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Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 13: Bad News Travels Fast

Baraz was the one to escort Yuna to her classes the next morning. The dracozolt told her Noctum had to take things easy, but could gradually resume his usual activities if he felt okay. He didn't have any updates for her teammates, however, other than one of the other professors covering Cid's history class for him.

Try as she might, Yuna found it difficult to focus on Vegna's lecture. She couldn't stop thinking about the others. Today was supposed to be one of the remedial lessons with the Ministers. Baraz hadn't mentioned it getting cancelled. Would she be on her own or would the others be released?

"That orbeetle isn't a student though, right? Does he count as a teammate?"

… no. He's a teacher.
Yuna looked down at the textbook, trying to shake the amusing mental image of Cid sitting at one of these desks and getting lectured at.

"Is it really that silly? He obviously went to school at some point."

Yuna opted not to entertain Reshiram's comment. She looked up at the chalkboard, where Vegna finished drawing a graph.

"With the passage of the Jury Challenge Act five years ago, trials no longer proceed directly to the verdict when all six jurors form a unanimous opinion," Vegna said. He turned to the class, holding the same textbook Yuna had in his left hand. "Instead, the defense and inquisition can challenge the jurists' opinions. If they are able to get two jurors to reverse their verdicts, the trial is resumed. Otherwise, the presiding magister issues the verdict.

"While legal records show a majority of challenges do not result in trials continuing, public opinion of the legal process has improved since the Act's implementation." Vegna tapped the end of the graph with his chalk. "The percentage of surveyed citizens who hold a 'favorable' or 'very favorable' view of the judiciary has increased by twenty-one percent in representative, randomly-sampled surveys given over this five-year period."

He scanned the classroom. "Any questions?"

Yuna didn't find the numbers important. But the jury challenge sounded like a handy tool. One that she prayed she wouldn't have to use.

"Hmm? What do you mean by that?" Reshiram wondered.

I'm supposed to, uh, take part in a court trial next week. Yuna tried not to gulp. With everything that went on yesterday, she hadn't given the trial much thought. But sitting in Vegna's class made it hard not to think about it.

"Are you serious?" Reshiram gasped. "You're in school, for pity's sake! What's next? Are you going to tell me hatchlings are running the banks?"

I wouldn't know. I haven't set foot in a bank here,
Yuna snidely remarked.

"Har, har. Maybe if we all get atomized by Eternatus, you can try a career as a daemonic stand-up comedian," Reshiram shot back. A beat passed. "Sorry, that was uncalled for. You've at least got enough wit to write a comedy for a daemon theater. How's that?"

Before Yuna responded, she heard chairs scratching the stone floor. She looked around and found her classmates rising from their seats and grabbing their bags. The dreepy was about to do the same when Talonflame landed on her desk and leered at her.

"Clown Prince and exchange student… stay."

Yuna's ectoplasm quivered. Vegna wasn't asking.

"What did you just call me?" Shimmer put his forehooves on his desk while a luxio and a frosmoth paused in the doorway to giggle. "I should have you dragged before Mother for such an insult."

"But you won't." Vegna crossed his arms. "Now then, did you tell the exchange student about the trial's status?"

Yuna looked at Shimmer, wondering what Vegna meant. The ponyta's ears stuck up. He opened his mouth, but Vegna held up his hand. "Your reaction is all the answer I need. Quite irresponsible of someone in your position."

Shimmer's cheeks puffed up. "It's not my fault her foolishness landed her in the infirmary before I could say anything."

Yuna sorely wanted to point out that the two had been on the same train back to school, but held her tongue.

"Geez, who put tamato juice in his bale of hay, huh?" Reshiram chuckled, before saying, "Wait, that's not, like, insensitive to ponyta or something, is it? Not that it matters. He can't hear me."

"I care not about your excuses." Vegna shook his head. "I'm dropping the matter." He turned to Yuna. "You will not be defending anyone in a trial next week. It was a ruse." Vegna brought his right arm out and slowly bowed. "I apologize for the deception."

Yuna's expression brightened. Bahamut had finally thrown her a bone! If only a bigger burden hadn't been dropped on her shoulders yesterday evening.

Vegna's eye smoldered. "Wipe that ridiculous look off your face. You're still going to assist the assigned attorney in the trial. I expect you to put your best metaphorical foot forward."

"And just who is that attorney, hmm?" Shimmer narrowed his eyes.

"I am unsure," Vegna replied. "But when I find out, you will both be the first to know." He turned away from them, but Shimmer stomped a forehoof down.

"That's it? You have to know something else." The ponyta's nostrils flared. "This is my uncle we're talking about!"

"Not by blood." Vegna snapped his fingers and Talonflame screeched at Shimmer. He shuffled back, horn sparking in surprise. While he was distracted, Vegna took the time to exit the room by phasing through the chalkboard.

Shimmer regained his composure. He frowned at Yuna. "And what are you looking at?"

"Nothing," Yuna hastily replied.

"I should hope so." Shimmer swished his mane to the side. "After the stunt you and your teammates pulled yesterday, you'd do well to keep your mouth shut during that trial. I don't need you causing any more problems."

Yuna couldn't say it wasn't her fault, because that was a lie. Instead, she turned toward the door. "How about we cross that bridge when we get to it?" And she floated out the door before he could issue a retort.

"Great comeback! Way to show some backbone," Reshiram chirped. "Y'know, in a cool, metaphorical way. As opposed to the 'invertebrate suddenly spawns a skeleton' way. Although I suppose that would be interesting. Maybe you could use it for some sort of horror novel or—"

Yuna rubbed her temples. She was in for another long day.


The now-empty, crystal covered back room of Noatun's cathedral experienced a brief pulse of purple light. A blue fissure split the air. Two sets of sharp black claws pried open a jagged rift. Something vaguely humanoid fell out and struck the crystalline floor. The rift collapsed in on itself behind the figure, who would've blended into the room perfectly if not for a cluster of multicolored triangles that passed for its head.

"I sense it." He slowly rose to his armored, reptilian feet. Though his gait was wobbly, he managed to look around the room. His faceless head turned pink, then blue, then red. "It doesn't make any sense. Reshiram's aura is unmistakable… but there are only traces."

That shouldn't have been possible. Then again… he didn't count on the Needles all getting sucked up into the Qliphoth. Could he have been mistaking the aura for a different reshiram?

Argh, if only he hadn't had to leave the mask behind. It would've given him enough power to sense traces of his light. As it stood, he had no way of knowing if this was Eternatus playing ticks on him or if his plan had hit an even more unexpected snag.

No, it had to be the former. They all refused to listen. They sealed themselves with his light… because he wasn't strong enough to protect the planet. Now he had to free them. He was the only one who could.

"… a wasted effort," he growled. He shakily raised an armored hand, ready to punch a hole back to Etherium. But as he tried to gather the needed energy, a sharp voice caught him by surprise.

"Are you saying you doubt the archbishop? Ha! Perhaps we should feed you to Cerberus for speaking such blasphemy!"

Now his ESP decided to work. Warped auras that poked at his mind like a cluster of giant thorn bushes.


It had to be. The voice mentioned Cerberus. Images of a black-furred beast with the heads of a flareon, jolteon, and vaporeon flashed in his mind. Memories of a time long past. A time where he traversed the Qliphoth frequently.

… a time when Chiron was still with him.

His head turned blue. He staggered forward, trying to dampen his aura and avoid detection. He pressed himself against the wall and peered out of the doorway.

A gray-blue midnight lycanroc with metal spines that would make a ferrothorn jealous stood stiff as an oversized serperior with charcoal-gray scales coiled around him. She held her head several meters above Lycanroc's. Her head then peeled open like a banana, exposing leafy-green flaps with prickly thorns sprouting up like rows upon rows of teeth. From the center of the giant leaves, a seviper leered at Lycanroc.

"There is no other recourse," the daemon hissed. "We must scour every realm of the Qliphoth to find her presence! The traitor Chiron must be wiped out before she can further harm Natus." Seviper turned to her right. "Is that understood?"

A frost cloud parted to reveal… well, he wasn't really sure what it was. The closest thing that came to mind was a mudsdale. But this horse was pale white with sheets of ice around its hooves and half its face. And some sort of blue, icy armor sat on its back, with a helmet fashioned like the skull of a houndoom. Piercing violet eyes smoldered behind the mask.


The armored rider had the inflection of a difloon getting its air forcibly expelled, but that wasn't what concerned him. Why were the daemons using that name? Her name?

He had been there. He watched helplessly as it happened. As the hellfire from that wretched delphox swallowed her up.

It has to be a trick, he thought, staggering away from the door and dragging his claws across the air to open another rift. Eternatus must've known he would pursue the Needles. And now the new Paradigm were dangling the name of his wife in front of him to bait him out.

Well, it wouldn't work. He knew she was dead. That she couldn't be among the innumerable souls trapped within the Qliphoth. And if those pathetic daemons thought they could prey on that, he would make them suffer. Suffer like the scum ignoring Etherium's perils to line their own pockets.

Phantoms, daemons, pokémon… in the end, they only care about themselves. His head darkened and reddened. Their selfish nature belies their weakness. And such weakness deserves to know true despair.

He slowly phased into the wormhole. There was much to be done.


"So, yeah. That's the situation."

Floating in the middle of a gray room with a padded blue floor and white walls, Yuna rubbed the back of her head. After making her way down to the special training room in the main building's first sublevel, Yuna learned that Ministers Xiao and Lin were running late. She chose to make use of the extra time to bring Chiaki, Nikki, and Seifer up to speed on everything Reshiram had told her. The former still had the Hooker equipped as his right arm, while the latter had a brace around his chest.

But it was easier said than done. Yuna stumbled over her words. Mostly because of the glare Nikki gave her and this nagging tug on her chest. Something was up with Reshiram, but Yuna had no idea what it was. She hated that this new connection was apparently one-way. How was that remotely fair?

Nikki crossed her arms when Yuna finished. "Seriously? What the hell did you start smoking last night, huh?"

Yuna flinched. She was really hoping for a more… cooperative response. "Nothing. It's the truth."

Chiaki put his good hand on his hip. "I'm inclined to believe her." He looked at Nikki. "Do you even remember anything about what happened?"

Nikki scowled. "I remember getting carried off by some freak of nature." Her mohawk frazzled. "He dragged me into a pillar of distortion. Next thing I knew we were in some fancy-looking place with a shiny ceiling and…" Her voice trailed off.

"And?" Chiaki gestured for her to continue.

Nikki's mohawk flared again, before shrinking to the point it was barely noticeable. "The freak pinned me down while these… shadowy arms dug themselves into my back. There was a s[size4=]h[/size]it ton of pain, then everything went black until I woke up in the infirmary next to you and that hunk of metal." She pointed to Chiaki's prosthesis. "What junkyard you pull that out of, huh? Ain't you rich types supposed to get good medicine."

"None of your business," Chiaki growled.

Okay, so Runerigus was definitely in control of Nikki, Yuna concluded. "Isn't that all the more reason to believe me?"

Nikki turned her back on Yuna. "Who cares if you're right? Why should I help you?" The toxtricity looked at the floor. "You're the whole reason I got taken. That mutt was after you." She pointed accusingly at Yuna. "Didn't you hear how he talked to you? The guy was dry humping you in his loopy head. I'd bet fifty radians on it."

Chiaki cringed. "Thanks for that delightful mental image."

Nikki flipped Chiaki the bird before focusing on Yuna again. "I don't know if you're cursed or unlucky or something else entirely, but I'm keeping my distance. Hell, I'll take the L in the first leg if it means I don't have to be around you."

Chiaki's expression darkened. "Oh? What happened to trying to show up Shimmer?"

"Forget that shit. Staying alive is way more important." Nikki's mohawk sparked again. "Besides, I've got my own problems to deal with."

Yuna wanted to retort, but the Soul Dew sparkled. She sent a silent plea for Reshiram to stay down but he burst forth in a stream of red and white light. "Sorry to rain on your parade, but you won't stay alive if the planet goes kerblooey! Whatever problems you have will go up in smoke, too." He shot Seifer a pleading expression. "C'mon, Kelly, back me up here."

Seifer stiffened. "K-Kelly? Excuse you! I'm a Radiant Guard Co-Commander and deserve some respect." He swished his mane. "Besides, I've never even met you before."

Yuna facepalmed. "Reshiram, we went over this. It's not the same keldeo from when you were a Sage."

Reshiram crossed his wings and frowned. "I mean… I can see that. Kelly had a less… muscley build. And didn't wear gaudy purple outfits. And was a girl."

Seifer's nostrils flared. "Gaudy?!"

Reshiram turned back to Yuna. "But it's the fact that he's different that has me scratching my head. Sages couldn't reproduce. When we were ready to retire, we gave our Soul Dews to our apprentices. They would assume the mantle and our spirits would join our predecessors in the Soul Dews."

"Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but I'm a bona fide keldeo," Seifer exclaimed. "Just like my mother and grandmother and so on."

"Which sets my crazy-o-meter up to, like, a fifteen out of ten." Reshiram's tail engine hummed louder. "Kelly sacrificed herself with all the other Sages. So, like, you shouldn't exist. But you do. So how did it happen?"

"How should I know?" Seifer stepped toward Reshiram. "Frankly, I'm still dumbfounded by… by all of this." He moved his horn up and down.

"Oh. Well, thank you." Reshiram beamed and puffed out his chest. "I do pride myself on my luscious locks."

"Not that!" Seifer huffed, horn flashing. "The whole 'the Needles actually have these powerful spirits hidden inside and they might be the only thing stopping the world from collapsing on itself' thing." The keldeo lowered his head and shook it. "Why would they teach us that World Ender was killed if it's actually the thing eroding the planet? Does Her Eminence even know? Wouldn't Her Benevolence know?" He gnashed is teeth together. "My head's throbbing just thinking about it."

"Ah, see? Even after all these years, you still get me." Reshiram raised his wings, looking like he wanted to hug Seifer. The keldeo backed away.

"Oh, brother." Nikki rolled her eyes. "Yeah, we should really trust this dumbass to know what's best for the planet. Give me a break."

Reshiram's expression quickly deflated. "Ow. Words hurt, you know."

Chiaki stuck the Hooker out between Nikki and Reshiram. "This bickering isn't going to get us anywhere. Do you know what needs to be done about this or not?"

Yuna had a pretty good idea what Reshiram was about to say. Her tail crinkled up.

"Well, uh, I can't say this is guaranteed to work or anything." Reshiram tugged on a lock of hair. "But if we use the Soul Dew that Yuna has, we should be able to sense traces of where the other Sages sealed themselves."

"But the Needles are in the Qliphoth." Chiaki jammed his good hand into his coat pocket. "If we're going to free anyone, we'll need to be able to open rifts into it."

Which was exactly what Yuna was afraid of. "And you think… that's where I come in?"

"Do you disagree?"

"I still don't know how or why I made a rift in the first place," Yuna whispered. "I don't know if I can make another one."

"Even assuming she can, you can't really expect to succeed, can you?" Seifer paced back and forth but met no one's gaze. "We lucked out with encountering so few Phantoms yesterday. I don't think you can count on things to stay that way." He looked at the center of the padded wall, which had the school's rose emblem painted on it. "And I strongly doubt anyone in a position of authority would be okay sending prep schoolers into mystery dungeons without some serious muscle."

"What are you proposing?" Chiaki asked.

"That I relay this information to Queen Isola. I can petition her to supply additional Radiant Guard members," Seifer replied. "With more bodies, we should be able to get this all done quicker and safer, right?"

Yuna didn't think it was a bad idea, but a part of her also felt guilty. She didn't want even more people getting put in harm's way because of her. If she were as strong as her parents, it wouldn't be a problem. Why did she have to suffer from stunted growth? It wasn't like the Soul Dew was to blame for that, either.

"I guess… that can work," she whispered. "Would I be able to come with you?"

Seifer frowned. "I suggest you let me handle it."


"I agree with Kelly," Reshiram said, to Yuna's shock. "Better they hear it from someone they trust. A mind that's overwhelmed too quickly will turn away from the truth."

Yuna flinched. That was one of Reshiram's teachings, though she wasn't exactly sure how it applied. "Okay then."

"Wonderful." Nikki clapped her hands together. "Glad that's settled." She dropped to a seated position on the floor and braced her arms at her sides. "Go team."

A glance at Chiaki told Yuna he wasn't ready to drop the subject, but Seifer's horn flashed. "The Ministers are coming." He pointed at Reshiram. "You need to disappear."

Reshiram's wings drooped. He whined like a sad puppy before retreating into Yuna's Soul Dew. A brief burning sensation spread over her chest. Yuna wondered if she'd ever get used to that as time passed.

She didn't even get the chance to turn to the door to properly greet the new arrivals before it flew open and a loud, scratchy voice called, "Sorry to keep you waiting!"

Yuna had pictures of the Crowne Ministers. Pictures she never bothered looking at. So it came as a complete shock when the Ministers turned out to be a pair of urshifu. The one in front wore blue robes and a black martial arts band and had much grayer fur compared to the taller one in the back. His robe was black and his belt white.

"Two urshifu?! Okay, this is getting stupidly fishy. We're talking a pond overflowing with magikarp levels of fishy."

"Good afternoon, Ministers." Seifer bobbed his head.

"Ah, so this is where you ran off to," the older urshifu said, stroking his chin. "How's it hanging, ya whippersnapper?"

The younger one stepped up and put his paw on his partner's shoulder. "Really, Xiao? Try and show a little tact."

"Heh heh." Xiao flashed a cheeky grin. "I'm just spare-ribbing 'em. Trying to liven up the atmosphere a little." He elbowed the space in front of Lin. "Place feels so tense you could spend hours tenderizing it."

"And now I'm hungry," Reshiram whined, to which Yuna's own ectoplasm gurgled. She found herself praying his emotions didn't have tangible effects on her body. This Soul Dew business sounded less appealing with each passing minute.

Nikki's yawn snapped Yuna to attention. "Seriously? Who wears pajamas to teach a remedial lesson?" She didn't bother getting up to greet them properly, prompting Chiaki to grab her by the jacket collar and hoist her up. "Oi, what gives, Twiggy?" she growled.

"Try to show an iota of respect," he shot back. "They're wearing gi. Traditional martial arts uniforms."

"Ain't nothing traditional about 'em." Nikki yawned again. "They're pajamas, plain and simple."

"Well, they may not be traditional round these parts," Xiao said. "But they're as hot as a fresh plate of salazzle spice dumplings back home." He chuckled into his paw.

Yuna raised a brow. If they were Ministers, didn't that mean they were from Radiance? "Back home?"

"… on the Armour Archipelago," Lin replied, looking Yuna over. "I take it you're the Aeon Princess, then?"


Lin punched his right hand with his left and bowed to her. "I'm Urshifu Lin. This is my brother, Xiao."

"Heh heh. Pleasure, your princessliness." Xiao offered another cheeky grin. "I'm as tickled pink as a plate of baked magikarp to meet'cha."

Yuna blinked. "R-Right. I'm Yuna and, uh, likewise." She had questions, of course, but the brothers' contrasting demeanors left her struggling to voice them.

"Ah, I'd know that skeptical look anywhere." Xiao stroked his chin. "You're wondering why we're Crowne Ministers when we blew in from outta town, huh?"

Was I that transparent? Yuna nodded.

"We travelled to this kingdom at the request of our dojo's leader," Lin explained. "She sought to spread the teachings of the Master Dojo to the mainland. My brother and I volunteered to assist."

"Yessiree, I remember it like it was yesterday." Xiao hummed while swaying side to side.

"… twenty years ago," Lin said, expression stern. "Unfortunately, the spreading distortion has prevented us from returning home."

Xiao chuckled. "But ol' Queenie Izzy insisted we share the fighting-type Crowne Minister title when she got a peek at our fighting skills. Not a bad deal, eh?"

Yuna briefly thought of Dr. Rafique. Was the zarude also stuck in the kingdom? Perhaps that was his real reason for staying?

"The Master Dojo is still around after all this time? Hot diggity!" Reshiram exclaimed. "I'd have thought for sure it would've fallen to ruin when the Sage of Strength sacrificed herself. But, well, now there are two of them! And probably more back at their home. This pond of magikarp just had a load of basculin plopped in right on top of it."

"So, like, y'all done playing kiss-up?" Nikki rolled her neck until it cricked. "Because I ain't about to sit around all afternoon and listen to a bunch of boring chitchat."

Chiaki grimaced. "Ignore her."

But to Yuna's surprise, Lin stepped toward Nikki. "You're the troublemaker the Chancellor informed us about, I see."

Nikki responded with a slow, sarcastic bow. "I'm oh-so flattered you've heard of me."

"Well, the plan was to run drills to work on your discipline and teamwork." Lin crossed his arms. "But I'll make you an offer. I get one blow to try and knock you out. If I do not succeed, you and your team can be excused from the lesson."

"Oh that is so, so obviously a trap," Reshiram said. "She can't possibly be dumb enough to take the bait, can she?"

"You're on!" Nikki hopped forward, mohawk frazzling.

"… I think you need new friends."

In my defense, calling her friend would be a
massive stretch. Yuna hastily floated to the side of the room, wondering what sort of trick the urshifu had up his black sleeves. Even if he had a Protect ready for an initial Boomburst, it would falter before a follow-up attack.

Seifer opened a panel on the padded wall and a shield of blue, hexagonal tiles materialized to keep the group safe. Lin and Nikki walked to the center of the room. The former took up a fighting stance with his right foot planted forward, his right paw held up, and his left paw down by his hip. Nikki hopped from one foot to another, cracking her knuckles.

"Somebody say the word and I'll—"

"Go!" Xiao shouted.

In the blink of an eye, Lin closed the gap with Nikki. She didn't even get the chance to her finish her sentence before Lin drove the side of his right paw, crackling with dark energy, into the point where Nikki's neck met her torso.

She lurched violently to her right. Her knees quivered. The toxtricity slumped onto the floor, down for the count. Lin brought his paw back to his side.

"Such overconfidence spawns from a lack of discipline," he said. "You did not respect your opponent… and left yourself open to my Wicked Blow."

"Yup. That went about as well as I expected." Reshiram sighed.

Yuna could do nothing but stare at Nikki. She obviously wasn't dead or anything, but to go down from a single attack like that was crazy. "What kind of move was that? I've never seen anything like it," she said.

"Heh heh. It's the pride and joy of our dojo's Single Strike Style: Wicked Blow," Xiao responded, happily swaying from side to side. "I practice the Rapid Strike Style. It's way more fun."

"The Master Dojo's techniques focus on aiming for opponent's weak spots to maximize the power of your strikes," Lin added, turning to Yuna. "As its name implies, Single Strike Style emphasizes concentrating your power into one definitive attack."

"Rapid Strike Style is about hitting fast, like the kick of a tamato berry." Xiao stood up straight and unleashed a flurry of punches and kicks on the air in front of him. A blue tint faded from his paws as he returned to his slouched posture.

"I see," Yuna whispered. It sounded cool, to be sure. And she knew of kommo-o back home that practiced basic martial arts aside from their actual attacks. But she failed to see how any of this was relevant to her. The dreepy didn't exactly have a good body type for martial arts. She wasn't even sure she could learn any fighting-type moves, evolution or not. "What does this have to do with our remedial lessons, though?"

"Martial arts are often used as a means to teach discipline." Chiaki pushed off from leaning against the wall. "My guess is that they're going to have us run through drills they would do in their classes."

Lin nodded. "That's correct."

Yuna's gills drooped. That didn't sound the slightest bit enjoyable.

"At least you won't be alone for it," Reshiram chirped. "It's like that old expression: 'misery loves company.'"

You're not helping,
she growled, earning more puppy-like whines.

"Come on, Nikki." Chiaki knelt beside the toxtricity, who was stirring. "Let's get you seated on the side so you can you lick your wounds." He offered his good arm, but Nikki swatted it away. She picked her head up.

"Screw you," she hissed.

"Drop the attitude. You lost. End of story." Chiaki extended his good arm again. "The sooner we let them start the lesson, the sooner they'll be done."

Nikki grabbed Chiaki's left hand with hers… and used it to drag him to the ground and clock him on the forehead. "What the hell's your problem?!" he snarled, raising the Hooker up to shield his head.

"Screw this and screw all of you!" She lumbered to her feet, mohawk and back spikes sparking. "I don't need to stand here and take any of this shit." Nikki whirled on the urshifu. "Kick us out of the Cup or whatever. I'm done with this freak show."

"Nikki, wait!" Yuna called as the toxtricity stomped toward the door. Chiaki's hook shot out and wrapped Yuna's torso before she could go anywhere.

"Don't bother unless you want to get yourself in more trouble," he said.


"He's right. That girl needs time to simmer down. Trying to talk to her now will accomplish nothing."

Yuna watched the door slam shut before turning back to the others, shoulders drooped.

If Nikki hated the school so much and everyone hated her, too, then why was she still here? It was a thought that would fester in Yuna's head the rest of the afternoon.


Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 14: Sing a Hollow Song

The servant quarters were in a square building made of gray bricks with small, arched windows. Unimpressive compared to the vibrant colors and ornate statues of Horizon's main campus. There was one redeeming factor for Noctum, however. It was positioned closest to the edge of the hilltop ridge. All Noctum had to do was shuffle a few dozen meters off the gravel path to find a nice slope he could sit down on.

Dr. Rafique's medicine helped Noctum's queasiness, but he still found himself a bit unsteady on his feet. Despite that, Noctum had cabin fever by the end of the day. Which brought him out to the hill.

Freshly-cut grass tickled the backs of his legs and the underside of his tail. He looked ahead, past the rolling green hills with slivers of train tracks leading off into the distance. To the towns and cities north and east of Horizon Gardens. Beyond that, the sun was setting, lighting the sky up with rings of yellow, orange, and red.

Aeon never had sunsets like that. Heck, it barely had sun. There were scant moments. Mostly in the wastelands. Noctum's gaze dropped to his legs and the sloping grass in front of him. A silhouette of a small, thin charmander appeared. Its ribs poked out from its chest and its tail flame smoldered weakly as it staggered across the grass, scratching at patches of black, shabby scales.

A blue, scaly leg stomped down on the grass, squishing the silhouette. "You look sadder than a lost feral puppy."

Noctum's wings shot out. He coughed up a couple of embers before looking up. Valkyrie stood in front of him, finned arms crossed. "Feeling sorry for yourself, huh?"

"I—" Noctum stopped himself. His gaze fell. He folded his wings back and fidgeted with his claws. Perhaps it wasn't cabin fever that had made him restless. "Maybe."

Valkyrie snorted. "That's a yes." The garchomp pivoted. "This about you getting walloped? Or the princess getting swiped from under your snout?"

Noctum frowned. Valkyrie rubbed her brow. "Hey, I ain't judging. Even if you're not a dragon, you're dragon-adjacent. Still got that pride, don't ya?" She made eye contact again. "Just train harder. Get stronger. Then maybe it won't happen again."

The charizard remained silent. His face scrunched up. Why was Valkyrie telling him this? Chiaki had vanished along with Yuna. "Funny. I don't even remember seeing you in Herbrides. Aren't you supposed to be Chiaki's bodyguard?"

Valkyrie scowled. "He ordered me not to come."

Noctum raised an unconvinced brow.

"He gave me an assignment," Valkyrie growled. "I learned about what happened not long after I finished. If you don't believe me, I'll show you the dumpster I left a dent in."

"I'll take your word for it." Noctum slouched over, pinching his brow. "I just don't get it. What kind of bodyguard doesn't, y'know, guard the body they're assigned to?"

Valkyrie snorted tufts of blue-purple smoke. "It's a bit more complicated than that."

Noctum was tempted to point out that Valkyrie introduced herself as Chiaki's bodyguard, but the garchomp looked like she'd deck him if he said anything. Instead, he looked left and plucked out a couple of blades of grass with his claws. "Well, maybe my situation is complicated, too."

"I doubt it," Valkyrie said. "You're the 'loyal servant.' You're beating yourself up because you feel like you're betraying your bosses' trust."

The charizard's tail flame crackled. He dug his hand into the grass until it met cool soil. "From the sound of it, I wouldn't expect you to understand."

"Try me."

A sigh. Noctum looked longingly toward a cluster of particularly tall trees on a distant hilltop. At that distance, they were like broccoli pieces. "When we were on the train over here, I went up to King Calcifer. Asked him why he wanted me to come here. I don't have the battling experience that Baraz and Dimitry do."

"Yeah, I think I got that part," Valkyrie mused. Noctum scowled at her before returning his gaze to the hills.

"The king told me that I'd been around Yuna since the day she hatched. And that made me family." The charizard's tail flame burned brighter. "He said, 'Family sticks together! It's how we seize each day by the horns.'"

His Calcifer impression left a lot to be desired; he couldn't replicate the duraludon's booming voice. Not that Valkyrie would understand. "I owe my life to Yuna's family. So, I can't keep screwing things up."

Silence followed. Noctum looked at Valkyrie, expecting her to say something. She crossed her arms. "… tch. That it?"

Noctum's tail flame dimmed. He was hoping for a more… sympathetic response. "Is there something wrong with what I said?"

"If they really consider you family, then why are you a servant for them?" Valkyrie shrugged and shook her head.

Noctum sputtered. After a few seconds, he managed to say, "They opened their home to me. It was the least I could do for them." A beat passed. "Besides, you call Chiaki 'Young Master.' How's that any different?"

"I do it ironically." Valkyrie smirked. "It pisses him off. His reactions are amusing." She looked to her right. "In my line of work, you take the little amusements life hands you."

Noctum didn't have a counterargument. He returned to plucking blades of grass out of the ground until a thought finally stirred in his head. "Are you always this callous to others?"

Valkyrie snort. "Please. You're just thin-scaled."

"W-Well, yeah. But I didn't get enough nutrients as a charmander!"

"I didn't mean that literally, numbskull." Valkyrie knelt down to Noctum's eye level. "You want my advice? This doting devotion to the royal family is only going to hold you back. Make you weak. You want to get stronger? Trust no one and depend on only yourself."

The charizard couldn't help but gawk at Valkyrie's so-called advice. That sounded like an awful way to live. "Well, if that's the kind of logic you follow, I guess it's no surprise you left Chiaki on his own."

"… whatever." Valkyrie rolled her eyes. "Unlike you and your charge, Chiaki realizes that there are bigger fish that need frying. That's all." The garchomp stood up and reached into the satchel on her waist. "Now then, I need to deliver his replacement arm to him. Have fun with your pity party."

She walked away. Noctum looked over his shoulder. The prosthetic would've completely fooled him if it was actually attached to a grovyle. Which was probably the point. Once she dipped out of sight behind a row of thick, green bushes, Noctum turned back toward the ridge.

It can't be a pity party if I'm the only one attending…


Baraz greeted Yuna with a leppa berry. The dreepy happily gobbled it up. Some of her fatigue from the Ministers' drills rushed away as she finished the last bites. Baraz offered to bring her back to her room, but Yuna declined. Instead, she asked Chiaki if he could help her find Nikki's room. The grovyle reluctantly agreed and, after getting a new Bold and Brash from his garchomp bodyguard — where had she been, anyway? — the two set off up the steel stairs leading to the building's main level.

"Hey." Yuna rubbed her head nervously. "So, um, why is Nikki still here if she misbehaves all the time? Especially if she's on a scholarship." If Nikki pulled similar stunts in the Aeon Kingdom, she'd have been forced to change schools already.

Chiaki pushed the red metal door at the top of the stairs open. "Short answer is Vortex cares too much about his bottom line."

Yuna paused in the doorway. "Huh?"

"It's because of ESEA." Chiaki walked out into the academic building's entry hall. His sweaty feet left outlines on the marble floor fashioned to look like the school's rose emblem.


"The Equality in Secondary Education Act." Chiaki leaned his shoulder against one of the two massive oak doors. It swung outward, leading to stone steps that descended to a gravel path flanked by rose bushes on either side. "Parliament enacted it, like, four years ago. Basically, every charter school like this one has to accept scholarship students chosen by the Crowne Ministers or pay an exorbitant tax."

Yuna followed Chiaki as he hopped over a rose bush and walked along the grass toward the girls' dorm building on their right. "I still don't get it. Couldn't Vortex tell the Minister who sponsored Nikki to find a new student?"

To her surprise, Chiaki's response was a laugh. She puffed out her cheeks, which he didn't see, but stayed silent. The grovyle eventually got his composure back. "Sorry. You're not from around here, so I wouldn't expect you to understand."

"Understand what?"

"That Minister Shredder is… quite similar to Nikki personality-wise," Chiaki replied. "At least, that's what I've heard."

Yuna raised a brow. "Meaning?"

"I'd bet money that Vortex tried to get him to replace Nikki… and Shredder told him to get bent." Chiaki stuck his hands in his pockets and continued toward the girls' dorm.

"… oh." Yuna frowned. "But if he's acting like that, couldn't he get replaced as Crowne Minister?"

"The law is that every city needs a Crowne Minister," Chiaki said. "And, despite his attitude, Shredder's actually on the popular side. My best guess is that Parliament chooses to put up with him because it's easier than the alternative."

"And I guess this Vortex guy chooses to put up with Nikki because that's also easier than the alternative." Reshiram chuckled. "It's fun when things mirror each other like that."

I don't see anything fun about it,
Yuna grumbled. She came to a stop next to Chiaki, who was scanning the limestone building in front of him. "What's wrong?"

"I can't exactly waltz into the girls' dorm, you know," Chiaki said. "I'm trying to remember which room is Nikki's."

"… oh. Right." Yuna poked her hands together. The truth was she wanted Chiaki to ask one of the security guards instead of her, but that plan crumpled like a house of cards meeting the slightest breeze.

"There." Chiaki pointed to a first-floor window to their right, on the corner of the building.

"How do you know it's her?"

"I hear grunge music." Chiaki ran to his right. Yuna floated after him, unsure why that would qualify the room to be Nikki's.

"Uh, thanks, but I think I can take it from here."

"… tch. I already came here, didn't I? May as well see this out to the end." Chiaki picked up his speed.

Yuna's gills stiffened. "But what about not being allowed in the dorm?"

"Won't matter if we sneak in through the window." Chiaki reached the window in question and stood on his tiptoes to tap it with his good hand. He stood waiting for a few seconds before the glass pane swung open and Nikki glared down at him.

"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't call security over here, Twiggy."

Chiaki shot Yuna a look suggesting that was her cue. She hovered closer, wringing her arms. "L-Look, Nikki. I know you don't like me… but I want to talk okay?"

"Not interested." Nikki reached for the window to slam it shut, but Yuna dashed forward. Quick Attack speeds let her whiz by Nikki. The toxtricity whirled around. "Hey! I didn't say you could let yourself in. Get out or I'll throw you out myself."

Yuna stiffened, staring at the black stone floor. Unlike her room, there was no carpet. "No," Yuna said, shoulders tense. She heard a thump behind her and saw Chiaki in the windowsill out of the corner of her eye. "I'm… sorry that you got mixed up in that mess yesterday. But it wasn't my fault. I didn't know Xeromus would pop up. So it's—" She swallowed hard. "You can't hold that against me. I don't want to spend this whole semester fighting with you."

Slowly she turned to look at Nikki. "Please tell me what's wrong. I might not be able to help or anything, but wouldn't it feel good to get it off your shoulders?"

Nikki stood there in silence, arms crossed and sporting a glare that reminded Yuna of her mother when she was upset. The dreepy kept holding eye contact, however. If she backed down here, she was never going to get through to Nikki.

"If we really wanted to cause you problems, don't you think we'd have gone to Vegna or Vortex instead of you?" Chiaki sat sideways in the windowsill, arms resting on his crossed legs. Yuna smiled at him, but he kept looking outside as if he was keeping watch.

Finally, Nikki sighed. "… whatever." Her posture slouched and she walked away from the windowsill. It was the most defeated Yuna had seen Nikki look. The toxtricity flopped down onto a chair. And not a cushy chair like the one Yuna had in the corner of her room. A gray, metal folding chair peppered with spots where the paint was peeling off.

In fact, Nikki's room as a whole was… practically empty. The dresser had no decorations, only a layer of dust to suggest it had never been used. The nightstand next to the bed had an old analogue clock whose glass plane was broken and bells were rusted to the point of uselessness. Nikki had no comforter for her bed. Only navy bedsheets with patches of mismatched fabrics placed over what Yuna assumed were once holes.

The walls were bare. No posters. No pictures. Not even a calendar. The light fixture on the ceiling didn't have a bulb in it.

It wasn't until Yuna looked at the corner where Nikki was sitting that she actually found something. Multiple somethings, in fact. Lined up neatly next to one another were three guitars. One was a blue acoustic guitar, similar to ones Yuna had seen back home. The other two were more like the ones Yuna saw at the ball during Starlene's concert. One had purple and yellow flames painted on it and the other was jet back.

Behind them was an open closet door housing an immaculately polished cello. Yuna even saw outlines of her reflection in it. Next to it was a cardboard box filled with what seemed like plaques and envelopes. And above them sat a few extra leather jackets. One was bright red, but the others matched the black jacket Nikki had on.

"Enjoying yourself?" Nikki growled. "Yeah, go on. Tell me I'm trash because I don't have pictures or figurines or any of the fancy crap you all keep in your rooms."

Yuna didn't do that. She continued studying the guitars. "I didn't know you were into music. These are yours?"

"No, I stole them from that dumbass cinderace."

Yuna looked blankly at Nikki, who facepalmed.

"Yes, they're mine." The toxtricity grabbed the acoustic guitar and rested it on her lap. "I've been playing instruments for a while."

"The cello too?"

"Guitar, cello, bass, and keyboard. Or I guess you'd know it as a piano," Nikki said. "And I tried drums for a bit before deciding they weren't for me."

"Wow, that's really impressive," Yuna chirped. "I, uh, can play a mean tambourine when the need arises, but that's about it." She hoped offering a compliment could help the situation. A tingle ran down her back when Nikki chuckled.

"Cute." She absentmindedly strummed a cord on the guitar. "So, satisfied? You going to leave now?"

"… oof. Well, at least you get an A for effort in my book," Reshiram said.

Yuna wasn't calling it quits here. "Is this how you earned a scholarship? By being a good musician?"

"Maybe." Nikki's answer lacked conviction. Yuna figured that was intentional.

"Then why would you want to throw the Crowne Cup?" Chiaki finally swung himself around to face inside the room. "If anything, doing well could potentially jumpstart a music career for you. But doing the opposite will—"

"I already have a career," Nikki snarled. Yuna's gills shrank at the abrupt shift in demeanor.

"Come on, now. Stiff upper lip. You don't wanna back down here," Reshiram encouraged.

He was right. Yuna had to press on. "Then why are you here?" she asked.

Nikki glared at Yuna again. "You really want to know?"


Another sigh. Nikki set the guitar back on its stand. "Fine then." She stuffed her left hand in her jacket pocket and pulled out… a rusty locket. Nikki tossed it to Yuna without warning. The dreepy fortunately caught it. She opened it up and found a picture of Nikki giving scorbunny ears to a dragonair.

Yuna blinked. She looked at Nikki, then back at the locket, then back at Nikki. "What is this?"

"A picture."

Yuna frowned. "That's not what I meant. What does this have to do with what I asked you?"

"That's the reason I'm at this prissy-ass school." Nikki pointed to the locket. "My big sis, Scarlett."

"Your sister's a dragon?!" Yuna gasped. "Why didn't you tell me?"

A snort from Chiaki made Yuna wince. "She's not really Nikki's sister. It's more a term of endearment."

"Kiss my ass, Twiggy." Nikki's mohawk sparked. "The two of us were practically family. Ever since the day Minister Shredder and I found her as a dratini, wandering the outskirts of Blightsmuth, we've always been at each other's sides."

"Wow, okay. Lot to unpack there." Reshiram hummed. "What's a Blightsmuth? And how long did this Shredder guy know her before sponsoring her?"

Yuna didn't want to ask either of those questions since she had Nikki talking. Best to let Nikki explain at her own pace. Maybe any gaps could get filled in at a later point.

Reshiram sighed. "Well, that's not really how you get to the whole truth, but I suppose I'll let it slide."

