Route 201 lies before us in all its ruined glory. The trees appear to have been torn apart by machinery, and the signposts are smashed to pieces and lying about on the ground. The uncaring autumn sun stares down at us lazily, offering no warmth for this cold October morning. The tall grass, trampled by some unseen beasts, shivers in a cool, stiff breeze. Nothing stirs, and an eerie silence has over taken the area.
I let out a shuddering breath and shove my hands deep into the pockets of my thick blue coat. Leaving so late in the year would generally be a dumb decision, but the weather is hardly any warmer in the summertime. Now all we have to worry about are snow storms, and they're quite rare on this side of Mt. Coronet.
"Jay," Leo has an odd look on his face, like his eyes are smiling but nothing else. He's holding the handle of a shovel in one hand, and the strap of his bag in the other. "Arm yourself."
I nod and swing my backpack down my arm, dropping to my knees. A long, brilliantly silver crowbar is attached to it by a series of hooks. I take it out with far more care than necessary, wanting to savor this moment as much as possible. I'd picked up the crowbar when we made our way back from Jubilife, but haven't used it in four years. When the hoard attacked the lab, we always relied on our Pokémon's ranged attacks to keep them at bay. We very well may not have that luxury now, and we're not about to take any chances.
"Any day now?" Leo asks, his voice flat and impatient. His tone of annoyance brings a small grin to my face. He always used to wait for me, before this whole mess, and was never happy about it. Hearing him regain something of his old self makes me feel happier than it probably should.
I stand up slowly, slinging my bag onto my back once again. "Alright. Let's go." Without looking at him, I begin to take my first steps on Route 201 in over four years. The dying grasses crunch under my feet, weak from the cold, and from being left to survive without competition. Leo grabs my arm suddenly, and I turn to look at him.
"Wait, let's…let's do this together." He looks sincere, and I realize that it'll take much more than just a few steps away from the lab to get the old Leo back. But I agree, and shake his hand off my arm. I wait until we're standing in line with each other, breathing the infected air in deeply. I close my eyes for just a second, relishing the end of our days stuck in Sandgem.
But when I open them Leo has already bolted down the path. He turns back, laughing loudly and panting. "I'm not gonna keep waiting for you, Jay! If you can't keep up, I'll leave you behind!" The sun is facing him, giving both him and his Prinplup long, jagged shadows in the grass. Behind him lies darkness.
I smile and run after him, careful not to trip. Scout stays back, staring at the lab a few moments longer before running to us dutifully. Brilliant orange trees flank us on both sides, leaves long fallen scattering the ground and creating a dull brown blanket along the path. From what I remember, Route 201 used to be much wider. Now the intrusion of plants from the forest has shrunk it down to a small trail just a few meters across.
The route is otherwise lifeless. The flowers and trees, relatively vibrant in the summer, are now just shadows. But it hardly matters to us. Lack of life means lack of enemies. We've so far seen nothing threatening, and if the complete silence is any indication, we shouldn't for some time.
We meander about for a few hours, spending an inordinate amount of time looking at what once was alive, and trying to compare this new route with what we remembered. We come upon a massive oak tree, and climb the low lying branches until we're about two meters from the ground. Scout lies down above us, her flaming tail swinging back and forth not far from our heads. Leo's Prinplup can't quite get up, so he just sits down on the branch closest to the ground.
I put my backpack on my lap, and pull out a bit of the food we saved. I give each one of us just a small piece of bread off of a rather large loaf. Leo shoves it all in his mouth at once, while I take my time and try to enjoy it as best I can. I can see straight through to the sky from where I'm lying. It's mid-morning now, and it's gotten just slightly warmer since we left. My eyelids slide closed for just a few short minutes, and I yawn loudly. I know we can't sleep. The area may seem abandoned, but we can't see far enough into the forest to be sure. Anything could be lurking out there, waiting patiently for us to lower our guard.
Scout suddenly drops down onto my stomach, and I cry out. Her paw goes straight to mouth, and my eyes begin to water from the pain. She's very small for a Monferno, but still heavy enough to hurt me. I look over at Leo, who appears just as confused as I feel. Scout swings down to a lower branch, hanging there in complete quiet for a long time. Prinplup has gone silent as well, and apparently anticipating an attack.
