Traveler

Ash Ketchum has been determined to become the best since he was a toddler. He has his eyes set on a charmander, but a twist of fate led him to the humble Nidoran. Note: Mix between anime and the games.

https://www.fanfiction.net/s/8466693/1/Traveler

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40. The Champion Part 3

He saw a brief flash of psychic energy before it was overwhelmed by fire. Ash sighed and recalled Dazed. An instant later it passed by the Champion and Ash again. The trainer managed to spot a tiny ball of ordinary, condensed flame in front of its mouth before Magnus vanished, traceable only by its bright tail flame.

When he saw two bright lashes of flame that struck two separate areas at once, as well as two flashes of lightning in return, Ash went ahead and recalled Nidoking and Oz. If they weren't unconscious, they still weren't up for fighting. They'd barely weathered the first stream of flame when Dazed had blocked the majority.

Ash heard the regal cry of Torrent as the dragon-type fearlessly levitated out into the field. He angled his snout up to the air and created a Dragon Pulse. Torrent easily held it in place and fuelled it with power as he waited for Magnus to strike. The Charizard had vanished into the shadows of the night sky, untraceable even by its tail flame.

And then there was an explosion of incredibly bright green energy. Ash covered his eyes and looked away as the deafening explosion occurred. He sighed when he looked back.

Torrent was lying unconscious, prostrate against the ground. Magnus stood above him. The Charizard was obviously breathing a little hard, but didn't seem too badly injured by the immense explosion. Ash wondered just what it would take to defeat one of Lance's pokemon. They were impossibly powerful. He had a long way to go.

He tore himself from his thoughts and recalled Torrent. When he looked up at Lance, the Champion had a smile on his face. "Your team did well. Revive them and come back. We have a lot to speak about."

Ash nodded and made sure Sneasel and Seeker were holding on tight before he left for the cave. Whatever Lance had to say, he wanted to hear it.

XX

Twenty minutes later, Ash found himself standing next to the Champion. Lance had taken him to one of the few high points of the island outside of Mt. Ember, a large, jagged hill that didn't appear to be natural. His dragons flew around him, although both Bagon and Gible sat down obediently next to the Champion's feet.

His friends were arrayed around him as well, tired and sore from their battle with Magnus, who tauntingly spat a few small streams of flame into the sky every now and then. Plume circled with the dragons and lazily drifted through the air. The rest were behind him on the outcropping. Most of his friends had collapsed to the ground to try and get a bit of rest.

"Do you know why I chose Mt. Ember to train at?" Lance broke the silence as he stared up at the burning peak of the mountain and the great inferno that glowed from within. "It's out of the way, you know. Mt. Silver would have been more convenient, even if getting into the Sevii Islands isn't too hard thanks to Lorelei."

Ash shook his head and just listened intently. Lance would give him the answers.

"It's all because of what happened at Viridian City." Lance continued, still focused upon the red glow that illuminated the night sky. "Mewtwo destroyed us. If Giovanni hadn't been interested in saving your life the Indigo Elite Four would have been massacred."

He scowled at the mention of Giovanni. Ash didn't know why the traitor had been saved his life, but he didn't like it. At least he could take solace in the fact that Giovanni was probably nothing but ashes now, destroyed by the abomination he had helped to create.

"I was desperate and angry once I'd healed." Lance said darkly. His eyes blazed at the reminder of what Mewtwo had done to him and his team. "It had been a long time since I'd encountered something that outclassed me. While I had the League prepare for Team Rocket, I had a few teams search for anything that might be able to stop Mewtwo. We weren't able to."

"It didn't take too long before we came up with the Legends." The Champion frowned and tightened his hands. "After we saw what Mewtwo did, we thought that the only thing that could stop it was Mew or one of the Legendary Birds. The problem is, no one knew where to find them. We knew they were real, but they've always hidden from humanity in the deep places of the world."

Ash's mind flashed back to Articuno and its shrine in the heart of the Seafoam Islands and Zapdos in the center of its apocalyptic storm. He scowled and gazed at Mt. Ember, where the inferno dwelled deep beneath the surface. It looked like Lance had confirmed his suspicions.

"We found what we thought was Articuno not too long ago, while you were in the storm." Lance shrugged. "Not that we managed to make contact. We just noted a massive blizzard going toward the Ore Mountains. Any psychics that got within a mile of it were put into a catatonic state, but they woke up a few minutes after it passed." The Champion's lips curled upward. "We decided to leave Articuno alone after Sabrina advised us to stay away. When she intervenes, it's wise to listen."

After recalling the reactions of the psychics to him after he'd seen Articuno, Ash wasn't surprised. Sabrina was confusing, but he'd gotten that she didn't like to meddle in things outside of her influence. She would only do something if she knew that people would be hurt.

"And then Brock sent us the report about Zapdos. A bit late, since the Rocket HQ had already been reduced to rubble, but at least we felt like it could fight Mewtwo if it ever comes to that." Lance explained. "But Lorelei told me where we might be able to find Moltres weeks before Articuno was a blip on our radar. I just abstained from looking."

"Why?" Ash asked with a furrowed brow. Lance wasn't the kind of person that would wait to address a threat like Mewtwo. If Ash had learned anything about the man at all it was that Lance would do anything necessary to protect Kanto.

"There was never enough time and I didn't trust anyone else to come here." Lance shook his head with a sigh. "I didn't understand how powerful Legends were until I got the news about Zapdos, but I knew that none of the other members of the Elite Four could stand up to Moltres. My team is resistant to fire and to be honest, I'm much stronger than the others."

Ash looked at Lance with wide eyes. He knew that Lance was the strongest of the Elite Four thanks to his position as Champion, but he hadn't thought it was anything dramatic. But Lance spoke as though he was far beyond even Agatha.

Lance caught Ash's disbelieving look and laughed. He finally looked away from Mt. Ember. "I'm not bragging. My team is powerful. Dragon-types have the most raw power, and combined with the kind of training I've put them through they're practically indestructible. It takes a lot to put one down, although Lorelei has the best luck with it."

"Anyways," Lance began as he returned to their former topic, "I just noted its location. Lorelei told me to stay away from it, but I'm not the best at listening." The Champion laughed. "I looked up some of the legends of the Sevii Islands. It mostly matched up to everything else I'd heard about Moltres."

He looked at Lance interestedly. Ash had always liked hearing about myths and legends from his mother. They were interesting and showed a world that had long gone, replaced by this new world of steel and innovation. "What do you mean?"

"Everything I've read claimed that Moltres has always been a friend of humanity, less temperamental than Articuno and less prideful than Zapdos. When it still flew the skies, it brought comforting warmth and sunlight in its wake. When humanity grew, it hid itself away for fear of destroying us and forced its siblings to do the same. " Lance recited and stared hard at Mt. Ember's unnatural flames. "It, along with Ho-Oh, gave fire to humanity and gave its immortal flames to us as a symbol of its trust."

Lance frowned. "I'm not sure how much of it is true, but the League torches give credence to the latter claim, at the least. There's no record of where they came from other than the old myths. Regardless, I felt that Moltres would be the most likely to help us against Team Rocket."

"The others wouldn't have helped." Ash affirmed. Articuno had been hostile and destructive, all the icy fury of a blizzard stirred up by its awakening. Zapdos had seemed more apathetic than anything. It would have let its storm consume Kanto had it decided to ignore Ash's attempt to force it away.

"The others?" Lance mimicked with a suspicious, narrowed gaze. "What do you mean? Did you see Articuno as well?"

Ash blanched and opted to tell the truth. He trusted Lance more than almost anyone else. "I went into the Seafoam Caverns a few months into my journey. After a few days I reached the bottom level. Articuno woke up and attacked me, but I got away."

Lance sighed. "You get into far too much trouble. I admit that a lot of things happened in my first year of traveling, but I didn't run into any Legends. I'm not sure if that's a blessing or not."

The trainer shrugged, and Lance just shook his head in a mixture of amusement and disbelief before he went on to finish his story. "Anyways, while I dealt with Team Rocket I just made sure to keep Mt. Ember in mind. After Team Rocket was broken and I got the news about the Storm, I decided to change training locations."

He furrowed his brow. Lance had heard what Zapdos was capable of. Why would he have sought out Moltres? Perhaps he wanted to see if he could convince the Legend to fight the Creature should worst come to worst. Ash couldn't think of any sane reason to seek out the Bird.

