Arven closed his eyes. He knew things weren’t going so hot if he was hearing voices in his head. But when he did so, the cool and solid feeling of the water fountain at his back faded. Had he leaned forward without noticing? He tried to lean back to make up for it and almost fell over. His eyes flew open only to find himself in a dark void with a mist at his feet.
The unexpected change of scenery surprised him enough that he actually did fall over. Pans and utensils clanged together inside his bag. If he had been in a large, empty room, the sound would have echoed like crazy, but it was clipped and short. He had flashes of traveling into whatever strange space existed between the tera raid crystals, but it didn’t feel like that, either.
“Mister? Are you okay?”
That voice. The same one he’d heard before. Arven turned around and saw a young girl–maybe seven or eight at the most–standing not far away from him. Her body rose up from the fog, even looked like it was made of fog. Her clothing was a sleeveless ragged dress, no embellishments or patterns. She was every bit the image of a stereotypical ghost out of a horror movie.
“I didn’t know anyone else could come here. Your clothes are weird. You look scary.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you scary?”
Arven swallowed hard. I’m either losing my mind or I’m dead. Then he considered the uncomfortable possibility he might well be both.
Penny sat with the ghost a long while. She didn’t have a clue how much time had passed, but somehow that didn’t bother her. It couldn’t have been too long. Maybe in this place, it wasn’t any time at all. They traded stories about their lives–he had indeed lived in the early years of the Paldean empire, under the rule of the evil king who had acquired the Treasures of Ruin to begin with. And it was his writing on the wooden treasure. His record of the king’s wrongs. He’d been no one special in life; rather shy around others, but he did what he felt he had to. Penny shared her own frustrations with trying to fix everything broken in her home. How she struggled to keep it together and be a leader when she was so bad at working with others. How frustrated she felt about the choices she now had to make. He understood completely. It felt like they could sit and talk forever. The man’s voice sounded so much like an old friend’s.
Then she straightened when a new voice broke through the void. Someone was calling her name. Someone familiar.
“Penny? Penny, answer me!”
“Nemona?” Penny said, confused.
A crack opened in the darkness beside her, and more voices followed up. Mellie and Momo. Eri and Atticus…
“You have to come back!”
“We beg thee, my lady!”
Penny shook her head. Whoa. How long have I been in here, really? The thought alone felt like surfacing after diving underwater too long. She realized she had no clue how many hours had gone by. And unlike a moment ago, the idea frightened her.
She turned to her companion. “Those are my friends. I…I’m sorry, but I have to leave.” She stood up, and as she did, a bolt of inspiration struck. “Wait. We can both leave. You go first, and I’ll follow.” She reached out her hand and gasped. It was easier to see than it had been in the dark before. But now her hand was cloudy and translucent with a faint supernatural light–the same as his. If they were in some sort of ghost realm, maybe only her spirit could be here? But if that was the case, where was her body? Still standing in front of the Grasswither Shrine? Or was it–?
No. She couldn’t get stuck in her own head again. These questions would answer themselves once she left. Once both of them left.
The man stared sadly at Penny’s offered hand and shook his head. “If I leave, you’ll be stuck here.”
“Huh? By what?”
He tilted his head in confusion. “The Ruinous One.”
“The Pokémon Wo-Chien, you mean?” Penny said. “It’s okay. It’s trapped in a prison. It can’t get us here.”
The ghost looked even more confused. “This place…this is the Ruinous One’s mind. And it fuels itself with bitterness. Without the emotions of a human spirit to consume, it will cease to exist.” He motioned to the crack of light. “It has no need for two spirits here when it can only make use of one. I doubt it even has a preference for which one of us it feeds off. I promise it will hold dearly onto whoever tries to step out last.”
Penny swallowed hard. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe the man. He’d been inside Wo-Chien’s mind for centuries. Maybe even millennia.
But he kept talking about Penny like she was some younger version of himself. And she wasn’t. She couldn’t say how, but she felt sure this place couldn’t hold her the same way it had him. It might get its hooks in a part of her–that part that could only think about how her and her friends’ future might be ruined thanks to Professor Turo. But it couldn’t trap her completely. Maybe because she still had a body back in the physical plane. Maybe because she hadn’t lost her future just yet.
If she could send this stranger-turned-friend out ahead of her, she felt confident she could find her own way out eventually.
