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I actually like the conversation between Bella and Ren. Already I’m liking her as a character. :3 It’s very nice that the two will be friends. And I have to agree with Richard being enthusiastic there.
Ack, sorry for the short review. D: I’m sure though the next chapter will be great, so hopefully my next review will be better, haha.
Glad you liked the dream sequence, Bay. I'm sure you didn't think it was just a throwaway statement, though. XP
and yes d'aww Bella and Ren
Y Ahora, Algo un Poco Mágico
“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Steven Stone and Ren Goodwin!” Richard exclaimed, flinging his arm out dramatically towards where Ren and Steven were standing. Ren froze for a moment, until Steven elbowed him and the pair made their way onto the stage. The noise of the crowd somehow overwhelmingly loud despite its relatively small size, Ren stumbled and almost fell on the hastily cobbled-together steps up to the temporary stage. Richard welcomed them with a smile as they sat down in the enormous red chairs; Steven subtly pushed Ren towards the one closest to Richard.
“Well, this doesn't happen often!” Richard said, laughing. “Two Champions at the same time! On my show? Wahoo! Two for the price of one!”
Ren smiled despite himself. Maybe . . . just maybe, this wouldn't be so hard after all.
“Alright, alright,” Richard said, quieting the crowd with a wave. “Can't hear myself think! Now, Steven Stone is the man everyone knows, so you get away with just a brief introduction. Until recently, Champion of the Hoenn League. Twenty-six years old, born and raised here in Rustboro. Likes Steel-type Pokemon, chocolate brownies, precious stones and taking long walks on the beach near Petalburg. Sound about right?”
“I don't know where you get the part about the beach from, Richard, but the rest is right enough.”
“Eh, I just made it up. But we'll get back to you in a minute, Stevie boy. Right now, Hoenn is buzzing about this young man right here! Ren Goodwin, everybody!” The audience applauded again, and Ren resisted the urge to fiddle with the microphone on his collar. He had had his hair dealt with before the show, but he was still dressed in the same jeans and T-shirt. Game face on, he told himself. Game face. “So, an easy one to start with. How old are you, Ren?”
“I'm . . . fourteen.”
“Fourteen! That's seriously impressive, my man. That's almost record-breaking stuff, right there. The youngest Hoenn League Champion ever was thirteen, if I recall rightly, but that was decades ago! You're the man of the moment right now, Ren. So tell me . . . how does it feel? Has it sunk in yet?”
Ren winced inwardly. So much for starting it out easy – Richard had thrown him a curveball right off the bat. “I think . . . it's sunk in as much as it's going to, Richard,” he said. “I've had a few days to settle into it, and . . . although I'm still not quite sure whether it's a dream or not, I feel pretty good right about now.” He was answering on autopilot, he realised as the audience laughed. He was saying what they wanted to hear, even if it was more or less true.
“Well, that's fantastic! I'd be pretty stoked myself if I beat the Champion, so I'd be surprised if you weren't. Good to see it's not gone to your head, though. Folks, I've had the opportunity to chat with Ren for a few minutes before the show, and I can tell ya, he's a real genuine kid. Awesome guy. Where ya from, Ren?”
“I grew up in Slateport, but I was born in Unova,” Ren said. “We moved when I was just a few months old.”
“Any particular reason?” Richard asked.
“Ah . . . for Dad's work. He's a lawyer, so he could have made it anywhere, but he decided we should move to Hoenn. I don't know too much about it, to be honest. It doesn't really come up in conversation.” The discussion was straying into dangerous territory, and Ren made an effort to steer it back on course. “Slateport is all I've ever known, so I consider it home.”
“Good to hear, kid! We love a Champion with some regional loyalty, don't we, folks? In any case . . . Steven! Your turn!” He made a gun with his fingers and fired at Steven dramatically. Playing it up, Steven clutched his chest and fell back in his chair with a groan. Ren tried not to laugh at the normally stoic Steven as Richard faked panic and concern. “Oh, damn it, I've gone and killed our ex-Champion! Don't arrest me, don't arrest me!” The audience loved it, although for Ren, the humour was starting to wear off already.
“I'm fine, Richard,” Steven said, sitting back up and adjusting his collar. “What was your question? I'd say 'fire away', but at the risk of incurring more projectiles . . .”
“What everybody wants to know, Steven Stone. The battle! How did it feel to lose the title you've held for six whole years? We all watched it on TV, but we want to know what was going on inside your head.”
“To tell the truth, Richard . . . I don't mind so much. In all my time as Champion, my greatest fear – probably my only fear – was that I would lose to a challenger who was unworthy of the title of Champion, but that's a non-issue with Ren. I feel comfortable handing my title over to him.”
“Uh-huh. But tell me, Steven – what now? What do you think you'll be doing with yourself now that you're no longer the Champion?” Ren thought he saw Steven's jaw tighten, but it was no more than a momentary impression.
“I'm . . . not so sure, actually,” Steven said quietly. “Now I'll have some free time to work on my research into Hoenn's geology. But in terms of long-term plans . . . nothing, really.”
“Ooh, do I detect a hint of uncertainty in the man of steel?” Richard teased. “Ladies and gentlemen, Steven Stone!” The audience applauded again, just as Ren felt himself beginning to numb to the constant noise.
“Before we finish up, though, I want to ask a couple more questions. Firstly, one for Ren – what lies ahead for you? Steven's taking a break to work on his rock collection, but what do you think you'll be doing?”
“I . . . don't know either,” Ren said. “I'm still not entirely sure what a Champion has to do, so I'll be looking to Steven for help on that one.”
“Well, our previous Champion has plenty of experience, so I'm sure you'll be fine. You know, it's uncommon for a Champion to last more than a couple of years, especially one who specialises in a single type. The longest-serving Champion currently active is the Sinnoh region's Cynthia, who has held the title for eight years. And that brings me to my next question. Back to Steven for a moment – it's not unheard of for toppled Champions to seek a new title in other regions. Do you think that's something you could do?”
“It certainly sounds plausible,” Steven admitted. “I'd have to collect a whole new set of Gym badges, though.”
“Oh, come on, it couldn't be that hard! You made it all the way through the Hoenn League, and I don't imagine you were just chilling out all that time you were Champion. You're still one of the toughest trainers in the Hoenn region!”
“That may be so, Richard, but I feel my competitive days are behind me. I'll make sure to keep battling, though. That's one thing I'm sure of. I don't think I'll be retiring any time soon.”
Richard laughed along with the audience. “Well, that's good to hear, Steven, my man. Now, we're almost out of time, but before we go – Ren! Tell me . . . do you have some sort of secret to your victory? A motto or some advice you can share with us? Hoenn's buzzin'!”
Ren thought about it for a moment. He almost considered using Steven's plant metaphor, but realised it would be too risky. Also, he didn't quite remember all of it, so he'd be likely to make a fool of himself if he tried to recite it. “Not as such. Just . . . I know it's been said a thousand times, but that's probably because it's true: if you keep trying and refuse to back down, you'll get where you're going in the end.”
“All right! There you have it, ladies and gentlemen! Steven Stone and Ren Goodwin, our Champions old and new. I can hear Hoenn buzzin'! Till next time, folks!”
The audience rose to its feet in applause one last time, and Ren waited until the producer gave the all-clear signal before he collapsed back into the voluminous depths of his squashy red chair, his heart racing. Somehow, it seemed, he had managed to hold off the panic throughout the show. It had been over faster than he expected, but nonetheless, he was exhausted.
“Good stuff, kid!” Richard crowed as he practically leapt out from behind his desk to shake Ren by the hand. “Nice job for a first time on the show! Ever been on TV before?”
Ren shook his head blankly, suddenly incapable of speech. The audience was beginning to filter off in different directions, leaving behind only a block of white plastic chairs that some of the stage hands were already stacking up and loading into a truck that Ren hadn't seen before. The cameras were being folded up and packed into the van that was parked next to Steven's limousine.
“Well, you did fine, Ren,” Steven said. “Good job.”
“Thanks. Just don't spring something like that on me again.”
“Oh, it'll happen,” Steven said wryly. “You're a popular young man, now. Richard,” he said, turning to address the big man. “A pleasure being on the show as always.”
“Ah, we'll get you back sometime soon, Stevie boy. Milk it for all it's worth. Sorry it was such a short segment tonight. We already had Bella booked in, and we weren't able to reschedule at such short notice. She graciously agreed to take a fifteen-minute slot instead of the full half-hour, and it was too good of an opportunity to miss. Oh, damn it,” he muttered suddenly, looking at his watch. “I have to run. Sorry, guys! Nice to have you on the show!” He dashed off without waiting for a reply.
“Well, that's that, then,” Steven said. Ren noticed that he seemed to have returned to his quiet, serious demeanour of earlier. “Shall we go?”
“I suppose so,” Ren said. “Hey, where's Bella?”
“I'm pretty sure she had to leave early, too,” Steven said. “Celebrities are busy people, aren't they?”
“Yeah,” Ren agreed. “Tonight was . . . pretty hectic.”
“You did do well, Ren,” Steven said suddenly as they started off toward the car. “I wasn't just saying that for Richard's benefit. I was a little afraid at one point that you were going to freak out on me, but you handled it well for your first time. And in fact, it was probably good that we got a short slot. Warm you up to it a bit at a time, and so on.”
“I'm . . . going to have to get used to this after all, aren't I?” Ren said.
Steven nodded regretfully. “I'm sorry, but you are. But the sooner you accept that, the sooner you're going to grow accustomed to it.”
“Oh, I've accepted it,” Ren said unenthusiastically as he climbed into Steven's limousine. “I just don't like it.”
“That's the spirit.”
After they drove back to Devon Corp and picked up Natasha, Steven made arrangements for the two of them to be accommodated at a hotel owned by the corporation. He wanted to put them in the fanciest five-star establishment in town, but Ren declined politely, preferring slightly less ostentatious accommodation. He had, after all, spent the last five years sleeping under the stars and in Pokemon Centers.
So as a result, he found himself tucking Natasha into a single bed at the Sundown Hotel before dropping into his own, fully clothed. His cousin had retained her unusual quietness from earlier, dropping off to sleep with barely a word after a quick dinner at the hotel's café bar. It was slightly unnerving, to say the least, but, he reasoned, he should deal with it in the morning. Right at that moment, he was too tired to even see what his hotel room looked like. As he felt sleep begin to claim him, he remembered what Steven had been telling him about earlier. He hadn't exactly forgotten, but it had certainly taken a back seat to the pressure of the evening. Sighing deeply, Ren closed his eyes, slightly apprehensive, but at the same time extremely curious.
The Glameow is back. That horrid creature, with its bushy black head of hair, struts along in front of him with a swing in its step, its tail flicking from side to side. Ren doesn't know why, but he follows it again, through the maze of oversized confectionery.
Through the gaps in the walls of candy, he thinks he glimpses a familiar face, but he blinks and it is gone. All that remains is the little blue Pokemon and its curly tail, mewing innocently as it looks back to check he is following. Ren continues pursuing it, even though he knows it will only turn on him before they reach the exit of the maze.
Abruptly, the Glameow makes a sharp left turn, its afro bobbing. The passages are narrower now, and Ren struggles to keep up with the Pokemon. He turns sideways and shuffles through a gap, only to find that the Glameow has disappeared.
Suddenly alert, he glances all around him, searching for the foul creature, but it is nowhere to be seen. He backs up against a lollipop for support, but his hair sticks to the gooey, sugary confection and he finds himself unable to move.
A yowl and a hiss above him. Ren wrenches his head upwards as far as possible and sees Afro Glameow leaping towards him, little fangs bared and claws out. Time slows down as the world goes dark. The giant sweets disappear, leaving only the sticky feeling on the back of Ren's head. Everything is black. There is no floor, no walls, no sky. Only Ren, and Afro Glameow.
Struggling against the sticky substance holding him in place, Ren feels it give slightly. Gritting his teeth and bracing himself, he yanks his head forward, collapsing to the ground and hissing in pain as some of his hair is yanked out. There is no time to spare though, as he rolls and stands up again, watching Afro Glameow miss its target and land comfortably on all four paws.
Afro Glameow stretches luxuriously, as if it has all the time in the world. It turns to Ren slowly, seeming to grin as it shows its tiny, razor-sharp fangs again. Ren reflexively lifts his hands in front of his face to protect himself as it lunges towards him.
A flash of light, and Afro Glameow screeches and disappears. Wincing, Ren looks around for the source of the light, and finds it shining from a square opening above him. A hand reaches out from the opening. Awed, Ren reaches out and takes the hand. He feels himself being pulled . . .
“Whoa.” Ren found himself in another dark place. Unlike the candy maze, however, there was some faint light seeping in under the curtains.
Wait . . . curtains? Ren sat up and glanced around. From what he could see, he was back in his hotel room. “Did I . . . wake up?” he whispered.
“Nope,” said a cheerful voice from the end of his bed. “You're still dreaming.”
Ren jumped, his heart hammering. “Who the hell-” Fumbling around in the dark, he found the light switch next to his bed and turned it on. There was a girl sitting casually on his bed. She was dressed in black leather that looked extremely tight, adorned with silver buckles and clips at seemingly random intervals. Her hair was black and straight, cut neatly a little shorter than shoulder-length. She seemed to be about his age, with slim, elfin features and an amused grin. “What are you doing in my hotel room?” he asked.
“This isn't your hotel room, Ren,” the girl said. “You're still asleep.”
“It sure looks like my hotel room,” he said, taking another look around. There was the TV, the kitchen, the ensuite bathroom, the other bed, neatly made and clearly not slept in. What? “Where's Natasha?” he demanded. His cousin was nowhere to be seen.
“Who?” The girl's smile slipped slightly.
“My cousin! She was in the other bed. What have you done with her? And damn it, what are you doing in my room?”
The girl frowned, and Ren thought he felt a shadow fall over the room. “I thought Steven was going to tell you about this so you didn't freak out on me. Don't tell me he just gave you the Dreamlight without explaining anything.”
Suddenly, Ren remembered what he had been expecting when he fell asleep. “So . . . I am dreaming, after all?”
“It feels . . . awfully real. I don't feel asleep.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “You want proof? Fine. Here.” She snapped her fingers, and Ren's hotel room melted away into a milieu of liquid colour. When the scene resolved itself once more, she was sitting behind Richard Andrews' desk on the temporary stage that had been set up in the park. Ren found himself back in the same red chair he had been in before, but there was no Steven Stone next to him, no audience in front of him. Just him, and the girl.
Another snap, and suddenly Ren was back in his room at home, sitting on his bed while the girl peered out the window curiously. “Hmm. Nice view, here. This your house?”
Ren nodded speechlessly. The girl gave an appreciative murmur and snapped her fingers again. He was standing in the arena at Ever Grande City, in the same place he had stood when he challenged Steven to become League Champion. A heavy wind blew through the stadium, kicking up a dust cloud, just as it had three days ago during the battle. The girl was standing in Steven's box at the other end of the field. When she spoke, though, he could hear her voice as clearly as if she were right in front of him. “I see your memories, Ren. I can pass through your mind at will and see what you have seen, recreating it effortlessly.”
“That's . . . kind of weird,” he said.
“Weird? No.” Suddenly, the girl was standing next to him again. “This is the power of dreams.”
“I don't understand.” He didn't. He didn't understand anything. What Steven had said was making less sense now, not more. “Who are you? Where is this, really?”
“It's as you see it,” the girl said, the barest hint of a laugh in her voice. “We're in Ever Grande City, at the Pokemon League. It's just as you remember it, isn't it?”
“Not exactly. I remember there being a lot more people,” Ren said.
“They're not here because we're not in their dream. We're in yours, and so you are the only person allowed in here.”
“If that's the case, how did you get in here? Which brings me back to my other question – who are you?”
“I said you were the only person allowed in here. I'm not a person, so I'm exempt from that.”
“Then what are you?”
“I'm a spirit,” the girl said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“What, like a ghost?” Ren asked blankly. “Did you die?”
“Not as such. More to the point, I never existed in the first place. Not in your world, at least. I came into existence here, in the world of dreams. My purpose is . . . to protect this world, and yours. And now, that's your purpose, too.”
“I . . . don't understand.”
The girl sighed. “I had a feeling you'd say that.”
And this, folks, is where stuff starts to get real. This is starting to become what I envisioned when I first dreamt this fic up. This is what Champion Game is all about. Also, next chapter it starts to earn its M-rating.
This story is really something... your very talented as a writer. It takes a lot to get me hooked, and this story has me hooked. Thank you. I have only discovered this story today... and just had to get up-to-date the moment I read the prologue... and that's a talent with in itself.
There is so much depth to the characters, its even brought some of them to life. Take Steven for example, I always considered him to be rather dull in the games... but now I see him in a whole new light.
I was going ask how you were inspired to write this story, but you've already answered it with your dream.
Seriously, well done. Keep up the good work... I'll be waiting for the next chapter...
Thanks, Markus! I'm glad you're enjoying reading this as much as I am writing it. In any case, this is the next chapter for you guys. The title means 'Great Power of a Certain Kind', and it's where it starts to get a little heavier. Of course, it's still nothing really serious, but it's heading that way. Have fun!
Gran Poder de Cierto Tipo
“This had better be quick,” the girl said. “We don't have much time. What do you want to know?”
“To start with – what's your name?”
“Darkstorm. Elly Darkstorm. But never mind that. What do you need to know about what's happening right now?”
“Uh . . . everything?” Ren said. “I'm afraid I'm completely clueless as to what's going on.”
“I see. What did Steven tell you?”
“Only that becoming the Champion has something to do with having a large amount of spiritual power or something.”
“Ha! Spiritual power? It sounds so awkward when you say it like that, but it's essentially correct. In my native language, we call it yehkti. It might sound strange to you, but it's a far more accurate term. It translates to . . . well, it doesn't exactly have a direct translation, as your language doesn't have a word for it, as such. It's something like 'the fortitude of the soul', I think. But Steven had a good grasp of the concept. He even came up with a scale for it, though of course that's rubbish.”
“Of course! Yehkti isn't something you can attach a number to like that. It's a part of your very being. But there are other people who will tell you more about that. My job right now is to make sure you don't get killed or-” Abruptly, she broke off, her head snapping around to look at something in the distance that Ren couldn't see. “We're not alone,” she said tersely.
“What? Who else is here?”
“Well, nobody yet, but we're about to have company, and not the pleasant kind. Can you fight?”
“Fight?” Ren exclaimed. “I don't have my Pokemon with me! Unless you can do something about that?”
Elly shook her head. “No. Pokemon are living beings, so I can't recreate them in this world. Pokemon are useless here. What I mean is, can you fight?”
“Are you kidding? I've never even had to punch anybody. Why do I need to fight?”
“Because I'm going to,” she said coldly, still glaring towards the other end of the stadium. The wind had died down, leaving the arena cold and still. “And if you can't, we might not survive the next five minutes.”
“Can't you . . . do the teleporting thing again?” Ren asked hopefully.
“There's no point. All I'm doing is changing the appearance of this world – we don't actually move. We're trapped in a fixed space until you wake up.”
“So, what . . . if I wake up, we get out of here?”
“Yes, but don't count on it. You're in a very deep sleep right now – almost unnaturally so. It's almost impossible to wake up from this, even with external stimuli. You'll wake up in the morning like normal, but until then you're stuck.”
“But . . . it's just a dream, right? It's not like I can die or anything.”
“I wouldn't make that assumption if I were you. This is no normal dream – you're on a different plane altogether, and the body and soul work much differently here. I don't know what would happen if you were killed here, but if I were you I wouldn't want to find out.”
“Good point,” said Ren. “So . . . who exactly are we talking about when you say 'company'?”
“Well . . . it's not so much 'who' as it is 'what'. They're malevolent beings of darkness, the flipside of your dreams. As every force has its opposite, so your dreams have these . . . creatures.”
“So . . . like nightmares?”
“You could call them that, I suppose, although nightmares are technically dreams too. These are the things that go bump in the night, the ones that hide on the other side of the veil and try to claw their way into your dreams, and then out into your world.”
“Into . . . my world?”
“Yes. That's the other reason we have to stop them. It's not just our own necks I'm worried about; it's everyone else's as well. The entirety of your world is at risk every time you go to sleep. Frankly, I didn't think they'd find you so quickly.”
Ren tried to speak, but Elly hissed and cut him off with a sharp hand gesture.
“They're here,” she said tersely. The next moment, Ren felt pain lance through his head as the very air tore itself apart. A great rip appeared in the far wall of the stadium, showing only whirling blackness behind it. Three man-shaped figures stepped out, silhouettes fabricated of pure darkness. It was difficult to see the shadowy, indistinct beings in front of the void, but as they moved forwards, the tear diminished and shrank, disappearing as quickly as it had come, taking with it the raging pain in Ren's head. All that remained was a quiet yet insistent throbbing.
“Those are . . . nightmares?” Ren said, squinting to get a good look at the newcomers. It was difficult to get a good look at them, like shadows on water.
Elly nodded, tight-lipped. “Pretty strong ones, too. One I could handle easily, and two would be a stretch, but probably doable. Three? Forget about it. I can't fight these on my own.”
“Well, unless you've got some friends on call, we're going to have to,” Ren said wryly.
She shot him a strange look. “We?” she queried.
“Yeah, 'we'. You and me. Both of us.”
“But . . . you said you couldn't fight.”
“And I was right. But I'd feel pretty bad about sitting back and letting you take those things on by yourself,” said Ren, trying to disguise the fact that his heart was hammering with fear. The shadowy creatures were drawing closer, advancing slowly, cautiously.
Elly smiled slightly, and for the first time, Ren thought he saw a touch of vulnerability in her eyes. But then she blinked, and it was gone. “Thanks,” she said. “I'm not sure how much good you'll be, but it's nice to know you care, at least. Here, take this.” She snapped her fingers again and a short, slim sword appeared, the hilt bound tightly in some kind of purple fabric. She tossed it to Ren, who somehow managed to catch it without losing a finger.
He looked at it in awe and shock. “Where did this come from? I don't remember anything like this!”
“That's not one of your memories,” the girl said. “It's my spare.” Another click, and a much longer version of the sword appeared in her hands, over a metre and a half long, slim and slightly curved. It glistened harshly in the weak sunlight, and Ren shuddered. The shadows were evidently worried too, because they paused and recoiled slightly before regrouping and advancing again. They were just ten metres away as Ren gave the short blade an experimental swing.
How do you even hold this thing? he wondered frantically as he weighed it in his hand. He had never swung a sword in his life, or even a tennis racquet, and he had no idea what he was doing.
“I'll show you how to use it properly later,” she said. “That should be some incentive for you to survive, no?”
“Hooray,” said Ren bleakly.
“I appreciate that you want to help,” she told him, “but stay back here and let me deal with this. You'll just slow me down. Only use that if they come after you.” With that, she launched herself towards the group of shadowy figures before Ren could say anything else.
Gripping his blade so tightly that his hands began to ache, Ren watched in amazement as Elly dived fearlessly at her opponents, sword flashing. It was something beyond his comprehension, he realised. He had suddenly stepped into a world he knew nothing about, a world that did not make the slightest amount of sense.
The nightmares had no visible weapons of their own, but they were fast. As soon as the girl moved, they darted apart, making themselves more difficult targets. Two of them circled around Elly warily, while the third continued its advance towards Ren.
They moved in a strange way, he noticed as he held the sword out in front of him and tried to steady his breathing. Their walk was jerky and sporadic, like puppets on strings, but they were still fast, he saw as the other two lunged at Elly. He wanted to cry out, but before he could open his mouth, the other was on him, slashing out at his head with one of its limbs. He ducked clumsily, just about losing his balance, and slashed awkwardly with the sword. The nightmare danced out of the way as if pulled by a string attached to its midriff.
“Bad dreams?” it whispered in a voice that seemed to be inside his head rather than outside it, then catapulted itself at him again. Ren threw himself out of the way, landing painfully on his left shoulder. Unfazed, the nightmare turned and advanced on him as he struggled to his feet.
Oh, hell, Ren thought. Can these things even be killed? There was only one thing for it. Taking the initiative, he stepped forward as quickly as he was able, thrusting the sword towards where he approximated the nightmare's heart to be. As if it had seen the blade coming, his opponent's arm whipped up and parried the blade with a great clashing noise, as of steel on steel. Ren overbalanced and fell at the nightmare's feet. Before he could get up again, it reached down with a ghostly hand and grasped him by the collar, lifting him bodily off the ground and bringing his face up to where its own should be. No eyes looked back at him from the black expanse.
Frantic, Ren tried to swing the sword, but the nightmare caught it with its free hand and tore it from his grasp, dropping it on the ground. Ren tried to prise the thing's fingers from his collar, but its grip was like a vice. Where the hell is Elly? Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of her, but she was still locked in combat with the other two nightmares. The sound of her slashes and thrusts being parried at every turn filtered through into his ears, which were rapidly growing numb. He found his vision going too as the nightmare brought its sightless face closer to his own; even thinking was a struggle.
The only thought in his mind was Elly's assertation that she could probably deal with two of the nightmares on her own. All he could do was hope to keep this one distracted until she finished with the other two and came to help him.
Summoning the last of his remaining strength, Ren brought his knee up vigorously into the nightmare's stomach – or rather, where its stomach would have been if it was a real person. It didn't have the effect he had been hoping for. Rather than dropping him, it tossed him bodily through the air. Ren had a split second to enjoy his returning vision before he crashed into the ground again.
