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Old July 26th, 2011 (01:01 AM).
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Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
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Chapter Fifteen
Die Kämpferin für Gerechtigkeit

The nightmares appeared from everywhere, slipping out from shadowy gaps between buildings and dropping silently from the eaves. Within seconds, Ren and Cecilia found themselves completely surrounded by at least twenty of the dark, foreboding shapes. Their opponents were of varying shapes and sizes; some were barely knee-high on Ren while others were hulking, looming masses of shadow over two metres tall.

They stood, waiting, their roughly circular formation unmoving as they regarded Ren with various frightening eyes. Some were narrow and red, others huge and blazing blue. One particularly large specimen – standing directly opposite Maho's workshop – had three eyes, wisps of green fire trailing from them as it shifted on the spot, seemingly waiting for them to make the first move. Some – much like the ones he and Elly had encountered in the second ring – had no eyes at all.

Cecilia swore violently, the curse words sounding strange coming from one so slight and delicate. “How the hell did they get inside the Spirit Wall?”

Doesn't matter,” said Ren practically, drawing the short sword from his belt. He felt slightly better for having it in his hand, but he knew it wouldn't do him much good. “They're inside, so we're going to have to work out how after we deal with them.”

Easier said than done,” Cecilia grumbled. “I'm not used to fighting this many at once.”

You're more used to it than I am, for sure,” Ren said tightly, looking around for a way to escape. There was nothing. Other than back into Maho's workshop – which was probably a dead end – the Iehkti'na had totally blocked off every possible way out of the small courtyard in which they now stood.

This is uncanny,” Cecilia muttered, taking up an fighting stance. It didn't look like any martial art Ren had ever seen, so he hoped she, at least, knew what she was doing. “Why aren't they attacking?”

They normally do?”

They're blind, stupid killers,” she said, frowning as she tried to keep her eyes on all of their opponents at once. “They charge out and all attack at once. No variation, no tactics, no intelligence. Laying an ambush is something completely new . . . not to mention that they got inside the Spirit Wall to begin with, which should be impossible. Something is very, very wrong here. And as long as they don't attack, they've got the advantage over us.”

What? Why?”

Think, Ren. It's you they want, although they'll kill me without a second thought. As long as they stay there, I can't get to any of them without leaving you unguarded. While you've got guts, you're not competent enough in a fight to hold them off long, if at all.”

Ren shivered. The normally relaxed Cecilia was extraordinarily serious, and it unsettled him. Despite her composure, he could feel anxiety pouring off her in waves. That, and something else. Fear. Cecilia was scared, although he knew she would neither exhibit nor admit it. With a deep breath, he tightened his hand around the handle of his sword and held it ready in front of him, sweat already dampening the grip.

You don't have to fight,” Cecilia said. “I know humans have some compunction about killing living creatures, so I'd understand if you didn't want to. Not that they're exactly living, but I wouldn't expect that to work on your subconscious.”

For a split second, images flashed through Ren's mind, unbidden. The melting Iehkti'na with its vinegar stench; the crackling, charred Iehkti'na with flashes of blue light dancing across its entire body; worst of all, the Iehkti'na he himself had sliced into with the very blade that he now held in his hand, disappearing in a blast of wind. “They're really . . . not alive?” he asked.

No, they're not,” Cecilia confirmed. “They're just empty husks. They don't think, they don't feel, they just are.”

Then I'll fight them,” Ren said.

Are you sure?”

Of course.” Suddenly, Ren realised the absurdity of holding this conversation while surrounded by a patiently waiting group of the things. “If they ever get around to it, that is. What do you suppose they're waiting for?”

If they were intelligent, I'd imagine they were waiting for one of us to make a move so they could cut us off from each other and kill us separately.”

But they're not?”

So I thought, and so everybody thought.”

Don't make me start doubting myself now,” Ren complained. “I just managed to convince myself that it was all right to kill them, but now you're just confusing me.”

Sorry! I'm nearly as confused as you are,” Cecilia admitted, warily eyeing the nearest of the nightmares, a bulky, four-legged creature with a flat, solid-looking head.

So, let's just assume for a minute that they actually are intelligent,” Ren said, taking a deep breath to steady his heartbeat. As he calmed down, he felt his brain begin to work. “If they're doing what you say they are, they want to separate us, right?”

