Before long, the group reached a meadow of tiny flowers and swaying grasses. If the world hadn’t tried to end so recently, no doubt it would have at least a few picnickers around. But as things stood, the space was empty. Which was exactly how Penny wanted it.
“Arven and I talked last night after dinner,” she admitted. Though she had a strong suspicion it wasn’t news to Juliana. “The original idea was that we’d each create a path for our ghost to leave. Same as last time, really. When you guys called out to us, it made this…I dunno? Light portal thing? We figured we’d each have to coax the ghosts to walk through it instead of us.”
“Then Wo-Chien and Ting-Lu would have no choice but to latch onto the two of us for their emotion fix,” Arven said. “An inside job, if you will. The only problem is…” He rubbed the back of his head. “…well, my ghost at least doesn’t want to leave.”
“And that’s the only problem?” Eri asked with a raised eyebrow. The group stood awkwardly waiting for him to reply.
“Well, it’s the first problem, at any rate,” Penny said. She lead the group a little farther through the grass. The meadow had a circular patch where the grass was sparse, and the flowers were non-existent. That was where the map had pointed.
“So you’re…what? Gonna give the ghosts a millennia-overdue therapy session?” Giacomo asked. “Because I’ll be real with you, boss, I don’t think you two are qualified for that kind of work.”
He wasn’t wrong. Penny couldn’t lie and tell him otherwise.
Thankfully Arven stepped in. “That’s why we took a detour. Penny and I were going to face these ghosts separately at first, you know? But now we think the two of them might know each other. In fact, we’re pretty sure they’ve been searching for each other a while.” He grinned and gave a thumbs-up, the same way he had when announcing he’d be making them dinner. “And let’s face it, there’s no easier way to bring up positive emotions than a happy reunion.”
“Reuniting them could dissipate those negative emotions Wo-Chien and Ting-Lu have been feeding on,” Penny added. “Starve them out and make it easier for us to subdue them.”
“Which would be the second problem,” said Mela. Stated, not asked.
Penny nodded. “I have no idea how strong they are, but if our first encounters with them are anything to go by…”
She left the rest of the sentence unspoken, but it wasn’t like anyone needed any reminders. They’d all seen what had happened when the ruinous Pokémon got their mental claws in Penny and Arven for even a little bit. The vines twisting around Penny’s ankles. The dirt piling itself up on Arven’s feet.
Nemona looked furious. She marched over to Arven and actually poked him in the chest. “Espera un momento. You mean to say you were planning to pull a secret self-sacrificing stunt, too?”
“Um…” Arven backed away from Nemona’s threatening pointer finger. “If I say yes, are you going to finger-stab me again?”
“Ugh, you’re a bad influence, boss!” Mela snapped.
Penny didn’t argue and checked her map. They were standing right beside the meadow’s “bald spot” where the ground was dry and bare. “Yep, this space should be just about right.”
Atticus raised an eyebrow at the dusty ground. “For what, m’lady?”
“We’re perfectly halfway between the two shrines,” Penny explained. “With any luck, we should be able to connect to the ghosts from here, draw them out, and let them see each other again. After that…” She swallowed hard. “Well, after that, we’ve just got to suppress some ancient evil into new prisons. Ones their powers can’t leak out from.” She nodded to Arven. “You want to leave your Pokémon behind? Just in case, I mean?”
An awkward silence hung in the air as Arven debated. She wasn’t going to try to change his mind either way. But it felt like she should at least bring the topic up.
Arven removed the six Poké Balls from his belt, holding three in each hand. “Yeah, I think so.” He placed one into Juliana’s hand first, then one into Giacomo’s. He hesitated before he placed the third Poké Ball into Nemona’s open hand. “But only because last time I got a whole bunch of dirt on me, and Mabosstiff doesn’t like when his travel home gets all messy.” He released the ball, and Nemona held tight onto it. Penny didn’t have to guess which Pokémon was in there. An interesting choice. But Arven’s companion would have a tough time finding a more temporary guardian more dedicated than Nemona.
With both their Poké Balls distributed, Penny and Arven came over to the circular patch of dirt in the middle of the meadow.
“You brought it?” Penny asked.
