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Winter can't come soon enough

Welcome to the world of Etherium... where pokémon run free!
To mark the upcoming signing of a momentous peace treaty, the dragon-led Aeon Kingdom agrees to send its budding princess to the neighboring Kingdom of Radiance's prestigious Horizon Academy as an exchange student. But her plans for a quiet year biding her time go up in flames when she's forced to compete for the Crowne Cup on a team with a rebellious toxtricity and a grumpy grovyle who keeps things close to his vest. Can she rise to the challenge or will the pressures of the school — and dangerous attacks from mask-wearing phantoms — make her crack?

Info: Like Guiding Light did for Gen VII, I am looking to craft a PMD story that focuses on ideas and pokémon from Gen VIII. No knowledge of Guiding Light is required to read this fic.

Content Advisory:
This fic is rated Teen for use of coarse language, crude humor, alcohol, violence, and character deaths. Additionally, this fic will contain unmarked spoilers for Pokémon Sword and Shield, including the (currently unreleased at the time of first posting) DLC. If you intend to play either of these games blind, skip this fic for now.

Update Schedule: Chapters will be out when I can manage to get them out. Parts will be shorter and posted less-frequently than with my previous fic, so if you got too overwhelmed with it, then this is the fic for you.

Prologue (this post!)
Chapter 1
Chapter 2


Talons grazed cool, green, neatly-trimmed grass. Articuno Shiva stretched her wings out as she walked a straight line across the field. She stared blankly at a gray, ornate stone wall and accompanying marble pillars. Together, they made up the manor surrounding the courtyard. Soft moonlight from the sky above her bathed two circular beds of roses in a pale white glow. She turned her head to the side and sighed, producing a cloud of frost.

"How much longer do we need to be here, Quetzal?" Shiva looked left at a zapdos standing squarely in the middle of a dirt path leading to the stairs that would take them back inside the manor. He had his wings tucked into his sides and seemed to be nodding off. However, at Shiva's question, Quetzal jerked stiff. He adjusted the silver uniform draped over his torso. The pink ribbons adorning his breast jingled softly.

"The standing orders from Her Eminence said we're to keep guard of the Needle until dawn." Quetzal gestured in front of him. There, planted in the middle of the garden, was a purple needle standing a head taller than Shiva and Quetzal. A red gem, carved to look like an eye, sat atop it. No matter what angle Shiva stared at it, it always looked like the gem glared at her. It made her feathers puff up slightly underneath her uniform. She pivoted to preen her neck.

"Yeah, but was it really necessary to send all three of us for this assignment? Any one of us could do this job with no trouble," a moltres huffed, stomping around from the other side of the needle and casting an orange glow onto the southern part of the courtyard. He stopped to straighten out the wrinkles in his uniform, looking exasperated. "Not that we don't appreciate the hospitality, Lord Douglas. It's just… this is such a strange assignment for Her Eminence to spring on us with so little warning."

"Do not fret, Captain Ifrit, I understand your hesitation."

Shiva winced and resisted the urge to throw a wing up over her face. Even though she'd spent plenty of time around him, seeing Lord Weezing Douglas speaking through two mouths always unsettled her. As did the fact that his gaseous beards would fizzle like soda pop as he spoke. It had forced her to abandon her once-favorite drink. Shiva wished that they could've been assigned somewhere else, but knew she had to carry out this job with the grace and professionalism nobles like Lord Douglas had come to expect from the Radiant Guard.

"But I'm not one to question Queen Isola's decisions. She has the best interests of all Crowne Ministers at heart," Douglas continued. His two, hat-like appendages spurted bits of pink gas.

"It's not Her Eminence's judgement I'm concerned with." Ifrit shook his head. "It's the fact that she came to this decision after consulting with that advisor of hers." He folded his wings and stared squarely at the needle. "She sent us out here specifically at his request… because of some premonition? I don't like it."

"That's… a fair point." Shiva had thought much the same, but didn't want to say anything for fear of upsetting Lord Douglas. She didn't want to give off the impression that she thought the good Minister was beneath her and her fellow officers.

"Except we're not the only ranking guardsmon being stationed at these Needles," Quetzal pointed out. "Something in Demerzel's premonition must've spooked Queen Isola."

"I still don't like it," Ifrit huffed. "The guy comes out of nowhere and climbs into Her Eminence's good graces within the span of half a year. Now he's sitting pretty in the royal court and influencing policy."

"Careful, Captain, lest you sound like some of those haggard beggars proclaiming the end of days are upon us." Douglas chuckled, releasing more vapors from his head. Shiva thought back to the previous week, when she had threatened some wretched, rag-covered, helmet-wearing mishmash of a homeless mutt with arrest for parading around the town square of Horizon Gardens with a poorly-drawn sign around his neck.

"Here, here!" Quetzal's eyes lit up. "Demerzel's been instrumental in fast-tracking the completion of the treaty with the Aeon Kingdom. Perhaps with the extra resources, we'll finally have a solution to this blasted mystery dungeon problem."

"Bah! As if we need to stoop so low as to associate with dragons." Ifrit spat a tiny ember out, then snuffed it out with his talons before it could burn any grass. "I can't believe they're letting the Aeon princess attend Horizon. They're sullying our beautiful academy!" He draped a wing over his face and shook his head.

"Maybe you ought to see what the princess is like before rushing to conclusions?" Shiva suggested. The look Ifrit gave her quickly made her regret opening her beak. "S-Sorry, Iffy."

"It's easy for you to feel at ease. Your ice attacks can make quick work of any duplicitous dragons," Ifrit said. "But what about me? They live amongst the flames! My best strikes will barely pierce their scales." He paced furiously in front of the needle. "I'll just have to intensify my training. That way, if the princess slips up, I'll—"

A sudden blast from the south wall of the manor silenced the remainder of Ifrit's threat. Shiva didn't even have the time to turn around and register the blast's source before she was splayed out in the grass. Heat spread from her breast out to her wings, spiking her heart rate. She looked up at Ifrit, who stood over with his wings spread wide and a pained winced sprawled on his face. Purple and black flames buffeted his backside, scorching his uniform.

"I-Iffy!" Shiva squawked, trying unsuccessfully to squirm out from under him.

"We're under attack! It's a Phantom!" Quetzal squawked from Shiva's right. She caught a glance of electricity arcing out from his wings. Ifrit turned around and hopped into the air. Shiva's belly spasmed when she sat up, but she mustered the strength to send a gust of wind in the direction of Quetzal's attack.

What she found, however, was a cloud of black shadows surrounding a black, crystalline plague mask. Its red, gemstone eyes were a perfect match to the top of the needle. Shiva's attack died down. A frog caught in her throat. She'd faced down Phantoms plenty of times on rescue missions, but this one was huge. And the mask… that was very different.

"Take cover, Minister!" Ifrit ordered, rolling away from a spectral arm and spitting a fireball at the Phantom. Its shadows contorted and the fireball merely burnt a hole in the grass.

"I don't understand." Douglas' gaseous beards shriveled. "Polaris assured me that the distortion was well-controlled on the outskirts of the city! How can a Phantom be here?" He glanced toward the stairs, but saw the Phantom had blocked them. He quickly floated behind the needle, heads venting a pink smokescreen.

"Spreader Rockfall," a distorted voice said. The flat tone sent a chill down Shiva's spine in spite of her ice-typing. Four wraithy arms popped out of the Phantom, each surrounded by rock-shaped glyphs.

"N… no, this can't be!" Quetzal charged up more lightning in his wings. "Phantoms can't use Dyna-Force. It's impossible!" He clapped his wings together, discharging an electric dome. Ifrit and Shiva added streams of fire and ice.

But all three attacks struck up against a wall of solid rock that burst forth from the ground, flinging sand in all directions. Shiva's eyes bugged out. She ceased her attack and took to the air, shouting, "Fly!" to Quetzal. However, the Phantom shoved the giant rock and it toppled over. Shiva realized all too light she hadn't gotten the necessary altitude to dodge.

The rock wall crushed her into the ground. Her wings shattered on impact, as did at least two ribs. Stars and tears filled her vision. She tried to get up. To flee. To do anything. But her body wouldn't respond. Garbled squawks told her that her colleagues had suffered the same fate. The pain in her chest muffled her sobs. She couldn't die. Not like this. Not from some cheap trick.

It had to be the dragons. They used that treaty to get the kingdom to lower its guard. And now they were making their move. But Shiva would never get to deliver that message. All she could do was lie there, wondering whether she'd succumb to the pain before the Phantom could deliver the killing blow.

Bursts of pink steam shot over her. "S… stay back, you demon!" Lord Douglas cried, hovering by the needle. But the steam met purple globs from two of the Phantom's arms. Shiva tried to beg Douglas to leave, but she couldn't even get her beak open.

"Pathetic nobility," the Phantom snarled. Spectral arms shot out and grabbed Douglas by his mouths and head appendages. His muffled screams rang out in Shiva's ear frills. "True strength does not course through your being," the Phantom continued. "And yet you dare to strike me?"

Her vision was too blurry to see what the Phantom did, but the moment an ear-splitting screech rang out across the manor and abruptly cut out, she knew exactly what had happened. The green and purple fluids that splattered on the sand-covered ground in front of her painted an even clearer picture. "N… no…"

Shadows swirled in front of Shiva and the Phantom's mask lowered to eye level. "Ah, good. You survived."

Shiva squealed. The Phantom… was happy she was alive? Did it plan to torture her? Fresh tears welled in Shiva's eyes. Her legs twitched unresponsively.

"I have plans for the three of you," the Phantom declared. Shadows crawled up Shiva's legs. She was in too much pain to scream, however. "You will exist to give me strength."

As the shadows climbed up her body, they ripped off her uniform. Her feathers darkened. Her bones shifted and realigned. Shiva finally found her voice… and screeched in agony. Her fellow officers echoed her cries.

"Consider it an honor… to serve such a noble cause."

The shadows finally reached her face and… nothing. The pain had completely ceased. Shiva looked up, but recoiled in horror upon seeing that her once-pristine, blue-and-white feathers were now tainted with black and shades of dark gray. She managed to catch her reflection in a shard of broken glass and noticed a black, curved mask sitting over her eyes. Shiva threw her wings up, trying to pull it off, but a sharp pain tore through her shoulders. Clearly, she couldn't raise her wings as high as she used to.

"W… what did you do to us?!" Quetzal squawked. Shiva got to her feet and found an orange bird with lightning-bolt markings on his shrunken wings kicking at the ground with his newly-elongated legs. Like Shiva, Quetzal had a black mask over his eyes.

"I have bathed you in glorious distortion." The Phantom's mask pivoted in Quetzal's direction. "Do you not appreciate my gift?"

"Not in the slightest!" Ifrit huffed, his now-curved beak muffling some of his speech. The violet-magenta flames on his wings flared up.

A deep laugh rumbled and the Phantom's shadowy body rippled. Shiva glared at it. "Do not worry." A wraith shot out, grabbed hold of the needle, and yanked it. The needle promptly shattered and a bright purple beam shot into the air. Shiva's beak fell open. How could it destroy a Needle so effortlessly? All her life she'd heard horror stories of what had happened to pokémon who tried to pull out a Needle.

"I don't intend to let you three voice any more objections."

The Phantom's gemstone eyes glowed bright purple. Before Shiva could react, darkness swallowed her world.



Dreepy Yuna shot up in her bed, arms tightly gripping her silk blanket. She doubled over in pain, squealing until her throat burned. Several tense minutes passed before Yuna finally settled down. She stared at her blanket, barely making out the red heart woven into the fabric using what little moonlight trickled in through the slits of her bedroom shades.

"M… maybe it was just a nightmare?" she squeaked, rolling the held part of the blanket between her arms. Yuna looked right and squinted, begging her night-vision to trigger. An outline of a bookshelf slowly formed. Pristine, unopened schoolbooks sat next to worn pieces of fiction Yuna had brought from home.

She flopped onto her back. The foam pillow fwoomped when her head struck it. Yuna sighed and rubbed her eyes. She gathered as much of her blanket as she could and tried to wrap it around her body… as if she could replicate the time she rode around in her mother's horn. Yuna closed her eyes and imagined her mother shooting her out of a horn, across the castle courtyard and into a pile of cushions dutifully put together by one of her attendants.

But the happy memory wasn't enough to lull her back to sleep. Yuna rolled onto her stomach. She considered floating down the hall and talking to that rhydon security guard, but she didn't seem like much for conversation. And it's not like she could go knocking on any of the other girls' rooms. It was well past curfew and she didn't need to get in trouble before her time at this foreign school even started.

Besides… who wants to saddle up to a dragon in a kingdom run by fairies, anyway? Yuna thought, body deflating. Odds are… I'm only gonna get Baraz and Noctum to talk to me. And that'll just be more embarrassing. She imagined faceless silhouettes surrounding her, ridiculing her for needing servants because she has no friends.

Why did she agree to this? Yuna had left her friends— no, her life behind. And for what?

"For a chance to emblazon your name in the history books for all eternity! Remember the family creed, Yunavresca: seize the day by the horns!"

Her father's deep voice rumbled in the back of her head. She pictured the duraludon throwing his metal head back in a hearty laugh, his gold-trimmed robes clinking in the process.

Yuna groaned. She was never going to get back to sleep with this many thoughts weighing her head down. Yuna lifted her head up and crawled across her bed until a small wooden nightstand was within reach. She slid the drawer open and felt around until her arm brushed against paper. Yuna lifted the paper from the drawer, unfolded it, and set it down next to her.

Again, she channeled her night-vision. Her head throbbed. Yuna traced the nubby tip of her arm around the picture of her younger self nestled in one of her mother's horns. She held a brooch with a star-shaped insignia carved into the gem. Yuna let her arm wander toward the stained-glass window in the background of the photo. She pressed down, covering up the golden, four-winged dragon depicted in the window.

"Bahamut, give me strength," she whispered. "Help me find some friends… or at least survive until I can return home." Yuna wrapped the paper up in a hug, only to stop when it crinkled. She gingerly folded it back up and returned it to the drawer. She then pulled out a small seed.

A sleep seed. One of a handful that she'd gotten from Baraz. Yuna hesitated. Was she that desperate for a good night's sleep?

Yes. Yes, she was. Besides, the school handbook said it was contraband in student rooms, anyway. It was better to use it now, else she risked getting caught with it and punished.

Down the hatch it goes. Yuna swallowed the seed with a wince. The effects were almost instantaneous. Her vision grew hazy. Her breathing slowed. Yuna's arms stiffened. A yawn escaped her mouth.

She had just enough strength to lie back on her pillow before drifting away into a dreamless slumber.
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I have awaited the start of your new story since you announced it.
Exciting beginning what I have read by now. It is interesting, that 'Vress (yes, I speak of Yunavresca, Discord-Insider, I will keep calling her that) has visions of the dark happenings. It will become interesting what happens in the future.
I am looking forward for the next chapters.
Good job, Amby.
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A single misplaced step
Alright, I loved Guiding Light, and I'm really excited for this. Really, I just love your writing style in general.
I don't know much about FF, but based on GL, I don't really think much knowledge will really be needed, and it'll just be references and nods.
This world you’ve set up is really interesting to me, and I’m extremely curious on things like the Phantoms and the Needles and what they mean.
I also never really thought before reading this how the Galar legendary birds look like corrupted versions, but thinking about it, it does make perfect sense. I did like how you developed the characters of the legendary birds so quickly, and that you focused on the one who was seemingly the most likeable of a character, to draw people in and have them connect more.
And the part about Yuna having dreamt it all leaves it unclear about whether the event did actually happen, or if it’s something that might happen in the future.
In any case, I’m really excited to see where this goes.


Winter can't come soon enough
It is interesting, that 'Vress (yes, I speak of Yunavresca, Discord-Insider, I will keep calling her that) has visions of the dark happenings.
Bold of you to assume she had a visions of the first scene. :p

I don't know much about FF, but based on GL, I don't really think much knowledge will really be needed, and it'll just be references and nods.
Correct, it's mostly references and Easter eggs. No knowledge required to enjoy. ^^

I also never really thought before reading this how the Galar legendary birds look like corrupted versions, but thinking about it, it does make perfect sense.
I admit I was, in part, inspired by a few fan art pieces that grouped the Kanto birds with Lugia and the Galar birds with Shadow Lugia. :p

On with the show!


Chapter 1: Uh, It's My First Day
It took far more of Yuna's strength than she cared to admit just to float down the hallway. Her gaze remained fixed on the marble floor and, every so often, she bobbed closer to it before jerking back up.

"Apologies, Princess. Had I known you were going to use one of the sleep seeds, I'd have brought a heal seed with me."

Heavy, thudding footsteps punctuated her attendant's lisping claim. Yuna glanced right and saw a green, comically-oversized dinosaur foot stomp down beside her. She groaned and rubbed the wing-like edges of her head. As if it wasn't bad enough that she was going to show up to the opening assembly late, she was going to do so accompanied by a dracozolt. Something none of her classmates had ever seen and were sure to be put off by.

Just another thing working against me besides my dragon-typing, she thought.

"Why the long face?" the dracozolt poked his tiny, yellow head into Yuna's field of vision. "Are you nervous? It's perfectly normal to be nervous when starting any new endeavor. God knows how terrified I was of coming to work for your family."

"Y-Yeah. Nervous," Yuna mumbled, rubbing her hands together. "Baraz, do you think I'll be able to make any friends here?"

He paused mid-step. Baraz's beady eyes blinked rapidly. "Of course you will. Once people see how kindhearted you are, they'll surely come to view you as someone they can trust." He resumed walking. "Now, come. If we don't hurry, I fear they'll take away all the breakfast. It's the most important meal of the day, after all."

"Right." She found no relief from Baraz's words, but still floated after him. What was stopping Noctum from grabbing food for her to eat later, anyway?


The slamming of a metal grate jolted Yuna to attention. Her ectoplasmic tail crinkled. Ahead of her, an air vent plate lay on the floor beside a stone column. And next to it was one of those tiny, gray sludge things with the hex-nut heads. What were they called again… meltin? It didn't matter, because the real problem— or, rather, problems emerged from the exposed air vent.

A greedent belly-flopped onto the floor, scattering dust across the pristine tiles. He quickly held his hands up to catch an equally-dusty nickit. "Gotcha, boss." Greedent lowered the small fox to the ground.

"Nyek nyek! What'd I tell ya, Rookie? The air vents would be our ticket into this hoity-toity place." Nickit turned and grinned at his apparent partner. "Now all we've gotta do is find us something worth nicking! And then the whole kingdom will know of the terror that is the Crimson Zephyr!"

"Hey, you two! What do you think you're doing?" Baraz squawked, thumping his massive tail against the floor. Both crooks hopped up in surprise, then looked at one another.

"B-Boss… I thought you said everyone was gonna be in some kinda meeting," Rookie said, clutching his rotund belly.

"I did say that. But I guess we didn't account for a couple of butt-ugly janitors wandering around the place." The Crimson Zephyr swished his broom-like tail in Yuna's direction. "Buon giorno. If you two lugs know what's good for ya… you'll walk away and forget you ever saw us. Otherwise, you'll face the wrath of the one and only Nickit Carpaccio!"

"Uh, boss, is it really such a good idea to tell them your name? They can tell the police who you are, can't they?" Rookie pointed out. Nickit's eyes bugged out and he thwacked Rookie with his tail.

"Why didn't you pipe up earlier, nut-for-brains?" Carpaccio huffed, his tail releasing a shadowy plume.

Yuna flinched the moment she saw dark energy crackling around Carpaccio's tail. "M-Maybe we should listen to them. We're already running late."

"You would dare to threaten the Aeon Princess and one of her attendants? Have you no shame?" Baraz asked, ignoring Yuna's words.

"We just crawled through a filthy air vent," Carpaccio retorted, smirking. "A master thief ain't above anything… including cheap shots." And, with a flick of his tail, a seed shot in Baraz's direction. He spat up a ball of dragonfire, incinerating the seed before it could burst apart. "Now, Rookie!" Carpaccio called.

Rookie curled up into a ball and a metallic sheen overtook him. Carpaccio Tail Slapped him, sending him bowling toward Baraz. Yuna's eyes widened. Without thinking, she shot toward Rookie with a burst of speed. But the large size different resulted in her ending up sprawled out on the ground with the entire room spinning.

"Nyek nyek nyek! And here I thought bright 'mons went to this school," Carpaccio taunted, dark energy gathering around his mouth. Yuna looked up in horror and braced for more pain, only for a tan, brown, and yellow blur to strike a squealing Carpaccio. When she righted herself, she found Rookie lying on top of Carpaccio. Both twitched from lingering static electricity.

"B-Baraz?" Yuna looked at her attendant.

A large, beak-shaped lightning bolt dissipated around his tiny upper half. "Goodness me. It's… been a while since these old bones have had to resort to that attack." Baraz stretched out his arms. "Well now… even if you're going to be late, showing up with a couple of bandits in tow should win you a few favors, don't you think?"

Yuna's cheeks burned.


The oak doors creaked when Baraz threw them open with his tail. Yuna hoped the chatter of her peers would drown out the noise, but was horrified to find the dining hall dead silent. She floated next to Baraz, looking at the twelve columns of white, neatly-arranged glass tables containing a wide assortment of pokémon. Yuna never had so many sets of eyes on her before, not even at the functions her parents made her attend back home. At that moment, the chandelier hanging from the glass-domed ceiling became the most interesting thing in the room. She looked at the many crystal bulbs seated on tiny metal hooks, silently begging everyone to ignore her.

"Ah, h-hello there! Sorry to barge in on you all like this." Baraz chuckled. Carpaccio and Rookie sat tied up beside him, still conked out from the Bolt Beak collision.

That's when the whispers started. Though Yuna tried her best to filter them out, some of the comments slipped through her mental cracks.

"Eww! What in heaven's name is that thing?"

"Its upper and lower halves don't even match!"

"God, I heard dragons were ugly, but that makes me want to vomit!"

"We have to go to class with him?"

"He better just be hired help."

"Hey, I think that's the Aeon Princess next to him."

Yuna shrank back, hiding behind Baraz's tail. She wanted to climb back into bed and forget this all happened. Yuna was a joltik in a room full of tyranitar and there were figurative feet ready to squish her. "I… I…" Her tail shriveled up. "Baraz, can we leave now?"

"What's all this commotion, then?"

Wingbeats drew a sharp "Eep!" from Yuna. She floated out from her hiding spot the moment a charizard landed in front of her and tucked in his blue-green wings. Yuna brought an arm up to her mouth to stifle her gasp. Why are his scales orange? Shouldn't his scales be black like Noctum's?

"Ah, Chancellor Vortex, my sincere apologies." Baraz awkwardly bowed, which didn't help his lisp. Some chuckles rose up from students in the distance.

"You're seven minutes and thirty-two seconds late," a gardevoir declared, teleporting in next to Vortex and nudging up the glasses resting on her face. "The Chancellor made it very clear you were to arrive at eight sharp to be introduced to the student body. He is a very busy 'mon and cannot afford to idle about."

"Easy, Arianna." Vortex held the golden cane in his right hand up to Arianna's waist. The corviknight figurine atop it sparkled under the chandelier's light. "Let's hear them out, first."

"Yuna here ran a bit late because she found these two scoundrels trying to break in through an air duct." Baraz gestured to the thieves beside him. "She recognized the disadvantageous match-up and called for help right away. As I was in the vicinity to check up on her, I leapt to her aid and, together, we gave these brutes the once-over." He jabbed the air with his tiny elbows.

Yuna gulped, knowing that was far from the truth. Arianna tugged at a sleeve on her red-and-white suit. Her expression hadn't wavered from the icy, skeptical look she'd popped in with. Vortex, however, raised an amused brow. He adjusted his white cravat, tucked the cane under his elbow, and threw his head back in a hearty laugh while issuing applause.

"Marvelous! Splendid! Quite a way to make an entrance," he declared, drawing surprised gasps from the students. "I daresay you won't have any trouble settling in with that kind of ingenuity, Princess." Vortex winked at Yuna, whose cheeks immediately flushed. She had to resist the urge to hide behind Baraz's tail again.

Vortex turned to the crowd of students, the edges of his charcoal-gray suit jacket fluttering against his hips. "Now then… I'd like to take the opportunity to introduce all of you to the special new student I had mentioned earlier."

Arianna locked eyes with Yuna. She nudged her glasses up and, next thing Yuna knew, an unseen force had dragged her up beside Chancellor Vortex. He motioned to her with his cane. "This is Princess Dreepy Yunavresca. She is here as an exchange student. Part of a goodwill gesture by the Aeon Kingdom to show their commitment to the peace treaty that's due to be signed.

"She'll be joining the third-year class, but I expect all of you treat her with respect and dignity. You are all Horizon Academy students, after all!" Vortex thrust both arms to the side, flinging tiny embers around him that popped like small fireworks. Yuna's tail shriveled. He was certainly more… animated than the charizard she was used to.

Murmurs rose up from the students once again. Yuna couldn't help but look around. A ponyta garbed in a scarlet robe looked at her intently. When her gaze crossed his, he turned with a huff, shielding his face with his pink, puffy mane. Whispers drew her attention to the Chancellor. Arianna was whispering something to him. Vortex nodded and the two promptly teleported to the other end of the dining hall.

Yuna floated upward and saw Vortex standing on a raised platform behind a lectern. Arianna stood at his side, looking straight down at the planner in her right arm. "There's one last matter to discuss and I'm sure it's something you third-years are salivating at the bit over." Vortex tapped the top of his snout. "I'm talking, of course, about the annual Crowne Cup!" He threw his arms upward, creating more embers. A banner then unfurled on the wall behind him, unveiling a crimson tapestry with a golden sword and shield woven into it. Yuna focused on the crown positioned on the sword's hilt. It was a nice design.

"Your official team assignments will be given out at the opening banquet," Vortex explained. "This year, however, we'll be holding a preliminary challenge." He pointed his cane at the student tables while they gasped and whispered to one another. Yuna frowned. There was already going to be some sort of test? She wasn't ready for anything like that.

"The meltan have distributed a list of approved supplies to each of your mailboxes. You'll have the rest of the day to head into town and get any items on the list… assuming you want to, of course." Vortex chuckled.

He leaned over so Arianna could whisper to him again. Vortex nodded. "Right then. That's it for now. I hope to see you all at this evening's banquet." He threw his head back and laughed while Arianna grabbed his shoulder. The two disappeared in a blue blink.

"Uh, does that mean breakfast is over?" Baraz frowned. "And what about these tw—"

"I've got 'em," a burly voice announced. Yuna squealed and turned around. A conkeldurr in a purple security uniform held the thieves up in one hand. He threw them over his shoulder and sauntered off, whistling a jaunty tune while his key ring jingled on his utility belt.

By the time Yuna collected herself, the dining hall had burst into a flurry of activity with students chattering excitedly. Yuna's ectoplasm rippled and it was a matter of seconds before she brought her arms up to her head. "Nngh. T-Too loud," she said. "Baraz… m-maybe we can go get something in town later when I go to get supplies?" Yuna looked around the room nervously. Again, several sets of eyes were on her. The ponyta from earlier looked right at her. His tiara twinkled under the sunlight.

… wait, why did he have a tiara?

"Princess?" Baraz waved an arm in front of her face. "You're looking a bit pale."

"I—" Yuna shook her head. "Sorry. Having trouble focusing with… with…"

Torn paper echoed from the hall behind Yuna. Her tail crinkled. She whirled around and her face went even paler when she found a toxtricity balling up paper between her hands. She caught Yuna's eye and glared at her.

"What are you looking at, Tiny?" Toxtricity held up her hand and dissolved the paper in a few globs of purple acid. "I'm just doing my part to keep the halls of our fine school clean. Got a problem with that?"

"N-No. Of course not!" Yuna squeaked, eyes drawn to Toxtricity's leather jacket. She floated close to Baraz, who turned around.

"Oh, hello! Are you one of Princess Yuna's new classmates?" He stepped toward her and extended an arm. "I'm Dracozolt Baraz, one of her attendants."

"Dracowhatnow? Look, I don't really care." Toxtricity turned away, shrugging. "Just tell Princess Tiny not to look at me funny. Otherwise, we're gonna have problems." She adjusted the coat's collar and walked off, shoving her hands into her pockets. Yuna stared at the obstagoon graffiti scrawled on the back of the coat in confusion.

"Um… I think we should head to town now," Yuna whispered, rubbing her arms together nervously.


Thank God I don't have any neck muscles. I would've tweaked 'em for sure by now, Yuna glumly thought. She'd spent the whole morning looking at the school floor and now she couldn't take her eyes off the cobblestone streets of Horizon Gardens. Sure, she could brush this latest episode off as a product of all the gemstone-laded buildings reflecting sunlight. But in the back of her mind she could hear her father scolding her meek posture.

Fortunately for Yuna, crackling embers and squeaky wagon wheels kept her from receding too far into her own thoughts. The charizard walking beside her had a certain bounce to his step and his tail-flame was larger than usual. "Okay, Noctum, I know you want to say something. Go ahead." Yuna waved her right arm toward his black tail.

"With how that gardevoir described the town, I wasn't expecting there to be much here. But I was wrong." Eyes sparkling, Noctum held up the book pressed to his cream-colored chest. "Look! A dozen new stamps for my collection." He opened it and pointed to a stamp in the top-right corner of the page. "See the wooloo? Isn't it cute? I'll bet it's soft and snuggly… and won't shock me when I try to hug it like the mareep back home."

Yuna sighed. Do I really need to remind him that we walked through the town to get to the school from the rail station? Or that the mareep back home have Static? She had her mouth open, but shut it when she saw Noctum smiling at the newly-completed page in his stamp book.

"I'll have to be careful while we're here. Can't go blowing all my salary on stamps." Chuckling, Noctum closed the book and put it back into his satchel. "By the way, something wrong, Princess? You've been awfully quiet until now."

"Uh…" Yuna squeezed her arms together. "It's been a confusing day. I've only met one other student… briefly. But there's going to be this big banquet in a few hours. I'm not sure what to do." She clasped the pendant around her neck nervously. There was also the looming threat of the introductory Crowne Cup test Chancellor Vortex had mentioned. Even with no idea what it was, it still terrified Yuna. Because if it involved any battling…

"You have to put your best foot forward." Noctum stomped his right foot down on the path. "Figuratively speaking, of course."

"Meaning?" Yuna tilted her head.

"Well, you are the Aeon Princess, but you can't expect that to impress your classmates," Noctum replied. "They're nobility, too. So, you might have to try and strike up a friendly conversation."

Easier said than done. Yuna fidgeted with her pendant. "You're personable. How about a suggestion?"

"That's easy. Smile!" Noctum puffed out his chest. "People like warmth and friendliness. Nothing conveys that like a smile. Watch." He turned to his right, grinning, and waved at a passing ice darumaka. "Hello! Lovely weather we're having, isn't it?"

The darumaka froze mid-step. Her eyes fixed on Noctum's toothy maw. "Ahh! Don't eat me, mister! I don't taste good!" She turned tail and ran off before Noctum could even retort. Yuna floated over and pet Noctum's back while his tail flame dimmed.

It flared right back up, however. "Okay, new idea!" Noctum clapped his hands together. "That bookshop we were in had this book called Fire & Fighting: 151 Fun, Simple Ice-Breakers. Let's go buy it… and you can take it with you to the banquet." He set the handle of the wagon down. "Actually, I'll get it since I'm faster. Wait right here."

"H-Hang on, Noctum, I—"

Noctum zoomed away and Yuna threw an arm up over her face. "Never mind," she whispered, brushing dust off her pendant. Yuna couldn't knock his enthusiasm. She just wished it could rub off on her. Yuna floated over to the wagon Noctum was pulling. She lay on a tarp covering the box of supplies she'd purchased.