"What does she have to do with the school?" Chiaki asked.

"I was getting to that." Nikki's scowl gave Yuna some gratification for following her gut. "Scarlett and I grew up together. Watching Shredder and his old group the Maximizers. She liked singing and I liked jamming. So, when we both evolved, we decided to give music-making a shot. Called ourselves Pop Fizz."

Chiaki almost fell out the windowsill. "Wait, that was you?"

Nikki smirked. "Oh, a fan of my early work, are you? You didn't strike me as the type, Twiggy."

The grovyle's face reddened. He reached up to his head and felt around. Yuna figured he briefly forgot that he lost his hat.

"… tch. My little sister liked Pop Fizz. Never shut up about you," he grumbled.

"Aww, that's so precious." Nikki's voice dripped with sarcasm. She leaned back in her chair. "Anyway, Shredder helped the two of us book gigs and score a couple of albums. It was… a lot of fun." She glanced at the box sitting in her closet.

There was a longing in her voice that Yuna hadn't heard from the toxtricity before. "So, um, how does that tie into the school?" she asked.

Nikki slouched over, sighing. "One night, we gave a concert. And Vortex was in attendance. This wasn't long after that Equality Education thingy passed. He told Shredder to sponsor one of us at a time. Then Vortex could set us up with the bigwigs of Radiance's music industry. We both wanted to help Blightsmuth claw its way out of obscurity, so we accepted the offer."

She bit her lip and clenched her fists. "I told Scarlett she should go first since she was older. Only…"

Yuna gulped. "Only?"

"She didn't come home after her first year," Nikki whispered, head tucked into her chest.

"… oh my," Reshiram squeaked. "She doesn't think this Vortex guy killed her, does she? That sounds like something straight out of a murder mystery novel. Y'know, the kind an author writes as their supposed debut work but it turns out to be a pseudonym of a children's book author who was getting tired of—"

Be quiet,
Yuna silently snapped. "You're suspicious of Vortex, then?"

"You're damn right I am." Nikki's mohawk grew. "When I didn't get any letters or calls from her, I got suspicious. I tried to visit, but the school wouldn't let me."

"And that made you upset." Chiaki tapped his prosthetic claws on the windowsill.

Nikki rolled her eyes. "Duh. Since I couldn't do anything with Scarlett, I took myself in a different direction… working with Shredder's new band, Crimson Cloud." Her mohawk brightened from yellow to white. "When Scarlett didn't come back, I poured my anger into my guitar."

She leaned over and reached into the open closet. Nikki tossed an envelope to Chiaki while she grabbed a dusty record player and set it on her lap.

"Are you kidding me?" Chiaki held the envelope, which turned out to be a record cover, up for Yuna to see. It had an obstagoon's snarling face on it. Its long tongue draped down toward its chest. Red streaks dribbled down its forehead, likely a dye or paint standing in for blood.

"That seems a bit… excessive," Reshiram muttered.

"Erm, exactly what kind of band is Crimson Cloud?" Yuna squinted at the cover.

"Metal and grunge." Nikki set the record player on the ground and put the needle on. Yuna's gills immediately shriveled at a loud guitar riff punctuated by overly-sensual moans.

"And you call me edgy?" Chiaki tapped the back of the record cover. "Listen to some of these song names. 'Defiant Roar.' 'Crud From the Earth.' 'Vicious Beast.' 'More Poison Than Poison.' Need I go on?"

Nikki merely crossed one leg over another. "You need to add an inappropriate pronunciation to that last one, Twiggy. It's 'More Poison Than PoiSIN.'"

Yuna tuned her teammates out to focus on the record player's speaker. A guttural male growled through it.

"I am the lurking fiend.
Corrosive to your insides like a salandit's seed, yeah.
I seep from the dead.
Molding into Phantoms to muck with your head.
An acidic suicide.
Melting through the smiles of your piss-poor lies, yeah.
Dig through your broken flesh
To tear into your heart and rip it from your chest, yeah!"

"Okay, that's enough!" Yuna threw her hands against her head. Smirking, Nikki took the needle off the record.

"Um, are we sure this Shredder fella isn't some kind of anarchist? Cause he sounds like an anarchist to me," Reshirm said. "Which would make the fact he's in the government ironically frightening. Or frighteningly ironic. Take your pick, really."

"Well, that was… a hell of a detour." Chiaki scratched his snout. "When are you going to get to the point?"

Nikki's smirk vanished. She sat up straight. "I begged Shredder to let me go here on scholarship. For two years, I poked around trying to find any inklings I could of what happened to Scarlett. But every time, staff or servants got in the way. The more it happened, the angrier I got."

She pulled a cloth out of her jacket. Nikki leaned over and rubbed the acoustic guitar's base. "I could channel some of that frustration into Crimson Cloud, but it wasn't enough. So, I figured I'd screw with Vortex's precious school. It was the least he deserved."

"Yet you have no evidence of anything," Chiaki pointed out.

"Which is why I wanted to throw the Crowne Cup." Nikki stared at her reflection in the guitar. "With our whole class and the associated professors involved, I figured I'd be able to use the free time I'd get from losing to do some hardcore sleuthing."

There it was. Yuna stared at Nikki silently. She couldn't string together a coherent response. The words were jumbled around in her head. Nikki sat back on the chair and tossed the cloth onto her bed. "Yeah, I wouldn't expect either of you to know what it's like." She pointed at Chiaki. "You with your fancy inheritance." She turned to Yuna. "And you with your royal parents and servants and guards. You both have people. You can surround yourselves with people."

Nikki folded her hands on her lap. "Scarlett was my person." She pivoted to sit sideways in her chair. "I don't have family. And I don't have money; everything I've made as a guitarist has gone back to Blightsmuth. To keep the place afloat." Nikki looked into the empty closet. "All I've got is my music."

Reshiram chuckled. "Hmm. I wonder if 'person' means they were actually smoochy-smoochy with each other?"

Enough comments from the peanut gallery,
Yuna growled.

"Aww, c'mon. 'Lifelong friends to lovers' is a tale as old as the universe itself," Reshiram said. "It's a truth worth fighting for. Makes my nonexistent heart go pitter-patter."

This isn't about you.
Yuna resisted the urge to shake her head. She hesitantly floated closer to Nikki. "Look. I didn't know Scarlett. I couldn't know what she'd want." The dreepy wrung her arms. "But it sounded to me like the two of you worked really well together." Yuna glanced at Chiaki. "We can't truly replace Scarlett, but we can certainly try to, uh, be your people in the meantime."

A deep breath. "And that's not, y'know, some princessy duty thing. That's just… what I think is right." Yuna gestured to Chiaki. "What do you say? You help us with the whole Eternatus thing… and maybe we can find a way to help you search for Scarlett?"

Chiaki looked at Yuna's arm briefly before staring out the window. "… yeah."

Nikki looked at her feet. "… is your pet fuzzball listening?"

Yuna tilted her head. Nikki pointed at the Soul Dew. Yuna nodded.

"Then I have a question." Nikki put her elbows on her knees and leaned her head on her hands. "If you and your buddies are the thing keeping World Ender sealed… why the hell should we try to free them? Won't that undo the seal and screw us over anyway?"

Yuna almost dropped to the ground. Chiaki sucked in a sharp breath, as if he was surprised he hadn't thought of that. A tiny bead of light spilled onto the floor and molded into a miniature Reshiram. He tapped his small claws together. "Well, um, I never said it was a flawless plan. It's, like… we have to choose between certain death and highly probably death. The latter has a chance."

"That chance being… what, exactly?" Nikki said.

"Eternatus was sealed while it was still up in the stratosphere," Reshiram explained. "If we unseal it, it should reappear there. In which case, we might be able to pinpoint its core. Strike the core and we can stop it!"

Silence. Yuna looked around uneasily. Even she had to admit that was barely a plan. "Well…" The dreepy rubbed her shoulder. "As long as there's a chance, we ought to try, right? You haven't given up on Scarlett yet. We can't give up on the planet. It's… the planet." Her girls drooped. "Sorry. I'm not one for motivational speeches."

Nikki laughed bitterly. "All right, what the hell. I'm in." She slipped her jacket off and slung it over her shoulder. "If you're going to search for Needles, then I guess we'll need to stay in the Crowne Cup so you have an excuse to head to the cities where they used to be."

Yuna slowly smiled. Reshiram grew bigger, clapping his glowing wings together. "Wonderful! Group hug time?"

"Don't push it, fuzzball," Chiaki and Nikki said in unison. The former hopped out of the windowsill without another word.

Reshiram's wings drooped. "… oh. Okay." Sighing, he retreated into the Soul Dew.

"Great. Now that the warm fuzzies are over… door's that way." Nikki pointed over Yuna's shoulder. "Get going. I don't need anyone getting any ideas. Gossip can spread like the flu in this place."

It took a moment before Nikki's comment sank in. Yuna vigorously nodded and floated off for the door. She paused with her arm on the nob. "Thanks, Nikki."

"I said no more warm fuzzies," Nikki growled.

As the door creaked open, however, she added, "Don't thank me until we survive the first leg."


Path of Valor Almanac
The Maximizers is the name of the "band" that shows up in the credits sequence for Pokémon Sword and Shield. Most of the Crimson Cloud song names are spoofs of actual songs by Rob Zombie and the lyrics played are a spoof of "More Human Than Human," which he provided the vocals for as part of the metal group White Zombie.


Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 15: In Case of Emergency

Radiant Palace's throne room was silent enough to hear a pin drop on the velvet carpet running from the crystalline double doors to the raised, marble platform holding two thrones. Having passed along everything Yuna had told him, Seifer now stared at the carpet, wondering what was going through the mind of the rapidash standing in front of one of the thrones.

He didn't dare look anywhere else. Not up at the sunlight filtering in through the glass dome in the ceiling. Not at the walls with their crystal pillars evenly spaced between scarlet and lavender tapestries bearing the kingdom's sword and shield emblem. And not at the two diamond Zacian statues on either side of the throne platform, staring sternly at the door as if they could somehow guard the room from invaders.

The silence broke when Demerzel spoke up from Seifer's right. "Well, Your Eminence? What do you think?"

Silence returned for a few seconds. Then a sigh. "We thank you for bringing this to our attention, Seifer."

The keldeo bit his lip. He'd known Isola long enough to tell the difference between sincere thanks and putting on a front. This was the latter. "Your Eminence?" He looked up. The rapidash pivoted to her left. The bronze shield fastened to her chest shimmered under the sunlight.

"We want to believe you, Commander," Isola said. "But you must understand, you are passing on the words of a student. One who's sickly enough to pass for a child." Her long horn glowed a faint pink. She telekinetically adjusted the diamond crown resting against her silky pink mane.

Seifer's ears twitched underneath his mane. "I was there," he whispered.

"You know as well as anyone that pokémon who escape mystery dungeons often do not return the same as how they entered." Isola looked at the ceiling. "Your report didn't indicate you used any protective wards."

"There wasn't time. The princess—"

"We tasked you with keeping her safe." Isola lowered her head. "Commander, after the incident with Lord Douglas, there were those who questioned your… mental fitness to serve in your post. You drew up the plans that cost us three of our finest soldiers and led to a distortion outbreak."

Seifer stiffened. Every fiber of his being told him to bring up Reshiram. To beg Demerzel to sift through his memories to confirm his story. However, Yuna had trusted her to leave that detail out. And he agreed. It was bad enough telling Isola that World Ender was, in fact, still alive.

"We thought that by assigning you to Princess Yuna, we could restore Parliament's faith in your abilities," Isola continued. "But not only did you fail to protect her, your approach to handling the new areas of distortion has led to the disappearance of three dozen troops. And that number continues to grow."

Seifer's blood ran cold. "I… wasn't aware things had gotten so bad." He thought of Rune's disappearance. Of the masked monstrosity, Xeromus. Was he behind every disappearance? Or was the distortion reacting to another Needle's destruction… and getting stronger? "But that's all the more reason to—"

Isola shook her head. "We're sorry, Commander." She met his gaze. "In order to secure funding for Icarus, we had to agree to several… concessions." A pained expression set in. "Parliament wanted you stripped of your title and sacked…"

"No…" Seifer's eyes slowly widened. Beside him, Demerzel floated back, looking equally shocked.

"… however, we managed to convince Parliament to accept an alternative proposal." Isola stepped forward, putting a forehoof on the next step down. "You are hereby suspended until further notice. Without pay."

Isola's horn lit up. Pink light surrounded Seifer. The stunned keldeo's clothes tugged at his torso. Tearing fabric echoed in his head. He opened his mouth. Tried to say something. Anything. But all he could do was stare blankly as Isola levitated his torn uniform to her side.

His legs quivered. "Why?" Seifer croaked. "I… I've given my life… for this job."

Isola's eyes watered. "I know," she whispered. The rapidash squeezed her eyes shut and looked away. "I wish there was more I could've done, but Parliament wouldn't have it."

The rational part of Seifer's head knew this was serious. Isola rarely dropped her royal voice, even in private. However, it didn't make this any easier. "What about the Radiant Guard?"

"We will take steps to mitigate your absence." Isola had regained her composure. She tossed the uniform onto her throne. Seifer wanted to ask a follow-up question, but Isola raised a forehoof. "Demerzel, please escort Co— please show Seifer out of the castle."

It took a few seconds for Demerzel to respond. "O-Of course, Your Eminence."

Seifer was still numb. He didn't even realize Demerzel put a hand on his back until the floor fell away, replaced by the smooth pavement of the road that led to the hilltop castle. The keldeo staggered forward and dropped to his knees.

"I don't understand."

"That makes two of us." Demerzel floated in front of Seifer. "I was aware Her Eminence had to make concessions, but she sandbagged me with this news as well." He frowned. "I guess that's why she ordered your bank account frozen."

Seifer's head shot up. "She what?!"

Demerzel flinched, but immediately regained his composure. "Perhaps it's better you found out this way." He rubbed his temple. "I wish I had more to offer. I'm afraid I'm at a loss."

"You're at a loss?" Seifer's horn flickered red. "What am I supposed to do? This job was my life!" He stared at the gravel underneath him. "I… I threw myself into my work. Just like my mother and her mother and—"

He sucked in a sharp breath. "A member of my clan has served the Radiant Guard for centuries! I can't show my face back home like this. I'll be disowned!" His legs quivered again. "Her Eminence still has tea with Mother from time to time."

"I think you can trust her to keep this confidential," Demerzel assured him. "But perhaps you can stay at a hotel until things settle down?"

"With what money?" Seifer's face twisted into a grimace. "I never carry radians on me. It's too risky. Everything I had was in the bank."

"… ah."

Seifer tried to take a deep breath. He failed. The keldeo thought Demerzel would take pity on him. Offer to loan him funds for a room. He looked up at the mutant with pleading eyes.

"I can't give you money." Demerzel rubbed his shoulder. "Most of my salary goes toward experimental treatments for my… condition." He gestured to his massive head.

Seifer was struggling to breathe. The logical conclusion was to go home. But he couldn't face his family now. He'd never get past the humiliation. There had to be something. Someone who'd be willing to help.

A sharp pain clutched his gut. "I have to go back to the academy."

Demerzel frowned. "I'm not sure that's a good idea."

"I have to!" Seifer's horn sparked again. "It's a long shot, but I might be able to make something work out."

"And when you're spotted near the Aeon Princess and word reaches Her Eminence?" Demerzel crossed his arms. "I don't want to see you in hotter water."

"Please," Seifer croaked. "There's someone there… who might be able to help. He's not related to the Aeons."

Demerzel sighed. He reached into the pocket of his robes and pulled out a coin purse. A dozen gold coins dropped onto the road in front of Seifer. "This should be enough for a train ticket," Demerzel said. "Whatever it is you're thinking, I hope for your sake it works out."

Still breathing shakily, Seifer collected the radians with a forehoof. He no longer had pockets to stuff them into, so he was forced to bite down on them. "Thamks."

Demerzel didn't respond. He vanished in a flash of pink light. Sighing, Seifer got to his feet and trudged off down the road.


"Unbelievable!" Shimmer stomped down spiral, cobblestone stairs. The lit torches on the wall smoldered from the psionic pulses his horn gave off. "How can they let an incompetent pile of scales like you represent Uncle Benedict? I may as well defend him myself."

Yuna winced. She glanced at the flygon buzzing ahead of them. His black vest and bowtie clearly didn't fit. "I'm sorry, Your Highness. But I'm the only public defender with any availability this week."

"You already told us that, Kain," Shimmer growled. Yuna swore his mane puffed up in irritation. "What I'm failing to understand here is why he needs a public defender in the first place. Money is hardly an issue for him."

Kain tapped his claws together nervously. "Well, um, my boss said that every attorney Mr. Benedict tried to hire turned him down."

Shimmer stopped walking. "What?"

"Hey!" Yuna abruptly hovered left to avoid hitting Shimmer. She squeaked when she instead hit the wall. It was rough and dusty.

"I don't know anything beyond that." The flygon scratched the back of his head.

Glowering, Shimmer pushed past Flygon. "A dragon like you shouldn't even be allowed in the Crowne Court as a custodian."

Kain dropped to his feet and folded his wings. "That's not nice, sir. I passed the bar like everyone else."

"Please." Shimmer rolled his eyes. "I could sit for the bar today and pass it. Think about the jury. One look at you and the Princess and they'll be ready to send Uncle Benedict to prison."

"… sheesh. These people can't hate dragons that much, can they?" Reshiram huffed. "Bahamut always preached cooperation. Prejudice will only blind you to the truth."

Yuna caught up to Shimmer. "Look. The situation is what it is. You can give up or try and help us. Wouldn't you rather do your best to help your uncle?"

Shimmer swished his mane over his shoulder. "Of course I'm going to do my best. But you two better not mess anything up." The ponyta approached an oak door with massive metal locks. A pair of seismitoad guards blocked Shimmer's path.

"Identification," one said.

Kain stepped forward and held up his gold attorney's badge and a piece of parchment. "We're the defense team for the Benedict case."

The seismitoad leaned forward. "Aye. The omnibus is in evidence bay C. Second on the left." Both seismitoad stepped to the side. The one on the left pressed an ID card to a metal box. A klaxon blared as both metal locks receded toward the walls and the door swung outward.

"Three coming in! His Majesty and two dragons," the other seismitoad shouted. "Evidence bay C!"

An arcanine in a black vest approached them. After staring Kain over for a solid minute, he gestured for the group to follow him. The floor abruptly shifted from stone to gray steel. There were signs hanging from the grated metal ceiling, each depicting a different letter. Yuna glanced at a set of black glass doors next to the first sign.

"Why glass? Wouldn't they want something sturdier to stop potential intruders?" Reshiram wondered.

I don't know. Maybe that's what the big door we just went through is for, Yuna responded. Arcanine had stopped in front of a second set of glass doors. He pressed the ID badge on his vest to a scanner. A light above the door shifted from red to green and the door slid open.

"Here you are. You're free to look, but don't you dare touch anything." Arcanine sat down in the doorway, looking sternly into the room.

"Thanks." Kain pulled a notepad and pen out of the satchel slung over his shoulder as he glided into the room. Yuna followed him. Four spotlights positioned in each corner shined directly on the omnibus sitting in the middle of the bay.

The wood was painted blue with white boarders around the carriage's circular windows and single square door. "The carriage in there is for all the passengers?" Yuna asked. She floated to the head of the omnibus, where there was a wooden seat with a worn pink cushion for the driver and a rectangular glass window that was too hazy for Yuna to look through.

"That's the spot where Benedict and the victim were," Kain responded. He flew up toward the top of the omnibus. "However, there's additional seating on the roof here. Two rows of benches." He pointed a claw forward.

Yuna hovered higher and saw the white benches surrounded by metal guardrails. A wooden placard proudly displayed "Fledgling Omnibus Company: Locally Owned Since 881."

"Hey, look at that." Reshiram's presence tried to direct Yuna's attention toward the roof. "There's a glass pane in the ceiling."

Yuna got a closer look at the glass. "Looks like you can see inside the carriage if you sit on the roof." She recalled Shimmer mentioning witnesses in this case. "Does this mean the witnesses were sitting up here? Or in the carriage?"

"They were up here." Kain hovered to Yuna's side, also inspecting the glass. He hastily scribbled something in his notebook. "Seems like you can only see the back row of the carriage, however. That's a good factoid to note in case someone talks about this at the trial."

Down on the ground, Shimmer snorted. "If you two are done gawking at trivial details, can we get to the important stuff?"

Yuna resisted the urge to glare at Shimmer. Who was he to say what was important? She peeked her head over the railing on her left to find Shimmer pacing in front of the open carriage door and a metal step she guessed was meant to help smaller passengers get on.

"Hey, what are those pink splotches on the metal?" Reshiram asked. "Seems like someone spilled some paint on them."

As Yuna flew down toward Shimmer, she repeated Reshiram's question. Shimmer faced the omnibus door. "I'm pretty sure it's the victim's blood."

"… oh." Yuna's tail scrunched up. "But wait… who ever heard of pink blood?

"I can answer that one." Kain dropped to the ground behind Shimmer. The ponyta jumped in surprise and whirled on Kain with annoyed huff. "It's pink because of a special reagent that Stoutland Yard uses to test surfaces for blood."

Yuna tilted her head. "Stoutland Yard?"

Groaning, Shimmer stepped in Yuna's path. "The policing unit of the Radiant Guard. Named for the species of its first commissioner. Didn't you come across that while you were studying?"

"I, uh, might've skipped that particular part." Yuna laughed nervously.

Shimmer rolled his eyes. "Whatever." He looked at Kain. "Continue, dragon."

"Yessir." The flygon saluted. "So, pokémon that can bleed have certain chemicals in their bloodstream based on their typing. The reagent responds to the chemicals and changes colors. This helps Stoutland Yard identify potential species the blood belongs to." His tail thumped excitedly against the ground, only to slow up when Kain saw Shimmer glowering at him. "Sorry. I find this stuff interesting, sir."

"Then go work in a morgue," Shimmer deadpanned. "What type of pokémon gets a pink reaction?"

"A pure fire-type." Kain flipped through his notepad. "Which makes sense, since the victim's a magmar."

"Hold on." Yuna raised her arm. "Um, there are quite a few pokémon that are pure fire-types. How do we know the blood's from a magmar? Maybe there was another fire-type there that night?"

Frowning, Kain flipped to another page. "Afraid not. The victim was the only fire-type to use this particular omnibus that night, according to a statement from Stoutland Yard. I got a copy of the passenger listing with the case file."

"… oh." Yuna's expression deflated.

"Hey, it was worth a shot," Reshiram said. "Besides, how do we know the blood is from the night of the crime? Maybe some clumsy fire-type tripped and scraped their knee. Or stubbed their toe. Stars above, I always hated when I stubbed my claws. Hurt like the dickens."

"And, um, how does Stoutland Yard know this blood wasn't already there when the crime happened?" Yuna asked.

Shimmer pointed his forehoof toward the open door. "That's how."

"Eh?" Yuna floated closer and tensed when she saw pink splotches on the carriage's black carpet. There were pink flecks on one of the back row's black, velvet cushions. "Ah." She fidgeted nervously with the Soul Dew. "That's a lot of blood."

"The case report I received states the victim got up and made his way toward the door before losing consciousness and falling out of the omnibus," Kain explained. He stepped to Yuna's side. "The walls and ceiling are just as black as the floors. Odd."

"They're probably dark to keep passengers warm in the winter," Shimmer said. "What does it matter?"

"If the interior was brighter, we might've been able to tell if there are blood traces that Stoutland Yard missed." Kain scribbled away in his notepad.

"Oi!" Arcanine barked from the front of the room. "You suggesting we don't know how to do our jobs, mate?"

Kain stiffened. "No, sir!"

"Then keep your filthy dragon mouth shut or I'll report ya!"

Shimmer shook his head. "Honestly. Maybe I really should petition to defend Uncle Benedict myself."

Yuna wasn't sure what to say other than, "Is there anything else here that could be of use to us?"

"I don't think so." Kain closed his notepad and put it back into his bag. "The rest of the evidence is with the inquisitor, so we'll see it at the trial."

"I see." Yuna looked toward the doorway. "Then I guess we should head back?"

Shimmer walked past her without saying a word. Yuna gulped and tried to avoid looking at the Soul Dew. I don't suppose you have, like, a gut feeling about this, do you?

A few silent seconds past before Reshiram responded. "I'm sorry, but I think this guy's probably guilty. The fact that so many people turned the offer to represent him down suggests they know he's guilty as sin and he's not worth the money."

Then do you think Kain's bosses gave him this case because they want to see him fail?
Yuna asked.

Reshiram sighed. "I can't say for certain, but it's a possibility."

"Hey." Kain waved to Yuna from the doorway. "You coming?"

Yuna floated after him with a sinking feeling in her chest.


The same arcanine that escorted the trio to the evidence bay led them back into the Crowne Court's entryway. Shimmer's hooves plinked against the marble floor as he stared at the carpeted, double-helix staircase leading to multiple sets of hallways flanked by stone columns. A silver statue of Queen Zacian gazed upon the hallway from between the staircases. Scales rested on her back, with a shield in one basin and a gavel in the other. The gavel alone was easily three times Yuna's size.

Talk about intimidating. The dreepy gulped.

"Perhaps it's meant to unnerve the accused?" Reshiram pondered. "A nervous soul is prone to slips of the tongue. What better way to catch a crook then get them to fess up with some mind games?"

Yuna's brow furrowed. That hardly sounded like a virtuous way to find the truth; certainly nothing that Saint Reshiram would do.

"So, um, where are we staying tonight?" Yuna turned to Shimmer. "You said there are lodgings for us so we don't have to go back to school, right?"

"Hmm?" Shimmer blinked several times. "Oh, right. Yeah, follow me." He walked toward a long, gray carpet stretching across the hall and leading to a high-arched door. Yuna said a brief farewell to Kain before floating after him.

The moment Yuna floated through the door and onto the large, stone staircase leading to a circular road, her head pounded. "Nngh." She put her arm on her chest but quickly pulled it away. The Soul Dew was as hot as a lit stove.

Reshiram? What's going on? Yuna almost grabbed the Soul Dew, but managed to stop herself. She feared that, despite being a spirit, something bad happened to him. Could he feel pain in his current form?

"It's Ray. He's close by."


"Rayquaza. The Soul Dew's reacting to his presence,"
Reshiram elaborated. "There's faint wind inside of it. It must be Ray."

Faint? I feel like someone smooshed a tamato berry against my chest,
Yuna growled.

"Hey! Are you going to follow me or float there gawking?"

Yuna stiffened. Shimmer was waiting at the bottom of the stairs.

"Ah, sorry," she called. But when she tried to float forward, an unseen force stopped her in her tracks. She squealed, thinking it would attract Shimmer's attention. To her complete shock, however, the pontya was frozen in place. His mane was paused in the midst of fluttering in the breeze.

"What the—" Yuna tried to float forward, but ran into an invisible barrier. She stuck her right arm out. It touched what felt like the surface of a body of water. Circular ripples spread out from her hand.

She pressed harder. More ripples. Reshiram?

… no response. That wasn't good. "What's going on here?"

Yuna turned around and screamed.

"How wonderful to see you again! Yuna, isn't it?"

It was Xeromus. No, that wasn't quite right. He wasn't solid. But his voice carried its usual rasping tone. Was he the one restraining her? And why was everything around her frozen?

"Natus' love works in ways you could only imagine," Xeromus said.

"Why are you here?" Yuna growled.

"You, of course." Xeromus gestured to her with a wispy foreleg. "You resisted the Qliphoth's pull… and now the chains of fate are tugging upon you once more." His gray eyes shimmered from inside his mask. "Isn't it interesting? Energizing? Exhilarating?" He panted until he descended into a coughing fit.

"Nothing about this is interesting," Yuna hissed. She concentrated on the Soul Dew. The dreepy had yet to try using Reshiram's power, but this was as good a first time as any. "Either get to the point or leave me alone."

"Yes, yes." Xeromus bobbed his head. "A lowly omen like me deserves such bitterness. Get it all out of your system so you'll be ready to welcome Natus with open arms."

"I mean it!" Yuna pressed her arms to the Soul Dew. She withstood the heat. It raced along her arms.

"Aha ha. Haaa ha ha ha haaaaa!" Xeromus shucked in a sharp breath. "Such a spark of defiance. Is this the hope you've made for yourself?"

He pivoted to face the Crowne Court's entrance. "One of this planet's old guard accepted Natus' love while in his stasis long ago. But the peddlers of false hope ignored such a gesture and constructed this… insulting eyesore over the site where he once rested.

"The ether pawns pass judgement within these halls, but their judgements are hollow. Meaningless!" Xeromus stomped a foreleg on the ground. "Natus loves all, no matter what flaws they possess. What sins they've committed." He paced in front of Yuna. "Those blinded by the ether refuse to see that."

Xeromus looked at the door again, his fish tail wagging. "But now… their days of bringing false judgements are over."

Yuna didn't like the sound of that. Was Xeromus suggesting something was going to destroy the courthouse?

"Come dawn tomorrow, Natus will tear down these discordant walls and offer His eternal love to all those in its vicinity!" Xeromus declared. "They will be freed of the ether's iron chains!" He stepped toward Yuna, panting heavily. "Isn't it wonderful? Yes, even a worthless monster like me can be giddy at the mere thought of hundreds of souls finding salvation!"

Yuna's ectoplasm quivered. Benedict's trial was supposed to be a big deal. Shimmer made it clear plenty would be attendance.

Oh, God… Shimmer!

He was Radiance's future. If Xeromus sent the courthouse into the Qliphoth, he'd be taken there, too!

She had to do something. Even if she didn't like Shimmer, Yuna couldn't let this freak cause any more problems. She focused on the warmth in her arms. "C'mon… c'mon…"

Before she could call up any attack, however, Xeromus disappeared.

"You still don't get it?"

"Ah!" Yuna shot forward, only to hit another barrier. Xeromus now stood— or, rather, his image floated where Yuna had just been.

"The choices you make don't really matter." Xeromus chuckled. "All roads lead back to Natus. His love is inescapable."

He vanished again, then reappeared to Yuna's right. "You will do as the ether desires and try to stop the events I've foretold. I can see it in your eyes."

A second Xeromus popped up on Yuna's left. "And I welcome such a decision! The Qliphoth reacts to your presence. Natus is sending you His love, even if you don't realize it."

Both Xeromus pointed their forelegs toward Shimmer's frozen form. "So go… try and stop the salvation of these souls!" they said in tandem. "Show me if you possess a true hope for the future of this planet!"

A pulse of purple energy encased Yuna. She fell to the ground with a startled squeak.

"What's the matter?"

A forehoof stomp prompted Yuna to pick her head up. Shimmer was moving again, as was a mudsdale-drawn carriage pulling into the circular road.

"I, uh…" Yuna quickly got off the ground. "Give me one second, okay?"

Shimmer rolled his eyes. "Whatever it is, hurry up." He turned and stomped off to his left.

Breath coming in short gasps, Yuna fumbled through her bag with trembling arms. Seifer had given her a strange, gemstone-based communication device. How had he told her to use it again?

"Press it to your forehead and think of Seifer's number." Reshiram rifled off five numbers.

Right. Thanks. Yuna wanted to talk about what had just happened, but she needed to call Seifer first. "Um, why is nothing happening?"

"The device number you've reached is no longer in service. Good-bye."

The gem abruptly stopped glowing while Yuna's eyes widened. "No, no, no, no." She shook the gem around. This was a mistake. It must've been an error. She tried the number again and got the same line. Yuna stared at the gem, then pressed it against her forehead one more time. She used her other arm to grab a torn piece of paper out of her satchel and read allowed five numbers hastily scribbled on it.

The gem pulsated with light, then a familiar voice said, "Yuna? I just got out of class. What's up?"

She sighed in relief. "We've got a huge problem, Chiaki…"


Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 16: The Red Planet

Compared to the fortress-like Crowne Court, the nearby rail station Yuna floated back and forth in front of was… underwhelming. Heck, calling it a proper station wasn't right. There were no ticket kiosks or fences to keep people away from the tracks. Not even a building. Just a raised stone platform with a metal roof and some signposts reading "Crowne Court South," implying there must have been other Crowne Courts throughout the kingdom.

Yuna kept glancing back at the gravel road leading uphill, partially obscured by layers of oak trees whose leaves showed the first signs of yellowing for autumn. She feared Shimmer had tailed her and was going to drag her back to the lodging area before her teammates showed up.

"I'd say that's an unrealistic worry." Reshiram chuckled. "That ponyta regards you with as much warmth as someone gives a booger they find smeared against the edge of a table."

Wow, gee, that sure makes me feel better.

"Huh, really?"

"No! That was sarcasm!" Yuna facepalmed, then realized she said that out loud and hastily looked around. Fortunately, there was no one there.

God, it had only been a little over a week and she wasn't sure how much longer she could take this Soul Dew business. And now she was going after another Sage. Was Saint Rayquaza going to listen in on her every thought, too? And would he be completely different than the scriptures?

Reshiram whined. "Hey, I'm right here. If you've got a problem, say something."

Before Yuna could retort, a train whistle sounded in the distance. A single circular light beam broke through walls of trees to the left of the train platform. The rusty red train pulled up to the station, which could only accommodate its frontmost car. Two metal doors slid open at opposite ends. Yuna's teammates stepped out the rear door.

Finally managing a smile, Yuna floated toward them. "Thanks for getting here on such short notice." She waved at them, but abruptly stopped when neither of them made eye contact.

"Yeah, about that…" Nikki scratched the back of her head before a thin, chitinous arm tried to push her aside.

"Do you want to explain to me what this is about, Princess?"

Yuna's gills shriveled. "Professor Cid. What an, uh, unexpected surprise." In her head, she offered much more colorful words at this new development.

"You kiss your mother with that mouth?" Reshiram growled.

I didn't say anything out loud.

"Well, I was on my way back to my office after a meeting in Horizon Gardens when I noticed these two heading for the station." Cid pointed to a bag Chiaki had against his jean jacket. "When I saw Chiaki lugging this bag, I had a feeling something was up, so I followed you." He narrowed his eyes at Yuna. "You're supposed to be taking part in that trial Vegna set you up for tomorrow, correct? So, what's going on here?"

Yuna wanted to lie. But Cid was a psychic-type. Even if he wasn't strong, who was to say he couldn't read her mind?

"If you're worried about me, I'm pretty sure that Bahamut designed Soul Dews to evade psychics' ESP," Reshiram said.

You're pretty sure?

"If I had to give a number: 85.27 percent."

Yuna didn't want to point out how oddly specific that was.

"Besides, this all feels like a moot point. Cid got sucked into the Qliphoth last time, didn't he?" Reshiram reminded her. "I'd say honesty's the best policy here." He paused. "Granted, I'm a bit biased, but that doesn't matter."

"My pendant reacted when I was in the Crowne Court." Yuna tapped the Soul Dew with an arm. "And then Xeromus showed up saying that the Court's built over a spot where a Needle once stood."

Cid's spots flickered. "A Needle, here? Impossible. I've never come across any records stating as such." He crossed his arms. "Besides, if that were the case, then the Court would've been swallowed up by distortion like all the other Needles recently were."

"That's just it. Xeromus said that was going to happen tomorrow morning!" Yuna threw her arms up. "Unless I can break the Needle like I did to the one in Hebrides." Once the gate was open, Yuna couldn't stop the words from pouring out. "I tried calling Seifer because, well, that was what he told me to do if something bad happened. But I couldn't reach him. The trinket he gave kept telling me his number had been disconnected. So, I did the next best thing I could think of… and called Chiaki."

Cid hovered in front of Chiaki and Nikki, looking over both disapprovingly. "And rather than report this to someone, you thought that, what, you'd go charging blindly into the Qliphoth again?"

Chiaki scowled. "And just who was I supposed to talk to about this? You don't even have the full story about what's going on here and you're already making assumptions." He crossed his arms and looked away. "You think anyone in charge would actually listen to me? Or Nikki, for that matter?"

Nikki rolled her eyes. "Love you too, Twiggy."

"Be that as it may, I can't let you three go off and do something reckless." Cid pointed at Yuna. "Especially not you. You don't even have any guards. What will happen if you come across Phantoms? Or another one of those large daemons?"

Nikki rested her hands behind her head. "Man, I told you to let me clobber him once we stepped off the train."

Yuna looked down. Cid had a point. It was Seifer's Dynaforce that made all the difference against Runerigus. Team Bastion couldn't depend on that this time. Was this too rash? If they failed, the courthouse would definitely be doomed.

"She's got protection!"

Reshiram burst out of the Soul Dew in a spray of white and orange light. Cid dropped to the ground, his large head making him roll to a stop close to the gap in the platform for the train tracks. "Th… tha… that's…" He pointed a trembling finger at Reshiram.

"What do you think you're doing?" Yuna hovered in front of Reshiram's face, waving her arms frantically. "If someone sees you, we'll be in a heap of trouble. No popping up in public without my permission."

"It's late at night. I don't think anyone's coming." Reshiram bent over, tail smoldering with blue and red embers. "I needed your teacher to see that you have help. Good help, at that. Maybe not the greatest, but still good."

Nikki tilted her head. "Wow, someone sure knows how to sell themselves. I'm going to go out on a limb and say you were single back in the day."

Reshiram's face reddened. "Honesty is paramount. I can't lie and tell him I'm at my peak when I'm a spirit."

Chiaki looked up from swapping Bold and Brash out for the Hooker. "Whatever. This isn't productive." He leveled his prosthetic at Cid. "Look, Professor, I get you're worried about us. But let's be real here, you can't stop us on your own. One way or another, we're heading to the Qliphoth. So, you can either go report us to someone… or come with."

"What? We ain't seriously bringing Chrome Dome. He's a walking liability." Nikki glanced at the orbeetle, who hovered off the ground. "Okay, floating liability." Scowling, she mumbled, "Stupid psychic-types."

"What he lacks in power he makes up for in other areas," Chiaki countered. "His Dynascan might help us locate the Needle quicker, for starters."

Cid's eyes widened. "No way am I going. I almost got squished to death last time."

"So did I. You don't see me complaining." Chiaki turned his snout up.

Reshiram stuck his fluffy head between the two. "If I may offer a suggestion, orbeetle are good with supportive actions, correct? Things like Reflect and Light Screen?" He fluttered his eyelids at Cid. "We're not asking you to fight. These kids could benefit from some adult supervision."

Nikki's mane frazzled. "I ain't in daycare, Crotch Fuzz!"

Reshiram's head shot up and his fur puffed out. "It's a beauty tuft! Why are you even looking there?"

"Make yourself smaller if you want good eye contact," Nikki growled. She put her hand to her head and flicked it in Reshiram's direction to show how she barely went up past his waist.

"Okay, that's enough of this conversation." Yuna floated up to Reshiram and squished his snout against the Soul Dew. It sucked him back up like one of those vacuum cleaners she'd seen Noctum geek out about a few days ago. Sighing, she turned to Cid. "I'm sorry, but we're wasting time here. I don't feel safe enough trying to make a rift close to the courthouse. I need to do it over in the forest."

Cid rubbed his shoulder. "How do you even know what you heard is the truth?"

"I don't." Yuna clutched her bag's strap. "But so long as the possibility is there, I— meep!"

Nikki grabbed her by the tail while walking toward the stairs. "Yeah, yeah. Save the big action protagonist speech for another time. We doing this shit or what?"

Yuna flopped against Nikki's back, cheeks puff out. Sighing, Chiaki followed after them. Cid poked his fingers together for a few seconds, before hovering after them. "I sure hope you're right about this, Princess," he said once the team was safely in the depths of the thick trees and away from the road.

Nikki set Yuna down. The dreepy looked down at the ground, only to squeeze her eyes shut. For all her bluster, she hadn't actually thought about how she'd get another rift open. It happened in desperation the first time.

What to do? She heard mumbles from Reshiram, but couldn't parse anything. Yuna took another breath. She pictured Eternatus' sigil. The circle with five diamonds surrounding it. Just like she'd seen in the books. And the Herbrides Lines. And Noatun.

Take us there.

Pressure gripped Yuna's head, then a purple and white glow erupted around her.


