Traveler

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

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

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53. The Preliminaries Part 1

Ash stepped into his room and turned around to close the door. Sneasel wrapped his small, wiry arms tighter around Ash's chest to keep a better hold. The trainer shrugged it off in annoyance before he flipped on the light and turned around.

"Gah!" He jumped back and glared at the tall man that stood in the center of his room – the man that certainly hadn't been there a few seconds ago. Sneasel hissed and smoothly leapt in front of Ash with his wickedly hooked claws extended. An aura of frost wisped around them. "Who are – Will?"

The oddly dressed man smiled and balanced lightly on an expensive, ornamental cane. He adjusted his mask before he answered Ash. "Ah, you remembered me? Wonderful, wonderful!"

Ash wasn't sure anybody could forget about Will. His exuberant personality and strange style of dress made him stand out even before taking into account his status as an exceptionally powerful psychic and Elite Four trainee.

"What –" He said as he returned Sneasel. His friend wasn't necessary at the moment.

"Am I here for?" The man laughed. Ash had forgotten how annoying conversing with psychics could be. "Ah, it is simple, nothing of import. The Champion Lance simply desires to speak with you about something, although I do not know what. He was not particularly forthcoming on the details, I'm afraid. Such a shame."

He stood up straight and yanked his cane up in a strangely elegant motion, although Ash was far more attentive to the fact that the cane had just disappeared into thin air.

"Do you like the trick? It's a little thing that Lady Sabrina taught me." He said as the cane suddenly materialized in his other hand. Will laughed and balanced it with unnatural precision on the palm of his hand. "Nothing too flashy, just an exercise in control."

Will laughed again. "My apologies, I seem to have gotten off topic. It's a common problem when dealing with me, I'm afraid."

"No, it's fine." Ash said. Will's affable personality had put him at ease. It was a nice change from the stress of the Conference, even if the slight warmth that coursed through his veins had wiped away most of his anxiety. Still, the Opening Ceremony had been less than two hours ago. "Are you going to teleport me?"

"Indeed." Will said with a quick bow. The strange man adjusted his gaudy mask once more before he tapped Ash's forehead with the cane, so light that he could barely feel it. A small smile spread across his pale face and his eyes burned with icy fire. "My abilities in teleportation have greatly improved, you should know."

Ash barely had time to frown at the statement before a rush of psychic power flooded through the cane and warped him through space and time.

He landed heavily on his hands and knees. His head spun and his stomach churned but at least he didn't empty the contents of his stomach as he did last time. Ash took a moment to orient himself before he sluggishly pulled himself to his feet. The Feather pulsed and he felt his senses return to normal, although is limbs still felt weak and drained.

"Perhaps I overestimated my abilities." Will hummed cheerfully as he smoothly walked by, completely unaffected by the whirlwind that buffeted Ash. "My apologies, Ash. I'm afraid that Lady Sabrina would be most annoyed with me at the moment."

"It's fine." He wheezed. Some of the breath had been knocked out of him. "Where's Lance?"

"Right through here." Will pointed at two massive doors of mahogany, guarded by a pair of ACE trainers. They didn't appear to have any pokemon out, but something didn't feel right. Ash glanced over at the female ACE trainer and checked her shadow. As expected it was twisted and malformed. Gleaming red eyes stared back at him and the shadow waved a stubby arm. A shudder ran up Ash's spine as the alien intelligence of a Gengar or Haunter – he wasn't experienced enough to tell which – watched him with its dangerous gaze.

"Thanks." Ash told the strange man once he'd gotten over the initial discomfort of the ghost's presence.

"It is of no issue, my friend!" Will laughed. His eyes shined behind his mask with icy power. The two trainers behind Ash suddenly seemed to fall into a daze. The woman's ghostly protector curled protectively around her but didn't do anything. It seemed to know better than to interfere with a member of the Elite Four, even if he was just a trainee.

Will noted Ash's disturbed expression and quickly moved to explain. "Don't worry, I asked their permission first. I would never be so rude as to manipulate one without their permission. It is a gross violation of a living creature's natural rights."

Ash nodded, satisfied. He frowned at Will when the icy power refused to leave his eyes, leaving them as haunting orbs of blue behind his strange mask.

"The power that bleeds off of you is potent." The man said, serious for once. He cocked his head and absentmindedly toyed with his cane as he considered his words. "A lesser human psychic would find themselves overwhelmed. As it is, I can filter its influence. Know that a great power hides behind you, Ash Ketchum, and one that I cannot say is benevolent. Its power is familiar to me, but changed fundamentally. I cannot say that I like the Brand you possess. It…hurts."

His blood ran cold as Will's words set in. Ash knew that Mewtwo still maintained some degree of power over him. His inability to speak of the Creature most of the time was a testament to that. But he didn't like the hidden words in Will's message. Apparently Mewtwo had much more invested in him than he believed.

"Don't take it too seriously." Will said with a cheerful smile. "If it hasn't snuffed your mind out yet you're probably fine! Most likely the Brand is just a remnant of your, ah, encounter. You still have Fire burning from you, so at least that's good!"

"Thanks." Ash said numbly as he processed Will's words. The man shifted through conversations quickly. It made his excited words difficult to follow. "I'll think about what you said."

Will just dipped his head and yanked his cane into nothingness again before he vanished into thin air. He stared at the empty space for a second before he turned to head through the mahogany doors, which had been opened by the ACE trainers, who had been snapped from their stunned state.

He almost thanked the man and woman, but their stony countenances made him reconsider it. They didn't even spare him a look as he walked through. Ash wondered if it was part of their job or if the training ACE trainers went through or if the League selected them for their grim nature.

"Ash! I was afraid you wouldn't make it." Lance laughed from where he sat at his large, expensive desk. Papers were scattered all about it and Gible gnawed on a small stack of it. When Lance noticed that he flicked the young dragon on his fin, which made the creature whine pitifully. Lance sighed and threw a small rock to him, which Gible immediately put in his mouth to chew on. "Sorry about that, he's growing in some new rows of teeth. He'll probably evolve in the next few months."

Ash didn't say anything for a moment and just watched the small dragon gnaw happily on the rock. Lance quickly took the stack of paper from Gible's area and put it in a safe place. While the Champion rearranged some of the array of items Ash took a look around. He'd only seen this room through the narrow view of a camera before.

The Champion's office was massive, as large as the ground floor of the Village house he stayed in. There wasn't enough room to hold all of Lance's fantastically powerful dragons, but there was a large aquarium in one corner where Mael slept peacefully, the old, scarred Kingdra only slightly cramped in the water.

In another corner was a high stand connected to the floor by a ramp that almost reached up to the ceiling, which was a dome that was probably thirty feet high. At the base was a large cushion that looked to have had the stuffing knocked out of it many, many times.

Dragonite, Saph, and Dov were curled up in one massive heap of scales and thick hide. Dov's scarred face – Lance had told him he'd suffered the nasty wound from a Rocket Elite Agent that had been given one of the Metagross Pierce had stolen in Hoenn. He'd taken a Meteor Mash straight to the face before he'd incapacitated the Metagross with a single Dragon Pulse. It was just another testament to the incredible toughness Lance had trained into his team.

Magnus was nowhere to be seen. Ash supposed that was a good thing. It probably wasn't the best idea to have such a powerful fire-type in the center of the League, regardless of the control he had over his own power. There were far too many ways that could end badly, especially when one took the Charizard's prideful temperament into account.

Aerodactyl wasn't present, obviously. She would probably tear the entire place to shreds and then try to eat everyone and everything that wasn't Lance or a member of her team. Ash and his team might be an exception to that rule as well, but he wouldn't count on it.

"Like it? This office is definitely one of the job's perks. It almost makes up for the paperwork." Lance snorted. "Anyways, I'm sure you're curious about why I sent Will to pick you up."

The Champion sighed as Bagon suddenly leapt from the top of the stand and landed just off the cushions with a loud bang. Bagon, displaying the obsessiveness his species was known for, quickly pulled himself back up to his feet and ran back up the ramp.

"Sorry." Lance apologized with a roll of his eyes. "I just had that installed for him a few weeks ago. Bagon's still going crazy over it. You'll get used to it."

"Now," Lance continued, "back to business. I wanted to speak to you about what happened at the Opening Ceremony."

Ash just waited for him to elaborate.

He suddenly gasped as the Feather that had seared itself peacefully onto his chest heated up until it felt like there was a fire burning from within his heart. Warmth pulsed through his blood and the world seemed to glow with red as Lance pulled down the cuff of his formal, long-sleeved shirt and revealed another Feather that had bound itself to Lance's left forearm. It pulsed in response to the presence of his own and for just a moment he thought he saw its gentle flames glow white.

