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.


54. The Preliminaries Part 2

"Come in." Ash said, dazed at Steven's unexpected arrival. He hadn't expected the former Champion to arrive yet, let alone approach him at his home.

Steven smiled and stepped past Ash, who stood to the side to hold the door open. There was a nostalgic glint in the tall man's expression as he wistfully glanced around the airy room. A slight smile crossed his pale face as he saw the pokemon arrayed before him, several of whom obviously recognized him.

"You have quite the team now, don't you?" Steven said quietly as he smiled at each of them. Sneasel, who was still trying to fight Seeker for who had the rights to hold onto his back, peered over Ash's shoulder at the unfamiliar human. "Oh, and who's this?"

"Sneasel." Ash stated as he casually pulled Sneasel off of his shoulders by the scruff of his neck, the dark-type's angry sputters at the indignity enough to bring a small smirk to his lips. "Say hello, won't you?"

Sneasel just growled and extended his claws, a murderous look in his small, sharp eyes. Steven just laughed at the angry creature and kept his fingers away from his claws. After a few more moments Ash gently returned him to his previous spot. Sneasel just growled and kept his head low.

Normally Ash wouldn't antagonize Sneasel like that, but he was just trying to get him back for jumping on him earlier. Ever since his impressive victory against the Golbat he'd been completely insufferable. Even Tangrowth hadn't been able to get past his new arrogance.

It was exasperating. Normally Ash would have had one of his friends remind him that, despite his improvement, Sneasel was still one of the weakest on the team. He'd become much stronger thanks to training with Vibrava, Gible, and Bagon during their time with Lance but he was just reaching the point the rest of his friends were at months ago.

The problem with that was he was in a highly populated area. His friends could be rather enthusiastic about beating Sneasel senseless when he'd finally pushed his limits too far. After months of putting up with his pranks and assorted mischief they had a lot of tension to let out.

There was a reason he'd stopped letting Infernus do the job. And it wasn't just because of the staggering amount of power he'd gained since his evolution into Magmortar. Infernus enjoyed his payback a little bit too much for Sneasel's safety.

Since they usually liked to assert their dominance through a myriad of powerful techniques – Dazed and Bruiser preferred Focus Blast, while Torrent preferred to just shoot the dark-type with a low-powered Water Gun and then coat his fur with enough frost to leave even Sneasel shivering – he would have to take them out into the wilderness to snap Sneasel back to normal. For some reason he didn't think the League would appreciate one of their very expensive, luxurious Village homes being destroyed.

The only problem was that he didn't know when he would have time to leave. Jonathan and Amelia had him busy and kept dragging him out of the quiet confines of their home, heedless of his protests. Plus there were sure to be plenty of people wandering around. He'd rather not let anybody see his full team. It would only be accessible on the computers once they reached the Top 32.

He inwardly sighed and shrugged it off for now. Ash needed to focus on talking with Steven.

"He's not the friendliest, is he?" Steven murmured as he glanced back at Sneasel's narrowed eyes. Ash just smirked at the understatement and lead them over to the couches. "Any other additions I don't know about?"

Ash frowned. He thought that Steven knew about Tangrowth since he'd acquired him during their mission to Knot Island, but he most likely didn't know that he'd evolved unless Lance had mentioned it sometime.

"Only Oz." He pointed out the Electabuzz, who met Steven's interested gaze unflinchingly. Her fur crackled with electricity as she snorted and shook her head, bored of the human. She stormed back over to the wall and placed the plug back into her mouth before she curled back up and returned to her nap. "A lot of my friends have evolved, though."

"I see." Steven remarked as he glanced over the assorted pokemon, almost all of which were in their final evolutions. "You've done well for yourself. Lance said you had a strong team, but I hadn't expected this."

Ash just crossed and smiled proudly at his team at the compliment. "I couldn't have gotten here without them."

"No, you couldn't have. None of us could." Steven agreed as he took a seat. Ash finally took a moment to take in his appearance. He wasn't wearing his usual suit, which made Ash raise an eyebrow. Steven seemed pretty attached to it. The former Champion had even gone into battle with it on. Instead he wore a fairly casual pair of pants and a plain white shirt.

He supposed it would have attracted too much attention otherwise, which didn't seem like something Steven would want. The former Champion didn't have the glory-seeking tendencies of Lance. From what Ash had gleaned from the man he preferred to let others take the spotlight in his place.

"I'm not just here to talk to you about your team, of course." Steven told him, although his voice didn't seem too serious. "There are a few things we need to discuss."

Ash leaned forward interestedly, resting his legs against Nidoking's thick plates of armor. He made sure to keep away from his friend's head. It would be rather unfortunate if he got himself poisoned and was unable to compete in the Conference.

"First and foremost, Pierce." Steven said, his nose wrinkled in distaste as he mentioned his traitorous cousin. Ash glared at the name, hatred for the man who had almost murdered him and his team welling up inside his stomach. He despised the man more than Mewtwo. "I know I told you that he was imprisoned, but I thought you'd like an update on his status."

