make you look like the bad guy. I knew you were hurting and instead of trying to help, I was the one who made the situation worse. I'm sorry for being a huge reason for all the shit you got online. The threats, the abuse… everything."


I felt so much lighter now. Like I was a feather in the sky being carried by the wind.

She snapped. "I just said I wouldn't— you know what, whatever," Maylene sighed, her eyes tightly shut. "We don't have to talk about it anymore, just venting all of this out made me feel better. Thanks, Lucario."

Her starter patted her on the back, no doubt talking to her through aura while I sat back down and sagged into my chair. My cheeks felt warm, I was short of breath and sweat dripped down my forehead, like I'd just worked out or gone through a long battle. For around five minutes, there was silence as I just stared blankly at a wall, not daring to look at Maylene.

"Um… sorry to ask you this, but are the Gym Leaders okay? You know, with the explosions in the cities."

"You have a phone— gosh, okay, they're all fine. Still helping out local authorities while I'm sitting here, being useless. I think Roark was hurt a little bit, but he's okay. I can turn on the T.V. if you want."

"No, I'm fine. Thanks."

Arceus, I hated when someone figured you out. That subtle shift in their eyes, that lean a fraction of an inch forward as they questioned if they'd been seeing things or if they were right about the chink in your armor. Not finding a weakness per se, but realizing why you acted the way you did.

Must have been obvious, if it had been obvious to Chase.

But Maylene didn't push. Instead, she kept the knowledge to herself and looked down at her phone.

Nothing else to do but wait.

Maylene Suzuki scrolled through her phone in silence. So many dead, and for what? Every headline was accompanied by a picture of a collapsed building, every article by a testimony from someone who had survived the blasts but lost someone today. This day would traumatize and haunt Sinnoh for a generation. The people were demanding blood for this, a strike at any target, revenge, but there was nothing to show for all the casualties but a half-empty base underneath Veilstone and a few grunts and scientists who'd missed their Teleportation ride. The fact that it had spanned the entirety of the city made Maylene sick to her stomach. How the hell had they built it so deep, and how had they done it under the nose of her father's authority?

You'll only run in circles if you keep questioning it, Lucario said next to her. You can ask him yourself when he gets here.

"Might not make it before the world ends. He doesn't even know about all of this," Maylene whispered. Low enough so that the girl she'd been forcefully shackled to by Cynthia wouldn't hear. "You know he gave up access to classified info as soon as he retired."

Not always.

Granted, sometimes those rules were flexible, but not if you left for another country. The worst part was that he was coming back with his wife, but worrying about shit like this when Sinnoh was on fire wasn't up to a Gym Leader's standards, so she shook her head and continued scrolling. There was mass hysteria in the streets. Gangs of trainers were roaming to see if they could catch anyone in Team Galactic, and of course people were being accused for no good reason other than they 'looked suspicious'. Violence begot violence, along with mass hysteria, and multiple fights had to be put down by authorities in every city. Luckily all of those trainers had been weak, but still… seeing Sinnoh like this hurt. She wanted to be out there and be a symbol for people to latch onto. Her sudden absence from Sunyshore wasn't doing the rumors any help, she bet. Hopefully Volkner was okay with keeping order. He could be a lazy bum sometimes, but he was actually among the hardest workers she knew, at least on the city governance side of things and running his Gym. Battling was only one part of being a Gym Leader.

Are you hungry? You haven't eaten since yesterday night.

"I'm okay."

You're always okay, but not really, her friend rolled his eyes. I'll see if I can scrounge up something. Better not complain about how it tastes, though.

She smirked. "Thanks."

Watching him stride toward the kitchen had her look at Grace for a moment, just staring blankly ahead and doing nothing much else. Her Claydol too, just hovered there in silence, eyes constantly moving and looking at every single inch of this room. Truth be told, silence after she managed to vent her feelings out was a lot better than what she thought would happen. She knew what kind of girl Grace was, now, so she'd prepared at least twenty different answers for the argument she'd expected to happen. After playing it out in her head during many showers or nights spent staring at the ceiling in her bed, Grace just deflating like that was kind of underwhelming. Better for Maylene's state of mind, but still underwhelming.

Maylene heard the sound of cutlery in the kitchen and her stomach growled. She wished Nia was here with her.

"Do you want to eat anything?" Maylene asked. "Lucario's making food."

She looked like she was hanging by a thread, that thread being the survival of her friend… Justin Gardner, his name was? Apparently he'd been caught in one of the blasts at the Canalave library, but…

Yeah, she was hanging by a thread, and since she was supposed to cut off the control the Red Chain had over Mesprit, it'd be best if she was at least okay, even if Maylene didn't really like having to do this. Cynthia had warned her, before Grace came and she started… cleaning. Arceus, the sight of her Garchomp had made her nauseous. Warned her that Grace's mental state was most likely 'highly volatile' and that she needed to be handled carefully. Why, then, had Cynthia revealed the death of her grandmother?

'Better me than Mars,' the Champion had answered right before leaving.

And now Maylene had her duty— duty that she had almost messed up by confronting the damn girl about how much she'd hurt her. She had started talking, and after all these months holding back, stopping had been impossible.

Cynthia had this weird way of being likable even though she was admittedly the worst person Maylene knew. Hundreds had been subject to torture on her order, a policy that had no doubt made Galactic members closer to their cult because of the fear of being turned into a braindead puppet forced to live the rest of their lives in a League prison. Her Garchomp had just murdered over a thousand people and they'd both been so nonchalant about it. Maylene shuddered at the thought. Every time they spoke, she had to remind herself that she was bad. A horrible person who just happened to be her boss. Always, it was the most drastic measure with her. Jumping at the worst option imaginable instead of compromise— not that she'd expected her to compromise with grunts now that the situation was this serious, but it was the sheer unbothered way she had shown up that shook Maylene.

Yet there was no other choice, now.

"Grace?" Maylene asked again.

"Oh. What?"

"Food. Do you want any?"

"Oh. I'm not very hungry, but thanks for the offer."

"If you're certain. Lucario's making something right now, he could just add a little extra for you." Arceus, just say yes already for the love of all that was holy. "I don't want you to pass out or anything."


"Sweet. Hey Lucario, can you—"

I heard already, he answered. Few could communicate from this far with aura without concentrating, but he was one of them. Just a simple ham and cheese sandwich.

"Ham and cheese sandwich okay with you?" she asked.


"Great. If you want anything else, just let me know."

"...why are you being nice to me?"

Maylene frowned. "I'm just… showing common decency."

Grace twitched, her head turning slightly toward Maylene and away from the wall. "But I hurt you. I honestly hurt you a lot worse than I did most people I hurt. You said you wouldn't forgive me. I'm not getting a second chance."

"It's not about second chances. And look, if you want, you can just be pragmatic about it and say that I need you in good condition for the coming fight."

"It's not. You're genuinely good. Thank you for that."

The Gym Leader huffed. "Whatever helps you sleep at night."

Lucario came back with their food another three minutes later. The bread was a little dry, but it'd do to keep her stomach for now. Grace was eating as well and looking a little better, at least. She was even chatting with her Claydol and had released that weird blob of metal from its Pokeball. Maybe the world would survive the coming evening and the following day. Maylene had kept her doom scrolling to a minimum by distracting herself by fooling around with Machamp and Lucario and playing charades, though the former was admittedly horrible at it even if she did enjoy the game. Machamp had made Candice launch into a laughing fit that had nearly killed her when she'd tried imitating Cynthia last summer.

That was, unfortunately short-lived, and their moment of peace was interrupted when ACEs burst into the building.

Forty minutes. That was the time I'd gotten to prepare for the task at hand.

I was led out of the house by ACEs I didn't know the names of, though I recognized Ariel and Richard leading them, at least. Maylene was at my side with Lucario, wisps of blue energy swirling around them both as they flanked me so the fighting type could sense Dusknoir as soon as he showed himself.

Mesprit looked just like I'd seen them in their lake. As small as a human baby, their skin smooth like glass. What was different now was that their brilliant golden eyes were now closed and they were almost cradling themselves, like they were sleeping. There was a feeling in my chest, intrinsic knowledge of what I should do to fix this wrongness. Fix the fact that one of His creations was no longer going along with His plan and was being used for nefarious deeds. Below Mesprit, along with a cohort of five grunts and their Pokemon, was Mars. Her red hair was longer than it used to be, going down her shoulders instead of being gelled, and she was as pale as she'd always been.

Here stood my nemesis. The person I'd feared for so many months, first for what she could do to me and then because I'd been turning into her.

Her mouth gaped when she saw me standing in front of her, pure joy writ on her face like the expression of an exaggerated statue.

"Grace," she gasped as a flurry of attacks struck their barrier.

Cynthia's entire team was present, save for Lucario and Spiritomb, each of them using attacks that I had no doubt could shatter any Gym's barrier within a fraction of a second. Eight of the Champion's Pokemon, Lucian's psychics trying to unravel the barrier instead of breaking it with brute force, and more League trainers than I could count, and the barrier only shook.

But at least it was shaking. They were only using a fraction of Mesprit's power, and since there was no blast of emotional torture, I assumed that Mars was having them put everything they had into this shield of protection, and more of the grunt's psychics were backing them for support. It was not impenetrable.

I tasted bile at the back of my throat. Only Cecilia had ever spoken my name in the way Mars had. So lovingly. The next words were silent, given the number of explosions and elemental attacks being swallowed by the shield, but I could read her lips like the statement was crisp and clear.

I missed you. Her hands formed into a heart above her chest.

I pictured her neck snapping and her crumpling to the floor to soothe myself.

My eyes closed, and I linked my emotions with Mesprit's right as Mars gripped the Red Chain around her neck.

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Chapter 306 - It's So Lonely Here

I awoke to the distorted sound of rushing water.

Opening my eyes, the first thing that jumped at me was color. The sky was impossibly vast in a way that was difficult to describe, but it wasn't blue. The heavens were a canvas of ever-shifting color unlike anything I'd ever seen before. It was every single hue imaginable, every mix, every combination one could think of was there in the sky with enough volume to have dread creep up my spine. It was difficult to tell how far away it was from me, too. If I focused my eyes a certain way, the sky looked close enough to touch, but sometimes it looked so far, like I was staring at the firmament instead. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust for me to realize that it wasn't… well, it wasn't exactly real. Like someone had plastered a two-dimensional colorful tarp over the sky and called it a day. There were no clouds, no sun in the sky, nothing to grasp at to tell myself that this place could exist, yet I felt warmth coming from somewhere, just colors instead of a star. The sky was still vast enough to have me shiver, like the world was boundless and so overwhelming, but fake in a very subtle way that you'd overlook if you didn't focus enough.

My entire body felt sluggish. My hands gripped at the ground, hoping to find dirt, but the surface was smooth as metal instead, warm as pavement under the gentle heat of late spring. Rising into a sitting position, this place unfurled before me. Everywhere I looked, the world seemed to pulsate with emotion as if it were alive. Mountains rose like titans of color, their peaks shimmering in the radiant light reflected from somewhere while another was shrouded in darker tones and nearly invisible to the naked eye. Rivers flowed with liquid rainbows, their currents twisting and turning in mesmerizing patterns. To my left was one that dizzied if you looked long enough, and it spread out into a waterfall that fell down into a valley, but it was like everything moved slower here. The water was almost frozen in time, only moving a few inches every second, if even that. Far away— impossibly far away, as if I was somehow looking at something thousands of miles away, enormous pillars of different hues stood, stretching so high into the sky I just…


How high did they go? I looked on, and on, and on, but they never ended. I'd called them pillars, but they were more like storms frozen in time. If I got closer, I bet I'd see them move, but I didn't want to see what would happen to my state of mind if I was thrown into one of those storms.

This place. It boggled the mind and unease kept crawling down my spine like little bugs or grains of sand were slithering down my back. It shouldn't exist. It was a world beyond my understanding that felt suffocating to be in. It was so beautiful, almost frozen.

Like a painting. Mesprit had always been obsessed with colors, hadn't they?

And God, was it a painting. For one, I didn't fit in, as if I'd been shoved into one of those cartoons Princess liked while still looking like a normal human. Each area I would look at was stylized differently, with strange shapes, textures and… not themes, but… gah, I'd never been interested in art! Louis or Cece would be able to put this into thought far better than I was, but at the same time, it wasn't like there were words to describe what I was looking at. A Legendary inconceivably old had created this place, and it would be a foolish endeavor to attempt to make sense of it.

Instead of an endless void, this was Mesprit's inner mind when they were not dormant, it seemed, and it took a significant amount of effort not to sit and stare forever. It would be easy to. Everywhere I looked, I could get lost in fractals that went on forever, or at least hadn't ended as far as I had looked. There were no voices here, but it was like something was telling me to keep my eyes wide open and bask in whatever this was. I supposed someone who wasn't the shard of emotion would have gotten overwhelmed by this subtle perception to the point of paralysis, and for better or for worse, I'd been given this duty.

And I was on a time limit.

I rose to my feet with a spring in my step, remembering that I wasn't wounded in this dream world or mindscape or whatever you wanted to call it. For a moment, I put weight on my leg— my full weight, and I giggled. The first unnatural sound this place had seen in thousands of years was me and my stupid laugh. It was— it had been so long since I'd been able to do that. When meeting Mesprit for the first time, I'd been too focused on surviving with my mind intact. I technically walked without a crutch now, but doing this was still impossible and holy crap this felt liberating.

Could I run? Mesprit was nowhere to be found, and I needed to cover ground quickly, so it made sense to try. My leg hesitantly flattened on the smooth ground, and then I started… running. There was no wind to zip past my ears here, no need to breathe loudly because my lungs were on fire, but it was real, and I was running! I was running! Smoke and paint burst from my skin, all bright colors that etched themselves in the ground and sky behind me. There was a sense of liberation with each step, almost like I'd been given wings! Every time my foot stomped on the ground, the possibility of me taking flight was there, at the tip of my feet. Legendaries, to be able to feel the ground beneath my feet, just to stomp and not have pain surge through my leg!

This was heaven. This was the magic of movement.

"Haha… hahaha!"

I was happy here, when I'd been gloomy right before entering Mesprit's world. Was it a subtle trick of the mind, or was I just meant to be here?

I jogged, skipping across a few 'stones' lying about the waterfall. I'd never been the most agile girl, but by the Legendaries, I made that river look like a chump. I had no idea what would have happened if I'd fallen in it or if it was even a real liquid or not, but I didn't care. The only thing I could do was laugh and run, barreling down the hill while my arms windmilled at my sides with no direction in mind. My leg was caught behind another and I tripped, rolling on the floor, and I found myself unable to stop laughing. And why even stop? This place was— this place was so beautiful! Oh, how far it stretched! How it showed me colors I'd never even considered before, how they bled into my skin and became me.

Plus, there were no signs of Mesprit anywhere, nor anything I should look for. Maybe those darkened mountains in the distance? They…

Hold on.

Had they moved?

My legs stopped, skidding across the smooth, painted floor. Come to think of it, it was dry, but my clothes and skin were starting to get soaked in color. Yellow, pink, brown and red on my shoes and legs while the extremities of my fingers were turning bright purple, white and a strange, ashy grey that pulsated every few seconds. It was growing ever so slowly, but it was different than the colors everywhere else. It was as if the paint wasn't covering me, but becoming my skin. I blinked as I brought my hand up and saw the paint crawl across it ever so slowly about as fast as everything else moved here.

I couldn't let it cover me. This was… this was a timer. It was strange to know something without any prior context, but that was what it was— the only thing that it could be. But wouldn't my time in here be shorter? The main problem was that Mars was using the Red Chain to take control of Azelf, and I had no idea if this place would have a way to know how long that would take. I needed to act like I had even less time than what this place was trying to show me, because chances were she would Teleport away before I was done here and I'd be pulled away. I had no heart capable of pounding against my chest, but the anxiety was there. It was real, tangible, and in front of my eyes, so solid I could actually grab it, and grab it I did. The stormy cloud shattered against my hand and splattered all over me and the ground at my feet with a small explosion, releasing a pressure I hadn't known had been there, and I was happy again.

This place was definitely drugging me without my consent. Focus. Shard of Emotion my ass, this place was a fucking trap meant to keep you here for as long as Mesprit wanted.


Arceus? I couldn't say His name. It was like it was constantly on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn't utter it.

"I wish my Pokemon were here," I finished my sentence. They'd keep me grounded, at least. Or Cecilia. I missed her, even though it had only been a few hours. I so desperately wanted her with me in a way that made my heart physically hurt.

My eyes drifted back to the darkened mountain, and I turned… away from it and toward the hill I'd just run down from.

Or at least I thought I did. Everywhere I looked, it was at the center of my vision as if the world itself was forcefully bending itself to get me to look. Witnessing this made no sense and made my head spin, but either way, it had the desired effect. The mountain was the tallest in this world, an oppressive force that sapped me of any joy if I focused on it for too long.

I smiled and made a note to look every minute to center myself and to not get lost in the weeds of this place. Either way, this crushing feeling was familiar. Being this happy for too long felt alien, not that I was incapable of being happy, but the highs just never felt as good as the lows felt awful, lately. Everything had just been recalibrated, somehow.

I looked at my fingers once more. The grey was inching forward ever so slowly. If Cass had been here, they would have been able to estimate how long it'd take to cover all of me within the minute.

There was a pull. Like I was about to be swept off my feet and carried toward the mountain.

I have to go there.

I didn't know when I started running again. One second I'd been standing, breathlessly staring at doom itself, and then the next, the world was blurred around me until making out the ground from the sky was impossible. It all blended together into a torrent of chromaticity that spun around me and overtook every inch of my vision. Until I couldn't make up from down, right from left, save for the looming mountain in the distance. I went so quickly that light bent around me and I couldn't feel the ground underneath my feet.

My hands were covered in gray when I made it, and it was crawling up my ankles too. This mountain— this tower was difficult to describe. The way I craned my neck as far as possible and it unfurled before me like a titan, and how it made me feel like I was falling upwards. This is even taller than those storms. This was a painting, so I could theoretically see as far as Mesprit had drawn. There were no clouds or atmosphere to mask things that were too far, and so I could fully witness how grand it was. How it stretched so far into the heavens it might as well have been infinite. I was a speck, a microbe under its shadow. So insignificant that it took my breath away, and negative emotions pressing down my back weren't helping.

I was supposed to climb this? This was like a Mount Coronet onto itself! I was going to run out of time… the realization dawned on me, and my lips trembled. Is this mountain modeled like Mount Coronet? It certainly had the scale to it, but I hadn't stumbled onto an entrance of any kind and telling was actually impossible. Maybe I was supposed to climb it? It wasn't like this body was real. I'd fallen over earlier and felt no pain whatsoever, could run faster than Honey could in real life, and didn't get tired. Glancing at my hands again, I bit my lip. I was wise to this world's tricks now, and I pushed down the apathy trying to worm its way into my brain. The little voice telling me that it would be pointless to try. Part of me wondered why it and the previous happiness was so subtle. After all, hadn't a dormant Mesprit blasted me with emotion so strong I'd been at their complete whims when I'd met them for the first time? What was with the cloak and dagger? Was it because Team Galactic couldn't use Mesprit's full power? That answer didn't sit right with me, but there was no time to dawdle.

I took a deep breath and started scaling into the malevolent hues. The rocks were streaked with shades of the darkest ebony and midnight blue so dark it might as well have been black. It was like stepping into a void, and it reminded me of Shiftry's darkness. Colors so dark they reflected little light. My hands were like torches each time they were placed onto the mountain, gripping each dark stone, and I threw myself upward with renewed vigor. The more I climbed, the more my thoughts grew morbid. Little voices at the back of my head— my voice, until it crystalized, materialized into a literal solid that weighed me down and tried to drag me back to the base of the mountain. You aren't going to make it. You aren't like your predecessor, Atreus. You're useless, unchosen, only picked through sheer chance. People you care about have died because of you. Justin is dead because of you, and he won't be the only one

"Fuck you," I snarled.

No more self-doubt. No more moping. I had to do this, come hell or high water. I clenched my teeth, buried my worries and kept climbing, occasionally destroying the miasma of horrible emotions that manifested around me. Given that my body wasn't real, I never actually got exhausted physically, but mentally?

When the gray finished covering my forearm, I reached… a place. My mind was so foggy that I had to sit still for a few minutes to keep track of where I was and what was going on.

This wasn't the summit, I would have needed to climb forever to get there, even at those speeds. Instead, I reached a flattened bit of ground that stretched for miles and miles. I'd always said that this place was wrong, but this one was truly strange. It was like a mishmash of painting styles had just been stuck together to create a whole in a way that made my head hurt, but there was a house in here. A small cabin surrounded by trees that weren't really there, but just drawn into the air. Why the hell would Mesprit know or care about a cabin in the woods? Was it a metaphor for something? Either way, the pull here was stronger than ever and I knew this was where I needed to go. That house? It was real, just like me.

There was an arch I needed to cross to get to the house. I could also go around it, but the world had a way to stretch or contract that forced me to walk through the structure. It was drawn in the same way everything else was, made of a bony white and adorned by traces of gold and green woven throughout the arch. I took a hesitant step forward and heard a gong, or maybe a drum that announced my presence. My eyes grew wet as soon as I made it through, and for a moment I felt like crying for a reason I'd forgotten. It had slipped my mind— barely sticking for a fraction of a second before I'd forgotten. Not grief, but maybe… nostalgia. Melancholy?

Legendaries, this was weird. I sniffled and wiped away the tears.

The answers lay in that house— I knew that to be true. It was the only thing in this damn place that looked like something I might see out of the real world and not some crazed artist's drawing. It was something that didn't fit. It wasn't born of this world or Mesprit's knowing, so it was the only possibility that made any sense to me.

My mind grew clearer and clearer as I approached the cabin until I finally returned to normal, or as close to normal as I could be given the circumstances. Being certain of it was impossible, but my mind was clear and I felt similar to how I'd been before entering Mesprit's mindscape. Out of habit, I tried to release my team before entering the house, but the Pokeballs on my belt weren't real. They were only imagined, just like my own self, and no Pokemon would come out no matter how many times I pressed that button. I placed my head against the wood, trying to see if I could hear anything, but it was deafeningly silent.

"It's not real. Open the door."

Look at yourself, so worried about danger when you can't die here.

It was a simple wooden door with indentations running up and down the surface of the wood. The handle was a little loose when I placed my hand around it, like a simple tug or push would knock it off the door.

It didn't. I slowly opened it, surprised to see it didn't creak at all, and a single room revealed itself to me.

But before I could even notice anything else, Mars was here with Mesprit, sitting on the floor at a coffee table with a cup of tea in her hand while the Legend hovered above it. My body moved before I even understood what I was looking at, my hand lunging for the girl's throat, but it ran through her body and hovered right above the table. I blinked and tried again to wrap a hand around her neck, but she wasn't actually there. This was fake— or maybe not fake, but not something I was capable of influencing, and Mars had the Red Chain with her. Mesprit's eyes were wide open here, but they clearly weren't themselves.

"Mesprit! Mesprit, can you hear me?!" I tried. No response.

"Here's the thing, Munchkins," Mars said in way too casual of a tone while she blew into her cup. "I understand that you've got a duty to the Big Guy, but you made the right choice. Isn't it so sweet to just have a little bit of fun with me?" Her head swayed from side to side. "You haven't been out of this dump for like what, hundreds of thousands of years? More? What's wrong with a little break? A few days tops?"

Frowning, I sat next to the two and let the conversation play out, ignoring how surreal and helpless it felt to watch this unstable girl talk with a literal God.

"Don't push your luck, human! I'm just considering my options, and I've never had options before!" Mesprit spoke. Their voice was duller than I'd grown used to, but the cabin shook as one when they did, color eating away at its edges and dissolving the wood before allowing it to even exist again, which was further proof that this home was… made through Mars. Was it significant to her somehow? There were no items other than furniture here, and for some reason, there was only a living room. It was quite minimalist. "Maybe you should do more to convince me."

"You're already helping her," I muttered in disbelief. Still no answer.

"Munchkin, you're already helping," Mars echoed my statement, sipping at her tea. "Eugh, what kind of drink is this? It's like drinking color— wait where did it even come from? This makes no sense. Anyway, what I was getting at is that… I get you, you know? You look to the Big Guy up top and he barely acknowledges you, if even that." Mars took a deep breath before continuing and placed her cup down. "I know Cyrus doesn't love me, you know? I know he never will, too, but I help him anyway because at least he talks to me. He's real in a physical sense, and he helped me with my memory troubles and actually raised me. But you? You get shoved in a lake for who knows how long, and you're expected to listen to His rules? Where does this guy get off, right?"

"Don't talk of Him this way!" Mesprit cried out. So small. So weak. Yet the Red Chain around Mars' neck pulsated. "All I wanted… all I wanted was…" they sobbed. "It's just so lonely here."


I understood now. It had clicked.

The Red Chain was not a 'device' to enslave their minds. It always hadn't sat right with me, that literal Gods were capable of being so easily controlled with the right technology and dedication. It was made to dissolve Arceus' rules that were usually so ironclad, so etched into a Legendary's personality that disobeying them wasn't even a consideration. After that, push and prod at the right weakness, manipulate using the chain, and…

They still had to be convinced in some way, but it made them less concepts and more Pokemon.

Was the real Mars in a world of her own convincing Azelf right now?

"All you wanted was to talk to Him again," Mars said. "Feel the warmth of His words like you must have at your birth. Sucks that He's an absentee father, right? You know, there are way too many of those, it's like, what the hell, right? Where the dads at?"

"If you bring me to Spear Pillar," Mesprit muttered. "If you bring me to Spear Pillar, will you allow me to talk to Him?"

"Oh. Could I do that?"

I screamed again, tried to link my emotions to Mesprit, but nothing worked.

"It is His throne, you useless girl!" the Legend screamed, forcing both of us to cover our ears. Mars paled, crawling back a few feet while I fell to the ground and cradled myself as dread spread through me. "I will call out to Him there and beg for an audience. We will do that instead of your daft plan to end His Creation."

"Th—then sure," the Commander nodded weakly as the chain glowered. "Yeah, you can do that. Totes."


There was a subtle way one could tell when I was lying or being untrue to myself. The smile spread across Mars' face was just as bittersweet and full of hurt as mine had been when I'd told my team I was fine shortly after my ankle had been broken in Pastoria. It twitched at its edges and was just a little too wide, just a little forced, because the truth of the matter was, Mars did feel bad for Mesprit's circumstances. And with the chain, Mesprit couldn't tell she was lying about her plan. She had no intention of allowing them to see Arceus— if He would even answer their call in the first place. His whole philosophy was to observe without intervention, but Mesprit wasn't thinking straight. They couldn't. Not after their mind had been altered so much from what it used to be.

"Fine. But make no mistake, I will be the one in charge! If you try anything, I'll condemn you to an eternity of sorrow in this place," Mesprit warned. "And there's something I must address about people who have part of me and my siblings' powerswait."


The Legendary paused and stared right at me. To have those bright yellow eyes pierce through mine made me want to cower in fear. I didn't.

"She's here. My Shard."

It was at this moment, that Mars noticed me. Or at least Mars' echo. The redhead beamed, giggling as she threw herself at me with a hug. I tried to kick her away, but our bodies just went through each other just as they had before. Mars crashed face-first into the floor, causing the coffee table to rattle and her cup to drop, spilling colors all over the wooden planks and shattering the ceramic.

"Ow. Ow," she groaned. "Wait, it doesn't hurt at all, never mind! Grace! I can't believe you're here—"

"Mesprit! Mesprit, she's manipulating you," I tried. "Look at that chain around her neck! That's the Red Chain you and your siblings warned us about! You have to wake up."

"Hey! Don't ignore me!"

Mesprit squinted. "I don't see anything there. Why are you lying to me?"

Fuck. Fuck, they couldn't see it, of fucking course they couldn't.

"If she doesn't have the chain, then how would she have come here?" I asked. I had to find a hole in their logic, anything to get them to realize they were being tricked. "Think, Mesprit. This is still the same Mars! She wants to end the world because her ideals are the same as Cyrus'. She doesn't have a single independent thought!"

"Wait. How are you here, Mars?"

"You invited me, duh! We're pals!"

"Of course. I invited her."

"You didn't—" the grey was crawling up my arms and legs. I had to change strategies. "Damn it, okay. Think of it this way, Mesprit. You would do anything for Him, right?"

Each time I inferred Arceus' name, warmth spread through my throat.

The Legend tilted their head, floating up to me, and I did my best to stand my ground. "Of course, I would. I love Him more than you can even fathom."

"Don't let her gaslight you," Mars said. "She's way too good at it, I know her."

I bit down on my tongue before continuing. I couldn't see the anger building up inside of me here, but I knew it was present. Focus. "Mars would do anything for Cyrus too, and he isn't planning to let you meet your Creator. He's so fucking miserable he wants to destroy the world instead of trying to fix himself or taking himself out on his own."

"Hey!" Mars pouted. "You're lucky I like you! But I can convince Cyrus, Mesprit. Don't sweat the details— GAH!"

I had grabbed a nearby chair and thrown it in her face, and she cried out as the wood splintered across her fake, pale skin. Funnily enough, I couldn't touch her, but the things I threw at her made contact easily. Hearing the wood snap against her was like music to my ears, and I bent down to grab a piece of the chair that had split off.

"Shut the fuck up." I kept beating her, the stick coming down with each word. "Shut. the. FUCK. UP. I'm tired of you and your fucking attitude, like everything is an Ar— a game!" I turned back at Mesprit with a deep breath. "Do you remember when we first met, Mesprit? How important the rules were to you? Do you remember those?"

"The… rules?"

Now we were getting somewhere. I had to hone in on this.

"Yes! And all of the rules were put in place to protect His Creation, right? By going to Spear Pillar, you would—"

There was an impact at my side, but it was without pain. A dull hit that was strong enough to topple me and send me careening toward the coffee table. It split in two from my weight and Mars stood atop of me with one of the chair legs in her hands, grinning from ear to ear like she was having the time of her life.

"That was so fucking cool when you hit me," she moaned, hands tracing down the sides of her face. "We can hit each other all day in here and be fine!" She stomped on my head and I whimpered, trying to cover my head, but her foot only went through me. It was hard enough for the impact to bend the wood behind my head. "Wish I could touch you, though. Like I did at the Power Plant. This is kind of dull. What's the point of it if we can't bleed, you know?"

Arceus, she could still scare me. The way her voice wrapped around my ears and was so perverse terrified me like I was that little girl in her clutches again. I bit my lip, and quickly grabbed one of my Pokeballs, throwing it at her face at full force. She yelped, taking a step back, and that short lapse in time allowed me to stand up.

"When I get the opportunity, I'll fucking kill you and make it slow," I growled.

"Legendaries, I love it when you're mad," Mars wistfully sighed. "I wish we could hang out together more. Isn't this what sisterhood is all about? Wanna describe how you're going to do it? Are you going to pull my fingernails first? Oh, oh, I know! Break each finger!"

My body was on edge and ready to lunge at her once more. "No, you psycho. I want nothing to do with you."

Mars softly clicked her tongue. "Ah, see, Mesprit? She wants nothing to do with me."

"She wants nothing to do with you," they echoed.

The chain pulsed, and I tried striking at Mars again, this time with a sharpened shard of her broken cup, but she just weaved out of the way and beat it out of my hand with her stick. She had better reflexes than me and she could move unnaturally quickly. I'd lost mine when I'd gotten close to the cabin, but she was still so fast.

"And yet we're so similar," she continued. I attacked again to stop her from spewing her poison, but it was no use. When I couldn't catch her by surprise, she would always have the upper hand. The wooden chair leg hit my neck at blurring speeds, and I slumped to the ground, limp. "Doesn't that mean she doesn't want anything to do with you, either? And wait, actually! What is she even doing here?" Another two hits, this time on my back. "How'd you get in here, hm?"

"It's true that she has expressed disgust at my ideas and self time and time again," the Legendary agreed. "She is unworthy and squandered her potential. Champion by happenstance."

"Champion? Oh right, you were gonna tell me something about that earlier, I nearly forgot!"

Shit. Shit. Shit! Would the real Mars get all of this knowledge when this was said and done? Would she figure out that I was a shard? How in the hell was I even supposed to do this when the fucking chain was pulling the strings? When Mesprit wanted someone who was so different from me? Even when I'd met them at Lake Verity, they had said that Mars perfectly encapsulated who they'd wanted as a Shard. I had come into an uphill battle from the beginning, but this was just… unfair. The chain allowed Mars' lies to pass for truth when I couldn't lie, and she was like the damn favorite child among the two of us.

"As I said, she was chosen and has a fraction of my capabilities as Shard of Emotion."

"Oooooh, interesting. Emotional manipulation, sensing, what else—"

"Mesprit, please," I groused, slowly getting up. "Don't let her do this to you. Everything He's made, everything He's done is going to get erased. I understand that you're lonely. I understand that it's difficult, and that I haven't spoken to you much, but—"

Mars rolled her eyes. "Come on. You understand? You, the same person that's swarmed by friends who love her at all times, who has people to support her for every little itty bitty thing?" She laughed, lazily walking toward me. I expected another painless hit, but instead she just tapped wood on the floor. "Don't lie to my little Munchkin like that, Grace."

"And what do you know?" I hissed. "Just because you're in love with someone who doesn't love you back doesn't mean that you can understand a modicum of what being confined to a Lake is like. To only be able to prod and feel at its surroundings and to never be allowed out. You can't compare a few years of memory to an eternity."

"That's true."

"But between the two of us, I come the closest, big sis," Mars said, giggling. "Man, I've always wanted to say that!" Her face shifted quickly into a more serious one. "But you know, I've been wondering about loneliness lately. I mean, I have my Pokemon, but I can't shake the fact that there's something about them… like they aren't acting right, and Dusky's been hiding the subject of my memories since I woke up in that dumpster. And people? I don't have any of those."

The grey was up to my shoulder and chest, now. "Boo hoo, so what? I don't give a fuck about your pity party, Mars. Mesprit, you—"

"Let her speak. You'll get your turn, Grace."

Damn it, I did not have time for this!

"Saturn's a whining wacko who thinks I'm too unserious, but hey, honestly I think he's the obnoxious one, always taking everything so seriously." She paced around the room, using the wood like a walking stick. "Charon hates me for prodding at his dead sister all the time, and not only does Cyrus think I'm too clingy, he can't actually feel anything," she listed. "Juju… Juju's kind of like a fun version of Cyrus. She's the kind of person that's impossible to connect with— truly connect with. She could know you for a decade and she'd still shrug while you die in front of her. Hell, she'd use you as a damn shield too if it meant she could live a little longer! You know, I want someone a little more real. A little more tangible."

"Maybe the reason you can't connect to people is because you torture and kill them all."

"If they can't handle me at my worst, then do they truly deserve me? And if they don't deserve me, then they don't deserve to live either!" she yelled. "Anyway, this is where my pitch comes in. Do you want to be friends?"


"Friends first, then siblings, I'm willing to take things slow for you. I follow you on social media you know? I watch your friends' streams every time you appear on them and I wanted to pre-order your merch, too, but they wouldn't let me do that. I'm your biggest fan!"

She wasn't real. She wasn't a fucking real person; who the hell thought like this? The fate of the world rested on our shoulders and this was what she was talking about? Really?

"I know it seems crazy, but I'm serious. I think you should join our side."

I laughed. "And why, pray tell, would I do that?"

"Because! Guess what? Your grandmother's dead!"

"Yeah. Okay."

"What? That's it?"

There was guilt, still, but… yes. That was it.

The Commander brought up her hands and stared at the ceiling. "That was so anticlimactic, I was waiting for the right moment to worm that into the conversation. Did you not care about her? Well, whatever, it's just an extra soul for Dusky and it's not like I expected that alone to work. Maybe I should have sent him after your friend's parents, that Denzel dude. Legendaries, his streams are so boring. You should have better friends. Like me."

I swallowed, but knew they'd fled like my own mother. "Mesprit, how long do I have to listen to this?"

"Until she's done."

"They probably weren't there anyway, huh?" Mars guessed. "I suppose I'll have to kill your friends one by one until you change your mind, then, since they'll be available. Maybe I'll start with Cecilia."

I felt cold as blood drained from my face.

"Or Louis! Or Justin— Oh. Oh!" Mars grinned. "That was a weird shift— is there someone else? Did one of your pals already die? Which one? Louis or Justin?"

"No one," I forced out.

"Only a matter of time until we get someone else," she mused. "Just for you, I'll make their deaths quick!"

My fist clenched, and Mesprit finally allowed me to talk. "I don't think you understand, so allow me to make myself clear. You can try and take everyone and everything from me. My friends, my girlfriend, my family— and you sure as hell won't succeed, but I will never join your cause. What you want is total annihilation." I pressed those words so Mesprit could hear, but I was running out of time. "If the opportunity shows, I will end you slowly and make you suffer as much pain as possible for what your Dusknoir's done to people. For what you've done to people…" Mathilda's words popped up in my mind. Dusknoir owned Mars, and the fact that Cynthia had just said she wasn't a human in the flesh lent credence to that theory. Was she one of the souls he'd eaten that he had taken a liking to?

Was she being manipulated? All of her life, she'd been basically groomed by Cyrus and a murderous ghost. Had they been the ones to turn her into what she was? Acting like they'd had no influence on her would be asinine of me.

I'd be sad if I cared. I'd told myself a long time ago, that there would be no second chances for any of the Commanders, and she was included in that no matter what her life had been like. The world would be better off with all of them dead. I knew she was stronger than me, but that didn't mean I wasn't going to go for the throat if she tried killing the people I cared about. I was, frankly, out of goodwill to give.

Mars rolled her eyes. "We'll see about that. It's easy to be all talk, but I'm sure little old me will find a way to make it just right."

"Die in a ditch," I smiled. It was a perfectly amicable one, too, and polite. The kind you'd show at a sponsorship interview. The grey was crawling up my neck. Mars being here was rattling me and making me waste time. "Mesprit, I'll ask again. I'll talk to you more— just like Mira does to Uxie, okay? And you can see the world through my eyes, right? Haven't I been entertaining to you? I mean, I feel you laugh at me sometimes."

"Maybe a little bit. And you live through a range of emotions far wider than this shell."

Shell. I remembered that Mesprit called Cyrus an empty shell, but Mars was one too? Not empty, though. The statement seemed to have rattled her, too, because for once in her life she was shutting the hell up. No, not shutting up. She clenched at her head and kept whispering to herself.

"Shell? No. No. No. I'm real. I'm real. I'm real. I'm real. I'm real. I'm real. I'm real. I'm real. I'm real…"

Pleasure coursed through my veins like I'd just been rejuvenated, and I let the savage smile take me. There was nothing quite like this. The feeling of victory over her, of finding what could possibly make her squirm.

"She's just a one-note girl that's trying her best to be interesting to you, but she can't be," I pressed, not shying away from Mesprit's stare. "Sure, she might be fun right now and allows her emotions to always guide her but isn't she just so dull?" I walked around the table, and Mars shied away from me. I wanted to hit her with something, but it'd be best to focus on Mesprit right now. "Always killing, torturing, and so gratuitously, I mean what even is the point, right? One murder is a monumental event, but a thousand? That's boring, and you know it."

I threw another Pokeball at Mars' head with all of my strength, for good measure, and she fell to her side. I knew for sure it hadn't been strong enough for that, but her body was totally limp.

"Where's the grit? The struggle? Isn't it more fun to be with me? To live with my inner conflict, my moral scruples and to laugh when I fail to be the person I want to be or to grumble when I succeed?"

"I… what is happening?"

"You know, I'm a big fan of movies and shows. Always have been. It allows me to live through eyes that aren't mine for a moment— to be transported into another world. I'm telling you that watching a show where the protagonist never changes, always does the same thing episode after episode gets boring after a while." I pointed a thumb at Mars. "I couldn't imagine being stuck with a girl like her. She doesn't understand change because she's not human. And Humans are His sacred creation, aren't they?"

"Right. She is a shell. A puppet capable of independent thought, but only built for a single purpose," Mesprit calmly declared. "Mars, I hereby declare—" then, their eyes stared into… into nothingness, like there was something there that also wasn't.


"My sibling is… you have to go."

There was a pull, as if the world itself was sucking me upward. I screamed, my hands desperate to cling to anything to keep me grounded, yet everything I touched dissolved at their seams into puffs of color. Gravity pulled me up through the roof and the little amount of resistance I'd been able to offer just died.

The world around me collapsed, shriveling into darkness, the last thing I heard being Mars' disbelieving words. No, no, no! I hadn't had enough time— I hadn't found the right words, I—

My eyes shut tight, and I breathed shakily. It had been so close. How the fuck could they just kick me out like that? How was I supposed to free them if they could just do that? Damn it. Damn this fucking job, I hated it! I hated this responsibility, hated that I had to see that crazy girl and I'd been completely incapable of harming her.