"Why are we here?" He asked. Ash wanted to know why Lance thought this was a remotely good idea.

Lance's eyes brightened with a gleeful shine as he answered. A wide, child-like grin split the man's face as he raised one finger. "One: Mewtwo is still out there and I won't just let it destroy us."

He raised a second finger. "The tales speak of Moltres battling the strongest of trainers as a test of skill. We're going to challenge it!"

Ash blanched and looked at Lance as though he were insane. If the Champion was actually serious about challenging the Bird of Fire then that assumption may have been true. "What."

The Champion rolled his eyes. "We're going to battle Moltres as a final test. By then you'll be as ready as you ever will be and I'll be up to par. The legends of the Sevii Islands only say it is a test of strength. It won't hurt us."

He didn't say anything, but relaxed. Ash knew the kind of power the Legends wielded. There would be no victory against Moltres. But he couldn't dissuade Lance from attempting, not yet at least. Perhaps he would manage it sometime over the next month. If not he would have to go. Moltres was said to be more benevolent and closer to humanity than the other Birds.

"It's getting late." Lance remarked after a period of silence. "We should return to camp. Tomorrow is when your real training shall begin."

Ash nodded and gazed at Mt. Ember's burning peak for a few moments before he recalled of his friends save for Seeker and Sneasel. The dark-type gleefully ran throughout the night, although he was slower than usual. It looked like the heat and humidity of the island had begun to take their toll on the ice-type.

Seeker fluttered through the night, although she made sure to come back to Ash every few seconds so as to make sure he was still there. Ash assumed she just didn't trust her echolocation for whatever reason. He made sure to smile at her whenever she flew by. It was nice to see her again. He'd never gotten to spend quite as much time with the zubat as he would have liked.

He felt a bit uneasy as he walked through the darkness, which was banished by Mt. Ember's mighty blaze. Ash knew the source of the unnatural light, and now the other oddities he'd noticed made perfect sense.

The oddly high temperatures, the inferno that pulsed from within the dormant volcano, the boost to Infernus' power – they all came together. A Legend roosted atop Mt. Pyre's peak, a great avian entity of flame, a primordial force so powerful that it had hidden itself a way for the good of humanity.

And he would be fighting it, at least if he couldn't convince Lance otherwise. Ash knew he would be incredibly strong by the time he was done training with the Indigo Champion, but he wasn't so arrogant as to think that he would make any difference in the outcome of the fight.

Ash sighed inwardly and followed Lance. He made sure to keep an eye on Sneasel as they walked through the night. It wouldn't do for Sneasel to try and attack anything, especially not if he took a potshot at one of Lance's pokemon. That…wouldn't end well.

As they headed toward camp, Ash prepared him for the next day. Today was probably just a warm up so that Lance could figure out what Ash needed help with. Tomorrow would be the true challenge.

XX

He had guessed correctly, Ash groaned to himself as he collapsed on the flat stone of Mt. Ember. After their battle earlier in the day, which Dov had won as easily as Magnus had the night before, Lance decided that Ash and his team needed more physical conditioning. The obvious solution to that problem was to climb the easier parts of Mt. Ember.

All of his friends were out with him, even Seeker. She stayed in his pack, although she could flutter out at a moment's notice should he fall. Every now and then he would hear her chattering. When they reached a place to stop so that Ash could catch his breath he would scratch her ears and pet the tiny zubat.

The incline wasn't so steep as to keep his friends from being able to traverse it, but it was certainly a challenge.

Nidoking had difficulty climbing at all thanks to his species having evolved for flat plains and grasslands. He pushed through, though, and used his immense physical strength to tear the area apart if he needed to make another path.

Plume couldn't climb, but Lance wouldn't take pity on her. She flew with them, but Lance had set Dov after her. The draconic behemoth certainly wasn't going at its full speed and didn't try to actually harm Plume, but she was pushed to her limits. Ash suspected that her constant use of Agility and Quick Attack, along with a sustained Tailwind, tested her strength more than climbing the mountain did for the rest of the team.

Torrent didn't have much trouble. He could easily levitate up the mountain, although every now and then he had to destroy a rock that jutted out of the mountain in order to pass. His levitation wasn't particularly developed. The dragon-type had to push himself to get to a greater height.

Dazed could have easily teleported from place to place, but she was wise enough to save her energy. She shuffled along with the rest of the team and only teleported when her frail physical form would be unable to traverse the harsh land. Ash could see that it was beginning to put a strain on her. Combined with the humidity and heat, the exertion had left her yellow coat a sweaty mess.

As he had expected, Infernus was doing incredibly well. His humanoid figure meant that he could easily climb over obstacles and the increased strength he gained from being in proximity to Moltres meant that he easily ripped his way through the landscape and left small piles of molten rock and burnt vegetation wherever he stepped.

Bruiser did just as well. His superhuman strength and endurance meant that he easily kept pace with Infernus. If he didn't want to stay behind with the rest of the team he could have been done with the entire mountain by now. Ash felt a little jealous at how Bruiser made this rather demanding exercise look like a joke.

Tangrowth had little to no trouble. He was a resilient soul and if he ever got tired he could easily pull himself upward with his powerful vines and arms. The grass-type carried Sneasel around when the dark-type got tired and bored, although Ash's reprimand forced Tangrowth to put down his charge. Sneasel had hissed at Ash in annoyance for that, although he stopped trying to hitch rides on others and sucked it up.

Much to his surprise, Oz kept up with Infernus and Bruiser. She didn't have their superhuman endurance, but Oz refused to let Infernus beat her. Ash didn't think she would be much use in the battle with Lance that night, but he was glad to see that she was pushing herself. While Infernus hadn't been forced to work harder in order to be dominant in their rivalry it was doing wonders for Oz.

He took a swig of water and rubbed at his aching thighs, but yelped in surprise when a stream of flame blasted toward them. It was rather weak and clearly meant to startle them rather than do damage, but it did its job perfectly. Torrent reflexively doused the blast with a Water Gun.

Magnus grinned at them nastily as the monster of a Charizard flew by. It bared its fangs and launched itself through the air with renewed speed. Ash saw Plume flash by not too far from them, Aerodactyl hot on her tail. She suddenly blurred and Ash lost sight of his friend.

"Get moving!" Lance shouted at him as the Champion climbed back down to the flat area. He had claimed that he was out of shape as well, but Ash wasn't seeing it. The Champion didn't even look tired, even though they'd alternately run and climbed up the massive volcano's shell for at least half an hour. "We don't have all day!"

Ash grimaced and stood up. He had thought himself to be in good shape thanks to his long months of traveling, but he had sorely overestimated himself. This was killing him.

"Oh, come on." Lance snorted as Ash scowled. "There's not much more. The tunnels aren't too far from here."

"Tunnels?" Ash remarked as he and his friends renewed the climb. Lance hadn't told him much of what they would be doing today, outside of battling. He knew that they would have two battles a day for the rest of the time they trained.

Lance laughed. "Yes, tunnels. They run everywhere through Mt. Ember and there are quite a few powerful fire-types that call them home. They're pretty powerful at the moment, and it's up to you to fight through them. I'll show the way back."

"And after that?" Ash panted as he pushed himself up another ledge. There had been more as of late.

"We train." Lance said flatly. "This is to build endurance. You're too young for me to train for real, but I can get you into shape. Besides, you'll get closer to your pokemon by working with them personally. It's not really a problem for you, but that's the greatest thing I can teach you. That is how you progress as a trainer."

Ash nodded in agreement before he grunted again. Nidoking carefully pushed him up over the next ledge before the poison-type shoved his claws deep into the stone and yanked it out, which left an open way for the others.

The Champion casually clawed his way up from ledge to ledge, further ahead than any of Ash's friends. His cape blew dramatically as he looked down on Ash from a higher point. As they climbed higher the wind grew fiercer and more common, although it was still perfectly safe.

He reminded himself to tell Lance about the capes at the Celadon Department Store later. That would take his mind off of the horrible soreness he'd feel.

"And after we train, we battle." Lance grinned. He helped Ash up to the ledge when the trainer struggled. Ash nodded at Lance with thanks before he placed his hands on his knees and panted. The trainer moved over so as to allow his friends room. "Well, here it is. You'll see this cave a lot, so remember it."

