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Gaiien Region: So Comes Ice After Fire: Chapter IV

by Keleri

IV. Eight

Don't stop us now, the moment of truth
We were born to make history

June 9th–10th, 130 CR

"I'm not sure I can exaggerate what utter stupidity it was to go into that situation with only a gym leader and yourself, to say nothing of another demon pokémon!" Captain Lark, Moriko's mentor, restrained his voice from rising to a shriek only with great effort. "What were you thinking? No, literally, explain your train of thought to me."

Moriko kept her temper in check as best she could. "It happened so fast—the villagers were in trouble—Polaris wanted to go ahead and I trusted him. And we can trust—" Moriko winced. "In that moment I felt the auroraboros wasn't a danger to us," she amended. "It hates Ituras too."

"Moriko," Captain Lark said. "One: Do not put yourself in mortal danger to save someone else. That just means two bodies."

"Yes, sir."

"Two: you cannot trust a wild pokémon. I trust my pokémon with my life, because I've lived and worked with them for years. You cannot fully understand the mindset or culture of a wild pokémon, let alone an ancient and alien legendary like the auroraboros."

"But we—the diplomats—"

"I know! I know. We make deals and deal diplomatically with wild pokémon all the time. And it's a whole class and specialization because it's not easy.

"Three: Polaris was an idiot and you shouldn't have followed him, even if he ordered you to under his purview as a protector of the region, even if he begged you and cried. You have to know when not to go in as a ranger, too."

"Yes, sir," Moriko said, teeth gritted.

"That's my advice to you as your teacher. Lecture over. You won today, kid. Keep winning."

She exhaled. "Yessir. How was the mantine?"

"Rotting into sludge in Siroy Bay. No lives lost, just a lot of insurance claims. Asspats and booze all around. We could have used your friend Irampus or whatever its name was, it pulled a good trick back in Gaiien that time."

"I'll ask for the next one."

Lark snorted. "Field school starts on the fifteenth. Get your ass back to Hoenn before then, or, fuck it, meet us in Unova if you want. Just tell the coordinator or he'll lodge himself so far up my ass he'll be poking around my tonsils."

"Is the schedule the same?"

"No, it's fucked. But we'll figure it out."

"Take it easy, Captain."



Moriko nearly dropped the pans she was holding, and she stopped and scurried out of the Sastruga Inn kitchen.

Vleridin, who is—

Human. Listen to me, human.

What have you to say, demon? Vleridin said, cutting across the whitikhan's insistent tones.

Moriko gripped her trainer belt like it was a tightening noose. What do you want?

Free me, the whitikhan said.


No, Vleridin agreed.

It spoke to her again after dinner, as she was helping clean up.

You humans are latecomers. You do not know the way of things.

Moriko heard Vleridin snort in her mind. Probably. What is the way of things?

There are gods. We serve them. You, lesser beings, should serve them.

We do not worship gods, Moriko told it, repeating something she'd heard once. We put them to work.

This time she felt the ripple of anger from the whitikhan, and yet more anger at its own helplessness.

What are you? You come here and cut trees, break the earth, delve deep, uncover secrets in air and water, blaspheme.

Funny to hear a demon care about blasphemy, Moriko told it. She sprayed down a table with cleaner.

You are not of the cycle. You will kill this world as you did your old one.

"You know about Terra, huh?" she muttered aloud.

Even now you are killing it. You kill those who do not serve you. As you will kill me. As the One of Frost serves you. You spared it because it surrendered.

You won't die, Moriko told it. But the comment about Terra had gotten to the core of her third-crossing guilt.

More than a century ago, the third crossing had come to Gaia, where pokémon lived, from Terra, where humans had evolved. And they'd left behind a world wrecked by climate change and ecological collapse. The leadership of the groups who had made the dimensional crossings had been united in their desire to preventing that from happening to humanity's new colony; Moriko's education had been heavy-handed in its attempts to instill the same values in her generation, and it had largely worked.

The input of pokémon and their easy, low-pollution energy made it all simple—but there were always unintended consequences. There were things about pokémon that humans didn't understand, and that pokémon themselves didn't. The grand experiment of humans and pokémon was still ongoing.

I do not serve humans, Vleridin told it. You need not either. But you attacked them, you and your kind—what did you think would happen? If you attacked my herd I would have killed you.

That is Right. That is the Cycle. You do not desire my submission, only my death.

I have never encountered someone pleading for their death, Vleridin said.

Fool. Fool slave.

Same to you.


The Pan-Regional Elemental Defense had shown up to fully document the abductions and take all the credit, though they could have it as far as Moriko was concerned. A couple people were still missing, and Moriko thought about the 'larder' and felt cold and sick when she did. She hoped they'd be found.

Their best trackers couldn't say where the Empress or Ituras had gone more specifically than "west". There was hope that kind treatment and gifts might persuade the captured demon pokémon to reveal the higher demons' plans, if any. Moriko hadn't entirely understood the antique speech that the Empress and Frost had started firing at each other, but she'd got the feeling that the Empress didn't have much of a plan. It just wanted to turn Ituras loose again and watch.