But Arven and Ortega didn’t have eventually.
Penny lowered her hand. “There’s some people I need to help first,” she said. “But once I do, I’ll come back for you. I promise.”
The man turned away and waved for her to leave. A dismissal from someone too tired for an argument. And once she stepped out, he’d fall back into ruminating on how much he’d been wronged during his lifetime. Back into an empty, futureless void.
No one deserved that fate.
Penny walked past him and touched the crack of light. The connection sent a warm pulse through her. She hadn’t been cold before–not that she noticed, anyway–but the heat renewed her energy in a way she felt she could take on anything.
She would come back for this man and help him. The leader of Team Star made good on her promises.
Arven didn’t answer the ghost girl right away. He wasn’t even sure how to. Of course, he wasn’t trying to frighten her, but she was frightening him pretty good right now just by floating there in the mist.
She backed up a bit, clutching her hands defensively in front of her. “I-I asked if you’re scary,” she squeaked out. “I-if you are, you should at least say so.” Then she winced and tightened her fists, like she was bracing for an attack.
“I’m…not trying to be,” Arven said. “I don’t even know where we are or how I got here.”
The girl opened one eye. “You…don’t?”
“No. Do you?”
Her hands lowered a tiny bit. “I know we’re inside a creature I made with the others.”
Arven saw no ‘others’ around, but seeing as how he was pretty sure he was talking to a ghost right now, that didn’t mean much. “O-okay. So you’re saying you, uh, made this place?”
“Yes. Because we were afraid. We wanted a place to hide where the king couldn’t find us. But I’m the only one here now. The others moved on a long time ago.” She rubbed at her eyes with ethereal hands. “I don’t want to go until I find my daddy again.”
Arven took a few steps closer. He’d never been great with kids, but this was different. Even though they’d just met, something inside him knew this girl. Or at least, that they had enough in common, it felt like he knew her.
She whimpered a bit as he got closer, so he paused and knelt down to be at eye level with her. The swirling mist now came up to his waist. “I’m sorry. I know what it’s like to not have your parent at home. It’s frightening.”
“Y-yeah. It is.” She sniffled and rubbed her nose. Then she floated closer to him.
He smiled, trying his best to appear friendly. Like the type of person he wished had been around when he was a kid. “I don’t know if I can help you, but maybe if we can both get out of here…” He paused and took in the strange space once again. The girl had said she was looking for her father. She didn’t want to leave. For that matter, Arven wasn’t sure if he wanted to, either. The mist and darkness that had unnerved him at first already felt familiar, simple and safe. Which was much more than he could say for the world outside right now.
He sat cross-legged, and it felt like settling onto a soft pillow. If he stayed, the girl would have some company. And Arven would have someone around who understood him, ugly past and all.
“Young man?” a distant voice called. “Young man, are you all right?”
Arven shook his head. The voice felt intrusive, and he wanted to wave it away.
But the girl looked at him with glistening eyes. “If a grown-up calls you, you’re supposed to answer them.”
“Hey, I don’t have to. I’m not a little kid anymore,” Arven said. But the words felt off. It didn’t take Arven long to realize why. Hiding in this place to avoid his problems was exactly what a little kid would do. Arven had grown past that–thanks in no small part to his friends from school.
He stood up from the fog, even though it felt like a monumental effort. There still was no way out of here he could see. But maybe if he kept listening, he could find one.
Penny’s eyes flew open. It was pretty cloudy outside, but after sitting in darkness with only some faint ghostly glowing to illuminate the place, the shafts of peeking sunlight felt harsh. Penny squinted and shielded her eyes. Her wrist and hand, she was quite happy to see, were very much solid flesh.
She was still standing in front of the prison door. The voices that had called her back here now surrounded her even louder and more emotional than before.
“Thou didst nearly give us all a collective heart attack!”
Penny put her hand to her chest, which was warm, and to her vast relief, contained a very regular heartbeat. I…actually am okay. She smiled at each of her friends. Not only from Team Star, but Juliana and Nemona as well. All of them knelt around her, trading hugs and wiping damp eyes at seeing her.
Then she asked the question she wasn’t fully sure she wanted an answer to. “How long was I out?”
“Only a few hours,” Juliana said. “But…” Her voice trailed off, and she didn’t finish her sentence. Penny knew the look of someone trying to spare her feelings. They didn’t have time for that sort of nonsense. Whatever had happened while she’d been out of it, she needed the details. Al of them.
