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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48. The Hunt Part 1

Ash's head ached, his mouth was dry, his tongue was fuzzy, and his skin felt like it was on fire. He opened his eyes and groaned miserably once he became aware of the myriad of unpleasant sensations that crawled around in his insides.

The air was crisp and cold and tasted slightly of salt. He pulled himself up on his forearms and checked out his surroundings. Ash was on a large beach made up mostly of small, sharp stones that dug into his skin as he struggled to his feet.

He put a gloved hand to his head and adjusted his cap to shield his eyes. Although the weather was pretty cold, as would be expected at the end of January, the sun was bright and reflected off of the calm, sparkling waves and the odd shiny stone hidden amongst the field of gravel.

Where was he? How had he gotten here? All he remembered – he remembered.

Ash suddenly clutched his chest and his heart pounded rapidly. His fists clenched and his eyes widened with stress and anxiety. He looked down, half-expecting a hole to be in the middle of his chest, right where Mew had blasted through him.

There wasn't even a scar, but there was a perfectly round hole burned through his shirt and jacket. His breath caught. That wasn't a dream. All of that had actually happened.

Mewtwo had tried to destroy civilization. Moltres had been defeated and he didn't know if it had been saved. Mew had protected them and stopped the Creature. Ash had been resurrected.

And Mewtwo escaped scot-free. Mew had just slapped it on the wrist. It hadn't even had to pay for its crimes, all the deaths and destruction it caused! It just got to run around and find itself! Mewtwo had already found its true self: It was a monster and it had lived up to its nature.

Ash let out a frustrated scream and furiously kicked a stone. It went flying into the ocean and sunk into the lapping waves. He could only imagine that it would stay stuck in the soft ocean floor for many years.

He released another roar of rage and wished he could go back in time and order Nidoking to kill Mewtwo at any cost. All of the lives it had ended and ruined had cried out for justice and he had been too weak to finish it once and for all.

Mewtwo would pay one day. Ash would find something stronger than it and do anything to exact true justice, not what Mew had forced it into. He could vaguely remember Mewtwo claiming that it didn't want to kill anymore. As if that would happen. All Mewtwo had done since it was created was kill, either for Team Rocket or itself.

If he didn't find a way to end it than it would destroy everything one day. Mewtwo was a feral Umbreon on a leash. It was just waiting for its chance to strike back.

As hateful thoughts brewed in his head even more information ran through the floodgates of his mind. Ash was torn away and had to sit down. He ignored the sharp rocks that jutted into his body as he struggled to process everything that had happened.

The events that he remembered were vague, but he had a clear understanding of everything. He knew what had happened and win. But he couldn't remember a few important things: Namely, anything involving the location of New Island. Ash could make a guess, but he expected that Mewtwo would have hidden its fortress by now. It was arrogant but it wasn't stupid.

Ash growled and absentmindedly toyed with an oddly shaped stone. There were more important things to do. He needed to figure out a plan of action and check in with everyone. Professor Oak and his mother had to be worried. Mewtwo's storm had hit Pallet Town. He dimly remembered sending a message to Lance to help the Champion give Moltres a direction to attack. Lance was probably frantic.

He checked his pokeballs. They were all filled. Mewtwo must have done that before it'd teleported him here. Ash went ahead and released Sneasel and Plume.

The trainer was nearly bowled over by his friends once they realized where they were, although Plume could do nothing but affectionately head butt him and gently nip at his hat. Sneasel, on the other hand, was absolutely everywhere. The ball of fur had probably run over every inch of Ash's body before he calmed down and settled for using Ash's neck and shoulders as a perch.

"Hey, I'm glad to see you too." Ash said with a wide grin. He leaned into Plume to give her a brief, light hug. Her large body emanated quite a bit of heat that was a nice contrast to the chilly air. The trainer ran his eyes over her to check for any injuries. There were none. "Are you two alright?"

Plume cooed softly in response and hopped closer to him. Ash stood his ground happily and just patted her huge wing as the massive avian towered over him. Sneasel hissed an affirmative and tried to take Ash's hat off, although he stopped the dark-type by absentmindedly batting his seeking claw away.

"Not right now, buddy." He said cheerfully, not letting any of his inner turmoil and rage at Mewtwo's escape from justice shine through. Ash needed to move on and fix things. "I need your help. Sneasel, do you mind finding a good campsite? I think we all need a rest."

Sneasel growled in response and deftly leapt off of Ash's head. He landed easily on his powerful legs and loped away in a blur of black fur. Ash watched him go before he turned back to Plume, a more serious expression on his face.

"I know you're tired, but could you scout out the area and make sure there aren't any herds of pokemon wandering around? I doubt any of us are in any condition to be fighting right now."

Plume nodded and cooed again before she hopped away and took off at an incredible speed. Thankfully there wasn't any dust to be kicked up, although small pebbles pelted Ash's skin from her powerful winds. She vanished high into the sky in just a few seconds.

Ash somberly watched one of his oldest friends go before he sat down. His body felt drained all of a sudden. He had a while before they would get back and he wanted to see the rest of his friends. He had to make sure they were okay. They had gone through so much for his sake.

He decided against releasing all of them at once. Ash would rather not be drowned in a sea of overexcited pokemon. This would be a bit more personal, anyway.

The first to be released was Nidoking, of course. His friend's huge bulk made him sink into the loose gravel beach, which caused Nidoking to growl in annoyance before he realized that Ash was there. The only warning Ash received was an excited grunt before he found himself wrapped up in a very tight hug. Nidoking seemed to have picked up on the human gesture during their times at the Corral.

"I'm glad to see you too!" Ash laughed happily, although his voice was a bit tight thanks to the powerful force applied to his ribs. He patted his friend's hard shoulder and prompted for Nidoking to let him go.

Nidoking grunted and lowered himself to Ash's level so that he could look him in the eyes. Ash stared back with an odd smile on his face.

"Are you alright?" He asked seriously. He checked his friend for injuries just as he had Plume and Sneasel. Ash found it odd that none of his friends were injured, despite being in such a brutal battle. "Do you remember what happened?"

The poison-type squeezed his narrow eyes shut and flinched as though he were in pain. Nidoking glanced away and the earth itself vibrated and shifted at the turbulent emotions that flooded through Ash's friend.

"I'll take that as a yes." Ash murmured softly as he reached up to affectionately pat the side of Nidoking's face. The answer was exactly what he'd expected. Plume and Sneasel had clearly remembered the events from the previous…night? Day? He would need to check that.

Nidoking tapped a dull claw against the thick plate of armor that covered his powerful thigh to distract himself. Ash just waited patiently as the ground rolled beneath the two of them. If Nidoking needed to calm down then he would let him.

"Weird things happen to us a lot, don't they?" He remarked. Ash sat down on the rocks and ignored the slight pain as the dull edges jabbed into him. Nidoking followed his lead and awkwardly fell down, although he adjusted himself to be comfortable after a few moments.

The poison-type snorted and rolled his tail around. The thick, segmented plates on his tail ground harshly against the stones. He crushed his claws together and met Ash's eyes.

"It's not over." Ash muttered quietly. He peered upward to see Nidoking staring at him with his wise eyes. "Mew might have forgiven Mewtwo, but I haven't. We'll find it one day and make it pay for what it's done."

Nidoking growled angrily in agreement, his eyes alit with a dark rage that emanated from deep inside him. His narrow, understanding eyes lost what made them Nidoking and became bestial and base and promised bloody death. Normally Ash only saw it when Nidoking had flown into a rage over something, usually about an attack on Ash. It terrified him, but for the first time the Blood Rage Nidoking were so well known for comforted him. He wouldn't be alone when he finally confronted Mewtwo again.

That didn't mean that he didn't want to snap his friend out of it. Just because it was comforting didn't mean it was any less horrible to see Nidoking reduced to such a brutal, hateful state.

"It's alright, buddy." He soothed. Nidoking's eyes slowly returned to normal and the tiny bead of venom that leaked from the tip of his horn was quickly reabsorbed. "Save it for later. Right now we just need to get back on track."