Swirling red filled Yuna's vision when the light faded. The air was frigid and coarse from sand particles. Yuna shielded her eyes with an arm. Did I stay awake this time or pass out?

"You didn't pass out. But you ended up in a desert,"
Reshiram said. "A cold, red desert. There are icebergs jutting out of the sand! I mean, I knew deserts could get cold at nighttime, but we're talking a kind of cold a place would have to be stuck in for centuries. Assuming this kind of stuff is actually scientifically possible in the first place. I mean, it's amazing either way, don't you think?"

Hissing made Yuna's gills shrivel. Something hard and plastic was shoved into Yuna's ectoplasmic gut. "Oomph!"

"T… ake it…"

Chiaki could barely speak. Yuna cracked an eye open to see the grovyle shivering. Frost coated the end of his head leaf. There was a pair of goggles in his outstretched hand. Yuna grabbed them and slipped them over her eyes. The grittiness went away.

"Safety goggles?" she said.

Chiaki nodded, then fell onto his rear. He dropped his bag, pulled out gauze, and began wrapping it around his feet. They seemed more blue-green than usual. Yuna could sympathize. This frigid air left her ectoplasm less wispy than she would've liked.

"Yo, Chrome Dome." Nikki stood a couple of meters away on red-orange sand, wearing an identical pair of goggles. She looked up at a blue, luminescent ice block jutting out from the sand. The air around her was red and hazy. "You got an explanation for this in that big head of yours?"

Cid stared at the dark sky. It was pitch-black, save for red clouds. His spots lit up blue, followed by his eyes. Pink energy wisps trailed down toward the ground. Cid nodded slowly, then the light faded. "This is Aquardah," he said. "It's one of a few cities on a planet consisting almost entirely of a desert with red sand." Cid leaned over and levitated up some sand. It blew away in streams thanks to the wind.

"Why the hell is it so damn cold, then?" Nikki approached the group, squeezing her jacket over her gills. "My gills are gonna freeze like this."

"Perhaps the planet was far from a sun?" Yuna theorized. For all they knew, it might've only had ice-types on it.

"It's possible." Cid stroked his chitinous chin.

Yuna's Soul Dew shimmered and Reshiram popped out. The air around her immediately warmed, filling her with relief. "Bahamut told us that planets absorbed by Eternatus are stuck in whatever state they were last in. So, by that logic, it's also possible that it was nighttime when this city was sucked into the Qliphoth."

"Whatever." Nikki shuffled closer to Reshiram. "If this is a city, then where are the buildings? I just see sand." The toxtricity scowled. "And I hate sand. It's rough. It's coarse. And it gets everywhere."

"Well, you are rather weak to ground-types." Reshiram chuckled, earning him a scathing look. He held up his wings. "What? I'm not lying."

"I've got something," Cid exclaimed. He held up his right hand. Pink energy surrounded it. A hole formed in the hazy red air, revealing the edge of a stone building layered with a sheet of ice.

Chiaki was already walking in that direction before Cid cut off his ESP. "Let's get moving. With any luck, we'll find shelter and can plot our next move."


"I'll admit, this would be fascinating if it wasn't… unnerving," Cid said, eyes darting back and forth. A fair amount of the sand had lifted from the air, allowing Team Bastion to better see rows of limestone buildings, some of which had circular domes for roofs. They were scuffed beyond measure. Icy blue streaks filled cracks and crevices. Similar blue patches lined the dirt road. Frigid white mist rose off them.

"In what way?" Reshiram led the group so that his tail engine could keep them warm. Chiaki was closest to him, still looking pained.

"We teach people that mystery dungeons are landscapes that are so badly warped by distortion that they're impossible to understand," Cid replied. "I've read reports of rescued people mumbling about settlements, but it was always dismissed as a side effect of distortion exposure."

"Guess you wish you'd brought a camera," Nikki quipped. "Frankly, I don't see where the danger is. Place is deserted." She stopped and immediately facepalmed. "That… was an unintentional pun."

Yuna couldn't help but chuckle at it. Reshiram did, too, so she didn't feel as guilty. "It was like this last time, too," she said. "Aside from a few Phantoms, things were otherwise very qui—"

There was a heavy thud, followed by a bloodcurdling scream. Sand grains falling from the roofs and building crevices gave Yuna an idea of just how heavy that thud was.

Nikki elbowed Yuna's side. "You just had to open your big mouth, didn't you? If we die, I'm haunting your ass."

"Me?" Yuna's cheeks puffed up. "You called the place deserted!"

"We need to hide." Cid's spots flashed multiple colors. "Something's coming this way. And its aura is all over the place!"

Ripples spready through the fog further down the street. A krokorok stumbled out, only to fall flat on its face. It promptly turned around and held its hands up. "Please… don't do this! I have a wife and two kids!"

A massive, barbed tongue shot out of the fog, smothering Krokorok and muffling his terrified screams. "Oh God!" Yuna squealed as the tongue retreated into the fog, taking Krokorok with it.

Reshiram poked his claws together. "Hey guys? Maybe now's not a good time to bring this up, but in the spirit of honesty I feel I should tell you that one of my biggest fears back in my pre-Sage days was getting eaten by a bigger predator." He hesitantly shuffled back. "So, uh, I'm totally in favor of making a run for it before we figure out who or what that tongue belongs to."

More ripples spread through the fog. A massive, hippowdon foreleg slammed into the ground, shattering one of the ice patches. A krookodile head emerged from the fog as a second hippowdon foreleg struck the ground. Sand and ice particles poured off the nearby buildings. The monster crept forward. Its upper half was indeed hippowdon, but its lower half and hind legs clearly belonged to a luxray.

Hollow gray eyes glared down at Team Bastion. The hippowdown ports on its back spewed blue mist. It opened its mouth wide, letting its barbed tongue loll out while it roared.

Reshiram's tail dimmed. "Too late. Time to panic!"

"Nobody's… panicking here." Chiaki's voice trembled, though that was more from the cold than anything. "Two-thirds of this thing is weak to grass. Fire in the hole!" He spat a Bullet Stream seed forward. It struck squarely between the monster's eyes, but it didn't move a muscle. Instead, vessels bulged out on its eyes and krookodile head.

It shot its barbed tongue out. Screaming, Reshiram tackled everyone to the ground. Yuna couldn't even gasp. Reshiram's fur blanketed her before she got the chance.

"We've gotta get out of here." Reshiram flapped his wings once. "Ooh, but there's no way you guys can outrun something that big. What do we do? What do we do?"

The daemon reared its head back for another go with its tongue when a pink beam struck the right side of the hippowdon area. It roared its displeasure as it toppled over to its left, reducing a nearby house to rubble.

"What just happened?" Nikki stared at the dust rising from the rubble.

"There!" Reshiram pointed ahead with his right wing.

Standing atop the house opposite the one the monster fell on, a slowking in a tattered cloak waved its arms frantically.

"This way! We must get to the palace or Ahemait will devour us all!"

Team Bastion exchanged concerned looks. Was it really safe to trust a complete stranger? "It could be a trap," Cid whispered. "He lulls us into a false sense of security so he can kill us himself!"

The ground rumbled behind them. Ahemait's head popped out from the rubble, blinking rapidly.

Nikki's mohawk frazzled. "You've been watching too many horror flicks, Chrome Dome. Let's beat it before we get beaten!"

Yuna nodded, then flew off alongside Nikki and Reshiram. They got about a dozen meters before Chiaki cried, "Look out!"

The dreepy turned and saw a massive rubble slab careening right toward her. Screaming, she squeezed her eyes shut. A chill ran through her body, following by a rough, gritty sensation. Yuna opened her eyes as a heavy thud sounded behind her. She sighed in relief.

"Woah, did you just, like, turn invisible?" Nikki stopped in a gap between two houses.

Yuna looked behind her. A giant boulder sat in the splintered remains of a wooden door. "Yeah. I did."

"Compliment yourself later," Chiaki snarled, grabbing a gasping Yuna. "Like when we get away from this thing!"

He shot the Hooker up and it latched onto a roof. Chiaki dropped Yuna, who flew up while the grovyle brought Nikki up to the roof with him. Ahemait saw this, too, however, and already had another rubble slab in its gaping maw.

"Nice going, Twiggy! You made us sitting ducklett!"

A wall of sand grains and ice particles swept in front of the building. Reshiram flew in front of them, blue energy sparking around his mouth. A Dragon Pulse raced forward, striking the rubble and blowing it up in Ahemait's face.

"That'll do the trick! Now hustle your bustles!" With a flap of his wings, Reshiram headed for Slowking.

"He can't be serious with that phrasing." Nikki facepalmed, then ran across the roof.

Yuna took one look back and saw ice shards forming in the air around Ahemait. She shot after her teammates. "Wait for me!" The dreepy made out Slowking waving at them from a couple of buildings over. Fortunately, the gaps between houses were small enough for Chiaki and Nikki to get across without much issue.

"All right, bud, where's this so-called palace place?" Nikki sized Slowking up while he did the same to her.

"Well, we—" Slowking's crown pulsated pink. He looked up. His eyes widened in alarm. "Fire your strongest attacks up, now!" Psychic energy gathered at the front of his crown.

"Huh?" Yuna looked up to find a massive Icicle Crash spear forming over them. With no beam-based attacks at her disposal, the dreepy could do nothing but scream.


Vortex hated Citadark, even when he didn't have to set foot in the prison complex dripping with the stench of sweaty inmates. Its underground facility was cold and smelled of sterile metal. Glass panes surrounded the elevator platform to offer the charizard a dim view of the chasm-like maze of steel pipes crisscrossing through the underground facility.

He was a flier. Heights shouldn't have bothered him. But something about this descent always unsettled him. Perhaps his innate dislike of caves? Rocks didn't get along with charizard, after all.

Just keep Tessa focused and you can be out of here quickly, he told himself as the platform came to a stop. Circular steel doors slid open. A glass walkway extended out toward a metal platform with several monitors and control panels. Floor lights turned on with every few steps Vortex took.

"There he is! The 'mon of the hour! Can we give the Chancellor a welcoming ovation?"

Speakers crackled. An audience's applause buffeted Vortex's ear frills. He pinched his brow with two fingers. "Cut the theatrics, Tessa. You already know why I'm here."

The cheers abruptly turned to boos and hisses before the speakers shut off. Vortex stopped at the end of the glass walkway as a chair spun around. The boltund seated in it had an unreadable expression behind his red-tinted lab goggles.

"It's Doctor Tesla. Or Minister Tesla. Or Doctor Minister Tesla. I'm not picky." He grinned. "You could even try Minister Doctor Tesla. Nobody's used that one yet. You sell yourself as a trailblazer, right?" He flashed pearly white teeth. "Or was that a tail-blazer? No, that can't be right. You're usually the one getting his tail blazed. I think it was an incineroar last time, no?"

This was the other thing he hated about Citadark. Tesla was obnoxious. Yet Tesla was the only one in the kingdom who could put Vortex's ideas into practice. It didn't make the fact that he abused his position to do the most frustrating things any less annoying, though.

Vortex made a mental note to have Arianna sweep his Horizon Gardens home for one of Tesla's spying devices. He stomped his right leg down. "Status report. Now."

Tesla sighed. His chair rose into the air on three mechanical legs that wouldn't look out of place on a metagross. It stomped toward Vortex. He also noticed that strange stack of floating disks that always followed Tesla around. Heavens, how he hated that thing. Why did Tesla make it in the first place?

"The incubation chamber is finished," Tesla declared. "I started the ether infusion at 0700 this morning." A mechanical arm popped out of Tesla's metal backpack and pressed a few buttons on his chair. "I know you're the 'all business' type, so I'll let you see for yourself."

Giant lights switched on in sets of two, revealing a massive red orb suspended behind Tesla's control panel. Several large metal coils and wires were connected to it. Various screens showed numbers, lines of codes, and fluctuating bars and lines. Vortex couldn't make heads or tails of any of it. That was why he had people like Tesla working for him.

"I don't understand." Vortex was surprised, but in a good way. "When you gave me the information for Parliament, you estimated a four-week construction time for the incubation chamber. You haven't even had the funding for five days and—"

Tesla stiffly pivoted to his right while making little "zzt" noises. "With all the time Parliament spent bickering over funding allocation, subsequent prototype revisions enabled the genius Dr. Tesla to identify and systematically update bugs and errors in Icarus' design, allowing the final product to be completed ahead of and under chronologic and monetary estimates, respectively."

Vortex looked up at the boltund, blinking slowly. "What?"

Sighing, Tesla snapped his robot hand's fingers. "Zed!"

The floating discs twitched. "Dr. Tesla made design changes in the four months it took you to secure the funding." It paused. "Sir."

Vortex quirked a brow. "And you're sure this new design will work?"

"Yes, though I'm currently trying to determine the optimal ether infusion rate," Tesla replied. He pushed some buttons on the right armrest and small blue screens popped up from his goggles. "Once I have it, I can give you a precise timetable for when Icarus will be ready for our delightful diva to power it up."

It sounded too good to be true. "You didn't cut any corners?"

Tesla laughed, slapping a forepaw against his seat. "Aww, Vorty, that's so cute!" A second robot arm shot out from his backpack and pinched Vortex's cheek. The charizard slapped it away. "But I never cut corners." He shifted to sit sideways in the chair, making more noises. "We can't both be the smartest person in the room, you know. Otherwise, they'd have to change it to the 'smartest people in the room.' And that just doesn't have the same panache. You feel me?"

Silence. Tesla looked over at Zed. "What about you?"

Zed nodded, its bill flopping about. "Of course, sir."

Vortex had had enough Tesla for one day. "Do you have the footage for Parliament?"

Tesla's chair lowered to the ground. One of the robot arms retreated into his backpack and popped back out with a disk. "Here. This has everything you're looking for. We're talking high-quality, critic-wowing, Lemmy-award winning material here!"

Vortex swiped the disk. He pocketed it and turned back toward the glass walkway. "Oh, one more thing. I've learned that Seifer's been booted from the Radiant Guard." He considered not bringing it up after Tesla casually dropped that he was spying on Vortex again. But Tesla could further Polaris' standing with the info in ways Vortex couldn't. It was a business investment.


Vortex brushed the side of his tan blazer. "If, off the record, you wanted to use your extra Icarus funding to try and make some improvements to the Guard, I don't think you'd get any objections from your colleagues in Parliament."

He raised his right hand and lazily waved it. "Do take care, Tessa."

Vortex walked away, clasping the CD in his jacket pocket tight. The trip was worth the headache after all.


Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 17: Give Me Shelter

Come nightfall, some pokémon hit the pubs. Others curled up by the fire with a good book. A certain black-scaled charizard, however, had a different evening pastime: a glass of warm milk. Now made exponentially more effective thanks to the magical hot box machine.

Well, okay, technically it was called a microwave. But as far as Noctum was concerned, a tiny metal box that could spontaneously heat things up more evenly than his tail flame might as well have been magic.

So, the charizard lumbered down the narrow brick corridor in the servant's quarters in search of the kitchen, praying it didn't have other occupants. Every room in the brick building wasn't designed with larger pokémon in mind. Noctum never thought himself that big, but there were too many times where he had to slide into a doorway so someone else could walk past him in the corridor. Baraz had it worse, of course, thanks to his bulky hindquarters. After a few days, the dracozolt took to staying in their shared bedroom and asking Noctum to get him things. Thank God he could fit through the window.

As Noctum rounded a corner and passed by framed, black and white photos of the school's castle-like main building, he heard a hiss, followed by the sound of pottery shattering.

"You have got to be kidding me!"

Noctum didn't recognize the voice.

"You've got some nerve, backstabber! Waltzing in here to ask for my help." He sounded even more venomous with each passing word. Noctum realized he was yelling from the kitchen. "The only reason I'm stuck here is because of you. You hung me out to dry! Give me one good reason I shouldn't do the same to you!"

Noctum clutched his shoulder belt. Perhaps it was best to skip the warm milk.

"Artie, please—"

The charziard's tail crackled. That second voice was Seifer's!

"Don't 'Artie' me! I told you all I hadn't the foggiest idea my parents smuggled goods for the Ryujin," the first voice snarled. Curiosity got the better of Noctum. He crept forward, keeping his tail as far behind him as he could manage. The charizard approached anoter corner and poked his head out. Several meters down, he saw a sweaty Seifer on his knees, staring at the kitchen's rusted, white tile floor. A milotic loomed over him, red sclera burning with intensity that made Noctum reflexively glance at his tail flame.

"I begged you to trust me," Artie continued. "You were my sponsor. My teacher! And what did you do?"

Silence. The milotic jabbed Seifer's horn with his tail fins. "Speak, damn it!"

"I stayed silent," Seifer croaked.

"That's right." Artie's tail fins slapped the floor with an audible splat. "You kept your mouth shut and I got expelled two months before graduation. My Radiant Guard dreams burned to cinders! My parents hauled off to heaven knows where." The milotic turned his head. "I think Vortex only let me take this job because it gives him some perverse sense of glee seeing a milotic scrubbing dishes and living in some moldy servant shack."

Noctum winced. The servant's quarters weren't luxurious by any means, but he hesitated to call them moldy. Though on closer inspection, Artie's tan scales clearly had a layer of grime that subdued the sparkles Noctum would expect a milotic to have.

Seifer's face scrunched up. "I made a mistake."

"Yeah, well so did I." Artie took a ribbon and shoved Seifer aside. "And that mistake was believing a snob like you could ever care about someone like me."

"Artie, please." The keldeo got to his feet as Artie slithered around him. "I need your help. You're all I have!"

Artie stopped in the doorway. Noctum ducked his head back around the corner. "You should've thought about that before torching the bridge we had."


"Actions have consequences," Artie hissed. "As far as I'm concerned, someone's doing the kingdom a favor if they yanked that silver spoon out of your ass."

Noctum flinched. Seifer was hardly the friendliest to him or Yuna, but the charizard wasn't under the impression he was a bad person. Perhaps a bit stern and anchored in traditions, but there were worse folks out there. Like that druddigon pair who baited him into testing their bogus healing serum and then ditched him when he started puking up blood.

A red ribbon smacking the wall beside Noctum hurled him off of memory lane. He found Artie's red eyes narrowing at him. "And just what are you doing, hmm? Didn't realize eavesdropping was a custom in Aeon."

"Kitchen conversations aren't private," Noctum retorted. He subconsciously brought his tail flame closer to his rear.

The milotic rolled his eyes. "… sure. Whatever. Well, if you're looking for a good laugh, check out the dope in the kitchen. Not every day a Radiant Guard commander looks like he lost a fight with a blow-dryer."

Artie slithered off, leaving Noctum to mouth "blow-dryer" to himself in confusion. He sincerely hoped that wasn't some sort of adult instrument. Wait, what am I doing? It sounds like Seifer needs a hand. Noctum smacked his cheeks and walked around the corner. To his surprise, he found the haggard keldeo in the doorway.

"How much of that did you hear?" he asked.

Noctum tapped his claws nervously. "I, uh, think I came in around the part where he called you a backstabber." He might not have known Seifer well, but it was still odd to see the Keldeo without his navy and lavender uniform. And his mane was totally disheveled. "Um, if you don't mind my asking, what happened to you?"

Seifer glanced at the brick wall. "It's… nothing that concerns you."

"Right." His tail flame shrank. He wasn't Seifer's servant. There was no reason for Noctum to butt in if the keldeo didn't want him to. Still, he must have come here for a reason, right?

"It might not concern me, but you look like you need some help." Noctum offered a smile. "Yuna is over at the Crowne Court, so I have some spare time. You did help her with that Qliphoth stuff, so it's only right I should repay that."

Seifer frowned. "That was my job."

Noctum raised a brow. "Don't you mean it is your job?"

Seifer's horn sparked. His eyes darted back and forth. Noctum was on the right path. "And what happened to that uniform with all the shiny badges and ribbons on the sash?" The charizard tilted his head.

"Okay, fine." Seifer's shoulders sagged. "Her Eminence… dismissed me from my position."

Silence. Noctum looked down at his feet. "… oh." It was all he could manage. Still, the guy had to have family or something, right? Why come here? Noctum wanted to ask, but Seifer surprisingly beat him to the punch.

"I wasn't born yesterday. I can see that skeptical look in your eyes," the keldeo grumbled. "You're wondering why I'm here. Why I didn't go home to my family or a spouse."

Noctum nodded guiltily, checking his tail flame to see if it had given him away.

"My family… reputation is everything to them." Seifer turned away, looking ready to collapse onto his knees again. "They've served the Radiant Guard for generations. There hasn't been so much as a single write-up about any of them." He squeezed his eyes shut. "If I go home, they'll learn what happened. They'll disown me for sure."

That was unreasonably harsh! It took a lot of willpower for Noctum not to press the matter, as it was clearly a sore spot for Seifer. "What about going to a hotel or something?"

"I can't. Her Eminence froze my bank account," Seifer replied. "I don't carry money on me when I'm on duty." He slouched forward. His horn rested against the kitchen doorway's porcelain tiles. "I'm pretty much broke."

Noctum's temples throbbed. One moment, he was looking at Seifer. The next, he saw a small, black-scaled charmander standing by a dusty alleyway, looking up at a dumpster easily five times his size. His stomach knotted up.

No one deserves to be abandoned when they're in trouble.

The charizard hesitantly stepped forward. "Do you want to stay with me and Baraz?" He extended his right hand. "We don't exactly have a lot of space in our room, but we can use our blankets to make you a little nest on the floor." He grinned sheepishly. "Neither of us use ours because the room gets pretty warm when we're both in there."

Seifer didn't respond at first. The look on his face brought a wounded feral to mind. Noctum wanted to look away, but managed to hold eye contact. "You don't have to make up your mind right now. We're not going anywhere."

"Why?" the keldeo whispered. "We're not friends. We hardly know each other."

"That's true." Noctum scratched his chin. "I guess you could say that I know what it's like to feel like you have nowhere to go and no one to turn to." He slowly stretched his left wing out. "Bahamut taught that one should never turn away from a chance to extend the kindness they've been shown to others." Noctum draped his wing over Seifer's back. The keldeo flinched, then stared wide-eyed at Noctum.

"I— That— You—" Seifer's face reddened. He stood up straight and stepped out from under Noctum's wing. "… thank you."

A grin spread over Noctum's black-scaled snout. "Great! Say, how do you feel about a glass of warm milk?"

The disgust on Seifer's face was all the answer Noctum needed. His tail flame dimmed. "Ah, sorry. Forget I asked."


Bullet Seeds, electricity, and pink energy beams shot toward the massive icicle above Team Bastion. But Yuna knew the attacks were nowhere near enough to repel Ahemait's. She flew as fast as she could away from her teammates when a sudden, intense burst of heat sent her tumbling through the air. Yuna caught a brief glimpse of Reshiram hovering where the attack had been, blue eyes glowing and blue embers trailing around his tail engine.

"Wow. I didn't think… I still had that in me." Reshiram fanned himself with a wing.

Nikki smirked. "Nice to know your big mouth is good for more than just blowing hot air."

Yuna would've chastised the toxtricity, but the roof they stood on trembled. Ahemait's krookodile head appeared from the dusty air. It launched its tongue forward and latched onto Reshiram, who screamed and flailed about in a panic. In desperation, Yuna pressed her hands to her pendant and concentrated. Reshiram collapsed into streams of white and orange light that retreated into the Soul Dew.

Ahemait's tongue shot back into its mouth with an audible snap. Its hollow eyes squeezed shut.

"Quickly, this way!"

Slowking had jumped to another roof, which held a wooden raft with two propellers attached. With Ahemait momentarily distracted, Team Bastion made its way onto the raft. Nikki looked down at the gray wooden planks and the worn, frayed rope tying them together. "You sure this thing can carry us?"

"Positive." Slowking's crown sparked blue. The propellers coughed and sputtered to life. Yuna barely had enough time to grab the rope before the raft flew off the building roof.

"Gah!" Chiaki dug his hook into the wood to keep from getting launched off the raft. Behind him, Icicle Spears threatened to bombard the raft and blow it out of the dusty air. With his tiny, chitinous feet wedged under the rope, Cid threw his hands up. A blue barrier materialized, but promptly shattered under the assault.

Fortunately, it bought the raft enough time. As it dropped toward a sandy road, the remaining Icicle Spears whizzed harmlessly overhead and struck the pointed glass dome of a tan, square building supported by white columns. Shattering glass filled Yuna's ear frills. As the air raft rounded a bend to approach the building in question, however, purple distortion rippled through the building. The glass pieces hovered back into place. Within seconds, the dome looked good as new, save for a layer of frost mixed with sand.

Nikki blinked. "Did… did you guys see that?" She leaned over to wave a hand in front of Slowking's face. "Yo, Cloaky. Do your buildings usually fix themselves?"

Slowking kept a straight face, focused on steering the raft along the dusty road. "Everything has fixed itself for as long as our city has been blanketed by night."

"Oh, great. We found a planet that waxes poetic." The toxtricity scowled. "Can I get this semester's language arts credit from this?"

The raft whizzed by buildings that were mostly tan and white. The majority were squares or rectangles, but a few in the distance had prominent, pointed domes like the one from earlier. Yuna caught glimpses of flashy colors like gold and silver. But they were mostly obscured by ice and sand.

"You and your fluffy friend are not from here." Slowking sounded confident. Yuna wondered whether to be honest or try to play it off, but Chiaki made that decision for her.

"You're not surprised."

Slowking nodded. "It seems we have much to discuss."

Nikki groaned. "Oh, goody. Because a lecture is what I really wanted when I agreed to thi— ow!"

Chiaki recalled the Hooker, snorting. Yuna sighed and tightened her grip on the rope. She wanted to check on Reshiram, but was too focused on not getting left behind by the raft.


"What the hell is that giant thing?"

Nikki pointed to a massive bedrock plateau that stood a couple of hundred meters from where Slowking had stopped his air raft. The top layer of the plateau had clearly been carved. Yuna thought she saw a turtanator's face; she recognized the zigzagging snout.

"It is the Aquardian Sphinx." Slowking gestured for Team Bastion to follow him. "My ancestor of generations past led its construction. It pays tribute to the founder of our nation."

"Nation?" Nikki scratched her head. "Isn't this—"

Chiaki cupped Nikki's mouth with his good hand, cutting her off. "What my smart-mouthed friend meant to ask was what you mean by your nation's founder."

Nikki wriggled free from Chiaki. "Ooh-la-la, so I'm on the friend's list now, am I?" She wiggled her brows and grinned cheekily. "And I didn't even have to buy you a coffee."

Chiaki shoved Nikki's head down. "… tch. I don't drink coffee."

"Guys? Can we, y'know, be polite to the person who saved our scales?" Yuna gestured in Slowking's direction. There was also the fact that they were total strangers to this place. But Yuna was also a stranger to Radiance, so it was probably easier for her to think that way.

"It's not a problem." Slowking reached up and lowered the hood of his tattered purple cloak. He turned to showcase a gold gemstone in the middle of his crown. "I am Razim, the king of Aquardah." He pointed up to the Sphinx's mighty, rocky head. "That is my ancestor, Turtankhamun."

Nikki sniggered. "Bless you."

"Is that really his name?" Yuna looked between Razim and the Sphinx.

Razim chuckled. "Of course not. His name was Khamun. We just combined it with the species name." He paused. "Well, I didn't do that. That would be another of my ancestors. I hear she was bad with names."

"Fascinating." Cid stroked his chitinous chin. "It's quite an architectural sight. How was it constructed?"

Yuna thought she saw sparkles in Cid's eyes. He might not have been regretting the decision to come after all. But the last thing she wanted was tangents. They were on a timetable. "Err, sorry. Could you give us the brief version about this city?"

"Yes, but we should keep moving to the palace."

Team Bastion followed Razim past the Sphinx. Past smooth rock ledges sloping down toward ground level. Like everything else, patches of ice coated the rock. A few ice shards jutted out from them. Chiaki rubbed his good hand against his hook and blew into it.

"I don't suppose this palace of yours has any heat, does it?"

"It is warmer in there." Razim quickened his pace. Yuna was surprised a slowking could move that quickly. Perhaps the naming convention was a stereotype?

Not far from the back of the Sphinx sat what Yuna assumed was the palace. There were remnants of a stone wall. Ice balls replaced the majority of it. A few hundred meters behind the crumbling wall was a large square building. Yuna wasn't sure if it was naturally tan or its original colors had faded in the face of sandstorms. Like some of the other buildings, there were multiple golden domes atop the building, each topped with needle-like points.

The closer the team got, however, the clearer it was that things were off. Sheets of metal sat over large segments of the front wall. Ends of giant metal bolts jutted out like the warts on a seismitoad's body. The palace door was also missing, replaced by giant metal slabs with interlocking steel beams along the edges.

Reshiram's presence finally stirred in the back of Yuna's head. "Ugh. I get storm shelter vibes from this."

Yuna couldn't say it was unfamiliar. Aeon had similar structures, only using lava-retardant shielding instead of metal. And it was volcanic eruptions that worried them, not storms. Not that they didn't have an abundance of those, too.

"Jeez. Some home environment you live in."

We make do,
Yuna replied. In front of her, the metal slabs sank into the ground. Grating screeches made her gills shrivel.

"I apologize for the noise. Though the buildings repair themselves, our barricades were rusted from the start." Razim stepped forward and raised his right hand. "En sabah Khamun."

Yuna glanced at her teammates, but only got shrugs in response. "Don't you think it strange that we could understand him perfectly before he said that?" Reshiram asked. "I think it's strange. If this is meant to be another planet, we shouldn't understand him at all, right? Unless Bahamut taught language based on this planet, but the odds of that seem ridiculously tiny. Like, a joltik compared to my size levels of tiny."

Honestly, I'm chalking it up to Qliphoth strangeness,
Yuna said. Besides, they had seen far weirder things. This subject was tame by comparison.

"Come, guests." Razim waved the team after him. Team Bastion walked through the opening. No sooner did they finish entering than the metal slabs rose out from the ground once again. Huge iron bars crisscrossed over them.

For a few seconds, the room was pitch black. Then a half dozen orange torches flared to life, revealing a large room that stretched several hundred meters back. The floor was marble, but scuffed enough to look like the sand mounds Team Bastion just left behind. There were scattered patchwork carpets and blankets housing various fire, ground, and water-types. Many were huddled around clay plates and trays with… well, Yuna honestly wasn't sure if she could call what they had food.

There were loafs of bread and piles of mush that lacked any distinct colors. She sniffed the air, and smelled nothing but aged stone. Her gut squirmed.

"Another crop of lost souls, my king?" A lombre approached the slowking. His lily pad headpiece had multiple holes in it, like a leaf nibbled away by a tiny caterpie.

"I'm afraid so, Faisal." Razim bowed his head. "And please, you know I'd rather be called Razim."

The lombre nodded. "Right. And what of our own people?"

Razim glanced around the room until he spotted a krokorok wrapped in a tattered purple blanket. A sandile sat on either side of her. Faisal looked between the family and Razim. "You found Ahmad?"

Razim bowed his head once again. "For a few fleeting moments, before Ahemait took him. That is when I stumbled across these lost souls." He gestured to Team Bastion.

The color drained from Faisal's face. "I see." He slowly turned around to look at Krokorok and her children.

"I suppose I should tell her," Razim said. Faisal stuck an arm out.

"Do not burden yourself, my ki— err, friend. I shall break the bad news." The lombre brushed some sand of his head and walked toward the family. Razim turned his attention back to Team Bastion.

"I'm sure you want answers," the slowking said, his crown's golden gem glinting from the torch light. "There are others who have come before you. Showed up in our nation with no explanation how they ended up here. Utterly confused. We have taken them in, however…" His voice trailed off. He looked toward the room's back right corner. A dusty red curtain obscured most of a doorway Yuna assumed led deeper into the palace.

"Lemme guess. That big, freaky jigsaw puzzle took 'em all?" Nikki quirked a brow, then rolled her eyes when Razim nodded. "Delightful."

Suddenly, the krokorok Razim was talking about wailed. She threw herself onto Faisal, knocking the lombre flat on his back in the process. Her sandile children looked similarly tearful.

"Has that thing always been terrorizing the place?" Chiaki had turned away from the scene. He was staring at one of the metal patches overlying the wall, trying to ignore any onlookers. The grovyle was clearly trying to hide his fake arm. His expression remained unreadable, however.

Do you think we ought to tell him about the Needle? Yuna wondered. Maybe he'll be more cooperative.

"I wish it were that easy. But we don't even know if these people realize they're actually dead,"
Reshiram replied. "Creepy, isn't it? You guys are very much alive, but you're walking amongst people who had their homes and souls taken by Eternatus."

Wouldn't that technically make them alive?
Yuna countered.

Reshiram sighed. "I wish. Bahamut told us those who are absorbed by Eternatus can never leave the Qliphoth. An otherworldly force will always pull them back in."

Yuna blinked. Then why have we been able to move back and forth between Etherium and the Qliphoth? And how could I take you with me?

"Look alive, Yuna."

Yuna snapped to attention and saw her teammates halfway across the room. "Sorry!" She hastily floated after them. By the time she caught up, they stood on one side of a long table. Razim was opposite them, pointing to the leftmost side of a scroll he had rolled out. There was a watercolor drawing of rich, grassy fields and glimmering lakes.

"The planet wasn't always like this." The slowking moved his claw to a drawing filled with brown swirls. Twisters, from Yuna's perspective. "About three centuries before I became king, dust storms ravaged the planet. They were ruthless. Crops were wiped out. Water sources dried up. The landscape changed into harsh desert in a matter of moons."

Razim's thumb tapped a drawing of a turtanator with a golden outline around him. "Khamun united the fires, waters, and grounds who had segregated themselves in a blind panic during the onset of the storms. Together, they combined their abilities to construct a special barrier that kept the sandstorm at bay."

He walked his claw and thumb across the scroll, settling on scribbles of thatched huts and tents made from cloth. "Under Khamun's guidance, they built a new community."

"The beginnings of Aquardah." Cid bobbed his bulbous head. "I see. And in the years that followed, your nation grew quite a bit."

"Correct." Razim managed a fleeting smile, which faded when he looked to his left. Yuna followed his gaze and immediately tensed.

Four golden wings. Two crystal legs. A star-shaped, seven-pointed head with multicolored, mismatched eyes. And a crystal chassis with three prominent spikes. She'd seen countless pictures of this. But there were always soft, angelic blue hues surrounding it. Here… black and purple brushstrokes spread out from the painting. Tendrils?

I don't understand. Yuna blinked hard. The painting was still there. She wasn't imagining it. That's… Bahamut? Was this one of the planets he had visited before creating Etherium?

"What's this thing?" Nikki pointed at Bahamut's drawing. Yuna tensed again when Razim's expression darkened.

"… that is Isfet, the bringer of chaos. And the reason why our city is stuck like this."

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Heya, been dragging my feet a while on jumping in on Path of Valor but figured that with how interested you are in getting people to give it a shot and me needing to crank out a couple more reviews prior to this Friday for an offsite challenge, that I'd take the chance to take the plunge to shake things up and leave my impressions and customary banter in the style that comes most naturally to me.

So with that, let's get right into things:


"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.

Shiva: "... Also, how are we supposed to be envisioning these outfits anyways given that we're birds?"
Quetzal: "I hope that it's something less embarrassing than the outfits from Pretty Coore." >v>

Shiva: "... Um. Yeah, that's not a high bar to cross there."

"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 was glaring 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."

At first I was going to ask since when was 'Quetzal' ever a FF summon given the presence of Ifrit and Shiva, but a quick Google evidences 'as of FF8' at the very least. More of a Ramuh guy myself (and clearly I need to play more games from this series).

Ifrit: "That needle's bigger than we are. What's there to worry about here?"
Shiva: "Just saying, there's another story out there with needles stuck in the ground that aren't supposed to get yanked. The world ended when they got pulled in that one." >v>

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 fizzled 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.

Ifrit: "Meh, soda's overrated. Now sambuca, that'll really put the fire in your belly."
Shiva: "Ifrit, some of us don't have natural fire that can benefit from drinking flammable beverages here!" >v>;

"Except we're not the only ranking guards 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."

Oh yeah, that's totally not sus at all.

"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.

Ifrit: "A 'rag-covered, helmet-wearing mishmash of a homeless mutt'? I think I heard of this guy once, it's 'Nero' right?"
Quetzal: "I think you're mixing your stories up there, Ifrit." -v-;
Douglas: "Well, I remember there was a 'ro' in it, but I'll refrain from speculation since I'm pretty sure that's a spoiler."

"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.

>the Moltres of this setting is a raging typeist
What could possibly go wrong there?

"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. "Sorry."

"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 struggle to 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—"

I see "never cut a deal with a dragon" also applies in Etherium. Though I'm a bit curious as to what dragons in this setting did (or at least are believed to have done) to draw out such a venomous reaction.

Ifrit: "Well let's see here, they're big scaly magpies that steal stuff they consider treasures and set things on fire on a whim. Even before any past history, that alone is reason to not want to have to deal with them!" >v>;
Quetzal: "Really putting forward an endearing first impression, aren't you, Ifrit?" -v-;

"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.

Shiva: "... As in a Phantom Thief? Since I'm pretty sure that we can take-"

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 got 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.

Shiva: "... Oh. Eep. Yeah, th-that looks a bit harder to deal with." ovo;

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

Shiva: "Wait, Phantoms can't use what now? Quetzal, is this some sort of FF8 thing?"
Quetzal: "I dunno, but the point is that this is really, really bad here!"
Shiva: "I know that we're currently getting wrecked by this Phantom right about now, but it stills feel like we could've used more of an explanation or a hint there!"

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.

Quetzal: "... Ow. Though wait a minute, how could you tell your wings were broken or feel the specific number of ribs you had broken in the middle of this sort of agony?"
- Your Shiva is too busy sobbing right now, please take a number -
Quetzal: "... Right, wrong time for this sort of question."

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…"

>popping a Weezing and smearing it across the ground
Surprised that Shiva's keeping her lunch down right about there.

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 given you real power." The Phantom's mask pivoted in Quetzal's direction. "Do you not appreciate my gift?"

Quetzal: "You turned me into a monocephalic Doduo with a party mask! Why the hell would I appreciate this?!" >v>
Phantom: "Because you're still alive right now? Also, you're updated for Generation 8. Gotta stay current with the games, you know."

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 whole.

How should I be envisioning the bit in bold there? Since it's admittedly a bit hazy on description while this feels like it's something important plot-wise.

Phantom: "Again, still alive. Maybe. Probably."

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. An outline of a bookshelf slowly formed. Pristine, unopened schoolbooks sat next to worn pieces of fiction Yuna had brought from home.

Insert appropriate cover of Suteki da ne [here].

So should I imagine this Yuna as more of a fan of LOVELESS or I Want to be Your Canary? Since I don't think Al Bhed primers count as fiction if they even exist in Etherium.

Besides, who wants to saddle up to a dragon in a school 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 ha[d] no friends.

Minor tense error there. And might I suggest befriending other 'mons that'd have an axe to grind against fairies like Fighting and Psychic-Types, Yuna? Though I'm going to die of laughter if there's a Wakka prowling around the school who has the object of his prejudices remapped to match how things work in this setting.

"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: "... Wait, do Duraludon even have horns? How on earth did that family creed survive the species jump for dad?"
- Yuna sinks into bed and pouts -
Yuna: "I always liked the family creed that one Kommo-o lawyer in the royal court had. It always felt so uplifting... even if it'd probably be a fast way to die horribly in this world if you acted on it."

The good part about being a ghost was having night-vision. All she had to do was concentrate enough. Head throbbing, 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."

Ah yes, praying to her Guiding Light, very cute. Though from what I've seen of Bahamut in BLC2 on Thousand Roads, I strongly suspect Yuna would be very, very disappointed were he around to react to that plea.

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 [went]. 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.
Minor tense error there, since "goes" is not past tense while the rest of the paragraph is.

>how to miss an entire day's worth of classes with one easy trick
Sure hope that thing wears off relatively quickly, or else Baraz and Noctum are good about waking her up in the morning. o3o;

Chapter 1

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."

Lol, I just knew that was going to come back to bite her.