He swore loudly as he landed on his already-sore left shoulder, and with it, the rest of the left side of his body. His head swam; although he had managed to avoid landing on it, it had still been given a serious rattle. As he pulled himself unsteadily to his knees, he saw the nightmare stalking towards him, the sword – his only weapon – lying in the dust behind it.
Oh, how the hell did this happen? He almost would have preferred to be back in the maze with Afro Glameow. At least that dream he knew he was going to wake up from. I don't want to die, he realised as he dragged himself to his feet, swaying slightly. I have a life back in the real world. A good one! I can't just go and die in some weird dream. For a moment, he wondered what would actually happen if he died in this dream. Surely, it wouldn't affect his physical body? But then he remembered Elly's words.
This is no normal dream – you're on a different plane altogether, and the body and soul work much differently here. I don't know what would happen if you were killed here, but if I were you I wouldn't want to find out. Ren swallowed heavily. Fantastic.
Steeling himself, he dashed towards the nightmare. For a moment, the monster seemed confused, but it soon settled into a ready stance, arms outstretched hungrily towards him. Ren ran straight towards it and then dived past. The nightmare made a lightning grab for him as he passed, but Ren was rolling and then up again, scrabbling towards the sword lying on the ground.
He reached it and took it up again, holding it in front of him defensively. Better than nothing, even if he didn't know how to use it. Breathing deeply, he watched as the nightmare turned towards him slowly. If it had had a face, he thought it might have been amused. Once again it leapt towards him, but this time he was ready, bringing the sword up to interrupt it mid-bound, slashing vertically upwards and praying he would connect.
Contemptuously, the nightmare put its arm up to block his strike, but the sword wasn't there. Ren stepped aside as the dark being landed exactly where he had been standing. In the same movement, he swung the sword around to strike the nightmare in the back, biting into the unsuspecting thing's spine. At the touch of the blade, the nightmare exploded silently, a whirling gust of wind emanating from where it stood, carrying fragments of shadow with it.
As it departed, Ren felt a weight lift from his shoulders. He was able to breathe a little more easily, making up for a deficit he hadn't even noticed in the heat of the battle. He was just about ready to drop when he heard Elly cry out.
Ren swung his head round towards the source of the sound, and saw Elly flat on her back on the ground ten metres away as a nightmare towered over her, arm drawn back to deliver what would most likely be a killing blow. The other was nowhere to be seen. Elly's sword was some metres away on the other side. Ren knew he would never make it in time. Desperate, he did something very foolish and probably extremely stupid; he threw his sword at the nightmare as hard as he could.
Having no idea how to throw a sword properly – indeed, if there even was an acceptable way to do so – he simply threw it overarm with all his remaining strength. It flew through the air clumsily, turning end over end. Barely after it had left his hand, Ren knew that his aim had been off. The nightmare lifted its head unconcernedly to watch the blade pass more than a metre in front of it before turnin back to strike downwards at the unarmed Elly-
-who was nowhere to be seen. Taking advantage of the nightmare's distraction, she had slipped out from beneath it, diving for her own sword. She picked it up and held it ready, leaping back towards the nightmare even as it cast around for her. The lethal blade slid through the centre of the mass of shadow, causing it, too, to vanish in the midst of a miniature tornado.
Ren collapsed into a sitting position, burying his head in his hands and sucking in huge lungfuls of the dust-ridden air. After a moment, Elly came over and joined him on the ground, her hair tangled and messy, beads of sweat visible on her face. Neither of them spoke for a minute, Ren merely enjoying being able to relax for the first time in a while. Although the fight had only lasted a couple of minutes, it felt like forever to Ren.
“You handled that sword like it was a baseball bat,” Elly said eventually.
“Don't flatter me. I've seen some serious damage done with a baseball bat.”
“Exactly. I didn't expect you to be able to survive a nightmare attack, let alone kill one.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Ren snorted.
“It's not my job to stroke your ego, yehktira,” Elly said, slightly disdainfully.
“What . . . did you just call me?”
“Yehktira. It means 'carrier of the fortitude of the soul'.”
“Uh-huh. You make it sound like it's real important,” Ren said wryly.
“What, you think it's not? You think I'd be risking my neck for you otherwise?”
“You . . . have a point,” Ren said. “But you said it wasn't just for our own sake that we had to kill the nightmares. Was that a lie, all that about how they would try and get through into my world?”
“No, of course not. But they came her tonight because they felt your yehkti. Nightmares need someone with a strong source of yehkti to get through into your world. That's why the yehktira is always in danger.”
“Why have a yehktira at all, then?” Ren asked, stumbling over the unfamiliar phonemes. “And if my yehkti is this strong, how come none of this has happened to me before?”
Elly sighed and held up two fingers. “One, we must have a yehktira. If we don't, the fabric of the two worlds will fall apart. You're the only thing holding this world together at the moment. Whoever holds the Dreamlight must take on this role – the stronger the bearer, the stronger the bonds holding the worlds together.”
“That sounds . . . pretty heavy,” said Ren. “What's number two?”
“Number two is that before, you haven't had the Dreamlight in your possession. The nightmares can only enter your world through the dreams of someone who enters the second ring.”
Ren stared at her blankly. “Meaning . . . ?”
Elly rolled her eyes. “You really are an idiot, aren't you?”
“Um . . . I honestly don't know,” Ren admitted. He was beginning to think it was possible. It seemed that lately, people were doing nothing but explaining things to him. “I might be.”
“Hmph. Anyway, this is how it works. Listen carefully, because I'm only going to say it once. The world of dreams exists parallel to your own. You had figured that out already, I imagine.” With her finger, she drew three concentric circles in the dust. “This world is made up of three rings, or sub-worlds. The first ring, on the outside, is the largest. This is where normal people go when they dream, regardless of the strength of their yehkti. The dreams here are insubstantial, weak and mean next to nothing. Sometimes people gain premonitions and so on, and they are hailed as psychics in your world.” She was failing to hide the disgust in her voice.
“Something against psychics?” Ren asked.
“Not in particular,” she said brusquely. “In any case, that's what the first ring is. That is where I pulled you from when you were being attacked by that . . . thing.
“Afro Glameow, you mean?”
“You're . . . familiar with it?” Elly asked, her piercing green eyes narrowing.
“Well, I've had the same dream a couple of times. That's all, though.”
“Is there something wrong?”
“No. So, the first ring is where you were before. Where we are now . . . is the second ring.” She indicated the next circle – the second largest one. “This is the inbetween. It takes many forms, and it is sustained solely by the will of the yehktira. It is built from his memories, and its size and stability depends on his strength. This ring is only accessible when the yehktira is asleep, and it is through here which the nightmares must pass.”
“So then . . . the nightmares come from . . . the first ring?” Ren guessed.
“Yes, and . . . oh, look, can we stop calling them 'nightmares'? It's confusing.”
“But I thought you said that was what they were?”
“Not exactly. However bad they may be, nightmares are still only first-ring dreams. These things . . . they have a name in my language, but you probably wouldn't be able to pronounce it. You have enough trouble with little words like yehkti.”
“Well, I have to call them something,” Ren grumbled. “What are they? Demons? Ghosts?”
“Well . . . the direct translation of their name would be something like 'the empty ones without yehkti that travel between worlds', I suppose.”
“Did Steven seriously never worry about this?” Ren asked. It was just occurring to him how significant Elly's words were. Steven had been Champion for six years . . .
“He called them nightmares too. He got all sulky whenever I tried to correct him, though.”
“Hmm . . . what does it mean when you say they're 'empty ones'?” Ren asked. “Empty of what?”
“Everything, really. But specifically . . . they don't have souls.”
“Do you?” Ren asked. “I mean . . . what exactly are you? Some kind of spirit, I follow, but . . . eh.” He waved his hands randomly.
“I am a soul. Just as they are bodies without souls, my kind are souls without bodies.”
“So what do you call them?” Ren asked in frustration. “At least let me try to say it.”
“You sure?” Elly said, raising her eyebrows. “Wouldn't want you to hurt yourself. Ah, whatever. Iehkti'na urum'na dar'sni-laku.”
Ren stared blankly. “That is the weirdest-sounding name I have ever heard,” he said honestly.
Elly frowned. “I knew you'd never manage it. But look. We can argue over what to call them later. For now, I need to get you out of here and into the third ring. More of them could turn up, though it's unlikely.”
“Why are we going to the third ring?” Ren asked as Elly pulled him, none too gently, to his feet.
“Because I'm sick of explaining stuff to you. It's not my job to babysit some kid.”
“Oh, come on-”
“What? You think I'm the same age you are? Don't make me laugh. I've been here in this world for centuries. Now shut up and come with me.” With a single slim finger, she drew a long vertical line in the air. For a moment, nothing happened. All of a sudden, there was a massive boom, as if of compressed air, and a gaping slit appeared along the line she had drawn.
Ren winced and pressed his hands to his ears. “Warn me next time you're going to do something like that!” he exclaimed.
“Eh. More fun this way,” Elly shrugged as she watched Ren tentatively tap his ringing ears. She didn't seem to have been affected by the sonic blast. “You coming?” Without another word, she turned and stepped into the gap, disappearing from sight in a heartbeat.
Ren blinked. Taking a deep breath and hoping he wouldn't regret it, he stepped into the portal.
Hi! Been reading steadily since earlier this week, and I am in love with this story. I love the characters (Natasha the most =D), the plot- even the writing style is amazing.
Forgive the short little review. :p Bit busy. But, keep up the good work! Hurry up and release the next chapter! Or I keel you. I keel you dead.
Thanks to ShinySandshrew of serebiiforums for the banner!
OK, folks, I'm posting the chapter a little earlier this week as an experiment. Replies to reviews will be at the bottom of the post from now on, I think (that is, when I post replies at the same time as a chapter). Wait, was I doing that already? Maybe. idek. In any case, here's your chapter. I'm also planning to drop a chapter something-point-five in the middle of the week for a bit of background, so keep an eye out for that. Should be the week coming, but it might be the one after.
Sueño de Oro
Ren went tumbling headlong into nothingness. It was the strangest feeling – somehow it seemed as if he had left his body behind. No, he decided, it was more like he had been physically ripped from his body and dragged into . . . wherever he was now.
His surroundings were pitch-black save for a handful of stars scattered randomly around on all sides. He didn't seem to be moving very fast, but then again, he could hardly tell, because there were no points of reference from which to gauge his speed.
Abruptly, a light appeared ahead of him, and this was moving very fast indeed, hurtling towards him at great speed. He barely had time to register a square hole like the one Elly had pulled him through earlier before he was sucked through it and catapulted onto a patch of soft grass.
Sitting up and rubbing his head, Ren examined his surroundings. He was sitting in a field of soft, lush green grass that was nearly a foot tall. Next to him stood Elly, looking bored and unruffled, and about fifty metres away was the edge of a verdant forest. The sky was a sharp, cool azure, and there was not a cloud to be seen. A soft zephyr blew through, alleviating what gentle heat the sun put out. The world was silent but for distant birdsong.
Puzzled, Ren stood and looked behind him. Grass, plain, unbroken grass, stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions, interrupted only by the forest that fell away on either side of a point almost directly in front of Ren.
“You decided to come along after all, then,” Elly said, sounding as if she wouldn't have been particularly bothered if he hadn't.
“Course I did,” Ren said, brushing grass off the seat of his jeans. “I was hardly going to stay back there, was I?”
“You could have just left, you know,” Elly said.
“You told me I couldn't leave!”
“I said no such thing. You could have simply returned to the first ring the way you came.”
“What . . . the little square hole? But that wasn't there . . . was it?”
“Of course it was,” Elly said contemptuously. “You really are slow, aren't you? You didn't even think to look behind you that whole time?”
“I was . . . kind of busy with the nightmares and the fighting and the running and the jumping and the not dying,” Ren grumbled.
“A real warrior is always aware of his surroundings,” said Elly, looking absently up at the sky.
“You sound like a fortune cookie,” Ren told her. “So . . . I could have just jumped back through that hole at any time?”
“Not at any time. If you do that while the Iehkti'na urum'na dar'sni-laku are around, they'll follow you through, and we're all doomed if that happens.”
Ren snorted. “I'm sorry, but it still sounds really weird when you say that.”
“Well, unless you have a better name for them, I'm going to keep calling them what they're actually called!” Elly snapped. “Honestly, how immature are you? Steven was weird, but at least he acted his age.”
“Well, maybe Steven had some damn idea what was going on!”
“Maybe you would too, if you'd listen to anything I said! I must have explained everything to you already. You just don't pay attention! You're useless!” Elly hissed vehemently.
Taken aback, Ren sat back down with a fwump. “Told me everything already, you say,” he mused, trying to ignore the rise in his strange companion's temper.
“Well, pretty much. Anyone with half a brain could work out what's going on from what's happened so far, combined with all I've said since I picked you up. So you tell me. What's the significance of that pendant you wear around your neck? What's your job in this world? Tell me that, and then we can go see the elders.”
“Yes, the elders. They will formally recognise you as the new yehktira, but I'm not taking you anywhere until you prove to me you have half a brain by piecing together what you already know.”
Ren nodded. The opportunity to think was a welcome one, and he did his best to ignore Elly's piercing glares as he tried to get his head around what had happened to him so far. If he was still asleep, it was the weirdest dream he had ever had, not to mention the most realistic. Of course, if it was all just a dream, it was possible that none of it was actually happening and it had no significance whatsoever.
No, he decided. That was just his fancy. There was little doubt that this was deadly serious. Steven had given him the Dreamlight, and then he had instructed him to expect someone who would explain further. Although she was somewhat lacking in the explanations department, Elly had essentially done just that. And why had Steven handed over the Dreamlight? It means that you are currently the person in the Hoenn region with the highest spiritual power.
“You want me to be the yehktira . . . because I have the strongest yehkti in the region,” he said slowly.
Elly nodded as if she had been expecting as much. “Go on,” she said.
“The yehktira''s role . . . is to hold the two worlds together, and to protect the real world-”
“Don't say that!” Elly snapped.
“I'm . . . sorry?”
“The 'real world'? Do you have any idea how naïve that sounds? Your world is no more real than mine!”
“Well, then . . . to protect the physical world from the . . . Iehkti'na urum'na dar'sni-laku,” he said, making a real effort to pronounce the name. It felt horrid and alien on his tongue, making him want to somehow spit it out.
The corner of Elly's mouth curled slightly. “You're getting there. Now add the two together and tell me what you get.”
Ren's eyes widened. “D-don't tell me . . .”
“Ah, he gets it!” crowed Elly with a grin. “Oh, the look on your face!”
“You want me to come here every night and fight those . . . things!” he exclaimed, getting to his feet and glaring back at her.
“That's it,” Elly said, shrugging. “Got a problem with that?”
“Hell yes, I have a problem with that!”
“Oh? Go on..” Elly's smile dropped, and her eyes became as hard as chips of emerald once more.
“I don't want to risk my life fighting ghost-things in my dreams all the time! That's not what I signed up for when I became Champion!”
“It's unfortunate,” sighed Elly, “because I don't much like working with brats from the physical world either. The trouble is, we need a yehktira here to hold both worlds together. But whenever the yehktira is here, the Iehkti'na come too. So either they never reach your world, but we let both worlds collapse on themselves-”
“-Doesn't sound too promising-”
“Or we bring the yekhtira here, hold the worlds together and fight the Iehkti'na as we go.”
“I see,” Ren said. “No, I actually get that. It's infinitely preferable to having both worlds destroyed, but . . . why does it have to be me? Get Steven to do it! He managed for six years, didn't he? Why not just have him carry on?”
“That won't fly,” Elly said, shaking her head. “Regardless of physical strength or mental capability, it is always the one with the strongest yehkti that we want as our yehktira. The stronger the yehkti, the stronger the bonds holding the worlds together and the harder they are to break, so we must have no less than the best. Unfortunately for all involved, 'the best' this time around happens to be a brat with an attitude problem.”
“Well, what if I don't want to be the yehktira?”
“Then every night, I slip into your dreams and drag you, kicking and screaming, into the second ring. I tie you up and sling you in a corner, then I beat the crap out of the Iehkti'na myself and put you back when I'm done!” she growled, putting her face right up next to Ren's and looking directly into his eyes with an intensity that made him shiver. “Does that sound good to you?”
“I don't dream every night, though,” Ren countered.
“Oh, you do. People with strong yehkti like yourself have dreams every single night, even if you don't remember them. I'll have access to your mind every time you close your eyes to go to sleep, and as soon as you enter REM, you're mine.” She grinned predatorily, and Ren flinched.
“You're . . . just going to threaten me into it, then?” Ren asked, trying his level best to look her back in the eyes. It wasn't easy; they were extremely pretty eyes, the kind that made you want to lower your gaze in deference. Combined with the fact that she was glaring at him like a hungry Mightyena, he thought he was doing pretty well just to stay upright.
“If that's what it takes,” she whispered, and an unpleasant shudder ran down the length of Ren's spine.
Reluctantly, he broke eye contact. “Fine,” he said. “If that's how it's going to be, then there's no helping it.” He was backed up against a wall, and he knew it.
“So we're agreed, then?” Elly said, stepping back smugly. “You be our yehktira, and in return, we don't let the Iehkti'na tear you apart?”
“Sounds about fair,” said Ren, who was, if he was quite honest with himself, on the brink of panic. Hold it together a bit longer, he urged himself. You can flip out later, when you're awake and safe.
“Good. Looks like you might have a bit of common sense after all. Now, you can come with me.” She turned and marched off towards the forest, swishing through the grass and looking oddly cheerful. Bemused, Ren jogged to catch up to her.
When they reached the edge of the woods, the shadow of the first trees looming over them, Elly turned and put a finger on his lips. “From now on, you do not speak until I tell you that you can. At all. Understood?”
Ren nodded. What's that for? he wondered, but decided asking would break the 'no talking' rule.”
“Excellent. Come with me, then.” Elly led him off down a path that had been worn between the trees. The enormous trunks soared into the sky on either side of him, but there was still light filtering through from behind him. As they moved ever deeper into the forest, though, the canopy grew thicker, and it got darker and darker, until he was having trouble seeing where he was going. Stumbling over tree roots in the blackness, he longed to ask Elly if she had a light. Oh, right, the 'no talking' thing, he thought wryly. Dammit.
Ren swore inwardly as he stumbled forward again. His eyes were just beginning to adjust to the blackness when he noticed that it was starting to get lighter. Gradually, he realised that he was able to see the path in front of him again. Well, at least I won't trip again. The light filtering through the trees ahead was a pale shade of blue – almost white, but still tinged with enough colour to be slightly painful to the eyes.
They passed a tall, gleaming marble column, and Ren felt his ears pop as if he had just taken off in an aircraft. Suddenly, the forest was full of noise, and there were people everywhere. Ren blinked and stopped walking. He wasn't in a forest any more – he was in a city.
A city made of light. The clear sky from outside the forest had returned, and the sun shone directly onto one of the strangest settlements Ren had ever seen. All of the buildings were made of white marble, but the ground between them was carpeted in rich, verdant green grass. Motes of light seemed to float around in the air like dandelions on the breeze, but whenever Ren tried to focus on one, it eluded his eyes.
The buildings were all small and elegant, none more than one story tall. As they passed, curious residents stopped to look. Ren sighed. He thought he might at least have gotten away from being the centre of attention in his own dreams. The people he saw were a motley arrangement. There were old people, children, men and women in a fairly natural ratio, but the manners of dress varied as widely as did the faces of the people.
They must be spirits too, Ren realised. There was a man in a suit of medieval armour, his plumed helmet tucked under his arm, calmly discussing something with a shaven-headed man who wouldn't have looked out of place in a biker gang. A man wearing a white toga was standing on a raised platform and declaiming loudly in a language Ren couldn't understand. Among his audience were a toddler holding a doll, a wrinkled old man and a young woman in a silver jumpsuit.
Everywhere they went, the sunlight caught and reflected off the corners and faces of buildings, sending rays of light dancing everywhere. The grass was soft under his feet, and despite evidently being well-trod, displayed no signs of decay. Flowerbeds of pink and blue were snugly tucked away between buildings and on the sides of the 'roads', as far as they could be called such. There were no cars, no buses, no traffic lights.
Looking behind him, Ren expected to see a forest. Instead, he saw the inside of a massive, shimmering blue cylinder that rose all the way to the sky. With a start, he realised that he could see it in front of him, too; the entire settlement was encapsulated by this unreal creation, shifting and flowing like water, held in place by some unseen force. At its highest, it melded seamlessly into the cyan sky, leaving only a haze behind it. And it, like everything else, seemed to exude light – pure, shining light that was just soft enough to look at directly without being blinded.
Ren shook his head silently, unsure if he was still forbidden to speak. He had never in his life been so sure that he was dreaming. He noticed that Elly was watching him with a half-smile on her face, a hint of smug pride in her expression. He smiled back tentatively and was rewarded with a sharp frown. Rolling his eyes, he looked back to his surroundings.
There was certainly no shortage of places for the eye to rest. Not only were the people the most varied group he had ever seen in one place, but the edifices between which they strolled were almost as diverse. While they were all single-storey buildings fashioned from gleaming marble, that was all they had in common. Some were squat and blocky, others rounded like domes, and still others were elegant cottages. Ren would have thought the material quite restrictive in terms of construction, but evidently there was some other force at work here, for the denizens of this mysterious wonderland had managed to fashion walls, roofs, and doors all from the same stone. The engineering must have been a logistical nightmare, he thought as they passed, of all things, a log cabin made of rolls of white stone. Most of this shouldn't be physically possible, he decided, shaking his head at an A-frame house made of the same.
His head was whirling. This was certainly the strangest dream he had ever had, Afro Glameow included.
“Here we are,” Elly said brightly. Her mood, which had been steadily souring since he met her, had lifted considerably since they had arrived in the third ring. It was especially noticeable here, surrounded by her own kind.
They had stopped in front of one of the taller structures in the town – a classically-sculpted temple, with elegantly fluted columns supporting a low peaked roof. Friezes decorated the rim of the building, Ren noticed as he carefully stepped between the flowerbeds in front of the steps that led up into the temple proper. The friezes depicted scenes of battle – warriors in armour slaying indistinct figures that he identified as Iehkti'na dominated the decorations, though there were others he didn't recognise.
Elly led him up the steps and between the columns into the temple proper. The interior was cool and dim, in complete contrast to what Ren had just seen. Light filtered through apertures in the ceiling, casting dregs of light onto the floor like pools of white gold. At the far end of the temple was a raised dais,upon which stood five marble thrones in a row. The one in the middle was the only one that remained unoccupied – the others were already filled. Two men sat on the right, two women on the left. Were these the 'elders' Elly had spoken of? They didn't look that old to Ren. None of them could have been older than forty – one of the women was barely older than he was.
“Oh, good, everyone's here!” Elly said, smiling.
Ren frowned. There's still an empty chair . . .
“Wait here,” Elly said, directing Ren to a spot on the floor that looked no different from any other. When she was satisfied with his position, she darted off behind a column and disappeared.
Nobody moved or spoke. Ren took the opportunity to examine the four people – were they actually people? What was he supposed to call them? – sitting on the massive thrones in front of him.
On the left were two men. The one furthest from the centre was short, pudgy and bald, smiling serenely as he watched Ren. The other was taller and extremely broad in the shoulder, with a sharply trimmed black beard wrapping around his face from one hairline to the other. His features were square and stern, but there was a regality in the set of his eyes that could not be ignored. Both men were wearing gold robes with intricate silver trim.
To Ren's right, on the other side of the unoccupied throne, sat two women. Next to the empty throne was a tall, stately woman with her blonde hair pulled tightly back, accentuating her high cheekbones and slim face. It was hard to judge her age from her features, but she didn't appear to be older than thirty. She watched Ren with a sort of amused interest, as if he were something vaguely entertaining that had mistakenly wandered into her field of vision.
Further to the right sat another woman, who looked to be barely older than Ren. The first thing Ren noticed was her hair. It was a strange colour, somewhere between gold and green, and it cascaded freely down her back as she sat on the edge of her throne. What Ren could see of it shimmered almost imperceptibly, confusing his eyes. Other than her hair, it almost looked as if she was related to the woman sitting beside her; she had the same slender face and figure, and she was watching Ren in a similar curious fashion. When she saw him looking, though, she winked at him cheekily. Ren looked away reflexively, suddenly remembering Elly's words. You think I'm the same age you are? Don't make me laugh. I've been here in this world for centuries. It was probably true of the others – even more so these 'elders'.
Both of the women were wearing delicate robes of diaphanous silver weave, inlaid with golden patterns of flowers and vines, as if in complete opposition to the costumes of the men. The fabric shifted and glittered whenever they moved even slightly, confounding Ren's eyes even further. He felt that if he had to see one more thing shimmering like that, he would pass out – if that was even possible within a dream.
“I apologise for the delay,” said Elly's voice from his right. Ren glanced around and his eyes widened. Elly had reappeared from wherever she had vanished to, wearing the delicate silver of the elders, although her robe seemed to have far more gold woven into it than the others'. She noticed his shocked stare and demanded, “What are you looking at?”
Ren shook his head and looked down at the floor, hearing a quiet giggle erupt from the throne to the far right.
Elly harrumphed and swished across to the dais, seating herself easily in the largest of the five thrones. “Now that we are all present,” she said, “why don't we begin?”
Ack, sorry for not reviewing lately! Been busy taking care of other stuff. I was writing this review while reading the chapters, so I'm able to put down my thoughts on the next parts of the story here.