Nidoking slowly nodded. His great chest rose and fell sedately as he calmed himself. He shut his eyes and seemed to be lost in his own world for a few moments.

"I know you're not hurt, but are you alright?" Ash inquired after a short period of comfortable silence. Nidoking cocked his head and grunted questioningly. "Mentally. I know you had to fight your clone and the others' clones. I saw you out there. You did great. They were strong but you were just better."

His friend grunted happily at Ash's thanks and approval. Nidoking affectionately tapped Ash's shoulder and dipped his head to the boy.

"Good." Ash smiled, pleased and content with his friend's peace. "We can just forget about this for a while. Champions, Legends – I think we can finally be done with that. All we have to do now is train."

Nidoking's eyes brightened at the thought of the Conference Ash had alluded to. Ash knew that all of his friends were looking forward to it just as much as he was, if not more so. All of them wanted to test their strength against the most powerful opponents they could and the Indigo Conference was the perfect opportunity. The best trainers in Indigo would be there and Ash knew he could go far enough to face truly powerful trainers. His friends would get the best fights of their lives in just a month.

His stomach suddenly rumbled, a keen reminder that he hadn't eaten in what felt like forever. Ash really needed to check on the date. He'd do that once he'd eaten and spoken to his friends. They were probably just as hungry as he was, especially with the kind of fighting they had done.

Ash checked the storage compartments he reserved for food and other essentials. He hadn't exactly stocked up on supplies when he'd left Pallet Town. It was supposed to be a tournament he was going to, not an elaborate trap for a monster to gloat. There was just the bare minimum that he always packed before a trip of any kind.

It was enough to last the entire team for a single day. He was just thankful that Tangrowth had such efficient photosynthesis and that Seeker barely required anything. A pokemon as large as Tangrowth would ordinarily require rather large servings of food to keep up their energy, but that amount was cut by quite a bit thanks to his plant-like biology. Seeker had an incredibly fast metabolism, but she didn't require much food in comparison to the more powerful members of the team.

He was well-aware of Nidoking's subtle glances and far off stare as he prepared the food. Nidoking wasn't quite as stealthy as he seemed to think, although that might be due to the fact that he looked quite distracted.

Ash could only assume that his friend was beating himself up over everything that happened. It was about what he expected from Nidoking. His friend was always furious when Ash was in danger and hadn't really encountered a situation where he hadn't been able to fight the threat.

"I don't blame you for…what happened." Ash directed to his friend. His hands shook and his voice wavered at the mention of his death. That was something he wished he could have forgotten. "None of us could have done anything to stop it. It might have been for the best, you know? Mewtwo was beaten and –"

Nidoking stood up abruptly and snarled, a deep, guttural sound that made even Ash flinch. He schooled his features into their ordinary, impassive state but his eyes betrayed slight worry as Nidoking roared and stamped his foot against the ground. Although Nidoking was gentle and restrained his strength most of the time, now he showed that he was no less a threat than Torrent or Infernus.

The ground didn't explode and shatter as it did when Nidoking used Earthquake or Earth Power, but simply rippled and shifted with every step that the powerful poison-type took. Ash gazed calmly into Nidoking's eyes, ignoring the raw panic and anger that infused the narrow slits.

He gently placed the food bags down. He'd prefer that the team wasn't stuck in the wilderness without enough food to refuel after their massive battle. At the very least Plume would need to regain her strength if he wanted to get out of here quickly.

Ash crossed his arms and waited as Nidoking furiously tore his way over to him. He was a bit wary of his friend, who was only a slight push away from slipping into a rampage, but did not fear him. Nidoking could be dangerous but if Ash was confident in one thing, it was that Nidoking would never harm him.

Nidoking towered above him, his hulking form tense with stress. Ash held his breath. He was finally a little bit afraid. It was a natural reaction to having a gigantic, agitated Nidoking built for battle right above him.

His friend took his shoulder in his massive claws and put another of the dull weapons underneath Ash's chin, so gently that Ash could barely feel it. Nidoking's eyes lost the dangerous glaze and became the calm, serene slits that were more human than most humans could ever know.

Ash felt a bit guilty for upsetting his friend so much. He was careless with his words – he should have known that Nidoking wouldn't react well to Ash so much as suggesting that his death might have been for the best. Nidoking didn't exactly follow much logic when it came to Ash's well-being.

"I'm sorry." He apologized sincerely. Ash held Nidoking's gaze, which was very tired and seemed older than his physical age by far. "I wasn't thinking. That was a stupid thing to say."

Nidoking let him go and grunted his own apology. Ash patted Nidoking's powerful shoulder even as the poison-type lightly tapped him on the forehead with one of his dull claws, both methods of showing their own understanding.

He bent down to pick up the food to resume filling the bowls for his friends. Once he was done with the preparations he eyed the large portion still in the torn bag and threw it to the ground. Infernus would just take it out into the wilderness and do whatever it was he did to eat.

Ash took a step back so that he could avoid the frenzy that was sure to occur. His fingers, well-trained in this particular movement, rapidly tapped the release button on every one of his friends' pokeballs. The air was filled with intense scarlet energy before his friends materialized.

"Hey!" He said with a wide grin, which only grew more exuberant when he was suddenly crushed in a tight hug by Tangrowth. Ash just let himself relax into the hug and tried to return it as best he could, although that was very difficult once Seeker plummeted into his back with a soft thud and the rest of his friends crowded around him. Dazed and Infernus hung away to the side.

"Thank you. All of you." Ash said seriously once Tangrowth slackened his grip. He gently stroked Seeker's head as he looked over from Bruiser to Torrent to Dazed to Oz to Infernus. All looked to be in great health, although there was a weariness in their eyes that betrayed the conflicts they had weathered. "But all of that's over now! Eat up!"

Bruiser pounded his chest, which Ash returned with a quick smile. He dipped his head in respect to the fighting-type, who pulled his reptilian face back into a grin before he picked up his bowl and sat cross-legged on the dull shards of stone that layered the beach. The fighting-type considerately pulled Seeker's small bowl over to the shade cast by Tangrowth. Seeker chittered into Ash's ear and snuggled into his neck before she fluttered down to devour her meal.

Ash checked on Oz and Tangrowth for a brief moment. Oz ate in a dignified position, although the odd arc of electricity shot through her thick, striped fur whenever one of Tangrowth's vines came a bit too close. She lazily popped several pieces of the food into her large mouth and shredded particularly tough pieces with her sharp fangs. Every now and then her surly expression would shift into bliss as she found some of the berries intermixed with the dry food.

He snorted once he saw that Tangrowth had unceremoniously dumped the contents of his bowl into the mouth that Ash had never seen. Tangrowth gurgled happily and flailed his vines about as one vine pulled the bowl, completely absent of any trace of food, out of his thick shell of wriggling vines and happily juggled it between stray appendages. It looked like he'd found something to hold his attention while Sneasel was away.

As his friends ravenously tore into their meals, Ash wandered over to Dazed and Infernus. Dazed gave him a brief nod before she suddenly rolled her eyes. Ash cocked his head at her quizzically, but instantly understood when Infernus teleported all of ten feet to pick up what was left of the food bag. Ash snorted again. It looked like Dazed didn't approve of Infernus' frivolous use of Teleport.

Infernus appeared again. He didn't glow red with heat or make the air warp around him, so he was certainly limiting his output of energy. Ash had seen what Infernus was capable of when he wasn't holding back. It would be incredible to see what he could do in the Conference.

"How are you two feeling? I know that you two did a lot last night." Ash asked concernedly. He figured it didn't matter if the battle was last night or if they'd washed up several days later. Once he'd checked the date he would just head back home.

Dazed shrugged noncommittally and looked away. Her eyes were distant, although they lightly glowed once every few seconds. Ash frowned at her. This had to be about her loss of telepathy. He couldn't think of anything else that would make her so sullen.

He'd have to discuss it with her.

Infernus, on the other hand, looked angry. His body briefly flared up with blue fire, although he quickly calmed it once more. The fire-type didn't have a cruel smirk on his face, for once. Instead it was more of a frustrated scowl.

