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Old September 10th, 2011 (3:52 PM). Edited September 10th, 2011 by Misheard Whisper.
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Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
"I also happen to be a model."
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Join Date: Jan 2009
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Age: 23
Gender: Male
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(Also, guys, this is a milestone chapter. I'm so happy to have come even this far. My longest fic before this, Shattered, was nine chapters long when I dropped it, and this will hopefully go for much longer. *knock on wood* Thanks for letting me drag you along on this confusing tale, and believe me when I say that I love each and every single person who reads this. More emo will follow at Chapter Thirty. )

Chapter Twenty

Go!” The command had barely left Ren's lips when Yanmega sprang into action. The tone of its throaty thrumming changed as it zoomed forward, seeming to head straight towards Staraptor. At the last moment, it spun aside, allowing the wind from its opponent's large wings to push it even further out of the way, throwing it into a controlled spiral that brought it close to a second pile of slate chips that varied in size from mere pebbles to chunks the size of Ren's head.

Ren saw what Yanmega was after, and was more than happy to go along with it. “Ancientpower! Hit it from behind!”

Its enormous, multifaceted red eyes seeming to glow, Yanmega's buzzing grew almost unimaginably loud. A slight rattling became audible, but it was not immediately obvious where it came from. It became abundantly clear just a second later, however, when the ground behind Yanmega erupted in a shower of slate. In midair, the jagged chunks of rock – some further broken down and cracked by being lifted – changed trajectory and flew towards Staraptor like huge, sharp bullets.

Staraptor had been busy trying to compensate for its missed attack when Yanmega launched its counter, and as such it was still facing the opposite direction. As it turned back towards its opponent, it flew straight into a hail of rocks moving at supernatural speeds.

To its credit – and Cole's – it actually avoided most of the Ancientpower attack, ducking and weaving with surprising agility between the oncoming missiles. Several of them did graze it, however, leaving the Flying-type somewhat battered.

Ren glanced at the ledge that his non-battling team members had retreated to. Was Braviary watching? Sure enough, his own Flying Pokemon had its eyes riveted to Cole's Staraptor. Ren grinned. Good. Watch and learn. In the meantime . . . He turned his attention back to the battle. He probably wouldn't be lucky enough to get another Ancientpower in like that. The element of surprise, at least, had vanished, and he knew full well that that was half of his advantage.

He noticed, however, that Staraptor seemed somewhat more affected than he would have thought it would be, given the relatively light attack it had weathered. Why is that? Of course, it's not as well-trained as Yanmega . . . Vila aside, I've battled nothing but high-level Trainers lately.

We can press that!” he said aloud. He started to direct Yanmega upwards, but the Pokemon had predicted his order, rapidly ascending straight upwards. By placing itself above the shaken Staraptor, it had an immediate advantage in this battle – both physical and mental.

Aerial Ace!” Cole shouted, and Staraptor responded instantly by barrelling upwards towards Yanmega, beak outstretched. Its speed seemed to defy the laws of physics. Even as Ren opened his mouth to order Yanmega out of the way, it was moving, but he knew it would not be fast enough to dodge Staraptor's blistering speed.

Sure enough, Yanmega took a glancing blow to one of its wings, sending it tumbling helplessly towards the ground. Less than a foot away from the unforgiving shale floor of the quarry, it righted itself and buzzed out of the way of a potentially lethal follow-up attack that Staraptor had launched, leaving the larger Pokemon to pull up in disappointment.

Ren thought fast. Cole was doing better than he had predicted, simply through his Pokemon's size and type advantage. It was clearly trained for speed, but its defenses were poor. He would have to finish this quickly if he was to finish it at all. He had lost the height advantage, though, and he was unlikely to regain it. Regardless, a plan formed in his mind, quickly pieced together from past experience.

Staraptor! Dive!” Cole thundered, sweeping his arm down in a somewhat melodramatic fashion.

Click. Something in Ren's head fell into place, and he shouted, “Ancientpower, one more time! Ring formation, and hold it!”

Yanmega buzzed agreement, its eyes glowing with exertion once again as it telekinetically ripped huge chunks of slate from the ground around it. They flew into the air just above Yanmega, forming a rough circle in the air. If anything flew into the circle, it would be crushed – and Staraptor was heading straight for it, seemingly unable to adjust its trajectory.

Go around that, Staraptor! Get behind it and hit it while it's distracted!” Cole barked.

Ren swore silently as Staraptor peeled off at the last second. He had sprung the trap too soon, and now he was caught in it as Staraptor swept around behind Yanmega, who was still occupied with holding the rocks in the air. Just as he was about to order a full retreat, Ren was struck by a further idea. “Hold the rocks there!” he cried. “Hit it when there's an opening!”

Don't give him one, Staraptor!” Cole roared. “Close Combat!” Staraptor shrieked assent and dived at the hovering Yanmega, buffetting it with its powerful wings. Yanmega could not launch its attack without destroying itself as well.

Ren bit his lip as he watched his Pokemon take a beating, still valiantly struggling to hold the rocks in the air to the exclusion of all else. A few of the shards of slate wobbled and dropped, and Ren knew he had to act fast. Suddenly struck by a further stroke of inspiration, Ren brought his hand up to catch Yanmega's attention before slashing it sharply downwards.

Yanmega understood. Its wings stopped buzzing, and it dropped like a stone to the ground below, leaving Staraptor alone and momentarily confused. “Now!” Ren said, and Yanmega sent all of the floating rocks whizzing into Staraptor. There were no glancing grazes this time; every one of the chunks of rock hit its target, smashing into the larger Pokemon. With a cry, Staraptor fell to the ground, a bundle of limp feathers.

Yanmega lifted its head with a touch of exhaustion, and then forced itself up off the ground and into the air once more. Five seconds passed, then ten. Staraptor remained where it had fallen, while Yanmega stayed aloft, hovering proudly at Ren's shoulder.

Fantastic job,” he murmured at length. “Cole! I think your Staraptor's out for the count!”

Cole nodded, returning the defeated battler to its Poke Ball in a flash of red light. “Tell me, Ren,” he said as he pocketed it again. “Why didn't you switch Pokemon? I don't doubt that your Solrock could have made short work of Staraptor. You're not going easy, are you? I warned you about that.”

Of course not,” Ren said. “I wanted Solrock at full strength for whatever comes next. If it's what I think it is, I'm going to need all the help I can get.”

Cole laughed. “Smart. And if I know you like you know me, I know you know exactly what I'm sending out next.”

Ren frowned. “Uh . . . what?”

I know,” Cole said with a grin.

I'm sorry?”

Never mind. Anyway, it's time! Floatzel, you're in this to win it!” With that, he hurled his second Poke Ball, revealing his second Pokemon. The big orange Water-type glanced around the makeshift arena curiously, seeming to recognise it.

Of course he does, Ren berated himself. Buizel was always here with us when I was a kid. “I see you got him to evolve, then?”

Of course!” Cole said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “I once dreamed of taking on the Pokemon League with this guy!”

Really?” Ren said, interested. “When did that dream stop?”

Oh, a few days ago. Some cousin of mine beat me to it!” Cole guffawed loudly.

That's no reason to stop,” Ren protested.

I'm kidding,” Cole said. “I'm too busy. I'm finishing university this year, and I have to go out and get a job once I'm done. I won't have time to keep up Pokemon training seriously. But hell, I said we'd talk afterwards! You going to bring Solrock out or stay with Yanmega?”

Take a break, Yanmega,” Ren said quietly, directing Yanmega back towards the rest of his team. Solrock rose, unbidden, from its place and headed towards the centre of the battlefield. Its eyes no longer carried any hint of the mischief that had been evident just minutes before. It was all business now.

Ren's mind went into overdrive as he tried to work out how to overcome the second massive type disadvantage of the battle. Solrock knew one move that could deal with Water-types like Floatzel, but its opponent's speed would likely prevent it from getting one off.

Aqua Jet!” Cole said, clearly expecting an easy win. Floatzel drew himself up to his full height and spewed water from his mouth in a spiralling jet that wrapped around his body like a cloth. He charged forwards at a breakneck pace, the water forming a cone at his head that pointed straight at Solrock.

Use Fire Spin on yourself to block it!” Ren said quickly, hoping it would do the trick. Solrock hummed and spun like a top, gouts of fire issuing from the tips of its spines and forming into a whirling pillar of intense flame that hid the Pokemon from sight. Ren flinched involuntarily at the heat.

Floatzel was undeterred, however, leaping eagerly forwards, seeming to become one with the water that surrounded him. The combined jet of water and Pokemon scythed through the air and slammed into the fiery maelstrom with an impossibly loud hissing, crackling sound. Ren winced as Floatzel easily punched through the wall of flame.

Solrock, however, was nowhere to be seen. The attack had missed. When the flames dissipated a moment later, Solrock was revealed, hovering proudly a good ten metres off the ground. Knowing as well as Ren did that its flames would wither before Floatzel's water, it had used the cover of the Fire Spin to move out of range of the attack.

Let's make it fly!” Ren shouted. “Psychic!” He had to go on the offensive, or he would lose easily. Solrock hummed dangerously, spinning gently in midair as a purple glow – barely visible in the bright sunlight – enveloped both it and Floatzel, lifting the Water-type high off the ground until it was level with Solrock.

That just makes things easier!” Cole said triumphantly. “Water Gun!” Seeming slightly deterred by the fact that it was far further from the ground than it was accustomed to, Floatzel nevertheless spouted a powerful jet of water from its mouth that gushed towards Solrock at high speed. Solrock spun and barely evaded the attack.

Keep moving!” Ren yelled. “Don't let it pin you down! And start to charge that up while you're at it!” As Solrock started to move, circling the helpless Floatzel, Ren noticed that his Pokemon had already begun soaking up the sunlight. The bases of the spines that protruded from its round body were glowing a bright golden colour. As he watched, the colour began to slowly bleed along the rocky spines.

Floatzel kept turning as best it could, firing blasts of pressurised water at his opponent, but the Psychic attack was clearly taking its toll. Its movements – already restricted by Solrock's telekinetic powers – were growing sluggish. All it needed was one lucky shot, though. Solrock's concentration would be broken, and Floatzel would be free to move again. Ren watched with growing anxiety as the bright gold light spread towards the tips of Solrock's spines.

A jet of water clipped Solrock, sending it spinning. Floatzel fell freely for a second before Solrock regained control, meaning that the bulky Water-type now hovered just a metre or so off the ground. Clearly frustrated, it kept firing water at Solrock.

Ren realised that he had been holding his breath. Just as he let it out in one huge exhalation, another Water Gun hit Solrock, driving it back a little and loosening its control just enough for Floatzel to hit the ground. “Now!” Ren screamed, not even looking to see whether Solrock was done.

Thankfully, it seemed that it was. There was a distant rumble that seemed to shake his entire being, and then the entire quarry was painted bright, glaring white as a shaft of pure sunlight blasted out of the sky and smashed into Floatzel. Ren closed his eyes a split second too late and found the afterimage of the burning pillar of light seared into his retinas. A yell from the other end of the battlefield told him that Cole had suffered the same experience.

A second after the light had shot down from above, it was followed by the arrival of a world-shaking, earth-shattering crash that seemed to rock the entire cliff that the quarry stood on. Ren pressed his hands over his ears, but he was unable to block out the noise.

After several seconds, the light beating against Ren's eyelids dimmed, and he cracked his eyes open cautiously. It was still difficult to see; his pupils had been hugely confused by the sudden flash of light. As his vision cleared, however, he saw Floatzel lying prone on the ground.

His breath coming in great gasps, Ren sat down heavily. “That was far closer than it needed to be,” he said to himself.

It's my loss,” Cole said, striding forward and returning Floatzel to its Poke Ball. He came over to sit down next to Ren. His breathing was also heavier than normal, Ren noticed – even though running four hundred metres down the side of the quarry had barely fazed him. “You all right, cuz? You look a little out of it.”

I guess I am,” Ren said. “That was the first proper battle I've had since I beat Steven, I guess.”

What, you out of practice already? Didn't you beat him on, like, Wednesday or something?” Cole asked, arching an eyebrow.

Yeah, but . . . I don't know. That was a good battle either way, though. I thought you had me with that Close Combat for a minute there.”

I thought I had you, too,” Cole said with a laugh, “but look where that got me. Two-nil, huh? Jeez, I haven't been whitewashed like that for ages. Then again, I wouldn't expect any less from the Champion! Oh, yeah. I forgot to congratulate you properly for that. Well done, little man. You've done us all proud.”

Thanks, Cole. I just hope I can keep it up.”

What's that supposed to mean?” Cole asked, frowning.

Oh, um . . . nothing,” Ren said. “Just a bit overwhelmed by everything that's going on.” He wished, for a brief, mad moment, that he could tell Cole everything. It seemed that everything would become so much easier if he just told his cousin about the world of dreams and the hefty responsibilities that had become his when he had beaten Steven. He knew he couldn't, though. As much as he trusted Cole – as much as he had never kept anything secret from him before – he knew he had to keep silent. Steven had made that much clear, and Ren had to agree with the logic.

Well, you'll get used to it,” Cole said, ruffling Ren's hair reassuringly. “Ha, listen to me. I'm talking like I've been through it or something. Anyway, we should get going about now. I was on my way to Aunt Thalia's when I bumped into you.”

It always sounds weird when you call her that,” Ren grumbled.

Just because you're used to calling her 'Mom',” Cole said. “So you'll come with me, right? We can talk on the way.”

Ren stood with a sigh, his eyes fixed on the gate at the top of the quarry. “Guess I can. That battle was training enough for everybody, I think. To tell the truth, I just came out here to take my mind off a few things.”

After a few seconds, Ren realised that Cole had neither spoken nor moved, which was certainly uncharacteristic. He glanced back down at Cole, who was still sitting on the ground next to him, and was surprised to find his cousin watching him with a thoughtful, distant look in his eyes. Ren shot him a questioning look.

I was just thinking . . . you've grown up a lot,” Cole said slowly.

I'm not that tall,” Ren said with a frown, even though he knew that it wasn't what Cole had meant.

No, not like that. Back then, you were always such a kid, you know? You were the little one that tagged along behind Tim and I all the time, always excited about something. It was like you were the little brother I didn't have. Now, I sit here and talk to you, and it's like I'm talking to someone my age, or even someone older. How did you get so . . .”

Old?” Ren suggested with a quirk of the lip. “I guess . . . it happens. Some things never change, but some things do. I've been everywhere, Cole. I've seen so many things, and achieved so much. In five years, I've done more living than most people do in their whole lives. Wouldn't that sober anybody up pretty quickly?”

Yeah,” Cole said quietly, standing up so that he once again towered over Ren, brushing grit off the seat of his pants as he did so. “C'mon, let's go back to your place. We've got some catching up to do.”

Right,” Ren said, quickly returning his Pokemon to the capsules on his belt as he followed Cole up the path to the top of the quarry. Neither of them said anything until they reached the top, when they turned to look back down at the quarry, a massive bowl scooped out of the earth over decades of labour.

I remember the first time we came out here together,” Cole said. “You were just six, and I was thirteen. You were so scared then. You thought you'd fall in and die, and it took me half an hour to convince you just to go near it.”

Hey, Cole,” Ren said, letting his eyes roam freely across the middle distance.


Did it ever bother you?”

Did what bother me?”

Having me tailing along. I mean, Tim was only a couple of years younger than you, but I was . . . so far away. I must have been such a nuisance.”

Nah, not at all. You were a cool kid. Bit nuts, but who isn't at that age? Why? Did it bother you? I never saw you with any kids your own age.”

I was a bit of a loner, yeah,” Ren admitted as they turned and headed back towards the fence that ringed the old quarry. “It was mostly my fault, though. Whenever the other kids tried to get me involved with their hijinks, I always turned them down to hang out with you or stay at home with Mom. I always kind of felt that I'd be betraying you guys if I went to play with them.” He laughed, but it sounded a little hollow even to him. “Mom always told me that family was more important than anything else, and I guess I took that to heart. Kinda funny, considering what happened with Dad, but . . . I guess it makes sense. Not having him around just made me value you guys all the more. At least, that's what I think when I look back on it now.”

You are old,” Cole said drily as he squeezed through the gap in the fence behind Ren. He made a beeline for the crack that led back down to the road.

Ren forced a smile. Today was a weird day, he decided. “I think that's me talked out for a little bit,” he said. “Your turn. It's no mystery what I've been up to, but what have you been doing these last few years?”

Well, ah . . . like I said, I'm finishing university this year – in Lilycove. The first semester finished a week ago, so I took the opportunity to come back home for a little bit before I go back for the last drag.”

What are you studying, then?” Ren asked, suddenly extraordinarily aware that he knew next to nothing about the person he considered his closest friend.

Commerce!” Cole said proudly. “International business and management, to be exact. I'm going to get right into it once I'm done with uni, so I've started looking for jobs with some of the big firms in town. Slateport's a huge hub for international trade – you know that, of course – so there's a huge number of possibilities there. I could be really successful without ever having to leave home!”

That'd be nice,” Ren said, sliding carefully over a section of loose scree that he normally avoided. He was quite pleased to find that he could do it comfortably. “I was just about ready to come back home after I became Champion, but it seems I have to move around just as much as before. At least I get to be back in town some of the time, though.”

It's good to have you here, Ren,” Cole said, his grin suddenly replaced by an unexpectedly frank expression. “I worry about the family, you know. Without a man around . . . Well, my dad's there, but he's . . . a little ineffectual sometimes. I feel a bit bad saying that, but it's the truth. With your dad in Unova, Uncle Murphy dead, me in Lilycove and Tim at boarding school in Kanto . . .”

I get it,” Ren said, sparing Cole the trouble of stumbling over his words any further. “I can't be around here all the time, but I will be as much as I can.”

Just . . . just look after them, okay? All of them. Your mom, my parents, Natasha – and especially Aunt Mabel. I worry about her all alone up there. I dropped by on Friday and she was in a bit of a state. She's not been the same since Uncle Murphy died ten years ago.”

Ren nodded silently, coming to a brief halt at the bottom of the trail and looking out across the ocean again. It was just as beautiful as ever, but something in its unreadable depths suggested many, many strange things to come.

I need to stop doing that, he scolded himself. I'm seeing messages that aren't there in perfectly ordinary things. First the park, and now this.

Ren, you all right?” Cole asked.

Y-yeah. I'm fine. Look, Cole, I . . . I'll look after them. I don't know how well I can do that, or even what I'll need to do, so I won't make any promises – except one. I'll promise you that I will do everything I can to make sure they're all right. I can't tell how far that promise will go until it's tested, but . . . it's the best I can offer.”

That's all I wanted to hear, Ren,” Cole said as he started off down the road again. “I'll hold you to that.”

No need,” Ren said with a slight smile. “I'll hold myself to it. That's not the sort of promise I'm going to break for anything.”

You really do sound far older than you look,” he said.

Will you stop saying that?”
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Old October 8th, 2011 (1:40 PM).
y stri y stri is offline
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    All I can say about this is . . . wow.

    This story is so original and wonderful! Are you planning to write a novel?

    I'm slightly embarrassed to say that I almost cried during the scene where Ren visited the park.

    The second ring's probably going to contain the quarry, right? (watch it not be the quarry just because I said that)

    And you know what I think would be hilarious but outright impossible? Elly vs. Roxanne: The Battle of the Possible Love Interests for Ren. Not necessarily over him, but I would have a good laugh if this happened.
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    Old October 8th, 2011 (5:07 PM).
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
    "I also happen to be a model."
    • Crystal Tier
    Join Date: Jan 2009
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    Age: 23
    Gender: Male
    Nature: Relaxed
    Posts: 3,457
    Originally Posted by Electricmudkip View Post
    All I can say about this is . . . wow.

    This story is so original and wonderful! Are you planning to write a novel?
    Wow, thanks! Yes, I am. I've written a couple of draft novels already, actually, but I write more fanfiction than original fiction these days.

    I'm slightly embarrassed to say that I almost cried during the scene where Ren visited the park.

    The second ring's probably going to contain the quarry, right? (watch it not be the quarry just because I said that)
    Well, that would be a fair enough assessment. It's generally the places that appear during his day that appear in his dreams, so . . . heheh. And I'm glad that the scene in the park was as emotionally strong as I'd hoped it would be.

    And you know what I think would be hilarious but outright impossible? Elly vs. Roxanne: The Battle of the Possible Love Interests for Ren. Not necessarily over him, but I would have a good laugh if this happened.
    Oh yes, that would be brilliant. Unfortunately, the likelihood of that happening is almost zero, considering that a) Elly going to the human world would be suicide and b) Ren's not allowed to tell anybody about the world of dreams, let alone take anybody in with him. Still, anything is possible. It could happen some day.

    Thanks for reading! :D
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    Old November 13th, 2011 (12:39 AM).
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
    "I also happen to be a model."
    • Crystal Tier
    Join Date: Jan 2009
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    I live, ich lebe, yo vivo. Welcome back to Champion Game, guys. Sorry it's been so long. Exams have been truly harrowing lately, and I've really just not had the time to sit down and write. So I apologise sincerely. I can't promise when the next chapter will be, but regular updates will resume no later than December 1st, probably earlier.

    Chapter Twenty-One
    Mehr Träume

    Ren left his mother and Cole chatting at the kitchen table, excusing himself to his room. No sooner had he opened the door than his Pokenav – which had been sitting on the floor by the bed – rang insistently. He picked it up guiltily. “Hello?”

    Mr. Goodwin,” said a disapproving voice on the other end of the line.

    Mr. Etois,” said Ren tiredly. “Sorry, I went out and left my Pokenav behind. Have you been calling long?”

    Only about half an hour,” Gerard said drily. “But no matter. I am simply calling to inform you that your transport to Fortree has been arranged for tomorrow.”

    Oh, good,” Ren said. “So, what's happening?”

    Well . . .” Ren heard a note of disapproval in Gerard's voice.

    Is there something wrong?” he asked.

    Not as such, but . . . well, all I can tell you is that transport has been arranged.”

    Wait, seriously? Nothing else?”

    It has been requested that you be waiting outside your house at eight-thirty tomorrow morning.”

    Requested? By whom?” Ren frowned.

    Again, I have been asked not to say.”

    So you spent half an hour calling me just to tell me that you're not actually allowed to tell me anything?”

    Essentially. I feel it is something of an exercise in futility, but you are nevertheless informed now. Oh, and besides . . . I have spoken to the organisers of the Mauville Contest, and they are more than happy for you to come along and simply watch the proceedings on Thursday. They would like you to present the ribbon to the winner as well, but that will hardly be too strenuous, I imagine.”

    Of course. Yeah, I can do that.”

    Very well, then. Now, are you able to find transport to Mauville on Thursday?”

    Mauville? Oh, yeah, that's fine. I'll just take a train, or maybe I'll go by Cycling Road. Either way, I'll get there myself just fine.”

    Excellent. So remember, eight-thirty tomorrow. Have fun.”

    Sure,” Ren said, suddenly not entirely certain that he would. As the line went silent, he let his Pokenav drop to the bed beside him.

    You can't afford to be all uncertain now, he scolded himself. For Arceus' sake, you've been through too much already to let this kind of thing get to you. Nodding firmly, Ren took a deep breath, letting the warm, slightly dusty air fill his lungs. Feeling slightly better, he headed downstairs again.

    Are you all sorted for tomorrow, then?” his mother asked as Ren reentered the kitchen and pulled up a chair.

    Yeah. Well, I think so. He wasn't very clear. It seems somebody wants to surprise me. I'm just meant to be waiting outside at eight-thirty in the morning. Maybe they're sending a car, but I have no idea.”

    How enigmatic,” she mused, an amused twinkle in her eye. “I guess you'll just have to wait.”

    Whoa, hang on!” Cole interjected. “What's going on here?”

    I have to go to Fortree tomorrow,” Ren said. “They're having a festival of some sort . . . come to think of it, I actually don't know what that's going to involve. But I'm turning up as the Champion.”

    Oh. Promotional stuff, huh?”

    Yeah, I guess,” Ren said.

    You all right with that?” Cole asked, peering intently into Ren's eyes.

    Why wouldn't I be all right?” Ren countered, feigning puzzlement.

    Hmm,” Cole said, seeming somewhat unconvinced. “Never mind, then. It was just a thought. Still, that's pretty cool. I guess you have a whole lot of these things going on, huh?”

    I'm . . . busy,” Ren admitted. “This is how life is going to be for a while, it seems. I don't expect it'll get any less hectic anytime soon, but I guess it'll get easier as I get used to it.”

    Cole's eyes narrowed slightly as he observed Ren, but he evidently decided to let whatever had just crossed his mind pass without comment, for he turned to his aunt and engaged her in conversation about Aunt Mabel.

    Ren looked down at the dark, varnished whorls of the table, letting the voices of his mother and cousin fade into background noise. Cole had seen it in his eyes, he realised. While he had made light of his heavy duties as Champion, he should have known that he couldn't lie to his older cousin. Even if his lips spoke falsehoods, his eyes would always betray the truth. He had seen that understanding in Cole's own eyes.

    But what should I do? There was no way he could admit to how difficult it was. It wasn't like the world of dreams, which had to remain secret for an entirely different reason. In fact, there was no logical reason why Ren shouldn't admit to Cole how much trouble he was having, but still something stopped him. He supposed it was pride. He had spent so many years proving trying to prove to Cole – and to himself – that despite his age, he was able to hold his own with the older boys. Admitting how hard he was having it right now would somehow ruin that, he felt. I'm fourteen now, he told himself, clenching a fist under the table where nobody could see it. I've got to stop relying on other people here.

    Then what am I doing in the world of dreams? he wondered suddenly. I'm just leaning on Elly and the others there. I can't even look after myself – they have to do that for me. But what can I do? There's nothing for it – nothing except making up for it by being as independent as I can here.

    Ren?” Cole prompted, leaning across the table to poke him in the forehead. “You awake there, man?”

    What? Oh, yeah. Sorry. Just a bit tired, still. What is it?”

    I know you're busy tomorrow, but do you think you could drop by and see Aunt Mabel on Wednesday? I have to go back to Lilycove tomorrow, so I can't go with you. But I really think she'd appreciate it, you know? She's not herself these days, but she was really happy to hear how well you did at the League. I'd say she'd enjoy it if you went to talk to her.”

    I'll do that,” Ren said. “I think . . . yeah, I think she'd like that.”

    Good,” Cole said, standing up suddenly and heading for the door. “Now, I have to go. Mom made me promise to be home by four. Things to do and all that, you know?”

    I know how that is,” Ren said wryly. “See you . . . next time I see you, then.”

    Yeah, I probably won't see you in the morning before we both leave. Good luck with all the stuff you've got going on, Ren. And bye, Aunt Thalia. I'll stay in touch.”

    Goodbye, dear. Say hello to Roger and Mary for me, would you? Tell them I plan to drop by tomorrow if I can.”

    Sure thing,” Cole said, and with that, he was gone.

    Ren took a deep breath and let it all out at once, standing up from the table. “I'll be in my room,” he said.

    All right, dear. Dinner will be about six, I imagine. What do you plan on getting up to till then?”

    Um . . . I don't really know,” he said. “I'll find something. Read a book, maybe.”

    You could just stay here and talk to me, you know. I get awfully bored with just the radio for company,” she said lightly.

    Halfway to the stairs, Ren paused. He heard the slight challenge in her voice, and he shook his head helplessly as he returned to his seat in the table.

    So,” he said. “What shall we talk about?”

    The best part of four hours later, Ren excused himself to go to bed early. It wasn't exactly as if he was keen to return to the world of dreams, but he felt a certain obligation. He had to apologise to Salinthia, for starters. Uneasily, he wondered if the spirits would ever see him the same way again. He remembered Steven's warning about not getting on their bad side. They are certainly more than capable of making your life hell if you offend them. He shivered as he sat down on his bed, suddenly unwilling to go to sleep.

    On a whim, he reached across to his bedhead and pressed the release switch on Zangoose's Poke Ball. With a pop that seemed louder than usual in the otherwise tranquil evening, his partner Pokemon materialised next to the bed.

    Zangoose leapt to the alert, claws raised defensively, and scanned his surroundings quickly. It took him a couple of seconds to work out where he was, at which point he glanced questioningly at Ren as if to ask, 'Why did you bring me out if I don't get to cut anything?'

    Ren smiled. “Easy, buddy. Just needed a little . . . company.” He slung his legs up on the bed and fell back into the pillow, sighing deeply. After about twenty seconds of silence, he rolled to the side to find Zangoose observing him balefully, red eyes just barely elevated above the level of the bed. “You really don't know what to do, do you?” he mused.

    Zangoose cocked his head slightly to one side. Well, duh, Ren imagined him saying. Zangoose had never been one for conversation, even as far as Pokemon were concerned. The Normal-type was the main fighter on his team, not a healer or a source of emotional support. Nevertheless, he had been with Ren the longest out of any of his team, and Ren felt a certain sense of calm wash over him with him in the room.

    You want to sleep out of the ball tonight?” he asked. Receiving nothing but a wary, slightly confused glare, he clarified: “I'll feel better if you're there. Wake me up if something . . .”

    He stopped and swallowed. What was he worried about? Was Salinthia going to make good on her threat? Would it even be necessary? If what she had said was true, and the Soul Bonds really were deteriorating at a faster rate than before, he would have no choice but to stay in the world of dreams. That prospect didn't endear itself to him.

    Just wake me up if anything goes wrong, okay?” he amended.

    Still looking at him askance, Zangoose moved back from the side of the bed and curled up under the window, bushy tail wrapped defensively around his body. His red eyes remained open, however, fixed unblinkingly on Ren.

    Anybody else would find that really creepy, Ren thought with some amusement. He looked back into Zangoose's eyes as he felt sleep begin to tug on his eyelids, and drew some comfort from the almost tangible connection between them. As he finally closed his eyes, he realised that he had never truly appreciated how lucky he was to have partners like he did.

    What are you, really?” Ren asks Afro Glameow. He is sitting cross-legged on a giant red mushroom flecked with white spots, sipping sweet, steaming tea from a delicate china teacup with coloured flowers on the side. It's surprisingly tasty, though he isn't normally fond of tea. He replaces the cup on its saucer with a delicate clink, noting as he does the thin white gloves that encase his hands.

    Afro Glameow is curled up on a slightly smaller mushroom just a couple of feet for him, but for once it looks anything but threatening. Much like Ren, it is apparently enjoying a hot tea of some kind, lapping it happily out of a saucer. It appears totally at peace with the world.

    Oi!” Ren tries again, snapping his fingers to get the Pokemon's attention – an effort not exactly aided by the gloves on his hands. “Why do you hang out here, anyway? What are you?”

    Afro Glameow stretches luxuriously, taking a final lick from its saucer as it does so. Fixing its eyes on a point somewhere behind Ren, it leaps lithely across onto Ren's mushroom. When Ren doesn't react except to take another sip of his tea, it nudges his elbow insistently with its springy afro, mewling gently.

    Oh, what is it?” Ren snaps, slightly peeved. He turns around, though, and is faced with a familiar-looking black portal. “Oh, right. It seems I have to go now.” On a strange whim, he reaches around the afro and scratches the unusually benign Pokemon behind the ear. It lets out a purr, but nudges him even more insistently toward the portal.

    You really want me to go, don't you?” Ren says thoughtfully. “Why's that?” No answer. He shrugs. “Fine. I'll see you on the way back through, I guess?” Without waiting for a reply, he puts a hand out behind him, allowing the portal to suck him through into the second ring.

    Hello, you,” said a familiar voice. It didn't sound too friendly, but Ren opened his eyes and did his best to smile anyway. He was in Steven's secret conference room in the Slateport Devon Corp. building, sitting in one of the chairs. Staring at him from across the table was Elly, looking to be in remarkably better health than the last time he'd seen her. Her lower left arm bore a long, thin scar from elbow to wrist, but it looked as if it had been there for years, appearing as little more than a slightly discoloured line. He still shuddered to look at it, though, remembering the violet blood that had been running freely from it the last time he saw her.

    Um, hi,” he said. “Are you . . . I mean, is everything . . .”

    Everything's fine,” Elly said. “Well, it's as fine as it's going to get. Now come on, the council wants to talk to you.”

    Wait!” he said as she stood up, kicking her chair backwards.

    What?” she asked icily.

    Ren winced, but carried on. “I just thought of something. About the Iehkti'na . . . if they're that intelligent . . . or rather, if they realise they need me alive in order to survive themselves, why did they try to kill me that first night?”

    I . . . I don't know,” Elly said, looking as though it pained her greatly to admit it. “I can only guess. But you're right – that doesn't really match up with what Nekros was saying.”

    It wouldn't really benefit them if I died, would it?” Ren asked.

    Of course not, moron,” Elly snapped. “You die, the Soul Bonds die with you – and so does everything else. As much as I hate to single you out as special or anything, you're kind of the most important person in the world – in two worlds – right now. But don't you dare let that go to your head, you hear me?”

    All right!” Ren said, raising his hands in defeat. He grinned, despite the seriousness of the conversation. “I'll try not to mention it again. But seriously, why the sudden change with the Iehkti'na? It's going to bother me all night now.”

    My best guess is that in the second ring, they're just as dumb as they normally are. That Nekros seemed to have them under its control somehow, but he – it wasn't in the second ring with us that night. Those smaller Iehkti'na probably couldn't follow as complex an order as 'Don't kill the yehktira' when the big boss wasn't around. But hell, what do I know? They're obviously some kind of intelligent now. Maybe they have a government! Maybe they had an election between then and now, and the old leader thought it would be a good idea to knock you off!” Her voice rose steadily in pitch until she was almost shrieking, and Ren winced.

    You seem kind of on edge,” he commented, hoping it wouldn't start off another tirade. Of course, he realised what was happening. He had seen Elly's eyes after the battle. She had to be feeling completely useless now. She had spent seven hundred years thinking she was invincible, only to have the uncomfortable truth handed to her all at once by her greatest enemies. She would be lost, afraid and likely feeling extraordinarily redundant. He wasn't going to mention any of this, though. Somehow, he got the impression that it would be better to let her think he still only saw the facade she had put up. Rather than hiding her anger, she was using it as a shield to cover up everything else she was feeling.

    On edge? Who, me? Look, are you out for a beating?” she growled. “Look, never mind. Whatever. The council – myself included – wants to talk to you, and you don't keep the council waiting.”

    Not if you have gossip-mill Cecilia around, anyway,” Ren muttered, remembering her snide comments the last time he and Elly had arrived late. With something close to shock, he realised that he was worried about Cecilia. Of course, he was worried about everybody in the world of dreams, but it was different somehow. Cecilia didn't seem as strong as the others. While Elly and Salinthia gave the impression that they were completely able to take care of themselves, thank you very much, Ren couldn't help but worry about the waif-like girl with her green-gold hair.

    Are you coming or not?” Elly demanded.

    With a start, Ren realised that she had somehow opened a portal to the third ring without him noticing, which was surprising given the remarkable amount of noise that usually accompanied the act. He considered passing comment, but thought better of it and stepped through without a further word.

    Come on, mortal,” she said briskly at the other end, practically dragging him away from the portal.

    Mortal?” Ren said quizically. “Since when did you call me that?”

    Since I started being in a bad mood,” she snapped, heading for the council building with Ren at her heels.

    Nope, I'm pretty sure you've been in a bad mood ever since I first met you,” he said, somehow finding it in him to poke fun at her some more.

    Everywhere around him, he saw pain. It lay on the Glade of Shifting Light like a blanket, stifling everything light or colourful. The sky was an uncertain grey, the unlikely marble buildings were dull, and the spirits went about their business with quiet footsteps and downcast eyes. It made him want to bite his tongue and follow Elly silently and reverently; these people were in mourning for the first time in centuries. Even so, he couldn't help but feel that a little levity was necessary.

    Are you ever, you know, happy?” he asked, speeding up a little to walk alongside her.

    It has been known to happen,” she said, eyes remaining fixed straight ahead.

    Really? When? What makes you happy?”

    It usually involves no annoying yehktira asking stupid questions, no dead friends, and no imminent threat of Ragnarok.”

    Ragnarok?” Ren asked, frowning. “Isn't that-”

    Yes. It's a myth belonging to an ancient people in your world. The final battle at the end of time, where the gods and the giants would fight. This giant serpent would kill this god, that other god would kill some particular giant wolf, and another god would turn traitor and slaughter all his brothers before dying himself or something. One of our yehktira several decades back told me about it.”

    So why mention it now?”

    We have a similar belief, actually – that there will be a final battle to end all things. Unlike the legend from your world, though, our prophecy told us nothing specific. We know we will fight, but we don't know who. We don't know when, where or how. We don't even know what will happen afterwards, if there even is an afterwards. It's terribly nonspecific.”

    Something in Elly's voice seemed to change as she spoke. It was almost like she was reciting something she'd said a thousand times before – yet there was no sense of boredom or frustration. Just an inexplicable feeling of . . . awe? “And this . . . you call it Ragnarok too?” he asked, frowning.

    Yes, well. We didn't have a name for it, so we borrowed yours. Why are you so interested, anyway?”

    Oh, well . . . it just seems to me that maybe . . . just maybe, Ragnarok could be coming soon.”

    You think I don't know that?” she hissed, rounding on him suddenly. “You think that every single person you see around you doesn't know that? Why do you think everybody is so quiet, Ren? It's not just because we're in mourning. No, we've lost friends and family before. Not for centuries, sure, but our memories are long. We can all feel it coming, Ren! We know the end is coming! We-”

    Stop,” grated a voice from behind them.

    Ren jumped, turning to see who it was, although he was almost certain that he knew. Sure enough, he saw Maho limping towards them, half-dragging one leg and hunching his shoulder beneath his massive coat.

    Spellcaster General,” Elly said respectfully. “Was there something you wanted?”

    Maho nodded his head awkwardly. He crooked a finger awkwardly at Ren. “Lab,” he croaked.

    Oh, right!” Ren said guiltily. “Sorry about that. Cecilia said-” He cut off when Maho raised a hand sharply.

    Later. Come,” he said with apparent difficulty, before turning and limping off again the way he had come.

    Ren watched him go with a slight sense of apprehension. “You think he's mad?” he asked nervously. The Spellcaster General was a rather menacing figure, and Ren reasoned that Maho would probably have good reason to be upset about Ren's trespass into his laboratory.

    I wouldn't think so,” Elly said. “He probably just wants to talk – or, well, communicate in some way – with you. Maho likes yehktira, mostly because he's our lead researcher. He's likely to grill you a bit with regards to the Soul Bonds.”

    But I don't know anything about them other than what you've told me!” Ren protested.

    You don't think you do,” Elly corrected him, starting off again, leaving Ren to catch up to her. “Anyway, go talk to him after the council is done with you.”

    Ren sensed that the conversation – such as it had been – was over. He hurried after Elly, his mind returning to what she had been saying a couple of minutes ago. Ragnarok . . . Was it actually going to happen? Would he be a part of it?

    And most of all . . . would he survive it?
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    Old November 16th, 2011 (12:32 AM).
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
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    Okay, guys. This chapter is going up early because I'm going to be out of town for the rest of the week and might not have internet. It's the final chapter of Arc 2 - Episode the First, and as such it's a whopper. It's twice as long as the average chapter from earlier stages, and a clear 2,000 words longer than the longest up till now. It's also a very important point in the World of Dreams storyline, as well as where I try my hand at putting some kind of message into my writing. Have fun!

    Chapter Twenty-Two

    Green And Black

    The elders looked grave. Of course, they had looked grave the last time he'd seen them on their thrones, too, but there was an extra level of tension that lay over the room. Lucius Balthazar, in particular, seemed to be shifting in his seat far more often than was strictly necessary.

    Ren stood at the exact same spot where he had been placed on his first night in the world of dreams, waiting uncomfortably for someone to say something. The elders simply watched him, however.

    At length, Bartholomew Elsin spoke up, his voice deep and rumbling. “The Iehkti'na . . .” he said slowly. “They have contacted us again. The one which appears to be a floating ball of shadow – it appeared in the Glade not two hours past. It did not attack, but it gave us a message.”

    What did it want?” Ren asked, almost scared to find out. The four enormous Iehkti'na that had appeared at the hill had shaken him more than anything else he had seen in the world of dreams, and he wasn't particularly keen to deal with them again.

    You, yehktira,” Lucius put in from the far left.

    Well, it did repeat Nekros' demand for us to surrender first,” Elly added, “but then, yes. It demanded Ren.”

    Wh-what for?” Ren asked, trying – and largely failing – to keep the tremble out of his voice.

    That's just it. We don't know what it wants with you, really. It told us it would return the next time you entered the world of dreams, which means-”


    The voice – if that was indeed what it was – had come from directly behind Ren. He whipped around and cursed as he found himself staring directly into a pair of glowing green eyes.

    Creature!” Elsin thundered, rising in his seat. “You do us a great disrespect by trespassing in this place!”

    Drawing back slightly from Ren, the floating, apparently gaseous Iehkti'na spoke in the language of the spirits. The words were different to what Ren had heard just moments before, though. They seemed to be less inside his head and more outside it. Does that even make sense? he wondered. He couldn't make out what it was saying, but it sounded faintly amused.

    come with show experience new

    Again, that other voice. It penetrated Ren's head, speaking directly into his thoughts even as the nightmare argued with Elsin aloud. What do you want? he asked silently. It was more of a rhetorical question than one he actually expected an answer to, but the voice replied instantly.

    good listen want show world

    Ren,” Elsin said, interrupting his thoughts. “It wants me to translate to you its offer. Will you listen?”

    Will I?” Ren marvelled at the sudden level of apparent power he had been given. He glanced back at the nightmare, which, now he noticed it, was much smaller than it had been the previous day. “Sure, go ahead.”

    Elsin grimaced slightly, but related the message. “It wants to take you with it, just for tonight. It says it has something to show you. It promises you will be returned safely. Ren, I urge you not to listen to it. It can mean you nothing but harm, I am sure.”

    That may be so, Bartholomew,” Salinthia countered smoothly, “but the Iehkti'na have expressed their desire to keep Ren alive. They cannot harm him, for they know as well as we do that the worlds will collapse if they do so.”

    You can't be thinking of letting him go!” Elly burst out. “Are you mad?”

    Letting the elders argue amongst themselves for the time being, Ren turned to the nightmare, which still loomed, vaguely threatening, behind him. He looked into its eyes thoughtfully. He was afraid, he couldn't deny it. The nightmares were frightening creatures at any time, and this particular one had a certain enigmatic pressure about it, possibly aided by the fact that it was three times his size and floating a few feet off the ground. What do you want to show me? he asked, realising that it could read what he was thinking. It wasn't a very comforting thought.

    show world our world different

    Ren!” Elly said sharply, jerking him out of his wonderings. “Are you awake?”

    Ah! Yes!” he said, shivering slightly as he turned back to face the elders. It wasn't cold in the council chamber, but Ren couldn't help but feel like he was encased in ice.

    What do you want to do?” she asked, leaning forward and regarding him coolly with her sharp green eyes.

    Do I want to go with it? Not . . . not really,” he admitted. “But at the same time, I kind of think I should.” Wait, what am I saying? I'd have to be mad to go anywhere with this thing?

    We highly recommend against it, yehktira,” Elsin boomed. “We cannot trust these monsters. Although it has promised you will not be harmed, and they claim to want you alive for their own survival, a promise made by a creature such as this is worth nothing.”

    How do you know that?” Ren asked, once again feeling as if the words weren't quite his own. “Up until just recently, you didn't even know they could talk! Its word could be just as good as yours.”

    A faint vibration of amusement passed through the room – clearly coming from the Iehkti'na which had now moved to float beside Ren – though none of the elders reacted to what surely should have been a most unusual occurrence. Does that mean I'm the only one who can feel it? Ren wondered. It's like this thing has two voices.

    double voice show world yehktira safe

    Elly's mouth twisted in disapproval. “While we do urge you not to accept what this Iehkti'na is saying, it is very specific in that it offers you this deal, not us. It observes all our customs when making an offer, and as such, we cannot interfere or deny it the right to pass on its message. We can only warn you. The ultimate decision lies with you, yehktira.”

    Ren felt his brow crease almost involuntarily as he looked across at the gaseous blur floating beside him. It was formidable, yes, but in a non-threatening way. At least, that was how it seemed now. It had given him the fright of his life just minutes earlier, but now that he actually stopped to look at it, it didn't seem to be malevolent. In fact, it looked sort of like an overgrown Gastly, a Pokemon Ren had always been fond of.

    If I go with you,” he said, speaking aloud for the benefit of the council, “you won't hurt me?”

    safe yehktira safe

    It has already specified that, Ren,” Elly said, but he ignored her. He had wanted to hear it again directly from the Iehkti'na.

    And you'll bring me back here afterwards so that I can return home?”

    safe return yehktira home glade

    Ren took that as a yes. He considered his options as Elsin, clearly unaware of the covert communication taking place in front of him, translated into the spirit language for the Iehkti'na's benefit. Do I trust the Iehkti'na? Probably not, he admitted. He was curious, though, about what the creature wanted to show him. What could it possibly be? And what reasons might be behind it? Did it want him to understand something that the spirits couldn't – or wouldn't – show him?

    He briefly considered the possibility that it was a trap. All things considered, it didn't seem terribly likely. While it would be easy for the Iehkti'na to seize him and hold him in the third ring once he left the Glade – much like Salinthia had threatened to do if the need arose – he didn't think that they would.

    But why wouldn't they?

    safe promise keep always return

    Do I take your word for it? Ren thought, directing the question at the shadowy creature by his side.

    word always safe keep promise

    Ren sighed aloud. “I'm probably going to regret this,” he said decisively, “but I'm going to go.” Ignoring the protests of the council, he bit his lip and turned to the door. He couldn't quite explain what he was doing, but it seemed like the right thing to do.

    You had better be telling the truth, he said bitterly inside his head as the Iehkti'na breezed along beside him. I'm going to feel like the world's biggest idiot if they turn on me here. I can't trust them.

    At the door, he turned and glanced back. The council had descended from their thrones and stood in a huddle in the centre of the room, watching him go with varying degrees of worry and anger evident on their faces. Elsin in particular looked incensed at being ignored. Ren waved back at them, hoping to offer some reassurance. None of them looked particularly mollified, however, especially Elly, who was practically shooting knives at him from her eyes once again.

    Outside the building, the nightmare moved ahead of Ren, leading him away from the centre of the Glade, weaving comfortably through the marble buildings as if it had lived there all its life. Ren noticed the spirits shooting it distrustful, angry looks as it passed. He himself was receiving a number of strange glances as he trotted to keep up with it, but he just nodded awkwardly at the spirits as he passed. It felt exceedingly strange to be walking through the Glade with an Iehkti'na as his guide, of course.

    Once again, he wondered what in the world he was doing.

    At the edge of the Glade, the Iehkti'na paused, seeming to observe the Spirit Wall for a few seconds.

    I thought your kind couldn't pass through here,” Ren said, remembering one of the many things that had been bothering him since the other night's battle.

    wall hide wall let through

    You mean . . . it just hides the Glade, but doesn't stop you from getting in once you find it?” Ren said with a frown, trying to decipher the creature's mysterious syntax.


    That was obvious enough, at any rate. “Where . . . where are we going?” he asked, taking a deep breath to calm his suddenly jumpy nerves. “You said you wanted to show me something,” he tried again. “What?”

    world home origin centre

    The Iehkti'na, now at least six metres in diameter, passed through the Spirit Wall, causing a flower of red and green light to pulse from the point of contact, spreading out like ripples on water.

    Swallowing heavily, Ren followed it.