Ash stared dubiously at the tiny crack in the mountain. He'd expected the entrance into the tunnels to be larger. Hopefully it was bigger on the inside. If it wasn't than his larger friends would have no hope of fitting.

"Dov, let Plume rest until we get out of the tunnels!" Lance yelled as Plume and the dragon blurred by. Plume suddenly appeared on the ledge and practically collapsed, her body overcome with the strain of evading the powerful dragon. Ash rushed over and ignored his tired limbs as he supported the massive bird.

"Are you okay?" He murmured as he kept Plume from falling down. Her large eyes met his and she nodded, but not before she affectionately nipped at his shoulder. Ash winced, but couldn't hold back his smile. "Good. You stay here and rest. I want you ready later. I have a technique for you to learn."

Plume cooed and nuzzled Ash before he had to leave. Lance was waiting. He took one last glance before he recalled most of his friends and followed the Champion into the tunnels.

The first thing he noticed was the heat. It was hot outside and had grown even warmer as they went up the mountain, but it was nothing to the oppressive hotness of the tunnels. It nearly took his breath away. He felt himself begin to sweat even more, a feat he had thought impossible.

"You'll get used to it." Lance assured him once Ash had looked around the cramped quarters. The tunnels were larger than they appeared from the outside, but it would be a tight fit for the six foot tall Nidoking or his other large friends. Considering that they would just end up in the way of each other's attacks, Ash decided to leave them in their pokeballs.

Only Infernus, Oz, Torrent, and Dazed were left out. Ash recalled Seeker before he examined his friends. Infernus, as expected, seemed extremely happy and energetic to be in the horrifically hot environment. As odd a comparison as it was, he almost seemed like an excited child.

Oz's fur was sweaty and matted, but she refused to give in while Infernus was still out. Lightning arced through her coat. If she didn't have such a resistance to electricity it probably would have amplified the pain somewhat. Water conducted electricity well, or at least the impurities within it did, but sweat was just as good.

Torrent, as expected, weathered the heat without difficulty. He regally glanced at the others and saw that they were suffering from the horribly hot air of the tunnels. The water-type snorted – in a dignified manner, of course – and held his head high.

"Dazed, could you protect us from the heat?" Ash panted. Dazed, who looked very unfamiliar with her sweaty fur and red eyes, nodded. Her eyes flashed a bright blue. Ash sighed in relief when some of the heat was taken away, although it was still plenty hot. She'd made it bearable. "Thank you."

Infernus growled in annoyance but didn't do anything. He just slunk forward and searched for any other signs of life in the tunnels.

"That's much better." Lance remarked, still unfazed. He nodded at the tunnel to his left. "Let's get a move on. We've got a lot to do today."

Ash nodded and resolutely stepped forward. The sooner they got out of here the better.

XX

Their first encounter with a fire-type pokemon began with a group of six slugma, led by a large magcargo. They sedately slid past the group, apparently unaware of their presence. One slugma glanced up at them with its large eyes but just warbled strangely before it moved on with the rest of the herd.

Ash looked at them oddly. They should be attacking them in some form of berserker rage. It was something he'd found at both the Seafoam Caverns and in the depths of the Storm. Whatever power the Birds' presence granted to the pokemon nearby seemed to drive them insane with rage. He didn't trust the slugma, even if they were being placid.

"That was anticlimactic." Ash remarked once the slugma had left the area. "Normally the pokemon around the Birds are –"

He was cut off by a jet of flame that harmlessly washed over a shield Dazed hastily erected. Ash's eyes widened when what had happened actually registered. That flame had been aimed straight toward him. Although it wasn't blue or another odd color, it would have been more than enough to incinerate him.

It seemed that his friends realized that too. He was rather glad that he'd opted against releasing Nidokign when his team turned toward the new threat with fury in their eyes. Oz didn't seem too upset, but Ash couldn't blame her. They hadn't gotten a chance to know each other yet.

Ash could barely believe his eyes when he saw an absolutely massive Magmar standing not too far from him. Its eyes were narrowed with annoyance when it realized that it hadn't killed its target. The trainer scowled when he realized that two more magmar appeared behind it.

That was odd. Magmar were a loner species. They only worked together to address a larger threat, and even then it had to have caused immense damage. The species was simply too treacherous to work well with others most of the time. For the larger Magmar to have gathered those two meant that it was probably on the cusp of evolving into a Magmortar.

It made sense, he mused as he met the leader's eyes. Magmar evolved from living in or near volcanoes or other similarly hot places for years. Mt. Ember might be dormant, but it had a Legend that dwelled within. That was probably a suitable replacement, although there might just be lava deep within the volcano.

"Torrent, use –"

He was interrupted again as each of the magmar spat huge streams of flame toward him. Dazed's shield cracked underneath the titanic power placed into the attack by the empowered fire-types, but it held. Torrent hurriedly levitated in front of Ash just to be sure. The dragon-type was more than willing to place himself in harm's way for the trainer.

Lance moved to stand beside him. Ash watched with horrified eyes as he saw Infernus step forward. Fire wreathed down his body, flickering blue with the power of his anger. Infernus roared with hatred in his lungs and spat flames with a core of white at the others of his species.

Ash could barely see through the haze of fire and smoke, but the trainer was able to make out the three magmar rushing forward to attack Infernus. He felt a bit of worry for his friend, but he trusted Infernus to defeat the magmar. The fire-type was able to keep up with Nidoking with a type disadvantage and at a lower evolution.

Infernus didn't bother with another stream of flame. He simply moved in close with speed only achievable within a volcano, although his brethren reacted with similar swiftness. The two smaller magmar slashed at Infernus with their wicked claws, but Infernus simply snarled and dispatched both of them with a punch to the throat. Fuelled by anger, he was far too fast for either to dodge.

The larger Magmar was as fast as Infernus and blasted the area with another fire ball before the two powerful fire-types engaged. Ash lost the two of them as their natural camouflage activated in the burning environment, but he had to feel worry for Infernus. Magmar was clearly no push over.

While their fight felt as though it lasted forever to Ash's anxious gaze, in reality it was less than half a minute of furious blows and slashes. In the end he saw Infernus emerge from the flames with a deathly furious expression, although it calmed when he saw Ash unharmed.

"Good job, Infernus." Ash congratulated hoarsely. He glanced down at the magmar in worry. The two weaker ones looked to be barely breathing and a hot, glowing substance drained from their throats. He paled when he realized it was the magmar substitute for blood. Magmar was even worse off. The huge fire-type was beaten and covered in the glowing liquid and was barely breathing.

"He's rather brutal. Quite efficient, though." Lance noted, unfazed by the damage to the pokemon. The Champion smiled when he saw the fear in Ash's eyes. "Don't worry, magmar are tough. It takes a lot more than that to put them down, especially in a volcano. They'll be up in a few hours."

Ash unconsciously sighed in relief and stepped forward. "Let's get going, then. I don't want to be in here much longer."

Lance nodded and led the group through the tunnels, the layout of which he had apparently memorized. Ash figured that he'd been in here during their raid on Knot Island. The Champion had mentioned that the Rockets had congregated around Mt. Ember.

He stopped thinking as he moved through the tunnels. All he needed to think about was getting out of the horrifically hot environment. Ash wanted to get back to mundane training and avoid whatever life threatening fun Lance had in store for him.

XX

A week of similarly brutal training later, Ash found himself sitting on the rocky high point with Lance again. It was still light enough to train, so his friends were practicing their techniques before they fought another of Lance's team.

Ash grinned when he thought of his progress so far. During the third day of training, Torrent had finally mastered Draco Meteor. He was still working on his control, but he was able to perform the move without fault. Now all he had to do was learn to use his energy more efficiently. It was a more daunting task than it sounded, but Ash knew that he could help Torrent to achieve it.

He was working on a new technique with Plume, although he didn't have a name for it yet. Her endurance and flying skills had already improved quite a bit thanks to Lance constantly setting his dragons after her, although Ash suspected she now had an undying hatred of the Champion.

Nidoking had helped Sneasel with his control training, but he'd done quite a bit of work with Ash as well. Ash hadn't made much progress on Mega Horn or Earth Power before now, but he suspected Nidoking would have both moves mastered in a week or so.