"You never got to beat the Charizard?" Ash guessed. His memory of that part of the night was a little fuzzy. He could remember observing the battle between Mew and Mewtwo from the Legend's eyes and throwing the Ultra Ball at Mewtwo, but he couldn't remember the details of the battles between his friends and the clones aside from that his friends had almost fought them to a stalemate.

The Magmortar shrugged and snorted a puff of smoke and fire. He just crossed his arms and glared out at the soft, azure expanse of the ocean.

Ash frowned and thought. Infernus wasn't exactly helping him interpret whatever meaning he was trying to convey. Apparently he wasn't mad about the Charizard, but what else – oh.

"You didn't have a clone to fight, did you?"

Infernus nodded and snarled savagely, although Dazed rolled her eyes at the raging fire-type. He growled and, irritated, spat a huge stream of blue flame into the air. It seemed to linger before it finally died, nothing but a thick column of smoke left behind.

Ash couldn't help but sigh exasperatedly as he gazed at Infernus. Nidoking lumbered up behind him, similarly annoyed. Any of the others would be glad that they didn't have to fight their clone. It couldn't have been a pleasant experience fighting something that looked exactly as you did and with the same abilities.

But of course Infernus would be upset by not being forced to suffer through it. Despite his hate for the Creature, Ash was briefly thankful for it having the intelligence to avoid creating a clone for Infernus. There was no way that a battle between two exceptionally powerful Magmortar with very little regard for others could turn out well.

"Don't worry about that, Infernus. I'm sure you'll have plenty of worthy opponents at the Conference." Ash commented drily. Infernus grinned maliciously and spat another stream of roaring blue flame into the sky. Hopefully he'd keep that enthusiasm when the time came.

Infernus eyed the bag of food greedily. It was already being devoured by the flames brought on from the Magmortar's fiery touch. The bag's edges were black and white and had begun to curl in on themselves.

"Go ahead. You've earned it." Ash waved Infernus away with a slight smile. Infernus just smirked and wandered off. A cloud of steam drifted behind him.

Ash looked over at Dazed. She looked back. He frowned at her. Something seemed out of place…

"Where's your pendulum?" Ash questioned quietly. Hypno were only seen without a pendulum immediately after their evolution from Drowzee. Their pendulum was the focus through which they amplified their power, much like the spoons of an Alakazam. Dazed would still be a powerful combatant without her pendulum, but she was crippled. Fine control was beyond her without it.

Dazed squeezed her eyes shut, although Ash could see the powerful glow of energy behind the lids.

Gone.

A light, breathless voice echoed dimly into his mind. It was nowhere near as strong or coherent as when he had spoken with his friend back at New Island. She was indistinct now, although he could still hear the steely calmness with which he identified her.

But that didn't matter. What mattered was that Dazed could still speak! When he ecstatically voiced that thought, she opened her eyes. They flashed again.

Barely

Her voice echoed even more this time and was faint. Dazed trembled with the effort. She absentmindedly moved her hand to her mane to polish her pendulum, but quickly snapped it back into place when its absence struck her.

"Can you make a new one?" He asked worriedly, mind racing in concern at the thought that Dazed would be stuck like this. Her powers made her who she was. Without her pendulum, her focus, she would only live a half-life.

She nodded, although her large, furred fingers continued to rub together anxiously. Despite her unease, Ash smiled in relief. "Do you need any help?"

Dazed shook her head quickly. Ash wasn't surprised. Nobody had ever seen a Hypno fashion their pendulum. It was supposed to be a sacred experience for them, a sort of coming of age ceremony. It was highly spiritual and meant to be done in a solitary fashion.

"I understand." He assured her. She tiredly nodded and rubbed at her eyes. Her limbs still trembled slightly, a clear sign that she wasn't back to full strength. "Listen, could you keep an eye on the others for a few minutes? I need to take care of a few things."

The Hypno nodded in a mechanical fashion. She stared at him eerily for a few moments before she grew bored and stared off at Tangrowth and the others. Ash gave her one last smile before he walked a fair distance away from his friends, although not so far that they couldn't see him.

Once he was far enough away that he could speak without being disturbed he sat down. Ash barely registered the dull prodding of the stone shards or the seawater that had pooled underneath the rocky beach. He just reached down to his belt and pulled his PokeNav off. It was still in its case so it was unscathed from any exposure to the seawater.

Before he continued, Ash pulled his water bottle out and inspected it. It was full, thankfully, and relatively cool thanks to the chilly winter air. He uncapped it and let the blessed liquid cascade down his throat and soothe the fire that burned in his arid esophagus.

He absentmindedly licked his lips and looked back down at his PokeNav. Ash removed it from its case and checked its history. There were eight messages, seven from Lance and one from his mother.

The first thing he did was to check his location. He was a little under a hundred miles away from Fuschia. If he tried to walk there it would take several days, probably more thanks to the harsh terrain. His best option would be to fly. Plume was more than capable of carrying him.

Ash almost checked on his mother's first, but he hesitated. A fragment of fact sprung into his mind. Mewtwo had said he was Giovanni's spawn. Mewtwo had said that he was responsible for Giovanni's sins.

The sins of the father pass onto the son.

The trainer recoiled from the implication that Mewtwo had spelled out. That couldn't be it! The Creature was lying! That could not be the truth, he wouldn't let it!

He took a deep breath once he realized that Dazed was staring at him with concern. Ash let the emotion leave him as he exhaled several times. His body slackened and he stared at the PokeNav screen.

He'd call his mother back later. Lance needed to talk to him.

Ash skimmed over Lance's messages. They were about what he'd expected: Frantic questions and worried pleas about his condition. He smiled a bit at the concern, although he let the grin slip away once his cheeks started to ache. Some of the soreness he'd expected was beginning to spring up, although it was very faint.

Finally, he typed in Lance's number. He looked down at the PokeNav's small screen as he waited for the Champion to pick up. Ash adjusted his hat a bit, annoyed at the salt that made his jet black hair feel greasy and thick. He'd definitely need a shower soon. The salt was one of the worst downsides of being around the ocean.

His eyes snapped back down to the PokeNav once he heard the beep that confirmed Lance had picked it up. Ash plastered a small smile on his face once he saw the Champion, who was, as usual, seated in his large office. Gible and Bagon were curled up asleep on his desk and Ash could see Dragonite's massive, scaled tail in the background. He must have been asleep on the floor.

Before Lance started with his frantic inquiries Ash took a brief moment to examine him. The Champion needed a good night's rest. His ordinarily sharp eyes were red with exhaustion and were rimmed with darkness. Lance's face was tense and hard, albeit concerned and worried. The Champion's fists were clenched and he was staring at Ash in relief.

But above all of the exterior raggedness, Ash could see something else. It was like the fire inside him had been extinguished. Like his spirit had been dampened, but not put out. Lance just looked weary, something that Ash had never associated with the most powerful Master in all of Indigo. Even when they'd spent all day training and climbing Mt. Ember Lance had been an inexhaustible supply of energy. It was like he didn't need food or water to fuel him, just his own iron will.

"Thank Ho-Oh you're alright!" Lance exclaimed in a weak voice, a far cry from his normal boom. His dim eyes locked onto Ash. "Ash, what happened? I received your message, but I don't have any answers. Nobody does."

"Can you tell me what kind of damage was done?"

Lance nodded and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. Ash feared that he had gone to sleep, but the Champion opened his angular eyes at last.

"About what you'd expect. The coast suffered extreme damage, but the hurricanes dissipated before they could actually destroy any cities. A lot of people are in trouble, but I've devoted the League to putting them back on their feet. It's bad, but it could have been much worse."

The Champion patted the sleeping Bagon on her bony crest. "Kanto's worse off than Johto. The hurricanes around Johto were held in check by…something. They still hit after a while, but they'd barely made landfall before they disappeared. Johto just has a few floods. They'll be fixed up in no time."

Ash breathed a sigh of relief. He'd been afraid of so much worse. Mew had arrived just in time. Mewtwo had probably been forced to stop fueling the storms once it realized Mew was a legitimate threat.

"Tell me what happened." Lance demanded, not unkindly. Ash snapped back to attention and nodded. His face settled into a firm scowl as he recalled what he could remember of the events.

