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Old September 3rd, 2011 (02:27 AM).
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Misheard Whisper
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This chapter feels short. It's not. I swear to Arceus, it's 4,600+ words, which is longer than most chapters so far. But it just doesn't look it. :/

Chapter Eighteen

Ruhe

As he lay awake in bed that night, it occurred to Ren that the issue of Nekros and the events of his last visit to the world of dreams had barely crossed his mind all afternoon. How is that even possible? he wondered, staring up at the ceiling of his darkened room. Here's me trying to think what might happen when I go in this time, but I've hardly even considered what happened last time.

It had been dancing at the back of his mind for the last few hours, he knew, but it had been difficult to reach for it and bring it to the fore. It wasn't like he couldn't bring it to the front of his mind; it was more like it preferred to stay in the background. It was only now, as he waited for sleep to claim him, that it leapt forth and demanded his attention.

Then again, he reasoned, there was nothing he could really do about it. He briefly considered calling Steven and telling him. Would the ex-Champion be able to help him? He doubted it. He had the strangest feeling that Nekros had not shown its face – or what passed for one – before. The spirits had certainly not seemed to recognise it, and he was sure that Steven would not have neglected to mention something so major had he known about it.

Ren suddenly felt very much alone. He couldn't go to Steven for help. Even if his predecessor had somehow known about Nekros, he doubted there would be anything that Steven could have done to help him. As it was, there would be no help forthcoming. What did he expect Steven to do, really? Somehow charge into the world of dreams and valiantly slay the beast? No, he had to deal with it by himself.

His fingers brushed the Dreamlight, still lying on his chest, an impossibly delicate silver carving that glinted in the low light. What am I supposed to do? The same question chased itself around his head for a good half an hour before his tiredness finally caught up with him.

Afro Glameow is nowhere to be seen. That's reassuring. Ren glances around. He's in the jungle of concrete pillars again. Now that he's not running for his life, though, he realises it's an overpass. An overpass of monolithic, impossible size, to be sure, but there's no doubting what it is. The rumbling noise is the sound of hundreds of cars passing over his head, and the light glaring distantly at him from both sides is just sunlight, doing its level best to penetrate the gloom under the road.

He looks around and promptly spots the portal to the second ring; it has the appearance of a deep square hole set into one of the pillars near him. Looking suspiciously around, Ren wonders if Afro Glameow is lying in wait for him somewhere nearby. When there is still no sign of his feline nemesis, however, he shrugs and reaches for the portal. With a familiar yank, he is sucked into it, his entire body somehow telescoping and packing itself into the small space.

When he regained his sense of balance, Ren found himself once again in the park, looking out over Slateport Bay. The sky was overcast, however, casting unfortunate shadows on the scene. The sun peeked valiantly out from behind a cloud to the west, though, its height telling him that it was about three in the afternoon. Just as it occurred to him that there seemed to be nobody around, a voice spoke from behind him.

Yehktira.”

He turned to see Salinthia, of all people, sitting on one of the swings. She was wearing casual clothes that would not have looked out of place in any city in Hoenn, which Ren found odd. The puffy, sleeveless jacket, faded grey T-shirt and slim black jeans made her look a lot younger – not that appearances made any difference when it came to age, he reminded himself wryly. “Hey, Salinthia,” he said quietly, dropping himself into the other swing, much as he had done that very same afternoon. He was beginning to get used to seeing the day's locations floating around in the second ring, but it was no less unnerving to find himself sitting in exactly the same place as he had been earlier. It was like a weird sense of deja vu. “What's . . . happening in the third ring?”

She sighed deeply, refusing to meet his curious eyes. “Four of our number fell in the battle yesterday. One of those who were crushed under the tree that Nekros uprooted succumbed to his injuries after being brought back to the Glade. Nekros also killed two more of that rearguard, and they died on the spot. So did the poor girl who was overwhelmed by the Iehkti'na horde in the preceding battle.”

Oh,” Ren said. He wanted to make some comment, to offer some small measure of comfort, but there were no words. He was so far out of his depth that he could only barely begin to grasp the magnitude of the situation.