Why am I amused of Steven liking chocolate brownies? XD
Hm, interesting over what Steven said that he'll have to get a new set of badges if he wants to go for Champion again in a new region. I admit, I never thought that former Champions might do that. I always vaguely assumed they already have a pass to battle against another region's Elite 4 and their champion due. This idea sounds more realistic because how a former trainer might be unfamiliar with the region's Pokemon and the gym leaders' battle styles.
Overall, I too thought Ren did nicely his first time being on TV. Too bad he'll have to get use to it, haha.
I love how the tone is mostly serious when Ren was dreaming about that Afro Glameow, LOL. Seriously, I'm still amused by the image of Glameow having an Afro. And wee, finally getting to more stuff on Dreamlight!
Elly and Ren's interactions are great in this, and so is the battle. I admit I haven't really watched Bleach saved for a few fighting clips, but reading the action in this chapter is fun. Nice pacing and also you showed Ren's inexperience with sword fighting well. The three worlds things is also very interesting. I'm a sucker for dreams able to actually affect the outcome of reality kind of stories. :3
Again, love the interaction between Elly and Ren, quite amusing and fun. Also the description of the place is very nice.
Overall, this is getting even more interesting. Only thing I'm slightly skeptical (and I know you mentioned this before) is if any Pokemon elements will still come to play. I don't mind if the Pokemon themselves will not enter, but it seems the plot is getting to be a Pokemon fic at first but then can be easily taken as a fantasy/supernatural story of sorts. I'm probably assuming things a little too early, so I'll hold off my judgement of the plot for now. Still looking forward to what the Elders have to say about Ren, though. Keep up the good work!
Sorry this one took so long, folks. I've been busy as all get out these last couple of weeks with mid-year exams and all, but hopefully we'll get back into something of a weekly update schedule now.
Warning: this chapter contains mild sexual references.
“First, introductions,” Elly said calmly, ignoring Ren's flabbergasted expression. “Shall we start with the boys?” For a terrifying split second, Ren was reminded of his first teacher at school.
“Lucius Balthazar,” said the bald man cordially, nodding in Ren's direction with a smile. “It's a pleasure to meet you, yehktira.” He had a noticeable accent that rounded his vowels slightly and rolled his r's. Unsure whether he was allowed to speak yet, Ren nodded back respectfully.
“Bartholomew Elsin,” said the bearded man, his eyes seeming to pierce Ren's own. “Vice-head of the elders' council.”
Ren expected Elly to skip her introduction, but she spoke up nonetheless. “Felicia Darkstorm, head of the council,” she said.
“My name is Salinthia Silverwood,” indicated the tall woman next to Elly. “And this is my sister-”
“I can introduce myself!” the girl with the green-gold hair snapped. “I'm Cecilia Silverwood,” she said to Ren, inclining her head gently. “As you heard, I am Salinthia's younger sister. It's truly a pleasure to meet you, new yehktira. Steven has told us all about you.”
“Introduce yourself to the council, yehktira.” Elly's voice rang out coolly.
Ren fumbled awkwardly. Suddenly he was expected to speak? Oh well, he thought, resigning himself to the fact. Might as well make the best of it. “My name is Ren Goodwin,” he said, his voice ringing from the walls as he made his best effort to project it throughout the temple. “I am most honoured to make the acquaintance of the council of elders, and I hope to serve you well as your new yehktira.” He didn't know where the words came from – they sounded false, even to him – but the council seemed pleased. Bartholomew Elsin nodded appreciatively, and Salinthia Silverwood leaned over to whisper in Elly's ear.
Elly bit her lip before speaking. “The council desires your pledge, Ren Goodwin. Will you, until such time as one arises who is stronger than you are, serve as our yehktira to the best of your ability?”
Ren sensed that he was being given his last chance to turn away – as if he could at this point. Trembling slightly, he nonetheless stood upright and firmly declared, “I will.”
“And do the members of the council approve of the appointment of Ren Goodwin as the new yehktira?” Elly asked formally. “Let it be witnessed that he has been legitimately found to possess yehkti of a higher level than his predecessor, and as such he is qualified for the position.”
Lucian Balthazar spoke up first. “I see he is ready to take on the position, and so I give my approval.”
Ren couldn't help but shiver. This was all happening very fast, and he was almost asleep standing up to begin with. If he let himself relax, he sensed, he would collapse onto the cold marble floor.
“Ren Goodwin,” rumbled Elsin. “First I must know. Do you take on this position of your own free will, asserting you have not been coerced or in any other way influenced towards your decision?”
Ren fought the urge to glance at Elly – Felicia, he corrected himself – keeping his eyes fixed on the big man. To be honest, once Elly had presented him with his choices, there was no real way he could have refused. He didn't like it, especially as it had been sprung on him so suddenly, but that was just how things were sometimes. Sometimes you have to make choices that determine the future at the drop of a hat, his father had once told him. Sometimes it's your own life, sometimes it's someone else's. But whatever the case, you have to take the choice that's best in the long term. Just because you don't think about it for as long doesn't make it any less important or more foolish.
“I made my choice of my own free will, sir,” Ren agreed. “I couldn't have refused in good conscience, anyway.” That much was true. As much as Ren wanted nothing to do with the whole affair, Elly had made it abundantly clear that the world was doomed if he refused. How could he have refused after that?
“In that case, I also submit my approval,” Elsin said, apparently satisfied. As Ren's eyes flicked over to Elly, he noticed that her cheeks were a little flushed, although none of the other elders seemed to have noticed.
“I, also, have no objections,” said the older of the two sisters after a few seconds' pause. “Felicia, what is your opinion?”
“I brought him here, so I have had ample time to consider his suitability for the position. I deem him capable, and so I also approve.”
“I noticed you were gone for quite a while,” Cecilia said slyly. “Surely it shouldn't take you too long to pick up one human? What took you so long?”
“I don't like your tone, Silverwood,” Elly said coldly, fixing the other girl with a glare that could have split rock.
“Alright, alright!” Cecilia said, raising her hands in a gesture of surrender that was quite at odds with the michievous grin on her face. “It's none of my business what you get up to with our yehktira while nobody's looking. If you want to sneak off and b-”
“While I do not share my sister's suspicions as such,” Salinthia cut in smoothly, “it is true that we were expecting your return earlier. Did something happen?”
“Ah . . . yes,” said Elly, blinking as if suddenly remembering. “The Iehkti'na found us. Three of them, and quite strong, too.”
“They shouldn't have been able to sense your presence,” Elsin rumbled, “provided you took the usual precautions.”
“Of course I did, Elsin,” Elly said. “But that means that it must have been Ren that they sensed, and that means-”
“We all know what it means, Felicia,” Balthazar interrupted her calmly. “We can discuss it later, however. For now, I believe all that remains is for one more person to give her approval. Miss Cecilia?”
Ren had been watching with some confusion as the strange assortment of spirits in front of him rallied back and forth. Despite being hundreds of years old, there were a couple of them who certainly didn't act it.
“I don't have any problems with him,” Cecilia shrugged, eyeing Ren thoughtfully. He shivered involuntarily and looked back to Elly.
“Then it is done,” the black-haired girl said. “Ren Goodwin, you are officially our new yehktira.”
“I don't feel any different,” Ren commented.
“There's no physical change, moron,” Elly said, stepping down from her throne and approaching Ren. On either side, the other elders followed suit.
“So . . . now what?” he asked.
“Now, I think, you wake up,” Salinthia said gently. “That's probably quite enough excitement for one night.
“It can't be morning already!” Ren exclaimed.
“Time works differently here, boy,” Elsin said patiently. “There is no concurrent flow, no correspondence. The hour or so you have spent here took place in less than five minutes of your time.”
“What? That's impossible!” Ren protested.
“You should know better than to call anything impossible by now, yehktira,” Elsin said.
“That's right,” Elly said. “Nothing is impossible. Still . . . I'm sure you have many questions. For now, though, we shall return you to the first ring. From there, you'll wake up normally. Think about everything that's happened, and tomorrow we can discuss it further.”
“What, now? But I-”
“You're going,” said Elly firmly. “I know it's probably a lot for you to deal with, so take a day to have a break. Talk to Steven about if you like, or just, you know . . . think about it.”
“I'll take him back!” Cecilia offered brightly, suddenly appearing at his side. She had somehow managed to change into a short red dress that wouldn't have looked amiss on one a Nimbasa City catwalk. She had tied her voluminous hair back as well, and if it hadn't been for its unusual colour, she would have looked quite normal, albeit extremely pretty. “Elly's got some work to catch up on, I'm sure, seeing as she's been busy having fun with our little yehktira here.”
“Are you looking for a black eye?” Elly scowled.
“Ooh, I'm scared!” Cecilia giggled, hiding behind Ren and peeping over his shoulder. “Protect me from the crazy girl, Ren!”
Ren sighed. “Are they usually like this?” he asked Elsin, who was watching with some amusement as the two girls continued hurling taunts at each other.
“Oh, whenever they're not on the job,” Elsin said. “I have no idea why, but as soon as they get off the thrones . . .”
“It's just a way to relieve stress,” Salinthia said with a benevolent smile. “Wouldn't you get a bit restless after seven hundred years on the council?”
“S-seven hundred years?” Ren's jaw dropped as he took another look around at the members of the council. None of them looked seven hundred years old – least of all Elly and Cecilia, who had both by now degenerated into helpless laughter. “You're kidding, right?”
“What, did you expect a bunch of creaky, wrinkled old folks?” Balthazar laughed. “Our appearance has not changed in centuries. There would be no reason for us to age like humans if we are not. Our existence permits us to live forever unless we are killed, yet what would be the point in that if we slowly became too decrepit to move? So we sit up on our thrones and speak of heavy things in heavy voices, but once we step down, we must enjoy life as much as we are able. The Iehkti'na cannot find us here, so our life is one of peace. Our only real concern is holding the worlds together, and that, of course, is why we need you.”
“You make it sound so simple,” Ren said quietly.
“Oh, it is,” Balthazar said genially. “You are like the glue that holds both worlds together. If we do not reapply the glue every night, then both worlds fall apart. It's as easy as that, yet it causes us so much strife. But you should leave now. This is a lot for you to take in, I'm sure, so you should return to your own world for now.”
“He's right!” Cecilia chimed in suddenly, breaking off her increasingly heated argument with Elly and slipping her arm casually through Ren's. “Shall we go?” Without waiting for a response, she lifted her hand and drew a circle in the air. Ren, realising what was about to happen, tried to step back but failed to escape the sonic shock that rippled through the air. He swore under his breath as Cecilia pulled him into the portal, but his words were snatched away from him by the sudden acceleration.
With a thud and much creaking of springs, Ren landed back on the bed in his room. Cecilia was already standing by the window, seemingly engrossed by the view. “The human world is so pretty,” she said wistfully.
Ren got to his feet and joined her, watching the waves sparkling at the bottom of the cliff and beyond. “I don't know about that,” he said. “Your world's pretty nice too.”
“Perhaps,” she admitted, “but you get a little tired of it before long. It's hardly changed in seven hundred years. You can't leave the city, because the Iehkti'na are out there. The barrier . . . the blue wall you would have seen as you came in? It keeps them out, prevents them from sensing us, but at the same time . . .”
“It keeps you in,” Ren said softly, completing her sentence.
Cecilia smiled. “Yes . . . I'm glad you understand. Humans are so lucky. Even if their lives aren't as privileged as ours, they have freedom we don't. I'd rather spend eighty years in your world than a thousand in mine. You can go anywhere you want, do whatever you like. You can see a thousand places, meet a million people, each one individual and unique.”
“And in exchange, we get old and die,” Ren reminded her.
“Sounds like a fair trade to me,” Cecilia said. “What's the point of living for hundreds of years if you can't enjoy them? I've spent seven centuries on the council, and all I've done in that time is continue to protect the yehktira. Is there even any meaning in that? No offense, of course!”
“None taken,” Ren said charitably. “Well, I mean . . . man, I don't know, Cecilia.”
“I wouldn't expect you to know the answer to something I've been asking myself for hundreds of years,” she said, laughing, but there was a touch of bitterness in her voice. “I'm sorry. I'm being silly. I didn't come with you to complain. I came to mess with Elly's new boy-toy.”
“B-boy-toy?” Ren spluttered. “What are you talking about?”
“Aha, you're getting all red,” Cecilia said knowingly, prodding him in the chest with her index finger. “You two took sooo long to arrive before. Now 'fess up. What were the pair of you up to?”
“What do you mean, what were we 'up to'? We weren't 'up to' anything!”
“Uh-huh,” she said, clearly unconvinced. “You know what? I'm not buying Elly's story about the Iehkti'na appearing. They shouldn't have been able to find you, especially as it was your first time in the second ring. It usually takes them at least a few nights to get used to a new yehktira and start attacking in force. It was a pretty poor cover story, to be honest. So . . . ?” She left the question hanging in the air.
Ren shifted uncomfortably. “So what?” he asked.
“How was she?” Cecilia asked with a mischievous smile.
“I don't know what you're talking about,” Ren said firmly, “and I really think I should be going back now.” Cecilia was beginning to make him uncomfortable.
“Oh, no . . . not until you give me the details! I'm not letting you go that easy.”
“You just want to tease her, don't you?” Ren sighed.
“So what if I do?” Cecilia pouted. “Come on, spill!”
“Nothing happened!” he insisted. “She brought me into the second ring and started to explain what was going on, but we were interrupted by three of those Iehkti'na things. After we killed them, she brought me into the third ring and essentially made me repeat everything she'd told me so far, just because she didn't think I was smart enough to remember it,” he recalled, somewhat miffed. “It wasn't until after that that she brought me to the council.”
“Hmm,” Cecilia droned flatly, not sounding terribly convinced. Abruptly, she danced back and sat down on Ren's bed, exhaling lightly through a thoughtfully twisted mouth. “At least your stories match . . . and that does sound like something she would do, but come on. I've never known Elly to be one to hold back. I mean, sure, you're a little younger than she normally goes for, but age doesn't really mean anything when you're seven hundred years old.” She kicked her legs absently, gazing at the ceiling as if it held some special interest for her.
A sudden, disturbing thought struck Ren. “Hang on . . . she didn't . . . with Steven?” He found himself unable to complete the sentence, but Cecilia seemed to follow him well enough.
“Oh . . . are we jealous?” she cooed.
Ren frowned, feeling his face heat up slightly. “Don't be absurd. I was just curious . . . no, you know what, forget it. I don't care anyway.”
“Steven was too stuffy for her. For me too, for that matter,” Cecilia sulked. Then she brightened considerably, a slightly predatory grin starting to form on her face. “You look fun, though,” she mused.
Ren sighed and rolled his eyes. “Just send me back to the first ring, will you?” he asked hastily.
“Aw, am I making you uncomfortable, sweetie?” Cecilia teased. “Well, all right. If you don't want to talk about it.”
“There's nothing to talk about!” Ren reaffirmed. I'd rather take my chances spending the rest of my night with Afro Glameow, he decided in exasperation.
Cecilia grinned. “All right, then. But if you ever do need to talk about it, you know where to find me. Or . . . I know where to find you,” she corrected herself as she drew another portal on Ren's bedroom wall – a silent one this time.
“That's reassuring and not at all creepy,” Ren said with a straight face, crossing the room to enter the portal.
“Of course. Now, look. Tomorrow night, when you go to sleep . . . one of us will be along. It'll most likely be one of the elders, but it might equally be someone you don't recognise. You'll be able to tell them from an Iehkti'na if that's the case, though, so don't worry. The horrible things can't talk.”
“Good to know,” said Ren.
“In all seriousness, Ren,” Cecilia said, “go back to your world and just take a day to get used to the idea. I know this seems huge right now, but it's your job whether you like it or not. Trust me, it's easier if you learn to like it.”
“You sound exactly like Steven,” Ren said, pausing with his hand an inch from the portal.
“If he said that, he probably stole it from me,” Cecilia said. “Say hello to him from me, by the way. He was a good yehktira, and I liked him, even if he was a bit . . .”
“Stuffy?” Ren suggested with a smile.
“Don't tell him I said that!” Cecilia warned him, grabbing his arm to prevent him from leaving. “Alright? Not a word.”
“Got it,” Ren said with a smile. “I'll see you tomorrow, then.”
“Maybe,” she said. “I might not get to the second ring tomorrow. We'll see. Have fun.” Swiftly, she leant forward and planted a kiss on his cheek before nudging him in the back so that he fell forwards. The instant he touched the portal, he was sucked into it, once again falling, out of control, down, ever downwards . . .
Fwump. He's back in the candy maze. Afro Glameow hisses at him from the other side of an enormous lollipop before stalking round it to glare at him with sharp yellow eyes. “Ah,” Ren says awkwardly, the spot where Cecilia's lips touched him still tingling strangely. “Hello.”
Again, love the interaction between Elly and Ren, quite amusing and fun. Also the description of the place is very nice.
Hahaha over Celia and Ren. Poor Ren kept being asked if he and Elly had done it, LOL. His reaction over Celia's mention of Steven and Elly is priceless too.
Ack, not much really happened this chapter, hence the short review. D: I'm still looking forward to the next chapter, though!
Creo que el Gato Tiene una Problema
Advancing on him slowly, Afro Glameow yowls indignantly, seemingly furious at having its prey snatched away earlier.
“All right,” Ren sighs. “What's your problem? You want to eat me again? Come and try it.” He suddenly feels a lot braver than he did before.
Afro Glameow hisses uncertainly, slowing its advance and eyeing Ren warily.
“Yeah, that's right. Sod off. I haven't got time to deal with you,” Ren tells it, stepping forward threateningly. His furry nemesis skitters backwards, but then rallies, slinking back and forth in front of him as it tries to judge whether or not he was a threat . . .
“Ah!” Ren sat up with a start. He was back in the hotel room, he realised momentarily. Struck by a sudden thought, he glanced over to the other bed, where Natasha's sleeping form was clearly visible. He breathed a sigh of relief and lay back down.
The room was suffused with early-morning light that was doing its level best to fight its way past the heavy curtains. Ren allowed his head to sink back into the luxuriously puffy pillow with a sort of relief. It was nice to be back. He took a deep breath and let it out all at once, allowing his heart rate to return to normal.
That was officially the strangest, most screwed up dream I have ever had, he decided. For a brief moment, he toyed with the notion that it had been just that – a dream. But it had been too real, too vivid to deny. He had to accept that it had actually happened, and as a result he had to accept the legacy that Steven had handed to him.
It won't stop me from giving Steven an earful when I see him next, Ren thought wryly. He felt a little cheated that he had had such a responsibility thrust upon him without being told about it. While he understood that Steven could hardly have announced the existence of the world of dreams to every Trainer who challenged him, he couldn't help but feel a little resentful at not having been given any choice in the matter.
As if reacting to his very thoughts, his Pokenav buzzed on the bedside table. Ren snatched it up and pressed the talk button. “Hello?” he said quietly, glancing across at his still-sleeping cousin.
“Good morning, Ren.”
“Arceus, Steven! Are you watching me?”
“No.” Steven sounded puzzled. “What are you talking about?”
“I literally woke up thirty seconds ago!” Ren hissed. “In any case, you still have a lot of explaining to do.”
“I see,” Steven said. “You had better come over here right away. Talk to the concierge, and he'll have a car brought round.”
“Fine,” Ren said, rolling his eyes. “See you when I ge-” The line went dead. Ren stared at it for a minute, but then simply shook his head in disgust and rolled out of bed to wake Natasha.
Half an hour later, Ren found himself in Steven's 'conference room' again, Natasha once more left in the care of Katrina Stone. Ren yawned and looked at his watch again – still only quarter to seven in the morning. It was ridiculously early, and even though Ren had fallen asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow the previous evening, he was still somewhat tired. One part of his mind wondered if it was a side effect of the strenuous activity within the dream, but that shouldn't have had any bearing on his life in this world . . .
Ren snorted as he listened to his subconscious ramble on. Here he was, less than eighteen hours after Steven had first hinted at the existence of the other world, and already he was taking it for granted, factoring it into his musings as if it was some kind of constant.
“Cecilia says hi,” he said at length, once he had realised that Steven was unwilling to break the silence between them.
“You didn't have any problems with her, did you?” Steven asked.
“Not particularly,” Ren said. “Why?”
“Oh, nothing really. She's a wise elder, and I've never seen anyone treat a wound like she can, but she's a terrible flirt.”
“Oh, that,” said Ren, waving it off uncomfortably. “I noticed.”
“Not bothering you, then?”
The two of them lapsed back into silence for a minute. Ren chewed his lip and stared absently at the ceiling as Steven fiddled with his cufflinks. He had lined up so many things he wanted to say to Steven before coming, but now, none of them seemed worth saying. Most of them appeared childish, even to the mind that had spawned them. Why didn't you tell me? It's not fair! I don't want to do this! You can't make me do it! In the privacy of his own head, he raged against Steven and everything he stood for, but he couldn't bring himself to say them. Most of them, he realised with a shock, were exactly the same as his protests against appearing on Hoenn Buzz the previous evening.
Ugh, how could I have been so immature? he chastised himself. I must have sounded like a little kid!
“About the television appearance last night-” Steven said suddenly, but Ren cut him off.
“No. Don't even – no. I'm sorry about that fuss I raised. In hindsight, it was probably the worst way I could have reacted. I was immature and stupid, and I apologise. I wasn't thinking properly.”
Steven smiled knowingly. “Funny how a night travelling between worlds affects one's world view, isn't it?”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
Steven didn't reply immediately. Instead, he leaned back in his chair and focused on a spot on the wall. Ren followed his gaze, but there was nothing there except a stretch of plaster, much the same as the rest of the room. “Do you know why people like me, Ren?” he said at length.
“I don't mean to be egotistical, but I've noticed it. So have you, I'm sure. I seem to get along with people a lot more easily than others.”
“I . . . guess you could say that,” Ren said. While Steven Stone was hardly a poster boy for friendliness and sociability, he had noticed a certain magnetism about the former Champion that was difficult to explain.
“I wasn't always that way,” Steven admitted. “Six years ago, before I became Champion, I was quite the opposite. It's not like I was a horrible person, but . . . I shut people out. I was polite where I needed to be, but I saw no reason to actively engage with other people. That changed the first time I put on the Dreamlight.” He fell silent once more, staring off into the middle distance with a look on his face that Ren would have called wistful if he didn't know better.
“It changed? How did it change?”
“It made me think,” Steven said simply, returning his attention to Ren. “I realised that there was something bigger than me, and that in turn brought me to the realisation that I was being petty. I said to myself: Steven, there's another world out there, full of people who would dearly love to have the freedom you do-”
“Cecilia gave you that speech too, huh?” Ren said. Somehow he was unsurprised. “But yeah, I follow you. She's right.”
“That was when I decided I was going to make the most of my life,” Steven says. “Call it corny, or cheesy, or whatever food-related idiom you desire, but I figured I was going to live every day to the fullest. That, Ren, is what I was talking about when I said the Champion had to be accessible. It's a bit of a jump, but it's essentially the same thing. The way I see it, there's no reason for you not to go along with the whole publicity deal.”
Ren frowned. “You don't need to convince me. I've resigned myself to that. Hell, I've resigned myself to everything. At first, I was a bit put out, understandably, but . . . after thinking it all over for a while . . . I haven't got a choice. But anyway, I'm pretty content to go with the flow for a while.” Being back in the real world was refreshing, Ren realised, and Salinthia had probably been right to suggest he return to think about it. His mind worked more clearly, and it wasn't such a terrifying prospect any more.
“Are you sure?” Steven said worriedly. “It's a dangerous job, being the yehktira. Every night you get pulled into the second ring, and you can't leave until all of the nightmares have been destroyed. If you leave just one alive, it'll follow you back to the first ring and out into our world, so you can't take the chance. It's not like you can just put in an appearance and then leave. You know that, right?”
“Well, I'd kind of figured as much,” Ren said, shrugging. “But that's fine. The spirits will protect me, after all. And I certainly handled that one last night pretty well, if I do say so myse-”
“What? The nightmares came last night?” Steven said sharply. “They shouldn't have been-”
“-able to sense my yehkti, I know. I heard,” Ren finished. “Whatever the case, they were there and they were nasty. Elly and I dealt with them, though.”
“Elly?” Steven said, apparently not recognising the name.
“Um . . . Elly? Felicia 'Elly' Darkstorm, head of the council of elders?”
“Felicia . . . I never heard her refer to herself as Elly. Nor did anyone else, for that matter. How strange.”
“Perhaps it's just a phase,” Ren suggested. “For all we know, she changes it every time there's a new yehktira.”
“They're . . . strange beings,” Steven said. “I want you to be careful, Ren. They're very old, and very wise, but living for so long has driven them slightly mad, I fear. They will not harm you – of course, you are the only thing holding their world together, as well as our own – but you cannot rely on them. They will protect you with their lives, of course, but . . . they work in strange ways. They are fickle, and while their dedication to keeping you alive may never waver, they are certainly more than capable of making your life hell if you offend them.”
“Speaking from experience, are you?” Ren asked, smiling amusedly as Steven averted his eyes.
“Yes, I am,” he admitted quietly. “To this day, I don't know what I did, but there was a period of a month or two where they were as cold as ice with me. It didn't make for pleasant dreams.”
“Do you know what happens if the yehktira does die?” Ren asked suddenly, voicing something that had been on his mind ever since he woke up. “Surely it's happened at least once.”
Steven shook his head. “No. In fact, until relatively recently, being the yehktira was not much of a risk at all. About twenty years ago, I hear, the nightmares were little more than an annoyance. The purpose of the yehktira was only to step into the second ring every night and refresh the bonds holding the world together. The nightmares, when they did appear, were easily dealt with; they were small, weak creatures.”
