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.


91. The Menace Part 2

He didn't fight the spiteful jab that accompanied seeing the invaders of the colony so soundly beaten by Cradily. They'd never had a chance.

Ash couldn't see that much but his pride of what his team had done even without his presence practically burst through his chest. They'd closed ranks, ignoring their identities as individual fighters for the present.

Nidoking was towards the front. He roared with a fury Ash had only rarely seen before as he stamped his foot and a glowing line of yellow energy stabbed into the earth. Several Houndoom yelped piteously as they fell into the deep, black crevice Nidoking had shaped with Earth Power, though four others easily crossed the gap and ruthlessly ignored the pained cries of their fellows.

He didn't worry about Nidoking. Torrent, who was towards the back right of their small group, took a break from trying to bring down one of the five Skarmory dashing above dropping small, barbed spikes and hurling blades of wind from their wings, and viciously spat a thin, brutally powerful Water Gun that smashed into one of the canine's sides.

His victim whined before Torrent struck it again, this time leaving it unconscious.

Bruiser appeared from nowhere and smashed a glowing Focus Blast straight into the chest of one of the baying Houndoom. It snarled and breathed deep as it was slung away by the blow, causing its nostrils to billow smoke and embers, before it released a murky blast of fire far from its usual brilliance.

Ash cried out a warning but Bruiser didn't need it. He ducked under the deadly attack, ignoring the agonizing heat, and smashed one of his brutally powerful fists straight into the same spot the Focus Blast had reached. The Houndoom screamed and roared another snarling gout of fire – Claydol helpfully erected a shield around the twisting orange-red tongues – but Bruiser finished it off with a solid kick that knocked it clear over Nidoking's crevice, back to its own side of the arena.

He idly noted that Bruiser wasn't moving nearly fast enough to be using his Rampage. Bruiser wasn't exactly slow, but he wasn't practically teleporting.

Good. They'd talked about that before. Rampage was enormously powerful, sure, but it wasn't practical for a serious battle. If Bruiser couldn't maintain it any longer and was left exhausted and helpless…

He couldn't think of that. Not now.

Ash watched instead as Nidoking faced down the two Houndoom without a trace of fear. The only sign that he noticed them at all was the way his tail dragged back and forth across the grass, agitated. Blood and black fur covered the heavily plated muscle as it drifted side-to-side, signs of just how effective of a weapon the tail was.

One of the fire-types quickly darted to the side, right by the spot Oz had just unleashed a golden, crackling spear that fried one of the Skarmory and brought it down, but yelped in surprise for the briefest instant before it was smashed right in the ribs by Nidoking's enormously powerful tail.

Even Ash had to wince in pity as the Houndoom's body went flying away under the sheer force of that vicious blow. Nidoking wasn't one to show mercy to his enemies at the best of times, let alone in a situation like this.

The Houndoom didn't rise.

Nidoking roared again as the last Houndoom leapt at him, furious at the loss of its pack. Hellish light gathered in its maw and blasted outward, the cursed flames Houndoom possessed almost impossible to heal by any means, only to sear the ground at the angle where Nidoking's head had been literally instants before.

Ash could pick out the confusion in the feral creature's dark eyes moments before they were filled with terrible pain. Its maw opened and closed soundlessly as Nidoking mercilessly gored it directly in the stomach as it passed over his head.

He struggled to pick out what Nidoking had done. Finally he blinked dumbly when he picked out the tiny crevice lined with a sickly yellow that had opened directly underneath his friend's feet. It was just deep enough to drop Nidoking down a foot or so, enough distance for him to dodge the Houndoom's blackened fire and stab the canine in a single smooth motion. Houndoom landed silently in the dark flames it had just spewed, the eternal fires crackling dully as they surrounded it.

He didn't worry too much for it. They were immune to their own cursed fire, the odd blend of their fire and dark-types, but the poison would be dangerous. Ash frowned as the Houndoom furiously scrambled for footing and tried to loose one last burst of everlasting flame into its foe's back but felt relieved when Torrent helpfully froze its body with an Ice Beam. Its eyes shut as it crashed back to the ground with a new suit of ice.

With any luck that would stop the poison from progressing too far…

Sharp shrieks from the skies grabbed his attention – when he heard the agonized cry of a Pidgeot his heart nearly stopped. Ash held his breath as his worried brown eyes looked to the skies, which very nearly blinded him as what looked like a dozen Skarmory flew erratically in pursuit of a lone member of their species that easily kept ahead of them. It almost looked like the lonely Skarmory was toying with them.

Ash wished his visor hadn't been destroyed. Even as he thought it a film of psychic power settled over his eyes, making it a bit more difficult to see but also shielding him from the light reflected by the mirror-like armor of the Skarmory.

Steven's Skarmory looked to be handling itself well. Not that there was any surprise there. Ash blinked when it took a viciously sharp turn for such a large, heavy bird and opened its maw to unleash a blinding Flash Cannon that pierced the entire sky with a howl that stabbed into Ash's ears and twisted as the sound of grinding metal exploded.

The Champion-level Skarmory flickered into dozens of illusory clones that darted erratically through the air, confusing the Skarmory that were already rattled from the Flash Cannon. That blinding blast of energy had taken down one of their number already and had sent the flock scattering to evade it…Ash felt a little ill when he saw the real Skarmory dive into one of the flock's members sides and pierce it with its viciously sharp beak.

Steven's Skarmory showed no hesitation in mercilessly goring another of its species. It mercilessly tore its spear-like beak out of its victim and set off into the skies with a powerful flap of the small armories that made up its rings. The clanking and scrape of swords against swords filled his ears, rising above even the clacking of the flock.

A pained cry was heard even where Ash rested and he winced as the heavy Skarmory fell through the sky. It crashed heavily into one of the Ninjask darting through the lower air to attack Oz and Ash felt bile rise in his through as blood and goop mixed.

He shook himself. This was not the time. He couldn't feel right now. He just had to act.

And then he grinned as he finally caught sight of Plume blurring through the air impossibly fast. It looked like she was only dealing with three of the Pidgeot now, though Ash didn't take the time to search for the others on the ground. His team must have managed to get off at least an initial volley in response to the ambush, though he supposed Plume could've overcome them herself.

She was certainly capable enough.

