“Hey guys, get in here!”
Blue, Elaine, and Glen look at each other, then head to Aiko’s room, where their fourth member is sitting on her bed and staring at her phone. Her backpack is beside her, a few final items remaining to be put away before they leave. Blue and the others woke up early to help around the ranch so she had time to prepare for the trip, and they were almost ready to head out.
“What’s up?” Blue asks, sitting on the bed beside her to peer at her phone screen.
“I got an alert from a group I’m following,” she says with an excited grin. “Look! An absol was spotted in the caves not too far from here!”
Elaine takes her pokedex out as Blue peers at the phone to read the news articles there. A renegade was caught in Cinnabar, Zapdos was spotted flying out at sea to the southeast of Pallet Town, hopefully its last flight for the summer, some new potion formula is entering final testing stages, and, yep, there’s the absol sighting not too far from here, above one of the branching networks of the Diglett Caves.
Though actually a network of tunnels that honeycomb throughout north-western Kanto, the “caves” in the name refer to the entrances that connect to openings above ground, both natural and not, that are big enough for people to enter. The most popular and most well mapped tunnel is the one that goes all the way from Vermilion City’s eastern outskirts to just south of Pewter, traveling a winding route beneath the cities, towns, forests, and mountains along the way, but the whole network is so full of diglett that any attempts to turn it into a paved road were ultimately abandoned. “By the time we get to the nearest entrance though…”
“I know, it might be gone. But since we were just going to catch pokemon from anywhere in the caves, can we check that area anyway? Absol are one of the pokemon I’ve wanted to track for years, and they’re hard enough to find even in the mountains! For this one to come down, make a hunting ground in the tunnels, means it’ll probably stay in the area for a week or two, depending on when it first arrived there.”
“Well, this is the fastest path to the caves,” Elaine says, tracing a route on her map app and sharing it with them. “But this one has the highest chance for encountering wild pokemon along the way.”
They study the route, then look at each other. “Comes down to time,” Blue says. “Do we want to spend it getting pokemon along the way, or in the caves?”
“Anything you guys want that’s along the way?” Aiko asks.
“Not me,” Glen says. “It’s mostly just common forest and plain pokemon.”
Blue expects Leaf to jump on that pun, then remembers she’s not here. “Yeah, nothing particularly rare or strong. I’d rather get to the caves faster. Sounds like we’re okay with the fast route, unless you’ve got a strong objection, Elaine?”
“Nope! And in that case,” Elaine says as she brings up another route. “This is an even faster way to get into the network, but it’s a part of it that’s really rough going, tight passages, lots of elevation changes, but, you know, still passable, if we’re okay with that?” She looks around at them.
Glen frowns as he checks between her map and the public one. “This isn’t coming up in my recommended routes.”
“I got it from a hiker or trailblazer group I’m in, can’t remember which. Was looking through them last night.”
“Huh. Do you do that often?” Blue asks.
She shrugs. “I like exploring, playing around with route options most people don’t take, you know? It’s exciting to go places that most others haven’t been before, and it’s not always more dangerous, just usually more time consuming or tiring. Sometimes they can even be time saving too, depending on your goals.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Blue says, impressed. He taps his pokedex against his leg as he considers it, then looks to the others. “I’m for it, as long as we have the right supplies. Want to check and make sure, Elaine?”
She does while they finish getting ready again, and ends up making a list of gear the other three need to pick up at a town near the tunnels. Soon they set off from the ranch with her in the lead, bikes sticking to the main road for now. Blue quickly realizes that as the youngest member of the group, he has to pedal harder than he’s used to just to keep pace with the others. Soon his lungs are burning, and he steadily drops back to the rear of the procession.
Blue takes a hand off its handle to rake the sweaty hair out of his eyes, trying to breathe deeper despite the stitch in his side. I won’t be the first one to call for a break. Bad enough that he’s fallen behind, at least he can justify that as being their rear guard in case any pokemon come barreling after them.
The morning passes without any surprise attacks, however, and just as Blue begins to feel his energy truly waning, Glen calls back, “Elaine, good place for a rest stop?”
“Outpost a minute north-east of us!”
Glen turns and they follow, Blue counting the seconds down as he breathes deep and lets himself slow little by little. The others pull ahead, but soon enough they clear the Ranger Outpost’s perimeter, and slow to a stop. The trees and tall grass clear away past the proximity sensors, and they can see the Outpost itself on a hill in the distance.
“Let’s take a rest here,” Glen says as Blue catches up to them. The lanky older boy looks barely winded, face sweaty but chest rising and falling evenly as he dismounts and takes his pack off, rummaging through it.
Aiko and Elaine follow suite, making noises of relief as they put the kickstands up on their bikes and stretch. Blue tries not to breathe too loudly as he does the same, then slowly collapses to the ground, leaning against his backpack with his hands between his knees. His lungs feel raw on the insides, and he’s reaching for his water when a hand holding a bottle enters his field of vision.
“This’ll help us hydrate faster,” Glen says, and Blue sees he’s already handed bottles out to the other two.
“Thanks.” Blue uncaps the slightly opaque liquid and gives an experimental sip. Mostly salty, slightly sweet, with a slight hint of some citrus fruit. Maybe it’s just how thirsty he is, but it’s oddly satisfying, and he quickly takes a few big gulps.
“Mm, what is this stuff?” Aiko asks, smacking her lips.
“Basically a homemade sport drink,” Glen says. “A little less sugar, but same result.”
“It’s not bad! Actually pretty good!” Elaine says, having already finished her bottle. “You’re into more than just pokemon health I guess?”
Glen looks pleased. “Yeah, you know, there’s some stuff you learn that applies to both.”
“Does that mean you can patch us up too, if we get injured?” Aiko asks.
“Oh, sure. That’s the first thing I focused on learning, actually.” Glen shrugs. “There are so many different kinds of pokemon that learning to care for them all will take years—”
“Tell me about it,” Aiko mutters.
“—but taking care of humans isn’t so different from taking care of most Normal Types.”
“I picked some stuff up when I was helping out at the hospitals in Pewter,” Blue says. “Beyond the basic first aid I set out with, I mean. Wouldn’t mind learning more though, if you’re up for teaching some tonight?”
“Oooh, me too me too!” Elaine says, hand raised. “I love getting new skills from party members.”
“Party members?” Aiko asks.
“Well, sure, like in games. You’re the Breeder, Glen’s the Medic, I’m the Explorer, and Blue’s the Battler.” She smiles. “Everyone has their strengths!”
“Aren’t we all Battlers?” Glen asks. “I mean, we’re all going for badges, at least…”
Elaine waves this off. “Oh, sure! We all multiclass. I was just focusing on our different specialties. Blue double invested in battling though, that’s why it’s his.”
Blue frowns. “That’s not… inaccurate…” He guesses there wouldn’t be a “class” for what he’s actually trying to focus on, since “Leader” is more of a title.
