Penny didn’t make much conversation on the journey towards Casseroya Lake. She worried at first that Ortega would take her silence as brooding. But she soon discovered the time they’d virtually spent together as Team Star had not gone to waste. He understood she would never be a chatterbox, and he didn’t push her. In fact, he seemed content to enjoy the quiet alongside her. At least until his pocket buzzed three times in a row.
They both pulled their Cyclizar to a stop. Ortega’s phone had more or less turned into the source of updates on Paldea’s stability, so he dutifully brought the screen up in Penny’s full view. Penny wiped the melted snowflakes from her glasses. A trio of new messages had come in: The first contained yet another faceless Tandemaus photo, this time with the number down to 82. The Pokémon were huddled in close, as if trying to keep each other warm. Or perhaps trying to verify they were still together without the ability to see each other? Penny shuddered thinking about it and held Sprigatito a little closer. The Pokémon mewed and leapt to her shoulder. From there, it clawed at her jacket, undoing the zipper enough to crawl inside.
“Hey!” Penny objected, but Sprigatito had already made itself at home and wasn’t coming out. Penny’s jacket now had a large bulge that make it look like she was trying to smuggle an encyclopedia out of the library. “Guess it is getting cold out here by your standards,” she said with a sigh. Then she turned her attention back to Ortega’s screen. His second and third texts were from his sister, and they were a light-hearted jump in tone from the first:
1/2 Sure, Ortie! The lab key’s at the summer house, tho.
2/2 Can meetcha up there in say…2 hours? K, bye!
Penny frowned. “Thought ‘Ortie’ was our nickname for you,” she said. “And you never mentioned you have a summer house.”
“Ugh, my parents have a summer house,” Ortega muttered. “And a spring house. And a winter house. They’re like a couple of confused Sawsbuck.” He shoved the phone away. It fit perfectly into the side pocket of his lavender, fur-lined coat. “Vanessa overheard the team’s nickname for me once, and she’s been using it ever since. It hacks me off, and she knows it.”
Penny nodded in sympathy and dropped the matter. Ortega had only mentioned his sister one or two times, and he ignored whenever someone brought her up in conversation. Or when they mentioned anyone in his family, really. Penny could only hope he didn’t shift the topic to her own parents. Certain things were far too frustrating to have a civil conversation about.
The path before them narrowed, with walls of ice rising up either side. With no good way around, Penny urged her Cyclizar forward, and Ortega followed. Her teeth chattered, despite the extra layers of clothing she’d worn to protect her and Sprigatito from the mountains’ chill. And she usually had such a high cold tolerance, too.
Wait a second. She straightened as Cyclizar slowed its pace. Her body kept shivering, but it didn’t feel all that cold. But what else would cause her to react this way?
They’d gotten about halfway through the icy passageway now. She stared up the mass of ice surrounding them and got her answer.
“Is that…” Ortega pointed. Ominous black orbs protruded from the nearest section of wall. As the two travelers neared them, the orbs extruded a purple fog, and a pair of leering eyes appeared on each one.
“Gastly,” Penny whispered.
“Yeah,” Ortega replied. “But why are they here?”
Penny had no answer other than to keep moving. The Gastly seemed to be partially embedded in the ice. She worried if maybe they’d gotten themselves stuck there, though how such a thing was possible for a ghost type, she had no idea. With each one they passed, the Pokémon’s eyes followed their every movement. Penny couldn’t shake the uneasy image of being filmed by a haunted camera right before her death.
“Maybe we should turn around,” she said. “Or at least try a different path.”
“I know my way through these mountains,” Ortega said, pushing his Cyclizar ahead of hers.
“Didn’t say you didn’t,” Penny muttered as she followed. She should have guessed he’d respond like that. Ortega was always sensitive about being corrected. He worried about the others looking down on him, not trusting his judgment because he was the youngest. Of course, he was only the youngest by a few months, but the trouble was, half the freshman class looked older than him. Mela didn’t help matters, either. She spent most of her birthday bragging about her quinceañera status and reminding Ortega how he was the only boss still stuck at a lowly fourteen years of age.
