I bury my hands deep into my pockets and squint against the cruel, biting wind. The cold penetrates my thick jacket and raises painful bumps all over my body. Shivering, I grit my teeth together and clench my fists tightly within the soft, worn fabric. The sun glares down at us from a swiftly darkening sky, refusing to contribute to our efforts to keep warm under its indifferent gaze. A massive, decrepit old house looms over our little group, casting a great shadow onto the forest floor below.
"This is literally the creepiest place I've ever seen." I say as soon as I get my shivering under control. Cheryl nods quickly, eyes narrowed as she looks the crumbling building over. The windows are gone, the glass long shattered to leave only shadowy holes. The roof over the right wing sags, about to collapse from the weight of disrepair and old age. "It's like a set for a really bad horror movie."
Cheryl goes silent for a short moment, shivering and staring at the abandoned house. She puts a gloved hand over her mouth and coughs a few times; each one quick and hoarse. "I think we should go inside."
I start to object, but immediately think better of it. "You don't think we'll find someplace less…sketchy?"
She shakes her head rapidly, pursing her lips. "Nope. I'm afraid this might be it until we get to Eterna. We could keep trying, of course, but I wouldn't want to be caught out in this cold in the middle of the night." She pauses and looks over at me, grinning. "Don't tell me you're scared. You're not allowed to be scared." Her cheeks and nose are bright red, with her hat awkwardly sticking out to the sides to give her the appearance of a rather tall elf.
"Of course not." I roll my eye and walk toward the entrance. Scout follows closely behind, nearly stepping on the backs of my shoes. Annoyed, I turn around to make her stop and freeze when I see how miserable she looks. As a fire-type she's in no danger of frostbite, but that doesn't mean she won't get cold or be uncomfortable. She sucks a trail of snot into her nose and I bend down to pick her up, grunting as I hoist her onto my hip. Between her weight and that of my backpack I can barely stand, my back aching and my legs shuddering.
Cheryl runs around us and pulls the door open. The wood is so worn and the hinges are so rusted that when she yanks on the doorknob the entire frame comes off. She yelps and jumps back, letting it fall noisily at her feet. I shoot her a nervous look and quickly glance around to make sure nothing heard us. The forest is still, its silence disrupted only by the occasional howl of wind through pale winter branches. She exhales loudly, gesturing to the darkness within the building. "After you."
I step onto rotted, creaking wood and strain to see in the shadows. There's enough light falling in from the holes where the windows used to be that I can make out several dense shapes. The foyer is mostly empty, with two large, crumbling staircases leading to the second floor. A monstrous statue keeps guard, glaring at us from its shadowy home. Scout squirms in my arms and I let her on to the ground. Her tail lends us a small pool of light, like a candle in a massive cave. She's still shivering, but I can tell her curiosity has gotten the better of her.
Cheryl walks in and stands beside me, her body quivering from the cold. She licks her lips and takes a few steps after Scout, stopping when the Monferno pauses to examine a hole in the floor. Still focused on the little chimp, she speaks to me without turning. "Hey, I always meant to ask but I kept forgetting, why don't you keep Scout in a PokeBall?"
"She doesn't have one." I approach the two of them and look down into the hole. Scout holds her tail over it so we can see inside, but it doesn't appear to be anything interesting. I suppose we could scour the basement for food, but anything still here should have expired a long time ago.
"Oh? How come?"
I shrug and lean back, yawning and trying to peer deeper into the darkness. "It got destroyed during the outbreak. Fell through a storm drain and shattered against the side. I was really scared at first, but it ended up not making any difference." I can barely see the outline of another doorway on the far end of the hall, distinguishable only by the black void it leads into. "Hey, wanna look over there?"
Not waiting for an answer, I pull a flashlight out of my backpack and hold my crowbar tightly in the other. Pointing the beam into the dark room, I stare into the shadows and move forward with cautious steps. The floor protests loudly, unused to bearing weight after so much time to itself. Cheryl quickly comes to my side and starts to aim her own flashlight into the gloom. Scout waits behind us, eyes narrowed.