    As they passed through the forest, the Iehkti'na spoke.

    ten days

    Ten days? Ren replied silently, wondering if Elly's 'no talking in the forest' rule still applied – or even mattered. What happens in ten days?

    ten days die spirits

    Is that . . . Nekros' ultimatum? Ren asked, tripping over a tree root and suppressing a curse. Ten days for the spirits to surrender, or he kills them all?

    all end finish time

    Ragnarok. The word floated across Ren's mind unbidden, and he shuddered involuntarily. Is that it? Everything's happening so fast. What happens to me, then?

    yehktira safe need world

    Right, Ren said, nodding. That's what I thought. It was a relief to hear it directly from one of the nightmares, too, rather than relying on a translation.

    They walked – or rather, Ren walked, with the Iehkti'na floating, almost unseen, beside him – in silence until they reached the edge of the forest, whereupon Ren found himself standing on the same hill that had housed Cicero's command centre during the battle the other night. The tent was still there, torn and crumpled as it was, with a couple of lonely metal struts reaching forlornly for the sky, shreds of canvas still clinging to them. Upturned or smashed desks were strewn everywhere, and pieces of paper fluttered around in a low breeze. It seemed that the spirits hadn't been back to clean up. Ren could hardly blame them. He had seen the looks on their faces after the battle; tidying up their mess would have been the least of their worries.

    The Iehkti'na, even larger than it had been before, floated down the hill ahead of Ren, pausing at the bottom over the trampled, bloody field that had served as the battleground. Ren followed it awkwardly, stumbling a little on the uneven, torn ground.

    He stopped next to the Iehkti'na, looking out across the gently rolling field that undulated softly away towards the horizon. A familiar light breeze tickled the grass, making it sway slightly. It was as if the entire expanse was shifting, the ground itself sliding back and forwards. Ren felt a little dizzy, so he forced himself to look instead at his enigmatic floating companion. “What's your name?” he asked.

    name speak difficult ancient

    It's hard to pronounce?” Ren guessed. “Then what do I call you?”

    shadecolour close name

    Shadecolour,” Ren repeated. It was an unexpectedly sophisticated name, carrying a sort of melancholic beauty. He hadn't imagined that the Iehkti'na would have been capable of such poetry. “Is everything I know about you wrong?”

    wrong no different yes

    Why do you have to kill the spirits?” Ren asked.

    prevent true home return come ancient chaos dreams

    Ren frowned, trying to make sense of this awkward jumble of words. Clearly Shadecolour didn't speak Ren's language quite as well as it did the spirits'. “They . . . prevent you from going home? Where is that? Oh! Maho's book said . . . you came from the first ring. Is that it? You just want to go back there?”


    But what was that about 'ancient chaos'?” he asked. There was something else happening here, evidently. Something the spirits hadn't told him . . . or something they didn't know themselves.

    come show home new

    Shadecolour moved again, drifting like a great black cloud across the battlefield, leaving Ren to follow it awkwardly across the ground. The going became easier, though, as he passed the area where the battle had taken place; the ground became smoother and emptier of debris and the grass was whole and free of scorch marks.

    How far do we have to go?” Ren asked after about five minutes of silence. “Will it take long to get there?”

    slow yehktira time yes

    Hmm,” Ren said. “I mean, I have all night, but isn't there some way we can get there faster?” He felt a smile tug at the corner of his mouth as he realised the absurdity of his situation. He was chatting almost amicably with the giant black monster, completely irrelevant of the very real danger that he most likely faced. If he was entirely honest with himself, he liked Shadecolour better than some of the spirits he had met – not that the Iehkti'na had exhibited anything resembling a personality yet. That was a disturbing thought.

    faster ride wind

    Shadecolour's indistinct form bent and wavered, flattening and shrinking into a vaguely rectangular shape. It swooped down next to Ren, keeping pace with him as he stared at it in confusion.

    What are you meant to be? A magic carpet?” The black rectangle seemed to wiggle slightly in a gesture that might have been a shrug.

    ride come yehktira show home

    You want me to . . . get on?” Ren asked, looking dubiously at the smoky, insubstantial form of the Iehkti'na hovering next to him. “How am I supposed to do that?”

    ride fly swift

    Ren sighed. If it worked, it was bound to be faster than walking. He climbed awkwardly onto Shadecolour, wobbling slightly at the unfamiliar feeling. The Iehkti'na's body gave slightly beneath him, but it seemed solid enough. He knelt uncomfortably on its back, leaning forward to seek a handhold. There wasn't one, so he just flattened himself against the creature's body as much as was possible, feeling thoroughly ridiculous.

    fly fly fly

    The sudden acceleration almost caused Ren to lose what little grip he had. Shadecolour climbed as it flew, whipping across the sky at a phenomenal speed. Even Braviary would have no chance keeping up with this.

    speed fast fly

    How am I even staying on? Ren wondered, glancing over the side of Shadecolour – who, he was becoming more and more convinced, was secretly a magic carpet in disguise. The expansive grassy fields whizzed by at a great speed, and the wind battered at his exposed face in an attempt to tear him off and send him flying to his death, but he managed to hang on. He wasn't holding onto anything on Shadecolour's back, but still he remained firmly ensconced in his position. He settled down a little more and simply enjoyed the ride – for despite all his compunctions about going along with the Iehkti'na, there was something wildly exhilarating about the feeling of flying.

    Gradually, Ren noticed a slight change in the terrain below him. The lushness of the omnipresent grass faded slightly, and patches of brown appeared. After a couple of minutes of high-speed flying, Shadecolour slowed down a little and descended a few metres, allowing Ren to take in more details from their surroundings.


    It was true. The grass below them now was yellowed and flaxen, growing in sparse, unhealthy-looking clumps.

    place death bad

    Is this . . . is this where you . . . the Iehkti'na live? Ren asked.

    home dead

    Ren thought he detected a tinge of bitterness in Shadecolour's mental voice. Neither of them said anything more, and they flew in silence for another five minutes, the condition of the earth growing steadily worse. Even the golden sunlight shining from above seemed unable to lend any semblance of cheer to the earth. After a certain point, even that sunlight seemed to be swallowed up when it hit the ground, overcome by a blanket of darkness that seemed almost tangible.

    brothers sleep all thousands

    Ren's eyes widened as he realised what the inky black layer on the ground was: thousands upon thousands of Iehkti'na. The host that had pressed in against the spirits at the battle of the hill was now massed beneath him. They were crammed together so tightly that it was difficult for Ren to tell where one began and another ended. Even after realising what it was, the blanket of shadow seemed to remain just that. It was like a single gelatinous mass, oozing across the ground as if it were some kind of disease. Are they the ones polluting the land like this?

    not brothers land kill spirits kill

    Ren frowned. It was the spirits? But . . . why?

    spirits seal brothers break seal kill land die death

    Blinking, Ren shook his head. Maho's journal had said something about 'sealing' the spirits, albeit unsuccessfully. Was this where it had happened.

    here live nekros

    Ren tore his eyes away from the tide of Iehkti'na on the ground – which seemed to be getting thicker – and looked ahead. A large stand of trees thrust up from the dead ground, gnarled claws that lacked leaves. The trees were clustered tightly together like a giant thorn bush, and Ren saw as they approached it that the swarm of Iehkti'na were giving it a wide berth. Fear? Or respect?

    glade of dying light

    Shadecolour dropped to the ground in front of the trees, rippling in a way that indicated to Ren that he should climb off. The instant he let go, Shadecolour resumed its original form, that of the large, smoky sphere. Its green eyes returned as well; Ren could only presume that they had been on its underside during the flight.

    The Glade of Dying Light?” he said aloud, approaching the withered, blackened trunks with a creeping sense of dread. The whole place smelled of death, he realised instinctively. Every fibre of his being screamed at him to get as far away from that little grove of trees as he could, but he grit his teeth and forced himself to stay calm. There was a gap in the trees directly in front of him, and he willed himself to step towards it. His body didn't want to obey, preferring to stay right where it was, but he made a concerted effort and walked forwards.

    At the treeline, he glanced backwards. Shadecolour was just behind him, and about ten metres further back, the edge of the Iehkti'na army wavered imposingly. Even from this distance, Ren found that they looked more like a wall – easily five metres tall – peppered with glowing eyes than a group of individual creatures. Taking a deep, shaky breath, Ren stepped into the dark clutches of the trees.

    Instantly, it felt as if his entire body had been plunged into an icebath. He gasped involuntarily as the cold hit him like a rime-caked sledgehammer, clutching at his bare arms. The thin blue t-shirt he had thrown on that morning did nothing to protect him from the chill, and he swore under his breath.

    After just a couple of seconds, however, he noticed that there was no ice anywhere. No sign of precipitation of any kind, actually. For a moment, he wondered if it ever rained in the world of dreams, but then it occurred to him that the grass had to grow somehow – unless the rules were different here, of course. He would have thought, though, that there would at least be a little frozen moisture of some kind in such a cold place.

    Wait. It wasn't cold anymore. Ren blinked, feeling rather foolish as he let go of his arms and glanced around. The apparent subzero temperature had receded almost as suddenly as it had come, leaving him baffled. He shivered slightly as he stepped forward again.

    It only took him a few seconds to pass through the low, tangled corridor. At the other end, he stopped, blinking uncomprehendingly. The centre of the glade was cold, although not as freezing as the brief blast of cold air he had experienced on the way. The ground was covered in a layer of snow that refused to melt, even though the sun beat down upon it from almost directly above. In the centre of the glade lay a pool of liquid blackness about five metres across, and on the other side sat Nekros.

    The giant, humanoid Iehkti'na – some twelve metres tall – rested upon a mighty throne of sparkling, glittering ice. The throne was a work of art, carved into twisting, serpentine designs that twisted around each other all across its surface. Every edge and facet sparkled in the harsh sunlight, a deep, vivid blue that made Ren's eyes hurt to look too closely.

    The other two giant Iehkti'na that Ren had seen on the hill two nights ago with Nekros and Shadecolour – the massive spider with too many legs and the flat-headed quadruped – flanked Nekros' throne, watching him with keen eyes. As he observed them, Shadecolour floated down from above the trees to take a place on the other side of the spider-like nightmare.

    Unsure quite what to do, Ren stepped forward towards the pool, his shoes crunching in the snow. He made sure to stay well clear of the edge, though; the liquid looked as though it might be dangerous.

    you are the yehktira welcome to the glade of dying light

    Ren looked up at where Nekros' face should be. Like all the others, it was featureless save for its eyes. It had three, he noticed again. One was set above the other two to form a triangle, and all three were fixed on him. “I-I am the yehktira, yes,” he managed once he found his voice.

    you will forgive me for speaking directly to your mind our tongues are not made for your language

    Of course,” Ren said, at a loss as to what else he should say. Nekros' grasp of the language seemed to be far superior to Shadecolour's, and for that he was grateful. It was still a strange sensation, though. It was rather like the words were being poured into his head in a continuous, liquid stream. “Might I ask . . . why you wanted me to come here?”

    to prove to you that we are not monsters

    Monsters?” Ren said blankly. “To . . . to be honest, I've kind of steadily been losing that impression lately.”

    good but you are not yet convinced for to you we seem barbaric and until recently this was true

    Well,” Ren admitted, “the Iehkti'na that Elly and I killed the first night I came . . . they weren't exactly . . .”

    they were small and weak and that is why they can pass to the second ring our sheer power prevents us

    our sentience is a gift but also a curse for it comes with powerlessness

    when one of us dies their essence returns here to the pool in front of you where a new being is created

    Ren glanced at the pool by his feet. “So the one I killed the other night . . . just came back to life again?” he asked. “That sounds . . . kind of pointless.”

    it is indeed for you but for us it is nothing of the sort for we can absorb their essence at the point of rebirth to make ourselves stronger

    this pool is why the spirits cannot destroy us

    Ren shuddered as he watched the evil-looking black liquid lapping at the ring of stones that formed the pool's border. “Whenever they try, you just . . . respawn,” he said. It sounded like something out of a video game, even to him.

    twenty years ago we tried to crush the spirits again for but they had a massively destructive weapon that killed hundreds of us at once

    they used this weapon four times and each time the victims' essences issued forth from the pool but because they all came forth at once they grouped into new larger stronger more intelligent Iehkti'na

    Ren's eyes widened. “You . . . you and Shadecolour, and the others . . . the spirits created you, then? But . . . so that's why you're smarter than the others? Because you're made from so many Iehkti'na?”

    that is so yehktira we are the sum of hundreds and so we are mighty we have waited twenty years for an opportunity to crush the spirits and now we have our chance

    What I don't understand is why you have to do this!” Ren said, forcing as much strength into his voice as he could. “When you were mindless killers, I can understand. I mean, you hated the spirits for sealing you in the past, and you knew nothing other than killing them. But now that you're smarter than that, surely you realise you don't have to kill them? Revenge isn't the way to fix things!”

    this is no longer about revenge yehktira for we need to return to our homes

    we were displaced by the spirits from our home in what you call the first ring over six hundred years ago and since then we have never been the same

    we must kill all the spirits for they cannot understand we only want to return home and as such they stand in our way

    The finality of the statement made Ren shiver. “But . . . why haven't you tried to negotiate with them before? I mean, surely they could be made to understand.” I seriously doubt it, though, he added silently, remembering the rage he had seen on Elsin's face in the council hall when Shadecolour had appeared.

    until recent we be still weak

    Another voice chipped in, lighter and somehow sharper than Nekros or Shadecolour.

    Nekros spoke again, indicating the spider-like Iehkti'na on Ren's right with a wave of his massive hand.

    this is my second known as frostspinner

    Frostspinner's light voice chimed in over Nekros' heavy one.

    it is good meet yehktira I must tell how

    recent we weak still not absorb enough essence each time brother die absorb essence

    now we strong

    You absorb their essences? The ones who die?” Ren asked, and this time it was Nekros who answered.

    indeed and this is how we grow stronger yet you ask why we do not talk with the spirits

    it was difficult but now at least we have a line of communication that is why we are willing to wait ten days before we move

    in those ten days you must convince your friends to allow us safe passage to the first ring and we will leave them in peace

    it is the best option for all surely as no further must die we know how attached these spirits are to their own kind

    I can understand that,” Ren said, nodding. Somehow, his fear had largely evaporated. He suddenly felt awfully bad simply for being afraid of the Iehkti'na. They weren't evil, he realised. The spirits had simply told him that they were because it suited them – or perhaps because it was what they themselves believed. “I'll talk to them. I'll get them to change their minds before the ten days are up.”

    i like you yehktira you are perceptive you see things clearly where others may see only confusion

    ten nights from now our army will arrive at the glade of shifting light for our answer

    if it is not the one we want the spirits will die to a man and we will make our own way home

    if they will help us we will travel with their portals and none need die remember this yehktira we are no savages

    tell them yehktira tell them what they must do or it will end in a way that none of us want

    Ren swallowed with some difficulty, feeling his throat tighten as he nodded in acquiescence. “I will,” he said, and he meant it. “But that aside . . . I think I owe you an apology. I believed that you were monsters . . . I thought you were mindless beasts like the spirits said. I'm sorry about that.”

    there is no need for apology yehktira most of our number still remain that way and although they listen to us for the most part we sometimes cannot prevent them from running wild a little

    we are indeed monsters in a way but we seek to change that all we want is to return home you will bear our message for they do not like to speak with us

    shadecolour will take you back to the glade of shifting light now

    Ren almost protested. I want to know more, he tried to say. I want to hear your stories! I want to really know where I stand!

    there will be time for this later yehktira but now you must leave for i sense your time in this world is drawing to a close for the moment

    Ren smiled guiltily. He had forgotten that Nekros and the others could read his thoughts.

    come yehktira fly swift

    Shadecolour, seeming enthused, floated upwards again and out over the top of the Glade of Dying Light. Sensing that he was dismissed, Ren backed slowly away from Nekros and the others.

    Nekros remained, unmoving, on his icy throne. When Ren reached the passage that had brought him into the Glade, he finally turned and walked forwards, out towards where he could already see Shadecolour waiting.

    fly quick safe promise return

    Of course,” Ren said, glancing more than a little nervously at the seething wall of Iehkti'na that still surrounded the Glade. They still looked awfully threatening, roiling and writhing as they were. Paradoxically, the indistinct mass of smaller creatures outside the Glade were much more frightening than the giants inside it. “Couldn't you . . . take on a different shape?” he asked Shadecolour, remembering the experience he had had on the initial journey. While he had somehow, inexplicably managed to avoid falling off, it was still an experience he did not particularly want to repeat.

    fly shape bird wings

    That would be better,” Ren said as he watched Shadecolour morph again, its indistinct form splitting and shifting. When it stopped, it had formed itself into a passable likeness of a gigantic bird, perched on the ground next to Ren. It was still taller than he was, and it took him some effort to climb on, but once he was firmly entrenched on its back, he felt much safer than he had before.

    fly fly fly

    With an eerily silent flap of its wings, Shadecolour sliced its way into the sky, climbing more quickly this time so that they were a good way above the Iehkti'na horde.

    As Ren watched the tide of Iehkti'na recede below him, growing thinner and thinner as the two of them passed over it, he marvelled once again at the sheer size of Nekros' army. The spirits would stand no chance whatsoever if the Iehkti'na decided to attack, he realised. While the spirits were clearly better fighters than the average Iehkti'na, they would eventually fall to the force of numbers, especially considering the fact that the Iehkti'na were reborn the instant they were killed. He wondered briefly if the spirits knew about that. There was no reason they would, he supposed. From what he had heard, they had been more than happy to stay in the Glade of Shifting Light.

    What if they did manage to survive, though? With Maho's magic and all the others fighting as well . . . no, it would only be a matter of time. Each death would be one sword they could never get back, whereas the Iehkti'na have their pool. And that's not even considering the four big guys. He had only glimpsed the power of Nekros and the others at the battle of the hill, but he knew that there had to be a huge reserve of untapped power within each of them.

    strong four we

    Clearly, Shadecolour had been listening in on his musings. Ren smiled uncomfortably. Yes, I'm sure you are, he replied. Soaring a clear hundred metres above the grassy plains atop a giant bird made of shadows and magic, he felt a little like some sort of god. The thought chilled him slightly, but it sent a foreign tingle down his spine at the same time.

    It didn't take long to reach the edge of the forest. Ren expected to touch down and walk the rest of the way, but Shadecolour kept flying, slowing down a little and dipping so that it skimmed the treetops.

    glade shifting enter difficult above

    fun fly fast hold yehktira

    Eyes widening, Ren leaned forward against Shadecolour's back, wrapping his arms around the creature's barely-tangible neck just as it banked, climbing slightly and then aiming downwards again at a patch of green foliage that appeared much the same as any other. “What are you-”

    The words were snatched from his mouth as Shadecolour dived. Folding its wings back, it plummeted almost vertically towards the trees. The wind screamed in Ren's ears as he clung on for dear life. Just as they were about to hit the trees below, however, a rainbow-coloured starburst exploded in Ren's vision, making his eyes ache briefly. He caught a brief glimpse of white marble and soft grass before the Iehkti'na rolled in midair, corkscrewing madly through the sky above the Glade of Shifting Light.

    Out of the corner of his eye, Ren could see a trail of glowing, multicoloured threads marking their trajectory like a jet trail. Shadecolour circled three times around the Glade, slowing down slightly with each complete revolution. When they finally came to land, there was a perfect spiral of splintered colour hanging in the air, fading slowly even as Ren watched.

    His legs shaking slightly, Ren slid off Shadecolour's back. He forced himself to stay upright, though his body wasn't too keen on the idea. He staggered, but an arm was quickly thrust under his shoulders, removing the burden of staying upright from his confused limbs. He glanced across to see that it was Elsin's muscular arm that had caught him.

    Did it hurt you, yehktira?” Elsin rumbled, the thunder in his eyes and voice giving Ren the impression that he was longing for an answer in the affirmative just so that he had an excuse to try and kill Shadecolour.

    N-no,” Ren managed to say, finding his feet once again and shrugging Elsin off to prove that he was all right. “I'm fine. It just . . . flew. I'm not great with flying.” He hadn't realised how much hanging on he had been doing with his knees since Shadecolour had assumed its bird form, but the concerned body parts were telling him all about it now.

    Shadecolour had returned to being an indistinct blob, and now it spoke aloud in the spirits' language once again, its voice issuing from somewhere deep within it. Elsin and the rest of the council – who had arrived just moments earlier – listened with tight expressions on their faces. Simultaneously, the Iehkti'na spoke into Ren's mind.

    well meet yehktira ten days remember must

    I know, Ren said silently. I'll talk to them.

    Having said its piece, Shadecolour floated away, disappearing through the Spirit Wall without a further word. Red ripples flowed across the magical wall as it left.

    You're quite sure you're not hurt?” Cecilia said anxiously, hurrying over to grasp him by the shoulders and stare into his eyes.

    No, I'm fine,” Ren said, gently lifting her hands off him as he turned to the rest of the council. “More importantly, I need to talk to you all urgently.”

    Ten days, we know,” Elly said. She looked a little more withdrawn than usual. “You need to go home now, Ren. We will deal with this.”

    No, you don't understand!” He started to protest, but Elly cut him off with a sharp hand gesture.

    Yes, we do. You can't stay in this ring for too much longer, or it will adversely affect you when you leave.”


    Anything you have to say can be said tomorrow night, can't it?”

    Well . . .” He bit his lip. “I suppose that's true,” he admitted.

    Then leave,” Elly said, stepping aside to reveal the starry expanse of a portal to the second ring. “Now.”

    He wanted to say something else, to try and convince them. He looked around at all of their faces, hoping they wouldn't do anything rash while he was awake. Elsin was still smouldering angrily to one side; Cecilia was watching him anxiously; Elly and Salinthia both simply looked frigid as they nodded him towards the portal; and Lucius Balthazar was watching him with an oddly detached kind of interest. When he met Ren's eyes, he nodded slowly and turned away, heading towards the place where Shadecolour had passed through the Spirit Wall. Can I trust them?

    Of course not, whispered a treacherous corner of his mind.

    Ren stepped into the portal and let it suck him through to the second ring.

    He was standing in Steven's library this time, although there was no sign of Katrina. Of course. Closing his eyes, he sank to the floor, his fatigue, confusion and newfound mistrust all suddenly piling themselves on his shoulders like a ton of bricks.

    As the scent of the dusty red carpet invaded his nostrils, his outstretched hand found the edge of the portal to the first ring, yanking him through with a peculiar jerk from behind his navel.

    I just don't get them,” Ren grumbles to Afro Glameow. “Do you understand what's meant to be going on?” he asked.

    Afro Glameow yowls noncommittally, taking another lick of the sugar lump sitting in its saucer.

    Ren sighs and leans back on his hands, looking up through the twisting vines at the silvery sky that is just faintly visible through the riot of colour and foliage. “I didn't think so,” he says quietly. “Whose side am I meant to be on now? Are there even any sides any more? Am I meant to be on one at all?”

    As Afro Glameow yowls again, the silver sky begins to grow brighter and brighter, slowly draining the colour from the world around him. His mushroom has faded from vivid crimson to a dull blood-red, he notices as he looks down at it. Glancing back up at the sky almost blinds him.

    His cheek stings inexplicably, and he claps a gloved hand to it with a refined, gentlemanly curse.
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    Old November 21st, 2011 (11:14 AM).
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
    "I also happen to be a model."
    • Crystal Tier
    Join Date: Jan 2009
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    Age: 23
    Gender: Male
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    Posts: 3,457
    Well, here we go. Time to venture forth into the amusingly distant realm of Arc 3. This will be a short arc, but it will seem far longer due to the fact that I'm going to leave you on that cliffhanger from last chapter until the end of it. Hehe.

    Arc 3 - Parabasis the First

    Chapter Twenty-Three
    Festival of the Sky

    Ren awoke sharply, something hard digging into his cheek. “Yeowch!” he exclaimed, rolling away from it instinctively and cracking the side of his head on the wall. “Ow, dammit,” he muttered as he sat up, searching for the source of the pain.

    It came in the form of Zangoose, who was still perched awkwardly on the edge of Ren's mattress, one claw extended towards where Ren's face had been just moments before. Ren stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment before he remembered. “Oh! Right, I told you to wake me up if anything went wrong. But what . . . what's wrong?”

    Ren glanced around the room, frowning slightly. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The usual Slateport morning sun streamed through the window, splashing familiar golden light across the floor.

    Oh. I see,” Ren said at length. “Mom coming in and opening the curtains was enough to constitute an emergency. Well, fair enough,” he sighed. “I should be getting up anyway. We're going to Fortree today.”

    Zangoose hissed in a manner that was almost contented before bounding out of the room and disappearing down the hall. Puzzled, Ren tumbled out of bed and made to follow him before realising he was still in his pajamas.

    It seemed his mother had been shopping sometime in the last few days, because when he opened his wardrobe, expecting only to see his single change of clothes, the rack was full of clothes that most certainly would not have fit him five years ago. Remembering how windy Fortree had been the last time he had visited, he picked a pair of black jeans and a blue t-shirt with long sleeves, throwing a zip-up red hoodie and a short-sleeved tee into his bag as well just in case. They fit him remarkably well; his mother had always been good at guessing sizes, he remembered with a grin.

    The morning sun in Slateport was powerful at this time of year, so he rolled his sleeves up to his elbows as he opened the window, letting the salty breeze counteract the heat somewhat.

    This stuff in the world of dreams . . . everything's happening so quickly, he thought, the memories suddenly surfacing in his mind. That in itself was disturbing. If he couldn't remember what had happened as soon as he woke up, who knew what else he might be missing? Ren didn't remember dreams often, but his experiences in the rings were more than that, he was sure of it. The fact that the memories sought to evade him was worrying.

    I can't do anything now, he told himself firmly. I just have to worry about my life at the moment. He felt kind of bad for ignoring his duties as yehktira, but there was really nothing he could do while awake. He had ten nights to convince the spirits to let the Iehkti'na have their way. Ten nights would be plenty. Won't it?

    He counted off on his fingers. Seven nights would put him at the following Monday, plus another three made Thursday. The first day of the Unova League. Great.

    If the world ends, at least I'll die after my fifteenth birthday. The morbid thought made him chuckle hollowly. Some consolation that is.

    Shaking his head in vague amusement, Ren went downstairs to face the day, doing his best to put all thoughts of Ragnarok and ultimatums from his mind.

    Thanks for the clothes, Mom,” he said as he entered the kitchen.

    Ah, there you are, dear! Let me look at you – do they fit all right?”

    They fit fine, Mom,” he said, lifting his arms and half-turning on the spot. “When did you find the time to go shopping?”

    I went yesterday while you were out training with Cole,” she said. “And dear, while I do think he's adorable, your Pokemon is kind of getting in the way.”

    Ren glanced down to see Zangoose, obstinately seated right in front of the kitchen sink where his mother was trying to wash dishes. “What are you doing, you daft Pokemon?” he asked with a laugh.

    Zangoose yowled hopefully, causing Ren to roll his eyes. “Of course. You're hungry. Now I think about it, everybody else probably is, too,” he added as an afterthought, glancing at the other Poke Balls on his belt.

    Outside, sweetie,” his mother said pointedly, tilting her head at the back door. “I got a big sack of Pokemon food when I was out yesterday. It's by the vegetable garden.”

    Ren shook his head in wonder. “You really do think of everything, don't you?”

    I've been a mother for fifteen years, Ren. It's what I do.”

    Thanks, Mom. All right, you,” he added, nudging Zangoose with his toe. “Outside, and stop bothering people.”

    The back garden had always been one of Ren's favourite places. Little more than a crevice between the side of the house and the sloping cliff face behind it, it was largely overgrown save for a few square metres that had been cleared directly outside the door. Half of that clear area had been dug up and planted with a variety of vegetables that grew well in the limited sun the area received – broccoli, chard, peas and beans, among others.

    It was shady and cool at this time of the morning, offering a welcome change from the warmth of the sun inside. Ren let Camerupt out first, careful to avoid the vegetable patch. The others followed in quick succession, and Ren squeezed past them in the limited space to open the large cloth sack of Pokemon food. Finding a clean scoop nearby, he dumped large numbers of the bulky brown pellets into a stack of bowls of varying sizes that stood next to the food. Absolutely everything, he thought fondly, smiling.

    You guys'll have to eat out here while we're at home,” he told them, putting another scoop in Camerupt's bowl. “There's no room inside. I'll look at clearing some more of this stuff away some time, actually,” he said, kicking at the brambles and weeds that hemmed them in.

    Camerupt snorted uncomfortably, and Ren grinned. “Yes, you can trample on it, but for the love of Arceus, stay off that vegetable patch. I'll be back in a few minutes, okay?”

    After his own breakfast, Ren collected his Pokemon and headed for the front door. It was already eight twenty-five, and his ride was supposed to be arriving in five minutes. Not for the first time, he wondered what sort of ride it would be. Driving to Fortree would take all day, so that was out. Was he supposed to be flying? But then surely Gerard would have simply told him to go to the airport. Besides, there would have been no need for such secrecy.

    See you later, Mom!” he said quickly as he passed her.

    You're going now? When will you be back?”

    I . . . honestly don't know,” Ren said. “It might be tomorrow, considering how long it takes to get to and from Fortree.”

    Hmm. All right, honey. See you when you get back. Have fun, now!”

    I will,” he promised. Opening the door, he stepped outside and almost crashed into something large and metallic standing on the garden path.

    A grating squawk split the air, along with a slightly creaky flapping of enormous wings. Ren stepped back and looked upwards, meeting the sharp yellow eyes of the very large Pokemon blocking his front door.

    Skarmory,” he said. “And one as big as you can only belong to one person . . .” He sidled awkwardly past the giant Flying-type – which stood fully twice as tall as he did – and looked up at its rider.

    Hiya, Ren! It's been a while, hasn't it?”

    Sure has, Winona,” Ren said.

    The Fortree Gym Leader grinned, swinging herself down off Skarmory's back with practiced grace. She still wore her favourite blue flight suit, he noticed, with her unnaturally lavender hair flowing out from under the cap. “It's good to see you, Ren. Congratulations on making Champion.”

    Thanks,” he said awkwardly. “It feels weird hearing you say that, you know . . . especially considering I never properly beat you in the first place.”

    Ah, ah, none of that now,” she said good-naturedly. “I know the official result came out as a draw, but I gave you the Feather Badge because I could tell you deserved it. Okay?”

    All right,” Ren said. “I know, I know. You did tell me at the time, but it doesn't stop it feeling weird.”

    Well, let's have a rematch some time,” Winona suggested. “We can see if you really are better than me then. Oh, hello. You must be Ren's mother.”

    Ren blinked and turned around to see his mother standing in the doorway, obviously having heard Skarmory's screech. “Oh, Mom, this is Winona, the Fortree Gym Leader,” he said.

    It's nice to meet you,” his mother said, eyeing Skarmory nervously. “I'm Thalia Goodwin.”

    Back up a little, Skarmory,” Winona said quietly, tapping on the oversized Pokemon's side. It retreated a way down the garden path, making room in front of the door for all three of them. “I've come to steal Ren off you for a day or two, I'm afraid.”

    Oh, that's all right, so long as you bring him back in one piece. It's remarkably nice of you to come all this way just to pick him up, though.”

    Oh, I was in Dewford on business yesterday anyway,” Winona said airily, “so I asked if I could drop in and bring him along to the Feather Carnival. The timing was perfect. Actually, speaking of timing . . . we really should be on our way now if we want to get there in time for the start of the festival. I'm sorry I couldn't stop for longer.”

    No, no, I understand perfectly. Go on. Have fun!”

    Winona turned to Ren. “Have you flown on a Pokemon before?” she asked. “I don't imagine your Braviary would be quite strong enough to ride on yet.”

    For a brief moment, an image of soaring across the third ring on Shadecolour's back flashed across Ren's mind. “Once or twice,” he said.

    Up you go, then,” said Winona. “I'll sit behind you so you don't fall off.”

    Uh,” Ren said, glancing up at Skarmory's towering steel flank.

    Oh, right,” Winona said, the faintest edge of amusement in her voice. “I'll give you a leg up.” Kneeling on the ground, she laced her fingers into a stirrup and gestured for Ren to step into them. When he did, she boosted him upwards, and he managed to scramble onto Skarmory's back.

    It was certainly a different feeling to riding on Shadecolour, he could tell already. While the Iehkti'na had been almost intangible, seeming to slip and give under his hands, Skarmory was all solid physicality and pointed edges. He felt more secure atop the Steel-type, but he wasn't sure it would be as good of a conversationalist.

    Winona leapt expertly up behind him. “All right up there?” she asked.

    Yeah,” he said, suddenly not entirely sure. If he fell off Skarmory while it was in flight, there would be no question as to the outcome. Somehow, the threat had seemed less potent in the world of dreams, but in the light of day, he was very aware of how dangerous flying was.

    I've been flying on Skarmory for twelve years now, Ren. Nobody's fallen off in all that time,” Winona said from behind him, as if reading his thoughts. “Come on, Skarmory! Hup!”

    With a great screech, Skarmory leapt upwards, its great wings unfolding and beating powerfully. In seconds, Ren's house was as a toy against the cliff as the great Steel-type winged its way upward. Ren craned his neck backwards and waved in the general direction of his house, clinging to one of Skarmory's neck ridges with his other hand. Skarmory wheeled and corkscrewed upwards, soon clearing the cliff and setting its sights on the north.

    It's about an hour and a half from here to Fortree,” Winona said, raising her voice to counter the wind blowing in their ears. “Talking up here's kind of impractical, so it's probably best if you just enjoy the view!”

    Ren nodded to show that he understood; he was already looking down, searching for landmarks he recognised. After a few minutes, he spotted the Cycling Road below them, snaking back and forth over Route 110. He had biked the track a couple of times, but it was hard work, especially going uphill – an almost two-hour slog. Now he soared effortlessly over the twisting road, catching glimpses here or there of tiny cyclists making their way along one way or the other.

    About forty minutes later, they passed Mauville. Skarmory's trajectory took them some way to the east, but Ren spotted the city's buildings glittering in the distance. That's where the Contest is on Thursday. The thought reminded him uncomfortably of Gerard's promise that he would get Ren to compete in a Contest some time. He wasn't too keen on the idea.

    Soon enough, the terrain changed as they crossed a twisting blue river and passed over a heavily overgrown road that Ren remembered vividly from his time journeying around Hoenn on foot. Route 119, where it rained almost constantly. Thankfully, the sky was clear today, but there were some nasty-looking thunderheads hanging around on the horizon, and the wind was picking up. Ren shivered and held onto Skarmory's neck a little tighter. While flying was certainly exciting, it wasn't something he planned on making a habit out of. If he could fly by himself, like Braviary, he might consider it, but trusting his own life to the Pokemon beneath him rubbed him the wrong way a little. It wasn't that he didn't trust Skarmory and Winona, but it just felt awfully uncomfortable.

    As it was, he was quite relieved when, some time later, the tangled, grassy expanse of Route 119 gave way to the treetops that signified the approach to Fortree. Looking down, Ren glimpsed flashes of activity through the trees as they soared overhead – spots of colour, people and Pokemon moving.

    And everywhere there were Flying-type Pokemon. Fortree's natural ecosystem and lack of heavy industry made it a haven for many kinds of Pokemon, but those who took to the sky found a special place among its many levels of forest and brush. Pokemon native to the Hoenn region could be spotted everywhere; Taillow, Swellow, Swablu and Pelipper were among the most common, ducking and diving through the sky in apparent joy at the appearance of Winona and Skarmory. Ren glimpsed an Altaria floating peacefully past, as well as a variety of Pokemon from farther afield. Hoppip and Skiploom from Johto bounced past on a lively breezed, and a flock of Starly – recently introduced from Sinnoh – twittered madly in a particularly tall tree.

    Before long, the leafy canopy split apart, revealing a wide area open to the sky. Ren was forcefully reminded of the Glade of Shifting Light, but Fortree's centre seemed infinitely more alive. Every inch of the large, open space was filled with people bustling around busily, setting up stalls, hanging strings of coloured bunting and – right in the middle – building a large circular stage. When Skarmory threw back its head and shrieked proudly, everybody below craned their necks upwards to see. Some waved as Skarmory circled down to the ground, and Winona waved back, leaving Ren unsure as to whether he should do the same. Suddenly, he was inadvertently the centre of attention again.

    Winona slipped off Skarmory's back as soon as it landed, and Ren followed her awkwardly. They had landed right in the middle of Fortree's square, next to the raised stage that appeared to be in the latter stages of assembly.

    I need to help out with some of the preparations, Ren,” she said quickly, rubbing Skarmory's head affectionately. “I'll be busy till about eleven thirty, when the Feather Carnival officially opens. I hate to drop you like this, but I promise I'll come back and find you later. I'll leave you with someone . . .” She tailed off, glancing around at the crowd of people that milled around them, many giving Ren curious looks.

    It's fine, really,” Ren said. “I'll find something to do for a while.”

    Nonsense,” Winona said. “Ah, perfect. Karl!” she called, raising her voice and beckoning to a boy about Ren's age who was sauntering past with a lollipop stick poking from his mouth. “Karl, come over here for a minute.”

    Looking vaguely interested, the boy wandered over, sizing Ren up casually as he approached. Ren took the opportunity to do the same. Karl was a little taller than he was, with messy black hair that looked like it hadn't been trimmed in years, straggling its way down to his shoulders. His jeans were torn and his brown shirt looked like it had been splashed with yellow paint at some point in the distant past. “You're the new Champion kid,” he said after a few seconds, drawling slightly as he spoke. His face betrayed none of his emotions.

    That's right,” Ren said, deciding to play it safe. “I'm Ren Goodwin.”

    Ren, Karl's a Pokemon Trainer too,” Winona said. “I'll leave you with him for a while. Karl, show Ren around, all right? Try and keep out of trouble until the carnival opens, all right?”

    Whatever,” Karl said, still not taking his eyes off Ren. “Come on, Champ.” He turned and slouched off, not waiting to see if Ren was following.

    Ren glanced doubtfully at Winona, who shrugged. “He's a good kid,” she said. “Just a little grumpy sometimes. You'll get on fine, I'm sure.”

    If you say so,” Ren said, raising his eyebrows as he followed Karl into the crowd. When he caught up to the other boy, he fell into step beside him, unsure whether he should initiate a conversation.

    Karl beat him to it. “I saw your battle on the news the other day,” he said, ducking skilfully under a large beam of wood carried by two muscular Machoke. “Pretty good stuff.”

    Thanks,” Ren said. “So you're a Trainer too? Have you tried for the League?”

    Eh, that's not really my style,” Karl said dismissively. He stopped beside an empty wooden stall and sat down on a bench, spreading his legs out casually in front of him. “Oi, sit down. I know Winona said to show you around, but you're just going to get stood on with people running round like this. There'll be time for that later.”

    Ren took a seat next to Karl on the bench, watching the proceedings going on around him with amazement. The entire square was filled with people, and it was a miracle that nobody was getting trampled on or brained with the large pieces of construction material that were being toted around. “Why is everything happening in such a rush? If you don't mind me asking, that is.”

    Rained like hell yesterday,” Karl said. “All this was meant to be done already, but the rain really made it difficult. We did what we could, but some things are just too dangerous when it's wet.”

    I guess that makes sense,” Ren said with a slight smile, watching a pair of Taillow hanging a string of coloured streamers between two trees nearby. “But you were saying that the League's not really your style . . . what do you mean by that? I thought just about everyone who trained Pokemon seriously was trying for the League.”

    Not all of us, Champ,” Karl said with a grin. “We have our own goals, and some of them aren't quite so lofty. Me, I wanna be a Gym Leader.”

    That's not something you hear every day,” Ren commented.

    You think that's funny?” Karl growled, suddenly belligerent.

    No, not at all,” Ren said quickly. “It's just interesting. I mean . . . all the Trainers I met on my journey talked about going to the Pokemon League and becoming Champion. None of them had anything but that single-minded goal . . . I guess I was no different. But it's cool to meet someone who wants to do something else. Do you specialise in a particular type yet?”

    The Dark type,” Karl said, sounding enthused. “They're just so cool, and they kick so much butt. And would you believe it, there's no Gym for them anywhere? Not here, or in Kanto, Johto or Sinnoh. Not even overseas in Unova!”

    Ren frowned as he racked his memory. “Now you mention it, you're right,” he said with some surprise. “I wonder why that is.”

    I bet there's just nobody who's tank enough to train them properly,” Karl said with a derisive laugh. “If you want to train Dark-types, you have to be a total badass. The only people I've heard of who specialise in them are Sidney from the Elite Four here, Karen from Johto and Grimsley from Unova. They're all Elites, though. They were just too awesome to start a Gym, so they went all the way.”

    You don't want to go all the way?” Ren asked curiously. “Why just settle for being a Gym Leader?”

    It's not about 'settling', really,” Karl said, looking pensive. “I just reckon being a Gym Leader would be so much more fun. Elites don't get to battle as often. They take one challenger a year, mostly, and I guess they battle each other for practice every now and then, but a Gym Leader gets to battle all the time. And there's so much other cool stuff you get to do, as well!”

    I guess you're right,” Ren said. “I'm in the same boat as the Elites, I guess. Not much battling to do. I mean, who's going to battle me? I can't accept official challenges, and I'm kind of . . . at a place where there's nobody else on my level. It makes me sound a bit stuck-up to say it, but . . .”

    Lonely at the top, huh?” Karl said. “See, there's why. That's why I want to be a Gym Leader. You get to be right in the thick of it all the time.”

    Nah, being Champion has its perks,” Ren said. “I get to come and see cool stuff like this, for one.” He waved at the increasingly frantic activity that was still taking place all around them. Things were coming together at a remarkable pace, he noticed. Coloured signs were being stapled to stalls, the last few boards were being hammered into place on the main stage, and the chaotic tangle of streamers and flags overhead had been transformed into an elaborate lattice of colour that left plenty of open space – for flying, Ren presumed. People were standing on stepladders and hanging unlit lanterns on wires and poles, he noticed.

    Yeah, this is pretty neat,” Karl said, his voice softening slightly. “The Feather Carnival is the biggest event on Fortree's calendar, you know. Everybody pitches in to help out, even outsiders like me.”

    You're not from here?” Ren asked.

    Well,” Karl said, “I've lived here for five years, so I'm pretty much part of the family.”

    Ren was about to ask where Karl had originally come from, but something in the other boy's dark blue eyes – which refused to meet Ren's – told him that it would be a bad idea. Instead, he steered the conversation back towards previously established safe ground. “You said you want to specialise in Dark-types, right? How's that going for you? You've been collecting them?”

    I have two,” Karl said. Suddenly his eyes lit up, making him look unexpectedly young. “Want to see them?”

    Of course,” Ren said. “I don't think we'll have time – or room – for a battle right now, but-”

    Oh, hell no,” Karl said with a laugh, standing up. “I'm not even gonna think battling you. Not with the team I have right now.”

    Fine,” Ren said. “Let's just see them, then.”

    Come on, we'll move out of the way first,” Karl said, glancing around. “We're in the way too much as it is, and Pokemon running around will just make us more annoying. Come with me.” He led Ren back past the stall that they had been sitting in front of. He crashed through some undergrowth for a few seconds, Ren following awkwardly, until they came to another road running horizontally in front of them.

    Ren's heart lifted as he saw the treehouses of Fortree for the first time in two years. While a good number of the city's buildings were earthbound, especially the larger ones, there were still many people in Fortree who felt the need to be closer to the sky – and to the trees. Small, lightweight buildings were built on platforms attached firmly to the branches of one or more trees at various heights. Rope ladders and makeshift staircases were the norm, and a vast number of rope bridges criss-crossed through the canopy.

    Karl skidded down an embankment to the road, which was entirely deserted save for a few people hurrying towards the square about fifty metres away. Ren followed, feeling vaguely uneasy. It wasn't often he found himself standing on a road with no traffic or pedestrians in sight. Then again, roads in Fortree hardly felt like roads at all. They were hard-packed earth, not tarmac or gravel; they hardly ever saw vehicles heavier than a bicycle. Hidden beneath the canopy as it was, Fortree existed in a perpetual state of leafy gloom that somehow managed not to seem gloomy at all. The shade from the trees that grew all through the city meant that it was cool at ground level, and the whole city was filled with the scent of life – leaves, earth and bark.

    I love it here, Ren realised suddenly, hearing the sounds of hectic construction and preparation fade away behind him as he moved away from the square. This city is amazing, not least because it's more alive than any town I've ever been in.

    You awake, Champ?” Karl asked.

    What? Oh, right. Sorry. I was just . . . daydreaming,” Ren explained. It was largely true. He had an picture in his mind's eye of moving to Fortree some day, spending the rest of his life among the trees with his Pokemon.

    Never had much patience for dreamers,” Karl said, fiddling with the two Poke Balls at his belt.

    Isn't that what we were just talking about, though?” Ren asked, puzzled. “How your dream was to be a Gym Leader?”

    Well, sorta. But I'm working at it. It's not just a dream – more like an inevitability.”

    That's . . . good,” Ren said, unsure how else to react. There was something admirable about Karl's dedication, even if he covered it up with a rough exterior. He doesn't seem to be trying too hard to hide it, though, he thought silently. But when he was talking to Winona, he was so grouchy. What's with that?

    So,” Karl said after a few seconds of tense silence. “Want to see the team?”

    Yeah!” Ren said. He was interested to see what kind of Pokemon a person like Karl would raise. Dark-types, obviously. But what sort?

    With a loud crack, Karl opened the first Poke Ball. A small purple creature appeared by his feet, vaguely goblin-like in appearance. Its eyes literally appeared to be sparkling blue gems, and it had a mouthful of wicked-looking teeth in its disproportionately large head. “My Sableye,” he said proudly. “Caught him on Dewford Island. He's a real trooper. Half Ghost-type too, so he doesn't take many bad hits – if you can even hit him, that is.” Giggling madly, the Pokemon faded almost completely from view in the dappled sunlight that filtered through the trees.

    Ren knelt down to inspect the Pokemon – what little he could see of it, anyway. “Sableye are quite rare,” he said as it faded back into visibility. “You did well to catch one, and he's a big specimen too. They're usually a little more fragile than this one, I think – he's pretty bulky.”

    Karl seemed pleased with the praise, but Ren could tell he was trying to hide it. Why would he do that? “You want to see my other one?” he asked, clearly making an effort to curb his eagerness.

    Sure,” Ren said.

    Another crack, and a much more familiar Pokemon sat before Ren on the road, cocking its head suspiciously at him as it regarded him with wary red eyes. Its fur was black and grey, shaggy but well-looked after. A long, warped scar ran across its muzzle and right up to its left eye. “This is Scar the Mightyena,” Karl said, an extra note of pride evident in his voice this time.

    Original,” Ren muttered as he reached out to pet the canine Dark-type. Its eyes followed his hand like laser trackers, but it consented to let him scratch it behind the ears, which it seemed to enjoy well enough. “Your first Pokemon?”

    You can tell?” Karl seemed surprised.

    Not hard, really,” Ren said. “There's cues from both you and the Pokemon. Little things like the way Sableye stands facing ever so slightly away from you, like it's not quite comfortable with you yet. It's not as skittish as a recent capture would be, but it certainly speaks of a Pokemon that's used to being a third wheel. That's probably not good, actually. You should probably make sure to look after Sableye a bit more so it doesn't feel left out.”

    Karl was staring at him, his mouth slightly open in disbelief. “You're screwing with me, right? You can tell that after just a few seconds?”

    So it's true?”

    Well, yeah, I guess I do use Mightyena more often than Sableye.”