Ash couldn't help the little bit of mad laughter that belted out from deep in his throat when Plume flickered just a hundred feet above, banked at an incredibly sharp angle, then blasted a roaring Hurricane that warped the air pressure all around the clearing for a few seconds.

Dust kicked up from the battles below was swept away in a heartbeat. Pokemon beneath them cried out in surprise as an unrelenting gale ripped them from their feet onto the crumbling ground. Fires rippled and wavered before being dispersed into a thousand screaming embers.

Two of the Pidgeot shrieked – though the Hurricane left them mute from where Ash was thanks to the enormous howling spiral of air that swept them away into the hard ground. They laid still, though they were close enough that Ash could see they were breathing. Both had at least one wing badly broken – he turned away to avoid the sight for now.

The last shrieked furiously and blurred forward in a Quick Attack, appearing hundreds of feet ahead in the blink of an eye

Plume cried out and barely dodged the vicious beak of the enemy Pidgeot that promised to pierce right through her chest. Ash roared – a helpless noise lost in the din of the wind – but felt his spirits soar when Plume managed to edge just far out of the way to avoid it. Her absolutely massive talons raked the other Pidgeot's back, returning the favor, though the bird was so huge it barely flinched.

She shot away with a powerful thrust of her wings and Ash couldn't keep up with her as the other Pidgeot followed in pursuit. It was moving faster now, desperate. Plume had that battle, however. She was just too fast for the others to catch up.

A vicious roar rose above the rest of the growls and shrieks and howls that dominated the battlefield and Ash shouted out a warning to Oz when the Charizard he'd been so worried about spat a massive gout of fire from high above. It had to have been struck by at least one attack so far to leave it flying so weakly – the raging fire-type was practically wobbling in the air. The thin membrane of its wings flapped oddly, like it had been torn by a vicious slice.

Ash grimaced as Oz turned and his legs rushed him forward, though Claydol stopped him in his tracks. He struggled against the bonds and cried out again – she was only a hundred feet away, she could hear him – only to blink when Infernus appeared as if from nowhere in the course of the flame. He absorbed it with scarcely a wince and viciously fired back a crackling Fire Blast of his own.

Charizard's roar pierced through the cacophony like a hot knife through butter. It floundered in the air, eyes narrowed to slits in agony, but just barely managed to keep going as it spun wildly. The dragon's movements were slow and awkward, just barely enough to keep it above the rest of the fighters.

Infernus is putting his unruly attitude to good use. He's stymied the Charizard at every turn quite easily. He's managing to teleport short distances – fifty to a hundred feet – but I'll need to talk to him about it. That's too dangerous of a tactic for me to feel comfortable with.

He nodded, eyes narrowed as Infernus took after the Charizard. Several of the remaining Houndoom burst across the battlefield in pursuit. Ash frowned – he hadn't realized there were any left. Where –

White-hot hatred seared in his heart joined by an icy pulse of fury that shot through his mind.

His chest erupted into heatless Fire around the Feather. Lightning surged through him, sharpening his focus.

Twin azure suns that did not belong to Ash replaced his eyes.

They fell upon the twelve men garbed in concealing black uniforms that were much, much too familiar to both Ash and the terrible mind lurking in his own. The men froze as a great pressure weighed upon them but didn't bother to find the source. They were well-trained to remain so composed.

He could tell that they were confident in their defensive position towards the back of the clearing, clear of the rampaging army that had assaulted his family.

Right then Ash didn't care that they were releasing nearly thirty more pokemon between the twelve of them. His team would burn and freeze and shock them until they couldn't so much as twitch.

He cared only for the bright red "R" boldly emblazoned upon their chests.

Ash's teeth bared, he stepped forward despite Claydol's quiet protests, and opened his mouth to roar to his team the order to finish off the tiny scraps of resistance amongst the small army they'd just wiped out with ease –

"Ash! Stop!"

His body jerked to face Steven, who sprinted up from behind. The man's steel eyes were softened and his mouth was clenched tight into a firm line. He looked mostly unscathed as Metagross followed him, easily keeping pace. Its eyes flashed blood red at Ash and seemed concerned for the first time since he'd met it…though even through the rage gnawing at his sanity it was very clear that concern wasn't for Ash.

Despite himself, Ash froze. Something deep within him, something dark and terrible and vast like a burning blue sea drowning him within its fiery waters, urged him to slaughter the Rockets and their pokemon – everything weak and stupid enough to serve Giovanni's legacy.

He struggled for a moment, couldn't hear Steven's words even though he could see his mouth move perfectly, breathed in and out and in and out, and extinguished the twin suns that consumed his view of the world.

"I'm fine," he breathed as his will asserted its authority. Anger, fueled by memories and experiences the twelve-year-old boy would rather be hidden forever, ran strong but his mind was his own. Mewtwo's influence ebbed and flowed, struggling to push against his will, but with new resolution he controlled himself. His body was his own today, no matter what Mewtwo wanted. "What happened?"

"Listen carefully. We don't have much time," Steven said smoothly. He still seemed on edge but didn't waste time asking hows or whys. He was too practical for that. "The Rockets cannot be allowed to leave. Tangrowth and Cradily are in reserve. Cradily and Claydol will intervene if necessary, but I need you to stop them."

Ash nodded. That hadn't even needed to be said.

"We're fighting a well-known Pokemon Hunter. You've neutralized her forces, but she's not going to stick around," the former Champion's face darkened. He motioned up to an empty spot in the sky, though Ash's brow furrowed when he saw Skarmory, who had finished the rest of the Skarmory flock with Plume's help, fire a Flash Cannon at it. "Watch."

The air rippled around the seemingly empty spot and Ash picked out the outline of something vast and hidden before it quickly vanished again. Realization fell upon him suddenly…an airship. They were rare thanks to the ease of teleportation in travel, but he knew the Leagues maintained several as mobile operating centers. Looks like this Pokemon Hunter had seen their advantages.

"My remaining team and I will take care of that," Steven stated. There was no hesitation or doubt. Only grim certainty. "Control the situation here. Tangrowth is in the forest stopping those that ran. Cradily will prevent the Rockets' escape and safeguard the stolen members of the colony."

"Understood!" Ash declared. He turned to his team, who looked to have finished the rest of the Pokemon Hunter's army. Nearly fifty unconscious – or worse, he feared – bodies laid around the clearing from their work. It looked like there were just a few defiant Mightyena and two Houndoom left.

