Cold hands grasp my arm and the façade shatters. The haze of sleep washes away, leaving behind only fragments of confusion and fear. I open my eye and stare bewildered into the quiet, freezing night. It tastes like pine and grass, in stark contrast to the sharp tang of death I swear I could smell in my dream. I feel sweat on my neck and under my clothes, chilling me to the bone. My breath drifts like a ghost in front of my face, a tiny wisp that quickly disperses into the air. As clarity returns the stars come into focus, a brilliant trail of bright white lights sprinkled across the sky. My heart pounds in my chest like a jackhammer, sending panicked blood racing through my veins. I blink hard and take in a deep breath, staring up into Cheryl's gleaming dark eyes.
I start and sit up, adrenaline making me believe her a threat. She puts her finger to her lips and holds on tighter, locking her gaze on mine. "Jay, are you alright?" She speaks in a harsh whisper, anxiety creeping into her tone. "You were tossing and turning and you even yelled a few times. I mean, you weren't acting like this at all last night and I was afraid you might be having a nightmare or something."
"I-I'm fine. Just had a nightmare is all." I shake her hand off me and rub my eye, wiping away the thin layer of crust that formed overnight. She sits back on her knees, hands resting in her lap. Her face is filled with concern and fear. Suddenly, she reaches out and presses her palm to my forehead. "I don't have a fever, I said I'm-"
"I just want to make sure…you look kind of sick." She takes her hand away and wipes my sweat off on her pants. "Just go back to sleep, okay?"
I reach behind me and locate my backpack. There's a large hole in the front, framed by charred fabric. I pull my PokeDex out and hold it toward Scout's flickering tail. The display gives me the time and date in dark grey, blocky letters. "No, it's almost my turn to watch anyway. Why don't you get comfortable?"
"No, I'm really not tired. Colin wanted to stay up later so I haven't been awake for very long. I can keep you company." I roll my eye but don't argue with her. I figure she'll go to sleep in an hour or so anyway, so I might as well let her do what she wants for now.
Marley floats over to me and hovers by my shoulder. Cheryl smiles at the little Ghost-Type and he spins around happily. As far as the PokeDex knows, Drifloon don't need to sleep. He's been awake with us all night, just sailing around on the wind and exploring the immediate area. He did the same thing last night, but traveled a little bit farther.
We left Floaroma two nights ago. Cheryl only had to collect some food and water from her house and tell Brandon what was going on. He was extraordinarily pissed off, but let her go nonetheless. I had assumed he didn't care about her, but when she told him she wanted to leave I saw a flash of pain and hurt on his scarred face. He gave me a brief glance of hatred, an automatic reaction like that of a shepherd losing one of his flock. For a second I felt kind of bad, but then I remembered this was her decision, not mine. It wasn't my fault she wanted to leave, so I shouldn't feel sorry for it.
I toss my blanket aside and slowly get to my feet. Scout always sleeps beside me, her tail a dull ember held above the grass. Scarlet is curled up beside her, snoring loudly. Dracula has gotten more used to our sleeping patterns, but still prefers to rest during the day. She tends to spend the most time with us during watch, as Marley likes to go off on his own and she'd rather lay beside us.
"Um, Jay, also, I keep hearing a really weird sound coming from the riverbank. It's like a gurgling or something. Every time I'd go to tell you it'd stop, so it's probably not a big deal, but I still thought you might want to know." She's looking down at her hands, playing with a string coming off her pants.
I narrow my eye and stretch my arms high above my head. "Hm…we'll wait a bit and then check it out. If we hear it again-"
She suddenly looks up at me with wide, startled eyes, as if she'd been electrocuted. "Did you hear that?"
She stands up and walks a few feet away, her form a mass of black. I start to follow her and she holds her hand back, palm out flat. "I swear I just heard…it was really loud, too…" Marley moves to her side and rubs against her hip. She notices and holds him close to her body, arms wrapped around his spherical form.
A terrible sound erupts from a place out of sight. It's deep and pained, a terrible moan ripping into the dark, cold night. I grab my crowbar and wake up the Pokémon, ignoring Scarlet's loud meows of protest. Cheryl comes back and grips her bat with both hands, letting Marley float off on his own.
I tell Dracula to stay behind, and Cheryl does the same for Colin. We head toward the sound, all ears trained for it to repeat itself. As we move closer the river begins to take over, filling the air with great roars and splashes as water slams over rocks and struggles through ravines. Wind turbines reach toward the sky in the distance, their great forms black in the starlight. The moan breaks through the clamor, wavering over the sounds before collapsing back into silence. Cheryl shoots me a glance of worry and fear. Whatever's making that noise is in serious pain. It isn't the typical undead groan; there's someone alive and scared about this that makes it so much worse to hear.
Scout steps in front of us to lead the way. She brings us down to the riverbank, a sandy beach worn down by the water. We hear a much more constant sound now, an unending moan shuddering from behind a pile of rocks on the shore. Cheryl looks at me again and I nod, motioning for us to check it out. She waits for me to go ahead, nervously glancing around at the tall grasses growing right up against the sand.
I press my hand lightly against the smooth rocks, leaning against them and inching my way around to the other side. A small cry drifts to me, a sound like a Miltank calf longing for its mother. It mingles with the loud moans of pain to create a terrible mix of hurt and sadness. Scout's tail is calm, low; it's light flickers against the rocks and makes them shudder in the dark.
Breathing deeply, I step around the corner and almost immediately recoil. A large Gastrodon lies on its side, body heaving and flesh rotted. Blood drips from a massive gash on its stomach into a puddle on the ground, while its sunken eyes gaze hazily into the night. Its spine is partially exposed, a great network of cartilage dark grey in the light. Layers of skin lie about on the ground, leaving the creature a bright red mass of slick, aching flesh.