"He's still under lock and key." The former Champion assured Ash when the boy's eyes grew stormy. "He won't be getting out anytime soon. Not after what he's done. Pierce won't see the light of day ever again."

A quick grin flashed across Ash's face before he suppressed it, although he had to focus to keep his expression straight. It was nothing less than what Pierce deserved. The man was a monster.

"Anyways, I just wanted to tell you that, with Metagross' help, we extracted the names of Team Rocket's benefactors from him." Steven said, his slate eyes bright as Ash's lips curled upward. "Thanks to him, we shut down any chance of Team Rocket reforming in Kanto and put away some dangerous people. It's the only time he's helped anyone in his life, no doubt – even if it was unwillingly."

Steven leaned further back into the soft couch, although Ash noted he was always a bit rigid. It was like his own habits were fighting his urge to relax.

"So, I saw your last battle." Steven changed the subject abruptly. "Very impressive. You have some eyes on you. Surge wouldn't stop singing your praises."

Ash couldn't hold back his grin at that. He'd missed Surge. The giant of a man was loud, callous, and enjoyed beating down challengers a bit too much but he was a friend that had taught Ash a lot. It was hard to be around someone for a few weeks and not grow to like them.

"Was Bruno there?" He asked, a note of hope in his voice. Bruno had taught Bruiser how to become a fighting-type, how to use technique and the strength within himself rather than blindly punching and flailing like a normal-type. Ash had helped to train Bruiser in techniques, but without Bruno's assistance they would have been nothing.

"He was." Steven nodded with a dip of his head. Ash could see the hint of a smile. "He was rather impressed, you know. I didn't know that you'd trained under him. Lance never mentioned that."

"It wasn't for very long." Ash shrugged. He met Steven's eyes curiously. "What did Lance tell you about, then?"

Steven snorted, a very undignified noise coming from the former Champion. "Just about everything you could imagine."

When he didn't say anything else Ash raised an eyebrow. "Any specifics?"

"Aside from his numerous attempts to corrupt you into doing stupid things, he mentioned that you gained a Feather of Moltres." Steven remarked. Ash wondered what stupid things Lance had tried to corrupt him into. He'd offered him alcohol a few times, but that was about it.

Wait. Moltres. That was probably what Steven was referring to. He'd certainly see their challenge of Moltres as absurdly stupid and dangerous. Which it was.

Ash nodded to the second half of Steven's answer and glanced down at his chest, where the Feather flickered and sent pulses of warmth. The obsidian frame had sunken into his skin slightly, as though it didn't want to be removed.

Nevertheless, he stuck one of his hands up his shirt to grasp the thin, impossibly strong material and pull the Feather away. Despite its apparent bonding, it was easy to detach it from his skin. It flickered with the golden and white flames of Moltres as it came into contact with his hand, the harmless flames leaving his hand a torch of sacred fire.

"Incredible." Steven murmured, eyes wide as he examined the Feather and its properties. "Not even the Moon Stone…"

He couldn't hear the rest of what Steven said, but that reminded him. "We made it to the Moon Stone, by the way."

Nidoking's head lurched up at the mention of the sacred object, almost manic at the thought of it. His eyes almost appeared to hold a gleam of silver, although the glint disappeared once Ash took a second look.

"Good. You met its guardians, I presume?" The older man said. It was more a statement than a question.

Ash nodded, his mind flashing back to the Patriarch and Matriarch. The two Nidos were truly the greatest of their kind, what the greatest Nidoking and Nidoqueen could be. He remembered everything: Their size, the sheer power they exuded, the limitless devotion they gave to the Moon Stone.

They were nothing to the ancient Clefable that acted as the true Guardian, however. Clefable had strange powers and the ability to access techniques few other pokemon could utilize. Normally it simply made them tricky opponents. But the Guardian had managed to transcend its limits – whether through age and experience or long exposure to the Moon Stone he didn't know.

"Do not speak of them to anyone you don't trust implicitly. Lance and the Elite Four know. As do the Sisters and Brock. Nobody else should hear about them." Steven warned. Ash stared at him, surprised at the vehemence in his tone. The man's voice was usually utterly calm, devoid of any stress or passion.

Realization flashed through his mind. "You don't want people going after them."

"Exactly." Steven nodded tersely. "There are some things humanity shouldn't intrude upon. Natural treasures that we have no right to claim. The Moon Stone is one of them. At the moment it is just a rumor, a legend known amongst the ancient Pewter and Cerulean clans. I intend to keep it that way."

"I understand." Ash replied. He did. The Moon Stone's guardians weren't the only hidden treasures he had discovered. Articuno. Zapdos. Moltres. Mew – even its twisted shadow, he admitted grudgingly. They weren't things that most people should see. They were dangerous.

