Unlike the bosses of Team Star, Arven did not have to hide in a library for fear of being arrested. He planned to make full use of this perk. Right now he was headed for the east gate of Mesagoza to wait for a flying taxi. Now that he and the others had been trekking all over Paldea, the pilots would take him pretty much anywhere.
His phone buzzed in his pocket. It tried to levitate up to his face, but since he’d also shoved a notepad and two pencils in there, the device quickly got stuck. Arven wrenched it out by the third ring to find Penny’s name on the screen.
“Erm…give me a sec,” he said, walking past an ice-cream stand until he was away from the flow of pedestrians. Considering who he was taking the taxi to meet, it seemed better to take the call from Team Star’s boss somewhere discreet.
“Okay. What’s up?” he asked.
Penny kept her video feed off. No surprise there. “I’m going out with the crew to inspect the ruinous Pokémon’s prisons. You want to come?”
“Oh. I’m, uh…actually following a different lead right now. I can probably meet you in a couple hours if you need the manpower. I-I mean–” He slapped himself in the forehead. “–if you need more Pokémon with you! Not as in you need a male trainer specifically!”
“Your meaning was clear,” Penny said in her typical deadpan. “Stick with your first plan. The more leads we follow, the better. But where are you headed that you’re so twitchy about it?”
Arven wanted to argue that he wasn’t twitchy, but his outburst had left that a lost cause. He swallowed hard. “Don’t get mad at me?”
She did not answer.
“Okay, fine, get mad at me if you want, but I’m going to talk to that police inspector kid. The Rester guy?”
“A-rrester, but go on.”
Arven sighed. “I keep thinking about how Nemona cleared your name with Clavell. Maybe I could, I dunno…do the same here? It’d make it way more easier for the bosses to do research, and who knows? Maybe he has some info that could help us.”
“I see. And how do you think you’ll accomplish this?”
Arven’s pace slowed to a crawl, far away from the crowds. “Well, I can tell him what I know from being friends with Ortega as a kid. And Operation Star. Clavell wanted to set the record straight there. And what I know about my mom’s experiments. Maybe all that info put together could help steer him away from you guy–ow!” Arven stepped forward only to smack his foot into the side wall of yet another locked-up shop. Got a good loud thwack from it, too.
“Hmm,” Penny mused, ignoring his self-inflicted pain. “If you stick to those topics and don’t suggest you know our location, there’s definitely a chance we’ll all benefit from it.”
Arven nodded. He didn’t think Penny was going to be able to talk him out of this; he needed to do something more than tag along with everyone. But having her approval was still a win.
Now he had to make his way to the meeting place he and Arrester had agreed on. Preferably without running into anything else. He pulled up the map on his phone but found it blank. The image showed all of Paldea laid out before him, but it was centered on the crater and the usual you-are-here icon had vanished.
“Oh, and FYI, I added some extra security to everyone’s phones and disabled all location capabilities,” Penny said like it was a afterthought. “You understand.”
“You know, not every situation requires hacking,” Arven told her. “If you’d asked, I’d have said yes.”
“I’ll keep it in mind. Good luck.”
“Yeah. You too–”
She hung up. Arven shook his head and put the phone back. The meeting spot was off the Socarrat Trail up north. Arven had stopped there several times for picnics in the past, and the taxi would drop him off pretty close by. Hopefully the thought of ancient monsters sleeping in hidden prisons around Paldea didn’t throw off his sense of direction too much.
Penny waved at her tablet to close the phone app, pleasantly surprised at Arven’s plan. Ever since their groups had merged together, he’d pretty much followed the crowd. She expected more of the same until his call. Of course, this was also the guy who’d uncovered the Scarlet Book and dug up all the research on the Herba Mystica. Maybe she hadn’t given his initiative enough credit.
She tucked the tablet under her arms and continued down their path through Area One of the South Province. She’d pulled the device out so many times along the walk that putting it into her bag felt like a waste of time.
Even Nemona had her phone out as they closed in on their destination. “Raifort’s info says we’ll arrive at the Grasswither Shrine soon. Are you sure we shouldn’t wait for Mela and the others?”
Grasswither. There’s a pleasant name for a place. Penny nodded to Nemona. “I’m sure. They’re still en route to the Icerend Shrine. It’s faster to meet in between and compare notes afterwards.”
“If you say so,” said Nemona and didn’t argue further, for which Penny felt grateful. She’d been second-guessing herself enough on the walk here. She wasn’t willing to break the group up too much, but splitting them in half seemed an acceptable tactic. They’d check out the southern shrines first, regroup, then head for the northern ones. Penny couldn’t recall the names of the other two locations off the top of her head. But given the name patterns she did remember, they were probably something like the Flameydoom Shrine and the Rocks-Fall-Everyone-Dies Shrine.