"I guess I'd better start from the beginning." He said as he settled into a more comfortable position. Ash opened his mouth but no words came out. A barrier in his mind seemed to break and his tongue was once more under his command. "A few days ago I got a message from a Dragonite. It told me about a tournament with a bunch of strong trainers that I was invited to. I decided to go. We left on a boat to a place called New Island."

"You sent the name in your message. It was mentioned in some of the data recovered from the Rocket HQ." Lance interjected, his brow furrowed. "I dispatched several Pidgeot scouts to the suspected location, but I haven't found anything yet. Nothing's there."

"Mewtwo." Ash growled. His knuckles turned white as he clenched the PokeNav tightly. A shadow passed over Lance's angular face at the mention of the Creature.

Lance leaned forward and put his hands together. His eyes, still tired, suddenly blazed up with the inner fire he carried within him. The Champion's anger briefly brought back his own self rather than the exhausted shell Ash had been speaking to.

"What happened to it?!" The Champion thundered. Ash felt himself edge back from the screen. Lance wasn't angry at him, but his fury was as intimidating as that of Nidoking. Lance took a deep breath and he calmed down somewhat. "What happened to it?"

Ash scowled. "It's still alive. Mew came and defeated it, but spared it. All I know is that it said it wouldn't cause any trouble…not that I believe it." He added bitterly. "I guess we have to trust Mew."

"Mew appeared?" Lance asked, his eyes alight with interest. "What was it like?"

The trainer stared off into the sky thoughtfully. "Strong." He said at last. "I didn't get to talk to it much, but I got to see it fight. It lost to Mewtwo but just barely. It was incredible."

Lance hummed understandingly. He suddenly grew serious. "Ash, what happened to Moltres? It left Knot Island, but then I couldn't feel it for a few hours. Now" The Champion looked at his hands, which trembled slightly. "It just vanished and I grew very, very weak. Is Moltres alright?"

"I don't know." Ash confessed. He tried to remember the battle. All that came to mind was fire meeting light and a deep glow thousands of feet below the raging waves of the black ocean. "Mewtwo trapped it underneath the ocean. It might still be there."

"No." The Champion murmured as he shut his eyes. Ash could have sworn that there was a slight nimbus of light about him, but it was gone as soon as it appeared. "It's free. I can feel that much. Moltres is faded."

"Faded?" Ash echoed.

"How do I explain this?" Lance asked rhetorically. He smiled slightly. It was the first one that didn't seemed pained or anxious in some way. "There's not really a way to communicate the feeling of being connected to something like Moltres. You can't describe being a hurricane or volcano."

Lance reclined in his throne. His long, calloused fingers tapped the thick armrest as he looked at Ash thoughtfully. "Ever since Moltres touched me I could feel it. It never really did anything with the connection, but when you sent me that message it knew what to do. And then it was gone. It was like part of my soul was missing – like I was incomplete."

"It wasn't a pleasant experience." Lance gave a dull grin as he mimicked his words from after Moltres had first communicated with him. "I wouldn't recommend it."

"I'll remember that." Ash replied with a slight smile. His eyes narrowed. "So, what now?"

"That," Lance remarked, "is a very good question. I can't say I know the answer. This isn't over. Not for the League, at any rate. Mewtwo will pay for what it has done to the world. We won't just let it go."

Ash listened with eager ears. Any chance he had to actually get revenge on Mewtwo was good enough for him. He didn't care what he had to do, he would find a way.

"Don't get any ideas. You won't be involved." The Champion cut in firmly. He easily weathered the sullen, angry glare Ash flashed at him. "Don't try that on me, Ash. It won't work."

He scowled. "Why not? I've been involved already!"

"Exactly!" Lance confirmed. His piercing gaze was calm and impassive as he regarded the young trainer. "You've been put into far too many life-threatening situations under my watch and I'm not about to let it happen again. You're very strong, Ash, but you shouldn't have to deal with these things."

Lance gently stroked Bagon's thick, bony shell to focus his thoughts. "Just focus on the Conference. It's in just over a month. Forget all of this. The League will handle it – I promise."

"I can help!" Ash pleaded, his pride forgotten in favor of finding some way to strike back at the Creature. "You know I can."

"Yes, I do." Lance smiled a bit sadly. "But this isn't your fight anymore. You've gone through far too much already. Let us fix this."

His fists clenched. Ash wanted to argue more, to demand that he be allowed to assist their hunt for Mewtwo. There had to be something he could do to help, even if Lance wouldn't let him fight the Creature.

But even as he drew breath to fight for his opinion, he stopped. One look into Lance's steely gaze was enough to know that the Champion wouldn't give in. Ash wouldn't test his willpower against that of Champion Lance.

"Fine." He relented.

Lance grinned at him. It seemed that he was getting some of his normal vigor back. That meant Moltres must be recovering from the disastrous results of its cataclysmic clash with Mewtwo. Ash idly wondered just how much damage they had done. If they weren't over an empty expanse of ocean Ash had no doubt that whatever land there was would have been absolutely torched.

"Look, there's a lot to do in a month. Train, travel, maybe track down a rare pokemon or two. Relax and enjoy life for a while." Lance pressed with a bright expression on his face. He didn't seem to have any sort of tension left. "Trust me, there'll be plenty of stress at the Conference. It really puts you on the edge."

"I understand." Ash confirmed, his mind awash with possibilities. There weren't that many places in Kanto he hadn't visited, although he could always swing up to Lavender Town. He'd rather not, if only for the fact that he probably wouldn't be able to resist finding a ghost-type while he was there. Normally he'd jump at the opportunity, but there just wasn't enough time to bond with one before the Conference would consume all of his focus.

Or else he could follow a burning passion Lance's words had reignited in him: Finding the Rhydon that he'd first encountered on the way to Saffron so long ago. He owed a lot to it, including Infernus' loyalty, and he wanted to test his strength against the monster of a rock-type. Ash had grown a lot. Before his friends hadn't even been able to scratch it. Now he bet he could fight it on even terms.

"Gave you a bit of inspiration, did I?" Lance smirked lightly. Ash nodded stiffly. "That's good. Reach out and take your goal by the ears. Don't just meet whatever it is, surpass it."

"I will."

"Good, good." The Champion replied. His angular eyes flickered up away from the camera. Lance deflated and some weariness crept back into his frame. The intense light that seemed to drive him dimmed. "I'm sorry, Ash, but I've got to go. There's a lot of work to get done thanks to our mutual friend."

Ash nodded. "I understand. I'll see you at the Conference."

"See you there!" Lance grinned madly. A moment later the screen blackened and the call cut off. Ash looked at his PokeNav before he sighed and put in another number, one that he wasn't sure he wanted to call.

He thought about what he had learned. Mewtwo had done a lot of damage, but not as much as he had feared. Mew had gotten there just in time. The League was already rebuilding. Everything was going to be alright.

But now he was going into unsure grounds. Ash just wanted to get this conversation over with and find the giant Rhydon. He knew that Rhydon herds in Kanto tended to migrate to the mountainous territory of Fuschia in the winter. Hopefully someone in the area would have noticed such a spectacular specimen of the species.

Ash had a brief wild grin before it faded and died. He couldn't do that yet. He had to get something else out of the way first.

His hands shook a bit as he rapidly typed in Professor Oak's video phone number. It rang and rang for nearly a minute. Ash figured that Professor Oak was busy cleaning up Pallet and was about to hang up when the screen suddenly flared up.

"Ash? Thank goodness. We were worried out of our minds. Do you need any help?" Oak asked steadily. His familiar, soothing voice was calm and measured. It was like nothing had happened, despite the obvious concern.

"I'm fine, thank you." He said. Ash let a bit of cheer flit back into his tone. He really was glad to see that Professor Oak was alright. All he could remember was that Mewtwo had shown him a brief glimpse of Pallet Town and that his mother was okay. "How's Pallet? That storm was nasty."