Penny tried to move forward only to find her feet stuck. She glanced down. Several thick vines had wrapped themselves around her lower legs. Moss covered her sneakers. She squealed and yanked her foot up, which snapped the vines easily enough, but the sensation was still plenty unnerving. “Y-you sure it was only a few hours?”
“Two hours and thirty-seven minutes, if you want to get technical about it,” Nemona said.
“Yeah, we were only panic-checking every couple of minutes,” Giacomo added.
Penny shook the greenery off her foot and then yanked the other one free as well. She reached down to slap the dead vines away, only to find bits of moss on the elbow of her sweatshirt. And in her hair. And a thick layer around the border of her computer tablet.
“The plants started growing a few minutes ago,” Eri said. “You were standing in front of the door like you were in a trance or something. Then your skin went this pale, almost greenish color, and–”
“–and you had a freaky glowy fog around you,” Mela finished. “And you started to look kind of see-though. I mean, we were scared for you before, but this was extra-punch scared.”
“I wonder…” Penny mused, being a bit of a hypocrite as she let her own voice trail off. Did those effects start when I almost let that ghost exit before me? When I nearly got trapped in there?
“You wonder…?” Eri prompted.
Penny shook her head. “Just…re-thinking some stuff I saw while I was out. I’ll explain later, but let’s get back to the academy for now.”
“Couldn’t agree more,” Nemona said as she began to lead the group away from the glowing shrine door. She didn’t make it far before her Rotom phone rang loudly. With the school anthem as her ring tone, of all things. She checked the name but frowned when he saw it and shoved the phone away. It continued to ring loudly from her pocket.
“Who is it?” Penny asked.
“Raifort. But I’ll call her back. We need to get you–”
Penny held up her hand. “Answer it.”
Nemona raised an eyebrow but took the phone out again anyway. “Hello? Yes, professor. Going? It’s going fine. I mean, we did find two of the shrines. But we’re heading back early. We can’t inspect them right now.”
A sharp, annoyed voice replied on the other line. “Why not? Well, if you, um, must know, we had a…medical emergency. Uh-huh. See, my friend starting feeling bad, and–Juliana? No. I mean, yes?”
Never should have told her to answer it. Penny had forgotten how bad Nemona could be at lying at the spot. She made a cut-it-out-right-now motion.
Juliana, however, did the opposite. She pointed to Penny and egged Nemona on. Nemona’s gaze darted between the two before she went back to the phone and replied, “Actually, yes, we did bring a third person with us. Her name is…uh, Jenny, and she’s very in tune with the supernatural.”
Penny slapped her forehead. Nemona somehow took this to mean she should continue. “Oh, yes. In fact, that’s why we had to back off, you see. Because she heard this, uh…”
Juliana spread her arms out wide.
“…this super-powerful strong voice from beyond when we got near the gate!”
Juliana gave Nemona a thumbs-up. There was a bunch of chattering on the other line before Nemona continued, “Oh? You…want to speak to her in person?” She eyed Penny for advice this time. “In your classroom this evening?”
As much as Penny wanted to signal that Nemona should call the whole thing off, if anyone knew something about what she’d had just experienced, it was probably Raifort. Which meant an after-class meeting was the perfect opportunity.
Penny gave a reluctant nod, and Nemona grinned. “Yep. Five o’ clock. See you then.” She tapped the phone off. “Okay, it’s done. You sure you’re okay to jump into this?”
“I’m going to have to be. There’s a whole ton of stuff I saw while I was out of it, and Raifort might be the one who can explain–wait!” A sudden wave of nausea hit, only this time, it had nothing to do with her proximity to the shrine. “Any idea where Arven went off to today?”
Juliana rubbed the back of her head. “He told me this morning he was following a lead, but that he’d be around the Socarrat Trail if we needed him. Why?”
Crap. Crap. Crap. Penny’s stomach sank like a Golem. She checked the map on her tablet to confirm, and sure enough, Arven was right near the prison for the ruinous Pokemon Ting-Lu. Only unlike Penny, none of them had come with him. She quickly tapped Arven’s name in her address book. Please answer. Please answer.
She could forgive herself for a lot of screw-ups. But being yet another person in Arven’s life who wasn’t there when he needed them wouldn’t be one of them.