"Moltres has given us a great gift, has it not?" Lance smiled. It was the same wild grin that usually heralded explosions and Hyper Beams. "It does not part with its essence freely. We earned its respect when we challenged it at its center of power."

"I could feel you when you took the Feather." Lance stated as the flames that harmlessly wreathed their respective Feathers died down to a more manageable level, although they still seemed to burn in synchronization. His eyes still seemed to burn with his own inner fire. "These Feathers are beacons to anyone that knows what to look for. I suppose this is what a psychic must feel like all the time."

Ash just nodded and let the Champion speak. When Lance got like this is was better to just let him go on. It was often informative, after all. Many people didn't think of the Champion as particularly smart. He put up an image of strength, certainly, and showed enough determination to reshape the world. But Lance rarely struck those that didn't know him as someone with a keen mind.

He knew better. Nobody could become a Champion if they weren't intelligent. Lance preferred to rely on the ridiculous amount of power afforded to him by his team of draconic pokemon but if challenged he had enough cunning to turn almost any situation to his advantage and the knowledge to apply that cunning to areas outside battling.

"Anyways, there's some other stuff I wanted to talk about." Lance interrupted his thoughts. The Champion leaned back in his thick, luxurious chair and motioned for Ash to take one of the seats in front of his desk. Once he'd sat down Lance spoke again. "How are you feeling about the Conference? I remember my first one. It's nerve-wracking at first, but I promise you that it'll be one of the best experiences of your life."

"I'm a little nervous about battling in front of so many people, but I feel good. I know I'll do well." Ash said confidently. Lance listened with a half-smile painted across his angular features.

"Well of course you will. I did train you, after all!" He laughed, although he flashed Ash a smile to show him that he was just joking. "Don't worry about battling in front of people, Ash. You'll be fine. Once you really get into a battle you'll love the cheers of the crowd. Just don't let it get to your head, alright? It's intoxicating."

"I don't think you need to worry about that." Ash said wryly. If anyone needed to be warned about that it was Gary. Jonathan too, if his new attitude was anything to go by. "I just want to battle and go back to the house."

Lance looked at him seriously. "It's not going to be as simple as that. You're going to attract attention, Ash. When I went to the Silver Conference the first time I found a lot of eyes on me once I finished in the Top 8. People were already paying attention to me because of my family, but showing my skill doubled it."

"Get ready for the reporters, Ash." Lance sighed with distaste. "The League's hidden you so far, but there's only so much we can do. When they hear about another prodigy springing up in Kanto they'll come running as fast as they can."

"I'm not going to approach you in public." The Champion said. "You'll have enough attention already and I don't want you to get overwhelmed or painted as a target."

"A target?" Ash raised an eyebrow. His mind immediately flashed to Team Rocket, but he wanted confirmation. "For who?"

"Everyone." Lance said bluntly. "The media will hound you and try to dig up everything in your life. A few people in the League will probably start trying to recruit you. Any remnants of Team Rocket desperate for revenge might try to attack you, just on the off chance that they might do some damage to the League."

Ash frowned at that. He wouldn't worry about anyone from Team Rocket in a straight up fight, but they would probably try to attack from the shadows and take him unawares in the event that they actually came for him. If they actually watched his battles, anyway. They weren't trained to be individually strong.

"The last bit is pretty unlikely, of course." Lance told him. "They're stamped out for the most part. Agatha and Bruno weren't particularly gentle while hunting the remaining cells down. Not to mention that the entire criminal underworld is trying to get back at the Rockets before they get smashed as well."

He said it so casually that it made Ash listen even more closely. "Are Agatha and Bruno at the Conference?"

"Of course!" Lance retorted and rolled his eyes. "They're practically required to be here. I'm compensating for their loss by taking more of the ACE trainers off their leashes. They don't pack quite as much of a punch, but there aren't too many criminal organizations left that can stand up to them. Team Rocket was the only thing keeping a lot of them floating."

Lance shook his head as though he'd just realized that he had gotten off topic again. "Sorry. Will must be rubbing off on me. Since Agatha's been gone I've been responsible for keeping a track of him. Something much easier said than done, since he likes to practice teleporting constantly."

That reminded Ash. "What's with the cane?"

"Agatha gave it to him as a present. I think it was a joke, but he thought it was stylish." Lance scoffed and absentmindedly readjusted his cape, which didn't look too comfortable to sit in. "Ever since he's just been playing around with it. He's been using it as a focus for his power, I think."

Ash nodded understandingly. He didn't remark on the similarity of Will's cane to Lance's cape. Both items fit their owners' personalities and appearances perfectly, even though they'd look absolutely ridiculous on a normal person.

"Now, back to the point." Lance said, finally steering the conversation back to where it was supposed to be. "Watch out for reporters. They aren't bad, but some of the less scrupulous ones might twist your words to make you look conceited in some way. A young, arrogant prodigy sells well."

An image of Gary immediately flashed to mind. Hopefully he'd attract more attention than Ash. He was the grandson of Professor Oak, after all. Even if he wasn't as skilled people would be interested in him.

"But most of all, remember that the Conference is supposed to be fun. Don't get too caught up in it. Take it seriously and battle your hardest with your team, but remember that it's not the whole world. You have years of training ahead of you." Lance told him seriously. Ash caught a hint of regret in his tone. It sounded like Lance spoke from personal experience. "You will earn greatness. Don't leave everything behind in its pursuit."

Ash took some of Lance's rare, earnest advice to heart. He treated just about everything the boisterous man said seriously to begin with, but there was something in Lance's eyes that pleaded with him to remember this.

Then Will's words came back to him. He hadn't thought much about the Creature in some time. Ash had done his best to leave his focus and hate on Mewtwo far away from his conscious mind. But Will had him thinking about it and there would be no better time to ask.

"How's the search for Mewtwo?"

"Terrible." Lance scowled, exposing his canine teeth in a wrathful, animalistic expression. In that moment he very much resembled one of the dragons he had earned mastery over. "Our scouts can't find anything in that area of the ocean. It's hiding itself away. Even Moltres won't help me!"

A tidal wave rose up from within Ash and yanked him deep into an abyss of icy power. He tried to shout a warning, but his body was no longer his to command. Ash could see from his eyes and hear from his ears but a great presence had ripped control away. He simply existed.

The Champion Lance scowled and did not back away as Ash's eyes burned with icy blue energy. Ash could see the Feather bound to his wrist flare up in response, casting his dangerous gaze and angular features in a wreath of harmless fire.

"Do not seek me out." Ash spoke, but it wasn't him. His voice welled with power that wasn't his own but his mind – or, rather, the Creature that talked through him – projected the same words in a deep, rich baritone. It was unnerving, even as he was trapped within his own body, helpless to fight back. "I live in exile now, seeking my truth. Greater entities than your League have attempted to strike me down, Champion Lance of Indigo, and I have cast them all aside."

"Get out of him." Lance demanded, wrathful gaze alit with hatred. Even though it wasn't directed at him Ash shuddered. The Champion's words weren't frantic or angry. They were deathly calm. Lance stood up. His team began to rise as well, but a gesture from Lance stopped them. "You do not have any right to use his body!"

"I came only to give a message." Mewtwo said through Ash, unimpressed. "And it is this: Leave me in peace and I will never trouble you again. My search for enlightenment is far more important than petty squabbles with foolish humans."

"Stay out of Ash." Lance said after a moment of silence. "You have troubled him enough."

"You need not worry over him. To harm him would be to destroy a shard of myself, however small it may be." The Creature said coldly. Ash's muscles were starting to ache from the presence held within him. "He is free of me. I simply needed to speak with you."

"I do not desire your destruction, Champion Lance. You are strong – for a human. But should you interfere with the peace I have built for myself I will eliminate you. Death shall rain upon you until my name is forgotten." Ash stated matter-of-factly. "Do not seek me out."

And with that the Creature slipped out of Ash's mind. The boy fell to the ground but caught himself at the last possible moment. He sluggishly pulled himself to his feet, thankful for the Feather as it burned brightly and restored his strength through small pulses of energy.

"It seems I have much to think about." Lance muttered as he collapsed into his seat. He looked drained and much older for a few moments before he regained some of his vigor. "Ash, are you alright? I know that was…unexpected."

"I'm fine." He ground out as he took his own seat. Ash found that he had trouble remembering the conversation already. It was like the experiences at New Island. He knew what had happened but the exact details were beyond him. "Do you want me to leave?"

Lance looked at him, his face twisted into surprise. "No, no. It's fine. It just looks like I'll more paperwork to deal with in the future. It's not easy to call off a search like this. I'll have to explain everything to the rest of the Elite Four and a few other select people."