He couldn't help but smile all of a sudden, which defused the tension somewhat. Steven raised a silver eyebrow. "What's so funny?"

"I just remembered something." Ash told the former Champion. "How'd you get the Guardians to let you take a piece of the Moon Stone? The Nidoking almost killed us just for looking at it."

Steven nodded, apparently lost in his own memories of the Moon Stone. He scratched the back of his head, embarrassed. "I didn't do anything, actually. When I found the Moon Stone the Clefable appeared. After I paid my respects it gave me the shard. It was rather surprising, to say the least."

"What? It gave it to you?" Ash asked with wide eyes, completely dumbstruck. He made sure to keep his jaw tight lest it fall open. He couldn't believe it – the Clefable had given Steven the shard of the Moon Stone?

"It was unexpected." Steven mused as he unconsciously tapped his fingers against the couch's armrest. "I almost thought it was an illusion, or maybe a test. Until I actually touched the shard. It has a presence to it, as I'm sure you know."

Ash recalled the cold sensation that seemed to emanate from the Moon Stone's shard, the feeling of utter nothingness that pulsed from it even as it appeared to absorb all light. Yes, he knew what Steven was talking about.

"Why?" Ash muttered to himself, curious as to what the Clefable could have been thinking. The Moon Stone was the thing that mattered most to it and all the other pokemon under Mt. Moon. The other guardians were willing to attack him just for being near the celestial object.

"A good question – and one I can't claim to know the definitive answer to." The former Champion admitted as he leaned forward, his fist on his chin as he gazed thoughtfully past Ash at the white wall. "The Clefable displayed some strange abilities. It used techniques it shouldn't have been capable of. I don't know for certain, but I believe that it is using an advanced, fine-tuned version of –"

"—Metronome." Ash interrupted, a little grin erupting on his face when he saw Steven's surprised expression. His smile only grew wider when Steven's look of surprise shifted to a pleased smirk.

The former Champion nodded, impressed. "Indeed." He frowned seriously. "Its abilities are just one more reason I don't want word getting out. Can you imagine the demand for it? Trainers from all over the Leagues would come searching for the Clefable and ruin the balance of Mt. Moon. If any of them actually made it to the Moon Stone or hurt any of the pokemon...well, they'd see what mastery of Metronome could achieve. No doubt Mt. Moon would no longer be available as a passage between Pewter and Cerulean."

Steven sighed and raked a hand through his head of silver hair as he peered at Ash, who was listening raptly. "I know I don't have to worry about you telling. You have more common sense than that. I'm just worried. The Clefable gave me a great gift for reasons I don't understand. Perhaps its abilities allowed it to see the one who needed the Moon Stone's power the most."

Ash unconsciously glanced down at Nidoking, whose ears were still upright from the mention of the Moon Stone. The rest of his friends had returned to whatever they were doing before. Even Sneasel was curled up on one of the nearby chairs, although he still watched Ash and Steven curiously with his perceptive eyes.

"Where is the shard?" Steven inquired after a few moments of silence. "Do you have it on you?"

"It's at home with the Dragon Scale Lance gave me." Ash replied shortly. He didn't need to tell Steven that his greatest treasures were far too precious to risk losing on the road. Considering the strange situations he found himself in Ash thought it was a sensible precaution.

Steven nodded and hummed his understanding. He glanced around the house again. "Who are your rooming with? Those kids you were travelling with when I first met you?"

"Jonathan and Amelia." Ash confirmed. He looked around and frowned. "I don't know where they are right now, actually. Amelia had a match. Jonathan probably went to watch it."

"And you didn't?" Steven leaned forward quizzically. He didn't sound disapproving, just curious. "Why not?"

Ash froze. "I was tired after I won my match. I'll see her next battle."

Steven just glanced over at him, although he didn't inquire further. It seemed like the subject didn't interest him quite enough for the former Champion to pursue the topic.

They sat in companionable silence for a few seconds until Steven finally spoke up again.

"How did your training with Lance go?"

He grinned at that. That month training with Lance was the most brutal time of his life but it also held some of his best memories. He'd learned so much in that time and had gotten much, much stronger. Aside from that he'd actually gotten to know the Lance that wasn't the Champion, the man behind the title.

"Fantastic!" He exclaimed, real excitement shooting through his voice. "You won't believe how much I learned! Lance made my team and I stronger than we could have believed…"

Ash was aware he was rambling, but he couldn't help it. Finally, after nearly a minute of gushing about the training, Steven stopped him with a raised hand and an amused smile.

"I think I get the picture." The former Champion snorted. The edges of his mouth turned up into a faint smile. "At least Lance didn't corrupt you. He has plenty of bad habits to share."

"He's gotten much better!" Ash protested insincerely. "He only offered me alcohol a few times!"

"It's rather sad that only offering an eleven-year old alcohol a few times is actually an improvement." Steven sighed with a roll of his eyes. "He truly deserves far less credit than I give him."

