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.


90. The Menace Part 1

He'd never get used to just how easy teleportation could be. There was no discernible change other than the brand new surroundings. No light, no crack, no crashing to the ground feeling like you were about to throw up…it was smooth.

Then again, Ash did have to admit that the last only ever happened with Will.

It was almost unsettling to traverse space so casually. He felt as though he'd blinked and opened his eyes to an entirely new world.

And what a world this was. A dark scowl marred his face as his sharp eyes took in everything around them. It looked as though it had been beautiful at one point. He could imagine the familiar forests of Hoenn filling this shredded clearing – saw the splintered and smoking trees standing tall and straight in his mind's eye.

Ash grimaced as an acrid scent registered in the air filtered through the helmet. The sharp scent of iron and copper was a little too familiar at this point. His eyes widened as he looked to his right and saw the source looking at him with unseeing eyes. Right outside of a covertly hidden mine entrance that had been torn apart to expose its innards lay a Golbat ripped open by some unseen foe. Its eyes were glazed and its mouth fell open to expose the sharp fangs hidden in its maw.

A wave of nausea hit and he fought the urge to sit down. No, he'd seen worse than this. He'd seen death before…memories of the St. Anne flickered across his mind and Ash realized that that really didn't help.

He looked away. Ash didn't want to see the blood-slick organs of the dead Golbat. It was too easy to imagine it was an older Seeker crumpled awkwardly against a small ridge of pale grey stone.

Ash looked more closely at the area around him. Now he saw the still bodies that had hidden from his cursory glance.

A lone Skarmory tangled in the branches of a particularly tall tree, Houndoom with crushed chests and shattered bones, others with holes shot through them with deadly precision that had ended their lives in seconds.

He squeezed his eyes shut. He just needed a moment…

"No…" Ash looked to see Steven staring aghast at the carnage. His face was white. He thought his mentor's hands were shaking. "Not again. NOT AGAIN!"

Ash winced at the roar, raw with rage and despair and fear. His mentor stood still for a second before he released Metagross. His face was blank. Ash thought that might have been worse than the guttural cry from before.

"Contact the colony," Steven commanded. Metagross' eyes flashed red. They were focused on the entrance to the gutted mine. "Ash…we need Dazed and Plume. Sneasel too. Plume needs to scout and see if there are any survivors amongst the attackers that might have fled. If so, we need her to capture them."

He nodded dumbly and did as ordered. His friends appeared side by side in a brilliant flash of light. Dazed's eyes drooped even before she took in the scene around her…she'd known what to expect. Ash's mind must have been an open book.

We must stand firm. Despair has no room in our minds. It will not allow us to avenge this misdeed.

Despite her firm words Ash could feel Dazed's voice waver in his mind. Her focus had been broken.

"Calm," he whispered as he brushed his gloved hand across her shoulder. Though not normally one for being touched Dazed leaned into his hand for a moment before she seemed to regain a bit of her composure.

Thank you, Friend-Trainer.

He nodded. Ash glanced over to Plume and Sneasel. Plume met his gaze with her sharp eyes. She was ready to do whatever necessary. "Scout the area for anyone who is trying to escape. If you find someone make sure they don't get away…Dazed will alert us."

Plume took to the skies in a gust of wind. Ash almost stumbled backwards but caught himself. He couldn't afford a single slipup right now. Not when the stakes were so high.

Ash cast Sneasel a glance. The dark-type was oddly serious and was hunched, ready to spring into action the moment it appeared. His ears twitched constantly and a low rumble sounded within his throat. Every few seconds his head twitched towards the entrance of the mine suspiciously.

"What should –" Ash began, only to be cut off by a sudden eruption of sound and movement from the formerly silent mine. He snapped into motion and released Infernus and Torrent even as what must have been more than twenty Ninjask flickered out of the dark cave, buzzing frantically. "Infernus!"

Infernus roared an affirmative and quickly made to spray a searing blast of flame into their midst. They buzzed quickly out of the way for the most part, but a few were caught in the terrible burst of heat. Ash looked at them, afraid at what he'd find. He couldn't help but exhale thankfully when he saw they were just unconscious.

"Dazed, try and shoot a few –" Ash was cut off by a shake of Steven's head. He paid close attention to the much more experienced trainer.

"Not yet," Steven murmured. He glanced to Ash. "Have Plume follow them. Ancient reported Ninjask being used to overwhelm the colony's defenses. They'll return to their masters, no doubt."

Ash nodded to Dazed, whose eyes burned a brilliant blue for a single moment.

It is done.

Before he could say anything else a blue-black blur exploded from the gutted mine. Ash and his friends jerked back, surprised, but Metagross effortlessly froze them in shells of psychic power before they could attack the newcomer.

Stay your hand, Ash Ketchum. We are allies.

At the "sound" of Mr. Stone's Metagross he relaxed. His friends followed his lead, though Infernus watched the hulking metallic creature with a small grin and a familiar leer. Ash shot Infernus a look and the Magmortar groaned petulantly.

He turned back to the newcomer only to blink when they and Steven seemed involved in a very intense staring contest. Ash shook his head once he noticed their eyes glowing an identical fiery purple – a Psychic Link.

The Metagross' bloody red eyes – so dark they were almost black – focused upon Ash after a few more seconds. Steven massaged his temples wearily. His slate eyes didn't hold any particular focus as the link was severed.

Steven and Champion know what is necessary. Open yourself to me. I will share what has happened here.

Ash breathed in sharply. Did he even want to see the utter brutality that had taken place here? Did he want to see the desperate fight for survival, of Beldum and Metang overwhelmed and taken while their invaders were speared with beams of light or torn limb from limb by the furious defenders?

He finally nodded. It wasn't about what he wanted to see. It was about what he needed to see. His comfort didn't factor in at all. Not now.

His helmet detached itself in a single smooth motion human hands could never match. It settled in his hands – he wasn't sure how he'd known to have them outstretched like that – and he looked up at the massive behemoth before him. Metagross' eyes met his own and he felt as though every bit of him were laid bare.

It was unsettling and if his body weren't locked into place by whatever trance Metagross had lulled him into – and wasn't that impressive, catching him off guard that easily – he would've shivered.

A purple fire flooded his vision, blinding him from everything but the black eyes of Metagross.

See. Listen. Feel. Hear.