Lake Valor unfurled around me, and I screamed, falling back on the paved road. In front of me was Dusknoir, wisps of smoke barely visible through the monochrome world he had wrought. There were screams, but the ACEs didn't panic, redirecting their attacks toward the ghost. Lucario grunted, exuding blue light through every inch of his skin. He'd been the one holding Dusknoir back… Maylene and he had saved my life. Hands dragged me back, and I recognized the arms as Maylene's, and holy crap she's strong. She was lifting me like I was a feather. It was almost disorienting, to be back in the real world after spending what felt like hours inside of Mesprit's head, but from what I could see only a few dozen seconds had passed here at most.

The barrier around Mars had cracked, five of her psychics were slumped on the ground unconscious, and she seemed completely oblivious to the conversation I'd had with her other self. I had no idea if me almost convincing Mesprit had something to do with that, but… it didn't even matter.

Azelf was floating high in the sky, around a hundred feet away.

Mars had convinced him using the chain faster than I'd been with Mesprit. Dusknoir was disintegrated by the flurry of attacks and was actually about to die. The ghost could barely hold himself together and Lucario was using some kind of aura prison to keep him still and away from me. Dusknoir's edges shivered and his stomach desperately tried to open, but it was no use. Mars raised a Pokeball and an ACE's Donphan instantly lifted a pillar of earth to prevent her from recalling Dusknoir, but—

My head.

Everything felt so pointless all of a sudden. My body slumped against the ground as Maylene dropped me, but I didn't even register the pain from bumping my head against the asphalt road. It was like I was just… floating there, unable to think. My body felt weightless, and I could barely register the touch of the hot ground against my skin. The only thing I was capable of was staring at the sky and reveling in this feeling of sheer loss. There was a flash of red at the corner of my vision and the shattering of glass— of a barrier, but I could barely pay attention to the sounds surrounding me. It took another ten seconds to be able to think of anything at all.

This wasn't Azelf's work. This was Mesprit's. Not the sapping of willpower, but the imbuing of lassitude.

As for Mars? She was gone, along with Mesprit and Azelf. She'd left her cohort of psychics and grunts here, possibly because she'd needed to sacrifice some to get away unscathed.


I'd failed.

"Are you okay?" a voice behind me said. "Sorry I— I dropped you, I just felt totally…"

"Defeated, I got it too," I sighed. Even as a Shard, I hadn't been able to resist… hell, Cynthia had gotten her bearings before I had, apparently, given that she was already ordering people around. "I failed to stop her." My hands hugged my knees. "I fucked up, I'm sorry. Mars was faster than I was."

For a moment, there was silence, and I expected an outburst. "It's… well, I don't know if it's okay, but you tried."

Arceus damn it, yell at me or something! I desperately wanted her to, yet nothing else came except a few ACEs, then Cynthia to ask me what I'd seen. She had relayed disclosing the existence of this Legendary to everyone who had been here to Lucian, from what I understood. There were so many questions they made my head spin, and by the end of it, the League was trying to give me a blueprint for 'next time' I tried to talk to Mesprit if there was even going to be a next time…

I had to fight. I'd said no more moping, damn it, no giving up. There was too much at stake to just put my hands up and give in no matter how much I wanted to. Things were going to move faster and faster from here on out.

Think of it like a battle, Grace. You're behind right now, but that doesn't mean it's over.

Mars had apparently not escaped unscathed. More than half her body had been… destroyed before she Teleported out, though Cynthia wasn't sure it actually mattered, given that she wasn't human. Hell, apparently from how many attacks hit her it was surprising that there was even some of her left. The way it might matter was that it could have her doubting herself like she had in Mesprit's head, and that was a weakness I'd quickly told the League about. A few theories were forming in Cynthia's head, one asking herself why exactly they hadn't made use of Azelf, and instead sacrificed the strength of Mesprit's barrier to blast us with that feeling of defeat and pointlessness. Part of me hoped me having come so close to convincing Mesprit had also helped them breach the barrier, but there was no way to be sure about that. Another explaining Mars' origins, and it involved her lost memory and the fact that Dusknoir might be able to just alter it at will or at least delete certain portions of it he found would do her more harm than good.

But Dusknoir was in his Pokeball right now. He'd been recalled to be saved, and I was sure Mars had questions for herself about why she hadn't bled to death or died from shock. So much so that we weren't actually sure she'd be able to actually pick up the slack and gain control of Uxie. Not everything was lost, after all, and something told me that if Mars still handed the chain to Cyrus, freeing Mesprit from him would be easier than her, given that he couldn't feel anything. They'd hate his guts, if they would even listen. It'd probably have to be another Commander. She might not even show up, really.

"Turns out I've been assigned to you permanently."

The wind swept through my hair and across the Lake. I'd been watching its surface to see if Azelf's absence had changed anything, and it had. The water was less smooth, now. Turbulent, with small waves forming due to the wind, and it wasn't warm like usual. Most of all, it was…

The feeling of willpower, that everything was going to be okay that filled people's hearts when they stepped close to the Lake?

It was gone.

Honey and Princess were at my side, along with Cass who hovered above us. I was petting the fairy's back while Electivire fiddled with his hand, which was now basically back at full capacity. Electricity would sometimes course through it as he practiced his control again.

I turned toward the voice.

"Sorry about that," I shrugged. "I really thought it'd be just for the Lake."

"Nope, it's gonna be for the entire day," Maylene sighed. She scratched her cheek and sat next to me, watching the water. "Well, I guess night, now. Sun's about to set. We'll probably be going into Mount Coronet together with your team of League-assigned ACEs soon."

"Hmhm." I slung an arm over my knee and bit my lip. "Hey, you— you saved my life earlier. Managed to catch Dusknoir before any of the ACEs could. With all the questions and everything, I never had a chance to thank you for that, so… yeah, thank you."

"Meh. Thank Lucario when he's done getting sprayed by Full Restores. I was just doing my job. What, was I supposed to just let you die and doom the world?"

"Yeah. I still appreciate it, though."

"Whatever you say." She shifted in place, her hand clenching around some grass. "You know, Dusknoir kind of attacked you out of nowhere near the end there even though he'd be risking his death. We thought he wouldn't show up, since it was so dangerous and he'd obviously die, or at least we thought so."

"Oh. He only showed himself near the end?" I licked my lips. "Might have been when Mars was having her identity crisis in there. Maybe he wanted to cut the entire thing short… but that would mean he'd know about everything that second Mars was learning in there, and that he was continuously linked to what she felt."

Arceus, how far did this go?

"Huh. I've got to say, their whole thing has got to be the weirdest trainer-Pokemon relationship I've ever seen." Maylene leaned back, using her hands to support herself and stare up at the sky. "Ready for the jump to Acuity? You'll see your friends there. It's our last stand."


"Do you… do you think we're going to make it?" There was a quiver in her voice, like the facade she'd been putting on was cracking. "Do you think this is it?"

"We've got to try, don't we? If I can get another chance with Mesprit, I can— I can get them to agree, I think. I just need enough time, but I don't know if I'll get it. They… connected a lot with Mars, you know? It kind of surprised me when it shouldn't have." My left hand hit the ground repeatedly, gently enough for it not to hurt. Honey grabbed it anyway and kept it still. "I mean, I know she had the Red Chain and that Mesprit normally would never have considered her words, but still."

"You know, I don't really care much for this Legendary bullcrap." Then, she scrambled. "I mean, I'm not telling you to shut up, or anything, I'm just saying that it's, you know, it's a little annoying to have everything depend on these three turds who are so old and powerful, yet have weaknesses that can be exploited. It's like… why even make it this way, you know? If I'm Arceus—"

There was a short exhale through my nose. Not a snort or a laugh, but close to it.

"No, I'm for real! If I'm Arceus, and I'm building the world, then why leave it this way? It's like you're asking for this to happen, and hell, it's the second time it's happened!"

"I'd say something, but I don't want to…" agh, how to say this? "I don't want the consequences to bite me in the ass later. Part of Mesprit's still in my head, even if they aren't paying attention."

"Hey, I'll say it for you. Arceus sucks and he's the worst at his job, and I think someone else deserves a promotion. Maybe me."

My lips tugged at their sides. "No comment."

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Interlude - Character Study


When was the last time she'd gotten her nails done, anyway?

The question had popped up in Jupiter's mind when she'd looked at her fingers. They were a mix of blue and purple due to the number that ACE Trainer had done on her and now she couldn't even put her hands into a fist, let alone move them, and keeping them close to a fire type's warmth had only alleviated the frostbite. The pain was also bad, she supposed. It was a weird, numb sort of pain that was okay, but also annoying as hell? Not as bothersome as the ugly state of her nails, ugh. She was forced to look at them too, with how her hands were stretched next to some grunt's Camerupt.

They were all huddled up in a camp, this time off-route next to route 210, where all the fog kept them hidden well and they were close enough to Mount Coronet to access it when they needed to. The fog was so thick here she couldn't see ten feet in front of her, which made organizing this mess a whole lot of work that Saturn had to contend with, the poor guy, especially when he'd just lost his Crobat. A fun way to look at it was that he finally stopped being such a hard ass. So exigent that he reminded her of her old boss sometimes, except younger and louder, and he wasn't actually her superior no matter what he believed. Adrianna was honestly overqualified for her position, anyway. She should be above… well, maybe not above Charon, but above Mars and Saturn. No one had noticed her barely putting effort in, and even Cyrus had praised her for her 'usefulness'. If only he knew how useful she could be when she actually tried at anything. Too bad that had been way too much work, though.

Right now, the best Saturn had come up with was using their remaining psychics to link together to point them in the right direction whenever grunts needed to get somewhere else, because the fog never dissipated no matter what move they used. Not even Defog! It was little annoyances like that, that'd make someone go crazy. They'd sent a few scouting parties out east toward Mount Coronet, but those had apparently been shot out of the sky by a Salamence. There had been only one survivor, and they didn't exactly have men to spare. The goal had been to probe which entry would be the best to enter Coronet, but it looked like they'd have to go blind.

But hey, they had the power of Gods on their side, so that equalized the playing field a little.

"I think this isn't working anymore," Jupiter said before coughing. This fog was making it hard to breathe. "Thanks anyway, buddy."

"Anything to serve the cause, Commander Jupiter!" the grunt said. Her Camerupt neighed and flared up, happy to have aided in any way it could.

How predictable. At this point, you'd think all these grunts were the same person. It was like, get some new material, right?

"You hang tight, alright?" she smiled. Fake, of course, but she was well-practiced.

It was about time she visited Mars anyway, given that the kid wasn't doing great at the moment, and Cyrus had asked her to check up on her the last time he'd been doing rounds. Well, her and the rest of the Commanders. It was, after all, part of her job to keep them in line, and now that things had kind of gone to shit it was up to her to crawl down into the sewers that was her colleagues' brains and to unclog them as best she could.

It was still insane to her, that Cyrus' mere presence could raise morale to such an extent that no one here minded that there were only six hundred of them left. Way more Pokemon, of course, but the psychological effect of going from thousands of grunts to that meager number ought to have shaken them up a little more, right? Jupiter knew it'd be bad for their goals, but she kind of wanted to see the cracks form around the structure, just to figure out how they'd all have to fix it for the final battle. People were so fascinating when they were under pressure, but breaking them was boring. It was observing how they picked themselves up again, how they justified themselves to keep going even though the situation was a disaster, that was interesting. Not that the current situation was a disaster, it was more of a hiccup due to Mars' current mental state.

There was nothing like the human condition to get her going.

Jupiter stretched with a long groan, and she got going toward the south, where the fog was a little less dense. Occasionally she'd have the occasional psychic ping her mind to redirect her where she wanted to go, but she had Girafarig for that. They were one of the few psychics that couldn't speak. The most they could do was express emotions or feelings at her, but that didn't mean they were lesser, even if they hadn't evolved.

There was no yet at the end of that sentence. Girafarig simply shared the opinion that growing up into a Farigiraf would be inconvenient, given that they wouldn't be able to fit in an office or an apartment. She'd spent long looking up these luxurious condos out of Hearthome or Jubilife just in case they ever changed their minds, but being pet-sized was what Girafarig wanted, so it was what they'd stay at. Not that she'd ever be able to afford those condos or even live in them if she had the money, but it was fun to dream, right? Married with two kids, living in an expensive condo. Kissing the husband or the wife goodbye, driving the kids to school every morning, then going to work at a business she owned, where she could set her own schedule…

That'd be fun for a few months, at least. Maybe subtly abuse them, too. Make them feel worthless, like they could never meet her impossibly high expectations. Then she'd divorce her significant other when her children were twelve or so, just to see how it affected their development during puberty. How the fighting, the legal proceedings and the final separation would scar them in combination with that abuse, and how they'd grow up as a consequence of that. The way every single little flaw would be able to be traced to an event she'd begun. That wasn't why she was helping Cyrus, but hey, if she was getting an entirely new playground to build herself a sandcastle, why not?

Adrianna smiled. It wasn't going to happen, was it? But again, it was nice to dream.

Suddenly, Girafarig pulled her out of her fantasy with notions of interest. She placed her hand on the normal type's neck, and they— both the neck and the tail— pointed to her right toward a group of grunts huddled next to each other, sitting either on the ground, on ripped up bits of wooden logs, rocks or their Pokemon.

"What is it?" she whispered.

Girafarig's head nudged her arm and pushed her forward, so she decided to entertain them for the time being. The only good thing about this fog was that grunts rarely saw who was coming up to them, so they kept talking as she approached.

"Why are we waiting, still?" one said. A woman, with one of those sultry voices Adrianna liked. "The longer we wait, the more the League has time to recuperate and bar up Mount Coronet."

Was that why they'd nudged her? To stamp down this treasonous talk? Honestly, calling it treasonous was exaggerating, but she had to channel her inner Saturn. This was the kind of festering doubt she would have liked to see spread throughout the ranks, but if Cyrus got a hold that she wasn't doing what he'd asked, he would kill her. Literally. And he might still do it anyway, so she wouldn't be doing herself any favors. She hadn't gotten front-row seats to this whole deal to die before seeing if he was going to succeed or not.

A man spoke up, this time. "We have Mesprit and Azelf. They can't stand against our firepower, and the Commanders know what they are doing."

And that was the end of that. Maybe if she'd been born earlier she would have gone down to Kanto-Johto and joined Team Rocket instead of this bunch, honestly.

Hm, no, that was a bit over the line. None of Team Rocket's goals were as lofty as this. The people might have been a lot more fun, but their ambitions had been small.

"Are you accusing me of thinking the opposite, Devyn? Of going against our great leader Cyrus?"

Someone else spoke up, "He's just saying, you should watch your words. Doubt is the enemy."

"I haven't doubted!" she responded. Should Jupiter ask to sleep with her? Not like she'd say no… ah, never mind, they hadn't washed in a while, had they? Damn it, this job was getting on her nerves. "In fact, I hope I'm selected for the task force that storms Acuity, even if I won't make it back. I must serve the cause."

Noooo, come on, you sounded too pretty to just die like that.

"We should just rest up," a little voice said. Oh, oh, she recognized this one! They all turned toward her, their faces shadows within the fog. "Um… you know, it'd be best if we could perform at our highest level is what I mean."

"How's everyone doing?" Jupiter cut in, stepping behind Clara. The teenager jumped, shrieking like someone had just murdered her entire family in front of her, that drama queen.

"C—Commander!" The woman she'd set her eyes on stammered. She was as pretty as she sounded. "We're just waiting for the next step, ready as always!"

The rest echoed her words, each trying to outdo themselves with higher and higher fervor. Clara, or Grace Pastel the fourth just answered with a meager nod. Jupiter made small talk for a few minutes, mostly letting them boast of how loyal they were and how they hoped Cyrus knew how committed everyone was to the cause, but it wasn't them she was here for. It was Clara. She dragged her away to the side so they could talk in private. The fog had a way of swallowing and muffling sound.

Jupiter sized the girl up and down, patting her on the shoulders as best she could with her frostbitten hands. "Well look at you, alive and well!" she cheered. "I can't believe you survived Acuity, with Lucario eliminating so many of us. That Musharna of yours must be tough."

"She— she is," Clara whispered. "We've been together a long time, so…"

"Oh, that doesn't mean anything. I mean, you have people who've been with their Pokemon for over a decade, and they still die all the same. It was mostly luck, I was just being nice."


"I was on the way to see your boss, you know?" The girl froze within her hands. "But Girafarig here pointed me toward you, so I figured I'd check up."

"Is she— is she okay? There are rumors…"

"Oh, she'll be fine, she's a tough girl," Jupiter said, letting her go. "Rumors, though, huh. What do they say?"

Clara glanced to the side and fidgeted. "I'm not in trouble, right?"

"Speak your mind. It's the part about you I find interesting."

She smiled. Smiled! It was fascinating, how a mistreated individual would recalibrate their being enough to start enjoying backhanded compliments like this. Jupiter supposed that she was the only person who'd shown her an ounce of kindness, if she could even call it that. Positive attention was a better word, maybe. Clara looked around to check if they were being listened to, and then continued.

"Rumors are that she was horribly injured and that she's on the brink of death," the girl whispered. "And that she won't be able to hold onto Azelf and Mesprit for much longer."

"Must make you happy, huh?"

"Why do you… say that?"

Adrianna rolled her eyes. "Oh, come on. Imagine your abuser, lying dead in one of our medical tents—"

"She's actually going to die?!"

"Well, no, but I did say imagine it. Now you ruined it," the Commander sighed. "But she's out of commission for a bit, and in this fog… you could escape, you know? Run away and get yourself out of here."

"No, I can't."

Damn. There hadn't even been a sliver of doubt in her when she'd answered. It was curious, how cults got you. Even she, who had been mistreated so much had been wrapped around Galactic's little finger, at the end of the day. Not because Clara actually believed in what they were doing, or because she was devoted to the cause, but because she thought that she was better off here than anywhere else. Maybe she believed that the government would extract her memories and kill her, which was… possible, but so long as she avoided cities, she could get pretty far with her Musharna. Hitch a ride on a ship, or something. Start a new life in another region. It wasn't like she was a Commander or Abel. Her face hadn't been plastered everywhere for people to see.

But at the end of the day, Clara wanted into this new world— this promise that had everyone looking up to Cyrus like he was their messiah. It worked so well as something to keep the organization together, moreso now that they had actual Legendaries to show for it, because it could be whatever you wanted! That was what was magical about it. To Jupiter, it was her being a business owner who permanently scarred her kids and family, but to someone else? It could be anything and everything. And who knew if she'd be let in, if she suddenly went missing in their most important hour? And given that Mars was wounded, maybe things were looking up for her and she'd never have to see her again until the world ended!

Yeah. That ought to be what she was thinking. And so, here she was, looking to defend those who had wronged her.

"When you imagine yourself in our new world, what do you see?" Adrianna asked her.

Clara smiled, as if she'd thought about this a million times before. Her only lifeline to comfort her when all she'd known had been torture, both mental and physical. "It's a little stupid."

"We don't judge here!"

"Well, the world doesn't change… that much. I'm just rich and I can send money to my parents so they can buy themselves a huge mansion, and I can travel the world without worrying about them." She giggled to herself, letting the smile linger. "Me and Musharna, staying at luxury hotels, eating good food, and seeing what other countries are like? Isn't that the dream?"

So you decide to help end the world instead of becoming a bank robber or something? Jupiter said, nearly guffawing to herself. Way to rationalize. She'd think they were alike, but there was a higher goal she was striving for, beyond the married life and all of that jazz.

"We also have this idea. Um, helping people through dreams. They kind of already study dreams in Unova, but not to help people, so I think we won't get sued. Our thing would kind of be like dream therapy. It was how I stayed sane when Mars hurt me. I would have given up, had Musharna not been here."

"Sounds like a grand old time," Jupiter said. What else to say, in situations like these? "I'm glad you've found something you want to do."

There. That was some nice filler. Arceus, she could go for a glass of red wine right now. Sinnohan wines were honestly all trash, especially compared to the Paldean or Kalosian ones, but she'd even take those. Their stock in their base had run out months ago.

"You know, Commander Jupiter, I have to thank you for always checking up on me."

Always? Twice meant always, now? This girl was so starved for normal human interactions that she couldn't even think straight. This was a well-studied phenomenon in human minds, though. People tended to start liking their kidnappers if they started showing them the tiniest bit of kindness, or their abusers every time they promised that they would totally change, this time, shortly after being the worst they'd ever been.

"Musharna's resting up right now, but she thinks the same. We won't fail you when the time comes."

"Well, it's part of the job," she smiled. "I've got to let you go for now, though, duty calls."

Dangling her dream in front of her seemed to have 'worked', though honestly Jupiter hadn't come here with that goal in mind. Her priority was Commanders, given Cyrus' orders. Morale from them would trickle down to the troops in time, and it wasn't like they were moving out of here until Mars got any better. Her emotions were all over the place right now, and she wasn't sure of her own existence any longer, so her link with Mesprit was weaker than ever. That meant that their barrier would easily be breached, if they Teleported into Acuity right away, and that was if the damn thing even got them there without killing them by Teleporting them in the ground or only half of their body. Anyway, the point was, dealing with grunts was Saturn's job. Jupiter wasn't one to enjoy crawling in the mud of low-level managing, she'd already done enough of that for a lifetime.

It took another ten minutes to reach a relatively flat stretch of ground where stone gave way to a thin layer of dirt. Places where they'd set up food stations, bathrooms with toilet paper alongside a river that went far up north, for good measure, but she would die before going to one of those makeshift stalls with no plumbing. Yeah, they never told you about how ending the world would stop you from accessing proper bathrooms. What she was looking for, however, were the medical tents, AKA, the tents where people were left to die slowly and painfully. They hung there like little islands of light between the darkness of the fog, with how each one had a lantern set up on the inside. It wasn't like they had any medical supplies to actually get them back on their feet, and even then, it'd take too long. The real number of grunts they had left was seven hundred and sixty-one, but a hundred and fifty of those were so hurt that they could barely move. They had to at least show that they cared for the grunts a little bit, and helping the wounded die slowly instead of instantly helped a little bit with that.

Honestly, if it was up to her she would have put them down already. What was the point of hurting with no hope of recovery?

Normally you'd see a higher ratio of wounded, but the League had helped them in that regard, with how lethal they'd been. Arceus knew they didn't have enough space to house any more, and they already had to cram the tents with people. Legendaries, she had this song stuck in her head… this weird jazzy tune because she'd thought about jazz earlier. Hearthome had the best music industry in Sinnoh, she had to admit.

The tent she was looking for was isolated from the rest and was set up far away from the river, which was good, because her reflection in the water might show how her make up was ruined and she couldn't ruin her day like that when she'd already complained about her nails. You'd think the fog would stop her from seeing it, but nope. The tent was by a cliff— or maybe calling it a cliff was too much. A hill with somewhat of a steep drop-off would be more accurate. Mars' Wigglytuff and Ninetales stood guard at the tent's entrance, whispering to each other about some nonsense. Probably worried for their trainer, if she had to guess. There were also two grunts who were part of Cyrus' personal guard, but they weren't allowed close to the tent without being burned alive. Mars' team could get very overprotective, but honestly Jupiter wouldn't allow those numbskulls anywhere near her either. They were the most like Cyrus, purged of all emotion. One of them had even blasted himself with dark type energy in hopes of emulating their dear leader. They saluted as they let her through, but she still had to talk to Mars' Pokemon.

"Hi there. I'm here to see Mars, talk to her a little bit. See how she's faring."

Wigglytuff swelled up a little, sucking in air while Ninetales just stared, her tails swaying from side to side.

"Come on, dude. It's me," she groaned, putting her hands up. "I won't make her any worse than she is now, I'm not that good."

She felt very warm all of a sudden, sweat bearing down her face and arms, and Legendaries, sweating in this uniform was uncomfortable.

"Okay, Ninetales, maybe good wasn't the right word to use here, but you get me, right? You aren't stupid. She needs support right now, and I'm willing to give it to her." Adrianna took a few steps forward, making herself as unthreatening as possible. Damn her and her overprotective team! Her Slaking would let an assassin through if it meant he could get an extra five minutes of sleep. "So, can I come in or not?" she said, looking at Ninetales. "These are orders from Cyrus."

Ah, that seemed to have done the trick. Warmth bled away from her, but she didn't miss the fact that this asshole of a Pokemon made her colder instead, not enough to be a health hazard, but just enough to make her uncomfortable.

"Tell you what," Adrianna whispered as she passed the two. "You'd make a good office worker, Nines. I'd applaud, but my hands are hurt."

The Commander asked Girafarig to stay out, stepped within the tent and looked at her colleague. Mars was in a sorry state. Her body itself was covered by a tarp, but constant, shadowy smoke leaked from under there as her limbs and other body parts grew back. Adrianna made note that her Pokeballs were sitting next to her head, but Mars didn't really have arms yet to release her team without help. Cyrus had asked her to watch for Dusknoir, and since she wasn't dead yet, well, she had to assume the thing was still in its ball. Would have been an anti-climatic way to go, she had to admit. Mars continuously shivered as she cried in silence, but she stopped when she noticed Jupiter had stepped into the tent. Adrianna had to stop for a moment.

It was the first time she'd ever seen that girl cry. How peculiar.

She crouched next to her. "How are you doing, Mars?"

The girl moved her nubby little arms, but they hadn't regenerated enough to wipe her eyes and snot. Jupiter did it for her, ignoring the pain shooting up her hands and how disgusting it was, to touch someone else's snot. Mars tried to formulate words, but she couldn't. Oh, her vocal cords were fine now, but she was sobbing so uncontrollably it came out like another language.

"Shhh, shhh," Jupiter said, stroking her head. Really, it was a way to discreetly wipe her snot off her hands masked as a gesture of affection. "You're fine, okay? I'm here for you."

"L—liar," Mars said.

"Well, it's the gesture that counts right? Don't be ungrateful."

"Shut… shut up."

"Sheesh, no threats of murder? You're getting worse." Jupiter settled next to her, sitting on the soft floor of the tent. "What happened? Any new visions?"

"Jupiter… what am I?"

"You're Mars, Commander of Team Galactic," she answered.

The redhead took a deep breath. Her hair dye was a little faded, now, revealing her true hair color at its roots, which was just a less vibrant and more natural red. Jupiter's was a dark brown, which was a little boring, but hey, she had to stand out as a Commander, and purple had always been her favorite.

"My time in Mesprit's world is trickling down to my memories, but it's fuzzy like a dream," she explained. "It gets clearer and clearer the longer I wait, and you know what Mesprit called me? They called me a shell, and Grace joined in and said I wasn't human."

"Well, that much is evident," Jupiter said, lifting up the tarp. Yeesh, that was disgusting, better not look at bones and flesh slowly reforming itself. Her nose wrinkled at that, and Mars broke down again. "Oh, come on now, I'm just saying! Isn't it great? You literally got sawn in half and you're still kicking! You can basically do whatever you want, right? I feel like it synergizes well with your other murderous activities."

"You— don't get it," she cried. "I don't know what I am, and it hurts. It's like something is wrong with me, I've never felt like this before, I—" she stopped. "Can— can you blow my nose?"

Jupiter acquiesced, using her cover to do so. Her hands needed a good wash when this was over. Good thing they were close to a river and she could get soap around here. Tarp was harder to blow a nose in than you'd think. It didn't bend well around a small nose like Mars' and it was a pretty nose, cute as a button. Jupiter was jealous of it, sometimes, and jealous of how the girl never gained any weight.

"Thank you. Imagine if your entire life was a lie? That you just weren't a person?"

"Sounds like a win to me."

"You wouldn't get it… plus, Dusky's at fault! He knows why this is happening. Where I come from. And he's been hiding it from me all along. He stabbed me in the back!"

Wasn't that obvious? He'd been the only one who remembered the past and who Mars used to be, after all. Sometimes it was just easier to pull wool over your eyes and convince yourself that the person you loved and trusted the most would never betray you. Jupiter should have brought a notebook for this. Keeping track of everyone and their quirks sounded like a fun hobby to pass the time.

"Well, he has," Jupiter shrugged. "What are you going to do about it? Talk to him?"

"Talk? Right now?" the girl bit her lip. "No, I can't! I can't, I can't, I can't! I'm scared, Juju, what if he can somehow scramble my memories or something?"

"So you think he's behind the memory issues?"

"It has to be him! He remembers," she hissed, squirming in place. Heh, Jupiter was talking to a torso and a head right now, like those models they had in high school. You know, I wonder how everyone's doing? She hadn't gone to any of her school reunions. Those had never struck her fancy. "...Juju, are you listening?"


Mars scowled, suddenly pushing herself up as best she could. "Liar! You fucking liar!" She wasn't very successful.

Adrianna tapped on Mars' forehead. "Swearing, now? That's new." She hummed. Mars had probably picked that up from Grace Pastel, given how impressionable she was. Her body was… in her late teens, or at least that's what it looked like. Mentally? She was barely thirteen at most. "Don't be a pest. I can multitask."

"What was the last thing I said, then?"

"Just, you know, rambling about Dusknoir and each time he's acted weird or cagey about your memories."


"So you're not going to release him to talk, then?"

There was a bit of hesitation. "Not yet, at least."

Good. Better report that to Cyrus ASAP before he got impatient.

Mars' eyes narrowed. "I shouldn't have answered that, should I?"

"Well, look, Mars." Jupiter pondered, wondering how to best approach this. "It's no secret that Dusknoir knows more than he lets on. Cyrus just thinks it would be safer for you not to let him out of the ball for a while. Get your bearings first, right?"

"Cyrus thinks that?" She perked up. "He's… not dismissive of me?"

She was so easy it was almost depressing. Dangerously perceptive, but Cyrus was her blind spot, as always. He was like a get-out-of-jail-free card, and those were never free. They cost a couple million at least.

"No, no, he understands completely," Jupiter continued. "He's willing to give you another twelve hours to get your bearings and all, but if you can't, Azelf will be given to Saturn and Mesprit will be given to Charon."

"Not to you?"

"To little old me? No."

"That's surprising. Cyrus trusts you the most."

If only you knew how wrong you were, little one, she thought with a smile. Once upon a time, maybe, but not anymore.

"Did you know, I saw him laugh for the first time earlier this afternoon?"

Adrianna snorted. She must have been seeing things.

Redirecting her attention to the conversation at hand, it wasn't like they could even use any but Mesprit at such high capacity at the moment due to using its gem, but being given a Legendary by Cyrus was a mark of pride that Saturn would never forget. Plus, Mars and Mesprit apparently just clicked in a way no Commander could with another Guardian, save for maybe Charon and Uxie, or at least that was Cyrus' theory. Now, the truth was, Azelf was going to be taken away regardless of what Mars said. There was no way Cyrus would have let all three guardians fall into Dusknoir's hands.

"Well, you know, maybe I'll get Uxie," she said, hoping to bury the topic. "Anyway, don't release Dusknoir any time soon, alright?"

"Okay. If Cyrus says so…"

"He urges so."

"I said okay!" Wisps of smoke billowed from under the tarp, cold and almost solid enough to squeeze around Jupiter's neck. Nifty, but probably impossible to control for whatever she was, and unusable once she was healed. "I hate this."

"Charon'll come and take a look at you soon, okay? He's a little busy. Last thing I heard, he was trying to see if he could tinker with the Red Chain and its power on Azelf, but from what I know it's not looking good."

Which meant that they were completely dependent on Mesprit, which meant again, that without Mars back in top form, they were never storming Acuity. They were running in a circle and chasing their own tails.

"So you're leaving already?" Mars croaked.

"Duty calls."

"I wish you cared about me."

"Come on, kid. I care about you in my own way. Or something."

"Not even Dusky cares… I have no one. No one is real with me and tells me the truth other than Grace."

Oh, he cared much more than she knew.

"Charon tells you the truth. You're just obsessed with the girl for no reason."

"Charon is different. She gets me. We had so much fun in that dream before she called me not real, I just wish I could go back," Mars sniffled. "I wish I was real."

So many seeds of betrayal could be laid here, but alas, that would screw her over royally. "I'll send Charon to check up on you and your recovery, alright?"

"Get out."

Jupiter rose back to her feet and left the tent, ignoring the glares from Wigglytuff and Ninetales piercing through the back of her head and the cold seeping through her uniform. That meeting hadn't gone very well, which screwed her a tiny bit. Okay, maybe not a tiny bit, more like a fuck ton, and she was doubtful Charon would pick up the slack. Her odds of surviving tonight had just gone down dramatically. That was the thing with bosses. They demanded the world out of you, and when you failed to produce impossible results, they either pressured you to work over time, which was what she was doing already, or fired you. Test or no test, Cyrus could have been a little more lenient with her, given what fired meant in this context.

"What a way to treat one of your oldest followers, eh?" she whispered to herself.

Charon next. He would be the hardest.

She spoke to Girafarig about Mars on the way to Team Galactic's most prominent scientist, or at least as much as she could say. Not even her Pokemon were privy to every secret. Theirs was mostly a partnership, although she had no doubt some did love her in their own ways. Some. Slaking was not included in that, but all respected her, at the very least, and that was all that was needed. A decade, she had poured blood, sweat, and— actually, no tears— into this team, training under Cyrus' wing. Late nights of him beating her Pokemon into the ground until they adapted and grew past their limits, until he molded her into the first Galactic Commander he'd wanted. Those days had been tough for her Pokemon. They bore no visible scars, but like her, the mental strain of pushing themselves every single day for so many years meant that they'd learned to go with the flow of things.

For the most part, at least. They had to, or they would have gone insane.

Jupiter looked for the man in question for nearly thirty minutes, but no one knew where he was. Supposedly he'd asked his Hypno to Teleport him somewhere he could get some fresh air away from the fog, and with his lungs, that was understandable. At some point, she decided that she'd had enough of just walking aimlessly while Cyrus was waiting for her, so she decided to look for Saturn instead. He'd be a nice way to ease into things, but he was almost just as easy as Mars, when it came down to keeping Commanders on a tight leash. Charon, blinded by his dead sister as he was, actually thought like an adult and did not worship Cyrus like a God. Adrianna wondered what both Saturn and Mars saw in him, sometimes. To love, one had to be attracted to personality, and while Cyrus' goals were not boring, his…

Well, he didn't even have a personality to make fun of. And his looks? The man looked a decade older than he actually was! His cheekbones were so high it looked like they were trying to jump out of his skin, and his face was thin enough to think he was starving at all times. He had no eyebrows, for Arceus' sake! He was like some cliche cartoon villain they'd put in for children to make fun of and hate. Adrianna really wondered what went through a man's mind, for him to consciously shave his eyebrows. Maybe it was a statement on how eyebrows were a huge part of how humans expressed emotions? Still, how extra. She'd never asked, but she already knew he would never answer.

She'd ruminated on the thought of Cyrus' eyebrows— or lack thereof— until she found Saturn leaning against a rock in the eastern parts of camp. This area was rougher than the rest, with little crags and bumps making it a bitch to navigate, given that she'd been standing and walking for so long at this point and she hadn't slept in over a day. He was brooding, and looking mighty depressed, she might add. Arms crossed and hunched up on himself, when he usually was so outgoing, bright and boisterous. It was strange, like seeing an old lightbulb flicker over your hallway when it had always been so dependable before. Usually he'd be whipping up the troops or giving a rousing speech about how this was their finest hour by now. A little bit too dictator-coded for her, she had to admit.

Guess I have to fix this one too.

Jupiter waved and plastered a bright smile on her face. "Saturn! Been looking around for you." When he didn't answer, she had Girafarig grab his attention by forcefully moving his arm. "I'm talking to you. Earth to Saturn. Helloooo."

"Oh. Hello, Jupiter. I'm…"

"You're brooding."

He clicked his tongue as she finally got close enough to see his face in detail. His usual grimace-scowl was gone, replaced by an expression bordering on the sad.

Maybe a joke was what he needed. He wasn't as simple as Mars, and she needed an easy way to slide into a conversation.

"Hey Saturn, you ever think about getting married?" Jupiter asked, stopping herself from giggling. "You'd have a ring? Get it? Wait it has rings, plural, shit that doesn't work."

Saturn barely reacted. He was just staring into the void, his eyes red even through the fog.

"Come on, what's with the long face?" Adrianna asked. As she approached, Saturn looked up at her and scoffed in disbelief. "What did I say? I admit, I had marriage on my mind because earlier I was thinking—"

"Jupiter, I just lost my— lost my Crobat," the man said in a half-groan, half-sob. "He was the first Pokemon I caught after Toxicroak…" then, a saddened smile. "Arceus, I remember it like it was yesterday. I was traveling through the Ravaged Path and—"

He didn't finish that sentence.

Jupiter's face fell, and she remembered that was supposed to hurt more than, say, being late for work or burning your toast in the morning. "Oh. Right." She cleared her throat, rubbing his back. "I mean, he'll come back, right? Wasn't that the whole point?"

"It still hurts. That horrid Champion… if only I was strong enough to exact my revenge."

It was funny, how the human mind worked. How one could do harm, kill, and expect no blowback in return. Truly, one could twist themselves into a pretzel with that reasoning, but Jupiter knew Saturn was not a creature of logic. He was loyalty, constantly pushing himself with hard work and sleepless nights, because deep down, he was still that insecure little boy whose parents thought he would never amount to anything, which was what she'd wanted to do to her own children, eventually. They had poisoned his mind so young, so much that he had started to hate the world in turn. Hate it so much he would rather see it gone than get a therapist.


"Sure thing, pal. I was also thinking of impossible things earlier, like getting myself a million-dollar condo in a city." She giggled to herself and sighed. "No getting out for us, Saturn. Our faces are plastered everywhere."

"Is everything a joke with you?" Saturn sneered, pushing her off. It reminded her of a thirteen-year-old brushing off their parent and telling them they were fine. He was in his twenties, but he never did grow up, did he? He was still that snotty little kid she'd first met years ago. He looked right into her eyes. "This— this is serious, Jupiter! And I don't want to run away like some coward, with my tail between my legs!"

Ah, there you go. She had a foot in the door, at last.

"I know, buddy."

"Then act like it! Why is everything so banal with you? There's never a— you don't take anything seriously… damn it. Not even Cyrus' goal."

"Oh, I take it very seriously, otherwise I'd be gone by now. Maybe to Alola. They take all kinds of people, though I'd have to work again, which isn't my idea of having a great time, and now that we've caused the deaths of ten thousand people or so, I'd probably have to suffer through a few attempts on my life, which is quite the bother, and society despising me." Adrianna crouched, looking at her frozen hands and smiled to herself. "Aren't I sounding like Abel, now? That poor bastard. Wasn't he cute, you think?"

"Why are you asking me?"

"Come on, you're one of the fruitiest guys I've known." She nudged her chin forward. "Look at you, rocking those tights. And the way you walk in them? The way you look at Cyrus? You aren't fooling anyone."

Saturn grimaced, the bridge of his nose turning a little red. "I don't! We just share a common vision, you sex-crazed lunatic," he hissed, wringing his hands together. "You're awful for even suggesting that."

"Come on, man, live a little! It's the end of the world, so what else is there to speak about?"

"Our plans, for one!" he yelled. "How is Mars doing?"

Now she was in his house. Perfect. He'd let the Mightyena in.

"Okay-ish," she lied. "I think she'll be fine if we give her a little bit more time and Cyrus swings by, which is what I'll be telling him. What should I tell him about you, I wonder? You know he could use some good news."

Her fellow Commander froze in place. Words were so… powerful, it was gripping how one could imply a threat with a phrase that might seem completely innocent to an outside observer. Now, what would he say?

"Tell him that I am doing very well," Saturn finally answered. "And that I am ready for our next phase of operation— me and all of our grunts. We're at the final stretch, and I won't let anything stop me now."

"What about your Crobat?"

Saturn smiled. "He'll be back. That's just another reason why we have to win this, isn't it?" His shoulders relaxed, and he sighed, the tension leaving his entire body. "Thank you, Jupiter. I needed that."

It wasn't everyday someone thanked her for being manipulated, but she could get used to it. Not her best work, she had to admit, she hadn't really been subtle about it at all. The kid was just so doe-eyed for their leader that he hadn't noticed. But that was Saturn, right? Anything for Cyrus, except he actually meant it, unlike Mars who had to constantly be held on a leash and be given concession after concession, lest she go wild and cause a catastrophe. Well, her and her ghost.

"Anything to help a fellow Commander," she lied. "And hey, if you ever need to kick back and relax, look for me. I've got this grunt— Gail. She's got this pack of cards with her that we can play."