Glen shrugs. “I don’t mind teaching what I know, though,” He looks at Aiko. “From the look of your nursing station I bet you know at least as much as me.”
“Maybe not. My focus has been more on rearing and natural health complications rather than injuries.”
“See?” Elaine points. “Breeder!”
Aiko smiles. “Well, maybe if we find this absol I can add Tracker to the classification. Or am I only allowed two?”
“Oh, not at all, I mean, look at Professor Oak, he’s like a level 10 for four different classes—”
“There are levels?”
“Oh yeah, and unique Specializations, and Prestige titles, and—”
“Speaking of finding the absol, everyone ready to head out again?” Blue asks. Aiko shoots him a thankful look as she hops to her feet, and Blue smiles at her as the others do the same. His knees are still a bit sore, but his energy is back, and soon they’re on their way again.
Glen once again sets the pace by dint of his age, but he’s either more tired than he seemed or more aware that the others had trouble keeping up, because the new pace he sets is a bit easier to match. Blue still has to push himself, but at lunch Glen once again hands out the bottles, which they gratefully accept. Once Blue has recovered a bit and everyone’s various bodily needs are taken care of, he decides to bring up their strategy for the caves.
“Elaine.” She looks at him as she finishes the last of her lunch. “You’re running a tangela, graveler, drowzee, psyduck, fearow, and grimer, right?” She nods, and he turns to Glen. “You brought your snorlax, donphan, machoke, gloom, quagsire, and…?”
“Right.” Glen has the most pokemon of all of them, enough to actually have a solid group of “favorites,” which in his case seem to be slow, physically tough pokemon that hit hard. It’s good that he brought the gloom and butterfree to adapt to where they’re going and what they’ll be facing there. “Aiko, you have your raticate, sandslash, venonat, eevee, oddish, and krabby?”
“Yep. And your abra.” She smiles.
“You memorized all that?” Elaine asks, eyes wide.
Blue nods. “Gotta know what I’m working with to plan. I brought my wartortle, pidgeotto, shroomish, shiftry, shinx, and rhyhorn. So we have a pretty wide spread of water, grass, ground, bug, and flying pokemon, with a few others thrown in. Considering the close quarters we’ll be in, I think we should plan for a Diamond or Straggle depending on how tight the tunnels are,” Blue says, citing the formations they’d practiced at Vermilion Gym. “Shiftry can fight well in tight spaces, so Kemuri can make a strong front for either. With a tangela or donphan to tank, Aiko’s raticate or sandslash can go for the quick damage.”
“Straggle makes sense, if the path is twisty,” Glen says. Elaine looks like she wants to say something, but stops herself. Glen doesn’t notice. “But for the absol, when there’s enough room, I think we should use a Pivot instead of a Diamond, with my snorlax as the anchor.”
Blue gives Elaine a moment to respond, but she just bites her lower lip, brow furrowed. “We have a good set of agile attackers,” Blue finally says. “So it should work out. But I’ve never tried it before. Any of you?” Glen’s the only one to raise a hand. “Okay, let’s practice it then, while you lead us through it.”
They set up pokedolls and summon their pokemon. Glen’s snorlax is still small for its species, but plenty big enough to completely hide all four of them if they stand directly behind it as Glen calls out the timing for their attacks. Soon Blue gets the rhythm of it down and offers his own suggestions, which they take turns trying as one of them acts as the attacker with their own pokemon. The pressure on Glen’s snorlax lets up as Blue times their attacks so that he’s never fighting on his own, and soon none of the attackers are able to get a hit on any of them but the snorlax, even Blue when he tries it himself and Elaine, Aiko, and Glen practice calling the shots.
“I’ve been trying to premortem this,” Aiko says, face sheened with sweat as she sits beside Eevee and catches her breath. “Chingling and bronzor are really rare, but there are some down there. What about attackers that come from above?”
“Having someone dedicated to watching above us should make sure we’re not caught by surprise,” Blue says.
She nods. “What about protection from ground attacks?”
“Well, we’ve got some powerful ground pokemon already,” Glen says. “If they try to dig under the barriers, our ground attacks will finish them quickly, or send them running.”
“Right, but I’m talking about minimizing risk. We can still get hurt from those attacks if the diglett are near us.” Elaine is about to speak, but Aiko continues before she can. “Oh, I guess depending on the terrain, we can stand on container boxes.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Blue says. He waits for Elaine to say something again, but she stays silent. She notices him staring at her and smiles slightly, so he smiles back and moves on. “The most important thing is to make sure that we don’t keep them in one place for too long, or else their attacks will damage the area of the tunnel we’re in,” he says, citing the tips and advice he read up on while in Vermilion. “Fight until too many arrive, then retreat together to another chamber. If they cause a cave in, well, we have pokemon that can dig us free.”
“Let’s still try to avoid that,” Aiko says. “If we stay down too long and I can’t teleport back for the night… my dad would worry,” she says, clearly settling for an inadequate choice of words.
“Don’t worry, I don’t think any of us are interested in being trapped below ground, even with enough supplies to live through it.” The others nod. Blue realizes he feels less winded from their practice battles, and checks the time. “Another five minutes of rest, or should we go now?”
They vote for another five minutes, and Aiko unclips a couple pokeballs, summoning her eevee and raticate. “Will we make it to a cave before nightfall? Jump!” Her pokemon leap in place, practicing their ability to avoid ground attacks. She tosses them a couple pokepuff pieces. “If not, we should slow down. My legs are already aching and I’d rather they still be functional when I head back. Jump!”
Blue looks at the map to see their progress so far. He blinks, amazed by how much ground they’ve covered: they’re east of Saffron City now. “Between Elaine’s route and how fast we’ve been going, we’ll actually reach the town by the cave entrance we’re aiming for by sunset.” He looks around at them. “Since we’ll be spending the night outside the cave anyway for Aiko to teleport home, slowing down seems like a good idea. We’ll even be able to look around for some pokemon before we lose the light.”
“Ooo, yeah, there are some cool pokemon around there,” Elaine says. “Got a favorite in mind?”
“Yeah, kind of.” Blue smiles. “I’ve wanted an arcanine since I was a kid… begged Gramps to get us a growlithe, but he always said no.”
“Silly Professor,” Aiko remarks with a shake of her head. “Not getting you a fire-breathing dog.”
“I know, right?”
“Well, I’m okay with it, since we won’t be entering the caves today anyway. Jump! Good job!” She feeds them the rest of the pokepuff, then returns them to their balls. “Let’s get going!”
The sun is starting its downward arc when they reach the town of Golden Hills, which helps make its name more than just a geographic reference. It’s a relatively small town, just one pokemon center and trainer market, but oddly empty even given that: virtually no traffic, foot or otherwise, and stores that seem empty of customers, or even workers at times.