Ash's eyes suddenly lit up. Now that he'd finally gotten comfortable with Steven again excitement flooded his veins. He'd been waiting to tell the former Champion about this for months. It had been so long he'd almost forgotten about it.

"Speaking of Lance, did you know that they sell capes like his in the Celadon Department Store?"

"No. No I did not." Steven grinned, eyebrows raised high. He leaned forward and clasped his hands together. "Please, tell me more."


Ash glanced over at his opponent, the one he had to defeat to take his place in the Top 64.

Pete Pebbleman.

He was an older competitor, probably in his mid-twenties. Anyone much older than that was rare in the Conference. The League usually snatched up anyone that went far in the Conference, so most entrants were in their teens, usually close to twenty.

Powerful trainers weren't exactly common, and it was much better to offer them a fat, stable paycheck and something productive to do. Otherwise someone with far less scruples might give them a deal that they couldn't refuse. Even weak pokemon could cause great destruction and the League preferred to keep the teams capable of causing real chaos out of trouble.

Ash shook himself back into focus. Now was not the time to get distracted. There was too much at stake.

The trainer took the moment to analyze the other competitor. From his name Pebbleman was probably from one of the old, powerful clans around Pewter. The inhabitants of the Pewter territory's rough wilds and craggy mountains had adopted such names after swearing fealty to the League since their former names and titles weren't easily understood by their new brothers-in-arms.

It didn't necessarily mean he was a rock specialist, but it was something to watch out for. Considering that they were battling in the Ice Stadium it could make this easier than it would already be.

If. He knew that people weren't defined by their ancestry, even though the culture they grew up in undoubtedly had an effect. The prime example of that course was Lance. If he hadn't been born to one of Johto's most respected clans with an ancient legacy of mastering the dragon-type Ash doubted if he would have become the most powerful Dragon Master in the world.

Lance's chosen type were rather hard to procure if you didn't have some connections, after all.

Still, he supposed it was of no use to ponder things like that now. He wasn't sure why the referee was taking so long to get back onto the field but at least it gave him time to breathe.

Pebbleman was watching him too as the referee finally appeared from underneath the Ice Stadium to the loud cheers of the crowd. Ash could feel the man's sharp gaze measuring him up, assessing him as a threat.

There was no doubt Pebbleman had heard about him. Flawless victories were rare in the Conference. The level of the battlers made it extremely difficult to achieve. One would be enough to attract some attention.

Two perfect victories? People were watching him now, just like Lance had told him. He tried to stay in his house for the most part, but he could heard the whispers when people noticed him. Not everyone had heard of him yet, but a good number could recognize him.

He wasn't sure how much he liked that. It was nice to cruise around in obscurity. Ash didn't want everyone to recognize him as long as the people he cared about could. It didn't matter to him if a random group on the street knew his face. What mattered was if a fellow fighter knew him.

So he knew Pebbleman wouldn't underestimate him. It wasn't exactly late in the competition, but at this point it was important to know the opposition.

Ash wasn't too proud of the fact that he hadn't held true to that maxim. He knew Pebbleman was skilled to make it this far but had no idea about his team or strategies. The slight arrogance he'd gained after flattening his competition so far had gone to his head.

He resolved that it would not happen again. Ash could not afford to get complacent. Complacency and overconfidence had been the cause of as many losses as lack of skill.

"Begin!" The referee shouted.

Ash dimly realized he had ignored the announcer's entire speech about Pete Pebbleman, which left him with a scowl on his face. He listened to the crowd chanting happily and glanced around at the arena.

It didn't hold nearly as many obstacles as the Rock Stadium, but it opened up plenty of its own problems. The Ice Stadium was completely bare aside from a handful of ice boulders that dotted its outer borders, with the middle made of smooth ice.

He had to be careful. Ash knew that the ice would be extremely thick, but if Pebbleman had a fire-type he could easily melt the ice and leave any of his friends defenseless in the freezing water.

His choices for this battle were Sneasel, Plume, and Torrent. They wouldn't have to worry about slipping on the ice or getting trapped underwater. Sneasel could traverse the entire field with his natural speed enhanced by Agility, while Plume wouldn't even have to touch the field.

Unlike most dragon-types, Torrent wouldn't be at a disadvantage if he was exposed to the icy temperatures of this field. Kingdra naturally lived in the darkest depths of the ocean, exposed to pressure and freezing temperatures that would kill lesser creatures. If anything the cold water would strengthen him.

Sneasel went out first. He wouldn't be useful if the field was destroyed so Ash wanted to get what use out of him that he could.

"Let's go, Ursaring!" Pete barked as the gigantic mountain of fur and muscle appeared on the opposite end of the field. Ursaring snarled and crushed its claws together, releasing a dull scraping sound that made Ash cringe. "Crush it!"

Sneasel just glared and hissed menacingly at the massive normal-type, his claws unsheathed and ready to rend through fur and flesh. He didn't move a muscle as both trainers watched each other.

