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Old July 30th, 2011 (05:14 AM).
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Misheard Whisper
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Chapter Sixteen
Totalen Krieg


Ren stayed in his corner for a good fifteen minutes before boredom overtook him. During that time, however, he did his best to make some sense of the hubbub going on around him. There were fewer spirits in the tent than he had originally thought – perhaps no more than two dozen – but the intensity and speed of their operations made them seem like a much greater host. The apparent chaos was, in fact, not chaos at all, he noticed. There were a lot of people moving around, passing in front of each other and sidling past tables with precariously balanced stacks of notes, but none of them ever collided or had to stop for someone else. Contrary to the apparent disorganisation, the level of coordination was beyond freakish – it was supernatural.


After learning that he could not make out any of the frantic conversations going on around him, no matter how hard he strained his ears, Ren's thoughts turned to other things – specifically, the battle raging outside. From his nook at ground level between two tables, he did not have a very good view of anything going on outside. If he listened carefully, he could make out vague sounds of warfare over the noise around him, but he could see nothing more than a few floating shadows in the sky. Peering through the legs of half a dozen trestle tables and ten or so spirits, he could just make out the louring mass of nightmares stretching back for what looked to be miles. Every time he stood up to try and get a better look, he was hastily and politely pushed back down again by someone passing by.


Seems I can't do anything, Ren grumbled to himself. Suddenly, he became aware of a hubbub at the rear of the tent. His head whipped around instinctively to follow the noise, even though all he could see there was a blank canvas wall. From the sounds of it, the Iehkti'na that he had encountered in the village had come crashing out of the forest at last. Biting his lip, Ren continued to stare at the back wall of the tent, listening to the sounds of battle outside. They were much closer and louder than the fighting on the plain; he could hear thuds, clangs and screeches as the spirits' weapons made contact with the nightmares' strange, pseudo-metallic bodies. Every now and again, he even heard a cry of pain.


Abruptly, there was a great creaking, splintering crash, causing Ren to jump. It sounded like a tree being toppled over. There was a stamping noise, a roar from the rear of the tent that made him flinch again, and then the canvas was torn asunder by hands made of pure darkness.


Ren got to his feet hastily as the Tactical Division broke and fled, tumbling out of the front of the tent as fast as their legs could carry them. Ren remained frozen to the spot, staring straight at the enormous tear in the canvas. Three glowing green eyes peered through the gap, arranged in a triangular formation atop a large, shapeless head. It was the same Iehkti'na that he and Cecilia had knocked down back in the Glade. In the gap past its smoky, shadowy body, he could see what had until recently been an enormous, proud tree; it was now lying on the ground, apparently having been used as some sort of club, by the sound of things.


Ren forced himself to move, to back away slowly. As soon as his foot shifted, however, the Iehkti'na roared. Apart from the dying scream of the Iehkti'na that Maho had barbecued in the second ring, he had never heard any of the nightmares making any kind of noise – something which he had thought odd. He probably should have been grateful for it, he realised now, stumbling backwards with his hands over his ears. While the cry of the dying nightmare had been horrific in its own way, this sound was completely different. It was infinitely louder, shaking the entire world with its volume; it was like a ghastly, otherworldly amalgamation of the soundtrack to every bad dream he had ever had.


The sound spurred him into motion again – or perhaps it was the shockwaves from the sound itself, he thought – and he dashed out of the tent. The huge nightmare followed him, tearing the tent apart, crushing tables under its feet and scattering piles of paperwork like a flock of startled Wingull. Ren ran down the side of the hill, only realising halfway down that he was heading directly for a far larger host of nightmares. He came to a halt at the bottom of the hill amongst the panicked members of the Tactical Division, who were milling around in various states of confusion. Cicero was standing a few metres away from him, trying to restore order, but he was evidently having little success.


