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Ambyssin

Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 21: Astonishing Goons Drawn Quick

Nikki jumped back, looking at Blipbug Cid like he was pure anathema. "Oh-ho no. No, no, no, no, no!" She hastily rounded the corner. "I like to think I was keeping a pretty level head through the freaking people trapped in poison cocoons, but a laser that reverses evolution? I'm out! So out!"

Chiaki was stiff as a board. "Nikki—"

"Zip it, Twiggy! I am not going back to being a toxel," Nikki cut in. "You wanna know what toxel are good for? Crying and drooling and spitting up!"

Yuna continued to stare at Cid in utter disbelief. Even in a realm where time wasn't flowing correctly, this defied any sort of wisdom. Was Cid's body the only thing de-aged? What about his mind?

"Somebody help me!" Cid's squeaky voice was even shriller than before.

"At least he still sounds, y'know, like he isn't a newborn. That's something, right?" Reshiram laughed nervously.

"There's another beam! Move, move!" Chiaki cried. Instinct took hold for Yuna and she melted into the wall. Nothing but solid silver surrounded the dreepy. Muffled rumbles sounded all around her. Was the wall shaking? Yes, that had to be it. Had their assailant blasted part of it away? Was it even safe to get out of the wall?

"Oh, enough with ze prattling! You are ruining my focus et my precious work!"

"That's gotta be him. The guy firing the devolution beam!"

And it sounded like he was in the area in front of the door. Yuna had to play this smart. She moved to her right, toward where she assumed Nikki still was. Assuming the toxtricity hadn't turned tail and tried to flee the tomb all together. Yuna really wanted to join her, but she needed that Needle.

… or the world needed the Needle. God, if only she could've been born a commoner instead!

"What the hell are you supposed to be?" Chiaki asked as Yuna freed herself from the wall. She was close enough to the corner to see her assailant: a slowbro with purple ooze crawling down his head, arms, and tail.

… tail? No, that didn't make any sense. There was supposed to be a shellder biting it! Where was—

His left arm!

Slowbro leveled his shellder-encased left arm at Chiaki. "It is moi who should be asking vouz such a question!" Purple and pink paint splotches glistened on the shellder. Similar splotches were smeared across a brown smock and a similarly-colored round, unusually flat cap. "You are trespassing, you… you trespasser!"

Chiaki crouched down. "Please. I'm helping the king of this land."

"Oh?" Slowbro's eyes glistened. "So, not just a trespasser, but an interloper! Very well. You et your little pest here will make fine additions to my lovely piece." He pointed his left arm at Cid, who screamed and tried to scuttle away with mixed results.

"Your… piece?" Chiaki said.

"But of course!" Slowbro brought his right arm to his head to tip his funny hat at Chiaki. "For you see, I am Jean-Claude Phillipe François Pierre Emmanuel Baptiste… the Thirty-Eighth! I am l'Paradigm's premier artiste!" He grabbed the sides of his smock and curtsied to Chiaki. "Well, technically I am its only artiste, but zat makes me tres impor— yeek!"

Baptiste jumped back. Lightning struck the ground where he just stood. Yuna looked up to see Nikki perched on top of a silver statue of Baptiste. It must've been the flamethrower from earlier.

"Dude, I can't make out a lick of what you're saying." Nikki's mohawk frazzled. Her voice had a nervousness to it Yuna hadn't heard before. "But even a street pinurchin like me knows nothing about this shithole is art."

Nikki had more lightning crackling in her right hand when a huge pink beam struck the statue. She tumbled to the ground with a startled cry. Silver rubble chunks slammed down all around her.

Yuna blinked. Baptiste had his left arm leveled at where the statue used to be. "Mon Dieu! Such a saucy tongue. But I am used to amateur critics. Zey are nothing before mois!"

Chiaki had his Leaf Blade at the ready. However, Baptiste vanished before Chiaki could even wind up. Yuna turned her head. Her gills shriveled upon seeing Baptiste looming over Nikki with blue energy gathering at the tip of his shellder.

Impossible! No one can move that fast unless they teleport. Yuna focused on the Soul Dew. She wanted to stay hidden, but not if it meant that Nikki would get devolved like Cid!

Warmth pooled in her throat. God, it was really hot. Was this what it was like for her mom? No, she shot Flamethrowers from her horns. She briefly thought about how Reshiram's Blue Flare wasn't appropriate for a slowbro, but dismissed it. Blue flames streaked toward an unsuspecting Baptiste.

… except his beam shot toward Yuna's flames instead of Nikki. Yelping, Yuna dropped to the ceiling, sinking partly into the silver stone. The beam sailed past her. Nikki kicked her legs out, striking Baptiste's left leg.

"Augh!" He buckled to his right, giving Chiaki enough time to wrap the Tactical Toucher's spectral hand around the slowbro's right arm and tug. Baptiste's chin struck the ground. "Woomph!"

"Keep a hold on him, Twiggy." Electricity streamed toward Nikki's horns from her mohawk. "I'll give this dweeb some 'critique.'"

Yuna barely had time to pull herself out of the ceiling when Nikki and Chiaki went flying in opposite directions. She didn't even see Baptiste moving! One moment he was on his belly, the next he was upright with his arms thrust to either side.

"Imbéciles." Baptiste wrinkled his scaly nose. "True art is suffering. And life… it is ze only acceptable canvas for such artistic expression." He pinched his nose with his right hand. "I would not expect filthy roturiers to understand."

"There's nothing to understand. You're a freaking nutca— gah!" Nikki leaped up, narrowly avoiding a burst of boiling water that then splattered on the wall behind her. To the group's horror, the water didn't evaporate, but bubbled and ate away at the stone and tapestry. "There was… poison in there?" She looked to Baptiste. "What are you pulling?"

"It was all poison!" Reshiram cried. "… I think?"

But slowbro can't use poison techniques!
Yuna protested.

"I think there are more pressing matters to attend to." Reshiram laughed nervously.

I know! But when Yuna tried to go and help her teammates, a pink energy beam blasted her. She tumbled across the hall and through the wall. By the time she collected herself, she was surrounded by silver once again.

"Are you okay?"

No! That hurt… a lot!
She was trying to focus on staying invisible. Yuna had to. But this was beyond her. At least Seifer had Dynaforce. And Runerigus was a huge, slow, dumb target. Baptiste may have sounded freaky, but he had freaky speed to back that up. It was no good. Team Bastion was too outmatched.

Yuna was about to fall at the first hurdle of this stupid "save the world" affair!

"No, not yet. We can't give up here."

I need more than sentiments here, Reshiram!
she growled. Grunts and shouts came from outside the wall. Yuna had to help her teammates out.

"Let them stay with Baptiste. Make a break for the Needle."

What?
Yuna would've shook the Soul Dew if she wasn't preoccupied.

"If you really think you're outmatched, then we need to get Ray's power in our hands," Reshiram elaborated. "Then we can quite literally blow that loon away. Or at least get rid of his hold on the tomb."

That's a bold assumption,
Yuna countered. Reshiram had no way to know that for certain.

"Well, I do know what we're doing now isn't working."

"Stand still, you dweeb!" Nikki growled.

"Hoh ho! Your frustration… zat is sweet, sweet sound of suffering!" Baptiste giggled excitedly. "Any simpleton can throw ze paint onto ze canvas and call ze splatter 'art.' But a true artiste takes life itself and turns it into his canvas."

Yuna heard rumbles and her mind was made up. Needle it is.

She just hoped her teammates could forgive her for seemingly skipping out on them. Yuna swam through the wall, heading toward where she believed the room Baptiste guarded was.

"I don't see any canvas," Chiaki countered. The spattering of Bullet Seeds accompanied, followed by plinks as they presumably hit the wall. "I bet the Qliphoth's energy has rotted your brain."

"Non! Vous are the one not seeing," Baptiste said. Loud splatters made Yuna cringe. He really was fighting with poison. "Eternatus… He has been trapped. But soon… He shall emerge from his captivity like ze beautifly from its cascoon prison."

Nikki snorted. "Beautifly? Cascoon? Those supposed to be pokémon or something? They sound like some little kid's made-up versions of butterfree and kakuna… which aren't even the same evolution family!"

"Keep going, Yuna. I feel Ray's presence even closer than before," Reshiram said.

Yuna felt it, too. No, wait, it was just the wall. Getting… colder? Yes, the silver was colder. Like someone was buffeting it with wind. The end of the wall was approaching, then. Yuna quickened her pace, tail darting back and forth.

"As l'Paradigm's artiste, I knew that I had to celebrate His return with a piece zat exemplified ze raw beauty born from all His suffering," Baptiste continued. There were hisses and bubbling, too. Attacks colliding, perhaps? "So, I chose to give zis dusty tomb its own metamorphosis!"

"Is that why you're abducting people and putting them in poison cocoons?" Chiaki asked.

"Non! I would not sully my creative juices in such a way," Baptiste barked. Crackles and a thunderclap sounded far behind Yuna. "I whipped up a delightful creation to do ze dirty work in my stead. Perhaps vous have met it already?"

So, Ahemait is his fault. Which meant there was a possibility the whole Isfet tale Razim brought up was a fabrication. That would've relieved Yuna if her life wasn't in danger. Yuna heard rushes of wind then poked her head out of the wall. She gasped, then threw her hands over her mouth.

Turtankhamun's room was coated in a thick layer of purple slime save for the red and blue tapestry pieces, one of which Yuna thankfully found. However, his sarcophagus hadn't fallen to the ceiling when gravity reversed… because the Needle she was searching for was impaled through it. The ruby top carved to look like an eye had a distorted purple aura around it, with trails of purple energy heading out the door.

"Th… that's…" Yuna flew out of the tapestry, shuddering. "That's not a good sign, is it?"

The room thumped. Loudly.

"Uh, I'm going to go with 'no,'" Reshiram whimpered. "I don't suppose that was from the others, was it?"

The room thumped again. Yuna looked down. "Nope, it's coming from the floor! I mean the ceiling! I mean— ahhhh!"

Silver bricks splintered underneath her. Yuna charged toward the Needle with Quick Attack speeds. Seconds later, the ceiling erupted behind her, scattering silver chunks and purple slime in all directions. A slowking landed at the edge of the hole. His skin had a purple tint to it and his shellder crown had crown to completely cover his head.

Yuna's gills shriveled. "R… Razim?"

"Must… saaaave… grrooooooh!"

Razim rose into the air atop a pilar of poison. Yuna's eyes widened. She dove into the ceiling, then heard the poison crash over her like a huge wave striking the shore. It reminded her of Seifer's Dynaforce attack. How was she supposed to deal with something like that?

"The Needle! Focus on the Needle!" Reshiram pleaded.

"I can't do that safely!" Yuna hissed. She rose from the floor and smacked the Soul Dew. "You told Cid we'd have your power to rely on. So, put your money where your big mouth is!"

Reshiram popped out of the Soul Dew and faced Razim, who swayed side to side uneasily. "My mouth's not big! Bahamut told me it's an average size snout!"

"Not funny, Reshiram!" Yuna snapped. "Look, if he's been corrupted with poison like Baptiste, maybe that overtook his water-typing. So, fire away!" She pointed to Razim and her Soul Dew sparked.

"Oh, good thought." Reshiram's eyes and tail engine brightened. He turned and gathered a large fireball over his head. It descended toward Razim, who awkwardly rolled to his right. It wasn't nearly enough to dodge the blow. The corrupted slowking slammed into the wall, leaving an imprint in the slime.

"It is suffering zat gets my creative juices flowing!" Baptiste's obnoxiously shrill voice carried all the way through to the chamber despite the winds.

"Dude, nobody wants to hear about your creative juices!" Nikki shouted. Yuna spotted electric sparks at the edges of the doorway. Were the others holding Baptiste off or was he getting closer to the Needle room?

Razim rolled off the wall to his feet. His crown bristled with pink energy. Next thing Yuna and Reshiram knew, large pink rings were heading right for them. "Right!" Yuna shouted.

"And we of l'Qliphoth have suffered for too long!"

Yuna had enough time to flee into the corner of the room. But even with a powerful flap of his wings, Reshiram couldn't get away. He careened into the top of the needle and a burst of purple energy shot him into the floor. Reshiram gasped in surprised. Yuna looked down and saw pink energy spreading out underneath her. "Psychic terrain?" she squeaked.

"All because of ze traitor and her devil of a husband!" Baptiste continued. Yuna really wished he had an off button. Or the Needle could make the winds louder.

"Yuna, look out!" Reshiram wheezed.

She turned back to see a Shadow Ball sailing right toward her. Yelping, Yuna threw up her hands and prepared for the worst. Instead, a huge wall of heat enveloped her. She moved her right hand and found Reshiram hovering in front of her.

"Fire at him again," the dreepy pleaded.

The Soul Dew glowed again, as did Reshiram's eyes. Another fireball gathered above his head, but Razim was faster. Bright pink scribbles struck Reshiram's chest. Though he stood tall, his eyes widened as his fireball shrank over his head. Yuna glanced at Razim. What had Baptiste's crazy energy done to the slowking?

"My attack!" Reshiram broke off as it looked like Razim was readying another poison wave. Yuna's eyes darted around the room. She looked at the Needle again and recalled its… reaction to being struck by Reshiram.

It's worth a shot if it means an end to this nightmare!

Yuna flew up to the top of the Needle and spread her arms out. "Hey, hey! I'm right here. T… take a shot at me!"

Razim tilted his head. "… muh?"

Reshiram turned around. "What are you doing?!"

"S… ave. I will… save!" Razim's crown glowed. More giant pink rings formed around him. Yuna hastily flew behind the Needle and sucked her tail up into her head.

The rings struck the Needle. Each blow created gouts of shadowfire. One got Yuna, shooting her into the floor. The dreepy yowled from the blow. It was like someone poured ice water on her. God, it hurt so bad. Yuna just wanted to stop. To sleep. To forget any of this was happening.

"Yuna… the Needle! Something's happening with it!"

Reshiram's cry forced her to open her eyes. The distorted aura was gone. Razim had fallen to his knees, clutching at his shellder crown.

"You little vermin! You tried to trick me!" Baptiste shouted from what sounded like the hallway. He must've been about fifteen meters away. "Me, ze great Jean-Claude Phillipe Fra—"

Too much noise. It was too much noise. Why couldn't it stop? Why couldn't this all stop? Why couldn't… everyone… just…

"Go away!"

Yuna's small torso lurched. Black, inky tendrils shot out and grabbed the head of the Needle, pulling her toward it much like Chiaki's Hooker arm. Moments later, the Needle's warmth shot through Yuna's body and her vision went white.

XxX​

"Don't you dare!"

The purple Moongeist Beam cut through the deep blue-black that marked the edge of the stratosphere, but the distance between her and this deoxys was simply too great. It popped over to her right in a blink of blue light.

Then its orange and purple body twisted upon itself. Its frame thinned. Two of its arms vanished, replaced by a large spoke from the back of its head.

Great. The speed form.

She brought her wings together to make herself a smaller target, but Deoxys was zipping back and forth too fast for her ESP to keep up. She conjured a blue Protect barrier in desperation. Relief flooded her when a Dark Pulse struck the barrier and shattered it. She whipped her right wing around, blindly hurling a Shadow Ball.

"Damn it, why isn't anyone helping?!" she snarled. Bahamut had trusted her to keep Etherium safe in his absence. Why did this have to happen
now? And in a spot where the Luminous Sages couldn't reliably reach? This planet was his home. No, their home. She wanted to keep it that way.

"You are a fool to think you can fit in among these meatbags."

Deoxys popped up in its base form fifty meters in front of her.

"I made my choice. I'm not going back to Eternatus."

Its eyes sparked red. "Master Zodiark will not accept that answer."

The gem in its chest sparked an identical red. Its tendrils wriggled as layers of orange and blue split off its body. More and more copies spawned from Deoxys. Crackled darkness bristled in their collective tentacles.

One Dark Pulse she could handle. Maybe even two or three. But three
hundred? And they had her surrounded.

No. Please. Not like this! Her crimson eyes darted around.

"Have no fear, for Rayquaza is here!"

Deoxys and its clones glanced down in union just in time to see an emerald comet charge straight through them. The streak made an abrupt right turn and plowed through the clones, which burst apart into blobs of slime.

"Ray!" Jubilance spread through her chest.

The last of the clones dispatched, the emerald comet faded into a transformed Rayquaza. His delta sign and golden tassels were brilliant beacons shining in the twilight of the planet's edge.

"Sorry for the delay, Lady Chiron! But a knight always knows how to arrive at the right moment!" He threw his triangular head back for a hearty laugh.

Chiron would've joined him, but there were other matters to attend to. Deoxys' core floated listlessly, trying to pull back any nearby goo to reform a body. And she couldn't let that happen.

She curled her wings up by her crescent moon head. Her third eye flared to life. Purple light coalesced around it. "Here's my parting gift, Qliphoth scum!"

The Moongeist Beam swallowed Deoxys' core whole.

"Well put, m'lady!" Rayquaza snaked up to her, clapping his tiny little hands. "Art thou sure thee weren't a knight in a past life?"

Sighing, Chiron shook her head. "Doubt it, Ray." The fatigue finally caught up with her. Her wings drooped. "Let's just… get back down to the surface, okay?"

"Verily!"


XxX​

Yuna sucked a sharp breath in and fell onto the floor seconds after a huge wind burst dissolved away the slime. She flopped around like a benched magikarp. Ah, my head! The vision was even more frightening than the last one. What was that sinister-looking creature? Deoxys?

"Bonté divine! B… but how is zis possible?!"

Baptiste stood in the doorway, his trembling shellder arm trained on the black serpent floating in front of him.

… wait, black? No, that couldn't be right! Rayquaza's scales were a brilliant emerald. She had just seen them. And Reshiram looked equally confused. Unless…

"One of this planet's old guard accepted Natus' love while in his stasis."

Yuna's ectoplasm went cold. Was Xeromus telling the truth? Had she just made the wrong decision… and given backup to Baptiste? She looked up at Rayquaza, but couldn't see his face. Was he looking at Baptiste with anger or elation? He hadn't seemed to notice Yuna. But what about Reshiram? The dreepy looked at him, gesturing to Rayquaza, but Reshiram looked as baffled by his appearance as she was.

"You!" Baptiste raised his right hand and shook it at Rayquaza. "Stop floating zere menacingly et say something! Or destroy zese stupid interlopers!" The slowbro pointed to Yuna.

Rayquaza quickly glanced her. Yuna momentarily squeaked at his crimson eyes. But her ectoplasm stopped quivering when his expression softened slightly. He briefly smiled, then turned back to Baptiste.

"Thou art the scoundrel trying to poison me from the outside." Rayquaza slammed his tail in front of Baptiste, who jumped back with a squeak. "Your misdeeds end here and now, daemon!"

Emerald light flared around Rayquaza.

"Non… non! Zis is a mistake! Zere has been a big misunderstand— eeeeng!"

Baptiste's attempt to flee was met with an electrified fist from Nikki. He tumbled back in front of Rayquaza, whose emerald tail was raised high. The slowbro meekly shielded himself with his shellder arm.

"Aha ha… perhaps we can talk zis out like genteelmon instead?"

Rayquaza hammered Baptiste into the floor. His shellder arm shattered, releasing a stream of black and purple smoke. The slowbro screamed but soon sounded as squeaky and depressing as a deflating balloon. Yuna's face paled as Baptiste's body shriveled away before Team Bastion. Nothing but a collection of floating purple lights remained.

Yuna was tempted to inspect them closer, but they instantly broke apart. "Whoa!" Nikki threw herself against the doorway to dodge them, as did Chiaki. One of the light beams flew into Razim's chest. Soft blue light spread over him and, when it faded, the slowking looked exactly as Yuna remembered him.

She flopped onto her back. A weary laugh escaped her lips. "H… how did we pull that off?"

"I dunno." Nikki walked over, frowning as she dusted off her coat. "You tell me, Princess. Because from my point of view, it looks like you hung us out to dry against that loon."

Yuna was about to answer when Rayquaza dropped down between the two of them, coiling around himself. "I thank thee for expunging that cursed evil from my system." He thumped his right fist against his chest and bowed. "As a layperson, I was Sir Gallian the Bold. Now, I am Sir Rayquaza, Sage of Perseverance. As thou art my rescuer, Lady Dreepy, I pledge my fealty unto thee!"

Nikki's initial anger bubbled away. She doubled over laughing. "Oh. My. God. I… I'm gonna need a minute." She dabbed at her eyes. "Y'know what? That stupid shit right there?" Nikki pointed to Rayquaza. "Almost makes all this nonsense worth it."

Chiaki's mint sprig dropped from his mouth. He turned away, covering his face with his good hand. "I need a freaking drink," he muttered.

"Ray, old buddy, old pal!" Reshiram fluttered over, tail engine whirring with excitement. "Good to have you back."

"Ah, Sir Reshiram!" Rayquaza wrapped his tail around Reshiram, who made a sound not unlike a squeaky toy. "It has been far too many moons, friend." He paused. "At least, I think it has been. Pray tell, art thou with Lady Dreepy, too?"

"I… I am…" Reshiram struggled to free himself from Rayquaza's tail. "We can catch up… later. For now… we need to take Razim… and get back to his palace."

XxX

"Archbishop Paradox!"

Orange, metallic doors slid open. In floated a flailing poipole with a gray headset awkwardly fixed around his bulbous head.

A naganadel looked up from his tablet. "What are you doing away from your station?" he barked. The Eternatus Troopers on either side of the door each raised one of their maces at Poipole. They crackled with psychic energy.

"I… I… I have an update, sir." He saluted to the naganadel, then pivoted the salute toward the other side of the room, where the lights faded and only the outlines of a metal desk with a high-arched chair and small deoxys figurine were visible under the dim glows given off by two dozen holographic screens.

The chair swiveled around and two beady white eyes peered back at Poipole.

"Archbishop, I'm so sorry." Naganadel floated toward Poipole, pushing the Troopers away. "I'll get this overeager desk jockey back to his station and dock him a day's salary."

"… no, Sticky. Let him speak." The deep voice reverberated around the room. Paradox's eyes tilted forward slightly. "After all, he wouldn't disturb me for a trifling matter. Isn't that right, boy?"

Tiny bits of purple ink spurted out of Poipole's two side needles. His face reddened. "Y-Yes. Of course, sir. It's um… well…" His arms trembled. "We, y'know, kinda sorta maybe… lost Baptiste's signal."

Silence, broken when Sticky pointed his massive stinger needle at Poipole. "You would dare come to the archbishop over a technical glitch? I'll dock a week's salary!"

Poipole threw his arms up over his face. More ink dribbled out of his head needles, coating his headset. "It's not a glitch, I swear! I double-checked with my supervisor and her supervisor. Not only did Baptiste's signal go out… the light source he had found is gone, too!" He squeezed his eyes shut. "We believe that Baptiste has been… exorcised."

Sticky lowered his stinger. He looked toward the other end of the room. "Sir?"

The archbishop's chair creaked. "I see. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. You're dismissed."

Poipole's eyes widened. A relieved grin spread across his face. "R-Really?"

"Of course."

But as Poipole tried to leave, Paradox's eyes turned bright blue. A psychic field caught Poipole and dragged him toward the archbishop's desk. His eyes widened in fear. "No! No, please, sir! I… I'm begging you! I was just following protocol! Please, I—"

Two tentacles — one blue and one orange — spawned from the shadows of the archbishop's desk and wrapped themselves around Poipole's neck. They forced his mouth open.

Paradox sighed. "I know you were following protocol. But if you had spoken at greater length with your supervisors, they would've told you that I couldn't care the slightest bit about Baptiste and his 'art projects.'" Several tsks echoed around the room. "Instead, you've gone and delivered me bad news. And I do so hate bad news."

Poipole's struggling lasted all of a second before Paradox plunged his tentacles into Poipole's throat. He burst apart in a flare of purple and red energy. The tentacles retreated back into the shadows, revealing an unown-P floating in Poipole's place.

A glass tube dropped from the ceiling to silence P's screams before they even began. Paradox's eyes leaned forward. "Perhaps you will be of more use to me as a Trooper than you were as an analyst. Nos vera Natus!"

Sticky bowed his head as the glass tube sucked P into the ceiling. "Nos vera Natus!" He straightened himself up. "So, what now, Archbishop? Should I send Troopers to investigate?"

"It matters not."

Sticky frowned. Another lost Paradigm sounded like a serious matter to him. "But sir—"

"Now is not the time, Sticky. After all…" Paradox's chair swiveled back. All the holographic screens merged back into one, which showed an irate ponyta stomping back and forth across a carpeted floor while a flygon tapped its claws together nervously.

"… a wonderful show is just about to start."

XxX

~Il Paradigma, Canto C: Baptiste~
He took the latest planet's ruler upon His knee and said, "Forget not the starving artists, for they find beauty in the most unlikely places. It is with their hands that Eternal love will flourish."
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Alright, it took a lot of self-restraint to not spoil myself prior to putting this review together, but I'm here with commentary over the fresh Path of Valor chapter. I was a bit taken aback by the length at first, or rather lack of it at around 4600 words long, but I was pleasantly surprised by what you did with such a low wordcount.

Anyhow, moving on:

Chapter 21

Nikki jumped back, looking at Blipbug Cid like he was pure anathema. "Oh-ho no. No, no, no, no, no!" She hastily rounded the corner. "I like to think I was keeping a pretty level head through the freaking people trapped in poison cocoons, but a laser that reverses evolution? I'm out! So out!"

Chiaki was stiff as a board. "Nikki—"

"Zip it, Twiggy! I am not going back to being a toxel," Nikki cut in. "You wanna know what toxel are good for? Crying and drooling and spitting up!"

Nikki's that embarrassed about her childhood, huh? :V

Yuna continued to stare at Cid in utter disbelief. Even in a realm where time wasn't flowing correctly, this defied any sort of wisdom. Was Cid's body the only thing de-aged? What about his mind?

"Somebody help me!" Cid's squeaky voice was even shriller than before.

"At least he still sounds, y'know, like he isn't a newborn. That's something, right?" Reshiram laughed nervously.

Yuna: "So he's just as helpless as one at the moment." >_>;
Cid: "Princess Yuna, you're not helping right now!" O_O;

"There's another beam! Move, move!" Chiaki cried. Instinct took hold for Yuna and she melted into the wall. Nothing but solid silver surrounded the dreepy. Muffled rumbles sounded all around her. Was the wall shaking? Yes, that had to be it. Had their assailant blasted part of it away? Was it even safe to get out of the wall?

"Oh, enough with ze prattling! You are ruining my focus et my precious work!"

"That's gotta be him. The guy firing the devolution beam!"

Part of me wonders if it'd sound funnier with 'Oi' instead of 'Oh', but I can hear this guy's terrible French accent already. :V

Yuna: "Wait a minute, how am I able to phase into this wall with my Soul Dew, Reshiram?"
Cecil: "Uh... don't question it? Though on the plus side, at least the guy with the funny accent's intelligible so he shouldn't be able to get anything past us-"
Slowbrow: "Sort, sort où que tu sois, Fantyrm."
- Beat moment -
Yuna: "(God that sounded so creepy.) Reshiram, I thought this story wasn't going to dip into other localizations."
:uhhh:

Cecil: "I'm gonna assume that that's a non-canon fluke."
:fearfullaugh:


And it sounded like he was in the area in front of the door. Yuna had to play this smart. She moved to her right, toward where she assumed Nikki still was. Assuming the toxtricity hadn't turned tail and tried to flee the tomb all together. Yuna really wanted to join her, but she needed that Needle.

… or the world needed the Needle. God, if only she could've been born a commoner instead!

Bold of you to assume your author would've allowed you to skip Delving Day if you were a commoner, Yuna. :V

"What the hell are you supposed to be?" Chiaki asked as Yuna freed herself from the wall. She was close enough to the corner to see her assailant: a slowbro with purple ooze crawling down his head, arms, and tail.

… tail? No, that didn't make any sense. There was supposed to be a shellder biting it! Where was—

His left arm!

Slowbro leveled his shellder-encased left arm at Chiaki. "It is moi who should be asking vouz such a question!" Purple and pink paint splotches glistened on the shellder. Similar splotches were smeared across a brown smock and a similarly-colored round, unusually flat cap. "You are trespassing, you… you trespasser!"

Reminder to be consistent of how you format your French in Slowbro's dialogue here. Unless if the 'et' was specially emphasized, you probably want 'moi' and 'vouz' to similarly be in italics.

Yuna: "W-Wait a minute, R-Razim?! Is that you?!" O_O;
Nikki: "Oh come on, what are the odds of that when this guy is speaking in a completely different and much doofier accent?"
Chiaki: "... You do realize that when Rune got turned into a phantom back in Noatun, he had that whole 'You hit me! You hit me!' thing going on, right?"
Nikki: "... I just don't want to accept that being turned into a phantom makes you suddenly sound like a complete idiot. Much less that I'm seriously at risk of being turned into a Toxel by this dork." >.<;

"Oh?" Slowbro's eyes glistened. "So, not just a trespasser, but an interloper! Very well. You et your little pest here will make fine additions to my lovely piece." He pointed his left arm at Cid, who screamed and tried to scuttle away with mixed results.

"Your… piece?" Chiaki said.

"But of course!" Slowbro brought his right arm to his head to tip his funny hat at Chiaki. "For you see, I am Jean-Claude Phillipe François Pierre Emmanuel Baptiste… the Thirty-Eighth! I am l'Paradigm's premier artiste!" He grabbed the sides of his smock and curtsied to Chiaki. "Well, technically I am its only artiste, but zat makes me tres impor— yeek!"

Baptiste jumped back. Lightning struck the ground where he just stood. Yuna looked up to see Nikki perched on top of a silver statue of Baptiste. It must've been the flamethrower from earlier.

I know that you already showed this off before elsewhere, but it still is a riot to see.
:loltias:


Yuna: "Okay, he's not Razim after all." -_-;
Nikki: "Yeah, I don't exactly remember Razim screaming like a little girl like that."
Baptiste: "L-Little girl?! We'll see who's little when you're a petite Toxizap again!"
- Cue Baptiste raising his devolution cannon and Team Bastion tensing up -
Chiaki: "Uh. Nikki? You should probably move right about now."
:fearfullaugh:


Nikki had more lightning crackling in her right hand when a huge pink beam struck the statue. She tumbled to the ground with a startled cry. Silver rubble chunks slammed down all around her.

Yuna blinked. Baptiste had his left arm leveled at where the statue used to be. "Mon Dieu! Such a saucy tongue. But I am used to amateur critics. Zey are nothing before mois!"

Chiaki had his Leaf Blade at the ready. However, Baptiste vanished before Chiaki could even wind up. Yuna turned her head. Her gills shriveled upon seeing Baptiste looming over Nikki with blue energy gathering at the tip of his shellder.

You know, even if Baptiste wasn't the type who'd probably turn Team Bastion into a collective trophy, I'd kinda half-expect Nikki to die of embarrassment losing to a guy like this.
:loltias:


Nikki: "A-Am I seriously about to get devolved into a Toxel by this dork?!" O_O;
Baptiste: "Ah-ah. Devolved into un Toxizap-"
Nikki: "Whatever!" >.<

Warmth pooled in her throat. God, it was really hot. Was this what it was like for her mom? No, she shot Flamethrowers from her horns. She briefly thought about how Reshiram's Blue Flare wasn't appropriate for a slowbro, but dismissed it. Blue flames streaked toward an unsuspecting Baptiste.

… except his beam shot toward Yuna's flames instead of Nikki. Yelping, Yuna dropped to the ceiling, sinking partly into the silver stone. The beam sailed past her. Nikki kicked her legs out, striking Baptiste's left leg.

"Augh!" He buckled to his right, giving Chiaki enough time to wrap the Tactical Toucher's spectral hand around the slowbro's right arm and tug. Baptiste's chin struck the ground. "Woomph!"

Nice save there by Nikki and Chiaki.
Baptiste: "Flamme Bleue?! Wh-What is zis sorcery?!"
Yuna: "Okay, can we please stick to our localization here?"
Baptiste: "Non! Jamais!"
Cecil: "I suppose that's a 'no' on that front. Let's just hurry and beat this guy." >_>;

"Imbéciles." Baptiste wrinkled his scaly nose. "True art is suffering. And life… it is ze only acceptable canvas for such artistic expression." He pinched his nose with his right hand. "I would not expect filthy roturiers to understand."

Yuna: "... I feel as if I should feel insulted right now."
Baptiste: "As you should! I have only the harshest words for uncultured béotiens like you!"

"There's nothing to understand. You're a freaking nutca— gah!" Nikki leaped up, narrowly avoiding a burst of boiling water that then splattered on the wall behind her. To the group's horror, the water didn't evaporate, but bubbled and ate away at the stone and tapestry. "There was… poison in there?" She looked to Baptiste. "What are you pulling?"

"It was all poison!" Reshiram cried. "… I think?"

But slowbro can't use poison techniques! Yuna protested. "I think there are more pressing matters to attend to." Reshiram laughed nervously.

Cecil: "Like not getting melted into a heap of goo by that stuff."
:fearfullaugh:

Yuna: "Okay, fair point." ._.

I need more than sentiments here, Reshiram! she growled. Grunts and shouts came from outside the wall. Yuna had to help her teammates out.

"Let them stay with Baptiste. Make a break for the Needle."

What?
Yuna would've shook the Soul Dew if she wasn't preoccupied. "

If you really think you're outmatched, then we need to get Ray's power in our hands," Reshiram elaborated. "Then we can quite literally blow that loon away. Or at least get rid of his hold on the tomb."

Yuna: "You do realize that if this doesn't work, A: Nikki and Chiaki are going to be base morphs again, B: we're probably all gonna die."
:fearfullaugh:

Cecil: "Look Princess, if we're genuinely outmatched here, the same's going to happen if you stop to pick a straight fight! Might as well roll the dice here!"

"Stand still, you dweeb!" Nikki growled.

"Hoh ho! Your frustration… zat is sweet, sweet sound of suffering!" Baptiste giggled excitedly. "Any simpleton can throw ze paint onto ze canvas and call ze splatter 'art.' But a true artiste takes life itself and turns it into his canvas."

I see Baptiste isn't a fan of Jackson Pollock. :p

"I don't see any canvas," Chiaki countered. The spattering of Bullet Seeds accompanied, followed by plinks as they presumably hit the wall. "I bet the Qliphoth's energy has rotted your brain."

"Non! Vous are the one not seeing," Baptiste said. Loud splatters made Yuna cringe. He really was fighting with poison. "Eternatus… He has been trapped. But soon… He shall emerge from his captivity like ze beautifly from its cascoon prison."

Nikki snorted. "Beautifly? Cascoon? Those supposed to be pokémon or something? They sound like some little kid's made-up versions of butterfree and kakuna… which aren't even the same evolution family!"

I see that Baptiste world-hopped a bit as part of his day job given that he's slinging around non-Galar 'mons as part of his comparison. I'd give him more crap for not slinging around a Charmillon there as part of his French shtick, but it'd kinda wreck the back-and-forth with Nikki there.

However, I will given him crap for talking about 'Beautifly escaping from its Cascoon prison'. >:V

Unless that's an intentional flub on Baptiste's part, you want to change either the first to 'Dustox' or the second to 'Silcoon'.

"As l'Paradigm's artiste, I knew that I had to celebrate His return with a piece zat exemplified ze raw beauty born from all His suffering," Baptiste continued. There were hisses and bubbling, too. Attacks colliding, perhaps? "So, I chose to give zis dusty tomb its own metamorphosis!"

"Is that why you're abducting people and putting them in poison cocoons?" Chiaki asked.

"Non! I would not sully my creative juices in such a way," Baptiste barked. Crackles and a thunderclap sounded far behind Yuna. "I whipped up a delightful creation to do ze dirty work in my stead. Perhaps vous have met it already?"

Huh, I didn't peg Paradigm as being able to create Daemons, but the more you know...

So, Ahemait is his fault. Which meant there was a possibility the whole Isfet tale Razim brought up was a fabrication. That would've relieved Yuna if her life wasn't in danger. Yuna heard rushes of wind then poked her head out of the wall. She gasped, then threw her hands over her mouth.

youre_serious_futurama.gif


I'm not buying that Bahamut didn't seriously mess up Aquardah, just saying

Turtankhamun's room was coated in a thick layer of purple slime save for the red and blue tapestry pieces, one of which Yuna thankfully found. However, his sarcophagus hadn't fallen to the ceiling when gravity reversed… because the Needle she was searching for was impaled through it. The ruby top carved to look like an eye had a distorted purple aura around it, with trails of purple energy heading out the door.

Yuna: "Uhh... is it safe to pull this thing right now?"
:uhhh:

Cecil: "Probably not. Though I'm not sure if it's even possible to pull it out like this." ._.;

Silver bricks splintered underneath her. Yuna charged toward the Needle with Quick Attack speeds. Seconds later, the ceiling erupted behind her, scattering silver chunks and purple slime in all directions. A slowking landed at the edge of the hole. His skin had a purple tint to it and his shellder crown had crown to completely cover his head.

Yuna's gills shriveled. "R… Razim?"

"Must… saaaave… grrooooooh!"

Razim rose into the air atop a pilar of poison. Yuna's eyes widened. She dove into the ceiling, then heard the poison crash over her like a huge wave striking the shore. It reminded her of Seifer's Dynaforce attack. How was she supposed to deal with something like that?

Yuna: "Okay, there's Razim!" O.O
Cecil: "Yeah, I don't think he's in the mood for smalltalk right now! Just keep going for Ray!" O_O;

"I can't do that safely!" Yuna hissed. She rose from the floor and smacked the Soul Dew. "You told Cid we'd have your power to rely on. So, put your money where your big mouth is!"

Reshiram popped out of the Soul Dew and faced Razim, who swayed side to side uneasily. "My mouth's not big! Bahamut told me it's an average size snout!"

:hoodLUL:


"It is suffering zat gets my creative juices flowing!" Baptiste's obnoxiously shrill voice carried all the way through to the chamber despite the winds.

"Dude, nobody wants to hear about your creative juices!" Nikki shouted. Yuna spotted electric sparks at the edges of the doorway. Were the others holding Baptiste off or was he getting closer to the Needle room?

I did a double-take at 'creative juices' for a moment. But yeah, I wouldn't want to hear about that either from Baptiste in any imaginable definition of the term.

Yuna: "Just how high-pitched is he for us to hear him like this?" .-.
Cecil: "Secondary concerns there, Princess!" >_>;

"And we of l'Qliphoth have suffered for too long!"

Yuna had enough time to flee into the corner of the room. But even with a powerful flap of his wings, Reshiram couldn't get away. He careened into the top of the needle and a burst of purple energy shot him into the floor. Reshiram gasped in surprised. Yuna looked down and saw pink energy spreading out underneath her. "Psychic terrain?" she squeaked.

"All because of ze traitor and her devil of a husband!" Baptiste continued. Yuna really wished he had an off button. Or the Needle could make the winds louder.

Wait a minute, is that Bahamut and Chiron he's talking about?

The Soul Dew glowed again, as did Reshiram's eyes. Another fireball gathered above his head, but Razim was faster. Bright pink scribbles struck Reshiram's chest. Though he stood tall, his eyes widened as his fireball shrank over his head. Yuna glanced at Razim. What had Baptiste's crazy energy done to the slowking?

"My attack!" Reshiram broke off as it looked like Razim was readying another poison wave. Yuna's eyes darted around the room. She looked at the Needle again and recalled its… reaction to being struck by Reshiram.

Wait, is this supposed to be Eerie Spell?

It's worth a shot if it means an end to this nightmare!

Yuna flew up to the top of the Needle and spread her arms out. "Hey, hey! I'm right here. T… take a shot at me!"

Razim tilted his head. "… muh?"

Reshiram turned around. "What are you doing?!"

Yuna: "Uh... I mean I think I'm baiting Razim into attacking this needle, but admittedly I'm not fully sure this isn't a terrible idea myself right now."
:fearfullaugh:


The rings struck the Needle. Each blow created gouts of shadowfire. One got Yuna, shooting her into the floor. The dreepy yowled from the blow. It was like someone poured ice water on her. God, it hurt so bad. Yuna just wanted to stop. To sleep. To forget any of this was happening.

"Yuna… the Needle! Something's happening with it!"

Reshiram's cry forced her to open her eyes. The distorted aura was gone. Razim had fallen to his knees, clutching at his shellder crown.

Yuna: "A-Ah! It's working! It's working!"

"You little vermin! You tried to trick me!" Baptiste shouted from what sounded like the hallway. He must've been about fifteen meters away. "Me, ze great Jean-Claude Phillipe Fra—"

Wait, why didn't Baptiste just teleport in anyways?

Yuna's small torso lurched. Black, inky tendrils shot out and grabbed the head of the Needle, pulling her toward it much like Chiaki's Hooker arm. Moments later, the Needle's warmth shot through Yuna's body and her vision went white.

Yuna: "A-Aah! I hope this was a good idea!"

The purple Moongeist Beam cut through the deep blue-black that marked the edge of the stratosphere, but the distance between her and this deoxys was simply too great. It popped over to her right in a blink of blue light.

Then its orange and purple body twisted upon itself. Its frame thinned. Two of its arms vanished, replaced by a large spoke from the back of its head.

Great. The speed form.

She brought her wings together to make herself a smaller target, but Deoxys was zipping back and forth too fast for her ESP to keep up. She conjured a blue Protect barrier in desperation. Relief flooded her when a Dark Pulse struck the barrier and shattered it. She whipped her right wing around, blindly hurling a Shadow Ball.

Oh hey, it's Chiron again. Guess we'll be seeing one of these visions every time a fresh needle gets yoinked.

"Damn it, why isn't anyone helping?!" she snarled. Bahamut had trusted her to keep Etherium safe in his absence. Why did this have to happen now? And in a spot where the Luminous Sages couldn't reliably reach? This planet was his home. No, their home. She wanted to keep it that way.

Okay yeah, I'm calling it now. Baptiste was talking about Bahamut and Chiron.

"You are a fool to think you can fit in among these meatbags."

Deoxys popped up in its base form fifty meters in front of her.

"I made my choice. I'm not going back to Eternatus."

Its eyes sparked red. "Master Zodiark will not accept that answer."

Oh hey, more Final Fantasy superbosses getting namedropped here. :V

"Have no fear, for Rayquaza is here!"

Deoxys and its clones glanced down in union just in time to see an emerald comet charge straight through them. The streak made an abrupt right turn and plowed through the clones, which burst apart into blobs of slime.

"Ray!" Jubilance spread through her chest.

The last of the clones dispatched, the emerald comet faded into a transformed Rayquaza. His delta sign and golden tassels were brilliant beacons shining in the twilight of the planet's edge.

"Sorry for the delay, Lady Chiron! But a knight always knows how to arrive at the right moment!" He threw his triangular head back for a hearty laugh.

Did- Did I just read Trizano as a giant Lindwurm? One thing's for sure, I'm sure I'm gonna love seeing more of this guy just from that intro.
:veelove:


She curled her wings up by her crescent moon head. Her third eye flared to life. Purple light coalesced around it. "Here's my parting gift, Qliphoth scum!"

The Moongeist Beam swallowed Deoxys' core whole.

"Well put, m'lady!" Rayquaza snaked up to her, clapping his tiny little hands. "Art thou sure thee weren't a knight in a past life?"

Sighing, Chiron shook her head. "Doubt it, Ray." The fatigue finally caught up with her. Her wings drooped. "Let's just… get back down to the surface, okay?"

"Verily!"

A bit more formal in prose, but my character comparison still stands given how much of a ham this guy is.

Yuna sucked a sharp breath in and fell onto the floor seconds after a huge wind burst dissolved away the slime. She flopped around like a benched magikarp. Ah, my head! The vision was even more frightening than the last one. What was that sinister-looking creature? Deoxys?

"Bonté divine! B… but how is zis possible?!"

Baptiste stood in the doorway, his trembling shellder arm trained on the black serpent floating in front of him.

… wait, black? No, that couldn't be right! Rayquaza's scales were a brilliant emerald. She had just seen them. And Reshiram looked equally confused. Unless…

"One of this planet's old guard accepted Natus' love while in his stasis."

Oh. Oh no.

:grohno:


"You!" Baptiste raised his right hand and shook it at Rayquaza. "Stop floating zere menacingly et say something! Or destroy zese stupid interlopers!" The slowbro pointed to Yuna.

Rayquaza quickly glanced her. Yuna momentarily squeaked at his crimson eyes. But her ectoplasm stopped quivering when his expression softened slightly. He briefly smiled, then turned back to Baptiste.

"Thou art the scoundrel trying to poison me from the outside." Rayquaza slammed his tail in front of Baptiste, who jumped back with a squeak. "Your misdeeds end here and now, daemon!

Oh, so we are getting Knight in Shining Armor Rayquaza after all!
:quag:


And this is such a trip compared to what the last Rayquaza you wrote for was like.

Cecil: "Er... shame about the looks, though."
Ray: "Meh, it's cosmetic. It takes more than that to corrupt a knight!"

"Non… non! Zis is a mistake! Zere has been a big misunderstand— eeeeng!"

Baptiste's attempt to flee was met with an electrified fist from Nikki. He tumbled back in front of Rayquaza, whose emerald tail was raised high. The slowbro meekly shielded himself with his shellder arm.

"Aha ha… perhaps we can talk zis out like genteelmon instead?"

Ray:


Rayquaza hammered Baptiste into the floor. His shellder arm shattered, releasing a stream of black and purple smoke. The slowbro screamed but soon sounded as squeaky and depressing as a deflating balloon. Yuna's face paled as Baptiste's body shriveled away before Team Bastion. Nothing but a collection of floating purple lights remained.

Whelp, guess that Baptiste will now get some more appreciation as an artist given that he's met the prerequisite for an artist to be appreciated. :V

She flopped onto her back. A weary laugh escaped her lips. "H… how did we pull that off?"

"I dunno." Nikki walked over, frowning as she dusted off her coat. "You tell me, Princess. Because from my point of view, it looks like you hung us out to dry against that loon."

Yuna: "Uh... I-I can explain?"
:fearfullaugh:


Yuna was about to answer when Rayquaza dropped down between the two of them, coiling around himself. "I thank thee for expunging that cursed evil from my system." He thumped his right fist against his chest and bowed. "As a layperson, I was Sir Gallian the Bold. Now, I am Sir Rayquaza, Sage of Perseverance. As thou art my rescuer, Lady Dreepy, I pledge my fealty unto thee!"

I see you're pulling a FF on your Absol from GL there. Though that's also a huge trip, since that Gallian is also really different than this one

Nikki's initial anger bubbled away. She doubled over laughing. "Oh. My. God. I… I'm gonna need a minute." She dabbed at her eyes. "Y'know what? That stupid **** right there?" Nikki pointed to Rayquaza. "Almost makes all this nonsense worth it."

Chiaki's mint sprig dropped from his mouth. He turned away, covering his face with his good hand. "I need a freaking drink," he muttered.

Those two sound really impressed with that Sage of Perseverance there. :V

"Archbishop Paradox!"

Orange, metallic doors slid open. In floated a flailing poipole with a gray headset awkwardly fixed around his bulbous head.

A naganadel looked up from his tablet. "What are you doing away from your station?" he barked. The Eternatus Troopers on either side of the door each raised one of their maces at Poipole. They crackled with psychic energy.

For a second, I read that as Paradox being the Naganadel. I know you established who he was in the last chapter, but you might want to tighten up the prose a bit by throwing in something like "In place of the Deoxys the poipole expected to find, a naganadel [...]"

Though on that note, I actually don't think you've ever cast a Nagandel before in your prior writing.

The chair swiveled around and two beady white eyes peered back at Poipole.

"Archbishop, I'm so sorry." Naganadel floated toward Poipole, pushing the Troopers away. "I'll get this overeager desk jockey back to his station and dock him a day's salary."

"… no, Sticky. Let him speak." The deep voice reverberated around the room. Paradox's eyes tilted forward slightly. "After all, he wouldn't disturb me for a trifling matter. Isn't that right, boy?"

Okay, never mind, the Archbishop is a Deoxys after all. It's a bit late and the text was a bit of a fakeout there. Though I see the "same names, different roles" train is chugging along this chapter, since Sticky in GL was really different from this one here.

Tiny bits of purple ink spurted out of Poipole's two side needles. His face reddened. "Y-Yes. Of course, sir. It's um… well…" His arms trembled. "We, y'know, kinda sorta maybe… lost Baptiste's signal."

Silence, broken when Sticky pointed his massive stinger needle at Poipole. "You would dare come to the archbishop over a technical glitch? I'll dock a week's salary!"

Yeah, this Sticky's significantly more of a jerk than your last one.

Sticky: "If anything, I should dock more of your pay for you inking yourself in public."
:TailsEww:

Poipole: "S-Sir, it's a perfectly reasonable reaction to these circumstances!" >///<

Poipole threw his arms up over his face. More ink dribbled out of his head needles, coating his headset. "It's not a glitch, I swear! I double-checked with my supervisor and her supervisor. Not only did Baptiste's signal go out… the light source he had found is gone, too!" He squeezed his eyes shut. "We believe that Baptiste has been… exorcised."

Sticky lowered his stinger. He looked toward the other end of the room. "Sir?"

The archbishop's chair creaked. "I see. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. You're dismissed."

Poipole's eyes widened. A relieved grin spread across his face. "R-Really?"

"Of course."

:sceptical:


But as Poipole tried to leave, Paradox's eyes turned bright blue. A psychic field caught Poipole and dragged him toward the archbishop's desk. His eyes widened in fear. "No! No, please, sir! I… I'm begging you! I was just following protocol! Please, I—"

Two tentacles — one blue and one orange — spawned from the shadows of the archbishop's desk and wrapped themselves around Poipole's neck. They forced his mouth open.

Paradox sighed. "I know you were following protocol. But if you had spoken at greater length with your supervisors, they would've told you that I couldn't care the slightest bit about Baptiste and his 'art projects.'" Several tsks echoed around the room. "Instead, you've gone and delivered me bad news. And I do so hate bad news."

Yeesh, remind me to never take a job in the QN if their equivalent to OSHA allows for stuff like this to go down.

Poipole's struggling lasted all of a second before Paradox plunged his tentacles into Poipole's throat. He burst apart in a flare of purple and red energy. The tentacles retreated back into the shadows, revealing an unown-P floating in Poipole's place.

A glass tube dropped from the ceiling to silence P's screams before they even began. Paradox's eyes leaned forward. "Perhaps you will be of more use to me as a Trooper than you were as an analyst. Nos vera Natus!"

Sticky bowed his head as the glass tube sucked P into the ceiling. "Nos vera Natus!" He straightened himself up. "So, what now, Archbishop? Should I send Troopers to investigate?"

Wasn't expecting that turn of events, though part of me is glad that didn't result in a bucket of Poipole ink and blood splattering the room.

Sticky frowned. Another lost Paradigm sounded like a serious matter to him. "But sir—"

"Now is not the time, Sticky. After all…" Paradox's chair swiveled back. All the holographic screens merged back into one, which showed an irate ponyta stomping back and forth across a carpeted floor while a flygon tapped its claws together nervously.

"… a wonderful show is just about to start."

Sticky: "... Archbishop, how are we even able to observe this?"
Paradox: "Surveillance footage!"
Sticky: "Yes, but our communications protocols are highly unlikely to have been-"
Paradox: "Shush! It's starting already!"

~Il Paradigma, Canto C: Baptiste~ He took the latest planet's ruler upon His knee and said, "Forget not the starving artists, for they find beauty in the most unlikely places. It is with their hands that Eternal love will flourish."

>Canto C
I have to wonder what the significance is for the different names of the 'songs' there. Either way, it was a fun boss teaser to see written up.

And made it to the end, @Ambyssin . Took a while longer than I expected to put this review together, but this chapter was really fun and had a lot happen in just about 4600 words. Looking forward to what comes next from here, since I can already tell I'm gonna love seeing Gallian in this story. ^^
 

Ambyssin

Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 22: Courting Disaster

The Crowne Court had one main chamber and two accessory chambers. Naturally, given the high-profile nature of the trial, the main chamber was chosen, with its high-arched ceilings and stained-glass murals at the back of the room depicting Queen Calliope flanked by the warm, yellow-orange hues of torches.

Shimmer stood stiff as a board behind the white, oaken defense bench, bathed in the soft glow of candlelit lamps neatly lined up in front of half the viewing gallery. He stared at the equally white judiciary bench. It was high enough to barely make out the seats where the six jurors sat. Fortunately, the presiding magister's platform was affixed to the base of a massive bronze scale, so Shimmer could see it without straining his eyes.

"Nervous?" Kain shuffled around some pages on the bench, then adjusted his blue vest and bowtie. A soft color to lull the jurors. So, at least the flygon knew that much.

"No," Shimmer flatly said. What was there to be nervous about… Yuna bailing on him? Mother would make sure his grade didn't suffer for her boneheaded decision.

Still, that wouldn't stop his classmates from gossiping about it regardless the verdict. I can hear it now: 'Oooh, that dragon knew something! Or maybe she was trying to get Prince Shimmer's uncle executed!'

Shimmer took a breath. That dreepy's deceitfulness would be dealt with later. All that mattered right now was—

"Ohhh, Shimmy-Wimmy! You gotta help me, you gotta!" a slurpuff cried from atop a comically small wooden stool on the defense's side of the witness stand. He had an orange jumpsuit on and a glowing collar around his forehead. Benedict tugged at his bulbous cheeks. "I didn't do it! I couldn't do it! You can't let them send me back to lockup." His breathing rate quickened. "The other prisoners tried to spread me across their egg salad sandwiches! It was awfu-u-u-ul!"

Huge tear streams gushed down Benedict's sides. The bisharp guard holding the chains Benedict's handcuffs were fasted to raised a glowing hand. "Oi, cut the waterworks, scum!"

"Hey! Innocent until proven guilty!" Kain barked, pointing an accusatory talon at Bisharp. He rolled his eyes and lowered his hand.

Shimmer took another breath. The inquisitor's bench opposite him was still empty. He knew the distortion situation had left the Ministry of Justice short-staffed, but this was ridiculous. Maybe there won't be a trial. Maybe—

"And so… it begins."

Shimmer's heart shot into his throat. Black shadows pooled behind the inquisitor's bench. Vegna floated out of the wall, his golden skull gauntlets flickering under the candlelight. The black hood over his head gave way to a cape that fluttered behind him. Why could the cape phase through solid objects? What was it made of?

"… no." Shimmer took a step toward Kain. "This has to be a mistake! H… he's my teacher! He can't prosecute my uncle!"

He saw… sadness in Kain's eyes. "Why do you think your uncle couldn't find a private attorney to represent him?" The flygon bowed his head. "Nobody wanted to stand opposite the Grim Reaper on his return to court."

Shimmer's eyes widened. He knew! That damned public defender knew the whole time and didn't say a word. To the Crown Prince, no less! "I—"

An authoritative knock reverberated through the room. The crowd's murmurs — cripes, Shimmer had forgotten there even was a crowd — died down. Shimmer looked to the judiciary bench and found an oranguru in black robes holding giant palm fronds inexplicably molded into a gavel.

"In the name of Her Eminence, Queen Isola, and Her Benevolence, Queen Calliope, the Crowne Court is hereby called to order," Oranguru declared. Behind him, a giant flame appeared on each side of the bronze scale. "I, Magister Oranguru Mellath, will officiate the trial of Mr. Slurpuff Benedict." His expression sharpened as he looked down. "I ask of you, inquisition and defense, are you fully prepared to present your arguments?"

Kain looked to Vegna, who merely floated there with his arms crossed and his hooded head bowed. The flygon awkwardly gathered up his papers. "The defense is ready, Your Magistry."

Mellath turned to Vegna. He was as motionless as a statue. Shimmer's brow furrowed. Already up to mind games. Wait until Mother hears about this!

"… not yet. The inquisition is not ready yet."

Kain's wings buzzed. "H-Huh?"

Mellath's brow furrowed. "Inquisitor Vegna, what is the meaning of this?"