Arven nodded and set his bag down. But instead of rummaging through it like he usually did when he needed something, he simply opened the top flap, reached in and pulled the object right out. The bag was more deflated than usual, suggesting to Penny it was one of the few objects inside.
Arven showed the molcajete to the group. Penny could still catch a whiff of the peppers and spices from last night’s impromptu feast.
“Um, is that what I think it’s for?” Nemona asked.
“Depends,” Arven said. “Do you think I’m planning to channel an ancient malevolent Pokémon from the stone bowl its been possessing for thousands of years into this one I made dinner with last night?”
She stared unblinking at him. “Uh…”
“Because if so, yes. It is exactly what you think it’s for.” He placed the molcajete on the ground and sat cross-legged behind it. Penny took up a similar position opposite of him. “I gotta say, I still feel kind of stupid trying this.”
“How do you think I feel?” Penny muttered. Then she reached into her Eevee backpack–her original brown one this time–and pulled out the item she’d promised to bring. She sat it in front of her. Dang thing still smelled like moss from the last shrine incident. “I mean, seriously. At least you’re trying to coax Ting-Lu into something that’s more or less the same as before. My big plan here is to trap Wo-Chien in a freakin’ computer.”
“Computer tablet,” Arven pointed out. “Basically interchangeable with a wooden one if you ask me.”
“Ah. These are the ‘new’ prisons you spoke of yesterday evening?” Atticus asked.
Penny and Arven both nodded.
Giacomo huffed, clearly unimpressed. “Fascinating. So why didn’t you just grab a piece of two-by-four from shop class or something?”
We have a shop class? Why are none of these courses ever mentioned at the front desk? Penny pushed her tablet forward on the ground so the edge of it tapped against Arven’s bowl. “This is just a guess, but the objects that formed the ruinous Pokémon to begin with were all highly significant to the people who came to inhabit them. So we’re thinking it’s more important that the new items mean something to Arven and me.”
Which meant if this worked and they wanted to repeat it with Ortega and Turo, they had to find objects that were equally important to the two of them. But that would come later. One monumentally difficult task at a time and all.
Giacomo shrugged, which was his usual way of saying that while he didn’t agree with Penny’s logic, he was willing to step back and trust her judgement.
“Okay,” she said to Arven. “Let’s do this.”
He swallowed hard. “Right. See you on the other side, I guess.”
The crowd of stepped back as the two of them both closed their eyes and placed their hands on their corresponding objects. The tablet was powered off, but Penny could feel a different kind of energy at its edges. She reached out with her mind to the monster she’d once met behind the Grasswither Shrine’s door…and to the man who’d kept it alive all these centuries.
“Why did you come back?”
Penny gasped and opened her eyes, finding herself once again in the dark abyss where she’d first met the ghost. Inside Wo-Chien’s mind, if Raifort was to be believed. She didn’t expect the man to show up so quickly, and his annoyed tone threw her off-guard.
“I-I want to help you,” Penny told him, taking a tentative step forward. They weren’t far from each other, though distance became hard to judge in this place. But it felt like the closer she tried to get, the more he moved away.
“I told you, there’s nothing for you here except to get trapped like me. Just leave!”
His words had actual force behind them, pushing Penny back like a strong wind. Then he moaned and curled up in the swirling mist, holding his head. “The last time we spoke, you said someone in your world wronged you, too…you understand I can’t just let this go.”
Penny did understand. Maybe more than she wanted to admit. “I-I know,” she told him. “The desire to right that wrong? I get it. Even if it starts from a good place, it grows strong so quickly. Strong enough to take control of you. But…” She took a deep breath, mentally placing herself back with her group of friends. Giacomo’s words cut through any fog that tried to cloud her mind. “But if you’ve got a reason to go…to leave it behind…”
“She was my reason!” The man’s anguished voice hit Penny like a stinging blast in a sandstorm. But unlike before, she didn’t lose any ground. “I wanted to make the world a better place for her. And in the end, she was left alone thinking I abandoned her.”
“She doesn’t think that!” Penny said.
The man lifted his head, glaring daggers at her. He’d never compared the severity of their situations before. But now he spoke like she was some spoiled child he’d been humoring all along. “How would you know?”