"The weapon…" Ash heard from behind him. Wary, he glanced up at the spot the ship was and grimaced as the burns and scrapes he'd been left with after the surprise attack from the Pokemon Hunter ached as a reminder. Steven showed no emotion as the ship's cloaking failed and two heavy metal plates began to pull upwards, exposing twin cannon barrels. "Ash, stand back. I hoped it wouldn't be ready again so soon. Claydol, get ready. Metagross…"

Metagross' eyes – the only part of it that even hinted at emotion – flashed with something Ash couldn't decipher as it moved a short distance away from the two. Ash quickly mirrored the motion, Steven's orders coming to mind. He was torn between watching the ship, fearful as it slowly turned to orient itself and the cannons moved closer and closer to aiming at his team and whatever Steven was doing.

Don't worry, Ash. Your team is alerted to the danger. Please release Dazed. Her power will be helpful – I don't want to risk my barriers being insufficient if the energy cannons go off.

He nodded, eyed his team and was pleased to note them slowly drifting apart. They were close enough to be easily shielded by Claydol and present a united front to the Rockets – he gnashed his teeth furiously at that reminder – but just far enough apart that if the cannons did pierce the barriers that they wouldn't all be hit.

Ash grimaced as he quickly released Dazed, whose eyes burned blue the moment she appeared. Her pendulum quivered, alit with a psychic flame. Dazed's eyes upturned just a moment as she looked upon him, though he soon noted that her pendulum grew brighter and brighter until it shone like a star held suspended in her hands.

Mewtwo. He almost found himself grateful for the shade of Mew's power supplementing Dazed's own, though thinking of it sent a fierce pain through his chest, like it had been clenched in a fist. Ash swallowed despite his bone-dry mouth and realized the pain felt all too familiar, although it vanished moments later with a mocking cry that echoed throughout his body.

A vicious cry shredded through the ringing in his ears and Ash bit back the urge to cry out as he recognized the screeching sound, reminiscent of metal cutting metal, when Skarmory quickly wheeled around after its last strafe around the stationary airship and fired another devastating Flash Cannon into its side.

Ash couldn't help but to be disappointed when psychic barriers erected by what must have been at least three strong psychics inside the ship just barely stopped the assault. Even with the explosion blocked the ship rocked heavily, buying a few more precious seconds for his team to prepare and for Steven to do whatever it was he had up his sleeve.

He wheeled around as the area behind him exploded with light and a strange power that brushed again his skin soothingly. The Song echoed in his spirit, orchestrated by whatever memory of Lugia remained, at the presence. His other Brands flared and he grit his teeth to prevent the feelings from overwhelming them as they mixed and mashed, barely kept in check.

"Steven?" Ash uncertainly called out to the former Champion. The man smiled peacefully, like the events of today had been cast off like a bad memory. One of his slim hands carefully held the fold of his suit open, revealing his plain undershirt and a well-hidden piece of slim jewelry pinned to the inside of his suit. The top shone with a brilliant white and would have momentarily blinded Ash if Claydol hadn't left the psychic shield over his eyes. "What –"

Don't interrupt. We don't have much time. Just watch.

He listened to Claydol, though very nearly reared back regardless when four strands of that same white energy exploded from the pin with a surge of power that left his hair standing on end. Ash was cognizant of seemingly everything around him for the briefest of moments as the energy wove its way through the air until it quickly buried itself into Metagross.

The air rippled. Ash watched Metagross glow a strange multitude of reds, purples, pinks, and oranges as the tendrils bound to the behemoth and left the world elsewhere dim and dull in comparison. Metagross' form shifted and Ash felt his breath hitch – what was this?

A hundred questions and thoughts and theories were run through and discarded in the eternity bound within the next few seconds of his life. Metagross' blindingly bright body twisted and rose into the air and Ash wasn't sure he liked the fact that for once he had absolutely no idea what was going on.

Power roared and he thought his mouth might have fallen slack as he watched this… miracle? Paradox? Ash wasn't sure he had words to describe this evolution that shouldn't have been. This evolution that the world knew to be impossible – no, not even impossible. Nonexistent.

He had seen things most people could never imagine. The ancient embodiments of Fire, Ice, and Lightning; Mew and its terrible Shadow; the brilliant Guardian of the Sea. All of the impossibilities seemingly paled in face of what was taking place right before his eyes, drawing his gaze despite the battle to come or the tumultuous tempest of conflicting emotion roiling within.

They were fantastical. Unexpected. In the end they fit neatly into the reality he'd constructed.

This – this evolution towered above that crumpled worldview and mocked him from its height.

And despite everything he'd just thought, he blankly noted that mere moments after Metagross had been consumed by whatever power was contained in Steven's jewelry the cloak of dark energy had dissipated into nothing. In its place was something easily recognizable as the Metagross Ash had come to know, yet what differences there were practically forced upon him.

It was like his eyes couldn't see anything but what had changed.

Metagross hovered now.

There were none of the subtle jumps and bobs he'd come to associate with most pokemon's levitation. It was tightly controlled with no real effort. Their massive, powerful legs looked to have been wrenched forcefully until they locked into place with two above Metagross' large head and main body and two below. The steely cross on Metagross "face" had lengthened and transformed into a brilliant golden emblem that locked into place above its bloody red eyes. A horn jutted just below the bottom of the cross.

The impossible shape of whatever this was ignored Ash. Steven did as well. The thin smile had left only to be replaced with cool assessment. Ash could barely fathom the seeming indifference Steven held towards Metagross' new form. "Metagross, your target is the airship's engines. You know the rest."

Ash finally wrenched his jaw closed and watched carefully, enraptured by this. Steven took a step back to stand by his side. He didn't bother to enlighten Ash as to what was going on, naturally.


His skin tingled as Metagross' eyes seemingly exploded with power and the crest glowed with such vigor it could be mistaken for molten gold. The strange new creature tucked its arms closer to the main body and an aura of psychic power rippled into existence around it, a bright red the same color as Metagross' eyes.

He nearly backed away instinctively as the power was shaped with disgusting ease. Dazed looked jealous.

Metagross' eyes were closed, though he could still see the glow behind them. The blood-red aura of psychic energy rippled and quickly smoothed over into something he could imagine as a drill…or a spear.