An awful shriek explodes in my ear, and I whip around with my weapon held up and ready to strike. Cheryl stares at me with wide, startled eyes. "What the hell was that?"
"You mean it wasn't you?" She shakes her head vigorously, instantly making me very nervous. Scout scampers to us and begins a menacing snarl, her tail bursting into a sudden, massive blaze.
Something large and dark rushes toward us from the shadows. Its black body consumes any light around it, and the whole thing is surrounded by a thick purple mist. I react instinctively, swinging my crowbar into its mysterious form. The weapon passes through the mass's shape, slipping out of my hands and clanging loudly on the floor. I lose my balance and nearly fall over, catching myself on a railing. My shoulder stings painfully, but I ignore it and hoist myself up to my feet.
Cheryl and Scout stand back to back, looking around desperately to see the strange thing again. There's another loud shriek, and Scout covers her ears in pain. Another mass of darkness appears and races toward her. I see it move in slow motion, barreling toward my partner with an uncanny fury. My heart races and I try to grab her, my entire body going into hyper drive at the sight of her in trouble.
But then something strange materializes out of the dark mass. A long, pink, glistening shape reaches toward my partner, curling slightly on the end. It wipes over her face, making her fur stand on end and her tail let off a dark burst of smoke. She doesn't move, staring at the floating tongue with a look of pure horror on her wide face.
Cheryl snatches me by the arm and pulls me forward, making my shoulder cry out in pain. "Jay," she hisses, her eyes piercing even in the dark. "Where's your Pokedex?"
"Why?" What, is she suddenly really curious about where she can catch a Starly?
"Just give it to me." Trusting that this was somehow relevant, I swing my backpack down and pull my Pokedex out of the front pocket. She grabs it from my hands and flips it open, pointing her flashlight at it and holding it so I could see too. The light on top of it flashes a few times, and the word "ANALYZING" takes up the screen. After a moment there's a loud beep, and the image of a Pokémon I barely recognized appears. "That thing is a Gastly…and I don't think it wants to hurt us."
I pull Scout away from the bizarre Pokémon, holding her shivering body tightly. "Cheryl, it just attacked us. I really don't think it wants to do any good."
Cheryl takes a tentative step forward, reaching out a careful hand towards the gaseous thing. I inhale sharply when two huge eyes pop out of the thing's dark body, and a large, fanged smile dominates its "face". It examines Cheryl's hand carefully before suddenly lurching forward and sinking its sharp teeth into her. She gasps, but doesn't move, making no attempt to break the creature's grasp. I start to order Scout to attack it, but Cheryl tells us not too. The Gastly finally releases her hand and I realize it hasn't drawn blood or made any sort of mark on her. She smiles sheepishly and the Gastly flips over in the air, making a loud, happy shriek.
"See? What'd I t-tell you? It only wants to, uh, play…" Her voice shakes, but she keeps smiling at the Pokémon and doesn't back away. The Gastly floats backward before suddenly vanishing, and Cheryl slumps over. Scout leaps up and grabs her legs, while I catch her as she starts to fall over. I lift her hand toward Scout's flame and look over it carefully. No cuts, no blood, no injury of any kind. She looks up at me, suddenly grasping the collar of my jacket. "I'm okay, Ghost-types just have…weird effects on people. Maybe the bite actually did do something…"
"Cheryl, there isn't any bite…" I show her her own hand, flickering in the firelight. "See?"
"Oh yeah…" She starts to speak, but another shriek rips through the air. A massive group of Gastly materializes in the worsening shadows, all staring at us with huge, angular eyes. Cheryl steadies herself and Scout prepares to fight, smoke beginning to drift from her paws.