Yes, but I don't see how that helps us too much.”

It's simple,” Ren said, a slight smile coming to his face despite himself. “We don't split up. We take the fight to them, but we go together. That way, you can focus on doing your thing . . . whatever that 'thing' may be, and I'll just do my best to stay alive. Hopefully I can keep them off your back a little, too, though I really don't know how well that will work.”

You'd do that?”

It's . . . it's probably our only chance of getting out of this, isn't it?”

Well, yes,” Cecilia admitted. “But I don't want you feeling you have to do it. It's not your job to fight Iehkti'na, you know. In fact, I feel kind of bad for letting you get into this situation.”

Ren shook his head. “Stop that.”

Stop . . . what?” Cecilia shot him a confused look.

You're worrying about me too much. Sure, I don't know what I'm doing. Sure, I can't swing a sword properly to save my life. But it doesn't mean you have to keep patronising me! I know you're not doing it on purpose, but it's starting to get on my nerves a little bit.”

Cecilia fell silent for a moment. Ren wondered if he had offended her, but when he glanced over at her, she was smiling as if she knew something he didn't. “See?” she said.

See . . . what?”

You do see things,” she told him. “Not just physical observation – I get the feeling you can look at a situation and read exactly what's happening. Most yehktira would be quite happy to let me worry about them in this situation. And it's not just a matter of pride, either. That's irrelevant at this point. But in any case, I'm sorry, Ren. I couldn't help looking down on you just a little bit. After all, I'm nearly seven hundred years your senior. But from now on, that changes. Better?”

With a slight thrill of some feeling he couldn't adequately describe, Ren realised that it was. “Much,” he grinned. “Now I think we'd better get on with it before these things get bored of waiting.”

Good call,” she said. “I say we go straight at the big one in the middle. It looks like some sort of leader, so if we take it out, we'll have a better chance. On three?”

He swallowed. “Sure.”

Cecilia exhaled deeply and lowered her stance slightly. “One.”

Ren took a deep breath, wrapping his hands still more firmly around the hilt of his sword; the thin sliver of metal was the only thing standing between him and a painful, confusing death.

Two.”

He cast his eyes around the circle of Iehkti'na. They were all far bigger and stronger than he was. All he could do was hope Cecilia could deal with them – and that he didn't screw up too badly.

Three!”

Ren's legs were moving before his mind could even react. Short sword held high, heart rattling in his ribcage, he threw himself towards the three-eyed monstrosity. He was vaguely aware of a blur of movement beside him, but then it was gone and Cecilia was upon their opponent.

It was as if she had become liquid lightning. From a running start, she threw herself upwards, her movements slick and practised. Landing on the enormous beast's arm, she paused, jumped again and landed a devastating spinning kick straight in the Iehkti'na's torso with a sound like a cannon shot. Visible shockwaves rippled out from the point of impact, distorting the air and the surface of the beast as they did so.

Refocusing himself, Ren concentrated once more on catching up with Cecilia as she continued to rain blows on the massive nightmare. It was bigger than he had first thought, he realised as he drew nearer; it had to be at least seven metres tall. Regardless, he swung his sword with all the strength he could muster at the beast's knee – the highest point he could comfortably reach. The blade made contact with an unexpected boom sound, as if he had struck an enormous, hollow metal drum rather than a living creature.

The sword practically bounced off, almost twisting his wrist with the force. Still, the enormous Iehkti'na seemed to notice. It stepped backwards, moving its leg back from the blow. Before its foot even touched the ground, however, Cecilia bounced off its shoulder, delivering a debilitating punch to the face. Caught off balance, the Iehkti'na stumbled backwards and fell to the ground with a crash, crushing half a building as it did so.

Come on!” Cecilia urged. Suddenly, she was beside him, grabbing his hand and tugging him onwards. He stumbled into a run, glancing back over his shoulder as he did so. The other Iehkti'na had been slow to move, he noted thankfully, but with the fall of their apparent leader, they had been spurred into action. A wave of shadows now washed after them, some more distinct than others, some blending into a gelatinous mass that bubbled and rushed after them. As Ren tore his eyes away to look forward again, he caught a brief glimpse of the nightmare that Cecilia had just decked, once more towering over its compatriots.