He was settled into the small corner of the mines he had claimed for himself. His mind saturated the colony. Invisible threads and bonds wound their way throughout their home. It bound Dumb to Awoken to Hive to Ancient. There were others but they were far away.

He allowed his body to fall into stasis. Movement was not necessary. He lived through the colony. He immersed himself in the mental web. He was Aware of everything now.

He did not feel the effects of time as the colony expanded. His awareness flitted from Dumb to Dumb, Awoken to Awoken. He knew what needed to be done.

He shifted as Eyes bound itself to the network more tightly than ordinary. There were threats. He knew where and what they were now. Shades to Silence the colony, sunder its cohesiveness. Unacceptable.

He was Aware. Diggers appeared above the mine. Shell's Awoken and Dumb intercepted them. Their location was marked in the web. They would feed the colony satisfactorily.

He recalled the Dumb. They would be inefficient in the open. The mine was their home. It would not fall. Not again.

He saw through Eyes. Dormant Dumb detected the invaders. Four humans in the rear. Commanders. Shades howled around them. Distorted Fire shielded them from whatever Dumb might be able to attack.

He dispatched Claw. The threats did not seem formidable. Their strength was focused on the mine.

He felt Shadow enclose the hive. His connection dimmed. His Awareness faded. It was there still. He bound the colony to his will. Cohesiveness was essential. He did not have the numbers his predecessor did. Nor the power.

He Bound seven Dumb to his will. Their capacity was added to his own. They cluttered to the ground. Their mobility was not essential to this task.

He focused upon his connection with Eyes. He shifted Shell's position in the web. Shell would be a sufficient defender. He left Hive only a few of the Dumb. He linked Hive to Eyes' network. Hive would summon help from the humans. He shifted the links so the Awoken were bound to Shell.

He was Aware again. The Shadow cast over the mine gnawed at his mental bonds. He bolstered them to sufficient levels. He pierced the Shadow and relayed through Eyes' network.

He had reached Champion. Through Champion he reached Steven. Through Steven he reached the Storm-Tamer.

He relayed everything he saw through the colony to Steven. Their positions. Their appearances:

The dozen slavering Shades that rushed forward in a pack. Claw intercepted them. They would be collected for stock later.

The Chatterers that flooded into the colony. The Dumb crushed them to the walls. Some of the Dumb were pried from the web by their sonic attacks. The night fliers had been too effective. Communication was compromised.

The flock of Ironwings that flew above. Their attacks were ineffective on the defense. He lost connection to a dozen Dumb and a single Awoken when Blades of Shade flew from the Ironwings. The line was sundered. He cut the compromised from the mental web when the Shade touched them. It was a corruption that could not be allowed to infect the colony in battle.

He must maintain communication. Steven listened through Hive.

He sensed a new addition to the area. The battle continued. The Dumb swarmed several of the invaders that rushed to take the Dumb and Awoken that had been cut from the web. The invaders died.

More of the invaders died. He turned Claw to the new arrival, a large metallic structure that hovered above the Ironwings, but the network was shattered for a brief moment. All he knew was light. Shockwaves rippled throughout the mine. Dust fell. Dumb collapsed, unable to sustain their levitation. Awoken shielded. He could feel that.

He linked the colony immediately. Many were unresponsive. His Awareness was not promising. The defense was shattered by the blast. Memories from an Awoken entered his mind and were processed. Shell was destroyed. Shell would need to be repurposed to renew the colony in the future.

Claw did not link. It had been severed. One of the Dumb detected Claw darkened by Shade. It was not safe to return it to the link. The Dumb and Awoken with it were bound to the ground, still. Unresponsive. Adhesive had entrapped the group.

He felt the last of the Awoken fall to the ground. It was robbed of its strength. Cut off from the colony. The Dumb around it collapsed. A Crawler darted in. Its claws and tail whipped to tap three more Dumb as they charged. They fell, motionless. Corrupted by the Shade.

Swarms of Buzzers darted through the mine. He felt his Awareness grow too loud. His links shuddered and faded. Only Hive and Eyes remained to him. The invaders were drawing near. He recalled Hive and Eyes to him. They had reduced several invaders to pulp.

They fought. The dangerous Crawler had threatened them. It retreated with one less claw. He desired to give chase – his Awareness returned. The Shadow on the mine had lifted. His power was restored.

He made contact with the Ancient Mind. With the Shadow gone the connection would not be in danger.

The colony surged to life. The invaders fled.

"How long?" Ash wheezed, eyes wide at what he'd just seen as he abruptly found his consciousness returned to his own body. It had felt like he'd been in there for at least half an hour, maybe more. "Do we have time?"

Steven almost smiled. It was about the closest thing Ash thought he could get from the former Champion at this dire of a moment. "You were out for ten seconds. A remarkably efficient form of communication, is it not?"

Ten seconds? Pathetic. And this is the pinnacle of their ability.

He nodded dumbly at Steven, too overwhelmed from the rush of foreign sensations and memories to even pay attention to whatever it was Mewtwo was troubling him with.

Despite himself Ash couldn't help but glance at Dazed. Her eyes briefly turned upwards into a smile.

Telepathy is far more effective than those strange noises you create with your face flaps.

Ash barely held back a snort. He didn't think Steven would appreciate it right now even though all he was doing was communing with Ancient. It wasn't exactly the most appropriate moment for him to be laughing.

Still he couldn't help himself…if he remembered correctly they were 'face-gashes'.

Dazed didn't respond but he felt a warm brush of amusement from her. He nodded to his friend one last time and shut his eyes as he waited. Ash didn't like this – he knew they needed information but he wanted to be moving. To be fighting. His palms itched underneath his gloves at this stillness.

He sighed. Well, at least he knew what had happened here. Metagross' – Ancient's, he corrected himself – knowledge had grown a bit fuzzier as the Shadow was thrown on the area and more and more dark-type attacks bombarded their shattered colony, but he still had a very good idea of what had happened.

Even a few days ago he'd found it hard to imagine how anyone could actually invade a Metagross colony successfully. Steven had been quite adamant about impressing their advantages into his head and now, seeing it from the Ancient's perspective, only hit him harder. That sort of cohesiveness…it was almost terrifying to watch, even from his side.

