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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?
 
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