For a moment, Vegna didn't respond. Then a loud shriek echoed through the courtroom. "Good heavens!" Mellath stiffened in his chair.

Shimmer heard fluttering wings and looked up. Vegna's wretched feral pet descended toward him and landed obediently on his right shoulder pad. "The inquisition… is ready, milord."

"I see." Mellath cleared his throat and straightened out his robes. "First off, there is something that the Court wishes to confirm with both parties." He tilted his head. "Accused!"

"I didn't do it!" Benedict yelped, only to squeak when the bisharp guard tugged on his chains. "Y-Yes, Your Magistry?"

"I see in your attorney's paperwork that he is a public defender." Mellath glanced stoically at Kain. "And one who has never defended in Crowne Court."

Shimmer tensed. Even if the magister's expression was unreadable, he could tell this was a bad first impression. Though he wanted to say something, Shimmer's mind was still reeling from Vegna's trickery. Had he pulled Yuna out at the last second? Who put him up to this? I'm going to find out, I swear it!

"I'm sorry, Magister." Benedict squeezed his eyes shut. "When Mr. Grimmy-Wimmy got assigned this case, I couldn't find anyone willing to defend me!" Tears dribbled down his face. "But I didn't do it! Ya gotta believe me! I'm innocent!"

Mellath slammed his gavel. "Order! Do not speak out of turn like that again, accused."

"Meep! Sorry! I get talkative when I—" Benedict shut up the moment Mellath raised his gavel again.

"… hmph. Public defender or private. Pauper or noble. It matters not." Vegna's eye smoldered under his hood. "The accused is the guilty party. That is fact."

"Save it for your opening statement, Sir Vegna." Mellath turned to the dusknoir, frowning. "Please remind the Court how long it has been since you last stood at the bench."

Vegna held up four fingers. "Four years, milord."

"I see." Mellath looked down at his desk. "And you have chosen a high-profile homicide case for your return."

"I am no stranger to such proceedings, milord," Vegna exclaimed. He looked up at Mellath. "Minister Justine did not view my absence as a hindrance to prosecuting this trial." Vegna pivoted to point a shadowed index finger at Benedict. "Better the accused get his due process than languish in the gaol awaiting trial while the Ministry of Justice is battered by staff shortages thanks to the ongoing distortion crisis."

At this, the gallery broke into murmurs.

"Crisis?" "Is it really that bad?" "Her Eminence hasn't called it a crisis. I believe in her!" "Wait, is it even safe for us to be here?"

Vegna's right hand crackled with black energy and he slammed it on his desk. Talonflame ruffled its feathers in surprise. "Those whose hearts are sullied by cowardice do not deserve to be in the gallery," the dusknoir growled. "Keep your worthless prattle confined to your country clubs and dinner parties."

"Err, yes. But please remember I'm supposed to keep order here, Sir Vegna." Mellath brushed sweat droplets off his forehead. "In any case, I did speak with Minister Justine and verified your claims. However, I do wish the record to reflect that this is a product of the current staff shortage. Under normal circumstances, this would not have happened."

Shimmer had kept his mouth shut, but if he was going to raise an objection to Vegna's presence, it was now or never. "Well, I'm not okay with this arrangement, Your Magistry!"

"Hmm?" Mellath leaned over and squinted. "G-Goodness! Your Grace!" The oranguru nervously flipped through his papers. "Ah, yes, now I remember. Your name was listed as an assistant for the defense."

"Yes, and Inquisitor Vegna is the one who assigned me to this," Shimmer declared, propping himself up to level his horn at Vegna. "He can't prosecute Unc— err, the accused. It's… a conflict of interest! He cannot both evaluate my performance and work against me."

Mellath quirked a brow. "Sir Vegna?"

"I did indeed assign him to assist the dragon attorney." Vegna and Talonflame bobbed their heads in tandem. "However, the assignment was made before the accused was charged with murder and I became the inquisitor." He pivoted and pointed his index finger at the defense's bench. "Furthermore, I stipulate that I am capable of impartially assessing his performance."

Shimmer leaned forward. "And I stipulate that he can't!"

"Your objection is noted, Your Grace." Mellath scribbled something down with a fountain pen. "However, as the trial has already been called to order, proceedings cannot be suspended. We will continue as planned."

Vegna brought his right arm out and slowly bowed. "I thank you, milord."

Shimmer gnashed his teeth. He was sure there were some reporters filming the proceedings. He'd march that footage to Mother as soon as this was over and demand Vegna's sacking.

Mellath cleared his throat. "Now then, esteemed jurors chosen from the Radiant public, are you prepared to uphold your sworn duty?"

Juror One, a herdier with a top hat and black cloak, enthusiastically nodded. "Aye, milord! We'll throw the book at 'im!"

The second juror, a glaceon in a maid outfit, looked skeptically at him. "I do not believe we are supposed to pass judgement until arguments are presented."

The scyther seated to her left laughed while rubbing his arms together easily. "Bah! I don't care how much he blubbers. All moneybags are nothing but swindlers!"

Next to him, a gothorita pecked away at a typewriter, seemingly ignoring the squabbling around her.

"Oh, I don't know." A meowth stroked his gray, bushy beard in thought. "The Crown Prince is willing to defend the accused. That has to mean something, doesn't it?"

"Yes, quite." An elderly raichu looked up from her knitting needles. "But try not to rush to any conclusions. I'd love to finish this scarf for my grandchild."

Shimmer tried his best to keep his blood from boiling over. These jurors sounded like complete airheads. Most of them already had their minds made up! How was he supposed to save Benedict like this?

"We just need to get to the testimony," Kain said. "If there's foul play to be had here, the witnesses are bound to slip up somewhere."

Shimmer really hoped that was the case.

Mellath banged his gavel down. "All right. Sir Vegna, please proceed with the opening statement."

Vegna bowed once again. "By your will." He snapped his left fingers. Talonflame swooped under Vegna's bench and returned with papers in its beak. The middlemost wooden panel on the judiciary bench opened to reveal a screen. An image of a magmar appeared. His bill was shriveled and the yellow flames atop his head dim and withering.

"The victim in this case is one Magmar Mortimer, a bricklayer with the Venish chapter of the Bricklayers' Guild." Vegna's right hand glowed with pink energy. Mortimer's picture shrank to the corner of the screen. Pictures of brick walls filled up the empty space. "It is said he developed his own technique for firing bricks that few within the guild could replicate. However, due to poor health from his living conditions, he could rarely accept jobs outside Venish."

Vegna swiped at the air and a picture of the omnibus Shimmer had inspected in the evidence vault appeared. "At around 21:00 a fortnight ago, Mortimer boarded this omnibus' inner carriage to return home from a guild meeting at a local pub. A nasty cold front had settled over Venish, which likely accounts for his decision not to use the rooftop seats. We submitted the meteorology report for the city before the start of the trial."

Shimmer looked at Kain, who held up a map with strange colored markings. "The cold front hit my home in Herbrides, too. It was awful," Kain whispered.

"At that time, the accused was already on board the omnibus." Vegna pointed his glowing finger at Benedict.

"What drivel!" Scyther declared, stabbing one of his arms into the table then struggling to pull it out. "Nnngh… why would that moneybags need public transit? I bet he could… rrrgh… afford a fleet of carriages."

Vegna crossed his arms. "You speak the truth, Juror Three. However, speak out of turn again and I will see to it your tongue is served to a pack of feral zigzagoon." His eye smoldered with shadowfire.

Scyther's arm came free. He shrank back in his seat, quivering.

"Um, Your Magistry, if I may?" Benedict squeaked. "I enjoy taking public omnibuses and commiserating with the good city folk." He smiled. "The bouncing of the shoddy carriages always lulls me into a sense of ease. Sometimes I even drift off to sleep in them and miss my stop entirely. Ho ho!"

"… hmph. Continuing," Vegna growled. The screen transitioned to show Mortimer lying in the open door of the carriage with a knife sticking out of his gut. Shimmer's gut squirmed as he fought to keep his breakfast down.

"According to the inquisition's witnesses, there was an altercation between the victim and the accused," Vegna explained. "This led the accused to pull out a knife and stab the victim in the abdomen. The accused fled the scene before the omnibus driver realized what was happening. However, one of the passengers on the rooftop had a gemcom and used it to call the police. They arrived on scene and took the following photograph before the victim was rushed to Venish General Hospital. I submit this photo for the Court."

Mellath nodded. "The Court accepts this evidence. Continue, Sir Vegna."

The screen transitioned to show a knife with an embroidered B on its handle, along with a pair of leather gloves that had pink stains on them. "This is the knife used on the victim, as well as a pair of gloves found on the accused's person. Stoutland Yard confirms the blood to belong to a fire-type."

"Hold it!" Shimmer raised his glowing horn up in protest. "How can you be sure that blood belongs to the victim? Perhaps these gloves were previously stained by a fire-type's blood."

Kain stiffened, then hastily nodded. "The defense perused the passenger listing from the omnibus. While we acknowledge the victim was the only fire-type reported to use the omnibus that night, that evidence isn't strong enough to prove the blood on the gloves is from this incident."

The gallery broke into murmurs and the jurors exchanged hushed whispers with one another. Vegna lowered both hands onto his desk. Shimmer fought off the urge to smirk. At least they had found a vulnerable spot.

"I concede that I cannot prove this blood is from the incident in question," Vegna said. "Nevertheless, the inquisition submits these items as evidence."

"Accepted," Mellath said. "The defense can elaborate on its points during cross-examination."

"Now then…" Vegna held his right hand up and sent manilla envelopes floating toward Kain, the judge, and the jurors. "While the surgeons were able to stop the victim's internal bleeding, he did not awaken from surgery. The victim expired two days later. This is the coroner's report. The cause of death is necrosis of the victim's flame gland secondary to hemorrhagic shock. And the only thing that could've led to such blood loss was the stab wound from the knife."

"The Court accepts this report into evidence as well." Mellath looked to Kain. "Any comments, defense?"

"My client contends that he fell asleep shortly after boarding the omnibus," Kain replied, looking at one of his papers. "The first time he looked upon the victim is when he found him lying unconscious in the carriage's open doorway. Mr. Benedict was so frightened by the scene, primal instinct took hold and he fled the carriage."

"I see." Mellath bowed his head in thought. "Very well, I believe I have a clear outline of the incident. Sir Vegna, please call your witnesses to the stand."

Talonflame hopped back onto Vegna's shoulder while he bowed to Mellath. "As you wish, milord."

Shimmer propped his forehooves up. This was it. His best chance at poking holes into this story and, at the very least, getting the jury to gridlock.

XxX​

Despair's shadows twisted upon one another. His plague mask dropped to the ground and swallowed the shadows up like water through a straw. The crystalline husk that remained dropped down beside the mask. Faint, multicolored lights crackled around him. He dug claws into the dirt.

Someone was taking it. His power. The power that would end this wretched nightmare. And here he was… sitting around thinking a slow burn approach would work. Zapdos hadn't even returned. Despair couldn't even properly sense him.

Worthless. Worthless, worthless, worthless. Trying to scare the public straight was no longer an option. All that mattered was gathering as much power as possible.

Articuno and Moltres looked at him. Purple energy crackled around his claws. "Begone!" he snarled. The masks on the birds' faces shattered. White light streamed into Despair's outstretched hand. Yet the birds did not revert back to their original appearances. As they swayed back and forth, he flicked his hand again.

Purple cracks formed in the air behind the birds. Rifts burst open, sucking them both in. Despair clenched a fist. The rifts sealed themselves. The purple cracks vanished in trails of smoke.

He leaned over and picked up the plague mask and fixed it over his multicolored head. Gnarled shadows engulfed his body once again.

"They're all in the Qliphoth now. I have no doubt about it." He floated across the overturned pillars toward the edge of the distortion. "No one has any right to take them. They don't understand anything."

A puff of smoke gathered on either side of Despair, forming faint outlines. Latios. Zeraora. Both looked at him with hollow, empty faces.

"You are right. We are past the point of striking from the shadows."

Two shadowy tendrils reached into the distortion and pulled it apart like a set of drapes. "Eternatus will die. Even if the planet must be sacrificed to make it happen." The apparitions retreated back into the pool of shadows. "This is about righting wrongs. Reversing my failures." He floated through the opening in the distortion.

"For the good of all universes, it's time for the Qliphoth to know of Necrozma's power once again."

XxX​

Before Noctum even opened his eyes, he registered a throbbing headache. The flickering lights of Cyril's workshop didn't help with that. They were too bright and too blue. "Ugh." Noctum draped his arm over his face.

"He's coming to," Seifer said. Something poked Noctum's right ribcage. "Hey, you still in one piece? Mentally, I mean."

What was Noctum supposed to say to that? "No!" His throat burned, like he wanted to cough up a fireball. The charizard fanned himself with the edge of his black, membranous wing. "H… how can you stand there and be so… calm about all of this?" He tried to sit up, but the room spun. "This is… too much. I want to go home. I want to be with Yuna and Baraz. Not sit here and learn about some… secret empire of dead people's souls inside World Ender!"

Noctum reached toward the Malice shard in his belly. "How am I supposed to go back to Horizon like this? Knowing about all of this? I can't return to cooking and mopping up floors when there's some kind of alien world rebellion that could sweep us all up!"

"… tch. Think it's a bit late for that sentiment."

Noctum couldn't see Valkyrie, but certainly recognized her stoic tone. He glanced at Seifer. "I don't understand." The charizard swallowed hard. "Why aren't you freaking out?"

Seifer grimaced. "You think I'm taking this in stride? I'm using every ounce of willpower not to buck one of those boxes of junk over there." He swished his hair toward a stack of boxes behind him. "My horn is gone because of this. How would you feel if someone tore off your wings, huh?"

That was enough to get Noctum to slowly sit up. "Not good," he whispered meekly.

"I've had years of experience dealing with bad news," Seifer exclaimed, looking down at his dirt-caked hooves. "Plus, my life's gone down the toilet. It's easy to be unfazed by a sob story when you already feel like a trubbish's insides."

I could've done without that comparison. Though it got the point across, Noctum wasn't sure if he was supposed to feel sympathetic toward Seifer or not. Everything Cyril mentioned sounded a lot worse than losing a job and not being able to get your money.

"You don't, like, feel bad for these people?" Noctum looked at his hands. "Hearing this compels me to do something to help, but I pledged myself to the Aeon royals and… nngh!" He grabbed his throbbing forehead. "It's too much. Why did you have to throw it all on our laps, Ninetales?"

As Noctum turned to Cyril, a slam made his tail flame shrivel. Valkyrie had pinned Cyril to the wall, her arms pressed firmly against his torso.

"You're way too trusting, dork." Valkyrie glanced back at Noctum. "I prefer to see things with my own eyes, not go off some damned lecture."

"Let him go, Valkyrie!" Noctum awkwardly stumbled to his feet.

The garchomp snorted purple smoke at Noctum. "This doesn't concern you."

"What are you talking about?" Noctum pointed at Seifer, then himself. "We're all stuck here together. We're not going to get home by—"

"Oh, brother." Valkyrie rolled her eyes. "Weren't you the one going on about how this was too much to handle? I'm offering you a chance to take a load off. You should be thanking me."

Noctum winced. He had really set himself up for that one… and now he was at a loss for words. What was it about Valkyrie that always left him drawing blanks?

"Now then." Valkyrie returned her attention to Cyril. "You think I didn't catch that slip of the tongue? I didn't tell you my name, so why did you almost blurt it out?"

Cyril's ears folded. "Would you believe me if I told you I knew a garchomp named Valerie?"

Valkyrie unceremoniously dropped Cyril onto the cold metal floor.

"Woomph!" The icy ninetales rubbed his hips with several tails. "Easy on the goods."

"Let's try that again." Valkyrie loomed over Cyril. "Start talking or I'll fashion your pelt into one of them frilly scarves."

Cyril's tails frazzled. "Okay, okay!" He scrambled to his right, bonking into one of his rectangular metal machines. "I, uh… well, see for yourself."

He stood up, ears and tails drooping. Blurry blue light washed over him. Soon four legs became two. Nine tails became a flowing red mane with black tips and a cyan pearl toward the end. The yellow scarf turned pink and white hearts peppered the fabric. He had identically-styled leggings going up to his thighs.

Noctum blinked once. Twice. He rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn't seeing things. Finally, a tiny "Oh," escaped his lips.

Valkyrie's composure finally slipped as her jaw slackened. "What the hell… Fenrir?!"

The unmasked zoroark laughed nervously. "H-Hiya, Val. I can, uh, totally explain."

Valkyrie broadsided him across the face. The zoroark spun around. "I… probably deserved that," he wheezed before faceplanting onto the floor. Valkyrie had her right root raised to step on him when Noctum hopped toward her and grabbed her right arm.

"Woah, Valkyrie, easy!" The charizard didn't put up much of a struggle, though. Valkyrie effortlessly freed her arm. "What's the problem?"

Valkyrie stepped back. "The problem is this dweeb shouldn't be here. He works for Chiaki's family."

Fenrir raised a shaky arm. "Technically I'm a freelancer who takes jobs for you gu— ayah!"

Valkyrie bent down and yanked him up by the end of his mane. "You think this is a joke? Do I look like I'm laughing?"

"Well, uh, kinda hard for me to tell when I can't turn around." Fenrir meekly flailed his arms and legs.

Eyes blazing, Valkyrie drove her knee into Fenrir's rump. He skidded across the floor. Noctum stepped in front of her. "C'mon, Valkyrie. This isn't helping." The charizard held his arms out.

"Right. Sure." Valkyrie huffed violet smoke in Noctum's face. "And I suppose you can get to the bottom of this? You fainted from a freaking lecture."

Groaning, Fenrir rubbed his rear with a paw. "You've already done a good enough job getting to this bottom. Twice."

"Don't make me come over there!" Valkyrie snarled. Noctum turned and gave the downed zoroark a look that said he was only making things worse.

"You're right. I can't," Noctum said. "But beating him up won't get us out of this predicament. I would think you of all people would realize that."

Valkyrie glared at him for several seconds before stepping back. "… hmph. The only reason we're in this predicament is because of you." She crossed her arms. "I'm allowed to be upset about this. I've worked with that idiot and he tried to deceive me."

Seifer managed to help Fenrir up to his feet. "Believe me. It wasn't by choice." Fenrir scratched his right ear. "It's a very delicate subject."

"Yeah, sure." Valkyrie's expression was icy enough to make a froslass blush. "So, was all that drivel about being some rebel ally garbage?"

"No." Fenrir held his paws up. "I can explain it, honest, but—"

A buzzing noise sounded… from Fenrir? Noctum titled his head. "Um, did your hair just buzz at us?"

"Ah." Fenrir reached a paw into his mane and pulled out a black headset. Noctum only knew what it was because of the pictures he'd seen of Starlene. "Yo, Boss Kitty, what's up?"

Noctum exchanged confused looks with Seifer. Was he… talking with someone?

"I know you hate that codename, but it's all I got until you come up with something better." Fenrir chuckled nervously. "I— whoa, hang on. Slow down. What's this about an ugly zapdos recolor?"

He's talking about Fake Zapdos, Noctum realized. What if that meant Fenrir was talking to Gene? He had to say something. Gene was supposed to be their ticket home, right? "Um… excuse me?"

"Stand aside." Valkyrie shoved a startled Noctum and stomped toward Fenrir. "Trying to ignore us, are you?"

Fenrir's eyes widened. "W-Wait, no! You can't drop 'em here, I've got com—"

Purple cracks formed behind Fenrir. Noctum immediately recognized the sight from the walk over. "Valkyrie, get back!" He reached for the garchomp and pulled her dorsal fin. A rift then opened from the cracks. A black-purple, three-fingered hand grabbed Fenrir by the scarf and pulled him into the rift.

"No, wait!" Valkyrie scrambled to her feet, only to get struck by Not-Zapdos and knocked back onto Noctum. "Grr, move!" She pushed off the charizard, who managed to blink the stars away only to find Not-Zapdos lying unconscious beside the other Malice Crystal.

"Our exit!" Seifer's eyes lit up. He pointed the stump of his horn at Noctum. "Quickly, use your weird roar thing and break the crystal so we can get out of here."

Noctum sat up, still a bit woozy, but nodded. He still had questions, but going home was what he wanted. Noctum took a deep breath… and yelped when Not-Zapdos's body violently lurched.

The mask on its face shattered. Not-Zapdos opened its beak wide and rainbow light gushed out of it like water from a faucet. The light struck the Malice Crystal and shattered it, bathing the room in a harsh, purple glow.

"What the hell?" Valkyrie threw her arms over her face.

Noctum looked around in a panic. The door! Where was the door? He just had to find it before—

Before purple lines traced themselves across the floor, just like they had before a rift appeared behind Fenrir. Seifer caught on to this as well. The keldeo's eyes widened. "No! Not again!" He fled toward the corner of the room, but it was useless. Noctum knew what came next.

The lines split the floor open under everyone's feet. A dark purple rift spread throughout the entire room. Noctum had a fleeting moment to glance the worry on the others' faces before the rift sucked them all down and sent them hurtling through a purple and black abyss.
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Alright, took a bit longer than expected to get everything formatted, but I'm ready to tempt fate by Courting Disaster with a review of the latest chapter of PoV:

Chapter 22

Shimmer stood stiff as a board behind the white, oaken defense bench, bathed in the soft glow of candlelit lamps neatly lined up in front of half the viewing gallery. He stared at the equally white judiciary bench. It was high enough to barely make out the seats where the six jurors sat. Fortunately, the presiding magister's platform was affixed to the base of a massive bronze scale, so Shimmer could see it without straining his eyes.

"Nervous?" Kain shuffled around some pages on the bench, then adjusted his blue vest and bowtie. A soft color to lull the jurors. So, at least the flygon knew that much.

"No," Shimmer flatly said. What was there to be nervous about… Yuna bailing on him? Mother would make sure his grade didn't suffer for her boneheaded decision.

Kain: "Your body language begs to differ, Your Highness."
Shimmer: "O-Oh come on, what would a dragon like you know about the body language of a horse? Stop your idle insinuating and focus on representing my uncle!"
:shimmersweatdrop:


"Ohhh, Shimmy-Wimmy! You gotta help me, you gotta!" a slurpuff cried from atop a comically small wooden stool on the defense's side of the witness stand. He had an orange jumpsuit on and a glowing collar around his forehead. Benedict tugged at his bulbous cheeks. "I didn't do it! I couldn't do it! You can't let them send me back to lockup." His breathing rate quickened. "The other prisoners tried to spread me across their egg salad sandwiches! It was awfu-u-u-ul!"

Well this uncle is leaving an impression from the jump already.
:loltias:


Kain: "... 'Shimmy-Wimmy'?"
:sceptical:

Shimmer: "... Shut up. It's an endearing character quirk." >_>;

Huge tear streams gushed down Benedict's sides. The bisharp guard holding the chains Benedict's handcuffs were fasted to raised a glowing hand. "Oi, cut the waterworks, scum!"

"Hey! Innocent until proven guilty!" Kain barked, pointing an accusatory talon at Bisharp. He rolled his eyes and lowered his hand.

Okay, so where's the other 50 of them?
:smugcat:


Shimmer's heart shot into his throat. Black shadows pooled behind the inquisitor's bench. Vegna floated out of the wall, his golden skull gauntlets flickering under the candlelight. The black hood over his head gave way to a cape that fluttered behind him. Why could the cape phase through solid objects? What was it made of?

"… no." Shimmer took a step toward Kain. "This has to be a mistake! H… he's my teacher! He can't prosecute my uncle!"

Whelp, it was nice knowing Uncle Benedict. Since one way or another, the reaper's going to get his due.

He saw… sadness in Kain's eyes. "Why do you think your uncle couldn't find a private attorney to represent him?" The flygon bowed his head. "Nobody wanted to stand opposite the Grim Reaper on his return to court."

Shimmer's eyes widened. He knew! That damned public defender knew the whole time and didn't say a word. To the Crown Prince, no less! "I—"

Kain: "To be fair, your Highness? What on earth do you think you would have accomplished?" -_-;
Shimmer: "I- I could've asked mother to get a different prosecutor assigned to this case! Or a change of venue! Something!"
Vegna: "Hrmph, the scales of justice are blind, Clown Prince. You'd do well to hold your tongue before the 'mons who will decide your uncle's fate."

"In the name of Her Eminence, Queen Isola, and Her Benevolence, Queen Calliope, the Crowne Court is hereby called to order," Oranguru declared. Behind him, a giant flame appeared on each side of the bronze scale. "I, Magister Oranguru Mellath, will officiate the trial of Mr. Slurpuff Benedict." His expression sharpened as he looked down. "I ask of you, inquisition and defense, are you fully prepared to present your arguments?"

Oh? Is Mellath's name also a reference to something? Or just chosen because it rolled off the tongue?

Mellath's brow furrowed. "Inquisitor Vegna, what is the meaning of this?"

For a moment, Vegna didn't respond. Then a loud shriek echoed through the courtroom. "Good heavens!" Mellath stiffened in his chair.

Shimmer heard fluttering wings and looked up. Vegna's wretched feral pet descended toward him and landed obediently on his right shoulder pad. "The inquisition… is ready, milord."

Wait, so does van Zieks also have a pet like Blackquill does with Taka in DGS? Or is that just a Vegna thing here?

"I didn't do it!" Benedict yelped, only to squeak when the bisharp guard tugged on his chains. "Y-Yes, Your Magistry?"

"I see in your attorney's paperwork that he is a public defender." Mellath glanced stoically at Kain. "And one who has never defended in Crowne Court."

Shimmer: "Ah yes, way to rub it in right now." >.<

"I'm sorry, Magister." Benedict squeezed his eyes shut. "When Mr. Grimmy-Wimmy got assigned this case, I couldn't find anyone willing to defend me!" Tears dribbled down his face. "But I didn't do it! Ya gotta believe me! I'm innocent!"

Shimmer: "Okay, are 'mons here seriously believing that Uncle Benedict could've seriously been the culprit with a first impression like-?"

Mellath slammed his gavel. "Order! Do not speak out of turn like that again, accused."

"Meep! Sorry! I get talkative when I—" Benedict shut up the moment Mellath raised his gavel again.

"… hmph. Public defender or private. Pauper or noble. It matters not." Vegna's eye smoldered under his hood. "The accused is the guilty party. That is fact."

Shimmer: "Er... I guess they are." ._.
Vegna: "Hrmph, appearances can be deceptive. I presume you didn't bother reading through the case a few years back of the college sweetheart that turned out to be a serial poisoner. Since I'm pretty sure that was included as a case study in your textbook."
Shimmer: "... (Argh! That Dreepy was supposed to tell me these things!)"
:uhhh:


"I am no stranger to such proceedings, milord," Vegna exclaimed. He looked up at Mellath. "Minister Justine did not view my absence as a hindrance to prosecuting this trial." Vegna pivoted to point a shadowed index finger at Benedict. "Better the accused get his due process than languish in the gaol awaiting trial while the Ministry of Justice is battered by staff shortages thanks to the ongoing distortion crisis."

>Ace Attorney-style trial
>due process

:absus:


Just saying, AA as a series is a parody/social commentary of Japan's very prosecution-friendly justice system. So excuse me if I don't quite believe that Benedict would get an actual fair shake here.

"I am no stranger to such proceedings, milord," Vegna exclaimed. He looked up at Mellath. "Minister Justine did not view my absence as a hindrance to prosecuting this trial." Vegna pivoted to point a shadowed index finger at Benedict. "Better the accused get his due process than languish in the gaol awaiting trial while the Ministry of Justice is battered by staff shortages thanks to the ongoing distortion crisis."

At this, the gallery broke into murmurs.

"Crisis?"

"Is it really that bad?"

"Her Eminence hasn't called it a crisis. I believe in her!"

"Wait, is it even safe for us to be here?"

Vegna's right hand crackled with black energy and he slammed it on his desk. Talonflame ruffled its feathers in surprise. "Those whose hearts are sullied by cowardice do not deserve to be in the gallery," the dusknoir growled. "Keep your worthless prattle confined to your country clubs and dinner parties."

Shimmer: "... Inquisitor Vegna, is it really 'cowardice' when you're making the situation sound significantly graver than most of these 'mons are aware of-?" >_>;
Vegna: "Yes. Now let's move along with the proceedings."

"Hmm?" Mellath leaned over and squinted. "G-Goodness! Your Grace!" The oranguru nervously flipped through his papers. "Ah, yes, now I remember. Your name was listed as an assistant for the defense."

"Yes, and Inquisitor Vegna is the one who assigned me to this," Shimmer declared, propping himself up to level his horn at Vegna. "He can't prosecute Unc— err, the accused. It's… a conflict of interest! He cannot both evaluate my performance and work against me."

>Shimmer
>attempting to argue conflicts of interest
>when that's his Uncle on trial

With all due respect, but Vegna might've been onto something with that 'Clown Prince' putdown, since that angle of objection just smells like a disaster waiting to happen.

"Your objection is noted, Your Grace." Mellath scribbled something down with a fountain pen. "However, as the trial has already been called to order, proceedings cannot be suspended. We will continue as planned."

Vegna brought his right arm out and slowly bowed. "I thank you, milord."

Shimmer gnashed his teeth. He was sure there were some reporters filming the proceedings. He'd march that footage to Mother as soon as this was over and demand Vegna's sacking.

... I'm half-expecting it to turn out that Isola wanted Benedict bumped off given the complete lack of reaction from the rest of Shimmer's family to this turn of events.

Mellath cleared his throat. "Now then, esteemed jurors chosen from the Radiant public, are you prepared to uphold your sworn duty?"

Juror One, a herdier with a top hat and black cloak, enthusiastically nodded. "Aye, milord! We'll throw the book at 'im!"

The second juror, a glaceon in a maid outfit, looked skeptically at him. "I do not believe we are supposed to pass judgement until arguments are presented."

The scyther seated to her left laughed while rubbing his arms together easily. "Bah! I don't care how much he blubbers. All moneybags are nothing but swindlers!"

Next to him, a gothorita pecked away at a typewriter, seemingly ignoring the squabbling around her.

"Oh, I don't know." A meowth stroked his gray, bushy beard in thought. "The Crown Prince is willing to defend the accused. That has to mean something, doesn't it?"

"Yes, quite." An elderly raichu looked up from her knitting needles. "But try not to rush to any conclusions. I'd love to finish this scarf for my grandchild."

>at least a third of the jury is ready to hang Benedict from the jump

Oh yeah, that totally sounds like a fair and impartial jury pool there.

Shimmer tried his best to keep his blood from boiling over. These jurors sounded like complete airheads. Most of them already had their minds made up! How was he supposed to save Benedict like this?

Vegna: "Well you could always try proving him innocent. Not that I expect you to manage that. The evidence paints a fairly clear picture of events, and it's not favorable to the accused."
Shimmer: "(Of all the times for that Dreepy to skip out...)"
:uhhh:


"The victim in this case is one Magmar Mortimer, a bricklayer with the Venish chapter of the Bricklayers' Guild." Vegna's right hand glowed with pink energy. Mortimer's picture shrank to the corner of the screen. Pictures of brick walls filled up the empty space. "It is said he developed his own technique for firing bricks that few within the guild could replicate. However, due to poor health from his living conditions, he could rarely accept jobs outside Venish."

Vegna swiped at the air and a picture of the omnibus Shimmer had inspected in the evidence vault appeared. "At around 21:00 a fortnight ago, Mortimer boarded this omnibus' inner carriage to return home from a guild meeting at a local pub. A nasty cold front had settled over Venish, which likely accounts for his decision not to use the rooftop seats. We submitted the meteorology report for the city before the start of the trial."

Shimmer looked at Kain, who held up a map with strange colored markings. "The cold front hit my home in Herbrides, too. It was awful," Kain whispered.

Oh hey, it's this part again. Though those puns are still groaners. I have to wonder why 'Venish' though given that Radiance thus far is very British-centric, and well... that's a pretty unsubtle pun there as to what that 'Venish' is nodding to.
:loltias:


"What drivel!" Scyther declared, stabbing one of his arms into the table then struggling to pull it out. "Nnngh… why would that moneybags need public transit? I bet he could… rrrgh… afford a fleet of carriages."

Vegna crossed his arms. "You speak the truth, Juror Three. However, speak out of turn again and I will see to it your tongue is served to a pack of feral zigzagoon." His eye smoldered with shadowfire.

Scyther's arm came free. He shrank back in his seat, quivering.

Shimmer: "W-Wait a minute, the legal code supports barbaric punishments like that?!"
:sevihype:

Kain: "I think he was bluffing. But it's Inquisitor Vegna, so you never know. (Also, Scyther have tongues as bugs?)"

The screen transitioned to show a knife with an embroidered B on its handle, along with a pair of leather gloves that had pink stains on them. "This is the knife used on the victim, as well as a pair of gloves found on the accused's person. Stoutland Yard confirms the blood to belong to a fire-type."

"Hold it!" Shimmer raised his glowing horn up in protest. "How can you be sure that blood belongs to the victim? Perhaps these gloves were previously stained by a fire-type's blood."

Kain stiffened, then hastily nodded. "The defense perused the passenger listing from the omnibus. While we acknowledge the victim was the only fire-type reported to use the omnibus that night, that evidence isn't strong enough to prove the blood on the gloves is from this incident."

Better hope there's no DNA testing in this setting, otherwise that objection's going to last all of about 10 seconds.(edited)

"I concede that I cannot prove this blood is from the incident in question," Vegna said. "Nevertheless, the inquisition submits these items as evidence."

"Accepted," Mellath said. "The defense can elaborate on its points during cross-examination."

:sceptical:


I mean, I'm not convinced yet that they don't have DNA sequencing waiting to be trotted out, but that's a lucky break there if not.

"Now then…" Vegna held his right hand up and sent manilla envelopes floating toward Kain, the judge, and the jurors. "While the surgeons were able to stop the victim's internal bleeding, he did not awaken from surgery. The victim expired two days later. This is the coroner's report. The cause of death is necrosis of the victim's flame gland secondary to hemorrhagic shock. And the only thing that could've led to such blood loss was the stab wound from the knife."

"The Court accepts this report into evidence as well." Mellath looked to Kain. "Any comments, defense?"

Shimmer: "Hold on, necrosis of the victim's flame gland? There's no way that could've been caused by a stab wound just a few days old while that Magmar was in the hospital!"
Vegna: "That was a secondary cause, Clown Prince. As in a contributing but not the main factor in the deceased's passing."
Shimmer: "(... I dunno, something smells about this. Wouldn't that necrotic gland have killed that Magmar anyways? And how on earth did that even happen?)"

"I see." Mellath bowed his head in thought. "Very well, I believe I have a clear outline of the incident. Sir Vegna, please call your witnesses to the stand."

Talonflame hopped back onto Vegna's shoulder while he bowed to Mellath.

"As you wish, milord." Shimmer propped his forehooves up. This was it. His best chance at poking holes into this story and, at the very least, getting the jury to gridlock.

Oh yeah, this totally won't end terribly.

Someone was taking it. His power. The power that would end this wretched nightmare. And here he was… sitting around thinking a slow burn approach would work. Zapdos hadn't even returned. Despair couldn't even properly sense him.

Worthless. Worthless, worthless, worthless. Trying to scare the public straight was no longer an option. All that mattered was gathering as much power as possible.

Articuno and Moltres looked at him. Purple energy crackled around his claws. "Begone!" he snarled. The masks on the birds' faces shattered. White light streamed into Despair's outstretched hand. Yet the birds did not revert back to their original appearances. As they swayed back and forth, he flicked his hand again.

Uhm. Yeah, I'm feeling pretty good about my prediction that Bahamut is Phantom Despair. Though what exactly did he just do to those birbs there?

"They're all in the Qliphoth now. I have no doubt about it." He floated across the overturned pillars toward the edge of the distortion. "No one has any right to take them. They don't understand anything."

A puff of smoke gathered on either side of Despair, forming faint outlines. Latios. Zeraora. Both looked at him with hollow, empty faces.

Feeling really good about that prediction right now. Though I'm presuming the choice of legendaries there is a direct callback to Team Radiance from GL? Since it'd be one heck of a plot twist if Bahamut / Phantom Despair was endgame Shane in the distant future with some serious jading and burnout. I mean, I strongly doubt it's where you're taking the story, but still. The door to that hasn't been firmly closed yet.

Two shadowy tendrils reached into the distortion and pulled it apart like a set of drapes. "Eternatus will die. Even if the planet must be sacrificed to make it happen." The apparitions retreated back into the pool of shadows. "This is about righting wrongs. Reversing my failures." He floated through the opening in the distortion.

"For the good of all universes, it's time for the Qliphoth to know of Necrozma's power once again."

Aaaaaand called it about Phantom Despair!
:wigglyhappy:


"He's coming to," Seifer said. Something poked Noctum's right ribcage. "Hey, you still in one piece? Mentally, I mean."

What was Noctum supposed to say to that? "No!" His throat burned, like he wanted to cough up a fireball. The charizard fanned himself with the edge of his black, membranous wing. "H… how can you stand there and be so… calm about all of this?" He tried to sit up, but the room spun. "This is… too much. I want to go home. I want to be with Yuna and Baraz. Not sit here and learn about some… secret empire of dead people's souls inside World Ender!"

Seifer: "To be fair, I got my nervous breakdown out of the way earlier, so..."
Noctum: "Not helping!" >.<

Seifer grimaced. "You think I'm taking this in stride? I'm using every ounce of willpower not to buck one of those boxes of junk over there." He swished his hair toward a stack of boxes behind him. "My horn is gone because of this. How would you feel if someone tore off your wings, huh?"

That was enough to get Noctum to slowly sit up. "Not good," he whispered meekly.

"I've had years of experience dealing with bad news," Seifer exclaimed, looking down at his dirt-caked hooves. "Plus, my life's gone down the toilet. It's easy to be unfazed by a sob story when you already feel like a trubbish's insides."

Noctum: "Great, now you got me thinking of a Trubbish's insides."
:nauseated_face:

Valkyrie: "Uhm... yeah, would it kill you you pick some other metaphors there?" >_>;

I could've done without that comparison. Though it got the point across, Noctum wasn't sure if he was supposed to feel sympathetic toward Seifer or not. Everything Cyril mentioned sounded a lot worse than losing a job and not being able to get your money.

Oh lol, the very next line backs up my reaction.

"You're way too trusting, dork." Valkyrie glanced back at Noctum. "I prefer to see things with my own eyes, not go off some damned lecture."

"Let him go, Valkyrie!" Noctum awkwardly stumbled to his feet.

The garchomp snorted purple smoke at Noctum. "This doesn't concern you."

"What are you talking about?" Noctum pointed at Seifer, then himself. "We're all stuck here together. We're not going to get home by—"

"Oh, brother." Valkyrie rolled her eyes. "Weren't you the one going on about how this was too much to handle? I'm offering you a chance to take a load off. You should be thanking me."

Noctum: "Uhm... Val? Need I remind you that we're the strangers in this undead empire and Cyril isn't? If we beat him up, aren't we on our own here?"
:fearfullaugh:

Valkyrie: "Not if we get the way home out of him first."

Cyril's tails frazzled. "Okay, okay!" He scrambled to his right, bonking into one of his rectangular metal machines. "I, uh… well, see for yourself."

He stood up, ears and tails drooping. Blurry blue light washed over him. Soon four legs became two. Nine tails became a flowing red mane with black tips and a cyan pearl toward the end. The yellow scarf turned pink and white hearts peppered the fabric. He had identically-styled leggings going up to his thighs.

Noctum blinked once. Twice. He rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn't seeing things. Finally, a tiny "Oh," escaped his lips.

Valkyrie's composure finally slipped as her jaw slackened. "What the hell… Fenrir?!"

The unmasked zoroark laughed nervously. "H-Hiya, Val. I can, uh, totally explain."

... Okay, I'll admit, I didn't see that one coming. Though it makes me wonder if there was ever originally a Cyril or if Cyril's always been an alias of Fenrir's.

"Woah, Valkyrie, easy!" The charizard didn't put up much of a struggle, though. Valkyrie effortlessly freed her arm. "What's the problem?"

Valkyrie stepped back. "The problem is this dweeb shouldn't be here. He works for Chiaki's family."

Fenrir raised a shaky arm. "Technically I'm a freelancer who takes jobs for you gu— ayah!"

Valkyrie bent down and yanked him up by the end of his mane. "You think this is a joke? Do I look like I'm laughing?"

Noctum: "Yeesh, remind me to never take a job from that family."
Fenrir: "Gack... probably wise of you. Though how is Val doing this to me when she doesn't have individual fingers?"

"Right. Sure." Valkyrie huffed violet smoke in Noctum's face. "And I suppose you can get to the bottom of this? You fainted from a freaking lecture."

Groaning, Fenrir rubbed his rear with a paw. "You've already done a good enough job getting to this bottom. Twice."

Out of curiosity, but what's with the violet smoke/colors that's going on with Val in this story? Is that based off Gen 8 animations or something? Also, I see that regardless of the truth behind Cyril, Fenrir clearly likes his innuendos.
:loltias:


"You're right. I can't," Noctum said. "But beating him up won't get us out of this predicament. I would think you of all people would realize that."

Valkyrie glared at him for several seconds before stepping back. "… hmph. The only reason we're in this predicament is because of you." She crossed her arms. "I'm allowed to be upset about this. I've worked with that idiot and he tried to deceive me."

Seifer managed to help Fenrir up to his feet. "Believe me. It wasn't by choice." Fenrir scratched his right ear. "It's a very delicate subject."

"Yeah, sure." Valkyrie's expression was icy enough to make a froslass blush. "So, was all that drivel about being some rebel ally garbage?"

Noctum: "Wait, Val, shouldn't we be talking through whatever this thing between you and Fenrir is fir-?"
Valkyrie + Fenrir: "No."
Noctum: "Alright! Alright! Just asking!" o_o;

"Ah." Fenrir reached a paw into his mane and pulled out a black headset. Noctum only knew what it was because of the pictures he'd seen of Starlene. "Yo, Boss Kitty, what's up?"

Noctum exchanged confused looks with Seifer. Was he… talking with someone?

"I know you hate that codename, but it's all I got until you come up with something better." Fenrir chuckled nervously. "I— whoa, hang on. Slow down. What's this about an ugly zapdos recolor?"

I smell a Zeraora there. Though sounds like we haven't heard the last of Quetzal there.

Fenrir's eyes widened. "W-Wait, no! You can't drop 'em here, I've got com—"

Purple cracks formed behind Fenrir. Noctum immediately recognized the sight from the walk over. "Valkyrie, get back!" He reached for the garchomp and pulled her dorsal fin. A rift then opened from the cracks. A black-purple, three-fingered hand grabbed Fenrir by the scarf and pulled him into the rift.

Okay never mind, 'Boss Kitty''s someone different. And familiar even if we haven't gotten a proper one-on-one yet.

"No, wait!" Valkyrie scrambled to her feet, only to get struck by Not-Zapdos and knocked back onto Noctum. "Grr, move!" She pushed off the charizard, who managed to blink the stars away only to find Not-Zapdos lying unconscious beside the other Malice Crystal.

"Our exit!" Seifer's eyes lit up. He pointed the stump of his horn at Noctum. "Quickly, use your weird roar thing and break the crystal so we can get out of here."

Noctum: "Wait, are we even sure that'll-?"
Seifer: "Just do it already, Noctum!"

Noctum sat up, still a bit woozy, but nodded. He still had questions, but going home was what he wanted. Noctum took a deep breath… and yelped when Not-Zapdos's body violently lurched.

The mask on its face shattered. Not-Zapdos opened its beak wide and rainbow light gushed out of it like water from a faucet. The light struck the Malice Crystal and shattered it, bathing the room in a harsh, purple glow.

Noctum + Valkyrie + Seifer:
:uhhh:

Noctum: "I- I don't think that was supposed to happen."
:fearfullaugh:

Valkyrie: "Gee, ya think?! Just look for a way out right now!" >.<

Noctum looked around in a panic. The door! Where was the door? He just had to find it before—

Before purple lines traced themselves across the floor, just like they had before a rift appeared behind Fenrir. Seifer caught on to this as well. The keldeo's eyes widened. "No! Not again!" He fled toward the corner of the room, but it was useless. Noctum knew what came next.

The lines split the floor open under everyone's feet. A dark purple rift spread throughout the entire room. Noctum had a fleeting moment to glance the worry on the others' faces before the rift sucked them all down and sent them hurtling through a purple and black abyss.

All: "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!"

And talk about your cliffhangers there. Guess Paradox wasn't kidding about a wonderful show being about to start last chapter, @Ambyssin . Will be looking forward to seeing where you yeeted Team Noctum, since looks like their exit from the Qliphoth's in another castle.

Kudos, and looking forward to Chapter 23. ^^
 

Ambyssin

Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 23: Troublesome Testimonies

The aftermath of the fight with Baptiste was surprisingly quiet for Yuna. After over a week with Reshiram's presence focused on her in some capacity, he was now occupied with getting Rayquaza up to speed on Team Bastion's… situation? Journey? Quest?

Honestly, Yuna wasn't sure what to call it at this point.

While the Sages chatted, Razim and her teammates also had something to take up their attention: the kidnapped Aquardans. A few of the pokémon that were sealed in the poison cocoons stumbled into Turtankhamun's room, prompting Razim to take Nikki and Chiaki with him to look for others.

Which left Yuna alone with her thoughts. Namely how out of her league she was. Seifer had been there to deal with Runerigus. His Dynaforce did the brunt of the work. Things were not so straightforward this time. Even with Reshiram to back her up, Yuna knew she lucked out. If the Needle was guarded better or Baptiste paid a bit more attention to his surroundings, then there was no way she would've gotten away with pulling it out.

And, sure, maybe her teammates were able to hold their own long enough for Yuna to turn the tide. But would they really be lucky enough to get away with that a second time? What if the next daemon they found was smarter? More cunning? Just because Yuna had another Sage didn't mean she was any stronger.

The dreepy looked at her arms. The longer the stared, the clearer she could make out black splotches in the middle of her ectoplasm. They were like ink from a fountain pen dripping onto a blank sheet of paper.

It happened again. Yuna shook her arms out. The splotches remained. I grabbed the Needle with black shadows, just like I did with Runerigus. And she had no idea why. The only conclusion Yuna drew was that the shadows flared when she got upset. Did that mean that, on top of everything else, she'd have to keep her temper in check? While Reshiram and Rayquaza blabbered away in her head?

"Hey, Princess." Nikki stood in the doorway, hands in her jacket pockets. "Everyone's gathered on the ice bridge. It looks like it fixed itself after it got blown up." She paused. "Because, y'know, I guess that's still a thing here."

"Right." Yuna looked back at the sarcophagus. Its shattered golden fragments remained suspended in midair. The pyramid must have, too. Yuna decided it was best not to think about the tomb or its associated curses any further. She waved at Reshiram and Rayquaza. "Okay, back in you go. We're leaving."

"Ah, jolly good." Rayquaza clapped his tiny hands. "Let us, as the kids say, be 'roomies,' Reshiram!"

Yuna cringed. "Please never say that again." She touched the Soul Dew. Two beams of light shot out and swallowed both dragons up.

"Egad! It's quite spacious in here," Rayquaza chirped. "I feel like I'm drifting on a cloud. Or doing the backstroke through the stratosphere."

Try as she might, Yuna could not envision Rayquaza's swimming as anything more than his body undulating like an oversized pool toy waved around by an excited hatchling. Sighing, she floated after Nikki. But the toxtricity's pace was far too fast for her. "Hey, wait up!" Yuna cried.

"Relax." Chiaki pushed off the silver wall he was leaning on. "Tempting as it was to give you a taste of your own medicine, I offered to walk you out."

"My own medicine?" Yuna raised a brow. The realization hit her a moment later. "Oh." Her gills sagged. "I, uh—"

"… tch. I hope you're not about to apologize." Chiaki walked forward, disconnecting his prosthetic as he went. "The only reason we're here is for the Needle. You assessed the situation and did what you had to do to complete the mission." The Tactical Toucher folded back into a disc. "If I were in your place, I'd have done the same thing."

Is that supposed to make me feel better? Yuna looked down at the ceiling.

"Saving Etherium is what's important," Chiaki continued. He attached the Hooker and shot it into the upside-down stairs. He repelled down to the next floor. "You recognized that, in the moment, Nikki and I were dead weight, then reacted appropriately. Even if it personally ticks me off, I respect it."

Again, Yuna wasn't sure what to make of that. Her decision couldn't be good and bad. She was tempted to throw Reshiram under the omnibus and claim it was his idea, but she couldn't bring herself to say it.

Yuna floated down to the next floor. The shriveled remnants of Baptiste's cocoons lay scattered on the silver bricks. They reminded Yuna of off-color raisins. And now she was hungry. "What about Nikki?" she asked. "Is she mad, too?"

Chiaki shrugged. "She said that you 'having Crotch Fuzz and Space Noodle rummaging around your head' is punishment enough."

The Soul Dew flickered. Rayquaza's black head popped out. "Space Noodle? Poppycock! I am far more nutritious than a single piece of uncooked pasta."

Yuna grabbed his head and squished it back into her pendant. "Not the point!" she growled.

Chiaki smirked. "I dunno. I think that proves Nikki's point nicely."

Yuna had no rebuttal, so she opted to change the subject as the two headed for the next floor. "How's Professor Cid?"

"Physically he's back to normal." Chiaki recalled his hook and stepped over the remains of a turtonator statue. "But he hasn't said a thing to anyone. Just quietly floated after the others." He jammed his good hand into his jean jacket pocket. "I don't blame him. Devolution sounds like a freaking nightmare."

"I wonder what would've happened if the beam hit you," Reshiram added.

That was not something Yuna wanted to think about, either. "Well, uh, maybe Dr. Rafique should see Cid when we get home?"

"Please." Chiaki shrugged dismissively. "He needs a shrink."

Yuna blinked. "A what?"

"A therapist." Chiaki glanced back at her. "Y'know, someone you talk through all your mental baggage with?"

"Yeah, I know." Yuna wrung her arms. I could use one of those, quite frankly.

"There is no shame in admitting one's vulnerabilities, Princess,"
Rayquaza declared.

Can I just go home first? Yuna whined. The moment that thought finished, however, her eyes widened.

"Oh, crap, the trial!" She zipped toward Chiaki. "How long have we been in the Qliphoth for?"

"You're asking me? How would I know?" Chiaki narrowed his eyes at her.

"I— uh—"

He was right. There was no way of telling time here. Which meant Yuna couldn't afford to dawdle any longer. "I have to get back to Radiance."

Chiaki raised both arms. "You won't hear any objections from me. I'm not interested in any touchy-feely goodbyes with Razim. Or being a part of any heartfelt reunion crap." He tapped his right foot against the ceiling. "It'll just devolve into a sanguine hugfest with the 'mons we rescued draping themselves over us and ugly crying like no tomorrow."

Yuna winced. She could have actually done with something heartwarming like that. However, she knew the trial was more important. I guess I'll… daydream about what I missed here on the train ride back to school.

Chiaki was kneeling down and tracing one of the silver bricks with his good hand. "But do you think opening a portal here will actually spit us out somewhere safe? Because if we're going to pop out hundreds of meters in the air, then I'll take my chances with the ice bridge."

Yuna gulped. That wasn't something she had considered.

"Perhaps because you can hover and your friends can't?" Reshiram piped up.

"Fear not. If thou art indeed airborne upon your return, I can lower thine friends to safety," Rayquaza proclaimed.

Yuna rubbed her brow, groaning. She was so sick of this. She wanted sleep. Badly. And she wasn't going to get it any time soon. "Look, Chiaki, can you just, um, get Nikki and Cid? Rayquaza says he can take care of things if we don't pop out on the ground."

Chiaki stook up and squinted at Yuna. He scrutinized the dreepy for several seconds, before tucking his head down. "… fine. Whatever gets us home quicker, I guess."

He jammed his good hand in his pocket again and headed for the next set of upside-down stairs. Sighing, Yuna flopped on the ceiling.

If the trial had started, she sincerely hoped Kain was having a better time than her.

XxX​

As Shimmer expected, Vegna brought in multiple witnesses at once. There was a togedemaru with an oversized hat made of mismatched fabric who stood on the white table itself. On his right stood a bulky rhyhorn with a large gray harness draped over her back. And to his left was a passimian in a sharp, charcoal gray blazer with a matching dress shirt and top hat. Passimian leaned against the handle of a closed umbrella.

"The witnesses will give their names and occupations for the record," Vegna instructed, gesturing to the witness stand.

Rhyhorn nodded slowly. "Adler's the name, pulling omnibuses is my game. Ain't no one in the Coachmon's Guild who's tougher than me!"

Togedemaru flinched from Adler's surprisingly deep voice. "Right. Erm, hello. My name is Horace. I'm a… seamster at a tailor's shop in Venish. If you've got wears and tears, we're always happy to help." He stuck out his spikes, revealing various sewing equipment fixed to them.

Shimmer fought off the urge to roll his eyes. These people were here to testify, not advertise their services.

Passimian looked away from them. "This is a waste of time. I'm a busy 'mon and I have work to do."

The ruby eyes in Vegna's shoulder gauntlets glowed. "No one cares. Your name and occupation."

"… fine." Passimian still didn't make eye contact. "Passimian Batroc, of the Bernard clan. I'm a commercial real estate broker for Bernard and Associates, naturally." He tapped his umbrella against the floor. "Let's get this over with. What do you need to know?"

Vegna snapped his fingers. Talonflame again hopped off his shoulder and lifted some papers with his beak. "To confirm, Miss Adler, you were the coachmon for Fledglings Omnibus 2015 on the night of the incident, correct?"

"Yessir. I've covered 2015's route for the last three years." Adler squared up her stance, adjusting her harness. "Not a single missed day of work in that time."

Vegna slammed the palm of his left hand on his desk. Adler stiffened.

"No extraneous information," the dusknoir growled. "Now then…" He flicked his right hand and a city map appeared on the screen. Building areas were drawn in lime green, with crisscrossing gray lines representing main roads and curving black lines denoting backroads. There were six blue lines — three horizontal and three vertical — denoting canals running through that area of Venish.

"This is part of your omnibus' route, yes?" Vegna snapped his fingers and a red line traced its way across part of the center of the screen before curving off toward backroads heading toward the upper left.

Adler squinted and leaned forward. "I think so."

"When did you pick up the victim, Mr. Mortimer?" Vegna asked.

"Well, I picked him up at the Beeraskewda Pub, so it must've been 20:10 if I was running on time." The rhyhorn smirked. "And I always run on time."

"And the accused, Mr. Benedict?" Vegna gestured to the slurpuff next to the defense's bench. Shimmer glanced at his uncle, who stared at the floor and fidgeted with his prison jumpsuit.

"Oh, he was already onboard by then." Adler tapped a foreleg against the witness stand. "I think he got on at Bonna Seraph Plaza… which would've been at 19:55."

Kain leaned over his bench. "You think or you know?"

"Objection!" Vegna shook his head. "Don't try to unnerve the good rhyhorn over such a miniscule detail, dragon. The accused already disclosed to Stoutland Yard he boarded at Bonna Seraph during questioning at the gaol."

Kain leaned back. "… ah, sorry. Continue."

The jurors exchanged hushed whispers. Shimmer shot an annoyed look at Kain. "What are you doing? Don't interrupt Vegna like that. It'll make us look bad."

"I can interject when I want to press a statement further," Kain shot back. Shimmer glowered at the witness stand. "And it would do you good to keep a neutral expression, Your Grace," the flygon added, prompting Shimmer to stiffen.

However, before Vegna could resume, Batroc cleared his throat. "How much longer are you going to waste everyone's time with such frivolous questions? That large oaf didn't even witness the moment of the crime. It was all me and Horace over here." He jerked his head toward the togedemaru to his right.

Sighing, Vegna crossed his arms. "Very well, witness. When did you board the omnibus?"

"At 20:30. Horace and I boarded from the Porter Lane stop."

"Yessir." Horace nodded, nearly tumbling off the witness stand in the process.

