Chapter 22: The Decisive Path, Part I

The Pewter Gym’s exterior is the most imposing in all of Kanto, so large it can house half the city’s population in an emergency, with grey stone walls thick enough to withstand a charging rhydon. The walls around the front gateway are carved to resemble an onix rearing above, and walking past its threshold feels like leaving the modernity of the city around it behind.

Once inside, that idea is quickly dispelled. Despite the grey stone of the floor and walls, its doors slide open automatically, and its light installations are strong and unobtrusive, running in thin bars along the sides of the ceiling. Trainers and gym staff walk halls with the smooth gait of people with places to be and things to do, and after a moment Blue’s pace matches theirs.

As he passes the training rooms he can hear the muffled shouts of commands, and his fingers repeatedly brush the cool metal of his pokeballs as he resists the urge to unclip and play with them. Everyone he passes has a full belt of six, and the empty spots on his belt feel crippling. His shiftry is still recuperating at the pokemon center, and while it would be nice to have the fully evolved and powerful Grass type with him, it’s not likely to be obedient anyway.

Blue’s fingers brush the pokeballs to the front of his belt. Doesn’t matter. If he’s half the trainer he thinks he is, his squirtle and shroomish will be all he needs.

To be a Champion that leads the people beyond what they think is possible, he needs to be a trainer that proves the impossible can be done. The quicker he gets his first badge, and the more handicaps he has, the greater his fame will grow.

He walks straight past the auditoriums, past the demonstration rooms, the simulation facilities, and straight to the administrative offices. It’s early enough that there’s almost no one here, and he goes straight to the receptionist at the desk and puts his trainer card on the table.

“Blue Oak, here to challenge Leader Brock for a Pewter Badge.”


The stadium is small, about twice the size of a training room. A few steps beyond the entrance door the stone of the floor stops at the edge of the stadium’s walls, which contain a brownish orange soil littered with rocks and boulders of various sizes. There’s no scoreboard, no stands for a crowd, not even a podium for the trainers to stand on, just a square of slightly elevated land on each side. All in all, barely distinguishable from the kind of room a Trainer House might have.

Even still, Blue can practically feel his blood sing as he steps onto the tiny platform raised just above the field. He tilts his head up, feeling the heat of the overhead lamps on his face. The touch of cool metal beneath his fingers is electric, and the edge of his lips twitch, threatening to split up into a grin at any moment.

This. This is where he belongs.

None of the boulders are tall enough to obstruct his sight across the stadium, and Blue takes note of which rocks might provide good cover or can be climbed for a high ground advantage. His pokemon aren’t trained well enough for him to guide exactly where they go, but if they were… there’s a great mini-plateau for shroomish to rain pollen and seeds down from, and squirtle could use the sloping rock to the side to keep away from enemies-

The door across the room slides open and his opponent steps through. He’s not much to look at: a young man in cargo pants and a tank top, hair buzz-cut short. He watches Blue with a neutral expression, tossing a pokeball between his hands as he steps onto the opposing platform.

“Blue Oak?”

“That’s me.” Blue’s fingers itch to unclip one of his balls and copy the other trainer’s motions with it, or show him up with a finger spin or knuckle roll, the way the old man had. He practiced it daily and almost has it down.

“No badges, right?”

“Yeah.”

The young man nods and rotates one hand to toss his ball out without warning. “Go, geodude!” He catches the ball when it returns and begins tossing it back and forth again. “One pokemon, first knock out.”

Blue sends out his shroomish, the detached calm descending to stifle his annoyance and excitement. This is just a preliminary check to ensure he’s not a total scrub. He plans on ending it as quickly and cleanly as possible. “Shroomish, Leech Seed.”

“Geodude, Rock Throw.”

Blue’s pokemon contracts its body before launching a trio of seeds across the stadium. The geodude moves in slow, short jerks as its arms push it forward, and one of the sticky seeds lands directly on it and begins to spread its vines.

It doesn’t seem to even notice, simply approaching the nearest rock and lifting it over its head.

“Shroomish, dodge!”

