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Old July 10th, 2011 (02:47 AM). Edited August 5th, 2011 by Misheard Whisper.
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Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
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Join Date: Jan 2009
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Age: 20
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Sorry about the font if it shows up weird for anyone else. It looks kinda weird to me, and frankly I don't have the energy to fix it now. I'll have a look in the morning.

Chapter Thirteen

Die Schwärzeste Nacht

Everything was black. Nothing was solid. Ren wasn't even sure if he was standing on anything, but at the very least, his house had disappeared. Even the handle on the front door had blinked out of existence the instant he touched it, leaving his hand to close, almost interrupted, on empty space.


Well, calling it 'empty' implied that there might be something there at some point, Ren reasoned. And that seemed unlikely, seeing that he was now floating in a vacuum. Or . . . was he? He was standing upright, that was for sure. That had to count for something, right? Tentatively, he lifted his right foot off the ground that might not have been there after all and put it down in front of him.


But he couldn't. His foot kept falling, his body following it, yet his left foot did not move. Although there was no sensation of spinning, nothing to measure his progress against, Ren supposed he was now cartwheeling through the void, probably looking very silly to anybody who might be watching him.


That thought brought him up short. Where were the Iehkti'na now? They could be anywhere in this blank, featureless expanse. How was he supposed to see them if he couldn't even see himself?


I need light, he thought, and somehow, from somewhere, there was light. There wasn't much; just enough that he could see indistinct shadows wobbling in front of him when he waved his hands before his face. He couldn't even tell where the light was coming from, if it even had a source – if, indeed, it was even a light to begin with. It might be more accurate, he pondered, to call it a darkness that's slightly less dark than the previous darkness. Immediately following this thought, he dismissed it as fanciful nonsense. Dark was dark, and light was light. Idiot.


Immediately following this thought, Ren chastised himself thoroughly for talking to himself like some kind of madman.


So, where to go now?” he asked aloud, more to reassure himself through the sound of his own voice than anything else.

With me,” rasped a deep voice from somewhere above Ren's shoulder.

Ren jumped – or rather, he would have if he had been sure of where the ground was. “Arceus! Who the hell are you?”


There was a sound of clicking fingers, and Ren suddenly felt heat and warm orange light erupt inches from his left arm. He squeezed his eyes shut as the sudden brightness overloaded them.


When he risked cracking his eyes open a few seconds later, Ren was able to see somewhat. He was standing on an empty, dusty plain that stretched beyond the limits of the light emitted by . . . Ren squeezed his eyes shut again and rubbed them to make sure he was seeing properly.


A man was standing in front of him, cupping a warm orange ball of roiling flames in his left hand. The man was huge, easily two feet taller than Ren, and broad; his trunk was wider than Ren was at the shoulders. It was hard to tell much else, though, because he was wearing a long, brown coat that hung almost to the ground, tightly wrapped around his entire body, obscuring it from view. A pair of worn, cracked black boots poked out from underneath it. His face . . .


Ren peered under the hood, the brown folds of which fell softly around the man's head. Somehow, though, no face was visible. Darkness, though banished from every other crevice nearby by the incandescent flames in his hand, stayed put under the hood, seeming to shift and weave back and forwards as if it were alive. “It's magic,” the man croaked, as if reading Ren's mind. His voice sounded as if it had been dragged backwards across a particularly shredded piece of sandpaper.


Who . . . who are you?” Ren asked. Was this the spirit he had been promised would appear? He certainly hoped so, but in this strange realm of upside-down houses and endless shadows, the hooded man could be anybody. He might even be an Iehkti'na in disguise.

Maho,” the man said, his voice still rasping in a manner that sounded unnatural and somewhat painful. He then turned and started to walk away as if that had been all the explanation that was necessary, taking his circle of flickering light with him.

Ren hesitated for a moment before following him. Of course, he knew there was no way he could trust this stranger, but it didn't really look like he had a choice. Maho – was that his name? – would certainly have been able to kill him several times already if that had been his intention, although this gave Ren no great comfort as he hurried cautiously after the big man and his ball of fire.


