We finished off the rest of the horde with ease, as one or two good Confuse Rays sends them all into a lumbering daze. That night we had something of a feast with instant-soup and rice for everyone. The night before that we only ate hardtack and tasteless unmeant, so we were glad to have something that at least tried to be palatable. Scout and Dracula spent a lot of time together, and I gave them overlapping watches so they could have even more. Scarlet was a bit left out, but I think she'll grow to like having more party members.
I slept fitfully that night. The cave was silent save for the random splash of faraway water or the occasional shifting of the Geodude colony, but still my brain buzzed with discomfort. I can sleep in utter chaos and terrible despair, but apparently the pressure of happiness is too much for my restless head. I awoke countless times, startled to life by an unheard force. My dreams were confusing and suffocating, each one tightening around my neck and sitting heavily on my chest. They vanished immediately into the fog of consciousness, slipping from my grasp and leaving behind only the weakest threads of memory.
It probably didn't help that we were sleeping in a completely dark cave with a very hard, wet floor. The damp ground soaked through the first layer of my clothes, covering my heavy jacket in mud that, when dried, clung to me and grew coarse. I considered taking it off, but decided it was much too cold and instead kept it on the entire night.
The sun locks its great yellow gaze on us, the sky clear and the morning unusually warm. We cover our eyes, suppressing the sharp sting that burns behind them. I pull at the blood-stained and somewhat tattered scarf around my neck, separating it from my grimy skin to cool off. I blink away the great black bruise over my vision, closing my eye tightly to quell the pain.
Scarlet yawns loudly at my side, the noise breaking through the complete silence of Route 204. She looks up at me with narrowed eyes, sunlight reflecting off her soft black pelt. She stands on her hind legs and puts her front paws on the side of my knee, mewling loudly and patting furiously at my pant leg. Scout glares at her, but the little cat doesn't let up. I sigh and relent, taking her into my arms and holding her so she looks back over my shoulder. She goes quiet and rests her head by my neck, the soft texture sending chills down my spine.
Most of the cave was at an incline, but it's somehow worse out here. There's a clear path beat down by recent pawsteps waving around sharp ledges jutting out from the hillside and strong perennial brush clinging stubbornly to the exposed gray rock. The grass is the same dark, dry gray it was near Jubilife and Sandgem, but there's an audible crunch here from browning leaves coating the ground that was absent from other places. The trees are more alive here, covered in dark oranges and reds as opposed to the usually skeletal branches we're more familiar with. Tall pines with shuddering needles reach toward the sun and the cool, calming silence of safety envelopes the route like a thick fog.
Dracula shields her face from the sun; eyes screwed up and tightened to slits. She holds one wing between her and the light and wraps the other around her body, shaking a bit. I ask her if anything is wrong and she shakes the upper half of her torso right and left. Scarlet turns around so she can see the other Pokémon, and for a second I see a flash of pleasure in her eyes before she looks away guiltily, rubbing her face on my shoulder.
I reach into my pocket and hold Dracula's PokeBall out to her. She stares at it and shakes again, taking a short step backward. I push it toward her, telling her that if she's in pain she needs to worry about protecting herself before proving herself. "We know you don't want to leave us, Dracula. We just don't want to see you hurt," she looks over me for a moment and considers this, shifting her weight in the grass. "Come on, it's really not a big deal at all."
She stares at me a moment longer before bending and bobbing up and down. I press the button on her PokeBall and point it toward her, feeling its smooth surface heat up in my hand. There's a whirring noise and the instrument cracks open, bright light shooting out and consuming her body. She vanishes into the impossibly small device, a loud click sounding when her form completely disappears. I look at it for a moment, waiting for the momentary warmth to leave before starting to shove it back into my pocket.
Scarlet looks at it in wonder and reaches her paw toward the Pokeball. I hold it close to the Flash Pokémon, and she touches the surface with a quick and careful prod. She pulls her paw back immediately, staring in wonder at the strange device. I turn it around, presenting it like a globe to her in my hand. She watches with deep interest for about three seconds before turning around swiftly and hiding her head in my neck, rubbing her soft face back and forth. I scratch her neck and she purrs, her tiny body reverberating against my skin. Scout walks a few paces ahead and watches us with clear disinterest, eyes half-closed in exhaustion.
I approach her and follow behind along the route, careful not to step in any of the random puddles or trip over a ledge. Her backpack bounces up and down, sagging a bit on the bottom and nearly reaching the base of her tail. It's probably a bit too heavy for her, and I make a mental note to give Dracula some things to carry as soon as we find another bag.
Scout comes to a rather large ledge, the undergrowth around it too thick to wade through. She stops for just a moment to readjust the weight on her back, then grips hard to the abrasive stone, climbs to the top, and swings herself over with ease. I glimpse her tail dangling over the edge for just a moment, her flame calm and quiet. Then it vanishes, hidden from my sight by the steep wall of rock.
"Sorry," I say to Scarlet, producing her PokeBall form my pocket. "It'll only be for a little bit."
She cries out in protest, and for a moment she sounds more like a lion than a kitten. I stare at her, smirking and holding her close to me as she tries to wriggle from my grasp. I press the button on her PokeBall and she disappears in a burst of light, leaving behind the echo of an indignant protest. I put the ball back into my pocket and zip my jacket up. It's getting a bit too warm, but I don't want the sides swinging around when I'm trying to climb up a cliff. I clip my backpack across my body in all the places I can and make sure my crowbar and flashlight are strapped tight to the front of it, drawing all of my things as close to me as I can.