Mega Horn would be invaluable against psychics. Although Nidoking already had Shadow Claw and Shadow Ball to combat psychics, an additional weapon was always useful. While it wouldn't work as well as if an actual bug-type used it, it would still break a psychic's concentration and power.

Bug-types tended to be the best type of pokemon for facing psychics aside from dark-types. They didn't have energy from another universe coursing through their every cell, but they turned a psychic's own strength against them: their mind.

Most pokemon and humans had similar minds. They thought in the same way. Psychics could take advantage of that and intrude upon their thoughts or alter their perceptions. Bug-types were different. They had alien mindsets.

Some were part of a so-called hive mind, others had different outlooks or organs that were radically different from the norm. Psychics couldn't handle that and instinctually shied away from bug-types. They were simply unable to comprehend their consciousness, and trying to read a bug-type's mind tended to completely shatter any attempt at concentration and thus their power.

Bug-type moves weren't as good as the real thing, but they mimicked the presence of a bug-type. Psychics would scramble over themselves in an attempt to get away from Nidoking, even if they logically knew that they could easily fight the poison-type.

Earth Power was simple to learn, although it required fine control Nidoking hadn't quite mastered yet. It was similar to Earthquake, but focused upon a specific line instead of an entire area. Giovanni had used it quite adeptly in their gym battle and Ash wanted to achieve the same results.

Dazed had made progress on Signal Beam. It was astoundingly difficult for her to learn. She had to utilize the same sort of power that bug-types did, which tended to distract her and neutralize each of her attempts. Ash was understanding, though, and did his best to help her. To use Signal Beam went against all of Dazed's instincts.

Ash had Infernus working with Oz. The two didn't like each other in the least, but they were willing to help each other to learn the moves Ash had planned for them. Oz was invaluable for teaching Infernus Thunder Punch, which he had picked up with ease, and Infernus had managed to teach her Fire Punch in the same amount of time.

Now he had them sparring with each other. It wasn't exactly fair to Oz since Infernus was much more powerful thanks to Moltres' presence, but she held her own. Ash had made sure to restrict Infernus from using Earth Burn, of course. He didn't trust his friend not to use it if he got angry.

They seemed to tolerate each other better now, or at least respect each other's strength. Oz was no pushover, even when Infernus was empowered.

Ash sighed. If only the rest of the team got along so easily.

Nidoking still despised Oz, although the sheer exhaustion the training had put on him kept the poison-type from displaying it quite as vehemently. He glared at her every chance he got, though. Ash figured he would make them work together for a few days. If Nidoking didn't get over it by then he'd have to speak with his friend.

Bruiser still seemed as though he would break every bone in Sneasel's body given half the chance. Sneasel hadn't tried anything, but he had plenty of fun intimidating Seeker and threatening her. Ash had told him off, but relied upon Bruiser to prove his strength to the dark-type. That would force Sneasel to get over his problems.

Quite a bit of his time had been spent with Bruiser. The fighting-type had been fruitless in his efforts to learn Superpower, although he had the basic concept down. Superpower essentially relied upon manipulating the energy within the body to vastly enhance one's physical strength.

Thanks to Bruno's training, Bruiser was capable of accessing the life energy within himself with ease. Training with Focus Blast over the last week had only assisted his control. Superpower was a notoriously difficult technique to learn, however, and Ash knew that it would take a lot of work to acquire it. Knowing it was one of the signs of a well-trained Machoke or Machamp.

Ash assigned Tangrowth to help with the others' training. His vines and use of Ancient Power provided excellent mobility training, along with target practice. It was much easier to create an endless supply of stone and earthen walls than to constantly destroy the finite supply of boulders on the island.

He knew that he'd grown much stronger since he arrived. Each of his friends were more powerful now. Aside from their harsh forays into the tunnels and brutal battles with Lance's unstoppable pokemon, just having time to do nothing but train did wonders. When they were all put together it added up to quite a bit of progress.

"You've come a long way." Lance observed. Ash lazily glanced over. He didn't want to expend the energy to move. They'd had a very long climb today and Lance had his team attack every now and then, just to keep them on their toes.

"Thanks." Ash replied drily. "You probably would have kicked me off the island if I didn't."

"I'm talking about in general." Lance waved his remark away with a laugh. "You've only been training for what, eight months now? Not many people become as strong as you have in that time. I can only think of a few."

Ash looked over at Lance curiously. Normally Lance explained some way to maximize his training, or gave him advice on how to handle his pokemon. Sometimes he spoke of how they would try to defeat Moltres or inform him of going-ons in the League. This was different. "Who?"

"Me, for one." Lance grinned. "Steven, Cynthia and a few members of the Elite Four are others."

His eyes widened at that. Lance must really think he and his friends were powerful to even consider comparing him to the other Champions and some of the greatest Masters in the League.

"I won the Silver Conference my second year of training." Lance said, lost in nostalgia. "My first year I was in the Top Eight. Dragonite and I were the best that had been produced by my clan since my grandfather, the elder of the Wataru."

"Top Eight?" Ash marveled. That was incredible. Anyone deemed worthy of entering the Conference was highly skilled, but it was in the Finals that the most powerful trainers showed themselves.

Lance cracked a grin and reclined against Dragonite, who was curled up beside him. "I wasn't too happy with myself. I lost to some guy with a full team of ice-types designed specifically to counter me. Crazy old man had way too many pokemon to draw from."

"Anyways," Lance hurriedly got back on topic, "I expect you to do better. Top Four, at least. I reached the Top Eight without any training like this. You have as much potential as I do, and I want you to surpass me one day."

The trainer looked at Lance oddly. He couldn't even imagine equaling the Dragon Master. While his team was able to hold their own against Saph or Magnus for a few minutes now they were nowhere near ready to fight them one on one. It took all six just to counter them.

"Don't look at me like that." Lance rolled his eyes and lazily propped himself up. "You've got the potential. You just need to harness it and never let up. Fight for your power and you'll go far."

Ash nodded. "I will."

He was quiet for a few minutes as he digested the fact that Champion Lance, the Dragon Master himself, the Master of the Indigo Plateau Elite Four, thought that Ash could surpass him. Ash knew that he was skilled, but he didn't think it was that Lance thought so highly of him.

The trainer tightened his fists. He would do his best to reach the lofty goals Lance had set for him, no matter what. He'd do his mother and Professor Oak proud. Maybe that battle with Steven would be on relatively even grounds one day.

"Don't worry too much." Lance broke the silence. He looked at Ash seriously. "Keep your mind on it and work for it, but don't let the drive to become stronger consume your being. It's lonely at the top, Ash. I didn't know that."

Ash nodded and contemplated the Champion's words in silence. Lance had given him a lot to think about.

After a while Lance looked up at the sky and saw Mt. Ember in all of its majesty. A grin curled up the Champion's lips before he met Ash's eyes again. "C'mon, let's go. We haven't gotten enough battling in today."

Ash's eyes lit up and he got to his feet. Battles against Lance weren't so painful anymore. At the very least he couldn't defeat Ash in just a few seconds. They'd gained a lot of experience and knowledge about fighting aerial combatants from these battles.

He whistled and called Seeker's attention. After a few moments the tiny zubat fluttered over to him and latched onto his shoulder. She nuzzled him affectionately as he made his way down the rocky outcrop. Ash lightly stroked her fur as he began to run over strategies in his mind.

By the time he reached his friends, he had a rough strategy for any opponent Lance would send out against them. He didn't bother coming up with one for Dragonite. Lance hadn't sent the awe-inspiring creature out since their first day training. All of the others had been used except for Aerodactyl.

Ash communed quickly with his waiting team. Lance had given him less and less time each day. It didn't have too much of an effect by now. They knew what they had to do and his team worked well together. All of them could put aside their dislike for each other during battle.

He trotted back over to Lance after two minutes and grinned with Sneasel and Seeker as the battle between his team and Lev began. Ash watched with narrowed eyes as the monstrous Gyarados began the battle with a ruthlessly powerful Hyper Beam that turned everything in its path into molten slag.

The trainer smiled when Lev was instantly struck by two Thunderbolts, both much more powerful than when they had first come to train. Their exercises were paying off.

