With Mabosstiff happily stuffed, Arven repacked their supplies and led the way out of the cave into the sunlight. He felt pretty good about confiding in Juliana. His gut told him she’d soon prove out her reputation as the academy’s most promising new student. Some people just had an air of significance about them. Usually it came with odd clothes. That girl Penny with the Poké Ball sweatshirt and Eevee backpack? She’d probably do something epic before she graduated. And Juliana with her neon, just-barely-regulation uniform? That was a save-the-world look if Arven ever saw one.
I’m carrying a giant bag, he thought. Maybe I’m important, too. He chuckled half-heartedly at the thought. Being the kid of someone in the news was enough stress and heartache for him. He’d take seeing Mabosstiff healthy again and leave the world-changing stuff to the people who cared about it. Probably all Mom ever did care about, he thought bitterly.
Then Arven noticed he wasn’t hearing Juliana’s footsteps anymore. In a panic, he whirled around, but she hadn’t gone anywhere. She’d stopped walking and faced the cave they’d just left, staring intently.
“Everything okay?” Arven asked, not sure if he should approach and stand beside her or wait where he was.
“There were a bunch of Pokémon walking around while we were eating in there,” she said. “But now I don’t see any at all.”
“Maybe they ran off?” Arven said. Not the most sound of suggestions. Anyone who took a few steps outside the safety of the academy’s gates knew some Pokémon would flee from you. But just as many would charge at you full-force until they knocked you down and liberated half your picnic supplies. Pokémon centers were kind enough to instantly replenish any lost food (while they conveniently vanished some of the students’ pocket money.) But Arven had lost more than one bouncy ball by rolling it too far from his picnic site and into energetic wild Pokémon territory.
In summary, the odds of a cave-full of Pokémon being scared enough to bolt all at once without a trace were pretty low.
“I think they all vanished,” Juliana said.
Staring at the vacant mouth of the cave, Arven couldn’t argue. “Yeah, guess so,” he muttered, listening for a moment longer. Nothing. Not even the sound of scampering feet. So whatever was happening to him was happening to nearby Pokémon as well? He opened and closed his hand again for reassurance. It was easy to keep his mind on Mabosstiff when the rest of the world acted normal. But it had been doing less and less of that lately. “Guessing you’ve seen stuff like this before?” he went on. “Not that I’m complaining, but you’re pretty calm now and didn’t seem, um…particularly weirded out back in the cave, either.”
Juliana shrugged. “Should I have been?”
“I stuck my hand through a rock, so yeah, seems weird enough!”
“Oh, right.” Juliana rubbed the back of her head and hurried away from the cave, apparently anxious to put the creepy place behind her. “It’s not the first time I’ve seen some strange stuff, but you’re the first person who’s acknowledged it to me. I guess I was too relieved to be weirded out.” She motioned forward, beyond the sparse grass to the road proper. “Now come on, I wanna get moving.”
Arven nodded and walked alongside her. When they’d defeated the first titan, he’d left her behind as soon as he could. Which was kind of rude, looking back on it. This time, he’d stick with her until it made sense to leave. “So, um, what do you think is causing all this?” he asked, trying for a casual tone. One that suggested he had his own completely valid theories for vanishing Pokémon and ghost appendages and was simply looking to her for a second opinion.
Juliana avoided his gaze while she considered her reply, which couldn’t be a good sign. “Hard to say. Though I suppose…I mean, do you think it has something to do with those herbs you’re gathering?”
“The Herba Mystica? Of course not!” Arven huffed at the suggestion and widened his stride until they reached the road.
Juliana jogged to catch up with him, the silver slider on her bag zipper jingling like a tiny bell. “But…you’re the only one investigating them, and whatever’s happening seems like it’s hitting you harder than most.”
Arven slowed his pace. “How many other people is it, um, ‘hitting’?” The quick burst of anger had morphed to genuine curiosity. He kept to himself so much nowadays, his only real gauge for these strange events was how often they happened to him personally.