"Pallet Town is fine." Oak replied, relief evident. "Alakazam was able to head off the worst of the storm. It only skimmed us. Pikachu," he smiled at the small, tired rodent perched lazily on his shoulder, which had electricity sparking constantly from its cheeks, a sure sign of overcharge, "absorbed the lightning until he was knocked out."

Ash looked at the small electric-type with newfound respect. He knew it was tough to help Oak and Arcanine keep the Corral's inhabitants in line, but absorbing lightning was no easy feat for any electric-type. Even Electivire could only absorb around ten bolts or so before the absurd amounts of energy they had taken in would knock them out – if not kill them.

"Indeed. He's a tough little creature." Oak said fondly. Ash shook the look off of his face. "Alakazam and Machamp are helping to rebuild. It won't take long. As I said, the storm barely struck us." His aged face wrinkled in distaste. "Not to say that it didn't do quite a bit of damage."

"Is my mother alright?"

Oak's eyes widened and he looked like he wanted to facepalm. "Of course! She's out with a few of my assistants checking on the pokemon. I can call her, if you –"

"No." Ash hastily interjected. Oak's eyes narrowed dangerously. There was a glint in them that reminded Ash that he was speaking with a genius. "I – I'll call her later. Just tell that I'm fine."

"Very well." Professor Oak surrendered. He met Ash's eyes. "But I need to know what's upsetting you. You can talk to me, Ash."

Ash opened his mouth but it shut of its own accord. Even if he wanted to – and he wasn't sure that he did – his tongue wouldn't follow his commands. It was separated from him by a force far beyond his ability to combat.

"You'll understand later." He said mechanically. Ash felt a deep pressure take control of him. His body was just a puppet now. He was a slave in his own temple. "Lance will inform you."

His fingers cut off the call and flipped the PokeNav shut with quick, choppy movements that lacked any of the grace his own held. The force released Ash from its control and he let his back give out from under him. He barely felt anything as he collapsed into the bed of stone.

He shut his eyes and breathed deeply, hate welled up inside of him. He hated Mewtwo. Even now, when it was supposedly redeemed, it still toyed with his body as though it were its own. As though he belonged to it.

Ash's fists clenched and his arms felt weak as he pushed himself up. He glanced over to his friends and saw that they were looking at him worriedly, their meal paused. The trainer gave them a short wave and they resumed eating, although Dazed and Nidoking continued to stare at him.

He ignored his own weakness and pulled himself up. Ash clipped the PokeNav back onto his belt as he found himself on his feet again. His back was a little wet from the shallow seawater that flooded the beach but he didn't care.

All that mattered now was that he prepare for the Conference and do his best to keep his thoughts away from the conflicts that still loomed in the future. There was nothing he could do about those, but he could prepare and grow strong.

He'd do everyone proud, he swore as he staggered back over to his friends. Nidoking lumbered out to meet him, the great behemoth's concern clearly reflected in his shiny black eyes.

More than that he'd do his team proud. They were the ones that had brought him this far. They were the ones that had fought and bled for every victory. He had just been along for the ride.

He gave a happy wave to his friend. That ought to calm Nidoking down a bit. He didn't want the whole beach getting wrecked just because the poison-type was upset. Nidoking still needed to work on his control a bit, especially since his power had grown so much under Lance's tutelage. Battling the dragons had done a lot for him.

"Hey, buddy. I'm fine. Just a little tired." He said soothingly to Nidoking once his friend had reached him. Ash laid a hand on his friend's thick hide. A wild grin adorned his dirty face. "By the way, do you remember that giant Rhydon that we fought a long time ago?"

Nidoking's nostrils flared at the memory of his defeat and his great head moved up and down slowly. He snorted and ground the heel of his heavy foot into the ground, which made the stone around them tremble with the energy. Ash held on tightly lest he be thrown to the ground.

"Well, if we have any luck we'll have a rematch."

With that Ash started to walk away. Plume circled above the circle of his friends and he could see Sneasel playfully blowing gusts of frozen air onto Tangrowth from behind. Now that they had some knowledge of the area he could at least get ready to put his plans into action.

XX

Most of his friends were napping. Sneasel had led the way to a nice, open clearing in the thick forest that enveloped the beach. It was only a few hundred meters away and was clear enough for Plume to easily launch into the sky but provided enough shade to rest comfortably.

He leaned back against Nidoking's tough hide. His friend was dozing off, but still had one eye lazily opened to keep watch for threats. Nidoking's ears twitched every now and then, but he didn't move aside from the steady rise and fall of his chest.

Dazed had left. She had motioned that she would be back soon. Ash figured she was going off to create another pendulum. She'd looked tense and far less serene than usual since he'd woken up. Hopefully a new focus for her psychic powers would be enough to restore her peace of mind.

Ash looked around for Oz. He wanted to talk to her. She had been hanging back from the team for a while now, aside from Infernus. The Electabuzz seemed obsessed with finding a way to overcome the fire-type, although Infernus' exponentially increase in power ever since he evolved had left her in the dust.

He found her exactly where he expected to see her: Leaning back against a tree not too far from where Infernus slept in a pool of lava. Torrent had doused the area heavily with water and regularly blasted it with freezing gusts of air to keep the sheer heat released by the molten stone from igniting the forest. Normally Dazed would have contained the heat with a psychic shield but that wasn't an option at the moment.

The trainer stood up as quietly as he could, lest he interrupt his friends' sleep. Nidoking's arm reached out for him almost unconsciously, but Ash gently pushed the powerful limb down. His friend grunted softly and let him go.

"I'll be right back." He promised as he stepped away. Ash veered around Bruiser and Seeker, who slept cradled by the fighting-type's powerful arms, and headed to Oz. Her fierce eyes snapped open and she growled, a deep, guttural sound that would have raised the hair on the back of his neck if he hadn't seen Nidoking in a blood rage, before she realized who it was.

Oz focused slightly and the electricity that crackled through her thick coat of black and yellow fur ceased. She made to stand up to acknowledge Ash, but he waved that away as he sat down in front of her.

"No, sit." He said. Oz nodded and stared at him. "So, how are you feeling? I saw you last night – you were incredible."

The Electabuzz's coat was alit with currents of electricity as she preened under his compliment, clearly pleased with herself. Some of his friends were traumatized by the events. Seeker was even meeker than usual once her excitement over seeing Ash had worn off, Bruiser was quiet and withdrawn, and Plume seemed rather pensive over the stalemate she had fought her own clone to.

Oz was like Infernus if he would have had a clone to battle. She was energetic and gleeful from the thrill of combat until the events of the previous night finally hit her and she felt the need to rest, but even now her pride in the skill and strength she had shown in fighting her empowered clone was clear to behold.

Ash could see her in his mind's eye now, one of the few images he had glimpsed of her. Oz stood tall and proud as she was enveloped in the vast arcs of electricity created by the raging clash of the electric-types. She fought hard and matched her clone blow for blow until the explosions of light and plasma forced Ash to look away.

"Anyways, how are you feeling?" He repeated. Ash couldn't help but smile in return when she gave a sort of grin that bared her sharp, pointed fangs and shot a small bolt of electricity into the air. It collided with a limb and left it smoking and black. "I'm glad."

"We don't have much longer until we can really see how powerful we are." He related to Oz. She listened interestedly. "I know you've heard me and Lance talking about the Conference, but do you really know what it is?"

Oz shook her head. A bit of lightning shot through the air with her movements. It wasn't as powerful as it had been last night. It looked like Oz would need to feed on a source of electricity soon. Normal food and berries was enough to sustain her, but the strength of an Electabuzz came from the power they absorbed. Nidoking would be able to fuel her for a bit longer with a Thunderbolt but getting back to civilization was even more necessary.

Ash was just glad that Electabuzz didn't require half as much electrical power as an Electivire. Electivire could easily absorb a lightning bolt and then require another in around six months, whereas a single lightning bolt would be enough to easily fuel a small herd of Electabuzz and Elekid for around a year.

It wasn't much of an issue since the League's decoy power plants were enough to sate their need for power, but it would introduce some additional complications once Oz evolved. He'd prefer to not let her feed on other electric-types as some Electivire were known to do once they were desperate enough.

He shook himself back into focus. Those contemplations could come later. Right now it was Oz's curiosity that needed to be sated, not her thirst for power.

