I pull off my eye patch and wrap the thin, ragged fabric around Scarlet's muzzle. The wounds are completely closed and it's not like I'm trying to impress anyone, so it hardly matters if I have it on or not anymore.
Without even walking into the city I've seen far worse injuries than mine, like a man hobbling around on one leg, a child missing several fingers, and another man who seems to be missing his scalp; I don't think Zombies would ever do something like that. If they got close enough to scalp someone, they obviously would have just eaten him. No, another person had to have done that. The wound looked fresh too, so I assume it was someone here. Probably the same kind of person who would randomly set a house on fire.
The smoke is thick as we walk quickly through the street. Scarlet's eyes dart back and forth, suspicious of everything and everyone. A panicking, screaming man races by and nearly runs into us, forcing me to stop short and suck in a sharp stream of smoke. It burns in the back of my throat and stings in my chest, but living with Scout has given me enough tolerance to swallow back the cough. Thankfully the smoke seems to have scared everyone else off, so we have a clear path through the crowd.
Scarlet flicks her tail and pads steadily beside me. I can already see people gathered on the sidewalk, just outside the dark gray cloud. There's a skinny thing, maybe an old man or a young woman, waving their arms about and yelling loudly. Something floats beside the figure, barely visibly through the haze.
There's a small crowd gathered around them, listening and watching intently. As the roar of the flame behind us fades I hear a deep, low growl reverberating from Scarlet's throat. The person is directly in our path, and their audience blocks the rest of the street.
"Excuse me," I mumble, trying to sidestep them. A pair of empty blue eyes suddenly meets mine and I stop dead in my tracks. Pale white hairs stick out from the woman's head, singed slightly and spread very thin. She grasps my arm and pulls me close, smiling so wide I can count all five of her blackened teeth.
"All we wants a bit a food! Big man like you must of plenny a food! Er how 'bout some water? Jus' a bit a water? All we wants a bit a water!" She doubles over, one arm wrapped tightly around her stomach while she cackles shrilly. I try to pull away but her grip only tightens. Scarlet scraps her paw against the ground and snarls loudly, her tail snapping back and forth in the thick air. I can hear her claws dragging hard across the broken concrete while sparks shoot up and down her spine. "Ya see 'ere?" The old woman yells, straightening suddenly and turning back to the crowd gathered before her. "No one's got eny food er water! They're keepin' us 'ere with the rot an' the grime while they sit on their thrones and eat offa gold!" She lets go of me and I step away, scanning the crowd for the easiest way through. A presence, heavy and dark, fills the air behind me and nausea sweeps through my stomach. I turn slightly to see her Ghastly glaring at me with huge, terrifying eyes. The woman whips her arm out to me and points a shaking finger in my face. "Is a crime is what it is! No! More 'an that! Is a sin, a damned sin!"
The crowd starts to yell and raise their fists. I can't tell whether they approve of what she's saying or want to skin her alive for it; either way I turn and sprint for the crowd. Their sweaty, rancid bodies press against me as I force my way through them. I feel my heart race, the pressure pushing down on my brain. Sweat pools on my neck and I begin to panic, reaching desperately through them for the way out.
I push through the crowd and burst out onto a street just as loud and stinking. A few people stand around to look at the smoke, and I realize that many of the people "listening" to that woman were probably just trying to get a better look at where the fire was. They ignore Scarlet and I as we push past, their eyes glued to the darkening sky.
Something grabs my arm and this time I don't hesitate to wrench it away. A woman with deep wrinkles and sunken eyes stares up at me. She has some kind of veil wrapped over her head and tied at her chin, barely concealing her bedraggled hair. "You alright, sir? You seemed a little lost, and I was wondering if you'd like a bit of company."
I narrow my eye and take a step back, immediately suspicious. "Company?" Scarlet sits down beside me, her ears pricked.
"Well, yes! We have a nice little place right over there!" She points vaguely down the street. "All nice and warm, hon. And, if you won't go spreading it around, we've got a bit of water too. But of course, you didn't hear it from me." She winks, and it looks almost painful. Her words sound rehearsed, her voice straining to sound upbeat and energetic.
I chew on my lip for a second before answering her. "You must want something in exchange, if you actually have water."
"Well, just between you an' me, we got a lot more than water in there." She grabs my arm again, this time with much less force. "We're really just a bunch of lonely girls, if you could maybe give us some food or bandages we'd certainly appreciate it. And you can trust me when I say we'll make it worth your while…" I roll my eye and start walking away. I don't feel like getting mugged. "Wait!" She runs up to me and touches my face lightly. "Those are quite some scars there, aren't they? Must have hurt quite a bit…would you like a friend of mine to have a look at them? She was a nurse, back before all this."
"I can take care of myself, thanks." She follows me again, then stops when Scarlet growls loudly at her.
"You know, I really think you might enjoy our company. We only want to help you out some…" I ignore her and keep walking, turning away so she can't make sleazy eye contact any more.
Finally defeated, the woman turns around and walks back to a group of other women waiting on the sidewalk. They talk loudly and one of them slaps her. She holds her cheek and walks back out into the street while the other women laugh. I swallow hard and stop looking at her. I tell myself it's her fault for relying on people who treat her like dirt, but I know if she could leave them she probably would.