Metagross' body oriented into the direction of the airship that had just managed to steady itself, folded another layer of energy over its fiery aura, and Ash barely had time to feel a single enormous pulse of deep red light before Metagross vanished. He blinked, stunned, and then heard the vast clap of a sonic boom followed by the thunderous roar of an explosion the likes of which he hadn't heard since Shamouti.

Ash was dimly aware of the entire forest's sudden silence. His eyes locked onto the source of the explosion, which was marked by keening groans of metal, vast clouds of billowing black smoke beginning to waft from the airship's ruptured heart, and a scarlet trail of energy that traced Metagross' path through the sky.

Even the Rockets had stopped to watch the result of Metagross' assault. Ash couldn't see them well from this distance but they'd stopped releasing their team for the moment. The part of him that was the pragmatic trainer roared at him to order his friends to attack but he wasn't sure it would've done any good. He could see that every single one of his friends was frozen in awe, shock, surprise…whatever it was, they were drowning in it. They were still in a defensible position, safe from the Rockets.

Claydol would protect them from any stealth attacks – he watched the odd psychic leisurely float closer to his team.

For the moment he found himself staring at the falling wreckage of the airship. Metagross had traveled thousands of feet in what seemed like less than a second to strike at the mobile base with a force Ash wasn't sure could be rivaled by any other ordinary pokemon he'd seen. Ash could see the gaping hole ripped by the explosion of psychic power even now, so massive that even the clouds of smoke couldn't shield it from his view completely.

It fell slowly at first. Whatever tattered remnants of the engines were left by the terrifyingly swift and effective attack of Metagross roared furiously, then wavered as the strain of keeping the airship in the sky amounted to too much.

When they failed the airship dropped at a terrifying speed, slanted in the opposite direction from where Metagross had viciously slammed into it. It fell faster and faster and even began to fragment into two halves then four then countless as the machinery and structure of the ship started to be torn apart from the immense forces it was subjected to.

Ash's eyes caught a huge form explode from the wreckage, a trail of smoke following behind its sudden escape just as the red psychic energy had marked Metagross' path. He scowled when he recognized it as a Salamence – that could be dangerous.

There was something else on it…a person? Ash's eyes widened as he caught the slim form riding confidently on the Salamence's back as it shot forward at speeds Ash would've been stuck clinging to Plume for dear life at. All he could make out of the passenger was a long black coat that flapped wildly in the brutally powerful winds.

A red beam shot forth from somewhere on the ground and struck the underside of the Salamence with the eerie precision Ash could only ever attribute to Metagross. The dragon roared pain and fury and shock at the sudden blow, its vast wings flailing wildly to stabilize itself and the human rider nearly thrown from its back, and viciously spat a beam of familiar white power that carried the roar of a hurricane behind it from the displaced air.

Whatever explosion would have resulted was cut off by a deep rumble from the earth and a sudden trembling that forced Ash to stumble back – he barely caught himself before a sound nearly as loud as Zapdos' thunder shook the world…trees trembled, winds howled, and even the pokemon around him jerked for the briefest moments before the spell cast over the clearing was broken.

The airship.

He jerked to his team as the world caught up with the events of the last thirty seconds. Just as Ash ran to be closer to his team, to command them and direct them in defense of a numerically superior force, Steven's slim hand clenched over his shoulder. Ash could feel the ridges of Steven's rings dig lightly into his skin.

"What is it?" He growled. Not hostile, just impatient. Steven looked as composed as ever. "I need –"

"I'm going after J," Steven interjected smoothly. Ash fell silent. The former Champion released him and hopped onto Skarmory – when had the bird even shown up? – completely at ease with the bladed feathers all around him. "I'll return when she's detained," his mentor glanced coolly at the Rockets, who now stood surrounded by a small army, "but for now hold your position."

Ash nodded stiffly and didn't pause to watch Steven and Skarmory fly off towards the wounded Salamence. Questions ran through his frenzied mind and his curiosity begged him to find at least some answers from the silver-haired former Champion but Ash held his tongue. There wasn't time to waste and he doubted Steven would bother right now.

He did pause to glance over to the direction where the powerful dragon had flown off to, however, and a savage grin split his features when he saw that Salamence was still stuck in the same area. Wherever it tried to flee a seemingly endless stream of powerful red blasts intercepted its path.

He frowned when a small, dark purple shape appeared high in the sky seemingly from nowhere. Its body seemingly dissolved into the landscape around it, almost like it bore a cape of unnatural purple flames. Realization only set in when the entire atmosphere all around it distorted into a pale fog of sickly white mist, though now he could see it tinged with the same purple it seemed so fond of.

That must be the ghost that had caused them so much trouble. Ash found himself glad they wouldn't have to deal with it as dozens of Shadow Balls rained upon Metagross' position like dark hail. The blasts absolutely devastated the landscape wherever they landed, kicking up huge tracts of smoke and dust and splintered wood.

Then he smirked as a single red blast of psychic energy casually swept away the purple-tinged cloud of Ominous Wind and the ghost was left exposed to Metagross. Ash felt the agonized wail more than he heard it – the sensation piercing and so, so similar to the mysterious giggles he'd heard in the mist – that exploded from the ghost as its physical form was easily destroyed with a single strike.

Ash shook himself clear as he took position behind his team. Most looked back to him for the briefest moment and grunted or nodded or grinned – Infernus, of course, Ash smirked – before returning to the uneasy standoff with the hordes of Rockets.

He found himself pleased with their current arrangement. It would work well to hold against the Rockets, even with the slightly increased distance they'd put between each other to protect against the airship's energy blasts. Only Plume, Sneasel, and Tangrowth were unaccounted for…but he couldn't think of that now. They were fine. Had to be.

Nidoking stood proudly at the tip, standing guard just a few feet behind the fissures he'd wound expertly throughout the battlefield. Dozens of pokemon lay within, helpless to escape. More would join them.

Bruiser stood to his left. The area around him was clear of bodies – he'd cast them into the pit or across the fissures.

Infernus was on the opposite side of Nidoking, little bursts of flame and smoke escaping from his nostrils as he practically shivered with glee…Ash couldn't help but note he'd kept every single one of his battered opponents draped around his "zone". Most were terribly burned. Others still twitched occasionally, though Infernus just laughed and bathed them liberally with a spray of fire. He snorted when he saw that Infernus quite purposefully stood atop the Charizard he'd ripped from the skies earlier.

