“Young man? Arven! Can you hear me?” Click!
Penny gritted her teeth and checked her tablet screen. Her call had failed again. It went though each time she tried, and she caught snippets of someone yelling Arven’s name, but the spotty coverage would fail before she could get any real answers.
Finally, after no less than six attempts, the signal held strong. Only it wasn’t Arven who picked up. Instead, the face of the International Police agent–the one Team Star had been doing everything to avoid–filled the phone screen.
“Are you Arven’s friend?” he asked.
“I-I–yes?” Penny said nervously.
Arrester turned the phone so the camera faced Arven instead. He looked awful. His movements were sluggish and sections of his body had gone completely transparent. His hair–his school shirt and vest–Penny could see right through them to the dark stony surface of whatever he was leaning against.
“Arven!” she yelled. “Snap out it! We need you back here with us!”
Arven winced and tried to sit up. If he was in the same headspace Penny had been before, she could only imagine how difficult it was to pull himself back to the present. But as Juliana and Nemona and the others joined her in calling out his name, Arven’s body became more solid. His hair grew opaque once again. When he finally focused enough to wave at all them, his clothes appeared normal, too.
“Hey, guys,” he said in a voice thick with fatigue. He struggled to stand up but couldn’t quite do it. Penny had a hunch why.
“What the–?” As Arven settled back into a seated position, his gaze pointed down, and he startled. Then he batted at something out of view. He turned back to the phone screen after giving whatever it was several good smacks. “Sorry. It’s…it’s the freakiest thing. Arrester says I was only gone ten minutes, but my shoes are…well, they’re um…”
“They’re encased in dirt?” Penny asked.
Arven seemed relieved he didn’t have to explain this. “Y-yeah. Wait. How did you know that?”
“Let’s say experience and leave it there. Listen, Nemona, Juliana, and I are going to see Professor Raifort. Can you get back to school on your own?”
“Y-yeah, I think so,” Arven said.
Arrester ducked back into view. “I’ll see that he gets safely there myself. You have the word of the International Police.”
Well, when you’re going around calling people your same age ‘young man,’ you must take your job pretty seriously. Penny gave a hesitant nod, and Arven took his phone back once again. “I’ll ping you when I’m there, but it might take a bit. Got a feeling this guy is gonna grill me on the way. And Penny?”
“Thanks for being there for me. You and…y’know, everyone else. It means a lot.”
With that, the call ended. Penny smiled as she turned to Mela and the others. She was far from a mind-reader, but Arven’s intentions were clear. He’d wanted to thank them each by name. Instead he’d kept to his promise not to let on he still had regular contact with them. “Check in with Arven as soon as that agent guy leaves,” she told the bosses. “Stay with him, and don’t let him get in his own head too much. Keep him talking.”
“About what?” Mela said.
“Anything that’ll ground him in the present. Talk about class if you have to.”
“That sounds you want me to torture him.”
“Torture very much alerts one to their present surroundings,” Atticus said.
Mela shrugged. “Yeah, that’s a good point. Okay. Let’s head out, then.” She led the way alongside Nemona back towards the school, and the rest of the group followed behind. Penny wondered if she should be concerned about how quickly Mela changed her tune when torture was brought up. Or how happy she now looked as they made their way to Mesagoza.
Then she decided with everything else going on, Mela was the least of her concerns. She had serious doubts that the ruinous Pokémon could be stopped. But they didn’t need to be. They only needed to be controlled. And with a little more information, that Penny felt she could handle.
Juliana was a complete bundle of nerves. This whole adventure so far had taken her on quite the emotional roller coaster. Right now, she hoped she could at least make the rest of the evening without the need to jump in and save her friends from disappearing. Or permanently trapping themselves in a ghost realm. Or whatever other metaphysical chaos they seemed keen to get themselves into.
Despite the relatively short trip back, it was not far off from Raifort’s proposed meeting time when they arrived at the school doors. Arven had returned safely, much to Juliana’s relief, but she barely had the chance to exchange more than a few words with him before she, Nemona, and their amazing new medium friend “Jenny” made their way to Raifort’s classroom.
If their first meeting was anything to go by, one minute late and they might as well not show up at all.