    It's not so much about how often each Pokemon gets to battle,” Ren said, standing up and looking Karl in the eyes. “Some members of my team get used more than others, and I'm sure any top-tier Trainer would tell you the same. It's okay to play favourites a little bit. Everybody has a Pokemon that's special to them. For me, it's Zangoose. But all you need to do is make sure your others get the attention they need.”

    I-I see,” Karl said quietly. “I'll . . . I'll do that.”

    Good,” Ren said brightly, checking his watch. “Shouldn't we be getting back to the square about now? It's five to eleven.”

    Yeah, let's do that,” Karl said.

    Ren watched the other boy with no small interest as he returned his Pokemon and led the way back towards the square. Karl was hiding something, he was sure of it. He didn't know what – it might not even be anything major – but there was no question that there was something that needed to be brought out into the open if he ever wanted to be a Gym Leader.

    In the square, the majority of the preparations seemed to be complete. Vendors were stacking crates of drinks and making last-minute adjustments to displays, small children dashed about excitedly and Winona was visible on the central stage with Skarmory.

    Karl jerked his head towards the stage questioningly. “You wanna go over there? Looks like they're about ready to get underway.”

    Sure.” Ren nodded, and the two of them began forging their way through the crowd.

    When they reached the stage, Winona noticed them and extended a hand to pull Ren up next to her. “Come on, Champion,” she said with a slightly mischievous smile. “Do you feel up to making a speech?”

    A speech?” Ren shook his head quickly. “I can't do that!”

    Well, I'm afraid you don't have much of a choice,” Winona said. “Steven told me you're to make a speech whether you like it or not.”

    Ren cursed under his breath. “That guy, honestly . . .”

    Come on, it's easy,” she said, her voice taking on a slightly kinder tone as she appeared to notice his distress. “I'll do the buildup and then hand it over to you. You just have to say a few words about how happy you are to be here and then declare the Feather Carnival open. Simple!”

    As Winona turned away briefly to talk to somebody else, Ren felt something hit his lower leg. He looked down in surprise to see Karl glaring up at him.

    You cloyster out here, you're worth nothing,” he said, his words audible only to Ren due to the noise of the crowd. “Got it?”

    Ren laughed despite himself. “Got it,” he said. Inexplicably, he did feel better.

    Here we go again, he said silently. This is the time when I stop worrying about stupid things and just do it. He took a deep breath, tilting his head back to look at the sky. As always, several of the ubiquitous Flying-type Pokemon wheeled overhead, relaxed and loose. He could learn a thing or two from them at times like this, he supposed.
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    Old November 23rd, 2011 (10:21 PM).
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
    "I also happen to be a model."
    • Crystal Tier
    Join Date: Jan 2009
    Location: Nimbasa Gym
    Age: 23
    Gender: Male
    Nature: Relaxed
    Posts: 3,457
    So this is my celebratory exams-are-over chapter! It's a bit of a long one, but nothing ridiculous. I've been writing a lot thanks to NaNo this month, so this is the result of my labour. I've got two more chapters lined up after this, so I'll throw the next one out . . . after the weekend. Maybe Tuesday? Thanks to you guys who are still reading - I appreciate that this fic chugs along a bit more slowly than others I've seen, so I'm truly grateful to everyone who slogs it out with me.

    Chapter Twenty-Four

    “The Feather Carnival will be underway in just a minute!” Winona said, speaking into a microphone someone had handed her. Her voice boomed out from speakers arrayed strategically around the square. Drawn by her voice, the residents of Fortree and the multitude of tourists that had been milling around aimlessly began to converge in front of the stage.

    Ren could feel their eyes on him. At least half the crowd had recognised him, he was certain of it. While their attention was still largely on Winona, he knew that wouldn't last. Any minute now, he would be the centre of attention. Near the front of the crowd, he caught a glimpse of Karl's scowling face again. Rather than worry him, though, it paradoxically made him feel better. I told myself I was going to get over this, he chastised himself silently.

    “We have a very special guest here at the Feather Carnival with us this year,” Winona was saying. “Folks, I want you to meet Ren Goodwin, the newest Champion of the Hoenn League.”

    Ren smiled and waved. It wasn't so hard. The people of Fortree cheered as he gave them an awkward bow, thinking it the polite thing to do. With a start, he realised that Winona was handing him the microphone.

    “It's easy,” she reminded him in a whisper.

    For the first time, Ren believed her. “Hello, Fortree City!” he said brightly, letting the trees and the atmosphere of the city itself lend him strength. “I've just got to say that it's amazing to be here right now. The last time I came through here was a little over two years ago, when I stopped by to challenge your Gym Leader.” He glanced over at Winona, who winked. “It was about a fortnight out from that year's Feather Carnival, but I had to move on to the next Gym in a bit of a hurry. I really regretted missing that opportunity, so of course I was excited to come along this year. I still have no idea what to expect, though, so I hope you'll help me out.”

    Ren paused for a moment, suddenly aware that his heart was pounding. A crowd of friendly humans in the mood for a party shouldn't have been scarier than a horde of Iehkti'na, but somehow they were. Even so, he was surprised with how well he was doing. He sneaked another look across at Winona, who nodded, seeming pleased. Whenever you're ready, she mouthed.

    “Well, I for one can't wait for this thing to get started, so I suppose we should get underway,” he said, a suggestion which was met with roars of approval from the crowd. “In that case, I, um, declare the Feather Carnival officially open!”

    A blast of loud music from behind him almost caused Ren to lose his balance. Somehow, a large brass band had sneaked up onto the stage without him noticing, and now they started playing all at once, a lively showtune with a hefty beat that could be heard even over the noise that the crowd was making.

    A multitude of screeches, squawks and chirps from overhead alerted him to the sudden presence of hundreds of Pokemon soaring back and forth across the square – startled by the noise or deliberately released at his unknowing cue, he wasn't sure. There were Flying-types of all shapes and sizes, winged Bug-types and even the uncommon sight of a Charizard soaring ponderously overhead. On the spur of the moment, he reached down to his belt and plucked two particular Poke Balls off it. He wasn't normally one for showmanship, but he figured he could make an exception just this once. Tossing the two Poke Balls high in the air, he shouted, “Fly!”

    Yanmega and Braviary appeared in mid-air, leaving the Poke Balls to fall back to the ground, where Ren caught them and reattached them to his belt. The appearance of the Champion's Pokemon elicited a further cheer from the crowd as they spiralled upwards to join the multitude of Flying-types that already wheeled in the sky.

    Leaving them to it as the crowd quickly dispersed to all corners of the square, Ren crossed back to Winona and handed her the microphone. “That was . . . not so bad, actually,” he admitted.

    “Easy?” she queried, raising an eyebrow.

    “Yes, it was,” he said. “You win. It was still hard, though. If that even makes any sense.”

    “Ren, I've been the Gym Leader in this town for seven years now,” Winona said seriously as she led him down off the stage. “When I first took up the position, I was really surprised by how much I had to do stuff like this – public appearances, taking challenges and all that. From what I gather, you're a lot more freaked out by it all than I was – and that's fair enough, because you're four years younger than I was when I became the Gym Leader – but if it makes you feel better, you're doing a far better job of it than I did. I saw you on Hoenn Buzz the other night, and I was just as impressed then as I was now.”

    “You mean that?” Ren asked curiously. “Because you know, ever since I started doing this thing a couple of days ago, it seems that it's just been one massive string of screw-ups. I sort of stumbled through the press conference after the Championship match, mumbled through Hoenn Buzz and fumbled my way through the class at the Academy in Rustboro. I just have no idea what I'm doing.”

    “That sort of thinking really isn't good for you, you know,” Winona said disapprovingly. “I'm relieving you of your Champion duties for the rest of the day. Have fun, all right? I'm sure it's been hard these last few days, so just take today to unwind. Eat some hot dogs, play some games, win a few prizes and make some friends. Be . . . be a normal kid for a while, okay?”

    Ren couldn't say anything for a moment. He didn't really know what to say. “You planned this, didn't you?” he said at length.

    “Of course I did. I remember the day when you came through my Gym like it was yesterday. I wasn't sure then whether you'd make Champion, but I knew that if you did, you'd have a real hard time of it. Was I right?”

    “Yeah. Yeah, you were,” Ren said.

    “Okay, then. I'll hear no more against it. Do what you like for the day. Go along with Karl – he'll show you around the carnival. I'll see you back here just before dusk, but until then, you're free.”

    Karl shoved his way through the crowd to stand next to them, looking sulky once again. Ren frowned slightly, but simply made a note to ask the other boy about it later. “Come on, Champ,” he said, seeming supremely unenthusiastic. “Let's go see the carnival.”

    Ren paused a moment before following Karl through the crowd. “Thanks, Winona,” he said, a confusing mixture of gratitude and irritation bubbling within him. While on the one hand, he was definitely grateful for her understanding, he couldn't help but feel that she was patronising him a little bit. Deciding to take her at face value for the moment, he pushed his way through the crowd in the direction Karl had gone.

    “Don't run off on me like that,” he said when he caught up to the other boy, who was eyeing up a shooting game stall with evident interest.

    “It's your fault for not being quick enough,” Karl grumbled. “Here, let's have a go at this to start with.”

    “I don't think I'd be any good,” Ren said uncertainly, looking worriedly at the toy rifles lined up across the front of the stall.

    “Half a dozen shots on the house for the new Champion,” suggested the jolly-looking fellow manning the stall. “And his friend too, if you like.”

    “Wicked!” Karl said eagerly. “Look at that, hanging out with you has its perks after all!” He stepped forward and picked up one of the toy guns, aiming it at the garishly coloured targets on the back wall of the stall.

    Ren hesitated for a moment, then stepped forward and picked one up himself, weighing it carefully in his hands. It felt strange to be holding a weapon, even one as garish and fake as this. He had only ever seen real guns in books, and he'd never been one for toy guns. Nevertheless, he hefted it gamely, standing behind a line drawn on the ground in front of the stall and sighting down the barrel.

    His first shot flew high, the gun kicking unexpectedly in his hand. Readjusting his grip, he sent his second shot wide. His third went wider still, but his fourth flew relatively straight, cracking against the back wall of the stall between two of the targets.

    “Holy crap, you suck,” Karl laughed. “You plan on hitting something?”

    “I wish,” Ren said, frowning down the barrel. His fifth shot flew wide again, missing the stall entirely. His sixth narrowly missed the largest of the targets. “Oops. Well, thanks,” he said, handing the gun back to the stall's proprietor.

    “All right, move over and let a real man give it a go,” Karl said, shouldering Ren out of the way as he stepped up to the mark.

    Ren almost laughed at the serious look on Karl's face, but he thought better of it and remained silent. For at least ten seconds, nothing moved except the tip of Karl's toy rifle, wavering slightly up and down as he eyed up his target.

    Suddenly, there was a series of sharp cracks as Karl fired all his pellets in quick succession. Five of the paper targets in the stall were knocked off their perch, and the last round narrowly missed a sixth.

    “Good shooting,” Ren said with some surprise.

    Karl frowned. “I missed one. What do I win?”

    The man running the stall blinked in apparent shock. “Five out of six gets you anything off the top shelf . . . except I haven't stacked the shelf yet. They're all still in the boxes round the back. I'll open them up for you.”

    “What sort of prizes do you get at things like these, anyway?” Ren asked Karl as the man bustled around behind the stall and dragged out a sizable crate.

    “Stuffed Pokemon toys, usually,” Karl said, sounding less than enthused.

    “Not your thing?” Ren asked.


    In the end, Karl picked out a large plush Mightyena that, while impressive, looked much less fierce than Scar. Ren had to grin at the sight of the grouchy teenager wandering around the carnival with a three-foot-long stuffed toy under one arm.

    Three hours passed quickly at the Feather Carnival. Many of the stall owners and salesmen recognised Ren and offered him free shots, throws or sweets. Ren soon discovered that he was absolutely terrible at all sorts of carnival games, although he picked up a good number of consolation prizes. By two o'clock, he was wearing a winged hat and a pair of aviator's gloves, his Pokenav had a colourful sleeve printed with Swellow, and his bag had half a dozen helium balloons of various colours and sizes attached to it.

    Karl had refused to take part in most of the games since winning his Mightyena toy, which, Ren noticed, he still carried under one arm. He seemed to be enjoying the benefits of Ren's presence in scoring free food, though.

    Hands full of hot chips, soda and candy floss, Ren nudged Karl with his elbow and indicated that they ought to sit down somewhere. They found their way through the festival-goers until they reached a small open area ringed with benches. In the centre, a tall, thin man was doing juggling tricks with his Scyther. Sitting down, Ren watched with interest as the Scyther batted several brightly coloured rubber balls into the air with the sides of its massive claws, keeping at least ten of them moving at once while its Trainer juggled a further six or so. Even as Ren watched, they began tossing them fluidly back and forward between each other, causing the small crowd sitting on the benches to clap enthusiastically.

    “This is nice,” Ren said. “I can't remember the last time I went to a carnival like this.”

    “They're not as common nowadays as they used to be, I hear,” Karl said. “My mom always talks about the travelling fairs they had when she was a kid, but there just aren't any of them around. The Feather Carnival isn't the only one – there are a couple others – but it's the only one that comes around like clockwork every year. Only here in Fortree, though, of course.”

    “Why is that?” Ren asked. “I mean, I get that it's a special thing for people here, but I never really asked why. Something to do with all the bird Pokemon, I guess.”

    “Yeah, that's about it, actually,” Karl said. “Folks here love Flying-type Pokemon. I mean, come on, they build their houses in trees just so they can live closer to them! Fortree and Flying-types have been real tight for hundreds of years. Every year, they hold this carnival to celebrate that relationship.”

    “You talk about it like an outsider,” Ren said, craftily noting the opportunity to give Karl a gentle push. “You said you'd lived here for five years. How come?”

    “What? A guy can't live where he wants?” Karl said, suddenly on the defensive.

    “That's not what I mean,” Ren said, wondering if he'd been too direct. He changed tack slightly, steering away from Karl's past a little. “If you're training to be a Gym Leader, wouldn't you want to be, you know, travelling around? Catching more Dark-types and battling all different kinds of Trainers?”

    “Well . . . I have been doing both of those, sort of. I get the battling practice I need at Winona's Gym. I battle some of the Trainers who come in to challenge her. Some of them want a warm-up, others want the extra practice themselves. Some just want to show off. But they come from everywhere, and they have all kinds of different Pokemon.”

    “Don't you have to use Flying-types to be an apprentice at the Gym?” Ren asked, frowning.

    “Normally, yeah, but Winona made an exception for me while I'm here. It was great of her to help me out like that, but don't you dare tell her I said that!”

    “Sure, sure,” Ren said, wondering again why Karl was so keen to give Winona the impression that he didn't like her. “But what about catching Pokemon?”

    Karl sighed, leaning back on the bench and staring up at the treetops that surrounded the square. “I came here, to Fortree, when I was eleven,” he said quietly. “I was doing just what you expected – travelling around and battling, training and trying to catch new Pokemon. I came here because I'd heard rumours of a certain rare, powerful Dark-type Pokemon that hung around in the forest around here. You know it?”

    Ren nodded. Suddenly, a number of things began to make sense. “Absol, right?”

    “The Disaster Pokemon,” Karl recited. “Rumoured to sense impending disaster with its horn, it naturally became a target for collectors. The few small populations of Absol across the world withdrew into wild areas like the forests near Route 120, and they only emerge when great danger threatens. I've spent five years of my life trekking through those woods, trying to find one. I swore to myself I wouldn't leave until I caught one.”

    “You want one that badly?” Ren asked.

    “Hell yes, I want one that badly,” Karl said forcefully. “I'd be unstoppable with a Pokemon like that! And imagine the prestige that would come with owning one! They're unbelievably rare!”

    Ren thought about this for a moment. “Are those . . . are those your reasons?” he asked seriously. “Because it doesn't sound like-”

    “Look, spare me the lecture,” Karl said, waving his hand dismissively. “I've heard it all from Winona, not to mention everybody else I told this to. I know what I want, and I know why I want it. That'll have to be good enough for you. Alright?”

    “Fine,” Ren said. “I won't criticise the way you do things. Arceus knows I get mad enough at people who complain about my methods, so it'd be unfair of me to do it to you.”

    “The hell?” Karl said. “Who criticised you? And what for?”

    “Nothing major, really,” Ren said. “That's the worst part, really. A while back, I met some people who really disagreed with how I battled. Not because they thought it was unethical or any of that crap, but . . . well, they were purists. They thought Pokemon battles should be 'instinctual and beautiful in their intransitiveness', I think it was. They didn't like how I took everything to pieces and analysed everything when I battled.”

    Karl gave him a skeptical look. “You're screwing with me, right? Nobody's that anal about battling.”

    “I'm afraid not,” Ren said, his mouth twisting as he remembered. “I got into some trouble with a bunch of them a while back. After my loss at the Ever Grande Conference last year, but before I went back to compete again a month ago. It was . . . messy.”

    “Don't wanna talk about it?” Karl asked.

    “Pretty much.”

    “Fair enough. Everyone's got stuff they don't want to talk about,” Karl said pointedly.

    Ren sighed. “Fine. I won't ask you about where you came from.”

    “Oh, I'm from Fallarbor. It's not where I came from that bothers me. It's why I left.”

    “Then all right,” Ren said. “I won't mention it again. I wouldn't mind knowing why you don't want to talk about it, but finding that out would probably involve, you know . . .”

    “Talking about it,” Karl finished. He looked at Ren for a moment, then burst out laughing.

    Dumbfounded, Ren watched him for a few seconds before joining in. It hadn't even been particularly funny, but in the sunlight and cheer, surrounded by people having fun and talking peacefully with someone who might be considered a friend, everything seemed magnified somehow.

    “Hey,” Karl said when he managed to calm down eventually. “I think they set up a haunted house down the west end of the square. Want to go check it out?”

    “Sure,” Ren said. “I've finished eating, so let's go.” He stood up, applauding one more time for the juggler and his Scyther, who were just finishing up a turn, and stepped over the bench.

    Karl swore, patting his belt as he stood. “What the hell? My Pokemon!”

    “What? You lost them?” Ren said.

    “I didn't lose them!” Karl growled; he scanned the area, one hand shading his eyes from the sun. “I keep them attached with powerful magnets, just like any sensible Trainer. They don't just fall off!”

    “So someone stole them?” Ren said incredulously. “Do you have any idea who? How long have they been gone?”

    “I don't damn well know, do I? I had them when I sat down just now,” Karl said, clenching and unclenching his fists as he paced back and forth, glaring around at passers-by.

    “If someone stole them, they're probably well away by now,” Ren said, checking his own belt just in case. All six Poke Balls were present, though Yanmega and Braviary were still probably flying around somewhere. “We should go and tell Winona, at least.”

    “Winona? What the hell is she going to do?”

    “More than you are right now, at any rate,” Ren said decisively, grabbing the other boy's arm and pulling him towards the centre stage.

    Even as they approached the stage, Ren saw Winona swooping down on her Skarmory with a small girl of about eight seated in front of her. He climbed up onto the stage, practically dragging Karl behind him, as the Gym Leader returned the girl to her parents.

    “Oh, hello, Ren!” she said brightly when she spotted him. “Been having fun?”

    “Well, yes, but not right now,” he said urgently, stepping in close to talk in a low voice. “There's a thief about. Someone stole Karl's Pokemon!”

    “What? Are you sure?” she asked, directing the question at Karl. She looked positively horror-stricken.

    “Positive,” Karl growled. “And when I find the son of a Bidoof that did it, I'm going to punch his face out the back of his skull.”

    “No, you aren't,” Winona said sternly. “We're going to find whoever it is and we're going to hand him over to the police. Now, I might put an announcement over the PA, but that could panic people, which we don't want. For the meantime, I'll just get the apprentices from my Gym on it, as well as the police who are stationed around the carnival. They'll be able to keep an eye out for suspicious characters, though I don't know how obvious our thief will be.”

    “That's all we're going to do?” Karl asked.

    “That's all we can do, Karl,” Winona said firmly. “If we alert everyone here, not only will people panic, but the thief will know we're on to him and probably leave. Then we'll never find him. Is that what you want?”

    “No,” Karl said, rolling his neck restlessly. “But what are we going to do, then?”

    “The thief might strike again today – you might not even have been his first target. The best thing we can do is be on high alert, watching for any suspicious activity.”

    “Couldn't we just go up to everybody and make them bring out all the Pokemon they have on them?” Karl said. “Then we'd be able to find who has my Sableye and Scar!”

    “Remember what I said about not panicking people, Karl?” Winona said mildly. “Besides, do you really think the person who stole your Pokemon would walk around wearing them on his belt?”

    “He might,” Karl said, but Ren could tell he'd been stung. “For Arceus' sake, I just want to hit someone! Preferably the ass who took my Pokemon, but if we don't find him soon it'll have to be you, Champ.”

    “Me?” Ren yelped, stepping hastily away from Karl. “Easy on.”

    “None of that, Karl,” Winona said, a slight edge creeping into her voice for the first time. “You two just keep wandering around the carnival for now. I think I have an idea . . .”

    * * *

    “You seriously think this is a good idea, Ren?” Karl asked anxiously.

    “Using me as bait? Of course it's a good idea,” Ren said with false confidence. “It's no secret that the Champion is here today. To a thief like that, nobody's Pokemon are worth stealing more than mine. Winona's right – they probably just want to sell them, and I have some pretty rare – or powerful – Pokemon on me. If they're looking for a target, I'm pretty much the best one.”

    “But you were with me before when they stole mine,” Karl said. “They'll expect you to be on guard.”

    “They will if I'm with you,” Ren said. “If we went our separate ways before you noticed Sableye and Scar were gone, I still might not know. So tag out. Got somebody else I can wander around with?”

    “Wouldn't you be an easier target on your own?” Karl asked.

    “Hmm, that's true,” Ren said. “You go back with Winona and I'll just wander around by myself, then. I'll call you if anything happens.”

    “I'm not giving you my Pokenav number,” Karl said with a frown.

    “Winona did, because she knew you'd be like that,” Ren said, grinning back. “Now go on back,” he said, talking over the other boy's protests. “I'll get your Pokemon back. I promise.”

    Karl hesitated. “Uh . . . thanks,” he said.

    “Every second you hang around me is a second the thief might see us and realise I know,” Ren said. “Go on, scoot.”

    Karl looked like he was about to say something else, but he evidently thought better of it, turning to head in the opposite direction.

    Ren headed towards the west side of the carnival.

    Half an hour later, Ren still had all six of his Poke Balls. He wondered if he was being too obvious. He had, after all, been doing his level best to look vague and dreamy, wandering slowly through the temporary alleys of the carnival with his eyes on the sky, paying as little attention to people around him as he could. It was a surprisingly difficult act to keep up, for every instinct he had was telling him he was a target. Does that mean it's working?

    Subtly, he glanced down at his belt. Six Poke Balls. He stopped for a moment to chat to a friendly stall owner he'd met earlier, complimenting the man on the Kecleon that he was using as an attraction. The Pokemon changed colour repeatedly as its owner held up different-coloured slides behind it, its skin seeming to fizzle slightly as the pigments morphed. Ren stayed at the stall for a good five minutes, genuinely interested in the unusual Pokemon. More than that, though, he wanted to give any potential thief another opportunity to try and sneak up on him. He had remembered that the thief had taken Karl's Pokemon while the target was sitting down, distracted by something else. He kept one eye on his belt, but all six of his Poke Balls remained where they were.

    Deciding that staying at the stall any longer would be suspicious, Ren turned to leave. Preoccupied with his dilemma, however, he crashed into a blonde girl who had been walking up behind him.

    “Ow! Watch it!” she said sharply.

    “Sorry!” he said hastily, ducking quickly around her and moving on. Well, that was embarrassing. I guess there's a limit on vagueness.

    He sneaked another quick glance at his belt and almost shouted out loud. Four of his Poke Balls were missing, leaving him with just the two that were attached to his right hip. That girl! He cursed his idiocy. She had to have stolen them when he'd bumped into her just seconds ago. He'd fallen for the oldest trick in the pickpocket's book.

    Ren spun around and dashed back towards the stall with the Kecleon, all pretense of ignorance abandoned. The girl was gone. “Did any of you see that girl that was just here?” he asked the people clustered around the colour-shifting Normal-type. “Blonde, quite tall . . .”

    Most of them shook their heads or just looked puzzled, but one man pointed east, back towards the centre of the carnival. Ren thanked him quickly before sprinting back towards the centre stage, scanning the crowd for the girl. The carnival whirled colourfully around him, and he swore silently as he realised that it would be almost impossible to find one person in the chaos. He covered the rest of the distance to the stage quickly.

    Winona spotted him from her position on the stage and she hurried over, looking concerned. When she saw the empty slots on his belt, she paled slightly. “They took the bait?”

    “Yes, but I couldn't catch her. I did see her face, though.”

    “You're sure? You know who it was?”

    “She bumped into me, and a few seconds later I noticed they were gone. A hundred to one it was her who took them.”

    Winona nodded, still looking slightly flustered. “All right. What did she look like?”

    “She was blonde, about this tall,” he said, holding one hand a few inches above his own head. “Maybe eighteen or nineteen. She was wearing a red top and a black skirt, and I think she might have had a backpack.”

    “All right, I'll pass that on to the police. They'll find her. You just wait here with me.”

    “What? I'm not just going to sit here!” Ren protested. “If nothing else, I promised Karl I'd get his Pokemon back!”

    “I understand you want to help, Ren, but the police are professionally equipped and trained to deal with this sort of thing. You'll just-”

    “What? Get in the way? I doubt it. I'm the only one who's seen her face, remember. Even if they have a description, I'm still going to recognise her better than anyone.”

    Winona sighed. “All right, Ren. Do what you like. Just be careful, okay? I'm going to call the police in now. They've got people all around the carnival in case of emergency.”

    “Thanks,” Ren said, dashing off before she could say anything else. He didn't know what he was doing or where he was going, but he wasn't going to sit around while other people chased the person who'd stolen his Poke Balls.

    He looped around the carnival in a wide arc, wondering whether the girl had even stuck around. Two Pokemon of Karl's and four that belonged to the Champion would be a good haul, he suspected – even discounting anything else she might have stolen. If the girl had any sense, she'd leave.

    Then again, the Feather Carnival was a massive event and very few people left before it was over. There was to be a synchronised flying performance and a fireworks display after dusk, he had heard. Hardly anybody would be wandering around the rest of Fortree. Most of the population of the city – remarkably small despite its geographical spread – would be concentrated in the square. He reflected briefly on how ironic the name of the carnival's location was, given that it wasn't even vaguely square-shaped, never mind being the size of half a dozen football pitches.

    No time to get distracted, he told himself as he moved quickly through the south section of the carnival. If I were the thief, what would I do? He would take his chances lying low among the festival-goers, he decided. Leaving the carnival would make him stand out too much, and the police would be watching for people leaving early. No, he would keep his head down among the crowds and slip out when they did, and under cover of darkness no less.

    So the girl was most likely still around, he reasoned. He just had to find her.

    Half an hour later, he was beginning to tire of wandering aimlessly through the crowds in the hope of finding one person. He had made his way over to the west quarter again, but the mysterious thief was still nowhere to be seen.

    Suddenly, he noticed a disturbance nearby. Several people were shouting, and the crowd was milling around in a slightly more confused manner than elsewhere. Ren sprinted towards the source of the the ruckus. He pushed his way through the crowd until he reached a roughly oval-shaped space that had been vacated by the mass of people that otherwise occupied every square inch of the square.

    Three people stood in the open space: two policemen and the girl who had stolen Ren's Poke Balls. The girl stood in the middle, glancing back and forth at the policemen who were advancing slowly on her from either side. The crowd was thick; there would be no escape.

    Ren sighed as the two policemen each sent out a Growlithe. He had kind of wanted to catch the girl himself, but it was good that she had been caught nonetheless. She was wearing a backpack, he noticed, which would be where she was carrying the stolen Pokemon.

    As the two Growlithe prowled towards the girl, however, something inky black flashed across Ren's vision, moving at an incredible speed. The Growlithe nearest to him howled as sharp claws raked across its muzzle, drawing blood which dripped to the ground below it.

    The Pokemon that had made the attack came to a halt and faced off against the other Growlithe. It was a Sneasel, Ren saw – a Pokemon native to the Johto and Sinnoh regions, with a stubby, vaguely humanoid body and large, wicked-looking claws.

    The girl smiled as both policemen backed up a little. It was a cold smile that sent a shiver down Ren's spine. The girl was eerily beautiful, he noticed absently. Her face was narrow and soft-looking, and her blonde hair was straight and long. Her eyes, though, were as hard as steel.

    Sneasel swiped at the nearest members of the crowd, who stumbled backward in their haste to get out of range of the Pokemon's wicked claws. The Dark-type stepped forward and swung again, causing people to move back even further.

    The girl's smile grew even wider as she followed her Pokemon, though Ren noticed she kept a weather eye on the policemen, who were warily moving after her.

    For a brief moment, the crowd shifted even further out of the reach of Sneasel. A gap opened, and the girl and her Pokemon bolted.

    Cursing, Ren tore after her, dashing past the policemen and through the opening that the girl had just used. He could see her some way ahead of him, jinking back and forward as she ran through the crowd. He followed quickly.

    She was making a run for it, he realised as he followed her. Her cover blown, she was heading straight for the edge of the square, where she could disappear between the trees of Fortree City. He was gaining on her slightly, but he didn't think it would be enough to catch her before she left the carnival.

    Sure enough, the girl reached the edge of the square while he was still twenty metres or so behind her. She slipped past a pair of police officers and out along the road that led west. Ren followed hot on her heels, though he wasn't confident he could catch her. Behind him, he dimly registered the police officers starting to follow, but he and the girl were already well past.

    Shortly after leaving the carnival grounds, the girl left the main road, veering off towards the south. She must have recalled Sneasel at some point, he noticed. Ren followed her, realising that he was gaining ground again. He was no athlete, but five years of travelling around the Hoenn region and overseas – largely on foot – had left him more than moderately fit.

    He could hear running water, he realised suddenly. They were approaching the Fortree River, then. What was she planning?

    The river came suddenly into view as he topped a gentle swell in the forest floor, the thief still some metres ahead of him. She headed directly for the sturdily-built log bridge that crossed the river, shrugging her bag off as she ran. Ren followed with growing worry as she rummaged within it. Whatever she was doing in the bag slowed her down, so Ren almost caught up with her. He was within ten metres of her when she hit the bridge.

    The girl swung her arm high as he ran onto the bridge, two Poke Balls flying back at an angle that would send them towards the riverbank – or maybe even into the river. A distraction. Clever. “Braviary!” he shouted, not letting up his pursuit of the girl.

    With a mighty screech, Ren's proud Flying-type burst down through the canopy, where he had been flying silently, waiting to be called upon. He swooped down in a swift arc, snatching the two Poke Balls out of the air and pulling up again to follow Ren and the girl onto the bridge.

    The girl stopped, whirling around to face Ren with an ugly snarl on her pretty face. Before he could get any closer, however, she thrust an arm out over the river, another Poke Ball in her hand. Ren stopped short, eyeing the Poke Ball warily.

    “Braviary,” he said quietly after a few seconds of silence. “The Poke Balls, please.”

    Swooping overhead, Braviary dropped the spheres before perching on the handrail on the other side of the bridge. Ren caught the Poke Balls and pressed the release switches on them. Scar the Mightyena and Sableye appeared before him, looking confused. “Good to know you two are all right,” he said, clipping their Poke Balls to two of the empty slots on his belt.

    “You're going to let me go,” the girl said suddenly. Her voice was quiet, but sharp as a knife. “If you, or any of these Pokemon, move an inch, one of your Pokemon goes over the side. Your Braviary's quick, but not quick enough to catch it this time. The current runs quickly here, and you'll probably never see the Pokemon inside again. They'll get waterlogged and sink somewhere between here and the ocean, but where, I have no idea. I've got the other three right here, and they'll go the way of the first quickly enough.”

    Ren bit his lip thoughtfully. “But if I let you go, I'll probably never see my Pokemon again either,” he said, forcing his voice to remain level.

    “True,” the girl admitted. “But at least you'll know they're alive.”

    Ren glanced over the side of the bridge. The current was swift, the bridge naturally having been built over the narrowest part of the river. There were rapids a way downstream, too; he could hear them, but they were out of sight. She was right, he realised. Something as small as a Poke Ball would be lost forever if it went over the side.

    “What's your answer, Champion?” she asked mockingly, placing a derisive emphasis on the last word. “Will you watch your Pokemon die, or watch them leave you forever?”
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    Old November 29th, 2011 (4:11 PM).
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
    "I also happen to be a model."
    • Crystal Tier
    Join Date: Jan 2009
    Location: Nimbasa Gym
    Age: 23
    Gender: Male
    Nature: Relaxed
    Posts: 3,457
    A/N: Thanks to Giratina for subconsciously inspiring this chapter title. ;;;

    Chapter Twenty-Five
    Wings Have We

    Ren smiled, spreading his arms generously. “Go ahead,” he said. “Toss them over. See if I care.”

    A flicker of confusion crossed the girl's face. Her eyes were startlingly blue, he noticed. They were quite pretty, really. “Oh, I see. You're calling my bluff. I really will do it!” she said, waving the hand with Ren's Poke Ball in it to emphasise her point.

    “Okay,” Ren said, shrugging his backpack off his shoulders.

    “What are you doing?” she demanded. “I told you I'd drop it if you moved!”

    “Then drop it. Drop them all,” Ren said, fiddling with the zip.

    Frowning, the girl opened her hand, letting the Poke Ball in it drop. It fell towards the river, turning slowly in midair until it hit the water with a splash, disappearing momentarily before it bobbed up again a few feet downstream.

    Ren watched it go idly, then shrugged and went back to digging through his bag.

    “Aren't . . . aren't you bothered?” the girl asked, faltering.

    “Why should I be?” Ren asked, finding what he was looking for. “I mean, that was a perfectly nice Poke Ball. Cost me a couple of bucks. But I wasn't that attached to it.”

    She just glared at him. Her blinking had sped up slightly, he noticed. She was confused. Uncertain.

    “You know,” he said casually, thumbing the release switch on the Poke Ball he had just pulled out of his bag, “you should really check what you have before you try bargaining with it.” Camerupt appeared on the bridge behind the girl, snorting threateningly. Ren pressed three more switches, sending out Zangoose, Solrock and Manectric. Braviary squawked happily as Yanmega buzzed out from behind a tree on the bank and landed on Camerupt's back.

    The girl's face fell as she looked at the Pokemon surrounding her, then at the three Poke Balls in her hands, and then back again. She pressed the release switches with fumbling fingers, but the Poke Balls sprung open to reveal only air. “Wh-when?” she spluttered, dropping them. “H-how did you switch them?”

    “I switched them after Karl and I talked to Winona,” he said, grinning slightly despite the seriousness of the situation. “You never had my Pokemon. You just stole four empty Poke Balls off my belt. Are you proud of yourself?”

    The girl gave him a poisonous glare, but Ren laughed it off. “You could learn a thing or two about dirty looks from a friend of mine,” he said, remembering Elly's cold green eyes with a slight shiver.

    “You . . . you piss me off, Ren Goodwin,” the girl said, shaking her head as she brushed a loose strand of hair out of her perfect face.

    “I seem to be doing that to girls a lot recently,” he reflected bitterly. “And that reminds me. You evidently know who I am, but who are you?”

    The girl laughed. It sounded genuine, although she was still glaring. “Like I'd tell you my name, Champion.”

    “Well, unless you want me to call you Annoying Thief Girl, I'd suggest you tell me.”

    “What does it matter? You're never going to see me again,” she said.

    Ren could hear shouts from the road behind him. “Manectric, go and fetch the police, would you?” Manectric yipped and dashed away. “I imagine they'll want a word with you,” he said.

    “Too bad they're not getting one,” she said.

    “Really?” Ren said, raising an eyebrow. “Not to sound cocky or anything, but we kind of have you surrounded.”

    “You're a funny one, Champion,” she said with a smile. “I'll catch you some other time.” With that, she vaulted over the side of the bridge.

    Ren's eyes widened as he leaned over the edge to see where she'd gone. The swift-flowing river carried her quickly downstream, but she was a strong swimmer and before long she had reached the far bank. She clambered out of the river and climbed, sure-footed, up the bank.

    “Braviary!” Ren said sharply as he set off running. He knew there wasn't much chance of catching up to her, but Braviary might be able to.

    Braviary took off from the railing with a screech, winging his way towards where the girl was fast disappearing into the trees once again.

    Ren reached the end of the bridge and turned left, heading along the road towards the girl, who he could just barely see on the road some way in front of him. He saw Braviary swoop down in front of her, but there was a flash of red light and her Sneasel appeared again, leaping off her shoulder and onto Braviary's back. The Flying-type screeched and tried to throw it off, but it hung on grimly. The girl ran past, and Braviary wheeled off, screeching in pain and frustration as its passenger did its level best to slice at his head while hanging on.

    “Damn it all,” Ren muttered, speeding up a little more. He had all but run out of energy during the first chase, and now he was flagging. He doubted he could catch up to the girl a second time.

    As it turned out, he was to be denied the opportunity. A loud noise behind him made him look back – just in time to throw himself out of the way as a bright red sports car came haring down the road towards him. It blasted by in a cloud of dust, screeching to a halt just ahead of the girl. She dived through a door that popped open in front of her, recalling her Sneasel from Braviary's back as she did so. Tires spinning, the car shot off again, leaving Ren coughing from the dust behind it.

    “Damn, damn, damn,” he said, standing up and walking over to where Braviary had perched on a low tree branch after the Sneasel had been returned to its Poke Ball. He at least seemed unhurt. “Sorry, buddy,” Ren said, stroking Braviary's proud plumage apologetically. “You did well.”

    Braviary chirruped softly, bumping its large, plumed head against Ren's hand as Zangoose and Yanmega caught up to them, Solrock and Camerupt bringing up the rear with Karl's Pokemon. “You all did well,” he said as they gathered around him. “Scar, Sableye. Are you two all right?”

    Karl's Dark-types appeared unhurt, so Ren took the opportunity to return them to their Poke Balls. As he returned his own Pokemon as well, a police car pulled up next to him, lights flashing. The door opened and one of the officers that had cornered the girl at the carnival stepped out.

    “Mr Goodwin,” the policeman said. “I'm glad you're all right. What happened to the thief?”

    “She got away,” Ren said. “I'm sorry. A car came along and picked her up.”

    “What kind of car?” the policeman asked, pulling out a notebook.

    “Bright red,” Ren said. “Some kind of sports car. No spoiler on the back. I couldn't see the logo or license plate, sorry.”

    “Well, there can't be that many bright red sports cars in Fortree,” the policeman said, jotting down a few notes. “We'll keep an eye out, but I imagine they'll be out of town before too long. Could be anywhere from Lilycove to Mauville by tonight. What did she get away with?”

    “Nothing, as far as I know,” Ren said, grinning slightly. “I got back the Pokemon she stole off my friend, so unless she took someone else's too, she got nothing.”

    “We haven't had any other reports of theft,” the policeman told him, flipping over a couple of pages on his notepad. “What about your Pokemon, though?”

    “I had them the whole time,” Ren said, quickly outlining how he'd tricked her into stealing his empty Poke Balls.

    The policeman chuckled. “Good work, kid,” he said. “You'd make a good cop someday. Anyway, we're going to do a quick loop around the city now. See if we can't spot this red sports car of yours. You should go on back to the carnival and give your friend his Pokemon back.”

    “All right, officer,” Ren said with a nod as the policeman got back into the car, which promptly sped off east. He headed back towards the bridge, meeting Manectric and the officers it had fetched on the way. Ren briefly summarised the situation for them as he returned Manectric to its Poke Ball with a slight sigh of relief. Even though he had known where his Pokemon were the whole time, he only really felt safe with all six of them on his belt.

    Returning to the carnival, Ren pulled out his Pokenav and called Karl, who answered immediately.

    “Ren? Is that you?”

    “Yeah, it's me. Listen, I got Scar and Sableye back.”

    Karl's sigh of relief came down the phone as a rush of static. “Thank Arceus,” he said. “Do I get to punch the person who nicked them now?”

    “No, she got away,” Ren said. “Sorry about that. The police are looking for her, though.”

    Karl swore loudly and colourfully. “I'm going to kill that bi- ow! Okay, okay! Sorry! I'm sorry!”

    Ren frowned. “Karl?”

    A different voice answered. “Hi, Ren, this is Winona. Well done on recovering the stolen Pokemon.”

    “Do I want to know what you did to Karl?” Ren asked.

    “That was Skarmory, actually,” she said innocently. “In lieu of washing his mouth out with soap, I've had Skarmory nipping at his ear every time he swears like that. He's not nearly as bad now as he was five years ago. Anyway, come on back to the stage. Karl will want his Pokemon back, and I've got someone here who wants to meet you.”

    “What? Who is it now?” Ren asked, but the line had already gone silent. Sighing, he began the walk back towards the carnival.

    Ren allowed a slight flush of pride to run through him as he passed through the crowd. Although the girl had got away from him, he was quite pleased with how he'd managed to trick her. Of course, he would have had to be entirely foolish to actually let her steal his Pokemon in the first place, but . . . that look on her face was priceless, he reflected. Pity she got away.

    As he approached the stage, Karl came charging out towards him, shouldering people aside in his rush. Chuckling slightly, Ren held out Karl's two Poke Balls.

    The black-haired boy snatched them off him and pressed the release switches. When Scar and Sableye materialised in front of him, he breathed a heavy sigh of relief, sinking down to sit on the ground as if the air rushing out had deflated him. Scar nosed him reassuringly, and Sableye scampered up onto his knee and patted him on the head.

    Ren smiled, only able to guess how Karl had been feeling. He couldn't imagine losing any of his Pokemon for even a minute; even though he'd switched their Poke Balls for empty ones, he had felt his heart drop through his stomach when he'd noticed their absence.

    “Thank you, Ren,” Karl said tightly, standing up again and clasping his hand, all pretenses of standoffishness gone.

    Ren could tell that Karl was trying not to cry, so he simply clapped him on the shoulder and moved on towards the stage, leaving the other boy together with his Pokemon.

    Winona was waiting for him beside the stage with a young, redheaded woman who looked vaguely familiar. “I'm impressed, Ren,” Winona said. “That was well done. Still . . . it's good that you managed to get Karl's Pokemon back, but that could have been dangerous. Be more careful next time, okay?”

    Ren nodded. “All right. Uh . . . is this the person you wanted to meet?”

    “That's me!” said the redhead brightly, stepping forward and putting her face right up next to Ren's, looking him in the eyes. He tried to pull back, but she grabbed him by the shoulders and held him still.

    “Uh . . .” he said awkwardly.

    “Yes!” she said, letting him go and skipping backwards again. “Elesa told me about you. We were watching the Ever Grande Conference on TV last month, and she said 'Hey, I know that kid! He won the Bolt Badge off me a while back!'.”

    “Uh . . .” Ren said again, trying to make sense of the bubbly young woman in front of him. Elesa . . . the Bolt Badge . . . the Feather Carnival. “Skyla?” he said, frowning slightly.

    She grinned widely, throwing him an aviator's salute with two fingers. “That's me! Mistralton City's Gym Leader, at your service! I came for the Feather Carnival, but the weather in Unova was terrible when I left yesterday, so I'm late. I hear you've all been having fun without me!”

    “I wouldn't call it 'fun', Skyla,” Winona said with a note of disapproval in her voice. “One of my apprentices had his Pokemon stolen.”

    “But Ren got them back, didn't he?” Skyla said. “All's well that ends well. Speaking of that, was that your Braviary I saw flying around earlier?”

    “Ah, yes, it would be,” Ren said. “I don't think anybody else here has one.”

    “He's a fine specimen,” Skyla said. “Young, too. He's going to get even bigger. Did you catch him when you were in Unova? About the same time you beat Elesa? Well done on that, by the way. She doesn't go down easy.”

    “Er,” Ren said. “Yes, I caught him as a Rufflet when I was in Unova . . . not quite three years ago. I was twelve.”

    “What possessed you to go running off overseas anyway? Unova Badges wouldn't do you any good for the Hoenn League.”

    “I . . . I hit a snag. With Brawly and the Knuckle Badge. I needed to . . . get away from it all for a while, so I went to Unova, watched the Conference, challenged a few Gyms and then came back here.”

    “How many Unova Badges did you get in the end?” Skyla asked, looking thoughtful.

    “Three: the Basic Badge from Lenora, the Trio Badge from Chili, and the Bolt Badge from Elesa.”

    “How would you like the opportunity to earn another one?” Skyla asked with a glint in her eye.

    “You mean . . .” Ren blinked, not entirely following.

    “The Jet Badge, sport. You want it?”

    “Don't I have to, you know . . . challenge you at the Mistralton Gym?” he asked.

    “Eh, not really. I think you've earned the right to battle me for it. Winona's freed the main stage up for us. You in or not?”

    Ren blinked. Today was certainly shaping up to be an extraordinarily eventful day.

    Fifteen minutes later, he found himself standing at one side of the main stage. Skyla stood at the other end, a lively breeze tugging at her red hair. Winona stood between the two of them, ready to act as adjudicator.

    A sizable crowd had gathered, despite the unscheduled nature of the event. The Hoenn Champion battling a Gym Leader from the distant Unova region was sure to draw attention.

    Ren himself wasn't sure how the battle would turn out. He was expected to win, of course. In a match between a Champion and a Gym Leader, the Champion should come out on top every time. This was different to his battle with Roxanne two days ago, though. There had been nobody watching that one, nobody to bear witness if he lost. Here, there were hundreds of people watching already, with more trickling in every second. If Ren was defeated . . . he shuddered to think of the consequences.

    “This battle will be a three on three,” Winona declared. “The challenger, Ren, will be allowed to switch Pokemon at will, but Skyla must keep each Pokemon in until it is declared unable to battle. The battle is over when all three of one Trainer's Pokemon are judged to be unable to battle. Any questions, Trainers?”

    Ren shook his head, feeling slightly nervous. Skyla evidently had no problems either, for she snatched a Poke Ball from her belt and held it at the ready. She looked to be genuinely enjoying herself.

    Ren glanced down at his belt. Manectric was the obvious choice for this battle, but would it be best to save it for last or to send it out first in hope of a quick win? If I recall rightly, Skyla's strongest Pokemon is Swanna, some kind of Water/Flying type mix. She probably won't send that out first, though, so I might be safe with Camerupt. But the battlefield is wooden, and there are no rocks around to use for a Rock Slide attack, so there goes that option. I'd better play it a little safer. I'll hold Manectric in reserve for now. Taking a deep breath, he plucked Solrock's Poke Ball from his belt and held it out in front of him. “I'm ready,” he said.

    “In that case,” Winona said, “let the battle for the Jet Badge begin!”

    The familiar crack of an opening Poke Ball was almost drowned out by the enthused roar of the crowd. Ren and Solrock found themselves facing off against a Pokemon Ren had never seen in person before. A large blue creature flapped in place in front of Skyla. It had a pink, heart-shaped nose and a white ruff around its neck. Personally, Ren thought it looked like the mutant offspring of an Eevee and a Golbat, but he didn't say anything. He had seen Swoobat in books and magazines before. They were endemic to the Unova region, so he hadn't had any experience battling them before. He did remember that they possessed dangerous Psychic-type abilities.

    “Fire Spin!” he ordered quickly. The emphasis of this battle would be on speed, most likely. Solrock thrummed happily, conjuring a blazing pillar of fire around its opponent. Ren blinked slightly as the heat wave hit him, but forced himself to watch the centre of the blazing maelstrom carefully as the crowd murmured appreciatively. He wasn't here to put on a show, but there was no harm in being a little flashy.

