Shadows dance across the high domed ceiling, flickering in the dull candlelight. Faint and faraway music floats to my ears, the sweeping tones echoing throughout the room. Late afternoon sunlight sets a series of stained-glass windows lining the walls aflame with warm, dying color. Voices carry from where the simplistic altar lies decorated with sharp shades of blue and gray. They speak quickly and quietly, occasionally vanishing altogether when whatever work they're doing becomes too demanding.
I grip the smooth side of the pew with my right hand and use it to roll myself over. The small pillow supporting my aching head slips and I adjust it lazily, shoving it back against the glazed wood. Parts of my body that I rarely think about burn faintly with fading pain; the backs of my knees are stiff and tight, while my upper arms feel heavy and tired. A much more acute sting digs into my lower spine; my eye is pulsating with the effort of staying open. I curl my toes and grit my teeth, grasping the underside of the pew tightly and feeling the electrical surge of pain shoot through my right arm.
A small black book is tucked into a shelf sticking out from the pew in front of me. Thick gold letters on its front announce it as "The Survivor's Testament." I can hardly remember the obligatory lessons I had on it back when I actually went to school, but from what I can recall it's a series of journals based off the accounts of the few individuals that survived "The Great Burning." The original journals only served as inspiration, with the Testament's writers taking whatever liberties they wanted with them.
Officially, the League banned all religious practices from the country. But it was one of their loosest laws, and only when a cult or church became too obtrusive did the League actually enforce it, and even then people were rarely really punished for it.
I have no idea whose church this is. I don't remember being brought inside or ever being told who's taking care of me. I woke up on a cot in a small room with wood-paneled walls for a brief few minutes before passing out again and waking up here. There's no way I can sleep in this much pain, so I must have been drugged or something.
I should probably be more concerned about that than I am, but all I can feel is a mixture of strong physical pain and a burning anger in my chest. The hot fire of vengeance consumes my brain and body; the desire to seek revenge eating me from the inside out.
Somewhere in my mind is a small voice urging me to move on, to accept that I can't change things and continue pushing forward toward my goals. But without her, my previous goals are childish and idiotic. There is no reason to seek out survivors if all they want to do is hurt my family. I can't keep acting so immature. I can't trust other people because they're just as cruel and selfish as I am. I only do things to benefit myself and my team, and I would never go out of my way to help a stranger. Why the hell would I expect anyone else to act any differently?
My fingers burn as I dig my nails into the hard wood, knuckles white with rage. I'm going to kill her, and nothing is going to stop me. I'm going to make her feel the same pain Cheryl felt tenfold. I'm going to make her beg me to stop, make her get down on her knees and clasp her hands together and pray to whatever bullshit God-
"It's good to see you awake." I bolt upright so suddenly that a burst of pain races up through my back and out to my fingertips. Gasping, I bend down awkwardly and grip my stomach with a trembling hand. The other one clutches strongly to the back of the pew, muscles aching with the effort of holding my weight. "I'm so sorry; I didn't mean to startle you!" A woman with unnaturally dark red hair steps into the pew, concern bright in her deep brown eyes. She puts a careful hand on my shoulder and slides into a seat beside me. "I go by Jupiter; I'm one of the three High Priests of the Galactic Church. How are you doing?"
She purses her lips and tries to look sympathetic. I stare back at her blankly, my face stiff and my expression cold. "We found you in a snow bank outside of the Gym. A few of our church members decided to carry you and your team mates back here. You seem to have experienced a severe electrical shock, and you'll feel the effects of the nerve and tendon damage for at least the next couple of months. I…don't think it'll be as bad as it is now for very long though, you should be able to move properly within a few days." She looks over at Scarlet, who has curled up by my feet with her head resting on her big, fluffy paws. The electric-type's eyes are opened to slits, shining in the shadows where she lies. "Your Luxio suffered some muscle damage as well, but as an electric-type her body will soon absorb the energy and will be used to help her reach a very powerful level of evolution. Ultimately the shock will only benefit her." She takes her hand off my shoulder and entangles it with her other in her lap, looking down at the Testament in the shelf. "As for your other companions…well your Crobat's wing is broken in three places, but as long as she stays off it and you take great care with her she'll make a full recovery. But that's only if you can manage to keep her stilt tied perfectly to the damaged area. If that doesn't happen, she'll heal but will never be able to fly like she used to.