He blinked. "I don't think this night is one for cards."

"Hey, I was just asking, but fair enough," she shrugged. "You talk to Charon though, okay? I might send him your way, when he's done with Mars. He's always had a soft spot for and your…" she gestured at him. "Character. Oh and also, do you know where he is?"

She didn't see what even was the thing Charon saw in him, given that they had little in common besides their share of love for organizing this ragtag group of societal rejects. Maybe that was enough, though. They were, after all, two deeply lonely men, and Saturn never brought up Charon's dead sister and let him talk about her first whenever that struck his fancy. Mars did it nearly every time they spoke, and Adrianna only rarely alluded to it, just out of curiosity for his circumstances and all. She knew, however, that she was difficult to connect with, and Charon knew about her altering herself with the help of her Delcatty. It was admittedly difficult to talk to someone like her when you knew the inner workings of her mind.

Saturn placed a hand on his chin. "He could be anywhere by now, with how Hypno knows the region so well, but knowing him, he might be hiding in plain sight."


"Yes. He would announce to the world that he's Teleporting away, but actually stick around. I believe he might be north, where the fog is denser and no one would find him. His sister…" Saturn stopped, lips thinning.

"I'm in a bit of a hurry here, buddy, so if you could get to the point?"

"Sometimes in his youth, he would take his sister to skip stones in parks," Saturn said. "It was a way to escape from their father, who—"

"Yeah, I don't need to hear the sob story. Abusive parents, how original. So he'd be up north if I followed the river?"


"Gotta get to it, then," she whispered to herself. "Thanks for the help."

Saturn too, was getting back to work instead of skulking. Good. The grunts needed a leader to look to, and she had to admit that this person had always been Saturn, if it wasn't Cyrus. She got going through the fog again, constantly attempting to flex her hands as she did so. There was a subtle annoyance at navigating this area that could drive someone crazy, it was incredible, how the government hadn't gotten rid of all this fog already. It was, according to Cyrus, a lone Honchkrow's doing who'd been alive for who knew how long (he had described in a very poetic and moving way that she could not be bothered to remember), but it was their job to make her life easier, wasn't it? Otherwise what had her years of paying taxes even done, other than funding yet another stadium or paying some corrupt cop's salary? What if she sprained her ankle on a groove in the stone she failed to see in time, or even died from hitting her head on the ground after tripping?

She snorted. That one would be kind of funny, she had to admit. Girafarig looked up at her— the tail, who was all smiles and sharp teeth. His name was Jonathan, which he hated. It was a little bit of a running joke, but she rarely called him by his actual name. The head's name was Tom, or Tommy for a cute nick.

"Oh, nothing," she said, waving a hand. "Just imagining silly ways to die is all. I had this mental picture of myself tripping and just fracturing my skull."

No laugh came from Tom, but Jonathan had learned to appreciate her humor, over the years. This far north in their camp, sometimes Girafarig would warn her of a Pokemon, lurking in the shadows, far before she could even catch a glimpse of them. Pokemon here were generally more aggressive and were willing to try out their luck in the fog they'd learned to navigate since birth to get their next meal, which was why grunts were grouped in little islands of light and activity with their Pokemon. Adrianna was just a lone woman, swimming in the middle of the ocean and surrounded by Sharpedo.

She never saw them fall unconscious. She did hear them, though, and occasionally come across their bodies. She technically could have killed them, but she figured that an hour or two from now when they woke up, they'd spread the word about not bothering the giant group of people who were armed to the teeth with Pokemon. Or not. Jupiter had never really been interested in how wild Pokemon worked, given that she'd rarely traveled in the wilderness unless Cyrus had dragged her there.

And really, killing when it was unneeded was so… crude.

"Okay… Charon… Charon…"

It was the coughs, that allowed her to track him down first.

Team Galactic's top scientist was usually easy to find, always working on some project in his laboratory, but today, he was subjecting himself to this horrible fog, throwing stones across the lake. Stones that, she might add, he could not see how far they went or how many times they skipped, so what was the point? He'd never been an outdoors kind of guy, always holed up in whatever project Cyrus had assigned him at the time, deep inside the base, hidden away from all distractions. Sometimes they barely saw each other for weeks at a time, and given that she suspected the old man was currently dying from some kind of lung disease, with how he routinely coughed up blood, it was obvious that he wouldn't be able to breathe if he was subject to Honchkrow's dense fog. His health had deteriorated these past few weeks and he refused to get himself checked out by a health professional. None of them remained right now, but he'd had time.

Yes, yes, none of it would matter if they won et cetera, et cetera. It was honestly a boring way to think, but these poor sods had nothing else to go off of. It was their only lingering hope, so Adrianna wouldn't really hold it against them.

Girafarig held her steady as she stepped down toward the river bank. How funny was it that she had nearly missed the guy because she didn't want to see her reflection in the water? He had no Pokemon with him, save for that Porygon Z who was always on a device close to him. From the Basculin's… corpse? Unconscious body? Having washed up on shore, it was good enough of a protector, otherwise Charon might have bled out with a missing leg by now.

Eh, maybe not a missing leg. That Basculin looked pretty small, but he definitely would have bled out.

"I've been looking for you all over, Charon."

No mentions of Cyrus too soon, this time. He was smarter than that.

The man coughed before turning toward her with an expression fit for a grouchy Gumshoos. "It was only a matter of time until someone disturbed me," he said in between the coughs. "What do you want?"

"I want you to do what you were hired to do?" she said, slightly incredulous. "You know, your job? You aren't paid to just stand there and skip stones."

"I'm not paid at all."

We pay you in exposure, Jupiter thought, shutting down the joke before it could come out of her mouth. There was no use in pretending to care, with him, but she still couldn't be completely tone deaf.

"What's wrong, Charon? We've been successful enough to nab two Legendaries out of their lakes, and you're having a little pity party?"

His jaw clenched, or at least she thought it did. It was hard to tell, even from up close. "I am thinking."

"Thinking of what? Besides your sister, I mean, because we've treaded that path a thousand times before." And I'm tired of hearing about it. "Cyrus asked me to tell you to check up on Mars. You know, to figure out what exactly she is."

"That should be obvious to anyone with a brain by now," he gruffed. Another coughing fit, and he took a deep, raspy breath full of phlegm. "I've suspected this for a while, but she is the… remnant of a soul, or a piece of a soul." He placed his hands behind his back, all professor-like. "As for what that means, well, it apparently means she cannot die easily."

"But she can still die? Won't she just come back like a ghost type Pokemon?"

Keep him talking. Keep him engaged in conversation, because explaining things was something Charon loved, until she could pivot and get what she wanted.

"Oh, you misunderstand, Jupiter, she's no Pokemon. She is still a person, and only ghost type Pokemon can come back from the dead," he sagely spoke. Then, he waved a finger. "No, she can die, but it would take a lot to put her down. The real question is, how the hell did Dusknoir come up with this, and why?"

Jupiter was curious, for once, but she knew Cyrus already had the answers. "I don't know much about him. He's a recluse."

"It is a monster, a horrible one," Charon muttered. "But you know what piques my interest, Jupiter? What really interests me?"

"Tell me, O wise one."

Yikes. That didn't go over well, she should have shut up. Still, Charon continued. "When one thinks of a Dusknoir, what do they picture?"

"There are stories about it. An endless hunger for souls, reapers that commit murder on a massive scale until they're chased away, and that only care about growing their own power, everything else be damned. Way to overgeneralize, by the way."

"Mars' Dusknoir… does eat as many souls as he can, but why would a Dusknoir keep that pest alive? Why would he keep her, knowing how much of a liability she is? Stay here knowing that he would have to eat fewer souls that he would have if he was not a part of Team Galactic?"

"I don't know, you tell me."

"I've pondered this for a few weeks. Looked at it from every different angle, parsed through mad theories and common sense." He looked at her, a gleam in his eye, shining through the fog. "What would drive a ghost, who, for all intent and purposes, has not weaned his hunger for souls, to pause its own growth. The answer to that is—" he coughed again. "—love."

Jupiter snorted. "How cliche. Also, please cover your mouth when you cough."

"Mars is not a human. We both know this, by now," he said. "But she is real. An echo of a person who once was, or a fragment of her. Facets of her personality, but not a whole. Not yet. And maybe she never will be."

Adrianna hummed. "Ah. I see it now. The shape of it."

"It is similar to my own. There was, at some point, a terrible loss of Mars and her Pokemon. Maybe she struck at the wrong person or Pokemon, and they were more powerful than they expected," he theorized. "After all, this is a portion of her, meaning that she would share similarities with the whole and have parts of her personality. It would not surprise if she'd been a murderer in her past, just simply more nuanced about things and not so crazed."

"An actual person."

"Now, Dusknoir remains— or maybe at this point in time, he is still a Dusclops," Charon said. "The first souls he ever imbibes are the ones of his own team, and he is careful. He preserves them as best he could, but it is not enough. He cannot preserve them like this, and they are fading, ever so slowly."

"So he eats more."

The scientist nodded. "He gorges himself on as many souls he can until he evolves, and he finds his control to be so much greater now, and he vomits out… whatever Mars and her Pokemon are." He smiled, as if agreeing with himself. "Now, most of this is probably wrong, but like you said, there's a shape to this that is correct. A shape not unlike what I am doing."

"For a while, he probably tried to bring them back the natural way," Adrianna said, thinking. "A few years, maybe, but it doesn't work. They aren't the same. Never the same."

"The question remains, how did Dusknoir and Cyrus meet?"

It made sense now. Why Cyrus had been worried about Dusknoir.

Their goal was not aligned. It simply was not. Charon only wanted to bring his sister back from the dead, but years of working under Cyrus had bought him loyalty and trust, and so he was content to let him take the reigns. To let him create his new world, so long that his sister was in it, a girl he had raised himself and considered his own daughter, given the wide age gap between the two. She'd been an accident.

Dusknoir had no such loyalties. He did not need the world to be turned to ash and molded to Cyrus' liking, only to bring his teammates back.

Adrianna smiled.

How interesting.

"When Cyrus found Mars, she told him that she'd woken up in a dumpster without any memories of who she was or what she'd been doing here," Charon said. "Both he and Dusknoir raised her together into what she is today, groomed her to their liking, but… I have to wonder." He paused, grabbing onto another flat stone to throw into the lake. "Was that the first time Mars had been born, or not?"

"You'd have to know how old Dusknoir is, and even then, maybe that wouldn't help. And you know, there's still the question of why he's holding onto her memories this way. Can he even give them back? Is he not good enough, is the soul too damaged?"

The older man sniffed. "I suppose I could go and take a look at her. See if I can get any answers."

Boom, baby! Hot damn, she was so good at her job it was incredible. Igniting his passion for the unknown, his need to have his answers had worked.

"I think that'd be best, yeah."

His eyes swept the river. "You know, I was thinking to myself, when I was alone here, about the cost of all of this. The horrors we've wrought."

"Don't get second thoughts now, at the final hour."

"These aren't second thoughts. I am as committed to the cause as I've always been, but dying does something to a man. It changes the way he thinks," Charon said, throwing the stone against the water. Jupiter heard it skip maybe five or six times. Mediocre, all things considered. "I've come too far to balk now, but… would Marie forgive me, for everything I've done? Would she thank me, for bringing us back together? The answer to that is no."

"Well, she won't have to know."

"I think I will tell her, when she's born again," he whispered. "That I will come clean about the billions of lives it took to bring her back. It will kill her, it will, but we will have an eternity to heal, and she'll have her family with her again to help. Joshua and Mira."

Joshua must be the husband, then. The one who had been driving during the accident. Not that it was his fault, given that they'd been killed by a drunk driver.

"Yup. Immortality's fun."

She didn't really believe that. Sure, an early, anticlimactic ending sucked, but the fact that their lives had an end at all was what gave everything meaning.

And they'd all end very soon. The end to everything that had ever lived, and everything that ever would live. Tragic, in every sense of the word, especially when none of it would come back, them included.

"Well, I'll let you go and check up on Mars, then," Adrianna smiled. "Oh, and also, Saturn needs some company, if you have any time after that. Let Cyrus know everything you discover, okay?"

When she reached flattened ground with Girafarig, Jupiter stretched and prepared herself for the coming meeting with her boss.

Once upon a time, she would have been nervous about meeting a superior. Were her numbers correct? Maybe she should run them one more time, just to be sure. Did she look presentable, was she making eye contact for too long, not long enough, would the bad news set him off, would she be fired, how would she pay her bills, would she be able to make rent on time this month—

The usual spiel when working a job you hated at a black company.

Today, it was more like… would she be able to survive through this? And honestly, she preferred it this way.


He stood there, hands behind his back as always like a little schoolboy, with Mesprit and Azelf by his side. The two were pretty incredible to look at, even if they were asleep and in a dream-like state. So much power radiated out of them that it was difficult to even be in their presence or look at them for more than a few seconds at a time, and that was when they were asleep. Of course, they were still under Mars' control, though they would have to be given to someone else soon. To be honest, Jupiter reckoned that Azelf would fit mighty well with Cyrus, but the man despised Legendaries so much he did not want to link his own self to what he considered putrid.

Well, maybe despised was the wrong word, for an unfeeling man. He simply thought these concepts that held themselves above him to be unworthy of himself, and so he would not take control of them until the last possible moment. It would be faster, this time. Less convincing, and more of a passing of the torch. Even if that torch would burn out faster, when in his hand, it would be enough to summon Dialga and Palkia to appear and craft a new world after ending this one.

"Adrianna," he responded as she recalled Girafarig. Again, this would need to be private. They were alone, in an isolated part of camp that Cyrus had claimed as his own.

Always Adrianna, when they were alone. Their connection went beyond her name as a Team Galactic Commander. They had met long ago, in Snowpoint, when he had come to visit the outside of the temple that apparently housed a terrible horror he had read about, but the government hadn't let him in. Before he could leave town, he had wrapped her around his finger and had her eating out of the palm of his hand, so much so that she'd thrown caution to the wind and asked to travel with him.

Back then, Skitty had not finished altering her fully, and she'd been young. Naive. And there was something about an unfeeling man that made someone desperate to become the key that would unlock his heart. It had not been love, or even close to it. They'd never even been friends. It was more of a fascination with the man's behavior and quirks that she'd never been able to shake, even now.

"How's it hanging?" she asked. "I visited each Commander—"

"You know, Adrianna," he interrupted, turning toward her. Empty eyes and a face unmoving. "When we first caught Mesprit and Mars brought back our remaining forces, before she went to Lake Valor, I had her order the thing to make me feel something."

Jupiter's eyes widened. "How… was it?"

"It worked well enough," he mused. "I was given a wide range of emotions and tried experiencing what that meant, but at the end of it all, do you know what I thought?"

"That it was awesome? Did you shed a tear for the first time?"

"No, it was not 'awesome', as you call it. I thought, 'is that it?'"

"Huh. That was unexpected."

"I did cry. I did laugh, even. Feel a thousand things that had forever been beyond my reach. However… it was disappointingly, not earth-shaking as I believed it would be, in my youth. I cannot believe I wasted years chasing this, when it ended up being mediocre at best."

Yes. Back when Cyrus had been obsessed with fixing himself and learning why he was like this, when he'd wanted to find a cure to his woes instead of deciding it was the world, that was wrong, and not himself.

"At the very least, I now know that this path I tread is the correct one. That there is something fundamentally broken about this world that must be addressed." Cyrus gazed upon Mesprit and shook his head. "There have been so many disappointments, lately. Even besides the obvious, the failure to stand up to the League without the help of these so-called Gods, my Commanders only follow me for selfish measures. Saturn is the closest to getting it, but even he is not enough. His is a shallow understanding."

This was leading to dangerous territory, but better get this out of the way now than delay the innevitable.

"Charon knows about Dusknoir, or I guess he knows part of it. Most of what he said was new to me, too," she explained. "Mars distrusts him and something tells me that doubt isn't going anywhere unless you do something about it."

"I will not."

"Oh. Yeah, I figured."

"The situation being like this is in my favor, given that Dusknoir was planning on betraying me," Cyrus said, tone as smooth as polished stone. "I had told him that Mars would gain access to all three guardians, and he was never going to allow me to turn the final page upon this world."

"So he's going to stay in his Pokeball forever?"

"No. I'll let Mars release him. He will still be needed in the coming fights, but it will have to be after we begin our ascent up Coronet, when he will cut his losses and follow me regardless. The League will be high on our tail and attempting to wrestle control away from Saturn and Charon will risk too much."

"Makes sense. I guess that means Uxie's going to Charon and Azelf's going to Saturn, then."


Then, there was the pivot.

She noticed his Crobat, hiding at the edges of the fog, barely out of view. The beat of her wings was so silent, the air around her undisturbed despite how quick she was, and how quick she could be. The poison type loved him more than anything, but that feeling was not mutual.

"You know, Adrianna, once upon a time, you told me that the reason you were following me was to kill that co-worker of yours. She is now dead," Cyrus said. "The rest of the Commanders, they all have their reason. I know how to push their buttons, make them do what I want them to do, but you… you are a liability, now, and I know you have figured me out."

Oh, that last bit had been unexpected.

"You need me for Coronet," she shrugged, not feeling particularly panicked.

"If I have Mesprit and Mars at full capacity, I do not need you for anything. You would be insurance, but insurance I would be willing to part with."

"Fair enough."

"You know my true goal, don't you?"

Adrianna rolled her eyes. "I suspected it," she started. "I mean, it's you, Cyrus. I can't imagine you suddenly growing a heart and giving all of these people what they want with the power of two Gods at your fingertips. You're too selfish for that. You don't give a crap about any of them or their dreams."


Suddenly, she could not breathe any longer. The inside of her mouth, her throat and her lungs felt like they were itchy, at first, then like they were on fire, and one did not have to be a medical professional to know that was bad news.

"I did— did it all like you asked. Made sure Mars wasn't getting any second thoughts and that Charon and Saturn were still motivated enough for what's coming." She coughed, poison seeping through her lungs as she collapsed on the floor. Her head bumped a rock and felt hot. Blood. Ow. "I—" she rasped. "I'm—"

He loomed over her, his eyes never changing. "Tell me why you follow me. Why you have not run away, or betrayed me. Why you do not care the new world will be mine and mine alone, and that you will die as the rest of them will."

"I—I'll tell you." Her muscles twitched uncontrollably, and her vision blurred at its edges. "Let me… talk."

Crobat screeched, and the poison left her lungs immediately, as if it had never been there. The pain was still present, though, and it hurt like a bitch. It was a thin, torture-friendly version of Toxic that Adrianna had watched Cyrus use multiple times over the last decade. It took a minute for her to get her bearings and to remember how to move. That and her body stopped convulsing at random intervals. You wouldn't believe how difficult it was to move after nearly being poisoned to death, but thank Arceus Cyrus' Crobat was a master of poison. A silent assassin. She could harm, but she could also heal from poison in turn.

She wiped the dust off her uniform and wiped the blood off her forehead. She'd need to get first-aid for that. "Did you have to lead with that? You're such a drama queen." She was still short of breath and struggling to stand upright. "Frostbite, and then this? You're working me to the bone."

"Tell me, Adrianna."

The Commander looked into his eyes.

He looked in her eye's direction, but not really at her.

"It's simple, Cyrus. I want to see if we can hurt God enough for him to do something about it," Adrianna said with a mad grin. "It's the ultimate character study, don't you think? I honestly think it would make a good thesis, but hey, I never went to university."

Cyrus frowned. "I see."

"Hm, yes, I see," she mimicked his voice in a mocking tone before crouching. Her finger tapped against the solid stone they were standing on, still numb. "Is He going to stand by and watch, or is he finally going to do something?" she muttered. "I think changing someone's usual behavior is interesting, but what really gets me going? It's seeing what their limit is. How many times they can get back up in the face of what amounts to torture."

Her limit, she'd known very well. It had almost killed her.

She paused and stared at her boss.

"Do you think God can be hurt emotionally if we destroy everything He's ever made, Cyrus? Is He even capable of things like love or pain— because you have to love something to be emotionally invested in it— or is He above those?" She tried snapping her fingers (and failed) before he answered, if he even was going to answer. "Here's the thing, right, we won't ever know, or at least I don't think we will, but trying it as a last hurrah? I think that's what makes it all worthwhile. I think it's what being a person means."

Cyrus sighed. "I suppose that is good enough. A lofty goal, but aligned with my own beliefs about Gods standing above the rest of us on their thrones, always hidden away from view."

"You were about to rob me of my front-row seat, by the way," she grumbled, her hand massaging her throat as best it could. "You're lucky we don't have an H.R. department."


She would hurt God if it was the last thing she did.

And it would be.

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Interlude - Smile No More

"Our scouts report that some grunts have been spotted east of Mount Coronet near Celestic, but they were dealt with by Craig Goodwill's Salamence…"

"He's green. You capture them instead so we get the location of where they're currently at. We could have struck them instead of waiting like sitting Ducklett—"

"Enough. What's done is done, we move on. Elite Bertha contacted us before this meeting, and they've run out of hospital beds in Canalave, Pastoria, and Snowpoint, but Snowpoint's in the worst condition."

"We can't put people in field hospitals when it's minus fifteen degrees Celcius outside. Can we send Kadabra to Teleport patients to other cities?"

"The Champion disagreed last time we asked."

"That's because we can't do half-measures. If we send a few, then it looks horrible, they do what, four jumps each, and they're too exhausted to go the rest of the day. We send enough, we weaken ourselves too much. They're working around the clock to protect persons of interest, ship supplies and move people around Coronet already."

"We can have them set up in large buildings. School gymnasiums, Gym and hotel lobbies…"

"Not many of those in Snowpoint."

"Well it'll have to do, won't it? We're at nine-thousand six hundred and fifty-five dead so far and climbing, and more than that wounded. People dying right outside Centers and hospitals because we didn't have the space to take care of them doesn't paint a pretty picture."

"The picture comes second to the actual priority. Making it through the next few days."

"I still think we should send some Kadabra now that we've actually run out of—"

"The decision rests in the Champion's hands. Champion Cynthia, what shall we do?"

Her fingers drummed against the metallic table as she kept her foot from anxiously bouncing on the ground. She sat in a room full of her top League personnel, some military, some not. The people who had helped her run the country most of the year as she had torn away at young institution after young institution she'd put in place. Ten people in total, eleven if she counted Lucian, twelve if you added his Alakazam. They all shared this blood on their hands, and for once, Cynthia was starting to think it was just so heavy.

"We send ten Alakazam. Six to Snowpoint and two each to Canalave and Pastoria," she said, leaning against her fist.

The room fell silent all at once, and she frowned. Had she said something—

"Cynthia," Lucian said. "Sending away ten Alakazam is… almost half of our Alakazam."

The Champion blinked. Alakazam? Had she said—

"I meant Kadabra," she exhaled. "My apologies."

The room relaxed at once, and the conversation moved forward again. A mistake like this? She was growing sloppy, and there was no excuse. She'd grown more prone to those, in the last few hours as exhaustion caught up to her. Cynthia was, after all, still human, and sleep was not something the world could afford, at the moment. Togekiss wouldn't mind keeping the nightmares away, but now just wasn't the time.

"Now, onto the defense of Mount Coronet," an officer said. Joachim Rouzet was the most senior member here, and one of the few who had remained from Radetic's old administration. He was an unassuming man, which was good, given that he was the director of the League Secret Service. He'd only been deputy director before Cynthia had fired his boss, but he'd been too competent to throw away. "We have soldiers, ACEs and members of the LTIP placed at every entrance and inside the mountain."

They were, as it stood, operating from the point of view that Acuity was lost no matter how hard they defended it, just in case it was. The defense of Coronet was, therefore, of the utmost importance. Decisions they made at this moment would affect the fate of the world.

Cynthia's breath trembled, not loudly enough to be seen. Everyone in this room was terrified, but all had grown proficient in showing it.

Her included. It wasn't like her. She'd been scared, anxious of consequences before, but never this much. Never to the point that her smile was faltering. Never to the point that she wanted to bounce her leg under the table and that breathing was like a Golurk's hand was squeezing her like a grape.

"Not too deep, though," Cynthia said.

"Only five miles deep at each entrance," one answered, running a hand over his hair. Fred Dranau.

Any more than that, and they'd get lost in the mountain. That was for if measures got desperate and she'd have to send those children climbing up the mountain, and hopefully their presence would allow people surrounding them to climb as well. It should, if they stayed close enough.

If it didn't…

Well, she'd be there too.

"How is Point Borea faring?" Lillia Beckings asked.

Doctor Fenetry, the leading figure in the experimentation of Legendaries ranging from the Regis, the Unown and Darkrai, answered. "Hunkering down and ready to fight, but if Team Galactic has three Guardians, the odds of them stopping them from awakening Regice is extremely low. And if this lasts another day…"

"That's Wednesday," Joachim muttered. "When Regice will be at its most unstable."

Cynthia's ears rang— a high-pitched tone that cut through any voice and somehow sounded like the loudest thing she had ever and would ever hear. "Their leader, Cyrus, is somehow extremely well-versed in Legendaries. It should come as no surprise, if he knows Regice exists, and the guardians might point him in the right direction. It would be a good distraction."

"A catastrophe," Lucian added. "A distraction is a mild way of putting it."

"Semantics," Cynthia said. She must have let something slip into her tone, because everyone in the room turned her way and stayed silent once more.

She did not apologize no matter how much Alakazam glared at her.

Lucian clapped his hands. "Shall we take a short break? Five minutes, perhaps, before we reconvene."

Cynthia waved a hand, ignoring him. "Flint can lead Aaron to take care of Regice, if that comes to pass," another military officer said. "They can take Craig Goodwill as well. The three of them should be enough, if they have enough support from the League."

"We ought to start setting that up now, then," Andrew Frazier crossed his arms, then uncrossed them. "Teleporting in the mountain is already difficult, given it changes its layout every few days, but it becomes impossible if Regice is awake."

"Mount Coronet's bowels have been even more agitated for the last twelve hours," Dr. Fenetry said.

"If we bait it into the larger caverns, we can Teleport close enough like last time, outside its range," Cynthia said. "I've had teams of Kadabra scouting the layout of the mountain night and day for weeks."

He looked like he wanted to complain about the fact that he had not been informed of that, but stayed silent. Cynthia's heart contracted, squeezed until she could barely breathe at the finality of such a decision.

"But let's put a pin on that for now," Cynthia breathed, hand over her chest. "We'll make the final decision another time."

She could breathe again.

"Cynthia," Lucian pressed.


"I need to speak to you."

"It can wait after the meeting, can it not?"

"No, it can't."

The Champion exhaled.

Then she waved a hand, and everyone but he cleared the room at once. She took comfort in the empty chairs, still spinning from their momentum, and Lucian recalled Alakazam.

"You're spiraling," Lucian declared.

"I am," she acknowledged with an incline of her head. "So what? Time keeps marching forward."

"Let me take over for a few hours so you can rest."

"I'm afraid I can't do that."

The psychic type specialist crossed his legs, purple hair cascading down his head, and tilted his hair as he adjusted his glasses, staring at her with that analytical look of his, finding the exact combination of words and tone that would get her to agree. "Your decision-making is fine right now, but it'll get worse as the day goes on if you don't sleep. You're twitchy, and people are noticing."

Cynthia cradled her own face and massaged her forehead. "The problem isn't that I am tired, Lucian. It is that if we get this wrong, if we mess up, the consequences would be— they would be—"

She could not bring herself to say it.

"I'll take care of things here. Please rest," he said.

Cynthia inhaled through her teeth sharply. "I have a favor to ask of you, Lucian. No one can know about this."

"Ask, and if I can do it, I will."

"Bring me home."

Celestic was just as she remembered it being the last time she'd come. It was the middle of the night, with only the stars and half a moon to shine down on her hometown— if she even considered it that, still— yet it bathed everything in a soft, silver light. As she had expected, no one was out, especially not in front of her family's home. Cynthia could not see beyond the small, cobbled path that led to it, but Alakazam would have warned her, if there was. He was already looking mighty displeased.

The stone was worn smooth from many years of footsteps, guiding Cynthia home like an old friend. As she stepped onto the porch, the creak of the wooden floorboards beneath her feet echoed in the stillness of the night, a familiar sound that brought a smile to her lips. She'd forgotten the correct spots not to be heard sneaking out, had she? Their house was bigger than it used to be, with Cynthia sending money each month, but they had only expanded on what used to be here, and Kirsten wasn't one to enjoy renovating something that worked perfectly well. Her grandmother was a woman who easily got attached to old possessions.

Despite hailing from this town, Cynthia had rarely set foot back in Celestic since becoming the Champion. Her early years were filled with the tumultuous internal backstabbing and politics that nearly always came with a change in power in the kind of regime Sinnoh used to be, especially when she'd been so young and three out of four Elite Four members had opposed her. When everything had been stabilized and her predecessor had flown out to Alola, she took it upon herself to reform the country, slowly but surely, and her year spent in Unova hadn't helped with how busy she got. Picking at Alder's mind had been a fascinating task, in the few meetings and summits they'd held with her delegation, and they stayed in contact up until his Volcarona died and he had withered into nothing.

From a fiery storm to… whatever he was now. A homeless man wandering Unova, lost in perpetual grief and rarely caught by any cameras. Back then, she'd thought less of him, for having a weak mind. For simply allowing himself to lose to a then eleven-year-old child just because it was easier that way, because he could not live with the loss, when he had talked to her about how much more work needed to be done. Their circumstances were not at all similar. All of Cynthia's Pokemon were in their prime, whereas Alder had caught Volcarona at the tail end of her unnaturally long life, when she'd been barely held together by the remnants of hushed tales, songs and prayers.

What she never thought, however, was that at some point in time, the weight of the mantle of power might make her own knees buckle and her bones creak. That she might not be enough.

Weakness. Was she not Sinnoh's protector, sworn to serve the people no matter what may come to pass? She did not have a limit, Champions did not have limits. They were paragons. Mistakes were affordable, but not today. Not when the stakes were this high.

Her hand touched the door, smooth and a pale, light green. New. How did Celeste convince Kirsten to do that?

Cynthia whispered, "Thank you, Alakazam. I appreciate it."

The psychic's singular eye twitched. He had never been good at appreciating sudden kindness from anyone other than Lucian. One hour, he said. And do not go out in public.

Cynthia smiled at him, a genuine smirk at how he believed he would have to warn her of all people. As if she did not know the consequences of this could be catastrophic for what came after, if there was going to be an after. The Champion, caught checking up on her family before appearing to the public after nearly ten thousand were dead and thousands more were wounded? Oh, there was always more yarn she could spin, more stories she could weave, but it would cost her.

And yet.

Here she was.

Alakazam disappeared without a trace before he let himself show his mustache twitch nervously at her stare.

One hour.

Her knuckles rasped against the smooth wood of the door, but she hesitated to knock. When was it, did she start feeling less at home here than when she was stuck nose-deep in her office at the League? Her home, it felt so alien, so foreign to her now that she could barely believe this was where she'd grown up. There were trinkets adorning the porch, most religious in nature. Strips of paper warded with charms or Arceus' name, but never his figure. Deigning to know what he looked like was not allowed in Celestic's branch of Originalism.

Just as she was about to knock, the door swung open.

Her twin sister stood there, her hair all over the place and evidently still half asleep, from the strand of drool dripping down her mouth. She was slightly shorter by an inch or so, and a little less gaunt than Cynthia was, these days, given that she didn't spend so long sitting in an office. Other than that, they were nearly identical.

Cynthia's eyes drifted to her stomach for a moment, and then her fingers, thanks to the gleam of a ring under the moonlight, then her eyes.

"Cynthia?" The words were a mix of disbelief and anger. "Cynthia," she said again, now sure of herself. "What in the world are you doing here? Do you have any idea of what's going on?"

"That's my job," she deadpanned. "May I come in? I can stay here for an hour, and I decided to come visit."

Celeste looked around, as if she was searching for who else would be here, but she found no one. "Where's your entourage, Cynth?"

"I came alone, with the help of Lucian's Alakazam."

Granted, Cynthia had afforded them protection from the League, just in case they ever became a target, but it hadn't looked like Celeste had caught on.

Her sister facepalmed as she leaned against the doorframe. "You look older."

"I am."

"You never contact us. You haven't written us in over ten months, let alone called. Do you have any idea of how Gran felt about that?" she asked, her eyes flaring with an intensity rarely ever directed at her. It was somewhat refreshing. "Of how I felt about that."

"I was busy, Celeste."

"Yeah. Too busy to send even a single letter or text," she smirked. "Maybe I'm too busy to let you in."

"Not now. Please."

Celeste bit her lip. "We'll see."

"So," Cynthia hummed. "You're pregnant and married?" It had been easily noticeable, with how much she was showing, the size of her stomach barely contained inside of her shirt. Cynthia estimated… seven months? But she'd never been the best at that, so she might have been wrong. "Who's the father?"

There might have been a snapback coming, but she wouldn't do that. Not for this particular topic. "Neil."

"Neil… Neil Schwartz?" She tried recalling him, though his image was fuzzy. They must have been fourteen the last time they'd even interacted. "Ah, I remember now. His parents work that gift shop close to the crater's edge."

"His gift shop, now," she specified.

"I'm sorry I didn't…" her lips thinned. "I'm sorry I didn't know sooner. This year has just been so…"

"Hectic, yeah," her sister nodded. "You can come in."

Stepping over the threshold, Cynthia entered her old home, feeling a sense of peace settle over her. It wasn't comfortable, not yet, but it was familiarity, at the very least. The sights and sounds of her home she'd nearly forgotten enveloped her. The smell of burned wood from the now extinguished fire in the hearth, the soft, repeated ticking of the grandfather clock, the old books she used to obsess over, settled neatly on an old bookshelf against the walls.

"So, what are you actually here for?" Celeste whispered. It was odd, to see her move so carefully, her hands always over her stomach as if she was cradling her child already.

"Do you know if it's a boy or a girl yet?" Cynthia asked.


"The gender."

"Oh, sorry, I thought you'd— you know what, never mind," Celeste said with a little grin. All of a sudden, it was like they were ten again. "It's a boy. You know, I feel like he's already raring to get out." She stopped to sigh. "Arceus knows that'll be a relief on my back."

"And this Neil. He's good to you?" Cynthia asked, wandering around home. There were unwashed dishes in the sink, something Kirsten never would have let them get away with in their young age.

She was getting older.

"He's wonderful. You know, he makes a crap ton of money from all the trainers that pass through here near the end of each Circuit, and thank Arceus, because I've had to stop working."

"Ah. The pregnancy?"

The Champion looked at an old picture, framed in wood, and smiled. There she was with Garchomp as a Gible, smiling for the camera. Of course, this had been years after they'd met, given that it took Celestic that long to accept her being a trainer.

"No, Cynthia it was before that— it's Gran. You know… her eyes got really bad, and she can't move much. She needs me to take care of her."

Cynthia blinked, flinching back as if she had been struck.

"It got that bad?"

Why didn't you tell me?! she wanted to yell, but she knew she had no right, absolutely none. It was just so difficult. She wanted to deny it at first, to refuse that her grandmother could ever reach a point where she was unable to care for herself. To reconcile that person Kirsten was in Cynthia's mind with the image Celeste was painting was asking her the impossible, and she despised that feeling, that ache in her heart that made her feel so weak. This was partly why she never visited home, something she struggled to admit to herself. The place did not change, but the people did. They moved on without her. Neighbors got older, had children or died. Most of the people who she used to go to school with had moved out, not that they'd been on friendly terms regardless, and most of all, every time, her family was so…


It felt so jarring, to see Celeste pregnant and hear that she'd married already. To hear that Kirsten's eyes had gotten so bad that she was basically blind, her body so feeble that she could barely move on her own.

It was her fault, yet it hurt all the same.

"I don't think you should wake her, then," Cynthia said. "She needs rest, doesn't she?"

"I can still—"

"I can come back another time," Cynthia said. "Now let's sit. Tell me about your husband and… your life."

They spoke for a while, around twenty minutes or so. Celeste told her of how Neil and she had reconnected when she'd gone out to buy more trinkets for Kirsten, who thought she might be able to just pray the blindness away. No, that was a rude way of putting it, but Cynthia had never been favorable to how they depended on religion for everything here. Had she been less busy, had she known, had she written, then maybe she could have convinced her grandmother to get care in one of those private hospitals. The really good ones, down in Jubilife or Sunyshore. It was too late, now. Time was a cruel mistress, and she marched on no matter what petty living things wanted. Neil did not live with Celeste yet, but he was thinking of selling his parents' home, of hiring help for his shop so he could help with Kirsten, and appeared to be an appropriate man for her sister to be married to. Arceus knew Celeste hadn't always had the best taste in those, especially in their teenage years. While Cynthia had spent those all in the wild, preparing for her fifteenth, Celeste…

Well, it was best not to revisit those memories. They'd all been children, once.

"What about you?" Celeste asked.

"What about me?"

"You know what I'm saying," her sister snorted. "Any office romances? You know, people see you and Lucian hang around all the time…"

Cynthia laughed— genuinely laughed, so loud that Celeste shushed her, and all of a sudden it was like they were little girls again. "With Lucian? Legendaries, no, he and I would sooner die than have that happen." She wiped the corner of her eye. "You know, there just isn't… any time."

And no one could ever meet her standards, regardless. She'd tried, oh, she had, back when she'd first become the Champion. Most had been kept under wraps, lest the tabloids go into a feeding frenzy, but no one could ever hold her attention for long, and she always ended up breaking up with them after a month or two. Cynthia always liked them at first, but then noticed every little flaw until she didn't recognize who she had been infatuated with in the first place and broke it off. Bertha asked her to stop, after a while. She had summoned her to her office one day, on the eve of her eighteenth birthday, and asked her if she wanted to change things or just to keep sleeping around.

It had been a hyperbole, which was rare, with Bertha. Cynthia had been more interested in picking their brains and sharing mutual interests than anything else.

She'd been young, back then, and still believed that her life could be normal despite her responsibilities. Voices had been raised, but eventually, years later in her early twenties, Cynthia had realized that Bertha had been correct. Doing both was just… impossible, at least for her. Not when she'd been so much more hands-on with everything than Gabriel Radetic. One needed to be, when steering a nation, and that took a lot of micromanagement.

"I'm just fooling around," Celeste said, pushing her on the shoulder. "You know, I've been sidestepping the topic, but if you can… you know, tell us anything about what's going on with Team Galactic— if it's too much for you—"

"That's confidential," Cynthia said smoothly.

"But you came here for a reason. You're having a tough time, aren't you?"

Sinnoh's Champion drew upon a breath so large it might as well have been endless. "This entire year, Celeste. I have never overseen a decline so steep, failure after failure." Their eyes met. "I have used fear as a tool of the state, imprisoned and sacked political opponents to install loyalists and rule with an iron fist, ceded more and more ground to authoritarianism and I am now being forced to cooperate with despots like Lance Blackthorn. But I suppose I am a despot as well," the Champion spoke with a wry smile. "I have ripped everything I have spent over a decade working on to shreds, and yet it looks like we might fail anyway." Her hand ran over her forehead to wipe off sweat that wasn't there. "I had meticulously altered the face of this nation by the rules to establish a precedent for the Champions who would come after me, to build institutions from the ground up. Restrained myself in this world made of… of cardboard. Worked countless sleepless nights to make a difference," she exhaled. "And yet, look at it."

There was no Television to show the consequences of her failures, and Celestic had not been targeted by Team Galactic, yet Cynthia stared out of their tiny window and imagined her hometown, burning to a crisp, like the entire country had. It enraged her. The fact that so many innocents had died under her watch, under her care. If she got her hands on any Galactic Commander now, there would be…

No. Unleashing Spiritomb on them would be inefficient, and there would be no time to waste. It would be best to simply get Garchomp or another one of her Pokemon to cut them in half before they or their Pokemon could blink. Save for Charon, of course. Deals were malleable, but she couldn't let emotions get the better of her. Mira Compton's cooperation would ensure Sinnoh's security in the future.

"It's that bad, huh?" Celeste muttered, placing a hand on Cynthia's arm. She squeezed. "Arceus, I wish I could help you, but…"

"You cannot. Thank you either way, Celeste. I usually never get overwhelmed like this, but it's been building up and it needed to come out. I have an image to uphold. I'm a beacon."

"Beacon," her sister smiled. "That's what you wanted to be. Always talking about that word and uh… paragon, I think. Oh, and symbol."

Hope, change, movement. Out with the old, in with the new and the streamlined. She'd tell anyone who would listen about it, back then, but most of the time, it ended up being Celeste, Gible, and her grandmother, given her less-than-stellar reputation at the time.

