The second Ortega confirmed their deal, Arven shoved his phone into his pocket and did his best to look like he’d been paying it no attention.
“Team Star…Team Star…” Nemona mused as the group finally reached the Pokémon Center. She’d been repeating it to herself to whole walk up here, with no context or explanation. Handing her Poké Balls over to the nurse, at least, seemed to snap her out of it. “Sorry,” she said to the group while they waited for the results. “It’s just been bugging me ever since you two said they were cause of all these problems. I’m sure I saw them come up in one of the headings while I was reading the old school records. But no matter how much I think about it, I can’t recall any specifics.” She put her tera orb into the charging station, and the others followed suit. “The next time we’re near school, I’ll go look up the details for sure.”
“We’d really appreciate it,” Juliana said. The charger chimed, and each of them retrieved their tera orbs right as the nurse waved for Nemona’s attention.
“Your Cyclizar is in fine shape and should be well suited for all travel,” she said brightly. Nemona thanked the woman and brought Cyclizar out, where it stretched and yawned.
“Well, let’s get going to the Glaseado Gym. With some speed this time!”
Arven couldn’t agree more and waited for Juliana to get that brute Koraidon out. Instead she stepped up to the storage system’s touch screen. “Hang on. First I need to get out some more Pokémon to add to my team.” She scanned her ID, and the interface glowed with recognition before laying out virtual icons of all Juliana’s Pokémon currently resting in their Poké Balls.
“Oh?” Nemona asked. “How many do you have on hand now?”
“Just Beartic and Tinkaton.”
Nemona’s eyes widened at the small number. Arven’s would have, too, if he hadn’t seen her party first hand in the battle against Team Star.
To her credit, Nemona covered up her visible surprise as best she could. “Well, it’s, um…very bold of you to travel with only two Pokémon. You must like a challenge, then?”
“It’s not that,” Juliana said quietly as she scrolled through the icons of Pokémon she’d caught. First on the list was a low-level Porygon. Hatched from an egg she got back in Galar, the screen said. “Guess the type-changing could come in handy,” she muttered to herself. “Needs a lot of experience, though…” She tapped it and kept scrolling. All the other Pokémon appeared to be native to Paldea, and they slowly rose in level as she moved through the boxes. Box four had high-level catches from tera raids while the first box held Pokémon Juliana probably captured right outside school after getting her starter.
Actually, on that note… Arven paid a little more attention to the icons, watching for Sprigatito, Fuecoco, or Quaxly. But none of them were there. Nor were any of their evolutions. Of course, not every last person in Paldea started with one of those. There were exceptions when someone came from a family of famous trainers or otherwise got special permission to get their license before age ten. Arven was pretty sure the school council president got her first Quaxly this semester.
“So…why carry so few Pokémon if it’s not for a challenge?” Nemona asked. Her tone was kind, though her curiosity was clearly getting the better of her.
“Just precaution, is all.” Juliana’s finger paused over the icon for a Farigiraf. She selected it as well and continued scrolling.
“Oh. That makes sense,” said Nemona.
It made zero sense, and poor Nemona was quivering with desire to press her rival for more details. But Juliana’s quiet, melancholy tone suggested it wouldn’t be a good story.
Juliana tapped on the icon for a Baile Style Oricorio and selected “Retrieve.” The system hummed as it transported her three selected Pokémon to the front desk. Juliana picked the balls up, turned to see Nemona ready to explode with curiosity, and gave a long sigh. “Maybe precaution is the wrong word,” she said, attaching the balls to her belt. “It’s more like paranoia. Remember Sprigatito?”
“Of course. Wait–” Nemona deflated a bit, her face going serious. “I haven’t seen you battle with Sprigatito since our first match. Is it okay?”
The question seemed to break something in Juliana, who squeezed her eyes shut and hung her head. “I don’t know. I…I lost it right before I left on the treasure hunt.”
“What?” Arven exclaimed.
Nemona slapped his shoulder and put a comforting arm around Juliana, walking her away from the awkward stare of the Pokémon Center workers. “What do you mean you lost it?” she asked.
“Just that,” Juliana said, her voice cracking. “I was outside the school, and Sprigatitio was walking alongside me. Someone came to chat with me. I only turned my back for a second, but when I looked around, Sprigatitio had vanished.” Her shoulders shook as she fought back the tears. With several drawn-out breaths, she seemed to collect herself.
“Did you try putting up posters around the dorms?” Arven asked. Seemed the most logical solution from his view, but Juliana glared at him, her face flushed.
“Of course I tried. Sprigatitio had some pretty unique markings, so I thought it’d be easy, but…no one had seen any Pokémon like that. After a month of no leads, I took the posters down.” Her hand went to the Poké Ball she kept separate from the others–the one Arven had given her to hold Koraidon. “Let’s just get going,” she said as she called the brute out. Koraidon screeched and shook its feathery mane. Arven inched back. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was something about Koraidon that never sat right with him. He tolerated it when they were in the lighthouse together because, well, what else could he do? But now that he’d gotten time away from it, being in its presense again was all the more difficult.
