The soft natural light of the cave was a sharp contrast to the bright artificial lights inside. Thankfully, Penny’s eyes were quick to adjust. If anything, this place energized her.
Another item to add to her list of stuff she didn’t want to think about.
“Why are we taking orders from Nemona again?” Arven demanded to know as he hurried to catch up with her.
Ortega whirled around at the sound of Arven’s voice and made a move to attack, but Penny managed to trip him up with another Power Whip, allowing Arven the chance to run past. The cavern was spacious enough for a battle, but if they made for any of the tunnels, they’d be cornered. And since they wanted Nemona to guide their attacks, they needed to stay close enough to actually hear her.
“Because we can’t see the bigger picture when we’re the ones in the middle of a battle,” Penny told him. “And because she’s really good at this. Just see if you can figure out Ting-Lu’s moveset and focus on not getting hit by those ice attacks. Leave the rest to her.”
Arven frowned at the plan, but he didn’t argue. The two of them split up to opposite sides of the cavern to hopefully slow Ortega down. The move gave him pause, but he turned his sights on Penny in short order. The two halves of his staff glowed.
Nemona stood on the steps of Zero Lab, already locked in her battle mentality. Her eyes darted around as she made plans and calculations. “Okay,” she called out. “First thing we do assess the opponent. Chien-Pao is clearly an ice-type. And probably also a dark-type, given the pattern from both of you.” She pointed at Penny. “Quick! What moves does Wo-Chien know?”
Penny tried her best to read the Pokémon’s thoughts while dodging a barrage of icicles. “Uh…Power Whip, Foul Play–eek, that was close!–Giga Drain, and something it calls ‘Ruination.'”
“Hey, my guy knows that too!” Arven called out. In his second of distraction, a blast of ice smacked him in the side. He yelled in pain and jumped back.
“What did I say about not getting hit?” Penny scolded him.
“Hey, hey, focus on me!” Nemona said. She pointed to each of them. “Arven, do you have a rock-type move? Stone Edge? Rock Slide? Anything like that?”
“U-um…the second one? I think?”
Nemona gave him a confident nod. “Use it! And Penny, try Ruination!”
“We don’t even know what that does!”
“So let’s figure it out!”
Penny did not like this idea one bit. Her entire battle style revolved around sending out her VeeVee with the correct type match up to deal with the situation. Trying a questionably effective move just to see what would happen?
Then again, there was a reason Nemona had reached Champion Rank and she hadn’t. Maybe a little experimentation wasn’t the worst thing.
Penny sucked in a breath and called on Wo-Chien’s power to execute the attack. Plumes of black smoke and flashes of bright red lightning swirled at Ortega’s feet. Two forks of lightning stuck him, one in each shoulder. The cloud of smoke grew as if feeding off his energy before it broke apart and dissipated. Ortega bent over, grounding the two halves of his staff.
“That looked like it did a lot,” Arven said.
Nemona nodded. “Sure did. But it also looked like a dark-type move, which shouldn’t be effective.”
As they exchanged words, Ortega caught his breath and lifted the two halves of his staff again. Four icicles flew at Penny, who tried to dodge them but halted so she didn’t plow into Arven. Two of the icicles missed their mark, but the others plunged into her side and sent a blazing chill through her whole body.
“Shake it off!” Nemona encouraged, even as she continued to muse aloud. “Let’s see…Ruination has got to deal a flat amount of damage, then. Like Night Shade. Or Nature’s Madness.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about!” Arven yelled as he thrust his hands forward. Half a dozen sharp-edged rocks materialized above Ortega’s head. The rocks showered down into a pile at his side. Not one of them actually hit their mark. Ortega growled and pointed the weapon in his left hand right at Arven. The same dark swirls and lightning that Penny had summoned now struck Arven with equal force. In his panic, he couldn’t dodge them in time.
“S-sorry!” he said, gritting his teeth against the attack.
“Don’t sweat it!” Nemona called back. “What are your last two moves?”
Arven squinted as he tried to focus on answering her and not taking another hit at the same time. “Uh, Throat Chop–I think? And Stomping Tantrum?”
“Go with Stomping Tantrum! It’s perfect after that last miss! And Penny, use Giga Drain to bounce back from the hit you took before!”
Penny nodded and rushed across the rocky cave floor until she was right behind Ortega. She worried at first she might not know how to pull the move off, but it came to her as instinctively as walking. The leaves across her arms rose up, and Ortega let off a soft green glow. The leaves greedily pulled in the energy like normal ones might pull in sunlight. The ache and fatigue Penny had felt from Ortega’s earlier attacks dissipated. The green glow faded, and Ortega’s movements slowed. For the first time, he actually looked tired.
