Chapter 4 – Trekking

If there was one thing I had to say about Eterna forest, it would have had to be that it was a natural maze. Even with my little markings on the tree trunks at every intersection, it didn't take long for the two of us to get hopelessly lost. And of course, by hopelessly lost, I meant that we'd somehow managed to lose the forest path completely.

Seriously, neither of us seemed to realize that we had wandered off the forest path. Fortunately, we hadn't yet reached the heart of the forest, if the canopy was any indication – we could still see the sky through it as we walked on.

And all the experts claimed that Eterna forest was basically a two-day hike at most. Based on that and my current experience, I really didn't want to imagine what the marshes of Pastoria or the icy slopes of Snowpoint would be like, at least not until I had gotten five badges and several more pokemon to work with.

"Really, you're acting as if this is entirely my fault. Aren't you supposed to have some, I don't know, innate tracking senses or something?" I grumbled, as Courtney continued to give me the cold shoulder.

She growled at me, and pointed upwards. When I looked up, I saw that the sky was already significantly darker than it had been when we'd entered the forest, and realized that it wouldn't be long before night set in.

"Well, shit! We need to find some shelter, Courtney, and fast," I muttered, looking around for a fallen tree, a stream, or anything that could possibly lead us to, or serve as, our shelter for the night.

Courtney then decided to attack my backpack's bottom.

"Hey, quit tugging on it!" I snapped, lifting it up and out of her reach. "What's the matter with you?"

She pointed at my bag, and mimed opening it up. With a growl, she gestured skywards again, and shook herself.

"Alright, then," I said, squatting down and opening up my backpack for her to take a look. "What is it?"

With a little grunt, she moved closer to it, and stuck one of her paws in, trying to grab something inside it. However, lacking an opposable thumb made it a tad difficult for her to find anything, and so she soon gave up with a growl that seemed to give off an air of disgust.

Before I could do anything, she tipped the backpack over and began rooting through my stuff.

"Hey!" I protested, half-reaching out to grab her before I remembered just how nasty those teeth of hers could be. "What's gotten into you? We need to find somewhere to hide for the night, in case you hadn't noticed!"

She let out a seemingly triumphant bark, and nudged my pokedex towards me.

I stared at the little red device for a moment, before I realized just what she had been driving at. "You're brilliant."

Just how she had thought of it and how it had managed to slip my mind, I didn't know, but she was incredibly smart for managing it, anyway. All pokedexes had built-in GPS units, and could show your approximate location on a satellite map of wherever you happened to be, provided that there was reception. While the GPS was only accurate to within a ten-meter radius or so, it was still better than how we'd been blundering through the forest.

Biting my lip and hoping that we hadn't somehow strayed into unmapped terrain or moved beyond the reception zones, I switched on the pokedex, and watched its tiny little screen come to life. It didn't take any longer than a minute for me to bring up the mapping function, and soon enough, I saw a blinking red spot on the screen – we were on a map!

"Alright, Courtney, we're going to keep moving according to the map, you got that?" I asked her, causing her to bob her head enthusiastically. "I'll watch the map, and you keep an eye out for anything... that may be out to get us, okay?"

All it took was a few seconds for me to magnify the map's image on the screen, but when the map finally turned up, I felt my excitement die a little. We were skirting the edge of unmapped terrain, and according to the pokedex, we were probably a good ten kilometres away from Eterna city. Given that the forest terrain was significantly difficult to navigate since we were literally off the beaten path, covering that distance would obviously take much longer than half a day.

At least we had the pokedex's compass as our guide – it indicated our direction of travel on the map, which was probably the biggest bit of help it could offer to us.

"Be vigilant, girl," I said, swallowing my apprehension. "It looks like we won't be able to make it out tonight, so we'll need to hole up somewhere in the forest or risk being eaten."

Courtney let out an apprehensive-sounding rumble, and we continued our trek through the increasingly darkened forest.

xxx

After what felt like an eternity of trekking through some rather dense undergrowth, we finally reached a large cluster of mossy rocks. No plants were growing around them, and the leafy canopy overhead rendered the area almost entirely dark due to the time of day. As I got closer to them, I saw that there was an opening of sorts between the rocks. Upon closer observation, the rocks themselves seemed to form a sort of large enclosure, since they were all apparently placed around a depression in the ground.