The middle line was mostly clear of the undisciplined army that had broken like waves against high, clear walls of stone when faced with Ash's vastly superior team. Their bodies were either hurled away or never made it there in the first place.

Torrent and Oz made up the rear line. Each held devastating potential for widespread destruction as well as precision strikes against any particularly troublesome foes. Neither were quite as formidable in a close-quarters situation as the front line and knew that fact well.

Oz might reach that point one day but for the moment she was content to rain terrifyingly effective bursts of electricity upon whatever foes demanded her attention. Ash had watched just how effective of a fighter she had become as she paired her newfound strength with her years of experience fighting in her old herd of Electabuzz.

Torrent had concerned himself mostly with the rampaging, brutish pokemon that had assaulted the front line. Oz had taken the fight to the skies and he'd watched her strike down at least six different Skarmory from afar with her Thunderbolts and Shockwaves.

It had left a great warmth in his chest that had nothing to do with the Feather.

He flashed a smile at the backs of his friends and cast a wary glance at the Rockets. They were utterly still. Their pokemon had arrayed into lines clearly designed to deliver effective volleys of elemental attacks against his team to cover their physical attackers.

Despite that, they made no move. Ash didn't like that…he didn't expect a fair fight from the Rockets and he doubted they'd be content to allow him to determine the pace of their confrontation. They made absolutely no attempt to engage or negotiate.

"Why isn't anything happening?" He muttered to Dazed. Hopefully her telepathy would have granted her some additional information. Ash fought the urge to cross his arms as he regarded the Rocket pokemon. They were well trained. Disciplined. It was surprising for the Rockets but he'd make do.

Ash counted their numbers to rest at a little above thirty, though he noted a few he'd seen before had vanished. Dazed would know if they came and Claydol was ready to help so he wasn't too worried.

Most were what he would've expected from Rockets, especially after reading Steven's reports. Three Muk oozed around at the front lines, given a wide berth by the others. They huddled so closely to their kin that Ash almost would've mistaken them for a single huge specimen. He grimaced at the hint of rotting garbage and sewage and decay that registered on his senses even with the distance separating the two sides. It was a thick, tangible thing. Ash felt a little sick when he could taste it, like the noxious odor had nested onto his tongue and formed a greasy layer.

A lone Vaporeon was curled around one of the faceless Rockets' legs. It looked like it was taking a nap, not seconds or minutes away from a fight. Ash frowned – that might be one of those odd, disturbed pokemon that had come to be truly loyal to the Rockets.

He couldn't count the specific number of Granbull lined up in the front. Their huge heads were all pointed directly at Bruiser, Infernus, or Nidoking. Long strings of drool dripped from their slavering maws and each pawed the ground impatiently. Ash pitied any of them foolish enough to challenge Infernus or Nidoking.

Several Yanma and one remaining Ninjask swarmed through the trees, flitting through the branches so quickly he couldn't hope to catch them. Ash glanced to Dazed and she nodded, instantly transmitting his orders to Infernus.

There were around five odd pokemon that almost reminded him of a Drowzee set up just behind the front ranks. He eyed them for a moment before he recalled their species – Grumpig. Not especially common as fighters thanks to their lack of raw power and docile personalities. Still, any psychics were a threat to be reckoned with. At least he wouldn't have to worry about them teleporting.

Another group of Rhyhorn, Sandshrew, and even a lone Golem were set to the side, at roughly sixty degrees to his right. They were almost inconspicuous, though Ash had no doubt they'd surge forward terrifyingly fast the moment battle began. He frowned – hadn't Steven's report mentioned those species being taken from a breeding facility?

If those were the unfortunate pokemon he'd heard about he shuddered. They held their bodies loosely, like they didn't even have the energy or will to stand up straight. Whenever the Rocket in charge of the group shouted something at the group it flinched back as one. His blood boiled and a steady pounding drummed in his ears.

The others were hidden. He thought he counted a few Voltorb, Electrode, and Magneton in the shadows but there were others in the way so he couldn't be sure. It didn't help that he could definitely see a pair of razor-sharp claws of noxious gas and leering eyes hidden in some of their shadows. One of the hidden Haunter winked at him and tauntingly licked the air – he shuddered as memories of Petrel's Haunter replaced it for just a moment.

All of the hidden ones – of which he could just barely make out vague silhouettes or gleaming red and green where the sunlight struck their eyes – were spread out to cover a little more than a semicircle. Ash's team would have to cover a large area to take down all the attackers, who would probably attack from range while most of his team was forced to first acknowledge the Granbull and Muk.

Not a bad strategy, he grudgingly admitted. It was simple but effective.

His friend didn't look at him as she polished her pendulum. It shone so brightly that it cast the area in icy blue light even beneath the white of her mane. Ash cast aside any reservations he had about the source of that immense power for the moment.

They're waiting for their assassins to strike. Their thoughts scream of fear. They wish to kill you and avoid a battle they fear they will lose. Pure foolishness, of course. You will never die – not while we are here.

Ash's lips quirked up at Dazed's confidence. He easily mirrored it as he regarded his team in the formation they'd adopted amidst the piles of unconscious and beaten bodies they'd easily repelled before.

"Assassins?" He frowned. Ash barely stopped himself from suspiciously glancing to the sides for any approaching pokemon. It wasn't like he was actually surprised. The Rockets wouldn't hesitate in stooping so low. To be honestly he would've been a bit disturbed if they hadn't – that sounded much odder now that he actually thought about it. "Are they taken care of?"

Dazed's eyes twitched upwards.

Of course, Friend-Trainer.

He smiled back. Why did he even need to ask?

The Brat proved capable. Four were dispatched by the Rockets. Those same four were dispatched by the Brat. Three were sent to attack from the air. They did not break past the trees.

"Good," Ash murmured softly. He pitied the Rocket's pokemon – how could he not when Seeker was proof of their depravity towards their "weapons"? But they had to be taken down before they could be helped by the League like Seeker had. "Do you know their plans?"

Dazed ceased polishing her pendulum. The icy fire that consumed it – he struggled to avoid remembering the last time he'd seen the source in person and still couldn't help the crushing pressure that mockingly gripped his heart – wavered briefly.