The rock is flung in an arc, easy to avoid. It bounces along the dirt and hits the edge of the stadium with a thud. “Shroomish, Stun Spore!”

“Geodude, return.” The rock pokemon is struck by its trainer’s red beam and withdrawn, leaving the leach seed and its barely grown roots to fall to the ground as the spores descend over them.

Blue frowns at his opponent. “Your pokemon wasn’t knocked out.”

The other trainer is already leaving, ball back at his hip. “The match was over. Your next opponent will be here soon.”

The sound of the closing door cuts off the response that rises to Blue’s lips. He knows gym qualifier matches are meant as tests for competence rather than full battles of skill, but what’s the point of sending someone out with a single pokemon?

Blue calls out “Shroomish, here!” to bring his pokemon back into withdraw range, then returns it to its ball. He wonders how long it would take for someone else to come out, and hops down from his platform onto the stadium. The dirt of the ground is soft under his shoes, and he crouches down to feel it between his fingers. Soon his whole hand is underground, and his brow furrows as he begins to dig. How far down does the stadium floor go?

Soon he’s elbow deep in the dirt. He pulls his arm out and brushes it clean as best he can before shoving the displaced pile of it back in the hole and standing. Would it be cheating to plant some traps for the next trainer? Probably. In a League match he wouldn’t be able to, and a wild encounter wouldn’t give him the opportunity either.

But even if he can’t manipulate the environment to his aid, as long as he knows the lay of the land he’ll have an edge against opponents, whether they’re other trainers or wild pokemon.

Blue begins walking the stadium, kicking into the dirt with the toes of his shoes. Some parts are firmer than others, and eventually he finds a spot that feels like solid stone just beneath the soil. A quick dig confirms it, and he begins to feel outward from the solid portion of the ground, noting that it goes up to the wall of the stadium. Walking around the occasional rock, he taps first in one direction, then the other, then continues on until he reaches a corner and starts a new side. After a minute of this he steps away, counting how many he takes before the ground grows softer again.

About five and a half. Hm. Apparently the trench they dug to fill the stadium with dirt didn’t start at its borders. What can he do with that?

Not a whole lot. The dirt gives digging pokemon a great advantage, while the stone would prevent all but a few rock pokemon from going under. It would also stop plants from growing, and make it harder to hide environmental hazards.

Blue continues testing the ground until the door opens again and another trainer comes through. The girl mounts the platform on her side and gives Blue a quizzical look. “What are you doing?”

“Just stretching my legs.” Blue returns to his own platform and takes out his shroomish’s ball again. “Rules?”

“One pokemon, first knockout.” She sends out a nosepass, the peculiar looking rock pokemon gathering electric charge as it marches rigidly across the arena.

Blue shrugs and sends shroomish out again. Electric shocks won’t hurt him much, and he can use leech seed and absorb to wear her pokemon down in a couple of minutes.

However, as soon as his shroomish has landed a leech seed and began absorbing the nosepass to regenerate the damage from its shocks, the trainer returns it again, barely twenty seconds into the match.

“You win,” she says, and walks out the way she came.

Blue sighs. He expected to run through the trainers until he got as high as he could, but this is ridiculous.

He hops back into the arena and sprays his shroomish with a bit of potion to help heal any residual damage, then goes back to exploring the arena. Before long another trainer shows up, and after them another, and another, as he’s tested against a variety of rock pokemon.

Roggenrola, bonsly, larvitar… each is quickly withdrawn once it becomes clear that shroomish’s spores, seeds and absorption abilities nullify the effective defense of their tough hides. A trainer with a dwebble gives shroomish his first challenge, the Rock/Bug pokemon eating the leech seeds and going into its shell to avoid the stun spores, all the while inching closer and closer while Blue tries to direct his pokemon’s waddling retreat.

Once his shroomish gets backed into a corner, Blue’s calm gets tinged with worry, and he switches Shroomish for Squirtle. If the dwebble likes to hide in its shell so much, he’ll drown it in the damn thing. As soon as the Water type comes out however, the opposing trainer withdraws his pokemon and declares Blue the victor.