"You never did tell me about your journey." She leaned against the couch and stared at the ceiling. "But by the time the year was over, you were a completely different person. The world had ripped the child out of you. We barely recognized you, but that goal? That need to do good, to help, to be a beacon," Celeste said, her tone full of conviction. "It never changed."

Cynthia laughed. "Sacrifices have to be made, to grow into a person who can be Champion. It is not simply about the power of your Pokemon, your charisma, your connections, or your willingness to do the work. You have to have all of that, but you also need to want something. Want it so bad that you don't mind that parts of yourself will have to be burned and rebuilt, lest the role refuses you. When it does, it swallows you whole, chews you up and spits you out a broken mess."

She had seen it, studied it before. Many times, when a Champion lost to a challenger after having reigned for years or decades, it was not only because their team had not been up to par, but because they had lost their fire. The drive which had gotten them to their position in the first place. Now they just went through the motions, guided by the invisible hand of power while their challenger had that spark in their eye they'd lost long ago.

Many times, even, their Pokemon were individually weaker, yet they won anyway.

In the end, the challenger always represented ideals. A need for change, as she had. In their eyes, the current Champion was often a villain. After all, was it not them, who had let their country get to this point? Who had allowed so much so and so, this and that, and yet they dared to look tired, to look exhausted? She'd thought the same, when looking at Radetic and his Walrein. He'd been corrupt, a creature born of the old guard, and yet she'd often used the same tactics he had to speed up her reforms for the greater good. She had allowed Poketch to grow unchecked like he had, and kept their relationship just because it was convenient and she'd failed a few times to bust their monopoly.

One day, perhaps, she would face someone much like her. Someone who would have grown tired of her destroying their home, in their eyes, and she would just be so, very tired.

Too tired to win.

Contrary to popular belief, Champions often knew, when they'd be facing a contender that year, and they also knew when there was a real risk of losing. Sometimes, it was a challenger with years and years of attempts. A diamond in the rough turned into a fine cut. Few came close to this at present. Craig was the closest, and recent years at the Conference had driven the top competitors to great heights not seen in a long time. She had once said Craig Goodwill would lose to Flint. More recent assessments of him thanks to them working together had her think he might make it to her depending on how he approached the fight against him and Lucian. Of course, he would lose, but he would be the first to make it through since she'd selected her new Elite Four.

Sometimes, it was a prodigy that swooped up badges in just a few months like she had, taking the region by storm. There was no one like that, at the moment.

Those? Those, you could not be warned about years in advance.

Radetic had known she was coming only a few months after she'd begun. He had seen her talk about him, and how he was the source of every problem that ever was and every problem that ever would be. And she had ruined him, so utterly destroyed him and his legacy that he had been run out of the country. Wielded the power of an entire state's apparatus to drive him off so she could more easily replace the people loyal to him swarming every inch of the League like rot.

She would do it again, if given the choice. Every time.

"You talk of it like it has its own will," Celeste said after a while. "Power."

"It does," Cynthia agreed. "The mantle does. In a way, I am more its tool than it is mine. At the beginning, it seems so… limitless. The world is in the palm of your hands, and it looks so much smaller than before. But then you pull one lever, a single lever, and it ripples across an entire nation, and you realize that this will not be as simple as you think it is." Her breath shook, and she also leaned back next to her sister so their shoulders touched. "Your eyes open to how much influence you truly wield, and you suddenly feel so paralyzed. No amount of reading books about political theory or governing prepares you for such terror."

Celeste nodded weakly. "I understand," she said, her voice trembling.

And she did. This was their first proper conversation in years, she did not have a single taste of what sitting atop that throne truly meant, and yet she did. Their bond was still tight, despite everything they'd been through.

"This year… I just keep replaying it in my head, trying to think of how I might have stopped Team Galactic in their tracks with the information I had at hand, and I spot mistake after mistake."

"You aren't omniscient, Cynthia."

"I am not, but that doesn't excuse my failures."

"And now? Have you been broken yet?" a voice rang out from the hallway.

Celeste jumped, and Cynthia grinned despite feeling guilty about having woken up their grandmother. She dragged herself through the darkened hall with a walker, and Celeste quickly jumped at the opportunity to help her after turning on the lights.

"I remain standing still, Kirsten."

Her grandmother was no trainer, yet she was the strongest person she'd ever known, and yet she was fading. Her eyes were a milky white, and she had clearly gone blind. Her arms and legs were like thin, spiny branches, and she couldn't even walk without going out of breath.

It hurt, to see her like this. To witness the last embers of a dying flame. The coming of a long, endless winter.

Celeste panicked, "Gran, your wheelchair—"

"The wheels can go to hell," Kirsten said. "And Kirsten, Cynthia? Really? I raised you better than that, and it's no use trying to distance yourself from me to make my passing easier. In this household, you will refer to me as your grandmother, or you will leave."


"Good." Celeste guided her to the living room, and she sat to face Cynthia with an exhausted, frustrated groan. It must have been hard, to still have her sharp mind, but for her body to be unable to keep up. White eyes stared directly at her— no, slightly past her. "My ears might not be what they used to be, but if you wanted to sneak around, you shouldn't have spent the past thirty minutes giggling with your sister."

"That was only ten of the thirty, at most," Celeste said.

Gran waved a hand dismissively. "She must have told you about Neil and the baby, I presume. He's a good man, if a little boring. A good fit for her, since she likes wearing the pants in the relationship, personality-wise. He's even kept the name Collins, can you believe it? Back in the day, that was as good as cutting off your balls and putting on a wig."

Her sister sighed. "Arceus give me strength…"

"Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course," her grandmother quickly added, a line well-rehearsed, by the sound of things. "So, Cynthia. Tell me about your troubles," Kirsten said. "Has the throne grown too large for a little girl from Celestic?"

Cynthia stopped herself from scoffing. Deep down, the want to impress her was still there, but she'd grown past it a long time ago. She vented about everything she'd told Celeste, and suddenly wished she'd asked for two hours instead of one. Her grandmother simply listened, not bothering to say anything besides the occasional hum or nod.

"Things must truly be catastrophic if they've got you acting like this," her grandmother calmly said. "I'm sorry, Cynthia. Truly."

"That paralysis I was talking about," the Champion said. "I've grown past it. Used to it. Learned to delegate more, or at least until this year, and learned what actions would affect which sector, but now? It's gripped me again. Every potential action… if I fail…"

The world ends.

That had always been the case. She had learned of this months ago, but the closer this got to being a reality, the more stressed she'd gotten, and if they did not succeed at Acuity, then she struggled to see a path where they'd make it through the next couple of days. Cynthia wasn't sure they even had that. Mount Coronet was, as they understood, not alive, but… it had a way of acting that pushed or pulled people in certain directions. Usually that was away from Spear Pillar, be that using temporal or spacial distortions, but the guardians would render Team Galactic immune to that, or at least the people closest to them.

"If I fail, it will be, as you said, catastrophic," Cynthia finished her sentence.

There was a beat of nervousness on Celeste's face. "More catastrophic than they already are? Should we— should we be going somewhere? Is this place safe, Cynthia?"

Oh, Celeste, Cynthia thought. I would take a ten, a hundred, fifty times the casualties in a heartbeat, if it meant that Sinnoh prevailed. I would watch you, your unborn child and our own grandmother die, if it was what it took, because that is who I am.

"Little hellraiser Cynthia," Kirsten said, hands intertwined. They were veiny and discolored. "Carrying the weight of a country on her back. I told you the role would scrape you until there was nothing left other than bones."

Cynthia frowned. "You told me I wasn't going to make it."

Yes, she had not left town on good terms with her family. In fact, one could say that she had run away, though she had no doubt her grandmother had expected it, given her parting gift. But what did it even matter, what she'd said? Why was she bringing it up now, and why was she rising to the bait?

"Gran…" Celeste hesitantly spoke, eyes drifting between the two. "Now isn't a great time for this. We should be thinking about leaving, shouldn't we?" She paced around the room and looked at their landline. "Arceus, I need to call Neil—"

"You're fine, Celeste," Cynthia said. It did not matter, where you went.

"You would not drag me away from here regardless," Kirsten added, helpful as always. "And that is not what I said, Cynthia. I told you, before you left, that the powers that were would never accept a girl from Celestic, even if she won. I was correct. What I did not expect was for you to clean house and make them accept you." She paused, smacked her lips and they turned to a rather jovial smirk. "I do not mean to say you are not up to the task, Cynthia. Clearly that is what you inferred."

Ah. She had, and it had ruffled her quite a bit. "I misunderstood, then."

"What I did mean to say is that this job will kill you, soon enough," she continued. "It will not have to be because you'll die in some battle, though that might be the case—"

Celeste scoffed. "If she's dying, she's taking everything in a thousand-mile radius down with her, let me tell you."

Cynthia laughed, a short exhale through her nose, but Kirsten continued.

"I mean that it will wring you out like a wet towel until there's nothing left in you," she nonchalantly said. "It'd be a shame to see my granddaughter dead before I passed. Lord Arceus knows you already have half of your body in a grave you dug yourself."

"Retirement is not an option."

"Sure it is," Kirsten smiled. "This year alone has eaten away at more of you than the last ten. The next might as well, and after another, well, you might as well put me in your will."

"Hey, leave some for the rest of us," Celeste joked. "I have a baby on the way."

"You have to promise me to buy that villa in Unova I've always wanted."

They all laughed.

"This year has worn me down, it's true," Cynthia said, more seriously. "I considered taking a break after it. I have a new Pokemon who needs to be trained, and I don't mean that just in the battling sense. A year off would allow me to focus on him," she sighed. "But with the bombs… no, I need to be there. To rebuild. And I wouldn't have the excuse I had last time I took a year off."

Celeste's eyebrows raised in surprise. "Oh, a new Pokemon? That's been a while. What is it?"

"A child who has never been afforded civility, and who therefore only knows how to fight," she said. "You can't meet him, Gran. Not yet."

While Celeste and her incident with that Zangoose when they'd been young and stranded on route 210 had weaned her off Pokemon forever, Kirsten was a curious woman, no doubt wanting to see who had caught her attention this time. Her inroads with Zoroark were… well, they were slow, as she'd expected, but at least he had understood rather quickly that he could not kill her, and they were at least on speaking terms.

"You haven't even let me see that little miscreant and you deny me yet another favor?" her grandmother teased.

"Garchomp is better off not knowing I came here, or she'll worry."

Celeste chimed in, "Plus, I'd be willing to bet you don't want her terrified of what's coming." She nudged her chin in their grandmother's direction.

"Well, she's grown past eating the furniture and stuffing in my pillows, so maybe she wouldn't have to be," Kirsten laughed.

"I'm pretty sure you're the only woman in the region capable of scaring little Garchomp, Gran," her sister said, a smile of her own plastered on her lips.

Cynthia leaned forward. "Do you remember when I came home earlier than usual from our training and we got mud all over the house?"

Celeste nodded. "Hmhm, and I'd told you that it was a bad idea and it had been raining all day, but you said 'Gible's hungry, Celeste, and she won't train until she eats some more'," she mimicked Cynthia's younger voice. It had always been slightly lower-pitched than hers. "Never mind that she'd eaten like three hours ago already. Lo and behold, I get yelled at with you."

"It was a bad day at work," Kirsten shrugged.

"Well, you could have brought me the food and I wouldn't have had to go inside," Cynthia said.

"Oh, don't play that game with me, Cynth. I did bring the food, but you always wanted something specific with exact portions because of some diet you read about in a book or whatnot, and only you knew how to make that stuff. It was funny to watch you pay for it by beating trainers who passed through, though."

"A little eight-year-old, giving teenagers a run for their money, ha!" Kirsten laughed. "Served them right. They had no respect for our town or culture, and they still don't might I add."

"Eh, it's gotten better. You know, Champion clout and all. People don't want to disrespect Cynth's hometown," Celeste said.

Cynthia was lighter, now, and yet she hadn't gotten any answers.


"Ah yes, getting back on topic," the old woman nodded. "You feel paralyzed, unable to act… hold on." She closed her eyes, as if she was searching for something. A few seconds later, she held out her hand. "Hold on." Cynthia frowned. "Don't be daft, hold it."

She clasped her grandmother's hand, her breath shivering as she felt at the skin. She'd been what, eleven the last time she'd done this? The firm grip she remembered was gone, and now there was a delicate fragility to her grandmother's grip. The skin was almost papery to the touch, like she was holding onto some kind of grainy surface. Cynthia could feel the bones beneath the surface, each joint slightly swollen. Calluses adorned the fingertips, remnants of years of physical labor, both around the house and at her old job as a logger.

So small.

"I remember, once," Kirsten said. "It was shortly after you'd befriended Gible… a few months, if I remember correctly. Maybe a year. This was at the beginning of that year's Circuit, and there weren't any trainers around, so you'd go out every day and train out in the wilds, sneaking out while I was at work. I'd get one of the neighbors to babysit, try to get old Richmond and his two pups to keep track of you, but somehow, some way, you always managed to get out after a few hours. Maybe Richmond had gone soft and was letting you through, but he swore he never did."

She worked her jaw and exhaled, a short laugh as she reminisced. There were a few tricks Cynthia had employed, back then, like having Gible create tunnels to get her out of town and masking her own scent by rubbing mud and trash all over her body. It had been a tight fit, but easy for a child to do. Of course, now she knew that back then, Garchomp's tunnels were not at all stable and she could have died, had she been unlucky.

Her grandma continued, "You know people around here didn't like you kids."

"Born out of wedlock, yes," Cynthia said. Years of training and habit had taught her to smoothen out her expression despite wanting to grimace. What good were customs, if they discriminated like this? She could see Celeste shift uncomfortably next to Kirsten. The subject of their mother having been a victim of sexual assault wasn't a comfortable one. "And?"

"Not just that. You couldn't help but yap about how great being a trainer was to anyone who would listen, talk about how you'd make this town a better place. They hated you. Some even thought you were getting possessed by some kind of malevolent ghost and approached me one day when I was praying at the shrine. Thought you'd get into their kids' heads." Kirsten was blind, yet she met her eyes— truly met her eyes for the first time. "I have to admit, I was also growing tired of you. What if one day, you didn't come back? What if you were eaten or killed by some wild Pokemon like that Zangoose? So one night, I tossed and turned in my bed, asking myself, what was it, that made you so different than every other child? Than your own twin sister?"

"Did you find an answer?" Cynthia asked.

The blind woman shook her head, eyes having now wandered away. "Not that night, no. Not the next, either. I don't think I found an answer until the day you left. Remember?"

"How could I not," she said, barely a whisper.

She could still feel the fading summer sun bashing down her skin without a cloud in sight, save for the enormous wall of fog in the distance. The tears at the corner of her eyes when realizing that this was it, after having had the biggest argument with Celeste she'd ever had and it looked like their relationship would never be mended. She'd had Riolu and Gible, back then. Well, them and…

"I came up to you with the egg," Kirsten grinned. "Some trainer had left it in their Pokemon Center room, probably malcontent with what he was getting, and Sandra, the nurse Joy at the time, was my friend, so a little payment was enough for her not to call the Rangers. They would have taken a month to get here anyway, but I digress. Surely, it was a sign of support, was it not? So why did I, then, tell you that 'you wouldn't make it'?"

Ah, she was using her own words against her.

"Because a young girl from Celestic—"

"Because I didn't want you to leave," Kirsten admitted. "Because I would miss you, and I knew after that day, I would basically never see you again. I saw it in your eyes, that day, and I finally understood. Six years old, and you were talking about making a town that hated you better. Asking for books about history, politics, the economy, Pokemon care and training… It's a wonder I didn't figure this out earlier, but I supposed it was easier not to see."

Cynthia opened her mouth, but her grandmother's voice bulldozed over hers.

"You'll roll your eyes at me for this, I know it, but sometimes, people are put on this Earth to be vehicles for change."

The Champion snorted. "Don't take all of my accomplishments away by attributing them to Arceus."

"I am not. I am saying that something laid the seeds and that you grew into your own," she said. "And from the day you were born, you'd always wanted to tend to your own farm as well. To remove the weeds, till the soil and plant seeds of your own."

Cynthia's lips thinned. To equate, compare her ambition to farming was a little too on the nose for her.

"Now as you know, my dear, farming is hard work, especially in a farm as large as this one. Your body does not stay young and springy forever, you joints and bones are worn down over the years and each dawn brings a familiar ache. The bending, lifting, and hauling required to tend to crops take their toll, leaving shoulders stooped and backs bowed." Her grandmother stood up without her walker, legs shaking under her own weight, but neither Celeste or Cynthia dared to move. "Now, no one asked you to be a farmer, let alone the best damn farmer of these lands. You were warned repeatedly, but it couldn't shake you off the path. Why?"

"I thought you had the answer, now," Cynthia whispered.

"Because you must," she said. "Because it is who you are, because you have to do it, or you are incomplete, and taking it out of you might as well be like trying to cut off your oxygen. You'll thrash around, but if you aren't freed, it'll kill you. No matter what combination of words, what methods are used to convince you otherwise, it will not have you stray off your path. The one of a leader."

Kirsten's hands gripped Cynthia's shoulders as hard as they could, and she stood over her, then let a hand rise to her cheek. "A person's life is a war between who they are and who they want to be, and you've been winning that war for as long as I can remember. The stakes are higher than they've ever been, but this is who you are, Cynthia. Your mind is old and worn like the body of a farmer, but you must act, still. You might fail, you might not, but you are special. You are the only one qualified enough to work this land, now. You have learned of its shape, its quirks and what it takes to run it smoothly, and no one else right now would be able to do better than you, it would take too long to catch them up. If you get it wrong… no one would have gotten it right."

Sinnoh's Champion took a deep breath. "That does not help as much as I hoped it would."

"I'm your grandmother, not magic," Kirsten said, patting her on the cheek twice. "You're lucky you don't come here often, or I'd subject you to more of that, but Cel takes the brunt of it."

"Well, at least I didn't get farmer," she said. "I got librarian, last time. But you understand, right?"

"Because I must," Cynthia nodded. "Because I have taken it upon myself to carry this land upon my back, and I would do it all over again if I could."

"Good. Now Celeste, get me to bed, please."

No pleasantries were exchanged, before Gran went back to bed. Cynthia did not promise that she would visit more often when this was all over, nor did she say that she regretted her actions. Her grandmother had been correct, when she'd said that she'd known she would never see her again on that day she'd left. Cynthia spoke to her sister for the remaining fifteen minutes, sitting on their porch until Alakazam came back to pick her up, and she hugged her goodbye.

"Does the baby have a name yet?" she asked, locked in her arms.

"Yes. Cedric."

"Keeping the 'C' thing alive, are you?" Cynthia laughed softly. "I'll miss the birth, you know? I'll have to deal with the fallout from all of this."

"I know. And the months afterward, too, but at least you're talking about the future," she said. "Want to touch him?"

Cynthia blinked as she stood there, not having expected that. "May I?"

"You may."

She put a hand over her sister's stomach, and after ten seconds or so—

She gasped, feeling a kick, and she quickly dropped down to her knees and gasped. "Arceus, wow, that's— that's strong! Isn't that strong?"

"Oh yeah. He's raring to come out already, let me tell you," she smiled. "Did you not expect anything?"

"No, it's just… moving. Both figuratively and literally. Does it hurt? When he does that?"

Celeste shook her head. "It doesn't hurt, it just feels a little weird, but I've gotten used to it. How soft, by the way. Maybe your job didn't kill all of you after all."

Cynthia, Alakazam jeered. I've been patient enough. It's time to go.

"I'll take care of Gran for you," Celeste said. "She's got years left in her. See how sharp she still is?"

"She meanders more than she used to and speaks slower, but yes," Cynthia said. "And her words helped."

"I'm glad. Now you go kick ass and save the world, okay?" Cynthia could feel Alakazam's disapproving stare bear down the back of her head, but she managed to keep her face straight. Celeste saw through it anyway and blinked. "What, it was just a guess."

"A bad one," she lied. "Go back to sleep. Tell your husband I said hello."

"Will do. And don't forget to sleep, you look like shit."

She stood next to Alakazam and reappeared amidst a flurry of reports from League officials.

She yawned extremely loudly, declared that she would sleep for the next four hours and to wake her up if they were attacked and that Lucian would take over while she was out. She settled in the corner of an empty office and rested her back on her Togekiss.

Thank you to my Patreons - Spandaz, Alex Walters, androide, ObsidianOlive, A Ferret, MKK, Oblige, Joe, Emilowish, Sean, Tim Schmidt, Dim, Violett T, yesnomaybeso, Kail H, dragonslaver, Jon, RosaC, TsukiNoNeko, NPM, Jim A, Spicyice101, Vesperal, Iota, Addmolition exe, Frogsamurai, Alex F, Kiri, Rhuodric, Nord, Filthymacgyver, Grey J, creativityfails, Spartanstoryteller, Peter D, Bum, Zaire M, Tina M, Nova, Plasmatique, Lodris, Chester, Powernap, Kolby, Kcx1, AnotherUser, BeautifulBusinessBoi, Papito12495, KeMon C, Geo, Pedro B, Rat, LR Brantley, ZZStrider, Sharkerxjak, Quakdoktor, nothingtoseehere, Daruda, Mystic Corn, menirx, Paul S, coolblue, Ole W, Daniel J, Eric, Anarchistofyams, Cosimo, Nick S, Pharros, Michael J, Jan, ChairmanK--, William F, Zhijia, Andy S, HeyMrJack, NineXO, Dvn, Exceedes, Gustavo S, Serina T, Iepton, sqw4l, V4Ford, Micah T, L'iien, Kisekibigdumb, Nikolai M
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Interlude - Last Supper
This is the last interlude of the set. These were deliberately grouped together.


Hours earlier.

It had begun as a simple idea.

Let's pretend tomorrow is going to be normal.

Routine was what had kept Cecilia sane her entire life. It was something she could take comfort in, back when she used to live with her parents. To be able to know exactly what was going to happen at each hour of the day, knowing that she would only have to see her father once that particular day for dinner, and even then, that was only for around thirty to forty minutes. Every lesson, every event, every activity, every single moment in her life was meticulously planned down to the second and derailing off that schedule had been enough to have her burst into tears, back then. Because for all she'd been miserable— well, back then, she hadn't known life was miserable, but she had a larger perspective, now— there was something about the unknown that spread pure terror through the human psyche. If one of her attendants said that no, she would not be going to her dance lessons and then meeting her old friend Amy that day, her mind always started to race, picturing the worst scenario every time, because it meant that her father had something in store for her. He had micromanaged all aspects of her life.

Her circumstances were different, now. She held more power at her fingertips than she ever had, and her mind had been freed from her family's shackles. Her friends had taught her to let go of routine and enjoy a bit of spontaneity in her life, but in the world's darkest hour, Cecilia had decided to return to familiarity. Just like she had pretended as a young child that the berating, the yelling, the belittling would be fine, so long as she knew to expect it, she had decided to pretend that tonight was one like any other. Her therapist would no doubt tell her that this was unhealthy behavior, but he wasn't there to stop her.

That was how she found themselves sitting at a table, fingers tapping away at her laptop while she caught up on recent emails. Toxicroak eyed the screen curiously at her side, the subtle light reflecting off her yellow eyes while Slowking translated the emails to her to help teach her how to read. At least she's interested in learning, unlike Scizor. She did look bored out of her mind, but that was routine. Bored was good. Bored meant they were breathing, that their heart was pumping blood through their body, that they were still alive and the situation was mundane enough to be trite. She had long said that she wanted this entire situation done with, like ripping off a band-aid or jumping into a cold pool, but she wanted at least a day.

Not even a day. Just a single night.

She had not forgotten her oath, to kill Team Galactic grunts should Justin be dead. She'd been gathering her courage to actually check, but that would come later.

Grace had taken a bit of convincing, to agree to this, but Cecilia thought it would be especially good for her, with how happy she was acting. Mira had agreed right away and Chase had straight-up refused. They'd been reunited once again at Lake Acuity, though only Grace was with her, at the moment. They'd been given homes much like the one at Lake Valor, and Cecilia could hear her voice coming from the other room, along with the usual sound of a kitchen. Slicing against wood, the clattering of cutlery, the hum of a preheating oven, but also her speaking with her Electivire and Claydol.

Claydol was always with her, now.

The television was on, though it wasn't playing the news. Instead, it was some channel that played romance movies 24/7 that Grace had put on earlier before she'd started cooking dinner. Occasionally, Cecilia would glance the screen's way, but she was completely lost and hadn't kept track of the plot for this one. Movies weren't that fun to watch without Grace there to comment on every little thing, and plus, she was working. Sorting through junk mail from clothing stores about sales, sponsorship offers from Sinnoh that she would never take, given that she was leaving, scams, but sometimes, one caught her eye like this one.

It would be hard to glance over the name of Mark Obel.

Yikes, Slowking said. The man can't take a hint, can he?

Toxicroak laughed, a harsh, raspy sound that sounded, each exhale a concoction of croaks and gurgles as her poison sac expanded and retracted repeatedly.

"He's worried," she said. "No need to laugh, darling."

The fighting type shrugged, as if to say she didn't care. From the way Cecilia had spoken of her brother to her, she was somewhat at fault for the lack of empathy, not that she had any for him to begin with.

"We don't laugh at our detractors," Cecilia said, her tone like a teacher's. "We hold our heads high and kill them with words, or better yet, with silence. We let them know that just because the region is on fire doesn't mean all has been forgiven and we'll suddenly turn a new leaf. Wounds this deep run forever."

That did not mean that she could not read the actual email.

From: MarkObel
Please confirm your status in greater detail.

Cecilia, I've tried contacting you a thousand times, but you aren't answering the phone, so this is my last resort. You've told me that you were alive, but that isn't enough. I need to know that you're in a safe space and that no further danger will reach you. We can't get my hands on any information about what's going on beyond the bombings, but I just want to let you know that the moment Sinnoh opens its airspace again I can have you on a plane back to Unova. If that doesn't work for you, I can also bring your friends until the situation comes back to normal.

Answer the phone, please. Keeping me in the dark like this won't help.

Mark Obel
Your brother.

Panicked as he might be, it was still in character for him to be so clinical. The subject, the signature, the way he typed… it was just like her from before.

You're torturing him, Slowking said with a curious hum.

Toxicroak nodded, but she had the widest grin on her face instead.

"Torture?" Cecilia scoffed and shook her head. "These are simple boundaries I've established. I confirmed that I was alive earlier today, and that's enough."

You only call him when you need something for Zolst.

"That's just being smart about things. I don't pretend to care about him like he does with me… though maybe that's a little harsh. He does care, just not enough for me to reciprocate."

The email quickly went into her trash bin, though did offer a little insight into what other countries knew about Sinnoh's troubles. If Mark didn't know Legendaries were involved, then no one in Unova did. She knew he had people in the country, like every region had people in others, but she doubted after all of this year's purges that any of them were in any position to know about what was going on, here. It was possible he'd been lying to her, too, given the rumors about her being a spy spreading about. People lie, Cecilia, she told herself. You best get used to that possibility, and quick.

"At least he didn't bring up his parents or spout some nonsense about the importance of family," she sighed.

There was no point in keeping people in her life who would only make her miserable unless they could be of use. She understood why Mark had done what he'd done, taking their father back, but that didn't mean she had to smile and tell him all about how he was forgiven. To ask him about how he was doing, how heavy the burden of the mantle was, or how he had to make decisions that went against what he personally wanted for Unova's stability, with the political realignment going on there.

She moved on to the next—

Please give me another chance.

I can't get a word on if you're fine or—

To the trash, it went. Toxicroak complained about that, given that Slowking hadn't had time to read the message in its entirety, so she would never know what had been sent. The poison type didn't care for Amy, but she did enjoy schadenfreude in spades. Cecilia had blocked her everywhere, but she must have forgotten her email. Amy might have believed that Sinnoh being in the midst of a crisis meant that she would answer, so she'd shot her shot and tried to contact her, knowing that she'd be blocked if she failed. The reasoning was a little confusing, but it tracked, given that she was insane and her behavior was starting to look like a stalker's. Hopefully she'd give up by the time she was in Unova. Cecilia wished she could tell her to move on already, but any further contact would just give the girl a sliver of hope and have her latch onto that faster than Slowking thought of puns. Toxicroak sighed and left the table, deciding that she'd watch TV instead if Cecilia was going to be like this and not let her enjoy someone else's suffering.

"Thinking that way's bad for you regardless," Cecilia said.

Slowking translated her next word as she slumped into the couch, which was 'hypocrite'. Toxicroak extended one of her red claws and started to study it, licking the surface to test the potency of her poison.

"Don't drip poison over the couch," she warned.

She caught up on her emails in the next ten minutes, but it was only when she refreshed to make sure she'd been meticulous and hadn't missed any that her heart nearly jumped out of her throat.

From: ProfJuniper

She closed the screen before she could see the subject.

"Holy shit," she whispered. Her heart was running a marathon in her chest. "Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit!" Each word became louder and louder. "I can't believe it."

All the swearing got Toxicroak's attention, though she pretended not to care and only turned her head a fraction.

Okay, well, admittedly, I wasn't looking at the screen anymore now that Toxicroak left, Slowking said. But the swearing tells me this is either horrible news or extraordinary news. Shall I flip a coin?

Cecilia cracked her screen open, too scared to go any further. "I don't know which one it is. I didn't read it." She gulped, lips suddenly feeling very dry. "It's a message from that professor I told you about."

Ah, yes, the one with the name suspiciously close to Jupiter. Maybe an alter ego…

Her stare told him that now was not the time for those kinds of jokes. Not when so many had died, and especially not when they were pretending this was a night like any other. She could compartmentalize, separate the bombings from the world ending, but she could not do so if someone brought up one of the Commanders.

Cecilia took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

This was a typical night.

She had contacted a few professors back when she'd been in Canalave, but she had not expected an answer to come so soon. She'd thought they'd come in summer, after they had a chance to see her performance at the Conference, but maybe her winning her eighth badge had been enough for this particular professor? From what she knew, Aurea Juniper was somewhat eccentric, but her credentials were excellent and she specialized in the origins of Pokemon— specifically how they came into existence, along with ancient civilizations, which had her studying a whole lot of… eldritch things. That meant she was very nonchalant a lot of the time, and her general attitude had her estranged from most of the scientific community in Unova, which was why she was living in the middle of nowhere.

Sorry to all Nuvemans, Cece thought, but at least it's bigger than Twinleaf.

"I can't look," she stammered, now calmer. "I can't look."

I can look for you,
Slowking suggested.

"Cece? I heard you swear, what's up?"

Grace stood in the doorway to the kitchen, knife in hand. Truth be told, she had taken to this as much as Cecilia had, but that was okay. Her hands were still bandaged and wrapped in plastic gloves.

They both liked pretending, especially if they could mimic what it would be like to live together.

Claydol— or Cassianus, now, hovered behind her while Honey had remained to take care of things. She was wearing an apron over a white shirt and some shorts. They hadn't really been given enough time to come to Snowpoint with the appropriate clothing, and Emilia was the one who kept their winter clothes, at the moment. Her suitcase was in a hotel in Canalave and she was at Mount Coronet, so they were not at all accessible.

"Come here," Cecilia said. "This— this is insane. No emergencies, just… you know, it might be good news."

Her girlfriend walked across the living room. "Well, no need to beat around the bush, you've got me intrigued, now."

Cecilia told her everything, recalling all the times she'd spoken to her about professors in Unova, weaving it into an entire story about how this could make or break her year depending on what was on the email. Ordinarily, they wouldn't be worrying about any of this, but in a way, it was refreshing for her, to be this anxious about an email.

Tomorrow isn't real, she kept thinking.

Just like Toxicroak had come back, Grace was hovering behind her by now, her face slightly above her shoulder. "Now you've got me nervous."

"Are you kidding? Can you look at it for me?"


"Just read it before I do."

"I mean, it has to be good, right? She answered you, and quickly," Grace said. "You could have been left on read for months."

"That means you can read it."

The blonde was clearly about to retort, but instead she sighed, placed her knife on the table and nodded. "For you, fine."

Cecilia stood up and allowed Grace to slip into the chair. "Wait, my fingers are greasy," she warned.

The Unovan had already been closing her eyes and looking away from the screen. "I don't really care, but Slowking can open it for you."

I'm still sad you didn't let me read it for you, the psychic grumbled. So who knows what I can and cannot do— ah, okay, no need to glare at me like that, I was just joking.

The screen flipped open, and Cece waited with bated breath.

Grace cleared her throat and started reading, "Dear Cecilia, I hope this message finds you well. In the purpose of staying as transparent as possible, I will tell you first that despite what you wrote to me about wanting to be picked for your own skill and experience, the reason this message got to me from my assistants so quickly was because of your last name. As you know, your brother— uh, sorry, let me skip ahead. Hold on… there you go. The reason I came to this decision, however, is because of you and your merits alone."

There was a pause, and then she continued. "Wait, never mind, look!" Cecilia could tell she was smiling, so she cracked an eye open. "I am writing to formally express my enthusiasm and commitment to sponsoring you as you embark on your second year as a Pokemon Trainer—"

"Yes, yes, yes!" Cecilia jumped for joy, and Grace stood up to hug her, concerns about her greasy hands now forgotten. She giggled when she kissed her cheek. "Oh, I'm so relieved… Arceus, I can't believe this is real. This is real, right?"

"It's real. I told you it was gonna be good!" Grace beamed. "I'm proud of you, Cece."

"Well, she didn't say she was going to sponsor me quite yet—"

"Don't ruin a good thing," she laughed, rolling her eyes. "Should I keep reading?"

Cecilia draped her arms around her girlfriend's neck and settled her chin on top of her head. "I'm okay, thanks."

"You're trapping me anyway. Not that I'm complaining." Grace's hand wrapped around Cece's arm. "You're lucky Honey can handle things."

"Where did you even find lamb?" Cecilia asked as her eyes scanned the email. "I thought all they had was some stuff to microwave."

"I asked them while you were showering and they got it here quick. Honey wanted to cook some lamb, and you know… yeah."

Essentially, Professor Juniper was outlining everything she'd ask of her during their contract, which was admittedly a lot. There was what she'd planned for, which was having her study Hydreigon and Golurk, which were her two rarest Pokemon, and potentially her future Spiritomb, if that ever came to pass. She figured that was the bait that had made Juniper bite, given their ancient origins and how she could potentially figure out how they were made. Cecilia would have to pacify hers before any of that, which would probably take the majority of the year or longer given what Cynthia had said, but it was still a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity even for a professor. Cynthia had vouched for her all the way back when she'd first typed her first email, so she knew it was true. Her connections were paying off already.

Juniper would also be able to call on her whenever she discovered something off-route worth studying, where Cecilia would act as her bodyguard. Not only that, but she wanted help in gathering data, documenting her findings, and retrieving artifacts. She was essentially going to be a part-time field assistant if she agreed, which was… a lot.

In exchange, though? Sure, there was the pay— less than Grace was making right now, given that Juniper didn't have the resources of a huge company behind her, but it was still enough to live, which was great news given that she was out of money (she needed to wean those spending habits of hers, and quick) and showed Cece that Juniper actually wanted her. The number itself was a lot smaller, but Unovan currency was stronger than Sinnoh's, so it was decent, for a small lab like Juniper's. There was also the occasional TM thrown in, along with general mentorship, but what she mostly cared about was the networking possibilities this sponsorship brought.

While Aurea Juniper was not the most well-respected professor in the region, she still had connections. The main avenue was that she was married to Professor Fennel, who for her part was one of the most famous professors in the region for what she was doing with dreams, Munna and Musharna. They'd gone to the same college, going as far as writing their thesis together on the evolutionary biology of Pokemon Species and forms. While Juniper mostly kept to herself, Fennel knew politicians and Gym Leaders, despite her being married to Juniper. It was an in into Unovan politics, if she played her cards right.

I apologize for answering in such troubling times for Sinnoh, but I figured I needed to answer first before some other professor got their grubby paws on you. I usually don't sponsor trainers, but I figured that since I'm starting this year, I might as well add you to the pile. You'll be the fourth and final person working under my laboratory, though the other three will be far newer than you and I doubt you'll be seeing much of them beyond the first few days of the Circuit. I'll be giving them starters of their own to get them going this summer, which they're all very excited about.

"Why would she sponsor new trainers?" Grace asked.

"I don't know. I think she might see potential in them?" Cecilia hummed, feeling at her girlfriend's soft hair. "And you know, she's got to start from somewhere. If she's never sponsored anyone before, not many good trainers will be lining up to work for her."

"Makes sense."

Don't worry about any stigma you might face for having worked closely with Cynthia. There are indeed rumors about you being some puppet, but I won't let that get in the way of our work and I don't involve myself in politics unless they can advance my research. I know you'll be a busy Combee in that regard, but leave all of that outside the lab or harass my wife about it.

We can hash out further details in person, but for now, please let me know if the structure of our partnership works for you.

Professor Juniper
(555) 124-2167
Nuvema Laboratories

"So. Are you writing back instantly?" Grace asked.

"Obviously. Give me the chair."

They swapped places, and Cecilia got typing. Midway through, Honey called for her, so she made her way back to the kitchen. It was important not to come off as too desperate, but still grateful. It was a careful balance to strike, but she believed she'd done a good enough job. Cece stretched, closing her computer.

"Keep Toxicroak company," she told Slowking.

The water type just nodded, hands behind his back as he waddled toward the couch. Cecilia, meanwhile, made her way toward the kitchen to see if she could help with anything. She wasn't the best cook. She knew how to make some things, but to her parents, cooking was something the lower class did, never themselves, so those hadn't been in her lessons. All of the knowledge she'd gotten was from watching her friends cook or the few times she'd needed to heat something up on the road while traveling. She peeked over the door frame and smiled.

"I'm telling you I got it," Grace said, eyeing her laptop. She was following a recipe. "There, lamb's done. It's got incisions all over." She twirled the knife in her hand and dropped it. It clattered on the counter and nearly fell on the ground, but Cassianus kept it hovering faster than Honey could lunge for it. "Thanks. I want to get good at that, but I obviously need practice. What's next?"

Electivire was too tall and large to see what he was doing, but it sounded like he was peeling either carrots or potatoes. A subtle rasp that was nearly impossible to hear. He grunted, with a strange engine-like whirr.

"I told you already I won't practice without Cass there. Uh, sorry, I mean Cassianus," she corrected after the psychic blinked. "What next? Rubbing the thing with olive oil? Right, we've got to season it too…"

For a few more seconds, Cecilia just watched, though she had no doubt Claydol had already seen her. There was something enchanting about observing her going about this. It felt… homely just to have her here, doing this. To have someone she knew she could rely on, no matter what, and to know they could care for each other. It was comfort Cecilia hadn't grown up with, and it still felt new after all these months.

Now that she'd let go of her knife, sneaking up on her might have been fun, though Cass no doubt would have sounded the alarm.

"Need any help?" she asked.

"Oh!" Grace turned toward her, and then back toward the counter. "Uh, I was gonna toss the lamb in the oven after seasoning it, but… you can season the veggies, if you want. Honey was gonna do it, but—"

The electric type waved a hand and spoke.

"He says you can do it if you want. He doesn't like seasoning, since the salt and pepper gets stuck all over his fur. He'll finish dicing the potatoes, but he did the other stuff."

"Skin is convenient." Cecilia walked up to the counter, her arm slightly touching Grace's on purpose. "But you know, salt is a mineral. You could use magnetism to your advantage."

The electric type looked at her like she was crazy.

"I suppose it does take the enjoyment out of it."

Grace chimed in. "It does! He'd never do that."

Honey nodded, saying something she didn't catch. The place was extremely busy in a slightly overwhelming way and the ceiling light was reflecting on the tiles, bouncing right into her eyes, but she got her bearings rather quickly.

"So I just put salt and pepper on these?" From what she knew, that seasoning was rather simple, but effective. She looked at diced carrots and onions, which had been shoved into two different bowls, and the potatoes Honey was cutting. He was going so fast his hands were a blur of motion.

"See how quick he is? I get jealous of how he handles knives sometimes," Grace said. "Oh, and yeah, just spread it across evenly."

She grabbed the salt first and started to pour.

"Not too much, you don't want to drown them in it!"

"Well, how am I supposed to know how much?!" She quickly stopped the pour, fearing the damage was already done. "And don't tell me to just eyeball it, I know you were going to. Is it okay, still?"

"Spread that across, and it should be fine for the salt."

"Across? It's in a bowl."

"Just give it a little shake… I admit, though, I should have kept those on a flat board. We get kind of scatterbrained when we cook."

Electivire shook his head, and Cecilia didn't need a translation for that one. He was telling her not to include him in that 'we'. He started looking through cabinets to see if he could find a wooden board.