Kain held up the meteorology report from earlier. "We know there was a cold front moving through Venish. Why didn't you two sit inside the cabin?"

Horace's quills drooped. "Well, we wanted to but—"

Batroc raised his umbrella and rapped it against the witness stand. "The door wouldn't budge. I bet that selfish blowhard locked it so he could have the cabin all to himself." He pointed the umbrella accusingly at Benedict.

Kain shook his head. "But as we just heard Ms. Adler testify, the victim and the accused were already inside the cabin."

"Then that just means he blocked the door so he could kill that magmar," Batroc huffed.

Shimmer leaned forward. "That sounds like conjecture. Can you prove our client was the one who blocked the door?"

Batroc nearly lost his grip on his umbrella. "I— well, no, I guess not."

A loud slam echoed through the chamber. There was a scorch mark underneath Vegna's smoldering right fist. "How impudent of me to damage the inquisitor's bench in such a manner," he muttered. "Please forgive my outburst."

Mellath rested his hands on his desk. "Sir Vegna, what's the meaning of this?"

"This is but smoke and mirrors by the defense," Vegna exclaimed, straightening up. "Who sealed the door and the motive for doing so are irrelevant. The fact remains that the cabin door could not be opened, forcing the witnesses to sit on the roof."

Horace's cheeks sparked. "Yeah! Don't try and, y'know, smoke and mirrors us."

Shimmer frowned. He thought it was worth pursuing, but Kain's attention was back on his collection of papers. "Psst," Shimmer whispered. "What do you think about the way they were acting? It sounded like they were trying really hard to make Benedict out to be the killer."

"Yeah." Kain nodded. "Seems like Passimian is leading Togedemaru along. I'm making a note of it." He scribbled something on a sheet of paper.

"Let's continue, witnesses." Vegna crossed his arms again. "So, you went to sit on the roof. What happened after that?"

"Well, things were awfully quiet for a while." Horace poked his nubby arms together. "But then we heard shouting from the cabin!"

"Indeed." Batroc lifted his free hand. "The two 'mons inside were arguing with one another." He lowered his hand and lifted his umbrella to show the tip. "That's when Slurpuff pulled out a knife and stabbed Magmar right in the gut. Just like this!" He jabbed the witness stand with the umbrella tip.

Horace nodded, shuddering. "Then there was a loud shriek. Slurpuff threw the cabin door open and ran off. Magmar tried to follow him, but he collapsed in the doorway."

"Meanwhile, I contacted the proper authorities." Batroc puffed out his chest.

"Hold it!"

Brow furrowed, Kain stared down Batroc and Horace. "If things did play out as you two said, why didn't either of you make any attempt to stop the accused from escaping?"

Both witnesses' expressions blanched. "… like I said, I was calling the cops," Batroc huffed.

"Slurpuff is way bigger than me. I didn't want to get squished!" Horace squeaked, shivering.

"But surely you could have told Ms. Adler to try and stop him." Kain gestured to the rhyhorn. "If she's as fast and tough as she says, catching a slurpuff wouldn't be an issue. Isn't that right, witness?"

"Darn skippy!" Adler nodded vigorously.

Kain pointed a claw at the witness stand. "Well, Ms. Adler, did these two tell you to stop the omnibus?"

Adler frowned. "Y'know, now that you mention it… they didn't. Though it's hard for me to hear much when I'm pulling it. Lotta squeaking and creaking going on. You really gotta shout to get my attention."

Vegna's shoulder gauntlets crackled with red energy. "So, you traveled a modest distance before everything stopped?"

"Yes."

Shimmer's heartrate picked up. "Doesn't anyone find that fishy?" He looked around the room. Whenever there was danger, he was always taught to seek immediate help. Surely, these two had similar instincts.

"… hmph. You're grasping, dragon." Vegna pointed an index finger at Kain. "Mr. Batroc contacted Stoutland Yard and Mr. Horace's voice would not carry enough for Ms. Adler to hear him." He shook his head. "If you're looking to make a splash, might I suggest trying for a higher dive?"

"Objection!" Kain slammed his hands on his desk. "That's not the only thing that doesn't add up about this testimony, Sir Vegna."

"Oh?" Vegna tilted his cloaked head and rested it against his fist. "Explain, dragon."

"Gladly." Kain picked up a small remote and pointed it at the screen in the center of the judiciary bench. The same route map from earlier appeared. "I'd like to remind the court of the omnibus route. Notice the backroads that the route goes through." He hovered to the screen. "Based on the testimony given, we can reasonably conclude that the omnibus was on Fanucchi Street at the time of the incident."

The flygon tapped the side of the screen. An icon of a red marker appeared. Kain circled a diagonal black strip toward the left side of the map.

Vegna nodded. "Correct. Where are you going with this?"

"Where I'm going… is here!" Kain double tapped the top right corner of the screen. The map disappeared, revealing two folder icons. One was labeled "Inquisition" and the other "Defense." Kain tapped the latter and two photos appeared side by side. The one on the left showed a small, cobblestone street wedged between brick buildings that were five or six stories. Shimmer spotted small, square windows and laundry lines crisscrossing the top floors of the buildings.

"This is Fanucchi Street during daytime." Kain pointed to the image, but Shimmer was focused on the other photo. Or, rather, the lack of anything discernable outside of vague outlines.

"Notice there are no streetlights or torch lamps in these pictures," Kain continued. "The defense took this photo two days ago… along with this one, showing the same area at nighttime, close to the time of the incident." He stopped hovering to gesture to the right photo. "I don't know about anyone else here, but I'm having a hard time making anything out in this."

Vegna slammed his right hand on the desk. Talonflame fluttered up to his shoulder. "Are you implying… that it was too dark for the witnesses to have seen anything?" the dusknoir said.

"That's exactly what I'm implying!" Kain put his hands on his hips and stared all three witnesses down.

Mellath's brow furrowed. "But, Counsellor, the victim was a magmar. Their bodies are known to glow due to their internal flames."

Shimmer wouldn't let that stand. "Objection!" He propped himself up against the defense's bench. "Please recall Inquisitor Vegna's opening statement, Your Magistry. He specifically described the victim as a 'sickly' individual." Shimmer dropped back onto all fours. "Ergo, it's entirely possible he wasn't glowing like a healthy magmar would!"

"Precisely!" Kain stomped his right foot down. "How can anyone say for certain they know what happened when it was so dark outside?"

Murmurs rose up throughout the gallery and judiciary bench. Even Gothorita looked up from her typewriter.

"Well, witnesses?" Mellath furrow his brow. "Can you explain this inconsistency."

"I, er—" Batroc tugged at his shirt collar. "That is—"

"I don't think they can, Your Magistry." Kain crossed his arms. "Because it's hard to explain something that's completely fabricated!"

The murmurs grew louder. Herdier put his forepaws on his desk. "Oi, say something, ya blokes!"

Beside him, Glaceon straightened out the sides of her dress. "I find the tall one's stammering quite… unclean. Perhaps his mouth could do with a thorough scrubbing." She held up her left forepaw, revealing a sudsy sponge.

"Now wait just a second!" Batroc brandished his umbrella and shook it at the jury bench. "Are you threatening me? I am a man of stature! Of the Bernard clan! My family will not stand for such actions!" He pivoted right and pointed at Vegna. "You there! I demand to be excused! I've already given far too much time to the court."

"I'm afraid you won't be going anywhere, Mr. Batroc," Kain declared, pointing a talon at the passimian. "Not until you explain this glaring contradiction in your testimony!"

"I concur!" Meowth had a glint in his hazy eyes as he stroked his beard once again. "How can you see something in total darkness? Or, perhaps, are you pulling this story out of your tail?"

Batroc's top hat almost fell off as he staggered back. "Th-the nerve! Togedemaru and I know what we saw!"

Shimmer couldn't stop himself from grinning. This was the perfect opening! A hole as large as Robin's leek was long. "Then why isn't Mr. Horace coming to your defense, hmm?"

All he and Kain needed to do was keep pressing. The years away from court had left Vegna too rusty. Shimmer would free Benedict and ace the assignment… and all without that idiot dreepy!

"Objection!"

A metallic clang echoed through the courtroom. Shimmer whinnied in surprise, tail puffing up. Horace extended his quills and discharged tiny electric sparks. One hit Batroc's shoulder, prompting the passimian to conk Horace with his umbrella's handle. "S-Sorry, sir!" Horace squeaked, catching his hat and trying to reposition it on his head.

Mellath slowly blinked. "Sir Vegna?"

Vegna's right fist had left a huge dent in the inquisitor's bench. Slowly, silently, he raised it up. Shadows twirled around it, weaving themselves into a tattered book with a faded, eight-pointed star etched into the cover. The pages flipped themselves until Vegna placed his left index finger down on the book.

"The 'mon who never alters his opinions is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind."

More silence followed. Shimmer looked at Vegna, then Kain, then Vegna again. Was that… a jab at Kain's dragon-typing?

Mellath rubbed sweat off his brow. "Err, I'm sorry, Sir Vegna, but do you have an actual objection?"

Vegna shut the book and tucked it under his arm. "I do. But first… I must extend my congratulations to the dragon attorney and Clown Prince."

Shimmer's nostrils flared. "Excuse me?"

With a flick of his left wrist, Vegna sent Talonflame flying away. He returned a few seconds later clutching a black rose in his right foot. Vegna took the rose and held it out toward Kain. "I commend you both for taking such bold steps toward the comedy industry."

Mellath banged his gavel. "Get to the point, Sir Vegna."

"Very well." Vegna's gauntlets sparked. The rose caught fire and faded away in flickering black embers. "The defense is arguing the scene was too dark for the witnesses to have accurately seen the incident. Their bravado seems to have broken through these two… simpletons."

"Simpleton?" Batroc smacked his umbrella against the witness stand. "How dare you!"

Vegna ignored him, pointing toward Kain. "But no amount of bluster on the defense's part can change the facts. And the facts are as such: the omnibus has light fixtures inside of it."

Kain stiffened. "… huh?"

It took a bit longer for Shimmer to catch on, but when he did, his jaw clenched. "I beg your pardon?"

Vegna switched the book to his left arm and raised his right hand. He got rid of the map on the screen next to Kain and brought up pictures of the omnibus interior. The carpet had a tape outline on it, and the wall on the other side of the photo had two glass cases with white candles sitting inside of them.

"Ah! Y-Yes, yes!" Horace nodded vigorously. Pins and needles tumbled off his quills. "I remember. Those candles were definitely lit… and showed Slurpuff stabbing Magmar!"

"Quite right!" Batroc regained some of his composure. "How dare you try and play such mind games, you poison-tongued dragon!"

Vegna slammed his right fist on the bench again. "Thus, rather than casting doubt upon this testimony, I contend the defense has instead furthered the inquisition's claims. The accused stabbed the victim and these two witnesses saw the entire thing from the upper deck!" His eye glowed deep crimson. "If these witnesses were inside the carriage, they surely would've paid closer attention to the light fixtures!"

"L… light fixtures." Kain tapped his claws together and looked down in shame. "I, uh, might've forgotten about those."

"As did the Clown Prince, judging by the aghast look upon his face." The mouth on Vegna's stomach curved into a grotesque smile. "Thus, I congratulate you both." He flicked his left hand and the black rose from before rematerialized in a gout of shadowfire. "Cheers to your burgeoning circus careers."

A mixture of murmurs and laughter rose up throughout the courtroom.

"I can't believe it!" Scyther slammed an arm down. "I almost let myself get suckered in by His Grace!" He sat back and shook his head. "But at the end of the day, he's still a moneybag, just like Slurpuff. These damned moneybags… they're all in it together!" Scyther raised his blades high. "Milord, I don't need to hear another word! Death to the moneybags!"

Kain's wings unfurled. "Wait, don't!"

Scyther pressed a button on his station, increasing the size of the right flame on the massive scale behind the judge's bench. The scale tipped slightly to the right.

Gothorita pulled a piece of paper out of her typewriter. "… I've heard enough as well. This dragon is a charlatan. One can only hope this Crown Prince is merely a zoroark's illusion." She pressed a button of her own. The scale tipped to the right once again.

"Oi, laddies!" Herdier leaned over, frowning. "I'm the foremon, here. We're supposed to act as a unit." He sat back in his seat, harrumphing. "But I agree with 'em. I don't need to hear anything else."

A third button press. A third tilting of the scale to the right. The crowd's murmurs grew. Kain's eyes darted about in a panic. Shimmer's heart was racing. How had things blown up in their faces so quickly? Three jurors were voting to con—

"… indeed." Glaceon lifted her sponge-covered paw. "This is quite a filthy defense. It could do with some vigorous scrubbing." She pressed her own guilty verdict button, tilting the scale right once more. "Let us clean this courtroom of its filth."

This doesn't make any sense! Shimmer's ears rang. They were dogpiling on Benedict. And off of such shoddy testimony. Vegna couldn't have swayed them that much. Was there mind control going on? Yes, that had to be it!

"O-Objection!" Shimmer meekly propped his forehooves up on the defense's bench. "M… motive!" He blurted it out without thinking, but now that it was out there, the pieces started to fall into place for him. "You all are rushing to condemn the accused… but he doesn't even have a good motive for killing the victim! The two are complete and total strangers!"

"… aha ha."

Shimmer's horn sparked. Vegna… was laughing?

"All the Clown Prince is missing is some red lipstick." Vegna chuckled from his stomach-mouth. "And perhaps a cream pie or two." He slammed his right fist down on the table once again. "But ask and you shall receive, boy. Perhaps this will sway our two holdouts."

The dusknoir lifted his hand and pointed at the screen. "Accused! Your occupation?"

"Bwuh?" Benedict looked up. His jumpsuit was littered with sweat stains. "O-Oh. I work at the First Bank of Isola."

"You arrange for personal loans, correct?" Vegna said.

"Y-Yessir."

"Ha! I knew it!" Scyther pointed a blade at Benedict. "A banker! The worst of all moneyb—"

"Juror Three will be silent," Vegna commanded. His left hand erupted in shadowfire. "Or else he will find himself in the corner of the Twilight Realm where one's mouth is repeatedly scorched by hellfire."

Scyther went stiff as a board. Vegna returned his attention to the screen, where he produced a photograph of a book. There was a list of names with numbers and percentages beside them. Some of them had red stamps beside them reading "Overdue."

"The inquisition presents the accused's personal ledger to the court," Vegna exclaimed. "I would like the Clown Prince to read the fifth name on the list, along with the accompanying values."

Shimmer squinted. His eyes found the fifth name and his heart sank. He opened his mouth and nothing came out. Shimmer swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and shakily said, "Magmar Mortimer. One thousand radians. Thirty-five percent. Overdue."

Vegna pointed to Benedict. "It would appear… these two are not strangers after all. Rather, Mortimer had taken a personal loan out from Benedict. One with an exorbitant interest rate that no commoner could ever pay off."

He slammed his palm against the table. "I submit that the victim was killed because he failed to repay his debts to the accused! With Mortimer deceased, Benedict's bank branch would seize possession of all his remaining assets… which would include his technique for brick firing that made him such an asset to the Venish Bricklayers Guild!"

"No!" Shimmer looked despondently at Benedict. "That's not true! It can't be!"

Vegna looked up to the jury bench. "What say you, Jurors Five and Six?"

Meowth scratched the side of his head. "Honestly? Those loans sound shady enough as it is. That much money is nothing to scoff at. I can see why this would've happened." He shook his head. "It's hard to believe. Mr. Benedict gave so much money to support our local grade school district." He pushed the guilty button on his console, tilting the scale even further to the right.

"I thank you for your wisdom." Vegna bowed to Meowth.

"Objection!"

Kain's cry made Shimmer jump. The flygon leaned over so much he practically tumbled over the defense bench. "Wait! Please wait, Juror Six!"

"… hmph. There is nothing worth waiting over." Vegna smacked his desk with his palm. "Accept your defeat, dragon."

"No!" Kain leaned forward more, wings buzzing to keep him upright. "We can't end the trial here. There are… there are still too many inconsistencies!"

Vegna slowly straightened up. "Elaborate."

"You presented the accused's ledger." Kain pointed to the screen. "I'll admit his business choices are far from noble, but this customer list deserves greater scrutiny. The defense asserts its right to examine the ledger in its entirety."

"… bah, fine." Vegna rolled his eye. "Is that it?"

"No." Kain leaned back. "I'll admit there may be light fixtures in the omnibus, but can you prove they were on the night of the crime? Did Stoutland Yard take pictures of the entire carriage before taking custody of it?"

Vegna was silent, until he muttered, "They did not."

"Fledglings Omnibus always replaces the candles when I finish my last route of the night," Adler piped up.

"Then the defense also demands the omnibus be brought up from the vault for inspection!" Kain declared. "If there's dried wax in the holders, then we'll know the candles were used that night."

Shimmer remained speechless. He had sorely underestimated Kain's resolve. Shimmer expected the flygon to roll over like a dying feral, but he was standing tall despite all the pressure Vegna put on the defense. And, judging from Mellath's contemplative expression, Kain might've bought Benedict another chance.

"The court accepts the defense's requests." Mellath raised his gavel. "We will adjourn for a thirty-minute recess. Bailiffs, please bring the omnibus and ledger up from the evidence vault."

Following two pounds of Mellath's gavel, the gallery erupted into conversation mixed with the scuffing of claws and boots against the floor as observers got up.

Sighing, Shimmer's shoulders sagged. "I… can't believe that worked."

Kain fanned himself with the sides of his vest. "Well, Benedict told me to bring up the candles as a way to get the omnibus up here for inspection. I'm glad he thought of it."

Shimmer blinked slowly. "Wait, Uncle Benedict told that to you?"

"Yeah. Didn't he tell you, too?"

The ponyta turned to his right, but Benedict's bisharp guard had already escorted him out of the courtroom. His left ear folded against his head.

What did Shimmer's uncle know… and why didn't the slurpuff want to tell him?
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Alright, I've put it off putting things together long enough, time to get in a review on the latest Path of Valor chapter:

Chapter 23

The aftermath of the fight with Baptiste was surprisingly quiet for Yuna. After over a week with Reshiram's presence focused on her in some capacity, he was now occupied with getting Rayquaza up to speed on Team Bastion's… situation? Journey? Quest?

Honestly, Yuna wasn't sure what to call it at this point.

Yuna: "'Series of unfortunate events'?" >_>;
Cecil: "Oh come on, it hasn't been that bad, has it?"

While the Sages chatted, Razim and her teammates also had something to take up their attention: the kidnapped Aquardans. A few of the pokémon that were sealed in the poison cocoons stumbled into Turtankhamun's room, prompting Razim to take Nikki and Chiaki with him to look for others.

Oh so they are alive after all... sort of. Or at least as alive as one can be in de facto purgatory

Which left Yuna alone with her thoughts. Namely how out of her league she was. Seifer had been there to deal with Runerigus. His Dynaforce did the brunt of the work. Things were not so straightforward this time. Even with Reshiram to back her up, Yuna knew she lucked out. If the Needle was guarded better or Baptiste paid a bit more attention to his surroundings, then there was no way she would've gotten away with pulling it out.

And, sure, maybe her teammates were able to hold their own long enough for Yuna to turn the tide. But would they really be lucky enough to get away with that a second time? What if the next daemon they found was smarter? More cunning? Just because Yuna had another Sage didn't mean she was any stronger.

Gonna be interesting to see what rabbits you pull out of your hat there, since that train of thought would logically lend itself to boning up your skills for battle. Which is admittedly something you've said you want to avoid in this story, or at least avoid doing in non-puzzle fashion.
:blepcat:


The dreepy looked at her arms. The longer the stared, the clearer she could make out black splotches in the middle of her ectoplasm. They were like ink from a fountain pen dripping onto a blank sheet of paper.

It happened again. Yuna shook her arms out. The splotches remained. I grabbed the Needle with black shadows, just like I did with Runerigus. And she had no idea why. The only conclusion Yuna drew was that the shadows flared when she got upset. Did that mean that, on top of everything else, she'd have to keep her temper in check? While Reshiram and Rayquaza blabbered away in her head?

It's gonna be lit when Yuna turns out to be secretly Giratina all along at this rate. :V

Yuna: "... Also why am I hearing Sinatra music in my head for some reason?"

"Hey, Princess." Nikki stood in the doorway, hands in her jacket pockets. "Everyone's gathered on the ice bridge. It looks like it fixed itself after it got blown up." She paused. "Because, y'know, I guess that's still a thing here."

"Right." Yuna looked back at the sarcophagus. Its shattered golden fragments remained suspended in midair. The pyramid must have, too. Yuna decided it was best not to think about the tomb or its associated curses any further. She waved at Reshiram and Rayquaza. "Okay, back in you go. We're leaving."

"Ah, jolly good." Rayquaza clapped his tiny hands. "Let us, as the kids say, be 'roomies,' Reshiram!"

Yuna cringed. "Please never say that again." She touched the Soul Dew. Two beams of light shot out and swallowed both dragons up.

"Egad! It's quite spacious in here," Rayquaza chirped. "I feel like I'm drifting on a cloud. Or doing the backstroke through the stratosphere."

Try as she might, Yuna could not envision Rayquaza's swimming as anything more than his body undulating like an oversized pool toy waved around by an excited hatchling. Sighing, she floated after Nikki. But the toxtricity's pace was far too fast for her. "Hey, wait up!" Yuna cried.

Oh, I remember you teasing this part. I can already hear the doofy-earnest dialogue from Gallian there already.
:loltias:


"Relax." Chiaki pushed off the silver wall he was leaning on. "Tempting as it was to give you a taste of your own medicine, I offered to walk you out."

"My own medicine?" Yuna raised a brow. The realization hit her a moment later. "Oh." Her gills sagged. "I, uh—"

"… tch. I hope you're not about to apologize." Chiaki walked forward, disconnecting his prosthetic as he went. "The only reason we're here is for the Needle. You assessed the situation and did what you had to do to complete the mission." The Tactical Toucher folded back into a disc. "If I were in your place, I'd have done the same thing."

Is that supposed to make me feel better? Yuna looked down at the ceiling.

Chiaki: "Hrmph, it's more of an observation, really."
Yuna: "So in other words, it wasn't." >_>;

"Saving Etherium is what's important," Chiaki continued. He attached the Hooker and shot it into the upside-down stairs. He repelled down to the next floor. "You recognized that, in the moment, Nikki and I were dead weight, then reacted appropriately. Even if it personally ticks me off, I respect it."

Again, Yuna wasn't sure what to make of that. Her decision couldn't be good and bad. She was tempted to throw Reshiram under the omnibus and claim it was his idea, but she couldn't bring herself to say it.

Nikki: "That sure is a roundabout way of saying 'I oughta be pissed at you, but it worked out', Twiggy."
Chiaki: "Hrmph, there's a thing called 'nuance'. You should learn it sometime, Nikki."

Yuna floated down to the next floor. The shriveled remnants of Baptiste's cocoons lay scattered on the silver bricks. They reminded Yuna of off-color raisins. And now she was hungry. "What about Nikki?" she asked. "Is she mad, too?"

Nikki: "... Why on earth would you be hungry from that?"
:TailsEww:

Yuna: "Because it's been god-knows-how long since we entered the Qliphoth and we haven't eaten proper food since then?"

Chiaki shrugged. "She said that you 'having Crotch Fuzz and Space Noodle rummaging around your head' is punishment enough."

The Soul Dew flickered. Rayquaza's black head popped out. "Space Noodle? Poppycock! I am far more nutritious than a single piece of uncooked pasta."

Yuna grabbed his head and squished it back into her pendant. "Not the point!" she growled.

-snerk-

Yuna had no rebuttal, so she opted to change the subject as the two headed for the next floor. "How's Professor Cid?"

"Physically he's back to normal." Chiaki recalled his hook and stepped over the remains of a turtonator statue. "But he hasn't said a thing to anyone. Just quietly floated after the others." He jammed his good hand into his jean jacket pocket. "I don't blame him. Devolution sounds like a freaking nightmare."

"I wonder what would've happened if the beam hit you," Reshiram added.

That was not something Yuna wanted to think about, either. "Well, uh, maybe Dr. Rafique should see Cid when we get home?"

Cecil: "Wouldn't it have done nothing though? I'm pretty sure in the games that Devolution Orbs don't have any effect on base morphs-"
Yuna: "Reshiram, I just said I didn't want to think about it!" >.<

"Please." Chiaki shrugged dismissively. "He needs a shrink."

Yuna blinked. "A what?"

"A therapist." Chiaki glanced back at her. "Y'know, someone you talk through all your mental baggage with?" "

Yeah, I know." Yuna wrung her arms. I could use one of those, quite frankly.

"There is no shame in admitting one's vulnerabilities, Princess," Rayquaza declared.

Assuming the plot will give you enough downtime to see one, that is. Though considering how everything's been piling on Yuna thus far, I'm honestly somewhat surprised that she hasn't been fraying more obviously yet.

Can I just go home first? Yuna whined. The moment that thought finished, however, her eyes widened.

"Oh, crap, the trial!" She zipped toward Chiaki. "How long have we been in the Qliphoth for?"

"You're asking me? How would I know?" Chiaki narrowed his eyes at her.

"I— uh—"

He was right. There was no way of telling time here. Which meant Yuna couldn't afford to dawdle any longer. "I have to get back to Radiance."

Nikki: "I'm sorry, why are you in such a rush again?"
Yuna: "Because I have to go and defend a 'mon accused of murder and his only defense without me is a rookie public defender and Shimmer against Inquisitor Vegna?" >_>;
Nikki: "... Wait, this is a case Vegna's on? Why bother in that case? The guy's a dead 'mon walking even if he gets acquitted."

Chiaki raised both arms. "You won't hear any objections from me. I'm not interested in any touchy-feely goodbyes with Razim. Or being a part of any heartfelt reunion crap." He tapped his right foot against the ceiling. "It'll just devolve into a sanguine hugfest with the 'mons we rescued draping themselves over us and ugly crying like no tomorrow."

Yuna winced. She could have actually done with something heartwarming like that. However, she knew the trial was more important. I guess I'll… daydream about what I missed here on the train ride back to school.

Nikki: "Just saying, considering what you're up against, you could just blow it off and get your sappy ending here-"
Yuna: "Nikki! I'm not blowing off a 'mon facing a death sentence!" >.<
Nikki: "Hey, I was trying to take your side there! Just saying, unless you can pull one hell of a Buneary out your hat, he's gonna die no matter what." >_>;

Chiaki was kneeling down and tracing one of the silver bricks with his good hand. "But do you think opening a portal here will actually spit us out somewhere safe? Because if we're going to pop out hundreds of meters in the air, then I'll take my chances with the ice bridge."

Yuna gulped. That wasn't something she had considered.

"Perhaps because you can hover and your friends can't?" Reshiram piped up.

"Fear not. If thou art indeed airborne upon your return, I can lower thine friends to safety," Rayquaza proclaimed.

Yuna: "Rayquaza does know that outside the Qliphoth that you two are going to have that whole hologram thing going on again, right?"
Gallian: "What is this 'hologram' thou speakest of?"
- Yuna stares -
Cecil: "That... would be a 'no', Princess." -_-;

Yuna rubbed her brow, groaning. She was so sick of this. She wanted sleep. Badly. And she wasn't going to get it any time soon. "Look, Chiaki, can you just, um, get Nikki and Cid? Rayquaza says he can take care of things if we don't pop out on the ground."

Cecil: "Because of all the horrors we just witnessed in this dead world?"
Yuna: "... I mean, I was thinking more because I have to show up at a trial after not sleeping a wink all night assuming we didn't miss it entirely. But yeah, that's not gonna help either." >_>;

Chiaki stook up and squinted at Yuna. He scrutinized the dreepy for several seconds, before tucking his head down. "… fine. Whatever gets us home quicker, I guess."

He jammed his good hand in his pocket again and headed for the next set of upside-down stairs. Sighing, Yuna flopped on the ceiling.

If the trial had started, she sincerely hoped Kain was having a better time than her.

Narrator: "He wasn't having a better time than her."

As Shimmer expected, Vegna brought in multiple witnesses at once. There was a togedemaru with an oversized hat made of mismatched fabric who stood on the white table itself. On his right stood a bulky rhyhorn with a large gray harness draped over her back. And to his left was a passimian in a sharp, charcoal gray blazer with a matching dress shirt and top hat. Passimian leaned against the handle of a closed umbrella.

"The witnesses will give their names and occupations for the record," Vegna instructed, gesturing to the witness stand.

Rhyhorn nodded slowly. "Adler's the name, pulling omnibuses is my game. Ain't no one in the Coachmon's Guild who's tougher than me!"

Shimmer: "... Somehow I'd always assumed that omnibuses in this setting were motorized."
- Kain raises a brow -
Kain: "With all due respect, how on earth did you manage that when you're the Crown Prince? Queen Isola didn't strike me as the type to sequester her child."
Shimmer: "W-Well how was I to know that we'd still be using Pokémon-drawn transport in a setting with PVs?!"
:shimmersweatdrop:


Togedemaru flinched from Adler's surprisingly deep voice. "Right. Erm, hello. My name is Horace. I'm a… seamster at a tailor's shop in Venish. If you've got wears and tears, we're always happy to help." He stuck out his spikes, revealing various sewing equipment fixed to them.

Shimmer fought off the urge to roll his eyes. These people were here to testify, not advertise their services.

Horace: "Au contraire. This is the most public exposure any of us will get in a lifetime! We're making the most of it!" ^^
Shimmer: "How is this not an action in contempt of court right now?" >_>;

Passimian looked away from them. "This is a waste of time. I'm a busy 'mon and I have work to do."

The ruby eyes in Vegna's shoulder gauntlets glowed. "No one cares. Your name and occupation."

"… fine." Passimian still didn't make eye contact. "Passimian Batroc, of the Bernard clan. I'm a commercial real estate broker for Bernard and Associates, naturally." He tapped his umbrella against the floor. "Let's get this over with. What do you need to know?"

Ah, so we get to see more detailed names in this setting. Though I wonder if 'Bernard' is a patronym or if it's the name of the first recorded member of this guy's family.

Vegna snapped his fingers. Talonflame again hopped off his shoulder and lifted some papers with his beak. "To confirm, Miss Adler, you were the coachmon for Fledglings Omnibus 2015 on the night of the incident, correct?"

"Yessir. I've covered 2015's route for the last three years." Adler squared up her stance, adjusting her harness. "Not a single missed day of work in that time."

I actually pulled up the Serebii thread to check the timestamps, and assuming this is a meta nod to what I think it is, that's quite the cheeky reference there. :V

"No extraneous information," the dusknoir growled. "Now then…" He flicked his right hand and a city map appeared on the screen. Building areas were drawn in lime green, with crisscrossing gray lines representing main roads and curving black lines denoting backroads. There were six blue lines — three horizontal and three vertical — denoting canals running through that area of Venish.

"This is part of your omnibus' route, yes?" Vegna snapped his fingers and a red line traced its way across part of the center of the screen before curving off toward backroads heading toward the upper left.

Adler squinted and leaned forward. "I think so."

Ah, so Venish is a transparent nod to Venice. It cracks me up a bit that in meanwhile on my end, the plot's also dealing with a Venice-themed place and it's making nods to-

Mm, nah. Won't say more on that front. It'll have more of an impact as you see it unfold for yourself.

"Well, I picked him up at the Beeraskewda Pub, so it must've been 20:10 if I was running on time." The rhyhorn smirked. "And I always run on time."

"And the accused, Mr. Benedict?" Vegna gestured to the slurpuff next to the defense's bench. Shimmer glanced at his uncle, who stared at the floor and fidgeted with his prison jumpsuit.

"Oh, he was already onboard by then." Adler tapped a foreleg against the witness stand. "I think he got on at Bonna Seraph Plaza… which would've been at 19:55."

Ah yes, more namedrops from GL.

Kain leaned over his bench. "You think or you know?"

"Objection!" Vegna shook his head. "Don't try to unnerve the good rhyhorn over such a miniscule detail, dragon. The accused already disclosed to Stoutland Yard he boarded at Bonna Seraph during questioning at the gaol."

Kain leaned back. "… ah, sorry. Continue."

The jurors exchanged hushed whispers. Shimmer shot an annoyed look at Kain. "What are you doing? Don't interrupt Vegna like that. It'll make us look bad."

"I can interject when I want to press a statement further," Kain shot back. Shimmer glowered at the witness stand. "And it would do you good to keep a neutral expression, Your Grace," the flygon added, prompting Shimmer to stiffen.

Kain: "(Need I remind you that if we can't find something to work with, it's your uncle's head on the line?)" >_>;
Shimmer: "(That doesn't mean you have to find the something like this!)" >.<

However, before Vegna could resume, Batroc cleared his throat. "How much longer are you going to waste everyone's time with such frivolous questions? That large oaf didn't even witness the moment of the crime. It was all me and Horace over here." He jerked his head toward the togedemaru to his right.

Sighing, Vegna crossed his arms. "Very well, witness. When did you board the omnibus?"

"At 20:30. Horace and I boarded from the Porter Lane stop."

"Yessir." Horace nodded, nearly tumbling off the witness stand in the process.

Kain held up the meteorology report from earlier. "We know there was a cold front moving through Venish. Why didn't you two sit inside the cabin?"

Horace's quills drooped. "Well, we wanted to but—"

Batroc raised his umbrella and rapped it against the witness stand. "The door wouldn't budge. I bet that selfish blowhard locked it so he could have the cabin all to himself." He pointed the umbrella accusingly at Benedict.

:sceptical:


Okay, my sus-o-meter just registered there, since this Batroc guy is one of two admitted direct witnesses and he's giving off some... vibes at the moment.

Kain shook his head. "But as we just heard Ms. Adler testify, the victim and the accused were already inside the cabin."

"Then that just means he blocked the door so he could kill that magmar," Batroc huffed.

Shimmer leaned forward. "That sounds like conjecture. Can you prove our client was the one who blocked the door?"

Batroc nearly lost his grip on his umbrella. "I— well, no, I guess not."

... Or he could just be a bystander jumping to conclusions. Even if I doubt the plot is going to let Shimmer off this easy given that the AA vibes are going strong here.

A loud slam echoed through the chamber. There was a scorch mark underneath Vegna's smoldering right fist. "How impudent of me to damage the inquisitor's bench in such a manner," he muttered. "Please forgive my outburst."

Mellath rested his hands on his desk. "Sir Vegna, what's the meaning of this?"

"This is but smoke and mirrors by the defense," Vegna exclaimed, straightening up. "Who sealed the door and the motive for doing so are irrelevant. The fact remains that the cabin door could not be opened, forcing the witnesses to sit on the roof."

Horace's cheeks sparked. "Yeah! Don't try and, y'know, smoke and mirrors us."

Shimmer: "... Wait a minute, so if these two weren't even in the cabin when Mortimer died, what on earth did they actually witness then?!" >_>; Kain: "... That might be worth me bringing up in the cross-examination, actually."

Shimmer frowned. He thought it was worth pursuing, but Kain's attention was back on his collection of papers. "Psst," Shimmer whispered. "What do you think about the way they were acting? It sounded like they were trying really hard to make Benedict out to be the killer."

"Yeah." Kain nodded. "Seems like Passimian is leading Togedemaru along. I'm making a note of it." He scribbled something on a sheet of paper.

So it's not just my sus-o-meter registering right now.

"Let's continue, witnesses." Vegna crossed his arms again. "So, you went to sit on the roof. What happened after that?"

"Well, things were awfully quiet for a while." Horace poked his nubby arms together. "But then we heard shouting from the cabin!"

"Indeed." Batroc lifted his free hand. "The two 'mons inside were arguing with one another." He lowered his hand and lifted his umbrella to show the tip. "That's when Slurpuff pulled out a knife and stabbed Magmar right in the gut. Just like this!" He jabbed the witness stand with the umbrella tip.

Horace nodded, shuddering. "Then there was a loud shriek. Slurpuff threw the cabin door open and ran off. Magmar tried to follow him, but he collapsed in the doorway."

"Meanwhile, I contacted the proper authorities." Batroc puffed out his chest.

Shimmer: "... They're completely missing the bit explaining how they actually got back into the cabin in their testimony, just saying."
Kain: "Hmm... I suppose it would make sense to press for more details. That is how these trials tend to work..."

"Hold it!"

Brow furrowed, Kain stared down Batroc and Horace. "If things did play out as you two said, why didn't either of you make any attempt to stop the accused from escaping?"

Both witnesses' expressions blanched. "… like I said, I was calling the cops," Batroc huffed.

"Slurpuff is way bigger than me. I didn't want to get squished!" Horace squeaked, shivering.

Shimmer: "... I suppose we could go that route too."
Kain: "I mean, I guess we would've just wrung out a couple lines or two about how they saw things through the door window and threw it open. Might as well cut to the chase."

"But surely you could have told Ms. Adler to try and stop him." Kain gestured to the rhyhorn. "If she's as fast and tough as she says, catching a slurpuff wouldn't be an issue. Isn't that right, witness?"

"Darn skippy!" Adler nodded vigorously.

Kain pointed a claw at the witness stand. "Well, Ms. Adler, did these two tell you to stop the omnibus?"

Adler frowned. "Y'know, now that you mention it… they didn't. Though it's hard for me to hear much when I'm pulling it. Lotta squeaking and creaking going on. You really gotta shout to get my attention."

... Oh yeah, that isn't suspicious of those two at all.

Shimmer's heartrate picked up. "Doesn't anyone find that fishy?" He looked around the room. Whenever there was danger, he was always taught to seek immediate help. Surely, these two had similar instincts.

"… hmph. You're grasping, dragon." Vegna pointed an index finger at Kain. "Mr. Batroc contacted Stoutland Yard and Mr. Horace's voice would not carry enough for Ms. Adler to hear him." He shook his head. "If you're looking to make a splash, might I suggest trying for a higher dive?"

"Objection!" Kain slammed his hands on his desk. "That's not the only thing that doesn't add up about this testimony, Sir Vegna."

"Oh?" Vegna tilted his cloaked head and rested it against his fist. "Explain, dragon."

Shimmer: "Inquisitor Vegna, don't you find it suspicious at all that neither of those two were able to call for help loud enough to attract Ms. Adler's atten-"
Vegna: "I said 'Explain, dragon'. That does not involve you, Clown Prince."

Vegna nodded. "Correct. Where are you going with this?"

"Where I'm going… is here!" Kain double tapped the top right corner of the screen. The map disappeared, revealing two folder icons. One was labeled "Inquisition" and the other "Defense." Kain tapped the latter and two photos appeared side by side. The one on the left showed a small, cobblestone street wedged between brick buildings that were five or six stories. Shimmer spotted small, square windows and laundry lines crisscrossing the top floors of the buildings.

"This is Fanucchi Street during daytime." Kain pointed to the image, but Shimmer was focused on the other photo. Or, rather, the lack of anything discernable outside of vague outlines.

"Notice there are no streetlights or torch lamps in these pictures," Kain continued. "The defense took this photo two days ago… along with this one, showing the same area at nighttime, close to the time of the incident." He stopped hovering to gesture to the right photo. "I don't know about anyone else here, but I'm having a hard time making anything out in this."

Vegna slammed his right hand on the desk. Talonflame fluttered up to his shoulder. "Are you implying… that it was too dark for the witnesses to have seen anything?" the dusknoir said.

Shimmer: "... Not that that isn't a clever observation, but we're sure the omnibus didn't have interior lighting, right?"
Kain: "Uh..."
- Kain hurriedly flips back to Chapter 15 -
Kain: "Nope, no interior lighting described!"
Shimmer: "... Wasn't there a glass pane in the ceiling that was observable from the rooftop seating though?"
Kain: "... I-It would've been too dark to see through it?"
:uhhh:


"That's exactly what I'm implying!" Kain put his hands on his hips and stared all three witnesses down.

Mellath's brow furrowed. "But, Counsellor, the victim was a magmar. Their bodies are known to glow due to their internal flames."

Shimmer wouldn't let that stand. "Objection!" He propped himself up against the defense's bench. "Please recall Inquisitor Vegna's opening statement, Your Magistry. He specifically described the victim as a 'sickly' individual." Shimmer dropped back onto all fours. "Ergo, it's entirely possible he wasn't glowing like a healthy magmar would!"

Those two do realize that if a single witness brings up Mortimer glowing at any time in the past week prior to his murder, that their entire angle of attack is toast, right?

"Well, witnesses?" Mellath furrow his brow. "Can you explain this inconsistency."

"I, er—" Batroc tugged at his shirt collar. "That is—"

"I don't think they can, Your Magistry." Kain crossed his arms. "Because it's hard to explain something that's completely fabricated!"

The murmurs grew louder. Herdier put his forepaws on his desk. "Oi, say something, ya blokes!"

Beside him, Glaceon straightened out the sides of her dress. "I find the tall one's stammering quite… unclean. Perhaps his mouth could do with a thorough scrubbing." She held up her left forepaw, revealing a sudsy sponge.

"Now wait just a second!" Batroc brandished his umbrella and shook it at the jury bench. "Are you threatening me? I am a man of stature! Of the Bernard clan! My family will not stand for such actions!" He pivoted right and pointed at Vegna. "You there! I demand to be excused! I've already given far too much time to the court."

... Yeah, the sus-o-meter is off the charts right now. Though wouldn't that be a 'mon of stature? :V

"Objection!"

A metallic clang echoed through the courtroom. Shimmer whinnied in surprise, tail puffing up. Horace extended his quills and discharged tiny electric sparks. One hit Batroc's shoulder, prompting the passimian to conk Horace with his umbrella's handle. "S-Sorry, sir!" Horace squeaked, catching his hat and trying to reposition it on his head.

Mellath slowly blinked. "Sir Vegna?"

Vegna's right fist had left a huge dent in the inquisitor's bench. Slowly, silently, he raised it up. Shadows twirled around it, weaving themselves into a tattered book with a faded, eight-pointed star etched into the cover. The pages flipped themselves until Vegna placed his left index finger down on the book.

"The 'mon who never alters his opinions is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind."

More silence followed. Shimmer looked at Vegna, then Kain, then Vegna again. Was that… a jab at Kain's dragon-typing?

Mellath rubbed sweat off his brow. "Err, I'm sorry, Sir Vegna, but do you have an actual objection?"

Vegna shut the book and tucked it under his arm. "I do. But first… I must extend my congratulations to the dragon attorney and Clown Prince."

Shimmer's nostrils flared. "Excuse me?"

With a flick of his left wrist, Vegna sent Talonflame flying away. He returned a few seconds later clutching a black rose in his right foot. Vegna took the rose and held it out toward Kain. "I commend you both for taking such bold steps toward the comedy industry."

Oh boy, it's this part again. Time for the obligatory AA-style twist, since I knew that things were going too smoothly for Kain and Shimmer there.

Shimmer: "B-But we weren't trying to be funny."
:fearfullaugh:

Kain: "I really do not like where this is going right now." ._.

"Very well." Vegna's gauntlets sparked. The rose caught fire and faded away in flickering black embers. "The defense is arguing the scene was too dark for the witnesses to have accurately seen the incident. Their bravado seems to have broken through these two… simpletons."

"Simpleton?" Batroc smacked his umbrella against the witness stand. "How dare you!" Vegna ignored him, pointing toward Kain.

"But no amount of bluster on the defense's part can change the facts. And the facts are as such: the omnibus has light fixtures inside of it."

Kain stiffened. "… huh?"

... Ouch.

Kain: "Wh-What?! N-No it didn't! I literally flipped back eight chapters to check the description of the omnibus! We didn't see any light fixtures in there! It literally wasn't mentioned in the description!"
- Shimmer pauses and thinks, before faceplanting onto the counter -
Shimmer: "Augh! Of course we didn't see it! We were too busy focused on the flooring and seats!" >_<

Vegna switched the book to his left arm and raised his right hand. He got rid of the map on the screen next to Kain and brought up pictures of the omnibus interior. The carpet had a tape outline on it, and the wall on the other side of the photo had two glass cases with white candles sitting inside of them.

"Ah! Y-Yes, yes!" Horace nodded vigorously. Pins and needles tumbled off his quills. "I remember. Those candles were definitely lit… and showed Slurpuff stabbing Magmar!"

"Quite right!" Batroc regained some of his composure. "How dare you try and play such mind games, you poison-tongued dragon!"

Vegna slammed his right fist on the bench again. "Thus, rather than casting doubt upon this testimony, I contend the defense has instead furthered the inquisition's claims. The accused stabbed the victim and these two witnesses saw the entire thing from the upper deck!" His eye glowed deep crimson. "If these witnesses were inside the carriage, they surely would've paid closer attention to the light fixtures!"

- Kain shrivels up and looks about ready to die inside -
Kain: "B-But it literally wasn't in the omnibus description when we were there... A-And we noticed the ceiling glass!"
:uhhh:

Shimmer: "Okay, I should really be going into a tirade about you missing this right now, but... did you really miss it? Since I was there too and we saw the walls and noted their color and everything. How on earth would we have seen them but not this?" ._.
Vegna: "Hrmph, I believe that's an answer you two will have to deliver to the court, Clown Prince."

"L… light fixtures." Kain tapped his claws together and looked down in shame. "I, uh, might've forgotten about those."

"As did the Clown Prince, judging by the aghast look upon his face." The mouth on Vegna's stomach curved into a grotesque smile. "Thus, I congratulate you both." He flicked his left hand and the black rose from before rematerialized in a gout of shadowfire. "Cheers to your burgeoning circus careers."

A mixture of murmurs and laughter rose up throughout the courtroom.

Kain: "U-Ulp... I guess we really did overlook them."
:uhhh:

Shimmer:
screams-internally-screaming.gif%27


"I can't believe it!" Scyther slammed an arm down. "I almost let myself get suckered in by His Grace!" He sat back and shook his head. "But at the end of the day, he's still a moneybag, just like Slurpuff. These damned moneybags… they're all in it together!" Scyther raised his blades high. "Milord, I don't need to hear another word! Death to the moneybags!"

Kain's wings unfurled. "Wait, don't!"

Scyther pressed a button on his station, increasing the size of the right flame on the massive scale behind the judge's bench. The scale tipped slightly to the right.

Well this trial's going swimmingly.

Gothorita pulled a piece of paper out of her typewriter. "… I've heard enough as well. This dragon is a charlatan. One can only hope this Crown Prince is merely a zoroark's illusion." She pressed a button of her own. The scale tipped to the right once again.

"Oi, laddies!" Herdier leaned over, frowning. "I'm the foremon, here. We're supposed to act as a unit." He sat back in his seat, harrumphing. "But I agree with 'em. I don't need to hear anything else."

A third button press. A third tilting of the scale to the right. The crowd's murmurs grew. Kain's eyes darted about in a panic. Shimmer's heart was racing. How had things blown up in their faces so quickly? Three jurors were voting to con—

"… indeed." Glaceon lifted her sponge-covered paw. "This is quite a filthy defense. It could do with some vigorous scrubbing." She pressed her own guilty verdict button, tilting the scale right once more. "Let us clean this courtroom of its filth."

I mean, you only have a public defender from a social outgroup who just looked like he was pantsing his defense. I don't really understand why you're so shocked the jury pool's taking such a hard turn against you, Shimmer.

Vegna: "I look forward to seeing you take up that comedy career after this debacle, dragon."
Kain:
tenor.gif


This doesn't make any sense! Shimmer's ears rang. They were dogpiling on Benedict. And off of such shoddy testimony. Vegna couldn't have swayed them that much. Was there mind control going on? Yes, that had to be it!

"O-Objection!" Shimmer meekly propped his forehooves up on the defense's bench. "M… motive!" He blurted it out without thinking, but now that it was out there, the pieces started to fall into place for him. "You all are rushing to condemn the accused… but he doesn't even have a good motive for killing the victim! The two are complete and total strangers!"

"… aha ha."

This kid's really not helping his case there.

Kain: -facepalms-
Shimmer: "I-Inquisitor Vegna? Why are you laughing right now?" ._.

"All the Clown Prince is missing is some red lipstick." Vegna chuckled from his stomach-mouth. "And perhaps a cream pie or two." He slammed his right fist down on the table once again. "But ask and you shall receive, boy. Perhaps this will sway our two holdouts."

The dusknoir lifted his hand and pointed at the screen. "Accused! Your occupation?"

"Bwuh?" Benedict looked up. His jumpsuit was littered with sweat stains. "O-Oh. I work at the First Bank of Isola."

"You arrange for personal loans, correct?" Vegna said.

"Y-Yessir."

"Ha! I knew it!" Scyther pointed a blade at Benedict. "A banker! The worst of all moneyb—"

"Juror Three will be silent," Vegna commanded. His left hand erupted in shadowfire. "Or else he will find himself in the corner of the Twilight Realm where one's mouth is repeatedly scorched by hellfire."

Scyther went stiff as a board. Vegna returned his attention to the screen, where he produced a photograph of a book. There was a list of names with numbers and percentages beside them. Some of them had red stamps beside them reading "Overdue."

I'm surprised the Scyther hasn't requested to be excused from the jury pool yet with how much Vegna's bullying him. :V

"The inquisition presents the accused's personal ledger to the court," Vegna exclaimed. "I would like the Clown Prince to read the fifth name on the list, along with the accompanying values."

Shimmer squinted. His eyes found the fifth name and his heart sank. He opened his mouth and nothing came out. Shimmer swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and shakily said, "Magmar Mortimer. One thousand radians. Thirty-five percent. Overdue."

Vegna pointed to Benedict. "It would appear… these two are not strangers after all. Rather, Mortimer had taken a personal loan out from Benedict. One with an exorbitant interest rate that no commoner could ever pay off."

He slammed his palm against the table. "I submit that the victim was killed because he failed to repay his debts to the accused! With Mortimer deceased, Benedict's bank branch would seize possession of all his remaining assets… which would include his technique for brick firing that made him such an asset to the Venish Bricklayers Guild!"

"No!" Shimmer looked despondently at Benedict. "That's not true! It can't be!"

Just saying, this is the stage where you point out that you'd get the 'mon's kneecaps broken instead of outright killing him considering how well this trial's been going.

Vegna looked up to the jury bench. "What say you, Jurors Five and Six?"

Meowth scratched the side of his head. "Honestly? Those loans sound shady enough as it is. That much money is nothing to scoff at. I can see why this would've happened." He shook his head. "It's hard to believe. Mr. Benedict gave so much money to support our local grade school district." He pushed the guilty button on his console, tilting the scale even further to the right.

"I thank you for your wisdom." Vegna bowed to Meowth.

Shimmer:
Phoenix_Despairing.gif


Kain's cry made Shimmer jump. The flygon leaned over so much he practically tumbled over the defense bench.

"Wait! Please wait, Juror Six!"

"… hmph. There is nothing worth waiting over." Vegna smacked his desk with his palm. "Accept your defeat, dragon."

"No!" Kain leaned forward more, wings buzzing to keep him upright. "We can't end the trial here. There are… there are still too many inconsistencies!"

Vegna slowly straightened up. "Elaborate."

Well, I'll give Kain one thing, he definitely takes after the AA standard of going down swinging no matter how bad things look.

"You presented the accused's ledger." Kain pointed to the screen. "I'll admit his business choices are far from noble, but this customer list deserves greater scrutiny. The defense asserts its right to examine the ledger in its entirety."

"… bah, fine." Vegna rolled his eye. "Is that it?"

"No." Kain leaned back. "I'll admit there may be light fixtures in the omnibus, but can you prove they were on the night of the crime? Did Stoutland Yard take pictures of the entire carriage before taking custody of it?"

Vegna was silent, until he muttered, "They did not."

Kain: "S-So I wasn't going crazy about not seeing light fixtures in there."
:fearfullaugh:

Shimmer: "This would've been nice if you could've brought this up five jurors ago!" >_>;

"Fledglings Omnibus always replaces the candles when I finish my last route of the night," Adler piped up.

"Then the defense also demands the omnibus be brought up from the vault for inspection!" Kain declared. "If there's dried wax in the holders, then we'll know the candles were used that night."

Shimmer remained speechless. He had sorely underestimated Kain's resolve. Shimmer expected the flygon to roll over like a dying feral, but he was standing tall despite all the pressure Vegna put on the defense. And, judging from Mellath's contemplative expression, Kain might've bought Benedict another chance.

"The court accepts the defense's requests." Mellath raised his gavel. "We will adjourn for a thirty-minute recess. Bailiffs, please bring the omnibus and ledger up from the evidence vault."

That's a very, very tenuous chance there unless if you can get jurors to reverse their verdicts. Though that's par for the course of AA, I'd suppose.

Sighing, Shimmer's shoulders sagged. "I… can't believe that worked."

Kain fanned himself with the sides of his vest. "Well, Benedict told me to bring up the candles as a way to get the omnibus up here for inspection. I'm glad he thought of it."

Shimmer blinked slowly. "Wait, Uncle Benedict told that to you?"

"Yeah. Didn't he tell you, too?"

The ponyta turned to his right, but Benedict's bisharp guard had already escorted him out of the courtroom. His left ear folded against his head.

What did Shimmer's uncle know… and why didn't the slurpuff want to tell him?

:uhhh:


I mean, I wasn't seeing Benedict taking after 2-4 as a potential direction for this trial. But now that possibility's suddenly on my radar.

And made it to the end. Things got surprisingly tense at the end for a chapter that's a wrapup scene in the Qliphoth and a courtroom scene, but I suppose that's a testament to your skill at writing these things, @Ambyssin .

Kudos, and I'll be looking forward to your next installment, since I honestly am not sure where this trial is going to wind up going based off those last few paragraphs.
 

Ambyssin

Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 24: Disorder in the Court

The conversation with Rayquaza had Yuna prepared to pop out from the Qliphoth in midair. She was therefore caught off guard when she floated into a spacious, square room with brown, oaken walls draped by maroon tapestries with silver justice scales stitched into them. A bust of Queen Calliope sat on either side of a large, brown door, while the right wall had a line of rapidash busts. Likely Shimmer's mother and the reigning monarchs that came before her.

"Huh?" Nikki stepped to Yuna's right. "This ain't no museum, that's for sure." She looked over her shoulder. "Yo, Twiggy! Where the hell are we?"

Chiaki approached one of the tapestries. Sand grains littered the black carpet behind him. "Pretty sure we're at the Crowne Court."

Yuna's gills stiffened. "Y… you're kidding."

"What good fortune!" Rayquaza cheered. "Is that not what thou desired all along?"

I mean… I
guess it's a good thing. Except Yuna didn't know where in the courthouse she was. And she had her teammates with her. Along with Cid, who floated there silently with a faraway look in his eyes.

"Wait." Yuna turned to Chiaki. "I don't think you guys should stay here. What if we're in a spot that's not open to the public?"

At that, the oak doors swung open with loud creeks. Shimmer stood in the doorway. His eyes went wide, then abruptly narrowed. "You!" The ponyta stomped toward her in a huff. "Where have you been? We're getting clobbered in there! Vegna has our backs against the wall. My uncle's about to get shipped off to Citadark and you… you…"

Shimmer glanced at Nikki, then Chiaki, and then Cid. "Actually, no. Forget it. If you were skipping out for some pointless Crowne Cup thing, then I don't want to hear about it."

"Wow, someone's cranky," Reshiram observed. "Maybe he needs a nice bottle of warm milk?"

Yuna was too busy parsing through Shimmer's rant to pay Reshiram any mind. "I'm sorry… did you say Vegna? Like, our professor?"

"Yes!" Shimmer stomped a forehoof down. "He's the inquisitor in this trial." He turned up his snout. "Which you would've known if you'd shown up for the start like you were supposed to."

What was Yuna supposed to say to that?

"Well, I'd advocate honesty, but I'm confident that route will you get you jabbed with the business end of that guy's horn," Reshiram responded.

"And this is the heir to the kingdom we art currently in?" Rayquaza sighed. "Perhaps chivalry died during my long slumber."

"We still have a chance at pulling this off, though."

Kain hovered toward the group, clearing this throat. He landed behind Shimmer. "I managed to convince the judge to bring the omnibus up from the vault to be reinspected… along with Benedict's ledger that he uses for personal business."