Blue rubs some sweat from the back of his neck. It’s a bit frustrating to have the battle called so abruptly, almost like he’s being cheated out of showing what he’s capable of, but for once he’s glad of it. He wants to preserve Squirtle’s water as long as possible, and generally avoid them getting tired out. It’s been almost two hours since his first battle, and the adrenaline of each fight is starting to tire him out once it wears off.

He brings Shroomish back out to give it the once over. The mushroom pokemon’s edges are drooping, its movements sluggish. Blue opens his bag and takes some food out for it, frowning slightly. Food and potions can only go so far: his shroomish has maybe another few minutes of fight time left before the exhaustion starts to really show.

Its leech seed supply is running low too. He counted eighteen seeds used, out of the roughly thirty the average shroomish stores. He’ll have to get a full count at some point…

The next trainer comes out, and this one Blue recognizes: it’s Jarod, the gym’s Third in command. The trainer is in his late 20s, with spiky orange hair and a thin scar that stands out against his dark skin. It stretches from ear to ear across his cheeks and nose, splitting his face almost evenly across the middle.

Blue stands, brow raised. “Already?”

“Brock said to keep an eye out for you. It’s clear that any more of the same would just be wasting time.” Jarod unclips a greatball as he walks to his platform.

Blue eyes the ball warily as he walks around to his. “Works for me. So what’s the deal? Another quick test?”

Jarod smiles, and casually tosses the ball forward. It spits out a graveler in a flash of light. “First knockout.”

Blue smiles back. Things are finally getting serious. “Leech Seed!”

“Graveler, Rollout.”

A jolt goes up Blue’s spine as the graveler pitches itself forward with its thick legs and arms, dodging the seeds that arc toward it and rolling toward his shroomish. “Shroomish dodge!” He yells, and his pokemon thrusts itself haphazardly to the side, luckily in the right direction to barely avoid the oncoming mass of living stone. The graveler rolls past and strikes a boulder close to the edge of the arena, ricocheting off and catching itself on its hands and feet before launching forward again.

Blue doesn’t give it another chance, pokeballs already in hand. “Shroomish, return!” So that’s the game, is it? His shroomish can’t dodge forever, and it would be hard for leech seed or other status impairments to hit the graveler while it was moving like that. Even if one landed, it would take awhile to wear the large pokemon down. With that much weight and strength behind the enemy’s roll, his squishy shroomish couldn’t afford to risk a single hit.

Which means he needs something tougher. “Go, Squirtle!” His pokemon appears on all fours, looking around curiously until it spots the graveler. “Bubble!” he shouts just as Jarod yells “Rollout!”

The turtle sucks in a deep breath, then coughs out a stream of bubbles that float toward the onrushing graveler. “Withdraw!” Blue says, and his pokemon ducks into her shell. The graveler rolls straight into the bubbles just as they begin to lose their forward momentum and drift downward, and upon touching each a loud bang is heard, accompanied by a flash of light.

The rock pokemon didn’t achieve much speed yet when it hit the bubbles, and they knock it slightly to the side. Squirtle takes a glancing hit and bounces up against a rock before uncurling from her shell and returning to a ready position.

The graveler also reorients itself, light discolorations on its rocky skin where the bubbles hit. It growls in irritation more than pain, and prepares to launch forward again. Blue quickly yells “Water Gun,” but Jarod says “Defense Curl” and his graveler huddles down on the ground, protecting its face so that only its back is hit. The pokemon’s stone skin turns white and cracks in numerous places from the water, but when its trainer commands it to Rollout again it does so without apparent difficulty, and Blue counters with another Bubble and Withdraw.

Squirtle bounces against two rocks this time before fetching up alongside the edge of the stadium. To his relief she still seems unharmed when she emerges from her shell, and he absently wipes some sweat above his eye as he watches the graveler careen around the other side of the stadium. With its water allergy (shut up Red, no one cares if it’s “not an ‘actual’ allergy”) a direct blast to the graveler’s face would be a one-hit-knockout. Until he can get a clear shot, Bubble will at least slow it down with minimal water use… but he doesn’t know how much longer squirtle can avoid a serious injury, and there’s another way he can slow it down too.

