Clean air smacks me in the face as soon as I step out of the city. I suck in a deep breath and savor it, holding it in my lungs for an extra second or two before letting it out in a steady stream. My chest already feels less tight, less heavy without the weight of the claustrophobic city. The people keep scrambling about miserably inside their walls, mostly ignoring us.
Around every corner was another person pleading for help, another child trying to take whatever he imagined was in my pockets. Old men and women would lean out of their rancid sleeping places and hold their hands to us with wide, desperate eyes. Once a couple of boys about my age tried to intimidate us using their Pokémon, but they were too stupid to know not to pit water against electric. Young women came up to me, trying to convince me I was in need of "company" or "comfort."
Scarlet and I ignored them, intent on getting the hell out of there at any cost. I feel like there's a thick layer of grime covering my skin, and my head aches from the noise and the stench. Until now we've been wonderfully alone, paranoid but free on the open routes of Sinnoh. We spent every night listening with bated breath for the crack of a twig or the flap of wings, but we never had to worry about other people robbing or kidnapping us.
How could anyone live there? Every person wants to kidnap you, steal your supplies, or kill you. There isn't any food or water, and I'd sooner take my chances with the undead than with the living. Could these people really be trapped here? Or do they feel more secure together than alone?
I turn back slightly to look at the city. Just like most places in Sinnoh, it stops abruptly at a clearly determined line. I know I was taught the reason for such a strange choice at some point, but obviously it didn't matter because I don't remember even a shadow of it now. The tents are so tightly clustered in the street that it's hard to tell where one ends and another begins. The smell drifts to us and I wrinkle my nose, resisting the urge to gag.
Scarlet paces forward and sniffs the ground, flicking her tail around in the air. I bend down next to her and gently take my eye patch off of her muzzle, shoving it unceremoniously in my pocket. Straightening, I blink against the sunlight and take in the gray expanse before us. There are tents lying out here too, but nothing stirs save for an occasional leaf blowing across the dirt. Dark remains of bonfires litter the road, placed randomly about between the tents.
Something darts from one tent to another, and I squint to see it. A small figure, probably a child, races from tent to tent carrying some sort of bag. He has it hoisted over his back, and slows down with each passing as it seems to grow heavier. He stumbles a bit, sending a flourish of dirt into the air, then vanishes.
Scarlet shifts slightly and glances up at me. I shrug and motion for us to ignore him. Why should we care if some little kid is looting people's things? It's probably better for him anyway. She paws at the ground and looks over to the sharp, white mountains towering above us. That man said the path through was caved in, but I'd like to see it for myself. I know it's dumb, but I can't help but feel like maybe we can try something no one else has.
The snow crunches under our feet, but it's so well-packed that it barely gives beneath us. Enough footprints already mark this path that ours blend in and are barely distinguishable. The prints remind me of the open paths west and north of here, where my shoes sunk into the mud and each dirt road went untamed and unexplored for years. I never thought I could miss the dead gray grass that broke underneath us, but I do. Compared to this place where we can't even tell which footprints are our own I miss those overgrown paths very much.
I stop and look up at the massive pile of rocks looming over us. I see now why that man suspected foul play –this is clearly no natural landslide. High above us, the part still holding on to the mountain is marred by deep lines where pipes were shoved through the rock. They're the same lines used to clear out the road leading up to Oreburgh Gate, lines that once held powerful explosives.
Scarlet cautiously steps on to the first rock, then bounds her way up until she's several meters above and away from me. Yawning extravagantly and with a certain playfulness in her eyes, she rolls over and shakes her tail in my direction. A lazy, demanding roar slides out of her mouth and I answer it with an equally obnoxious sigh. She wants to play games, but I'm in no mood.
I sit down and lean my back against one of the rocks. Scarlet roars again and I roll my eye even though I know she can't see me. I don't want to mope around, but I'm just too exhausted at this point to do anything else. I haven't had a good night's sleep in a long time and I'm still having pains from what that stupid Raichu did. Seeing all this has just been too much. I like to pretend I can just ignore all these people, but it really is hard when they're begging for food right in your face. And no, it's not like I have any extra food to give them, but still…
I groan and pull my knees up to my chest. What am I thinking? This is stupid. If I can't help them, if I don't want to help them, I won't and that's the end of it. I just need to swallow back this tiredness and keep moving.
Even if our only choice is to forge a new path through the mountain, well that's what we'll do. Staying in one place too long is going to kill me much faster than any zombie could.