Ash lightly patted Seeker and watched the rest of show, proud at how far he and his friends had come. They were actually holding their own now, even if Lance's pokemon were still exponentially more powerful. It wasn't butchery as it was before.

Perhaps they'd actually beat one of the Champion's teammates by the end of their training, Ash mused. That would be amazing.

XX

"Great job, buddy!" Ash cheered as Nidoking stamped on the ground. A winding fissure lined with bright golden light carved its way through the ground. It slowly widened until it was large enough for a golem to have fallen through. "I knew you could do it!"

Nidoking grunted happily in return and stamped down again. This time he aimed Earth Power toward Infernus, who roared loudly and spat a huge stream of flame into the air in annoyance as he fell into the shallow pit. He effortlessly leapt out and shot a small fire ball at Nidoking to repay the ground-type.

The poison-type grunted as he slid backward from the force, but didn't attack in turn. He was too level-headed for that. Ash figured that Nidoking had expected an attack in return for his prank regardless.

Infernus just snarled at Nidoking again before Oz blasted him with a Thunderbolt. The fire-type roared and spat a Flamethrower at her, which the electric-type dodged with incredible speed. Both were quickly engaged in a duel of fire and lightning, both of the powerful pokemon seeking the edge.

Ash grinned at that. Infernus and Oz still disliked each other with a passion but had learned to work together. They enjoyed battling the other too much to simply cease contact, plus Ash had the duo training together most of the time. It had done wonders for them. Being able to beat each other into oblivion took most of the venom out of their interactions.

He suddenly frowned and glanced toward Nidoking, who had started to try Mega Horn again. Nidoking had made quite a bit of progress with the difficult technique over the past weeks and he expected his friend to perfect it in a few days.

Earth Power had been learned without too much difficulty. He hadn't devoted nearly as much time to teaching it to Nidoking over the last two and a half weeks as he had Mega Horn, but it was still important to learn. A controlled ground-type technique like Earth Power could be exceedingly useful when dealing with physical fighters.

Although the training was incredibly difficult, Ash couldn't express just how glad he was to go through it. Lance had taught him more than he had thought possible and had made him and his team stronger. They could even do some real damage against Lance's pokemon now, although his team was always handily defeated in the end. At least Lance's pokemon had to fight for it now.

Ash looked to the sky when a shadow swept over him and blurred out the waning sun. He instantly recognized the shadow's owner to be Dragonite. As he waited for Dragonite to land next to him, Ash took a few gulps of water. Moltres didn't affect the environment as radically as Articuno or Zapdos did, but Mt. Ember's island was noticeably hotter and brighter than Knot Island. He had to drink constantly to stay hydrated.

Dragonite didn't take long to land. Ash and Nidoking turned away as a cloud of dust was kicked up and waited for it to settle somewhat before they looked back.

"Hey, Lance. Hey, Dragonite." Ash greeted. Nidoking grunted at Dragonite, who waved and gave a low, deep cry. Lance leapt off and easily landed on both feet.

"Ash, Nidoking." Lance nodded. He inspected Nidoking, whose thick hide was slightly charred thanks to Infernus' irritated blast of flame. "Did you have him training with Infernus?"

Ash shook his head. A slight smile split his face. "No, it was an accident…kind of. Nidoking deserved it."

Lance cracked a smile as Nidoking growled in denial. "I see. Anyways, I just wanted to tell you to head back to the camp right now. We're cutting it a bit early tonight. Tomorrow is going to be nothing but battling."

"Really?" Ash questioned disbelievingly. His friends could barely handle two fights a day. Devoting an entire day to nothing but battling Lance's horribly powerful pokemon would leave them sore for a week. Well, it would if Lance hadn't brought such a ridiculously huge supply of revives and other medicines.

One potion Lance had brought accelerated the healing process without leaving pokemon weak and sore for a day or so, a great improvement over most potions. Most simply enhanced healing to incredible levels, but the process took an enormous amount of energy from the pokemon and weakened them. Eliminating that side effect was an incredible feat and helped Ash's training along immensely.

"Yes, really." Lance rolled his eyes. "Don't worry, though. We're still going to battle tonight. I want you up to par for tomorrow. I'm going to accelerate your training. We only have a week and a half or so left before I have to return to Indigo Plateau."

Ash nodded seriously. "I understand." His tone grew slightly hopeful. "You aren't still planning to battle Moltres, are you?"

"Of course I am!" Lance laughed boisterously. He absentmindedly ran his fingers through his dark red hair as he grinned dangerously. "It's the ultimate test of strength! It'll be fun."

When Ash still didn't look convinced, Lance rolled his eyes. "Oh, don't be such a Steven. This'll be the greatest experience of your life! How many people have battled a real Legend?"

"Not many." Ash admitted. He continued drily. "Probably because most people have the sense to avoid that. Articuno wasn't too happy to see me and Zapdos knocked out all of my pokemon without even trying."

"I'm not saying it won't be difficult." Lance pointed out. "In fact, we'll probably get our asses handed to us. None of the legends speak of anyone coming back a victor. But the experience of seeing and fighting Moltres will be worth it! You'll be ready to stand next to me by the time we ascend Mt. Ember."

Ash smiled and nodded, although he was still rather worried about the consequences of challenging the Bird of Fire. Lance hadn't faced the Birds before. They weren't as malicious as Mewtwo, but they were no less dangerous. Moltres seemed to have a connection to humanity and didn't greatly affect the world like Articuno and Zapdos did, but Ash had no doubt that it would fight them all the same. Perhaps it wouldn't try to kill them, but it would be extremely difficult all the same.

"We can discuss this more later." Lance resolved. He looked down at Ash. "Just get back to the camp soon. You'll need all the rest you can get."

"Understood." Ash replied seriously. The Champion looked at him searchingly before he leapt onto Dragonite's massive back and took off. He was gone in seconds.

"Nidoking, could you call the others?" Ash requested. Nidoking nodded in response and looked up to the sky. He roared as loudly as possible, a great, powerful sound that made Ash cover his ears. Even then it still rattled his bones with the strength behind it.

When Ash looked around and noted that most of his friends were coming, he smiled at Nidoking. "Thank you."

Nidoking grunted and affectionately patted Ash on the shoulder. Ash patiently waited until all of his friends arrived before he began the walk back. Lance had told him to avoid transporting his friends in pokeballs while they were training. Every bit of exertion counted.

Along the way he made sure to tell them of the trials ahead. Only Infernus and Oz didn't wilt a bit when Ash told the team that tomorrow would be devoted exclusively to battling Lance. They enjoyed fighting the most, although Ash suspected Oz was only so passionate about it so that she could one up Infernus.

He just snorted inwardly with amusement and focused on the rugged and overgrown path that would take them to the camp. His mind was already buzzing with strategies.

XX

"Why do you never use Aerodactyl?" Ash inquired after the battle that evening. Lance had sent out Dov, who was just as brutal of a fighter as Magnus. The dragonite enjoyed stalking and crushing the members of Ash's team one by one, although he took quite a few hits in the process. He paid for his arrogance much more than when they had first started, although his tough armor was enough to keep the dragonite from taking any real damage.

Lance turned to him sharply. The Champion clearly hadn't expected that question. "What?"

"You never use Aerodactyl." Ash stated. "You've used all of your pokemon against my team except for it. Sneasel spends most of his time training with Vibrava, Bagon, and Gible now. But you never even use Aerodactyl to train Plume."

The Champion frowned thoughtfully and glanced up at the night sky. Ash followed his gaze and picked out the forms of Dragonite, Dov, Saph, Magnus, and Aerodactyl darting through the warm air. Each playfully fired beams of energy and flame that could reduce a house to smoking rubble at each other.

"Aerodactyl doesn't play well with others. She's a fossil pokemon." Lance finally said, as though that resolved everything. When Ash's inquisitive expression clearly told the Champion that it didn't, Lance continued. His tone slipped into the voice he used whenever he was teaching something to Ash.

"Aerodactyl is a pokemon, but she's not like any other you're likely to meet. Unless you start hanging out with Steven a lot more." He added as an afterthought. Ash leaned forward interestedly. Sneasel growled from within his pack as he was woken up. "Fossil pokemon are a miracle of science. Cloning is a tricky art in itself, as Blaine will tell you for hours if you give him the chance, but that's the simplest part of bringing ancient pokemon back to life."