But what sends a faint chill up Blue’s spine are the ofuda hanging from most doors and windows that they pass. The kanji covered strips of paper flutter in the breeze, amplifying the relative silence somehow.
Aiko whistles. “Anyone know if this place is always like this?”
“What are those?” Glen asks. “I’ve seen them in other places before, but never this many.”
“Wards against evil spirits and bad luck,” Blue says. “Or to purify or exorcise… things like that.”
“So many, though, was there like an incident with Ghost pokemon here recently or something?” Elaine asks, face pale. “Because I’m okay with camping out if there’s any chance of it happening again.”
“None of us got Ranger alerts to warn us away, right?” Blue asks, and the others shake their heads, Glen checking his phone again with a frown. “Let’s just ask someone what’s up.”
They soon spot a woman walking in the opposite direction, her primeape walking at her side, occasionally hopping onto trash cans or clinging diagonally to light poles before scurrying back to her. “Hey there,” Glen says with a wave. “Can you tell us what’s been going on around here?”
She slows and holds a hand to her side in a gesture, causing the primeape to settle restlessly by her feet. “Just arrived? I guess they haven’t put it out after all. Town is under siege, so to speak.”
Blue looks around at the silent, mostly empty streets. “Under siege from…?”
“The absol,” she says, and Blue feels a resigned sort of understanding, with an undercurrent of dull anger. “One was spotted outside town this morning, and there have been a number of incidents since. Lots of minor tremors, a few car crashes, a house fire, some wild pokemon incursions. That sort of thing.”
“Has anyone died?” Blue asks, trying not to sound exasperated.
“A couple have, yeah,” she says, surprising him. “Council put a bounty on any absol after someone in town fell down the stairs and broke their neck. Then a trainer who went after them was killed. Now they’re trying to tell the Rangers to declare a state of emergency, but last I heard they were resistant.”
“You don’t seem worried,” Aiko notes.
The woman shrugs. “Pao will protect me. And I’m not afraid of bad luck.” She lifts a chain out of her shirt to show them a protective charm. “You guys should probably pass through quickly, though, unless you have your own protection.”
“Right. Thanks,” Blue says, and watches her as she walks on, a slight frown on his face. When he looks at the others he sees Aiko looking thoughtful and Elaine worried.
Glen, however, just looks confused as he reads from his pokedex. “I don’t get it. Absol can only learn Fire attacks through TM and can’t learn any Ground attacks. Why is the town blaming earthquakes and house fires on one?”
“You don’t have absol in your region?” Aiko asks. Glen shakes his head. “Most folk around here think they cause bad luck. Less superstitious sort just consider them harbingers of misfortune.”
“And the Rangers don’t agree, I guess?”
Blue anticipates Red’s answer before remembering that he’s not here. Instead it’s Aiko who says, “It’s obviously just confirmation bias. Rangers probably get a dozen reports every time an absol shows up somewhere, but have looked at the stats and seen that the amount of car crashes or whatever are normal for that day and time, or maybe it’s a slight outlier but people only notice when an absol is around.”
For the third time that day, Blue notices that Elaine looks like she wants to say something, but doesn’t. She’s normally so talkative that he starts to worry that something’s wrong. She does still seem worried… “You okay, Elaine?”
“Hm?” She blinks at him. “Oh. Fine, sure. You bet!” She smiles.
“You just seemed like you had something on your mind.”
“Ah, well…” She fidgets. “I was just thinking, like, what about the quakes?” Elaine asks. “And the fire?”
“There are diglett tunnels nearby!” Aiko says. “Maybe the quakes led to the fire… they probably encouraged some of the wild pokemon incursions too.”
Glen nods. “Or… I mean, people are clearly nervous. Not paying as much attention as they should be. That might be what caused the fire, the accident with the stairs, some of the crashes too.”
Elaine looks back and forth between them, then down. Blue frowns. He doesn’t want to push her to speak if she doesn’t want to, but something about her body language bothers him.
In the ensuing quiet Blue realizes that Aiko is looking at him, and raises a brow. “What?”
“What do you think?” Aiko asks.
“Not sure, to be honest.” Blue turns and starts walking toward the pokemon center again, and a moment later he hears the others follow. “I’ve heard all this stuff before, you know?”
“About any Dark pokemon. Absol are particularly feared, but most people here think all Dark pokemon are bad luck or cause misfortune in some way.”
“Here being…?” Glen asks.
Aiko ticks them off with her fingers. “Kanto, Johto, Iwate, Hoenn, Okayama, Sinnoh… the whole island chain, and most of the smaller islands around them. In the native language, the word for the type is actually closer to ‘Evil’ than ‘Dark.'”
“Oof. That must be rough for people who are Dark. But for absol specifically, you don’t think it causes bad luck?”
Blue shrugs. “If absol can purposefully cause bad luck in some way, no trainer has been able to figure out how to get them to do it.”
“Right,” Aiko says. “Nor any coordinator.”
That seems to settle the discussion, but Blue glances to the side where Elaine is walking, unsure of why he’s so concerned about her. He sees her frowning down at the ground and the feeling grows. He tries to place it, to understand what’s bothering him about her silence.
He doesn’t figure it out before they reach the pokemon center, a fairly small building with just a waiting room and front desk open to the public. They pass a few groups of trainers in the waiting room to reach the counter, where the receptionist takes the pokemon they’ve been training with over the past couple days. Aiko goes first, then Glen, who then answers the health related questions for Blue and Elaine’s pokemon as well, giving a far more detailed description than Blue would have been able to.
They find a bench to sit down at and begin strategizing for their venture into the tunnels. Aiko starts to explain how they should each take a few minutes to come up with ideas on their own, but soon they’re interrupted by a pair of Rangers walking into the room and looking around.
“Can I get everyone’s attention a moment?” The older one says, and the dozen or so other trainers all focus on them. “Thank you. As you may have heard, the town council is asking the nearest Ranger Outposts for a response to the recent… incidents, around town. We’ve not yet deemed the situation worth a full alert or mobilization, but as a bounty has now officially been placed on any absol caught in the region, we’ve been dispatched to coordinate with any trainers preparing to hunt the creatures. If that includes you, come speak with us sometime this evening. Thank you.”
They go to sit at another table nearby. Blue shares a look with the others, and they all rise to approach the two rangers arriving between two other groups of three trainers each.
Blue listens in as the three in front of them list their pokemon and experience exploring or fighting in caves, then get instructions to meet the Rangers here the following morning. Once they step away, Blue approaches.
“Mr. Oak,” the ranger says, extending a hand. “Good evening. I’m Tanaka, this is Fischer. Here to lend your aid?”
Blue shakes it with a smile, glad as always to be recognized. “We are. This is Glen, Aiko, and Elaine. We came to track the absol before even hearing of the incidents around town, so the timing works out pretty well.”
“Well, we’re happy to have you. What experience does your group have with the diglett caverns?”
“It’ll be each of our first time there.”