"There was nothing we could do for the Espeon that was with you. He was too old to handle that level of electrical shock and well…he was dead when we found him." Scarlet's whiskers twitch but she doesn't make any other movements. She's quiet, distant. Her body rises and falls with untroubled breaths. She looks perfectly fine, but I know she's not. "And two of the three Pokeballs the girl had on her short-circuited. There is no way to recover the poor souls trapped inside. Here," She reaches into her pocket and places a dusty Pokeball in my hand. "This was the only one that can still be used. We didn't check to see what was in it, I figured that was something you'd want to experience on your own…now your Monferno will be fine, but only after she evolves. Until then she'll need to be watched as carefully as your Crobat, as she's had significant vertebrae damage that resulted in some loss of function in her arms and tail."
Scout has sat silently the entire time, eyes locked on the altar at the front of the church. There are bandages wrapped tightly around her torso, and a long rod sticking out from underneath them. Her tail twitches slightly, the flame jolting back and forth. Her shaking arms lie in her lap; paws crossed one over the other. Hatred fills her gaze, her teeth sunk deep into her bottom lip to withstand some of the pain.
Jupiter takes a deep breath and falls silent for a while. I already know what she's going to tell me; I knew from the moment I saw Cheryl's twisted body lying unmoving on the freezing concrete. The priest turns to me and takes my limp, cold hands in her own. Her voice is deep and ragged, but filled with gentleness and concern. "I promise you if there was anything we could've done to save her we would've done it. I'm so, so sorry this had to happen to you. I wish that things like this didn't have to happen, but it's all just a part of the Gods great plan for us all." I flick my gaze up to her, my brow furrowed suddenly. Aggravation begins to prickle at my throat and form a ball in my chest, but I manage to hold it there and try to ignore the rising anger. Her voice falls to a whisper, but her expression doesn't change from one of tenderness and acceptance. "Was she your sister?" I shake my head slightly and she gives my hands a squeeze. "Was she your lover?"
"I don't know." I mumble back to her, trying to keep my annoyance from making me snap. "I did love her, but…" I shake my head back and forth quickly, blinking a few times. "I…I just…."
She puts one of her hands on my shoulder again and my heart begins to race. "I understand. No one deserves to go through this alone. Mallory, did you say your name was?"
"Jay Mallory…" She repeats quietly.
"That is my name." I manage to keep myself from calling her something very derogatory, but only barely.
"And what a nice name it is." With every stupid, faux-sympathetic thing she says I want to hit her more and more. "Listen, Mr. Mallor-"
"No, seriously- Jay."
"Jay," She keeps going without skipping a beat. "I understand that you have your Pokémon and that the lot of you are very close. But Pokémon act only in relation to their trainers. Interacting with them is nothing like interacting with other humans." I clench my fists beneath her hands, digging my fingernails into my palms. "You don't need to go through all of this alone. Not when there are loving Gods to comfort and protect you. They only want to help you, Jay. Listen to them, speak to them. I can promise that if you decide to stick around her for a little while and let them into your life you won't regret it. In fact, you have absolutely nothing to lose if you say a prayer every now and then."
I can't say anything because I know I'm going to explode. How dare she turn this into some opportunity to drag me into her stupid little cult? My chest is bubbling with anger, my heart pounding violently. I simply nod and she stands up slowly, giving my hands light pats.
"Oh, I almost forgot," She pulls a small, shining metal object from her jacket pocket and holds it out to me. "This is the Forest Badge isn't it? We had to remove…we needed to check…uhm…this fell out of your friend's jacket and we thought you might want it." It's dirty, with rust clawing at its sharp edges. "I get the feeling this was a hard-won badge." She gets tired of holding it out to me and grabs my wrist, pressing it into my palm and closing my fingers over it. She smiles kindly at me and squeezes my fist. "I just want you to remember that you don't need to go through this alone. I'll come back to check on you in a bit, and I might even have some food for you then." She winks and turns away, walking up the aisle and out a side door into the dark hallway beyond.