“Huh,” Nemona said, tilting her head at Koraidon. “I don’t know why, but for some reason, I thought your giant Cyclizar-ish Pokémon was purple.”
“No,” Juliana said, mounting it. “It’s always been this color. Maybe you saw it some low lighting or something?”
“Ah, of course. That makes sense.” Nemona mounted her actual Cyclizar and looked to Arven. Who really should have been getting on Koraidon. But he couldn’t make his feet move. Being around the brute always made him feel like he’d forgotten something. A person? An event? He couldn’t say. Something very important.
“Please don’t tell me Koraidon bothers you,” Juliana said.
“My Cyclizar is really friendly,” Nemona said. “You can ride it while I ride with Juliana, if you want.”
“N-no, that’s okay…” Arven began, only for Juliana to interrupt.
“If you’re scared of riding Koraidon, you should take Nemona’s offer,” she said. “The last thing we need is you phasing through it and falling to your death off a mountain.”
“Oh, that’s how it works?” Nemona asked. “You didn’t get scared when you were making the coin float earlier, though. Or…did you?”
Arven flushed. Yes, Nemona had seen his weird phasing abilities in action not long ago, but that didn’t mean Juliana had to go sharing exactly which emotion activated them. He liked it better when Nemona thought he could flawlessly will his ability to activate. And he had no intention of sharing which of his deepest fears he called on to make it work for real.
“It’s personal,” he muttered, stepping over to Nemona. “But Juliana’s right. Better if I ride your guy.”
She dismounted and went to join Juliana, who still looked annoyed at Arven.
“Don’t worry, he’s always kind of kept to himself. It’s not us,” Nemona assured her friend as she climbed on behind her and held onto her waist. “I was the one who gave him the introductory tour of Naranja Academy last year, and he acted the same way.”
“Wait…really?” Juliana asked. She gave Koraidon a nudge, and the brute walked out towards the snowy path, setting up for a clear line of sight.
Nemona nodded. “Of course, I wasn’t the school council president yet. Just an overeager freshman trying to help out. But since Arven joined the term a month late, I already knew my way around.”
Arven flushed as Nemona’s Cyclizar dutifully followed its trainer. He’d only enrolled late because the paperwork had been confusing and he’d missed the original deadline. Thankfully, the director had made an exception, given his home circumstances. It was still embarrassing, though.
“You know, now that I think about it, that tour was first time I saw weird stuff at school. See, we were about to walk up to the main building, and I did my classic, ‘get ready to climb the worst staircase in the world!'” She motioned to Arven. “He was standing on the first step, waiting for me to get on with it, so I went to bolt past him. Only I ran through the stairs instead. Like they weren’t even there!”
Arven remembered that. But the way she’d set it up made him think vanishing into the staircase was some gimmicky part of the tour. He didn’t get how it was done, exactly, but he’d guessed a ghost Pokémon could pull it off.
“It freaked me out, but then nothing happened for months after that. I thought everything was fine,” Nemona went on. “But, hey, enough weird talk. Let’s get going! This way!” She pointed, and Koraidon gave a roar before bolting forward at full speed.
Cyclizar followed without any need for Arven to signal it. Which was good, because his mind really wasn’t on directions right now. Did he cause that incident with the stairs? He’d thought his problems had only been showing up for a month or two tops. What if it been more than that?
He didn’t want to think about the ramifications, but as they flew down the slick, icy road, his mind wouldn’t let the idea rest. He hoped he was reading too much into things. If he did have some hand in the stair incident, though, he could be the cause of Juliana going giant at Team Star’s base, too?
Arven swallowed. He didn’t have the constitution to weather Juliana’s wrath in that case. No living human did.
Mela had one goal for her battle against the Lurking Steel titan: show Eri she could handle herself. Well, okay, that and she wanted to beat the titan, so two goals.
As the training coach for the team, Eri saw herself as everyone else’s big sister. It sort of came with the territory, being the oldest, tallest, and strongest of the group. But after everyone at school kept going on about how cute Mela was, the fire-type trainer wanted nothing more than to prove herself as tough and independent.
The duo took a flying taxi to Levincia then rode their Cyclizars out of the city and into the rocky area where the titan was known to…well, lurk.
“Here’s what I’m thinking,” she told Eri as they neared the spot on the map. Her Cyclizar was smaller and slower–not the note she was going for–but Eri’s Pokémon was conscientious enough to keep pace. “You scare it out of hiding with some of your punching tactics, lead it right to me, and my Pokémon will swallow it up in an inferno!” She punched her fist into her open palm and almost lost her balance doing so. She really needed to speak with Atticus about a more manageable pair of boots.
“If you engulf it in flames, then it probably won’t lead us to the Herba Mystica,” Eri said. “We’ll attack, but we’ll pull our punches until we get a better feel for its power level.”
“Oh,” Mela hung her head. “Makes sense. You’re right, as usual, Eri.”
Eri muttered her thanks and they continued. She never was the best at taking compliments. Mela really needed to work with her on that.