Four might seem like very few, especially considering the number of beasts we slew today, but . . .”

'No men have fallen in battle since the great wars of the early days',” Ren quoted, remembering something he had read in Maho's workshop.

I see you've been doing your homework,” Salinthia said, a slight tinge of bitter humour colouring her voice.

I did a little bit of reading,” Ren admitted. “But, uh . . . what happens now?”

Nothing,” Salinthia said. “We wait. Maho and the rest of us in the Magical Division are working hard to try and reinforce the Spirit Wall, as well as determining how it failed. The others can only wait. I hope you take no offense, Ren, but we think it would be best if you did not enter the third ring tonight.”

What? But the Soul Bonds-”

Are being automatically re-cast as we speak. They only require you to stay here for another few minutes, after which time you may leave the same way you came.”

So . . . I don't have to be in the third ring for that to work?”

Not necessarily, no. It just happens that it's usually safer there, especially in the Glade. At the moment, we cannot guarantee your safety. As well as that, we are in mourning for those lost. You would be . . . superfluous.”

Ren couldn't tell whether her words had been deliberately calculated to sting, but sting they did. Whatever the case, there was no way he could blame her. She probably didn't even want to be babysitting him. “I guess we just sit here until time's up, then? What about the Iehkti'na?”

She shook her head. “There are none. It seems Nekros is true to his word, and has withdrawn completely for now.”

You don't sound particularly pleased with that,” Ren noted.

Well, it is good that he has stepped back and allowed us to operate peacefully, but at the same time, it is frightening. It proves the level of control that Nekros has over the other Iehkti'na, and that is something we don't want to have to contend with. The Iehkti'na, when they all mass together, are a far stronger force than us. The only thing that has allowed us to continually defeat them over the last seven hundred years is their lack of leadership and organisation. Now that they appear to have that, there is little chance of survival,” she said frankly. Although her pale, soft face remained static, Ren could see flickers of uncertainty trembling in her eyes.

What can we do?”

Only what we are already doing. You, on the other hand, can do nothing. Simply carry on returning to the world of dreams every night, and we will do the best we can with the rest. When Nekros comes forth again, we shall face him with everything we have. If it turns out that it is not enough, well . . . we shall fall, and you shall have new friends in the world of dreams,” she said with a sad smile. “It should not make much difference to you. They have promised they will leave you unscathed, for they need a yehktira as much as we do.”

Don't screw with me!” Ren said, standing up suddenly and wheeling to face her. “You think I wouldn't care if I had to deal with those . . . monsters instead of you?”

In all honesty, Ren, I'm sure they'd treat you much the same.”

I don't care about that!” Ren said sharply. “Sure, it'd be good to know I have some job security, but I'll take you guys over the Iehkti'na any day! I like you guys! The Iehkti'na are just . . . beasts! How could you even suggest that it wouldn't matter?”

Salinthia raised her hands in a vaguely placatory gesture, but didn't say anything for a while. She stood and walked around the swing set, trailing her hand along the bars. “You . . . are right,” she said at length. “I apologise. But please, there is no need to be so incensed.”

. . . Of course,” Ren said, sitting back down and rocking back and forward. “I'm sorry. I was just surprised that you thought I wouldn't care.”

That was a misjudgement on my part,” Salinthia said smoothly. “I appreciate your vote of confidence, and I am sure the other elders will as well. But now, I think . . . I think we could just about call it a night.”

That's . . . all it takes?” Ren asked.

Indeed. Your yehkti is strong, and your mere presence in the second ring is enough to return the Soul Bonds to their full strength. Regrettably, they disintegrate faster each day. Soon they will reach a critical level where we will need you, or whoever the yehktira is at that point, to remain in our world permanently.”

That . . . how would that happen?”

We would simply refuse to let you leave. If none of us open a portal for you, you cannot leave the third ring. Your body – in your world – would never wake up. No amount of external stimulus would be able to rouse you. You would seem to be in a coma, and you would probably spend the rest of your life in hospital.” She spoke with a brisk, casual tone that grated on Ren's nerves.