There was talk of sending flying tracker pokémon out to see if they could pick up the trail or gauge an emergence point and perhaps maximum range for Ituras's Phantom Force, but there were hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of wild and empty forest and tundra out there, satellite-mapped unincorporated territory that no human being had ever set foot on. They might lose a tracker and never know their fate. They'd be better off contacting the Black Queen, if anyone knew how.

A PRED technician set up the high-security pokéball transfer for Moriko at the Sastruga Pokémon Center, its ordinary system spliced open with the PRED addons and protocols. She watched the pokémon energy drawn out from each ball and transformed to light, agonizingly slowly, check after check to make sure the teleport was secure. It was one thing if the mafia or a phreaker intercepted your pidgey; the whitikhan, a killer pokémon, would be entirely a different matter.

On the other end, Prof. Maple confirmed receipt, and the monsters were blessedly out of Moriko's life.

That wasn't the end of it, of course; she was shadowed by PRED soldiers with guns and numerous holstered anti-pokémon handhelds, and utterly humorless soldier-pokémon, impossible to bribe with pokéblocks or poffins, as their scientists subjected her and her pokémon to intensive scans. They were looking for permanent damage or evidence of possession, or lingering drains on their auras. She couldn't use a pokédex due to its energy-sensing components, and she chafed at the long, boring confinement.

She was finally pronounced healthy and freed after a long debriefing with the PRED captain, a deceptively young-looking woman with an uxie partner who was plainly truth-testing everything Moriko said. But the uxie said nothing and she wasn't obliterated by a red laser from its forehead, so presumably they were satisfied with her account.

"You have good inborn ability, Trainer Moriko," the PRED captain said to her at the end. "PRED needs trainers like you, especially with ranger training. Feel free to call me when you're done your degree," she said, sending her contact information to Moriko's pokédex with a beep. "One question, though: you don't have eight badges?"

Moriko smiled, staring over the PRED captain's head.


It had been a long time since she'd done this.

Moriko climbed the ladder to the trainer box at her end of the Sastruga Gym's icy arena. It was filled with hazards: thin ice over freezing water, slick surfaces, jagged ice and stone. Polaris stood at the other end; she'd wondered if he had a costume, but he was in the same sweatshirt and shorts as the day she'd met him.

"Can you start us off, Tarahn?"

Tarahn appeared from his ball in yellow light and immediately skidded on the ice—not the best opening-battle omen. Polaris tossed out a crystal ball, the light blue glow resolving into another feline pokémon, an antepard.

Antepard, the frostflame pokémon. Evolves from conflynx near level 33. An ice- and fire-type, an urban legend claims that they are blue and red in the Northern Hemisphere and red and blue in the Southern Hemisphere, but their polarity is random regardless of location.

Unlike Tarahn and his jester motif, the antepard was two-headed, and their body was split medially between their red fire and blue ice sides. The fire head sneered at Tarahn, while the ice head winked and waved a paw.

"Pokémon ready? Go!" called the league referee.

"Setup, Tarahn!"

"Hail, Blue."

Tarahn took off at a run, shaking Poison Spikes off the end of his tail, and his form rippling as he prepared a little something extra. The antepard exhaled an icy mist that rose above the battlefield and condensed into clouds, which began hurling golf-ball-sized chunks of ice at the ground.

"Next combo," Moriko said.

"You've got a system going," Polaris praised. "Keep it up. Frostbite!"

Tarahn delivered a pulsing Thunder Wave only to cut it off early as the antepard shot forward, both their heads' jaws glittering with ice-type energy. Tarahn leapt over his field of Poison Spikes and whirled to resume the Thunder Wave, although he flinched under a big Hailstone.

Blue growled and stumbled as the paralysis took effect, but their eyes glowed as they shot their double gaze toward the ceiling. Giant icicles made gunshot cracks as the antepard pulled them down remotely; Tarahn ran for it, flinching as icicle chunks reached him and the Hail continued.

"Ice Spikes!"


Moriko grimaced as she watched Tarahn limp across the sharp, icy field to vomit up black-purple sludge on the antepard; the other feline was beating him at his own game, filling the arena with hazards and a nasty, powerful weather effect. Well, they were committed, and they'd see who'd drop first.


"Nitro Boost!"


Tarahn stood his ground, the yellow thunderbolt arcing forward and surrounding the antepard with a searing glow, but their flame ripped through it as they charged. The Nitro Boost accelerated them like a bullet, and they rammed Tarahn and sent him flying.

The antepard's spots were elongated and swooping compared to most examples of their species, Moriko now noticed—they had a fleetah minor parent somewhere in their ancestry and had inherited the priority attack from it.

Tarahn was scuttling away further down the field, leaving more Poison Spikes in his wake and wincing under the Hail he couldn't dodge. The antepard looked proud of themself on both faces, despite the Toxic sludge still clinging to them.

"Finish it, Blue," Polaris said finally. "Carnot Cycle."