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.

Yeah, being two separate halves of two different Pokémon tends to draw that sort of reaction. Though how do Galarian fossils work in Etherium anyways?

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?"

1 attendant reveal down, 1 to go. Well, I know who Noctum is anyways since I've long been spoiled, but still.

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."


Mega doubt there considering what we've seen of this kingdom thus far.

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!"

Yuna: "... That sounds more like the name of a cook or something." :|
Nickit: "Assuming you're thinking of who I think you are, wouldn't that be the Sable Zephyr? And I'm pretty sure he's just a fairy tale or the like in this world anyways."

"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 widened 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.

Lol, Carpaccio's really living up to the 'Zephyr' in his pseudonym. Also getting some Popple and Rookie vibes here.
Yuna: "... Wait, are Dragon-types really normally janitors in this realm? How on earth is that a remotely sustainable livelihood considering how much a fully evolved one needs to eat?"

"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 gasped. Without thinking, she shot toward Rookie with a burst of speed. But the large size different resulted in her getting flattened and 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.

Baraz: "Does a 'master thief' also fail this hard at dealing with a simple T-Wave?" :|
Carpaccio: "Sh-Shut up, you're just bigger and can throw more weight around."

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.

Yuna: "(That was a bit more than a T-Wave there...) Baraz, this is a school, not a police station!"
Baraz: "Well, still. It's a sign that you're looking out for the interest of the school at large, isn't it?"
Yuna: "Somehow I doubt things are going to shake out that way." -_-;

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, 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.

Yuna: "I'm starting to think that I should phase through the floor right about now." ._.;
Baraz: "Nonsense, Princess Yuna! You've drawn everyone's attention! Now all that's left is to bask in their adulation!"

"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."

Oh yeah, this is gonna be a fun school year.

- Yuna is busy sinking towards the floor and trying her hardest to disappear right about now -
Baraz: "Uh... well, I certainly didn't expect that reaction." ._.

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?

Huh, wasn't expecting both kingdoms to have Charizard, but that's certainly an interesting contrast there.

"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 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.

Oh hey, whaling on Carpaccio and Rookie wasn't a total waste of time and energy after all... even if Baraz had to fudge the deets a bit.

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."

Yuna: "... Wait a minute, how on earth does a Charizard fit into a suit jacket? With wings?"
Vortex: "It's a specially designed suit jacket."

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.

>stuck-up blue-blooded Ponyta has joined the chat
Oh hey, I've seen this movie before. Granted, it had a bit less blatant prejudice to other Pokémon involved. Probably. Will be interesting to see how this noble pony ticks when we see more of him.

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.

Yuna: "Why is this part of a school curriculum?" >_>;
Baraz: "We are Pokémon, Your Highness. Knowledge doesn't do you any good if you lack the strength to action on it. (Also, the writer of these gags would know a thing or two about writing Pokémon schools with tournaments for their upperclassmons, so it wouldn't do too good to throw too many stones at the idea.)"

"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 belt.

Yuna: "Uh... is that temporary detention? Or is this school authorized to make summary arrests?"

Baraz: "... I don't know, but I sincerely doubt you'll ever wind up in a circumstance where we'd need to find that out. Why it'd cause a diplomatic incident!"

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."

Probably a good thing that this blue-blooded Ponyta is separated by an entire universe from the one that I was thinking of. I could almost hear the audible, seething jealousy playing in my head. :V

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.

Yuna: "I dunno why part of me was expecting that Toxtricity to have an axe on her, but I'd really rather not stick around to find out, Baraz."

Baraz: "(Is it truly that transparent of a reference?) Er... fair enough, and pretty sure there's a new scene of the story inbound."

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."

Oh lol, well, you can't say that Noctum isn't endearing from a first impression. Though I have to wonder how on earth Yuna's dad picked him and Baraz to be the representatives of his kingdom.

"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."

Yuna: "A-Am I allowed to have someone come in and fight in my stead, Noctum? It doesn't even have to be for very long! Just a couple of turns to soften my foes up!"

Noctum: "Sorry, Princess Yuna. Rules are rules. Besides, it's not as if you can just casually summon and dismiss others to come to your aid."
- Beat moment -
Noctum: "Well, not in this story anyways."

"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.

>smiling at a monkey to try and show your peaceful intentions
That's a terrible idea even without a mouth full of razor teeth in reality since they interpret that as a sign of aggression.

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."

Probably would've merited bringing up the style of the wagon and Noctum pulling it in the initial mention, since my initial read until this point was that Noctum and Yuna were accompanying a wagon being pulled by someone else instead of Noctum himself tugging it along.

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."

Hope you're good with your teeth, Yuna. Or else good at pressing things between your nub-hands.

"You smell of ether. But Natus' love can absolve you of such sin!"

Yuna: "Wait a minute, 'ether'? Isn't that just the name that 'magic' gets in Xeno games-?"

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.

"This isn't helping you. You're only piling on more sins to weigh down your soul," the beast hissed. "You work for the school. You are a slave to the ether! And I, Xeromus, must guide those awash in its sin to Natus' eternal love."

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

Oh, hello Mr. Rag-Covered, Helmet-Wearing Mishmash of a Homeless Mutt. """Pleasure""" to meet you too.

Yuna: "Er... eep. What a time for Noctum to ditch me here. Isn't he supposed to be my attendant as a Princess and not leave me on my own for moments like this?!" >_>;

"I… I only 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. Truly! I've only received one pay check and my savings are tied up in loan repayments!" 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! Even a lowly omen like me can tell."

Yuna: "... This looks more like an active robbery than help, just saying." ._.;

"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 a worthless nobody." Xeromus smacked a foreleg on the ground. "But even someone worthless can serve a purpose." Loud snorts rang out across the street. "And you… you smell of Natus, whoever you are! Are you enlightened? Has His love blanketed you as it has me?"

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 nobody, huh?"

Yuna: "Also, I know that the story didn't explicitly depict me taking a bath, but I didn't think that I smelled that bad right now." >.<
Xeromus: "Oh hardly, that's the smell of Natus' love!"
Yuna: "Gods, can you get any creepier right now?"

"As worthless and expendable as the garbage in your sewers." Xeromus chuckled. His sign clanked against the base of his helmet.

"What kind of person calls themselves garbage?" 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 aren't binary. Worth and purpose are not black and white. They form 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.

Yuna: "A-Apparently you can. N-Noctum?! Coming back right about now would be nice!"
- Cue Noctum perusing some bookshelves in the distant background blissfully unaware -
Noctum: "Oh hey, they have an illustrated copy of I Want to be Your Canary! I always loved that story!"
Yuna: "Noctum! For gods' sakes, come help me here!"

"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.

Noctum: "('Ether-users'? As in 'magic users' from games like Xenogears and Xenoblade? Just how many different works are we referencing in this story?) And... uh... Sorry to keep you waiting, Princess. I didn't realize you were in so much trouble. Let's not mention any of this to your father, alright?" ._.
Yuna: "Look, just get this reeking... thing away from me first before we worry about that!"

"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 will. Your purpose!" Xeromus held his head high. "Stand aside. I must see to it that this 'mon is—"

Yuna: "I'm doing what now? I thought that I just no-sold an attack thanks to my typing." ._.;

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. I'm terribly sorry."

"It's fine, Noctum." Yuna waved him off. "Neither of us could've expected something like that."

Yuna: "I mean, I should probably be more upset with you and not let you off this easy right about now. But all's well that ends well, also it is pretty hard to stay mad at you."
Noctum: "Aw shucks." ^^

"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."

"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."

>Etherium's Cid is an airship himself
I mean, I was gonna rag on him for not getting more done with his hands, but that visual pun is pretty good.

"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 up close 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 period 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.

Yuna: "Heh. Things are finally going my way for once today!" ^^

"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.

Noctum: "Kinda jinxed yourself there, Princess."
Yuna: "Bahamut's light, what did I ever do to deserve this?" >_<

Well, it's certainly a reference-heavy story, but I'd be lying if I say I didn't enjoy it given the unholy hour I stayed up until to write this review, and your story seems to still be cobbling out a solid identity for itself in spite of the very obvious sources of inspiration littered throughout. I'll be looking forward to reading and commenting more on this story in the future.


Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 18: The Devil in the Details

Yuna couldn't take her eyes off Bahamut's picture. It didn't make sense. Either there were other light dragons roaming around the cosmos with much more malicious attitudes or… or…

No. That had to be it. Bahamut was the Luminous Creator! He preached cooperation and working to overcome the challenges of nature. He wasn't some chaos-bringer.

"What exactly happened?" Cid asked, scrutinizing the painting.

Razim put his right hand on the bottom ridge of his crown. "It happened not long after I ascended to the throne. We had just finished mourning the passing of my father when Isfet fell from the heavens. He wiped out Aquardah's shield." The slowking pointed to his left. Crude drawings of buildings were covered by thin swathes of brown. Sandstorms, if Yuna had to guess.

"My gut instinct was to repair the shield, but I didn't feel my people were safe with Isfet on the planet," Razim continued. "So, we rallied together and attacked Isfet. Though it was large and its aura undoubtedly powerful, our attacks clearly upset it." He pointed to one of the metal sheets stuck over the wall behind him. "The reason the palace is in such a decrepit state is because Isfet attacked it in retaliation. Despite this, we held tough and drove the monster from our home."

Yuna swallowed hard. Yeah, that definitely wasn't Bahamut. He wouldn't attack people unless they were bringing harm to others. And Razim didn't seem like a bad guy.

"Unless this is all an elaborate ploy and he's actually in league with that Ahemait thingy," Reshiram squeaked.

Seriously? That's what you're responding to? Yuna tried to keep her expression neutral. What about this Isfet business? Did Bahamut ever mention having a sibling or something?

"… no."
And Reshiram's presence hastily retreated from Yuna's mind before she could press further. She steadied herself with a deep breath.

No, this is a coincidence, that's all. The Qliphoth is messing with me.

"So, what? Glowstick Dragon fled the planet and you couldn't fix your shield?" Nikki scratched her head. "Or did something else happen?" She pointed to a familiar circle with five diamonds around it. Eternatus' sigil.

Razim shuddered. "We were trying to begin the repair process when that symbol appeared in the sky." The slowking looked at the ceiling. "Next thing anyone knew, night had fallen over our city. We waited for dawn to come, but it never did. Though sandstorms continued to ravage our buildings, the worst damage would always get repaired.

"We believe Isfet cast a stasis curse upon our nation." Razim balled his hands into fists. "And now he has summoned Ahemait to bring death to us all."

That sealed it, then. The Aquardians had no idea they were already dead. Heck, they didn't know a thing about the Qliphoth beyond temporal stasis, either. Unless Razim was tricking Team Bastion.

No, Yuna told herself. Don't let Reshiram get to you.

"Whoa, whoa. Time out." Nikki held up her hands in a T shape. "You really mean to tell me that freak popped up out of thin air with no rhyme or reason?"

Razim flicked a glowing hand. His scroll rolled itself up and hovered back to lie against a worn cushion. "Not exactly." He met Nikki's gaze. "Though, if I may ask, what is with the interest in Ahemait? All the other lost souls only cared about figuring out to return home." The slowking looked between Team Bastion's members. "Yet none of you have brought that subject up. You all are taking this in stride."

Arms crossed, Chiaki pivoted to his right. "Astute observation."

"One does not earn his people's trust without some wit and cunning." Razim tapped the brim of his crown. "I would like to think I've been quite forthcoming. I do not think it too much to ask you to return the favor."

Yuna reflexively gulped. That was much easier said than done. Ordinarily, she'd have no problem spilling the beans. But how could she look Razim in the eyes and tell him that he and his people were dead? She couldn't bear that burden. There were at least a dozen responses she imagined. None of them were pretty.

"We've been hunting the beast you call Isfet and the daemons it summons," Chiaki said. The Hooker sparked with a bit of napalm. "Chasing it across worlds left in similar states to yours." He raised his hook. Orange flames washed over it. "Now that we know this Ahemait thing is after your people, we intend to get rid of it."

Yuna struggled to keep a straight face. Chiaki was lying so effortlessly, the dreepy would've easily fallen for the ruse if she didn't know any better.

"I see." Razim stroked his chin. "I suppose that would explain some of your… unusual powers." He pointed to Chiaki's prosthetic, then Yuna's pendant. "You are… the first outsiders to want to intervene. Some of my own people have looked to put a stop to Ahemait. All have met with failure."

The slowking turned toward the red curtain that Yuna recalled was hiding a doorway. "Come." He beckoned Team Bastion after him. The curtain swished aside following a flicker of Razim's glowing hand. They walked through a stone corridor. At one point, it must've been open to the outside, as metal sheets boxed the team in from every side.

"Although my people have fallen in battle, there were some who managed to stumble on an unexpected discovery." Razim led them to the end of the metal corridor and made an abrupt right at a square room littered with torn edges of what was once silk cloth and tapestry. There were open chests stacked against the far wall. Yuna's parents had similar ones for storing gems and other treasures. What had happened to Razim's?

The slowking guided Team Bastion up a cramped spiral staircase until they reached a circular room. It was encased by a glass dome from what Yuna could tell, but someone had painted over almost all of it with thick black paint. An attempt to convince someone on the outside it was actually metal?

There was, however, a single peephole through the paint. It was here that a small silver telescope stood. Razim approached it. "Here, have a look."

Yuna leaned forward. She expected a limited view due to the persistent sandstorm. What she found instead was an eerily smooth road rising into the air and weaving its way around an upside-down pyramid floating high above a massive sinkhole. A sinkhole that wasn't covered in ice, yet still appeared to be frozen.

"What the—" The dreepy backed away and gestured for her teammates to have a look. "Was that always there?"

"The pyramid was." Razim studied Cid's awkward attempts at trying to use the telescope with his massive orbeetle head. "It is the burial ground of the royal family, the Tomb of Turtankhamun."

Snickers broke out from behind Yuna. Chiaki elbowed Nikki. "What?" The toxtricity rubbed her side. "That sounds like something straight out of one of them Indeedee Jones movies."

"Frighteningly remarkable," Cid whispered, hovering back from the telescope. "That ice road doesn't look natural. Yet it's not connected to the floating pyramid. Is it exerting some sort of electromagnetic field to levitate the structure? Curious…"

"This ain't a science fair, Chrome Dome," Nikki scoffed. He pushed the orbeetle aside. "Lemme have a lo— what the actual hell?" She stumbled back. "That ain't even remotely normal."

Razim cleared his throat. "If you had let me finish, I would've gotten to that." The slowking frowned. "Ahemait appeared following a tremendous series of tremors that rocked our nation. Tremors whose damage was completely reversed, perhaps by Isfet's curse." He leaned against a rusted railing behind the telescope. "We noticed the tomb suspended in midair. Isfet must've disturbed it and the result is Ahemait unleashed to bring forth the wrath of my ancestors."

Cid raised a chitinous brow. "Hold on… by that logic, the way to stop Ahemait isn't through facing it directly, but by solving the mystery of the floating tomb."

Reshiram's presence finally stirred again in Yuna's head. She wanted to press him on the whole Bahamut-Isfet matter, but merely thinking that made him recede. Yuna sighed. What? What are you going to say?

There was silence, then a squeaky whimper of an answer. "The way the pyramid is floating. It reminds me of Ray using his wind powers to lift things up."

Then could that be where the Needle is?

"That's my guess."

Yuna frowned. Yeah, but in order to free you, we had to fight off a daemon. So, if the floating tomb is really related to Ahemait, it's also possible we do need to defeat it to find the Needle. The dreepy looked at Cid. She had to speak up.

Before she could say anything, however, Chiaki interjected. "I agree. We need to go to the tomb."

Yuna searched his face but his expression was stoic. Did he agree with Cid… or did he have the same idea as Reshiram?

Razim sighed. "I admire the dedication, but that is not such an easy feat. We have tried, but Ahemait always appears to intercept."

Nikki scratched the base of her mohawk. "Well, what if we used that raft thingy?"

Razim's eyes widened. "I… never considered that. The wind surfer cannot really fly, merely hover off the ground. I thought the ice's frigid air would make it too difficult to control."

Nikki snorted. "Well, if you can't get there on foot, then it's time to try. What have we got to lose?"

"Our lives, for starters." Cid waved his tiny hands around. "That's far too reckless. We barely avoided Ahemait on that thing last time. We might be able to handle falling off the road, but we can't do that and ward the daemon off."

"We have a faster wind surfer," Razim said. "It sacrifices control for speed."

Grinning, Nikki rubbed her hands together. "Now we're talking. Let's hit the road! Or the sand. Whatever floats your wind surfer."

Yuna had a very bad feeling about this.

"Good, then it's not just me."


The Phantom Fraud stood against one of the broken, moss-covered pillars in Despair's isolated hovel, staring at a pile of purple crystals pulsating with ominous black and red energy. "Remind me, sir. Exactly what am I looking at?"

A sigh. With his mask back, Despair's body was predominantly ethereal once again. Meaning he could conjure a spectral hand to rest the bulk of his shadows against. How obnoxious. If he'd taken Fraud's will like he did with the birds, he wouldn't have to bother with such tedious explanations.

"Malice Crystals," he said.

Fraud looked at him and made circular motions with his free hand. Despair sighed again. "They are concentrated deposits of the Qliphoth's energy."

"Of Eterna energy?"

Despair waved dismissively. "Same difference."

"Why do you have them?"

"To pass this corrosive energy onto the people who took what is rightfully mine." The gemstone eyes blazed in Despair's mask.

"The Needle? Does that really matter, though?" Fraud rested his cane on the ground and conjured a playing card in his right hand. "If there's an extra soul undoing the seals, then it gets you to your goal twice as fast." The card suddenly became two, which telekinetically revolved around his hand until a black beam vaporized them both.

"Be silent." Dark wisps evaporated from Despair's mask. "The seals are mine. That energy is mine. Their power… is… mine." More wraith arms spawned from his miasma. He didn't care. Because Fraud would never understand.

He needed that power. To dull the pain. To feel whole again— no, to feel something other than emptiness.

Despair sank back against his makeshift throne. "If you really believe there is someone residing at that blasted school who can undo the seals, then it is only fair I hurt them as they have hurt me. No one within those pathetic walls understands real power. They do not deserve it."

Not after what I had to give up.

Chuckling, Fraud shook his head. "We already tried to make a statement there. It didn't amount to much."

One of Despair's hands snapped its fingers. "That's because… we weren't putting our backs into it."

The zapdos he had corrupted stepped forward. Orange sparks danced across his muscular legs. "Take two Malice Crystals and force them onto whatever students you come across," Despair ordered. "Let them see just how badly their worthless leaders are out of their depth."

Blue light flared in Despair's hands. A blue and white, checkerboard portal opened behind Quetzal— no, the Phantom Wrath. Fraud strapped two of the dark crystals to his back and he trotted into the wormhole without a second thought.


Things proceeded in complete silence after Noctum and Seifer left the kitchen. The keldeo didn't acknowledge Baraz after shuffling into the two servants' room. He stared blankly at the ceiling while they pooled their blankets together by the back wall to make something resembling a nest. Everything was wrinkled and bunched up, however. There were only about two body lengths between Noctum's bed and Baraz's, anyway. Seifer would need most of that space.

Baraz fell asleep not long after. Noctum was jealous as usual, especially with how the dracozolt didn't even stir when he sat down on his bed and the rusty frame creaked in protest. He supposed it came with old age. Maybe once his scales turned gray he'd sleep as soundly as Baraz.

There was the matter of the blinds, though. Noctum wanted to reach for them, but Seifer was staring out the window. The grass had a blue tint under the moonlight. Clouds littered the sky, to Noctum's disappointment.

He silently sat on the edge of the bed. After a minute, he fidgeted with his scratched-up bedsheet. It did nothing for Noctum's restlessness. He had to say something. It was too awkward otherwise.

"Um…" Noctum looked at his feet. "Look, can we talk about what happened back there?"


The charizard's tail flame dimmed. "I know we talked about it already. But, like… I'm still a bit confused. What's a Ryujin?"

More silence.

Noctum's shoulders sagged. "I only want to help."

"… they're yakuza," Seifer whispered, still staring out the window.


"A criminal syndicate. The most infamous one in the kingdom, actually."

Noctum blinked. "There are… multiple?"

"Yes. Part of my job—" Seifer winced. "Part of my old job was trying to take these yakuza out. I got some of the smaller groups, but new ones would pop up to take their places." He lowered his head. "The Ryujin, though… are a different beast. Every time we were on the trail of someone we thought was high-ranking in their organization…" He trailed off and stared out the window again.

"Well?" Noctum leaned in.

"Why am I even sharing this? What does this have to do with me?" Seifer huffed.

"I, uh—" Noctum grabbed his tail and put it in his lap. "Thought maybe venting would help?"

"Whatever." Seifer rolled his eyes. "Basically, targets the Radiant Guard went after ended up dead or wiped of their memories before we could arrest them." He wrinkled his snout. "We've suspected the Ryujin of plenty of things. Running an illicit TM market, distributing performance-enhancing drugs, selling addictive substances to get commoners and nobles alike hooked, hijacking Polaris' equipment.

"The problem is we could never concretely prove it." Seifer leaned over. His horn plinked against the window. "Even making deals with rival groups hadn't helped us make much headway." Seifer squeezed his eyes shut. "Before I got canned, some of my sources reported the Ryujin were looking to take advantage of the confusion caused by this Needle business."

"To do what?"

"To sow further discord amongst the nobles," Seifer responded. "There was specific mention of getting Vegna to return to the inquisitor's bench. Fan the flames of that Grim Reaper curse of his."

"I don't see the connection."

Seifer furrowed his brow. "Most people who fell victim to the Grim Reaper's curse were people of status. Wealthy, elite nobles. Folks who could afford the kind of defenders who could soundly best Vegna in a trial."

"… oh." Squeaking, Noctum squeezed his tail. That didn't sound good at all! And not a subject he wanted to pursue much further. The Qliphoth business made him worried enough for Yuna. What if the Ryujin tried to go after her, too?

"I see." The charizard wanted to change the subject. Or, at least, keep things from getting even darker. "So, um, how does this relate to that milotic?"

"Artemis?" Seifer tilted his head. The corner of his right eye met Noctum's gaze. "He was… a kid I had chosen to sponsor. I was running drills with a water-type platoon in Venish when I noticed a Polaris cargo ship under siege. My team moved in, but most of the goons had been taken care of by this milotic kid."

Seifer sighed. "He was strong. The kind of strength you don't see much of in this kingdom. I wanted him in the Radiant Guard, so I offered to sponsor him for a scholarship. He was… overjoyed. As were his parents."

His horn slowly slid down until it slumped onto the windowsill. "Then I got assigned to lead a raid on a suspected Ryujin building. Things went well… until I found Artemis' parents among the people we arrested." Seifer's shoulders sagged. "We do extensive background screens on all Radiant Guard applicants. I had no choice but to report this to the rest of the Guard's admission committee."

Noctum's wings drooped. "So, he wasn't allowed to join because of that."

"Worse." Seifer swallowed hard. "Vortex got wind of it. Because of course he did. He expelled Artemis before he was due to graduate."

"But he's working here as a servant, isn't he?" Noctum scratched a black-scaled horn in confusion.

"Because I begged Vortex to let him." Seifer smacked a forehoof against the stone wall. "This place… it's not like other schools. If you're accepted here and you don't graduate…" He turned away from Noctum, wincing. "You're blackballed. No one will want to hire you to do anything that isn't collecting garbage or cleaning sewers. Your life's over."

Seifer bit his lip. "I couldn't let that happen to Artie."

Noctum twiddled his thumbs. "And what happened to Artemis' parents?"

"Sentenced to Citadark Isle."


Seifer picked his head up. "A maximum-security prison on a remote island. Vortex's company built it for Isola as part of the Crown's efforts to crack down on crime. Anyone who goes there is serving a life sentence."

"Li-ife sentence?" Noctum stiffened. "For smuggling?"

"We were trying to send a message." Seifer's eyes darted around. "Crime went down after it opened, you know. It was working!"

Well, that put a different spin on the argument Noctum had heard. He wasn't sure what else to say. Noctum understood Artemis' anger. At the same time, though, what was Seifer supposed to do? Turn a blind eye to the milotic's parents? That could've ended up with the keldeo on that terrible island instead.

Sure, Saint Reshiram preached the importance of honesty. However, Noctum didn't recall his teachings discussing the consequences of pursuing the truth. Was that worth bringing up to Yuna now that she was toting around the Sage's spirit?

"Happy now?" Seifer looked at Noctum. "Bet this gives you plenty of gossip, huh?"

Noctum rubbed his shoulder. "Well, I—"

A distorted squawk sounded in the distance. "What the—" Seifer picked his head up in time to see some orange-feathered bird with massive legs tumble across the ground, kicking up grass and dirt. The keldeo squinted. "Hey, that almost looks like… ah!"

He leapt to his feet and kicked the window open with his hind legs. Noctum jumped in surprise. "What are you doing?" he called, but Seifer had already jumped out the window.

"Quetzal? Quetzal!" Seifer shouted, charging across the field.

"Get back, you idiot!"

A Dragon Pulse streaked across the ground. Seifer hopped back. Noctum's eyes widened in recognition. "Valkyrie?" He watched the garchomp glide into view, then hopped out of the window himself. "What are you doing?"

"Me?" Her face was twisted in a snarl. "That prick tried to get the jump on me. Stand aside!"

Seifer shot forward via bursts of water from his hooves. "Absolutely not!" His horn glowed.

Valkyrie dropped to the ground, sliding through the dirt. "What are you doing here?"

"None of your business," Seifer said. "More importantly, I won't have you attacking that zapdos!"

"Zapdos?" Valkyrie cocked her head. "Get your eyes checked, idiot. That thing's orange and stubby, not yellow and spiky."

"Bwuh?" The keldeo turned around in time to see Valkyrie's would-be assailant streak into the air as a stream of orange lightning.

Noctum realized what was happening moments before the bird broke out from the lightning and shot toward Seifer with his right foot extended. With a mighty beat of his wings, Noctum scooped Seifer up. The bird struck the ground, creating enough force to send the two tumbling through midair.

"… tch. Amateurs." Valkyrie already had a Dragon Pulse charged. Smirking, she fired it off. Her opponent's foot had gotten caught in the ground, leaving nowhere to flee. The blue bolt caught him between the eyes of his crystalline mask. He flailed his stubby wings around and shrieked his protest.

The garchomp wordlessly short forward. Noctum finished shaking the stars from his vision in time to see Valkyrie broadside Not-Zapdos' neck with a Dragon Claw. His body jerked to Valkyrie's right. Two purple crystals flew off his back and bounced to a stop a couple of meters in front of Noctum and Seifer.

"And that's that." Valyrie dug a claw into Not-Zapdos' orange feathers and hoisted him up. He was totally limp. "Now, let's stuff you somewhere you won't cause any prob—"

Not-Zapdos' eyes shot open. He slammed both feet into Valkyrie's chest. Orange energy erupted around her and, next thing Noctum know, he was jumping back to avoid Valkyrie skipping across the ground like a stone on water. She slammed into one of the purple crystals, which began crackling with ominous purple energy and vibrating.

"Uh, guys?" Noctum's attention was torn between the gem, Not-Zapdos, and Valkyrie.

"The hell?" Valkyrie snarled as she dug her claws into the ground to stop her skidding. "That wasn't—" She put a fin against her chest, where her scales were noticeably burnt. "I felt that. But that… was an electric attack, wasn't it?"

"Guys?" Noctum gestured toward the gem. The vibrations were getting worse. However, Not-Zapdos screeched. Noctum looked up to see an orange bolt barreling toward him. Seifer intercepted with a Secret Sword, but Not-Zapdos broke his charge, skidding to a halt by Noctum and the purple crystal.

"… Quetzal?" Seifer looked Not-Zapdos up and down. "Is… is that you?"

"What do you think you're doing?" Valkyrie sped toward them, blue energy sheathing her claws. "Strike him before he strikes us!"

Sure enough, Not-Zapdos took one look at Seifer and orange bolts crackled around his feathers.

"No!" Noctum cried. He tensed up his gut. Noctum had let that snorlax get the better of him. Not this time. He'd use Cosmic Blessing and bring the fight to a quick end. Noctum jus had to focus. Focus. Focus!

The charizard's eyes blazed with multicolored energy. He opened his snout wide and roared. Rainbow sound waves shot toward Not-Zapdos, who looked at Noctum with wide eyes. Noctum thought he had Not-Zapdos for sure, but his Cosmic Blessing sailed wide as the bird ran right faster than Noctum had ever seen a foe move.

He dropped to one knee, hand on his belly. "… no. How could… I miss?"

Fortunately, Valkyrie was ready to avenge him, lunging with her Dragon Claws at the ready. Not-Zapdos spun around to meet her with one of his glowing legs. The attacks collided and both issuers bounced back. Valkyrie wound up to go again, as did Not-Zapdos.

Noctum, however, looked down and realized, to his horror, that cracks were running through the vibrating crystal. Had his Cosmic Blessing struck it by accident?

Before the charizard could warn anyone, the gem floated into the air and shattered.

White-hot pain spread through Noctum's belly and multicolored lights swallowed him up whole. He was as light as air for the briefest of seconds, then something big and black rushed closer and closer to him.

… no, that wasn't right. He was falling! Falling toward it.

Noctum squeezed his eyes shut. He struck something crystalline, then blacked out.

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Whelp, another day, another chunk of adventures from Yuna and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad School Year to review and write cutaway gags over. You left off on a bit of a cliffhanger in Chapter 1, so let's get right into things in Chapter 2, shall we?

Chapter 2

"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.

Wew. And I thought my in-story FE: Awakening reference was transparent. :V

"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.

... How should I envision this anyways? Is it like one of those skirt thingies that police horses sometimes have?

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."
Robin: "All I hear is butthurt from you being about to lose."

"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.
Shimmer: "And what was that about butthurt from being about to lose?"

Robin: "... Shut up." >v>;

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?"

Robin: "... I didn't know that Sylveon even sweat there. Don't think I needed to know either." >v<;

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."

Robin: "... What about Turtonator though, Shimmer? Aren't those part-Fire? Wouldn't their blood be hot as hell-?"
Shimmer: "Robin, stop undercutting my figures of speech here! And Turtonator are about as representative of Dragons as a bloody Goomy!" >_>;

"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."

Feels like you meant 'overstatement' for the part in bold, since Shimmer is essentially saying "let's not get crazy here" in-context about Chiaki.

Robin: "Shimmer, you do realize that Chiaki's in the Dragon Egg Group, right? He could shack up with that new girl after they both got a bit more... (ahem) mature and the two'd literally be able to have kids together!"
Shimmer: "Oh yeah, that's a mental image I really needed to have right now. And need I remind you that the story hasn't properly revealed Chiaki's species yet?" >.<
Robin: "... Right. Gotta stay in sync with the story for these gags."

"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."

Has this 'mon never heard of Petra or Derinkuyu before? You can make some pretty impressive stuff while still living in literal caves and rock clefts.

"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."

Robin: "Aren't you being a bit dramatic there, Shimmer? The Cup's open to all upperclassmons, and there's at least two years represented, so..."
Shimmer: "What, do you live in a fairy tale? Since when did anyone fail the qualifiers and then turn around to win the Crowne Cup in a later year?"

"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.

Xander: "Ow! You could've just said 'no', Shimmer!"
Shimmer: "Oh pipe down, Xander. It was just a little bump. You could've had it far worse."
Xander: "Yeah? And how?"

Shimmer: "Well, I could've done something like that."
Xander: "Is... is that thing hipchecking and hitting from thin air?" .-.
Robin: "Yeesh, I know you're royalty and all Shimmer, but I'm pretty sure this is more than a little disproportionate."

"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."

Getting some major Joo Dee energy from Vortex there.

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."

>being this flippant to a Queen that's named after a superboss from FF12 with 50 million HP


Also, is Calcifer named after the fire spirit from Howl's Moving Castle? Or is he from some other Calcifer?

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.

So given 'dex lore, how much training did it take for Yiazmat to be more calm and collected than her hubby here like this? Or is that a thing that's a trend but not universal among ghost airplane dragons in Etherium?

"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."

Yuna: "Wait, the Kingdom of Radiance seriously put the nerve center for its army and its most important institution of higher learning in one location? What would you do if a meteor hit this place?"
Chancellor Vortex: "Uh... well it'd be a big mess, obviously. But what are the odds that'll happen?"
Yuna: "(This 'mon has just never read a book before, has he? Things going as wrong as possible for dramatic effect always happen in stories!)" >_>;

"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.

Yuna: "Oh yeah, that's not ominous at all. Sounds like I should go ahead and get in some bets on that meteor hitting Horizon Gardens at this rate."

"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."

Yuna: "How do they still have working newspaper circulation here if they have cities are being swallowed up by Mystery Dungeons right now? Like isn't that a mass death event that should logically cause massive logistical failures?"

Yiazmat: "To be fair, I didn't say all of their cities were affected. Though the situation is significantly more grave than this joker is letting on."

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."

Calcifer: "Also, how do you expect us to not notice those sorts of things? A good chunk of us can fly."
Noctum: "Yeah, are we just to pretend we can't see anything we couldn't otherwise notice from 10 feet off the ground?"
- Noctum gets scowled at by Calcifer and Yiazmat and quickly shuts up as Yuna facepalms -
Yuna: "(Well that treaty's not going to get signed any sooner at this rate.)" -_-;

"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.

Yuna: "Th-This all happened within the last 24 hours?!" O.O
Noctum: "Now hold on, Princess Yuna, the nice Chancellor didn't say anything about-"
Yuna: "Mom, do I have to go to this school?!"

"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."

Noctum: "I mean, if we fail, you'll probably die. And Baraz and I likely would too since your parents would probably have our heads served on a silver platter if we didn't get sucked in ourselves... but let's stay positive here!"

"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."


I mean, we already know that last bit's a flat lie. Why Vortex is lying about that remains to be seen.

"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."

Yuna: "Oh thank goodness, it's not a mass death event... yet. Maybe. Probably. Uh... how trustworthy is this guy again, dad?"
Calcifer: "Hrmph, I wouldn't trust him further than my stubby arms could throw him with the way he tried to deflect from this earlier."
Yuna: "Er... right." ._.;

"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."

So does the Kingdom of Radiance have a monarchial setup similar to what Duren had from The Dragon Prince? Or else what am I to make of the mention of multiple Queens of Radiance but no Kings?

"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."

Yuna: "Uh... I mean, I guess I shouldn't be this surprised given that mom basically insulted him to his face, but it's still so... weird seeing Chancellor Vortex in a snippy mood like this."

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.

Well that was certainly a dick move, even if Noctum is kinda proving Vortex's point there.

Noctum: "I swear I didn't mean to get that distracted with that copy of I Wanna Be Your Canary- uh... I mean, be so tardy coming to Princess Yuna's aid." ._.

"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."
- Yiazmat narrows eyes in response -
Yiazmat: "You and others from this Kingdom do realize that cultivating false hopes has a way of ending in tears, don't you?"
Calcifer: "Yeah, holding that tournament won't change anything if this town gets swallowed up by a Mystery Dungeon halfway through it!"

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: "Mom, if those Mystery Dungeons spread around while I'm here, me not joining a tournament isn't going to magically keep me safe!" >_>;
Yiazmat: "Yes, but at least Baraz and Noctum can keep watch over you."
- Yiazmat shoots a side-eye over at Noctum -
Yiazmat: "Properly this time, yes?"
Noctum: "Meep. Y-Yes, your Majesty. I'll see to it myself!"

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."

Calcifer: "And we care about this why when we're literal heads of state? Who cares if some literal whos have their kids' tournament crashed. This is our daughter's safety here!"
Chancellor Vortex: "Bold of you to assume those parents are literal whos, King Calcifer."

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."

Yiazmat: "Your father and I only agreed for you to attend this school in the first place as a gesture of goodwill. If the students are really so petty as to hate you for acting on reasonable fears of your own well-being, just how worth it is it to chase their approval?"
Yuna: "Mom, I have to live with them for the rest of the school year. Not being hated by them is kinda important for it to not be constant misery!" >_>;

"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?"

Not that this isn't a touching speech, but you're kinda inherently limited on choice in a school environment, especially one that's more high school than college like the past chapters seemed to imply. Also, Yuna's literally choosing this because she's afraid of being stuck in her "nofriends" status quo. I suspect she'd be significantly less gung ho on the Crowne Cup given her sentiments just last chapter if her parents had the foresight to yeet a few other Dragonmons along with her to keep company at school as fellow students.

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?"

Well that'll be someone to keep an eye out for, since I haven't gotten spoiled to who he is yet.


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.
Yuna: "Okay, what did you do?"
Nikki: "None of your damn business, you overgrown dart."

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?"

I can see why she prefers 'Nikki' there.

"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.

Yuna: "... I feel offended right now."
Nikki: "Aren't you not supposed to be here right now?"
Yuna: "... Probably, but the text never did explicitly say that I and the others left the room before the door was shut."

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."

Arianna: "With all due respect, Chancellor, but that entire exchange feels like a pretty solid argument for quashing her spirit." >_>;

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."


Arianna: "... I don't think I like where this is going."
Nikki: "Welcome to my world." >_>;

"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."

>Professor Monokuma
This is gonna turn into some sort of murder mystery, isn't it?

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.

Well on the plus side, it'd get her out of stage crew work for a day or two from needing to go to the nurse's office. :^)

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.

What exactly is a "pokébase cap" and how should I be envisioning it? And there's Chiaki at long last, if still without the formal name. Though I can't imagine that Calcifer and Yiazmat wouldn't be livid with Vortex for not agreeing to pull Yuna if they knew that her team was still unsettled enough that Vortex could still pull a last-minute switcharoo like this, including with a known delinquent on campus.

"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.
Well, we all know how these sorts of schemes roughly turn out:
View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPXHRX8Q2hs

"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: "With all due respect, Chancellor, but how does setting up a student for failure and mockery by her peers amount to 'cultivating hope'?" >_>;

"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."

>Inquisitor Vegna
>dealing with an 'Inquisitor' at all

Though I guess I was onto something with those Joo Dee vibes that I was picking up earlier, since I refuse to belive that Vortex doesn't have some nasty skeletons in the closet from this whole gambit and that closing exchange.

Alright, moving on:

Chapter 3

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.

Yuna: "... What on earth is this thing made of for it to be this large and still be structurally sound?"

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."

Yuna: "... They just took volunteers for a banquet this large and important?"
Noctum: "Yeah, I was surprised myself! But hey, can't say that it wasn't worth it." ^^

"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.

Yuna: "Oh no, Baraz is doing this too? Doesn't he literally dribble snot from his snout constantly-? Oh right, Dracozolt, but still."

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.

Yuna: "I should probably feel more down that that sad toast was all that I can think of, but 'mon is this food good."

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?"

Chiaki: "Also what's with that reaction? You're acting like I just waltzed up to you missing a hand and then waved the stump in front of you."
Yuna: "... Wait, where on earth did that comparison come from?"
Chiaki: "Think it was from some sort of novel from the library. Some dark fantasy story set in an imploding empire called Metempsychosis or something like that."
Yuna: "(Yeesh, talk about your ill omens. Why couldn't this guy just be into something like LOVELESS like a normal 'mon?)" ._.;

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.

Yuna: "You do realize that the only way you could come off any creepier to me right now is if you came in dressed in something that looked like it was cobbled together from dragons' body parts."
Chiaki: "Oh? You mean like my [MonHun] Cosplay? Don't worry, I keep that around for the likes of costume balls."
Yuna: "(Bahamut's light, why me?)" >_>;

"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."

Chiaki: "Also, you just whispered 'Bahamut's light' to yourself 10 seconds ago."
Yuna: "Not quietly enough, it seems." >.<

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.

Yuna: "So my first confirmed teammate is a stalker with a thing for edgelord aesthetics... fantastic." -_-;
Chiaki: "Oh that's nothing, just wait until you get wind of our other teammate."