The Iehkti'na juggernaut slowed its pace as it reached the top of the slope, gazing down upon the battle. Behind it, more of its brethren stalked forward, halting at the top of the hill just behind their leader. Ren shivered. What had happened to the fighters that Cicero had supposedly dispatched to cover the rear?


By this point, those holding back the waves of Iehkti'na coming from the front had realised the situation. They backed up and tightened their ranks, the flanks of the line moving around to close the circle around Ren, Cicero and the rest of those who could not fight for themselves. Ren looked around in horror as the horde of nightmares pressed forward, surrounding them on all sides. They stayed just out of reach of the spirits' weapons, although archers continued to send volleys into their ranks. Ignoring the arrows, the Iehkti'na stood silently, as if waiting for orders.


Suddenly this doesn't look so good,” Ren muttered. They were completely surrounded. On one side was the shallow incline of the hill, blocked by the crowd of large nightmares that Ren and Cecilia had encountered in the Glade. On every other side was a sea of black, shifting and rippling like grass in the breeze – dark, hideous, polluted grass.

You'll be fine,” said a curt voice from beside him. Ren jumped.

Elly!”

The one and only,” she said. “What's your point?”

Nothing,” Ren said. “But, well . . . you look like hell. Are you all right?” Her hair had come out of her ponytail, and it was matted with blood – a purplish colour, Ren noticed. Her leather suit was torn and covered in burn marks, and several of the dangling buckles had been sliced off. There was a long cut running down the length of her left arm, leaking violet blood down onto her hand. In her right hand, she held her sword, dull with smoke and dirt.

Why wouldn't I be all right?” she snapped. “I can look after myself, unlike some people! Why are you here, anyway? Didn't I tell you to stay with Cecilia in the Glade?”

Ren sighed. “Yes, but . . . oh, just look for yourself. You see those ones up on the hill, right?”


Of course! I'm not blind! Hang on, do you mean to say . . .” A look of horror crossed her face.

Ah, there it is,” Ren said wryly.

That's impossible! They couldn't have come from the Glade! The Spirit Wall keeps out all of the Iehkti'na!”

Well, it seems those guys didn't get the memo,” Ren said with a shrug. “And besides, when was the last time any of them got to the Spirit Wall to prove it? My impression was that they didn't know where you were.”

Ellie growled something incomprehensible, sticking her sword in the ground and tying her hair back out of her face again with a piece of string. When she took the blade up again, she spun it around in a wide arc that came dangerously close to Ren's head before resting it casually on her shoulder as if it were a baseball bat.


He ducked with a surprised yelp. “Hey! Watch where you're spinning that thing!”


She glanced over at him as if she had entirely forgotten he was there. “Wouldn't have hit you even if you hadn't moved,” she said casually. “Do you take me for a fool?”


Um-”

Do you, Ren?” She glared at him.

No?” he tried.

Good. Now, I want you to stay here.”

I'm not going anywhere,” Ren said ruefully, gesturing around at the hordes of nightmares standing impassively on all sides.

Dumbass. I meant stay right here where none of the bastards can get you. You've killed one, but that doesn't mean you'll be able to kill another one, never mind the dozens you'll find yourself up against if you try and put yourself on the front line. So you will stay here with Cicero and the rest of the First Division, and you will pray to whatever deity you believe in that we get out of this alive.”

For a moment, Ren considered passing a snide comment on how obviously worried she was, but the look in her eyes told him it would be a very bad idea. Instead, he simply nodded and said, “I will. Good luck.”


Elly snorted with laughter as she walked off to take her place in the circle. “There's no such thing as luck.”


Suit yourself,” Ren said quietly before moving closer to the centre of the group.

Oh, splendid, you're all right,” said Cicero, who had apparently not noticed him. “That's good, I don't know what we'd do without you. Unfortunately, it looks like we've been reduced to unnecessary baggage, you and I.”