Are you nuts?” he demanded. “You can't just sit there and talk so calmly about doing something like that! That's awful!”

Do not make assumptions, yehktira!” Salinthia snapped, a hard edge suddenly entering her voice. “If it comes down to it, we will not hesitate to keep you here!”

You can't!” he protested. “I mean . . . you wouldn't!”

We can and will! Unless a way is found to bring the Soul Bonds back to their full capacity, we will have no choice!”

Salinthia, you just can't do that! Who the hell do you think you are? If you think I'm just going to sit there and let you screw with me like that, you're horribly mistaken! I just can't believe you!”

Stop it, Ren!” she said, stepping forward so that her face was just inches from his own, her sea-green eyes stormy with anger. Her voice dropped to a loud whisper as the clouds in the sky overwhelmed the sun, darkening and lowering until the atmosphere positively crackled with pressure. “Let me make this very clear, yehktira: you do not tell me what I can and cannot do, and you do not presume for one second that you are more important than the fate of two entire worlds!”

Ren bit his lip, refusing to be cowed. Salinthia was terrifying in a very different way to Elly; while Elly's fury had been small and sharp like a Beedrill sting, Salinthia's was huge and sweeping. A harsh, heavy wind swept through the park, tossing the branches on the trees and buffetting him where he stood. He braced his feet and forced himself to glare back into her eyes as stinging, lashing rain began to hurl itself from the threatening clouds that continued to gather overhead.

He knew she was right, but at the same time he was painfully aware that he couldn't back down now. There was nothing he could say, so he simply made a point of standing as still as he could in the heaving rain and wind, feeling the deep, electric pressure of the storm bearing down upon him as he made himself look into her eyes as they darkened rapidly. Within seconds they were a deep slate grey, the same colour as the thunderclouds overhead.

Abruptly, she narrowed her eyes, a rumble of thunder accompanying the gesture. “Go,” she said. Her voice was quiet, yet he heard her perfectly clearly over the maelstrom of whirling winds that threatened to engulf them. “Your time here is done, yehktira.”

Fighting to contain his own anger, Ren nodded once, jerkily, and stepped back without breaking eye contact. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw – barely – the small black portal that would lead him back to the first ring. Without taking his eyes off Salinthia's, he reached out for it with his right hand. He felt a slight tug on his arm and he was gone.

He stands in a field, one not unlike the one in which he is used to materialising in the third ring. It is the same one, he realises with a start. The grass is trampled and spattered with mud, twisting itself into agonised knots on the ground. Deep furrows are carved in the earth, furrows that grow deeper and more frequent as he walks towards the forest. Soon, he finds himself at the base of the hill, which is little more than a ghastly, churned mud bath. The mud is tinged with purple, and all around is the bitter stench of vinegar and burnt grass.

There is a small jerk somewhere inside Ren's chest, and the scene dissolves as he is pulled upwards and out of reach. He feels hundreds of accusing eyes on him as he ascends, and he can't be sure if they are his imagination or not.

Ren woke suddenly, feeling unusually grumpy – even for a Monday morning. It took him a few seconds to zero in on the reason, for the events of his dreams sought to elude him even now. Carefully, he sifted through his mind, locking onto the small, elusive memory that sat lodged in the back of his thoughts. He seized upon it gladly, and was rewarded with a sudden flash of bitter realisation.

He groaned inwardly. Oh, hell . . . what did I say? He knew full well what he had said, of course. The question was entirely rhetorical, but he had thought it might make him feel a little better. It didn't.

Sitting up and allowing the blankets to fall away from him, he put his head in his hands for a minute. Damn, damn, damn. He had let his temper get the better of him for the first time in . . . how long? Nearly three years. He shuddered to think of the last time he had blown up in someone's face like that.

Not long before his twelfth birthday, he had challenged Brawly for what must have been the tenth time. Zangoose had been his strongest battler even then, so having him easily knocked flying by Brawly's Fighting-type Pokemon meant that the battle had been far more difficult than any other Gym Leader he had faced until that point. After being handed yet another total defeat by the surfer, Ren had almost reached boiling point. When Brawly had suggested moving on and training elsewhere before returning to challenge him again, Ren had snapped.

