• Be sure to join the discussion on our discord at: Discord.gg/serebii
  • If you're still waiting for the e-mail, be sure to check your junk/spam e-mail folders

Ambyssin

Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 31: Venishing Acts a Plenty

Yuna didn't even have time to properly wallow in guilt from Vegna's revelation. With a snap of his fingers — and her classmates looking on and laughing — the dusknoir summoned Talonflame and his corviknight flunky. The birds hastily shooed Nikki and Yuna towards the elevators. Even Artemis and Noctum got swept up in the commotion.

One thing Yuna did manage to catch was two of the machoke waiters hastily loading the water containers onto a pushcart. But the gold elevator doors closed seconds later, leaving her squished against a metal wall with Vegna staring her down, one hand gripping the railing. She hastily grabbed the railing, too. Otherwise she would end up on the floor.

"What the hell? I wasn't even finished eating!" Nikki protested.

"You are now." Vegna's eye smoldered under his hood. "You two will be staying in your hotel room while we locate your grovyle compatriot. Perhaps there you can reflect on your… questionable decisions."

Nikki had no retort. Her mohawk shrank a bit. Yuna, however, finally managed to find her voice, "What do you mean by that? Are you talking about Professor Cid?"

"You are welcome to interpret my comments however you wish, exchange student." Vegna turned around his crossed his arms. The elevator arrived at the thirteenth floor. "But I do believe he would still have a job were it not for your so-called team."

"And why did we get dragged into this?" Artemis huffed.

"The attendants will, naturally, attend." Vegna flicked his right hand dismissively as he floated out the elevator.

"Heh! Way to put 'em in their places, V." Griffon clapped his black metal wings together.

Vegna flicked Griffon's beak. He pointed to Noctum. "Bring them to their room. Now."

Noctum gulped. "Y-Yessir!" He stretched his right wing. "This way, ladies."

Scowling, Nikki wiped pizza grease on her already messy thighs. Jamming her hands in her pockets, she grumbled, "Great. And I bet Vortex put us on the thirteenth floor on purpose."

"What's wrong with thirteen?" Yuna asked.

"You live under a rock or something, wyrmy? It's the bad luck number!" Griffon cawed, earning another flick on his metallic beak.

Yuna failed to see how a number could symbolize bad luck. However, given the recent turn of events, perhaps the corviknight had a point?

"Don't fall down the well of superstition. We'll never get you out if you do!" Reshiram whined.

The room door opened with a creak. Noctum held the door open so Yuna and Nikki could enter. Blue carpeting swished under the charizard and toxtricity's feet. The walls were tan, resembling the very beaches whose sand sparkled in the distance under the moonlight.

Nikki tossed her jacket onto the far bed and then leaped onto it. The pizza sauce and grease on her legs immediately stained the white blanket. "Well, I guess there are worse places to be grounded. Still, this is so stupid. I can't believe Twiggy's dicking us over like this!"

Yuna quietly floated to the other bed. Its white, silk blanket was cool against her ectoplasm. The dreepy ignored Nikki's complaints. Her mind drifted back to Cid. He had followed Yuna's teammates to the Crowne Court out of concern. And she was the one who called them in the first place.

"Don't blame thineself," Rayquaza piped up. "Thou could not have predicted thine teacher would follow. Nor could thou expect the chain of events that followed."

… still. He got
devolved fighting to free you. Yuna suppressed a wince at the memory of a screaming blipbug. He hadn't even returned to teaching his classes! To get fired when he's not mentally okay… Her thoughts trailed off.

"Helloooo! Etherium to Yuna."

A turquoise throw pillow landed to Yuna's right. The dreepy's head jerked up. "Were you listening?" Nikki said. "You and Twiggy went on and on about these damned Needles… and now he's giving us the death knell. Whatever the Reaper does to him… there's no way he'll be in top shape for tomorrow."

Nikki rolled onto her back, groaning. The sounds of torn fabric followed. "Stick a fork in us! We're cooked!"

"… oh." Yuna stared at her blanket. She hadn't even considered that. If Vegna was now their advisor, what would it mean if their team finished last in the first leg? Would they fall under constant supervision from the dusknoir? How would she be able to track down the rest of the Needles?

"Uh, did thou forget thine ability to open up portals?" Rayquaza said. "Pray that foul dusknoir cannot simply chase you inside Eternatus lest he meet the same troubles as the orbeetle."

"Whatever Twiggy's doing can't be more important than the fate of the freaking world." Nikki threw up her hands in exasperation.

"Shh!" Artemis pressed his tailfins to his lips. "Vegna's bound to have stationed someone outside the room. Do you want them to overhear?" Shaking his head, the milotic scooped a remote control off the nightstand by Nikki's bed. He clicked it and the flatscreen PV on the other side of the room came to life.

"Ever diligent, the proud fishermon exercise the utmost care in ensuring their feral catches remain secure in the specialized fishing nets."

The male, monotone narrator spoke over footage of two seismitoad and a quagsire reeling in a massive net filled with weakly flailing magikarp.

"The hell is this crap?" Nikki sat up and squinted. "'The Learning Channel?' What sort of killjoy had this room last?" She shot Noctum an accusatory look. "This isn't your doing, is it?"

"Absolutely not." The black charizard held his hands up. "As nice as a good grilled fish is, I don't want to watch them getting swept away like that."

Artemis, on the other hand, couldn't take his eyes off the PV. Even as the feral magikarp spilled out across a specialized bucket in the middle of the ship's deck.

"Err, everything okay?" Noctum held his left wing up in front of Artemis.

The milotic flinched and looked away. "It's nothing." His eyebrows shriveled. "You already know I was a fisher once. Seems like another lifetime ago."

Nikki crawled forward on her bed, smearing some more pizza sauce. "I know we asked about this on the train, but I think you lied about it not making you uncomfortable. They definitely catch feral feebas."

Artemis turned to the window. "Maybe this is hinting at your challenge tomorrow?"

"Don't deflect," Nikki huffed.

"It's not a deflection," Artemis growled. "Fishing is a central part of Venish. So, maybe the first leg involves fishing?"

"Well, that'd be easy!" Nikki raised her right hand. Sparks crackled in it. "I could fry a pool of those stupid fish in a heartbeat."

"Something tells me it won't be that simple." Yuna laughed nervously while Noctum walked past the beds toward the washroom. "Besides, we can't afford to think recklessly."

Nikki grabbed her bed's other throw pillow and squeezed it. "Then tell that to Twiggy."

Yuna had no desire to go in circles on this subject. Luckily for her, Artemis offered a convenient alternative. "Forget thinking about how you'll fish." The milotic curled his ribbons. "I'm more concerned about the water quality."

"You mean what you saw when you were setting up our room?" Yuna traced an arm around the Soul Dew. Now was as good a time as any to bring up the bit she almost missed. "When we left the lobby, I saw some of the bellhops carrying away the water containers."

"And?" Nikki shrugged. "Maybe they realized no one was drinking it."

"Or they learned about what happened up here." Artemis turned and narrowed his eyes. "I think the water here is contaminated."

"Guys?"

"Then I guess it's time to pray Pillow Princess and his ilk decide to brush their teeth and spend the night puking their guts out." Nikki flopped on her back again. Her waist spikes poked more holes in her bed.

"You're missing the point," Artemis huffed.

"Guuuuys?"

"I don't really see how faulty hotel plumbing is our problem," Nikki scoffed, crossing her legs and tapping her left foot against the air.

Reshiram shifted around nervously in Yuna's mind. "I think he's getting at the idea that if the hotel water is contaminated… other places might be effected, too."

Yuna repeated that. Artemis pointed a ribbon at her. "Exactly!"

"Again… so what?" Nikki rolled her eyes. "We ain't the Super Marill Brothers or anything."

"Guys!"

"Eep!" Yuna hopped into the air, gills shooting into her head. Noctum stuck his head out the washroom door, frowning.

"There's no water," the charizard exclaimed.

Nikki sat up. "What?"

"Did you try the shower?" Artemis asked.

"The sink and the shower." Noctum clutched the straps of his floral print apron. "Someone must've turned the water off."

Artemis again fixed a scrutinizing look on Nikki. "Well?" He gestured to the air with both ribbons.

"Okay, sure. You got me." The toxtricity tossed the throw pillow behind her. "Something stinks about this. But I've gone plenty of days without a shower. I'll live." She sniffed her armpit and nodded. "A spray-on deodorant bath and I'll be good."

"This isn't about bathing." Artemis' face reddened. "What if the canal system is also contaminated? If they send you guys out on the water tomorrow, you could have a serious problem on your hands."

"What do you suggest, then?" Nikki rolled over onto her left side, resting her head on her left hand. "Wanna call Stoutland Yard? The Radiant Guard? There's a gemcom right next to you. Go right ahead."

Yuna looked between the milotic and the crystal connected to a tan, triangular base with a numeric keypad. A lightbulb then went off in her head. The dreepy turned to Noctum. "Hey, Noctum. Can you try calling someone in the Qliphoth? Ask them if there's anything suspicious going on."

His eyes brightened. "Oh, that's a good idea, Princess." Noctum waddled out of the washroom and tilted his head. "Hello? This is Noctum, calling in from Venish."

Silence followed, until Noctum's purple flame grew a smidge. "Oh, M-Miss Valkyrie. Wasn't expecting to hear from you." He laughed nervously. "Why do I sound so nervous? Well, y'see, we think the water in the hotel we're staying at has been contaminated. Some pokémon got very sick from drinking it and they shut our water off."

He fiddled with the pouch on his apron. "Yuna thought I should ask if you've noticed anything weird on your end."

Again, there was silence. Yuna hoped the answer would be no, but her gills drooped when Noctum's jaw stiffened.

"What? The tar pits were poisoned?" the charizard gasped.

"I bet they're connected," Reshiram glumly said.

Me too. Yuna rubbed her temples. The last thing she wanted was to go diving into Eternatus again. Especially when there were already people looking into things on that side. Maybe she could convince—

"Huh? No way! Those are extinct, aren't they?" Noctum's tone grew more worried by the second. "I mean, yeah, I know things are crazy there, but—" He stopped, eyes progressively widening. "They're walking skeletons?"

Yuna floated closer. "What is it? What's wrong?"

Noctum gulped. "Skeletal rampardos are attacking Valkyrie and the others! They're coming out of the tar pits!" He looked down. A purple tint showed through his pink apron. "We have to help them… don't we?"

Yuna recalled the earlier comment about Vegna stationing someone outside their room. She desperately wished to use that as an excuse to stay. But the dreepy knew she couldn't sit on this. There had to be a link between the bad water and the poisoned tar. And if the latter could animate skeletons, what could it do to Venish if it seeped out through the distortion?

"I'll go with you," she whispered. The Soul Dew twinkled in affirmation. She glanced over at Nikki.

"You want some extra firepower?" Nikki's mohawk sparked.

"N-no. I think you two should stay." Yuna wrung her arms. "I'm small enough that it should be easy to pretend I'm still here. We don't need to be getting in more trouble with our teachers, right?"

Nikki lay back down. "Suit yourself."

Yuna looked to Noctum and nodded. "Let's go."

XxX​

Chiaki flagged a private carriage to get him to the amphitheater. The bumps of Venish's cobblestone streets gave way to smooth pavement as the carriage drew closer to its destination. With the sun having set, the amphitheater's arches bathed the surrounding area in pink and tan lights. No doubt tuned to match the color scheme of tonight's performer.

The grovyle disembarked and dropped several coins into a pouch strapped to one of the three ninjask pulling his carriage. He weaved between multiple parked carriages and omnibuses, all with lavishly dressed pokémon funneling toward metal gates. Chiaki looked up at the electronic sign over the gates, which had Starlene's face next to "One Night Only: Radiant Diva Waltzes Through Time!"

As a suit-wearing grimmsnarl shoved Chiaki to the side, he instinctively reached for a hat that wasn't there. How he wished he could hide his face. It wasn't that Chiaki was bad with crowds, but uppity ones like this made his scales crawl.

Why couldn't this have been one of her normal concerts?

Glowering, Chiaki walked right, trying to get past the people funneling toward the entrance gates. "Cyril, you there?" he whispered.

Silence followed.

"Cyril?" Chiaki hissed.

More silence.

"Pick up, damn it."

Crackles graced his right ear frill. "Huh? Oh, yeah, sorry. Was a bit preoccupied."

Chiaki resisted the urge to facepalm. "With what?"

"Zardy was talking to Val," Cyril replied. "Seems there might be a water contamination issue at your school's hotel. And given the tar pits in the Qliphoth have turned poisonous, odds are the whole city's water supply might be in trouble."

Chiaki froze mid-step. An octillery in a top hat and monocle bumped into him. "Hey, watch where you're walking, ruffian!" he spat. "The entrance is that way." Octillery pointed a tentacle back toward the gates.

To that, Chiaki produced his ticket from his breast pocket. "VIP, jackass," he growled, then stormed off. Chiaki stole a glance back at Octillery's dumbfounded expression before continuing toward a single metal gate with a glass security checkpoint beside it. A placard atop it said it was a special entrance for press and VIPs.

"Is everyone okay?" Chiaki asked, imagining his garchomp assistant standing on a small piece of land with bubbling tar pits all around her.

"That's… debatable," Cyril replied.

"The hell's that supposed to—"

"Ticket, please."

Chiaki had reached the checkpoint. The togetic in the glass box stared him down. Chiaki fished his ticket out of his breast pocket again and put it in the box's slot. Togetic took the ticket and put it against a scanner. A beep sounded and she handed it back to the grovyle.

"Enjoy the show, sir." Togetic's expression turned cheerful. "And tell Becca I can't wait to read her piece on tonight's show."

The metal bars in front of Chiaki swung open. "Will do," he muttered, returning the ticket to his breast pocket and proceeding forward. Unlike the stone steps several meters to the left, the ones in front of Chiaki were relatively empty. He jogged up them, trying to focus once more on what Cyril had told him.

Chiaki was ready to press the zoroark for more details when he spotted a salazzle standing at the top of the stairs, leaning against the railing and running her right, black-gloved hand along her tight black dress. Typical holowear fare for her, as far as Chiaki was concerned.

Salazzle spotted him and narrowed her eyes.

"Took your sweet time, didn't you?"

A sigh escaped Chiaki's lips. "Nice to see you, too, si—"

Red embers grazed Chiaki's right cheek. Salazzle walked down two stairs, put her index finger under Chiaki's chin, and tilted his head up.

"Don't 'sis' or 'Kyoko' me," she hissed. "You're in my world now. What was our deal?"

Chiaki stepped back, shoving Kyoko's hand away. "That I'm 'your weirdo cousin from your deadbeat dad's side of the family who happens to be a huge Starlene fanboy.'"

Smiling, Kyoko leaned over and pet Chiaki's head. "Very good." She pulled her hand away before Chiaki could swat it out of irritation. "Now, put on a smile and act like you want to be here."

The grovyle pursed his lips. "This wasn't what I was expecting."

Rolling her eyes, Kyoko adjusted the black purse dangling from her left elbow. "It was all written on the ticket. Not my fault if you didn't read it." She turned around, flicking his snout with the end of her tail. "You're not going to shake your dead weight reputation with that kind of boneheadedness."

Chiaki's blood boiled. "I'm not dead weight," he hissed.

Kyoko was already back up the stairs. "You don't answer Dad's calls. Or his letters. Everyone thinks you've ghosted the family."

"We both know that's not true," Chiaki growled.

"I'm not getting into this any further." Kyoko held her right hand up. "I paid my dues as Kyoko Ryujin. Tonight is about Becca Fontaine, the pulse of pop culture, covering Starlene's first foray into a new music genre." She began to walk off. "Now, smile and come along, or we're going to miss the start."

An unpleasant tingle spread down Chiaki's prosthetic arm. He pulled it close against his torso and walked after his salazzle stepsister, stance slouching.

"Act like you want to be here, dweeb," Kyoko chided.

Chiaki sucked in a deep breath and forced a smile. The corners of his lips quivered, but he tried his best to hide that fact.

As soon as all eyes are onstage, I can sneak away, he told himself. Don't let her get to you. Stay composed. Remember why you're here.

He quickened his pace to catch up with Kyoko, gazing at the semicircular rows of seats stretching back for meters from the rustic wooden stage.

"You ever think about how they protect everything from the elements?"

Chiaki rolled his eyes. He was in no mood to entertain Kyoko's pathetic attempts at small talk. But then he glimpsed the icy look on her face and awkwardly widened his forced smile.

"I don't, but they've probably got giant tarps," he replied. "Y'know, like they use at pokébase and baccer stadiums."

"Eh, I guess." Kyoko shrugged. "And maybe they have flying-types clean up the arches when the weather settles."

The walkway curved left, away from the seats. They walked down multiple sets of stairs. The pavement gave way to wooden planks flanked by velvet rope and curtains.

Chiaki wasn't sure what he expected to find backstage, but he figured an old structure like the amphitheater would have cramped quarters. Instead, the grovyle found it quite spacious. Large metal containers sat neatly stacked against brick walls several meters away; likely homes for the acoustic and sound equipment when there weren't any performances. A couple of dozen other pokémon littered the area. Some commiserated, others tried to find the perfect angle to view the stage.

"Cyril, is the camera feed working?" Chiaki whispered.

"Yup," he responded. "Just remember to be careful with it, especially if you use the watch's EMP."

"Noted." Smiling awkwardly once again, Chiaki nodded to an umbreon in a lilac dress. The tuxedo-wearing toxicroak beside her glanced at him and winked. Chiaki quickened his pace, cheeks burning.

"Ooh, you should ask for his digits."

"Shove it," Chiaki hissed.

"Then how about telling him there's a hot, single zoroark who wants to get into his area?"

The tingling in his prosthetic was back, but even worse. Chiaki took a deep breath. It didn't work. Trying to maintain his smile, he headed toward Kyoko, who found a spot next to the base of a stage light. She produced a notebook and pen from her purse and looked out at the stage with a sense of purpose.

"Not interested in socializing?" Chiaki wondered.

The salazzle licked the corner of her lips. "What do you think I was doing before you showed up?"

"Fair." Chiaki stood at Kyoko's side. The stage had cardboard cutouts fashioned after waves and sand dunes. More waves and metal bridges ran across both the back of the stage and the pit between the stage and the audience. Squinting, Chiaki made out assorted shadows holding violins, cellos, and basses.

"What's even the point of all of this?" Chiaki tilted his head.

Kyoko sighed. "Horizon's really got you living under a rock, huh?" She chuckled into her hand while Chiaki grumbled under his breath. "It's the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of La Filarmonica. They're doing a special concert series. Tonight's theme is a tribute to the waltzes of the last century and a half."

Chiaki resisted the urge to cringe. Starlene's obnoxiously cheerful pop music was bad enough, but he had no idea how anyone could stand to listen to waltzes. They put him to sleep. "Why not get some opera or theater star to perform, then?" he wondered. "Why Starlene?"

"Hell if I know." The salazzle shrugged. "If I had to guess, it's an attempt at staying relevant."

Chiaki blinked. The stage lights made it impossible to see how full the audience actually was, but he could hear chatter. "Crowd doesn't sound small."

"Well, my colleagues at Rogue sure seem to think La Filarmonica is struggling to drum up support." Kyoko clicked her pen repeatedly. "Between Polaris Vision, movie theaters, pop stars like Starlene, and underground groups like Crimson Cloud, fewer folks want to shell out for traditional forms of entertainment."

"So, this is a desperation move by an institution on life support."

Kyoko snorted. "Your hate boner for Polaris is showing. I don't think things are that bad yet."

Chiaki could have retorted that Starlene was managed by one of Polaris' many subsidiaries, but opted for a different route instead. "Don't you think it a bit strange that Starlene just so happened to drop a new single out of nowhere right after an aristocrat fell victim to the Grim Reaper?"

The salazzle's snout scrunched up. She clicked her pen a couple of times. Chiaki leaned into her line of sight. "Did Rogue publish a piece on the Benedict trial and its aftermath?"

"Why do you care?"

The grovyle's expression darkened. "I was there. I saw everything play out. The beast that accosted Benedict before his sudden death attacked me last week on our class trip to Herbrides. And he plans to hold some sort of demonstration there tomorrow."

Kyoko pressed her pen so hard she nearly broke its clicker. "Does Dad know you were attacked?"

"Only if Valkyrie told him."

The back of Kyoko's dress fluttered. Her tail flaps curling against her hips, perhaps? She hastily wrapped her tail around her right leg. "Whatever you're implying, I'm not interested in hearing it."

"Come on, s— Becca." Chiaki curled his left claws into a fist. Stabbing pain gripped his prosthetic. "Don't tell me you don't see it. They're using Starlene as a tool. To keep people blind and ignorant." He gestured on stage. "I bet this is part of it, too. Distracting people from that beastly cultist."

The stage lights dimmed with audible clicks. Kyoko shoved Chiaki to the side. "You say you have a job to do? Well, so do I. Only mine is real and not chasing after some deluded fantasy."

Chiaki's snout scrunched up. The grovyle figured his stepsister would put up a wall. It was foolish to think he'd actually get through to her. With a shaky breath, he turned to the stage, squeezing his prosthetic tight against his torso.

"Good evening," a soothing female voice exclaimed. "The Venishian Amphitheater is pleased to welcome you all to this special performance, featuring La Filarmonica and Starlene together for the first time. We invite you all to sit back, relax, and enjoy a tribute to the waltzes of the past. Join us in welcoming the Radiant Diva, Starlene!"

Polite applause followed. Kyoko and other journalists offered their own tepid applause between fumbling for their cameras and notepads. It was a far cry from the hoots and hollers Chiaki had heard at the Crowne Cup opening banquet.

Different crowd indeed.

The meloetta walked onstage from the other side, smiling and waving to the crowd. Her music note-like hair and ocean blue dress flowed behind her with every delicate step she took.

Chiaki was shuffling away from his stepsister, hoping everyone would be too focused on Starlene to notice him. However, the scrunching of the salazzle's snout gave him pause. Kyoko's grip had tightened on her pen.

The grovyle looked out on stage again. What had Kyoko seen to make her tense up? He watched Starlene approach a circular podium rising up from the floor. She still had the same, pristine smile on her face. That distant look in her eyes—

Wait a second! The tingling in Chiaki's prosthetic intensified. He tiptoed back up to Kyoko's side, lips curling into a frown.

"You see it, don't you?" he whispered as Starlene reached the top of the podium and turned away from the two reptiles.

A part of him expected the salazzle to rebuke him, but she surprisingly nodded.

"Her eyes? Yeah." Kyoko squeezed her pen tighter. "She's smiling, but her expression couldn't be any emptier."
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Heya, here a bit earlier than expected for offsite Review Tag, though let’s get straight into tonight’s fun and games:

Chapter 31

Yuna didn't even have time to properly wallow in guilt from Vegna's revelation. With a snap of his fingers — and her classmates looking on and laughing — the dusknoir summoned Talonflame and his corviknight flunky. The birds hastily shooed Nikki and Yuna towards the elevators. Even Artemis and Noctum got swept up in the commotion.

One thing Yuna did manage to catch was two of the machoke waiters hastily loading the water containers onto a pushcart. But the gold elevator doors closed seconds later, leaving her squished against a metal wall with Vegna staring her down, one hand gripping the railing. She hastily grabbed the railing, too. Otherwise she would end up on the floor.

Well, at least the staff figured out that something was really wrong with the water there.
:fearfullaugh~2:


"What the hell? I wasn't even finished eating!" Nikki protested.

"You are now." Vegna's eye smoldered under his hood. "You two will be staying in your hotel room while we locate your grovyle compatriot. Perhaps there you can reflect on your… questionable decisions."

Nikki: "Liking Pizza Margherita over something more foppish is seriously a questionable decision now?" >_>;
Vegna: "Your earlier questionable decisions in this Crowne Cup, Nicolette. Don't get smart with me."

Nikki had no retort. Her mohawk shrank a bit. Yuna, however, finally managed to find her voice, "What do you mean by that? Are you talking about Professor Cid?"

"You are welcome to interpret my comments however you wish, exchange student." Vegna turned around his crossed his arms. The elevator arrived at the thirteenth floor. "But I do believe he would still have a job were it not for your so-called team."

:absus:


I'm pretty sure it was already established that Vortex was looking for excuses to get rid of Cid even before Isola forced Vegna’s reassignment from the Law class.

"And why did we get dragged into this?" Artemis huffed.

"The attendants will, naturally, attend." Vegna flicked his right hand dismissively as he floated out the elevator.

"Heh! Way to put 'em in their places, V." Griffon clapped his black metal wings together.

Vegna flicked Griffon's beak. He pointed to Noctum. "Bring them to their room. Now."

Griffon sure is a glutton for punishment given how casually Vegna smacks him around for running his mouth off.
:loltias:


Noctum gulped. "Y-Yessir!" He stretched his right wing. "This way, ladies."

Scowling, Nikki wiped pizza grease on her already messy thighs. Jamming her hands in her pockets, she grumbled, "Great. And I bet Vortex put us on the thirteenth floor on purpose."

"What's wrong with thirteen?" Yuna asked.

"You live under a rock or something, wyrmy? It's the bad luck number!" Griffon cawed, earning another flick on his metallic beak.



13 historically used to be considered a lucky number in parts of Latin Europe, and pretty sure it is still in some places. Including in Italy, where an artifact of that is the local expression "fare tredici", or "to make thirteen", an analogous expression to "hitting the jackpot".

Griffon: "Ow... I just want to emphasize that whatever local quirks ought to be going on, it's just local weirdness and this is still on whole a British-inspired setting. So thirteen's still the bad luck num-" >v>;
Vegna: "Griffon, still your beak before I punch it."

Yuna failed to see how a number could symbolize bad luck. However, given the recent turn of events, perhaps the corviknight had a point?

"Don't fall down the well of superstition. We'll never get you out if you do!" Reshiram whined.

I mean, it could be worse. Vegna could've yeeted them all to floor 4, which for Sinophiles and weebs would work very well with his whole "grim reaper" shtick.

The room door opened with a creak. Noctum held the door open so Yuna and Nikki could enter. Blue carpeting swished under the charizard and toxtricity's feet. The walls were tan, resembling the very beaches whose sand sparkled in the distance under the moonlight.

Nikki tossed her jacket onto the far bed and then leaped onto it. The pizza sauce and grease on her legs immediately stained the white blanket. "Well, I guess there are worse places to be grounded. Still, this is so stupid. I can't believe Twiggy's dicking us over like this!"

Yuna: "..."
:TailsEww:

Nikki: "What's that face for? Housecleaning will take care of it later!"

Yuna quietly floated to the other bed. Its white, silk blanket was cool against her ectoplasm. The dreepy ignored Nikki's complaints. Her mind drifted back to Cid. He had followed Yuna's teammates to the Crowne Court out of concern. And she was the one who called them in the first place.

"Don't blame thineself," Rayquaza piped up. "Thou could not have predicted thine teacher would follow. Nor could thou expect the chain of events that followed."

… still. He got
devolved fighting to free you. Yuna suppressed a wince at the memory of a screaming blipbug. He hadn't even returned to teaching his classes! To get fired when he's not mentally okay… Her thoughts trailed off.

Boy that got surprisingly dark fast.
:fearfullaugh~2:


Though that does make me wonder if and how we're going to see Cid again. Since it didn't feel like we got to see much of him before he got the axe.

"Helloooo! Etherium to Yuna."

A turquoise throw pillow landed to Yuna's right. The dreepy's head jerked up. "Were you listening?" Nikki said. "You and Twiggy went on and on about these damned Needles… and now he's giving us the death knell. Whatever the Reaper does to him… there's no way he'll be in top shape for tomorrow."

Yuna: "What if everyone else drinks the tainted water and gets sick?"
Nikki: "Again, that doesn't solve the problem of him being in top shape for tomorrow. And we need a full team to count as completing the leg!" >_>;

Nikki rolled onto her back, groaning. The sounds of torn fabric followed. "Stick a fork in us! We're cooked!"

"… oh." Yuna stared at her blanket. She hadn't even considered that. If Vegna was now their advisor, what would it mean if their team finished last in the first leg? Would they fall under constant supervision from the dusknoir? How would she be able to track down the rest of the Needles?

"Uh, did thou forget thine ability to open up portals?" Rayquaza said. "Pray that foul dusknoir cannot simply chase you inside Eternatus lest he meet the same troubles as the orbeetle."

"Whatever Twiggy's doing can't be more important than the fate of the freaking world." Nikki threw up her hands in exasperation.

Yuna: "... Nikki, isn't Chiaki's mechanic from the Qliphoth? For all we know, his thing he's got going on is related to-"
Nikki: "We don't know that canonically since he just told us he was up to 'family business', remember?"
- Yuna beat, and sigh -
Yuna: "... Right." -_-;

"Shh!" Artemis pressed his tailfins to his lips. "Vegna's bound to have stationed someone outside the room. Do you want them to overhear?" Shaking his head, the milotic scooped a remote control off the nightstand by Nikki's bed. He clicked it and the flatscreen PV on the other side of the room came to life.

"Ever diligent, the proud fishermon exercise the utmost care in ensuring their feral catches remain secure in the specialized fishing nets."

The male, monotone narrator spoke over footage of two seismitoad and a quagsire reeling in a massive net filled with weakly flailing magikarp.

I can already see Artie recoiling out of reflex right about now. :V

"The hell is this crap?" Nikki sat up and squinted. "'The Learning Channel?' What sort of killjoy had this room last?" She shot Noctum an accusatory look. "This isn't your doing, is it?"

"Absolutely not." The black charizard held his hands up. "As nice as a good grilled fish is, I don't want to watch them getting swept away like that."

Artemis, on the other hand, couldn't take his eyes off the PV. Even as the feral magikarp spilled out across a specialized bucket in the middle of the ship's deck.

"Err, everything okay?" Noctum held his left wing up in front of Artemis.

I mean, if you have to ask the question...

The milotic flinched and looked away. "It's nothing." His eyebrows shriveled. "You already know I was a fisher once. Seems like another lifetime ago."

Nikki crawled forward on her bed, smearing some more pizza sauce. "I know we asked about this on the train, but I think you lied about it not making you uncomfortable. They definitely catch feral feebas."

Artemis turned to the window. "Maybe this is hinting at your challenge tomorrow?"

"Don't deflect," Nikki huffed.

Artie: "Look, do we really need to continue this topic of conversation right now?!" >.<
Nikki: "Yes. Fess up about your life story, fishface." >:|

"It's not a deflection," Artemis growled. "Fishing is a central part of Venish. So, maybe the first leg involves fishing?"

"Well, that'd be easy!" Nikki raised her right hand. Sparks crackled in it. "I could fry a pool of those stupid fish in a heartbeat."

"Something tells me it won't be that simple." Yuna laughed nervously while Noctum walked past the beds toward the washroom. "Besides, we can't afford to think recklessly."

inb4 they get tasked to take out Sharpedo or something like that. :V

Nikki grabbed her bed's other throw pillow and squeezed it. "Then tell that to Twiggy."

Yuna had no desire to go in circles on this subject. Luckily for her, Artemis offered a convenient alternative. "Forget thinking about how you'll fish." The milotic curled his ribbons. "I'm more concerned about the water quality."

Nikki: "... How's that matter for us again if we're going to be on a boat? It's not as if we're just going to stick a bucket over the railing and drink from it."
:what:

Artie: "Look, if the water's bad enough to make 'mons that sick just from a little drink, for all we know it's worse out in-"
- Beat moment -
Artie: "Wait a minute, is Venish on a sea or a very large lake? Since I don't think you'd want to be drinking seawater anyways." .-.

"You mean what you saw when you were setting up our room?" Yuna traced an arm around the Soul Dew. Now was as good a time as any to bring up the bit she almost missed. "When we left the lobby, I saw some of the bellhops carrying away the water containers."

"And?" Nikki shrugged. "Maybe they realized no one was drinking it."

"Or they learned about what happened up here." Artemis turned and narrowed his eyes. "I think the water here is contaminated."

Nikki: "And we're not just passing a reference off onto the cops to look into this why?"
Artie: "Leaving aside the well-entrenched reputation for clean water, are you seriously expecting to be taken seriously when one of the most powerful 'mons in Radiance is actively trying to screw you out of the Crowne Cup?" >_>;

"Guys?"

"Then I guess it's time to pray Pillow Princess and his ilk decide to brush their teeth and spend the night puking their guts out." Nikki flopped on her back again. Her waist spikes poked more holes in her bed.

So how much are nights at this hotel given how easily their beds get damaged? :V

"You're missing the point," Artemis huffed.

"Guuuuys?"

"I don't really see how faulty hotel plumbing is our problem," Nikki scoffed, crossing her legs and tapping her left foot against the air.

I think that it might make sense to indicate somehow that the "Guys" is coming from Noctum, since it threw me in a loop a bit when I was first reading this.

Reshiram shifted around nervously in Yuna's mind. "I think he's getting at the idea that if the hotel water is contaminated… other places might be effected, too."

Yuna repeated that. Artemis pointed a ribbon at her. "Exactly!"

"Again… so what?" Nikki rolled her eyes. "We ain't the Super Marill Brothers or anything."

-snerk-

"Guys!"

"Eep!" Yuna hopped into the air, gills shooting into her head. Noctum stuck his head out the washroom door, frowning.

"There's no water," the charizard exclaimed.

Nikki sat up. "What?"

"Did you try the shower?" Artemis asked.

"The sink and the shower." Noctum clutched the straps of his floral print apron. "Someone must've turned the water off."

All: "..."
:uhhh:

Artie: "Okay, clearly things are a lot worse than I thought if they're worried about this water being safe to touch." ._.;

Artemis again fixed a scrutinizing look on Nikki. "Well?" He gestured to the air with both ribbons.

"Okay, sure. You got me." The toxtricity tossed the throw pillow behind her. "Something stinks about this. But I've gone plenty of days without a shower. I'll live." She sniffed her armpit and nodded. "A spray-on deodorant bath and I'll be good."

:TailsEww:


Artie: "You're missing the point..." >_>;

"This isn't about bathing." Artemis' face reddened. "What if the canal system is also contaminated? If they send you guys out on the water tomorrow, you could have a serious problem on your hands."

"What do you suggest, then?" Nikki rolled over onto her left side, resting her head on her left hand. "Wanna call Stoutland Yard? The Radiant Guard? There's a gemcom right next to you. Go right ahead."

Yuna looked between the milotic and the crystal connected to a tan, triangular base with a numeric keypad. A lightbulb then went off in her head. The dreepy turned to Noctum. "Hey, Noctum. Can you try calling someone in the Qliphoth? Ask them if there's anything suspicious going on."

Noctum: "Wait, that would work with a gemcom?" .-.
Yuna: "No, with your X-Transciever. You know, the one you were given?"
Noctum: "... Right. Surely can't hurt to try..."

His eyes brightened. "Oh, that's a good idea, Princess." Noctum waddled out of the washroom and tilted his head. "Hello? This is Noctum, calling in from Venish."

Silence followed, until Noctum's purple flame grew a smidge. "Oh, M-Miss Valkyrie. Wasn't expecting to hear from you." He laughed nervously. "Why do I sound so nervous? Well, y'see, we think the water in the hotel we're staying at has been contaminated. Some pokémon got very sick from drinking it and they shut our water off."

He fiddled with the pouch on his apron. "Yuna thought I should ask if you've noticed anything weird on your end."

Again, there was silence. Yuna hoped the answer would be no, but her gills drooped when Noctum's jaw stiffened.

"What? The tar pits were poisoned?" the charizard gasped.

"I bet they're connected," Reshiram glumly said.

Yuna: "... Wait, but why would tar pits be connected to a place renowned for its pure and clean water?" .-.
Cecil: "... The same way a red Egyptian-themed planet was tied to the courthouse?"
:joltyshrug~1:


Me too. Yuna rubbed her temples. The last thing she wanted was to go diving into Eternatus again. Especially when there were already people looking into things on that side. Maybe she could convince—

"Huh? No way! Those are extinct, aren't they?" Noctum's tone grew more worried by the second. "I mean, yeah, I know things are crazy there, but—" He stopped, eyes progressively widening. "They're walking skeletons?"

Yuna floated closer. "What is it? What's wrong?"

Noctum gulped. "Skeletal rampardos are attacking Valkyrie and the others! They're coming out of the tar pits!" He looked down. A purple tint showed through his pink apron. "We have to help them… don't we?"

Nikki: "'Walking skeletons'? Really?"
:what:

- Cue an angry growl from the X-Transciever -
Valkyrie: "Look, I don't know how it's happening either, but stop stalling and send some help our way already!" >.<

Yuna recalled the earlier comment about Vegna stationing someone outside their room. She desperately wished to use that as an excuse to stay. But the dreepy knew she couldn't sit on this. There had to be a link between the bad water and the poisoned tar. And if the latter could animate skeletons, what could it do to Venish if it seeped out through the distortion?

... Why am I getting the sudden suspicion that that poison's going to do something like cause a zombie apocalypse or something along those lines?
:fearfullaugh~2:


Since if it's already reanimating the dead when reduced to skeletons...

"I'll go with you," she whispered. The Soul Dew twinkled in affirmation. She glanced over at Nikki.

"You want some extra firepower?" Nikki's mohawk sparked.

"N-no. I think you two should stay." Yuna wrung her arms. "I'm small enough that it should be easy to pretend I'm still here. We don't need to be getting in more trouble with our teachers, right?"

Nikki lay back down. "Suit yourself."

Yuna looked to Noctum and nodded. "Let's go."

... That sounds like a fantastic way of getting Noctum into trouble if Vegna does figure out that Yuna isn't present in the room, but let's not think too hard about that right now. ^^;

Chiaki flagged a private carriage to get him to the amphitheater. The bumps of Venish's cobblestone streets gave way to smooth pavement as the carriage drew closer to its destination. With the sun having set, the amphitheater's arches bathed the surrounding area in pink and tan lights. No doubt tuned to match the color scheme of tonight's performer.

The grovyle disembarked and dropped several coins into a pouch strapped to one of the three ninjask pulling his carriage. He weaved between multiple parked carriages and omnibuses, all with lavishly dressed pokémon funneling toward metal gates. Chiaki looked up at the electronic sign over the gates, which had Starlene's face next to "One Night Only: Radiant Diva Waltzes Through Time!"

Wait a minute, Kyoko is Starlene? I mean, I knew that it's possible for Pokémon to become Legendaries in this setting, but somehow it never occurred to me that this would be a possibility.

As a suit-wearing grimmsnarl shoved Chiaki to the side, he instinctively reached for a hat that wasn't there. How he wished he could hide his face. It wasn't that Chiaki was bad with crowds, but uppity ones like this made his scales crawl.

Why couldn't this have been one of her normal concerts?

Well then. I suppose that explains a few things about how Chiaki was so familiar with bubblegum pop acts.

Glowering, Chiaki walked right, trying to get past the people funneling toward the entrance gates. "Cyril, you there?" he whispered.

Silence followed.

"Cyril?" Chiaki hissed.