I've never even used some of these things before. Wands, gravelrocks, iron thorns… Yuna fiddled with the tarp. The items' names were apt enough just based on what she'd seen in the store. Yet she couldn't help but worry how she'd manage to hold onto them with her nubby arms. Surely, these things were built for pokémon with fingers? Something that would continue to be a problem for her until she could reach her final evolution.

"Wish I knew how to do that," she mumbled, tracing a circle through the tarp fabric. "At least I won't have to listen to Mother saying 'Respect your body and it'll respect you back,' whenever I ask about evolution."

"Help! Somebody help me!"

"You aren't deserving of help, sinner!"

Yuna's head shot up. The shouts — one nasally and one deep, guttural, and distorted — came from behind the bakery next to Yuna. The shouts had made the furfrou and stoutland across the street from Yuna stop. "H-Hello! Um, how do we call the police?" Yuna asked. "I think someone's in trouble." She gestured toward the bakery.

"If it's coming from the shop, then let the staff handle it," Stoutland said. He walked off with his furfrou partner following him. Yuna again turned back to the store and squealed when she heard a loud slam.

"You smell of ether. You must repent! Kneel before Natus and beg forgiveness!"

An orbeetle flew out in front of Yuna's wagon, panic strewn across his face. "I have no idea what you're talking about. Leave me alone," he shouted. "Help! Police!" Before he had the chance to float away, three energy balls struck the back of his head. He skipped along the ground like a playground ball. His bag fell several feet away from him. Hand-written notes lay strewn about the middle of the path.

Yuna's reflex was to try and dive under the tarp, but it wouldn't budge. Heavy, thudding footsteps made her torso wither. Oh, Noctum, where are you? We've got a big problem! She gasped when a large, four-legged beast in a big stone mask and black, shredded robes lumbered out from beside the bakery. Broken chains clattered around its ankles with each step it took.

"Lies! Yet more sins to weigh down your soul," the beast hissed. "You work for the school. You are a slave to the ether! Natus has judged you guilty. You must beg forgiveness or the Dark Omen, Xeromus, will cleanse this world of your sins."

A crude sign of rusted metal clanged against Xeromus' robed chest. In unown, it read, "Repent! The Darkest Day is nigh!"

"I… I only just started working at the school last month." The orbeetle looked despondently at his notes. He glanced at his bag, then raised his hands up. "If it's money you want, I don't have much. T-Truly! I've only received one pay check and my savings are tied up in loan payments!" The spots on his head turned pink. His bag quivered as a pink glow surrounded it.

Xeromus caught sight of this. He slammed a foreleg on the ground. That was enough to get the orbeetle to cancel his telekinesis and resume screaming for help. "Cease your prattling. I am your help. You see… but you are blind! And I am the eyewear that will restore your true vision!"

At last, Yuna had gotten the tarp open. Though she wanted to hide — God, Xeromus was huge — she wound up grabbing hold of a seed with tiny star-shaped patterns on it. She silently hovered up. Xeromus raised a glowing foreleg to strike at Orbeetle. Yuna hurled the seed forward. It hit the top of Xeromus' helmet and shattered. His leg slammed down to Orbeetle's right. Xermous staggered about, growling.

He looked away from Orbeetle and shouted, "Yes, yes I'm doing what you asked. What you want. It takes time… it takes time…"

Okay, so that confused him. Yuna tried to signal to Orbeetle to run, but he was still fixated on Xeromus. Fear had paralyzed him as it almost did to Yuna. She decided now was as good a time as any to make her presence known. "H-Hey! Leave him alone, you big oaf!"

"Alone? No, he is not alone. There are too many sinners." Xeromus snarled. He looked around, blinking his beady, yellow eyes rapidly. It shocked Yuna that Xeromus wouldn't face her. Did confusion mess with his senses that much?

"How is he sinning, huh? You're the one attacking him for no reason." Yuna floated up, a determined look on her face. "And that's going to get your behind thrown in jail."

"Jail? I am no villain. I'm the hero!" Xeromus smacked a foreleg on the ground. "The hero who will save you all from the sin of ether, so Natus doesn't smite you into oblivion." Loud snorts rang out across the street. "And you… you reek of Natus, whoever you are!"

Are you sure that's not your own musk you're smelling? Yuna thought, reeling from Xeromus' nauseating stench. She had to keep him talking, though. Surely someone saw this and was calling the police. "You're a hero?"

"Not a hero… the hero!" Xeromus huffed. His sign clanked against the base of his helmet.

"What kind of hero calls himself the Dark Omen, huh?" Yuna narrowed her eyes at him.

"This kind!" Xeromus jerked his head left, then right. His helmet and chains rattled. "You are drinking the champagne of lying aristocrats! Dark and light isn't binary. Good and evil is not so black and white. It is a gray street of many directions!" Xeromus doubled over in a coughing fit. Yuna looked to Orbeetle, who had finally collected his wits and floated away into a nearby greenery. The timing was perfect, too, as Xeromus had stopped swaying about. He locked eyes with Yuna and stomped toward her.

"You walk a straight path because that is what the ether tells you to do," Xeromus growled. The color drained from Yuna's face. She dove back into the supply crate to look for another one of those seeds. "But Natus' fumes cling to your body. You have the power to break free… to pick your own actions! Rise against these ether-users or you will become like the rest of them… and your 'choices' won't matter at— ngarrgh!"

The temperature spiked around Yuna. She poked her head up from the crate and found Noctum backing away from Xeromus. Smoke billowed out from his nostrils. "Don't you dare lay a grubby claw on her!" he snarled.

"Fool! I'm trying to save her, but the ether has blinded you to that," Xeromus spat. Red, blue, and yellow energy balls surrounded him. He launched them at Noctum. Yuna recognized the Tri-Attack and darted out from the box straight into the attack's line. The energy balls fizzled out against her head.

"What?" Xeromus froze in place. "You weren't supposed to jump in like that." He threw his head back and laughed. "So, you are resisting the ether. But clinging to these ether-users will erode your choices." Xeromus held his head high. "Stand aside. I must see to it that this 'mon is—"

Xeromus tensed up, then hopped to his right. Ice Shards whizzed past him. He growled and shook his helmeted head. "It seems we'll have to resume this discussion at a later date." Xeromus' sign glowed with silver energy. A rainbow beam surrounded him and whisked him off into the sky seconds before more Ice Shards came flying in. Yuna squealed and flopped to the ground. Noctum's briefly gasped, but regained his composure and shot out three fireballs. The Ice Shards melted.

"You folks okay?" an abomasnow security officer asked, stomping over to their location. "Got a call from the greenery about a commotion. What was that thing?" He scratched his head.

Yuna picked herself up off the ground, breathing heavily as she processed what had just happened. "I… I have no idea. That thing was nuts. Spoke in nothing but riddles." She clutched the sides of her head and shivered.

Noctum put a hand on Yuna's back. "Princess, you shouldn't have put yourself at risk like that." He frowned. "But I shouldn't have left you alone like that. I'm terribly sorry."

"It's fine, Noctum." Yuna waved him off. "Neither of us could've expected something like that." They looked silently at one another, until the faint buzzing of wings drew their attention left. Orbeetle floated over to them, clutching his bag and beaming.

"Oh, goodness me. Thank you so much, m'dear." Orbeetle bowed his bulbous head in Yuna's direction repeatedly. "I was heading back to the school when that horrid beast ambushed me out of nowhere. He took one look at some of my research notes and flew into a rage." He shrank back from Yuna, shivering. "I don't know what I would've done if you hadn't stepped in."

"I… it was nothing," Yuna said, though she was still in shock that she did step in against Xeromus. She wanted to change the subject quickly. "So, you're a teacher at the school, then?"

"Yes." He adjusted his grip on his bag. "Where are my manners? Professor Orbeetle Cid." He extended a hand to Yuna. "I'm, err, new to Horizon Academy. I teach history."

Yuna took his hand and shook it. "Nice to meet you. I'm—"

"This is Princess Dreepy Yunavresca of the Aeon Kingdom," Noctum butted in, presenting her with an extended left wing.

"Ah, of course. Forgive me, I've never seen a dragon in person before." Cid bowed his head once again. "A pleasure, Your Majesty. And a shame we couldn't meet under better circumstances."

"It's really not a big deal," Yuna whispered, cheeks burning. She wanted to snap at Noctum, but knew he meant well.

"Actually, I think you're in my block three history class, so we'll be working together this year," Cid explained, smiling.

"Oh, really? Guess I can look forward to that, then." Yuna returned the smile, relieved she'd at least know someone going into the start of classes. Even if the circumstances behind their meeting were a bit… odd.

"Hate to break up this little pow-wow… but I've gotta get you all back to the academy," Abomasnow said, attaching a strange crystal to a Velcro strap on his vest. "Just finished reporting this incident and Chancellor Vortex says he needs you three in his office right away." He faced Yuna. "Said something about your parents wanting to speak with you."

Yuna gulped. As if this day couldn't get any worse.
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PMD Writer
Heya! Had already read these chapters a little while ago, but I’ve never really given you any feedback on them, so now’s as good of a time as any.


Articuno Shiva stretched her wings out as she walked a straight line across the field.
I see Path of Valor uses the same name convention as HoC. Bit of a shame to see since I never liked it there because it made most names sound clunky and unnatural, which wasn’t very pleasant to read. Though I suppose at least the full name of characters isn’t used very often.

Though some other criticism I do have here is that Shiva’s name is introduced through the description. The fic has only just started, yet you’re writing the story assuming people are already familiar with Shiva. It’s always best to show who characters are and introduce their names through dialogue like you did with the other two birds. Since I think you handled that great.

"The guy comes out of nowhere and climbs into Her Eminence's good graces within the span of half a year. Now he's sitting pretty in the royal court and influencing policy."
Feel like this Demerzel will become important later on.

Shiva thought back to the previous week, when she had threatened some wretched, rag-covered, helmet-wearing mishmash of a homeless mutt with arrest for parading around the town square of Horizon Gardens with a poorly-drawn sign around his neck.
Foreshadowing events even one chapter in advance? :p

"S-Sorry, Iffy."
D’aww, they have cute nicknames for each other.

What she found, however, was a cloud of black shadows surrounding a black, crystalline plague mask. Its red, gemstone eyes were a perfect match to the top of the needle. Shiva's attack died down. A frog caught in her throat. She'd faced down Phantoms plenty of times on rescue missions, but this one was huge. And the mask… that was very different.
That’s some pretty cool imagery here. The plague mask is also a nice touch.

"Spreader Rockfall," a distorted voice said.
Stupid Phantom doesn’t even realize it’s Max Rockfall. What a scrub.

Shiva's eyes bugged out.
This description here is very odd. It’s kind of the same as describing something cartoony like an anime sweatdrop. It’s just something that doesn’t work outside of a visual medium, since I doubt her eyes are literally jumping out of her skull.

"I made you an extension of my strength." The Phantom's mask pivoted in Quetzal's direction. "Do you not appreciate my gift?"
Galarian birb trio, huh? I like it. This is particular Phantom is an interesting villain though. The way he talks about nobility hints at some hidden depth and motives beyond being evil and just wanting to destroy everything. Will look forward to finding out more about him in the future.

Dreepy Yuna shot up in her bed, arms tightly gripping her silk blanket.
Here is another example of a new character’s name being used in the description as if we already know her. This time it’s even worse since it’s the main character.

"M… maybe it was just a nightmare?" she squeaked, rolling the held part of the blanket between her arms.
I like how you make it seem as if Yuna was dreaming the previous scene. I doubt that was what her dream was really about though.

Again, she channeled her night-vision.
What’s up with this night vision exactly?

Chapter 1

"Nyek nyek! What'd I tell ya, Rookie? The air vents would be our ticket into this hoity-toity place." Nickit turned and grinned at his apparent partner. "Now all we've gotta do is find us something worth nicking! And then the whole kingdom will know of the terror that is the Crimson Zephyr!"
Heh. Although I don’t like Nickit and Greedent too much, these two are pretty funny. I’m a sucker for comic relief villain though. That said, I got a feeling we’ll see these two again soon enough.

"Eww! What in heaven's name is that thing?"

"Its upper and lower halves don't even match!"

"God, I heard dragons were ugly, but that makes me want to vomit!"
Wow, that’s harsh haha XD

Though jokes aside, the Fossil Pokémon in gen 8 do look weird. Definitely my least favorite of the dinos.

"You're seven minutes and thirty-two seconds late," a gardevoir declared, teleporting in next to Vortex and nudging up the glasses resting on her face. "The Chancellor made it very clear you were to arrive at eight sharp to be introduced to the student body. He is a very busy 'mon and cannot afford to idle about."

"Easy, Arianna." Vortex held the golden cane in his right hand up to Arianna's waist. The corviknight figurine atop it sparkled under the chandelier's light. "Let's hear them out, first."
These two remind me a lot of Rose and Oleana, which is just perfect for them being in charge of the school. I even had the Rose encounter theme from Sword and Shield playing in my head when I read this part XD

Definitely expecting them to turn out to be villains at some point.

A ponyta garbed in a scarlet robe looked at her intently. When her gaze crossed his, he turned with a huff, shielding his face with his pink, puffy mane.
Also Shimmer is reminding me of Bede a little. Can’t wait to see more of him and his inevitable rivalry with Yuna, since he’s been a very fun character on the blog.

She gasped when a large, four-legged beast in a big stone mask and black, shredded robes lumbered out from beside the bakery. Broken chains clattered around its ankles with each step it took.
What if… it’s a Type: Null? :thonkrozma:

"Where are my manners? Professor Orbeetle Cid."
Of course a story full of Final Fantasy references would have a character named Cid. :p

Alright, and that’s the end of the first chapter. I think this story is off to a good start! The school premise is very fun and the characters seem pretty interesting. They’re definitely the sort I’d like to read more about. I know I certainly look forward to seeing what Crowne Cup has in store for us and how it will all eventually tie into the main plot set up at the start of the prologue.

Until next time!


Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 2: I Don't Know How That Got in There
"Take your shot already, Robin," a ponyta huffed, forelegs braced against the side of a red billiards table with blue felt. "I can see cobwebs growing near me."

Across from him, a sirfetch'd stood with his leek carefully positioned behind the cue ball and threaded between two of his left wing-digits. "Patience, Shimmer. A skilled bank shot like this takes time and focus." Robin slowly moved the leek forward and back.

"It's been three minutes! My mane's going to gray at this rate." Shimmer flicked his cotton candy hair over his right shoulder, then brushed dust off his scarlet vest's gold trimmings.

With a smirk, Robin struck the cue ball. It rolled to the wall on his right, then banked off at a ninety-degree angle and struck the seven ball, knocking it into the center-left cup. Robin stood up straight and held his leek triumphantly. "Now all that's left is the eight ball and I win." He gestured to the black ball in question. "And I'm lined up perfectly for it."

Shimmer rolled his eyes. "Only because you took longer with each of your shots than the meltan do with my laundry." He pushed off the table and landed on all fours. His hooves plinked against the marble floor. "Billiards is supposed to be relaxing. Yet every time I play you, I can feel my blood pressure going up." Shimmer sniffed at the puffy lining of his vest and cringed. "Ugh. Good thing I didn't change into my gown for the banquet yet. It'd be lined with sweat."

"Make all the excuses you want." Robin positioned himself on the edge of the table and lined his leek up to strike the cue ball straight at the eight ball. "This game is still mine. Eight ball, corner pock—"

The oak door to the boys' dorm lounge swung open and a sylveon charged in. "Guys, you're not gonna believe this!"

"Gah!" Robin jumped the moment he struck the cue ball, causing it to spin out to his left and drop into the corner pocket closest to Shimmer. The ponyta stole Robin's confident smirk.

"A scratch on the eight ball. Looks like I win." Shimmer flicked his head to his right. "As if there was ever any doubt."

Robin raised his right wing to slam his leek on the table, but managed to contain his anger. Instead, he whirled on the sylveon. "What's the big idea, Xander? You cost me the game!"

"Yeah, seriously." Shimmer tilted his head. "Where have you been? We finished getting our supplies hours ago." He noticed pit stains on Xander's pink lace robes. "Were you at the gym… in that outfit?"

"No." Xander stood hunched over, catching his breath. He tilted his head back for a few seconds, then squared up his stance. "I was out in the courtyard helping the art club with the last sign for tonight and you're not gonna believe what I saw!"

"Look, if you caught another pair of first-years in a make-out session, then take it up with someone else," Shimmer dismissed with a tap of his right forehoof. "We have more important things to—"

Xander shook his head. "Wasn't that, Your Highness. It was the new girl— the little wyrm thingy." He wiggled his ribbons around. "I saw her getting walked up to Chancellor Vortex's office with a filthy-looking charizard and an orbeetle."

"So? I'm not her babysitter," Xander sneered. "You gonna tear up the school halls every time she sneezes?"

"That's not it. Not too long before that, I saw her parents go into the Chancellor's office." Xander grinned. "I bet she's in trouble."

Shimmer quirked a brow. "Or maybe her parents got cold feet and are pulling her out? Dragons are all cold-blooded, icy-hearted brutes anyway. They probably took one look at the school's curriculum and realized their daughter would fail."

"I don't know." Robin picked up his shield, carefully built from the base of his leek. "Is it really that bad if she's here? What about Chiaki? He's reptilian, too, and there's that gabite body guard that's always skulking along with him."

"He may be reptilian, but he's not a true dragon," Xander said. "As long as the gabite isn't around, he's perfectly reasonable company."

"Reasonable is an understatement," Shimmer scoffed. "He's tolerable at best."

"Okay." Robin's shoulders sagged. "But that's all irrelevant. Doesn't Her Eminence want you to befriend the new girl? Our kingdoms are trying to get along, remember?"

"Tch. I suppose." Shimmer brushed his mane out of his face. "But we shouldn't have to lower ourselves to the dragons' backwards standards. I hear they still live in shacks made of mud and rocks."

"Well, one thing's for sure, we're looking at another problem kid." Xander rubbed his snout with a ribbon. "She's bound to be trouble… just like Nikki."

"Oh god, don't remind me of her." Shimmer rolled his eyes. "I feel so bad for whoever gets stuck on her Crowne Cup team. They're guaranteed to be eliminated in the first leg… and that shame will stick with them the rest of their lives."

"So, should we try to see if we can find out more about our 'esteemed' exchange student?" Robin wondered.

Shimmer shook his head. "No. Let the Chancellor handle her. We should prepare for tonight." His eyes sparkled. "After all, as glee club president, I get the honor of introducing Starlene!"

"Aww man, you're gonna get me an autograph, right?" Xander said, batting his eyelids at Shimmer.

The ponyta walked by him. "I'll think about it." Shimmer hip-checked Xander.


"This is an outrage!" A duraludon slammed his silver fist down on a pristine, white oak desk. Papers scattered and folders opened. Spittle doused the papers closest to him. "We bring Yunavresca here as a gesture of goodwill and on her first day she's assaulted twice in the span of hours!"

Doing her best to hide between Noctum's right leg and the side of a black leather couch, Yuna wasn't sure what she found scarier: one of her dad's rare outbursts or the fact that, throughout it, Chancellor Vortex kept the same enthusiastic grin he had on in the dining hall.

"King Calcifer, I understand your frustrations," Vortex said, producing a handkerchief from his jacket's inner pocket and wiping the saliva off his desk. "But I would ask that you please not take them out on my desk. It is one of a kind, you see. Utterly irreplaceable."

The dragapult floating beside Calcifer put a hand on his gold-plated shoulder bangle. "Deep breaths, dear." Her serene expression quickly shifted, however. "I should think we have every right to be frustrated, sir. Queen Calliope told us that Horizon Gardens was the safest place in the entire kingdom. So, how do you explain these transgressions?"

Vortex clasped his hands together. "Why, they're nothing more than a pair of unfortunate coincidences. What can I say, Queen Yiazmat? These things happen."

Yiazmat wasn't convinced. "No. If it happens once, it's a coincidence. If it happens twice… it's a pattern." Her expression darkened further. Normally, Yuna would expect one of her twin brothers to pipe up and lighten the mood, but they weren't in the dragapult's horns.

"Y-Your Majesty, please… I'm at fault here." Noctum put a hand on his chest. "If I hadn't left Princess Yuna—"

"Save your breath, Noctum," Yiazmat said, hand raised to silence him. "Our daughter should not need round-the-clock monitoring to safely attend this institution. Especially if it's located in the same community as the base for this kingdom's army."

"Yes, well, I'm afraid the Radiant Guard are a bit preoccupied at the moment." Vortex leaned over to rest his elbows on his desk. "So, we have fewer of them here than usual."

"Preoccupied… because of the mystery dungeons that appeared across your kingdom overnight?" Yiazmat raised a brow. Yuna's tail crinkled up. She hadn't heard anything about that. A quick glance at Noctum suggested he was equally clueless. The only thing tipping her off that her mother wasn't bluffing was the momentary lapse in Vortex's cheery expression.

"I don't know what you're talking about." He preoccupied himself rearranging the papers Calcifer scattered. Yuna wasn't buying it. She poked her head out from behind the couch to get a better look at her mother's cross expression.

"Don't lie to me." Yiazmat crossed her arms. "I had some of my best fliers do a survey of the kingdom early this morning. There are distortion pillars rising up within your cities."

"It was also the cover story in the Radiant Beacon," Calcifer added. "I take it this is why neither of the queens are here? Because I would think that they would want to do their best to make their esteemed guests feel welcome and safe."

Vortex sighed and rubbed his horns. "Ah, forgive me. I was under the impression that a visiting delegation would refrain from conducting surveillance in a foreign territory." He pivoted his office chair slightly to look out the full-scale window behind him. "Especially a delegation seeking a treaty with said territory."

"Don't try to deflect the matter," Yiazmat growled. Shadows flared inside her horns. "The treaty hasn't been signed and we still remember the past icy receptions your nobility has given us."

"My apologies. I mean no ill-will." Vortex raised his hands and laughed innocently. "I'm sorry. The past twenty-four hours have been… stressful, to say the least."

Yuna gulped. It was true, then. Mystery dungeons were popping up within cities. Did that mean Horizon Gardens was vulnerable to the distortion, too? Could the school be swallowed up? If Yuna got trapped in a dungeon, she wouldn't stand a chance of escaping unharmed.

She looked around the room, desperate for any signs Vortex knew how to protect the school. All she got were some framed paintings of the charizard. Magazine covers labeling him "Person of the Year" or ribbon cutting ceremonies where he stood proudly with his gardevoir assistant. The shelves in the room didn't reassure her, either. There were small statues, glass figurines, a couple of antique snow globes, and collections of books about economics.

"Hey, is everything all right?" Noctum bent over. "You look a bit pale."

"You heard them. M-Mystery dungeons," Yuna squeaked. "What if… what if we get swallowed into a dungeon, Noctum?"

The black charizard gave her a quick side-hug with his right arm. "Baraz and I won't let that happen to you."

Yuna wished she found that reassuring, but kept thinking of the strange, helmeted beast that attacked her earlier. Why did it seem so interested in her? Was it trying to spread distortion into Horizon Gardens?

"Really? An accidental explosion?" Yiazmat drew Yuna's attention back to Vortex's desk.

Vortex sighed. "I'm afraid so. One of our Crowne Ministers was working with some guards in his estate when they accidentally set off several blast seeds in succession." He shook his head. "The explosion triggered what I believe are magical self-defense systems within the Needles. They generated the distortion pillars, creating the mystery dungeons in question."

"But Chancellor Vortex, how is that even possible?" Cid piped up. Yuna was surprised the orbeetle was still there. It seemed she wasn't the only one who could make her presence small. "The barriers Polaris developed are supposed to protect us from distortion."

"The barriers are designed to stop distortion with known, analyzed wavelengths," Vortex explained, gazing out his window at rolling green hills with train tracks wedged between them. "The Needles must've produced distortion fields with unique wavelengths."

"Then doesn't that mean your cities are going to be swallowed up by distortion?" Calcifer shot Yiazmat a worried look. Yuna's tail crinkled up again. The dreepy wanted to go back to her room and forget this day had ever happened.

"That remains to be seen. So far, there's been no spread," Vortex replied. "Perhaps the barriers are having an effect in that regard."

"We could offer you assistance," Yiazmat said. "The whole reason you want this treaty is because we can reduce distortion levels in your kingdom."

"Though I appreciate the thought, it's not my call." Vortex brushed off his jacket. "I defer to the queens and their advisors."

"And they are… where, exactly?" Calcifer asked. The duraludon tapped his right foot.

"Quelling fears within Parliament." Vortex walked back to his desk and resumed collecting scattered papers. "I would've gone there myself, but after I heard about what happened to your daughter, I thought it best to speak with you in-person."

"I see." Yiazmat crossed her arms. "So, rather than having one of them spare time to tend to their would-be allies, they offered us a glorified messenger lizard with a cane and a fancy suit." She glanced at the cane in question. The corviknight figurine sparkled from the afternoon sunlight.

"The cane is for show. A status symbol," Vortex retorted. "And make no mistake, Queen Yiazmat," he adjusted the lapels of his suit jacket, "unlike some charizard… I'm not content to kowtow to others."

It was quick, but Yuna spotted the sideways glance Vortex gave Noctum. He did, too, since he grabbed his shoulder belt while his tail flame shrank. "A-Again, Your Majesties, I'm really sorry about what happened," Noctum whispered, squeezing the belt straps.

"You're fine, Noctum." Yiazmat waved him off. "Well then, Chancellor, answer me this… knowing the community is at risk, do you still intend to hold this Crowne Cup event you railed about the other day?"

Vortex didn't hesitate with his response. "Absolutely." He held an index finger up. "I see that doubtful look in your eyes. But, dignitaries or not, I can't expect foreigners to understand and appreciate just what the Crowne Cup means to the kingdom and its people." Vortex stepped away from the desk and paced in front of the window. "It is more than a simple game or test… it is the foundation upon which our students build their futures!

"They get to see and experience the inner workings of important businesses throughout the kingdom. And the challenges the Ministers create pass their leadership skills to the next generation… all while the citizens watch and see their future leaders in action." He stopped and pointed at Yuna. "This journey… it will give you the keys to unlock a brighter tomorrow and spread hope to every corner of the world."

Vortex threw his arms apart, his coattails fluttering. "That is what the Crowne Cup is truly about: cultivating hope." A broad smile spread across his face. "Hope invigorates. Hope inspires. Hope brings people together. If we want a prosperous future, then we need hope."

He stopped to catch his breath, then looked back at Yuna's parents. "And that, Your Majesties, is why I won't cancel the Crowne Cup."

Yuna went slack-jawed. While Vortex's enthusiasm had previously unnerved her, the passion behind his impromptu speech made something stir inside her ectoplasm. She knew what this was. Her mother described it as her race's equivalent of a racing heart. The question is… am I excited or scared? She honestly wasn't sure.

"A moving speech." Yiazmat slowly applauded. "I daresay, were you among Aeons, you'd have numerous folks belting flames and dragonfire toward the sky in celebration."

Vortex's smile slowly receded. "I'm hearing… hesitation."

Yiazmat floated over to Yuna, who promptly tensed. "Cultivating hope sounds noble on paper. But it is something you can do without risking the safety of our daughter." The dragapult put her hands on the sides of Yuna's triangular head. "We'll let Princess Yunavresca stay… provided you withdraw her from the Crowne Cup."

"What?" Cid and Yuna exclaimed in unison. They looked in bewilderment at each other, before focusing on Yiazmat.

"You heard me, Yunavresca. I don't want you taking part in this ritual." Yiazmat leaned over. "You have far too much at stake."

"B-But, Mom—"

"This isn't open for negotiation."

Yuna's gaze fell toward the ground. Her mother was giving her an out. There'd be no worrying about a preliminary test or trying to work with complete strangers. Strangers who'd probably give her the cold shoulder because of her dragon-typing. She wouldn't have to battle, either. Yuna could keep her head down, focus on her school work, graduate, and return to her friends.

So why was this giving her pause? The longer the dreepy reflected on it, the less okay she felt about accepting it without a fight.

Vortex's footsteps broke the tense silence. He returned to his office chair and flipped through papers. "I see. I suppose I could arrange that. She wouldn't be the only one." He paused and pulled over yellow folder. "A few students always opt out for various reasons. But they have the luxury of doing so earlier… before the teams are set."

"Meaning what?" Calcifer asked.

"If I pull your daughter out… I'll also have to sideline the two students the committee partnered her with." Vortex held up the yellow folder. "And, well, I'm not too sure they'd take it well. To say nothing of how their parents would respond."

That was it. The reason Yuna was so unsure of it. She'd already gotten off to an awkward start with her peers. The last thing she wanted was to make things even worse by sitting out such a big, important event. That would isolate her from the rest of the school for sure.

"Are you serious?" Yiazmat's spectral tail lashed at the air. "You, an educator, would use peer pressure to try and get to our daughter? The nerve!"

Yuna looked at her mom. She had to say something. But the words were trapped in her mouth.

"Peer pressure?" Vortex raised his hands innocently. "I'm doing nothing of the sort. I'm only trying to give you the full picture."

"Mom, I—"

"We demand to speak to Queen Isola this instant," Calcifer said, ready to slam his fist on the desk again.

"Stop it!" Yuna finally yelled. She flinched at her shrill voice and shrank back when her parents looked at her.

"What's wrong, Yuna?" Calcifer took a step toward her. Yuna hovered higher.

"I… I don't want to sit out."

Yiazmat briefly glared at Vortex, before putting on a calmer expression to face her daughter with. "Yuna, sweetie, I understand how you feel, but—"

"No, you don't. C-Chancellor Vortex is right, Mom." Yuna squeezed the sides of her head. "I can't sit by while everyone else takes part in the Crowne Cup. It's just going to make the other students hate me." Her arms sagged. "They were already looking at me and Baraz funny this morning. I don't want to make it worse."

"That's no reason to put yourself in harm's way," Yiazmat said. "Just tell us who was making you uncomfortable. We'll talk with the queens and—"

"It won't work, Mom. You can't force people to like me," Yuna growled, only to throw her hands over her mouth. She waited until her trembling died down before continuing. "You and Dad always make a point of how you won't be around forever… and, once I'm queen, I'm going to have to look after myself and make my own decisions." Yuna squeezed her eyes shut. "W-Well, if I can't make decisions for myself in school… how can I expect to be a good queen for the kingdom?"

She poked an eye open. Noctum looked at her blankly, as did her parents. Cid focused on one of Vortex's lavender vases. The orange charizard, however, vigorously applauded her. "Well said, Princess!" He put his hands on his hips. "I was right in my assessment at the dining hall… you're going to do quite well here with that attitude."

Yuna blanched. "I, uh— thanks, sir." She curtly bowed.

Her parents, however, still looked concerned. "Yuna… we're worried about your safety," Calcifer said. "If we return home and something happens to you—"

"Isn't that why Noctum and Baraz are here?" Yuna gestured at the black charizard. "And what about Captain Dimitry?"

Vortex clasped his hands together. "If you're concerned for the Princess' safety, I can ask Her Eminence to loan Radiant Guardsmon. They can serve as escorts for her if she travels away from Horizon Gardens."

Yuna's parents exchanged frowns. For a moment, Yuna was worried she hadn't convinced them. But her spirits lifted when their postures eased up. "Very well. I suppose that she can take part… provided she receives that escort." Yiazmat looked down. "I'd rather surround her with my own troops, but we'll take what we can get in this situation."