Graveler’s not just a Rock type, but also Ground because of its reliance on being in its element… and Squirtle’s water counters that too.

Graveler comes at his pokemon again and again, and each time Blue’s pokemon is knocked around, he keeps a careful eye on its surroundings. Finally the turtle lands in an area near the middle mostly devoid of rocks, and the Graveler prepares itself to rollout again.

“Squirtle, Soak!”

His pokemon hesitates a moment, not having a target in front of it, then belches a brief flood of water onto the ground, drenching the soil in a spreading circle. The graveler launches itself forward just as Jarod yells “Graveller, stop!”

The boulder pokemon tries to halt itself, too late. Its momentum carries it forward another few revolutions, just enough to get it well and truly stuck in the patch of mud, its weight too much for its stubby arms and legs to pull itself out. Blue was prepared to command his squirtle to withdraw in case it made it through, but he’ll never get a cleaner shot than now. “Squirtle, Water G-!”

The graveler is caught in a beam of light and disappears back into its ball. Jarod bounces it in his palm with a thoughtful look on his face. “Took you longer than I expected to think of that.”

Blue scowls as he withdraws his squirtle. “I waited for a good position.”

“The starting position was perfect for it.”

He’s right. Squirtle began the fight in a part of the arena similar to where it ended. “I was taken by surprise at first.”

“Right. Which is why I said you took longer than I expected.”

Blue feels heat brush through his chest, and takes a moment to keep his voice calm. “Well you were a bit slow on your reaction, for someone that saw it coming.”

“Not really. My pokemon began moving just as you did it, so my command wouldn’t have stopped it in time anyway.” Jarod’s voice is mild, his gaze locked on Blue’s from across the arena. “So you didn’t time it that way on purpose? Lucky you.”

“Lucky?” Blue’s laugh is sharp enough to cut. “If that’s what you want to call your screw up. If you didn’t slow your pokemon down it might have made it through. The mud would have stuck to it, hurt it plenty, but you good as killed it.”

“That looked like your idea actually, if I hadn’t returned it in time.”

“You said to first knock out! I didn’t know you considered the fight over!”

“It should have been obvious that the fight was over. But I guess I’m forgetting you’re still a novice.”

“Oh that’s crap! One more Water Gun wouldn’t have killed your graveler, and the damn thing would have crushed my shroomish like a Bug type if it hadn’t dodged in ti-you think that’s funny?”

Jarod’s laughter stops, but he’s still grinning, face transformed from its earlier calm. Blue can feel his pulse in his temples, and takes long, deep breaths as his rage burns through him.

“If you want to train under Brock,” Jarod says conversationally, “You need to develop thicker skin.”

“And you need to learn how to accept a loss,” Blue spits back. “How did someone like you make Third?” Even as he’s saying it, the realization strikes that Jarod’s been baiting him, and it only makes him madder.

Jarod cocks his head, still smiling. “You think you’re a better trainer than me?”

“I know I am, or I wouldn’t be here. Is this the part where you pull out your real pokemon and make it fight my squirtle?”

“Would you accept such a challenge?” Jarod asks, sounding genuinely curious.

You bet I would almost makes it past his lips, but he bites them to stop it. The Third’s personal pokemon would crush him. He knows that, and he can’t put his pokemon in such a risk just for his pride. “Give me a month, and I’ll take you up on that.”

“A month,” Jarod says, voice flat. “That’s not even enough time for your squirtle to evolve.”

Probably not, but it might be enough to train his shiftry… “Is that a no?”

Jarod stares at him for a moment, and then cracks a smile. “Sure, why not. One pokemon, first knockout.”

Blue’s grin is savage. “You’re on.”

Jarod tips a salute and turns for the door.

Blue lets out a breath and wonders how long he has until the next trainer comes out. He summons Squirtle and takes out his water bottle, letting her drink it all down as he sprays her with the rest of his potion. Her battle wasn’t long, but it was hard on her, leaving visible scratches on her shell and her skin dry. He picks her up and takes her down to the mud she made, letting her play around in it for awhile to soak back up some of the water she lost. He grins as she burrows slightly underneath and pokes her head out to look up at him.