It was a habit trained into him by Ash. Sneasel was dangerous if he wasn't controlled. Too volatile. Aside from that, he didn't have the experience that the rest of the team did. He needed much more direction in a battle.

Besides, Ash didn't want him to do anything that could have far-reaching consequences. Sneasel needed a firm hand.

"Let's start this off, shall we?" Pebbleman grinned dangerously to Ursaring. His voice carried far, clearly meant to unnerve Ash. A good tactic, but it wouldn't work. Ash had seen and heard much worse from entities far more powerful than Pete Pebbleman. "Earthquake!"

Ash raised an eyebrow at the strange opening move. He didn't need to tell Sneasel to dodge as Ursaring jumped up and slammed its paws into the ground. It was a very crude version of Earthquake, but nonetheless effective. Whereas Nidoking shifted the earth and used far less energy for a more powerful effect, Ursaring didn't bother. It just transferred massive amounts of energy through the ice, causing thick cracks to trace their way through the glassy sheet and leave fractures all around it.

Pebbleman must be getting towards something. Ash didn't care to find out what it was.

"Ice Beam. Don't let up." Ash directed. Sneasel hissed from his position on one of the ice boulders and fired several of the beams of jagged, icy blue energy in rapid succession. Ursaring dodged two of the four, but it wasn't built for agility. It didn't seem to have much trouble weathering the two Ice Beams that did strike it, though.

Such a reaction was expected from an Ursaring. They lived up in the mountains, usually in extremely cold areas. Their fur and thick reserves of fat and muscle were more than enough to give them a strong resistance to the cold. Additionally, considering how strong this specimen seemed to be, it would probably barely notice ice-type attacks.

That was okay. He could work around that.

"Stone Edge!" Pebbleman snarled, his eyes narrowed at Sneasel. Ursaring and Sneasel weren't exactly the most ideal matchup. Sneasel could dodge most of Ursaring's attacks from this distance but couldn't do any decisive damage. Ursaring was too slow and Sneasel too fast. "Get rid of those boulders and go after it!"

"Evasion." Ash commanded lazily. He wanted to get a better handle on Pebbleman's skills. So far he seemed to have raw power, but hadn't really done anything but show off with that Earthquake.

At the vague command Sneasel grew ready. The moment the orbs of energy around Ursaring solidified into daggers of stone he was moving, a small black blur amongst the white battlefield.

Ursaring roared furiously as it launched the barrage of stone towards Sneasel's position, right ahead of where he would be. Sneasel just activated Agility and easily ran circles around the normal-type's attack, his cunning mind more than capable of ascertaining where Ursaring would attack.

When the normal-type finally tired of the game, it spared no time in charging furiously into the fray, its massive fangs bared and paws ready to smash into anything that looked out of place. One good hit would be enough to take Sneasel out of the fray for good.

Ash regarded the situation carefully as he made his next decision. "Rush. Jab."

They weren't complicated techniques, but Sneasel had impressed Ash in how far he had taken them. It displayed much more endurance and focus than the trainer would have expected from the mischievous dark-type.

Rush, he thought as he saw Sneasel charge into the fray in a blur of motion, was exceptionally useful for a fighter as fragile as Sneasel. It was complicated to pull off since it utilized several techniques at one time, but its applications were worth it.

The technique consisted of several moves that, combined, made Sneasel almost untouchable: Agility for unmatched speed, Double Team to confuse the foe and leave Sneasel plenty of openings to attack, and Ice Punch to enhance his physical power.

It was relatively useless against powerful, experienced opponents, however. They'd just use an area of effect attack that didn't rely on precision or knowledge of which Sneasel was the real one. That was its only major weakness aside from the constant concentration it required. One good hit would completely neutralize the technique since Sneasel wouldn't be able to keep both Agility and Double Team activated at once.

That was where Sap came in. Ash knew that Sneasel didn't have the raw power to defeat particularly tough foes. He was still learning. When he had the power of his evolution behind him he'd be a match for most of the team, but right now he had to use tricks to achieve his victory.

Jab was just short for Poison Jab. Once they'd mastered Rush during the week before the Conference Ash wanted Sneasel capable of using Shadow Claw and Poison Jab in tandem, but Sneasel didn't have enough experience wielding different energies to meld them into seamless weapons of destruction. He was still limited.

He renewed his focus on Sneasel when the dark-type Rushed Ursaring. The massive normal-type was briefly dazed as dozens of Sneasel's after-images danced past him, utterly immune to its clumsy strikes and snapping jaws.

At least it proved that Ursaring wasn't too intelligent. Strong, but not very adaptable. It needed direction to reach its true potential in battle.

Unfortunately, Pebbleman wasn't so gullible. He just scowled and angrily pointed at Sneasel, who had filled the air with shards of ice and frosty air with Icy Wind, blinding Ursaring and leaving it helpless in the sudden blizzard.