"I assure you, I'll provide her with the most capable officers we have," Vortex said. He walked around his desk to make for the door. "Now then, how about I let Princess Yuna return to her room so she can prepare for the—"


Arianna appeared in front of the office door in a flash of blue light. Yuna tensed upon seeing the toxtricity she'd encountered earlier ensnared in the gardevoir's psychic grasp.

Vortex's tail flame briefly sparked. "Arianna. Your timing is… well, it could be better." He cleared his throat and gestured to Yuna's parents.

"Apologies. I assumed this meeting had already concluded." Arianna nudged her glasses up to hide her expression. Though Yuna imagined it was still stoic.

"It's not a problem. We were just about to take our leave." Yiazmat floated toward the door. Noctum scrambled forward to open it for her. "Come, Yuna. We'll take you back to your room."

"O-Okay." Yuna floated toward her mom. She quickened her pace when she passed Toxtricity.

Cid tried to follow after them, but Vortex held up his right hand. "Don't leave yet. We have business to discuss after I tend to this."

Tensing further, Cid held up his right arm. His telekinesis shut the office door. As he back away from Arianna, Vortex turned to her.

"So, what seems to be the problem? Is our dear, sweet Nicolette causing trouble again?"

"There's no problem. And it's Nikki." She tried to pull herself away from Arianna, but the gardevoir's ESP was too strong.

"I caught this scoundrel defacing the posters of Starlene that the art club put together for tonight's banquet." Arianna flicked her left arm. A rolled-up poster appeared next to her and unfurled. Nikki had spray-painted cartoonish dragon fangs and horns over a sparkle-filled drawing depicting a meloetta. Cid had to stop himself from laughing.

"I wasn't defacing 'em. I was adding my own artistic flair," Nikki grunted. Her struggling against Arianna had weakened.

Vortex sighed and rubbed his temples. "While I admire your passion, Nicolette, I can't have you channeling it against your peers." He took the poster, held it up to his snout, and snorted out tufts of fire. The poster burned to cinders that Vortex caught in his hands. He took them to a trash bin beside his desk. "Why don't you join the art club? That way you can channel this passion of yours in a way that will uplift students' spirits and grow their hope."

"The art club can kiss my ass. They're stuffier than a room full of weezing."

Arianna's eyes flickered blue. "Don't you talk down about your peers like that," she snapped.

Vortex chuckled and raised a hand. "Easy, Arianna. We don't want to quash Nicolette's spirit. It's part of what makes her unique." He sat on the edge of his desk, careful to keep his tail flame safely above the papers. "That uniqueness needs to be nurtured… in a way that's productive. So, this graffiti of yours simply won't do."

Nikki snorted. "Agree to disagree, Chancellor." She crossed her arms and looked away. "So, what now? You gonna make me miss the banquet? That's fine by me."

"That would be a proper punishment in this situation," Arianna said, looking down at her notebook.

"Proper? Perhaps. But would it be productive?" Vortex tapped a claw on his desk. He looked to Cid. "What do you think, Professor? Should Miss Nicolette be barred from the banquet?"

Cid tensed up. He intended to remain silent through this conversation. Heck, he was tuning the other three out until Vortex put him on the spot. "Y-Yes. Madame Vice-Chancellor is right, sir. If she's defacing banners for the banquet… won't she cause trouble at the actual event if we let her attend?"

"Indeed. A good deduction." Vortex crossed his arms and grinned pleasantly. "However, it's not a productive one."

Arianna quirked a brow. "Sir?"

"Chrome Dome's telling the truth, though. What if I take my artistic vision to the banquet itself?" Nikki smirked and tugged at the sides of her leather jacket.

Vortex's smile widened. "That's exactly what I want you to do."


"Like I said… your passion needs direction." Vortex crossed one leg over another. "Excluding you from the banquet does nothing to achieve that. But if I, say, assign you to work with the stage crew from now until the end of the banquet—"

Nikki's smirk vanished. "What? I'm not working on the stage crew. I'll blow out the lights with a Boomburst. I'll— ow!"

A psychic force tugged on her right horn. "Don't interrupt the Chancellor," Arianna scolded.

"Working on the stage crew is a great way to teach you to channel your passion in a productive manner." Vortex smiled warmly. "Once you see how much the students appreciate your work, I'm sure it will fill you with hope. Hope that will energize you in your studies."

Nikki wanted to retort, but Vortex held up his hand. "And, of course, I'll have Professor Monokuma supervise you… just to make sure everything goes smoothly."

The color drained from Nikki's face. A brief image of a hulking bewear flashed through Cid's mind. He hovered back, fidgeting nervously. The poor girl. If she stepped out of line, she'd probably get one of his awful hugs.

"Now then… Arianna, be a dear and escort Miss Nicolette to the gym." Vortex waved the two ladies off. Arianna nodded, then placed a hand on Nikki's shoulder. The toxtricity was about to blurt something out, but the two vanished as fast as they had appeared. Once they did, Cid exhaled deeply.

"I don't know how you can stay so calm dealing with that," Cid said, gesturing toward the marble floor where Arianna previously stood.

"I've had years of experience." Vortex chuckled as he walked toward the shelves opposite Cid. He opened a drawer and produced a bottle of bourbon along with two small glasses. "Would you like one?"

The orbeetle's spots flashed blue. "I'll, uh, pass, sir." He looked away while Vortex prepared his drink. "What did you want me to stay for?"

Sipping the bourbon, Vortex walked back to his desk. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to make some last-minute changes to the Crowne Cup team you're supervising."

"Y… you…" His spots flickered erratically. This had to be because of the meeting. "I see. So, you're moving the princess to a new team?"

"Oh no. You'll still be her advisor." Vortex set his drink down and opened up a folder. "But I'll be giving her two new teammates." He held up two photos. Cid immediately recognized Nikki sticking her tongue out and holding up her hand to form an L on her forehead. But the other photo — a scowling grovyle with black, triangular markings under his eyes and a black pokébase cap on his head — drew a complete blank.

"Sir, if I may? I'm not sure this is a good idea." Cid poked two fingers together nervously. "Nikki is quite the firebrand. Any team she's on will struggle to pass the first leg."

"That's the point."

The cheerfulness in Vortex's voice gave Cid pause. "I— e-excuse me?"

"Princess Yuna wants to compete in the Crowne Cup." Vortex held up his right hand. "Her parents don't." He held up his left hand. "Thus, the best way to approach this problem is to place her on a dysfunctional team that will likely fall at the first hurdle. She'll be able to compete, but will be eliminated early… dispelling her parents worries about travelling outside of Horizon Gardens." He clasped his hands together and squeezed tight.

Cid frowned. Hadn't Vortex mentioned a committee choosing the teams? Was he going to supersede that whole process on a whim? Still, Cid had to admit, it wasn't a bad plan. He just wished it wasn't his team that had to be the proverbial sacrifice in this situation. He didn't want his first impression with the other faculty to be that of a loser whose team got bounced from the Crowne Cup in the first leg.

"You're new to this, Cid." Vortex lifted his bourbon glass and held it by his snout. "You have yet to learn that diplomacy has just as much of a place in the classroom as it does in Parliament. Those who can make both sides happy go far in this profession."

He swallowed the rest of the bourbon in one swig and set the glass down. "If you can't drill that into your head… then the next time we meet, you'll be handing me your letter of resignation." Vortex frowned. "And I would hate to see your brilliant mind go to waste when it has such a great potential for cultivating hope."

Cid stared at the empty glass, then Vortex, then the glass again. Of course the Chancellor had high hopes for him. He wouldn't have hired him otherwise… right? "How, uh—" He swallowed hard. "How many professors have failed to, y'know, drill that into their heads?"

"In my time as Chancellor… I've had half a dozen resignations pass my desk." The charizard looked out the window pensively. "All young and bright-eyed like you."

"I see."

"But I have faith in your abilities." Vortex turned back around. "If you're ever struggling, I suggest you speak to Professor Vegna. He can help."


"Dusknoir Vegna."

Cid gulped. Hadn't he heard that name before? "Wait… like Inquisitor Vegna?

"The very same."

Cid's heart pounded in his chest. "R-Right." He buzzed toward the door. "I should get going. Thank you for your time, Chancellor."

Vortex smiled. "Anytime. I'll be seeing you at the banquet for the team unveiling, yes?"

"Of course, sir." Cid bobbed his head, then hurriedly flew out the door.

Apologies for the delay with this one. Been going through a serious depressive episode and my motivation to write had bottomed out. Hopefully you enjoyed this chapter even though it was just a lot of talking. See you next time.


PMD Writer
"A scratch on the eight ball. Looks like I win." Shimmer flicked his head to his right. "As if there was ever any doubt."
Think I mentioned something like this last time, but I really look forward to seeing Shimmer as a rival during the Crowne Cup. Same for his two friends. Perhaps I’m a little biased because of Berecien, but I enjoy reading Shimmer and I’m sure there will be some wonderful interaction between his team and Yuna’s. Especially with Nikki.

He noticed pit stains on Xander's pink lace robes.
I know horses are capable of sweating just like humans, but how the hell is a Sylveon doing it as well?

"Reasonable is an understatement," Shimmer scoffed. "He's tolerable at best."
Shouldn’t this be "overstatement"?

I hear they still live in shacks made of mud and rocks.
I’m actually curious how much of this is true. Are both kingdoms just as technologically advanced as each other? Or is one further ahead than the other?

"This is an outrage!" A duraludon slammed his silver fist down on a pristine, white oak desk. Papers scattered and folders opened. Spittle doused the papers closest to him. "We bring Yunavresca here as a gesture of goodwill and on her first day she's assaulted twice in the span of hours!"
How far are the capitals of both kingdoms from each other anyway? Since Yuna’s parents got here pretty fast.

Vortex sighed. "I'm afraid so. One of our Crowne Ministers was working with some guards in his estate when they accidentally set off several blast seeds in succession." He shook his head. "The explosion triggered what I believe are magical self-defense systems within the Needles. They generated the distortion pillars, creating the mystery dungeons in question."
Okay, I believe you.

"I defer to the queens and their advisors."
Wait there are multiple queens? How does that work?

"And make no mistake, Queen Yiazmat," he adjusted the lapels of his suit jacket, "unlike some charizard… I'm not content to kowtow to others."

"If you're ever struggling, I suggest you speak to Professor Vegna. He can help."


"Dusknoir Vegna."

Cid gulped. Hadn't he heard that name before? "Wait… like Inquisitor Vegna?
Well that sounds ominous. I'm curious to see who Vegna is and what the exact role of an inquisitor would be within the Kingdom of Radiance. Though, there is a missing quotation mark at the end this snippet.

And looks like that’s the end of the chapter already. A little on the short side, but given that it’s only the second chapter, I think it’s perfectly fine. Vortex really stole the spotlight in this chapter, though. He has a great feeling for politics and I wonder how much de facto power he has within the Kingdom, since I feel like it’s much more than what it seems. Still think he’ll become a villain at some point. He’s already trying to sabotage poor Yuna after all, even if the reason for doing so isn’t necessarily evil. Not sure whether he’d be on the same side as the Phantom with the plague mask or if he’d just be doing his own thing, but I guess we’ll see in due time.


Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 3: Banquet While You're Ahead
Yuna expected the dining hall to be the largest place on campus. However, she quickly realized the gymnasium dwarfed it. She figured her parents could fit three— maybe even four of their hundred-meter throne rooms across the polished wooden floor. It sparkled under the light of the moon and stars shining through the glass dome.

It also didn't take Yuna long to realize how overwhelming the banquet was. Sure, she'd been to dinner parties with her parents before. But they were, at most, a couple of dozen people. Not hundreds of pokémon of all different shapes and sizes mingling. After floating by the entry doors and staring at the large, T-shaped stage set up on the opposite end, she hovered toward the corner on her right.

At first, she did it to try and make the room seem smaller, but the smell of oven-cooked goodies made her mouth water. The dreepy zipped for the nearest table, only to slow up when she realized Noctum stood behind it. Yuna's attempts to duck behind a torkoal's shell failed when Noctum called out, "Ah, Princess, you made it. Come here and check this out."

Sighing, Yuna floated over to the table, trying to ignore Noctum's cheerful grin. His black scales clashed with the pink apron around his belly. "Hey, Noctum." She rubbed her neck. "Guess they've got you helping with the food?"

"I volunteered." Noctum puffed his chest out. "And I'm so glad I did. Otherwise, I never would've discovered these marvels!" He held up a serving tray full of what Yuna thought were shrunken quiches. "Look at them. I didn't think it was possible for a quiche to be this small." The charizard laughed. "You could tell me a bunch of joltik cooked them and I'd believe you."

"That's… nice." Yuna rubbed her arms together. "But I should really—"

"And that's not all." Noctum pointed to a tray on his right. There were doughy rolls with bits of vegetables sticking out. "Apparently they call these things 'spring rolls.' I'm not sure why, though. Perhaps it's the veggies?"

"Noctum, we need to bring out another tray of onion rings!"

"Ah!" The charizard's tail sparked blue. "Coming, Baraz!" He glanced at Yuna. "Sorry I can't stay and help you get acquainted with anyone, Princess. Cheers." Noctum spread his wings out and glided toward the staff door, leaving Yuna look over the spring rolls.

Well, if she was going to be alone, she could at least help herself to some good food. Yuna grabbed a plate then took a couple of mini-quiches and some onion rings. It occurred to her, however, that she'd need somewhere to set the plate down to eat properly. Fortunately, a quick glance right revealed some glass tables lined up against a plastic, segmented wall. Yuna found the wall strange, but didn't want to think too much on it. Otherwise, someone would swoop the lone empty table.

She floated over to it and set her plate down, sighing again. The dreepy raised a mini-quiche like she was about to make a toast. "Here's to… to…" Yuna looked around. Most of the students were conversing with one another. Some — including the tiara-wearing ponyta from breakfast — were on a raised dance floor in front of the stage. Ponyta basked under the glow of blue and violet stage lights.

"Here's to surviving the next month," Yuna whispered. She shoved the quiche in her mouth. The taste of egg, fresh feta cheese, and steak bits washed away her melancholy. Yuna grabbed another mini-quiche and scarfed it down. Wow. These chefs really know their stuff.

"Dreepy Yuna, I take it?"

The unfamiliar voice caught her mid-bite. Yuna spat the bit of quiche out onto her plate and coughed loudly. Even though she didn't have lungs, the food must've gotten tangled within a stretch of her inner ectoplasm.

"Easily startled, ain't ya?"

Yuna pivoted to her left, but failed to identify the source of the voice.

"On your right."

"Eh?" She turned back and screamed. A grovyle now stood opposite her, leaning against the wall. "W-What— can I help you?"

"Clearly not." Grovyle nudged the brim of his pokébase cap down to cover his eyes. "If you can't even keep a good eye on your surroundings, how can you expect to focus on what lies ahead?"

Yuna blinked. "I… beg your pardon? Do I know you?"

Grovyle took his mint sprig twig out of his mouth and flicked it away. "No."

"But you know me."

"I make it a point to know who I have to keep an eye on," Grovyle said, stepping closer to the table. His pitch-black, button down shirt and crimson tie unnerved Yuna. There was a black dragon skull pattern woven into the tie.

"So, you're a student here, too?" She spotted the school's rose insignia on his cap.

"Correct." Grovyle didn't make eye contact. He loosened the knot on his tie and tapped a claw on the table. "Those symbols. The ones on your crown and pendant." Grovyle rested his elbow on the table and perched his chin on his hand. "They're His emblem, aren't they?"

Yuna was in no mood to play the pronoun game. "Can you stop talking in riddles?"

"Aeons worship a divine light dragon called Bahamut," Grovyle continued, rolling back against the wall. He pulled another toothpick out of his breast pocket and stuck it in his mouth. "Around here… we're taught He's nothing but a figment of dragons' wild imaginations."

Her brows raised. Yuna wasn't expecting this guy to bring Bahamut up so casually, let alone recognize His emblem out of the blue. "Wait. Are you a believer?" She leaned in eagerly.

"Don't get any ideas." Grovyle crossed his arms and tucked his head against his chest. "Like I said… I make it a point to know what I can about people I have to keep an eye on."

"Okay, but why do you need to keep an eye on me?" Yuna puffed out her cheeks. She couldn't let this guy unnerve her so easily. He was her classmate, right? "Did someone from my kingdom cause you or your family grief? You can't possibly expect me to account for every dragon around the world."

"It's because we're teammates."

"Teammates?" Yuna stared at Grovyle blankly.

"Sheesh. This is like pulling teeth." Grovyle rubbed his temples. "You. Me. Crowne Cup team. Together." He finally looked Yuna in the eyes. The black, triangular markings under his eyes were barely visible with the gym's mood lighting.

"Oh. Okay."

It took a few seconds before Yuna truly processed what Grovyle told her. Once his words set in, her eyes widened. "Wait… what?!" She hovered closer to him. "How do you know that? The teams are supposed to be re—"

Grovyle shut Yuna's mouth with his right hand. "Quiet. I don't want to draw any unnecessary attention to us." He quickly glanced up, then looked back at Yuna. "If I let go, are you gonna scream again?"

Silently, Yuna shook her head. Grovyle was fast. Too fast for her to do anything about him. And Noctum and Baraz were still tending to the banquet's food, so she couldn't expect one of them to bail her out again. Still, her ectoplasm quivered. If first impressions were important, Grovyle wasn't endearing himself to her. Though she figured the reverse held true.

"Fine." He let go and stepped back. "Fact is… I got a quick look at the lineups backstage." He jerked his head toward the stage. More specifically, a large screen hanging over center it, surrounded by stage lights. "The Vice-Chancellor was scanning our pictures in to project onto that screen."

Yuna gasped. "How did you manage to do that without getting caught?"

"None of your business," Grovyle growled. He pivoted away from her. "Honestly, when I saw your photo, I thought it was a mistake."

"That you got teamed up with a princess?"

"No. That you'd yet to evolve."

Yuna winced. That one stung. "I, uh—" She clutched her pendant. "Dreepy already take a while to evolve. But when I was young, I got really sick. Mom told me it set my development back a few y—"

Grovyle held his left hand up. "Didn't ask. Didn't need the sob story."

"O-Oh…" Yuna's gaze fell. Wounded, her pride screamed at her to get a shot in. "Well, why aren't you a sceptile yet, huh?"

"None of your business why." Grovyle glared at her. Yuna shrank back. "Did I ask you why you're still a dreepy? No." He shook his head. "Don't assume. Miscommunications can get a 'mon killed in your line of work."

Yuna's fidgeting intensified. She somehow felt worse than she did a few minutes ago. If this was some sort of test, Yuna wanted out. "We're teammates, though," she whispered. "We should, y'know, talk about this stuff. It'll help us—"

Grovyle drew the bridge of his cap over his eyes again. "I'm not here to play nice and make friends with you. Especially when our other teammate is Nikki the Nuisance."

The dreepy mouthed the name to herself. "Who is—"

"A troublemaking toxtricity."

"Oh no." Yuna's neck and chest constricted. Of course she'd get paired with that girl. At this point, Bahamut was probably rolling around the skies, roaring with laughter.

"Yeah, I don't like it either. But at least Nikki's strong." Grovyle clicked his tongue. "Maybe we won't get bounced in the first leg."

"What does that mean?"

Grovyle groaned. "Lemme guess… nobody ever told you how the Crown Cup works." The distinct lack of a questioning tone in his voice drew a meek nod from Yuna. He took the toothpick out of his mouth and sighed. "Well then, keep your ears open because they'll be explaining the rules later." He pushed himself off the wall.

"Wait, aren't you going to tell me? Don't you want your teammate to know?"

"I don't really care. Like I said… I'm not here to make friends." Grovyle tipped his cap down again. "And I don't care about winning or going far in the Cup."

He began to walk away when Yuna floated in front of him. "Hang on. I—" She paused. "Even if you're not going to open up or anything… I at least deserve to know your name." Yuna crossed her arms. "So, I'm not letting you go until you tell it to me."

"Tch." Still gripping his cap, Grovyle looked right. "Chiaki."

Good, she got something out of him. "And what's your claim to fame?"

The grovyle glared at her. "Excuse me?"

"This is a school for nobility, isn't it?" Yuna said. "So, you must be pretty important."

Chiaki rolles his eyes. "If you must know… I'm next in line to inherit my family's business."

"Which is?" When Yuna didn't get a response, she said, "Lemme guess. It's—"

"None of your business." Chiaki sidestepped her. "Oh, and let me make one thing clear to you, Princess." He locked eyes with Yuna. "So long as we're working together, you need to learn to watch your back."

The moment he said that, something jabbed Yuna's right flank. Squealing, she turned around, only to find a trail of dust illuminated by a stage light. "Hey! What's the big idea?"

But Chiaki had already vanished, leaving Yuna floating above red and purple streamers that had fallen to the ground. The dreepy looked around in a panic. She knew he was fast, but how could he have fled without her hearing anything? The music wasn't that loud. After another quick survey of the area, she floated back to the table. Yuna grabbed the white tablecloth and brushed her side, sighing.

Looks like the Crowne Cup is already off to a riveting start, she thought, glowering at her half-eaten plate of hors d'oeuvres. Apparently, her appetite chose to abscond with Chiaki. She poked at the plate — fresh china, of course — then lowered herself down to rest her head on the table.

A part of Yuna thought it wasn't worth it to feel sorry for herself. However, a louder voice told her she should have listened to her parents wishes. Was this some sort of lesson from Bahamut? Something about respecting her elders or facing the consequences of not doing so? No, that was too on-the-nose. Maybe the selection committee Vortex had mentioned was biased against her because she was a dragon? Yuna wanted that to be false, but with all these icy receptions, she got the distinct feeling she wasn't wanted at Horizon Academy.

Well, if they're trying to scare me off, it won't work, Yuna told herself. After all, it's not like she'd please everyone once she became queen. If all it took was a few unpleasant classmates to send her back home, she'd be a spineless ruler.

Okay, technically she was spineless, but it was a metaphor.

Yuna clasped her hands together and placed them against the amulet around her neck. O' Luminous Creator, hear my prayers. Mighty Bahamut, please—

"Good evening, my lovely students!"

Feedback sounded from the large square speakers flanking the stage. Squealing, Yuna threw the tablecloth over her. That was a sound she wasn't remotely used to. When she noticed the music and distant conversations had stopped, she poked her head out. Chancellor Vortex stood under a pale blue spotlight. He'd swapped his earlier suit out for a ruby-encrusted tuxedo and a bowtie sporting flame patterns. Even with her limited wardrobe, Yuna found it tacky.

"I'm glad to see you all here, excited and healthy, as we get ready to kick off another year of the Crowne Cup!" Vortex spoke into a silver rod that Yuna had never seen before. Whatever it was managed to amplify his voice through the speakers.

It's not Hyper Voice or Uproar. Otherwise most of the room would be flinching in pain, right? She made a mental note to ask Noctum if charizard could learn sound-based attacks.

Arianna leaned into the spotlight and whispered to Vortex. He nodded and his posture slouched a bit. "While I'm not usually one to dampen the atmosphere, I do want to take a moment to address a concern I'm sure many of you have." Vortex clutched the talking rod tight. "Yesterday night, our beloved Crowne Minister, Lord Douglas, passed away in an unfortunate accident."

Murmurs rose up, but Yuna couldn't tell who was saying what. The gym had darkened to the point where all she only saw outlines. And using her night vision would be fruitless with so many pokémon packed into the gym. She assumed the other students were talking about the accident. Yuna remembered hearing it in Vortex's office. But seeing as she didn't even know what a Crowne Minister was, she wasn't really sure how to react.

"Now, now." Vortex raised his free hand. "I'd like to assure you all this will not impact the start of the Crowne Cup. The kingdom is looking forward to seeing you all in action." He leaned over so Arianna could whisper to him again. "However, before we start the festivities, let us have a moment of silence to honor Lord Douglas and his service to the kingdom."

The spotlight dimmed. Vortex lowered his hands and tucked his chin into his chest. Yuna saw the silhouettes near her shift around in the dark. They must've been doing the same thing. Rather than bow her head, however, Yuna looked above the stage. The large screen Chiaki mentioned had powered up, casting a blue glow across the stage and the dance floor in front of it.

"All right." Vortex stood up straight. "Now then… this is normally the part where I'd talk your ears off with a grand speech about what an honor it is to participate in the Crowne Cup. But, as anyone who isn't a first-year could tell you, nobody likes my long-winded speeches. So, this year, we're going to cut right to the chase."

He spread his arms and wings out. His tail flared up. "Presenting… this year's Crowne Cup teams and their faculty coaches!"

Different-colored spotlights swirled around the screen while student pictures lined up in groups of three. For a brief moment, Yuna wondered if Chiaki lied to her. But he was quickly proven right when Yuna found his photo next to hers… along with the toxtricity she'd seen earlier. Nikki the Nuisance.

What she wasn't prepared for, however, was a familiar orbeetle's picture next to Nikki's. That explains the outburst when my parents wanted to pull me from the Cup. It was relieving to see that, even if her teammates would be problematic, Yuna's coach was someone she was friendly with.

The other students' excited chatter quickly died down and the screen darkened once more. "Again, I did have some more presentations planned," Vortex said, adjusting his bowtie. "But I don't think we want to keep our special guest waiting, do we?"

Enthusiastic cheers rose up from the students. In the middle of the crowd, a copperajah trunk raised up, tossing what Yuna assumed was confetti around.

"Ho ho! I thought as much." Vortex tapped his pudgy belly. "Then, without further ado, I'll turn things over to our glee club president, Prince Shimmer. Take it away!"

The spotlight on Vortex darkened. A second later, another stage light shined on the tiara-wearing ponyta. He stood atop wavy, red and white music bars with sapphire eight notes spread across them.

It occurred to Yuna that her parents had never brought up the fact that the queens had a son. Then again, neither of the queens had, either. It was odd. Wouldn't they want her to make nice with the future king?

"Good evening, Horizon Academy!" Shimmer spoke into a headset gently fitted around his diamond tiara. "Are you ready to party?"

"Yeah!" the crowd responded.

"Heh." Shimmer swished his sparkling mane over his left shoulder. It brushed against the white feathers lining his silver gown. "That's what I like to hear! I'm sure I speak for Chancellor Vortex, my parents, and everyone in Parliament when I say I'm looking forward to seeing you give it your all in the Crowne Cup."

He smirked. "I'm especially keen on seeing what the Aeon Princess is capable of. Aren't you?"

A beat passed, then it dawned on Yuna that Shimmer was talking about her. That moment, a light shined on her from above. Squealing, Yuna threw her arms over her head. She faintly made out a sylveon's outline up in the rafters, clutching a portable light in its ribbons.

"How about we give it up for the first dragon to attend to our academy?" Shimmer declared. Yuna's face paled as a tepid smattering of applause greeted her. She wanted to shrivel up or hide under the table. But what kind of message would that send?

She had to focus on her breathing. In. Out. Straighten up. Another breath.

Yuna lifted her right hand and waved to the crowd. "Thanks," she said, though her voice didn't carry far. The dreepy sighed in relief when her spotlight went out.

"How adorable." Shimmer chuckled and the crowd laughed with him. Yuna's heart sank. "Anyway, onto what you've been waiting for!" The ponyta cleared his throat. "As glee club president and Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Radiance, it gives me great pride to introduce our special guest performer for the evening."

He gestured down to the stage with his right foreleg. "You know her. You love her. You shake your money makers when you hear her. Opening up with her debut hit, 'Path of Valor,' it's the one and only Radiant Diva herself. Give a warm Horizon Academy welcome to… Starlene!"

Roaring applause made Yuna wonder if she'd feel the ground shaking were she not floating. Shimmer's light switched off while the spotlight on center stage turned back on. A pink smokescreen filled up the stage area. Yuna hovered higher to get a better look. Where was this Starlene lady? Shouldn't she have walked on stage by now?

A keyboard rift sounded. The haze lifted, revealing a pokémon Yuna had never seen before. Like Shimmer, she had some sort of crystalline headset on. But her hair seemed made of music bars and notes. She twirled around — puffy pink skirt fluttering — and beamed for the crowd.

"Even the darkest of storms,
Will falter in the face of,
Everlasting hope and valor!"

The stage fully lit up, revealing a primarina sitting behind a keyboard set, a rillaboom pounding away at luminescent drums, and a lopunny strumming away at an electric guitar. Four diamond wings unfurled from Starlene's outfit as she pirouetted into the air and glided toward the edge of the stage.

"Together we'll work toward the future.
We'll spread peace, love, and smiles!"

The screen projected a close up of Starlene dancing, forming a heart with her hands and flashing her pearly whites in the center of the heart. The crowd thundered with delight.

"There's nothing we can't put our minds to!
Change won't start until we try!"

Though everyone clearly seemed to be enjoying themselves, the baubles on Yuna's head shriveled up. Her headed pounded. Her eyes throbbed in their ectoplasmic sockets. Something was wrong.

"It won't be easy.
There will be struggles.
You may want to pack it in."

Was it the volume? No. Yuna had been around roaring dragons her whole life. What then? Why did it feel like something was trying to burst out of her forehead? She grabbed the tablecloth again and squeezed it tight.

"But don't despair.
Hold your heads high.
And keep on grasping hope!"

"Keep on grasping hope!" the crowd chanted back. Were their screams of delight getting louder or was Yuna losing it?

"Everyone… all together now!" Starlene said, thrusting her arms to the sides and levitating into the air while fairy dust swirled around her.

"We'll walk it. The Path.
The Path of Valor.
To a future filled with hope!

There's nothing that can stop us.
When we're united.
Raising our voices as one!"

Yuna's vision flashed. Starlene blurred together with the flashing lights into a sea of swirling colors. Her lyrics faded into nothing but distant noises. Yuna vigorously rubbed her eyes, but her sight only grew hazier. She squeezed her eyes shut, silently willing her headache to stop.

Purple smoke drift in from all around her. Her breath caught in her throat. Yuna's eyes forced themselves open. A sea of purple and black smoke spread in front of her. However, something stirred in the fog.

Long. Slender. A serpent. And it was looking right at her with piercing red eyes.

"Wh… what—" Yuna tried to shut her eyes, but couldn't. Golden lines and rings flashed on the serpent's body. Then a large maw opened… and the serpent lunged right for Yuna.

She heard herself scream for all of a second before her world fell to darkness.


Hooves struck cobblestone with each step a keldeo took along the road leading up to the top of a grassy hill. His crimson and scarlet uniform brushed against his fur. Rose and sword-shaped medals and badges clinked against his chest. The keldeo kept his eyes fixed on the grounds, annoyed at having to walk when a trolley could've gotten him to the top of the hill far faster.

"Remind me, Sergeant… erm…"

The cofagrigus floating beside him rifled off a salute. "Rune! S-Sergeant Rune! And I m-must say, Commander S-Seifer, it is an honor to—"

Seifer stepped in Rune's path. His armored horn sparked with red energy. "Lower your voice. Were you not the one who insisted we walk in order to keep a low profile?"

Rune shrank back, tucking his four arms into the red gauntlets on his torso. "A-Apologies, sir. Won't happen again."

"Now then… tell me why you explicitly requested me to come out here?" Seifer turned away from Rune and focused on the top of the hill. A large, stationary, purple cyclone towered over the Radiant Guardsmon. Shards of metal lay scattered about the grassy fields on either side of the road. Remnants of a fence that once surrounded a beloved park.

"S-Someone broke curfew and charged through our barricade, sir," Rune reported. "I thought he might be trying to breach the mystery dungeon."

"And? Why not tell that to your unit captain?" Seifer snorted. "This is why I stationed you all in the city." He lifted his nose up. "I'll bet you didn't even get a good look at the bugger responsible. Probably some low-life thievul thinking the mystery dungeon holds untold riches."