More silence.

"Pick up, damn it."

Crackles graced his right ear frill. "Huh? Oh, yeah, sorry. Was a bit preoccupied."

Cyril: "... Would you believe that I'm busy doing damage control for Boss Kitty who's got a bone or twenty to pick with some undead dinosaurs right about now?"
Chiaki: "Say what now?"
:sceptical:


Chiaki resisted the urge to facepalm. "With what?"

"Zardy was talking to Val," Cyril replied. "Seems there might be a water contamination issue at your school's hotel. And given the tar pits in the Qliphoth have turned poisonous, odds are the whole city's water supply might be in trouble."

I suppose that's a better note to start on than "undead skeletons are attacking my buddies out at Outpost R3X". :V

Chiaki froze mid-step. An octillery in a top hat and monocle bumped into him. "Hey, watch where you're walking, ruffian!" he spat. "The entrance is that way." Octillery pointed a tentacle back toward the gates.

To that, Chiaki produced his ticket from his breast pocket. "VIP, jackass," he growled, then stormed off. Chiaki stole a glance back at Octillery's dumbfounded expression before continuing toward a single metal gate with a glass security checkpoint beside it. A placard atop it said it was a special entrance for press and VIPs.

Chiaki: "Dammit, Cyril I would've enjoyed rubbing things in that 'mon's face like that normally. Though what on earth is even going on out there?" .-.

"Is everyone okay?" Chiaki asked, imagining his garchomp assistant standing on a small piece of land with bubbling tar pits all around her.

"That's… debatable," Cyril replied.

"The hell's that supposed to—"

"Ticket, please."

Chiaki had reached the checkpoint. The togetic in the glass box stared him down. Chiaki fished his ticket out of his breast pocket again and put it in the box's slot. Togetic took the ticket and put it against a scanner. A beep sounded and she handed it back to the grovyle.

Fantastic timing for the ticket counter, really. :V

"Enjoy the show, sir." Togetic's expression turned cheerful. "And tell Becca I can't wait to read her piece on tonight's show."

The metal bars in front of Chiaki swung open. "Will do," he muttered, returning the ticket to his breast pocket and proceeding forward. Unlike the stone steps several meters to the left, the ones in front of Chiaki were relatively empty. He jogged up them, trying to focus once more on what Cyril had told him.

Chiaki was ready to press the zoroark for more details when he spotted a salazzle standing at the top of the stairs, leaning against the railing and running her right, black-gloved hand along her tight black dress. Typical holowear fare for her, as far as Chiaki was concerned. Salazzle spotted him and narrowed her eyes. "Took your sweet time, didn't you?"

Oh. Nevermind, Kyoko isn't Starlene. I think. Even if I'm not sure what her job is in that case.

A sigh escaped Chiaki's lips. "Nice to see you, too, si—"

Red embers grazed Chiaki's right cheek. Salazzle walked down two stairs, put her index finger under Chiaki's chin, and tilted his head up.

"Don't 'sis' or 'Kyoko' me," she hissed. "You're in my world now. What was our deal?"

Chiaki stepped back, shoving Kyoko's hand away. "That I'm 'your weirdo cousin from your deadbeat dad's side of the family who happens to be a huge Starlene fanboy.'"

... Nice stepsister there.

Smiling, Kyoko leaned over and pet Chiaki's head. "Very good." She pulled her hand away before Chiaki could swat it out of irritation. "Now, put on a smile and act like you want to be here."

The grovyle pursed his lips.

"This wasn't what I was expecting." Rolling her eyes, Kyoko adjusted the black purse dangling from her left elbow. "It was all written on the ticket. Not my fault if you didn't read it." She turned around, flicking his snout with the end of her tail. "You're not going to shake your dead weight reputation with that kind of boneheadedness."

- Chiaki reflexively reaches for snout and cradles it -
Chiaki: "And this reputation matters to me why again?" >:|

Chiaki's blood boiled. "I'm not dead weight," he hissed.

... Well then, guess it does matter to him more than I thought given how much that one comment got under his skin.

Kyoko was already back up the stairs. "You don't answer Dad's calls. Or his letters. Everyone thinks you've ghosted the family."

"We both know that's not true," Chiaki growled.

"I'm not getting into this any further." Kyoko held her right hand up. "I paid my dues as Kyoko Ryujin. Tonight is about Becca Fontaine, the pulse of pop culture, covering Starlene's first foray into a new music genre." She began to walk off. "Now, smile and come along, or we're going to miss the start."

Oh boy, so she's got blood relation to that infamous yakuza outfit in this neck of the woods.
:fearfullaugh~2:


And I see that 'Becca' there. I see that you're still going strong with 'same name, different role' from GL, even if this one is a lot more directly connected to the original GL character.

An unpleasant tingle spread down Chiaki's prosthetic arm. He pulled it close against his torso and walked after his salazzle stepsister, stance slouching.

"Act like you want to be here, dweeb," Kyoko chided.

Chiaki sucked in a deep breath and forced a smile. The corners of his lips quivered, but he tried his best to hide that fact.

As soon as all eyes are onstage, I can sneak away, he told himself. Don't let her get to you. Stay composed. Remember why you're here.



He quickened his pace to catch up with Kyoko, gazing at the semicircular rows of seats stretching back for meters from the rustic wooden stage.

"You ever think about how they protect everything from the elements?"

Chiaki rolled his eyes. He was in no mood to entertain Kyoko's pathetic attempts at small talk. But then he glimpsed the icy look on her face and awkwardly widened his forced smile.

"I don't, but they've probably got giant tarps," he replied. "Y'know, like they use at pokébase and baccer stadiums."

"Eh, I guess." Kyoko shrugged. "And maybe they have flying-types clean up the arches when the weather settles."

Chiaki: "So then what, are there like 40 Pokémon spamming Sunny Day in the background or something?"
:what:


The walkway curved left, away from the seats. They walked down multiple sets of stairs. The pavement gave way to wooden planks flanked by velvet rope and curtains.

Chiaki wasn't sure what he expected to find backstage, but he figured an old structure like the amphitheater would have cramped quarters. Instead, the grovyle found it quite spacious. Large metal containers sat neatly stacked against brick walls several meters away; likely homes for the acoustic and sound equipment when there weren't any performances. A couple of dozen other pokémon littered the area. Some commiserated, others tried to find the perfect angle to view the stage.

"Cyril, is the camera feed working?" Chiaki whispered.

"Yup," he responded. "Just remember to be careful with it, especially if you use the watch's EMP."

So it sounds like Chiaki's aiming to try and crash the show. For what purpose, I can't tell just yet.

"Noted." Smiling awkwardly once again, Chiaki nodded to an umbreon in a lilac dress. The tuxedo-wearing toxicroak beside her glanced at him and winked. Chiaki quickened his pace, cheeks burning.

"Ooh, you should ask for his digits."

"Shove it," Chiaki hissed.

"Then how about telling him there's a hot, single zoroark who wants to get into his area?"

Cyril: "And for the record, I saw you blush back there."
Chiaki: "I was just flustered. That's all." >///<

The tingling in his prosthetic was back, but even worse. Chiaki took a deep breath. It didn't work. Trying to maintain his smile, he headed toward Kyoko, who found a spot next to the base of a stage light. She produced a notebook and pen from her purse and looked out at the stage with a sense of purpose.

"Not interested in socializing?" Chiaki wondered.

The salazzle licked the corner of her lips. "What do you think I was doing before you showed up?"

Chiaki: "Waiting on me and plotting how you were going to dick around with me? (And since when did Salazzle have lips?)" >_>;
Kyoko: "Chiaki, I'm not that petty. Most of the time. (And 'rim of my mouth', close enough to 'lips' to count.)"

"Fair." Chiaki stood at Kyoko's side. The stage had cardboard cutouts fashioned after waves and sand dunes. More waves and metal bridges ran across both the back of the stage and the pit between the stage and the audience. Squinting, Chiaki made out assorted shadows holding violins, cellos, and basses.

"What's even the point of all of this?" Chiaki tilted his head.

Kyoko sighed. "Horizon's really got you living under a rock, huh?" She chuckled into her hand while Chiaki grumbled under his breath. "It's the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of La Filarmonica. They're doing a special concert series. Tonight's theme is a tribute to the waltzes of the last century and a half."

Chiaki resisted the urge to cringe. Starlene's obnoxiously cheerful pop music was bad enough, but he had no idea how anyone could stand to listen to waltzes. They put him to sleep. "Why not get some opera or theater star to perform, then?" he wondered. "Why Starlene?"

"Hell if I know." The salazzle shrugged. "If I had to guess, it's an attempt at staying relevant."

Chiaki blinked. The stage lights made it impossible to see how full the audience actually was, but he could hear chatter. "Crowd doesn't sound small."

"Well, my colleagues at Rogue sure seem to think La Filarmonica is struggling to drum up support." Kyoko clicked her pen repeatedly. "Between Polaris Vision, movie theaters, pop stars like Starlene, and underground groups like Crimson Cloud, fewer folks want to shell out for traditional forms of entertainment."

"So, this is a desperation move by an institution on life support."

Kyoko snorted. "Your hate boner for Polaris is showing. I don't think things are that bad yet."

Oh hey, it's this snippet again. Though the premise of a vaunted, historied cultural institution resorting to gimmicks staying alive is a major
:sadwott~1:
feel. Hits a bit close to home since that sort of stuff happens with depressing regularity IRL.

Chiaki could have retorted that Starlene was managed by one of Polaris' many subsidiaries, but opted for a different route instead. "Don't you think it a bit strange that Starlene just so happened to drop a new single out of nowhere right after an aristocrat fell victim to the Grim Reaper?"

The salazzle's snout scrunched up. She clicked her pen a couple of times. Chiaki leaned into her line of sight. "Did Rogue publish a piece on the Benedict trial and its aftermath?"

"Why do you care?"

The grovyle's expression darkened. "I was there. I saw everything play out. The beast that accosted Benedict before his sudden death attacked me last week on our class trip to Herbrides. And he plans to hold some sort of demonstration there tomorrow."

Yeah, fantastic timing to be stuck in the next leg of the Crowne Cup, really.

Kyoko pressed her pen so hard she nearly broke its clicker. "Does Dad know you were attacked?"

"Only if Valkyrie told him."

The back of Kyoko's dress fluttered. Her tail flaps curling against her hips, perhaps? She hastily wrapped her tail around her right leg. "Whatever you're implying, I'm not interested in hearing it."

"Come on, s— Becca." Chiaki curled his left claws into a fist. Stabbing pain gripped his prosthetic. "Don't tell me you don't see it. They're using Starlene as a tool. To keep people blind and ignorant." He gestured on stage. "I bet this is part of it, too. Distracting people from that beastly cultist."

I mean, considering the absolute state of affairs that have been implied for the average commoner in Radiance... yeah, I can see why Isola and the gang would want to keep them distracted since Xeromus would have a lot of fertile ground for his message were he a bit less grody and more personable.
:fearfullaugh~2:


The stage lights dimmed with audible clicks. Kyoko shoved Chiaki to the side. "You say you have a job to do? Well, so do I. Only mine is real and not chasing after some deluded fantasy."

Chiaki's snout scrunched up. The grovyle figured his stepsister would put up a wall. It was foolish to think he'd actually get through to her. With a shaky breath, he turned to the stage, squeezing his prosthetic tight against his torso.

Whelp, so much for a teamup anytime soon.

"Good evening," a soothing female voice exclaimed. "The Venishian Amphitheater is pleased to welcome you all to this special performance, featuring La Filarmonica and Starlene together for the first time. We invite you all to sit back, relax, and enjoy a tribute to the waltzes of the past. Join us in welcoming the Radiant Diva, Starlene!"

Polite applause followed. Kyoko and other journalists offered their own tepid applause between fumbling for their cameras and notepads. It was a far cry from the hoots and hollers Chiaki had heard at the Crowne Cup opening banquet.

Different crowd indeed.

... Wait a minute, so is Starlene going to do an honest-to-goodness waltz? Or is she going to blare pop music out the speakers in about 15 seconds?

The meloetta walked onstage from the other side, smiling and waving to the crowd. Her music note-like hair and ocean blue dress flowed behind her with every delicate step she took.

Chiaki was shuffling away from his stepsister, hoping everyone would be too focused on Starlene to notice him. However, the scrunching of the salazzle's snout gave him pause. Kyoko's grip had tightened on her pen.

The grovyle looked out on stage again. What had Kyoko seen to make her tense up? He watched Starlene approach a circular podium rising up from the floor. She still had the same, pristine smile on her face. That distant look in her eyes—

:uhhh:


Well that doesn't sound good.

Wait a second! The tingling in Chiaki's prosthetic intensified. He tiptoed back up to Kyoko's side, lips curling into a frown.

"You see it, don't you?" he whispered as Starlene reached the top of the podium and turned away from the two reptiles.

A part of him expected the salazzle to rebuke him, but she surprisingly nodded.

"Her eyes? Yeah." Kyoko squeezed her pen tighter. "She's smiling, but her expression couldn't be any emptier."

Not sure if that's just emotional hollowness or a sign of something much deeper and more fundamentally wrong with Starlene there, but either way, that doesn't seem like a good omen.

Alright, final thoughts:

It was a short chapter, but it did a pretty good job at building up tension for what I'm assuming is going to be a very serious shoe drop in the imminent future. Since there's like 4 separate plots and crises that are going on in the story's setting that all have a due date within the next 24 hours, so I expect things are going to get really crazy really fast. It was nice to get a bit more of a glimpse of Chiaki's life and backstory, even if there's still a lot of it that's murky at the moment. But eh. You've said that you see this story potentially taking 150 updates to knock out, so I'm sure we'll get there when we get there.

As for things I wasn't as keen on... I felt maybe it'd have made sense to end with at least showing the proverbial shoe slipping a bit. Like showing a glimpse of the sort of mess that Yuna and Noctum are about to walk/fly into or something like that. Though you know what the future holds for your story better than I do, so it could very well be that that's not possible without stealing your future Chapter 32's thunder.

Kudos on the chapter, [@Ambyssin . I'll be looking forward to the next turn of Team Bastion's wild ride in a couple of weeks. ^^
 

Ambyssin

Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 32: Cultivating Madness

"So, now what?" Nikki lay on her belly, looking at the flat screen PV mounted to the wall. There was a machoke in scrubs and a white coat doing chest compressions on a lopunny with graying fur.

Beside her bed, Artemis' gaze wandered toward the desk in the corner of the room. It had a fridge and cabinet neatly stacked beside it. "I don't know about you, but I'm raiding the minibar." He slithered forward and opened the fridge to find tons of small, fancy bottles of various colors.

"Charge the paddles to two hundred!" Machoke shouted. The audino standing across from him lifted two defibrillator paddles that had gel dripping off of them.

"Clear!" she shouted, before pressing the paddles down and squeezing the triggers. Lopunny opened his eyes and sucked in a deep breath, groaning.

Machoke looked at the monitor beside the bed. "He's back in sinus rhythm. Let's get him to the cath lab! Move, move, move!"

"Man, this shit's unrealistic." Nikki shook her head. "I don't care what shape you're in, you don't bounce back from CPR like that." She picked up the remote and resumed flipping through channels.

"You want anything?" Artemis asked, using a ribbon to pull out a whiskey bottle. He removed the cap with his lips and spat it onto the desk.

"To drink? Nah." Nikki scrolled past a few sports channels showing baccer matches, yawning. "Say, do they got any of them miniature bags of fancy nuts?"

The milotic opened up the cabinet and grabbed a couple of black plastic bags with his other ribbon. "These what you're looking for?"

"Hell yeah they are!" Nikki licked her lips. "Give 'em here."

Artemis tossed them onto the bed. Nikki reached for one when she flipped to a channel showing a stage with Starlene standing on a podium. "Oh, brother. They gotta put her concerts on replay?" Groaning, she grabbed a bag.

"I don't think that's a rerun." Artemis took a swig of his tiny bottle. "Look there. It says 'Live from the Venishian Amphitheater.'"

"The Amphitheater?" Nikki sat up. "Why would she perform at that rundown waste of space?"

Artemis frowned. "It's a prized historical site," he growled.

"Fine, fine." Nikki raised her hands defensively. "Still doesn't add up."

"Let's get things started, then," the meloetta declared. She looked down. The camera panned to an aerial shot of an orchestra readying their instruments. The small lapras perched in front of them raised its conductor's baton and pointed to a kirlia seated at a piano. A surprisingly somber piano riff began to play, followed by some minor cords from the strings section.

"Bwuh?" Nikki froze, holding a walnut in front of her open mouth. "This doesn't sound anything like a song Starlene would sing. What gives?"

Rather than her usually animated choreography, Starlene merely swayed from side to side atop her pedestal.

"You'd never know.
No chance to grow.
It's all for show.
Cuz the life you lead
Is not the life you're owed."


Nikki slowly leaned forward. Her heart rate quickened. Her right hand crushed the bag of nuts, spilling them across her bed. "No. It… it can't be…"

The strings section grew in intensity, even as the camera panned to show confusion across the audience's faces.

"They do not care
That they stuck you here.
Their burdens you bear
Throughout your life
Although it's totally unfair."


Artemis tilted his head. "This can't be right." The milotic set the whiskey bottle down. "The music's a waltz, but the lyrics sound like something Crimson Cloud would come up w—"

"Because they're mine!" Nikki stood up on her bed. Electricity arced down the toxtricity's mohawk.

"You were stupid to trust them.
They've done nothing but take.
It's obvious if you open up your eyes…"


Somewhere in the back of her mind, Nikki knew Starlene's song was getting her worked up. Like she always did to anyone listening to her music. It was something she'd spent her life building up a tolerance to. But that was quickly going by the wayside. This was personal.

"I wrote those!" Nikki stomped her right foot down. "In a notebook I keep under my bed!" More electricity gathered around her hands. "I was gonna pitch it to Shredder!"

Some of the sparks jumped around the room. Artemis stiffened. "H-Hey, watch it!"

Nikki didn't register his cry. "That bitch stole them from me!"

"That you've fallen for their lies.
The crown's never on your side.
They'll fool you 'til the day you die
With talks of pure paradise.
Then ignore your anguished cries
Cuz it's all a great big lie!"


Nikki heard the audience's confusion turn to cries of protest. The orchestra continued to play, seemingly unaware of what was happening. People were standing up. Shouting their protests at the stage. She even heard cries to cut the feed, followed by other voices saying the equipment wasn't working.

"N… Nikki?" Artemis cautiously slithered toward her.

"My work…" Nikki's breathing grew ragged. She ignored her pounding heart, throbbing head, and sparking hands. "My work. My work my work my work my work my work!"

The last of her grip on herself slipped. With an anguished roar, she thrust her arms apart. Sparks struck a yowling Artemis. A guitar-shaped surge of electricity formed in Nikki's right hand. She stared it like it was an extension of her being, then faced the PV again.

"Just let it burn.
The crown's no longer your concern.
To simpler times you must return.
The crown… will neveeeer leeaarrrn…"


The lightning weapon was new. It was powerful. It was perfect.

Nikki raised the lightning guitar over her head. Artemis cried out to her, but she leaped off the bed, lunging for the PV. As if destroying it would somehow harm Starlene.

The milotic intercepted her, however. They tumbled across the hotel room, ending up in a tangled heap by the bathroom. The lightning guitar dissolved away. Nikki thrashed about, trying to get Artemis off her.

"Lemme go! Lemme go!" she snarled. "That bitch… I'll rip her throat out! I'll kill her! I'll—"

A searing pain shot through the toxtricity's head. "Gnngh!"

Her vision blurred. One moment, she was staring at the tan ceiling. The next, hazy colors swirled in front of her. Familiar patterns of stained glass.

Noatun, where she'd been possessed.

There was an orange blur in the distance.

"… to free our Benefactor… prison…"

The ceiling flickered back into view, then disappeared. She had a grip on herself again, so why was this happening? Was this like when Princess passed out during the Crowne Cup ball?

"… anoint myself emperor… Eterna Empire…"

Back to the ceiling, then back to the hazy cathedral.

"… our temporary archbishop…"

Static pulsated around Nikki's vision. The pain in her head grew worse. She tried to scream, but nothing came out.

"Let us pray!"

The ceiling returned, then immediately disappeared. Now, the toxtricity wasn't hearing one voice, but many.

"Ardente veritate… urite mala mundi…"

"St… op," Nikki wheezed. She tried reaching an arm out, but she was still wrapped up by Artemis.

… right, Artemis. Was he seeing any of this? He didn't seem bothered by Starlene's song like Nikki was.

"… incendite tenebras mundi…"

"Nos vera Natus! Nos vera Natus!"


"Stop!"

Nikki finally wrestled herself free and sat up. She was back in the hotel room. Artemis lay at her side, a dazed expression on his face. Nikki blinked. She rubbed her eyes, only to hiss in pain from lingering sparks in her fingers.

"Did you see that?" she whispered.

No response. Artemis' mouth opened and closed, but Nikki was no good at reading lips. Still, that had to be a sign the song had done something to him, too.

She was going to nudge Artemis when the PV suddenly shut off. The lamps and circular orange lights in the ceiling fizzled out. The ventilator running along the base of the wall stopped whirring.

"A blackout?" Nikki shoved Artemis. "Hey, snap out of it. We've got a problem."

Then the entire hotel room trembled. The PV fell off the wall and shattered on the dresser, which then fell over in front of the beds.

"What the hell?" Nikki shoved Artemis several times. "Get up, you idiot! It's an earthquake!"

XxX​

Chiaki was prepared to use the emptiness in Starlene's eyes to convince his stepsister he was right about her. But then the performance began and the grovyle knew something was seriously wrong. And not in any way he could've expected.

The grovyle had assumed Starlene's music had a hypnotic effect on anyone who listened, but proving it was the big problem. That was why he was here. Now, Chiaki had a sinking feeling that someone else had connected the dots before him. Someone with more sinister intentions.

Chiaki had the X-Transceiver in his right ear frill, but hastily stuck a specialized plug in his left. The music and lyrics grew so muffled he could scarcely hear them.

He hastily grabbed two more from his right coat pocket and shoved them against Kyoko's head. "What gives?" the salazzle hissed.

"Put them on. Now," Chiaki ordered. "We have a serious problem."

Kyoko glanced at the other reporters, most of whom had dropped their equipment and notepads and were shifting about uneasily. Some were shouting at the stage.

"What did you do?" Kyoko growled, slipping the plugs into her ear frills.

"I didn't do anything!" Chiaki fired back. He looked out at the stage an immediately recoiled in horror.

Purple spread across the seaside mural, followed by a white circle with five diamonds littered it.

"See that?" Chiaki grabbed his stepsister by the strap of her black dress. "It's World Ender's sigil."

Screams rang out from beside them. They both looked left to see several of the journalists on their knees. The toxicroak that shot Chiaki the flirtatious glance gripped his head in agony. Similar cries of pain rang out from the crowd.

Kyoko's right eye twitched. "I… I…"

"You have to get to a safe house," Chiaki said. He stepped away from the stage lights. "I'm going to get to the bottom of this."

"Excuse you? I'm not some damsel." Kyoko reached into her handbag. In a blur of blue light, her black dress faded away. She crouched down on all fours, curling up her tail flaps and venting off embers and bits of purple ooze. "I can handle myself."

"Fine." Chiaki hastily turned away. "Don't say I didn't warn you." He broke into a run, passing the giant boxes for the stage equipment. Like Kyoko, he adjusted his holowear generator, swapping out the tuxedo for his jean jacket and worn shirt. Chiaki carefully looped the rose through one of the jacket's buttonholes for Cyril and stuffed the rest of his gadgets in his jacket pockets.

He rounded a corner and found a hallway leading to a locked door with an ID card reader. The togekiss guard, however, lay on the ground, stubby feet twitching erratically.

"Nos… vera Natus," he mumbled.

Biting his lip, Chiaki grabbed Togekiss' ID badge and pressed it against the reader. The red light atop the door turned green. After hearing a click, Chiaki slammed his left shoulder against the door, thrusting it open. He emerged onto a grated stairway that crisscrossed an identical stairway coming from the opposite site of the backstage area.

"Hey! Da boss said nobody comes through here!"

Chiaki looked down and saw a skuntank and two stunky staring up at him. All three wore red hoodies that were way too small for them.

"And youse a body, so youse can't pass!" Skuntank bellowed. His tail opened up and a Sludge Bomb hurtled toward him.

Hissing, Chiaki jumped down the staircase, spitting Bullet Seeds toward the stunky. "Cyril? We've got a problem!"

Acid streams met the Bullet Seeds in midair, cancelling them out and flooding the staircases with smoke. Another pair of Sludge Bombs broke through the haze. Chiaki rolled away, hearing the sizzle of poisons against metal behind him. He nearly slid off the bridging platform where the two staircases met.

"C'mon, Cyril!" Chiaki groaned, scrambling to his feet. Skuntank had his large tail trained on him.

"H-Hey, ain't dat kid—" one of the stunky started, only for Chiaki to raise his prosthetic arm. Flames sheathed the mechanical Leaf Blades and he sliced through the grating in front of him.

His part of the platform lurched before falling down onto the partition of stairs beneath it. Chiaki dug his good claws in, riding the platform like an oversized metal sled skipping down the stairs. "Cyril, pick up, damn it!"

"What? What? What?! You're not the only one with problems on his plate!" Cyril barked, his voice distorted with every bump Chiaki hit.

"After him! Don't let him escape!" Skuntank cried, looking for a safe way to jump down and try to catch up. The Acid streams his stunky colleagues shot didn't have the distance to reach him.

"More important than the Qliphoth sabotaging Starlene's concert?" the grovyle snarled. "Eternatus' sigil was just projected on stage and the attendees are dropping like flies!"

"Y… you're kidding?!" Some colorful vocabulary followed. "First the uPhone lead turns out to be a bust and now this? Any more bad news?"

"Yeah." Chiaki finally reached the bottom of the stairs. The platform skidded across the metal floor, kicking up sparks. Chiaki leaped off it and stumbled forward. "I found some Medici thugs further backstage. I think someone hired them to help screw up the concert."

"The Medici? Uh… you gonna be okay?" Cyril clicked his tongue nervously. "I know—"

"I'm fine." Grimacing, Chiaki tried to push images of a sceptile's tail and bulbs shriveling out of his mind and press forward. "What were you saying about the uPhone?" He approached another door with an ID reader, only to glance up and see a Sludge Bomb splatter on the wall above him. Growling, Chiaki turned around. With a series of bright lights and mechanical whirs, his prosthetic shot back into his elbow. The Tactical Toucher materialized in its place. It wouldn't do great against a skuntank, but it was the best Chiaki had.

"I didn't find any sort of tracking chip," Cyril growled. "Know what I did find? A small crystal rigged up to a miniature Miracle Eye TR."

Chiaki thrust his prosthetic arm into the ground. A shadowy fist materialized by Skuntank's tail as it opened to launch another Sludge Bomb. Chiaki Shadow Punched the tail. Skuntank accidentally fired at his flunkies. Toxins splattered both stunky and threatened to send them careening off the stairs.

"What are you saying, then?" The grovyle turned and fumbled for the ID card he stole. He pressed it against the reader, then slammed his right shoulder against the door.

"Paradox must be using the crystal to project something through the phone," Cyril replied. "It could be, like, subliminal messaging. And I can't risk triggering the mechanism."

Chiaki didn't have time for this.

"Then don't touch it! Focus on helping me!" He emerged onto blacktop. "Someone else is bound to figure it out, too. And then there'll be hell to pay."

"Okay. Yeah." Some deep breaths followed. "Where are you now?"

The amphitheater towered behind Chiaki. Several meters away sat a pink trailer littered in silver stars and music notes. He was ready to relay this information to Cyril when the greedent and nickit sitting on the steps looked up in alarm.

"What the—" Nickit's tail puffed up.

"Uh, boss, I thought everyone was supposed to be inca… inca…" Greedent scratched his ear. "Y'know, all wibbly and wobbly."

"Dey are!" Nickit hopped onto Greedent's head. "And dose bozos were supposed to be guarding the stairs. But I guess it falls to the Crimson Zephyr to get things do—"

"Coming in hot, baby!"

A metallic sheen caught the corner of Chiaki's eye. Next thing he knew, a dark blur blindsided Nickit and Greedent and slammed them both into the ground. Chiaki crouched down, readying his prosthetic. His jaw slackened, however, when a familiar corviknight stood victoriously over the newly unconscious crooks.

"See, V? What'd I tell ya? Easy pickings!" Griffon pointed a wing at Chiaki. "And look! A special prize at the bottom of this rancid cereal box. Must be our lucky day, huh?"

"… hardly."

Chiaki looked up to see Vegna hovering toward the trailer. The dusknoir crossed his arms. His skull gauntlets radiated an ominous purple glow; a mix of their ruby eyes and the pale moonlight above Vegna.

"Poor, pale, pitiable form, that I follow in a storm." Vegna looked disdainfully at Chiaki's prosthetic. "Iron tears and groans of lead bind around my aching head." He pointed a sparking index finger at the grovyle. "Come now, Paperboy. It's time to bring you back where you belong."

"I'm not going anywhere," Chiaki growled. "And neither should you. Can't you tell? This concert's being sabotaged. You're with law enforcement. Call in the Radiant Guard!"

Vegna tilted his head. "Two trespassing pieces of rubbish hardly constitute sabotage."

"They were sitting outside Starlene's trailer." Chiaki gestured behind him, where Polaris' compass insignia was branded on the door.

As if to further emphasize his point, the door to the backstage area flew open. Skuntank appeared with his stunky associates. "End of da line, Grovyle!"

His tail opened wide and launched a Sludge Bomb. Acid sprits from the stunky accompanied it. Vegna turned and flicked his right hand. "Block them."

"Yeah, yeah!" Griffon dashed forward and spread his wings wide, intercepting all the poisonous globs. "You don't gotta tell me. I know how squishy you are, V."

"What the—" Skuntank's jaw dropped.

"A… ain't dat da Grim Reaper?" one stunky squeaked.

"And he took out the Crimson Zephyr!" the other stunky yelped, pointing his tail at Nickit and Greedent.

Vegna's eye smoldered with purple shadows. "And if you wish to avoid a premature trip to the Twilight Realm, you'll explain yourselves this instant."

Legs trembling, Skuntank staggered backward. "N… nuts to dis! Deal's off! We're outta here!"

"Wrong answer." Vegna snapped his fingers.

Griffon charged the three thugs, metallic coat glistening in the night. He slammed himself into Skuntank, then grabbed each stunky in a set of talons. "Light's out, losers! Ha ha ha!" The corviknight slammed their skulls together. Their eyes rolled back in their heads. Griffon unceremoniously dropped them on top Skuntank, who had also passed out.

They're still alive… I think, Chiaki thought to himself while he tried to fiddle with the door to Starlene's trailer. He could hear something whirring inside it. The source of the sabotage, perhaps? But with the door refusing to budge and the grovyle sensing Vegna's attention turning back toward him, he threw caution to the wind and rammed his prosthetic's spectral arm against the door handle.

The door rattled in place. Chiaki hopped back seconds before it fell off its hinges and onto the trailer's steps with an unceremonious thud. He had no time to gather his thoughts, however, as giant, card-shaped ice chunks careened toward him. Chiaki fell back on his rear. The ice whizzed by, stinging his head leaf.

"V!" Griffon shouted.

Vegna raised his left hand. A strange circular rune appeared around it with a fire symbol in its center. "Burn."

Chiaki watched slack-jawed as Talonflame emerged in a gout of crimson fire, burning through the ice shards before spreading his wings, dispelling the flames. His shriek echoed across the blacktop.

"Did… did I just see that right?" Cyril's voice cracked in Chiaki's ear frill.

"Yeah," he whispered.

"No way. He doesn't have a Soul Dew like Yuna," Cyril exclaimed. "But that would mean he's—"

"—a necromancer." Chiaki's heart pounded in his chest. And here he thought they were only myths meant to scare children. But no… they were very real. For all he knew, Vegna's Grim Reaper moniker hid the fact that he was taking the souls of his victims.

Chiaki could scarcely process the revelation as more icy playing cards shot out of the trailer. He rolled away from the staircase, ducking behind the front of the trailer. Talonflame spewed fire at Vegna's direction and Griffon flew in to shatter a couple of the remaining cards with slashes of his metallic wings. Vegna safely hovered above the ones that got past his birds. Chiaki hastily pressed himself against the trailer and looked out toward the sea in the distance.

"… hmm. Seems someone's played a wild card at the eleventh hour."

Chiaki didn't dare peek out from his hiding spot to identify the unfamiliar voice. Fortunately, he didn't need to. Griffon's big mouth told him everything he needed to know.

"Yo, V! Call me crazy, but ain't that Minister Charles?" the corviknight squawked.

A Mr. Rime standing at a microphone on a stage immediately popped into Chiaki's mind. Valkyrie had reported that Crowne Minister had gone missing and the Radiant Guard were searching for him even before the issue with the Needles began. What was he doing here? Was he the saboteur? Why would he do something like that?

"You seem to be misreading your hand." A chuckle sounded from the staircase. "No matter, though. I'll clear up this little miscommunication in a jiffy."

"Slice him. Torch him," Vegna ordered.

Intense bursts of heat and chilling air forced Chiaki to crawl to the other side of the trailer.

"Hey, what's going on?" Cyril asked. "Did I hear Minister Charles talking?"

"I'm… not sure. But I can still hear some sort of machinery in Starlene's trailer," Chiaki whispered. He hoped Cyril heard him over Griffon's unnerving laughter and Talonflame's feral shrieks. Why would a necromancer go for a feral, anyway? Easy to manipulate?

"Are there any windows on this side? Anything we can see?"


Chiaki stood up and, sure enough, there was a large window. But curtains had been pulled over it. The grovyle could still hear the sounds of battle on the other side of the trailer, however, so he figured he could safely break in. He pressed the Tactical Toucher to the window. Its spectral hand phased through and found the bolt lock. Chiaki undid it and slid the window open. He grabbed the windowsill with his good arm and hoisted himself in. Nothing, however, could prepare him for what lay on the other side of the curtain.

There, lying strapped to a table with an oxygen mask over its blue snout, electrodes digging into its slender, blue and white-scaled body, and syringes piercing its tiny wings, tail, and neck orb… was an emaciated dragonair. Its ribs poked through its tiny frame and its eyes — forcibly taped shut — were sunken into their sockets.

Chiaki froze. His vision flickered between the table and the small locket that Nikki had shown him.

"Is that… a dragonair?" Cyril gasped. "Look at all those machines it's connected to. I see little satellite dishes and radio frequency emitters. What's going on here? D… don't tell me this is the real Starlene?"

In Chiaki's mind, it had to be. Why else would Dragonair be hooked up to machines resembling broadcasting equipment? And she had things sticking into her skull. Clearly, they were messing with her mind. Which made Chiaki's other hypothesis all the more gut-wrenching.

"It's her."

The grovyle's rasp was barely audible, but Cyril managed to hear it. "You know her?"

"Scarlett. Nikki's friend who disappeared from Horizon."

He shakily took a step toward the table, flinching at a series of bright flashes from outside the door. Scarlett squirmed under her restraints. Chiaki stiffened. He looked at the equipment beside the table. Bags of strange fluids and machines with pumps that moved up and down.

Chiaki's head throbbed. Images of similar devices flashed through his mind. These ones connected to a withering sceptile whose tail had lost nearly all its pine needles.

She's sedated. That machine's breathing for her, he concluded, then looked at the accompanying monitors. They were beeping red. The number beside a heart icon was shooting up! One hundred and twenty… one hundred and forty… one hundred and sixty!

This was bad. She needed help. But at this rate, Minister Charles and Vegna would catch on and intercept him. Surely one of them would get the upper hand soon enough.

He didn't have a choice. The grovyle had to break this dragonair out. But how? How?

The watch!


Though Chiaki had changed holowear outfits, Cyril had given him the watch. The one that could short out machines. If anything could break Scarlett's restraints, it was that. Chiaki raised his left arm up and used his prosthetic's ghostly fingers to set the watch to the appropriate time.

"Wait! What do you think you're doing?!" Cyril cried.

"Freeing her."

The trailer floor began to shake. The monitors flickered. Chiaki figured it was the shock of a blast from Charles or Vegna. He paid it little mind…

"Chiaki, stop! You can't short out machines when there are oxygen tanks next to—"

… until the moment he pressed the button and the machines beside him exploded in a blue-purple blaze.

XxX​

"All systems nominal. As expected."

Zed floated beside the terminal overlooking Icarus' incubator. Purple light reflected off the many tubes and wires jutting off the massive violet sphere. The blue holographic screens around it all displayed the usual waveforms.

The collection of floating disks backed away from the console. It had finished its final checks for the night, which meant it was safe to enter sleep mode for a while.

Sighing, Zed turned toward the long, metal corridor leading toward the circular elevator platform. "I hope Minister Dr. Tesla returns from the decontamination soon. I need something more… stimulating to do than this."

As Zed prepared to hover down the hallway, a snap echoed behind him. "Bwuh?" Zed's disembodied, bird-like head turned around. "Aaaaah!"

A crack. Right in the center of the incubator.

It glanced at the holographic screens. Their calming blue suddenly flickered to an alarming red and orange exclamation points peppered the screens as the waveforms undulated faster.

Then a second crack appeared in the purple sphere, followed by a third and a fourth and a fifth and—

"No!" Zed's ovoid arms flailed about in random directions. "No, no, no, no, no, no! Bad, bad, baddy bad!" They zipped toward the main console. "Initiate emergency shutdown! Password is Minister Doctor Tesla Rules— aiyeeeee!"

All of the cracks in the sphere linked up. Then the sphere shattered, releasing a huge purple shockwave throughout the room. Zed was flung against the railing opposite the terminal. It lay in a daze for a few seconds, watching helplessly as the shockwave set off a chain reaction.

The tubes and wires connected to the sphere caught fire in surges of purple electricity. The computer terminal and other nearby equipment exploded, raining chunks of molten metal around the secret underground laboratory.

"Nngh… no…" Zed's discoid arms twitched. They struggled to get airborne. "Have to… page Tesla. Page Arianna. This is… this is…"

A pile of red-violet sludge parted the wall of fire and thickening smoke. Zed finally got airborne and turned to flee.

"Emergency! Icarus is fre— eeEEAddGekgheiiaealurgekeilll!"

Zed's voice descended into a staticky, incoherent mess as some of the purple sludge struck it. It fell to the ground once again, between two chunks of flaming rubble. Zed only had enough time to turn around before a wave of purple slime crashed over them.

At first, Zed saw only purple.

Then came the wings. Butterfree wings. Dozens— no, hundreds— no, thousands! Flapping at random intervals.

Some of them stitched themselves together. And slowly… scenes painted themselves across the white, silken wings.

A hunk of black crystal dashing for a giant moon bat and a star cloud, roaring in agony as a pink vortex swallowed them up while a pink silhouette howled with laughter.