Yuna had no idea what that meant. "Um, sorry, but is there a quick way to bring me up to speed?"

"Please." Shimmer snorted and swished his mane over his shoulder. "You missed the train as it left the station. Don't think you can get on now."

Nikki stepped toward Shimmer. Looming over him, she cracked her knuckles, "Says who?"

"Says me." Shimmer met her gaze with his own.

"Oh, of course. My bad." Nikki's words dripped with sarcasm. "I forgot you're calling the shots here and not, y'know, the guy whose literal job it is to do this." She pointed to Kain. "So, keep your trap shut or I'll stuff it with that frilly mane of yours. Capiche?"

Yuna's jaw slackened. Why was Nikki going to bat so hard for her? Especially when she didn't have the toxtricity's back against Baptiste.

"My guess? It's more about getting under Shimmer's skin than helping you out," Reshiram said.

Her gills drooped. Did it ever occur to you I might not have wanted an answer to that?

Silence followed, though she had a strong mental image of Reshiram wilting like a dying tree. Yuna shook her head and floated over to Kain. "How long until you need to go back in?"

Kain turned to the grandfather clock in the corner of the room. "Twenty-seven minutes."

"Think you can catch me up in that time?"

Kain nodded. "I believe so."

Yuna rubbed her arms together. "Then let's do it."

She might not have been there for the start, but she kept the place safe enough for the trial to proceed. And now, Yuna could see it through to the finish line.

… if only the preceding battle hadn't left her so exhausted.

XxX​

Noctum was so, so sick of pulling himself off cold, metal floors after blacking out.

… no, that wasn't quite right. He hadn't blacked out this time. Noctum vividly remembered tumbling through a black and purple abyss. Crystalline diamonds and cubes sailed past him.

And the eyes. Dear God, the eyes! Noctum thought he was seeing things, but they were there. Eyes of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Boring holes into him.

But as quick as the abyss swallowed him up, it spat him out. Though he was dizzy, the charizard slowly gained a sense of his surroundings… and had to throw a black-scaled arm over his face.

Bright… too bright!

"This is getting to be re-god-damn-diculous!"

Well, I guess Valkyrie survived the trip. Noctum pivoted to his right, but didn't take his arm away from his eyes. "You okay?"

"Yeah, sure, aside from wanting to hurl you into that neon sign across from us," Valkyrie responded.

Noctum decided not to make eye contact. Instead, he turned around and slowly lifted his arm. There was, indeed, a giant neon sign bolted onto a bigger building. It was easily taller than the servant's quarters and bathed the black metal rooftop they stood on in a mix of white and pink light. The sign depicted a glass bottle shaped like a dragonite skull sitting on a gray table. A comfey floated on either side of it.

Eau d'Eternatus, by Shannel.
Live your best eternity. Be your best smelf.


"Why would a city of dead people need to advertise perfume?"

Seifer hobbled over to Noctum's side. Not-Zapdos was draped over his back. He was breathing, but Noctum wasn't sure if that was something to celebrate.

Valkyrie snorted from across the rooftop. "You ever smell a corpse, pony-boy? Even a garbodor's stench is more appealing."

Seifer squinted. "Why would you know that?"

"I think we have more pressing things to worry about." Noctum scratched the back of his head. "Like, y'know, figuring out where we are."

"Pretty sure we're still in Eterna City." Valkyrie tilted her head up. "Same eerie black and purple sky. Same sinister crystals latched onto the buildings like joltik on a moss patch." She stomped across the roof, stepping over metal pipes. "Not sure what's up with the flying omnibuses, though."

Seifer raised a brow. "Flying… omnibuses?"

Valkyrie waved him off. She stepped back from the rooftop's edge. "Feh, it's not important. What is important is finding a way back down. Anyone see a fire escape or something?"

But at that moment, darkness fell over the rooftop. Noctum glanced toward the advertisement to find it had turned off, replaced by a purple outline of World Ender's sigil. Orchestral music blared up around him. "Yipe!" His tail flame sparked. Noctum barely stopped himself from jumping.

"And now, please stand by for a broadcast from Archbishop Paradox!"

The moment the soothing, feminine voice stopped, a video feed appeared of a dimly lit office desk. Piercing, blue eyes lit up, separated by a thin, blue stripe.

"Hello again, lovely Qliphoth denizens."

Noctum couldn't help but shuffle back nervously when Deoxys' head fully entered the picture. The three orange spikes on his head had an otherworldly glow about them.

"I know it's been some time since my last broadcast, and I do apologize for that." Paradox shook his head. "Unfortunately, business has kept me away from you, the wonderful civilians of Eterna City and beyond."

Four tentacles unfurled as Paradox leaned further forward. "So, to make up for it, I thought I would provide you all with a sport of entertainment. Isn't that grand?" His right two tentacles twisted around themselves, stitching together until there was an orange and blue arm. Noctum's gut squirmed.

No, wait, was it really his gut… or the crystal stuck inside it? He glanced down at saw the crystal pulsating with purple light. The charizard gulped.

Paradox clenched his newly formed fist. "This entertainment will, of course, remind you all of the pathetic planet that has kept our dear Eternatus imprisoned." He sat back in his chair and pushed it to the side of the video feed. "I want you all to watch. Watch and be amazed…"

The camera slowly zoomed in toward a glowing screen behind Paradox's desk. The picture came into focus, revealing a room with high ceilings and white podiums stationed parallel to one another. A large omnibus sat in the middle of the room.

Though it confused Noctum, he put the pieces together the moment he saw a small dreepy floating toward one of the podiums, behind a flygon and ponyta.

"Is that… the Crowne Court?" Seifer's brows raised. "How are they seeing this? What's going on here?"

"You really think either of us would know?" Valkyrie huffed, crossing her arms. "It could be doctored. That alien sure sounded like he was spewing propaganda."

Noctum tapped his claws together. "But… how would he know about Yuna and Shimmer."

"It's not just them. I see that grovyle and toxtricity walking into the gallery." Seifer pointed his broken horn toward the screen.

"What?" Valkyrie crouched into a fighting stance. She narrowed her eyes. "Son of a— it is him!"

"Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you… the so-called justice system of the terrestrials!"

XxX​

When Kain said the omnibus would be brought in for inspection, Yuna figured it couldn't fit into the courtroom proper. And yet there it was. Completely blocking the trio's ability to see the inquisitor's bench. Not that it mattered. Yuna didn't want to see Vegna glaring at her from across from the courtroom.

She took her place next to Shimmer, who hadn't wiped the irritated look off his face since Nikki had told him off earlier. "For both our sakes, keep your mouth shut," he hissed.

"Wow, I think I'm starting to see why the jury might not have been enamored with the defense," Reshiram deadpanned.

The clang of gavel against bench brought Yuna and Shimmer to attention. Mellath sat down at his bench. "Court will reconvene." He looked to his left. "Sir Vegna, I trust this is the correct omnibus in front of us?"

"Unless you think the bailiffs located an entirely different omnibus and brought it here within the span of thirty minutes, then yes."

Though Yuna couldn't see Vegna, the irritation in his voice was plain as day.

"And the accused's ledger?" Mellath asked.

A shriek echoed through the courtroom. Talonflame descended toward Kain, gripping a book in his talons. He dropped it, almost striking Kain's head in the process.

"… delivered to the defense, as requested," Vegna growled. Talonflame disappeared behind the omnibus. "And it would seem these aren't the only new items to enter the court."

A rumbling chuckle echoed from Vegna's side of the room. "Nice of you to join us, exchange student. I hope your little excursion was worth it."

Yuna swallowed hard. There was no way Vegna could've known what she did… could he?

"Well, he is a ghost-type. Perhaps he followed you under the cover of night?" Reshiram theorized.

"How devious! It is most uncouth to spy on a lady in such a manner," Rayquaza growled. "Let me take a crack at him, Princess. I'll show that rapscallion what's what!"

How about you keep your comments to yourself instead?
Yuna's headache was back. God, how she wanted to sleep. To let the cool fabric of a nice, soft pillow envelope her triangular head.

A gavel knock brought Yuna back to attention. "Counsellor, please inspect the interior of the omnibus," Mellath instructed. "His Grace can peruse the accused's ledger."

Kain nodded. "Understood." He gestured for Yuna to follow as he hovered toward the omnibus. The pink stains along the staircase were much more apparent in the bright courtroom than the dark evidence vault. As were the bloodstains on the carpet when Kain swung the door open.

"There are the light fixtures." Kain flew inside, being careful to avoid stepping on the ground and disturbing the tape outline.

Yuna had trouble seeing past his fast-moving wings. "Well, what do you see?"

"There's… no wax in these containers, Your Magistry!" Kain announced.

A thump came from the other side of the omnibus. "What?" Vegna growled.

"Sounds to me like that's not what Vegna expected," Reshiram said. "Maybe he forgot what he'd seen if he inspected the omnibus for himself?"

Yuna found that incredibly hard to believe. Dour as he was, Vegna seemed as sharp as a druddigon's claws. She managed to squeeze herself against the omnibus' wooden wall. Sure enough, the glass light containers were completely empty.

"I guess there weren't any candles on the night of the crime, then," Yuna concluded. Kain had his chin resting on his hand as he stared down one of the glass containers.

"What is the meaning of this?"

Shadows pooled by the back of the carriage and Vegna's cloaked head popped up. Yuna squeaked and drifted close to the carriage door. "Y-You could've announced you were going to do that."

"Please excuse my lack of manners," Vegna said, eyeing the same container as Kain. "Impossible. There were candles in these containers. I'm sure of it."

"Perhaps thine deduction was accurate, Sir Reshiram." Rayquaza's hearty laugh echoed in Yuna's head. While Vegna scrutinized the glass containers further, however, Yuna found herself scanning the rest of the carriage. With how dark the vault was, she couldn't appreciate the carriage's glass ceiling. But under the bright glow of the chandelier lights, Yuna could clear see red splotches along the edge of the glass.

Yuna rubbed her eyes. Maybe it was a trick? No, the splotches were still there. Paint, perhaps?

"I'm afraid… that it's exactly what you think it is," Reshiram squeaked.

At that, Yuna couldn't stop herself from pointing up and blurting out, "Blood!"

"Huh?" Kain looked where Yuna pointed. "Ah, a bloodstain! How did we miss that?"

Vegna looked up. "… no. It can't be."

Yuna swore she saw a glint in his eye. Electricity? She looked at her Soul Dew, like she was expecting Reshiram to jump in. She got nothing, however.

"Quick, Yuna, check the roof again." Kain pointed up. "Maybe we missed something else in the vault."

The dreepy nodded. She floated up and effortlessly passed through the roof. Sure enough, there were a few small red speckles on the back wooden bench. "I think this is blood, too."

"What?" Scyther almost fell over leaning against the juror's bench. "You're kidding me!"

"No, I see it." Glaceon elbowed Scyther out of her way and squinted. "Yes, there are definitely some unsanitary spots in need of a thorough scrubbing."

Meowth's beard frazzled. "Then does this mean we've been lied to?"

Vegna took his head out of the omnibus and silently floated back to his desk. Talonflame ruffled his feathers. Yuna was going to ask Kain about these new findings when a loud, protracted sigh came from the corner of the room.

"So, that was your game." Benedict looked at the witness stand. "I get it now."

Shimmer looked up from the ledger with a raised eyebrow.

"Is there something you wish to tell the court, accused?" Mellath asked.

"Of course." Benedict hopped off his stool. Bisharp tightened his grip on Benedict's chains, but the slurpuff merely lumbered toward the witness stand. "I believe I'm being set up. How else would you explain any of this?"

"That you're the killer!" Batroc pointed his umbrella tip at Benedict. "Stay away from me!"

Benedict shook his head. "Hardly. After all, my story has always been that I fell asleep within the carriage, only to be awoken by a loud thump." The slurpuff hopped once to imitate getting startled. "Then, overwhelmed by the sight of the victim, I screamed and fled the omnibus."

"But if that's really the case, why didn't you contact the authorities?" Gothorita asked, looking over the stack of papers she'd produced from her constant typing.

"Because I was acting on instinct. Utterly terrified!" Benedict shuddered. "After all, someone on that omnibus was out for blood. I figured the attacker would jump through the ceiling and go after me next!"

"Hogwash!" Batroc slammed his umbrella on the witness stand. "And just who do you claim this mysterious attacker is, hmm?"

Yuna had a good idea what Benedict's response would be, but Shimmer surprisingly beat his uncle to the punch by shouting, "You, Passimian!"

"What?" Batroc stumbled back. His top hat fell off, revealing his pale green head. "Th-this is absurd! He's the one who had bloodied gloves on his person!" He swung his umbrella blindly at Benedict, who managed to duck under it.

"Of course I got blood on my gloves," Benedict said, shuddering. "I pushed Magmar's unconscious body aside while I was panicking." He stroked his chin in thought. "If I had stabbed him, I could've easily pulled my hands away before any blood dribbled up from the wound."

"P… poppycock!" Batroc struggled to find his words. "Enough baseless accusations! I'm nothing but a bystander!"

"I disagree!" Shimmer telekinetically waved Benedict's ledger around. "I have evidence that says otherwise, witness."

Kain zipped out of the omnibus. Yuna glanced across the room to find Vegna with his back turned to the whole affair. Why had he suddenly gone silent?

"It's true!" Kain gasped. "Your Magistry, Mr. Passimian Batroc is listed on page seventeen of the ledger. He took out a twenty-five hundred radians loan from the accused… then a subsequent one thousand radians loan a month later. Both of them are overdue!"

"Nngh!" Batroc looked away from Benedict, digging his fingers into the witness stand. "I… I was this close to paying them off! So I had a string of busts at the races. What of it? A 'mon of my standing is allowed to enjoy some betting now and again."

Yuna frowned. He needed thousands of radians… to bet on sporting events?

"That's something this kingdom allows?"
Reshiram added. "Seems a bit… shady, if you ask me."

Adler narrowed her eyes at Batroc. "Did you sully my omnibus and try to pass it off onto that bloke?" She pointed at Benedict with her horn.

"I did no such thing!" Batroc barked. He grabbed a squealing Horace and lifted him up. "Back me up here, Togedemaru. I'm innocent in this!"

"I— y-yeah!" Horace squirmed in Batroc's grasp.

"Is that so?" Benedict tilted his head. "Or, perhaps, did you convince this little guy to assist you?" He smiled warmly at the passimian, but something about his grin unnerved Yuna. "Because if our good Crown Prince will turn to page nineteen in that ledger, he'll find a five hundred radians loan for little Togedemaru. A loan due to mature in two weeks."

Horace went stiff as a board in Batroc's hands. "No, please! You can't call in my debts. My boss at the shop has been sick. We haven't had as many customers. I'm not as good at attracting clients as he is! I… I've gotta feed my baby sister, sir!"

Benedict turned his smile on Horace. "I'm afraid that's irrelevant, lad." He swiveled to face the jury. "If Mr. Reaper is going to use Magmar's unpaid debts to try and pin this on me, why are we not scrutinizing these fellows' debts as well? After all, it would be quite convenient for them if I were to be put in prison."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Herdier called.

"That ledger is a personal ledger." Benedict sighed. "As in… loans I approved on my own time, without using the First Bank of Isola's proper channels. If I go away for any reason, all the unpaid debts will be wiped clean."

A chorus of murmurs emerged from the gallery. Yuna wasn't sure what to make of it. Monetary loans weren't a thing back in Aeon, only material ones. The idea of people needing to borrow money — and that some people were doing so without any oversight or regulation — didn't sit well with her.

"But if it's legal here, there's nothing to really do about it," Reshiram whispered. "Moreover, he does have a point. This is a rather… violent method to try and erase a debt. But desperation can drive people to do crazy things."

"My client raises a good point." Kain crossed his arms and nodded. "Not only that, but if we're scrutinizing the accused over his ledger, then the murder weapon must be scrutinized as well!" The flygon pointed to the screen in the center of the juror's bench. "In his opening statement, Inquisitor Vegna used the 'B' embroidered on the murder weapon's handle to connect it to my client. But it could just as easily stand for 'Batroc' or 'Bernard!'"

He pointed an accusatory talon at Batroc. "I contend these two witnesses conspired to frame my client… and are the real culprits in this case! Mr. Batroc stabbed the victim, then shoved him through the open window! Then he got Mr. Horace to lie on his behalf!"

"No!" Batroc dropped Horace to the table and swatted his patchwork hat off his head. "Th… this is a farce! Everything I've said is the truth! He's the one lying, damn it! Why would I even carry a knife? I'm a fighting-type!" The passimian raised his fists and boxed the air. "If I had to take someone out, I'd use some good old fisticuffs!"

"That would be counterintuitive!" Kain picked up the folder containing Mortimer's autopsy. "Any decent coroner can tell when someone receives blows from a fighting-type move, so doing so would've made it much easier to nail you as the culprit!"

"B-But— but but but!" Horace shivered. "Why would we hurt Magmar? He was in debt… just like us!"

The more the argument went on, the more uneasy it made Yuna. Especially with Vegna's continued silence. Had he actually made a mistake… and was now leaving his witnesses out to dry?

"Didn't Kain tell us Benedict suggested he try to get the omnibus examined in court?" Reshiram asked. "Yeah, we weren't here for the start of things, but I feel like somehow Benedict might've known what was going to happen if the omnibus got brought here."

Because he knew he was innocent?


Reshiram's humming sounded doubtful. "I don't like his tone. It isn't the relief I'd expect from someone in his situation. It's more like… conceit."

Yuna looked down at her Soul Dew, then back at the witness stand. If he was acting conceited, then…

Could it be? Is this… all a set up?

A thunderclap echoed throughout the courtroom, followed by a splintering crack. Squealing, Yuna whirled around to find Vegna having broken clean through the inquisition's bench. Blue energy tingled around his fist, fading within seconds.

"… how uncivil of me to disrespect the inquisitor's bench in such a manner. I beg the court's forgiveness," he monotonously exclaimed. "I was curious to see exactly what twists and turns this farce would take. But enough is enough. I will not allow this trial to morph into some hideous feral tugged to and fro by chains of falsified evidence."

Yuna gulped and squeezed the Soul Dew. Reshiram isn't the only one, then…

"Falsified evidence?" Mellath's eyes widened. "Elaborate posthaste!"

"While the witnesses squabbled with the accused, I perused Stoutland Yard's crime scene report." Vegna held up a manilla envelope. "There are no mentions of blood splatter on the glass ceiling or rooftop benches." He smacked the envelope on his broken desk. "At some point between its transport to the vault and now, someone tampered with this omnibus! The inquisition is certain of this!

"I trust Stoutland Yard's report. There is foul play afoot here." Vegna fixed his crimson eye on Benedict. "Someone seeks to tip the scales in the accused's favor."

"Objection!" Shimmer's eyes darted back and forth between Benedict and Kain. "Y… you missed your opportunity to bring up that report. How can we know it's authentic?"

"The Clown Prince will be silent while the adults are talking," Vegna growled. Shimmer's ears folded. Yuna saw uncertainty all over his face. It started when Benedict began talking and hadn't gone away.

"What if he realizes it, too?"

Reshiram's question rang in Yuna's mind like the cathedral bells back home.

"Wah ha ha!"

Benedict's chains rubbed together as he mockingly applauded in Vegna's direction. "As expected, Mr. Reaper, you intend to go down fighting until the very end. But it matters not." He smiled as he looked straight at Kain and Shimmer. "Tell him why, my good barrister."

Kain stared blankly, then hastily cleared his throat. "Well, uh, unless Inquisitor Vegna can prove when the bloodstains appeared, then it's impossible to say for certain whether the victim was stabbed in the carriage or on the roof and shoved down."

"Wonderful! Outstanding!" Benedict showered Kain in applause and foot-stomping. "Do remember that since the incident, I've been in a holding cell awaiting trial." He turned to Vegna. "You say I tampered with the evidence? When would I have had the chance to do that, Mr. Reaper?"

The slurpuff's expression darkened. "Because the only way that wild theory of yours works is if a member of Stoutland Yard tampered with the omnibus at my direction."

He descended into more laughter as he slapped his palm against the witness stand. "Are you, an inquisitor for the Ministry of Justice, about to float there and accuse the very organization you partner with to maintain law and order of corruption? Do you think that's a wise move for your career?"

Benedict leaned over, flashing a grin. "How many inspectors will choose to work with you after learning of this, hmm? You'll be chased out of the courtroom for the second time! Wah ha ha ha! Ho ho ho! Hee hee hee!"

Yuna couldn't take anymore of this. Her gut was practically twisting around itself. Everything Shimmer's uncle said unnerved her. Heck, Shimmer probably knew something was up and refused to say anything. Was Benedict really worth that much to the ponyta?

"I… agree with Prof— err, Sir Vegna, Your Magistry!" she declared, shakily holding up her arm.

At once, she felt the entire courtroom's attention fall on her. Yuna saw Kain's bewildered expression, as well as Shimmer's furious one. The confident grin on Benedict's face melted away and a snarl twisted itself onto his puffy features.

"Come again?" Mellath leaned over and squinted.

Yuna trembled. Part of her wanted to walk that statement back, but a warmth pushed those sentiments away. Reshiram, perhaps?

Swallowing hard, she responded, "Mr. Kain, Prince Shimmer, and I inspected the omnibus together in the evidence vault yesterday. I didn't see any bloodstains on the roof." She curled her arms up. "I… believe Sir Vegna's theory. I think someone tampered with this!"

"She's lying!"

Shimmer's shrill voice made Yuna flinch. His horn flickered like a dying candle. "I w-want her outburst stricken from the record. She wasn't even here for the start of the trial!"

"Silence, Shimmer." Benedict held up a hand. "Know your place. This is an adult matter."

The ponyta's jaw slackened. Benedict turned his scornful expression on Yuna. All that warmth the dreepy had vanished in an instant.

"You have a lot of nerve, wyrm." Benedict's voice was even chillier than before. "We welcome you into this kingdom as a guest. Give you access to the pinnacle of education. And in return… you would spit on our generosity by accusing a fellow noble of evidence tampering? Ungrateful bitch! I ought to have you removed and deported to that ashtray you call a home!" He puffed his cheeks out. Yuna swore his face turned red.

Mellath banged his gavel several times. "Accused! Mind your words, or you'll be held in contempt!"

Benedict rolled his eyes. "Your Magistry, we both know her claim is meaningless. Because it remains impossible to prove when the blood appeared on the ceiling."

Sighing, Mellath nodded. "I concur."

"What?!" Scyther's wings buzzed in irritation. "Then what the hell happens now? Did we just get bamboozled?"

The oranguru turned to his left. "Sir Vegna?"

"Yes, milord?"

"Whether there was tampering or not — and what parties may have been involved — the blame rests with you." Mellath's brow furrowed. "It has and always will be the responsibility of the case's inquisitor to oversee and verify Stoutland Yard's investigation. Clearly, there has been a grave oversight error. Even if you were only handed this case recently, that is no excuse for allowing this to transpire."

Vegna slowly nodded. "I understand, milord."

"When the trial concludes, I want you in my chambers immediately," Mellath continued. "And you can bet High Inquisitor Justine will launch an inquiry when she hears of this."

Vegna extended his right arm and bowed. "I look forward to it, milord."

"Now then." Mellath turned to Kain. "Before I issue my ruling, do you have any final remarks, Counsellor?"

Kain jumped in surprise. "I, uh—" He tapped his claws together. Yuna silently begged him to say something— anything to back her up.

"Your Magistry?" Kain lifted the right side of his blue vest. "I understand that, as a public defender, I must accept the assignments given to me by the Ministry of Justice and serve my client to the best of their wishes. And I want to sincerely trust that Benedict is innocent in the matter."

The flygon slowly pulled his vest off. "However, I also believe what Princess Yuna is saying. I do not wish to be associated with a client who might be involved in evidence tampering." Kain folded his vest over his right arm. "If the Ministry opts for a retrial, I must request a new defender be assigned to Mr. Benedict."

"Wah ha ha ha!" Benedict mockingly applauded. "So, in the end, the other cold-blooded sap gets cold feet and turns tail." He feigned wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. "And here I was, ready to reward your handsomely for your work. Oh well. My savings will sleep soundly tonight."

Mellath banged his gavel once more. "Enough!" He tucked his head. "While I admire your candor, Counsellor, the point is moot. As loathe as I am to take this decision away from the jury, the circumstances are such that the accused will receive a bench verdict."

"Unbelievable!" Scyther slammed his arms on the jury bench. "That moneybags pulled the wool over ours eyes. What'd I tell ya? Never trust a moneybags! They're all conspiring to kick us while we're down!"

More gavel strikes sounded. "Order!" Mellath cleared his throat. "Due to inquisitorial negligence, I have no choice but to dismiss the charges against the accused… with prejudice. Mr. Benedict, you are free to go."

Yuna blinked, unsure of what exactly that meant. Had that been in a part of the textbook she hadn't read? "Kain?" She looked to the flygon. "What's he saying?"

Kain looked down, wings folding against his back. "Legally speaking, it's as if he was never charged with the crime to begin with."

You're kidding! Yuna's gut squirmed once again.

With one more strike of his gavel, Mellath declared, "Crowne Court is adjourned!"

Before any conversations could emerge from the gallery, shadows flared up from the inquisitor's bench.

"Slurpuff Benedict."

Vegna's voice sent a chill down Yuna's back. She saw his red eye glowing under his hood.

"In my time away from the court, I have heard whispers from my colleagues," the dusknoir growled. "Of individuals influencing the outcomes of trials to suit their needs. Bribed jurors, falsified testimonies, and evidence tampering… the list goes on."

Smirking, Benedict quirked a brow. "Is that another accusation? How delightful!" He rubbed his hands together. "Keep them coming, Mr. Reaper, and perhaps I'll take you to civil court for defamation. I'm sure attorneys would be tripping over themselves to represent me there."

Yuna didn't think it was possible, but Vegna's expression grew even darker.

"Do not, for one second, think this is over."

"Oh-ho, yes. That stupid 'curse' of yours." Benedict's grin only grew as the bisharp guard undid his cuffs.

"Take care, Mr. Reaper. I so look forward to our next session together! Wah ha ha ha ha!"

As Shimmer ran over to the slurpuff, Yuna flopped onto the omnibus bench, at a complete loss for words.

What had she just witnessed?
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Alright, finally got around to putting together my next Path of Valor review:

Chapter 24

The conversation with Rayquaza had Yuna prepared to pop out from the Qliphoth in midair. She was therefore caught off guard when she floated into a spacious, square room with brown, oaken walls draped by maroon tapestries with silver justice scales stitched into them. A bust of Queen Calliope sat on either side of a large, brown door, while the right wall had a line of rapidash busts. Likely Shimmer's mother and the reigning monarchs that came before her.

"Huh?" Nikki stepped to Yuna's right. "This ain't no museum, that's for sure." She looked over her shoulder. "Yo, Twiggy! Where the hell are we?"

Chiaki approached one of the tapestries. Sand grains littered the black carpet behind him. "Pretty sure we're at the Crowne Court."

- Beat moment -
Yuna: "Er... we did arrive in the lobby, right? We didn't just pop into the middle of an ongoing trial, did we?"
Chiaki: "If we did, I'm sure we'll be hearing about it right about now."

Yuna's gills stiffened. "Y… you're kidding."

"What good fortune!" Rayquaza cheered. "Is that not what thou desired all along?"

Yuna: "Not like this!" >.<
Nikki: "Just saying, you were the one who passed up on sticking around Aquardah for that sappy moment with Razim and the others you initially wanted."

"Wait." Yuna turned to Chiaki. "I don't think you guys should stay here. What if we're in a spot that's not open to the public?"

At that, the oak doors swung open with loud creeks. Shimmer stood in the doorway. His eyes went wide, then abruptly narrowed. "You!" The ponyta stomped toward her in a huff. "Where have you been? We're getting clobbered in there! Vegna has our backs against the wall. My uncle's about to get shipped off to Citadark and you… you…"

Cecil: "Well on the plus side, we now know we wound up someplace that's supposed to be open to the public."
Yuna: "Reshiram, not helping!" >.<

Shimmer glanced at Nikki, then Chiaki, and then Cid. "Actually, no. Forget it. If you were skipping out for some pointless Crowne Cup thing, then I don't want to hear about it."

"Wow, someone's cranky," Reshiram observed. "Maybe he needs a nice bottle of warm milk?"

Huh. I wonder if Reshiram's (alleged) teachings is where Noctum got his thing for warm milk from? Or is that just a happy coinkydink between the two?

Yuna was too busy parsing through Shimmer's rant to pay Reshiram any mind. "I'm sorry… did you say Vegna? Like, our professor?"

"Yes!" Shimmer stomped a forehoof down. "He's the inquisitor in this trial." He turned up his snout. "Which you would've known if you'd shown up for the start like you were supposed to."

What was Yuna supposed to say to that?

"Well, I'd advocate honesty, but I'm confident that route will you get you jabbed with the business end of that guy's horn," Reshiram responded.

Yuna: "Reshiram, if you don't have anything practical to recommend, you can just not say anything, you know!" >_>;

"And this is the heir to the kingdom we art currently in?" Rayquaza sighed. "Perhaps chivalry died during my long slumber."

Well, yeah. Among other things.

Kain hovered toward the group, clearing this throat. He landed behind Shimmer. "I managed to convince the judge to bring the omnibus up from the vault to be reinspected… along with Benedict's ledger that he uses for personal business."

Yuna had no idea what that meant. "Um, sorry, but is there a quick way to bring me up to speed?"

"Please." Shimmer snorted and swished his mane over his shoulder. "You missed the train as it left the station. Don't think you can get on now."

Nikki stepped toward Shimmer. Looming over him, she cracked her knuckles, "Says who?"

"Says me." Shimmer met her gaze with his own.

Yuna: "Need I remind you that you blew off study sessions at night to go watch The Weakest Link? I don't think you're in any position to be turning down help here!" >_>;
Shimmer: "You see, that'd mean a lot more if it wasn't coming from someone who just flatly missed everything from the trial thus far." >:|

"Oh, of course. My bad." Nikki's words dripped with sarcasm. "I forgot you're calling the shots here and not, y'know, the guy whose literal job it is to do this." She pointed to Kain. "So, keep your trap shut or I'll stuff it with that frilly mane of yours. Capiche?"

Yuna's jaw slackened. Why was Nikki going to bat so hard for her? Especially when she didn't have the toxtricity's back against Baptiste.

"My guess? It's more about getting under Shimmer's skin than helping you out," Reshiram said.

I mean, that does sound very Nikki there. :V

Her gills drooped. Did it ever occur to you I might not have wanted an answer to that?

Silence followed, though she had a strong mental image of Reshiram wilting like a dying tree. Yuna shook her head and floated over to Kain. "How long until you need to go back in?"

Ouch. Poor Cecil there, though I suppose having a big mouth tends to get you into moments like these.

Kain turned to the grandfather clock in the corner of the room. "Twenty-seven minutes."

"Think you can catch me up in that time?"

Kain nodded. "I believe so."

Yuna rubbed her arms together. "Then let's do it."

Narrator: "She's not gonna do it."

She might not have been there for the start, but she kept the place safe enough for the trial to proceed. And now, Yuna could see it through to the finish line.

… if only the preceding battle hadn't left her so exhausted.

Oh hey, it actually agrees with me. :V

Noctum was so, so sick of pulling himself off cold, metal floors after blacking out.

… no, that wasn't quite right. He hadn't blacked out this time. Noctum vividly remembered tumbling through a black and purple abyss. Crystalline diamonds and cubes sailed past him.

And the eyes. Dear God, the eyes! Noctum thought he was seeing things, but they were there. Eyes of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Boring holes into him.

But as quick as the abyss swallowed him up, it spat him out. Though he was dizzy, the charizard slowly gained a sense of his surroundings… and had to throw a black-scaled arm over his face.

Bright… too bright!

Noctum: "Blergh... I could really use an airsick bag right about now. Or whatever the equivalent is for this. A portalsick bag?"

"This is getting to be re-god-damn-diculous!"

Well, I guess Valkyrie survived the trip. Noctum pivoted to his right, but didn't take his arm away from his eyes. "You okay?"

"Yeah, sure, aside from wanting to hurl you into that neon sign across from us," Valkyrie responded.

Noctum: "H-Hurl me into a sign?! B-But how is this my-?!" O_O;

Noctum decided not to make eye contact. Instead, he turned around and slowly lifted his arm. There was, indeed, a giant neon sign bolted onto a bigger building. It was easily taller than the servant's quarters and bathed the black metal rooftop they stood on in a mix of white and pink light. The sign depicted a glass bottle shaped like a dragonite skull sitting on a gray table. A comfey floated on either side of it.

Eau d'Eternatus, by Shannel.
Live your best eternity. Be your best smelf.

Waaaait a minute, I just realized, but where is Fenrir in all of this? Since he got sucked into the same portal as everyone else I just realized that his name literally doesn't show up in a text search for this chapter. Also:

>dat groaner of an ad
You really are shameless about your puns, you know that? >:V

"Why would a city of dead people need to advertise perfume?"

I mean, corpses don't exactly smell good, just saying.

Valkyrie snorted from across the rooftop. "You ever smell a corpse, pony-boy? Even a garbodor's stench is more appealing."

... I actually completely forgot that you teased this, but... yeah.
:charhaha:


Seifer squinted. "Why would you know that?"

I mean her boss is only a transparent Giovanni homage, so... yeah, I would be wholly unsurprised if Val's seen a corpse or two. Including a few of her own making.

- Beat moment -
Valkyrie: "You do realize that there's literally thousands of years' worth of literature documenting what happens after a Pokémon dies, right?"
Seifer: "Yes, but that doesn't explain why you're able to make this comparison!"
Valkyrie: "... It's not all that uncommon to come across a dead feral? I mean, biologically they're also Pokémon, so..."

"I think we have more pressing things to worry about." Noctum scratched the back of his head. "Like, y'know, figuring out where we are."

"Pretty sure we're still in Eterna City." Valkyrie tilted her head up. "Same eerie black and purple sky. Same sinister crystals latched onto the buildings like joltik on a moss patch." She stomped across the roof, stepping over metal pipes. "Not sure what's up with the flying omnibuses, though."

Seifer raised a brow. "Flying… omnibuses?"



Shouldn't their point of comparison logically be something other than omnibuses given that the last chapter just established that the average omnibus in Etherium is non-motorized? Or are those flying buses being towed by fliers?

Valkyrie waved him off. She stepped back from the rooftop's edge. "Feh, it's not important. What is important is finding a way back down. Anyone see a fire escape or something?"

But at that moment, darkness fell over the rooftop. Noctum glanced toward the advertisement to find it had turned off, replaced by a purple outline of World Ender's sigil. Orchestral music blared up around him. "Yipe!" His tail flame sparked. Noctum barely stopped himself from jumping.

Seifer: "... Wait, why would that be a problem when you can fly again?"
Valkyrie: "Because this is a no-fly zone?" >_>;
Seifer: "... Right, that was a thing. I'd kinda forgotten it in between all the insanity we'd been through."

"Hello again, lovely Qliphoth denizens."

Noctum couldn't help but shuffle back nervously when Deoxys' head fully entered the picture. The three orange spikes on his head had an otherworldly glow about them.

"I know it's been some time since my last broadcast, and I do apologize for that." Paradox shook his head. "Unfortunately, business has kept me away from you, the wonderful civilians of Eterna City and beyond."

Four tentacles unfurled as Paradox leaned further forward. "So, to make up for it, I thought I would provide you all with a sport of entertainment. Isn't that grand?" His right two tentacles twisted around themselves, stitching together until there was an orange and blue arm. Noctum's gut squirmed.

Noctum: "I-I really don't like where this is going." ._.
Valkyrie: "Look, Noctum, if you're going to lose your lunch, please do it away from our hiding spot."

No, wait, was it really his gut… or the crystal stuck inside it? He glanced down at saw the crystal pulsating with purple light. The charizard gulped.

Noctum: "Uh-oh." ._.

Paradox clenched his newly formed fist. "This entertainment will, of course, remind you all of the pathetic planet that has kept our dear Eternatus imprisoned." He sat back in his chair and pushed it to the side of the video feed. "I want you all to watch. Watch and be amazed…"

The camera slowly zoomed in toward a glowing screen behind Paradox's desk. The picture came into focus, revealing a room with high ceilings and white podiums stationed parallel to one another. A large omnibus sat in the middle of the room.

Though it confused Noctum, he put the pieces together the moment he saw a small dreepy floating toward one of the podiums, behind a flygon and ponyta.

Noctum: "Wait, what in the-? How are they getting PV reception here?" .-.

Noctum tapped his claws together. "But… how would he know about Yuna and Shimmer?"

"It's not just them. I see that grovyle and toxtricity walking into the gallery." Seifer pointed his broken horn toward the screen.

"What?" Valkyrie crouched into a fighting stance. She narrowed her eyes. "Son of a— it is him!"

"Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you… the so-called justice system of the terrestrials!"

Minor punctuation error there since Noctum is asking himself a question. Also:

200w.webp


When Kain said the omnibus would be brought in for inspection, Yuna figured it couldn't fit into the courtroom proper. And yet there it was. Completely blocking the trio's ability to see the inquisitor's bench. Not that it mattered. Yuna didn't want to see Vegna glaring at her from across from the courtroom.

Shimmer: "You realize that if he wants you to see his expression so much, that he can just phase through the omnibus, right?"
Yuna: "... Isn't that something that'd get him found in contempt of court?"
Shimmer: "You see, I thought that with the way he kept bullying the Scyther juror, but that Judge seems to let him get away with everything short of murder!" >_>;
Nikki: "... I wouldn't be so sure about that 'short of'. This is the Grim Reaper himself we're talking about here."

She took her place next to Shimmer, who hadn't wiped the irritated look off his face since Nikki had told him off earlier. "For both our sakes, keep your mouth shut," he hissed.

"Wow, I think I'm starting to see why the jury might not have been enamored with the defense," Reshiram deadpanned.

That obvious, huh? :V

"… delivered to the defense, as requested," Vegna growled. Talonflame disappeared behind the omnibus. "And it would seem these aren't the only new items to enter the court."

A rumbling chuckle echoed from Vegna's side of the room. "Nice of you to join us, exchange student. I hope your little excursion was worth it." Yuna swallowed hard.

There was no way Vegna could've known what she did… could he?

Yuna: "How did he-?!" O_O;;
Vegna: "You're aware that I could hear the Clown Prince snapping at you, right?"
Yuna: "... I guess it's true that nothing gets past this guy."

"Well, he is a ghost-type. Perhaps he followed you under the cover of night?" Reshiram theorized.

"How devious! It is most uncouth to spy on a lady in such a manner," Rayquaza growled. "Let me take a crack at him, Princess. I'll show that rapscallion what's what!"

Oh yeah, that'd definitely be a way to make the nightly news. And out the whole Qliphoth situation to the whole world, but still.
:loltias:


A gavel knock brought Yuna back to attention. "Counsellor, please inspect the interior of the omnibus," Mellath instructed. "His Grace can peruse the accused's ledger."

Kain nodded. "Understood." He gestured for Yuna to follow as he hovered toward the omnibus. The pink stains along the staircase were much more apparent in the bright courtroom than the dark evidence vault. As were the bloodstains on the carpet when Kain swung the door open.

"There are the light fixtures." Kain flew inside, being careful to avoid stepping on the ground and disturbing the tape outline.

Yuna had trouble seeing past his fast-moving wings. "Well, what do you see?"

"There's… no wax in these containers, Your Magistry!" Kain announced.

A thump came from the other side of the omnibus. "What?" Vegna growled.

Vegna: "I call hax." >·|
Kain: "I mean, I can see them missing as clear as day here, so..."
Shimmer: "Hah! Open and shut case! It was too dark for anyone to see inside!" >:)
Nikki: "... I think you're jumping the gun a bit there, horseface."

"What is the meaning of this?"

Shadows pooled by the back of the carriage and Vegna's cloaked head popped up. Yuna squeaked and drifted close to the carriage door. "Y-You could've announced you were going to do that."

Oh hey, I called it. :V

"Please excuse my lack of manners," Vegna said, eyeing the same container as Kain. "Impossible. There were candles in these containers. I'm sure of it."
Kain:

Shimmer: "That... feels more than a little unprofessional."
Kain: "Sorry, just had to get that one off my chest."

"Perhaps thine deduction was accurate, Sir Reshiram." Rayquaza's hearty laugh echoed in Yuna's head. While Vegna scrutinized the glass containers further, however, Yuna found herself scanning the rest of the carriage. With how dark the vault was, she couldn't appreciate the carriage's glass ceiling. But under the bright glow of the chandelier lights, Yuna could clear see red splotches along the edge of the glass.

Yuna rubbed her eyes. Maybe it was a trick? No, the splotches were still there. Paint, perhaps?

"I'm afraid… that it's exactly what you think it is," Reshiram squeaked. At that, Yuna couldn't stop herself from pointing up and blurting out, "Blood!"

"Huh?" Kain looked where Yuna pointed. "Ah, a bloodstain! How did we miss that?"

Chiaki: "Yeesh. Guy must've been bleeding buckets for it to wind up on the ceiling."
Nikki: "Wonder what's so special about it being on the edge of it though."

Yuna swore she saw a glint in his eye. Electricity? She looked at her Soul Dew, like she was expecting Reshiram to jump in. She got nothing, however.

"Quick, Yuna, check the roof again." Kain pointed up. "Maybe we missed something else in the vault."

The dreepy nodded. She floated up and effortlessly passed through the roof. Sure enough, there were a few small red speckles on the back wooden bench. "I think this is blood, too."

Ooookay, those two witnesses from earlier are making the sus-o-meter go off the charts right now.

Vegna took his head out of the omnibus and silently floated back to his desk. Talonflame ruffled his feathers. Yuna was going to ask Kain about these new findings when a loud, protracted sigh came from the corner of the room.

"So, that was your game." Benedict looked at the witness stand. "I get it now."

Shimmer looked up from the ledger with a raised eyebrow.

"Is there something you wish to tell the court, accused?" Mellath asked.

"Of course." Benedict hopped off his stool. Bisharp tightened his grip on Benedict's chains, but the slurpuff merely lumbered toward the witness stand. "I believe I'm being set up. How else would you explain any of this?"

... Can't tell if this is earnest or if we're getting baited and switched since I saw that ending line to Ch. 23 and I'm not wholly convinced that Benedict getting acquitted would be a good end.

Shimmer: "... Uncle, with all due respect, but that was obvious as of last chapter." >_>;

"That you're the killer!" Batroc pointed his umbrella tip at Benedict. "Stay away from me!"

Benedict shook his head. "Hardly. After all, my story has always been that I fell asleep within the carriage, only to be awoken by a loud thump." The slurpuff hopped once to imitate getting startled. "Then, overwhelmed by the sight of the victim, I screamed and fled the omnibus."

"But if that's really the case, why didn't you contact the authorities?" Gothorita asked, looking over the stack of papers she'd produced from her constant typing.

"Because I was acting on instinct. Utterly terrified!" Benedict shuddered. "After all, someone on that omnibus was out for blood. I figured the attacker would jump through the ceiling and go after me next!"

:sceptical:


I mean, on one level, this is a very AA turn. On another, I just can't get it out of my mind that Benedict told Kain to check the light fixtures. He knew that there wouldn't be wax in them

"P… poppycock!" Batroc struggled to find his words. "Enough baseless accusations! I'm nothing but a bystander!"

"I disagree!" Shimmer telekinetically waved Benedict's ledger around. "I have evidence that says otherwise, witness."

Kain zipped out of the omnibus. Yuna glanced across the room to find Vegna with his back turned to the whole affair. Why had he suddenly gone silent?

"It's true!" Kain gasped. "Your Magistry, Mr. Passimian Batroc is listed on page seventeen of the ledger. He took out a twenty-five hundred radians loan from the accused… then a subsequent one thousand radians loan a month later. Both of them are overdue!"

Waaaaaait a minute, but isn't that motive to murder Benedict given that if he's gone, the loan would be wiped? And how would Batroc just happen to know who else took out a loan in order to set him up?

"Nngh!" Batroc looked away from Benedict, digging his fingers into the witness stand. "I… I was this close to paying them off! So I had a string of busts at the races. What of it? A 'mon of my standing is allowed to enjoy some betting now and again."

Yuna frowned. He needed thousands of radians… to bet on sporting events?

"That's something this kingdom allows?" Reshiram added. "Seems a bit… shady, if you ask me."

I take it that once upon a time, there was no legalized gambling in Etherium?

"Is that so?" Benedict tilted his head. "Or, perhaps, did you convince this little guy to assist you?" He smiled warmly at the passimian, but something about his grin unnerved Yuna. "Because if our good Crown Prince will turn to page nineteen in that ledger, he'll find a five hundred radians loan for little Togedemaru. A loan due to mature in two weeks."

Horace went stiff as a board in Batroc's hands. "No, please! You can't call in my debts. My boss at the shop has been sick. We haven't had as many customers. I'm not as good at attracting clients as he is! I… I've gotta feed my baby sister, sir!"

:uhhh:


Okay, I am getting real strong 2-4 vibes right now.
[*][1:43 AM]

"What's that supposed to mean?" Herdier called.

"That ledger is a personal ledger." Benedict sighed. "As in… loans I approved on my own time, without using the First Bank of Isola's proper channels. If I go away for any reason, all the unpaid debts will be wiped clean."

A chorus of murmurs emerged from the gallery. Yuna wasn't sure what to make of it. Monetary loans weren't a thing back in Aeon, only material ones. The idea of people needing to borrow money — and that some people were doing so without any oversight or regulation — didn't sit well with her.

"But if it's legal here, there's nothing to really do about it," Reshiram whispered. "Moreover, he does have a point. This is a rather… violent method to try and erase a debt. But desperation can drive people to do crazy things."

How on earth is loan sharking not a prosecutable crime in Radiance? .-.

"My client raises a good point." Kain crossed his arms and nodded. "Not only that, but if we're scrutinizing the accused over his ledger, then the murder weapon must be scrutinized as well!" The flygon pointed to the screen in the center of the juror's bench. "In his opening statement, Inquisitor Vegna used the 'B' embroidered on the murder weapon's handle to connect it to my client. But it could just as easily stand for 'Batroc' or 'Bernard!'"

He pointed an accusatory talon at Batroc. "I contend these two witnesses conspired to frame my client… and are the real culprits in this case! Mr. Batroc stabbed the victim, then shoved him through the open window! Then he got Mr. Horace to lie on his behalf!"

"No!" Batroc dropped Horace to the table and swatted his patchwork hat off his head. "Th… this is a farce! Everything I've said is the truth! He's the one lying, damn it! Why would I even carry a knife? I'm a fighting-type!" The passimian raised his fists and boxed the air. "If I had to take someone out, I'd use some good old fisticuffs!"

"That would be counterintuitive!" Kain picked up the folder containing Mortimer's autopsy. "Any decent coroner can tell when someone receives blows from a fighting-type move, so doing so would've made it much easier to nail you as the culprit!"

Yuna: "... Wait a minute, Kain. Do we have fingerprinting in this setting? Since wouldn't we be able to tell who the 'B' is referring to based off of whose prints we find on the weapon?"
Shimmer: "Assuming they weren't wiped off. I mean, I wouldn't rule out a scheming rotter like that having thought of that."
:shimmersweatdrop:

Yuna: "I... guess, but something about this just feels... off."

"B-But— but but but!" Horace shivered. "Why would we hurt Magmar? He was in debt… just like us!"

The more the argument went on, the more uneasy it made Yuna. Especially with Vegna's continued silence. Had he actually made a mistake… and was now leaving his witnesses out to dry?

"Didn't Kain tell us Benedict suggested he try to get the omnibus examined in court?" Reshiram asked. "Yeah, we weren't here for the start of things, but I feel like somehow Benedict might've known what was going to happen if the omnibus got brought here."

Because he knew he was innocent? Reshiram's humming sounded doubtful.

"I don't like his tone. It isn't the relief I'd expect from someone in his situation. It's more like… conceit."

Yeah, I'm calling it now from Cecil coming down on "Camp Sus" with regard to Benedict. This case is going the 2-4 route.

"… how uncivil of me to disrespect the inquisitor's bench in such a manner. I beg the court's forgiveness," he monotonously exclaimed. "I was curious to see exactly what twists and turns this farce would take. But enough is enough. I will not allow this trial to morph into some hideous feral tugged to and fro by chains of falsified evidence."

Yuna gulped and squeezed the Soul Dew. Reshiram isn't the only one, then…

"Falsified evidence?" Mellath's eyes widened. "Elaborate posthaste!"

"While the witnesses squabbled with the accused, I perused Stoutland Yard's crime scene report." Vegna held up a manilla envelope. "There are no mentions of blood splatter on the glass ceiling or rooftop benches." He smacked the envelope on his broken desk. "At some point between its transport to the vault and now, someone tampered with this omnibus! The inquisition is certain of this!

Team Defense:
:uhhh:


"Objection!" Shimmer's eyes darted back and forth between Benedict and Kain. "Y… you missed your opportunity to bring up that report. How can we know it's authentic?"

"The Clown Prince will be silent while the adults are talking," Vegna growled. Shimmer's ears folded. Yuna saw uncertainty all over his face. It started when Benedict began talking and hadn't gone away.

"What if he realizes it, too?"

Reshiram's question rang in Yuna's mind like the cathedral bells back home.

... Alright, now I'm curious if Kain is also being blackmailed into playing ball like in 2-4 or if he's being kept in the dark.

Benedict's chains rubbed together as he mockingly applauded in Vegna's direction. "As expected, Mr. Reaper, you intend to go down fighting until the very end. But it matters not." He smiled as he looked straight at Kain and Shimmer. "Tell him why, my good barrister."

Kain stared blankly, then hastily cleared his throat. "Well, uh, unless Inquisitor Vegna can prove when the bloodstains appeared, then it's impossible to say for certain whether the victim was stabbed in the carriage or on the roof and shoved down."

"Wonderful! Outstanding!" Benedict showered Kain in applause and foot-stomping. "Do remember that since the incident, I've been in a holding cell awaiting trial." He turned to Vegna. "You say I tampered with the evidence? When would I have had the chance to do that, Mr. Reaper?"

The slurpuff's expression darkened. "Because the only way that wild theory of yours works is if a member of Stoutland Yard tampered with the omnibus at my direction."

He descended into more laughter as he slapped his palm against the witness stand. "Are you, an inquisitor for the Ministry of Justice, about to float there and accuse the very organization you partner with to maintain law and order of corruption? Do you think that's a wise move for your career?"

Benedict leaned over, flashing a grin. "How many inspectors will choose to work with you after learning of this, hmm? You'll be chased out of the courtroom for the second time! Wah ha ha ha! Ho ho ho! Hee hee hee!"

Ah yes, the Damon Gant routine. Totally the mark of someone innocent.

Nikki: "... Hey princess, not to rain on your parade, but your client stinks."
Chiaki: "Yeah, I'm pretty sure he just openly taunted Inquisitor Vegna there."
Yuna: "Uh... Shimmer, this wouldn't happen to be some sort of peculiar legal tradition in your land, would it?" ._.; Shimmer:
:uhhh:

Yuna: "... Yeah, didn't think so either."

"I… agree with Prof— err, Sir Vegna, Your Magistry!" she declared, shakily holding up her arm.

At once, she felt the entire courtroom's attention fall on her. Yuna saw Kain's bewildered expression, as well as Shimmer's furious one. The confident grin on Benedict's face melted away and a snarl twisted itself onto his puffy features.

"Come again?" Mellath leaned over and squinted.

Yuna trembled. Part of her wanted to walk that statement back, but a warmth pushed those sentiments away. Reshiram, perhaps?

Swallowing hard, she responded, "Mr. Kain, Prince Shimmer, and I inspected the omnibus together in the evidence vault yesterday. I didn't see any bloodstains on the roof." She curled her arms up. "I… believe Sir Vegna's theory. I think someone tampered with this!"

"She's lying!"

Shimmer's shrill voice made Yuna flinch. His horn flickered like a dying candle. "I w-want her outburst stricken from the record. She wasn't even here for the start of the trial!"

Whelp, guess that answers that question. Benedict really is worth that much to Shimmer given that he's just blatantly ignoring the trial going full 2-4 and being in denial about his Uncle.

"Silence, Shimmer." Benedict held up a hand. "Know your place. This is an adult matter."

The ponyta's jaw slackened. Benedict turned his scornful expression on Yuna. All that warmth the dreepy had vanished in an instant.

"You have a lot of nerve, wyrm." Benedict's voice was even chillier than before. "We welcome you into this kingdom as a guest. Give you access to the pinnacle of education. And in return… you would spit on our generosity by accusing a fellow noble of evidence tampering? Ungrateful *****! I ought to have you removed and deported to that ashtray you call a home!" He puffed his cheeks out. Yuna swore his face turned red.

Mellath banged his gavel several times. "Accused! Mind your words, or you'll be held in contempt!"

Nikki: "Aaaaand there goes the last lingering thread of his sympathy to the audience."
Chiaki: "I dunno, I don't think the jurors would be too fazed about trash-talking a dragon-"
Nikki: "The audience of readers, Twiggy." >_>;

"Whether there was tampering or not — and what parties may have been involved — the blame rests with you." Mellath's brow furrowed. "It has and always will be the responsibility of the case's inquisitor to oversee and verify Stoutland Yard's investigation. Clearly, there has been a grave oversight error. Even if you were only handed this case recently, that is no excuse for allowing this to transpire."

Vegna slowly nodded. "I understand, milord."

"When the trial concludes, I want you in my chambers immediately," Mellath continued. "And you can bet High Inquisitor Justine will launch an inquiry when she hears of this."

Vegna extended his right arm and bowed. "I look forward to it, milord."

"Now then." Mellath turned to Kain. "Before I issue my ruling, do you have any final remarks, Counsellor?"

Kain jumped in surprise. "I, uh—" He tapped his claws together. Yuna silently begged him to say something— anything to back her up.

I mean, even if Kain doesn't have a loved one being held hostage by an assassin right now, Yuna does realize that she's hoping that he incinerates his fledgling career here, right?

"Your Magistry?" Kain lifted the right side of his blue vest. "I understand that, as a public defender, I must accept the assignments given to me by the Ministry of Justice and serve my client to the best of their wishes. And I want to sincerely trust that Benedict is innocent in the matter."

The flygon slowly pulled his vest off. "However, I also believe what Princess Yuna is saying. I do not wish to be associated with a client who might be involved in evidence tampering." Kain folded his vest over his right arm. "If the Ministry opts for a retrial, I must request a new defender be assigned to Mr. Benedict."

"Wah ha ha ha!" Benedict mockingly applauded. "So, in the end, the other cold-blooded sap gets cold feet and turns tail." He feigned wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. "And here I was, ready to reward your handsomely for your work. Oh well. My savings will sleep soundly tonight."

Okay, that confirms that at least Kain didn't have to make the same choice Phoenix Wright did when faced with clients like this.

Yuna: "I'm sorry, but did nobody just hear him say that? How is that not an admission of guilt there?"
Benedict:
243.png
Yuna: "... Right." -_-;

Mellath banged his gavel once more. "Enough!" He tucked his head. "While I admire your candor, Counsellor, the point is moot. As loathe as I am to take this decision away from the jury, the circumstances are such that the accused will receive a bench verdict."

"Unbelievable!" Scyther slammed his arms on the jury bench. "That moneybags pulled the wool over ours eyes. What'd I tell ya? Never trust a moneybags! They're all conspiring to kick us while we're down!"

More gavel strikes sounded. "Order!" Mellath cleared his throat. "Due to inquisitorial negligence, I have no choice but to dismiss the charges against the accused… with prejudice. Mr. Benedict, you are free to go."

Yuna blinked, unsure of what exactly that meant. Had that been in a part of the textbook she hadn't read? "Kain?" She looked to the flygon. "What's he saying?"

Kain looked down, wings folding against his back. "Legally speaking, it's as if he was never charged with the crime to begin with."