The Ancient killed enemies with no hesitation. The other leaders of the Hive were little more than pieces on a board for it to maneuver and direct at will. It was seamless teamwork, all bound up in a psychic web that linked every member of the colony to its leader.

All it had thought about was ensuring safety and the growth of the hive. Metagross were single-minded if nothing else. They were cold and dispassionate, devoted only to their own success. He considered it a very, very good thing they were anything but common.

Still, he was even more impressed with how the invaders had overcome it, disgusting as that thought was. They knew the weaknesses a lack of communication between the colony could bring and exploited it ruthlessly with dark-type and ghost-type attacks. They'd even set up some sort of dark-type or ghostly field somehow…that was something to look into. It seemed similar in concept to the technique he'd had Sneasel working on since the Indigo Conference. If he was lucky this might give him some ideas.

He shook himself straight. Focus. Ash really didn't need to be thinking of training right now.

No, he needed to think about his opponents.

Whoever they were – he'd seen the four men commanding the small army of pokemon through Eyes but couldn't really make out much of them beyond unadorned tan combat armor – they were extremely resourceful. They essentially had an entire army at their disposal and they hadn't even seemed too concerned with the absolutely brutal scale of the losses they'd taken.

Ash swallowed as he looked across the field. With Ancient's input he could practically see the battle taking place right in front of his eyes. With the Metagross' incredible recall lingering he could even remember what attacks had toppled which trees. The positions the Beldum and Metang had collapsed alongside the corpses of their foes were practically highlighted.

It was unreal.

He rhythmically tapped his fingers against the thin plate of armor on his thighs as he kept on thinking…this might pay off later. It seemed like they'd had plenty of numbers, though the colony had taken almost three quarters of them down from what he'd seen.

Ash couldn't help the grimace at the thought of all that death. It was such a waste. He might not know how they'd been pressed into service but it was hard to imagine any pokemon serving people like that willingly. Maybe their deaths were a blessing?

To be honest he wasn't sure if that was something he wanted to hope for or not. If their lives were so terrible even a brutal, savage end at the legs of a Metagross was better than continued existence he could feel nothing but pity.

Ancient had counted ninety-five pokemon of several different varieties. It looked like whoever this was had somehow captured entire flocks to press into their service…it was something he'd expect from Rockets.

An ugly sneer marred his face before he calmed down. They didn't know who this was for sure. Besides, he couldn't imagine the Rockets not showing up in uniform. They'd always like the world to know exactly who'd committed the atrocity of the week.

But if it was…well, he would have fun beating them senseless with his friends. Maybe he'd even get to shock one of them himself! Ash's hand itched towards his shock baton.

He'd just have to get through their army first. To be honest Ash wasn't that worried. Sure the flocks of Skarmory might be a problem – Skarmory weren't necessarily easy for Plume to handle, even with Heat Wave – but Infernus should be able to blast them from the sky. Torrent could even bring up an Ice Storm, if necessary.

Many of their Mightyena had been massacred. They were used as an advance force, thrown in blindly. Almost all of the broken bodies around the mine's former entrance were of their breed. They looked almost peaceful where they lay, though Ash found that thought completely ruined when he saw a Metang directing several Beldum in dragging the corpses into the remnants of the mine.

The Houndoom had escaped with a decent amount of their pack left alive. Torrent should be able to handle them, though he would need to have Tangrowth backing him up. A Houndoom's fires could be terrible weapons…

As far as he knew most of the poor Golbat and Crobat – the thought of Seeker being one of the creatures heartlessly thrown away on a suicide mission stung – who had been sent in were spread all over the mines. The Beldum hadn't been gentle in slamming them into the walls of the mine with as much force as they could muster. The same was true for many of the Ninjask, though he couldn't help but feel a little worried about the swarm that was still out here somewhere.

Those were the bulk of their forces. There had been individual pokemon mixed into it but he wasn't overly concerned about most of them. No, Ancient's memories had burned two very specific foes into his mind.

The first was that strange bug-type that had helped lead the charge into the mines once that energy blast stripped off the top of the mine. It…wasn't what he'd expected based on most of its type. That bug, "Crawler" as Ancient had named it, was very, very strong.

If its fearless entrance into the mines with claws snapping and piercing and a fiercely bladed purple tail hadn't told him that then the fact that it hadn't hesitated to face down three Metagross spoke volumes to him. It might've lost an appendage but just about any other pokemon that tried that would be splattered all over the ground.

He frowned as he considered it. What was that thing? It almost reminded him of Grey's Scolipede, though there enough differences to make it clear they were separate species

Scolipede was filled with eerie grace. He could still remember the uncanny way it darted and wove around every single one of Oz's attacks. Its skittering legs had been utterly silent. Its blades moved with impossible precision and blinding speed. When it had attacked Oz it was like a surgeon – or an assassin.

This new insect-like pokemon was something else. It had dark purple armor. Its body was segmented and heavily protected by the ridged carapace it bore. That hadn't cracked underneath the force of Eyes' glancing blow was telling. Though its physical attacks had done little to Metagross he had no doubt that it was absolutely lethal if it faced an unarmored foe. Not to mention that tail gave it a nasty advantage if it had room to swing it.

Ash wouldn't make the mistake of taking it lightly. But the problem was that he didn't even know what it was! Ash knew he'd seen it before. He just couldn't remember where. In one of the League databases, perhaps? He'd looked through the registered pokemon of all the other Leagues' Gym Leaders and Elite Four…

He sighed. He'd ask Steven. For now maybe he could try to think of a counter to whatever had managed to throw the hole colony into chaos by shrouding it in the alien energy wielded by ghosts and dark-types. That would be crippling to Dazed. Ash scowled – the last time they'd faced anything like that was in the Conference against Michael. He didn't want Dazed to be that helpless again.

"Ash!" Steven frowned. He guiltily looked at the man. His mentor didn't seem too upset, though he was just a bit distracted when Juliet the Gardevoir materialized beside the former Champion. "Return your team. Ancient has pinpointed their location. Plume has found it as well, they say. We'll teleport just a little ways off. There's too much interference to get there directly and I don't want to risk an approach from the air with so many Skarmory and that airship about," he explained when Ash sent him a questioning look. "Ancient says we have time, though little to waste."

"Understood!" Ash quickly recalled his friends after giving them a nod. They'd be ready when they were needed. He slung his helmet back on, allowing it to seal for a moment as Steven offered some parting instructions to Ancient.