Ren fell into step beside Maho, noticing that although his companion was striding far faster than Ren, he had a pronounced limp that made his body rock to one side every time he took a step. His arms, too, were oddly stiff, as if he had trouble moving them.


Will you tell me where we're going, at least?” Ren tried, almost stumbling over his own feet in his effort to keep up.

Iehkti'na,” Maho grunted from beneath his hood. His head turned sharply one way and the other, and quite suddenly, he changed direction, striding off at almost a right angle.

There was a sudden loud hissing noise from behind Ren, and he ducked instinctively as something scythed out of the darkness behind him, aimed directly at his neck. It passed over his head narrowly, but before he could straighten up to fight – or run, which was more likely – a great gout of white-hot flame poured through the space where his head had been just a split second ago. Ren felt himself break into a sweat as the immense heat passed within inches of his back and slammed into the beast which had crept up behind him.


Ren turned to watch in morbid fascination as the Iehkti'na was utterly consumed by the fire. Instantly, it seemed to melt back into a liquid form, a horrible, vinegar-like smell filling the air as its whispered screams penetrated Ren's ears. He shuddered and tried to look away, but there was no way he could. The nightmare screamed and screamed, its voice never rising above a hiss, until its limbs and body had completely melted. The resulting puddle of what looked like black tar, glimmering sickeningly in the firelight, offered no immediate indication of the horror it had been just moments earlier.


He turned to glance at Maho, who was standing impassively a few metres off. He nodded in satisfaction, causing Ren to again notice the jerky awkwardness of his movements. He then turned and walked off again, clearly expecting Ren to follow. Ren didn't move for a full ten seconds, simply watching the retreating back of the man who had just utterly annihilated a nightmare in less time than it took him to draw breath. He shuddered involuntarily. The man frightened him.


I guess I have no choice other than to follow him, though, Ren reasoned. He has shown that he's on my side, at least . . .


He had barely caught up to the magic user, however, when Maho stopped dead. He lifted his right hand – the one not still providing light – high in the air. Ren, suddenly recognising what was about to happen, jumped backwards and – remembering something a science teacher had once told him – unclenched his jaw. He had worked out by now that covering his ears would do nothing, but that didn't mean he wanted any of his teeth to shatter. The shockwave last time had given him a brief, passing toothache – nothing crippling, but unpleasant enough for him to not want to repeat the experience.


Sure enough, Maho brought his hand slashing down, tearing a hole in the space in which they stood. Beyond was the void. Ren stepped forward, expecting Maho to either push him through or pull him, but instead, the faceless man grasped Ren by the collar and tossed him bodily off to one side.


Ren hit the ground with an indignant 'ow!', but Maho was swiftly upon him, lifting a finger to where his mouth should be in a gesture of silence. That was the last Ren saw for the moment, for immediately the light in Maho's hand was extinguished.


Ren waited, holding his breath. The only light in the universe at that moment was the weak white glow that emanated from the portal a metre or two away, barely enough to make out its border. Ren's mind spun. What was Maho doing?


There was a sense of sudden movement across Ren's vision, followed almost immediately by a crackling blast of blue lightning that lanced out from a point just inches from Ren's cheek. A familiar sizzling feeling raised the hairs on his neck, and he shivered slightly as he saw the immensely powerful bolt of electricity wrap itself around a dark, writhing shape on the ground in front of the portal.


Once again, Ren found himself watching, enthralled, as the nightmare disintegrated, this time burnt blacker than black with a continuous, thick stream of lightning that cocooned it and consumed it utterly. Maho kept up his attack for a good ten seconds before allowing the last traces of electricity to dissipate, plunging them back into darkness.


Hmph,” Maho grunted dismissively as he conjured up another ball of fire and strode over to poke the charred carcass of the nightmare with the toe of his boot. At his touch, it crumbled to ash with a horrible creaking sound, filling Ren's nostrils with a pungent, unpleasant odour. “No more.”

Are you sure?” Ren asked, glancing around nervously. Sure, he had only seen two of the beasts, but there was always the possibility of more lurking, unseen, in the vast shadows.

Maho gave him what may very well have been a look of scorn before turning and vanishing into the portal he had torn open, taking his light with him.