"Earthquake! Smash the thing to bits with Hammer Arm!"

Ash sighed when he realized that Sneasel had interfered with his own visibility as well. That would cause some problems.

But it wasn't a bad idea – Ursaring's sudden pained roar was a testament to that. It seemed that Sneasel had finally made contact. It didn't last long, however, as the mist Sneasel had created was dispelled easily by the winds created by the massive release of force Ursaring released into the ice. More cracks gouged the surface of the arena and revealed deep blue water underneath the thick sheet of white.

Sneasel whined as he was suddenly hurled backwards by the blast and slammed heavily into one of the boulders. He slowly pulled himself up, but not fast enough to hide as Ursaring charged him and reared back its thick arm, which glowed with white power.

"Razor Dash!" Ash shouted desperately to his friend. A Hammer Arm from something with the raw physical power of that Ursaring would hurt. Sneasel would probably spend the next few days in the Pokemon Center if it made contact – something he'd really rather avoid. Bruiser had just gotten out.

At his command, reflex took over. Sneasel bared his fangs and suddenly disappeared in a flicker of motion, his mind barely aware of what had happened. Before Sneasel consciously realized what he'd done, he had used Quick Attack to charge straight through Ursaring's trunk-like legs and slashed through fur and muscle with his sharp claws, enhanced by Metal Claw to be even more dangerous.

Ursaring screamed in pain, but such superficial injuries weren't enough to drop the monster of a normal-type. It just roared and turned around with a quick slash of its own claws, which Sneasel barely managed to avoid as he went stumbling backwards.

Ash winced as the disoriented Sneasel fell backward, unable to keep up thanks to the hard impact he'd suffered. He was too fragile to take a hit like that.

A feral grin stretched over Pebblestone's features. "Now! Hammer Arm!"

Sneasel bared his teeth and shot an Ice Beam into his attacker, but it barely slowed Ursaring down as the giant roared and backhanded Sneasel with its glowing arm.

He winced as Sneasel flew into yet another boulder, even his urge to kill his enemy not enough to keep him going. Sneasel weakly tried to pull himself up by hooking his claws into the ground, but collapsed helplessly in the face of an utterly superior opponent.

"Sneasel is unconscious! Victory for the Red Trainer!" The referee shouted and raised his flag. Ash just frowned. It looked like his flawless record had been broken.

It didn't matter. Sneasel got some battle experience. That was all he was trying to do at the moment. He'd wanted to see those techniques in action for a while now.

Besides, it wasn't as if Sneasel hadn't accomplished anything. The bleeding wounds, frosted fur, and deep breaths Ursaring took attested to that. Ash could easily recognize the effects of Poison Jab. It delivered a very potent poison.

Ursaring was done for, even if Pebbleman didn't know it yet.

"And Ash Ketchum, the rookie that has amazed us so far, loses his first pokemon of the Conference!" The announcer roared to the crowd. "Will Pebbleman stop this rookie in his tracks, or will he show us what he's really got?"

Ash just recalled Sneasel and glanced down at the pokeball. "You did great, buddy. Just as good as I expected. Rest well."

He frowned at Ursaring as he released Plume. She screamed her arrival as she appeared in a flash of red light and soared into the sky, careful to keep in Ash's side until the referee blew his whistle and signaled for the match to commence.

"It hurt Sneasel!" He shouted up to his friend, who shrieked furiously and glared down at Ursaring with her sharp eyes. Sneasel annoyed her, but Ash knew that she had a soft spot for the dark-type. She mothered him the most, aside from Tangrowth. "Let's finish this! Super Speed!"

Plume vanished. Ash could just see the barest flicker of motion as she activated Agility and Tailwind in tandem, which increased her speed so drastically that she made Sneasel look as though he were just trudging along at his fastest.

The next second Ursaring was unconscious, hit so hard that it had utterly smashed one of the boulders. Its claws that hooked into the ice and gave it traction were no match for Plume's speed. Plume casually slipped out of the draining technique and circled above the massive battlefield as the onlookers gaped, having expected a much more prolonged battle than what Plume had given them.

Pete Pebbleman scowled and recalled Ursaring. He gave Ash a measuring glare before he sent him a nasty grin. Ash watched passively and crossed his arms as Pebbleman released a particularly large Cloyster, its shell weathered and marked from years of battle.

"Not much your birdy can do against Cloyster, you know." Pebbleman shouted over conversationally as Cloyster appeared in the center of the arena, completely in the open. "Her defenses haven't been broken yet!"

"Yet." Ash frowned back. He glanced up at Plume, who was naught but a great black figure highlighted against the harsh light of the midday sun. "Plume, smash it."

Plume's furious screech of understanding split the air, rising high above the chanting of the crowd. It was just noise to Ash at this point. His partner was much more important.

"Big words. You caught us by surprise last time." Pebbleman growled, his canines exposed as he glared over at the younger trainer. "We know what's up."