“So why the change?”
“I don't know. I don't even know if the elders know, but if they do, they never told me. From what I heard, there are massively powerful nightmares in the third ring, but they can't get through into the second ring for some reason. It's these things which the spirits are hiding from in their little forest glade, by the way. But only the little ones, apparently, could get through and plague the second ring. Even in the six years that I've been yehktira, I've seen the average size of the nightmares grow and grow. If it keeps up, they're going to be impossible to deal with.”
Ren sat and absorbed this information for a minute. It certainly didn't bode well for his future as yehktira, that was for sure. He was just starting to reconsider his acceptance of the role when his Pokenav chimed loudly from his pocket. “Ah – is it alright if I answer this?” he asked guiltily.
Steven nodded. “Go ahead. It's probably important.”
Ren couldn't tell if he was being sarcastic or not, but answered the call anyway. “Hello?”
“Good morning, Ren.”
“Ah, Uncle Roger. How are you? How's the holiday going? You can't be done already.”
“Well, actually . . . about that, ah, I kind of made a mistake with the bookings,” Roger admitted bashfully.
“I see,” Ren said, rolling his eyes.
“So, um, we had to check into a motel with a very early check-out time. We're about to get on a train back to Slateport. Where are you at?”
“I'm still in Rustboro,” Ren said. “Natasha's doing fine, by the way. She's a little quieter than usual, but she seems to be having fun. But never mind that – what sort of motel makes you check out at-” - he glanced at his watch - “seven o'clock in the morning?”
“A very, very cheap one,” Roger said. “Listen, what are your plans for the rest of the day? Are you able to meet us back in Slateport, or will we have to come and pick Natasha up from there?”
“I'm not sure,” Ren said. “Let me check.” He covered the mouthpiece and addressed Steven. “Can I go home after this?”
“I don't see why not,” Steven shrugged. “I don't have much more to tell you that you can't hear from Felicia or the others.”
“Yeah, I can be there,” Ren said. “Natasha and I'll catch the midday express, so we should be in at about one thirty, I think.”
“All right, Ren. Thank you again for taking care of our little girl.”
“It's not a problem, Uncle Roger,” Ren said. “She's been good. All right, I'll see you this afternoon.”
“Tally ho!” his uncle chuckled with slightly more enthusiasm than was strictly necessary before hanging up.
“What sort of secret conference room gets Pokenav reception?” Ren asked directly, raising an eyebrow at Steven. “I could have set this thing to record and broadcast our conversation live to anyone I wanted to.”
“Good point,” said Steven, frowning worriedly. “I really don't know what my father was thinking . . . but considering his company invented the things, I imagine he'd have some sort of coverage against them. Still, that doesn't matter. Do you have anything else you wanted to ask? I imagine you do.”
“Actually . . . no,” Ren decided. “I think the best thing to do would be to let the rest of it come as it comes. Besides, I don't have anything to ask you that I couldn't just bug Elly with later.”
“You almost make it sound like you enjoy annoying her.”
“I could get used to it,” Ren said. “She reacts interestingly when you piss her off – which is remarkably easy to do.”
A slight smirk twitched at the corner of Steven's mouth. “You're a canny one, Ren.”
“I do my best. But I really should be going – I want to go and visit Roxanne at the Gym before we catch the train. Maybe we'll even have time for a battle.”
“I suppose that's fair enough. Are you feeling restless from the lack of battling? It's only been three days.”
“Yeah, but I've spent the last five years of my life battling several times a day. It feels weird to go for even a day or two without a good battle. I've hardly even let my Pokemon out, let alone used them.”
“All right,” Steven nodded. “Here's what we'll do. Go over to the Gym now – you might be able to catch Roxanne before the first challenger of the day appears. Then catch that express back to Slateport, and do whatever you like for a few days. You'll be going to the world of dreams every night, of course, so take it easy. On Thursday, there's a Pokemon Contest on in Mauville City that I think you might be interested in.”
“A Contest?” Ren asked, frowning dismissively. “I don't really like Contests, so I'd rather not go. Unless . . .” he said slowly, catching the look in Steven's eye, “this is one of those publicity things you were talking about?”
“You're learning,” Steven said, nodding. “The Champion is not just a representative of Pokemon battling – he needs to be an ambassador for all those who work with Pokemon. Showing up at a Contest or two will aid that image. And besides, it won't be all bad. Bella's going to be there, if I remember rightly.”
“What, competing? I didn't know she was a Coordinator.”
“No, she's not. She'll just be watching. I was going to go along with her, but I've got business to take care of. Think you can stand in for me?”
“Sure, I guess. So, Thursday in Mauville, huh? I can be there.” Inwardly, Ren sighed. It didn't look like he was going to be able to spend that month at home with his mother after all. He'd just have to settle for being there as much as he could. He was determined to at least spend his birthday at home the following week.
“Thanks. I think Bella's quite fond of you, Ren.”
“Oh, don't look so frazzled,” Steven chuckled. “You know what I mean. In any case, this works just fine. I suddenly have somewhere I need to be.”
Ren hadn't even noticed that the ex-Champion had been checking his phone under the table. “What, at seven in the morning?”
“Yes,” Steven said somewhat ruefully. “It seems that since I stepped down, I've suddenly become the most popular man alive. Strange how that works. Yet still, I must leave. Apparently, it's urgent.” He stood and pushed his chair back, reaching out to shake Ren's hand.
Ren took it, slightly confused. “Um . . .”
“Best of luck, Champion,” Steven said sombrely. “I know you have inherited a heavy burden, but I think you can handle it. We may not have the opportunity to meet like this for a while – I get the feeling both of us are about to be even busier than we ever thought was possible. I'll put my old PR team at the League in touch with you, and they'll help you organise the Champion side of things. But of course, the yehktira side . . . must be revealed to nobody, regardless of how much you trust them. All right?”
“I got it,” Ren said. He did, strangely. He knew he should, by all rights, still be freaking out. It was entirely possible that he was just in shock, but he didn't think so. He saw things with a strange clarity that he had not experienced before. “I got it,” he repeated, almost as much for his own benefit as it was for Steven's.
It had been true what he said, Ren reflected as he retrieved Natasha from Katrina Stone again. He did want to go and battle someone all of a sudden. The main reason, though, was that he wanted something else to take his mind off what had happened over just the last twenty-four hours.
“Are we going home now, Ren?” Natasha asked as they stepped out of the Devon Corporation building.
Ren shook his head. “Not yet, 'Tash. We're going to see Roxanne first.”
“You mean your girlfriend?”
Ren sighed. There was no real point in arguing – he knew Natasha wouldn't listen – but at the same time he didn't really want to leave it open. “No, she's not my girlfriend,” he said, hoping he could leave it at that. “Now, Steven said he'd call a car around . . . oh.”
A large, now-familiar black car was parked right in front of them, the driver standing to attention beside the open door. “To the Rustboro Gym, Master Ren?” he asked with an indulgent smile.
“Ah . . . yes,” Ren said, ushering Natasha into the car and putting one leg in after her. “Thank you.”
“Of course, sir,” the driver said, closing the door behind Ren. A few moments later, the engine purred into life and they pulled out into traffic.
“So, how did you get a Gym Leader to be your girlfriend?” Natasha asked. Ren sighed. This was going to be a long trip.
Fancy stuff in the morning bleeh (also fix formatting and stuff. Really want to chuck this up now, but dangit I am tired.) Actual writing quality is not compromised, because this has been done for weeks now.
Guerra de Roca
Thankfully, the car arrived at the Rustboro Gym in record time, sliding into the carpark barely ten minutes after it had left Devon. Of course, this meant that Ren still had to endure ten minutes of teasing and awkward questions from his younger cousin. He was quite glad to step out of the car.
The driver offered to wait for them, but Ren demurred; the train station was only a block or two away. Once the car had left, Ren turned to face the Rustboro Gym and the memories came flooding back.
The building was fashioned after a large chunk of brown rock, with broken spires and chunks of stone pointing off in strange directions. It looked to be about two stories tall, though Ren knew that inside it was just one huge space. It sat on its own section, somewhat dwarfed by the heavy commercial buildings on either side but still managing to stand out and look quite imposing.
It had looked far scarier when he had first turned up three years ago. He had only had two badges then, and his Pokemon team had been much less experienced. The building had seemed to grow larger as he had walked towards it; so much so, in fact, that he had gotten dizzy looking up at it from in front of the door and needed to sit down.
He felt no such compulsion now as he strode towards the red double doors, feet crunching on the gravel. At his approach, the doors groaned open automatically, making him pause for a moment. They hadn't done that before. Nevertheless, Ren stepped inside, making sure that Natasha was with him before the doors closed.
Inside, Ren found himself in a familiar foyer. Surprisingly modern and chic compared to the rough outside of the Gym, it was spacious and comfortable, lit with soft uplights placed around the walls. A young man sat behind a desk at the back of the room, next to the door that led to the battlefield. He looked up as the doors closed behind Ren, and his eyes went wide. “Master Goodwin, sir! The new Champion!” he exclaimed, hurrying out from behind his deck to approach Ren. “Is that you?”
“I'm pretty sure it is,” Ren said. “Is Roxanne around?”
“Not yet, but she's due any minute to do the standard daily checks before she goes off to teach her class.”
Ren frowned. “Isn't it Sunday?”
“Yes, but she is handling a weekend class of older students. The class doesn't begin until nine thirty, though, so you should have time for . . . er. What is it you're here for, anyway?”
“I'd like a battle,” Ren grinned. “Is that allowed?”
“I . . . think so. There's nothing in the rules about it,” Roxanne's secretary muttered anxiously, shuffling quickly over to his desk and digging through a stack of important-looking papers with all the care one would have afforded a pile of dead leaves. “I guess you'd have to ask Miss Roxanne when she arrives,” he said. “It is, after all, ultimately up to her whether she wants to battle.”
“Of course,” Ren agreed. “I'll wait. But in the meantime, do you have some water? I'm parched.”
“Ah, of course, sir,” the secretary said awkwardly. “I'll just, uh, go and find some.” He backed out of the room through a side door, nodding his head in Ren's direction.
Ren sighed and flopped down onto one of a row of red plastic chairs that had been lined up against the wall, patting the one next to him. “C'mon, 'Tash. Sit down for a few minutes.”
“This is fun, Ren! Are you gonna battle your girlfriend now?”
Ren sighed again. “I already told you, she's not my girlfriend.”
“Won't she get mad and break up with you if you beat her?” Natasha asked, ignoring what Ren had said.
“That's not an issue because she's not my girlfriend,” Ren said through gritted teeth.
“Sure,” Natasha smirked.
Ren felt she was going to say something else, but he was spared by the front door of the Gym grinding open again. He stood up quickly. “Roxanne?”
The Gym Leader blinked in confusion. “R-Ren?”
“Hey,” he said, suddenly devoid of words for some reason.
“What are you doing here?”
“Why else does a Trainer come to a Gym?” he asked. “Got time for a battle?”
“I – yes. Yes, of course,” Roxanne smiled. “Just, um . . . give me five minutes, would you? I have to check on my Pokemon.”
“Of course,” Ren said, sitting down again as Roxanne hurried towards the door her secretary had gone through just moments before.
“She's totally into you,” Natasha advised him, nodding sagely.
“Oh, give it a rest. She's, like, two years older than me or something anyway.”
“That doesn't mean anything these days,” Natasha said dismissively.
“What sort of TV programs have you been watching?” Ren asked in disgust, poking her in the ribs. “You haven't been watching the gossip channel again, have you?”
Natasha squeaked and wriggled away from his finger. “No, I haven't! But come on, you big dummy. I can tell she likes you.”
“That's not true,” Ren said. “Could you please not talk about it, anyway? Especially in front of her?”
“Ooh, what's that? Ren doesn't want to be embarrassed in front of his girlfriend?” Natasha giggled.
Ren stared at her for a moment. “You know, you're a lot different to how you used to be,” he said. “You're still completely mad, but you've grown up a bit.”
“I try,” she said. “You've can't call me mad, though, Mr. Run-away-from-home-to-be-a-Trainer!”
“I didn't run away from home!” Ren protested.
“You might as well have,” Natasha sulked. “You just left all of a sudden. I thought you were coming back!”
“I did! I'm back now, aren't I?”
“Sort of. But it took you five years. I was lonely.”
Ren didn't really know quite what to say to that, so he fell silent and watched a clock on the opposite wall, listening to its soft ticking while he thought about what his cousin had said.
It was true, of course, that he had left very suddenly. It had been less than a week after his tenth birthday when he had packed up his things and set out. He hadn't wasted any time, that was for sure. He hadn't wanted to. Sometimes, he had decided, things just had to be done, and for him, that was . . . of course. Champion.
And now he'd done it. He imagined that he would be able to spend some more time at home, of course, but . . . it wouldn't be nearly as much as he would like. It was strange, really. He had set out just short of five years ago, full of the desire for adventure, but now . . . now, somehow, all he really wanted was to stay at home.
No. That wasn't what he'd come here for today, he reminded himself. He was here to battle. Hopefully it would clear his head a little, but even if it didn't, it would be good to stretch his battling muscles again. The last battle he had participated in had been the deciding battle at the Pokemon League. It had only been three days ago, but he hadn't gone so long without a battle for years.
At length, Roxanne reappeared. “All right, I'm done. Come through to the battlefield.”
Ren rose silently, following her through the large door and down a spacious hallway. As he walked, the walls turned to stone, growing rougher and rougher as they did so. Ren smiled slightly. When he had first arrived here to challenge Roxanne for the Stone Badge, this hallway had been almost as intimidating as the facade of the building itself. Now, it was . . . just another hallway.
Another set of double doors opened at the end of the passage, letting light spill through into the dimly-lit corridor. Roxanne paused in the doorway and turned slightly towards him, a half-smile visible on her face. “Welcome to the Rustboro Gym, challenger,” she said, before turning back and stepping onto the battlefield.
A grin starting to form on his own face, Ren followed her through, automatically making a beeline for the challenger's box at the near end of the battlefield. The field itself looked much the same as he remembered. A white rectangle, painted on the ground, filled with rocks and coarse dirt. Another line bisected it neatly, with a large circle sitting right in the middle. To either side, empty stands rose over a full storey high, row after row of yellow seats stretching towards the ceiling. Out of the corner of his eyes, Ren noticed Natasha tiptoeing into the battlefield behind them and securing herself a front-row seat.
Roxanne took up her position at the opposite end of the battlefield. “This takes me back,” she said. “Ever since that day, I've been looking forward to having you in my Gym again. It took you three years, but you made it back eventually.”
“I came as quickly as I could,” Ren said, drawing a smile from Roxanne.
“We don't have much time now, though,” she said. “It'll have to be a one on one match. Does that sound all right?”
“Sure,” Ren said, digging through his backpack for a Poke Ball.
“Blind choice,” Roxanne said, drawing a Poke Ball from her pocket and showing it to him. “Both Trainers must choose their Pokemon before either is released. All right?”
“That sounds fair,” Ren agreed, making his choice and dropping the bag behind him. “Just out of interest . . . what happens if I lose? Not that I plan to, or anything.”
“It's not an official challenge,” Roxanne reassured him. “Nothing happens. But to be perfectly honest, I only expect this battle to go one way. It was three whole years ago when we last battled, and you did very well even then. I can tell your team has gone from strength to strength since.”
“Fair enough,” Ren said, thumbing the release switch. In a flash of red light, his oldest partner materialised before him. “I choose Zangoose, then.” The bipedal Pokemon flexed its lethal black claws experimentally, clearly glad to have been released. Its fur was a glossy white, save for a diagonal slash of orange across its belly and a matching one across its face that gave it a somewhat demonic appearance. Its hands were a deep orange colour up to the wrists, and its fierce red eyes glared down the battlefield at Roxanne, awaiting the appearance of her Pokemon.
“Hm! A poor choice, Ren,” Roxanne chastised him. “You didn't forget that my Gym specialises in Rock-types, did you?”
“You didn't think I was that stupid, did you?” Ren countered with a smile. His heartbeat was already starting to speed up again. This was it. This was what he lived for. “Zangoose might have the type disadvantage, but I think we'll manage.”
“All right, suit yourself. Then I'll choose Golem!” With a crack, Roxanne's Poke Ball exploded into a shower of red light that quickly coalesced into a huge, ball-shaped Pokemon with short, stubby limbs and skin made of large, thick plates of rock. A small, lizard-like head glowered out from a gap in the armour as it growled loudly in its guttural voice.
Zangoose's ears pricked up at the appearance of its opponent, and it hissed its challenge, fur bristling.
“Easy,” Ren murmured. Even after such a long time, the Pokemon still retained its volatile personality.
“Would you rather we had a referee?” Roxanne asked. “Jeremy usually does it, but he's disappeared somewhere this morning.”
“Oh, the guy at the front desk? Yeah, he went off to get a glass of water, but I haven't seen him since. He's probably busy, though. No, that's fine. We don't need a referee.”
“All right, then,” Roxanne nodded. “Then as the challenger, you should take the first move.”
“No,” Ren said. “Ladies first, I insist. And besides . . . even though I'm the challenger, I'm the higher-ranked Trainer. You take the first move.”
“I don't think that's-” Roxanne began to protest, but Ren cut her off with a raised eyebrow. “All right,” she sighed. “You're so stubborn.”
“And you're not?”
“No, I'm- oh, forget it,” she harrumphed. “Golem, go! Get started with an Earthquake.”
Taken by surprise, Ren watched as the bulky Pokemon leapt into the air to come crashing down on the ground, sending shockwaves rippling through the battlefield, tearing up chunks of rock and earth that danced up and down like mad demons. “Jump!” Ren shouted.
Zangoose's powerful leg muscles tensed, and the Pokemon went flying upwards, a streak of white lightning. By the time it landed back on the ground, the shockwaves had ceased.
“One more!” Roxanne commanded. Golem roared and leapt again, its bulky limbs smashing down onto the ground and shaking the arena.
Ren hissed a quick breath in through his teeth. “Jump one more time, and forwards! We can't win this from a distance!”
With a determined yowl, Zangoose threw itself forwards, leaping over the shockwaves that rushed across the ground. It landed right in front of Golem, taking the other Pokemon aback and causing it to step backwards. “Crush Claw!” Ren yelled. Zangoose drew back its massive claws and then swung them forwards towards the Rock-type's head, the air whistling as they flew.
“Defense Curl!” Roxanne countered. Golem's head withdrew into its protective shell, and it braced its stubby legs against the ground. Zangoose's claws skated ineffectually off its rough, rocky shell, and Ren's Pokemon hissed in anger as it backed up slightly, eyeing Golem warily.
“Keep your distance,” Ren warned as he watched for Roxanne's next move. “We don't know what they're up to.” Zangoose ignored him, circling Golem closely, swiping and feinting at chinks in its armour.
“Perhaps you ought to train your Pokemon to follow orders a bit better, Ren?” Roxanne suggested with a razor-edged smile. “Golem! Bulldoze!”
“Shi- Zangoose! Get out of there!” Ren shouted. Zangoose started to dodge backwards, but it was too late. Golem roared and rolled forward at frightening speed, drawing its arms and legs back into its shell and disappearing into a blur of brown that rocketed towards Zangoose, smashing into it at high speed and threatening to crush it into the ground.
With a furious yowl, Zangoose threw itself out of the way. It had still borne the brunt of the attack, but it managed to avoid being steamrollered by the immense weight of the Rock-type Pokemon. Zangoose dragged itself back to its feet as Golem made a turn and came back for another pass.
“Golem! Make it a Rollout!” Roxanne commanded.
Ren gritted his teeth as the massive Pokemon's rotation speed increased, causing it to dig a furrow in the ground as it tore around the arena at a blistering speed before banking sharply and barrelling straight at Zangoose.
“Jump!” Ren cried. Zangoose bent its knees to leap again, but it hesitated, fumbling to find its balance, and in the split second it took to find it again, Golem struck, a massive brown blur that sent Zangoose flying. “What?” Ren exclaimed. “Zangoose, what's wrong with you? You're faster than that, aren't you?”
Zangoose hissed irritably as it pulled itself to its feet again, glaring warily at the still-rolling Golem with unbridled hatred in its eyes.
“I thought you'd have done your homework, Ren!” Roxanne called from the other end of the battlefield. “Bulldoze is a marvellous move, really. Not only does it steamroll your opponent, but it hits them so hard that it rattles their perception, making them less agile and slowing their reactions.”
“What? I've never heard of that move before!”
“Well, a fine Champion you'll make,” Roxanne remarked wryly. “You're going to have to think fast if you want to keep your pride intact. Now, Golem! One more Rollout, and make it count!”
Ren coughed as Golem's thunderous rolling, seeming to grow more powerful with every passing second, threw up a cloud of dust. “Zangoose!” he choked out. “Don't dodge it! Meet it head on with Brick Break!”
“What?” Roxanne exclaimed. “Golem, watch out!”
Ren grinned as he felt the floor shake from the collision of the two Pokemon. “Too late.”
The dust slowly settled to the ground, revealing the battlefield. Golem had stopped dead in its tracks – or more accurately, it had been stopped. Zangoose stood proud against it, massive claws held to the other Pokemon's head.
“Golem!” Roxanne cried.
“Oh, don't worry,” Ren said. “He won't fall from just that. I'm sure of it. But still . . . I hardly think you're one to be talking about not doing your homework, Roxanne.” He laughed triumphantly, feeling the thrill of battle rush through him.
“What? I . . . I knew Zangoose could learn Brick Break. I just didn't think . . .”
“You didn't consider it a possibility, did you?” Ren arched an eyebrow. “That's the problem. When you go into a battle, you need to make sure to consider every possibility. That's the only way I managed to win my way through the League. Every option, no matter how remote the possibility, needs to be assessed. I'll admit I was taken aback by that new move, but that ends now!” He slashed his hand through the air to emphasise his point, feeling his confidence building once more. “Come on, Roxanne. The real battle begins here!”
Build-up's very masterfully written. Emotion is genuine and I loved Bella Bianchi for trying to expose Ren about the concept of image. Katrina makes me think of Gandalf, a bit when she said she'd 'keep an eye, both as I can spare them'. But I was a bit worried about how Steven saw her differed from how Tash saw her, then it got interesting it was revealed how Katrina saw Tash, and especially when Tash is left with her even longer. Hmm.
I love the Dreamlight concept. The volcanic analogy was pulled off brilliantly.
Looking forward to the next chapter. (And Now, Something A Little Magical? Hm.)
EDIT: OMG THERE'S MORE BRB
2ND EDIT: -mouth gape- What a ride. At first, I was bummed at the lack of Pokemon, but the battle with Roxanne totally made up for it. Good job.
Early chapter this week for no particular reason. Well, I guess there is: this is the end of my first arc, the Parodos.Chapter Eleven
. . . Guess I should explain that, huh. In classical Greek drama, the parodos is the part of the play following the prologue, where the Chorus comes forth and 'sets the scene' for the play, so to speak. The parodoi (plural) are also the passages on either side of the traditional stage, from which the Chorus would enter during this part. So the second arc will be called Episode the First - again, loosely derived from Greek drama.
I really hope I'm not putting people off with all this foreign-language stuff - Spanish chapter titles, Greek arc names . . . for Arc 2 I'm either going to name my chapters in English, or just pick another language. German sounds nice. (Yeah, there's no rhyme or reason - just my idiosyncratic affectations. Ah well.) For now, enjoy the end of our first arc.
Los Fuegos de Batalla
Roxanne remained silent for several seconds, the remainder of Golem's dust cloud still settling around her as the two Pokemon remained frozen in the centre of the battlefield. “Good . . .” she said at last.
“Good? What's good?” Ren asked.
“It's good to see that you've still got that fire,” Roxanne said with a smile. “Three years ago, you came to my Gym aflame with passion. You battled with unstoppable energy and drive, and that was how you won. When I saw you recently . . . you seemed to have lost some of that. I was hoping you'd come here to battle me so that I could make sure you hadn't.”
“And had I?”
“No,” Roxanne said with a shake of her head. “Not at all. If anything, you have more of it now. It's like you become a different person when you battle, but I can see . . . I can see that that's because you're doing what you love. Yesterday, you were a little quiet. Polite and cheerful, but you weren't showing that spark. You didn't show it until now, and I can understand why. I am, after all, a Pokemon Trainer like you. Even a couple of days without a battle can seem like forever, right?”
“Right,” Ren agreed. “So, now that you've reassured yourself that I am actually me and not a doppelganger left by aliens, shall we finish this battle?”
“All right. Don't think I plan to go easy on you, though.”
“I wouldn't ask for anything less.”
“Golem! Seismic Toss!” Roxanne commanded. Golem moved faster than Ren would have thought possible, grasping Zangoose by the upper arms with a vice-like grip and leaping high into the air.
“Damn it,” Ren muttered. He hadn't counted on Zangoose remaining at close quarters long enough for Golem to take a hold of it if Seismic Toss did come out of the bag, but he had allowed himself to be distracted. There was only one way out. “Aerial Ace! Go high!”
Roxanne's eyes widened. “What?”
Ren chuckled at the look on her face as Zangoose slipped free of Golem's grip in midair, darting upwards in a flash to leave its opponent tumbling towards the ground, its balance lost. “Now strike!” Ren yelled, feeling Zangoose's rage as it flipped agilely in midair and slashed down towards Golem at lightning speed.
The Pokemon collided at ground level with an impact that rocked the arena, trapping Golem between Zangoose and the unforgiving rock floor. “Good job, Zangoose! Now move out and keep an eye on that thing,” Ren ordered.