“And other caves or tunnels?”
“None here.” Glen and Aiko shake their heads, and Blue sees Tanaka’s brow crease until Elaine raises her hand. “I took a few routes through Mt. Moon.”
“Just one of the four.”
Tanaka’s expression relaxes. “Excellent. Available pokemon?”
They list them, and Tanaka’s frown is back. “Well, you’re well equipped to handle the common tunnel natives, but Glen is the only among you that seems prepared for the absol.
“We can prepare around that,” Blue says. “Give support for his machoke.”
“How many badges do each of you have?” Ranger Fischer suddenly asks.
“Two,” Blue says, and Elaine nods.
“Three,” Glen says, and Aiko holds up a single finger.
Fischer looks at Tanaka, who nods. “It sounds like you four may be better off helping above ground. Your experience below ground is sufficient,” Fischer says to Elaine, then turns to Glen. “And I’m sure your machoke would be able to handle the absol, especially with support. But though you two doubtless have your own merits,” he says to Blue and Aiko, “You’re unsuited to this hunt. We would gladly accept your help with a perimeter or in defense of the town, but won’t be taking you below ground.”
Blue is silent for a moment, feeling the disappointment and frustration of those behind him, as well as their trust in him to say something, to make this right… “I understand your judgements, sir, but believe you’re mistaken.” Ranger Fischer’s eyes narrow ever so slightly at that, and Blue mentally kicks himself for the word choice. He remembers the dismissal from the one in Viridian Forest, when he got angry about not being let in on the action. But this is different. It’s not about pride, I know we can do this. “What I mean is, there’s more to us than what might show up on paper. We have knowledge and skills that make us more than capable to participate in this hunt.”
Tanaka speaks up before Fischer can. “As my partner said, we welcome any assistance you can give us, including knowledge. But I think he’s right to say that you’re not experienced enough, as a group. If you would like to split up for the duration of this hunt and accompany other groups, that of course is another option.” He looks at Aiko apologetically. “I’m afraid that with just one badge, I can’t in good conscience extend the same offer to you. Please know this has nothing to do with your potential as a trainer.”
“But I…” Aiko’s voice trails off, and Blue turns to her. He’s surprised to see the normally forceful girl look down and nod, face dejected. She wants to be a Hunter, he almost says, but refrains, knowing it won’t change their minds.
Instead he just nods to the rangers and leads the others away, to a bench farther from the rangers. Everyone is quiet and dejected until Blue says, voice low, “We’re still going.”
Aiko’s head snaps up, hope filling her face. “But…”
“The rangers tend to know what they’re doing, but these two are wrong in our case. I believe Elaine can tell us what we need to know to get us through the tunnel, that you can track it, Aiko, and that you can take it down, Glen. The four of us are going to find and catch this absol.”
Aiko nods, smiling, and Glen flashes a thumbs up. Elaine is biting at her lower lip, warring emotions on her face. “I think we can too, but… to go against their orders…”
“What orders?” Blue asks with a smile. “It’s not an official incident, remember? They’re just coordinating trainers in the area. Well, if we hadn’t come here tonight we may not have even spoken to them, and we’d still be going down there in the morning. Trust me, we’ll be okay.”
Elaine smiles back. “I do. Thanks for trusting me too.” She seems about to say something else when she notices three trainers approaching, and they all turn their attention to the newcomers.
Blue recognizes them as the three that were in line behind them, and one of them beyond that, from Vermilion Gym, an older girl with curly brown hair named Bretta who’s there for her fifth badge. They’ve trained together a couple times between their challenge matches, so he knows she’s a good trainer, if a bit stiff necked.
“Hey Oak. Came for the bounty too, huh?”
“We were in the area, actually,” he says, and nods to the other two, a guy and girl that are also about Glen’s age. They nod back. “You guys got the okay to go down tomorrow, then?”
“Yep. I couldn’t help overhearing some of your talk with Tanaka and figured, hey, I know you can hold your own. Plus, if you have some plan for finding the absol the way you grabbed all those abra, would make all this go faster.”
Blue feels a ripple of heat through his chest. She’s directing the invitation specifically at him, ignoring the others. He knows it makes sense, if she’s assuming that they’re staying up, but she could have at least offered to merge their groups. Worse than that, she’s slighting Red by assuming that Blue was the one who really came up with the abra trick. It’s a sentiment he’s heard before, though never in Red’s presence. It’s galling to have to turn away the status and prestige of it again and again.
“Actually, it’s Aiko here who’s going to track it for our group,” he says. “Thanks anyway.”
She frowns, turning to the others for the first time. “You’re the one with experience underground?”
“Nope. That’s her,” she says, pointing to Elaine.
Bretta looks back and forth between them. “Well, we can take the two of you instead, then, if you think you can handle it.”
Blue is tempted to speak up again, but holds himself back so his companions can speak for themselves. “I don’t think you heard Blue right,” Aiko says after a moment. “We’re all going down together.”
“Even with the rangers telling you not to?” The guy behind Bretta says, and shakes his head. “I’ve hunted Absol before, they’re no joke, you know? Stealthy, fast, and lethal when they go for a strike. There’s no shame in staying above ground, letting trainers with experience grab it.”
There may not have been before, but with that tone? Blue looks at the others to make sure none are showing any second doubts, then turns back to the trio, trying to insert some finality in his tone. “We’ll be okay. Thanks.”
Bretta looks back and forth between them, then shrugs. “Your choice I guess. Hope I see you back in Vermilion.”
“Right. Same to you.”
Bretta and the boy walk away, while the other girl lingers a moment, seeming about to say something else. When she notices that the others haven’t stopped, she just turns back to them and says, “Good luck.”
Blue smiles. “You too.” He watches her hurry to catch up to the other two, then looks at his group mates… or his party, as Elaine would put it.
“Frankly?” Glen says after they’ve gone. “I’m a little miffed I wasn’t asked.”
“It’s ’cause they never tasted your energy drinks,” Elaine says with a grin.
“Or seen you in battle,” Aiko adds.
“Nah, I’ve actually battled Bretta a couple times,” Glen says, scratching his jaw. “I can’t tell if she really dislikes me, or has a crush on me.”
“Definitely one or the other, huh?” Aiko asks.
“Aiko,” Blue says, causing her to turn to him. “It’s not long until you get called to get your pokemon and head home. Do you need us to get anything, for you to track the absol?”
“Right, yeah. I’ve trained Sneaker to track pokemon. His nose is really good for finding specific species by dander from others, if the conditions are right.”
“What conditions?” Blue asks.
“The trail has to be relatively new, of course, more than a week gets iffy, with the chances dropping rapidly by the end of the second. Windy days are harder to track on, which isn’t a problem underground, but dryness also makes things difficult, which may be depending on where in the tunnels we end up. But as long as we find a place that the absol was likely to be around some time recently, I think we can find it… just need some fur, urine, and scat samples.”
