The old wooden floor creaks beneath us as we retrace our steps in the tired house. Scarlet pads ahead of me, nose pressed to the ground. Her hard muscles flex beneath her shining fur with each step, rippling as she moves cautiously in the empty hallway. Occasionally Marley floats too close to her and she swats at him with her thin black tail. He spins away from her, making tiny cooing noises as he dances in the stagnant air.
Without Scout there's a painful loss of heat and light. Cloudy midday sunlight struggles to break through the dirty windows, leaving us alone in the near-darkness. I'd have my flashlight out if I had a free hand, but I need my crowbar and it didn't feel right to put the jar of ashes in my backpack. A long, bright trail of dust flutters in a line from a hole in the wall, leaving a streak of pale blue on the floor.
I notice something odd below me and look down to see a dark stain on the decaying wood. My shoe fits perfectly into the thin lines cut into it. There are dried pools of dark red all down the hall and up the stairs, leading into Cheryl's room where we spent the night just a few long days ago. Scarlet sniffs one quickly and then turns back to look at me, her eyes gleaming in the shadows.
She follows the pattern of blood stains to the base of the stairs and puts one paw on the lowest step. Her tail swishes through the air, curling and straightening impatiently. I hesitate, taking in the light pouring from upstairs. The aching floorboards creak as I shift my weight, taking a slow step toward my partner. I stop and look away from her, staring down at the faded crowbar in my hand.
Her paw steps are swift and quiet as she follows me out of the hallway. The hand holding her ashes shivers violently, and I lean against a chipped and worn wall. Scarlet curls her tail around her paws and sits at my feet, the air heavy with the sound of my weighted breathing.
The intense heat was warm against my face, the smoke stinging my eye. Stray sparks leapt toward me, barreling through the gray in flashes of bright red and white. I squinted, clenching my fists tightly at my side. Flames clung to the wood near my feet, flickering and shuddering on the dry branches.
A large Magmar was barely visible through the thick smoke, an endless stream of flame bursting from his mouth. He stopped only occasionally to catch his breath before continuing with his relentless blast.
Everything smelt like fire and death. Scout was the only one standing beside me because I didn't think anyone else could handle the heat or the smell. She was stock-still and completely silent, her eyes narrowed in the wind.
Beyond the roar of the fire was a low drone, a hum building slowly in the night. It would rise to a glorious climax every few moments before fading away and gathering enough energy to begin again. Candlelight fell out of the church's windows, leaving small reflections of trembling flames shaking on the cold layer of snow. A shout burst from the thin walls only once before being overtaken by a joyous chorus. Dark shadows shifted forward like an assembly line in the stained-glass windows. One of their preachers spoke with such fervor I could understand her from outside.
My face burned like I stuck my head in a bucket of hot water. The thick smoke penetrated into my lungs and gripped my chest with all its strength. Breathing was painful and I could hardly see, yet I could not turn away. No matter how much it hurt, my gaze was locked unflinchingly on the foul bonfire laid out before me.
A spark bit my hand and seared into my skin. I swallowed hard and ignored the pain, struggling to breathe calmly when I was surrounded by smoke.
Marley dashes into the side room and spins around, cooing loudly. One of his stringy arms skims over a torn and battered couch. The fabric is ripped back to expose the yellow cushion underneath. He giggles happily while floating past a painting too faded to make any sense of. What remains of an old cabinet sits below it; its doors swung wide and glassless. Only a few shards of broken china lay scattered about inside. Thick, large webs hold feebly to the cabinet's corners, their silken thread long turned gray and ragged with age.
With a curious coo Marley phases through the cabinet. He cheers when he reappears at the other side, flipping over and contorting his face strangely. Then he hovers there, expression fading. Scarlet's whiskers twitch in annoyance but she does nothing. He slowly falls to the floor in a defeated heap, his long arms lying out before him on the dusty ground.
There's a large window on the west side of the room, but it's too dark to see anything through. Each pane has been consumed by dark yellow muck, blocking most of the light from outside. The old house moans with every passing breeze, its wall too thin to silence even the weakest scratch from a shaking tree.
My heart pounds loudly in my ears, my lungs begging greedily for air I can't give them. I sink against the decaying wall and put my face in my hands. Marley hovers beside me and lays a tentative arm on my shoulder. Taking care not to harm him, I lightly pick his arm up and let it drop towards the floor. He holds it by his face and examines it closely for a moment before leaving it to fall limp. I turn away from him and press my palms into my face, rubbing my eye and making sure not to irritate my scars.
They've been hurting much more lately, and the skin is getting too taut to move. When I speak I feel as though there's a weight pressing down on the left side of my lip. When I sleep I have to make sure I'm not on my left side so I don't feel a terrible numbness in the morning. The eye patch is effective at hiding most of the wound, but it's gotten so dirty that the extra weight is uncomfortable. I like to think I've gotten used to the loss of vision, but I'm still having a significant amount of difficulty just getting up and down stairs.
Something cold brushes against my cheek and I look up from my hands. Marley has his arms wrapped around my crowbar, and he's holding it effortlessly while keeping a steady height. He coos softly at me and gently pushes the weapon toward my face. Scarlet watches us from across the room, her tail sweeping back and forth over the ground.
With a heavy sigh and a jolt of pain I push myself up along the wall. A thin gasp escapes me and I press my hand to my aching back. Marley floats beside me and watches with concern filling his dark eyes. I mumble to him that I'm fine and carefully pry my crowbar from his arms. He dips down to pick up the jar of ashes and I take those as well.