“Try Rock Slide one more time,” Nemona encouraged Arven. “Then Penny should be able to hold him down with a Power Whip. That’ll give Hatterene her opening.”
Arven gave her a thumbs-up. At first, Nemona’s plan worked perfectly. Another cluster of rocks formed in the air at Arven’s bidding, and this time, they did not miss their mark. Ortega shrieked as the attack connected and fell to his knees, shaking.
“Sorry, Ortie!” Penny cried as she extended the vines around her arms once more. All they needed were a few moments of holding him still, then his Pokémon could call out to him and bring him back. She felt sure of it.
Ortega gritted his teeth and sent out one last blast of energy before Penny’s vines wrapped around his arms and secured him. It was the same attack he had used on Turo–a thin beam of white light, almost like a sword floated in the air before blasting forward. Penny didn’t recognize it, but it had clearly caused a lot of damage when it hit Turo. She dodged the attack with ease. In fact, she dodged it too easily. Which meant Ortega likely had another target. As she held him in place, Arven gave a cry of pain behind her. His heavy, stone-encased body gave a loud crash as he fell to the ground.
“No!” Penny cried. The vines loosened a bit at her hesitation and she quickly redirected her efforts to hold Ortega still. What if Arven had been too badly hurt to heal? What if that last attack had–?
Then she realized Ortega hadn’t tried to take advantage of her lapse. He was shaking, eyes wide as he looked past her. Tears welled up in his pupil-less eyes. “A-arven!”
Penny’s own eyes burned as footsteps pounded all around her. Okay, so maybe leaders did cry sometimes. But even when they did, they still got the job done.
Their friends soon surrounded them in a protective circle. The Team Star Leaders each put a hand on Ortega. Vanessa held his wrist. The layer of ice that covered his broken staff creeped its way onto her fingers, which must have hurt. She didn’t flinch. And despite how dangerous Chien-Pao’s attacks could be, the biting cold of the frost covering Ortega’s clothes, Eri, Mela, Giacomo, and Atticus sat still and calm as they supported him.
“Ortie, listen to me,” Penny said. “I know you’re angry. And I know how much Chien-Pao wants to fed on that.” She nodded towards his broken staff. “But I need you to find another outlet.”
Ortega trembled at her words. Tears ran down his cheek, only to freeze halfway through through the trip. “Y-you don’t get it. I could never fix the things that made me mad before. Now I can.”
“Bein’ mad ain’t the time to fix stuff, dummy,” Mela said, then tightened her grip as the ice began to cover her hand as well. “Trust me. I know.”
“We shan’t ask thee to discount thy emotions,” Atticus added. “Merely to approach them in a healthy way.”
“Yeah,” said Giacomo. “You’re passionate about stuff, and that’s a good thing. But you can’t let this weird Pokémon twist it around and use it against you.”
“Take that passion and use it to create something new,” Eri said. “That’s the Ortie I know.”
Vanessa tried to reach up both hands to hug her brother, only to find the one too encased in ice to move it. She used her free hand to pull him in close. “I’m not lettin’ go this time. And your friends aren’t leavin’! All of us…we’re your family, got it? So come back to us already!”
Ortega sniffled, and more tears began to fall. This time, however, they didn’t freeze on his cheek. The two halves of his staff began to glow, and slowly but surely, the color returned to his cheeks. The silver in his hair transitioned back to its lavender-pink hue, and the frost covering him retreated down his arms and into his ice-coated staff. Its crystalline facets shimmered until Ortega had finally returned to normal. Then the glow of energy faded.
As Penny choked up with relief, Wo-Chien–still with a deeper version of her own voice–whispered in the back of her mind: I have not felt this satisfied in a very long time. I thank you for helping me.
Penny nodded, even if she was the only one who knew who she was nodding to. She felt selfish, in a way. If she had only run across Wo-Chien and didn’t need its power so desperately, would she have gone this out of her way to help it? She liked to think so, but that seemed pretty egotistical. At least things had worked out.
So what happens now? she wondered.
Wo-Chien replied back in her mind: I do not know. This is not like before. The one who came before you…I constantly had to lure his spirit back in. Remind him of what I could offer…convince him not to leave. After this battle we have had together, I feel a part of your spirit has intertwined with my own. I could retreat into your strange tablet again and rest there. But it would not break our bond as it might have before.