For the first time since starting, he considers taking his pokemon to a center to heal up and rest. He could do it… it wouldn’t cost him any progress from his earlier victories. But it would cost him time, since he can’t be sure when the next trainers up in the ranks will be ready for him. It might not be until tomorrow. It might not be until even later.

The quicker he gets his badge, the more his legend will grow. No way is he going to call it quits after his first actual match of any challenge.

Blue summons Shroomish so both pokemon can catch a breather in meatspace. He sits down and rests his hand on his shroomish’s dome as it dozes. Squirtle crawls over his legs and gets mud all over his pants, and he takes out some seaweed crisps to feed her.

He wonders how Red and Leaf are doing. He pulls out his phone he sees a text from Red from about an hour ago. His fingers hover over the screen to respond, then withdraw as he puts the phone away. The mood is too relaxing to break with a chat right now. He closes his eyes and leans his head back as his squirtle curls up next to him.

Sometime later, the door opens again. He gets to his feet and withdraws his pokemon, then sucks in a sharp breath.

Sharzad, Second Leader of the Pewter Gym, is mounting her platform. She smiles down at him, one hand resting on a ball at her hip.

“Expecting someone else?”

“Sort of.” He thought he’d passed some marker, gone on to the next level of Gym members. Instead he’s facing the Second now? Does that mean… “If I beat you, is Brock next?”

She grins. “Depends on how you beat me. This hasn’t been a binary evaluation, even from the start.”

Blue nods slowly. He knows every gym operates a bit differently in how they organize their internal structure and deal with challenges. There’s also talk that each Gym Leader looks for different qualities in trainers… things that they believe are most important to being a master.

It’s not hard to guess what Brock, master of Rock pokemon, might think is the best quality. Something that revolves around his favored type’s strengths. You need to be patient when you run a defensive strategy.

Is that why he’s been rising up the ranks so quickly? Is he showing strong patience? It’s not a quality he’d normally assign to himself, but maybe it’s true for pokemon battles. He was using a slow and steady strategy after all. And they definitely have the room recorded: maybe he was being watched between matches, to see if he’d grow restless or not use his time well.

Blue smiles as he mounts his platform. Patience. Yeah, he has that when he needs it. A true pokemon master and Champion needs every positive trait, and it’s good to have acknowledgement of his potential so soon.

“Ready?” Sharzad asks, shaking her long dark hair back and slipping a band around it.

“Single knockout again?”

“Nope. Full lineup.”

Blue’s fingers tap Squirtle’s ball at his hip. In this kind of battle, only having three pokemon is a huge handicap… but he only sees one at her hip. “Alright.”

She unclips her ball and tosses it. “Go, Tala!”

A flash of light, and Blue’s heart sinks as a cradily appears. One of the resurrected ancient pokemon, the rock skinned plant pokemon is the perfect counter to his team. He knew Sharzad favors its family, but he didn’t think she’d use one against him. The Rock/Grass type would have an equal defensive advantage against all three of his pokemon, but still have an advantage offensively against Squirtle with its Grass attacks, and could knock Zephyr out of the sky with rocks. That leaves shroomish, but cradily would be immune or counteract the mushroom’s spores and seeds, and without those he has no edge. Meanwhile cradily can produce acids and toxins that shroomish can’t risk being exposed to.

He’s so screwed.

And yet instead of feeling angry or frustrated…. he feels the calm of the battle cloaking him again. This is just another step. Just another challenge on the way to Champion, and no one, no one, is as deserving of that title as he is.

He can win this. Winning is what he does.

Cradily’s weakness is its immobility. Its suction cups can attach to almost any surface, but they’re currently sticking it in place on the arena floor, where it’s also spreading down roots to feed through. The rocks around it are a dangerous resource at its disposal, but they’re still a resource. Blue can assault it like a fortress, attack it from below and above after starving it out.

“Ready whenever you are!” Sharzad calls out gaily, and Blue’s hand unclips and flings out a ball in one fluid motion.

“Go, Shroomish!”

His pokemon appears, and Pewter’s Second doesn’t waste a second. “Tala, Rock Slide!”