Scarlet pads back into the hallway and yawns, flicking her tail for us to follow.
Jupiter smiled gently at me from across the bed, her fingers tracing over a simplistic design on my blanket. "We only want to help you, Jay. If you stay with us we can give you things you'd never be able to have on your own."
The offer was tempting but I knew as soon as she brought it up I couldn't accept it. I feared that choosing to stay with her and her followers would make me complacent, inactive. Even if I only agreed to wait with her a month or two I may never want to leave. "I can't do that. I promised her I'd get all the gym badges, and I can't do that staying here."
She leaned a bit closer to me, pressing her hands into the flimsy fabric. "You don't think she'd just want you to be happy? And you have her Pokémon, too…it's only a child, isn't it? Surely she would want you all to be surrounded by people who love and support you." Her smile widened and she bat her eyelashes several times. "We could be your family, Jay. And we're always open to having a new brother."
I wanted to tell her I didn't need a new family, that my team is my family. But from what I'd seen so far her and her people would hardly have believed me if I told them that. Aside from a few babies I saw toddling around, the Pokémon there were treated like either stupid pets or work horses. Cheryl was right when she said I rely on my team for a lot of things, but I certainly don't treat them like my slaves. "I can't. I just- I can't."
Her expression wilted and her eyes filled with pity that grated on my nerves harder than anything she'd said so far. She grasped my hand and held it in both of hers. Bowing her head so low her hair brushed against my skin, she said a rapid prayer underneath her breath and put her dry lips to my hand. She stayed there for an uncomfortably long time before slowly placing my hand back on the bed and rising out of her seat.
She stopped several meters from the door and turned half-way to face me. "What shall we do with the bodies?"
I hadn't given any thought to that. Gulping, I shifted uncomfortably and shrugged meekly. "Uh…bury them?"
She shook her head slowly with the same gentle smile on her face. "I'm so sorry; Jay, but we can't do that. Our burial ground is for church members and their families only. If you agreed to come with us I would be happy to oblige, but unfortunately as a mere passer-by we cannot give her a place in our cemetery."
"Is there anything else you can do for them? I mean…" I didn't finish because I didn't want to know the answer to what I was going to ask. I let myself keep thinking she wouldn't just make me carry my friend's body to a random location where I'd have to bury her and her team mate.
She ran her fingers along her chin and tapped her heel like she was deep in thought. Her eyes flicked back and forth and her lips pursed. There was a flash of hesitation on her face where I swore I saw a trace of genuine sympathy before it melted back into its borderline-condescending gentleness. "I suppose we could cremate them. One of church members has a rather powerful Magmar that I believe could handle such a task. It will probably be better too, seeing as how she was a lower race and will likely turn soon."
"Uhm…what? How does that make any sense?" I hadn't heard the phrase "lower race" used since well before the outbreak, and I certainly hadn't heard it used when talking about the undead. In fact, the last person to say "lower race" that I could remember was my mother.
"Well, you see, uhm…you and her were…well it hardly matters now, anyway. I'll go tell Jon we need to use his Magmar." She stepped through the door and let it slam shut behind her.
"No, wait-" I started to get out of bed, but a surge of pain burst through me and I was forced to lie back down. I decided that whatever insane beliefs she held didn't matter as long as I was getting what I needed. In a few days I figured I'd never need to see or think about her ever again.
Her bedroom is just as deathly quiet as it was the night we slept here. Scarlet makes one round of the room before restraining herself and sitting silently at my feet. Marley hovers at my side, one arm resting weightlessly on my shoulder.
With a deep breath I bend down and place the jar of ashes in the corner of the room. There are fewer bloodstains here than anywhere else and there isn't nearly as much dust built up. My knees ache and the floor creaks as I kneel before her. I don't know any prayers or poems to tell her, so I just sit quietly and think about the stories she told me.
I fish around in my pocket and take out the two PokeBalls that short-circuited. With trembling hands I lay them on either side of her. Now she'll be next to them for as long as nobody comes in here. They were the same Pokémon that protected her when she was a child and the same ones that helped her survive in Floaroma. Scarlet pads over to me and holds up her paw so I can sling what remains of Cheryl's things off the Luxio's back. I lay her bat against the wall, as well as a little journal I didn't know she had.
Scarlet lies down and puts her head on her paws. A single spark of electricity races through her fur, and for a second her ears prick up. I put my hand between her shoulders and she purrs. Marley hovers by my side and rubs his face against mine.
I have her last PokeBall in my hand. It's the only one of her Pokémon that survived the electrocution. With a soft click a bright light shoots out from inside it, revealing a nervous, sniveling Togepi.
"You're Elizabeth, aren't you?" She stares at me with confused, wet eyes. "I'm…I'm so sorry, Elizabeth. If you don't want me to watch over you, I completely understand. I-I don't think I deserve to be your trainer, but if you'll have me I promise I'll take care of you as best I can." She starts trembling violently, then falls onto her butt and begins to sob.
With as much care and gentleness as I can manage, I pluck the screaming Pokémon from the ground and take her into my arms. Her tears are hot and wet on my neck. "Sh…it's okay, Elizabeth. It's okay…" She gradually quiets down, still sniffling but no longer crying.
She rubs her little face against my neck, hiccupping loudly. I hold her close to me and don't move, trying my hardest not to scare her. When I finally pry her from my neck, she mumbles something unintelligible and rolls over in my arms, sound asleep.
ELIZABETH HAS JOINED THE TEAM!