So Lance was following the Creature's demands. Ash wasn't sure how he felt about that. On one hand it meant that much possible bloodshed could be spared. On the other hand he needed to know how to find Mewtwo. One day he would go back to face it once more. Or so he hoped.

There was some uncomfortable silence for a bit longer. Ash wasn't sure what to say. Mewtwo's disruption had changed quite a bit.

He wondered if Mewtwo had truly left him. Ash didn't feel any different. There wasn't a weight suddenly lifted off of him. Just a bit of the exhaustion that the Feather didn't seem inclined to wipe away.

Lance suddenly gave a wild, childish grin as a small device on his desk vibrated. He tapped a button and looked over to Ash. "Hey, there's someone people I wanted you to meet."

"Who?" Ash inquired. There were plenty of people that came to mind. Lance knew just about everyone even remotely important in Indigo.

"He should be here right…now" Lance grinned. Ash heard the door open behind him and curiously glanced back. His eyes widened imperceptibly as the most powerful man in the League stepped through the door.

Charles Goodshow, still dressed in his oddly casual shirt, shorts, and backwards cap, walked in with a bright smile on his face. Ash stared at the tiny man whose small stature belied the enormous strength he likely still held.

The position of League President wasn't something one could casually obtain. To command the respect and obedience of the three Champions that made up the Indigo, Hoenn, and Sinnoh Leagues required untold strength. It didn't have to be strength in battle. The League President's strength could be through force of will and personality, intelligence, cunning…anything that would prove them worthy of the Champions' obedience.

Goodshow was probably the most accessible of all the great League figures. He was the link between the regions, the one that could unite them in these times. Even Lance, with his boisterous personality and self-confidence, didn't keep in touch with the public as much as Goodshow. It was his job to foster relations and keep everything from falling apart.

He didn't know that much about the man, to be honest. Just what Goodshow was. Ash had certainly listened to enough of his speeches before the numerous League Conferences to get a taste of the League President. Goodshow held the air of someone who had seen too much to waste time being sad. Every single time he'd heard him he'd been cheerful. The only time he'd been solemn was when Moltres had caused its Avatar to fly around the Indigo Stadium.

"This is the young 'un you told me about?" Goodshow asked Lance as he peered up at Ash from behind his bushy eyebrows. "Doesn't look like much."

"What does it matter what I look like?" Ash retorted, a little annoyed. The Feather fuelled his brashness and flickered lightly over his chest. Lance, rather than looking embarrassed, just seemed amused.

Goodshow's bearded face broke out into a cheerful grin that made the lines around his eyes crinkle warmly. "Indeed! Appearances can be deceiving. Actions reveal a person's true heart!."

"Ash, meet the League President, Charlie." Lance said flippantly as he stood up from his table. Gible leapt up on top of his head, completely ruining the Champion's regal look. "Charlie, meet Ash. He's helped us out a lot."

Goodshow hummed and outstretched an ancient, leathery hand to Ash. The trainer grasped it firmly and shook it, not letting up on his grip as Goodshow's hand tightened around his own with surprising strength. He was full of surprises, it seemed.

Finally, Goodshow's grip relaxed and the old man took a seat next to Ash. Lance remained standing, as though he were waiting for the League President to say something.

"Lance, you said you had something you wanted to show me?" Goodshow raised a scruffy eyebrow. He certainly didn't look like a particularly striking figure. Then again, as Goodshow had said, appearances could be deceiving. "Something that wasn't your little apprentice?"

Ash wasn't sure that Goodshow had the right to be calling anybody little, but bit back a retort even as the Feather flickered and pulsed in time with Lance's. The Champion just grinned and pulled back the cuff of his sleeve again, showing off the Feather that burned with harmless flames that danced around the Dragon Master's wrist.

He heard a sharp intake of breath beside him and Goodshow shot up with surprising speed. The little man leaned over the desk and took Lance's arm in his hand, completely ignoring a small growl from Gible.

Goodshow hissed as the flames brushed over him and yanked his hand back. Apparently the Feather of Moltres wasn't so harmless after all.

"Ah, my boy. You are truly blessed." Goodshow muttered as he examined the gold and red Feather with rapt fascination. "I doubt the First himself received such a favor. Your challenge was foolish beyond measure, but it seems that Moltres respects you for it."

"I thought you'd like it." Lance said smugly. He glanced over in Ash's direction. "Of course, I'm not the only one who got one."

Goodshow didn't seem surprised as he turned over to meet Ash's eyes with his strong, ancient gaze. His eyes were bright and fierce, the exact opposite of what his body suggested. "You went off with Lance during that foolhardy scheme, didn't you?"

Ash just gave him a brisk nod. Goodshow frowned.

"My apologies for Lance getting you wrapped up in all that. He should have known better than to challenge Moltres, of all things." He glared at Lance sternly. The Champion didn't seem cowed in the least. He just grinned back as though the League President weren't admonishing him like a small child.

"You just wish you could've been there to see it." Lance said with a wry grin.

"I suppose things could have gone worse. Doesn't change the fact that you're a bonehead." Goodshow stroked his beard lightly. He smiled lightly as he focused on Ash. "So you're in the Conference, boy?"

Ash nodded again.

"If Lance took the time to train you I'll certainly enjoy watching you compete. He has a good eye for talent, at the very least. He just has plenty of flaws to make up for the positive!" Goodshow chortled as Lance rolled his eyes, apparently familiar with Goodshow's habits. "Just make sure not to get too caught up in it, eh? Confidence is well and good, but arrogance is blinding."

"I've already given him the speech, Charlie." Lance commented from behind his desk. He ignored the withering glare Goodshow sent him.

"Bah, ruining an old man's fun." Goodshow growled.

Lance suddenly frowned and looked over to Ash. "I'm sorry, but we're going to have to cut this short. During our last conversation some things came up that I need to talk to Charlie about in private."

"Understood." Ash replied. He knew that Lance was talking about Mewtwo.

"It was nice seeing you again, Ash." Lance grinned. "Try not to get any trouble during the Conference, alright?"

Ash snorted and didn't bother replying. He just crossed his arms and looked around, wondering how he was supposed to get out. Will had teleported him be—

"You called?" A cheerful voice rang from behind Ash. He jumped a little bit and sighed when he saw Will's bright smile behind him. The psychic had his cane balanced on the tip of a finger again with inhuman precision. He bounced it up and down several times and looked over to Goodshow. "Ah, Sir Charles! What a delight to see you again, my friend!"

Goodshow smiled back to the point where his eyes were scrunched up. "Will! Still as delightful as ever, I see. You've got that same spirit about you."

"Of course I do." Will smiled mysteriously behind his mask. "I'm afraid I must cut these pleasantries a bit short, my good man. I have a job to do, you know."

The League President nodded and turned back to Lance, who had looked over to meet Ash's eyes. "Ash, be on the lookout whenever you go into the Village. We have a mutual acquaintance wandering about."

Ash's eyes widened. "Steven?"

Lance grinned with a nod, a mere moment before Will tapped his cane to Ash's forehead again.

"Let's try this again, shall we?" Will inquired as it began to glow with the force of his power. He dipped his head to the Champion and the President. "Sir Charles, Champion Lance, I bid thee farewell!"

With that they disappeared in a flash of light. Ash collapsed onto the floor in a disgruntled heap, although Will appeared beside him as elegant as ever. He lightly tapped the cane beside Ash to get the boy focused again.

"My apologies. At least you weren't sick this time!" Will exclaimed. He did frown a bit, though. "I really do need to practice teleportation more. Please don't tell Lady Sabrina, please. She has been rather irritable as of late."

"I won't." Ash promised as he hauled himself back up to his feet. He brushed himself off with his free hand and looked around. They were back in his room, which was still completely clean. That meant Jonathan and Amelia weren't back yet. They'd probably have run in here to wait for him.

Will closed his eyes shut in a serene manner and focused. Ash saw just the hint of a blue glow behind his eyelids before they snapped open. The man seemed almost panicked.

"I'm afraid I must bid you adieu, my friend!" Will gave him a quick bow and adjusted his mask. He quickly yanked his cane into nothingness with a snap of his wrist. "Lady Agatha has requested my presence and it would be rather unfortunate if I was late."

Ash flashed back to the only time he'd met the older woman. Her eerie, mismatched eyes seemed to stare at him from the depths of his mind and he shuddered. He couldn't blame Will for being afraid of her. Agatha wasn't cruel, but she was very intimidating. The fact that she had a Gengar living in her shadow didn't help matters.

With that Will teleported away. Ash glanced around his spotless room for a few moments before he shrugged and began to release his friends. Tomorrow would be his first battle. He'd like to get some rest and spend time with them before he made his first appearance in the Conference.