Something warm and wet touches my ear, and in a sudden, heart-stopping panic I whip around and hold out my crowbar to strike. But it's only Scarlet, watching me with playful eyes and shaking her butt in the air. She snarls mischievously and pounces, sinking her teeth into my scarf. "Hey! What're you-?" She pulls it off my neck with surprising ease and bolts up the rocks, stopping a meter or two up and beckoning me to her by growling softly. "Come on, Scarlet! I'm not in the mood for this!"
She ignores me and jumps even further up the landslide. Cursing underneath my breath, I order her to come back down with as much composure as I can muster. She stops and stares at me, her eyes gleaming brightly in the sun. "Scarlet…" I call up in a warning tone. "Get back down here, we need to get going." She cocks her head to the side as if to ask "Where?" I narrow my eye and put one foot on the first rock. "Come on, Scarlet…"
She shakes her tail in the air and looses an alarmingly loud roar. I climb up on to the first rock and hold my arm out. "Give it here." She shakes her head and jumps up and down a bit. Cursing some more, I climb clumsily up so that we're just a few steps apart. "Now," I say simply.
She suddenly leaps for me, crossing the distance between us with incredible ease. I cry out as she slams into me and my back bangs into the hard, uneven stone. Her powerful paws hold me hard against the rocks, my scarf dangling from her teeth and tickling my nose. My backpack digs into my back, and my heart races at the thought of damaged food or supplies. I try and wriggle out from beneath her, but she just smiles a strange, cat-like smile and pushes me down harder. "Damnit, Scarlet! What the hell are you doing?"
She drops the scarf in my face and suddenly bounces off, resting just next to me on the dirty rock. I grasp it and wipe her spit on my pant leg before wrapping it around my neck again. "What was that all about?" She looks up at me and turns her head to the side. Glancing back down and closing her eyes slightly, she gets up to her paws and starts to pace around me. She weaves between my legs, pressing her soft body to mine. Sparks move from her to me, and I shiver as a faint shock jolts up my spine.
She stops and faces me again, sitting down hard on the rock. I kneel beside her and gently take her face into my hands. "Everything okay, Scarlet?" She watches me blankly for a second before hitting my chest lightly with her paw. "Your chest hurts?" I honestly have no idea what she wants, and she isn't being particularly helpful.
She shakes her big, fluffy head furiously, then shoves it into me. "Ah, uh, what are you doing?" She looks up and licks my face, then goes back to rubbing herself against me. I feel her purring, and reach out tentatively to run my fingers through her fur.
Her tail lightly touches my pocket holding all of our team mates, and she jumps back suddenly, still pointing at them. "I really don't think this is the time, Scarlet…" She looks away dejectedly, her pale eyes filling with sadness. They shine; big, wide, and bright with the sting of rejection.
Giving in completely, I reach into my pocket and let our team mates out to play. Lenny comes out first, struggling to get his balance on the uneven ground. But as soon as he spots me he slips over, sliding into my lap and flattening out. I lightly put my hand on his head, and he giggles with happiness.
Marley and Dracula are next. Dracula tries to fly but Marley stops her by holding out a gentle arm. She looks at it, then up to him. Her face fills with joy, and I realize that this is the first time she's seen him since he evolved. She starts to embrace him, and he condenses into a tiny ball so she doesn't have to move her wing very much. He coos and smiles while she holds him, unleashing a tiny burst of dark, harmless gas into the air.
Dracula spots Lenny, Scarlet and I. She toddles over the uneven rocks with Marley still tucked in her arm, then sits tentatively beside us. Marley bursts out of her grip to float above us all, looking down on the city spread out below.
I put a careful, gentle arm around my old friend and she rubs her face on me, smiling happily. Lenny grins widely and makes a weird "skuuue!" noise, his head popping out from the rest of his blob-like form to lick Dracula rick over her face. She smiles sheepishly at him and rubs her nose against his, making him cry out again in happiness.
Elizabeth appears right in my lap, materializing in the middle of Lenny's goo. I instantly start to panic, worried that she might be hurting him, but he just laughs loudly like he's being tickled and reforms himself so they can sit beside each other. She looks at him with wide, child-like eyes and claps because she doesn't know what else to do. He claps in response, and she seems to like it. They go back and forth with their clapping until she falls over into me in a giggling mess, shaking and shivering with more happiness than she seems to know what to do with.
Scout puts her paws out behind her and leans comfortably on them, sitting beside me and not making a sound. I look over to make sure she's alright and catch her eye. She stares at me vacantly for a moment before a tiny smile breaks across her face. Her tail curls around over her legs, lending our little group extra warmth against the cold winter breeze.
After a little while she leans on me too, her brace scratching over the hard rocky ground. It takes her an extra moment to find the most comfortable position for it, and as soon as she does I notice her eyelids start to droop and a deep yawn roll through her small, broken body.