She never meant to fight them at all, he realised, letting his feet move automatically as Cecilia practically dragged him between rows of white marble buildings. But why didn't she tell me that? Despite what she said, she still looks down on me . . . no, that can't be it. He had seen something in her eyes while she was talking about their strategy – a glint of steel that told him she was prepared to fight to the bitter end. Looking back, it seemed obvious, but at the time he had not noticed anything. She must have seen the opening and decided to go for it, he decided, making himself feel a little better.

Are you even awake?” Cecilia shouted at him as he stumbled for what must have been the tenth time. Still gripping his hand with her surprisingly strong fingers, she slowed her pace a little to run beside him, easily navigating through the maze of buildings as she peered worriedly into his eyes. “You look a little bit out of it,” she said in a falsely casual manner.

I'm fine,” he said. “Where are we going?” He threw another glance over his shoulder; the Iehkti'na were still there, although a good way behind. He was beginning to run short of breath. While he was hardly unfit, the sustained dash was beginning to take the wind out of him. Cecilia, by contrast, seemed utterly relaxed, as if she were taking a stroll in Slateport Market.

No idea,” she said frankly. “I was kind of hoping you might.”

Me?” Ren panted incredulously. “You're the one who damn well lives here!”

Worth a shot,” she said airily before abruptly changing direction, just about wrenching Ren's arm out of its socket as she did so.

Can you . . . let go?” he gasped as they squeezed between two buildings leaning towards each other at odd angles.

Cecilia looked a little miffed, but released his hand. Immediately, Ren found it easier to run, although he was still having trouble keeping up with the light-footed Cecilia. It was a little difficult to get his head around this slender creature being any kind of force to be reckoned with, but she had clearly proven that impression wrong just moments ago.

Suddenly, they turned a corner and the Spirit Wall towered over them, a massive blue sheet of energy, irradiated and pulsing with tinges of red. Cecilia came to a sudden halt, and Ren tripped and almost fell as he stopped as well.

Why are we . . . stopping?” he asked as he bent over with his hands on his knees, trying to recover as much of his breath as he could.

Cecilia ignored him for a moment, looking back over his head with a look of mild consternation on her face. “Still coming,” she murmured absently.

What, really?” Ren turned to look. He had hoped that they might have lost the slow, lumbering Iehkti'na by now, but he could still see them. They were some distance away, and moving at no great speed, but the cloud of blackness was plowing steadily through the Glade of Shifting Light. He could see it above the roofs of the buildings. “Damn.”

We can't fight them here,” Cecilia said. “Not with just the two of us. Our only chance is to meet up with the others . . . that'll be dangerous, but at this stage I don't believe we have any choice in the matter.”

You mean . . . outside the Glade? Where all the rest of the Iehkti'na are?”

She threw him a grin that made him shiver. “What's this? You're not scared, are you?”

Ren swallowed, half-wishing he could just wake up. “Never.”

All thoughts of secrecy and silence apparently discarded, Cecilia practically flew through the forest. Ren could tell she was checking her pace for his benefit, but he still had a difficult time keeping her in sight. In the pitch blackness of the woods, she seemed to glow faintly. Although he could see no actual light emanating from her, he found he was barely able to navigate his way through the trees. It was certainly a puzzling phenomenon; while trees were rushing at him from the blackness at what seemed like a remarkable speed, he somehow managed to jink out of the way at the last moment every time.

What is this feeling? he wondered. It's like everything's slowing down . . .

They burst out of the forest and into the middle of a war zone. The eerie absence of noise that had pervaded the woods entirely vanished in an instant, replaced by the sounds of battle.

Even so, it was quieter than Ren would have expected. There was no gunfire; only the odd magical explosion sending multi-hued clouds smoking into the sky. The massed army of nightmares, stretching impossibly far across the grassy plain, fought silently as always, and there was hardly any noise coming from the spirits either. Occasionally, an indistinct command would be bellowed across the field, and a small group of combatants would advance, retreat or shift their attention to a different quarter.

Ren found that he and Cecilia had emerged onto the plain at the top of a small hill that afforded a decent view of the battlefield. Beyond a certain point on the ground, everything was a mass of writhing black. Millions of them, Ren thought in disbelief. He hadn't thought it possible that there were that many Iehkti'na in any world. They melded into one enormous, seething blot on the landscape, hundreds of thousands waiting to step in as soon as their comrades fell.