"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: "Well, there's obviously some story to it for you not to just play it off as 'oh, I have an Eviolite'-"
- Chiaki brings together the leaves on one of his arms into a blade -
Chiaki: "When I said 'Miscommunications can get a 'mon killed in your line of work,' I meant it."
Yuna: "Eep! Alright! Alright! Dropping the topic!" O.O;

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.

Well, I had a giggle at it. So yeah, gonna take the over on Bahamut having a giggle too. :V

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."

This isn't his first time in the Crowne Cup, is it?

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."

Chiaki: "I mean, you literally could've just clicked the spoiler boxes earlier. And I'm not that poorly-known of a character in this story-"
Yuna: "Look, we have to roughly track what's actually happening in the text, alright?" >_>;

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 rolle[d] 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."

Minor tense error there.

Yuna: "... (Did his parents buy their title or something? That 'mon doesn't feel remotely like a noble in the slightest!)" >_>;

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, she's technically not wrong about the second part, even if she's off on the motive.

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.

Perhaps she should consider hanging around the swim team and see if she can befriend some sort of lippy Floatzel with a thing for aquatic ball sports or the like. Pretty sure she'd have some better initial chemistry even if it'd make the story dynamic a wee bit derivative :^)

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

If you don't have some sort of DaS!Solaire joke related to Bahamut at some point, I'm going to be forever disappointed. :V

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.

Chiaki: "What's the matter, prefer garnets to rubies or something?"
Yuna: "He looks like some sort of backwoods stage performer." >_>;
Chiaki: "I mean, yeah. But I thought dragons like you ate this sort of shiny and flashy stuff right up."
Yuna: "Not like this we don't!" >.<

"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.

I take it that the Aeon Kingdom is a bit lower on the tech scale than the Kingdom of Radiance given that Yuna's clearly not familiar with how loudspeakers work.

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."

Yuna: "(Wait, didn't I literally have a dream about that alleged accident? Or was I just waking up coincidentally when he was busy dying off?)"

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!"

I can hear that jealous seething from coming from soggier corners of the multiverse already.

Yuna: "Wait a minute, he's a prince?! How did no one-?!"
Chiaki: "School for nobility, Princess."
Yuna: "But still! Shouldn't I have noticed something about how the other students interacted with him that'd have tipped me off?"

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?"

>How to ensure your peace treaty doesn't last more than one generation with one simple trick

- Yuna is busy trying to hide and sink behind the table -
Yuna: "Okay, I completely understand why mom and dad didn't make a big deal out of me getting to know him."

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."

I smell many a future diplomatic incident brewing if Shimmer takes the throne with that sort of attitude.

Yuna: "... I really should've pulled out, shouldn't I?"
Chiaki: "Well, it'd have made my life easier, that's for sure."

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!"

Aaaand title drop.

"Even the darkest of storms,
Will falter in the face of,
Everlasting hope and valor!"
>these PoV lyrics
Is there a specific melody that these are set to? And how do you come up with these ditties anyways? Since this is like the third or fourth song that you've made wholecloth for one of your stories, and I'm a bit curious as to if you have some sort of guiding process or philosophy

Purple smoke drift[ed] 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.

Oh, so it wasn't Starlene's singing that was making Yuna feel awful there.

"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."

So is Radiance attempting to clear out the affected cities as a precautionary measure? Trying their best to ignore it and carry on with life? Or are they going full Yamanote Lockdown from DeSu1 right about now?

"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."

Wait, is this in Horizon Gardens? Or else where is this happening? Since the dialogue only mentioned that this was in a 'city' thus far, and depending on where this is, it potentially raises some questions of how Xeromus got there.

"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."

Ah, there's the rag-covered, helmet-wearing mishmash of a homeless mutt himself.

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.

Um... yeah, you should probably take Rune's advice there, Seifer. Also F in the chat for Rune.

"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!"

I actually realized about a day after my last blog that 'Natus' there is almost certainly Eternatus. Also, I'm looking forward to finding out what ether is in this setting for Xeromus to have such a hate-on on it since it's clearly important enough for the entire world to be called Etherium implying that it's inherently made of or related to it. I mean, playing a few Xeno games has given me a few ideas, but will need to wait and see if they pan out

"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.

Oh, so we're not in Horizon Gardens. And this basically confirms that the Kingdom of Radiance went for route #2 for their curfew in spite of it violating several levels of common sense considering how dangerous Mystery Dungeons are treated as being in this story so far.(edited)

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.

Oh hello, (Eternamax Eter)Natus. Way to make an entrance there.

Xeromus: -is presently doing his best impression of Kiyoharu from SMT4 and cackling up a storm at the approach of his god-
Seifer: "What the hell is that thing?!"

"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.'

Totally not an ominous note to end on at all. o3o;

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.

Ahh. That answers the melody question for the PoV song. It has a catchy beat.

Things certainly escalated quicker than I expected in-story, but I'm not exactly complaining on my end. You likely have already seen a version of this review elsewhere by the time this was posted, but I hope you had fun with it, and I'm looking forward to where you take your story from here in the next few chapters. ^^
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Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Alright, it took longer than I'd have liked to get the ball rolling, but I'm back with a review of Chapters 4 and 5 of Yuna and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad School Year. So let's get right into things, and see what you've got in store for our favorite missile dragon:

Chapter 4

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."

Major "Gendo Ikari videoconferencing with SEELE" vibes there. Another notch into the count of "signs that Chancellor Vortex is probably up to something nefarious". Also, mind the missing quote there.

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."


"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."

Just how precarious are things in the Kingdom of Radiance such that a sporting event getting cancelled for a year would crush the realm's morale?

Demerzel: "You do realize that if the Crowne Cup gets interrupted or forced to be cancelled later by current events, it's going to be even worse for morale, right?"
Vortex: "That's a risk I'm willing to take, Demerzel. And we won't allow that to happen. Whatever it takes, there will be a Crowne Cup this year."
Demerzel: "... Okay, you're kinda creeping me out there, Chancellor."

"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."

>Starlene's songs are supposed to pacify anyone who listens while strengthening their spirit so they can work harder.
>pacify anyone who listens while strengthening their spirit so they can work harder.


Why does this sound more like some sort of component for a gambit for subjugation and mass enslavement than something with benign intentions? Like, as presented, the Diva Project is basically working on something that would have applications for tricking overworked laborers into sitting down and shutting up as they get ground down by exploitative conditions.

"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."

Minor punctuation oops there.

Demerzel: "... Please tell me this isn't that crackpot project of yours involving the Charmeleon and interdimensional travel."
Vortex: "Just how much of an uninspired hack do you think I am to name my projects after plot devices from novels? (Also, if I was going to steal names from that one, I'd have called it 'Ascension'.) Icarus is a different project and commands significantly more resources and energy right now, you should know this, Demerzel."

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."

I mean, given that totally not sus description of the Diva Project earlier, I'm half-expecting the answer to this to be something like 'Infinity Energy.' And add another notch to the 'obviously shady count'

"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."


"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?"

And that's gotta be worth several additional notches there into the sus count. Just saying, Vortex. If Calcifer and Yiazmat find out about any of this, that treaty is beyond toast.

"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."

Yuna: "Uh... what exactly is this thing connected to me?"
Nurse: "That's an IV, honey. It's piping saline solution into your bloodstream to keep you hydrated."
Yuna: "... Isn't my body composed of ectoplasm, though?" ._.;

"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."

Am I tripping, or is this a transparent reference to Rafiki from The Lion King? And I see that Radiance pulls after Galar in structure in terms of having places named after the DLC areas. I presume there's also something named after the Crown Tundra?

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."

Yuna: "Chancellor Vortex expects me to compete in a sporting competition the same day that I had a tube jabbed into my arm?"
Rafique: "I mean, the exit wound should be small enough to coagulate within a matter of minutes, so-"
Yuna: "Bahamut's Light, what on earth is wrong with this school?!" >_>;

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."

Yuna: "... Starting to think I should've listened to mom about this tournament." >.<

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.

Yuna: "Wait, but Chiaki, I thought you said it didn't matter to you how we did in the Crowne Cup. And... well... you didn't exactly strike me as the type to really care about my well-being."
Chiaki: "Look, I'm not just going to stand there while someone dies on me. I've got a company to inherit from my parents and taking over under a cloud of suspicion like that's bad for business!"
Yuna: "... (Can't tell whether that's a cover for him having a soft side, or if he really is that much of a cold, selfish prick.)"

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.'"

Yuna: "Oh, so you do care about the Crowne Cup, Chiaki."
Chiaki: "Look, I just don't want to have to forfeit, okay?"
Nikki: "Yeah, even the most pathetic teams of lunkheads get remembered for showing up to the preliminaries." >_>;

"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.

Could be worse. She could've opted for "Twig Boy".

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."

Chiaki: "This 'trade secret' of yours is going to work even if the competitor right next to us has Lightningrod as an ability, right?" >_>;
- Nikki hesitates a moment -
Nikki: "Uh... probably?"
- Yuna facepalms with her free hand -
Yuna: "Please tell me your strategy isn't just to hit everyone on the starting line with Discharge and then walk over while everyone's passed out."
Nikki: "Never said anything about using Discharge there."

"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."

Oh lol. Her strategy's gonna be to Boomburst the entire starting line.

Nikki: "See! Works perfectly fine even with an opponent with Lightningrod!"
Chiaki: "And what if the next guy over is also a Ghost-Type? Or has Soundproof as an ability?" >_>;
Nikki: "I mean, if I know Boomburst, I should also know Overdrive? Could always mop up the stragglers that way."
- Beat moment -
Yuna: "(Just saying, forfeiting is sounding more and more attractive right now.)"

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.

Nikki: "Oh right, huh. Forgot about that rule for a moment. So yeah, literally don't have to lift a finger after that opening gambit outside of walking over the finish line!"
- Chiaki folds his arms and frowns -
Chiaki: "Not that this isn't solid on paper, but I still think this sounds way too easy."
Yuna: "Well I don't think we're going to talk her out of it, so might as well just go along and hope for the best since I certainly don't have any alternative plans to offer. (Even if I'm sure this is going to end horribly somehow.)"

"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."

Yuna: "... Isn't a 'bastion' also interpretable as the fortress as a whole? Like a 'Bastion of Hope'?"
Cid: "Yes, yes, it can also be used as an instance of synecdoche. But I had the specific rampart design in mind when I proposed the name, so I'm going with that explanation."

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."

Nikki: "Hey, I volunteered 'Team Overdrive'. Sounded perfectly fine to me."
Chiaki: "I volunteered 'Team Phalanx' even if we were a few hundred members shy of that being fitting, but Professor Cid had a cow and said that stealing names from books was poor form."
Yuna: "... I stand by that comment about Team Bastion being a better name than what you two came up with." -_-;

"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."

Nikki: "... Since when do lizards have lips?"
Chiaki: "Look, just shut up and do your thing here." >_>;

"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.

Yuna: "I'm starting to have doubts about how this is going to go again." >_>;
Nikki: "Lighten up, will ya? We wipe the starting line, and then we'll have all the time in the world to find that exit. No biggie."

"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: "(Why of all the schools in this land for me to go to as part of that treaty signing did I need to go to this one?! Just what sort of school hires an active Inquisitor as a Professor?!)" >.<

"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.

Yuna: "Wait, but does Chancellor Vortex even wear pants? I didn't remember him being described as-"
Chiaki: "Look, I'm wearing pants right now (at least based off artwork anyways). So I think you can take it for granted that Vortex is wearing pants."
Yuna: "... (How is he not constantly setting the fabric on fire by accident with that tail flame of his?)"

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 Turks 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.

Yuna: "... Are these 'mons supposed to be a collective reference or something? Since there's not a single drop of red on the head of that 'Rufus' 'mon there. And 'Rufus' is supposed to be a name meaning 'red' or 'redheaded'."
Nikki: "Red eyes, Princess. And since when did unrelated parents name their kids together to make some sort of elaborate reference?"
Chiaki: "I dunno, I think she's onto something. Pretty sure all those names are from some spy group from this book in the library. 'The Tartars' or something like that."

"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.

Yeah. Honestly, at this point, I wouldn't fault Yuna for just saying "to hell with this school", sneaking out. and hopping the next Intercontinental Express back into the Aeon Kingdom.

"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."

Yuna: "I'm gonna have to deal with a year of this?" ._.
Chiaki: "Now do you see why I didn't care about how we did in this Crowne Cup?"

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."

Yuna: "... Just how big is our class when Tutor said that only 18 teams will take part of the Cup Chase to begin with? Doesn't that imply that there's going to be less than 60 Pokémon in our entire class that won't get eliminated early?"
Chiaki: "54, but who's counting? Look, we at least aren't going to forfeit here. So let's at least try to string this along. Maybe we'll get lucky and dodge those remedial lessons for a while."

"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."

Yuna: "... Wait a minute, so we're not even eliminating teams at this point? Are there seriously only 54 students in our year?"

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.

Well, Nikki's plan worked. Sorta.

Chapter 5

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."

Still am of the opinion that the Phantoms would've been easier to visualize if they were more described. As of right now, I kinda am envisioning them to be like Nightmare from Kirby.

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."

So the needles are acting as a restraint on... something. Pretty sure I saw this movie involving cosmically important needles once before and it resulted in an End of the World Special once all the needles got yanked.

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.

Considering how the world is called Etherium implying that it's literally made of ether in its present state. That beggars the question of what Phantom Despair would consider to be a natural state for the world. Hopefully it's a bit more habitable than what The Void considered natural in GL.

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.

I might be tripping, but I'm pretty sure that chant means something to the effect of "Our true born" in Latin. Though this basically confirms that Natus is Eternatus.

"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: "... This had better not be a suggestion to levy sanctions against that conglomerate. Since that doesn't exactly work all that well even with state power!"
Fraud: "I was thinking of something involving more... direct action."

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."

Why do I get the feeling that even though Despair's course of action is almost certainly going to cause mass death and suffering, that he has a point about Radiance and Polaris being up to no good?

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?"

Nikki: "Wasn't it glaringly obvious last chapter that I was going to lead with an AOE attack, Twiggy? I mean, I'm a Toxtricity and I insisted my gambit wouldn't effect Princess over there. What did you really expect?"
Chiaki: "So why the hell didn't you tip us off to get earplugs or something first?!"

"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: "Nikki, are you seriously asking this question when you just knocked out the entire starting lineup?" >_>;
Nikki: "Yeah? She doesn't have to be this butthurt about taking the L."

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."

Yuna: "... At this rate, I think I'd have been more popular with the school if I'd just skipped this Crowne Cup."

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!"

Not that this isn't hilarious to watch in action, but you just know that sort of "screw you world" loner attitude is going to come back to haunt her later.

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."

I mean, Chiaki technically isn't wrong there. So Nikki's either lying there or genuinely hasn't met a ton of Toxtricity in Radiance.

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!"

Yuna: "I don't suppose we upset the audience enough that they're raining attacks down on us right now, did we?"

Chiaki: "Oi, where's the 'we' here? That was all Nikki there!"
Nikki: "You're welcome, by the way."

"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?"

Yuna: "That arrogant prince who literally tries to publicly humiliate me at every turn? Of all the teams to still be standing, his is still up right now?" >_>;
Chiaki: "Well, obviously if Team Striker is pointing it out. Just stay on your guard!"
Nikki: "... Wait, since when do ducks caw?"
Chiaki: "That's what you're worried about right now?!" >.<

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?"

Nikki: "So I was right, ducks don't caw."
Chiaki: "That doesn't explain what's going on here right now."

"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, ****."

Yuna: "Th-This isn't a trap, is it?!" O.O
Nikki: "Gee what tipped you off, the sudden demon hands from nowhere?! Or the fact that my Boomburst just did bupkis to it?!"
Chiaki: "Quit bickering and help me out here already!"

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!"

Yuna: "Nikki, you're going to suffocate if you don't get those things off of you!"
Nikki: "But this isn't even covering my windpipe! We can make this work! ... Maybe. Probably."

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.

Chiaki: "Also, you're welcome."
Nikki: "If it wouldn't screw us over, I'd Boomburst your face right here and now, Twiggy." :mad:

"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.

Yuna: "... Talk about adding insult to injury here." >_>;
Chiaki: "Whatever, you can't win them all and we're doing better than the other teams. Let's just cross that finish line."

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: "Uh hi there... (Mr... creepy 'Grim Reaper' guy.) Uh, I'd just like to take a moment to remind you that I have diplomatic immunity."

Vegna: "Hmph. Bold of you to think that'd stop me if I was here for that."
Yuna: "... Eeep." ._.

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."

Chiaki: "... You broke a rule with that stunt back there Nikki, didn't you?" -_-;
Nikki: "Hey, if I did, it wasn't one I was aware of!"
Yuna: "Pl-Please tell me that the consequences don't involve executioner's tables!" O.O

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?

Nikki: "Because he's an Inquisitor? What do you think they do for a living? Go around spreading sunshine and rainbows?"
Vegna: "Need I remind you that I'm right in front of you, Nicolette?"

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."

Yuna + Chiaki: "..." >.<
Nikki: "Hey! You can't just disqualify us without any explanation! How the hell is that fair?!"
Chiaki: "I swear to God, if those stupid goggles are what got us into trouble..." >_>;

"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.

Aha, and thus we're introduced to the heavily inbred ferals of PoV. And Vegna's giving me some serious Blackquill vibes here.

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.

Yuna: "... Don't Wise Glasses only boost Special Attack by 10% though?
Wouldn't that imply that Nikki's Boomburst was still close to that powerful on her own?"
Vegna: "They're Polaris-brand Wise Glasses. Though even if their effect were really so modest, the rules are the rules, and this would still be grounds for disqualification."
- Chiaki grinds his teeth and visibly seethes -
Chiaki: "Nikki!"

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?

Yuna: "Also, what do they make these Wise Glasses out of for them to have such a dramatic effect?"
Vegna: "Ether, obviously."
Yuna: "... Is that going to be the answer to everything of this sort in-setting?"

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!"

I swear this 'mon's gonna blunder into a war within his first week as king just with that attitude of his.

"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.'"

Literally just missing the occasional knife throw to complete the Blackquill vibes.

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.

While this actually makes a bit more sense here, reminder that you called these "wise glasses" just like 6 paragraphs ago. Make sure to keep the terminology consistent.

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?

Vegna: "Emphasis on should there, Princess Yuna. Very pointedly voicing my displeasure with Nicolette's behavior is well within my rights as an instructor."
Yuna: "Yeah, but that really didn't sound like you were just voicing displeasure there."

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.

Chiaki: "I'm pretty sure he's doing this on purpose to get a kick out of us squirming, just saying."
Yuna: "W-Well he's certainly effective at it, that's for sure!" O_O;

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."

Yuna: "So let me get this straight here. We became the most hated team in the entire Crowne Cup, got the equivalent of a last-place finish anyways, and I got publicly humiliated by that Ponyta prince... and now have detention and intentionally humiliating coursework because Nikki went behind our backs and used an illegal held item?"
Chiaki: "And was too stupid to destroy the evidence afterwards. You're forgetting that part." >_>;
Nikki: "H-Hey! It was just an innocent misunderstanding!"
- Nikki gets stared at by Yuna and gets a sharp glare from Chiaki -
Nikki: "Right. I should stop talking for a while."

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."

Wew, this day just keeps getting """better""" for Team Bastion. At this rate, someone will lose a limb by sundown. :^)

I'll admit, I wasn't expecting Nikki to get caught with using illegal items given how she was able to rules lawyer the bit about sabotaging her opponents, but it does help give a better sense of who she is as a character. Also, there's a surprising amount of setup this early on that the big players of Radiance have some serious skeletons in their closet, but it does track with the less-than-savory aspects of it we've seen from how Yuna's being treated when she's literally one of the most important figures from her homeland.

While you've certainly seen a version of this review already, I hope that you still found it useful and enjoyable to read, I know I'll be looking forward to where things go in the next few chapters, since you've mentioned elsewhere before that the main plot kicks off within a few chapters of where I'm presently at in my readthrough. ^^
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Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Alright, so I've got 7 double-feature reviews of Path of Valor to get through to get current with the story and *checks notes*... three-and-a-half weeks to make it happen for some meta reasons. So let's get right down to things and check in on how missile dragon's school year's been going:

As a bit of a meta thing, but for your story's version here on Serebii, you should strongly consider updating your table of contents in your OP, since it makes it a bit hard to jump around in story to pick up on things from after Chapter 3.

Okay, onto the story for real now:

Chapter 6

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.

Is this a reference to something? Since the name at once stands out, but I'm not really sure what it came from or else if it's just something put together to sound like a "dragony word salad".

"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."

Noctum: "With all due respect, Chancellor. But you do realize that the norm for Charizard is radically different in the Aeon Kingdom than it is here. Why would it be unbecoming for a Charizard to fawn over flowers?"
Vortex: "Because in case you haven't noticed, you're not in your darkened cave back home, but in the Kingdom of Radiance. Act the part while you're here."

"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."

I see hospitality isn't standard among Charizard from the Kingdom of Radiance, either.

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.

Oh if only we could yeet Noctum through the likes of an Ultra Wormhole into a mainline world. He'd trip out so hard after seeing how black Charizard are seen by humans even if that black hide's technically more of a side effect of environmental exposure and not genetic like a proper shiny

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?

Baraz: "... Isn't Zacian paired with another Pokémon? What happened to that one?"
Noctum: "Maybe the other one was Queen Calliope's mate? Though I still don't understand why she needs a sword."
Baraz: "It must've been some sort of medium for her attacks. Kinda like a Farfetch'd and its leek. Nobody bats an eye at them wielding those as weapons."
Noctum: "... I suppose, but something about Queen Calliope's blade just doesn't feel as natural in comparison. I can't put my claw on it, though."

"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.

- Baraz frowns -
Baraz: "Noctum, how do you not know this when we'd have logically been given a primer on important members of Radiance's court before being dispatched to guard Princess Yuna?"
Noctum: "I... uh... might have been a bit distracted with my stamp collection during the debriefing back then?"

Baraz: "... I suppose we'll get up to speed soon enough from an in-person meeting." -_-;

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 Necrozma of this world is into ponies horses

I'll admit I didn't see that one coming, though I suppose it never was canonically established if the Swords of Justice were linked to any specific other Legendaries.

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."

So I was able to eventually put together that Demerzel was a Calyrex, but I do think that things would've come off stronger either if it was more described from the jump, or even if the placement of the beads versus the bulb were inverted. Since I didn't realize Calyrex had beads until I put two and two together from the other paragraphs and went back to check official art... so... yeah.

"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.

Looks like Bahamut should have been stingier about picking those sages if this is how their descendants turned out.

"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."

I'm really, really slow, but I just realized that you called Yuna's homeland the Aeon Kingdom and Aeons are what summons in FF10 were called in the English localization. I doubt that was chosen as an accident, so guess I'll have to keep an eye out for signs of Yuna living up to her namesake down the road.

Also, I like how the Aeons' creation mythos is more or less the same general sequence of events by which GL's End of the World Special got undone.

"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.


I mean, on the one level, I'm not going to rule out Mystery Dungeons in this setting doing weird things since they already do that canonically. On the other, Demerzel really doesn't strike me as the type of guy whose words you want to take at face value all the time."

"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."

Much diplomacy. Such polite. Very respect.

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.

Noctum: "Wait, isn't it just a little weird this is getting such a rise out of Vortex when with the way things have been here for dragons, Vortex shouldn't be offended by the insinuation that he's not really one?"
Baraz: "I think it's more the implication that Charizard as a species aren't dragons by this guy's standards and yet want to be one. I can definitely see how that implication would make the Chancellor testy."

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."

That's... quite a difference in age and lived experience there. Is Noctum supposed to be the likes of an apprentice to Baraz? Or what'd he do to get him to make the shortlist of guards alongside a guard who was literally there while Yiazmat was still a lil' ghost missile?

Noctum: "Uh... I mean, I was under the impression that Princess Yuna's guards were chosen based off of who she felt most comfortable around." ^^;
Seifer: "That... would explain a lot, really." -_-;

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."

Why do I suspect that Calcifer and Yiazmat don't know about that part right now?

"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."

Noctum: "(Er... well I am sucking my gut in right now. But probably best not to say that out loud.)"
Baraz: "(To be fair, considering your background, are you sure some of that isn't from the likes of childhood malnutrition or epigenetic differences of the Aeon Kingdom's Chars, Noctum?)"

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.

Just saying, paranoia can be confirmed by lived experience. And I doubt that either of these two would be so trusting of Demerzel if a recording of that phone convo from the night before leaked.

"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.

>be Aeon Kingdom
>sign treaty with land with a long history of bad blood while they have FF7 tech and you're stuck with pre-1840s technology at the minimum

Yeah, in light with everything about how the Aeon characters have been bending over backwards to keep that treaty alive in spite of constantly getting abuse heaped on them by members of Radiance's leadership class, I have mega doubts that that treaty's terms are remotely fair.

"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.

Noctum: "(Shouldn't I still be trying given how this has potential safety implications for Princess Yuna?)"
Seifer: "Well, are you two going to just keep me here or what?"
Noctum: "... (Right. Unhospitable pony who'd probably gore me if he got in a sufficiently bad mood.)"

Maybe Saint Keldeo wasn't quite as selfless as the scriptures make him out to be.

Alternatively, somewhere down the line, Saint Keldeo had a descendant that was a total dick and didn't live up to his forebears' reputation. Happens all the time in myth when there's bloodlines involved.

"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.

Noctum: "(Or a descendant of a legendary Saint for that matter. But seriously, how is this guy getting off singling out Baraz like that?)" >_>;

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."

Something about Seifer's second line feels like it ought to be a bit more animated and exclamatory. Since it's one of those "Noctum, go now!" situations where there's not exactly time to explain in detail.

Baraz: "You do realize that you could've spared all of five words to let us know what was going on, right?"
Seifer: "Pipe down and help me out here, drake!"

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—"

Whelp, so much for that plan. Though I guess that explains why we didn't see Noctum at the end of last chapter.

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.

Not sure what the part in brackets is supposed to be, but pretty sure that's a typo. Also, hello G-Max Snorlax.

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.

Wait, for the mention of the forcefield, did Baraz get launched into it earlier from the debris plume or did it suddenly drop so that way it's lower to the ground? I'm assuming the latter, but it's a bit hard to tell with the existing description.

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.

I feel that the gender reveal and the mention of lacking a notched fin are a little reversed. The absence of a notched fin is the default for female Garchomp so something about that phrasing feels off and/or redundant.

"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."

Oh, so Mystery Dungeons in this setting have whatever wibbly wobbly is going on with Max Raid dens in SnS

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.

Noctum: "Wait! But who are-?!"
Valkyrie: "We'll talk at a better moment!"

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.

Noctum: "... Are you a Delta? Do those exist in this setting?"
Valkyrie: "Again, talk later!"

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.

Whelp, remind me to not take Noctum diving like in Pokémon Chronicles if that's all it takes to put out his tail fire.

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."

Wait, just what is "Cosmic Blessing" from given that it doesn't show up in the canon move list? This another FF thing or something created wholecloth for this story?

Valkyrie: "You call that god-awful racket a blessing?" >_>;
Baraz: "Considering what it just did to that Snorlax, yes. Yes I do."

"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."

Noctum: "On that note, is that Snorlax even alive right now? I can't really tell from the dialogue and description, but if he is, shouldn't we be getting him medical attention?"

"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."

Wait, so are Phantoms D/G-Maxed Pokémon, or is Valkyrie there just feeding a convenient cover story?

"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."

Oh boy, these two again. They sure know how to get in over their heads. Though I'm now confused as to the nature of a Phantom if Phantom Glutton is just a G-Max Snorlax while Phantom Despair is a thing of ghostly haze.

"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.


Despair: "Fraud, you'd better do a real good job at explaining to me how this isn't the equivalent of drawing a '2' from your deck. >_>;

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."

Rookie: "Also, shouldn't we be running right about now?"
Carpaccio: "Th-The Crimson Zephyr doesn't just take getting mocked like this! I wanna get a word in here!"
Rookie: "(We are so dead.)"

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."

Rookie: "Uh... I think we should accept those terms while we can, Boss." ._.;

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."

And thus Team Evil proves it's a growth industry with its two new recruits. I don't see this ending well for them though given that Despair barely tolerates their presence as-is.

Chapter 7

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.

Yuna: "I still don't understand how this works for Pokémon that don't have conventional blood." >_>;
Chiaki: "Tch, they adapt the procedure as appropriate for the patient. Everybody knows that."

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 [vial] 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?

Minor misspelling there where I assume you meant 'vial' instead of the 'vile' that's there.

"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.

And thus began the sad story of Noctum's Oxycodone addiction

"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.

Noctum: "Okay, so he did survive us beating him up. I was getting worried from the lack of story hints back there."

"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.

Wait a minute, is this Chiaki's bodyguard? Since I could've sworn that Shimmer mentioned in passing that his bodyguard was a Gabite. Is that earlier mention an error, or did she just evolve since the last time Shimmer saw her?

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.

>poofy bird

Maybe the effect's different when you're smaller or else more attuned to threat displays from different species, but admittedly, I didn't quite get an intimidating vibe there. :V

"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?"

Some really on-the-nose naming there. Though I suppose it sounds more natural than the likes of 'Kara' and 'Tee' :V

Yuna: "... I sure hope the answer to that question isn't 'as punching bags'." ._.;
Nikki: "You're a Ghost-type. Even if that is the answer, why would you be so worried?"

"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."

I take it that that's referring to Carpaccio and Rookie there. Talk about jumping from the frying pan and into the fire. o3o;

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?"

Yuna: "We literally live lifestyles that are night and day from yours. Is it really that hard to believe that we wouldn't share idiomatic expressions?"
Nikki: "Tch, so what do you have for idiomatic expressions, then? Something that makes you sound like you crawled out of a cave just yesterday such as 'Peace Fire Sky'?"
- Beat moment as Yuna gets visibly flustered and Nikki raises a brow -
Nikki: "... Wait a minute, so you actually have-?"
Yuna: "It's not a commonly used idiom, okay? (Also it's a way of saying 'hello'.)" >.<

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.


Yuna: "Pls no."

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."

Okay, now you're getting me interested in playing DGS 1+2 sometime soon, since I really want to see how the Prosecutor character you based Vegna off of is handled there.

"So, the superstitious types spread a rumor that Vegna was cursed or some ****." 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.

Yuna: "... Of course." -_-;

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.

Whelp, that suspicion was confirmed. Now to find out what the story is behind why Shimmer still remembered her as a Gabite just a couple days ago, since I didn't think that Chiaki would be separated from his bodyguard that frequently.

"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."

>Nidoking Sakaki

Sus meter instantly went up by 100% since you might as well have cast a Persian named 'Giovanni' there for the obvious Team Rocket allusions since that's Gio's star 'mon in battle and his JPN name there.

Also, I see that Val is comfortable just ignoring Chiaki's wishes from time to time.

"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."

I see Radiance also is subject to "6 corporations control 90% of the media" syndrome. Or potentially even worse than that given how socially dominant Polaris seems to be. That sounds like a totally healthy journalistic environment there.

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."

Wait a minute, isn't this school literally run by the head of Polaris itself? Unless if not sending Chiaki here is social/status suicide for a noble, Val or no Val, I have to wonder why Sakaki would be bold enough to leave his kid wandering around under the care of someone with a strong motive for absorbing his rag.

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."

Yuna: "... We have books for that." >_>;
Nikki: "Pbbt, who on earth still reads those?"
Yuna: "We're supposed to since we're in a school?" >.<

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?"

I still stand by my assertion that Ether in this world seems to be heading in the Xeno direction of it basically being magic/mana. Or I suppose mako might be more apt given all the Final Fantasy references in this story.

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?

Yuna: "... Is this a class for teaching séances or something? Since I don't see how we're supposed to read any textbooks in this lighting."

"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.

Yuna: "(Bahamut's Light, why me?)" >.<

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.

Huh, wouldn't have expected dungeoneering to be on the curriculum, but hey, if Super can throw canonical pre-pubescents into MDs, I guess this is fair game.

"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.

Oh that's not freaky at all. Though I see that Yuna's drawing a lot of short straws here for her school experience in rapid succession.

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."

... Or they could be going through an AA-themed arc as part of school. That works too.

I had actually completely forgotten that aside from the fact that it wouldn't make sense to give a student an attorney's badge, that that'd be a valid assumption given Vegna's background. But nice to see Shimmer get something approaching comeuppance for once.

"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."

Vegna... seems to be enjoying this a bit.

Shimmer: "Wait a minute! But you just said that this wasn't-!"

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."

Shimmer: "Oh come on! That's literally only a wrong answer on a technicality!"
Yuna: "Shouldn't you be more concerned that the equivalent of a high school teacher is making us serve as defense attorneys with zero training?" >_>;
Shimmer: "Meh, pretty sure I read some story where some peasant children filled in for a defense attorney, how hard can it be?"

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: "Okay, better question. How do you expect us to actually mount a competent defense when none of us have gone through legal training or a bar exam? Isn't this a de facto guilty verdict for whoever we're defending?"
Vegna: "Well I suppose you'll just need to put in the extra time to learn how to properly defend your clients."
Yuna: "(How is a kingdom with magical devices strewn about everywhere this backwards as a society?)" >.<

"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 [a] serious charge.

'Assault' legally is defined as "an act that puts the victim in reasonable apprehension of harmful or offensive contact", e.x. throwing a rock at someone and missing can be charged as assault. For actually dealing physical harm, you'd charge the offender with 'battery'.

Also, wouldn't assault and battery charges be extremely common in a Pokémon setting given how they're more or less naturally built to pick fights with each other and it's not exactly hard for an argument to escalate to blows? :V

"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.

Yuna: "Pls no." >.<
Shimmer: "Professor, can't I be paired with... oh, I don't know, literally anyone else?" >_>;

"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.


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."

Vegna: "Also, you openly expressed doubts of your ability to mount a competent defense just a few cutaways ago."
Yuna: "... Right." -_-;

"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."

>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.
>use the next week to work with Shimmer
>work with Shimmer


More seriously, best of luck, Yuna. But I have some serious doubts on Shimmer's ability to evolve personality-wise enough to work with you properly within the span of a week.

"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.

Yuna: "I suppose I should already start preparing to advise that Benedict 'mon to consider taking a plea deal." -_-;

And that's a wrap. Chapters were engrossing as usual @Ambyssin , though I have to wonder when Yuna's going to finally get some positive experiences from school, since at this rate, the poor girl's going to wind up envying Kuroki Tomoko's school life. o3o;

Cheers and hope you had fun with this review. I've been enjoying the ride with your new project thus far and from what I've seen thus far, I'm really looking forward to catching up with things over the course of this month. ^^
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Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Hey, back with another one of these, since what can I say? You have a way of writing gripping stories. My understanding is that this is the bit where the runway runs out and we crash head-first into the plot, so let's take a gander at what goes down here:

Chapter 8

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.

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.

Yuna: "You know, if you don't want to be with me, you don't have to do this, Shimmer." >_>;
Shimmer: "Well that much is obvious. Now come on, we're going whether you like it or not."

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.

Yuna: "... (You're just doing this because you're concerned about your grade if we fail at that defense, aren't you?)"
Shimmer: "I heard that."

"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."

Shimmer: "... You're a ghost, though."
Yuna: "Yes, but I'm a dragon ghost. The dragon part is where the meat comes in."
Shimmer: "Eh? But I could've sworn that Haxorus as Dragon-types were fruit eaters-?"
Robin: "That's Axew, Shimmer. It's ambiguous whether or not their diet stays the same after evolution."

"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.

Yuna: "... Wait, why are you three inching away uncomfortably right now?"
Xander: "Oh... no reason. (Barbarous freak.)"

"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.

Yuna: "Uh... remind me, there's no issues with lactose intolerance in this setting, right?"
Shimmer: "Weren't you and your attendants pigging out on quiches just a couple nights ago? I'm sure you'll survive a bit of cheese."
Yuna: "Right..."

"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.

Robin: "... She's really going to town on that thing."
Rufus: "Hey, ease up on the food there. If I didn't know better, I'd think you were literally using Bite to tear hunks of that sandwich off!"
Yuna: "(Oh shut up.)" >_>;

"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."

Vincent: "Just saying, your Team Bastion makes a great heel for the Crowne Cup!"
Yuna: "... Isn't that a concept from wrestling?" >_>;
Vincent: "Yeah? The concept still works for getting the crowd invested in a story!"

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."


I mean, that doesn't stop a bully from being on a glide path to the throne of Radiance, just saying.

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.

- Yuna is busy coughing and hacking from surprise, as Shimmer frowns -
Shimmer: "Hrmph, if I'd known you were going to react like this, I'd have stuck to backhanded compliments." -_-;

"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.

Yuna: "Wait, but your exam follows laws for the Kingdom of Radiance. I'm not that familiar with how your laws work here, am I?"
Reno: "Familiar enough if you made it into the same law class as Shimmer."
Yuna: "... (Have you ever considered that the alternative implication is that standards are just so lax that a foreigner can pass this exam with only modest preparation?)" >_>;

"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?"

Yuna: "Oh, so you are being nice to me with ulterior motives." >_>;
Shimmer: "Look, I didn't ask for this arrangement, okay? But I'm not going to endanger Uncle Benedict's good name just from personal ego."
Yuna: "(That's... actually kinda admirable of him. Sorta.)"

"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?"

Yuna: "Also, how on earth is it sustainable for the royal family to only ever raise one child? Doesn't that make you a massive magnet for kidnapping and assassination attempts? What would Radiance do if you accidentally got hit by a train or something?"
Shimmer: "Meh, it's worked out thus far. So why change things?"

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."

Yeeeeeah, I really doubt the terms of that peace treaty Calcifer and Yiazmat are considering are fair given the implication that the Aeons got yeeted out of lands that are now part of Radiance and how to this day, they still get bum treatment from the social class with the most power and cultural influence in Radiance.

"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."

Yuna: "... How do you C&D someone in a completely different legal jurisdiction with zero incentive to play along?"
Xander: "Never heard of 'gunboat diplomacy' before, princess? Works wonders when you have a massive technological advantage in your favor."
Yuna: "... Your realm would seriously risk military conflict for the interests of a corporate conglomerate?"
Xander: "Tch, of course. Just like any other civilized nation would."
Yuna: "(... On one hand, this is so many levels of wrong here. On the other hand kinda hard to argue he doesn't have a point from a pure realpolitik perspective.)"

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.

I have to wonder if there's a school of thought within the Aeon Kingdom's internal politics that's in full camp "lol, screw them and let them burn". Since from a certain frame of mind, giving that leverage up feels like such a horrible idea considering how you mentioned offhand in some prior commentary that Radiance was offering access to ether technology in return, it'd take years for the Aeon Kingdom to catch up technologically, and a Kingdom of Radiance that gets its domestic affairs in order is one that can divert more of its attention beyond its borders to pick fights.

Yuna: "(So then why have most 'mons I've run into here done their best to act like they don't have an existential threat looming over their head that they have no way of dealing with without that treaty?)" >_>;
- Yuna blinks and stares at Shimmer's fork -
Yuna: "Also, how are you holding that?" .-.

"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.

Yuna: "H-Hold on a moment! I might not be a legal expert, but that is not assault! That's textbook aggravated battery since it injured that Magmar with an implement intended to cause severe harm or death! That's literally the sort of thing that gets 'mons put away for the rest of their lives!"
Shimmer: "Yeah, well it's still 'assault' according to our legal codes, so it's still fair game for us."
Yuna: "(Bahamut's Light, what is wrong with this land?)" >_<

"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.

This part makes that earlier hipcheck read really differently now. I initially pegged Shimmer and Xander as having a very different dynamic with each other, but the more you know...

"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."

Wait a minute, is this an actual gameplay strategy from DGS? Since I know that they incorporated jurists into those games.

Yuna: "There's just one problem with your plan, Shimmer. What if the the jury pool was deliberately tilted towards Pokémon that would be unlikely to give your uncle a fair hearing based off their past life experiences or pre-existing prejudices?"
- Shimmer scoffs -
Shimmer: "Against a noble? On what planet would that ever happen? Let alone one as good-natured as Uncle Benedict?"
Yuna: "(I... wouldn't be so sure. If your Uncle really didn't have anything to do with this. It really, really sounds like someone was trying to set him up for murder.)"

