The moment the ghost left, a cry of pain blasted through Penny’s skull. Wo-Chien was not happy. The crack of light in front of her vanished. She braced herself, knowing what was coming. But the effect was akin to prepping a thunderstorm and finding herself in a hurricane. The power of the ruinous Pokémon slammed into her full-force. Everything went black, even the ethereal mist at her feet. In a flash, all she could think about was the time machine and its two horrible creators. Her throat went dry. An unquenchable thirst for revenge ravaged her mind and body. And every time she tried to envision her friends’ faces, the image morphed into one of Sada or Turo.
She never imagined it would be this bad. Wo-Chien ripped away her mental anchor in an instant. Although it didn’t speak with direct words as the ghost had, she could feel its own thirst syncing with hers. It needed these emotions. It had come into existence because of them. It couldn’t live on anything else.
She couldn’t condemn it to wither away and die, could she? And if she stayed, it could help her. Give her power to exact the revenge she craved. To keep others from being hurt the way she had. All she had to do was to keep feeding it these feelings…
Its wordless pleas of desperation soaked into Penny’s thoughts. She couldn’t bring herself to refuse. At the end of the day, this was still a Pokémon. One she’d left helpless. How could she abandon it now?
When the two ghostly mists faded from view and the voices went quiet, there wasn’t a dry eye in the group of them watching. Well, except for Mela’s, maybe.
Because she didn’t care about ghosts or sad old tales or whatever else. She cared about Team Star. And right now, the team’s leader was in serious trouble. The moss and leaves covering Penny’s tablet and hands grew at a frightening pace. In less than a minute, they’d swallowed her arms and waist. Vines and roots completely covered her legs. And the viral greenery inched closer to her neck with every second.
“Boss!” Mela yelled. “Snap out of it, please!”
At first, it seemed like Penny heard, and she turned her face in Mela’s direction. But everything was wrong. The white sclera of each eye had turned an olive green. Her irises were now orange, while her pupils had gone yellow.
“I-I’m sorry,” she said in a hoarse voice. “I…can’t leave it. I’m so sorry…”
“The hell you can’t!” Mela screamed at her. The rest of Team Star stood there like a bunch of spooked Deerling. No one knew what to do or say, so no one did anything.
No way. It couldn’t end like this. Mela held the Poké Ball Penny had given her so tight in her grip, it was a wonder she didn’t dent the sides. Everything had changed so much since those first days at school. Mela never said it, but she was so much like Penny back then. Shy. Quiet. The big difference was she was also a bit of a Nemona. By the rules. Eager to please. In short, a goodie-goodie.
She tried to wear the right things. Say the right things. Act the right way. Maybe Nemona just did all that stuff naturally. But Mela was always trying just a bit too hard. The bullies at school saw how quickly they could break her confidence. And they jumped on it.
Before Team Star, Mela had one thing that kept her grounded. That made the next day something to look forward to when school strove to do the opposite. Her Pokémon.
“Hey, there,” she whispered to the Pokémon inside the ball. Maybe Penny had given it to her on purpose and maybe she hadn’t. But Mela could feel the energetic flames of the Eeveelution inside. He was a fighter. Just like Mela and her team. Just like Team Star. “You want to help your trainer,” she said. “I know you can help her. So come out, already!”
Mela extended her arm and held the Poké Ball out. Penny’s Flareon appeared in a burst of light. Unlike Mabosstiff, it did not whine or cry out to its trainer to get her attention. Instead, after a brief glance at the situation, it gave Penny a full-on headbutt in the stomach. When this failed to rouse her, it stood back and took a deep breath.
“Watch out!” Mela yelled, pushing both Eri and Nemona back and she barely got out of the way of Flareon’s Flamethrower. The fire didn’t burn away the leaves, but it did get Penny’s attention. She cried out in pain, and her body gave off a dark pulse of energy in defense. Flareon yelped at the…was that an attack? But the Pokémon held its ground. Then it sucked in another breath.
Following Flareon’s lead, Mabosstiff bared fangs that flashed with a icy sparkle of power. The earth encompassing Arven hadn’t made it as far as the greenery on Penny, but it had reached his upper chest and showed no sign of slowing down. Mabosstiff gave a deep-throated growl, then sunk his ice-coated fangs into Arven’s arm.