Of course, his outburst at that time had been completely unjustified. Brawly had only been doing his job; besides, Ren knew that most of the anger he had let loose at that point had been directed at himself. He had been ashamed of his weakness, his stubbornness and his perceived ineptitude. His rage should have been directed inwards, but he had let it all go and focused it on the man in front of him.

Ren had since returned to Dewford and apologised to Brawly, of course. Brawly had understood and given him a rematch for the Knuckle Badge – which Ren had won – but it didn't stop him feeling a little guilty whenever the incident came to mind.

This time, however . . . this time was a little different. Flopping back onto his bed, Ren rolled over and buried his head in his pillow. Salinthia had taken him by surprise with her cool, detached explanation of what could very likely happen to him. Part of him knew that she was completely right, but he didn't really want to admit it. “How does she get off talking like that?” he grumbled aloud. Somehow the thought that, as yehktira, he might have to make some kind of sacrifice had failed to occur to him.

I was wrong to get mad like that, he admitted to himself. But still, I can't help but feel it was a little justified. Salinthia had sprung it on him awfully suddenly, for sure.

Ren!” came his mother's voice, echoing faintly from downstairs. “Are you up yet?”

With a distracted smile, Ren rolled out of bed, still dwelling on what had transpired that night. He was already regretting his words and his attitude, and had every intention to apologise that evening, but it did not stop the topic from floating in the front of his mind.

As a result, Ren spent most of the day in a strange sort of fugue, drifting from activity to activity with an uncertain manner that caused his mother to ask several times if he was still tired.

After breakfast, he spent the morning drifting aimlessly about the house, unsure of what to do. His mother was busy with her article for the Mirror, so he was largely left to his own devices. On a whim, he sat down at the kitchen table and began writing a letter. A forgotten promise had suddenly pushed itself to the forefront of his mind, and he seized upon it gratefully as a means to take his mind off what would surely be an extraordinarily awkward encounter with Salinthia in the world of dreams.

Dear Falkner,

I haven't called for a while, but that's not really why I'm writing. I remember you made me swear I'd write to you when I became Champion of the Hoenn League. Well, at the time, I never thought I'd ever find myself writing that letter, but, well . . . here I am.

You probably saw the news about the League Conference and all that on TV, so I won't go into too much detail about that. Mostly I just wanted to thank you. It's been three years since I trained with you in Violet, but I can't overstate how important that period was for me. I learned so much with you, and it really helped me with getting to where I am now.

So, thank you for that. When I finally challenged you and won the Zephyr Badge, it was the best battle I'd had up till that point, and still one of the best I've ever had. It helped me carry on through the rest of the League.

A thought suddenly striking him, he reached into the backpack that still sat in the corner of the kitchen and withdrew one of the three small, flat cases that sat safely in the deepest pocket. Sitting back down at the table, he unlatched the clasp. Two Johto League badges sat in shaped depressions in the velvet lining, glinting slightly in the sunlight. The Zephyr Badge and Mineral Badge looked somewhat lonely in the case, the six empty slots reminding him of the Gym Leaders he hadn't yet battled. Shaking his head, he closed the case with a sigh and went back to writing.

It feels weird, being the Champion, you know. I mean, it's everything I ever worked towards. I remember telling you all about it so excitedly when I came to the Violet Gym, and you just smiled that funny smile you have. I guess I looked just like every other kid that came through with stars in his eyes, but that's where the weirdest thing is. When I think about it . . . becoming the Champion is a goal that every Trainer sets out with. But I . . . I actually made it, and it's always a little strange, somehow, to think of all the other kids that didn't make it. It makes me wonder why I'm any different, why I succeeded where so many others failed. Why am I so special?

Briefly, Ren remembered what Steven had said – how the Champion was largely decided by an individual's level of yehkti. After all the strangeness of the last couple of days, he had almost entirely forgotten about that. Remembering it was, honestly, not a very nice feeling, he realised suddenly. Did that mean that all his hard work had been an illusion? If I've been predetermined to be Champion since the day I was born, does anything that I do make a difference? Steven had said that it did, that he wouldn't have become Champion without all the hours of pressing his nose to the grindstone, but all the same . . . it bugged him a little. It was like being handed a merit certificate in school, only to be told that the principal had decided to give it to you years ago, regardless of your actual performance.

