Grace’s backpack fell with a muffled clank as she heaved it off her shoulders. Taking a seat on a nearby rock, the redhead finally allowed herself a moment of rest. Hiking Twist Mountain was never easy, but Grace had spent years on these slopes. She felt confident that she knew every nook and cranny of the old mine—inside and outside. The young woman had taken it upon herself to be a guide or rescuer of sorts to lost Trainers making their way north to Iccirus—and though some were less than appreciative, she had earned great satisfaction in helping the wayward stranger. She was proud of the reputation she had built as the “mountain tamer”.
Yet, recently, she had been making trips into the mountain for more selfish reasons. Twist Mountain was becoming her escape.
The redhead wiped the sweat from her brow as she overlooked the crater below. The old mining equipment that had been present all summer had been relocated in preparation for the coming winter. As far as she could tell, the place was abandoned—no workers or Trainers in her line of vision. She wondered ruefully if it was getting too cold for adventures on the mountain now. In the past, winter hadn’t dissuaded the staunchest of travelers—yet Grace had noticed a rather bitter turn in the weather for the last few years. It was getting colder and colder, and the mountain was growing meaner and meaner.
Something sighed by her side. Grace glanced downed to see her sole companion sit beside her rock. The groundhog-like creature was likewise staring down at the valley with red and yellow eyes, though more bored than reflective. Grace cocked a half-smile, wishing she could have left the Watchog behind. Ricky was a nice enough Pokémon and all… but he wasn’t her own. Her mother had insisted that Grace to take him with her. For whatever reason, the idea of her daughter wandering the woods alone didn’t settle well with her.
But she used to not be alone.
“Hungry, Ricky?” she quickly changed the direction of her thoughts.
The Watchog wagged his tail, showing enthusiasm for the first time that day. Chuckling softly, Grace twisted around to reach into her bag. She was just about to pull out a bag of trail mix when the ground suddenly trembled beneath her. The redhead froze midair while Ricky spat, hair standing on edge. The quake only lasted a brief moment, but it was long enough to set the two on edge.
Frowning, Grace dropped the bag and straightened, turning her attention to the valley below. A plume of dust was rising from the entrance of one of Twist Mountain’s many caves. She considered it for a moment, listening long and hard for sound—any kind of sound.
After a long moment of silence, she dismissed to Ricky, “Must have been a Boldore… maybe some Drilbur.”
From the way he stared intently at the cave entrance, Ricky didn’t seem satisfied with that answer. His ears twitched edgily, and his tense body seemed ready to bolt towards the tunnel at any moment.
“Hey,” Grace tried to get his attention, even going as far to wave a hand in front of his face, but the Watchog ignored her. With an exasperated sigh, she submitted, “Fine. We’ll go check it out.”
Leaping off her perch, Grace swept her backpack up and scanned the area for the best route downwards. The slope was pretty steep from her rock down to the cave’s entrance. Just below yawned a chasm that could possibly pose a danger, if she lost her footing. She wasn’t too worried, however. Her steps were confident as she angled her way down, testing the ground with every step she took. Ricky grunted and followed her, placing his body purposely between her and the fissure.
By the time they reached the opening, the dust had cleared from the air. The eager morning sun couldn’t send its light far into the tunnel, but they had Ricky’s luminescent fur to depend on if they were prompted to go farther in. Grace paused at the edge of the sunlight, straining her ears once again for sound. She would have given a shout, but she didn’t want to startle any potential Pokémon within. No doubt they would be alarmed by the stir.
Maybe the tunnel just collapsed
, she pondered as she contemplated the darkness. If so… it would be unsafe to continue further. The hiker turned around to leave, but nearly ran into Ricky. The mongoose chattered and pointed a stubborn paw towards the tunnel.
“What?” she hissed at him, growing exasperated.
Snorting, the Watchog continued pointing.
She sighed, knowing what he was getting at. A creature might be trapped inside… and who better to rescue them but a seasoned rescuer?
“Fine,” she gave in, turning back around. “We’ll go take a look, but I doubt we’ll find anything.”
Or, rather, she hoped she wouldn’t find anything. Maybe it was selfish of her, but she really didn’t want to deal with trouble right now. She wanted to be alone.