"That's just it, sir." Rune poked his index fingers together. "I did get a good look at the person responsible. And when I told the captain, he said to find you right away because it matched the description of the 'mon who attacked the Aeon Princess this afternoon."

Seifer's horn flashed bright blue. "Why didn't you lead with that? To hell with keeping a low profile!" He galloped toward the edge of the distortion, only to slow up when he saw a black silhouette against the purple wind. "You there! This is a restricted area. And you're breaking the curfew set by Her Eminence, Queen Isola. Step forward and identify yourself immediately."

He stood there, waiting for the shadow to move. But aside from the howls of the distortion field, he got no response. The shadow remained still. Seifer lowered his horn. Red aura concentrated toward the tip. "This is your final warning. Step forward and identify yourself or I will use force," he declared.

"Kheh heh…"

Shabby, green talons scraped against the cobblestone. Seifer's ears folded in pain. Rune conjured toxins between his hands. "This is why I wanted to keep a low profile, sir."

"Not now," Seifer hissed in a whisper. "Okay, that's half the battle. Now… a name, please."

"What does it matter?" Another set of talons appeared, wrapped in rusted chains. Then a black, torn cloak draped over a broad torso. And finally, a stone mask, chipped enough to show beady gray eyes. "I am nothing but an omen. You don't need to know the name of a nobody like me. Once I save you from the ether's false hope… I won't matter at all."

Seifer rolled his eyes. Great, so the trespasser what a nutjob. Which just begged the question of how they could get all the way here from Horizon Gardens so quickly. He doubted this lug could stow away on train without being caught. "Whatever tea you're drinking… you can tell us all about it down at lockup." The keldeo lowered his glowing horn again. "Now, hold still, so we can restrain you."

"Hee hee."

"Something funny, punk? You're in a lot of trouble!" Rune floating forward, having finally found his voice. Poison dripped from his hands.

"Sergeant, wai—"

But before Seifer could finish his warning, a spectral hand appeared beneath Rune and grabbed hold of him. Whinnying in surprise, Seifer shot an Aura Sphere from the tip of his horn. It sailed harmlessly through the disembodied arm, all while Rune screamed.

Then came the laughter. Quiet at first, but steadily building in intensity. Seifer looked at the trespasser. His gray eyes had otherworldly layers to them. They looked more like targets than proper eyes. What was this thing?

"Stop this at once!" Seifer slashed the air with his horn. A red crescent flew toward the trespasser, but he just stood there.

"Aha ha ha ha…" A sharp wheeze punctuated his laughter. "Aha ha ha ha haaaaa! Your words… you're both past the point of salvation!"

A black tendril emerged from the distortion behind the monster, snuffing out Seifer's Secret Sword a foot away from his opponent.

"Commander… run! Run and— bwaah!"

The giant hand tossed the screaming, flailing cofagrigus right into the cyclone. The distortion swallowed him up instantly. His wails echoed across the hill like a booming thunderclap. Seifer's Aura Sphere petered out on the tip of his horn before it fully formed.

"I mean… it's not like I expected a simple omen could guide everyone to salvation," the helmeted beast continued. "Still, to falter at this first hurdle. Aha ha. Aha ha ha!" He slammed a chained foreleg on the ground repeatedly. "To think there's such a huge gap between me and Him. Oh well… it can't be helped."

"Stand down, cretin!" Keeping his distance, Seifer slashed the air three times. But the Secret Sword crescents were countered by a small wall of distortion that popped up in front of the beast. Seifer stepped back, eyes wide.

The beast lumbered toward him. "But it's okay. Even if I'm useless… I can deliver you to Natus. So that you can accept His loving embrace." He stopped and descended into a coughing fit. "Only then… can we blot this false hope blanketing your being. The false hope of the ether!"

"Y… you're mad!" Seifer held his ground. If his strongest normal techniques wouldn't work, then he'd have to dig deep. He'd have to call on his Dyna-Force. There was no time to get help. Seifer was all that stood between this creep and the people of the slumbering city.

"You can call me whatever names you feel like." The beast swayed left and right. Shadows gathered around his talons. "That is just the ether talking. I'll lovingly accept all of its hatred… so that you too can welcome Natus with purity in your heart!"

Seifer held his horn high. Red light shot into the air; a beacon against the night sky. The ground trembled. Seifer dug his hooves in. A giant, ethereal fist descended from the heavens.

"What?" The beast looked up moments before the fist collided with him. Seifer shielded his eyes from the ensuing red geyser. When the light faded, the beast was staggering back toward the distortion. And yet his eyes… sparkled? Seifer couldn't deny it. Even though his Dyna-Fist had struck home, the monster looked happy to have been hit.

"Aha ha." He wheezed and sputtered. "So this… is the depths of your false hope? You would take His love and twist it into something so… toxic." More laughter rumbled in his throat. "And yet… it is so interesting! The ether has its thorny tendrils dug right into you, but you're too blind to see it!" His right hind leg slid into the distortion. "Ha… aha ha. A lowly omen… bested by a slave of the ether yet again. How humiliating. But even this… this humiliation. I'll endure it all… so this world can rise to even greater heights."

Seifer didn't make any effort to stop the beast from slinking off into the distortion. He was too tired. But his work wasn't done. He had to get back to the command post and report that Rune had been lost to the distortion.

No, he had to get to Radiant Palace. The queens needed to know of this 'omen.'

Starlene's song is (very loosely) sung to the tune of Mayu Mineda's "Luminous Promise" from Gunvolt Chronicles: Luminous Avenger iX. The more you know, right? See you next time.


Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 4: Rules Not Made to be Broken
Sighing, Vortex rested his head against his right hand and drummed his left fingers against his desk. "You're blowing this out of proportion," he said, eyes fixed on a blue, triangular gemstone in front of him. "This was nothing but an isolated incident. She probably suffered some degree of sensory overload."

The gem bristled with light and a gravelly male responded, "A likely story. It's a coincidence in the same way the attempted assault she suffered was a coincidence." Silence followed, then, "I've worked too long and too hard on forging this treaty to see things fall apart because of your flights of fancy.

That got the charizard's tail flame crackling. In the corner of the room, Arianna glanced up from her notebook, but Vortex held his hand up. When he was sure she'd relaxed, he tented his fingers together in front of his snout. "You forget, Demerzel, that I've been working with Her Eminence far longer than you have."

"Then tell me… why was I the one standing at Queen Isola's side while she was quelling fears in Parliament?" The gem dimmed, then abruptly lit up. "The Ministers aren't dumb like those meltan servants of yours. I could tell none of them were buying the story that Douglas died in an accident."

Vortex wanted to issue a snide remark about whether that was Demerzel's ESP or intuition talking, but shoved that thought aside. "Well, you already erased the memories of those who saw Douglas' assailant, right?"

A long silence followed. "I did."

"Then there's nothing to worry about." Even though he tried to sound cheerful, Vortex's voice was strained. The Aeon Princess was turning into a trouble magnet and he did not need that on his plate.

"Au contraire, monsieur," Demerzel scoffed. "There is plenty to worry about… even if we sidestep your asinine decision to hold the Crowne Cup despite—"

Again, Vortex's tail flared. "As I've told you multiple times, the Crowne Cup is essential to morale throughout the Kingdom. Without it—"

"Yes, yes, the people will lose hope and all that happy nonsense."

"You could try saying that less mockingly."

"I'm not calling to debate the semantics of your glorified reality show," Demerzel said. "I'm calling because of the Diva Project. As I understand it, you pitched it to Her Eminence. Parliament approved the funding. And now it could jeopardize this essential treaty. So, how do we fix it? You're running the project. I demand answers."

"Isolated. Incident."

"I don't buy that for a second," Demerzel huffed. "I read through the documents you gave Queen Isola. Starlene's songs are supposed to pacify anyone who listens while strengthening their spirit so they can work harder. The Aeon Princess had the exact opposite reaction: pain and a loss of consciousness." He paused. "You can't really call that a coincidence."

Demerzel had a point, but Vortex refused to acknowledge that. Clearly, he'd have to do some digging. As memory served him, no one else had ever had such a reaction to Starlene's music. Which meant the problem lay with Princess Yuna, not Starlene. He wished Yuna's parents were still here, but they'd already departed. So, he couldn't test Starlene's music on them to see if they had the same reaction.

"Well… are you going to say something? I don't have all night."

"The treaty won't matter if our kingdom falls into an energy crisis." Vortex rose from his seat. "Why didn't Parliament approve the budget extensions for Icarus? I only have enough funding to last the next month or two and it won't be ready by then."

A sneer echoed through Vortex's office. "Don't patronize me. Your manufactured energy crisis is small potatoes when there's distortion threatening to overrun the kingdom and make it one giant mystery dungeon."

Vortex slammed his hands on his table. God was Demerzel annoying. Again, Arianna looked up and again he waved his assistant off. Deep breaths. Steady hands were needed. Anger wouldn't get him anywhere.

"Icarus can put a stop to that, too. I just need proper funding for it. All the Ministers were on board last time I spoke to them, so what gives?"

"It's the MPs. They're skeptical. They think you're playing things too close to your vest," Demerzel replied. From his tone, Vortex assumed Demerzel agreed with them. "They want details… like what this energy source you claim Icarus can tap into is."

Before he could dig his claws into his expensive desk, Vortex raised his hands and balled them into fists. "I see."

"So, what are you going to do about the Diva Project?"

Vortex was not in the mood to continue this conversation. "I've got it under control."

"Are you kidding? Do you really expect—"

"I do." The charizard picked up the crystal and twisted the bottom. The glow subsided and Demerzel was cut off mid-sentence. Groaning, Vortex slumped back in his chair and undid his bowtie. Snapping his claws, he croaked, "Gin and tonic."

Arianna flicked her right hand. A desk drawer opened to Vortex's right and out came two bottles and a glass. Arianna telekinetically prepared the drink and set it down on a coaster beside Vortex. The charizard swallowed the glass' contents in a single gulp.

"What's the plan here, sir?"

Vortex put the glass on the coaster. "We intercept any and all mail to or from Yuna and her entourage."

Arianna quirked a brow.

"We can't give Yuna's parents the impression that she's having anything less than the time of her life here," Vortex continued. "Because we have to keep them as far away from Horizon Gardens as possible. If they think she's enjoying the school, they won't be inclined to visit and she can't tell them about what happened during Starlene's performance."

"And what if the parents get suspicious?"

"That's where you come in." Vortex flicked a hand in Arianna's direction. "I've seen all of these dragons' penmanship. It's… crude. I have no doubt you can mimic it perfectly."

"You want me… to forge correspondence between Princess Yuna and her family?" Arianna's expression remained as stoic as ever.

"Not just them… between all the Aeons at this school and their counterparts back home." Vortex rested his elbows on his chair's armrests and clasped his hands together. "Will that be a problem?"

Arianna nudged her glasses. "Not at all, sir."

"Good. Now, go check on Starlene. I can't have her feeling glum over Yuna's fainting spell when she has another concert tomorrow."


When Yuna finally pried her eyes open, she wasn't staring up at the gym's rafters and glass dome. Instead, a blue tile ceiling hung above her. A long, cylindrical light cast a red and orange glow all around her. She found it odd. While not used to the electric lights the school had access to, all the other ones she'd seen until now were much brighter.

"What happened?" Her voice cracked. Yuna's throat burned. It was as if she hadn't had a drop of water in ages. She blinked a few more times. Her bearings returned to her. With them came the gentle touch of soft linens against her head and back.

Yuna knew she wasn't in her bed. Her room had a higher and darker ceiling. However, Yuna's attempts to float up left her dizzy. Her head thumped back against the pillow. It was then that she noticed a blue curtain beside a set of metal shelves.

"Am I… in a hospital?" she wondered, spotting a small stand on top of the metal shelves holding a bag of clear fluid. She followed a rubber tube from the back to her hand.

"If, by hospital, you mean the school's clinic, then yes."

The dreepy was too tired to be startled by another unfamiliar voice. Her gills tensed briefly, but relaxed while she rolled to her left to see who was talking to her. However, like with Starlene, she'd never seen the pokémon standing beside her bed before. His black-furred hands held a clipboard and a pen, which he looked down at with his large, red-and-yellow eyes while he scribbled away.

Yuna squinted, then blinked a few times. Was this some sort of Radiant-native evolution for Shiftry? It was the only explanation she could think of.

"What's with the look?" Her visitor looked up from his clipboard. "Let me guess… first time seeing a zarude?" He chuckled. "I'm used to getting that same curious stare from all the new students."


"That's my species." He ran his claws through the black tufts of fur on his forehead. "We're native to the Armour Archipelago, but I immigrated here to practice medicine." He paused. "Ah, sorry. You're not interested in that. Where are my manners? I'm Doctor Rafique." He pivoted to show off his name stitched into his white coat. "I run the student health center."

Yuna again tried to sit up, but to no avail. Not that it would've done her any good, since she was surrounded by the blue curtain. "I was… at the Crowne Cup Ball. How did I get here?"

"It seems you fainted in the middle of Miss Starlene's performance." Rafique looked down at his clipboard. "Professor Vegna brought you here. He was… concerned, I think? It's hard to tell with him sometimes." A beat. "Okay, all of the time. But don't tell him I said that."

Yuna opted not to press Rafique further on who Professor Vegna was. "So, how long have I been out?"

"It's nine in the morning."

"Nine in the morning?!" Her gills shriveled. "But that means classes are st—"

"No, classes start tomorrow. Chancellor pushed them back for this new preliminary Crowne Cup round he invented."

"Oh, okay." Yuna's relieved sigh quickly gave way to another frightened gasp. "But wait… if I'm here, how can I participate? Is my team gonna have to forfeit?"

"You'll be ready to compete this afternoon." Rafique walked over to Yuna's right. "As far as I can tell, there isn't anything wrong with you other than a touch of dehydration, so I've been giving you some fluids." He tapped the tray atop the metal shelf that, on closer inspection, was actually a cart on four wheels. "I'll be clearing you for discharge soon. My only recommendation is not to try and turn yourself intangible for the next day or two. It might cause you to pass out again."


With that out of the way, Yuna looked down at her wispy torso. Why had she immediately gravitated toward her classes and the Crowne Cup when there were more pressing matters to attend to? Like…

"What about my parents? Do they know what happened?"

At that, the curtains opened opposite her bed and Noctum poked his black-scaled head in. "I'm sorry, Princess, but we weren't able to reach them before they boarded the Intercontinental Express to return home."

Sighing, Rafique rubbed his temples. "I thought I told you to wait until I gave the okay to come and see her."

Noctum flinched. "Apologies. I heard her voice and assumed it was okay."

"It's fine." Rafique waved him off while Yuna tried to sit up in her bed.

"So, um, what's going to happen? Are we going to send notice to them?" she asked.

"Baraz and I think that's best." Noctum looked at Rafique. "We thought a doctor's note would be most helpful in assuring them everything's okay."

"I can arrange that." Rafique stepped toward the curtain. "Give me a moment to fetch my letterhead." He pulled the curtain back. "In the meantime, you have some other visitors."

Other visitors? Yuna figured it was Baraz and Dimitry, so she was surprised to see Cid hovering behind Noctum on the other side of the curtain. Chiaki was also there, standing with his back against a wall and watching the toxtricity seated opposite him intently.

"O-Oh. Hi." Yuna blinked slowly. "I wasn't expecting to see you guys."

"I saw Professor Vegna carry you off. Wanted to see if it was anything serious," Chiaki said, tipping the bridge of his cap over his eyes. "Professor Cid brought her." He gestured to Nikki, who glanced at Yuna's bed, then yawned and shifted her position so she was sitting sideways in the chair.

Hearing that from Chiaki was surprising. After their introduction, Yuna assumed the grovyle wanted nothing to do with her. Chiaki seemed to pick up on her line of thought as he gave her a side-eyed look and said, "Don't get any ideas. I just want to make sure we don't have to forfeit this preliminary round."

"Right." Yuna sighed. "Well, the doctor said I'm okay to compete this afternoon." She wanted to move around more, but figured doing so would disrupt the tubing giving her fluids.

"… heh." Nikki rubbed the bridge of her nose. "It's not like we need your help or anything, but the rules are all 'You've got to have a full team of three for this round.'"

"I see." Yuna's gills constricted.

"Now, Nikki, that's no way to talk to your teammate," Cid scolded, hovering in front of the toxtricity to show off his disapproving look.

"What? I'm just being honest." Nikki shrugged. "She looks as frail as a sunkern. And, like, dragons don't get a lot of decent attacks in their base forms. Ain't that right, Twiggy?"

"That's… correct." A vein bulged out of Chiaki's head. He wasn't a fan of Nikki's nickname.

"Yes, it's true." Yuna couldn't rub her hands together without knocking the tubing loose and her pendant had been removed, so she had nothing to fidget with. She settled for clutching her blanked with her free hand. "But I bought a bunch of wands and stuff. So, like, I can disrupt everyone. Since, y'know, this is a race. And we need to make sure we don't come in last place." She laughed nervously.

"I appreciate the sentiment, Princess, but it won't be necessary." Nikki smirked and crossed her legs. Yuna frowned. She didn't need to read auras to tell Nikki wasn't calling her "Princess" endearingly.

The toxtricity hopped out of her chair and looked at Chiaki. "You got a means to avoid attacks? Y'know, like Protect or something?"

"Of course I do." Chiaki tipped his cap up. "People like me need Protect at their disposal."

Nikki laughed and clapped Chiaki's shoulder. "Then we've got this in the bag, Twiggy!"

Scowling, Chiaki stepped away from Nikki. "Forgive me if I don't share your confidence."

"Yeah. How can you be so sure about this?" Yuna hadn't even met the other competitors beyond Shimmer and had no idea what kinds of techniques they had at their disposals.

"Trust me." Nikki strummed the purple, gelatinous gills on her chest. "If Twiggy throws up a Protect the moment the starting bell sounds, then we'll be golden. We may even have a chance to take first place."

Yuna raised a skeptical brow. That sounded way too good to be true. She remembered Chiaki saying that Nikki was strong, but there's no way she could put the team in a position to win the race instantly… right? "Um… how exactly will we be golden?" she asked.

"Ah, ah." Nikki wagged an index finger. "Trade secret."

Cid's spots flickered pink. "Nikki, we're a team, remember? If you have a strategy, then you should key your teammates in so they can support you."

"I don't need their support." The toxtricity continued strumming away at her gills. "Once it's go time… I'm going to blow the other teams away. Then we can waltz through the labyrinth and avoid the punishment for finishing last." She smirked. "Since we can't use revivers for this race, if I knock those dolts out, they won't even have a chance to enter the labyrinth."

Yuna gasped. "Knock them all out? You can do that?"

"Leave the finer points to me, Princess." Nikki tapped the side of her head. "Trust me… it'll all work out."

Yuna wished she found that reassuring. "Oh, wait. I don't know Protect. Should I be worried?"

"Nope. You're a ghost. My plan won't affect you."

Chiaki poked his cap up a bit further. "And what about the other ghosts in our year?"

"They won't be able to do much with their teammates KO'd." Nikki flashed a toothy grin. "The rules say all three team members have to cross the finish line."

"I'm surprised you actually read them," Chiaki said, leaning back against the wall.

"Well, I wanted to be sure my plan would work." Nikki rubbed her hands together. "Any other questions?"

"I have one, actually." Yuna raised her free hand. "What's our team name gonna be? We're supposed to come up with one, right?"

"We did. We're Team Bastion," Chiaki replied.

"I came up with it," Cid chirped. "See, a bastion is a part of a fortress' design. It allows you to spread defensive fire in all directions." He pivoted to look at all three students. "Since you all come from very different walks of life… I thought the name fit."

Wouldn't something like 'Team Diversity' make more sense, then? Yuna kept the thought to herself. Frankly, it was better than anything she could imagine her teammates coming up with.

"I helped with the name, too." Noctum's tail flame burned bright. "And your teammates liked it."

"Okay. So, Team Bastion." Yuna looked at Nikki. Though she still wasn't sure what the toxtricity had planned, she had to admit that the thought of the preliminary round going smoothly sent an excited chill down her backside. "Yeah, I can get behind it."

She offered the group a smile. "Let's… let's give it our all this afternoon, okay?"

Noctum puffed out his chest. "That's the spirit, Princess!"

Chiaki crossed his arms and looked away. "Whatever. I just hope this plan of yours works, Nikki."

"Trust me. Those clods won't know what hit 'em."


Yuna wasn't sure what she found more surprising: the fact that the gym had been cleaned following the banquet so quickly or that the glass ceiling and plastic walls could retract into the ground and give way to a wide-open field. She hovered next to Cid, staring at the crystal walls jutting out of the floor to form the labyrinth her teammates had mentioned.

"Why are you still wearing that eyesore of a jacket?" Chiaki asked, drawing Yuna's attention over to Nikki. "It's going to weigh you down." The grovyle still had his pokébase cap on, but was wearing a black jumpsuit.

Nikki waved him off. "Why are you still wearing that emo hat, huh?"

Chiaki briefly drew his lips back in a snarl. "That's…" He pulled the cap down over his eyes. "It's personal."

"Guys, can we ease up on the bickering?" Yuna still couldn't fidget with her pendant. She'd given it to Baraz for safekeeping. "I know you said you had a plan, Nikki, but I don't think this is going to help us."

"Agreed." Cid hovered toward the chalk starting line. The other teams were grouped up on either side of Team Bastion. Most were in huddles. "Remember… the labyrinth walls will shift every few minutes. And the Crowne Committee placed traps throughout the maze. Anything can happen."

"Psshaw. You worry too much, Chrome Dome." Nikki stuck her right hand into her jacket pocket and pulled out a pair of camo goggles.

Yuna tilted her head. "Wait, what are those?" She didn't remember seeing any eyewear on the list of approved items.

"My good luck safety googles." Nikki slid the strap over her head. Yuna marveled at the band phasing through Nikki's mohawk. It must've been pure electricity.

"Don't tell me that's your big plan." Chiaki crossed his arms. "A superstitious trinket won't help us out in the slightest."

Yuna glanced down the line of teams to her right. Shimmer stood at the very end of the starting line next to a sylveon and a sirfetch'd. The former adjusted his lavender workout shirt with a ribbon.

"Yo, Princess, you still with us?" Nikki reached her hand into Yuna's line of sight and snapped her fingers.

"Yes. Just… checking out the competition, I guess." Yuna squinted. Was the sylveon with Shimmer the same one who had shined that light on her last night? If they were friends, Yuna wondered if Shimmer had gotten some sort of preferential treatment with team selection. He was the Crown Prince, after all.

"Curious. Professor Vegna isn't with his team." Cid floated up to Yuna's side and scratched his chin. "Maybe he got stuck answering questions about your fainting spell last night."

"Erm… what kind of person is Professor Vegna, anyway?" Yuna asked.

"Pfbt. You haven't heard?" Nikki had to contain her laughter.

"Heard what?"

"Vegna's nickname: 'The Grim Reaper.'"

The dreepy's tail scrunched up. "What kind of nickname is that? Do lots of people fail his classes?" She recalled seeing his name on her schedule.

Chiaki shook his head. "Nah. It's because of his other job. He's an inquisitor for the Ministry of Justice." The grovyle spat his toothpick out of his mouth. "But that's got nothing to do with this race. Drop the subject."

Yuna eagerly nodded. Sure, people made jokes about death when it came to ghost-types. But that nickname didn't sound like friendly teasing. She turned to Nikki. "So, are you gonna tell us your plan now?"

She expected Nikki to answer with a snide retort, but instead Yuna heard the crackling of speakers. It didn't startle her as badly as last night. However, she had some ringing in her frills as she turned toward the stone stage. She expected to see Vortex and was surprised when it was Arianna who stood clutching one of those magical talking rods.

"Good afternoon, students." The gardevoir nudged up her glasses. "Chancellor Vortex apologizes, but he's unable to join us for this preliminary round."

"Huh. Wonder what's got ol' Flamey's panties in a bunch?" Nikki scratched her right horn. "He eats, sleeps, and breaths this Crowne Cup baloney. Must be something big if he's missing the start."

Yuna frowned. "I… didn't need that mental image." She shivered.

Nikki smirked. "I'm surprised you'd even know about that kind of clothing, Princess. I thought you dragons liked doing things au naturel."

The dreepy's cheeks burned.

Arianna cleared her throat. "With the Chancellor busy, I asked for some assistance to introduce the Crowne Cup. Presenting last year's winners… Team Striker."

The gardevoir blinked away seconds before clouds of smoke and confetti shot up onto center stage. "Are you all ready to have crowning good time?"

Behind the stage, bleachers of students erupted in applause. Yuna and her fellow competitors stayed quiet. Evidently, she wasn't the only one gripped by nerves.

The smoke faded away to show a cinderace standing at center stage, right arm thrusted upward. His checkered, gold and silver shirt sparkled under the afternoon sun. An inteleon and lucario in matching uniforms stood on either side of him, hands drawn up to point at the participants with fingerguns.

"That's what I like to hear," the cinderace whooped, breaking his pose and striding across the stage. A fiery-orange cape fluttered behind him. Yuna couldn't believe there was a student dressing flashier than Vortex, yet here one was.

"Welcome to the brand-spanking-new start of the Crowne Cup." Cinderace bowed to the competitors. "I'm Cinderace Reno."

The lucario thumped his chest. "I'm Rufus!"

"And I'm Vincent." The inteleon ran his fingers through his head frill and winked at the bleachers. A few girls shouted their approval.

"Together… we're Team Striker! Ch-yeah!" Reno posed with his right arm up again while the students in the bleachers cheered. Yuna raised an eyebrow. Aside from them winning the Crowne Cup last year, what made these three so special? She supposed it didn't matter. Like Chiaki had said, dwelling on it wouldn't help the team do well in the race.

"Now then, I'm sure y'all are eager to get this thing underway." Reno rubbed his hands together. "But we've gotta lay out a few ground rules."

"It's especially important since we have some esteemed new blood in our midst." Vincent snapped his fingers and pointed right at Yuna. She rolled her eyes. Everyone already knew her situation. What good was drawing attention to it?

They're trying to throw me off. She took a deep breath. Yuna glanced toward Shimmer's team. Could the ponyta have put Vincent up to this? She hoped not. He was supposed to be a prince. Unsportsmonlike behavior wouldn't suit royalty.

"So, let's bring out good ol' Rotom Tutor to give us a hand." Reno held his hands up and clapped. A smatter of applause followed.

Yuna drifted back toward Cid as a large screen floated up behind Team Striker. It had a striking orange glow to it save for the white eyes and big white grin. "That's… a rotom?" Yuna glanced at Cid. "The only ones I've seen are these tiny little bolt-shaped ghosts."

"Rotom can inhabit energy-powered machines like that screen," Cid explained.

"Energy-powered." Yuna crossed her arms, trying to think if there was anything like that back home.

"Shh." Chiaki put a claw to his lips. "Pipe down and listen. This is mostly for your benefit."

"Greetings, competitors. It is I, Rotom Tutor, here for a lovely rules explanation." Pixelated party poppers shot pixelated confetti on either side of Tutor's face. "The Crowne Cup is a year-long competition divided into two phases." Tutor's face disappeared to show two images: one of a sprinting falinks formation and one of a podium with rotom hovering by each place. "The first phase is the 'Cup Chase.' It is divided into the preliminary round and ten competition legs."

A blue background spread across Tutor to display the number eleven. It quickly disappeared and gave rise to eleven boxes. "In the competition legs, you will all compete against one another in challenges devised by the Crowne Ministers. Every challenge is partially based on the typing the Minister represents." Ten of the boxes flashed, then started bumping into one another. "In each leg, the team that performs the worst will be eliminated from the Crowne Cup. When the Cup Chase concludes, eight teams will remain."

One by one, the boxes broke apart until the one in the top left corner remained. It expanded into a pink window with eight sylveon figurines. "Next, we move into the Group Play phase. There will be eight challenges that the eight remaining teams can choose whether or not to take part in." As Tutor spoke, the figures hopped across a pixelated track and jumped over pixelated hurdles. "Depending on how you perform in the challenges, your team will earn points used to determine your seeds for the finale: the Crowne Cup Tournament!"

The eight figurines split apart, branching out to form a tournament bracket. "Nothing complicated here. Just old-fashioned, three-on-three battles where the winning team moves on to the next round." Figurines slid along the bracket until one reached the center. "Aim high, work hard, and you'll come out on top!" Pixelated streamers and confetti fell on the screen and Tutor's face returned.

"And that's the gist of the Crowne Cup!" Tutor chirped. "Any questions? Well, I don't care! My function's explaining, not answering. Heh heh. Good luck!"

Yuna watched Tutor retreat back under the stage. The explanation made enough sense, though it left an uneasy feeling in her gut. "Hey, uh, Chiaki? What happens if your team gets eliminated in the Cup Chase?"

Chiaki scowled and pulled his cap down. "You're stuck doing remedial lessons during Cup challenges for the rest of the year."

"And if you're one of the teams bounced super early, you're pretty much the laughing stock of the school," Nikki added, strumming her chest-gills. She looked Yuna in the eye, and when the dreepy's gaze fell, slapped her knee and laughed. "Kidding, Princess! Cripes, you're nervous. But you don't got nothing to be scared of. I told you… we got this."

"Now then… let's talk about this new preliminary round," Reno said. "As you can see, there's a big labyrinth set up behind you all." He pointed forward. Yuna turned to size up the handful of purple, crystalline walls jutting up from what used to be the gym floor. "The goal's simple: get your whole team to the end."

"But if it was really that simple, it wouldn't be any fun!" Rufus cut in, suppressing a chuckle. "So, to spice things up, every few minutes the walls of the labyrinth are gonna shuffle like a gang of ludicolo." When Yuna turned back around, she found the lucario shimmying left and right and rolled her eyes.

Vincent nodded "And there are traps set up inside the labyrinth, too." He held his right index finger up. "Stay vigilant."

"Well said, you two." Reno nodded approvingly. "And remember… all you've got to do is not finish in last place." He paused, then held up his left hand. "I can already see it in your eyes. 'Reno, you dashing cinderace, what happens if we do come in last?'" He smirked. "Well, first off, thank you for the compliment. And second… the team that comes in last will have to start the first leg with a five-minute time penalty!" Reno spun around and struck his raised-arm pose. "It's a Crowning way to ramp up the stakes, don't you think?"

Yuna gulped. She did not want any extra disadvantages for the first leg. Nikki needed to be right about her plan. She looked at the toxtricity for any sign of nervousness, but Nikki's expression hadn't changed. She did catch Yuna eyeing her, however. "You still getting worked up about this?" Nikki strummed a chest-gill. "We'll be fine, Princess."

"I sure hope you're right," Yuna whispered.

"Oh, by the way, don't think of trying to climb or fly over the labyrinth, either," Cid said. "There are rotom drones up there that'll disqualify you the moment they catch you." The orbeetle looked at Nikki, who raised her hands innocently.

"It ain't my plan, Chrome Dome."

"Now then… let's get this Crowning good show started!" Reno cheered. "Get in position, teams!"

"That's our cue." Chiaki approached the starting line with Yuna floating beside him. "Whatever you're doing… it better be good."

Nikki stood at Chiaki's side and pulled her goggles over his eyes. "Remember, Twiggy, throw up a Protect shield right away."

"On your marks…"

Yuna did one last check of her bag, making sure the items were in place.

"… get set…"

Bahamut, if you can hear me, please let Nikki's plan work.

"… and go!"

Nikki smacked her chest gills as hard as she could. Loud, off-key electrical cords blared, drowning out Yuna and Chiaki's screams.


Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 5: Here Comes the Boomburst

A small partition appeared in the dark, circular swirls of distortion, like an open flap from a pitched tent. From his position atop a pile of moss-covered rubble cobbled together to look like a throne, the Phantom watched a Mr. Rime stroll across the field of gray, dead foliage and thorn-covered vegetation. He swung his icy cane around his thumb and whistled jauntily as he crushed black, rotted rose petals beneath his clog-like shoes. He stopped before the throne and nudged up the noctowl mask on his face.

"Speak, Fraud," the Phantom ordered, his shadows pulsating and bubbling around his plague mask.

"It's just as you predicted. Seems we've been dealt a wild card." Fraud held up his free hand and several cards with plague mask emblems materialized. Resting his cane on his right shoulder, Fraud shuffled the cards. "There are indeed fresh bouts of distortion that spawned where you said the remaining Needles are." He plucked the top card from the pile and turned it over to reveal a regal nidoking surrounded by clubs. "Just trying to get close to one of them caused a tearing pain to shoot through my whole body."

The card vanished in a flash of light. "I imagine that entire mystery dungeons have encased the Needles."

There was silence, then a shadowy tendril struck a rotten branch protruding from the distortion. Soggy splinters showered the area next to Shiva and Quetzal. They remained as motionless as statues. "Wonderful." The gems in the Phantom's mask flickered ominously. "Even with the power I have… trying to warp into one of those dungeons would exhaust me enough to put me in another stasis."

"And simply approaching them out in the open is not a wise option." Fraud held up a card. It then split into three separate cards. "Since your 'performance' at Minister Douglas' manor, the queens have decided to play their hands." The three cards split into six. "They've mobilized the Radiant Guard and stationed them around all the new dungeons. If you approach, then things will turn ugly."

Shadowy claws dug into the arms on the Phantom's throne. "I need power. More power." He slammed a fist against the stone. The hand evaporated and returned to his pool of shadows. "I don't understand it. Why didn't this happen with any of the other Needles?" The Phantom grabbed his mask and squeezed the nose. "I was getting closer. Closer to freeing them. To undoing my mistakes."

"Who's to say?" Fraud resumed shuffling his deck. "Perhaps there's a trick at play here? Some sleight-of-hand that not even you could foresee?" He tossed the entire deck up, whereupon the cards transformed into a string of handkerchiefs that the Mr. Rime caught and stuffed into the glove over his left hand. "Whatever the case, it seems your hand is no longer as good as you thought it was. So, what will you do, oh mighty Phantom Despair? Do you take this as a bluff and check the Needles or fold and see if fate can deal you a better hand?"

A growl rumbled from within Despair's pool of shadows. He knew he could silence Fraud as he did those stuffy noble birds. But it would be a waste of precious energy. He needed at least one person who could think for themselves. Someone who wouldn't just be a mindless machine to send out and keep watch over the Needles. Especially now that they were hidden within dungeons.

If Fraud had felt pain, then the distortion the Needles had made was a type that Despair couldn't properly harness. Sending any of them into one of those dungeons would mean losing control of them completely. The time and power and pooled into them would go to waste.

But what could he do? What should he do? Every moment he sat around doing nothing, the pathetic nobles would continue to make a mockery of the world. To use that awful ether and spread more and more of His distortion all around.

Despair's tendrils constricted. An icy chill spread across him. Images flickered through his head.

A circle with five diamonds around it.

Five moon-sized dragon heads bearing down on him from the heavens.

A black, crystalline arm reaching toward a wall of fire.

That awful chant. Nos vera Natus. Nos vera Natus.

How long had he been hearing it for? He couldn't even remember. Only that it wouldn't leave his head no matter what he did.


"What?" Despair's gemstone eyes blazed. He glanced at the three birds, who were still standing motionless atop an overturned pillar. Groaning, he turned to Fraud.

"You seemed positively lost in thought." Fraud turned the ten of spades over in his hand. "Might I offer a suggestion?"

He doubted it would be any good, but what did he have to lose? "Go on."

"If you can't strike directly at the Needles, perhaps you can establish a little side-pot." Fraud tossed the ten of spades up. It morphed into a casino chip. The chip froze the moment Fraud caught it. "Rather than risk losing the energy you always mumble about… why not damage the Kingdom of Radiance in a different way?"

"You know exactly why," Despair growled. Fraud was clearly full of it. There was a reason he assigned the Mr. Rime that name.

"True. But if you can't achieve one of your goals…" Fraud held up the two of spades. He turned it over and it became the ace of spades. "… then you ought to get yourself an ace for some insurance."

"Enough bloody analogies. Get to the point."

"The Polaris Group." Fraud flicked the ace of spades toward Ifrit, who spat a fireball at it. The card dissolved away before the flames connected. "You keep saying that the use of ether has led Radiance's citizens to forget how to be true pokémon. Polaris holds a complete monopoly over ether distribution. And many of the nobles have stakes in its operations. If you strike at the conglomerate, you can harm Radiance's nobility."

A long silence followed. Fraud leaned against his cane. "Well, what do you think?"

Despair had to admit that it was a decent idea. If he were in his prime, perhaps he would've thought of it himself. But this was why he had wanted allies in the first place. Maybe he shouldn't have stripped the birds of their thoughts after all. Oh well, he couldn't change that now. The only way to go was forward.

"I'm afraid I don't know that much about the Polaris Group." Several shadowy tendrils extended out from Despair, each spawning a hand. "But I do know that it's tied to an educational institution that brainwashes the future nobility. So, if we're going to start anywhere, it's there."

He pointed three hands toward the distortion behind Fraud. "Go. Let the so-called hope of Radiance's future know of our presence. Show them that their gilded lifestyles will crumble under the might of the Phantom Sins."

Fraud bowed. "As you wish, sir."


The bright flash and distorted twang threw Yuna off. But she realized what Nikki had done the moment waves pushed against her ectoplasm, making them quiver like a goodra's gelatinous belly when it walked. It was Boomburst, a move she'd seen used by high-ranking kommo-o and flygon soldiers serving the Aeon Kingdom.

Still, for someone as scrawny as Nikki to pull that move off — and at such a young age, too — Yuna couldn't help but wonder just how much more to the toxtricity there was than her scruffy appearance let on. Chiaki had said she was strong, but Yuna hadn't expected something of this caliber.

Indeed, when the light faded, Nikki stood tall, adjusting the lapels of her leather jacket. All around her, the other teams lay strewn in the grass. Tangled knots of limbs and bodies. Groans and moans made Yuna's gills curl up. Chiaki's jaw slackened and his toothpick dropped onto the grass.

"What the— what the hell did you just do?"

"My word! Nikki the Nuisance just pulled some secret technique out of nowhere!" Reno's voice crackled through speakers that Yuna couldn't see.

"I've never seen a move like that before. Is that even legal?!" Rufus gawked.

"One thing's for sure, it's knocked nearly all of her opponents out cold," Vincent exclaimed.

"Heh. Told you I had a plan, Twiggy." Nikki thumped her chest. "Now we're free to take all the time we need." She lazily rested her hands behind her head and casually strolled toward the labyrinth entrance. Blinking slowly, Yuna turned to follow Nikki when she noticed a flash of bright-blue in the corner of her right eye.

"Nikki, behind you!" Yuna cried, before Ice Shards whizzed right past her.

"Eh?" Nikki spun around, then dropped to her knees with a loud, "Whoa!" She sprang back up, lips curled into a frown. "What's with the sneak attack, Perci? Your mates are already KO'd."

Yuna looked right to find a weavile staggering out from behind a fainted mudsdale. "Well, I sure ain't letting you waltz through that maze unscathed." Ice swirled around her claws as she prepared for another attack. However, Perci only succeeded in half-forming another Ice Shard when a glowing green blade clubbed her in the back of the head. Perci gasped and her eyes rolled back in her head.

Chiaki sprang out from behind Perci the moment her body hit the ground. Holding his hat down with his right hand, he pointed toward the maze. "Let's go before someone else tries to do one of us in."

"Pfbt, sure. But what's the rush?" Nikki walked after Chiaki, shrugging. "It's impossible for us to come in last now."

Yuna hovered after her teammates, gills still tensed from the crowd's boos. Clearly, they weren't pleased with Nikki singlehandedly wrecking the brand-new preliminary round. "Do you really think that was such a good idea?" she asked Nikki. "Won't this make our team a huge target in the Cup Chase?"

"Ha! It ain't gonna matter. I'll just keep blowing 'em all away!" Nikki strummed her chest gills. She paused next to a crystal wall, turned to the crowd, and pulled down her left lower eyelid. "Kiss my ass, nerds! Nobody cares if you don't get to see a— yipe!"

Chiaki dragged Nikki into the maze by the collar of her jacket. "Jeez, what's the big idea, Twiggy?" the toxtricity growled as she pulled herself free.

Walking ahead of the group, Chiaki kept swiveling his head back and forth. "You never answered my question. What was that attack?"

Nikki raised a brow. "Hang on… you don't actually know?"

"Does it sound like I know?"

In no mood to listen to another argument, Yuna opted to butt in. "It's Boomburst. An attack that unleashes really vicious sound waves." She poked her nubs together. "I used to think that only elite dragons could learn it, but I guess I was wrong."

"I see." Chiaki tapped his chin in thought. "Then all toxtricity can learn it?"

Nikki shrugged. "Beats me, Twiggy. Never met another tox' that knows it."

How many toxtricity could she have possibly met? Yuna wondered. Nikki didn't look like the well-traveled type.

"Then how do you know it?"

"Heh. Trade secret." Nikki rubbed her upper lip. "What does it matter, anyway? I—"

Chiaki held up his right arm. Yuna abruptly stopped floating. "What's the matter?"

"I heard a caw."

Nikki rolled her eyes. "Seriously? That's nothing to be concerned about."

"It might be a trap," Yuna said. Though she couldn't imagine a trap involving birds.

"Nah. Traps are things, not people." Nikki stepped toward Chiaki and pushed him to her right. "Stand aside, Twiggy. I can—"

The temperature in the area suddenly spiked and the purple walls on either side of the team turned a bright, dazzling orange. Yuna's eyes widened and she hastily floated back seconds before flames rained down from above the team. "Guys? Guys, are you okay?" she called. Yuna looked up to try and find the source of the fire, but smoke obscured her view.

Seconds later, Chiaki grabbed her and took off sprinting through the maze. "What's going on? Did we trigger a trap?" Yuna asked.

"You can't suspend a trap in midair," Chiaki growled. "Someone attacked us directly."

"But how?" Yuna was flailing behind Chiaki as he rounded a corner. She couldn't struggle out of his grip. "Those announcer guys said it'd be impossible for teams to go up and over the maze."

"I know that." Chiaki glanced up briefly, then pressed his cap firmly against his head with his free hand. "Hang on!"

"But you're the one holding me!" Yuna squealed and her last words were stretched out as Chiaki lunged forward. He kicked off the wall to his left and launched himself to the opposite wall. The grovyle leaped from wall to wall, all while keeping his grip on Yuna. Her flailing and flopping about let her see the problem: Air Slash crescents raining down from the cloud of smoke.

"What the hell? Are we under attack?!" Nikki stumbled along behind Yuna, clumsily sidestepping a wind blade. She spun around and hurled a lightning bolt like a javelin toward the cloud. It pierced right through, revealing nothing inside. "Why aren't they stopping the event? This clearly ain't supposed to be part of it!"

"Oh, look at that spectacular strike from Sirfetch'd Robin! Such crowning mastery of his leek-wielding prowess!" Reno said.

"Indeed. But let's give Prince Shimmer credit for that well-timed shield against the blast trap," Vincent added.

Yuna gasped. "Wait… Shimmer's team is still up?"

Nikki frowned. "Well, they were the furthest ones away from us. Guess they avoided the brunt of my Boomburst." She caught up to her teammates. "Still, why aren't those bozos saying anything about us? We're in trouble here, aren't we?"

Still in Chiaki's grasp, Yuna pointed her right arm up. "I see something up there. It looks like… some sort of bird?" She blinked in confusion. That early thought about birds was meant to be a joke. Why was a bird actually attacking them? And why did no one in the crowd seem to care?

"If it's a bird, then I'll fry it!" Nikki thumped her chest. Sparks gathered around her gills. But when she stepped forward to launch her attack, the ground rumbled. Nikki stumbled forward and thrust her arms apart to steady herself. "Damn it… are the walls really shifting now?"

"I see flames." Yuna pried herself free of Chiaki's grip and grabbed one of the orbs in her satchel. She smashed it to pieces on the ground. Blue, sparkling barriers surrounded the trio. The flames splashed against Nikki harmlessly. She glanced at Yuna, then fired a burst of lightning upward. Unfortunately, it sailed into empty air.

"Did you see where it went?" Chiaki scanned the sky. A scowl spread across his face.

"N-No, sorry. I was too focused on activating my all-protect orb." Yuna slouched over slightly.

"… tch. Well, we've still got some power left in these shields." Chiaki turned to his right, where a new path forward had been revealed by the shifting walls. "Let's make whatever progress we can."

Nodding, Yuna hovered behind Chiaki while he dashed across the grass. She kept her eyes on the sky, looking for any sign of the shadowy bird. The team rounded two more bends before the walls shifted on them a second time. No more attacks struck them from above, but Yuna knew better than to open her mouth. Too many of her favorite bedtime stories had the heroes fall into that trap.

"Any sign of the end yet?" Chiaki stood on his tiptoes.

"Pfbt. Like that's really gonna do anything when there's a wall ten meters ahead." Nikki flicked her right arm in the direction Chiaki was looking. Yuna couldn't explain why, but there was an uneasy feeling stewing inside her. A sense that she was being watched. One that the strange rotom above the labyrinth couldn't explain.

"Well, I'm not gonna scale the wall if there's something hitting us from above." Chiaki tipped his hat down and resumed running.

"Wait, stop!" Yuna called, reaching an arm out toward him.

"What for? I—"

Black and red blobs materialized on each wall. Spectral fists immediately shot out from the walls and slammed into Chiaki from each side. "Agh!" Despite his shield taking the blow, the pressure still sent some wind rushing out of him and he stumbled to a stop.

"Stay back." Nikki stepped in front of Yuna and slammed her hands against her gills. A fresh, off-key Boomburst rang out. To Nikki's horror, however, it failed to do a thing to the disembodied hands. Instead, they turned their attention on the toxtricity. She slouched over. "Aw, shit."

Nikki tried to jump out of the way, but one of the hands swatted her against the wall. She struck it with an audible "Oomph!" and her shield's glow faded away. Yuna tried to float over and help Nikki up, but the other hand shot in front of her. Squealing, Yuna sucked in her body and halted herself centimeters away from the hand. She threw her satchel open, fearing some sort of attack.

But nothing happened. The dreepy simply stared into the hand's distorted palm. She could even see Nikki on the other side of it. Did that mean the hands were the work of a ghost-type? Yuna wracked her brain to think of ghost-type birds.

Oh, there were decidueye! But, last she checked, they didn't spit fire.


Nikki's screams snapped Yuna out of her thoughts. Thinking quickly, she stuck a nubby arm into her satchel and pulled out a bright-orange luminous orb. Yuna slapped the top of the orb and it lit up like the chandeliers in the dining hall. The spectral hand in front of her quickly disappeared, revealing Nikki floating in the air, legs flailing. She held her goggles, which were squeezing themselves tighter and tighter against her face while a sickly purple aura surrounded them.

"D… on't… just… float there," Nikki wheezed. "Help me!"

Yuna blinked a few times, then smacked her cheeks. She'd seen this before. Her parents had taught her about this. A special move certain ghosts could use. They'd take control of items to harm opponents. "Nikki, we have to get those goggles off!"

"What?!" Judging by her anger, that bothered Nikki even more than the attack. "No way! They're… they're my good luck char— rrrgh!"

The goggles squeezed even tighter against her. Yuna was about to say something when Chiaki dashed in, Leaf Blades at the ready. He whipped his right arm around, effortlessly slicing through the strap on Nikki's goggles. They fell to the ground along with Nikki. Yuna sighed in relief when the purple aura vanished.

"You idiot! Those were one of a kind!" Nikki fumed.

"Forget them. Someone used Poltergeist on them." Chiaki kicked the goggles further back in the maze. "We're not safe here. Let's move." The grovyle yanked Nikki forward by her right arm. Frowning, Yuna followed.

Now she was sure there was a ghost-type after the team. But why? And did they have some sort of bird colleague? Surely the rotom were capturing footage of this. So, why wasn't anyone saying anything? The more she thought it over, the more it didn't sit right with her.

"I see light. Just a bit further," Chiaki said, practically dragging Nikki behind him.

"L-Let go of me! My goggles… we need—"

"And we have our first — and most likely the only — team to cross the finish line! It's Prince Shimmer and Team Excel!" Reno declared as the sounds of thunderous applause reached Yuna's ear-frills moments before she emerged from the maze.

She managed to catch a brief glimpse of Shimmer and his sylveon and sirfetch'd teammates jumping around victoriously before a black shadow loomed over her.

"Gah!" Chiaki fell back, bumping Yuna. She turned around and her face paled at the sight of a dusknoir's single red eye glaring down at her and her teammates. After Dusknoir adjusted the crimson, skull-shaped bangles on his shoulders, a black cape unfurled behind him.

"Wh… who…" Yuna struggled to find her voice.

"Oh, what's this?" Rufus' voice crackled through the speakers "It looks like Team Bastion is out of the maze… but Professor Vegna has stopped them right in front of the finish line!"

Yuna swallowed hard while a dark fog enshrouded Vegna. An all-encompassing sense of dread washed over her. True to the title her teammates had given him, Vegna gave off a menacing aura the likes of which Yuna had never seen before.

"What's the big idea, you clod?" Nikki growled, dusting herself off.

Vegna's torso split apart at the yellow, zigzagging stripe. The haze thickened around him, drawing angry growls from Chiaki and Nikki. Yuna saw through the ghostly apparition, however, and watched Vegna produce… a book?

With a flick of his left index finger, the book opened and the pages turned themselves. Vegna kept his eye fixed on Team Bastion. "A loan sharpedo I met in the gaol once told me, 'Those who seek to con their fellow liars sign their tickets to the Twilight Realm.'" He paused. "This was said, of course, as I dragged him to the executioner's table."

Yuna tilted her head. What sort of a platitude was that? None of the sayings she knew from back home were remotely as morbid. This guy was supposed to be a professor here, so why was he spouting something so dark?

Vegna snapped his fingers and a loud, shrieking caw sounded from above. Gills quivering, Yuna looked up in time to see a talonflame descend toward the group, wings flapping frantically. "The hell?" Nikki ducked and swatted at the air, but Talonflame landed on Vegna's right gauntlet. He stuck out a foot to reveal Nikki's broken goggles. Vegna took it in his free hand and looked at it for all of a second before slamming his book shut. It disappeared in a plume of shadowfire.

"… disqualified."

"I beg your pardon?" Yuna looked at Vegna in confusion, only to get doused in spittle as Talonflame angrily squawked at her. "Meep!" She drifted back, throwing her arms over her face.

Vegna raised his left hand and scratched at the side of Talonflame's face. He settled down and leaned into Vegna's hand. "For the impudence of my feral compatriot causing a scene, I beg your forgiveness." He pulled his hand back and bowed to Yuna. Talonflame mimicked Vegna as best he could while staying perched on the dusknoir's shoulder bangle.

Yuna frowned. What kind of apology was that supposed to be? There wasn't an ounce of remorse in his tone and he spoke like he read the thesaurus for fun. And what was he thinking keeping a feral talonflame around him?

"Oi! What was that you were saying before?" Nikki crossed her arms. She looked to sidestep Vegna, but Talonflame hopped off his shoulder and shrieked at her. Nikki glared back at Talonflame. "Wait a sec… this mangy bird was attacking us in the maze!" She pointed accusingly at Talonflame. "I smell a rattata! Explain yourself."

Vegna snapped his fingers. Talonflame dutifully flew back to his shoulder. Vegna again summoned a book from the shadows. Holding up Nikki's goggles, he said, "Section five of the Crowne Cup rules states as follows: 'The use of performance-enhancing equipment is prohibited. Should a competitor be found to be using such equipment, their team can be immediately removed from the current challenge by an authorized faculty member."

Yuna was about to ask a question when she noticed Nikki's defiant expression melt away like a bowl of ice cream left out in the sun. Chiaki was quick to point out the change. "Nikki… what's he saying? Did you—"

"Boomburst is a damaging attack, yes. But to knock out dozens of students with a single shot?" Vegna shook his head. "Well, the only way one could do something like that is by bolstering the move's power… say, with a pair of Polaris-brand wise glasses." Black energy crackled around Nikki's goggles. The coloration dissolved away, revealing a yellow band with a compass emblem stitched into it.

Chiaki's eyes widened and he whirled on Nikki. "You blithering idiot! Why the hell would you bring a pair of wise glasses?"

Nikki staggered backward, eyes darting around in a panic. "I… I…"

Yuna's jaw slackened in disbelief. That plan Nikki was so confident in… was to cheat? And she really thought she was going to get away with it?

Whinnying laughter echoed across the field. Though Vegna's large frame blocked Yuna's view, she was sure that voice belonged to Prince Shimmer. "Unbelievable. To think the meek little dragon was so afraid of her lack of skill, she got Nikki the Nuisance to cheat for her! Oh ho ho… I haven't had a laugh like this since the 'Dark-ish' season finale."

"What?" Yuna's cheeks burned. "I had nothing to do with any of this!"

"Be silent, boy," Vegna hissed, red eye smoldering. Talonflame looked behind Vegna and puffed out his feathers in annoyance. "As a former teacher in the gaol once told me, 'Those who speak out of turn do so because they have nothing of value to contribute.'"

Yuna fixed her bewildered look on Vegna, but he seemed done with Shimmer's outburst. He closed his hand around the broken choice specs. Purple flames enveloped the goggles.

"Now then… given your background, Miss Nicolette, I'm not the slightest bit surprised you would attempt such a stunt." Vegna opened his hand and flicked the destroyed specs' ashes onto Nikki. She fell onto her butt, eyes squeezed shut and coughing profusely.

"Nikki… why?" was all Yuna could manage. They just needed to avoid coming in last. It wasn't that hard a proposition. Nikki couldn't have been that afraid of coming in last. Which meant there was another reason. One the toxtricity had no intention of saying, from the look of things.

Vegna pointed a sparking finger at Nikki. "However, given your compatriots' reactions, it seems you not only cheated, but also callously lied about it." He brought his right hand back by his side. Crimson energy raced from his shoulder down to his hand. Squawking in fright, Talonflame took the air. "I should cast you into the depths of the Twilight Realm for such distasteful sins."

"W-What? Hang on… this is just a sporting event!" Yuna threw her arms up in disbelief. Everything Vegna was doing certainly befit his title as the Grim Reaper… but that was hardly how a professor should carry themselves. What was Vortex thinking hiring someone like this?

To her surprise, Vegna straightened himself back up. Talonflame didn't return to his shoulder, however. "Of course, I jest. But your soul and those of your teammates can still languish on this mortal coil… in the hellish pits of detention." The way his voice deepened with the final word sent a fresh chill down Yuna's backside. If this was his idea of a joke, his material needed work. Decades of work.

"Like hell are you holding me responsible." Chiaki stepped in front of Nikki, nudging up his cap to look Vegna in the eye. "You said it yourself… this was all Nikki."

"That's enough, Sir Vegna."

Arianna teleported in between the grovyle and dusknoir. She pivoted to Chiaki, glasses nudged up. "This conversation will have to wait until later."

"Huh?" Yuna blinked. She didn't like the look on the gardevoir's face. "What's the matter?"

Arianna didn't answer her. She turned to Vegna, leaned over, and whispered to him. Vegna's red eye darkened. "You're sure of this?" he said.

"I'm afraid so."

Vegna crossed his arms and bowed his head. "Very well, Vice Chancellor." He pointed to Nikki once more. "But know this… my ruling still stands. Your team is disqualified. Therefore, in addition to detention, you will incur the penalty for the first Cup Chase leg… and attend mandatory remedial lessons."

Chiaki opened his mouth to yell at Nikki, but a pink glow surrounded his head. His lips smacked shut. Arianna stepped to his side and rested a hand on his shoulder. "Now is not the time."

"Are you going to tell us what's wrong or not?" Yuna asked.

Pressing her glasses against her face, Arianna took a deep breath. "There's been a situation, Princess. Your attendants and Mister Chiaki's servant were attacked by a Phantom."


Apologies for the delay in getting this chapter up. I've just been left exhausted by hospital rotations, so it's been tough to find the energy to write. Hopefully you enjoyed this chapter. I'd appreciate any comments you have.


Collection of reviews on discord

"M… maybe it was just a nightmare?"
not 'It was a nightmare' so she seems to think what she dreamed may have happened, so it would be logical to be the scene with the phantoms

"Nngh. T-Too loud,
vress seems to be very susceptible, already in ch 1, and in ch 3 she passes out
Purple smoke drift in from all around her. Her breath caught in her throat. Yuna's eyes forced themselves open. A sea of purple and black smoke spread in front of her. However, something stirred in the fog.

Long. Slender. A serpent. And it was looking right at her with piercing red eyes.

"Wh… what—" Yuna tried to shut her eyes, but couldn't. Golden lines and rings flashed on the serpent's body. Then a large maw opened… and the serpent lunged right for Yuna.

She heard herself scream for all of a second before her world fell to darkness.
She had a vision about Rayquaza (or maybe Mega Rayquaza, because of red eyes)?
Coming back to the nightmare in ch1, it seems more likely it really was a vision too.

She poked at the plate — fresh china, of course
They called it china too? Isn't it named after the country of origin? Or is it? Coincidence? I don't think so! It's not the question where PoV plays, it's the question when it plays...

If all it took was a few unpleasant classmates to send her back home, she'd be a spineless ruler.

Okay, technically she was spineless, but it was a metaphor.
Amby: I hate puns
Also Amby: PunPunPunPunPun

I hope Vress will never evolve
I want her to stay cute

Ambyssin said:
tbh i prefer reviews on PoV because it puts people's thoughts in one location and i don't have to jump around discord channels. ipkRip
As you wish


Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 6: Dynaforced Into a Corner

Noctum wished Vortex wasn't dragging him to some sort of urgent meeting. He would love to have spent more time admiring Horizon Academy's central courtyard. So many colorful flowers he'd never seen before in the dreary crags of Drasbraznav. A bed of roses sat on his right, alternating between columns of white, lavender, and pink. To his left were tulips interspersed with… some sort of pink flower with a yellow center.

"Um, Mr. Chancellor, what kind of flower is that?" He pointed a black finger to his right.

"Begonia." Vortex's gaze stayed fixed in front of him, yet he added, "And try to wipe that childish grin off your face. You're meeting with nobility. It's unbecoming of a charizard to fawn over flowers."

"Oh. Sorry." Noctum's tail flame dimmed. It wasn't like Vortex could understand. The other charizard hadn't spent his life tucked away behind volcanos. "It won't happen again, sir."

"Of course it won't." Vortex tucked his free hand into his coat pocket. The other clutched his golden cane. "Because you'll only speak when spoken to. I'll handle everything else."

"Err, shouldn't we at least introduce ourselves?" Baraz tapped his tiny claws together. "If this 'Commander Seifer' person is going to guard the princess, it might help if we got to know one an—"

Vortex stuck his cane into Baraz's path. The dracozolt stopped short and lightning crackled down his upper half. "Speak only when spoken to," Vortex repeated. He brought his cane back to his side. With a deep breath, he regained his cheerful expression and continued forward.

His attitude struck Noctum as a stark contrast to yesterday, where he'd been upbeat even in the face of the King and Queen's scrutiny. Then again, Noctum did recall getting a few icy looks from Vortex yesterday. Did the other charizard have some sort of beef with him? Noctum couldn't fathom why. It wasn't like Vortex could be jealous of his looks or anything. Murky, black scales didn't make Noctum a piece of eye candy. Regardless, he'd have to pay closer attention to Vortex and see if he was on to something.

The trio approached the circular, stone-laden center of the courtyard. Noctum struggled to keep his expression neutral while studying the central fountain. It was made with some fancy azure stone he'd never seen. Evenly-spaced, white crystal stripes ran along the sides of the fountain. Atop it sat a glass sculpture of the kingdom's heroic monarch and the school's founder: Queen Zacian Calliope. At least, that was what Noctum saw on the plaque at the base of the fountain. But it matched what he'd heard from Calcifer and Yiazmat. A dog with tassel-like strands of fur and armor jutting out of its head and shoulders. It gripped a sword with a glistening ruby in its hilt.

Though Noctum could scarcely understand why any pokémon would need an actual weapon. Weren't their own attacks sufficient?

"They're late," Vortex announced, pulling out a gold pocket watch from his gray suit's breast pocket.

"Well, you said they're nobility, right? Maybe they're coming from something important?" Baraz offered a sympathetic smile.

"I opted to skip the Crowne Cup's brand-new preliminary round for this," Vortex explained. "The least they could do is not waste my time. Though, knowing Demerzel, he's doing this on purpose."

Baraz tilted his head. "Demerzel?"

"One of Queen Isola's advisors, I think," Noctum said. The name had come up in the past, but he couldn't remember what the Aeon royals thought of him.

As if the conversation had summoned someone, a beam of light shot down from the sky behind Vortex. It expanded into a ball, then disappeared. Noctum recognized one of the pokémon; he'd seen pictures of the equine with the large blue horn. In the stories of Bahamut, he had several trusted allies he bestowed with some of his light. And this Siefer fellow looked just like one of them.

The other pokémon, however, was one that he'd never laid eyes on. Floating behind Seifer, he adjusted the black and purple beads around his neck.

"You're late, Demerzel." Vortex glared at the newcomers.

"Apologies, Vortex." Demerzel crossed his suspiciously-long legs and pressed a paw to the enormous bulb atop his head. "I was having some trouble getting my teleportation to work properly."

"You forgot the 'Chancellor.'" Vortex planted his cane between two cobblestones and leaned against it. Noctum didn't need to be psychic to see there was bad blood between these two, but it wasn't his place to pry.

"My goodness." Baraz's wagging tail thumped against the ground. "I had heard that Queen Isola employed descendants of Bahamut's Luminary Sages… but to think I'd actually get to see one with my own two eyes." Of course, Noctum knew Baraz's beady little eyes could only sparkle so much. The dracozolt waddled up to Seifer. "I'm Dracozolt Baraz. It's an honor to meet you."

He stuck out a tiny hand. Seifer looked at it like he was being handed a filthy dish rag. "Bahamut? Sages? What are you blathering about?" Seifer said, an eyebrow raised.

"They're Aeons, Commander." Demerzel brought his nubby hands together. "They believe Etherium was created by a giant light dragon they call Bahamut."

"Oh. Right." Seifer rolled his eyes. "You would do best to keep that Bahamut drivel to a minimum. Here in the Kingdom of Radiance, we believe in hard science. Etherium didn't just pop into existence because some dragon willed it to be."

"Err, r-right. Terribly sorry." Baraz stepped back. Some of the luster in his feathers died down. Noctum offered him a consolatory smile. He wanted to stand up for his partner, but it was more important that he keep the Radiant nobility happy. The treaty was too important to put in jeopardy, even if Seifer was questioning their beliefs.

Noctum thought it best to change the subject. "Forgive me, Mr. Demerzel, but I've never seen a pokémon like you before. What species are you?"

"A whimsicott," Demerzel replied. Before Noctum could object, the beads around his neck glowed. "Yes, I realize that I do not look anything like one. When I was young, I got sucked into a mystery dungeon. Though the Radiant Guard rescued me, the distortion mutated my body. Hence my appearance."