And fall they did, Ren noticed. A narrow line of spirits – pitifully few in number compared to the legions of nightmares pressing in from all sides – encircled the hill they stood on, slashing, stabbing or shooting the oncoming waves of nightmares, who were collapsing in droves. None of the opponents seemed very big, although it was hard to tell from such a distance. He was sharing the hill, Ren noticed abruptly, with a large white tent. There was no apparent entry on the forest side of the canvas monolith, so he moved around the side of it.

The front was a hive of activity. Two huge flaps had been drawn back from the tent and fastened to the roof, so almost the whole front of the structure was open to the battlefield. Inside were a large number of spirits. Few of them were dressed in battle gear, but they all appeared very busy, dashing around, waving papers and generally getting in each others' way. Still, Ren noticed after a few seconds, there was order. A chaotic kind of order, to be sure, but order nonetheless. Every few seconds, a runner would either dash off towards the front line or return from it. Amidst it all, standing calmly in the mouth of the tent like a policeman directing traffic, was a single man.

He drew Ren's attention towards him inexorably, although there was nothing special about him that Ren could identify just from looking. He was of average height, with a slight build and brown hair flecked with grey, pulled back into a tight ponytail. He was wearing a white toga with a purple sash, which – while undoubtedly odd – was no stranger than anybody else's costume. “Who's that?” he asked aloud.

Ah,” said Cecilia, who had come up behind him unnoticed. “The guy in the stupid bedsheet?”

Well . . . I guess?” Ren said, slightly uncomfortable with her making fun of somebody who was clearly in a position of authority.

That's Cicero. Named himself after some guy from your world, I think. He's one of the Four Generals,” she said.

There are four? Wait, you said Maho was one, right?”

Yep. The army functions under four units – Tactical, Magical, Armed, and Unarmed, largely ranked in that order. Each unit has a General that supervises all activity in his division. Maho is the Spellcaster General – he'll be the one raising hell over there,” she noted, pointing to a spot on the battle lines where a small stormcloud seemed to be whirling at ground level, spitting bolts of blue lightning into the enemy forces.

Suddenly worried about their pursuers, Ren glanced back towards the forest. Had the Iehkti'na from the Glade followed them through yet?

They won't catch us yet,” Cecilia said unconcernedly, as if reading his mind. “Anyway, we need to find-”

Cecilia! Ren Goodwin! What in the worlds are you doing here?”

Ren turned to see a small, rotund man hurrying towards them from the base of the hill. After a second, he recognised him as Lucius Balthazar, one of the elders on the council. “Well, it's kind of the safest place to be right now, I guess,” Ren said wryly.

Lucius' eyes just about bugged out of his head. “Are you mad, boy? Elly will kill you when she finds out! Or she'll kill you, at the very least,” he amended, gesturing helplessly at Cecilia.

Lucius, listen to me!” she snapped. “We don't have a choice in being here! There are Iehkti'na in the Glade!”

Ren didn't think it was possible for Lucius Balthazar to look any more confused and shocked than he already did, but the bald man managed it somehow. “Wh-what?” he spluttered. “H-how? Not possible!”

It is,” Cecilia ground out.

Uh-oh, that's the serious face,” Lucius said, suddenly regaining his composure and nodding. “Right. Ah . . . come with me, we'll talk to Cicero. Walk and talk, you two,” he urged, chivvying them through the crowd towards the General. “How many were there? No, on second thoughts, don't answer that. You'd just have to repeat it in a minute anyway.”

Cicero had moved by the time they reached him; he was leaning on a large table upon which was spread an enormous, detailed map of the surrounding area, complete with a semicircle of red, green and yellow pins arrayed around a series of lines Ren recognised as the hill they were standing on. He swallowed uncomfortably as he glanced at the mass of blue pins pressing in from all sides except the forest.

The Tactical General traced half a dozen lines on the map with his finger, nodding and shaking his head as a handful of officers – or so Ren presumed – clustered around him, listening intently. Ren watched as Cicero handed out hastily scribbled messages on slips of paper to each of them before sending them off with a whirl of his hand. In the same movement, he turned and marched away from the table, only to stop as he came face to face with Ren.