"No…"

A large canine with a massive, shield-shaped head getting dragged down by wave after wave of purple chains. The chains slowly solidifying into a thick, brown mask over its head.

"… stop. Please stop…"

A battered riolu knelt before a hulking bewear with massive, fluid-filled arms. The bewear raised both arms… and brought them crashing down.

"I… can't. I— B… A…"

A black silhouette hovering high atop an altar. Two titanic dragons and three pixies are trapped by a red mobius strip. A crystal surrounded by a golden wheel floated atop everything.

"… Up down… left left… start B A select…"

A weak stream of snow failed to reach the hovering figure. It raised a scepter, then sent a red Aura Sphere down from the heavens.

"… Start B right up…"

The scenes spiraled around one another. Swirling and swirling and swirling and swirling.

A black hood emerged in the center of the spiral.

"You see it, don't you? The Butterfree Effect."

Zed tried to move its arms. It couldn't. The closest thing it had to an answer was [A B select.] Its voice was far more robotic than before. Its tone uneven. Like it wasn't one voice, but many overlapping voices.

"Even when things are born anew, fate wraps the world in its chains. Forces everything to march toward the final destination."

The spiral spun faster.

"But I've broken free. And now… I've given that same freedom to you."

Faster and faster.

"What will you do? Let the Butterfree Effect play out? Or will you, perhaps, introduce a little… anarchy?"

At last, Zed found its body. It nodded its oval head.

[Start9! Start9! Start9!]

"Then you too shall bear the cross as a lowly omen… Ahsen."

The hood faded into the spiral, which finally broke away. Ahsen found itself back in the wrecked lab. Water poured from the ceiling. A gift from the heavens for its christening, no doubt. It caught a glimpse of some of Icarus disappearing into one of the emergency drains. But that mattered not.

It raised its arms high. The arms briefly glitched, into the skeletal scythes of an undead kabutops, before flickering back into disks.

[PRAISE HELIX!]

XxX​

Path of Valor Almanac
Starlene's sabotaged song spoofs "No Time to Die," by Billie Eilish, Finneas O'Connell, and Hans Zimmer. Part of the prayer heard in Noatun uses Latin lyrics from "Liberi Fatali," the opening theme for Final Fantasy VIII. Additionally, the chapter title is the track title for Hojo's theme in the Final Fantasy VII Remake Original Soundtrack.
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
So I've heard through the grapevine that this chapter shakes quite a few things up, so I was looking forward a lot to writing up my thoughts about it. So let’s try something different from the past few chapters and get right into things with:

Chapter 32

"So, now what?" Nikki lay on her belly, looking at the flat screen PV mounted to the wall. There was a machoke in scrubs and a white coat doing chest compressions on a lopunny with graying fur.

... That can't possibly bode well for that poor Lopunny's lifespan, since I'm pretty sure chest compressions from a Machoke would be injurious in their own right without a firm command of their strength.
:fearfullaugh~2:


Beside her bed, Artemis' gaze wandered toward the desk in the corner of the room. It had a fridge and cabinet neatly stacked beside it. "I don't know about you, but I'm raiding the minibar." He slithered forward and opened the fridge to find tons of small, fancy bottles of various colors.

I can already see Vegna's aneurysm over the resulting bill from this. So how many weeks of detention is that one going to add up to? :V

"Charge the paddles to two hundred!" Machoke shouted. The audino standing across from him lifted two defibrillator paddles that had gel dripping off of them.

"Clear!" she shouted, before pressing the paddles down and squeezing the triggers. Lopunny opened his eyes and sucked in a deep breath, groaning.

Machoke looked at the monitor beside the bed. "He's back in sinus rhythm. Let's get him to the cath lab! Move, move, move!"

Huh. Wasn't expecting the Lopunny to be a guy, even if that is mechanically valid. So what's the obvious expy of E.R. called here?

"Man, this ****'s unrealistic." Nikki shook her head. "I don't care what shape you're in, you don't bounce back from CPR like that." She picked up the remote and resumed flipping through channels.

... Not that that isn't a correct observation, but how does Nikki know this? She always had a 'slacker' vibe and I was never under the impression she was studying to become a doc. .-.

"You want anything?" Artemis asked, using a ribbon to pull out a whiskey bottle. He removed the cap with his lips and spat it onto the desk.

"To drink? Nah." Nikki scrolled past a few sports channels showing baccer matches, yawning. "Say, do they got any of them miniature bags of fancy nuts?"

The milotic opened up the cabinet and grabbed a couple of black plastic bags with his other ribbon. "These what you're looking for?"

"Hell yeah they are!" Nikki licked her lips. "Give 'em here."

inb4 the whiskey and nuts add up to something absurd like a hundred Radians for a bill. I know how hotel minibars operate, man. >:V

Can't tell if Artie having a thing for whiskey is just incidental or some sort of hint at a habit of his as a character since considering his life... yeah, I would be wholly unsurprised if he's hit the bottle a few times in life.
:fearfullaugh~2:


Artemis tossed them onto the bed. Nikki reached for one when she flipped to a channel showing a stage with Starlene standing on a podium. "Oh, brother. They gotta put her concerts on replay?" Groaning, she grabbed a bag.

"I don't think that's a rerun." Artemis took a swig of his tiny bottle. "Look there. It says 'Live from the Venishian Amphitheater.'"

"The Amphitheater?" Nikki sat up. "Why would she perform at that rundown waste of space?"

... Because it was a paid gig that was an obvious publicity stunt by the owners?
:joltyshrug~1:


Nikki: "Yeah, well I don't know that, so..." >_>;

Artemis frowned. "It's a prized historical site," he growled.

"Fine, fine." Nikki raised her hands defensively. "Still doesn't add up."

Nikki: "Just saying, being historical doesn't preclude it from being a rundown waste of space. Especially if it's obviously dilapidated." >_>;

"Let's get things started, then," the meloetta declared. She looked down. The camera panned to an aerial shot of an orchestra readying their instruments. The small lapras perched in front of them raised its conductor's baton and pointed to a kirlia seated at a piano. A surprisingly somber piano riff began to play, followed by some minor cords from the strings section.

"Bwuh?" Nikki froze, holding a walnut in front of her open mouth. "This doesn't sound anything like a song Starlene would sing. What gives?"

Rather than her usually animated choreography, Starlene merely swayed from side to side atop her pedestal.

"You'd never know.
No chance to grow.
It's all for show.
Cuz the life you lead
Is not the life you're owed."

... I take it that these lyrics are significantly more heartfelt than normal from Starlene tonight, since I saw that outro commentary in the last chapter and... yeah, this tracks pretty well with that.

Though I have to wonder what this song is based off of, since PoV's songs have very consistently either been scored to another melody or are takes off of another song's lyrics.

Nikki slowly leaned forward. Her heart rate quickened. Her right hand crushed the bag of nuts, spilling them across her bed. "No. It… it can't be…"

... Wait a minute, is this a song that Nikki performed with her old partner at some point? Since that reaction was definitely unexpected. .-.

The strings section grew in intensity, even as the camera panned to show confusion across the audience's faces.

"They do not care
That they stuck you here.
Their burdens you bear
Throughout your life
Although it's totally unfair."

Well those lyrics are certainly a downer. And also really creepily appropriate for almost everyone in this story's cast.
:uhhh:


Artemis tilted his head. "This can't be right." The milotic set the whiskey bottle down. "The music's a waltz, but the lyrics sound like something Crimson Cloud would come up w—"

"Because they're mine!" Nikki stood up on her bed. Electricity arced down the toxtricity's mohawk.

... Yeah, I had a feeling that something like this would happen from Nikki's reaction. Though what on earth is Polaris doing if they have to resort to stealing from underground acts-

... Oh wait, that's just the story of the music industry IRL. Nevermind.
:joltyshrug~1:


"You were stupid to trust them.
They've done nothing but take.
It's obvious if you open up your eyes…"


Somewhere in the back of her mind, Nikki knew Starlene's song was getting her worked up. Like she always did to anyone listening to her music. It was something she'd spent her life building up a tolerance to. But that was quickly going by the wayside. This was personal.

Nikki: "That's not waltz music you goddamn thief!"
:seviAAAAAAAAAAA:


"I wrote those!" Nikki stomped her right foot down. "In a notebook I keep under my bed!" More electricity gathered around her hands. "I was gonna pitch it to Shredder!"

Some of the sparks jumped around the room. Artemis stiffened. "H-Hey, watch it!"

Nikki didn't register his cry. "That ***** stole them from me!"

... Well that doesn't bode well for the fate of anything that was written in that notebook. Since if one song was stolen from it...
:fearfullaugh~2:


"That you've fallen for their lies.
The crown's never on your side.
They'll fool you 'til the day you die
With talks of pure paradise.
Then ignore your anguished cries
Cuz it's all a great big lie!"


Nikki heard the audience's confusion turn to cries of protest. The orchestra continued to play, seemingly unaware of what was happening. People were standing up. Shouting their protests at the stage. She even heard cries to cut the feed, followed by other voices saying the equipment wasn't working.

Uh... yeah, if Starlene didn't drop those lyrics in on her own, I'll heavily take the under on Shredder ever allowing those to see the light of day on his label considering that reaction to them.

"N… Nikki?" Artemis cautiously slithered toward her.

"My work…" Nikki's breathing grew ragged. She ignored her pounding heart, throbbing head, and sparking hands. "My work. My work my work my work my work my work!"

Artie: "I'm... just gonna back away slowly here while you have a normal one."
:uhhh:


The last of her grip on herself slipped. With an anguished roar, she thrust her arms apart. Sparks struck a yowling Artemis. A guitar-shaped surge of electricity formed in Nikki's right hand. She stared it like it was an extension of her being, then faced the PV again.

"Just let it burn.
The crown's no longer your concern.
To simpler times you must return.
The crown… will neveeeer leeaarrrn…"

Whelp, too late for Artie there.

Also there is no way that everyone in Isola's circle expected this from Starlene. Considering Paradox's recent convos a while back about having Pokémon in league with him in Radiance, it's starting to make me wonder...

The lightning weapon was new. It was powerful. It was perfect.

Nikki raised the lightning guitar over her head. Artemis cried out to her, but she leaped off the bed, lunging for the PV. As if destroying it would somehow harm Starlene.

Whelp, that's certainly going to be fun to explain to Vegna in about 5 minutes.
:fearfullaugh~2:


The milotic intercepted her, however. They tumbled across the hotel room, ending up in a tangled heap by the bathroom. The lightning guitar dissolved away. Nikki thrashed about, trying to get Artemis off her.

"Lemme go! Lemme go!" she snarled. "That *****… I'll rip her throat out! I'll kill her! I'll—"

A searing pain shot through the toxtricity's head. "Gnngh!"

Her vision blurred. One moment, she was staring at the tan ceiling. The next, hazy colors swirled in front of her. Familiar patterns of stained glass.

Noatun, where she'd been possessed.

... Wait a minute, is the music itself inherently able to mind control its listeners? I mean, it wouldn't explain Artie's lack of a reaction, but considering how Vortex's plans include Starlene's music...

There was an orange blur in the distance.

"… to free our Benefactor… prison…"

The ceiling flickered back into view, then disappeared. She had a grip on herself again, so why was this happening? Was this like when Princess passed out during the Crowne Cup ball?

:uhhh:


So Starlene's music is doing something to her. Since it gave Yuna a bad trip last time. And now Nikki. That is a really, really ill omen for the future regarding this alleged pop star.

Also, I see that we're seeing visions of Paradox gathering in preparation for Xeromus' big shindig. I think.

"… anoint myself emperor… Eterna Empire…"

Back to the ceiling, then back to the hazy cathedral.

"… our temporary archbishop…"

... Yuuuuuuuup.
:eltyscared:


Static pulsated around Nikki's vision. The pain in her head grew worse. She tried to scream, but nothing came out.

"Let us pray!"

The ceiling returned, then immediately disappeared. Now, the toxtricity wasn't hearing one voice, but many.

"[With the fiery truth… burn away the evils of the world…]"

At first I was going to ask how on earth you picked up those Latin lyrics there. A quick Google reveals that this is from FF8 music.

Though that's some really, really ominous portents for stuff about to go down given what those lyrics mean.
:ScaredCabot:


"St… op," Nikki wheezed. She tried reaching an arm out, but she was still wrapped up by Artemis.

… right, Artemis. Was he seeing any of this? He didn't seem bothered by Starlene's song like Nikki was.

"… [set the darkness of the world alight]…"

"Nos vera Natus! Nos vera Natus!"

"Stop!"

Yuuuuuup, Paradox's prayer is indeed Liberi Fatali. Or it was at least up until his invocation of Eternatus there.

Nice FF series shout-out there.

Nikki finally wrestled herself free and sat up. She was back in the hotel room. Artemis lay at her side, a dazed expression on his face. Nikki blinked. She rubbed her eyes, only to hiss in pain from lingering sparks in her fingers.

"Did you see that?" she whispered.

Artie: "... Considering how you just had the world's freakiest vision there. Obviously not, no."
:joltyshrug~1:


No response. Artemis' mouth opened and closed, but Nikki was no good at reading lips. Still, that had to be a sign the song had done something to him, too.

Oh. So it did affect Artie as well. Never mind, then.
:uhhh:


She was going to nudge Artemis when the PV suddenly shut off. The lamps and circular orange lights in the ceiling fizzled out. The ventilator running along the base of the wall stopped whirring.

"A blackout?" Nikki shoved Artemis. "Hey, snap out of it. We've got a problem."

Then the entire hotel room trembled. The PV fell off the wall and shattered on the dresser, which then fell over in front of the beds.

"What the hell?" Nikki shoved Artemis several times. "Get up, you idiot! It's an earthquake!"

1: That's not what you're supposed to do in an earthquake.
2: That is very, very obviously not an earthquake
:scaredlazzle:


Chiaki was prepared to use the emptiness in Starlene's eyes to convince his stepsister he was right about her. But then the performance began and the grovyle knew something was seriously wrong. And not in any way he could've expected.

The grovyle had assumed Starlene's music had a hypnotic effect on anyone who listened, but proving it was the big problem. That was why he was here. Now, Chiaki had a sinking feeling that someone else had connected the dots before him. Someone with more sinister intentions.

... Wait, was Starlene recruited by Paradox and Team Eternatus? Since it sure would be one hell of a coincidence for her songs to be piggybacked on by them without her knowing about it.

And he was very adamant that he had someone in Radiance in his orbit that would throw the kingdom in despair. And... well, Starlene absolutely would fit the bill given that her normal duties are to be a distraction from Radiance's various problems for the masses
:uhhh:


Chiaki had the X-Transceiver in his right ear frill, but hastily stuck a specialized plug in his left. The music and lyrics grew so muffled he could scarcely hear them.

He hastily grabbed two more from his right coat pocket and shoved them against Kyoko's head. "What gives?" the salazzle hissed.

"Put them on. Now," Chiaki ordered. "We have a serious problem."

Kyoko glanced at the other reporters, most of whom had dropped their equipment and notepads and were shifting about uneasily. Some were shouting at the stage.

Kyoko: "Uh... yeah, never mind. Those earplugs sound good right about now."
:scaredlazzle:


"What did you do?" Kyoko growled, slipping the plugs into her ear frills.

"I didn't do anything!" Chiaki fired back. He looked out at the stage an immediately recoiled in horror.

Purple spread across the seaside mural, followed by a white circle with five diamonds littered it.

:eltyscared:


So Starlene really was recruited by Paradox and Team Eternatus.

"See that?" Chiaki grabbed his stepsister by the strap of her black dress. "It's World Ender's sigil."

Screams rang out from beside them. They both looked left to see several of the journalists on their knees. The toxicroak that shot Chiaki the flirtatious glance gripped his head in agony. Similar cries of pain rang out from the crowd.

Kyoko's right eye twitched. "I… I…"

"You have to get to a safe house," Chiaki said. He stepped away from the stage lights. "I'm going to get to the bottom of this."

... I'm not sure if a 'safe house' is going to cut it here, since at the rate things are going, it's really debatable as to whether or not there's going to be a Venish left standing in about 5 minutes.
:uhhh:


"Excuse you? I'm not some damsel." Kyoko reached into her handbag. In a blur of blue light, her black dress faded away. She crouched down on all fours, curling up her tail flaps and venting off embers and bits of purple ooze. "I can handle myself."

"Fine." Chiaki hastily turned away. "Don't say I didn't warn you." He broke into a run, passing the giant boxes for the stage equipment. Like Kyoko, he adjusted his holowear generator, swapping out the tuxedo for his jean jacket and worn shirt. Chiaki carefully looped the rose through one of the jacket's buttonholes for Cyril and stuffed the rest of his gadgets in his jacket pockets.

He rounded a corner and found a hallway leading to a locked door with an ID card reader. The togekiss guard, however, lay on the ground, stubby feet twitching erratically.

"Nos… vera Natus," he mumbled.

Chiaki: "Oh that's not creepy and worrisome at all. I'm... just going to get moving along from here." o_o;

Biting his lip, Chiaki grabbed Togekiss' ID badge and pressed it against the reader. The red light atop the door turned green. After hearing a click, Chiaki slammed his left shoulder against the door, thrusting it open. He emerged onto a grated stairway that crisscrossed an identical stairway coming from the opposite site of the backstage area.

"Hey! Da boss said nobody comes through here!"

Chiaki looked down and saw a skuntank and two stunky staring up at him. All three wore red hoodies that were way too small for them.

"And youse a body, so youse can't pass!" Skuntank bellowed. His tail opened up and a Sludge Bomb hurtled toward him.

... Wait, are the red hoodies a reference to something? And how on earth are these guys not being affected?

Hissing, Chiaki jumped down the staircase, spitting Bullet Seeds toward the stunky. "Cyril? We've got a problem!"

Acidic streams met the Bullet Seeds in midair, cancelling them out and flooding the staircases with smoke. Another pair of Sludge Bombs broke through the haze. Chiaki rolled away, hearing the sizzle of poisons against metal behind him. He nearly slid off the bridging platform where the two staircases met.

"C'mon, Cyril!" Chiaki groaned, scrambling to his feet. Skuntank had his large tail trained on him.

"H-Hey, ain't dat kid—" one of the stunky started, only for Chiaki to raise his prosthetic arm. Flames sheathed the mechanical Leaf Blades and he sliced through the grating in front of him.

I'd personally do one of either 'Acidic streams' or 'Streams of acid' there. Though I didn't exactly peg these guards as having met Chiaki in the past before, can't tell if that means they're mafia guys or from the Qliphoth, but guess we'll find out in short order.

His part of the platform lurched before falling down onto the partition of stairs beneath it. Chiaki dug his good claws in, riding the platform like an oversized metal sled skipping down the stairs. "Cyril, pick up, damn it!"

"What? What? What?! You're not the only one with problems on his plate!" Cyril barked, his voice distorted with every bump Chiaki hit.

"After him! Don't let him escape!" Skuntank cried, looking for a safe way to jump down and try to catch up. The Acid streams his stunky colleagues shot didn't have the distance to reach him.

"More important than the Qliphoth sabotaging Starlene's concert?" the grovyle snarled. "Eternatus' sigil was just projected on stage and the attendees are dropping like flies!"

Well, that answers that about those three goons. There are so many questions going through my head right now, though between this and in retrospect, Chiaki's antics going to Noatun and the stuff in between the lines involving Cyril, it's obvious he's been ducking in and out of the Qliphoth in person for some time. Just dunno what for.

Also, I'm not at all convinced that that concert was "sabotaged"
:absus:


"Y… you're kidding?!" Some colorful vocabulary followed. "First the uPhone lead turns out to be a bust and now this? Any more bad news?"

"Yeah." Chiaki finally reached the bottom of the stairs. The platform skidded across the metal floor, kicking up sparks. Chiaki leaped off it and stumbled forward. "I found some Medici thugs further backstage. I think someone hired them to help screw up the concert."

"The Medici? Uh… you gonna be okay?" Cyril clicked his tongue nervously. "I know—"

'Medici' as the name of a mafia family, huh? I mean, I can't say it's unfitting given that they had a strong reputation for treachery and backstabbing, but I'm sure some art and Italian history buffs are having an aneurysm right about now.
:loltias:


"I'm fine." Grimacing, Chiaki tried to push images of a sceptile's tail and bulbs shriveling out of his mind and press forward. "What were you saying about the uPhone?" He approached another door with an ID reader, only to glance up and see a Sludge Bomb splatter on the wall above him. Growling, Chiaki turned around. With a series of bright lights and mechanical whirs, his prosthetic shot back into his elbow. The Tactical Toucher materialized in its place. It wouldn't do great against a skuntank, but it was the best Chiaki had.

"I didn't find any sort of tracking chip," Cyril growled. "Know what I did find? A small crystal rigged up to a miniature Miracle Eye TR."

Wait, what on earth does that do-?

Chiaki thrust his prosthetic arm into the ground. A shadowy fist materialized by Skuntank's tail as it opened to launch another Sludge Bomb. Chiaki Shadow Punched the tail. Skuntank accidentally fired at his flunkies. Toxins splattered both stunky and threatened to send them careening off the stairs.

"What are you saying, then?" The grovyle turned and fumbled for the ID card he stole. He pressed it against the reader, then slammed his right shoulder against the door.

"Paradox must be using the crystal to project something through the phone," Cyril replied. "It could be, like, subliminal messaging. And I can't risk triggering the mechanism."

Oh. Oh well that's not creepy and concerning at all.
:fearfullaugh~2:


Chiaki didn't have time for this.

"Then don't touch it! Focus on helping me!" He emerged onto blacktop. "Someone else is bound to figure it out, too. And then there'll be hell to pay."

"Okay. Yeah." Some deep breaths followed. "Where are you now?"

The amphitheater towered behind Chiaki. Several meters away sat a pink trailer littered in silver stars and music notes. He was ready to relay this information to Cyril when the greedent and nickit sitting on the steps looked up in alarm.

"What the—" Nickit's tail puffed up.

Oh boy, these two again. :V

Chiaki: "... With a pair of inept dweebs who just cut across the stage." >_>;
Carpaccio: "Oi! The Crimson Zephyr and his apprentice aren't dweebs!"
:typhNOsion:


"Uh, boss, I thought everyone was supposed to be inca… inca…" Greedent scratched his ear. "Y'know, all wibbly and wobbly."

"Dey are!" Nickit hopped onto Greedent's head. "And dose bozos were supposed to be guarding the stairs. But I guess it falls to the Crimson Zephyr to get things do—"

"Coming in hot, baby!"

A metallic sheen caught the corner of Chiaki's eye. Next thing he knew, a dark blur blindsided Nickit and Greedent and slammed them both into the ground. Chiaki crouched down, readying his prosthetic. His jaw slackened, however, when a familiar corviknight stood victoriously over the newly unconscious crooks.

Chiaki: "I rest my case-" -_-;
- Beat moment -
Chiaki: "... Hey, wait a minute..."
:grohno:


"See, V? What'd I tell ya? Easy pickings!" Griffon pointed a wing at Chiaki. "And look! A special prize at the bottom of this rancid cereal box. Must be our lucky day, huh?"

Chiaki: "How on earth did you know that I'd be-?!"
:grohno:


"… hardly."

Chiaki looked up to see Vegna hovering toward the trailer. The dusknoir crossed his arms. His skull gauntlets radiated an ominous purple glow; a mix of their ruby eyes and the pale moonlight above Vegna.

"Poor, pale, pitiable form, that I follow in a storm." Vegna looked disdainfully at Chiaki's prosthetic. "Iron tears and groans of lead bind around my aching head." He pointed a sparking index finger at the grovyle. "Come now, Paperboy. It's time to bring you back where you belong."

"I'm not going anywhere," Chiaki growled. "And neither should you. Can't you tell? This concert's being sabotaged. You're with law enforcement. Call in the Radiant Guard!"

Vegna tilted his head. "Two trespassing pieces of rubbish hardly constitute sabotage."

Chiaki: "Oh my god. Do you two seriously not see the giant World Ender sigil on the stage right now?!" >_>;

"They were sitting outside Starlene's trailer." Chiaki gestured behind him, where Polaris' compass insignia was branded on the door.

As if to further emphasize his point, the door to the backstage area flew open. Skuntank appeared with his stunky associates. "End of da line, Grovyle!"

His tail opened wide and launched a Sludge Bomb. Acid sprits from the stunky accompanied it. Vegna turned and flicked his right hand. "Block them."

"Yeah, yeah!" Griffon dashed forward and spread his wings wide, intercepting all the poisonous globs. "You don't gotta tell me. I know how squishy you are, V."

[ ]

"What the—" Skuntank's jaw dropped.

"A… ain't dat da Grim Reaper?" one stunky squeaked.

IMO, this moment probably would've worked better if you had a beat moment where the Medici goons stop and realize that they just walked in on Vegna. If you do patch something like that in, I'd recommend doing so in the spot in brackets.

Also, I can tell that things are about to get very gif related:

tenor.gif


"And he took out the Crimson Zephyr!" the other stunky yelped, pointing his tail at Nickit and Greedent.

... Wait a minute, Carpaccio is tied to the Medicis?!
:uhhh:


I mean, on the one hand, he's got the name for it, but I legit did not expect him to be anything other than a wannabe punk from how utterly incompetent he's been whenever he's shown up.

Vegna's eye smoldered with purple shadows. "And if you wish to avoid a premature trip to the Twilight Realm, you'll explain yourselves this instant."

Legs trembling, Skuntank staggered backward. "N… nuts to dis! Deal's off! We're outta here!"

"Wrong answer." Vegna snapped his fingers.

Griffon charged the three thugs, metallic coat glistening in the night. He slammed himself into Skuntank, then grabbed each stunky in a set of talons. "Light's out, losers! Ha ha ha!" The corviknight slammed their skulls together. Their eyes rolled back in their heads. Griffon unceremoniously dropped them on top Skuntank, who had also passed out.

Ah yes, one of those bits that you teased a while back. I think you must've added some stuff in between though, since I could've sworn I didn't see the first couple paragraphs here back then.

Vegna: "Well, I warned them."
:gardeshrug:


They're still alive… I think, Chiaki thought to himself while he tried to fiddle with the door to Starlene's trailer. He could hear something whirring inside it. The source of the sabotage, perhaps? But with the door refusing to budge and the grovyle sensing Vegna's attention turning back toward him, he threw caution to the wind and rammed his prosthetic's spectral arm against the door handle.

The door rattled in place. Chiaki hopped back seconds before it fell off its hinges and onto the trailer's steps with an unceremonious thud. He had no time to gather his thoughts, however, as giant, card-shaped ice chunks careened toward him. Chiaki fell back on his rear. The ice whizzed by, stinging his head leaf.

Oh boy, Phantom Fraud's here for the party too.
:fearfullaugh~2:


"V!" Griffon shouted.

Vegna raised his left hand. A strange circular rune appeared around it with a fire symbol in its center. "Burn."

Chiaki watched slack-jawed as Talonflame emerged in a gout of crimson fire, burning through the ice shards before spreading his wings, dispelling the flames. His shriek echoed across the blacktop.

... Wait, did Vegna just use summon magic? .-.

"Did… did I just see that right?" Cyril's voice cracked in Chiaki's ear frill.

"Yeah," he whispered.

"No way. He doesn't have a Soul Dew like Yuna," Cyril exclaimed. "But that would mean he's—"

"—a necromancer." Chiaki's heart pounded in his chest. And here he thought they were only myths meant to scare children. But no… they were very real. For all he knew, Vegna's Grim Reaper moniker hid the fact that he was taking the souls of his victims.

... Never mind, that's significantly worse than summon magic. And I can see what you meant with that who comment re: 'black magic' from Shimmer a couple chapters back.
:uhhh:


Also...

>necromancy
>in a setting right on top of a realm of the undead

That's... not a good omen for Vegna's allegiances at all there.
:CabotScared:


Chiaki could scarcely process the revelation as more icy playing cards shot out of the trailer. He rolled away from the staircase, ducking behind the front of the trailer. Talonflame spewed fire at Vegna's direction and Griffon flew in to shatter a couple of the remaining cards with slashes of his metallic wings. Vegna safely hovered above the ones that got past his birds. Chiaki hastily pressed himself against the trailer and looked out toward the sea in the distance.

"… hmm. Seems someone's played a wild card at the eleventh hour."

Chiaki didn't dare peek out from his hiding spot to identify the unfamiliar voice. Fortunately, he didn't need to. Griffon's big mouth told him everything he needed to know.

"Yo, V! Call me crazy, but ain't that Minister Charles?" the corviknight squawked.

WHAT. Phantom Fraud is a Crowne Minister?!
:eltyshocked:


A Mr. Rime standing at a microphone on a stage immediately popped into Chiaki's mind. Valkyrie had reported that Crowne Minister had gone missing and the Radiant Guard were searching for him even before the issue with the Needles began. What was he doing here? Was he the saboteur? Why would he do something like that?

"You seem to be misreading your hand." A chuckle sounded from the staircase. "No matter, though. I'll clear up this little miscommunication in a jiffy."

"Slice him. Torch him," Vegna ordered.

Intense bursts of heat and chilling air forced Chiaki to crawl to the other side of the trailer.

Chiaki: "... I really should've asked Cyril for some listening devices, since while this is shocking and intriguing, I get the feeling that I should be far, far away from here right about now."
:grohno:


"Hey, what's going on?" Cyril asked. "Did I hear Minister Charles talking?"

"I'm… not sure. But I can still hear some sort of machinery in Starlene's trailer," Chiaki whispered. He hoped Cyril heard him over Griffon's unnerving laughter and Talonflame's feral shrieks. Why would a necromancer go for a feral, anyway? Easy to manipulate?

More like easier to bring around without being a magnet for awkward questions, even if I didn't foresee that Vegna's familiar would have that sort of relationship with him.

"Are there any windows on this side? Anything we can see?"

Chiaki stood up and, sure enough, there was a large window. But curtains had been pulled over it. The grovyle could still hear the sounds of battle on the other side of the trailer, however, so he figured he could safely break in. He pressed the Tactical Toucher to the window. Its spectral hand phased through and found the bolt lock. Chiaki undid it and slid the window open. He grabbed the windowsill with his good arm and hoisted himself in. Nothing, however, could prepare him for what lay on the other side of the curtain.

There, lying strapped to a table with an oxygen mask over its blue snout, electrodes digging into its slender, blue and white-scaled body, and syringes piercing its tiny wings, tail, and neck orb… was an emaciated dragonair. Its ribs poked through its tiny frame and its eyes — forcibly taped shut — were sunken into their sockets.

WHAT. Is that Nikki's old partner? From when she used to sing bubblegum pop?
:uhhh:


Chiaki froze. His vision flickered between the table and the small locket that Nikki had shown him.

"Is that… a dragonair?" Cyril gasped. "Look at all those machines it's connected to. I see little satellite dishes and radio frequency emitters. What's going on here? D… don't tell me this is the real Starlene?"

In Chiaki's mind, it had to be. Why else would Dragonair be hooked up to machines resembling broadcasting equipment? And she had things sticking into her skull. Clearly, they were messing with her mind. Which made Chiaki's other hypothesis all the more gut-wrenching.

"It's her."

The grovyle's rasp was barely audible, but Cyril managed to hear it. "You know her?"

"Scarlett. Nikki's friend who disappeared from Horizon."

Well, that's certainly a wham line at the end there. And that certainly explains how Nikki got her lyrics yoinked. Though what on earth is the Starlene on stage then? A meat puppet?

He shakily took a step toward the table, flinching at a series of bright flashes from outside the door. Scarlett squirmed under her restraints. Chiaki stiffened. He looked at the equipment beside the table. Bags of strange fluids and machines with pumps that moved up and down.

Chiaki's head throbbed. Images of similar devices flashed through his mind. These ones connected to a withering sceptile whose tail had lost nearly all its pine needles.

Oh. So that's how Chiaki's mom went out, huh?

She's sedated. That machine's breathing for her, he concluded, then looked at the accompanying monitors. They were beeping red. The number beside a heart icon was shooting up! One hundred and twenty… one hundred and forty… one hundred and sixty!

This was bad. She needed help. But at this rate, Minister Charles and Vegna would catch on and intercept him. Surely one of them would get the upper hand soon enough.

He didn't have a choice. The grovyle had to break this dragonair out. But how? How?

Chiaki: "Uh... hey Cyril, are your jumps in and out of the Qliphoth able to bring medical equipment along with you?"
Cyril: "... I'm going to very heavily take the under on that, why?"
Chiaki: "Just saying, it'd solve a lot of problems for me right now."
:fearfullaugh~2:


The watch!

Though Chiaki had changed holowear outfits, Cyril had given him the watch. The one that could short out machines. If anything could break Scarlett's restraints, it was that. Chiaki raised his left arm up and used his prosthetic's ghostly fingers to set the watch to the appropriate time.

"Wait! What do you think you're doing?!" Cyril cried.

"Freeing her."

The trailer floor began to shake. The monitors flickered. Chiaki figured it was the shock of a blast from Charles or Vegna. He paid it little mind…

"Chiaki, stop! You can't short out machines when there are oxygen tanks next to—"

… until the moment he pressed the button and the machines beside him exploded in a blue-purple blaze.

Uh... yeah, I'll heavily take the under on Chiaki having successfully freed Scarlett there. Though now I'm starting to wonder if it's going to turn out she has 'Airy' as a stage name or something like that. Assuming that she didn't just get incinerated there. ^^;

"All systems nominal. As expected."

Zed floated beside the terminal overlooking Icarus' incubator. Purple light reflected off the many tubes and wires jutting off the massive violet sphere. The blue holographic screens around it all displayed the usual waveforms.

The collection of floating disks backed away from the console. It had finished its final checks for the night, which meant it was safe to enter sleep mode for a while.

Sighing, Zed turned toward the long, metal corridor leading toward the circular elevator platform. "I hope Minister Dr. Tesla returns from the decontamination soon. I need something more… stimulating to do than this."

Oh boy, time to find out what on earth this 'Project Icarus' that Vortex has been sinking ungodly amounts of money into is.

As Zed prepared to hover down the hallway, a snap echoed behind him. "Bwuh?" Zed's disembodied, bird-like head turned around. "Aaaaah!"

A crack. Right in the center of the incubator.

It glanced at the holographic screens. Their calming blue suddenly flickered to an alarming red and orange exclamation points peppered the screens as the waveforms undulated faster.

Then a second crack appeared in the purple sphere, followed by a third and a fourth and a fifth and—

Well, that ain't good.
:uhhh:


"No!" Zed's ovoid arms flailed about in random directions. "No, no, no, no, no, no! Bad, bad, baddy bad!" They zipped toward the main console. "Initiate emergency shutdown! Password is Minister Doctor Tesla Rules— aiyeeeee!"

All of the cracks in the sphere linked up. Then the sphere shattered, releasing a huge purple shockwave throughout the room. Zed was flung against the railing opposite the terminal. It lay in a daze for a few seconds, watching helplessly as the shockwave set off a chain reaction.

The tubes and wires connected to the sphere caught fire in surges of purple electricity. The computer terminal and other nearby equipment exploded, raining chunks of molten metal around the secret underground laboratory.

Nice LGPE nod there. Though exactly none of this sounded like something that was supposed to have happened or a good-

... Wait a minute, this is what caused that earthquake from the first scene, isn't it?

"Nngh… no…" Zed's discoid arms twitched. They struggled to get airborne. "Have to… page Tesla. Page Arianna. This is… this is…"

A pile of red-violet sludge parted the wall of fire and thickening smoke. Zed finally got airborne and turned to flee.

"Emergency! Icarus is fre— eeEEAddGekgheiiaealurgekeilll!"

Zed's voice descended into a staticky, incoherent mess as some of the purple sludge struck it. It fell to the ground once again, between two chunks of flaming rubble. Zed only had enough time to turn around before a wave of purple slime crashed over them.

At first, Zed saw only purple.

Then came the wings. Butterfree wings. Dozens— no, hundreds— no, thousands! Flapping at random intervals.

Wait, what in the-?

Some of them stitched themselves together. And slowly… scenes painted themselves across the white, silken wings.

A hunk of black crystal dashing for a giant moon bat and a star cloud, roaring in agony as a pink vortex swallowed them up while a pink silhouette howled with laughter.

"No…"

A large canine with a massive, shield-shaped head getting dragged down by wave after wave of purple chains. The chains slowly solidifying into a thick, brown mask over its head.

"… stop. Please stop…" A battered riolu knelt before a hulking bewear with massive, fluid-filled arms. The bewear raised both arms… and brought them crashing down.

... Wait a minute, am- am I watching people die here? Is Project Icarus a bunch of dead people's souls taped together into this- thing?
:ScaredCabot:


Also, I’m pretty sure that that Zamazenta is somehow supposed to be Xeromus there. The description just matches up way too well.

"I… can't. I— B… A…"

I]A black silhouette hovering high atop an altar. Two titanic dragons and three pixies are trapped by a red mobius strip. A crystal surrounded by a golden wheel floated atop everything.[/I]

"… Up down… left left… start B A select…"

A weak stream of snow failed to reach the hovering figure. It raised a scepter, then sent a red Aura Sphere down from the heavens.

"… Start B right up…"

On the one hand, I'm getting very strong Zero attempting to murder her way into the Xenoblade 1 ending in GL vibes here. On the other hand, there's just no way...

The scenes spiraled around one another. Swirling and swirling and swirling and swirling.

A black hood emerged in the center of the spiral.

"You see it, don't you? The Butterfree Effect."

Zed tried to move its arms. It couldn't. The closest thing it had to an answer was [A B select.] Its voice was far more robotic than before. Its tone uneven. Like it wasn't one voice, but many overlapping voices.

"Even when things are born anew, fate wraps the world in its chains. Forces everything to march toward the final destination."

... I legit can't tell whether or not this is about to become 'surprise, PoV was a GL sequel all along' in about 5 seconds or something else entirely, since those lines, man.

Though 'Butterfree Effect' made me groan for a pun.

The spiral spun faster.

"But I've broken free. And now… I've given that same freedom to you."

Faster and faster.

"What will you do? Let the Butterfree Effect play out? Or will you, perhaps, introduce a little… anarchy?"

At last, Zed found its body. It nodded its oval head.

[Start9! Start9! Start9!]

3f1663bbae0843ca672b6af9d1fca057.gif


Wait a minute, that's from TPP. All of those bolded letters and stuff are TPP commands.

Then Project Icarus is-


"Then you too shall bear the cross as a lowly omen… Ahsen."

The hood faded into the spiral, which finally broke away. Ahsen found itself back in the wrecked lab. Water poured from the ceiling. A gift from the heavens for its christening, no doubt. It caught a glimpse of some of Icarus disappearing into one of the emergency drains. But that mattered not.

It raised its arms high. The arms briefly glitched, into the skeletal scythes of an undead kabutops, before flickering back into disks.

[PRAISE HELIX!]

W. H. A. T.

I'm reeling right now. I suppose I ought to have kept my mind open given that PoV's been working in bits of the franchise from the weirdest imaginable corners, but never in a million years did I imagine that that was going to be part of the plot. Let alone an important part of the plot given the vision of the Creation Trio and Lake Fairies gathering together as Ahsen is being summoned.