Thankfully as before, they made it with about five minutes to spare. Raifort didn’t even lock the door on them this time. Whether because she’d reconsidered how rude it was or because school policy wouldn’t allow her to lock the classrooms when she had no safety concerns to justify it, who could say?
She did shut the door behind the trio when they entered. Penny introduced herself, but she also kept checking over her shoulder at their closed-off entryway.
“I’ve signed out usage of the room for an independent study hall this evening,” Raifort assured the group. “No one will come in to bother us.” She motioned to the three chairs she had arranged in front of her desk. “Please have a seat and tell me about your experience at the shrine.”
Juliana took a seat in the leftmost chair and pointed Penny towards the center. She was the one Raifort wanted to speak to, after all. They’d had some discussion ahead of time about what kind of act Penny should put on, if any. Most students in tune with the supernatural, like they’d claimed she was, had some aloofness to them.
Nemona wanted her to fully ham it up. Juliana just wanted to get through this interview without Raifort finding them out.
Penny took the middle road. She sat down and spoke with both a deadpan monotone and lots of drawn-out vowels. “Yeees. There I waaaaaas. Before the doooooor of Wo-Chien’s prisoooon. And as I stoooood there, I heard a maaaaan call to me from beyooooond.”
She seemed to realize how long this would take if she spoke that way the entire time, and her vowels shortened up. She spoke about the ghost she’d communicated with as if he’d been merely a voice in her head, not someone she’d seen face-to-face. Overall, she kept most of the retelling vague. But she did describe the details the ghost had given about his life. And about the wooden tablets he’d created.
The story was more than enough to get Raifort worked up with excitement. “I see! I see! So, in effect, you had a conversation with Wo-Chien itself!”
“Uh…” Penny said. Juliana gave her a gentle elbow nudge to remind her that she was supposed to be the supernatural expert here. “That is, yeeees. My otherwordly senses did indeed, um…sense that.”
“Hold on,” Nemona said, facing Raifort. “You said in class the Treasures of Ruin came from negative emotions, not ghosts. You don’t believe in the origin story that you taught?”
Raifort gave an annoyed huff. “I certainly believe part of it. But do I think emotions alone could create powerful Pokémon out of inanimate objects?” She crossed her arms. “It may have been the connecting point, but I believe there is more to it than that. Pokémon are living creatures, after all.”
“Meaning?” Juliana said, more annoyed than engaged.
Raifort frowned, obviously disappointed that he didn’t buy into her dramatic build-up. Juliana couldn’t muster much sympathy over it. Not her fault recent events had ruined her taste for flair-filled scientific announcements.
“Meaning your friend has confirmed what I suspected all along. The ancient treasures are, in fact, possessed by the ghosts of those whose emotions fueled them.”
Juliana startled, and it knocked her pink glasses askew. “Wait! The ghosts of humans? Or Pokémon?” She stared at Penny, who didn’t seem surprised or skeptical about any of this. Which most likely meant Raifort had nailed it. She just wished Penny had been a little more forthcoming with this info before they all walked in for this conversation.
“Well, some Pokémon are human ghosts,” Nemona said solemnly. “Or started that way, at least.”
“Indeed,” Raifort said. “Spiritomb is comprised of one-hundred-eight human spirits, punished collectively and bound to an Odd Keystone. It is said that some of these spirits are ill-natured.”
“Wait, only some of them?” Juliana asked. “Why are one-hundred-eight getting punished if it’s only some of them?!”
Raifort kept going as if she hadn’t heard. Or didn’t care. “Yamask are born from restless human ghosts. They even carry masks of their faces, hoping to find people who recognize their human forms.”
Nemona shivered. “Somehow that sounded less unsettling when I read it in my Pokédex.”
“Truth be told, I’m not fully convinced the physical treasures themselves are anything special,” Raifort said. “Merely convenient ports for these Pokémon to channel their power through. But of course, I could not say more without concrete evidence to study.”
Juliana didn’t know what to say to that, and given her expression, neither did Nemona. Penny, however, looked more determined than Juliana had ever seen her. “We’ll get the treasures for sure,” she said through gritted teeth. Then, without waiting for an invitation, she marched herself out of the classroom. Juliana and Nemona glanced at each other, shrugged, and thanked Raifort for her time before following their friend down the hall.
