“Whelp! Looks like Tyson’s outta there!”
The crowd erupted in a mixture of encouraging cheers and polite applause as Tyson jumped back up to his feet, dusting the grass and dirt off of his school uniform. He heaved out a loud groan before glancing up at Professor Avis, who was still standing on the giant, white, raised platform that made up the fighting ring with her usual steely gaze.
Tyson’s shoulders slumped in defeat as the weight of his loss settled in. Sure, none of the remaining students had finished their coursework, but Nikki knew that Tyson wanted to pass the exams so he could start competing. Now he’d have to wait until classes resumed again.
Nikki hadn’t planned on going anywhere near the headmaster’s quarters, so it never occurred to her that a makeshift stadium would or could be erected right in front of it. Yet, there they were, all the remaining students, a crowd of spectators from Shrub Town, and two announcers for the final exams.
Today’s goal was simple. Professors Avis, Nine, Stufford, Lelele, and Naul had formed a team of five. Each student would face a professor in a one-on-one fight. If a professor lost, another would step in to take their place.
It was reminiscent of how the dojo fights would work, where the challengers had to defeat every member of the dojos’ premiere team to earn that dojo’s medallion.
For today, all any student had to do was knock one of the professors out of the ring. From what Nikki could tell, most of the faculty wasn’t adept at fighting to begin with. Stufford and Nine didn’t put up much of a fight against Bella or Kim. The duo had knocked them out easily.
Avis, however, was an entirely different story. Nikki stood just on the edge of the stands, watching as Tyson ambled away from the ring, looking as though he’d start dragging his knuckles from exhaustion. He started in Nikki’s direction, presumably, on his way to hide behind the stands and recover.
“Well, Fritz, that’s a textbook finish from Avis!” Dale boomed in an excited voice. “She doesn’t like to mess around, even with her students!”
“That’s right, Dale!” Fritz chimed in. “Tyson’s GOT to come harder if he wants to stand a chance at the regional tournament.”
“Regional?” Dale guffawed. “He won’t get past the first dojo fighting like that!”
“Well, you know, the kid’s got promise,” Fritz explained, his tone a lot softer now. “He’s got a big, brawny build and sports background. So, he definitely knows how to compete. I say go back to your studies, learn from today, and come back in a few weeks. He’ll definitely be ready by then.”
“You think so?” Dale blared into the microphone, though he at least sounded intrigued.
“Of course!” Fritz replied. “Keep in mind, Dale, these students haven’t completed all their formal training yet. I’m surprised we’ve seen any victories today.”
Tyson came to a stop in front of Nikki, shaking his head in disgust. “Geez, do they have to be so harsh?”
He looked up at Nikki, clearly seeking reassurance of some sort, but Nikki glared at him. A few moments of silence passed before she finally spoke. “What do you want me to say? Congratulations?”
Tyson threw his hands up and groaned. “You’re gonna hate me forever, aren’t you? Look, Nikki, I’m sorry. You know I had to turn him in. He’s dangerous.”
“He is NOT dangerous!” Nikki’s shot back, her voice low and fierce. “He was trying to help us, and now there’s no telling what they’ll do to him!”
Tyson hung his head, feeling guilty, but Nikki wasn’t moved. Besides, she had much bigger problems than Tyson’s feelings right now. For all she knew, Professor Eminal was watching her from the crowd at this very moment.
“Don’t worry about her, Tyson. She’s still grieving over that loser friend of hers.”
Nikki turned to see Bella and Kim walking over to them, a smug look of satisfaction spread across Bella’s face thanks to her triumph over Professor Stufford. Kim, true to form, found Bella’s insult (or, at this point, anything within her line of sight) highly amusing.
“Yes, this one has a Mark that lies to her,” Kim giggled into her hand. “It can’t be helped, really. She tries so hard to be useful yet has an ability that makes it so very difficult.”
Tyson’s brow furrowed as if he was wondering what could possibly be so amusing about that while Nikki sighed, shaking her head. When she’d told Bella and Kim she suspected Eminal was at the academy, they’d completely ignored her, which wasn’t surprising. After all, she didn’t have the best track record when it came to the professor anyway.
Yet, still, she knew he was here somewhere. Her Clairvoyance had been going off since she’d arrived in the arena. There was no mistaking what she was feeling. There was a powerful Mental type close by, and it was the same feeling she’d gotten before.
“Well…” Tyson spoke up, finally breaking the silence. “Good luck, okay?”
He smiled hopefully, but Nikki remained quiet. She had a feeling this was far from over. With her Clairvoyance on full alert and Professor Eminal hiding around just about any corner, she couldn’t lose focus.
Realizing he’d be getting nowhere with anyone today, Tyson slinked off toward the stands to take his place among the spectators. Bella and Kim followed behind him, their laughter echoing through the stadium.
Taking a deep breath, Nikki put on her game face and began walking toward the ring, each step getting heavier and heavier. She must have caught the attention of the announcers, as the speakers crackled to life as if to signal her approach.