The antepard's fire-type head rose, and they turned and breathed fire onto their own ice-type side. Amidst their painful yowls, though, it was obvious that the antepard's power had gone way up.


"Black Snake!"

It sounded like Tarahn had a few seconds yet before the antepard could Nitro Boost again, but the opponent-seeking Black Snake fireball was sidewinding after him, spewing black smoke.

"Double Team!"

The raigar's outline blurred, but the fireball hit him instead of the illusion anyway, making him screech in pain. Moriko wasn't sure if he was going to outlast the antepard, despite them hurting from their health-sacrificing move. They were cryokinetically scattering the Hail away, the chunks sliding off an invisible barrier.

"Hide, Tarahn!" Moriko called. "Let the Toxic work!"

"That won't save you," Polaris said. "Frostburn!"

The antepard leapt forward, shaking off the paralysis, and erupted into blue flame as Tarahn skittered behind the shelter of a huge ice heave. They charged power a moment and then shot forward, ice chunks flying, and exploded the ice shelf out of its way to expose Tarahn.

The flame-charged tackle hit the raigar full-on and he went flying again, thudding into the ground painfully… and evaporated into yellow smoke.

The antepard was panting hard now, poison-tinged drool seeping from their twin mouths. "What did you… do?" they gasped, and then retched, doubling up on themself. "Where are you!?"

"I fainted, obviously," came Tarahn's voice. "Oh wait!"

Blue snarled and fired off a blue-white Flamethrower that eagerly cut through the heaved ice around the arena, making the bigger pieces sweat and split apart with deafening cracks, and nearly sublimating the smaller shards. A Shock Wave sizzled out from somewhere, seeking out the antepard; Blue turned their attention to the ice it seemed to come from, but they gasped and collapsed, the Toxic a clinging stain on their body. Polaris recalled them.

"Sorry about that. You did destroy my Replica." Tarahn strode out of the confusion of ice shards and loose Hail, and he winked at the gym leader, waving a paw.

Polaris sighed and then laughed. "At what point did you use Replicate? You don't have to tell me, I'll review the match footage later."

"Right at the beginning," Tarahn said, shivering. He was dancing from paw to paw in the freezing water left by Blue's attacks. "And with all this debris it was easy to switch places. Ho ho ho."

Moriko grinned, clapping for Tarahn as he bowed for a nonexistent audience. That was a trick that worked well on wild pokémon, too—but only if there was cover, which the hazard-filled arena had plenty of, even before the antepard had started it Hailing.

"Round two. Select your next pokémon, Polaris," the ref said.

Polaris's next pick was Atropos the hexx, her pale, silvery hair floating behind her.

Hexx, the snowfall hag pokémon. Evolves from jynx due to age or with a mist stone. An ice- and psychic type. According to folklore, they are born from the spirits of people who perished in blizzards. They will visit dwellings in the winter to ask for water, but obliging or refusing will lead to the victim's death. If given hot tea, they will leave.

"Forfeit! I forfeit," Tarahn said quickly, and darted back into his pokéball.

Good job, kitty-cat, Moriko told him.

Tarahn was hurt, and him limping through another round might just be a free setup turn for the hexx. Better to start fresh.

"Both trainers down a pokémon. Select your next pokémon, Moriko."

Moriko went back and forth, considering, but finally she tossed out Liona's pokéball.

This would be risky—Thana would be better at a distance, and they had to stay away from the hexx's Lovely Kiss, but Liona was better on foot. No one was flying in an ice gym unless they could mitigate the bonus damage or didn't need air-type energy to fly. And the antepard had smoothed out the battlefield somewhat, although there were still chunks of ice and water ponds present.

The nigriff flapped her wings once to limber up but folded them away.

"Pokémon ready? Begin!"

"Double Team, Atropos," Polaris said. "Gonna copy your kitty, Moriko."

This was part of the hexx's usual arsenal—she created a dozen illusory copies, all identical with shadows and softly wafting hair. Moriko whistled.

"Quill Storm, Liona."

Liona kept moving, trying to prevent a copy or two from drifting behind her, her claws slipping here and there on the slick ice. She lunged at the nearest illusion, and when it dodged, she flapped her wings and spun. Silver air-type energy shot out in a circle, dagger-swift, and hit every copy.

All of them reacted identically to the hit, and none of them faded.

"Hm," Moriko said.

"What's the plan, Moriko?" Liona called, firing off a small Shadow Bolt that an advancing hexx copy dodged.

Atropos couldn't affect dark-type Liona psychically, but she could still act on the rest of the arena: ice chunks started to rise, the Hailstones that remained from the earlier round and icicles that the antepard had brought down, and rotated to face the nigriff pointy-end-first.

Liona charged another of the illusions, aiming broad slashes to catch those nearby too, but all three were copies, and Atropos backed off all twelve, splitting into two rings of six to mix them up again. It was elegant, like a dance, and Moriko rapidly lost track of the ones Liona had already hit. Ice chunks began whizzing in toward her, and the nigriff reared up on her hind legs to slash them away with fighting-type energy. The exploded chunks rained down on the hexx illusions and pattered to the ground as if they were all solid.