“We can pick some up at the pokemart,” Glen says. “Anything else?”
“That’s all I’ll need, I think.”
“Okay then,” Blue says. “Then let’s go over the rest of our strategy, for real this time.”
“You have something in mind,” Glen comments, not a question.
Blue smiles. He does, in fact: Bretta’s the one that reminded him that, while he already misses having Red and Leaf around to generate ideas and bounce them around, he can at least show that he picked something up from the way they think. “As a matter of fact, I do…”
The next morning finds the town less deserted as people head to work or school, but there’s still less than there should be, and people move with nervous energy, as if worried about being outdoors for too long. The town’s “Trainer House” is more like a small apartment building, and as soon as Aiko teleports there, they head for the cave entrance that Elaine picked out. Blue expects it to be a barely visible fissure in the hilly countryside, lost and forgotten about by most, and while it does turn out to be hard to find, when they reach the entrance they see a string taped to either end of the opening, more ofuda hanging from it across the opening.
They store their bikes, but keep their pads and helmets on as they take out the gear they bought last night: reflective jackets with inserted trackers, headlamps attached to straps. Blue brings Ion out, having already used the Flash TM on him. The others have at least one pokemon that have learned it too, in case Ion needs a rest or has to be returned, but for now the others take out their raticate, gloom, and psyduck for the tight passage.
Once they’re all ready, Elaine ducks beneath the string and leads the way with her oddish, with Blue and Ion just behind. The shinx’s fur begins to glow as the light fades behind them, and soon they’re traveling entirely by Ion’s illumination, which reveals a tunnel that’s narrow, but smooth.
The four don’t talk other than to warn of changes in footing, occasionally helping each other move over or around obstacles. Everyone’s too busy listening for tremors or the sound of tunneling pokemon to disturb the silence. They reach a fork, and Glen uses a can of iridescent paint to spray an arrow back the way they came in case their electronic map is lost or damaged. The hissing sound is loud and echoey in the long, narrow tunnels.
Blue quickly loses his sense of direction, but they keep marking the tunnels as they go, and he has to trust Elaine to guide them so he can focus on his job: keeping his attention shifting between walls, floor and even ceiling, particularly paying attention to the indents in the stone or soil. Holes, in truth, though only those along the ceiling are empty, the others mostly filled with dirt or rock left behind by whatever tunneled through them. Luckily they don’t appear to be in a part of the network with a high traffic of pokemon, or else they’re all scared off by the noise they make as they constantly change pokemon to fit through the passages.
They take another left at a fork where the ground abruptly drops off, helping each other climb down the steep slope, then travel another minute past a thin stream of water before they find a honeycomb of narrow passages that they have to crouch through, practically walking on hands and knees at one point. Blue has never felt claustrophobic before, but traveling through the dark, narrow corridor, earth and rock on every side, he could practically feel the weight of the ground above him. He hears distant rumbling and isn’t sure if it’s his imagination, then realizes he can feel it through his hands, a faint vibration.
Just some pokemon traveling deep underneath, he assures himself, but still he crawls faster, almost bumping up against Elaine’s rear before she finally reaches the end and stands up. He pushes himself up and quickly shuffles forward to clear the area, then wipes a hand across his face, feeling sweat there. Soon Aiko and Glen are out too, and Blue wants to ask if they’re okay, but refrains, not wanting to appear nervous himself. It isn’t until they reach a central chamber with multiple, large corridors away that he feels like he can relax a bit, a sentiment he reads on the others’ expressions as they bring out their larger and stronger pokemon.
The sounds of pokeballs releasing is explosively loud in the small chamber, the echoes traveling down every passageway. Glen’s snorlax seems even more massive than usual in such a tight space, but it still has plenty of room to maneuver if needed, though some of the thinner corridors might give it issue.
“This is it,” Elaine says. “The closest central hub beneath the places the absol has been seen above ground.”
“Great job, Elaine. Looks like it’s your show now, Aiko,” Blue says.
She nods and takes the baggie of absol dander out. “Sneaker, smell.” Her pokemon goes rigid, and its nose begins to twitch and wriggle as Aiko opens the bag and holds it close. After a few moments of deep, strong sniffs from her raticate, Aiko seals the baggie up and puts it in a container ball. “Sneaker, track!”
Sneaker drops onto all fours and begins to rapidly rove over the rocky floor of the tunnel, long tail held up as he sniffs and snorts. The others scramble out of his way, constantly moving to avoid him as he goes this way and that.
“Nothing here,” she says after a minute.
“Okay,” Elaine says. “This way to the next one.”
They follow her, continuing to mark their way at every turn, until they reach another hub for Sneaker to check, then another, each with no luck. As their first hour beneath the earth passes, Blue starts to feel a nagging worry that they picked the wrong tunnel to enter from. Ion has been swapped out for Glen’s butterfree, who flaps above them, wings glowing with a bright white radiance that fills the chambers and lets him see similar expressions on the others’ faces, Aiko’s most of all.
He’s in the middle of reminding himself to trust his party members as they wait for Glen to finish spraying a new path choice when he hears a distant sound. Blue focuses his attention on his ears, eyes closed. Once Glen stops spraying, he notes that it’s still getting louder. “Something’s coming,” he whispers, and opens his eyes to see that the others have heard it too.
They quickly move back into the more open area between the branching tunnels and bring out their grass and water pokemon, standing with their backs to each other.
Blue doesn’t dare blink as he keeps his eyes moving from one hole to the other in the rock around them. He quickly takes his pokedex out and taps it to a pre-saved page, finger hovering over one of the buttons as his heart pounds in his chest. His mind is racing at first, but as the scratching gets louder and louder, the battle calm descends, steadying his hands and voice. “Anyone got a lock on where they’re coming from?”
“Check your pokemon,” Aiko says. “Some senses are better than ours. I got nothing from oddish.”
“Same from Gloom,” Glen says.
Blue’s gaze snaps to Maturin, whose head seems turned to the right somewhere. “Between me and Glen?”
“I think Psyduck hears them there too,” Elaine says. “Hang on…” He hears her shift around behind him. “Yeah!”
“V formation,” Blue orders, and steps with Glen to face that direction, while Aiko and Elaine move forward and to the sides. He thinks through what’s about to happen and suddenly moves around Glen. “Aiko, swap with me. Elaine, Water Guns first, bubbles when they’re in range of the—”
The diglett appear, two, three, five, popping out of a hole at about chest level, while another three struggle to come up from an indent where the tunnel slopes up to its left. Their small brown bodies move quickly once in sight, darting this way and that on barely visible pink paws as they scramble for new indents to disappear through.
“Gaw!” Blue yells as the others give their own commands, and battle is joined, jets of water and puffs of pollen filling the cave as the diglett dodge or get blasted back. One darts through the cloud of pollen and goes for Aiko’s oddish, claws extended, but it has to dodge to the side as bubbles burst from Psyduck’s mouth.