Lance stared at the black rock they sat on, which was only distinguishable from the night because of Mt. Ember's blaze. "Scientists had to engineer and repair the DNA they found from fossils. It's impossible to get DNA that old and still have it in perfect condition. They had to pick up the scraps and make a clone feasible."

"Blaine actually did it, you know." Lance remarked drily. "It was back before that crazy old man hid away in the volcano. He headed the Cinnabar gym and the Cinnabar Institute and practically invented the field of cloning. Aerodactyl was one of the first successful clones. They gave her an immune system and a bunch of other additions that I don't know that much about." The Champion admitted.

Ash's eyes widened. He'd heard that Blaine was a genius, but he hadn't realized the man had been that involved. All he'd gotten from Surge during their journey was that Blaine had been involved with cloning research. That was incredible.

"She's still way too much for any other trainer to handle, so they gave her to me as a gift when I became Champion." Lance explained. "Aerodactyl has trouble listening until you prove yourself to be much more powerful than her, and she's still difficult to control. She's my last resort in battles."

"How dangerous is she?" Ash asked interestedly. Aerodactyl was obviously powerful to be on Lance's main team. She was terrifyingly fast, could easily weather most any attack, and had the physical strength to crush most opponents without a thought. Those were just physical attributes, though. It was a mindset that made one truly dangerous.

Lance gave him a grim smile. "She's like Sneasel, but much more vicious. If something's not part of the team, she sees nothing wrong with ripping them limb from limb. They're food and potential threats. I only let her out as a last resort or when I'm dealing with Team Rocket." The Champion grinned dangerously. "She's only allowed out in normal battles when whatever she's fighting is strong enough to fight her off. Needless to say, that doesn't happen often."

"I can only imagine." Ash commented drily. "Have you ever had to use her in an official match?"

"No." Lance admitted with a laugh. "I've only had two challengers since I became Champion. None of the others had the right team to make it through the rest of the Elite Four. Neither got past Dov."

Even though he knew how powerful Lance was, it was still odd realizing how much stronger than he was than the others of the Elite Four. The immense amount of time and energy required to properly raise a tiny Dratini into a magnificent Dragonite had paid off well for Lance, as had the years growing his other pokemon to nearly the same level of power and skill. Not even Agatha could contend against him.

"When did you use her, then?"

"Against Cynthia and Steven. I haven't battled Wallace yet." Lance shrugged. "It's been awhile since the Champions got together, though. Team Rocket ate up too much of my time."

Ash could only imagine how destructive those battles would be. If they could fight on equal grounds with Lance then they probably had to battle miles away from civilization before they could use their full power.

They were quiet after that. Ash hadn't expected to learn so much from the Champion, although the knowledge was appreciated. It was power in itself. Besides, it was fascinating to learn more about the efforts required to resurrect ancient pokemon into modern times.

On his part, Lance seemed to be deep in thought. His eyes seemed far away as they stared up at Mt. Ember and the inferno that erupted from its peak.

Ash began to run over scenarios in his mind about tomorrow. They'd probably go through a hefty supply of revives, but Ash wanted to see if he could defeat one of Lance's pokemon in the process. It would be a nice outcome, even if it probably wouldn't occur.

Still, it was something to hope for. Ash would just have to work hard.

XX

Three days before they would have to leave for Kanto, Ash and Lance were locked into a battle. Or, rather, their teams were. Ash only fought with four pokemon since Lance wanted to challenge him further. The Champion had released Saph, who had adapted quite well to her new form over the last month.

Ash grinned as Plume smashed into Saph's large form with Super Speed. He hadn't perfected the technique he'd begun to work with Plume on around two weeks ago, but this was something he'd created in his spare time.

Super Speed wasn't very exciting or revolutionary, but it got the job done. It was essentially a combination of Agility, Tailwind, and Quick Attack. Quick Attack wasn't very powerful, but when it was boosted by Plume's own mass and the velocity acquired through sustained use of Tailwind and Agility it was devastating. Even Saph was forced away by the powerful attack.

Nidoking shot an Ice Beam toward Saph, but she flickered out of the way with Extreme Speed. The Ice Beam, which was rather powerful and left a large swathe of frosty air in its wake, sheared its way through the air and far into the horizon before it vanished.

Plume squawked as Saph blasted her with Blizzard and began to free fall through the air. She recovered and entered Super Speed in order to avoid any other attacks from Saph, who expertly dodged a Thunderbolt from Oz and an Ice Beam from Torrent. Ash winced when Saph suddenly used Extreme Speed and easily caught Plume, who was instantly knocked out as Saph shot a second Blizzard at her.

Ash quickly recalled Plume as she fell to the ground, clearly unconscious. She'd done well, and he told her so as he clipped her pokeball onto his belt. He quickly looked to the battle. Lance didn't let him command during these mock battles, but he liked to see how his team did. It let him correct flaws later.

When they had days full of nothing but battling Lance let him actually command his team during their battles. They were to build up his actual skill in commanding his friends, while these battles were to show how far his team had progressed in skill and strength.

He scowled as Torrent's Dragon Pulse missed Saph by mere feet as she exited Extreme Speed. One of the most annoying aspects of battling Saph and the other dragonite that Lance commanded was their sheer speed, which was boosted considerably by the techniques he taught them. It made them almost impossible to hit. Plume and her astounding speed was the only real counter he had.

Ash waited for his friends to adjust to Saph's speedy tactics. They'd learned what to do to put the dragonite off balance. If they couldn't hit her with precision attacks then they would have to use an attack so large and powerful that Saph couldn't help but be consumed by it.

The trainer grinned as Nidoking and Oz began to cover for Torrent. Whenever Saph slowed down she was bombarded by Ice Beams and Thunderbolts, although none of them hit. She was incredibly fast even without Extreme Speed and had the endurance to keep the game up for hours.

They weren't trying to hit her, though. All Nidoking and Oz were trying to do was distract the powerful dragon-type. Torrent was their real player.

Ash was rather glad that they'd managed to put aside their differences during battle. He'd had Nidoking and Oz work together for the last week and the ground-type still despised the electabuzz. It was odd. Nidoking was normally much more level headed than this. He wasn't known for keeping grudges, especially not after Ash had talked to him about his irrational hatred more than once.

He put that out of his mind when he saw Torrent spew huge amounts of frozen air from his snout. It settled around him in a dense fog of frost, but was immediately uprooted and pushed into motion when Torrent twitched his rear fins.

Torrent was instantly consumed in an immense twister of ice. The Ice Storm exploded upwards until it reached at least a hundred feet up into the air. It wasn't very draining compared to Draco Meteor, which was why Ash hadn't opted to go with the exceptionally powerful technique. He wanted to make sure Torrent could use it efficiently before utilizing it in a real battle. Right now it still acted like a dragon-type Hyper Beam.

"I hate that technique." Lance grumbled from beside him. The Champion looked annoyed. "Saph isn't experienced or powerful enough to just blow it away yet. Torrent can keep it up through anything she throws at it."

Ash grinned at the Champion. Sneasel snickered and climbed higher onto Ash's back so he could see Torrent's incredibly powerful ice and dragon-type combination better. Seeker was with Bruiser today since he wasn't fighting. She was probably huddled close to the fighting-type to stave off the cold.

Saph tried to go around it, but the Ice Storm suddenly grew ten feet larger in every direction and caught her in its grip. The dragonite gave out a low, powerful cry as she was yanked into the icy twister, but managed to break free of the dangerous storm moments later.

He could tell that the shock to her system from the freezing air had slowed her down. Saph was still incredibly fast, but she seemed more sluggish than usual, which was the entire point. His friends knew that Ice Storm wouldn't be more than an annoyance for the powerful dragon-type, but it weakened her for a while.

Nidoking took advantage of her weakened state first. He reared back and launched an exceptionally powerful Ice Beam straight into her chest. His aim had improved quite a bit thanks to their time training.

Oz followed his example mere moments later. She windmilled her arms quickly to produce more electricity before a Thunderbolt blasted out and slammed into Saph, which stunned the damaged dragon-type. The force behind the blast of electricity forced Saph to brace herself.

As Saph slowed down, Torrent released his hold on the Ice Storm and opted for his own Ice Beam in return. Ash shivered slightly as all the heat in the area seemed to drain away for a moment before the Ice Beam shot toward Saph. The heat returned almost immediately, as though the attack had never happened.