Somehow, I felt that I was being watched. A quick and discreet glance at my surroundings revealed nothing out of the ordinary, not even the tell-tale zigzag of a kecleon's belly. The trees around the rock cluster were oddly quiet, without any pokemon in their branches that I could see.

Trying to ignore the sense of foreboding that was building up in my gut, I decided to sweep the area with my pokedex – its sensory array might have been rudimentary at best, but reasonably large pokemon could be detected at range. Several seconds later, the device beeped and its screen flashed an NPD – short for 'No Pokemon Detected' - message. So it seemed the trees were free of any pokemon, at least if the sensors were accurate.

I narrowed my eyes at the large mass of rocks. Maybe there was a pokemon hiding among them? Or were they just a heap of stones that had been placed there by some clefairy? Cautiously, I got closer to them, and took a look between them. There were no signs of ambush predators such as geodude and shuckle that I could see, and the ground in the center of the cluster seemed a bit too moist for the likes of them, anyway.

The only thing that bothered me somewhat was the fact that the rocks were somehow not touched by the twigs and other leafy debris that liberally covered the ground around them. It was almost as if the rocks had some sort of repulsion towards falling leaves, really.

"Looks like we'll be able to hold up here for the night, girl," I said, pocketing my pokedex and turning around to face my gible. However, she was doing something rather unexpected. "What's the matter, girl?"

Courtney was backing away, and growling softly at me. Her expression seemed to suggest a mixture of fear and aggression, though I honestly couldn't read her that well yet. She eventually stopped backing away, and began hopping up and down on the spot, waving her stubby little paws around frantically.

"What's the problem, Courtney?" I asked her, placing my hands on my hips. "Look, if we don't find shelter, we might get eaten by something tonight. Do you seriously want to end up dead or something?"

She shook her head, and jabbed a paw in my direction, making a frantic-sounding hissing noise.

Just as she did that, a twig snapped behind me. Reflexively, I dropped to the ground, feeling something solid passing above my back as I did so. I rolled over, and saw that somehow, the rocks themselves were all moving. The thing that I had felt cutting through the air was a large, pincer-like appendage attached to the rock closest to me, which had two beady eyes glancing out at me from near its base.

"Fuck!" I started scrambling backwards, even as the rocks slowly began lifting themselves off the ground and making their way towards me. "Courtney, stay back!"

Some distant part of my memory matched a name to the creatures even as I hurriedly got back to my feet and ran towards my pokemon. What I had mistaken for a pile of rocks had actually been a group of crustle – highly adapted insect pokemon that used camouflage to ambush their prey. Fortunately, they were rather slow, and so I had managed to evade their first moves.

I picked Courtney up, not bothering to recall her, and ran away from the murderous bug pokemon, trying to make it to a part of the forest where the trees grew thicker. While crustle were slow, they were also known to be determined hunters.

Before I could make it past the tree-line, a horrible bout of screeching started, and several black blurs swooped over my head, nearly bowling me over. As I made it between some large trees, I risked a backwards glance, and saw that the crustle were now trying to beat back the murder of murkrow that had decided to attack them. The dark-type birds played a game of hit and run, trying to attack the crustles' eyes as the rock-like bugs began digging into the ground in an attempt to defend their only weak point.

It was quite a breathtaking sight, in a violent and tense kind of way. The murkrow were all clearly intelligent enough to recognize that a crustle could only be harmed when it had its head out of the ground, and so they had probably waited around until someone like me came along before attacking. For their part, the crustle had dug in with their legs, and were taking random swipes at their assailants, blinded by the vertical blind spot created by their own heavy shells.

Courtney sank her teeth into my forearm, startling me out of my reverie. Shaking my head to clear my thoughts, I started running again, ignoring the rivulets of blood running down my arm.

xxx

"Thanks for saving my life, Courtney," I said, as I scratched her behind her fin. I had managed to bandage my arm with some of my limited first aid supplies, and so patting her felt a little awkward. "On a related note, I'm now symmetrical – both my arms are in bandages."

Courtney let out what sounded like an amused snort, and rubbed her snout against the hand which she had bitten just yesterday. Two days, and she had already managed to injure both of my arms – we just got along so awesomely, it seemed.