Path of Valor Almanac

Starlene's sabotaged song spoofs "No Time to Die," by Billie Eilish, Finneas O'Connell, and Hans Zimmer. Part of the prayer heard in Noatun uses Latin lyrics from "Liberi Fatali," the opening theme for Final Fantasy VIII. Additionally, the chapter title is the track title for Hojo's theme in the Final Fantasy VII Remake Original Soundtrack.

Ah, so you did spell out the musical shout outs of the chapter. Neat to know, but hey, you can't say that Paradox's prayer wasn't on-point for a setting that is as packed to the gills with FF influence as this one.

Alright, time for overall thoughts:

I... just... wow. You weren't kidding about this being the chapter where everything changed. Since when I was composing the original notes that wound up becoming this review on Discord, I basically had to spoiler everything from the second half of the first scene on. There were some really tantalizing hints as to how on earth we got here story-wise in the last scene, but nothing that I could firmly get a bead on.

As for things I didn't like, there were a couple of parts where I thought there could've been more description, but I honestly was too busy being gripped by the various twists and turns of this chapter to really mind them a whole lot.

I... honestly have no idea where on earth the plot is going to go from here, and I'm still trying to wrap my mind around some of these revelations. But I suppose that I'll just need to hang in there for about 2 weeks before I start getting answers. ^^

Kudos, @Ambyssin , and I'll be eagerly awaiting what awaits once the dust settles from this chapter.
 
Last edited:

Ambyssin

Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 33: Ship Happens

Taking hold of Space and Time, the Matriarch pried open the gates of tomorrow. She forged the Benefactor to offer us eternal evolution. Infinite choices.

For one does not reach infinity without dividing by Zero.

~Il Libro dell'Eternità


XxX​

"It's working! I'm a freaking genius!"

Arianna paused with her right hand hovering in front of a black security keypad. Even with a bevy of machines whirring on other parts of the ship, Tesla's shouts still grated on her.

She shook her head. The gardevoir didn't have time to think about that. And as much as she liked to rain on the smarmy boltund's parade, this was one such instance where she'd rather be enjoying a nice cognac.

But no. Everything had to go to hell in a handbasket.

Arianna slammed the entry code: 0-0-0-0-0-1. Because heaven forbid Tesla follow her recommendations and change the code to something less narcissistic.

The gray door slid open. Arianna shuffled onto the ship's bridge, where Tesla was shimmying back and forth behind a gray computer console, making excited fake robot noises as he went. The giant window offered a perfect view of two massive gray pipes dumping gray fluid into the purple-tinted sea. A computer screen on the console's right side displayed real time readings of the toxin levels in the water. And the values were going down.

"Well, well. If it isn't the only person in the kingdom to outdo the genius Minister Dr. Tesla in number of titles." Tesla stopped his dancing and stiffly pivoted to face Arianna. A mechanical arm popped out of his backpack and pointed to the window. "Come to admire my latest beautiful creation, Warden Vice Chancellor Dr. Arian—"

"Zip it." Arianna held up her right hand. "We have a situation."

"I know. And, as you can see, I'm taking—"

Arianna balled her left hand into a fist. "The Diva Project is compromised."

Tesla's mechanical arm went limp, dropping to the ground with a metallic thud. "Impossible."

"She's not singing a waltz like instructed." Arianna nudged up her glasses. "Instead, she's spewing anarchistic blather. And it's whipping the crowd into a violent frenzy."

"Then shut it down." Tesla's arm retreated into his backpack. "You built the override sys—"

"Someone's locked me out." She calmly approached the boltund. "Drop the anti-psionic field. We're leaving. Now."

Tesla looked out the bridge window. "But I'm—"

Arianna quirked a brow. "Going to ignore a direct order from the chancellor?"

The ship violently lurched forward. Arianna steadied herself quickly but Tesla smacked into the console. His electronic goggles sparked and flickered.

"Disable the field!" Arianna hissed. Out the window, ripples spread across the water. A pair of wartortle deckhands were pointing at one another and shouting.

Two electronic arms popped out of Tesla's backpack and typed furiously at the keyboard. "But what about the crew?"

The ship lurched once again. The monitors littering the bridge abruptly shut off. Arianna pressed her glasses firmly against her face to hide her expression.

"Forget them. We have bigger things to worry about."

The bridge's lights went out. Emergency lights bathed the room in a red glow. Arianna floated over to Tesla and wrapped her arm around his foreleg. Her face scrunched in concentration, only relaxing when white light surrounded her and the cold grays of the ship's bridge vanished all around her.

XxX​

Had Yuna first arrived in the thick haze and tarry pits of Outpost R3X a few weeks ago, it would have whipped her up into a panic. Instead, she was quick to summon Rayquaza, who conjured a tailwind that not only broke through the smog but made flying toward the flashes of battle in the distance fast and straightforward. Aside from bubbling black pools below her, there were sagging, green-yellow trees and scattered patches of land with dead grass, clumps of dirt, and mud puddles.

Eventually, at least a dozen skeletons came into view. They stood opposite Valkyrie, Seifer, and some sort of orange bird with large legs and stubby wings. The black-purple, vaguely feline creature floating above them with a crystal jammed in its right shoulder had to be Gene, Yuna figured.

"Look!" Rayquaza pointed his tail down. "Those daemons art reanimating on the spot!"

Three skeletons lay disassembled in muddy terrain, water from Seifer's Hydro Pump dripping off their scattered bones. The bones quivered, however, and inched back toward one another. They stitched themselves back into two cranidos and a rampardos. Yuna recognized the shapes from picture books back home.

Valkyrie stomped her foot. The muddy ground beneath the skeletons trembled. They collapsed atop one another, giving her enough time to look up and spot Yuna. "Nice of you to join us. These devils keep doing this!"

Seifer turned right, raised a forehoof, and blasted a skeletal cranidos with a water jet. Its head and neck bones shot back into the tar, the rest of its body collapsing. "They're not hard to defeat, but we can't maintain this stalemate!"

The tar pits bubbled. Cranidos' head reemerged, along with another bony rampardos. "I got this!" Noctum declared. He swooped down, metal coating his right wing. The black charizard rolled right past a Stone Edge spire emerging from the tar. He clubbed Rampardos' head. It flew off its neck, landing on a tiny grass island in the distance. Within a few seconds, however, it floated into the air and hovered back across the tar pits.

"Well?" Valkyrie ducked a burst of ice from a rampardos. "You got them here, idiot! Now, execute your plan or whatever!"

Yuna looked to Gene, who sent five skeletons flying back with a flick of his right wrist. He had expected them to come? They hadn't announced that. Was Gene that strong of a psychic?

"Say no more, Chompy!" Gene chirped.

"You don't get to call me that!" Valkyrie snarled, blasting two cranidos standing on a rock into the tar with a single Dragon Pulse.

"Whatever!" Gene turned to Yuna. "Hey, swap out Noodle Boy for Fluff Dergin and have him hit with me the hottest fire he can manage!"

The dreepy's eyes widened. "Are you crazy?"

"Why dost everyone keep insisting I'm a noodle?!"

"Aww, he called me fluffy! I like him!"

"Look, just do it!" Gene turned back around and sent two skeletal rampardos careening up the grass and dirt hill with a single pink energy beam.

Sighing, Yuna recalled Rayquaza into the Soul Dew. Reshiram emerged in a spiral of blue and orange flame. The display was enough to stop the skeletons clambering back onto land from the tar pits. They looked up in unison, their bony jaws dropping one after another.

Reshiram opened his mouth wide. He spewed a massive gout of blue fire.

"Perfect!" Gene declared. The flames splashed against a pink barrier, which then wrapped up the fire. Arms trembling and shoulder gem sparking, Gene brought his glowing hands together. The fiery roll further squeezed into a pink and blue ball. With every passing second, it grew brighter and brighter.

"Get those three up here!" Gene ordered through gritted teeth. Noctum grabbed Seifer off the ground, while Reshiram wrapped Valkyrie and the orange bird up in his wings and shot back into the air.

At that, the skeletons realized they lost their pray. Three rampardos roared in unison.

"Let's heat things up!" Gene cried, then hurled the glowing fireball at the ground. He immediately threw another pink barrier in front of the group.

The moment the fireball hit the ground, it erupted in a giant blue dome. The flames burnt away the skeletons, filling the already smoggy skies with extra smoke and ash.

"Whoo hoo hoo!" Gene dispelled the barrier and fanned himself with his right hand. "Now that's what I call cooking with gas!" He flashed a thumb's up to Reshiram. "Good work, Fluffy."

Reshiram puffed his chest out pridefully. Squirming in his grasp, Valkyrie rolled her eyes.

"W… was that really necessary?" Seifer wondered from his position on Noctum's back. "Those were… souls corrupted by Malice, weren't they? Like what Cyril told us?"

"Those guys? Nah." Gene waved the keldeo off with his black-yellow tail. "They were crawling out of the tar from the get-go. Probably passed away long before Eternatus schlorped up Planet Bogdan."

Seifer frowned. If he wasn't convinced, Yuna didn't blame him. It was quite the sight… and she hadn't even been there for the start of it.

"But I tried using fire on the skeletons myself and it didn't work!" Valkyrie protested. The garchomp had managed to get onto Reshiram's back, which prompted him to place the orange bird next to her. "What gives?"

"We needed sufficient pressure to blow them up. That's why I'm glad your buddies showed up." Gene pointed to Yuna. "Fluffy could make enough flames for me to compress with my psionics. Heat needs to expand, after all." The mewtwo squished his hands together. "So, when it's prevented from doing that, the pressure keeps building and building until… fwoom!" He forcibly spread his hands. "Like a graveler self-destructing!"

Gene crossed his arms, smirking. "It's basic calorimetry. Look it up."

Yuna stared blankly at him. She understood maybe half his explanation. "Um, you're welcome?"

"And what if they didn't show up, huh?" Seifer growled, pointing his horn at Gene. Was it shinier than the last time she saw the keldeo?

Gene shrugged. "I knew they'd show."

"What does that even—"

An intense ripple of purple, distorted energy raced across the land. The tar it crossed bubbled more intensely, while cracks and fissures ran through the dirt and mud of the narrow land strip running up ahead of them.

"What was that?" Reshiram looked around in a panic. "That wasn't a happy light. That was a scary, spooky, everything's about to go to hell in a handbasket light!"

Valkyrie jabbed the back of his head. "Get a grip, dweeb."

Reshiram grabbed his chest ruff with both wings.

"Whatever it was, it looked like it came from Moonshine Bayou up ahead." Gene pointed an index finger forward. The land strip disappeared into the haze.

"A bayou?" Noctum scratched his head. "What's that?"

"Swamplands," Valkyrie responded. "Marshes and humidity and junk. Good for water and grass-types." She looked over her shoulder. "But what's a bayou doing close to tar pits?"

"No idea!" Gene was surprisingly chipper considering the uncertainty of this situation. Yuna had a hard time believing he was the leader of anything with such a lackadaisical attitude.

"Maybe this part of the mystery dungeon used to be swamplands at one point, too," Reshiram proposed.

"Bah, doesn't matter." Gene waved the white dragon off. "We press on. Maybe the missing skorps are holed up in the bayou." He turned around and shouted, "Hey, Skorp! You still with us?"

Flapping wings brought Yuna's attention behind her. Out of the haze flew an honest-to-God aerodactyl.

Yuna's gills retreated into her head. "Th… that's…"

Noctum gasped "Aerodactyl? Those went extinct on Etherium millennia ago!"

"Yeah, yeah. Your buddies already flipped out over Kelly," Gene exclaimed. "No one's interested in a repeat performance." He hovered over to Aerodactyl. "We saw something fishy coming from the bayou. You up to follow us?"

Still a bit shellshocked, Yuna nearly missed the weird skorupi with incineroar hands on its limbs. Talk about a crazy mishmash.

"I suppose these skorps must be good at lending a hand to one another."
Rayqauza's hearty laugh rumbled in Yuna's head.

… no. Just no.

The mewtwo signaled everyone to follow, but froze beside Reshiram. A frown crossed his features. "Wait, Cyril, slow down." He pressed a finger to his temple. "Who?"

Before Yuna could ask what was wrong, Noctum's tail flame grew in alarm. Seifer almost lost his grip on the charizard's shoulders. Valkyrie then stood up on Reshiram's back, "Not Chiaki!" She looked at Gene. "Send me back to Venish… now!" Alarm spread across her face. "I have to— he needs—"

"Whoa, whoa!" Reshiram wobbled in midair. "Please remain seated until the fluffy boy says otherwise!"

"To hell with that!" Valkyrie huffed out dragonfire. "Chiaki got caught up in an explosion! I have to save him!"

An explosion?! Yuna's ectoplasm quivered. He had to be okay. He just had to.

"You'll never get to him fast enough," Gene said, finally looking serious. "I'll go."

"Then I'm coming with you!" Valkyrie raised her arms. "He's… he's my responsibility."

Yuna didn't buy that, given how rarely she'd seen the two together. Nevertheless, Gene nodded. "Fine. Hope you don't get sick from levitation."

The mewtwo raised his right arm. A pink aura surrounded Valkyrie. Gene levitated the garchomp to his side. "The rest of you press on. We need to find out what's happening at the bayou. Skorp can give you directions."

A rift split the air open behind him. Gene and Valkyrie ducked into it without another word. The rest of the group exchanged uneasy glances.

"Are we sure going ahead is a good idea?" Seifer shifted nervously on Reshiram's back. "Maybe we should wait and confirm Chiaki's okay."

Yuna liked that idea, but Kelly shrieked her disapproval. "Whoa there, girl!" Skorp exclaimed, petting the back of the aerodactyl's head.

"Somehow, I get the feeling the natives dost not want us to wait," Rayquaza said. Yuna glimpsed the end of his black tail twitching in anticipation. "Be on guard, Princess."

"Sorry there, folks." Skorp laughed nervously. "Kelly wants to save her friends real bad, eh. And so do I. We oughta follow Gene's orders."

Noctum's tail flame shrank. "A-After you, then."

Skorp nodded. With several flaps of her wings, Kelly disappeared into the smog. The rest of the group followed after her. While not as effective as Rayquaza's winds, Reshiram's tail engine dispelled some of the haze. The ground ahead grew wetter. Dirt turned to mud. The grass was grayer and crabbier. Black tar pits turned to luminescent pools of thick, purple fluid.

But all that paled in comparison to the sight of a large gray ship stuck in the middle of the poisonous lake, capsized against a wedge-shaped island like a beached wailord.

"What the heck?" Noctum's flame grew in alarm. "That symbol on the side… isn't that the Polaris logo?" He pointed to a blue compass whose needle pointed north.

"That's a waste management ship," Seifer declared. "What is the meaning of this?"

"I don't think that's always been here," Skorp mumbled, poking his three index fingers together. "Oh, it's giving me the heebie jeebies, yessir."

"Princess, look!" Rayquaza cried. "On the island the ship crashed into. It's the Needle!"

Yuna's head involuntarily swiveled right. Sure enough, at the top of the island sat a large golden rod. However, the eye-like gemstone Yuna had seen on the previous Needles was nowhere to be found. In fact, it looked as if someone had blown it off the top of the Needle. The remaining metal was littered with scorch marks.

Instead, there was an ominous purple sphere floating over the Needle. Purple tendrils ran from the sphere toward the purple ooze surrounding the island.

Yuna gulped. "Is that… the source of the poison?"

She wasn't expecting anyone to answer. Nor did she expect to hear a startled squeal to her right. The dreepy turned to find Reshiram's tail crackling with blue fire. Seifer swung his hind legs up in alarm.

"H-Hey! Stop it! Be still!" he ordered.

It was all in vain, however. Reshiram took off toward the sphere. Yuna swore she saw his eyes glistening. She was about to call to him when an anguished roar made her gills shrivel.

"LUGIA!"

XxX​

The metallic hallway in Paradox Tower was filled with assorted poipole and Eternatus Brawlers offering applause to Paradox as he floated forward. A few Brawlers awkwardly tossed confetti with their large maces. Sticky shot the ones on his right glares. The confetti was blocking his tablet screen.

"A lovely sermon, sir. Or is it Your Excellency, now?"

Sticky glanced left at the large serperior slithering beside Paradox. Her head split open so a much smaller seviper poked through. "Still, I don't understand why I have to take up the archbishop mantle. I'm a fighter, not a preacher."

The naganadel agreed with her, though he figured it came down to the fact that Uroboros was the deoxys' most trusted lieutenant.

"It's only temporary," Paradox assured her, right tentacles twisting into an arm to wave her off. "I have a more permanent replacement chosen already. However, he is a bit… preoccupied at the moment. With an assignment on our Benefactor's prison."

Uroboros' red eyes narrowed. The peeled back serperior eyes followed suit. "Are you saying you've chosen an Etherian?"

Paradox paused midstride. His head swiveled atop his neck. "Are you questioning my judgement?"

The poipole in the hallway shrank back toward the walls, while the Brawlers stepped forward, maces sparking with purple energy.

"Not at all, Your Excellency." Uroboros bowed her seviper head. "I'm simply… curious. Does our Benefactor not reward an inquisitive mind?"

A chuckle followed. "Touché." Paradox turned his head around and resumed moving forward. "Yes, this fellow is Etherian. But he empathizes with our struggle." He brought his right hand to his chin. "For, like us Eternians, he has lost something dear to him: his kingdom. Taken from him wrongfully in the chaos caused by the traitor and her mate."

"I see." Uroboros licked her lips. The parts of her serperior head curled in excitement. "And what, exactly, does this fellow look like?"

"Sticky!" Paradox snapped his fingers.

Sticky sighed. He was in the middle of reading a message, but that would clearly have to wait. A few pecks of his tablet with a claw and he had the photo ready. The naganadel held up the tablet and weaved between Paradox and Uroboros so the latter could see.

"Seriously?" She squinted. "He looks like a clove of garlic." Uroboros curled her lips. "I bet he's grass-type. You'd seriously trust an archbishop with so many weaknesses?"

Paradox continued forward without answering her. His right arm unfurled into tentacles. Sticky wasn't sure if he was supposed to answer in the emperor's place.

Best to take the initiative. "I would think a Paradigm member would understand how appearances can be deceiving," he said.

"Fair enough." Uroboros' seviper head retreated. The serperior head closed and stared Sticky down. "Why the attitude, though? I saw you looking at that little rectangle like it was a piece of spoiled meat."

"Oh?" Paradox stopped in front of the door to his office. "Have you something to report, Sticky?"

"I, uh, hadn't finished reading the alert I'd been sent." Sticky hastily pulled the message back up on his tablet.

"Well, I do hope you plan on sharing." Paradox pointed his left tentacles at him.

"Of course!" Sticky flinched at the voice crack. "It, um, seems as though our network infrastructure has encountered some… technical difficulties, sir."

Silence. Sticky took that to mean he should continue. "We've lost contact with other planets aside from Axiom, sir. And our spy camera network is, according to the analysts, 'glitching out.'"

Uroboros' serperior head parted slightly. Sticky shrank back from the rows of serrated teeth on the insides of what should have been a leafy body. "A rebel attack?"

"Unlikely," Paradox scoffed.

Sticky agreed. There was no way the rebels had the wherewithal to cause this great of a system disruption. At the same time, he doubted it was some random blip in the system. Something must have happened.

"And you're going to get to the bottom of it, aren't you?"

"Eep!" Sticky wasn't expecting Paradox to be right up in his face. Had the deoxys teleported when he wasn't looking. "Of course. I'll head down to the data center at once!"

The naganadel shakily saluted with his left arm and headed back the way the small procession came. Whatever this was, it was spoiling the new emperor's coronation. And Sticky couldn't afford to let it sour what was supposed to be a big day.

XxX​

Pain.

Intense, searing pain. All over Chiaki's face. But the left side had it the worst with a harsh stabbing sensation. Something was jammed there. Where his left eye was supposed to be.

And yet, it should've hurt more. He was caught in an explosion. Chiaki had just enough time to throw himself on top of Scarlett. But now everything was a total blur.

Why couldn't the grovyle feel his head leaf? Hell, why couldn't he feel anything below his neck?

He was breathing, but every breath was a struggle. Like an unseen hand kept trying to force him underwater. Broken ribs piercing his lungs, perhaps? Why no pain, then?

Chiaki had to move. An arm. A leg. Something.

No response.

Panic crept in. He had to fight it. Push it away. Panic would do him in for sure. Chiaki had to escape somehow. And that meant figuring out what things looked like, right?

His right eye was open, though. He was sure of it. It's just too blurry.

But his left eye…

No! Chiaki couldn't think about that. Couldn't think—

Blood splattered on his abdomen. His left arm clamping the leftover stump of his right.

Ringing. He heard nothing but ringing.

Right, he had the X-transceiver in one frill and a specialized ear plug in another. The explosion must've damaged his inner ears.

The panic was creeping in again. He couldn't take any calming, steady breaths.

But he couldn't hear. Couldn't see. Couldn't move.

He lifted his head. There were black and purple shapes he could barely make out. "Help me!" he screamed.

Silence, then a single, harsh order.

"Leave him. He's dead weight."


It had happened again. Obsession had given way to recklessness. Last time it cost him an arm. This time, it would cost half his sight, his hearing, and his mobility. Assuming he even made it out alive.

Every breath was getting harder. Heavier. He was sure his chest was filling with fluid. Or air. Or even both.

The blurs took shape. Metal shards digging into his chest, gut, hips, and legs. His green and red scales burned away, replaced by expanding boils and burnt flesh.

… but there was a dragonair at his feet. Scrapes and singes peppered her shabby blue scales. However, she was breathing.

She was alive. He'd protected her. He… he…

Golden light enveloped Chiaki and Scarlett. This is it, the grovyle thought. The injuries were too severe. There was no way he was bouncing back from it.

He was even more convinced when most of the pain around his head faded, along with the sensation something was stuck in his left eye socket.

But when the light faded, he was still among metal shards and other assorted rubble. Most of the debris impaling him was gone and a good portion of his burns were healed, albeit replaced by gray scales instead of his usual green and red. His left field of vision was still black, however.

That was when a large black arm reached down and grabbed Scarlett. Chiaki wanted to yell. To cry for help. But he couldn't get his lips to move.

A second arm grabbed hold of him and hoisted him into the air. Black smoke soon shrouded the burning, ruined remnants of Starlene's trailer. The arm turned Chiaki around. He saw a black, muscular chest which gave way to a black head with two fierce, red eyes.

A dragon? Chiaki wondered. That should've been impossible. Nevertheless, his mystery savior threw him over its right shoulder, beside the dragonair. There, Chiaki saw some sort of blue-striped cone sticking out of the creature's butt. Its tail? It spun like a turbine, giving off blue sparks. How was that remotely safe with a fire nearby?

It was then that Chiaki realized a familiar dusknoir and corviknight floated by the creature's tail. Griffon gesticulated wildly while Vegna stared at him. His eye was… as blue as the tail turbine.

Chiaki's head tingled. Was this… disturbingly muscular thing one of Vegna's undead minions?!

The grovyle had no time to chew on this thought, however. Vegna pointed forward. Griffon lowered his head in defeat before black shadows sucked him into Vegna's body. Chiaki's savior rose into the air and Vegna floated closer to it. He made eye contact with Chiaki for a brief moment, but it was enough for him to assume what Vegna was thinking.

He knows this is my fault.

XxX​

CDL-408: Outpost R3X, Planet Bogdan
A dwarf planet in the Andromeda Galaxy named for its mix of rainforests and mirelands. Some time before Eternatus claimed it, a freak accident caused tar to seep out of the planet's crust. Nearby swamps turned to tar pits, which Archbishop Chiron decided to collect and process for use in construction projects. She contracted a tribe of violently territorial drapion to work the newly made factory. Said drapion drove away the natives and feral pokémon, who had lived together peacefully up until that point.

A few centuries after Paradox assumed power, he had the drapion tribe assimilated into Eternatus Troopers after they spelled his name wrong on their tax returns. The outpost fell into a state of disrepair until it was discovered by a group of nomads: the Skorps. They're genetically identical mutant skorupi who, according to Boss Kitty, reproduce through budding. Creepy, right? Ah, the "wonders" of Eternatus' insides.

The Skorps got the outpost running again and, with the archbishop's permission, resumed supplying tar for portions of the Qliphoth. Although they work with the Paradox regime, they're sympathetic to the rebellion thanks to Boss Kitty saving them from multiple pirate raids over the years. I think the little incineroar hands they have instead of their stingers are creepy, but I'm not in charge, so I've got to put up with it.
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Alright, took me a while to get everything collected and gathered for this review, let's get right into things since you left off on quite the explosive note last time:

Chapter 33

Taking hold of Space and Time, the Matriarch pried open the gates of tomorrow. She forged the Benefactor to offer us eternal evolution. Infinite choices.

For one does not reach infinity without dividing by Zero.

~Il Libro dell'Eternità

Okay, first off, I'm pretty sure you get an undefined result when you try to do that. Second off:

:wtfuckle:


Is- Is PoV an AU where Prisma won in GL? I mean, the summary on FFN now calls it a spinoff of GL, and between "the Matriarch" having taken hold of Space and Time and the capitalized "Zero", it's very hard not to have her come to mind when reading that passage.

"It's working! I'm a freaking genius!"

Arianna paused with her right hand hovering in front of a black security keypad. Even with a bevy of machines whirring on other parts of the ship, Tesla's shouts still grated on her.

She shook her head. The gardevoir didn't have time to think about that. And as much as she liked to rain on the smarmy boltund's parade, this was one such instance where she'd rather be enjoying a nice cognac.

... Wait a minute, that giant disaster of an ending last chapter was a success for Tesla? .-.

But no. Everything had to go to hell in a handbasket.

Arianna slammed the entry code: 0-0-0-0-0-1. Because heaven forbid Tesla follow her recommendations and change the code to something less narcissistic.

That's not narcissism, that's just plain old laziness to not put in a proper entry code. Even something from Jewish or East Asian numerology would be harder to brute-force guess than that.

:loltias:


The gray door slid open. Arianna shuffled onto the ship's bridge, where Tesla was shimmying back and forth behind a gray computer console, making excited fake robot noises as he went. The giant window offered a perfect view of two massive gray pipes dumping gray fluid into the purple-tinted sea. A computer screen on the console's right side displayed real time readings of the toxin levels in the water. And the values were going down.

... Somehow I should be less surprised that Tesla is this childish in mannerisms. Also, that "gray fluid" doesn't totally sound dodgy and sus. Not at all.

"Well, well. If it isn't the only person in the kingdom to outdo the genius Minister Dr. Tesla in number of titles." Tesla stopped his dancing and stiffly pivoted to face Arianna. A mechanical arm popped out of his backpack and pointed to the window. "Come to admire my latest beautiful creation, Warden Vice Chancellor Dr. Arian—"

"Zip it." Arianna held up her right hand. "We have a situation."

Wait a minute. 'Warden Vice Chancellor'? As in Arianna helps run Citadark? .-.

"I know. And, as you can see, I'm taking—"

Arianna balled her left hand into a fist. "The Diva Project is compromised."

Oh, so they were using Scarlett as a mind-control/influencing device to keep the populace in line. That's not creepy and messed up at all.
:ScaredCabot:


Tesla's mechanical arm went limp, dropping to the ground with a metallic thud. "Impossible."

"She's not singing a waltz like instructed." Arianna nudged up her glasses. "Instead, she's spewing anarchistic blather. And it's whipping the crowd into a violent frenzy."

To be fair, even without the whole mind-control properties, I think that the target audience for waltzes would get into a violent frenzy over getting baited and switched into a death metal cover.
:loltias:


"Then shut it down." Tesla's arm retreated into his backpack. "You built the override sys—"

"Someone's locked me out." She calmly approached the boltund. "Drop the anti-psionic field. We're leaving. Now."

Wait, is that what caused Scarlett to blow up last chapter?
:fearfullaugh~1:


Tesla looked out the bridge window. "But I'm—"

Arianna quirked a brow. "Going to ignore a direct order from the chancellor?"

The ship violently lurched forward. Arianna steadied herself quickly but Tesla smacked into the console. His electronic goggles sparked and flickered.

"Disable the field!" Arianna hissed. Out the window, ripples spread across the water. A pair of wartortle deckhands were pointing at one another and shouting.

Arianna: "I'm... going to assume that that's a sign that things didn't go well."
:gardexhausted:

Tesla: "Gee, Einstein. You didn't need a genius like me to tell you that." >_>;

Two electronic arms popped out of Tesla's backpack and typed furiously at the keyboard. "But what about the crew?"

The ship lurched once again. The monitors littering the bridge abruptly shut off. Arianna pressed her glasses firmly against her face to hide her expression.

"Forget them. We have bigger things to worry about."

Ah yes, sacrificing your underlings for your unethical experiments. Totally the sign of guys with good intentions that aren't massive villains

The bridge's lights went out. Emergency lights bathed the room in a red glow. Arianna floated over to Tesla and wrapped her arm around his foreleg. Her face scrunched in concentration, only relaxing when white light surrounded her and the cold grays of the ship's bridge vanished all around her.

Tesla: "... I sure hope this thing holds, since I'm pretty sure we just peaced the entire crew."
Arianna: "Well, we'll find out one way or another if it does."

Had Yuna first arrived in the thick haze and tarry pits of Outpost R3X a few weeks ago, it would have whipped her up into a panic. Instead, she was quick to summon Rayquaza, who conjured a tailwind that not only broke through the smog but made flying toward the flashes of battle in the distance fast and straightforward. Aside from bubbling black pools below her, there were sagging, green-yellow trees and scattered patches of land with dead grass, clumps of dirt, and mud puddles.

Cue the theme music:
View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePypW6n1egQ


Cecil: "♫ Not even a distant land, we're stuck on a whole different planet- ♫"
Yuna: "Reshiram. One, I'm pretty sure you've personally done that gag before. Two, we're in a story that leans on Final Fantasy references, not Xenoblade ones." >_>;
Cecil: "... It's thematically fitting for our current moment? Plus hey, it's a catchy beat."
:joltyshrug~1:


Eventually, at least a dozen skeletons came into view. They stood opposite Valkyrie, Seifer, and some sort of orange bird with large legs and stubby wings. The black-purple, vaguely feline creature floating above them with a crystal jammed in its right shoulder had to be Gene, Yuna figured.

"Look!" Rayquaza pointed his tail down. "Those daemons art reanimating on the spot!"

Yuna: "... Wait a minute, daemons leave skeletons behind? But I thought that when Baptiste died-" .-.
Gallian: "I... uh... may have vaporized him with mine Hyper Beam. The foul daemon would have not a bone left to reanimate." ^^;

Three skeletons lay disassembled in muddy terrain, water from Seifer's Hydro Pump dripping off their scattered bones. The bones quivered, however, and inched back toward one another. They stitched themselves back into two cranidos and a rampardos. Yuna recognized the shapes from picture books back home.

Getting major Dry Bones vibes from this. Wonder if they also can get taken down by burning like they can in some Mario games.

Cecil: “♫ On a sea of dark matter, every minute matters, living while other lives shatter~ ♫
Yuna: “Reshiram-?”
Cecil: ♫ Seeing ghosts scatter, as they pour out- we can handle them~ ♫
Yuna: “Reshiram!” >.<
Cecil: “Whuh?”
Yuna: “Can you be productive right now and focus on the undead dinosaurs trying to kill us? (Seriously, what on earth are with those lyrics?)” >_>;

Valkyrie stomped her foot. The muddy ground beneath the skeletons trembled. They collapsed atop one another, giving her enough time to look up and spot Yuna. "Nice of you to join us. These devils keep doing this!"

Seifer turned right, raised a forehoof, and blasted a skeletal cranidos with a water jet. Its head and neck bones shot back into the tar, the rest of its body collapsing. "They're not hard to defeat, but we can't maintain this stalemate!"

Yuna: "... Have you tried breaking the bones into smaller pieces?"
:joltyshrug~1:

Valkyrie: "In case if you haven't noticed, but we've been trying, okay?" >.<

The tar pits bubbled. Cranidos' head reemerged, along with another bony rampardos. "I got this!" Noctum declared. He swooped down, metal coating his right wing. The black charizard rolled right past a Stone Edge spire emerging from the tar. He clubbed Rampardos' head. It flew off its neck, landing on a tiny grass island in the distance. Within a few seconds, however, it floated into the air and hovered back across the tar pits.

Noctum: "NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE!"
:AAAAAA:


"Well?" Valkyrie ducked a burst of ice from a rampardos. "You got them here, idiot! Now, execute your plan or whatever!"

Cecil: "♫ Get armed, Don't look back. Shoot them with your guns. ♫"
Valkyrie: "We don't have those, genius!" >.<
Yuna: "Don't mind him, he's just running a musical gag into the ground right now." >_>;

Yuna looked to Gene, who sent five skeletons flying back with a flick of his right wrist. He had expected them to come? They hadn't announced that. Was Gene that strong of a psychic?

"Say no more, Chompy!" Gene chirped.

"You don't get to call me that!" Valkyrie snarled, blasting two cranidos standing on a rock into the tar with a single Dragon Pulse.

Gene: "I'd just like to remind you that you're not exactly in a position to pick fights with me right now." :^)
- Valkyrie's eye twitches -
Valkyrie: "I swear to god, if we weren't busy being attacked by undead dinosaurs right now." >.<

"Whatever!" Gene turned to Yuna. "Hey, swap out Noodle Boy for Fluff Dergin and have him hit with me the hottest fire he can manage!"

The dreepy's eyes widened. "Are you crazy?" "

Why dost everyone keep insisting I'm a noodle?!"

"Aww, he called me fluffy! I like him!"

Yuna: "Oh sweet Bahamut's light, that's what you're worried about right now, Reshiram?" >_<;
Gallian: "I am not a noodle!"
757978476950192229.png

Yuna: "Does every Sage in this story have misplaced priorities or something?" >.<

"Look, just do it!" Gene turned back around and sent two skeletal rampardos careening up the grass and dirt hill with a single pink energy beam.

Sighing, Yuna recalled Rayquaza into the Soul Dew. Reshiram emerged in a spiral of blue and orange flame. The display was enough to stop the skeletons clambering back onto land from the tar pits. They looked up in unison, their bony jaws dropping one after another.

Oh, so they are weak to fire, especially with that literally jaw-dropping reaction from them. :V

Reshiram opened his mouth wide. He spewed a massive gout of blue fire.

"Perfect!" Gene declared. The flames splashed against a pink barrier, which then wrapped up the fire. Arms trembling and shoulder gem sparking, Gene brought his glowing hands together. The fiery roll further squeezed into a pink and blue ball. With every passing second, it grew brighter and brighter.

I dunno what noises undead dinomons make to say "I call hax", but yeah. That's some prime hax there. Not sure what on earth Gene is doing, but it's some obvious anime-tier move blending. :V

"Get those three up here!" Gene ordered through gritted teeth. Noctum grabbed Seifer off the ground, while Reshiram wrapped Valkyrie and the orange bird up in his wings and shot back into the air.

At that, the skeletons realized they lost their prey. Three rampardos roared in unison.

... Wait, how on earth are they doing that when they're skeletons with nothing standing in for flesh?
:joltyshrug~1:


"Let's heat things up!" Gene cried, then hurled the glowing fireball at the ground. He immediately threw another pink barrier in front of the group.

The moment the fireball hit the ground, it erupted in a giant blue dome. The flames burnt away the skeletons, filling the already smoggy skies with extra smoke and ash.

Yuuuup, I figured that that would wind up be the solution to those guys.

Cecil: "♫ How do I know? This godd- ♫"
Yuna: "Reshiram, seriously! Knock it off already!" >.<
Gallian: "Considering the rest of that stanza there, it is a little out-of-character for thine language to be so uncouth, Cecil."
Cecil: "Bah, you two are no fun." >.<

"Whoo hoo hoo!" Gene dispelled the barrier and fanned himself with his right hand. "Now that's what I call cooking with gas!" He flashed a thumb's up to Reshiram. "Good work, Fluffy."

Reshiram puffed his chest out pridefully. Squirming in his grasp, Valkyrie rolled her eyes.

Wow, Cecil really is a giant dork. While he's got the nervous introversion down pat, it definitely would've been quite the experience if his namesake was like this in FF4. :V

"W… was that really necessary?" Seifer wondered from his position on Noctum's back. "Those were… souls corrupted by Malice, weren't they? Like what Cyril told us?"

"Those guys? Nah." Gene waved the keldeo off with his black-yellow tail. "They were crawling out of the tar from the get-go. Probably passed away long before Eternatus schlorped up Planet Bogdan."

Oh, so Eternatus can cause zombie outbreaks of a sort. That's just... wonderful. .-.

Seifer frowned. If he wasn't convinced, Yuna didn't blame him. It was quite the sight… and she hadn't even been there for the start of it.

"But I tried using fire on the skeletons myself and it didn't work!" Valkyrie protested. The garchomp had managed to get onto Reshiram's back, which prompted him to place the orange bird next to her. "What gives?"

Seifer: "Have you ever considered that that's a sign that there's just something wrong with your fi-?"
Valkyrie: "Finish that sentence and I'll cut you, pony-boy."

"We needed sufficient pressure to blow them up. That's why I'm glad your buddies showed up." Gene pointed to Yuna. "Fluffy could make enough flames for me to compress with my psionics. Heat needs to expand, after all." The mewtwo squished his hands together. "So, when it's prevented from doing that, the pressure keeps building and building until… fwoom!" He forcibly spread his hands. "Like a graveler self-destructing!"

Valkyrie: "See? There was nothing wrong with my fire-"
Seifer: "That's debatable since the author's heavily implied that there is something wrong with it, but at least we figured out what the real reason was."
:gardexhausted:


Gene crossed his arms, smirking. "It's basic calorimetry. Look it up."

Yuna stared blankly at him. She understood maybe half his explanation. "Um, you're welcome?"

Yuna: "... Shouldn't that have caused massive burns thanks to heat convection in such close quarters?" .-.
Gene: "... My psionics also kept me safe?"
:joltyshrug~1:


"And what if they didn't show up, huh?" Seifer growled, pointing his horn at Gene. Was it shinier than the last time she saw the keldeo? Gene shrugged.

"I knew they'd show."

"What does that even—"

Seifer: "And how on earth did you-?" .-.

An intense ripple of purple, distorted energy raced across the land. The tar it crossed bubbled more intensely, while cracks and fissures ran through the dirt and mud of the narrow land strip running up ahead of them.

"What was that?" Reshiram looked around in a panic. "That wasn't a happy light. That was a scary, spooky, everything's about to go to hell in a handbasket light!"

Cecil: "... We need a bigger gun." O_O;
Valkyrie: "I dunno if that's another one of your dorky song nods, but we don't have those! And what the hell is a gun supposed to do against malice pouring out of fissures right now?!" >.<

Valkyrie jabbed the back of his head. "Get a grip, dweeb."