Ash shot a look at Lance, who seemed rather impressed with the team's progress. While it was still four-on-one against the weakest member of Lance's team, doing this much damage to one of the Champion's pokemon was a new event. His friends had come close a few times, but this was the first time that victory seemed in sight.

Saph suddenly vanished into a blur. Ash winced when he saw her suddenly appear in front of Oz before the ordinarily friendly Dragonite smashed the electric-type with the back of her claws. Oz was instantly floored, although Saph was caught with another of Nidoking's Ice Beams before she flickered away.

Nidoking was next. Saph, who was visibly slower despite her renewed strength, flickered in front of the poison-type and blasted him with a huge gale of icy air barely recognizable as a Blizzard. Ash winced, but grinned when Nidoking charged through the ruthlessly powerful attack and clawed the dragon with Poison Jab. She took an Ice Beam to the back moments later, courtesy of Torrent.

Despite his efforts, Nidoking collapsed to the ground. Saph was already moving slower, however, and Ash suspected that her injuries and Nidoking's powerful, quickly acting poison was taking its toll on her.

Torrent had gotten the gist of her newfound strategy now and simply closed his eyes. He raised his snout to the sky and formed a huge sphere of bright orange energy. The dragon-type shot it high into the air, and Ash grinned when the orb seemed to hang there for a few moments.

Ash would normally be annoyed that Torrent had decided to use Draco Meteor, which took far too much energy to be efficient in most cases, but he realized that this was all or nothing. Torrent had one chance to defeat Saph.

He clenched his fists tightly. Saph had activated Extreme Speed again and was practically invisible. Ash could only catch the shortest of glimpses of the powerful dragon-type in the form of a golden blur.

Saph moved so fast that he didn't even see her appear behind Torrent with glowing claws. She must have been too badly injured and weakened to use anything other than Dragon Claw. It was one of the simpler dragon-type moves.

As she made to slash into Torrent and knock him unconscious, Torrent's eyes snapped open. He must have detected her presence somehow. Ash grinned wildly as the bright energy sphere that hung in the sky suddenly separated into a dozen smaller spheres and shot toward Saph like controlled comets. Streaks of energy burned in their wake as they slammed into Saph's general area.

Although only two actually hit Saph and one actually hit Torrent, proof of his lack of control, it was sufficient to defeat Saph. Torrent was knocked unconscious moments later by a second misaimed comet, but Ash had a wide grin on his face nonetheless.

"We won!" He shouted ecstatically as he pumped his fist and jumped into the air. Ash's heart was pounding with excitement as he took in the reactions of his other friends. All were just as excited as he was, even Sneasel. Seeker seemed to have no idea what was going on at first, but Bruiser grunted something to her and she began to squeak happily as well.

When he had calmed down somewhat, Lance stepped forward with a proud smile on his face. "Good job! I honestly didn't expect you to beat me yet."

Lance's smile suddenly morphed into a grin as wide as Ash's own. "I think you're ready."

Ash's joy was suddenly replaced with unease, but he nodded in reply. By now he understood that Lance wouldn't be dissuaded. After everything Lance had done for him this past month, the least he could do was accompany the Champion to his challenge. It was hardly the most dangerous thing he'd done on his journey if the legends of Moltres were true. "I understand. I'll do my best."

"Trust me, I know that." Lance said, a hint of pride in his voice. He looked at the pokeball that held Saph. "Whether we win or lose up there, know that I'm glad that I trained you. You're living up to your potential, and I can't wait to see you flatten the competition at the Conference."

The trainer smiled embarrassedly. He still didn't know how to handle the Champion's praise very well. It was different from anyone else's. Lance was someone he had looked up to since he was a toddler. The Champion was the ultimate defender of the League, a hero.

Ash knew Lance better now and knew that he was just a man, albeit a great one. But Lance was still the Champion, and it felt odd to receive praise from one of the most powerful trainers in the world.

"When will we go up?" Ash asked quietly.

"Two days." Lance replied immediately. "You've come far, but you should get every last bit of training you can before we do something this big. It's a once in a life time opportunity. I want you to be at your best for it."

The trainer nodded and looked up at Mt. Ember contemplatively. It was hard to believe that he would be ascending the hallowed peak soon, much less that he would challenge a true Legend, not the mockery of one that Mewtwo was.

"Let's get going." Lance spoke up with the grin Ash had come to fear. It normally accompanied Lance's more painful training exercises, such as going into the unbearably hot tunnels or for a long climb while Dragonite shot weak Hyper Beams at the group every now and then.

His fears were confirmed when Lance's gaze drifted up to the area of the mountain that held the tunnels. "We've got some climbing to do. Go revive your pokemon and meet me by the foothills."

Ash inwardly groaned but did as Lance bid. He'd gotten used to the harsh temperatures and the climbs that sapped his strength, but it would never be something he looked forward to. But he needed to do his best. The end of his training approached.

XX

"Get on Saph." Lance told him after Ash finished with his lunch. This morning they hadn't done very much, but had spent the time alone except for their pokemon. The Champion had them do a few light exercises before lunch, but that was only to get the blood pumping.

Ash nodded as he finished off the last of his sandwich. He wiped the crumbs off onto his dirty pants and stretched a bit before he walked toward Saph, who awaited him on all fours. Her tail swished excitedly and her eyes were alit with anticipation.

All of Lance's pokemon seemed excited. Ash couldn't say the same thing about him. He felt like he was going to throw up. The trainer wasn't used to being nervous, but he had seen the power the Birds held. Ash couldn't imagine fighting that, no matter how much stronger he became. Zapdos' mere presence was enough to nullify his friends' attacks.

Despite his apprehension, he climbed onto Saph's back and held on tightly. Lance waved at him from his position on Dragonite's back before he suddenly whistled. All of Lance's pokemon that could fly were outside of their pokeballs, a veritable army.

He clenched on so tightly so Saph's hard scales that his hands turned white. Ash had already taken off his cap, so he didn't have to worry about it being torn from him by the wind. The trainer could feel the wind whistling through his hair as Saph launched into the air after Lance and Dragonite, her speed incredible even at the relatively sedate pace she flew at.

Ash dared a look at the ground hundreds and thousands of feet below. He stared at the forests and the long, charred strip of land that he had spent so much time training on. The trainer took in everything one last time before he looked up.

Mt. Ember passed rapidly beside him. They had taken a steep angle, although it wasn't so steep that Ash felt as though he were in danger of falling. He spied a few pokemon on the dormant volcano's harsh cliffs as he sped by, but they were moving too fast to identify them as anything other than blurs of color.

In a few more seconds they launched high above the peak of Mt. Ember. Ash looked down and took in the mountain that he would soon fight a Legend upon.

Most of the peak was covered with a thick layer of black stone, but he spotted a huge chasm that lead deep into the volcano's heart. Fire was visible from within, although it wasn't at the height or intensity it was at during the night. Since he didn't see Moltres anywhere, he assumed that it slumbered within the volcano itself.

Above the roar of the air, Ash heard Lance call something out. Whatever it was, it caused his draconic team to angle downwards after him. The trainer put his hands underneath the overlapping scales to get a better grip as they shot down to the black stone. He felt slightly sick as he watched it rise up toward him.

Saph suddenly cut most of her speed away and landed lightly upon her large hind legs. Ash groaned as he leapt off of Saph, although he thanked her before he did so. It was no wonder that Steven had complained about flying with Lance.

He looked around and noted that most of Lance's pokemon appeared uneasy. The Champion had released Gyarados, Mael, Vibrava, Gible, and Bagon. Ash knew that Vibrava, Gible, and Bagon wouldn't be fighting. They were hear to watch.

Ash could feel that Moltres was nearby. The air pulsed with restrained power, as though Moltres was trying to keep itself weak. It was almost as hot as the tunnels, but much less humid. That was a relief, at the least.

"Take a moment to rest, Ash." Lance said as he walked over. He sounded like an overexcited child now that they were finally about to challenge Moltres. "We have all the time in the world now."

"I'm okay." Ash said a few seconds later. His stomach settled pretty quickly, and he went ahead and released his friends. Nidoking took in the surroundings and laid his ears back, aware of the presence of something far beyond himself.