Ortega’s insecurity made redirecting him much more difficult. And Penny would argue that right now, they needed a serious change of direction. The ice walls parted up ahead, several more Gastly floated in the distance, waiting and watching them. The path split at the exit, and they could take the longer, sunnier route to the left where the ghost Pokémon were less likely to follow. Ortega, seeming to sense where Penny wanted to go, urged his Cyclizar towards the right.
“Hold on,” Penny whispered.
“I told you,” Ortega hissed back. “I know what I’m–” He turned at the icy corner and ran smack into a Gastly hovering just out of sight.
The battle itself shouldn’t have a problem. But whether it was the Pokémon or the location or simply evidence of Paldea’s weak grip on reality, something dire happened in the moment Ortega and the ghost-type met.
The two combatants stood at an angle on a small hill, the Gastly farther below. The moment the battle started, a deep crack snapped through the mountain path with the sound and force of a canon. The ground beneath them shifted abruptly upwards. The earth broke open, but instead of facing a chasm of darkness, Penny stared at a reflection of the sky. Then she and Ortega fell towards the mirrored clouds. Mounds of snow followed, showering around them. Penny screamed. Both Cycylzars retreated to their Poké Balls while Sprigatito dug its claws through Penny’s sweatshirt. She cradled the tiny Pokémon under her jacket and braced herself for the worst.
“Whew!” Nemona gasped as Juliana’s group reached the crest of a snowy hill. It was a tight squeeze with less than ideal standing space, but the view was breathtaking. Dusk had fallen, and the town of Glaseado sparkled far below. The gym was the tallest building–a soft pillar of white light among the smaller houses and shops. Several markers broke up the path leading down, probably related to the gym test in some way. The air felt thin, and the clouds hung low. A few flurries had begun to fall but nothing concerning. If anything, they accented the picturesque snowscape.
Arven went to readjust his pack, which messed up the balance of Nemona’s Cyclizar a bit. It started to slip but caught its footing. Then it turned and hissed at Arven for the inconvenience.
“Excuse me,” Arven muttered.
Nemona gave him a sympathetic smile. “Don’t worry. It’s natural for her to be on edge now. She’s more sensitive to the dangers up here than we are.” She pointed to the snowy ground. “It might look firm, but this time of year, the snow can pile up quickly. There’s lots of spots that are just one badly timed impact away from an avalanche.”
“Really?” Juliana asked. “Wow.”
Arven swallowed, wishing Nemona had waited until they reached the bottom of the hill to tell him this. The elevated view now felt much less beautiful and much more threatening.
Before they could start down, Arven heard a huge crack of thunder. He yelped and looked to see if the girls were okay. His brain could barely process what happened next. Ortega tumbled out of the low-hanging clouds, falling in slow motion right between Juliana and Nemona. His diamond-studded travel bag was shoved into Juliana’s face while his Poké Ball staff smacked Nemona in the back of the head. Koraidon screeched its displeasure and reared up, almost throwing all three of its passengers.
Arven was about to dismount and demand answers when something collided with him from behind, knocking the wind out of him. Cyclizar let out a similar, though less primal, cry. Arven whirled around to find Penny back-to-back with him, curled up and clutching her stomach. Or maybe something under her jacket?
“What the–” he yelled.
Then came the snow. Not in gusts of gentle flakes but in a straight-up cascade. The clouds sparked and snow gushed out of them like a busted faucet. Koraidon jumped. All three of the people riding it held onto each other for dear life. Cyclizar followed suit, barely managing to escape being buried in the sudden rush.
Arven grabbed the Pokémon’s neck and held fast. Penny clung to his waist, pressing her chest against his back. “I’m so sorry about this!” she cried.
“Wait, this is your fault?” Juliana yelled. It was the last thing anyone got to say before the ground began moving. The Pokémon’s quick thinking might have saved them from an icy burial, but now they were effectively surfing atop an avalanche headed right for the Glaseado Gym’s battle stage.
Arven’s gritted his teeth, desperate to keep his fear at bay and not phase himself into a death wish. The two ride Pokémon picked up speed, sliding this way and that to stay atop of the shifting rush of snow. Their paths crisscrossed over and over. It was a miracle they didn’t collide with each other. The only thought that kept Arven solid was his pure fury at Team Star for whatever it was they did to start this mess. So he focused on that. And how, if their ride down the mountainside didn’t kill them all, he would use Ortega’s fancy staff and bag to strangle him.