The ruins lighten around me, the tired morning sun crawling out from behind the forest. I rub my hands together; hold them out in front of me toward the flames. Prinplup's funeral pyre has died down to a small campfire, fueled by planks of wood dug out from within the remnants of our houses. I watch it dance energetically, sending wisps of heat to my face and chest. I am thoroughly exhausted from last night, from struggling to keep my eyes open for the past couple of hours. The forest is as silent as usual, completely still in the cold air. My knees are tucked under me in the most uncomfortable position I can manage, a slight numbness spreading down to my feet. The charred Gyarados corpse lies in the dead grass not far from the pool, its limp tail dangling in the still water.
Leo went to bed early last night, leaving Scout and I to divide up the shifts. We burned the Gyarados corpse and dragged it out of the pool a bit, making sure to destroy its brain completely before leaving it to rot. Our bonfire burned huge and bright, and coupled with the reek of the decaying beast was sure to keep the undead at bay. I tried talking to Leo before he fell asleep, but he just ignored me and closed his eyes.
Morning is here and we need to leave soon. After seeing what horrid creatures could live in that pool I have no interest in sticking around to see what else lurks in the darkness. However, I know that from here on out things will only get worse. Route 201 is well-known for having weak Pokémon, but eventually we'll have to come across monsters far worse. Gyarados are some of the largest Pokémon in the region, but that doesn't mean we won't meet things stronger, faster, or much more horrifying.
We've lost one partner so far –what more grief awaits us on our journey? And after losing so many during the first outbreak….
I close my eyes tightly; squeezing them shut so hard it hurts. I can't think about my old friends. They're gone, and I'll never be able to get them back. I've already felt the ache of loss and the sting of failure, and I know I'll feel it again. Prinplup was one of our greatest allies, and I promise to never forget him, but it's imperative we keep moving forward.
"Leo," I grasp his arm, tight but not enough to cause him any pain. "Come on, we're got to leave. You too, Scout." Leo doesn't move, and I give him a little shake. No response. Scout gets up quickly and begins to pack our things, careful rolling the mat so it fits into my backpack. "Leo, seriously. Get up." I try not to be annoyed with him as I know he's under a lot of stress, but we have to make the most of the daylight. He slowly turns over to look at me, his eyes bloodshot and underlined by deep, dark circles.
I feel guilty for trying to push him. We've both lost so much, and I can't imagine what I'd do if Scout died. He and Prinplup were closer than any pair I'd ever seen; it's hard to visualize one without the other. He looks absolutely miserable, just staring up at me with his dead, empty eyes. We sit there for a while, waiting for each other to move. He eventually relents and sits up slowly, rubbing his worn face with his shaking hands. I ask him if he's feeling any better, but he continues to ignore me.
We're back on the road after a few minutes of packing. Scout walks solemnly by my side with Leo a meter or so behind us. He doesn't speak or look up from his feet, caring little about what happens around him. I keep an eye on him as best I can, making sure he doesn't do anything dumb. He stops walking when we reach the exit to Route 201, turning around to say goodbye to his first Pokémon for the last time. Long morning shadows drag out the ruins of our abandoned town, creating deep, dark lines from one end to the other. Though we can't see it from where we're standing, we know the corpse of Prinplup's murderer lies on the other end of town, charred and broken. My mind flashes briefly back to my nightmare, and the same strange voice echoes in my head.
Everything happens for a reason, Jay.
Leo turns to me so suddenly that at first I think he might have heard it too. He starts to speak, then closes his mouth and shakes his head slowly. "Jay, I-", he stammers, struggling to grasp his words. I watch him concernedly, his broken amber eyes gleaming with hurt. "I don't want this to ever happen again." His voice is very quiet, barely audible over the near-silent wind. He shakes his head again, playing with the sleeve of his jacket. "I mean, I…can't go any further with you. This was stupid and I-"
I feel a spark of rage in my chest, and my next words make him flinch. "No. You said we'd do this together. This… this was your idea! You can't just give up now. We've been through so much; we're going to run away together! Leo you…you can't just stop!" He seems so genuine in his words that I have trouble finding mine. The very idea of continuing this journey without him terrifies me, and I refuse to accept it.
"But, Jay, I…" He steps back, all of a sudden looking very, very small. He raises his hoarse voice, struggling against its urge to break. "That's exactly why we can't do this. Let's just wait…another couple weeks like Dawn said, maybe. Or- or even a year! None of this makes any sense. We barely survived the trip from Oreburgh to Twinleaf four years ago, how do you expect us to…to navigate this entire country without getting killed?"
"Four years ago! We were fourteen, Leo. We're stronger and smarter now. We know how to fight and we know how to survive." Sharp pangs of betrayal run through my body, and my voice turns desperate. "I-I can't even believe you're saying this!" I refuse to give up on this journey, to back out of our decision, but how can I survive without him? In making his choice, he's making mine. "We've dealt with loss before. We kept moving then, we knew what we'd face and we knew we had to-"
He shakes his head rapidly, his voice cracking miserably as he speaks. "It's not even about that. We thought things would be safer now, but they aren't. We've seen just as many zombies as we did before…" He trails off, looking down at his feet. "I just…I don't want anyone else to die for us, Jay."