Blue still holds his pokedex in one hand while the other holds a pokeball, expanded and aiming for any diglett that’s holding still too long. All the while he keeps an eye on the three coming from the side even as multiple ripples go through the ground and send him to one knee, taking the pain rather than risk looking away. His suspicion is confirmed when a pair of large claws emerge and push the dugtrio’s thick body out of the hole, its three heads tracking multiple enemies at once before it picks the oddish as its target.
“Bab!” Blue yells, and a stream of fizzing water jets out from Maturin with a crackling series of pops as the bubbles rake the ground and body of the dugtrio, knocking it to the side. It rolls back onto its paws and retaliates with a rake of one strong claw, chunks of the ground shooting forward and pelting Maturin with jagged shards.
The pain is enough to make her next attack miss, and the dugtrio uses the time to dash at Glen’s gloom. Blue chucks a pokeball at it, not bothering to lock on, just wanting to distract it. It pegs the dugtrio in the back, causing it to whirl around, then pop into an indent.
“Brace yourselves!” Aiko calls out before Blue can, and another series of rippling quakes, stronger than the last, makes the whole cavern shake, momentarily unbalancing them and their pokemon. The diglett are barely affected, however, and suddenly their pokemon are at risk of getting surrounded.
“Tighten up!” Glen says, and they step into a diamond formation again. “Gloom, Mega Drain!”
“Absorb! Where’s the ‘trio?” Aiko asks.
“I’m looking!” Blue keeps his neck craning around. “Ba!” Maturin’s bubbles cause a couple diglett to run, but one manages to scratch Glen’s gloom, forcing it to stop draining another one and turn to face its new attacker, who dances back out of reach and dives into another indent.
Blue is about to shout a command to fill the indent with water when another quake sends a shock up his legs, causing his ankles and knees to ache as his arms windmill for balance. Dust and pebbles rain around them. We need to finish this soon, Blue thinks, and considers tapping the dex screen. Then he sees the dugtrio poke its heads up and dash out of its hole and toward him.
Still in the envelope of icy calm, Blue stares the three heads down over the new pokeball that’s suddenly in his free hand, tracking it and waiting for the ping as he distantly hears Glen yell out in warning. He realizes it’s not going to make it on time just as the dugtrio leaps, and Blue steps to the side and turns his body sideways, avoiding all but one claw. It shreds through his jacket’s undermesh, only to snag in the one below his shirt and send a flare of pain through his side.
The weight of it spins Blue around and lands him on his rear. He scrambles back and prepares to press the dex as the dugtrio approaches, then leaps again—only to see it get sprayed with water from an advancing Maturin, who plants herself solidly in front of Blue as the dugtrio tumbles to the ground.
Blue makes his decision and closes the pokedex, jamming it in his pocket as he gets to his feet. We can do this, he thinks, just as the dugtrio raises its heads and gives a triple cry of pain and rage. The closest three diglett who saw what happened suddenly pause in their attacks on others, then turn toward Maturin.
Oh shit. “AoE on her!” Blue yells as he dives to the side to put Elaine’s psyduck between him and the dugtrio. “Maturin, Wa!”
The diglett all converge on Maturin, burying her in a pile of brown fuzz and slashing claws. Blood flicks out, and a moment later a double cloud of yellow and blue particles covers the lot of them as Aiko and Glen command their pokemon to blanket the area with sleep powder and stun spores.
As the diglett pile begins to slow and stiffen, Blue watches Elaine’s psyduck blast the dugtrio again and again as it tries to attack it, then scrambles for one of the indents. Her pokeballs are aimed and ready when it gets penned in by another burst of spores by the gloom and oddish over the escape routes, and as the dugtrio pauses momentarily, unsure which way to go, five pokeballs ping in rapid succession and are thrown: two by Elaine, one by Glen and Aiko, and one by Blue, who has risen to a crouch.
It’s impossible to tell which one catches it, once the flash fades and the five balls roll across the ground in different directions, their attention is immediately on the rest of the diglett.
Those that weren’t stunned or put to sleep turn to flee through some indent or the other, and the trainers quickly capture the remaining three. Blue quickly withdraws Maturin, stomach clenched at the sight of all the blood even as he swaps in Gon.
The four trainers and their pokemon are still and alert, breathing hard as they look around for any sign of continued attack. By the time a full minute has passed, they’ve all relaxed to varying degrees, and finally Blue returns Gon to his ball, glad the shroomish can stay fresh after all. “Everyone okay?”
“Fine,” Glen says, then goes to check his pokemon, potion in hand. “Gloom looks okay too.” He gestures his butterfree to come down and rest on his arm, then feeds her a berry while murmuring some praise.
“We’re good,” Elaine says, spraying a nasty cut along psyduck’s stomach, then wiping her pokemon clean of blood and dirt with some wet naps.
“Same here.” Aiko gingerly touches her oddish’s grassy shoots where a couple have been ripped, then feeds her pokemon.
Blue nods, then checks his wound. The majority of the claw stopped by the armor mesh, leaving just a shallow hole between two ribs. Glen notices and comes to help him clean and spray it.
“No pain when you breathe?” Glen asks as he finishes.
“Nah, it didn’t hit the rib.”
“Yeah.” He lifts Maturin’s ball and summons the wartortle. Blood stains his pokemon’s shell, but once he’s woken his pokemon up and gotten her to extend her limbs for healing, he smiles in relief, something in his chest relaxing. Her worst wounds are from the dugtrio, meaning she must have withdrawn on time before the diglett reached her. He suspects all the blood on her shell is theirs, the pokemon having cut each other in their frenzy.
He makes sure she’s fully healed, then rubs her shell and makes sure she eats and drinks her fill before joining the others in gathering the thrown pokeballs, particularly the ones with diglett in them.
“One for each of us,” Blue says. “Nice job, everyone. Thanks in particular for saving Maturin.”
“Of course. She did great against the ‘trio,” Aiko says.
“Good callouts, by the way,” Glen says. “Very smooth fight.”
“Yep!” Elaine is practically hopping with leftover energy. “Calls for a victory dance, I’d say.” They all watch her take her phone out and tap at something. “Oh, let me bring the volume down… Ready?”
“Uhh. What are we readying for?” Aiko asks.
“Victory dances! You guys don’t do that?” She looks around at them with a bright smile.
“No,” Blue says. “Best I can give you is a fist bump?”
“Hm. Well, that’s kind of like a pose. Just do poses then. Ready?” Before anyone can respond, she taps the screen again. A cheerfully triumphant jingle (set at low volume, but nevertheless filling the cavern) sounds, and they all watch her perform a spin, then widen her stance and hold a V up with one hand, grinning wide.
They all stare at her. After a few seconds, Blue tentatively extends a fist, and Glen stretches his own out to tap it. Aiko covers a giggle with one hand as the other joins theirs.