"I recall having reminded you of this at least twice. Three times would be impolite," Claydol said.

"I was distracted by Cecilia swearing! I mean, that almost never happens."

"I wouldn't know. I have known her for a total combined time of eight days, six hours, fifteen minutes and forty-six seconds. That isn't enough data."

Grace finished covering the lamb in oil and wrinkled her nose. "Well, I have the data, and she never swears. Only when she's furious or elated."

Electivire spoke up again, this time in a whisper.

"You can't swear yet," Grace said. "Too young. And don't think Sweetheart won't snitch the first opportunity she gets."

"In general, Pokemon mature faster than people," Cecilia offered.

"Don't encourage him! Pass the salt." She handed it over, and Grace started sprinkling the white minerals on the meat. Electivire handed Cecilia a wooden board she could spread the vegetables on to have a more straightforward time seasoning, and she moved onto pepper. "But yeah, hey, congratulations again."

Cecilia smiled. "Thanks. It's a huge relief for sure, but I won't relax until I'm in her office signing that contract."

Her girlfriend looked at her for a moment. "You know, that's something I find really great about you."

"What, my thoroughness?"

"Not just that. I mean how proactive you are with things. You know, you emailed that professor right away, no questions asked. Well, her and a few others." They swapped salt and pepper in one smooth motion, and she kept speaking. "Makes me feel a little slow in a way."

Once upon a time, she would have panicked at those words, thinking she'd done something wrong but not anymore. They'd grown past that and they could just talk, now.

"When you want something, when you really want something, you have to do everything in your power to get it," Cecilia said. "And this is only the first step out of thousands."

"What if that doesn't work?"

"Then you'll have tried. And you're the one whose whole philosophy is trying your hardest."

"I think that's not a philosophy as much as a healthy mindset."

"Hmmm, disagree," Cecilia said.

They both finished seasoning, but according to Grace the lamb had to stay in the oven for thirty minutes before they added the vegetables in the tray, so they were done for a while after she seasoned the potatoes. She washed her hands, Grace took off her plastic gloves and they went back to the living room, where they proceeded to force Toxicroak and Slowking to give them space. Grace lay on her side, her head on Cecilia's lap while she played with her hair, twirling it around her fingers. Cecilia didn't think she was interested in this movie, given that she'd only started looking near the end of it, but it was something to pass the time while they waited for Mira and Chase to come by. Grace had released Meltan out of their ball, and the steel type spent two whole minutes screeching and complaining about having been put in there until Slowking picked up metallic scraps from Grace's bag and started feeding them. They were… not sleeping, but inactive on top of Grace's stomach right now.

"You know, what I meant earlier was that I feel like I haven't done enough of my own thing since Pastoria. You know, volunteering and stuff," Grace muttered.

"Well, you had a lot going on after."

"We all did. I mean, I won't make a big fuss about it, I don't even want to think about it, but… you know. It feels like I was just fumbling around and hoping for the best. Still am."

"You said you looked up stuff."

"I didn't send emails. I could have contacted Mallory, she has contacts in Unova."

Cecilia chuckled. "You hate her guts. Didn't she tell you she wanted to abolish all trainers and think you'd be on her side?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I really do, but well, desperate times. I don't care about her, I just want her contacts. I'll do it tomorrow."

Silence followed.

She'll do it tomorrow. The words were so convincing Cecilia had allowed herself to forget. She was pretending, yes, they both were, but by the Legendaries, that had seemed so real that they'd nearly put her off-balance. Nearly had her actually believe that yes, tomorrow she would wake up in the morning and type a message on her computer to Mallory Ryan, instead of being here and risking her life with the rest of them.

"Right," she finally said. "Tomorrow."

"Oh, do you want to stop the—"

"No, it's fine," Cece smiled. "You were just really convincing. I like it."

Terrifying, how the human mind works, Slowking added.

Grace scoffed. "Shut up. Let us have this night."

Is it me, or am I getting bullied tonight?

Toxicroak snickered at that, just loud enough to pretend she was trying to hide it, but actually not.

"Legendaries, I'm gonna have to get started on the paperwork soon. Dad said he'd help me out." Grace rolled her head toward Cecilia with a groan and hugged her waist. Mimi nearly slipped off, but they kept herself anchored to Grace's shorts, poking little needles into the fabric.

"It shouldn't be difficult. If you visit a Unovan embassy, it shouldn't take more than a day there, and they'll help you fill out a lot of the stuff. Unovan-Sinnoh relations are warm enough for the process to be streamlined. Then you'll just have to sign up for the Circuit again when you get there, but I have to do that too."

"I've got to do my taxes too…"

"What? You haven't done them yet?!"

"It'd be funny if I went to jail for tax fraud after this." She grinned, a hint of teeth flashing even though her face was still buried in Cecilia's stomach. "In a morbid sort of way, it'd be hilarious."

"We're doing those tomorrow. I'll help you."

"Thanks. You're the best. Hey, you know, I have this really embarrassing request."

"What? I thought we were past that."

Grace chuckled, legs bending when they accidentally touched Toxicroak's coarse skin. "Sorry! Um, yeah, we're totally past that. Totally."

"Tell me."

"If you laugh at me, I'm burning the house down."

"Why do I feel like you mean that?"

"Because I mean it. Sunshine would do it, he'd just ask why after the fact and complain about the reason."

Of course, every Pokemon here save for Meltan had something to say about that. The steel type wanted to see it happen.

"You're insane. I love that about you," Cece said with a hand cradling the girl's cheek. "Tell me, I won't laugh."

"Remember all that time ago when I said I wanted a nickname for you?"

Cecilia's heart skipped a beat. "That was only a few months ago in Snowpoint. Don't say it like it's been that long."

"Yeah, well it's snowy outside." She pointed toward a small window with her good foot. "And we're close to Snowpoint, and you know things like this— echoes, reflections and rhymes in my life, they matter to me, so it reminded me of it. Not that I forgot! You know, it's just that I never found a good one."

"That doesn't bother me, you know?"

"But everyone calls you Cece, and I wanted my own thing, you know? I mean, it's silly to get hung up on it now, but isn't it what tonight is all about?"

"Well, if you have an idea, shoot."

"Oh, I've had it for a while. I mean, I nearly slipped sometimes already. You know, I call my Pokemon baby sometimes— I was just wondering if that was okay?"

Arceus, finally!

"I would like that very much," Cecilia said, ignoring the fact that the inside of her head was currently celebrating as loud as a Virbank rave. Still, her lips tugged upward and she couldn't help but laugh. "Say it."

"I can't say it now. It has to come up naturally, or it'll be embarrassing."

"Say it, or I'm having Zolst blow up the kitchen."

She already had the Pokeball in her palm. A flicker of amusement passed on Grace's face. For a moment, Cecilia thought that she would ask how exactly in detail she would go about it, but the look passed.

Now definitely isn't the time for that.

"Gah! You can't use my tricks against me!"


Grace cleared her throat and calmly sat up, letting Mimi slide down to her legs.

She was completely red.

"Well, I better check on the lamb," she said, putting Meltan on her head. The steel type turned to some kind of jagged diadem.

Cecilia pouted. "Really?"

And she did so, speed-walking away until she reached the door, with Honey and Cass behind her. Then, she turned back. "You better be ready for it, though, because it's coming sooner or later. It'll just be a surprise."

"I don't believe you."

"Oh, it is. And when it does, it's gonna kick your ass…" then, she whispered, all sultry-like, "baby…?"

Oh, yeah, she liked this. The way she'd said it was a little forced and silly, but Cecilia's face felt warm. "That feels—"

"Bye!" The door slammed behind her.

Cece hugged her knees, her face stuck in a stupid grin.

So much for having grown past getting embarrassed.

"This is stupid."

"It's fun, Chase. Think of it as a last hurrah before things go to shit."

Chase was pissed. Pissed and cold.

He'd refused this idea of having dinner because it made no sense. Sometimes, he truly believed that his friends had gone insane, but the time to worry about that had probably long passed. He trudged through snow, which was continuously falling and constantly being cleared by plowers making their way through Lake Acuity's roads. He'd been given a coat too tight for him and his sneakers were not at all made to walk in snow. He could already feel his socks getting wet and they'd just been walking for two minutes. Their house wasn't far, not even a thirty-second walk, actually, but Mira had gotten the great idea to visit Savika for whatever reason, and she was quite a ways away. He shoved his hands under his armpits for warmth and covered his mouth with his shirt so the hot air could flow down his chest.

"I think we should be training instead," he said.

"So your Pokemon can be tired come tomorrow?" His friend scoffed, shaking her head at him like he was stupid. "No way, man. Your Pokemon are eating tonight and then going straight to sleep."

"Sig doesn't sleep."

"She does! Or she pretends to because everyone else does, but either way, it's super cute."

Chase stopped himself from agreeing with her. "It's pretending. But yes, I guess you're right. I was thinking light training anyway—"

"Relax! Tonight's just a normal night."

"I train during normal nights!"

Mira just whistled.

"Whatever. Are you gonna tell me why we're going away from the people who invited us for dinner?"

"What, you don't want to meet the woman who saved your life?" Mira teased.

"Did you see her when you came here?"

"Eh, only in passing. Hey, did you know she caught a Sneasel?"

"What? I thought she had this anti-trainer thing going on."

Mira bumped his arm with her elbow. "Hey, you can have a Pokemon without actively being part of the system she hates."

"And aren't we literally a part of that system right now? You know, this whole 'being a part of the government' thing. And, how the fuck is she even still here? Shouldn't they have kicked her out? I know Craig vouched for her or whatever, but…"

"Yeah, it is odd, but hey, maybe the League's become soft-hearted."

"Maybe tomorrow I'll get wings and fly, too. You see how adding 'maybe' to that doesn't mean anything?"

"Stranger things have happened. You can literally control people with your voice."

"That's different and you know it."

She just snickered and they kept going in silence. The base was also quiet, contrary to what Chase expected. He could see a pair of League Trainers smoking cigarettes in silence, with a Rapidash lighting them with its fiery mane. Every time a plower passed by them, the driver would have a miserable look in their eyes, and it wasn't just because they were out late plowing snow. Another group of five leaning against a building, huddled around a Magcargo as they spoke in hushed whispers. The atmosphere here was tense, to say the least. People knew to expect the worst, and worse of all, they knew Legendary Pokemon were coming, now, and that it was only a matter of time until everything went to hell. Shame seeing them like this, Chase thought to himself. He'd gone from disliking the League, to hating it after witnessing their atrocious response to Falkirk being destroyed, but he knew better but to blame footsoldiers instead of the people in power. Plus, one didn't have to be a master tactician to see that there was an issue with morale.

"How're you feeling, shrimp?" he asked.

"Excellent. I've handed my stress to another me just for tonight."

"What an awful way to approach things." He shook his head, clicking his tongue in disappointment. "I won't make a fuss about it, though. You can have your day."

Mira's lips flattened. "Thanks. I really appreciate it." She looked up at the sky, only lit up by a half a moon and the stars above. "You know, I just wish the others could be here with us. So we could all celebrate."

"I don't think they're in a celebratory mood. Only you three can come up with this whacky shit. You're literally gaslighting yourselves."

"And yet, here you are, following me."

He called her annoying under his breath.

"You're probably right, though. You have Lauren blowing a gasket at me. Hey, did you know she actually yelled at me? It only happened twice and it feels like I'm being dismantled every time she does it, even on the phone—" Mira's feet nearly got stuck in the snow, and Chase kept her from tripping. "Thanks. It gets deep around here."

He let go of her arm, not having missed the sprawling shadow that had risen behind her, just in case. "Sure. I think they keep away from that old lady's house to give her some space, so the snow—"

"And you know, I want to tell her everything. I plan to, when this is all over, except maybe without the world-ending bits."


"But I can't. It's already a miracle she's uninjured— did you know she was actually caught at the edge of one of the bombings? She could have gotten seriously hurt if she didn't have her Reuniclus around her all the time."

"Uhuh. That sucks."

She scoffed. "Are you even listening to me?"

"Wha— I am listening! Arceus! What, do you want me to write you an entire essay?"

Legendaries girls were so annoying sometimes. Couldn't they just walk in silence so he could be spared all of this rambling? And when he offered something back, she said he wasn't listening?

Make it make sense.

To be honest, Williams would also be constantly venting about his relationships anyway, so maybe it wasn't just a girl thing.

He seemingly got his wish, and Mira got quiet until they reached Savika's cabin, nestled along the shore of Lake Acuity. The Lake itself wasn't frozen, though shards of ice still clung at its edges, reflecting a little light. Its weathered wooden exterior was aged to a soft gray by the elements and blended into the stark, snowy landscape. The roof sagged slightly due to being covered by a thick blanket of snow, and a smaller cabin rested to the side of the main house that Chase knew contained piles upon piles of dry wood to make a fire.

Chase climbed the stairs, which were surprisingly solid. "So what are we doing here?"

"Just wait," his friend answered, knocking on the door with her good hand. The other was broken, still, but she never complained about the pain anymore thanks to another one of those mind tricks. When there was no answer, she knocked again, louder this time. "Hello? Anyone home?!"

"She might be asleep. When we stayed here she went to sleep early every night and woke up at dawn."

"Damn it… well, I don't want to be rude."

"Yes. Thank you for wasting our time here, Mira," he sighed, not bothering to hide his sarcasm.

"I just wanted to see if she could give us something."

"Like what?"

"You really won't like it."

"Oh, fuck, it's alcohol, isn't it?"

Her face twisted in disbelief. "How the hell did you know that?!"

"You know Grace doesn't drink, and I sure as hell am not drinking tonight. You're not making Cece wake up with a hangover, buddy." He grabbed her by the arm and started dragging her away ignoring her protests, but the door slowly creaked open. There was a small Sneasel there, hanging by the knob with a clawed hand, and it looked at them with a tilted head. "Oh. I guess that's the Sneasel."

It was hard to forget the fact that one of these had nearly killed him, given that he still bore that scar on the back of his arm, but he wasn't nervous. More like intrigued.

"Hey little guy," Mira whispered. She crouched and held out a hand, but Sneasel hissed, its hair standing on end. "Is Savika asleep?"

Chase watched the two interact for a bit, and he was a little amused at how little Sneasel seemed to trust others. Savika had probably raised it as a guard or something, or maybe a Pokemon to alert her when there was danger and she was sleeping.

"Guess we'll go," Mira sighed. "Sorry for disturbing you and stuff. Tell Savika that a Chase Karlson is thankful for her saving his life."

Chase tightly nodded. "...yeah, you tell her that."

They turned away.

I really wanted to see her and thank her again before…

Arceus, this wasn't like him.

"Looks like the fake alcohol plan failed, and I messed up inviting her over for dinner. Cece's going to kill me."

"Nah, she'll have that disappointed, haughty look," Chase said. He'd never seen Cecilia angry. Miffed, yes, but never seriously angry like he'd seen his other friends."And wait, dinner? So it wasn't just to get drunk."

"Wait, you seriously thought she wanted alcohol? I was just joking, Chase, we only came here to invite her for dinner. We aren't idiots."

"Wait, what?"

"Yeah, it was a joke. A bit."

"A joke is supposed to be funny."

"Sorry. At least this way we'll be able to be open and not hide anything. I think Cece just wanted to repay her for the help. And her disappointed look would be even worse, honestly. Makes me feel like trash, and it's like, the worst part is, she really thought you could do better, but in a good, friendly way."

"That is worse."

There was a beat of silence, and Chase reached an epiphany.

"Do you really think the League would have let you two get drunk? Stupid."

"Dude, I told you I was fucking with you."

"Oh yeah, totally," he said with a mocking laugh, then mimicked her voice. "Oh, I was only pretending to be stupid."

"Savika isn't coming," Cecilia sighed. "Shame."

"Aw. Hey, you can go see her another day."

"It's okay, I'll just… focus on this."

The table was long and narrow, stripped bare of any decorations except for the white, thin linen draped on top of it. At each seat awaited simple ceramic plates and glasses already filled with water. The centerpiece of the table was the lamb, now cut into thick slices of meat, seasoned with fresh herbs and surrounded by ample vegetables. Cecilia thought she'd done well, for having so few materials to decorate with. Soft music played in the background, a jazz album from Unova she liked, and the lights above were only dimly lit.

"Oh, this looks sweet!" Grace said. She'd just come out of the bathroom and gotten ready, given that their guests were supposed to be here at nine. A late dinner, though Cecilia knew Paldeans and Kalosians tended to eat late, too. "You did a great job— where'd you find the tablecloth?"

"It was in one of the counters, along with a bunch of others. I thought this one looked nice, though. Simple."

"I sure hope I don't drop any sauce on it."

Her eyes swept over her work one more time. "It wouldn't be the end of the world."

The food looked a lot better than she'd expected, too. Not that Grace and Honey couldn't cook, but they'd truly outdone themselves this time, even though they'd just been following a recipe. The presentation was top-notch, too.

"I figured the seating arrangement would have Mira next to Chase here." Cecilia pointed at the chairs at the edges of the table. Chase wasn't supposed to be coming, but they'd made a bet that he'd show up anyway, and it had paid off given that Mira had messaged them about it. "Then me next to Chase, and then you and Maylene— did she confirm she was coming?"

"Yes. She is sitting right outside, though, so you could have asked her." Grace checked her phone. "Six more minutes. You look really pretty, by the way. Now I feel underdressed."

She smiled. "Don't worry, you know it's just a me thing."

"Hey, I actually like dressing up now that you got me into it."

Cecilia had gotten dressed for the occasion. Since they'd gotten to bring their belongings, she had gotten one of her old dresses out of her bag, and even ironed all the wrinkles out of it. She had never ironed anything before, so that had been an entire ordeal, but she'd somewhat succeeded with Slowking's help, in the end. Oh, it was only a simple black dress with straps around her shoulders, but it'd do the trick.

"Why'd you move the chairs all to one side?" Grace asked, wandering around the table.

"There's an elegance about it, don't you think?" She shrugged, hand drumming against one of the chairs' backrests. "I've seen it done a few times in restaurants, where people all face one direction."

"It does look cool. Might make it difficult to talk, though."

"We'll manage."

If she was going to decorate, she was going to do it right.

"How'd you get Maylene to come, by the way?"

Cecilia knew the Gym Leader had saved her girlfriend's life already, but she remained curious. There was a leap between doing your duty and eating with your old tormentor and her friends.

Grace fidgeted a little. "These circumstances have a way of bringing people together, I guess. I wouldn't say we're friends, but when I asked her if she wanted to come by for dinner she said anything would be better than League rations and agreed. Plus I think others being here helps." Grace watched Cecilia straighten a fork on the table and smiled. "You know, you, Chase and Mira didn't do anything to her, so… but it'll probably be awkward anyway."

"I'm glad you apologized anyway. You thought there was no hope, once."

Traces of joy returned to her face. "That's… true. I guess things work out sometimes."

A minute later, there was a knock on the door.

"Ah! Must be Maylene," Grace said. Cece figured she must have gotten Chase's and Mira's knocks down and was making an educated guess. "Uh—"

"I'll go get it," Cecilia said.

Admittedly, she was slightly nervous. The only other Gym Leader she'd met was Candice, and she didn't really behave like one. She needed to get used to meeting important people, and fast. She spoke to Cynthia regularly, for Arceus' sake. She opened the door and found Maylene standing there with her Lucario in tow. She only had a coat draped over her shoulders, but she wasn't even wearing it properly.

"Leader Maylene." She outstretched a hand, and Maylene shook it. Firm. "It's a pleasure to have you here."

"Just Maylene. And yeah… thanks for inviting me, I guess. It takes my mind off of things, which Grace said was the goal." Maylene leaned to the side and looked inside the living room. "Uh, the others aren't here? Should I come back later?"

"No, no, please come in—"

"Okay, thanks, it's freezing out."

Then why are you wearing your coat wrong? Cecilia silently wondered.

Maylene showed herself inside, and Grace greeted her with a small wave, which she returned with a nod. So Grace's assessment was accurate. It'd be best if Cecilia could smooth things over a little tonight. She knew how much it'd mean for Grace.

Maylene glanced at the table. "Oh crap, this looks really good. Smells good, too. Lucario, take a look at this."

The fighting type smiled, licking his lips at the food, which was a strange sight. She was more used to Chase's Lucario acting serious all the time.

"Grace made it—"

"Cece and I cooked it," Grace interrupted.

Cecilia could see Grace non-verbally begging her to let the half-truth slip. She didn't really understand why she wanted to take away that accomplishment, but she let it go.

"Chase and Mira are late, as usual," Cecilia complained. "You'd think they'd manage to get here when they live literally thirty seconds away."

"Knowing them, they waited until the last minute to get Savika," Grace said.

Maylene raised an eyebrow. "Who's Savika? Can Lucario and I sit, by the way?"

"Oh, sure, go ahead," Cece said.

They passed the time by recounting their adventure through route 216 and finding Savika while Chase was almost dead. Maylene said that back then, they hadn't been considered important and so they weren't tracked for any reports to be written up, so she hadn't known about it beyond the broad strokes of what had happened. Most of their Pokemon were out, now, though the largest and most cumbersome ones were still in their balls. They'd already eaten, so they were just here to mingle and for company. They wouldn't be able to fit everyone in here, though, given that this place was rather small.

"I didn't know about the Sneasel." Maylene was slightly wide-eyed. "I can't believe you guys survived. Most new trainers just would have died."

"We were lucky," Grace said.

"Eh, luck can only go so far," Maylene shrugged. "Candice would tell me about Sneasel sometimes and how the ones off-route aggressively hunt humans through the snow for days until they and their Pokemon are too exhausted or cold to fight back effectively."

"Like Mightyena, right?" Grace asked. "They'll stalk prey for days, too."

"Exactly, but the cold version of them. They both hunt in packs, too. They call them endurance hunters."

"Ramon's Mightyena's really nifty. There's a reason he's his ace."

"Who's Ramon?" Maylene asked.

Grace's eyes nearly fell out of their sockets. "What? He made it to the top sixty-four— you know what, never mind."

"The ones who attacked us kind of tried to do that, but they gave up after a while," Cecilia said. "They might have been too hungry to wait."

The atmosphere was honestly a lot better than she'd expected! But of course, Chase and Mira got here, finally, and the former got snow all over the floor by forgetting to wipe his feet before entering.

And the first thing he asked was this, for some reason.

"Did you want alcohol from Savika?"

"Excuse me?"

Mira snickered, opting to greet Maylene instead. Cecilia thought the Gym Leader might be a little overwhelmed by these many new faces, but only Grace would truly be able to tell. Maybe she was struggling to get in the spirit of pretending everything was normal.

Honestly, red wine would have been nice, she silently thought.

"This looks really good, guys. And hey, Honey, good job!" Mira grinned. She fist-bumped the electric type and mimicked an explosion.

Grace tilted her head. "Since when is that a thing?"

"Since now."

Electivire flexed, and his tails whirled around in excitement.

"What's with the table?" Chase nearly touched the cutlery before Cecilia warned him not to. "Okay! Okay! Arceus, I won't, no need to take that tone with me."

"You're being a child," Cece said. "It's just a specific style. Maylene didn't complain. She even complimented the table."

"Well, I'm not gonna complain when someone invites me…" she muttered.

Grace grabbed the entire dish. "I've got to reheat the food because of you guys. Be right back, and then we can eat."

It went like this.

Cecilia sitting at the center, flanked by Grace and Chase, who were too flanked by Mira and Maylene. They would chat, laugh and relate to each other, passing around as much food and drink as they pleased. Pokemon talked to each other too. Chase slipped scraps of meat to his Houndoom while Zangoose lazed on the couch with Sigilyph and Toxicroak. Slowking had struck a friendship with Maylene's Machamp, and was giving a comedy performance to a large group of Pokemon. Outside, Tyranitar, Hydreigon, Golurk and Abomasnow were occasionally visible through a window. The first two had needed to be barred from fighting to train and Abomasnow was largely there to keep an eye on them. Grace had talked about how Sweetheart wanted to make snow angels, so that was a nice distraction, and Golurk was a very easygoing person who'd no doubt let them go at it if they asked hard enough. Instead, he played music that crept through the windows, so warm that the fact that it was coming from a ghost surprised Maylene. Jellicent floated with Alakazam and Gardevoir, who were warming up next to the radiator. Scizor was side-eyeing Meltan for trying to eat him and used Exeggcute as a shield to distract them…

There were too many happenings to describe everything, but their home was so alive it was easy enough to forget tomorrow would ever come.

Everything was glowing.

But every good thing had to come to an end, eventually. Maylene couldn't be on break for more than an hour, and she'd already gone over that. Multiple League Trainers had come to get her, and she left first. Another hour later, Chase and Mira were about to leave, mostly because the former said they needed to sleep to be ready.

Before that, however, a conversation took place.


Mira was speaking to Grace in the distance, unabashed by the cold and the snow. Cecilia and Chase were alone.


"I wanted to talk to you later tonight. At around one in the morning, if possible? I know you said we all needed rest, but…"

"You aren't going to tell me why?" he groaned, putting his hands up in exasperation. "First Mira, now you, I feel like I'm being dragged around all the time."

"It's serious."

His eyes narrowed. "I'll be there."

Chase had answered so quickly it took Cecilia a second to even register it. Their bond ran deep enough for him to know that she meant what she said, and she couldn't be any happier for it. They had sworn an oath on the shores of Falkirk, that they would always look out for each other no matter what came to pass.

"Thank you, Chase."

"Ah, well, what can you do." Chase scratched the back of his head and took a few steps toward Mira. "I'll see you later. I think I might know what this is about."

"Do you think less of me for it?"

He hesitated, with his back to her. "I don't."

They lay in bed together, arms and legs so intertwined Cecilia didn't know where her body ended and Grace's started. It was pitch black in the room, so dark she could only vaguely see her girlfriend's face. A shape in the shadows, unmoving, yet so close. Still, she could tell she was caressing the left side of her face, with how rough and coarse the scarred tissue was there. Countless bumps and crevices, dotting her arm, shoulder and cheek. Cecilia liked to touch the area between the scar and skin. The transition between the pristine and the hurt. Their Pokemon were sleeping in their Pokeballs— even Meltan, but Cassianus hovered next to the bed, eyes glowing slightly in the night. Occasionally, they'd make a strange chime or beep, but other than that, they were quiet.

As for them, they were not sleeping quite yet. Managing to go to sleep right now would be a feat that she wasn't quite sure either of them was capable of, though at least Grace sounded like she was growing more and more tired. They were giving themselves another hour before Slowking was forced to knock them out with Hypnosis so they were well-rested, though Cecilia had a conversation to have with Chase first.

A hand slid her hair behind her ear, and Grace's soft voice rang out. She was so close her breath tickled her lips and nose. "You okay, baby? Your body's kind of tense."

"I'm getting ready for what's to come," she simply answered.

"Today isn't over yet, is it?"

Cece laughed. "Not yet. But you know."

"Yeah. I know." She paused, placing her forehead against hers. "Do you think it's sad that we pretended?"

"I was happier today than I've been in a long time," Cecilia whispered. "Seeing you happy makes me happy, even if it's just a game. I know you put yourself into that mind space for me. Thank you."

While Cece liked to put her issues away in the deepest recesses of her mind for her to deal with at a later date, Grace could trick herself into believing they weren't there, if she was in the right headspace.

She wasn't like that anymore. Her voice no longer had that pep, and she sounded tired.

They both were.

"It's okay," she said. "I liked it. Hey, it was like we were living together, wasn't it?"

Cecilia smirked. "It was."

"You know I was thinking— maybe we combine our two incomes together next year and rent a place in Castelia. Have like, a base of operation. I know it's kind of a waste of money with the Centers, but it's… nice, isn't it?"

"I'd love nothing more, Grace." Warmth rose up in her chest like an erupting volcano, and she grabbed her girlfriend's hand. "Wouldn't it be fun to visit apartments together?"

"What if we visit apartments we can't afford and pretend we're rich?"

"I wouldn't want to waste someone's time like that."

Grace hummed. "True. I just think it'd be nice to have some stupid fun, for once."

"We can find other ways to have stupid fun. Like you visiting me at work."

She giggled. "We'll have to get Cass and Slowking better at Teleporting for that."

"It's about time, anyway. We're a little behind in that department."

Her phone vibrated on the nightstand. Cecilia turned away, ignoring Grace's whining and looked at the message. The light nearly rendered her blind for a few seconds.

Chase K.: I'm outside.

"Chase wants to talk to me," Cecilia said. She wasn't going to say the reason— not until she made sure Justin was safe. "It'll just be a second."

"Okay," Grace complained. Well, not really complained, but did that thing where she was totally complaining even though she was pretending not to be. "I'll try to wait for you. Don't forget to have Slowking out."

Cecilia slipped away from her grasp, quickly got dressed and knelt next to the bed when she was done.

She kissed Grace… a few times and whispered, "I'll be right back."

She slipped away from the bedroom.

"There you are." Cecilia wanted to complain that he could have just stood outside the house, but she'd been the one to act like this was a secretive thing. And it would be, depending on the results.

Chase turned toward her and adjusted the cap on his head. He'd been standing here in the cold awhile and pacing, if the tracks in the snow were anything to go by. It was hard to imagine Chase pacing, given that his go-to coping mechanism was to act like he didn't care about something and close himself off, but he'd done it a few times in the past.

His lips thinned. "Yup."

"Listen, Chase, I—"

"Dinner was great, by the way," he interrupted. "And you know, it was cool to hang out after so long."

Cecilia nodded. Before all of this, they hadn't seen each other since she had left Canalave for Pastoria, shortly after their trip to the Iron Islands together.

"It was fun. But I have to ask… I wanted to ask a member of the League, but I can't build up the courage to. I even failed to ask Maylene. I want to know if he's dead, Chase."

His face darkened. "Yeah, I figured. So you want me to ask for you?" he grunted. "You know what I think."

"I want us to ask together," she said with a sad smile. "I need to have all of the information before tomorrow happens. To know how to approach this."

He frowned at her, not understanding what she meant, but that was better that way.

"Fair enough. I'll help you out."

"Thank you," she exhaled in relief. "Shall we go, then?"

They weren't planning on going far, just to one of the ACEs who were guarding their homes, yet the short, minute-long walk there felt like an eternity. Cecilia's steps drifted across the snow, each heavier than the last, every single one adding to the bubble of anxiety that had formed as a lump in her stomach. The cold wind swept across her clothes, stabbing through her skin like a thousand needles and seeped deep into her flesh.

Her breath trembled.

There were many ACEs here— ten visible, and that was only the ones who weren't hiding. There was also Maylene, though she was closer to Grace's home with her Lucario, given that her job was to sense Dusknoir, if he ever came back. They reached a brown-skinned woman who was shorter than average and who was flanked by an Ariados whose legs were rhythmically stabbing into the snow. Her name was Nevaeh, according to Chase. One of the ACEs who'd been at the mansion during the raid and who had been guarding him from the start. They seemed rather close, from the way he smiled at her. They even shook hands, and he extracted more emotion out of her than she'd ever seen other ACEs show except Carlos for Mira. She felt a pang of lacking at that, for being worse at growing close to people, but that wasn't why they'd come here. Chase looked at her one last time, to make sure, and she nodded.

"Nevaeh, we have a friend who was caught in the explosions this morning in Canalave. His name is Justin Gardner, and we'd like to know how he's faring, if you have any information about that?"

Her response was instantaneous. "Ah, Gardner. His fate was shared with us."

Cecilia took a breath—

"He's expired," she said. "The explosion killed him instantly. The League is in possession of his Pokemon, though they'll only be dealt with when this is all over."

The delivery was emotionless.

Chase grimaced, his eyes tightly shut. "I'm sorry, Cece," he forced out. "I'm sorry."

Cecilia stopped breathing, and she took a step back. Two— maybe— maybe more, she didn't know.

This was real. It was real.

It was.

"Who— did this?" she asked, barely able to form the words. "Who's at— who's fault here?"

Neveah shrugged. "You're asking for individuals. Abel believes the one most likely responsible for the bombings would be Jupiter, given that she was in charge of finances and general plans like these…"

Neveah's voice faded into the background.

A flame flickered to life inside of her and instantly turned into a blazing inferno of dragonfire.

Her breath trembled, as did her fingertips until she gripped the sides of her dress so hard she could still feel her nails through the fabric. Her vision blurred, the world becoming shapes and colors no matter how much she blinked. Her heartbeat was so loud she could hear it and feel it pulsing through her arms, ears and chest. Usually, ice would flood her veins and make her think clearly, but not for this. Anything but this. It was an all-consuming blaze, leaving no room for reason, rational thought or compassion. The time for tears had gone, replaced now by the need to destroy, destroy, destroy, destroy, destroy—

Her breathing came in raspy gasps, the air seemingly combusting into her lungs and burning. She realized Chase had been holding her up. He was saying something, and she could hear the words, but not make sense of them.

Her ears were ringing.

She had come from nothing. Her father would never think she was enough, her mother was barely a human being, her brother was complacent, Amy had been fake. But she'd found people who'd taught her what true friendship meant. What love meant. What family meant.

One of the members of her family was dead. It was still so hard to believe— when she closed her eyes, she still saw him alive. Cecilia hadn't even seen him go, and she would never see him again.

The next word came as a growl, each syllable drawn out until they became barely comprehensible. A scream so incoherent only Cecilia herself could understand it.


Today was over.

Tomorrow had just begun.

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Chapter 307 - Pact & Oath

The transition between the unconsciousness of sleep and being awake was lethargic. There was this strange, ten-second or so period of time where my body moved, but I couldn't actually tell what was happening. My arm slowly crawled to the right of the bed, and it only reached more cold, wrinkled fabric. It moved around, up and down until I realized something.

Cecilia wasn't in the bed.

I jolted awake, blinking away the last of the tiredness as fast as I could. My body panicked before my brain realized that she might just be in the living room. There didn't look to be any sounds of fighting outside and she usually woke up far earlier than I did anyway. Wiping the corner of my mouth, my eyes glanced toward Cassianus, who hovered at the side of the bed with some book floating close to one of their eyes. As usual, they closed the book and chimed one of their morning hymns, a cheerful song that had been no doubt built to greet Kings and Queens of times past the moment they woke up. Sometimes, they played the sound of nature too, but I'd told them I liked music better.

Good morning, my King.

"Cassianus, do you—" my voice stopped when I realized it was slightly echoey. "...I won't ask why you put a barrier around me while I slept." My feet swept over the side of the bed, and my toes touched the edge of the shield. Cold, and hard as steel. "But why did you not let sound through?"

The psychic blinked, arms wobbling slightly to their side. I hadn't known Claydol as long as the others, and this rarely ever happened strongly enough for them to show it, but they were nervous. I apologize for any transgressions my barrier might have caused, they said with a slight trill in their usually smooth voice. The shield suddenly disappeared, though I didn't notice visually, but with sound slowly returning to my ears. Quiet chirps of birds beyond my window, the moving of vehicles clearing snow, and the frigid wind hitting the walls of the house.

I rubbed my eyes and rose from the bed. They floated out of the way. "So? Are you going to tell me why? I'm not mad, I just… you never do this. Where's Cece? She come back last night?"

There were traces of discomfort in their eyes, but they answered nonetheless. "I told her I would not say, but… the Queen came back last night looking extremely distraught." My heart sank, but I decided to let them finish. "She watched you sleep for five minutes and seventeen seconds, then asked me to make a soundproof shield around the bed. Should I have refused, she said she would have Slowking do it, and she was very, very threatening when she spoke, and I must obey the Queen, and—"

"You're alright," I said. "It's okay, baby."

They'd been moving erratically by the end, there. They'd dropped their book and nearly knocked the light off the bedside table. Any more and they'd have returned to their computer-like speech, which was something we'd worked hard to fix.

"I'm sorry if I scared you." My hand touched their body and caressed it, fingers tracing around the tough clay. "You only wanted to help, I… I was just stressed out. I am stressed out."

"I apologize regardless." Claydol's head bobbed up and down, and they levitated through the room. "The Queen was causing quite the ruckus in the house throughout the night, but I did not hear her leave again."


I quickly followed Cass and opened the door to the hall leading out of the bedroom.

And there was only chaos to be found. Not in the hallway itself, since it'd always been empty, but the counter that lay at its end next to the bathroom had been shattered, with splinters of wood and shards of glass from a mirror littering the floor. I'd been about to run in when Cass held me back and asked me to please put shoes on so my feet didn't get injured and reminded me that my ankle wasn't well enough to run yet, so I painstakingly, slowly walked through the corridor.

The walls themselves were fine, though I noticed there were dents here and there. I called out to Cecilia, but no answer came despite Claydol's assurances that she should be in the living room. We passed by the bathroom, which was also utterly destroyed. Tiles that had lined the walls in neat, orderly rows were now cracked and chipped, some completely dislodged, lying scattered on the floor like discarded pieces of a puzzle. The mirror was a web of cracks, its fragmented surface offering back a distorted reflection of the chaos and our faces. The shower curtain had been thrown to the floor, and the ceramic of the sink was chipped and cracked. As we reached the living room, I began to understand that she'd done this. Not her Pokemon, but Cecilia herself.

The pit of fear and anxiety that had been forming inside my stomach jumped up to my throat and made me exhale a groan. It was a physical thing, heavy and growing.

In the kitchen, drawers had been yanked open and their contents spilled in a chaotic cascade of utensils and knick-knacks that now littered the floor. Plates and glasses were a mess of porcelain and glass, with their pieces grinding underfoot with every step. Past that was the living room, where the television was still playing the distorted sound of the morning news with its light constantly flickering and its screen also neatly shattered. Pillows on the couch had been torn open, chairs were knocked down, a potted plant was uprooted from its broken pot…

Cecilia was there, sitting on the torn-up couch and watching the broken TV. Her dark brown hair was disheveled and wild, with pieces of broken wood still sticking through, and the clothes she'd put on last night were torn open. There was an area at least five feet all around her was still pristine and untouched by her rage, or maybe it had been cleaned up. She had bandaids all over her arms and hands. Maylene was looming over her in silence with her arms crossed along with Lucario, but she looked at me as soon as I entered.

"Cece— what happened here?" It hurt to even speak, and each word had to be forcefully expelled from my mouth. I took a few steps forward, debris crunching under each step. "What happened?" I asked again.

Cecilia answered, "Grace." Yet she was still not looking my way— still looking at the screen. "Good morning."

There was something in her voice that scared me. Like the building of a storm you knew would be bad, and despite the fact that it was still safe to go outside, it would not be for long.

"Erm, it might be better if I let you two speak." There was an uncomfortable shift from Maylene. Even though I could tell she was annoyed at this, she wanted to remain polite. "I'll get out of your hair, but my orders have me inside of the house now that Cecilia tried destroying it, just in case she hurts herself really badly."

A grimace crept up on my face, and I crouched in front of Cecilia. My hands settled on her lap, which she grabbed immediately and squeezed before relaxing slightly.

Maylene scratched her cheek. "So yeah, I'll leave you two to it." Before she made it to the door, though, she turned back toward us and inclined her head, along with her Lucario. "And I'm sorry."

The door closed, and silence returned to the home.


I looked at Cecilia, but before I could speak she repeated herself.

"Sit. Please."

I settled next to her, hands squeezing anxiously at the torn-up couch. This was so unlike her that I had no idea how to react. No, it wasn't completely unlike her, it was just that she'd never gotten angry enough to do something like this. To let go of every scrap of normality and civility that shackled her and allowed her instincts to take over. It had happened to me multiple times, but the targets of my anger tended to be far more focused. If I was a blade, Cecilia was a fire ready to burn anything in its path until she reached the source of her ire.

But what could have gotten her so furious?

Cecilia ran her hands through her hair multiple times until it was slightly straightened out and sighed. She leaned back against the backrest, her eyes glazed over with exhaustion, and she stared directly at the ceiling light above even though it was turned off.

"I wondered whether or not to tell you this last night— agonized over this while I watched you sleep." There was a slight smile on her face, but there was none of the usual warmth. It was full of nostalgia for a happier time, and that had me tense. "But it would be hypocritical of me, to keep this from you. We spoke to each other on the phone, when you confessed about what you did to Edward Backlot and to Maylene, and we said that there would be no more secrets. You deserve to know, but I'm sorry. I really am."

She took a deep breath and looked at me.

"Last night, I spoke to an ACE Trainer and found out that Justin was dead."

The world collapsed before me. The floor and couch were swept away from under me, the walls unraveled in a thousand layers and the air disappeared from my lungs. The narrative I had spent so much time spinning disappeared like a candle in the wind and reality swept over me like a hurricane. It carried me far, so far that it felt like I was suspended in the air. Falling until every part of me would be carved by the wind and rain, and there would be nothing left of me by the end. I tried to breathe, but could only cough as I gripped my shirt where my heart should be.