She snuggled up to me, and closed her eyes, hissing softly. Her scales, while rough, did have a rather comfortable feel to them as they rubbed against the un-bandaged parts of my arms. It didn't take long for her to fall asleep, and so I just sat there on our branch, holding her in my arms and leaning back against the tree's trunk.

After the near-death incident with the crustle, we had done some serious running – specifically speaking, I did the running while carrying her – and came across a tree that seemed easy enough to climb, with no wild pokemon in sight. So I had climbed the tree, and settled us down in its branches. Initially, I nearly had a heart attack when I found what resembled a kakuna's shed pupa on a branch, but it turned out to be a rather dry leaf instead.

Securing myself to the branch with my belt around my left arm, and using my backpack to do the same for Courtney, I closed my eyes and slowly slipped into a restless sleep.

It didn't take long for me to get woken up by the unmistakable sound of twigs and leaves crunching underfoot, though.

I opened my eyes in an instant, trying to spot the pokemon before it could spot me. The two of us were fairly high up, but twenty feet probably wasn't much to the likes of breloom or shiftry. So I waited there silently, glancing around in the darkness as the unknown pokemon came closer in the darkness.

Soon enough, two glowing yellow eyes became visible in the darkness around the tree we were in. They seemed to be somewhat reptilian in nature, though I really couldn't tell at that distance. The eyes came closer and closer, until they were almost directly beneath us. Some hissing noises came from the base of the tree, followed by several rasping breaths as the pokemon tried to sniff out its quarry.

All I could do was to hold my breath – Courtney was probably safe, since her breathing was much slower and quieter – and pray to whatever gods were listening that the sceptile's eyesight wasn't good enough for it to see through twenty feet of darkness. Hell, I didn't even know for sure if it was a sceptile; it was all guesswork thanks to the darkness, really.

My unknown stalker suddenly stopped sniffing about, and went completely silent. I squinted in its general direction, trying to see just what it was doing or what it had sensed, but to no avail. The pokemon seemed to stand still for what felt like hours, before finally turning tail and fleeing into the dark forest as fast as its legs could carry it. For a while, I just sat there, waiting to see if it would come back of if some other pokemon would suddenly appear out of nowhere. Fortunately, neither of the two happened.

It took me a few moments to gather my wits, and I started to undo the belt that held me down on the branch. I quietly shook Courtney until she was awake, and released her from the backpack's straps. She let out a questioning growl, but shut up as soon as she realized that it was still completely dark.

At least, I hope that was how she was thinking of the situation at hand. For all I knew, she could have been plotting to kill me right there and then.

I leaned over and whispered into what I guessed were her ears, "Something knew we were here - maybe a sceptile. Should we find a new tree?"

Her answer, a nervous-sounding hiss, was clear enough despite the language barrier.

"Alright, then. Sleep in shifts?"

She nuzzled my arm, and let out a soft growl. I patted her on her back, and began keeping vigil. She didn't seem to be nodding off even after quite some time, though, and I got the impression that she was just as worried about the predatory pokemon coming back for us as I was.

It was going to be a long night.

xxx

Just as I was beginning to doze off, as the first rays of dawn began shining down through the treetops, a distant yet earth-shaking roar echoed through the forest. Courtney woke up with a start, nearly falling off the branch we were on. I barely managed to catch her, and almost fell out of the tree myself, when a second roar was heard.

"Holy shit! We need to get out of here!" I hissed at Courtney, as I frantically stuffed her into my backpack – she barely fit in past her ankles. "I'd take my chances running."

She growled, and hopped out of the backpack, shaking her head before jumping off the branch and landing on the ground. All I could do was gawk at her.

"You are one crazy bitch."

My gible rolled her eyes and gestured for me to get down from my perch, and so I scrambled down the tree trunk, wincing slightly as my bandages got torn off by the rough bark. Once I hit the ground, I whipped out my pokedex, and activated its mapping function. The little red diode at the side of the pokedex glowed brightly as it accessed the network that provided it with terrain information, and when the screen finally lit up with our approximate position, I felt my emotions soar a little.

"Alright, Courtney, we just need to head that way!" I pointed in the direction indicated by the pokedex. "Just eight more kilometres to Eterna city!"