"…seal the area. Retreat into the mine until Roxanne and the Rustboro Gym Trainers show up. League forces will arrive shortly to search the area. Instruct them to remain here. Once both the Rangers and Roxanne arrive, send Roxanne to us with her Gym Trainers."

Ancient's eyes flashed before it smoothly levitated itself and flew back into the mine.

"Follow my lead," The older trainer commanded. Ash nodded quickly. He trusted Steven on this. "Good. When we arrive immediately remove Sneasel. Release any of the others you think can be stealthy. Dazed might not be useful until we remove this…Shadow…over the area. Stay back. I'll have Claydol remain by your side until the area is clear for Dazed."

Ash nodded again. Steven gave him a strained smile before he turned to Juliet. "Let's go."

In an instant they were miles away. Ash actually stumbled forward, though one of Steven's hands caught him around the collar and pulled him up. Once he was reoriented – he never thought he'd have to worry about Juliet having teleportation issues – Ash instantly released Sneasel.

The dark-type hissed quietly at something Ash couldn't see. His feather twitched and he huddled close to Ash. Sneasel's claws hung naked from their sheathes, ready to rend and tear whatever challenged them. Ash felt his own breaths come faster and faster…the pounding of his heart grew loud in his ears as he realized just how close they were to real battle.

It wasn't quite as exciting of a prospect as before.

He twitched when Metagross lumbered across the clearing. It was eerily silent as ever. How did they even do that? Even Sneasel couldn't sneak around so easily. Ash also decided to ignore the fact that Claydol had somehow appeared right beside him a moment ago without him noticing.

Ash shook his head. He glanced up and thought he saw Plume's shape wheel around thousands of feet above. She was safe. His heart slowed just a little.

But he couldn't rely on just Sneasel…

Bruiser, Seeker, and Oz appeared. They were all utterly silent, more than aware of the situation. Ash kept an eye on Steven, who had his eyes shut. His jaw was clenched tight. He looked ten years older like this.

It must be difficult for him to process whatever the Ancient was sending him.

"Stay quiet," he murmured to his friends. Seeker shivered…Ash felt guilt well up in his stomach at bringing her out in a situation like this. He swore to himself he'd return her in a moment. He just needed to be careful. "Can you tell if anyone else is around?"

Seeker relaxed just a hair as he soothingly brushed his gloved hand through her fur. Just the contact helped. She chattered as quietly as she could, sending out clicks of supersonic waves for echolocation. Oz stiffened. Her hearing was probably sharp enough for it to irritate her, though she didn't voice any complaints.

His littlest friend froze under his hand. Ash had to keep himself from squeezing her tiny little body out of reflex. "Where?"

Her snout wrinkled and her head pointed a little behind him. Whatever she'd detected was to his right. Ash stole a glance and caught a dull glint of dark purple hidden in the bushes behind him – he felt like he'd just been doused in ice when he saw a familiar bladed tail raised high, poised to cut down anything that drew near.

Ash scowled darkly once his heart stopped pounding quite as much, though it was still a steady drumbeat in his ears. He didn't show that he'd seen it otherwise. That strange, insect-like pokemon that the Ancient had faced was less than two hundred feet away – he'd picked out the unnerving sight of its sharp mandibles clicking together as it eyed him, like the purple creature was thinking about making him its next meal.

They made eye contact. The strange pokemon's mandibles fluttered frantically and its powerful legs propelled it straight at Ash as it made to attack, though it froze when Metagross' mighty shape twitched toward it. He turned to his team, about to order them to subdue the threat, when it seemed to decide this situation couldn't possibly go well for it (a wise decision, Ash thought) and scuttled away to flee the area.

Its flight could hardly be called an inconvenience to Metagross, who leisurely ripped a thick, pale tree out of the ground by its roots and hammered it into the creature's carapace. Ash heard a meaty thud as it landed heavily on its side, stunned by Metagross' unconventional bludgeon. The tree was cast aside instantly much like a human might toss a stick blocking their path.

"Good job, Ash," Steven smiled tautly behind him. The man's cold steel eyes laid upon the pokemon, which had been snatched up by several impossibly strong vines the instant it had fallen. "This is a formidable Drapion. The battlefield is much safer without it roaming free," his mentor said, satisfied. He watched it for a bit longer and his harsh mask slipped. "Aaron would be impressed."

"What?" Ash whispered to the former Champion. Steven just shook his head.

"My apologies, merely voicing my thoughts," Steven replied stiffly as he regarded the creature. His face was like a glacier. "It's a dark-type, useless for interrogation. Cradily, subdue."

Cradily, who seemed to have been hiding motionless in the trees a few dozen feet away from Drapion, didn't give any verbal response. It simply spat two fragile green pods near Drapion, which burst to release what Ash recognized as Stun Spore and Sleep Powder. Drapion was helpless to resist. One of the vines binding it extended and forcefully wrenched its maw open as another dusted some of the powder in.

When Drapion froze, utterly helpless, Cradily efficiently used Rock Tomb to bury the creature underneath the earth. Ash watched, both fascinated and a little horrified, as Cradily expertly shifted the earth and repacked it so that Drapion was sealed almost entirely underground. He would've thought it was a genuine tomb if it weren't for a few holes he saw pierced through the earth.

"It's still alive?" He directed to Steven. It wasn't exactly a question.

"I don't like killing when I can help it," Steven replied as he squeezed his eyes shut again. "We know the location. We'll reclaim it later. The Ancient says to go –"

"That way," Ash pointed his finger to their left and turned to said direction. "Seeker heard voices."

Steven nodded, his lips quirked. "Indeed," his brow furrowed, "Ash, release every member of your team capable of acting stealthily. You'll need to be prepared. Ancient can't help us farther than this – whatever Shadow they're casting over this area is disrupting the network."

"Got it," Ash raised his eyes to the sky. What he thought was Plume circled overhead. He shook it off and quickly released several of his friends. Torrent's eyes were hard. They softened for just a moment on Ash before he assumed his vigil and regarded the woods around them as though they were filled with enemies.

Nidoking was almost unnervingly still. His black eyes were narrowed dangerously and Ash could see his great nostrils flaring. Beads of venom dripped from his horn in preparation for battle. Ash even caught poison dripping from the spines on his back, coating his body and tail for whatever was unfortunate to get in his way. Ash couldn't even touch him right now.