What, really?” Ren said, slipping slightly as he took up a position next to the General. The ground at the base of the hill had been churned into mud by the hundreds of feet battling back and forth across it. “Don't you have, you know, commanding to do?”

Cicero sighed regretfully, brushing a clod of dirt off his otherwise pristine white toga. “Unfortunately, my boy, we find ourselves in a position where tactics and strategy are all but useless. For one thing, I have no better a view of the battlefield than any other from this vantage point. For another, we are entirely surrounded, and the only thing for it is to fight until the end . . . whatever that end may be. I do not believe we will lose this battle, but I am somewhat unnerved. The Iehkti'na are behaving awfully strangely today. They suddenly ceased their attack, which is unheard of. They are mindless beasts that exist only to kill and cause chaos, and as such they have no form of order or hierarchy that we know of. Until today, we had no evidence of any kind of leadership or organised army, but suddenly . . . if this keeps up, I may have to rethink my entire method of doing battle,” he mused.


Ren blinked. The man sure could talk.


There was a stir to Ren's left, and he glanced quickly across to the hill. The enormous, three-eyed nightmare had taken a step down the hill, followed by three of the others that stood with him: one that looked like a giant spider with far too many legs, one quadruped with short, stumpy limbs and a flat head, and a curious, floating clot of blackness that Ren didn't remember seeing at the Glade. All four had the same burning green eyes.


The ground shook when they walked.


Weapons at the ready, every warrior in the circle fixed their eyes on these four behemoths. Their progress was slow but steady, their rumbling footsteps the only sound on the enormous, grassy plain. Ren held his breath, feeling sweat trickle down his cheek. The four nightmares exuded an intangible pressure that seemed to crush his will to stand upright. He struggled to retain control of his legs, suddenly more terrified than he had ever been in his life. He knew without being told that he was witnessing a momentous occasion in history, even if he had no idea what was going to happen.


Near the bottom of the hill, the four nightmares stopped again. They stood, elevated above the spirits, as if to convince them of their superiority. It was unnecessary, Ren thought wryly. Their leader seemed to have grown even further since Ren had encountered it in the Glade. Eight metres? Ten?


Ren shivered, suddenly aware of how cold he was, despite the sun that shone brightly over the battlefield. He could smell blood tinged with ash.


The leading nightmare lifted an enormous, shadowy hand and spoke in a deep, rumbling voice that seemed to shake the very air it passed through. Ren heard spirits around him let out gasps of surprise as the creature's words rippled through the air, laden with power.


Listening intently, Ren realised he couldn't understand a word. The nightmare was speaking the spirits' language, by the sound of it. He supposed it made sense – the Iehkti'na would have had no reason to learn his language.


What did it say?” Ren hissed to Cicero when the nightmare fell silent after a few seconds.

Cicero seemed to have been drained of all his energy. He stared at the creature open-mouthed, his hands listless at his sides.


Ren repeated the question, more insistently this time.


Cicero jerked as if suddenly woken from a comfortable sleep. “I-it said . . .” He stopped, gulped and started again. “It was speaking a very old form of our language said . . . 'You who oppose all that we are, know this: my name is Nekros, and I am thy end.' I . . . I didn't even think they were capable of speaking.”


Ren suddenly recalled his experience in the second ring the previous night. Bad dreams?, the nightmare had whispered to him as he had struggled desperately against it. What had that been about? How had it spoken to him?


A sharp, clear voice rang out from somewhere on the circle. Elly, speaking in the same tongue that Nekros had. She sounded angry, and Ren didn't suppose he could blame her.


You are not our end,” Cicero translated in a whisper. “You are only another of those who foolishly seek to destroy us. We have never given in to your kind before, and we will not start now.”

Nekros laughed, a deep, guttural sound that made the cold sweat on Ren's brow break out anew. He then spoke again at some length, to which Elly replied instantly and furiously. This went back and forth for some time, the attention of every being on the plain focused entirely on the two.