The marking on the map led to a large depression in the ground. Mela had never been out this way before, but the area was surrounded with a barb-wire fence, and there were several large holes in the ground. A few Nacli paced back and forth, but they more or less ignored the two approaching humans. And each other, for that matter. The whole place gave the feel of an abandoned construction site that no one knew what to do with.
Eri pulled her Cyclizar to a stop and narrowed her eyes. “Is that…” she said and pointed. Mela followed her line of sight, and sure enough, a large head poked out from one of the holes. It had beady, almost cartoonish eyes, and the wide grin on its gaping mouth made Mela think of a Slowpoke. An extra-dense Slowpoke.
“That’s a titan?” she asked.
Eri shrugged. “Looks like it. But I have to admit, I expected a more majestic Pokémon than a–”
“–a giant goofy-looking Orthworm?” Mela chuckled. Then she cracked her knuckles. “Doesn’t matter what it is. Let’s get this job done.”
Eri nodded her agreement. “You approach it, and I’ll keep watch at one of these other holes in case it tries to escape.”
Mela scanned the area, which definitely had more than two escape routes. “Why stop there? Let’s bring out our Pokémon now and guard all the exits.”
“Good idea,” Eri said. “Now you’re thinking like a strategist.”
Mela grinned. Maybe to someone who overheard their conversation, it sounded like a perfectly normal comment. But anyone who had been through Eri’s merciless training regimen knew she could give no higher compliment. Mela had come here wanting to prove herself as they strong one. But proving herself as the smart one would feel pretty good, too.
She released Armarouge and Arcanine and instructed them to go to the two nearest holes, while Eri sent out Lucario and Annihilape. Lucario could easily sneak up on one of the holes closer to the titan without scaring it, and Annihilape, being a ghost-type, could straight-up vanish until it needed to appear.
Eri held up her hand and gave a visual countdown before she charged at the titan. At Mela’s suggestion, she even added in a wild shriek for good measure. The titan’s beady eyes widened at this crazy yelling person and it ducked into its hole, tunneling away.
As Eri had predicted, it tried to surface at another hole, only to be blocked by Annihilape’s sudden appearance. It squealed in surprise and dove again. This time, it came up by Arcanine and just missed a Fang Fang to the face. Finally it exited by Mela, who braced herself as it raised its head. The Pokémon might have looked silly, but it was huge up close. She could feel herself shrinking back into that meek new student who tried to fit in, only for every thing she did to come off as adorable. A situation that only got worse when the bullying started.
But that was the old Mela. The new Mela stood her ground. Literally.
“Hey, dummy!” she yelled as the titan loomed over her. “In case ya didn’t notice, you got nowhere else to go! So stop being a coward and fight me already!”
The titan paused. Then it pulled itself farther and farther out of the hole, never taking its gaze off her. While it might have simply looked like a ground type from its face and habitat, its solid steel plating now shimmered in the sunlight. As did the little blue arms it shook at Mela when it accepted her challenge.
“Oh, it is on!” she snarled back. “Torkoal, go! Flare Blitz!”
Her Pokémon appeared in a flash of red light and obeyed. The massive Orthworm clearly took some serious damage from the hit, but it was far from out. So much for needing to pull their punches.
“Lucario, Aura Sphere!” Eri called out as she ran to join the fight. A blue ball of light gathered in Lucario’s paws and hit its target with precision. Orthworm swayed after the hit but did not quite go down. Instead it pulled back and smacked open a section of rock to reveal a previously hidden cave. And inside lay some sort of sparkling plant…
Snacking on those magical herbs for a power boost, huh? Mela wasn’t too worried. After all, she and Eri had nearly taken it down in a single hit already. But then titan gave a fearsome roar unlike anything she’d heard from it before. To Mela’s horror, the Orthworm turned and performed an Earthquake attack. Chunks of ground flew everywhere as the move landed a critical hit on Lucario, taking it out instantly. Eri gritted her teeth and recalled her Pokémon. Mela could only assume Torkoal was still standing due to its Shell Armor ability. A small miracle. Defeating the titan might be trickier than she thought. Then again, maybe she was approaching this the wrong way from the start. Maybe she needed to think like more of a strategist.
Before she gave the next command, Mela mentally reviewed her Pokémon’s move list. Yes, there was a better approach here. “Torkoal, use Yawn!”
Eri smiled and followed along perfectly. “Passimian, Protect!”
The titan’s next Earthquake bounced harmlessly of Passimian’s shield. It did bring Torkoal down but not before Yawn took effect. The massive Othworm shook its head and tried to swing its tail at Passimian again, only to fall laughably short. It then stared at both the Team Star leaders, its eyelids heavy…and gently slipped back into its hole, where its snores no doubt echoed for miles underground.
“Very nicely done,” Eri said before she sprinted into the cave and collected their prize.
Mela followed as best she could in her boots. Two compliments from Eri in one battle? She’d better watch herself or her ego would get overinflated for sure. She snapped a photo of Eri bringing out the Herba Mystica and attached it to a text for Penny:
Mission accomplished, she wrote. See you at the lighthouse!