I step back, my feet slipping over the stained snow. Throwing my arm out to keep my balance, my shoes catch on the ground and I straighten up. My heart pounds in my ear, fear pulsing through my veins. Scarlet stands beside me with her muscles flexed and her legs ready to propel her into battle. She snarls and her eyes widen with fury, jaws snapping loudly. Electricity races up and down her dark form, her tail snapping back and forth in the air.
The massive Pokémon leans toward us and unleashes a terrifying roar that shakes me down to my bones. I fall onto my ass and Scarlet scrambles backward from the sheer force of the sound. Spit flings into my face and I blink rapidly to keep it out of my eye. The rusted fence surrounding the Pokémon shivers and creaks as it presses its body against the dull metal.
Scarlet roars back, but the Head Butt Pokémon is hardly intimidated. I struggle back to my feet and hold my crowbar between both of my shaking hands, poised to strike. The beast opens its massive mouth wide enough to see down its throat, and I look away in disgust. It has several rows of sharp, small teeth leading far back behind its tongue. They don't look big enough to rip me apart, but I still don't feel like getting close enough to find out.
Now it's leaning so far over its fence that the groaning metal is starting to give, tearing up out of the ground and snapping in several places. Scarlet stops her growling to shoot me a terrified glance, and I nod quickly at her in response. She bolts off, sprinting back toward the town and as far away from the enraged rock-type fast as she can. I run hard to keep up with her, and for the first fifty meters or so I'm alright. Then a jolt of pain shoots through my spine and my legs give out, forcing me painfully to the dirty ground.
I turn over quickly to see the Rampardos charging toward me, much faster than I can escape. I try to get back up to my feet, but the ground is too slippery and I fall onto my side. A deep, ear-splitting roar tears through me and I flinch away, holding my crowbar out in a vain effort to protect myself.
The ground shakes and I suddenly feel its hot breath on my face. Instinct kicks in and I hold my weapon out with both hands, catching the beast between its jaws as it lunges for me. Spit and heat cover me and I gag on the Pokémon's rancid breath, putting every effort into holding the beast back.
It screams in my face and every one of my hairs stands on end. My arms begin to fail me as the weight becomes too much, pain bursting through the muscle and bone to erupt in my shoulders. I cry out and the jaws overwhelm me, surrounding my face and blocking out the sun.
But for one precious second it slackens, as if distracted by something. Seizing my chance, I roll out from beneath it and get clumsily to my feet. I hear Scarlet roar again, and the Rampardos redirects its attention to her. It growls back, towering over her but leaning down so it can get right in her face.
Sparks flood out from her body and send the Pokémon tumbling backward to land heavily in the snow. She runs at him and roars, readying another charge. I fumble for a PokeBall at my waist, wondering for a brief moment if the six-per person rule still applies.
The Rampardos swings its tail toward her, raising a volley of rocks out of the ground and slamming them into her small body. They knock her back so hard that she stops moving, skidding in the snow and coming to rest only when she hits another boulder jutting out of the ground. My heart skips a beat, my entire body freezing up. I call out her name, not caring if it attracts the Rampardos's attention.
Her tail flicks angrily and she wrenches herself back onto her paws. Her eyes glow with rage and I can see her charging power from here. She roars again, proud and furious. As she races for the rock-type again, I hurl the PokeBall into the air toward the beast. A huge burst of electricity surges out of her body and wraps the Head Butt Pokémon in bright light, making him cry out in agony.
The PokeBall hits him and lands harmlessly to the ground, just like I feared. Either he's owned by some trainer who can't be bothered to actually watch him, or the capture mechanism still doesn't work if I have six Pokémon on me.
Scarlet is pacing backward now, keeping her eyes nailed to the huge, heaving beast. It's really pissed off now, shaking its tail back and forth and shivering violently. I look around, desperate for another way to contain him.