Tangrowth appeared next, uncharacteristically quiet. It seemed he actually understood what was going on for once. Ash pointed at him and flicked his fingers over to the trees in the direction they were quietly approaching. His large friend took off with surprising speed, swinging through the air on a few of his vines that had latched onto several especially thick branches. In an instant he was gone, hidden in the trees much like Cradily.

He could hear voices now, though he couldn't pinpoint their position yet. Ash shivered as they crossed an unmarked threshold. An unnatural chill ran up his body, though he felt the Feather sear it away in an instant. Fog filled the trees, obscuring anything more than twenty feet ahead of view.

"Steven?" Ash hissed. The man was nearly out of sight, fading into the fog despite being less than ten feet away. It enclosed on them further and for a moment Ash feared his words had gone unheard.

Then Steven shook his head, though it was scarcely visible in the thickness of the fog. His face was set into hard lines as he muttered, "We're getting close. I don't think whatever made this fog is aware of us yet…"

Ash acknowledge his mumbled reply but grimaced when he nearly stepped into a wall of some substance he couldn't quite make out that had been erected between two of the trees on their path. Only a harsh jerk saved him from walking right into it.

He grunted as blunt claws dug into his arm just tightly enough to stop him in his tracks. Ash barely kept his balance and froze as Nidoking growled and spat a small stream of fire to illuminate the mist, though the reflective qualities forced Ash to squint if he didn't want to see stars.

Nidoking pulled him back even more and a terrifying rumble – well, to everyone but Ash – erupted from deep within the poison-type's thick chest. Ash paled slightly at the absolutely massive web he'd nearly stepped into. It was a pale yellow, almost cloudy, and blended in nearly perfectly with the sickly shade of the white mist.

Thankfully its weaver wasn't lying in wait but Ash's scowl twisted into something even darker when he noticed tiny arcs of electricity dancing through every string of silk.

Electroweb. That wasn't comforting. They'd have to watch their every step now. Whoever had decided to have it set up clearly didn't just trust the mist itself to be enough of a deterrent.

"Are you alright?" His teacher had slowed down. Steven didn't show much surprise when Ash quickly sidestepped around the trap and motioned at it. "Ah. Those are an annoyance. I'll have one of mine take care of them."

He dipped his head, accepting Steven's decision, and set his eyes forward. They reflexively flitted all over his range of vision in an attempt to pierce the veil around them. Ash didn't like this uncertainty. To be safe he allowed Nidoking and Torrent to take point. They could take a surprise attack or one of those Electrowebs much better than he could. Bruiser stayed by his side and Seeker clung to his back. She was utterly silent. Ash wasn't sure if her echolocation would even be useful with this fog and he wasn't about to let her fly around with all the dangers.

Ash took a moment to recall her. It was about to get too dangerous, though he made sure to lovingly stroke her soft blue fur apologetically before he did. The flash of light barely traveled in the mist.

Steven wasn't too concerned about it or the mist itself though, so he didn't worry too much. The fog was impossibly dense and paranoia set in on him despite himself – he swore he heard giggling and whispers in the distance once or twice, though they always seemed to vanish when he focused on it. More worryingly he heard buzzing almost all around them. His mind quickly recalled the Ninjask he'd seen earlier. They had the speed to cover the area drowned in fog and could probably ambush them easily.

Wary of a potential ambush he was careful to listen for the irritating buzzing that would herald a Ninjask's approach. They seemed practically everywhere in the fog, even with sound seemingly dampened.

"Ninjask?" Ash finally spoke to Steven, though he didn't bother turning his head to him. He could still hear him fine.

"Dealt with," came the casual response. Ash actually did look at his teacher this time, surprised. Steven raised an eyebrow. "Surprised?"

He shrugged. The lightly armored pads on his shoulders made it a little more difficult than normal. "A little," he admitted. Ash frowned thoughtfully, though Steven couldn't see it behind Ash's helmet. "Metagross and Cradily?"

It was a good distraction as they slowly trudged their way through the mist. Ash hadn't kept track of Cradily's position but if it could detect the Ninjask then it would probably be able to lay traps or otherwise disable them. He scowled when he realized he barely had an idea of Cradily's abilities – that needed to change.

As for Metagross…well, it always seemed to be involved in Steven's plans somehow. It was just too useful not to be.

"Correct," Steven's voice carried through the fog. It was slightly more distorted than before. Ash shuddered as he felt a sudden drop in temperature. His teacher didn't seem affected, despite wearing only his suit. "They're able to scramble Metagross' sensory abilities slightly, but Metagross is still able to report their general area even with the mist. Cradily's considerate enough to set up Stealth Rocks and other obstacles in their location. It slows them down enough to be subdued. Listen."

He did. Ash's brow furrowed when he didn't immediately hear anything, but a few seconds later he realized exactly what Steven wanted him to notice: a complete lack of the high-pitched whine that had filled his ears mere minutes ago.

"They're all gone?" Ash tested. Steven smirked. His breaths came a little easier through his respirator. "How many were there?"

"Indeed. The fog hindered them as much as it did us. They'd be deadly with their numbers and communication if we hadn't taken advantage of it," the former Champion lectured. Steven hesitated for a moment, though his voice was confident once he did deign to respond. "Sixteen have been subdued. There are still some Ninjask unaccounted for but I don't believe them to be in the fog."

Ash felt the Feather fill him with warmth as yet another shudder wracked his shoulders. It didn't banish the feelings of unease but at the very least it took away the stark chill that didn't belong in the tropical land of Hoenn.

Ash glanced to Sneasel. He was just a vague blackness near his feet. Sneasel's ears twitched constantly and he heard the dark-type release a low, threatening hiss. Despite his sudden noise of displeasure his friend didn't act so Ash felt himself relax, though he lightly tapped Sneasel with the side of his foot as they cautiously moved forward.


Sneasel shrugged his small shoulders. His eyes were dark and he blew a tiny wisp of freezing air out of frustration. Ash nodded slowly. The dark-type knew something was out here, likely doing its best to keep others from intruding on whatever crimes they were committing up ahead.

Steven was watching. Ash felt his slate eyes burrow onto him as he bent to whisper to Sneasel, "Go ahead. Keep quiet. See if you can find whatever's making this fog – if you're caught run back here or signal to us. Be careful!"