“Well, Fritz, so far only Kim and Bella have actually managed to knock some of the faculty out of the ring!” Dale boomed once more in a loud, excited voice.
“That’s right!” Fritz replied. “None of the other fighters have had any luck! Looks like we’re getting a small pool of candidates this year for the upcoming dojo fights!”
Nikki tried to steel herself as she prepared to enter the ring, knowing she had the double tasks of winning the match and figuring out Eminal’s location before anyone could get hurt. She turned back to see Tyson, Bella, and Kim watching her from the stands. Bella scoffed, Kim giggled once more, and Tyson gave her a small wave that was ultimately ignored.
She then returned her attention to the ring, her heart racing with anticipation from the crowd around her. This was entirely different from Sparring class or her exhibition match. She felt a sudden surge of adrenaline course through her veins as she finally stepped onto the platform and made her way to the middle of the ring.
“Looks like our next challenger is up!” Dale’s voice rang across the arena. “Our next student is Nikki, folks! She’s a Flame type!”
“Now, Dale, we don’t have any stats on these kids just yet, but I remember her,” Fritz sounded like he was rubbing his chin through the speakers as he assessed her. “Wasn’t she also at the exhibition match with Bella and Kim?”
“Yup!” Dale answered. “She’s the one who challenged that kid who turned out to be an imposter. She nearly beat him to a pulp, remember that?”
“Yeah, what grown man nearly gets beaten that badly by a teenage girl?”
“No wonder he had to go back to school!”
Nikki took a deep breath and adjusted her stance, feeling the heat of the flames coursing through her veins as she prepared to face off against Professor Avis. She didn’t doubt that this battle would be intense. After all, she couldn’t think of a single time Avis had been anything but icy and deadly serious.
Still, she had a strategy. She’d use her Mark to detect Professor Avis’ strongest technique. Since she was a Surge type, Nikki figured it would be a powerful electric attack that she would want to avoid.
Professor Avis regarded her for a moment, her icy stare attempting to pierce Nikki’s resolve, and then smiled. “Well, Miss Nikki, do you think you’re ready?”
Nikki nodded her head. “Yes, professor. Let’s do this.”
As if all in attendance could hear her, the crowd erupted into cheers as both Nikki and Avis walked to their respective sides of the ring. Nikki could feel their energy all around her, and it fueled her inner fire with a burning passion.
“Alright, folks!” Dale shouted. “It’s time for Nikki to go head-to-head with Professor Avis! Let’s see how this one goes!”
Nikki took another deep breath and slowly exhaled, trying to release the building tension in her shoulders. She had no intention of going down without a fight. It was time to show everyone what she was made of and prove that she was more than just an average student.
“Let the match begin!” Fritz said in a booming voice.
Nikki held her breath, tensing up as Professor Avis shot her hand forward, hot-white sparks of electricity dancing around her fingertips. It was just as Nikki suspected, a Surge type move to kick things off. Taking advantage of the moment, Nikki relaxed every muscle in her body, reaching deep inside her subconscious for the answer she needed.
She closed her eyes just as the yellow orbs began to flicker around her, zapping the ground with jolts of electricity. The voices came to her instantly, a mixture of frantic whispers and wailing that rang throughout her mind like a dissonant chorus.
Her immediate instinct was to drown them out; that was what she usually did to dismiss them. Yet, this time, she focused all of her energy on the front of her mind, imagining she was trying to nail a pin to a dartboard. One of these voices had the answer she needed if only she could find it. Within seconds, Nikki’s eyes snapped open as the answer to her question finally arrived.
Avis’ most powerful technique was an attack known as Dream Blast.
Nikki froze as the voices all began crying out at once, each trying desperately to get her attention. It was the same as when she had tried to escape the laboratory and discovered the tanks filled with dead bodies, only much louder. Her entire body tensed up as she struggled to make out what they were saying, much less what she was feeling.
She slowly exhaled again, trying to relax as much as she could. That’s when one particular detail stuck out to her. Why would Avis, a Surge type, know a move like Dream Blast? Nikki was familiar with the move from her Battle Skills studies. The target had to be asleep for it to even damage them. Usually, only Spirit types and Mental types used moves like that.
And that was when she knew for certain.
“It’s you…” Nikki pointed a finger at Professor Avis, whose usual indifferent demeanor faltered ever-so-slightly.
“What do you mean?” Professor Avis’ expression became unreadable, and Nikki was even more convinced than before.
“You’re not a Surge type!” Nikki snarled. “You’re a Mental type! You’re just using an illusion to make yourself look like a Surge type!”
Professor Avis didn’t blink or flinch, still maintaining her battle stance despite Nikki’s accusations. Her gaze became even more pointed as if begging Nikki to launch an attack, but Nikki wouldn’t take the bait. She was going to get the truth first.
Finally, Professor Avis relaxed her stance, straightening her posture as if she were about to begin one of her homeroom lectures. She smiled at Nikki, though it didn’t reach her eyes, before chuckling softly to herself.
“Very good, Nikki, but it won’t save you.”