"Gods all dammit."


The nigriff wasn't the most confident battler, still, looking to Moriko for guidance, and she wasn't allowed to fly. This was hard on her.

The copies were flawless, so no help there—they didn't disappear when struck—AOE attacks offered no clue—the hexx could attack from range—how could they find the real one? Atropos would just wear Liona down, at this rate.

She had to stop the hexx from hitting Liona, then.

"Deep Darkness!"

"Soul Tether!" Polaris replied quickly.

An inky blackness spilled out of Liona's drooped wings; she flinched a little under the rays of ghost-type energy that shot out from every hexx's hand, but the darkness grew. Finally she flapped her wings and the arena was filled as if with a dense smoke. The arena shielding buzzed stronger, containing it, and Moriko and Polaris were facing a dark dome.

The referee knew what was going on, at least, and Liona could see with her darkvision, but Moriko couldn't see shit.

Not the best time for this, but

Moriko cast her awareness forward, diving into the arena, the air suffused with minute particles of dark-type energy. Yeah, she couldn't sense shit either.

Can you see her, Liona?

Silver streaked across Moriko's energy senses as Liona tried another Quill Storm.

Gah! They're still here and they're all the same, Moriko!

Gods, the training to get Double Team this good. Atropos had to have been doing this for decades.

Try again, she can't do this forever.

Yeah, well, neither can I, Liona mentally muttered, but she tried the area-of-effect attack again.

"You might as well drop the Deep Darkness if you're going to think this loud," Atropos purred somewhere in the murk. "Look out!"

A sphere of ice loomed out of the dark and exploded—Frostbomb. Moriko swore, her concentration breaking—and the darkness effect disappeared. Liona was frozen, encased in ice.


"Oh, hello again," Polaris called. "Ooh, too bad. Ice Beam at your leisure, Tropo."

Moriko! I can't do this!

Moriko grabbed Liona's pokéball. An immobilized pokémon needed to get off the field, unless—

You can—Bulk Up! A lot!

Atropos was drawing in ice-type energy, charging the beam—all the copies were. Heartbeat to heartbeat, Moriko raised Liona's pokéball; a full-hit, full-power attack would be the end of the match. She watched the copies. Felt them.

Ice flew away as Liona's body glowed crimson, and she threw herself sideways as the ponderous, crackling beam came for her from twelve sources.

Liona—the one at 3 o'clock!

The nigriff pivoted, changing direction on a dime and leaping at that hexx. The Ice Beam passed over her and she screeched, but she kept running, rimed with frost, and aimed a Close Combat at the copy.

It connected, sending the hexx flying as her copies winked out at last.

Moriko exhaled heavily. Holy shit. Adeptry saved the day—how would you deal with that as a normal trainer? Stronger AOEs, she supposed.

Close Combat had to be devastating for the hexx, but Liona wasn't doing well either, covered in frost and her feet in the painfully cold water. Liona was shivering, little pulses of energy leaving her through the Soul Tether, and—ugh. Atropos had hit her with a damage-over-time move at the instant they'd contacted, Ice Lice—there were tiny white snowflakes crawling over Liona, freezing and hardening where they touched.

How are you doing, Liona?

The nigriff shook herself. Let's end it. I'm ready!

Moriko smiled. She was trying, despite the horrible matchup. Lots of pokémon would have given up before now.

"Perish Song, Atropos."

Moriko covered her ears, knowing it would do nothing—the eerie notes sounded in her teeth and skull bones somehow, and Liona flinched visibly.

"Finish her off, Liona!"

The nigriff leapt forward, aiming a Night Slash at the hexx, but the dark-type energy bounced off a Protect shield. As Liona came around to try again, Atropos used Psychic to propel herself across the arena and away. The hexx perched on top of a rock in the middle of one of the ponds and smiled at Liona, her hair wafting around her gracefully as she extended her hands for another Ice Beam.

Fuck. Drawing it out. The sawing notes of the Perish Song were getting louder and louder.

"Shadow Ball! Twist it!"

Liona opened her beak, charging up the purple energy orb in her mouth, and for a moment the icy arena glittered blue and violet between the two attacks.

Liona fired off the ball and it missed. Atropos teleported forward, still charging the Ice Beam, and raised her hands to loose it.

For a moment the hexx was haloed in shadowy light as the Shadow Ball curved around behind her. The special-based attack held no momentum, striking her in the back and making her body arc, dark eyes wide, hands separating and losing cohesion on her prepared Ice Beam.

Atropos staggered, slumping to the ground, her hair falling limp.

"Enough," she breathed. "Enough!"

Polaris recalled her.

Moriko exhaled, letting go of the iron railing on her trainer box. Close. A close one. The hexx's Ice Lice were gone, but the Perish Song wasn't, just briefly silent and waiting for Polaris's next pokémon to close the circuit on the sound-type attack.

Liona was nearly done herself. It would be right to recall her—she'd only have moments to act once Polaris's next choice was out, between the waiting notes of the Song and the fact that she could probably get taken out by a firm handshake at this point.