“B-but how?” Roxanne stammered. “Why did Zangoose know a Flying-type move?”
“It's useful for dealing with Fighting-types, mostly,” Ren said. “I got Zangoose to learn it in order to cover his biggest weakness. Still, it comes in handy in other situations, too.”
“No matter,” Roxanne said, though Ren could tell she was struggling to retain her composure. “It won't do much against my Rock-type, that's for sure.”
“You're wrong there,” Ren countered. “In more than one way, actually.”
“What? But Flying moves are ineffective against Rock Pokemon! They always have been!” Roxanne protested.
Ren held up two fingers. “One, due to the timing of the attack, Aerial Ace carried all the power of your Golem's Seismic Toss as well as its own. Not to mention that it had gravity on its side, which is uncommon for such a move. And secondly . . . the true power of any attack lies not in the move itself, but in how you use it. You were not expecting Zangoose to know Aerial Ace, so it took you by surprise, and that was the truly damaging part. If you hadn't been thrown off balance so much, you would have had time to counter. But as my mom always used to say, time's a-wasting! Zangoose! Brick Break, one more time! And make it good!”
Zangoose sprang towards Golem again, its claws glowing white. Before Roxanne or Golem could make a move, Ren's Pokemon brought down its claws on the top of Golem's shell in a fearsome blow, driving the Rock-type back a pace.
“Bulldoze!” Roxanne cried.
“Don't give it time to do that again, Zangoose! Press your advantage with a Crush Claw attack!”
Hissing rabidly, Zangoose grasped one of Golem's arms with its powerful claws. Driving its left shoulder into its opponent's body, it heaved the massive Rock-type over its right shoulder, sending it crashing into the ground behind it.
“Golem!” Roxanne cried. “Are you all right? Can you get up?”
Golem rumbled faintly, bracing itself on one arm as it tried to stand, but its limb gave out and it collapsed back to the ground with a final, creaking groan.
“I think we're done,” Ren said, stepping forward out of his box and hunkering down to scratch Zangoose's head. “Good job, my little brawler.”
“Yes . . . well done. You fought valiantly, Golem,” Roxanne congratulated her Pokemon, returning it to its Poke Ball. “I believe you win, Ren,” she said. “Congratulations. I'd award you the Stone Badge, but I think you may already have one.”
“If I win five times, do I get a free one?” Ren asked cheekily, pulling a potion from his bag to spray on Zangoose's wounds.
“No frequent flyer miles here, Ren,” the Gym Leader smiled. “But still, that was a fantastic battle. It always makes me happy to have a battle like that, regardless of whether I win or lose.”
“That's not what you said three years ago,” Ren teased. “At the time, you were quite reluctant to give up the badge.”
“I . . . that's not true, I – oh, never mind that now,” Roxanne said irritably. “Anyway, I'm glad to have been able to battle you again. Though I must say . . . you seemed different this time. It's not just that fire I was talking about earlier – you still have that in spades. What I mean is that you seem more . . . sure of yourself.”
“Well, I guess that's natural, isn't it?” Ren shrugged as he returned Zangoose to its Poke Ball. “I'm the Champion now, after all. Sure, I wouldn't be up myself enough to walk into an arena and expect to win, but I guess I do feel a certain confidence.”
“And all that stuff you were saying . . .” Roxanne said slowly as she made her way over to sit next to Natasha in the stands.
Puzzled, Ren followed her and sat down on Natasha's other side. “What stuff? I didn't say anything weird, did I?”
“Well, I don't know.” Roxanne looked uncharacteristically unsure of herself. “It was almost as if your personality changed once the battle got started. I mean, not only were you suddenly completely confident, but you knew exactly what you were doing. It was just a short battle, but that was the impression I got. It's almost like you were . . . calculating everything.”
“I was,” said Ren simply. “It's something I discovered about a year ago or so. If you force yourself to think through every single possibility, your chances of winning practically skyrocket. If you can plan for every eventuality, you can beat anybody. The weird thing is, I can't apply that to anything but battling. Once I start a battle, I suddenly go into 'logic mode'. Everything sort of slows down, almost, and I start going through all the likely possibilities in my head. I've tried it with other things – maths, video games, and so on; all kinds of stuff – but I can't seem to make it work.”
“That's . . . fascinating,” Roxanne said, staring at him intently. Ren had a sudden, sinking feeling that she was about to- “Say, do you think you could come into my class this morning? Just, you know, to talk to the students about battling.”
Dammit. Ren winced inwardly. For a moment, he considered refusing, but what excuse could he have made? His train didn't leave until noon, so he had plenty of time. No, he told himself firmly. You shouldn't be trying to think of excuses anyway. It's like Steven said – you just have to suck it up. And besides, this could be good for you. Even if you don't want to do it, it'll help you get used to it. It's just a small group! You did Hoenn Buzz yesterday – this should be nothing!
“Ah . . . Ren? Earth to Ren?” Roxanne was peering at him worriedly.
“What? Oh! Right, of course. No, that'd be fine.”
“More things we have to do?” Natasha complained half-heartedly.
“Nah, this should be fun,” Ren said decisively, trying to convince himself almost as much as his cousin. He stood up and took a couple of steps towards the door before turning back towards the two girls. “Coming?”
“Stop trying to act cool,” Natasha warned as she hopped down off her seat and walked past him. “It's not going to impress her.”
Ren spun and followed her briskly, avoiding Roxanne's amused eyes as they left the arena. Natasha was being a little too frank for his liking. And besides, it's ridiculous. She's wrong.
As it turned out, Roxanne's 'class' consisted of just two people, both of whom were waiting outside the Pokemon Academy when Ren, Roxanne and Natasha arrived. One was a tall, balding man in his late forties or early fifties, looking much like every corporate suit Ren had ever seen. He wore a shirt and tie and carried a briefcase, neither of which were particularly contradictory to that impression.
The other 'student' was a woman of about thirty, with straight, silvery-white hair that fell just past her shoulders, and a narrow, brown-skinned face with cool hazel eyes.
“Oh, are you two all that showed up?” Roxanne asked worriedly. “Where are the others?”
The woman shrugged, and the older man said, “I heard from Roger. His sister's getting married this weekend, so he couldn't make it and sends his apologies. I can't speak for the others, though.”
“Well, all right!” Roxanne spoke with a cheerfulness that Ren sensed was a little forced. “They miss out on the treat I brought for you all today, then!”
“What am I, a chocolate brownie?” Ren grumbled.
Roxanne ignored his comment. “Ren, this is Marcus Price. He's one of the most influential businessmen in Rustboro City and a good friend of Mr. Stone.”
“Nice to meet you,” Ren said, hesitating slightly before offering his hand to Price.
“Likewise,” Price said, clasping his hand with a curious look on his face. “Say, aren't you . . .”
“Ren Goodwin,” Ren supplied. “Yes, that's me.”
Price's face broke into a smile. “Good heavens, she's brought us the Champion.”
Ren nodded awkwardly. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Of course, Ren is here as a personal favour to me,” Roxanne put in quickly, “so we must do our best to make him feel welcome. Oh, Ren – this over here is Vila Kashyenka. She came from overseas to study at the Academy.”
Vila bowed stiffly, her expression unreadable. “It is good to meet you,” she said, her voice layered with a musical accent that Ren couldn't place. “You are the one whom they call Champion, are you not?”
“Um, yes. I am,” Ren said, bowing back a little uncomfortably. It felt strange and foreign. He hadn't had to give such a formal greeting to anyone before, but he felt somewhat obligated in the face of the oddly polite Vila.
“Then you are the one whom I must defeat,” she said flatly.
“Uh . . .”
“I came to the Hoenn region because I was told that there are many strong Trainers here. In my country, there are few who train Pokemon. To learn to do so, I knew I must travel to a place other than my home. If I am to become a strong Trainer, I must defeat you. Is that right?”
“Well, not exactly . . .” Ren said, scratching his head awkwardly. “There are lots of strong Trainers who aren't Champions, you see. You don't have to be a Champion to prove you're good.”
“Perhaps not, yet still I feel I must defeat you,” she said frankly. “Will you promise to battle me some day?”
“O-of course,” Ren said shakily, not quite following her strange logic.
“Anyway, now that we're here, let's go inside!” Roxanne said brightly, clearly trying to regain control of the situation. Ren shivered slightly at the blank, emotionless look Vila was giving him. The woman was more than a little disturbing, but he supposed he shouldn't be judgemental.
“Inside. Right,” Marcus Price agreed. “It's cold out here.”
As Roxanne stepped past to open the door, Price sidled closer to Ren and muttered in his ear, “Don't let Vila get to you. She's like that with everyone.”
“You know her?” Ren asked, equally quietly, watching Roxanne struggle with the key out of the corner of his eye.
“Not as such. She's actually a member of the Qirfan diplomatic corps. They're based in Saffron over in the Kanto region, of course, but I hear she's on leave specifically to attend the Academy here. She's taken it upon herself to be as standoffish as possible to everyone, without actually giving anybody reason to take offense.”
“Sounds like an interesting woman,” Ren whispered drily.
“Oh, certainly,” Price chuckled. “But like I say, don't mind her. I have to say, though,” he continued at a normal volume, “it's quite an honour to meet you.”
“Is that so?” Ren said blankly, for want of something more intelligent to say. “So are you planning to be a Pokemon Trainer yourself, Mr Price?”
“Oh, it's Marcus. I insist. But in any case, you see, I plan on retiring soon. I'm not all that old, but I'm getting tired of the corporate world. And with my family all overseas, I figure I'm going to need something to do in order to pass the time. Trouble is, I'd never had time to train Pokemon when I was a youngster, so I have to start from scratch. It's a little embarrassing to go back to school and learn it from the most basic level, but there are a lot of people in my position. There are about eight people in the class most weekends, but I don't know where they all are today.”
“That's all right. To be honest, I don't think I could have managed any larger of a group,” Ren said weakly.
“Ah! Got it!” Roxanne exclaimed as the door swung open at last. “Come on in, all . . . three of you.”
Obediently, Ren, Natasha and Marcus trooped in behind Vila and Roxanne, the latter of which was already in full schoolteacher mode.
“We'll have to adjust the lesson plan for today to accommodate our guest,” she said as she led them down a long hallway, shoes clacking on the brown tiles. “As we're the only ones here today, the quad will be free, so we should use that. If Ren's all right with it, we'll have him assist me in the lesson.”
“Ah . . . I'm not sure if I'm just behind or something, Roxanne, but . . . what exactly am I supposed to be doing here?” Ren asked, suddenly realising that the topic hadn't actually come up.
“I'm sure we'll think of something,” Roxanne said airily as Ren caught up to her.
“You mean you hadn't already?” Ren asked in disbelief. “I was kind of under the impression you had something planned.”
“Well, we can't all plan for every eventuality. My lesson plan for today didn't account for the remote possibility of the Champion appearing in class.”
“You're gonna make fun of me for that forever, aren't you?” Ren asked with a sigh.
“I don't know what you're talking about,” Roxanne said simply. “Here we are.”
She had stopped before a door that looked little different to any other – painted that ubiquitous, sickly shade of beige that Ren had seen in every school he'd ever passed through, set with a pane of frosted glass that prevented anybody from seeing in or out. Ren had no idea why schools insisted on doing that. It wasn't as if they had anything in particular to hide.
This door, however, did not open onto a classroom. Instead, when Roxanne turned the doorknob, it revealed something quite unexpected. Ren had heard Roxanne say 'quad', so he had of course expected something outdoors, but what he saw was a little more than he had been expecting.
After passing through a short brick corridor, Ren found himself standing in an open area the size of a football field, a roughly rectangular quadrangle surrounded on all sides by the two-storey, brown-brick wall of the Pokemon Trainers' Academy. Trees lined the area, forming a miniature wall of forestry almost five metres thick. A neat cobbled path led through the layer of trees to the central part of the courtyard, a large, sunny expanse dotted with benches and tables. Spread between the assorted picnic paraphernalia lay three regulation Gym-sized Pokemon battlefields not unlike the one Ren and Roxanne had recently faced off across.
Ren noticed immediately that the battlefields had seen some use recently; there were furrows in the ground where the grass had not grown back yet and some of the vegetation had been wantonly trampled. Other than the battlefields, though, the courtyard could have been any park in Hoenn. The grass was perfectly manicured, and soft sounds of birdsong filtered through from the lush border of trees that hid much of the building's inelegant façade.
“Welcome to the Academy's outdoor training ground, Ren,” Roxanne said as she led them towards the nearest battlefield. “The Academy, of course, possesses multiple battlefields of many different kinds, but these ones are favourites for many of the students.”
“So how are we going to do this, then?” Ren asked, surveying the area critically. “Another battle as a demonstration?”
“Yes, I think that sounds like a good idea. But,” Roxanne said archly, “I can think of a better opponent for you than me.”
“Oh, really?” Ren glanced around. The five of them seemed to be the only ones present. “Who's that, then?”
With a slightly mischievous smile, Roxanne pointed. “Vila.”
For the first time since Ren had met the woman, Vila's face showed emotion. Her eyes widened and her lips parted slightly. “Are you sure?” she asked.
“Yeah, are you?” Ren added, frowning. “That's kind of a mismatch, isn't it?”
“You're right, of course,” Roxanne agreed. “That's why, rather than a straight-up battle, you'll participate in a contest.”
“What . . . kind of contest?” Ren asked suspiciously.
“Oh, nothing out of the ordinary for you,” Roxanne said casually. “You'll just be fighting a battle like normal. As Vila doesn't have her Pokemon Trainer's license yet, she can borrow one of the Pokemon owned by the Academy.” Roxanne produced a Poke Ball from somewhere and tossed it to the still flummoxed-looking Vila.
“So what is the catch?” Vila asked as she caught it, her eyes narrowed.
“There must be one,” Ren agreed. “Otherwise there's nothing out of the ordinary about the battle.”
“Of course,” Roxanne said. “The victory conditions will differ for each Trainer. Ren, as the more experienced party, will have to knock out his opponent's Pokemon entirely to win. Vila, on the other hand, has only to land a hit on Ren's Pokemon in order to be declared the winner.”
“What?” Ren exclaimed. Surprising even him, his mind began to tick into gear. Defeating an inexperienced opponent in a one-on-one battle would not be difficult, but if he had to do it without his Pokemon taking a single hit . . . The best bet would be to finish the match in a single blow. Given that Vila would be using a Pokemon owned by the Academy, it should be doable. Academy Pokemon were docile so as to be easier for rookie Trainers to handle, and were not overly powerful for the same reason. Of course, it would all come down to the type matchup . . .
“Huh?” He blinked in sudden surprise. “What is it?”
Roxanne sighed. “I said, I'll be choosing your Pokemon too, just to ensure it's fair.”
Ren winced slightly. “Err . . . do you have to?” That would remove any possible advantageous type matchup he might be able to create.
“I do.” Roxanne seemed to be enjoying herself far too much, he noted with some irritation. “In any case, you'll be using your Manectric. I think that will level the playing field a little.”
“In other words, you're setting me up against a Ground-type Pokemon. Am I right?”
“Maybe. In any case, you need to hurry up and get to the battlefield, Ren! Vila's waiting for you!”
It was true, Ren noticed with a start; Vila had already moved to take up her position at the far end of the nearest battlefield.
“Will you come, Champion?” she called, her face once again unreadable. “This promises to be . . . interesting.”
“Hmph,” Ren chuckled. “You sure know how to mess with a guy, don't you? Roxanne.” Moving swiftly, he stepped into his box on the battlefield and dug Manectric's Poke Ball out from his backpack.
“Undoubtedly,” Roxanne smiled. “But still, I'd like to see if you can do this. And because it's not technically a Pokemon battle, as such, it won't matter if you lose.”
“What makes you think I might lose?” Ren asked, tapping the release switch on his Poke Ball with a practiced movement. With a familiar crackling noise and the unmistakeable smell of ozone, Manectric burst onto the field, its crested yellow head held proudly high.
Its lithe blue body stretching powerfully, Manectric gave an eager howl overlaid with a tumultuous rumble of thunder. Ren smiled. “You're ready to go, I see.”
“He is not the only one!”
“Hm?” Ren glanced up to see Vila releasing a flash of red light from her own Poke Ball. With a squeak, it coalesced into a small, yellow, rat-like Pokemon with shiny black eyes that rolled up into a ball at the sight of its opponent.
“Sandshrew . . .” Vila said, with the air of somebody trying to figure out how to break down a wall with a toothpick.
“A Ground-type, just like I thought,” Ren noted. “Still, it's not going to do you any good.”
“Aren't we confident all of a sudden?” Natasha prodded.
“I can't afford not to be,” Ren said. “A Champion can't be afraid of anything."
I have become one very lazy person so I didn't get to read much of what I missed and I barely remember where I left off. (I plan to read this story again from the beginning at a later date, which will be soon.) I did however, helped myself to the last two updates with this fan fiction.
I admire your ability to write a battle. It takes me many tries to get one right. I can imagine the scene in my head, but I tend to repeat the obvious and soon the flow of the battle is really off and awkward. Because of the disruption of the flow, the battle completely falls apart. It can just take me days to write a battle that is somewhat decent. I wish I had your ability to write a good battle sequence.
I didn't find too much wrong with this and I am a bit lazy to point them out, but you are doing a splendid job with this fan fiction so far. :D
Credits: Tumblr, Deviantart, and TROYE SIVAN
Nice, I particularly enjoyed the latest update.
It seems quite a challenge Roxanne has burdened the Champion with, but liking his moxie.
Well, it would seem I've been somewhat remiss in regards to my responsibility of actually replying when people talk to me. I apologise sincerely - school snuck up behind me while I was writing and cracked me on the head with a large homeworkhammer. :/ But I'm somewhat in control of that now, even if I haven't finished any of it. :x So from now on, I shall endeavour to take some time once or twice a week to reply to my beloved readers.~
Glad you like Bella, by the way. She was sweet to write.
In other news, I'd like to share a 'trailer' I tossed together last night for Champion Game. I posted it in the Trailer For Your Fanfic thread over at Serebii on kind of a whim, but it shouldn't hurt to throw it in here as well - especially considering that I'm actually quite happy with how it turned out. Have a look. Italics are voiceovers and [stuff in brackets is direction]
[Music plays softly in the background. The screen is black, but slowly, two points of light come into view. They grow and sharpen until it is clear they are a pair of catlike green eyes]
Ren (whisper): Did I . . . wake up?
[The eyes slowly close]
Elly: Nope. You're still dreaming.
[The eyes flash open, filling the screen with light. The light fades to reveal Ren, standing in a grassy field. Low-angle shot rotates around him as he looks around in confusion. Elly comes into frame as the camera rises behind Ren's head.]
"My purpose is . . . to protect this world, and yours. And now, that's your purpose, too," she says.
"I . . . don't understand," Ren says.
Elly sighs. "I had a feeling you'd say that."
[Cut to black.]
Ren: it's just a dream, right? It's not like I can die or anything.
[A poorly-restrained, amused laugh is heard as the music stops. The screen cuts to a shot of Ren and his young cousin, Natasha, on a train. Natasha is asleep, leaning against Ren, her head bobbing slightly as the train clacks over the tracks..]
Ren: That's me. Ren Goodwin, fourteen years of age. I'm the newest Champion of the Hoenn League.
[With a jarring noise like a rewinding tape, the screen flickers briefly between shots of Ren and his Pokemon battling Steven before returning to Ren on the train. Nothing has changed except for a few extra people standing or sitting around him.]
Ren: I knew it was going to be big, being the Champion, but . . . not this big.
[Again, the screen flashes across several quick shots, this time of Ren receiving his trophy and medal for winning the League. This time, when it returns, there are even more people on the train, partially obscuring Ren from view. It's getting dark outside.]
Ren: This is . . . this is a different level. I don't know what I'm doing.
[More quick shots zap across the screen - Ren mobbed by fans, Ren accosted by journalists, Ren falling into bed in his hotel. Back on the train, Ren is almost completely obscured by the passengers now crowding the train. Outside, it is dark, and there are lights on in the train.]
Ren: Everything I knew . . . No, everything I thought I knew has changed.
[Cut briefly to a close-up of Ren's face before crosscutting back to the longer shot. Ren can no longer be seen. The lights in the train go out, and the screen again goes black.]
Ren: There's . . . another world out there.
[Silence for several seconds. Music starts playing again as the screen suddenly cuts to a montage of Ren, a sword held clumsily in his hand, fighting for his life against shadowy black creatures.]
Ren: A hostile world. A world that somehow . . . I've become responsible for.
[As the music reaches a crescendo, there is a flash of light and four figures appear. One is Elly, one is a man in a long, hooded coat and the other two's faces are out of frame, though one is clearly a man and one a woman.]
Ren: Thankfully, I'm not entirely alone.
[The shadowy figures are quickly dealt with - some slashed to pieces, some broken in half by brute force, and others consumed by raging fire. When the smoke clears, Ren and his four allies stand amidst a carpet of melting shadows. A slight mist of rain hisses as it touches the bodies.]
Elly: Don't be mistaken. Even with us, you might not stand a chance.
Ren: It's that bad?
[A crash of thunder, and the screen goes black. From the silence grows a mass of whispering, indistinguishable but menacing.]
Maho: Unto defeat you must play the game - the Champion Game.
[At his last words, the words Champion Game appear on the screen in glowing, dark blue type before slowly fading away.]
Ack, sorry for not being caught up with your story! I have been busy with my own writing and other real life stuff, oi. Okay, my thoughts on the last three chapters:
Hm, quite interesting how Steven changed after becoming yehktira. So that’s why he’s fine with the publicity. Looks like Ren won’t like it anything soon… The mention of the Nightmares getting stronger is fascinating too, although them might be impossible to deal with doesn’t sound good. D:
The ending all I’m going to say is Natasha is cute there. XD
Haha, here goes Natasha again with her thinking Ren and Roxanne are seeing each other.
Okay, I admit I had gone “d’awwwww” when Natasha was sad how Ren left all of a sudden and was lonely. :< I do like the compare and contrast how Ren was intimidated with battling Roxanne when he first started his journey and now isn’t, though.
Hm, I don’t think you have to be all descriptive how the Pokemon looked like. I mean, the ones that will read Pokemon fics are Pokemon fans and they should already know how a Zangoose and Golem look like. This is just me, though. ;
Oh, the battle is quite fast pace and intense. Like your take on Bulldoze, even though I haven’t gotten the chance to play my Pokemon Black game yet *grumbles about DS Lite not working* XD And interesting what Ren said how he got to be Champion.
Nice finish with the battle there! Quite nice Ren has thought up of a strategy, but of course I shouldn’t be surprised with him being a Champion and all. There’s one thing I noticed though: was Natasha watching the whole match? I didn’t catch that. If so, there was no reaction from her. I know this is in Ren’s POV, but him hearing Natasha giving even one small cheer should do it.
Vila and Marcus sound like nice characters and their reasons for going to the Academy are believable. I don’t know why, but I LOLed that the Pokemon Vila will use will be Sandshrew.
Well, everything is looking good so far. Haha, I actually saw that you posted Chapter 12 at Serebii, so there’s still one more chapter but I’m caught up, oi. D: I’ll try my best to review it as soon as you post it, though!
BTW, LOVE the trailer! :D
Pretty long chapter today, though it doesn't exactly look it thanks to the large number of blocky paragraphs towards the end rather than my usual, dialogue-heavy prose. This is also the start of Arc 2 of Champion Game, where we move out of the 'introductory' stages of the fic and into the real meat of things. I wanted to put this out today as it's essentially the start of the second half of the year. We've passed the two-month milestone recently as well, so although it's not much, I'm happy to have stuck it out this long. Even though Shattered ran for far longer, it had less chapters, a less regular update schedule and a lower wordcount. I've tried chaptered fics unsuccessfully several times, but each attempt goes longer than the last by a significant margin, and I'm really hoping that Champion Game is the one where I reach the tipping point and finish it. I do visualise this going on for a couple of years, though. I can't promise weekly updates until I get to university, but how goddamn cool would that be?
I've let myself ramble. I'll step back now, say thank you again for reading, and allow you to get into the meat of this fic (finally).
Arc 2 – Episode the First
Chapter Twelve“First move goes to Vila,” Roxanne said. “Battle begin!”
Mein Haus Ist . . .
For a few seconds, Vila remained silent. Just as Ren was about to say something, however, she took a deep breath and spoke one word. “Dig.”
With a sudden flurry of dirt and powerful digging paws, Sandshrew disappeared through the grass and into the earth below, leaving only a small mound of soil to show it had ever been there.
Rens' eyes flickered around the battlefield as he tried to work out what to do. Manectric was completely vulnerable when facing a Dig-using Pokemon like Sandshrew, but then again, he had faced similar opponents with Manectric before. “Run!” he commanded.
Manectric leapt into action immediately, knowing through long experience what was required. Accelerating sharply, it soon became nothing more than a blue and yellow blur, circling rapidly around the arena.
Ren waited patiently. At that speed, Manectric shouldn't be vulnerable to Sandshrew's attack. But all it would take would be one glancing blow . . .
Manectric continued to circle for a full ten seconds before anything happened. Suddenly, the ground erupted and Sandshrew shot upwards, narrowly missing Manectric, who had been forced to bank sharply to avoid the attack.
Take advantage of the opening, Ren said to himself as he saw Sandshrew flailing in midair, its missed attack having taken it far further from the ground than it had expected. “Ice Fang!” he said sharply.