The referee signaled for them to begin. Ash waited, his ears attentive for any commands from Pebbleman. Plume would strike when ready.

"Icy Mist. Keep that up and hit that Pidgeot with Spike Cannon!" Pebbleman commanded quickly. Cloyster groaned back, a nasty grin on its strange face as it received the orders. In less than a second it spewed out freezing air that surrounded it, hiding it from the prying eyes of the stadium and relying on the bright glare of the sun to disorient Plume.

It was a nice trick, but it wouldn't work. Lance had made sure they'd be ready for almost any environmental manipulation an enemy could use. Light, frost, glare, darkness – all planned for.

He was quiet. Ash would let Plume handle this. She knew how to approach the situation. He'd told her what techniques to hold in reserve. Unless the situation was dire she'd never use the. Ash wanted to have a few tricks hidden in reserve for the final matches. To do otherwise would be monumentally stupid.

As expected, she avoided Hurricane. It was such a high-level technique that it would draw even more attention, which was something Ash would prefer to avoid. Instead she used Multislash, which was simply a barrage of weaker Air Slashes that would get rid of the freezing mist and hopefully knock Cloyster around a bit.

Cloyster never saw them coming. Plume wasn't in Super Speed anymore but she was still incredibly fast. Training with Lance's Dragonite trio and Magnus had really done her good in every department. She still had issues when it came to offense and durability, but they'd been minimized by the harsh trials she'd faced.

He winced as he saw deep gouges carved into the surface of the ice, although he got over it. It was just another reminder to everyone that Pidgeot were truly powerful beyond their size. They just weren't blatant about it. If an Air Slash struck a human they'd be torn apart by the powerful blade of air, reduced to scraps of flesh and bone.

Now that the mist was blown away he could see the battlefield in perfect clarity. As he'd expected, Cloyster was completely fine. It had just closed its shell and hid behind the ridiculously strong shield. Pebbleman hadn't lied. The shell would be tough to crack.

"Razor Wing!" He shouted up to Plume, hoping that she was able to hear him over the gasps of the stadium and ramblings of the announcer. "Let's finish this!"

"It's not over yet!" Pebbleman sneered and curled his lip up menacingly. "Use your damn Spike Cannon! Shoot it out of the air! Ice Barrage!"

Cloyster didn't respond, but Ash watched curiously as the tips of its shell glowed a bright white and shot several concealed spikes straight into the sky, directed with perfect precision towards Plume. Secondsd later a flurry of Aurora Beams shot out with no particular aim other than to cover the entire sky in the rainbow-hued energy.

Ash could feel the freezing air even through the psychic barriers, although the Feather embedded in his chest pulsed and restored warmth to his cold limbs with a comforting heat. He felt the fire rush through his veins with the roaring passion to inspire and ignite a lust for battle that rivalled even that of Lance.

Not that he needed it. He had a more-than-healthy love for battling himself.

He felt a grin pull at his mouth as Plume flickered away in a burst of speed, obviously utilizing Tailwind to enhance her speed, agility, and ability to evade the waves of projectiles sent to tear her out of the side with casual ease. She suddenly appeared behind Cloyster, her wing suddenly bright and shiny under the searing light of the sun, and smashed into it with a sickening crack that sent shivers rushing down Ash's spine.

Cloyster gurgled in agony as its shielded frame flew forward as though it were weightless, the force behind Plume's Steel Wing and Quick Attack combination enough to make the psychic barriers protecting the stadium flare into visibility for a few seconds as they absorbed the energy.

The defensive water-type collapsed to the thick ice, still locked into its shell. Pebbleman had a look of shock in his face. He must not have faced many powerful flying-types or that wouldn't have been a surprise. An enhanced Steel Wing – whether through raw practice or a technique to boost its power – was one of the most common ways for a flying-type to deal damage against an armored foe. It was one of the few moves available to them that had enough power to get past their shells or defenses.

Ash's grin became even more apparent as Cloyter helplessly rolled over onto its other side and revealed a long crack in the thick shell, which webbed into dozens of smaller cracks at the point of impact and looked like it could be caved in without much difficulty.

"Carry it up!" Ash shouted. Plume, still a blur as she regained her momentum, screeched and swooped down again in a bubble of air, massive talons open and ready as she shot down and latched onto the stunned Cloyster's notched shell and rushed high into the sky, her burden helpless in her grasp.

"Wha –" Pebbleman said, his mouth agape as he watched his most defensive pokemon carried hundreds of feet above the battlefield. "That's such bullshit! Spike Cannon and Protect on the way down!"

Plume's ears might have been sharp enough to hear Pebbleman's voice as she ripped through the sky, but Cloyster was incapable of making sense of it. Considering how terrified and confused it must be in its predicament Ash couldn't blame it. It was doubtful that it had any idea of what was going on, although he knew it had to have some way to sense outside of its shell.