I'm tempted to get up and ask her what's wrong, but it makes far more sense to just stay quiet and wait it out. I grip my crowbar tightly, and sit up in order to get a better look at our Pokémon.
"Hello? Excuse me I…I know you're up there!" My heart beat quickens, and Leo shoots me a suspicious glance. Scout doesn't move, just stares down at something we can't see. Whoever has found us, they sound young and female. The bright orange leaves must hide us from our visitor's direct view, but she had to have heard me yell when scout landed on me.
Scout motions for me to come down and, with as much carefulness as I can muster, I slide down beside her. She points to a spot between the leaves, where a little girl stands with a very skinny Starly in her arms. Scout looks at me and nods, her silent way of telling me the girl appears safe.
I move down to another branch, one that I know the girl can see me from. She's very small, with a tanned face and deep red hair. Her thick white coat is covered in shades of red and brown, while her deep blue ski pants are filled with enough holes to see another layer of clothing underneath. She gasps when she notices me, squeezing the Starly tightly against her chest. "Who are you?" Her voice is very quiet, her face filled with fear.
"Jay, and what about you?" I don't want to sound rude, but I'm honestly unsure of how to talk to her. I've learned to speak in short, blunt sentences. It's all I've needed to get my point across, and I'm not about to change now.
"I'm Emily…and this is Tinkerbell." The Starly makes an unexpectedly loud chirp before burying its head in her chest. "We're all alone." She looks down, her blue eyes dull and hollow. "Why are you here?"
"We're looking for survivors." I study her carefully, looking for any signs of infection. The red spots on her coat are most likely blood, but I doubt that it's hers. She's very skinny, and her eyes are sunken into her face, but she doesn't appear to be pained or particularly lethargic. Her Starly is small, but from what I can tell isn't too ragged-looking.
"Oh…I'm…looking for Lake Verity." I raise an eyebrow, and she shrugs. "It's where I found Tinkerbell…I just want to return her there." I used to visit Lake Verity all the time as a kid, but haven't been there in a while. My mother always used to say that people from Twinleaf Town were blessed by Mesprit, the Legendary Pokémon that lives there. I never really believed her, but she insisted it was true.
"You want to let your Starly go?" I feel Scout at my side, and watch as Emily carefully looks us over. I see now that there's sweat building by her hairline, and I can't help but feel suspicious of this strange little girl.
"Uhm, well she's not really mine, see…I just found her and she decided to stay with me." The Starly coos softly, rubbing its face on Emily's dirty coat.
I don't say anything for a long while, hoping she'll realize we have an agenda and can't help her. But she doesn't budge, just stands before us unwaveringly. A breeze sends the leaves rustling, and I shiver visibly. The girl stays standing, ignoring the cold. Scout climbs back into the tree, leaving me alone with Emily on the ground.
"So you…won't help us?" Tinkerbell struggles a bit in the girl's arms as her grip tightens. I can tell she's gotten sick of waiting, and is desperate for help now. "Please! We've been alone out here for days. It's hot and I'm tired and there's nothing to eat and it's so very lonely…" Her voice broke a few times, but no tears escaped from her eyes. "Please…I…I don't remember anything."
I hear the braches rustle behind me, and turn to see Leo lowering himself down. "No." I order, as stern and clear as possible. He looks frightened, but doesn't climb back up. Ignoring him, I turn my attention back to the girl. "Leave. We can't help you."
"Please!" She gasps, her voice hoarse. The Starly digs itself into her jacket, chirping loudly. The forest around us begins to stir, and Scout is by my side in an instant. "Please, you have to help us."
"Go." I keep my voice low, but still loud and clear. Scout is tense by my side, her tail burning bright and powerful. I can hear a growl emanating from deep within her throat, her heat giving me courage.
Emily stares at us, eyes wide with shock and hurt. She shakes her head in defiance, eyes dark and empty. They are pools of blue, empty and dead. Without any further attempts at communication, she spins around and takes off in the other direction. Her back is coated in blood, deep, dark, and spilling outward from beneath her jacket.
She is slow from malnutrition, and I'm behind her in seconds. I bring the crowbar back, and slam it into her head with all my strength. She screeches, collapsing to the ground in a pool of congealing blood. Tinkerbell bursts from her arms, panicked and scared. Scout catches the Starly and holds her to the ground, awaiting my order.