"The Conference is where the best trainers and teams in Indigo come to find out who's the strongest. We battle each other until only one remains." Ash explained. Oz nodded understandingly. He knew the harsh society and social habits of Electabuzz were based around who was the strongest. It was nothing foreign to her as it would be to Tangrowth. "Whoever wins is the Conference Champion and their team is entered into the Hall of Fame."

Oz bared her fangs and sparked happily at the thought of leaving a legacy. Even if it wasn't Infernus, she liked beating others.

"Anyways, I just wanted to make sure you were alright. You've been pretty quiet lately." He said. Oz nodded in recognition of his concern and closed her eyes. It looked like she didn't want to talk anymore. Ash smiled at his newest friend one last team before he walked away.

He'd like to get in a short nap of his own before Dazed came back. The exhaustion of the previous night and the lack of any real sleep was hitting him hard.

XX

Everyone was starting to awake by the time Dazed returned. Ash had woken up not long before the others and watched her silently as she shambled back into the camp. Her eyes were bright lanterns in the shadows that had begun to fall upon the forest. Power seemed to follow her.

He rose, followed quickly by Nidoking. The poison-type didn't seem keen to let Ash out of his sight. Ash didn't mind, though, and patted Nidoking's shoulder affectionately as his friend lumbered beside him.

"Any luck?" He inquired as Dazed shuffled to a stop. Her eyes smiled brightly at him as she raised her left hand, which held a loop of string that ended with a circular, dark blue crystal that was open on the inside. It was almost flat but seemed to have slight facets that glittered in the light of the dying sun.

"It's beautiful." He said in awe as he regarded the jewel. Ash wondered where she had found it. It didn't look like any gem he had seen before.

Dazed's eyes smiled even more. It was amazing how much emotion she could express with just her eyes and face. She didn't have a mouth but it just wasn't necessary for her. Her mind and face could accomplish everything a mouth could, even though she was just now able to attempt to communicate with her greatest tool.

Thank you, Friend-Trainer.

Ash broke out into a grin so wide that it made his face hurt as he heard Dazed's serene, ethereal voice echo dimly into his head. It was still indistinct, but it was stronger than it was this morning and Dazed could actually communicate more than a single word.

Dazed's eyes dimmed after she communicated. It was still horribly draining on her, but at least with her pendulum she could work far more efficiently. She wouldn't have to put all of her strength into telepathy.

"Where'd you find that?"

Dazed didn't speak this time. Ash figured she wanted to conserve what energy she could. Instead her eyes flashed and a large boulder was ripped up from the earth with frightening ease. Her new pendulum shined in unison and the boulder was instantly split apart into two perfect halves.

The two halves rotated to show Ash a core of crystal, although it wasn't the same as whatever gem her pendulum was made of.

Not identical, but similar.

The Hypno spoke into his mind, although her voice was even weaker now. She didn't seem particularly strained, so Ash assumed that she didn't feel like devoting much effort to telepathy. Dazed just used the bare minimum to get the message across.

"Ah." Ash said. "So is it any different than your old one?"

Dazed shook her head. Ash could tell that she knew that he wasn't talking about its looks. At least this one wasn't any different in capabilities. It would be very, very bad if he had to adjust his style with Dazed in the span of a month.

"Good." Ash suddenly turned and whistled for Plume. She lightly swooped down from the gigantic, thick tree that she had found. It was the only one capable of supporting her immense size. "Hey, Plume. Are you ready to head out?"

Plume shrieked happily at the prospect of flying with Ash again and flapped her wings excitedly. Sneasel scurried over to see what was happening, followed closely by Tangrowth. Ash smiled as Plume reached down to nuzzle Sneasel affectionately, although the dark-type did his best to get away from the gigantic bird.

It was a little abrupt, but Dazed was all that they had been waiting on. Ash wasn't about to force her to continue without a pendulum, especially since he was looking for one of the most powerful pokemon he'd ever encountered. He wasn't sure how it would compare against his friends now that they were truly powerful, but from what he'd seen it was at least as powerful as Saph. Certainly more powerful than the Rhypherior that Giovanni had used.

He wanted to reach Fuschia before the dark and bitter cold of winter fell over the land. They had about three hours before the shadows grew into night and he wanted to make the most of it.

Ash let his friends wake themselves and surround him as he pulled on a second jacket, some goggles, and thick gloves. He'd already put on a second pair of socks and a long sleeved shirt underneath his jacket.

Plume would certainly be flying lower than she normally would since he was on her back, but that didn't mean that it wouldn't be horribly could. The air was already chilly and at that high of an altitude it would no doubt be freezing. He wasn't looking forward to flying more than an hour in those conditions.

When he was done he warned his friends that he was going to recall them. He could only imagine how nasty of a shock it would be to be sucked into stasis at random.

"You ready, girl?" He asked Plume as he pulled the goggles on. Ash was more thankful than ever to have storage compartments. Goggles and additional clothes would be a pain to store otherwise.

Plume butted her head against his side happily and cooed at him. He grinned and lightly stroked her glossy feathers before he climbed onto her back and held on for dear life. Ash really needed to buy a saddle for her. He trusted Plume to carry him safely, but it would make him feel a lot more secure. It wasn't exactly safe to go without one.

Ash couldn't hold back a yelp as Plume took off in a blast of air and launched herself high into the freedom of the skies. The wind whipped against his face with bitter force and cold but he couldn't find it in him to care – flying was great, even if he had to make sure to never look down.

Once he'd gotten used to the sensation of being utterly dependent on Plume it was nice. Relaxing, even. He really needed to do this more often. There just hadn't been that many chances before now.

Plume gave one last cry to herald her flight before she suddenly flapped her wings for a second time. Ash's eyes widened and he gripped her powerful body even tighter as the world blurred around them. He'd thought they were going fast before – they weren't. That was just a warm up for Plume.

Perhaps flying wasn't so relaxing after all.

XX

He was fairly certain that there was a law against flying into a city without clearance, but if somebody tried to stop him from flying straight to one of the Fuchsia Pokemon Centers he would just give them Lance's number. Ash was tired, freezing, and his fingers were probably about to fall off from frost bite. His gloves were not nearly enough to keep him warm.

Nevertheless he thanked Plume, who looked like she had only flown for a few minutes rather than an hour. She nipped his hand affectionately as he put his hat back on. He stroked her long crest for a moment and thanked her before he recalled the powerful flying-type.

Ash walked into the blessedly warm, bright Pokemon Center as he clipped Plume's pokeball back onto his belt. As his body was filled with refreshing heat his extremities were awash with a strange, slightly painful itching sensation. He tried to rub life back into his fingers to get rid of the feeling, but to no avail.

"Can I get a room, please?" He chattered. Nurse Joy looked up with concern and wiped away her boredom. The Pokemon Center wasn't very populated. Only a few stragglers hung around. That meant that everyone was either in their rooms very early or they were avoiding Fuchsia for some reason.

"Oh, you poor boy! Of course!" She said quickly as she examined him. Ash bore her scrutiny without any complaint. "I need to see your Trainer ID first."

He nodded and pulled it out with his numb fingers. Nurse Joy quickly put the information into her computer and handed it back. By the time he'd put the ID back a room key was waiting for him.

"Have a nice night! If you need anything don't hesitate to come down." She waved him away cheerily. Ash smiled at the woman and nodded, although he didn't say anything. Right now he just wanted to collapse onto a bed.

Sleep was looking very good right now.

XX

"Hey there! How can I help you?" A cheerful Janine asked him when he walked into the Fuchsia gym. She looked up from the naked blade of a simple knife that she casually spun in her hand. "Have we met before? You look pretty familiar."

"I battled Koga a while back." He replied as he stepped further into the plain building. Ash had a constant smile on his face. He just felt so relaxed now. Last night he'd washed off and had a great night's sleep, although he felt guilty once he saw that Dazed looked rather sickly. She waved off his concerns, though.