:uhhh:


Suddenly I'm a lot less bothered by Vegna's defendants having a tendency to turn up dead.

Before any conversations could emerge from the gallery, shadows flared up from the inquisitor's bench.

"Slurpuff Benedict."

Vegna's voice sent a chill down Yuna's back. She saw his red eye glowing under his hood.

"In my time away from the court, I have heard whispers from my colleagues," the dusknoir growled. "Of individuals influencing the outcomes of trials to suit their needs. Bribed jurors, falsified testimonies, and evidence tampering… the list goes on."

Smirking, Benedict quirked a brow. "Is that another accusation? How delightful!" He rubbed his hands together. "Keep them coming, Mr. Reaper, and perhaps I'll take you to civil court for defamation. I'm sure attorneys would be tripping over themselves to represent me there."

Yuna didn't think it was possible, but Vegna's expression grew even darker.

"Do not, for one second, think this is over."

Nikki: "Whelp, that guy's a goner. Hope you aren't too attached to him, horseface."
Shimmer: "Th-That's nonsense! Just an urban legend!" O_O;;

"Oh-ho, yes. That stupid 'curse' of yours." Benedict's grin only grew as the bisharp guard undid his cuffs.

"Take care, Mr. Reaper. I so look forward to our next session together! Wah ha ha ha ha!"

As Shimmer ran over to the slurpuff, Yuna flopped onto the omnibus bench, at a complete loss for words.

What had she just witnessed?

A perversion of justice, oh and an upper-class twit revealing he has one hell of a death wish.

And made it to the end @Ambyssin . Kudos. I kinda suspected things might head in a direction like this after the very end of Chapter 23, but you still faked me out for a moment and it was still surprising to see it play out. Guess we'll get a crash course in seeing how well status lets you cheat the reaper in Etherium, since I don't believe for a minute that Vegna is just gonna let that go.

Great work as always ^^
 

Ambyssin

Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 25: I Want Off This Crazy Train

I don't want to stay here anymore. Please let me come home.

Love,
Yuna


Yiazmat set the paper down atop a small stack. All letters with similarly negative things to say about her daughter's experience at Horizon Academy. The dragapult sank into a stone chair. "You're sure these are the genuine ones?"

She looked across the stone table, where a nidoking stood bracing his right hand against its edge.

"I'm confident," he replied. "The ones you received are forgeries. Expertly crafted."

Yiazmat bit her lower lip. Of course, she had some suspicions about the letters she received. This was Yuna's first time away from home. The lack of homesickness struck Yiazmat as off, but she took it as a sign of Yuna's burgeoning dragon spirit.

Digging her claws into the chair's arms, she growled, "Why?"

Nidoking brushed dust off his black blazer. "I can't speak to motive."

Yiazmat's wispy tail twitched in irritation. "Don't get me wrong. I'm grateful you brought this to my attention. But I'm unsure what to do with this information. If this is Isola's doing, we can't tip her off that we know what she's doing."

"My intel suggests the order isn't coming from her," Nidoking said. "It seems more like your daughter's being set up to fail."

Flames smoldered in Yiazmat's horns. "Elaborate."

"The class Yunavresca is in participates in a competition called the Crowne Cup." Nidoking paced across the tiny, stone bunker. He stared at one of its empty, gray walls. "One of my subordinates believes her team was changed at the eleventh hour. She was partnered with my son, for starters."

Yiazmat leaned back, partly phasing into her chair. "Chiaki, correct? His name came up in one of the forgeries." She scowled. "I'm still surprised you neglected to mention he attends Horizon."

Nidoking's shoulders slouched. "He's… still not talking to me."

"Young adults are rather rebellious," Yiazmat mused. She stroked a horn with her claws. "I still remember the look on my parents' faces when I rebuked the marriage they arranged and eloped with Calcifer." A mischievous grin spread across her mouth. "That goodra would've been a spineless king, literally and figuratively. I think the present results speak for themselves."

"I wish it was that simple." Nidoking sighed. "But Chiaki's been so distant since I remarried." He shook his head. "I had nothing to do with him attending Horizon. He pulled funds from Ami's life insurance and enrolled himself."

"I see." Yiazmat bowed her head. "I imagine it's quite stressful for you."

"In a manner of speaking. Bahamut must be testing my resolve." Nidoking turned away from Yiazmat. "I apologize for the tangent."

"It's fine." Yiazmat flicked her right arm. "Ultimately, I'm glad you brought this all to my attention. At this point, however, it's best I sit on this information." Normally, she wasn't one for the cautious approach. But this involved her eldest daughter. Yiazmat wasn't about to take chances.

"Fair enough." Nidoking nodded. He glanced back at Yiazmat, a glint in his eye. "But if you do decide to act, know that one of my best assassins is stationed at the school. If you want someone snuffed out, we'll make it look like an accident."

Yiazmat's tail lazily drifted back and forth. "Let us pray it doesn't come to that."

"Understood." Nidoking stepped back from the wall. "I should be returning to Radiance. There's a big criminal trial that should be ending soon. The Beacon needs to cover the outcome."

Nidoking turned back around and straightened out his blazer. The golden R sewn over his breast pocket glimmered under the bunker's candlelight. He bobbed his head. "Give my best to Calcifer."

"I will. Travel safe."

Yiazmat pressed down on her chair's right arm. There was a click, then the back wall fell away to reveal a damp, moss-covered underground passage. Nidoking ducked into it and vanished into the shadows.

XxX​

Yuna was beyond ready for the day to end. Any enthusiasm she had over securing the Needle and helping Aquardah melted away with the end of the trial. Benedict's chilling laugh echoed through her head even as the gallery erupted into a flurry of conversations and reporters scrambling to get to the exits.

The sight of Shimmer prancing happily around his uncle made Yuna's ectoplasm boil. He knew something was off and deliberately ignored it!

"It is quite troubling." Rayquaza hummed in thought. "But thou should hold thine head high. Thou stuck up for thine beliefs."

"I wonder if he really is happy with this outcome, though,"
Reshiram muttered.

"What dost thou mean?"

"Well, after that display from his so-called uncle, maybe Shimmer feels… intimidated,"
Reshiram elaborated. "He might just be playing along because he's afraid Benedict will say something to his mother."

Yuna strongly doubted it. Shimmer was the Crown Prince. He should've had more sway with Queen Isola than some slurpuff banker.

Whatever. The dreepy picked herself up off the omnibus bench. All she wanted was to fall asleep in Noctum's warm, black-scaled arms. He had promised to wait in the defense lobby for her before she left for the Crowne Court.

Yuna headed for the exit. There were gallery pokémon staring at her. Yuna hastily looked down, fearing they agreed with Benedict. To her surprise, however, there was a smattering of applause. It was quiet, sure, and it stopped the moment Yuna looked up. But it was there.

It didn't do anything to lift her spirits, however. Yuna headed through the oak door into the defense lobby. Kain was leaning out a rectangular window between two of the rapidash busts. A grimmsnarl guard rubbed his back. Yuna flinched upon hearing retching noises. She wasn't the only one unsettled, clearly.

"Princess! Are you alright?"

Yuna turned around. Instead of Noctum's nervous smile, she found Baraz's bulky frame waddling toward her. His slender upper half flopped up and down as he went.

"I'm okay," she replied. "Um, where's Noctum? I thought he was meeting me here."

Baraz's ensuing frown made Yuna's gills pulsate. Something had happened. It was written all over his face.

"I'm… not sure." The dracozolt rubbed the back of his feathery head. "I went to bed early yesterday. He wasn't in our room when I woke up."

Yuna curled her arms up. The dark spots in her arms spread a bit. Great. What else can go wrong today?

"Dost thou not fancy this, erm, strange creature?"
Rayquaza asked.

Huh? No, I like him. Baraz helped rear me, after all, Yuna hastily responded. It's just… Noctum's my best friend. And I could really use his comfort right now.

"Your classmates told me what happened." Baraz closed the remaining distance and put his tiny hands on Yuna's shoulders. The Soul Dew's glow reflected on his midsection. "I'm sorry you had to see that. But I'm proud of you for sticking up for yourself. And I'm sure your parents would say the same thing if they were here."

The compliment rang hollow for Yuna. Still, she politely nodded her thanks.

"Tough break there, Princess."

Yuna glanced left and saw Nikki leaning against the wall. Against one of the tapestries. Probably intentional, if Yuna had to guess.

"That was a load of trubbish." Nikki looked ready to hock a loogy onto the floor when Chiaki put his hook on her shoulder and shook his head. She rolled her eyes.

"It's over. Nothing anyone can do." The grovyle crossed his arms. "Maybe the public will protest the results, but I doubt it. I bet the news will focus more on Yuna and Kain trying to get Benedict found guilty at the last second."

Yuna stiffened. That hadn't occurred to her. "Th… they'd really do that?"

Chiaki nodded.

"But that's not even accurate!"

Chiaki shrugged. "If it gets the news networks more views and ad money, they won't care."

"Take it with a grain of salt," Reshiram cautioned. "His dad owns an unpopular newspaper, right?"

… yeah.


"I agree with Twiggy." Nikki strummed one of her chest gills. "It's like Shredder always said: 'Radiance has two justice systems. One for the wealthy and one for everyone else.'" She threw her arms up behind her head. "If we didn't have class to return to, I'd suggest hitting a pub because you need a freaking drink." Nikki nudged her head in Yuna's direction.

"I, uh—" Yuna drifted closer to Baraz. "Maybe some hot tea?"

Nikki could barely hold back her laughter.

Baraz nudged Yuna's forehead. "In this context, I think she means something hard."

Yuna cringed. "Yeah, I'll pass."

Kain finally rejoined the group, looking considerably paler.

"How'd your breakfast taste the second time?" Nikki said, smirking.

"Let's not focus on that." Kain rubbed his stomach and belched into his right hand. "Ooogh."

"How are we even going to get out of here without getting dogged by press?" Cid wondered, hovering by a second, open wooden door that led to a spiral staircase.

"A back exit, of course." Chiaki pushed off the wall and strolled toward Cid, hands in his jean jacket pockets. "Buildings like these need fire escapes. And I saw one on the main floor." He paused by the orbeetle. "If you float in front of Kain and Yuna, your bulbous head might let them sneak around without the press catching them."

Nikki dismissively flicked her right hand. "… feh. I bet they'll be too busy fawning over Pillow Princess."

Yuna blinked. "Is… is that what you're calling Shimmer?"

"Duh." Nikki smirked. "Though I gotta give the Reaper credit, 'Clown Prince' is a hell of an appropriate nickname for him."

Sighing, Yuna shook her head. "Let's just head for the back exit."

XxX​

Chiaki's gambit paid off. With permission from the gossifleur guarding the fire escape, the group proceeded out the steel door and onto a grass field stretching down the hill the Crowne Court sat atop. There wasn't a soul around.

"Great!" Baraz's tail thumped against the grass. "If we hustle, we can make the next train to Horizon Gardens." He pointed right, then took a position on Yuna's right. Cid floated in front of him, while Nikki and Chiaki took positions behind the dracozolt. With the monmade wall in place, they proceeded toward the front of the building.

They made it about fifty meters before shouts drew their attention.

"Back away from the Crown Prince!" "No solicitations allowed!" "Stand down or you're under arrest!"

Nikki whistled. "Huh. Maybe there are protestors."

But when a rasping wheeze echoed from around the corner, Yuna hastily dismissed that idea. "We've gotta go… now!"

Everyone but Kain got the message and quickened their pace. The flygon took to the air. "Wait, I don't get it. What's the problem?"

"Do you not see how the ether seeks to divide us?"

Sure enough, the front of the building came into view. Shimmer and Benedict stood on the stone steps, flanked by guards. Reporters and gallery members stood in clusters on the circular roadway, giving a clear view of Xeromus pacing at the bottom of the stairs.

"The haves carve their own paths. Bask in their manufactured happiness." Xeromus pointed to Shimmer and Benedict. "But what of everyone else?" He turned back to the crowd. "The ether leaves them to scrap and squabble over what little the haves leave for them. They dangle false hope over your heads like a carrot on a stick… and snatch it away when you get too close for their liking!"

"What an uncouth individual. He speaks in riddles," Rayquaza observed.

"And we shouldn't stick around for it," Yuna whispered, before realizing she said that aloud. The rest of the group had stopped to observe the scene, however. "Guys?"

Baraz fidgeted with his tiny claws. "Shimmer is the Crown Prince. Is it really safe to ignore this?"

"He's got plenty of people around him." Nikki hiked her leather jacket up and turned around. "I'm with Princess. Let's scram."

"Even a worthless nobody like me can see the sinful tactics you employ." Xeromus pointed accusingly at Benedict. "You control the ether… so you control justice as well." He thrashed his head back and forth. "Life is not about control. It is about freedom and love!"

The longer Yuna stared at Xeromus, the clearer she was able to notice a specter drifting around him. It was a dark lavender, with a head that looked vaguely like some sort of broad-chinned dog. She looked at the others. "Hey, do you guys see—"

"What? The freak acting like a freak?" Nikki shrugged. "It's pretty obvious."

"Is he a beggar?" Kain shuffled back nervously. "I know some of them are a bit unhinged, but accosting the Crown Prince like that is beyond foolish."

"Natus' love rises above this perverse justice." Xeromus addressed the crowd once more. "Equality. Eternity. That is what real love looks like. Love that sees past the ether!"

"What are you ingrates doing?" Shimmer looked at the guards surrounding him as she shuffled back toward the Crown Court's entrance. "Get him! He's trespassing o-or something."

"Relax, Shimmer." Benedict put a hand on the ponyta's shoulder. "We can handle a drunken beggar." The slurpuff took a step forward. "Your delusional fantasies mean nothing, mutt. I got to where I am in life through hard work and perseverance. People like you are content to wallow in their helplessness.

"That's all there is to it." Benedict put his hands on his hips and smirked.

Xeromus coughed loud enough to make Yuna think he'd somehow hack up a lung. "I don't expect… my words to sway anyone. I'm but a lowly omen." He looked up. "But if anyone wishes to see what real love looks like… meet me in Hebrides' main plaza in three days' time."

The guards sprang into action, but Xeromus was faster. Shadows swallowed up his body and evaporated into the air. Seconds later, frosty air and lightning bolts showered the area where he was standing.

Yuna sighed in relief. He left without escalating things. Thank God.

Groaning, Nikki stretched out her back. "Well, I think that's enough entertainment for one day. Let's get a move on before those saps come to their sens—"

"Look out!"

A lady's shriek drew the group's attention back to the front entrance, where a large chunk of stone from the building's overhanging arch dislodged. Shimmer reared up on his hind legs in shock and shot a pink beam toward the rubble, shouting, "Move, Uncle!"

Several guards launched lightning bolts while an arcanine dove for Benedict. It was all in vain, however. The large white stone crushed a screaming Benedict.

"Uncle Benedict!"

Shimmer's horn sparked as he failed to move the rubble with his telekinesis. Arcanine slammed into it. The bisharp guard assigned to Benedict during the trial let loose a flurry of punches from his metal hands.

While screams and shouts racked the crowd, a familiar screech drew Yuna's attention above the wreckage. It was there she found Talonflame circling over the broken arch, squawking loudly as he flapped his wings.

No. It… it can't be.

There was a whistle. Talonflame flew toward a balcony on the building's right brick tower. Mellath leaned against the balcony's railing and stared at the scene below him. And a familiar dusknoir floated beside him. Vegna stretched out his right arm to offer Talonflame a landing spot.

For a brief second, he caught Yuna's gaze. Blue sparks danced underneath his black hood. Then, with a flutter of his cape, he turned and floated back through the balcony's open door.

Yuna looked to Nikki, trembling. "Did you see—"

The toxtricity crossed her arms. "Looks like the Grim Reaper struck again. Can't say the bastard didn't deserve it, though."

With her vision flickering, Yuna darted to Baraz and buried her head where the dracozolt's upper and lower halves met.

"I have to go home. T… take me home!"

XxX​

Noctum fell back on his rear. His jaw hung open. It couldn't be real. This was all staged!

"Aha ha ha ha! Wow, what a performance!"

The feed showing two blissey loading a tarp-covered stretcher into a white, metal box cut out and returned to showing Paradox seated at his desk.

"I don't know about you, Eternians, but I was on the edge of my seat the entire time." Paradox leaned forward. His tentacles twisted into hands for him to rest his head against. "Still, it's so tragic, isn't it? While our benefactor remains trapped, the people inhabiting His prison are themselves imprisoned. Segregated into lots from birth."

Noctum's scales crawled. Paradox sounded eerily like the mutt that showed up at the end. The same one that had apparently cold-cocked him back in Herbrides. His hands balled into fists at the memory.

"They're not free. Real freedom is the love that Eternatus offers us." Paradox's arms unraveled. He stood up from his chair. "His love conquers injustice. His freedom is littered with an eternity's worth of choices."

His right tentacles twisted into an arm once again. Paradox snapped his fingers. The purple fragments of a rift appeared on the left side of the screen. "Ah, and right on cue, it appears our guest of honor has arrived."

The rift opened, revealing two of the mechanical Eternatus Troopers carrying none other than the very same slurpuff that Noctum had just seen crushed to death on the video feed.

"Unhand me, you vermin! Do you have any idea who I— oomph!"

The Troopers dropped Benedict at the foot of Paradox's desk. He took one look at the deoxys and screamed. Though Benedict tried to bolt, a pink outline surrounded him. Paradox levitated the struggling slurpuff into the air.

"Do not worry, friend. Eternatus loves you in spite of your sinful perversions of justice," he declared. "And you can return His love… through eternal servitude!"

Paradox pried Benedict's mouth open with two of his tentacles and plunged the other two down his throat. "Grrk!" Benedict's eyes widened in terror. Purple energy coursed through the tentacles and swallowed the slurpuff's body up.

"What the hell?!" Valkyrie stumbled back and, like Noctum, ended up on her rear. The two watched as Benedict's body dissolved away in black and purple smoke, leaving an unown-B floating there with panic stricken across its eye.

"My friends, we grow ever closer to freeing Eternatus from His prison." Paradox grabbed the unown and dangled it in front of the camera while tears bubbled in its eye. "If you would like to join us in the closing weeks of our campaign, please visit your local Paradigm Recruitment Office to pick up an application.

"Praise Eternatus!"
Paradox proclaimed. "Nos vera Natus!"

The video feed cut out, returning the perfume advertisement. Seifer's sprinted away from Noctum and threw up. Not-Zapdos dropped off his back. His orange wings twitched.

"Nngh… what…" His eyelids opened. The beady yellow eyes darted around before settling on Seifer. "Commander!"

Noctum scooted back. "Ah, he's awake!" He looked at Valkyrie. "Should we do something?"

The garchomp held up an arm. "He seems lucid. And, uh, I guess Seifer was right about this being one of his guardsmon."

Seifer coughed a few times before wearily turning around. "Quetzal? It's— you're Quetzal, right?"

"Yessir." Quetzal tried to get up, but looked in dismay at his long legs and stubby, orange wings. "Why?" he whispered. "Why do I still look like this?"

Valkyrie quirked a brow. "You mean you're not normally an orange bird?"

Quetzal shook his head. "I'm a zapdos! I'm meant to take to the skies." He flopped his tiny wings about. "I can't do anything in this state."

"What happened to you?" Seifer hobbled toward Quetzal.

Before the orange zapdos could respond, however, bright searchlights shined on everyone in the group. Noctum threw an arm up but couldn't make anything out in all the light. The mechanized voices that followed, however, gave him a pretty good idea of what they were dealing with.

"Halt, miscreants! You cannot loiter on a rooftop without an approved rooftop loitering permit!"

"Present your permit or surrender yourselves for age-appropriate punishment. It is Archbishop-approved fun for the whole family!"

It had to be two Eternatus Troopers. Squinting, Noctum made out the silhouettes of their rounded glass domes and saucer-like bodies. They each hovered in the air with three mechanical legs trailing off their bodies.

Valkyrie got to her feet. "I've got your permit right here."

Noctum's tail flame sparked. "Hey, wait, maybe we should—"

She opened her mouth wide and sent a blue bolt at the Trooper on the right. It easily flew out of the way. The searchlights disappeared revealing that, unlike the previous Troopers Noctum had seen, these ones had spring-loaded arms that ended in what appeared to be small, purple dragon skulls.

"Did you see that?" the Trooper that dodged Valkyrie's attack asked its colleague.

"I did! The garchomp responded with violence." The other Trooper raised its arms. Blue energy swirled in its skull-like hands. "Lethal force is now authorized. How delightful!"

Seifer whirled on Valkyrie. "You idi— aah!"

Ice chunks peppered the keldeo's rump. He hopped forward, face scrunched up in pain.

Quetzal squinted. "Wait, was that Freeze-Dry? What the heck are those things?"

"Eternatus Gunners," one of the guards cheerfully responded. "Ones with authorization to smack some sense into your behinds." Its hands glowed blue and, within seconds, the air was filled with Freeze-Dry chunks.

Noctum took to the skies to dodge, but a yellow rock smacked him in the face, interrupting his ascent. A second rock struck the Malice Crystal in his gut, sending him tumbling back, limbs flailing. It hurt so much! Was he hit with a Rock Blast?

"Fly, you idiot!"

A blaring horn followed Valkyrie's cry. Noctum opened his eyes in time to see glaring headlights. He spread his wings. A single powerful flap propelled him back from a flying vehicle resembling a carriage without a roof. Its machoke passenger slowed down and shook his fist at Noctum.

"This ain't a skydiving spot, asshole!" he shouted, then flipped Noctum the bird as he flew off.

"Oh-ho! The lizard is flying without an authorized flying license!"

Noctum looked up to see one of the Gunners training its skull-hands on him. Yellow rocks were forming in the blaster barrels. "Another citation to add to your list. Now, eat your minerals. They're good for you!"

The charizard instead looked right and noticed a small glowing arrow attached to a building's fire escape. With a strained grunt, he ripped the metal sign off. Noctum swung it around right as the yellow rocks were going to make contact. He knocked the Rock Blast back at the Gunner.

"Guh… gah!"

Its glass dome cracked from the blows. "How dare you! Attacking a loyal Trooper and engaging in property damage? Forget force. I'll assimilate you on the spot, liz—"

A giant glowing spoon struck the Gunner's glass dome, shattering it. Its mechanical body exploded in a purple blaze. The unown-J inside the saucer careened through the air until it disappeared in a burst of red light.

Noctum was in such disbelief, he almost dropped out of the sky before remembering to keep flapping his wings. Valkyrie poked her head over the edge of the roof.

"You gonna hover there gawking? We don't have all day, dweeb."

Another horn followed, but this one sounded distinctly more… musical. Noctum flew up to the roof and found the scrapped remnants of the other Gunner's body plastered against the side of a taller building to his left. More striking was the large hovering vehicle in the middle. It was built like a large charjabug.

"Now, now. No need to thank me, Charizard. All in a day's work."

Noctum glanced at the charjabug— no, the charjabus' roof. His eyes widened.

It's that weird, black-purple cat guy from Cyril's presentation! But was he called again?

"Mewtwo if you want to be technical." He crossed one leg over another, a toothy grin on his face. "But you can call me Gene. Freedom fighter. Bot basher." The mewtwo pivoted to show the Malice Crystal wedged into his right shoulder. "And evidently not the only guy in the Qliphoth with a crystal stuck in him anymore."

A white-furred paw stuck out the driver's side window and smacked the side of the charjabus. "Talk shop later. You really think these guys are going to thank you when your recklessness put 'em on the roof to begin with?"

Valkyrie stepped to Noctum's side in time to see Fenrir stick his head out of the window. At least, Noctum figured it was Fenrir because of the pink bandana peppered with white hearts. Something was clearly wrong, however.

Fenrir brushed matted, white hair out of his white-furred face. "All that time putting on makeup and fixing up my hair for you to spoil it in a matter of minutes!" Black pupils narrowed at Gene from against yellow sclera.

"The hell happened to you?" Valkyrie asked.

Sirens wailed. Multicolored lights flashed in the distance.

"Later, later! Get in the bus." Fenrir growled. The white hair fell over his face again. God, it looked so fluffy. Noctum wanted to hug it.

"Yeah!" Gene lay on the roof, stretching out his legs. "It's time for us to make like bananas and split!"

Noctum glanced at Valkyrie, who shrugged and ran to the charjabus' other side. The charizard followed her. They took seats on blue, metal chairs opposite one another. Seifer and Quetzal were several seats behind them, looking equally bewildered.

"Kssht! Attention, customers. This is your captain speaking," Gene proclaimed, appearing in the middle of the charjabus' interior in streams of distorted red and purple energy. "Please fasten your seatbelts and hang onto your lunch. Stolen Charjabus, Inc. is not responsible for any bloody snouts, broken bones, deaths, or dismemberments sustained during our flight."

Seifer's horn stub sparked. "Wait, what?! Let me go! I want off this crazy train!"

The sirens grew even louder and the emergency lights brighter. "Halt! You are in violation of the law! Surrender peacefully or face assimilation! We promise it will be fun and not seconds of excruciating agony! We have cookies!"

Gene's crystal surrounded his body in a purple aura. He pointed an index finger forward. A rift opened ahead of the charjabus. "Punch it, Chewie!"

The charjabus sped forward. Noctum dug his claws into the seat to keep from tumbling back into Quetzal. Seifer screamed in fright as the psychedelic colors of a Qliphoth rift enveloped the charjabus.

XxX​

CDL-205: Eterna City, Planet Axiom
The crown jewel of Planet Axiom, centerpiece and capital of the Eterna Empire. Oh, yeah, don't buy into any of that 'Qliphoth Network' crap. Paradox fancies himself as more than the face of Eternatism. Anyway, like other Axiom locales, this one was ripped straight from its origin planet. Same place Boss Kitty was made, actually: Earth. The archbishop knew from the name alone he wanted it as part of the capital. I hear the humans turned the crater the Troopers left behind into a tourist spot. Typical.

Over the centuries, Eterna City's been built up from its modest, foliage-obsessed beginnings to a sprawling metropolis bathed in neon. Paradox's main office is located in Paradox Tower, which was made from the remnants of a… Galactic Building, whatever the hell that is.

Other highlights include three separate baccer arenas, two pokébase stadiums, headquarters for several corporations including Flapple, Inc., and at least three dozen nightclubs. Not that there's much difference between day and night here. The sky will always be purple and black.
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Alright, put it off for long enough, but finally got my most recent Path of Valor review together:

Chapter 25

I don't want to stay here anymore. Please let me come home.

Love,
Yuna


Yiazmat set the paper down atop a small stack. All letters with similarly negative things to say about her daughter's experience at Horizon Academy. The dragapult sank into a stone chair. "You're sure these are the genuine ones?"

She looked across the stone table, where a nidoking stood bracing his right hand against its edge.

"I'm confident," he replied. "The ones you received are forgeries. Expertly crafted."

Oh hey, it's Sakaki time. Though this is certainly going to bode well for Yiazmat's willingness to sign that treaty with Radiance.

Yiazmat bit her lower lip. Of course, she had some suspicions about the letters she received. This was Yuna's first time away from home. The lack of homesickness struck Yiazmat as off, but she took it as a sign of Yuna's burgeoning dragon spirit.

I see Vortex's cheerfully infectious front came back to bite him with his little mail project. After all, the most potent lies are the ones that worm in parts of the truth and corrupt them instead of creating wholesale fabrications.

Digging her claws into the chair's arms, she growled, "Why?"

Nidoking brushed dust off his black blazer. "I can't speak to motive."

Really playing up the Gio parallels there. Considering the Rainbow Rocket subplot from USUM, it would not exactly surprise me if this Nidoking was just flatly some incarnation of Sakaki/Giovanni that somehow blundered here.

Yiazmat's wispy tail twitched in irritation. "Don't get me wrong. I'm grateful you brought this to my attention. But I'm unsure what to do with this information. If this is Isola's doing, we can't tip her off that we know what she's doing."

"My intel suggests the order isn't coming from her," Nidoking said. "It seems more like your daughter's being set up to fail."

Flames smoldered in Yiazmat's horns. "Elaborate."

Yiazmat: "Why would that happen when there's a diplomatic treaty on the line?" >_>;
Sakaki: "Someone doesn't want it to succeed, obviously."

"The class Yunavresca is in participates in a competition called the Crowne Cup." Nidoking paced across the tiny, stone bunker. He stared at one of its empty, gray walls. "One of my subordinates believes her team was changed at the eleventh hour. She was partnered with my son, for starters."

Yiazmat leaned back, partly phasing into her chair. "Chiaki, correct? His name came up in one of the forgeries." She scowled. "I'm still surprised you neglected to mention he attends Horizon."

Nidoking's shoulders slouched. "He's… still not talking to me."

Nice to see hard confirmation that this is Sakaki we're dealing with here.

"Young adults are rather rebellious," Yiazmat mused. She stroked a horn with her claws. "I still remember the look on my parents' faces when I rebuked the marriage they arranged and eloped with Calcifer." A mischievous grin spread across her mouth. "That goodra would've been a spineless king, literally and figuratively. I think the present results speak for themselves."

Oh? So the Aeon Kingdom is matrilineal in that case? Or were there special circumstances that let Yiazmat get away with this? Also, the bit underlined IMO sounds funnier with the order reversed to be "figuratively and literally"

"I wish it was that simple." Nidoking sighed. "But Chiaki's been so distant since I remarried." He shook his head. "I had nothing to do with him attending Horizon. He pulled funds from Ami's life insurance and enrolled himself."

"I see." Yiazmat bowed her head. "I imagine it's quite stressful for you."

"In a manner of speaking. Bahamut must be testing my resolve." Nidoking turned away from Yiazmat. "I apologize for the tangent."

Wait, who now? Since I don't recall there ever being mention of an 'Ami' in the past. Part of me is a bit biased and feels that you should've given some more hints as to who that was in the leadup to this chapter since it sounds like she was Sakaki's significant other, but eh. Stylistic choices, I guess.

Though I didn't realize that there were non-dragons who still heeded the call of Bahamut, let alone ones in Radiance. That'll certainly be something to keep an eye on.

"It's fine." Yiazmat flicked her right arm. "Ultimately, I'm glad you brought this all to my attention. At this point, however, it's best I sit on this information." Normally, she wasn't one for the cautious approach. But this involved her eldest daughter. Yiazmat wasn't about to take chances.

"Fair enough." Nidoking nodded. He glanced back at Yiazmat, a glint in his eye. "But if you do decide to act, know that one of my best assassins is stationed at the school. If you want someone snuffed out, we'll make it look like an accident."

Yiazmat's tail lazily drifted back and forth. "Let us pray it doesn't come to that."

:uhhh:


So that's how Valkyrie knew what a corpse smelled like. Also, Yiazmat, you're scaring me right now.

"Understood." Nidoking stepped back from the wall. "I should be returning to Radiance. There's a big criminal trial that should be ending soon. The Beacon needs to cover the outcome."

Nidoking turned back around and straightened out his blazer. The golden R sewn over his breast pocket glimmered under the bunker's candlelight. He bobbed his head. "Give my best to Calcifer."

I'm calling it now, some way, some how, this guy is just straight-up Giovanni. I refuse to believe that there just happens to be a "Nidoking Sakaki" floating around out there who is aping this many mannerisms of the guy and somehow someone different.

Yuna was beyond ready for the day to end. Any enthusiasm she had over securing the Needle and helping Aquardah melted away with the end of the trial. Benedict's chilling laugh echoed through her head even as the gallery erupted into a flurry of conversations and reporters scrambling to get to the exits.

The sight of Shimmer prancing happily around his uncle made Yuna's ectoplasm boil. He knew something was off and deliberately ignored it!

Shimmer: "Innocent! Innocent! innocent!"
:shimmerhappy:

Yuna: "For crying out loud, Shimmer! The charges were dismissed because of a technicality! He was obviously guilty as sin!" >.<
Shimmer: "What's that? I can't hear you over my Uncle's innocence." :^)

"It is quite troubling." Rayquaza hummed in thought. "But thou should hold thine head high. Thou stuck up for thine beliefs."

"I wonder if he really is happy with this outcome, though," Reshiram muttered.

"What dost thou mean?"

"Well, after that display from his so-called uncle, maybe Shimmer feels… intimidated," Reshiram elaborated. "He might just be playing along because he's afraid Benedict will say something to his mother."

Yuna: "Are you two even looking at the same Shimmer that I am right now?" >_>;

Yuna strongly doubted it. Shimmer was the Crown Prince. He should've had more sway with Queen Isola than some slurpuff banker.

Whatever. The dreepy picked herself up off the omnibus bench. All she wanted was to fall asleep in Noctum's warm, black-scaled arms. He had promised to wait in the defense lobby for her before she left for the Crowne Court.

Yuna headed for the exit. There were gallery pokémon staring at her. Yuna hastily looked down, fearing they agreed with Benedict. To her surprise, however, there was a smattering of applause. It was quiet, sure, and it stopped the moment Yuna looked up. But it was there.

It didn't do anything to lift her spirits, however. Yuna headed through the oak door into the defense lobby. Kain was leaning out a rectangular window between two of the rapidash busts. A grimmsnarl guard rubbed his back. Yuna flinched upon hearing retching noises. She wasn't the only one unsettled, clearly.

Yuna:
:TailsEww:


"Princess! Are you alright?"

Yuna turned around. Instead of Noctum's nervous smile, she found Baraz's bulky frame waddling toward her. His slender upper half flopped up and down as he went.

"I'm okay," she replied. "Um, where's Noctum? I thought he was meeting me here."

Yuna: "... Also, where have you been, Baraz? You haven't properly showed up in this story since..."
- Yuna peeks back - Yuna: "Chapter 18?! Has it really been that long?" O_O;
Baraz: "Apologies, I've been a bit busy lately, Princess. Noctum's been a bit hard to find lately and it's been keeping me occupied."

"I'm okay," she replied. "Um, where's Noctum? I thought he was meeting me here."

Baraz's ensuing frown made Yuna's gills pulsate. Something had happened. It was written all over his face.

"I'm… not sure." The dracozolt rubbed the back of his feathery head. "I went to bed early yesterday. He wasn't in our room when I woke up."

Oh hey, I called it. :V

Yuna curled her arms up. The dark spots in her arms spread a bit. Great. What else can go wrong today?

Now that's tempting fate if I ever heard it.

"Dost thou not fancy this, erm, strange creature?" Rayquaza asked.

Huh? No, I like him. Baraz helped rear me, after all, Yuna hastily responded. It's just… Noctum's my best friend. And I could really use his comfort right now.

Waaaaait a minute. Have Galar fossils only been kicking around Etherium for some period of time after when Cecil and Gallian kicked the bucket?

"Your classmates told me what happened." Baraz closed the remaining distance and put his tiny hands on Yuna's shoulders. The Soul Dew's glow reflected on his midsection. "I'm sorry you had to see that. But I'm proud of you for sticking up for yourself. And I'm sure your parents would say the same thing if they were here."

The compliment rang hollow for Yuna. Still, she politely nodded her thanks.

"Tough break there, Princess."

Yuna glanced left and saw Nikki leaning against the wall. Against one of the tapestries. Probably intentional, if Yuna had to guess.

Yuna: "Nikki, would it really have killed you to let me have my moment of reassurance there?" >.<
Nikki: "I'm sorry. Did you want me to just pretend there was a happy ending after all to everything? I mean, I know the truth hurts sometimes, but sheesh." >_>;

"That was a load of trubbish." Nikki looked ready to hock a loogy onto the floor when Chiaki put his hook on her shoulder and shook his head. She rolled her eyes.

"It's over. Nothing anyone can do." The grovyle crossed his arms. "Maybe the public will protest the results, but I doubt it. I bet the news will focus more on Yuna and Kain trying to get Benedict found guilty at the last second."

Yuna stiffened. That hadn't occurred to her. "Th… they'd really do that?"

Chiaki nodded.

"But that's not even accurate!"

That's just life poking powerful figures in the eye. Though the bleaker take would be to have everyone just know what really happened, the local news and powers that be pretend it didn't, and nothing happens afterwards. Whole buncha stories of that ilk over the last 5 years that played out in real life.

Chiaki shrugged. "If it gets the news networks more views and ad money, they won't care."

"Take it with a grain of salt," Reshiram cautioned. "His dad owns an unpopular newspaper, right?"

… yeah.

"I agree with Twiggy." Nikki strummed one of her chest gills. "It's like Shredder always said: 'Radiance has two justice systems. One for the wealthy and one for everyone else.'" She threw her arms up behind her head. "If we didn't have class to return to, I'd suggest hitting a pub because you need a freaking drink." Nikki nudged her head in Yuna's direction.

To be fair, I wouldn't want to put money on Benedict having been able to pull that off without ties to the royal family. That feels more like a justice system for the connected and one for everyone else. But that's just me nitpicking.

"I, uh—" Yuna drifted closer to Baraz. "Maybe some hot tea?"

Nikki could barely hold back her laughter.

Baraz nudged Yuna's forehead. "In this context, I think she means something hard."

Yuna cringed. "Yeah, I'll pass."

Nikki: "Wait, have you seriously never had alcohol before? Aren't you supposed to be a hoity-toity type who'd chug champagne, or-?"
Yuna: "Nikki, we're in high school!" >_>;
Chiaki: "To be fair, we are in a British-themed setting. There's nothing legally stopping you from going out and getting sloshed if you're a suitably old senior, and for two years before that, you can get some drinks with a meal as long as you've got an adult watching over you[hovertext='True story, for the record.'].[/hovertext][/I]"
Yuna: "Look, I don't want alcohol, alright? So can we talk about something else for a drink?" >.<

Kain finally rejoined the group, looking considerably paler.

"How'd your breakfast taste the second time?" Nikki said, smirking.

"Let's not focus on that." Kain rubbed his stomach and belched into his right hand. "Ooogh."

Can't tell if that's stress affecting Kain or something significantly more sinister given that Benedict can apparently act with impunity and he's kinda a loose end.

"A back exit, of course." Chiaki pushed off the wall and strolled toward Cid, hands in his jean jacket pockets. "Buildings like these need fire escapes. And I saw one on the main floor." He paused by the orbeetle. "If you float in front of Kain and Yuna, your bulbous head might let them sneak around without the press catching them."

Nikki dismissively flicked her right hand. "… feh. I bet they'll be too busy fawning over Pillow Princess."

Yuna blinked. "Is… is that what you're calling Shimmer?"

"Duh." Nikki smirked. "Though I gotta give the Reaper credit, 'Clown Prince' is a hell of an appropriate nickname for him."

Sighing, Yuna shook her head. "Let's just head for the back exit."

>Pillow Princess
Lol, harsh. And alliterative, too.

Chiaki's gambit paid off. With permission from the gossifleur guarding the fire escape, the group proceeded out the steel door and onto a grass field stretching down the hill the Crowne Court sat atop. There wasn't a soul around.

"Great!" Baraz's tail thumped against the grass. "If we hustle, we can make the next train to Horizon Gardens." He pointed right, then took a position on Yuna's right. Cid floated in front of him, while Nikki and Chiaki took positions behind the dracozolt. With the monmade wall in place, they proceeded toward the front of the building.

They made it about fifty meters before shouts drew their attention.

"Back away from the Crown Prince!" "No solicitations allowed!" "Stand down or you're under arrest!"

Nikki whistled. "Huh. Maybe there are protestors."

Chiaki: "Mrph, I'm not getting my hopes up."

But when a rasping wheeze echoed from around the corner, Yuna hastily dismissed that idea. "We've gotta go… now!"

Everyone but Kain got the message and quickened their pace. The flygon took to the air. "Wait, I don't get it. What's the problem?"

"Do you not see how the ether seeks to divide us?"

Sure enough, the front of the building came into view. Shimmer and Benedict stood on the stone steps, flanked by guards. Reporters and gallery members stood in clusters on the circular roadway, giving a clear view of Xeromus pacing at the bottom of the stairs.

All:
:uhhh:

Xeromus: "Hrmph. So we meet again."

"The haves carve their own paths. Bask in their manufactured happiness." Xeromus pointed to Shimmer and Benedict. "But what of everyone else?" He turned back to the crowd. "The ether leaves them to scrap and squabble over what little the haves leave for them. They dangle false hope over your heads like a carrot on a stick… and snatch it away when you get too close for their liking!"

"What an uncouth individual. He speaks in riddles," Rayquaza observed.

"And we shouldn't stick around for it," Yuna whispered, before realizing she said that aloud. The rest of the group had stopped to observe the scene, however. "Guys?"

Baraz fidgeted with his tiny claws. "Shimmer is the Crown Prince. Is it really safe to ignore this?"

"He's got plenty of people around him." Nikki hiked her leather jacket up and turned around. "I'm with Princess. Let's scram."

Yuna: "Nikki, you do realize that that guy yeeted us into the Qliphoth once before, right?" >_>;
Nikki: "So? Him doing the same to Pillow Princess sounds like a net win in my book."

"Even a worthless nobody like me can see the sinful tactics you employ." Xeromus pointed accusingly at Benedict. "You control the ether… so you control justice as well." He thrashed his head back and forth. "Life is not about control. It is about freedom and love!"

The longer Yuna stared at Xeromus, the clearer she was able to notice a specter drifting around him. It was a dark lavender, with a head that looked vaguely like some sort of broad-chinned dog. She looked at the others. "Hey, do you guys see—"

"What? The freak acting like a freak?" Nikki shrugged. "It's pretty obvious."

Can't tell what that's supposed to be, but guess we'll find out pretty quick.

"Is he a beggar?" Kain shuffled back nervously. "I know some of them are a bit unhinged, but accosting the Crown Prince like that is beyond foolish."

"Natus' love rises above this perverse justice." Xeromus addressed the crowd once more. "Equality. Eternity. That is what real love looks like. Love that sees past the ether!"

"What are you ingrates doing?" Shimmer looked at the guards surrounding him as she shuffled back toward the Crown Court's entrance. "Get him! He's trespassing o-or something."

"Relax, Shimmer." Benedict put a hand on the ponyta's shoulder. "We can handle a drunken beggar." The slurpuff took a step forward. "Your delusional fantasies mean nothing, mutt. I got to where I am in life through hard work and perseverance. People like you are content to wallow in their helplessness.

6f6.gif


"That's all there is to it." Benedict put his hands on his hips and smirked.

Xeromus coughed loud enough to make Yuna think he'd somehow hack up a lung. "I don't expect… my words to sway anyone. I'm but a lowly omen." He looked up. "But if anyone wishes to see what real love looks like… meet me in Hebrides' main plaza in three days' time."

The guards sprang into action, but Xeromus was faster. Shadows swallowed up his body and evaporated into the air. Seconds later, frosty air and lightning bolts showered the area where he was standing.

Yuna sighed in relief. He left without escalating things. Thank God.

Aw. I was rooting for him to yeet those two to the Qliphoth. Though that bit about Hebrides' main plaza sounds really ominous there.

Groaning, Nikki stretched out her back. "Well, I think that's enough entertainment for one day. Let's get a move on before those saps come to their sens—"

"Look out!"

A lady's shriek drew the group's attention back to the front entrance, where a large chunk of stone from the building's overhanging arch dislodged. Shimmer reared up on his hind legs in shock and shot a pink beam toward the rubble, shouting, "Move, Uncle!"

Several guards launched lightning bolts while an arcanine dove for Benedict. It was all in vain, however. The large white stone crushed a screaming Benedict.

"Uncle Benedict!"
Nikki:

Yuna: "Nikki!" >.<
Nikki: "What? We were all thinking it!"

Shimmer's horn sparked as he failed to move the rubble with his telekinesis. Arcanine slammed into it. The bisharp guard assigned to Benedict during the trial let loose a flurry of punches from his metal hands.

While screams and shouts racked the crowd, a familiar screech drew Yuna's attention above the wreckage. It was there she found Talonflame circling over the broken arch, squawking loudly as he flapped his wings.

No. It… it can't be.

There was a whistle. Talonflame flew toward a balcony on the building's right brick tower. Mellath leaned against the balcony's railing and stared at the scene below him. And a familiar dusknoir floated beside him. Vegna stretched out his right arm to offer Talonflame a landing spot.

Well, that's certainly a rather direct way of being the Grim Reaper. I certainly wasn't expecting Mellath to also be in on it, though.

For a brief second, he caught Yuna's gaze. Blue sparks danced underneath his black hood. Then, with a flutter of his cape, he turned and floated back through the balcony's open door.

Yuna looked to Nikki, trembling. "Did you see—"

The toxtricity crossed her arms. "Looks like the Grim Reaper struck again. Can't say the bastard didn't deserve it, though."

With her vision flickering, Yuna darted to Baraz and buried her head where the dracozolt's upper and lower halves met.

"I have to go home. T… take me home!"

Nikki: "... Yeesh, wasn't expecting you to get that torn up over a blighter like him."
Chiaki: "Nikki, I think that's a sign some broader issues are coming to a head with her." >_>;

Noctum fell back on his rear. His jaw hung open. It couldn't be real. This was all staged!

"Aha ha ha ha! Wow, what a performance!"

The feed showing two blissey loading a tarp-covered stretcher into a white, metal box cut out and returned to showing Paradox seated at his desk.

"I don't know about you, Eternians, but I was on the edge of my seat the entire time." Paradox leaned forward. His tentacles twisted into hands for him to rest his head against. "Still, it's so tragic, isn't it? While our benefactor remains trapped, the people inhabiting His prison are themselves imprisoned. Segregated into lots from birth."

Noctum: "... Why does this feel like it's about to tee up some sort of 'all are equal in death' comment?" o_o;
Valkyrie: "Because we're in a city full of undead people and its leader just talked about unequal 'lots from birth'? It's a pretty solid guess." :?

Noctum's scales crawled. Paradox sounded eerily like the mutt that showed up at the end. The same one that had apparently cold-cocked him back in Herbrides. His hands balled into fists at the memory.

"They're not free. Real freedom is the love that Eternatus offers us." Paradox's arms unraveled. He stood up from his chair. "His love conquers injustice. His freedom is littered with an eternity's worth of choices."

Valkyrie: "Choices that don't matter." >.<;
Noctum: "Yeah, this really feels like it's teeing up an 'all are equal in death' comment." O_O;

His right tentacles twisted into an arm once again. Paradox snapped his fingers. The purple fragments of a rift appeared on the left side of the screen. "Ah, and right on cue, it appears our guest of honor has arrived."

The rift opened, revealing two of the mechanical Eternatus Troopers carrying none other than the very same slurpuff that Noctum had just seen crushed to death on the video feed.

"Unhand me, you vermin! Do you have any idea who I— oomph!"

Seifer: "Well this is certainly going places."
- Noctum gapes slack-jawed -
Noctum: "H-How in the-?! But we just saw-!"

The Troopers dropped Benedict at the foot of Paradox's desk. He took one look at the deoxys and screamed. Though Benedict tried to bolt, a pink outline surrounded him. Paradox levitated the struggling slurpuff into the air.

"Do not worry, friend. Eternatus loves you in spite of your sinful perversions of justice," he declared. "And you can return His love… through eternal servitude!"

Paradox pried Benedict's mouth open with two of his tentacles and plunged the other two down his throat. "Grrk!" Benedict's eyes widened in terror. Purple energy coursed through the tentacles and swallowed the slurpuff's body up.

"What the hell?!" Valkyrie stumbled back and, like Noctum, ended up on her rear. The two watched as Benedict's body dissolved away in black and purple smoke, leaving an unown-B floating there with panic stricken across its eye.

Valkyrie: "Well that was... horrifying." o_o;
Noctum: "I mean, on the plus side, that Paradox 'mon hasn't made that comment about being equal in death yet."
:fearfullaugh:


"My friends, we grow ever closer to freeing Eternatus from His prison." Paradox grabbed the unown and dangled it in front of the camera while tears bubbled in its eye. "If you would like to join us in the closing weeks of our campaign, please visit your local Paradigm Recruitment Office to pick up an application."

"Praise Eternatus!" Paradox proclaimed. "Nos vera Natus!"

The video feed cut out, returning the perfume advertisement. Seifer's sprinted away from Noctum and threw up. Not-Zapdos dropped off his back. His orange wings twitched.

Valkyrie: "Thank goodness that's over."
:blazisweat:

Noctum: "Valkyrie, I think we should be more concerned about Not-Zapdos suddenly moving." .-.

"Nngh… what…" His eyelids opened. The beady yellow eyes darted around before settling on Seifer. "Commander!"

Noctum scooted back. "Ah, he's awake!" He looked at Valkyrie. "Should we do something?"

The garchomp held up an arm. "He seems lucid. And, uh, I guess Seifer was right about this being one of his guardsmon."

Seifer coughed a few times before wearily turning around. "Quetzal? It's— you're Quetzal, right?"

"Yessir." Quetzal tried to get up, but looked in dismay at his long legs and stubby, orange wings. "Why?" he whispered. "Why do I still look like this?"

Still am more of a Ramuh fan, but you can't admit the name's not fitting for a bird.

Noctum: "That's a good question. Though then I remembered that I have an evil crystal spearing me in my gut right now, so welcome to the party, I guess." >_>;

Valkyrie quirked a brow. "You mean you're not normally an orange bird?"

Quetzal shook his head. "I'm a zapdos! I'm meant to take to the skies." He flopped his tiny wings about. "I can't do anything in this state."

To be fair, he's still a Zapdos... of sorts.

"What happened to you?" Seifer hobbled toward Quetzal.

Before the orange zapdos could respond, however, bright searchlights shined on everyone in the group. Noctum threw an arm up but couldn't make anything out in all the light. The mechanized voices that followed, however, gave him a pretty good idea of what they were dealing with.

"Halt, miscreants! You cannot loiter on a rooftop without an approved rooftop loitering permit!"

Noctum: "Wait, they have permits for that here?" .-.
Valkyrie: "Oh for crying out loud, that's what you're worried about, Noctum?" >_>;

"Present your permit or surrender yourselves for age-appropriate punishment. It is Archbishop-approved fun for the whole family!"

It had to be two Eternatus Troopers. Squinting, Noctum made out the silhouettes of their rounded glass domes and saucer-like bodies. They each hovered in the air with three mechanical legs trailing off their bodies.

Valkyrie got to her feet. "I've got your permit right here."

Noctum's tail flame sparked. "Hey, wait, maybe we should—"

She opened her mouth wide and sent a blue bolt at the Trooper on the right. It easily flew out of the way. The searchlights disappeared revealing that, unlike the previous Troopers Noctum had seen, these ones had spring-loaded arms that ended in what appeared to be small, purple dragon skulls.

"Did you see that?" the Trooper that dodged Valkyrie's attack asked its colleague.

"I did! The garchomp responded with violence." The other Trooper raised its arms. Blue energy swirled in its skull-like hands. "Lethal force is now authorized. How delightful!"

Oh, it's this part again. Guess that's a downside of likely being a hired killer as a day job. Everything looks like a nail to get hammered to you.
:loltias:


Seifer whirled on Valkyrie. "You idi— aah!"

Ice chunks peppered the keldeo's rump. He hopped forward, face scrunched up in pain.

Quetzal squinted. "Wait, was that Freeze-Dry? What the heck are those things?"

"Eternatus Gunners," one of the guards cheerfully responded. "Ones with authorization to smack some sense into your behinds." Its hands glowed blue and, within seconds, the air was filled with Freeze-Dry chunks.

Seifer: "... Why do I get the sense that these guys take joy out of humiliating their victims?" >_>;
Valkyrie: "Hey, I'm not exactly looking forward to getting peppered by ice here either!" >.<

Noctum took to the skies to dodge, but a yellow rock smacked him in the face, interrupting his ascent. A second rock struck the Malice Crystal in his gut, sending him tumbling back, limbs flailing. It hurt so much! Was he hit with a Rock Blast?

"Fly, you idiot!"

A blaring horn followed Valkyrie's cry. Noctum opened his eyes in time to see glaring headlights. He spread his wings. A single powerful flap propelled him back from a flying vehicle resembling a carriage without a roof. Its machoke passenger slowed down and shook his fist at Noctum.

"This ain't a skydiving spot, asshole!" he shouted, then flipped Noctum the bird as he flew off.

Oh hey, they have Coruscant-spec flying cars here. A bit of a missed opportunity to not make it a yellow flying cab to do a The Fifth Element reference, since that's what I thought this was originally.
:loltias:


"Oh-ho! The lizard is flying without an authorized flying license!"

Noctum looked up to see one of the Gunners training its skull-hands on him. Yellow rocks were forming in the blaster barrels. "Another citation to add to your list. Now, eat your minerals. They're good for you!"

Noctum: "NothankyouIdontwantthem!" O.O;

The charizard instead looked right and noticed a small glowing arrow attached to a building's fire escape. With a strained grunt, he ripped the metal sign off. Noctum swung it around right as the yellow rocks were going to make contact. He knocked the Rock Blast back at the Gunner.

"Guh… gah!"

Its glass dome cracked from the blows. "How dare you! Attacking a loyal Trooper and engaging in property damage? Forget force. I'll assimilate you on the spot, liz—"

A giant glowing spoon struck the Gunner's glass dome, shattering it. Its mechanical body exploded in a purple blaze. The unown-J inside the saucer careened through the air until it disappeared in a burst of red light.

Valkyrie: "So signage beats Trooper. Good to know."

Noctum was in such disbelief, he almost dropped out of the sky before remembering to keep flapping his wings. Valkyrie poked her head over the edge of the roof.

"You gonna hover there gawking? We don't have all day, dweeb."

Another horn followed, but this one sounded distinctly more… musical. Noctum flew up to the roof and found the scrapped remnants of the other Gunner's body plastered against the side of a taller building to his left. More striking was the large hovering vehicle in the middle. It was built like a large charjabug.

"Now, now. No need to thank me, Charizard. All in a day's work."

Noctum glanced at the charjabug— no, the charjabus' roof. His eyes widened.

It's that weird, black-purple cat guy from Cyril's presentation! But was he called again?

Noctum: "Oh right, Boss Ki-!"
Gene: "Finish that sentence and I'll throw you from the bus." >:|
Noctum: "I... uh... kinda need more time to remember!" O_O;

"Mewtwo if you want to be technical." He crossed one leg over another, a toothy grin on his face. "But you can call me Gene. Freedom fighter. Bot basher." The mewtwo pivoted to show the Malice Crystal wedged into his right shoulder. "And evidently not the only guy in the Qliphoth with a crystal stuck in him anymore."

A white-furred paw stuck out the driver's side window and smacked the side of the charjabus. "Talk shop later. You really think these guys are going to thank you when your recklessness put 'em on the roof to begin with?"

Valkyrie stepped to Noctum's side in time to see Fenrir stick his head out of the window. At least, Noctum figured it was Fenrir because of the pink bandana peppered with white hearts. Something was clearly wrong, however.

Fenrir brushed matted, white hair out of his white-furred face. "All that time putting on makeup and fixing up my hair for you to spoil it in a matter of minutes!" Black pupils narrowed at Gene from against yellow sclera.

Wait, so was Fenrir a Hisuiroark all along or is this another of his illusions?

"The hell happened to you?" Valkyrie asked.

Sirens wailed. Multicolored lights flashed in the distance.

"Later, later! Get in the bus." Fenrir growled. The white hair fell over his face again. God, it looked so fluffy. Noctum wanted to hug it.

- Noctum reaches for Fenrir's fur -
Fenrir: "Can you do that sometime when we're not a wrong turn away from horrific death?" >_>;

"Yeah!" Gene lay on the roof, stretching out his legs. "It's time for us to make like bananas and split!"

Ow. That was physically painful to read.
:lulpix:


Noctum glanced at Valkyrie, who shrugged and ran to the charjabus' other side. The charizard followed her. They took seats on blue, metal chairs opposite one another. Seifer and Quetzal were several seats behind them, looking equally bewildered.

"Kssht! Attention, customers. This is your captain speaking," Gene proclaimed, appearing in the middle of the charjabus' interior in streams of distorted red and purple energy. "Please fasten your seatbelts and hang onto your lunch. Stolen Charjabus, Inc. is not responsible for any bloody snouts, broken bones, deaths, or dismemberments sustained during our flight."