Like Penny, Arven gave a yelp of pain. Energy flowed off him and returned what sure seemed like a counterattack. But if it was a dark-type move like it looked, Mabosstiff couldn’t care less.
If Mela ever had a chance of getting through to her two friends, she wouldn’t get a better opportunity than this. “Whatever that thing wants, it can’t have it!” she shouted. “Not now! Not with everything we still have to do!”
At first, her words seemed lost. Then Penny’s tablet pulsed with a green glow.
Arven knew how fear felt, but his encounter with Ting-Lu took the emotion to a whole new level. He couldn’t think. Couldn’t move. All he wanted to do was curl up in a ball and hide somewhere. The trouble was, dark empty voids came up painfully short on hiding places. With no way to ease his terror, it built up inside of him until he thought his head would burst.
“STOP!” He wasn’t sure how he did it at first. All he really wanted to do was to scream incoherently, but somehow, he managed a word. And with that accomplishment, he managed a few more:
“S-stop,” he repeated. “This isn’t the answer.”
His objection gave Ting-Lu pause. He’d only gotten general vibes and feelings off the Pokémon before. Now he could hear its voice clearly, like a deep, older version of himself:
Then what is ‘the answer’?
Arven tried to get to his feet, but his shaky legs gave out from beneath him. He settled for kneeling in the darkness, unsure where to face. “Th-there’s a new vessel…out there…I’m holding onto it. I-if you can pass through me and go inside, you’ll be safe.”
For such an intimidating creature, Arven expected a thundering threat in return. His body shook in anticipation of it. But the threat never came.
Instead, Ting-Lu moaned and wailed, You took the human who nourished me! You should stay here in her place! I would be safe here with you!
“It was wrong to keep her here,” Arven said, surprised at how bold he was getting. “And it’s wrong to keep me, too.” The shaking had stopped. Then he realized that Ting-Lu’s presense felt weaker. It was losing its stamina to fight him back and agitate his fear. Because it was staving. Which Arven admitted had been the goal all along.
But it didn’t have to end there, did it?
“It…it would also be wrong to leave you alone when you’re hurt,” he said. “But if you go into the new vessel, I’ll do what I can for you.”
Ting Lu was practically whimpering now. So it’s from one prison to another?
“Only for a little bit,” Arven assured it. “But you can’t keep feeding on people’s fear. We need a long-term fix before we can help you.” He swallowed and remembered what Penny had said the night before. How she hated the way everyone expected her to be the genius with all the answers. Even so, he really hoped she had an idea for what to do next, because he had nothing.
Ting-Lu didn’t reply with words anymore. Maybe it had lost the energy for that. Or maybe when it trusted a human for the first time, words weren’t necessary. Whatever the case, Arven felt the Pokémon’s presence pass through him, pulling both him and itself back to the grassy field in the physical world.
Penny’s eyes fluttered open. Her body was seated in the same position as when she had first closed them. She glanced down to see her tablet glowing beneath her fingertips. Her muscles felt stiff and sluggish, and she shuddered when she realized why. All that grass and moss that had encased her up to the ankles in her first encounter with Wo-Chien had now fully covered her body. Thankfully, the plants were now retreating down her neck. And the tablet’s screen acted like a pulsing green portal, absorbing it all. Penny stole a sideways glance at Arven, whose layers of rock and earth shrunk back the same way.
Mabosstiff and Flareon were out of their Poké Balls for some reason, and they both sat back with extremely satisfied looks on their faces.
“Guess the Pokémon knew you’d be okay,” Mela said. “Gotta admit, wasn’t sure I believed ’em at first.”
“I-I…” Penny said. Then she realized her arm hurt. A lot. As the greenery retreated, it revealed a sizable hole in her sweater’s arm–one that looked like like it had been burned in. And as for the skin underneath…
“Whoa, hold on,” Mela said, leaning over to block Penny’s view. She pumped a spray bottle, which sputtered out a gentle mist across Penny’s injury. The flaring pain eased within seconds. It didn’t go away, and when Mela leaned back, the skin still looked raw and pink. But it didn’t scream, Get me to a hospital! either.
“What kind of medicine is that?” Penny asked. Then, considering the type of injury, she added, “And what was on fire?”