Ren blinked. “Guess I'll take that as a 'yes',” he muttered, stepping around the pile of ashes that had not long ago been a Iehkti'na. It seemed that it had been drawn by the faint light of the portal, he guessed as he took a deep breath, preparing to follow the strange magician through.


It's kind of funny, he thought as he felt himself sucked through into empty space once again. One minute a living creature, the next a pile of ashes or a puddle of oil. Is it really all right to kill them like this?


He didn't have time to answer his own question, for barely three seconds after he had stepped into the portal, he found himself once again stepping out into a familiar grassy field. About fifty metres away stood the forest, still dark and imposing, but a little less threatening. Maho stood between him and the trees, looking over Ren's head at something in the distance. As Ren felt the portal blink out of existence behind him, Maho jerked his head in the direction of the woods. “Hurry,” he said briefly, before turning and limping towards the trees. “Stay quiet.”


Before Ren followed him, he turned to glance backwards at what Maho had been looking at. A threatening-looking thundercloud stretched across the horizon, disappearing beyond his vision in both directions. It was huge; at that distance, it must have been miles high. Quickly, Ren turned to run after Maho, heart thumping suddenly. Something was wrong in the third ring, and he didn't want to find out what it was. At least, not alone.


As Ren passed under the leafy canopies of the first trees, there was a distant rumble of thunder.


Ren was about to ask Maho what the long black cloud meant when he remembered that he wasn't allowed to speak. He would have to remember to ask about that rule at some point. It seemed that the area between the edge of the forest and the barrier around the spirits' village was an enforced 'silent zone', though for what purpose, he could not tell.


Ren fared no better in his trek through the inky black woods than he had on his previous trek; in fact, it seemed to him that he tripped over at least twice as often as he had with Elly. He wished Maho would conjure up his little ball of fire again, but then he remembered that Elly had made him walk without a light source as well. Maybe light is in the same category as talking in this forest.


Eventually, however, light began to filter through the trees again, and the going became easier until eventually they passed through the barrier into the village, where suddenly everything was light and sound.


The settlement was not so peaceful and relaxed as the last time, though, Ren noticed worriedly. People were hurrying purposefully from place to place; the man in the white toga was no longer giving speeches, but had taken up a post next to a small hut and was handing out weapons of various shapes and sizes to the spirits that dashed past; a couple of children dashed here and there, bumbling along with enormous helmets or shields in their tiny hands.


What's . . . going on?” Ren asked, bewildered. The air of carefree ease that had pervaded the village was gone, replaced by a thrumming tension that was almost palpable. With a start, he realised that he could actually hear it. Looking up, he saw that the cylinder of magical light that enclosed the area had taken on an angry red tinge and had begun to shift slightly, patterns writhing across its surface like immiscible oil and water.

What the hell is he doing here?” came a familiar voice from somewhere in the crowd. Ren and Maho turned to face the source of the voice as Elly Darkstorm pushed her way through the milling mass to confront them. Her hair was tied back in a short, practical ponytail, and she was wearing her black leather gear, to the back of which was strapped her lethally sharp sword. She was pulling on a pair of thin leather gloves as she approached. “It's nowhere near time yet!”

Maho only shrugged, somehow managing to look indifferent despite the fact that Ren couldn't see his face.


Why is he asleep?” Elly hissed, before just as quickly rounding on Ren. “Why are you asleep?”

Ren raised his hands in supplication. “I was tired . . . I fell asleep on the train! I didn't realise I'd end up here again!”


Elly swore loudly and vehemently. “Agh! You should have thought of that, moron! Now you're stuck here! I can't very well send you home at a time like this!”


Wh-why not?” Ren enquired. “Clearly something's going on, so I'd be best out of your way . . .”

That's not possible! If I open a portal to send you back to the second ring, the Iehkti'na will stream through and you'll be overrun!”

How would they do that?” Ren asked incredulously. “I don't see any around here.”

Are you stupid?” Elly practically screeched. “Didn't you see that big black cloud out there?”