The yellow stripes on Ricky’s fur brightened as they immersed themselves in the earth, illuminating their path. Grace glanced around, trying to recall this tunnel from her memory. She thought that she had been through it before—but maybe the tremor had skewed the tunnel some.
Ricky abruptly stopped, perking his ears forward. Before Grace could ask him what was wrong, she heard a furious tapping approaching. Footsteps? She watched the darkness ahead warily, though she was startled when a sudden figure burst into Ricky’s light.
All Grace caught was a faintly familiar male face wide with surprise before he shouted, “Run!”, and barreled past them. It wasn’t long before they saw what he had been running from—something bulky crashed through the tunnel, skidding to a halt right before them. The creature’s craggy form recoiled from the light, as if startled by its sudden appearance. Grace gasped and backpedaled, recognizing the red crystals sprouting from its blue-gray body.
“Blind it, Ricky!” Grace shouted an order. “Quick!”
The groundhog Pokémon squeaked in alarm, but quickly obeyed her command. Grace shielded her eyes as the light from the Watchog’s fur intensified. The Rock-type monstrosity reeled in pain, stomping its massive feet in alarm.
“Run!” Grace took advantage of its blindness and raced in the opposite direction, following the stranger. They didn’t get much headway before the creature started barreling after them, sight or no sight. Grace could feel the ground quake beneath her as it pursued, but kept her eyes forward as she aimed for the daylight ahead. The tunnel was too narrow to avoid the creature any other way, and she had no choice but to run for her life.
As the exit drew near, Grace glanced over her shoulder to gauge the creature’s approach. Thus distracted, she hadn’t realized that the strange boy had skidded to a halt—not until she collided with him. Her world started spinning as they both tumbled head over heels, rolling out of control down the mountainside.
Grace panicked, shoving the stranger away while she stretched out her limbs in an attempt to slow her fall. Coarse shrubs and loose gravel tore at her skin. Everything was noise and chaos, and her vision still raced in furious circuits. She managed to flip onto her stomach, and after spreading out her limbs, her mad descent slowed to a stop.
Heart racing, she stared at the dirt in a mixture of disbelief and relief. If she had fallen any further—
A hand suddenly caught her ankle. She only had time to gasp before she started falling once again. Her stomach lurched as the ground suddenly slipped out from beneath her, and she was free-falling through the air. Time seemed to slow as the cliffs slipped away from her. Memories and thoughts drifted through her mind at a rapid glance—to quickly to linger over or register what they meant. Was this what people meant when they say, “I saw my life flash before my eyes?”
Inevitably, the crash came. Grace had expected to be ripped apart by the sharp rocks at the bottom of the gorge—or perhaps she would just be splattered against the ground like a bug on a windshield. Luckily, neither happened. Instead, she landed on something much softer than rock.
Something that shouted in pain at the contact.
It took her a little time to recover from the jarring landing, and even longer to sort through her rattled thoughts. Cradling her head with a hand, Grace rolled onto her stomach with a moan. Her vision spun as she glanced around in confusion. The bottom of the gorge was a little dark, but light enough to see that she had barely managed to miss the rows of sharp rock below. Somehow, she had ended up on a smoother slate of rock just above their peaks.
Nearby, a miserable form was curled up into a ball, groaning in pain. Grace eyed him warily, recognizing the blonde hair from the boy at the cave. At one time, she would have been quick to leap to his side and help, but now she felt reservations. Who was he? And what was he doing out here? More importantly, could he be trusted?
Before she could ask anything, the mountain rang with a pain-filled roar. Grace glanced up fearfully in time to see the rock Pokémon they had been running from, leaning over the ledge with baleful eyes. Grace held her breath, praying that the Gigalith wouldn’t try to leap in after them. The hulking beast, however, seemed satisfied with where they were. Snorting, it turned its shoulder and disappeared from sight.
“Is… it gone?”
Grace glanced over her shoulder, and saw the stranger staring at her worriedly. Her lips thinned into a tight line as her eyes fell to the arm he was cradling carefully. Old habits died hard, and though she still felt apprehensive, she couldn’t fight her instinct to help. Sighing in defeat, she approached the stranger.
“Where does it hurt?” she touched his arm tenderly.