“I…I know because my friend talked to her,” Penny said, even as doubt plagued her thoughts. The king executed plenty of people in all likelihood. Maybe Arven’s ghost had nothing to do with Penny’s. But surely determination like hers had to come from somewhere? “She’s frightened, because she doesn’t know what happened. But she knows you’d never leave her on purpose.” Penny gave a gentle smile, now imagining the first time she stood in person with Team Star. “She’s been waiting all this time. For you. You just need to take that first step.”
Watching Penny and Arven from the outside was pure torture as far as Mela was concerned. This wasn’t Area Zero where she could jump in to save them like she had Nemona. Locked in their meditative states, they were both beyond where she could reach them. She felt helpless, and she hated it. Her hands were so balled up, her fingers ached.
Nemona moved closer and gave Mela’s tightened fist a tentative squeeze. “It’s okay. They’re strong. They’ll get through this.”
“Shut up,” Mela said, though she didn’t yank her fist back and punch Nemona in the face, either.
Nemona let go and looked kind of hurt until Eri leaned over and whispered, “That’s Mela talk for ‘thank you.'”
Nemona nodded, and the trio of them kept themselves focused on Arven and Penny. They knew what to expect from last time, but that still didn’t make it comfortable to watch.
The ruinous Pokémon’s weird effects hit Arven first. Small mounds of dirt built up from the ground, swallowing the tiny legs of his bowl before expanding up to its rim. Before long, the entire molcajete was encased in hard, dry earth. And it didn’t stop there. The dirt spread out to capture Arven’s fingertips as well, effectively sealing them in their held position. Arven didn’t struggle. If he was aware there was anything to struggle against. Worse still, his grip on the bowl seemed to tighten.
Mela held her breath. This was not looking good. And if Arven was struggling, what would happen with the big boss? With Penny?
“Whoa, now!” Nemona said, as she jumped backward. Which seemed like kind of a rude way to break the silence. Then Mela caught a glance of Arven’s Poké Ball shaking like crazy in Nemona’s hand. Before she could try to stop it, the two halves of the ball split apart, and Mabosstiff appeared in a flash of red light.
Nobody moved. Had Arven told Mabosstiff what was happening? He seemed like he told his Pokémon everything, but then again, he’d been pretty secretive about this, even with his friends.
Mabosstiff walked over to Arven and gave a gentle woof.
His friend didn’t move. The layer of earth encasing Arven’s wrists moved its way up his arms.
Mabosstiff whined and placed a large paw on Arven’s knee. When this also got no reaction, he paced back and forth as if searching for something. He came to his own Poké Ball resting at Nemona’s feet, gently took it in his mouth, and carried it over to Arven.
The ball fell with a dull thud into Arven’s lap.
“Wuuuf!” Mabosstiff said, more desperate than before.
For a split second, Mela could have sworn she saw Arven twitch. Or at least his lower lip quiver. Mela barely knew the guy, and she never wanted to shout at someone so bad. After everything he and Mabosstiff been through together? Something in him had to hear his friend’s cries. It just had to.
Arven jumped back at the sheer volume of the ghost’s voice. This was the same one he’d talked to before, no doubt about it. But she wasn’t quite so loud the first time. Even the mist around her briefly propelled away.
He held his hands up to show he meant no harm. “We’ve talked before, remember? Don’t be afraid.”
The girl slunk back and whimpered. “Easy for you to say. You’re tall and strong and can do stuff for yourself. You don’t know how it was for me back then.”
Arven swallowed. “You’re right. I don’t know. But…” He reached out his hand towards her, debating how his younger self would want to be spoken to. Nothing dismissive. Nothing condescending. Simple so he could understand but honest regardless of his age.
“I did have something scary in my past,” he finally said. She raised her head expectantly. Arven’s mind started to flash back to that moment with the time machine. When he cried out to Ortega for help. When he didn’t know if he would make it or not. He flinched at the memories, even as he chanted to himself that was all they were. Memories. They’d trapped him in the past long enough.
In fact, maybe the time machine’s effects on his body weren’t random. Maybe, in some weird way, his fixation on all that childhood fear had guided its reaction. The time machine had registered Turo as belonging in the past as well. Didn’t Turo say he’d dropped his own research in his obsessive jealousy over Sada’s success? Never moving forward. Remembering only a previous wrong?