Vines thick as Blue’s leg punch into the dirt and begin to heave. The ground of the arena shifts as it rakes up and flings a dozen small boulders.

“Shroomish, dodge!” They spray the field in an arc of noisy collisions, and his pokemon barely gets out of the way on time. “Shroomish, Leech Seed!”

The seeds are shot out, and Sharzad’s pokemon ignores them, acids on its flower petals quickly overcoming the seeds and killing them before they can grow. As predicted.

Unlike the dwebble though, the cradily doesn’t recognize the seeds that failed to wrap around it as food, and those that survive drop to the ground and begin to take root. The soil is too dry and lifeless for them to grow much, but some pale green vines creep out.

“Rock Slide!”

“Dodge! Leech Seed!”

“Rock Slide!”

“Leech Seed!”

Patience. That’s the key to fighting the strength of the earth itself. You’ve got to have patience. Thankfully, plants and water also have patience: patience enough for their roots to split stones, for their waves to wear them smooth over thousands of years.

“Rock Slide!” Sharzad yells, and this time one of the rocks hit his shroomish and knocks it back.

Blue watches, heart in his throat, as his pokemon slowly gets back to its feet. It seems to walk alright (though it’s hard to tell with its waddling gait), and Blue and Sharzad exchange a look, then a nod. Injured, but still good to fight.

Still, the idea that her pokemon is gathering more ammunition below the surface, and maybe even began before their match officially started, makes this plan much more risky. How far can it reach, exactly?

Blue feels worry thread through his shoulders and brow in rigid lines as he considers the possibilities. If he can’t cut it off… but the battle calm won’t allow for second guessing his plan at this point. It’s the only chance he has, the only path to victory. He has to see it through.

“Shroomish, Leech Seed!”

“Tala, Rock Slide!”

This one hits again, and sooner than he’d like, he has to withdraw his pokemon. The dirt around the cradily is carpeted with growing, interwoven vines, but he could have gotten a few more seeds off before running out… “Go, Squirtle!”

“Tala, Rock Slide!”

“Squirtle, Withdraw!”

His pokemon hides in her shell as the rocks hit, then emerges. There are new scrapes on her shell, but she seems unhurt. Blue grins. “Good girl!”

Sharzad crosses her arms over her torso, eyebrows raised. “A Water type? I’ve been curious about your plan, and I can’t wait to see where you’re going with this. Tala, Rock Slide!”

“Squirtle, Withdraw!” Fortunate for him, the ancient pokemon doesn’t produce Leech Seeds, and the rest of its Grass attacks are close range. Unfortunate for him, Blue needs to get close to use Soak, his most effective way to spread water. He’ll have to do what he can at a distance.

“Squirtle, Water Gun!”

The burst of water hits the cradily with no apparent effect, its rocky portions not affected the same way other Rock pokemon are. It might even be benefiting from the water, drinking it in, but that’s fine: what he cares about is the water that hits the ground by it, quickly getting soaked up by the ever growing vines of Shroomish’s leech seeds.

“What’s this? Trying to raise a dangerous garden around her?”

Blue doesn’t ask how she knows her pokemon’s gender, focusing instead on Squirtle’s timing to withdraw or try and dodge the next few oncoming attacks.

Soon an almost solid green carpet is spread around the cradily, though none are touching it: every time its vines try to curl around the pokemon’s trunk, it releases a toxic sheen to kill them off. Blue doesn’t command Squirtle to keep attacking: it’s time to focus on the defensive.

Sweat plasters Blue’s shirt to his skin, his eyes unblinking on the arena as he watches for every little twitch the enemy pokemon makes that might betray another attack. Sharzad has largely stopped commanding her pokemon, and it continues to occasionally fling or roll or tumble rocks at his squirtle. The arena is looking almost completely different now, with a wide spread of rocks in various sizes against the wall and in an arc from the cradily.

And finally, it happens: a hesitation. A pause, as Blue’s pokemon stands ready and defiant despite being hit twice more, and the plant pokemon stares back, vines still stretched below the much overturned and pilfered through soil.

“Tala, Energy Ball!”