XX

He couldn't deny that he was nervous as he waited in the staging area underneath the Water Stadium. Ash had been put up against a trainer named Mandi. According to the profile on the computer he was sitting at he'd battled in the Conference before but hadn't made it very far.

As such he wasn't too worried about the actual battle compared to actually keeping his focus. The Water Stadium was much smaller than the Indigo Stadium but it was still absolutely massive compared to anything he'd battled in. There were easily a hundred thousand people crammed into it.

The three pokemon he had selected were Torrent, Sneasel, and Oz. Torrent would obviously be at a huge advantage. He was a mighty combatant outside of water, when he had to focus quite a bit of his energy on levitation. In water he was night undefeatable.

If Torrent wiped the floor with Mandi's team he'd send Sneasel out. He hadn't used him much in serious battles, but Sneasel deserved the chance to prove his worth. He'd been training extremely hard for the last few months.

Oz was for backup. He wanted to use her a few times in the Conference, even if she still lagged behind some of his most formidable friends. She certainly couldn't match against Infernus anymore, no matter how she tried. His mastery of Air Lens was just too advanced for her electric attacks to pierce. But she was still more than capable of crushing strong opponents. Even before they'd trained with Lance she'd been strong. Now she could probably take on anything short of extremely highly-trained pokemon.

"Ash Ketchum, your battle is about to begin." A woman's voice said over the intercom. He grinned dangerously and stood up from his computer. "Please report to the Water Stadium."

He strode confidently through the door that took him into the hall that would bring him to the surface. At the end was an immensely bright light and the cheers of thousands. Ash took a deep breath as the stadium shook around him.

He could do this.

When he stepped into the blinding light the cheers grew even louder. Ash's cap kept him from being completely blinded, but he would still need some time to adjust.

"And now the start of the third battle on the Water Stadium!" The announcer shouted through the speakers to the raucous applause of the viewers. "On the green side is newcomer Ash Ketchum of Pallet Town! On the red side is Pokemon League favorite the Astounding Mandi!"

Ash raised an eyebrow at the trainer that stood across from him. He was just barely a teenager, on the cusp of his twenties. He had long, cyan hair and a red headband.

He also wore an arrogant smile on his face that made Ash frown slightly. He'd enjoy wiping it off.

The announcer gave some more information about Mandi, but Ash couldn't find it in himself to care. He just wanted this battle to begin. Adrenaline rushed through his blood like fire and the Feather pulsed with approval as he stood up straight and glared at his opponent, who seemed to have already dismissed him.

"Now, let the battle begin!"

Ash could see Mandi muttering something as a cocky smile crossed his face and he released an Exeggutor. It groaned at him and stamped a foot, but Ash just smiled back. An Exeggutor wasn't what he'd expected on the Water Stadium, but he'd make due.

It was actually a great thing for him. Despite psychic-types penchant for being exceptionally intelligent, Exeggutor were an exception to that rule. They weren't dumb, but they did require commands to be spelled out much more clearly than others. That would give Torrent even more time to react.

"Torrent, you're up." He murmured to his friend's pokeball. It seemed to shake slightly before he raised it and tapped the release. Oohs and aahs echoed throughout the stadium as Torrent's large, magnificent form appeared in the massive pool of water.

Mandi frowned and actually looked a little worried. Ash would make sure he realized his mistake soon enough.

"Psywave!" Mandi cried with a dramatic sweep of his arm. The crowd cheered as the battle commenced and waves of psychic power shot towards Torrent, who simply ducked under water to avoid the slow attack. "Now, Sludge Bomb into the water!"

Ash just crossed his arms and watched impassively as Torrent easily raced away from the toxic sludge as it dispersed slowly throughout the water. The poison haze could cause trouble if Torrent ran into it now, but in the long run it wouldn't be concentrated enough to hurt him. "Dragon Pulse."

Torrent suddenly surfaced right at the edge of Exeggutor's platform and fired off the sphere of draconic power before the slow-moving Exeggutor could even hope to react. Mandi shouted in concern as Exeggutor was hurled backwards and slammed into the Stadium's wall with a crash and explosion of dust.

"Exeggutor is unconscious! Victory for the Green Trainer!" The referee announced with a flourish of his flags. "Red Trainer, select your next pokemon!"

Ash couldn't fight the grin on his face as the Stadium went completely silent. He knew that Mandi wasn't a bad trainer. He couldn't have been if he made it to the Conference. But against Ash he had no chance. Torrent was just too strong in the water.

Nobody could have expected for the popular Mandi to be upstaged like this, but Ash could actually hear a few people cheering for him now as the spell of silence broke. It was strange but left a very nice feeling in his stomach all the same.

"Go, Seadra!" Mandi shouted as he released his next choice. Ash blinked in confusion and then shook his head. That was a bad choice on Mandi's part. He bet that the other trainer was cursing himself for picking Seadra at the moment. "You can do this! It is just a Kingdra!"

The Seadra looked at Torrent, who regarded him with idle curiosity, and then back to Mandi with wide eyes. Seadra glared at its trainer as though Mandi were absolutely insane. Its spines rustled as it pulled itself forward to despondently face Torrent. If it could, Ash bet it would be sighing.

"Agility!" Mandi ordered. Seadra shot forwards with exceptional speed, carving through the water as if it weren't there. The water-type didn't hold back, even if it knew it couldn't win this. "Now, -"

"Twister." Ash said casually. Torrent's rear fins twitched, which was more than enough to cause the water to swirl rapidly and form a funnel. Torrent sank to the bottom of the fifty-foot deep pool and watched with boredom as Seadra was yanked from the surface and trapped in the vortex.

"Seadra!" Mandi cried out once more. Ash felt a little bad at the concern but didn't let it stop him. He was here to win this. It wasn't like Seadra would actually be hurt.

"Dragon Pulse."

Torrent rumbled and shot into the swirling waters. He was nothing but a large shadow as he effortlessly pushed his way through the pool until he found Seadra being buffeted by the whirlpool on the other side.

Seadra shot a Bubblebeam at the Kingdra, but it was easily overwhelmed as Torrent reared his head back and shot a small sphere of draconic energy straight into his pre-evolution with pinpoint accuracy. He'd worked hard with Mael for that aim.

"Seadra is unconscious! Victory for the Green Trainer!" The referee exclaimed. "Red Trainer, select your next pokemon."

"You served me well, my Seadra." Mandi shouted as he returned the water-type. Desperation was in his eyes. "Go, Golbat!"

Ash regarded Torrent, who had effortlessly returned the water to its smooth natural state. The whirlpool had vanished and left no trace of its remains. "Torrent, come back! You did a great job."

With that he recalled his friend, who raised his head proudly at the praise. Ash placed the pokeball back onto his belt and released Sneasel, who bared his sharp teeth happily when he realized that he was actually battling. His razor claws were instantly unsheathed and he locked onto Golbat's large form with glee in his eyes.

Mandi opened his mouth as though he were about to insult Ash but appeared to think better of it. "Golbat, be careful. He is not as weak as he appears."

The poison-type bared its fangs and unfurled its wings. Apparently it had been trained to function in the daylight. That was actually impressive. Only Crobat tended to be capable of operating during the day with no difficulty at all.

"Thanks for the compliment." Ash muttered. He looked over at Sneasel. "You've got this, buddy. Do your thing."

Sneasel looked as dangerous as ever as he stepped forward. He didn't attack. Not yet. Ash could tell that he wanted to savor this experience.

"Golbat, use Take Down." Mandi crossed his arms. Golbat took off in a blur of blue and purple. Ash didn't bother telling Sneasel to dodge. He only needed to be coached on the finest points of battle by this point. "Now, Razor Wind!"

Golbat turned and swooped back down at Sneasel after the little dark-type had avoided its first Take Down. It flapped its wings while it still had some air, slowing it down so that it could fire the crescent blades of wind towards Sneasel.

Ash grinned. "Ice Beam!"

Sneasel hissed and easily used Quick Attack to flash out of the way of the Razor Wind, which gave him just enough time to send a beam of icy energy straight into Golbat, although the poison-type managed to limit the effect to one wing as it attempted to dodge.

Nevertheless, Golbat was crippled and at Sneasel's mercy.

"What? Why does that thing know Ice Beam!" Mandi moaned and clutched his head as he realized he had lost. "Golbat, this is our last chance! Use Mega Drain!"

Golbat tried to pull itself away on its one wing as Sneasel, spitting and hissing, rushed towards it with claws encased in ice. The poison-type's eyes glowed a bright yellow and it jumped at Sneasel, who easily avoided the slow, crippled creature and slashed its back.

Once Golbat was completely helpless, Sneasel opened his mouth and shot a gust of Icy Wind into the creature's back, the small shards of ice moving at a high enough velocity to embed themselves deeply inside the Golbat's soft flesh. Sneasel hissed happily and froze Golbat's other wing with an Ice Beam, leaving it even more helpless.