“What was that all about?” Juliana asked her. “You’re acting like a Tauros in a glass shop of a sudden.”
Penny yanked up the hood on her sweatshirt and pulled it tight. Which only underscored Juliana’s point. “I’m just ready to confront this thing head-on, is all.”
Back in Clavell’s office, Team Star had followed their leader’s instructions to the letter. Arven was seated and engaged in conversation with them, as he had been for the past three hours, whether he liked it or not.
Penny walked in to find Mela holding up a Poké Ball to her captive audience of one. Her words came out with an odd mix of her usual straightforward talk and Atticus’s old-timely mannerisms as she waxed philosophy from art class:
“…for example, even consider the time machine that we’re gonna smash to pieces. It only sends objects and stuff to this other reality, right?”
“Inanimate objects, yeah.”
“But it can send Pokémon. Via Poké Balls. So, if ya think about it…” She held the ball a little higher. “Crap, how did Brassy-ass put it? Oh, yeah. One could argue Poké Balls represent how people see Pokémon as our tools…when in fact they should be seen as partners. Other halves! Sources of our, uh, magical bonds of eternal friendship!”
“I daresay thy senses require more time outside,” Atticus sighed.
Mela’s cheeks puffed with anger until she turned and saw Penny in the doorway. “Oh, hey, Big Boss! You like my mini-lesson? I think I’m getting the torture part real good.”
Penny smiled and checked the calendar on her tablet. With everything that had happened, she was now extra cautious about time-tracking. Three more days before they had to report back to Ai. And not a lot of progress to show for it. They needed to get this business with the ruinous Pokémon settled. Tomorrow at the latest.
Something Raifort had said struck a chord with Penny. Nemona was right that they had no idea if destroying the stakes would help or hurt them. It would certainly render the time machine inoperable. And Penny wasn’t fully convinced they wanted that to happen, either.
They needed to do two things: Stop the ruinous Pokémon’s power from hurting Paldea. And stop themselves from vanishing. But if destroying the stakes for their first goal made the second goal impossible, what where they supposed to do?
“Um, pardon me?” said Clavell’s voice behind them. Penny turned to see him holding up a medium-sized cardboard box with various cords and cables inside like it was a peace offering. One of these days he was going to remember it was his office, and then they’d really have to watch themselves so as not to wear out their welcome.
“I, uh, brought some of the items you students requested.” He rooted through the box and held up an AC charger. “Though I fail to see how you need high-end mini-speakers to fully indulge in Professor Tyme’s mid-term tomorrow. You do realize it’s all digital, and she won’t say anything once the exam starts?”
Giacomo came up and snatched the box. “Oh, uh, the way she reminds us all to put our names on our papers really motivates me. Gotta have the full experience or I’ll probably flunk.”
He just wants to practice his sets as a way to unwind, Penny thought. Which wasn’t a bad use of resources per se. Still, her chest ached a bit as she pictured Ortega calling Giacomo out on his silly BS. He did have a knack for that kind of thing.
We’ll all be back together soon, Penny reminded herself.
“Anything else you children need?” Clavell asked, in a voice that strongly implied any polite person would say no.
Arven raised a timid hand. “Um, if it’s not too much trouble, maybe you could find us another room?” When Clavell’s eyebrows rose, Arven quickly added on, “I mean, a place I could throw together a real dinner? Atticus is right. We’ve either been in here or running for our lives. We need a change of scenery. Also we have a little something to celebrate.” He gave a dramatic pause.
Everyone stared blankly.
Arven coughed. “As of this afternoon, the International Police will be suspending their investigation of Team Star while they dig into Professor Sada’s research.” He rubbed the back of his head. “They, uh…kind of want statements from you guys about the whole lake thing, but you can do that next week, if you want.”
Penny’s body took a moment to react. She understood Arven’s words. Her brain flooded with relief. But her muscles had spent so much of their time tensed up, it was like they forgot how to do anything else.
“Is it not joyous news, Lady Penny?” Atticus asked.
“Um, yes? That is…no to it not being joyous? Meaning it is joyous.” She hung her head. “Sorry, I’m a little out of it.”