He grimaced, but ignored her question. “S-sorry I… I didn’t mean for you to—”
The blonde-haired youth gasped as she purposely twisted his arm, cutting off his weak apologies. Though it was
his fault she was stuck down here, she didn’t want to hear it right now. There were more important things to worry about—like getting out of this pit hole, for one.
“Where?” she asked again, her voice stern.
“It’s… all along my arm… But it hurts around the wrist the most.”
Grace frowned, noticing the swelling taking place around the wrist. She guessed that he had sprained it—and possibly fractured a bone in his forearm. If so, then he wouldn’t be able to climb his way out of here. He would need a lift out.
“I need to make an arm sling…” Grace mumbled to herself, shrugging her bag off her shoulders. Her back was a little sore from where the backpack had been crushed against her in the fall, but she ignored her own pain as she looked for something she could use. She regretted having not packed her usual first-aid gear; but in her defense, she hadn’t expected to do any rescues today. While she busied herself with the search, the blonde-haired boy watched warily.
“Do you have an extra shirt?” the hiker gave up her search, turning to the stranger hopefully.
The boy lifted his head in a nod—but abruptly stopped himself. “Um… I… guess. But—!”
Grace ignored his pause as she reached for the bag on his back.
“No! Wait!” he twisted away from her. The stranger grunted as the motion jarred his injured arm.
“What is the matter with you?” the female hiker demanded, irritated. “I’m just trying to help!”
“I know, but you can’t—!”
“Stop squirming,” she grabbed his shoulder and forced him to stay still as she grabbed the zipper to his bag. His final attempts at resisting her were futile; whether he wanted it or not, the bag was opened and its contents revealed.
Grace wasn’t sure what she was seeing at first, thanks to the weakened light. It looked like a messy wad of clothing that had been hastily stuffed inside for some unknown reason. Curiosity piqued, the hiker pulled out one of the wrinkled articles. Almost immediately, a lone insignia was revealed.
The world seemed to freeze at that point. Time slowed, space disappeared. Grace was only aware of the logo before her, and the pain that it had once wrought. Her hand tightened its grip on the white shirt as if trying to strangle the life out of the memory that now returned to haunt her. Leading a trio of “lost” trainers through the mountain. Never suspecting anything was wrong. Getting turned on at the end. The cries of her Pokémon as they were being taken from her. Sneering, greedy faces staring down at her in conceit. Their faces…
“Please,” the blonde-haired boy begged, his expression desperate—so unlike the twisted, arrogant face she had seen those years ago. “Let me explain.”
“You,” Grace growled, her voice low and dangerous. She shoved him to the ground, disregarding his injury. Though it must have pained him, the boy kept silent, silently wincing as he took the abuse.
“What are you doing here?” the hiker demanded, shouting hoarsely as she vented her rage. She wanted to kick him, hurt him, strangle him—anything to make him suffer for what he had done to her. Yet she remained rooted in place, not caring for any kind of reply; she only glared loathingly, wishing he would be swallowed up by the earth and disappear from her sight forever.
“I came to…” he trailed off, as if he couldn’t find the right words.
“Came back to tear apart more families, huh? Ruin more lives!” she finished for him. “One just wasn’t enough for you, was it?”
The stranger braved an upward glance, his eyes both baffled and fearful.
Grace was quivering with the furious riot of emotions within her. Outrage, incredulousness, hatred… each vied for voice. However, she tried to rein them in; she had to keep some control over herself. Gritting her teeth, she lowered her voice and asked, “What did you do with them?”
That dumb expression remained rooted on his face. Was he really that clueless? Could he really not remember the girl he had helped mug just two years ago?
“Where are they?” she repeated, her voice returning to a yell.
“I…” he started, but soon trailed off as his eyes finally lit up in recognition. Despair instantly crossed his face like a shadow. “No… You’re… you’re that girl…”
“Yes,” she raised her chin defiantly. “I’m that girl. I’m that girl who led you through the mountain, who thought she was doing a good deed. I’m the girl who you lied to, tricked. I’m the girl you left for dead, after you stole her Pokémon and—”
She couldn’t continue. The tears had come, brought on by the war of fury and sorrow waging within her. A pitiful sob wracked her body, further frustrating her. What was wrong with her? Why was she doing this? The vision of strength and defiance she had hoped to build up had been shattered as soon as her emotions had caught up with her. Grace wiped at eyes in annoyance, trying to regain her composure. She was not going to fall apart now—not in front of this Team Plasma grunt.