"Want to switch, Lio?"

"I want a rest," the nigriff sighed, shaking with cold and the Song's reverberations. "Let me get a proper hit on someone before I leave."

Polaris threw down an aurora ball, revealing an ursabre, a white bipedal bear with rimed armor and a huge greatsword.

Ursabre, the polar pokémon. Evolves from kodiaxe near level 55. An ice- and steel-type, they are master sword users. Their blades are made of a mysterious substance with the sharpness of ice and the resilience of steel.

At the referee's shout, Liona Close Combatted right into the ursabre's Protect shield, bouncing off and skidding away on her belly on the ice.

The ursabre shouldered his sword, looking down at her. "Whoops," he said.

The nigriff slumped. "I'm done. I hate this arena," she said, as Moriko recalled her.

Well done, big bird.

An answering warmness from Liona, but she needed her rest.

Last one.

Moriko threw down Rufus's pokéball. His tail lashed as he laid eyes on the ursabre, the ice around him melting as the temperature rose, and he shifted into the battle stance Ganny the emboar had taught him.

The ursabre grinned, raising a hand in a "bring it!" gesture.

Moriko tossed Ganny's pokéball onto the trainer box floor and was instantly crowded by the emboar, but she laughed and pushed him into a corner.

"Show old Ganny what you learned, boy!" he called to Rufus.

"Let's do something a little naughty for the last one," Polaris said, winking at Moriko. "Major, mega plus."

The mega focus blazed in Polaris's hand while the ursabre erupted in iridescent light, his form shifting and growing. When it cleared, the ursabre's armor had closed over his entire body, and his sword was replaced with a pair of forearm blades.

Mega Ursabre (+), the polar pokémon. A steel-type, its mega evolution sacrifices its cold resistance to put all of its strength into its armor and weapons. Even ultra-hard and ultra-tough alloys will fall prey to its swords.

Moriko swore. Mega ursabre plus's ability was Filter, and it lost its ice type—quite a bit less of a slam dunk for a fire-type opponent. And it was a clear invitation for her to get Rufus to mega evolve.

She looked down at Rufus, who was watching her, and felt his apprehension.

Nope. They'd do without.

"Well well," Major called. "I do love beating starter pokémon."

Rufus slapped his armored chest with a clang, an invitation.

They did have another trick, of course.

Moriko focused and tossed Rufus that mental cable to her energy, and his fire turned spring-green. She smiled, despite everything, and Polaris golf-clapped across the arena.

Are you ready?


"Let's do this. Flare Blitz, Ru."


Rufus was fire/steel; of course it was Earthquake. Major grinned under his biosteel helm and raised one foot, driving it through the ice in a shower of shards through to the rock below. The force burst out of the ground, a huge peak after that deep trough, and ice and water exploded away to either side as it came for Rufus like a train.

Rufus braced for it and stumbled as the wave of ground-type energy passed over him, one knee hitting the ground. He recovered, his fire turning green and then blue, charging forward and slamming into the ursabre in a burst of fire.

The ursabre riposted with a Sacred Sword technique, his swords scything over Rufus's armor. He Countered in response, his body glowing as it intercepted the red-brown slashes of fighting-type energy, and then flexed, the sword slashes reversing, hurled back at Major. Invisible swords hit his armor, drawing out deep bell tones from the metal.

The ursabre threw himself backward, shaking out his arms after the mirrored assault, but after a heartbeat he was crouched and ready again, blades up. He and Rufus circled one another.

The carefully set up arena and all its hazards were destroyed after that fire and earth exchange: Rufus had found his footing in the rock and sand thrown up by the Earthquake and melted a huge swath in the ice that was left.

"That's a pretty trick," Major said to Rufus. "Never seen an oxhaust with green fire, not even a shiny. Afraid to mega evolve? Can't?"

The ursabre was a talker—Moriko had always found that weird, or maybe the battle replays had usually omitted it.

"Ach, cocky. He would not be so in Ganny's class," the emboar commented behind Moriko.

"Ignore him, Ru. Fire Punch!"

"Earthquake, May."

Another raised paw and explosion of sand and stones. Moriko hissed, watching the ground-type move take a huge chunk out of the oxhaust's energy readout—but he fought on, fists glowing as he delivered the burning punches, Major snarling as Rufus got past his guard. He was calm, stolid, using attacks as Moriko commanded them, Major's taunts passing over him unheeded.

Rufus was strong, he had a type advantage, and he was using his own type—but Major was iridescent under the mega evolution, energy streaming in from his trainer, and perhaps doubly so since Polaris was an adept. Their only reprieve was that the ursabre wasn't using Earthquake at full power, which would mean too much collateral damage to the gym. But the double weakness was a lot. They had to end this quickly.

Could she give him more energy? She tried to imagine opening their connection, widening it, and she suppressed a cheer as Rufus's flames grew brighter.

"Flare Blitz again, Ru!"

The recoil was dangerous—Moriko watched Rufus's head snap back, his pipes belching smoke, and the ursabre slashed at him again—but the power was needed. At last Major's remaining energy was more in line with Rufus's. If they could just keep this up—


If she—


She started to feel… funny.