“I’ve seen some strange stuff with other students at school,” Juliana said, now taking the lead down the road. A few Rookidee cocked their heads as she passed them. “But it’s always a one-time thing, and they keep insisting they imagined it or their Pokémon’s abilities must have had some unusual side effects.”
“It is!” Juliana said. Her voice jumped in volume, and the Rookidee scattered. Juliana clamped her hand over her mouth. Her gaze shifted, moving past Arven to the looming haphazard fence with dark, star-embroidered flags. “Guess I just lost the element of surprise, huh?” she whispered.
“What element of surprise?” Arven whispered back. “Didn’t you tell me you ring a bell to start one of these raids or whatever they are?”
She blushed and nodded. Then she dropped her hands and smoothed her shirt before marching towards the gate in search of said bell. Arven followed, keeping a healthy distance behind.
The guard at the gate gave Juliana little trouble, and Arven fully expected to go his own way once Juliana rang the bell and stepped inside. Instead, she motioned for him to follow her. The guard didn’t like this and insisted it was one challenger at a time. Juliana replied that Arven wouldn’t fight, and even if he did, how many grunts planned to attack her at the same time? The guard conceded and let them both through.
“You sure about this?” Arven said, nervously. “Erm, not that I can’t take these guys, but…”
His eyes widened as they cleared the entrance. This place sure wasn’t the highly defended fortress he imagined. In fact, fortress seemed like far too generous a word. It felt more like a large campsite, with some scaffolding-turned-bleachers and what looked like rental tents in Team Star white and yellow. A scoreboard sat in the center–not a fancy digital one, but the flimsy plastic kind you had to physically flip the numbers on. The only electronic items were a few vending machines, which Arven could only assume were being powered by some Pikachus hidden in the tents, because there were no running cables anywhere.
Before this moment, he wondered if Team Star had some involvement in Paldea’s ongoing strange occurrences. No one really knew what they did in their base camps all day, other than skip class and wait for people to challenge them. But even with his limited knowledge of the group’s inner workings, he couldn’t quite picture them as capable of reality-alternating shenanigans now. Especially when they barely seemed capable of keeping the drinks in the vending machines cold.
“Welcome!” blared a voice from the static-clogged loudspeakers. It had a deep, feminine tone with a punch of confidence and authority. “Now, you might think you’re a big deal coming here to challenge us, but you should know we think you’re a pretty small deal! Don’t we?”
A chorus of cheers rose up from the grunts around them–some who circled the center area of the camp, some who watched from the safety of the scaffolding. Several threw Poké Balls, which opened to reveal a variety of dark-types, all snarling and ready for battle.
Juliana released Tinkatuff, and several of the Pokémon backed away.
“A-anyway, you’re so small a deal,” the announcer’s voice went on, “That even though our boss Giocomo is totally here right now, you won’t even see him. Because we’ll take you out first!”
Another cheer from the crowd rose up, though less confident than before. A pair of Cactune moved forward, but an Ice Hammer swing knocked them right back. The grunt by the scoreboard flipped the numbers from zero to two.
“Y-you should know Giocomo is very strong,” the announcer cut in as Juliana began running the inside perimeter of the camp, ordering her Pokémon to charge in front of her. “And he would so destroy you in battle if he faced you. Which he won’t, because you’d have to beat, like, thirty of us in a row for that to–“
Tinkatuff laughed maniacally as she sent no less than eight Zorua bolting from the next swing of her hammer. Visible sweat trickled down the face of the grunt tracking their score in the center of the base. The grunts lined up along the fences threw themselves into a ball-chucking frenzy, releasing one Pokémon after another, none of which had any hope of putting a dent in Juliana’s team. Arven tried to stay out of the way as much as possible, but with the bulky bag on his shoulders, he wasn’t as agile as he would’ve liked. As Juliana felled her twenty-ninth Pokémon, a grunt directly behind Arven threw one more ball at full force. He winced, anticipating from the whoosh of wind that he was about to receive a sizable clonk on the back of his head. Which was kind of a scary thought. Which meant the ball passed right through him.