Being at the mercy of a Sneasel or other dark-type was what many pokemon feared. Many humans did as well, especially in the north of Johto and Sinnoh where Sneasel and other dark-types congregated. Most dark-types weren't nearly as malicious as their reputation suggested, but they still had a much stronger ruthless streak than most.

And, as Sneasel gleefully kicked the helpless Golbat into the pool, Ash understood why.

Ash frowned and waited for Mandi to recall Golbat as it floundered about, the ice helping to keep it afloat. There was no hope of victory for the other trainer now. If he wanted to help Golbat he'd get it as far away from Sneasel as possible.

Mandi's eye twitched as Sneasel froze a small section of the water underneath Golbat and leapt onto the ice floe with it, eyes wide with childish delight and claws ready to rend his victim. Ash kept a hand on his pokeball. If Sneasel tried to do serious harm he'd recall him in an instant. He'd still win by default.

"Give up!" He shouted, angry at the other trainer for his stupidity. "It's over!"

Mandi scowled, but gave in. Just as Sneasel leapt at his trapped foe Golbat was saved by being returned to his pokeball. Sneasel whined in confusion and used Quick Attack to return to Ash's side as the referee stepped forward.

"Golbat is unable to battle. Victory goes to the Green Trainer."

"It's all over! In a stunning upset rookie trainer Ash Ketchum has defeated the established Amazing Mandi without losing a single pokemon!" The announcer roared in tune with the crowd. Ash grinned and basked in it. It was weird, but hearing the cheers felt good. Not nearly as awkward as he'd envisioned. "What else will we see from this newbie trainer in the days to come? I don't know about you, but I'm definitely going to watch out!"

Sneasel suddenly appeared on his shoulder, so fast that Ash didn't even see a blur. Ash laughed and lightly scratched the area underneath his feather to show his appreciation. "Good job, Sneasel! I knew you could do it!"

The dark-type growled contentedly and wrapped himself loosely around Ash's neck. Ash happily kept on petting him even as a few people with cameras came up. A League official motioned for him to leave, but he took the time to grin wildly at one of the cameras before he left. Hopefully his mother was watching. He'd told her when he'd be battling.

As he returned to the staging area he reflected on the battle. It had felt too easy. He knew that Torrent was an unstoppable juggernaut, in or out of water, but he was surprised at how quickly Sneasel had won. It was part luck. If the Golbat had remained in constant motion Sneasel would have had a much harder time actually hitting it. As it was, Sneasel was quick enough to close in on such vulnerabilities that it turned out to be a non-issue.

Regardless, he had two days until his next battle. The League had groups of trainers on different intervals until they reached the Top 32. Before then it was just to get as many competitors out as possible and keep the visitors entertained. Once they reached the Final Rounds they needed the time to return their teams to full strength. Those battles were intense.

Perhaps he'd scope out some of the competition. He'd heard from Jonathan and Amelia that Michael was battling today and he'd like to see just how strong he was. That Jolteon was a monster, but all he knew was that the rest of his team was tough.

Gary was battling as well. Ash dearly wanted to see how much his rival had grown. If they faced each other in the Conference he wanted to have a real challenge from the other boy, not a shut out. Gary couldn't run away this time.

He smiled softly at that thought. Gary and Jonathan. Those two were the ones he wanted to battle the most. Amelia didn't seem quite as strong, even if she was more cunning and crippled an enemy's team with status conditions and traps before actually taking them on. She didn't like battling as much as they did.

Besides, it wouldn't be nearly as satisfying to beat Amelia as it would be to beat Gary or Jonathan. She hadn't acquired as much arrogance.

Before he left to check out some of the other battles going on, Ash went to one of the computers to check on the brackets. He wanted to actually know when his people of interest would be battling.

It was important to check up on the competition, after all.

XX

Ash watched with wide eyes as Michael absolutely demolished his opponent, who was certainly no slouch himself. His Arcanine had singlehandedly defeated a Steelix and Rhypherior before being knocked out by a Golem that finally managed to hit the powerful fire-type with an Earthquake.

Arcanine was strong, but its raw, offensive power wasn't incredible for its breed. What put it so far above its foes was its complete mastery of Extreme Speed. It was so fast that it could easily dodge an attack and make about a dozen extra counterattacks before the slow rock-types managed to drive it off. Combined with the fact that it had the endurance to fire off Solar Beams and use Iron Tail like they were nothing meant that it easily tore the rock-types apart.

Then he'd released his Machamp and it was over. Golem, weakened by several Solar Beams, was knocked unconscious with a single blow. The other trainer took his defeat graciously, even though he was clearly disappointed.

Ash frowned. Michael was very, very strong. He hoped somebody would knock him out of the Conference before he'd have to face him. It would be too close of a match for him to be comfortable.

He watched the redheaded teenager, almost a man, step out of the stadium. Gary took his place with a confident smirk. Ash hadn't been too surprised when he saw that Gary and Amelia would be the battles after Michael. The League seemed to be organized along geographical lines. Jonathan had gotten through his battle around the same time as Ash.

Gary was confident. Even more so than usual. Hopefully he had the strength to back up his boasts by now. Ash would be very disappointed if he'd wasted the last few months.

A slight grin crossed his face as Gary's opponent stepped up and the match began. He'd have a last battle with Gary, one way or another. It would just be a lot more convenient if it occurred in the Indigo Stadium under the eyes of millions.

He just wanted one battle where Gary couldn't run away.

XX

Ash tossed Bruiser's pokeball up and down as he sat on one of the plain metal benches in the staging area. It was almost time for his second match, this time on the Rock Stadium. He'd resolved to use Bruiser during this battle. The Rock Stadium was a great fit for his friend since it wouldn't give his opponent a chance to exploit his vulnerability to long range attacks.

The trainer he'd be facing was Joshua Brooks, a starting trainer from Pewter. Ash was eager to face Joshua, who didn't have much on his record but was skilled enough to fight his way into the Conference during his first year of training. Aside from the trainers from Pallet there were only a handful of rookies in the Conference.

As he heard shouts coming from the stadium above he wondered when his mother and Professor Oak would get here. He hadn't gotten a chance to talk to them with the excitement over the past few days. All he'd managed to do was exchange a few messages with his mother, who assured him that she'd be at the Conference within the next few days.

Hopefully she'd be here by the time the battles actually got serious. He didn't want her to miss any of his real victories. These were just preliminaries – warm-ups.

"Ash Ketchum, your battle is about to begin."

Ash blinked and reflexively looked up at the intercom before he pulled himself up with a grin. He clutched Bruiser's pokeball tightly and felt the adrenaline begin to pump. It was finally time to begin. He'd been waiting down here for hours.

"Good luck, Ash!" Amelia called out as he turned to head down the pathway that would take him up to the surface. Her battle would take place two rounds after Ash's.

She probably wouldn't have too much trouble. He'd watched her first battle. Amelia was pretty brutal, just like he remembered. Her Raticate was absolutely ferocious, to the point that it had hung onto a Rapidash and ignored its burning mane until the fire-type fainted.

He turned around and grinned at her before he left the area. "You too!"

Amelia just gave him a cheerful wave and turned back to the monitor that was covered with the profiles of numerous trainers. A few of the other trainers waiting for their battles turned to watch him go. He'd attracted some attention.

Ash didn't pay it any mind and did his best to relax as he stepped up into the light, the gleeful cries of the spectators thunder to his bones and fuel for his manic grin. This was going to be fun.

"And promising rookie Ash Ketchum steps out onto the field! In his last battle he dazzled us with a flawless victory! Was that just beginner's luck or is he the real deal? I don't know about you all, but I want to see!" The announcer boomed to the joy of the crowd. Ash's face turned a little red as everyone looked at him.

Joshua stepped up and looked just as nervous as Ash felt. Ash wondered if he looked that young to the crowd. The other boy was taller than Ash, but there was a softness to his features that made him appear much less mature. He looked afraid.

That didn't mean he was weak, though. Nobody made it to the Conference by being meek in battle. Joshua just hadn't passed the hurdle that Ash had been lucky enough to find early, way back in Dandra.

There was a fire in his eyes that easily matched that of any of the older competitors, even if it was dimmed by fear. Ash wasn't sure how difficult this fight would be for him, but he knew that his opponent would give it his all.

"Joshua Brooks takes his place!" The announcer cheered. "He stunned us in his last battle, when he defeated a Conference veteran by the skin of his teeth! Will his skills hold out, or will he meet his match in Ash Ketchum?"

Ash smiled and gave his opponent a friendly nod, which the other boy returned. He tensed up as the announcer continued speaking.