Now.

“Squirtle, return! Go, Zephyr!”

His pidgey soars through the air with chirps of joy as cradily begins gathering motes of green light. The Energy Ball floats forward, a green mass of light that almost seems to swarm within itself. It peters out and dissolves into little bits the farther it goes, and eventually fades away long before it reaches his pidgey. When Zephyr spots the pokemon that’s facing its trainer, it soars down to perch on his shoulder. Blue smiles and strokes its feathers. It was good to see him flying. After his battle with the shiftry, Blue worried that he never would again.

Blue raises the whistle to his lips and points forward with his other hand. “Zephyr, Wing Attack!”

His pokemon launches itself with a flap of wings that cools his skin. It soars at the enemy with a battle cry, buffeting and slashing at its exposed plant parts.

“Tala, Smack Down!”

Her pokemon tries, its vines writhing beneath the ground as best it can with all the leech seed clogging and guarding the easy paths down. Or maybe it’s just simply out of rocks, as he hoped.

“Tala, Acid!”

One short blast on his whistle, and his pokemon dodges up.

“Tala, Mega Drain!”

Two short blasts to back off. Zephyr is able to harass and attack Sharzad’s pokemon almost without fear, dodging or gaining altitude to avoid whatever attacks do come his way. Meanwhile the cradily is getting badly torn up, and all the leech vines spread around it are cutting off its ability to draw more nutrients from the ground to heal itself.

It’s done. Victory is a heady rush, and Blue grins as Zephyr dives in and tears off another of the cradily’s long pink pedals, leaving it with one left. A moment later Sharzad withdraws her pokemon with a crooked smile. “Good match.”

Blue withdraws his pidgey, then feels like collapsing back down from relief, unaware of how much tension he was holding in. Instead he takes a deep breath and smiles back. “You too. So, did I pass?”

“Faced with a major type and experience disadvantage, you managed to restrict and starve out my pokemon’s attacks before launching an effective counter strike. I’d say that’s a yes.”

Blue grins and clips his ball. “Should I wait here for him?”

She laughs. “What are you, nuts? You’re not fighting Brock in a dingy place like this. Besides, the area’s a mess.” She’s not wrong: the tossed rocks, the mud pile, the interwoven mat of leech seeds… “I’ll show you the waiting room for the main stadium. In the meanwhile, it’s time for you to get your pokemon healed. It’s impressive that you did all this in one go, but I don’t want you losing to Brock at anything but your best.”

The words main stadium are still ringing in his head, and he follows her out the door. “To be honest I kind of expected another test of some kind. Like, sitting there for an hour straight until he was available.”

Sharzad tosses her hair over a shoulder to give him an odd look. “Why would we do that?”

“You know, to test my patience. I guess I demonstrated it enough though, huh?” She’s staring blankly at him. “The trait Gym Leaders value? It’s patience for Brock, isn’t it? That’s why you guys let me challenge you so quickly?”

Pewter Gym’s Second laughs, the sound bouncing off its stone corridors. “Oh, no, that’s not Brock’s virtue at all. We didn’t even consider that when reviewing your matches.”

Blue feels heat rising in his cheeks. “But… then what-”

“It’s kind of the opposite, in fact. Patience on its own can be useful, but too much is a bad thing. As Rock trainers, we know that giving our opponents too much time will let them circumvent our defenses.” She gives him a lopsided grin. “Someone with patience would probably have more pokemon before challenging a Gym Leader.”

Blue’s flush spreads, and he fights down the argue how patient he was being. She doesn’t understand what he’s trying to accomplish. Besides, whatever this other trait is he clearly has that. “So what does Brock value?”

“Knowing when to strike decisively. Knowing when to take a risk, rather than waiting forever and playing it safe. If you’re always waiting for the perfect moment… sometimes, that can cost you everything.” Sharzad’s gaze is distant, tone soft, and Blue gets the feeling she’s thinking about something more personal than pokemon battles. “Sometimes the strongest play you can make is the one with the highest risk. And a true master knows when those situations are, and commits to them mind, body and soul.”

If you have found a spelling error, please, notify us by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.