She tapped her tablet on to search the area for any of the ruinous Pokémon’s energy signatures. Again. The device had built-in features for detecting if one type of Pokémon was present in the area. A bit of modding, some sample wave data from the stakes down in Area Zero–courtesy of Ai–and Penny had slapped together a handy scanner for each Treasure of Ruin.
And now, unlike every other time she’d used it, the thing gave her an actual response. Penny startled when the map lit up but tried to keep the calm-and-cool tech person facade as best she could. “I’m seeing four…possibly five yellow energy signatures in the area,” Penny said. “Those must be the stake locations.”
“Raifort said there were eight,” said Juliana.
“There were. Until Sada and Turo harvested three of them for their stupid machine.” She pressed her lips together and inhaled sharply. This was going too well to slip back into dwelling on him again. But the closer they got to the Grasswither Shrine, the harder it got to hold down her bitterness.
Maybe we should have headed for Flameydoom or whatever it’s called first. Penny took several breaths to recenter herself and tapped the screen off once again. She could feel a serious headache coming on. Too late to turn back now.
Within minutes, their destination came into view. Penny couldn’t fathom how such a place simply sat out in the open, casual as a park bench or a scenic spot for a photo op. True, there weren’t any other people around now, but didn’t anyone come out here before them? And if so, how did they not investigate this place? The shrine certainly did earn its title as a ruinous prison. Spring grass went down and gave way to chipped gray slate by the entrance. The door was circular, alight with glowing yellow patterns and sealed with heavy, criss-crossed chains. When Penny stepped forward, an ominous breeze nudged her closer.
“Okay, we’re here,” Nemona said, though Penny barely made out the words. Her headache had morphed into a migraine. The light from the door turned her stomach. But at the same time, she felt like if she could just touch it, she’d feel better.
“Do we go after those stakes and try to open it?” Juliana said. Her voice sounded muffled and distant to Penny. The breeze felt more like a strong wind now, pushing her from behind and drowning out most everything else.
She swayed but kept going. Her vision blurred. She reached out her hand to steady herself.
“That’s what Raifort asked, but–Penny? Penny, what are you doing?”
Penny’s fingers brushed against rusty metal. Then she found herself standing in a dark, chilly space. The migraine vanished but panic took its place. Had she somehow been teleported back down into the crater? She looked around for familiar features. For the shimmering tera crystals, the powerful wandering Pokémon from different timelines…or different universes altogether…and she found nothing. The space around her was an empty void. She felt a cool mist gathering around her ankles, and the ground felt rocky and solid like she was still in front of the shrine, but there was nothing else.
Except maybe…was that a voice? She cupped her hands to her ears, trying to make it out. Yes, she could hear someone. A man…younger than Clavell but certainly past college-age…muttering to himself. If only she could make out the words…
“…lost everything. Everything. Didn’t even tell them what happened to me. Never even said good-bye…”
Penny could see some of the mist at her feet now, despite no light source she could make out. The vapor stayed at ground level, except for far in the distance, where some of it gathered into a small pillar-shaped cloud. Yes, that was where the voice had come from. Penny was sure of it.
“H-hello?” she called, kind of impressed she wasn’t fainting right now. She didn’t even feel that scared. Something about this place said it couldn’t hurt her.
The voice paused. The cloud grew more solid. But then after a moment, the muttering picked up again:
“…left alone…waiting for me…”
Penny walked towards the gathered mist. The closer she got, the more distinct its shape became. When she could hear the voice clearly with no need to put her hands to her ears, its form was unmistakable. The cloud became an ethereal humanoid figure.
“…what did they say to her? ‘Your father’s gone’? ‘Your father left’? But I didn’t leave. He took me…”
She was speaking to a ghost. Or listening to one, at any rate. She still couldn’t tell if the man could hear her or if he was lost in his own world she couldn’t see. He floated back and forth, wringing his hands, running translucent fingers through his thinning hair. His eyes darted around, trying to see everywhere and focusing on nothing. His clothes were worn and frayed, and the style was old. More than old. They looked like some ancient robes. And hanging off the sash around his waist was a set of wooden tablets with line after line of text carved into their faces.
Penny took one more step forward. Seriously. How could she feel this calm? She hated anything with a hint of the supernatural, and here she was staring at a guy who might have died centuries ago. But she felt no more anxiety than speaking to a new member of Team Star–like they already had something in common before a conversation started. “E-excuse me?”
The man gasped and whipped around to face her. Nearby swirls of mist shifted with the motion. Penny feared for a moment he might have empty eye sockets like a zombie or something. But his eyes were whole and normal, only glistening a bit as if from recent tears. “How are you here?” he asked.