I guess it doesn't matter right now, he wrote, unwilling to scribble out the words already written. It bears thinking about, but I can do that later. I've got so much to do now – I can't believe it! I kind of thought life might slow down a little once I became Champion, but . . . it didn't. If anything, it got more hectic. Sure, I've got more time at home now, but it sure doesn't feel like it. Even though there's technically less I have to do, I have to go all over the place and do all kinds of things. It makes it feel like there's more to do. At any rate, it's sure nice to be back home – well, sort of.

How's life in Violet? Did that girl come back to challenge you after I left at all? What was her name, again? Laura or something? She had a Bayleef, I think, which probably explained why she was having so much trouble beating you. I haven't heard much news out of Johto at all lately, to be honest. Is everything just being quiet as usual?

Listen to me, sheesh. I sound like I'm suspecting some kind of conspiracy. But never mind that. It feels good to be able to just sit down and write a letter like this. I never had the time – or, to be entirely straight with you, the inclination – before, but it's something I could get used to. It helps me get my thoughts in order. So thanks for that, I guess. I do feel a bit better now – not so darn philosophical, at any rate. I'm just rambling now, though, so I'll sign off for now.

He debated for a minute over how to sign the letter, but eventually settled for the slightly formal Your Friend, Ren Goodwin before folding it into an envelope and taking it outside to slot it into the pickup box for the postie to find the following morning.

As he leaned absently on the gate, Ren's mind – no longer distracted by letter-writing – returned to Salinthia and the world of dreams. While he knew that he should be concerned, he found it difficult somehow. Does that make me a bad person? I almost feel like I don't care what happens. He concluded that it was because there was nothing he could do from his current position. Salinthia had said as much, and he certainly couldn't see any evidence to the contrary.

He was just a third wheel, he realised. He had deluded himself briefly that he would get along with the spirits and . . . what? Be seen as their equal? He was their yehktira, that was all. He was a necessity. Even in terms of necessities, he was a pretty useless one, he reflected bitterly. Steven, surely, had been of more use. From what he had gleaned from Maho and Cecilia, Steven had been working to solve the mysteries of the world of dreams from the outside. I can't even do that.

Then again, he realised briefly, watching a Wingull wheeling on an updraft, there was no reason he couldn't. For that matter, there was no reason why Steven would have stopped his research when he stepped down as yehktira – he hadn't struck Ren as the sort of person to give up on something that important just because it wasn't strictly his job any more.

He would have to talk to Steven again as soon as possible, he decided, the thought making him feel a little better. Arceus . . . I'm just going in circles today, he thought, pinching the bridge of his nose and inhaling deeply.

There's nothing happening,” he said to the Wingull. “That's the problem. Mum's busy, I've got nothing happening . . . there's nobody to battle, no pressure to get to a rest stop before dark. Nothing's bloody happening!” he grunted, kicking the letterbox stand in a sudden fit of childish petulance.

He glanced involuntarily down at his belt, where force of habit had compelled him to attach his six Poke Balls that morning. He sighed heavily, all the wind dropping out of his sails as he relented. Fine. Training it is.

He hadn't brought most of his Pokemon out for a good few days now, and he felt a little guilty when he realised this. While he didn't go for all the new age stuff that was going around like wildfire these days – Trainer and Pokemon are one spirit, one completes the other, you can't win unless you and your team share a bond forged in hellfire – he knew that his Pokemon were still his friends, and he had neglected that lately.

He dashed back to the still-open front door and hollered down the hallway, “Mom! I'm just going out for a while! Back in a couple of hours!”

Honey-” his mother began, her voice emanating distantly from the study at the back of the house, but he didn't hear any more, already having dashed away, out the gate and up the road – running in the opposite direction to the city of Slateport proper. He had a place in mind – yet another place he hadn't been for five years.
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