Beside it sits a Shellos, seemingly unharmed and uninfected. It cries out at the Gastrodon, making sad little sounds begging the older Pokémon to get up. It slides around in the sand, leaving behind a healthy trail of slime. Scout watches the scene carefully, still prepared to fight but not about to attack. Cheryl stands at my side and opens her mouth to speak. I hold out my arm and she falls silent, looking down at the decaying Pokémon before her.
Scarlet begins snarling and pawing at the ground, kicking up sand and making herself even angrier. Scout tries to quiet her down, but it's too late. The Gastrodon finally notices us and manages to drag itself up. The Shellos at her side keeps crying and sliding around, ignoring the people intruding on their home. Scarlet starts to run forward but I grab her by the neck and hold her back, dropping to one knee so we're level with each other. She struggles in my grasp, but I hold her tight enough that she can't escape. She settles down as I tighten my grip, reluctantly deciding to shut up and listen to her trainer and team mates.
The Gastrodon roars at us and weakly pushes forward, moving so that it stands between us and the little Shellos. Cheryl breathes in sharply and grips my shoulder, her hand covering her mouth. "Jay, I…I think that's her child." The Sea Slug Pokémon struggles to stay standing, hey body shaking violently. "She's trying to protect her baby…"
I stand up again and grip my crowbar tightly. Scout glances up at me with a face full of suspicion, waving her tail back and forth in the crisp air. "What are you going to do?" Cheryl asks, voice low and quiet. I inhale sharply and look at her, not sure how to go about explaining my decision.
So I don't.
I step forward and raise my crowbar high above my head, aiming instinctual. The Gastrodon yells, infected saliva landing on my jacket and face. I keep my lips closed tightly and hold my breath, staring straight into the Pokémon's pained, sorrowful eyes. Marley floats to the Shellos and begins circling around it, distracting the little Pokémon from what I'm about to do. Closing my eyes, I bring my crowbar down as hard as I can. It breaks through the slimy cartilage with ease, lodging itself into the brain. The Gastrodon screams in pain, and my heart skips a beat. I pull my weapon free from its skull and jump back, suddenly horrified.
"It…it's still…but how can…" I stammer, my hands shaking furiously. How can it still feel pain? How can it let out a cry filled with so much agony? Cheryl grasps my hand and yanks me backward, stepping forward to finish the job herself. The pained creature cries out one last time as I feel its blood splatter on my face and see it stain the sand. Scout walks over to me and shoots me a look of empathy, gently placing her warm paw on my leg.
I've never seen a Pokémon fight against the virus like this. I would never expect to see an undead Pokémon cry out in pain before finally being put out of its misery. I thought people did it because they could still feel pain as zombies, but not Pokémon. They're just creatures of instinct; they willingly fight each other for sport! How could an undead Pokémon make a sound like that, filled with such human agony? How could terminating the undead make me feel like this, like I'd killed something alive and sentient? I didn't feel anything when I killed Emily, and she was a person with a name and a face. Why do I feel so confused now, after killing a cold, unfeeling creature that in just a few short hours would sooner eat its child than protect it?
Cheryl grabs my shoulders and shakes me hard. I push her off of me as hard as I can and step back, nearly tripping over a rock. "Jay, it's okay! It's okay! You did what you had to do! It would've ended up hurting that Shellos if we didn't step in! Probably us too!"
"How can we know that? How do we know it hasn't been fighting for a really time? How do we know it didn't really love that Shellos and want to keep it safe? How do we know it didn't feel pain? How do we know-" She slaps me hard, right where my scars are. It stings terribly but does the job. I shut up and look at her, taking in her bewildered and disappointed glare.
"We don't, and we can't. We did what seemed like the right thing to do. Don't you dare…don't you dare act like you've never made a decision like this and that you don't know we won't have to make more." Her voice drops and she looks away from me, scowling. "You could've gotten yourself killed. Please don't do stupid things like that…I- we…can't afford to lose you." She waits a moment longer before walking away from me. "I'm going back to camp with Scarlet. Please don't make us come back for you."
Scout looks over the Gastrodon's rancid carcass, her eyes narrowed. Marley continues to spin around the Shellos, causing the little Water-Type to giggle gleefully. I walk over to them and Marley stops, ramming its light body affectionately into my chest. I hold him tightly and look down at the Shellos, deeply hoping he doesn't hate me.
It takes him a while to see we've killed his mother. He slides over to her and stands beside Scout, staring in silence at her broken body. For a second I expect him to attack us, to get angry and douse Scout with a burst of water. But instead he slowly turns around and scoots over to me, his round face sad and somber. He sits down before me and I kneel to see him better. His eyes meet mine and without another thought he begins rubbing his slick body against me. I put my arms around him and look at Scout, whose careful eyes are unreadable.
Reaching into my pocket, I pull out an unused PokeBall and show it to him. He watches it warily for a few moments before quickly pressing his nose against it and smiling. I press the button on it and he's sucked into the ball by a bright light, vanishing completely.
Scout and Marley stand beside me as I call him back out. "What should your name be?" He makes a strange gurgling that sounds so bizarre I have to grin. "How about Lenny? You look like a Lenny." I pat his head and he nods, bouncing up and down a bit. "Alright then, Lenny. This is Scout, and the Pokémon you were playing with is Marley. I'll introduce you to Scarlet and the others when we get back, but for now, welcome to the team."
LENNY HAS JOINED THE TEAM!