Atticus gave a soft laugh, which sounded pretty understanding to her.
“It certainly is a reason to celebrate. A dinner, you say?” Clavell rubbed his chin. “The staff room has a kitchenette, and it is not in use during school hours. Would this suit your needs?”
Arven smiled and rolled up his sleeves. “Sounds good to me.” He then turned and addressed the group. “Everyone, tell your taste buds to prepare themselves. Because–and I know this shock you all–I am very good at cooking things other than sandwiches!”
It might not have been the most triumphant declaration in history, but combined with giving Team Star free reign of Paldea again, it got Arven a standing ovation.
Within an hour, everyone was seated in the staff room, their mouths watering. The scents of lime, garlic, cumin, and cilantro hung in the air. Arven was working a pan of sausages, beating a bowl of eggs, and grinding tomatoes with a mortar and pestle all at the same time.
“Okay, I’m keeping it simple here,” he told the group. “Fried chorizo with a Paldean omelette.” He flashed a grin and winked. “I hear it goes by the name ‘cheese omelette with a spot o’ salsa’ back in Galar.”
Penny realized he was looking at her and forced a quick smile in return. “I’m trying to be offended, but it smells too good.”
“That’s the idea,” Arven assured her. He prodded the chorizo, then cut the heat on the flat little stovetop and turned his full attention to the salsa prep.
Penny went back to staring at the wall. She was distracted, but it wasn’t just by the amazing smell in the staff room. She couldn’t shake the replays of Raifort’s conversation from her mind. The way she had spoken about the ruinous Pokémon and their treasures. Penny loved a good puzzle, and usually the solution came from exploring a new angle. What if they didn’t need to destroy the stakes to hold the ruinous Pokémon off? What if they could do it without the Pokémon ever leaving their prisons at all?
“Are you making the salsa inside a rock?” Mela asked, pointing at Arven’s choice of cookware. The mortar was a little bigger than his hand, and it made of rough-surfaced granite. Arven had already pulverized a sizable number of tomatoes, herbs, and peppers inside it.
He paused from his work to turn his nose up at Mela. “It’s called a molcajete, and I’ll have you know it’s hand-crafted for grinding all kinds of spices and seasonings–”
“But it is made from a rock?”
He pushed the molcajete farther away on the countertop. “You want dinner or not?”
Mela lowered her head and apologized. Maybe because she’d spent several hours today bombarding Arven with regurgitated school lessons. Or because he was actually part of their group now and Team Star members respected each other.
Mela’s stomach growled. Or she’d backed off because she was hungry.
In any case, Arven smirked and resumed making the salsa. But not before holding up the pestle and adding, “By the way, this piece is called a tejolote.”
“How do you even wash that?” Nemona asked, sounding genuinely curious. She stood and indicated the bowl’s rough surface. “See? The juice is soaking right in.”
“That’s the fun part. It, like…carries the flavor from one dish to another.”
“So you don’t wash it?”
Arven groaned. “I swear, I’m never cooking for you guys again!”
Like Mela, Nemona resumed waiting patiently in her chair and did not give Arven any more grief about his food preparation.
“Actually,” Arven said after the silence got a bit too awkward. “These were the first pieces of kitchenware I bought just for myself. I was really focused on making things feel fresh and simple, and they seemed perfect. Nothing like Sada would ever use.” He picked up the frying pan, pushed the chorizo onto a plate and dumped in the seasoned eggs. They cackled and sizzled in the leftover fat and smelled all the more amazing for it. Arven went to work pushing and prodding them with a spatula. “Honestly, if a meal couldn’t be made in a rice cooker or a microwave, it didn’t exist to her.”
No one had any reply to that, but thankfully, the omelettes came quickly out of the pan and onto everyone’s plates, alongside several pieces of hot chorizo. Arven topped each omelette off with a layer of hand-grated cheese and a generous spoonful of salsa.
Penny really did try to put her worries behind her. The whole meal smelled amazing. And this might be the last time in a long while they got to enjoy each other’s company this way. But when she felt on the verge of solving something, her brain rarely gave her the luxury of putting those thoughts on hold.
The fact was, she did have a solution to their problem. She just wasn’t sure if anyone would let her execute it.