    The pillar of fire bulged in the middle and exploded, tongues of fire vanishing almost instantly as visible waves of psychic energy radiated from Swoobat. Skyla gave an order, pointing directly at Solrock, and Swoobat's pulses of energy became more focused, blasting towards Solrock.

    “Counter it!” Ren said, his voice urgent. Solrock hummed and glowed purple, sending its own waves of power back toward Swoobat. The two forces crashed into each other with a boom that sent ripples of wind across the stage, spawning from the contact point and blasting away at anything nearby. Ren saw the wind snap a string of coloured bunting at the edge of the stage, sending one end flying loosely into the crowd.

    The two Pokemon continued their efforts, rippling waves of mental energy pushing back and forth in the centre of the stage. Neither of them seemed to be able to get any leverage over the other, Solrock's purple energy and Swoobat's pink crashing into each other with the force of a thousand hammer blows.

    “Dammit,” Ren muttered. Getting caught in a deadlock was never good. He had to do something to break it, but what? Solrock's Rock Slide attack was out, thanks to the terrain. Fire Spin would just be destroyed by the Psychic waves, and SolarBeam would take far too long to charge up. But he couldn't switch Solrock out, either; that could cause Swoobat's Psychic attack to hit him instead. The only thing left to try was . . . “Spin! Keep up the Psychic attack for just a little longer!” he ordered. It was risky, especially considering that this was a technique they had only developed recently, but it was the only thing he could do.

    Solrock began to rotate in midair, spinning like a wheel and drawing threads of Psychic power with it. As its speed increased, more and more of its Psychic energy became caught up in its motion, forming a concentrated disc of energy that enveloped it entirely. Swoobat's attacks bounced ineffectually off the wall of purple light, but they were still at a deadlock.

    “Turn and go straight through!” Ren said. Solrock's wheel turned slowly until its edge pointed directly at Swoobat, scything easily through the oncoming attack and sending its remnants flying off to either side. “Go!” Ren shouted, and Solrock rolled forward like a circular saw, cutting through the air towards Swoobat with almost effortless ease.

    Swoobat saw it coming and jinked out of the way, but Solrock's wheel turned far more quickly than Ren would have thought possible, slamming into the Flying-type with enormous force and sending it flying. It had the fortunate side-effect of breaking Swoobat's concentration, which meant that the Psychic waves stopped.

    “Follow it up!” Ren commanded. “Grab it!” Solrock righted itself, causing its Psychic disc to dissipate. It wasted no time, however, in pressing its advantage, seizing the confused Swoobat with its Psychic attack and lifting it high into the air. Seeming to read Ren's mind before he could even speak, Solrock smashed its opponent down against the wooden stage with a sickening thud before lifting it again and bringing it back down a second time, then a third. When the purple nimbus around Swoobat vanished, it was clearly unconscious, lying motionless on the floor.

    Winona rushed over to check Skyla's Pokemon. When she straightened up, she lifted one hand towards Ren's end of the stage. “Swoobat is unable to battle! Ren's Solrock is the winner!”

    After returning Swoobat to its Poke Ball, Skyla paused a moment. “You're better than I thought, Champion,” she called. “Elesa said you were good, but I didn't realise you were this good.”

    Ren wasn't sure quite what he should say to that, so he simply nodded, accepting the compliment. He didn't want to give away how close the previous round had been. Despite how short it had been, the battle had been extraordinarily tight. If Solrock hadn't been able to pull off its spinning manoeuvre correctly, Skyla and Woobat would have seized the opening just as he had.

    The crowd was cheering, he realised dimly. They were floating somewhere on the edge of his consciousness, being largely unimportant to the battle, but he could hear them – as if from the other end of a very long tunnel. He blinked hard, forcing himself back to earth. He looked around, taking in the sight of the hundreds of people clustered around the stage. There was something special about it, he realised. This was all new. Until the Ever Grande Conference, he had become accustomed to battling without an audience.

    “Wake up, Ren!” Skyla called good-naturedly from the other end of the stage.

    Ren blinked. Right. Concentrate. Don't get distracted. “I'm awake!” he replied. “Are you going to choose your second Pokemon.”

    “Of course! It has to be Swanna at a time like this!” she said with a confident grin, sending out her star player.

    Okay, massive type disadvantage there with Water. Do I switch? No, best to see how much damage I can do before Solrock goes down. “Psychic!” he shouted. “And start charging while you're at it.” He was hoping to get at least one SolarBeam off, as Swanna's Water typing would make it at least partially vulnerable.

    “Hydro Pump!” Skyla ordered. Swanna flexed its graceful white neck and opened its beak. Before Solrock could react, a high-pressure jet of water blasted towards it, slamming it backwards in the air several feet.

    “Solrock!” Ren cried. It wasn't as if he hadn't been expecting a powerful Water-type move, but Swanna's speed had taken him aback.

    When the jet of water stopped, Solrock was hovering awkwardly in the air. Even as Ren watched, it sank slowly to the ground, unable to remain airborne. It came to rest on the wooden stage with a clunk before toppling over completely, rolling slightly from side to side on its rounded back.

    A single attack? Ren thought uncomprehendingly as Winona declared Solrock out for the count. Just how monstrously strong is this thing? Even with the type disadvantage, Solrock should have been able to take that hit.

    All right. Skyla's played her trump card; it's time to bring out mine.
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    Old December 4th, 2011 (12:59 AM).
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
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    Chapter Twenty-Six
    Every Clap of Thunder

    Ren sent Manectric out; it was a bit of a gamble, but it was his best choice for dealing with Swanna. The double type advantage ought to make for a swift battle, though he knew he had to be careful.

    Manectric howled eagerly to the sky, fur bristling with static electricity. The weather would work against them, Ren noted. Manectric was in its element when it was raining, as the charged clouds acted as a secondary source of power to feed its electric attacks. There wasn't a cloud in the sky over Fortree, however, so he would have to make do with what he had.

    “Start off with a Thunderbolt,” Ren said, making himself remain calm. He had the advantage, but losing his cool would nullify that.

    Howling aggressively, Manectric charged up its electricity, a crackling aura of yellow energy building up around its body. With a final growl, it launched a sizzling stream of lightning towards its opponent.

    Swanna took to the sky, leaping out of the way as Manectric's Thunderbolt attack zapped past.

    “Again!” Ren said, causing Manectric to loose another bolt of lightning towards Swanna. Swanna was too fast for it, however, banking out of the way. We're never going to win from this distance, he thought. But Skyla has an advantage with Swanna's mobility. And why isn't she attacking? She must be sounding Manectric out, trying to work out how to deal with it. That means she's worried about it, which means I have a chance if I can figure this out quickly. Now what other moves might Swanna have?

    Swanna dived straight towards Manectric, its graceful neck straight as an arrow. Skyla must have given some signal that he'd missed; he'd have to watch out for that in the future. Is that an Aerial Ace attack?

    “Get out of the way, Manectric!” he ordered. It was too late. Swanna seemed to blur, its outline becoming indistinct, and a split second later, it disappeared from view entirely, crashing into Manectric as if it had been teleported and sending the Electric-type flying. Ren knew, however, that it had simply moved so quickly that it had disappeared from view. He remembered Winona using the same move in his battle against her to devastating effect. How did I beat her then?

    The obvious way. “Manectric,” he said thoughtfully. “Do you remember when you were training with Zangoose in the quarry the other day? I want you to apply that here next time she tries that, okay?” Manectric barked assent, keeping its eyes fixed on Swanna. “Good. For now, let's go with Thunderbolt again. See if you can't get a little closer this time.”

    Crackling with electric power, Manectric bounded forwards, towards where Swanna was holding its position in midair. With a howl, it threw itself upwards, taking the Flying-type by surprise as it launched its attack. Despite its apparent confusion, however, Swanna was still able to avoid Manectric's attack, rolling out of the way in midair and swooping away. “Push that advantage, Manectric!” Draw out that Aerial Ace again!

    Manectric leapt and ran, throwing lightning bolts around the stage with gay abandon. Some came close to hitting Swanna, but Skyla's Pokemon managed to jink out of the way at the last second every time. Soon, that Aerial Ace will come again. Then we should be able to do it.

    Suddenly, Swanna swerved in midair, aiming straight for Manectric. Here it comes! As Swanna dived, Manectric leapt forward, jaws bared and crackling with electricity. Even as Swanna shimmered and disappeared momentarily, Manectric brought its teeth crashing together.

    The timing was perfect. Manectric bit down on Swanna's wing just as its attack made contact, sparks of electric current leaping and flowing all through the bodies of both Pokemon. Swanna cried out in pain as Manectric's teeth let go. “Thunderbolt!” Ren yelled. Manectric obliged happily, sending thousands of volts of energy pouring into Swanna with a victorious howl. Unable to move out of the way quickly enough, Swanna took the full force of the attack.

    When Manectric stopped its assault to recharge, Swanna was weaving awkwardly in the air, seeming rather frazzled. Ren was surprised that it hadn't been entirely taken out by the attack, but he knew that Manectric couldn't lose now. “One more Thunderbolt!” he ordered. Throwing its head back, Manectric howled joyfully and blasted another bolt of lightning at Swanna.

    “Dodge it!” Skyla cried, and to Ren's utter astonishment, Swanna dived out of the way of the lightning bolt, ducking and weaving away from the attacks that Manectric fired in follow-up.

    Ren gritted his teeth in frustration. Somehow, they were back to square one, and he hardly thought Skyla was going to risk using Aerial Ace again now that she knew what Manectric was capable of.

    “Swanna, use Gust! Make it fly!”

    Ren felt the wind whip up around him, growing quickly more powerful until he had to put his arm in front of his eyes to protect them from the dust and splinters being tossed around the stage. He squinted awkwardly over his arm to see Manectric being lifted into the sky amidst a maelstrom of dusty wind. Manectric yelped helplessly as its paws paddled wildly in the air, firing off Thunderbolts that went wild.

    Even as Ren watched, trying to work out what to do, Swanna flapped its wings harder still, increasing the speed and power of the winds that surrounded its opponent. Manectric flew higher and higher, tumbling end over end until Swanna suddenly stopped, folding its wings calmly back. The winds dissipated and Manectric fell like a stone from at least thirty metres up.

    Ren watched with apprehension as Manectric fell towards the stage, breathing a sigh of relief when it landed back on its feet with barely a thump. He had one option left. Skyla wouldn't be foolish enough to try and get in close again, and Gust seemed to have no particular effect apart from temporary incapacitation. That meant that the powerful Hydro Pump was likely her only remaining option. If Swanna knew a move that would do better, surely she would have used it already.

    Sure enough, Skyla – practically bouncing with excitement, Ren noted with some confusion – called, “Swanna! Finish it up with a Hydro Pump!”

    As Swanna lifted its head in preparation to launch its attack, Ren struck. “Manectric, Thunderbolt!” As soon as the jet of high-powered water left Swanna's beak, Manectric loosed a bolt of lightning that struck Swanna's attack head on. Rather than diverting it, however, the electricity raced along the stream of water, heading directly for Swanna. Ren had counted on the conducive properties of water to ensure the attack hit its target, and he had not been wrong. Swanna shrieked as the electricity tore through its body, its Hydro Pump faltering. It kept up the attack, however, blasting Manectric for as long as it remained conscious. Eventually, however, the continuous stream of electricity took its toll, and Swanna crumpled to the ground, a limp, motionless bundle of feathers.

    At the other end of the stage, however, Manectric was stumbling. Swanna's last Hydro Pump had been a direct hit, and combined with the damage it had taken from the two Aerial Ace attacks, it appeared to be having trouble standing. Even as Ren watched, teeth clenched in worry, it fell to the ground, utterly drained.

    “Both Pokemon are unable to battle!” Winona announced after about ten seconds of silence. “The round is a draw. Both Trainers have one Pokemon remaining.”

    Ren stepped over to Manectric and knelt down beside it, stroking its wet fur carefully. “Sorry, buddy,” he whispered. “I should have taken better care of you.” Manectric cracked one eye open and growled gently, one paw twitching slightly. “No, you rest now. You did fantastically.” He plucked Manectric's Poke Ball from his belt and let it suck the Pokemon back inside in a shower of red light.

    He stood, clipping it back to his belt as he looked down the field at Skyla. “That's quite a Swanna you have there,” he said, genuinely impressed. “I haven't come across a Pokemon that strong outside of the Elite Four for a long time. You must have it very well trained.”

    “We've been together a long time,” Skyla said, returning the unconscious Swanna to its Poke Ball. “She's my strongest partner. Still, I wasn't expecting that trick with the Hydro Pump. You do live up to your reputation.”

    Ren shook his head mutely. He didn't feel he deserved that reputation any more, somehow. He had let Manectric down with his oversight, and his Pokemon had paid the price for it. It wasn't a good feeling, especially when he considered how much his Pokemon trusted him. He had made the same mistake with Solrock, too.

    The pop of a Poke Ball being opened drew him from his introspection. He looked up to find a medium-sized black bird Pokemon occupying Skyla's end of the stage. He frowned. “That's . . . Unfezant, isn't it?” It took him a little longer to recognise it due to the lack of the trademark red plumes that he associated with the species. A female?

    “That's right, Ren. Are all these Unova Pokemon bothering you?” Skyla asked teasingly.

    “There might be some truth to that,” Ren said quietly. Most of his experience came from battling Trainers in the Hoenn region, using Pokemon native to the area. Pokemon from as far afield as Unova were rare, and he hadn't had time to battle them all during his short time there. He had certainly never battled a Swoobat or a Swanna before. I did battle against a Trainer with a Tranquill, though. The evolution should just be a slightly more powerful version. This should be manageable. That only left the question of which Pokemon to use. Solrock and Manectric were out for the count. Yanmega would be pulverised, especially without the use of its Ancientpower attack. Camerupt was bulky, but its lack of mobility would leave it wide open for Unfezant to tear it to pieces. Zangoose might work, but it certainly wouldn't be able to fight the Flying-type on an equal footing. No, there was only one Pokemon for that. It was kind of fitting, too.

    “Braviary!” he cried aloud, pulling the Poke Ball off his belt and throwing it upwards in the same movement, tapping the release switch on the way. Braviary appeared with a confident screech that echoed throughout the square. It circled over the battlefield, eyeing its opponent keenly.

    “Ooh, it's wonderful!” Skyla exclaimed, shading her eyes with one hand as she watched Braviary's movements. “I'm so envious, Ren. It makes me happy to see you have such a wonderful Flying-type on your team. I think everyone should have at least one.”

    “They are nice, aren't they?” Ren said thoughtfully. “It must be nice to be able to fly so freely like that. I mean, I'm not a fan of flying myself, but just having that freedom, I think, would be nice . . .”

    “It really is, Ren. But tell me one thing.”

    “Yeah? What is it?”

    “Are you going to try and win this Jet Badge off me or not?”

    Ren grinned. “You bet your ass I am,” he said. “I'm not going to lose here!”

    “Then let's go!” Skyla said, sweeping her arm upwards. “Unfezant! Take to the skies!”

    “I can't help but think this battle would have been better fought at the Gym,” Ren commented to Winona as he craned his neck upwards to watch the two Pokemon circling each other warily.

    “We could move it up there, but the crowd . . .”

    “Yeah, fair enough,” Ren said. He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted upwards. “Braviary! Get in there!” This battle would be fought with minimal input from the Trainers, he could tell. There wouldn't be much he could do, and the battle would likely move far too fast for him to react properly anyway.

    With a piercing shriek, Braviary dived for Unfezant, powerful claws extended. Unfezant swung out of the way, moving upwards a little. It flapped its wings powerfully, sending sharp gusts of wind scything towards Braviary. Taking the hit directly, Braviary screeched and lost a little altitude before recovering. “The underside!” Ren yelled.

    Braviary soared upwards, slamming its beak into Unfezant's underside. Skyla's Pokemon trilled in alarm and tried to escape, but Braviary drove upwards relentlessly, flapping its wings powerfully. When they reached their apex, Braviary seized Unfezant in its strong claws and swung it downwards, throwing it down towards the ground. With gravity pulling on it as well, it plummeted almost all the way down to the stage before it managed to right itself. By that time, Braviary was on top of it again, pecking at its head and buffeting its body with its wings.

    “Unfezant, Razor Wind!” Skyla said quickly. Unfezant swung out from under Braviary's assault and whipped up a storm with its wings, creating a barely visible miniature tornado that slammed into Braviary, driving it backwards with a screech.

    Ren winced as he saw the blood on Braviary's feathers. It didn't seem to be too seriously injured as it made its way upwards again. “Keep on top of it!” Ren yelled as Braviary jinked back and forth above Unfezant, impeding its progress upwards. “Superpower!”

    Eyes blazing red, Braviary folded its wings back against its body and blasted its way downwards, slamming heavily into Unfezant and driving them both down to the ground. They crashed into the stage with an enormous impact, wood splinters flying everywhere as Braviary's momentum smashed the two Pokemon through the boards to the ground below.

    “Unfezant!” Skyla cried, rushing forward to peer down into the jagged hole they had left.

    Ren moved quickly over as well to look down, but the two Pokemon had gone. He heard them crashing around beneath the stage, thumping around between the struts that held the construction together. He waited with bated breath, hating the feeling of powerlessness, the sensation of not knowing. He was used to being in control, knowing what was going to happen – or at least what should happen. As he listened to Braviary and Unfezant crashing around beneath his feet, he couldn't help but worry. Was this where he finally let his Pokemon down?

    “It's tight,” Skyla said, looking up at him from across the hole. “They're well matched, but I think Braviary's size and strength gives it a bit of an edge.”

    “I don't know,” Ren said, confused by the sudden frank conversation in the heat of battle. “Unfezant has its Razor Wind and its other ranged attacks, so if it can just keep out of the way long enough . . .”

    Braviary shrieked beneath his feet, and Unfezant came spiralling awkwardly out of the hole, blood matting the feathers on its right wing. It fluttered upwards, putting a good distance between itself and the stage. A few seconds later, Braviary shot upwards, seeming largely unharmed, though its wounds from Unfezant's Razor Wind were still visible.

    Above, Unfezant flipped in midair and dived downwards again, wings extended. As it met Braviary, it jinked to one side a little, cracking its wing against Braviary's skull. Ren's Pokemon reeled, losing altitude, but it recovered quickly, spreading its wings wide and swooping upwards.

    Both Pokemon paused in midair, eyeing each other up cautiously as their Trainers watched them from below with tense eyes. Is this battle going to end? Ren wondered. Even though the battle had barely been going on for two minutes, Ren felt like he had been watching Braviary for hours. The two Flying-types dived at each other once again, twisting and grappling in midair. Braviary's powerful claws grasped at Unfezant's neck, but the smaller Pokemon slid swiftly out of the way, battering at Braviary's head with its wings.

    Several times, Unfezant broke away from Braviary and sent razor-sharp winds slicing through the air towards it, inflicting numerous wounds on its bulkier opponent. Braviary kept up its relentless attack, however, getting in close to Unfezant where it could use its lethal beak and claws.

    Suddenly, Braviary managed to get a claw around Unfezant's leg. Ren clenched his fist as he glimpsed victory. Braviary evidently felt the same way, for it let out a triumphant screech that caused several people in the audience to wince and cover their ears. Well used to Braviary's celebrations, Ren just smiled as it swung Unfezant around in the air, clearly in control. It spun several times, building up momentum, before flipping over in midair and throwing the helpless Unfezant down towards the stage.

    Ren's mouth twisted involuntarily as he watched Unfezant slam into the ground for the final time, lying unmoving on the wooden boards. That's got to hurt. Despite the twinge of guilt, however, he felt a surge of pride and relief at the outcome. Looking up to the sky, he beckoned Braviary down towards him, smiling happily as the Flying-type flapped its way tiredly down towards him.

    “Unfezant's out!” Winona announced suddenly. “That means that the winner of the battle is the challenger, Ren!”

    The crowd went wild, which took Ren by surprise. After defeating Steven at the League, the crowd had sat in stunned silence for a full thirty seconds before applause broke out. They had evidently been expecting Steven to destroy him. The crowd at the Feather Carnival, however, held no such compunctions, applauding and shouting enthusiastically.

    Ren smiled and waved at the crowd before catching Braviary's heavy, beaten form in his arms. “Oof,” he grunted. “You're heavy, all right.” Nevertheless, he did his best to lift his victorious battler high, showing him off to the crowd. It was Braviary they applauded for, he realised. Of course they appreciated the show he had put on as their Champion, but the people of Fortree had long held a special affinity for Flying-type Pokemon. Seeing one such as Braviary battling and emerging victorious would have been something very special indeed. Again, Ren felt that flush of pride as he gently stroked Braviary's feathers, still wet with blood. “Come on, you're all beaten up. We need to get you and the others to the Pokemon Centre.”

    “I'll go with you,” Skyla said from behind him, clutching her three Poke Balls. “I've gotta say, I haven't had a battle like that for absolutely ages! That was intense!”

    Ren smiled. “It most definitely was,” he agreed, returning Braviary to its Poke Ball with another sigh of relief. “Too close for comfort.”

    “I'm so impressed by your Braviary, Ren,” Skyla told him as they stepped off the stage. “They're magnificent Flying-types, and yours is a particularly fine specimen. I thought so when I first saw it, but that battle just proved it! You've trained it well. You'll have to tell me your secret some time.”

    “Thanks,” Ren said. “I just . . . did what felt right.” Along with a healthy dose of yehkti, he added silently, feeling slightly sick. He didn't really want another reminder that his success couldn't be put entirely down to his own power. How much of Braviary's strength comes from my training, and how much from my yehkti? I want to believe that I had a hand in it, but I really can't say for sure.

    “Oh!” Skyla exclaimed, coming up short and digging the pocket of her jeans. “Before I forget . . . Ren. You earned this many times over during that battle.” She held something high to the sky where everybody in the area could see it as sunlight glinted off gold and blue. The crowd – which had parted for them to pass through – applauded again as Skyla handed Ren his fourth Unova League Badge.

    Ren looked at it sitting in the palm of his hand, shaped like a graceful wisp of a feather. It was light and joyful, much like Skyla. “I don't usually wear them,” he said, “but I think I can make an exception for today.” He pinned the badge to the front of his shirt, where it glinted proudly in the bright sunlight.

    “It suits you, sport,” Skyla said with a grin, punching him lightly on the shoulder. “You'd make a good Flying-type Trainer, you know. You have the vision for it.”

    Ren's brow creased slightly. “What's that supposed to mean?”

    “If you don't know, I'm not going to tell you. But come on. We need to get to the Pokemon Centre. You gave my poor Pokemon a good beating.”

    “Uh . . . sorry,” Ren said guiltily.

    “Oh, don't apologise. While they don't enjoy losing, they do love battling. Getting beaten up is a natural part of battling – nobody can win all the time. I guess I just proved that. When was the last time you lost a battle, by the way? I'm curious.”

    “Just . . . just before the Conference, actually,” Ren said quietly as they left the crowd around the stage behind. “I ran into a guy I'd always had trouble with. Out of all the Trainers I battled repeatedly, he was the only one who beat me more times than I beat him. So two nights before the Conference was due to start, he turned up at my hotel room and demanded a battle. I didn't want to, but he was . . . insistent. So we battled. It was one of the best battles of my life, in a way, but at the same time . . . the worst. It was a major confidence-killer when he beat me, I tell you. I just about dropped out of the round robin stage of the Conference several times. Got over it soon enough, obviously, but . . . it stung.”

    “Did he enter the Conference?” Skyla asked curiously.

    “Nah, he only had seven badges at that point. There was one he just couldn't get. He might have them all by now, though. I'll have to ask Winona.”

    “The Feather Badge was the one he couldn't get?” Skyla looked interested.

    “Yeah. Funny how these things work, huh? Him and his Sceptile . . . they never had a chance against Winona.”

    “Winona's strong,” Skyla said, glancing back towards the stage, where Winona appeared to be directing repairs on the hole Braviary had punched through the middle of it. “I really look up to her.”

    “She's . . . yeah,” Ren said. “I mean, Brawly was the Gym Leader I had the most trouble with, thanks to Zangoose's type disadvantage, but Winona . . . Winona was probably the strongest of the Gym Leaders I faced here in Hoenn. Our battle ended in a draw, but she still gave me the Feather Badge anyway.”

    “You should put that on, too,” Skyla suggested as the gate came into sight ahead of them. “Just for today, to prove you're a double Flying-type master!”

    “That's . . . a good idea,” Ren said, swinging his bag off his shoulder and rifling through it until he found his badge cases. He located the Feather Badge and pinned it next to the Jet Badge on his shirt.

    “See, they make a nice pair,” Skyla said, tapping them gently with her knuckle.

    “Actually, if I think about it . . .” Ren said slyly, switching cases and pulling out another Badge, which he pinned next to the other two before putting his bag back on. He grinned sideways at Skyla, who looked dumbfounded.

    “No way! You have the Zephyr Badge, too?”

    “I took a trip to Johto a while back,” Ren said. “I trained with Falkner at the Violet Gym for a while, actually. If I think about it, I have quite the history with Flying-type Gyms.”

    “You sure do,” Skyla said wonderingly. “You're even more impressive than I thought, Ren Goodwin.”

    “I hardly think so,” Ren said quietly. Damn all this yehkti business, he thought. I'm just starting to realise how much I hate not knowing how much of my own success I'm responsible for.
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    Old December 8th, 2011 (3:00 AM).
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
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    This is largely a break chapter, but I won't make any apologies because I feel it's necessary. This is the end of the short Arc 3 - Parabasis the First, which means we go right back into it from the next chapter onwards.

    Chapter Twenty-Seven
    Catch Your Breath

    Ren sat quietly in the waiting bay of the Fortree Pokemon Centre with Skyla. It seemed that none of the six Pokemon that had participated in the battle were seriously hurt: Solrock, steady as ever, was already recovering; Manectric was battered and bruised, but largely all right; and Braviary had multiple shallow lacerations that would heal with minimal time and effort. Skyla's Pokemon were in a similar state, he gathered.

    The Mistralton Gym Leader was sitting opposite him with her legs crossed, fiddling with her dark red hair. She'd taken it out of its ponytail, and it was now hanging loosely around her face, reaching just past her shoulders. She sat casually, seeming somewhat more relaxed now that her Pokemon were in capable hands.

    “So,” she said at length, pulling her hair back again and twisting an elastic tie around it to keep it in place. “You're coming to watch the Unova Conference next week?”

    Ren nodded. “Yeah, I am. It ought to be good . . . and maybe I'll get a bit more insight into how Unova Pokemon work. I saw the Conference three years ago.”

    “Hmm . . . who won that one?” Skyla mused. “I don't seem to remember that year.”

    “A guy called Tyler, I think. He was about eighteen. Had a Samurott and an impressive Hydreigon.”

    “Oh, yeah, that guy. What happened with him in the end? I mean, obviously he didn't become Champion, but . . .”

    “He lost to Grimsley in the end. His Scrafty destroyed Hydreigon, and the rest of Tyler's team just couldn't keep up the same level. I think he did beat Caitlin first, though.”

    “Well, it's not every Trainer who can do that,” Skyla said airily. “Still, the Unova League hasn't had a serious challenge for years. Alder became Champion seven years ago, and he hasn't had to take a challenger since. Poor guy must be getting bored.”

    Ren tried to imagine being Champion for seven years. It wasn't an attractive prospect. As a matter of fact, he didn't even think he could manage it. He'd go mad before he got halfway there, especially if he didn't get any challengers. “He probably is.” Struck by a sudden, frightening thought, he added, “Skyla? Do you know what the precedent is for Champion versus Champion battles?”

    She raised an eyebrow. “It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's purely an exhibition match. Neither Champion's title is in danger, because it's commonly accepted that they're both still the strongest in their region. Why do you ask? You thinking of going up against Alder?”

    “Uh . . . maybe,” Ren said. “I don't think I'd stand a chance, but at the same time, if he really hasn't had a challenger for seven years . . .”

    “It'd be a good idea, actually,” Skyla said, uncrossing her legs and leaning forward earnestly. “You could give him a good battle, I think.”

    “I'm . . . not sure,” Ren said, glancing away. “I'll think about it.”

    “Fair enough. It's a big decision to make on a moment's notice, so just take it easy. You have until next Thursday at least, I guess. You'll want to hold your battle at the Conference if you do challenge him.”

    Ren nodded silently. Next Thursday . . . damn it, I didn't really want to be reminded of that. Next Thursday night was Nekros' deadline for the spirits. He thought it extremely unlikely that the council of elders would give in to Nekros' demands, which meant that Thursday might very well be Ragnarok. The spirits can't win against Nekros. They're doomed if they don't do what he wants. It was clear to him, then, that he had to convince them to go along peacefully with what Nekros demanded. It was their only chance of survival, and despite how much certain individuals annoyed him at times, he didn't want to see any of them dead.


    Ren looked up sharply as Karl burst through the doors of the Pokemon Centre, rushing over towards him and Skyla. “Arceus, Karl, what's the emergency?” Ren asked.

    “Huh? Oh, no, I just . . . your battle was . . . that is to say, I- well, I thought . . .”

    Ren stood up and grasped Karl by the shoulders, shaking him gently. “Chill, Karl. Relax, then start again.”

    “Holy crap, man. You sound just like Winona,” Karl grumbled, shrugging Ren off. “Okay. I was watching your battle, and, well . . . you two were amazing. I've never seen a battle of that level in person before. I mean, Winona battles some high-level Trainers at the Gym, but none of them are . . . well, they're not the Champion. That was one of the best battles I've ever seen!”

    Unsure quite how to respond, Ren changed the topic slightly, seizing on something Karl had said. “Now I think about it, I don't remember seeing you at the Gym when I challenged Winona a couple of years back. You would have been there, wouldn't you?”

    “Me? No, actually. I don't remember seeing you battle Winona, so I must have been off on one of my Absol hunts outside the city.”

    “You're hunting Absol?” Skyla asked with some interest.

    Karl spun as if seeing her for the first time. “Oh, uh . . . Leader Skyla!” he spluttered. “Um, yes, I am.” He seemed slightly defensive, as if he expected to be reprimanded again.

    Skyla only looked thoughtful, however. “Absol are rare and magnificent Pokemon,” she said, “even if they can't fly. I have great admiration for anybody able to catch and tame one. Are they common at all in the Hoenn region?”

    Karl shook his head. “No. There's rumoured to be a colony of them out on Route 120, but I've found nothing after five years of searching.”

    “You should come to Unova,” Skyla said. “There's a small group that live out on Route 13, near Lacunosa. They hang out around Giant Chasm – they have done ever since the meteor crashed there hundreds of years ago, apparently. Something about the massive residual aura of disaster in the area, or something like that.”

    “You think I'd have more chance finding one there?” Karl said eagerly.

    “Of course you would, if you've been looking here for five years and not seen so much as a whisker. The Chasm Absol have confirmed sightings every few months or so. If you were determined enough, you could probably catch one before too long.”

    “That'd be amazing,” Karl said in barely a whisper. “But I can't get to Unova. There's no way I could afford the trip.”

    “If you don't mind flying with the cargo, I'll give you a ride back when I leave tomorrow,” Skyla said. “Free trip for the friend of the guy who just won the Jet Badge off me. And if you come see me at the Mistralton Gym when you're done, I'll fly you back here on my next trip to Hoenn.”

    Karl blinked. He looked as if all his Christmases had come at once, but there was something hesitant in his eyes. “That would be . . . great,” he said slowly, “but I'll have to think about it.”

    “Don't think too long!” Skyla warned him with a laugh. “I leave tomorrow at ten. Hey, Ren, you want a ride too? I gotta stop off in Slateport anyway.”

    “Sure, that sounds good,” Ren said. “Thanks.”

    “Ah! You guys!” Karl exclaimed suddenly. “I almost forgot. Winona sent me to tell you it's gone six o'clock, and the dusk flyover will be starting soon. You should hurry back to the stage,” he said. “I've got to go. I'm supposed to be helping the lantern-lighting squad,” he added with a grimace before dashing out the door again.

    “Well, I sure don't want to miss this,” Skyla said, standing up and stretching. “We'd better pick up our Pokemon.”

    As it turned out, all six Pokemon were largely recovered already. Manectric's movements were still a little stiff, but Braviary's cuts had been treated and were closing already. Solrock was hovering happily in midair between the other two Pokemon's beds when Ren arrived to pick them up.

    “They'll all be fine before long,” the nurse informed him breezily. “Your Pokemon are strong. Braviary should take at least a couple more hours without doing anything too strenuous, or its cuts might reopen, but it's healing fast. Manectric's the same. One Gym battle in a day is probably enough for any Pokemon.”

    “They won't be doing any more battling today,” Ren promised. “Probably not tomorrow either, for that matter. Do you think Braviary will be okay to take part in the dusk flyover?”

    “I wouldn't count on it,” the nurse said, brown curls bouncing as she shook her head. “Flying counts as strenuous, I'm afraid.”

    “Oh, well,” Ren said, scratching Braviary's head. “Sorry, buddy. You'll have to sit this one out, I think.”

    “You good to go, Ren?” Skyla asked, straightening up with her three Poke Balls in her hands. She clipped them back onto her belt even as she headed for the door. “We'd better hurry. The sun sets early at this time of year.”

    “All right,” Ren said, quickly returning Manectric, Solrock and Braviary to their Poke Balls and following her. He nodded politely to the nurse as he backed out the door. “Thank you for taking care of them so well.”

    “Not a problem. It's my job, after all,” she said with a smile.

    Ren paused in the doorway with a frown. “Do I . . . know you?” he asked.

    The nurse shrugged. “I don't think so,” she said. “I don't believe we've met.”

    “Sorry, then,” Ren said quickly, backing out of the door with another nod. “I must have confused you with someone else.” He quickly jogged to catch up with Skyla, who had already left the Pokemon Centre.

    “Chatting up the nurse, Ren?” she teased as he caught up with her. “I think she's a little old for you.”

    “Oh, be quiet,” Ren grumbled. “My cousin already does that. I don't need you starting too.”

    As it turned out, they reached the central stage with time to spare. Winona was standing up on the stage with her Skarmory, directing people and Pokemon this way or that. As Ren and Skyla approached, the crowd parting accommodatingly for them, she waved them up onto the stage. “Can I borrow your Flying-types?” she asked.

    “Braviary's not allowed to fly for a little while,” Ren said regretfully, “but you're more than welcome to take Yanmega with you.” He tapped the release button on Yanmega's Poke Ball, and it buzzed happily over to hover by Winona's shoulder.

    “Is Braviary all right?” she asked anxiously.

    “Yeah, he'll be fine,” Ren said, releasing Braviary from its Poke Ball too. The Flying-type hopped around on the stage, looking vaguely incensed at the fact that it wasn't allowed to take to the sky. “He's just resting for a while.”

    “That's good to hear,” Winona said. “Skyla?”

    The Mistralton Gym Leader grinned. “I wish I could join you, but I don't have a giant Skarmory to fly on. Take my Pokemon, though, by all means.” She ran her hand along her belt, pressing the switch on each of the five Poke Balls held there. Swanna, Unfezant and Swoobat appeared, accompanied by the odd-looking Sigilyph and a Staravia.

    Ren raised an eyebrow. “A Staravia? Aren't those endemic to the Sinnoh region?”

    “Well, I was passing through a while back when I saw a flock of Starly. I just had to catch one, didn't I? She's shaping up to be quite the capable battler, too. But enough about that. Go on, guys!” she said with a laugh, waving her Pokemon up into the sky. They went in a chorus of squawks and chirps, heading off to the west as they joined the last few Flying-types that were withdrawing from the square. Yanmega buzzed off after them.

    Winona vaulted easily up onto Skarmory's back. “It'll be starting in about ten minutes. Find yourselves a spot. It's not like there's anywhere that you can't see from, so anywhere should be fine.” With an enthusiastic caw, Skarmory winged its way skyward, leaving Ren and Skyla alone on the stage.

    “Is the dusk flyover the end of the Feather Carnival?” Ren asked. “I seem to recall that it is.”

    “Yeah, it's the last event before everyone goes home. Flyover and fireworks. While it's not as flashy as some of the things going on during the day, it's certainly special to the people here.”

    “The whole carnival really is, isn't it?” Ren said quietly, looking around at the crowd eagerly milling around the centre of the square. As the light of the sun slipped away behind the treetops, the lanterns that had been hung everywhere were being lit. They were perched on the roofs of stall, tied to posts and hanging from banners and ropes. They provided a good bit of light, but it was nowhere near enough to replace the sunlight that was quickly vanishing. Then again, Ren reasoned, that was likely the point.

    The Fortree square took on a much mellower air as people settled in to wait for the finale. There was less of the hubbub that had characterised the daylight hours, and more of a quiet, yet tense, anticipation that buzzed gently throughout the area. The lanterns seemed to be holding their breath too, flickering gently in their places.

    “It's something special, all right,” Skyla murmured. “Here, we might as well just sit down on the stage to watch. It's not like anyone's gonna tell us off.” She did just that, patting the boards next to her.

    Ren shrugged and sat down, folding his legs and leaning back on his hands. The sky was a cloudless shade of lavender, halfway between dusk and full daylight. A trickle of red bled across the sky from the west, the dying sun making one last effort to be seen. Even as he sat in silence, however, it bled away, the sky turning an even darker purple.

    “You think Karl will take you up on your offer and go back to Unova with you?” he asked at length.

    “I think he will,” Skyla said. “He does seem like a guy who's focused on what he's doing. In a way, though, I guess it does depend on just how determined he is. If he's that set on catching an Absol here in Fortree, then leaving now might seem like a failure to him.”

    “That does kind of sound like how he'd see it,” Ren said worriedly.

    “You think he should come back to Unova?”

    “Yeah,” Ren said. “He told me today about his goal of becoming a Gym Leader. If he stays here in Fortree, he'll never get there. And he's said he'll stay in Fortree until he finds an Absol. If you take him to Unova and he can find what he's looking for there, well . . . he'll be able to move on.”

    “You think he can make Gym Leader?” Skyla asked. “It's not like Pokemon Leagues let just anyone set up an official Gym. It's a really tough thing to do, especially for a kid his age.”

    “So's becoming the League Champion,” Ren noted, “but look at me.”

    Skyla chuckled. “You have a point, but being a Gym Leader takes entirely different qualities than becoming Champion. It's not easier or harder, just . . . different. You have to continually work at it, keeping it up for years or even decades. It's not just that, though. You've got to have something . . . a little bit special about you. It's hard to put it into words, but there's something that every Gym Leader has. A certain brand of pride, I guess you could call it.”

    She seemed troubled, so Ren suggested, “Why not try telling this to Karl? He's the one who needs to hear it, I'd say.”

    “You're right, I guess,” Skyla said. “But I want to ask you, Ren. You know Karl better than I do, so do you think he can make it? I don't want to give him false hope.”

    “I only met him today, you know,” Ren grumbled. “But yes, I definitely think that if anyone can do it, he can. He's an interesting guy, and he knows more than he lets on, I think . . . but I can definitely see him making it someday.”

    “That's all I need,” said Skyla with a grin. “If he wants to go, I'll take him to Unova tomorrow.”

    “Thanks,” Ren said. “I know it'll mean a lot to him – not that he'll admit it, of course.”

    Silence fell once more as Ren returned his attention to the sky in the west. The last traces of sunlight were disappearing behind the thick trees, leaving the multitudinous lanterns as the only sources of light in the square.

    Moments later, a small black shape became barely visible in the sky to the west. It grew larger, followed by several others heading slowly towards the square. Ren noticed the crowd around the stage falling silent and still, all eyes glued to the sky.

    Quickly enough, the lead shape became identifiable as Skarmory, with Winona just visible sitting on its back. Behind it in perfect triangular formation flew well over a hundred Flying-type Pokemon, flying with all the precision of military aircraft. The Pokemon were somewhat indistinct, illuminated only by the myriad of lanterns beneath them, but Ren could see enough. There were Pelipper and Wingull, Hoppip and Skiploom, and Swellow and Taillow. Dozens of different kinds of Pokemon from all over the world were evident, though the largest part of the group was definitely the Hoenn contingent. Ren spotted Yanmega flying directly behind Winona and Skarmory, alongside Skyla's Unfezant.

    Nobody made a sound as the Pokemon flew overhead. As they passed the stage, Ren tipped his head back to watch Skarmory leading them over the square. There were no fancy manoeuvres or clever tricks to see here, unlike some of the flamboyant displays he'd seen throughout the day. There were no caws, screeches or chirps; the Pokemon simply flew quietly across the square, their silent trajectory dead straight.

    Yet even so, Ren could tell that it was the most appreciated display of the day. Every resident of Fortree City was present, and there was a sense of reverence in the crowd that was almost palpable. A rebellious part of his mind wanted to say something to break the silence, but it was quickly stifled. Though nobody had said a word against it, he felt like he would be lynched if he made a noise now. So he held his breath and watched the Pokemon stream by overhead. There were more of them than he had originally thought, the entire fleet taking more than a minute to pass over his head at their sedate, reduced speed.

    As they passed overhead, Ren shifted so that he could see them departing towards the east. He didn't feel the same sense of connection with the Flying-types that was evident on the face of every Fortree resident around him, but he was beginning to understand their attraction. The flyover had demonstrated that for him. Simplicity and grace. No unnecessary movements, no showmanship. That's the Flying type at its purest, he realised.

    He finally dropped his head to see Skyla half-smiling sideways at him. A brief glimmer in her eyes made him wonder whether she was reading his mind.

    Ren jumped as the first of the fireworks went off, his heart suddenly pounding. Within seconds, the sky was filled with multicoloured bursts of light, the explosions generating huge, booming soundwaves that seemed to shake the ground beneath him. He closed his eyes for a moment and forced himself to remain calm. Wasn't expecting that, somehow. Skyla had mentioned the fireworks, but somehow it had gone right out of his mind.

    He took a deep, slightly shaky breath as the pyrotechnics continued to rattle and crack overhead, sending bursts of blue, red and gold light spiralling across the sky.

    After the fireworks display ended, Ren made his way back to the Pokemon Centre as soon as he had recovered Yanmega from Winona. The Bug-type seemed to have enjoyed being part of the finale, and it buzzed happily at his shoulder the whole way through town.

    As he made his way through the crowd that was filtering quickly away from the square, he felt the cool metal of the Dreamlight bumping gently against his chest beneath his shirt.

    I've got a job to do tonight, he said silently to himself. As fun as today was, there are more important things to worry about.

    When he arrived at the Pokemon Centre, the curly-haired young nurse from earlier was still on duty at the counter. “Looking for a room for the night?” she asked with a smile as Ren approached.

    “If you could, yeah,” Ren said gratefully.

    “Sure. Most of the people who attend the Feather Carnival are actually locals, so we're not too heavily booked. I'll put you in number 17, all right?” she suggested, tapping a few buttons and holding out a swipe card. “Down the hallway to your right, fourth door on the left.”

    “Thanks,” he said, taking the card. When the nurse didn't speak, he hovered awkwardly for a moment. “Look, um . . . are you sure we haven't met? I'm sorry, but you just seem really familiar somehow.”

    She frowned, looking thoughtful for a moment. “I don't think so. Then again, you must have come here to Fortree once for the Feather Badge, right? I might have been here then. We get lots of Trainers through here, though, so I can't recall every one.”

    “That must be it,” Ren said, nodding. “Sorry for bothering you. Good night!” He beat a hasty retreat, feeling vaguely embarrassed for reasons he couldn't quite fathom.

    Room 17 was just as he expected: small and sparsely furnished with a single bed and a nightstand. Six small hollows in the top of the nightstand would accommodate his Pokemon team if he wanted, but he left them in his bag by the bed. He set the alarm clock on the nightstand for seven in the morning.

    Here we go, he thought as he lay down, touching the Dreamlight carefully as if to make sure it was still there. He had ten days to convince the spirits to do as Nekros had asked, but he had the feeling he was going to need all the time that was available to him in order to do so. Elly's so contrary she'd probably disagree with me for the sake of it, and Elsin seemed particularly angry with the Iehkti'na. Is there more history there than I thought?

    Only one way to find out.
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    Old December 12th, 2011 (8:37 PM).
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
    "I also happen to be a model."
    • Crystal Tier
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    Arc 4 – Episode the Second

    Chapter Twenty-Eight
    Words of Power

    “You really are a strange one, aren't you?” Ren says, leaning across the table and brashly poking Afro Glameow on the nose. The Pokémon recoils slightly with a hiss, but it doesn't seem angry – just a little put out. “Fine,” Ren grumbles, slamming his palms down on the checkered tablecloth and pushing himself to his feet. “If you won't tell me what you want, I'm going to leave and find somewhere else to hang out.”

    Afro Glameow gives a low hiss, but doesn't move, its sharp teeth glinting as it seems to smile at him across the club sandwiches. The table is laden with picnic food of all kinds – sandwiches, cakes, cheese, salad and drinks. Ren isn't hungry, though, so he turns to leave.

    He sees the black hole in the ground a split second before he puts his foot into it. Eyes widening in surprise, he has no choice but to allow it to yank him through and into the second ring.

    “Damn it,” Ren muttered as he sat up, glancing around. He was back in his bed at the Pokémon Centre again, but he was fully dressed. Moonlight shone through the small window, casting a shaft of white light across his legs. More importantly, though, there was a large man in a hooded cloak sitting on the end of his bed.

    “Yehktira,” Maho croaked by way of greeting, sounding – as always – as if every syllable cost him dearly. He lifted an awkward hand and snapped his gloved fingers. The room melted and swirled, replaced almost instantly by the reception area at the front of the Pokémon Centre, which was fare more brightly lit. Maho was seated opposite Ren on a red plastic chair that looked far too small to support his weight.

    “Maho,” Ren said, slightly unsure where he stood with the big magician. “I'm sorry, but we kind of need to go to the third ring, like . . . now. I have to talk to Elly and the council about the Iehkti'na.”

    Maho shook his head slowly.

    “What?” Ren exclaimed, suddenly confused. “No, really! I need to talk to them! If I don't . . . it could be bad.”

    A rattling, gravelly exhalation of breath was audible from within the swirling darkness that occupied Maho's hood. His arm twisting at an angle that was just a tiny bit too unnatural for Ren's taste, he reached into one of the many tattered pockets that his coat possessed and drew out a small, battered notebook and pencil. He wrote intently for a few seconds before handing the book to Ren.

    Thanks to Maho's scrawled handwriting, Ren could barely make out the words. He glared at it for a moment, deciphering the scribbles. The council have forbidden me from taking you into the third ring tonight.

    “What? But why?” Ren asked, handing the book back to Maho, who immediately began writing again. Ren's mind raced. What could Elly and the others be up to? He had told them the previous night that he needed to talk to them about Nekros, and they had as good as told him they would discuss it tonight. Were they deliberately ignoring him? Or had something else happened in his absence?

    The council did not give me a reason, came the written reply. They simply gave me my orders, and I must follow them without question. I apologise, yehktira, but for tonight, at least, you must stay here.

    Ren swore quietly but heatedly. There would be no arguing the point, he could tell. “Can you take them a message, at least?” he asked, making to pass the notebook back.

    Maho nodded, holding out the pencil rather than taking it. “Back,” he grunted.