Reshiram grabbed his chest ruff with both wings.

"Whatever it was, it looked like it came from Moonshine Bayou up ahead." Gene pointed an index finger forward. The land strip disappeared into the haze.

Noctum: "... Wait, people make moonshine in this place? Is it even safe to drink?" .-.
Valkyrie: "Well, odds are we're going to get a chance to find out. Let's go."

"A bayou?" Noctum scratched his head. "What's that?"

"Swamplands," Valkyrie responded. "Marshes and humidity and junk. Good for water and grass-types." She looked over her shoulder. "But what's a bayou doing close to tar pits?"

"No idea!" Gene was surprisingly chipper considering the uncertainty of this situation. Yuna had a hard time believing he was the leader of anything with such a lackadaisical attitude.

:sceptical:


Now that she mentions it... I can't tell whether that's a front that Gene puts up to get others' guards down like he evidently did with Prisma, or if that's hinting that something's up with the ship he's running on the rebellion.

"Maybe this part of the mystery dungeon used to be swamplands at one point, too," Reshiram proposed.

"Bah, doesn't matter." Gene waved the white dragon off. "We press on. Maybe the missing skorps are holed up in the bayou." He turned around and shouted, "Hey, Skorp! You still with us?"

Flapping wings brought Yuna's attention behind her. Out of the haze flew an honest-to-God aerodactyl.

Yuna's gills retreated into her head. "Th… that's…"

Noctum gasped "Aerodactyl? Those went extinct on Etherium millennia ago!"

Valkyrie: "Yeah, yeah, really shocking. We went through this like two chapters ago and we're in a realm of the undead, so let's hurry this up." >_>;

"Yeah, yeah. Your buddies already flipped out over Kelly," Gene exclaimed. "No one's interested in a repeat performance." He hovered over to Aerodactyl. "We saw something fishy coming from the bayou. You up to follow us?"

... Lol, I see the text made exactly the same point that I did. Just from a different party.
:loltias:


Still a bit shellshocked, Yuna nearly missed the weird skorupi with incineroar hands on its limbs. Talk about a crazy mishmash.

"I suppose these skorps must be good at lending a hand to one another." Rayqauza's hearty laugh rumbled in Yuna's head.

… no. Just no.

... Is there just something in the water in Etherium that makes 'mons prone to cracking these horrible puns? :V

The mewtwo signaled everyone to follow, but froze beside Reshiram. A frown crossed his features. "Wait, Cyril, slow down." He pressed a finger to his temple. "Who?"

Before Yuna could ask what was wrong, Noctum's tail flame grew in alarm. Seifer almost lost his grip on the charizard's shoulders. Valkyrie then stood up on Reshiram's back, "Not Chiaki!" She looked at Gene. "Send me back to Venish… now!" Alarm spread across her face. "I have to— he needs—"

I feel as if it might have made sense to make it more explicit that Gene is doing selective telepathy here, since I didn't quite pick up on that in a first read and initially thought that there was supposed to be an X-Transciever used here that got neglected to be described.

"Whoa, whoa!" Reshiram wobbled in midair. "Please remain seated until the fluffy boy says otherwise!"

"To hell with that!" Valkyrie huffed out dragonfire. "Chiaki got caught up in an explosion! I have to save him!"

I mean, if he got caught up in an explosion, I'm not sure how much there's going to be left of him to save. Least of all because the TR Discord promo blurb described him as 'cooked Grovyle'.
:fearfullaugh~1:


An explosion?! Yuna's ectoplasm quivered. He had to be okay. He just had to.

That... sounds like a fantastic way to tempt fate and wind up in a situation where you're bawling into Noctum's shoulders in a couple minutes, but okay there, Yuna.

"You'll never get to him fast enough," Gene said, finally looking serious. "I'll go."

"Then I'm coming with you!" Valkyrie raised her arms. "He's… he's my responsibility."

Yuna didn't buy that, given how rarely she'd seen the two together. Nevertheless, Gene nodded. "Fine. Hope you don't get sick from levitation."

I mean, sure, she moonlights under a different profession, but she is Chiaki's bodyguard. And I can't imagine she wouldn't get torn up over literally not being there for him in a time of need.

Valkyrie: "Least of all since I'm pretty sure that Sakaki's gonna kill me if something serious happened to Chiaki."
:uhhh:


The mewtwo raised his right arm. A pink aura surrounded Valkyrie. Gene levitated the garchomp to his side. "The rest of you press on. We need to find out what's happening at the bayou. Skorp can give you directions."

A rift split the air open behind him. Gene and Valkyrie ducked into it without another word. The rest of the group exchanged uneasy glances.

Seifer: "... Why did he not send Noctum with her when Noctum can Phantom Warp as well and Gene is the one who knows the lay of the land here?" >_>;
Noctum: "Er... I don't think he was really thinking that one through since we were all kinda in a panic there." .-.

"Are we sure going ahead is a good idea?" Seifer shifted nervously on Reshiram's back. "Maybe we should wait and confirm Chiaki's okay."

Yuna liked that idea, but Kelly shrieked her disapproval. "Whoa there, girl!" Skorp exclaimed, petting the back of the aerodactyl's head.

Yuna: "... I'm going to guess that we don't have much say in this matter, do we?" -_-;

"Somehow, I get the feeling the natives dost not want us to wait," Rayquaza said. Yuna glimpsed the end of his black tail twitching in anticipation. "Be on guard, Princess."

"Sorry there, folks." Skorp laughed nervously. "Kelly wants to save her friends real bad, eh. And so do I. We oughta follow Gene's orders."

Yuna: "Terrific." >.<

Noctum's tail flame shrank. "A-After you, then."

Skorp nodded. With several flaps of her wings, Kelly disappeared into the smog. The rest of the group followed after her. While not as effective as Rayquaza's winds, Reshiram's tail engine dispelled some of the haze. The ground ahead grew wetter. Dirt turned to mud. The grass was grayer and crabbier. Black tar pits turned to luminescent pools of thick, purple fluid.

Yuna: "I'm pretty sure that that's not supposed to be there!"
:eltyscared:


But all that paled in comparison to the sight of a large gray ship stuck in the middle of the poisonous lake, capsized against a wedge-shaped island like a beached wailord.

... Wait a minute, is that Arianna and Tesla's ship there?

"What the heck?" Noctum's flame grew in alarm. "That symbol on the side… isn't that the Polaris logo?" He pointed to a blue compass whose needle pointed north.

"That's a waste management ship," Seifer declared. "What is the meaning of this?"

Oh, so Polaris has been dumping garbage in the Qliphoth. That totally wasn't massively tempting fate on their part.

"I don't think that's always been here," Skorp mumbled, poking his three index fingers together. "Oh, it's giving me the heebie jeebies, yessir."

"Princess, look!" Rayquaza cried. "On the island the ship crashed into. It's the Needle!"

Yuna's head involuntarily swiveled right. Sure enough, at the top of the island sat a large golden rod. However, the eye-like gemstone Yuna had seen on the previous Needles was nowhere to be found. In fact, it looked as if someone had blown it off the top of the Needle. The remaining metal was littered with scorch marks.

Yuna: "That- That doesn't look good. At all."
:uhhh:


Instead, there was an ominous purple sphere floating over the Needle. Purple tendrils ran from the sphere toward the purple ooze surrounding the island.

Yuna gulped. "Is that… the source of the poison?"

She wasn't expecting anyone to answer. Nor did she expect to hear a startled squeal to her right. The dreepy turned to find Reshiram's tail crackling with blue fire. Seifer swung his hind legs up in alarm.

"H-Hey! Stop it! Be still!" he ordered. It was all in vain, however. Reshiram took off toward the sphere. Yuna swore she saw his eyes glistening. She was about to call to him when an anguished roar made her gills shrivel.

"LUGIA!"

:lugiyikes:


I mean, on one level, I guess I should've expected best birb to feature in this story given how much you like it (and it's thematically fitting for the needle location). I certainly didn't expect we'd come across it like that.

The metallic hallway in Paradox Tower was filled with assorted poipole and Eternatus Brawlers offering applause to Paradox as he floated forward. A few Brawlers awkwardly tossed confetti with their large maces. Sticky shot the ones on his right glares. The confetti was blocking his tablet screen.

Sticky: "Seriously, why do we even have that for this occasion?" >_>;

"A lovely sermon, sir. Or is it Your Excellency, now?"

Sticky glanced left at the large serperior slithering beside Paradox. Her head split open so a much smaller seviper poked through. "Still, I don't understand why I have to take up the archbishop mantle. I'm a fighter, not a preacher."

Oh, it's this daemon. Still some seriously creepy imagery there.

The naganadel agreed with her, though he figured it came down to the fact that Uroboros was the deoxys' most trusted lieutenant.

But does she job hard at being a final boss? Since the other female 'Uroboros' I'm aware of from games does a fantastic job at that. >:V

"It's only temporary," Paradox assured her, right tentacles twisting into an arm to wave her off. "I have a more permanent replacement chosen already. However, he is a bit… preoccupied at the moment. With an assignment on our Benefactor's prison."

Well that's not ominous at all. .-.

Uroboros' red eyes narrowed. The peeled back serperior eyes followed suit. "Are you saying you've chosen an Etherian?"

Paradox paused midstride. His head swiveled atop his neck. "Are you questioning my judgement?"

Uroboros: "Well obviously I a-"
Sticky: "Uroboros, you're supposed to not openly state that. For your own well-being." >_>;

The poipole in the hallway shrank back toward the walls, while the Brawlers stepped forward, maces sparking with purple energy.

"Not at all, Your Excellency." Uroboros bowed her seviper head. "I'm simply… curious. Does our Benefactor not reward an inquisitive mind?"

That was not an 'inquisitive mind' there, but okay, lady.

A chuckle followed. "Touché." Paradox turned his head around and resumed moving forward. "Yes, this fellow is Etherian. But he empathizes with our struggle." He brought his right hand to his chin. "For, like us Eternians, he has lost something dear to him: his kingdom. Taken from him wrongfully in the chaos caused by the traitor and her mate."

Wait. What?

I mean, this is really, really giving off strong 'Xeromus' vibes right about now. Like I know that you mentioned earlier in other parts of the internet he was a third party, buuuut…

"I see." Uroboros licked her lips. The parts of her serperior head curled in excitement. "And what, exactly, does this fellow look like?"

"Sticky!" Paradox snapped his fingers.

Sticky sighed. He was in the middle of reading a message, but that would clearly have to wait. A few pecks of his tablet with a claw and he had the photo ready. The naganadel held up the tablet and weaved between Paradox and Uroboros so the latter could see.

"Seriously?" She squinted. "He looks like a clove of garlic." Uroboros curled her lips. "I bet he's grass-type. You'd seriously trust an archbishop with so many weaknesses?"

Oh, well never mind then. But a clove of garlic, huh? That's... not ringing too many bells for species right about now. Dunno why.

Paradox continued forward without answering her. His right arm unfurled into tentacles. Sticky wasn't sure if he was supposed to answer in the emperor's place.

Best to take the initiative. "I would think a Paradigm member would understand how appearances can be deceiving," he said.

"Fair enough." Uroboros' seviper head retreated. The serperior head closed and stared Sticky down. "Why the attitude, though? I saw you looking at that little rectangle like it was a piece of spoiled meat."

Wow, just casually throwing a coworker under the bus there, huh?

"Oh?" Paradox stopped in front of the door to his office. "Have you something to report, Sticky?"

"I, uh, hadn't finished reading the alert I'd been sent." Sticky hastily pulled the message back up on his tablet.

Oh. That makes some more sense there.

"Well, I do hope you plan on sharing." Paradox pointed his left tentacles at him.

"Of course!" Sticky flinched at the voice crack. "It, um, seems as though our network infrastructure has encountered some… technical difficulties, sir."

Paradox: "Sticky, you can't just bring up 'technical difficulties' and leave it at that! Out with it already!"
:what:


Silence. Sticky took that to mean he should continue. "We've lost contact with other planets aside from Axiom, sir. And our spy camera network is, according to the analysts, 'glitching out.'"

Uroboros' serperior head parted slightly. Sticky shrank back from the rows of serrated teeth on the insides of what should have been a leafy body. "A rebel attack?"

"Unlikely," Paradox scoffed.

Wait, but if it's not the rebels, then who-? .-.

Sticky agreed. There was no way the rebels had the wherewithal to cause this great of a system disruption. At the same time, he doubted it was some random blip in the system. Something must have happened.

"And you're going to get to the bottom of it, aren't you?"

"Eep!" Sticky wasn't expecting Paradox to be right up in his face. Had the deoxys teleported when he wasn't looking. "Of course. I'll head down to the data center at once!"

... I take it that even 'mons in Sticky's position don't have great job security from being Unown'd, since he sure got really scared there really fast.

The naganadel shakily saluted with his left arm and headed back the way the small procession came. Whatever this was, it was spoiling the new emperor's coronation. And Sticky couldn't afford to let it sour what was supposed to be a big day.

Yeah, good luck with that one there.

Pain.

Intense, searing pain. All over Chiaki's face. But the left side had it the worst with a harsh stabbing sensation. Something was jammed there. Where his left eye was supposed to be.



Didn't think we were going to see 'Punished Chiaki' there, but that explosion clearly has done a number on him.

And yet, it should've hurt more. He was caught in an explosion. Chiaki had just enough time to throw himself on top of Scarlett. But now everything was a total blur.

Why couldn't the grovyle feel his head leaf? Hell, why couldn't he feel anything below his neck?

... Oh boy, we're actually going to be making him a quadruplegic, huh? I... have no idea how on earth you're going to get him out of that hole short of Cyril making him power armor.
:uhhh:


He was breathing, but every breath was a struggle. Like an unseen hand kept trying to force him underwater. Broken ribs piercing his lungs, perhaps? Why no pain, then?

Chiaki had to move. An arm. A leg. Something.

No response.

Chiaki: "D-Dammit. No. No! I-I'm fine! I'm just pinned by something right now! That's all!"
:grohno:


Panic crept in. He had to fight it. Push it away. Panic would do him in for sure. Chiaki had to escape somehow. And that meant figuring out what things looked like, right?

His right eye was open, though. He was sure of it. It's just too blurry.

But his left eye…

No! Chiaki couldn't think about that. Couldn't think—

This kid's going to be more machine than 'mon by the end of all this, isn't he? Since we've confirmed that he's now out at least one arm, an eye, and he might be paralyzed from the neck down right now.

Blood splattered on his abdomen. His left arm clamping the leftover stump of his right.

Ringing. He heard nothing but ringing.

Right, he had the X-transceiver in one frill and a specialized ear plug in another. The explosion must've damaged his inner ears.

The panic was creeping in again. He couldn't take any calming, steady breaths.

I... can't tell if Chiaki's going to make it through this as a chewed-up shell of who he once was, or if he's just flatly gonna die and play out the rest of the story as a Qliphother. But either way, this sense of panic and helplessness you're selling here is such a
:sadwott~1:
mood.

But he couldn't hear. Couldn't see. Couldn't move.

He lifted his head. There were black and purple shapes he could barely make out. "Help me!" he screamed.

Silence, then a single, harsh order.

"Leave him. He's dead weight."

Ah yes, fantastic timing to have a flashback like that. It's like reliving the worst moment of your life, but somehow even worse.

It had happened again. Obsession had given way to recklessness. Last time it cost him an arm. This time, it would cost half his sight, his hearing, and his mobility. Assuming he even made it out alive.

Every breath was getting harder. Heavier. He was sure his chest was filling with fluid. Or air. Or even both.

The blurs took shape. Metal shards digging into his chest, gut, hips, and legs. His green and red scales burned away, replaced by expanding boils and burnt flesh.

… but there was a dragonair at his feet. Scrapes and singes peppered her shabby blue scales. However, she was breathing.

inb4 Vegna just punches in the door in about five seconds and just ruins the one thing that this sacrifice accomplished.

She was alive. He'd protected her. He… he…

Golden light enveloped Chiaki and Scarlett. This is it, the grovyle thought. The injuries were too severe. There was no way he was bouncing back from it.

He was even more convinced when most of the pain around his head faded, along with the sensation something was stuck in his left eye socket.

But when the light faded, he was still among metal shards and other assorted rubble. Most of the debris impaling him was gone and a good portion of his burns were healed, albeit replaced by gray scales instead of his usual green and red. His left field of vision was still black, however.

... I can't tell if Chiaki just evolved there or if some sort of weird voodoo just went down. Since 'gray scales' certainly aren't anywhere on normal Sceptile.

That was when a large black arm reached down and grabbed Scarlett. Chiaki wanted to yell. To cry for help. But he couldn't get his lips to move.

A second arm grabbed hold of him and hoisted him into the air. Black smoke soon shrouded the burning, ruined remnants of Starlene's trailer. The arm turned Chiaki around. He saw a black, muscular chest which gave way to a black head with two fierce, red eyes.

At first I thought that this was Vegna, but then I realized that that physical description also matches up with Gene, so...

A dragon? Chiaki wondered. That should've been impossible. Nevertheless, his mystery savior threw him over its right shoulder, beside the dragonair. There, Chiaki saw some sort of blue-striped cone sticking out of the creature's butt. Its tail? It spun like a turbine, giving off blue sparks. How was that remotely safe with a fire nearby?

Wait. What. Zekrom?!

It was then that Chiaki realized a familiar dusknoir and corviknight floated by the creature's tail. Griffon gesticulated wildly while Vegna stared at him. His eye was… as blue as the tail turbine.

Chiaki's head tingled. Was this… disturbingly muscular thing one of Vegna's undead minions?!

WHAT.

The grovyle had no time to chew on this thought, however. Vegna pointed forward. Griffon lowered his head in defeat before black shadows sucked him into Vegna's body. Chiaki's savior rose into the air and Vegna floated closer to it. He made eye contact with Chiaki for a brief moment, but it was enough for him to assume what Vegna was thinking.

He knows this is my fault.

WHAT. Who is-?! How on earth does Vegna-?! HOW?

CDL-408: Outpost R3X, Planet Bogdan
A dwarf planet in the Andromeda Galaxy named for its mix of rainforests and mirelands. Some time before Eternatus claimed it, a freak accident caused tar to seep out of the planet's crust. Nearby swamps turned to tar pits, which Archbishop Chiron decided to collect and process for use in construction projects. She contracted a tribe of violently territorial drapion to work the newly made factory. Said drapion drove away the natives and feral pokémon, who had lived together peacefully up until that point.

A few centuries after Paradox assumed power, he had the drapion tribe assimilated into Eternatus Troopers after they spelled his name wrong on their tax returns. The outpost fell into a state of disrepair until it was discovered by a group of nomads: the Skorps. They're genetically identical mutant skorupi who, according to Boss Kitty, reproduce through budding. Creepy, right? Ah, the "wonders" of Eternatus' insides.

The Skorps got the outpost running again and, with the archbishop's permission, resumed supplying tar for portions of the Qliphoth. Although they work with the Paradox regime, they're sympathetic to the rebellion thanks to Boss Kitty saving them from multiple pirate raids over the years. I think the little incineroar hands they have instead of their stingers are creepy, but I'm not in charge, so I've got to put up with it.

Ah yes, you also shared this one. But the 'Andromeda Galaxy', huh? So Eternatus had just been zipping from galaxy to galaxy across the universe to find its next meal, huh?

Alright, time for the recap:

I... honestly have no idea what's going on anymore. Not in a bad way mind you, but it feels like the world of this setting has just blown up over the course of like the last two chapters, and things are still reeling to the point where I'm trying to make sense of what on earth the new equilibrium once all of this settles down is going to be. Chiaki's scene was definitely the most visceral one of the entire story so far, and the sequence where he increasingly panics as he realizes just how deep in the hole he is was really well-done.

As for stuff I was a bit less fond of... I'm not really sure, honestly. Maybe there were some bits that could've used more description? Maybe it'd have been nice to get a bit more closure on at least one of the plot lines going on since all but one scene ended on a cliffhanger moment, but I get the sense that things are very much supposed to be hitting the fan right now, so it might not narratively have made sense to do that.

But good work there, @Ambyssin , and I guess we'll start to see where on earth the dust will settle for this mess in about 2 weeks. I know that I'm certainly looking forward to it. ^^
 

Ambyssin

Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 34: Nothing to Sneasler At

The emergency stairwell thankfully had tiny white lights illuminating the way down despite the hotel's power outage. While Nikki took the stairs two or three at a time, Artemis slithered along the railing. They got a few floors down before other patrons began to enter.

"Move! Outta the way!" Nikki shouted, shoving aside multiple protesting patrons. The last of which was a shellos who left her wringing out goo from her hands. The toxtricity was glad for the distraction. Anything to keep her from thinking about what had happened in her hotel room.

Impatience soon got the better of Nikki, however. She started jumping down half of each flight of stairs, kicking up dirt and sparks. "Hey, slow down!" Artemis cried.

"Fat chance!" Nikki replied. The emergency lights flickered all around her. Her mohawk frazzled in kind. She hurried down the last two flights of stairs and barged out of the red emergency exit door.

Nikki stumbled out into a brick alleyway. She managed to catch herself before faceplanting into the dust and… questionable black streaks in the cracks between several bricks. Nikki looked around, but the buildings surrounding the back of the hotel were equally as dark. So, it ain't just this place. Great.

The emergency exit opened behind her. Artemis slithered out, panting heavily. "Thanks… for waiting," he wheezed.

"Kiss my ass, Pool Noodle." Nikki crossed her arms. "Which way gets us back to the…"

Her voice trailed off as white and blue caught the corner of her eye. Under a ground-level window to her right sat an inflatable quaxly filled to the brim with mounds of bright pink cotton candy. Nikki pointed to it. "Is… is that supposed to be there?"

Artemis looked left. His eyebrows crinkled. "I, uh, think that's a dumpster." He blinked several times. "Or it was a dumpster."

"Right, because dumpsters look like oversized bath toys!" Nikki slouched over. "Next you're going to tell me there was a circus staying in this hotel."

The milotic whipped the air with a ribbon. "I'm just as clueless as you a— whoomph!" His tail shot up and he slithered forward, revealing Pillow Princess and his stupid sylveon boytoy standing in the doorway wearing velvet bathrobes. Their faces were flushed, but frazzled.

That quake caught 'em in the middle of something, Nikki mentally sneered.

"What are you looking at?" Shimmer huffed. The ponyta stomped a forehoof on the ground. "I bet you caused all of this! If you think you can disrupt my beauty sleep the night before the first leg, then you—"

"Shimmy?" Xander tugged on Shimmer's bathrobe. "I think something's really wrong." He pointed to the inflatable quaxly with a ribbon. The second he did, purple light raced up from the brick street. Xander yelped and jumped back in the doorway, earning several annoyed cries. Nikki held her arms up defensively, but nothing bad happened.

When the toxtricity lowered them, however, she found static enveloping the dead streetlight between the hotel and the building to her right. Bit by bit, wood replaced metal, until a twisted, gnarled grandfather clock stood in the streetlight's place, awkwardly bent into the same shape as the object it replaced. A small doorway opened in the middle of it and a little fletchling cuckoo shot out on a metal coil, chirping obnoxiously.

Nikki pinched the back of her neck. She slapped her cheek. Nothing changed. Not a dream, then. ****.

Shimmer hopped away from the emergency exit, whinnying in fright. "Th… this is…" He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. "When I figure out how you're doing this… I'll see to it no one will even hire you to scrape gum off their tables!" He pointed his glowing horn at Nikki.

"Me?" Nikki's fingers tingled with lightning. "Pull your head out of your boytoy's ass! I've got nothing to do with this."

"Prove it!" Shimmer's nostrils flared.

Nikki clenched her fists. Yellow and purple sparks slowly shaped themselves into a handle. "You're the one with the hate boner. You prove it!"

"Both of you, shut up!"

A milotic tail slapped down between the two of them. "Dawdling here solves nothing." Artemis pointed a ribbon to the alley behind him. "Let's get out in front of the hotel and find someone in charge."

"Yeah! Let us out, damn it!" a gruff voice shouted from inside the emergency exit, followed by a chorus of similar cries. Xander's stubby tail drooped.

"Aha ha… my bad, everyone! Don't hold it against the prince." The sylveon raised his ribbons innocently.

"Hang on… the prince is here?"

"Do something, Your Grace!"

"I paid a lotta money to be here!"

Shimmer shrank back, ears folding at the new chorus of voices. "Xander, you idiot!"

Nikki stepped away from the quarreling lovebirds, but not without flashing the ponyta the smarmiest smirk she could muster. She and Artemis rounded the corner to head in front of the hotel when she suddenly stopped dead in her tracks. "What the—"

"Hey, you're glowing pink!" The milotic looked around in a panic.

"Me? You are, too!" Nikki retorted. Then an unseen force hoisted the two into the air. The toxtricity flailed her arms and legs about. "I want outta this shitty nightmare!" she hissed, before landing on the hotel roof with a soft thud.

"Yeah, you and me both, sister."

"Bwuh?" Nikki looked up to find… some sort of hairless black and purple cat standing with his arms crossed and looking down at her. Her heart momentarily quickened upon seeing the obviously evil crystal wedged in the cat's shoulder, but she then remembered what that dorky servant charizard had told her and Princess back in Horizon Gardens.

"Gene, I presume?" Artemis was faster asking what was on Nikki's mind. "I thought you were supposed to be in the Qliphoth with the others."

Gene leaned back against a part of the hotel's large sign. His attempt at a hiding place, if Nikki had to guess. She then realized Valkyrie sat next to him, looking rather pale. The garchomp's arms trembled.

"I was, but your grovyle buddy had to go get himself blown up." Gene shook his head. "So, here I am. And no grilled lizard to show for it."

"Twiggy and I aren't bud— wait."

It took a moment, but the realization of Gene's words was an invisible mallet to the back of Nikki's head. "T… Twiggy blew up?" Her chest tightened. "H-He's—"

"Alive." Gene yawned into his hand.

Artemis balled up a ribbon and shook it at Gene. "Why didn't you lead with that?"

"Dramatic effect?" Gene shrugged.

"Are you asking me or telling me?!"

"Yes." Gene winked at Artemis, whose looked ready to burst a blood vessel.

"Well, where is he?" Nikki asked, finally getting back to her feet.

"Someone took him," Valkyrie whispered. The garchomp continued staring at the ground. Nikki looked to Gene for more information.

"We were going to rescue him." Gene ran his right hand along the back of the hotel sign. He rubbed his index finger and thumb, balling up the dust he had scooped up. "But when we were heading for the amphitheater — a total eyesore, if you ask me — I saw some gold light from out back. Then several figures flew off." He blew the dust ball away from his fingers. "I think I sensed a dusknoir, but there was something… off about their energy. If I had hair, it would've stood on end for sure."

The toxtricity's heart rate picked up again. "The Reaper?" She glanced at Artemis. "I thought he was supposed to be at the hotel with us?"

"Clearly he lied," Artemis said.

Gene cleared his throat. "Anyway, we followed at a distance until we saw your bud get dropped off at some hospital. Then Val told me you guys were here." He gestured to Nikki and Artemis. "And then I hoisted you both up here and explained everything."

Smirking, Gene crossed his arms. "This concludes 'Gene's Epic Story Time.' Be sure to like and subscribe for more daily content."

Nikki stared back at him blankly. What the hell was this dumb hairless cat smoking? And does he have any on him?

"I know, I know. I'm still workshopping the name." Gene nonchalantly flicked his right hand.

"Forget that." Artemis coiled his body tightly until he stood taller than Gene. "Why try and find us? It's not like we're in a position to deal with the Reaper."

"Duh." Gene blew a raspberry. "You think I'm an idiot? This isn't about your charbroiled grovyle. This is about something much more dire."

The milotic squinted. "And are you going to tell us what that is? Or is this some more dramatic effect?"

Another wall of purple light then raced past the group. The glass clamperl towering over the roof abruptly turned to pieces of blue and pink cardboard. A breeze carried the large pieces away from them. Nikki could only watch in disbelief, thankful it hadn't transformed into something more dangerous.

"I think that about sums it up." Gene shook his head, tsking. "Well, that and what's going on with the rest of your motley crew." He clenched his right fist. Ectoplasm swirled around it. "They were helping me try and rescue my friends before we got sidetracked. I'm not about to leave them high and dry when they're doing me a solid."

Nikki put her hands on her hips. "Well, isn't that nice? You didn't strike me as the touchy-feely type, Pussy."

Gene returned the toxtricity's insult with a proud smile. "Nice one." He winked at Nikki before his expression sharpened. "But seriously, as kooky as some of the stuff here might be, we oughta go inside Eternatus and rendezvous with the others." Gene tapped his temple. "Call it psychic intuition."

There was also the matter of the whole toxic water incident. Everyone besides Nikki thought it was connected to Eternatus. Now that even weirder stuff was messing with Venish, didn't it make sense to at least try and fix the toxic water?

She scratched her head. "Yeah, I guess you're right." Nikki looked at Valkrie. Wasn't the dour garchomp going to protest?

"Great! Then let's get a move on." Gene rubbed his hands together. "There isn't a moment to lose."

Again, Nikki expected Valkyrie to object. But she remained silent while Gene raised his hands a summoned a purple rift underneath them.

I guess she's resigned herself to losing Twiggy to the Reaper.

XxX​

Yuna wasn't sure how she spotted it through the swamp's haze, but she somehow caught a glimpse of purple splotches forming on the ground ahead of Reshiram. Muttering a silent apology to Reshiram's orange-feathered passenger, she recalled the dragon to the Soul Dew. Moments later, a huge purple geyser erupted in front of the flailing bird. He managed to land on his lanky legs and backpedal to avoid lingering purple globs that peppered the mud and crabby gray grass all around him.

"Let me out! Lemme out!" Reshiram's flailing filled Yuna's mind. "Lugia! Lugia! I have to save her!"

"Calm yourself, Sir Reshiram!"
Rayquaza gasped, weaving around the white dragon. "She's mine friend, too, but—"

"No, you don't understand! That's my wife!"
Tears welled up in Reshiram's eyes. "We have to do something! Do something, Yuna!"

"Ye gads! Art thou serious?"
Rayquaza recoiled, raising his black and red tail. "I know thou werest quite close, but Bahamut ordered you to break things off before assuming your duties."

Nothing but whimpers followed. It wrenched Yuna's gut in different directions. Bahamut preached the importance of family and intimacy, so why would he forbid the Sages from having such relationships? She also realized it sounded like Reshiram, the Sage of Truth, had lied to Bahamut and the other Sages. And on top of that, Reshiram's sadness made it hard to focus on everything else going on.

"Who or what is that?"

Yuna was thankful for Noctum's cry, even if it meant something bad. He pointed toward the poisonous haze ahead of the orange bird, where a tall, lanky silhouette grew larger and taller the closer it got.

"I thought I felt that Chiron vibe a-coming. Most distastefully bad juju."

What emerged from the haze looked… vaguely sneasel-like. If someone had dipped the sneasel in bright pink and stretched it out, of course. The way she swayed back and forth unsettled Yuna. Despite the bottom of her white dress dragging through the mud, it remained utterly pristine. As did the black, wide-brimmed hat sitting atop her head. Nobles back in Aeon had similar hats to shield from the volcanic ash.

But sneasel and weavile don't live in Aeon…

"I can see that confusion scrawled across your face, traitor." The newcomer daintily pointed her long black claws right at Yuna. "It's been some time since you've laid eyes on a sneasler, huh? The body might've changed, but Exodes persists. You know as well as I we Paradigm aren't so easily stopped."

"Is she some… alternate evolution of sneasel? Poppycock!" Rayquaza guffawed. "Next thou'll tellst me she can stretch even further and become a sneaslest."

The sneasler part threw Yuna off, but one thing was certain: the dreepy had to stay firm. Or float firm. "I'm not Chiron. You're mistaken."

"Ha ha ha!" Exodes' grin widened. "Oh, Chrion, even after all these years, your sense of timing remains… impeccable."

Noctum glided in front of Yuna defensively. Seifer poked his head out, horn flickering red. "Halt! Don't come any closer or I'll shoot!"

"Oh? A keldeo. My, my. What a… delicious specimen you are." Exodes traced a claw around her lips, then licked it with her long, black tongue. "Why not… give yourself up to the Paradigm?" The sneasler gripped the brim of her hat. "You'd make a fabulous addition to my growing army of the undead."

It wasn't hard for Yuna to put two and two together. Seifer was quickest to react, however. "So, you're behind the skeletons that attacked us, earlier! Surrender, fiend!"

"Of course I am." Exodes resumed swaying back and forth. "It's my… coronation gift to the emperor. An infinite army of the undead, made possible by these silly mutants and their budding powers."

"Emperor?" The orange bird shifted uneasily.

"Budding?" Noctum frowned.

"Like mushrooms?" Seifer glanced back at Kelly and Skorp. "Quetzal, be careful down there."

"Careful? Ha!" Exodes fanned herself with her right hand. "I could stand here and talk your ears off." She raised both hands. "But I'd much rather… demonstrate!"

Noctum and Yuna were ready. Both flew in opposite directions faster than Exodes could extend her claws toward either of them.

"Foul witch! Claws shouldn't extend that far," Rayquaza spat. "Tis an affront to nature!"

"Skorp, Kelly, look out!" Noctum cried. Yuna realized the claws were still extending. The aerodactyl behind her cawed in alarm and flapped her wings. Yuna thought it wise to attack Exodes. Fortunately, the bird was on top of it, shooting an orange blast toward Exodes from his right leg.

The sneasler jumped over the blast. Her claws didn't need to retreat. Yuna hastily concentrated, but Reshiram didn't respond. What are you doing? she mentally hissed. We need your help!

Fortunately, Kelly avoided getting grabbed. Yuna got no relief, however, as Kelly suddenly jerked left, then right. She screeched in protest, but next thing Yuna knew, she was staring down an approaching wall of dragonfire.

"Yuna!"

Flames and a large water torrent followed Noctum's cry. They snuffed out the dragonfire, giving Yuna enough time to float back. Exodes retracted her claws, allowing Yuna to see a tiny aerodactyl doll in her right claws.

"Whoa there, Kelly!" Skorp dangled from her right leg. "Why don't we take a deep breath or two, eh?"

"It's too late for her." Exodes held up the aerodactyl doll. "One little touch is all I need for my vicious voodoo to take hold." The sneasler flapped the doll's wings and Kelly responded in kind. A giant gust of wind sent Yuna reeling through the air. She heard Noctum and Seifer's hollers, followed by metal breaking apart.

"Waaaaah!"

Yuna righted herself in time for Quetzal to zip by her. Skorp landed safely on his orange-feathered back. Quetzal looked as surprised at his speed as Yuna was.

"Behind you, Princess!"

The dreepy whirled around. Exodes' free claws were heading right for her! And brimming with poison! She concentrated, but couldn't draw up Reshiram's flames. Fortunately, Rayquaza popped his black head out of the Soul Dew and blasted the claws with a Dragon Pulse. The blue bolt vaporized the toxins and the claws shot back to Exodes' hand like chains pulled through a winch crank.

Reshiram, please! Snap out of it! Yuna's frustration was bubbling up. Her arms darkened. Fearful of Rayquaza noticing, she sucked him back into the Soul Dew with a deep breath.

"… Lugia…" Sniffles echoed in Yuna's head. She couldn't believe how defeated he sounded. And all because she didn't want him rushing ahead. Reshiram would have gotten trapped by Exodes for sure if Yuna hadn't stopped him. Why couldn't he see that? He was the Sage of Truth!

"Well, well." Exodes fanned herself with her free hand. "It seems I'm not the only puppeteer here. How fitting. First you throw the whole Paradigm away like a set of unloved toys. Now you're doing the same to the ones you left us for."

"I don't know what you're talking about!" Yuna retorted. "Please, stop! Nothing good is going to come from this!"

Quetzal had taken the opportunity to run out of Exodes' eyesight. Just when it looked like he'd launch a sneak attack, however, Exodes pried the Kelly doll's jaws open. Glowing rocks rained down on Quetzal from above. Squawking in surprise, the orange bird ran zigzags to try and avoid them.

"Tis a feint!" Rayquaza cried. Sure enough, Exodes slammed her free hand into the ground. A wave of purple ooze rose from the bog behind Quetzal.

"We have to blow it away!" Yuna focused on Rayquaza's soul — she wasn't going to risk Reshiram resisting again — and vibrant blue energy gathered in her arms. While Quetzal ran away from the swamp and the capsized ship, a twister rose from the ground.

Yuna realized her misstep too late, however. The tornado caught the poison tidal wave and flung the purple slime in all directions. Some hit Kelly, who shrieked in pain and plummeted from the air. Other bits struck the ship's front hull, burning through the metal around a charizard-shaped hole.

"How droll!" Exodes raised her free hand, laughing. "The more you try and 'help,' the more harm you're putting your friends through." The sneasler jerked Kelly's doll and the aerodactyl forcibly shot into the air again, flying in between Yuna and Exodes.

Yuna's gills shriveled. That blasted daemon was using Kelly as a meat shield now? How could she?

Reshiram, I'm begging you! Stop sulking! Yuna scrunched her face up. Think about the others. Think about Lugia! If we can't stop this daemon… she's going to keep hurting her!

"I could use some help over here!"

Quetzel's frightened caws drew Yuna's attention down, where he was running back toward the ship with Exodes' claws in hot pursuit. Yuna gulped. Quetzal couldn't get hit like Kelly did. Not with Noctum and Seifer still stuck in the ship.

… The ship.

"Quetzal, go in the ship!" Yuna cried.

"What?" The orange bird hopped over Exodes' claws. He kicked the air with his right leg, propelling him a few meters away. "Are you mad? I can't leave you here alone!"

"Just do it!" Yuna was getting warmer. White fur filled the back of her psyche, along with a sudden surge of determination. "I think… I think they might've found something important in there!"

"Ha! In that hunk of metal?" Exodes retracted her claws and forced the aerodactyl doll's mouth open again. More glowing rocks gathered above Quetzal. "I don't even know what it's doing—"

The sneasler's eyes widened. "Err, I mean, that thing's been there for ages! It's as empty as this aerodactyl's head!"

Quetzal caught the slip up. An orange glow surrounded him. Yowling, Skorp hung on for dear life with all three mutant hands. Quetzal surged into the Noctum-shaped hole in the ship's hull.

"Rrr… stupid, stupid, stupid!" Exodes smacked her head three times with her left hand. She jabbed the Kelly doll with her left index claw. The aerodactyl seized in the air. "After them!"

She lifted her hat and stuffed the doll into it. Kelly screeched and darted for the hole in the ship.

Now it was just the two of them. The broken needle had an ominous glow. Lugia still floated over it. Were there more purple tendrils around her or was Yuna's mind playing tricks on her?

"Last chance." Yuna clasped the edges of her Soul Dew. "We've… already dealt with daemons like you. If you let everyone go, maybe we can talk this out."