Ah, basically . . . Nekros is demanding that we surrender and allow ourselves to be killed, and Felicia is refusing outright, demanding instead that they leave.” Cicero paused as Nekros spoke again. “He says . . . 'We shall withdraw for today. Take this as a warning for how simply thou art undone. If we were to make ultimate war this day, you would undoubtedly fall, but we wish to lose as few of our brethren as is possible. We shall consolidate our strength, and next time, thou shalt fall to a man.'”

Ren shuddered. The threat seemed quite valid, considering the vast army of nightmares surrounding the spirits. “Do you think-” he began, but was cut off by Cicero as Nekros spoke again.


He's talking about you!” the General muttered, pushing Ren behind him with one hand.

What? What's he saying?”

He says he knows you are here, and he wishes you to be aware that you would be spared. Because the Soul Bonds are weak, he would allow you to live, entering the world of dreams each night to renew them, then returning home in peace. He . . . urges you to accept, saying that . . . they would meddle less with you than we do.” Cicero's face twisted in disgust. Elly interrupted Nekros at this point, her voice rising almost to a shriek. “And Miss Darkstorm . . .” Cicero said weakly.

. . . is being Miss Darkstorm,” Ren finished. “Yep. Let me guess – it's something along the lines of 'Go to hell!', right?”

Pretty much,” Cicero agreed. “A little more polite, but not much.”

With one final, parting rumble, Nekros stepped off the hill and past the spirits, his far less humanoid cronies trailing behind him. They were followed by the rest of the small force that had been waiting at the top of the hill. The ranks of the smaller Iehkti'na parted for them as they passed, joining back up in their wake and following them away. The spirits watched cautiously as the mass of nightmares receded, drawing back from the circle and moving away in silence. Nobody moved for nearly ten minutes, until the last of the black wave disappeared over a ridge in the distance and fell out of sight.


As if in response to an invisible, inaudible signal, every warrior in the circle relaxed, weapons dropping to the ground in a chorus of thuds that made Ren flinch. Several of them dropped to the ground; all of them shared the same blank, stunned look that Ren was sure must be evident on his own face. Their expressions, though, were tinged with a stronger kind of disbelief. Looking around, Ren saw a proud, strong people who had just been essentially handed their own heads on a platter.


There seemed to be an unspoken acknowledgement in the air as everybody silently moved back towards the forest. Not a word was spoken as Ren followed them to the top of the hill; as he put his back in and helped them push the fallen tree off several of their number; as the wounded were picked up and carried back through the forest; as the spirits of the Glade retreated, largely unscathed but undoubtedly beaten. They all stared straight ahead, seeming not to see what was in front of them. There was no hurry, no sense of urgency. They simply walked, a macabre, depressed parade winding through the forest.


At the edge of the Glade of Shifting Light, just inside the Spirit Wall, he was stopped by a gentle hand on his chest. He paused and glanced at the one who had blocked him. It was Salinthia, her deep purple robe torn and grimy. He opened his mouth to speak, but she just shook her head, a sad look in her eyes. With a flick of her wrist, she opened a portal to the second ring, the now familiar sonic boom rocking him slightly with its force.


Is it safe? Ren wondered, giving Salinthia a questioning look.


She simply blinked slowly at him, her hazel eyes abnormally lifeless. Taking that as a yes, he gave her a final nod – how he wished, all of a sudden, to say something to comfort her and all the others – and reached a hand out, allowing himself to be sucked into the portal. The last thing he saw before the rushing darkness overtook his vision was Elly watching him from some distance away, her usually sharp green eyes dull with confusion.


The second ring wavered as Ren slipped silently into it. He stood on the platform at the Rustboro station, eerily alone. Taking a deep breath, he sat down on the very same bench he had occupied earlier with Natasha.


That was weird,” he said aloud, his voice echoing around the empty station. “I thought things were weird enough as it was, but this is just going too far.” He had a sinking feeling that he had become involved in something far more serious than he ever could have imagined. Of course, that had been his exact mindset when he had found out about the world of dreams to begin with, but this . . . this was a whole new level.