Somehow, when we had fled from those Crustle, we had maintained our heading towards Eterna city, it seemed. Grabbing her pokeball and recalling her, I started running according to my pokedex's directions. Everything turned into a blur of trees, rocks, and uneven ground as I ran through the forest, desperate to make it to Eterna city.

Eight clicks might have been a little beyond my usual running distance, but really, I could have easily run myself into unconsciousness if I wanted to. Just as I vaulted over a fallen tree trunk, a sceptile burst out of the undergrowth and ran past me, so distracted by whatever it was up to that it didn't even notice me.

"Fuck!" I all but screeched, stopping so suddenly that I fell backwards. There was a dull, throbbing pain in my back not three seconds after that, thanks to the rotting log that I had jumped over.

Before I could get up, the sceptile was back. The leaf-like frills on its upper limbs were all unfolded, and its slit-like pupils were wide open, dilated with the thrill of the hunt. Its spiny tail thrashed against the ground like a bullwhip, gouging out soil and sending it into the air.

However, it charged past me, and ran head-first into the arbok that crashed through the undergrowth it had emerged out of. With a blindingly fast crack of its sinuous tail, the sceptile was sent flying through the air, and hit a tree trunk with a sickening cracking noise.

"Stay back!" I yelled at the arbok as it reared up not ten feet away from me, expanding its hood and revealing the massive, face-like pattern that was the signature coloration for its species. "Stay the fuck back!"

I dug a hand into one of my pants' pockets, and found my knife. A practiced flick of my wrist snapped its blade into position, causing the arbok to narrow its beady eyes at me and arch its head back a little. The two of us were so fixated on each other that both of us were caught by surprise when the wounded sceptile pounced on the arbok from the side, slashing at its open hood with sharp claws that left deep, bleeding scratches in the snake's purple body.

Faster than thought, the massive purple snake opened its jaws wide and bit down on the sceptile's shoulder before the leafy lizard could do anything, causing the wounded pokemon to let out a shrill cry of agony. Dark purple venom oozed out of the bite wound as the arbok released its prey, and pulled back, coiling its muscular body into the distinctive 'S' shape that it was known to use before striking. The arbok's excessive venom dripped out of the messy bite wounds on the sceptile's shoulder, causing the undergrowth to blacken and sizzle where it fell to the ground.

Paralyzed by fear, I could only watch as the sceptile collapsed to the ground in a convulsing heap. Within the blink of an eye, the arbok struck again, this time biting down on the sceptile's neck and wrapping its powerful coils around the doomed grass-type like a living whip. The snake's coils tightened around the poisoned sceptile, slowly forcing its body into a grotesquely unnatural position, until the wet sound of snapping bones was heard.

When the arbok finally relaxed its grip on the sceptile's broken carcass and started eating it, head first, my mind at long last reengaged itself, screaming at me to get the hell out of there. I gladly obliged, picking myself up off the ground and running away from the feeding arbok, still unsteady on my legs as the sceptile's dying cry echoed in my ears.

It seemed to take forever, but I finally made it to the stream that was the milestone of sorts for Eterna city. According to my pokedex, the stream was somewhere about four kilometres from the city's boundaries, and the terrain beyond the stream was earmarked as being the territory of pokemon rangers. So if the map was correct, then the forest up ahead was pretty much tame compared to that which I had just left behind. Hell, the stream itself was a bright spot in the relative darkness of the forest, since not many trees grew over the water. Some sunlight from the early morning lit the stream's banks up rather nicely, and I just stood there for a bit, enjoying the early morning atmosphere. The fact that I didn't have any possibly murderous pokemon on my trail was also a bonus.

On hindsight, Eterna forest's reputation and difficulty rating probably wasn't much to go by, given that the rate of trainer disappearances in Eterna forest was still among the higher ones in Sinnoh, at least for its danger level. Places like Pastoria's Great Marsh and Snowpoint's mountain slopes were obviously much more dangerous, but Eterna forest still held a respectable position among the 'lower levelled' travelling routes.

With a sigh of relief, I cast a wary glance at my surroundings, and made sure that there were no pokemon in sight. I released Courtney, and sat down by the stream's bank as she materialized out of her pokeball. When she had rematerialized and regained her bearings, she got one good look at me, and tackled me with a screech.

"What the-" was all I could get out before she proceeded to paw at my arms – both of them had lost their bandage wrappings sometime during the course of my pell-mell running. "Whoa, take it easy, Courtney!"