The riled-up crowd went silent. Arven slowly opened one eye. Crap. Did anyone see that? The scene was blurry from squeezing his eyes shut so much, but he noticed two things right away: One last Zorua fainting at Tinkatuff’s feet, and the entirety of the Team Star crowd staring at him. No one moved. No one said a word. There was a crack of static on the loudspeaker, followed by a lull of extremely awkward silence before the announcer grunt’s voice returned with a simple, “Um, hold, please.” Then the mic turned off. The grunts took that as a cue to start rapid-fire whispering amongst themselves. Except their “whispering” was even louder than Arven and Juliana’s had been outside the base.
“Went right through him.”
“Did you see…?”
“‘Course I saw. I was standing right next to you, wasn’t I?”
“That’s how it started with Selfie Sal.”
Against his better judgment, Arven took the bait and stepped up to the nearest grunt in the crowd. “Excuse me, but who’s Selfie Sal?”
“Who’s–oh, right. Guess you wouldn’t know.” The grunt pulled a dirty handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his reddening eyes with the cleanest corner. “Selfie Sal loved selfies. Then one day, he noticed he could wave his hand, and it would go right through stuff. Thought this was pretty cool. Took even more selfies. That very afternoon, he waved at the camera, clicked the shutter, and–and–” The grunt blew loudly into the handkerchief, and Arven took a slow step away.
“Still think I’m being affected the worst by this?” he asked Juliana, who looked close to tears herself.
“I’m so sorry,” she said to the grunt. “And you never saw Sal again?”
“Huh?” The grunt pocketed the handkerchief and raised an eyebrow at her. “Of course we did. Sal came right back. Hey, Sal!” The grunt waved his arm wildly, and a near-identical guy across the grassy field returned the gesture. “But his favorite camera did fall in a lake when he vanished for a second, and he can’t afford a replacement. Hasn’t been the same since.”
“Does his hand still go through stuff?” Arven asked.
The grunt shook his head. “Nah. If it did, he’d have gone with Giocomo to visit the Ruchbah Squad this morning. That’s where they’re gathering everyone who’s been affected by this weird stuff long-term.”
“Would you say that describes you?” said a voice behind them.
Arven and Juliana both startled and turned to see another grunt, the one whose confident voice they recognized from the speakers. She was a bit taller than the others with bright orange hair roughly snipped into a pixie cut. “I mean, you didn’t seem upset when one of our Poké Balls went through you–just worried we would notice. So I’m guessing you’ve had problems with this for a while now?”
Arven’s grip on his backpack tightened. “I–that is…well, I guess it’s been a few weeks but–“
The crowd broke into gasps and murmurs, these ones quiet enough for Arven to miss the exact words. The tone, however, was as clear as a thirty-minute day. Few other people had been dealing with these issues as long as he had.
“Would you mind coming with us to the Ruchbah Squad’s base?” the announcer grunt asked, her voice rising in pitch as she clasped her hands together. “Pretty please with a star pick on top?”
“It’s not far,” Selfie Sal’s buddy added. “Northern Province, area three. We might even be able to help you.”
“Wait, so Giocomo’s not here?” Juliana asked. “Did I defeat your squad or not?”
“Okay, technically, yes, but you’ve gotta admit, there’s bigger problems right now,” the announcer replied. “Don’t be a bully and get all hung up on beating other people down.”
You think we’re the bullies? Arven thought, keeping his wits enough not to say it aloud. So far Team Star wasn’t forcing them to do anything. They’d been pretty friendly, all things considered. Maybe there was more to them than Arven originally thought.
Which was very inconvenient, because now not only did he feel obligated to go with them, he felt kind of guilty for thinking so badly of them in the first place.