The arena jittered; Moriko studied Major, but he hadn't started another Earthquake attack. Images intruded on her mind, distracting her, like she'd just watched an incredible movie or an upsetting one and couldn't wait to talk about it. She couldn't concentrate. Everything was wiggling, leaving faint outlines of color. Her mind jabbered, gabbled, songs and annoying, meaningless phrases repeating.


She felt dizzy, leaning on the trainer box railing for support, and she realized that Rufus's flames were flickering, losing the green glow from the feed of her energy.

She tried to concentrate, to open the connection, and the vertigo just got stronger. Rufus even looked back at her for a moment before blocking another hit from the mega ursabre and countering with a Flamethrower at close range. The two of them pushed at one another, hooves and paws wearing deep grooves in the sand.

What—what was—

Moriko… Vleridin said to her. Who is doing this?

She looked at Polaris, who was grinning at her.

Her stomach fell, fear sweat prickling on her forehead.

Enemy adepts could attack one another.

She hit back at him and hit nothing; it went wide, skittered harmlessly over the shell of ice that was his mental defenses.

He sent her a memory: it was vivid, the smell of snow in the air, and the taste of grit in her mouth as the older boys shoved her to the ground and laughed.

Moriko spat, gripping the trainer box railing until her hands hurt; the real pain cut through the gym leader's remembered hurt and hate.

She raised her head and grinned back. Oh, are we trading traumas?

She had some that were too bad to share. She selected a horrible one of her aunt having a tantrum, filling it with helplessness and rage and frustration and fear, and she lobbed it at him. The suffocating attack immediately let up, and Rufus's flames—

—stayed orange. She was shaken.

I'm sorry, Ru.

You're here, he said. I'm glad.

I'll never leave! That's a promise!

She felt his joy, despite everything—it was so good to battle, so good to learn, so good to face a strong opponent, win or lose.

Still. It wasn't fair—after what they'd been through—

But she looked at Rufus's flagging energy on the readout above the arena, and she realized that the adeptry, like Flare Blitz, had a recoil. He felt the spiritual attack too, and she'd done nothing to shield him—and then she'd fought back, her blows going wide, splash damage coming for him. But Major looked fine—Polaris knew what he was doing. She didn't.

She had a long way to go. They wouldn't fix it all in the middle of a battle. There would be other opportunities—

Or. No. There wouldn't.

Not if Rufus didn't want to stay.

…One problem at a time.

She was the pool—"Rufus, use Flare Blitz!"—she was the earth—"Rufus, Hammer Arm as it comes in!"—she was the forest, growing, roots extending with glacial slowness.


Rufus caught her root, and together they blazed.

She'd failed before and she would fail again, many times. What was important was that they were here, and they were together.

She might fail, but she'd be damned if she wasn't going to give this fight all she had.

Or, almost all. She didn't quite jump in, but she wasn't obeying Polaris's rules, either.

Rufus-Moriko's flames burned green, and their eyes glinted orange. Now. All their power. None of the delay.

They Shoulder Rushed at Major, feinting with a Fire Punch that skittered along the mega ursabre's swords while the Hammer Arm followed up from below. With every attack their bellows-breath worked, armored slats falling open to let more air into the furnace. They slammed their head into the ursabre's, knocking him back, and followed up with another Fire Punch into his belly, driving him back, his paws furrowing the arena.

And Major raised his head, snarling with Bearserker Rage, and stabbed his swords right into Rufus-Moriko's poorly-armored neck.


Moriko had to break off, gasping in the trainer box as Ganny stopped her from falling. Rufus held the blades a finger, a hair away from himself. He was trembling with the effort as the ursabre forced him down, gaining the advantage of gravity.

"I'm stronger than you, oxhaust," Major growled. "Your trick is nothing to a Mega. You know how this is going to end."

Rufus grunted, the ursabre's blades coming for him. "This is steel," he said slowly, looking at the nearer sword. "I know steel," he said, and let go, the ursabre surging forward and the blades biting at last. He grabbed at his opponent's sword near the hilt—


—and broke it off the ursabre's arm.

Major howled, gray fluid fountaining out of the broken metal and evaporating into lightmotes. He shuffled backward, groaning, and then shook himself, readying the remaining sword, pointing his injured side away from his opponent. Well-trained.

The broken-off blade was trying to dissipate, too, but Rufus was maintaining it somehow. He advanced on Major, dragging it along the ice, blood running down his armor.

This dramatic flair? Rufus wouldn't do that. That was her, lingering. Moriko clutched at herself, still feeling eight feet tall, still feeling the fire in her veins, hand clamped at her neck where she was sure she was bleeding.

"H-how did you do that?" the ursabre gasped. He was shuffling backward, arrogance broken.

"There was a weak spot there. I could feel it," Rufus said. He flicked the blade with one huge fingernail. "Steel like that needs to go back in the smelter."

"Time out!" Polaris looked shaken. "Was that a foul?" he asked the referee.