Mela hesitated but then held up what she’d used. It was a perfectly normal-looking bottle of Max Potion.
“You and Arven, um…those Pokémon were taking you over. Flareon–”
“Vee-Vee,” said Penny.
“VEE-vee,” Mela overcompensated, “and Mabosstiff brought you guys out of it with a Flamethrower and an Ice Fang.”
“What!?” Penny felt faint at the story. She’d taken a direct attack from her own Pokémon and a Max Potion healed the injury? Okay, maybe it didn’t heal it fully, but that felt beside the point.
Arven remained frustratingly calm about the whole thing. “Huh. Is that why my arm is cold? Ow!” He flinched as Nemona sprayed him with an identical bottle.
Penny took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. If the guy who’d bonded with the fear-based Pokémon could relax, so could she. “Sorry I snapped,” she said to Mela. “And thanks for the first aid. It was a pretty clever solution.”
Mela blushed and motioned back to Nemona. “Don’t look at me. It was this dork’s idea.”
Penny’s eyebrows rose.
“Wow,” Eri said to Nemona. “She called you a dork? That’s, like, Mela speak for practical BFF!”
“Quit translatin’ for me, you dork!” Mela snapped, which only strengthened Eri’s point.
Nemona’s cheeks went a deeper shade then Mela’s, and she tucked the Max Potion away before backing up to give Arven and Penny some space.
Arven flexed his fingers and stretched out his arm. Pink blotches marked the skin where the bite marks had been, but any other evidence of his injury had vanished. “Well, it’s good stuff whoever thought of it,” he said.
Penny gave a noncommittal nod, and Arven put his arm down before either of them could dwell on the implications of a medicine meant for Pokémon having any effect on them at all.
“So, uh…did your guy go into the computer right away?” Arven asked when the silence had gone on too long.
“Not at all.” Penny shook her head. “I had to coax it the whole way. I mostly explained I didn’t know how to help it permanently right now, but if it released me and entered the tablet, we could find a better solution together.”
Arven’s face brightened. “Hey, that’s pretty much what I told my guy! Only with shorter words, because I’m not you.” The group got an awkward chuckle out of this, amused but still very much outsiders on the conversation.
“Yeah?” Penny asked Arven. “Did you ask it to sense the locations of the other shrines, too? I wouldn’t mind having a second opinion there.”
“Umm…” Arven frowned. “Sure. Yup, I did one hundred percent think to ask it that. And it, uh…gave me the same answer you got, so we must have been totally on the same wavelength.” He gave Penny a thumbs-up. She got the impression this was his go-to for gesture for, I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.
“But I didn’t tell you where Wo-Chien said the other shrines were.”
Arven dropped his hand. “Fine. You’re the team leader for a reason, all right?” He glanced over at the two new treasures, still sitting there between them. The molcajete was dirty, even though it had been clean as Arven could make it last night. And Penny’s tablet looked like she’d gotten a new case made entirely of moss. “Wonder what else they can do,” he wondered aloud. “I mean, they are Pokémon. Can they get…I dunno, Heal Pulsed back to health or something?”
Penny considered this. “Well, it’s worth a shot next time, I suppose.”
“Whoa, whoa!” Giacomo stepped in as his fellow bosses all went slack-jawed. “‘Next time’? Have you lost it, B.B.? There was no ‘next time’ in this plan!”
“Plans change,” Penny said simply. She picked up her Eevee bag, giving it a therapeutic squeeze before she unzipped it. She still had her extra sweatshirt inside, which she used to wrap around the tablet without touching it. Then she carefully tucked the bundle into her bag and zipped it up.
Atticus tapped his foot in a rather un-ninja-like fashion. “Do they now? Perchance you find us worthy of some elaboration?”
“I-I…” The sharp tone cut into Penny, and she lowered her head in shame, even as she stood and slipped the bag on. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I guess the short of it is, the Ruinous Treasures aren’t evil. They’re just…” She struggled for how to explain it.
Thankfully this was more in Arven’s repertoire than hers. “They’re just hungry,” he said like it was obvious.
Eri lifted an eyebrow. “Hungry?”