"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.

Yuna: "(We are so doomed.)" ._.

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.

Yuna: "... How on earth are you able to see anything in this lighting, Chiaki? You don't have night vision like me either."
Chiaki: "... I have a Polaris-branded study light?"

"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.

Honestly, considering my own experiences in my SnS run with Punk Rock and Boomburst, I'd be inclined to believe Nikki there. Or at least that she'd have succeeded enough to knock a few other teams out of the running. Punk Rock basically makes Boomburst and Overdrive auto-delete attacks against a decent swath of Pokémon and Radiance's are supposed to be frailer than series default to boot.

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."

Yuna: "... That still sounds like cheating, you know." >_>;
Chiaki: "And I thought the entire point of your Boomburst gambit was so that we'd have all the time in the world to go through that maze!" >.<

"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: "Not that I don't doubt that Shimmer wouldn't be above cheating to get an edge in the Crowne Cup, but you do realize that even if you're being honest with us, breaking the rules in order to catch another rulebreaker would at best just have gotten us both disqualified, right?" -_-;
Nikki: "Yeah, but then I'd at least have the satisfaction of watching that smug horseface crash and burn."

>one failing attempt at trying to make her argument about the Crowne Cup later, Nikki decides to pull a Buneary out of her hat
"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?"

Yuna: "I mean, not that it'd really shock me if Shimmer cheated on a test, but isn't it more likely that he just came in with a hand cramp that day when taking the test?"
Nikki: "He has hooves, Princess." >_>;
Yuna: "Well, a hoof cramp then. Or brain cramp if he just levitates his pen with his mind or something."
Chiaki: "... I'm sorry, but assuming these are real, how do you even have these? Isn't getting caught with another student's test papers something you can get expelled for here?"

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?"

Nikki: "... No, I think that I've made it perfectly clear that my motive here is to see that arrogant ass get his."
Chiaki: "Tch, take a number. Though you're gonna need a hell of a lot more than that to move the needle."

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."

Oh, so the Kingdom of Radiance has something akin to alimenta in place, and Nikki is a beneficiary.

"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."

I mean, considering how there's one member of Shimmer's friend circle that doesn't have massive 'asshole' vibes, Yuna would probably do well to take Nikki's advice. Or at least at this point in time.

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."

Yuna: "(This 'mon really does cheat on his tests, doesn't he? Bahamut's Light, this isn't boding well for our odds defending Benedict.)" >_>;

"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."

Yuna: "Isn't this violating some sort of copyright?"
Shimmer: "Meh, there's at least 45 versions of this. What's another for our realm?"

"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.

There are a lot of implications from just those two paragraphs. Both from how much of a dick Shimmer is that of course he likes a show about humiliating randos on live TV. Also, the Aeon Kingdom is clearly quite a bit poorer than Radiance in purchasing power if a game show's winnings would be enough to buy out the estate of any Aeon noble. Surprised you didn't opt for either side to have 'gil' as their currency, but oh well, gotta have some distance from your sources of inspiration.

"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?

- Shimmer is busy pointing and laughing at the PV -
Shimmer: "Ha ha, loser!"
Yuna: "... (Yeah, not sure why I'm getting stuck in this binary of Nikki definitely being wrong just because of her stunt at the Crowne Cup, since Shimmer is really not helping his case here.)" >_>;

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.

Yuna: "So are you going to tell me and the readers what these 'Herbrides Lines' are?"
Shimmer: "While The Weakest Link is on? Please. Go and dig up an atlas if you want to find out so badly."

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.

Noctum: "... You realize you're not exactly a convincing liar, Princess."
Yuna: "Look Noctum, it's late and I... just really need to be somewhere else right now."

"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.

Yuna: "(That 'mon sure is confident about his ability to crack that jury since I can feel my motivation to defend his uncle slipping in real-time.)" >_>;

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?


I mean, I honestly doubt the apple fell far from the tree, but that's going the other way from what Yuna is expecting there.

Chapter 9

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."

Okay, I'm now curious what on earth Fraud did to him to make him into a Phantom.

"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."

So Val was right a couple chapters back.

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."

>are no longer sufficient to protect the kingdom's remaining cities
>the kingdom's remaining cities

Wait, over what timeframe has Radiance been losing entire cities to the Distortion? If this is recent, shouldn't there be more signs of obvious societal breakdown such as logistics fraying or commoners noping out en masse for the countryside?

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.

inb4 said energy source is sucking the literal life out of the planet to power streetlights

"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?"

Demerzel: "And you are not preparing the grid to redirect entirely to those barriers in the event of a shortage why?"
Vortex: "Because in case if you haven't noticed, our entire way of life is dependent on ether energy. If we do that, there won't be a civilization left for the barriers to defend. It'll unravel like an Ariados' web set aflame."

"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?"

Okay, this Project Icarus sounds significantly more sus than this ether source just being knockoff mako or Infinity Energy for Vortex to be this tight-lipped about it.

Accursed psychics. Now there was no sidestepping the issue. "The source… might be tied to the Darkest Day," Vortex conceded.

>Vortex's brilliant plan to end the energy crisis in Radiance is to use Eternatus as a glorified battery


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."

Vortex: "Also, have you ever considered that said defeat might not have been permanent? If my theory is right, then at most, Her Benevolence forced the World Ender into dormancy."
Seifer: "But why would that even-?!"

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.

I knew that that song was sus as hell. Now we have hard confirmation. Though how on earth has there been enough continuity of government for centuries for this to remain a dark secret that was never used as a cudgel for internal power politics?

"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?"

Demerzel: "Just one problem with your plan, among others. At the rate things are progressing, do you really think that you'll be able to get the masses open to questioning the narrative before their world around them comes unglued?"

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."

Demerzel: "For God's sake, 'mon, admit that aside from risking a legitimacy crisis, this is more than your little pet project can handle already!" >_>;

"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."

Time to break out the gif again:


>this ending bit with the escort service
I kinda pegged Vortex as more of a stress-drinker than a 'mon who got his stresses out this way, but I guess this helps for not showing up in the office obviously hung-over the next day.

"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."

Yuna: "Ngh! Wait, what?!"

"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."

Yuna: "But that means I slept through going through multiple train and bus stations." ._.;
Noctum: "Er... you were very tired and I didn't quite have the heart to wake you."
Seifer: "You'd have spared her the embarrassment if you had and just kept her up with tea afterwards, drake."

"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.

Just saying, with how steep the passes in the Aeon Kingdom sound, it probably would've been significantly less labor-intensive to just engage in terrace farming. It works wonders in places like Banaue in the Philippines which aren't exactly gentle, rolling hills themselves.

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?

Yuna: "I'm sorry, what? Why would you be proud of one of your ancestors making a monument to a figure called 'World Ender'? Like isn't that a giant, red flag that something's wrong?" >_>;

"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.

Yuna: "... Okay, admittedly that makes a kind of sense there. I guess. It's still creepy as hell."

"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.

Oh, so Zacian in this story has a "hero and champion" dynamic like with the Taos. Except the position of "hero" appears to be hereditary.

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.
Yuna: "Oh yeah... I really needed to remember that again."

"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."


I'm sorry, with how Radiance's entire version of events of their Darkest Day is apparently suspect, I just don't believe that.

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.

Use linothorax, or one better, proper kevlar for armor. Functional and relatively lightweight.

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?"

Yuna: "... Aren't you forgetting Snubbull and Granbull?"
Xander: "Meh, with an ugly mug like that, it'd have shown up in the figures on the hill if that were the case."
Random!Granbull Student: "Hey!"

>Radiance writes in Unown characters
Notch one more down for comparative linguistics. Though I have to wonder how their words are composed and if they're tightly paired to phonemes or if they work in the style of Pahlavi

"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.'"

Oh, so it's a message from whoever was there before the Darkest Day. Though those don't exactly sound like warm and inviting words there, especially given that if my memory serves me right, the Qliphoth are literally evil and impure spiritual forces in kabbalah

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.

Yuna: "(Did- Did I just have some sort of vision there?)" ._.

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.

Nikki: "Way to support your teammate, Twiggy." >_>;
Chiaki: "If you want support, maybe you should start by trying to do less stupid stunts!" >.<

"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: "... Do we even have firearms or crossbows in this setting? Otherwise how do we have that idiom?"
Chiaki: "... Bullet Seed, maybe? Anyhow, the point is that you're deflecting from the topic here."

"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.

Yuna: "Oh no, you again!"
Nikki: "'You again'? You mean you've met this thing before?" o_o

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.

Okay, I need to keep a running counter somewhere of Grovyle getting hand/arm injuries in stories. Since I'm aware of at least 3 instances thus far. :V

Yuna: "Uh... Chiaki? You're surprisingly... nonchalant about this." o_o;
Chiaki: "I'll explain later, but we've got bigger problems right now, alright?"

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."

Yuna: "Well, you kinda explained that for me... sorta. Though assuming we don't die here, you really owe me an explanation for how you got that in the first place."
Chiaki: "I swear to God, if Nikki starts calling me 'Stumpy'..." >_>;

"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."


Okay, add Cid to the sus-o-vision. Even if he and Xeromus are clearly not aligned even if they really are both followers of 'Natus'... assuming that was about Cid anyways, since the dialogue's a bit ambiguous.

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.

Well, that's certainly quite the cliffhanger to end on, but that's that for that chapter-

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.

Oh, so you're putting in little definitions for your mythology nods. Handy, especially since I know you touch on some subjects in later chapters that I'm not super familiar with.

Boy do I wish that I just had a few days off to just plow through the rest of this story, since that cliffhanger is such a tease and I want more. So good job there, @Ambyssin . I'm really looking forward to seeing where the next chapters (and IIRC, the proper kickoff to the main plot) takes things from here. ^^
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Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Alright, picking up from last time with a review of Chapters 10 + 11 to continue from that cliffhanger at the Herbrides Lines and jump into the core plot of the story:

Chapter 10

Cold. Coarse.

Yuna's hands brushed against rough ground that was as frigid as the stone floors of her parents' castle. She opened her eyes. A pile of gray sand greeted her. Yuna lifted her head. Sand streamed down from her horns. The dreepy looked around and found nothing but sand mounds.

"What… happened?" Her face scrunched up in thought. It took a few seconds, but she managed to recall exactly what went down. Yuna hadn't been alone when Xeromus showed up. "Nikki! Chiaki!" In a less certain voice, she added, "Seifer?"

Yuna: "Uh... what on earth just happened to me?"

"Your arm." She couldn't stop herself from pointing. "What— how— you're missing an arm!"

"Yeah. I noticed." Chiaki flapped his right sleeve. "That dick broke old Bold and Brash."

Yuna: "... You name your prosthetic limbs?" .-.
Chiaki: "Hey, if it's fair game to give names to weapons, it's fair game for me to name things that stand-in for natural ones. Besides what did you expect me to call it? 'Ebony and Ivory'?"

"What's not to understand? Never seen someone with a prosthetic arm?" Chiaki clicked his tongue.

"Uh, no." Yuna had read stories about pokémon with hooks for hands or wooden legs. But Chiaki's fake arm was eerily convincing. "We don't have things like that back home."

Yuna: "Uh... is anything else on you a prosthetic?" .-.
Chiaki: "Tch, what is this, life story hour?"

"Yeah, I can see that. 'Bold and Brash' was the prosthetic's name. The guy who built it called it a work of art."

Did the creator also put his portrait on it?

Yuna hovered toward him. "Why did you need a fake arm?" She tilted her head. "Did something happen to your real one?"

"How tactful." Chiaki's response dripped with sarcasm. "I was born without my right arm. That's all there is to it."

Can't tell if Chiaki's being honest or just giving a cover story to shut Yuna up there.

"No time for chitchat. We need to get a move on." Seifer stuck out his left forehoof. Yuna looked over her shoulder. Sandy mounds stretched ahead for at least a few hundred meters. And the whole place was surrounded by what looked like crisscrossing, red and purple tree branches. Parts of the branches sometimes swelled up as if they were going to burst before contracting.

"Where even are we?" Yuna followed the dome up, wondering if the exit was above them. The branches coalesced into a spiraling, crystal-covered plug. "And what about Nikki? And the monster that kidnapped her?"

Yuna: "Well, aside from the obvious that it's someplace that looks creepy and unnatural as hell." ._.;
Chiaki: "What do I look like? A tour guide to you? Your guess is as good as mine."

"And I was hoping you could answer that first one." Seifer narrowed his eyes and pointed his horn at Yuna's pendant. "Your gemstone exploded with light and suddenly we wound up in this place. Is this some sort of trick you dragons use?"

"What? No! I didn't— I wasn't trying to do anything." Yuna looked down guiltily and clasped the pendant. "I saw Nikki in trouble and I got really mad." She gestured above her. "Then this happened."

"Is that so?" Seifer's furrowed brow deepened. "Because your people claim to be so good at fighting off distortion. So, it doesn't sound unreasonable to think Aeons can jump into mystery dungeons on a whim."

Yuna: "... What? Even if that was possible, why would anyone want to do that?" >_>;
Seifer: "Well, you could always answer the question for us, dragon."

"Wait, that's where you think we are?" Yuna looked around again. The gray sand had a red and purple tint to it. Undoubtedly from the glowing branches. Why were they even glowing, anyway? It was almost like they were full of fluid. "Hang on. I was always told that mystery dungeons are areas of chaotic distortion. Like, y'know, not something you can easily visualize."

"Not exactly." Seifer marched up to Yuna, avoiding eye contact. "There is land. But terrain can be radically warped without warning."

"Which is why it's in our best interest to get moving." Chiaki put his claws against the breast pocket on his shirt and pressed against the rose insignia.

Yuna: "... (Wait a minute, how do these two know this?)"

Blue ripples spread across his clothing. A worn blue jean jacket and black t-shirt replaced his dress shirt. Black jeans overtook his legs. He adjusted the bag slung across his back.

Cid floated after Chiaki. "You had a fake outfit?" His spots flashed white. "I've heard of this before. But it's usually something sold at novelty or party shops."

"Heard of it?" Chiaki rolled his eyes. "You never celebrated Hollow's Eve?"

Yuna: "... How on earth is it doing that, Chiaki?" .-.
Chiaki: "Magic. Ether. Probably."
Yuna: "And how much do one of those things run again-?"
Chiaki: "If you have to ask, you probably can't afford it."
Cid: "(That's probably an overstatement given party shops have these things, but we're getting off into the weeds here.)"

"Well…" Cid trailing off and rubbing his shoulder told Yuna all she needed to know. Though she could scarcely believe it, either. He almost looked like Nikki in that outfit. There were questions she could've asked. Should've asked. But all she did was stare as the grovyle pulled a grooved metal cylinder ending in a hook from his bag.

"Looks like the Hooker's getting a field test." Chiaki pushed his right sleeve up and pressed the base of the cylinder against the metal stump on his elbow. Metal bolts clicked into place. Hydraulic presses vented steam and the cylinder whirred to life. Chiaki opened and closed the hook on the end, grimacing.

>the Hooker
Quality naming there, Chiaki.

Yuna: "... Wait, just how many of those things do you carry around in your bag?"
Chiaki: "As many as I need."

Yuna frowned. "Then why do you have it?" She strongly doubted he needed it because his dad owned a newspaper.

To her surprise, Chiaki looked at Seifer instead of her. "No particular reason. Maybe I like to parkour in my free time? Grappling hooks are good for wall runs."

Even though she didn't know what parkour referred to, Yuna got the sense that was a lame joke.

Seifer: "... Aren't you a gecko? Shouldn't wall runs be second nature to you-?"
Chiaki: "Need I remind you that I weigh close to 50 pounds? Simple suction isn't gonna keep me on anything with that sort of weight."

Yuna pointed left. "Then why not go that way? It's faster."

In response, Seifer wet the sand under his hooves and rolled it into a ball. He passed it to Chiaki, who hurled it to the group's left. A sand mound erupted and a black, fiery geyser effortlessly dissolved the ball. It was so startling, Yuna's torso practically shrank back into her head.

"That's why." Seifer continued forward. "Our best way out of here is to find a rift. They're sporadic and can appear just about anywhere."

Yuna: "Uh... not that I'm not seeing your point there, but how on earth did you know that trap would be there?"
Seifer: "Well, when something just feels too easy, it usually is."

"You mean like the thing right behind us?"

Yuna whirled around to find a fearful Cid backing away from what appeared to be the very air in front of him breaking apart into fragments. Three bursts of black smoke with pulsating white gemstones emerged from the rift. They were eerily similar to the ashen clouds vented by sulfur plumes in Yuna's home, except they weren't floating up into the sky.

One cloud sent a black energy beam straight at Cid. The orbeetle barely had the time to create a psychic barrier, which nearly cracked under the pressure.

"Phantoms!" Seifer cried. A Secret Sword crescent raced past Yuna, rippling her ectoplasm and sending her torso retreating back into her head. The red beam struck the lead Phantom's white core. It exploded in a burst of black and white smoke. The other Phantoms' shadows coalesced around their cores, distorted energy charging for more strikes.

Seifer: "Obviously not like that if Phantoms are pouring out of it!" >_>;(edited)

It wasn't until the rift grew closer that she realized someone else had decided for her. Chiaki's claws were draped over her left eye. Intense heat struck her back, accompanied by a pair of abruptly cut-off screeches.

Before she could ask Chiaki what he was doing, she slipped from his grip and tumbled down a purple and red abyss. Yuna screamed as a second rift drew closer, until the light on the other side of it swallowed her up.

Chiaki: "Uh... Maybe?"
Yuna: "'MAYBE?!'" >.<
Chiaki: "Look, I'm sorry, would you rather get wrecked by Phantoms or take a little leap of faith here?"

Noctum would be the first to admit he'd done plenty of stupid things in his life. Sticking his tail into an icy lakebed while begging for a loaf of bread that he'd later learn was stale? Dumb. Trying to cook a decaying mareep carcass he happened to find while roaming the badlands? Boneheaded. Modeling jewelry for Queen Yiazmat because he had the "most feminine figure" of all the servants? Ridiculous.

Uh... two of those things sound significantly more dire than the third. ^^;

Though I wonder if those first two memories are from before Calcifer took him in or if the Aeon Kingdom is just that cash-strapped.

However, all that paled in comparison to trying to fly with a concussion. At least, he thought he had a concussion. Because instead of clusters of trees below him, all he saw were messy swathes of green spinning around one another. And it didn't help he was still trying to piece together exactly what had happened.

One moment, he was beside the princess. The next, the hulking bewear that was Professor Monokuma yanked his head out of a splintered tree trunk. After throwing up the danish he scarfed down for breakfast, Noctum learned Yuna had vanished.

"You should've stayed behind, Charizard. Your face is losing its color."

Noctum: "Uh... considering my present condition, wouldn't it be safer to get towed kinda like a kite and not have to worry about steering?"

To his left, Corviknight piped up. "Yeah, don't expect a rescue service if you decide to keel over in midair. It's bad enough having to carry the brat."

"How dare you!" Shimmer bonked Corviknight's head with a forehoof.

"Word to the wise, Dimmer Switch, don't conk your airborne lift," Corviknight scoffed. "Otherwise, we'll be scraping your pancaked ass off the ground with one of them novelty spatulas."

"Enough, Griffon." Vegna's eye flashed.

Noctum: "... To be fair the crow's kinda got a point. I mean, this is a good hundred-plus foot drop-"
Vegna: "I said enough already!"

"Because Yuna's my partner for Uncle Benedict's trail." Shimmer wrinkled his snout. "I need to know exactly what's going on. I'm not going to let my grade tank because she pulled a disappearing act."

"Ladies and gentlemen, your Crown Prince," Griffon deadpanned.

Did... we just get an (indirect) admission from him that he's basically expecting Yuna to carry him through that trial?

Whatever rebuttal he had was choked down by a fresh wave of nausea. He squeezed his snout with a hand and tasted vomit for the second time. Noctum managed to force it back down. He'd stomached much worse in the past. That mold-ridden prime rib he dumpster dove for years ago sprang to mind.


Just how widespread is chronic malnutrition in the Aeon Kingdom anyways for Noctum to have so many memories of scrounging for spoiled and rotting food?

"Exactly what lead are we pursuing?" Noctum somehow managed to get the full question out.

"The Herbrides Needle." Vegna descended. Griffon had to slow up to help steer Noctum in the right direction. Now there were gray streaks breaking apart the green swathes. The charizard actually made out grass surrounding a gravel road. "I saw some cloaked figure running with Miss Nicolette in their grasp. They let slip the word Needle."

Ohhh boy, considering what happened with the last one, that doesn't bode well.

And Noctum really wasn't sure how long they'd flown for. He could've gone faster, but not with his head pounding like a kommo-o pack beating their chests in a group Clangorous Soublaze.

Aha. I see that Z-moves are a thing in this setting too. I actually never knew that Kommo-o got that added as part of USUM, but the more you know. 'Blazing Soulbeat' rolls off the tongue a bit better, though.

The gravel road approached. Noctum struggled to swing his legs forward for a proper landing. Fortunately, a sickly purple bubble rosed from the ground to cushion what would've been a nasty belly flop. Noctum looked right to find Vegna stretching out his right arm so Talonflame could land on it.

Minor typo there, chop the extra 'd'.

"We told you to stay back for a reason." Griffon hovered about a meter off the ground. Shimmer, however, hopped off his back. "But no. The big, bad charizard's gotta show how manly he is by toughing it out even though he's totally useless in this situation."

"The princess… is my responsibility." Noctum dizzily stepped forward. "I have to look into this." He couldn't rest until he knew she was safe or at least able to be rescued.

"Yeah. Sure. Enjoy your brownie points." Griffon turned to Vegna. "There are Radiant Guard at the checkpoint up ahead, V."

Is the bit in bold a thing in British English? I sanity checked this to make sure I wasn't tripping, but at least in American English, the form of a verb for collective nouns tracks whether the collective noun it's for is in singular form or not unless if you're emphasizing the component individuals. In this case, it'd be "There's/There is Radiant Guard at the checkpoint up ahead"

Noctum: "B-Brownie points?! This is literally my job here!" >:|
Griffon: "Yeah? And how's that one been working out?"

"At least tell me what will happen if we can't find her," Shimmer said. "I'm not failing the first assignment of the year because of her stupidity."

Noctum really wished he could deck Shimmer. "None of this is Yuna's fault."

Griffon: "Take a number, Charizard."
Shimmer: "Hey! What's that supposed to mean?!"

"That counts as not being silent," Griffon mused. Talonflame cawed angrily at the corviknight. Noctum briefly wondered if there'd be bird-on-bird violence. Vegna kept the strangest company. Maybe he was a bird before he died and had his spirit recycled into a ghost-type?

Or he's just whatever the equivalent of a furry/scalie for birds is.

"Yuna's situation changes nothing about the trial." Vegna returned his gaze to Shimmer. "I was planning to sit on this until after the field trip, but given things have derailed, I guess I can pass the news along."

Shimmer stopped walking. "What news?"

"The magmar victim in the case passed away yesterday," Vegna declared. "Your so-called uncle's being charged with murder."

Cue the record scratch

It was faint, but Noctum swore some of the luster in Shimmer's horn and mane dimmed. "No way…"

"Did I stutter?" Vegna growled. Talonflame snorted smoke at Shimmer. "The case was reassigned to the Crowne Courte and a new inquisitor requisitioned for the investigation. You and Princess Yuna are welcome to assist, but you won't be leading any defense." He shook his head. "Not that you were ever going to."

Now it was Noctum's turn to be confused. Hadn't Yuna spent yesterday fretting about this assignment? "But you told Yuna—"

"I lied."

Shimmer: "We- We what?"

Noctum: "How does this violate a bunch of different legal and educational standards of ethics here?"

"You heard him, Dimmer!" Griffon landed in front of the ponyta. "You got tricked, hoodwinked, bamboozled, and… uh, other phrases I'm too lazy to think up." He pointed a wing at Shimmer. "You should see the look on your dumb face right now. Hoo! You got 'em good, V. Got 'em good."

"Then what was that whole routine in class about?" Shimmer's face and horn reddened. "Wait until I tell Mother about. She'll be fuming! You gave us badges and everything!"

"News flash: she already knew." Griffon tapped a wing to his temple. "In fact, she encouraged V to dupe you. Said you deserved a slice of humble pie."

Not that Shimmer doesn't deserve this, but man does that make Isola suddenly seem sus. Since if she's willing to knowingly let her own child get deceived... who else is she okay with pulling a fast one on?

A glass floor was beneath her. Sparkling silver liquid bubbled underneath. On either side, arched walls made from the same alien branches as the room Yuna had escaped from. The hallway stretched on, bathed in multicolored lights that danced around the glass.

"What the hell is this place?"

Chiaki walked up beside her, rubbing his fake arm with his real claws. "Are those stained-glass windows? In a mystery dungeon?"

"I don't get it either," Seifer replied, much to Yuna's relief. She turned around to find the keldeo standing opposite Cid. Each looked at different stained-glass murals. "The mystery dungeons I've done rescues in before looked more like the place we fled from. Not… this."

Yuna: "Do... Mystery Dungeons retain pieces of things they absorbed in the past? If so, maybe this dungeon at one time swallowed up some sort of temple or the like."
Seifer: "Clearly not if we're all finding this strange."

Yuna looked down the hallway. There wasn't any sort of door at the end, though she should've figured as much. Instead, there was an upside-down statue. Two dragonair coiling around one another and touching their snouts together. It might've looked nice in her parents' castle, but what was it doing here? And hanging from the ceiling, no less.

The more she took in of the hallway, the more it brought to mind the temples back home. Sure, there was less gold and silver, but there were halls brimming with statues and stained-glass windows of Bahamut and His Luminous Sages.


Boy that took a weird turn. Since all I can ask is how?

"Professor." Chiaki caught Yuna's attention despite calling for Cid. He was standing a few meters ahead of her, pointing his hook at another mural. Yuna floated up to him along with Cid. "This mural's got some of the same symbols you pointed out at the Herbrides Lines."

"Ah, you're right." Cid pointed to the bottom of the window, where curves and straight lines crisscrossed one another. "This one's 'Qliphoth,' if I'm not mistaken."

"And that loon that kidnapped the toxtricity mentioned Qliphoth." Seifer tapped a forehoof. "Then… maybe they really are connected."

"Perhaps 'Qliphoth' refers to mystery dungeons themselves?" Cid theorized. "An entire realm where the laws of nature do not work as we know them."

I see MDs in this world are Gates/Super-spec based off those last comments.

Yuna, however, was more drawn to the top of the mural. Jagged golden panes surrounded a ring with five diamonds on its border. World Ender's sigil. What was that doing in something that could pass as part of a temple?

Around the golden panes were rainbow stars. The longer Yuna looked at them, the more it seemed like the stars were moving.

No, she wasn't imagining it. They were moving. Arranging themselves next to one another. And their colors unraveled to spell something out.


Yuna: "Cid wasn't kidding about that 'realm where the laws of nature do not work as we know them' bit given that freaky show there." ._.;

"Noatun." It slipped out. Yuna only realized she said it when the others looked at her in confusion.

"Noa-what?" Chiaki frowned. "Are you about to pass out on us again?"

"No. It's… that's what's written on the window." Yuna pointed up. "Don't you see it? The stars spell out Noatun."

Chiaki shook his head. "You're seeing things. There aren't any letters in the mural." He stepped back. "More importantly, it doesn't look like there are any rifts here. So, we ought to keep moving."

Ah, so this is the Norse-themed dungeon. Since I recognize Noatun as being a mythological ship enclosure which IIRC is a god's domain.

Yuna: "What? But the stars are literally right there!"
Chiaki: "I don't see squat, Princess. Now come on, let's get going."
- Yuna looks up at the glass and stares blinking -
Yuna: "(I'm not going crazy, am I? It's really there, isn't it?)"

"Hang on. I think I might be able to help here." Cid put his right hand against his forehead. "I learned to use Dynascan in school. It was meant to be for things like archaeology digs, but I think it can help here."

Seifer raised a brow. "You have Dynaforce?"

Yuna couldn't tell from his tone if the keldeo was impressed or concerned. Nevertheless, Cid's spots released beacons of pink light. A pink eyeball silhouette materialized over his head. Identical silhouettes overtook his spots, before they all fizzled away in red, smoky trails. Yuna looked around, but nothing had changed. What was the point of that?

Wait, what is Dynascan anyways? Since I don't believe this concept has been explained before in-story.

"Ah. Sorry." Yuna tucked her hands in and hovered to Seifer's side. Chiaki nudged each dragonair head with his claws. The left one moved, so he twisted it until a snap echoed through the hallway.

Purple lines rippled through the statue. The empty space between the dragonair distorted and the space the statue occupied seemed to break apart. Yuna tensed up. Another rift. Were these rifts the only way to get places around here?

"See anything?" Cid asked.

Seifer stepped forward. "We have to go through the rift. Brace yourselves." The keldeo hopped into the portal.

Yuna: "... I feel as if I should be asking Seifer how on earth he knows this is safe, since all of these portals feel like leaps of faith to me."
Seifer: "Well, they kinda are. Now hurry!"

Yuna's gills curled up. She glanced at Cid, who pointed to the other side of the ceiling, where Nikki stood with their back to the group. However, any relief was quickly stamped out when Yuna realized Xeromus stood beside the toxtricity.

"How delightful!" Xeromus coughed loudly and sucked in a sharp breath. "I wasn't sure what to make of that energy spike I sensed, but here you are. I didn't give you a door, so you made one yourself to take in the Qliphoth, just like I suggested."

Yuna: "Wait- I- I did what?!" O.O
Seifer: "So you did drag us in here. I suppose that's what I get for trusting a dragon." >_>;

Xeromus sighed. "Really now? You stand in Noatun, the Qliphoth's sacred hall of worship, and all you can think of is spewing such blasphemy?" He shook his head, wheezing. "Your authority is a façade and the ether has blinded you to your ability to realize it. But the Qliphoth can purify those poisonous thoughts. Even if you won't open your heart to Natus' nurturing embrace, the Paradigm will guide you."

>place literally named after concept of spiritual impurities that obscure holiness
>purifying anything


Instead, she waited for Xeromus to make a move. However, it was Nikki who turned around and slammed her hands onto her gills. Yuna stared into toxtricity's empty eyes while Chiaki and Seifer barely managed to get Protect barriers up. The Boomburst still pushed them to the ceiling's outer rim. Cid's pained hollers echoed through the hall.

"What are you doing, Nikki? Stop it!" Yuna cried.

Yuna: "Oh that's not concerning at all." O_O;

"Your words can't reach her." Xeromus' gray eyes flickered blue. A pool of shadows swallowed him up. Blue light rippled above Yuna. She glanced up. A blue serpent had traced itself into the stone floor.

Before she could work out what was going on, Seifer shouted, "Princess, look out!"

Yuna looked down in time to see Nikki lunging for her, outstretched fist full of electricity.

This would've been a real good time to have a teammate with Lightningrod as an ability.

Path of Valor Almanac Herbrides takes inspiration from the Hebrides, an archipelago to the west of Scotland. In Norse mythos, Nóatún is home to the god Njörðr, who's associated with seafaring, winds, fishing, wealth, and crops.

Ah, I was actually wondering re: the Herbrides last time, though nice to have confirmation that it is indeed based off the Hebrides. And so that's who crashes in Noatun. Fitting for a place whose name means "ship-enclosure"

Chapter 11

Yuna braced for a painful electrical shock, but instead heard Nikki's garbled wails. She poked an eye open. Seifer stood in front of her protectively. Nikki lay a couple of meters away, water dripping from her jacket.

"You all right?" Seifer asked without looking back.

"Yes." At best, a half-truth. Physically she was fine. Mentally not so much. Her ectoplasm quivered. And she was struggling to understand why this was happening.

Seifer: "You know you can just say 'no', Princess." >_>;

Before Nikki had the chance to stand up, Chiaki swooped in with a surprising burst of speed. Rather than using any specific attack, he kicked her in the side and sent her tumbling across the floor. "You can't take all of us, you idiot!" he growled. "Whatever that freak did to your head… fight it."

Yuna: "Bahamut's Light, you can't be serious, Chiaki." >.<
Chiaki: "And why not?"
Yuna: "Well for one, you and Nikki can barely go 5 minutes without either insulting each other or getting into an argument. Why on earth would you think she'd listen to an 'I know you're in there somewhere' spiel from you?"

Nikki abruptly jerked to her left. "You hit me!" Her voice was heavily distorted. She jerked right. "You hit me!"

"You attacked first, numbskull," Chiaki said. The look on his face suggested he shared Yuna's concern.

"You hit me! You hit me!" Nikki hunched over, panting and slobbering like a wound-up feral manectric. Her mohawk glowed a sickly purple. She rose into the air on a pillar of purple ooze, then dropped to the ground.

Yuna: "Uh... she can't use that Boomburst thing against us can she? Or worse, Overdrive?"

Chiaki: "... M-Maybe it won't occur to her in this state?"

To the group's horror, Nikki slammed her hands on the ground. Another Boomburst shockwave rippled out. With their Protects fizzling out, there was nothing Chiaki and Seifer could do to shield themselves. Thinking quickly, Yuna darted toward Seifer with Quick Attack speed to back her up. She absorbed some of the blow, but there was still enough lingering force to upend Seifer.

Chiaki: "Well crap."

However, rather than trying to stick the landing, Chiaki's fake arm whirred to life. His hook shot out toward Nikki with a long metal chain. Nikki flopped down on her stomach. Chiaki's eyes widened when, despite Nikki's dodge, the Hooker grabbed onto the air above her.

It was enough to slow Chiaki's fall and let him land safely. Chiaki tugged his right arm briefly and encountered heavy resistance. On top of that, the floor above them rumbled like a distant thundercloud.

"What the hell?" Chiaki and Yuna looked up to see the serpent insignia shifting from blue to red.

"Chiaki! Princess!" Cid called, his spots glowing. "There's something inside the floor. I think it's a ghost-type!"

Chiaki: "Fantastic. Any other things that could be going wrong for us right about now?" >_>;

The floor rumbled again. Yuna watched it fracture around the serpent. Some of the segments dropped down, dangling by clusters of brown shadows.

"You found me?" The segment with the serpent's head twitched in midair. "You found me! You found m— aargh!"

Scalding water blasted the face piece. Seifer stepped to Yuna's side once again. "Professor, can you use Dynascan again? I've never seen anything like this!"

"There's no need." Cid's spots glowed brighter. "I thought I recognized that serpent crest. That's a runerigus!"

Yuna: "Wait, so then is that thing possessing Nikki right now?" O_O;
Cid: "Uh... that would seem to be where things are pointing towards, yes."

Oh no! Yuna darted toward the outside of the ceiling. "Chiaki, run! It's trying to crush you!"

A gust of wind appeared around Chiaki. Aerial Ace, from what Yuna could tell. But used to dash far to his left instead of attack.

Yuna: "Wait, you can do that with Aerial Ace?"
Chiaki: "You can in this story, anyways."

"You avoided me? You avoided me!" Runerigus shrieked. It dragged its stone segment across the ground, scratching up the stained-glass ceiling. Seifer wasn't fast enough this time, and was sent rolling over toward Yuna.

"I don't think the floor can take much more of this." Chiaki opened his mouth, but Runerigus raised its midsection right before Bullet Seeds would've pelted it.

Chiaki: "Also, what the hell's with that 'question and exclamation' speech pattern that thing's got going on?"

"No! Chiaki!" Yuna's immediate thought was the impact shattered his spine and killed him. Relief flooded her when Chiaki shakily raised his real arm, only to have it drop by his side.

"You got beat by me! You got beat by me!" Runerigus giggled excitedly as it continued repeating the phrase. Yuna gulped. If Chiaki was still alive, why wasn't it going for the killing blow? And what about Nikki? She was out cold, too.

"Princess! Commander! By my estimations, our floor can't withstand another blow of that magnitude." From the perimeter, Cid pointed to where Chiaki lay. Sure enough, the cracks in the glass were spreading toward the ones Runerigus had made earlier.

Yuna: "I guess that'd explain why it's not going for a killing blow right now."

"R-Right!" Cid nervously hovered forward. "Excuse me! Mr. Runerigus, sir? Before you turn me into a pile of mush, might I ask you a question?"

Runerigus lowered its headpiece toward Cid. "You're insulting me?" it growled.

"No, not at all. J-Just, as a historian, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity." Cid forced a fake laugh. "I'd be remiss if I didn't try to learn as much about you as possible."

"You're insulting me!" Runerigus raised its headpiece. Cid screamed and threw up a pink shield to try and protect himself.

Cid: "More like 'I'm stalling you, I'm stalling you', but who's counting?"

"Dynageyser," Seifer replied, hunching over to catch his breath. The rain washed the dust and debris from his medals and uniform.

Oh, so it was more of that Dynaforce stuff she heard mention of. "But wait… won't the rain weaken the floor even more?"

Seifer jolted upright, his cheeks flushing. He must not have thought about that. Fortunately, the clouds cleared away, taking the rain with them. In their stead, Runerigus' segments dangled from the floor. The serpent head disappeared.

Seifer: "S-See! All worked out fine there!"

Yuna: "(Oh my god, did this moron seriously use an attack without considering whether or not it'd break the glass we're standing on and yeet us into the abyss?!)" >.<
Chiaki: "You know you're not that good at whispering, Yuna. But yes, yes he did."

Why did she have to be so weak? Why couldn't she keep anyone safe? Even if they made it back to Herbrides, how could she face the other students? Her family? Her kingdom?

I just… want to make a difference for once!

Another burning feeling took over Yuna's head. Yuna hunched over and thrust her arms toward her teammates, as if she was trying to grab hold of them despite being separated by a good distance. Two shadowy clouds formed next to her. They extended toward Yuna's teammates until they'd taken the shape of a pair of black, ectoplasmic wings.

Just when it looked like Runerigus would fall on top of her teammates, the wings wrapped themselves around Chiaki, Cid, and Nikki. They held the trio between six red spikes. Without even thinking, Yuna brought her hands up. The wings mimicked Yuna's gesture, hurling everyone but Seifer to the other side of the ceiling's perimeter.

Okay, I recognize that bit of description I bolded very well from a one-shot I wrote earlier this year. Did she just summon Giratina from that pendant of hers?

Runerigus then crashed into the ceiling, shattering the glass. A distorted purple shockwave rippled out from the glass shards. The entire room flipped itself all around Yuna. It was so startling, she wound up dropping out of the air and onto the floor. The actual floor. Cold, gray, and made of rough stone that stung as it brushed her ectoplasm.

"Oogh." Yuna sat up. A wave of vertigo crashed over her, forcing her to lie back down. She waited a few seconds for the room to stop spinning. When it did, Yuna found the stained-glass ceiling was perfectly intact above her.

Yuna: "I mean, not that it applies to me since I'm made of ectoplasm, but how did a fall from that height not kill everybody?"

That got her to sit up. She definitely didn't imagine all of that. Did beating Runerigus make the cathedral turn back to normal? Oh, it didn't matter. The dreepy was exhausted. "Guys?" Yuna floated into the air. "Everyone okay?"

"My ribs," Seifer wheezed to her left. The keldeo was draped over the back of a stone bench like a living dish towel. Nikki and Chiaki lay side by side several meters behind Yuna, with Cid floating above them. His massive head vibrated. Perhaps that was how orbeetle showed they were nervous?

"Princess?" Cid tapped his fingers together nervously. "You… you rescued us, didn't you?"

Yuna: "(Okay, so that's an obvious 'no' to the first question, and we should really get Seifer looked at.) And uh... maybe? Kinda hard to tell since we're still stuck here in this Mystery Dungeon."

"I saw it." Wincing, Seifer gingerly slid off the bench. "You thrust your arms forward and summoned giant ghost wings." He took a cautious step back. "What was that? Some sort of dark Aeon magic? It wasn't any attack I've ever seen."

Nah, it's just Yuna being true to her namesake and calling forth an Aeon. :^)

"I see." Seifer shook out his disheveled hair. "This is the second time you've claimed some strange phenomenon happened because you got angry. If you ask me, I think you're hiding something."