I look down as well, my cheeks burning as the indignation wears off. We promised we wouldn't give up. We said that we'd make this happen together. I know what he means, that he's just concerned for our safety but…we have to be stronger than that. We've gotten this far, turning back now would be to admit defeat. I glance over at Scout, who has remained silent the entire time. Would I want to keep moving if she were killed? Her face is somber, her dark eyes locked on me. She's been there for me every step of the way, but I can't ask her to keep risking her life for something if it's really just a foolish dream. My chest burns, and I swallow hard. I want to find survivors, to help people in need. But I guess I have to help myself first.
I nod silently and take a deep, exaggerated breath. "Ok, we'll…stop when we get back to Sandgem." My voice is just as low as his was when he first brought up the subject. I don't want to give up on this, but I can't do it without him.
He smiles for the first time in twenty-four hours. "Thanks, Jay." He looks up at me, still gripping the sleeve of his jacket. Without warning, he lunges toward me and pulls me into a hard embrace. Confused, I slowly pat him on the back. He holds on for a bit too long, and I have to push him away.
"Let's just go." I say bitterly, turning back to Route 201.
The silence has become comforting, the lack of movement around us bringing with it a strange sense of safety. I let Tinkerbell out of her Pokeball, and she flaps weakly a few times before I'm forced to simply carry her. We make our way towards Sandgem, stopping only to eat some lunch. Scout sits next to me and Tinkerbell hops onto the ground. Leo seems happier than he was earlier, but he's still no ray of sunshine. I pass out bread, cheese, and unmeat, giving more than yesterday because it seems like everyone could use a little refreshment. I still give Tinkerbell very little, but she's grateful for it nonetheless. Prinplup never contributed much to our lunchtime conversations, but without him something's clearly missing.
I let Tinkerbell explore the area some after she's finished eating. She hops over to a rock, and pecks at it a couple times before using it to sharpen her claws. Leo, Scout, and I watch her in silence, which must make her feel uncomfortable after a couple minutes because she's quick to hop back over to me. She anxiously starts bouncing up and down, using her tattered little wing to point off to the left. I ask her what's wrong, and she starts up with a little chirping sound. Scout kneels down beside the Starly, listening intently to what the little flying-type has to say. She takes Tink into to her hands and starts walking away from us. Leo and I jump to our feet and follow them down a barely visible path.
I'm immediately nervous, and draw my crowbar as soon as we step off the road. Leo takes up the back, weapon raised to strike. Scout isn't reacting at all, just carrying the quietly chirping Starly further and further into the forest. Tinkerbell falls quiet suddenly, and my heart starts to race. They keep moving, heading for a pocket of light between two trees.
We emerge from the woods on to a beautiful lake, sprawling out far before us. Tinkerbell leaps from Scout's paws and glides a bit, landing carefully on the grass. A strange man stands before the glimmering water, looking out towards the rocky island in the middle. We can hear him talking quietly to himself, his body completely still. I give Leo a wary look, and he shrugs. It's entirely possible this man is insane, or even partially turned, so he may be giving in to the first stirs of madness.
Tinkerbell begins to back away from him, but it's too late. He bends down quickly and plucks her off the ground, making my heart stop. "Put her down." I order instinctively, worried only for her safety. The man turns to look at me, his face so devoid of emotion it sends chills down my back.
"This is your Starly? You should try to feed her better." He pulls her wing outward from her body, and she winces. "She's so small and weak." I tell him again to put her down, but he ignores me. She shakes in his palms, completely terrified, and looks over to me for help. "Might I suggest an HP UP or two? They should help with her size." He leans down, gently letting her jump off his hand and scamper back to me. I take her up and hold her tightly in my arms, her tiny heart beating rapidly against the skin of my neck. "Do you two boys know the legend of this place?"
I narrow my eyes and tell we do but don't care. He chuckles without smiling. "You should. You see, Mesprit only protects those she thinks are worthy. Only people and Pokémon born in her domain are chosen, and should any of them come into danger she should do her best to protect them. It is surely an interesting way of dealing justice, is it not?" I don't respond because I want him to leave. There's something really off about this man, about his emotionless tone and strange way of speaking. Scout seems to agree, preparing herself to attack in case he does anything threatening.
"But it is, after all, merely a legend. She couldn't protect Twinleaf town, and she couldn't protect Sandgem. Surely, a true guardian must be able to keep those they've sworn to protect from turning into mindless beasts." He's looking straight through us now, making me feel horribly uncomfortable. Tinkerbell shifts in my grasp, nuzzling even closer to my face. I rub her back gently, trying in vain to calm her down. The man continues talking as if we weren't there. "Of course, everything happens for a reason. Those that died must simply have been deemed unworthy by the Guardian. And if a god decrees it, it must be true."
"That's stupid." Leo says suddenly, making me jump. The man barely takes notice, a shift of his eyes the only proof he saw Leo do anything at all. "Mesprit is no god. Those that died just…died. There's no deeper meaning or hidden moral-"
"I myself have found it true that only those who can live through a test like this are truly deserving of life. Otherwise, they are simply taking up space." The sunlight falls on the man's face in a way that makes him look genuinely menacing. He takes a few steps forward, and I back up to the edge of the forest. Leo doesn't move. "Space that, in this ruined, terrible world, could be better used to help nourish those that have been chosen to survive. Those that are…of a greater purpose." He walks past Leo so that his shoulder is beside mine. "The first shall be last and the last shall be first. It is those who survive and thrive on this starved planet that deserve to live a greater life. Those that survive like us."
He leaves us with that, vanishing into the forest and disappearing from our view in seconds. Leo stands fuming beside me, shaking his head furiously. "What a freak." He says simply, staring into the space where the strange man was only seconds ago.