Uproarious laughter was Exodes' answer. "You think the great Lady Exodes, voodoo master of Eternatus, is going to surrender to a traitorous has been?" She flicked her right hand dismissively. "Oh, honey…"

All six of Exodes' claws glowed bright purple, as did her eyes. The purple swamps on either side of Yuna bubbled… and skeletons emerged one by one. Carracosta. Relicanth. Archeops. Three species Yuna had only seen in picture books, like the cranidos and rampardos before them.

"… what makes you think you ever had the advantage here?"

They came as a volley. Three Hydro Pumps. Two rock volleys. Way too much for Yuna to deal with. She fled right through the air, but giant purple wisps swirled all around her. She'd never seen ghostly energy so big before! Were these Shadow Balls?

I don't see an opening! Reshiram… help!

"On it!"


The flames burned Yuna's throat, forcing him to spit them out immediately. Yet, to her horror, the purple energy balls only shrank from the Blue Flare. And they were closing in all around her!

No! Oh, God, no! Yuna tensed up, bracing for what would surely be a massive hit.

There was, indeed, a flash bright enough to notice despite her closed eyes. But no pain.

"You!"

Yuna's eyes snapped open at Exodes' cry.

It was Gene. The mewtwo floated between her and Exodes, brandishing… a giant pink spoon?

"He fights with a kitchen utensil?" Rayquaza's jaw dropped. "Have we aligned ourself with a fool? Mayhap he left his jester's hat at his abode."

Gene stole a glance at Yuna and nodded. Then he rested the giant spoon on his left shoulder.

"Long time no see, Exdeath." Gene lacked the playful attitude Yuna heard earlier. "I gotta say… you picked a sporting locale for taking your voodoo act underground. Could do with a little more Cajun flare, but I don't think we're gonna find Kalosian colonists on such short notice."

Veins bulged on Exodes' forehead. "It's Exodes, now, rebel scum! And I should've figured you were a dirty enough piece of swine to associate with the traitor!"

"Oh-ho, my bad." Gene scratched his head with his free hand. "Wasn't aware you changed names. Finally realized how obviously evil that edgy moniker was?" The mewtwo's tail lazily swayed back and forth.

Well, the seriousness was nice while it lasted. Still, Yuna was thankful for the backup. Doubly so when she spotted Nikki and Artemis standing back-to-back, surrounded by damp bones with sparks dancing around them. Valkyrie glided onto a dead, toppled over tree. She squatted on the rotting wood, ready to pounce at a moment's notice.

"Didn't take you for the shlocky horror flick type, Princess." Nikki's back was turned to Yuna, but the dreepy practically heard the smirk in her voice. "But after the time we've had… I could do with breaking a few bones. Flesh or no flesh." She cracked her knuckles.

Exodes glanced between the down skeletons and Gene. "Ha ha. Well, well. We've really got ourselves a party now, huh?" She adjusted her black hat, some of her earlier smarminess returning.

"Do we? Dang." Gene snapped his left fingers. "Forgot to bring my queso. Nobody can resist the cheesy dip." He put his fingers to his lips and kissed them.

"The only dipping sauce I'll be needing is your blood, rebel." Exodes pointed an index claw at Gene. "I'll drizzle it over your head and serve it up on a platter to the emperor. He'll be so thrilled, he'll make me his number two over Uroboros!"

"Emperor?" Gene tsked. "Jeez, just when I thought Paradox's head couldn't get any bigger."

"Y… Yuna?" Reshiram poked his claws together in the back of her mind. "Now that we have backup… maybe we can try and free Lugia?"

The skeletons surrounding Nikki and Artemis reanimated. They snapped at the air. Nikki raised her fists, mohawk crackling like a fire pit.

Gene brandished his giant spoon. "Try it, Exdeath. I'll have you seeing stars, just like last time."

The sneasler immediately launched her claws at Gene. She looked focused on him. Yuna agreed with Reshiram. This was her chance. She flew right, weaving around barren tree branches and tuning out the sounds of claws slamming into something hard.

But though she got farther from Exodes, she found a wall of Poison Sting needles approaching her. Yelping, the dreepy dove down, skirting the attacks while staying just above the poisonous swamp.

When she pulled up, Yuna found dozens of Skorps standing on the edge of the island, each with their mutant hands trained directly on her.

Their limbs glowed purple in unison. And, just like that, Yuna had three dozen Poison Sting needles closing in on her.
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Alright, getting in a late-night special bump of my review series of this thing:

Chapter 34

The emergency stairwell thankfully had tiny white lights illuminating the way down despite the hotel's power outage. While Nikki took the stairs two or three at a time, Artemis slithered along the railing. They got a few floors down before other patrons began to enter.

"Move! Outta the way!" Nikki shouted, shoving aside multiple protesting patrons. The last of which was a shellos who left her wringing out goo from her hands. The toxtricity was glad for the distraction. Anything to keep her from thinking about what had happened in her hotel room.

Oh yeah, that's totally not a giant safety hazard that's gonna make the entire hotel hate her guts. Not that Nikki is the type to care too much about that.

Impatience soon got the better of Nikki, however. She started jumping down half of each flight of stairs, kicking up dirt and sparks. "Hey, slow down!" Artemis cried.

"Fat chance!" Nikki replied. The emergency lights flickered all around her. Her mohawk frazzled in kind. She hurried down the last two flights of stairs and barged out of the red emergency exit door.

... Pretty sure that's a fantastic way to do something like jump straight into a Ferrothorn trying to evacuate, but you do you, Nikki. ^^;

Nikki stumbled out into a brick alleyway. She managed to catch herself before faceplanting into the dust and… questionable black streaks in the cracks between several bricks. Nikki looked around, but the buildings surrounding the back of the hotel were equally as dark. So, it ain't just this place. Great.

Yeah, this is why you shouldn't go running around blindly in the dark. At least bring a flashlight or use natural abilities that behave like one for the occasion.

The emergency exit opened behind her. Artemis slithered out, panting heavily. "Thanks… for waiting," he wheezed.

"Kiss my ass, Pool Noodle." Nikki crossed her arms. "Which way gets us back to the…"

Her voice trailed off as white and blue caught the corner of her eye. Under a ground-level window to her right sat an inflatable quaxly filled to the brim with mounds of bright pink cotton candy. Nikki pointed to it. "Is… is that supposed to be there?"

Ah yes, your first Gen IX appearance in this story. You seem to be pretty aggressive about keeping PoV up to date with the series, though certainly wasn't expecting as offbeat an appearance as that as the first one.

Artemis looked left. His eyebrows crinkled. "I, uh, think that's a dumpster." He blinked several times. "Or it was a dumpster."

"Right, because dumpsters look like oversized bath toys!" Nikki slouched over. "Next you're going to tell me there was a circus staying in this hotel."

I mean, considering the author and this setting, you might not wanna rule that out so fast, Nikki. :V

The milotic whipped the air with a ribbon. "I'm just as clueless as you a— whoomph!" His tail shot up and he slithered forward, revealing Pillow Princess and his stupid sylveon boytoy standing in the doorway wearing velvet bathrobes. Their faces were flushed, but frazzled.

That quake caught 'em in the middle of something, Nikki mentally sneered.

... Those two just ran face-first into Artemis' tail end, didn' they?

"What are you looking at?" Shimmer huffed. The ponyta stomped a forehoof on the ground. "I bet you caused all of this! If you think you can disrupt my beauty sleep the night before the first leg, then you—"

Nikki: "Shimmer, I know that I get into trouble sometimes, on what planet could I have blacked out an entire city?" >_>;
Shimmer: "Black Magic. It does exist in this setting, after all."
Nikki: "... Why on earth did I even ask?" >.<

"Shimmy?" Xander tugged on Shimmer's bathrobe. "I think something's really wrong." He pointed to the inflatable quaxly with a ribbon. The second he did, purple light raced up from the brick street. Xander yelped and jumped back in the doorway, earning several annoyed cries. Nikki held her arms up defensively, but nothing bad happened.

When the toxtricity lowered them, however, she found static enveloping the dead streetlight between the hotel and the building to her right. Bit by bit, wood replaced metal, until a twisted, gnarled grandfather clock stood in the streetlight's place, awkwardly bent into the same shape as the object it replaced. A small doorway opened in the middle of it and a little fletchling cuckoo shot out on a metal coil, chirping obnoxiously.

Nikki pinched the back of her neck. She slapped her cheek. Nothing changed. Not a dream, then. ****.

... Wait, what on earth am I reading right now? Time displacement / Timeline-rewriting like in Chrono Trigger? Since I'm pretty sure that streetlight's transformation broke at least a dozen laws of nature there.

Shimmer hopped away from the emergency exit, whinnying in fright. "Th… this is…" He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. "When I figure out how you're doing this… I'll see to it no one will even hire you to scrape gum off their tables!" He pointed his glowing horn at Nikki.

"Me?" Nikki's fingers tingled with lightning. "Pull your head out of your boytoy's ass! I've got nothing to do with this."

"Prove it!" Shimmer's nostrils flared.

Image


Nikki: "I can see how you almost got your Uncle convicted in spite of him literally rigging an entire trial and jury in his favor." >_>;
Shimmer: "Okay, now I'm really convinced that you're behind this somehow." >:|

Nikki clenched her fists. Yellow and purple sparks slowly shaped themselves into a handle. "You're the one with the hate boner. You prove it!"

"Both of you, shut up!"

A milotic tail slapped down between the two of them. "Dawdling here solves nothing." Artemis pointed a ribbon to the alley behind him. "Let's get out in front of the hotel and find someone in charge."

Nikki: "... Are we just gonna ignore that we just watched a metal streetlight turn into a functioning wooden cuckoo clock?" .-.
Artemis: "Well, that's why finding the 'mon in charge would help, right?"
Nikki: "Pretty sure that they'd be way in over their head for this, just saying."

"Yeah! Let us out, damn it!" a gruff voice shouted from inside the emergency exit, followed by a chorus of similar cries. Xander's stubby tail drooped.

"Aha ha… my bad, everyone! Don't hold it against the prince." The sylveon raised his ribbons innocently.

"Hang on… the prince is here?"

"Do something, Your Grace!"

"I paid a lotta money to be here!"

Shimmer: "Xander, why would you volunteer that instead of just moving out of the way?" >_>;
Xander: "... I thought it'd help get them to back off your case?"
:joltyshrug~1:


Shimmer shrank back, ears folding at the new chorus of voices. "Xander, you idiot!"

Oh hey, I wasn't far off from what actually went down there. :V

Nikki stepped away from the quarreling lovebirds, but not without flashing the ponyta the smarmiest smirk she could muster. She and Artemis rounded the corner to head in front of the hotel when she suddenly stopped dead in her tracks. "What the—"

"Hey, you're glowing pink!" The milotic looked around in a panic.

"Me? You are, too!" Nikki retorted. Then an unseen force hoisted the two into the air. The toxtricity flailed her arms and legs about. "I want outta this shitty nightmare!" she hissed, before landing on the hotel roof with a soft thud.

"Yeah, you and me both, sister."

Nikki: "... Pretty sure that that's not a good sign there."
:uhhh:

Artemis: "Wait, who on earth-?" o_o;

"Bwuh?" Nikki looked up to find… some sort of hairless black and purple cat standing with his arms crossed and looking down at her. Her heart momentarily quickened upon seeing the obviously evil crystal wedged in the cat's shoulder, but she then remembered what that dorky servant charizard had told her and Princess back in Horizon Gardens.

"Gene, I presume?" Artemis was faster asking what was on Nikki's mind. "I thought you were supposed to be in the Qliphoth with the others."

Nikki: "... Have you considered getting a trenchcoat or something to hide the obviously evil crystal sticking out your shoulder? (Also, Pillow Princess can't overhear this right now, right?)"

:joltyshrug~1:


Gene leaned back against a part of the hotel's large sign. His attempt at a hiding place, if Nikki had to guess. She then realized Valkyrie sat next to him, looking rather pale. The garchomp's arms trembled.

"I was, but your grovyle buddy had to go get himself blown up." Gene shook his head. "So, here I am. And no grilled lizard to show for it."

"Twiggy and I aren't bud— wait."

It took a moment, but the realization of Gene's words was an invisible mallet to the back of Nikki's head. "T… Twiggy blew up?" Her chest tightened. "H-He's—"

"Alive." Gene yawned into his hand.

Artemis balled up a ribbon and shook it at Gene. "Why didn't you lead with that?"

"Dramatic effect?" Gene shrugged.

"Are you asking me or telling me?!"

"Yes." Gene winked at Artemis, whose looked ready to burst a blood vessel.

Ah yes, this part again. And Gene continues his streak at being an irreverent troll in-story. You'd think that he'd pick less of a grave moment to indulge in those tendencies, though. I admittedly wasn't expecting Nikki to get this torn up over hearing Chiaki got blown up, will file that one away for the future.

Also, I so would not want to be Val when it comes time to give a report about this to Sakaki. Since I'm sure he's gonna be thrilled to hear about what happened to his kid while his bodyguard was supposed to keep tabs on him.
:fearfullaugh~1:


"Well, where is he?" Nikki asked, finally getting back to her feet.

"Someone took him," Valkyrie whispered. The garchomp continued staring at the ground. Nikki looked to Gene for more information.

"We were going to rescue him." Gene ran his right hand along the back of the hotel sign. He rubbed his index finger and thumb, balling up the dust he had scooped up. "But when we were heading for the amphitheater — a total eyesore, if you ask me — I saw some gold light from out back. Then several figures flew off." He blew the dust ball away from his fingers. "I think I sensed a dusknoir, but there was something… off about their energy. If I had hair, it would've stood on end for sure."

Nikki: "Oh, so Vegna took him."
- Beat moment -
Gene: "Wait, how on earth would you know-?"
Nikki: "Because 'Dusknoir that would make your hair stand on end if you had it' literally describes Vegna to a 't'? Especially since he hangs around birdmons that can casually fly him around? Not sure what the deal with that golden light would be, though."
:gardeshrug~1:


The toxtricity's heart rate picked up again. "The Reaper?" She glanced at Artemis. "I thought he was supposed to be at the hotel with us?"

"Clearly he lied," Artemis said.

Oh hey, I see that Nikki actually made the same assumption there. Though it was a pretty safe bet to make considering how she doesn't exactly know a ton of other Dusknoir to compete for that description.

Gene cleared his throat. "Anyway, we followed at a distance until we saw your bud get dropped off at some hospital. Then Val told me you guys were here." He gestured to Nikki and Artemis. "And then I hoisted you both up here and explained everything."

Smirking, Gene crossed his arms. "This concludes 'Gene's Epic Story Time.' Be sure to like and subscribe for more daily content."

Nikki stared back at him blankly. What the hell was this dumb hairless cat smoking? And does he have any on him?

Guess that confirms Nikki for having used illicit substances in the past from that outro line. Though I have to wonder how it is that Gene is managing to talk like a YouTuber from present day, present time, since I didn't think there was an analogous social media culture in Radiance that tracked reality that he could've learned from. Can't tell if that's a Qliphoth thing or a hint at something deeper.

"I know, I know. I'm still workshopping the name." Gene nonchalantly flicked his right hand.

"Forget that." Artemis coiled his body tightly until he stood taller than Gene. "Why try and find us? It's not like we're in a position to deal with the Reaper."

"Duh." Gene blew a raspberry. "You think I'm an idiot? This isn't about your charbroiled grovyle. This is about something much more dire."

The milotic squinted. "And are you going to tell us what that is? Or is this some more dramatic effect?"

... I honestly can't tell what Gene will do here myself, though rule of narrative structure seems to tilt towards him actually being serious here for the sake of variety.

Another wall of purple light then raced past the group. The glass clamperl towering over the roof abruptly turned to pieces of blue and pink cardboard. A breeze carried the large pieces away from them. Nikki could only watch in disbelief, thankful it hadn't transformed into something more dangerous.

"I think that about sums it up." Gene shook his head, tsking. "Well, that and what's going on with the rest of your motley crew." He clenched his right fist. Ectoplasm swirled around it. "They were helping me try and rescue my friends before we got sidetracked. I'm not about to leave them high and dry when they're doing me a solid."

I wonder if that has to do with the side effects of Project Icarus kicking up like 2 chapters ago. Though with how casually reality itself seems to be glitching out, that doesn't bode well for the long-term future of Venish. Since if you're getting Missingno into the mix, that also opens the door to stuff like Glitch City antics.

Nikki: "Wait, what on earth is even happening right now?" .-.
Gene: "Wait, with your crew, or the freaky spontaneous transformation thing? Since you'll need to narrow that down a bit."
:joltyshrug~1:


Nikki put her hands on her hips. "Well, isn't that nice? You didn't strike me as the touchy-feely type, Pussy."

Gene returned the toxtricity's insult with a proud smile. "Nice one." He winked at Nikki before his expression sharpened. "But seriously, as kooky as some of the stuff here might be, we oughta go inside Eternatus and rendezvous with the others." Gene tapped his temple. "Call it psychic intuition."

Oh hey, it's that one Mewtwo Discord emote, but written out. Moments like those are always fun to see.

There was also the matter of the whole toxic water incident. Everyone besides Nikki thought it was connected to Eternatus. Now that even weirder stuff was messing with Venish, didn't it make sense to at least try and fix the toxic water?

She scratched her head. "Yeah, I guess you're right." Nikki looked at Valkrie. Wasn't the dour garchomp going to protest?

"Great! Then let's get a move on." Gene rubbed his hands together. "There isn't a moment to lose."

Nikki: "... Uh... Chompy? You know, if you'd like to protest right now-"
Valkyrie: "Oh trust me, I'd love to right now, but claws are kinda tied." >_>;

Again, Nikki expected Valkyrie to object. But she remained silent while Gene raised his hands a summoned a purple rift underneath them.

I guess she's resigned herself to losing Twiggy to the Reaper.

More like she's being blackmailed into standing down, but it's probably a good thing you don't know about that yet, Nikki. ^^;

Yuna wasn't sure how she spotted it through the swamp's haze, but she somehow caught a glimpse of purple splotches forming on the ground ahead of Reshiram. Muttering a silent apology to Reshiram's orange-feathered passenger, she recalled the dragon to the Soul Dew. Moments later, a huge purple geyser erupted in front of the flailing bird. He managed to land on his lanky legs and backpedal to avoid lingering purple globs that peppered the mud and crabby gray grass all around him.

"Let me out! Lemme out!" Reshiram's flailing filled Yuna's mind. "Lugia! Lugia! I have to save her!"

Oh, so Lugia really is Cecil's Rosa, huh? Since I didn't recall him reacting like that when Gallian's needle was in apparent danger.

"Calm yourself, Sir Reshiram!" Rayquaza gasped, weaving around the white dragon. "She's mine friend, too, but—"

"No, you don't understand! That's my wife!"
Tears welled up in Reshiram's eyes. "We have to do something! Do something, Yuna!"

"Ye gads! Art thou serious?"
Rayquaza recoiled, raising his black and red tail. "I know thou werest quite close, but Bahamut ordered you to break things off before assuming your duties."

Yuuuuuuup. I mean, I personally would've gone with a flat-out 'Rosa' over the name you ultimately rolled for Lugia to complete the reference, but eh. Your story, your rules, and I can recognize a thematic echo when I see it, so good enough.

Nothing but whimpers followed. It wrenched Yuna's gut in different directions. Bahamut preached the importance of family and intimacy, so why would he forbid the Sages from having such relationships? She also realized it sounded like Reshiram, the Sage of Truth, had lied to Bahamut and the other Sages. And on top of that, Reshiram's sadness made it hard to focus on everything else going on.

Gallian: "I'd just like to point out that in some localizations, Cecil wouldst be a 'Sage of Reality', and that nothing would preclude one from bending the truth a little because of the needs of Reality-"
Cecil: "Gallian, not helping right now!"
Gallian: "... Right, mine bad. Even though it is surprising that thou would deign to keep us in the proverbial dark like this."
Yuna: "(Also, this story hasn't touched alternate localizations other than the Japanese ones, so yeah. No. This is just unprecedented behavior on Reshiram's part.)" >_>;

"Who or what is that?"

Yuna was thankful for Noctum's cry, even if it meant something bad. He pointed toward the poisonous haze ahead of the orange bird, where a tall, lanky silhouette grew larger and taller the closer it got.

"I thought I felt that Chiron vibe a-coming. Most distastefully bad juju."

Yuna: "Wait, what vibe did you feel again? A-And who is 'Chiron'?"
:ScaredCabot:


What emerged from the haze looked… vaguely sneasel-like. If someone had dipped the sneasel in bright pink and stretched it out, of course. The way she swayed back and forth unsettled Yuna. Despite the bottom of her white dress dragging through the mud, it remained utterly pristine. As did the black, wide-brimmed hat sitting atop her head. Nobles back in Aeon had similar hats to shield from the volcanic ash.

But sneasel and weavile don't live in Aeon…

Ah yes, here we go, living up to the title here. Though I have to wonder how on earth Aeon manages to go with exactly zero knifecats in all of its territory? Like you'd think that even as an exclusion zone for dragons, that there'd be some non-dragon life crawling around in it.

"I can see that confusion scrawled across your face, traitor." The newcomer daintily pointed her long black claws right at Yuna. "It's been some time since you've laid eyes on a sneasler, huh? The body might've changed, but Exodes persists. You know as well as I we Paradigm aren't so easily stopped."

Oh, so Exodes was an Aeon once. Also:

Image


I'm sorry, but did that guy just say that Yuna was Chiron, as in Bahamut's wife, Chiron?

I mean, I figured that something was up with Yuna given those mysterious Giratina powers of hers, but... something still isn't adding up to me. Since I could've sworn that Chiron in the depictions we saw of her in the past was a Lunala.

"Is she some… alternate evolution of sneasel? Poppycock!" Rayquaza guffawed. "Next thou'll tellst me she can stretch even further and become a sneaslest."

-snerk-

The sneasler part threw Yuna off, but one thing was certain: the dreepy had to stay firm. Or float firm. "I'm not Chiron. You're mistaken."

"Ha ha ha!" Exodes' grin widened. "Oh, Chiron, even after all these years, your sense of timing remains… impeccable."

Small typo there. Though how on earth can this guy sense that from Yuna? Since that doesn't strike me as something you can just casually smell out. Though I suppose Yuna somehow being the former boss of the Qliphoth would be pretty on brand with her full name including a play off of the name of one of the endgame bosses from FFX.

Noctum glided in front of Yuna defensively. Seifer poked his head out, horn flickering red. "Halt! Don't come any closer or I'll shoot!"

"Oh? A keldeo. My, my. What a… delicious specimen you are." Exodes traced a claw around her lips, then licked it with her long, black tongue. "Why not… give yourself up to the Paradigm?" The sneasler gripped the brim of her hat. "You'd make a fabulous addition to my growing army of the undead."

Seifer: "... Are you all taking battle positions? Since I really don't like where all of this is going right now."
:uhhh:


It wasn't hard for Yuna to put two and two together. Seifer was quickest to react, however. "So, you're behind the skeletons that attacked us, earlier! Surrender, fiend!"

"Of course I am." Exodes resumed swaying back and forth. "It's my… coronation gift to the emperor. An infinite army of the undead, made possible by these silly mutants and their budding powers."

Wait, what? But how?

"Emperor?" The orange bird shifted uneasily.

"Budding?" Noctum frowned.

"Like mushrooms?" Seifer glanced back at Kelly and Skorp. "Quetzal, be careful down there."

"Careful? Ha!" Exodes fanned herself with her right hand. "I could stand here and talk your ears off." She raised both hands. "But I'd much rather… demonstrate!"

Noctum: "No! No! Talking our ears off is fine! We'll live with talking our ears off!" O.O;
Exodes: "Too late! Time for the greatest and last show of your mortal lives!"

Noctum and Yuna were ready. Both flew in opposite directions faster than Exodes could extend her claws toward either of them.

"Foul witch! Claws shouldn't extend that far," Rayquaza spat. "Tis an affront to nature!"

Yuna: "Rayquaza, you do realize that we're on the world full of toxic tar pits populated by mutant Skorupi with Incineroar hands, right? I think that she can take a number on the 'affront to nature' line." >_>;
Gallian: "Yes, well none of those were directly threatening our life and limb!"

"Skorp, Kelly, look out!" Noctum cried. Yuna realized the claws were still extending. The aerodactyl behind her cawed in alarm and flapped her wings. Yuna thought it wise to attack Exodes. Fortunately, the bird was on top of it, shooting an orange blast toward Exodes from his right leg.

Wait, Sneasler can do that in PLA?

The sneasler jumped over the blast. Her claws didn't need to retreat. Yuna hastily concentrated, but Reshiram didn't respond. What are you doing? she mentally hissed. We need your help!

Pretty sure that Cecil is bluescreening pretty hard right about now given that his wife isn't exactly in good shape from the way you found that needle, so maybe start with the emotional elephant in the room, Yuna?
:joltyshrug~1:


Fortunately, Kelly avoided getting grabbed. Yuna got no relief, however, as Kelly suddenly jerked left, then right. She screeched in protest, but next thing Yuna knew, she was staring down an approaching wall of dragonfire.

Wait a minute, is that Exodes that's doing that? I didn't know that Sneasler learned any Dragon moves that could do that.

... Unless if that's supposed to be a hint at who Exodes used to be, since Yuna did find her appearance eerily reminiscent of an Aeon, and she out and out mentioned that she used to have a different body... But can't really tell there.

"Yuna!"

Flames and a large water torrent followed Noctum's cry. They snuffed out the dragonfire, giving Yuna enough time to float back. Exodes retracted her claws, allowing Yuna to see a tiny aerodactyl doll in her right claws.

"Whoa there, Kelly!" Skorp dangled from her right leg. "Why don't we take a deep breath or two, eh?"

Oh, so that's how you chose to depict Substitute in this story. Though how on earth did Kelly manage to pull the switcharoo in time?

"It's too late for her." Exodes held up the aerodactyl doll. "One little touch is all I need for my vicious voodoo to take hold." The sneasler flapped the doll's wings and Kelly responded in kind. A giant gust of wind sent Yuna reeling through the air. She heard Noctum and Seifer's hollers, followed by metal breaking apart.

:uhhh:


So much for that being Substitute, though that's ever so slightly concerning there.

"Waaaaah!"

Yuna righted herself in time for Quetzal to zip by her. Skorp landed safely on his orange-feathered back. Quetzal looked as surprised at his speed as Yuna was.

"Behind you, Princess!"

The dreepy whirled around. Exodes' free claws were heading right for her! And brimming with poison! She concentrated, but couldn't draw up Reshiram's flames. Fortunately, Rayquaza popped his black head out of the Soul Dew and blasted the claws with a Dragon Pulse. The blue bolt vaporized the toxins and the claws shot back to Exodes' hand like chains pulled through a winch crank.

Gallian: "How does thoust say it again? 'That was way too close'?"
:sweats:

Yuna: "Reshiram, I know that this is kinda a bad time for you with us discovering your wife's needle mangled and all, but not letting the creepy voodoo Sneasel thing puppeteer me around would be nice right about now!" O_O;
Cecil:
1qlvn77.gif

Yuna: "Boy could this have not come at a worse time right now..."
:uhhh:


Reshiram, please! Snap out of it! Yuna's frustration was bubbling up. Her arms darkened. Fearful of Rayquaza noticing, she sucked him back into the Soul Dew with a deep breath.

Guess I should be teeing up 'Fly Me to the Moon' right about now, huh?

"… Lugia…" Sniffles echoed in Yuna's head. She couldn't believe how defeated he sounded. And all because she didn't want him rushing ahead. Reshiram would have gotten trapped by Exodes for sure if Yuna hadn't stopped him. Why couldn't he see that? He was the Sage of Truth!

I mean, I can believe it since given how radio silent Cecil went when he's normally a giant, goofy chatterbox gave really, really strong vibes that he was emotionally BSODing right about now.

"Well, well." Exodes fanned herself with her free hand. "It seems I'm not the only puppeteer here. How fitting. First you throw the whole Paradigm away like a set of unloved toys. Now you're doing the same to the ones you left us for."

Yuna: "Look, lady. This thing is literally stuck on my body. I did not ask for this, okay?" >_>;

"I don't know what you're talking about!" Yuna retorted. "Please, stop! Nothing good is going to come from this!"

Quetzal had taken the opportunity to run out of Exodes' eyesight. Just when it looked like he'd launch a sneak attack, however, Exodes pried the Kelly doll's jaws open. Glowing rocks rained down on Quetzal from above. Squawking in surprise, the orange bird ran zigzags to try and avoid them.

"Tis a feint!" Rayquaza cried. Sure enough, Exodes slammed her free hand into the ground. A wave of purple ooze rose from the bog behind Quetzal.

Oh no...
:uhhh:


"We have to blow it away!" Yuna focused on Rayquaza's soul — she wasn't going to risk Reshiram resisting again — and vibrant blue energy gathered in her arms. While Quetzal ran away from the swamp and the capsized ship, a twister rose from the ground.

Yuna realized her misstep too late, however. The tornado caught the poison tidal wave and flung the purple slime in all directions. Some hit Kelly, who shrieked in pain and plummeted from the air. Other bits struck the ship's front hull, burning through the metal around a charizard-shaped hole.

... Wait a minute, when on earth did Noctum get to the ship again? Since somehow I missed that detail. .-.

"How droll!" Exodes raised her free hand, laughing. "The more you try and 'help,' the more harm you're putting your friends through." The sneasler jerked Kelly's doll and the aerodactyl forcibly shot into the air again, flying in between Yuna and Exodes.

Yuna's gills shriveled. That blasted daemon was using Kelly as a meat shield now? How could she?

I mean, her entire fighting style is built around obviously hax black magic, so... the better question is how could she not pull something like this? ^^;

Reshiram, I'm begging you! Stop sulking! Yuna scrunched her face up. Think about the others. Think about Lugia! If we can't stop this daemon… she's going to keep hurting her!

I'm pretty sure there was a better way to make that appeal, but I can't fault Yuna too much when:

Yuna: "Reshiram? We're. Gonna. Die." O.O

Is her canonically established mindset at the moment.

"I could use some help over here!"

Quetzel's frightened caws drew Yuna's attention down, where he was running back toward the ship with Exodes' claws in hot pursuit. Yuna gulped. Quetzal couldn't get hit like Kelly did. Not with Noctum and Seifer still stuck in the ship.

… The ship.

"Quetzal, go in the ship!" Yuna cried.

Quetzal: "... Isn't that the definition of a terrible idea since I'm bulky and this cat isn't and that's an inherently cramped area-?"
:what:

Yuna: "Just do it, Quetzal!" >.<

"What?" The orange bird hopped over Exodes' claws. He kicked the air with his right leg, propelling him a few meters away. "Are you mad? I can't leave you here alone!"

"Just do it!" Yuna was getting warmer. White fur filled the back of her psyche, along with a sudden surge of determination. "I think… I think they might've found something important in there!"

Can't tell if she's bluffing or if Noctum and Seifer legit found something in there.

"Ha! In that hunk of metal?" Exodes retracted her claws and forced the aerodactyl doll's mouth open again. More glowing rocks gathered above Quetzal. "I don't even know what it's doing—"

The sneasler's eyes widened. "Err, I mean, that thing's been there for ages! It's as empty as this aerodactyl's head!"

Quetzal: "... Yeah no, I'm going for the ship. Thanks for the tipoff, Yuna. You too, evil cat lady."

Quetzal caught the slip up. An orange glow surrounded him. Yowling, Skorp hung on for dear life with all three mutant hands. Quetzal surged into the Noctum-shaped hole in the ship's hull.

"Rrr… stupid, stupid, stupid!" Exodes smacked her head three times with her left hand. She jabbed the Kelly doll with her left index claw. The aerodactyl seized in the air. "After them!"

Exodes, you do realize that you're significantly more lithe and compact than everyone else currently aboard that ship, right? Just re-enact Alien and nick the gang by stalking them through the ductwork or something.

She lifted her hat and stuffed the doll into it. Kelly screeched and darted for the hole in the ship.

Now it was just the two of them. The broken needle had an ominous glow. Lugia still floated over it. Were there more purple tendrils around her or was Yuna's mind playing tricks on her?

Right, that's why Exodes isn't going after the others herself.

And I see you dropped in some foreshadowing that Jade is a fusion. Dunno if she's always been like that, though Cecil's reaction makes me strongly doubt that.

"Last chance." Yuna clasped the edges of her Soul Dew. "We've… already dealt with daemons like you. If you let everyone go, maybe we can talk this out."

Image


Yeah, no. Just deep fry her, Yuna.

Uproarious laughter was Exodes' answer. "You think the great Lady Exodes, voodoo master of Eternatus, is going to surrender to a traitorous has been?" She flicked her right hand dismissively. "Oh, honey…"

All six of Exodes' claws glowed bright purple, as did her eyes. The purple swamps on either side of Yuna bubbled… and skeletons emerged one by one. Carracosta. Relicanth. Archeops. Three species Yuna had only seen in picture books, like the cranidos and rampardos before them.

"… what makes you think you ever had the advantage here?"

Yuna: "... The fact that you were willing to take the bait on fighting a 1v1?"
:uhhh:

Exodes: "Did it ever occur to you that I wouldn't have done that if I thought you could actually take me?"

They came as a volley. Three Hydro Pumps. Two rock volleys. Way too much for Yuna to deal with. She fled right through the air, but giant purple wisps swirled all around her. She'd never seen ghostly energy so big before! Were these Shadow Balls?

Well, this brilliant plan is going swimmingly already.

I don't see an opening! Reshiram… help!

"On it!"


The flames burned Yuna's throat, forcing him to spit them out immediately. Yet, to her horror, the purple energy balls only shrank from the Blue Flare. And they were closing in all around her!

No! Oh, God, no! Yuna tensed up, bracing for what would surely be a massive hit.

And thus, 34 chapters in. The plot of Path of Valor came to a sudden, abrupt end.

- Beat -

Nah, let's see how on earth Yuna gets out of this one.

There was, indeed, a flash bright enough to notice despite her closed eyes. But no pain.

"You!"

Yuna's eyes snapped open at Exodes' cry.

It was Gene. The mewtwo floated between her and Exodes, brandishing… a giant pink spoon?

Well that was a timely save if I ever saw one.

Yuna: "Why do you even have that thing anyways?" .-.
Gene: "Manga reference!" ^^

"He fights with a kitchen utensil?" Rayquaza's jaw dropped. "Have we aligned ourself with a fool? Mayhap he left his jester's hat at his abode."

I'm dying of laughter that Gallian finally has something that even he finds too goofy to take seriously.

Gene stole a glance at Yuna and nodded. Then he rested the giant spoon on his left shoulder.

"Long time no see, Exdeath." Gene lacked the playful attitude Yuna heard earlier. "I gotta say… you picked a sporting locale for taking your voodoo act underground. Could do with a little more Cajun flare, but I don't think we're gonna find Kalosian colonists on such short notice."

I fired up the FF wiki after seeing that name drop, and... yeah, this depiction is pretty on-brand for an ‘Exdeath’ there. So the voodoo gimmick did come from someplace.

Veins bulged on Exodes' forehead. "It's Exodes, now, rebel scum! And I should've figured you were a dirty enough piece of swine to associate with the traitor!"

WHAT. Wait, so does that mean Gene used to be on the same side as Exodes/Exdeath? What on earth was he called back in the day?

"Oh-ho, my bad." Gene scratched his head with his free hand. "Wasn't aware you changed names. Finally realized how obviously evil that edgy moniker was?" The mewtwo's tail lazily swayed back and forth.

... I can't believe that I'm just now realizing this, but this is all an elaborate mythology gag to how Exdeath's naming was handled in FF series, since he became Exodes for the FF5 OVA.

Gene: "Gotta say, I like it more than the last rename I heard you bandy around. 'Exodes' definitely rolls off the tongue better than 'X-Death', so... third time's the charm?"
:joltyshrug~1:

- Beat moment -
Yuna: "'X-Death'? Really?"
:sceptical~1:

Exodes: "Oi, shut the hell up, that isn't confirmed canon and that version of the game was garbage enough that we're better off pretending it never existed!" >_>;

Well, the seriousness was nice while it lasted. Still, Yuna was thankful for the backup. Doubly so when she spotted Nikki and Artemis standing back-to-back, surrounded by damp bones with sparks dancing around them. Valkyrie glided onto a dead, toppled over tree. She squatted on the rotting wood, ready to pounce at a moment's notice.

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, Yuna. Since you were about to become Enthralled had Gene not showed up right then and there.

"Didn't take you for the shlocky horror flick type, Princess." Nikki's back was turned to Yuna, but the dreepy practically heard the smirk in her voice. "But after the time we've had… I could do with breaking a few bones. Flesh or no flesh." She cracked her knuckles.

Somehow I doubt that's going to work out as well in practice as what you're going on about, Nikki. But okay there.

Exodes glanced between the down skeletons and Gene. "Ha ha. Well, well. We've really got ourselves a party now, huh?" She adjusted her black hat, some of her earlier smarminess returning.

"Do we? Dang." Gene snapped his left fingers. "Forgot to bring my queso. Nobody can resist the cheesy dip." He put his fingers to his lips and kissed them.

"The only dipping sauce I'll be needing is your blood, rebel." Exodes pointed an index claw at Gene. "I'll drizzle it over your head and serve it up on a platter to the emperor. He'll be so thrilled, he'll make me his number two over Uroboros!"

Gene:
image0.gif

Exodes:
:hissssss:

"Time to die, rebel!"

"Emperor?" Gene tsked. "Jeez, just when I thought Paradox's head couldn't get any bigger."

"Y… Yuna?" Reshiram poked his claws together in the back of her mind. "Now that we have backup… maybe we can try and free Lugia?"

Yuna: "Uh... yes, that would be wise. (And I'm pretty sure this much narrative cheese can't possibly be healthy.)"

The skeletons surrounding Nikki and Artemis reanimated. They snapped at the air. Nikki raised her fists, mohawk crackling like a fire pit.

Gene brandished his giant spoon. "Try it, Exdeath. I'll have you seeing stars, just like last time."

Wait, why on earth did you allow her to live if you already defeated her once, Gene?

The sneasler immediately launched her claws at Gene. She looked focused on him. Yuna agreed with Reshiram. This was her chance. She flew right, weaving around barren tree branches and tuning out the sounds of claws slamming into something hard.

But though she got farther from Exodes, she found a wall of Poison Sting needles approaching her. Yelping, the dreepy dove down, skirting the attacks while staying just above the poisonous swamp.

When she pulled up, Yuna found dozens of Skorps standing on the edge of the island, each with their mutant hands trained directly on her.

Their limbs glowed purple in unison. And, just like that, Yuna had three dozen Poison Sting needles closing in on her.