Yes . . .” Ren said slowly, horror slipping onto his face as he remembered the enormous mass of what he had taken for stormclouds. “Wait, that was . . . they were . . .”

Yes!” Elly rolled her eyes. “Man, you're slow!”

But if they're out there, surely you can send me back before they get here?”

It doesn't work like that! The instant you pass through that portal into the second ring, every Iehkti'na that's awake in this ring will go through into the second ring as well! I can't imagine you, or anybody else, for that matter, taking on so many at once.”

But you look like you feel pretty confident about beating them here,” Ren reasoned, gesturing around at the buzz of activity. “They don't look like people who think they're going to lose.” It was true. All of the spirits, from the elderly right down to the toddlers, bore the same expression of stolid determination, save for Elly, who was wearing a strange look that seemed to hover somewhere between 'Can you really be this stupid?' and 'I am going to kill you.' – or so it seemed to Ren. He flinched slightly.

Look,” Elly said, clearly making an effort to keep her temper under control. “There can only be one spirit in the second ring at once. Any more will destroy it – it's too unstable to handle our level of yehkti as it is. So either we all fight those thousands of monsters here, or you and any one spirit of your choice can take your chances with every single one of them in the second ring. And you're not allowed to just jump through into the first ring, either, or they'll ruin your world. Frankly, I couldn't care less, if the best it can produce is the likes of you, but I don't think that's what you want. You follow?”

Ren nodded, his mouth slightly open. “Looks . . . looks like I'm stuck here,” he said, resigning himself to the fact.


Yes, you are. Now we have to work out what to do with you. You ought to be safe as long as you don't leave the Glade, but I can't risk leaving you with anyone less than a top-level fighter, just in case. But who can we spare to- ah, of course. Maho, will you be joining us on the battlefield today?”

Maho, who had remained silent throughout the entire encounter, cocked his head slightly, glancing at Ren for a moment before nodding firmly, albeit clunkily. “I will,” he rasped.


Elly pouted, dissatisfied. “Well, who the hell . . . I can't spare any of the council members, except Lucius, and he's really not going to be all that much help to you. The other generals are all committed to the battle already . . .” She trailed off and glared frostily into space, chewing her bottom lip.


Guess who?” trilled another familiar voice from behind Ren, startling him. Before he could turn around, however, a pair of small hands were clamped firmly over his eyes. “Nuh-uh,” said the voice. “I said guess, so you have to guess.”

Oh, for crying out loud . . .” Ren said, rolling his eyes as best he could.

I felt that!” sulked the voice, kicking him sharply, but not too painfully, in the back of the knee.

Cecilia, stop playing around!” Elly snapped.

Aww, you ruined it!” Cecilia grumbled as she removed her hands from Ren's eyes and skipped around to stand next to Maho. “You knew it was me, though. Right, Ren?”

Yes, I did,” Ren sighed.

Well!” Cecilia said abruptly. “It's settled, then!”

What's settled?” Elly asked, looking a bit nonplussed.

I'll take care of Ren while the rest of you go off to the battle,” she said, as if it were the simplest thing in the world.

Cecilia, I really can't spare you today. We need you on the front line.”

Ohhh?” Cecilia said archly, her voice suddenly taking on an edge that made Ren shiver. She pirouetted around to grab him by the shoulders from behind, peeking past his head at Elly. “Are you sure? Or are you just scared of what we'll get up to when we're . . . alone . . . together?” she said in barely more than a whisper, her breath tickling Ren's ear.

Maho gave a rattly, grating cough and Elly's eyes widened suddenly. “If you think it matters at all to me what you might get up to, you're mistaken!” she said huffily. “Fine. You take care of Ren, and we'll send him back afterwards. Come on, Maho. If you're going to be on the front line, we need to get you in command of your own troops for a change.” With that, she whirled on the spot and marched away.


Cecilia giggled. “I think I touched a nerve.”


Ren glanced across at her and just about bumped his nose into her head, which was still resting on his shoulder. “You can, uh, let me go now if you like,” he said awkwardly.


Nah,” Cecilia said casually, threading her arm through his and leaning on his shoulder. “Escort me?”

Ren sighed internally. This could be interesting.
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