Yuna was about to retort when a loud groan sounded behind her. She turned around and, to her horror, saw Runerigus lying in front of the cathedral pulpit. Its stone segments quivered.

Seifer: "... Also, if you really do know whatever freaky black magic you used back there. Now would be a good time to use it again." ._.;

"… you… beat me?" The head segment turned to Yuna. "You traitor. You cannot stop us." Runerigus tried to drag itself forward, but couldn't manage. "You will pay. Nos vera Natus! Nos… vera… Natus!"

The head piece went limp. Runerigus' body shrank down, releasing black steam that coalesced above it. Briefly, a black, crystalline mask resembling a dragon skull formed in the middle of the shadows. It instantly shattered and the fragments dissolved away.

"Hey, look at that." Cid hovered toward Yuna. "Runerigus turned into a cofagrigus."

Oh, is Galarization a form of corruption in PoV? If so, what dictates whether a Galar form is natural or not in-story?

Seifer's eyes widened. "Wait a second." He walked toward Cofagrigus, wincing with every step. "This is the man that fiend Xeromus threw into the distortion when he attacked me a few nights ago. Sergeant Rune." The keldeo was in too much pain to properly kneel down and examine him. "Professor, can you sense any energy from him?"

"Mmm. It's faint, but there's a spark," Cid replied.

"That's good." Seifer bit his lip. "Though it's horrifying how much the distortion warped him."

I suppose I should've known better than to assume Rune would've been killed off permanently given his namedrop, but it's nice to see him back again. Even if it's TBD if he'll stick around for much longer.

"Right. Well, just because Rune is safe doesn't mean we're out of trouble," Seifer said, face scrunched up. "Those two students are clearly hurt, but I lost my supplies when we got flung into the mystery dungeon." He glanced at Rune. "We need a way out. With three unconscious and my injuries, we're as vulnerable as a beached magikarp."
Yuna: "But I did rescue you all earlier, right?"

Yuna looked to Seifer for some indication he knew what Cid was talking about. His jaw hung open. "It can't be. That's… the Herbrides Needle?"

"Needle?" Yuna failed to see the likeness. Then again, all she saw was bright light. Light that was… getting closer?

No, wait. She was floating toward it. But why? She wasn't telling her body to move! What was the meaning of this? And why was her pendant glowing again?

"Princess, what are you doing?" Seifer called. "Don't go near the Needle! It's not meant to be touched!"

Cid looked ready to try and block her. Without thinking, Yuna charged forward with Quick Attack. She planted both her hands on the red gemstone sitting atop the metal rod. When she did, a column of blue fire surrounded her and swallowed her up with the Needle.


Just saying, I'm side-eyeing that pendant pretty hard right now.

She uncurled her large, deep blue wings and let their spectral membranes brush against the dew-covered grass. Above her was a blue, sunny sky. She'd never seen anything like it before. It was nothing like the twisted projections within the Qliphoth. And that meant… she must've made it.

She escaped. She was free.

A laugh escaped trembling lips. The endless patrols. The imprisoning of rebellious spirits. It was all behind her. Finally.

Except… what planet had she even ended up on? She tried lifting her head, but pain jolted down to the golden tip of her crescent

Oh, hello Lunala

… right. A Malice Cannon had struck her while she fled through deep space. She had gotten a portal open, but that was all she remembered before blacking out.

Oh? And what exactly is this?

"Oh gosh! Oh golly! Oh goodness!" "Huh?" Despite the pain, her psychic sense kicked up at an unfamiliar, nasally male voice. Her eyes glowed pink, but she lacked the power to open her third eye. She sensed… a fiery aura. One mixed with dragon. She tried sitting up again to no avail.

The temperature around her spiked, then a reshiram landed just in the periphery of her vision. This one looked quite nervous. Tapping his claws together and shifting from one foot to another. He had an awful case of bed head. A far cry from the usual luscious locks she'd seen on other reshiram. Had he just woken up?

I see PoV's Reshiram maps properly with its expected Tao attribute. I swear that most people just opt to go for the Word of God design notes re: what gender vibe the design was intended to give off, so this is a bit of a fresh experience.

"Are you okay, Miss… um…" Reshiram tilted his head. Nervous or not, his soft, blue eyes glistened more than any other reshiram's eyes she'd ever looked at. Probably a result of not spending eternity in the Qliphoth. "Actually, this is kind of awkward. What even are you?"

What kind of question was that? Oh, right. Matriarch told her about this. The outsiders would not have anything to compare her to.

Should she give her name, then?

Same bit as re: Malice Cannon here. I get the feeling this'll be important, but part of me is feeling as if there ought to be more of a hint at what this entails even if it's not time to reveal it to the audience.

"Oh no." Reshiram knelt down. The pendant around his neck bristled against his tangled fur. Its eight-pointed star glistened under the sunlight. "You didn't lose your memories, did you?"

Oh hey, it's the missing half of that sigil Yuna said she remembered from home.

He stood back up and lightly bonked his temples with his wings. "Cecil, you nitwit! Look at the size of that crater! Did all of Bahamut's instructions go completely in one ear frill and out the other? Assess the scene, get the injured immediate aide, then ask the questions." He smacked his face harder. "Stupid, stupid, stupid!"

So if this is Cecil, I take it that Zekrom is Rosa? Since just saying, Cecil and Rosa are as natural a FF pairing as the Taos are with each other.

Reshiram froze mid-face smack. "Lunala?" He rubbed his snout with a claw. "Not ringing any bells. But I can discuss that with Bahamut and the others when we get back."

"Get back?" Lunala's red eyes glowed. "I'm not about to run off with a stranger."

"No, no, you misunderstand." Reshiram waved his wings in front of his face. "My friends and I saw you fall from outer space. I'm a fast flier, so I went ahead to scout and see if I could find you." He extended his right wing toward her. "You seem hurt. There are people at home who can heal you. And then we can talk… if you like, of course."

Cecil sure is welcoming to total strangers from beyond the stars there.

If she refused, she'd be stuck by herself in some field on an unknown planet. What did she have to lose?

Cecil: "♫ Not even a distant land you're stuck on a whole different planet~ ♫"
Lunala: "Cecil?"
Cecil: "Yeah?"
Lunala: "Not helping right now." >_>;
Cecil: "Er... sorry."

Groaning, Yuna rolled around the crystalline floor of the small, circular room that held the now-missing Needle. What was that vision? Nothing about it made sense… except for Saint Reshiram, of course. And yet, he looked nothing like his depictions in the scriptures. So unscrupulous. And he had a name? Cecil?

"Well, to be fair, that was the name I had when I was a commoner. Y'know, before I took over the whole Sage of Truth gig from my teacher."

Oh, okay. That made perfect sense.

… wait, no it didn't! Why was the reshiram's voice from the dream in her head?!

Yuna: "Wait a minute, so then did that entire freaky sequence back there actually happen?" o_o;

Yuna abruptly sat up and looked around. The room was full of black crystals. They were absorbing the light from the cathedral, giving the place a warped and jagged appearance. She tucked her head down to see her pendant glowing.

"Huh. You're a dreepy? What are you doing with a Soul Dew? No, scratch that. Why am I even in a Soul Dew?!"

Oh, so that's what Yuna's pendant is. I take it that it's not just a Latii thing in PoV.

Yuna's pendant glowed. Orange and white streams of light funneled out and coalesced into Saint Reshiram himself. The very same fuzz-covered dragon she laid eyes on in the dream. Well, not quite. He was much smaller. And kind of see-through?

Yuna blinked once. Twice. She smacked her cheek.

Nope, she wasn't dreaming anymore. Which meant…

"You're… you're Saint Reshiram." The dreepy shakily pointed to him. "It's really you! The scriptures are true after all."

Yuna: "... Well, minus about 7 feet of height and with this freaky hologram thing going on."

"Is… is that a… Qliphoth Rift?" Reshiram's fur frazzled. His tail engine crackled. He fanned his face with a wing. "Oh me… deep breaths. Oh my… not working. Oh dear… gonna scream." Reshiram took a deep breath.


He flew around the small room in a frenzied, zig-zagging panic. Yuna watched dumbstruck. All of the stories had depicted Saint Reshiram as a stern individual, committed to honesty no matter the situation. This guy, however, made her look like the most confident dragon in the world. What was the deal? Was he some sort of fake? Was this all the Qliphoth's doing?

Yuna: "Okay, it looks like I might need to re-evaluate my priors here." -_-;

"Isn't it obvious?" Reshiram pointed to the rift. "My seal is broken and there's a Qliphoth Rift right above us. Our plan must've failed… which means the Qliphoth is going to eat away the planet! We're all hosed!" He paused and looked down at his belly. "Okay, well you're hosed. I'm already dead… but I'm not looking to wind up a daemon!"

Something about the bit in bold at the end I think feels a little off on phrasing. I would personally suggest one of "I'm not looking forward to winding up a daemon!" or "I'm not looking to turning into a daemon!", which I assume is the intended meaning there.

She couldn't deal with this. It was time to put her nonexistent foot down. "That's enough!" The dreepy floated up to Reshiram, head still pounding. "I know you're worried, but I've had a miserable day. I just want to go home."

"Home?" Reshiram blinked. "To Bahamut?"

Yuna stiffened. That was not the response she expected. "Didn't he perish when he lost his light to World Ender?"

Wait, so all this time have the Aeons been offering up prayers to a god that they think is dead? Or is there something about their religion that makes them think they can bring him back by their own efforts?"

"World Ender?" Reshiram scratched his chin. "Can't say I'm familiar. But who else could you have gotten that Soul Dew from?" He tapped a claw to Yuna's pendant.

"Hey!" Yuna reflexively covered the pendant with her hands. "This is a family heirloom[!]"

"No, that's a Soul Dew." Reshiram fiddled with one of his wispy hair strands. "I would know. All us Sages had 'em. Also, y'know, Sage of Truth and all."

And now the dreepy had another issue to add to the plate. "Okay, well, whatever this is… we need to table this discussion." Yuna crossed her arms. "I have colleagues who are hurt outside. We have to get back home. Y'know, to Etherium."

IMO, Yuna's dialogue might feel a bit more natural if the second part is also treated as an exclamation, since she's essentially saying "Hey! Stop it!" there.

Yuna: "... (I should really be asking him how this thing is able to preserve him like this, even if it's just a pale shadow of himself. But yeah, let's wait until we're out of the freaky evil dimension here.)"

"Well, can you, like, make yourself disappear until I can gather the others?" she pleaded.

"Okay, fine. But we are going to talk all this over, right? Because, y'know, not to point claws or anything, but if you're the one who broke my seal you might've just screwed over the whole planet."

Yuna glared at Reshiram. He raised his wings innocently. "Hey, I'm just being honest."

Oh, so the needles will bring on an End of the World Special if they're all yanked.

"Be honest somewhere else… please."

Reshiram nodded. His body shrank down into a glob of red and white light. It funneled back into Yuna's pendant. Her shoulders sagged.

Something told her it was going to take more than the fancy medicine in Dr. Rafique's clinic to bounce back from this.

Yuna: "I mean, I only just found out that my faith is at best seriously inaccurate in its recollection of the past and that I might've just doomed the world from that freaky possession moment earlier. So... yeah, might need to ask around what a good strong local drink is." >_>;

"And did you happen to miss the hostage they were holding?" Vegna growled. Hitmonchan nodded and looked down at his lavender shirt. Vegna brought his right hand to his side. Shadows coiled around it. "Then it would seem I've no choice but to send you to the Twilight Realm. Such incompetence cannot be allowed to remain standing."

Hitmonchan's eyes widened. "W-Wait! P-Please, sir, I didn't mean to do anything wrong."

Vegna raised his hand as if he was going to strike, then lowered it. "Hmph. T'was a jest you ignoramus." On the dusknoir's shoulder, Talonflame's eyes glinted with amusement. "But I will see to it that you suffer a write-up. And possibly a salary reduction." He turned away from Hitmonchan, who slumped down onto his knees with a dazed look in his eyes.

Noctum: "That... did not feel like jesting there." ._.;

Noctum was too overjoyed to be bothered by Shimmer's snide response. Though dizzy, he stumbled forward. "Princess!"

Yuna zoomed toward him. She flew straight into his belly, wrapping her arms around his utility belt. "Noctum! Thank God. I thought… I thought I'd never see you again."

The charizard's tail flame turned a vibrant blue. He wrapped his black-scaled arms around her and cradled her tight. "It's okay, Princess. I'm here now." Noctum leaned over to brush his snout against her head. "I'm here."


Cute moment there. Though most moments with Noctum thus far have been.

~Il Paradigma, Canto XII: Nidhogg~
Incapable of thinking for itself, this parasitic daemon preys on the insecurity of vulnerable spirits. But such emotions dictate the actions it takes when it has a host, leading to rampant, but clumsy, hostility.

Oh, I see that you're doing boss summaries like you did in GL. It's certainly a neat touch there.

And that's a wrap. I had a lot of fun getting through these chapters, and it's nice to see your Yuna get a Valefor of her own... kinda, sorta. Given that this one will have quite a few less combat applications.

Will be looking forward to seeing where things go from here @Ambyssin, since given the way that the pulling of the first needle was handled way back when, I doubt Yuna getting a holographic furry dragon pal was a free action there.

Kudos, and till next time!


Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 19: Rolling Out the Unwelcome Wagon

Noctum was plenty familiar with pain. Headaches, hunger pains, belly aches, and broken bones, to name a few. However, none of his past experiences could help him describe what was going on with his belly when he woke up. It just felt… off. Was it the cold, damp crystal he was lying on?

… wait, why was he even lying on cold, damp crystal?! He was supposed to be in a field fighting Not-Zapdos with Seifer and Valkyrie!

"What hap— ngrgh!" The moment Noctum pushed himself up, intense vertigo threatened to make him throw up. He fell on his back and stared up. Through the haze he made out dark buildings with glowing pipes and signs. Crystal patches lay on some buildings like moss growing on rocks.

"Share an Eterna Cola with your special someone!" "Eternasweet Ice Cream: Now with real milk!" "Injured? Seeking compensation? Flex on the negligent. Call the law offices of Buzzwole & Buzzwole, QLP!"

Noctum's vision went fuzzy. "Where… am I?"

Something sharp jabbed his shoulder. "You gonna lie there till that puddle douses your tail flame or try to help us find a way out of this place?" Valkyrie asked.

"Bwuh?" No wonder the ground was damp. But if his tail flame was in a puddle, why wasn't there any searing pain? Noctum wasn't that used to submerging it. "Well, I— urk!"

Again, the charizard collapsed when trying to get to his feet. This time Valkyrie planted a foot squarely between his shoulder blades. She rolled Noctum onto his back. He caught a glimpse of the shock on her face before realizing what had thrown her off.

A purple shard. From the crystal that had shattered. And it was wedged into his stomach. Noctum's breaths grew ragged. He reached toward it with a trembling hand, struggling to find the words to express his astonishment.

"Idiot. Don't touch it." Valkyrie swatted his arm away.

"But—" A quick glance past it revealed his tail flame was now an off-violet instead of its usual orange. "That's not supposed to be there!"

"And if you yank it out, you might die." The garchomp loomed over him. "Your head okay? Thinking of going on a murder spree?"

"What?" Noctum blinked. "No! Why would I think that?"

Valkyrie shrugged. "It's a pretty evil-looking shard. Makes me think of the weird energy that corrupted snorlax gave off." She leaned over, wrapped an arm under Noctum's left shoulder and hoisted him up. Surprisingly, his vertigo immediately subsided. Noctum stumbled forward a couple of steps. There was no belly pain. Only that weird feeling he couldn't put words to.

"Yo, Keldeo. Our resident dumbass is in one piece." Valkyrie tapped Noctum's head.

"Dumbass?" His cheeks puffed up. "That's uncalled for."

"Pretty sure it's your fault we're in this place." Valkyrie gestured around. "What did you do to that crystal?"

"Nothing!" Noctum fidgeted nervously. "I mean… I thought if I hit the zapdos lookalike with Cosmic Blessing that maybe he would stop attacking. But I missed and… maybe kinda sorta hit one of the crystals he brought?"

"Uh-huh." Valkyrie squinted. "So, definitely your fault then."

Noctum's tail flame dimmed. The charizard stared at his rippling reflection in the pond. He didn't mean for that to happen, and he was pretty sure Valkyrie knew that. Was she just giving him a hard time?

Seifer trudged over to them, hooves sloshing through the puddle. He looked even more downtrodden than he had earlier. And the culprit was plain as day: his horn was broken. There was nothing left but a jagged stump. Noctum winced. "Oh, Seifer…" He gestured to his forehead.

"This is… a bad dream." The keldeo laughed. He sounded unhinged. "None of this is actually happening. I'm going to wake up in my bed, wrapped in my down blanket. No dragons. No Qliphoth. No sacking." His right eye twitched. Seifer turned and kicked an empty beer can. It rolled right along the crystal ground until it came to a stop against metal guardrails several meters away.

"Yes. Everything is fine. Everything… is going… to be fine!"

Valkyrie jabbed Seifer in the chest with a claw. "I don't care what the status of your job or your horn is. We're alive. But I can't guarantee that'll stick if we don't get a move on." She slid Noctum's arm off her back. "Either you're coming with or not. Which is it?"

Seifer's eye continued twitching. "Look at me." A crooked smile spread across his snout. "My horn… was my blade. It was my Secret Sword. My strongest technique. What am I supposed to do without it?"

Noctum didn't want to ask if it could grow back. He had a good guess what the answer was.

"Oh, please." Valkyrie snorted dragonfire. "There's nothing secret about that 'sword' of yours."

Seifer produced another unhinged laugh. "Oh, a phallic joke! How original! Never heard that one before."

"Good grief." Valkyrie rubbed her temples with her arm. "Look, you can still shoot water from your hooves, right? So, you aren't useless. But keep whining and we're ditching you."

"Wait, we?" Noctum stiffened.

"You got us into this mess." Valkyrie wheeled on Noctum and jabbed his sternum. "So, you can bet I'm sticking to you like a gum on the underside of a desk."

"Yes ma'am." Noctum's wings drooped. A large fence blocked the path left, leaving the charizard no other options but to proceed right. They passed by black, metal buildings with dim purple glows thanks to the purple fog sitting above them. Noctum squinted at metal stairways and ladders haphazardly stuck to the sides of the buildings. Were they escape routes, like for emergencies?

"Where even are we?" he wondered.

"A city, obviously." Valkyrie stroked her chin. "Probably the back alleys, judging from how grungy it is." She tilted her head. "Kinda strange the ground's made of crystal. Hell, there are crystal trees just… sitting in pots. Also made of crystal. Freaky."

"We're in the Qliphoth," Seifer said in monotone.

Valkyrie froze mid-step. "Like, inside the distortion?"

Seifer nodded.

"This is nothing like what Chiaki told me." Valkyrie continued forward. More neon signs littered shabby crystal buildings with neon bars and pipe frames. Strange combinations of circles and swirls were on them that made no sense to Noctum, which only made him wonder why he could read some of the other ones. They were written in Unown, weren't they?

"If we're in the Qliphoth, we have to find a rift to have any hope of escaping," Seifer said. "It was Yuna who bailed me out last time." His right eye twitched again. "Where do we even start to look for one in a place like this?"

Noctum's wings subconsciously spread. He looked left and right. "Well, at times like this, we go to higher ground."

Valkyrie tugged Noctum's right wing. His tail flame sparked. "Yeah, I don't think that'll work as well as you want it to," she said.


The garchomp spun Noctum toward her and pointed to a neon sign with a red slash through outlines of white wings. "Looks to me like we're in some kind of no-fly zone. And I don't want to see what happens to whoever breaks that rule." She crossed her arms. "Besides, you're the only one who can actually fly and I doubt your little twig arms have the beef to carry the both of us." Valkyrie jerked her head in Seifer's direction.

"Then what do we do?" Noctum kicked a small black rock and watched it bounce along the ground. "It's not like a solution will come flying out in front of us or anything!"

"Halt, rebel! Release the hostage!"

Two purple beams streaked through the air in front of the trio. Noctum hopped back, wings flared to hide his growing tail flame. Valkyrie also took a fighting stance. Nothing headed toward them, however. Instead, some sort of dark gray feline with a luminescent yellow tail flew right by them. Noctum immediately recognized Not-Zapdos' limp body floating beside it… along with the other crystal it had brought to Horizon!

The feline glanced over its shoulder. Three floating metal discs with glass domes that each held a large eye pursued it. The discs shot more purple beams and the feline rolled right. It pointed its left hand back. Three Shadow Balls hit the glass domes, shattering them. The eyes exploded in bursts of blue light.

"Hey, wait!" Noctum dashed toward the feline, but it flew much too fast for him. He whirled on Valkyrie. "Did you see that? It had Fake Zapdos and the other crystal."

"Forget that." Valkyrie broke into a run. "It had a crystal jutting out of its shoulder like the one in your gut right now. It must know something about this shit."

"Then we have to catch up to it!" Noctum ran after Valkyrie.

"Hey, wait up!" Seifer trotted after them. They didn't get far before hearing sirens in the distance. Valkyrie pointed toward grated metal stairs on her left. When they climbed them, they found some sort of domed bridge crossing a hazy purple expanse.

"Why is the floor moving?" Noctum gripped his shoulder belt. "That's not normal."

"Haven't you ever seen a conveyer belt?" Valkyrie stepped on the moving walkway. "Oh, right, they don't have factories in Aeon. In any case, it's not like it'll eat you. Just keep your tail elevated."

Noctum took the advice a bit too far, holding his tail up as high as he could as he cautiously stepped on the walkway. The dome turned from solid metal to glass, offering a panorama of metal and crystal buildings bathed in the purple and blue hues of giant neon signs. Noctum's eyes were drawn far left, however, to a massive statue of what looked like a giant crystalline hand. Though he recognized the circle with five diamonds in its center. Just like how he'd seen the hand— no, the five-headed daemon depicted in Aeon scriptures.

"Eternatus," he whispered. Noctum glanced above the statue. There was a huge sign with… an ovoid, orange head and OBEY printed beneath it in Unown. Noctum frowned. He'd seen that blue, mouthless face and sharp black eyes before in his readings. But what did the books call it? Though it was on the tip of his tongue, he couldn't spit it out.

The dark cityscape disappeared as glass turned to metal once more. Speakers crackled, jolting Noctum stiff.

"Welcome to the Eterna City Bazaar! Please be sure to thank our glorious Archbishop before, during, and after your purchases. Thank you… and have an eternatastic day!"

"Bazaar? Like a shopping center?" Seifer looked around in confusion. There was a wall of blue light in front of them, but it didn't look solid.

"I'm more concerned about the name." Valkyrie kept her arms crossed and stood as far from the wall as she could manage. "Eternatus is the real name of World Ender, right?"

Noctum nodded. He wanted to dismiss it as a dream. An entire city that was dedicated to the daemon hardly sounded inviting. That explains the unpleasant vibes this place gives off. The charizard cautiously stepped toward the light wall. "Maybe someone there can point us in the right direction?" He reached toward the wall. Noctum's eyes widened as his hand passed clean through it.

After moving it back and forth a few times, Noctum stepped through. The moment he did, the light shifted from blue to red. An exclamation mark flashed on the wall. Valkyrie dropped into a fighting stance. "Idiot. What did you do?"

Noctum looked back at the wall. "I don't know. This was the only way forward, wasn't it?"

"Halt! Where is your QN identification looplet, Charizard?"

A mechanical female voice made Noctum jump. He looked right and found a floating saucer, similar to the ones chasing that cat earlier. Only it was attached to a cube-shaped black body with two arms that looked like they were made of coiled black electrical wires. Each arm ended in a purple spiked mace brimming with the same distorted aura the crystal gave off before Noctum broke it.

The strange machine stomped toward Noctum on four long, black, metallic tentacles. It was easily two or three heads taller than Noctum. Its maces crackled like a freshly-lit fireplace. "Speak, lizard, or I will take you in for processing per our glorious Archbishop's will."

What was Noctum supposed to say? He had no idea what half the stuff this thing said even meant! "I, uh—" He tapped his claws together nervously.

The machine's floating eye narrowed. "Hang on… you're not from around here, are you?"

"Ha ha! Oh, there you are, you scamp! I can't believe you ran off before I finished repairing your looplet!"

"Hmm?" The machine's dome-like head rotated atop its square body. Noctum followed the eye and noticed a blue-white ninetales trotting toward him. His cloud-like, fluffy tails fluttered behind him and his yellow kerchief brushed against his chest ruff.

"My apologies, Trooper." Ninetales weaved under the machine's tentacle legs. He glanced at Noctum, then at the others. "These three have never gotten their looplets repaired before." Ninetales smirked and shook his head. "I told you guys not to leave the workshop until I was done."

The Trooper's eye pressed against its glass dome. "You're repairing their looplets?"

"Yup." Ninetales lifted his right foreleg to show off a golden anklet. "Scan my ID if you don't believe me."

"I'm well aware what you do, Cyril." The Trooper lowered its maces. "See to it that your clients don't cause any more scenes. Next time, it'll be a citation."

"Understood." Cyril beckoned Noctum toward him with his leftmost tails. "C'mon. Let's get you guys back to the workshop before you cause any real problems."

"Right." It came out before Noctum even realized it. Part of him knew he should be cautious of this. He'd never even heard of a ninetales with such strange-looking pelt. They were supposed to have yellow-orange fur, weren't they? Had the distortion mutated this Cyril guy?

The choice was made for him when Seifer and Valkyrie walked past him and stopped by Cyril's side. "Yeah, sorry about that." Valkyrie shook her head. "It was this genius' idea." She pointed a fin at Noctum.

The charizard wanted to protest, but didn't want to deal with the Trooper anymore. Sighing, he shuffled after the others.

I hope this turns out okay.


Yuna didn't think Aquardah could get colder than it was before. But as the wind surfer hovered above the ice bridge and the sinkhole beneath the team grew farther away, the air became even more frigid. Yuna's gills shriveled up into her ectoplasmic neck. The dreepy had to consciously resist the urge to do the same thing with her arms. If that happened, she'd get left behind.

"What are you doing, Nikki?" Chiaki asked, his hook planted in the raft's wooden base so he didn't fall off. Ice particles plinked off his safety goggles.

The toxtricity looked up and flicked away globs of poison from her free hand's fingers. "Laying a booby trap, of course."

Razim was fully focused on the path ahead, with both hands grabbing the wind surfer's rudder while the propellers whirred behind him. "What are you talking about?"

Nikki grinned wickedly. "If Ahemait tries to chase us down, he'll have a nasty surprise waiting for him."

Cid frowned. "Are you… laying a trail of poison on the ice bridge?"


"We're on the bridge, dumbass," Chiaki swatted at the air behind him, as if he could smack Nikki. "If you compromise its integrity, then we'll go down with it!"

"Puh-lease. Give me some credit, Twiggy." Nikki rolled her eyes. "You really think I didn't consider that? I'd need bucketloads of acid to melt through this ice. Think of it more like… coating a tile floor in grease."

So, Nikki was trying to get Ahemait… to slip on her poison trail? It sounded reasonable, but Yuna didn't buy it. "Won't your poison just freeze because of how cold it is?" Yuna's breath blew into Nikki's safety goggles, as if to emphasize the frigid atmosphere.

Nikki's jaw slackened. "Well I— that is—"

"You didn't think about that, did you?" Chiaki was exasperated.

Nikki's face flushed and she looked away. "At least I tried something."

"I suggest you all be quiet and hang on." Razim tightened his grip on the rudder. "We're approaching the big turn."

Quiet was exactly what Yuna wanted. She was comfortable enough with her grip on the raft. Reshiram, we have to talk.

"About what?"

He was playing dumb. You know what. What happened back in the palace? You got really… dodgy when the Isfet thing came up. Yuna wanted to believe he was as in the dark as she was, but her gut told her otherwise. It wasn't a thought she could drop.

"Because it caught me off guard."

Yuna didn't like how vague Reshiram was being. It didn't befit the Sage of Truth. What aren't you telling me? Did Bahamut have a counterpart? He must have, right? There's no way he's actually Isfet.

Silence. The raft jerked right as Razim did his best to avoid veering too far left on the bridge. It was twisting slightly as it curved rightward. Yuna tightened her grip. Say something, Reshiram.

"I don't know. It's the truth, I swear!"

His voice crack caught Yuna off guard. Either that was honest or Reshiram was a better actor than Yuna thought.

"Bahamut didn't like to talk about his past before Etherium," he elaborated. "Neither did any of my predecessors' spirits. As best I could tell, there was always a twinge of regret in his voice when he told me to drop it."

That didn't inspire a lot of confidence for Yuna. There's no way he could total a city. He created Etherium! His teachings hold so many important values! It doesn't make any—

A distorted roar echoed from down below. Yuna squeaked and wrapped her arms tightly around the rope. "Tell me that isn't what I think it is."

"Okay. It isn't what you think it is." Nikki leaned to her right. "I mean, I'm lying through my teeth. But, hey, whatever helps."

Chiaki dug the Hooker deeper into the wooden panel it was wedged into. "Razim, can this thing go any faster?"

"We're going to find out." The gem on Razim's crown glowed blue. The propellers sputtered momentarily, then spun even faster. Yuna yelped. Her tiny frame flapped about like a flag in a windstorm. The wind surfer veered right, forcing Razim to jiggle the rudder.

"Left! Go left!" Cid cried seconds before a massive Ice Beam struck the right side of the bridge. Ice chunks erupted in front of the wind surfer. A burst of pressure threatened to blow the wind surfer left. Yuna almost lost her grip when the raft slowed considerably.

"Sorry. I need better control." Razim tucked his head down. Yuna's teammates tried to swat ice chunks out of the air.

"Is Ahemait giving chase?" Nikki fired a small lightning burst from her free hand. It vaporized a few nearby ice chunks.

"No. I think it's sniping at us from the ground," Chiaki hissed. "How the hell can it even fire an attack with such range? It's obscene!"

The air chilled considerably. Yuna's chest burned. Reshiram burst out of the Soul Dew and let loose a gout of blue fire. It slammed against another incoming Ice Beam. A huge wall of steam spread out. Reshiram tumbled through the air with a yowl. Another roar echoed from below.

"Faster!" Chiaki spat a few Bullet Seed streams ahead of them to clear the remaining icy debris. "If it didn't know where we were before, it sure does now!"

"Wa-ait, we don't want to go careening off!" Yuna squealed, but Razim had already pressed a button on the console. There was another sputter from the propellers. The wind surfer lurched forward. They were level with the top of the inverted pyramid.

… or was it considered the bottom now? Gah, so confusing.

"Above you!" Reshiram cried. Yuna looked up and blue flames streaked overhead. Icicles shattered. Frigid water drenched Yuna and the rest of Team Bastion.

"Augh! Seriously, Crotch Fuzz?" Nikki looked at her leather jacket, dismayed. "Watch the merchandise!"

"I think staying alive is a bit more import— aiyee!" Cid's spots flashed. He projected a pink barrier but a large ball of dirt and sand effortlessly shattered it. The lingering mud forced Nikki to scooch back, narrowly avoiding it.

"This isn't working," the toxtricity growled. "Sooner or later that beast's gonna blast us." She looked up. "Hey, Crotch Fuzz! Why don't you try blowing open a hole in the pyramid?"

Reshiram stopped in midair. "Are you crazy? I won't be able to fend off attacks from Ahemait, including any aimed at me!"

As if on cue, more icicles formed in midair. This time Reshiram swept a blue Dragon Pulse bolt through them. Chiaki blasted away the debris with Bullet Seed pellets. "Honestly? Just do it! We'll take our chances with the damn pyramid."

Reshiram flinched. "Oogh, dropping the word 'honestly' in there. My weakness." He flew closer to the pyramid. "I don't know if I've got the firepower to handle this, guys."

More icicles were forming in the air ahead of the raft. "Go right!" Yuna cried. Razim jammed the rudder left. The wind surfer skittered, but managed to swivel around the Icicle Crashes as they shattered against the bridge.

Chiaki's scowl deepened. "Then use this. Get us inside that thing or we're hosed!" The grovyle had a seed in his hand. He tossed it toward Reshiram, who caught it with an outstretched wing.

"I don't think a sudden turn toward green thumbism is the solution." Reshiram watched the mist below the bridge nervously. Another roar echoed.

"Throw it at the pyramid and set it ablaze," Chiaki snarled. "Quickly!"

Frowning, Reshiram did as instructed. Seconds before the seed struck the side of the pyramid, Reshiram blasted it with a jet of blue fire. A huge explosion enveloped the pyramid's ice-crusted bricks. Yuna's gills and ectoplasm rippled like a jostled plate of gelatin. Pieces of rubble struck the bridge, leaving cracks before skipping off and disappearing in the mist. Others fell right toward the sinkhole until an Ice Beam cut through the air to blast them into harmless clouds of blue dust.

Reshiram flew back, yowling. "What the heck was that?"

"Blast seed." Nikki rolled her eyes. "Though I've never seen one make a blast that big." She eyed Chiaki suspiciously. "Where'd you pull a trick like that from?"

"None of your business." Chiaki turned to Razim. "Now, hard right and floor it!"

Razim was skeptical. However, the combination of the spreading cracks ahead of them and another roar from below was enough to make him jam the rudder right and press a maroon button on the control panel. There was a powerful roar from the propellers. Before Yuna could even scream, the wind surfer beelined toward the edge of the bridge.

"Are you crazy? There's no way you're going to clear that gap!" Reshiram cried. Another Ice Beam threatened to shoot him out of the sky. He met it with a fiery gout. The ensuing steam pushed him away from the group.

Chiaki grabbed hold of a startled Nikki. "I know. Professor, you've got to levitate Razim."

Yuna realized she needed to fly moments before the wind surfer left the safety of the bridge. It managed to sail about halfway toward the dark hole blown into the pyramid before it began losing altitude. Chiaki leaped out and shot the Hooker toward the hole. Nikki yelped as they zipped toward it. Cid caught Razim in a telekinetic field and hovered after his students.

"It's time to go, Reshiram," Yuna called. He was busy rolling right to dodge multiple Mud Bombs. The globs splattered against the existing cracks on the ice bridge. This was enough to send chunks of the bridge tumbling down into the frosty abyss below it.

"You don't have to tell me twice." Sighing in relief, Reshiram dissolved into a light stream. He returned to Yuna just as another, considerably more pained roar echoed from below.

Did the falling bridge chunks hit it? Yuna had no desire to find out. She darted toward the presumed safety of the pyramid.

After flying through thick, cold mist, Yuna was greeted with a silver floor— or, rather, ceiling and walls. Scorch marks peppered the space around her teammates, who were gathering themselves after the perilous ride.

"So now what?" Nikki looked around. Behind her was an upside-down painting of a slowking with grayer skin than Razim's. "I don't suppose anyone's got a map of this place?"

"Um, you guys?" Cid waved at the group.

"Well, we're close to the top floors." Razim stroked his chin. "I believe some of the family treasures and heirlooms are stored here." He looked around. "Or they were. I don't see anything treasure-like around here."

"Maybe Ahemait gobbled up all the treasure as an appetizer?" Nikki shrugged.

"Seriously?" Chiaki swiped her shoulder. "Have some tact."

"Guys!" Cid projected lights from his head spots, catching everyone's attention.

"What is it, Professor?" Yuna asked.

Cid turned and pointed ahead. "I think I figured out what happened to the people Ahemait 'ate.'"

One by one, Team Bastion slowly turned to where Cid was pointing. They glimpsed silver walls with tattered, upside-down blue and red cloaks. A turtonator's shell was woven into them, but the image was so faded Yuna barely made it out in the dim lights provided by torches that… were also upside-down, to Yuna's complete bewilderment.

But all that paled in comparison to what lay a dozen meters ahead of them. There, dangling from the floor by purple strings of ooze, were pairs of krokorok and sandile wrapped in sickly purple cocoons.

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Alright, took a while to format this, but I'm back with a review of Chapters 12 and 13:

Chapter 12

Yuna used the train ride back to Horizon Academy to stumble through an explanation of what happened… sans the stuff with Reshiram. What made it hard for her was the dazed look in Noctum's eyes. He mentioned a blow to the head and the welt between his black horns was clear as day. There was also a nagging sense of an invisible feather duster tickling her chest. She figured it was the Soul Dew, which she was trying to ignore.

Yuna: "(Wait, so if Reshiram gets agitated in there, is this thing going to physically burn me?)" ._.;

The dreepy tried going to her mental happy place. She was lying on the gray shag carpet of her stone wall bedroom with a hakamo-o and a vibrava opposite her. Yuna held small bottles of claw polish to use on her friends while they, in turn, painted her horns and the spokes on her tail ring.

"That's your happy place? Yeesh. That color scheme wouldn't feel out of place in a prison."

I see that even in Yuna's thoughts, there's no escape from Cecil.

Though I have to wonder why Calcifer and Yiazmat didn't yeet these two off to the school as a fallback in case Yuna was having trouble adjusting.

Yuna produced an honest-to-God miracle. She had found the Sage of Truth, despite all the scriptures claiming Saint Reshiram sacrificed himself with the other Sages to end the Darkest Day. If this had happened before the day's events, Yuna would've done everything she could to get another transcontinental train up and running to get back home, where she would've undoubtedly been hailed as some sort of hero.

But no. Instead of the stern but wise Reshiram in the scriptures she'd summoned a bundle of nerves.

To be fair, if Yuna had done this the day before, wouldn't she still have summoned Cecil and still gotten disappointed?

Is the point more that if someone told her the day before that this would've happened that she'd have already booked the first ticket back home? Since the phrasing doesn't quite reflect that.

"That's not very nice, you know. And what's with all this 'god' and 'worship' business anyway?" Reshiram wondered. "Being a Sage meant I was a teacher. One with amazing tenure, sure, but still a teacher. Nothing worth fawning over or anything."

Yuna: "I'd counter that you're supposed to have the power to burn kingdoms if you so desired, but with your -ahem- personality..." >_>;
Cecil: "... I sure hope that you 'mons have a more restrictive criteria for who you worship as gods than just being physically strong." .-.

If Reshiram had disappeared around the Darkest Day, then there was a lot he'd have to catch up on.

"What's a lot? Gimme your best guess."

About eleven hundred years, give or take, Yuna responded. Her head was hurting again. Was this what it was like for psychic-types?

"E-Eleven hundred?!" Surprised squeaks echoed in Yuna's head. She honestly wasn't sure if that number was larger or smaller than Reshiram expected.

Yuna: "That... sure sounded like it was more than what he was expecting." >_>;

And she wouldn't get an answer, because the train pulled into Horizon Station. Yuna didn't even get the chance to rise out of her tan leather seat before Arianna floated into the train flanked by a couple of comfey nurses.

"The Chancellor is aware of what happened." The gardevoir nudged up her glasses. "I'm teleporting you to the infirmary immediately."

Yuna: "Uh... what is the effective range for teleporting in this setting?" ._.
Arianna: "Effective enough for me to safely make the jump from here. Now let's move on."

Nothing had broken through the melancholy shell that hardened around Shimmer. Not the soft silk of his favorite pink, fur-lined bathrobe. Not the cool velvet of his pink pillow case against his fluffy, cotton candy mane. And not the taste of a certain sylveon's honeydew lip gloss as he pressed his lips against Shimmer's.

Xander must've realized this, too, because he quickly broke the kiss off and sat up. He slid off Shimmer's belly and sat on a bunched-up section of Shimmer's sky-blue, down comforter. "What's going on, Shim? I thought we said we were going to have some quality time after the field trip." The sylveon's ears drooped. "Are you really that bummed the trip got upended? We've been to the Herbrides Lines so many times I've lost count. And it was your choice to run off with Vegna."

Shimmer: "Xander, my Uncle is facing murder charges! Okay?" >_>;
- Cue the long, awkward pause -
Xander: "I mean, you could have said that before we got all lovey-dovey there. Now things are just awkward."

Shimmer bit back the urge to scowl at Xander. After all, the ponyta had been there when Vegna gave that blasted feral bird the requisition to deliver to Herbrides' police station. And now his fate was in the hands of… well, he didn't know. Vegna refused to answer his questions. The nerve of that dusknoir! If the day hadn't gotten away from him, Shimmer would've gone straight to his mother and demanded she read Vegna the Riot Act.