“Yeah,” Arven said. He wrapped up his own treasure in a spare picnic blanket and put it inside his bag. “Except unlike normal Pokémon that snack on berries and poffins, these guys eat bitterness and fear.” He stood opposite, his bag looking oddly deflated with its light load. “Hey. If the potions semi-worked on us while we were in that weird fusion state, maybe eating a bunch of a food when we’re in it will feed these guys?”
“That’s…” Penny was about to say his idea was ridiculous and clearly oversimplfying the issue. Then she remembered she’d just trapped an ancient Pokémon in a computer tablet and gotten her arm healed with a Max Potion. All logic had fled this scene ages ago. “…not a bad idea,” she finally finished.
Arven gave a nod of satisfaction. The rest of the group tentatively got to their feet, though it was clear no one had a clue what direction to head in.
“We’ll help Paldea first,” Penny assured all her friends. “But once that’s done and Ortie’s safe, we should find some way to help the Ruinous Pokémon, too.” She gestured to Arven’s backpack then gripped the straps on her own. The plush Eevee tail brushed her back as it swung back and forth. “Wo-Chien and Ting-Lu are basically in stasis within the new treasures. Like two makeshift Poké Balls. But they’ll still need nourishment same as a regular Pokémon. And if whatever happened makes us anything like their trainers, it’s on us to find a safe way to provide for them.”
No one in the group disagreed, though none of them jumped in to shower her with praise, either. Penny took the awkward neutrality as a win and pointed down the road. “Oh, and if anyone needs anything before we head back to Area Zero, say so now. Because that’s where Wo-Chien felt the presense of the other two treasures the strongest.”
If Penny had been expecting any arguments or shocked reactions, she’d be disappointed. The group agreed that they set out this morning with full intentions of seeing this through to the end. They might have expected to make a few more stops before Zero Gate, but they all knew it was their end goal. And frankly, they were happy to be getting there sooner.
What they did not expect was to climb the cliffside protecting the most secluded and forbidden space in Paldea only to find Vanessa waiting there for them. She leaned casually against Zero Gate’s doorframe inspecting her nails like this was a perfectly normal place to chill out.
“Hiya there, friendos!” she said, perking up as they approached. “Figured you’d show up if I hung out here long enough.”
Well, she doesn’t sound like she wants to murder us, Penny thought. “Hey, Vanessa,” she said timidly. “Um…what’s up?”
While Penny had struggled earlier to mentally shift between the girl’s regular name and the on-stage Iono persona, her current attire made it easy: full-on dark gray sweats and black sneakers. Granted, they were probably brand-name sweats and sneakers whose price tags could nab Penny a truckload of anime-themed merchandise, but they were still a sharp contrast to her gym leader get-up. Her multicolored hair had been wrestled into a tight twist of pastel pink and blue, and even her signature Sharpedo-like stage teeth had been removed to reveal a row of a normal-shaped–though inhumanely white–ones instead.
“What’s ‘up’ is that I’m coming with you to rescue my baby brother,” Vanessa said with exaggerated air quotes. “Obvs.”
“Ah, of course!” said Atticus cheerfully. ‘Obvs’ indeed!”
While the other bosses, along with Juliana and Nemona, all nodded in agreement with Vanessa’s flawless logic, Penny wasn’t so sure.
And apparently neither was Arven. “Don’t you have a show or something?”
Vanessa giggled. “My channel’s taking a week-long hiatus. It’s all over the news feeds. Didn’t you notice?”
“We’ve been a little busy!” Penny said. She tried not to snap. She really did. But Ortie’s sister or not, it was downright obnoxious of Vanessa to assume they all followed her every action on the Internet.
“It has verily saturated the feeds,” Atticus said.
“Yeah, you really need to pay more attention,” Juliana agreed.
Penny didn’t have the energy to argue and asked Arven to just open the door. He did so, and everyone clustered around Vanessa as she led the way inside. Penny just hoped no one tripped on the way through Area Zero trying to get a selfie with her.
Arven stood back and waited until the rest of the group had gone in before he turned to Penny. “You didn’t bring up our little disagreement with reality once on the trip here. Still gonna let them think our run-in with the Treasures actually cured us?”
“We don’t know it didn’t,” Penny muttered.
Arven rolled his eyes at that. She didn’t blame him. But with their home hanging in the balance, she couldn’t afford to distract the group any more than they already were.