"Competitors, select your pokemon!" After a slight pause, he shouted, "Begin!"

Bruiser appeared in a flash of light, proud and ready for battle. He cracked his knuckles and gave a dip of his head to Ash before he focused his mind and betrayed nothing but utter serenity in his countenance.

Brooks, on the other hand, released a Weezing into the center of the field. It levitated directly opposite of Bruiser and appeared decidedly uninterested in the affairs of its trainer. Weezing gasped and released pungent fumes that made even Bruiser's controlled expression to twitch in distaste, although his friend quickly reasserted his mind's superiority.

There were many ways to approach this. He'd spent a considerable amount of time training with Bruiser and getting his friend to touch on his full potential during their week in Pallet. His friend had mastered techniques only touched on before and was more than ready for this competition, even if he wasn't able to match the monstrous strength Infernus and Torrent commanded.

He decided to end this decisively. Weezing was resistant to physical attacks thanks to its composition – it was essentially a tough layer of skin and deadened nerves wrapped around bubbles of gas, which meant that cutting attacks would barely scratch its leathery hide and blunt damage would just make it bend, not break – and its ability to ignite the gases within it to create a gigantic explosion was a constant danger.

"Triad! LIF!" He shouted with a half-grin on his face. Ash wondered if Lance was watching right now. It was his use of such a similar technique with Dragonite in their battle against Moltres that gave him the idea for this.

Bruiser began to move the moment he heard the command and only factored in the second half of it when it left Ash's mouth. In a matter of seconds he had leapt at Weezing with his fist reared back, utilizing the immense strength in his legs to fuel the jump, and smashed his left fist, which crackled and arced with lightning, straight into its "face".

"No! Weezing, use Sludge Bomb!" Brooks cried out once he'd gotten over his shock. He'd frozen up. Ash bet that he hadn't battled a Machoke before. They weren't the quickest of pokemon, but the incredible strength in their muscles let them leap and run rather fast. It was their maneuverability that was lacking.

Weezing moaned as its body was temporarily overloaded with thousands of volts of electricity, although it halfheartedly spat a dribble of noxious sludge at Bruiser, who danced around it with amazing grace and continued his assault.

A fist wrapped in ice and frosty air smashed into it next, instantly causing Weezing's body temperature to dramatically lower. Its thick hide prevented the gases within it from slowing down as much as Ash would have liked, but he didn't mind. He just wanted to weaken the explosion that was about to occur.

And finally, to complete the sacred elemental trio, Bruiser launched an uppercut with a fist wreathed in flame to Weezing's underside. Unfortunately, Brooks had finally gotten his head into the battle.

"Protect!"

A shield of light green energy began to form underneath Weezing, just enough to blunt Bruiser's fiery punch and quench the flames to almost nothing. Ash smiled slightly as Weezing was knocked away by the remaining force behind the blow and managed to recover, albeit slowly.

"You've got this, Weezing!" Brooks shouted reassuringly. Weezing just groaned and spewed putrid smoke from its larger head. "Toxic, then Destiny Bond!"

Bruiser was too close to dodge as Weezing spat a black, viscous liquid at him, although he was quick enough to avoid most of the Toxic. It would slow the effect, at least, especially since he'd only gotten it on one of his forearms. Not ideal, but better than being covered in the dangerous substance.

"C'mon, Focus Blast!" He commanded, a bit worried now. Ash hadn't thought the Weezing would know Toxic, let alone Destiny Bond. It was a deadly combination that Weezing wasn't built for. Weezing were capable of naturally learning Destiny Bond, but it was rare to the point it was a negligible concern. They normally had to be in contact with a ghost-type willing to teach them how to use the incredibly advanced technique. Toxic must have been taught to it as well, probably by TM.

Ash scowled as Weezing's body became outlined in a light aura of purple. A tiny strand of energy shot out from it and connected with Bruiser, despite his best attempt to dodge the ghost-type technique.

This complicated things immensely.

He hated the concept of Destiny Bond. It was an absurdly complicated ghost-type technique created by the ancient mystics of Lavender Town that allowed them to neutralize the most powerful enemies without losing anything themselves in the long run since they could send out extremely weak ghosts to seek out particularly strong foes and lure them into the trap of Destiny Bond, killing them if enough damage was done to the ghost.

Destiny Bond created a limited empathetic link between the two combatants. Any pain inflicted on the user of the technique by the victim would be returned to the victim, multiplied tenfold. It was completely illusory, but the shock of so much pain could easily immobilize the victim. If the user was knocked unconscious or worse the victim would either be overloaded and pass out or go into cardiac arrest.

Of course, the empathetic link could be circumvented. It was too unstable to last for long, which was one of the reasons it was only used in the direst of circumstances or when there was a massive disparity in power between the two combatants. Additionally, the link was limited to protecting its user from direct attacks.

The Bond required an immense amount of focus to keep up for any meaningful amount of time in the first place, which was another reason it was so unstable. If the user registered an attack as from the victim it was easy to control the empathetic link and return the pain. A punch or Focus Blast from Bruiser would allow Weezing to focus on the point of contact and turn the pain back.

But if there was some outside damage, such as a fire ignited in the environment by a Fire Spin or Flamethrower, it would disrupt the user's focus and weaken the link. Pain could still be sent, but the Bond relied on intent from both sides. Hostile intent from the victim when they attacked and the intent to return the favor from the user.

All in all it was an immensely complicated move that was hard to wrap his head around. He'd read a lot about it since it had the potential to even almost any fight and the presence of powerful, experienced ghosts would almost be a given in the Conference.

He knew how to counter it, at least. Unfortunately, Brooks had added in the Toxic technique to make doing so much more difficult.

Toxic relied on producing a venom that would be absorbed through the skin over time into the bloodstream. Even a tiny bit of the toxins were dangerous, but as more and more of the venom was introduced to the body the effects, which included reduced movement as some chemical signals were blocked and hallucinations, magnified exponentially until the victim would be completely helpless or unconscious.

Since it travelled through the blood, strenuous activity would make it even more dangerous.

Now Ash could see. Destiny Bond wasn't even the main strategy. It was just there to supplement Toxic. While Toxic whittled away at the opponent the fear of the pain inflicted by Destiny Bond would keep the victim from making any overt actions by themselves. It was a well-crafted trap.

Mixing the two was brilliant. He'd known Weezing had the capability to learn Destiny Bond but it was almost unimaginable to see it in practice thanks to its complexity. Toxic was almost expected for a relatively defensive poison-type, but not in sync with Destiny Bond.

A slight grin crossed his face even as Bruiser prepared himself and tried to sling some of the thick fluid off of him to little avail.

"You're on a time limit, Bruiser!" He called out as the announcer began to explain Brooks' strategy. Ash was glad he didn't rely on tricks like that, for the most part. They were very useful but he would hate it if the announcer explained it for the whole world. It could be crippling later in the Conference if the opponent knew what to expect. "That Toxic's going to hurt and you can't deal direct damage."

Bruiser didn't do anything. He just shut his eyes and slackened as Weezing lazily levitated away from him. Brooks was being cautious, but didn't attack. It looked like he wanted to give the Toxic some time to work. Weezing had taken some serious damage during their brief spar, even if it had avoided the worst of it.

That would be a mistake. Bruiser wasn't able to directly damage Weezing, which was a problem. He couldn't affect the environment very much with his normal attacks. He wasn't Infernus or Torrent.

But there was plenty of material to work with, Ash thought as he glanced around at the dozens of stone spears that jutted from the ground. They were easily large enough to cause some major damage if they were thrown at or blown onto Weezing.

"Bruiser, Polyblast!" He ordered. "Bury it!"

Bruiser, who had taken several deep breaths to stabilize his pulse, kept his eyes closed. His eyes were pretty weak anyways. It was his hearing and sense of smell that were how he would find Weezing, who had hidden somewhere in the maze of stone.

Rather than taking any overt action he raised both of his hands and took another deep breath, focusing his energy into ten miniature Focus Blasts, one on each large fingertip. The blue orbs shined brightly even under the harsh midday sun, their core of white vibrant amidst the dull stone.

It wasn't really a new technique he had developed so much as copying Dazed's Multiball and applying it to Focus Blast. Shadow Ball was similar in theory, even if the actual energies involved were completely different.

Against a pokemon it wouldn't do much. The Focus Blasts were extremely weak. Quantity over quality.

Against mere rock, however, they were more than enough.

Ash wasn't exactly sure how sharp Bruiser's senses were, but he'd managed to pinpoint the area Weezing had hid. He raised his massive hands and seemed to flex his fingers, which sent the orbs blasting off into the stone forest with dangerous intent.