He didn't have to tell Plume when to drop Cloyster. She released a piercing, victorious shriek as the water-type plummeted to the ground, its immediate concern not the massive bird of prey that was its opponent but the drop that would easily leave it unconscious.

Ash waited for it to test the power of the Protect it instinctively activated, but was rather surprised when the Cloyster disappeared halfway down its long journey in a flash of red light. Pebbleman scowled as he placed its pokeball on his belt.

"Well, looks like I've got no choice." He grunted. "Arcanine, get out there!"

The Arcanine was impressive. Its fur seemed to burn with a subtle fire that was invigorated by the sun. Its body was heavy with dense, packed muscle but graceful enough to dance around projectile attacks. Flame spewed with every breath, the flickers enough to make the ice in front of the great creature melt slightly.

"Keep up Double Team. It's a Pidgeot and its fast." Pebbleman said grimly. Arcanine snorted and casually stepped further onto the ice, dozens of illusory copies appearing as it suddenly began to sprint. "Get ready for Extreme Speed!"

Ash sighed. This could be troublesome. Arcanine would be limited since its greatest offensive asset, fire-type moves, would melt the ice and leave it helpless against Plume. Its speed was its greatest asset right now since it could actually match Plume.

He wasn't sure if Plume would be able to actually score a hit on it physically. She was ridiculously fast, but Arcanine were renowned for their legendary speed. Even without their Extreme Speed, which had accounted for their reputation, they were strong, fast, and agile. Every Arcanine was a huge threat, capable of powerful elemental attacks and tearing their opponents apart with their fearsome claws and fangs.

Fortunately for him, Plume didn't have to get a physical hit in. She had plenty of other weapons at her disposal.

But he'd rather have some fun and not reveal too much more of Plume's skillset. With her speed she could easily become an incredibly powerful weapon in the higher battles of the Conference, despite her lack of overwhelming power. Speed was a boon of its own.

The battle was relatively boring for the next minute or so. Plume couldn't keep track of Arcanine, so she just fired off Multislash a few times to keep it on its toes. The blades of air never made contact, but they kept Arcanine from attacking for a while and hopefully tested the fire-type's incredible endurance.

Ash held back a slight smirk as Pebbleman finally lost all patience with their little game.

"That's enough, Arcanine!" He roared and jabbed his finger at Plume, who soared through the sky without a single concern. "Hyper Beam Split!"

He didn't see Arcanine move. It just vanished in a flicker before it reappeared on top of an ice boulder and immediately leapt dozens of feet in the air with the incredible power in its hind legs.

Ash supposed that the Arcanine was lucky its pads were so rough. If they weren't it would have been hopeless on the slick ice. It was only thanks to the amazing traction that it had even managed to get moving like that, let alone jump off the boulder.

"Mirror Move." He shouted as an orb of molten orange energy formed in Arcanine's flaming maw, obscuring the massive fangs that could easily penetrate stone.

Horror gleamed in Pebbleman's eyes, but he was helpless to do anything as Arcanine fired a Hyper Beam that split into several smaller ones the moment the energy was released, which Plume directed herself towards.

Plume screeched in victory as she used Mirror Move, which created a small shield of silvery energy that seemed to absorb the massive amounts of energy poured into the Hyper Beam and suddenly fired it back in a straight blast of bright heat and light, its aim perfect. Arcanine yipped in pain as the Hyper Beam struck it and exploded, firing it down to the ice.

Ash winced as it slammed into the battlefield with a thunderous crash that left it in a tiny crater of cracked ice and shattered boulders. Pebbleman recalled it moments later, but the anguished look on his face showed that he hated that he hadn't been fast enough.

"And the Green Trainer, Ash Ketchum of Pallet Town, wins again thanks to his powerful Pidgeot! It looks like even Pebbleman wasn't enough to stop this prodigious trainer!" The announcer crowed to the crowd's delight. "And next we have George Grey of Unova as the Red Trainer and Amelia Franklin of Pallet Town as the Green Trainer! I wonder if she'll show as much skill as Ketchum! Let's find out!"

Ash's bones trembled at the chants of his name and wild cheers. He just grinned back and waved, although he spared a glance at Pebbleman before he began to head off. The older trainer had a stormy, enraged look on his face, although he shut it down when he noticed Ash's glance and sneered back as he walked off the battlefield with his defeated team.

What an unpleasant individual. Ash could understand some of the man's dislike. It couldn't have been easy to lose to a trainer so much younger than him. He didn't think Pebbleman handled it very well, but he could understand.

He just didn't approve.

Regardless of his current thoughts, he realized that he needed to get off the field. Ash silently wished Amelia luck as he left through the tunnel that would take him up to the surface.

He'd be coming back for Amelia's battle, of course. It wouldn't do to disappoint Steven. Besides, he wanted to see her really cut loose. Ash had only seen bits and pieces of her skill so far and he'd like a more complete picture.


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