Penny made no reaction other than to mentally confirm she’d heard and understood. Wo-Chien then went quiet in her mind. She couldn’t quite tell what its feelings were on the whole matter. It had simply delivered the information, putting very little emotion around it. But maybe Penny’s brain was simply too exhausted from reading emotions that it couldn’t do any more right now. She reached over to the tablet that the vines held in place on her arm. Closing her eyes, she coaxed Wo-Chien back inside to rest. The Pokémon did as she asked, and Penny could feel her body shifting back to normal. Which was quite the relief.
Ortega sat up, still sniffling. “I-I’m sorry, boss. I really thought I could handle it. I’m so sorry.” He put his arms around her and squeezed tight. Then he let go immediately when he looked over her shoulder to where Nemona and Juliana were tending to Arven’s injuries. “Is he okay?” he asked, nearly tripping over himself to get to Arven’s side.
“Calm down,” Juliana said. “He’ll be fine.”
Ortega looked skeptical, and Penny could see why. She was no expert on reading injuries when it came to someone with an inorganic exoskeleton, but Arven sure looked like he’d been beaten up hard. The rest of Team Star gathered around in support.
“It was a Sacred Sword attack,” Nemona explained. “Nasty strong move. Especially against a dark type.” She rummaged through her bag. Capsules of Max Revives clinked together as she spread a large array of medicines out on the cave floor. “Thankfully I come prepared. He’ll be okay.”
Arven slowly sat up and rubbed his head. It sounded exactly like stone scraping against stone and he put his hand down. But he did give everyone one more thumbs-up, confirming Nemona’s revives and potions had worked.
“Dang. Champion rank, student council president, and a budding Nurse Joy,” Mela said. “You are impressive.”
Nemona rubbed the back of her head. “You keep saying that, but everything I’m good at is just…standard school stuff. I couldn’t start a massive anti-bullying team or build a car from scratch or make healing sandwiches from magical herbs.” She packed the supplies she hadn’t used back into her bag. “I wouldn’t even have the nerve to wear one of Atticus’s designs to school, let alone create anything that amazing.”
“Sure you would! I’d bet money on it.” Mela declared. Then she nudged Eri. “I got a fiver that says Nemona not only wears an Atticus original all day, she likes it and wants to do it all the time.”
Eri pondered this. “My Poké dollars say she won’t want to do it every day, but she will pull it off at least once.”
“You’re on!” Mela declared. Then she leaned towards Nemona and whispered, “Please do it and lie if you have to. I’m totally broke.”
“I remain mystified as to where this ‘Atticus original’ shall come from,” Atticus said. “As none hath requested such a boon of me.”
While Mela and Eri begged Atticus to step in and settle their wager, Nemona begged him to ignore them both. Penny chuckled at the exchange. If nothing else about the world felt normal right now, Team Star’s bosses (and its newest de facto members) always made her feel like she was home.
Arven, meanwhile, closed his eyes and touched the stone bowl on his belt. Like Penny, he soon reverted back to normal. The process reminded her of a mecha suit condensing itself back into its wearer’s trusty transformation trinket.
Not that the reference would be useful to anyone in the group besides her.
As Arven set the stone bowl down, one of the Poké Balls on his belt broke open. Mabosstiff came out and leapt up at him, knocking him back down to the ground. The poor guy barely had time to put his hands out and keep from falling on his back.
“Whoa, whoa, there, bud! Come on!” Arven laughed as Mabostiff licked his face repeatedly.
Not to be outdone, VeeVee came out of Penny’s Poké Ball and bounded around for attention. Penny knelt down and rubbed the large tuft of yellow fur on his head, just like he liked it. The feisty Flareon decided this was insufficient, put its paws on her lap, and began licking her face.
“Guess Ai got the security system to calm down,” Juliana noted.
“Yeah–hey, VeeVee, watch the paws–guess so!” Penny said. VeeVee ignored her and lifted his front paws to her shoulders as he nuzzled against her hair. His soft fur smothered her so much, she swore the Flareon must have been a G-max Eevee before they met. He had picked the fire stone for himself when Penny had discussed evolution with her team for the first time. She would have been happy to evolve the team into all Flareons or all Jolteons or whatever it was they chose to be. But it seemed they had their own ideas.
Penny finally convinced her Pokémon to let her up with an extra-long hug and a playful belly rub. She stood and dusted the fur from her shirt–not that Flareon fur ever really come off of anything–then turned to address the group. “Come on, everyone. Let’s get back into the lab and help clean up.” And find out if Arven, Ortie, and I are done with the disappearing act. She had an uneasy feeling that problem wasn’t quite solved yet. But as everyone ascended the ramp into the Zero Lab with nothing but happiness and relief surrounding them, she set that worry to the side.
Paldea was safe. Her home was safe. And at least for now, her family was, too. Nothing and no one could take away this moment.