The ref was checking the energy sensors. "Major has some damage to his energy skeleton, but he isn't crippled. That's a warning, Trainer Moriko, and Battler Rufus. Do you want to continue, Major?"

The ursabre nodded, teeth bared as he stared at the oxhaust. "Let's finish this," he growled. Stones and broken ice shuddered at his feet as he charged up another Earthquake, crouched, desperate, not the easy confidence of the beginning of the battle.

Rufus inhaled, holding the broken sword in his hands, and shifted his stance so that he was holding it in front of one shoulder.

The Flame Charge exploded him forward, blue fire streaming from the vents on his back, and the broken sword clashed noisily with the ursabre's whole one—until Major screamed as Rufus put a blue-burning hand to his neck. The broken sword fell and evaporated, forgotten, as Rufus grabbed Major, pulling him close by a ridge in his armor, while the other hand melted through his chest plate.

The ursabre's fists clanged, denting Rufus's steel plates and tubes, the huge hits growing more and more desperate and panicked.

"Get off me! Get off!" Major howled, blows slowing.

"Enough, Ru!" Moriko shouted. "He's done!"

Rufus let him fall to the arena floor. A shimmer, a little burst of light, and his mega transformation fell away. The wound on the ursabre's chest was a mass of slag, seeping water and gray fluid. Major's reformed greatsword slid out of his claws with a whisper on the ice.

"Huh," Major gasped, looking up at Rufus and heaving. "Neat trick."

Polaris recalled him.

"Polaris has no more pokémon that can battle. The match goes to Trainer Moriko."

Loud claps echoed through the arena as Polaris applauded.

Moriko let out a long, long breath.

"You taught him Blowtorch, huh?" she muttered to Ganny.

"Wasn't sure if he got it," the emboar said proudly. "He is a good boy. He works hard." He looked carefully at Moriko. "Can you…?"

"I can," Moriko said, teeth gritted. Her legs trembled as she descended from the trainer box, carefully putting her boots on each ladder rung.

She and Ganny joined Rufus on the arena floor, boots and hooves crunching. Polaris came down as well; he shook hands with Moriko and Rufus, and handed Moriko the Frost Badge with its six points and engraving of the waterfall above the town.

"I tested you, both of you, and you did well," Polaris said finally. "But I beg you to consider the warnings I've given you. This was a safe environment, and I could have been… ruder."

"I have ruder memories than that," Moriko couldn't help saying. But she shook her head, apologetic, at the troubled look on the gym leader's face.

Polaris raised his hands. "Just promise me you'll work on your mental defenses when you go back to Hoenn."

She nodded. "I will. I promise."

Ganny was patting Rufus on the arm, wordless, but they looked happy. Rufus looked happy and tired; his aura was well into the red, and he was bleeding, breathing hard.

"Great job, Ru," Moriko told him.

Rufus stuck his chin out, looking down at her. "I learned something at the mill, too," he said.

"That was amazing!" She hesitated. "How was it? Sharing energy? It wasn't the same, as…"

The oxhaust nodded slowly. "It was okay. It's different. Not as bad as before. You're… fast. You do a lot, fast. It makes me tired." He stretched his arms, shaking out the stiffness. "You were really mad."

"You make him fast," Polaris said quietly, "but you make him cruel, too." He was looking at the penalty screen where a diagram of Major's energy skeleton—deeper injury, beyond the drain of the pokémon's aura—showed damage in red, damage that would be a longer time healing. If Moriko had racked up another penalty the ref could have ruled it a draw.


"Another reason to train," Polaris said. "Keep your hurt and your id on this side. Mental hygiene and mental defenses. Okay?"

Moriko sighed. "I get it. I'll train."

Polaris smiled and clapped her on the shoulder. "Come back when you have for a couple of years—I'll show you how we adepts fight at S-tier."


Tarahn, Liona, and Rufus all went through the quick healing at the pokémon center. No skeleton damage to them. Moriko let them, Thana, and Vleridin out in the exercise yard, chilly as it was.

"Ru you were so good!" Tarahn said, rubbing up against Rufus's legs excitedly. "You were all like 'Watch this' and then bam! Pow!" He stood on his hind legs, swiping his forelegs to mime punches. "So? Are you staying? Are you coming back with us?"

Moriko felt like she was choking.

Rufus sighed and sat on his hooves. He petted Tarahn absently.

"It's up to you," Moriko babbled in the silence. "You have friends back at the steel mill and there was a lot of energy there. And I love you a lot and Tarahn does too. It's up to you. You'll get powerful either way. I support you either—"

Rufus reached out to her, in that energy space beyond matter, and she took his hand.

There was pain in battling, yes, but she felt his remembered joy, the thrill of the battle, energy and power suffusing the two of them. Neither loss nor victory mattered when battle was greater than both.

She would not taint that joy with hate or ego. She swore it.

"I want to go to school too," Rufus said, and Moriko's heart felt like it was about to burst. "Can I come with you?"

"Yes! Yes of course!"

Tarahn flopped on Rufus, purring ecstatically.