Seifer's horn stub sparked. "Wait, what?! Let me go! I want off this crazy train!"

The sirens grew even louder and the emergency lights brighter. "Halt! You are in violation of the law! Surrender peacefully or face assimilation! We promise it will be fun and not seconds of excruciating agony! We have cookies!"

Gene's crystal surrounded his body in a purple aura. He pointed an index finger forward. A rift opened ahead of the charjabus. "Punch it, Chewie!"

Aaaaand there's the title drop. Though it's nice to see this part in the flesh again as well.
:loltias:


The charjabus sped forward. Noctum dug his claws into the seat to keep from tumbling back into Quetzal. Seifer screamed in fright as the psychedelic colors of a Qliphoth rift enveloped the charjabus.

And next time on Path of Valor:

Noctum: "Oi, we don't know that!" >_>;
Valkyrie: "To be fair, considering how this place is laid out, feels like as solid a bet as any."
Fenrir: "I sure hope that isn't really going to be our background music when we get out of this thing. What a racket!" >.<
Seifer: "AAAAAAAAAAAAA!"
:AAAAAA:

Fenrir: "Gah! Nevermind, the Sawano music isn't that bad in the grand scheme of things!"

CDL-205: Eterna City, Planet Axiom
The crown jewel of Planet Axiom, centerpiece and capital of the Eterna Empire. Oh, yeah, don't buy into any of that 'Qliphoth Network' crap. Paradox fancies himself as more than the face of Eternatism. Anyway, like other Axiom locales, this one was ripped straight from its origin planet. Same place Boss Kitty was made, actually: Earth. The archbishop knew from the name alone he wanted it as part of the capital. I hear the humans turned the crater the Troopers left behind into a tourist spot. Typical.

Over the centuries, Eterna City's been built up from its modest, foliage-obsessed beginnings to a sprawling metropolis bathed in neon. Paradox's main office is located in Paradox Tower, which was made from the remnants of a… Galactic Building, whatever the hell that is.

Other highlights include three separate baccer arenas, two pokébase stadiums, headquarters for several corporations including Flapple, Inc., and at least three dozen nightclubs. Not that there's much difference between day and night here. The sky will always be purple and black

Yeah, I’m feeling really good about predicting that Sakaki is exactly what the name says on the tin. Though it makes me wonder if it was just Eterna City that was affected since Etherium has a Citadark Isle

And made it to the end @Ambyssin . Kudos on the chapter, though I'm admittedly curious as to what things are going to look like when the two branches of the plot wind up colliding back into each other. Either way, I'm totally onboard for riding this crazy train until it crashes into its eventual destination.
 
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Ambyssin

Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 26: To Boldly Go in Circles

Noctum kept his eyes squeezed shut. The charjabus' rattling was enough for him. He was nauseous all over again. He didn't need another wall of eyes staring at him from the rift or Eternatus' innards or whatever he was supposed to call this.

He thought about Yuna. Noctum promised he'd be there for her after the trial. A promise fate chose to break. Baraz picked up the slack, fortunately, but he saw how shaken she was in the video. And there was nothing he could do, because some crazy psychic cat was dragging him off to God knows where.

The rumbling came to a stop. Noctum opened an eye. Rainbow light rippled in the distance out Valkyrie's window. Massive rocks— no, asteroids floated all around them. Pulsating with distorted energy. Noctum's stomach gurgled. Was the crystal reacting to the asteroids?

"Space." Gene thrust his arms apart. His tone was quiet, yet mischievous. "The final frontier. These are the voyages of the Stolen Charjabus. Its continuing mission? To hide from the long arm of the law while the rebellion plots its next m—"

"Will you shut up?" Valkyrie got to her feet and brandished her claws at Gene. "I ought to remove your head from your shoulders. Where the hell have you taken us?"

"The Bergammula Asteroid Belt," Fenrir responded, paws firmly gripping the steering wheel. "See, those asteroids emit a powerful EMP."

"EMP?" Noctum tilted his head.

"Pulsations of electromagnetic energy." Fenrir waved his right arm about. Noctum got the sense his answer was deliberately vague. "Any Eternatus Troopers that try and go here get their circuits fried." He pushed his white, red-tipped mane out of his face. "It's the perfect place for anyone who's crossed the archbishop to lay low."

Seifer's brow furrowed. "So, it's a gathering spot for lawless types?"

"Yeah, sure." Scowling, Gene flopped into the seat next to Noctum. "My spiel sounded way cooler, though."

Noctum looked the mewtwo over. This was the guy at the top of Paradox's hit list? He sounded more like someone Yuna's little brothers and sisters would fawn over. Well, aside from the Malice Crystal jammed into his shoulder. How could Gene even move his right arm like that?

"Hey, Zardy, my eyes are up here." Gene flicked the brim of Noctum's snout. He covered his nostrils and looked away.

"I want a better explanation," Valkyrie growled, still standing. "Why did you bring us here? We're trying to get home, not more lost."

"You are home," Fenrir responded. Valkyrie was about to stomp up to him, when he held up an arm. "Lemme land first. Then we can talk."

Noctum mouthed "Land?" before looking where Fenrir pointed. There were dozens of metal platforms bolted to flattened asteroids, most connected by metal bridges. Behind all the asteroids was a massive glass dome with a big, white zoroark perched atop it, holding a burger in one paw and a bottle of soda in another.

Valkyrie's shoulders sagged. "This outpost… you wouldn't happen to be its owner, would you?"

Fenrir smirked. "What gave that away?"

She slouched into her seat. "Just land the damn charjabus."

The white-furred zoroark steered the bus past several landing platforms. Noctum turned in his seat to look out a window. There were people walking across the glass bridges, but he didn't recognize some of the species.

"What's with these two-legged folks who only have fur on their heads?" The charizard saw a guy and a girl leaning against a metal signpost. Both had sunglasses and purple jumpsuits on. The metal rods beside them that looked like blastoise cannons threw Noctum off.

"You mean the humans?" Gene chuckled. "Right, right. Your planet must not have any." He pet Noctum's right shoulder. "Relax, you'll get used to them."

"Are you sure?" Noctum frowned. "It looks like they hunted a blastoise for its cannons."

"Pfbt." Gene sputtered. "No, no." He held his hands up. "Those are blasters. They probably bought 'em from Cyril. Y'know, to defend themselves?"

Noctum stared blankly.

"Well, not every human that gets schlurped up by Eternatus chooses to turn into a pokémon." Gene shrugged. "I'd say most don't. For the ones that oppose the archbishop, Cyril makes sure they have something to work with."

"I see," was all Noctum could manage. The explanation left him with more questions than answers. And here he thought his headache was finally fading.

The charjabus buckled. As it landed on a black platform, hydraulics hissed loudly. The engine's whirrs died down. Fenrir pivoted in his seat.

"Nothing motivates you to build weapons quite like losing your ability to use your own attacks." Though Fenrir's mane obscured his face, the fatigue in his voice couldn't be clearer.

Valkyrie looked as if she finally put missing pieces together. Standing up, she quickly collected herself. "Hold on. Why does this clown keep calling you Cyril?" She stepped in front of Fenrir. "You're Fenrir. That ninetales thing is, like, your cover or something. Has to be."

A bitter laugh shook the zoroark's mane. "Boy, I wish." He shuffled past Valkyrie. "But it's the opposite. I am Cyril. Fenrir is a codename I use for my rebellion work." He paused. "And the jobs I take in Scale City, I s'pose."

Scale City? Noctum had never heard of such a place. Before he could ask, though, Cyril hopped off the charjabus, Valkyrie followed. Noctum stumbled out behind her.

"What's that supposed to mean?" she growled. "And why do you look like someone bleached your fur?"

"This is what I usually look like," Cyril responded. He trudged forward, posture slouched. It was a stark contrast to the swagger he displayed as a ninetales. "When I go to Scale City, I use fur dye and hair products to pass as a normal zoroark." Cyril held up his right arm, which had an oval disc with a blinking red light on it. "And for Eterna City, I've got my Morph-O-Tron. Lets me go back to the good old days." He sighed. "Or some facsimile thereof."

Noctum was torn between watching Cyril and examining his surroundings. The aurora looked nice in the charjabus, but now Noctum saw several of them. All converging toward a white sphere surrounded by sparkling stars. It was hauntingly beautiful, though he failed to understand how or why this was all inside Eternatus.

"I don't understand," Seifer asked from the back of the group. He was helping Quetzal, who still seemed a bit out of it. "Are you a ninetales, a zoroark, or some lovechild of the two?"

"I'm—" There was a brief crimson flicker in Cyril's lone visible eye. "I'm just another casualty of Malice. Like so many others."

Cyril lazily lifted his right arm and pointed ahead. There, two seismitoad walked past. Only their bulbous, wart-covered arms were instead red, armored pincers, like Noctum would find on a crawdaunt. And behind them was a tympole with an arrokuda's backside instead of its proper tail.

"I was a happy ice ninetales, living on Planet Blizzak." Cyril trudged toward a glass bridge leading to another asteroid. "Then Eternatus showed up and absorbed it. The old archbishop — the one in charge before Paradox — wanted to funnel our snowy weather to other parts of the Qliphoth. I tried to fight against her with the other ice-types in our city."

Noctum raised a brow. Her?

Valkyrie huffed. "Lemme guess: it went poorly?"

"When I woke up, I was the only one left." Cyril's yellow eye brought a shiver to Noctum's spine. "And this was what I looked like. Couldn't use a single attack… or do those fancy illusions I'd later learn zoroark are known for." He looked at his white-furred arms. "I was stuck like this."

Gene yawned loudly. "Yeah, this pity party ain't my thing. Besides, we got a message that Gilbert's causing a ruckus inside." He floated into the air, saluting the group. "You have fun with Mr. Sunshine, here." Gene flew off toward the outpost's front entrance a couple of asteroids away. A moving walkway headed into the glass dome, which reflected the stars and auroras to hide whatever lay inside.

Silence fell over the group. Noctum shuffled toward Cyril. "I'm, um, sorry you had to deal with… all of that." It was the best he could come up with.

"Yeah, you and me both." Cyril continued forward. They reached an asteroid with several fueling stations planted into the landing pad. Large gray canisters each held three long hoses. A few were attached to circular and rectangular ships.

"At least I found a new purpose for myself." Cyril didn't sound too happy about it, however. "If I didn't have my tinkering to keep me grounded, I'd erode in an instant."

Noctum's tail flame shrank. He was conflicted between pressing further and staying quiet.

Valkyrie made the decision for him. "Erode? You're not a pot of soil."

Cyril looked at Valkyrie. There was newfound fatigue in his yellow, beady eye. "Here in the Qliphoth, you either find something to anchor your soul… or you lose yourself."

"Tch. Don't get poetic on me." The garchomp jabbed Cyril's shoulder.

"What you guys call 'Phantoms'… are the eroded souls of people who've lost themselves trying to live in the Qliphoth."

Cyril turned away and headed for another glass bridge, leaving Valkyrie to stare blankly at his messy hair as it fluttered despite the lack of wind.

"H-Hang on!" Seifer almost tripped trotting after Cyril. "Are you saying the Phantoms I've fought my entire career—"

"— were once people like you and me? Yeah." Cyril kept walking. "The archbishop and his predecessor sold this realm on the promise of infinite possibilities. You could do anything. Be anyone. Go anywhere." He shook his head. "For example… if you got tired of being a charizard, you could just… use Eterna energy to turn into a different pokémon." Cyril pointed at Noctum, smirking.

"Th… that's absurd," he sputtered.

"Not for Eternatus. A being that defies nature itself," Cyril countered. "'An eternity where the only limits are your imagination.' That's how they phrase it. Sounds sweet on the surface, right?"

The white zoroark hopped off the bridge onto the largest asteroid in the nearby field. The moving walkway was directly to the group's left. Cyril beckoned them toward it and stepped on. Noctum was hesitant, but swallowed his fear as the walkway carried the others toward a spiral-shaped metal door.

"But it's a damn lie. There are some things no amount of Eterna energy can change," Cyril continued, expression darkening. "If you were a dunce in your old life, you don't get to magically turn book smart. If you were a selfish asshole, you'll still be a selfish asshole unless you choose to wipe your memories clean.

"And some people… they can't handle the truth. That they're stuck here. That the choices they make don't really matter."

Valkyrie crossed her arms. "So, what? They go mad?"

Cyril nodded. "They go so mad, their bodies and souls wither away until there's nothing left but empty shells with varying degrees of Malice." With a wince, Cyril plucked a few of his white hairs and dropped them. They fell into the vast expanse below the moving walkway. "Thus, Phantoms are born."

A chill ran down Noctum's spine. He struggled thinking how long he'd be able to last in this place. How long had it even been since he ended up in Eterna City? What was going on back at Horizon? Was Yuna okay?

"Hang on." Valkyrie cautiously moved toward Cyril. "But I've met you plenty of times in Radiance. How can you show up there if you're part of this hellhole?"

"I stash a Malice Crystal in my mane," Cyril responded. Valkyrie wasn't convinced, but he held up a paw. "Enough. If I shove any more down your throats, I bet Charizard will keel over again."

Noctum winced at the verbal jab. However, Cyril had a point. Noctum's head was spinning. It was a lot to try and make sense of. Even Cyril's change and demeanor didn't sit well with Noctum.

The spiral door opened and the moving walkway deposited them in a lobby. Despite the glass dome hanging high above them, Noctum couldn't see back out into the asteroid belt. Instead, there were moving staircases all around the circular platform, leading to gray tunnels heading deeper into the facility.

"Middle path will take you to the Rebel Grill." Cyril jerked his head toward the opposite side of the lobby. "Gene took off there. Hopefully he got Gilbert's cronies to settle down so you guys can grab a bite."

"What, so that's it?" Valkyrie stomped her right foot down. "You just drop an information bomb like that and then ditch us?"

Cyril slouched over. "I've got work to do." He narrowed his yellow eye. "Besides, I'm not ditching all of you. I need you two." He pointed to Noctum and Seifer.

The keldeo shuffed back. "What's that supposed to mean? Haven't I suffered enough already?"

"It means… you two are going to help me clean up the mess you made."

XxX​

Nikki had her leather jacket halfway off by the time she walked into her room. With some halfhearted flicks of her right arm, she flung it onto her unmade bed. The toxtricity dropped to her knees and felt around the space under her bed until her fingers grazed hard plastic. Nikki pulled a milkcrate out. She grabbed one of the brown bottles sitting inside, then slid the crate back under the bed.

She had expected to nod off during the trial, but what she saw was so stupid it kept her awake. Even a stiff like Vegna couldn't get that rich asswipe found guilty. No doubt, if it had been someone from Blightsmuth — hell, from any lousy neighborhood — they would've wound up in Citadark for sure.

At least the Reaper got the last laugh.

Nikki found no joy in that thought, however. Seeing reports on the news was one thing. But even after the creepy stuff in Aquardah, watching a swirlix get crushed to death with her own eyes left an awful taste in her mouth. One she needed to wash out. The couple of bars in Horizon Gardens were too rich for her blood. So, she was stuck with warm beer.

She loosened the cap with her teeth and spat it on the floor. Taking a swig, Nikki found the beer wasn't stale. So, at least she had that going.

The toxtricity set the bottle on the floor and grabbed her acoustic guitar. At times like these, she needed to strum out some blues cords. Nothing fancy. Just enough to get her mind off everything.

Another swig from the bottle. Nikki plucked a guitar string. Then another. Her left hand glided along the guitar shaft. Between strums, she thumped the guitar base like a drum. Nikki opened her mouth and sang softly.

"The chill ain't gone.
The chill is here to stay."


XxX​

"The chill ain't gone.
It just won't go away."


Chiaki staggered into his room, eyes firmly focused on the desk across from him. His legs shook. Cold sweat had left his shirt drenched. The grovyle struggled beside his bed until he got both his jean jacket and t-shirt off. They dropped to the floor as he staggered over to the desk. He shook his right arm out. The Hooker detached with a series of clicks and fell to the floor with a metallic clang.

The pain was back. Why now? It had been so long. He rubbed the air by his stump. The air where his right forearm was supposed to be. Chiaki gritted his teeth. More sweat ran down the back of his neck.

He grabbed an orange pill bottle and twisted the cap off with his mouth. Chiaki stuck his tongue in and lapped up one of the white, circular pills. He dry-swallowed it, almost gagging in the process. The grovyle set the bottle down and sat at the desk.

There was a small mirror sitting beside his lamp. He grabbed it with his left arm. A stand the same size as the mirror swung out. Chiaki pitched the mirror like a tent, then switched the lamp on. He stuck his right arm stump between the mirror and stand.

Slowly, Chiaki took deep breaths. He stared at the mirror; watched the reflection of his left arm. The grovyle curled his claws when he breathed in, then relaxed them when he breathed out.

In. Out. Curl. Uncurl. Again. And again. And again.

Images crept into his mind's eye. Blood staining his groin and legs. Pained screams from a wide-open mouth. Purple and black footsteps moving away. And those two damned sentences:

"Leave him. He's just dead weight."

A shuddering breath. Chiaki curled his claws tight.

In. Out. Trick the mind. Trick the mind.

Bit by bit, the pain faded. Chiaki allowed himself to slouch in his chair. He tucked his head down and squeezed his eyes shut.

"I'll show them." He turned his head and cracked an eye open. A bulletin board hung over his dresser, filled with newspaper clippings and lines of strings connecting them to a single photo of Starlene surrounded by circles drawn with a thick red marker. Chiaki slowly turned back to his desk and tore open an envelope. A small note fell out, alongside a ticket.

Try not to embarrass me when you show up. And remember: you owe me for this.
~Kyoko


Chiaki took the ticket and held it up to his lamp. It had a small drawing of Starlene on it.

"I'll figure out what she's hiding. Then you'll see I'm not dead weight."

XxX​

"Life's done us wrong, baby.
But I'll make it pay someday."


Yuna wanted to cry. To sob into her pillow. No tears came, however. She stared at her white pillowcase, gripped by an emptiness she hadn't been faced with in years.

She knew Rayquaza and Reshiram were standing beside her bed. Yuna imagined they were both ready to say something to her. They'd attempt to lift her spirits and they'd fail. She was confident in it.

Nagging thoughts ate away at her mind the entire train ride back. Did Vegna kill Benedict… or was it actually Xeromus? Because Yuna wasn't buying that it was a freak accident. Someone did something.

Why was Xeromus even there at the end of the trial? He wanted the distortion to swallow up the Crowne Court, but Team Bastion had put a stop to that.

Try as she might, Yuna couldn't shake the feeling Xeromus set her up. He wanted her in the Qliphoth. What if… he somehow knew she'd never make it back in time for the trial? What if her initial absence was the key to things spiraling out of control? After all, the end result was Xeromus standing in front of dozens of reporters and rambling about Eternatus. And then a chunk of the courthouse killed the corrupt noble who might've rigged his trial.

Was that his goal? To get himself more attention? Had Yuna ended up playing into his nonexistent hand?

She kept going back to what Xeromus told her yesterday: "The choices you make don't matter."

Yuna dug her arms into her pillow and screamed. The pillow muffled her, of course. But in the absence of any tears, this would have to do."

"Yuna…"

A fluffy wing draped over her. Yuna turned and swatted Reshiram's claws. "Don't touch me!"

Frowning, Reshiram yanked his left wing back. "We're worried about you."

"You're worried about me?" Yuna's voice cracked. She didn't care. "If you were really worried about me, you would've made sure this stupid thing never bound to me in the first place!" She smacked the Soul Dew with her right arm. Shadows bubbled in her ectoplasm, but she ignored them.

"I—"

"No." Yuna held her black-spotted arm up. "Shut up and listen. Because there's nothing you can say to help me in this situation." Her arms dropped against her blanket. "You two are Sages. You spent your lifetimes working for the greater good. Of course you can handle this stuff!

"But me? Look at me!" Yuna floated up and thrust her arms out. "I'm a tiny, underdeveloped dreepy. I spent over a decade cooped up in bed or not allowed outside my own house because of how sick I was." Her arms and tail shriveled. "And when I finally started to make a life for myself and get some friends… I get dragged off to this place where people look at me like I'm a plate of grimy food!

"And if that wasn't enough, now I have to try and be some sort of hero and save the planet from Eternatus' reawakening? Are you kidding me?!"

Yuna dropped back onto her pillow and screamed into it. "It's too much! I can't take it! I… I'm not meant for this!"

Silence followed. Then scales brushed against bedsheets. "Dost thou feel better?"

Maybe a little, Yuna silently acknowledged. She turned her head to meet Rayquaza's tiny red eyes.

"I am, perhaps, stepping on Sir Reshiram's toes, but the truth is that… just because I am a sage doesn't mean I'm magically equipped to handle every problem thrown at me." Rayquaza leaned over and gently lifted Yuna's head with the end of his black tail. "Most days I had to patrol the stratosphere I was downright terrified. 'What if an actual emergency happened? Can I really keep people safe?'"

He shook his head. "To say nothing of the Darkest Day. Thou makes it sound like we sealed Eternatus effortlessly. But we had to sacrifice our very lives! I was mortified! And hesitant, to boot." Rayquaza looked at Reshiram. "It's only because I had the other Sages for support that I was able to go through with it."

Rayquaza backed away. "I do not blame thou for thine frustrations. It is not easy to put others before thineself. That is why we Sages had such long apprenticeships to begin with. Such thinking takes time to cultivate." He crossed his arms and nodded. "But thou aren't alone in this endeavor."

Reshiram vigorously nodded. "Right. And the more Sages you rescue, the more support you'll get." He offered a reassuring smile, but frowned when Rayqauza turned a stoic expression on him. Reshiram shuffled back, looking at his feet.

"We can't force you to go on with this," Rayquaza said. "But now that you've seen what Eternatus does to people, thou must ask thineself if thou could live with not taking action."

Yuna looked down guiltily. As bad as things were, the thought of her life becoming remotely like Razim's terrified her even more. "It's just," she rubbed her arms together, "I wish things didn't have to move so quickly. It's practically suffocating."

"Then thou shalt take the time to recuperate." Rayquaza bobbed his head, pleased with his own suggestion. "When thou feelst ready to venture forth, we will be there to assist you."

He jabbed Reshiram's thigh with his tail. The white dragon stood at attention. "Absolutely!" he chirped.

Yuna looked down. It still didn't sit right with her, but Rayquaza's offer was better than nothing.

"I… guess." She hardened her expression. "But if this is going to continue, we need to set ground rules."

Reshiram raised a brow. "Ground rules?"

"Yes." Yuna glared at Reshiram. "You need to stop butting in all the time. It's bad enough hearing you two in my head, but if I don't get some personal space, I'm going to lose it for sure." She took a deep breath. "A girl… needs her 'me time.' So, you have to figure out a way to stay out of my head. Understand?"

"I, uh— yeah, that's fair." Reshiram blushed and poked his claws together.

"Good." Yuna flopped onto her back. "Now, make yourselves scarce before someone comes knocking."

XxX​

Slithering around a room that wasn't his, Artemis couldn't shake his guilt.

At first, he figured Seifer got the memo and left with his tail between his legs like he should've. But then he heard whispers about an Aeon charizard taking pity on the keldeo… and both of them getting involved in some sort of altercation.

The milotic tried brushing it off. However, as the day went by with no sign of either of them, he got worried. Eventually, he went to the charizard's room and found it completely empty. The window looked as though someone had jumped through it.

Artemis wanted to believe this was some weird coincidence. But if there was one thing he took away from his parents, it was their firm belief that karma worked in mysterious ways. If he hadn't gone off on Seifer, would the keldeo be safe? And was something bad going to happen to him as a result? The sentiment ate away at him.

"Damn it, what happened?" Artemis hissed. The room was so uninspired, there was nothing to go off. Black stone floor. Plain brick walls. Bedsheets tossed on the floor with a pillow, likely for Seifer to use. Some belongings stashed in cloth bags under each bed. There wasn't anything else.

Artemis was ready to leave and throw back some whiskey shots at his room when a flat voice caught his attention. The milotic turned toward the window, then dove for the floor.

It was Vortex and that gardevoir assistant whose name escaped Artemis. He prayed they hadn't seen him.

"So, clearly, we have to rearrange the schedule," Vortex said. "If there's going to be a civil demonstration in Herbrides, I don't want our students anywhere near it. Get Minister Vincenzo on the phone. We'll do his leg in Venish instead."

"And what of the students? How will we tell them?" Gardevoir asked.

"Not a word until Vincenzo okays everything," Vortex replied. "Then, obviously, we inform His Grace of the change first. Then we'll tell the others. With any luck, the abrupt change will prove even more fatal for Team Bastion and they'll be eliminated from the Cup. And a huge weight will be lifted off our collective shoulders."

Artemis narrowed his eyes. Team Bastion… was the one with the Aeon Princess, wasn't it? And the toxtricity who'd sometimes smuggle him pastries from the dining hall. They seemed like decent people. So why was Vortex trying to rig things against them?

"Very well, sir. Anything else?" Gardevoir said.

"No. I hear Tesla needs you at Citadark. We both know you shouldn't keep him waiting."

"Understood."

Staying on his belly, Artemis wormed his way toward the bedroom door. That slimy bastard! He always knew Vortex was a jackass, but the thought of him dicking over his own students like that made Artemis sick.

He was going to have to tell someone.

Perhaps it's time to pay Toxtricity a visit again.

XxX​

In case you're interested, Nikki is spoofing the lyrics to B.B. King's "The Thrill is Gone."
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Alright, a new day on holiday break, a new review for Path of Valor, since you kinda left me and the rest of the audience in huge suspense last time.

Chapter 26

Noctum kept his eyes squeezed shut. The charjabus' rattling was enough for him. He was nauseous all over again. He didn't need another wall of eyes staring at him from the rift or Eternatus' innards or whatever he was supposed to call this.

He thought about Yuna. Noctum promised he'd be there for her after the trial. A promise fate chose to break. Baraz picked up the slack, fortunately, but he saw how shaken she was in the video. And there was nothing he could do, because some crazy psychic cat was dragging him off to God knows where.

Noctum: "O-Oog..."
Valkyrie: "... I don't suppose there's airsick bags on these things? Otherwise there's decent odds this ride's gonna reek really really fast."
Fenrir: "Just stick your head out the window like a normal 'mon!"

The rumbling came to a stop. Noctum opened an eye. Rainbow light rippled in the distance out Valkyrie's window. Massive rocks— no, asteroids floated all around them. Pulsating with distorted energy. Noctum's stomach gurgled. Was the crystal reacting to the asteroids?

"Space." Gene thrust his arms apart. His tone was quiet, yet mischievous. "The final frontier. These are the voyages of the Stolen Charjabus. Its continuing mission? To hide from the long arm of the law while the rebellion plots its next m—"

"Will you shut up?" Valkyrie got to her feet and brandished her claws at Gene. "I ought to remove your head from your shoulders. Where the hell have you taken us?"

"The Bergammula Asteroid Belt," Fenrir responded, paws firmly gripping the steering wheel. "See, those asteroids emit a powerful EMP."

Seifer: "... Wait a minute, how on earth has this thing not decompressed and left us to suffocate?" ._.;
Valkyrie: "Better question, how is this thing still operational if we're flying past things that are emitting strong EMPs? That sounds like a fast way to kill the navigation systems." >.<

"EMP?" Noctum tilted his head.

"Pulsations of electromagnetic energy." Fenrir waved his right arm about. Noctum got the sense his answer was deliberately vague. "Any Eternatus Troopers that try and go here get their circuits fried." He pushed his white, red-tipped mane out of his face. "It's the perfect place for anyone who's crossed the archbishop to lay low."

Seifer's brow furrowed. "So, it's a gathering spot for lawless types?"

"Yeah, sure." Scowling, Gene flopped into the seat next to Noctum. "My spiel sounded way cooler, though."

Valkyrie: "Again. Unless transports in Eterna City happen to be inherent Faraday Cages, those same pulses could very well fry this bus." >_>;
Noctum: "... Guess we're about to find out how well-built these things are."
:fearfullaugh:


Noctum looked the mewtwo over. This was the guy at the top of Paradox's hit list? He sounded more like someone Yuna's little brothers and sisters would fawn over. Well, aside from the Malice Crystal jammed into his shoulder. How could Gene even move his right arm like that?

Gene: "... Psychic powers. Yeah, let's go with that."
Noctum: "Psychic powers shouldn't be able to allow you to get past a crystal being present where your shoulder joint should be." ._.;

Hey, Zardy, my eyes are up here." Gene flicked the brim of Noctum's snout. He covered his nostrils and looked away.

Noctum: "Wow, rude." >///<

"I want a better explanation," Valkyrie growled, still standing. "Why did you bring us here? We're trying to get home, not more lost."

"You are home," Fenrir responded. Valkyrie was about to stomp up to him, when he held up an arm. "Lemme land first. Then we can talk."

Noctum mouthed "Land?" before looking where Fenrir pointed. There were dozens of metal platforms bolted to flattened asteroids, most connected by metal bridges. Behind all the asteroids was a massive glass dome with a big, white zoroark perched atop it, holding a burger in one paw and a bottle of soda in another.

Can't tell whether Fenrir is yanking Val's chain right now, or if Val is the Tidus of this story as someone who's somehow able to move about the living who would ultimately boil away into some equivalent to pyreflies if Eternatus were ever meaningfully defeated.

Valkyrie: "Fenrir, home as in Etherium." >_>;
Fenrir: "Hey now, beggars can't be choosers. This'll do for now."

Valkyrie's shoulders sagged. "This outpost… you wouldn't happen to be its owner, would you?"

Fenrir smirked. "What gave that away?"

She slouched into her seat. "Just land the damn charjabus."

Oh. I suppose that definition of "we're home" also works too.

The white-furred zoroark steered the bus past several landing platforms. Noctum turned in his seat to look out a window. There were people walking across the glass bridges, but he didn't recognize some of the species.

"What's with these two-legged folks who only have fur on their heads?" The charizard saw a guy and a girl leaning against a metal signpost. Both had sunglasses and purple jumpsuits on. The metal rods beside them that looked like blastoise cannons threw Noctum off.

"You mean the humans?" Gene chuckled. "Right, right. Your planet must not have any." He pet Noctum's right shoulder. "Relax, you'll get used to them."



I must say I certainly wasn't expecting that, especially with how separated humans and Pokémon were in your last story. Though I suppose it makes sense if Eterna City came from a blown-up mainline world.

"Are you sure?" Noctum frowned. "It looks like they hunted a blastoise for its cannons."

"Pfbt." Gene sputtered. "No, no." He held his hands up. "Those are blasters. They probably bought 'em from Cyril. Y'know, to defend themselves?"

Noctum stared blankly.

So, what's the battle scaling for those puppies anyways? :V

Gene: "You know. Bang bang. Pew pew. Uses Pokémon attacks in a can and hurts like hell to get hit by one of them?"
Noctum: "Uh... no. Not at all." ._.;

"Well, not every human that gets schlurped up by Eternatus chooses to turn into a pokémon." Gene shrugged. "I'd say most don't. For the ones that oppose the archbishop, Cyril makes sure they have something to work with."

"I see," was all Noctum could manage. The explanation left him with more questions than answers. And here he thought his headache was finally fading.

I have so many questions right now. But that little throwaway blurb is really making me feel really good about my prediction about Sakaki from last chapter.

The charjabus buckled. As it landed on a black platform, hydraulics hissed loudly. The engine's whirrs died down. Fenrir pivoted in his seat.

"Nothing motivates you to build weapons quite like losing your ability to use your own attacks." Though Fenrir's mane obscured his face, the fatigue in his voice couldn't be clearer.

Valkyrie looked as if she finally put missing pieces together. Standing up, she quickly collected herself. "Hold on. Why does this clown keep calling you Cyril?" She stepped in front of Fenrir. "You're Fenrir. That ninetales thing is, like, your cover or something. Has to be."

A bitter laugh shook the zoroark's mane. "Boy, I wish." He shuffled past Valkyrie. "But it's the opposite. I am Cyril. Fenrir is a codename I use for my rebellion work." He paused. "And the jobs I take in Scale City, I s'pose."

Oh, so we finally get an answer to the whole "Cyril" versus "Fenrir" thing.

Scale City? Noctum had never heard of such a place. Before he could ask, though, Cyril hopped off the charjabus, Valkyrie followed. Noctum stumbled out behind her.

"What's that supposed to mean?" she growled. "And why do you look like someone bleached your fur?"

"This is what I usually look like," Cyril responded. He trudged forward, posture slouched. It was a stark contrast to the swagger he displayed as a ninetales. "When I go to Scale City, I use fur dye and hair products to pass as a normal zoroark." Cyril held up his right arm, which had an oval disc with a blinking red light on it. "And for Eterna City, I've got my Morph-O-Tron. Lets me go back to the good old days." He sighed. "Or some facsimile thereof."

Wait wait wait. So lemme get this straight here. So Cyril in life(?) has gone from Alolatales to Hisuiroark to Fake Unovaroark? Am I reading that right?

Noctum was torn between watching Cyril and examining his surroundings. The aurora looked nice in the charjabus, but now Noctum saw several of them. All converging toward a white sphere surrounded by sparkling stars. It was hauntingly beautiful, though he failed to understand how or why this was all inside Eternatus.

"I don't understand," Seifer asked from the back of the group. He was helping Quetzal, who still seemed a bit out of it. "Are you a ninetales, a zoroark, or some lovechild of the two?"

"I'm—" There was a brief crimson flicker in Cyril's lone visible eye. "I'm just another casualty of Malice. Like so many others."

Quetzal: "That... didn't answer the question." >v>
Noctum: "I think the implication is that he's gotten mutated, Not-Zapdos." .-.

Cyril lazily lifted his right arm and pointed ahead. There, two seismitoad walked past. Only their bulbous, wart-covered arms were instead red, armored pincers, like Noctum would find on a crawdaunt. And behind them was a tympole with an arrokuda's backside instead of its proper tail.

Ah, so this is why you commissioned that one Rapitales drawing. We're getting into fusions in this story.

"I was a happy ice ninetales, living on Planet Blizzak." Cyril trudged toward a glass bridge leading to another asteroid. "Then Eternatus showed up and absorbed it. The old archbishop — the one in charge before Paradox — wanted to funnel our snowy weather to other parts of the Qliphoth. I tried to fight against her with the other ice-types in our city."

Noctum raised a brow. Her?

Valkyrie huffed. "Lemme guess: it went poorly?"

"When I woke up, I was the only one left." Cyril's yellow eye brought a shiver to Noctum's spine. "And this was what I looked like. Couldn't use a single attack… or do those fancy illusions I'd later learn zoroark are known for." He looked at his white-furred arms. "I was stuck like this."

Wow. So my chronology was right after all. Didn't know that Malice could cause flat-out jumps but I suppose I should be less surprised given some of the past effects it's exhibited. (Maybe, you've said elsewhere this happened as a result of the last Archbishop.)

Though what's the story for why you opted for "Blizzak" as the planet name?

Gene yawned loudly. "Yeah, this pity party ain't my thing. Besides, we got a message that Gilbert's causing a ruckus inside." He floated into the air, saluting the group. "You have fun with Mr. Sunshine, here." Gene flew off toward the outpost's front entrance a couple of asteroids away. A moving walkway headed into the glass dome, which reflected the stars and auroras to hide whatever lay inside.

Noctum: "Well that wasn't remotely polite."
Valkyrie: "Fenrir- Er... Cyril, I guess. What on earth is the story of how you got stuck with him?" >_>;
Cyril: "Lemme get to it after my 'sob story' as he put it."

Silence fell over the group. Noctum shuffled toward Cyril. "I'm, um, sorry you had to deal with… all of that." It was the best he could come up with.

"Yeah, you and me both." Cyril continued forward. They reached an asteroid with several fueling stations planted into the landing pad. Large gray canisters each held three long hoses. A few were attached to circular and rectangular ships.

"At least I found a new purpose for myself." Cyril didn't sound too happy about it, however. "If I didn't have my tinkering to keep me grounded, I'd erode in an instant."

Narrator: "He's totally getting cut off from his ability to tinker at some point later on in the story."

Noctum's tail flame shrank. He was conflicted between pressing further and staying quiet.

Valkyrie made the decision for him. "Erode? You're not a pot of soil."

Cyril looked at Valkyrie. There was newfound fatigue in his yellow, beady eye. "Here in the Qliphoth, you either find something to anchor your soul… or you lose yourself."

"Tch. Don't get poetic on me." The garchomp jabbed Cyril's shoulder.

"What you guys call 'Phantoms'… are the eroded souls of people who've lost themselves trying to live in the Qliphoth."

:uhhh:


Okay. That has some... implications about what happened to Bahamut to turn him into Phantom Despair.

"H-Hang on!" Seifer almost tripped trotting after Cyril. "Are you saying the Phantoms I've fought my entire career—"

"— were once people like you and me? Yeah." Cyril kept walking. "The archbishop and his predecessor sold this realm on the promise of infinite possibilities. You could do anything. Be anyone. Go anywhere." He shook his head. "For example… if you got tired of being a charizard, you could just… use Eterna energy to turn into a different pokémon." Cyril pointed at Noctum, smirking.

"Th… that's absurd," he sputtered.

"Not for Eternatus. A being that defies nature itself," Cyril countered. "'An eternity where the only limits are your imagination.' That's how they phrase it. Sounds sweet on the surface, right?"

I mean, it's a place named after a realm of evil and spiritual impurity from Kabbalah. I'd literally rather trust a sales pitch like that from a place called "Naraka" since at least eventually you'd reincarnate your way out of it if it's as it says on the tin.

"But it's a damn lie. There are some things no amount of Eterna energy can change," Cyril continued, expression darkening. "If you were a dunce in your old life, you don't get to magically turn book smart. If you were a selfish asshole, you'll still be a selfish asshole unless you choose to wipe your memories clean.

"And some people… they can't handle the truth. That they're stuck here. That the choices they make don't really matter."

Valkyrie crossed her arms. "So, what? They go mad?"

Cyril nodded. "They go so mad, their bodies and souls wither away until there's nothing left but empty shells with varying degrees of Malice." With a wince, Cyril plucked a few of his white hairs and dropped them. They fell into the vast expanse below the moving walkway. "Thus, Phantoms are born."

Oh, so this place literally makes new qlippot out of the unfortunates who get stuck here given the semantic meaning of "Qliphoth" is "shells" or "husks".

"Hang on." Valkyrie cautiously moved toward Cyril. "But I've met you plenty of times in Radiance. How can you show up there if you're part of this hellhole?"

"I stash a Malice Crystal in my mane," Cyril responded. Valkyrie wasn't convinced, but he held up a paw. "Enough. If I shove any more down your throats, I bet Charizard will keel over again."

Cyril: "Also, why is this so shocking to you given how much this story pulls from Final Fantasy when dead people mingling and interacting with living ones was literally a huge part of FF10?"
Noctum: "Wait, are we supposed to know that?" .-.
Valkyrie: "No, otherwise why would we be written as being surprised in the text right now?" >_>;

"What, so that's it?" Valkyrie stomped her right foot down. "You just drop an information bomb like that and then ditch us?"

Cyril slouched over. "I've got work to do." He narrowed his yellow eye. "Besides, I'm not ditching all of you. I need you two." He pointed to Noctum and Seifer.

The keldeo shuffed back. "What's that supposed to mean? Haven't I suffered enough already?"

"It means… you two are going to help me clean up the mess you made."

Noctum: "I... don't like where this is going." ._.
Seifer: "Look, if you're trying to get us to help you, we'll get more done by willing cooperation." >.<;
Cyril: "Yeah, it's called 'you cooperate, or I drag you kicking and screaming into helping'." >:|

Nikki had her leather jacket halfway off by the time she walked into her room. With some halfhearted flicks of her right arm, she flung it onto her unmade bed. The toxtricity dropped to her knees and felt around the space under her bed until her fingers grazed hard plastic. Nikki pulled a milkcrate out. She grabbed one of the brown bottles sitting inside, then slid the crate back under the bed.

She had expected to nod off during the trial, but what she saw was so stupid it kept her awake. Even a stiff like Vegna couldn't get that rich asswipe found guilty. No doubt, if it had been someone from Blightsmuth — hell, from any lousy neighborhood — they would've wound up in Citadark for sure.

At least the Reaper got the last laugh.

Nikki: "... All's well that ends well? Hooray for extrajudicial killings, I guess?"

Nikki found no joy in that thought, however. Seeing reports on the news was one thing. But even after the creepy stuff in Aquardah, watching a swirlix get crushed to death with her own eyes left an awful taste in her mouth. One she needed to wash out. The couple of bars in Horizon Gardens were too rich for her blood. So, she was stuck with warm beer.

Considering what the Swirlix in question was like, I'm a little shocked she didn't go full "ding dong the wicked witch is dead" afterwards. :V

She loosened the cap with her teeth and spat it on the floor. Taking a swig, Nikki found the beer wasn't stale. So, at least she had that going.

The toxtricity set the bottle on the floor and grabbed her acoustic guitar. At times like these, she needed to strum out some blues cords. Nothing fancy. Just enough to get her mind off everything.

Oh, so she does have a preferred genre outside metal.

Another swig from the bottle. Nikki plucked a guitar string. Then another. Her left hand glided along the guitar shaft. Between strums, she thumped the guitar base like a drum. Nikki opened her mouth and sang softly.

"The chill ain't gone.
The chill is here to stay."

Wait, is this a legit song? If so, you might want to consider linking the song in question to the lyric text there, since I know you're doing that now.

"The chill ain't gone.
It just won't go away."


Chiaki staggered into his room, eyes firmly focused on the desk across from him. His legs shook. Cold sweat had left his shirt drenched. The grovyle struggled beside his bed until he got both his jean jacket and t-shirt off. They dropped to the floor as he staggered over to the desk. He shook his right arm out. The Hooker detached with a series of clicks and fell to the floor with a metallic clang.

The pain was back. Why now? It had been so long. He rubbed the air by his stump. The air where his right forearm was supposed to be. Chiaki gritted his teeth. More sweat ran down the back of his neck.

Wait a minute, phantom limb syndrome occurs in people who have just been flatly born without limbs? I mean on one level, I suppose nerve endings are nerve endings... or was Chiaki lying about how he became an einhänder when he mentioned that to Yuna? ... Also, how is a gecko sweating this profusely (or for all at that matter) when he's a reptile? :V

Chiaki: "... Also, why am I getting the weirdest feeling someone else is listening in on this same song?"

He grabbed an orange pill bottle and twisted the cap off with his mouth. Chiaki stuck his tongue in and lapped up one of the white, circular pills. He dry-swallowed it, almost gagging in the process. The grovyle set the bottle down and sat at the desk.

... Hope those aren't opiate-based painkillers there.
:fearfullaugh:


There was a small mirror sitting beside his lamp. He grabbed it with his left arm. A stand the same size as the mirror swung out. Chiaki pitched the mirror like a tent, then switched the lamp on. He stuck his right arm stump between the mirror and stand.

Slowly, Chiaki took deep breaths. He stared at the mirror; watched the reflection of his left arm. The grovyle curled his claws when he breathed in, then relaxed them when he breathed out.

In. Out. Curl. Uncurl. Again. And again. And again.

Somehow I doubt this is the first time he's done this mirror routine. Though I wonder if this is informed at all by something you've come across as a medical student.

Images crept into his mind's eye. Blood staining his groin and legs. Pained screams from a wide-open mouth. Purple and black footsteps moving away. And those two damned sentences:

"Leave him. He's just dead weight."

A shuddering breath. Chiaki curled his claws tight.

In. Out. Trick the mind. Trick the mind.

Bit by bit, the pain faded. Chiaki allowed himself to slouch in his chair. He tucked his head down and squeezed his eyes shut.

... I can't tell whether he really did lie to Yuna about how he lost his arm after all or if that's a separate occasion where he got mauled he's flashing back to.

"I'll show them." He turned his head and cracked an eye open. A bulletin board hung over his dresser, filled with newspaper clippings and lines of strings connecting them to a single photo of Starlene surrounded by circles drawn with a thick red marker. Chiaki slowly turned back to his desk and tore open an envelope. A small note fell out, alongside a ticket.

Try not to embarrass me when you show up. And remember: you owe me for this.
~Kyoko


Chiaki took the ticket and held it up to his lamp. It had a small drawing of Starlene on it.

"I'll figure out what she's hiding. Then you'll see I'm not dead weight."

For a second I thought that that was an implication that Sakaki left him behind in that state?. Also, I knew that Starlene was dodgy from past chatter, but this entire bit is a major
:uhhh:
regarding her.
[*][1:05 AM]

"Life's done us wrong, baby.
But I'll make it pay someday."


Yuna wanted to cry. To sob into her pillow. No tears came, however. She stared at her white pillowcase, gripped by an emptiness she hadn't been faced with in years.

... Wait, would tears even have come anyways given that she's a ghost? :V

She knew Rayquaza and Reshiram were standing beside her bed. Yuna imagined they were both ready to say something to her. They'd attempt to lift her spirits and they'd fail. She was confident in it.

Nagging thoughts ate away at her mind the entire train ride back. Did Vegna kill Benedict… or was it actually Xeromus? Because Yuna wasn't buying that it was a freak accident. Someone did something.

the-road-to-el-dorado-both.gif


Why was Xeromus even there at the end of the trial? He wanted the distortion to swallow up the Crowne Court, but Team Bastion had put a stop to that.

Try as she might, Yuna couldn't shake the feeling Xeromus set her up. He wanted her in the Qliphoth. What if… he somehow knew she'd never make it back in time for the trial? What if her initial absence was the key to things spiraling out of control? After all, the end result was Xeromus standing in front of dozens of reporters and rambling about Eternatus. And then a chunk of the courthouse killed the corrupt noble who might've rigged his trial.

Was that his goal? To get himself more attention? Had Yuna ended up playing into his nonexistent hand?

I mean, given that Paradox just happened to know how to tune into the TVs at the right time, that's not that bad of a guess on her part. I'm genuinely curious myself since this 'omen' sure has a knack for showing up for otherwise inexplicable events.

She kept going back to what Xeromus told her yesterday: "The choices you make don't matter."

Yuna dug her arms into her pillow and screamed. The pillow muffled her, of course. But in the absence of any tears, this would have to do."

"Yuna…"

A fluffy wing draped over her. Yuna turned and swatted Reshiram's claws. "Don't touch me!"

Got some lingering punctuation there to tidy up. Though I see that Yuna's mental state is going places. And not good ones, either.

Frowning, Reshiram yanked his left wing back. "We're worried about you."

"You're worried about me?" Yuna's voice cracked. She didn't care. "If you were really worried about me, you would've made sure this stupid thing never bound to me in the first place!" She smacked the Soul Dew with her right arm. Shadows bubbled in her ectoplasm, but she ignored them.

"I—"

"No." Yuna held her black-spotted arm up. "Shut up and listen. Because there's nothing you can say to help me in this situation." Her arms dropped against her blanket. "You two are Sages. You spent your lifetimes working for the greater good. Of course you can handle this stuff!

Cecil: "Uh... Yuna, not that you're not clearly very frustrated and overwhelmed, but you do realize that Gallian and I are literally pale shadows of who we used to be, right?" ._.;

"But me? Look at me!" Yuna floated up and thrust her arms out. "I'm a tiny, underdeveloped dreepy. I spent over a decade cooped up in bed or not allowed outside my own house because of how sick I was." Her arms and tail shriveled. "And when I finally started to make a life for myself and get some friends… I get dragged off to this place where people look at me like I'm a plate of grimy food!

"And if that wasn't enough, now I have to try and be some sort of hero and save the planet from Eternatus' reawakening? Are you kidding me?!"

Yuna dropped back onto her pillow and screamed into it. "It's too much! I can't take it! I… I'm not meant for this!"

Uh... yeah, Yiazmat and Calcifer not yeeting some friendly faces from Aeon along with their baby girl was kinda a yuge oversight on their part given that they had to have known that Yuna would likely face this sort of treatment from her peers. I mean, Noctum was a nice start but his batting average for actually being around Yuna has been pretty terrible so far.

Silence followed. Then scales brushed against bedsheets. "Dost thou feel better?"

Maybe a little, Yuna silently acknowledged. She turned her head to meet Rayquaza's tiny red eyes.

Wait, are they really tiny considering how they looked absolutely huge in the SSBB Subspace Emissary cutscene? Or is Gallian in fun-sized mode right now?

"I am, perhaps, stepping on Sir Reshiram's toes, but the truth is that… just because I am a sage doesn't mean I'm magically equipped to handle every problem thrown at me." Rayquaza leaned over and gently lifted Yuna's head with the end of his black tail. "Most days I had to patrol the stratosphere I was downright terrified. 'What if an actual emergency happened? Can I really keep people safe?'"

He shook his head. "To say nothing of the Darkest Day. Thou makes it sound like we sealed Eternatus effortlessly. But we had to sacrifice our very lives! I was mortified! And hesitant, to boot." Rayquaza looked at Reshiram. "It's only because I had the other Sages for support that I was able to go through with it."

Unless if Gallian misusing fancy words is deliberate, you probably want something other than "mortified" there, since unless there's an archaic definition that I'm not aware of from sanity-checking against a couple dictionaries, that's a term for embarrassment there.

Rayquaza backed away. "I do not blame thou for thine frustrations. It is not easy to put others before thineself. That is why we Sages had such long apprenticeships to begin with. Such thinking takes time to cultivate." He crossed his arms and nodded. "But thou aren't alone in this endeavor."

Reshiram vigorously nodded. "Right. And the more Sages you rescue, the more support you'll get." He offered a reassuring smile, but frowned when Rayqauza turned a stoic expression on him. Reshiram shuffled back, looking at his feet.

Cecil: "I mean, sure, you'll be pushing the world towards the edge faster. But it was going there anyways and you'll at least have more friends for it?"
:fearfullaugh:

Yuna: "... I could've really done without the reminder of what'll happen when we pull all the needles, Reshiram." >_>;

"We can't force you to go on with this," Rayquaza said. "But now that you've seen what Eternatus does to people, thou must ask thineself if thou could live with not taking action."

Yuna looked down guiltily. As bad as things were, the thought of her life becoming remotely like Razim's terrified her even more. "It's just," she rubbed her arms together, "I wish things didn't have to move so quickly. It's practically suffocating."

"Then thou shalt take the time to recuperate." Rayquaza bobbed his head, pleased with his own suggestion. "When thou feelst ready to venture forth, we will be there to assist you."

youre_serious_futurama.gif


I'll believe Yuna will get a break from the when I see it, since you've just been keeping her under the pressure cooker almost constantly in this story so far. And Xeromus kinda just implied that there's some significantly plot-important events coming up in... -checks notes- three days.

Yuna looked down. It still didn't sit right with her, but Rayquaza's offer was better than nothing.

"I… guess." She hardened her expression. "But if this is going to continue, we need to set ground rules."

Reshiram raised a brow. "Ground rules?"

"Yes." Yuna glared at Reshiram. "You need to stop butting in all the time. It's bad enough hearing you two in my head, but if I don't get some personal space, I'm going to lose it for sure." She took a deep breath. "A girl… needs her 'me time.' So, you have to figure out a way to stay out of my head. Understand?"

"I, uh— yeah, that's fair." Reshiram blushed and poked his claws together.

"Good." Yuna flopped onto her back. "Now, make yourselves scarce before someone comes knocking."

I look forward to seeing the holographic mini dragon sages just chilling out in the hallway in future chapters.
:loltias:


Slithering around a room that wasn't his, Artemis couldn't shake his guilt.

At first, he figured Seifer got the memo and left with his tail between his legs like he should've. But then he heard whispers about an Aeon charizard taking pity on the keldeo… and both of them getting involved in some sort of altercation.

The milotic tried brushing it off. However, as the day went by with no sign of either of them, he got worried. Eventually, he went to the charizard's room and found it completely empty. The window looked as though someone had jumped through it.

Oh, so Artie is coming back into the plot. I was starting to wonder.

Artemis wanted to believe this was some weird coincidence. But if there was one thing he took away from his parents, it was their firm belief that karma worked in mysterious ways. If he hadn't gone off on Seifer, would the keldeo be safe? And was something bad going to happen to him as a result? The sentiment ate away at him.

"Damn it, what happened?" Artemis hissed. The room was so uninspired, there was nothing to go off. Black stone floor. Plain brick walls. Bedsheets tossed on the floor with a pillow, likely for Seifer to use. Some belongings stashed in cloth bags under each bed. There wasn't anything else.

Artie: "Yeesh, when I'm finding a place meager, you know that it's a real dive."

Artemis was ready to leave and throw back some whiskey shots at his room when a flat voice caught his attention. The milotic turned toward the window, then dove for the floor.

It was Vortex and that gardevoir assistant whose name escaped Artemis. He prayed they hadn't seen him.

"So, clearly, we have to rearrange the schedule," Vortex said. "If there's going to be a civil demonstration in Herbrides, I don't want our students anywhere near it. Get Minister Vincenzo on the phone. We'll do his leg in Venish instead."

Wait a minute, is that demonstration Xeromus' doing? Or does it happen to overlap and he's exploiting it?

"And what of the students? How will we tell them?" Gardevoir asked.

"Not a word until Vincenzo okays everything," Vortex replied. "Then, obviously, we inform His Grace of the change first. Then we'll tell the others. With any luck, the abrupt change will prove even more fatal for Team Bastion and they'll be eliminated from the Cup. And a huge weight will be lifted off our collective shoulders."

Wow. Ice cold there. Also, I like that they're doing this in the servants' quarters instead of say... anywhere where there realistically wouldn't be like a dozen Pokémon in a hundred-meter radius trying to doze off.

Artemis narrowed his eyes. Team Bastion… was the one with the Aeon Princess, wasn't it? And the toxtricity who'd sometimes smuggle him pastries from the dining hall. They seemed like decent people. So why was Vortex trying to rig things against them? "

Very well, sir. Anything else?" Gardevoir said.

"No. I hear Tesla needs you at Citadark. We both know you shouldn't keep him waiting."

"Understood."

Artie: "W-Wha-? C-Citadark? How on earth did the topic of conversation go to-?" ._.;

Staying on his belly, Artemis wormed his way toward the bedroom door. That slimy bastard! He always knew Vortex was a jackass, but the thought of him dicking over his own students like that made Artemis sick.

He was going to have to tell someone.

Perhaps it's time to pay Toxtricity a visit again.

Oh, this won't have any repercussions once Vortex puts two and two together at all.

In case you're interested, Nikki is spoofing the lyrics to B.B. King's "The Thrill is Gone."

Ah, so that's what the lyrics are from. Probably could've stood to have a song link there, but it's still a neat beat of trivia. And good show there @Ambyssin . I'm always impressed at how much in the way of implication and subtle details you manage to cram into these shorter chapters. Since there was a lot to unpack from this chapter.

I'm... admittedly not sure where you're going to take things next, since things are kinda in an uneasy lull right now, and as much as Yuna really needs a proverbial vacation right now. I'm not convinced she's going to get it given that the plot's kinda on a tight schedule. But I guess I'll just have to wait a couple weeks to find out.

Kudos, and looking forward to your next update in due time.
 

Ambyssin

Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 27: A Grilling Session

Noctum had flown with a passenger before. A passenger being the key.

He had not had to strap on a large, purple harness with two metal seats, knee pads, elbow pads, a helmet with holes for his horns, and a neon green vest with "Eterna City Poké Ride" scribbled across it in blocky letters.

Perhaps the most humiliating part about flying side by side with the strange hovercrafts was the small flag reading "TRAINEE" protruding from his backside and fluttering with the breeze. As if Noctum hadn't flown without incident for years. Hell, he'd flown well while concussed the other week. But, sure, he had to act the part because the creepy alien zoroark told him to.

"So, tell me again why exactly we need to steal one of these uPhones." Seifer sat fastened into one of the metal seats on the harness. Cyril sat beside him, back in his ice ninetales disguise. "Wouldn't it be easier to do the legal thing and buy it?"