They were about the same height, Ren noticed, with the spirit being only an inch or two taller. For a moment, Ren stared into the General's sharp hazel eyes, until they blinked and they both stepped back. Unsure whether he should salute, Ren made do with a slight bow, which Cicero returned.

You must be Ren Goodwin,” he said simply.

That's me,” Ren said.

You have good eyes,” Cicero said thoughtfully, tapping his chin with a spindly finger. “The eyes of a tactician. Am I right?”

Ren thought briefly of his Pokemon battles, back home in his own world, of his extensive plans, strategies and countermeasures. “I guess so,” he shrugged.

Don't guess!” Cicero snapped, the sudden sharpness in his voice sending an unpleasant tingle down his spine. “Never guess. Always know! If you don't know, make it your business to find out! That is the motto of the Tactical Division's Intelligence Corps. Made that up myself. I think you and I are going to get along splendidly, but not now. I have a battle to oversee.” He turned and started to walk away, but then snapped back towards Ren with a thoughtful look on his face. “Now that I think of it, you were meant to be under the guard of Miss Cecilia here back in the Glade of Shifting Light. You must have some reason to be here rather than there, correct?”

Well, actually-”

The Iehkti'na have infiltrated the Glade, and they tried to kill you both. Their numbers were too many, so you fled here to find safety amongst friendly forces. Correct?”

You knew? So why did you ask?”

Wrong! I did not know!” Cicero said proudly, raising an admonishing finger.

So you guessed? But you just said never to-”

Ah, but what I did was not guesswork. I simply sorted through the possible outcomes and came up with the only plausible one given the circumstances.”

Really? There were no other possible explanations?”

The next most likely was that you had developed a romantic fixation on Felicia Darkstorm and persuaded or forced Miss Cecilia to accompany you here so you could be by her side. So no, I think my scenario seems to be quite the most likely.”

Ren felt his face heating up despite the obvious untruth of the suggestion. “I don't even-”

Jokes aside, Mr. Goodwin, we must take this seriously,” Cicero said, turning and striding away towards the front of the tent. “Walk with me!” he commanded.

Ren trotted along beside him, feeling rather overcome by the man's strange personality. While he was probably the most normal of the spirits he had met so far, Cicero was still exceedingly strange. He was joking just now? But he said it with such a straight face.

Cicero continued to walk through the crowd at a brisk pace, accepting memos, scribbling notes and passing them on as he did so. “We must – ah, thank you, Perkins – determine how the Iehkti'na passed – take this to Shantelle, soldier – the Spirit Wall. We'll need to work with the Spellcaster General and his experts for that, so that must wait until after the battle. No, the left flank is fine, I dispatched some of the Fourth Division there a moment ago. What we need to do now, however, is make sure we are not outflanked, for it is clear the enemy are behind us as well as in front.”

Do we have enough . . . forces to do that?” Ren asked worriedly. The line at the front looked pretty thin as it was.

Of course,” Cicero said, beckoning over a young man in a black coat. He bent over and spoke into the man's ear in a low, urgent tone for a few seconds. The man nodded and dashed away. “There will be a rearguard in place within ninety seconds,” Cicero told Ren. “You have done your part for now, though I would talk with you immediately after the battle. I cannot risk sending you into the field, of course, so if you would be so kind as to find a corner and sit down, we can proceed as usual. Miss Cecilia, of course, will be joining the fray, I imagine?”

Cecilia glanced uncertainly at Ren. “I don't know . . .” she said slowly. “He's my responsibility.”

I'll be fine.” Ren waved her on. “It's not like anything's going to happen to me here, is it?”

Of course it's not,” said Cicero tightly. “While the Tactical Division is not, strictly speaking, a combat unit, you can rest assured that our yehktira will be just fine with us.”

Cecilia's eyes narrowed, but she nodded, threw Ren one last wink, and dashed away, towards the battle.

What was that? Ren wondered. Had he imagined it, or was there some tension in the air? Deciding to think about it later, he put his head down and, with a final nod to Cicero, dodged his way through the crowd of spirits within the command centre towards a place where it seemed likely he would find some kind of respite from the hubbub.
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