I grip the first handhold and grope around above my head for another. I feel something hard jutting out and grasp it, pulling my body up and pressing my foot hard against the rock. It's much harder than I thought; the weight of my backpack drags me down and my thin, bony core does little to keep me stable. My hands sweat the farther up I go, and when I slip I barely catch myself.
Suddenly I hear yelling and loud, rapid-fire swishing noises. I crane my neck to look up, watching in confusion as long, thin shapes cut through the air and fly over my head with a swooshing sound. Scout's face appears over the edge and she reaches a paw to me. I grab it hard and scramble up the short remaining distance, my right foot slipping as I kick loose one of the stones that supported me.
She pants hard as I roll over the edge, grass stains streaking across my clothes. I get to my hands and knees and look out in the direction the projectiles came from, heart pounding harshly in my chest. Scout tackles me and holds me against the ground as another round of needles flies over us, slicing the air and barely missing her head.
I see them in the distance. Short figures with bright white bandanas covering their faces and ragged, dirty clothing covering their bodies. Their hands fall limply to their sides, some grasping to weapons and some grasped into fists. Steely eyes watch us coldly, calculating and empty in their anonymity. Various Pokémon of different shapes and stages of malnourishment flank them on either side, bodies rising and falling in the rhythm of attack and hold. They radiate hunger and longing, their heaving forms starving for satisfaction.
Between them and us lies a stretch of flat, dead grassland speckled with trees and bushes. Our common desperation reaches across, growing weak in the middle and losing the signal in between. They fire again, hundreds of needles sprinting toward us from the powerful and unyielding arms of emotionless neutrality. Scout and I press our bodies as close to the ground as we can, tasting dirt and decay amidst the sharp tang of grass. A sharp pain streaks across my neck, crying out from just beneath my hairline. I press my fingers to it instinctively and feel smooth warmth, blood marking my hand.
A different sound cuts through the rapid chaos, a sharp yell from across the field. I turn and glance out at the source, blinking away the dirt in my eye. One of the white-masked figures stands several feet in front of the others, hand wrapped tightly around a bloodstained machete. He orders me to sit up and I begrudgingly obey, the sting of submission biting at my chest. The distance between us vanishes and he stands over me, his eyes a harsh, vibrant green. "Who are you," it's hardly a question, more of a demand. His weapon gleams, its surface reflecting back to me my scarred face and matted hair. He pulls his bandana down and I realize he can't possibly be much older than I am, his face free of stubble and his mouth unwrinkled by time. He speaks again, this time filled with much more venom. "I asked you a question, moron. Who are you?"
For a second I think he's going to hit me, and I give him a glare that dares him to. "Red, Champion of the Indigo League," I spit back at him for no obvious reason. He slams his hand into my face hard enough to blind me momentarily, then grabs some of my hair and wrenches my face upward.
"Listen, smartass. We don't like visitors in Floaroma Town. The last visitor we had screwed up our food supply for weeks. You need food? You need shelter? You're in the wrong place. Take your mangy Monferno and get the hell out of here," he lets go of me and takes a few steps away, heading back to his party. He turns his back on me, figuring he'd made his point.
I stand up suddenly, anger coursing through me. No way did I come this far only to get turned back by a bunch of children. Going back now means I have to admit defeat, and doing that would sting more than any injury. My fists clench at my sides and I breathe deeply, heart racing. "I'm not going back. I'm not going through that freaking cave again just because some self-righteous dumbass told me to. You're going to let me pass through here or I…" I pause, not knowing how to finish my threat. "I'll burn your village to the ground." The only part of me that would honestly consider doing that is so irrational and filled with rage that at this very moment I have no hope of controlling it.
The first person that spoke to me raises his hand and lets it drop, apparently signaling for his allies to attack us again. I flinch and move my arm over my face as the needles come hurtling toward me, nearly falling down in an effort to stay protected. Fire explodes just inches from my feet, a massive blaze spiraling into a protective barrier around Scout and I. She looks back at me with a solemn expression, and for a second she looks genuinely angry with me. Then she nods swiftly and disperses the flames, letting loose a loud, fierce challenge toward our attackers. They fire another round and Scout blocks it effortlessly, her body surging with excitement.
We advance forward, ignoring the fire catching on the grass. Our enemies look at each other, eyes flicking around in confusion. The first one that spoke to me leans over and whispers something in his friend's ear, and he nods slowly in understanding. They let loose another round, this one much weaker. Scout sweeps her arm through the air and destroys their attacks in midair, her tail now a massive fire of its own. We take a few more steps forward, ready to go on the offensive.
"Who are you?" The man asks again. His voice is different this time, the expression unreadable. He squints at me, studying my steps carefully.
"Jay Mallory," I say simply, not knowing anything else to tell him that would matter. Scout keeps moving toward them, eyes beginning to glow with the anticipation of destruction.
"Wait, no- stop!" The man's hand shoots up and he takes a tentative step back. "Fine. You can pass. But that's all. No stopping, no restocking, not even any using the toilet. You have to go straight through and don't even think about talking to anyone. In and out. That's all," he stands there a moment longer before stepping aside and gesturing into the village. The people and Pokémon behind him part like a drawbridge, creating a wide path for Scout and I to pass through.
We start moving through them, ignoring the Shellos they send to put out our fire. The ground crunches beneath our feet and beckons us into the village, showing us the way to our next destination.
We're barely half way through when darkness suddenly overtakes my vision and I'm violently pulled to the ground. I hear Scout screeching and I try to get my assailant off of me. He tightens the bag around my neck, the drawstring digging into my windpipe. Scout falls silent just before my lungs begin to burn, darkness suddenly pulling me harshly into its arms. Everything falls to black and I slip into a pained sleep, Route 204 vanishing around me.