Manectric turned on a dime and leapt to intercept the still-helpless Sandshrew. Spontaneous clouds of frost issuing from between its fangs, it clamped its teeth down on the small Pokemon and shook it furiously. “Easy!” Ren cautioned. He didn't want the other Pokemon to get too seriously hurt.
With a reproachful glance at its master, Manectric tossed the limp form of the Ground-type Pokemon aside. It tumbled across the grass and slid to a halt. It didn't get up.
“Sandshrew is . . . unable to battle,” Roxanne said, sounding slightly more subdued than she had earlier. “Ren wins . . .” She seemed a little taken aback by the swift, ferocious battle.
“Return, Manectric,” Ren said quietly, holding out its Poke Ball. With a final, slightly put-out growl, the Electric Pokemon dissolved into red light. “I hope that was educational?” Ren said mildly, glancing down the field at Vila.
His eyes widened as he saw the venomous glare with which the normally emotionless woman had fixed him. Fists clenched at her sides, Vila's face displayed such pure, unadulterated hatred that Ren almost took a step back.
“You . . .” she hissed, her voice wavering. “You bastard . . .”
Ren blinked, trying to work out where her rage was coming from. Sure, she had lost, but she couldn't seriously have been expecting to win, could she? “I'm . . . sorry?” he ventured, at a total loss for words.
“Do not give me 'sorry', you sad excuse for a man!” she spat as she stalked across the battlefield towards him, stepping over her unconscious Pokemon as if it wasn't even there. Ignoring the protesting Roxanne and the cowering Marcus, she jabbed Ren hard in the chest with her finger. “Do you hear me? I will defeat you!”
With that, she marched out of the courtyard, not looking back once.
“Did I . . . do something wrong?” Ren asked blankly, his head spinning.
“Well, ah . . .” Roxanne started, but tailed off uncomfortably, staring worriedly at the door through which Vila had just departed. “Class dismissed!” she snapped suddenly.
The class, by now consisting only of Marcus Price, headed uncertainly towards the door in Roxanne's wake. The Gym Leader slipped quickly through the door and disappeared from sight, leaving Ren and Natasha alone in the suddenly silent courtyard.
“That was . . . unusual . . .” Ren said quietly, the wind suddenly taken out of his sails. He had been all fired up just a minute earlier, yet after Vila's unexpected outburst, he found he had suddenly lost his will to battle.
“You're telling me!” Natasha snorted. “That woman's bad news, Ren.”
Ren didn't say anything. Instead, he crossed to the nearest bench and sat down, resting his head in his hands and massaging his temples with his thumbs. He had won, followed the rules of the battle exactly as they had been set out . . . so why had Vila exploded like that? It doesn't feel like I won that battle, he realised. Or at the very least . . . that the battle isn't over.
“'I will defeat you',” he murmured. Somehow, the words sent a shiver down his spine. Taking a deep breath to clear his mind, he stood up and stretched. With the issue of the world of dreams still weighing heavily on the back of his mind, he could not afford any extra distractions.
“Let's go home, 'Tash,” he said with a sigh. “I've had just about enough excitement for one trip.”
There was no sign of Roxanne, Vila or Marcus outside the Academy, but the car he had arrived in was still there. After being dropped off at the railway station, Ren left a message with the driver for Roxanne to apologise both for his sudden departure and for what had happened at the Academy.
Ren realised soon after entering the station that they were far too early for the midday express, so he found a small newsstand – at Natasha's request – and bought two books. Natasha happily withdrew into hers for a couple of hours, but Ren found himself unable to concentrate; letters kept floating off the page and rearranging themselves in front of his eyes, spelling out 'Vila' and 'Elly' and 'yekhtira', among other things. Perhaps the most disturbing of these was 'doom'. Whenever that particular jumble of letters appeared, Ren rubbed his eyes furiously and tried to banish the image, but it kept returning, unbidden, to dance tauntingly in front of him with what seemed to be a kind of malicious glee.
In the end, Ren stashed the book away in his backpack and kept himself occupied by counting columns on the far wall of the station. Every couple of minutes or so, a train would pass in front of him, causing him to lose count and start again. The cycle continued for almost an hour and a half before Ren realised how ridiculous he was being.
“Come on, Natasha,” he said tiredly. “The express should be here any minute.” With a sigh, he levered himself off the bench and headed for the platform. Anything, he decided, to distract himself from the multitude of complicated things running around his tired mind.
Sure enough, the express arrived at midday on the dot. After making sure that they both had tickets this time around, Ren ushered Natasha onto the train, feeling his inexplicable tiredness gradually intensifying. By the time he found his way to a seat, he was having trouble keeping his eyes open. Why . . .
With a final disgusted puff of air at his own apparent feebleness, Ren let his head rest on the uncomfortable back of the seat.
“I'll wake you up when we get there,” he vaguely heard Natasha saying before he drifted out of consciousness.
Afro Glameow looks kind of pissed. Ren raises his hands apologetically, but the furious feline does not seem to be at all mollified. Rather, it stalks towards him once again, tiny yet threatening fangs bared in a frustrated grimace. It's as if it knows that Ren's going to get away again.
But he's not sure that he is. He looks around hopefully for any sign of a portal to the second ring, but there's no sign of anyone except him and the prowling Glameow, its ridiculous hairdo wobbling slightly as it tilts its head to regard him suspiciously.
It's only now that Ren realises they're not in the candy maze anymore. Instead, they appear to be standing between two massive concrete columns. It's dark. Ren looks up, suddenly noticing a constant rumbling noise that may or may not have been there the whole time. The sky isn't visible – not directly above him, at least. Above him, all that's there is more concrete . . . or something. It's a bit hard to see. He's standing in a veritable forest of concrete columns, he realises, all reaching up towards the dark mass blotting out the sky. Some light leaks in from far to his left, and more from far to his right, but it's not enough to clearly see where he is. And the rumbling goes on.
Taking the initiative, Ren turns and runs. It's a little cold. Afro Glameow is following, but at no great speed. Ren senses it could easily catch him if it wanted to. He ducks past another concrete pillar and just about trips over a massive roll of wire. Reacting at the last moment, he jumps over it, but catches his shin on a protruding spike of some sort. There's blood, but not much. No pain either, so he keeps running and decides to worry about it later. Afro Glameow is close, he can tell – even without looking back, it's apparent he is being toyed with.
His only chance is the light, he decides. If there's no rescue forthcoming from Elly or the others, he'd rather be able to see properly when Afro Glameow catches up to him. What could be taking them so long?
His leg still doesn't hurt, but it feels like lead. It's slowing down his running. His chest feels tight. He glances down and just about trips over in shock. His leg is soaked with blood, and he's leaving a trail of red on the ground. Running is useless, he decides. There's nobody coming for him. Well, nobody save Afro Glameow, that is.
A gust of cold wind moans through the area as he turns to sit on the ground, his injured yet painless leg dragging awkwardly. A scrap of yellowed newspaper skitters across the ground in front of him, and he automatically reaches for it.
'CITY CEO RUNS FOR MAYOR' says the headline. The article itself is barely legible. Ren squints at it curiously.
Ren frowns, his befuddled, sleepy mind having trouble reading the message in front of him. Spread throughout the text are a handful of words in capitals.
“'Ren' . . .” he reads aloud. “'Find the door . . . automatic message. Do not' . . . do not what?” he wonders aloud, but before he can scour the article again, Afro Glameow appears from behind a pillar, slowing as it sights its unmoving target. It pads lightly across the concrete towards Ren, weaving slightly as it comes. It looks a little tipsy.
“Door . . . what door?” Ren wonders aloud. Oh, of course. The door to the second ring – if you could even call it a door. But how is he supposed to find that? Last time, Elly reached out and pulled him through it, but judging by the 'automatic message' part of the dispatch, there will be no help forthcoming this time.
Afro Glameow hisses in annoyance as Ren pulls himself to his feet again. Just as soon as he regains his footing, however, his injured leg buckles beneath him, sending him tumbling back down to the ground again. Yet in that split second, Ren has seen his way out – or at least, what he hopes is his way out. A small patch of blackness, ever so slightly darker than the shadowy expanse of concrete. It's only about ten metres away, but by now Ren doesn't trust his leg to get him there.
All he can do is crawl, so it's what he tries. Afro Glameow, strangely enough, doesn't move to attack him. It simply slinks along beside him like a bad smell that just won't go away. Perhaps, he reasons, it doesn't think he can go anywhere.
He's moving even more slowly now. His leg is so much dead weight. One leg of his jeans is sodden with blood, and he can hear the horrible, wet dragging sound it makes as he tugs it onwards through force of will. Although he still can't feel any pain, his head is beginning to spin. Probably with loss of blood, he supposes. Not really a good thing.
As he draws closer, Afro Glameow following him tauntingly, it becomes apparent that the patch of darkness is in fact a square hole of the kind he had passed through the last time. It's still too far away, though. Ren swears loudly and pushes himself up onto his knees, almost blacking out with the sudden rush of blood from his head. Unable to move, he sways on the spot for a few seconds before practically throwing himself towards the hole.
He hits the concrete hard, and this time it does hurt. Pain lances through his face and upper body where it has become scratched and grazed. He lands awkwardly just a foot or so from the hole. All he has to do is reach out to it . . .
Too late, Afro Glameow realises that its prey is about to escape, and leaps forward with a yowl. Ren's fingertip brushes the dark square, and with a fwip, Afro Glameow and everything else vanish, all colour and light drawn out of the world and spiralling into a single point above his head that vanishes instantly.
The first thing Ren realised was that he was no longer bleeding. He was sore, for sure, but it soon became apparent that that was only because he was lying spread-eagled on the floor of the Devon Corporation's reception area. It only took him a few seconds to stand up and dust himself off, and a couple more to ensure that he had not sustained any grievous bodily harm.
“Well, I guess I made it,” he said aloud, his voice echoing oddly in the open, empty space. The last time he had come through here, it had been awash with life and noise, but now it was as silent as a tomb. Ren shuddered involuntarily, remembering his narrow escape from Afro Glameow. Why did nobody come for me? he wondered, not for the first time, as he scanned the room. He was obviously in the second ring now – the environment had been created from his recent memories, and there was no sign of life other than himself. The council had promised that somebody would come to meet him the next time he crossed over, but there wasn't a spirit to be seen.
Slightly nervous, Ren wondered what he was supposed to do next. The square hole that he had just passed through was still there, floating innocently about a metre off the ground, but he wasn't sure he could go back just yet. If there were any Iehkti'na hanging around – and it was quite possible there were, he imagined – they would follow him back through the first ring into his own world, and Arceus only knew what they'd get up to there.
Swallowing forcefully, he decided to at least find some means of defending himself in case he was attacked. Casting his eye around the reception area, nothing particularly jumped out at him, so he pushed through the immobile spinning door into Rustboro City.
Which promptly disappeared. Ren blinked, realising that the revolving door had in fact taken him to the battlefield of the Rustboro Gym. He was standing in Roxanne's place at the far end of the field, facing the door he had walked through just hours ago . . . or so it seemed. He had no sooner started to wonder what was going on, however, than the doors banged open and two dark shapes slipped out.
Ren swore as he recognised them. While smaller than the three that had confronted him and Elly the previous night, the Iehkti'na were still bigger than he was. They were also less humanoid-looking than those he had seen, with hunched backs and elongated heads that probed towards him curiously, seeming to sniff the rapidly cooling air. He cast around for a weapon, but there was nothing in the arena that he could possibly use. With no time to do anything else, he made a dash for a door he had glimpsed on the wall to his left. His hand grasped the handle and the Gym disappeared. Struggling against a sudden, overbearing pressure, Ren forced the door open and fell through, into . . . what? A storage cupboard? A passageway?
His bedroom. That was odd. Ren blinked. The air was warm again, and a cloud of dust motes, stirred up by his sudden entry, swirled in the air. Somewhere, a Wingull squawked irately. Am I . . . safe? Ren wondered, shutting his bedroom door behind him and looking around. There was no sign of pursuit. Perhaps they had been lost with the Gym. Ren pressed his ear to the door and listened, but there was no sound. Suddenly realising how heavily he was breathing, he sat down on the bed with a fwump, startling further dust motes into flight. They drifted in and out of the rays of sunlight slashing through the window, muted, dancing explosions of golden light.
Letting his breathing slow, Ren slumped back onto his bed, legs dangling across the floor. Fantastic. Hadn't Elly said there would be someone here to meet him? He had managed to find his way from the first ring into the second safely enough, but he didn't suppose he would have the same luck getting into the third ring. And simply returning to the first ring wasn't an option any more now that he knew there were Iehkti'na on the prowl. Of course, to do that, he'd have to know where the portal back to the first ring was. His only option, as much as he disliked to admit it, was to wait around until one of the spirits appeared. Fighting was a possibility, but not an attractive one. Ren didn't fancy his chances, especially unarmed.
Praying to every obscure deity he had ever heard of that he would be safe where he was for the time being, Ren crossed to the window. Outside, the ocean glistened serenely, stretching all the way across to the barely visible southwestern peninsula of the Hoenn region, which was nothing more than a greenish smudge on the horizon. Somewhere over there was Rustboro, where Steven was probably mired in paperwork associated with his newfound responsibility; where Roxanne might be teaching a class. That was where it had all started, and now he was back at home as if nothing had happened. He cracked open the window absently, feeling a cool breath of salty air brush his face like a feather.
A Wingull swooped past the window, something small and wriggling held in its beak. That in itself was not especially abnormal, but something struck Ren as strange nonetheless. He watched with some interest as the Wingull corkscrewed upwards, banking and twitching its wings to ride an updraft. It was not until it was out of sight completely that Ren realised it had been flying upside down.
The sea was a light shade of lilac. Why had he not noticed that before? It hadn't changed while he was looking at it, but he could have sworn that just seconds before it had been its usual greenish blue. Ren blinked, half-expecting to see the sea return to its normal colour.
Instead, it was a deep, impenetrable black, and rising up to meet him. Ren stepped back involuntarily as the tide reared up, up, far higher than it should have been able to reach. It climbed level with his window and kept going, a massive, solid wall of blackness. It intercepted the rays of the morning sun, and the room was plunged into shadow. Ren shivered uncontrollably as the temperature dropped, despite the sweat breaking out on his forehead.
Then the wave dropped. Watching the enormous mass sink towards his house at frightening speed, Ren was paralysed. He wanted to move, to run, but some kind of morbid fascination kept him rooted to the spot, watching the blackness rush straight for his bedroom window. As it neared, it seemed to condense and shrink, becoming more and more solid and opaque – a transformation difficult to pin down with the eye, but somehow clear enough to be noticed regardless.
The sound of the window shattering was ridiculously loud after the heat-draining silence of the last few seconds, spurring Ren into action. Desperately, he threw himself backwards as the deep clot of darkness flowed into the room in amidst a shower of glass shards. He felt small spikes of pain erupt all over his body as glass flew everywhere, but tried to concentrate on getting away.
By now a gelatinous blob about the size of a large beanbag, the mass of blackness fell to the floor and split into two smaller pieces. As Ren backed towards the door, trying not to step on any more glass, each of the two seemed to shift and elongate, rising over Ren's head and solidifying into vaguely humanoid shapes – the two Iehkti'na that had appeared in Roxanne's Gym. Their appearance spurred Ren into action, and he made a leap for the door, expecting it to take him somewhere else – hopefully, somewhere that he would be safe for a little longer.
There was no such luck. As soon as Ren's hand closed on the doorknob, there was a lurching sensation in the pit of his stomach and the world seemed to dissolve slightly, becoming blurry and indistinct, before abruptly sharpening again. Without the liberty to wonder what the sudden nausea bubbling in his stomach signified, Ren yanked the door open and charged through, hearing the susurrous hissing of the Iehkti'na rapidly approaching behind him.
What Ren saw almost made him stop dead, which would certainly have been fatal. As it was, he collapsed forward out of his door and fell onto the ceiling; the rest of his house, it seemed, had turned entirely upside-down. Tripping over a light fitting that normally lit the way to his bedroom, Ren made his way along the hallway, stumbling along the ceiling rather than the floor.
When he reached the stairs, however, a new problem presented itself: the stair vault in Ren's house had been designed to be big and airy, and as a result, the ceiling did not slope down with the staircase. With the carpeted stairs climbing above him upside-down to the ground floor, Ren glanced behind him. The Iehkti'na had followed him out of his bedroom, and were closing on him quickly.
Hoping he wouldn't regret it, Ren reached up – or was it down? – to the banister that ran alongside the stairs. Somehow, he managed to pull himself up onto the railing, half-crouching with his feet between the bars that now stretched upwards from the handrail to the stair-shaped ceiling. The handrail, when right side up, didn't quite come up to Ren's chest. As a result, he found he couldn't straighten up fully on his makeshift, sideways ladder.
Awkwardly, Ren loosed his right foot from its perch and swung it further up, hooking it into the banister and pulling himself upwards. The distance he had gained seemed minimal, and the Iehkti'na almost caught him. Ren, galvanised into action, started to climb in earnest as a shadowy, claw-like appendage slashed through the banister millimetres from his feet, shearing through the ancient polished oak as if it were paper.
Once out of the beasts' reach, Ren secured himself a foothold and risked a glance back down. The two nightmares – was it easier just to call them that? – were glaring at him without eyes, pacing back and forward on the ceiling. They seemed flummoxed as to how to reach him, and he took some small comfort from that. Still, he knew he was in danger as long as he remained near them, so he kept climbing, making sure not to slip.
The top – or rather, the bottom; Ren was beginning to get dizzy – of the stairs came fairly quickly, it seemed. Ren carefully hoisted himself off the banister and edged himself around a corner, which placed him safely on the kitchen ceiling, but still within arm's reach of a terrifying drop. He hadn't realised quite how much of a death trap his own house was.
Taking a deep breath to calm his nerves, Ren looked around. There, seemingly glued to the floor a metre or so above his head, was the kitchen table where he had briefly spoken with his mother just the previous day. That warm, sluggish Saturday morning suddenly felt like it had been years ago.
Standing up, Ren cautiously took hold of the edges of the heavy wooden table and pulled downwards. It lifted slightly towards him, and his arms protested at the strain, as if he was lifting it up instead of down. Ren swore and dropped it, and it fell back up with a clatter. It seemed that gravity was working normally for everything except him and – thankfully – the nightmares that were, he hoped, still prowling around on the first floor.
Wondering what to do next, Ren stood and crossed to the front door, absently looking through the glass pane set into it, which had remained at roughly his eye level. Outside, the world looked much the same as it usually did, save for the fact that it was upside-down. A little scared of what might happen, Ren stretched a hand up towards the handle, which was well within his reach.
Sometimes you have to make choices that determine the future at the drop of a hat. Ren swallowed and grasped the handle, and the world disappeared.
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.
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.
This chapter's about a thousand words longer than most of the others, so enjoy the extra weight and some (shock!) exposition. Also, this chapter is notable for being the first not posted from the Misheard Fortress.
“We should keep out of everybody's way,” said Cecilia, who, despite her request to be escorted, was firmly steering him towards the other side of the village.
“So . . . why are the Iehkti'na here?” Ren asked, suddenly wondering why he hadn't noticed this before. “I didn't know they could get into the third ring.”
“Get in? They don't need to get in, Ren. They live here. In the third ring. Did you not pick that up last night?”
“Uh . . . no. If it was mentioned, I don't recall . . .”
“Well, yes. What did you think we had the Spirit Wall for? Ooh, tell you what, we'll borrow Maho's workshop while he's out. I think he's done a bunch of research on the Iehkti'na.” With that, she abruptly changed direction, navigating them deftly through the crowd of busy spirits who were still rushing around, preparing for battle.
“Um, no offense, Cecilia, but I've just been wondering . . . you don't really seem like the fighting type.”
“Well, I prefer not to be,” she said, dodging a young, bronze-skinned man carrying a large, curved sword, “but if it comes down to it, I'm really quite competent, I promise.”
“Oh . . . really?” Ren said, unable to mask his surprise.
“Yep! Now, wait here while I get changed,” she said, depositing him in the shadow of an elegant marble house and dashing inside, her diaphanous silver robe fluttering behind her.
“Oh, good,” Ren muttered. He had been wondering exactly how Cecilia was planning to do any fighting at all in the flimsy, barely-there outfit.
Ren turned, puzzled. Cecilia's sister, Salinthia, was gliding towards him. After looking twice, Ren realised that she really was gliding, hovering an inch or so above the ground, a pale nimbus of green light emanating from her. She had already gone ahead and changed into battle dress, it seemed – not that it looked very practical, Ren had to admit. She had traded her silver robe for a thick, heavy purple one, tied with silver cord and hanging almost to her ankles.
“Oh, hello,” he said, puzzled. “What can I, uh, do for you?”
“Felicia asked me to give this to you,” she said with the slightest hint of a knowing smile, holding out the short sword he had used to kill the nightmare the previous night.
Ren took it hesitantly, the blade almost seeming to speak to him as he clasped his hand around its purple-bound grip. I have taken life. You, through me, have taken life too. He shuddered and ignored it. “Thanks,” he said weakly. “Tell Elly I'm glad she's worried about me.”
“I don't really think that's the case,” Salinthia said. “I believe it has more to do with the fact that it would be disastrous if the yehktira was killed. You personally have nothing to do with it.”
“All the more reason to tell her, then,” Ren grinned. Somehow, riling Elly up was fun.
Salinthia inclined her head gracefully before slipping back into the crowd, and Ren could tell she approved, even if she wouldn't say it.
Cecilia reappeared at his side a moment later, looking slightly miffed as she noticed the blade he was holding. “Present from your girlfriend?” she enquired coolly.
Ren had been a little afraid she would show up in an impractical-looking robe like her sister, but it turned out she had opted for a loose-fitting white costume that looked much like one of those worn by karate practitioners. He chose to ignore her comment. It just wasn't worth it. “Come on,” he said. “Weren't we going to Maho's workshop or something?”
“Yeah, I guess you're right,” she said, narrowing her eyes at the blade as he slotted it carefully through his belt. “Let's go.”
“Are you sure it's OK, though?” Ren asked as they set off at a brisk trot. “Maho . . . didn't seem like the kind of guy who'd appreciate it if we went through his stuff.”
“It's fine,” she said airily, waving a hand as they swerved through the rapidly thinning crowd. Ren noticed that most of the spirits had congregated on one side of the village – the side opposite to the one they were headed towards. “As a member of the council, nobody can complain about what I do. Maho might be a General, but it doesn't mean he can tell me what to do outside of a war zone.”
“Wait, he's a General?” Ren asked. “He didn't really strike me as the commanding type.”
“He's not, really, but his level of magic is higher than anybody else's here, so he's General essentially by default, I guess. He hates taking responsibility for men under his command, though, so whenever we go to battle, he usually delegates control to his sub-General, a man called Hermann Faber. In fact, it's strange that he decided to even join the strike force today. Normally he's hiding in his workshop whenever it comes to trouble. It's not that he can't take care of himself in a fight. He just prefers not to have to.”
“Yeah, I suppose so,” Ren said absently, remembering the bolt of crackling blue lightning, the all-consuming inferno of hot orange fire. He shivered slightly, wondering for a brief moment whether Elly or Cecilia could do that too. “So, why do you think he actually chose to go out today, then?”
“My guess . . . he didn't want to babysit you,” Cecilia said thoughtfully. “Remember I said he doesn't like taking responsibility for other people? I think when it comes down to it, he'd rather take care of a group of spellcasters that he knows, rather than a kid he doesn't. No offense, of course, but . . . Maho's a funny guy. A genius, for sure, but awfully strange with it.”
“None taken,” Ren mused. He thought on this for a moment, but then he became aware that they had come to a stop in front of a long, squat building that looked a little more dilapidated than the pristine edifices around it. It sat some way apart from the rest of the village, barely ten metres from the Spirit Wall that still flashed angry red colours.
Cecilia led him up a short flight of steps to the door, ignoring a sign that said 'Warning! Hazardous materials, dangerous creatures and delicate experiments inside! Do not enter.'
“Uh . . .” Ren said awkwardly, but Cecilia pushed open the door and practically dragged him in.
The interior of the building was, Ren had to admit, much like he would have expected something called a workshop – especially one owned by Maho – to look. It was spacious inside, with another short flight of steps leading down from the door to the marble floor, which was below ground level. The only light came from a series of small windows set along the tops of the long side walls, giving the space an eerie gloom.
Tables and piles of books lined each wall, with a single long wooden table stretching down the middle. While the table in the middle was empty save for the odd scrap of paper here and there, the ones set along the sides were groaning with piles of notes, arcane-looking ingredients, and other things Ren hesitated to even try to identify. On one of them, a beaker of red liquid was emitting puffs of pinkish smoke at regular intervals.
“Ooh,” Cecilia breathed.
“You've not been in here before?” Ren asked weakly.
“Are you nuts? Maho's always in here. This has to be the first time in a hundred years he's left the workshop for long enough for me to take a look.”
“So I'm just an excuse?” Ren chuckled.
“Partly,” Cecilia admitted, skipping across to one of the tables on the left-hand wall and flicking through a couple of the books strewn across it. “This could take a while, though . . . here, you go down the right side. I know he's written a big paper on the nature of those Iehkti'na somewhere. No real clue where, unfortunately, so we'll have to look for it.”
Ren sighed. “You don't . . . think ahead much, do you?” he said. He didn't really want to spend any longer trawling through the endless piles of books than he had to; Maho's workshop was starting to creep him out.
“Never,” she said. “Still, life wouldn't be much fun if I did, would it?”