She stepped back, and shook her head, stomping on the ground out of frustration. Stubby paws gestured at my arms, and squinty eyes got the message across.

"Alright, alright," I rolled my eyes. "Jeez, you're like my mother or something. I'm sorry, alright?"

Courtney seemed to glare at me for a moment, before stepping up to me and clouting me upside the shoulder. She then jabbed a paw downwards, as if to point at the ground. With that, she spun about, and started walking back towards the tree-line.

"Hey, where are you going?" I asked her, jumping to my feet and going after her. "It's dangerous in there!"

With a growl, she turned around, and began pushing at my knees. When that didn't work, she began jabbing her paw at the ground again, similar to the gesture that she had made earlier.

"Look, I have no idea how you expect me to understand that, so I'm going with you," I said, shaking my head. "You could get hurt in there!"

She growled, sounding exasperated, and gestured towards the undergrowth ahead of us. I squinted to try and see whatever it was she was pointing at, but to no avail.

"What are you trying to say, Courtney?" I asked her, as she made her way towards the little plants and started to tear them up by the roots. "And what did those plants ever do to you?"

With a nod of sorts, she pointed at the plants – little white flowers that somehow looked familiar fell to the ground as she shook the uprooted specimens - with one paw, and waved in my direction.

"... Whatever works for you, girl."

We headed back to the stream, and she walked along the water's edge until she found a shallow, clear part of the stream. She then began washing the plants in the water, and proceeded to chew on them once they had been cleaned of all dirt and soil.

I watched, fascinated, as she chewed on the shoots. She was clearly up to something, and had even sought out those particular plants. They looked quite similar to all the other plants that made up the undergrowth in Eterna forest, although the leaves did bring back some memories from the Survival Basics component of my schooling curriculum, when I thought about it.

"Are those herbs of some sort?" I asked her. "They look kind of familiar."

She nodded, and came up to me, spitting the masticated shoots out onto her paw and offering it to me. I hesitantly used a finger to scoop up some of the mashed plant matter, and sniffed it. When I smelled something similar to chrysanthemums, I immediately remembered the name of the plant.

"Is this arrowroot, Courtney?" I nudged her, even as I dabbed at my injuries with the paste. "It certainly smells like arrowroot."

With an enthusiastic nod, she proceeded to jump up and slap some of the mashed shoots on my other arm. Then, she picked up the roots that she had initially set aside, and started to chew on them.

For a moment, I hesitated while smearing the plant paste on my wounds. Courtney certainly seemed to know a great deal of things that pokemon normally wouldn't have known. First she had reminded me that my pokedex had a GPS mapping function, and now she was using arrowroot to help me treat my wounds. How she knew that my pokedex was capable of mapping out terrain and where she had picked up the little herb's common name were most puzzling, indeed.

"Courtney," I called out to her, causing her to pause in her chewing of the herb's roots, "how did you know that my pokedex had a map in it?"

She gave me a blank look, and waved one of her paws at me, followed by a series of light taps on the side of her head.

"Right... and the arrowroot's name? I doubt that you pokemon know it by that name."

A series of amused hissing noises was all I got in response, as she seemed to try shrugging, and shaking her head.

I frowned. "I'm so going to need a psychic, or maybe a translator of some sort. Otherwise, you could be plotting my timely demise and I'd be clueless."

Finished with her arrowroot, she merely burped and waved a paw at me while turning about to get a drink out of the stream.

Just as I was about to say something to her, a teenage girl walked out of the forest ahead of us, on the other side of the stream. She was dressed all in black, oddly enough, and had brown hair that was tied back in a ponytail. A pair of narrow-framed spectacles gave her a rather nerdy appearance, and her body wasn't exactly that of a swimsuit model. After several moments, a parasect slowly made its way to the stream's bank, yellow eyes glowing faintly from beneath its humped, mushroom-like shell as it settled down next to her.

"You there!" she seemed happy for some reason when she saw me. "Is the gible yours?"

Courtney and I stared at her, not knowing what to say. Was she a pokemon thief? Or was she just looking for a fight? Either option meant something bad for the two of us at that point in time, really.

On second thought, though, she didn't look that bad.

"I challenge you to a pokemon battle!"

Well, shit!