The PokeBall starts to shiver and shoot back into my hand. I pocket it and switch it for another, one that already has someone in it. The Rampardos is just standing there, staring the Luxio down with large, intense eyes. She's holding her own, but I'm too scared to let her take much more of this by herself.
I press the button down twice on the PokeBall and throw it, bright light shooting from it and pooling onto the ground. Lenny looks up at me happily and slides over to my feet, rubbing his face against my legs. Keeping a careful watch on Scarlet, I get down on one knee beside the little water-type and look him straight in the eyes. "This is your chance to shine, think you can do it?" He looks confused, but nods vigorously anyway. I point to the Rampardos with my crowbar and put my empty hand on the back of Lenny's head. "I need you to hit that big guy with a blast of water, for as long as possible. I'll be right beside you, so don't worry about getting hurt. I promise I won't let him get too close." He looks down nervously and then nods again, his entire body jiggling. "Good." I exhale, standing slowly.
The Rampardos takes a few steps back from Scarlet, leaning down and pointing its rocky head toward her. She stops her pretense of confidence and sits back on her hunches, holding one paw off the ground in fear. I can hear her snarling, but she's visibly scared. Lenny glances up to me and I gesture for him to follow. We move several meters closer to the Rampardos, catching Scarlet's now-terrified eyes. Lenny squeaks and I put my finger over my lips to silence him. He flattens slightly and shivers, his eyes watering.
"Now," I order simply. Lenny pops up and takes a deep breath, letting loose a small stream of water into the rock-type's back. He turns suddenly and roars, charging toward us with his head bowed and shining with power. Scarlet runs just behind him, racing to get ahead and stop him.
"Come on, Lenny, we need more!" He looks up at me, petrified, and my chest stings. I'm asking a lot of him right now, but he's the only one who can do this. I smile and nod reassuringly, which doesn't seem to do much for him but at least makes me feel better. Lenny's stream intensifies and the Rampardos begins to slow, hampered even further by Scarlet's torrent of electricity flowing through him.
The Head Butt Pokémon begins to slip, and I focus carefully on his legs, moving my head back and forth to adjust my depth perception. Holding my arm back for a second to get some momentum going, I pitch my crowbar as hard as I can at the Rampardos's right leg. He falls over completely to his side, roaring angrily as he slides toward us. Lenny panics and stops his stream, sliding behind me as fast he can and flattening into the ground. I scramble backward to avoid getting hit, but lose my balance and barely miss Lenny's little pool of himself.
Dust bursts into my face and I cough a few times, covering my mouth. Scarlet trots over to me with my crowbar in her jaws, as confident as ever and with a spring of victory in her step. Lenny forms again beside us and stares at our job well done, eyes wide. He body jiggles again and he suddenly starts to sob, big watery globs dripping from his eyes. I hold him close to me and run my fingers over his back, smiling and assuring him that he did great.
The Rampardos moves slightly, then gives up and goes limp before us. Panting, I run one hand over my face and shake my head quickly. A strange feeling washes over me, and I stick my neck up to look around and see what the matter is.
We seemed to gather a crowd during our battle. The same ragged people who begged me for food or water in the city are standing around us, eyes wide. They have mangy Pokémon with them, mostly younger evolutions with tiny waists and dirty fur. One small child starts to cheer, clapping and hooting loudly. His mother tries to shush him but he just gets louder, jumping up and down with his tired-looking Burmy bouncing around beside him.
Soon enough more people are clapping and cheering, keeping a safe distance but watching us closely for our next trick. Lenny clings to me and I squeeze him to my side, while Scarlet climbs atop the Rampardos and basks in the momentary fame. She struts back and forth whiles the giant Pokémon grumbles quietly.
Careful so as not to get myself hurt any more than I already am, I stand slowly to my feet and take in the small crowd before me. There are no more than thirty or so of them, all clustered together against the cold and cheering loudly. There's obviously something going on here that I don't understand, and I'm not happy we attracted the attention. Now that they know we can take care of ourselves, they'll probably assume we have food, water, and medical supplies with us. Being known in a place like this has no benefits unless I feel like getting robbed.