One of the Gastly slowly floats down to us, then turns around and leads the rest of the group into the next room. They rush past us, stirring the air and causing the stray hairs of Cheryl's braid to flap about wildly. Scout pulls her tail around her and growls a bit, still tensed for a fight. We wait for the Gastly to do something, leaning over toward the doorway and watching the shadows carefully. They shift about, and occasionally I can make out strange objects floating around with them.
After a few moments one of the Gastly comes out and stares at us. Cheryl tries to ask him what he wants, but he just keeps looking at her with the same bizarre glare. He makes eye contact with each one of us individually, then disappears back into the next room. By now the sun has almost set, and there's very little light coming into the house. The Gastly seem to have a strange illumination, like a personal aura that everyone can see. Scout begins to walk toward them, the floor moaning beneath her pawsteps.
"Scout, wait-" She looks back at me, then into the room. Her tail flicks back and forth over the dusty hardwood, her body noticeably more relaxed. She puts her paw on my pocket and I raise my eyebrow, not sure what she wants. Somewhat frustrated now, she violates my pocket and pulls out Dracula's PokeBall. The other PokeBalls falls out with it and scatter, rolling around. "Hey, what do you think you're doing?" She yells at me and I just stare at her, surprised. She points into the room and I finally understand. "You want us all to go in there?"
I bend down and pluck Scarlet's PokeBall up from the floor, shooting Cheryl a weary glance. "Well…I guess we might as well. It's not like we have anywhere else to be," she remarks simply. I sigh, then go through the process of letting everyone out to play. Scarlet is immediately moody, pacing about and sniffing everything she can find. Lenny tries to follow her, but she hisses at him and Dracula steers them apart. Marley floats about randomly, looking just as content as ever. Cheryl releases her team too, and after a few minutes of stretching and getting used to their surroundings, all of the Pokémon look about ready to move on.
Scout goes first, moving carefully into the large, dark room. Cheryl and I use our flashlights to get a better view of the area, taking in the large dining room table and elaborate decorations. "It's so weird…almost like there's someone still living here."
I walk forward and pick a piece of food from the table. "I doubt it. I honestly can't tell whether this is bread or a very unique kind of fruit." Scarlet makes a face at the vast collection of rotten food and knocks a few plates from the table. Dracula shoots her a scolding glance and she paces away, avoiding the old Crobat's gaze.
"Pchooo!" I whip around to find the source of the strange noise, and come face to face with Marley. "Choo! Choo!" He squeals happily, flipping over once before drifting to another part of the room.
"Um, right." I follow him to the kitchen, a small area that hardly looks like it could feed as many people fit at the table. He floats to the top of the refrigerator and sits there, his stringy legs hanging over the edge. He taps the hard steel a few times, and I look at him quizzically. "I really don't think there's anything in there…" He taps it again, this time much louder.
"Pchew, pchew!" I shake my head and decide to humor him. The door is nearly rusted shut, but I manage to pry it open with my crowbar. Once I get it open it falls right off, revealing several shelves of rotten food within.
"See, Marley? Nothing here but…" I stop and look a little closer, a glint of glass towards the back catching my eye. I reach in and push aside the rancid produce, feeling cold fuzz on my bare hand. My fingers touch something smooth and dusty. I feel along until I can grasp it, and pull it out from behind the layers of long-expired food. I point my flashlight at the green bottle, grinning widely. "How the hell did you know this was here?"
"Pchoo…" Marley floats down and presses his face against the glass of wine. He puts his legs around it and I let him carry the glass around the kitchen. He holds it to the flashlight and makes noises into the reflection, squealing happily. I smile and lean back against the countertop, somewhat amazed by how much love a little Pokémon like him could have for something as random as a wine bottle.
He carries the bottle to me and tries to pry it open, but I take it from him and tell him we'll wait until just the right time. "This is for a celebration; we need to wait for something we can really celebrate."
"You don't think we can celebrate this?" I turn around to see Cheryl standing beside Scout, each holding huge bags of rice in their arms. "I think this is a pretty special occasion." She puts the rice on the counter and smiles in the dull light. "It's not every day you get to have a feast."