"Grace." The voice was distant.

I closed my eyes and I could still see his face, smiling as he showed me the book Louis wanted for his sanctuary. Him learning to reconnect with me after darkness had robbed his personality. How happy I felt when I realized helping him was possible, if he so wished—

Further back, still. Getting him to slowly open up to us, his dreams of improving human life, the day he had entered our tent and said he wanted me to teach him how to battle because of discovering how fun it was. Hopes, family, life, his Pokemon, the years ahead of him…

None of it mattered.

It hurt. It hurt like someone was gouging my heart out of my ribcage. It hurt like my lungs were being crushed under a hundred tons. It hurt like sharpened knives were covering every inch of my skin and tearing through my muscles until they unraveled like strings.

It hurt.

It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt—

A warm embrace wrapped itself around me. Flittering wind, a breeze gentle and warm enough to feel good on your face. "You will blame yourself for this," the calmed, fiery storm whispered in my ear. Maybe calm was the wrong way to look at it. It was frozen in time until it could be unleashed at whoever it pleased. "You will wonder what would have happened, had Justin been closer to you so you could keep him shielded, or had you convinced him not to go, or had you told him to release his Audino. You always do."

"Isn't all of that true?" I begged, voice quivering.

The storm wavered, but strengthened itself until it kept me from falling further. "Perhaps. Perhaps not. But you hold within your hands the sharpest of blades, love." It picked up, now, growing so loud I could barely hear the voice itself. "Do not point it at yourself."

"Who?" I rasped. "Who should I point it at?"

This bombing plan wasn't something Mars would do. She would complain about the killing being too impersonal… because she wouldn't be able to see the suffering in person. She was a very particular way of cruel I understood very well, and this wouldn't have pleased her. No, she would have gotten bored before she even began organizing the bombings, she was far more spontaneous. Had it been Saturn, then? Or maybe—

The storm raged. Thunder boomed above me, meteorites fell through the clouds and crashed deep below, creating shockwave after shockwave.

The world was ravaged.

"I will handle it."

It, as in thing, not as in the situation. The storm spouted so much wrath with that word that it even pained me despite it not being aimed at me. It made me want to cower, to hide to not get in its way, lest it sweep me away on the way to its target as well.

"But what I said remains," the storm said. "None of this is our fault. You understand, don't you? Team Galactic must burn, burn and burn until there is nothing left but ashes. Even if it is the last thing I do, be it because I die or the world ends."

"I… understand."

"So open your eyes. Open your eyes and face this."

Light blinded me.

Claydol chimed in worry, but otherwise stayed silent. They were not one to interject when they saw themselves as lesser, still. The problem was slowly improving, but nowhere near fixed yet.

The storm— Cecilia let go of the hug, wiped my tears with her thumb, and it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the brightness morning brought again. My fist unclenched from my shirt and every heartbeat stopped bringing agony with it. It hurt, still, but it was enough to function. I'd said there would be no more moping, no more self-pity, but my friend was dead and he was never coming back. Arceus, and his Pokemon would be so devastated. Arcanine…

"Why did it have to be this way?" I asked with a trembling jaw.

"Because the world is cruel, and one must fight it if they wish to have a place in the sun. They must grow strong enough to impose their will upon everything the light touches no matter the consequences."

Be careful with that line of thought, part of me wanted to say.

But I did not say anything. Not for this. Not now. We would heal when this was all over, but the look on Cecilia's face told me nothing I ever said or ever could say would convince her otherwise, not that I wanted to try anyway.

"So— it was Jupiter, then."

Cecilia nodded, patting down her clothes so she could look presentable. "I will kill it." Her voice was as smooth as polished stone, calm and resolute. Assured. "It doesn't matter who I have to destroy in my path to do it or how much I have to toil, I will kill it on sight as soon as it shows itself."

That is where we differed.

The focus of our ire was on individuals, but she would blow everything away in order to get to her, because that was who she was and in her nature to do so, and I knew to keep myself honed in on who truly mattered. She dehumanized, whereas I knew the horrors people could bring, because they were people, no matter their origins. She would kill in an instant just to wipe out who could be a threat to the people she loved, not caring for the suffering of those who deserved it, whereas I wanted to draw out every ounce of pain to equalize their sins and make the world balanced again.

I swallowed the bile building up in my throat, but it kept coming.

She stood up. "Before I came back here, I asked the ACEs about it. They have information from Abel, who has been helpful in that regard." I scowled at the thought of him, which she didn't miss, but she simply inclined her head in apology. "I know how it behaves, the sick way it thinks, and I know of all of its Pokemon, since it led the attack at this lake."

I wanted to tell her to be careful, but we both knew what a fight like this would imply already anyway, and I had also embroiled myself in a vendetta against other Commanders. She offered me a hand. I took it, and she pulled me up. We were both in pain, but knew what had to be done.

"Did you tell the others?" I asked.

"Chase and Mira knew first. I was debating… telling Louis, but I had to. I couldn't leave him hoping, because delaying the hurt would be meaningless. It doesn't matter if we hurt him now, or two days from now if the world still exists, he will find out."

I sucked in air through clenched teeth. "But he's alone, Cece. He's alone in a bunker with no one to keep him sane. He doesn't have me to—"

To take the hurt away.

"You shouldn't have told him. You shouldn't have."

"I trust him," she simply said. "I believe in him."

I flinched away from her, inching away on the couch. "Don't act like I don't—"

"I did not say that you don't trust or believe in him at all, nor did I imply it," she hissed. "I simply have more faith in him than most."

"You didn't see him like I did. He was withering like a dying flower, he didn't come out of his room, he… he'd wished he had stayed in the dark instead of learning about the end of the world."

"And I know all of that."

"And you impose that knowledge on him anyway?" My eyebrows creased, and my foot pressed against a shard of screen on the ground. "Do you want to make him fight?"

"I don't think he will fight, no. He's a gentle soul, not at all like us. All his life, he pretended to be something he wasn't to please his father, and he's finally become true to himself."

I bit my lip, shutting my eyes and imagining the pain he must have been in. Him and the others. "What's done is done. What now?"

"You should call Maylene over, and then we'll ask her about what's happening outside."

"And then we wait."

She nodded. "Then we wait."

I shambled toward the door, with my legs still feeling slightly weak. The weightlessness that had spread through my body earlier had tricked my brain into thinking my body was heavier than it actually was, and my bad ankle wasn't helping. Seeing this, Cecilia and Cass joined to help me, with my girlfriend supporting me by the arm and the ground type brushing a slightly psychic force to my left to keep me upright. Two more, five more, ten more steps, and I was able to walk on my own without Justin's death pressing down on me as hard.

Before I opened the door, I looked back at Cece. I sniffled a few times before being able to speak again. "Did you get all the rage out of you?" My hand wrapped around the knob to stop it from shaking so much. "Uh, I mean, are you sure you're okay?"

"I—I'm sorry about that. It won't happen again, I just couldn't… I just couldn't keep it in. I tried, I really did, I managed to talk, to calmly get in the house and to warn Cass to let you sleep, but—"

"I understand."

We all had our vices.

As it turned out, Maylene had been sitting right at the door on the two steps, coat draped over her shoulders as she shivered. She shot up, nearly bumped into me, and then quickly apologized. Her anxiety couldn't be more obvious if she tried, but I believed it was because she knew Justin was dead. Everyone had known, but we'd just been pretending. Pretending because accepting reality was more painful than pulling wool over our eyes and smiling, thinking that our friend would be waiting in a hospital by the end of this with only burns, cuts and bruises.

I want to throw up. I stood there, unable to talk out of fear that any sudden movement would have me hurling on a Gym Leader. My hands gripped the doorframe and Cass gently whispered in my mind, but I couldn't— I couldn't just put it away like Cece could.

"Are you two okay?" Maylene asked. "Uh, I'm sorry about your frie— about Justin. I didn't know him, but I know how hard it is to lose someone, so… I'm sorry."

Cecilia spoke from behind me. "And I apologize for my outburst and anything I might have said. I wasn't thinking straight."

"Well, at least you're talking, now." Maylene tried to walk through, but it took me five seconds to gather the strength to let her in. She looked closely at me as she entered. "You look really bad, Grace. Do you need to—"

I vomited. Yesterday's dinner spewed out of my mouth and would have landed all over the floor and staircase to the outside had Cass not contained it in a psychic bubble, which they promptly threw out and buried in snow. Cece brought me to the broken-down bathroom, and luckily the water still worked even if half of it dripped on the floor, now. I washed my face, cleaned my mouth and used the opportunity to talk to her alone.

"Listen," I told her, not wanting Maylene to hear this. She faced me, her back to the door and eyes more intense than they'd ever been. "You have to make things right. My heart will be imbalanced, the world will be wrong so long as those three Commanders live."

It would be like a cough that never went away, an itch one couldn't scratch, a word on the tip of my tongue, constantly nagging and nagging until all three were dead.

"I know."

She'd said so before, but I was certain, now. "Good. It's a pact, then."

"An oath."

My hand squeezed hers until it hurt so the deal could be bound to something. It was flimsy at best, but it was enough.

We were ready.

Two broken girls faced Maylene, eyes no longer tired like they'd been two minutes earlier. It was as if they'd been rejuvenated by something, and they were eager, now. Eager to get into the thick of it and fight, to kill, to get their revenge on the people responsible for so many deaths.

Her hearing was, as she'd said, better than the average person's, and given that part of her job was to stop these two from doing something insane like running off to get their revenge or continuing to trash the house until it collapsed on their own head if they used their Pokemon, she'd enhanced her hearing, channeling aura from her heart to her ears to hear their conversation. It was rude, didn't respect their privacy in their weakest moment, but it was sorely needed, given that these were orders and she had no choice but to listen, especially when they were key to solving everything. What she'd heard was a vow of murder that told her they would stop at nothing to go through their pact… or their oath, whatever the difference was, if there was any. They were both sitting on chairs this time. They'd pulled two of the three that were still intact up and were sitting at the dinner table.

"So nothing happened last night?" Cecilia asked, hands intertwined together. Every few seconds, her jaw would clench and tighten. "No scouts? No attempts to Teleport in?"

"You'd know if that was the case." The Gym Leader tried to keep her voice gentle and steady not to set her off. Lucario had warned her, when she'd first entered the room and Cecilia had just been rampaging across the living room like a wild beast that she'd let her anger out of a cage, but it was currently under lock and key. "We expect it to come today regardless, but it looks like Grace's words had a real effect on Mars. We've had plenty of time to prepare Coronet and here, but obviously…"

"Obviously you hope we put a stop to it here," Grace said, tone deadpan. Too deadpan. "But if we fail, what's the plan?"

Maylene's foot tapped anxiously against the ground. "Then we suit you up, and it's onto the mountain, but… yeah, we have no idea if you'd get another opportunity to free the Lake Guardians, given that we know they'll be given to Cyrus. He's the one that's going to… summon Time and Space. He'll leave troops and his admins behind, and with the mountain behaving the way it is—"

"How is it behaving?" Cecilia asked.

"The most agitated its ever been. It makes organizing very difficult, but I'm not involved in most of that stuff, and they don't tell me much." Maylene groaned, putting her hands up. "Can you believe they have me basically doing ACE Trainer work and they aren't telling me shit? Arceus…"

The two shared a look, but Maylene had no idea what that meant.

"Uh, I'm gonna go get some water," she said. "I assume the fridge still works?"

Cecilia nodded. "I wasn't strong enough to break it."

So she tried anyway. "You two want anything?"

They both shook their heads in silence.

Well, better silence than them going crazy. Maylene got herself some ice-cold water and waited.

Team Galactic arrived four hours later. You could tell they had, by how the base came to life in a single instant. People outside yelled, the door to our home flung open, psychics Teleported right next to us and attacks started flying outside. That, and the blaring alarm that was so loud I could barely hear myself think. Maylene and her Lucario flanked me, and by extension Cece while I was escorted out and we were both put in a car. Apparently Teleporting me was too risky even with the darkness tempered because the rate of failure had jumped as soon as Mesprit had appeared. A League Trainer I didn't know the name of drove us while ACEs filled the car to the brim. Pokemon fast enough to keep up with the car ran along with it— Umbreon, Ariados, Luxray, Gallade, and the like.

And yes, it was just Mesprit, apparently.

"They didn't bring Azelf?" I asked. The car was driving so fast and shaking so wildly that my voice was, too. There was an Indeedee and a Mr. Mime hanging on the roof and shielding the vehicle as it traveled. "I guess they really can't use their power."

Cecilia was staring straight ahead. "It'd be needlessly risky. Just one slips out of their grasp, and odds are, they wake up and turn all of Galactic into paste before going back to their lakes. If they succeeded with only Mesprit last time, then there's no reason to bring the other and give me and Chase the opportunity to save them. They're removing as many weaknesses as they can."

ACEs chatted between themselves around us, mostly with military babble I didn't quite understand. There were talks of setting up a perimeter, of trying to use bug types to find a weakness in the barrier instead of brute forcing it like last time, but mostly they were worried about the time being wasted. Last time, Mars had Teleported a minute away from us at most and I hadn't needed to Teleport, but this time she was further than that, even when taking a car. Staring in the rearview mirror, I could see another one following behind us— Mira and Chase, no doubt.

We reached our destination within two— three minutes at most, with the driver having to navigate around all of the people and Pokemon moving around. I hopped out of the car and saw a glimpse of Mars… sitting on the floor, maybe? It was hard to tell, with how hard the barrier was being blown up, and it looked like they were sticking with mostly dark type moves for now which was making it even worse. Once again, psychics reinforced Mesprit's barrier, but there were fewer of them, this time. Were they saving them for Coronet?

The question answered itself when I was allowed to see a glimpse of pink hair.

The person with the Red Chain wasn't her, it was Charon. I saw slivers of a balding head with faded pink hair, a lab coat and his usual hunched posture, and I knew that it could only be him despite only having seen him once before at Valley Windworks. The chain was wrapped around his wrist and he was greedily holding onto the red gems. His Hypno was no doubt powerful enough to replace multiple psychics on his own, so they'd gambled and sent only him, a Jynx and a Medicham.

They were going to give him Uxie.

There was no time to see or check Mira's reaction behind me. Cecilia and Chase were being kept on standby just in case Azelf showed up, but otherwise she was just gazing upon Mesprit in contempt. The Legendary was at Mars' side, now, like they were hers, instead of hovering far above her. Once more, I linked my emotions to Mesprit as my eyes closed, and I plunged into their mindscape.

He was there. Charon stood there, his eyes already closed and his body slumped over, only held by Mars. ACEs and League Trainers screamed all around her, barking out orders both to people and human, and her head whirled toward Grace— she was standing there as if she was in a trance. Shit, shit, shit, how did this work again? Mira blinked, opening her senses to Uxie's gift and her head and eyes nearly exploded to how bright Mesprit was. She turned toward the Lake and tried to find Uxie, but she'd only be able to enter Uxie's mind the moment Charon freed them. All this time, ever since Mesprit had been stolen from Lake Verity, Uxie had stayed silent to her calls. They used to talk and keep up every day until Uxie grew too exhausted to continue ranting, with how far she was from their Lake.

She missed them. She really did, even if she understood only ten percent of whatever it was they were talking about. Suddenly, something disappeared from Mira's head. A presence, just gone in the blink of an eye, and it was like she was no longer whole. A light as bright as a star— a literal star appeared at the bottom of the lake, and Mira went blind from the sight. Its light swallowed all around it, and she could no longer see or even hear. Knowledge was— knowledge was loud, just so loud she felt like she was going blind and deaf. Even through her eyelids, the sheer radiance of Uxie's mind seared her skin like flames.

But she knew what she had to do.

Her breaths grew ragged and her heart nearly jumped out of her throat at the fear of confronting her uncle, but she had to do this. She wanted this. So Mira yelled, fighting against all who would want to destroy the world and she jumped into the sun.


Mira stood atop a pillar.

It was the tallest structure to have ever existed. She didn't know how exactly she knew that, but that fact was as solid in her mind as the sun rising from the east and setting in the west. There was barely enough space on the pillar for her person. She couldn't lie down, and she wasn't sure that she wouldn't accidentally fall off if she sat. Mira gulped, suddenly overtaken by vertigo so intense that she could barely think. It was as if a force was forcing her to look down, and yet she couldn't see the ground. Only the pitch black below that surrounded her. The pillar itself was made of white… bone, or something akin to it. The surface was smooth enough for her to stand on, but the rest of it was jagged and adorned with green and gold.

The only thing she could see in the distance was a mountain capped in snow, but the summit was somewhat obscured. Not by more darkness, but blurred, as if she was looking at a pixelated picture. The pillar she stood on was taller than the mountain, but something told her this was… Mount Coronet? The shape of the summit tracked, and since it was one of the most famous landmarks in the entire world, it was easily recognizable to her.

Her breathing grew more and more intense. "Shit… shit…"

What to do? Knowing what Grace had told her about the experience, it was only a matter of time until Mesprit kicked her out now that Uxie was out, and that meant she barely had a minute or so in here, where time moved slower than in reality. Or maybe her interference here would give her more time, but still, that meant that she had to actually fucking reach Uxie.

But how? This wasn't real, but Mira had an inkling that falling down all the way to the bottom of the inky darkness would mean that she would never be able to reach Uxie, and it would be extremely unpleasant to her mind. The knowledge was there, intrinsic to her somehow, yet she had no idea where it came from. Mira looked at her hands to see if there was any sign of a timer like Grace had warned, but instead of paint, she found herself disappearing.

Literally. The tip of her fingers, and her shoes now that she was paying attention was blurring and then vaporizing into nothingness as if she had never existed at all. What would happen when her feet were completely gone? Would she still be able to navigate this place, or would she crumble to the nothingness below?

Nothingness. Before common Pokemon came into the picture, humans had harnessed fire to shield themselves from the cold and the dark. To light what had been previously obscured and navigate the unknown— because that was a person's deepest and most pronounced fear. It wasn't merely an apprehension or a mild anxiety; it was a profound terror that rooted itself deep within minds, thriving in the soil of their most primal instincts. This fear was not of the dark itself, but of what unseen horrors might lurk within it, waiting, watching. The true terror of the unknown lay in its absolute uncertainty; it was the embodiment of every fear, every anxiety, every nightmare, because it had the potential to be all of them at once. It was the ultimate adversary, one that could not be seen, could not be fought, and could not be conquered, only staved off.

Mira's foot hovered over the void.

Open your eyes and mind to Knowledge. Do not fear the unknown.

Witness what it has to show you.

She jumped toward Coronet.

Her arms windmilled around her, a silent wind whipped around her hair and ears and into her eyes, yet she kept them open no matter how dry they felt. Witness. Witness. Witness. It was screaming at her within every recess, every corner, every inch of her mind. No matter what, she had to look, or she, too would be lost to the unknown. A sphere appeared below her— a bright crystal akin to what she saw when she looked at other people's heads. She groaned, expecting to land on top of it, but instead, she plunged into it like water and landed in another era.

Witness how violence defines your kind.

She fell through a battle between hundreds of men and Pokemon around Lake Acuity. The smell of death, blood and iron spread throughout her nose and throat, and she lurched at the sight of dead bodies of people who looked to be as young as twelve. They carried no Pokeballs. Only swords, spears and armor made of leather. For tens of thousands of years, there was nothing here but the occasional battle, person or Pokemon. It was as if this place was frozen in time.

But eventually,

A burst of activity.

Witness how peace and cooperation are more precious to you than anything else.

She fell through a village that hugged the shores of Acuity, small but peaceful. People traveled with their bodies covered in layers of fur and a few fire types like Flareon or Fletchinder kept their partners warm. Children went to school, goods were traded and people bathed in the warm waters of Acuity, treating it like a hot spring amidst the frigid cold. She saw it grow and grow until it housed tens of thousands of people.

Gone in the blink of an eye.

Witness how the strong take from the weak.

She fell through burning smoke and ash, the village being razed to smithereens, its people were enslaved and the earth was poisoned and salted. Piles upon piles of bodies burned, wood and silver was stolen, and Mira witnessed as Willpower unified Hisui under one banner. Knowledge had already gone south years beforehand, but this was a village she had founded, and it was no more.

Witness the impermanence of humanity.

She fell through nature having reclaimed its place here, but it wasn't for long. Soon enough, more people passed through, and then starved, or left, or died to a Pokemon attack.

She fell and saw history. History Uxie had documented, the only history they'd ever seen without the help of a shard; cycles upon cycles of chronicled human and Pokemon history until—

The world spat her out atop Mount Coronet.

She stood up with a groan, ignoring the fact that her head was spinning. All of her fragmented selves had been forcefully reintegrated within her, and even though this world was fake, it was like her head had been split in two by an ice pick. The mountain's summit was hard to make out, but the ground below her was smooth and beige even if it was horribly unstable. The broken world extended beyond her. Mira stood up with a tired exhale and blinked, hoping that it would be easier to make out where exactly she needed to go. Every movement she made, every step she took seemed to trigger a cascade of glitches, distorting the reality around her into a fragmented nightmare. Beneath her feet, the ground felt unstable, shifting unpredictably with each movement. Sometimes solid and firm, other times dissolving into a mess of screeching noise and static. It challenged her balance as she navigated the uneven terrain. The air crackled constantly, and the horizon was still obscured besides the pillar she had come from.

The sound of her movements were wrong, a blaring noise that sounded like someone was pressing pause and play on a video over and over again. Soon enough, she managed to find some kind of arch that was made out of the same bony white as the pillar had been, along with the green and the gold. It was the only normal-looking thing in here, and crossing it had her cry for something she'd forgotten by the time she made it through. Mira held out a hand to her cheek and blinked, not understanding why she felt so melancholic, but the gate led her to—

Her apartment.

It stood there, perfectly pristine in the midst of Uxie's broken mind. Knowing that time was running short, she ran there as fast as she could. Her arms were nearly all gone, now, as were her legs, yet she could move anyway like her limbs were invisible. Mira drifted across Mount Coronet until she reached the building, and the doors opened before her with a distorted woosh. Everything was exactly the same on the inside. The dinky hallway, the narrow staircase, the narrow walls, the ceiling that was just a little too high— that general feeling of crampiness that she'd grown used to, yet it was in a better state. Not new, but… years old. Yes, she remembered now. This was the state of her apartment complex right before Uncle Ernie abandoned her.

It'd be in her apartment, then. She knew that was where everything was going to go down.

Her door opened just like the ones at the entrance of the building. The paint was already chipped, but far less than she'd grown used to. The inside was in a far worse state than it currently was, however. The floor hadn't been vacuumed in who knew how long and a dust coated the inside of her nose, throat and lungs. Piles of dirty clothes were lying about, either on the ground, on chairs, or on the couch. Dozens of empty bottles of beer and the occasional liquor were everywhere Mira turned her head.

She knew exactly where Charon would be. His bedroom that he'd turned into an office where he had spent countless of sleepless nights trying to recreate Mira's mother through coding. He'd been a genius, and he'd thrown it all away. Mira hovered toward the bedroom and stopped herself from gasping.

He was there.

He was there with her mother.

She wasn't a projection, a ghost or on a screen, she was real, in the flesh, and he was touching her hair like it was gold. He was standing over her, having sat her down on his bed and was looking at her with the brightest of smiles, as if the sun was shining down his face and he was simply content. She'd never seen him this happy. Uxie was there too, but as blasphemous as it seemed, her eyes weren't even drawn toward the little Legend. They were drawn to her mother.

"Beautiful, isn't she?" Charon said.

She was. Damn it, she was, and Mira wanted to sob and bury her face in her shoulder. She wanted to tell her how much she missed her. How much she wished she was still there. Loss like this was something that never went away. It was something you learned to live with, and you hoped nothing would ever open that wound again after it closed.


"She won't speak. She's a vision I had Uxie make from my memory." Charon's hand dropped to his side, fist slowly clenching. "I didn't have the time to work out all of the kinks yet, and you entered this world and interrupted us before I could bring her back fully."

"You wasted no time, Ernest."

"That is Charon to you." He glared at her and clicked his tongue. "After seeing this— the potential in this, you still want to stop us? You still want to get in the way of Marie's resurrection?"

Mira stared at her mother's eyes— her flowing pink hair, the fake smile, the empty eyes—

She wasn't real.

She wasn't.

She was memory.

There was a sliver of hesitation, of wanting to let Charon finish rebuilding her from memory so they could talk, but it died as soon as her heart summoned it. She would not be led by her heart, and she had not come this far to abandon the cause because it felt good, to see her parent. If Ernie had wanted to convince her, he would have brought her Dad in too, but he didn't care about him, did he? Nor did he care about her. Charon only cared for himself and the twisted vision he had for his family.

She had to fix him, but she couldn't. Not here. Not when the world was fake.

She was but a floating torso and a head now, and circumstances hadn't given her much time, but there was nothing left to do but try.

Mira turned to Uxie, whose eyes were still sealed shut, and gave her pitch.

I opened the door to the cabin with tears still in my eyes from passing through the white arch to get here.

Getting here had been quicker now that I knew where to look and I hadn't gotten distracted by how alien everything was. The cabin itself had changed— or more like it had been filled in by things that had been missing beforehand. The layout was the same, with the coffee table low enough to be used while sitting on the thin carpet below despite the tiny chairs. There were pictures framed by wood, their image in black and white. Pictures of Mars smiling, sometimes with a Pokemon, sometimes with other people whom I had no idea of in locations unfamiliar to me. They were all laid out on a wooden dresser at the edge of the room, along with other nonsense like… physical badges I didn't recognize, jewelry, blades, and even a golden tooth. The cabin itself had been fixed from all the fighting I'd done, and there were no signs of a struggle.

Mars was there, her back to me, and she had one of the pictures in her hand— one I couldn't see.

"Where's Mesprit?" My voice boomed across the cabin's living room, and I took a second step. I pressed my weight on a chair leg with a foot and snapped it off after two attempts. It was firm in my grip, and I approached her… but she didn't even turn my way.

I was almost offended. Were we not sworn enemies— but it didn't matter. If she was just going to stare at pictures…


These were pictures of her before she'd lost her memories. Did that mean she used to live here…?

No matter how intrigued I was, the paint had overtaken my hands, now. This was a small cabin, so I assumed the tiny, cramped corridor next to her was the way to other rooms, like a bathroom or a bedroom of some kind. I tried making my way past her, chair leg ready to strike if she moved even an inch, but she just… let me through. Her face wasn't as dejected as I'd hoped from the fact that she'd learned she wasn't real. Instead, it was calm, almost happy as she stared at the picture of her as a child, smiling wide next to a birthday cake. This one too, was in black and white. It was almost unnaturally attracting my gaze, with how dim it was compared to the world itself.

What followed was exactly what I'd expected. A bathroom with nothing to write home about— I was surprised this place even had plumbing, but I supposed it did have a kitchen and a sink attached to the living room. What could be assumed to be the bedroom was locked shut. I rattled the handle at first, then pushed, then slammed my entire body against the wood.

It didn't budge.

I called out Mesprit's name, but there was no answer.

"They won't reply, since they no longer want to speak to you."

I flinched, knocking myself against the wall, and I would have fallen had I not held myself up. My arm swung wildly behind me but hit nothing. My eyes widened when her hand snatched me by the collar and pushed me against the ground. There was no pain, but the fact that she could actually touch me— that was— that was horrible news. My fist clenched around nothing. I'd let go of my stick.

"I don't want to fight." Mars crouched in front of me and smiled. "Not yet at least. I want to talk."

I groaned, kicking her in the shin, but she showed me there wouldn't be a repeat of last time. There would be no back-and-forth fight, no struggle, and I would not get the upper hand over her. Her leg didn't even budge, and she forcefully carried me back to the living room. I struggled, oh, I struggled, biting, scratching, tried to poke her eyes out, rip out her throat, punch her stomach— nothing worked. Something had happened for her and Mesprit to completely bond and now I was screwed.

Mars threw me onto the living room floor, and I tumbled a few times until my head hit something. It took a moment for me to realize it was one of the coffee table's legs. Mars sat to face me and calmly waited.

I shot up to my feet and ran toward that room again, but the result was the same. The door would not open. I picked up the stick from earlier and tried to use it to break through the wall instead of the door, thinking that it might have been some magic bullshit keeping me in, but wood against wood didn't work any better.


There was nothing else to do.

"You done?" Mars eyed me with a curious eye as I made my way back, and it took everything not to throw every insult I knew her way and not to flip the table in her face.

"So the caricature wants to talk to me?" I tried in hopes that instability would lead the door to open.

"Funny. That won't work anymore."

I bit my lip. No other leads, Grace. Let her talk. "So what, then?"

"I'm not real. I know that, now," she said with a sad smile. "I haven't talked to Dusky about it, but Cyrus told me everything."

"And you don't think he was fucking lying to use you like he's used you for years?"

Mars rolled her eyes. "Stop trying to split us apart. I wanted to thank you, and this is how you act?"

A scoff escaped my throat. "Thank me?"

"Well, you and Mesprit for opening my eyes. Everything makes sense, now."

This wasn't going well.

This wasn't going well at all.

I had no idea what Cyrus had put in her head, but there was no way I was going to be able to fight that off. Had he planned this— to own someone and have them bound so tightly that he could by extension control each Legendary to this extent? Last time, Mars' hold on Mesprit had been so much more unstable. There'd been weaknesses to probe at and insecurities to attack. I expected it could have been a little harder, but to the point of not even letting me see Mesprit? Mars continued rambling about how her mind was clear and how she appreciated me, and other nonsense while I thought up a strategy and acted like I was listening, because if we failed here…

It wasn't over, it was never over until I died, but it'd be the worst-case scenario.

"What did Cyrus tell you?" I asked.

She leaned forward against the table with a gleam in her eye that told me she wasn't used to people asking about her. There was no point in pretending to be friendly or to care about her. Mars wasn't stupid, she'd know it was a trick.

"What do I get in exchange?"

"What do—" I stopped myself and took a deep breath. There wasn't time to get angry. "Is there anything I'd be willing to give you that you would even accept?"

"Yes! When we meet in the real world, I want us to hang out for… thirty minutes before we fight. As sisters."

"Sure," I said. Sisters didn't have to be friendly. Sisters could kill each other, too, and who knew, maybe that was what sisterhood was like to me with her. She hadn't specified no Pokemon, either. Not that I wouldn't have lied to her anyway, even if it would have felt wrong. "Anything else?"

"Okay. It's a promise?"


For a moment, I thought she'd hold out her pinky, but instead she finally leaned back, and I realized how much pressure she'd been putting on me by just being too close. My shoulders untensed and I rubbed the back of my neck.

"I used to be dead," Mars said. "These pictures you see here, the trinkets, the cabin, it belonged to me when I used to be alive. Maybe my subconscious created it anyway, but only filled in the blanks after Cyrus spoke to me. I think the places we keep the Guardians are supposed to be important to us— but I digress!" She clapped her hands in excitement as if she was telling a story, and then repeatedly drummed them on the table. "Dusky brought me back from the dead! Me and my team!"

I used to be dead. The words bounced in my head over and over. The person I'd grown to be linked to was a ghost. Not a ghost type Pokemon, but a ghost. A revenant who came from a time past.

"I had the same reaction when he told me," she giggled. "Dusky tried to give me my memories, too, but he couldn't because it was too difficult and it had been too long, so he decided that we should have a fresh start. He kept them from me to protect me."

"To protect you? Come on, he did it to control you, Mars." If I wasn't going to get Mesprit out of this, then I at least wanted to plant seeds of doubt again that would hopefully last, this time. "There's no other reason to keep you in the dark."

"Well, Cyrus says that's wrong." Her face twisted into angry frown. "I'll talk to Dusky about it eventually, and I'll see what he says, but they wouldn't lie about that when I have control over one of the Guardians!"

Scratch that about her not being stupid. "You said you know deep down that Cyrus doesn't care about you. He's using you and your Pokemon as tools— you literally can't die!"

"Oh, we can die, it's just harder to kill us."

And thank Arceus for that. At least I knew, now.

"The point remains, you're an incredibly powerful trainer. Someone who's been kept in the dark like you are is easier to control. I would know. You should know."

"Then why would he tell me about it now?"

"Because you—" Deep breaths. Calm down. I grounded myself by gripping the table's leg so hard it shook. "Because you were asking questions, and it was the best way to keep the situation from unraveling at the seams! He doesn't even have to make a convincing story either, because he only needs you to be on his side for like twenty-four more hours!"

"You don't get us."

I gestured at her, trying to make sense of her existence. Was this what she was like, without being obsessed with cruelty and murder? It was like arguing with a damn ten-year-old! "There is no 'us' with you and Cyrus!"

Mars smiled, bright and true, like she was a girl in love and her eyes shone like the sun. "He kissed me."

Disgust flooded me, and for once— for once, I let a sliver of pity reach me. Pity that collapsed and burned to a crisp the moment I made sense of it, but it had been there nonetheless.

He had her.

And that is when I knew, despite the fact that the paint had still only reached my arms, that I would never win no matter how much time I had.

Time passed.

We spoke.

None of it mattered.

I slowly opened my eyes as cold wind prickled my skin and saw Uxie within Team Galactic's barrier. Mira lay by my side, on her knees and heaving with tears flowing down her face and freezing on her cheeks. Her hands— including her broken one— gripped snow through the agony movement brought and dug, dug and dug until Chase, Cecilia and a nearby ACE all restrained her.

Team Galactic disappeared, leaving Charon's Hypno behind.

It was either dead or unconscious due to the strain aiding Mesprit had put on it, along with the other psychics they'd brought.

"He used…" she choked. "He made her talk to me." Her words were barely coherent between sobs. "I'm so—sorry. She said things, and I know she wasn't real, and I was so close, but when she started talking I just— I couldn't make my chance count, I'm fucking worthless!"

I sat down in the snow, uncaring for the cold and wet, and a sigh left my mouth. I was too emotionally exhausted to offer any support that wouldn't seem fake, though I guessed with what Mars had told me about memories, Mira was talking about her mother, and I had no doubt Uxie would be far more proficient at bringing those to life.

It made me an awful friend. Chase was there, and Cece was trying her best, at the very least, but I just…

Long day ahead.


Hands, hands, hands. They touched me under my arms, on my legs, my back, my stomach and knees. They covered me like a second set of skin, with constant assurances and voices buzzing in my ears like Cutiefly. Every time, I would answer with 'yes, I understand', and they would nod and keep going.

First, I stepped into my base layer, a second skin designed to wick moisture away while retaining warmth. Over this, they layered fleece for insulation, with its fabric helping against the biting cold. My outer shell was a fortress against the elements— a high-tech, waterproof, and windproof jacket and pants, their bright yellow colors a stark contrast against the dark within the caves. My feet were encased in insulated mountaineering boots that were just as heavy as they looked, with a certain rigidness around my ankles. There were gloves, too, thicker than I'd ever worn to keep me shielded against frostbite. On my head was a helmet with a light, and on my back, a backpack full of supplies, flashlights, hyper potions, batteries and ropes if I ever needed them. It was so large that it was nearly taller than I was, and I already knew I'd have to make either Honey or Angel carry it. The trainers around me tried to quickly teach me what everything was for, and I did my best to pay attention to every minute detail. 'Yes, I understand,' I said again.

Most importantly.

My backpack had a few oxygen tanks that I'd need if I didn't want to die near the summit, if we ever got that far, along with a dark breathing mask that looked like it'd fit right on a hazmat suit.

A voice among the sea of voices spoke out to me. "Your Pokemon should be able to handle the lack of oxygen better than you, but should it become a problem, you'll be able to share some oxygen with them using this." They handed— never mind, they strapped some other mask on my bag, this time, since it was full. "It's made of stretchable material and should fit on your Togekiss, Electivire and Turtonator's mouths, though obviously they'll go through oxygen much faster than you. The rest should be fine, even up the mountain. The ACEs will give you theirs and sacrifice themselves if need be, but if you're ever separated…"

"Yes," I calmly said. "I understand."

Around me, Cecilia, Chase and Mira were all being given the same speech. The same words, the same, countless hands, the reassuring smiles hiding terrified faces hoping, hoping we knew what we were doing, hoping that their families would be alive by tomorrow, hoping their dreams, goals and aspirations still mattered, hoping they would see the sun rise again.


Hands and faces.

"Yes, I understand."

I understand what you want from me. I want that from me, too.

A one-eyed Alakazam strode into the room, spoons floating behind him. We'd been put in the headquarters of the lake, although a private room where only members of the League with a certain clearance could enter. I recognized him as Lucian's. His missing eye was a testament to how far Ditto technology had come, and what the Pokemon who had fought before its spread had missed. He scowled at me as soon as our eyes met, but it passed soon enough.

I shall bring you to the base of Mount Coronet, Alakazam said. His spoons softly dropped in his hands after he flexed them a few times. Any questions? No questions.

He'd barely let us speak, but to be honest, he was right. There were really no questions.

Let's go, then.

The cold was replaced by the heat of approaching summer, and I could feel the sun on my face again. I'd start suffocating in this getup soon, but I knew the mountain would grow cold only a few minutes inside, and putting this on had already taken ten minutes, so I wasn't taking it off again.

We came face to face to Mount Coronet, along with a makeshift camp at this entrance, which was… near Celestic, if that fog I could see far off in the distance wasn't just me going insane.

Rugged stone and jagged edges. Mourning like they were alive.

It stretched so tall. Up, and up, and up, and—

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Chapter 308 - Ascend, Children of Coronet

The hugs felt a little artificial, with these suits making us unable to feel our warmth and given the fact that we'd just lost Justin. It was like a stopgap— or putting a bandaid over a bullet wound. Pauline's face looked like she'd just cried for two hours straight, because she had. Her eyes were bloodshot, and her face was stained by dry tears. Even now, in my arms, it looked as if she was on the brink of breaking. My hands ran all along behind her, from her neck to the small of her back so she could feel safe in my arms, but again, it was nowhere near what she needed. She would be mourning like this for a long time, and part of me felt like I should have been, too, yet I had a job to finish before I allowed myself to cry again.

Emilia's hug was far less succinct than Pauline's. She was, for the time being, holding herself together enough to speak.

"I'm so sorry." I didn't know why I was apologizing. No, that was a lie. I was apologizing because I'd been the last one with him. "I… there are no words."

My friend sniffled. "I still didn't believe it, you know?" she whispered. "When— when Cece sent that message, I couldn't even register the words I was reading. I wanted there to be a reasonable explanation so desperately, but I was just being stupid. He's just… gone."

That was death, sometimes. There was no time for any goodbyes, and maybe the last time you'd seen each other would be horribly mundane. Like that breakfast we'd all had together before Justin and I headed to the library. With the benefit of hindsight, you wanted it to matter. For your last conversation to be meaningful, instead of it being about buying stupid books, or the words being 'see you later' with a wave and a smile.

There was no later. But you couldn't know that until it was too late.

Maeve's hug was not as short as Emi's, but it was cold. Like brushing my skin against cold metal. She took a while to return it, as she had with Mira, but it warmed when she did. She was still in there, deep down, but she had shielded herself within layer after layer of walls so she wouldn't be hurt any longer.

I wanted to ask how she was feeling, or if she was okay, but we both knew the answer to that already. Maeve had basically been Justin's nanny from Sunyshore to Pastoria, and they'd grown very close. To have him gone now was brutal on her, even if she hid it well from the others. Her nails dug into my suit and her eyes shut tight, like she was holding back tears. From what I knew, she hadn't cried even once.

"We'll get them," I said.

"We will."

And that was all that needed to be said.

Denzel was next. He tried to smile at me, but failed so, so terribly that his visage collapsed and he started sobbing. Not even he could be our light, not today. He was so much taller than me, yet he held onto me for dear life, squeezing until all the air was sucked out of my lungs and his tears dripped down my shoulder. The only thing I could do was be here for him, and to try and be a good friend. My batteries had recharged some, since we'd lost at Acuity.

"I knew it, deep down. I knew from the minute you told me he was caught in an explosion and he wasn't with you when you came," Denzel sobbed. His voice quivered, and he struggled to start his next sentence. "I— I wanted to believe so desperately, but I just couldn't. Still reading the words was just—"

"I know." I held on tighter, biting my lip until it hurt. "I know."

This was going to scar us forever. Around us, the others were comforting each other, too. Our friends had been in an isolated part of camp, or as isolated as they could be, given the circumstances. This place wasn't as built up as the Lakes. There were no walls, no trenches, no paved roads, but any area with such high concentrations of troops could be called a fortress in its own right— or at least it was, when not dealing with Legendaries. This was only one entrance— the one closest to Celestic. Hundreds of tents, dozens of bathroom stalls and even a makeshift Center with a League-approved Nurse Joy littered the area, stretching for miles around the base of the mountain. The League had somewhat appropriated the Ranger Station on this side of Coronet for themselves, but it still wasn't enough to house all of their troops and heal every Pokemon who'd been wounded in previous attacks, hence the expansive network of tents.