Bold of you to assume Isola would've taken your side, Shimmer. Especially since she apparently put Vegna up to bait-and-switching you on your legal assignment

And yet, though the thought got him heated, that wasn't the problem. "Uncle Benedict is innocent. No amount of trumped-up charges will change that. Some idiot inquisitor will have egg all over their face when this is over."

Xander: "... What if the inquisitor's Vegna, though? Won't your uncle be a dead 'mon walking?"
- Beat moment -
Shimmer: "I mean, Vegna said that it'd be an inexperienced one, didn't he?"

Xander: "I mean, I wasn't there to hear it, but do you really trust Vegna after the way he stuck you with the dragon exchange student?"

One had him in a white suit with a matching bowtie and fur collar. In another, he was on his hindlegs in an open-neck polo shirt and striped stockings that went up to his thighs. And in the third, he wore an ocean-blue sundress and matching hat. Marker scribbles lined the poster's borders. Words of encouragement from influencers and celebrities applauding him for bucking traditions and setting new fashion trends.

I'd ask how this 'mon is managing to do all this while in school, but meh. Works well enough in Miraculous Ladybug.

"You mad because she ruined the trip?" Xander laughed. "C'mon, Shim. It doesn't matter. Once we bounce her team from the first leg, that'll be the end of her travels with the class."

Shimmer sighed again. "That's not it." He looked beside the posters, to a bookshelf lined with plaques, trophies, and the occasional snow globe. Awards for academic merit, beauty pageant placements, outstanding guest performances in PV shows. But there was one empty slot in the middle of the bookcase. A spot he'd kept empty since the day he started in the academy. A spot for the Crowne Cup.

The ponyta's brow furrowed. "Ignoring that she probably hurt Commander Seifer, there was something… different about her when she and the other troublemakers popped out of the distortion."

"Did she evolve or something?"

Shimmer shook his head. "Not physically. Her aura. It was so meek before she vanished. Now… it's like an iceberg. Tiny on the surface, but hiding something massive underneath."

Sure that's Yuna's aura you're picking up there, Shimmer?

Silence, then Xander's ribbons draped over Shimmer's torso. A soft glow came from the ribbons. Shimmer relaxed somewhat. "I wouldn't worry about it, Shim," Xander whispered. "Even if she ends up being stronger than she looks, there's one thing we have that she can only dream of."

Shimmer turned his head slightly so Xander could see his raised brow. The sylveon leaned in so his head was next to Shimmer's. "Team synergy," he whispered, his ribbon slithering up to nestle Shimmer's chin.

A tingle ran down the pontya's spine. He glanced at his nightstand, and the framed photo of him beside an eevee with a pink ribbon and a farfetch'd struggling to hold up its massive leek.

This would be touching if two of the three weren't presently petty bullies and exemplars of rich asshole stereotypes.

"I concur," Xander purred. "So, why don't we do something to take your mind off of things, hmm?" The sylveon brushed some fur out of his face. "The first-years have an evening drill to run through. Want to head down to the locker room and rate the guys? And maybe, if that gets you in the mood, we can stage a tactical retreat?"

Blood rushed into Shimmer's cheeks. He smiled. "Sounds like a perfect distraction."

Not that you probably don't need a pick-me-up from what's going on with your uncle, but just saying, aren't you supposed to be studying right now, Shimmer?

Groaning, Yuna flopped onto her pillow. Her gills brushed a black pillowcase. She grabbed a stufful doll to her right and wrapped her arms around it. "Well, that sucked."

A comfey nurse quickly examined her at the infirmary before concluding she had no injuries. Yuna couldn't say the same for her colleagues, however. They were all ushered back to beds while the same nurse shooed her off and told her she could visit tomorrow. Yuna begged the nurse to let her stay with Noctum, but Dr. Rafique showed up to turn her away. If the zarude was upset about seeing the group there again, he didn't let it show.

Surprised she has a stufful doll instead of something more dragon-y, or else a shiny bauble to distract herself.

Yuna grabbed the Soul Dew with her right hand, looking to yank it off and toss it off the bed. However, no matter how hard she tugged, the pendant wouldn't budge. Yuna pushed the stufful doll away and pulled the pendant with both hands.

No dice. It was stuck.

"It's not stuck," Reshiram said. "Now that my spirit's inside it, it's bonded with you. Frankly, I'm surprised it didn't happen earlier. I didn't think any empty Soul Dews existed anymore. Bahamut hadn't made any in a while, last I remember."

Yuna's brow furrowed. So now she was stuck with this thing? And Reshiram, too?

Yuna: "... How's this supposed to work if I need to take a bath or else I get an irritation under this thing?"
Cecil: "I mean, nothing that the pendant's touching is exposed, so you should be fine?"

"Aww, you make it sound like a punishment." Reshiram whimpered. "Come on, I'm not a bad housemate. I pick up after myself, I do my own laundry, and I sweep up my fur when I'm shedding!" A beat passed. "Oh, wait… that stuff doesn't really apply if I'm dead, huh?"

Yuna buried her face in her pillow. Why me? All she wanted to do was bide her time and keep her head down until the treaty was signed and she could return home. But there was nothing normal about her time at Horizon Academy so far. She dreaded the very idea of getting out of bed the next morning. Who knew what horrors awaited her?

Cecil: "... I feel insulted."

"The choices you make don't really matter." Xeromus' statement replayed in her head. Did that crazy monster know something she didn't?

I mean, if you have to ask the question... o<o;

Yuna turned the page to a map of Etherium. The world used to be one large continent. Bahamut and the Sages didn't oversee it, however. That was left to a council. One with a lot of dragons, because their auras were most in tune with Bahamut's.

She paused and glanced at her Soul Dew. No interruptions. Was she right or was Reshiram trying to be polite? She looked expectantly, but didn't get an answer. So, Yuna flipped back to the previous pages. Then came the Darkest Day. A planet-sized daemon known as World Ender blotted out the heavens. Bahamut tried to stop it, but was destroyed. His light scattered.

The dreepy turned back to the map. World Ender's immense power fragmented the continent. But before it could completely wipe us out, the Luminous Sages banded together and sacrificed themselves to destroy World Ender. Yuna sighed. In the aftermath, dragons were blamed for the Darkest Day. Those who remained on the largest fragment of the original continent rallied around a group of fairy-types. They declared war on the dragons and those who supported Bahamut and His teachings.

I mean, considering how off-base Yuna's faith has been about one of its saints, part of me is quietly expecting that that blame for the dragons got over the Darkest Day was a bit more founded than Yuna's story lets on here.

Yuna placed her right hand in the middle of the map and moved it to the top left. The fairies and their allies drove the dragons into these volcanic mountains. They formed a kingdom. The one we're in right now, actually. She put her free hand on the Soul Dew. The dragons and those exiled with them were unhappy with their new living conditions. World Ender's attacks had rendered the environment far from hospitable. So, they continued mounting attacks to try and claw back some land from the fairies. But they were largely unsuccessful.

I mean, considering the way the Aeon Kingdom's been described and how calorie-intensive most dragons are. It's hard to not interpret that as Radiance's forebears basically expected the dragons they yeeted into the mountains to keel over and die out there.

She flipped pages to another map. While similar to the first, there were large clusters of black swirls. An entire black circle surrounded the Kingdom of Radiance in the middle of the map. At some point, distortion began to sweep across the globe. The dragons stopped fighting the fairies and focused their efforts on warding off the distortion and rescuing one another from the mystery dungeons that lay inside.

>Radiance and the remains of the continent it's on is an island of habitability in an otherwise uninhabitable world
Oh hey, that premise sounds really, really familiar.

Well, minus the massive tech level differences, the relative area covered by Mystery Dungeons, and Radiance being a bit less soggy than the Cradle. But my point still stands.

Which brings us to today. Yuna shut the book. While the Aeon Kingdom, my home, has managed to keep the distortion from overrunning it, the fairies in the Kingdom of Radiance have been less successful. Mother told me they lost big, bustling cities to the distortion.

So, our two kingdoms are looking to make a treaty. My parents decided to send me to Radiance as a goodwill gesture.

… though after the week's events, Yuna couldn't say she had much goodwill left inside her.

I mean, can you really blame her? If it wasn't for the obvious that it'd probably also doom the Aeon Kingdom as well, everything presented thus far about Radiance has been making a really, really solid argument on behalf of camp "lol, let it burn"

After a few seconds of silence, Reshiram piped up. "Okay, that makes things clearer." He paused. "Like, fifteen percent clearer at best, but that's fifteen percent better than before!"


Cecil: "Didn't we already use that gif earlier?"
Yuna: "That doesn't mean it's not fitting right now." >_>;

"Great. Lemme start with the easy one." He hopped off the back of the book and, grunting, tried to get it open. Yuna lifted her head and flipped the cover, allowing Reshiram to turn to the page with World Ender's sigil.

"See this?" He tapped one of the diamonds with a wing. "I don't know where or when the whole 'World Ender' thing came from… but that daemon is a planet-devouring behemoth known as Eternatus. And any tales of its death are greatly exaggerated."

I mean, it was kinda obvious back in that chapter where Vortex mentions his plan to solve Radiance's energy crisis to anyone who's played SnS, but still nice to see this explicitly confirmed.

Eternatus. The name clicked immediately for Yuna. It had to be the Natus that Xeromus kept referring to… and, by extension, the one in that chant from Runerigus. "How do you know that?" Yuna asked.

"Bahamut told me. Or, well, he told all the Sages." Reshiram stroked his chin. "Because he'd seen Eternatus in action before. Wiping out planets and all the life that they carried."

Yuna: "Uh... well you can't say that 'World Ender' didn't live up to his name." ._.

"… oh." Yuna looked down. Sure, one of Bahamut's teachings was that there were other worlds bearing life like Etherium did. But now Yuna wondered if Eternatus was the reason Bahamut had ever taught about such a thing.

Reshiram crossed his wings. "I think part of the reason he was so… obsessive about us Sages doing our best to preach harmony and cooperation was that he was terribly worried of Eternatus being drawn to the planet. He would always ramble about wicked hearts and maliciousness drawing Eternatus like a tauros to a miltank herd." His brow furrowed. "And I guess he was right about that in the end."

So basically, any world with a state of affairs remotely approaching the default state of IRL history is enough to draw the massive Serpent Eating the Ground. Sounds like Bahamut was fighting a doomed battle there.

Reshiram's luminescent fur frazzled. "Well, I remember Bahamut crashing into a mountain after getting struck by a single attack from Eternatus." He shuddered. "You were right about his light disappearing. All we found was a lump of black crystals condensed around this multicolored prism." He wrapped his wings over his torso. "I can still hear his screams of agony. None of us had ever seen him like that. He always knew how to hide if he was in pain."

Yuna's ectoplasm quivered. Eternatus sounded truly terrifying.

Calling it now, Bahamut's death is also greatly exaggerated. He'll just be significantly less impressive and significantly more volatile than the world last remembered him.

"So, us Sages made a plan. We'd use the light Bahamut had given us in our Soul Dews." Reshiram pointed to Yuna's neck. "Bahamut tried to dissuade us. Said it would cost us our lives. But we were desperate. So, we sprang into action… heading to different parts of the continent. We linked our spirits together and, in tandem with Bahamut's light, created a seal that trapped Eternatus." He scratched the back of his neck. "The last thing I remember was the sensation that I was drifting off to sleep. And then I woke up in that Soul Dew."

His face scrunched up. "But I don't understand why I even woke up. Bahamut's light was supposed to be too powerful for anyone to safely contact unless they were trained." Reshiram shifted weight from one foot to the other. "I assumed, since you have one of his Soul Dews, he must've trained you. Except all the stuff you told me flies in the face of that idea."

Yuna: "Gee, way to make me feel better here." >_>;

"Yeah." Reshiram paced back and forth in front of the almanac. "Not only did you break my seal… you managed to access the space we trapped Eternatus in. Though I have no idea why my part of the seal ended up there to begin with." He slumped onto his rear. "Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. This is a right fine mess we've fallen into. If we don't take action, the whole planet will be in trouble. If we're going to have any chance, we have to find the other Sages and break their seals, too."

Yuna: "I'm sorry, but if the world's already in trouble from your seal being broken, how's breaking more supposed to help?" ._.
Cecil: "I'm getting there."

Yuna frowned. "Me?" She raised her hands. "Look, I have no intention of diving back into the Qliphoth or fighting any Phantoms or anything like that. I'm just a dreepy."

Except that wasn't entirely true and Yuna knew that. "I mean… yeah, I'm a princess. But, like, look at me! I'm not a battler. I can't fight monsters if my life depended on it." She turned to her window and the blackout curtains draped over it. "Several people got hurt today… all to protect me. And I…"

Her voice trailed off as her right hand tingled. She looked down and found inky black pooling in her hand. Yuna was reminded of the spectral wings she summoned in the cathedral. She cleared her throat. "Okay, maybe I'm not entirely defenseless. But I don't think that's enough."

Yuna: "Also, I had this really catchy song in my head when the ghost wings came out of nowhere:
View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EV6E13xODyA

... but it's not like that'd magically help, would it?"
Cecil: "Probably not, but hey, at least it'll raise your spirits while fighting."

"Well, that's where I come in." Reshiram puffed his chest out. "Since I'm bonded to the Soul Dew, I can share my power with you."

Yuna frowned. "Uh, well, I appreciate the offer, but I'm not looking for any sort of truth-seeing magic." She couldn't imagine life as a living lie detector was any fun.

Granted, she wasn't exactly having fun now, but the point stood anyway.

"No, no. I mean like firepower." Reshiram tilted his head and coughed up a fireball. His cheeks reddened. "I promise the real goods are cooler." His expression blanked. "Err, okay, maybe not cooler. That'd be shameful for a fire-type. But, like, you get the idea."

Oh, so it's exactly like summoning Valefor in FF10. Minus Cecil popping out onto the battlefield, anyways.

"Right." Yuna had seen illustrations of Reshiram's flames. They were so powerful they had a shimmering blue color that no dragons or fire-types could match. "But, like, even with that power, we still need a plan. If this is as big as you say it is, we can't afford to fly blind. Or solo."

"Then rope in those people that were with you," Reshiram suggested. "They know the stakes. I'm sure they can help." He paused and looked down. "Well, okay, I'm not sure. Or even confident. But they're better than nothing."

What an endorsement. Yuna didn't like that idea one bit. "I can't ask them to get involved like that on my behalf." She looked down guiltily. "Certainly not after what happened to them today."

"You have to!" Reshiram hopped onto the book. "We can't afford to dilly-dally. The longer we wait, the more likely it is that some big putz with a bigger ego will come along and do something monumentally stupid!"

Yuna: "Reshiram, if this is really as critical as you make it sound, I should be sending word to my parents right now to send help!" >_>;
Cecil: "And when was the last time you heard from them?"
- Beat moment -
Yuna: "... Actually, that is kinda weird. With how worried mom was about this whole idea, I'd have thought she'd have spammed me with letters on a daily basis." ._.
Cecil: "... Probably just some sort of mail snafu, but see my point? Time is of the essence and you need to take what you can get!"
Yuna: "Ugh... I suppose..." -_-;

Vortex set his whiskey glass down with considerably more force than was necessary. He slumped back in his massive leather office chair, rubbing his brow. "How is it that one tiny dreepy can cause such a tyranitar-sized headache?" The charizard quickly held his free hand up. "Don't answer that. It's rhetorical."

Opposite him, Arianna nudged her glasses. "Of course, Chancellor."

"I swear, there must be a secret absol tribe stalking that girl," Vortex continued. "No one can possibly get into this much trouble by sheer happenstance." He stared at the two tiny ice cubes in his glass. "Maybe Vegna's right. Maybe she is cursed."

I mean, she kinda has a cosmically important artifact physically attached to her. That kinda helps with being a weirdness/misfortune magnet.

Arianna jerked to her left, dropping her pen and notepad. Vortex's tail flame sparked. "Arianna?"

The gardevoir righted herself, but there was a distant look in her eyes. She opened her mouth, but the voice that came out wasn't hers.

"… congratulations, Chancellor. You got your wish."

Vortex's whiskey glass almost slipped right out of his hand. He managed to catch it at the last second. "Demerzel? What are you doing? Get out of my assistant's head!"

Wait, over what range is Demerzel doing this from? .-.

"My sincere apologies. This was easier than trying to teleport to the school." Demerzel stiffly swiveled Arianna's head left and right. "I just wanted to tell you that after hearing the Radiant Guard's briefing on the fiasco at Herbrides, Parliament decided to approve emergency funding for Project Icarus."

"Is this your idea of a joke?" Vortex's tail flame grew even brighter.

"Hardly. I'm not the pranking sort." Demerzel clumsily stepped toward Vortex's giant oak desk. "You will, however, have to provide updates to Parliament. Live updates."

Vortex: "Arianna, pinch me. I must be dreaming."
- Dermezel contorts Arianna's face into a frown -
Vortex: "... Right, still possessed right now."

Ah, there was the catch. Vortex frowned. He was not about to go showing the Icarus facility off to the louts in Parliament. The charizard sighed. "Will pictures and video footage suffice?"

"Only if you can guarantee none of it is doctored," Demerzel said.

Vortex raised his right hand. "On my honor as a charizard, you have my word."

I saw that thought process, just saying.

"Yes." Arianna levitated her glasses back onto her face. "Now that you have the funds, what's your next move, sir?"

Vortex brought his wing back and stood up. "We get Minister Tessa—"

"It's Tesla, sir."

"Right, right." Vortex dismissed her with a wave. "We call Minister Tesla and tell him to meet us at Citadark Isle ASAP."

Arianna nodded. "Understood. I'll get right on it."

I presume that Tesla's the Electric Crowne Minister. Though that meeting totally doesn't sound ominous. Totally.

Chapter 13

Chapter 13: Bad News Travels Fast

I know that thirteen's supposed to be an unlucky number, but boy are you not pulling any punches. :V

"That orbeetle isn't a student though, right? Does he count as a teammate?"

… no. He's a teacher. Yuna looked down at the textbook, trying to shake the amusing mental image of Cid sitting at one of these desks and getting lectured at.

I mean, not that Yuna knows this, but that basically happened in Vortex's office like 10 chapters ago.

"With the passage of the Jury Challenge Act five years ago, trials no longer proceed directly to the verdict when all six jurors form a unanimous opinion," Vegna said. He turned to the class, holding the same textbook Yuna had in his left hand. "Instead, the defense and inquisition can challenge the jurists' opinions. If they are able to get two jurors to reverse their verdicts, the trial is resumed. Otherwise, the presiding magister issues the verdict.

"While legal records show a majority of challenges do not result in trials continuing, public opinion of the legal process has improved since the Act's implementation." Vegna tapped the end of the graph with his chalk. "The percentage of surveyed citizens who hold a 'favorable' or 'very favorable' view of the judiciary has increased by twenty-one percent in representative, randomly-sampled surveys given over this five-year period."

So... it went from 0% to 21%?

Also, I could go on a very long rant as to how randomly-sampled surveys are only as good as their ability to counter response biases and capture a representative sample of respondents, but I suspect the Kingdom of Radiance doesn't really care about trifling little details like accurately gauging public sentiment.

Yuna didn't find the numbers important. But the jury challenge sounded like a handy tool. One that she prayed she wouldn't have to use.

"Hmm? What do you mean by that?" Reshiram wondered.

I'm supposed to, uh, take part in a court trial next week. Yuna tried not to gulp. With everything that went on yesterday, she hadn't given the trial much thought. But sitting in Vegna's class made it hard not to think about it.

"Are you serious?" Reshiram gasped. "You're in school, for pity's sake! What's next? Are you going to tell me hatchlings are running the banks?"

Yuna: "Just saying, I'm pretty sure we're being deliberately set up for failure here." >_>;
Cecil: "I mean, I was trying to assume the best of motivations. But... uh... yeah, your client's kinda starting from a deep hole there."

"Har, har. Maybe if we all get atomized by Eternatus, you can try a career as a daemonic stand-up comedian," Reshiram shot back. A beat passed. "Sorry, that was uncalled for. You've at least got enough wit to write a comedy for a daemon theater. How's that?"

Yuna: "... Do I want to know how you know what 'daemon comedy' is like?" >_<
Cecil: "Probably not, no."

"Clown Prince and exchange student… stay."

Yuna's ectoplasm quivered. Vegna wasn't asking.

"What did you just call me?" Shimmer put his forehooves on his desk while a luxio and a frosmoth paused in the doorway to giggle. "I should have you dragged before Mother for such an insult."

"But you won't." Vegna crossed his arms. "Now then, did you tell the exchange student about the trial's status?"
Vegna's really enjoying this here.

Though I have to wonder what his exit plan would be for when Shimmer would eventually take the throne?

Shimmer: "Uh... not yet?"
Vegna: "Well, don't just stand there. Go on and explain to your partner about what the current state of affairs is, Clown Prince."

"I care not about your excuses." Vegna shook his head. "I'm dropping the matter." He turned to Yuna. "You will not be defending anyone in a trial next week. It was a ruse." Vegna brought his right arm out and slowly bowed. "I apologize for the deception."

Yuna's expression brightened. Bahamut had finally thrown her a bone! If only a bigger burden hadn't been dropped on her shoulders yesterday evening.

Vegna's eye smoldered. "Wipe that ridiculous look off your face. You're still going to assist the assigned attorney in the trial. I expect you to put your best metaphorical foot forward."

"And just who is that attorney, hmm?" Shimmer narrowed his eyes.

Shimmer: "Lemme guess, it's some bluffing incompetent of a Fletchinder called 'Phoenix' or the like." >_>;
Yuna: "... (That description actually really reminds me of this one Dragonair attorney back home called 'Naruhodo'. Did they somehow share a mentor?)"

"That's it? You have to know something else." The ponyta's nostrils flared. "This is my uncle we're talking about!"

"Not by blood." Vegna snapped his fingers and Talonflame screeched at Shimmer. He shuffled back, horn sparking in surprise. While he was distracted, Vegna took the time to exit the room by phasing through the chalkboard.

Well that's certainly cold.

"I should hope so." Shimmer swished his mane to the side. "After the stunt you and your teammates pulled yesterday, you'd do well to keep your mouth shut during that trial. I don't need you causing any more problems."

Yuna couldn't say it wasn't her fault, because that was a lie. Instead, she turned toward the door. "How about we cross that bridge when we get to it?" And she floated out the door before he could issue a retort.

"Great comeback! Way to show some backbone," Reshiram chirped. "Y'know, in a cool, metaphorical way. As opposed to the 'invertebrate suddenly spawns a skeleton' way. Although I suppose that would be interesting. Maybe you could use it for some sort of horror novel or—"

Yuna rubbed her temples. She was in for another long day.

Surprised that Yuna's so allergic to Cecil's goofiness when she finds Noctum to be endearing and comforting. But I'd suppose the stress of suddenly having to worry about what to do about the world being on track to end doesn't help.

The now-empty, crystal covered back room of Noatun's cathedral experienced a brief pulse of purple light. A blue fissure split the air. Two sets of sharp black claws pried open a jagged rift. Something vaguely humanoid fell out and struck the crystalline floor. The rift collapsed in on itself behind the figure, who would've blended into the room perfectly if not for a cluster of multicolored triangles that passed for its head.

"I sense it." He slowly rose to his armored, reptilian feet. Though his gait was wobbly, he managed to look around the room. His faceless head turned pink, then blue, then red. "It doesn't make any sense. Reshiram's aura is unmistakable… but there are only traces."

Oh, hello Bahamut

Argh, if only he hadn't had to leave the mask behind. It would've given him enough power to sense traces of his light. As it stood, he had no way of knowing if this was Eternatus playing ticks on him or if his plan had hit an even more unexpected snag.

No, it had to be the former. They all refused to listen. They sealed themselves with his light… because he wasn't strong enough to protect the planet. Now he had to free them. He was the only one who could.

"… a wasted effort," he growled. He shakily raised an armored hand, ready to punch a hole back to Etherium. But as he tried to gather the needed energy, a sharp voice caught him by surprise.

Wait a minute 'his mask'? So then Bahamut is Phantom Despair?

"Are you saying you doubt the archbishop? Ha! Perhaps we should feed you to Cerberus for speaking such blasphemy!"

Now his ESP decided to work. Warped auras that poked at his mind like a cluster of giant thorn bushes.


It had to be. The voice mentioned Cerberus. Images of a black-furred beast with the heads of a flareon, jolteon, and vaporeon flashed in his mind. Memories of a time long past. A time where he traversed the Qliphoth frequently.

… a time when Chiron was still with him.

Okay, so we got our first (indirect) acknowledgement of what daemons are like, and boy are they trippy. Even if there's something strangely cute about the idea of an Eeveelution-headed dog hydra.

A gray-blue midnight lycanroc with metal spines that would make a ferrothorn jealous stood stiff as an oversized serperior with charcoal-gray scales coiled around him. She held her head several meters above Lycanroc's. Her head then peeled open like a banana, exposing leafy-green flaps with prickly thorns sprouting up like rows upon rows of teeth. From the center of the giant leaves, a seviper leered at Lycanroc.

"There is no other recourse," the daemon hissed. "We must scour every realm of the Qliphoth to find her presence! The traitor Chiron must be wiped out before she can further harm Natus." Seviper turned to her right. "Is that understood?"

A frost cloud parted to reveal… well, he wasn't really sure what it was. The closest thing that came to mind was a mudsdale. But this horse was pale white with sheets of ice around its hooves and half its face. And some sort of blue, icy armor sat on its back, with a helmet fashioned like the skull of a houndoom. Piercing violet eyes smoldered behind the mask.

Though more seriously, are the daemon designs modeled after anything? Or just going for whatever feels suitably unsettling?


The armored rider had the inflection of a d[r]ifloon getting its air forcibly expelled, but that wasn't what concerned him. Why were the daemons using that name? Her name?

He had been there. He watched helplessly as it happened. As the hellfire from that wretched delphox swallowed her up.

Minor typo there. And is Chiron that Lunala from Cecil's flashback? If so, how does a Lunala job to a Delphox?

Well, it wouldn't work. He knew she was dead. That she couldn't be among the innumerable souls trapped within the Qliphoth. And if those pathetic daemons thought they could prey on that, he would make them suffer. Suffer like the scum ignoring Etherium's perils to line their own pockets.

Phantoms, daemons, pokémon… in the end, they only care about themselves. His head darkened and reddened. Their selfish nature belies their weakness. And such weakness deserves to know true despair.

He slowly phased into the wormhole. There was much to be done.

Oooookay there, that is giving my earlier hypothesis that Bahamut is Phantom Despair a lot of ammo right about now. Though if I'm right, I have to wonder how horrified Yuna would be to see what's become of her god.

>one hospital room explanation of everything that's been going on later...
Nikki crossed her arms when Yuna finished. "Seriously? What the hell did you start smoking last night, huh?"

Nikki: "Because it's sure as hell not Sativa." >_>;

Chiaki put his good hand on his hip. "I'm inclined to believe her." He looked at Nikki. "Do you even remember anything about what happened?"

Nikki scowled. "I remember getting carried off by some freak of nature." Her mohawk frazzled. "He dragged me into a pillar of distortion. Next thing I knew we were in some fancy-looking place with a shiny ceiling and…" Her voice trailed off.

"And?" Chiaki gestured for her to continue.

Nikki's mohawk flared again, before shrinking to the point it was barely noticeable. "The freak pinned me down while these… shadowy arms dug themselves into my back. There was a **** ton of pain, then everything went black until I woke up in the infirmary next to you and that hunk of metal." She pointed to Chiaki's prosthesis. "What junkyard you pull that out of, huh? Ain't you rich types supposed to get good medicine[?]"

Minor punctuation error since Nikki's last line there is a question.

Yuna: "(Clearly Nikki didn't get smacked around that hard if she's already back to her normal self so soon.)" -_-;

Okay, so Runerigus was definitely in control of Nikki, Yuna concluded. "Isn't that all the more reason to believe me?"

Nikki turned her back on Yuna. "Who cares if you're right? Why should I help you?" The toxtricity looked at the floor. "You're the whole reason I got taken. That mutt was after you." She pointed accusingly at Yuna. "Didn't you hear how he talked to you? The guy was dry humping you in his loopy head. I'd bet fifty radians on it."

Chiaki cringed. "Thanks for that delightful mental image."

Chiaki + Yuna:

Yuna: "Okay, as I try to purge that image from my head, need I remind you that I was explicitly told that the world's in danger of ending? And that time is of the essence to stop it?"

Yuna wanted to retort, but the Soul Dew sparkled. She sent a silent plea for Reshiram to stay down but he burst forth in a stream of red and white light. "Sorry to rain on your parade, but you won't stay alive if the planet goes kerblooey! Whatever problems you have will go up in smoke, too." He shot Seifer a pleading expression. "C'mon, Kelly, back me up here."

Seifer stiffened. "K-Kelly? Excuse you! I'm a Radiant Guard Co-Commander and deserve some respect." He swished his mane. "Besides, I've never even met you before."

Yuna facepalmed. "Reshiram, we went over this. It's not the same keldeo from when you were a Sage."

Reshiram crossed his wings and frowned. "I mean… I can see that. Kelly had a less… muscley build. And didn't wear gaudy purple outfits. And was a girl."

Wait, so Kelly wasn't one of the sages who sacrificed themselves to stop Eternatus? Or does this mean that somewhere out there there's potentially a normie Resh zipping around?

Reshiram turned back to Yuna. "But it's the fact that he's different that has me scratching my head. Sages couldn't reproduce. When we were ready to retire, we gave our Soul Dews to our apprentices. They would assume the mantle and our spirits would join our predecessors in the Soul Dews."

"Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but I'm a bona fide keldeo," Seifer exclaimed. "Just like my mother and grandmother and so on."

"Which sets my crazy-o-meter up to, like, a fifteen out of ten." Reshiram's tail engine hummed louder. "Kelly sacrificed herself with all the other Sages. So, like, you shouldn't exist. But you do. So how did it happen?"

Oh, guess that's a 'probably not' then. Though I see what you meant by Legendaries not being divine figures given that normie 'mons got promoted into being the next Legendary in line.

"Not that!" Seifer huffed, horn flashing. "The whole 'the Needles actually have these powerful spirits hidden inside and they might be the only thing stopping the world from collapsing on itself' thing." The keldeo lowered his head and shook it. "Why would they teach us that World Ender was killed if it's actually the thing eroding the planet? Does Her Eminence even know? Wouldn't Her Benevolence know?" He gnashed is teeth together. "My head's throbbing just thinking about it."

I'm half-expecting the answer to turn out to be something like 'so the people wouldn't lose hope' at this rate.

"But the Needles are in the Qliphoth." Chiaki jammed his good hand into his coat pocket. "If we're going to free anyone, we'll need to be able to open rifts into it."

Which was exactly what Yuna was afraid of. "And you think… that's where I come in?"

"Do you disagree?"

"I still don't know how or why I made a rift in the first place," Yuna whispered. "I don't know if I can make another one."

Yuna: "Also, just saying, we have zero idea if this is going to cause negative side effects."
Cecil: "I mean yeah, it's a bit of a shot in the dark, but what else do we have right now?"

"Even assuming she can, you can't really expect to succeed, can you?" Seifer paced back and forth but met no one's gaze. "We lucked out with encountering so few Phantoms yesterday. I don't think you can count on things to stay that way." He looked at the center of the padded wall, which had the school's rose emblem painted on it. "And I strongly doubt anyone in a position of authority would be okay sending prep schoolers into mystery dungeons without some serious muscle."

Solution: Set up a Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad. Persona 3 taught me that if you have one of those, it's magically okay to throw high schoolers into monster-infested dungeons that are fast and loose with the rules of reality.

"That I relay this information to Queen Isola. I can petition her to supply additional Radiant Guard members," Seifer replied. "With more bodies, we should be able to get this all done quicker and safer, right?"

Yuna didn't think it was a bad idea, but a part of her also felt guilty. She didn't want even more people getting put in harm's way because of her. If she were as strong as her parents, it wouldn't be a problem. Why did she have to suffer from stunted growth? It wasn't like the Soul Dew was to blame for that, either.

Yuna: "Say, Seifer. Do you think that as part of that you could requisition about 60 Joy Seeds for me-?"
Seifer: "No, because A: That's insane and wouldn't magically make you more experienced at fighting. B: Even if it was feasible, it'd violate all sorts rules of narrative tension."
Yuna: "But this is a potential matter of life and death for the entire world!" >.<

A glance at Chiaki told Yuna he wasn't ready to drop the subject, but Seifer's horn flashed. "The Ministers are coming." He pointed at Reshiram. "You need to disappear."

Reshiram's wings drooped. He whined like a sad puppy before retreating into Yuna's Soul Dew. A brief burning sensation spread over her chest. Yuna wondered if she'd ever get used to that as time passed.

I mean, I'd say 'no', but people get used to all sorts of weird things after it happens for long enough.

Yuna had pictures of the Crowne Ministers. Pictures she never bothered looking at. So it came as a complete shock when the Ministers turned out to be a pair of urshifu. The one in front wore blue robes and a black martial arts band and had much grayer fur compared to the taller one in the back. His robe was black and his belt white.

"Two urshifu?! Okay, this is getting stupidly fishy. We're talking a pond overflowing with magikarp levels of fishy."

I mean, I should've figured that it'd be something like this given how interrelated "Xiao" and "Lin" are as a pun name, but that still surprised me.

"Ah, so this is where you ran off to," the older urshifu said, stroking his chin. "How's it hanging, ya whippersnapper?"

The younger one stepped up and put his paw on his partner's shoulder. "Really, Xiao? Try and show a little tact."

"Heh heh." Xiao flashed a cheeky grin. "I'm just spare-ribbing 'em. Trying to liven up the atmosphere a little." He elbowed the space in front of Lin. "Place feels so tense you could spend hours tenderizing it."

Huh. Wasn't expecting the elder of the two to be the immature one, but it's a fun initial impression.

Nikki's yawn snapped Yuna to attention. "Seriously? Who wears pajamas to teach a remedial lesson?" She didn't bother getting up to greet them properly, prompting Chiaki to grab her by the jacket collar and hoist her up. "Oi, what gives, Twiggy?" she growled.

"Try to show an iota of respect," he shot back. "They're wearing gi. Traditional martial arts uniforms."

"Ain't nothing traditional about 'em." Nikki yawned again. "They're pajamas, plain and simple."

Chiaki + Yuna: "..." >.<
Nikki: "Well? Prove me wrong here."

"Well, they may not be traditional round these parts," Xiao said. "But they're as hot as a fresh plate of salazzle spice dumplings back home." He chuckled into his paw.

Yuna raised a brow. If they were Ministers, didn't that mean they were from Radiance? "Back home?"

"… on the Armour Archipelago," Lin replied, looking Yuna over. "I take it you're the Aeon Princess, then?"

So I take it the Armour Archipelago is more Wutai than Scotland in Etherium? Since admittedly that explanation caught me a bit off-guard myself.

"We travelled to this kingdom at the request of our dojo's leader," Lin explained. "She sought to spread the teachings of the Master Dojo to the mainland. My brother and I volunteered to assist."

"Yessiree, I remember it like it was yesterday." Xiao hummed while swaying side to side.

"… twenty years ago," Lin said, expression stern. "Unfortunately, the spreading distortion has prevented us from returning home."

Does their home even exist anymore still if they have been physically incapable of returning to it for 20 years?

"The Master Dojo is still around after all this time? Hot diggity!" Reshiram exclaimed. "I'd have thought for sure it would've fallen to ruin when the Sage of Strength sacrificed herself. But, well, now there are two of them! And probably more back at their home. This pond of magikarp just had a load of basculin plopped in right on top of it."

Okay, now I'm really curious as to what black magic allowed for Seifer and these two to exist.

"Oh that is so, so obviously a trap," Reshiram said. "She can't possibly be dumb enough to take the bait, can she?"

"You're on!" Nikki hopped forward, mohawk frazzling.


Cecil: "Words... fail me." -_-;

"… I think you need new friends."

I see the actual text manages to outshine my own barbs.

Seifer opened a panel on the padded wall and a shield of blue, hexagonal tiles materialized to keep the group safe. Lin and Nikki walked to the center of the room. The former took up a fighting stance with his right foot planted forward, his right paw held up, and his left paw down by his hip. Nikki hopped from one foot to another, cracking her knuckles.

Oh hey, so they do follow the "protect shield" setup for battles in Etherium too.

In the blink of an eye, Lin closed the gap with Nikki. She didn't even get the chance to her finish her sentence before Lin drove the side of his right paw, crackling with dark energy, into the point where Nikki's neck met her torso.

She lurched violently to her right. Her knees quivered. The toxtricity slumped onto the floor, down for the count. Lin brought his paw back to his side.

"Such overconfidence spawns from a lack of discipline," he said. "You did not respect your opponent… and left yourself open to my Wicked Blow."

"Yup. That went about as well as I expected." Reshiram sighed.

Yuna: "... Please tell me that this isn't going to be what our remedial education is going to entail." ._.
Chiaki: "Uh... I mean, we are in a Pokémon setting, so..."

"I see," Yuna whispered. It sounded cool, to be sure. And she knew of kommo-o back home that practiced basic martial arts aside from their actual attacks. But she failed to see how any of this was relevant to her. The dreepy didn't exactly have a good body type for martial arts. She wasn't even sure she could learn any fighting-type moves, evolution or not. "What does this have to do with our remedial lessons, though?"

"Martial arts are often used as a means to teach discipline." Chiaki pushed off from leaning against the wall. "My guess is that they're going to have us run through drills they would do in their classes."

Lin nodded. "That's correct."

Chiaki: "Okay, so good news. We're not getting clobbered as part of remedial lessons. Probably."
Yuna: "This isn't exactly a significant upgrade here." >_>;

"Come on, Nikki." Chiaki knelt beside the toxtricity, who was stirring. "Let's get you seated on the side so you can you lick your wounds." He offered his good arm, but Nikki swatted it away. She picked her head up.

"Screw you," she hissed.

"Drop the attitude. You lost. End of story." Chiaki extended his good arm again. "The sooner we let them start the lesson, the sooner they'll be done."

Chiaki: "Alternatively, we drag this on and stay stuck in these until some god-forsaken hour in the middle of the night." -_-;

Nikki grabbed Chiaki's left hand with hers… and used it to drag him to the ground and clock him on the forehead. "What the hell's your problem?!" he snarled, raising the Hooker up to shield his head.

"Screw this and screw all of you!" She lumbered to her feet, mohawk and back spikes sparking. "I don't need to stand here and take any of this ****." Nikki whirled on the urshifu. "Kick us out of the Cup or whatever[!] I'm done with this freak show[!]"

IMO, Nikki's lines at the end work better as exclamations since she's very obviously agitated right now.

Yuna: "Uh... Nikki? I don't think getting us kicked out of the Crowne Cup is magically going to get us out of these classes."
Nikki: "Look Princess, I really obviously don't care about anything involving this school right now. They can go ahead and expel me if they feel like it!" >_>;

"He's right. That girl needs time to simmer down. Trying to talk to her now will accomplish nothing."

Yuna watched the door slam shut before turning back to the others, shoulders drooped.

If Nikki hated the school so much and everyone hated her, too, then why was she still here? It was a thought that would fester in Yuna's head the rest of the afternoon.

Yuna: "... Is there something forcing the school to keep Nikki around? Since I don't understand how she hasn't managed to get herself expelled yet."
Chiaki: "... I can think of something, actually since the writer of these things got spoiled as to how Nikki got in. But it's a few chapters down the road so let's keep everyone in suspense here."

And that's a wrap! Even though there wasn't much plot progress this time around, there were a lot of explicit and implied reveals that went down in these two chapters and the world of Path of Valor has been steadily feeling larger and larger as you reveal more corners of it and its history.

Kudos for the hard work you put into those two chapters, I'll be looking forward to seeing how your efforts played out in coming chapters, and what hat trick you pull out to keep Nikki on the team given that ending. :V