Ren shook his head in exasperation and crossed to the right-hand side of the long, narrow room to start flicking through books.
For a good ten minutes, there was silence as Ren picked up each book – none of them had titles or any other distinguishing marks on the cover – opened it to its first page and pored over the scribbled handwriting. It appeared these books had all been crafted and written by Maho himself; the jerky, irregular handwriting seemed as if it could belong to no other than the awkward giant.
The subjects of the books varied widely, from thick tomes on botany and chemistry to catalogues of incantations in a language Ren couldn't even recognise, let alone read. Many of them, however, seemed to deal with something called the Soul Bonds. One of them, a small red book which seemed quite new despite its well-thumbed pages, seemed to contain an introduction of sorts. Curious despite his misgivings about rooting through the magician's library, Ren struggled to decipher a couple of pages of the scrawled, messy handwriting.
“The nature of the Soul Bonds is an enigmatic one. While it is certain that they came into being at the same time as we – and our world – did, about seven hundred years past. The Soul Bonds are integral in the stability of both our worlds, for if they are allowed to dissolve, the worlds will drift apart, with disastrous consequences. It is almost certain that the Bonds were crafted by the same person – or persons – who brought our world into existence, for they bear identical magical signatures.
“The first time it became evident that the Soul Bonds were collapsing, we sought a means to prevent our destruction. I had ascertained that a great amount of yehkti was necessary to re-cast the Soul Bonds, yet not of the kind that is found within this world. It is thus that the need for a yehktira came about. Through a concerted and risky effort, eleven of our strongest spellcasters journeyed through the second ring and into the first, using all of their combined power to create the Dreamlight, the artifact that allows a mortal to pass between the rings as we do. They bestowed this powerful item on a man known as Drayden, who then became the first yehktira. They brought him into the third ring, and his yehkti healed the Soul Bonds.
“Drayden was never needed again, for the Soul Bonds remained stable. Before he died, he passed the Dreamlight on to his son, a man with a far greater measure of yehkti than his father. He also was needed only once in his lifetime. This went on for more than five centuries, until Drayden's line died out. His last descendant handed the Dreamlight on to a woman who would go on to found the contest known as the Pokemon League. Her name was Martha Birch. With my aid, Martha discovered some form of link between those who have great amounts of yehkti and those who perform the most admirably in the tests called Pokemon battles. As a result, she agreed to hand the Dreamlight on to whoever could defeat her in battle, and the tradition of the Dreamlight that lives on today began.
“Twice in her lifetime, Martha was required to enter the third ring and stabilise the Soul Bonds. We saw no real need for consternation at this stage, however, for the Soul Bonds remained relatively stable.
“Over the next hundred years, however, as the Dreamlight was passed from hand to hand, the frequency with which the yehktira was forced to enter the third ring increased dramatically. As of the year 685 (which the humans call 1985), it was necessary to renew the Soul Bonds twice annually.
“It was also around this time that the Iehkti'na began to show an interest in the yehktira and their world. Slowly at first, the smallest of the beasts were able to slip through into the second ring and harass the bearer of the Dreamlight. In these early days, a few small Iehkti'na found their way through to the first ring, though they are all believed to have been trapped there, haunting the nightmares of humans and Pokemon, as they are not strong enough to push through into the humans' world. It soon became customary for a powerful spirit to act as the yehktira's escort during these times, and the attacks were dealt with swiftly.
“Now, the Soul Bonds are deteriorating faster than ever. They reach a critical level within a day and a half of being renewed, so the yehktira must navigate the rings nightly to refresh and recover them. The attacks of the Iehkti'na are growing bolder, stronger and more frequent, and it appears it will soon reach the point where the yehktira's escort will not be able to guard against them.
“The current yehktira and Champion of the Pokemon League, Steven Stone, is giving his best effort to work towards a solution in his world, as am I in ours, but I fear our efforts will be in vain. The only one who can truly bring the Soul Bonds back to full strength is the one who cast them in the first place, and the knowledge of who that could be is lost in the sands of time, as is, surely, the man himself.”
“Ren! I found it!”
Ren blinked a few times, almost dropping the book. Suddenly, it seemed like he had stumbled into something far more serious than he could have imagined. His head was spinning. Soul Bonds? Hadn't Elly said something like that the first time she had met her? Then again, she had also said that the Iehkti'na came from the first ring, which he had recently found to not be the case at all. What did she mean by that?
“Ren!” Cecilia crossed to the middle table and plonked a thick-looking book down on it. “You awake over there?”
“Uh . . . yeah.” Ren slid the book back into the middle of the pile he had found it in. “Just daydreaming.” For some reason, he had the strangest feeling he should keep what he had come across quiet. He moved over to look at what Cecilia had dug out. The royal purple-bound tome's pages were yellowed and crisp with age, though the black ink was still clearly legible.
“You'd do well to read this page,” Cecilia said, indicating a spot in the book. “It deals with the origin of the Iehkti'na. It reads a little bit like a fairy story, but that's Maho for you. He's . . . quirky . . . like that. You read, and I'll be over here, um . . . doing something else.” She slipped away quickly, down towards the far end of the workshop.
Ren watched her go with a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach. Then, shaking himself out of the strange fugue in which he found himself, he began to read once again.
“Over six hundred years ago, the world of dreams emerged from the void. Brought into existence by a man of whom we know very little, we were not born like humans, hatched like Pokemon or grown like plants. We simply were. And so, as we were, were the Iehkti'na. As we came to be in the third ring, so they came to be in the first.
“In those first years of turmoil, the Iehkti'na preyed upon the dreams of the humans as they slept in the first ring. Many escaped to the human world and caused great chaos. Although we did not wish to endanger ourselves for the sake of the humans, we felt obligated to them, for it was certainly thanks to one of their number that we came to be – though how, we know not. Also, we knew not of the significance of the humans' role in the maintenance of the Soul Bonds at this time. So it was that we, headstrong and drunk on our own power, waged war against the Iehkti'na.
“It was a long and bloody conflict, but in the end, we triumphed. While strong and many, the Iehkti'na were fuelled by anger and hatred of all that was good. While few, we knew we fought to save our creator. We defeated the Iehkti'na, but could not destroy them. So instead, we brought them to the third ring and sealed them away so they could bother the humans – and us – no more.
“We thought that was the end of it. But before long, the Iehkti'na broke their bonds and once again attacked us. We beat them back, but were unable to seal them again. Again and again they came, and they were stronger each time. Eventually, tired from endless war and fatigued from beating them back, we set about creating the Spirit Wall, which we set around the Glade of Shifting Light. This wall not only prevents any of evil intent from entering, but also disguises our presence. We are hidden deep within the forest, and the Iehkti'na know this, but they know not where, for the woods are vast, and we beat them back every time they come near the edge.
“So the cycle goes on. Eventually, Drayden came to us, and then his son, and his son's son, and his son's son's son. Throughout history, nothing significant has changed, and we carry on with the same security as we always have. Now and then, the drums of war are sounded, and we stand forth to fight back the evil. Always, we are triumphant. No men have fallen in battle since the great wars of the early days. While the Iehkti'na, who are soulless bodies, fall like corn before the scythe, our bodiless souls are incredibly resilient. We do not age, we do not grow sick. We do not die, unless we are killed.
“And so the cycle goes on.”
Ren blinked. “That sounds . . . ominous.” He set the book down and wandered after Cecilia, who, it turned out, was carefully examining a beaker of some viscous green sludge, swirling it around the bowl of the glass vessel with her eye glued to the neck.
“Oh, hello, Ren,” she said absently as he approached, not taking her eyes off the gooey substance. There was a sudden poof as she spoke, sending a cloud of steam squeezing out of the beaker. “Ow!” she squealed, dropping the container.
Ren stretched out a hand and caught it with a brief sigh of relief, trying not to think about what would have happened if it had shattered. “You all right?” he asked.
“My eye stings like you wouldn't believe,” she grumbled, rubbing it sulkily. “That was mean of him, to leave something like that lying around.”
Ren cast a glance down at the still-steaming beaker in his hand before settling it carefully back on the table. Somehow, he didn't really think it had been intended as a booby trap. He didn't say anything, though.
“So, are you a little more educated now?” she asked, still squinting slightly.
“A bit . . .” he said slowly, trying to piece together the stories told in the two texts he had been reading. “One little thing struck me as strange, though . . . the book referred to the Iehkti'na as being 'soulless bodies' and you as 'bodiless souls'. I think Elly said something about that as well, but . . . it's strange. You do have bodies, don't you? I mean . . . you're there. I can touch you.”
Cecilia took a deep breath. “It's funny like that . . . just because we have physical form here doesn't mean we have bodies. What it means is that we can't cross into your world and take a corporeal form there like the Iehkti'na can. If they pass through the first ring and out through somebody's dream, they can actually manifest themselves and cause chaos. If we try it, we end up trapped there, intangible, drained of all our power and sometimes even unable to speak – what you might know as . . . ghosts.”
“You mean . . . Ghost-type Pokemon are-”
“No, not from what Steven and the others have told us. Ghost-type Pokemon have always been around, and they're just that – the corrupted, departed souls of those who were once alive. When you see a ghost that looks human . . . it's one of ours.” She was oddly quiet, and it took Ren a moment to figure out why. She must have personally known every single one of the spirits that tried to cross to his world, and must have watched them all leave over the last seven hundred years, waiting for a homecoming that would never arrive.
“I'm upsetting you,” he said quickly. “I'll, uh, stop now.”
“No, it's fine,” she demurred. “I'm used to it. We get a lot of different yehktira through here now – often a new one every year thanks to the Pokemon League – and we interact with them far more than we used to. The issue usually comes up sooner or later, and I guess we owe you that much . . . to know. It's not like it affects you directly, but you're pretty much a part of our world now. Now more than ever, actually, now that it's necessary to bring you in here every night.”
“That's a funny thought,” Ren murmured, looking around the long, dim room. “I can see what Steven meant when he said it changed him . . .”
“He said that?”
“Yeah. I mean, I've only been here twice now, but it really makes you wonder about a few things. Like . . . I always thought ghosts were just ghosts – if they existed at all – but it turns out they're something very different, and a little sad. I'm a little scared, to be perfectly honest – what else might be completely different to how I had imagined it? Everything I know could be wrong . . .”
“I know it's hard,” Cecilia murmured, resting a hand lightly on his arm. “It does change you, but you can't expect it to happen . . . well, overnight. There's a lot of information that's coming into your brain at once, and you're having trouble coping. It will come, though.”
“Did . . . did the other yehktira ever have this problem?” Ren asked, his voice a little thick with a sudden onset of confused emotions.
“Some,” she said matter-of-factly. “Well, I think they all did, but some showed it more than others. Steven just stood in a corner for an hour or two without saying anything to anyone, and then came out and went 'All right, I've got it now.' On the other hand . . . a couple of decades ago, we had a woman who absolutely freaked. She kept screaming, fainting and hyperventilating in equal measures. It took her weeks to get over the shock properly.”
Ren grinned wryly. “I guess I'm taking it pretty well, all things considered,” he said, feeling something of a weight lift off his shoulders as he said it.
“You're a smart kid, Ren,” Cecilia told him quietly. “You can look at things and see them as they are, even if you don't realise it yourself.”
“What . . . what do you mean?”
“Well, let's see . . . Elly told me that when she brought you to the Glade for the first time, you actually looked around while you passed through. Most humans we bring here tend to either stare blankly ahead or look at the ground. The ones that do look around, more often than not, tend not to see much. They just gawk. Elly seemed to get the impression that you actually saw, instead of just looking.”
“There's a difference?”
“Between seeing and looking? Of course. A huge difference. It's the difference between you and just about everyone else in the human world, for sure.”
Ren frowned slightly as a thought that had been niggling at him all day suddenly sprang to the front of his mind. “How do you know so much about the human world, Cecilia?” he asked. “I mean, if everyone who tries to go there . . . you know . . .”
“You must think I'm a fool, Ren Goodwin,” she chided him playfully, rapping him on the head. “I'm seven hundred years old, and I've met dozens of different humans from all over the place. Steven Stone in particular was extremely helpful, actually. Like you, he seemed to take a genuine interest in our world, and because of that, we reciprocated that interest. The council often took to simply sitting and listening to him talk for hours. He was such a good talker, despite how quiet and formal he could be.”
“Oh,” Ren said bashfully. “Of course. That would make sense. Actually, that sounds like . . . a good idea. I'd be happy to do that with you sometime – if you don't mind, that is. You could maybe tell me a little bit more about this world, too.”
“Ren Goodwin,” Cecilia said, a flicker of amusement dancing in her sea-green eyes, “I do believe you're hitting on me.”
“I-I am?” Ren stuttered, confused. “I-I didn't notice-” He stopped when he noticed that Cecilia was laughing, a light, musical laugh that filled the cavernous room like the peals of a bell. He chuckled nervously.
“Oh, Ren,” Cecilia giggled. “You're too easy to tease. Come on, let's get out of here before Maho comes back – or I break something.” She raised her eyebrows guiltily before taking his hand and pulling him back towards the door.
Ren stumbled along in her wake, pondering just how strange Cecilia could get. At the door, she let go of his hand and almost flew down the stairs to the grass below, suddenly extremely energetic. Ren followed her down, half-smiling despite himself.
At the bottom of the stairs, he froze. “Cecilia,” he said gravely. “You know what you said just now about how I 'see' things that other people might not?”
She frowned. “Yes?”
“Well, I was just wondering . . . do you see those Iehkti'na as well, or is it just me?”
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.”
“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.
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.
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?”
“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.
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.
“ 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?”
“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.
Solange Ich Lebe
“You sure you don't want to come back to our place for lunch, Ren?” Aunt Mary asked. “It's not like it's any trouble. We love having you.”
“No, thanks,” Ren said. “Maybe some other time, but for now . . . I need to go back and see my mom. I left all of a sudden yesterday morning, and, well . . . you know how she is.”
“I do indeed,” Uncle Roger chuckled. “I grew up with her, after all. Well, if that's the case, I'm afraid it can't be helped. I'm sure she's really looking forward to spending some time with you, Mr. Prodigal Son. We'll have you both round our place some time. I'll see if your aunt Mabel can make it as well. Heaven forbid, we might even get your father in next time he's in town.”
Ren smiled, although it felt a little forced, even to him. “Sure, that'd be nice. We haven't all gotten together like that since Christmas when I was, what . . . eight?” And I haven't seen Dad for three years, he added silently.
He took his leave quickly, promising Natasha that yes, she could keep the books. Despite the fact that there was no train to catch at his destination this time, he hurried along the coast road up to his house with all the speed he could muster.
“I'm home!” he called loudly as he pushed the door open.
“Oh? Sweetie, you didn't call ahead!” his mother called out from somewhere within the house.
“Um . . . surprise?” he tried, following the sound of her voice to the study at the back of the house.
She looked up with a smile when he entered. “It's good to have you back, honey,” she said. “How long do you think you'll be home this time?”
Ren's own smile faltered slightly. “I have to be at a contest in Mauville on Thursday,” he told her, remembering the fact suddenly. “And Steven said somebody would be in touch with me to talk about other things. But at the moment, I'm free until then.”
“You'd better not have anything happening on your birthday,” she said seriously, shuffling some papers and slotting them into the filing cabinet. “You keep next Sunday clear, okay?”
“I'll do my best, Mom,” he said. “What are you working on at the moment, by the way?” he asked, gesturing to the papers strewn around the computer.
“Just an article for the Mauville Mirror,” she said dismissively, sweeping it all to one side. “Leader Wattson's making moves to have New Mauville open by the end of the year, and he wants some coverage and publicity for that.”
“New Mauville? That's the power plant they're building up on Route 110, isn't it?”
“Yes, but never mind that now,” she said. “Have you had lunch, sweetie? It's nearly two o'clock.”
Ren's stomach growled a negative. “I . . . don't think I had breakfast, either,” he admitted, suddenly realising his neglect. Katrina had taken Natasha to get something while he and Steven were talking, but for his part, Ren had entirely forgotten to eat.
“That's bad for you, you know,” she scolded. “Come on, I'll fix you something.” She hustled him out of the study and back down the hallway to the kitchen. Ren instinctively looked up at the ceiling, half-expecting to see his own footprints there, but made himself bring his eyes back down to earth straight away. It wasn't the time to be thinking about that.
He tried to help, but his mother shooed him back to the table, claiming he would just get in her way. Knowing better than to be hurt, he sat himself down and watched as she fried up what looked to be leftover mashed potato from a bowl she had whipped out of the fridge. The generous knob of butter she had dropped into the pan sizzled wildly, sending a simple yet reassuring aroma spiralling through the room.
“You always overestimate how much potato you need, don't you?” he said, slightly amused.
“Always,” she admitted. “There's always at least a full serving left over, no matter how many people I'm cooking for.”
“And you always used to fry it up for me just like this,” Ren said quietly, casting his gaze out the window. “Especially on Sundays. I'd spend all morning out goofing around with Tim, Cole and Natasha . . .”
“But you'd always come home at one o'clock sharp,” she reminisced.
“That's because Saturday always seemed to be sausages and mash night,” Ren chuckled, watching a Pelipper wing its way slowly through the sky, a small flock of Wingull trailing behind it. Right there, in the familiar open-plan kitchen that he had eaten in every day for ten years, he finally felt like he had come home. Very little had changed. The same magnets were still stuck to the fridge, colourful letters and numbers that still spelled out 'Happy 10th Birthday, Ren'. A slight ache pierced his heart to see that.
“It always was,” his mother said with a smile, heaping the crispy mash onto a plate and drizzling it generously with tomato sauce, just as she had always done for him before he had left. “There you go, sport.”
Ren took the plate gratefully, swearing under his breath as he realised how hot it was. He hurriedly set it down on the table with a clatter and reached for a fork from the drawer behind him, swinging his chair back onto two legs as he did so. His mother scowled but passed no comment.
Ren fell silent as he ate, realising just how hungry he was. His mother poured them each a glass of orange juice and sat opposite him to drink hers. “You always used to do that, too,” he noted between mouthfuls.
She shrugged lightly. “Old habits die hard. I sat here with my orange juice every Sunday for the last five years, waiting for you to come home so I could share it with you again.” Her voice was airy and unconcerned, but her eyes betrayed her.
Ren put his fork down and reached across the table to take her hand. She flinched a little, but quickly wrapped her fingers around his own. They were small, he noticed. Back when he was a kid, his mom's hands had always seemed so big and warm and strong, enveloping his own little hands entirely and making him feel safe. They were still warm, but they were about the same size as his own now. He could only wonder how long it would be before hers were the hands that disappeared under his.
She glanced up into his eyes. “Ren, you . . .”
He saw with a shock that there were tears forming in the corners of her eyes. He gave her hand a quick squeeze. “Do you remember what we used to do after lunch on Sundays?” he asked, his voice quiet but forceful.
She nodded silently, the motion causing the tears to slip out of her eyes and run down her cheeks. Ren stood up and walked around the table, an action complicated by the fact that she refused to release his hand. “We always walked down to the little park on Seaboard Avenue, remember?” he said, pulling up another chair so he could sit next to her. “You'd sit and watch while I played on the swings or the slide.”
“You loved that slide,” she said, her voice wobbling slightly.
“I did,” he said. “It was so big and red. Is that park still there? It didn't get turned into an apartment building or anything, did it?” A shake of the head was his only answer, so he continued, “I think we should go down there, then.”
“Of course. Come on, Mom,” he said with a smile, standing up and gently tugging at her hand. “Let's go to the park.”
She didn't move for several seconds. When she did, it was to stand up and wrap her arms around Ren. Slightly taken aback, but quietly pleased nonetheless, he returned the embrace, feeling for the first time just how very small and frail she was.
When she finally let him go, her eyes were clear and she was smiling, although Ren sensed it was more than a little forced. “Right,” she said. “To the park it is.”
The park was a half-hour's walk away on a good day, but Ren was in no hurry. He walked side by side with his mother, just as had always used to. After a few minutes of silence, she slipped her hand into his again, entwining her fingers with his as if seeking support. He smiled indulgently.
“You don't mind, do you?” she asked. “You're not too old to hold your mom's hand, are you?”
“Of course not,” he said.
They walked in silence along the coast road for another five minutes, feeling the brisk sea breeze rushing and dancing along the cliff. Bird Pokemon chirped and squawked from hidden nests above and below them, and there were a few dozen boats on the harbour below, specks of white against a shimmering blue curtain.
“Your father called last night.”
Ren looked at his mother, suddenly a little worried. “What did he want?” he asked, making sure to keep his voice light.
“He told me that he wanted to see us,” she said, so quietly that Ren had to strain to hear her. “Well, mostly you, I suppose.”
“I haven't seen him since my trip to Unova three years ago,” Ren reflected. “Why does he suddenly want to see us now?”
“He . . . got married in spring last year.”
“What? Why didn't you tell me? For that matter, why didn't he?”
“He asked me not to. I've got no idea why, but I guess that's something you can ask him.”
“Is he coming back here?” Ren asked. “He hasn't made a business trip for a while.”
“No, he wants us to go there. To Lacunosa. He has a house out there with his new wife and her daughter.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Ren said, taken aback. “Her daughter? So does that mean I have a . . . step-sister now? I've had a step-sister and a stepmother for nearly a year and I didn't know about it? For that matter, do they still count as step-whatevers if Dad doesn't have custody of me?”
“I don't know, Ren,” she said. “I'm sorry I didn't tell you, but . . . he made it very clear that it was essential you didn't know. I thought he was planning to surprise you or something, but last night he asked me to tell you, so I . . . I just don't know, Ren. He didn't even tell me about it until a couple of months ago.”
“He likes his secrets, doesn't he?” Ren pondered, shaking his head. “But still, Unova! Are we going to go? I don't really know if I have time for a holiday right now.”
“That's exactly what your father thought,” she said, “so he made a suggestion and asked that you run it by the people at the League. The Unova Conference is happening in a couple of weeks, so he thought you could come out for that. It's being held in Opelucid, which isn't far from Lacunosa, and it's apparently not uncommon for Champions to sit in on the Conferences of other regions.”
“I guess that could work . . .” Ren said slowly.
“Do you want to go, honey?” she asked, turning to look into his eyes. “I mean, it's up to you. If you don't really want to go, I can just call him back and say you're already booked. I won't make you go if you're not comfortable with it.”
“I do want to . . . I mean, I think I do. Can I think about it for a while?”
“Of course you can, sweetie,” she said, squeezing his hand. “Let's just get to that park before sunset, huh?”
Outwardly, Ren smiled, but on the inside he couldn't help but feel a little upset. Dad never told me he was even thinking about getting married . . . he called twice a month for the last few years, and he didn't mention it once. What kind of crap is that? I don't know if I can deal with all this as well as the yehktira thing. It's all happening at once. Why is it all coming on so suddenly? It was as if he were suddenly drowning in various responsibilities and expectations. Champion, yehktira and now stepson? Step-brother?
The park was almost exactly the same as he remembered it. The grass was a little longer, the creaky swingset a little rustier, and the bright red paint on the slide a little flakier, but none of it made the slightest difference to Ren. It was as if he was nine years old again. He saw himself scrambling up the ladder and almost tumbling off the slide in his haste to get down it. He saw himself standing up on the swing despite his mother's insistence he sit down, swinging higher and higher until he felt sure he would fall off.
“Been a while, huh?” he said. The park was deserted but for the two of them.
“Hmm.” Making up his mind, Ren crossed to the slide and pulled himself up the ladder, feeling the rough, rusty texture of the bars under his fingers. At the top, he slotted himself awkardly into the plastic half-tube, his hips almost too wide to fit. He slid down a lot more slowly than he remembered, coming to a stop at the bottom without shooting off the end.
“Bit different now, hmm?” his mother said, sitting down on one of the ancient, creaky swings that sat adjacent to the slide.
“. . . Yeah.”
Ren's Pokenav blipped loudly from his pocket, causing him to sigh.
“Answer it, sweetie,” his mother said with a little smile.
“But this is-”
“It's probably important. Go on.”
With an apologetic nod, Ren pulled the little red device out and pressed the answer key, standing up and walking a short distance away to take the call.
“Hello?” he said, hearing the tiredness in his own voice as he spoke.
“Yes . . .”
“My name is Gerard Etois. I work for the Pokemon League.”
“Oh, are you the one that Steven said would be calling?”
“Yes,” said Gerard. “I'm glad he informed you of that, for it makes my job somewhat easier. As Mr. Stone may have mentioned, I will be in charge of coordinating your schedule for the duration of your tenure as Champion. Do you have time to discuss this now?”
“Um . . .” Ren glanced over at his mother, sitting alone on the swings, her wavy brown hair swaying in the breeze as she watched him talking. “Not really . . . Would it be possible for you to just give me a brief overview of what's going on in the next few weeks?”
“That's wonderful,” Gerard said, although he didn't sound particularly excited. “So . . . Mr. Stone has suggested you attend the Mauville Pokemon Contest on Thursday, correct?”
“Yes, he has.”
“Well, I've just spoken with the organisers, and they'd be delighted to have you as a guest. They've also asked if you'd like to compete. Would you be interested?”
“I've . . . never participated in a Contest before,” Ren said, suddenly very worried. “I wouldn't have any idea how.”
“Still, I think it would be a good idea if you did,” Gerard pressed. “It would emphasise your support of the Contest programme, to be sure.”
“I don't think so,” Ren said firmly, somewhat taken aback by Gerard's insistence. He relented slightly, though. “Well, not this time, at least. I'll watch the contest on Thursday, and that might allow me to learn something to apply in the future. I'd be lying if I said Contests were something I'd ever thought seriously about participating in, but I suppose it could be interesting.”