Hearing Coronet's tremors was something I'd need to grow used to, though. It sounded like a constant earthquake from deep within the crust of the earth itself.

When the hug ended, I asked. "Have you gotten word about Louis?"

"No. Not yet," he cried. "But the League confirmed that he was alive. He's quiet."

"Quiet? What does that mean?"

"I don't know. He's thinking. I have a word to say to Cece about being so reckless, he could have hurt himself, or something."

"She said she believed in him, but I…" I looked at her. She was hanging at the edge of a conversation between Mira, her and Emi, only talking when talked to. "I think it was reckless, too, but she's not in a place to listen right now."

My best friend scoffed. "Wha—"

"Can you do it after everything's done?" I gripped his wrist and looked into his eyes, but he avoided my stare. "Please."

"...fine. I can't speak for Pauline, though."

Our friend was being 'cheered up' by Chase, which in normal circumstances would be unheard of, but these times were anything but ordinary.

"You look tired," I said.

"I haven't slept since I came here. I can't."

"You'd better get some rest before everything goes down." I patted him on the arm. "Just lying down is better than nothing. Trust me."

"I'll try later," he reluctantly nodded.

The reunion was, as expected, relieving, but also so sorrowful, because no matter what happened today, Justin wouldn't be coming back. My friends distracted me enough so that I didn't feel nauseous, and I focused on the task ahead. Denzel explained that the inside of the mountain was nearly impossible to navigate by the League, but that Cynthia had already gone inside in hopes of reaching the summit before it got even worse.

When I asked what even worse meant, he'd told me that it meant truly impossible to get through the mountain's many layers in groups larger than a few individuals. So many troops were available, yet organizing them would be a fool's errand. In the end, they would all be stuck on their own or in tiny bands, climbing up the mountain without an ounce of strategy.

"It's like gambling," Denzel said. We sat in a group around him, with a bright light lit up to illuminate the surroundings. It was daytime, still, but it had started to rain now, and the sky was overcast. "You basically go in and hope for the best, but odds are you aren't going to make it very far unless you're Team Galactic."

"Because they have the Lake Guardians," Emilia said.

"Yes. But the League thinks you four—" he pointed at me and the rest of the shards, "—might be able to bypass that. You'll hear about it in the debriefing. What time is it?"

Chase checked his phone. "It's in an hour. An hour and thirteen minutes."

"Alright," Denzel sighed. "But yeah, it's fucked in there. Really fucked."

Yet we were all going to need to go in anyway.

The briefing was, as Denzel said, basically there to tell us how the mountain seemed to be functioning. Never had they seen it behave this way. Not only had every pattern for spatial distortion just completely gone out the window, but time inside went slower than outside, making waiting for reinforcements from out of the mountain far more difficult than normal. How much time has Cynthia been in there, then? I pondered. From our perspective, a few hours only, but from hers? Double the time? A day? More?

When we were going to go inside the mountain, would a few days in feel like a few hours out here? That meant that the moment Galactic entered, from their perspective, the world would only have a few hours left.

I took a deep breath.

It was only my second time seeing Aaron— the one who gave the briefing. It was odd, seeing someone so young in a position of such power, but that was probably how it had felt like to see Cynthia become Champion all the way back then. None of us spoke to him, though he did spare us a look as he left. He too, was going to go inside Coronet early for reasons unknown, along with Flint and Craig.

Before that, however, the latter passed by to see us.

It had been difficult to tell at the time, but Craig had looked far more youthful, back when we'd first met him. Even when he'd been recovering from that wound on his leg, he'd had that boyish smile to him that you couldn't help but return. That charisma that had propelled him to the top, not only skill-wise, but connections-wise, too. Today, now that he knew everything that was at stake, he looked old. It was the little things, like the stress lines on his forehead and next to his eyes, the messy look with the uneven stubble, the way every breath seemed to take so much out of him.

Craig Goodwill, for the first time, allowed himself to look tired. There were other LTIP Trainers present, but none were as skilled and powerful as he was. The fact that he was joining Elite Four members on this secret mission proved that Cynthia considered him their equal, at the very least.

Oh, he tried his best to put his public face back on the moment we started speaking, but I could see through him, now. The small talk was only leading to what he really wanted— to speak to Mira alone.

Just as they left, Denzel's phone rang.

It was Louis.

We all grouped around Denzel, demanding he put the Poketch on speakerphone so we could also hear, but he waited until he was sure Louis was fine with it to actually do so. Our prying stemmed from a place of worry, but there was always the possibility he'd be angry at us like he'd been with Emilia. We all spoke over each other, mostly asking if he was alright.

"Good afternoon, everyone." His voice shook at the other end of the line, like he'd just finished crying. "First of all, Cece."

My girlfriend just watched the screen, her face unmoving.

"Thank you for telling me so early," he said. "Thanks to you, I've had time to… get ahead of things."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"First of all, getting the funeral planning started." The statement hit me like a truck. I closed my eyes and ignored the prickle in my heart. "Second, finishing negotiations to get my sanctuary started."

Denzel spoke, "But the money—"

"I delivered the news to Al," Louis sighed. Al was short for Albert— Justin's father, and CEO of Pherzen. "He'll help me with the funds, along with the funeral. He's as crushed with this news as we all are. Justin's Pokemon will be the first to be in my sanctuary, if they wish to be."

"Louis— Louis, that's beautiful," Maeve muttered. "Thank you."

"I'm not fighting," he said. "And I think I'm still… running on the adrenaline from the news, and that I might crash and burn horribly, but if I'm not doing anything II might as well be doing this. Preparing things for when you all return."

Cecilia smiled, and a relieved sigh left her.

How many times could a man be beaten, for him to rise again and again? I'd asked myself.

It seemed like the answer still hadn't been reached, and thank Arceus for that.

Mira hadn't expected Craig to take her this far.

He Teleported her to some kind of grasslands way to the south of Sinnoh, if she was reading the temperature and terrain correctly, and his Orbeetle had done so like it was nothing. She remembered hearing that Teleporting in or close to the mountain was incredibly difficult ever since the third Guardian had been stolen, but that meant Orbeetle was at a skill level similar to Lucian's Alakazam, Teleportation-wise, at least, which was insane considering Craig had only owned her for a year. The tall grass here reached her waist and prickled her hands and wrists— she had taken off her gloves due to the heat.

Pressure built up in her head as the last of her minds came together, and a throbbing pain returned to her broken hand. She'd moved it too much in her grief, after hearing her mother talk and failing to get Uxie out of Ernest's hands.

Hearing her again…

Hearing her again hurt so much more than she could have ever imagined, and the worst part was, she was memory, and she always would be. It was as if Charon had poured salt onto a wound that would never heal, and done so with love. Hearing her mother say that she loved her, that she wished she was still here to watch her grow up, that she missed her.

It had been too much, and now Mira was tearing up again, damn it.

"Oh. Sorry?" Craig's eyes widened a smidge in surprise. "Should I bring you back? I wanted to get away from Aaron, that guy's bugs listen in on everything—"

"No." She sniffled, wiping her eyes with her good hand. "No, I'm fine, sorry."

Craig patted her on the shoulder, and Mira would have laughed at how awkward it was, had she not still been emotionally recovering from her mother and Justin. Craig clearly wasn't used to people Mira's age— or no, the more accurate way to put it would be to say he was used to handling them a certain way. His sister hated physical contact, and you could count the hugs she gave on the fingers of your hands.

Hence, the awkward shoulder pat from as far as he could be.

Mira knew Craig would have given her ample time to recover from her breakdown, but she also knew he had a mission to get to, so she split herself in two again and shoved everything toward her second self, and suddenly Mira felt stupid for ever having cried. I'm fine, she told herself, and he knew it, too.

Craig fiddled with his Orbeetle's Pokeball. To Mira, he'd never seemed like the kind of guy to have to keep his hands moving when he was nervous, but these were unprecedented times. "You know—" he cleared his throat and started again. "I called Lauren earlier."

Ah, so that's what this was about. It made a lot more sense, now.

"Was she rude?" Mira asked.

"No, no, it was a very good phone call, all things considered. You know, she was a little irritated at being kept out of the loop, but she said she missed me. And uh, that she was with our parents, waiting for me to come back." He smiled, and though Mira was no Grace, she found it to be sad. Wind swept across his hair, and he looked across the horizon. "Yeah. It was nice, talking to her and my folks. I considered swinging by, but I figured it'd hurt too much."

Mira didn't like how this conversation was starting.

He was talking like he was already dead.

"That's nice," she said, not knowing how to answer.

He inhaled sharply. "Hey, I'm gonna keep this short. Lauren's… well, you know how Lauren is. I'm glad she met you and your group this year, and I'm glad you kept her out of all that dangerous shit." His fingers traced around his Pokeball's release button. "You guys are basically her first friends, and I'm happy about that. But she's closest to you."

"Is she?"

"She talks about you all the time, even before today," Craig said. "Usually it's just battling, but you've carved yourself a space and she really, really likes you, which is why she might have gotten kind of intense the last time you spoke."

Mira grimaced. "Did she tell you about the fight?"

"In great detail. Every second of it," he laughed. "Sorry, I know it's none of my business, but if she was venting to me out of all people it means she needed it."

"It's your business! She's your sister—"

"She's grown up, now," he interrupted. "I'm not going to know everything about her, and that's okay. But I wanted to ask you a favor."

"Ask and I'll do it."

"If I don't make it and you do," he said, his face slightly pale, "take care of her for me."

"Come on. Leave him alone, he's going to need this."

Tangrowth sat underneath a cone of light with his eyes closed, greedily soaking in as much sunlight as he could. Mimi didn't quite understand why their favorite playmate wasn't available any longer. We'd be in a cave without sunlight for possibly days, so we both figured it'd be best for him if he stored as much energy as possible. Now, ordinarily, it was raining, but I'd gone to the edge of camp, away from the Ranger Station and the tents to use Princess to clear the weather a little bit. When she'd soared into the sky and used Defog, I couldn't help but be reminded of Nightstalker.

Of course, Nightstalker could clear miles and miles of clouds while all she'd done was clear a small area instead, not because she couldn't do more, but because she'd be needlessly exhausting herself.

I picked up Mimi in my hands, and they inflated, swelling to twice their size, which still wasn't much. Enough to barely fit in my palm.

Honey was looking at the sky, cheering his sister on while Sweetheart was grumbling because she'd rid them of the rain, and Buddy was chatting with Cass about strategy to keep me alive in Coronet. We would have ACE bodyguards, but we all knew those wouldn't last that long.

Sunshine grunted beside me, asking if I'd ever seen Tangrowth focused on something like this.

"He was when he was learning Vine Terrain," I said. "You were too busy learning Fire Blast to tell, but he's been getting less distracted."

He answered by saying he wished he'd been there to see that.

It wasn't like him, to be so sentimental, but I didn't press him on it. We knew today was special and could potentially be our last. I had no grand speeches left to give, no rallying cry. It was just duty. There was nothing glorious about that. Instead, we enjoyed each other's company, and they took my mind off the fact that one of my closest friend was dead.

Gone forever.

I lifted my hands up to my face, and had Meltan face me. "Hey. It's going to be time to get back in your Pokeball soon."

The steel type's eye wobbled.

"Don't cry. We promised, remember? This is it. The day I warned you about when we were at the hospital."

Acknowledgement radiated out of them in waves more intense than I'd ever come to expect. I squinted at the slight headache and caressed the top of their head with a single finger. Mimi complained, clearly not liking the texture of the gloves I was wearing.


There was something far more serious about them. The way their eye was as smooth as polished steel and utterly unmoving, their body kept a tough, solid consistency instead of the usual gooey substance, and they seemed to shine slightly brighter, as if they were stealing light itself from Angel.

No words were spoken, only warbled concepts, but what they were saying was as clear as day.

You are a violent creature, Mimi had said. But you fight, fight and fight against it in a way I cannot help but admire. Do not lose that fight today.

I was reminded of the Eternal Alloy, their progenitor, and I gulped. "I won't. It'll just be the Commanders. We promised."

Then, the moment was gone, and they returned to the childlike Mimi they usually were.

It was only an hour later, that the first alarm blared in the distance.

Team Galactic had broken through another entrance so quickly that the League hadn't even had the time to Teleport us.

When Maylene and the League had told us Mount Coronet was more agitated than it had ever been, I hadn't expected it to literally be shaking. Constant tremors, ran through the cave, grinding plates and stones, shifting earth and swirling dust combined into a symphony that sounded like mourning to me, even more so than it had been from the outside. My boots ground a small pebble underfoot as I struggled to keep focused. We'd left— no, the more accurate way to put it would be that Coronet had ejected us away from the well-patrolled and lit parts of the mountain already.

Darkness was absolute, here. It weighed me down like a physical thing, pressing down my back until it was hard to breathe. A dozen rays of light illuminated the path ahead, from me and the ACEs, who were also donning the suit I'd been given, but also from our Pokemon. For my part, there was the glow from Sunshine's shell, Cassianus' eyes, and Honey was constantly sending pulses of electricity forward and there was a slight glow around him. It reminded me of the first time we'd been trapped here, and he'd been forced to spin his arms to create a source of light so we'd be able to navigate the cave. Sweetheart could see perfectly in the dark, but she remained in her Pokeball. With me were Maxwell, Ariel, Maylene and a bunch of other ACEs I didn't know. Not all of our Pokemon were out, not yet. The more of them were out, the more there was a chance they'd get thrown off to a completely different location. This was the same reason we'd only gone in a small group and needed to separate from the others.

The cold was something barely felt, with my special suit and Sunshine right next to me, but I knew that would only be temporary. At the highest of heights, the cold would permeate through all. Even heat and Cass' barriers. Part of me wondered if we were too numerous, but we were banking on getting enough of us to the second layer, or at least that's what Maxwell had said. He didn't want me to be alone, because I'd 'get myself killed.'

There was a smell to the darkness, an earthy scent of mineral and moisture, a hint of something ancient and untouched. In places where the path narrowed, I could detect the faint, mineral smell of hidden pools. There were scant signs of life in those, though a Remoraid poked her head out as she trembled in fear. No Pokemon had attacked us yet— in fact we hadn't seen anywhere near the number that should have been out and about, and we all knew it wasn't because we were too threatening as a group. The usual groups of Zubat and Golbat attached to the ceilings of the cave were instead fleeing in the opposite direction we were going in, Geodude and Graveler cowered in corners, huddling in small groups and whispering to each other. Once, two Machop even ran through our group, uncaring of the danger we posed, and one of them went as far as bumping into an ACE's Hariyama.

Everywhere, the young looked for guidance in the old, asking, has this happened before? How bad will this get? Should we abandon our home, our sacred mountain? Coronet, o Coronet, why are you crying so? A Carbink, old and scarred by the centuries, led a congregation of over a hundred rock types, the largest group we'd seen so far. Their gems glowed in the dark, illuminating the audience without us having to flash our lights down the ravine they were in. Over a hundred eyes looked back at us as we crossed above them—

Graveler, Rhydon, Roggenrola, Aron, Rolycoly, Lunatone, Solrock— yet they said nothing. Their gazes were piercing. Judging, for Pokemon were used to humans being the cause of a lot of their issues. But the worst part of it, was that…

Their stare. It was helpless.

Have faith, Carbink would answer. Have faith, for that is the only thing we can do.

It was difficult not to stop and explain, or to try to tell them that everything would be okay. Painful, even, so much so that I found it hard to hold back tears. Their sorrow, their worries, their anxiety, I could see and feel it.

But we couldn't stop. We had to catch up, but it was difficult when Coronet itself was being forced to work against us. We had to walk twice as long to get half as far, and my ankle still wasn't at one hundred percent. The fact that we had to slow so we didn't lose any ACEs to the mountain didn't help, and we'd already lost two. They'd disappeared in complete silence and without any warnings behind us.

"We should be close to reaching the next level in the mountain," an ACE said. She was looking down at a device— large, circular, and cumbersome to carry, but that apparently helped navigate the constantly shifting cave. "Prepare for the crossing."

Maylene bumped my arm with her elbow and whispered, "Still feeling no pull?"

I shut my eyes. "It's difficult to… focus. I'm getting overwhelmed." When I opened them again, there were so many dark colors swirling about that it was giving me a near headache. "I— only know that they're above us, which is obvious. Detail is hard in here."

The bubble of anxiety within her heart grew a smidge, though she barely allowed it to show. "Okay. Let us know if you figure anything out, okay?"


"If you want, I can carry your bag." Before I could even answer, she was already beckoning me with her hand. "You're tired and we're not even ten percent of the way up yet. We can also have one of our Pokemon carry you—"

"I'm fine," I whispered back.

While I'd planned to have one of my teammates carry my bag, Honey was the only one with the correct body shape to do so and he was currently on lighting duty. Even if I released her, Tyranitar's scales might tear the bag, and Angel had to rest with the energy from the sun he'd stored all day. The less he was in the dark, the better he'd perform when the time came. Electivire had already asked multiple times, but I had refused. We were barely even starting to ascend. The least I should have been able to do was carry a stupid heavy bag.

Unfortunately, Maylene had other ideas. She basically stole my backpack and carried both hers and mine like they were lightweight, with one strap around each shoulder.

"Don't make a fuss about it," she huffed.

Legendaries, I'm so out of shape.

I understood how right she'd been when we reached the first staircase.

Calling it a staircase was a misnomer, but it was apparently the official term the League went with, and it was only one of many, even at this level. The path beneath my feet was a treacherous one, made up of jagged rocks and steep inclines that seemed to conspire to slow my progress. Stalactites loomed overhead like the sharpened spikes that threatened to fall at the slightest provocation while stalagmites rose up to meet them, creating a jagged landscape that would have been enjoyable in other circumstances. I knew given the fact that the ACEs had grouped up and created a psychic barrier above our heads that they would fall, and it was surprising they weren't already due to the tremors. Maylene and I flinched when a spire of stone shattered against it, though the ACEs barely reacted.

The transition between layers was when the mountain was at its most agitated. A tremor nearly brought me to my knees, and I knew the impact would have bled me had I not been wearing so much protective gear. The shaking was making it difficult to even walk, and I had to recall all of my Pokemon so they wouldn't get lost in the crossing. My ears were full of pressure, making it hard to hear what anyone was saying. Eventually, the steepness grew to such levels that we needed to crawl up, but soon enough—

The second layer was so radically different than the first it might as well have been another world. When I released Cass and Honey again, the electric type let the worry slip away from his face and gasped, and the electricity around him wavered. Lights turned off around me, and my own followed suit.

We wouldn't need lighting anymore, here.

Gone were the narrow passages and tunnels. Instead, the second floor of Mount Coronet was one huge cavern that stretched as far as the eye could see, as did glowing lakes and flowing rivers whose light stretched so far we could see the ceiling. The sound of rumbling was still present here, but it was softer and masked by the constant sound of running water and dripping liquid. The algae-covered waters shone a mix of turquoise and cerulean, and their light danced in the skies like an aurora borealis. The air was thick with moisture in a way that stuck to your throat, and it carried with it the scent of damp earth that reminded me of the Safari Zone. There was even wind here that reinforced the waves caused by the tremors, along with moss and small shrubs growing alongside the water. There were grass types here— Paras, Oddish, or Shroomish that all glowed slightly in the gloom. Part of me wondered how the hell Paras had even gotten here, given that they were an invasive species supposed to be contained to Eterna and its surroundings, but life always found a way. They were colored grey instead of the usual vibrant orange.

When we'd first fallen down the mountain due to that fissure months ago, I'd seen that the layers of the mountain were different, but to see such variation in biomes had me reconsider the variety of life I'd come to expect from this place. The upper and lower layers of the mountain were not accessible to the usual trainer, and most of what we heard of Mount Coronet was the drab, rock tunnels that stretched endlessly.

Not… this. This was beautiful.

I squinted and my face tightened before I rereleased Sunshine. It was cold, now, not enough for it to be felt through my clothes, but enough for my unprotected face to feel uncomfortable.

"It's colder than it should be," Ariel muttered. "Do you think that—"

"The mountain always has some amount of variance," Maxwell interrupted. His Honchkrow cawed at her like she was stupid. "But if it is what you think, then there isn't much we'll be able to do about it. They already planned for it."

"It's Wednesday," an ACE who was shorter than me said. "Stranger things have happened before."

Maylene and I looked at each other, then at our Pokemon, but Maxwell quickly shut us up and explained. "There's a certain Pokemon that the League keeps sealed here," he said as we began to circumvent the lake closest to us. "It's the reason the inside of the mountain is always this cold, even at low altitudes. Let's proceed with the headcount."

What followed was what had taken place every twenty minutes or so. Confirming that everyone had made it, or who had been lost to a crossing. These losses were nearly seamless and impossible to track, even for our psychics because of how fucked up Coronet was, but at least it gave me an opportunity to rest.

"We lost Nancy and Sigurd," Maxwell sighed. "We keep going."

For a while, we kept walking, guided by the same device that had gotten us to the second layer. Minutes stretched into nearly an hour, where we finally stopped and I allowed myself to rest, my breaths ragged and my lungs feeling like they were on fire. We were, admittedly, taking a break only because we'd reached a barrier preventing us from going any further.

The water itself.

Up until now, we'd gone around the massive bodies of water, but this one was impossible to cross. The walls around it were impossibly smooth and covered in moss that rows upon rows of Pyukumuku fed on, so we'd have to fly or swim through. Teleporting was not something any of us were willing to bet on without Lucian's Alakazam here to help, and he was too busy coordinating everything. It wasn't just us, climbing the mountain. It was hundreds, thousands of people in small groups that needed all the help they could get.

It did, however, signify a loss of faith in us. We had failed twice, and the League always had other prospects. We were useful, of course, but we weren't the sole group they were relying on.

"Shit…" Maxwell dropped his bag on the ground with a groan and clicked his tongue. "Arceus fucking damn it, of course it had to put us here."

Maylene's eyebrows creased, as did her Lucario's. "I don't understand," she said. "Yeah, maybe swimming is dangerous, 'cause Grace told me about all kinds of Pokemon swimming in the lake—"

"They won't attack," I interrupted. "Not now. Not when their home is crying. They stand united."

The Gym Leader blinked. "Crying… sure. Either way, it shouldn't be an issue, no?"

Maxwell ignored her, and he rummaged through his bag while the other ACEs stood in an eerie silence. It annoyed me, that even in these final hours, they weren't communicating properly.

"Guys?!" Maylene threw her hands up in frustration, hissing in a half-whisper. "A little help?!"

"We entered with fifteen ACEs," Maxwell said. "We only have eleven remaining. Things like this— crossing an enormous lake, not only is that a variance that leaves us open to being separated, it also opens us up to being attacked. Such a large group in the sky, in such a well-lit cave? And if we get attacked, we have to scatter. Not enough psychics who can fly fast enough to keep us all covered." He pulled a tiny chip out of his bag and just handed it to me. "Keep this on you. If you get lost, we might be able to find you back, but it'll be unreliable. Every movement is unreliable without you as an anchor. You'll be flying with me and Honchkrow, by the way. Might be a tight fit. Recall your Pokemon."

"Wait, what about me?" Maylene asked. "I thought the entire reason I was here was to protect her from Dusknoir."

"You won't fit. The rest of you will follow behind us as closely as you can, as I said. This is going to be a shitshow, I can already tell you."

"Fine," Maylene said. Then, she turned to me and slid my backpack off her shoulder. "Guess you're carrying your bag for the time being."

"Get ready to cross. Maylene, you're on Nini. That's Ariel's Dragonite."

Cecilia was alone.

She hadn't known how or when exactly it had happened, but her ACEs had bled away one by one until she'd been the only one left. Part of her had wished for them to go away, and mysteriously, they all did.

Gone. Just like she had willed it.

Honestly, it was a miracle they'd lasted this long with her, given that their best-case scenario was just bringing her up to the second layer— maybe the third, if they were lucky— but perhaps their proximity to her helped some. They weren't dead, the mountain had just brought them— or maybe her elsewhere, it was difficult to tell. The changes were far more irregular than they'd once been, without a pattern or timing to be found. She'd been told that would be highly likely if they kept moving instead of still, given that the mountain did not recognize them as one of its spawns and that the Lake Guardians could influence its behavior. That meant that while Team Galactic would most likely be left alone, they'd lag behind and fumble in the dark.

Not that it was very dark, at the moment. This place was alight, not thanks to crystals in the ceiling like her first tumble through Coronet, but thanks to light in the water. Fluorescent algae grew in such quantities there that the entire cavern was lit up. She found her steps having grown steadier, once she'd been alone. Moving faster, with less interference from the mountain. Slowking walked next to her, forming an invisible, solid path above the rugged part of the cave she'd reached. While he was usually a chatterbox, he was deafeningly silent, not bothering to comment on the sights of the cave or even asking if she was okay.

He knew the answer already. He held his hands behind his back and held his chin high, but also focused on keeping the path steady. Unlike their time in the Safari Zone, this one was smooth and wide enough for her to sleep on, if she wanted. Sometimes, she would point him in a direction her gut was telling her to go to. A magnetic pull that had her thinking that this was the way to the third floor. It was, however, highly unreliable and often had her switching directions at random.

They passed over a stretch of stone without any vegetation, where a Nosepass seemed stuck underfoot. It was spinning in place, its arms flinging erratically as if it didn't remember how to even move.

It might not understand where north is anymore, Slowking brushed against her mind. He must have noticed she'd been intrigued. They use magnetic fields to orient themselves, but…

"I see," she simply said. "So every Nosepass is behaving like this?"

That and their evolution, I presume.

There was a pang of sadness, but Cecilia steeled herself. This would all be over soon, one way or another.

"Let's head further up and get a good vantage point," Cecilia decided. "This place is lit up, and we should make use of it."

Very well, the psychic answered.

Her knees buckled when the platform they stood on rose high into the sky, and it took everything she had not to get on all fours and cling to the barrier. She wasn't one to fear heights, but when you stood so high on an invisible platform, instinct took over and fear gripped your mind. Her hand, which had subconsciously gone to Talonflame's Pokeball anyway, released the fire type so she could use her superior eyesight to scout. From up here, even Cecilia could see the constantly shifting mountain. Small sections, disappearing and reappearing, replaced with other sections that somehow fit. It was incredible to see it from up here.

"See if you can spot anything. Either grunts or a path to the third layer. Stand next to me, or we might be separated, as we discussed."

Cecilia still wasn't sure if the mountain considered her and the other shards as fully one of theirs, especially since hers was a split gift, or if she'd just gotten particularly lucky, and either way, Talonflame wasn't one, so who knew if she'd be allowed to travel freely.

Talonflame nodded, though she seemed irritated at the fact that Cecilia felt the need to instruct her as such, as if she knew already.

"I'm just taking precautions, darling. Go ahead."

It did not take long for her to spot something.

People from Team Galactic.

Cecilia had her observe for a good while, and their area of the cavern never seemed to shift places. The zones around them were plenty. Sometimes, for example, they were obscured by a massive wall or pillars of stone, or a lake appeared before them, or a fault, but the ground they were standing on was solid no matter how long they waited. She was eager to see if there was an admin among the group, but she knew better than to rush in unprepared.

She stayed high up in the sky, traveling high up to stay hidden from view. A competent psychic— no, that was doing Slowking a disservice, now. He was among the top percentile of psychic types, these days, only below the strongest of trainers like Gym Leaders or Conference goers— but an elite, or otherwise specialized psychic might be able to camouflage by shifting the air around itself.

Right now, though, they could only hope none of the grunts had any Pokemon with vision as excellent as Talonflame, or that they would look up extensively. Slowking took a route that was not as well-lit until an occasion showed itself. Another wall, this time smaller (that didn't mean much in the context of Mount Coronet, since it was still tall enough to dwarf the tallest of skyscrapers in Jubilife), appeared in front of the grunts, allowing her a direct route toward the group.

When it disappeared, she was right above them.

They were one, two, five, ten grunts holding a choke point, their voices masked by the sound of a massive waterfall giving off green light and feeding the lake below with countless algae. In normal circumstances, small water and bug types would feed on the plants, keeping them from growing in quantities too large, and predators would then feed on those Pokemon. She had seen, for example, how most Pokemon avoided eating Pyukumuku at all costs due to how they kept the waters pure.

It was a fascinating ecosystem.

She returned her focus to the grunts. Cecilia supposed 'choke point' was a rather useless denomination, with how fast everything inside the mountain was moving. Their uniforms were unmistakeable, the emptiness in their eyes still true. Still high above ground, Cecilia gestured to Slowking, and his path turned into a bubble holding both her and himself in the air, tightly encased to shield herself from attacks.

Then, she fell upon them like a hammer.

Her Pokemon hissed out of their balls one by one.

First, Golurk to terrify and stun them. The automaton was a mass of eerie clay that dwarfed all they had at their disposal. He roared to life with a song that rippled through the cave-like death and misery, and she only caught the first note before Slowking cut them off from the outside world. This was not Lehmhart's full potential, not yet, because then the song would break through Slowking's barrier and get her killed. Already, spirits were hounding at the gates and trying to break through. The stone below the grunts and their Pokemon turned to scorching mud. Houndoom, Machoke, Ursaring, Purugly and more fell into the sands, sinking into it like it was water, but a Nidoqueen slammed a fist under her and the sands stopped shifting. The song, though, the song kept hammering at them. Two grunts had already dropped to the ground, convulsing and foaming at the mouth while the rest weren't in any state to organize.

And so, it fell onto their Pokemon, but they were weak.

Second, Hydreigon and Talonflame to conquer them. The beast's three heads roared as one, and pure power struck at the grunts. Dark Pulse to smash through a hasty barrier erected by a Bronzong, then Dragon Pulse and Flamethrower to cook them alive. Talonflame flapped her wings once, twice, thrice, and a massive gust of fiery wind formed around the grunts and slowly but surely squeezed the life out of them. The shifting mound underfoot turned to glass in a one-hundred-foot radius. The song affected them as well, but they had long trained under its heavy strain.

Then, it ended.

Almost all of them were down, yet they retaliated. Flamethrowers burned the barrier at its edges, stones fell from the sky, sharpened and quick enough to be unseen to the naked eye. A cage of lightning from a Luxray constricted around Slowking's impenetrable bubble before a punch from Lehmhart crushed it to a bloodied pulp.

None broke through.

Third, Toxicroak and Scizor to clean them up. Oh, all of the trainers were surely dead, by now, but Pokemon were more resilient than that. Cecilia could barely keep up with the speed of her own Pokemon, but she could see the shape of the fight. She could see how they fell before her might, and how none of them, covered by burns, stabbed by shards of glass, and still recovering from a song borne of death, could stand up to her. Toxicroak coated her claw in venom potent enough to melt through steel. A single scrape from her was enough to bring the weakened Pokemon down. Scizor's hands snapped around the necks of Pokemon barely conscious, finishing them off with a quick Flash Cannon.

Cecilia just watched from far above.

She watched the death, the screams, the cries for help, and her face never changed. She couldn't even hear them, with how Slowking was filtering sound away from their bubble. It was a very impersonal way to kill. There was no satisfaction to it, but the fact that they would never threaten who she loved again meant that there was a certain peace of mind to it, at the very least.

Good, she simply thought. Though these must be the weakest they have, given they were left in the second floor. Competent enough to stand against a League Trainer, but not against an ACE, let alone me.

The plan was, then, to obviously never even have to confront the ACEs, which is why their stalling tactics were working so well.

Slowking led her down to the destruction she'd wrought, and Lehmhart gently placed her on the ground as if she was made of porcelain. Pokemon and grunts were burned to a crisp or blown apart, and the smell was… far too familiar for comfort. It was the smell of cooked meat.

She wrinkled her nose. "Maybe we went a little too ham."

Scizor snorted, a metallic, reverberating trill that she loved. Talonflame landed next to her, her feathers warm even against her suit, and she cawed at Scizor in that condescending, 'I know everything' tone.

"That was impressive, Cece."

From behind a rock crawled Maeve, accompanied only by her Infernape and Starmie.

Cecilia hummed. "So you made it up here."

Maeve lifted up a circular device— a lidar, they had called it. "Yes. I stole it. You have a survivor, by the way." She pointed to her left with a thumb.

"Keep your wits about you," she warned Slowking. "But yes, we want a survivor… ah."

Almost as if on cue, she noticed a grunt writhe against the ground. A man… no, just a particular tall and burly woman with short, dark hair had survived her onslaught, with a Wobbuffet barely standing beside her. The psychic type swayed from side to side like a leaf in the wind, barely conscious and its body singed at the edges. The woman's skin was marked by the cruel touch of fire. Burned flesh etched in hues of crimson, purple and black, in the worst spots like her arms and stomach, which she could see through a massive tear in her uniform. It was a wonder she was still moving.

Wobbuffet warbled angrily at Cecilia, as if to threaten her. She felt a mental assault coming, but Slowking had shielded her mind before she'd even stepped foot in Coronet, and the attack simply bounced off like a child had thrown a pebble against a wall of steel.

Scizor's eye twitched at the affront, and he was faster than Zolst to retaliate. Before Cecilia could even react to the attempted attack, he raised a claw and blasted Wobbuffet with a green energy beam that bore with it the deafening pain of a thousand moments, a thousand ideas, a thousand projects all at once. It was perfect, to break a psychic's mind, and even Slowking struggled to stand next to the attack. The sheer scale of what bugs brought to the table would overwhelm the largest of predators, and so the half-dead Wobbuffet stood no chance. It slumped over, unconscious, and before Hydreigon could tear into its flesh with three Crunches at once, Cecilia whistled.

He stopped immediately.

"You," Cecilia called out. She walked a few paces until she was close enough to look the woman in the eyes. She did not crawl away further than she already had, though her breathing quickened. She sat against a wall of smooth, pale stone. "Are you well enough to speak?"

Maeve observed the entire situation with a curious, and somewhat amused eye.

"If you're going to kill me, do it," she spat, though the sound of the waterfall and tremors obscured her yelling. "I won't ever speak! I'll be rewarded for my service in the new world!"

Talonflame looked at Slowking, then at Cecilia, like she was listening to a crazy person speak, and to her credit, she was.

Cecilia internally sighed. "Let's not be hasty, now. What's your name?"

"We won't be the only ones. Even if you kill all of us, you stand no chance. This is your last day, puppet."

"You were in quite the large group, which means that the mountain recognizes you." Cecilia paced in front of her with her hands behind her back, her steps almost a little too even. "While I seem to be able to walk about without being snagged away, I could use a little bit of help getting to the third layer—"


"—and since you were all here, I assume it's rather close. If you do, I will personally make sure you survive the coming day and go to prison instead of being executed by the state," she lied.

Cecilia waited, looming over her like a hawk, though she already knew the answer. The Galactic member spat a bloody glob of phlegm and saliva on her boot.

That would have been too easy.

"But you do know how to get there, correct?" Cecilia asked.

The woman smirked in a way that told her the answer was yes.

Well, then.

Her legs weren't that burned, and she didn't look like she was going to die any time soon. Better press the trigger now and get there then hold onto it forever and die because of it, and odds were, she was going to be in here for more than twenty-four hours regardless.

"Be a doll and help us reach the summit to the best of your ability, will you?"

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Denzel had pictured getting into the mountain, roaming its caverns to hunt Team Galactic and fight them to help as much as possible, but instead, all he'd gotten was the awful roar of a dying mountain, alone. Unlike the shards, Denzel, Pauline and Emilia weren't privy to their own bodyguards, which was fine, but since being in a group would get Coronet's attention, it meant that the most efficient way of traveling within its bowels was in tiny groups, or on his own like he currently was.

No, he shook his head. Not alone, never alone. Froslass hung by his side, her eyes glowing in the dark, and Sylveon flanked him with his ribbons wrapped around his wrist so that his entire forearm was covered. He doesn't want to lose me, he internally said, but I'm not sure contact would even matter. Denzel didn't get a super special suit and many supplies, but he'd been given enough to travel here. A flashlight, along with another light on his helmet, and a thick winter coat that bore the League's insignia. Had he been in a better mood, pride no doubt would have swelled within him. Denzel had never wanted to become a soldier, but he did grow up admiring the League, and most importantly, he wanted to help his friends more than anything.

Yet he had not come across a single member of Team Galactic yet. Maybe it was foolish, but Denzel thought he'd be fighting the moment he stepped foot in the mountain, yet Team Galactic only had a few hundred people left. It made sense, that they just wouldn't throw them like fodder on the first floor.

It was still underwhelming, though. Justin…

Fuck. He blinked away the tears, or tried to, but they started falling anyway. Again.

Sylveon's grip tightened when he felt Denzel's anguish, and Froslass allowed him to grow a little warmer until he told her not to push herself. They'd taken inspiration from Cynthia's Glaceon, but she could snatch away the cold, now, leaving only heat. She wasn't great at it yet, though, and so he would rather shiver and be uncomfortable than spend her precious energy. He sniffled, wiping his eyes and nose with his sleeve, but it was not until ten minutes later that he stopped amidst a widened corridor and released his Lopunny.

Every fifteen minutes, he would go through this. Stop at a spot, release Lopunny, and see if she could hear anything. It was the only way he had, to properly navigate this place. Arceus forbid the mountain had been this agitated when they'd rescued Cecilia, because they never would have reached her. The normal type stood on her tiptoes, and her ears sprung up.

"So?" Denzel tapped a foot in anticipation. "Anything?"

Lopunny groaned in annoyance, and he took it as a sign to shut up. It was in times like these, when it was just him and his thoughts, that the scar on his back began to throb and ache.

Another few seconds and her eyes widened.

She had something.

How incredible was it, that she could filter through the mountain's quakes and the countless Pokemon panicking? Froslass praised her with a grin while Sylveon affectionately patted her on the back with a ribbon. A few months ago, she would have gone crazy for it, but they had grown past it, now.

"Sylvi, I'm recalling you," Denzel said. The fairy type's hold tightened and he let his frustration show, but he didn't channel any of it into him through his ribbons, nor did he protest. He knew that moving around too much with more than three people would risk them being separated. "Thank you for understanding."

Sylveon disappeared in a flash of crimson, and Denzel started running.

He was not in as good of a shape as Chase was, and the load of the equipment and supplies he carried in his usual backpack was heavier than usual, but he pushed himself to run as fast as he could so Lopunny would be able to track the sound of whoever's voice this was— it was apparently difficult to tell. The ground here was rugged and uneven, and it was difficult to run, especially when he only had two beams of light to reveal the way forward. He nearly bit off his tongue when his right foot hit the ground lower than expected, and pain shot up his ankle, yet he kept running.

And it was all worth it.

Because at the base of an incline steep enough to be a 120-degree angle up, he found a friend.

It was Chase, his Lucario and Abomasnow.

"Holy shit— holy shit! Chase!" Denzel carefully stepped through the cave, its path slightly inclined to the right. Sometimes, he felt as if the tunnels themselves were spinning slowly. "Did you lose your ACEs?"

Chase offered his arm, and Denzel clasped it tight. "We made the decision pretty early that being in such a large group wasn't going to cut it, even for the first floor, because we wanted to prioritize speed over all else," he explained slowly. Part of Denzel wanted to recall one of his Pokemon, but they were safe since they were unmoving. "I was with Nevaeh and Nakai— you don't know them— but we got separated going up." He nudged his chin up at the incline. "That's where the mountain is at its most unstable. Now I was waiting to see if she got back here or not, but I was wondering if I should go up anyway. It could give them a better chance of finding me, I dunno."

Denzel squinted up at the incline and saw nothing but sharpness and darkness. A maw wanting to swallow the unsuspecting traveler whole and to keep them trapped here forever.

He had studied Coronet, back when they'd first reached Eterna City (which felt like an eternity ago) but the information available online was restrained to the first. When they'd made it back to Snowpoint, he had looked up to see if he could find any information on those caverns full of crystals, but he'd found nothing.

This place. It was designed to keep you away from Spear Pillar, and no one would ever come to save you past the first floor.

"Nevaeh has a Gallade, and Nakai has that tracker thing, so they have all the tools, but it might take too long. She told me not to wait, if the time came. That she believed in me." There was a slight smile on his face, gone as fast as it appeared. "Haven't done a damn thing to deserve that faith, but I'll take it."

Denzel's eyes widened, and his feet remained planted firmly against the stone. For an ACE to talk like this? He'd never heard of anything like it or thought it was even possible. To him, ACEs were trainers who had killed everything that made them them, so they could be a machine of the state with few feelings. It was cruel and something he opposed now that he'd actually seen how they worked.