"Easier? Sure," Cyril replied. "But it'd defeat the purpose."

Horns blared behind Noctum. The charizard flinched, but steadied on while a jet black hovercar passed him on the left. It's okay. I'm in the right lane, he told himself.

"And that purpose is?"

Cyril sighed. "If Boss Kitty's intel is correct, the uPhone 33 has a special chip in it that the archbishop can use to track the phone's movements throughout the Qliphoth."

Noctum wondered why anyone would be putting food in their electronics, but kept that thought to himself.

"Couldn't that be helpful?" Seifer wondered. "Like, if someone's in danger, the authorities could locate them faster."

"Sure. Or it could be used to expand the archbishop's surveillance state," Cyril growled. Fluffy tails brushed Noctum's thigh and he tried his best to hold his laughter.

"H-Hey, keep your tails in your seat." Noctum flapped his wings to keep the proper altitude.

"Right, sorry." Cyril adjusted his position. "You're going down at the light up ahead."

Noctum saw traffic lights with rotom clearly inside of them. The light for his lane had arrows pointing down. He was happy he wouldn't have to try changing lanes.

"Anyway, point is: I want to get my paws on one of those chips." Cyril continued. "See if I can analyze it. Could prove useful for the rebellion."

"I still don't see why you can't buy it," Seifer huffed.

"The phones are activated once they're purchased," Cyril countered. "Meaning the chip would start tracking my movements. I need an inactive phone. And the only way to get that is from the factory, which happens to be under Flapple's flagship store."

Noctum slowly glided down toward the street. The bottoms of these buildings were much less impressive that what he'd flown past. They had varying layers of rust or patches of crystals growing on their front staircases and railings.

"And you really think we can break into some major company's factory?" Seifer tapped a forehoof against his seat. Noctum glanced back at him and frowned. The keldeo offered an apologetic look.

"Us? No. But Zardy can," Cyril replied.

Fortunately, Noctum touched down and shuffled toward the sidewalk, so he could properly react. "Wait, me? Look at me!" The seat harness made it impossible for him to grab his tail. "Charizard aren't built for break-ins. My tail will give me away."

Cyril hopped out of his seat. "Not if you Phantom Warp."

Noctum froze. "Come again?"

"Phantom Warp." Cyril pointed to the crystal in Noctum's belly. "Don't you remember how Boss Kitty got inside the charjabus?"

Noctum tapped his chin. "You mean, in a blur with all that distorted energy around him?"

"That's the ticket." Cyril fluffed out his tails. "I don't see why you can't do it, too. That's why I took us here." With three of his tails, he gestured toward an alleyway between two of the buildings. "Perfect place to practice."

Seifer didn't look convinced. "So, you're telling me a charizard is going to teleport?"

A dry laugh greeted Seifer. "You're a riot," Cyril mused, rolling his eyes. "It's not teleportation, it's a Phantom Warp." He held up a forepaw. "Like the name implies, you temporarily convert your body to Malice and phase out of existence to move several meters in any direction."

Noctum jumped back in fright. "What? I don't wanna disappear!"

"Relax, Zardy. I said 'temporary.'" Cyril shook his head. "Fact is, there's plenty of tech in Eternatus that blocks any and all attempts at teleportation." He stepped toward the building on his left and place his forepaw against it. "But the Phantom Warp makes it so you're nothing but an apparition. We're talking dodging attacks, phasing through solid objects, and bypassing any pesky barriers Troopers use to stop psychics."

Cyril pulled his forepaw away and looked at the grime on it with a frown. Shaking his forepaw out, he turned to Noctum, "So, what d'ya say? Why don't you give it a try?" He jerked his head over his shoulder toward a wall with electrified razor wire on top of it. "Phantom Warp through that wall over there."

Noctum looked up at the razor wire and whimpered. "Can't I just fly over it? Besides, what if I get stuck in the wall?"

"Then it'll have been an honor knowing you," Cyril deadpanned. Seifer looked aghast at the ninetales, who shook his head. "Look, you and your buddies waltzing into the bazaar without ID looplets screwed up the plan Gene and I had. So, you've got to fix it."

Noctum was willing to help, but using a new technique to do so unsettled him. Too many things could go wrong.

Cyril sighed again. "How about this? If you snag the uPhone, you can go back to Horizon Gardens immediately."

"R… really?"

Cyril nodded. "Cross my heart."

Seifer's broken horn sparked. "Wait, what about me?"

"Sorry, pony-boy. You and I have to keep a low profile." Cyril chuckled as Seifer's face reddened. The ninetales stepped up to Noctum and produced a small clip. He fastened it to Noctum's right horn with two of his tails.

"What are you doing?" Noctum wanted to swat the tails away, but Cyril was faster. He unhooked the buckles for Noctum's harness and it dropped to the ground behind him.

"I gave you an X-transceiver, so we can stay in contact," Cyril explained. "Now, get moving. Time's a-wasting."

Noctum stepped up toward the wall. On closer inspection, it was made of pure cobalt. It absorbed some of the razor wire's glow. He looked down at the crystal in his chest, then back at the wall.

"Uh, what am I supposed to do here, exactly?"

Cyril shrugged. "How would I know?"

"Because you brought it up?" Seifer somehow looked even more exhausted than before.

"Just because I know it exists doesn't mean I can make it work," Cyril retorted. "That's Gene's department. And he's not here."

Noctum pinched his brow. Why couldn't Valkyrie be the one with the stomach crystal? Guilt over that thought immediately followed. Sighing, Noctum widened his stance and crouched down. He extended his arms toward the wall.

"Kah!" Noctum thrust his hands forward. Nothing happened.

He tried again. Nothing happened.

"Dash!" Noctum flicked his wrists. Nothing happened.

"I will say this, Zardy. Gene never shouts to get it to work," Cyril deadpanned.

Groaning, Noctum's shoulders sagged. He was doing the best he could under the circumstances. But this could be my ticket home. So, he needed to focus.

Noctum's brow furrowed. He concentrated on his body. Every twitch of every muscle. The air moving through his nostrils with each breath he took.

It was then that something tugged on Noctum's gut. It was cold and slimy, like a huntail. Noctum concentrated on that unfamiliarity. Then a tingle spread over his entire body. Instinct told him to dive forward. Noctum thought he spread his wings, but there wasn't any actual movement. The dark purple tint of the city blurred all around him.

Within seconds, Noctum stumbled forward, his world spinning. After the dizziness settled down, Noctum found himself staring down a different alleyway. There were metal fire escapes sticking out from the buildings on either side of him. A neon billboard in the distance cast a golden glow along the alley from a stylized G in its center.

For all your home appliance needs, trust Galactic Appliances… for the win!

"Hey, Zardy, you still in one piece?"

"Gah!" Noctum jumped at Cyril's voice. It was so prominent, yet the fake ninetales was nowhere to be seen.

"I'm talking to you through the X-transceiver, dummy."

Noctum rubbed the back of his head. "Yeah, I realize that now."

"In any case, looks like you Phantom Warped. Congratulations, pats on the back, and all that jazz. Now do it a few more times so you can get the rhythm down."

It was hard for Noctum to feel good with Cyril's halfhearted compliment. "Right. Just give me a second."

Noctum was sure this long day was only going to get longer.

XxX​

The path to the Rebel Grill, advertised as "Guzzie's" by an electronic sign, was another moving walkway surrounded by a glass tube. Valkyrie easily could've stomped along and been there in no time flat, but she opted to hang back. The only grilling she wanted was of what happened to Quetzal to bring him to Horizon Academy in the first place.

His answers were far from helpful. All he could recall was a giant Phantom with a bird mask that effortlessly defeated him with Dynarockfall, killed Crowne Minister Douglas, uprooted the Needle in his mansion, and morphed him into the form he currently occupied. After that, he woke up in Eterna City beside Seifer.

Valkyrie looked out at the expanse of stars and auroras. After a bit of silence, she said, "Makes you feel pretty small, doesn't it?"

Quetzal shuffled awkwardly on the moving walkway. "I suppose. Does it upset you?"

"Hardly." Valkyrie rubbed her snout with her forearm. "Soldier. Bodyguard. At the end of the day, we both live to follow orders. Cogs in the machine."

Still, Valkyrie wondered how much she'd missed back in Radiance. There was that big trial happening. One way or another, the outcome would lead to some sort of job from her handlers. And here she was, stuck in the very same spirit realm whose existence she shrugged off long ago.

"What should we do now?" Quetzal wondered.

"We find that dumb cat," Valkyrie replied, stepping off the moving walkway. Another circular doorway slid open to reveal a circular room bathed in the glow of purple lights. There were three levels of the room, with the first in the center comprised of several tables and purple benches surrounding a mechanical tauros. There was a pale human in a plaid shirt and jeans sitting atop it, holding on for dear life.

The garchomp stepped into the restaurant for a better view. Some of the nooks on the third level with her had brightly-flashing arcade machines. Others had PV screens… or whatever the hell the Eternatus equivalent was. She even spotted a pinball table, "Revenge of the Black Knight," in the far-left corner, next to the bar. Said bar had its own luminescent glow, as did the jukebox to the right of it.

"Namaste… and peace be with you, travelers."

Valkyrie turned right and recoiled. "The hell—"

A massive, gaping maw full of razor-sharp teeth towered over her. It was like a damned portal!

Valkyrie hopped back, brandishing her claws at the two black pincers stuck out of the mouth. One waved, the other held a tray with fizzy beverages glowing different shades of orange.

Quetzal puffed out his feathers. "N… nice daemon. I don't actually taste like poultry!"

"Ah, Guzzie is the first guzzlord you have laid eyes on." He stepped back, allowing Valkyrie to see a smaller set of black arms and a tiny black head between two pointed horns. Guzzie's small, yellow eyes were guilty. "Guzzie does not want violence. Please forgive Guzzie."

"Uh-huh." Valkyrie shot a scathing look at Quetzal. If this was who Seifer hired, no wonder he got sacked for ineffectiveness. "So, you're the guy whose name's on this joint?"

Guzzie nodded. "Guzzie is head chef for Rebel Grill. Guzzie wants to give tired travelers smiles in their bellies." He turned to his right. "Or at least some respite from meanie archbishop." His smaller arms shrugged. "Can Guzzie bring you to table?"

Though food sounded good, Valkyrie had more pressing matters. "Actually, we're looking for Gene. He brought us here, then took off without us. Any idea where he is?"

"Yes." Guzzie's sigh was loud enough to make the floor rattle under Valkyrie's feet. He scratched his tiny head. "Gene got into shouting match with angry chatot pirate. Guzzie told them to take it outside."

Valkyrie quirked a brow. "Outside meaning?"

"Junior's Slaughterplex." Guzzie pointed right. Valkyrie followed his pincer where, outside the massive glass wall, a giant arena platform hovered in place. There were even floating bleachers filled with spectators. Some cheering, others looking bored. All the bleachers had large projection screens offering Valkyrie a good view of the action.

Three dragalge floated below Gene, each with gray armor and helmets adorned by a tyrantrum skull and crossbones. They shot Dragon Pulses from their snouts in unison. Gene summoned a glowing pink spoon and twirled it rapidly. The resulting barrier deflected the blue bolts effortlessly.

"What do you zink you are doing?!" a small, colorful bird with a music note head, eyepatch, and pegleg shouted, waving his wings around. Valkyrie figured this was the chatot thing Guzzie mentioned. "Stop attacking in unison! You are only making it easier for him!"

"We be trying our best, Gilbert!" the dragalge closest to the chatot fired back, only for Gene to appear right in front of him. The mewtwo grabbed him and pivoted, using Dragalge as a meat shield against the incoming Dragon Pulses. Dragalge went limp. Gene hurled him at the pirate on his right. Both dragalge rolled into an unconscious pile on the edge of the arena.

Gilbert facepalmed while the remaining dragalge tried to flee. Gene closed the distance in an instant and smacked Dragalge with his glowing tail. Dragalge went careening out of the arena to thunderous applause from the crowd, interspersed with a few jeers.

Quetzal jumped in surprise when Dragalge slammed into the glass wall. "That one… shivered me timbers," he wheezed before sliding off the glass.

"Okay, well, looks like we found him." Quetzal shuffled uneasily. "Can we go home now?"

"Oh my! And Gene has effortlessly dispatched the Blackskull Buccaneers!"

Valkyrie trotted forward, ignoring Quetzal calling out to her. She spotted a miniature version of Guzzie standing atop a hover platform and holding a microphone. "Who could have possibly seen this development coming?" he declared. "Oh, right, everyone. How utterly booooring. Little Guzzie demands more violence! More bloodshed! Agree with me, my peanut gallery! Agree!"

While the crowd applauded, Gene pointed a sparking index finger at Gilbert. "Well, bud, looks like it's just you and me. Gonna face me yourself or what?"

Gilbert's good eye widened. He looked left, then right. The chatot grabbed his right wing. "Ah, sacré bleu! I have sprain-ed my wing!" Gilbert collapsed on his back. "Oh, ze cruelty! Alzough I could have ze kicking of your posterior with ze ease, I am in no fit state for ze fighting."

Valkyrie rolled her eyes, as did Gene.

"But have no fear, mon ami!" Gilbert hopped back to his feet. "My less attractive stunt double will battle in my stead!" He tilted his head up. "Oh, Jacques!"

The floor once again rumbled. Even the floating arena was shaking. Gene crouched down, but was blindsided when what looked like a white wrecking ball careened into him from behind. The mewtwo rolled across the arena, the Malice Crystal in his shoulder kicking up sparks.

As Gene struggled to his feet, the wrecking ball uncurled, revealing an off-looking aggron. Valkryie pressed her arms into the glass. His normal gray pelt was covered in a layer of thick white armor. He slammed his white-ringed tail on the ground and raised his spiked forearms into the air.

"Come and get some, kitty!" Jacques roared.

Valkyrie sucked in a sharp breath.

It can't be… trance?!

Those kinds of transformations were meant to be the result of mastering control over Dynaforce! Why could some dead aggron pull it off?

"That was a cheap shot," Gene grumbled, grabbing his head and twisting it slightly. "Guess I'm just going to have to return the favor."

"I'd like to see you try." Jacques squared up his stance and punched the arena floor. Stone Edge spires shot up in waves. Gene went airborne, effortlessly floating past them. With a smirk and grunt, however, Jacques slammed his glowing tail into the rocks. His Iron Tail shattered the rocks. Shards careened through the air.

Rolling his eyes, Gene stuck his left hand forward. "Did you forget who you're dealing with here?" With his eyes glowing blue, Gene captured every shard in his telekinetic grasp and returned them to their sender.

"Idiot! Look up!" Valkyrie shouted, before remembering she was in the restaurant and there was no way he'd hear her. Nevertheless, Gene realized that Jacques had leaped into the air and was looking to drive a glowing fist right into his skull.

She wasn't going to let her way home evaporate in some godforsaken death arena. Valkyrie spotted a staircase tucked away behind the bar and sprinted toward it. Hooking her left arm on the railing, the garchomp slid down it with ease. She arrived on a grated metal platform. In fact, there was an entire crisscrossing network of metal walkways under the arena. The dragalge Gene had knocked out of the arena lay in a crumpled heap to Valkyrie's right.

"What an intense stalemate!" Junior's shrill voice drew Valkyrie's attention back to the arena. Gene still floated in the same spot as before, eyes brimming bright blue. A similar glow surrounded Jacques, who was fighting against Gene's telekinesis.

What's that idiot doing? Valkyrie dashed along one of the walkways leading to the grandstands on the left of the arena. Fling Aggron away!

"Ha ha ha!" Gilbert's pegleg clunked against the metal arena floor. "What is ze matter, kitty? Is ze mega evolution proving too much for you? Zere is no shame in zrowing in ze towel."

Gene was straining. The smirk Valkyrie barely made out on Jacques' face told her that much. Was there something else going on? Something Gene hadn't accounted for?

She couldn't sit by. She had to strike. Neither pirate was aware of her. Valkyrie had a clear view of Jacques' right side. If she could only find a vulnerable spot. Something. Anything.

There!


It was subtle. A small chink in the back right part of Jacques' neck. However, that was all Valkyrie needed. She hopped up on the railing behind her and angled her mouth at Jacques.

Deep breath. Focus on the target. Don't overthink it.

Tightening her neck and jaw muscles, Valkyrie spat a small but brilliant Dragon Pulse beam. It struck the crack in Jacques' neck. His smirk melted away. The aggron's face twisted in agony. And that was all Gene needed.

The stalemate broke. Gene telekinetically slammed Jacques into the ground. The arena rumbled above Valkyrie. She hopped off the railing to keep her footing, locking eyes briefly with Gene. He then took the opportunity to hurl an Aura Sphere into Jacques' face. Then another. And another.

After the fourth Aura Sphere, the aggron stopped writhing in pain.

"What is this? A sudden intrusion in Gene's favor?!"

The hover platform Junior stood atop quickly found its way to Valkyrie, as did a few rotom drones. Her stoic expression was on the arena's big screens for everyone to see. There was a mixture of gasps and jeers from the audience.

"My, my. What a feisty looking garchomp!" Junior spoke into his jewel-encrusted microphone. "Could it be you wish to try your claws in Little Guzzie's Arena… of Dooooom?!"

"Hardly." Valkyrie huffed out dragonfire. "That dweeb is my ride home." She jerked her head in Gene's direction.

"Oh ho! So, bot-bashing Gene has found himself a new squeeze." Junior rubbed his two upper pincers together. "Swoon over the weird couple, audience. Swoon, I say!"

Valkyrie ignored the audience's laugher. She hopped up to Junior's hover platform and used it to glide safely onto the arena, where Gilbert was fretting over the unconscious Jacques. "Beat it, pipsqueak," she growled. "Gene and I have business."

Gilbert looked up. Immediately, a sheen took over his good eye. "Pipsqueak? Mmm." He climbed onto Jacques' belly. "I will let zat insult slide, for you, mademoiselle, are one part handful and two parts oooh-la-la."

"That so?" Valkyrie slammed her tail against the arena floor. "Maybe I should hurl you into the restaurant wall like Gene did to your buddy."

"Aha ha." Gilbert nearly fell off Jacques. "I am zinking not. But know zis, Mademoiselle Chomp… Chatot Gilbert, first mate extraordinaire, is never one to shy away from a beauty like yourself." He slowly bowed, using the wing he claimed was broken. "We shall meet again. But for now, I bid you adieu."

Two rotom drones had finished putting Jacques onto a stretcher and flew off with the aggron and Gilbert in tow. Gene then walked up to Valkyrie, slowly applauding.

"Quite the performance." The mewtwo grinned at her. "I daresay you'll make a fine rebel."

"Cut the crap." She held a claw up to Gene's chin. "You're sending me home. Now."

"Yeeeeah." Gene pressed a finger to Valkyrie's claw and pushed it away. "See, that's not a good idea."

Valkyrie bared her fangs. "Why not?"

Smirking, Gene grabbed Valkyrie's head and turned it so she could see Quetzal pacing in the restaurant's glass wall.

"Because the last thing you want is for me to open a rift here and walk a Radiant Guardsmon straight into the Ryujin's secret underground city." Gene twisted Valkyrie's head back. There was a red glint in his eyes. "After all, once they realize you're the lone Citadark escapee, they'll give you the needle and you'll be stuck here for good."

Valkyrie tensed. "How did—"

Gene flashed his canines. "People like us know how to get to the bottom of things effortlessly. Isn't that right… Prisma?"

XxX​

"That's it, then?"

Vortex leaned over a plain tan conference table to look at a projection. It had a map of Venish, with its crisscrossing canals leading out to sea east of the city. One part on the top right of the map had a large purple spiral in it; the distortion given off by the disappeared Needle. Dashed red lines ran through the water, thankfully not reaching the city or its canals.

A barraskewda's head flopped up and down. He nearly lost the white sailor's hat that was clearly too large for his arrow-shaped head. "Yes. As far as we know, anyway."

"As far as you know," Vortex parroted. He sat down on a metal chair, poking his tail through a gap in the back. "I've not seen reports of any delays for our ships."

"Correct again, sir." Barraskewda curled his ventral fins up. "But the poisons are spreading. And they're definitely coming from where the Needle used to be." He floated up to the table, picked up a small remote, and pressed a button. "If we can't find a way to contain it, this is where we predict the poison will reach by tomorrow."

The map shifted so the dashed red line was closer to the Venish coastline.

"And the next day."

He clicked the button again. The dashed red line was now just a short distance away.

"And now the day you're proposing I do my leg."

One more click put the dashed line into Venish's canals. Barraskewda looked down. "The starting point for the fishing portion is far enough away, sure, but this cuts into the proposed gondola route."

Vortex got to his feet. The metal chair fell back with a clang. He rested his hands on the table, nearly digging into the plastic with his claws. "Then. Change. The. Route."

Barraskewda looked at the map. Then back at Vortex. "But that could disrupt canal traffic even more than city commissioners planned. Not to mention Polaris transp—"

"I wasn't asking you, Vincenzo." Vortex balled his hands into fists. "I was telling you." He straightened up and turned to Arianna and Tesla. The former scribbled away in her planner while the latter was transfixed on the map, expression unreadable behind his flickering goggles.

"We're already scrambling to salvage this first leg," Vortex continued. "We're looking at having to issue partial refunds to people who purchased tickets to the Herbrides leg just to placate any complaints. I will not risk further profit for some prediction about toxins in the water. We're not having the students swim out to sea."

He held up an index finger. "One day. Change the route. You disrupt canal activity for one day… and that's it. Then you can go back to figuring out what the deal is with this pollution."

Tesla cleared his throat. He made several zzt noises while Vortex turned to him with a sigh, "What is it?"

"Well, sir, I believe my genius can put together an effective buffer." A robotic arm popped out of Tesla's backpack and tapped the boltund's head. "I just need some samples of the water from the more polluted areas."

Vortex looked to Vincenzo. "Make it happen."

The barraskewda nodded. His sailor hat fell to the floor. "Of course." Vincenzo puttered up to Tesla. "If you'll follow me."

"Lead the way, old chum!"

With a hearty laugh, Tesla followed Vincenzo out of the conference room, making vrrts and zzrts with every step he took.

Vortex pinched his brow. "What next, Arianna?"

The gardevoir looked around the room. "We should return to your office in Horizon, sir." She nudged her glasses up. "Tesla's moved construction on the genesect schematics I… designed into full production. He thinks they might be ready to replace Radiant Guardsmon within a week or two."
 

Ambyssin

Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 28: Let's Do the Crime Warp Again

The further Cyril led Noctum and Seifer through Eterna's gridded streets, the brighter things became. More and more artificial lighting from street lights to unnatural purple crystals to neon signs advertising everything from household appliances to fast food chains to some sort of production involving an inteleon in a tuxedo.

"How much further? I thought we were going to the bazaar," Seifer said, eyes darting back and forth. There were other people walking on the cobalt sidewalks. Noctum recognized some species, but others were totally alien to him, like a walking sunflower or a black-furred rapidash-like creature with white stripes and a lightning-bolt shaped tail.

"We're not." Cyril was a few paces ahead of them. He had a set of goggles over his eyes. "I was going to go there originally. Now I need to take you to a good spot to access the factory."

"Isn't it, like, a bad idea to be out here?" Noctum looked around nervously. A vaporeon with the spiked neck ruff of a jolteon noticed his Malice Crystal and quickened her pace in a panic. The charizard's tail flame shrank. "What if someone pulls me aside?"

"What's really going to screw us over is you acting so nervous," Cyril growled. "Stop swiveling your head around like a lost helioptile."

"Sorry." Noctum instead looked down, following cracks in the sidewalk. "It's just hard to focus on anything with all the bright lights. Do you, like, ever get use to this kind of stuff?"

"All this liveliness is part of the city's draw for folks." Cyril paused, then bitterly added, "At first."

"It all feels like a bit much," Seifer said. The trio rounded a street corner onto a much larger street. Hovercars and busses slowly moved past in both directions, reflecting multicolored lights from a giant monitor showing silhouettes of a blaziken, absol, lucario, and sudowoodo dancing in tandem with headphones on their heads.

"No shit." Cyril shook his head. "Sure, all this big, flashy stuff seems appealing at first. But like everything in the Qliphoth, eventually it gets old. So, maybe you turn into another species. Rework your being, change jobs, and take on a new life." He flipped strands of white hair out of his goggles. "Eventually things get stale and you become part of the crud all this glitz and glamor is covering up.

"And if you ask me, with no new planets getting swallowed up, there hasn't been any real stimulation in over a thousand years." There was an unsettling chill in Cyril's voice. "Is it any wonder Phantoms are spilling out into Etherium? People are eroding into Phantoms like weeds spreading through a crop field."

He turned right to point to the television screen, where metal squares now surrounded the dancing silhouettes. "And that shit right there? That's the archbishop's attempts to cover it up and distract people."

Text spread out under the silhouettes: "uPhone: a universe of potential."

"Those squares are the phones?" Seifer blinked at the ad.

"A far cry from those kooky crystals you use in Radiance, eh?" Cyril shook his head dismissively. "Wouldn't surprise me if Vortex and his stooges somehow pulled schematics for their stupid stuff out of the distortion itself."

Noctum gulped. "They can do that?"

Cyril shrugged and proceeded forward. Noctum opted not to press the matter further. Instead, he changed the subject. "If the factory is underground, do you think the Phantom Warp is enough to get me to it?" He looked down at the jet-black sidewalk. The metal was cold against his scaly feet.

"No," Cyril flatly responded. "But factories like this one need ventilation systems. So, we're going to find one of the grates."

"… oh." Noctum traced a claw nervously around his belly crystal. "And, um, will I be able to fit into it?"

"Probably." Cyril was focused on the other sidewalk. "Before that crystal, I'd call you embarrassingly thin for a 'zard. You a vegetarian or something?"

Seifer side-eyed Noctum, who frowned. "No. I just… struggled to get decent meals as a charmander."

"That so? Bummer." Cyril stopped and sat on his haunches. His goggle lenses flickered with small white lights. "Mmm. Think we're here."

"Here?" Seifer looked up at a neon street sign and traffic light. "We're at some random intersection! What makes you so sure?"

Noctum looked in the direction Cyril was facing. He tapped Seifer's flank with his wing. "Uhh…" The charizard pointed a claw forward.

Seifer followed it. Both of them saw assorted humans and pokémon lined up on the sidewalk. The line stretched several blocks down, before turning a corner and disappearing from view. A couple of the saucer-like Eternatus Troopers floated back and forth around the line.

One dark-skinned human in a crop top and short shorts threw his arms up with a victorious look on his face. "Aaaaand seventeen hours in line! Hot dog, that's a new record!" He held up a hand, but the lavender tangrowth standing behind him merely rolled its eyes.

"These people… are willing to wait that long for a phone?" Seifer's jaw dropped.

"Welcome to Eterna City," Cyril deadpanned. "In any case, that's how I'm sure we're where we need to be."

One of the street lights on the opposite sidewalk tilted upward and projected a hologram of Paradox in front of the people in line.

"What is up my guys, gals, and non-binary pals?" Paradox was disturbingly cheerful. "I hope you're all as excited for the new uPhone launch as I am." His right tentacles twisted into an arm and he pulled out the phone. "With its improved map and QPS functions, it'll get you where you need to be, when you need to be there! Enjoy the launch… and don't forget to show off your new uPhone on Chatter with the hashtag ParadoxRules to be entered to win an autographed uPhone case from yours truly!"

The hologram disappeared to raucous cheers from the people in line. Noctum winced. That enthusiasm sounded so forced it was painful. "I think I'm ready for a change of scenery," he said. Whatever awaited him in the factory couldn't be a sorrier sight than this.

"Great." Cyril pointed to a grate where the street met the sidewalk. "If my intel's correct, this'll lead you into the factory's ventilation system."

Seifer squinted at the grate. "And if your intel's wrong?"

"Then Zardy gets to take a nice, refreshing dip in the sewers," Cyril chirped. Seifer's snout wrinkled in disgust as he turned to Noctum.

"You don't have to agree to this."

Noctum shrugged. "I've had worse."

That earned a frown from Seifer. Noctum stepped toward the grate. Multiple floating taxis sped by. "Hey, uh, how am I supposed to do this without someone seeing me?"

Smirking, Cyril grabbed a canister from his bag with one of his tails. He glanced at Seifer. "Might wanna plug your nose."

That exasperated Seifer. "With what? I have hooves!"

Cyril twisted the canister open. A huge cloud of black smog spread across the street corner. Noctum's nostrils burned and his gag reflex nearly kicked in. Fortunately, he'd gone so long without a meal there was nothing he needed to keep down.

The charizard felt the grate under his feet even as car horns blared around him. Like he'd practiced earlier, Noctum concentrated on the strange spark of power coming from his belly.

Within seconds, the smoke disappeared, along with the horns. Warm air buffeted Noctum's belly. Cold gray steel surrounded him on all sides. Fans whirred in the distance.

Noctum had enough room to spread his wings, though the ventilator air rippled across his membranes like silverware poking flan. Still, Cyril was right. Noctum was thankful to not be taking a dip in a sewer.

He slowly drifted down the ventilator until he spotted a fan a few meters below him. "Psst! Cyril, you there?"

"I read ya, Zardy."

"There's a big fan blocking my path. What do I do?" Noctum slowly flapped his wings to keep his altitude.

"Maybe try offering it an autograph?"

Noctum heard a groan through the X-transceiver. Probably Seifer.

"In all seriousness, dismantle it. Can't have ya getting sliced into 'zard sashimi."

Noctum glanced at the fan, weighing his options. Ultimately, he opened his mouth and spewed a flamethrower. Though some of it threatened to blow back into his face, he applied enough force to blast apart the fan. An initial burst of hot air threatened to blow him several meters back up, but he pressed his hands and feet to the sides of the shaft and inertia did the rest.

Sighing in relief, Noctum continued forward. Every fan he crossed paths with met the same fate as the first one. After a while, Noctum reached a fork in his path, with the vent continuing down but also branching to his right. He relayed this new detail to Cyril.

"I'm pretty sure the finished product is at the top floor of the factory," Cyril explained. "So, I'd go right."

There was some muttering. Seifer objecting, perhaps? Noctum did have to admit he wished he was going off more than blind faith in someone who'd deceived him multiple times already. As he glided through the shaft, he silently prayed to Bahamut that he'd find what he needed.

"A reminder to all employees that a clean workplace is a happy workplace. Anyone caught littering will be subject to pointing and laughing."

Noctum hoped the eerily-cheerful female voice meant he was on the right path. Grates began to appear beneath him. All Noctum could see through the first few were gray floors. Hallways, if he had to guess.

The charizard approached another split path and hovered there, trying to listen for any sounds that could point closer to, well, the actual factory part of the facility. Realizing the occasional wing flap was making that harder, Noctum landed. The cold metal stung his feet, but Noctum ignored it and focused.

"Flapple would like to remind all employees that communication is the key to any successful workplace. As such, if you notice your colleagues slacking off, please report them to your supervisor."

The announcement came from the right path. Noctum took off once again, only to immediately encounter another fan. He paused, biting his lower lip. It was easy to get away with blasting them earlier. But now that he was within the facility, wouldn't someone hear the fan breaking?

Noctum shook his head. He could just fly away, right?

Please reward my faith, Bahamut. The charizard spewed another burst of fire. The fan broke apart and Noctum continued forward for a bit, stopping when he realized grated slits replaced the entirety of the shaft floor.

Now he had a clear view of everything. A black conveyer belt snaked across the floor beneath him. The walls were adorned with disturbing posters. One had an eevee sandwiched between a smiling umbreon and espeon with the caption "TEAM: Together Eternatus Achieves More." Another had a lopunny kneeling at a human's feet and pressing its face to his boots. It read "Leadership is knowing when to kiss up."

Gulping, Noctum focused on the conveyer belt. There were all sorts of strange mechanical arms and pincers moving in time with it, producing sparks on small black squares. Based on the ad Noctum saw earlier, that was likely the uPhone he needed to swipe.

Some of the arms had people standing next to them looking bored out of their skulls. A corphish was dangerously close to nodding off. Several meters away, a snover pulled a metal handle up and down, eyes glazed over.

Noctum frowned. He couldn't imagine a job where he stood around in one spot, doing the same thing over and over again. Where was the stimulation in that?

"Zardy, you still with us?"

He nearly jumped at Cyril's voice. "Yeah," Noctum whispered. "I found the phones. I think I'm where they put the finishing touches and box them up." His eyes moved with the conveyer belt and, sure enough, the end of the line saw two mechanical arms lifting uPhones into flattened cardboard for a pair of purple, grookey-like pokémon with two long tails ending in giant hands to fold up.

"Then snag one of the boxes before they get off the conveyer. Once you have it, use your crystal and you should be able to open a rift back home."

Noctum's heart fluttered. He'd get to go back to Horizon Gardens? Back to Yuna and Baraz? It was too good to be true!

"Sound the alarms! We've got an intruder in the vents!"

So good, in fact, Noctum didn't realize he'd stepped onto the grates and put himself in full view of the factory until one of the purple grookey yelled and pointed a tail-hand at him.

"Oh crap," Noctum squeaked. There was no sense hiding now. He smashed through the grate with a swipe of his metallic claws and dropped onto the conveyer belt below him.

"Protect the product!" a human in a lime-green jumpsuit and hard hat shouted from atop a yellow platform. She pulled a lever and the conveyer screeched to a halt while a klaxon blared throughout the factory.

Both purple grookey hopped onto their work stations and let loose a flurry of Swift stars. Noctum met them with gouts of fire, but he heard approaching footsteps. With a flap of his wings, he took off seconds before a spiked, electrified mace would've socked him between his wing joints. An Eternatus Trooper raised the mace back up.

"Halt, rebel!" the Trooper shouted. "Flapple is not responsible for any concussions or broken bones sustained as a result of your poor afterlife decisions!" It whipped both its spring-loaded arms back and shot them forward. At the same time, more Swift stars spread out behind Noctum.

Focusing on the Malice Crystal, Noctum warped several meters backward. The Trooper's fists struck air. "Hey!" Its maces dropped to the ground. "Dodging is not permitted!"

Noctum opened his mouth and spewed a large smokescreen. The purple grookey descended into coughing fits. Noctum dove down and grabbed the boxed uPhone they were in the process of completing when he'd been spotted.

"No, stop him!"

It was the forewoman, who now had a strange cannister trained on Noctum. A large rock shout out of it. Noctum had enough distance to easily strafe to his right, but there were now two Eternatus Troopers with their maces raised. Yelping, Noctum Phantom Warped up, but slammed his head against the sealing. He was fortunate enough to keep his grip on the uPhone, but another blow would cost him it, for sure!

"Zardy, what's going on? I'm hearing alarms through the X-transceiver!"

"I got spotted, but I got the phone!" Noctum said, coughing out another smokescreen that faded under a bevy of Swift stars. He flew for the broken vent, but the forewoman shot another rock from her bizarre rock launcher. It reminded Noctum of a concentrated Rock Blast. Why did she even have something like that?

The charizard rolled out of the way, managing to dodge a mace swing as well.

"Then make a rift and get out of there! Job's done!"

"How?!" Noctum approached the back corner of the factory. He'd have to turn around at this rate.

"Focus on your Malice and think about prying it apart like bursting through a locked door!"

He didn't have time to criticize Cyril's analogy. Noctum clenched what was left of his stomach muscles. The crystal, already glowing from his Phantom Warps, responded in kind. Purple shards formed on the wall Noctum flew toward. They opened up a jagged rift in the wall. Squeezing his eyes shut, Noctum dove into the rift seconds before a rock would've struck him. He could tell because its broken remnants pepper his backside as he tumbled through the distortion, curling around the boxed uPhone and trying not to look at the multiple red and purple eyes.

After a few seconds, Noctum landed on a bed of tulips and rolled to a stop against the outer rim of a flower garden. Groaning, he clutched his head.

"Did I… do it?"

The charizard sat up. Although he didn't recognize the tulip bed, he absolutely recognized the cozy brick buildings a few hundred meters in the distance.

He was back! Cyril had told the truth! Oh, thank God! Noctum wanted to cry, but there were more important matters to attend to. Namely, finding Yuna.

Fortunately, as he stumbled to his feet, Noctum was offered an obvious clue: several tables and booths sitting under a huge white tent, with a sign reading "Horizon Academy Club Fair."

Smiling and tucking the uPhone under his arm, Noctum took to the air and flew toward the tent. He got about halfway when he spotted a familiar toxtricity sitting on a rock absentmindedly strumming her gills. Noctum glided down and gently landed on the grass about a meter away. "Nikki!" He jogged the rest of the distance, waving at her.

Nikki pivoted atop the rock. "Look who's alive and kicking. I bet Princess will be—" She stopped herself. Her gaze fell toward Noctum's stomach. She rolled off the rock and held her hands up. "Yeah, I'm-a need you to stay where you are, dude."

Noctum stopped on the other side of the rock. "Ah, right." He looked at the Malice Crystal. "I can explain."

"Save it." Nikki took another step back. "I'm going to go… find Princess. Or Twiggy."

She turned and ran off, leaving Noctum standing in the field, clutching the uPhone box while his tail flame shrank.

XxX​

As best Yuna could describe, the school day was a complete fog. She didn't remember waking up or Baraz escorting her to class. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Shimmer and Vegna were absent from the law class. Instead, there were instructions on the board about reading book chapters and answering questions based on them.

Likewise, Cid wasn't teaching his history class. Instead, there was a klefki whose name Yuna missed. She could hardly pay attention to him. The dreepy couldn't shake the sense that her classmates were staring at her. Reshiram insisted it was in her head, but that did her little good.

It was bad enough that she opted to skip lunch. Baraz offered to bring some food to her, which she accepted. Midmeal, however, Vortex broadcasted an announcement about the school's club fair. It would take place in the afternoon on the greens overlooking Horizon Gardens.

And so, at Baraz's insistence, Yuna found herself hovering toward the large white tent set up atop a hill to the west of the small town and its train station. Baraz waddled beside her, a newspaper clutched in his tiny hands.

"You've been carrying newspapers around all day," Yuna said. "What's the deal?"

"I, uh, couldn't help wanting to see what they wrote about yesterday." Baraz scratched his midsection with his free hand, generating a few sparks.

Yuna's gills shriveled. "Ugh. What did they say? Are they laying into me and Kain?"

"No." Baraz frowned. "In fact, aside from the Radiant Beacon, they're not covering it at all." He unfolded the newspaper in his right hand. Its cover had a picture of Starlene holding up a poster of herself and smiling for the camera. "They're all focused on this new song Starlene released yesterday: 'Hope Conquers All.'"

That gave Yuna mixed feelings. She was relieved to not come under fire. However, a part of her understood how callous it was to brush the event aside. Shouldn't Radiance's journalists be concerned about Xeromus? Or even Vegna? The former seemed especially dangerous to her.

"But if you went to talk about what you experienced, would they even listen to you?" Reshiram wondered.

I don't know. These are faceless strangers. Yuna's arms sagged as she floated on ahead.

"Ah, don't let it get to you, Princess." Baraz's large feet thumped against the grass as he awkwardly ran after her. "I'm sorry for bringing it up. You shouldn't let it detract from this club fair." He offered her a shaky smile. "Maybe you'll find something here that strikes your fancy? A way to unwind… or even make some friends!" His tail wiggled.

"Maybe," she whispered. Yuna couldn't shake her guilt. Vortex was trying to distract her classmates. She wanted to call it out for what it was, but who would listen to her? Her teammates, perhaps. But they seemed like outcasts at the school, too.

So, Yuna would play along. Perhaps she'd glance at the club tables briefly, determine nothing there suited her, and take her leave. Yes, that sounded like a solid plan.

She floated toward the south side of the tent. White folding tables stood in neat, evenly spaced columns. Some displayed signs. Others had posters on them. And a few had colorful tablecloths holding bowls filled with wrapped candy.

Where to start?

"What sorts of hobbies dost thou have?"
Rayquaza asked.

Yuna started down the column of tables on her right. Uh, reading, I guess? And painting my friends' claws. And, uh…

She stopped next to a table for the chess club. The luxray seated behind the table slid the sign-up clipboard away from Yuna.

… okay, wow. I'm more boring than I thought.

"Nonsense! That's quitter talk,"
Rayquaza harrumphed. "Reading is a gateway into worlds beyond. Mayhaps there is a book club hiding amongst this labyrinth."

"Something wrong, Princess?" Baraz asked, stepping to her side. "If you'd rather I wait outside the tent, I can do that."

Yuna was prepared to answer when brown swathes caught her attention. She glanced at the far end of the tent. A table that had, of all things, circular pieces of wood stacked up in neat little pillars. Curiosity piqued, Yuna began floating toward it when something cold and metallic brushed her left horn.

"Gah!"

She pivoted left and found Chiaki standing there. He'd gone back to his black button-down shirt and pokébase cap.

"Got a second?" he whispered.

"Uh…" Yuna glanced at the table again. "I was kind of hoping to check out that club over there."

Chiaki's brow furrowed. "Wasn't a request. That charizard servant of yours is back, but there's a bit of a problem."

Yuna's ectoplasm quivered. "What happened? Where is he? I need to see him!"

Chiaki turned around. "Then you'll have to follow me."

XxX​

Even as Noctum explained everything to Yuna, she couldn't take her eyes off the crystal in his stomach. It seemed to suck in the light around it. The normally warm oranges and yellows from Noctum tail flame were now hues of violet and lavender that sent a chill down Yuna's tail. How was he standing there talking like everything was okay?

And that wasn't even getting into what he had described. Sure, Aquardah had made her aware there were people living in Eternatus. But a linked civilization ruled by some tyrannical alien and his legion of weaponized unown? Humans and aliens mingling with pokémon? Some underground rebel group whose leader was a species that didn't exist as far as Etherium was concerned? And his assistant was Chiaki's mechanic… who was really a dead spirit walking amongst the living?

Yuna wasn't sure if she had the Soul Dew to thank for not passing out from information overload.

"I suppose you and Noctum are more alike than you thought," Reshiram said. "And now you both have powerful trinkets bonded with you."

"Yes, but his represents the power we art trying to thwart,"
Rayquaza reminded him. "In that sense, they are opposite sides of the same proverbial coin."

Is that supposed to make me feel better?


Yuna saw winces from both dragons in her mind's eye. She focused on the hardwood floor. Each plank looked as if it'd been laid with care and glazed by hand.

"I'm not sure why you roped me into this." Leaning against a wall of tan wooden slits, Nikki yawned into her hand. "Or why we're in some cheap wooden box."

Beside her, Chiaki rolled his eyes. "You're the one who found Noctum. And I already told you, this is my bodyguard's apartment. She installed all the wood furnishings herself."

"Uh-huh." Nikki leaned to her left and squinted. "Your bodyguard lives in a shack instead of in the servant's quarters. Which would, y'know, put her closer to you." She shrugged her shoulders and jammed her hands in her jacket pockets. "Really feeling that team love and camaraderie, Twiggy."

Yuna rubbed her temples. "Guys, can we save this for another time?"

Nikki shrugged and Chiaki scowled. Both looked away from one another, silently approving Yuna's request.

"What happens now?" Yuna asked. She wanted to go up and hug Noctum, but the crystal in his stomach worried her. What if it reacted to the Soul Dew?

No, she had to push that thought aside for now. Business first, right? Yuna looked at the box Noctum gingerly held. "Those rebels want you to deliver that to them, right?" Her gills drooped. "Does that mean you have to go back to that, um, asteroid belt?"

Noctum tilted his head. "I'm not actually sure. But I assume that's the case."

"… oh." Yuna looked down. She had an urge to ask to go with him, but couldn't bring herself to say it.

"Oh, wait!" Noctum rubbed his forehead. "Cyril gave me this X-transthingy to keep in touch with him. Maybe it works out here?"

Baraz wagged his stubby tail. "Wow, that sounds amazing!"

The charizard pinched his right horn. "Hey, Cyril, can you hear me?"

Yuna looked at her teammates, who shrugged in unison. "I mean, you guys know more about this stuff than me," she said. "With those gemcom things."

"I've got reception!" Noctum cheered. Nikki jumped in surprise, mane frazzling.

"Cripes! Didn't anyone ever teach you about using your inside voice?" she growled.

Noctum grinned sheepishly. "Sorry. It caught me by surprise, that's all." He tapped his horn. "This thing's incredible." He paused. "Maybe not worth all the craziness in the big techno city, but still cool."

"… tch. I could've told you it'd work," Chiaki grunted, arms crossed and head tucked against his chest. "What's the deal, then? Cyril going to send you back to this Eterna City place or what?"

Noctum repeated the question out loud while squeezing his horn. He closed his eyes in thought while everyone else looked at him expectantly.

"The city's on high alert?" Noctum winced. "Yeah, I guess that's my fault. B-But you're the one who told me to—" He suddenly went silent and stared at the box.

Nikki smirked. "Heh, how does it feel knowing your servant's a wanted 'mon, Princess?"

"Pot calling the kettle black much?" Chiaki scoffed. "I bet your disciplinary file is longer than a six-car train."

Nikki blew a raspberry at Chiaki.

"Real mature," the grovyle sneered.

"Bite me."

"I would, but you'd probably like it."

Yuna ignored them and turned back to Noctum, who repeatedly nodded and whispered, "Uh-huh."

"Well?" She tilted her head.

"He's not sure how to complete the handoff," Noctum said, rubbing the back of his head.

Chiaki pushed himself off the wall and approached the charizard. "Would he be willing to try and meet you in Venish?"

Yuna quirked a brow. Wasn't that the city that had come up in Benedict's trial? Why there of all places?

Noctum looked ready to ask the same thing when Chiaki held up his good hand. "I've got business to attend to there tomorrow night." When he was met with skeptic looks, he added, "Family business. And I might need Fen— sorry, Cyril's help."

"Family business… while your so-called bodyguard is chilling inside Eternatus?" Nikki squinted. "Yeah, that totally makes sense. Except for the part where it doesn't."

"Obviously he'd bring Valkyrie with him." Chiaki flicked his prosthetic arm dismissively. "Look, just ask him if that can be arranged."

Noctum had his hand on his right horn. "Did you get all of that, Cyril?"

Silence, then Noctum nodded slowly. "Okay. Yeah." He nodded again. "Sure, I'll tell him." Noctum took his hand off his horn. "Cyril said he'll try and make it work. Apparently Venish is linked to some sort of processing plant called Outpost R3X. The rebel leader has a bunch of friends who work there, converting tar into building materials."

A smirk tugged at Chiaki's lips. "See? It works out for everyone."

"What about us?" Nikki gestured to Yuna, then thumped her chest. "We supposed to twiddle our thumbs while you two go stuff your faces with Venishian food?"

Chiaki rolled his eyes. "I don't think you want to go where I'm going."

Nikki slouched against an oaken cabinet. "Ever the buzzkill, huh, Twiggy?"

Yuna looked to her right, where a window had been boarded up. Was there still time to get back to the club fair? Maybe she could leave with Noctum and Baraz while her teammates bickered?

A knock at the door drew a surprised squeak from Yuna. Chiaki whirled around. "The hell?" He crouched low. "Who's out there!"

More knocks, followed by a, "Look, just open the door."

Nikki's brows raised. "Hey, I recognize that voice." She stepped away from the cabinet and raised her right arm. "Take a chill pill, Twiggy, this guy's cool." The toxtricity walked up to the door and swung it open with more force than was necessary.

Yuna gasped. A milotic was coiled up in the hall, but his scales lacked the usual sparkle and luster she'd come to expect from them. In fact, he was downright shabby, with patches of graying scales and dirt caked on his ribbons and tailfins.

"I guess that might explain why Nikki knows him," Reshiram mumbled. "He must be from a shaky financial situation, like her."

Maybe? That's still a bit… harsh to say,
Yuna countered.

"You were thinking it, too, though."

Yuna didn't respond. Instead, she addressed Milotic. "Can we, um, help you with something?"

"Actually, I think I can help you." Milotic pointed his ribbons at Nikki and Yuna. "You guys need a reason to go to Venish, right?"

Chiaki stomped up to Nikki's side. "You were eavesdropping?"

Milotic pursed his lips. "I mean… yeah? I just admitted it."

Chiaki narrowed his eyes. "And we should trust you because…"

"Because I caught Vortex and his gardevoir assistant skulking around the servant's quarters," Milotic declared. "They're moving the Crowne Cup's first leg to Venish and intend to rig things to get your team kicked out."

XxX​

CDL-201A: Eternatus Brawler
The Eternatus Trooper model specializing in close-ranged combat. Like all standard models, its UFO-like hull houses the unown controlling the mech suit. Its three legs have gyroscopic sensors to allow the Brawlers to maintain their sense of balance all while relentlessly pursuing their targets. Their armor plating is supposed to be tougher than their Gunner counterparts, but Boss Kitty can still rip through them when he's actually trying.

The real danger is in their spring-loaded arms. Each one ends in a spike-covered mace with Hidden Power augmentation. I don't know if they can change the typing of their maces or not, but they always seem to have the right energy to deal with whatever threats the archbishop wants incapacitated.

Like other Troopers, aim for their glass domes and try to knock out the unown. Otherwise, the hull will eject itself and try and press forward with its mission.



iPteDvL.png
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Heya, dusting my review series of this story off. Since it's been long enough and I figured it was time to start writing stuff on PoV before I fell behind on it too badly. Picking up where I left off with...

Chapter 27

Noctum had flown with a passenger before. A passenger being the key.

He had not had to strap on a large, purple harness with two metal seats, knee pads, elbow pads, a helmet with holes for his horns, and a neon green vest with "Eterna City Poké Ride" scribbled across it in blocky letters.

Perhaps the most humiliating part about flying side by side with the strange hovercrafts was the small flag reading "TRAINEE" protruding from his backside and fluttering with the breeze. As if Noctum hadn't flown without incident for years. Hell, he'd flown well while concussed the other week. But, sure, he had to act the part because the creepy alien zoroark told him to.

Noctum: "Was it really too much to just have a tarp with some loops on it like in Power Trip? Seriously, why do I need the helmet and knee pads when those aren't going to provide meaningful protection for me in a crash?" >_>;
Fenrir: "City regulations, git gud and you'll have that trainee gear off you before you know it."

"So, tell me again why exactly we need to steal one of these uPhones." Seifer sat fastened into one of the metal seats on the harness. Cyril sat beside him, back in his ice ninetales disguise. "Wouldn't it be easier to do the legal thing and buy it?"

"Easier? Sure," Cyril replied. "But it'd defeat the purpose."

You're really shameless sometimes, you know that?
:loltias:


Seifer: "Which is what again?" :?

Horns blared behind Noctum. The charizard flinched, but steadied on while a jet black hovercar passed him on the left. It's okay. I'm in the right lane, he told himself.

"And that purpose is?"

Cyril sighed. "If Boss Kitty's intel is correct, the uPhone 33 has a special chip in it that the archbishop can use to track the phone's movements throughout the Qliphoth."

Waaaaait, but I'm pretty sure you can do this already with pretty much any cellphone in circulation IRL already. Does the Qliphoth not play nice with GPS? Also, cell tower triangulation would allow you to narrow down a search area to within a few blocks regardless of chipset.

Noctum wondered why anyone would be putting food in their electronics, but kept that thought to himself.

:lolcat:


Guess hailing from a tech-deprived backwoods has its advantages for humor moments.

"Couldn't that be helpful?" Seifer wondered. "Like, if someone's in danger, the authorities could locate them faster."

Fenrir: "And you realize that we have bounties on our heads from those same authorities right now, right?" >:|
Seifer: "... Okay, I think I'm seeing the problem here."

"Sure. Or it could be used to expand the archbishop's surveillance state," Cyril growled. Fluffy tails brushed Noctum's thigh and he tried his best to hold his laughter.

I'm expecting it to come out that either Paradox's panopticon works just fine without these new phones or else Paradox is just boomer-tier when it comes to technology. Since you can already do some Black Mirror-tier stuff with existing surveillance technologies IRL.

"H-Hey, keep your tails in your seat." Noctum flapped his wings to keep the proper altitude.

"Right, sorry." Cyril adjusted his position. "You're going down at the light up ahead."

Noctum saw traffic lights with rotom clearly inside of them. The light for his lane had arrows pointing down. He was happy he wouldn't have to try changing lanes.

Oh, almost forgot to put on the BGM for the dystopian cyberpunk hellscape:

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWv8T5FsyzY


Noctum: "How are those Rotom not going crazy just sitting in the same lights all the time day in and day out?" .-.
Fenrir: "Pretty sure they dick around with motorists in their free time. Just hurry up before the signal changes.

"Anyway, point is: I want to get my paws on one of those chips." Cyril continued. "See if I can analyze it. Could prove useful for the rebellion."

"I still don't see why you can't buy it," Seifer huffed.

"The phones are activated once they're purchased," Cyril countered. "Meaning the chip would start tracking my movements. I need an inactive phone. And the only way to get that is from the factory, which happens to be under Flapple's flagship store."

Or, hear me out: You could just arrange for a straw buyer and have them just pull out the battery before handing the phone over. Or invest in a $5 Faraday pouch that de facto airgaps your phone from mobile networks, get out of dodge from the point of sale quickly, and wait for the battery to drain the hard way.

Noctum slowly glided down toward the street. The bottoms of these buildings were much less impressive that what he'd flown past. They had varying layers of rust or patches of crystals growing on their front staircases and railings.

"And you really think we can break into some major company's factory?" Seifer tapped a forehoof against his seat. Noctum glanced back at him and frowned. The keldeo offered an apologetic look.

"Us? No. But Zardy can," Cyril replied.

Again, Fenrir. Five. Dollars. If you have IRL-style EMP shielding in the Qliphoth, you almost certainly have this too since it's literally a toy-sized version of the same premise. >:V

Noctum: "U-Uh, Fenrir?! Are you sure there's no other way to-?!" O.O
Fenrir: "Look, we should assume these are magical phones that can get around normal electromagnetic interference, okay? So no there's not a better way of doing this. Now hurry it up already!" >:|

Fortunately, Noctum touched down and shuffled toward the sidewalk, so he could properly react. "Wait, me? Look at me!" The seat harness made it impossible for him to grab his tail. "Charizard aren't built for break-ins. My tail will give me away."

Cyril hopped out of his seat. "Not if you Phantom Warp."

Noctum froze. "Come again?"

Noctum: "Look, if I'm just hearing about this move for the first time, how do you expect me to use it?!" >_>;

"Phantom Warp." Cyril pointed to the crystal in Noctum's belly. "Don't you remember how Boss Kitty got inside the charjabus?"

Noctum tapped his chin. "You mean, in a blur with all that distorted energy around him?"

"That's the ticket." Cyril fluffed out his tails. "I don't see why you can't do it, too. That's why I took us here." With three of his tails, he gestured toward an alleyway between two of the buildings. "Perfect place to practice."

Noctum: "Oh dear god." ._.
Fenrir: "Well you're certainly never going to get good at it with an attitude like that."
:typhNOsion:


Seifer didn't look convinced. "So, you're telling me a charizard is going to teleport?"

A dry laugh greeted Seifer. "You're a riot," Cyril mused, rolling his eyes. "It's not teleportation, it's a Phantom Warp." He held up a forepaw. "Like the name implies, you temporarily convert your body to Malice and phase out of existence to move several meters in any direction."

Noctum jumped back in fright. "What? I don't wanna disappear!"

Noctum: 'Also, how's this supposed to work with passengers again?" ._.
Fenrir: "Worked fine for Boss Kitty taking us along, otherwise you wouldn't have seen my grill."
:gardeshrug:

Noctum: "Look, are you sure that there's not an easier-?"
Fenrir: "Again. Magical phones. So no, there is no easier way to do this."

"Relax, Zardy. I said 'temporary.'" Cyril shook his head. "Fact is, there's plenty of tech in Eternatus that blocks any and all attempts at teleportation." He stepped toward the building on his left and place his forepaw against it. "But the Phantom Warp makes it so you're nothing but an apparition. We're talking dodging attacks, phasing through solid objects, and bypassing any pesky barriers Troopers use to stop psychics."