“I-I don’t really know.”
“Do you know how I can get out?” The ghost floated towards her, hands clasped together as he begged. She’d never heard such desperation in another voice before.
Her chest tightened, and she shook her head. “N-no. I’m really sorry.”
She expected him to launch into a barrage of other questions, a frantic search for some helpful information. Instead he slumped onto the floor and buried his face in his hands. Like hope was a mythical creature he didn’t have the stamina to chase anymore. “I haven’t always been here. I had a future once, you know. A family. That man…I wanted to tell the world what he did. Right his wrong. Instead, he took everything from me.”
The ghost began to sob openly. Only it wasn’t just cries of sorrow. It was anguish and hatred and an unquenchable thirst to flip the tables on his oppressor. To let him be the victim. To show him how it felt.
Penny had first tasted that desire when she started Team Star. And even since she had learned what mess Arven’s parents had caused, she could barely feel anything else. But instead of pushing those emotions away like before, she now embraced them. And she meant it wholeheartedly when she sat down beside the man and told him, “I understand how you feel.”
Arven folded his hands and tried to be patient while Arrester covered yet another notebook page in notes. They were sitting at a picnic table that clearly hadn’t been used in years–rusty framing, shaky benches, and chunks of dry wood missing from the edges. It had only been an hour or so of chatting, but the agent had a way of making it all feel so much longer.
Arven told the guy everything he remembered from childhood about his mother’s experiments. He even talked about getting his hand caught in her strange machine, though he admitted the details there were fuzzy. Then he explained how Ortega saved him and later went on to join Team Star in an effort to combat the bullying issues at the academy. And he laid out the team’s resources (or lack thereof) in comparison to the school’s when Operation Star went down.
“…so, while I’m not a hundred percent clear what my mom was up to, I know it’s had way more effect on Paldea’s stability than anything Team Star could ever do,” he concluded. “They really were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Arrester took several more notes before he bothered making eye contact or asking Arven a follow-up question. “I appreciate you divulging all this. Where is your mother now, if I may ask?”
“Couldn’t say. She hasn’t been seen publicly for a long time, and my last contact from her was on my eleventh birthday.” Now it was Arven who avoided eye contact. This constant talk about his mom was dredging up a lot of old and ugly feelings from his past–all the fear and uncertainty that came with being raised by a parent who was mildly interested in his well-being on her good days.
“Interesting…” Arrester folded his hands. His right hand massaged the knuckles on his left as he worked through his thoughts. “I’m not ruling out the idea that Team Star is responsible for this mess, you understand. Your friend’s group would have much better standing if they didn’t flee the scene and go into hiding.”
Arven gripped his knees as he struggled for a counterargument. “My best guess is they were scared. When you get falsely accused of stuff once, it’s hard to trust it won’t happen again.”
“Well, if you happen to come into contact with them–”
“–I told you, I haven’t seen any of them in almost two years.” Crap. Does lying make you cut off sentences more? He tried to remember if Sada did that a lot when he was a kid. She lied plenty, so if there were universal tells, Arven should know them all. For a brief moment, he saw himself as a little kid–scared that every time she walked out the door, she would get too involved in work to come home.
“Noted,” Arrester was saying. “I only meant if you happened to re-connect to Team Star in the near future, perhaps you could reassure them I always do my full diligence. I would rather see a guilty party escape than an innocent party punished.”
Arven lowered his gaze. A dull ache thrummed in the back of his head. It was the fourth time it’d happened during this chat. But it felt like Arrester was wrapping the talk up, so hopefully they’d be done soon.
Arrester stared towards the trail. “You know, chasing Team Galactic and Team Plasma has always been my primary goal. It was where they assigned me when I joined, and it hasn’t changed since. Even though both group’s activities are negligible now. Perhaps I’ve become a Timburr who sees everything as a nail.”
Arven didn’t follow the analogy, but maybe it was a Unova thing. Hard to focus when his headache refused to improve. If anything, it felt worse. Either this conversation needed to end now, or he needed to take a breather. Was it being out in the sun too much? That didn’t make sense. He’d hiked plenty and never gotten headaches before. But with the pain blurring his ability to think, he politely asked Arrester for a moment to leave and get some water. When Arrester agreed, Arven all but staggered over to a water fountain not far from the picnic tables–a tall one made of black stone. He took a slurp of water but then sat and leaned against the fountain’s side. Something wasn’t right here. He felt sick. And he could have sworn he heard a voice crying from somewhere far away:
“I’m scared. My dad didn’t come home last night. And I’m scared they’re coming for me next.”