He was at the Fuchsia gym for one simple reason: They were the most likely to know where a gigantic, monstrously powerful Rhydon was. It was their responsibility to know about potential dangers in their territory and Koga was more vigilant about that duty than most, largely because of how many powerful and aggressive pokemon made the rough terrain of the Fuchsia territory their home.

"Really?" Janine asked, her lavender eyes narrowed as the teen tried to recognize him. "Mind telling me your name? I've never been the best with faces."

"Ash Ketchum." He told her.

Janine's eyes widened and she stood up with a grin. "Oh, wow! I remember you. Of course, I've heard a lot more."

"Really?" He mimicked her. Unintentionally, of course. Janine didn't seem to notice.

"Yep. Let's just say that my father tends to keep an eye on people when even Surge says they're tough!" The teen laughed. It was a pleasant sound, clear and high. Janine looked closer at him. "Oh, sorry. I forgot that you're actually here for something."

Ash walked up to the desk. Janine quickly sheathed the large knife and placed it on her belt. "I'm looking for information on a specific pokemon. A giant Rhydon."

"Not this again." Janine grumbled, although she didn't seem annoyed by him. "Sorry, that was rude. It's just that we've gotten a ton of requests about it."

"Has anyone gone after it?" He inquired, a bit worried. Ash wasn't sure if he wanted to catch it yet. At the moment he just wanted to find it and battle the giant.

Janine gave him a look. "More than I can count. It's kind of an old legend around here. I'm not supposed to give anyone help, though. If you want to find it you're supposed to go search for yourself. The Fuchsia gym doesn't want to be held liable if it hurts or kills you."

"I understand." He told her. Ash made to leave. Perhaps someone around town could help him if the gym wouldn't.

"Wait!" Janine called out. Ash turned around. The ninja glanced around suspiciously. "That's our policy for most people. You're trusted by the League, so I think I can help you without getting into much trouble. Father wouldn't mind."

A grin broke out on Ash's face. "Really? Thanks!"

"No problem." Janine laughed. Her face pinched into a more serious expression. "Just don't spread this around. We keep this Rhydon out of the limelight for a reason. It's Champion-level. You're messing with it at your own peril, especially right now."

That just made Ash's desire to go and fight it all the more powerful. He could feel his pulse pounding with excitement in the anticipation of the thrill of the battle even now. It was a great feeling to finally get to fight something within his limits.

This Rhydon wasn't commanded by one of the greatest trainers of all time. This Rhydon wasn't a Legend that embodied Nature itself. It was just a very powerful pokemon that was a worthy adversary for Ash's team.

"I accept the risks." He said with a calm tone that belied the fire in his blood.

"Alright, then." Janine smiled. She pulled out a file from the desk and flipped it open. After a few moments of skimming she pulled a piece of paper out and showed it to him. It was a map of the Fuchsia territory.

Janine held out her hand. "Have you got a map on your pokedex or something?"

Ash nodded and handed her the PokeNav. Janine's eyes lit up when she saw the rare device. "You actually have one of these? They just got released in Hoenn! How'd you grab one?"

"A friend gave it to me." He told the older girl. Ash doubted that Steven would like extra publicity. The former Champion was a rather private individual.

The ninja just nodded and ran through the PokeNav's menus like she knew it better than Ash. In just a few seconds she had found her way to the map of Kanto and set up a small square about eighty miles to the southeast of the ancient city of Fuchsia.

"This is the area it's been staying for the winter." Janine explained as she handed the device back. Ash glanced at the map again before he shut the PokeNav and clipped it to his belt. "Its herd will be very close, and I suggest that you don't mess with them. They wouldn't be too hard to fight off, but you don't want to make the Rhydon angry. It's dangerous enough when it's playing with you."

"I understand. Thank you." Ash said gratefully. Before he could leave, however, Janine's rough hand snapped out and latched onto his wrist. He stiffened a bit at the contact and turned to regard the ninja.

Janine's eyes were deadly serious. "I'm helping you out with the expectation that you won't try to capture the Rhydon unless your life is in danger. Rhydon is more important than you know and it's prideful. If you try to catch it, you'd better make sure you get it on the first try. We of the Fuchsia gym do not want to have to find a way to stop a Champion-level Rhydon on a rampage."

"I understand." Ash repeated. Janine nodded and loosened her grip. The trainer pulled away. "Thanks for the warning."

"Good luck! If you find it make sure to drop by." Janine said cheerfully, a far cry from the serious warrior that had confronted him moments before. "I'm sure Father would love to hear about it. He hasn't been fighting much lately."

That reminded Ash. "Where is Koga?"

He wasn't about to challenge him since he wanted to set out to find Rhydon as soon as possible, but he wouldn't mind speaking to the powerful gym leader again. Ash wouldn't mind a rematch sometime, but he didn't want to deal with the dangerous effects of Koga's poison-types with the Conference just around the corner.

"He's out helping to clean up and make sure that nobody's trying to take advantage of the chaos." Janine shrugged. "That freak storm completely wrecked most of the fishing villages on the coast. We're lucky that it didn't hit us."

"Good luck with that." Ash said. Janine nodded her thanks. "I suppose I'll be back in a few days."

"Bye!" Janine waved her farewell. Ash nodded back before he stepped out of the plain gym and into the bright sun. He fixed a wild grin on his face as he started his journey to the gates, where he would be able to release Nidoking and the rest of his friends.

He had a few days before he would reach the Rhydon's territory. Ash certainly wouldn't mind having his companions out to keep him company.

Ash had already restocked all of his supplies. It was expensive, but he wasn't sure just how long he would be out in the field. Janine had narrowed the area he'd have to search, but the Rhydon's territory was still vast. He might be there for a few weeks before he found his foe.

That didn't matter. As long as he was back in time to train a little before the Conference he would be fine. Ash could easily resume the search in April once the Conference was over. It couldn't be too hard to follow the rumors of the giant Rhydon.

With that he cleared his mind and set off. He had a long way to go and not nearly enough time.

XX

Three days after Ash set out he stood on a high, weathered cliff that looked out over miles of pure wilderness, forests and mountains untouched by any sort of human interference. It was beautiful in a way that humanity's cities weren't.

"Enjoying the view?" He directed to Nidoking, who stood beside him. His guardian snorted and nodded as he looked out at the Fuchsia wilds. Mountains jutted high into the twilight sky and carved through clouds.

He stuck two fingers into his mouth and whistled shrilly. The noise split the air, a high note that made Nidoking's large ears twitch in annoyance. Ash gave a look of apology to Nidoking and ceased to produce the noise. His call would be answered.

Ash smiled when he saw a huge, black shape hurtle through the clouds. Plume's wings stretched outward and cast a massive shadow upon the cliff as she dived down to meet him. In just a few seconds the dark blur stood before him on the cliff, eyes bright and happy. The Pidgeot loved this kind of land. It let her stretch her wings without any fear of damaging human structures.

Perhaps he'd spend a few months out here sometime. He enjoyed it and it would be a good experience away from civilization. It would be nice to be around nobody except his friends for a while. With the events they'd been involved in recently they hadn't had too much time to just relax.

"Did you see anything?" Ash inquired. Plume shook her head and let out a piercing shriek to let the whole world know about her annoyance. He smiled softly and put a comforting hand on her huge, wickedly curved beak. "It's alright. We're just now entering their territory."

Plume cooed at him and nuzzled his hand as he glanced up to the sky. As Ash absentmindedly stroked her feathers he frowned. "It's getting dark. Is there a way to get down this cliff quickly or do we need to set up camp?"

The Pidgeot pointed her beak at the cliff. Ash nodded in understanding. "Thanks, Plume. Just wait here a minute while I get everything ready. Dinner will be ready in no time!"

He smiled as his friend cooed at him. Nidoking shadowed him as Ash began the process to set up a small camp. It didn't take too long. Unless it was raining or snowing he was content to sleep on his sleeping mat under the bright stars and if his friends needed shelter Tangrowth would use Ancient Power to create a few earthen tents.

What took the most time was creating the fire pit – or at least it used to. Ash just glanced over at Nidoking, who nodded and shut his black eyes for a moment as he tapped his huge, clawed foot against the hard ground. A circle with a diameter of about three feet was suddenly depressed into the earth and another motion caused a short wall to surround it.