Elaine drops her hand. “Good first attempt,” she says, grinning. “Next time, add some pizzazz!”
“Will do,” Blue says. “Assuming ‘next time’ is also in a deep cave far away from any witnesses or recording devices, but also pitch black.”
“That’s the spirit!”
“This one’s the dugtrio,” Aiko interrupts with a smile, and winks at Blue when he meets her gaze. “Should we RNG who it goes to?”
“Hang on, let me check…” Blue takes the ball and examines the lid, but to his disappointment doesn’t find his initials on it. “Damn, not one of mine.”
“You marked yours? Not a bad idea,” Glen says, looking at the diglett balls. “This one’s yours, then.” Glen grins as he holds it out. “Guess you’re excluded from the dugtrio pool.”
“Hang on, says who?”
Aiko puts her hands on her hips. “Would you have claimed the ‘trio if your ball hit it?”
Blue grumbles and takes the diglett as the others laugh. In truth he’s feeling pretty good about their first team battle, and watches with a smile as Glen assigns himself as 1, Aiko as 2, and Elaine as 3, then rolls a 3 sided die on his phone. The dugtrio goes to Aiko, who attempts a mimic of Elaine’s victory twirl and V, much to the other girl’s delight.
As everyone registers their new pokemon, Blue says “Be right back” and ducks into a side tunnel to change out of his torn clothing. He puts on fresh shirt and jacket, then returns to the others. “Alright, let’s take a quick rest, then get back to it. Meanwhile, what did we learn from that fight? Nice job mentioning our pokemon’s senses,” he tells Aiko. “Definitely going to keep that in mind.”
She nods. “I liked our formation, it did a great job of keeping them boxed in.”
“Right!” Elaine says. “Though their ability to pop into the ground was annoying.”
“Right, that,” Blue says. “If we ever have time to prepare a battle area ahead of time for some reason, we should plug those holes somehow, maybe fill them with leech seeds or powders.”
“Would it be worth using your earlier idea?” Glen asks Aiko. “Taking container boxes out and standing on them?”
“Maybe,” Aiko says. “Would probably save some joint pain during those quakes. But I just realized that unless you guys each have a whole container full of stuff you don’t care about losing, we risk losing things we need if we have to evacuate the chamber.”
They talk for another few minutes, at some point taking snacks out and turning the rest into an impromptu food break. Once everyone feels ready to move on, they resume their journey down the tunnel they were going to take.
Twenty minutes of stumbling up an incline, crouching below another short passage, and inching around a small underground lake later, they’re in another hub cavern, almost a dozen paths extending from it in every direction, and this time when Sneaker sniffs the baggie and runs around, his movements are different.
“He’s got something,” Aiko says as her pokemon starts to spend more and more time at one of the tunnel entrances. “I think it might… Sneaker, stop!”
Her pokemon aborts the mad rush forward it had just begun, and looks back over its shoulder at her, tail lashing back and forth.
“Okay then,” Blue says, adjusting his bag straps. “Let’s go.”
They follow the raticate from one tunnel to the next, staying on high alert for any pokemon that might make an appearance, absol or otherwise. Thankfully absol are fairly large, and none of the passages are too narrow for them to follow the scent as it takes them deeper down beneath the earth.
Occasionally Sneaker reaches a fork where he can’t seem to decide which way to go. Aiko confers with Elaine when this happens, looking the map over to see where the different paths lead and using other factors to make a decision. She instructs Glen to mark their choice with an open circle in addition to the arrow, and on the two occasions where they lose the trail and head back, has him draw an X through it.
“I think we’re getting close,” Aiko says as this begins to happen more and more often.
“Do we know if we’re following its most recent trail, or its most common one?” Blue asks.
“No, it could be either.”
“So we could be about to stumble onto it, or reach its nest?”
“Yeah. It might be there, though, they don’t have a set sleep schedule and this one might be nocturnal, since the sightings were all near sunset or sunrise.”
They make an extra effort to move more quietly. Blue can feel the renewed tension in the others and himself as they make their way through a curving tunnel, and in the deeper silence he picks up the distant sound of running water.
They reach another wide chamber and slow to a stop as Sneaker starts to walk in circles. The stream Blue heard is there, a tiny river flowing from a hole in one wall, down a shallow slope and into a crack at the other end.
“Back to the last fork?” he whispers.
“No, look.” Aiko points to Sneaker, who’s sniffling around at the far wall. “I think this is it!”
Blue sucks in his breath, taking a renewed look around, eyes trying to pick out any clues as they slowly move through the chamber. They all start to spot them at once, now that they’re paying attention.
“Some fur, here!”
“Scratch marks, yeah—”
“You smell that?
“Sh!” Blue says, and everyone quiets. They stand in silence for a moment, listening to nothing but the trickling water. Blue looks to their pokemon, who seem relaxed, curious about their surroundings. Sneaker is still snuffling at the ground excitedly, and Aiko hushes him by feeding him some poffin and stroking his fur. Glen’s gloom goes to drink from the stream, and soon the other pokemon joins it. “Okay, I guess it’s not around.” He takes his bag off, and the others do the same as he examines the other paths. There are three in total, including the one they came from: one that’s set high up in the wall, high enough that Blue would need a boost to pull himself up to it.
“So, we found the nest. That means Plan A, right?” Glen asks after a minute.
“On it,” Aiko says, and picks through her bag for the right container ball. It was difficult finding an easily carried food that absol would particularly enjoy that other pokemon down here wouldn’t, and they eventually settled on raw beef, since diglett aren’t carnivores and they’re the most common pokemon in the caverns. They help Aiko lay the meat out, enough for an adult absol to eat as a meal, and laced with just enough tranquilizer to put it to sleep for four to five hours.
“Might be a long wait,” Aiko says once they’re done. “We don’t know how long ago it left. We might have just missed it.”
The others look to Blue, who considers their options. “We have to vacate the area anyway so we don’t scare it off,” he says. “Assuming our presence hasn’t already. We can go up and hang out for a bit, then come back down to check every hour. But if we’re leaving the area anyway, I say we do Plan B too. Elaine, where’s the closest above-ground entrance? Not the one that we came in through, right?”
“Let me see… Umm… no, there’s a closer one… it’s not one humans can navigate though. Too tight in some places.”
“Too tight for an absol, even?”
“Hard to tell. Don’t think so?”
“Okay.” He bends down to scoop up some of the absol fur off the floor. “Lead us there.”
Plan B was a combination of what Aiko has learned about tracking pokemon and what Blue imagined Red would do if he was with them. They follow the path Elaine takes them for long as they can, eventually reaching a tunnel that tightens down and down until they could maybe crawl through it. Instead they put more laced meat there, then make their way back to the last defensible spot. Blue hands the fur to Aiko, who puts it in an empty container ball, then uses a pokedex app to scan the container contents. “Female,” she says after a moment.