No, Friend-Trainer. My apologies. There…there are too many. I can grasp at our foes' thoughts but my focus is incomplete. I cannot drown out the mad chorus their twisted slaves wail.

He found that he hated the Rockets more than ever at the confirmation of the mental state of the opposing pokemon. Ash's teeth were bared in a snarl and Fire raged within.

Ash and his friends would finish this. They would bring justice.

This was why he'd joined the League.

The Rockets were trapped between him and the forest. Their fliers were struck down and they seemed to know that something much worse than Ash lurked in the wilderness behind them.

They will fight to the last, like cornered prey. That is all I may decipher. Should they fail here a fate worse than death awaits.

"Good!" Ash grinned dangerously. His fists clenched. "Then I don't have to worry about them running away!"

Dazed nodded, her eyes flashed, and like an unspoken signal his team attacked. Ash was blinded by the sudden explosion of destructive power – his mind couldn't possibly process the sudden trade of blows after the initial blasts of a Sludge Bomb (a twisting Triad of Flamethrower, Ice Beam, and Thunderbolt trailed after it, finishing several of the Granbull in a single explosion of heat, frost, and electricity that staggered those around it), Shockwave, Blizzard, and Focus Blast that crashed against the suddenly shifting line of Rocket pokemon like an avalanche.

Infernus appeared behind the enemy lines, undaunted now that the ghost responsible for the Shadow had been defeated. Ash couldn't hear the roar sure to be on his lips over the sudden din of a firestorm that exploded from the Rockets' rear and devoured the entire forest around them in a hurricane of smoke and twisting tongues of flame…he heard a distinctly human scream even amongst the crackle of branches and trees as the water within boiled to steam.

His stomach lurched as the sickening smell of burnt meat crossed the air to brush against his nostrils. It was quickly overwhelmed by the pungent scent of smoke that was downright pleasant in comparison, though the bitter tang of ozone and cool, refreshing gusts brought on by Torrent's raging Blizzards cleared it away.

Nidoking in particular stood out as his most fearsome protector let out a dark, forceful rumble that quaked the earth all around – the grass winding through stumps trembled in its wake and Ash even saw several of the Granbull sprinting at him slow their pace and shift uneasily. The hulking poison-type's back and spines shone with the toxic poison that had leaked from his skin, glistening in the light even as he reared his head back and spat a mass of thick, clumping purple ooze that landed in the rear, near the Rockets.

It splattered all over the back lines and covered several pokemon in a radius of about five feet, though it sizzled and clung to one of the Rockets who frantically tried to get the sprayed venom off of his clothes before he suffered real damage. Already the man's reflexes were slowed and he wavered on his feet, dizzy and exhausted from the poison's sudden effects. It ate away at his clothes and skin just barely, though the real danger behind it was if it got into your body to disrupt your systems with the heavy, clumping liquid.

A Kadabra that had been invisible before was illuminated briefly in the shadows as its eyes flashed to sweep the toxic sludge off of the Rocket, though it screamed when Infernus decided to manifest directly behind it with an ugly grin before he painfully jabbed it with his claws. Electricity surged through the Kadabra, overwhelming it, and Infernus playfully kicked the psychic forward into the rest of the goop before he raised one large cannon and sprayed a small Flamethrower into it, the glowing stream of flame just large enough to burn the Kadabra and boil the sludge.

Coughs and cries spread throughout the Rockets, whose pokemon had only just managed to turn with the sudden ambush before Infernus teleported a few feet away into their midst, as the toxic sludge spread throughout the air in a heavy purple miasma that'd leave everything that breathed it in slow and disoriented.

And then, after a long moment where the Rockets scattered to and fro to escape the toxic mist, the counterattack began. One lead Rocket, though he looked as anonymous as the rest of the criminals, roared something Ash couldn't hear, and every single Rocket pokemon rushed into action in a dark horde. Aside from the charging howls of Granbull and Muk and the sudden surge of electricity, he saw at least four smaller squads directed by a lone Rocket attack from every direction…

Psychic barriers flashed madly, almost randomly to his eyes, and Ash's ears suffered dozens of screams of pain and roars and screeches as the pokemon of each side attacked each other with mad devotion or just madness…the Rocket pokemon blurred to the sides to be stopped by flurries of Focus Blasts from Bruiser, or were slowed underneath the jagged arcs of icy energy that erupted from Nidoking's horn, freezing long trails of air around it before each arc impacted a Rocket pokemon and the land around them. Tree trunks froze and exploded in a flurry of splinters as they were flash-frozen, leaves were frosted over with delicate white, and he could even see the forest floor itself crack where the Ice Beams landed.

His eyes physically couldn't keep up as he did his best to keep up with the entire battle. Ash allowed his gaze flit and forth and quickly realized he could only catch the barest glimpses of the conflict raging around him – Torrent summoning a keening Blizzard that froze the Golem rolling at him and several Sandshrew in their tracks in addition to a good portion of the forest beyond, Infernus breaking formation to charge forth into the small group trying to attack from their side and gleefully spraying vast plumes of flame that seared dozens of his enemies at once and left grass and trees and plants blazing and smoldering like torches, Plume diving down from the heavens to disintegrate one of the Muk oozing towards Oz into a small horde of tiny, confused Grimer with a brilliant white lance of energy that briefly outshone the sun.

A sudden whirring attracted his attention and his eyes widened as Oz windmilled her arms so quickly he couldn't even track their motion as anything but a circular blur of black and gold and the luminescent aura of electricity that built up with every passing second. A Granbull that had been sent from one of the squads attacking from an angle snarled and leapt towards her with gaping jaws, sensing easy prey, but before it could get close it whined piteously and flew nearly thirty feet away with a long, shallow cut carved into its chest from an unseen force. It collapsed, black spots already forming on its chest where its blood vessels had been ruptured by the lightning-fast attack. Plume's screech split the sky as she ascended high into the air, eyes sharp and focused on any way she could help.

Oz fairly glowed now, just a dark shadow standing inside a golden, leaping aura barely restrained by her own will. The sharp tang of ozone dominated even above the smoke rising all over the battlefield or the noxious remnants of the Sludge Bomb, or even the metal he knew was blood.