His friend nodded and loped off silently. Ash marveled at his friend's stealth and looked to his mentor, who looked relatively comfortable despite the circumstances. Steven hadn't contradicted his orders so he assumed they were at least reasonable.

He noticed Ash's attention and nodded. Steven said lowly, "Sneasel might be able to find the source easier than Metagross. I believe it's a ghost of some sort. Metagross is able to maintain communications with Skarmory and Cradily but it's taking more effort than usual. Be alert."

Ash grimaced. He'd sort of expected a ghost or dark-type responsible for interfering with the colony's network. A powerful one, too. But he'd much prefer a dark-type. While dark-types were plenty dangerous on their own, especially one with the skill and power to erode the Metagross' mental webs and leave most of the Beldum twitching on the ground, ghosts were much trickier to fight against. His team really wasn't specialized to fight the mysterious creatures.

His eyes settled on Nidoking's back. He could barely see his spines now. The mist even thicker. Ash was careful to avoid stumbling over his friend's long, powerful tail…he didn't want anything to possibly give away their position.

"What's the plan? We have to be getting close," Ash directed back. His eyes were trained on Steven lest he lose him in the fog, which had grown consistently whiter and colder as they continued. He felt his body groan at the unfamiliar feeling. It was almost greasy as he waded through it and left a light tingling sensation on his skin. "And is this safe?"

Steven's lips moved but nothing reached Ash. The former Champion's mouth shifted into a frown at the realization but he calmly tapped a tiny device near his ear. Ash couldn't see the details but once Steven's voice scratchily reached his ears through his helmet Ash assumed it was a radio.

"…hear me?"

"I hear you," Ash said quietly once the dim light in his helmet signaling the radio was online blinked. He didn't want to accidentally blow up Steven's eardrum if his earpiece was set loud.

"Good. Metagross analyzed the fog before we entered. It's just a product of a very weak Ominous Wind," Ash heard. Steven seemed to be talking quicker now. "It's relatively harmless – safer than coming in from above. It's mostly a deterrent to wild pokemon and a way to dampen psychics. The League employs the strategy frequently. It's just enough interference to make teleportation inaccurate and dangerous."

Ash nodded his head along slowly with Steven's explanation. Even with the fog imparting an almost claustrophobic sense of unease on him and the radio starting to crackle with static he found himself soothed by the familiar drone of Steven lecturing.

Not to mention it kept him from obsessively worrying over whatever his team might be breathing in.

"How much further?" Ash inquired as he heard the radio crackle again. He needed to know what exactly they were planning before it outright failed…he'd heard that areas steeped in the strange powers of ghost-types could cause sensitive technology to fail. But he hadn't thought it would act this quickly. "Do you know their numbers?"

A slight pause.

Just as Ash feared they wouldn't be able to communicate further – Steven was barely visible as a pale figure and even Metagross had been nearly drowned out by the sickly white of the fog – his mentor's voice emerged from the radio, though it was slightly distorted.

"A little over a hundred fifty feet before the fog breaks. Metagross and the others have reported the fog is all clear. Sneasel seems to have broken through and is circling the clearing. It's large, looks like it was recently destroyed by something. Metagross has calculated it to be approximately…three hundred meters in diameter."

Ash took a moment to convert that. A thousand feet or something like that. Enough to have room to maneuver. That was a relief. Nidoking would have trouble operating in a forest and Torrent would be able to take advantage of the longer lines-of-sight. Plume would appreciate the open area as well. It wouldn't affect Tangrowth, Bruiser or Sneasel that much.

"—it looks like the four that attacked the colony are present," Steven bit out in a voice worthy of his name, "and seem to have the majority of their pokemon that survived on guard. At least fifteen Skarmory, eight Houndoom, eighteen Ninjask, and just two Mightyena. One Ariados is present as well. It's guarding the men that attacked the colony. No sign of the airship."

Steven fell silent. He couldn't but scowl. Those weren't too hard of numbers but Ash really didn't like that the airship they'd seen through the 'eyes' of Metagross was missing. That thing had some sort of weapon that practically vaporized the top of the mine. While plenty of pokemon could have done that, it would have taken a good bit of effort.

"Anyone else?" He edged. Ash wasn't sure he was comfortable with this break. They'd slowed tremendously in their progress through the fog in the last few seconds. "How could they escape? They can't teleport in this area, right?"

"No," the former Champion replied coolly. Too coolly for Ash's liking. The signal finally started to fail and he struggled to make out his next orders. "Ash, bank right forty-five degrees. Continue until you reach the end of the fog. Hurry. Attack on my signal or if we're detected. Take down as many as you can in the initial surprise volley. Twenty human contacts approaching. Seven Pidgeot, three Tropius carrying four each, the lead is on top of a Charizard."

Ash grimaced at the new arrivals. He had no doubt Plume was superior to them but that would be a brutal air battle…they'd have to strike quickly to neutralize as many as they could. Even with Skarmory at her side Plume would have a serious problem holding out against that many Pidgeot at once. They would at least be able to approach her speed if properly trained.

The Tropius wouldn't be nearly as dangerous, though he'd need to have Torrent or Infernus shut them down to prevent them from assisting in the ground battles. As for the Charizard…well, Infernus was the natural counter. A powerful fire-type could wreak havoc on any battlefield and he would rather have the only significant one be on his side.

Those thoughts continued rushing through his head as he quickly headed through the fog as fast as he could. He didn't hear as many giggles or whispers drifting through the fog. When he did it seemed like they were far away from him, exploring some other region enshrouded by the Ominous Wind.

Ash breathed deeply and cleared his mind. The fog was growing lighter. The radio stopped its crackling. If he wanted to he could speak with Steven, but he took the time to address his team first. They'd be responsible for the initial volley.

"Alright," he began. His voice wasn't as hard as he would've liked. Despite himself he felt his hands shaking just the slightest bit. Ash frowned and tried again. "Alright. Everyone, listen up. We're close to starting this."

They didn't respond but he felt Tangrowth's wide, saucer-like eyes on him from above. Ash glanced up and felt a warmth shoot up through his chest as a gentle vine curled around his hand. He squeezed it and mentally thanked Tangrowth – that really did help. Claydol, still silent and inconspicuous as ever just barely behind him, shifted slightly to avoid the appendage.

