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!
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? 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.
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.