"They were never trained for this… bodyguard type of work, you know? They're the tip of the spear, if you want to use Grace-like analogies, and they had to adapt on the fly this entire year. Anyway, any news on Emi and Pauline? I kind of hoped I'd see them with you."

Denzel sighed, and Lopunny patted his back with an ear. "We barely made it ten minutes together, you know how it is." He tried not to pay attention to the pit in his stomach. This was the first floor. They were fine, and they'd trained for this anyway. "So, what's next?"

Chase grinned. "Well, Williams, why don't you come and hang out with me for a bit. I have it on good authority that the best place to be to actually get anywhere is around a shard, and I was given this shitty ass job."

"Won't we get separated while crossing up?" Denzel worryingly asked.

"Maybe. Maybe not. Are you going to be lame about it, or are you going to help us save the Arceus damned world?"

Denzel clenched and unclenched a fist, doubt having evaporated from his bones and psyche. This almost felt invigorating, to want to have Chase's back. He clapped his friend on the shoulder and returned his smile.

"Let's do it."

Chase snorted. "Well, let's climb this fucking hill, then."

Mira had tried to keep all of her ACEs together, she really had, but they'd started disappearing one by one the moment they'd stepped foot inside Coronet, yet Carlos still remained with her. Part of her theorized it was because they'd bonded the most and she didn't care for the others, but there was no way to confirm or deny that. As a precautionary measure, all of her Pokemon were in their balls, even her Porygon 2, while Carlos only had his Mismagius out. As a massive group, they'd gone around in circles, never finding the way up despite using lidars, but now that they were on their own?

It only took another thirty minutes for them to get to one of the tunnels leading to the second layer. She thought of it like a filter of some kind, meant to sift through large groups so their deaths would be more likely or they abandoned their goal of reaching Spear Pillar.

Emilia and Pauline were standing there, huddled together as close as they could get out of fear of being separated. The only Pokemon they had with them was Metang. Talk about efficiency, Mira thought to herself as relief flooded her veins.

"Emi! Pauline!" Mira wanted to wrap them both into a hug, and that surprised her. It felt like a lifetime since she'd last seen them despite that it hadn't even been a day. Coronet had a way of making you feel so oppressed, and it was worse now that it was literally throwing a tantrum. "I can't believe— how did you two find the way to the second floor?"

She didn't bother asking where Denzel was. It was obvious they'd been split up—

Mira was surprised to have Pauline hug her, out of all people. They… well, they didn't dislike each other, but there had been so much tension about keeping information away from them that she just hadn't expected this much affection. She allowed herself to sink into the hug for a moment, but then it was time to get to business.

"We got separated pretty early," Emilia explained as she recalled her Metang. Since they weren't moving, they were rather safe, but better take precautions than be caught off-guard. "I don't know how, one second he was behind us, and the next, he was alone."

"We managed to get one of those trackers that tell you where the closest 'staircase' is from a League Trainer we met on the way." Pauline lifted her hand and showed the circular device. Its screen was dim, compared to all the flashlights. "I got no idea how it works."

"It's a custom-made lidar. It has a constant 3D mapping function and measures the subtle changes in pressure close to the inclines," Mira explained. "Notice how your ears hurt a little bit?"

"Right. Like I'm on an airplane," Emilia said.

"These tunnels induce a rapid change in pressure," Mira said. "It stabilizes when you get to the other side, though."

Pauline crossed her arms. "Maybe they should have said that in the debrief."

"You don't have to know how it works, just that it does," Carlos gruffed. "How many Pokemon did you have out when you got separated?"

"Just my Metang, his Froslass and Pauline's Vigoroth," Emilia said with a wince. "As you can see, we're traveling lighter, now."

"We underestimated how bad things would get," Pauline muttered through clenched teeth. She was clearly angry at herself, frustrated for having fucked up. "But whatever, what's done is done. Should we…" she looked up at the steep incline. "Should we try?"

"I don't see why not. If we go one by one, we won't find each other again either way," Carlos said. "Get your Metang back out. It and Mismagius will keep us protected. Let's head up."

And so, they did. A few rocks fell on top of them, shattering atop the small, yet focused barrier, but the worst of it was the horrible headache Mira was suffering through. She shirked the pain away to another her and felt herself relax, for a moment, but the climb seemed endless. She had no idea if they were moving in place, or if Coronet was screwing them them. Every few seconds, she would look around and breathe a sigh of relief at the fact that everyone was still there. Part of her wondered if the passing of time was consistent within the mountain, even if it'd be slower than out of it, but before she could think too hard about that, they reached paradise.

It really was, compared to the first layer. There was vegetation, running water and actual light. Her good hand slid to the side of her helmet, and she turned off her headlight while she took in the sight of everything. They were right next to an enormous river that snaked across the cavern, and a group of Seedot hung atop a small tree at its side, shivering in fear with their eyes closed.

Thankfully, they'd all made it as a group, so Carlos' protection would last a while longer yet.

But Legendaries, was it cold. Her face was numb, and she almost considered putting on her breathing mask already, just so the cold air wouldn't brush against it, and without Charizard or Braixen, they had no way of warming up. Still, Mira would take the cold over the dark every day of the week—

"Wait!" Carlos held out a hand before they could even start moving. "Look."

There was a body, washed up at the shore of the river, surrounded by six grunts they could see. Carlos released a female Jellicent and ordered her to check the water, which she did with a single look. The body itself wasn't too badly mangled. It was pale, and its arm was bent the wrong way, but it looked like he'd either been killed by internal trauma of some kind of a ghostly attack.

Maybe Dusknoir…

"It's clear," Carlos sighed. He approached the dead body and hummed, turning it over like it was… a thing, rather than a dead human, and the fact that Mira could only see the burned half of his face while he did so didn't help. "That's one of Chase's," he continued. "He's got a heart carved on his forehead."

Pauline exhaled. "Shit."

"Nakai wouldn't have died to some shitty grunts," Carlos said. "This," he tapped on the man's forehead, "this is something Mars would do."

"That means she might be on this floor." Mira's foot bounced against the soft moss. "They're committing early."

Carlos continued rummaging through his deceased comrade's body and stole some Full Restores along with some other supplies, but it was their lidar that caught his attention.

"There's a signal jumping around some," Carlos said. "Not as much as you'd expect, though."

Emilia allowed herself to smile, and she no doubt felt a flicker of hope. "Do you think Chase has his tracker—"

"It's possibly a trap," Carlos interrupted. Still, he dropped the device in Mira's hands and turned toward the dead body. "We should continue as is. Chase could be dead and his tracker could be taken, or he could be bait, too. Don't bite."

Mira frowned. "If he's bait, then—"

"Listen to me," Carlos hissed. He grabbed her shoulders and squeezed. "You're going to get yourself killed—"

"I don't care! There's no point in all of this if we don't try to fucking help each other, Carlos. If you can't understand that, then you can fuck off—"


He disappeared. One second he was there, and the next he was not, like a psychic had kidnapped him with Teleport.

"No… no, no, no, no!" she shrieked. "I can't get anything right! Bring him back, you fucking mountain!"

Someone squeezed her shoulder, and she shoved her anguish to her other self again. The backlash when she'd unite again would be immense, but she couldn't afford to let emotions rule her now. Her back straightened, and she allowed herself a few calm breaths.

"It's not your fault," Emi said. "And he's still alive, just alone."

Mira shook her head. "It is my fault, but that's okay. There's a silver lining to all of this."

The way she'd instantly recovered must have looked strange, because both Pauline and Emi frowned at her.

"We're going to follow that tracker," Emi guessed. "I agree."

"So do I," Pauline said. "Let's get a move on."

The crossing went wrong for us almost immediately.

Contrary to expectations, it was not because of Team Galactic hitting us while we were vulnerable. The plan had been to fly low enough not to be seen, but high enough not to be jumped by a water type despite my assurances that none of them would attack. They were, as it stood, done listening to me, and planning according to their own doctrine: Pokemon in Mount Coronet were aggressive due to their low human contact, and therefore every precaution had to be taken not to be attacked.


The problem had come when a Gyarados reared her head out of the water.

Maxwell instantly barked out an order for his ACEs to scatter, but more importantly, he ordered them to attack.

ACEs were creatures of war. They were born to fight, fight, and fight without rest. Diplomacy had been hardwired out of their minds from early on in their training, and they solved all of their problems by disabling or killing foes.

They were the tip of the spear. A group who did not believe that the pen could be mightier than the sword.

I'd seen the pain in Gyarados' eye, the lack of agency within her, the way her face twisted in something that looked like rage, but was actually loss. The fact that she had grown so large meant that she would never be able to escape this place no matter how much Coronet cried and asked her to leave, if she wanted to live. My words and warnings fell on deaf ears. They had to, when I'd gotten ACEs in so much trouble and shown them so much death this past year. Chase's ACEs trusted him, Mira had Carlos, who was friendly with her, and Cecilia did not have any kind of relationship with hers, which was actually better than what I had.

What did I have?

Maxwell did not resent me for getting his Liepard and Lou killed, or losing his hand, for that would go against all his job had trained him to be, but he did not trust my decision-making either. They had spent the last few hours stuck in a cold, damp mountain whose cries did nothing but herald the end of everything they had ever known, and they had been forced to put all of their faith into a group of teenagers who knew nothing of the world.

And so,

Attacks crashed into Gyarados' hide, and the already frightened serpent retaliated.

And countless water types from deep below her lake attacked as one, combining their efforts into countless beams of super pressurized water that foamed at its edges. It wasn't enough, of course it wasn't enough, but it did catch all of the ACEs off-guard, and that meant that everything had gone to shit. Gyarados fell, as did many others, but it didn't matter. We had struck at Coronet's children. We had become the aggressors, and we had no Lake Guardians on our side to smooth things over. For that, we would be punished.

I didn't remember how exactly I fell to the sea below, only the collapse of stone like rain and lit like stars, and then me impacting the water at such high speed made me feel like I'd been run over by a car, but at least that snapped me back awake. The water here was so cold that I felt the temperature spread through my waterproof clothes despite the fact that I wasn't getting wet. My hands moved around my waist, desperate to find Buddy's Pokeball while I sank due to the heavy load of this uniform and the bag, but moving in this was cumbersome. It was slow, uncomfortable and most of all, I was already tired from having walked for so long.

But I found it. Second one from the left, slightly chipped right above the release button from when I fell down Coronet the first time.

I could not see very well in the algae-covered water, but the light of his eyes was unmistakable. His head swelled and he propelled himself up until his head touched my back, and eventually—

Air filled my lungs once more.

I shivered on top of Buddy's head. Every breath I exhaled was visible in front of me, and my face, my fingers and feet felt numb. The flashing lights, the coughing out of water, the cold, the throbbing pain in my bones, it all combined into a nausea-inducing cocktail of confusion and discomfort. Jellicent managed to reach the shore without any incidents, shielding me from the waves, and I crawled onto the moss, coughing out the last water that had gone into my lungs.

"Shit…" my body shook, and I hugged myself. "This is— this is fucking terrible. I'm like a— magnet for bad— luck."

Jellicent's body rippled in panic, and his tentacle extended, turning to ice. He pressed on Sunshine's Pokeball, and the dragon instantly asked about what the hell had happened while he warmed me up.

"They attacked a wild Pokemon, and like over a hundred of them attacked back." My voice was quivering, still, but a little less. "I'd never seen anything like it— even Bella's fief is nowhere this united." My gloves slipped off my hands, and then my boots. Water had slipped into both. I rubbed my hands together next to Sunshine's shell. "They're united in grief. We're alone, now, I think, which doesn't bode very well."

Buddy anxiously whistled, asking about what we should do, and Sunshine eyed him in surprise. He was usually the one with the plan, who kept us level-headed, but seeing me almost drown had wrecked his nerves.

"First, I dry myself. Then…" I considered my next words carefully. Maxwell had told me that they might be able to find me, but that was a very uncertain might. I knew their presence next to me made things easier. I could feel the mountain, and how it thought I belonged. How it wanted to push me ever upward until I reached the seat of His power. "I think we might be better off looking for a way up, and if we come across someone, then we help them."

Turtonator relaxed at that, though a smidge of unpleasantness passed in Buddy's eyes.

"Not like we can do anything differently anyway," I said. "The ACEs attacked wild Pokemon here because they're trained to be so damn trigger-happy." I let a bit of anger slip in that sentence, which I rescinded soon after. We both shared the blame for what had happened. "This place, it's alive. It's an actual living being that breathes and feels. The caverns and tunnels are its blood vessels and the people who inhabit them are its blood cells. Right now, you could say that anyone who isn't in Team Galactic or us is being considered a virus and it's trying to kick them out."

My fists clenched together, and I touched my face. My sense of touch was slowly coming back, and I could finally move my fingered properly. My hands rummaged through my bag, and I sighed in relief when I saw that water had not gotten in, thank the Legendaries, and Sunshine asked why in the world Coronet would be trying to kick out the ones trying to save it.

"Because it doesn't understand. It functions like… like the Guardians, I think, so it's been tricked. Plus, attacking the wildlife isn't fucking helping," I spat. "Whatever. Standing around is a waste of time. Let me put on my boots back on…"

They were still cold and wet, but I figured that it would be manageable. The gloves, I could keep drying while on the move so long as I kept them next to Turtonator, and he was quite willing to stay out of his Pokeball. I didn't want to risk traveling with too many at once, just in case Coronet tried to strike back at me for being a part of the group that attacked its children, so I decided to travel light. Jellicent, Turtonator and Claydol would do for now, the last of which I released immediately. They did the usual, routine check of asking about everything they could to see if I was injured, but other than feeling winded, cold, and my body aching, I was fine. Still, they grabbed my bag anyway despite the fact that it made me feel so useless.

They wouldn't take no for an answer.

My feet shifted in my shoes, and I nearly slipped on the moss covering the ground. This area in general was far more overgrown than the rest, its vibrant green hues interspersed with delicate tendrils of ivy that snaked their way across the rocky terrain. The ground yielding beneath my feet wasn't what I expected. It was like walking on a pillow, and the shaking didn't help.

"Let's go."

I was so close to Sunshine that I could feel the heat sliding off his scales and down his body. Cass was to my right with my bag suspended in the air, and they were ready to put a barrier around me at a moment's notice. Buddy, meanwhile, had sneaked a part of himself in the water to stand guard, but otherwise was a ways up. I'd told him it was unnecessary to expect more attacks from wild Pokemon, but he too, would not take no for an answer, and so we set off in no particular direction. I wanted to circumvent the lake to see if anyone had, by chance, washed up to shore like I had. Using my empathy to navigate had been an idea, but an awful one. This was like what I'd felt in the library, but even worse—

I bit the inside of my lip until it bled. Visions of a corpse turned to ashes flashed across my mind, its hands coiled in on themselves like a dying bug. I gripped at my heart, which hurt, hurt, hurt until I felt Sunshine's warm arm on my shoulder, Jellicent's cold whispers against my neck and ears, and Cass' attempt to cheer me up with a small hymn.

All of them tried, they really did, but they could only assuage the imbalance and the pain.

Cecilia will make things right. She will.

"Is it weird that I feel more comfortable alone?" I asked after a few minutes. "I don't want to sound ungrateful, but there was stress weighing me down when I was with everyone else."

Turtonator shrugged, saying that we were better off on our own even in these circumstances.

Actually, our odds of survival have gone down drastically, Cass deadpanned. I'm still running the calculations, but

The fire type grunted that he wasn't going to listen anyway, but Buddy whispered that he was quite interested in that number.

"I don't know, it's like— something about it being right this way," I muttered. We passed by a colony of Binacle, all growing on one enormous moss-covered boulder twenty feet tall next to the water. They all retreated into the rock as soon as we got close. "We don't mean any harm!" I yelled. "Sorry, and good luck!" There were goosebumps across my skin as a frigid wind swept through the cavern, breaking through Sunshine's heat. "Anyway, I'm not going to pretend like we can solve this any better than the ACEs could, but it's not like Coronet wasn't giving us a hard time advancing."

Sunshine nodded, admitting that they were quite good at killing.

"They are, but it won't matter if they can't reach the targets they need to." Cass lifted me up a small cliffside taller than I was, and I had to recall and release Sunshine up there as well. "As I was saying, even if they were on perfect behavior, I doubt that they'd even be allowed at the summit."

Jellicent's eyes dimmed, and he asked about Cynthia.

"I don't know, she could be anywhere," I answered. "But she is Champion for a reason, and she's been to this place more than anyone else."

Had she been to Spear Pillar before? If not her, then who? Sure, it might have been when the world wasn't literally ending, and Coronet had been more manageable, but maybe she had made it up many layers already. It was difficult to imagine so many people— thousands trying to ascend this mountain for a single goal. Gym Leaders, Elite Four Members, Team Galactic, League Trainers, us… it was like a story displaying before my eyes. The world runs on stories, Bellatrix had told me, once, and I'd always believed her, but I had never truly felt it until now.

It was not for another twenty minutes, that we found something interesting.

It was not the path to the third layer, nor was it a group of Galactic grunts, an ACE Trainer or even Maylene— and to be honest, I was surprised at how much I worried for her, given that we weren't even friends or close at all. That would be impossible until I fully paid for what I'd done to her, and I wasn't even close to done. In fact, she was the one paying again.

But no.

It was something else entirely.

It began with a warning from Cass, and then the scent of rotting vegetation. A suffocating blanket that seemed to smother the very life from the air.

And then I saw her, or what remained of her, emerging from behind a wall covered in dying plants. A massive Parasect. Her usual vibrant colors had faded to a sickly gray, its carapace cracked and weathered with age. Fungi sprouted from her decaying flesh, their twisted tendrils writhing like a grotesque crown upon her head. It was then, that I realized I had not been walking on moss for the past… minute or so, but fungus. Moving, living fungus that had infected this same Paras and sapped her of her life upon her evolution. A barrier I hadn't realized was already there gleamed in front of me as Cass' eyes shone with an even brighter pink, Sunshine stepped in between us with blue flames building up within his snout, and Buddy's shades were already beginning to emerge, forcing their way through the tiny cracks of the world with a keen.

"Wait!" I yelled.

I was not about to repeat the same mistake my ACEs had.

The Parasect's eyes gleamed with a dull, vacant light, devoid of emotion or intelligence, yet I knew that to be untrue. Despite the fungus having progressed so far that it was visible within the bug type's eyes, the organism as a whole was a conscious thing and far more intelligent than I'd ever given Parasect credit for before this very moment. The way their puppet's claws retracted and repeatedly snapped, or her mushroom, which looked more like a hardened carapace, swelled to twice its size with no doubt more fungus, ready to explode at a moment's notice…

There was caution behind Parasect's movements. Caution and fear, but like everyone else, she was not attacking us.

And there was power behind her. The power of a story that had not quite reached the ones domain-holders like Bella had, but similar to Carnivine, or stronger. In a straight fight, we might win, but the terrain was to her advantage, so we would be bloodied and there was just no point to it, especially since there was an army of Paras lurking in the shadows behind her and she clearly needed help with something.

She would not have sought us out otherwise.

The fact that Cass wasn't warning me about those Paras meant that something was screwing with their senses, too. They'd been telling me about anything that got too close on our way here.

My head dipped and my eyes closed in respect, though half of it was faked. It was hard to reconcile with the prejudices I'd held against Parasect as a species. The original Paras was dead, yes, but what remained was far more complex than I'd ever realized. A hive mind of some sort, but it wasn't just Parasect. It was that, and more. Everything we were standing on, that which covered the walls and crawled up to the ceiling, writhing as one collective.

When I opened my eyes, I saw Parasect slightly less wary. I had no idea if she…

No, not she anymore. She was dead.

I had no idea if they knew human body language, since they lived somewhere it was possible to go their entire lives without ever meeting one. Still, it appeared to work at least little bit.

"Well met, Parasect," I said, a hand over my chest. "Me and my family apologize if we've disturbed you in any manner, and we mean you no harm."

Sunshine snorted at that, but I hit him in the arm and he shut up.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but would I be wrong in thinking that you need something?"

First, a silence nearly impossible to judge, even when I'd been given the gift of empathy. Parasect worked on a fundamentally different wavelength than other Pokemon. They were closer to Mimi than the others. Empty eyes observed me, and fungus undulated like snakes, some brushing against the barrier Cass had erected.

"Please refrain from doing that, it is very frightening," the psychic complained.

Still, there was nothing, but after a minute, a thousand voices and one answered me.

Welcome, being of a single mind, and to your offspring as well, except for the one emanating, the scent of ash and sulfur. Their pincers snapped in irritation while Turtonator rolled his eyes, but I was too busy being astonished at the fact that a bug type was talking to me through telepathy. We are Brood-Mother, the progenitor of all Paras dwelling within this cavern's depths.

No. It wasn't telepathy, but something else entirely that I didn't understand. I'd witnessed how bug types could affect the mind, if they were powerful enough. How Wormadam's Bug Buzz had overwhelmed me with a deep uncomfortableness that threatened to overwhelm with its sheer scale. Telepathy was far more impersonal than this. It was the whisper of a thousand voices, each speaking in a different intonation or rhythm, the idea that a whole could emerge from a million different tiny pieces that were nothing on their own.

My brain felt like it had just been observed by countless eyes, for there was no privacy to a bug. Only the whole.

How uncomfortable.

"All of them?" I asked. "Does that mean you were the first?"

Parasect opened their puppet's mouth, and countless tendrils wormed out of her mouth. We recall it vividly, akin to the flickering lights above, when we ascended here as a mere child, on the day our trainer met his end. At the outset, we numbered three, yet I alone endured. This habitat proved, hospitable to our kind.

Yes, I could see how that would happen. This place was damp, had plenty of vegetation to feed on, and had plenty of spaces for a Paras to crawl into and hide…


They had come here as a Paras, meaning that even back then, when their puppet had been able to act with a modicum of independence, the fungus had considered their trainer to be… well, their trainer. It was an odd thought, which had me wonder about how exactly it was, that one would go about raising a Paras, especially when knowing that side of them would be lost.

And their and the Paras' faded colors were probably a way they'd adapted to this new environment through the generations. Not as large of a change as a different form, but enough to camouflage themselves and have better luck against predators here. Unlike the vibrant orange they donned in forests, signaling that they were dangerous to eat, Pokemon in Mount Coronet like rock and steel types had far sturdier stomachs than what Paras as a species were used to.

"I see. I understand you a little bit more, now. Not fully, but more."

The fungus writhed as one, reminding me of Angel's vines. As evident to your eyes, as it is to our senses, our beloved Coronet is withering away. Dying.

"I came here to prevent that." My eyes glanced at the pale fungus to see if I could discern any pattern in its movements, but doing that on the fly was difficult. "I need to reach the summit, or stop Team Galactic from reaching it. Team Galactic are those people in those…" I gestured at myself. "Skintight uniforms."

Ah, those with lifeless gazes, colder than even our gracious host's, yes, we are acquainted with them. Parasect slid toward me, their legs carried by the fungus instead of having to even walk. To my relief, my Pokemon didn't react. We have encountered a handful, though our fair home screams at us to let them through, so we do. You claim the ability to halt Coronet's demise?

I nodded. "I have a part in it, like everyone else. And it's not just Coronet which is at risk, but the world itself."

If Parasect could laugh in contempt, they likely would have, with the sardonic tone they took. What is our sacred Coronet, if not the world itself?

"It's a… throne."

From the pillar, His radiance outshines all, or so the tales recount, Parasect said. None of us, have ever been, but there are stories.

They were not the most widespread, nor did they resonate worldwide, but they certainly were the oldest, and that carried weight.

I looked to my Pokemon, who looked to have no objections to what was going to follow. Finding any other way up would be a foolish endeavor when we had the answer right in front of us.

I moistened my lips. "I have a pact to offer you."

You wish to reach the summit, the bug type swarmed my mind. We might be able to help you, though I will ask for help in return. It is always a matter, of exchange, with you fae, so we would be foolish not to, at least inquire.

"I'll have to see what it is first, but I'm inclined to accept."

Then, follow. Parasect rotated, as if they were being carried by spores, and then they slid across the cave further in. There were still no Paras in sight, even though I could hear them. Bugs were capable of putting the collective before the individual. It will not, be far.

I was reminded of those Beedrill in Eterna Forest, who had nearly killed one of their own to protect their own hive because they'd been scared of me. Those Paras lurking in the shadows of the gloom were no doubt ready to throw themselves into Sunshine's flames just to buy their Brood-Mother another hour, minute, or second, even. It was a well-laid trap, and they were far more calm and collected than the rest of the Pokemon here. Maybe it was because they had a leader with a good head on their metaphorical shoulders.

So. What shall I name you, young creature of the fae? You and your companions, of course, Parasect asked. Unless you wish, for me to pay for that, too.

Brood-Mother seemed well acquainted with the old ways, which was strange. Maybe there was an old fairy living here, too. They were leading me to an even more overgrown part of the cave where quite literally everything was alive as an extension of the Brood-Mother. The sound of dripping water was muffled, absorbed by the soft, spongy floor that spread out before my feet could crush too many of them. In places, the fungal growth was so dense that it seemed to pulse and breathe, and it looked almost exactly like the algae and moss that had overtaken this place, probably another camouflage technique to blend in.

"Grace will do just fine," I said. "This is Buddy, Sunshine and Cassianus. I have more of them, but they're in their Pokeballs right now." Each greeted her in their own way. Cass chimed, surprisingly more trusting than the other two while they simply nodded with wary stares. "Um, sorry, but is this air safe to breathe?"

Worry not, for human bodies prove to be rather, unsuitable hosts. We have adapted to Paras, and Paras only. No harm shall befall you here, no matter the extent of us, you might inhale, Parasect whispered.

I wasn't able to tell if that was a lie or not, which was certainly disconcerting, but if they'd wanted me dead, they probably would have attacked already. That wasn't their prerogative, or how the world itself saw them.

Gone were the wild Pokemon here. It was just spores, spores and more spores. It was not until Parasect reached the edge of the cavern, that she stopped.

They'd brought us to the seat of their power, where the air itself could choke you, if they wished. The surface of the stone was no longer visible, and each second, the fungus throbbed with a bright glow like a heartbeat. Paras scuttled, tending to the fungus with an eerie semblance of care and purpose. Some rubbed it all over their bodies, covering themselves in it, while others ate them for what I assumed was faster growth? They all bowed to us when we walked through, and my nose wrinkled, both due to the thick air and the apparent servitude.

Still, it was a measure of trust, that Parasect had let me bring Sunshine in here, given that the thing this organism was the weakest against was fire. He had, of course, trapped his body temperature beneath his scales, and allowed cold to flood his surroundings once more.

No need to look, so disturbed, Brood-Mother said. They only do it to spread the spores, where they leave far away, and for their own protection. If they are attacked, we may sense it and keep them alive, through the fungus they imbibed, though we doubt that will happen in, the near future.

Parasect hissed out of the mouth of their puppet, and the Paras stopped bowing to her. They scattered at once, slipping out of view and crawling on the walls. Some remained grouped— a cluster around a small, rectangular hole in the wall only large enough to fit Paras and more Fungus, which was where Parasect had stopped us.

Maybe I couldn't beat them after all, I slowly pondered. Not here, where they would be at their strongest. Theirs was a story of a mother, a caretaker and a protector, but her actual offensive strength and skill ran parallel to that story and was completely unrelated. I knew, though, that if I struck first, she would win without a shadow of a doubt, like Mathilda's role in the Lost Tower, but lesser.

Which meant that she too, could not strike first.

Not that I was planning on a fight. It was just that…

"Sorry, it's just… it's difficult to reconcile, sometimes." I paused, blowing fungus off my tongue with disgust. It had slipped into my mouth when I'd been speaking. "How your species functions."

Parasect's claw snapped, and they gestured at one of their children. The young Paras, her eyes full of life, stopped huddling around the hole and crawled on my leg, then stomach, then shoulder. It took everything I had not to shiver in fear, given that I still had a pale scar on my back from one biting me right next to my spine from months ago. Her mind was not… primitive, but it wasn't as smart as I was used to with Pokemon, either. Her emotions were simple and unrefined.

The two mushrooms on her back were void to my senses.

When you, look at her, Parasect wondered. What do you see?

I carefully considered my answer as I stared into the bug type's vibrant eyes. She tried to claw at the hair that slid underneath my helmet, grasping at it like threads.

"I see a tragedy," I answered. "I see a life that, if it ever feeds the fungus enough and it decides to evolve— if you ever decide to evolve and take over a second body fully— will get snuffed out like it never even existed."

There was no reaction to her. Let us get on with your task, then, Parasect said. Once again, a hiss made all Paras retreat, including the one on my shoulder, and finally revealed the small rectangular hole below. The mountain's tremors have, collapsed part of this tunnel. Within it rests our next clutch of eggs, and we cannot get them out despite, our best efforts. We ask that you rescue them for us.

"I can do that, I think, but it has to be delicate work. Cass, are you up for it?"

Their eyes turned to upside-down U's."Of course. I love charity."

Anyone else, and I would have taken that to be an ironic statement. Not them, though.

"Alright." I grabbed Princess's Pokeball and it swelled to its full size in my hand. "Arceus, this is going to be difficult to explain."

Yet I did, to the best of my ability. She was spooked by all the fungus and the giant Parasect next to me, but the fact that I hadn't immediately ordered her to attack calmed her down some. She eyed the cavern with a curious stare and grunted in between coughs that would remain until she adapted to the air there. I had considered Sweetheart, but what we needed was more of a gentle touch.

"There are… Arceus, there are at least a hundred eggs in there, I think. It's difficult to count in detail when the lives aren't fully formed and are at different stages of development." I caressed her head, and she leaned into the touch. "They're babies. Innocent to all of this and scared. We need to get them out of here. Can you work with Cassianus for me?"

Princess agreed, and glanced at the psychic. They planned how they were going to do it for a minute or so, with Princess saying that she couldn't just turn the stone to mud and drag it out, given that more of the cave might collapse onto the eggs and risk shattering them. Cass then came up with the idea to mold the burying hole itself and to widen the space Paras had to crawl into it.

It was a good idea, though a lot tougher than anything else. It would require a lot of micromanagement from both, but they excelled at it and it would be the fastest way. Another large tremor risked crushing all the eggs that remained, and using the Paras to get them out would be quicker.

It began slowly, the earth liquefying before parting like water. A barrier underneath kept most of it still, because Princess couldn't actually lift it all. It was difficult to remember that she was being asked to move hundreds of kilos of earth, or perhaps even more. She was built for precision, not for brute force. Togekiss quickly siphoned most of the earth away, dumping it on the ground nearby while Cass gave her the support she needed and kept the whole structure from collapsing— and from the constant blare of shifting stone, it was close to it.

Then, the Paras were called in. The small collapsed tunnel was widened enough to fit them, now, and they scuttled in by the dozens. A minute later, the first egg came out. It looked like a smoothened stone, though there were still hints of faded orange, and even before Paras' birth, it was already covered in fungus. A single Paras was enough to carry a single egg, given that they propped it up on their backs. They moved as one, never getting in each other's way, and in perfect files to be as efficient as possible. Sometimes I would hear, though not understand, a command from the Brood-Mother, because I finally understood the fungus itself was not a Pokemon. They could only use moves and TE through the Pokemon they possessed, but that was why I couldn't actually use my powers on Parasect.

Some of the eggs… were broken.

Sometimes the tremors had it crack early, and the baby Paras had died to the elements of the tightened cave, their body unprepared for life in an environment so brutal. Sometimes, a shard of stone had lodged itself in the egg and killed the baby growing inside. When that happened, the Paras still carried the corpses. Overall, the majority of eggs were saved, though they couldn't be moved to another burrow until the mountain stopped constantly shaking.

It hurt, still. There was so, so much death, and this was only a single window into the true scale of the horror happening within these caves. Every Pokemon had a story like this. Their lives were being ruined.

It was difficult, to see the entire colony mourning. To hear the constant hisses of sorrow in between the Brood-Mother's commands and orders, to see the watering eyes, always so expressive despite the fact that work to secure their siblings had to continue. Once all of the eggs were out, along with a few surviving Paras which had been taking care of them when the place had collapsed, Princess and Cassianus allowed it to fall and seal off the burrow. Dust mixed with the fungus, but luckily wind from Togekiss swept it away from me.

"I'm sorry for your loss."

Parasect's mushroom twitched. If Coronet perishes, we shall all meet our demise, alongside it. Then, the whole body turned to me. But you truly are sorry, aren't you?

"It hurts to be so powerless." My eyes shut tight, and I centered myself with a deep breath. "I lost people recently. A woman whose job it was to protect me, who I wished to grow closer to, and a close friend who wanted nothing more but to make the world a better place." I tried not to look at my team— and to not think about the others, but I failed. "And I might lose more before the day's over."

I looked into Parasect's empty gaze, and an organism larger than I could ever fathom looked back.

"Your children. Do you love them?"

With every fiber, of our being, they answered firmly. We perceive your judgments, predicated on morals foreign to us, yet what we enact is as much akin, to love as the act of humans pressing their feeding holes, together signifies their affection. We take, indeed, and when our host surrendered her essence to ensure, the survival of the whole, we grieved with such intensity that we nearly perished from starvation.

Teeth sank into my lips, yet I listened.

What we have become, is the culmination of generations upon generations of evolution, and yet, we stand powerless to halt its course. Do you believe Paras on, their own would survive without us? Do you believe we haven't attempted to, preserve their consciousness? That we derive any form, of pleasure from draining the spirit of those we have been bonded with, since our growth in our egg? No! Their voice boomed with a hiss of their host, and tendrils of fungus writhed out of their mouth. The blight snaked around my ankles and tickled them, and the puppet's claws snapped in anger.

No. It just is, they finished, sounding so, very tired. It just is.

"I'm… sorry."

When we asked you earlier, what you thought when you saw, our children working, Parasect continued. We see family, as you do with your own brood. We see love, playfulness, sorrow and worries. We see so many things, and we know you do as well, only you have shut your eyes to it because we work, as one for the survival of all, because… purpose is glorious.

There were no words. Only the dripping of water against the damp fungus and Coronet's tremors. The eyes of countless Paras surrounded me, waiting for my answer. Even Sunshine was fully focused on the one-sided conversation, now, his usual disrespect having been replaced by a painful expression.

"Why tell me this?" I asked, voice wavering with uncertainty.

Because we feel like it matters, Parasect said. Like you are someone, who cares, and who Coronet has accepted as its own child.

"Do… do all Parasect feel this way?" I asked.

Does it matter?

The answer was no, then.

"No. No, it does not."

Parasect just stared. It was uncanny, not being able to tell what they were thinking. Thank you for your, help. Now, it is my understanding that you wish to ascend, they said, scuttling across the ground. I cannot leave. My Brood must be protected, should this situation come to pass, but… ah, yes.

Another Paras— no, the same one which had climbed on top of me climbed on her parent's shell, and they brought her back to me.

This one will guide you to the next layer. She's quite adventurous and, knows this place like I do, Parasect said. The young Paras jumped on my face, and their claws and legs tickled my cheeks and forehead. She will make her way back, when you find the, way up.

I picked up Paras in my hands. "Thank you so much for the help."

You are a friend to us, Brood-Mother said. Should you want to, reach the summit, use your gift and help Pokemon in need. Learn about us, and we will help you.


This felt so fulfilling.

"My friends and I will save your home."

The pathway up had been without any incidents, and Denzel had thanked the Legendaries a thousand times in his head for that. For the last thirty minutes, they'd been walking around some kind of algae and moss-filled area that fascinated him. Exploring new places like this always had, but there was no time to dilly dally.

Coronet had a way of…

Well, it was hard to explain.

Coronet was the tallest mountain in the entire world, and that meant that it took a week or more to climb— and that if you weren't slowed by wild Pokemon or the insides going haywire.

It could also, if approached the right way, be climbed in barely a day.

Denzel didn't understand how they'd made it through the second floor so quickly, but they just did. The path had a way of pointing Chase in the right direction if he complained about it enough and… well, he called it 'getting the fucker to help itself', but Denzel figured it was more like Coronet was responding to his will, or something like that. He didn't have much to go on other than theories. Was this what the League had meant, when they'd said Team Galactic and the shards would be at a significant advantage? Because making it through this place so fast when he'd struggled for so long on the base layer was relieving.

And they soon found the path up to the third one.

The third layer of Mt. Coronet was a realm of stark contrasts and bizarre formations. Crystalline rock formations twisted and contorted into fantastical shapes that shouldn't have been possible, and they bounced so many colors that rainbows shone everywhere Denzel looked. Flower-like crystals covered the rocky ground, most of them blue and with glowing yellow buds. The cavern was narrower here than before, and the ceiling far lower as well, but at least they'd be able to save on their batteries, since they wouldn't have to use flashlights.

"Ohhhhh, sweet! Finally! I was aching for some company!"

Denzel's blood ran cold.

Mars and her team stood in front of them. Ninetales, Clefable, Seviper, Bellossom and Wigglytuff, along with Dusknoir dancing within her shadow. She had a giant smirk on her face, so innocent, yet he knew better than to believe it was anything else but sinister. There were also grunts— though only three of them—

"Kill yourselves."

The Voice had come out before Denzel realized what was even happening. Chase's shoulders sagged, and just as Seviper's tail lunged for its own throat, Ninetales sapped the heat off of her own body, Bellossom began to wilt like a dying flower, and Dusknoir began to shake and scream, Mars quickly recalled her Pokemon, rereleasing them faster than he could see her hands move. A blast of concentrated aura had already been flying off Lucario's palm, but Mars had thrown herself to the side and it had only taken a chunk off of her shoulder. Shadows bled off of the wound, but it was as if she couldn't even feel the pain. The grunts and their Pokemon died in their own way, but Mars?

One, she had come prepared for the Voice.

Two, it hadn't worked on her.

Was it because she wasn't alive— no, that didn't make any sense, it had worked on ghosts before— was it because she was one of the users of the Red Chain? Mesprit was nowhere to be seen, but it was possible she'd sent it up with someone else and had kept its protection.

"Nice attempt at cheating." Mars pouted, her hands on her hips. "I didn't even want those lame-os to help me. Come on, let's have some fun. Release your Pokemon already! I'll wait!"

"Well, Williams." They looked at each other, and an understanding passed between them. "It's been a pleasure."

They'd met each other long ago, in that arena in Jubilife where Ri had thrashed his Eevee. He had hated him for launching him into a spiral of self-deprecation and doubt.

Now they were here, backs against a newly formed wall cutting them off the second floor. Denzel's fists clenched so hard he could nearly feel his nails through his gloves. His legs shook, his knees felt weak, he had a terrible stomachache and he pictured himself dying, truly internalized it.

What was coursing through him was pure terror. The terror of being faced with your own impending doom, and being able to do nothing about it.


He had to fight. If not him, then Mars would eventually fall upon someone else, and the fact that he wanted to protect his friends overtook everything else. Better him than any of the others, if it had to be that way.

Calm did not spread through him in his hour of need, nor did a sense of focus settle in his mind. The terror was still there, and it would always be, but that is what made him human.

That is who Denzel Williams was.

"Love you, man," Denzel said. His footing was steady against the crystals, as was his voice.

Chase smiled and tried to adjust a cap that wasn't there. "Let's try and make this bitch bleed."

The cave shone scarlet, and the rest of their Pokemon emerged.

Thank you to my Patreons - Spandaz, Alex Walters, androide, ObsidianOlive, A Ferret, MKK, Oblige, Joe, Emilowish, Sean, Tim Schmidt, Dim, Violett T, yesnomaybeso, Kail H, dragonslaver, Jon, RosaC, TsukiNoNeko, NPM, Jim A, Spicyice101, Vesperal, Iota, Addmolition exe, Frogsamurai, Alex F, Kiri, Rhuodric, Nord, Filthymacgyver, Grey J, creativityfails, Spartanstoryteller, Peter D, Bum, Zaire M, Nova, Plasmatique, Lodris, Chester, Powernap, Kcx1, AnotherUser, BeautifulBusinessBoi, Papito12495, KeMon C, Geo, Pedro B, Rat, LR Brantley, ZZStrider, Sharkerxjak, Quakdoktor, nothingtoseehere, Mystic Corn, Paul S, coolblue, Ole W, Daniel J, Eric, Anarchistofyams, Cosimo, Nick S, Pharros, Michael J, Jan, ChairmanK-, William F, Zhijia, Andy S, HeyMrJack, NineXO, Dvn, Exceedes, Gustavo S, Serina T, lepton, sqw4l, V4Ford, Micah T, L'iien, Kisekibigdumb, Nikolai M, David G
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Chapter 309 - To Slay a Monster