He barely had time to shield his eyes before she screamed – or that's what it sounded like. It was stunning – even through Claydol's psychic equivalent to sunglasses all he could see was stars as amounts of electricity he couldn't even fathom were channeled into the largest Lightning Bolt Oz had ever produced. Dazed twitched by his side, though she didn't utter any complaints.

And then a thunderclap boomed like an avalanche and Ash's ears felt like they were being pierced by knives and twisted, his hair raised, and he struggled to stand steady against its force. Instincts he'd buried long ago cried out for him to flee, to escape the reach of the creature that had just hurled a spear of lightning into the midst of the enemy horde – the air rippled and warped behind it, unable to remain stable underneath the immense temperature of the controlled plasma.

The Lightning Bolt did its job well. It didn't hit a single enemy fighter, but lanced right between the group of Grumpig raining rainbow-hued Psybeams and constant barrages of pale pink blasts of energy (Power Gem, he thought) onto Nidoking, who handled what little of the assault got through Dazed and Claydol's psychic barriers with ease.

When the Lightning Bolt found its mark the world flashed. A huge geyser of dust and the scorched, tattered remnants of bark and wood kicked up even as remnants of the vast spray of electricity arced wildly, striking several other unprotected foes that twitched steadfastly under the pain, before settling into the dirt.

He pumped his fist when he realized the Grumpig had all been defeated – the force carried by the explosion had hurled each several feet away and many carried burns characteristic of something as powerful as Lightning Bolt. "That's it, Oz!"

Oz stiffened at the praise and he caught one of her gleaming fangs exposed from his vantage point – she was smiling.

Then the battle resumed unheeded and Ash found himself completely and utterly lost.

There was too much too fast. It could be hard to keep up with the insane speeds and reaction time of his team in single battles…with every single one unleashing the full force of their elemental fury or forcing each and every Rocket squad back all he could do was stand still and watch for threats hitting his team from behind. It felt like every time he blinked the entire battle had entirely changed…for the Rockets, at least. His team stood steadfast and strong except for Infernus, who had rushed into the heart of the Rockets from the rear and tore them apart from the inside.

Ash didn't bother with verbal commands and just thought what he wished for his team to do – for Oz to back away as a Murkrow shot out of the trees to her left aimed directly at her, or to have Nidoking loose yet another Earth Power to carve the ground out from underneath a Voltorb spinning dangerously close – and found they were all followed as Dazed transmitted his thoughts to the relevant team member.

He grit his teeth as the Rocket pokemon fell quickly…they might be stronger than the undisciplined army the Pokemon Hunter possessed but against his team that hardly meant a thing.

What could these numbers – less than fifty, he thought – do against Torrent's Blizzards which left half the clearing and entire groups of Rocket pokemon covered in frost? Or Infernus, who had reduced most to fleeing in terror the moment he had summoned a terrible cloak of raging flame before savaging everything he could reach with a laughing grin on his lips? Or Nidoking, who had left their entire side of the clearing so unstable random spots crumpled and fell beneath a pokemon's weight?

Nothing. It wasn't even fair – not that he bemoaned the fact right now. Ash just wanted this to be over quickly. He couldn't wait to get his hands on these Rockets.

So he waited and did his best to keep track of everything – his team was doing extremely well in their first battle of scale, so the frequency of heart-wrenching moments of worry were few. All he could do was help his team to predict attacks they might've missed otherwise.

He kept his eyes locked on the Rockets. They had spread out, probably getting ready to flee. There were still a few pokemon hanging back, each probably more potent than the ones they'd sent to try and circle around to attack him while the rest broke against his team's defenses.

Plume could take care of any who ran. It looked like Infernus had cut off the main group's escape – it was hard to run when there was a wildfire crackling and billowing smoke behind you – but the others might try to slip away in the confusion. Besides, Tangrowth and Cradily were somewhere out there.

It wouldn't be long now. Most of the opposing force made new piles of stunned, unconscious bodies around his team or had slipped into the crevices winding their way through the clearing –


Ash didn't have time to whip around before a white flash came from behind him and a wave of force slammed into his back. He groaned as his earlier injuries screamed anew but paused when he didn't even fall to the ground. Wary of any new surprises he turned and, seeing a smoking husk of what was once a Voltorb encased in a condensed sphere of psychic energy, sighed.

One had gotten through. And it had paid for that success with its life…what a waste. Ash grimaced as Claydol and Dazed, the only reasons he felt comfortable standing without more of his team at his back, allowed the barrier to fall. The dead Voltorb fell as gravity reasserted its hold and clunked heavily on the torn tree trunk beneath it.

He stared, helpless to look away. The Voltorb's shell was blackened by the force behind the lethal version of Explosion – he could only imagine the pain that poor Voltorb went through as it was forced to use its own life as fuel for one last attack. With the way it had been contained the blackened husk had been practically ripped apart…little fragments had broken off when it landed heavily upon the stump.

There was death in his eyes. Ash's upper lip curled into a vicious snarl. "Infernus! Get the Rockets!

Ash's words were heeded immediately. Infernus grabbed a Haunter that tried to rush him while he was distracted with one of his altered claws, spat a Flamethrower into its eternally grinning visage, cast it aside before it could disperse, and vanished.

He watched eagerly as one of the Rockets in charge of the group containing the Golem and Sandshrew screamed. The man cried out something Ash couldn't make out before Infernus tauntingly tapped the Rocket's chest with an electrified claw – an icy fire burned in the back of his mind as the tall, thin Rocket collapsed in spasms.

The furious trainer – his anger ebbed just a bit when he saw Dazed eying him oddly, her pendulum blazing – frowned as he looked back to the main group – what was that?

Ash frowned at a sudden motion just barely at the edge of his vision. He turned, saw a rush of blackness crawl across the clearing under the light of the midday sun. Reflexively he tried to move to the side, but before he could do a thing the rush of shadow shot underneath his legs and he screamed – what was this what had happened why did his back burn with liquid fire and why did he hear the clacking of mandibles from behind him by his back there was a glow of bright blue a scream in his mind and his ears he was on the ground now, a weight it hurt something stabbed him –

Frie…-Er! wake! Ash!

His eyes slid open at the broken whispers that filled his thoughts…whispers that he wasn't sure were his own. He laid still on the ground. It hurt. There was fire in his back. His heart beat and the fire spread. It was heavy in his veins, like lead. Everything hurt. What happened?