Someone throws a rock at me and I whip around to face them, my grip tightening around my crowbar. A bloated old man raves at me, hurling another rock in my general direction. Scarlet growls and takes a step toward him, but he just laughs and picks up another to hit her with.
She lunges for him and I grab her violently by the neck, pulling her back toward me so hard she yelps. "Sorry, Scarlet. He's not worth it. Just ignore him, we'll be okay." She looks up at me and then back at the crazy old man chuckling alone on the side of the street. He throws another rock at us as we walk away, Scarlet's ears twitching in annoyance.
There has to be some respite from all the insanity here. Where do all these people sleep? They can't possibly trust the other people here enough to stay out on the streets. If they live in the houses, they have no reason to come out here and fester.
Maybe they have a trading post somewhere. As much as I'd hate to give anything away, we need to find a place to stay and I suppose we could trade a bit of water for information. Looking around, the only negotiation I see is between a scantily-clad woman and a middle-aged man. Standing in one place too long seems to attract the scent of urine and the attention of random street women, so Scarlet and I have to keep moving.
The city seems to be set up like a messy grid, but most of the street signs are either gone or covered in feces so it's impossible to see where we are. Something falls on my head and I look up to see a little girl shaking a blanket out of her second-story window. What I hope is dust showers us and I sneeze a little when it tickles my nose. Figuring she's as reliable a person as any, I wave my arm around and call up to get her attention. She leans out of the window, biting her lip nervously. "Hey, is there anywhere we can stay tonight that won't result in us getting all of our supplies stolen?"
"What?" She yells back, her thin voice barely audible over the clamor of the street. She has long, pale blonde hair that falls over her shoulders and touches the empty flowerbed hanging from her windowsill.
"Where do you people sleep?" I say, much louder this time.
"Uhm…I don't know who you are!"
"Yeah, I know, I just need some help down here!" She turns around slightly, as if someone's calling her. She looks back at us for a split second before yanking the blanket back inside and slamming the two-pane window shut. Sighing heavily, I wait about a minute before realizing she isn't coming out. I shouldn't have expected her to help; I'm not sure why I did.
"Lookin' fer a place to stay?" I look down at a young man reclining over the step. He's wearing a thick jacket and has a mangy Aipom resting in his lap. His face is covered in grime, but his pale eyes shine from beneath the dirt. "There's a place jus' outside a town. They're not very friendly, but worth a shot. Use' to be the ol' lab, now is just a bunch of random people with big old dinos protectin' 'em. They'll prolly turn you 'way, but like I said they're worth a shot." I don't understand where his accent is from. I've heard it a couple times now and I still can't identify it. There are a variety of different accents in Sinnoh, but this one was completely alien to me until now.
"Thanks. What accent is that?" I know it shouldn't matter -help is help- but I'm curious.
He laughs a bit and raises an eyebrow. "Not sure what you mean. You sound pretty weird to me, mos' a the people 'ere talk like this." His Aipom shifts in his lap and he runs a gloved hand through its fur. "Where you from? If I hadda guess…" He bites his lip and looks away from me for a second, looking much deeper in thought than he needs to. "You sound like you're from the south. Sandgem? One a them Almia kids? Though most people don't head north from there, that's fur sure." He laughs again, a deep, throaty sound. "But yeah, I s'pose is jus' what most people around here have. Guess we've taken the regular ol' Oreburgh sound and made it our own."
"Oh, alright then." I'd never really thought of myself as having an accent, but I guess everyone does. I definitely wouldn't have expected it to be that obvious. "You're right, I am from Sandgem." He smiles toothlessly and nods. "What do you mean most people don't come north from Almia?"
He shrugs and leans back more so he can put his elbows against the concrete. "I've seen people from all over the west, but not a sing'l one from the east, north, or Almia." His face darkens suddenly. "Some people like to say we're in some sorta conspir'cy, that we're bein' kept here 'gainst our will. That's why we never see no one from eny where else, 'cause they jus' can't get in. They're not allowed. Guess I jus' dunno whata think. Guess I fine it a little strange that both a the ways through Mt. Cornet are all fallen in."
"What? You mean the Oreburgh path is closed off too?" He laughs at my shock; bitter, cold.
"You're new, aren't you? Yup, both paths a caved in. Can't get through no matter how hard we'll tried. Now I wasn't 'ere during the outbreak, but I heard that lots a people heard a big old boom 'bout a week after. Nothing nat'ral, not an earthquake or nothin'. A boom like dyne'mite." He sits up and his Aipom wakes angrily. It slips out from his arms and sits beside him on the curb, scratching its butt furiously. "But what do I know? Go see for yourself. Is on the way to the lab, you're bound to see it."
I thank him and start walking in the direction he said the lab was. Scarlet is silent now, just as lost in thought as I am. If what that man said is true -if there's really isn't any way out- then we're trapped here. We could go back, but how can we when we've come this far?
And if what he said about the government is right, how can we even hope to stay alive? Eventually we'll run out of food and supplies if we're trapped in this bubble. There isn't enough to support everyone now, how can we even hope to support everyone if we can't get anything new?
The sun has crawled to the center of the sky, but I don't feel any warmed than I did earlier. In fact, I feel much, much colder.