The crowd roared for him as the Focus Blasts met their targets and exploded in a cacophonous release of energy and light, with a storm of crushed stone and dust. Ash couldn't see what was going on in the cloud, but the light glow of purple energy around Bruiser slowly weakened before it finally dissipated, which caused the fighting-type to stand up straight and take a hand off of his forehead.

It looked like Weezing had managed to send some pain over the Destiny Bond after all, although it looked like that wasn't a problem anymore. Ash didn't know if Weezing had actually been struck by the rock storm, but it had been distracted long enough for its control over the Destiny Bond to fade. That had been the entire point.

Now he could fight for real.

"Get in there!" He shouted to Bruiser, who was starting to look fatigued. That Toxic was doing a number on him. "Finish this quickly with Fire!"

Bruiser nodded and walked steadily into the dust, wary and ready for anything. Weezing wasn't very agile, so an ambush wasn't likely. It would be a sitting duck if it tried to hit his friend with a Sludge Bomb. Destiny Bond was too draining to use again. Besides, Weezing had already accomplished its purpose.

No, Ash was more worried about a layer of sludge left by Weezing. It just had to slow Bruiser down. Normally Ash would be completely confident in his friend, but he could see that the Toxic was already taking its toll. His reflexes would be dulled and his strength sapped.

If he got another hit on Weezing it would be over, though. He couldn't help his friend right now, so he just had to trust that he'd get this done.

There was suddenly a thunderous crash that echoed throughout the arena and he saw one of the rock spires topple, cracked in half by an errant blow of Bruiser's, most likely. Ash smiled a bit. At least he had his strength left.

The massive scoreboard that adorned the arena to his left suddenly revealed that Brooks had just lost his Weezing.

"Weezing is unconscious! Victory for the Green Trainer!" The referee shouted. Ash didn't bother listening to the rest of the announcement. He knew what else the man would say.

He was more concerned about how Bruiser had defeated Weezing. It was probably through a quick Fire Punch. Weezing didn't react quickly, so if Bruiser ambushed it or if it was stunned from the storm of rocks the poison-type would be helpless.

It didn't matter now. What mattered was that he could see Bruiser, who had emerged from the dust cloud dirty and in obvious pain, but with a broad smile on his reptilian face. The tough grey skin that was pulled tightly over his facial muscles was stretched as far as it would go.

"Great job, buddy!" He shouted out with a manic grin as he gave Bruiser a thumbs up. His friend returned the expression before he calmed himself, slowing his breathing and doing his best to reduce the progress of the burning venom making its way through his blood. "Keep it up. Two more!"

Brooks had a frown on his face as he released his next fighter, a very long and powerful Arbok. It was little more than a mass of muscle, built for combat. Arbok opened its mouth and hissed as it stared at Bruiser with its hypnotic gaze, its massive fangs oozing potent venom.

Ash matched Brooks frown with one of his own as he regarded the choice. Arbok was a good match for this kind of terrain. Its natural habitat was on open plains and grasslands, similar to the Nidoran lines, but its ability to sense subtle vibrations and infrared radiation meant it would be perfect for battling in a low-visibility area.

Not to mention that its ability to constrict could possibly restrain even Bruiser since he was badly weakened from the Toxic. All it had to do was hold him and wait it out. Or just stay far away from the fighting-type.

Brooks was good. He knew a lot about his team and how to use them. It made sense, since he seemed to be a poison-type specialist. He had to compensate for the weaknesses of using a single type with cunning and planning.

"Arbok, keep away from it! Weezing got it with Toxic." Brooks shouted to the serpent. Arbok just hissed and began to sway hypnotically, the "face" on its chest animated to the point that it almost seemed alive.

Ash sighed. It was time to finish this. He needed to at least beat Arbok before Bruiser fainted. He probably had a little more than two minutes left, judging by the relatively small amount of surface area the Toxic had covered and the amount of activity he'd performed.

"Rampage." He said dully. Ash knew this would probably take Bruiser out of the battle for good, but at least his friend would have the satisfaction of defeating another powerful pokemon while horribly impaired himself.

Bruiser's whole body froze and the stadium went silent. Arbok continued to sway, apparently under the impression that it had caused Bruiser to stop moving.

It would regret that mistake.

"Arbok, get away!" Brooks screamed as dawning realization set in. Arbok hissed, surprised, and glanced up at its trainer, although it swerved its attention back to Bruiser just in time to see him show his true power.

Bruiser was limited in ways that his friends weren't. An inverse of Torrent. He had immense physical strength, but his ranged capabilities were almost nonexistent. There were a few ways that Ash could have addressed that, but he'd chosen to just teach him Polyblast.

Rather than try and compensate for his weakness, Ash concentrated on his strength. Bruiser was the most physically powerful member of his team. Even Infernus' insane level of power couldn't do what Bruiser could, although he would win in a fight.

Rampage was a combination of two incredibly powerful fighting techniques that Ash had managed to finish teaching Bruiser during their time with Lance and in the week before the Conference.

Close Combat and Superpower.

Close Combat wasn't so much a technique as it was a mindset. It was essentially the fighting-type losing all sense of self-preservation and using everything in its power to attack, absorbing and ignoring any blows.

What made it difficult to teach was getting any fighting-type to cut those mental chains. Fighting-types had instinctual self-control. With their immense strength they had to, lest they hurt or destroy everything they touched. To activate a surge of adrenaline and lose themselves to the fight was more difficult than almost any other technique – it went against everything their minds and bodies told them.

Superpower was more conventional, although similar to Close Combat. Where Close Combat was essentially activating an adrenaline surge and losing oneself to the madness of combat, Superpower was consciously dissolving the subconscious limits on the muscles.

No pokemon or human used all of their strength at once during everyday use. That would tear the muscles from the bones and completely destroy the body. It was only during life-or-death situations that the limiters were suppressed and feats of extraordinary strength and endurance were possible.

Because Machoke had evolved to support the ridiculous power their muscles held they could do things that no ordinary pokemon or human could. But even they had limits. Just like most creatures they only used a percentage of their power, but their extremely dense muscles made up for that.

Superpower was all about breaking those limits, consciously using more of the body's hidden power. It was incredibly difficult to train since, like Close Combat, it was very much a mental technique, but Bruiser had learned it.

Using Close Combat and Superpower together was taxing, certainly. The strain it placed on the body would take Bruiser out of the fight once he had come down from his adrenaline surge and he'd require a day or two of rest before engaging in combat again.

Rampage was a last resort technique, but Ash felt like Bruiser needed to use it for real. He'd be out for a while anyways, thanks to the Toxic.

Even from this distance he could see Bruiser's body tense up as it lost its restrictions.

And then it began.

Bruiser launched forward at a speed faster than what a Machoke should be capable of, nothing but a blur as he leapt the entirety of the distance to Arbok in a single bound and smashed his fist straight into the serpent's midsection before it could move, although its lightning-fast reflexes let it try to dodge out of the way first.

Arbok hissed piteously as it was smashed into the ground with enough force to leave a six inch indentation, although it tried to spit poison onto Bruiser's face. Bruiser casually swerved out of the projectile's path and stamped onto Arbok, smashing it further into the ground.

Before it could strike again, Brooks recalled it. Ash could see him clasp the pokeball tightly and shut his eyes as the referee announced the forfeit of that battle.

"And the Red Trainer only has one pokemon left! What will it be? Can it possibly counter this strange Machoke, or will it be beaten as easily as Arbok?" The announcer wondered to the calls and shrieks of the crowd, who had been stunned by Bruiser's sudden recovery.

Defeat was on Brooks face as he released a Nidorino, just a little smaller than Nidoking had been when he was at that stage but with a slightly heavier build. It was built to take a hit – just not one with the power of Bruiser behind it.

"One more!" Ash shouted hopefully. Bruiser could do this, although he only had less than a minute. The Toxic would spread much quicker thanks to the adrenaline rush and heightened heart rate Rampage would give him. "Now, finish it!"

Once the referee gave the sign to begin and Nidorino had been briefed, Bruiser rushed it. He was slower now, but still moved amazingly fast. Nidorino somehow leapt out of the way, although Bruiser's fist clipped the poison-type and sent it sprawling.

"Double Team! Get away from that thing!" Brooks screamed to his last hope. Nidorino staggered to his feet and began to flicker into dozens of after-images, but before the Double Team could truly take effect Bruiser raised his arms with the same ferocious speed, created a huge Focus Blast in less than a second, and smashed it into the ground in front of him.

Even Ash's cap didn't protect his eyes from the blinding light. He winced and glanced to the side of Bruiser, although his attention was back on his friend the second the supernova had vanished.

Bruiser was the only thing standing in the center of a massive crater. If Ash had to guess he'd say it had a diameter of around ten feet, maybe a little more, and looked to be about three feet deep. Nidorino was covered in dirt and unconscious at the bottom, too slow to escape the release of energy.