They set up portable speakers, connect them to their pokedex… then begin to play a male Absol mating call in both directions, one toward the tunnel leading to the surface, the other back towards its nest.
Glen brings his machoke and snorlax out, while Elaine summons her tangela and Aiko her sandslash. Blue brings Ion out for light, and Kemuri out for battle. As soon as the shiftry notices its surroundings it becomes visibly agitated. His pokemon has come a long way from the unruly beast it first was, however, and he’s grown as a trainer as well. A stern command for “relaxed readiness,” followed by some pokepuff as a reward, and soon the shiftry is still.
“Let’s plug up these indents, just in case” Blue says, and they busy themselves making the chamber as diglett proof as they can while counting down an hour so they can check the bait.
The mating call repeats every minute, on the minute, a crooning, purring sound that echoes through the tunnels, almost like the breathing of some giant feline. It’s soothing in a way, and Blue has to work to keep himself alert… until a second cry quickly follows the first, and snapping him to full attention. Blue immediately ends the speakers’ autoplay, and they all sit or stand rigid where they are, ears strained.
“That wasn’t an echo, right?” Elaine eventually asks, just before the cry repeats itself.
Blue presses the play on his dex again, mouth dry. The male mating call is sent out again, and they all begin to slowly prepare themselves. The next response is closer, then closer still, and Blue wonders if it’s coming from the nest chamber yet. After the next call is sent out, there’s no response. Blue waits another minute and sends it again, heart in his throat. Still nothing.
“Aiko,” he whispers. “Keep going?”
“Let’s check the bait. It’s had enough time to put her to sleep, now…”
They pack everything up and withdraw all their pokemon but the shinx, sandslash and tangela, then move out, as quickly but quietly as they can. Soon they reach the nest. As Ion sheds light on the chamber, they see the absol.
Fur as white as a cloud, almost glowing, with a face and horn and tail black as pitch, seeming to absorb the light. Its red eyes study them as they enter, not moving from the corner where it’s standing, whole body tense. The meat in the chamber has been nibbled at, but it’s hard to tell how much was eaten.
Their pokemon tense as they spot the stranger, and Blue gestures to the sides. Aiko and Elaine spread out to cover the other two entrances, while Blue and Glen unclip their shiftry and machoke’s balls. “We’ve got it,” Blue breathes, not daring to blink in case the white and black shape vanishes or moves. “Just don’t—”
His hair is standing on end. His heart is pounding. He tries to clear his thoughts, think about what feels so strange. It’s not tension, or fear. It’s… something more primal. He tries to remember everything he heard and read about absol, suddenly paying more attention to the more “superstitious” accounts. People saying they felt death’s hand on their shoulder. People saying they felt doom staring them in the eyes.
People saying they felt a sense of wrongness.
“Get it together, Blue,” he whispers, and realizes a moment later that he spoke out loud.
“What?” Glen whispers back.
Blue shakes his head and grips his pokeball tight, wanting to summon Kemuri but not wanting to start the fight without realizing what’s wrong… But maybe once it starts and he has his battle calm, things will be clearer…
The calm. That’s what’s missing. He should feel calm by now. Cold. Focused. Not… this.
Blue quickly triggers his pokeball’s silent release and snaps his arm out to summon Kemuri, Glen does the same beside him. Their pokemon appear in a double flash of light… then tense, staring at the absol.
The absol stares back.
Blue licks his lips. The others are waiting for his lead. Why isn’t he ordering an attack? Why does he feel… trapped?
What’s wrong with me?
“Blue?” Glen whispers. “You okay?”
“Glen, do you feel weird?”
“How do you feel, right now?”
His friend’s lips part. He blinks. His throat works. Even before he responds, Blue knows: he feels the same way.
Doesn’t matter. They have to catch it, now, while they have the advantage.
“On three,” he whispers. “One… two…”
He hears something.
“Low kick!” Glen says, just as Blue shouts, “Wait!”
The machoke blurs into action as soon as the command is given, however, and far faster than Glen can call out for it to stop, the absol leaps to meet it, and battle is joined.
“Fuck,” Blue says, still not even sure why this feels like a mistake, they have it trapped… “Lar!” he commands, and Kemuri leaps forward to help with a Razor Leaf.
The absol is a blur of white and black as it avoids the machoke’s kicks, so fast that she slips between his legs and attempts to hamstring him with her horn. The machoke bellows in pain and pivots to kick at her again with his good leg, but she dances back… then has to dodge to the side as Kemuri’s sharp leaves slice a line along its side.
Aiko and Elaine send their pokemon in next, driving the absol into the corner of the chamber again. It leaps and slashes with its horn and tail like a propeller, severing leaves and vines from the shiftry and tangela, sending blood arcing from the sandslash and machoke, then leaping back in the next movement so that the return blows are just glancing. Elaine gives up on trying to entangle it with vines and sends out sleep powder, but the absol simply leaps between the machoke and shiftry, too fast for them to stop it and forcing the sandslash to intercept it. A part of Blue notices that their pokemon aren’t as coordinated as they should be, and chalks it up to their enemy’s bizarre movement patterns, the way it seems to change its mind constantly mid-action, giving the impression that it will strike one way while attacking another and avoiding a blow at the same time.
There’s still no battle calm, Blue’s heart pounding in his throat as he yells commands to Kemuri and the others. He still feels like something is wrong. But despite that, and the absol’s absurd grace, Blue can see that they’re winning. Less than a minute has passed since the battle started, but little by little, the absol is being forced back, taking hits that are forcing it to be more and more defensive. They step closer as their pokemon close the net a little more, their balls held out to try and get a steady lock.
“Almost got it,” he says to the others. “Slow and steady…” He takes a deep breath as he watches the absol back up another step, looking for an opening, then leaping toward Kemuri. “Lar!” He yells, and his shiftry swings out to score another hit and force her toward Aiko’s sandslash, who swipes at her. The absol skitters back, bleeding from four or five shallow wounds. Not enough to kill her, but enough to slow her down… they just have to catch her now. They try to aim around their pokemon as the absol continues to feint left and right.
It’s as Blue is straining his ears to listen for the ping, already half congratulating his team for their capture and chiding himself for his earlier worry, that he hears something else.
Blue’s head turns, seemingly in slow motion, and he looks past the alarm that slowly spreads across Glen’s face to Aiko’s sandslash. It’s bleeding from two deep cuts, practically vibrating with restrained tension… but it’s not looking at the absol.
It’s looking all around them, head jerking one way, then the other.
Blue crouches to one knee and places a hand against the ground… and feels the vibrations that are now constant, and growing. He hears the scratch and scramble of digging that’s coming from seemingly every direction.
Panting, bleeding, coiled like a spring, the absol still seems to stare at Blue from between their pokemon, her red eyes like twin blood moons, her gaze an omen of coming doom.
The diglett are coming.