    Ren took the pencil and flipped to the back of the book, where there was an untouched page. He paused for a minute, trying to think what to write. In the end, he simply outlined Nekros' demands as the Iehkti'na's leader had related to him, adding afterwards: Nekros has promised that nobody will be hurt if you give them what they want. I saw the extent of their power last night, and I know there's no way you could survive. He wasn't entirely sure why, but he neglected to mention the shadowy pool in the Glade of Dying Light. It didn't feel like something he should be sharing, somehow. It sounds brutal, but that's how it is. I really want to talk to you all about this in person, so please let me into the third ring tomorrow night. It sounded a little desperate, even to him, but he left it as it was. Getting the message across was more important than his pride.

    Maho took the book and pencil back with a nod, then sat silently. He might have been looking at Ren, but it was difficult to tell when his face was obscured as it was.

    “I . . . I don't mean to pry,” Ren said after a couple of minutes, when it had become apparent that Maho wasn't going to continue the conversation, “but why do you keep your face hidden?” He held his breath after speaking, wondering if he had trodden on dangerous ground.

    Maho didn't move for a full twenty seconds, leaving Ren to wonder if he was simply ignoring the question, but eventually he took up the pencil and began to write. He scribbled quickly for a while before handing the notebook to Ren again.

    I was involved in an accident several hundred years ago. An accident of magical origin, that is. An experiment that went wrong, in a way. It wasn't enough to kill me, but it severely damaged my body beyond repair. Beneath this coat and this veil of darkness, I am a twisted, horrible mockery of what I once was. I frighten people, especially the yehktira from the human world, who are not used to such magical injuries. So I hide my face and my body to prevent further shame and disgust. It is not an uncommon practice for ugly people in your world, I hear. I am not ashamed of how I look, but what I hate is how people look at me as if I should be.

    Ren handed the notebook back silently, looking at the awkward giant with new eyes. It explained a lot. The accident had to be the reason why he moved so uncomfortably. He closed his eyes, trying to imagine the kind of horrible accident that could cause such extensive – and permanent – damage to an essentially immortal being. The details didn't bear thinking about. “Are you . . . in pain? Even now?”

    Maho paused for a moment, but then nodded.

    “I'm . . . I'm sorry,” Ren said. “I shouldn't have asked about something so . . . personal.”

    Maho shook his head, then wrote again. I do not mind, Ren read. The question arises often, and it was a long time ago. I live with the pain every day of my life, but I have grown used to it. I am stronger than the pain, and so I continue to overcome it. Perhaps one day it will consume me, but until that day comes I will carry on as if nothing is wrong.

    “You're . . . different to how I thought you were,” Ren said at length. “I thought you were . . . angry? You seemed angry, somehow. But you're not. You're just carrying a really heavy burden.”

    You don't fear me any more, Maho wrote. This is good. I think we can learn much from each other, yehktira – if we survive the coming days, that is.

    Ren grinned bitterly. “You're right. Tell you what – if those ten days pass and we're still here, we can spend all the time you want doing . . . whatever it is you want to do, I guess. I can tell you about my world, and you can tell me about yours. From what I saw in your workshop the other night, I'm genuinely interested. I want to know where you came from, for one thing. If you came into existence seven hundred years ago, what existed here before? Did anybody dream? It's those kinds of things that I want to know. And I'm sure there's things you want to know about our world as well.”

    I like the way your mind works, yehktira, Maho wrote. You are like Steven Stone – never content to accept things at face value. That is good. It is what will prevent you from being fooled.

    “Who . . . who wants to fool me?” Ren asked. It was a loaded question, and he knew it. He could tell that Maho knew what he was really asking: Do you know something about the Iehkti'na that I don't?

    The worst thing about bright young minds, Maho wrote in reply, is that they attract an undue amount of unwanted attention.

    “Well, that's cryptic,” Ren grumbled. He sighed. “Look, Maho . . . are you sure you can't take me to the third ring? It really is important. Crucial, in fact!”

    My orders are absolute, Maho wrote, handing Ren the book with a shake of his head. I do what the council commands at all times, except in combat. I am one of the Four Generals, and as such there is no higher authority on the field of battle. I take tactical commands from Cicero, of course, but I retain absolute command otherwise.

    “So even the members of the council have to do what you say?” Ren said thoughtfully, filing the information away for later.

    Only those in my division – which is only Salinthia Silverwood. Her sister belongs to the Unarmed Division, Balthazar is a member of the Tactical Division and both Darkwood and Elsin serve with the Armed Division. In battle, each of them defers to their respective General. It is a complicated system for sure, but it ensures that no one person or group has enough power to run everything.

    “Because if that person decided to . . . they could ruin you,” Ren said, a cold shiver trickling down his spine. “Or just take over entirely like some kind of dictator.”

    You think too highly of us, Maho wrote. We trust each other well enough, although that is a small part of the reason. No, the system remains largely because the delicate distribution of power ensures that we will not be left leaderless should one person die. Imagine if the one being with control over all martial and everyday affairs was killed. While we would surely regroup soon enough, it is conceivable that we might be vulnerable long enough for the Iehkti'na to destroy us. It almost happened once before.

    Ren started to speak, but Maho stood up and took the book off him again, writing in it one more time and holding it out. The Soul Bonds are whole once more. It is time for you to leave.

    Sighing, Ren stood up and turned around to find the portal to the first ring affixed to the wall behind him. “You'll give the council my message?” he asked, turning back momentarily.

    Maho nodded.

    “Thank you,” Ren said, then touched the portal and allowed himself to be sucked through it.

    “This is really starting to get old,” Ren says, selecting a club sandwich and throwing it into the river that runs nearby, glittering softly in the weak afternoon sunlight. The sandwich skips like a flat stone before sinking – one, two, three, four, splosh.

    Afro Glameow yowls tiredly, wriggling its hindquarters as it crouches before leaping up onto the table and poking the plate of Louise cake with its nose.

    “Yeah, those do look good,” Ren says, taking one and biting into it. The coconut meringue has just the right balance of brittleness and softness, crumbling pleasantly in his mouth, and the jam is sweet and thick.

    “Say,” he says at length, “what in hell are you?” His tone is conversational, but he crouches down to glare seriously at Afro Glameow. “Stop playing games with me, would you? It's getting old.”

    Afro Glameow stretches, seeming supremely unconcerned. It opens its mouth, and for a split second, Ren thinks it's about to speak. But what issues forth instead is a loud, blaring klaxon noise that knocks him backwards onto the ground.

    “Nnngh,” Ren groaned indistinctly, force of habit slinging his hand out of bed to slam the off button on the alarm clock. The blaring stopped, and he allowed his arm to dangle off the bed. He looked up at the plain white ceiling with bleary eyes, realising with a start that it had been some time since he had woken up in a room like this.

    The last time would have been before the League Conference about three weeks ago. It wasn't that long, really, but it seemed like longer because he'd gotten so used to it. He'd slept under the stars often enough, sure, but he had become accustomed to the comfortably impersonal rooms at the Pokémon Centres. The Ever Grande Conference had provided hotel rooms for all its participants, meaning that he hadn't slept in a Pokémon Centre since the night before he arrived in Ever Grande City.

    Sitting up, he swore quietly as the events that had transpired in his dreams came flooding back to him. It was a disorienting feeling to begin with, but the utterly infuriating nature of the memories needled him.

    What had the council been playing at? He knew that he had to get in to talk to them tomorrow night. Sure, I've got nine more nights – well, I shouldn't count next Thursday, so eight – but they're going to take a power of convincing.

    Cursing ill-naturedly, he stood and kicked the side of the bed in frustration. Waking up was the worst part, he decided. All he could do was walk around and pretend that nothing was wrong. He couldn't tell anybody about the world of dreams – except perhaps Steven, but some part of him shied from that idea – but nor could he do anything to help. There was literally nothing he could do except continue running over his arguments in his head. It was maddening, but all he could do was bear with it and continue his everyday life as if nothing was wrong.

    That was the worst of the worst, he reflected as he got dressed and collected his things: the fact that he had to pretend. Not only did he have to pretend that being the Champion was as simple as it seemed at face value, but he also had to pretend that there wasn't a very good chance that the world was going to end in a little over a week. It was insanely difficult to keep his expression neutral when talking to people. As the nurse smiled at him in the corridor, he wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shout, “Don't you care? We're all going to die and I'm the only one who gives a damn!”

    He simply nodded and smiled back awkwardly. What is wrong with me? I can't even think of taking it out on people who know nothing about it!

    “Morning, Ren,” Skyla said as he stepped into the reception area.

    Ren blinked, surprised to see her waiting for him. “Hi, Skyla. What are you doing here so early?”

    “The early bird catches the worm, Ren,” she said with a smile. “But yeah, I'm early. We need to get down to the airfield by seven thirty. There's some bad weather rolling in that could make it difficult to take off if we wait too long.”

    “Oh, right,” Ren said. “We'd better go, then. What about Karl?”

    “He'll be there waiting for us.” She seemed quietly pleased. “I talked to him last night after you left, and he said he'd come to Unova.”

    “That's good,” Ren said as he led the way out of the Pokémon Centre, handing his swipe card back to the nurse on the way. “Thanks,” he said.

    “See you next time,” she said with a smile.

    “Ah, yeah,” he said. “I'll come back.”

    “You are hitting on that poor girl,” Skyla said with a barely concealed laugh as they left.

    “I was not,” Ren grumbled. But she was cute, he admitted silently. Probably about five years older than me, though.

    “Sure you weren't,” Skyla said, but she let the matter drop, for which Ren was grateful.

    There was a car waiting for them outside. Skyla got into the driver's seat and waited for him to climb in the opposite side before she she hit the accelerator.

    The airfield was about five minutes away by car, it turned out. It lay to the north of Fortree, which would explain why he hadn't noticed it when he flew in with Winona. A large strip of forest had been cleared away to make room for a runway, a squat control tower and a small terminal. There were no commercial flights going in or out of Fortree – only cargo shipments, and rare ones at that.

    A large, bulky grey cargo plane was parked just off the runway, Ren noticed as they approached. It had a heavy look to it, with a flat nose and wide body supported by large wings.

    “That's our ride,” Skyla said when she saw him looking. “The prep should be just about done by now.”

    Ren was somewhat surprised when they drove straight up to the plane rather than the terminal. He got out of the car apprehensively, looking up at the plane that loomed well over his head. It was sure to be a bit more of a comfortable ride than Skarmory, he hoped.

    “Hey, Champ!”

    He glanced upwards in surprise to see Karl's head sticking out of a door on the side of the plane. “Karl,” he said. “I'm glad you decided to come along after all.”

    “Yeah, yeah,” Karl said, waving his hand dismissively. “Come on up already,” he urged, tapping the ladder that had been attached to the door.

    Ren glanced at Skyla, who grinned. “Go on, then,” she said. “We'll be going in about fifteen minutes, so get settled in. Unfortunately, you guys have to ride with the cargo. She's not a passenger plane, so the accommodation for comfort is hardly up to scratch. Still, you'll live. I'll be up the front flying, obviously.”

    “Wait, you fly the plane yourself?” Ren said.

    “What? Didn't think a girl could fly?” she teased.

    “You didn't seem like-” he began, but cut himself off when it occurred to him just how stupid he sounded. Of course Skyla was the type to fly a plane. She specialised in Flying-type Pokémon, after all.

    “Heh. All right, sport. Up you go,” she said, pushing him gently towards the ladder.

    Ren climbed up quickly, then put his head back out the door. “Uh . . . sorry,” he said.

    “Nothing to apologise for,” she said with an airy wave of her hand as a man in blue overalls disengaged the ladder and pulled it away from the side of the plane. “Just shut that door for me, hey?”

    “Er . . .” Ren looked around. The door had opened outwards, and now lay flat against the side of the plane. He reached out carefully, hanging on tightly to a bar on the inside, and grabbed it, pulling it back towards him. It was extraordinarily heavy, but he managed to pull it to. Glancing at the instructions printed on the inside of the door, he lifted a red lever, slid a green catch and slammed the door shut with a boom before releasing them.

    “I didn't see you last night,” Karl said as Ren turned to look at the space he now found himself in. It was vaguely cylindrical, as he had expected, with a flat floor at the bottom. There were dozens of crates of various sizes stacked against the curved walls and tied down firmly, leaving a fair amount of room in the centre of the space.

    “I was tired,” Ren said apologetically, scratching the back of his head as he perched himself on the edge of a crate. “Sorry about that. I wanted to talk to you about . . . well, this,” he said, gesturing around at the plane, “but Skyla clearly beat me to it, so . . .”

    Karl shook his head. “Nah, I'd decided to go ahead with this before she even came to talk to me about it. She just went on and on, though . . . yeesh.”

    “Are you . . . okay with going to Unova?” Ren asked. “It's a big decision to make on the spur of the moment like this.”

    “It's fine,” Karl said, sitting down on another crate opposite Ren and running his hands through his shoulder-length black hair. “It's not like anyone would miss me that much.”

    “That's not true!” Ren said. “Winona would, and I think I would too.”

    “You would? But you only met me yesterday!”

    “True,” Ren said, “but you seem pretty cool. I was looking forward to hanging out with you again the next time I came back to Fortree.”

    Karl was silent for a minute, but then he stood and walked a few metres away, facing in the opposite direction so Ren couldn't see his expression. “. . . Thanks,” he said eventually. “We will hang out again sometime. I'll make you that promise, Ren.”

    Ren smiled slightly, understanding the deeper meaning behind the words. “I'll hold you to it,” he said.

    There was a loud crackling noise, and Skyla's voice – slightly distorted – emanated from a speaker on the wall. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for choosing Mistralton airlines for your flight today. When the seatbelt light is on . . . wait, we don't have one of those. When the engine is running, it's best if you buckle yourselves into one of the crew seats you'll see behind you. Please don't release any Pokémon in the cargo bay, and keep all electronic devices turned off, as they could interfere with my systems, sending us all spiralling to a fiery, painful and premature death. I hope you have a pleasant flight!”

    Karl glanced sideways at Ren. “Suddenly, I'm not so sure I want to fly all the way to Unova after all.”

    Ren nodded, chewing his lip in apprehension. He headed towards the back of the plane and saw two large, heavy-looking seats bolted to one wall, each complete with its own six-point seatbelt. “These don't look too comfortable,” he said.

    “On the plus side,” Karl said, sizing them up critically, “if the plane crashes, they'll probably bounce.”

    “That's awfully morbid of you,” Ren said.

    Softly at first, the plane began to vibrate, humming gently beneath Ren's feet. Slowly, as the engines warmed up, the vibrations became stronger and louder until they blocked out everything else trying to get into his ears.

    Ren buckled himself into his seat, watching Karl struggle to get his seatbelt under control. The noise of the plane's engines made conversation impossible, so Ren just twisted in his seat to peer out one of the minuscule portholes that were the only sources of light in the dim cargo bay. As he felt the plane begin to move below him, he saw the trees of Fortree turning past.

    After about thirty seconds, the plane must have hit the runway – it was hard to tell with his limited view – for it sped up majorly, wheels rumbling audibly along the tarmac below. With a slightly gut-wrenching jerk, the ground fell away from beneath them and they were flying. He had a brief view of Route 119's treetops before the tiny porthole showed only sky.

    Karl was trying to say something to him, he could tell, but even when he leaned over and yelled in Ren's ear, he could barely make out the words. The noise of the engines was unbelievably loud – albeit still bearable – so he just waved his hand and mouthed, Tell me later.

    That's what I get for flying cargo, he thought ruefully, but I guess I shouldn't complain.
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    Old December 18th, 2011 (10:48 PM).
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
    "I also happen to be a model."
    • Crystal Tier
    Join Date: Jan 2009
    Location: Nimbasa Gym
    Age: 23
    Gender: Male
    Nature: Relaxed
    Posts: 3,457
    Here we go, Chapter 29! Almost to 30, the next milestone. Wahoo! I'm excited.

    Also, this is a good time to mention that I finally got the ending details sorted out. *sings* ~I know how it ends, I know how it ends!~ Well, mostly. And when I say 'ends', I mean how this deal with Nekros ends. No promises about Ren's troubles in the waking world.

    Chapter Twenty-Nine
    It's a Troublesome Life

    They landed in Slateport about fifty minutes later by Ren's estimate. As the engines powered down, Skyla's voice came crackling over the intercom again. “Bing-bong!” she said cheerily. “We have now arrived in Slateport City! I hope you had a pleasant flight, and you're not too deaf right now. In hindsight, I probably should have given you earmuffs. Sorry about that! Anyway, once the engines have shut off completely, please open the door you entered by. Someone should throw some stairs up there for you, I hope.”

    “She really is kind of . . .” Karl started, but trailed off with a helpless shrug.

    “What's that?” Ren said with a frown. “I think I've gone deaf!”

    Karl laughed. “Very funny. Now come on, help me out of this frigging seatbelt.”

    Ren struggled with his own first, unbuckling all of the many parts that had seemed so simple to clip together in the first place. By the time he could stand up, Karl was all but free as well.

    “I got stuck in an Ariados web in Johto once,” Ren commented as he watched Karl fighting to undo the rest of the clips. “It was easier to get out of than these things.”

    “You could've helped,” Karl grunted as he finally extricated himself from his seat and made his way over to the door, tugging on the lever and shoving it open. He wobbled, almost overbalancing, but regained his footing and turned back to Ren. “Well . . . I guess this is it,” he said as the large hatch at the back of the plane cranked open, admitting a couple of overall-wearing men who started untying some of the crates towards the rear and lugging them away.

    “You're right,” Ren said, glancing out the door as a man in a Day-Glo jacket pushed a wheeled staircase up towards it. “Hey, Karl . . . thanks. For showing me around the carnival and all that, I mean. I had more fun yesterday than I've had in a long time.”

    “Even when someone tried to ruin it by stealing our Pokémon?” Karl asked, raising an eyebrow.

    “Especially when that happened,” Ren said. “That was actually fun, too!”

    “For some of us, maybe,” Karl grumbled. “I was worrying my ass off back at the stage. Your Pokémon didn't even get stolen!”

    “Yeah, but she sure thought they did,” Ren said, chuckling as he remembered the thief's reaction. “I wish you could have seen her face.”

    “Oh, I'll see it someday,” Karl said darkly. “I'll get you to point her out to me, and I'll punch her in the face for trying to steal Scar and Sableye.”

    “Oh, lighten up,” Ren said, slapping the older boy on the shoulder. “All's well that ends well, right?”

    “Whatever,” Karl said. “But I'm not going to give up on getting her back. Anyway, this is where we go our separate ways, Champ. It was good to meet you.” He reached his hand out as if he was going to shake Ren's, but evidently thought better of it, clenching his hand into a fist instead.

    Ren grinned and bumped his own fist against Karl's. When was the last time I had someone to do that with? he thought, a sudden twinge of an unfamiliar feeling running through him. He let his hand fall slowly, looking at Karl's surly face one last time before he turned to head down the stairs.

    The wind snatched at him as soon as he exited the door, forcing him to grab onto the handrail. A few steps down, he turned to look back up to the door. “Hey, Karl?” he said, raising his voice slightly over the wind.


    “You go to Unova, and you catch that Absol, all right?”

    “Of course I will,” Karl said.

    “Then you come back here, all right? Take your time, but come back to Hoenn. Start your Gym up in Fallarbor, and as soon as you get officially registered, you give me a call, okay? I want to be the first person to win a Gym Badge off you. No matter how long it takes you, I'm gonna be the first one through the doors.”

    “Deal,” Karl said, grinning genuinely. “But don't count on winning! You've got a head start on me, but I'll pass you!”

    “It's a promise,” Ren said, then turned to carry on down the stairs. At the bottom, he turned and waved as Karl yanked the door shut again. Looking up to his right, he could just make out Skyla in the cockpit. She threw him a quick salute, which he returned. Turning, he made his way to the terminal gate.


    Slateport was a very different city to Fortree, he reflected idly as he left the airport. Situated on the outskirts of town as it was, the airport road gave him a good view of the city, with its forest of glistening silver spires puncutated only occasionally by greenery and colour.

    It was still relatively early in the morning – not quite eight thirty – when he left the airport, so he decided to walk home. It would have been faster to take a bus or taxi, of course, but he felt the need to walk a little to get his thoughts back in order. Back in the warmer temperatures of Slateport, he was grateful of the T-shirt he'd packed the previous morning. He would have been sweating by now had he been wearing the bulkier shirt he'd worn the previous day.

    There was no footpath on the motorway into the city, so he deviated slightly and took a back way – a hiking path he, Tim and Cole had discovered seven years earlier that ran roughly parallel to the highway. It was cooler amongst the trees, although it was still a totally different feeling to Fortree. For one thing, the sounds of vehicles streaming by on the road less than a hundred metres away ruined the illusion. Still, the woodlands – such as they were – were fresh and relaxing after the cacophony of Skyla's cargo plane.

    Struck by a sudden thought, he stopped and peered up through the trees, back in the direction of the airport. He couldn't see Skyla's plane, though; either it had gone already, or it was still grounded. He wondered if he would see the Gym Leader again. He'd liked Skyla. She was . . . bubbly. There were few enough bubbly people in his life, so Skyla had been a refreshing change.

    Cecilia doesn't count, he thought with a tinge of bitterness that surprised him. Somehow, the world of dreams and its inhabitants seemed to be even further removed from reality than they actually were. It was like they existed only in his head, and they seemed to entrench themselves deeper in there every day. Every time the spirits crossed his mind, he realised again just how alien they would be to anybody he mentioned them to. It really was like they existed for him and nobody else.

    Well, I guess they might as well, he told himself wryly. You can't tell anybody else about them. Imagine what would happen if all this got out. Someone could steal the Dreamlight, or try and study it. Someone who doesn't deserve it could end up with it . . .

    I need to stop dwelling on this, he chastised himself wryly.

    He elected to go through the centre of Slateport City for the first time in quite a while. Unlike the last time that he had passed through town, he kept his head up and didn't try to avoid people. While he still wasn't entirely comfortable with being an accessible public figure, he had been thinking back on Steven's advice and realised that it wasn't going to get any easier.

    So he gritted his teeth and walked through Slateport's CBD, concentrating on the sights of the city that he'd hardly seen for the past five years. Some things had changed, while others hadn't. The cafe on the corner of 5th and Main was still going strong by the looks of things; today's special was apparently a Magikarp Sundae, whatever that was. His favourite bistro on 6th was gone, though.

    “Bugger,” he murmured as he stood outside what was now a fashion boutique. He glanced at the shops on either side just to make sure he was in the right place, but there was no mistaking it. Geraldo's was gone.

    He'd had his tenth birthday there almost five years ago. His dad had flown in from Unova just for the occasion, and his aunts and uncles and cousins had all turned up too. The staff had noticed the air of festivity and made a fuss of him, and all in all, it had been the best birthday of his life.

    “Remember this place, buddy?” he said quietly, tapping the release switch on Zangoose's Poke Ball. The Pokémon looked swiftly around the crowded street as if expecting a threat, but Ren just laughed softly and waited for the realisation to hit.

    He hadn't been expecting an overly emotional response from Zangoose, so it came as something of a surprise when the Normal-type reached up and put a clawed paw on his hand, looking up into his eyes with an unnaturally soft expression.

    Yes, the place held memories for them both. The birthday dinner had not only been a birthday party, it had been a celebration of Ren's imminent departure to become a Pokémon Trainer. At the height of the evening, Ren's father had proudly presented him with a single Poke Ball, thus setting into motion a chain of events that had reached far beyond what any of those present could have imagined. That night had been when his life had truly begun.

    He thought back for a moment to the times when he didn't have Zangoose with him. It shocked him to realise how empty his life had seemed in comparison. Even though his partner had been caustic at first – and admittedly, still remained abrasive and violent – they had grown up together. Zangoose had only been young when Ren's father had captured him, so the two had gone through their formative years together. Ren had achieved more in five years than he had ever dreamt possible, and he had done it all with Zangoose by his side. It was a sobering thought, really.

    “Ooh, it really is him!”

    “Seriously? No way!”

    “Look, he's even got the Zangoose! See?”

    “Go talk to him, then! Go on!”

    “He seems busy . . .”

    Ren tilted his head back and sighed lightly before turning to see who was talking behind him. Two girls about his own age were standing a few feet away on the pavement, clearly trying to talk without him noticing. He cocked an eyebrow at them expectantly. “Can I help you two with something?” he asked.

    You sound like a douche, his subconscious told him with quiet glee.

    “Um . . .” said one of the girls, approaching him cautiously with her friend in tow. She was short and blonde, wearing a red tank top. “Are you . . . Ren Goodwin? The new Champion?”

    “That's me,” he said, making sure to smile. He didn't really want to come off as arrogant.

    “Wow, that's . . .” she breathed, seemingly unable to find anything else to say.

    “I went to Ever Grande to watch the League!” the other girl said, stepping out from behind her friend. She was a little taller, with long brown hair and a nervously toothy smile. “I was in the crowd when you battled Steven!”

    “Ah, that's great!” Ren said, glad to have found some familiar territory that probably wouldn't cause him to make an ass of himself. Hopefully. “I was kind of overwhelmed by how many people turned up, actually. I didn't realise it was such a big deal to so many people!”

    “Well, uh, I don't normally go, but I'd heard that the guy who won the Conference was from Slateport, so I got a bunch of us together and went along to support him – I mean, you.”

    “Ah!” Ren said, snapping his fingers as he remembered something. “Was that you guys in the crowd at the final match with the big red 'SLATEPORT REPRESENT' banner?”

    “Yes!” the brunette squeaked. “Yes, we made that for you! I can't believe you actually saw it!”

    “Are you kidding? It was great to see that up in the stands,” Ren said. “It really helped me calm down, actually. I was so nervous when I went out for that battle, and seeing some hometown support was . . . something really special, actually. So thanks for that.”

    “I told you that you should have come,” the brunette said slyly to her friend. Neither of them seemed to have anything else to say, so Ren tried again.

    “Well, thanks for coming along. The number of people there was amazing, and to be honest, I don't think it's really sunk in yet how big it is.” What's this? he thought absently. I'm actually talking to fans – holy crap, I have fans – without stumbling or running away? Since when could I do that?

    “Well, uh, congratulations!” said the blonde, sounding even more uncomfortable than Ren was feeling. “Hey, uh, I know you're probably busy, but . . . do you think you could, like, sign my Poke Ball or something?”

    “Yeah, I can do that,” Ren said, a strange sort of pride rising in his chest. “I don't think anyone's asked me to sign anything before, though. Much less a Poke Ball.”

    “I-if that's too weird, I think I have a book in here or something!” the blonde said, digging through her bag.

    “No, that's fine,” Ren said, raising a hand to stop her. “Is there a Pokémon in here?” he asked as she handed him a red and white sphere.

    “Yes, it's my Zigzagoon,” she told him.

    “Can I see it?” he asked on the spur of the moment.

    “O-of course!” she said.

    Ren went to push the button on the ball, but he paused before he did. “You know, I can't believe I forgot to ask your names,” he said. “I'm so sorry.”

    “I'm Aura,” she said. “And this is Kelsey,” she added, gesturing to the brunette.

    “Nice to meet you,” he said. “Now, let's see what your Pokémon looks like.”

    “It's not very strong,” Aura said hastily, reaching out a hand as if to stop him, but then snatching it back quickly. “Nothing like what you're used to at all, of course!”

    “That's not necessarily true,” Ren said, releasing the Pokémon and crouching down to examine it. The furry Normal-type with its spiky brown coat eyed him warily, scooting backwards to hide behind Aura's legs. “Every Pokémon has its own distinctive kind of strength. While some may be more powerful than others, each will shine in its own way. You just have to find that one place where it excels and capitalise on that.”

    “Wow,” Aura breathed. “That's . . .”

    “Impressive,” Kelsey finished. “Do all Champions, like, talk like that?”

    “Like what?” Ren asked, tilting his head upwards to look at her.

    “Well, as soon as you started talking about Pokémon, you got kind of distant,” she said. “Like you weren't really there.”

    “Well, I guess it's kind of natural,” Ren said. “Most people act a bit weird when they talk about something they're really into. As a Champion, it's expected that that 'something' is Pokémon. But anyway, Aura's Zigzagoon here . . . well, you're right. It doesn't seem to be all that strong to begin with. But there's a high level of trust there as well. It seems that it's likely mistrustful of everybody but you, which can be a plus or a minus depending on how you work it. I'd actually suggest getting it more used to other people, because I can tell it doesn't spend a lot of time outside it's Poke Ball. Start with your friends, people you trust. People like Kelsey here. That way, you should be able to take steps towards making it more confident. Confidence wins more battles than strength sometimes.”

    “Seriously?” Aura said as he straightened up, returning Zigzagoon to its Poke Ball. “Where did all that come from?”

    Ren thought about it for a moment. “Observation,” he said at length, nodding. “Have you got a marker or something?”

    “Sure,” she said, waving a hand impatiently in front of her face, “but how did you do that?”

    “I just . . . looked at Zigzagoon and made some inferences based on what I saw. It's actually remarkably easy to draw those sorts of conclusions when you look at a Pokémon.”

    “For you, maybe!” Aura said, handing him a permanent marker. “But that was amazing. I think I saw a guy from Unova doing something like that on TV once. You know, looking at Pokémon and talking about their bonds with their Trainers and things. He wasn't quite as, er . . . useful as you, though. It was kind of, like, a psychic thing where he told the Trainer things about their Pokémon. They were really impressed and all, but he didn't give them any advice about where to go in the future.”

    “There you go,” Ren said, handing her back the Poke Ball and the marker. “Sorry if it's a bit messy. My signature's pretty rubbish. But could you remember the name of that programme, by any chance? It sounds interesting.”

    “Sorry, I can't,” she said. “But thanks for the autograph! I mean, wow.”

    “Um . . .” Kelsey said. “C-could you, like, sign something for me, too?”

    “Sure, that's fine,” Ren said. Could I . . . get used to this? Well, no, it would always be weird. But I could deal with it. These two are nice. They're just people. Why was I scared of people?

    After he signed one of Kelsey's schoolbooks, Ren made his excuses and headed on towards home, leaving Zangoose out of its Poke Ball to walk by his side. The Pokémon seemed to enjoy the fresh air, having had few enough outings in the last few days.

    The rest of his walk through the city passed relatively calmly. A handful of people waved or smiled at him in the street, and he made an effort to respond in kind. It was easier than he'd thought it would be. He remembered what Bella had said to him on Saturday evening: Your problem is that you've let what you think other people think about you affect what you actually think about yourself. She'd been a hundred per cent right, he realised. He'd had trouble accepting his role as a sudden celebrity because it had seemed so alien to him. He had made assumptions about how people viewed him; sure, there was a lot of truth to those assumptions, but he'd blown it way out of proportion.

    Realising how foolish he'd been wasn't a good feeling. Still, though, better to work it out now and stop being an idiot about it than carry on trying to run away from everything.

    After passing through the centre of Slateport, he found himself once again in the suburbs, which soon gave way to the beach road that snaked its precarious way up towards his house. Due to the fact that the road ran roughly from north-west to south-east, he found that the morning sun was in his eyes much of the time, so he kept his head down, watching the slightly cracked road passing beneath his feet.

    Once again, he found his mind involuntarily slipping back to the world of dreams. He knew that something as important as the possible end of the world as he knew it should probably be hovering at the front of his mind all day, but it seemed to float in and out of his consciousness at random. He only thought about it a couple of times a day, he realised. Does my subconscious just not care? It certainly seemed that way. He knew he should be spending more time thinking about it, given its importance, but there was still a dream-like quality to it that made it hard to hold onto.

    Not for the first time, Ren wondered if they really had just been dreams. Sure, they had felt real, but dreams often did. Steven – logical, level-headed Steven – had been convinced they were real, which ought to have spoken volumes in favour of them being reality, but somehow Ren found it difficult to accept. The whole concept was ridiculous, of course. Travelling to a different world in his dreams, a world occupied by magical spirits and living shadows that fought a bitter, eternal war? It sounded like a fantasy novel. It was entirely possible that the Dreamlight was simply some form of talisman that gave the wearer bizarre dreams. He had heard of such items, possessed by Ghost-type Pokémon that lived only to bring mayhem and confusion to people's dreams.

    Stranger things had happened, though. There were legends from all over the world of giant Pokémon with total dominion over the elements. Even in the Hoenn region, he had heard of three legendary golems that had been sealed beneath the earth over a thousand years ago so that they would cease their destructive rampage. He didn't know how much truth there was to such stories – he had never paid much attention to supernatural myths and legends – but there was a lot of supposed evidence.

    A sudden thought struck him, causing him to stop dead. Rather than such legends proving the likelihood of the world of dreams being real . . . wasn't it possible that if the world of dreams were real, the other myths could be too? Was it conceivable that the fabled giant dragon called Rayquaza, for example, actually existed? If one was possible, the other might be too. Sure, they were entirely different matters; the world of dreams seemed to exist on a separate plane – if he assumed it existed at all, which he was admittedly inclined to do – whereas the myths dealing with giant dragons and leviathans were, relatively speaking, much more mundane.

    A strange feeling rose up inside him, causing him to shiver. A mixture of apprehension and excitement, heralding the possibilities that were opening up. Such legends were seeming more and more likely by the second. If an entire parallel world populated by mysterious creatures could exist, why couldn't a giant dragon? Why couldn't the myths of the Hoenn region have a basis in fact?

    Something else occurred to him equally suddenly as he stood on one side of the coast road, eyes shaded against the sun with one hand. Among myths of dragons and monsters, of giant birds of thunder and enormous canines that ran on water, there were smaller, less grand tales. Stories of ghosts and spirits, of dead people unable to move on and find peace. Cecilia had told him about the spirits that had tried to cross into his world. We end up trapped there, she had said, intangible, drained of all our power and sometimes even unable to speak – what you might know as . . . ghosts.

    Ghost stories were immensely popular, being made into books, movies and video games, but he had never paid them much attention. If what Cecilia had said was true, though, the ghosts that were said to haunt various secluded spots around the world might actually be real. Furthermore, they might be able to banish his doubts about the world of dreams. If he met one . . . if he could talk to one of them while wide awake and in full control of his mind, he would be convinced that everything happening in the world of dreams was actually real.

    Of course, he still had the problem of how to go about talking to a ghost. If they were so open as to talk to anybody who came wandering by, all of their secrets would have been exposed years ago. All he could do was hope that they might recognise the Dreamlight.

    Did Steven ever think of this? Did he talk to ghosts?

    As he resumed walking, Ren made up his mind. He would seek out a ghost to confirm the existence of the world of dreams. He was sick of being uncertain.

    Until that point, though, he would have to continue to treat the world of dreams as if it was indeed real. He couldn't afford to make any foolish mistakes.
    Star Performer
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    Old January 4th, 2012 (9:25 PM).
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
    "I also happen to be a model."
    • Crystal Tier
    Join Date: Jan 2009
    Location: Nimbasa Gym
    Age: 23
    Gender: Male
    Nature: Relaxed
    Posts: 3,457
    OH I'M SO SORRY. D: How did I forget to post this here until now? Aaaagh.

    Chapter Thirty
    How Far We've Come

    “Oh, Ren! You didn't call ahead to say you were coming back. How was the carnival?”

    “It was great, Mom. A bit of trouble yesterday, but on the whole, it was fun. Have you been busy?” Ren asked, dropping his bag beside the kitchen table and sitting down himself. Zangoose clambered up onto another chair, its head poking up curiously above the table.

    “Hmm? Oh, yes. I've all but finished the article for the Mauville Mirror. I just need to get a few words from the project supervisor out at New Mauville, but I haven't been able to get in touch with them out there . . .”

    “Well, I'm going up to Mauville tomorrow for the Contest, remember? You could come with me. You know, make a day of it,” he suggested. “You like watching Contests, don't you?”

    “That actually does sound like a good idea, sweetie. Oh, but wait . . . I'll come up with you, but I'd probably have to skip the Contest. The construction site probably won't be open all day, and the interview might actually take a while. I'm sorry, honey.”

    “Oh,” Ren said. “Well, we can go to a Contest some other time. They want me to start attending them relatively regularly, I think, so there'll be plenty of opportunities. I know you love them, so . . .”

    “That's sweet of you, honey. I'll make sure to keep my schedule free next time.”

    Struck by a sudden thought, Ren stood up from the table. “Mom, can I use your computer for five minutes?”

    “Sure, love. But what for?”

    “Um . . . top-secret Champion stuff,” he said edgily. It was close enough to the truth, anyway.

    She sighed. “All right, dear. I won't ask. Just take your top-secret Champion with you.”

    “Huh? Oh, right.” Ren quickly returned Zangoose to its Poke Ball before slipping off down the hall to his mother's office.

    The computer was already running and the Vulpix net browser was open, so he quickly sat down and typed 'haunted places in hoenn' into the search bar. The first site that popped up belonged to the Hoenn Occult, Religious and Supernatural Enthusiasts' Association (or HORSEA for short). That looked promising, so Ren clicked on the site, which brought up a list of locations in Hoenn that were allegedly home to spirits, ghosts and spectres. There were dozens of them, sorted alphabetically by district, including a handful in the Slateport-Mauville area.

    “Bingo,” he muttered, hitting the print button. When the wireless printer on the other side of the room had spat out a copy of the web page, he closed the tab and wiped it from the browsing history. He knew he was probably being unnecessarily paranoid – after all, he could probably just say he had become interested in the supernatural lately – but he would feel more comfortable the less questions he had to answer.

    He took the printout up to his room to study it in greater detail. One site in particular looked promising: the Mackenzie farm, half an hour outside of Mauville. A brief note underneath the name read One ghost, young male. Sightings unverified and rare.

    Well, that wasn't hugely promising, but it was a lead. Making sure his mother was still in the front of the house, he sneaked down to the office again and found an online map that showed the location of the Mackenzie farm, which he also printed off before deleting it from the browser's memory.

    Right, he thought as he slipped back up to his room to peruse the map. I can get there pretty quickly . . . but don't ghosts usually come out at night? I'll have to make some excuse to stay in Mauville until Friday.

    Looking at the situation objectively, he knew he was being absurd. There was almost no way that the world of dreams could exist only in his imagination. Everything he had done, everything he had seen in the world of dreams was real. There was no way he could really deny that, so why did he keep trying?

    Do I even want it to be real? Or do I just want to prove to myself that it isn't so I don't have to worry? Sure, it'd be a big relief if it wasn't, but it would leave so many unanswered questions. I know it's real. I just need proof, he realised. He had never really been one to take things on faith, preferring to have some kind of evidence for things. He had seen plenty of 'proof' in the world of dreams itself, but he didn't trust dreams. The only things he would trust were those he could see for himself – concrete evidence.

    “Says the guy looking for ghosts in haunted farmhouses,” he murmured, the irony not lost on him. Either way, the plan was set. After the Contest in Mauville, he would make his excuses – invent some Champion business to avoid undue suspicion – and head out to the Mackenzie farm. He'd do his exploring, hopefully meet a ghost who could confirm what he thought he knew about the world of dreams, and then return to Mauville to take the first train home in the morning. Until then, though . . .

    Ren sighed and folded up the printouts, stashing them in the bottom of his bag before kicking his legs up on the bed and lying down, hands behind his head. It was still not quite noon yet, and he had a whole afternoon to burn. He briefly considered going to visit Aunt Mabel like Cole had asked him too, but something in the back of his mind faintly reminded him that Wednesday was her shopping day. She'd be out all afternoon; he'd have to go when he got back on Friday.

    He looked around his room, a slight frown creasing his forehead. It was still as bare as it had been when he had arrived on Friday. He'd have to refurnish it, and maybe even redecorate. A few posters on the wall, at the very least, would not go amiss.

    Somehow, though, he really didn't feel like being proactive about anything. The previous day's action had worn him out more than he'd expected. On top of that, there was the sense of general fatigue that he had been feeling ever since his first night in the world of dreams. That was a little worrying in itself; had Steven ever experienced it?

    I haven't talked to Steven since Sunday morning. Several times in the intervening couple of days, Ren had considered calling Steven to talk about what was going on, but something held him back. Was it stubbornness? Certainly, he wanted to prove he could deal with it by himself – without having to rely on anybody else. What kind of yehktira would I be if I couldn't do it on my own?

    Listen to me. It's almost like I want to be saddled with this.

    Do I? Don't I?

    In the end, Ren stood with a sigh and, pushing all thoughts of potentially world-changing responsibility from his mind, left the house again, leaving his mother reading a book in the living room.

    On the road, he let all six of his Pokémon out; they all seemed somewhat confused, looking at him expectantly.

    “Nothing big today, guys,” he said. “We're just going for a walk.” He set off down the coast road at a leisurely pace, his baffled Pokémon following just behind him. Yanmega and Braviary rode on Camerupt's broad, cratered back; they would have outpaced him otherwise.

    The weather was starting to take a turn for the worse, though the conditions were still far from adverse. Clouds were gathering in the sky, and the sea breeze was picking up. The sun still shone brightly, though – it was almost directly overhead now – so Ren felt comfortable taking a brief trip outside.

    After a while, the coast road gave way to Seaboard Avenue. There was no apparent change in the road itself, other than an old wooden sign leaning against the cliff, and Ren carried on walking, ignoring the confused protests of his Pokémon.

    Just as the road began twisting back towards the north a little, a familiar crack opened in the cliff face to his left, revealing a large space encased by rock walls: the same park he had visited with his mother just a few days earlier. It was dim inside the space, as the sun's angle wasn't quite right at that time of day.

    Ren went ahead and stepped into the park anyway, sitting down on the same swing as he had the other day – and that following night, in his dreams. He watched his Pokémon array themselves in a rough semicircle in front of him, watching him with confused, worried eyes.

    “How many times in the last few days have I told myself I'm going to stop this?” he asked. “I really need to quit being so mopey about everything.”

    Zangoose cocked its head, hissing quizzically.

    “You're right,” Ren said. “I haven't told you guys about any of this, have I? That's . . . that's bad of me. I'm sorry. I should have let you in on this earlier. After all, if I can trust anybody with this – which I can't, really – I can trust you.”

    He took a deep breath in before sliding off the swing to sit cross-legged on the ground in front of his Pokémon. There was nobody else in the park; while the council had never gotten around to actually closing it off, the common opinion in the neighbourhood was that the park's location – sandwiched into a crack in the cliffside, with high, natural rock walls on either side of the narrow space – made it dangerous. They were probably right, Ren had to concede. In all the times he'd visited the park, though – whether with his cousins, his mother or by himself – he had never seen s much as a pebble drop from the rock walls, much less an avalanche of the kind so feared by most of the locals.

    So he had carried on visiting the park. Even now, five years later, it almost looked as if nobody had touched it since he had left. Deserted as the park was, he felt safe to talk out loud for the first time. He told his Pokémon about everything that had transpired since Steven had called him to Rustboro, leaving nothing out. They just watched him silently, not judging or criticising him. They simply listened, and as he talked, Ren felt himself relaxing. The tension evaporated from his body, and he slumped a little even as he spoke, his shoulders dropping. He hadn't even realised how tightly wound he was, but the letting out all the words that had been held inside him over the last few days was a strangely cathartic experience.

    It took a good half-hour to summarise everything that had transpired since Saturday morning, and he felt immensely better by the time he had finished. He had given up on sitting halfway through, shifting instead to lie on his back with his feet under the swings. He felt the bark pressing into his legs and the long grass tickling his face, but he ignored them. The sweet scent of the earth was so distracting that he almost lost his place in the narrative several times.

    When he finished, he lay silently for a good five minutes, during which period there was not a movement or a sound made by any of them. He took several deep breaths, feeling the fulfilling shiver running down his spine after each with a sense of immense satisfaction. Telling it like a story hadn't made the whole thing any less real, like he had feared – or was it hoped? It had made it more real. By bringing it out into the tangible, physical world, he had caused it to draw closer than ever to it.

    At length, Zangoose stepped forward, looming over him as he lay in the grass. The Pokémon seemed uncomfortable with the situation, its tail and ears twitching in agitation, but it stepped forward and sat down next to Ren, leaning against his left side in unspoken solidarity. Its warm body vibrated slightly as it breathed in and out, and Ren reached down with a smile to stroke its head. The Pokémon would normally have protested at such a weak gesture of familiarity, but it just pressed itself a little closer to him.

    With a slight tingle of static electricity, he felt Manectric curl itself up at his right, its quick blue eyes watching him intently. He felt something bump at his head, and he looked back to see Camerupt nosing him gently. Ren sat up at the Ground-type's insistence, only for it to make a quarter turn and sit down exactly where he had been lying. Shaking his head in faint amusement, he sat back, leaning on Camerupt's enormous, warm flank. Yanmega buzzed over to rest in his lap, and Braviary hopped its way in next to Zangoose, bumping its head against Ren's shoulder. Solrock floated in front of him, its large, sorrowful eyes regarding him balefully. He lifted a hand and brushed his knuckles across its rough, rocky skin.

    “Thanks, guys,” he said frankly. Nothing else needed to be said, he realised. With a slow exhalation of breath, he tilted his head back to rest on Camerupt's side. He almost felt as if he could have drifted off to sleep right then and there, but he didn't. It would have been rude, he felt.

    So instead, he just sat there, his back warmed by the fire in Camerupt's belly as the clouds overhead drew closer.


    That night, he dreamed of rain.

    Afro Glameow hisses miserably, its springy hairdo slightly bedraggled in the persistent rain that sweeps the dark street, filling Ren's ears with the sussurous sound of gently falling water on pavement. The only visible light comes from a very old-fashioned lamp post on the corner a few metres away, and it is towards this that Ren and Afro Glameow hurry from opposite directions.

    Ren pulls his trench coat tighter around him against the inclement weather, tugging his low, wide-brimmed hat further down over his eyes with his free hand.

    “Do you have the package?” he asks when they meet beneath the light, the flickering lantern in its glass box casting a pallid glow over the unlikely pair. He has no idea what package he is talking about, and clearly Afro Glameow is just as unaware, for it just mews at him accusingly and produces a wide-brimmed hat identical to Ren's from . . . well, somewhere, slapping it onto its head with a casual paw.

    “Fine, I'll grab someone else's package,” Ren grumbles. “Where's the portal, then?”

    Afro Glameow turns and struts away, tightly wound tail bobbing self-importantly.
    Ren rolls his eyes. “Fine,” he says, before turning around and reaching out to touch the portal.

    He found himself standing on the stage in the middle of the Fortree square. Bunting still flapped in the breeze, but every other sign of life had entirely vanished. None of the loud, colourful festival-goers that had been milling around earlier were present, and their absence made the whole area feel very dead and cold. There were no bird Pokémon in the sky, and the absence of chaotic, raucous noise made the square a much less welcoming place. He was alone, save for one other.

    “Cicero,” Ren said, smiling with genuine pleasure to see the Tactical General. “It's good to see you.”

    Cicero adjusted his toga slightly, making a somewhat half-hearted effort to return the smile. “Yes, yehktira. It is good to see you also. However, I do bring bad news.”

    “What? What's happening in the third ring?” Ren asked urgently. “Did Nekros-”

    “Not Nekros,” Cicero said, a regretful grimace on his face. “Miss Darkstorm.”

    Ren threw his hands up in the air with an impatient growl. “You're kidding! You mean they're not letting me in tonight, either? What's the deal with that? What reason did she give?”

    “She did not give one, I'm afraid. I'm far too low-ranked to be party to such sensitive information.”

    Ren narrowed his eyes. “That was sarcasm, wasn't it?”

    Cicero sighed, shrugging. “I'm afraid not. While in the field of battle, I am a General, but in a non-martial situation I'm no more important than anyone else.”

    Ren shook his head in disgust. What kind of stupid bureaucracy is this? he raged silently.

    “Ren!” Cicero said suddenly, a sharp edge entering his voice. “Iehkti'na!