The silent stadium watched in awe as Bruiser turned back to Ash and met the trainer's eyes for just a brief moment. He raised a trembling fist with pain shining in his beady eyes and lightly tapped his chest with it before he collapsed to the ground, completely spent in his incredible display.

Ash smiled and returned the gesture, even if Bruiser wasn't conscious to see it. He let the fighting-type rest on the ground for a few moments before he returned his friend to his pokeball.

"Thank you, Bruiser." He whispered. "I couldn't have made a better choice. Rest."

The pokeball twitched before it went still. Bruiser was in stasis now, completely numb to the outside world.

The announcer said something over the roar of the crowd but Ash couldn't find it in him to care. He was more concerned with Brooks, who looked absolutely crestfallen. Brooks hadn't broken down, but he was clearly disappointed in himself.

Ash caught the poison-type specialist's eye before either of them could turn away and gave him a grin and a thumb's up. Brooks hadn't won but he was good. Very good. If he hadn't trained with Lance he might have been a real challenge.

He wondered if he'd ever battle Brooks again. The other boy really was talented to use a single type to such effectiveness. Ash wouldn't mind a rematch once they'd both gotten stronger.

Brooks snapped out of his stupor and returned his gesture with a friendly wave. At least he didn't seem to hold his loss against Ash.

He felt the well of victory spread out from his stomach, even though his concern for Bruiser kept him from caring too much about it. That didn't change the fact that it felt good, even with the poisonous dread bubbling in the forefront of his mind.

Ash knew what Lance meant when he said victory was intoxicating. Oh, he'd known it before. He'd had little tastes whenever he defeated a gym leader or a particularly powerful opponent, but it was only now that he truly understood it.

Defeating a gym leader was a relatively isolated affair in most cases. It attracted attention, certainly, but only from a limited number of people. Unless a particularly high-profile trainer challenged a gym leader they were usually empty, at least when it wasn't the "season" for that gym, when most trainers felt their abilities were ready for it.

Winning in the Conference was huge. Nobody really noticed this early, but the validation and praise the spectators heaped upon him made him feel warm and only bolstered his confidence. All he had to do was keep winning and make sure it didn't go to his head.

One Gary was enough, after all.

Ash gave the cameras a wild grin before the League officials shooed him out. They were on a tight schedule and didn't have time for show-boating this early in the competition. Interviews and such were only allowed when the Finals began since there were far less matches to get done.

"Get on out of here, kid." One of the men grunted at him as the next competitor came up scoreboard. Ash saw several Alakazam appear to clean up the field. The fight hadn't been too destructive, but Bruiser had certainly did some damage.

He heeded the man's words and went back into the locker room. Ash felt that he should probably wish Amelia luck before he headed back to the house.

If her opponent was anything like Brooks she'd need it. Now that she'd made it past the first round she wouldn't get underestimated like Ash had been by Mandi.

Not to say that he wasn't confident in her abilities. She was talented. She'd managed to get by using traps and cunning, similar to Brooks. If her pokemon had more raw power to supplement their traps she'd be truly dangerous to any competitor.

He shook himself out of his thoughts as he stepped into the dark corridor that would take him out of the Rock Stadium. There wasn't time for any of that. Bruiser had to be taken to the Pokemon Center.

XX

After he'd dropped his friend off, he made his way back to the house. It was a lone place of refuge amidst the bustling crowds and sounds of the Conference. They weren't too bad when he was just battling in front of them, but being around them all the time was a completely different story. He didn't like feeling trapped. It was even busier than Saffron, which was simply mindboggling to the trainer.

I am in agreement. The swarm hurts.

Dazed whispered into his mind. Ash glanced over at his friend in surprise. She'd been very quiet lately. He'd just thought she was saving her strength for the Conference.

No. Telepathy requires an intense degree of focus, but as I have grown more experienced the power requirement has been alleviated, somewhat. The swarm is oppressive. I have been adjusting to the thirst.

"I didn't know that you were that empathetic." Ash told her from where he laid on the couch. He raised himself up on his forearms. "You don't usually feel this bad in cities, do you?"

No. In the communes of your kind I am at ease. The humans there are dull, monotonous in their routine and lives. Here they burn with passion. They dream.

"Ah." Ash replied. He understood now. It wasn't so much the thoughts and minds of others that were affecting her. It was the temptation. So many dreamers had to be beckoning her to go out into the night and sate her hunger. "Do you need to feed on the others? I'm sure Nidoking and Torrent wouldn't mind, would you?"

Nidoking, who was curled up on the floor next to Ash, raised his head and grunted before he laid down again and closed his eyes. He was tired, even if he hadn't done any combat. Ash had kept up their drills in some of the training facilities offered to the competitors, although he was wary when he used them. There were plenty of other competitors there and he didn't want to give them an advantage.

Torrent lazily opened a single bright eye and regarded the trainer for a moment before he shut it without any sort of reaction. Ash just smiled at the water-type as he went back to sleep. His friend had been sleeping almost constantly, grateful to have rest.

Your dreams have provided me with more than sufficient nourishment, Trainer-Friend. It is simply a matter of adjustment. Temptation is a threat that all psychics must learn to shield against, lest it consume our being. My will is strong. You need not worry.

Ash just nodded at her speech. Her smooth voice had grown much stronger since her first tentative attempts at communication. Dazed's mental voice still held the echo and ethereal quality that marked her as an amateur when it came to telepathy, but she was improving. He hoped that she'd be as skilled with it as Alakazam one day.

He winced suddenly as Sneasel leapt from the railing of the second floor straight onto his chest just a few inches from Seeker, a malicious little grin on his mischievous face. Sneasel wasn't very heavy, but the force of the impact was enough to knock some of the breath out of him and startle Seeker from her nap.

Sneasel hissed apologetically when Ash wheezed and glared at him, but, without warning, he stared over at the door. One of his ears twitched and a low growl sounded from deep within his throat. The animalistic noise sent a shiver down Ash's spine. That was a part of Sneasel he'd worked hard to limit, even though he'd never try to suppress it completely.

The dark-type wasn't the only one to sense someone. Nidoking's ears twitched and his eyes snapped open, sensitive enough to detect that it wasn't Jonathan or Amelia coming up to the door.

Ash frowned and gently pulled Sneasel off of his chest, although the dark-type determinedly wrapped himself around Ash's shoulders and remained as close as possible. He just let Sneasel do what he wanted and went up to the door. Dazed didn't react, so he knew that whoever the visitor was, they weren't hostile.

He heard the familiar crackle of Oz's fur as she dragged herself up from her nap by the wall socket, which had a plug specifically designed to transfer electrical energy into her body, and bared her large fangs. From the way her tail was swishing erratically behind her she wasn't too pleased with the disturbance.

"It's alright." He said distractedly, watching as Seeker clung onto his chest with her hooks, careful to avoid digging into his flesh. "Just a visitor."

Ash winced as Seeker flipped around to his back, fearful of the bright sun. She would only lose that fear when she was a Crobat and her skin was much less sensitive to the sunlight, although she would never enjoy it.

It was just a bit of pain, but it distracted him for a few seconds. Seeker didn't mean to hurt him, but her hooks were sharp. They had to be to allow her to nestle against the rock face of a cavern and other rough surfaces.

None of his other friends woke up. Tangrowth had climbed up on the roof to bask in the sun. On the rare occasions that the grass-type did go to sleep he was almost impossible to wake up. It usually fell to Sneasel to wake him up. Even then, with all of the tricks at the dark-type's disposal, it could take around a minute.

Plume was in her pokeball. She couldn't exactly go for a flight right now. The League Skarmory patrolling the skies would go after her in an instant. There was a designated area for trainers to let their teammates fly, but it wasn't accessible yet. Apparently there had been roving groups of Pikachu in the area. Pikachu were hardly aggressive, but they didn't like large flying-types and would often attack them preemptively.

By the time he'd headed over to the door the visitor had already knocked twice, a short rap that echoed clearly throughout the airy house. He didn't make the visitor wait. His friends probably wouldn't like hearing more – at least not those with sensitive ears like Nidoking, Sneasel, or Seeker.

"Hello?" He questioned as he opened the door, a little annoyed at being interrupted from his discussion with Dazed. Since the Conference began he hadn't spent nearly as much time with his team as he would have liked. Jonathan and Amelia tended to be very...disruptive. They broke the silence he enjoyed so much without thought.

"Hello yourself, Ash." Steven Stone smiled down at him, a little amusement in his slate eyes. He looked past the trainer into the large living room where several curious pokemon stared back at him. "It's been a while, hasn't it? Mind if I come in? I feel like we have a lot to talk about."

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