"I want to learn," Rufus said, in between Tarahn rubbing his cheeks on his armor. "I want to battle again. Real battles."

"It'll be great! You'll learn so much from the pokémon teachers! And we'll practice together often, it won't be like how it was—"

"And I don't have to read books?" Rufus said hopefully.

Moriko caught her breath, smiling at him. "No books."

"Good." He brought his armored fists together with a clang. "Books are too hard."


Moriko went to the waterfront to bid farewell to a demon.

The sky was leaden over a wine-dark sea. Snow was falling, though not fat flakes—it was half-formed crystals, needles falling like tiny daggers to disappear on the water's surface.

The auroraboros was in its customary place, heaped on an outcrop of rock on the seashore, head pointed out toward the water.

"Did you prevail against the clan-priest?" Karaxil, Demon of Frost and Starlight, asked.

"I did. Eight badges, so I'm a senior trainer. Did you… prevail against the Empress?"

Dark amusement rolled off the demon. "Oh, I was no match for it. It toyed with me for some time and then left all at once without a word." It shifted uncomfortably. "I must confess… when first I saw it I was relieved. Here were allies, I thought; here I could leave the dominion of humans. But it was all the same as it ever was; it was all the same foolish quest as centuries gone. Imprisoned, I learned more than they, scheming endlessly to repeat all the mistakes of the past."

"So, you were all ready to go back to your old life?" Moriko couldn't help challenging it. "Are you sure you learned something?"

It laughed. "It is not so easy to change one's nature, Adept Moriko. But one may try." It cast its multi-eyed gaze down on her. "You may yet change. Your elementals get your power, but your anger, too, fills them. There are those that might steal your energy through them, or their energy through you."

She coughed. "Touché."

"Let me teach you something, human," Karaxil said suddenly. "I am going to steal your energy."

"Um," Moriko said.

"Watch me, though not with your eyes," the demon said.

Moriko felt it, very slowly, extend a tendril of—something, in that shadow world, that pale reflective space where pokémon traded energy. But where attacks were bright and blinding, and Rufus's outflung energy hand an invitation, the demon's hand was… a demand. It was a hand holding a knife, a gun; it was a hand on a child or pet, and it was a threat. The vilest of threats.

Moriko's whole body arced away from it, and she felt all her pokémon react, especially Vleridin.

Karaxil closed its demon's hand, hid the knife.

"That was…"

"That is the vampire's touch," Karaxil said, arranging its claws more comfortably on the rock. "That is the means by which many of us take human energy. Your next opponent will not be so slow nor obvious, but perhaps it is enough if you have seen once that which you will look for. And there are other ways to feed."

"L-like what?"

Karaxil bared its teeth. "The cannibal eats flesh and gains energy thereby. Their attack is more… direct. The other is the nightmare: it will not touch you at all. It requires only your emotion."

"You can feed off of… what, happiness?"

"Joy is fleeting. Sorrow lies deep in the gullies of the heart; this, you can live on. Or hate, which bites deep. Or rage, deepest and reddest of all."

The Spirit of Wrath.

"Which one are you?" Moriko asked it, absently.

"Lesser demons may only be capable of one or the other, while those greater are capable of any. But the way of the nightmare was mine by custom. And I drank worship."

Moriko looked at it sidelong. "Do you need to be worshipped?"

Its claws scraped the stone, pensive. "The race of humans has created new ways of living. I experiment with them now. If not… there is time. For now I prefer to do as humans ask, and live comfortably."

"Wouldn't that be nice, if the other demons did that too. Could you tell them to?"

It hissed softly. "No."

"Why not?"

"I do not know. They do not understand. I did not understand. I thought I could it explain to them; perhaps they do not believe me. We are not inclined to trust."

It turned its black eyes on Moriko. "Your… friend. The pale one. She was there that day I awoke again at last. Who is she?"

"That was Linden. She… seemed different to you?"

"What is her power?"

Moriko wasn't sure if she should answer, but she did. "She's a demon master. Or, they say she is. Her energy can't be taken by demons."

Karaxil said nothing for so long that Moriko thought the demon pokémon had gone to sleep.

"Tell her, Moriko…" it said, "tell her that a crown makes a demon of any who wear it."

Moriko thought uneasily about what the whitikhan had said to her, about humans and their need to control.

"We only allow things to exist that can't threaten us," Moriko said. "Is that true?"

"It is certain," Karaxil said. "You have put elementals in your service; you have put gods' servants in your service; even now you work to tame demons. Those that will not serve, you will destroy. And thus I serve. There are worse fates."

"Why? Why do this? Why let us? Why go along with this?"

"Time all things upends," the demon said. "One day this shall all be waste, and humans will long be gone, but I shall remain in the dark and the stillness. I need only be patient."


A/N: Thanks for reading! This was my first-ever beta'd chapter (lol) after some friends at PokeCharms expressed an interest in critiquing the gym battle. It's perhaps a bit tell-y instead of show-y but I want to get this one out the door and move on to the next thing. I was hoping to get some art done as well but I am Two Tired and don't like what I started, so. Maybe later. ;)