"Our first volley needs to be about taking down as many of the flying-types and trainers as we can," he exhaled. The chill had receded to the point he didn't even fog up his mask, he dully noted. "Plume has to have room to breathe…there's a new group that's arrived. They have Pidgeot, Tropius, and Charizard. It's impossible to teleport in or out of this area, so if we cut off the air they won't be able to escape except on foot."

Ash allowed the information to sink in and frantically made sure he had everything that Steven had told him in order. He couldn't mess this up. Not when his friends needed to know this – it could save their lives and the lives of the Beldum and Metang stolen by whatever disgusting group had taken them.

"Nidoking, Oz, and Torrent will be responsible for that," Ash explained quickly. They were nearing the end. "Thunderbolt and Shockwave should catch at least some of them off guard and maybe stun the trainers as well. Torrent, hit the Tropius with Ice Beam. Nidoking, take the Charizard first. Oz, use Lightning Bolt to take it out if you think it'll work. Tangrowth, you need to use Ancient Power to try and overwhelm whichever ones they don't catch."

Tangrowth gurgled softly and the vine wrapped around Ash's arm comfortingly. Ash felt a surprising grin come along. He looked up at his strangely serious friend and flashed him a thumbs up since his helmet kept Tangrowth from seeing his smile. "Be careful, buddy. And when that first wave of attacks hit try and grab some of the trainers. Make sure they don't get the chance to release any more pokemon."

With that the vine squeezed one last time before Tangrowth took off towards the light. Ash thought it strange just how quiet his friend was as he swung through the trees.

The clearing was close. He could see almost to the end. There were voices…he thought they were annoyed at each other. Ash's heart raced and his mouth went dry as he stepped into the last vestiges of the fog. He and his team prepared to gaze out at the clearing, see just who these scum were and he turned to Bruiser. "Stand guard and repel whatever comes our way, alright?"

He crouched and watched raptly as the fog cleared almost entirely and he could see their targets in the clearing. It was just as massive as he'd imagined and was mostly clear except for the stumped remains of hundreds of trees and vegetation that had been destroyed – some looked to have been burned, others looked to have been knocked over or torn clear out of the ground by some attack. At least his team would have clear angles, though Bruiser and any others that fought in close quarters would have to be careful about their footing.

Ash licked his lips to try and keep them from getting too dry. He peered to the real threats.

Four men clad in grey combat armor not too dissimilar from Ash's own suit stood about five hundred feet away, close to the center of the clearing. They were surrounded by a massive amount of pokemon – he noted they were mostly Houndoom, a handful of Mightyena, a few Ninjask still buzzing around the men's heads, and too many Skarmory to count leisurely circling low in the clearing – that stood at attention, though he thought that their eyes were oddly dull. Whenever one of the men shifted uncomfortably in the heat whichever pokemon were nearby flinched away.

Ash hadn't even realized his fists were clenched. Pity for the pokemon welled in his chest and he wasn't sure that he could force it down. Only a few pokemon seemed completely at ease around the four criminals. He was able to count a Seviper wound comfortably around one of the men's legs, a Golem to their side, and a fierce canine crackling with energy he recognized as a Manetric.

The lead man was slightly short and surprisingly wide, though Ash couldn't tell if it was muscle or fat. He imagined the former. His face was hard and calm. His only hair was shaved down to a short layer of light brown. Two pokeballs were clipped to his belt and a large Ariados was visible resting behind one of the stumps nearby.

His features darkened. That must've been the one responsible for the Electrowebs. They'd grown sparse after the beginning of the foggy zone but that could have easily killed or crippled Ash. Most of his team would just be injured, but their cries would have alerted the Ninjask who would've been aware of the Electrowebs' locations and known what that meant.

He felt white-hot rage spike at the thought of what would have happened to Seeker if he'd tried to have her scout ahead. She'd have almost certainly been killed by the traps or Ninjask. His friend was just too delicate to survive that sort of damage.

Ash breathed deeply. He needed to stay calm. He'd get his justice soon enough.

Overall the situation was manageable, he determined. Ash would have to do his best to ensure that the man wasn't able to release whatever pokemon was still contained in its pokeball. They would probably be tougher than the flock of Skarmory or the beaten, bruised remnants of the assault on the colony. That force was shattered. Half had been taken entirely by the Metagross and the rest bore wounds of some sort.

That thought raised a question – where were the Beldum and Metang?

He quickly found that question answered when one of the three helmeted henchmen to the back quickly responded to a barked order by the leader of the group. He tapped a button on his belt and four large boxes of plain pokeballs appeared…Ancient's calculations of the taken appeared in the forefront of his mind and Ash noted his estimation fell in line.

Not that there was any surprise there.

He glanced up to his right – east, he instinctively corrected himself – and grimaced as the sun shone brightly into his eyes. The visor of his helmet kept him from the worst of it, however, as it darkened in response to the sun's rays.

With that obstacle out of the way Ash could see the approaching group that Steven had mentioned, though they were too close together for him to make out much else. He scowled when he realized they were too far away for him to pick out anything interesting, though Plume might be able to help him.

Ash waited for them to get closer. That's when he'd strike – they needed to catch them off guard and keep those fliers on the ground. His pulse raced as he realized just how close they were to the action. His mouth tasted like ash and his heart thumped heavily against his chest.

In the meantime he glanced over to the ones who'd attacked the colony. Hate he wasn't sure belonged entirely to him heated his blood but he shook it off. Everything would be resolved.

But he frowned when the leader stopped his preparations for the approaching force and tapped his earpiece. He said something, looked to the skies, and his face hardened. Ash cocked his head, curious, when Steven's raised voice filled his ears.

"Ash, the Ariados is moving towards you – it was sent, looks like –"

His world was filled with light, fire, and pain.

Ash's ears screamed furiously at him as he fell, blinded, and slammed hard into the earth. His skin seared – he felt Fire surge within, crackling and burning hot at the sensation – and a loud scream he was barely cognizant of as his own ripped through the air –

He wasn't sure how long he hung in that void of confusion and pain but after an eternity the burns on his skin cooled. His heart pumped furiously fast and he dimly opened his eyes, rasping wordlessly as the wounds imparted by whatever just hit him made sure he felt them. Even still they felt distant, like they were happening far away and just barely reached his brain.