The worst part, he reflected, was how the spirits had reacted. His brief experience in the world of dreams had painted them as indomitable, indefatigable beings of power and mystery. They had seemed indestructible, invincible, and so very sure of themselves, and yet . . .


Yet there they were. He had been there – it had all seemed so surreal, but he had been there nonetheless. He knew he had witnessed history; from the sound of it, it was the first time the spirits had suffered a defeat at the hands of the Iehkti'na.


It seemed to have been a day of firsts. The first time the spirits had lost, the first time the Iehkti'na had spoken, the first time they had displayed any kind of intelligence, the first time Elly's sparkling green eyes had dulled.


Ren could barely imagine what Elly must have been feeling. That brief glimpse of her as he slipped through the portal had told him so much, and yet so little. He had seen confusion, stunned disbelief and a kind of blank anger. The worst thing, though, was the emotion that he was not even sure he had seen at all. Had there been fear in her eyes? He hoped that he had been mistaken; if even Elly – wild, fiery, fearless Elly – saw reason to be afraid, then he didn't think he would be able to cope with the coming nights.


A patch of darkness caught his eye, flat upon one of the pillars supporting the massive vaulted ceiling. Deciding he should wake up sooner rather than later, Ren stood up and walked towards it, watching it grow as he approached. By the time he reached it, it was roughly the size and shape of a door. As soon as his foot brushed it, he found himself on the other side, stepping out of a pillar, once again in the darkened, concrete jungle he had shared with Afro Glameow earlier in that same dream.


Seems like such a long time ago,” he says, glancing around. Thankfully, Afro Glameow is nowhere to be seen. His leg isn't bleeding either, for which he is extremely grateful.

Before he can even wonder where he is, though, he feels the world slipping away, going hazy and disappearing rapidly into the distance. “What . . .”


What?” he groaned. His cheeks were burning, and he automatically lifted his hands to rub at them.

Wake up, Ren!” Natasha said insistently, pinching his cheeks with finger and thumb.

Awake, 'm awake,” he grumbled, sitting up with a yawn and just about falling off his seat as the train jerked slightly. “Whoa!”

Jeez! Finally! You slept for just about the whole way!” Natasha pouted, folding her arms as she sat back down.

Sorry,” he said weakly, rubbing his left ear, which was numb from being crushed against the back of the seat. “You weren't bored, were you?”

Of course I was bored, genius! I finished my book and started on yours,” she said, waving both paperbacks under his nose.

You're a fast reader,” he said admiringly, checking his watch. One twenty-three; they were due to arrive in Slateport in a few minutes.

Not really,” she said. “They're not very big books, and I had all that time at the station too.”

Right,” he said distractedly, trying to bring himself back to terms with the real world – no, not the real world, he reminded himself. The world of dreams was just as real – or, at the very least, just as important. And besides, Elly will probably hit me if I say otherwise. If . . . if she . . . It suddenly occurred to Ren that Elly might not even feel up to chewing him out that night. The thought was somehow more shocking than anything else that had crossed his mind since the battle.

Just a few minutes later, the train pulled smoothly into Slateport Station. Natasha spotted her parents through the window and dashed off ahead of Ren, leaving him to filter out with the crowd like a zombie, head down and arms listlessly clutching his bag. He felt a tiny share of the spirits' pain just then, and for a moment he was back in the forest of the third ring, slowly wending his way through the trees again.


But then he saw his uncle and aunt on the platform, happily receiving Natasha's enthusiastic hugs, and he forced himself to look up again, taking a deep breath of that peculiar air you could only find in the railway station of a seaside city – brine, metal and oil. He was home. This was where he belonged.


That knowledge made him feel a little better as he plastered a smile on his face and went to greet Roger and Mary.
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