"And your, errm, psychic powers?" Noctum rubbed his horns. His head had gone fuzzy right before Demerzel predicted his question. A telltale sign of a psychic.

"Yes. So, I suppose it wasn't all bad." Demerzel shrugged.

"That's all well and good, but can we get on with this?" Vortex had his watch out again. "We're burning daylight."

"It's always business with you, Chancellor." Demerzel sighed. "Pleasantries are important, you know." He nudged his neck-beads. "For someone who claims to be big on diplomacy, I figured you would understand."

"Not to worry, Counsellor." Seifer waved him off with a forehoof. "I have no intention of making nice with a couple of haggard dragons." He paused. "Or, rather, a dragon and a would-be dragon."

Noctum ignored the jab, knowing it was meant for him. However, it was Vortex's tail that flared up. Noctum silently looked down at his feet. He figured a descendant of Saint Keldeo would display the same caring, protective attitude his ancestor was known for, but he was clearly wrong. Still, he'd have to put up with it. It was for the good of his home, after all.

"You should at least let this charizard introduce himself." Demerzel pointed to Noctum. His eyes glistened with pink energy. "It would be quite unbecoming for the Radiant Guard's junior commander to be so impolite as to not even refer to someone under his protection by name."

Like with Vortex earlier, Demerzel's words drew a flash from Seifer's horn. He quickly composed himself as he turned to Noctum. "Of course. Go on."

It took a moment for Noctum to catch on that that was his cue. "Noctum, sir. At your service." He adjusted his utility belt.

Seifer looked him over. The charizard tightened his grip. Was his outfit— or, rather, his lack of outfit being scrutinized? It wasn't like he had anything to wear. Noctum wanted to end the awkward silence, but was surprised when Seifer beat him to the punch. "So, you are attendants of Princess Yuna. How long have you worked for the royal family?"

"Fifty years," Baraz replied. "Queen Yiazmat wasn't even an egg yet."

Seifer quirked a brow, but said nothing. He looked expectantly at Noctum, who stood up straight and sucked in his gut. "Fifteen years, sir. I was found by King Calcifer when I was a Charmander and—"

Seifer raised a forehoof. "Not interested in the life story. Both of you could stand to be more succinct with your responses."

While Vortex nodded his approval, Demerzel tilted his head toward his right shoulder. "Good grief." He offered a smile. "Well, I would be happy to hear more about the two of you… perhaps over lunch or dinner?"

Noctum stiffened. Queen Isola's advisor wanted to dine… with him? His first instinct was that this was some sort of prank, but Demerzel's smile seemed genuine. Noctum's next thought was this was a trap. That one wrong move meant blowing up the whole treaty. He couldn't put that weight onto his shoulders.

Fortunately, he had a convenient excuse ready. "E-Err— I appreciate the offer, sir. But part of our responsibilities here includes helping with mealtime preparation."

"Oh my. Vortex is certainly keeping you busy." Demerzel chuckled into his paw. "Perhaps that's why you've less of a belly than the good Chancellor. You might be the leanest charizard I've ever laid eyes on."

Vortex snorted. "Are we done here, Counsellor?"

Sighing once more, Demerzel bobbed his bulbous head. "I suppose if our dragon friends can't come to me, I could drop by and join them for a spot of afternoon tea." He smiled at the servants. "How does that sound?"

"I'm not much of a tea drinker myself, but I'd be happy to make you some, sir," Baraz chirped.

Noctum still had a bad feeling about this. Perhaps it was just paranoia over how most of the Radiant citizens had treated him so far. Yes, that had to be it. After all, refusing such a generous offer would reflect poorly on Princess Yuna.

"Yeah, I'd be delighted, as well," he finally said.

"Splendid." Demerzel's black, triangular cape fluttered as he spun around. "I'll send a telegram to set up the date."

Noctum stared back blankly. "Tell-o-what?"

Seifer stepped in front of Demerzel before he could answer. "That'll do, Counsellor. I'd rather not stand here bored to tears while you try to explain this to them." He nudged Demerzel with his horn. Noctum wanted to object — he really had no clue what a tell-o-gram was — but decided against it. He figured Seifer might loosen up once Demerzel and Vortex were gone.

"Okay, I get the message." Demerzel hovered up toward the top of the fountain and looked at Noctum. "We'll be in touch, my dragon friend. Until then… may your days be ever bountiful!"

He grabbed the edges of his cape and curtsied to the group. Then, with a blinding flash from his neck-beads, he vanished before their eyes.

"Well then." Vortex clapped his hands together. "As much fun as this little get-together has been, I have a Crowne Cup to attend to. I'll leave you three to discuss any remaining formalities." He spread his wings and took to the skies before anyone could utter a word in edgewise. Noctum watched him fly over the western face of the Academy's square-shaped main building. His shoulders sagged and he exhaled loudly.

"Don't slouch over like that. It's unbecoming."

Something spiky jabbed Noctum in the shoulder blades. He abruptly stiffened and clutched at his back. He knew it was Seifer before even turning around. "S-Sorry, sir." Noctum cleared his throat. "Um, listen, those other two are gone now, so you don't have to be so, um, serious?" His words grew less confident the longer Seifer looked at him.

"I want to make something clear to you," Seifer said. "I'm not here by choice. If I had it my way, I'd be out dealing with all of these strange dungeons that just so happened to spawn right around the time you all showed up in this kingdom." He flicked his head to the right. His orange mane swished behind him.

Noctum quickly thought back to the conversation in Vortex's office the other day. So, Seifer had been investigating the newly-spawned dungeons. Had he found something out? Whatever the case, Noctum imagined he'd never get the keldeo to volunteer any additional information.

Maybe Saint Keldeo wasn't quite as selfless as the scriptures make him out to be.

"So, here's the plan," Seifer continued. "When Yuna needs to leave the campus, I will go along as her escort. I expect at least one of you to accompany me. Understood?"

"Yessir." Baraz's arm was too tiny to salute. "I was part of the army before serving the royal family, so—"

"I'd prefer it if you stayed behind." Seifer stuck his nose up. "No offense, but aside from your old age, you're… an odd sight, to put it mildly. You'll attract unwanted attention."

And a black-scaled charizard wouldn't do that? Noctum wondered.

"Best case scenario is Yuna gets eliminated from the Crowne Cup early and then you won't need me around," Seifer added.

"Wait, what?" Noctum thought the Crowne Cup was a yearlong endeavor for all the students. No one mentioned anything about eliminations. Did Yuna know about this? Did her teammates? Why hadn't anyone said anything to him? Sure, he had a tendency to worry, but that was because he wanted what was best for Yuna.

He was about to ask for details, but purple light suddenly washed across the courtyard. Instinct prompted him to turn and look up. Any exclamations got caught in his throat the moment he found the source: a literal tear in the open space above the fountain's statue. No, that wasn't quite right. It was as if someone had levitated one of the Academy's circular windows above the fountain, then shattered it. Though there was no glass to speak of.

"What in blazes—" Seifer hopped in front of Noctum. "Demerzel, if this is your idea of a joke, it's not in the slightest bit funny!"

"I take it that isn't a normal sight around here?" Baraz's feathers crackled with lightning.

"Of course not!" Seifer huffed. "You… Charizard. Go fly off and tell Vortex to get his tail back here this second."

Noctum didn't think it wise to leave Seifer and Baraz alone, but this guy was a military leader. He turned and took to the air, only to slam face-first into some sort of forcefield. At least, that was what he gathered from the ripples of purple light that spread out in a dome toward the sky tear. "Uh, Mr. Seifer, I think I'm stuck."

"Stuck? How can you be stuck?" Seifer's gaze remained fixed on the hole. "Quit messing around and—"

The fountain rumbled. Noctum turned back to the tear and heard… a yawn? Well, it started as a yawn. But it gradually grew in pitch and intensity until it was more like… some sort of yawn-roar. Like a grumpy kommo-o having its nap disturbed.

It was then Noctum realized something green had shown up in the sky tear. Instinct took hold and he dove toward Seifer. The keldeo protested as Noctum swooped back up. However, those protests disappeared when whet the sky tear spat out a snorlax bigger than the fountain. In fact, the snoralx crushed the fountain entirely under its girth.

Squawking in surprise, Baraz turned around. He whipped his tail back and forth, trying to dispel the dust and water vapor.

From his unwanted vantage point, Seifer whispered, "Mother of Calliope."

"That's… not a normal snorlax," Noctum added. Aside from its size, it had a godforsaken tree sticking out of its gut. Which lead to his follow-up question: "Do you think it's dead?"

The response came not from Seifer, but Snorlax itself. Another yawn-roar that filled the air with a noxious stench Noctum couldn't put into words. He nearly dropped Seifer when instinct told him to plug up his nostrils. Instead, his face paled and he held his breath.

"No. Now put me down so I can knock it out with my Secret Sword."

Wait, Seifer had a sword, too? What was it with these Radiants and fighting with weapons instead of proper attacks? Well, Noctum supposed that wasn't immediately important. He slowly descended when he saw Snorlax raise its right arm and slam it down on the ground. A fissure snaked forward, sending dust, grass, and cobblestone flying. Yelping, Noctum flapped his wings.

"Wait! I said down!" Seifer barked, but then he spotted the moving fissure and tensed. "On second thought… higher!"

Noctum wouldn't argue with that. There was one issue, however. "Ah, but what about Baraz!" He looked down to find the dracozolt slumping down, having run into the same forcefield as Noctum. "Baraz, get up!" he cried.

Seconds before the fissure would've plowed into Baraz, a dark blue blur carried him away. Noctum followed the blur until it slowed up and revealed… a garchomp? A cursory glance suggested it wasn't one of Dimitri's assistants. Yet, much like all the Aeons Noctum knew, Garchomp had only a single accessory: a black scarf wrapped around her left shoulder. And there was no notched fin, either.

"Charizard, pay attention!" Seifer snapped, prodding Noctum's belly with his horn. Yowling, Noctum dropped Seifer. Water shot out of the keldeo's hooves. He hovered beside Noctum, who wondered why he hadn't just done that at the start. "Did you see that?"

"The garchomp? Yeah. Is she one of yours?"

"What? The Radiant Guard would never employ a garchomp." Seifer rolled his eyes. "I'm talking about that attack. That was a Dynaquake!"

It took Noctum a second, but the realization quickly set in. "Th-then that snorlax—"

"Is using Dynaforce," Seifer said, eyes narrowed. Noctum raised a brow. Is that what they called the distortion's power in the Kingdom of Radiance? What a stupid name. "Distract it for me so I can get a good hit in."

"Rodger." Noctum flew into Snorlax's line of sight. "Uh, hey! Your breath stinks! Ever hear of mouthwash?"

Snorlax responded with another yawn-roar. Noctum threw his hands over his snout. I guess not.

"Watch your six, Charizard!"

The voice was unfamiliar. Noctum looked over his shoulder, then quickly dropped out of the air as a purple Dragon Pulse bolt raced by him. It was Garchomp. Purple wisps evaporated around the corners of her mouth. Beside her, Baraz shook off his dumbstruck state and zigzagged toward Snorlax's gut.

"Focus. A hit like that won't faze it," Garchomp growled. She took off running in the opposite direction.

"Y-Yeah." Noctum turned around to find purple splotches popping up along Snorlax's body. Had it been poisoned? How? He looked up at Seifer, but the keldeo was gathering energy in the brim of his horn. Which meant it had to have been Garchomp, yet she used Dragon Pulse. Though Noctum thought the purple color was a bit… off compared to what he was used to.

The crackling of electricity snapped him back to attention. Baraz skidded back from Snorlax's belly, staring down an imprint undoubtedly left from a Bolt Beak. Snorlax showed no signs of any pain, however. Nor did it seem to care that Noctum was standing right in front of it. The charizard made his presence known with a white-hot gust of fire. He aimed it at the tree roots digging themselves into Snorlax's gut.

Sure enough, they caught on fire. That, combined with an orange, sword-shaped beam from Seifer and another off-purple Dragon Pulse from Garchomp finally got a reaction. Another yawn-roar. Considerably more painful, if Noctum had to guess. The poisonous splotches also turned a darker purple. Now Noctum was sure Garchomp was behind it. The only question was how she was doing it.

There was no time to think it over. Snorlax raised both its hands. Noctum took off, thinking it wanted to flatten him. Snorlax caught him off guard by grabbing hold of its gut-tree — God, that was still disturbing to think about — and furiously shaking it. Noctum quelled his nerves and spat another Flamethrower, only to choke on his own flames when the fire splashed up harmlessly against… a giant berry?

No, there were several giant berries. All as big as he was! They dropped to the ground and, next thing Noctum knew, he was sucked into a tidal wave of berry juice. It was caustic. An invisible force trying to tear his scales off his flesh. He wanted to scream, but he risked drowning in berry juice.

At some point, he hit the ground tail-first. A shock ran up to his neck. Noctum wasn't sure which way was up and which way was down. All he knew was that he was sticky, drenched, and couldn't feel his tail. Though his vision was blurry, a stream of smoke and embers signaled his tail flame had burnt out. No wonder everything hurt so bad. His attempts to cry for help died out in his throat.

Just when he thought he'd black out, rough scales brushed his belly. Baraz? No, the colors didn't match. Garchomp, then?

The end of his tail warmed. The smoke turned back into a flame. Small, but better than nothing. The blurry vision faded, revealing the back of Garchomp's head. Pink berry juice stained her scales and dribbled down into a puddle by her feet.

"Still alive?"

Well, that was hardly a nice way of asking if he was doing okay. But Noctum would take it. "Yeah. Just feel like I got walloped by a Rock Slide, 's'all."

Garchomp kneeled down and slid Noctum off her back. "Your buddy's doing something weird."

Huh? Though his back protested, Noctum sat up. He saw Seifer standing in a daze, disheveled mane plastered over his face and the white stripes of his uniform stained with berry juice. But what was more concerning was Snorlax. It was reaching for its belly-tree again. And all the poisonous splotches had vanished along with the scrapes and scuffs the group's attacks had inflicted.

Baraz dashed toward Snorlax's head. An otherworldly, rainbow shimmer spread from his feathery crest down to his stubby tail. Noctum recognized it. Heck, he'd back Baraz up with the same thing if he wasn't so exhausted. Instead, he sat there while Baraz planted his feet firmly in the damaged ground.

Right when Snorlax gripped the branches of its tree, Baraz opened his beak. A high-pitched squawk rang out. "Khh!" Garchomp threw her arms against the sides of her head and stepped back from Noctum, swearing. Likewise, Seifer whinnied in surprise and reared up on his hind legs.

They had it easier than Snorlax, though. It tilted its head in Baraz's direction, only for its slitted eyes to shoot open. Red sclera greeted the group for a few seconds, before Snorlax yawn-roared. Its head fell back against the ground with a thud. The tree in its belly dissolved away in streams of brown, green, and purple.

Snorlax slowly shrank back down to a more reasonable size. Torn bits of white cloth drifted through the air. Baraz slouched over, wheezing through his beak.

"What just happened?" Seifer asked, trying to shake his mane dry to little avail. "Did you just stop that thing? How?"

"That," Baraz straightened himself up, "is the technique… we Aeons have used… to keep the distortion… under control." He took a few deep breaths. "Cosmic Blessing. That's what it's called."

Seifer's only response was stunned silence. Noctum looked down at his utility belt. Wet, but still intact. Her Majesty warned us against using Cosmic Blessing here. But what was Baraz to do? Noctum was still reeling over the whole giant berry thing. Nothing he'd read about Dynaforce lined up with that attack. Did that mean Snorlax had been turned into a Phantom?

"Oi, Charizard. Look at this."

A blade-tipped arm jutted out in front of him. It was Garchomp's. Her blade skewered a piece of white cloth that had the school's rose logo sewn into it. Noctum took the cloth and inspected it. He glanced up at Snorlax, then down at the cloth, then back up. "Wait a tic…"

Noctum gasped. He tried to stand up, but fatigue got the better of him. Garchomp managed to catch him before he fell on his rump. "Don't be stupid. You don't have the energy for that," she growled. "What's got you so worked up?"

"That snorlax… I think I remember seeing him during the banquet." Noctum held the cloth up. "He's the school's head chef!"

"I think you're right," Baraz called. He was standing beside Snorlax, sweeping up pieces of cloth with his tail. "The guy wore some kind of white button-down jacket. These scraps remind me of it."

"But the school has one of Polaris' barriers around it," Garchomp said. She clearly wasn't happy. "It sure seemed like Snorlax was hopped up on distortion. How did it get to him through the barriers?"

"Ridiculous." Seifer had finally found his voice, though his hair was still covering his eyes. "There isn't any distortion anywhere near here. There has to be another explanation."

"Or maybe these barriers are faulty." Garchomp shrugged.

Seifer had a retort repaired, but cut it short when a pair of bulky grimmsnarl in lavender guard uniforms came rushing out. "Good heavens!" one shouted. "What happened here?"

"A Phantom attack." Garchomp smacked her tail against a stone shard jutting out behind her. "Now, don't stand there gawking. Get someone in charge over here."


"You're back quite soon. That is not a good sign."

Despair was right after all. Fraud's plan undoubtedly ended in failure. Yet there he was, swinging his icicle cane around his wrist and whistling jauntily as he tippity-tapped along a fallen stone column.

"Indeed. It would seem our opposition drew an unexpected wild card." Fraud adjusted his mask.

Another one? Despair groaned. A shadowy hand gripped the arm of his makeshift throne. He tapped his fingers against shards of rock. "Well, what do you have to say for yourself?"

"It wasn't a complete loss." Fraud tipped the bridge of his cap down. "I was able to make off with a small side pot." He gestured behind him toward the wall of black and gray distortion. A life-sized playing card with a plague mask appeared. It spun around, then spat out a nickit and a greedent.

"Oomph! Hey, easy on the merchandise," Nickit grumbled, trying to dust off his tail with his stubby legs. He looked over at Fraud. "What's the big idea, grabbing onto us without any warning?"

"I found these two hoodlums trying to sneak out of the school," Fraud explained. "It seemed they were already in trouble and thought they could use my Phantom Glutton's scene to make their escape."

"What do you mean?" Nickit puffed out his cheeks. "I wasn't using no scene. The great Nickit Carpaccio can escape from anything!"

"Uh, boss?"

"Not now, Rookie. I'm interrogatifying here."

"But boss." Rookie tugged at Carpaccio's tail and pointed to Despair. "We're not alone."

"Yeah, I can see tha— aah aaah aaah!" The moment Carpaccio laid eyes on Despair he jumped in fright and tried to bury himself in Rookie's fat tail.

If Depsair had eyes, he would've rolled them. He settled for slamming his spectral fist against a rock. "Why did you bring me a couple of clowns? Does it look like I'm running a carnival here?"

That got Carpaccio's attention. He poked his head up from behind Rookie. "H-Hey! The Crimson Zephyr ain't no clown. He's a master thief!"

"And an airhead, clearly," Despair scoffed. "After all, it takes a special type of ignoramus to refer to themselves in the third person."

"Hang on, slow down. Ignoramus ain't no real word," Carpaccio huffed.

"Uh, boss, I think he's calling you a dumb-dumb."

"I thought they'd make for a nice pair of expendable pawns," Fraud interjected, shuffling a deck of icy cards in his hands. "Lackeys I can take with me so you don't have to worry about stretching your precious energy too thin."

"Lackey?!" Carpaccio's face was practically bright red. "Listen here, Snooty-Shoes McGee, I ain't nobody's lackey."

Already tired of this conversation, Despair summoned another spectral hand and slammed it in front of Carpaccio and Rookie. "You seem to misunderstand, little boy. You're not in a position to negotiate."

Carpaccio looked at the giant hand and gulped. "W-Well, I certainly ain't about to work for free. A guy's gotta eat, y'know. What are you paying?"

Of course that was all this runt could think about. Such was the way this pathetic kingdom worked. The nobles were blessed with everything they could want and then some. The rest of the populace were left fighting over scraps of what was left over.

Despair levitated up from his seat. "Your 'payment'… will be getting to thank the cosmos each and every night that I allowed you to live another day." He drew on his fragile energy to cast a menacing red aura about him. "If you refuse, I'll simply kill you both now and take what little energy you have as my own."

Carpaccio's fur puffed out in fright.

"Now then, what say you, child?"

"O-Okay," Carpaccio squeaked. "Please don't eat me."

Satisfied, Despair drifted back. "Do with them as you please, Fraud. Just don't drag them here again."

Fraud dispelled his cards with a wave of his right hand. He bowed. "Understood."


Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 7: Grim and Bear It

Arianna wound up teleporting all three members of Team Bastion to the student clinic. It was their second time there within the span of a few hours. With Yuna on the other side of the curtain, however, she was able to get more of a sense of her surroundings.

Some stuff was fairly routine. Metal dividers and plain white curtains gave people their privacy. Small, circular analogue clocks broadcasted the time. A few chairs — some padded, others plastic — offered places to sit. Two paintings hung on empty spaces of the tan walls. One had a bowl of fruit, the other rolling, green fields under clear blue skies. It reminded Yuna of the hills to the north of the Academy. This was confirmed when Yuna squinted to see a plaque under the painting reveal that, yes, it was a gift drawn by a former student.

Beyond that, however, things got murkier. There were metal poles that hung bags with fluids. Made sense. From what she'd learned, keeping someone hydrated was important when they were injured. And if drinking fluids was too painful, they needed other ways to manage.

But that was the only piece of equipment she truly recognized. There were locked white cabinets on wheels. Yuna saw an audino nurse produce a vile with some sort of clear liquid. The cabinet had dozens of other bottles filled with different-colored fluids, bags of powder, and seed-like objects. Her guess was medicine, but what was wrong with conventional berries and healing techniques?

And some of the things Dr. Rafique used to examine Noctum left Yuna completely clueless. First there was some sort of circular sleeve the nurse put on Noctum's arm. She squeezed a little bulb and the cuff puffed up like an angry wigglytuff. There was a tiny hammer that the zarude hit Noctum's elbows and knees with, then stroked the soles of his feet. The charizard seemed surprised that his toes reflexively curled against his soles.

"Um, is all of this stuff normal?" Yuna asked, head tilted. While Noctum was in a bed, Baraz sat on a chair behind Yuna. He'd already been cleared.

"Just part of the physical exam." Rafique leaned over Noctum. "Grab my fingers and squeeze as hard as you can."

"Oh." Yuna watched Noctum squeeze. Rafique straightened up, smiling.

"It looks like one Heal Pulse was enough to fix him up," he announced. "From the looks of things, he threw his back out. So, we did give him a small bit of analgesic for pain control."

"Anal… jee…" Yuna bit her lower lip. "I'm sorry. I don't know what that means."

"It's medicine that helps with pain," Arianna interjected.

Yeah, but how does it help? Yuna wondered. One look at Arianna's bored expression told her to keep that thought to herself.

"So, he's going to be okay?" Arianna confirmed, to which Rafique nodded. "Good." She nudged up her glasses. "In that case, I must be going. The Chancellor is still getting briefed on the situation."

Yuna frowned. "What about us? Isn't there anything else you can tell us?" She looked at Baraz. Of course she believed what the dracozolt told her, but it left her head spinning. "How does the head chef get turned into some kind of Phantom-like thing?"

Arianna pressed her glasses firmly against her face. "I wish I had answers for you, Princess. But I do not."

"Is the snorlax going to be okay?" Baraz's upper half quivered as he struggled to get his large hindquarters up from his plastic chair. "I know he attacked us, but it wasn't his fault."

"He was taken to an outside hospital, but I was told he's stable." Arianna looked down at her notebook. "Commander Seifer intends to interrogate him. Otherwise, I have nothing else to report. And standing here is only delaying my ability to get more information." She did a hasty about-face.

"Goodbye." The gardevoir flickered blue, then vanished in a flash of light. Behind Yuna, Rafique sighed.

"I really wish she'd go out into the clinic lobby before she did that." Rafique stuck his hands into his white coat's pockets and made his way over to the other side of the room, where Chiaki was conversing with a garchomp bracing her dorsal fin against the wall. Yuna guessed it was the helper Arianna mentioned. But that just begged the question of what Chiaki was doing with a dragon. Didn't this kingdom hate them? Seemed awfully boneheaded to bring one with him to this school.

"Yeah, great, cool. So, what now?"

Yuna looked to her left, where Nikki sat cross-legged on the floor, staring down at her lap. Vegna loomed behind her, while Talonflame was perched on the same chair Nikki sat in earlier. He mimicked Vegna's appearance, puffing out his feathers to look intimidating.

"As I said, your team will receive detention. Beginning tomorrow," Vegna declared.

"Seriously? On the first day of classes?" Nikki's mohawk frazzled.

"If you refuse, I can always extend it by an extra two days." Vegna's eye smoldered with a purple tint. It cast a glow on the floor tiles surrounding Nikki. Chiaki stopped his conversation to give the toxtricity a death glare.

"Fine. Whatever." Nikki crossed her arms and scowled. "Anything else?"

"I'm given to understand you will have some remedial lessons," Vegna replied.

Nikki rolled her eyes. "Lemme guess. Professor Monokuma?"

"No. Ministers Xiao and Lin."

Chiaki raised a brow at that. "They're the fighting-type Crowne Ministers. What would they want with us?"

"Do I look like a mind-reader, boy?" Vegna pointed an index finger at Chiaki, who abruptly stiffened.

"No, sir."

"Then ask the Ministers yourself when you see them." Vegna stuck out his right arm. Talonflame hopped onto it, then fluttered up to the skull gauntlet on Vegna's right shoulder. The dusknoir floated toward the exit.

"Wait, that's it? You're just leaving out of the blue?" Yuna asked. She regretted opening her mouth when Vegna turned his piercing glare toward her.

"I am. Thanks to this fiasco, the two trespassers I was interrogating escaped." Vegna shook his head. "I believe you're already familiar with them." He chuckled to himself. "Seems there's been a lot of trouble around here since you showed up. Perhaps I'm not the only one bearing a curse."

Yuna wanted to press Vegna's last statement, but the dusknoir threw the metal door open and floated off. Cursed? In what way? She looked to Nikki. "Hey, um, do you have any idea what Professor Vegna meant?"

"By what?"

"Y'know, the whole curse thing?" Yuna frowned. "I didn't think this kingdom was big on superstitions and stuff."

Smirking, Nikki pulled herself back onto the chair. "Well, you know what they say about when you assume…"

"Just give her a straight answer," Chiaki called, shaking his head disapprovingly.

Nikki swung herself right so she was sitting sideways with her legs dangling over the armrest. "And what if I don't want to give a straight answer? Maybe I don't swing that way?"

Chiaki pulled his cap over his face, muttering obscenities under his breath. Yuna looked between the two. "Um, I'm sorry, but now I'm just more confused. We're not at a park or a playground."

Nikki burst into howling laughter. She kicked the air with her legs. Yuna frowned. "I'm serious. Stop laughing at me!"

"It's slang people use when talking about who they're attracted to," Chiaki said, cap pressed firmly against his face.

"Oh." Yuna blinked. That was it? "You need slang for that?"

"Yeah." Nikki finally calmed down. "Why? You guys don't have terms for it?"

"Uh, no."

"Love is love. Plain and simple," Baraz added, bobbing his tiny head. He'd finally succeeded in freeing himself from the chair's vicious plastic grasp.

"And we're going off on a tangent, anyway," Yuna continued. "What's this about Vegna and curses?"

Chiaki lifted his cap back up. "It all has to do with his title."

His title? "You mean the Grim Reaper?" Yuna clarified. Chiaki nodded. "Okay. Why do people call him that, then?" The dreepy remembered Chiaki mentioning the Ministry of Justice. But besides that, and him being a ghost-type, nothing sprang to mind.

We do have that in common, though, she conceded.

"It's about his job." Chiaki crossed his arms against his black shirt. He bowed his head in thought. "As an inquisitor, Vegna prosecutes criminals for the government. From the records I've seen, he tends to focus on high-profile cases."

Yuna tapped her chin. "Like what?"

"Murders." Nikki put on a scary face and waved her arms around when Yuna paled.

"I see." Yuna gulped. "Then I guess… it's because he's, like, ruthless. Or really good at his job." He'd likely have to be to land a gig teaching at this school, right?

To her surprise, Chiaki frowned and rested his head on his claws. "I wouldn't necessarily say that. By all accounts… he's pretty average."

What? Yuna knew she was missing something. "Then why—"

Chiaki's expression darkened. "Vegna's called the Grim Reaper because the defendants that have been found innocent in cases he's prosecuted have all gone on to die in freak accidents not long after their trials."

Yuna took a moment to process Chiaki's claim. When she did, her tail shriveled up. Her mind quickly jumped to a seemingly-obvious conclusion: "Then… are you saying Vegna killed them?"

"Nobody knows," Chiaki replied. He looked up at one of the big light tubes on the ceiling. "The news always said Vegna had alibis when the accidents happened."

"So, the superstitious types spread a rumor that Vegna was cursed or some shit." Nikki dug away at her right ear frill with her index finger. She produced some wax that she balled up and flicked onto one of the nearby curtains. "And, thus, the Grim Reaper came to be."

Chiaki nodded. "'Those who set foot in the Reaper's court will soon find themselves in the Twilight Realm.' Or so the rumor goes."

Yuna's jaw hung open. "And the school was okay hiring someone like that?" How could nobody bat an eye?

"Her Eminence expressed her support for Vegna… and that sealed it," Chiaki said.

"Of course, that doesn't stop the rumor mills from turning. Or the tabloids from printing." Nikki was back to digging through her ear frill. Her other hand traced across a scratch on the chair's fabric. "Though, unless I'm mistaken, I don't think Vegna's tried a case since I first started at this school."

Maybe he retired, then? If Yuna had to put up with such serious rumors, she'd probably quit from all the stress. But then… was that a good quality for Aeon's future ruler? She'd have to face rumors of her own someday. Maybe it was something worth talking with Vegna about, if she could ever get past that intimidating demeanor of his. He certainly acted like someone dubbed the Grim Reaper.

"Well, if we're done with that, then I got a question for Twiggy." Nikki pointed her wax-coated finger at Garchomp. "Who's the broad you were having a pow-wow with earlier?"

Chiaki tipped the bridge of his cap down. "It's none of your business."

Garchomp waved Dr. Rafique off and stepped forward, bladed arms at her sides. "I'm Garchomp Valkyrie, Young Master Chiaki's bodyguard."

Nikki could barely hold back her laughter. "Young Master? Seriously? I didn't think you had that big a silver spoon, Twiggy."

"Step off it, Nikki," Chiaki growled.

Something about Valkyrie didn't add up for Yuna. "Wait. She's your bodyguard? But I've never seen her around you."

Valkyrie's eyes narrowed. "Because a good bodyguard knows how not to be seen or heard when they deem it necessary. Which is more than I can say for you and the old geezer." She pointed an elbow at Baraz.

"Err, well, I'm not so much a bodyguard as a helper." Baraz laughed nervously. Yuna concluded Valkyrie shared Chiaki's icy demeanor. Because she really needed another person like that around her.

"I'm still confused. Why do you even need a bodyguard, Chiaki?" the dreepy asked. He'd said something about taking over a family business. That couldn't warrant so much personal protection.

Valkyrie opened her mouth to respond, but Chiaki held up an arm. "Val, don't."

The garchomp shook her head. "Your teammates should know." She turned to Yuna. "Young Master Chiaki is due to inherit control of the Radiant Beacon from his father, Nidoking Sakaki."

There were immediate reactions around Yuna. Baraz tilted his head. Chiaki's scowl deepened and he hid his expression behind his cap. Nikki yawned, though Yuna assumed it was fake and overemphasized given what the toxtricity said next.

"That's it? Pfbt. Do people even read the Beacon?"