“That sounds like a splendid compromise,” Gerard said, sounding quite pleased with himself. “We'll try to get you participating in Contests within a couple of months. I'll call the Mauville committee later this afternoon to inform them. But before that . . . there's a festival going on in Fortree City on Tuesday which I think you'd enjoy.”
“A festival? What would that involve?” Ren asked suspiciously.
“Nothing too taxing, I promise,” said Gerard, sounding faintly amused. “You would spend the day participating in the activities, perhaps give a speech or two, and generally be seen to be involved in the culture. The local radio station is interested in interviewing you as well, I hear. But on the whole, it should be fairly relaxing, in fact.”
“Sounds good,” Ren said. It did, actually. He had liked Fortree City a lot when he had passed through about a year and a half earlier, and he had been keen to return for some time. Speeches and radio interviews would have to be dealt with when they came about. “Anything else on?”
“Well, on Thursday you have the Contest – that will just be a day trip, of course – and then on Sunday-”
“Sunday's out,” said Ren abruptly. He shot another quick glance across to the swings and was rewarded with a smile and a thumbs-up. Feeling emboldened, he continued. “It's my fifteenth birthday, and I'm planning on spending it at home. I'd really rather not do anything unless I absolutely have to.”
“Well, ah . . . you see, Richard Andrews has indicated that yesterday's episode of Hoenn Buzz was extremely well received, and he would like to have you back for his Sunday slot next week, where he can talk with you in a lot more depth. He'd really love to do it as a follow-up episode.”
“I . . . I can't. I liked Richard, but I really can't. Would it be possible to do it the week after?”
“Ah. Now, that poses a bit of a problem,” Gerard said slowly. “You see, the following weekend is the Unova League Conference, and we were thinking of sending you as an ambassador for the Hoenn League.”
“Oh.” Ren's stomach dropped about a foot. On the one hand, it fit perfectly with his father's plan to bring him over to Unova – almost too perfectly, he thought briefly. On the other hand, it gave him one less excuse to get out of something which he was growing less and less sure he wanted to do. There was no real reason for his apprehension, he had to admit – it wasn't as if he didn't get along with his father.
“Ah, right. Um . . .” Sometimes you have to make choices that determine the future at the drop of a hat. It was ironic, Ren thought wryly, that it was his father's words that came back to him at a time like this. It seemed that they were becoming relevant more and more frequently in recent times, though, and he knew he would have to go with it. “I'll . . . I'll do it,” he said.
“You will? Good, good. I was a little worried that you wouldn't be up to it, being as new to this whole business as you are.”
“I've travelled before,” Ren said. “I've been to Unova a few times, too – I was born there, actually, though I don't remember much of that time. Besides, my father lives there at the moment, so I imagine I'll be meeting up with him at some stage. I think I'll be all right.” He really hoped that he would be. It was intimidating enough having to go along to the Unova Conference without even taking his new stepmother and step-sister into consideration.
“I'm glad to hear it,” Gerard said. “Having a Champion familiar with the region as our ambassador will be good. But this still leaves us with the problem of what to do about Hoenn Buzz. Of course, we can do it after you return, but it really would be better to get it done sooner rather than later. I'll speak to Richard Andrews about that and get back to you tomorrow, or later tonight if possible.”
“All right,” said Ren. “Is there anything else on? Before I go to Unova, that is.”
“Well . . . the Tuesday before the Unova League, there is a tag battle tournament going on in your hometown of Slateport. Would you like to take part?”
“Tag battles? That sounds like fun. I haven't had much experience battling with a partner, though.”
“Well, you might learn something, then,” Gerard said genially. “I'll contact the organisers and have them enter you. Well, I think that's all for now – I'll call you back tomorrow afternoon to arrange transport and the like, seeing as you seem to be a little busy right now.”
“All right, then. Thank you, Mr. Etois,” Ren said, stumbling slightly over the pronunciation of the unfamiliar name. “I'll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Goodwin.” There was a click, and the line fell silent.
Ren slowly folded up the Pokenav and slotted it back into his pocket, moving back over to sit on the end of the slide again. “It looks like I'm pretty busy over the next couple of weeks,” he said quietly, picking at a loose flake of paint on the edge of the slide.
There was no answer for several seconds, so he tried again. “It also looks like we're going to Unova to see Dad.”
“I guess we are,” his mother said, her voice equally quiet.
“Are you . . . all right with that?” Ren asked, rising from the slide and crossing to sit beside her on the other swing hanging from the ancient frame. “I mean, I kind of decided that a bit quickly.”
“No, that's fine. I guess I was just . . . surprised.”
“By what?” Ren asked.
“Well . . . by you, I suppose. You've . . . grown up a lot in the last few years. I haven't seen you very much, and every time you come back you seem different somehow. This time, though, it's like . . . like you've reached a certain point. It's almost like you're an adult now. My little boy disappeared when he went off on his tenth birthday, and I've never seen him since.”
Ren didn't know quite what to say. “I . . . it's still me, you know. I think it's pretty understandable that I'd have changed, though. I mean, I don't see it myself, but I guess in five years you'd change a bit.” The words sounded hollow even as he said them; he wondered exactly who he was supposed to be reassuring.
Silence fell for almost a minute. Ren let the swing rock back and forth a little, his toes dragging in the bark on the ground beneath. The trees lining the park rustled gently as a salty breeze blew in from the sea. Tucked into a large niche in the cliff – not unlike the one that Ren's house stood in – the park afforded a splendid view of the ocean and the sky above it, but Ren's eyes reached beyond the horizon. In that quiet moment, he looked out and saw the vast expanse of the universe. He didn't know how much of the vision was his imagination and how much he was actually seeing, but the sheer scale of the cosmos took him aback. There were huge, dark things out there, perfect black against imperfect colour, frightening in their size and omnipotence.
Then he blinked, and he saw only the ocean. He looked back around, at the bark and grass beneath his feet, the trees surrounding him on three sides, and finally back at his mother, sitting on the swing next to him with a strange half-smile on her face.
“You all right, sweetie?” she said. “You look a little pale.”
“No, I'm fine,” he said. “Just a little tired.” He couldn't help but wonder if that was a side-effect of his adventures in the world of dreams. It certainly seemed that he had been exceedingly tired today – but then again, he considered, it might just be the fact that he had finally come to the end of his journey. His life over the last five years had been so unbearably busy that it might well have simply caught up to him.
“Maybe you should have an early night tonight, love. Do you have anything on tomorrow?”
“No,” Ren said, not without relief. “Nothing, actually. Tuesday I'm in Fortree for a festival, Thursday I'm in Mauville for a Contest, and then the next Tuesday is the tag battle tournament in town.”
“Oh, I think I saw that in the paper. I'll come along and watch you. But it seems you have quite a bit of free time before we go to Unova.”
“Yeah, that'll be nice,” Ren said, nodding. “Say, when are we going to leave for Unova? The Conference is on over the weekend, but . . .”
“We should probably try and get there by the Thursday, actually. That'll give us some time to spend in Lacunosa with your father before everything starts.”
Ren didn't say anything for a few seconds. Somehow, it seemed there was nothing he could say. At length, he stood up and took a few steps away from the swing. “Let's go home,” he said at last. Let's go home and watch TV and have dinner and go to bed and pretend I'm a normal kid, he added silently, but didn't dare say it out loud.
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. :/
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.
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.
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.
Mid-week chapter because I've been on a writing binge and I kinda hate being ahead and I love you all.
Slateport was named so for a reason. The top of the cliff on which Ren's house balanced awkwardly had once been a rich source of a high-quality variety of the hard grey stone, and it was this enormous deposit that had necessitated the building of a port nearby to traffic the material through. That had all been a long time ago, of course. The demand for slate had fallen as metal and glass came into fashion, and while there was still a significant amount quarried in the area, all the work in the vicinity of Ren's house had long since ceased, leaving behind nothing but a number of sizable craters, dotted along the clifftop like the marks of a giant's pogo stick.
It was to the nearest of these abandoned quarries that Ren now climbed, taking a little-used, steep path that led him off the road and up a narrow crevice in the cliff. It probably wasn't very safe, but that didn't bother him as he scrambled up over the loose shale towards the top. Loose stones skittered away beneath his feet, making the ascent treacherous, but Ren skipped over them with practiced ease, his body remembering the movements that even his memory had let go.
At the top, he paused to catch his breath, doubling back a little to stand a few metres from the edge of the cliff. He had forgotten quite how long the trail up to Quarry #133 was. Still, he reflected as he turned to look back the way he had come, it was worth it. His view of the ocean, usually spectacular at worst, was beyond awe-inspiring from the top of the cliff. It was barely lunchtime, he supposed; he had forgotten his Pokenav, so he judged by the surprisingly hot sun that hung overhead. Without the sun in his eyes as it so often was, he could see for miles and miles. Slateport was out of sight somewhere to his left, but he could see three or four largish ships slewing their way towards it, accompanied by dozens of smaller ones that left tiny white threads of wake behind them.
A cold wind blew across the top of the cliff, reminding him how exposed he was. Turning away from the ocean he had seen so many times, yet never grew tired of, he hurried towards the gnarled wire fence that stood – or rather leaned, for it had guarded the quarry for countless years – a hundred or so metres away.
As he had imagined, nobody had been by to fix the gaping hole in the fence that allowed him access. Ignoring a rusty yellow warning sign that blared 'Danger! Unsafe area – no entry except for council personnel,' he ducked through the gap, immediately finding himself standing on hard, packed earth rather than grass. It was always a little eerie, that – as if he had stepped out of nature and into a construction of man. Which, he supposed, he had. A handful of derelict huts were strewn about the area, clearly much older than the fence surrounding them. The wind was not quite as strong here as it had been at the edge of the cliff, but it still blew sharply, kicking up a cloud of dust here, rattling a dust-ravaged windowpane there.
Ren shivered a little and pressed on, passing the huts without another thought much like he always had done. Another fence stood in his way, much stronger than the last – even if it was decades older. This one, however, had a wide-open gate. Ren stepped through confidently, suddenly finding himself confronted by the quarry.
Probably fifty metres across at the bottom, and maybe two hundred at ground level, the quarry was a roughly semicircular depression, hacked out of the slate over a long period of time, gradually widening and deepening. Natural erosion had worn much of it smooth over however many years it had been abandoned, leaving rounded edges and slopes everywhere, while he imagined it had once been all sharp corners and harsh lines. There was still a clear pathway, however, which snaked its way in a spiral pattern around the bowl of the quarry, and it was this which he now followed, tracing the invisible footsteps of his younger self.
It took him about ten minutes to reach the bottom. Even though the quarry wasn't all that deep, he had been walking at a leisurely pace, taking in every detail of the rock that slowly rose over his head. At the bottom, he walked to the middle of the roughly circular space, stepping over small chunks of discarded rock and around larger ones. In the middle, he stopped and looked up. There were a handful of fluffy white clouds scudding across the azure sky, but the sun beat down on him powerfully, causing him to hiss involuntarily and close his eyes, cursing his foolishness.
“Well done, you,” he grumbled, rubbing his eyes and blinking. Coloured spots danced in the air in front of him wherever he looked. Seeking a distraction, he remembered why he had come in the first place. His hands dropped to his belt, tapping the release switches on all six of his Poke Balls. With a loud series of pops, his Pokemon leapt forth in flashes of red light, all of them clearly enthused to see light of day. “Sorry, guys,” Ren murmured guiltily as he watched them.
Manectric barked happily and set off at a blinding run around the area, investigating the unfamiliar surroundings and enjoying the rough terrain. Zangoose stood at Ren's side, doing its best to look surly, but the sunlight warming its white fur was clearly having an effect; Ren noticed – with some amusement – the subtle shifting of its feet and flickering of its eyes that betrayed its interest.
Braviary, his proud plumage perennially glossy, perched atop a large chunk of discarded slate with his beak thrust regally towards the sky. His beady eyes followed Yanmega as it buzzed happily around, zipping backwards and forwards with all the frenetic pent-up energy it could muster – which was a considerable amount, Ren knew, well aware of the Bug-type's enthusiasm for high speeds.
A rumble sounded through the quarry as Camerupt stomped its enormous, boulderlike front leg in a sign of approval, its thickset head bobbing appreciatively as the sun washed over it. As Ren watched, Braviary flapped down from his perch to take up a position atop one of the two volcanic cones that thrust upwards from the huge Pokemon's back. Camerupt was by far the largest Pokemon Ren had raised – a colossus of stone and flesh – so large, in fact, that it seemed like a real mountain with the impressive Flying-type on top of it.
A quiet humming filled the air as Ren turned to look at the only one of his Pokemon that had released itself behind him – Solrock. Its rocky golden spines were glowing slightly as it levitated a good couple of metres off the ground. Eyes closed in serene contentment, it seemed to be surrounded by a faint nimbus of golden light. Ren realised that it was also soaking up the sunlight, only a lot more literally than the rest of his team.
“Well, guys,” he said, causing them all to turn and look at him expectantly, “I guess we should get started. Braviary, have you been able to catch Yanmega yet?” While he still refused to blink, Braviary averted his eyes slightly, which gave Ren all the answer he needed. “Right, then,” he said, trying to hold back a smile. “Let me see what you guys can do.”
Braviary needed no further encouragement. With a loud, keening skrike, he launched himself off Camerupt's back and pelted towards the hovering bug-type, cleaving effortlessly through the air. Ren watched with satisfaction as the two wheeled and spun through the air above him, carefully observing their movements. As ever, Braviary was easily the faster of the two, his enormous, red-and-blue wings more than making up for his bulk. Yanmega's agility, however, was unparalleled, and it easily flew rings around the bigger Pokemon.
“Braviary, slow down a little,” Ren called, struck by a sudden thought. Looking rather taken aback, Braviary braked slightly, allowing Yanmega – who had been flying around Braviary's wings – to shoot ahead of it. Clearly, Braviary understood exactly what Ren had meant, for he took advantage of the separation to immediately speed up and make another pass at Yanmega, who was now a clear few metres ahead of it. His harsh beak snapped eagerly, but Yanmega barely managed to buzz out of the way. A frustrated shriek echoed throughout the quarry as Braviary was denied his prey yet again.
“That's good,” Ren said. “Keep trying that.” The problem, he had noticed, was that Yanmega had been shrewdly using Braviary's own body against it, ducking under and rolling over it to avoid the talons and beak that sought to capture it. The sudden deceleration had momentarily overcome that, allowing Braviary a clear shot. Yanmega had reacted instinctively, but it had been a far nearer miss than usual. The Bug-type would be wise to the trick now, but it would make it only marginally easier to avoid.
As the two wheeled and dived overhead, Ren turned to his other Pokemon. Solrock seemed quite happy to bask in the sunlight for the moment, so Ren decided to let it be. Camerupt snorted eagerly, but Ren eyed their surroundings warily, well aware of how unsafe the quarry was. He had never dislodged any of the loose rocks around the bowl before, but he was unwilling to risk generating an earthquake. “Sorry, buddy,” he said with a grimace. “You might have to sit this one out for today. Watch Braviary and Yanmega for a while. Make sure they don't eat each other.”
Rumbling in disappointment, Camerupt nevertheless turned its attention upwards as best it could with its stocky neck, leaving Ren to chew his lip as he stared thoughtfully at Zangoose and Manectric. At length, he clapped his hands once. “Right,” he said. “Speed training all round. Zangoose, let's see if you can catch Manectric.”
Zangoose shot him a look that quite clearly said, Are you mad? While Ren was well aware that the Normal-type would climb into hell if he asked it, he was aware that it probably thought this an exercise in futility. Fiercely competitive though it was, Zangoose had eventually – and grudgingly – come to accept that speed was Manectric's domain. The blue and yellow Pokemon was the embodiment of a lightning bolt, after all.
“What, don't think you can do it?” Ren taunted good-naturedly. Zangoose's eyes narrowed, but it refused to rise to the bait.
Ren sighed. “Look, just give it a shot, all right? Manectric, run around in as big of a circle as you can.”
Manectric barked and was gone in a flash of yellow. Ren lost sight of it for a second, but then his eyes latched onto the blur that dashed around the edge of the flat area at the bottom of Quarry #133. He saw Zangoose's eyes following the blur as well, and smiled. “Listen,” he said. “Manectric is moving in a predictable pattern at a constant speed. It's fast, but you should still be able to intercept it like that with a little practice.”
Zangoose hissed suspiciously, but crouched lower to the ground, preparing to spring. Red eyes narrowed in concentration, its pupils flicking from left to right and then back again as Manectric blasted across its field of vision again and again. After a few seconds, Ren noticed its body rocking slightly. He was confused for a moment, but then he realised that it was simply adjusting its rhythm to that of Manectric. Good. First step, done – without me having to say anything.
With a yowl, Zangoose suddenly bounded forward. Manectric, however, was already well past as Zangoose leaped. Ren blinked as Zangoose's jump pushed it higher than he had expected, gaining it several seconds of airtime. As it came back down, Manectric was already rushing back around towards it. The timing was almost perfect.
Almost. With an almighty crash, Zangoose struck the ground right at the point where the bottom of the quarry met the wall, but Manectric was over two metres away by the time the attack landed, skidding to a halt to stand watching proudly. Zangoose yowled in frustration and struck out at the sloping wall, rubble spraying out from the point of impact.
Ren grinned nonetheless. “That's it!” he said. Seeing Zangoose's confused glance, he amended, “Well, that's not quite it, but you were far closer than I thought you'd be on the first time. I'm impressed! Do you see how it works, though?”
Zangoose inclined its head in grudging agreement as it trudged back over to stand by Ren, who scratched it behind the ear. “Try again,” he said. “Make sure you read the rhythm. Manectric, go one more time!” he added, raising his voice slightly. Manectric barked and obediently went tearing off around the edge of the basin again.
Zangoose settled into the rhythm more quickly this time, wavering back and forward, left and right as it fixed its aim on Manectric. Without warning, it charged again, feet pounding the ground and then lifting it, powerful muscles propelling it upwards in an enormous arc. Ren watched with bated breath as the two Pokemon flew towards what surely had to be a collision point. Zangoose was going to hit its target on just the second try. Manectric raced around its circle, heading straight for the point where Zangoose was going to land. When the two Pokemon were barely a metre apart – just as all doubt disappeared from Ren's mind – Manectric stopped, leaving Zangoose to crash uncontrollably into the wall.
Ren frowned. “Manectric,” he said sharply. “What was that for? I didn't realise we were playing chicken!” Zangoose also hissed angrily at the Electric-type, clearly incensed at being denied its target.
Manectric yelped in protest, seeming to strain against an invisible wall. Looking more closely, Ren saw a faint pink glow surrounding its body. He sighed and ran his hand through his hair as he turned to glare at the only unoccupied member of his party. “Solrock,” he growled. “What have I told you about playing jokes like that? Let him go.”
Solrock bounced gently in midair, its round eyes sparkling with amusement. Sounding a single, musical note that echoed around the area, it released Manectric, who bounded over to bark grumpily at it.
A loud shriek from just behind Ren caused him to duck sharply – and just in time, too. Braviary swooped through where his head had just been, wickedly sharp claws extended in pursuit of Yanmega. Standing up again, Ren shook his head and smiled as the enormous Flying-type continued to pursue its frustratingly elusive target
“Zangoose, Manectric, you keep that up. I can trust you not to hurt each other, I hope.” Zangoose shot him a sideways look, but nodded. “Good. And you,” he said, glaring at the mischievous Solrock, “can come with me and practice your Fire Spin.”
Solrock thrummed reluctantly. “Yes, it helped us beat Steven. Yes, it took out his Metagross. But it still lacks a bit of refinement. Don't give me that look, you know it too. Now, I want you to-”
Ren's eyes snapped upwards. He knew that voice, though he hadn't heard it for years. Could it be? He couldn't be sure. The man standing at the quarry entrance was tall and bulky, dressed all in jeans and a white polo shirt, but that was all he could make out from forty metres below.
The man started down the path at a run, and Ren simply stood, turning slowly on the spot, and watched him draw closer as his Pokemon stopped what they were doing to stand with him. As the black-haired newcomer came further down the side of the quarry, Ren grew more and more certain of his identity. Hell, he's changed, though, he thought.
“Long time no see, Cole,” Ren said with a smile as he stepped forward to greet his older cousin. “You're . . . really big now.” It was true. Cole was well over six feet tall, and rather broad in the shoulders and torso. He had always been bigger than Ren – he was seven years older, after all – but since Ren had left, he had filled out a great deal.
Cole laughed good-naturedly, his breathing barely affected by running down the twisting path. “You've got a good bit bigger yourself, but you're still a squirt,” he chuckled. “I wasn't expecting to find you all the way out here, but look at you! I guess you still remember this place, huh?”
“Of course,” Ren said, allowing his cousin to pull him into an affectionate bear hug and ruffle his hair. As always, he felt like a ragdoll in Cole's grip. “I had to come back here.”
“I guess you remembered what you once said about it being the perfect place to train Pokemon. I heard your bird making a racket from some way away and had to check it out,” Cole said, glancing past Ren at the Pokemon that had arrayed themselves behind him.
“You never did bring yours out up here for some reason,” Ren mused, suddenly remembering. “Why was that?”
Cole's smile flickered momentarily. “Don't you remember? It's because we promised to come here to train and battle together someday. This was going to be our 'super-awesome secret intense training ground'.”
“Oh . . .” Ren said, suddenly feeling more than a little guilty. “I guess I . . . did forget that, huh?” He found himself unable to meet his cousin's eyes.
“Hmm . . .” Cole looked thoughtful for a moment, but then he snapped his fingers. “I've got it!”
“You can battle me right here and now! If you do that, I'll forgive you.”
“Are you . . . sure?” Ren asked. “I mean, I don't want to sound like an *** or anything, but I am the Champion now.”
“That doesn't matter,” Cole said dismissively, fishing in his pocket for a couple of Poke Balls. “I always knew you were gonna be better than me anyway. The important thing is that we battle, and we do it now. I've only got two Pokemon on me at the moment, though, so it's gonna have to be a quick one. We can catch up and be all nostalgic together later.” He started to release his Pokemon, but caught himself and stopped. “Here, you pick your two before I send 'em out. You don't get any advantages.”
Ren raised an eyebrow. Cole was just like his sister Natasha in a way, he realised – quite convinced that he could do what he liked, when he liked, and how he liked. “All right,” he said. Braviary looks a bit worn out from chasing Yanmega, and Camerupt will probably bring the whole quarry down on our heads. Zangoose and Manectric have both had an outing lately, so that leaves . . . “Yanmega, Solrock. You guys are up. The rest of you can take a break and watch.”
Yanmega buzzed eagerly across to hover at Ren's left shoulder, clearly spoiling for a fight after so long cooped up in its Poke Ball. Solrock moved a little more serenely, but Ren could tell that it was just as excited in its own unfathomable way.
“Good?” Ren asked, cocking an eyebrow as he felt the familiar thrill of battle beginning to rise in his heart. This was different to Roxanne and Vila. Vila had been an amateur, no serious challenge at all, and Roxanne had been a familiar face using familiar strategies. He hadn't seen his cousin for five years, and he had never paid any particular attention to people's battling styles in those younger days. He didn't even know which Pokemon Cole had, though he could make an educated guess about one of them.
“Yeah, that'll do fine,” Cole said with a grin that screamed confidence. He had to have a reason for that, Ren deduced. It had to be something to do with the type matchups. “How are we gonna do this?”
“Yanmega,” Ren said quietly. “You're first.” It was a standard strategy when facing unfamiliar opponents; Yanmega was the most capable of evading attacks, meaning that it was least likely to suffer from a disadvantageous type matchup. Still, if he pulls out a Rock-type . . . “You're the challenger, so you can choose your first Pokemon after you've seen mine,” Ren said. “Both Trainers can switch their Pokemon at will, and the battle ends when both Pokemon on one side are judged unable to battle. Sound all right?”
“That works. Don't we need a referee?”
“It's fine,” Ren said. “We'll both play nice, won't we?”
“Of course. Let's do this thing, then.” Cole turned suddenly and jogged back to the opposite side of the quarry, leaving Ren to do the same as his remaining Pokemon stepped back out of the way. Yanmega shot forwards, taking up an offensive position in the middle of the open space, habitually placing itself near a cluster of half-cut blocks of slate that could provide cover if necessary.
Ren hastily sized up the battlefield, nodding appreciatively. He would have placed Yanmega exactly where it was, given the choice. It always felt good to see his Pokemon learning and growing, and he felt a sudden flush of pride.
The few clumps of slate chunks aside, the roughly circular area was largely clear of obstruction – a perfect battlefield.
“By the way, Ren,” Cole called from the other end, “I won't let you hear the end of it if you go easy on me, all right?”
“Wouldn't dream of it!” Ren shouted back. “Now let's go! You can call the first move as soon as you choose your Pokemon!” He saw Cole look down at the Poke Balls in his hands, his head lowered for several seconds while he weighed them against other. At length, he tossed one straight upwards.
At the peak of its arc, the ball burst open and a powerful, avian shriek rattled Ren's teeth in his head. An enormous, black and grey Flying-type wheeled overhead, a sharply hooked crest visible on its head. It was bulkier than Braviary, but moved more slowly and ponderously.
“Nice Staraptor,” Ren said, more to himself than his opponent. He saw Cole's hand fly up, and Staraptor dived towards the still-unmoving Yanmega with a speed that belied its rotund form. The battle was on.