But Arven was better than him. He was better than Sada’s lousy upbringing and his own fears. Maybe not alone, but with his friends and allies…Juliana, Penny, even that know-it-all Nemona…
And of course, there was Mabosstiff…
–a deep-throated woof echoed in the empty space. Arven swore he must be imagining it at first. The same way he felt sure he’d imagined it when they fed Mabosstiff the second Herba Mystica. But while Arven had done a lot of crazy stuff recently, it had not involved hearing Pokémon that weren’t there.
And of course, this wasn’t any Pokémon.
“Mister?” the girl asked.
Arven breathed deeply. His hands were going translucent now, giving off that ghostly glow like Penny warned they might. But for the first time in a long while, Arven wasn’t scared.
“Sorry,” he said to the girl. “Where was I?”
She pulled at her own translucent fingers. “You were going to tell me the scary stuff that happened to you.”
“Ah.” He debated for a moment then shook his head. “You know what? There’s times to talk about the past, but I’m guessing this isn’t one of them.” He pointed forward. It was meant to be a symbolic gesture, but quite dramatically, a crack of light opened up in the darkness–a perfect even distance between him and the girl.
“If you walk through there, someone’s waiting to see you,” he said. “Someone who’s been looking for you as long as you’ve been looking for him.”
She gasped and covered her mouth. It reminded Arven of something Poppy might do. Who he was absolutely going to challenge someday when he got out of here and trained up his team and took on the Pokémon League.
When he made a future for himself.
“Daddy?” she called out, stepping towards the crack of light. Arven inched back to give her space. And the closer she got to it, the easier it became to see her. The ghostly aura didn’t fully leave, but she didn’t feel like a creepy sceptre haunting some ancient piece of pottery anymore.
She looked like a kid about to find her way her home.
Onward she continued, one foot in front of the other until her toe brushed against the light. At the last moment, she turned back towards Arven. “But what about you, Mister?” she asked. “Will you be okay?”
Arven closed his eyes, listening one more time. Mabosstiff’s bark echoed around him, louder and stronger than before. He could follow it anywhere.
“Yeah,” he said with nothing but confidence. “You go. I’ll be fine.”
She nodded, whispered a tearful thanks, and did exactly as she told him.
“She’s…here?” Penny’s ghost asked, his hollow voice cracking with a spark of life. “My baby girl…she waited for me? All this time?”
Penny nodded, her eyes burning. She really wasn’t the type for emotional stuff like this. But she was the person who’d made it in here to speak with him. And for now, that would have to be enough. “I’m sorry for what you lost. Nothing can change it or make it okay. And you have every right to feel the way you do. But…” She pointed towards a crack of light that had opened in the darkness between them. “…but I think it would a great thing if she could see you smiling.”
He turned at looked at the light as he’d only just found it there. His phantasmal body didn’t really have any color to it before, but for a moment, Penny could see a warm flicker of brown in his irises, and the whites of his eyes reddening as he held back tears.
“You’re right. It would.”
Mela’s gut twisted as she watched the scene unfolding in front of her. For all the boss’s big talk about friends and found family and unbreakable bonds, it didn’t look one bit like any of it was helping.
There were no vines in this in-between spot off the road. But within a few moments of Mabosstiff calling out to Arven, dark roots erupted from the ground and covered Penny’s tablet. Moss grew from under her fingernails and swallowed her hands. And soon enough, two vines sprouted from the earth and braided themselves around her ankles.
But as both the boss and Arven became more and more consumed by their elements, a strange mist rose from each of them. A mist that condensed itself until it seemed to form shapes. In moments, two humanoid clouds hovered above Arven and Penny’s heads.
Mela felt a chill, like that time Giacomo made her go to one of Ryme’s concerts and all the Greavard came up to dance around her. The music was amazing. The Pokémon were terrifying. Like standing face to face with death.
The clouds moved towards each other, arm-like tendrils reaching out. They pulled themselves into one another, swirling and laughing and crying all at once. Their voices seemed to blend with the wind itself, passing briefly past the ears of each person in the group:
“I missed you, Daddy. I missed you so much!”
“I know. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to make you wait so long.”
The last words softened, barely audible before they dissipated into the air as the spirits who spoke them moved on:
“It’s okay. You’re here now…it was worth waiting…”
“…yes…yes, it was.”