Plume cooed softly at Ash before she looked around warily. Her eyes narrowed at Lance with dislike before they continued her scan. Ash stroked her glossy crest to try and comfort her, but she remained tense.

Torrent had a similar reaction as Nidoking, although he kept himself more composed. Nevertheless, the dragon-type levitated over to Ash and rumbled worriedly. Ash patted his friend on the chest and whispered, "It's alright. Everything's going to be fine."

Ash had to admit that he didn't like seeing Torrent or Nidoking afraid. It was antithetical to their beings. They were monarchs amongst their kind, the ultimate protectors and most powerful fighters. He had only seen them afraid when he had been in danger.

Dazed's pendulum began to vibrate furiously the moment she was released. Like the others she stayed close to Ash, although she didn't need any reassurance from the trainer. Ash nodded and smiled at her, to which she smiled at him in turn with her expressive eyes.

Infernus growled happily when he was released. His black eyes seemed to pulse with energy as he stood at the top of the world. He snorted flame, which was pure white and much more powerful than it was even at the base of the mountain. Ash wouldn't be surprised if he was capable of taking on one of Lance's pokemon with that kind of power at his command.

Bruiser cracked his knuckles and looked at Ash with worry as the energy of the mountain oppressed him. Ash nodded and pounded his own chest in reassurance, to which Bruiser couldn't help but smile in return.

Ash released Seeker directly into Bruiser's arms. She chattered uneasily when she felt the heavy presence around them, but Bruiser lightly patted her frail form and grunted something to her. Seeker whined, but fluttered over to Ash.

He opened his pack for her and adjusted it so that it laid on his front instead. It was slightly awkward, but it made Seeker feel more comfortable. Plus it kept Sneasel from jumping all over her when he wanted to ride on Ash's back. Ash stroked her ears lightly before he closed the pack up for Seeker.

Tangrowth gurgled happily when he appeared. He didn't seem to realize that there was anything wrong. The grass-type simply wrapped Ash up in a tight hug and went off to greet the other members of the team, who looked at Tangrowth oddly.

"Hey, buddy." Ash laughed. Tangrowth gurgled and waved his arms around excitedly before Ash released Sneasel. The dark-type's eyes snapped open with horror when Sneasel felt the power that surrounded them, but he was wrapped up in a hug from Tangrowth before he could do anything.

When Tangrowth released Sneasel, the dark-type instantly rushed over to Ash and climbed up his back. He tried to open up the pack so that he could jump in, but Sneasel whined pitiably when he realized that Seeker already occupied it. Instead he simply wrapped himself around Ash, who frowned softly and scratched behind the terrified ice-type's feathers.

Oz was released last. She noted the presence, but opted to glare at Infernus instead. The electric-type sparked at Infernus in annoyance when he didn't acknowledge her in the least, too busy basking in the sheer power he gained from being on Mt. Ember's peak.

Ash smiled and looked at his team. They had shed sweat, blood, and pushed themselves to their absolute limits to get here. They weren't just his team or his friends, they were his family. Everything they had fought for had taken them here, to this mountain occupied by the Fire Bird.

They looked back, and Ash felt any hint of worry ease from him. He trusted his team. Ash wasn't so foolhardy as to believe that they would defeat Moltres, but they would give it everything they had.

"I'm ready." He said with resolve. "Let's do this."

Lance laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. "That's more like it."

They walked forward until they reached the edge of the chasm. Lance stopped at a worn hunk of rock that jutted out oddly from the rest. It took him a moment, but Ash realized that it was an altar or shrine of some sort.

He examined it more quickly. The rough form of a bird was visible now that he looked, and ancient markings had been hewn into the stone. It looked as though it had been bathed in impossibly hot flames. Ash could feel power coming from it, just as he could the altar that Articuno had rested upon.

"I think I know what to do." Lance murmured. He pointed Ash away. "Stand back."

Both of them walked until they were about three hundred feet away from the chasm from which great flames began to burst from, hot and bright even in the daylight. Lance's eyes were alit with glee as he put one foot forward.

"Moltres, I, Lance Wataru, the Champion of the Indigo League and Master of the Elite Four, and Ash Ketchum of Pallet Town challenge you!" Lance shouted. Wind began to pick up as he continued his words echoed throughout the massive volcano's crater and the temperature grew hotter. His cape billowed dramatically in the powerful winds as he roared out his challenge. "Meet us in battle, Moltres, and allow us to show you our strength!"

The winds grew more powerful, although not nearly as powerful as those Ash had faced in Zapdos' storm. He felt the unease return, at least until Nidoking put one of his clawed hands upon his shoulder. Ash smiled, but lurched as the entire volcano seemed to shudder.

He held on tightly to Nidoking as the world shook. Great flames shot out of the chasm, an even stream that reached high into the heavens and baked the world around him. Ash gasped as the power that engulfed the mountain was magnified a hundred fold. He felt as though his body was going to collapse as the volcano came to life as its incarnation awoke from its age old slumber.

Ash's skin grew hot and dry as the power grew more and more powerful. The winds whistled and roared as though a storm were brewing, and the flames exploded out of the dormant volcano with more and more power.

The form of Moltres that was hewn from volcanic stone and dragged up Mt. Ember by the ancient inhabitants of Knot Island glowed a cherry red from the heat of the fires and the wings and head of the worn shrine suddenly burst into flame, the inferno that engulfed it fuelled by the stone itself.

Fear exploded throughout him as he saw the eyes of the façade, little more than holes hammered and chiseled out, glow a bright red. More power pulsed throughout the mountain as it rumbled, and Ash feared that it would explode long before Moltres answered their challenge.

He stole a look at Lance. The Champion's hair and cape billowed in perfect uniformity and his eyes were focused, but he could see the slightest bit of fear in them. Lance stood strong before the awakening of the Legend, but Ash knew that the Champion now realized just what he had awakened.

Ash staggered back as the world suddenly exploded. The constant streams of flames that erupted from the deep chasm of the volcano suddenly grew a thousand times more intense and penetrated all the way up to the clouds, so bright that it could serve as a second sun for the Sevii Islands.

The volcano suddenly screamed, but Ash's battered ears suddenly realized that it was not the stirrings of the volcano, it was the cry of the Legend they had been so arrogant as to challenge.

From the steady explosion of flames a shape became visible, slightly darker than the rest of the flames. Ash felt his heart skip a beat when the flames suddenly wrapped around the large shape in a perfect sphere of unnatural flame.

Even Lance was speechless as the flames exploded out up into the sky in a column of fire, pure white and far more intense than anything either human had ever seen. Ash had to cover his eyes until the Bird's entrance had been completed.

When he looked up again, he saw a great avian of flame before him. Its body was made of feathers that burned with golden flame, and the frame of its wings seemed to be made up of solid flame of the same gold, an impossibility in of itself. But its wings and the elaborate crest that billowed proudly behind it, dancing ever so slightly in the wind that announced the avian's coming, were of great natural flame, so bright that it made Ash want to look away.

It stood at more than twenty feet tall and dwarfed both Articuno and Zapdos. The Bird had bare legs made of solid, blackened lava that began to liquefy from its own heat. They ended in wickedly hot claws that seemed as though they could burn through stone as though it were butter.

Despite the sheer regality and power it exuded simply by existing, its most striking features were its eyes. They glowed with impossibly bright inner fire, a bright red to match its siblings' icy blue and gold. Its eyes regarded Ash and Lance impassively, no emotion discernable.

Moltres suddenly cried out again and the dormant volcano rumbled. Flame exploded from behind it, and the Bird of Fire flapped its wings once. A wave of fire erupted from the great Bird and melted the black stone it hit and reduced it to liquid in moments.

It regarded them for the briefest of moments and stared at Lance, who refused to look away. When it turned away to meet Ash's eyes, the trainer stared back into the pulsing, ageless red of the primordial avian's eyes and didn't back down.

He felt as though his very being was about to be incinerated, but still refused to look away. The Bird's energy suddenly pulsed throughout the mountain once more.

As columns of flame erupted from the chasm Moltres had slumbered in for countless years, it squawked once more and flew toward the humans and their teams in an explosion of fire amidst the ageless rumblings of the volcano.

Before the first stage of the battle began, Ash had to wonder if Lance finally realized what he had gotten himself into.

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