The badge is warm in my hand. I stare at it with the same blank expression I had on my face the entire conversation, scanning over the copper-colored spots of rust and what remains of the dark green decoration.
Cheryl said she wanted us to collect all of the badges. She only got to see us find one, and for now it and her only surviving Pokémon are all I have left of her. I see now that it's nothing more than a piece of scrap metal, intended only to make a few children happy once in a while. It's not close to anything worth risking your life over.
But I guess it was never the actual badge that mattered to anyone. It was always what the badge was meant to represent. Strategy, hard work, patience, determination…the things every young trainer would need to participate in the League. But this badge means none of that. This is the useless piece of crap that killed the girl I…
I don't even know what she was to me. I don't know what the badge is supposed to represent because I don't know how I felt about her. I told Jupiter I love her, and I think I do…or I did? I close my fist around the badge and lean my head against the back of the pew. My neck aches and I grit my teeth hard. Can I still love someone that I can never see or hear or hold again? Do I have to start thinking of her as someone I "did" love, not someone I "do" love?
I cover my ears with my hands and bend down, drawing my knees to my chest and burying my face in them. My mind is racing so fast I can barely keep track of my thoughts. The badge is burning a hole in my hand, the metal blazing against my flesh.
Unable to contain my anger any longer, I hurl the badge as hard as I can into the wall at my left. My eye stings and I swallow back the tears, urging myself to fight the encroaching weakness and stay strong for my team. Something cool and wet presses to my cheek and I turn slightly. Scarlet presses her face into my arm, rubbing against my jacket and purring quietly.
"I'm so sorry, Scarlet." I whisper, shaking my head and looking into the Luxio's pale yellow eyes. "I'm so sorry…I…failed you. I failed you, and Scout, and Dracula and I…I failed Colin and Cheryl. I'm so stupid. I should've known better than to go in there without checking to see if we were being followed…I should've gone with Cheryl across the gym… I should've…I should've freaking helped you!" She flinches when I yell, my voice echoing against the high walls and domed ceiling. "I just laid there like a fucking coward and watched you all fight for me. And now…now I've gotten half of us killed and the other half really, really hurt. I just…" I can't talk anymore. It's all I can do to keep from breaking down. My nose is running and my eye stings as fresh tears overflow and spill down my face. I press my head into my arms and breathe deeply, struggling to get myself under control.
Scarlet's body heat vanishes beside me, and for a few terrifying moments I think she's finally had enough of me. Then warm breath flits across my face and I look up to see her holding the Forest Badge between her teeth. I watch her quietly as she pads around me and pulls my backpack off the pew and onto the floor. She pulls it open with her teeth and fishes out my old badge case. With deliberate, steady movements she places the case beside me and lays the badge on top of it. Then with powerful, hesitant legs she pulls herself onto the bench and rests her paw on the case.
She purrs softly and leans down, pushing it closer to me with her little pink nose. With a pained, shaking hand I pry the old case open and hand it back to her. She studies the dusty Coal Badge with shimmering eyes, giving me a meaningful glance before looking back down at it.
"Scarlet, it's just…it's pointless now. Without her there's no reason to keep looking for badges." But Scarlet continues to poke at the badges, running her paws over them eagerly.
It's only now that I understand what she's trying to tell me. Losing Colin has been just as hard for her as losing Cheryl has been for me. If Colin and Cheryl wanted us to collect the gym badges as a team, then it only makes sense to honor them by continuing their mission.
I place the Forest Badge carefully beside the Coal Badge in the case and lock my gaze with Scarlet's. "It won't be easy." I say simply, but she doesn't seem to mind. She presses her muzzle against my neck and licks me a few times. "By doing this we're putting everyone at risk. Either of us could very well get killed." But I know she won't object to it no matter what I tell her.
I take the case into my lap and let my legs slide down to the ground. Wiping my tears off on my sleeve, I run my fingers over the badges and feel a powerful surge of resolve race through me.
I'm going to find the other gym badges, all six of them. I'm going to get revenge for Cheryl's death, but I'm also going to honor her every chance I get. I will cross every river, push through every cave until I find all eight badges and she can rest in peace. No matter what challenges I face or where I end up, I'm going to fulfill her dream and preserve her memory.
I will keep her from being forgotten if it's the very last thing I do.