    “What? Where?” Ren asked, frowning as he scanned the noticeably empty area, rotating a full three hundred and sixty degrees before turning back to face Cicero . . . who was no longer there.

    Ren blinked. The Tactical General had vanished without a trace in the time it had taken Ren to turn around. He scanned the area again, abruptly on high alert. “This isn't funny, Cicero,” he grumbled.

    There was no reply. Ren was alone in Fortree. Where in Arceus' name did he go? For that matter, what am I supposed to do now? If Cicero had been telling the truth about seeing an Iehkti'na, he couldn't risk returning to the first ring through the barely-visible portal that was hovering in the air behind him. On top of that, he didn't know whether the Soul Bonds were completely fixed yet. Going home now could ruin everything. That meant he had to stay in the second ring with a disappearing General and an Iehkti'na that might or might not exist.

    “Bloody wonderful,” he snapped, continuing to scan the area. He figured that staying on the stage would be his best bet; it was central, open and highly visible. Actually, that was a double-edged sword. He would be extremely vulnerable, but at the same time it would be nearly impossible to sneak up on him.


    Something snapped inside Ren's mind, a painless jolt of electricity that made him blink in surprise. Without even knowing what he was doing or why he was doing it, he threw himself to the ground. He landed awkwardly on one shoulder, but the pain was instantly forgotten as he saw a scythe of pure shadows slice through the air where his head had been just a split second earlier.

    He forced himself to roll into a crouch, facing his assailant warily. It was an Iehkti'na all right, and it seemed awfully pissed that its intended prey had avoided it. The beast was a clear metre taller than Ren, and its inky black body – although humanoid in form – was covered in jagged edges and blades that wavered in the weak sunlight. Its dominant features, however, were the lethal-looking blades that protruded from its shoulders in place of arms. They were easily two metres long, and appeared somewhat flexible as their wielder whipped them back and forth, though he didn't think that would make them any less deadly.

    The blades whistled perniciously as they swung through the air.

    Ren's brow furrowed in concentration as he began to back slowly away, eyes fixed on the Iehkti'na. When he moved, though, it jerked forwards suddenly as if to attack again; when he stopped, so did his opponent.

    “Okaaaay,” Ren said slowly, confused. What was it waiting for? Iehkti'na usually attacked all-out rather than bobbing back and forth like this one was doing. For that matter, it shouldn't have even been attacking him at all. Nekros had promised, hadn't he?

    although they listen to us for the most part we sometimes cannot prevent them from running wild a little

    Nekros' words returned to him in a sickening flash of memory. Oh. Right. So this Iehkti'na was probably acting on its own instinct. After all, it wouldn't make any sense for Nekros to send an assassin after the one person holding the worlds together.

    “You're a rogue, aren't you?” Ren challenged it. “You're not doing what you were told.”

    The Iehkti'na regarded him coldly, its blue-fire eyes expressionless.

    “Go back to the third ring,” he said, not even sure if the beast could do that. “If you kill me, everyone dies. Everyone. You don't want that, do you?”

    Evidently tired of this puny human trying to talk to it, the Iehkti'na leapt forward, blades whipping out towards Ren.

    “Evidently you do!” Ren yelped as he leapt backwards, avoiding the creature's slicing attacks by pure instinct as it forced him backwards across the stage.

    The blades slashed at the stage itself as the Iehkti'na pressed its advantage, causing solid wooden boards to split like butter beneath Ren's feet while he stumbled backwards.

    Ren swore loudly as he continued to back away quickly, almost tripping several times. His opponent was moving fast, but not quite as swiftly as the initial attack that he had barely evaded. Why? Is it toying with me?

    Suddenly, one of the Iehkti'na's blades shot straight forward, headed directly for his chest. With speed he didn't realise he possessed, Ren jinked to one side, but the slicing dagger of darkness tore his shirt and scored a cut across his shoulder, sending a sharp twinge of pain through him. He clapped his other hand to the cut, even as he continued to retreat from the furious attack. The wound was wet with blood, and his hand came away daubed red.

    As the beast's blades whipped through the air around him, writhing like deadly black ribbons, he felt the ground beneath his feet drop away. He was tumbling backwards, losing his footing as he pitched backwards over the side of the stage.

    I should have seen this coming, he thought regretfully in the split second before he hit the ground.

    The stage wasn't high, but it was high enough. The back of his head hit the hard-packed dirt with a painful crack, and his vision swam. With unfocused eyes, he saw his opponent looming over him, crouched on the edge of the stage like some enormous, predatory insect.

    Sitting up caused him enough pain to elicit an audible groan, to which the Iehkti'na reacted with apparent pleasure, its spines and sharp edges making a disconcerting clicking noise as it swayed gently from side to side. Suddenly, it bent at the knees – the wrong way, Ren noted – and sprang down towards him, both blades outstretched.

    Ren knew what to do without being told. His body moving almost of its own volition, he rolled forwards, toward the edge of the stage. The Iehkti'na's blades dug into the earth where his head had been a moment ago.

    Ren struggled to his feet, his head complaining even more thanks to the awkward manouevre. Before the Iehkti'na could react, he brought up his leg and kicked it solidly in the back with a metallic clunk. It stumbled, caught off balance, and Ren ran for it, dashing west as fast as his legs could carry him. Running wouldn't solve anything, but the more distance he could put between him and the nightmare, the longer he would have to think of a solution.

    Unfortunately, his opponent wasn't nearly as disoriented as he had hoped it would be. A quick glance over his shoulder revealed that the Iehkti'na was after him again, moving with a lithe speed that belied its spiny bulk. Its two blades were hanging freely behind it, seeming to flutter like macabre streamers in the wind generated by its passing. It was only a few metres behind him, and gaining fast.

    Desperately, Ren threw himself sideways, between two empty stalls. He noticed a loose wooden stake lying on the ground – perhaps left over from the hasty construction job – and he snatched it up as he passed, now navigating carefully and quickly between dozens of booths and stalls.

    The Iehkti'na, however, was having none of it. It charged along behind him, laying waste to everything in its way. Its blades whipped out in all directions, slicing flimsy wooden stalls to shreds; whatever didn't get destroyed in this way was simply trampled and smashed by the nightmare's spiny body. Whichever way Ren turned in the labyrinth of stalls, it made a destructive beeline for him.

    He clutched the stake tightly in his hands, ignoring the splinters. It might be his only chance of survival if it caught up to him. The wound on his shoulder wasn't hurting – the adrenaline would be seeing to that, he supposed – but his right arm was feeling slightly less responsive than usual. His breathing seemed constricted, and he was beginning to stumble over things as he ran.

    Making a split-second decision, he adjusted his course once again, heading for the edge of the square.

    The nightmare followed, the hellfire in its eyes burning brightly.
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    Old January 8th, 2012 (7:01 PM).
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
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    Well, I was going to wait until I finished 33 to post this, but I figured what the heck. It's been a while since the last chapter, and you want to know what happens. (Not to mention that I haven't actually found the time to start Chapter 33. ) So here we are.

    The next thing I post will be Chapter Five of Something's Got To Give, and I'll try to make CG32 my birthday present to you guys. does that even make sense

    Chapter Thirty-One

    The edge of the square approached quickly, and then Ren was through, out into Fortree City proper. He recognised the path. It was the same one he'd taken the previous afternoon while chasing the thief. Rather than turning towards the bridge, though, Ren kept going straight ahead, running dead west through the city, beneath the rope bridges and treehouses. For a brief moment, he considered climbing to escape the creature. It didn't look as if it would be able to manoeuvre through the treetops very well. On the offchance that it could, though . . . he shuddered at a mental image of the Iehkti'na slashing a rope bridge to shreds while he was still on it, leaving him to tumble to a painful death several metres below.

    No, he would stay on the ground. It offered him a marginally higher chance of survival, and he'd take the best odds he could get.

    At the moment, though, none of his odds looked particularly good. The creature was gaining on him; he could hear its feet pounding just behind him. Any second, it would be close enough to start using its blades again.

    A flash of white between the trees, far ahead. Ren wasn't even sure if he'd even seen it, but if he really had, its identity was unmistakeable. Cicero. Not even sure what he was doing, Ren changed his course slightly, heading directly towards where he'd seen the splash of white. It was no longer visible, but he had to believe it had been there. If it wasn't, his chances of survival were practically zero. He was still holding the wooden stake, but it wasn't going to be much use.

    Another soundless snap echoed inside his mind, and he ducked awkwardly, one of the Iehkti'na's ribbonlike blades shearing through the air above his head. Losing his balance, Ren tumbled forward, hitting the ground awkwardly. Is there a painless way to fall over? he wondered idly as three tiny, sharp blurs whirred over his head and buried themselves in the Iehkti'na's torso.

    The beast stopped in its tracks, blades flicking agitatedly out to either side. Ren quickly rolled back onto his feet and faced his opponent, wooden stake held at the ready. Three feathered shafts protruded from its chest, though it didn't seem heavily impeded. It had stopped, though, which was something.

    Movement in the corner of Ren's eye alerted him to Cicero's appearance. The spirit had produced a bow from somewhere, which had a further three arrows nocked to it at once. The weapon was trained carefully on the Iehkti'na. “Sorry about the delay, Ren. You're not hurt, are you?”

    “Not too badly, I think,” Ren said, eyeing the nightmare warily. It remained still, eyeing Cicero's weapon with suspicious eyes. Why isn't he shooting?

    “Step back a little, yehktira,” Cicero said, a note of command in his voice that compelled Ren to obey. As son as Ren was standing beside him, the Tactical General loosed his three arrows, which all flew true and buried themselves in the Iehkti'na's chest.

    One blade flashed down in front of the nightmare's body, slicing the six arrows embedded in its trunk in two, leaving only small, barely visible splinters sticking out. It rolled its neck menacingly and shifted its footing, but it still didn't move.

    “This is an extraordinarily strange Iehkti'na,” Cicero noted with a frown, producing another two arrows from somewhere and nocking them with a swift, practiced motion.

    “Tell me about it,” Ren said, backing a little further away. “Where did you go, anyway?”

    “It . . . it caught me by surprise when you turned around. It grabbed me and brought me out here, then dumped me and dashed off again – I presume to attack you.”

    “Great,” Ren said. “It's smart enough to know who it wants to kill, but not smart enough to realise that doing so will basically end the entire world.”

    “In a nutshell,” Cicero agreed, backing away with Ren, his bow still trained on the nightmare.

    “Any ideas on how to kill it?” Ren asked, his tone almost conversational.

    “The arrows I just sunk into it are equipped with special arrowheads crafted by Maho's experts in the Second Division,” Cicero said. “They're supposed to make it sluggish and clumsy so that it can be finished off more easily.”

    That must be why it stopped moving. “So they won't kill it?”

    “Not at all. I'm afraid that will have to be your job, Ren. I'm no good with anything but this bow, and it just won't work against something this large and powerful.”

    “And you think I'll have any better luck?”

    “By definition, yes. Other than this bow, I've never had cause to lift a weapon myself.”

    “Well, I've only used one once!” Ren protested.

    “Still more than me,” Cicero said. “Now hurry up. It won't stay stunned forever.”

    Ren swore and advanced carefully on the Iehkti'na. As he approached, the blades attached to its shoulders sprang to life, whipping back and forward directly in front of the nightmare in a deadly maelstrom. The creature itself still didn't move, but it had made itself untouchable.

    Slowly, Ren advanced as close as he dared. Could he lure it into attacking him?

    Eyes suddenly widening, Ren ducked to one side a split second before one of the nightmare's blades lashed out towards him, missing by an inch. It kept up its assault, however, jabbing and slashing at him with one of its blades while still defending itself with the other. The whole time, it remained standing still.

    Ren ducked and weaved back and forward, seeing every slash just as it came at him, dodging desperately as he tried to get closer to his opponent. “There's . . . no . . . opening!” he grunted as he backpedalled slightly, waving his stake in front of him in what he hoped was a threatening manner.

    “You have to make one!” Cicero said, loosing another two arrows that flew past Ren's head and thudded into the Iehkti'na's neck, slowing its movements a little more.

    “Can't you just keep shooting it until it stops completely?” Ren asked over his shoulder as he made a few feints with his makeshift weapon.

    “I'm all out! Those were my last two. All I have left are regular arrows, and they're going to do even less damage!”

    “Great,” Ren grumbled. Still, the last two arrows had slowed his foe's movements to a point where he might just be able to get in a hit. He moved in close again, feeling slightly more confident. The stabs and slashes aimed at him were slower now, and he could dodge them fairly easily.

    It was only using the blade on his right to attack, he noticed. The one on Ren's left was still rippling back and forth in front of the creature's torso, preventing him from attacking it directly.

    Suddenly, everything seemed to line up. He feinted right, causing the active blade to lash out in response. Before it had even moved, though, he was going left; the Iehkti'na was forced to use its other blade to intercept the stake-

    -which wasn't there any more. Pulling it back a second time, Ren slammed the sharp, splintered end of the wooden bar into the centre of his opponent's undefended chest. It pierced the shadowy body without a sound, though there was plenty of resistance.

    Even as the Iehkti'na brought its blades back around to slice at Ren, he threw his shoulder forwards, slamming the stake further into the nightmare's body. They both went toppling to the ground, and the Iehkti'na screamed.

    Ren shuddered as he rolled off it, pulling the stake out as he did so. The scream was just as it had been the last time he had seen a nightmare die: almost silent, yet somehow unbearably all-consuming in its pure, primordial horror.

    Almost pitying the writhing creature on the ground below him, Ren lifted the stake once more and slammed it into the Iehkti'na's head with a satisfying – yet sickening – crunch. The noise stopped immediately as the spiny, angular body of the nightmare hissed and bubbled, melting away into the ground until the only sign of its existence was a faint black stain on Ren's improvised weapon.

    Breathing heavily and shakily, Ren let his legs give out as they had been begging to do for the last five minutes. As he knelt uncomfortably on the ground, he felt Cicero clap a hand on his shoulder.

    “Are you all right?” the spirit asked, his voice soft. “That was quite a feat.”

    “Speaking of feet, I can't feel mine,” Ren groaned, allowing himself to collapse even further to the ground, until he was lying flat on his back, still breathing deeply. His whole body stung. His head was still sore from where he'd smacked it on the ground, and his shoulder was bleeding. There were numerous other cuts all over his body, he noticed. The Iehkti'na must have gotten lucky a few more times than he'd thought.

    “You did well, Ren,” Cicero said. “I'm sorry I couldn't be of more help. We of the Tactical Division have limited usefulness in combat.”

    Ren was too exhausted to answer properly, opting instead to give Cicero a half-hearted moan. He was even more bruised and battered than he'd originally thought.

    “I understand,” Cicero said with a nod. “You can probably go home safely now. There don't appear to be any more Iehkti'na around, and the Soul Bonds are back to full strength. Well . . . as close as they're going to get. Oh, for the days when the yehktira was only needed once in his natural lifetime! Not that I don't enjoy your company, my boy – I really do – but it really places an enormous strain on our resources, and on you. And with Ragnarok just around the corner . . .” He sighed deeply, then bent down and offered Ren his arm.

    Ren took it gratefully, allowing himself to be hauled onto his feet; Cicero possessed a surprising amount of strength for someone who professed to be a noncombatant. With Cicero's support, he staggered back through Fortree to the square and up onto the stage.

    I'm a mess, he realised with a shock as he glanced down at himself. His clothes were tattered and stained red like some kind of Hallowe'en costume; there was blood leaking from dozens of cuts and gouges across his body. He was surprised he'd managed to stay standing for so long, let alone run as fast as he had. Adrenaline was supposed to numb pain in tense situations, he remembered. Once the immediate danger had passed, his body had woken up.

    “You'll be all right when you come back tomorrow night, for sure,” Cicero reassured him. “It might hurt now, but injuries you sustain in this world should disappear over the course of the day.”

    “'Should'?” Ren repeated skeptically. “How sure are you?”

    “Not terribly,” Cicero admitted as he steered Ren towards the portal. “I think this is the worst injury a yehktira has received under our protection. I'm awfully sorry, Ren.”

    “It's okay,” Ren said tiredly. “You did all you could, I guess. Well, I hope all this fixes itself by tomorrow night, or I won't be able to stand up. Thanks, Cicero. You saved me, regardless of how much I got beaten up.”

    “You can thank Maho's mages for that,” Cicero said. “I need to carry more of those stun arrows around.”

    The bow had vanished into thin air at some point, Ren noticed, and Cicero hadn't been carrying it when he'd greeted him. Did he carry it around in some kind of pocket dimension, or was the weapon itself magical? “They certainly are useful. All right, General. I'd better get on home now.”

    With that, he reached out and touched the portal, allowing it to suck his tired, beaten body back through to the first ring. The last thing he saw before the blackness swallowed him was Cicero, a hand raised in farewell.

    Afro Glameow bumps him worriedly with its nose as Ren sits up in the unfamiliar bed, groaning. He glances down at himself; he is wound-free. Why wouldn't he be?

    “I'm fine,” he says. “But thanks for-”

    Before he can say anything else, the world disappears.

    Ren awoke with a start. The sun was shining, but for once it only bled through a crack in the curtains, rather than slamming into his room through the uncovered window. Judging by the angle of the light, it was a little earlier than normal, too. Clearly his mother hadn't come in to wake him up yet. So what had roused him? There appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary in the room. His bag lay on the floor in the corner, and his Poké Balls were still sitting on the headboard.

    Struck by a sudden, sickening realisation, Ren practically tumbled out of bed in his hurry. Pulling himself to his feet, he examined his body. No scars, no cuts, no bruises. He was clean.

    Ren breathed a sigh of relief, even though he knew how ridiculous the idea was. There was no way injuries from the world of dreams could be translated to his real body.

    Putting that aside for the moment . . . last night was definitely weird. Nothing had gone the way it was supposed to, right from the very beginning. Supposedly, Maho was to have delivered his note to the council after the previous evening. Had he even passed the message on? Or if he had, had the council just dismissed it as the pointless ramblings of a human?

    That was all he was to them, he knew. Yehktira or not, he was still an annoyance and a burden. Elly was a particularly brazen case, but he had seen it in all of their eyes. Even Cecilia – sweet, playful Cecilia – had betrayed a hint of anger when he had returned from his joyride with Shadecolour two nights ago. The memory of that moment – stepping off Shadecolour's back and seeing the council waiting for him – was still clear in his mind, and in hindsight the betrayal in their eyes was impossible to miss.

    Why hadn't he considered how the spirits might feel? He had been envisioning himself as some kind of hero, the first person to bridge the gap between the two groups. He had imagined himself carrying the Iehkti'na's message and convincing the spirits to take a peaceful course of action. The picture in his mind's eye had been of unity and an end to the war that had raged for centuries; the reality, it seemed, was much colder.

    The spirits hadn't seen him negotiating with the other side and returning with a compromise. They had seen him talking with their enemies, appearing to enjoy their company, and returning to offer them an impossible choice between death and eternal disgrace.

    For that is what it would be, he realised now. If the spirits sat quietly by and let the Iehkti'na return home, many lives would be spared, yes. But they would still have lost. The war they had fought for seven hundred years would have come to an end with them stepping aside and letting their enemies have their way. It would be an intolerable loss of face.

    Even so, Ren thought grimly, I have to convince them to do it. I'm not going to let them all be slaughtered for the sake of their pride. Still, he would make sure to do so with a little more sensitivity than he had been using thus far.

    Somehow, the night's events made his misgivings of the previous day seem pointless and petty. Could he really doubt the existence of something that carried such weight? There was almost no chance that he had simply been dreaming the whole experience, but something continued to bother him. He would still go out to the Mackenzie farm that evening to look for its ghost, he decided. He had to put it beyond doubt.

    And he still had to work out how to convince the council of elders to accede to Nekros' demand.

    After breakfast, Ren and his mother walked down to Slateport to catch the train bound for Mauville. The clouds that had been gathering the previous day appeared to have emptied themselves overnight and drifted away.

    Unlike the last time Ren had caught a train from the inappropriately-named Slateport Central, he managed to get on board without incident.

    “Oh, look!” his mother exclaimed, examining a map on the inside wall of the train. “They put a stop in near New Mauville.”

    “You're going to get off a stop early?” Ren asked, leaning across to check the timetable. “That's pretty convenient for you.”

    “I guess so,” she said, sitting down as the train began to move. “So I'll meet you in town after the Contest?”

    “Actually . . . about that,” Ren said, sensing an opportunity. “I, uh, got a call from Mr. Etois last night. He says that he wants me to do another interview or two in Mauville tonight, so I'm going to have to stay overnight. Once you're done with your work at New Mauville, you might as well go on home. I'll come back tomorrow morning.”

    “Really? That's awfully sudden, sweetie.”

    “Well, uh . . . you know how Etois is. Things happen without any warning!” Ren said, chuckling. Arceus, I'm a terrible liar.

    “What's the interview for? TV? Radio?”

    “Uh, radio, I think. I forget the name of the station, but he said he'd call again to let me know where I need to go,” Ren fabricated quickly, not having prepared for such a question.

    “If you say so, dear. I do wish he'd give you a bit more notice of things like this, but I guess that's how things have to be.”

    “R-right you are,” Ren said, nodding. Lying to his own mother was hardly what he would call a good feeling, but it was essentially harmless.

    He sat back and looked out of the window as the train left the city, clacking comfortably along the rails towards Mauville.


    After his mother had got off at New Mauville, Ren managed to relax. Everything would work out, he was sure of it. I have to be sure of it, Ren thought. I can't afford to get cold feet here.

    Even so, he couldn't help feeling a little apprehensive. Was he really going to go hunting for ghosts in an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of the night? Yes. Yes, I am. Because I have to get to the bottom of this.

    Maybe the ghost – if it even existed – would be able to tell him things about the world of dreams that the spirits couldn't or wouldn't. He still didn't know how the world of dreams had come into existence; from what Maho's journals had said, it was only seven hundred years old, which of course raised the issue of what had existed before it, if anything. There were numerous technical issues to consider as well: how had anybody ever dreamed before the first ring existed? For that matter, how had the world of dreams even come into existence anyway? Maho's notes indicated that a human or group of humans was responsible, but the spirits appeared not to know who or why.

    Conundrum after conundrum, he mused. Before I can give any thought to that, though, I have a Contest to attend to. I can't afford to be busy thinking about something else through the whole thing.

    As the train slowed down and finally came to a halt in Mauville Central, Ren forced all thoughts of the world of dreams temporarily out of his mind. I have to appear one hundred per cent focused, he resolved. I've got to keep up the act as if nothing's wrong, or people might get suspicious.

    Mauville Central was a lot bigger than Slateport's transport hub, and there were a huge number of people milling around. Trains whistled, tracks clacked and people shouted, and the air was full of the smell of steel. Considering the time of day, Ren shuddered to think what the station must be like at rush hour. Even now he was jostled, bumped and swept along with the crowd, feeling like a stick tossed in a raging current.

    Eventually, he managed to find a brief respite in the form of a large green board that the crowd split left and right in order to pass. He leaned against it thankfully, keeping his head down in case he was recognised. He wasn't sure if he could deal with being recognised in such a crowded place; he might get crushed.

    I have to get to the Contest Hall, but where is that? Uncomfortably, Ren realised that he hadn't even bothered to check on the Contest Hall's location prior to coming to Mauville. He had a vague impression that it was on the south side of the city, but that wasn't particulary helpful given Mauville's size. He considered ringing Etois for directions, but he felt like that would be admitting to some kind of blunder. No, there had to be an information desk or something in the area.

    “Oh, right,” he murmured as the board beside him caught his eye. “A map of Mauville. How handy!” The large green board was, in fact, a simplified map of the city, showing most of the main roads and littered with numbers. A key at the bottom explained what each of the numbers represented, ranging from post offices to sports venues to shopping centres.

    “Come on, the Contest Hall's gotta be on here somewhere,” he muttered, running a finger down the list. He was interrupted, however, by a tap on the shoulder. He spun around, confused.

    “Hey, are you lost?” The speaker was a boy who looked to be a little older than Ren, with floppy, bleached-blonde hair and slightly tanned skin. “Need a hand?”

    “Uh, kinda?” Ren said. “I'm looking for the Contest Hall. Would you happen to know where that is?”

    The boy winked. “Gotcha. I'm going there now, actually. Come with?”

    “Really? If you don't mind, then thanks!” Ren said, relieved.

    “You'll be going to today's Contest, right? We'd better hurry, then. It starts in half an hour! Hey, come on. We've got to get a bus over here!” He grabbed Ren's wrist and pulled him back into the crowd, slipping and dashing between the bustling commuters.

    Ren did his best to keep up – not that he had a choice with the boy grasping his wrist. They broke out of the crowd at the entrance to the station and dashed towards a large green bus that was idling at the curb. The boy jumped up into the bus and, letting go of Ren's arm, pulled out a Trainer's license and scanned it on a small machine next to the driver. It beeped an affirmative, and the driver waved him through.

    Slightly uncertain, Ren dug out his own license and passed it by the scanner, which beeped. The driver nodded and waved him onwards. Ren found a seat next to his rescuer.

    “You have no idea what you're doing, do you?” the boy said. It wasn't really a question.

    “Not a clue,” Ren said, shrugging. “I was kind of expecting just to wing it. I forgot how big Mauville was.”

    “The public transport system is a nightmare. Unless you're going somewhere you've been a million times before, you have to plan your trip extensively if you want to get there on time. Unless, of course, you don't mind taking a couple of hours to get where you're going.”

    “Last time I was here, I wasn't in so much of a hurry,” Ren said apologetically. “I just got where I was going when I got there. I didn't realise the Contest started so early. Wasn't it going to start at noon or something? It's only ten.”

    “They changed it at the last minute,” the boy grumbled. “Something about scheduling clashes. I think there's meant to be a performance of some kind on this afternoon, and they had to push the Contest back to make room for it. Beats me as to why they didn't work that out earlier.”

    “I see,” Ren said slowly as the bus pulled away from the footpath, diving headlong into the sea of traffic. “Are you a Trainer? I saw your license when you got onboard.”

    “Well, kind of,” the boy said. “I'm a Coordinator, actually. I find it much more interesting than 'proper' battling. No offense if you're a Trainer, of course! I just think it's more fun.”

    Something clicked in Ren's head. That's why he didn't seem to recognise me. He probably didn't even watch the League Conference. “I am a Trainer, but that's all right. I get what you mean. I never really got that much into Contests, so we're square.”

    “You're going to one now, though!” the boy chuckled. “Change of heart?”

    “Uh . . . a friend recommended I go,” Ren said. “Thought I might learn something new, so I came along.”

    “Fantastic! I'll be taking part in the Contest today, so keep an eye out for me! I'll show you a few things!”

    Ren grinned. “I'm counting on it. Maybe later we can battle, and I'll show you some of my tricks.”

    “Sounds good to me, man. Oh, I'm Arnold, by the way. It's a name to watch out for. What's your name?”

    “Me? I'm Ren.”

    Arnold wrinkled his nose. “That's an odd name. Is it foreign?”

    “Uh . . . no,” Ren said.

    “Oh, no offense!” Arnold said, waving his hands hastily. “I just thought it was unusual.”

    “I'm named after my grandmother, actually,” Ren said. “Her name was Lauren, and she died a few months before I was born. Mom decided to name me after her, but I think she got a bit stuck when I turned out to be a guy . . . so Ren it is.” He shrugged.

    “You must have had to explain that a few times,” Arnold said with a laugh.

    “I didn't realise it at the time, but I went through the entirety of primary school as W-R-E-N because my teacher in first grade made an assumption about the spelling. But yeah, I've had a few people ask about it.”

    “So, R-E-N,” Arnold said. “You looking forward to the Contest?”

    “I guess?” Ren said uncertainly. “Like I say, I've never been to one before.”

    “If that's the case, this is gonna blow your mind,” Arnold said, grinning. “I hear there's going to be a few high-level Coordinators there today, including at least one who placed in last year's Grand Festival.”

    “That's like the Contest version of the Ever Grande Conference, right?” Ren asked, frowning.

    “Yep, pretty much. Oh, this is our stop! Come on, we have to leg it from here!” He yanked on the cord hanging over the dusty window, and the bus began to slow down. He urged Ren out of his seat and up to the front of the bus. When the vehicle stopped and the doors opened, they jumped off.

    “The Contest Hall's just a few blocks this way,” Arnold said, jogging along the footpath.

    They seemed to be on the outskirts of the city's central business district, Ren noticed as he followed quickly. Most of the high-rise buildings were behind them, but the streets were still lined with businesses – mostly small ones in one- or two-storey buildings. Mauville's streets were a lot more crowded than Slateport's, too, and Ren had to dodge ungracefully between pedestrians to keep up with Arnold.

    If I'm late for the Contest, Etois will kill me, he reflected uncomfortably.

    “Here we are!” Arnold said suddenly, coming to a sudden halt and throwing out his arm theatrically to indicate the building to their left.

    Ren turned to look, and he could have sworn he heard his jaw hit the ground.
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    Old March 3rd, 2012 (7:49 PM).
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
    "I also happen to be a model."
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    Join Date: Jan 2009
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    Age: 23
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    Nature: Relaxed
    Posts: 3,457
    oh god why haven't i updated i'm so sorry

    I love you guys, and I promise there will be updates as often as I can wrangle it. The only problem is that now I'm back at school and preoccupied with prefect duties (see blog). I'll try not to make excuses, but there will be some more writing going on. :D Now stop listening to me ramble and have a chapter! (And yes, the title is a Charles Bukowski reference.)

    Chapter Thirty-Two
    The Gods Wait to Delight In You

    The Contest Hall was enormous. It stood in the middle of its own grassed section, surrounded by a sparsely elegant assortment of flowering trees and bushes in pink and blue. The vegetation, however, could not detract from the magnificence of the building itself. It was massive, a monolithic construction only a little smaller than a football stadium and similarly shaped. The dominant colour was a tasteful shade of pink, accentuated by pastel blue trim. Everything was curved and swooping, following the natural arc of the building. A huge bank of windows was positioned about halfway up the building, and large sliding glass doors stood open at the front. Just above the door was a large, stylised ribbon in the style of those handed out to Contest winners.

    “Nice place, huh?” Arnold said slyly.

    “Eh, it's all right,” Ren said, shaking his head at the sheer scale of the building. He'd seen a couple of Contest Halls in his travels, of course, but this had to be the largest one he'd come across, as well as the most stunningly designed. “It's no Ever Grande Stadium, that's for sure.”

    “Stadiums are places of battle,” Arnold said. “They are impressive, yes, but practical and earthy, just like the clashes that take place within them. A Contest Hall, though, is something supremely special. It is hallowed ground for a Coordinator, a place where beauty and power come together in a splendid explosion of magnificence!”

    “Be that as it may,” Ren said, “shouldn't we be going in? If it starts soon, I mean . . .”

    “Ah, crap! You're right!” Arnold said, glancing at his watch. “Look, man, I gotta go. Contestants' door round the back! You should just be able to get in the front door, right? See you later!” With that, he dashed off around the side of the building, leaving Ren to join the steady trickle of people making their way into the hall.

    The glass doors opened onto a sumptuously plush reception area, all soft red carpet and shining white tiles. Spectators were handing their tickets to a man in a red uniform before passing through a second door into what Ren presumed was the main staging area. Suddenly realising that he hadn't been provided with a ticket, Ren cast around with some degree of panic, wondering what he was supposed to do.

    Another door caught his eye, some way to the left of the one through which everybody else was entering. There was nobody at the side door except a further pair of uniformed attendants, so he decided to try it. As he approached, though, he noticed a sign over the door: 'VIPs only – no public access'.

    Am I . . . a VIP? Ren wondered. The thought was strange and somewhat anathema to him, but a small part of his mind figured that if he wasn't a VIP, hardly anybody was. Slightly intimidated, Ren approached the two attendants in as confident a manner as he could manage. He was trying to think of something to say when one of them spared him the trouble of initiating the conversation.

    “Hang on, kid. VIPs only through here. Are you on the list?”

    “Uh . . . I don't know about any list,” Ren admitted, “but I was invited, if that's what you mean.”

    “Really.” The man looked skeptical. He produced a clipboard from somewhere and quirked an eyebrow expectantly. “Name?”

    “Ren Goodwin.” He pulled his Trainer's license out and showed it to them.

    The other attendant finally spoke up. “He's legit, Mark. It's the Champion all right.”

    “Terribly sorry about that,” Mark said. “Either way, though, you're still not on the list. I mean, no offense, but I have instructions not to make exceptions for anybody.”

    Ren sighed and tucked his license back into his pocket. This was getting ridiculous. “Figures. Is there any way I can talk to the person running the Contest? I'm afraid I don't actually know the name of the guy I'm after, since this was all organised by my people at the League.” Referring to Etois and whoever else was organising things as 'my people' felt strange and a little pompous, but he went with it.

    “Oh, come on, Mark,” the second attendant said. “Sure, he's not on the list, but it's the damn Champion. Who's gonna blame us for letting him in?”

    Mark sighed. “Fine, fine. You can go through, kid. I mean, sir. Or . . . oh, I don't know. Go on. The guy you're looking for is called Raoul Contesta. He's the director of the Contests here.”

    “Thanks,” Ren said, ducking between the two attendants and through the door. That was weird. Did I just take advantage of my position as Champion to gain access to somewhere I possibly shouldn't have?

    Yes. Yes, I did, he decided.

    The VIP entrance led to a blue-carpeted hallway lined with photographs in heavy golden frames. Each photograph showed a Trainer – or Coordinator, he supposed – accompanied by one or two Pokémon. All of the Coordinators shared the same look of exuberance; he supposed they were past winners of Mauville Contests.

    A pair of glass doors zipped open in front of him as he approached, granting him entrance to a luscious reception area, with comfortable-looking couches, a polished bar and a large flat-screen television on the far wall. There were only two people in the room when he entered, both of whom looked up eagerly as he entered.

    “Ah! Mr. Goodwin!” said the first, a dapper-looking middle-aged man. He had neat black hair streaked with grey, and he was dressed in a cerise suit and white shirt, complete with a black bow tie. “I'm so glad you could make it, though I wasn't aware you would be coming in through the VIP entrance.”

    “I, uh . . . just realised that I didn't have a ticket,” Ren admitted. “So I talked to the guys on the door and they let me through. Are you Raoul Contesta?”

    “That's me,” Contesta said. “I'm the organiser, planner, director and head judge for all the Contests that take place in the Hoenn region. It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Mr. Goodwin.”

    “It's Ren, please,” Ren said with a half-smile. He was beginning to tire of people insisting upon using his last name. “And wow, you sound like you must be really busy.”

    “I really am, Ren. I really am. For that matter, I have a Contest to open in . . .” He checked his watch briefly. “. . . ten minutes, and I only have two judges. Oh, Ren, I'm sorry. I've been so remiss. This is my old friend Mr. Sukizo, the president of the Hoenn Pokémon Fan Club.”

    The second man in the room bowed politely. He was short and slightly budgy, and he looked slightly foreign. “It's truly remarkable to make your acquaintance, Champion,” he said.

    “Likewise,” Ren said, shaking Sukizo's hand. “But Mr. Contesta, what's this you said about only having two judges?”

    “Well, we usually have three – myself, Mr. Sukizo and a guest judge – but our expected third member had to cancel unexpectedly at the last minute.”

    “Can't you find anybody?” Ren asked. “I think Bella Bianchi was meant to be here today. I'm sure she'd be happy to step in, wouldn't she?”

    “Well, Miss Bianchi was our guest judge,” Contesta said ruefully, scratching his head. “Unfortunately, it seems she ran into some unavoidable problem and had to reschedule.”

    “Ah. There goes that idea, then,” Ren said.

    “You could do it, couldn't you?” Contesta suggested.

    “Me?” Ren said disbelievingly. “Look, I'd love it if I could help, but I know next to nothing about Pokémon Contests. All I know is what I gathered from talking to a guy on the bus over here. And frankly, I'm not that good with large crowds of people.”

    “We may have no choice, though,” Contesta said. “We need three judges, and we can't ask just anybody. It has to be somebody experienced with Pokémon – though not necessarily with Contests.”

    “Are you sure?” Ren asked. “Surely you'd have to have some kind of background in Coordinating and Contests to judge one of the things.”

    “Ren, did you ever watch Iron Chef?” Contesta asked, smiling.

    Ren frowned. “Now and then, but what are you getting at?”

    “They had a judging panel of three that changed every week. There was usually an ex-chef or restaurant critic on the panel, but the others could come from any walk of life. They had actors, athletes, singers, journalists . . . anybody, really, so long as they had the same love for good food. They didn't have to be a chef. Do you see what I'm getting at?”

    Ren sighed, running a hand through his hair. “Yes, I see. I still don't like it, but . . . I don't want to ruin your show by being one judge short, so I'll do it.”

    “Thank you, Ren,” Contesta said. “I'm so sorry to spring this on you so suddenly, but we are extremely grateful to you. Now we need to go quickly, as the Contest will begin in just a few minutes.”

    “Now? Really?” Ren winced as he followed Contesta and Sukizo out of the room through another door. “So could you, I dunno . . . run me through what I'm supposed to do while we're waiting?”

    “No time, I'm afraid,” Contesta said as they hurried down another hallway. “You'll have to pick it up as we go along. Just remember: the focus is on visual appeal and class, not practicality. You don't have to do anything too complicated or specialised. Just pass comment on each performance as it comes up. A sentence or two should do it. When it comes to making actual judging decisions, that happens offstage, so we'll be able to walk through you through it.”

    “Great,” Ren said. “Doesn't sound too complicated at all.”

    Two minutes later, he found himself sitting at a table between the other two judges at the edge of a massive, sandy arena. The inside of the Contest Hall – the second biggest in the region, Sukizo had told him – was set up with raked seating in a circular formation all around the ring, except for directly behind the judges and directly opposite them, where two enormous jumbotrons were set up for the crowd's benefit. The ceiling was high and arching, made largely of glass panels that shed light on the arena. Right in the centre was an open skylight. Any shadowy spot was accounted for by powerful lights. Music played softly in the background, but it was barely audible over the excited buzz of the crowd.

    The Contest Hall was packed. Ren gaped at the sheer number of people at the event. While it didn't quite match up to the crowd his League final with Steven had drawn, there were far more people present than he would have expected for such an event.

    “What's the capacity on this place?” he murmured, leaning towards Contesta as the crowd continued to murmur in anticipation.

    “About seven thousand. The Hall in Lilycove can fit twelve thousand, though – it's the biggest in the world.”

    “So you mean nearly seven thousand people found time to come and see a Pokémon Contest at ten thirty in the morning on a working day?”

    “The Mauville Contests are always a big deal. They only come around about five or six times a year, so it's quite an event.”

    “How do you fund this?” Ren asked, flabbergasted. “This place is huge! How do you only use it that much?”

    “We rent out the facilities,” Contesta said with a shrug. “It's a very popular venue for circuses, dance troupes and classical drama performances. Like this afternoon, the Mauville School of Dance is putting on a show.”

    “And you double-booked and didn't realise it until, like, yesterday?” Ren hissed disbelievingly. “Surely all this is scheduled months in advance!”

    “Communication error,” Contesta admitted, adjusting his collar awkwardly. “We were under the impression that the dance show's matinee was tomorrow, so we didn't see the need to change anything. When we came in and started setting up on Tuesday afternoon, they raised a fuss. We didn't really want to cancel either event – especially not the Contest – so we rescheduled. Their two o'clock performance got moved to four, and the noon contest got bumped back to ten thirty. It was widely advertised over the last couple of days, so there shouldn't be too many people that miss it.”

    “I'm just glad I turned up so early,” Ren said wryly. “If I'd tried to turn up for twelve, I'd be late. I haven't been watching much TV or listening to the radio lately, and my people at the League didn't call to tell me about the time change.”

    “Well, you know how it is,” Sukizo said. “Remarkable coincidences lead to remarkable occurrences.”

    “That's true,” Ren said. He glanced down at the table in front of him, noticing for the first time that there was a miniature screen set into it. Currently it was displaying the Contest logo, mirroring the enormous screen opposite him. Contesta and Sukizo had identical screens, and a small microphone extended from the top corner of each.

    “All right, let's get this show on the road!”

    Ren glanced around to see who was speaking. The voice had boomed out from speakers all around the arena, so it was difficult to ascertain the source. He worked it out soon enough, however. The speaker was a young woman with shoulder-length, light brown hair pulled out into a strangely curled bob. She was wearing a light pink dress and carrying a microphone. As he watched, she made her way into the centre of the arena and addressed the crowd directly.

    “I'm Vivian Meridian, and I'll be your host for today's Contest! Are you ready to see some serious, high-calibre competition?” she asked, causing the crowd to roar in anticipation. Once they had quieted down again, she flung an arm out towards the table Ren was sitting at. “Allow me to introduce your judges for today! First, we have Mr. Contesta, Chairman of the Contest Board and director of all Contests in the Hoenn region!”

    Contesta smiled and lifted a hand in greeting. “It's my pleasure to be back in Mauville once again,” he said, the microphone transmitting his words to the crowd. “I look forward to seeing what today's contestants have to offer.”

    “Next up is the president of Hoenn's Pokémon Fan Club!” Vivian said. “Mr Sukizo, everybody!”

    Sukizo leaned forward to speak into the microphone over the noise of the crowd. “We have some remarkable Coordinators here today, and I'm eager to see what they've come up with for their appeals!”

    “Unfortunately, our scheduled guest judge, actress Bella Bianchi, is inconvenienced today and she sends her apologies. However, we have here a young man who's kindly agreed to step in and be our third judge. Ladies and gentlemen, Ren Goodwin, the Hoenn region's newest Pokémon Champion!”

    Ren suddenly realised that he was expected to say something. Play it cool. “I have to admit I've not been to a Contest before, so I'm learning as I go along. It's great to be here, though. I'm looking forward to it!”

    So much for playing it cool, he scolded himself silently as Vivian returned to addressing the audience. Telling them you've never been to a Contest before wasn't the smartest thing you've ever done.

    “Without further ado, let's get the appeals round started!” Vivian said enthusiastically. Everything she said was a little too peppy for Ren's taste, but he shrugged and decided he'd have to deal with it.

    “This first round is where each Coordinator will have a limited time to impress the judges with a solo appeal. They will use one Pokémon, and the object is to use a variety of moves and techniques in inventive ways. The judges will comment on and score each performance before moving onto the next Coordinator, and scores will be revealed at the end of the round. The eight Coordinators with the highest total scores will move on to the battle rounds!”

    I take it back, Ren said silently. Thank Arceus for Vivian Meridian. But wait – battle rounds?

    As the crowd cheered, Vivian introduced the first Coordinator. “Eighteen-year-old Caitlin Evans from Rubello was last year's Grand Festival winner, meaning she is the current holder of the Ribbon Cup!”

    Ren raised an eyebrow. Seems like I'm not the only one here at the top of my game. He supposed that Caitlin was who Arnold had been referring to when he had mentioned 'high-level Coordinators'.

    A door under the large screen opposite the judges cracked open, and Caitlin walked out. Ren squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them again, staring in disbelief. It was the curly-haired nurse from the Fortree Pokémon Centre. She wasn't wearing the uniform, having swapped it out for a yellow sundress, and her hair was pulled back in a blue ribbon, but it was unmistakeably her.

    When she saw Ren, Caitlin winked and threw him a little wave. He returned it blankly.

    “Without further ado, let's get this Contest underway!” Vivian said brightly, stepping back out of the arena to stand next to the judges' table.

    Ren watched with interest as Caitlin stepped into the centre of the arena, producing a Poké Ball and tossing it high into the air. He squinted at the small sphere; something seemed wrong about it. The colour was a little off, he noticed: slightly bluish.

    When the ball reached its apex, the two halves split apart with a familiar crack. Rather than simply the usual flash of blue light, though, there was an explosion of golden starbursts that blasted horizontally outwards, dissipating before they reached the crowd.

    Realising that he had almost fallen backwards out of his chair from the sudden explosion of light, Ren quickly righted himself in an attempt to retain his dignity. Caitlin's Pokémon became visible, materialising in the centre of the ring next to its owner.

    “A Magmar,” Contesta murmured, though the microphone appeared to be turned off, and his musings were audible only to Ren and Sukizo. “Not the most orthodox choice for a Contest, but it could definitely work.”

    What did Vivian say? Ren thought frantically as he watched Caitlin and her duck-billed Fire-type waiting quietly in the ring, soaking up the crowd's applause. Using moves and techniques in inventive ways? How does that work with no opponent?

    Guess the only find out is to watch and see, he decided. Seriously, how have I gone fifteen years without ever seeing a Contest? Think, Ren. They used to show these things on TV! True to form, there were camera crews spaced unobtrusively around the edge of the arena, cameras trained on Caitlin and Magmar.

    “All right, Magmar!” Caitlin said at length, sweeping her arm upwards. “Flamethrower, to the sky! Spin it!”

    With a honk of affirmation, Magmar tipped its head back and belched a rippling tongue of flame upwards. The stream was continuous and unbroken, reaching a good twenty metres up into the air. Ren watched skeptically as Magmar began to turn on the spot, varying the inclination of its head to create a tightly curled spiral of livid orange fire that corkscrewed upwards towards the ceiling.

    “Remarkable control,” Sukizo said quietly. “Now she just needs to show she can finish it.”

    Caitlin waved to the crowd, seeming to enjoy the attention. Magmar sped up its rotation without being visibly cued, and the spiral of flame grew tighter still, whirling like a dervish.

    Caitlin's lips moved, but Ren couldn't make out her words over the noise of the crowd. A split second later, the gouts of fire issuing from Magmar's bill ceased. It was followed immediately, however, by an explosive beam of pure white light that blasted straight upwards with a boom, mixing with the Flamethrower attack to create a pillar of marbled white and orange light that seemed almost liquid in its motion. The illusion lasted only a moment, however, as the flames ceased their spiralling and scattered in all directions, broken into hundreds of tiny, glowing embers by the force of the Hyper Beam attack.

    As the remnants of the attack shot up out of the skylight into the blue sky, the tiny tongues of flame flickered, dropping slowly towards the ground in a shower of molten gold. The crowd oohed appreciatively; even in full daylight, the fire glowed brightly.

    As Caitlin and Magmar took their bows, the crowd burst into thunderous applause. Ren blinked slowly, trying to take in the unusual sight he had just witnessed. He was partially impressed, but at the same time part of his mind was complaining: That's not how you do it! This isn't a Pokémon battle!

    After the crowd had quieted down, Contesta leaned forward a little and addressed Caitlin, speaking into his microphone for the benefit of the audience. “That was a very impressive performance from a top-level Coordinator. That'll be a hard act to follow!”

    “You definitely set the bar high for today,” Sukizo agreed. “Using the Hyper Beam attack to destroy the Flamethrower was an unusual choice, and it made for a remarkable spectacle.”

    Realising he was supposed to say something too, Ren adjusted his microphone slightly. “Er . . . well, I have to say that I'm starting to regret not coming to a Contest earlier, especially if that's the kind of performance we can expect to see. I'm very impressed!”

    Caitlin gave the three judges a nod and a smile as she made her way off the stage, leaving Vivian to take over again, which she did with considerable gusto.

    Ren had panicked a little about what he was supposed to say. Watching Caitlin's performance, a little corner of his mind had been desperately trying – and failing – to come up with something intelligent and relevant to say about Caitlin's performance. Contesta and Sukizo's comments, however, had made him realise that he didn't need to say anything so specialised. After all, the judging decisions were supposed to be made secretly. He couldn't give away too many hints.