Suddenly the crowd begins to quiet, and several of them stop altogether and retreat back into the city. They whisper and point, gradually dispersing. At first I think maybe Lenny's thrown up on himself, but it quickly becomes clear that they aren't leaving because of us.
"Why? Just why?" I turn around to see a red-headed man with thick glasses and what looks to be an ore-mining suit on. I think the Pokémon hovering beside him is a Probopass, looking fairly indifferent to everything. "Did you enjoy the fifteen seconds of fame you got for hurting one of my team mates? 'Cause this was just…this is excessive."
"This is your Rampardos?" Lenny squishes against me, his body turning into ooze again and slipping lazily down my side. "It attacked us! We just wanted to see what the lab was all about, and it freaking broke out of your shitty fence and charged us down. If we didn't fight back, we would've been killed."
"You broke the fence, too?" He groans and rubs his face beneath his glasses. I've definitely met him somewhere, but for now it's escaping me and frankly I'm too pissed off to care. "I have no idea how we're going to fix that…and what am I supposed to do about Barney? Look how miserable he is!" He gestures to the massive Rampardos lying on its side, flicking its tail lazily.
"You named your Rampardos Barney?"
He sighs and folds his arms across his chest. "Just go somewhere else. I don't even care if you stay in the city, just please don't come over here again. You'll make Barney sad." The Rampardos looks over at his trainer with wet, pathetic eyes. "Just look at him, he doesn't deserve this…" He walks past me and takes the rock-types face into his hands, smiling slightly. "It's okay, Barn. We'll get you fixed up alright. Don't worry about anything, I'll make sure this big asshole never gives you trouble again."
"He started it…" I explain weakly, not sure what else to tell him. He gives me an exasperated look over his Pokémon's heaving side, and suddenly it clicks. I know exactly where I've seen him. "Hey, you –you're Roark!" He raises one eyebrow but doesn't say anything. "You're the gym leader here. I fought you; you're the only gym leader I fought before the outbreak. I just- I can't believe you're still here!"
"We had a battle? I think I'd recognize a face like that," he says skeptically, putting one elbow on his Rampardos and leaning his face in his hand.
"Well, I didn't have the scars-"
"And why would you think I wouldn't still be here? It's a leader's duty to stay with his city. A captain goes down with his boat and all that. I mean, I don't stay in the city; I'd be dead if I did that but…us gym leaders are pretty hardy. We're trained to put up with a lot of shit, and we're morally obligated to stay when our city's in trouble." He straightens again, a spark of interest lighting in his eyes. "Why? What have you heard?"
For a second I'm not sure if I should tell him about Volkner. There's a strange hint in his tone that's making me nervous. But I don't owe any actual loyalty to Volkner –it's not like he swore me to secrecy on anything. "I saw Volkner in Jubilife. He said the League didn't care what happened to the gym leaders and…uh…something about half of you being dead."
He walks around his Rampardos slowly, his fingers trailing over its scaly skin. "Volkner?" He looks back down, his eyebrow pinched together in confusion and concern. "I…why don't you come back to the lab for a bit? I think we have a lot to talk about."
"Will there be food there?"
"Freaking…yes, we have some dried rice."
"Alright, then." He watches me carefully for another long moment before turning around and gesturing off into the distance.
"It's this way." He pulls a PokeBall out of his pocket and points it at Rampardos, ordering him to return. Scarlet looks up at me and I nod to her. Lenny squirms in my grasp and I let him down to the ground. He sticks his head toward his PokeBall and I call him back, looking away as he vanishes into the light. Scarlet pads beside me, her eyes glued on the Gym Leader.
I can see the lab in the distance, its glass shining brightly in the afternoon light. It gives off a strange sense of foreboding, but beckons me to it at the same time. I swallow hard, blinking away the exhaustion and quelling the hunger pains tearing at my empty stomach.