The boy groaned, eyes widened at the sudden wave of trauma that radiated over his whole body, and blindly reached for the ground. He could just barely feel that it was cool and damp through his scorched gloves…that wasn't right, his mind frowned through the haze.

His eyes were still mostly blind. What little he could see was dominated by stinging stars that flashed incessantly, reminding him of the brilliant gold that had been the only herald of whatever struck him.

He squinted. Ash grit his teeth through the pain as his dizzy head slowly focused and righted itself. Even with his padded helmet he could feel an awful headache rising, pulsing constantly to make sure he didn't forget about it.

That wasn't important, he realized as he clumsily pushed himself up on shaking limbs. His team…they were still out there. Lightning surged through him at that realization, bringing his body to some semblance of life. Ash breathed deep. He had to focus.

Ash tentatively moved his limbs. They protested and spitefully spat a sharp jab of pain but he didn't care. They weren't broken. He winced as he blindly reached up – why did he feel cool, damp dirt?

He pulled himself up forcefully. The pain only fueled his resolve and he snarled furiously at himself, furious at his body's weakness, until he stood again on wavering feet.

This wasn't how it was supposed to go. Ash growled at the sudden pain along his face as something with a cutting edge slashed him. He felt hot wetness ooze down his face just below the spot where his check had been carved open to the bone in Articuno's Blizzard.

"C'mon!" He roared, though it was little more than a wheeze. Ash looked up and saw light. More of the sharp glass or plastic or whatever stupid material his damned helmet was made out of cut him. He was in a hole. The sounds of fighting slowly filled his ears as he focused past the constant ringing assaulting his hearing.

His heart froze.

Ash couldn't hold back the scream as he unsealed the helmet and viciously tore it away from his armor. Some of the shards slashed him again but it wasn't important. They were superficial.

His mouth clenched shut and he took just a moment to take in the sight of his helmet as his vision focused – it was mostly intact but the clear visor that covered his upper face was completely shattered. Even the sides looked to have been warped.

He stomach churned as he realized what would've happened if he wasn't wearing a helmet. Then he grew furious and his blood burned violently as a huge gout of red and orange flame shot far over his prison, accompanied by a roar he knew all too well as that of a Charizard.

By the next moment he'd released the member of his team most likely to turn the tide of this battle…or so he thought. Ash wasn't sure if his team was winning or losing but he knew they could use the help against these numbers. Infernus would be invaluable for balancing out the sides…

Infernus appeared above the thin crevice Ash had somehow fallen into – Nidoking might be responsible – but didn't hesitate for a moment before he threw himself into bloody battle. Ash only got to see the briefest flash of a terrifyingly mad grin on the Magmortar's face before the air grew hot and his throat burned worse than ever before.

Ash's fists gripped his knees as he hacked wildly. His throat scratched terribly from smoke and painfully dry air and his only breaths were quick, gasping things. Everything hurt.

He didn't care though. His team was out there fighting…Ash growled when he realized they were alone. They knew the objectives but he had to get out of here!

Ash eyed Dazed's pokeball. She might not be able to teleport thanks to the Shadow draped over the area but she was powerful enough to help out. Dazed was still a potent psychic of extreme skill, not to mention she might be able to assist Sneasel if they found the ghost…

That burned another hole of worry into his gut as his mind grew clearer and clearer with the adrenaline rushing through his system. Ash glared up at the wall, dug his gloved fingers into it, and pulled himself up.

It almost felt like it would give with every motion and his body screamed at him to stop but Ash refused. Adrenaline propelled him further and further, transmuting every scrap of pain into renewed determination.

Halfway up something answered his prayers. Ash resisted as best he could when a blue fire flickered around him, though he relaxed when a chorus of voices, young and old and man and woman and child, sounded in his mind.

I am the one you know as Claydol. Relax. Your power is troublesome to overcome.

Ash's frenzied mind only gathered that it was an ally and it was there to help. He relaxed and allowed the power to smoothly carry him up. If they were in any other situation he'd be fascinated by the sudden weightlessness.

Claydol was right next to him when his feet landed on rough, scarred ground. Ash's eyes widened when he realized they were standing on the exact same spot that they'd been struck at, though it had discomforting cracks winding through it and patches ripped away or blackened by fire. More importantly, it was surrounded by an absolutely obliterated landscape for nearly fifteen feet around.

There was no sign of the countless tree trunks that had dotted the area. All the grass was disintegrated. The earth groaned underneath his weight.

I shielded us from the airship's ambush thanks to Steven's warning. It was an impressively powerful energy weapon, highly restricted by the League. Its damage is roughly comparable to a Hyper Beam from Lance's Dragonite.

A danger, for sure, but I reduced it to survivable levels. Well, not for you. Nidoking's quick thinking shielded you from harm. Since then it's fired liquid adhesive to keep us trapped, but that's child's play to block.

Steven survived the second volley easily, of course. Metagross reports that they're on their way.

Focus, Ash. Your team needs you.

Ash nodded dimly, barely registering a bit of shock at Claydol's relatively casual air, and focused. His eyes widened in relief when he finally looked towards the utterly familiar noise of combat, though not one he'd ever been involved with before.

His friends looked like they'd remained fairly close together. They were only around fifty feet ahead of him for the most part, just far enough to have escaped the crater from the sudden energy blast. As he watched they shifted fairly frequently, probably worried about being attacked again.

He squinted at the remains of a strange, foamy substance that covered the area around him. That must be the adhesive Claydol had mentioned. At least it looked like his friends had avoided it completely.

As he looked upon the sheer scope of the fight happening right in front of him his eyes widened for an entirely different reason.

Battle was joined. It was chaos. Ash had hoped it wouldn't come to this – when he'd been planning it everything seemed so simple.

So clean.

He knew there was danger lurking around the corner but in his mind everything had been prepared for.

A single strike from the airship had derailed that.

Most of the battle was kept to the middle of the clearing or back towards the side he assumed the enemies had been. He could barely see the four men bound tightly by vines that had erupted from the ground as nowhere, leaving their small army without their commanders. More importantly the additional pokeballs they carried on their belts went unused and their eyes were soundly shut. A shimmering golden cloud, the source of their paralysis, hung around the area and clung thickly to their bodies.

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