    To Ren's disappointment, the following Coordinator's performance was not quite as impressive as Caitlin's had been. Fifteen-year-old Jamie from Lilycove put up a decent show with his Surskit, but the cloud of sparkling bubbles that they generated – while very pretty indeed – lacked the impact of Magmar's Flamethrower and Hyper Beam combo.

    There's more to this Contest business than I thought, Ren grumbled silently. The whole concept was still slightly alien to him – it seemed a little like showing off, and the lack of battling confused his subconscious a bit – but he was slowly warming to it. There was, he had to admit, something impressive about Contests in an entirely different way to battling. The two were like apples and oranges, and comparing them was just asking for trouble. Resolving to stop complicating things more than was necessary, Ren said something nice about Jamie's appeal and sat back to await the third Coordinator with a little more ease than before.

    The appeals were just as varied as the Coordinators who provided them, ranging from displays of massive strength to delicate pirouettes. A Makuhita lifted a whole car above its head before crushing it down to the size of a television. A Jigglypuff – visiting from Kanto with its Coordinator – had half the audience snoring before Contesta drowsily called off the appeal.

    As the appeals went by – there were over two dozen competitors, he was told – Ren found himself becoming more and more comfortable with the whole idea. He found that offering commentary on the various appeals wasn't as hard as he had imagined, and he eventually realised that he was genuinely enjoying himself. Who'd have thought?

    After thirteen more Coordinators had come forward and performed their appeals for the judges and the crowd, Vivian made an announcement that piqued his interest.

    “And now, the runner-up at last year's Grand Festival! It's seventeen-year-old Arnold Leonheart from Ever Grande City!”

    Ren blinked in surprise as Arnold stepped out into the arena, smiling and waving energetically at the crowd.

    What the hell? Grand Festival runner-up? He didn't say anything about that! Then again, I didn't tell him I was the Champion, either . . .

    Arnold shot Ren a strange look as he continued to wave at the crowd. It was a mixture of confusion and amusement, a look that Ren imagined was probably mirrored on his own face at that moment.

    This ought to be interesting.
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    Old April 11th, 2012 (7:25 PM).
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
    "I also happen to be a model."
    • Crystal Tier
    Join Date: Jan 2009
    Location: Nimbasa Gym
    Age: 23
    Gender: Male
    Nature: Relaxed
    Posts: 3,457
    Wow, guys. I hope you appreciate how hard it was for me to get this chapter done. I realised halfway through writing the Contest scene that I really hate writing Contest scenes. As a result, this thing took me months to write. On the other hand, it covers the entirety of what remains of the Contest and it's nearly six and a half thousand words long - about 150% of my average chapter length so far. So take that as a bit of an apology, I guess? Seriously, I owe you a thousand apologies for being so slow updating lately. Chapter 34 is already finished too, so that'll be coming out some time next week.

    Chapter Thirty-Three
    The Circus of Circumstance

    Arnold took his place in the middle of the ring and sent out his Pokémon without a word.

    The resulting flash of blue light revealed a Pokémon Ren was well familiar with – a Lunatone, a mystical Psychic-type that acted as a counterpart to the rare and mysterious Solrock. Both were originally said to have come from space, landing in one of the many extraterrestrial objects that gave the Meteor Falls their name. As such, Ren had seen several of them floating around when he'd been training north of Rustboro. He had considered catching one at the time, but it seemed too cruel. Lunatone had a notable aversion to sunlight, which could have presented difficulties. Instead, he'd caught one of the diurnal Solrock that lived in the same area.

    Arnold's Lunatone seemed to have no such reservations about the bright sunlight that streamed through the skylights, though. It levitated composedly at its Coordinator's side, a perfectly shaped crescent of light brown stone. The one large, red eye that Ren could see seemed to be watching him with a detached sort of interest.

    “Lunatone,” Arnold said, his voice relaxed and free of stress. “Just like we practiced, all right?”

    Lunatone hummed a single, long note, and Arnold nodded. “Ah, right. Can we have the lights down, please?” he asked the room at large.

    Next to Ren, Contesta nodded and tapped his something on his screen. There was a whirring sound from above, and Ren looked up to see two enormous shutters rolling across the skylight, leeching the light from the room. With a boom, the shutters met in the centre of the ceiling, leaving the arena lit only by the auxiliary spotlights. A moment later, they all shut off as well, plunging the space into darkness.

    For ten seconds, the Contest Hall was deathly silent. Ren couldn't see a thing, but he could tell that every eye in the stands was fixed on where Lunatone ought to be. Abruptly, a pinprick of red light appeared in the centre of the arena. The light was faint at first, emanating from Lunatone's eyes, but after just a few seconds it spread across the entire rocky surface, turning chalky brown into a crimson sheen.

    Ren became dimly aware of a low ringing in his ears. He frowned and shook his head in an effort to dispel it, but the sound only became louder. It soon became apparent that the sound was coming from Lunatone, which was visible only as a bright red crescent in the centre of the darkened room.

    As Lunatone's humming grew louder, the light grew brighter. Before long, Ren could see Arnold quite plainly, his face lit by soft scarlet light. He was smiling in satisfaction, making no move to direct his Pokémon. It was evident to Ren that everything was going according to plan.

    As the unearthly humming reached a crescendo, a flash of white light scythed through the red, followed by another and then a third in quick succession. With each flash of white light, Lunatone hovered a little higher off the ground until it was levitating well above the judges' heads.

    All at once, the humming and the flashing stopped, sending the room back into darkness and silence. Before the spectators could even begin to wonder whether the appeal was over, there was a thunderous crash, accompanied by a meteoric flash of white light that made everybody in the hall blink. Spherical pulses of white light went careening around the darkened room, giving brief flashes of illumination as they passed. Lunatone itself was visible only for split seconds at the nucleus of the light show.

    Suddenly, all of the balls of light came to a halt, arrayed in a wide arc near the ceiling of the hall. There had to be at least a dozen of them. Lunatone let out one final, high-pitched chime and they burst like fireworks, morphing instantly into wide starbursts that stretched and wheeled through the air.

    As the light faded, the crowd burst into applause. Ren joined them after a moment, starbursts still popping in his eyes. With a clunk, the shades covering the skylight began to retract, allowing sunlight to flood back into the arena. The sudden burst of light revealed Arnold standing proudly with his Lunatone in the centre of the hall, soaking up the audience's adulation with a wide smile on his face.

    It took a full twenty seconds for the crowd to quiet down, but once they did, Contesta leaned forward and spoke into his microphone. “Well, that was extraordinarily impressive. It's obvious you put a lot of thought into crafting your appeal today, and the result was spectacular.”

    “Indeed,” agreed Sukizo, “you made remarkable use of Lunatone's origin as a Pokémon of the night. Most impressive!”

    Ren raised an eyebrow at Arnold, but thought better of commenting on the other boy's failure to mention who he was. “That was seriously awesome, Arnold. On top of being visually appealing, I thought it was pretty cool how it was way different from everybody else's.”

    Arnold nodded appreciatively at the comments and withdrew from the stage, Lunatone floating at his side.

    “So Arnold and Caitlin are both top finishers in the last Grand Festival?” Ren murmured to Contesta as Vivian moved on to introduce the next contender. “That's interesting.”

    “It's unusual to see two Coordinators of such calibre in the same Contest, yes. Not unheard of, of course. What is unusual, though, is seeing Miss Evans continuing to compete on the Hoenn circuit.”

    “Of course, she wouldn't need to keep winning, would she? If she's already qualified for the Grand Festival, I mean.”

    Contesta shook his head. “It's not that. The Grand Festival is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Winning it disqualifies you from entering future tournaments, though you are still allowed to take part in normal Contests. Most winners tend to travel to another region and try for the Ribbon Cup there after winning, but Miss Evans has been competing in Contests since her victory.”

    “I guess she just enjoys it, then,” Ren mused, but he quickly shut up when he noticed that the next Coordinator was already heading out onto the stage.

    But really, why does she keep competing? Ren wondered. It's not like I've been going around collecting Gym badges since I won the League.

    Haven't you? whispered a little voice in his head. You did get the Jet Badge off Skyla the other day.

    The rest of the appeals went by in something of a blur for Ren. Just like after Caitlin's performance, those who followed Arnold failed to measure up to his standard.

    “You doing all right, Ren?” Contesta asked as the last contestant bowed his way off the stage, almost tripping over his own feet several times in the process.

    “I'm fine, fine,” Ren said, forcing himself to concentrate. “What happens now?”

    “We take a break to deliberate. While normally each contestant would be marked out of ten after their appeal, we're trialling a new system where the judging takes place behind closed doors, so nobody finds out their score until everyone's had their turn. Here, we'll go back to the anteroom to choose our finalists.” With that, Contesta rose from his chair, indicating that Ren and Sukizo should follow.

    Ren did so curiously. He really hoped that he wouldn't have to give marks out of ten for each performance; he couldn't even remember half of them. He felt increasingly uncomfortable as they left the buzzing arena behind and retreated to the peace and quiet of the room in which Ren had first met the other two judges.

    “Let me ask you first, Ren,” Contesta said once they were all seated on the plush leather couch near the drinks bar. “Were there any contestants that stood out for you? Any performances you particularly liked?”

    Ren nodded. “Arnold and Caitlin,” he said without hesitation. “The kid with the Duskull wasn't bad, but those two were definitely above and beyond the rest.”

    Contesta nodded in agreement, smiling. “Most definitely,” he said. “Now . . . seeing as you're new to this, Ren, would you be at all offended if I asked you to sit out the rest of the judging process? I don't doubt your ability, far from it, but-”

    “It's fine,” Ren said quickly. “Really, I don't mind. I was a bit worried, to be honest, so I'm perfectly happy for you to do the rest of the judging yourselves. I'm not qualified, so I understand completely if you want to go on and do it without me.”

    Ren allowed himself to drift slightly as Sukizo and Contesta discussed numbers and percentages, scores and ratios flying every which way like a swarm of startled Beedrill. He glanced across to the opposite wall, where a muted television set was displaying replays of some of the more interesting performances, interspersed with shots of Vivian Meridian talking to the Coordinators in what appeared to be a dressing room of some kind. Caitlin, the nurse from the Fortree Pokémon Centre, was gesticulating enthusiastically as she explained something to Vivian.

    “Ren, what do you think?” Sukizo said, causing Ren to start as he turned his attention quickly away from the screen.

    “I'm sorry?” Ren said quickly. “What was that?”

    “Which Coordinator do you think should be top seed going into the battle round?” Contesta asked. “It's clear that it should be either Arnold Leonheart or Caitlin Evans, but we're having trouble deciding which. What's your view on the matter?”

    Ren frowned, casting his mind back to both performances. “Well, they were both very flashy in their own way,” he said, “but I think Arnold's showed more technical skill and a more complex arrangement. I'm not really much of a judge, though . . .”

    “Not at all!” Sukizo said, smiling genially. “You make some very good points.”

    “In that case,” Contesta said with a smile, “Mr. Leonheart will go into the first battle round as top seed, followed by Miss Evans. Does that sound fair?”

    Ren nodded mutely, still unsure whether he was even qualified to give his opinion. “But what do you mean by 'battle round'?” he asked as a sudden thought struck him. “I keep hear it being mentioned, but how does that work? I thought the whole point of Contests was to act as an alternative to battling.”

    “That's true in a way,” Contesta said as he rose from the couch, “but having Coordinators participate in a battle round allows for a more decisive outcome not entirely reliant on the opinions of the judges.”

    “Not entirely?” Ren repeated, frowning. “If it's a battle, how do the judges come into it at all?”

    “Come with me and I'll show you,” Contesta said, leading the way back into the arena.

    Ren followed curiously. The crowd was still buzzing eagerly, but a momentary hush fell over them at the reappearance of the judges, only to sweep almost instantly back up into excited chatter.

    As Ren took his seat at the judges' table once more, he noticed that the display on his screen had changed, still mirroring the jumbotron opposite him. It now displayed four unidentifiable silhouettes overlaid with large question marks – representing, he assumed, the four Coordinators who would take part in the battle rounds.

    As he sat down, Contesta tapped his own screen several times, causing each of the four silhouettes to light up gold. Once this was done, he glanced across and nodded once towards the middle of the stage, where Vivian Meridian had reappeared as if by magic.

    “All right!” Vivian said loudly, her voice projected throughout the arena. “It's time to get the next round started!”

    The audience fell completely silent, every eye fixed on the giant screens. Ren shivered involuntarily; the tension was almost palpable.

    “Four Coordinators will take part in the battle rounds in a simple knockout format,” Vivian announced. “The last contestant standing will take home the Mauville ribbon! So, without further ado, ladies and gentlemen . . . your four finalists!”

    With a loud bing, the screens flashed a brilliant white. When the light faded a split second later, the four golden silhouettes had been replaced by headshots of the four top contestants: Arnold, Caitlin, the boy with the Duskull – was it Luke? – and another Coordinator that Ren recognised vaguely.

    “What happens now?” Ren murmured, leaning over towards Contesta as Vivian carried on announcing the finalists.

    “The first and fourth seeds will battle with one Pokémon each, followed by the second and third seeds. You win if you knock out your opponent's Pokémon, of course – but the difference is that if there's still no winner after five minutes, the Coordinator with the most points remaining wins.”

    “Points? How does that work in a situation like this?”

    “You'll see what I mean in a moment, but basically, each contestant starts the battle at 100%. As the head judge, I take points off for various things – whether that be missed attacks, taking damage, loss of control and poise . . .”

    “It sounds complicated,” Ren commented.

    “It is, and it gets worse,” Contesta chuckled. “Coordinators can minimise the points they lose by adhering to certain Contest ideals – finesse, technique and beauty.”

    “I see,” Ren lied. He was starting to feel out of his depth once again – but at least there was going to be battling after a fashion.

    With a loud, blaring tone, the screens changed again, this time displaying the profiles of two Coordinators, each with a bright yellow bar under his photograph. Arnold, it seemed, would be battling first against Luke and his Duskull.

    The two Coordinators appeared to thunderous applause. Arnold waved appreciatively at the crowd as he took his place at one end of the arena, but Luke – a mousy little boy who couldn't have been more than thirteen – seemed a little unsteady on his feet as he made his way to the other end.

    Ren bit his lip in sympathy. He had seen Trainers like Luke before: inexperiecned and clearly out of their depth, but struggling valiantly to hide it. Although Luke's Duskull would have a type advantage over Lunatone – they do have to use the same Pokémon, right? – Ren could already see which way this battle was likely to go.

    “If both contestants are ready,” Vivian was saying, “then let's get the battle round started!”

    Arnold grinned, snatching a Poké Ball from his belt and thumbing the release switch. “Lunatone, let's go!”

    Mouth pressed tightly shut, Luke tossed his own Poké Ball up into the air. At the top of its arc, it burst open in a shower of sparks, leaving duskull floating several metres above the battlefield, staring Lunatone down with the single ghostly eye that floated between its hollow, skeletal eye sockets.

    “Are the judges ready?” Vivian asked, turning to address the panel directly. At Contesta's nod, she whirled back around, throwing her hand in the air. “In that case . . . battle begin!”

    Ren watched curiously as Luke gave his Duskull some inaudible command. The small Ghost-type sped towards its opponent as if shot out of a cannon. What is he doing? You can't fight close-quarters with this sort of matchup!

    Arnold had apparently come to the same conclusion. “Psychic!” he said sharply.

    Lunatone's eyes flashed blue, and Duskull abruptly stopped and flew backwards as if it had collided with a physical obstacle. It tumbled helplessly for a few seconds before righting itself.

    “Ooh, that's going to cost Luke some points,” Vivian winced.

    Sure enough, there was a loud blip-blip-blip as a small portion of Luke's yellow bar drained away, leaving only a black void behind. Contesta appeared to be controlling the points via the screen set into his desk, Ren noticed.

    Luke seemed unwilling to be thwarted so easily, however. “Duskull, use your Will-o-wisp attack. Just like we practiced,” he ordered, his voice wavering ever so slightly.

    Duskull rose into the air, a ghostly sphere of bluish fire coalescing in front of it. With a haunting, moaning trill, it flung the fireball at Lunatone.

    As the attack split into five separate projectiles, Arnold gave a swift command that Ren didn't quite catch. Lunatone surged forwards, a swiftly forming glob of ghostly energy hovering between the two points of its crescent-shaped body.

    Good tactic, Ren congratulated Arnold silently. Cancel out the attack with a similar one. Since this is a Contest battle, it'll make a good show, too. Flashy . . .

    To his surprise, however, Lunatone held its fire, charging directly towards Duskull's attack. Rather than countering, Lunatone took the attack head-on, losing about a sixth of its points in the process.

    To his surprise, however, Lunatone held its fire, charging directly towards Duskull’s attack. Rather than countering, Lunatone took the attack head-on, losing about a sixth of its points in the process.

    What happened next only heightened Ren’s surprise. Apparently unhurt, though slightly blackened, Lunatone burst out of the bluish-purple conflagration and slammed directly into Duskull, its Shadow Ball still roiling fiercely. The impact was solid and carried an unmistakable air of finality. Sure enough, Duskull crashed to the ground with an impact that belied its size.

    It didn’t get up. Indeed, it appeared that the small Ghost-type was unable to move, despite the exhortations of its frightened Coordinator. After a few seconds of agonising stillness, a loud buzzer sounded as Duskull’s nearly-full points bar was replaced with a large red X.

    Ren blinked in surprise as the crowd broke into applause and Vivian started off again. It seemed that Arnold was a more serious battler than he’d imagined. Ren instantly felt bad for having discounted the Coordinator’s skill, even subconsciously. There’s still battling involved, he said silently. It’s not like they don’t have to work as hard as I do, or even harder.

    Even so, he didn’t think he’d be trying Contests any time soon if he could avoid it. The extra frills and complications that came with the format were still somewhat anathema to him, and as much as he considered himself able to sit and enjoy watching a Contest, he couldn’t imagine himself ever competing in one. Trying to picture himself on the stage, posing and directing his Pokemon with one hand high in the air, was incredibly difficult and made him snort with barely disguised laughter. He would have to explain himself to Gerard, though, he realised.

    Caitlin’s semifinal battle went by even more quickly than Arnold’s, if that were possible. No sooner had her opponent, a fierce-looking girl with short black hair and heavily tattooed arms, called her first attack than Magmar unleashed a blistering barrage of fireballs that hammered explosively into the opponent’s Banette, sending it flying backwards to land in a crumpled heap at the base of the restraining wall below the stands.

    Ren thought he saw Contesta roll his eyes ever so slightly as he declared Caitlin the winner. Then again, he might have been imagining things. There was to be another short break before the final match, so Ren took the opportunity to slip away from the judges’ table and make his way backstage.

    The atmosphere in the green room was, to Ren’s surprise, entirely different than the cheerful, amicably competitive mood that had prevailed thus far on the main stage. Arnold and Caitlin were sitting on opposite sides of a small table, each apparently making a concerted effort not to look at the other. Lunatone and Magmar waited behind their respective Coordinators; Lunatone bobbed slightly in place, but otherwise the small room was entirely devoid of movement. The only sound was the distant noise of the babbling crowd.

    “Um . . . hello?” he said uncertainly as he shut the door behind him.

    “Ren!” Arnold said with a grin, getting up and striding towards him as if he were the only person in the room.

    Simultaneously, Caitlin stood to greet him with a smile that faded as soon as she saw Arnold moving. “You know him?” she said, directing her words at Ren.

    “Uh . . . yes,” Ren said, glancing awkwardly between the two of them.

    “You’ve met her before?” Arnold said, a slightly accusatory note in his voice.

    Ren nodded, suddenly very aware of the tension in the room. “Once or twice.”

    “Well, it was nice of you to come and wish me luck for the final,” Arnold said breezily, turning to sit back down in his chair. “Don’t worry, I’ll beat her.”

    “Oh, for goodness’ sake!” Caitlin grumbled. “You came to cheer me on, didn’t you, Ren?”

    “Uh.” Ren was having trouble processing the situation. What the hell is the history between these two?

    “Stupid woman,” Arnold snorted. “Ren and I are practically best mates. You think he’d come here to support you?”

    “I think he would,” Caitlin said, addressing a point a couple of feet above Arnold’s head. “I mean, it’s obvious that I’m going to win anyway, so why would he support anyone else?”

    “That’s rich. I guess you’re planning to win this one like you ‘won’ Lilycove last year?” Arnold challenged her.

    Caitlin flushed pink and turned on her heel, now refusing to meet anybody’s eyes. “That was the only time!” she snapped. “It’s not going to happen again, and you know it!”

    Ren shook his head. “Look,” he said, making a concerted effort to regain control of the situation. “I came to wish you both good luck. I’m a judge - though I haven’t been doing much judging - and I should probably try and be neutral. Even if that wasn’t the case, I want you both to do well. All right?”

    “Right,” Caitlin said, her voice strained.

    “Sure,” Arnold said. “See ya round, Ren.”

    Shaking his head, Ren returned to the judging table just as Vivian was getting into the swing of her commentary again. The screen was showing recaps of the appeal rounds and the semifinals.

    “Let me guess,” Contesta said in a low voice as Ren slipped back into his seat. “No joy backstage?”

    “Not a bit,” Ren sighed. “Are they always like that?”

    “For as long as I’ve know them,” Contesta said. “And before you ask, no, I don’t know the reason for it, but for whatever reason, they’re never on good terms.

    “Hmm,” Ren said, but he didn’t have time to extrapolate any further, as that was the moment when Arnold and Caitlin reappeared on the stage. Both had their game faces on, Ren noticed; they smiled widely at the crowd and shook hands amicably before retreating to opposite ends of the battlefield. Nevertheless, Ren thought he detected an element of stiffness in the pair of them, a difference so slight that under different circumstances, he would have been convinced it was imaginary. As the two Coordinators faced each other down across the battlefield, there was a palpable level of tension above and beyond what he could normally sense at the start of a battle. It reminded him of a battle he’d had mere weeks before.

    No, not a battle; an opponent.


    Before he even realised that he’d let himself get lost in his own memories, the battle was underway.

    Caitlin seized the initiative. “Flamethrower!” she snapped. Magmar sucked in a huge breath before leaning forward and spewing out a roiling blast of red-hot flame that roared towards Lunatone.

    Arnold seemed unworried. “Cover yourself, Lunatone,” he said quietly, his words almost lost under the roaring flame. Lunatone’s eyes flashed a brighter red than normal, and a translucent barrier of white light appeared directly in front of it.

    The Flamethrower attack slammed into Lunatone’s Light Screen with a whoomph that shook the arena. Lunatone’s defense bent and shook, but it diverted the lethal flames off to all sides in a spectacular burning starburst.

    Contesta nodded appreciatively and shaved off about a tenth of Magmar’s points.

    Caitlin wasn’t giving up, however. “Brick Break!” she shouted, and Magmar leapt high into the air before slamming down into Lunatone’s shield with a clenched fist. The Light Screen shattered into a thousand brilliant pieces and Magmar kept going, crashing into Lunatone and sending the pair of them slamming into the ground.

    Before the dust had even cleared, Magmar leapt backwards and landed squarely on its feet, apparently unhurt. Lunatone’s points bar dropped by nearly a quarter, and Ren winced in sympathy.

    Arnold grimaced, but his voice was level. “Lunatone! Rock Polish, and make it quick.” Lunatone shot upwards at a speed Ren would have thought physically impossible for such a Pokemon. It looked slightly worse for wear, but as it rocketed around the arena, slicing through the air like a fighter jet, Magmar was suddenly the one on the back foot. It turned every which way, attempting to follow its opponent’s movements, but apparently to no avail, as Arnold took the opportunity to deal some heavy damage.

    “Bulldoze!” he roared, and Lunatone changed its course to dash straight at Magmar, clubbing it squarely in the face and shooting off again. “Keep it up!” Arnold said excitedly, and Lunatone wheeled around, coming in for another pass from another direction. Magmar was unable to guard against the furious onslaught as Lunatone battered it mercilessly from every direction.

    Ren found himself on the edge of his seat as Magmar’s points dropped steadily. This was something else, he decided. It was a battle, for sure, but even in the heat of the fray, every move was calculated for maximum visual appeal. Lunatone’s skilful use of Light Screen, Magmar’s perfectly timed Brick Break, Arnold’s combination of Rock Polish and Bulldoze . . . each had probably been designed on the spot. The reaction speed necessary to keep up in a battle like this had to be phenomenal. This is on a whole different level to the semifinals.

    Just as Caitlin’s points dropped below the halfway mark, she made her move. “Grab it!” she ordered. As Lunatone swung by for another pass, Magmar ducked, its movements slightly unsteady, and fastened its arms around Lunatone’s lower body as it passed, allowing itself to be dragged along.

    Lunatone lifted up into the air, leaving Magmar with its legs windmilling wildly as it struggled to cling on. “Shake it off!” Arnold shouted. Lunatone jackknifed with incredible mobility, swinging back and forth and zigzagging through the air, but Magmar hung on grimly, even clawing its way a little further up Lunatone’s body.

    “Do it now, Magmar!” Caitlin called. “Lava Plume!”

    Ren saw Arnold’s eyes widen as he started to call an order to Lunatone, but it was too late. In a split second, Magmar seemed to explode in fire, enormous, roaring flames springing up all around the two Pokemon in midair and blasting in all directions with scant regard for safety. At the centre of the maelstrom, Magmar was barely visible as a white-hot point of energy, radiating massive waves of fire more powerful than Ren had ever seen before. He flinched in his seat as the heat washed over him, and he saw people in the front rows of the audience doing the same.

    It took nearly ten seconds for the fire to dissipate. When it did, both Pokemon were back on the ground. Magmar was still standing, flames flickering all over its body. Lunatone, on the other hand, was lying on the charred floor, rocking slightly with the residual force of the impact.

    Magmar crossed slowly to where Lunatone was lying and put one flat foot on top of it, stopping its movement and moving the result of the battle beyond all doubt. As Arnold’s side of the screen lit up with a large red X, the crowd found its voice and roared its approval.

    “And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen!” said Vivian Meridian, striding forward to stand in the middle of the stage and address the crowd. “The battle is over, and we have our winner! Caitlin Evans from Rubello, everybody!”

    The next fifteen minutes went by in something of a whirl for Ren. Still slightly off-kilter thanks to the massive Lava Plume attack, he presented Caitlin with the Mauville Ribbon, shook hands with both finalists, smiled for photos with Arnold, Caitlin, Contesta and Sukizo, and made his way back to the anteroom, where he flopped down on the couch with a sigh.

    “So, Ren,” Sukizo said with a smile as he and Contesta entered the room behind Ren. “Wasn’t that a remarkable spectacle?”

    “It really was,” Ren agreed. “I might have to come and watch some more Contests in the future, but I really don’t know about participating in them.”

    “Well, we wouldn’t expect you to if you didn’t want to,” Contesta said. “Nevertheless, you did a great job of judging today.”

    “It’s not like I did much,” Ren protested. “Still, thanks for letting me do it. It was fun, even though I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.”

    “Sometimes you don’t need to know,” Contesta said. “Sometimes all you need to do is have a little bit of fun. Mr. Sukizo and I have been judging Contests together for more than twenty years now, so we know what we’re about.”

    “Well, I did enjoy myself,” said Ren, “so I guess that’s okay.”

    “Are you meant to be going anywhere after this, Ren? We’d love to have you stay a little longer.”

    “I’m afraid I really should get going,” Ren admitted, standing up and stretching. “I have somewhere . . . important I need to be. Have Arnold and Caitlin already left?”

    “Mr. Leonheart has left already, yes. I believe he said he was going to the Pokemon Centre in town, if you needed to catch up to him. Miss Evans is still on the premises, though. You’ll probably find her in the foyer.”

    “Thanks, Mr. Contesta,” Ren said. “I’ll stop by and say hi before I go. Maybe she’ll be in a better mood now.”

    Contesta chuckled. “All right, Ren. I’ll see you at another Contest in the future, I hope.”

    “Sure thing,” Ren said, nodding as he headed for the door. “Thanks again!”

    True to what Contesta had said, Caitlin was in the foyer, though it took him a few moments to locate her amid the stream of people exiting the building.

    “Oh, Ren!” she said brightly when she saw him. She quickly excused herself from the small crowd of people that had formed around her and breezed across to Ren, drawing him out of the way of the constantly moving throng. “How was your first Contest?”

    “It was great, actually,” Ren said honestly. “You were fantastic, by the way. It was quite a surprise to see you down here in Mauville.”

    “Well, I was only working part-time in the Pokemon Centre while I was up in Fortree for the Contest they had a couple of weeks ago. I’m actually training to become a nurse, but that’s mostly on the backburner while I focus on my Contests.”

    “I suppose stranger things have happened,” Ren said.

    “Guess so,” Caitlin agreed. “Hey, do you mind if we step outside? I could use a little fresh air.” She didn’t wait for a response, leaving him to follow her as she navigated through the crowd toward the doors.

    Ren shrugged and tailed her outside, where he found her already seated on a bench among the flowering trees that decorated the Contest Hall’s exterior. She seemed somehow detached from the scene, however, as if she had been clumsily pasted on top of a photograph. There was something in her manner that Ren hadn’t noticed previously. In the Pokemon Centre in Fortree, she had been all business. In the green room backstage, the only thing he had sensed was the tension that sprung from her unexplained feud with Arnold. Now, though . . .

    Ren sat down on the bench next to her and looked intently at her. “Are you . . . all right, Caitlin?” he asked hesitantly. Her blue eyes were distant, looking somewhere into the distance; her pretty face was drawn.

    She laughed slightly, lips quirking into a smile that failed to reach her eyes. “I’m about as good as I can be, Ren,” she said. “About as good as I can be.”

    “Well, that’s specific,” Ren grumbled. “You don’t look ‘good’. You look like you’re spacing out.”

    “Oh, that? I’m sorry, Ren. I always get like this a little bit after a Contest. It probably doesn’t make much sense, but that’s how it goes.” She blinked a few times, as if realising where she was, and turned to look at Ren.

    Ren looked at her askance.

    “Oh, don’t give me that!” she laughed, shoving him gently. “I’m fine.”

    Ren grinned despite himself. Whatever was bothering her had retreated for now, he could see. He didn’t want to risk bringing it out again right then, but he made a mental note to keep a weather eye on Caitlin in future. Something about the look in her bright blue eyes reminded him of himself at the times when he didn’t know where he was going. Even though she was at least three years his senior, Ren felt very much like the older one at that moment.

    “I . . . should go,” Ren said at length. “It was good to see you - well, to meet you properly - but I have somewhere I need to be.” He shuddered slightly as the bitter memory of his real reason for coming to Mauville surface from beneath the befuddling sea of Contest appeals and battles.

    “Busy guy, huh?” Caitlin said; she sounded almost wistful. “Sure, I understand. I’ll catch you later, Ren.”

    “Alright,” Ren said, standing up and stretching, feeling the joints pop in his back. He had been sitting down an awful lot today. “See you round, Caitlin.”

    “Wait!” she said suddenly as he made to leave, digging in her pocket and handing him a bright pink Pokenav. “Add your number so I actually can catch you later.”

    “I didn’t know they made them in this colour,” Ren commented as he obliged.

    “It’s custom-made,” she said with a hint of pride. “Say, will you be in town long? We could meet up again or something. You know, as one Champion to another, so to speak.”

    “Only till tomorrow morning,” Ren said. “I’m catching the ten o’clock train back to Slateport.”

    “Aw, well. I’ll see you some other time, then.

    Taking his leave of Caitlin, Ren wandered randomly through the streets of Mauville. Although he had told everybody that he had somewhere to be, there was really no hurry whatsoever. He glanced at his watch - it was barely two in the afternoon, nearly five hours till sundown.

    Even so, throughout the afternoon Ren had felt a creeping urge to get away, to escape from the crowded buzz of people and problems. For nearly an hour, he found some measure of solace tracking aimless circles through Mauville’s streets. He didn’t think about the world of dreams, or the MacKenzie farm, or Elly, or the Contest, or Caitlin, or Nekros. He just watched the city go by, observing the businesses turn into red-brick houses and then back again as he circled around into the CBD. Mauville was relatively comparable to Slateport in size, but the atmosphere of the city was noticeably different. While Slateport was possessed of a kind of worn-in grit that came from decades upon decades of being a centre of industry, Mauville felt cleaner and fresher. There were trees lining the streets - though nowhere near as many as in Fortree - and small, sunny parks every few blocks. It was a good city to wander in, he decided, but he wouldn’t want to live there. Somehow, he couldn’t imagine himself settling down anywhere without a view of the sea.

    Sootopolis might be nice, he thought. A city inside a volcano . . . that was a novel idea. Then again, he couldn’t see himself settling down anywhere for several years to come. But who says I have to? Can’t I just keep on roaming? Whenever I’m at home, I can never find anything to do with my time. Why is that? Why can’t I just act like a normal kid sometimes?

    The realisation didn’t hit him all at once, as epiphanies are often wont to do. Rather than leaping out and knocking the breath out of him, it crept slowly up on him, and before he knew it, it had him in its grasp before he even noticed it was there.

    I missed five years of my life. He had never once regretted taking the Pokemon League challenge, not in the slightest. But he hadn’t been to school since before he turned ten - though he had been sure to keep up with his work. He’d skipped the formative years of his life and spent them roaming around Hoenn training Pokemon and collecting Gym badges. He’d met dozens and dozens of people in his travels, but very few of them could be counted as friends. If he had stayed in Slateport and gone on to high school, would he now be living a normal life? Would he be hanging out with friends at the mall, going to the movies and having friendly Pokemon battles in the park?

    Does it even matter? With a sudden shock of clarity, he realised that it didn’t. He had given up the possibility of that normal life in exchange for something much better. In the last five years, he had travelled to so many places, seen so many different Pokemon and achieved more than many of his classmates would in their whole lifetime. At the end of all that, he still had his family around him and he was making new friends left, right and centre.

    Bella Bianchi, Steven’s actress friend, in Rustboro; Karl and Skyla in Fortree; and now, Arnold and Caitlin. He would see them all again, he knew. It was a delicious sense of certainty that he had rarely had cause to feel before, simply because it was truer than anything he had ever felt before. Yet even if he started roving like he had before, now more than ever he felt that it would work.

    With a fresh smile on his face, Ren turned west and headed for the city border and the Mackenzie farm. He had a job to do here, and he was damn well going to do it.
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    Old April 20th, 2012 (3:48 AM).
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
    "I also happen to be a model."
    • Crystal Tier
    Join Date: Jan 2009
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    Age: 23
    Gender: Male
    Nature: Relaxed
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    That's right! On April 20th, 2011, I posted the first installment of Champion Game right here at Pokecommunity. Since then, I've written thirty-four and a half chapters, for a total of just over 150,000 words. I'm so happy to have come this far, and I'd like to thank each of you guys who have been reading from the bottom of my heart. I'm trying not to be too emotional here, but I am seriously grateful to the people who read this. This is the forum where I've been most active over the last few years, and it was the first forum where I really managed to get involved in the community. So huge thanks for being such awesome people. For now, though, let's have Chapter Thirty-Four!

    Chapter Thirty-Four

    The weather was fine, but not too hot, so Ren decided to walk the two hours or so to the Mackenzie farm. Additionally, he didn't really want anybody to know where he was that evening. Being spotted could lead to awkward questions, so he kept his head down and stayed well to the side of the road. Mauville slipped away more abruptly than he had imagined, with only a sparse scattering of warehouses to mark the edge of town before a large sign cheerfully bade him 'Goodbye! Come back soon!'.

    The footpath disappeared soon enough, but Ren continued unperturbed along the grassy verge. There was a bit of traffic going both ways, but nothing particularly heavy. He heard Taillow singing in the trees as he began to pass farmland, almost drowned out each time a car passed. The scent of grass mixed with the smell of tarmac.

    Fifteen minutes later, he took a turnoff as dictated by the map he had brought with him, and the traffic volume dropped considerably. This side road, while still wide and neatly tar-sealed, was hilly and convoluted, wending its way through a series of low hills. A mere ten minutes after leaving the main road it was no longer in sight. Patches of dense brush covered the hillier parts between farmsteads now. Once, he passed a hiking trail that quickly disappeared into the bush. The sun, though still high in the sky, was well into its afternoon descent. As he headed north into the hills, the sun was forever on his left side, so he wasn't worried about it setting behind the hills before he reached his destination.

    The hills were quiet, save for the odd car or four-wheel drive that roared past on a mission. One of these, however, did not pass him by. Alerted by the sound of an engine coming from the road behind him, Ren squeezed in to the side of the uneven grass verge to make sure he wasn't in the way. Rather than carrying on past, however, the large, camouflage-green SUV screeched to a halt just ahead of him. The driver's door popped open and a familiar-looking girl jumped out. She was a little shorter than Ren, with black hair cropped boyishly - and clumsily - short. Her bare arms were covered in black and red tattoos almost down to the elbows, and she wore a fitted black singlet as if to show these off, with scruffy khaki pants that looked as if they'd seen better days.

    "Mister Champion, as I live and breathe!" she said delightedly as she practically skipped over to him. "I could have sworn I saw you headed out this way. How's things?"

    "You're, um . . ." Ren said eloquently. "You were in the Contest today, right? In the semifinals."

    "Yup, and I got creamed," she admitted cheerfully, a mischievous grin forming on her face. "I'd like to say 'I almost had her!' or something like that, but that'd be lying through my teeth."

    "It doesn't . . . bother you?" Ren asked. Although he was all for not dwelling on the past, this girl seemed awfully chipper for someone who had been defeated so comprehensively just a few hours earlier.

    "Hell nah," she said, waving a hand dismissively. She almost seemed to find his concern funny. "I only entered that Contest on a dare anyway. Oh, yeah. I'm Trixie. You have this look on your face that says 'I've completely forgotten your name and I can't work out how to ask you what it is without making a fool of myself', so I'll save you the embarrassment."

    "Uh . . . I wasn't exactly-" Ren began, already beginning to feel quite overwhelmed by the sheer force of this girl's personality as she stood and watched him with her head cocked to one side, thumbs thrust casually through her belt loops.

    "Sure you weren't." She didn't sound convinced. "Anyway, it's actually short for Beatrice, but if you call me that I'll slap you. Hard. Clear?"

    "Uh, clear," Ren said hurriedly, noting the dangerous glint in her eye.

    "Good!" Trixie was all smiles again. "So, Champ, you want a ride out to the Mackenzie farm or not?"

    Ren froze. "What do you mean by that?" he asked slowly, looking into Trixie's eyes and trying to fathom what she was thinking. Her gaze showed only innocent curiosity, however.

    "Am I wrong?" she asked, frowning. "That is where you're going, right? You smell like ghosts."

    "That's where I'm going," Ren admitted, forcing himself not to mention her last comment. I smell like ghosts?

    "Sweet as," she said, spinning on her heel and marching back to her vehicle. "Jump in, then. Ghost-hunting's always more fun with two."

    "You do this often?" Ren asked, wondering why in the world he was going along with this strange girl and her whims. He was forcibly reminded of Natasha. "Ghost-hunting, I mean."

    "Yup! It's kind of a hobby of mine," she said brightly as she climbed up into the driver's seat. "Any more than two people is too many. Scares the ghosts away. Two's perfect, though. That way, you'll have someone to cling onto when you scream. Don't you go getting too frisky, though."

    "Ha ha," Ren said uncomfortably, trying not to go red as he hoisted himself into the passenger seat. It was a lot further from the ground than he'd thought. "Are you even allowed to drive this thing?"

    "Probably not, but that doesn't mean I don't know how to," she said, gunning the accelerator.

    Ren hastened to clip in his seatbelt as the SUV shot off up the road. Trixie hadn't been lying, it turned out. She could drive. The only problem was that she insisted on taking every turn and avoiding every obstacle with a reckless abandon that pushed the limits of safety, causing Ren to spend the whole trip clinging worriedly to the dashboard, despite Trixie's repeated insistence that she hadn't had an accident for at least four months (or was it five?). Thankfully, they didn't encounter any other vehicles, so Trixie had the whole road as a margin of error.

    Not quite fifteen minutes later, they came to a halt outside a broken-down farm gate, beyond which lay a worn gravel path that wound up into the hills between rugged, overgrown fields.

    "Daaaamn," Trixie said, drawing the syllable out and shaking her head. "This place looks like a tip already. Come on, let's go."

    "Where?" Ren asked as she slipped out of the door. He hurried to follow her, almost getting caught in his seatbelt in the process. When he managed to extricate himself, he found Trixie standing with her arms folded, examining a dilapidated letterbox with faded characters reading 'RD 09407 MACKENZIE'.

    "Exploring," Trixie answered with an excited grin. "I've heard there's a ghost here - that's why I came to check it out today, of course - but we won't find it if we just go blundering around in the dark. We gotta scope the place out first. C'mon." She stepped over the broken spars of the gate without hesitation.

    Ren followed uncertainly, watching his footing on the uneven gravel surface. The path wound tightly through the hills for nearly five minutes, hemmed in on either side by drooping wire fences. Before long, though, a building came into sight, looking just as old and rickety as the gate.

    "The farmhouse is where we find the ghost, apparently," Trixie said. "Shall we check it out?"

    "Are we even allowed to?" Ren asked. "I feel bad enough about coming this far as it is."

    "No Mackenzie has lived here for thirty years," Trixie said airily, stepping up onto the porch - which creaked under her weight - and pushing cautiously at the door. "Some people say that the ghost is Brynn Mackenzie, the last farmer to run this place. Either way, the place has been abandoned for decades. Even the council wants nothing to do with it for whatever reason. Nobody seems to know who even holds the deed to the place."

    "Great," Ren said, stepping tentatively onto the porch and examining the door. "Is it stuck?"

    "I think so," Trixie grunted, shoving it roughly with one tattooed shoulder. "Here, you help out too, big guy."

    "Seriously?" Ren said. "I'm all of five foot six."

    Trixie shrugged. "Still bigger'n me. Come on, help me get this thing open."

    Ren sighed and placed a shoulder on the door. "Fine. Ready? Three, two, one, push!" They both heaved forwards together. With a horrible crunching, grinding sound, the door gave way and swung reluctantly inwards.

    "Shot," Trixie said, poking her head inside. "Jeez, it's dark in here. You got a light?"

    Ren rummaged in his bag, pulling out the small torch he kept for emergencies. He flicked it on and handed it to Trixie.

    "Good stuff," she said, examining it appreciatively. "I like guys who are prepared for anything."

    "And I like girls who give my stuff back when they're done with it," Ren said pointedly.

    "Yeah, yeah," she said. "You coming in or not?" Torch held in front of her, Trixie forged ahead into the farmhouse.

    Ren rolled his eyes and followed her in. He regretted it almost immediately. The interior of the farmhouse was dusky and full of dust which rose in clouds at the slightest movement, making his eyes water and his throat tickle. The only sources of light were the half-open door and the torch that Trixie was holding; Ren could barely make out a couple of windows that were boarded and taped over.

    "They really cleaned this place out," Trixie noted in a whisper. "There's nothing left but the furniture."

    It was true, Ren saw as she swept the torch beam around the room. They appeared to be in what had once been a kitchen, with an old wood-burning stove built into one wall next to a rickety countertop. Everything was covered in a thick layer of grey dust, from the heavy old table to the sturdy, rustic chairs that were still arrayed around it. Ren felt his footsteps being muffled by the sheer age of the place.

    "This isn't one of the more popular haunted sites in the region," Trixie said, her voice still low and cautious as she tiptoed over to examine the stove more closely. "You'd be better off heading out to Route 122 and checking out the floaters at Mt. Pyre. How come you're interested in this place anyway?"

    "Oh, uh . . . no reason in particular," Ren said evasively. "I saw that it was near Mauville, so I thought I'd check it out while I was up here. I've been curious about ghosts and things for a while."

    "You'd be surprised how many people don't even believe ghosts are real," Trixie said. "If I'd had to guess, I would have pinned you as one of those sensible people who doesn't believe in anything other than what he can see in front of him. No offense, natch."

    "None taken," Ren said. "But I usually am one of those people. I didn't start putting much stock in myths and ghost stories like this until recently. Something that happened to me made me revise my worldview." He shut his mouth quickly. He didn't want to go and accidentally tell Trixie exactly what that something had been.

    "Ooh, I see. So you've seen a ghost before?"

    "Uh . . . something like that," Ren said, casting about for a change of subject. "Say, uh . . . where do you reckon that door goes?"

    "I'd say back to the bedrooms," Trixie said, trotting over and giving the door a push. Unlike the external portal, it swung open easily, kicking up another massive dust cloud. "Son of a-" Trixie wheezed, waving a hand vigorously in front of her face.

    "You okay?" Ren asked.

    "Blech," Trixie said. "The only problem with ghost-hunting is that they love hanging out in places with loads of dust. That's why I like Mt. Pyre so much. Come on, let's check this out." She forged on through the door, leaving Ren to follow her uncertainly.

    If there is a ghost here, Ren thought suddenly, how am I going to talk to it with her around? I can hardly start talking about the world of dreams with Trixie here. Well, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it - if it even exists.

    The door opened onto a short hallway with two doors on each side and another at the far end. The walls were uneven and in poor repair, and the floor was covered with a tattered, threadbare rug that spat out small clouds of dust when stepped on. A light bulb hung from the ceiling by a wire, but Ren didn't fancy the chances of it working.

    The first door on the left led to a bathroom, to which Trixie only lent a cursory glance before closing the door and moving on. Opposite was a bedroom - sans bed, Ren noticed. The windows here hadn't been boarded up, so there was no need for the torch. In the afternoon sunlight, Ren could see two nightstands, a cupboard and some ragged curtains - but no bed. There was even a large, empty space by one wall where a bed would have fit perfectly, and four small dents in the carpet - as if the bed had been removed recently. Ren shuddered as he pointed this out to Trixie.

    "Curious," she said, seeming unruffled by the development. "We might find the ghost in here if we come back later."

    "Fantastic," Ren said bleakly. "Should we check the other rooms anyway?"

    "Natch," Trixie said, backing out of the bedroom and heading down the hall. The other door on the left refused to open, no matter how hard they tried, and the one opposite led to a smaller bedroom - this one actually featuring a bed, though there was no mattress on it.

    The door at the end of the hallway led outside again, they found when they opened it. Ren winced at the sudden influx of sunlight. Squinting under the afternoon sun, he spotted a large shed some distance away, on a small hill that rose above the farmhouse. "Should we have a look in there?" he suggested, pointing.

    "Nah, the ghost is meant to live in the house. We'll check the shed out later if it doesn't show, though."

    "So now what?" Ren asked as Trixie shut the door behind him and handed back his torch, which he stashed safely away in his bag. "It won't be dark for a few hours yet."

    "Dunno," Trixie said as she led the way back around towards the front of the farmhouse. "I brought food. You hungry?"

    "Now you mention it, I kind of forgot to eat lunch," Ren admitted, feeling his stomach gurgle at the mention of food.

    "Then that sounds like a plan!" Trixie said brightly as she headed back down the gravel path. "I brought heaps, so I don't mind sharing. It's all back in the car, of course. Come with."

    Ren followed her down the path, beginning to wonder if he would ever get used to this girl. She seemed more like Natasha with everything she did, but unlike with Natasha, Ren had no choice but to let himself get swept along by her whims.

    When the SUV came into view, Ren froze in his tracks like a Stantler caught in the headlights. All thoughts of food, of ghosts and dreams vanished from his mind in an instant, replaced by a single, pure feeling of utter shock.

    Leaning casually on the car's wing mirror as if he owned it, smirking like the king of the world, was the one person Ren had genuinely hoped to never see again as long as he lived. The interloper was a little older than he was, with a shock of dark red hair and sharp green eyes that bored into Ren's skull. He was dressed comfortably for travelling, in cargo pants and a black hoodie.