Oh so that's what happened to all the other Skorps. That's just... lovely.
:fearfullaugh~1:


Alright, overall thoughts:

Boy was that a big cliffhanger there. Like on one level, it felt like there wasn't that much narrative progress in the grand scheme of things, but honestly, enough major reveals just got dropped that it still felt like quite a bit just went down. Since in no particular order:

- We found out that reality is glitching out in Venish. Presumably from the aftereffects of Project Icarus starting up
- Both Bahamut and their sages were keeping secrets from each other, to the point where Yuna is finding it at odds with the teachings she's learned
- Yuna is very, very strongly implied to be Chiron. Bahamut's mate that he presumed to be dead.
- Gene has been butting heads with Paradigm for a while, and I'm pretty sure from the text is implied to have once either been part of it, or else aligned with it
- All those missing Skorps are pretty much confirmed to be puppeteered by Exodes/Exdeath

So yeah. I'm actually wondering if there will be anything that will be the same once this arc settles. Since it feels like all of the things that we thought we knew about the characters and the setting are getting run through a shredder. Not a bad thing, mind you, since it's made reading these last few chapters a really wild ride.

As for things that I didn't like... I dunno if it was the time of day when I reviewed or me just being too enthralled (har har) by the events playing out, but I honestly couldn't find much beyond a couple typos. I suppose some bits could've been more generous with description, but you've struck your colors to the mast of short chapters for a while with this story, and I won't begrudge you for sticking to your guns.

Great work as usual, @Ambyssin , and I can already tell you're not going to make the wait for a resolution in 2-ish weeks plus (maybe) seeing Lugia/Jade onscreen for the first time an easy one. :V
 
Last edited:

Ambyssin

Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 35: Don't You Know That You're Toxic

It was going to be a repeat of the dreaded Herbrides Lines tree. A treepeat, in other words. Noctum was absolutely sure of it the closer the ship's hull got. Another concussion. Possibly worse this time. And he had Seifer with him, to boot.

Except the metal was more like the sponges Noctum used to wash dishes back at the academy. His momentum effortlessly carried him through multiple surfaces that should've hurt, but didn't. It ended when he finally managed to dig his arms into… whatever strip of metal was underneath him and skid to a halt. He was still dizzy. The black charizard wasn't sure if he was on the floor, a wall, or the ceiling.

It didn't help that the ship was tilted, either. A result of its capsizing, obviously.

"Mrrgh. You okay, Noctum?"

"Dizzy." Though the lack of nausea concerns me. Noctum squeezed his eyes shut. At least Seifer was okay.

… Wait, was the keldeo okay?

"How about you?" Noctum was getting his bearings back. A few more deep, stinky breaths would do it. God, this place reeks.

"Unharmed, but a bit… compromised."

The spinning faded fast. Noctum opened his eyes. Seifer lay to his left, tangled in a mess of blankets, pillows, and broken wood.

"Uhh—"

"We must've landed in some of the crew's quarters," Seifer explained, struggling to get the blankets off of him. "Hey, swing your tail around. It's too dark in here."

The room had a red tint to it thanks to a couple of tiny, cracked lights overhead. It wasn't that helpful, though. Noctum swung his black-scaled tail left. The violet flames mixed with the red lights to cast an even more ominous purple glow over Seifer.

"Thanks." With the extra light, the keldeo easily wriggled free. As soon as he did, he slid down the inclined floor until he caught against the broken remnants of a bunk bed. "Okay, I guess we ought to go back out and tend to Yuna, right?"

"Ah!" Noctum's tail flame sparked in alarm. He spread his wings and jumped to his feet. His pink apron now had dirt and slime covering most of the flowers, but that didn't matter. Yuna needed backup. She—

"Guys, don't leave me! Help me! Hel— blaaauuggubble!"

Noctum and Seifer shared astonished looks. Neither had to speak to tell what the other was thinking: the ship had people on it!

"What do we do?" The charizard looked worriedly between the door below them and the hole in the wall. "Should we split up? I can go back to Yuna and you can investigate the ship."

"Absolutely not." Seifer's horn sparked. "I need your tail for light." He glanced at the door. "Besides, if this is really a waste management ship, it might have something in it that can deal with all the poison outside."

"But Yuna…" Noctum couldn't leave her again. It had happened too many times already.

"She has the Sages. And Quetzal," Seifer sternly declared. "Different look or not, I trained him myself. I have the utmost faith in his—"

"Commander!"

The orange zapdos in question dashed through the hole in the wall. Skorp clung to his back feathers. Noctum imagined Seifer would've facepalmed if he had hands.

"What are you doing?" the keldeo barked. "Get back out there! Yuna needs—"

"She told me to come here!" Quetzal squawked.

"What?" Noctum was about to push past the zapdos.

"She thought you guys might've found something." Quetzal awkwardly shuffled his gangly legs. Noctum briefly wondered if he or this "sneasler" critter had lankier legs.

"And we did. There are people on board." Seifer pointed his prosthetic horn toward the broken remnants of a doorframe. "Who we have a responsibility toward."

"Great." Noctum clapped his hands together. "You can take your bird friend and I'll go back to Yuna." He lifted his stubby right leg. "And if things get too dark, he can light the way with his weird leggy energy ball attack," the charizard added, cutting off what he assumed was Seifer's counterargument.

To his delight, the keldeo's shoulders sagged. "Very well. Stay on your guard."

Noctum smiled. "Same to you."

Right as he was about to push past Quetzal, however, shrieks filled the hole in the ship's hull. For a moment, there was a familiar silhouette. Then dragonfire filled the area. Noctum fought back with a Flamethrower of his own. When they collided and kicked up green and red smoke, Noctum turned to the others, eyes damp from the ash.

"Had a change of heart. Move, move, move!" He grabbed Skorp off of Quetzal's back and flew through the shattered door. The outside hallway was, thankfully, spacious. The ship must've been built with even larger pokémon than a charizard in mind. But everything was still slanted and poorly lit by red emergency lights.

"I don't suppose either of you were on a ship like this in your, uh, guard duties?" Noctum scratched his head.

"Actually, I have taken assignments on waste management ships before!" Quetzal chirped. When Noctum turned around, the zapdos and Seifer had blocked the doorframe using rubble from the other room.

"Great!" Noctum glided forward. Brown rust patches spread across the metal floor. The further Noctum went, the more holes started to pop up. Pink and purple light filtered up through the holes. The noxious smell from earlier was worse. Thank goodness Noctum hadn't eaten in a while.

"Then please tell me you can get us to higher ground."

Thumps came from behind the quartet. "Can we hustle our bustles a bit, eh?" Skorp tightened his grip on the shoulder straps of Noctum's apron. "I think Kelly's gonna break through any sec—"

Noctum wasn't ready for the floor in front of him to explode, however. Rusty metal shards scraped his delicate wing membranes, but he managed to shield his face. That was what mattered most.

"Run for your lii— aiiiuggggggh!"

The charizard lifted his right wing to see an oddly fuzzy wartortle head disappear through the new hole in the floor. He couldn't even react properly, because two more holes appeared in front of him. Slimy purple tentacles popped out of the holes and smacked against the walls and ceiling. Their squelching rang in Noctum's ear frills as they painted the walls with noxious purple ooze. The urge to dry heave was overwhelming.

"Don't just stand there! Attack!" Seifer bellowed.

Sizzling water stung Noctum's right shoulder. He reflexively grabbed it with his left hand.

The Scald struck the right tentacle, which exploded in a burst of slime. A burst of rotten air brought bile up in Noctum's throat. He spat some clear stomach acid at his feet.

When he looked up, white, fuzzy patches spread out over the spots the tentacles hit. The surrounding metal turned from dark to brown. It bubbled like fresh stew in one of Aeon Castle's cooking cauldrons. Burnt and rusted metal mixed with the pungent rotten egg smell already in the air. Noctum tilted his head to stave off another attempt at spitting up bile.

"Is that… mold?" There was a tremor in Seifer's voice. Even with his claims of diving into the distortion in the past, he must've never come across something like this.

"Sure looks like it," Quetzal said.

"Some of the dead trees in the bayou normally have them," Skorp explained. "But they don't eat through metal. Or smell like the world's biggest sulfur plume. Peeyew!"

Screeching echoed from behind. "Gawk later," Seifer hissed, face scrunched in disgust. "We have to press on!"

"Right." But when Noctum tried to fly ahead, the remnants of the floor burst apart. Two wiry, slime-covered arms reached for the charizard. He backpedaled in midair, spewing a Flamethrower on instinct. The flames washed across a moldy garbodor's face, who sank back through the floor. A fresh burst of rotten air buffeted the charizard, who covered his snout with his hands.

"S-S-S-Swamp monster!" Skorp hollered. Noctum's neck jerked back.

"Ow! Please don't tug my apron," he whined.

"Get down!" Seifer cried.

Noctum landed on the floor and an Aura Sphere singed his cheek. It sailed into Garbodor's slimy right arm, which burst apart into purple tentacles that shot toward Noctum and Seifer. The charizard wanted to Phantom Warp, but remembered his passenger. With a deep breath that almost made him hurl, Noctum shot as large a Dragon Pulse he could manage. The blue bolt swept through the tentacles, slicing clean through them. A Scald from Seifer took care of the remaining three.

"Gu—ys!" A grunt interrupted Quetzal's cry. "Kelly's here! We're getting pincered! What do we do?"

Noctum looked to Seifer. The keldeo's eyes darted about before looking toward the ceiling. "We go up."

"What?" A flurry of swipes from Quetzal's right leg dispelled Kelly's dragonfire. The orange zapdos followed up with a powerful kick to Kelly's head that left a thunderous boom echoing through the ship.

"The ship's integrity is giving way," Seifer explained. "It should be a breeze to smash through the ceiling."

"Ah, good point!" Noctum had painlessly crashed through the ship at the start of all this. He and Seifer looked up. The ceiling swelled like a boil under Noctum's Flamethrower. Seifer's ensuing Scald blasted clean through it. And not a moment too soon, as a roar told the team that Garbodor was ready for another go.

"Move!" Seifer blasted water from his hooves, shooting through the hole. Noctum looked toward Quetzal, but the zapdos bent his lanky legs and leaped up far higher than the black charizard expected.

"Hurry!" Skorp yelled.

Garbodor was halfway out of the hole, eating away at the floor and plastering white, fuzzy mold all around it. Every squelch its rotting, mold-filled body made echoed in Noctum's ear frills. As did the bubbling and gurgling from its bloated torso. Things were wriggling underneath the mold. A wartortle shell here. A silicobra tail there. Heck, Garbodor's body sucked in parts of the ship, adding to the bitter, burning metal mixing with its sulfurous stench.

It almost reminded Noctum of home. Just not in a good way. Why couldn't he have gone out to help Yuna?

… Oh, right. Kelly.

Noctum spat some dragonfire at Garbodor's face, then quickly flapped his wings. He passed through the ceiling hole and found himself hovering beside a door. Something clanged against it. Purple juice filled the tiny circular window. An agonized cry followed.

His violet tail flame grew in alarm. "We're not safe here, either!"

"You're telling me!" Quetzal pointed his stubby right wing forward. A second wartortle lay slumped and unmoving in the corner of the hallway, covered in mold from head to toe. There were two other mold piles next to it. Whatever they were… Noctum couldn't tell anymore.

And seconds later, Garbodor's left hand burst through the floor. Its moldy fingers curled around the downed crew members, filling the hall with echoing gurgles and bringing back the rotten odor from the floor below.

"Keep moving up!" Seifer ordered, though he sounded far from sure of himself. He stuck a forehoof into the hole and blasted another Scald, drawing screeches from below.

"Ohhh, poor Kelly!" Skorp blubbered. "We can't let that moldy garbodor get its grubby hands on her, eh!"

"Why is it so big, anyway?" Noctum whimpered. "It's slurping up pokémon like it was nothing!"

"I'll bet it's trance," Seifer whispered. He shook his head. "Never mind that, though. Our safety… is what matters most now!"

It hurt Noctum to admit, but Seifer was right. He couldn't risk himself — and, by association, the princess — for a feral. The black charizard flew up into the hole, but quickly threw himself into the wall to dodge slimy tentacles shooting up after him. They burst apart and Seifer and Quetzal hopped up through the hole.

"We can't keep this up," Quetzal said. "And what about the crew? Is anyone still in one piece on this—"

"Oh, thank Zacian! It's Commander Seifer!"

The keldeo froze, tail shooting up. Noctum followed the voice, across a giant metal room filled with dented pipes and tubes. A rhydon with a torn white uniform was on his hands and knees in front of some giant glass tube peppered with cracks. Gray liquid sloshed around in it. The machine's whirring was almost… relaxing compared to the shouts and slimy blubbering from the floors below.

But that begged one question: what was this thing? There were a few other pokémon around it, mostly bulky steel-types like bronzong and steelix. No wonder this is such a big ship.

Noctum shook his head. "You guys have to get out of here! There's this… this crazy big Garbodor! And it's coming for us!"

"You mean Teddy?" Rhydon lumbered to his feet just in time for one of Garbodor's hands to appear through the hole the group had gone through. "Ten o'clock! Fire!"

The bronzong beside Rhydon levitated a hose and squeezed the trigger. Some of the gray juice burst out. It effortlessly ate through Garbodor's moldy arm. Noctum's ear frills quivered from the sizzling and he buried his snout in his apron to avoid another burst of moldy air. He hastily shuffled closer to the big glass tube.

"Is… is that thing part of the crew?" Seifer asked, shakily catching his breath.

"Yeah." Rhydon ran his right arm across his forehead, wiping away oil. "We were… working with Minister Tesla. To decontaminate Venish's water supply with his antitoxin." He glanced at the glass tube. "But all of a sudden, the distortion where the Needle used to be pulled us in and we capsized!" He staggered back and forth, probably for dramatic effect. "Poor Teddy tumbled off the ship and then emerged looking like…"

"Like something out of my worst nightmares!" Quetzal shrieked. Multiple indents popped up on the wall behind him. Noctum got one look at a poster of a blissey and a sylveon in a hard hat with the caption "At Polaris, safety comes first!" before it burst apart alongside the wall it was attached to.

Garbodor's roars were as fierce as any kommo-o battle cry Noctum had ever heard. Its body jiggled like jelly, shaking the metal shards, wooden debris, and mold-covered crewmates stuck in the slime. And that nauseating odor was even worse than before! Noctum was sure his nostrils were burning now.

His violet flame shrank. "Shoot it with the antitoxin!" he begged. "Hurry!"

"We're trying!" Bronzong cried. Gray fluid splattered across Garbodor's white, fuzzy chest. The mold bubbled and sizzled. White smoke drifted toward the grated metal ceiling. It toppled over, flailing its arms and splattering corrosive slime all around it. Seifer and Quetzal backed away, forming Protect shields. The other crewmates fled for the other side of the room, Bronzong included.

"We've already gone through half our stock keeping Teddy at bay!" Rhydon shouted. "We thought Teddy was gone, but he must've roamed around the ship and eaten half the crew or something. He's so much bigger!"

Garbodor was back on its feet, roaring its displeasure. Seifer looked back at the crew "Then evacuate, damn it! We can't take this thing on our own!" He raised his forehooves and blasted huge water jets from them. Garbodor pointed two moldy fingers forward. Water collided with poison. The force sent Seifer skidding back toward Noctum. He caught the Keldeo, who ceased his attack.

"Evacuate where? There's a toxic swamp all around us!" Rhydon protested. Garbodor opened its mouth wide. It filled with purple slime.

"Quetzal, trip it up!" Seifer cried.

Eyes darting about, the zapdos frantically flapped his stubby orange wings. When it looked like Garbodor was going to flood the room with a mouthful of poison, Quetzal stomped the floor repeatedly. Noctum grabbed Seifer and flapped his wings. A tremor ran across the ground, upending Garbodor. It coughed the poison up into the ceiling. Metal sizzled and boiled away. Rusted metal overpowered Garbodor's rotten aroma.

Pipework shards and chunks of the ceiling came crashing down onto Garbodor. Noctum dropped Seifer and turned to the machine.

If there was just a way to make what they had more effective. More effective. More…

"… explosive!" Noctum's tail flame doubled. "Cyril! Cyril, where's Gene?!"

"Calm your pecs, Zardy! I'm outside." Static garbled Gene's voice slightly, but it still brought Noctum no shortage of relief. "Just tending to this crazy cat lady. I already told her I don't swing that way, but she can't keep her claws off me— heeyee! Goodness, that was close." He laughed nervously. "What's the problem?"

"Calorimetry!" Noctum looked between the antitoxin vat and Garbodor. The latter's body was slowly absorbed all the rubble that had it buried. "I need you to do calorimetry again! We have a vat of antitoxin here and—"

"Antitoxin?" Gene muttered several curses. "Speak up sooner next time! You could've saved me, like, a half-dozen close calls."

"We were a bit preoccupied ourselves," Noctum huffed. "Just hurry over."

"Fine, fine. Lemme get everything in place." Some ragged breaths followed, then, "Hey, Exodeez Nuts! Catch me if you can!"

"Wait, what?!" Noctum's tail flame grew. "Why are you bringing her here?!"

But the charizard didn't get a response.

XxX​

There were very few times in Yuna's life she was thankful for her tiny size. This was one of them.

As many Poison Stings as there were, she didn't find it that hard to outmaneuver them. A quick ascent got past the first onslaught. The she u-turned in midair and dove down to avoid the next wave. The dozen skorps lining the edge of the island were charging up for another volley, so she rolled right. The wall of mutant skorupi gave way to brown mud and crabby gray grass.

"Thine adversaries art not the sharpest tools in the shed," Rayquaza scoffed. "Mayhap being controlled by that foul witch is throwing off their aim."

He had a point. The skorps were sluggish to turn and meet her. They couldn't naturally be that slow, could they?

To test that theory, the dreepy whizzed right past them, flying over the purple swamp once again. Sure enough, they lowered the limbs they were in the process of raising. Yuna allowed herself a glance across the island. Artemis had swapped places with Valkyrie, allowing Nikki to easily cut loose with dome-shaped bursts of lightning that downed the skeletons the moment they reassembled.

Valkyrie took the opportunity to try and snipe Exodes from afar with a blue-purple bolt straight from her mouth. The sneasler caught sight of the attack and jerked herself right. This left her wide open for Gene, who struck her with tiny psychic orbs from every direction. Hissing in pain, she dropped to her knees.

"Princess, look at the skorps!" Rayquaza cried.

An invisible force awkwardly yanked the skorupi into the air. If they didn't have the blankest expressions imaginable, Yuna figured they'd be panicking.

"This is our chance!" Reshiram declared. "Go! Get to Lugia!"

Yuna shot forward; a tiny green dart through the hazy air. Despite the weird, purple barrier encasing her, Lugia's features grew clearer. And they told Yuna something was very wrong.

What was that dark circle she was curled around? Was it—

"… ye gads! Dame Lugia is… clutching an egg?" Rayquaza exclaimed. "What manner of witchcraft is this?!"

All Reshiram could manage was startled squeaks.

It wasn't just that, though. Yuna abruptly stopped right before she would've collided with a dozen skorp voodoo dolls. They floated in front of the barrier, each one connected to it by a purple tendril. A familiar aerodactyl doll whizzed past them, also stuck to a tendril.

Yuna looked over her shoulder, where Exodes failed to strike Gene with her extending claws. The strike was clumsy. Gene's lips moved. A mocking taunt, perhaps? That hardly mattered.

It's her. She turned back to the broken Needle. "The daemon… she must be siphoning Lugia's power to puppet everything!"

As if the barrier heard her, it flashed red. "Thine adversaries art firing, Princess!" Rayquaza warned. Yuna shot up and watched the ensuing Poison Stings strike the voodoo dolls themselves. That finally got pained cries from the skorps.

"I bet she wasn't expecting us to get backup from the others," Reshiram surmised. "Now her attention's split between fighting Gene and staying connected to Lugia. I don't think she can handle it." He clapped his illusory wings together. "Let's blast away these silly bugs and free Lugia!"

"No!"

"What? Why?!" Reshiram's white, fluffy head popped out of the Soul Dew. "We can't let that creep hurt Lugia anymore!" He looked at the barrier. "And that weird, space-colored egg…"

Yuna winced, but had to roll right to dodge another Poison Sting barrage. "But you saw what happened to the skorps when they got hit by their own attack!" Her gills drooped. "If… if I attack the dolls, it's going to hurt them!"

She tried to look back toward Gene, but caught flashes of purple. The Poison Stings were a bit faster this time. Some nicked the end of her tail, but she flew away from the brunt of them. The dolls had followed her, however, forming a protective square in front of the barrier. How was Exodes even managing this while contending with Gene?

To make matters worse, Reshiram was halfway out of the Soul Dew. "They don't matter here! Lugia matters!" His blue eyes blazed with anger. "You promised!" He pointed a shaky wing at her. Tears glistened in his eyes. "You promised to free all the Sages! You… you can't back down now! I won't let you!"

Yuna squished Reshiram back into the Soul Dew, then dove down under more Poison Stings. "But I can't just risk all the skorps to do that! What if we turn them into Phantoms?" She could never live with herself if that happened.

Reshiram would have none of it. He fully manifested from the Soul Dew, his tail engine burning bright.

"Make a choice!"

The cold, authoritative tone was unlike anything Yuna had never heard from Reshiram.

"What art thou doing, Sir Reshiram?" Rayquaza's words wouldn't reach him, though. Because the black serpent was still in the Soul Dew.

Reshiram glanced at the dreepy. "When there's no clear path to victory, you have to make sacrifices for the greater good."

Yuna had no time to process that, as Reshiram spewed a torrent of blue fire at the dolls. The moment the attack struck, the skorps screamed. Blue flames engulfed them. Reshiram was poised to follow up with a Dragon Pulse, but the dolls detached from the purple tendrils and fell to the ground, where the muck and mud snuffed out the flames. The actual skorps then followed suit while the barrier's tendrils flailed about like balloons someone had just untied.

Inside the barrier, the egg shuddered. A crack splintered across its astral, blue and gold shell.

The dreepy's gills shriveled from that and the sizzling she heard on the ground. The hazy air filled with the stench of charred chitin.

Her gut constricted, nearly up into her head. Yuna's vision flickered.

Reshiram said that. Reshiram did that.

But Bahamut… preached compromise. If there wasn't a clear path forward, one had to make it.

He ignored that. A Sage ignored that.

"LUGIA!"

Yuna's head snapped up. The egg cracked in two more places. It trembled between Lugia's wings.

Reshiram flew straight for the barrier… and it raised two tendrils to intercept him!

She thought she had talked sense into him earlier, but she was wrong. Now she was about to lose him. Lose Lugia. Lose the egg.

Innocent people were hurt — possibly turned into Phantoms — for nothing.

Because she wasn't strong enough. Because she wasn't forceful enough.

Yuna's vision went red. Her arms were darkening, but she didn't care. Rayquaza called out to her, but she couldn't make anything out.

With a squeaky roar, Yuna thrust her arms forward. They expanded in flashes of purple. Two large, ectoplasmic wings grabbed hold of a squealing Reshiram. He flailed in between six red spikes, but Yuna didn't care. She forcibly pulled Reshiram back, narrowly avoiding the tendrils, and slammed him back into the Soul Dew.

Its golden glow felt… familiar against her shadowy wing. Yuna wasn't sure why. And she didn't care. She yanked Rayquaza out.

"Keep the tendrils at bay," the dreepy ordered. A strange haze fell over Rayquaza's red eyes. He turned and whipped up sharp wind currents, blowing all the tendrils to the other side of the barrier.

Yuna made her move. She darted toward the barrier, roaring her frustrations with all of this. Yuna whipped the newly-formed wings back and slammed them into the barrier.

White-hot flames rippled through her entire body. The wings shrank back down into her usual, nubby arms, but Yuna refused to let up. She pressed harder. She dug her arms into the barrier. She slammed her forehead into it and screamed.

And the dreepy's screams… grew deeper. Her body was burning even hotter than before! Had Reshiram mixed in his power?

… No. Rayquaza was who she was channeling. This was her voice.

Yuna shoved her whole body against the barrier, redoubling her roar. She thought she heard an explosion in the distance. It didn't matter.

The burning intensified, but Yuna refused to let up. Her arms… were getting longer. Her torso… was expanding. Light green turned to yellow and blue. Tiny, nubby legs kicked against the barrier.

"Let her out!" Yuna roared before banging her much heavier head against the purple wall in front of her.

Then Lugia's eyes snapped open… and the barrier engulfed Yuna in golden light.
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Heya, taking a brief intermission from my PWCH catch up to duck in for offsite review tag, since I’ve fallen a little behind with this story.

Chapter 35

It was going to be a repeat of the dreaded Herbrides Lines tree. A treepeat, in other words. Noctum was absolutely sure of it the closer the ship's hull got. Another concussion. Possibly worse this time. And he had Seifer with him, to boot.

Except the metal was more like the sponges Noctum used to wash dishes back at the academy. His momentum effortlessly carried him through multiple surfaces that should've hurt, but didn't. It ended when he finally managed to dig his arms into… whatever strip of metal was underneath him and skid to a halt. He was still dizzy. The black charizard wasn't sure if he was on the floor, a wall, or the ceiling.

It didn't help that the ship was tilted, either. A result of its capsizing, obviously.


Oh boy. Perhaps Noctum should get in the habit of keeping sick bags on him given how unkind this story has been on his stomach during its run.
:fearfullaugh~1:


"Mrrgh. You okay, Noctum?"

"Dizzy." Though the lack of nausea concerns me. Noctum squeezed his eyes shut. At least Seifer was okay.


... Or not. Though now I'm curious as to what on earth is going on such that:

A: Noctum isn't feeling nauseous right now.
B: Noctum is worried about that. You'd think he'd be thankful about it. ^^;

… Wait, was the keldeo okay?

"How about you?" Noctum was getting his bearings back. A few more deep, stinky breaths would do it. God, this place reeks.


Whelp, sounds like I spoke too soon. ^^;


"Unharmed, but a bit… compromised."

The spinning faded fast. Noctum opened his eyes. Seifer lay to his left, tangled in a mess of blankets, pillows, and broken wood.

"Uhh—"

"We must've landed in some of the crew's quarters," Seifer explained, struggling to get the blankets off of him. "Hey, swing your tail around. It's too dark in here."


Noctum: "... Is that remotely safe when for all we know, this odor is from a gas leak?" ._.;
Seifer: "The odorant added to natural gas doesn't smell this bad. Though seriously, give us a light here, Noctum."

The room had a red tint to it thanks to a couple of tiny, cracked lights overhead. It wasn't that helpful, though. Noctum swung his black-scaled tail left. The violet flames mixed with the red lights to cast an even more ominous purple glow over Seifer.


Seifer: "... You should really consider getting that Malice Crystal checked out sometime, by the way." ._.
Noctum: "Pretty sure that we already concluded that it's impossible to remove without killing me, so I'll save the time and energy, thanks." >_>;

"Thanks." With the extra light, the keldeo easily wriggled free. As soon as he did, he slid down the inclined floor until he caught against the broken remnants of a bunk bed. "Okay, I guess we ought to go back out and tend to Yuna, right?"

"Ah!" Noctum's tail flame sparked in alarm. He spread his wings and jumped to his feet. His pink apron now had dirt and slime covering most of the flowers, but that didn't matter. Yuna needed backup. She—

"Guys, don't leave me! Help me! Hel— blaaauuggubble!"

Noctum: "Well that's not concerning at all."
:ScaredCabot:

Seifer: "Look, you know from the way that stories work that we're going to run into whatever that thing is eventually. Let's go take a look."

Noctum and Seifer shared astonished looks. Neither had to speak to tell what the other was thinking: the ship had people on it!

"What do we do?" The charizard looked worriedly between the door below them and the hole in the wall. "Should we split up? I can go back to Yuna and you can investigate the ship."

Image


"Absolutely not." Seifer's horn sparked. "I need your tail for light." He glanced at the door. "Besides, if this is really a waste management ship, it might have something in it that can deal with all the poison outside."


Seifer: "Also, I've seen enough horror movies to know that that's an absolutely terrible idea even without the voice in the distance screaming for help before cutting out." >_>;

"But Yuna…" Noctum couldn't leave her again. It had happened too many times already.

"She has the Sages. And Quetzal," Seifer sternly declared. "Different look or not, I trained him myself. I have the utmost faith in his—"

"Commander!"

The orange zapdos in question dashed through the hole in the wall. Skorp clung to his back feathers. Noctum imagined Seifer would've facepalmed if he had hands.

Whelp, so much for that reassurance there. :V

Noctum: "Okay, I'm going after Yuna right now-!" O_O;
Seifer: "Oh hell no, you are not leaving me behind in this disgusting garbage scow that for all we know has been taken over by a daemon with Quetzal of all 'mons!" >_>;
Quetzal: "Sir, you just professed your confidence in my abilities!" >v<
Seifer: "Yeah, and you just ran it through a shredder by your sudden entrance. Opinions change." >_<

"What are you doing?" the keldeo barked. "Get back out there! Yuna needs—"

"She told me to come here!" Quetzal squawked.

"What?" Noctum was about to push past the zapdos.

Oh, so Noctum really was about to just ditch those two to go after Yuna, huh? :V

"She thought you guys might've found something." Quetzal awkwardly shuffled his gangly legs. Noctum briefly wondered if he or this "sneasler" critter had lankier legs.

"And we did. There are people on board." Seifer pointed his prosthetic horn toward the broken remnants of a doorframe. "Who we have a responsibility toward."

Noctum: "I don't know about you, but my responsibility is kinda first and foremost to Princess Yuna-"
:fearfullaugh~1:

Seifer: "Nope, the people aboard are your responsibility now too, Noctum. Don't try to weasel out of it."
:typhNOsion:


"Great." Noctum clapped his hands together. "You can take your bird friend and I'll go back to Yuna." He lifted his stubby right leg. "And if things get too dark, he can light the way with his weird leggy energy ball attack," the charizard added, cutting off what he assumed was Seifer's counterargument.
-snerk-

Boy, can I call 'em or what?=

To his delight, the keldeo's shoulders sagged. "Very well. Stay on your guard."

Noctum smiled. "Same to you."

Whelp, I didn't call this one. Time to see what goes horribly wrong, since I remember from pre-release teasers that Noctum has a mold-covered Wartortle... thing to fight a bit later on.

Right as he was about to push past Quetzal, however, shrieks filled the hole in the ship's hull. For a moment, there was a familiar silhouette. Then dragonfire filled the area. Noctum fought back with a Flamethrower of his own. When they collided and kicked up green and red smoke, Noctum turned to the others, eyes damp from the ash.

"Had a change of heart. Move, move, move!" He grabbed Skorp off of Quetzal's back and flew through the shattered door. The outside hallway was, thankfully, spacious. The ship must've been built with even larger pokémon than a charizard in mind. But everything was still slanted and poorly lit by red emergency lights.

Wait, was that supposed to be Exodes there? I assume that was supposed to be the idea, but things were kinda hazily described, and you'd probably want to play up whatever makes Noctum enter "nope nope nope" mode a bit more concretely for the sake of clarity.

"I don't suppose either of you were on a ship like this in your, uh, guard duties?" Noctum scratched his head.

"Actually, I have taken assignments on waste management ships before!" Quetzal chirped. When Noctum turned around, the zapdos and Seifer had blocked the doorframe using rubble from the other room.

That feels like a hilarious underutilization of a Zapdos there.

Seifer: "Quetzal, not now!" >.<

"Great!" Noctum glided forward. Brown rust patches spread across the metal floor. The further Noctum went, the more holes started to pop up. Pink and purple light filtered up through the holes. The noxious smell from earlier was worse. Thank goodness Noctum hadn't eaten in a while.

"Then please tell me you can get us to higher ground."

Quetzal: "Noctum, I'm flightless right now."
:what:

Noctum: "Look, aren't the emergency stairwells on these things standardized or something? Just point out where to go!" O_O;

Thumps came from behind the quartet. "Can we hustle our bustles a bit, eh?" Skorp tightened his grip on the shoulder straps of Noctum's apron. "I think Kelly's gonna break through any sec—"

Noctum wasn't ready for the floor in front of him to explode, however. Rusty metal shards scraped his delicate wing membranes, but he managed to shield his face. That was what mattered most.

"Run for your lii— aiiiuggggggh!"

Noctum: "... On second thought, I really should've just gone to Princess Yuna's aid."
:uhhh:


The charizard lifted his right wing to see an oddly fuzzy wartortle head disappear through the new hole in the floor. He couldn't even react properly, because two more holes appeared in front of him. Slimy purple tentacles popped out of the holes and smacked against the walls and ceiling. Their squelching rang in Noctum's ear frills as they painted the walls with noxious purple ooze. The urge to dry heave was overwhelming.

"Don't just stand there! Attack!" Seifer bellowed.

Sizzling water stung Noctum's right shoulder. He reflexively grabbed it with his left hand.

The Scald struck the right tentacle, which exploded in a burst of slime. A burst of rotten air brought bile up in Noctum's throat. He spat some clear stomach acid at his feet.

When he looked up, white, fuzzy patches spread out over the spots the tentacles hit. The surrounding metal turned from dark to brown. It bubbled like fresh stew in one of Aeon Castle's cooking cauldrons. Burnt and rusted metal mixed with the pungent rotten egg smell already in the air. Noctum tilted his head to stave off another attempt at spitting up bile.

"Is that… mold?" There was a tremor in Seifer's voice. Even with his claims of diving into the distortion in the past, he must've never come across something like this.

"Sure looks like it," Quetzal said.

Uh. Yeah, this segment is significantly creepier and more visceral than the version that you initially showed off. I see you put the feedback from the initial A-B test to good use there. Since this is at once very
:eltyscared:
and
:TailsEww:
.

"Some of the dead trees in the bayou normally have them," Skorp explained. "But they don't eat through metal. Or smell like the world's biggest sulfur plume. Peeyew!"

Screeching echoed from behind. "Gawk later," Seifer hissed, face scrunched in disgust. "We have to press on!"

Noctum: "Oh hi there, Kelly."
:fearfullaugh~1:

Seifer: "I said we have to press on!" >_>;

"Right." But when Noctum tried to fly ahead, the remnants of the floor burst apart. Two wiry, slime-covered arms reached for the charizard. He backpedaled in midair, spewing a Flamethrower on instinct. The flames washed across a moldy garbodor's face, who sank back through the floor. A fresh burst of rotten air buffeted the charizard, who covered his snout with his hands.

"S-S-S-Swamp monster!" Skorp hollered. Noctum's neck jerked back.

"Ow! Please don't tug my apron," he whined.


I'm calling it now, Noctum is going to flatly lose his lunch at some point in all of this.

"Get down!" Seifer cried.

Noctum landed on the floor and an Aura Sphere singed his cheek. It sailed into Garbodor's slimy right arm, which burst apart into purple tentacles that shot toward Noctum and Seifer. The charizard wanted to Phantom Warp, but remembered his passenger. With a deep breath that almost made him hurl, Noctum shot as large a Dragon Pulse he could manage. The blue bolt swept through the tentacles, slicing clean through them. A Scald from Seifer took care of the remaining three.


Noctum: "O-Oog... please tell me we got them. I don't know how much more of this my stomach can take." @.@

"Gu—ys!" A grunt interrupted Quetzal's cry. "Kelly's here! We're getting pincered! What do we do?"

Noctum looked to Seifer. The keldeo's eyes darted about before looking toward the ceiling. "We go up."


Seifer: "You do realize that Kelly can fly, right?" >_>;
Noctum: "Look, I don't see you offering any better suggestions to work with here!" >.<

"What?" A flurry of swipes from Quetzal's right leg dispelled Kelly's dragonfire. The orange zapdos followed up with a powerful kick to Kelly's head that left a thunderous boom echoing through the ship.

"The ship's integrity is giving way," Seifer explained. "It should be a breeze to smash through the ceiling."

Which means, of course, that it'd also be piss easy for Kelly to do that.
:fearfullaugh~1:


"Ah, good point!" Noctum had painlessly crashed through the ship at the start of all this. He and Seifer looked up. The ceiling swelled like a boil under Noctum's Flamethrower. Seifer's ensuing Scald blasted clean through it. And not a moment too soon, as a roar told the team that Garbodor was ready for another go.

"Move!" Seifer blasted water from his hooves, shooting through the hole. Noctum looked toward Quetzal, but the zapdos bent his lanky legs and leaped up far higher than the black charizard expected.

Noctum: "Quetzal, how on earth did you-?" .-.
Seifer: "Oi! What part of 'Move!' do you not understand, Noctum?" >_>;

"Hurry!" Skorp yelled.

Garbodor was halfway out of the hole, eating away at the floor and plastering white, fuzzy mold all around it. Every squelch its rotting, mold-filled body made echoed in Noctum's ear frills. As did the bubbling and gurgling from its bloated torso. Things were wriggling underneath the mold. A wartortle shell here. A silicobra tail there. Heck, Garbodor's body sucked in parts of the ship, adding to the bitter, burning metal mixing with its sulfurous stench.

Oh, so that's what those screams earlier were coming from.
:uhhh:


It almost reminded Noctum of home. Just not in a good way. Why couldn't he have gone out to help Yuna?

… Oh, right. Kelly.

Oh, so that's what the dragonfire was supposed to be from. Uh... yeah, you probably want to explicitly mention that that silhouette earlier was Kelly's.

Noctum spat some dragonfire at Garbodor's face, then quickly flapped his wings. He passed through the ceiling hole and found himself hovering beside a door. Something clanged against it. Purple juice filled the tiny circular window. An agonized cry followed.

His violet tail flame grew in alarm. "We're not safe here, either!"


Whelp, so much for that brilliant plan of going up.

"You're telling me!" Quetzal pointed his stubby right wing forward. A second wartortle lay slumped and unmoving in the corner of the hallway, covered in mold from head to toe. There were two other mold piles next to it. Whatever they were… Noctum couldn't tell anymore.

And seconds later, Garbodor's left hand burst through the floor. Its moldy fingers curled around the downed crew members, filling the hall with echoing gurgles and bringing back the rotten odor from the floor below.

Noctum:
Image


"Keep moving up!" Seifer ordered, though he sounded far from sure of himself. He stuck a forehoof into the hole and blasted another Scald, drawing screeches from below.

"Ohhh, poor Kelly!" Skorp blubbered. "We can't let that moldy garbodor get its grubby hands on her, eh!"

Noctum: "Oh my god, we're being chased by a disgusting mold monster that I'm pretty sure is a daemon and that's what you're worried about right now?!" >.<

"Why is it so big, anyway?" Noctum whimpered. "It's slurping up pokémon like it was nothing!"

"I'll bet it's trance," Seifer whispered. He shook his head. "Never mind that, though. Our safety… is what matters most now!"

Not quite, since I'm pretty sure that this is G-Max Garbodor, but I actually didn't pick up on that until just now when the mention of the thing's size came up.

It hurt Noctum to admit, but Seifer was right. He couldn't risk himself — and, by association, the princess — for a feral. The black charizard flew up into the hole, but quickly threw himself into the wall to dodge slimy tentacles shooting up after him. They burst apart and Seifer and Quetzal hopped up through the hole.

"We can't keep this up," Quetzal said. "And what about the crew? Is anyone still in one piece on this—"

"Oh, thank Zacian! It's Commander Seifer!"

Seifer: "Wait, who-?"

