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.