    "Boo," he said softly, his malicious grin widening.

    "Damien," Ren said levelly, forcing himself to keep his voice even. "What the hell are you doing here?"

    "Don't be like that, old friend," Damien said, putting a mocking emphasis on the last word. He stepped slowly away from the SUV and wandered towards the gate, never taking his eyes off Ren's. "I haven't seen you since before the League. Congratulations, by the way. You know how I love to see you succeed."

    Ren's hands clenched involuntarily into fists. The words were pleasant and the tone was carefully measured, but he knew that Damien was lying through his teeth. He swallowed hard. "What do you want?"

    Damien spread his hands as if in mild affront. "Do I need an excuse to drop in and see my old friend Ren? I thought I saw you sitting in this car as it roared past me while I was training out here, so I followed along. Sure enough, here you are."

    Ren narrowed his eyes. He didn't buy it, but it was just as unlikely that Damien had followed him out here deliberately. "Yes, here I am," Ren said. "You've seen me now, so you can leave."

    Damien seemed hurt. "Aren't you even going to introduce me to your friend, Ren?" When Ren chose not to answer him, Damien turned to face Trixie and extended a hand. "Seeing as Ren's being so rude, would you be so kind as to tell me your name?"

    Trixie glanced him up and down, but stayed where she was, well out of reach of Damien's faux-friendly gesture. "It's Trixie," she said coldly, evidently reading the mood. "I have no problem with you, but it's obvious that Ren does. Could I ask you to leave, please?"

    "Oh, don't listen to him. We go way back, Ren and I. He's just a little bit sore because I beat him the last time we battled."

    Trixie's eyes widened fractionally. "Is that true, Ren?"

    "Yes and no," Ren admitted. "It's true he beat me, but that's not why I want him out of here."

    "Mind telling me why?"

    "Some other time," Ren said, glaring at Damien. "Right now, I want you to leave."

    "On what grounds?" Damien asked, an innocent look on his face as he climbed over the gate and made his way up the hill towards Ren and Trixie. "We're all trespassing here, and besides, I've been looking forward to catching up with you. It's been what, two months? We have so much to talk about!"

    Ren clenched his teeth and forced his hands to relax. "How many times can I say this, Damien? I don't want to talk to you. I don't want to see you. I don't even want to remember that you exist, but you insist on reminding me."

    "And how many times can I say this, Ren? I don't give a damn what you want," Damien hissed, his amiable veneer slipping momentarily. He seemed to remember himself immediately, though. "That is to say, I'm not going to leave until I get what I came here for."

    "And what did you come here for, Damien?" Ren asked, though he felt he already knew the answer.

    "I want to battle the Champion of the Hoenn League, of course!" Damien said. "Last time we fought, you were just another Trainer that I'd run into a few times. You bothered me because you'd managed to beat me. Not just once, but three times. Three times you handed me humiliating defeats, and man . . . that stung."

    "You've more than had your revenge for those three battles, Damien," Ren ground out as Damien came to a halt barely two feet from him. "And you know it."

    "Aye," Damien said, his vindictive smirk returning as his facade began to slip away entirely. "Why don't you refresh my memory, Ren? I'm sure your girlfriend there would love to hear it too. How many times have I beaten you?"

    Ren closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Six," he said at length. The single syllable was the hardest thing he'd ever had to say out loud. "You've beaten me six times, Damien. But you know what? It doesn't matter. I don't care! That's life, you know. You win some, you lose some, and you and I both know that."

    "Of course," Damien said. "But if you really don't care, why are you shaking right now?"

    It was true, Ren realised. His hands were shaking visibly. Swearing silently, he crammed the traitorous appendages into his pockets and glared at Damien. "I won't battle you," he said. "I came here today to do something, and I'm not going to let you get in my way.

    "Oh? Then that's perfect!" Damien said, clapping his hands with a smile that reminded Ren of a hungry Sharpedo. "I'll stay and help you out."

    "You will leave," Ren said insistently.

    "I think you'll find I won't," Damien said with false cheerfulness, green eyes sparkling with glee at Ren's discomfort.

    Ren sighed. "This is one of the many reasons you piss me off, Damien. What can I say to make you leave?"

    "Hey, if you want some private time with your girlfriend-"

    "Shut up, Damien!" Ren said sharply. He exhaled deeply, forcing himself to remain in control. When he opened his mouth, he spoke slowly and carefully. "Just tell me what you want so that you'll go the hell away."

    "I already told you, didn't I?" Damien said, leaning in close to look Ren in the eyes. "Battle me, and I'll leave."

    Ren didn't answer. He really didn't want to get involved in a battle with Damien again. While it was true what he had said - his 3-6 record against the redhead didn't bother him at all - he hated battling him. After the second time they had clashed, Ren had gone to all lengths possible to avoid there being a third time. Unfortunately, Damien's single-minded persistence and refusal to take no for an answer had forced Ren into battling him a further seven times, most of which had ended badly. He didn't fear losing to Damien. He feared battling him.

    "Are you worried about your reputation, Champ?" Damien taunted him, circling slowly around behind Ren and whispering directly into his ear. "Don't worry. I won't tell a soul when you lose," he breathed.

    "I-if it helps," Trixie said hesitantly, "I'll promise not to tell anyone about this either."

    "Thanks, Trixie," Ren said dryly. There goes my excuse.

    "See?" Damien said, moving around to stand in front of Ren again. "She won't tell anybody that the Champion lost to some upstart kid. Your reputation will be safe. I'll knock you off your perch eventually, Champ, but it won't be tonight. I'll go about it properly. I'll win the League, destroy the Elite Four, and then end you right where everybody can see you: on national television, in front of a live audience of thousands, with millions more watching at home. You'll be broken and humiliated, and I'll stand where I've always intended to. At the top!"

    Ren grinned. "You'll have to beat Winona first," he said. "Have you got that Feather Badge yet?"

    Damien's face twisted into a snarl of rage. "You little punk!" he spat.

    "I'll take that as a no, then?" Ren said. "You can hardly get all high and mighty about being Champion one day if you can't even beat a Gym Leader."

    "Screw you and her both!" Damien growled, drawing back his fist and punching Ren hard in the face.

    Ren reeled backwards, his cheek a starburst of pain. He saw silver stars dancing across his vision, and before he knew it, he was lying flat on his back in the gravel. "Ow," he said dumbly.

    "Hey!" Trixie said, stepping between Ren and Damien. "Where do you get off doing that?"

    "It's nothing to do with you, girl," Damien grunted. "Step out of the way."

    "I'm not going to-" Trixie began, but Ren cut her off.

    "It's fine," he said groggily, sitting up and rubbing his stinging cheek. "Don't get involved. I'll handle this myself." Reasons to hate Damien, number two: random violence.

    Trixie narrowed her eyes, but stepped back and let Damien pass. The redhead stepped forward and, seizing Ren by the collar, dragged him to his feet. "You're going to battle me now," he snarled, "and you are going to lose."

    Ren forced Damien's hands off him and stumbled backwards. Straightening out his rumpled T-shirt, he sighed in resignation. "Fine, I'll battle you. But there's no way in hell I'm going to lose to someone like you."

    "Talk all you want," Damien said, turning to climb over the wire fence into the relatively flat field beyond. "You're going down in the exact same way you went down the last three times - fast and hard."

    Ren didn't reply, but he followed Damien over the fence and into the scratchy, knee-high grass. The weight of the six Poké Balls at his belt was comforting, but at the same time Ren felt a very real fear. He could see no possible alternative to battling at this stage; as always, Damien had backed him into a corner simply through the force of his will. Ren needed to finish this quickly and get Damien out of there before sunset. Here was the last person on the planet that Ren wanted catching wind of what he was up to.

    "No substitutions!" Damien shouted, the wind catching his messy hair and throwing it around his face as Trixie took up a guarded stance at Ren's side. "You send each Pokemon out and fight it until it can't fight any more. If you return it to its Poké Ball, it counts as a loss and you can't use it again. Any problems with that?"

    Ren frowned. It was an uncommon ruleset, but perfectly valid in competition. "No, that'll work."

    "He's obviously up to something," Trixie murmured urgently. "Don't be stupid!"

    "It's fine," Ren said. "I've played his stupid games before." It doesn't mean I want to play them again, though, he added silently.

    "This will be my first Pokemon!" Damien proclaimed, snatching a ball from his belt and thrusting it in Ren's direction. He made no move to release it, however, simply making sure to keep it where Ren could see it. No advantages, huh?

    Ren tried to work out which of Damien's inventively-named Pokemon he would have to battle first, but Damien's eyes betrayed nothing. Scowling, Ren snatched Zangoose's ball from his belt. Unless Damien had changed his team since their last battle, there were no Fighting-types for Ren to worry about. "I'm ready to go," he declared, biting his lip as he fought the urge to break and run. The look in Damien's eyes was that of a lethal predator - one that had just cornered its prey.

    "Then come get some, punk."
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    Old April 20th, 2012 (6:27 PM).
    ultimaleo's Avatar
    ultimaleo ultimaleo is offline
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      NOO! Not another cliffhanger! I've read the whole story now and I think this is one of the best fan-fiction stories I've heard. You're timing is just great, where you carefully place your cliffhangers makes me want explode not knowing the whole story.
      It's a great story and I'm looking forward to more.
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      Old May 28th, 2012 (5:59 PM).
      Misheard Whisper's Avatar
      Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
      "I also happen to be a model."
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      Because lololol, that's why. ~(*x*)~

      Chapter Thirty-Five
      Invidia et Ira

      Ren released Zangoose first. The Normal-type hissed wrathfully at the sight of Damien. “I know, buddy,” Ren murmured, placing a cautioning hand on its head. “I know. Sometimes I’d like to rip his face off, too, but we can’t do that.”

      “Just like I thought,” Damien said with a superior grin. “You really are predictable, Champ.”

      “Stop talking and battle,” Ren growled. “You forced me into this, so hurry up and get it over with.”

      Damien shrugged nonchalantly. “Fine, fine. If that’s how you’re gonna be. But I warn you, the battle begins as soon as the Poké Ball opens. Get ready for this, because it ain’t gonna be pretty.”

      “Just do it,” Ren ground out.

      “Hmph,” Damien said. “Fine. Let’s go, Invidia!” He hurled his Poké Ball with slightly more force and drama than was necessary, sending a flash of red light across the field.

      Ren swore loudly and moved to hold Zangoose back, but it was too late. With a sickening yowl, it shot forward like a bolt of lightning, slamming into its most hated foe and pinning it to the ground. Invidia, Damien’s oversized Seviper, recovered quickly, slamming its tail into the side of Zangoose’s head and sending it rolling through the grass.

      “Zangoose, stay back!” Ren cried, but he knew there was no point. Zangoose, with its violent temperament that Ren had been able to do little about in five years, was extraordinarily vulnerable to the whims of its genetic programming. Most of the time it only caused minor problems, like being distracted by a stray Skitty during training. Whenever a Seviper was involved, however, it was a different story.

      Zangoose straightened up instantly, blood matting the fur on its head, and launched itself at Invidia again. Invidia slithered swiftly out of the way and Zangoose crashed to the ground, its reckless charge causing damage to itself instead of its opponent. It was quick to recover, though, leaping onto Invidia’s back and fastening its bulky arms around its neck. Pinning the oversized serpent to the ground with its weight, Zangoose squeezed brutally.

      “Zangoose, stop!” Ren said sharply. Though he disliked the serpentine Pokemon almost as much as he did its Trainer, he didn’t want Zangoose to kill it. His plea fell on deaf ears, however, as Zangoose could see only its opponent. It was Invidia that saved itself in the end, however, managing to bring its lethally bladed tail down on Zangoose’s head a second time. The shock caused by the impact caused Zangoose to loosen its grip just enough for Invidia to slither out.

      This time, Zangoose hung back a little, the pain evidently awakening it to the need for caution. It continued to hiss madly at Invidia as it paced back and forward, eyeing its foe with blood-red eyes as the enormous serpent swayed its head from side to side, following Zangoose’s movements carefully.

      “You need to train your beast better,” Damien said loudly. Unlike Ren, he was apparently more than happy for the battle to proceed without his input. “I would have thought a Champion like you would have more control over his Pokemon.”

      “Shut up, Damien,” Ren ground out. “Zangoose, just relax, okay? I know you hate Seviper, but we need to be extra careful with this one. I promise you can beat it up as much as you like, but you need to listen to me. All right?” Zangoose didn’t respond, but Ren sensed that it was struggling to hold itself back, waiting for orders. He quickly sized up the situation. It didn’t look good. Seviper, as a general rule, were twice Zangoose’s size or thereabouts. Damien’s Invidia was at least half that again, towering over Zangoose and Ren both.

      “Don’t waste time, Invidia,” Damien snapped irritably. “Kill it.” Invidia lunged forward, mouth gaping wide to reveal lethal-looking fangs tinged a venomous purple.

      “Zangoose, evade!” Ren said, but his Pokemon stood its ground as Invidia rushed towards it. Rather than moving out of the way, Zangoose reached out and seized both of Invidia’s fangs, using them as a handle to swing the oversized serpent right over its head. Invidia left the ground entirely, thrashing madly until Zangoose brought it slamming down on its back with a thud that made Ren wince. Zangoose pressed its advantage, hammering its downed opponent with frenzied blows to the head and body and causing it to writhe and contort in pain.

      “Invidia, Haze!” Damien barked. He looked livid. Struggling to lift its head, Invidia spewed forth a cloud of thick black fog, causing Zangoose to stumble backwards with an irritated yowl. The thick, smoky substance spread quickly, obscuring Ren’s view of the battlefield. When it faded enough to allow visibility once more, Invidia was nowhere to be seen.

      “Dammit,” Ren muttered, scanning the field. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Zangoose doing the same. The only good news was that wherever Invidia was, it would be unable to move terribly fast without him noticing it. The grass was a couple of feet high, but it wasn’t nearly high enough for a Pokemon as large as a Seviper - let alone one Invidia’s size - to manoeuvre successfully. “Be careful, Zangoose,” he warned.

      Before Ren could entirely realise how redundant his warning had been, Damien struck. “Now, Invidia!” he roared, and his giant Seviper surged forward from its hiding place, just feet behind Zangoose. It seemed to stretch forward with its massive fangs, glistening with drops of venom that promised certain doom.

      Reacting barely in time, Zangoose managed to slip away to one side. Even as it did so, however, Invidia changed its course mid-lunge, hitting the ground in what was now Zangoose's blind spot and swinging its bladed tail around with blinding speed to strike Zangoose squarely in the belly. Zangoose screeched in outrage and grasped the offending appendage, sinking its claws in gamely as Invidia tried to thrash it off.

      “You've got it now, Invidia!” Damien said with a feral grin that took Ren by surprise. “Wrap!” Before either Ren or Zangoose could react, Invidia coiled its way tightly around Zangoose's body, using the full length of its own body to restrict its movements.

      Zangoose hissed and thrashed like a mad thing, but its arms and legs were pinned securely. It tried to bite Invidia's scaly hide, but due to the angle of its head, its fangs could barely scratch at it. Zangoose hissed in rage and frustration as it continued to writhe, but to no avail. Ren could no longer see any more of Zangoose than its head.

      “Now what, Champ?” Damien taunted, striding forward and putting a hand on Invidia's head as he glared triumphantly at Ren. “What are you going to do now your Pokemon can't move?”

      “Zangoose!” Ren shouted, but his Pokemon was too busy wriggling madly to listen to him. “Zangoose, you can break out of there. Just stop and think about where you are, and apply your strength to Invidia's weak points!”

      Zangoose hissed uncertainly, but it stopped trying to worm its way out of Invidia's clutches. Jaw set firmly, the muscles in its neck strained visibly as it struggled to push outwards rather than slip out. Invidia's forked tongue flickered in and out in alarm as its hold started to give. A flash of white fur was visible between two coils as Zangoose brought to bear all the force it could muster.

      Damien, however, seemed unflustered. “Heh. Sorry, Champ, but it's just too bad. Invidia was just holding Zangoose – I didn't even give the order to crush it yet. But now . . . I think it's time. Go on, Invidia. Kill the little bastard. I know it's been pissing you off too.” Instantly, Zangoose's resistance was extinguished as Invidia tightened its grip with a vindictive joy that was readily apparent in the gleeful gape of its mouth.

      Zangoose yowled, this time in real pain, as Invidia squeezed ever tighter. It renewed its writhing with abandon, desperately trying to shed the massive beast that held it in a death grip. And that was what it was, Ren realised with a cold shudder. Damien was trying to kill Zangoose, and he would succeed if he didn't do something about it. “Damien, stop!” he tried. “You've made your point!”

      “I won't!” Damien grinned, a fire burning in his eyes that could only be described as joyful, if that was an adjective that it was ever appropriate to apply to Damien. “You've been too smug for too long, Ren Goodwin! I want you to watch your partner die.”

      A second cold shock rippled its way down Ren's spine at Damien's words. This was far more serious than he had ever imagined, even for Damien. “You've gone too far this time, Damien,” he growled as he snatched Zangoose's Poké Ball from his belt.

      “Uh-uh!” Damien warned him, wagging a finger as one might at a naughty child. “You recall it, the round's over, remember? You can't use it again.”

      Ren's hand froze, the Poké Ball gripped tightly in his fingers. The round's over . . . He saw Zangoose struggling for breath as Seviper slowly but surely crushed the air out of its lungs. Surely . . . surely there's some way I can do this without surrendering here. If I give up to Damien, won't that make him right?

      “Ren!” Trixie hissed from next to him, causing Ren to start. He had almost forgotten about her. “You have to call Zangoose back! It's not worth it!”

      Ren gritted his teeth, feeling his hands shake. Stop. Examine the whole situation. Find a solution! Isn't that what you do best? No matter how many times he looked at it, though, the battle looked hopeless. No, there's always a way! “Always,” he ground out aloud. There had to be some way to get Zangoose out of there, didn't there?

      Zangoose had fallen silent, Ren noticed with a horrible start. It had run out of spare breath to cry out with, and he could tell that now it was just desperately trying to stay conscious, sucking in what breath it could as Ren tried to find a way out. No matter how hard he looked, though, he could only see the solid brick wall that Damien had pushed him against. “Zangoose, return,” he said hollowly, holding out the Poké Ball. Zangoose dematerialised instantly, a beam of red light sucking it back into the Poké Ball and leaving Invidia to hiss in anger as it overbalanced, its prey having escaped.

      Nobody spoke for at least twenty seconds. Ren breathed heavily, clutching Zangoose's Poké Ball tightly in both hands. I failed, he thought, cursing himself. It wasn't Zangoose's fault. It was all me.

      And him. Ren glared at Damien, who was waiting patiently several metres away. He tried to speak, to challenge the redhead who watched him with such condescension, but his voice didn't want to work.

      “I knew it,” Damien said eventually, and there was disgust written all through his voice, mixed with something that almost could have been disappointment. “I knew you'd break first. You're so weak.”

      “What's wrong with not wanting your Pokémon to die?” Ren challenged him. “What would it have achieved if I'd left Zangoose in? It would have died, and I wouldn't be any closer to winning the battle. You know as well as I do that there was no way out of that.”

      “It's not about what you would have achieved, Ren! It's about how far you're willing to go for what you want! That's why I beat you. That's why I'm beating you, why I've always beaten you – because I'm willing to go that little bit further to win. Don't you understand that?”

      “No,” Ren said frankly. “No, Damien, I don't. And I'm not going to battle you again. Ever. This battle is over, too.” He clipped Zangoose's Poké Ball back to his belt and turned to climb back over the fence.

      He heard Damien snap his fingers, and suddenly Invidia was in front of him, rearing up to its full height. It opened its mouth to expose its fangs, which were still secreting sickeningly purple liquid. Ren turned his head back to look at Damien. “And what is this?”

      “It's not over, Ren,” Damien said. “If you walk away now, it won't be Zangoose that gets the life squeezed out of it. And you don't have a Poké Ball to retreat to, remember. Don't think I won't do it.”

      The terrifying thing was that Ren knew he would. “I don't want to continue this, Damien,” he said. “It's over, you beat me, I lost. I've even accepted that you're the better Trainer, so just let me leave already. I'm over it.”

      “No,” Damien said flatly. “You don't leave here until this battle is over.”

      Ren turned around properly and strode over to where Damien was standing, looking him right in the eye. “You let me leave right now, Damien, or I swear, I'm going to get angry.”

      Damien laughed in Ren's face. “Let me guess, I won't like you when you're angry?”

      “No,” Ren growled. “I guarantee that you won't.”

      “Fine by me,” Damien shrugged. “If you try to climb that fence or leave by any other means without battling me, Invidia will bite you. Knowing that, do what you like. Seviper poison is lethal to humans 99.9% of the time, by the way. Your immune system isn't as strong as Zangoose's. So, what'll it be?”

      Ren turned on his heel again and marched back over to where Invidia was still waiting by the fence. He looked it in the eye and pointed back towards Damien. “Get back on the battlefield, you,” he ordered it. “Now I'm mad.”

      Damien laughed. “Do as he says, Invidia. I have a feeling this is going to get interesting.”

      As Invidia returned to take up its position in front of Damien once again, Ren snatched a second Poké Ball from his belt and cracked it open, releasing the largest of his six Pokémon. “Camerupt,” he said, his voice level and barely controlled, “I need your help.”

      Camerupt snorted and pawed the ground. “Yes, of course,” Ren said, “but it's a little different today. This time, I don't want you to hold back. Give it everything you've got, all right?”

      “My, my,” Damien mused. “I seem to have roused the sleeping dragon. This is more like it, Ren. Maybe I was wrong – you might not be completely worthless after all.”

      Ren closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Yes, I'm angry, but losing my cool could ruin everything. Just focus. Focus, and destroy him. “Camerupt,” he said tightly, “this Pokémon and its Trainer just tried to kill Zangoose. You don't want to let them get away with that, do you?” Camerupt snorted darkly, rocking from side to side as it shifted its weight in preparation.

      “Then shut up and let's end this!” Damien said. “Invidia, Poison Tail!”

      “Camerupt, Earth Power! Go all-out!” Camerupt rumbled dangerously as Invidia charged. It lifted up one massive, hairy front foot and brought it crashing back down to earth with a disproportionately loud sound. It repeated the motion with its other front foot, sending vibrations rippling through the earth. The tips of every blade of grass in the vicinity trembled as if in fear, the shaking growing more and more powerful until Ren had to step back and clutch the fence to stay upright. Invidia had stopped moving in confusion. With a final roar, Camerupt reared back on its hind legs.

      Invidia panicked visibly, trying to slither backwards, but the shaking of the earth was far too powerful for it to move properly. It could only watch as Camerupt slammed back into the ground, sending a shockwave through the earth that tore it to shreds. At the moment of impact, the field crumbled like a child's jigsaw puzzle. The earth's crust itself gave way, split into a multitude of heaving, bucking chunks of dirt by a spiderweb of deep cracks that glowed a hellish orange. Invidia was left helplessly writhing on one of them, unable to grip onto anything well enough to save itself.

      Camerupt glanced back at its Trainer and snorted inquiringly, a measure of the anger that Ren himself felt mirrored in its eyes. Ren nodded. “Blow it.”

      Camerupt shifted its footing, lowering its centre of gravity and focusing entirely on the earth below it. Ren watched with a certain vindictive satisfaction as the orange light issuing from the multiple cracks in the earth grew brighter and the shifting grew more and more violent. Even Damien was worriedly backing away from the battlefield, he noticed. Any second now . . .

      A split second of silence cut through the air far more brutally than any explosion would have; it rang in Ren's ears as if for an eternity. But nothing lasts forever. The earth erupted upwards, a massive, melting conglomeration of earth and lava that blasted over thirty metres into the air. It was a harrowingly magnificent spectacle, a force of nature harnessed in its rawest and most brutal form. The earth roared and groaned as the sun hid its face behind a cloud, and for a brief moment, the mortals that beheld the event were as tiny and insignificant as insects before the indomitable power of the earth itself.

      “Get back!” Ren shouted urgently, eyes widening as he realised how sorely he had misjudged the distances. He grabbed Trixie's arm and raced along the fence, away from the explosion that still forged its way upwards; out of the corner of his eye, he saw Damien doing the same, headed in the opposite direction. Then the rain began. Globs of rapidly cooling lava and clods of dirt landed all over, spread a huge distance by the localised eruption. Ren managed to evade the blast radius, but there was no way of telling whether Damien had done the same.

      At length, the rain of deadly projectiles stopped. The field was a mess of burnt or burning grass; chunks of rock and massive sods of earth lay at odd angles. Small fires flickered all around, giving off a sickening haze of smoke and heat. Right in the middle of it all, Camerupt stood proudly, unfazed by the destruction it had wrought. A few metres before it lay Invidia, its serpentine body blackened and razed by fire and earth.

      Ren exchanged a worried glance with Trixie. Had he overdone it? Even as he picked his way back towards the two Pokemon, however, he saw a twitch of feeble movement in Invidia's spiked tail. Good. Ren didn't want to be responsible for the death of one of Damien's Pokemon any more than one of his own.

      “Well done, Ren!” Damien said almost genially, emerging from behind a low rise where he appeared to have taken shelter from the eruption. “You really surprised me there, going all-out right from the start. Perhaps you might be worth it after all.”

      Ren frowned, but let the unusual comment pass. “Your Pokemon needs medical treatment,” he said, indicating the injured Invidia that lay between them. “You should take it to a Pokémon Centre now. The battle's over.” Ren turned to leave.

      “No!” Damien spat.

      Ren turned back to glance at him. “What did you say?”

      “I said no! The battle's not over. I told you I'd kill your Pokémon, didn't I? Well, you beat Invidia. Finish what you started.”

      Ren blinked uncomprehendingly. “You want me to kill it?”

      Damien's eyes narrowed, as if he was quietly judging him. “The round doesn't end until one Trainer gives in and returns their Pokémon. I have no intention of doing so.”

      “You're beaten, Damien!” Ren growled. “Invidia can't even move. There's no doubt about who won this battle.”

      “You agreed to my rules, Ren!” Damien reminded him sharply. “Are you telling me you can't even hold up your end?”

      “Why, Damien?” Ren said quietly. “What could you possibly gain from this? I'm not going to kill Invidia. That's not what this is about, and I pity you if you ever thought it was.”

      “Oh, but it is, Ren. It's always what it's been about. I've always believed that a Pokémon battle means nothing if the stakes aren't high enough, and for a battle like this . . . the price for losing should be the ultimate one.”

      Ren felt his hands clench into fists as Damien spoke. “You're sick, Damien,” he said. “You're a twisted, horrible person.”

      “Your words don't mean anything, Ren. Why don't you let your actions speak for you instead? Do it. Finish Invidia off. It's useless to me now anyway.”

      “Damien . . .” Ren felt his fingernails cutting into his palms as he fought to keep his fists from shaking.

      “Come on, then. You're angry at me, aren't you? All you have to do is prove it. Punish me. Take Invidia out, and then we can finish this battle.”

      Ren turned and glared up at the sky, fighting the surprisingly powerful urge to do exactly as Damien said. It would be wonderful, a small part of him said, to stick it to Damien like that. No matter how much the redhead pretended not to care, there had to be some part of him that would suffer if Invidia died. For a brief, agonising moment, Ren imagined how it would feel to see that. It was an exquisite temptation, the like of which he had never quite felt before, and it was an entirely attractive prospect. Damien had tried to kill Zangoose, so why shouldn't he repay him in kind?

      Taking a deep breath, Ren reached down to his belt and plucked Camerupt's Poké Ball from his belt. “Return,” he said heavily, watching Damien's scowl deepen as Camerupt huffed quietly, allowing itself to be sucked back into the confines of its capsule. “The battle's over when I return my Pokémon, right?” he said.

      Damien nodded frostily. With a sigh, he returned Invidia to its own Poké Ball. “You done?” he asked.

      Ren nodded, knowing exactly what he meant. “I forfeit. You'll let me do that now?”

      Damien shrugged almost indifferently. “Yeah, there's no real point carrying on now.”

      “Why all of a sudden?” Ren asked, frowning.

      “I didn't come here today to see if I could beat you, Ren Goodwin,” Damien said frankly. “I already knew I could do that. I've proven – to myself, and to you – enough times by now that I think even you have no choice but to accept that I'm better than you. No, that's not why I came here. I came here to see if you were worthy, Champion. I came to see if you were salvageable. I wanted to find out if, beneath the weakness and the bluster, there was any grit, any hope that you might one day actually be a threat to me!”

      Ren blinked. “Damien-”

      “No!” Damien spat, cutting Ren off with a sharp hand gesture. “Don't give me that. It only proves further that I was wrong to think you might be worth it. I watched you win that match against Steven, Ren. I was there, in the crowd. I loathed you for where you stood, but at the same time . . . I almost admired you.” He sounded disgusted with himself.

      Ren tried again. “Look, Damien. You don't have to-”

      “No,” Damien repeated, more softly this time. “I watched you win, Ren. I saw the fire in your eyes then, a fire that I've never seen before or since. Where did that go, Ren? That right there, in that single moment, made me doubt my convictions. I'd made up my mind when I beat you before the League: you were a weakling, below me in every way. You weren't worth my time. I went to the final battle to watch you suffer, but instead . . .”

      “I won,” Ren finished, struggling to make his voice work. “I won, and suddenly you weren't so sure any more. Right?”

      “Don't talk like you know what goes on in my head, Ren Goodwin!” Damien roared. “You have no idea. You have no idea how much that haunted me, that one moment. Since then, I've been looking for you. I went back to Slateport, where you came from, but I couldn't find you. I followed you to Rustboro when I saw you on Hoenn Buzz, but you'd left before I got there. The last week has been the stupidest, hardest week of my life, and all because you couldn't leave well enough alone and stay where you belonged!”

      Ren swallowed heavily. “I . . . I had no idea you were that bothered by it,” he said with some difficulty. “Look, if it makes it any better, I'll . . . I'll admit that you're better than me. You've beaten me so many times now, I can't help but accept that. It doesn't mean I'll give up on beating you, but there you have it. Right now, at this moment in time, you are the better Trainer. Does that help?”

      Damien's face twisted unthinkably, his features contorting almost to the point of unrecognisability. “Help? How would that help, you condescending little twerp!?” He lunged forwards, and Ren, expecting to be punched in the face again, flinched and closed his eyes involuntarily.

      He heard an impact, but he felt nothing. Confused, he opened his eyes to see Damien stumbling backwards, shock written all over his face. Did I hit him without realising it? Ren wondered. No.

      “Now look here,” Trixie said, coolly rubbing her knuckles as she stood over Damien. “I really wasn't planning to get involved in this little spat, but you're really starting to hack me off, Damien. So at the end of the day, if you want to screw with Ren, you'll have to screw with me first.”

      “Trixie,” Ren said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “You don't have to do this. You hardly even know me, so don't feel like you have to step in. I don't mean to be rude, but this is between the two of us.”

      “Well, sure, but I'm not going to just stand here and let you two idiots slug it out, am I?” Trixie shrugged Ren's hand off before turning to glare at Damien. “Now look. There's obviously a whole lot of history that I'm missing here, but at the end of the day, you're the one being an ass to my friend. I want you out of here before I call the police, because I'll be damned if I let you cause any more damage.”

      Damien was breathing heavily, his left cheek reddened from Trixie's blow. His eyes were filled with an almost murderous rage that made Ren more than a little worried, but at length, he spat into the grass between them before stalking off towards the road without another word.

      Ren watched him go with a bitter taste in his mouth.
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      Old June 20th, 2012 (12:28 AM).
      Uchiha Sasuke X's Avatar
      Uchiha Sasuke X Uchiha Sasuke X is offline
        Join Date: Jun 2012
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        Wow...I've just finished reading the entire 35 chapters, and I have to say that this is a great fanfic. Not only does it describe every event in colorful detail, the way it causes the reader (or at least me) to feel what Ren is feeling is simply amazing. The last chapter was particularly well-executed. I wholeheartedly hate Daimen now, and he'll most likely be back again for more carnage. Seriously, battling to the death? *shudders*
        I am Uchiha Sasuke XII, Pokemon competitive battler, Yugioh-crazed maniac, and a rather inconsequential person in the world (for now).
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        Old February 18th, 2016 (2:35 PM).
        Misheard Whisper's Avatar
        Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
        "I also happen to be a model."
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        Chapter Thirty-Six
        Can We Please Focus?

        “Wow,” Trixie said bleakly as Damien disappeared from sight. “He's a nasty character, all right.”

        “Tell me about it,” Ren said, shaking his head as he released Zangoose from its Poké Ball. His oldest partner hissed angrily as it appeared, casting around for its hated opponent. “Easy, buddy. They're gone now. Are you hurt badly?”

        Zangoose glared up at Ren as if everything was his fault – which it probably was, he reflected. It didn't appear badly injured, however, for which he was more than glad. He returned it to the Poké Ball swiftly, breathing a sigh of relief. He didn't want to have to rush any of his team members to the Pokémon Centre in Mauville, least of all Zangoose.

        “Yeah, Damien's a . . . problem,” he said bleakly, flopping down onto the scorched ground, suddenly acutely aware of how fatigued he was.

        “Understatement of the century,” Trixie scoffed. “That guy's got problems. Ninety-nine would be a conservative guess, and going by his attitude, I'd be willing to bet that a bi-”

        “All right, all right,” Ren said hurriedly. “Yes. He's a nut, an absolute psycho. The one Trainer I've always had trouble with. He just hangs around like a bad smell.”

        “Shouldn't we go to the police?” Trixie asked. “They can sort him out.”

        Ren sighed, running a hand through his untidy hair. “No, I . . . I can't do that. He hasn't really done anything.”

        “Ren, he tried to kill your Zangoose!” Trixie said insistently. “I know Pokémon don't get quite the same legal protection as we do, but that's still a crime. And he attacked you, remember? Not to mention threatening to have Seviper kill you. They'll send him to juvie for that, at the very least.”

        “Trixie, just . . . could you please leave it?” Ren implored her tiredly, rubbing his eyes and forcing himself to stand up again.

        She didn't look particularly happy about it, but Trixie nodded, apparently realising that Ren didn't want to talk about it. Instead, she turned to look back up the drive towards the house. “It's starting to get dark,” she said quietly. “If you're still up for it, let's go back to the truck and eat before we gear up for ghost-hunting.”

        “Up for it?” Ren said, forcing a grin. He'd almost forgotten the reason he was here in the first place. He let Trixie pull him to his feet, her hand small and delicate, yet full of wiry strength – much like Trixie herself, he mused.

        “I understand if you don't want to,” she said, squeezing his hand slightly as he made to let go. “You look a bit out of it.”

        “I kind of am, but that's exactly why I need to do this,” Ren said. “It'll take my mind off things. Besides, I didn't come all the way out here just to go back again without seeing anything.” Unsure exactly what he was supposed to do, he settled for awkwardly squeezing her hand back before releasing it. Mercifully, she let him do so.

        That still left the issue of what to do with Trixie if and when the ghost turned up, he mused as they headed back over to the car in silence. For a brief, mad moment, he considered knocking her out and blaming it on a poltergeist of some sort, but it wasn't really an option. Trixie had been far too nice to him. Although, he reflected bitterly, he might not have a choice. Much as he liked her, there was no way that he could trust Trixie with what was quite possibly the biggest secret in the world.

        Damien was well out of sight when they reached the car, Ren saw with some relief. Even as he scanned the area just to make sure, though, another thought struck him. “Trixie,” he said slowly. “Do you think Damien really left?”

        “What do you mean?” she asked, giving him a funny look as she popped open the rear door to rummage around in the back seat.

        “It's just that . . . I wouldn't put it past him to pretend to storm off, then come back and snoop around. I didn't really make any secret of the fact that I was here to do something . . .”

        “You're worried about that?” Trixie said, re-emerging with a canvas bag and tilting her head slightly. She gave him a look that was curious, but not quite suspicious. “You're really secretive, you know. If you're really just here to look at ghosts, I don't see the problem if he hangs around.”

        Ren cursed inwardly. He knew he shouldn't have let on how bothered he was. “I just don't want him causing any more trouble,” he said lamely.

        “If you're really worried, I can have my Drowzee scan the area and make sure he's left,” Trixie suggested. Tossing him the canvas bag, she pulled a Poké Ball from her pocket and pressed the release switch to reveal a small, piggy-eyed Pokémon with a bulbous, trunk-like nose. It glared suspiciously at Ren, giving a disdainful snuffle.

        “You can do that?” Ren asked, eyeing the Pokémon warily. “That'd be . . . helpful, yeah.”

        With a grin, Trixie snapped her fingers, then placed her hand lightly on her Pokémon’s head. Drowzee closed its eyes, moving its hands in slow, looping patterns through the air in front of it. If he concentrated, Ren fancied he could see waves of purplish Psychic energy rolling through the air from Drowzee.

        “He's gone,” Trixie said at length. “On the way back down the road towards town, moving at quite a clip. Just the two of us here.”

        “That's . . . that’s really handy,” Ren said, narrowing his eyes slightly. “How do you do that?”

        “Some Psychic types can be trained to practice psychometry – psychic reading of images associated with an object or location. My Drowzee specialises in reading local areas and detecting anomalies. It’s really helpful for hunting down ghosts, as you might imagine.”

        “Sure, I guess it would be,” Ren conceded. It still freaked him out a bit – but then again, wasn’t he the one who had recently become accustomed to seeing things which may or may not have been there? Reminding himself of this fact, he attempted to refocus on the task at hand. The sun was indeed setting rapidly as he fished around in the canvas bag and came up with a pile of cling-wrapped cheese and tomato sandwiches.

        “I made far too many,” Trixie explained as she split them in two, “so don’t worry, there’s plenty.”

        “Thanks,” Ren said, eyeing her curiously as they ate. Trixie’s appearance on the country road had almost seemed too convenient – but then again, today had been a day full of uncanny coincidences. First had been the reappearance of Caitlin at the Contest, then Trixie and finally even Damien had appeared out of nowhere.

        Trying not to read into it too much, Ren focused on his sandwich.


        The Mackenzie farmhouse was even creepier at night than it had ever been during the day. The door opened without too much shoving, emitting a stuttering, spine-tingling creak as it swung open. Clouds of dust billowed once again as Ren and Trixie crept into the kitchen.

        “You said we should try the master bedroom, right?” Ren said, his voice automatically dropping to a whisper.

        “Yeah. Ghosts are attracted to places which were, like, the centre of life back when people still lived here.”

        It has been a long time, Drayden. Ren froze as the voice, low and creaky like the house, slithered through his ears like a wisp of smoke.

        “Did you hear that?” he mumbled uncertainly.

        “Hear what?” Trixie seemed nonplussed.

        “I could have sworn I heard a voice…”

        “Really?” Trixie seemed excited, barely able to keep her voice down. “Where was it coming from?”

        Ren closed his eyes and concentrated, trying to summon up the memory of the voice, but it was like trying to grab hold of mist. Even the words that had been spoken were slipping away. What had it called him? Drayden? That name rang a bell somewhere in Ren’s head. Where had he heard it before? “I . . . I don’t know,” he had to admit.

        “Well, let’s keep looking,” Trixie said, opening the door to the rest of the house.

        Ren followed her uncertainly, but just as he stepped across the second threshold, the voice returned. I have been waiting for such a long time.

        Who are you? Ren asked silently, uncertain whether the owner of the voice could hear him. He shivered as they crept along the hallway towards the master bedroom. Was this really one of the lost spirits speaking to him, or was the night playing tricks on his active imagination?

        I tried to follow you, the voice said as Ren and Trixie slipped quietly into the master bedroom. And now, you have finally come to me.

        Ren had expected to find a typical ghost, if indeed anything at all – an indistinct, silvery silhouette or a shadow on the wall. Nothing could have prepared him for this. A tall, gaunt young man was reclining in midair in front of him, propped up on one elbow in the space where the bed used to be. He wore an old-fashioned brown tweed suit and a bowler hat, and looked almost real. Only a slight lack of distinction around the edges betrayed his otherworldly nature – well, besides the fact that he was floating. Even though the room was dark, the man seemed to glow slightly himself, shedding an uneven, fluctuating light on the surroundings.

        Trixie gasped. “Ren . . . can you see him?”

        Ren could only nod, his mouth dry as the strange man got to his feet, swinging his legs off the bed that wasn’t there and approaching the two of them with his hand outstretched, palm first.

        It has been so long, Drayden. I waited for you to come and find me, but you never did.

        Trixie backed away ever so slightly as the ghost approached; the movement caused him to turn and look at her, though Ren had the distinct impression he wasn’t seeing what was really there.

        Your friend fears me, Drayden.

        Why are you here? Ren asked, hoping the man could hear him.

        I have always been here. I tried to follow you into your world, but I found myself trapped, bound to this place and endlessly alone. It has been such a very long time since I felt the power of the Dreamlight, yehktira. It fills me with life once more. The ghost lifted its hand towards Ren, and he instinctively put up his own hand to block it. The ghost’s hand stopped when it met Ren’s, but there was no sensation of contact. It was like touching only air.

        “Ren!” Trixie hissed. “Is it speaking to you? Is this what you could hear before?”

        “Yes . . .” Ren managed to croak. His mind was whirling. This was one of the spirits, all right. It had tried to cross through the first ring into the human world, and as such had become an empty shell, a mere shadow of what it had once been, just as Cecilia had said. It seemed to think his name was Drayden, though it definitely recognised the Dreamlight.

        Suddenly, Ren remembered where he had heard the name before: in Maho’s notes on the origins of the world of dreams. Drayden had been the very first yehktira, the original holder of the Dreamlight. He had only crossed into the other world once, before passing the Dreamlight on to his son. This spirit must have attempted to follow him back. Ren shuddered to think what had possessed him. How many spirits, he wondered, had seen the opening between the worlds and attempted to traverse it? How many had been lured by the promises of a bright world, free of fear and battle? How many had gone in search of those who never returned, only to become trapped themselves?

        You have been here for nearly seven hundred years, Ren told the ghost, feeling himself shiver in sympathetic horror as he did so. Drayden has long gone.

        Ah, Drayden, the ghost said with a smile, turning from Ren to drift across the room, staring through the boarded-up window as if it offered a view of ages past. You know your measures of time mean nothing to me. Tell me, how is your son?

        Ren bit his lip. The ghost was clearly mad. Deciding it would be in his best interests to play along with its delusions, he replied: He is well. He will be a fine man, and a fine yehktira when my time on this earth is done.

        The spirit’s features eased into a sad smile as it turned back to look at Ren. This is good news. It is too late for me, as I fear I must drift here for eternity. But it gladdens me to know that my brethren will be safe. Warn them for me, Drayden. I must ask you to bear them a message from me. Will you do this?

        Ren nodded, unsure of what else he could say or do.

        Tell them not to follow me. Tell them that Algarot the Brave has seen the world of the living, and it is not for us. We are oil and water, Drayden. You, me. This world, our world. They are too different. One cannot live without the other, but nor can one live within the other. Only the Iehkti'na urum'na dar'sni-laku, those wretched creatures, can safely cross the breach. Them, and you. As such, we must entrust our future and our safety to your kind.

        Algarot . . . Ren said, feeling his heart clench as the spirit placed yet another weight on his shoulders. In that moment, he felt as if he were carrying not only his own burden, but the burden of every yehktira throughout history. At the same time, he was forced to accept that the world of dreams was very much real. There could be no mistaking the severity of his position now. I will make you proud. The least he could do was help the lost spirit to rest easy.

        Can your friend hear us? Algarot asked abruptly, gesturing towards Trixie.

        I don’t believe so, Ren said. She has a reasonable amount of power, I think, but no yehkti to speak of.

        This is as I thought, Algarot said. Regardless, she is important. My senses have dulled with time, but I feel she is somehow connected to all this. Watch her closely, Drayden.

        Ren frowned and glanced at Trixie, who was still staring, open-mouthed, at Algarot’s transient figure. Was she really involved with the world of dreams somehow, or was it simply the ramblings of a mad ghost?

        I must leave, Drayden, Algarot said. The Dreamlight refreshes me, but my power is still weak. To remain in this state longer, I would be risking my life. Farewell, yehktira. Live a good life. With that abrupt dismissal, Algarot bowed to Ren and Trixie in turn before vanishing, leaving the room just as dark and empty as it had ever been.

        “Alright, Champ,” Trixie said at length. “What in the seven hells was that?”

        “A ghost, evidently,” Ren said as he turned to leave. He didn’t want to spend another minute in this sad prison of a house. “Don’t tell me you weren’t expecting to find one.”

        “Don’t screw with me, Ren,” Trixie said with a hint of menace in her voice as she followed him out through the kitchen. “That was way different to anything I’d ever seen. Ghosts don’t just show up in full-colour HD like that!”

        “And you think I know why it did that this time?”

        “You stood and talked to it for like five minutes! You evidently know something I don’t,” she challenged him, following him out the door and cutting in front of him to glare straight into his eyes.

        Ren sighed. He had been afraid of this. “Yes. Okay, fine. I know something. But I’m sorry, it’s not something I can tell you. Will you let it go?”

        “Like hell I will,” Trixie snorted as they began to walk back towards the truck. “It’s something to do with that necklace of yours, isn’t it?”

        Ren clasped the Dreamlight defensively with one hand, shooting her a sideways glance. “What do you mean?”

        “Don’t play dumb, Ren! That thing was glowing like a Volbeat’s ass in there.”

        “Oh. I didn’t even notice. But yes, it’s . . . something to do with this.” Ren was reluctant to say any more, fearing he had given too much away already, but Trixie wasn’t finished with her questions.

        “So what is it? Some kind of ghost-attracting artefact? A family heirloom?”

        “In a sense,” Ren said uncomfortably. It wasn’t completely untrue – the Dreamlight had started out being passed down Drayden’s family before the tradition of possession by each new Champion in turn had started. “Look, Trixie. There’s reasons I can’t tell you everything, all right? I’m sorry, but that’s as much explanation as you’re going to get.”

        Trixie pouted. “Fine. I’ll let it go for tonight. But you owe me now, you realise.”

        Sighing, Ren nodded in agreement. “Sure. Look, can we talk about this tomorrow? Between Damien and the Contest, I’ve had a busy day, and it just got really weird.”

        “All right, Champ. I’ll play it your way,” she said reluctantly, throwing open the SUV’s rear door and digging around the junk littered across the back seat. She tossed Ren a large, squishy bundle, which he caught awkwardly. “Spare sleeping bag. Shouldn’t smell too much like Drowzee.”

        Ren shrugged and unrolled it, laying it out in the untended grass that had once served as a field. “I’ve smelled worse.” The sky was clear but for the glittering stars, and the air was mild, so he didn’t have any qualms about sleeping in the open. Already feeling his eyelids droop, he crawled into the sleeping bag, vaguely registering Trixie doing the same a few metres away.

        Sleep came swiftly.

        Afro Glameow yowls affectionately, twining between his legs as if it hasn’t seen him for ages. Bending down, he pats the springy black tuft uncertainly. “You really are a strange one, aren’t you?” he says.

        Afro Glameow doesn’t answer, but leads him through a tangle of trees and giant sunflowers to a small, infinitely dense black portal. Tucking its coiled tail neatly behind it, it sits beside the hole, cocking its bowlike head impatiently.

        “Keen to get rid of me, huh?” Ren grumbles, but he reaches out to the portal nonetheless. Feeling it yank at the centre of his being, he fights to stay conscious as Afro Glameow – and the world – dissolves around him.
        Star Performer
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        Champion's Legacy
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        Mary Sues And You

        New Game
        ~the classic~
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