Well that's certainly a handy upside to being in a realm full of undead people.

Cyril pulled his forepaw away and looked at the grime on it with a frown. Shaking his forepaw out, he turned to Noctum, "So, what d'ya say? Why don't you give it a try?" He jerked his head over his shoulder toward a wall with electrified razor wire on top of it. "Phantom Warp through that wall over there."

I see Fenrir is a fan of just yeeting fledglings from the nest when it comes to building skills.

Noctum: "... Would it have killed you to have picked a paper sliding wall or something like that to practice on first?"
:uhhh:

Seifer: "Um. Cyril, was it? Given that we're going to crash into anything that Noctum does if he doesn't get this right. Are you sure there's not a safer-" O_O;
Fenrir: "Look, you need motivation to get Phantom Warp right. This is as good of motivation as any."
Seifer: "... We are so dead."

Noctum looked up at the razor wire and whimpered. "Can't I just fly over it? Besides, what if I get stuck in the wall?"

"Then it'll have been an honor knowing you," Cyril deadpanned. Seifer looked aghast at the ninetales, who shook his head. "Look, you and your buddies waltzing into the bazaar without ID looplets screwed up the plan Gene and I had. So, you've got to fix it."

If the Faraday pouches idea would've worked, these two need to never ever let this guy hear the end of it. >:V

Noctum was willing to help, but using a new technique to do so unsettled him. Too many things could go wrong.

Cyril sighed again. "How about this? If you snag the uPhone, you can go back to Horizon Gardens immediately."

"R… really?"

Cyril nodded. "Cross my heart."

:sceptical:


Yeah, I'll believe it when I see it.

Seifer's broken horn sparked. "Wait, what about me?"

"Sorry, pony-boy. You and I have to keep a low profile." Cyril chuckled as Seifer's face reddened. The ninetales stepped up to Noctum and produced a small clip. He fastened it to Noctum's right horn with two of his tails.

Seifer: "I'm a Keldeo with a broken horn. How on earth do you expect me to keep a low profile here?!" >_>;
Fenrir: "By not moving around constantly, duh."

"What are you doing?" Noctum wanted to swat the tails away, but Cyril was faster. He unhooked the buckles for Noctum's harness and it dropped to the ground behind him.

"I gave you an X-transceiver, so we can stay in contact," Cyril explained. "Now, get moving. Time's a-wasting."

... Wait, how is this not immediately causing issues from whatever the Qliphoth's equivalent of cell tower triangulation is? Since the moment their messages get picked up by whoever's surveilling telecom messages in there, they potentially have a hard time limit to get out of dodge before the Eternatus Troopers get dispatched depending on how long their average response time is.
:what:


Noctum stepped up toward the wall. On closer inspection, it was made of pure cobalt. It absorbed some of the razor wire's glow. He looked down at the crystal in his chest, then back at the wall.

"Uh, what am I supposed to do here, exactly?"

Cyril shrugged. "How would I know?"

Seifer: "... Uh yeah, I'm starting to think we should go with that paper sliding partition right about now." O_O;
Noctum: "How on earth do you expect me to practice at something when nobody has any idea of how this is supposed to work?!" >.<
Fenrir: "Hey man, I'm not the one with the Malice Crystal in my gut. Just... I dunno, think warp-y thoughts or something."

"Because you brought it up?" Seifer somehow looked even more exhausted than before.

"Just because I know it exists doesn't mean I can make it work," Cyril retorted. "That's Gene's department. And he's not here."

... How on earth has this rebellion not collapsed with planning like this? .-.

Noctum pinched his brow. Why couldn't Valkyrie be the one with the stomach crystal? Guilt over that thought immediately followed. Sighing, Noctum widened his stance and crouched down. He extended his arms toward the wall.

Fenrir: "Because I'd probably die if I tried to deal with Val in this fashion? Sounds like a pretty good reason to me."
:fearfullaugh~1:

Seifer: "Sounds like more of a reason why she ought to have been the one in this position." >_>;

"Kah!" Noctum thrust his hands forward. Nothing happened.

He tried again. Nothing happened.

"Dash!" Noctum flicked his wrists. Nothing happened.

"I will say this, Zardy. Gene never shouts to get it to work," Cyril deadpanned.

Noctum: "Can't you give me more than that to work with?!" >.<

Groaning, Noctum's shoulders sagged. He was doing the best he could under the circumstances. But this could be my ticket home. So, he needed to focus.

Noctum's brow furrowed. He concentrated on his body. Every twitch of every muscle. The air moving through his nostrils with each breath he took.

It was then that something tugged on Noctum's gut. It was cold and slimy, like a huntail. Noctum concentrated on that unfamiliarity. Then a tingle spread over his entire body. Instinct told him to dive forward. Noctum thought he spread his wings, but there wasn't any actual movement. The dark purple tint of the city blurred all around him.

Within seconds, Noctum stumbled forward, his world spinning. After the dizziness settled down, Noctum found himself staring down a different alleyway. There were metal fire escapes sticking out from the buildings on either side of him. A neon billboard in the distance cast a golden glow along the alley from a stylized G in its center.

For all your home appliance needs, trust Galactic Appliances… for the win!

Oh, so that's what Team Galactic got up to after Eterna City got yeeted into the Qliphoth.

Noctum: "Did- Did I do it? What on earth just happened there?"

"Hey, Zardy, you still in one piece?"

"Gah!" Noctum jumped at Cyril's voice. It was so prominent, yet the fake ninetales was nowhere to be seen.

"I'm talking to you through the X-transceiver, dummy."

Noctum rubbed the back of his head. "Yeah, I realize that now."

"In any case, looks like you Phantom Warped. Congratulations, pats on the back, and all that jazz. Now do it a few more times so you can get the rhythm down."

Noctum: "L-Look, can we at least do the other jumps in a safer environment-?"
Fenrir:


It was hard for Noctum to feel good with Cyril's halfhearted compliment. "Right. Just give me a second."

Noctum was sure this long day was only going to get longer.

I mean, given what Fenrir's shown off of his decision-making skills... yeah, I'm with Noctum on this one.

The path to the Rebel Grill, advertised as "Guzzie's" by an electronic sign, was another moving walkway surrounded by a glass tube. Valkyrie easily could've stomped along and been there in no time flat, but she opted to hang back. The only grilling she wanted was of what happened to Quetzal to bring him to Horizon Academy in the first place.

Oh, sounds like we're getting a Guzzlord onscreen really quickly.

His answers were far from helpful. All he could recall was a giant Phantom with a bird mask that effortlessly defeated him with Dynarockfall, killed Crowne Minister Douglas, uprooted the Needle in his mansion, and morphed him into the form he currently occupied. After that, he woke up in Eterna City beside Seifer.

Valkyrie looked out at the expanse of stars and auroras. After a bit of silence, she said, "Makes you feel pretty small, doesn't it?"

Quetzal shuffled awkwardly on the moving walkway. "I suppose. Does it upset you?"

Valkyrie: "You do realize that I'm from a social outcast class in my homeland, right? I think that I'm already used to feeling pretty small here." >_>;

"Hardly." Valkyrie rubbed her snout with her forearm. "Soldier. Bodyguard. At the end of the day, we both live to follow orders. Cogs in the machine."

Still, Valkyrie wondered how much she'd missed back in Radiance. There was that big trial happening. One way or another, the outcome would lead to some sort of job from her handlers. And here she was, stuck in the very same spirit realm whose existence she shrugged off long ago.

Well, that's certainly a really dim worldview there. Even if you kinda need a view like that to some extent as a hitman. .-.

"What should we do now?" Quetzal wondered. "We find that dumb cat," Valkyrie replied, stepping off the moving walkway. Another circular doorway slid open to reveal a circular room bathed in the glow of purple lights. There were three levels of the room, with the first in the center comprised of several tables and purple benches surrounding a mechanical tauros. There was a pale human in a plaid shirt and jeans sitting atop it, holding on for dear life.

The garchomp stepped into the restaurant for a better view. Some of the nooks on the third level with her had brightly-flashing arcade machines. Others had PV screens… or whatever the hell the Eternatus equivalent was. She even spotted a pinball table, "Revenge of the Black Knight," in the far-left corner, next to the bar. Said bar had its own luminescent glow, as did the jukebox to the right of it.

I feel like that's some sort of reference, but I'm drawing blanks there. Since there's a lot of candidates for what that could be.

"Namaste… and peace be with you, travelers."

Valkyrie turned right and recoiled. "The hell—"

A massive, gaping maw full of razor-sharp teeth towered over her. It was like a damned portal!

Valkyrie hopped back, brandishing her claws at the two black pincers stuck out of the mouth. One waved, the other held a tray with fizzy beverages glowing different shades of orange.

Quetzal puffed out his feathers. "N… nice daemon. I don't actually taste like poultry!"

Ah, so here's that Guzzlord.

"Ah, Guzzie is the first guzzlord you have laid eyes on." He stepped back, allowing Valkyrie to see a smaller set of black arms and a tiny black head between two pointed horns. Guzzie's small, yellow eyes were guilty. "Guzzie does not want violence. Please forgive Guzzie."

"Uh-huh." Valkyrie shot a scathing look at Quetzal. If this was who Seifer hired, no wonder he got sacked for ineffectiveness. "So, you're the guy whose name's on this joint?"

Quetzal: "H-Hey! You were scared too!" >v>
Valkyrie: "Look, I didn't go full 'please don't eat me!' okay?" >_>;

Guzzie nodded. "Guzzie is head chef for Rebel Grill. Guzzie wants to give tired travelers smiles in their bellies." He turned to his right. "Or at least some respite from meanie archbishop." His smaller arms shrugged. "Can Guzzie bring you to table?"

Though food sounded good, Valkyrie had more pressing matters. "Actually, we're looking for Gene. He brought us here, then took off without us. Any idea where he is?"

"Yes." Guzzie's sigh was loud enough to make the floor rattle under Valkyrie's feet. He scratched his tiny head. "Gene got into shouting match with angry chatot pirate. Guzzie told them to take it outside."

Really playing to type there. Though Guzzie's certainly leaving quite a surprising first impression for his species there.

Valkyrie quirked a brow. "Outside meaning?"

"Junior's Slaughterplex." Guzzie pointed right. Valkyrie followed his pincer where, outside the massive glass wall, a giant arena platform hovered in place. There were even floating bleachers filled with spectators. Some cheering, others looking bored. All the bleachers had large projection screens offering Valkyrie a good view of the action.

Three dragalge floated below Gene, each with gray armor and helmets adorned by a tyrantrum skull and crossbones. They shot Dragon Pulses from their snouts in unison. Gene summoned a glowing pink spoon and twirled it rapidly. The resulting barrier deflected the blue bolts effortlessly.

"What do you zink you are doing?!" a small, colorful bird with a music note head, eyepatch, and pegleg shouted, waving his wings around. Valkyrie figured this was the chatot thing Guzzie mentioned. "Stop attacking in unison! You are only making it easier for him!"

Valkyrie: "... Why on earth couldn't this guy have gotten into an alley fight like a normal cat?" ._.
Guzzie: "Gene theatrical type like that. Comes with territory of being rebel leader."

"We be trying our best, Gilbert!" the dragalge closest to the chatot fired back, only for Gene to appear right in front of him. The mewtwo grabbed him and pivoted, using Dragalge as a meat shield against the incoming Dragon Pulses. Dragalge went limp. Gene hurled him at the pirate on his right. Both dragalge rolled into an unconscious pile on the edge of the arena.

Gilbert facepalmed while the remaining dragalge tried to flee. Gene closed the distance in an instant and smacked Dragalge with his glowing tail. Dragalge went careening out of the arena to thunderous applause from the crowd, interspersed with a few jeers.

Wouldn't that be "facewinged" since he's a bird? Though that's what happens when you try to fight as fish out of water. And Gene's certainly got some good technique there. :V

Quetzal jumped in surprise when Dragalge slammed into the glass wall. "That one… shivered me timbers," he wheezed before sliding off the glass.

Quetzal: "Yeesh, rough neighborhood." ·v·
Valkyrie: "Well the puns are as awful as always, at least." >_>;

"Okay, well, looks like we found him." Quetzal shuffled uneasily. "Can we go home now?"

"Oh my! And Gene has effortlessly dispatched the Blackskull Buccaneers!"

Valkyrie: "I mean, he only faced literal fish out of water. With a type disadvantage. That doesn't seem like much of an accomplishment." >_>;
Zapdos: "I dunno, even with that, how many guys finish off their opponents with a takedown straight out of Smash Bros? He's got good form, at least. Just remind me to never make him angry." ·v·

Valkyrie trotted forward, ignoring Quetzal calling out to her. She spotted a miniature version of Guzzie standing atop a hover platform and holding a microphone. "Who could have possibly seen this development coming?" he declared. "Oh, right, everyone. How utterly booooring. Little Guzzie demands more violence! More bloodshed! Agree with me, my peanut gallery! Agree!"

... Am I reading Mettaton as a shrunken Guzzlord there? :V

While the crowd applauded, Gene pointed a sparking index finger at Gilbert. "Well, bud, looks like it's just you and me. Gonna face me yourself or what?"

Gilbert's good eye widened. He looked left, then right. The chatot grabbed his right wing. "Ah, sacré bleu! I have sprain-ed my wing!" Gilbert collapsed on his back. "Oh, ze cruelty! Alzough I could have ze kicking of your posterior with ze ease, I am in no fit state for ze fighting."

Valkyrie rolled her eyes, as did Gene.

Well this guy's certainly no Jean-Baptiste du Casse, though I see that PoVverse seems to have a thing for French-themed characters with deficient bravery stats.
:loltias:


"But have no fear, mon ami!" Gilbert hopped back to his feet. "My less attractive stunt double will battle in my stead!" He tilted his head up. "Oh, Jacques!"

The floor once again rumbled. Even the floating arena was shaking. Gene crouched down, but was blindsided when what looked like a white wrecking ball careened into him from behind. The mewtwo rolled across the arena, the Malice Crystal in his shoulder kicking up sparks.

As Gene struggled to his feet, the wrecking ball uncurled, revealing an off-looking aggron. Valkyrie pressed her arms into the glass. His normal gray pelt was covered in a layer of thick white armor. He slammed his white-ringed tail on the ground and raised his spiked forearms into the air.

"Come and get some, kitty!" Jacques roared.

Oh hey, there are Mega Evolutions in this story. Also, small typo there.

Valkyrie: "An Aggron pirate? Why does this sound strangely familiar to me?"
Guzzie: "Is big Qliphoth. Guzzie say there bound to be more than one Aggron pirate around."
Queztal: "Yeah, and if you're thinking of the character I think you are, I'd expect someone a bit more incompetent."
Valkyrie: "Yeah, you'd think he'd be called 'Renault' or something like that. But whatever, I'm pretty sure that Aggron's toast since A: Gene's a main character, B: I'm pretty sure Mewtwo learn Aura Sphere by levelup."

Valkyrie sucked in a sharp breath.

It can't be… trance?!

Those kinds of transformations were meant to be the result of mastering control over Dynaforce! Why could some dead aggron pull it off?

Oh hey, we FF9 nao. That's certainly a clever way of handling Mega Evolution since... yeah, Trance basically did that in that game for the characters that could use it.

A little surprised you didn't opt for Adelbert/Steiner here, since when in Trance he looked a lot like Mega Aggron visually and it'd have some funny irony value for the casting.

"That was a cheap shot," Gene grumbled, grabbing his head and twisting it slightly. "Guess I'm just going to have to return the favor."

"I'd like to see you try." Jacques squared up his stance and punched the arena floor. Stone Edge spires shot up in waves. Gene went airborne, effortlessly floating past them. With a smirk and grunt, however, Jacques slammed his glowing tail into the rocks. His Iron Tail shattered the rocks. Shards careened through the air.

Rolling his eyes, Gene stuck his left hand forward. "Did you forget who you're dealing with here?" With his eyes glowing blue, Gene captured every shard in his telekinetic grasp and returned them to their sender.
... Yeah, should've just chucked an Aura Sphere there. Less flashy, but even with Filter in play, far, far more effective than that counter.

"Idiot! Look up!" Valkyrie shouted, before remembering she was in the restaurant and there was no way he'd hear her. Nevertheless, Gene realized that Jacques had leaped into the air and was looking to drive a glowing fist right into his skull.

She wasn't going to let her way home evaporate in some godforsaken death arena. Valkyrie spotted a staircase tucked away behind the bar and sprinted toward it. Hooking her left arm on the railing, the garchomp slid down it with ease. She arrived on a grated metal platform. In fact, there was an entire crisscrossing network of metal walkways under the arena. The dragalge Gene had knocked out of the arena lay in a crumpled heap to Valkyrie's right.

"What an intense stalemate!" Junior's shrill voice drew Valkyrie's attention back to the arena. Gene still floated in the same spot as before, eyes brimming bright blue. A similar glow surrounded Jacques, who was fighting against Gene's telekinesis.

Valkyrie: "For crying out loud, use Aura Sphere already!"
Jacques: "Oi, don't just tell him that!"
Gene: "Look, he's not exactly a normal Aggron right now, okay?!"
Valkyrie: "You didn't even try it yet!" >.<
Gene: "In case if you haven't noticed, I've kinda got my telekinetic hands full here!" >_>;

What's that idiot doing? Valkyrie dashed along one of the walkways leading to the grandstands on the left of the arena. Fling Aggron away!

"Ha ha ha!" Gilbert's pegleg clunked against the metal arena floor. "What is ze matter, kitty? Is ze mega evolution proving too much for you? Zere is no shame in zrowing in ze towel."

Gene was straining. The smirk Valkyrie barely made out on Jacques' face told her that much. Was there something else going on? Something Gene hadn't accounted for?

Yeeeeeah, if this is just a straight Mega Aggron fight, you might want to more explicitly communicate why Gene isn't either breaking into Aura Sphere spam, or else not flinging Jacques back to buy time for said Aura Sphere spam. And if it's not a straight Mega Aggron fight as I think you hinted on some other parts of the internet, you probably want to provide more of a hint than that to the audience as to what's going on, since I didn't pick up on anything beyond the Mega-ness being out of the ordinary.

She couldn't sit by. She had to strike. Neither pirate was aware of her. Valkyrie had a clear view of Jacques' right side. If she could only find a vulnerable spot. Something. Anything.

There!

It was subtle. A small chink in the back right part of Jacques' neck. However, that was all Valkyrie needed. She hopped up on the railing behind her and angled her mouth at Jacques.

Deep breath. Focus on the target. Don't overthink it.

Tightening her neck and jaw muscles, Valkyrie spat a small but brilliant Dragon Pulse beam. It struck the crack in Jacques' neck. His smirk melted away. The aggron's face twisted in agony. And that was all Gene needed.

>Dragon Pulsing a Steel-type when everybody and their mother as Dragon-types can pick up Flamethrower
:what:


Honestly a little surprised that Val opted for that instead of something a bit more reliable given that her job requires her to know how to wreck another 'mon's day in short order. Though I can already tell that this is going to end terribly even if it'll help Gene win the immediate match.

Valkyrie: "Er... that was a bit flashier than I thought it'd be. Hopefully nobody noticed that?"
:fearfullaugh~1:


The stalemate broke. Gene telekinetically slammed Jacques into the ground. The arena rumbled above Valkyrie. She hopped off the railing to keep her footing, locking eyes briefly with Gene. He then took the opportunity to hurl an Aura Sphere into Jacques' face. Then another. And another.

After the fourth Aura Sphere, the aggron stopped writhing in pain.

Valkyrie: "You knew Aura Sphere all this time and didn't use it at all in this fight until just now?!" >_>;
Gene: "Again, I had my hands full!" >_>;

"What is this? A sudden intrusion in Gene's favor?!"

The hover platform Junior stood atop quickly found its way to Valkyrie, as did a few rotom drones. Her stoic expression was on the arena's big screens for everyone to see. There was a mixture of gasps and jeers from the audience.

"My, my. What a feisty looking garchomp!" Junior spoke into his jewel-encrusted microphone. "Could it be you wish to try your claws in Little Guzzie's Arena… of Dooooom?!"

Yuuuup, I had a feeling that this was going to backfire.

Valkyrie: "Er... well, as tempting as that offer is, but I think you're out of pirates, so I think I'll just be going right about now-"
:fearfullaugh~1:


"Hardly." Valkyrie huffed out dragonfire. "That dweeb is my ride home." She jerked her head in Gene's direction.

"Oh ho! So, bot-bashing Gene has found himself a new squeeze." Junior rubbed his two upper pincers together. "Swoon over the weird couple, audience. Swoon, I say!"

Valkyrie ignored the audience's laugher. She hopped up to Junior's hover platform and used it to glide safely onto the arena, where Gilbert was fretting over the unconscious Jacques. "Beat it, pipsqueak," she growled. "Gene and I have business."
Well, that worked out better for Val than I thought.

Valkyrie: "Whew, for a second, I was worried I was going to get chased out of here by an angry mob."
:blazisweat~1:


Gilbert looked up. Immediately, a sheen took over his good eye. "Pipsqueak? Mmm." He climbed onto Jacques' belly. "I will let zat insult slide, for you, mademoiselle, are one part handful and two parts oooh-la-la."

Valkyrie: "Did- Did I just get hit on by a bird?"
:squirpuke:

Gilbert: "No need to be so shy. None of les dames can resist the charms of the dashing Gilbert!"

"That so?" Valkyrie slammed her tail against the arena floor. "Maybe I should hurl you into the restaurant wall like Gene did to your buddy."

"Aha ha." Gilbert nearly fell off Jacques. "I am zinking not. But know zis, Mademoiselle Chomp… Chatot Gilbert, first mate extraordinaire, is never one to shy away from a beauty like yourself." He slowly bowed, using the wing he claimed was broken. "We shall meet again. But for now, I bid you adieu."

Wait. He's a First Mate? Then who on earth is the Captain? .-.

Two rotom drones had finished putting Jacques onto a stretcher and flew off with the aggron and Gilbert in tow. Gene then walked up to Valkyrie, slowly applauding.

"Quite the performance." The mewtwo grinned at her. "I daresay you'll make a fine rebel."

"Cut the crap." She held a claw up to Gene's chin. "You're sending me home. Now."

Valkyrie: "Considering how you almost jobbed to an Aggron when you had a supereffective move all this time that couldn't miss... yeah, I'll take a pass on joining your rebellion." >_>;
Gene: "Look, I got sneak attacked and was off balance, okay?" >.<

"Yeeeeah." Gene pressed a finger to Valkyrie's claw and pushed it away. "See, that's not a good idea."

Valkyrie bared her fangs. "Why not?"

Smirking, Gene grabbed Valkyrie's head and turned it so she could see Quetzal pacing in the restaurant's glass wall. "Because the last thing you want is for me to open a rift here and walk a Radiant Guardsmon straight into the Ryujin's secret underground city." Gene twisted Valkyrie's head back. There was a red glint in his eyes. "After all, once they realize you're the lone Citadark escapee, they'll give you the needle and you'll be stuck here for good."

WHAT.

Though Gene suddenly took on some much more shifty tones from that, since... yeah. I kinda have to side-eye at anyone who keeps someone in line in a fashion like that.

Valkyrie: "A-Are you seriously blackmailing me into joining your incompetent band of rebels here?!"
:grohno:

Gene: "Am I really so incompetent if I could think of that?" >:3

Valkyrie tensed. "How did—"

Gene flashed his canines. "People like us know how to get to the bottom of things effortlessly. Isn't that right… Prisma?"

Again. WHAT.

I certainly wasn't expecting to see that name again, let alone on a protagonist.

"That's it, then?"

Vortex leaned over a plain tan conference table to look at a projection. It had a map of Venish, with its crisscrossing canals leading out to sea east of the city. One part on the top right of the map had a large purple spiral in it; the distortion given off by the disappeared Needle. Dashed red lines ran through the water, thankfully not reaching the city or its canals.

A barraskewda's head flopped up and down. He nearly lost the white sailor's hat that was clearly too large for his arrow-shaped head. "Yes. As far as we know, anyway."

- Meanwhile in the background singing can be heard -
Crowds:
View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnoqzFrQ_aY

Vortex: "... Aren't the citizenry a bit chipper about a Mystery Dungeon opening up right on their doorstep?"
Barraskewda: "Oh no, that's for the state funeral of that noble that died yesterday."
- Vortex raises a brow -
Vortex: "Okay, now that's definitely uncharacteristically chipper of them." O_ó;
Barraskewda: "I mean, I'm pretty sure they're dancing on his coffin right now, so..."

"As far as you know," Vortex parroted. He sat down on a metal chair, poking his tail through a gap in the back. "I've not seen reports of any delays for our ships."

"Correct again, sir." Barraskewda curled his ventral fins up. "But the poisons are spreading. And they're definitely coming from where the Needle used to be." He floated up to the table, picked up a small remote, and pressed a button. "If we can't find a way to contain it, this is where we predict the poison will reach by tomorrow."

Oh, I see you opted for the "floating fish" take for this story.

The map shifted so the dashed red line was closer to the Venish coastline.

"And the next day."

He clicked the button again. The dashed red line was now just a short distance away.

"And now the day you're proposing I do my leg."

One more click put the dashed line into Venish's canals. Barraskewda looked down. "The starting point for the fishing portion is far enough away, sure, but this cuts into the proposed gondola route."

... I didn't realize that this guy was a Crowne Minister. But are these two seriously talking about continuing the Crowne Cup when a distortion in spitting distance of the city is poisoning its water?

Vortex got to his feet. The metal chair fell back with a clang. He rested his hands on the table, nearly digging into the plastic with his claws. "Then. Change. The. Route."

Barraskewda looked at the map. Then back at Vortex. "But that could disrupt canal traffic even more than city commissioners planned. Not to mention Polaris transp—"

"I wasn't asking you, Vincenzo." Vortex balled his hands into fists. "I was telling you." He straightened up and turned to Arianna and Tesla. The former scribbled away in her planner while the latter was transfixed on the map, expression unreadable behind his flickering goggles. "We're already scrambling to salvage this first leg," Vortex continued.

"We're looking at having to issue partial refunds to people who purchased tickets to the Herbrides leg just to placate any complaints. I will not risk further profit for some prediction about toxins in the water. We're not having the students swim out to sea."



I like how this guy's number one priority at the moment in light of all this news is lost profits.

He held up an index finger. "One day. Change the route. You disrupt canal activity for one day… and that's it. Then you can go back to figuring out what the deal is with this pollution."

Tesla cleared his throat. He made several zzt noises while Vortex turned to him with a sigh, "What is it?"

"Well, sir, I believe my genius can put together an effective buffer." A robotic arm popped out of Tesla's backpack and tapped the boltund's head. "I just need some samples of the water from the more polluted areas."

Vortex looked to Vincenzo. "Make it happen."

Well that totally won't end in disaster at all.
:fearfullaugh~1:


The barraskewda nodded. His sailor hat fell to the floor. "Of course." Vincenzo puttered up to Tesla. "If you'll follow me."

"Lead the way, old chum!"

With a hearty laugh, Tesla followed Vincenzo out of the conference room, making vrrts and zzrts with every step he took.

Vortex pinched his brow. "What next, Arianna?"

The gardevoir looked around the room. "We should return to your office in Horizon, sir." She nudged her glasses up. "Tesla's moved construction on the genesect schematics I… designed into full production. He thinks they might be ready to replace Radiant Guardsmon within a week or two."

the-incredibles-spit-out-water.gif


>that ending

Well, things are certainly heating up fast. I certainly wasn't expecting a potential hostile takeover to be in the cards, but that was certainly an ominous way to cut to black.

As for my overall thoughts: The chapter was definitely full of surprises, since literally every single scene had something in it that caught me off-guard. Which was quite an accomplishment in less than 4500 words. It also had quite a bit that made me snerk from laughter. A lot of those were groaner puns, but still. :V

As for the things that kinda took me out of the chapter... there were a couple bits that made me
:what:
at the presented logic a bit. Fenrir's logic for going after the uPhone to disassemble for its tracking chip assuming he's not jerking Noctum and Seifer around is a major offender. As is Gene waiting to use Aura Sphere until the very last moment when fighting Not!Hess there. Like it's not as bad as it was when I first read it since I completely forgot about Mega Aggron's type change and getting Filter as an ability, but it's not until the very end when we see Gene use attacks that logically ought to have been his bread and butter regardless of whether or not he knew about Jacques' gimmick, and it wasn't really communicated why he wasn't able to just do that given that the moment he does start using AS in the fight, he takes his opponent apart pretty quickly.

Regarding the logical parts, it might make sense to add a couple sentences here and there elaborating on why it is things play out the way do. For instance, if uPhone 33s have a hardware-level failsafe against post-activation disassembly (since I wouldn't put it past an Apple parody to do that) or else his analysis specifically requires powered-on hardware and Fenrir doesn't have an electromagnetically shielded space to do it in (e.x. he wrecked his last one somehow and won't be getting a replacement soon)... yeah, there's your reason for wanting to yoink one from the factory. And if Gene was more explicitly mentioned or depicted as still being off-balance from Jacques' opener or else having problems with Aura Sphere such as not having the space to work with to form one properly before getting clocked by Jacques (e.x. showing him try but get cockblocked by lack of time to form the bootleg hadoken), or else trying it early on and getting a nasty surprise that it didn't work as well as expected because of Filter, that'd be a more effective way of showing "this is why I'm not just playing keepaway and Aura Sphering this guy to death" and it'd make the degree to which Gene was struggling feel a bit more believable to me. You've mentioned offsite that there was something up with Jacques that was intended to be hinted at the way that Gilbert looks at him, but if it's something beyond Mega Evolution/Trance, it... honestly didn't come through the narration for me, and you should consider being a bit more unsubtle about hinting at what was going on.

Even with those gripes, I had a lot of fun @Ambyssin . And it's a pleasure to finally be leaving feedback for your story again.
 

Ambyssin

Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 29: If it Ain't Broke

"No! I refuse to accept this!"

Shimmer stomped a forehoof down on the throne room's red carpet. His tiara refracted the spark of anger in his horn. Pink lights twinkled on the marble pillars and lilac tapestries. He stared his mother down, his bloodshot eyes reflected in the purple gemstone in the center of the bronze shield strapped to her chest.

"I demand his dismissal!" Shimmer pointed his right forehoof at Vegna, who floated beside Demerzel, Griffon, and Vortex. The dusknoir had his back turned to the assembly, slowly turning the page of his book. "He killed Benedict! I'm sure of it!"

"The investigation closed yesterday evening, Shimmer." Isola shook her head. "Stoutland Yard found no evidence to link Vegna to the rubble. And he was with the good magister the entire time."

Shimmer gnashed his teeth. "Th… then he… used black magic or something!"

Isola sighed. "Forensics determined no signs of Poltergeist usage or other supernatural activity." She turned to her left. "Demerzel?"

Her mutant advisor floated up to the stairs surrounding Isola's throne. He clasped his hands together behind his back. "Investigators traced payments to secure accounts belonging to Mr. Benedict. Sir Vegna's accusations have merit." Demerzel produced a scroll from his robes. "Jurist bribery. Witness tampering. It would seem he even paid off Stoutland Yard officers to interfere with investigations. They all pled guilty to misconduct and were shipped to Citadark overnight."

Shimmer's heart sank into his gut. He gulped. "Why? I… don't understand."

At this, Vegna slowly turned his head. His crimson eye glowed under his hood. "Why darkness and obscurity in all thy words and laws? That none dare eat the fruit but from the wily serpent's jaws." His book closed with an audible whump. "There are those who achieve power and will do whatever it takes to maintain it. Your 'uncle' intervened in trials involving his banking clients so he could continue to extort them. Nothing more, nothing less."

Vegna turned away, leaving Shimmer staring at his black cloak, mouth agape. Demerzel cleared his throat. "I assume that the press remains… unaware of this fact?" He turned to Vortex.

"The only outlet that even reported on Benedict's death was the blasted Radiant Beacon." Vortex rolled his eyes. "But we took steps to get ahead of it."

"By having Starlene release a new single?" Demerzel narrowed his eyes. "It was all over the news yesterday." Frowning, he turned to Isola. "Are you not concerned about public perception? The longer they remain unaware of such dealings, the worse their response will be."

"I understand your worries." Isola bobbed her head. "But it is a delicate tightrope. The last thing we want is to give people reason to believe in the extremist who staged a scene outside of the Crowne Court." She turned and braced her forehooves on her throne. "We have already put the Radiant Guard on standby for this… demonstration of his in Herbrides. The fewer people attend, the easier it will be for them to arrest the extremist."

Shimmer's face scrunched up. They were already brushing everything aside. Even if Vegna spoke the truth, that wasn't the Benedict he knew. The one who showered him with gifts, introduced him to oodles of celebrities, and helped him get modeling gigs and guest spots on PV shows.

They weren't even giving Vegna so much as a slap on the wrist for any of it. He wouldn't stand for that!

"I won't let you ignore this!" His horn sparked once again. Shimmer's nostrils flared. "Vegna… humiliated me. Mocked me in open court!"

There was a glint in Griffon's dark eyes. "That's because you made it eas— mmph!"

A pink glow squeezed the corviknight's beak shut. He went cross-eyed trying to open it back up.

Shimmer stepped toward his mother. "He needs to be sanctioned. Or suspended. Or… or something!"

"The Ministry of Justice is short-staffed, dear." Isola sighed. "We can seldom afford to dismiss an experienced inquisitor at a time like this."

Shimmer's face reddened. "Make an exception!"

"We will not." Isola pushed herself away from her throne. Her magenta robes fluttered as she turned to face Shimmer once more. "Our darling Justine did not… endure a month of the transfer orb's effects so we could conceive your egg… only to have you turn around and use her office as your plaything because your feelings were hurt."

Shimmer shuffled back. He envisioned the virizion's stern, disapproving look. The same look she always wore around him… no matter how many exams he aced or awards he won.

"But… if an inquisitor can openly mock me, how can I expect to lead this country effectively?" the ponyta whispered, ears folding against the rim of his tiara.

"Try growing thicker skin, Dimmer!" Griffon cawed, only for Vegna to flick his beak. He stepped back, ducking his head under his right wing. "Peeps gonna call him way worse shit when he inevitably screws something up as king," Griffon whispered despite Vegna's icy glare.

"Justine agreed to withhold Vegna's salary for the next six months," Isola said, ignoring Griffon's remarks. "Chancellor, I assume you are okay implementing a similar policy for his position in your employ."

The charizard straightened his tan suit jacket and bowed. "Of course, Your Eminence."

"Well, I want him out of the law class." Shimmer pawed at the red carpet. "And he can't be my Crowne Cup advisor anymore. I refuse to associate with him!"

Vortex glanced toward Isola. "Very well," the rapidash said. "You will reassign him, Chancellor."

"Understood. It should be simple… given one of my new hires thought he could make a fool of me by skipping out on his own classes."

Isola stepped back and sat on her throne. "That will be all." She waved her forehoof at the group. "Dismissed."

Shimmer opened his mouth, but Isola's gaze sharpened. "Dismissed, Shimmer."

The ponyta lowered his head. "Yes, Mother."

Vortex stepped to his side. "Come with me, Your Grace," he whispered. "There are changes to the Crowne Cup I need to tell you about."

XxX​

Things moved quickly after Cyril deployed his smokescreen. He ushered Seifer through side streets until they reached a grimy back alley flanked by dumpsters and patches of dried ooze clinging to the onyx buildings. Seifer could only hear Cyril's side of the X-transceiver conversation, but by the end of it he was sure things had gone… decently.

Noctum returned to Radiance, while Seifer remained stuck in the Qliphoth. That jealousy left a bitter taste in his mouth. One that wasn't as strong as the… acrid odors given off by the dumpsters.

He had no idea how much time passed before a rift opened beside them and Gene invited them back to the Bergammula Belt. Seifer asked for directions to a shower, which Cyril offered without hesitation. He passed Valkyrie in the gray, metallic hallway. She looked noticeably less composed than when he'd last scene her. Seifer was tempted to ask if something happened, but fatigue outweighed that desire. So, off to the shower he went.

To his surprise, he found Cyril waiting outside the shower door when he finished. Seifer was tempted to duck back in and grab his towel from the linen basket, but Cyril politely turned away from the keldeo.

"What do you want?" Seifer asked. "Haven't I been through enough already?" He just wanted to go home.

… or as close to home as he could manage. His family had probably disowned him by now.

Cyril scratched his white, scruffy mane. "We, uh, still need to fix up that horn."

Seifer strongly doubted Cyril was capable of something like that. But it wasn't like he knew of anything else to do in this place. So, he followed Cyril down a couple of grated corridors and through a cylindrical hallway offering a panorama of the auroras and asteroids floating in the distance.

After Cyril unlocked the room at the end with a so-called "retinal scanner," he gestured to a worn red sofa pushed up against the wall. It had mismatched fabric patches sewn over holes and feathers poking out of the cushions. Seifer hesitantly sat down and promptly sank into it. His damp mane and tail frazzled against the couch fabric.

The walls surrounding him were lined with shelves holding a wide variety of tools. He recognized assorted wrenches, hammers, drills, and even a few welding torches. To the right of the desk on the opposite side of the room were a couple of metal aprons hanging on hooks over boxes filled with spare parts and rolled up schematics.

"Excuse the mess." Cyril had his back to Seifer as he thumbed through one of the drawers on the left of his desk. "I swear there's a method to this madness."

Seifer looked down. The floor was transparent, with rows of gears turning underneath it. There were also several metal boxes sitting between the gears. It was such a strange workspace. Nothing like the mechanic shops back in Radiance. Or, at least, the ones the Radiant Guard worked with.

"The way I see it, we can do things one of two ways." Cyril turned around. His right paw held a white tube and the left held a power sander. "Either I can try and make a mold of the breakage site and use that as a base for the prosthetic… or I can smooth the breakage with this." He squeezed the trigger on the power sander. It revved to life with a surprisingly loud whirr.

Seifer's ears flattened. "I think… I'd rather take my chances with the mold."

The white-furred zoroark looked at his power sander with disappointment. "I figured as much. This would've been easier for me, but I can't think of anyone too fond of having a horn grinded down… broken or not." He set the sander on his desk with a sigh. "Usually, I'd charge extra for this. The molding material ain't cheap. But since you helped with the mission, it's on the house."

As Cyril walked to his left and pressed a keypad in the wall, Seifer whispered, "I didn't even do anything."

Hearing himself say it out loud made it sting even more. He was supposed to be the one people turned to for help. Not some random Aeon charizard. And, on top of that, he sat by and watched while Cyril had perpetrated a crime! What if this archbishop character could actually offer him help?

… no, not just Seifer. What if Paradox could help all of Radiance? His disposal of Benedict could hardly be considered a bad thing.

Seifer grit his teeth. The keldeo was a good soldier. One of the best. He'd done everything Her Eminence had asked. And yet… here he was. Stuck in an alien world. Abetting hardened criminals.

Where had he gone wrong? How had he fallen so far so fast?

"Eternabuck for your thoughts?"

Seifer jolted. He looked up to find Cyril standing beside a strange metal chair. There was a padded square that seemed meant for him to rest his head on.

Shaking his head, Seifer got to his feet. "I wouldn't expect you to understand." He walked up to the chair. It was made with quadrupeds in mind. And it must've sprouted out from the floor, as there were wires and cables anchoring it in place that connected to some of the gears under Seifer's hooves.

"Why's that?" Cyril grabbed a black drape off his desk.

"Because you—" Seifer paused. How could he phrase it delicately?

Ah, to hell with it.

"You're a two-bit, criminal arms dealer." Seifer took a seat on the chair and lay his head on the cushion. "I wouldn't expect you to understand what it's like to have your whole life ripped out from under you."

For a moment, there was genuine hurt in Cyril's lone, visible eye. The white zoroark quickly hid the yellow eye behind his hair. "… yeah. Right." He approached Cyril, unfolding the tarp. "Real nice thing to say to a guy offering to patch you up."

Seifer shifted uneasily. "W… what's with the tarp?" He noticed a hole in the center of it.

"It's to cover your head and torso," Cyril stoically replied. "The mold's a right pain to get out of your pelt."

"Oh." Seifer's gaze fell moments before the tarp blanketed him. It was surprisingly soft. Silk, perhaps? He couldn't put his hoof on it.

"I guess the stuff I said before the mission doesn't matter," Cyril continued. Seifer heard the scraping of metal against glass. The tarp was too dark to see through, but he spotted stool legs in the small gap between the edge of the tarp and the floor.

"What stuff?"

"My life got pulled out from under me, too," Cyril said. "Y'know… used to be an ice ninetales? Stripped of my form and powers?"

"Ah, yes. That." The keldeo bit his lip. "I guess I just thought—"

"—that it happened so long ago, it doesn't matter anymore?" Cyril interrupted. Something soft gripped Seifer's broken horn. Cyril's paws? His grip was… gentle. Delicate, even. Two claws danced along the jagged ridges of the broken horn while a plastic instrument pressed against the tarp and, by extension, Seifer's forehead.

"I suppose," Seifer whispered.

Cyril tapped a claw against Seifer's horn. "Are all you Radiant Guardsmon so… emotionally stunted?"

It was hard to sit still at that. "Excuse me?" Seifer settled for puffing up his cheeks.

"Forget it," the white zoroark said. The stool pulled away. "I'm not exactly sure why you're saying your whole life got ripped out from under you. You're still alive. Healthy."

There was another word at the end, but Seifer couldn't make it out. "Like I said, you wouldn't understand."

"Try me," Cyril said.

The stool returned while Seifer pondered how to respond to Cyril's request. He was about to start talking when something warm touched his broken horn. The fur on the back of Seifer's neck prickled. He took a sharp breath. The keldeo had to keep his composure. Offers to help or not, he wouldn't let this criminal get the better of him.

Seifer managed to recollect his thoughts when more warmth pooled in his horn. "Being in the Radiant Guard was my life." His voice cracked. He was glad he had the tarp to hide the embarrassment on his face.

"Generations of keldeo have protected and served the kingdom," Seifer continued. "My family estate has a whole area dedicated to it. Medals of commendation, uniforms, and the like. The family record was spotless for generations… until now."

Silence, then a single, "That's rough, buddy."

Seifer blinked. Cyril didn't sound sarcastic, but what was he supposed to say to that? And after the ghoulish zoroark had the nerve to call him emotionally stunted, no less! What a total hypocrite!

"Wanna know what I think?" Cyril asked. Seifer was ready to say no, but the warmth spreading down his horn stub to his face took the fight out of him.

"What?" Seifer whispered.

"I think this is a blessing in disguise."

Seifer's response was a bitter laugh.

"No, I'm serious," Cyril insisted. His paws gently wrapped around Seifer's horn. The tingle in his neck returned, only now it was moving down his back.

"Look, maybe I don't know that much about you, but it sounds to me like you've lived the life you were told to live," Cyril continued. "Maybe you were happy leading the Radiant Guard, but I think that happiness was… manufactured."

"Huh?"

"Dude, you've lived your entire life in a bubble." Cyril claws needed Seifer's horn. The keldeo sucked in a sharp breath, attention split between the conversation and… whatever Cyril was doing to his broken horn. "You were surrounded by people walking paths that were laid out for them from the days they hatched. Of course you'd think everything's fine and dandy, because that's what everyone around you thought, too."

Seifer blinked once. Twice. Why was he having so much trouble focusing?

"You sound as if… I was brainwashed," he scoffed. "I wasn't in some bubble. I fought day in and day out against Radiance's seedy underbelly. Charged into the distortion to help those without the means to help themselves." Now he was getting worked up. "I liked my life because it was fulfilling! I was… making a difference in the world."

Silence. Cyril removed his paws and the warmth had faded from Seifer's horn.

Then, in a barely audible whisper, the white-furred zoroark asked, "If you were really making such a profound difference, why did Isola fire you?"

The tarp came off the moment Seifer's jaw slackened. Cyril draped it over his shoulder. He held what looked to be a white replica of Seifer's broken horn. "All set." Cyril set the replica on the desk.

"That's it?" Seifer did his best to regain his composure, but he struggled to lift his head off the cushion. His muscles had turned to putty. What had this crook done to him?

"That's it… for the moment." Cyril sat on the stool. "Now I get to work on your new horn."

"… oh." Seifer's eyes darted around. So, this was where they were leaving things? Seifer wasn't sure if he was relieved, ashamed, or guilty after what just happened. Perhaps some combination? All he could do was stare at the gears turning underneath him.

Cyril cleared his throat. "You don't have to stay. This room's far from comfy."

"Yeah." The keldeo turned toward the door. "I guess I'll… try and find the others."

When he headed for the door, Cyril said, "Oh, by the way, Boss Kitty called me while we were working. It looks like I'm going to Venish to pick up the uPhone. Chiaki's doing the handoff so Zardy can spend some time with that dreepy he looks after."

Seifer looked back at Cyril, who scratched the back of his unkept mane. "I know you want to get back to Radiance. So, uh, come with me, okay?"

The keldeo's shoulders sagged in relief. "Now that's something I can agree to."

Cyril's mane made it hard to tell, but Seifer swore he saw a twinge of sadness in the white zoroark's expression.

XxX​

The grass was much less green in the valleys surrounding Venish. Not that Yuna could easily tell. Things were moving too fast outside the train windows. Fast enough to make her queasy. The milotic — Artemis, apparently — said they were on a "light-speed rail." It was certainly faster than the trains to Hebrides and the Crowne Court.

"So, um." Perched atop Noctum's head, Yuna batted her gills in thought. "What do you make of Vortex's announcement? Y'know, the whole 'experiential learning' stuff? That's, like, learning by doing, right?"

Across from her, Nikki yawned into her right hand. "He's blowing smoke out his ass. Crowne Cup challenges have always been, like, little samples of things the kingdom's cities are known for." She glanced at Artemis, who sat coiled on the chair to her left. "If you ask me, I think he's covering up the fact that he knows something's wrong with the distortion and that crazy mutt who kidnapped me."

"Xeromus," Yuna whispered, suppressing a shudder. He had mentioned going to Herbrides and Artemis had suggested that might've been the reason the class was going to Venish for the Cup's first leg.

"I really hope he's the one blowing smoke," Reshiram whimpered. "If we're in a faraway city, there's nothing we can do to intervene if he tries any funny business."

"Why not simply delay the Crowne Cup if things are unsafe?" Noctum wondered, fidgeting nervously with the pockets of a pink apron with a floral pattern. Baraz offered it in an attempt to hide the crystal sitting in his gut. "Or just, y'know, cancel it all together?"

"Pride."

Artemis' terse response made Noctum jump. Yuna's ectoplasmic body wriggled and she gripped his left horn to keep from sliding off. The milotic noticed and his ribbons curled. "I don't know if the decision's coming from Vortex, Queen Isola, or both. But if I learned one thing about the folks in charge at Horizon, it's that they refuse to let anything get in the way of their own aspirations."

Yuna frowned. "But, like, isn't the Crowne Cup supposed to be for our benefit?" She gestured to Nikki and herself.

"… ha!" Artemis coughed into a grimy ribbon. "Please. Do you have any idea how much revenue the Cup generates?"

"Uhh… no?" Yuna shifted uneasily on Noctum's head.

The charizard must've picked up on it because he added, "We're foreigners, remember? We barely understand the rules to this thing."

"Right, right." Artemis slouched against the window. "They sell tickets for every event. And broadcast the whole thing on a variety of PV stations. Companies trip over one another to buy ad space for these things."

"Ad space?" Yuna tilted her head. "Like… posters and flyers?"

"Well, yeah, they do those, too." Nikki's brow furrowed. "But we're talking about commercials. Y'know, the things that interrupt PV shows?"

It finally clicked for Yuna. "Oh, right." She did find it weird that those were a thing. It would be like some shop owner running up onstage during a theater performance to hock their wares to the audience.

"If Vortex delays or cancels the Crowne Cup, his company loses out on a ton of revenue," Artemis continued. "So, he's pushing forward with it. Even if it's dangerous."

"The school… is willing to risk thine safety for money?" Rayquaza growled. "Heavens preserve me, these administrators could do with some discipline themselves!"

"I mean… participation is, technically, voluntary." Nikki shrugged. "Ya just get pressured into taking part by everyone around you."

Reshiram hummed in Yuna's head. "Well, couldn't the reverse hold true?" He tapped his ethereal claws together. "If we tell enough of the other students about what's going on, maybe we can convince them all to boycott the Crowne Cup?"

Yuna repeated the idea out loud. Artemis rolled his eyes and Nikki waved her off. "Please. Good luck getting any of the others to believe you. They all see the Cup as their ticket to fame and fortune."

"There has to be more to it than that," Yuna retorted.

Nikki slumped in her seat. "Look, I'd be down, but with the whole Needle business, we need to be in the Cup to travel like this, right? It's a catch twenty-two."

"… I guess." Yuna deflated, almost sliding down the back of Noctum's neck. The charizard nudged her back up with his right arm.

"Is there a Needle in Venish?" Noctum whispered.

Nikki shrugged. "Hell if I know."

"There is." Artemis flicked a ribbon nonchalantly. "It's out at sea, though. Several kilometers east of the city. Used to see it back in my fishery days."

"Sheesh." Nikki scratched her left horn. "You never got creeped out by that?"

"The Needle?" Artemis raised a brow.

"No, dumbass." Nikki shoved Artemis' coiled torso. "Being a fish who wrangled other fish for people to eat."

Artemis shrugged. "You grow numb to it after a while."

"Well, that's not morbid at all," Reshiram squeaked. "Still, 'mons have to eat, I suppose."

"Thou w're a carnivore in thine heyday,"
Rayquaza said. "As was I."

Thank you, both. Now be quiet,
Yuna mentally hissed. Both dragons' presences retreated. The dreepy desperately wanted to change the subject. "So, um, what do you think the first leg will be about?"

"Beats me." Nikki stretched her arms up. Tiny sparks jumped off her mane as it brushed her insulated seat. "Far as I'm concerned, you go to Venish for three things: the food, the wine, and the kooky buildings."

"I think she means the architecture," Noctum said. He pulled a pamphlet out of an apron pocket. "I grabbed this from the train station before we boarded." The black charizard opened up the pamphlet and held it up. "Look at that amphitheater. It's so big!" He pointed to the large picture in the center showing rows of concentric gray arches projecting a rainbow of colors. "Wonder how they get half a dome to stay up like that."

At the very least, Yuna was glad to see Noctum's Qliphoth trip hadn't dampened his spirits. His enthusiasm filled her gut with warmth.

… or maybe that was just his natural fire-type warmth. Still, it was nice.

"Oh, yeah, I guess, like, the theater scene is big or whatever." Nikki yawned into the neck of her coat. "But the seafood and pasta dishes are a way bigger deal!" She smacked her lips. "If we get an eating challenge, we're solid, time delay or not!"

Artemis smirked. "Maybe the food's a big deal to you, but most students here can get those kinds of meals whenever they want. Besides, a performance would be more… lucrative for the school."

Nikki frowned. "I swear, if they make us do some campy theater shit, I'm out." She waved her arms in front of her head. "Didn't sign up for that."

At that, Yuna couldn't help but giggle. "But you are a musician. That's a performance art."

Nikki blanched. "Well, I— that is—"

She slumped down even further in her seat, scowling. "Just because you're correct doesn't mean you're right."

Four chimes went off overhead. Yuna looked up to a speaker bolted to the luggage rack.

"Attention, passengers. We're pulling into Venish Central Station. Please collect your belongings and mind the gaps as you exit the train. Thank you for using Polaris Light-Speed Rail. It was a pleasure serving you today."

Noctum stood up with Yuna wrapping her arms around his horns to hang on. "We're supposed to meet everyone at the front of the station, right?"

"Yup." Nikki stood up, stretching her arms out once again. She slowly turned her head around to stretch her neck. "Still not sure why Twiggy needed an earlier train than us."

"Isn't it to give Cyril the uPhone?" Yuna said.

"Pssht. Sure." The toxtricity stepped out onto the carpeted aisle. "You gotta get better at reading between the lines. Why do you think he was pushing to go to Venish before we knew about the Crowne Cup leg? Guy's obviously got something going on here."

Baraz and Noctum followed after her so Artemis had enough room to uncoil and slither out.

"If that's the case, we have to trust he'll be back by tomorrow morning," the milotic said.

Noctum thumped his chest. "I think he'll be back."

The group walked toward the front of the train car. The door opened up to a cooling sea breeze. It felt great against Yuna's ectoplasm.

"Right." Yuna couldn't help but bite her lower lip.

Bahamut, please keep Chiaki safe. The team really needs him.

XxX​

"Report, Sticky."

The naganadel looked up from his tablet. Paradox stood at the side of his large metal desk, staring at the wall of inactive monitors behind him. Three poipole worked to fit his purple and black cleric robes on and pull his tentacles through.

"Of course, sir." Sticky saluted. "I reviewed the incident report from the flagship Flapple factory. Security camera footage is distorted. Two Brawlers and factory employees report seeing a black-scaled charizard grab a uPhone and escape through a Qliphoth rift."

"A rebel. Typical." Paradox shook his head. "But a charizard is most… unexpected. The factory is deep underground. That blasted mewtwo should've been the only one capable of reaching it."

"The report mentions damage to one of the ventilation shafts, sir." Sticky held up his tablet and waved it around.

"Is that so?" Paradox stepped away from the poipole, pulling his tentacles through his robes' sleeves. The right two coiled into an arm. "Then it would seem we'd best install some aura proximity mines into their new fans. Wouldn't you agree?"

"I will order Flapple's contractors to do that, sir." Sticky typed away on his tablet with his free hand. "What should we do about the stolen gadget? If the rebels have their hands on—"

"Aha ha ha. Oh, you are hilarious." Paradox flicked his right hand dismissively. It unwound back into two tentacles. "Let the rebels disassemble it. If they think they're going to find some sort of tracking chip, they'll be sorely disappointed." Another chuckle echoed through the room. "Oh, to be a joltik on the wall of whatever cave they dwell in when they realize it was all for naught.

"Besides," the deoxys continued, flicking a left tentacle, "they're not the only ones with an eye for petty larceny."

One of the monitors on the wall flickered on, showing a bulky Mr. Rime hand dropping a folder onto a worn mattress. A nickit popped in next to the folder and sniffed at the top paper.

"Are you freaking kidding me? This is why you skidooshed us back here?" Nickit growled. "To steal some manichino's homework?"

"Please. This is but the opening act."
Mr. Rime's hand grabbed the page and held it up. "The first round of bets before the flop."

Nickit turned up his nose. "I don't see it."

"A good hand often goes unappreciated until the moment the river card drops,"
Mr. Rime retorted. "Come along, now."

The monitor shut off. Paradox turned around, wringing his tentacles in anticipation. "Delightful. One step closer to taking the outsiders' perversion of our glorious benefactor and turning it upon its head. Is it not wonderful, Sticky?"

"I, uh…" He looked down at tablet. Sticky had no idea what he'd just watched. "I'm afraid I don't understand, sir. I thought Cassius had planted himself within Necrozma's ranks to get us his Red Chain fragment."

"He had, but it appears that pathetic Phantom still has some semblance of rationality left inside it." Paradox shook his head and tsked to himself. "Our good lieutenant reported losing psychic contact with Necrozma. It would seem the beast ditched him."

He brought his tentacles together. They coiled around one another. "But I do so hate to waste a fresh body like that, so I simply… provided Cassius a new assignment." The deoxys' tentacles squeezed into two hands that he pressed together. "A pity he can't take public credit for his work. I'd love to see the false hope drain from the Etherians' faces when they see we've turned one of their vaunted Crowne Ministers against them. Aha ha ha!"

Sticky rapidly pecked away at his tablet with a claw. When the archbishop's laughter died down, he looked up. "That sounds… wonderful, sir."

"Of course it does." Paradox floated past the naganadel. Four Eternatus Gunners joined Paradox from the wall opposite Sticky. "Come along, then. I have an important sermon in Noatun and I'd like you in attendance."

"Y-Yessir!" Sticky floated after Paradox's small procession.
 
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