Forcing as much loathing into her gaze as possible, she returned a fierce glare back to the blonde. However, she was disarmed as she saw his expression. It was… pained. Regretful, even. Those sapphire eyes seemed as close to tears as she was.
“…and ruined her life,” he quietly finished, gaze dropping in shame.
Grace clenched her jaw, choosing to stay silent for the moment. She studied the boy for a moment, wondering what he was getting at. Two years of growth was evident on him—he seemed taller and leaner than when she met him. His blonde hair was longer, though not indecently so. The most striking difference, however, was the solemn look in his eye. He looked like he had been brought low, having the pride beaten out of him like metal at a forge.
Of course, nothing that he didn’t deserve.
The young woman narrowed her eyes. For all she knew, this could just be a front—a way of regaining her trust so that he could stab her in the back once again. She wasn’t going to fall for his tricks, not again.
The grunt sat up, being extra careful with his injured arm. His motions were slow and cautious, with those sapphire orbs of his never leaving Grace. She stared back with her arms folded across her chest in a tight, defensive posture. After finally falling into a comfortable position, the boy let out a weary sigh.
“Look,” he finally spoke after a brief, but tense, silence. “I know… I know that there’s nothing I can say to change what I’ve done…”
“No,” Grace coldly replied. “There isn’t.”
He paused in his broken speech, staring despondently at the ground. “No… You’re right. I did something horrible… I don’t blame you if you can never forgive me for what I’ve done. But please—I just need to… I need to say it, or I’ll never forgive myself.”
Grace stiffened, knowing what his next words were going to be. Still, she hardly believed her ears as he finished:
Those two simple words hung in the air between them, weighed down by a grief that Grace almost found believable. She was silent as the words seemed to physically hit her, soak into her being and bleed their way into her heart. Even while her mind doubted their truthfulness, her heart was beginning to feel their conviction. A new war began, waging between the cold logic of the new Grace, and the sympathy of the old Grace. With the wounds inflicted years ago, however, the battle was already one-sided. New Grace was lashing back, refusing to yield.
¬ “You’re sorry?” she seethed. “Really? That’s it? That’s all you have to say for yourself?”
The stranger winced, refusing to meet her livid glare. His sapphire eyes remained downcast as he mumbled hopelessly, “Yes.”
Grace abruptly turned away, tongue in cheek. This was all wrong. What was going on with this kid? She had spent the last two years loathing everything he stood for. He was one of the ruthless monsters that haunted her dreams. Now suddenly, he showed up out of nowhere, apologetic and… and… so human.
She almost felt sorry for him.
No! She couldn’t think that way! What he did was evil. He was evil. For that, she could never forgive him.
She had to get out of there.
Casting the boy from her thoughts, Grace faced the walls. Her sharp eyes scanned the rock for footholds—anything she could use to climb. Unfortunately, the walls were basalt, resembling natural, vertical columns. Climbing them without proper gear would prove disastrous. If she fell again, she might not be as lucky as last time. Those pointed rocks still taunted her below… Grace sighed, not believing how unprepared she had been for this hike.
Grace jumped, startled by the sudden outcry. When she looked up, she held back a sigh of relief. A familiar face had appeared over the lip of the gorge: those fat cheeks could belong to no one else but Ricky.
“Ricky!” Grace hollered up at the Watchog. “Ricky, I’m right here! I’m all right!”
The creature chattered, sounding reassured. He paced up and down the side of the cliff, twitching his ears nervously.
Grace frowned at him before shouting back, “No, no! Stay up there! Listen closely! You need to go back and find help! Have them bring rope!”
Ricky’s yellow eyes blinked several times before he nodded in grim understanding. With a flash of his white-tipped tail, the Watchog disappeared from her sight. Grace’s mouth lifted in a smirk of satisfaction—only to fall seconds later as she realized her mistake. Now, she was obligated to stay put. That meant staying here. With him.