"Thanks, Nidoking." Ash said to his friend as he laid his sleeping mat on the ground. He didn't really feel like actually cooking anything after a long day of travel, so he went ahead and released the rest of his friends after he had pulled out their food.

"Hey, guys!" He greeted brightly. Ash had felt oddly happy for the last few days. There was almost zero pressure on him for once, although dark thoughts of revenge concerning Mewtwo cropped up every now and then. The rest of the time was great, though. He just walked and spoke with his friends.

There weren't many trainers around this time of year, unfortunately, so he didn't get to test his friends' new strength. It was rather cold, and the trainers capable of entering the Conference didn't want to risk one of their team being injured before the Conference. Since those were the only trainers Ash wanted to challenge there wasn't much use in facing the odd trainer he found. Most of them were enough to give Sneasel a good workout or defeat the dark-type, but otherwise he didn't bother.

Ash glanced over at Sneasel as his thoughts focused on him. The dark-type cocked his head and hissed up at Ash curiously. "Sneasel, do you mind gathering up some firewood really quick?"

Sneasel ceased sharpening his cruel, wickedly hooked claws on a patch of stone and ran off excitedly, glad to be able to help. Tangrowth gurgled and whined for a moment before Ash rolled his eyes and smiled. "Go on and help him."

Tangrowth pulled Ash into a quick, comforting hug before he used his vines to pull his large, heavy body up into the trees. Ash watched the grass-type run off with a quick grin. At least Tangrowth was as excitable as ever.

He had been about to tell Tangrowth to go with Sneasel anyway. Sneasel was good for gathering a lot of brush and small, thin sticks but Tangrowth was needed to rapidly gather the thick chunks of wood that they'd need for Infernus to burn.

That brought Ash's attention back to something he needed to address. His eyes locked onto Infernus, who was engrossed in a glaring match with Oz. Flames rippled up the Magmortar's hulking form, which were matched by wild currents of electricity that glowed carelessly from Oz.

Ash sighed. He didn't need the cliff being destroyed. Not while they were on it, at any rate.

"Infernus!" He intervened. The fire-type growled deeply and stared at him, although his defiance wilted almost immediately. Nidoking loomed threateningly behind Ash, a bead of deathly poison at the tip of his horn. His threats weren't needed. "Come with me and Nidoking for a moment. I need to talk to you."

The Magmortar snorted but acquiesced, although he gave an annoyed puff of hot blue flame at Oz. She snarled and easily dodged it with her incredible reflexes and shot a thin, intense bolt of electricity at him in turn. Infernus just gave her a cruel, mocking smirk as he easily neutralized the attack with Air Lens.

Nidoking gave a harsh, guttural grow at the duo to get them to calm down. Unsurprisingly, they obeyed. Ash wasn't surprised when even Infernus backed down. Whereas Oz was at a definite disadvantage in regards to both skill and power when it came to Nidoking, by all rights Infernus shouldn't have been too intimidated by Nidoking.

Although Infernus' attacks were dampened somewhat by Nidoking's thick armor and ability to use ground-type attacks to protect himself, Infernus had the raw power and sheer determination to match Nidoking easily.

No, it wasn't Nidoking's strength or even the wide variety of attacks Nidoking could use that caused Infernus to back down. Nidoking was quite formidable, even for one of his breed, but the title of the strongest member of the team fell on either Torrent or Infernus. In raw power they were probably evenly matched, although Torrent had the edge thanks to his resistance to fire.

It was Nidoking's…charisma wasn't the right word for it. Nidoking had a presence about him that forced the other team members to stand down. It was the same as the regal aura that shrouded Torrent. Nothing physical, but a commanding presence that demanded obedience.

Ash could feel most of his friends watching the trio as they walked a short distance away. He didn't really care if they listened, but he wanted to keep this discussion between him, Nidoking, and Infernus.

Nidoking grunted softly as they came to a stop and rested on his strong hind legs. Infernus just focused his hard black eyes on Ash with a feverish intensity. They softened a little, but he kept that deadly smirk on his face.

"I'm not quite sure how long it'll take us to find this Rhydon, but I want to have a plan set up for when we do." Ash explained to his two friends. They just listened closely. "We're going to fight it one on one this time. We don't have to gang up on it just to slow it down now."

That made Nidoking nod resolutely, although there was a gleam of excitement and anticipation of a great fight in his face, and Infernus actually smiled instead of giving Ash a mockery of a smirk. He grinned back. Ash enjoyed going up against powerful opponents just as much as any of his friends.

"Which of you want to go out first? You two were the key players in fighting it last time." Ash requested of his friends. He wasn't surprised when Infernus instantly stepped forward and wreathed his body in flames, incapable of controlling his immense power when he was this excited. Infernus looked like a delighted child as fire seared the stone and he happily spat a column of fire high into the sky.

"Alright, then." Ash said, although he stepped back a bit from Infernus. His friend wasn't even close to releasing his full power and he was already burning up. He felt as though his skin would ignite at any moment. Getting a foot away at least dulled the pain.

Nidoking noticed his problem and shuffled in front of him to block the worst of the heat. Ash flashed a smile at him, although he quickly grew more serious and met Nidoking's eyes as Infernus continued to wildly spit flame into the atmosphere.

He could easily read his friend's intention. Nidoking wouldn't have minded fighting the Rhydon first in the least but he was far more willing to think of the potential consequences than Infernus. Ash knew that the Rhydon had been toying with them last time and had still easily weathered their combined assaults. Nidoking wanted to let Infernus rampage against it to get a feel for the giant's true abilities – as did Ash.

"I'll send you up next, then." He nodded at Nidoking. His friend grunted in acceptance. Ash peered over at Infernus, who had finally calmed down. The Magmortar still had that disturbingly cheerful smile on his fiery face, but he wasn't blasting everything around him with terrible blasts of flame anymore.

That was an improvement.

"Let's get back to the camp. I'm sure you're hungry."

XX

"Plume?" Ash whispered confusedly as he saw the massive form of his friend dive down at him. Her wings cast great shadows across the forest. He wiped a bit of sweat off of his brow as she slammed into the ground in front of him and kicked up a huge cloud of dust. The forest around them became silent as the pokemon detected the presence of Plume.

"What is it? Did you see something?" He inquired wildly. A bit of hope surged within him. Ash had been traveling for eight days now and they had found no trace of the Rhydon, despite having been in the territory Janine had directed him to for quite a while.

Plume cooed and nodded. A wild, gleeful smile split Ash's face and he felt his blood begin to pound. It was almost time. This battle had been in the making since almost the beginning of his journey and it was about to be resolved.

How much had he grown? Exponentially. He wasn't recognizable from the weak boy who had been saved from the carnage of the St. Anne. Ash had grown in every way. He was strong now.

He had fought Team Rocket and faced down the Legends that struck fear and awe into every human's heart and lived to tell the tale. He had trained under Elite Four Bruno and the Indigo Champion Lance. He had proven his strength many times over.

But this battle would prove if he had grown enough. If he couldn't defeat this Rhydon than he knew how much more he had to train before he stood even a ghost of a chance against Lance or Steven. Janine had said it was at Champion-level and he could believe it, despite the fact that he hadn't even seen its true strength.

"Can you lead the way?"

Plume shook her head and lowered her body to the ground. Ash cocked an eyebrow. "We have to fly there?"

She nodded. Ash had a quizzical frown as he absentmindedly pulled himself onto her powerful back. How did the herd get somewhere that they would have to fly through? Either they had a secret entrance or Rhydon had manipulated the environment to its advantage.

He held on tightly and quickly pulled his cap off as Plume shot high into the glorious freedom of the sky. The wind whipped and roared around him and Plume didn't seem to notice until his grip became loose and Ash let out a panicked shout to try to alert her that she was going far too fast.

Plume instantly slowed down to only a fraction of the speed that she had been going. Ash took a deep breath and tried to silence his pounding heart. He forced a smile on his face and comfortingly stroked Plume's crest as she looked back at him with her huge head and cooed concernedly at him, although he couldn't actually hear her over the rush of wind.

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