That's enough. Dazed, control yourself. Inform Nidoking he won't be helping anyone by breaking formation and charging over here. Get Sneasel off the Ariados. Now's not the time to be eating, no matter how thirsty for blood he may be.

A familiar chorus of voices spoke as one, projected into his mind. Ash tried to push himself up…his chest burned hotly. His limbs screamed but he got his face off the ground. His muddled head just saw a bit of green and brown – tree trunks? – and a slick, smushy brown clump of gunk all around him. It smelled bad. Almost as bad as the burning garbage.

That's enough. Best not to think of what you're laying in…

The voices were oddly calm as Ash bit back a scream. The fire in his back had spread through his body. The pain sharpened his senses and he wheezed for breath. Seconds stretched into eternities.

Hmm, Dazed was right. You are more dramatic than I expected. Quiet down, Ash.

Ash groaned. His chest burned hotter than his back. His skin tingled. His breath was cold. Something laughed at him. That made him mad. It laughed harder.

Don't worry, that Ariados is suffering more than you right now…wait, correct that to suffered. I'm very sorry that it managed to attack you in the first place. It is my fault. I should not have allowed myself to become distracted by the battle when your safety was my priority. The Ariados was cunning and I believe specialized in circumventing psychics, but that is no excuse. Steven would hold me to a higher standard than that.

He tried to move again. He failed.

Stop that. I'm doing what I can. It's fortunate Sneasel intervened in time – Dazed and I could do little against the Ariados. It was shrouded in a cloak of distortion. Our powers could do nothing in the time it needed to strike you down in some sort of petty revenge.

Well, that's my supposition. It's difficult to read such strange creatures and that one was truer to its base nature than most. Fascinating, really. It's a shame I couldn't spend more time analyzing it…

The voices were growing dimmer. Something deep within him, something primal, shuddered at the realization. Ash mumbled into the dirt.

Use your words, Ash. Now, I'm very sorry but this may hurt. Though probably less than the low dosage of Ariados venom, I suppose. It might be a useful distraction.

His thoughts pondered that, then the whole world burst into clarity as something very cold and very sharp stabbed deeply into his hip, forced in so powerfully that it pierced through the heavy cloth with ease. Ash's scream wracked his body and, combined with the shudders left by the burning lead in his body that seemed to grow less and less apparent with every waking moment, forced spasms through his limbs. Ash thought his heart might burst as it beat faster and faster and faster like a mad pounding of drums.

Ash drew in a deep, rattling breath. His teeth felt cold. His eyes opened and the world was finally clear, though most of his attention was focused around the absolutely massive needle embedded deep in his hip. A new substance, not quite as heavy as the cooling lead rushing through his bloodstream, felt especially thick inside him.

But he could accept that after the torture it had just saved him from. He reached out with shaking fingers and squeezed the needle of the Antidote. Another rush of thick ice pulsed into his blood and he quickly yanked the needle out. Ash eyed it nervously, the old anxiety about needles rearing its stupid head.

He was still weak. Ash grimaced when he tried to pick himself up off the ground and failed. His back still hurt.

He tried again, once again with the same result. Ash grimaced as his hands slipped out from under him and he landed in…goo? The boy cocked his head to the side as he stared dumbly at the oozing brown gunk that clung lightly to his gloved hand, though horrible realization set in quickly as some of Claydol's comments came together.

Bile rose up in the back of his throat. Ash scrambled away as quickly as he could, newfound adrenaline rising quickly as he realized just what it was he had been laying in. The slick, stinking goo still covered his front, though a psychic brush from Dazed helpfully wiped most of it onto the ground. He gratefully nodded at her, to which she merely shrugged back.

She looked uneasy. Ash shook his head. He was just happy he'd managed to keep his breakfast in his stomach. Even now his mouth watered the way he knew it would when his gut wanted to expel everything in it. His vision was woozy and he knew his head wasn't quite on straight.

Then he looked to the side, ignoring a few sounds in the distance that didn't seem that important. He could only focus on one spot at a time.

Unfortunately, he chose to lay his attention on the massive arachnid that attacked him. He promptly threw up. Ash's eyes watered as a terrible, bitter smell wafted into his nose. His mouth was bone-dry and tasted terrible. His throat begged him for water every time he swallowed.

He didn't care. All he could look at was Ariados – or, rather, what had once been Ariados. Sneasel hadn't been kind when he'd appeared from nowhere and savaged the creature who'd dared to strike Ash.

Ash didn't want to describe what little was left. Not much of Ariados was still intact.

Sneasel preened when he saw Ash staring at Ariados' remnants. He snickered whenever he took breaks from cleaning brown ichor and little bits of exoskeleton off his luxurious black fur. His claws were pure white, like they hadn't just torn an unfortunate killer to shreds.

Overall his friend, the one Ash had raised from birth, looked very pleased with himself. Ash managed to smile back – though it was more of a grimace – and wasn't even sure what he was thinking right now. So many emotions and thoughts and they were all muddled. It was like he was watching his life from a movie theater, like he wasn't even here.

"Thank you. You saved my life," Ash croaked. Sneasel paused in licking his fur and regarded Ash with cheerful slit eyes. The dark-type cocked his head puzzlingly for a moment before he innocently reached behind him and offered up the head of Ariados. His stomach lurked again at the neatly severed head, staring at him with blankly purple eyes.

Sneasel frowned and offered it to Ash more forcefully. The dark-type's tongue licked around his mouth, clearing away some more gunk, before he cocked his head farther to the right. He looked confused.

"How about you keep it for now?" Ash held back his grimace as he swayed lightly on his feet. He tried not to hurt his friend's feelings by outright refusing the morbid trophy. Sneasel looked too happy to do that. "I don't know – I don't…"

He staggered away. Bruiser caught him and held his small body carefully. Ash took the support gratefully – he could barely stand. Whatever Ariados had done to his back still hurt terribly. If it weren't for all the adrenaline going through his system Ash wasn't sure he'd be able to stand.

Bruiser's reptilian face was stretched tight, though Ash sensed a great and terrible anger hidden beneath the façade of self-control. The Machoke was still shaking slightly. Ash didn't think it was just from the fight he'd been in.

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