"Yes." Chiaki lifted his cap to glare at Nikki. "It's an important newspaper. Unlike practically every other publication, it's not under the thumb of Polaris or some rival company."

"Forget that." Nikki waved Chiaki off with her right hand. "I'm talking newspapers in general. You can just watch the news on Polaris Vision. Why bother reading a boring-ass paper?" She jerked her head toward the door. "The papers out in the waiting room looked untouched."

Valkyrie snorted dragonfire. "Some people still value old-fashioned print."

"Yeah. They're all crotchety geezers." Nikki smirked. "And I still don't see why all this means you need a bodyguard."

Chiaki pivoted away and jammed his claws into his pockets. "Since Father publishes things that can be, shall we say, less than flattering, he's made himself some enemies. Val's here because he's paranoid someone might try to use me to blackmail him."

"Oh, lovely. Just what the country needs. A paranoid purugly newspaper chief." Nikki reclined her head against the other arm of the chair… only to meet rough, scaly fins instead of soft fabric. "Bwuh?" She looked up at Valkyrie's upside-down face and abruptly sat up. "What gives?"

"I won't tolerate such slander against Young Master's father," Valkyrie growled. "Keep your barbed tongue in your mouth or I'll wash it with soap."

Nikki grimaced. "Okay, okay. Sheesh." She settled for resting her head against her left hand and drumming her right fingers against the chair.

Yuna heard the exchange, but mentally she was still about five steps behind her teammates. So many things about the conversation confused her. Chiaki's father… she swore she'd heard that name before. Maybe she had seen it printed on a newspaper? That's what they did with editors-in-chief, right? At least, that was the case back home.

But she had no idea what to make of the whole "Polaris Vision" thing. "Excuse me?" The dreepy raised a hand. "Um, not to interject, but how exactly does someone watch the news?"

Blank stares met her. Yuna regretted opening her mouth. "Seriously? You guys don't have a version of Polaris Vision?" Nikki looked at Yuna with a mixture of surprise and… pity? Yuna was hardly expecting that. When she shook her head, Nikki clutched the lapels of her leather jacket. "Dang. I feel for ya, Princess. That's rough. No Polaris Vision. No fantasies to escape to. Must be boring."

That just left Yuna more confused. "Err, what's Polaris Vision?"

Chiaki pointed to the ceiling. Yuna followed his gaze and found a black metal box hanging from the ceiling by a bunch of the wire thingies she'd seen at the banquet last night. "It's a broadcast device," the grovyle said. "It uses ether to display videotaped programs."

Yuna frowned. She'd understood none of that, though she remembered ether having been brought up by that terrifying masked creature. "Broadcast? Videotape? Ether?"

Surprised, Chiaki took a step back. He glanced at Nikki, who shrugged. "Don't look at me. I'd explain it the exact same way."

"If I may?" Baraz waved a tiny arm. "Since you're going to be stuck in detention, why not use that time to help teach Princess Yuna about some of the things that are unique to the Kingdom of Radiance? After all, it might help her do better in the Crowne Cup."

Yuna wasn't sure how the two were connected, but she still thought it a good idea and nodded her approval. Nikki faked another yawn. "Fine, whatever. Not like I'll be doing any homework there, anyway."

Chiaki huffed and rolled his eyes.


Another downed sleep seed meant another missed alarm for Yuna. Baraz managed to drag her out of bed and had learned enough of the main building's layout to guide Yuna to her first class on the top floor. The halls were surprisingly empty. Nothing but marble floors flanked by brick walls with occasional wooden doors or floor-to-ceiling windows. The ceiling itself was arch-shaped, with long glass tubes lighting things up.

Perhaps everyone wants to show up early to make good first impressions?

That idea went out the window when Yuna floated into the room and found no sign of any teachers. Instead, there was a dark-purple room that used violet candles for light instead of glass tubes like the hallways. There was only enough light for Yuna to see red tablecloths underneath the candles, a dusty chalkboard, and sixteen wooden desks arranged in a four-by-four pattern in the middle of the room. She concentrated to switch on her night vision, but to her surprise all the squares and blocks pushed against the walls were hidden by red covers. The dreepy failed to see why that was necessary. Heck, why even have a classroom with no windows?

"Took you long enough. I was starting to think you wouldn't show."

The snide voice, coupled with the familiar twinkling of a gem-encrusted tiara, meant Yuna was sharing this class with Prince Shimmer. Of course, that should've been obvious. This was an advanced law class. Yuna didn't understand how she scored high enough on the placement test she'd been mailed to wind up in the class in the first place. Still, she was here now. Annoying pontya or not, she had to put her best foot forward.

… figuratively speaking, of course. She'd have feet one day. Probably. Maybe.

"Good morning to you, too," she mumbled to Shimmer. Yuna floated to the lone empty desk and was surprised to see the seat had been modified with an elevated cushion to accommodate her body type. That couldn't have been a coincidence. The class must've had assigned seats.

Sure enough, there was a small box with her name written in painstaking calligraphy. It was a lot of effort for something that was going to be discarded. The dreepy opened the box using the indicated tabs and pressed her hand against something smooth and metallic. It was a badge. It had a soft bronze glow in the limited light. She switched on her night vision again. The badge was shaped like a shield. It had a sword etched into the middle. A flower wrapped itself around the sword's hilt.

"Did anyone else get one of these?" Yuna asked, holding the badge up.

"… everyone did."

"Meep!" Yuna stiffened against her seat cushion. Shadowy globs popped up on the chalkboard in front of her. They coalesced into the shape of a familiar dusknoir. Yuna sighed. She'd seen Vegna's name on her class schedule, but a small part of her prayed it was an error.

"Please forgive my impudence at entering the classroom via the chalkboard," Vegna declared. The room's dim lighting only served to accentuate the gold skull gauntlets on his shoulders. Their ruby eyes cast a menacing red glow around his body. "We shall begin when someone answers the exchange student's question."

Yuna flinched. She couldn't tell if Vegna thought her question stupid or he was still angry over yesterday's cheating fiasco. Regardless, not even referring to her by name or title meant she'd done nothing to endear herself to him. And that was going to make this a long semester.

Hands, hooves, and forelegs shot into the air. Shimmer ignored them, loudly proclaiming, "It's a Kingdom of Radiance attorney's badge." Grumbles erupted around the ponyta over his calling out.

"Wrong." Vegna's eye crackled with shadowy energy. The rubies in his skull gauntlets mirrored the action.

Shimmer slackened against his seat. "What? But you—"

Vegna held up his right hand. "In a court of law, details could be the difference between the sweet taste of freedom and the executioner's noose tightening around your client's neck." He pointed a finger at Shimmer's horn. "If you're going to call out, I expect a complete answer."

Yuna wasn't sure what the dusknoir meant. And it seemed her classmates were confused as well.

"Attorney's badges are gold." Vegna flicked his right index finger toward the ceiling. Shimmer's badge levitated in front of his face. "Does this look gold to you?"


"Good. At least you're not dumb and blind." Vegna snapped his fingers. The badge dropped right into the edge of Shimmer's snout. He squealed. The other students giggled.

"What do you think you're doing?" Shimmer's nostrils flared. "Y… you can't talk to me that way. I'm Crown Prince!"

But Vegna already had his back to Shimmer. "Inside these walls, you are but another student. If you want to talk big, then you'd best be prepared to back it up with a good performance… in court."

Yuna put that statement together with the badge in her hand. Vegna didn't seriously mean that—

"What each of you holds is a provisional attorney's badge." The dusknoir raised a hand. A piece of chalk levitated next to him and went to work furiously scribbling against the board. "This year we're going to do things differently. Each of you will be paired up and, as teams, you will be defending clients of my choosing in court. If it's not your week, you will watch from the gallery and write a critique of your classmates' performances as if you were a legal correspondent for a news agency."

Excited chatter erupted around Yuna, but she couldn't bring herself to share her classmates' enthusiasm. Because this was asinine. He couldn't put people's lives in their hands. Not when they were students. "Um, Professor Vegna? Is that, y'know, really such a good idea?" She put her badge on her desk and fidgeted with her necklace. "That's a lot of weight to put on our shoulders. What if the clients are, y'know, guilty?"

The chalk stopped moving. Vegna glanced at Yuna. "A priest I prosecuted in court once said this: 'Those of little faith are the first to go back on their words when proven wrong.'"

Yuna did not know what to make of that. Unless she was mistaken, Radiance didn't have a national religion. "I don't follow."

"I'm well aware that you all lack experience. Which is why the clients will be those accused of smaller crimes," Vegna elaborated. "Nothing more violent than assault, I assure you."

That… still seems pretty violent. Back home, assault was serious charge.

"Likewise, the inquisitors will be novices themselves… relatively speaking." Vegna lowered the chalk and turned around. "Now then, these are the pairs. Our royal couple shall take the first case… next week."

"What?!" Yuna couldn't stop herself from blurting that out. Shimmer reacted the exact same way, but he was more focused on Yuna than the date.

"You made a mistake, Professor." Shimmer's cheeks puffed up. "Yesterday, you told me—"

"Circumstances have changed. You're working with the exchange student."

Shimmer's tiara went askew. He looked at Yuna like she was a piece of questionable meat. "But we had a deal," he whispered.

Vegna's smoldering, shadowy fist slammed against the chalkboard. Erasers and chalk fell to the ground below him. "Class, please forgive my striking of the chalkboard in such a manner."

Not even the twins sound this unapologetic. Perhaps Vegna moonlit as some sort of theater actor? Regardless, it didn't matter. She expected Shimmer to brush him aside. But talk of deals made her ectoplasm quiver. So much for no special treatment.

Great, now her head was hurting, too. Off to a wonderful first day of classes.

"These pairs are not going to be adjusted no matter how much you whine, boy," Vegna said, pointing to Shimmer's horn once again. "Besides, it's only proper you and the exchange student learn to cooperate. After all, you will both have to do a lot of that in the future."

Yuna's tail shriveled. Leave it to the guy they call the Grim Reaper to make a perfectly legitimate reason sound so… depressing.

"Is our defendant at least the same?" Shimmer asked, focused firmly on his desk.

"Yes. You're still defending Slurpuff Benedict. And this will be the assigned inquisitor's first trial."

Oh, so Shimmer already knew the defendant. Lovely. Wonderful. Yuna failed to see how that would help her be ready to stand in court so soon.

"Exchange student."

Yuna stiffened. "Y-Yes?"

"I can see it written on your face." Vegna crossed his arms. "You wonder how you can possibly be ready to stand in court in a week's time."

"Uhh…" Dang, he had Yuna read like yesterday's newspaper. "Well, yeah. Just because I did okay on that placement exam doesn't mean I'm ready to be in a trial."

"Then you would do well to use the next week to work with Shimmer and learn how we run trials in the Kingdom of Radiance." Vegna pointed at both students. Out of the corner of her eye, Yuna saw Shimmer scowling. What was his problem? She'd done nothing to him, so why was he acting like he was being punished?

"To help speed the process along, I'll give you all your textbooks." Vegna raised his right arm and snapped his fingers. "You are welcome to bring this to court with you."

Fluttering wings sounded from outside the door. Talonflame flew in, clutching a small pile of books while visibly struggling to keep his altitude. Behind him, a corviknight carried an even larger stack. Yuna worried the bigger bird would crush the books in his talons. And his feathers seemed… darker than the corviknight back home. In an unhealthy way, unlike Noctum's black scales.

"Heya, V. Where d'ya want 'em?" Corviknight asked, his voice disturbingly cheerful and nasally for such a large, imposing bird. Yuna had thought he might be another feral, but she was clearly wrong. And to address Vegna so casually without triggering any reaction… were these two friends or something? Did Vegna even have friends?

… maybe he was the type to strike up odd friendships with the custodial staff or something.

"On my desk, please." Vegna gestured to the cloth-covered cube closest to the chalkboard. Talonflame and Corviknight dropped the books off, then flew out of the room. With a wave of his hands, Vegna distributed a book to each student. One look at the brown, dusty cover told Yuna she'd need Baraz or Noctum to carry it.

"Now then, let us begin at the first chapter." The dusknoir levitated a chalk piece beside him and floated to a free spot on the chalkboard. Sighing, Yuna pushed the book open.


Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 8: All That Shimmers is Gold

Yuna drifted through her morning classes in a dreamlike trance. She was only vaguely aware of what was going on around her while she imagined herself floating inside some giant hall filled with columns and arches. A faceless figure towered above her, holding a gavel, while Shimmer stood next to her barking orders like he was a feral arcanine.

Even news from Professor Cid that he was taking the third-years on an early field trip to a historical site did little to quell the unease. Sure, her classmates whooped and hollered, but for Yuna that likely meant even less time to prepare.

She wasn't entirely sure how she wound up in the dining hall's large, wooden entrance. Baraz must've taken her there and departed for the servant quarters. The glistening chandeliers and warm sunlight drifting through the high-arched glass ceiling managed to catch her attention long enough to snap her out of her trance.

Right, food. She needed food. Except she had yet to actually eat in the dining hall.

Yuna scanned the room. It had the same marble floor as the hallways. The opposite end had a raised platform holding multiple tables for the teachers. Which left the students to use the evenly-spaced, varnished, wooden, circular and rectangular tables. Dozens of meltan scurried across the floor, carrying metal trays piled high with meat and plant-based dishes and sides. They set them in the middle of the tables.

Where should I sit? She wasn't sure if students segregated themselves by class year or not. Yuna figured she could find Chiaki or Nikki if she searched hard enough. They weren't ideal company, but they were better than nothing.

At least, that was her assumption until an unseen force tugged on her right horn. Her gills tightened. She squeaked. Yuna sucked in a sharp breath as she stared down Shimmer's glowing horn casting a pink glow over his tiara.

"Come with me." The ponyta wasn't giving her a choice. His psychic grip faded and Yuna floated after him. Was the Prince taking Vegna's advice after all? Curious.

He weaved through tables, mindful of stray limbs sticking out from chairs. Shimmer brought Yuna to the circular table located closest to the faculty section. All the seats were occupied save two. Shimmer sat down on one. He levitated a small bell and rang it. Within seconds, an arcanine wearing a black dress jacket appeared.

"Some ghost-friendly cushions for Princess Yuna." He gestured to the seat beside him.

"Of course, Your Grace." Arcanine bowed and ducked under the table. He reappeared with three cushions that he stacked on the table. "Here you are, m'lady."

"Oh. Thank you." Yuna settled down on the cushions. She was at perfect height to reach her napkin and silverware.

"What kind of diet do you dragons go with?" Shimmer asked. It wasn't the politest phrasing, but it was nicer than how he acted before law class.

"I eat meat."

"Real or synthetic?"

Yuna raised a brow. "You guys have synthetic meat?"

At that, the sylveon and sirfetch'd to Shimmer's left looked up from their plates. "Of course we do," Shimmer said. "You don't?"


"Fascinating," Sylveon whispered.

"Right." Shimmer's horn glowed. A plate moved in front of her. It had a steak sandwich with caramelized onions and melted cheddar on a fresh-baked sourdough roll. Yuna's mouth watered from the smell. The cut must've been high-grade.

"Introductions, then." Shimmer brought a plate of his own over. It had a spring mix salad with avocado. "These are my friends, Xander and Robin." He gestured to Sylveon and Sirfetch'd, respectively. Xander focused on pouring himself a glass of water while Robin nodded curtly.

"And I'm sure you remember Team Striker from yesterday's event." The ponyta pointed a forehoof across the table. Yuna looked up at the cinderace, lucario, and inteleon. The latter two had ditched their striped, scarlet sports jerseys for silk dress shirts. Yuna immediately recalled their gleeful commentary when Team Bastion got disqualified. Her cheeks burned.


"What up, Princess?" Rufus said with a bite of poultry dangling from his teeth. "Bad luck about yesterday, eh?"

"Well, it certainly made for a crowning spot of entertainment!" Reno laughed. The cinderace sat back in his chair. "No offense, Princess, but folks love a good villain team to root against… and Nikki the Nuisance set you guys up to fill that niche nicely."

She was offended, but settled for taking it out on her steak sandwich.

"We mean no ill will. You see, part of our job is to help craft a good narrative for the audience," Vincent elaborated. The inteleon pressed his index finger to his temple. "Though we'll be hard-pressed to make your team into anything if you get eliminated in the first leg. And, with that penalty, it's looking quite likely."

Okay, now she had to say something. "Shimmer, did you bring me here to talk about the case or to let your friends mock me? I had no idea Nikki was planning to cheat, you know."

"Whoa, whoa." Reno held up his paws. "Nobody's mocking you. We're not like that, Princess." He adjusted the jersey on his torso. "I've got future sponsors to think about. No pro baccer team's gonna want to hire a bully."

"Yeah, sure." The dreepy took a swig of water.

"I did bring you here because of the case." Shimmer dabbed his silver napkin against his snout. "I could read your body language and your energy. You felt like a plate of cold, stale noodles."

Yuna attempted a pale imitation of one of Chiaki's scowls. Gee, thanks for the confidence boost, partner.

The ponyta looked her dead in the eye. "You have no reason to worry."

"Because?" Yuna was ready to stuff a bread roll in Shimmer's mouth if his answer was some variation of "Because you're working with me."

"Because you're clearly smart."

Yuna almost coughed up her bite of steak sandwich.

"Everyone has to take a placement test to get into Vegna's advanced law class," Robin explained. "I doubt he'd make an exception for you just because you're an exchange student."

Though it was true, Yuna wasn't sure if that was meant to be a compliment. Shimmer leaned into her line of sight. "If you scored high enough on the test, then that means that, despite not growing up here, you know your stuff," he said.

"Arguably better than some of us who actually live here," Reno added. He rested his paws behind his head. "I mean, I find all that law junk boring, but we've got a lot of politically-minded folks here and you probably scored better than a good lot of them."

"I see." No one had mentioned that to Yuna. She assumed she was the only one who had to take such a test.

"Which brings me back to my original point: your worry is unfounded." Shimmer brushed his mane with a foreleg. "We'll be fine. Uncle Benedict is innocent. I'm sure of it."

Uncle Benedict? "So, the slurpuff's family?"

"Not in the literal sense." Shimmer chuckled. "Mother doesn't have any siblings. The royal family only ever rears a single child. Keeps the bloodline pure." He swished his mane, angling his head so his tiara would twinkle in the sunlight.

"That sounds pretty lonely." Yuna gulped down more water. "My little brothers can be annoying, but I still love them." She shook her head. The subject wasn't worth pursuing. "Anyway, even if he's not your real uncle, isn't it, like, some sort of conflict to defend him?"

"Sounds like someone's been watching too many PV shows." Xander giggled into one of his ribbons.


Xander looked at Yuna like she was speaking gibberish. "Polaris Vision?"

There was that phrase again. "Yeah, uh, I don't really know what that is."

"No fooling?" Xander dropped his fork. "You guys have ether, right?"

Yuna was sorely tempted to make a snide remark about how Shimmer's ancestors forced the Aeons into mountainous and volcanic wastelands. However, she settled for saying, "I'd never heard of that term before coming here."

"Don't look so surprised, Xander." Rufus pointed his fork at the sylveon. "You know how guarded Polaris is with their proprietary tech. There's no way they'd let word of ether power reach the Aeon Kingdom. Anyone who tried would get buried six feet under by a mountain of C and Ds."

"I mean, we didn't let word of anything here reach the Aeons until Demerzel started up the whole treaty process." Shimmer gesticulated with his levitating fork. He glanced at Yuna. "Sorry about that. Not like I had any control over it."

Huh. Yuna's parents hadn't mentioned Demerzel being the one to get that ball rolling. Though Noctum did tell her Demerzel was the friendliest Radiant they'd met since their arrival. "And your mom's okay with an advisor leading the charge like this?" Yuna wanted to hear an answer straight from the Prince's mouth.

Shimmer chewed away at some lettuce. He swallowed, then said, "Of course. The whole reason she brought Demerzel in is because she's trying to shift domestic policy to focus on the expanding distortion." He stabbed an avocado slice with his fork. "Loathe as I am to admit it, you dragons are infinitely better at dealing with the distortion than we are."

Because of Cosmic Blessing. It was the one thing her parents said they had as leverage over the Kingdom of Radiance. If they were willing to offer it up as part of this treaty, then that meant the distortion had to be nearing a critical point. Perhaps this was all connected to the mystery dungeons her parents had mentioned when meeting with Vortex.

Gah, it was so much to keep track of. Trial. She had to focus on the trial. The other stuff could wait.

"Right. So, back to your uncle." Yuna finished her sandwich. "What's the issue?"

"He's being accused of assaulting some magmar peasant on board an omnibus," Shimmer explained. "You know what those are, right?"

"Um, yes. They're kind of like coaches, but bigger." Yuna had seen a couple when she was traveling to Horizon Gardens. "Did your uncle say anything?"

Shimmer nodded. "Uncle Benedict was sleeping in the omnibus the whole time. He was woken up by shouting and saw the magmar slouched over next to him with a knife in his gut."

Reno whistled. "Ouch."

Yuna's eyes widened. "Wait, and the magmar survived?"

"He must've. Otherwise it'd be a murder trial and we wouldn't be involved." Shimmer shrugged.

"Why even take an omnibus?" Xander adjusted his pink, feathered shirt collar with his ribbons. "Surely Benedict can afford to order a private coach."

Shimmer shrugged. "Benedict says he likes to take public transit to commiserate with the commoners. He's weird like that."

"I don't know. Sounds suspicious to me," Xander said.

"Well, I'll just count my lucky stars you won't be on the jury." Shimmer chuckled and hip-checked Xander. The sylveon giggled and playfully shoved him back with a ribbon.

"How can you be so… nonchalant about this?" Yuna was glad her ectoplasm dissolved food right away. If she had a normal stomach, she might not have kept her lunch down.

"Because I believe in Uncle Benedict. I think he's telling the truth." Shimmer's expression hardened. "He told me there were other omnibus passengers. I have no doubt whoever this novice inquisitor is will have them testify."

"Probably. But how does that help us?" Yuna poked her hands together.

"It's the perfect situation to sow doubt into the jury." Shimmer smirked. "You do know we conduct trials with jurists, right?"

She did. It came up in her studies for the placement test. "We get a 'not guilty' verdict if all six jurors unanimously agree on that decision," Yuna said.

"Right. But, failing that, we can get the jury to deadlock." Shimmer pushed his chair back from the table. "And the perfect way to do that is to get these other passengers to turn on one another. That ought to create enough confusion to mess up the jury."

Aside from that sounding easier said than done, Yuna found the idea… worrying. "Are you saying we should put suspicion on innocent bystanders?"

"Of course not." The ponyta flicked his mane. "But if Uncle Benedict is telling the truth, logic dictates one of the other passengers did it and tried to pin the crime on him. So, our strategy should be to look for an opening that can make that scenario more likely." He sat back, grinning. "Like I said… we've got nothing to worry about."

"I still think we should go through some of the textbook together," Yuna said.

Shimmer rolled his eyes. "Sure. Fine. Meet me in the first-floor common lounge after your detention gets out. Sound good?"

Yuna nodded.


Detention brought her back to Professor Vegna's room. Despite Horizon Gardens being well south of her home and having long days as the start of fall approached, the classroom seemed inexplicably darker than it was in the morning. All the candles burned lavender flames, casting a purple glow over the chalkboard and plastic desks. Nikki and Chiaki were already sitting in desks behind one another. Yuna took her assigned spot from class. It still had all the cushions set up.

"Where's Professor Vegna?" the dreepy asked. She looked expectantly at the chalkboard.

"Left for a meeting. Told us not to cause any trouble." Chiaki didn't look up as he spoke. He was writing numbers into what Yuna assumed was math homework.

"Stuck us with Birdbrain." Nikki jerked her thumb over her shoulder. Talonflame stood on a perch in the back corner of the room, preening his feathers.

Yuna didn't trust that they were truly alone. Vegna might have set up booby traps or something similar. She pulled out a worksheet from Cid's history class. "You're going to behave yourself, right, Nikki?"

"Yeah, yeah." The toxtricity leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs. "Look, it's not like I wanted this to happen."

"Then why'd you cheat yesterday?" Yuna asked.

Nikki turned away. "I wasn't intending to cheat."

Chiaki rolled his eyes. "You powered up your moves with an illegal item. How's that not intentional?"

"I didn't need the item to power up. My Boomburst would've knocked them out regardless," Nikki scoffed.

Yuna frowned. "But then it makes even less sense for you to have brought it in the first place." If her teammate was trying to win her over, it wasn't working.

"Unless she was deliberately trying to get us disqualified." Chiaki tipped the brim of his cap down. "There have been years where teams took bribes to throw the Crowne Cup."

"Piss off, Twiggy." Nikki's face reddened. "I just said I didn't want to get us disqualified."

"And why should we believe you when you're not coming clean about those goggles?" Chiaki countered.

Nikki balled her fists up. Sparks danced between her fingers. Talonflame looked up from preening himself. Yuna held her breath, expecting Nikki to throw a punch. Instead, she dug her fists into the arm of her desk. "It wasn't… about boosting power." She sucked in a sharp breath. "The goggles… doubled as a pair of X-ray specs."

While Yuna had brought herself up to speed on the items she'd purchased with Baraz's help, X-ray specs were not on that list. "Err… what?"

"You can't be serious." Chiaki waved Nikki off.

"Hang on, what do those do?"

"They let you see through walls," Chiaki replied. "But it's not like the maze was complicated. You shouldn't have needed X-ray specs in the first place." He shook his head dismissively.

"I already told you it wasn't about cheating!" Nikki leaned over her desk. "It was about exposing that jackass Prince for the cheat he is!"

Yuna looked at Chiaki. He looked back blankly. "Is this supposed to be a joke? You don't strike me as a comedian in training," he said.

"It's not a joke. I'm telling you… something stinks to high heaven about that ponyta."

Are you sure that's not your jacket? I can smell it from across the room. Yuna kept her snark internal.

Chiaki pivoted so he was sitting on the chair backwards. He rested his arms on the back of the chair. "And you're basing this off what, exactly? Your gut?"

Nikki bit her lip. "No. But, like, c'mon, you've gotta see it." She turned to Yuna. "Don't you think it's a bit convenient that Shimmer's team got put all the way on the far side of the maze? The commentary made it sound like they didn't even break a sweat going through it."

"Uh, I wasn't paying much attention. We were preoccupied, remember?" The dreepy pointed to Talonflame and recalled the Flamethrowers and Air Slashes that had rained on her from the sky.

"Besides, that all happened after you made the decision to cheat." Chiaki tapped his claws on Nikki's desk. "I'm no therapist, but you sounds like you're projecting."

"Hey, just because I act like a slacker doesn't mean I actually am one!" Nikki's mohawk flared up, peppering her chair with tiny sparks. "I do my work and pass my tests. Which is more than I can say for Shimmer."

"Right. You really think slandering the Crown Prince is going to win you any friends here?" Chiaki facepalmed. "That kind of talk all but guarantees every team will target us in the first Crowne Cup leg. Which makes total sense if you're trying to throw this."

"It's the truth, damn it!" Nikki reached into her backpack — black, worn out, and covered in patches of duct tape — and smacked two pieces of paper down on her desk. "Look." She pushed the papers toward Chiaki.

"These look like pre-calc notes," Chiaki said. "So what?"

"I was in the same pre-calc class as Shimmer last year." Nikki turned the page's in Yuna's direction. "Look here. This one's from his notebook." She slid the page on Yuna's left toward her. The writing was in cursive, with tiny hearts used in place of dots for the Is and Js. It was… quite flamboyant. Yuna supposed it matched his flashy outfit.

"And this… is a test we had in the middle of the year." Nikki slid the other page to Yuna.

Aside from the perfect score marked with a big, red marker, something was off. The letters in Shimmer's name were thick and blocky. Even the numbers weren't as curvy as the ones from Shimmer's notebook. "Okay, the writing's different." She frowned. "What are you implying?"

"That someone else took this test for him." Nikki tapped the test repeatedly with her index finger. "How else would you explain it?"

"That he ditches the fancy writing on a timed test?" Yuna shrugged. Her writing always got noticeably sloppier on tests back home. Of course, just gripping a pen in her nubby hand was tough. She couldn't wait to get claws like her mother.

"Don't be ridiculous!"

"Well, how do we know this test isn't a fake?" Chiaki narrowed his eyes. "I've never heard of a teacher here letting students keep their graded tests and I doubt they'd bend that rule even for Prince Shimmer. So, if this is genuine, then the safe bet is that you stole it."

Talonflame spread its wings out. Nikki's anger evaporated. Panic overtook her face. "Oh no, you got me, Twiggy. It's totally a fake. Ha ha ha," she said through gritted teeth. When Talonflame settled down, she leaned over and hissed in a whisper, "Okay, so I stole it. Big whoop. The point is Shimmer's getting a free ride through this place when there are thousands of kids that would kill for a chance to come to this school."

Chiaki cocked a brow. "So, you're telling me your motive here is purely altruistic?"

Yuna had a hard time believing Nikki was some sort of advocate. Then again, it wasn't like she knew anything about the toxtricity's background. "Come to think of it, Nikki, why are you here? It doesn't sound like you're the biggest fan of this place." At least Yuna had an important reason to be here. Nikki wasn't some sort of goodwill ambassador.

"That's—" Nikki clutched the sides of her leather jacket. "You wouldn't understand, Princess."

"Every Crowne Minister can lobby to send someone to this school. Nikki is one of those lucky few," Chiaki said. "Minister Shredder's footing the bill for you to be here, isn't he?"

Nikki looked down at her lap. "He is."

Pushing aside the name of Nikki's apparent sponsor — seriously, what kind of parent named their kid Shredder? — that changed things. It made her comments about Shimmer hypocritical at best. "Why waste your time harboring a grudge against him, then?" Yuna wondered.

"You wouldn't get it," Nikki growled.

"Try me."

"Y'know what? Forget I ever brought it up." Nikki turned her back on her teammates. "Just… don't say I didn't warn you."

Yuna frowned. "I beg your pardon?"

"I saw you eating lunch with his posse." Nikki propped up her jacket collar. "I wouldn't get swept up with his crowd if I were you. Their heads are so far up their asses all they can smell is sewage."

It wasn't like Yuna had a choice in the matter. "We're working together on a case for Professor Vegna's class."

"Tch. Whatever. Maybe you'll see what I mean if you're stuck around him long enough." Nikki shrugged. "I'm over this conversation. Have fun with your homework."

"But weren't you guys going to help bring me up to speed on the technology here?" Yuna had almost forgotten Baraz's suggestion.

Nikki didn't respond. Chiaki had also gone back to his homework. Sighing, Yuna looked down at her worksheet. "Never mind," she whispered.

Maybe she'd have more luck asking Professor Cid during tomorrow's field trip.


Yawning, Shimmer closed his text book with a flick of his head. He pushed himself away from the square, wooden table. "All right, I think that's enough studying up for one day."

"But we didn't even talk. We just read the textbooks in silence." Yuna looked at the pages of notes she'd scribbled. Vegna's textbook wasn't as dense as she was expecting, so she only wrote a few pages. Still, it would be helpful to go over the concepts while they were fresh in her head.

"So? You've got some notes there, don't you? I'm sure they're fine." Shimmer pointed his horn toward a window. Dark blue twilight sat on the other side. "It's already after sundown. I know you ghosts can, like, stay up all night and stuff, but my brain checks out as soon as it's nighttime."

"I… guess." Yuna lay her head against her textbook. This was not what she envisioned when Shimmer said they'd study together.

"Oh, come on. Don't pout like that. I even had dinner brought for us." Shimmer swished his mane. "You should be thanking me." He didn't wait for Yuna to respond. The ponyta hopped off his chair and trotted past a couple of tables — they were for games called ping-pong and billiards, if Yuna recalled — toward a black leather couch. Shimmer hopped on and splayed his legs out. He levitated a black oval with lots of buttons over.

"I'm going to watch some PV. You're welcome to join."

Yuna looked up in time to see the large black box sitting in the middle of an oak cabinet hum to life. Colors spread across the screen, revealing a close-up of a gothitelle with a black, high-collar jacket.

"Welcome… to the Weakest Link."

The picture zoomed out to show a white, crescent-shaped stage with eight podiums on it. "Is this… a broadcast video?" Those were the terms Chiaki had used yesterday.

"It's a gameshow," Shimmer replied. "Eight commoners answer trivia questions to try and win up to a million radians. But they vote out a member of their team each round and the host insults and belittles them the whole time. It's hilarious!"

Frowning, Yuna did the math in her head. A million radians was… roughly six million dracoins! You could buy out most of the nobles' estates with that kind of money! She bit her lip. Yuna could hardly see how it was entertaining to watch other people get bullied for money. Then again, it was money that could leave you set for life.

"Where do they get the funding to do this?" she wondered.

"Pfbt. Girl, please." One of Shimmer's hooves tapped the top of the couch. "They never get enough questions right to get anywhere close to that amount. That's why they all get insulted."

"… ah." The dreepy turned away from the PV. Nikki's words from earlier echoed in her head. If she stuck around Shimmer long enough… she'd see what Nikki meant.

Well, he got a kick out of watching mean-spirited entertainment. And he wasn't the most collaborative study partner. But that just made him a jerk. Not a cheat. Nikki had to be blowing smoke. The whole school called her a nuisance for a reason.

… right?

"You still there?" Shimmer called. "There's a whole other couch that's way comfier than those chairs, you know."

Yuna's tail crinkled. "Uh, yes. But I think I'm going to retire for the night." She faked a yawn, cringing at how unconvincing it sounded to her. "We've got to be up early for that field trip tomorrow, after all."

A laugh came from Shimmer's couch. "Feh. If you ask me, this trip'll be a total snoozefest. But I guess if you've never seen Herbrides Lines, you might find it somewhat interesting."

She hadn't, obviously. Though it sounded like she was the only one. At least Professor Cid sounded enthusiastic about it.

"Right. Well, uh, good night." Yuna waited for Shimmer to respond, but the best she got was him laughing at the PV. Sighing, Yuna floated out of the lounge room and into the hallway. The mysterious light tubes were just as bright as ever.

"Done for the night, Princess?"

Yuna turned to find Noctum standing diligently next to a pillar. He had a small tinfoil object in his right hand, which he offered up to Yuna. "I brought you some chocolate-chip cookies. A nice little reward for getting through the first day."

"Oh, um, thanks." The dreepy accepted Noctum's gift, though she had no intention of eating them. Mother had lectured her far too often about eating too close to bedtime. Especially sweets. At least they'd make a good snack for the trip.

"Something wrong? You look a bit frazzled."

"No. No, I'm… fine. A bit tired, maybe." Yuna kept her gaze fixed on the cookies.

"Ah. Well, I'll grab your stuff and take you back to your room." Noctum glided over to the lounge door.

Yuna nodded. "Sure. Sounds good." She watched him enter the room, only to cringe when she heard shouting.

"Hey! Servants are supposed to knock before entering the lounges!"

"Sorry, Your Majesty," Noctum squeaked. "I was just coming into fetch Princess Yuna's belongings."

"You'd better be sorry," Shimmer growled. "Walk in unannounced again and I'll see to it security drags you back to the servant quarters by that stubby tail of yours."

Noctum abruptly flew out of the room, clutching Yuna's bag tightly. She looked up at the charizard. "He shouldn't have yelled at you for that," she whispered.

Still airborne, Noctum winced. "No, he's right. That was impolite of me. I wasn't thinking." He landed in front of Yuna. "Come on. Let's get you over to the dorms. You've got a long day tomorrow. Seifer and I will be your escorts." Yuna floated after Noctum, but paused to take one more look at the lounge door.

Nikki couldn't be right. Her parents never had anything bad to say to her about Queen Isola. The apple couldn't have fallen that far from the tree, right?

But as she followed Noctum out to cobblestone path leading over to the dorms, Yuna couldn't get Nikki's words out of her head.


Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 9: Dude, What a Trip!

Vortex stood between two of the many cracks and splinters running through the ruined center of the courtyard. Broken fragments of the fountain lay scattered around the area which, thanks to the hasty work of some Polaris laborers, had a metal dome placed around it before any students could see the damage. That was, of course, the easy part. The hard part was getting to the bottom of this mess and making sure it didn't happen again.

"Please tell me you were able to make some headway with Chef Tarte." Vortex picked up a piece of rubble at his feet and tossed it to himself.

Opposite the charizard, Seifer pressed a forehoof against an upended stone slab. "I'm afraid his story hasn't changed. The chef said he'd gone to fetch condiments from the pantry. He was accosted by a Mr. Rime wearing a mask. After that… it all goes blank."

"And the pantry was investigated?"

Vortex turned toward the destroyed fountain. Arianna stood there, holding a handheld satellite device up above her head and looking down at a black cube by her feet. "Thoroughly. There were no traces of anything suspicious. The guards have all been questioned and the security footage reviewed. We found no evidence of the Mr. Rime that Tarte speaks of."

"Then how the hell did this happen?" Vortex pinched his brow with his free hand.

"I told you, sir, Dynaforce was involved." Seifer gestured to the ground with his left forehoof. "He leveled the courtyard with a Dynaquake."

"But that shouldn't be possible." Vortex clenched the fist holding the rubble. His claws made cracks in the rock, which shattered when he then dropped it. "The barrier—"

"It failed, of course."

Vortex turned right to glare at Demerzel, who was watching Arianna operate her scanner. "Is this not what happened at the late Minister Douglas' estate? A Phantom eluded the protective shield and struck with Dynaforce." He crossed his long, slender legs. "Perhaps you could've written the first attack off as a coincidence, but now that there's been a second… it suggests a pattern."

Demerzel rested a paw on his necklace. "Face it. Polaris' barriers are no longer sufficient to protect the kingdom's remaining cities. Which is why I would, again, like to emphasize stronger cooperation with the Aeons."

Of course Demerzel would sound like the Aeon Queen. After all, how many months had he spent cozying up to the dragons for his precious treaty? "No, what this means is that I need to move Icarus forward," Vortex countered. "What's the hold up with Parliament?"

Demerzel facepalmed. "Nothing's changed since I told you they needed more details."

Vortex scowled. Details, details. Ridiculous. As if he wasn't trying to act in the kingdom's best interest. His company was bringing the kingdom into a new age. A golden age of science and technological marvel. And there was just one last hurdle to clear: the energy shortage. He'd found this wonderful energy source, but he couldn't fully tap into it yet.

"What more is there to say?" the charizard asked. "Our available ether refineries will run dry. And if that happens, the kingdom's grid goes down… including the barriers vital to our security. The preliminary funding Her Eminence granted allowed me to identify a seemingly unlimited source of proto-ether. I just need sufficient funding to finish constructing Icarus and the energy and distortion problems will be solved in one fell swoop!"

Demerzel levitated a piece of debris up and rotated it around with a curious look on his face. Vortex looked to the mutant for a response, then cleared his throat. When Demerzel still kept silent, he growled, "Well?"

"We've already been over this." Demerzel dropped the rubble. It rolled into a small crevice. "You have to answer specific questions. What is the proto-ether source? How is it connected to the distortion? And what will Icarus do to access this source? If you can't answer those with concrete details, you're going to keep getting stonewalled."

Vortex looked down at his feet and their immaculately polished claws. "The schematics are highly sensitive and I don't just want to drag them out into the open for no good reason."

Demerzel quirked a brow. "Is that so? Or, perhaps, is it because you know the answer to one of my questions contains information that may be damaging to the kingdom's pride?"

The charizard met Demerzel's eyes briefly and saw them glowing. "You—" He stopped himself and looked at Arianna and Seifer. The former was still focused on her device while the latter had a brow raised.

"What's he talking about, Chancellor?" the keldeo said.

Accursed psychics. Now there was no sidestepping the issue. "The source… might be tied to the Darkest Day," Vortex conceded.

Seifer stumbled. He quickly corrected himself. "What? But Her Benevolence defeated World Ender. We've taught that in our schools since before my grandmother was a filly!"

Vortex jammed his right hand in his pocket and bit his lip. "It's only a theory. I don't have definitive evidence."

Demerzel shook his head. "And yet even the very notion that the government has been pushing lies for centuries could undermine the public's confidence in it… and, by association, projects like Icarus. It could even give the Aeons leverage to gain concessions from the treaty."

"Well, we— I— that is…" Seifer's voice trailed off and he looked at the remains of Queen Calliope's statue. "Could we not just hold a secret session of Parliament?"

"Do you really trust everything would stay secret?" Vortex growled. There had been leaks before of much smaller natures. And while they always managed to find the responsible party, it was never quick enough to prevent some degree of fallout. The charizard doubted he could erase such damage with a few Starlene songs this time.

Demerzel turned to the dome's curved wall and chuckled into his paw. "My guess is that the good Chancellor was already aware of this conundrum. And he wanted to start from the top and work his way down… in a manner of speaking."

"Beg your pardon?" Seifer tilted his head.

"Orbeetle Cid." Demerzel pressed a hand to his temple. "You just hired him recently, no?"

Vortex's tail flame shrank. "Where are you going with this?"

"I read his thesis." Demerzel smiled at Vortex. "He's a Darkest Day skeptic."

Vortex had to bite the urge to reflexively scratch his head. If Demerzel had peered into his memories again, he'd done such a good job that, even with Arianna's teachings, Vortex couldn't tell.

"I thought people like that were charlatans who went to work for trash outlets like the Beacon," Seifer said, snout turned up.

Demerzel shrugged. "If I had to guess, Vortex hired him to introduce the students to the idea that, perhaps, our kingdom's version of the Darkest Day isn't the truth." He levitated up a jagged piece of rubble and pointed it at Seifer. "After all, the Aeon Kingdom tells a much different story. And now their princess is a student here."

He leaned forward to rest his hand on his paws. "If these elite students can accept an alternative narrative for the Darkest Day, then perhaps the commoners can as well? That's what you're thinking, isn't it, Chancellor?"

Vortex wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of an answer. "Well, Arianna? Have you got anything?"

Arianna knelt and grabbed a small sheet of paper that emerged from the top of the black cube. "Multiple unrecognized distortion frequencies, sir."

"Then get Minister Tessa on the phone and tell his team they're crunching until the barriers can work against these frequencies," Vortex said, small embers leaping from his tail flame and scorching the ground around him.

Arianna folded the satellite up and placed it into a small briefcase along with the device it was attached to. She walked up to Vortex and whispered to him, "What should he do about overtime payments?"

The charizard had to fight to hide another scowl, especially with Demerzel and Seifer eyeing him. "Pull the funds from the recycling division's budget. They don't need the money."

"Understood." Arianna nudged up her glasses and headed for a door carved into the metal dome.

"So, you're ignoring me." Sighing, Demerzel lay the rubble back on the ground. "At least answer me this: do you still intend to keep the Crowne Cup going with this very real threat present?"

"Of course," Vortex growled. He was insulted Demerzel would even suggest that. "These students are our hope for the future. A future of unlimited prosperity bolstered by an infinite supply of proto-ether. The kingdom deserves to see them at their best. Cancelling the Cup would be tantamount to conceding to the distortion. That will not happen on my watch."

Frowning, Demerzel slipped his paws under the robe draped over his torso. "If these students are truly that important… your priority should be protecting them."

"They will be protected."

"Not when the Phantoms can reach them at this academy," Demerzel countered.

"As soon as the barriers get updated, everything will be fine." Vortex turned toward the door Arianna had gone through.

"I respectfully—"

Vortex raised his right hand. "This is not open for further discussion. Stay in your lane, Counselor. You were hired to orchestrate the treaty. Focus on that."

Before he could hear a retort, he glided toward the door and threw it open. Crisp evening air filled his lungs. Vortex shut the door behind him and rubbed the bags under his eyes. He reached into his coat's breast pocket and produced a blue gemstone. The charizard touched it to his head and closed his eyes.

"Rare Candy Escorts. This is Chanelle."

"Chanelle, it's Hurricane. Tell me… is that incineroar available? You know, the one with the pink stripes on his tail?" Vortex pulled the gem away and looked at it. It pulsated while emitting soft clicking noises.

"He's open."

A relieved smile. "Wonderful. Have him meet me at Horizon Rail Station in thirty minutes."

"Very good, sir."

Vortex clicked a notch in the gem. He pocketed it the moment it stopped glowing. With a giddiness in his step, he loosened his tie and slowly flew away from the courtyard. It was time to put the day's unpleasantness behind him.


"Princess? Time to wake up."

Noctum's voice made Yuna aware of warm, scaly arms wrapped around her. "Mmrgh." She kept her eyes shut and squeezed her hands against her face. "F… five more minutes, Mom."

"Sorry, Princess, but you have to get up. I already let you sleep through the train and omnibus rides."

Somehow, Yuna managed to process Noctum's statement. Her eyes shot open and her arms fell to her sides. She found herself staring at a pouch on Noctum's utility belt. "Eep!" She pushed against his belly and rolled out of his arms. The dreepy shook herself out and looked around. Seifer stood on her right, looking ahead with a sharp, stern expression.

"I… I slept through the whole trip?" Yuna rubbed her eyes and blinked rapidly. Though she didn't have to worry about eye gunk like her servants, sudden sunlight still irritated her inner ectoplasm. She tried to remember if she'd taken another sleep seed, but couldn't. Yuna hoped Noctum hadn't carried her all this way. That would be beyond embarrassing.

"To be fair, Radiance's railway system is really fast." Noctum smiled at her. "It only took, like, twenty minutes to get to Herbrides. The fields were moving by so fast it reminded me of joy flights I used to take back home." His tail flame crackled excitedly. "Well, minus all the sulfur plumes and lava rivers, of course."

Seifer rolled his eyes. "Can we keep up with the group, please? I'd rather have you closer to the crowd."

Yuna turned around and saw the rest of her class up a pebble-covered road by a cast-iron gate. Cid floated beside a wooden security kiosk with a bored pangoro leaning out a windowsill that barely seemed to accommodate her size. Unsurprisingly, her teammates sat on separate rocks lining the right side of the road. Nikki absentmindedly strummed her gills. Chiaki scribbled notes on a notepad, glancing up at Cid every so often.

"So, the place we're going is on the other side of this gate?" Yuna floated between Noctum and Seifer as the trio caught up to the class. She hovered a bit higher for a better view. The pebble road continued and curved to the right. There was a large grassy hill in the distance, but trees left Yuna unable to make out further details.

"We've already climbed up a pretty large hill," Noctum explained.

"Herbrides is a valley community," Seifer elaborated. He turned his head right and threw open a saddlebag. The keldeo grabbed a map in his mouth and held it up to Yuna. There was a swathe of green encircled by neatly arranged brown mounds in its southwest corner. "While it's not surrounded by mountains, per se, there are large hills in every direction."

Hills that, if Yuna remembered her initial readings correctly, were used as farmland or livestock reserves. All things she missed by sleeping on the train and omnibus. Despite that, she couldn't imagine Herbrides' hills were steeper than the jagged passes back home. She recalled her father having to take multiple trips with the troops to carve out plateaus for commoners to use as potential farmland.

The creaking of the iron gates brought Yuna's attention away from the map and back to her classmates. Cid floated up to the head of the group. The orbeetle brandished a white baton with purple stripes. "All right. Everyone, stay together and follow me to the observation site."

Yuna did as instructed. Though a few aside glances from her classmates drove her to stay at the back.

"Finally awake, Princess?"

The dreepy sighed. What did Nikki want with her today? Bah, it didn't matter. Yuna was interested in this place. She wasn't about to let Nikki get under her ectoplasm. She could control the conversation. "Say, what's with that big stick Professor Cid's carrying?"

"Hmm?" Nikki moved in front of Yuna. "Oh, that's just some dumb thing they make tour group leaders carry." She stuck her hands in the pockets of her coat, yawning. "Don't think too much on it."

Yuna didn't respond. She silently followed the group along the road. Bits and pieces of conversations melded together with the crinkling of pebbles underneath her classmates' feet. After about ten minutes, the trees on either side of the path abruptly fell off. Yuna saw the road end in a large circle. A gray fence lined the outside of the viewing area, though it hardly looked like enough to keep someone from hopping over.

"Aww." Noctum nudged Yuna's side. "Look at that." He pointed to a stone structure with fake hills carved into it. There were circular holes punched out in multiple spots. "I bet you could stick your head in one of those and take a picture." The black charizard grinned at her. "Why don't we send a photo home to your parents?"

The dreepy's cheeks burned. "Let's not and say we did." Yuna hastily pivoted away from the kiddie attraction. "Besides, we're here to look at the… the…"

Her voice trailed off as she looked across the grassy valley to an equally tall hill opposite the viewing platform. Amidst the fresh, bright-green grass were scorched, charcoal-gray marks. A circle with five diamonds around it sitting over a bunch of circles and squiggles that felt haphazardly placed.

"World Ender," Yuna whispered. She had seen the same five-diamond sigil in countless books back home. However, it was always accompanied by the eight-pointed, compass-like star that represented Bahamut. None of the bits of scorched land looked anything like the symbol on her pendant. "Um, Seifer? Who made this, uh, monument?"

"I believe it was one of my clan's ancestors."

Yuna frowned. The keldeo didn't sound certain… or like he really cared. Yuna brushed her pendant with her right hand and looked between Noctum and Seifer. Her servant had mentioned being told not to discuss Bahamut. Was He some sort of taboo in this kingdom?

"I'm sure many of you have seen the Herbrides Lines multiple times throughout your lives," Cid said. The spots on his large orbeetle head glowed. Yuna figured he was using psychic power to bolster his voice. Otherwise, she doubted she'd hear him so clearly. "However, I would like to encourage you all to reframe your thinking."

Beside Yuna, Seifer stiffened. He looked away when she glanced at him. She wasn't sure if he was annoyed, bored, or some combination.

"Let's start with the basics," Cid continued. He floated higher and pointed the baton toward the other hill. "How did the Herbrides Lines come into existence?"

Hands, hooves, paws, and wings shot in the air. "Ah, wow. Aren't we all eager?" Cid chuckled. "How about—"

"Some of the earliest Radiant Guardsmon carved the drawings into the hill so the world would remember the Darkest Day," Shimmer declared. Yuna spotted the ponyta's puffy pink mane toward the front of the group. A few groans sounded around him. Before Cid could chastise him for calling out, he continued, "Our planet fell under the threat of the titanic daemon, World Ender. That big circle with the diamonds was its symbol, projected across the sky as it blotted out light from the heavens.

"The two canine-looking circles depict Etherium's saviors: Zacian Calliope and my ancestor, Rapidash Adelaide." Shimmer moved his outstretched forehoof from his left to his right as he spoke.

The ponyta's answer didn't sit well with Yuna. She frowned, torn between voicing a question and showing off her ignorance… or holding her tongue while the thought festered in her mind like the gross boil rash Noctum had gotten on his belly last year.

Ultimately, she swallowed her pride and raised her hand. "Excuse me, Professor Cid?"

"What is it, Yuna?" The orbeetle pointed to her with his baton. Dozens of pairs of eyes fell on Yuna. Her tail crinkled up.

"I understand why Zacian would be depicted as a canine." It was tough for Yuna to keep a steady voice. "But why would a rapidash be represented by one?"

The response was predictable. Some chuckles. An eyeroll from the sylveon that had joined Shimmer at lunch yesterday. The sirfetch'd beside him sighing and shaking his head. But the loudest one was, of course, Prince Shimmer. "Oh, come now. Surely you know that it's my family's crest?"

"No, I didn't. That's why I asked." Yuna glanced at Noctum, who offered a sympathetic shrug.

Sneering, Shimmer swished his mane over his right shoulder. "Please. The armored breast plate Mother wears has a canine's head carved into its central gemstone. Adelaide wore the armor into battle against World Ender. It's been passed down through the generations ever since."

Meaning Shimmer would eventually get it from Isola. Yuna found it ridiculous that a rapidash would choose to weigh themselves down in battle. Even scaleless Aeons like her and her mother didn't bolster their defenses like that. In addition, there was never any mention of any rapidash with armor in her homeland's version of the events. The more tidbits were dropped about Radiance, the more confused Yuna got. But it wasn't like she could raise an objection over it. She was supposed to be a goodwill ambassador.

"Everything okay, Princess?" Noctum asked.

She wanted to say no, but nodded before the words could form in her mouth. However, she was caught off guard when Cid cleared his throat and said, "Actually, I'm glad you asked that question, Princess."

Yuna blinked once. Twice. Yeah, she wasn't imagining that. "Excuse me?"

"It's a curious sight, don't you think?" Cid stroked his chin with his free hand. "When you think of fairy-types, canines don't spring to mind outside of Queen Calliope. And, depending on who you ask, swirlix and slurpuff."

"Hey!" One of Sylveon's ribbons shot into the air. "I'm a canine! Maybe Shimmy's clan was founded by a sylveon?"

"Pfbt. You're as much of a canine as Shimmer is a fairy-type." A klefki jingled their keys in Sylveon's general direction.

A sudden gust of wind made both fairy-types gasp and look to their right. Yuna followed them and spotted the corviknight that had interrupted Vegna's class yesterday. "Shut your pieholes. Your disses are weaker than magikarp using Splash."

"No, no, it's all right." Cid hovered closer to the group. "This is good, healthy discourse. I encourage this kind of thinking."

"Pah. What's there to think about?" Shimmer huffed.

Cid pointed his baton toward the Lines' bottom left corner. "These symbols." He also pointed to the bottom right of the hill. "Can anyone recognize them?"

Those were the ones that made no sense to Yuna. As far as she was concerned, they were nothing but a bunch of random squiggles. She waited for a classmate to offer an answer, but they were all silent, too.

Then the weavile that Nikki had a spat with raised a hand. "Maybe they're words?"

Cid smiled. "Wonderful guess."

Sylveon huffed. "If they're words, then what do they say?"

"Well, that's where things get complicated." Cid laughed nervously. Yuna spotted a few unamused looks. "See, though our characters have changed slightly over the last millennium, the Kingdom of Radiance has always written in Unown."

Yuna examined the scorched marks littering the grass. Try as she might, she couldn't piece any Unown letters together from what was there. "How would you know they're words, then?"

"Over time, pokémon that have been rescued from mystery dungeons have reported seeing these exact same rune patterns." Cid gestured to the hill.

"Ridiculous!" Shimmer's horn and mane lit up bright pink. "Are you implying the Lines predate the Darkest Day?"

Cid turned around. "According to rescued pokémon, the phrase on the left is 'Nos vera Natus' while the one on the right is 'Qliphoth.' While there's been debate what these actually mean, Qliphoth is always used in conjunction with 'dungeon' or 'mystery dungeon.'"

Yuna suddenly sucked in a sharp breath and gasped out a, "Qli… photh?"

Noctum put a wing in front of Yuna. "Everything all right, Princess?"

A pressure squeezed on her head, like how Noctum wrung out oranges to make fresh juice in the morning. White floaters crept in from her periphery. "Gnnh." Yuna pressed her hands to her horns, but that did little good. She looked at the hill. Her vision flashed purple. A mound of red, chitinous branches under a purple sky replaced the grassy hill. She squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed her horns. The hill went back to normal when Yuna opened her eyes again.


Warm scales touched her shoulder. Yuna was about to scream, but followed the hand to Noctum's shoulder. "I'm… lightheaded. Can we step off to the side?"

Noctum looked past Yuna. "Very well." Seifer appeared at Yuna's side. "Let's go over by that photo spot."

Seifer led them toward the fake rock structure. Yuna wrapped her hands around Noctum's arm. Her head didn't hurt as much, but the pressure was still there. And before she could try for a calming breath, a pair of familiar voices rattled around in her head.

"Just stop skulking around and rejoin the group. I don't need you causing any problems here."

"What does it matter, Twiggy? It's only a problem because you hopped the fence to tail me."

Yuna suppressed a groan while Seifer quickened his pace. "Oi, you two! What are you doing away from the group?" he barked. The keldeo shot jets of water from his hooves to clear the barrier fence. He dropped down next to a large oak tree. When Noctum and Yuna made it over, they found Chiaki leveling his right claws at Nikki's chest while his left claws held a can of fluorescent-yellow spray paint.

Seifer looked over his shoulder. "Go back to the photo spot, Princess. You don't have to get involved."

He was technically right. Especially since neither of Yuna's teammates cared that much for her. Still, they were her teammates. Maybe she could resolve this if she spoke up? "Um, what's the matter, you two?"

"I caught Nikki breaking off from the group and followed her." Chiaki held up the spray paint. "She was looking to tag the trees."

Nikki flinched, then jammed her hands in her pockets and leaned back against the tree trunk. "That's your interpretation."

"Well, what was I supposed to make of it?" Chiaki rolled his eyes.

"I wanted to get away from Shimmer's swell head. I found that bottle on the ground." Nikki pointed to a patch of dirt a meter to her right.

Yuna wasn't buying it. "What would a can of spray paint be doing in the middle of a forest?" She was going to gesture to the trees going downhill, but her pounding head made her lower her arms. "Nrrgh. My head."

Noctum leaned over and whispered. "Princess, perhaps it's best we let Sir Seifer deal with this?"

"What's going on here? Why did you break off from the group, Yuna?"

Nikki pinched her brow. "Oh boy, the square's here. Now it's a party."

Yuna blinked stars out of her vision. Cid floated behind Noctum, a concerned look on his chitinous face. "It's nothing, Professor," Seifer replied. "The princess needed some space and I found these hoodlums causing trouble."

Shoulders sagging, Cid sighed. "I'm afraid it's not nothing when it involves my whole Crowne Cup team."

"Look, you're all making a big deal over nothing," Nikki growled. "Just give me my space. I'm not looking to cause any trouble."

Chiaki took a step closer. "I would hope so. Because for someone who claims to want to do well in the Crowne Cup, you're doing everything possible to shoot yourself in the foot."

Nikki tried to step back, but hit the oak tree instead. "I… well…" She tugged at her jacket collar.

Yuna's head continued to pound. She couldn't stomach listening to this anymore. "Okay, Noctum, let's—"

"Keh heh…"

Chiaki stiffened. "Did you guys hear that?"

Yuna's head rang too much to know what Chiaki was talking about. However, the alarmed looks on Cid and Seifer's faces sent a chill racing down her back.

"Keh heh heh… keh ha haaaaa!"

Now Yuna heard it. And the rasping wheezes that followed brought to mind an image of a cloaked, helmeted creature that she was hoping to forget. She tugged on Noctum's arm. "Noctum, we have to—"

However, Yuna quickly realized she wasn't grasping Noctum's warm scales anymore. She looked up and, instead of a black-scaled charizard, found herself clutching a frayed edge of Xeromus' tattered cloak. Despite her aching head, Yuna managed to scream and float away from him. She expected some sort of attack, but Xeromus remained standing there.

"You!" Seifer's horn sparked to Yuna's right. "You're the one who assaulted one of my men!" He let loose a crescent of red energy.

"Yes, wonderful!" Xeromus hopped to his right, closer to Yuna. She hastily retreated behind Seifer. "No hesitation behind attacking a worthless omen like me. The depths of your false convictions are to be commended."

"The hell is this thing?" Chiaki had his left hand on the brim of his cap.

"Me? I'm just a worthless nobody." Xeromus shook his head, racked by coughs and shudders. "But I still appreciate that you were willing to accept my summons."

His gray, beady eyes met Yuna's. Now, it wasn't just her head hurting. Her tiny torso was warm. And not the pleasant warmth she got from curling up against Noctum's belly, either. "Wh… what did you do to Noctum?"

"Your charizard friend? He's probably nursing a lump on his head somewhere in that general direction." Xeromus stretched his left hind leg back. "But this isn't about him. It's about you."

Seifer reared up and shot scalding hot water from his forehooves. This time, however, Xeromus dodged left. When Seifer readied another Scald, a pair of shadowy arms emerged from Xeromus' cloak and grabbed hold of a still dumbfounded Nikki.

"What the— aggh!"

"Drop her!"

Over at the tree, Chiaki lunged for Nikki, right arm grabbing her leather jacket. Xeromus yanked her back with a startling amount of force. An audible crack rippled through the air. Yuna's gills shriveled up. Though her vision was blurry, she still managed to see Chiaki's right arm separate at the level of his elbow and drop to the ground in front of him. The grovyle's eyes widened, but the pained expression Yuna expected didn't appear. There wasn't any blood or sap or whatever it was grovyle had inside them.

Xeromus dragged Nikki in front of him. The toxtricity kicked helplessly at the air. "Lemme go… you dick!"

"Ahh, look at this defiance! It's simply beautiful. Marvelous. Lovely." Xeromus panted heavily. His sign rattled against his chest. "And your friend… leaping into action. The length the ether drives him to…"

A slimy tendril burst out of one of the oak tree's roots and shattered the detached part of Chiaki's arm. "No!" He turned his scornful gaze on Xeromus. "Bastard! You have any idea how much that cost?"

"Such an interesting contradiction. Speaking of cost like a noble, but dropping foul language like a fellow nobody." Xeromus took several sharp breaths. "There is so much to love about you all… and yet you let the ether nibble away at your individuality."

"R… release my student!" Cid finally found his voice. His spots glowed with psychic power.

Xeromus swung Nikki in Cid's line of sight. "Now, now. Don't share any of your false bravado with your friend. I would hate for Natus to lose such a wonderful follower."

This was bad. Yuna had to do something. But Noctum had her belongings. All she had was her pendant resting against her burning chest.

No, wait. That wasn't right. Was it her chest burning… or was the pendant burning her chest? She looked down. The gem sparked with red light.

"You see it, don't you?" Xeromus' voice oozed a perverted glee. "The ether is trying to latch its tendrils into you. Make you a puppet to yank whichever direction it feels. But you will refuse it. You will accept Natus' love… and the world will grow into something bigger!"

"Don't listen to this loon," Chiaki called. "He makes the craziest beggars sound reasonable!" He brought his remaining hand up to his face. "Hey! Hey! Somebody help us!"

Xeromus' eyes lost some of their luster. "… right. Figures. A lowly omen like me can't get Natus' love across properly. You need the Qliphoth to see how He nurtures His followers."

An unseen force pounded Yuna's head. That word again. Now she saw luminescent, thorn-covered vines on the edges of her vision.

"In case it wasn't clear," Xeromus' eyes darkened, "the choices you make don't really matter."

Before Yuna could even attempt to make sense of that, Xeromus leaped into the air. He landed several meters deeper into the forest. "But I can still try to steer you to Natus' love!" Xeromus sprinted away while Nikki screamed for help.

Yuna looked at Seifer. Then Chiaki. Then Cid. All dumbfounded. Frozen in uncertainty. And her head. And her chest. Oh, god, her chest hurt so bad. She just had to… had to…

… had to scream.

"Put Nikki down!"

The moment the last word left Yuna's mouth, the heat around her chest exploded outward, accompanied by a flurry of red and purple light. Yuna's own screams drowned out those of her colleagues, until an intense pressure hammered her from above and made her whole world go dark.


Path of Valor Almanac
In the Hebrew mysticism practice of Kabbalah, "Qliphoth" is a term that serves as a representation for wicked or impure spiritual forces that stand in opposition to "Sefirot," or holiness.