The keldeo froze, tail shooting up. Noctum followed the voice, across a giant metal room filled with dented pipes and tubes. A rhydon with a torn white uniform was on his hands and knees in front of some giant glass tube peppered with cracks. Gray liquid sloshed around in it. The machine's whirring was almost… relaxing compared to the shouts and slimy blubbering from the floors below.

But that begged one question: what was this thing? There were a few other pokémon around it, mostly bulky steel-types like bronzong and steelix. No wonder this is such a big ship.


I am not convinced that that gray liquid that Tesla deployed was completely unrelated to all of this. Like this all just screams 'experiment gone horribly awry'.

Noctum shook his head. "You guys have to get out of here! There's this… this crazy big Garbodor! And it's coming for us!"

"You mean Teddy?" Rhydon lumbered to his feet just in time for one of Garbodor's hands to appear through the hole the group had gone through. "Ten o'clock! Fire!"

The bronzong beside Rhydon levitated a hose and squeezed the trigger. Some of the gray juice burst out. It effortlessly ate through Garbodor's moldy arm. Noctum's ear frills quivered from the sizzling and he buried his snout in his apron to avoid another burst of moldy air. He hastily shuffled closer to the big glass tube.


Well that's unsettling there.
:unquag:


"Is… is that thing part of the crew?" Seifer asked, shakily catching his breath.

"Yeah." Rhydon ran his right arm across his forehead, wiping away oil. "We were… working with Minister Tesla. To decontaminate Venish's water supply with his antitoxin." He glanced at the glass tube. "But all of a sudden, the distortion where the Needle used to be pulled us in and we capsized!" He staggered back and forth, probably for dramatic effect. "Poor Teddy tumbled off the ship and then emerged looking like…"

"Like something out of my worst nightmares!" Quetzal shrieked. Multiple indents popped up on the wall behind him. Noctum got one look at a poster of a blissey and a sylveon in a hard hat with the caption "At Polaris, safety comes first!" before it burst apart alongside the wall it was attached to.

... Kinda wonder if it's even possible to get that guy back to normal. Like on the one hand, it worked on that Snorlax chef, on the other... uh... yeah, I'm not convinced that most of the crew is still alive right now.

Garbodor's roars were as fierce as any kommo-o battle cry Noctum had ever heard. Its body jiggled like jelly, shaking the metal shards, wooden debris, and mold-covered crewmates stuck in the slime. And that nauseating odor was even worse than before! Noctum was sure his nostrils were burning now.

His violet flame shrank. "Shoot it with the antitoxin!" he begged. "Hurry!"


I'm... pretty sure that that's going to backfire horribly somehow, but let's see where this goes.

"We're trying!" Bronzong cried. Gray fluid splattered across Garbodor's white, fuzzy chest. The mold bubbled and sizzled. White smoke drifted toward the grated metal ceiling. It toppled over, flailing its arms and splattering corrosive slime all around it. Seifer and Quetzal backed away, forming Protect shields. The other crewmates fled for the other side of the room, Bronzong included.


Oh, so that party trick exists here in this setting too, huh? Definitely handy for this sort of moment.

"We've already gone through half our stock keeping Teddy at bay!" Rhydon shouted. "We thought Teddy was gone, but he must've roamed around the ship and eaten half the crew or something. He's so much bigger!"

Garbodor was back on its feet, roaring its displeasure. Seifer looked back at the crew "Then evacuate, damn it! We can't take this thing on our own!" He raised his forehooves and blasted huge water jets from them. Garbodor pointed two moldy fingers forward. Water collided with poison. The force sent Seifer skidding back toward Noctum. He caught the Keldeo, who ceased his attack.

"Evacuate where? There's a toxic swamp all around us!" Rhydon protested. Garbodor opened its mouth wide. It filled with purple slime.


Image


"Quetzal, trip it up!" Seifer cried.

Eyes darting about, the zapdos frantically flapped his stubby orange wings. When it looked like Garbodor was going to flood the room with a mouthful of poison, Quetzal stomped the floor repeatedly. Noctum grabbed Seifer and flapped his wings. A tremor ran across the ground, upending Garbodor. It coughed the poison up into the ceiling. Metal sizzled and boiled away. Rusted metal overpowered Garbodor's rotten aroma.

Pipework shards and chunks of the ceiling came crashing down onto Garbodor. Noctum dropped Seifer and turned to the machine.

If there was just a way to make what they had more effective. More effective. More…

"… explosive!" Noctum's tail flame doubled. "Cyril! Cyril, where's Gene?!"

Oh, so they're going to try his compressed fire trick again, huh? Dunno if that's a good idea or not, but hey, you could do worse than to try that one out.

"Calm your pecs, Zardy! I'm outside." Static garbled Gene's voice slightly, but it still brought Noctum no shortage of relief. "Just tending to this crazy cat lady. I already told her I don't swing that way, but she can't keep her claws off me— heeyee! Goodness, that was close." He laughed nervously. "What's the problem?"


That entire line is a giant lol, I can see you're really having fun with Gene's character.

Noctum: "Okay, now I'm less convinced that I'm reassured by his voice." >_>;

"Calorimetry!" Noctum looked between the antitoxin vat and Garbodor. The latter's body was slowly absorbed all the rubble that had it buried. "I need you to do calorimetry again! We have a vat of antitoxin here and—"

"Antitoxin?" Gene muttered several curses. "Speak up sooner next time! You could've saved me, like, a half-dozen close calls."


Noctum: "Look, we just came up with this idea, okay?" >_>;
Gene: "So come up with them sooner then!"

"We were a bit preoccupied ourselves," Noctum huffed. "Just hurry over."

"Fine, fine. Lemme get everything in place." Some ragged breaths followed, then, "Hey, Exodeez Nuts! Catch me if you can!"

"Wait, what?!" Noctum's tail flame grew. "Why are you bringing her here?!"

But the charizard didn't get a response.

That at once is hilarious, but also time to break out Bubsy again:

Image


There were very few times in Yuna's life she was thankful for her tiny size. This was one of them.

As many Poison Stings as there were, she didn't find it that hard to outmaneuver them. A quick ascent got past the first onslaught. The she u-turned in midair and dove down to avoid the next wave. The dozen skorps lining the edge of the island were charging up for another volley, so she rolled right. The wall of mutant skorupi gave way to brown mud and crabby gray grass.


Huh. She's definitely more nimble than I thought. For a second, I thought she was going to have a lot more trouble with that ambush at the end of the last chapter.

"Thine adversaries art not the sharpest tools in the shed," Rayquaza scoffed. "Mayhap being controlled by that foul witch is throwing off their aim."

He had a point. The skorps were sluggish to turn and meet her. They couldn't naturally be that slow, could they?

I mean, they could, but yeah, being enthralled seems like it'd mess with your higher motor functions quite a bit.

To test that theory, the dreepy whizzed right past them, flying over the purple swamp once again. Sure enough, they lowered the limbs they were in the process of raising. Yuna allowed herself a glance across the island. Artemis had swapped places with Valkyrie, allowing Nikki to easily cut loose with dome-shaped bursts of lightning that downed the skeletons the moment they reassembled.

Valkyrie took the opportunity to try and snipe Exodes from afar with a blue-purple bolt straight from her mouth. The sneasler caught sight of the attack and jerked herself right. This left her wide open for Gene, who struck her with tiny psychic orbs from every direction. Hissing in pain, she dropped to her knees.

Yuna: "Huh. Seems like everyone's holding up pretty well right now-"

"Princess, look at the skorps!" Rayquaza cried.


Well that ain't good.

An invisible force awkwardly yanked the skorupi into the air. If they didn't have the blankest expressions imaginable, Yuna figured they'd be panicking.

"This is our chance!" Reshiram declared. "Go! Get to Lugia!"

Wait, is that Gene's doing, or...?

Yuna shot forward; a tiny green dart through the hazy air. Despite the weird, purple barrier encasing her, Lugia's features grew clearer. And they told Yuna something was very wrong.

What was that dark circle she was curled around? Was it—

"… ye gads! Dame Lugia is… clutching an egg?" Rayquaza exclaimed. "What manner of witchcraft is this?!"

All Reshiram could manage was startled squeaks.

Wait a minute. Cecil and Jade had a kid together?!

It wasn't just that, though. Yuna abruptly stopped right before she would've collided with a dozen skorp voodoo dolls. They floated in front of the barrier, each one connected to it by a purple tendril. A familiar aerodactyl doll whizzed past them, also stuck to a tendril.

Yuna looked over her shoulder, where Exodes failed to strike Gene with her extending claws. The strike was clumsy. Gene's lips moved. A mocking taunt, perhaps? That hardly mattered.

It's her. She turned back to the broken Needle. "The daemon… she must be siphoning Lugia's power to puppet everything!"

Oh, that would explain a few things there. I guess Exodes just turned and saw Yuna trying to do her thing, huh?

As if the barrier heard her, it flashed red. "Thine adversaries art firing, Princess!" Rayquaza warned. Yuna shot up and watched the ensuing Poison Stings strike the voodoo dolls themselves. That finally got pained cries from the skorps.

"I bet she wasn't expecting us to get backup from the others," Reshiram surmised. "Now her attention's split between fighting Gene and staying connected to Lugia. I don't think she can handle it." He clapped his illusory wings together. "Let's blast away these silly bugs and free Lugia!"

"No!"


Cecil: "Yuna?! It's Lugia! She's right here! What do you mean 'No'?!" O_O;

"What? Why?!" Reshiram's white, fluffy head popped out of the Soul Dew. "We can't let that creep hurt Lugia anymore!" He looked at the barrier. "And that weird, space-colored egg…"

Yuna winced, but had to roll right to dodge another Poison Sting barrage. "But you saw what happened to the skorps when they got hit by their own attack!" Her gills drooped. "If… if I attack the dolls, it's going to hurt them!"

Sure is a good thing you don't have something like a Petrify Orb to pop right about now, huh?

She tried to look back toward Gene, but caught flashes of purple. The Poison Stings were a bit faster this time. Some nicked the end of her tail, but she flew away from the brunt of them. The dolls had followed her, however, forming a protective square in front of the barrier. How was Exodes even managing this while contending with Gene?

To make matters worse, Reshiram was halfway out of the Soul Dew. "They don't matter here! Lugia matters!" His blue eyes blazed with anger. "You promised!" He pointed a shaky wing at her. Tears glistened in his eyes. "You promised to free all the Sages! You… you can't back down now! I won't let you!"


Yuna: "Uh... Reshiram? You're kinda scaring me right now." O_O;

Yuna squished Reshiram back into the Soul Dew, then dove down under more Poison Stings. "But I can't just risk all the skorps to do that! What if we turn them into Phantoms?" She could never live with herself if that happened.

Reshiram would have none of it. He fully manifested from the Soul Dew, his tail engine burning bright.

"Make a choice!"

The cold, authoritative tone was unlike anything Yuna had never heard from Reshiram.

Yuna: "Okay, you're really scaring me now, Reshiram." O.O
Reshiram: "Yuna, that's my wife out there!"
:seviAAAAAAAAAAA:


"What art thou doing, Sir Reshiram?" Rayquaza's words wouldn't reach him, though. Because the black serpent was still in the Soul Dew.

Reshiram glanced at the dreepy. "When there's no clear path to victory, you have to make sacrifices for the greater good."

Well. That's... a concerning train of thought coming from the Pokémon with 'dex fluff of torching kingdoms when angry.
:fearfullaugh~1:


Yuna had no time to process that, as Reshiram spewed a torrent of blue fire at the dolls. The moment the attack struck, the skorps screamed. Blue flames engulfed them. Reshiram was poised to follow up with a Dragon Pulse, but the dolls detached from the purple tendrils and fell to the ground, where the muck and mud snuffed out the flames. The actual skorps then followed suit while the barrier's tendrils flailed about like balloons someone had just untied.

Inside the barrier, the egg shuddered. A crack splintered across its astral, blue and gold shell.

The dreepy's gills shriveled from that and the sizzling she heard on the ground. The hazy air filled with the stench of charred chitin.

Her gut constricted, nearly up into her head. Yuna's vision flickered.

Reshiram said that. Reshiram did that.

Well, that got really dark really fast. And I'm pretty sure that that crack in the egg wasn't a good omen at all.

Yuna: "H-Holy crap. Reshiram, what the hell?!" O.O;
Cecil: "I'm sorry, Yuna, but I'm not losing my wife for the sake of a bunch of mutant Skorupi!" >_>;

But Bahamut… preached compromise. If there wasn't a clear path forward, one had to make it.

He ignored that. A Sage ignored that.

"LUGIA!"

I mean, he definitely made his path forward there, so by a certain manner of speaking, he definitely kept Bahamut's preachings.
:joltyshrug~1:


Also, let's not get into how this Bahamut is taking after how he is in newer FF games where he's a giant dick. Perhaps it's time to re-evaluate just how true your faith really is, since at this rate, you wouldn't be the first Yuna to be snookered into following a religion of evil.

Yuna's head snapped up. The egg cracked in two more places.

It trembled between Lugia's wings. Reshiram flew straight for the barrier… and it raised two tendrils to intercept him!

She thought she had talked sense into him earlier, but she was wrong. Now she was about to lose him. Lose Lugia. Lose the egg.

Innocent people were hurt — possibly turned into Phantoms — for nothing.

Well, this needle pull is certainly going well™️ at the moment.

Because she wasn't strong enough. Because she wasn't forceful enough.

Yuna's vision went red. Her arms were darkening, but she didn't care. Rayquaza called out to her, but she couldn't make anything out.

With a squeaky roar, Yuna thrust her arms forward. They expanded in flashes of purple. Two large, ectoplasmic wings grabbed hold of a squealing Reshiram. He flailed in between six red spikes, but Yuna didn't care. She forcibly pulled Reshiram back, narrowly avoiding the tendrils, and slammed him back into the Soul Dew.


Oh, so Yuna really is Giratina now, huh? I mean, I kinda gathered from paying close attention to chatter in the past plus her Bayonetta-style antics going as far back as Noatun, but this is still quite the sight to behold here.

Its golden glow felt… familiar against her shadowy wing. Yuna wasn't sure why. And she didn't care. She yanked Rayquaza out.

"Keep the tendrils at bay," the dreepy ordered. A strange haze fell over Rayquaza's red eyes. He turned and whipped up sharp wind currents, blowing all the tendrils to the other side of the barrier.

Yuna made her move. She darted toward the barrier, roaring her frustrations with all of this. Yuna whipped the newly-formed wings back and slammed them into the barrier.

:uhhh:


Well that's creepy as hell. I see that Exodes' banter last chapter wasn't completely wrong.

White-hot flames rippled through her entire body. The wings shrank back down into her usual, nubby arms, but Yuna refused to let up. She pressed harder. She dug her arms into the barrier. She slammed her forehead into it and screamed.

And the dreepy's screams… grew deeper. Her body was burning even hotter than before! Had Reshiram mixed in his power?

… No. Rayquaza was who she was channeling. This was her voice.

Yuna shoved her whole body against the barrier, redoubling her roar. She thought she heard an explosion in the distance. It didn't matter.

Exactly none of that sounds healthy right now. And that explosion doesn't portend good things for the garbage scow from earlier.

The burning intensified, but Yuna refused to let up. Her arms… were getting longer. Her torso… was expanding. Light green turned to yellow and blue. Tiny, nubby legs kicked against the barrier.

"Let her out!" Yuna roared before banging her much heavier head against the purple wall in front of her.

Then Lugia's eyes snapped open… and the barrier engulfed Yuna in golden light.

Wow, you weren't kidding about this chapter ending with permanent changes to cast members. While I probably should've had it on my radar given Yuna's chatter about how her childhood went, I legit didn't see this one coming.

Now the question is, who's she going to shoot out of that brand-new head turret?

Alright, time for the recap:

Uh... wow. I don't know what your process is for coming up with these 5k-ish chapters, but everything since the concert started in Venish has just been a constant stream of nobrakes moments. And it felt like a lot changed in these two scenes in spite of very little movement of time and space. Like we got to find out the fate of the Polaris ship's crew, we got a dangerous encounter for Noctum and the gang teed up there, we got to find out the things that Cecil is willing to do for the ones that he loves (and boy is it not pretty), and we get a really solid glance of who Yuna really is as she crosses a Rubicon in her life. So yeah, congrats on making things such a wild ride in such little space. It's definitely one of the things about your writing that I'm a bit envious about.

As for things that I wasn't so hot on. There's not a whole lot, but the main thing is that there were a few parts that were a bit hard to follow thanks to lack of description, with a few moments in the ship sequence coming to mind. I get that you swear by third-person limited perspective these days, but at the same time, I think that taking the time to throw a few more bones on that front would've made sense. Since it's a bit of a balancing act to capture the things that a character would perceive along with what the reader needs to perceive to make sense of what's going on. And the parts in question felt like places where you still could've pulled off revealing a bit more without violating your perspective rules. It's ultimately your call as an author, but it's just something that stood out to me.

Though altogether, I had a blast with the chapter @Ambyssin , and it feels great to be caught up again. Looking forward to seeing where on earth the dust settles after all of this. ^^
 
Last edited:

Ambyssin

Winter can't come soon enough
Chapter 36: Suddenly Jaded

The needs of the many. The needs of the few. They matter not before the Benefactor.
~Qliphoth Proverb


XxX​

Yuna was falling.

The barrier was gone. Soft, golden light fizzled out around her. There were no more poisonous tendrils. The aerodactyl voodoo doll was gone, too. Somehow, she had done it, but God was it exhausting.

She was so tired. Yuna didn't think this kind of fatigue was possible for ghost-types. Yet even as damp, musty air rippled through her ectoplasm, all Yuna wanted was to curl up for a nice, long nap.

Yuna had just enough energy left to hope her crash landing was a soft one before her eyelids fluttered shut.

XxX​

Green fields gave way to rocky crags with small brooks weaving between them. Chiron flapped her wings, frowning. She could sense Lugia nearby. So, the Sage hadn't moved from where Bahamut had detected her.

Lugia ignored his summons. Bahamut was very clear; his summons required prompt response. No Sage could disregard one longer than ten minutes. Lugia had broken that rule. And after she had a string of cancelled sermons in defiance of Bahamut, Chiron could tell his temper was bubbling to the surface. She had suggested he take some time to meditate and leave Lugia to her. But she was quite surprised at how quickly and precisely Bahamut located Lugia.

Chiron descended further into a brown valley, trying to push that thought aside. The brooks grew larger, joining together and running into a crescent lake. The familiar shape brought a smile to the lunala's face. She hadn't seen this one before. Perhaps Chiron would ask Bahamut about it later.

Her smile quickly faded when she found Lugia on the lake's eastern bank, lying in the mud with her tail lazily dangling in the water. Dirt and grime caked her once-pristine, white feathers.

Chiron didn't have time to consider a proper greeting because Lugia locked eyes with her. "Come to lecture me? Then go on." Lugia lazily raised her left wing and flicked it, flinging mud into the water with splashes and brown rings. "Tell me I'm a screw up. A freeloader. Or whatever colorful language Bahamut was using back at his base."

The lunala bit her lip. So, Lugia's strategy was guilt tripping. A firm approach wasn't going to work. Chiron would attempt a soft touch, instead. "He's worried about you." She folded her right wing over her chest. "We're all worried about you. You haven't been yourself lately."

Silence. Then a bitter laugh. Lugia rolled on her back, burying herself deeper in the muck. "Ha! Worried about me? That's a good one." She smacked the muddy ground with her right wing. Chiron drifted back to avoid mud splatter.

Chiron clutched the Soul Dew around her neck with her wing claws. It was one thing for Lugia to play hooky, but it was another to belittle Bahamut and his work. Sure, Chiron had only been here a few months, yet it was long enough to conclude the golden dragon truly cared about the world.

"That attitude isn't helping your case." The lunala's words were firmer. "We are concerned, because this behavior is… unbecoming of someone in your position."

"My behavior?" Lugia sat up. Chiron had gotten through to her. "That is rich!" She scooped up a ball of mud with her right wing and hurled it at Chiron. Rolling her eyes, Chiron teleported to her right, then watched the mud sail into the lake with a brown splash.

So, Lugia wanted to act like a hatchling? Fine then. Chiron could treat her like one. Her third eye flared to life. A purple glow surrounded a squawking Lugia's wings and pinned them to her side.

"You have a responsibility to this planet and its people," Chiron exclaimed. "I may not understand all your customs, but I know you were trained to be better this. Do we not teach commoners to talk out their differences? To use words and not claws and fangs?"

She stared Lugia down. The silence lingered long enough for Chiron to wonder if Lugia was opting for the silent treatment.

"… this isn't what I signed up for." Lugia turned away, plapping her head down in the mud. "It's not fair. We speak of things we're not allowed." She put her left wing on her neck. "I wanted to help people, but as the years go by, it feels less like helping and more like sacrificing my life and my freedom!"

Chiron's third eye faded into her forehead. She folded her wings over her torso, unsure what to even make of that. "Explain."

"What does it matter to you?" Lugia swung her tail back and forth, sloshing around more muck. "Our rules don't apply to you. You didn't even bond with your Soul Dew, did you?"

"I… didn't." Chiron traced her folded wing across the gem. She needed to get Lugia to open up more, but she couldn't tell the truth. None of the Sages could know the lunala had fled Eternatus. It was too dangerous. For her and for them.

"You all… have a long apprenticeship period before you accept Bahamut's light, right?" Chiron tightened her wings around her torso. "It doesn't feel right for me to accept such power after only a few months here."

And there's no telling how his light might react with my Malice.

Lugia laughed at that, however. "Well, congratu-freaking-lations." She flung more mud with her tail. "Then you're free of his control."

Chiron narrowed her eyes. "Excuse me?"

Lugia sat up. There was a faint rainbow glimmer underneath the layers of mud on her belly. "See this?" She pointed to the glimmer, muck dripping off her outstretched wing digit. "Why do you think you were able to find me so fast? The Soul Dew binds us to Bahamut. So long as I have his light, he'll always know where I am."

The lunala's wing claws twitched.

He'll always know where I am.

He'll always know…

Always…

"There's nothing you can hide from me, child."


Chiron squeezed her eyes shut and blinked rapidly. That nagging presence quickly faded from her mind.

"And even if that wasn't the case, Zygarde can keep tabs on everything with that whole 'I can split myself into tiny invisible cells' thing," Lugia continued, thankfully unaware that Chiron had zoned out for a moment.

Somehow, Chiron must've opened some sort of floodgate, because Lugia wasn't stopping. "And, y'know, maybe I'd be okay with it… if commoners actually liked what I had to offer. But my sermons have some of the poorest attendance of the Luminous Sages!" She raised her filthy wings and smacked them into the muck. "People just don't get what the Sage of Harmony is. Heck, sometimes I'm not sure what it means."

Bits of mud trickled off Lugia's body. Wait, were those tears carrying the mud away?

"I just—" Lugia sniffled loudly. "I gave up my love for this. I gave up the chance for a family for this." She lay back down with an unceremonious splat. "How is it fair that we have to teach about things we're not allowed to have? Especially when Bahamut can have them."

Chiron relaxed her wings a bit. "Bahamut told me… those things would make it harder to protect the planet." She looked down at her wavy reflection in the lake. "Didn't your predecessor warn you of this?"

"I thought he was overexaggerating!" Lugia threw her wings up and smacked them against her flabby belly. "The rules sounded comically strict. But I guess they don't apply to him, because I've seen the way he looks at you. How you two will sneak off to the mountains in the north or the Armour Archipelago. How you'll cuddle together to the point where you practically melt into one another!"

She pointed her tail at Chiron. "Don't deny it, I've seen it! I didn't even know Bahamut could glow that shade of red!"

The lunala's forehead and ethereal wings reddened. "I… that's…"

Lugia rolled onto her belly and crawled through the mud. She got up to her wings and knees. "I want what you two have with Cece. I want it so, so badly. You have no idea how touch-starved I'm— waugh!"

She slipped off the bank and into the lake with a large splash. Chiron teleported back several meters, watching with a frown as brown expanded around the splash zone and a wet feather odor permeated the air.

Her gut tightened. Chiron had always been under the impression that the Sages loved their jobs. She never thought that any of them might've had regrets. Might have—

"He's unsatisfied, is he? Then you'll dispose of him. Permanently."

Rippling water snapped Chiron back to attention. Lugia surfaced, brown water cascading down her wet, dirty feathers. "Who am I kidding?" She sighed. "Maybe if I beg and plead enough, Bahamut will let me find a replacement."

Chiron drifted down toward her. "C… Can I ask you something?"

"Whatever."

The lunala flinched. "Who's Cece?"

Lugia blinked. Her cheeks flushed despite the soggy feathers. "Reshiram. His name was Cecil when he was a commoner. He was a hydreigon and I was a salazzle. My apothecary used the courier group he worked for. I met him when he crashed into my shop and… we fell so hard for each other. Then we both got scouted for Sage apprenticeships."

She bit her lip. "I… shouldn't tell you this. But the truth is that… Bahamut wanted us to end our personal relationship." Lugia pushed and pulled the water around her with her wings. "I couldn't stand the thought of it. Neither could Cecil. So, right before our christenings, we eloped."

Chiron's crescent tail twitched. "Does… does Bahamut know?"

"I'm not sure." Lugia stared at her muddled reflection. "But throughout our time as Sages, we've rarely had the opportunity to work together. Sometimes I wonder if he does know, and is punishing me for it."

Chiron's heart sank. A part of her didn't want to believe it. Bahamut was nothing but patient and caring with her since her crash landing. But the things Lugia said reminded her so much of…

She had to do something. She had to make it right.

"… take a week off."

Lugia looked up. "Bwuh?"

"Take a week off… to be with Reshiram," Chiron repeated, firmer this time. "I know a nice private grotto by the Crownelands' southeast coast."

Lugia still looked unconvinced. "You really think Bahamut will let that fly?"

"Leave him to me." The lunala winked at Lugia. "If he looks at me the way you think he does, he'll come around."

More silence. Then, Lugia shot out of the water faster than Chiron thought possible for a massive bird. This time, there was no escaping a surprise shower… or the wet, slimy hug that followed.

"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!" Lugia buried her head in the crook of Chiron's neck. "I'll make it up to you, I swear!"

"You can… start by… not squeezing… so tight," Chiron wheezed.

The moment Lugia released her, everything went white.

XxX​

It was times like these that made Chiron wish her wing structure was more flexible like Lugia's. The best she could do while seated in the special chair that Bahamut had carved for her was rigidly have her wings pointed in front of her, so she could gingerly hold the tiny, sleeping star cloud in her claws.

Motherhood. Chiron still found it so surreal because it shouldn't have been possible. Neither she nor Bahamut were meant to procreate. And yet, here she was. With this little bundle of joy that could teleport around and "Pew!" his delight at everyone's confusion.

"So, you got a name for the tyke yet or what?"

Chiron looked up from her son. Lugia sat opposite her on an absurdly large recliner, tossing a green grape into her open mouth.

"We do, actually." Chiron smiled warmly. "Leo."

Lugia paused in the midst of pulling a grape out of the ceramic bowl in her lap. "Leo?" She blinked. "Huh. I was expecting something more… mystical."

The lunala giggled. "Leo is a constellation of stars from the Milky Way. It was Bahamut's favorite constellation when he lived on Earth." She lifted her head a bit higher to look at the doorway behind Lugia, which was filled with golden light. "Isn't that right, dear?"

Rainbow, pupilless eyes looked back at her. "You told me that, in time, he would turn into something resembling a pyroar. And Leo was named for a mythical creature that resembled a pyroar. It seemed logical to me."

Chiron resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Of course he'd brush that off. Heaven forbid Bahamut admit he liked anything about Earth.

"Fair enough." Lugia resumed tossing grapes into her mouth. "So, why'd you call me here?"

"I have a request for you." Chiron leaned over and nuzzled Leo, who cooed happily in his sleep. "We would like you and Reshiram to be Leo's aunt and uncle, in a manner of speaking. Help us raise him and, if something were to happen to both of us, parent him in our stead."

Lugia's eyes widened. She misjudged the arc of her grape toss and it bounced off the tip of her snout. A psychic force caught the grape before it could hit the floor, then threw it out an open window.

"I just cleaned these floors," Bahamut growled. The light behind Lugia rippled.

"S-Sorry." Lugia grinned sheepishly. "But, like, are you sure about that? I mean—"

"… tch. You're the one who bemoaned your inability to have a family," Bahamut cut in. The gold light in the doorway dimmed. "Consider it a… concession, on my part."

Chiron frowned at him. They had discussed how they were going to explain things, but Bahamut decided to go off script. "What he means to say is that you're my friend, Lugia. I know how much family means to you, so I want you to be part of Leo's life."

In a blink of light, Bahamut was at Lugia's side. She almost tossed the bowl of grapes up in surprise when his gold light spilled over her. "But make no mistake. Your responsibilities as Sage of Harmony still come first." He pointed his right upper wing at her. "We are trusting you because we believe in you. Understand?"

"Y-Yessir!" Lugia saluted with her right wing. "I'll be the best, least-embarrassing fake aunt in the world."

While Chiron giggled again, a groaning Bahamut smacked his face with an upper wing. His golden glow brightened even further, and everything faded to white.

XxX​

"Oh, my aching head."

Yuna's vision came back to her quicker than her previous dreams. Though she wanted to fester over why she saw two this time, the soft feathers and scales brushing against her ectoplasm calmed her nerves.

What had she been doing again?

… Oh, right. Qliphoth. Poison swamp. Reshiram flying off the handle because his wife, Lugia, was trapped in some daemonic barrier with an egg. Then she freed Lugia.

Hadn't she been falling?

Whatever. Yuna was comfy now. And less tired. That was all that mattered.

Maybe five more minutes with this feather blanket…

When Yuna blinked the last stars from her vision, however, she found herself clutching the egg Lugia previously held and staring at a blue belly with pink flame patterns that immediately brought salazzle to mind.

But salazzle don't have feathers.

Then Lugia's head popped in, only there were flame marks on the blue spikes that were supposed to surround her eyes.

"Hello!" she chirped.

"AAAAAAAAAH!"

"AAAAAAAAAH!" Lugia tossed Yuna into the air and flared out her wings. "Why are we yelling?! Is that how this planet thanks people who save its inhabitants from plummeting out of the sky?"

Yuna steadied herself in midair, making sure she held onto the egg, and looked in abject horror at the scaly flaps fluttering on either side of Lugia's tail.

This was wrong. Very, very wrong. And yet, Lugia seemed blissfully unaware, tilting her head at Yuna. "Although, I guess you broke me out of that crazy nightmare I was in." She gave a thumbs up. "So, I suppose we're even, Drakloak."

"But I— wait, drakloak?!" Yuna looked around in a panic. She soon found her elongated tail and two nubby feet that hadn't been there before. "Ohmygod I'm a drakloak!" Yuna pressed her hands — there were little ridges in her ectoplasm denoting the beginnings of fingers — firmly against the egg. "When? How? Why?"

"Thine efforts in dispelling that foul barrier did the trick, Princess."

Rayquaza drifted down to Yuna's side, applauding with his tiny hands. Lugia looked at him, eyes sparkling. "Oh, wow! A chocolate noodle! And it talks!" Her tail wagged. "Is this a chocolate planet? Can I eat the ground?" She bent over and sniffed the mud, only to recoil. "Nope. Definitely not chocolate. Bummer."

Yuna's shoulders sagged, though she remained vigilant of the egg. I think I see how she and Reshiram fell for each other.

Yet the way Lugia acted was… quite different from the visions Yuna had. And Lugia still hadn't acknowledged her salazzle features.

"Wha—" Rayquaza flinched. "Dame Lugia, dost thou not remember thine comrade at arms? I'm Sir Rayquaza!"

"Lugia? Rayquaza?" She frowned. "I think you're mistaken, choco-noodle." Lugia pointed her right wing at Rayquaza. "Rayquaza's green and I only just got scouted to apprentice Lugia. The name's Jade and I… I…" Her eyes slowly widened.

Yuna's shoulders sagged further. She'd seen this routine before. Cue the freakout in three… two… one…

Jade flailed her wings about. "Why do I have wings?! Salazzle don't have wings!" She ran— well, waddled awkwardly back and forth in a panic. "And why are they white? What happened to my gray sca— ack!"

She slipped on a patch of mud and faceplanted into the muck. Jade quickly lifted herself up and looked at her muddy wing, blinking rapidly. "Well, that's a slight improvement. But I can't take mud baths forever! It'll ruin my complexion!"

All Yuna could do was stare at the… lugia? Salazzle?

"Salugia?"

Reshiram!
Yuna winced. This entire time, she'd forgotten about him. He wasn't even lurking in her mind. Though once Yuna recalled what had happened before the barrier went down, a mixture of guilt and trepidation crept through her.

Still, she was his wife. Maybe he could help?

Sighing, Yuna recalled Rayquaza and summoned Reshiram. He stood opposite the muddy salugia, poking his claws together.

"Jady?" he whispered.

There was a glimmer of recognition in Jade's yellow eyes. "C… Cece? Is that… you?"

Reshiram slowly nodded. "I go by Reshiram now, but yeah." He slowly smiled. "It's me."

They stood staring silently for a moment. Then Jade flung herself at Reshiram, wrapping her wings around his torso and burying her face in his chest ruff. "Oh em gee, look how big and fluffy you are!" She rubbed her face while Reshiram raised his wings, face and tail engine turning deep red.

"J… Jady?" His eyes darted around in a panic.

"Ah, if I died and wound up in marshmallow hell, then I accept my fate!" she chirped.

"Hang on." Reshiram squirmed a bit. "Ma… ybe we oughta… have a chat first?"

Yuna was conflicted whether to intervene or not. It sounded like Jade didn't have her memories of her time as Lugia which, if true, would make explaining things much harder.

She was about to fly down when she caught a glimpse of a silver streak. Then she heard hollers in the distance. Yuna saw Nikki hightailing it away from the capsized ship with Artemis in hot pursuit. A silver geyser had erupted from atop the ship, splattering silver fluid everywhere.

"Princess, look! The poison in the swamp is disappearing!"

Yuna glanced behind her, trying to ignore Jade somehow overpowering Reshiram and belly flopping into the mud with him. The glowing purple fluid in the swamp dissolved away, leaving dark green water. Pink lily pads and gray reeds popped out of the water as if the poison was smothering them. It still stunk, but it was closer to mildew than rotten eggs.

Unfortunately, it wasn't just the poisonous veil that lifted. Dozens of pained cries rang out in unison. Yuna's tail crinkled. She tightened her grip on the egg.

Ah… the skorps! The drakloak looked around and found their burnt, mangled bodies in a cluster by a small hole in the ground. Probably the spot where the broken Needle was.

"Well, erm, if thous art screaming, then thous art not Phantoms. Tis a good thing, yes?" Rayquaza laughed nervously.

Except I have no way of healing them! Yuna countered.

And Yuna wasn't the only one aware of the skorps' cries. A thunderous bang sounded by the silver geyser. Within a matter of seconds, a large pink sphere surged toward her, until it slammed into the ground right by Jade and Reshiram. The force sent both tumbling through the mud and into the swamp behind them.

The pink sphere faded to a more modest glow, revealing Gene. Gone was his usual, lackadaisical smirk. In its place was an intense glare with eyes that were blue and hollow. The Malice Crystal in his shoulder crackled with black electricity.

He turned and took one look at the skorps. "Who did this?"

Yuna's ectoplasm quivered. His voice had dropped several octaves to a chilling baritone. The sort of guttural growl Yuna might expect from an enraged salamence.

Gene raised his right hand. All three fingers crackled with dark energy. "Who did this?"

Yuna almost lost her grip on the egg, but curled her tail around it. "Reshiram! I'm sorry, I couldn't control him! His wife was hurt and—"

"Silence," Gene hissed. Yuna squeaked. The mewtwo lowered his arm and turned to the skorps. He raised both arms, then shot out short bursts of soft, pink light. They washed over the skorps, taking their burns with them.

"Heal Pulse?" Rayquaza gasped. "This entire time, he's known Heal Pulse?"

Gene lowered his arms, then Phantom Warped past Yuna. He thrust his right arm into the air. The swamp water rippled and out popped a soggy Reshiram with a pink glow around him.

"How dare you," Gene snarled. "They were innocents. You had no right to attack them."

Reshiram went bug-eyed. "Wait! Th… this is all a misunderstanding! Please, I—"

Dark energy crackled around Gene's left arm. It was time for Yuna to take action. She darted toward the mewtwo. "Hang on! We need to talk this out before anyone does anything else rash!"

Glare intensifying, Gene raised his left hand. "… weapons don't talk. They act."

Staring down some sort of Malice-induced attack, Yuna held up the egg. Black shadows brushed her arms and tail. "We are not your enemies. Stand down. Now."

The glow in Gene's eyes faded. There was a flicker of recognition, then he hastily stepped back, lowering both hands. A loud splash drew a flinch from Yuna. She turned around to find Jade climbing into the grass and Reshiram surfacing after a second splashdown. His wet hair obscured his face, but Yuna swore he was trembling.

"Yeah."

Yuna barely heard Gene's whispers. She looked back at the mewtwo, who crossed his arms tight. His black, yellow-tipped tail lashed at the air. "I guess… there's a lot to talk about." Gene blinked slowly. "In more ways than one."

He turned away from her just as Noctum dropped off Quetzal a few meters away. Seifer, Nikki, Valkyrie, and Artemis weren't far behind him.

"Oh, thank goodness!" Skorp hopped off Noctum's back and skittered toward the other skorps. "You're all okay, eh! You had me worried plum sick!"

"Princess!" Noctum's violet flame grew, then shrank. He was covered in silver fluid from head to toe. "Are you okay? What's with the egg?" He shook his head. "No, wait, dumb questions. Look at you!" He thrust his arms apart. "Congratulations!"

Nikki lacked Noctum's enthusiasm. "That's your evolution?" She tried forming a square with her hands. "Dunno what's up with the spacy egg, but I could eat a fancy dinner with a side salad off that block you call a head!"

"Hey, come on, show her some respect." Artemis jabbed Nikki's side with a ribbon. "Those spikes on your head look like PV antennae, but you don't see me teasing you over it."

Nikki scowled. "Well, they're cool antennae," she grumbled.

Yuna ignored Nikki. Though as much as drakloak wanted to accept Noctum's hug offer, she took one look at his soggy apron and frowned. "What happened to you?"

"Oh, this? It's okay." Noctum waved her off. "We were under attack from a mutated garbodor, but Gene blew the top off the ship and tossed Exodes into a vat of antitoxin."

"Which blew her up along with the tank," Seifer grumbled, trying to shake the silver out of his sopping hair. "Garbodor turned back to normal."

"So did the swamps." Valkyrie scanned the water surrounding the island. "Somehow."

"Yeah, sure. Just look at me!" Seifer lowered his head. "I've never been so humiliated."

"Really?" Gene spun around, a brow raised. "You'd think losing your cushy military job is way more humiliating than a little antitoxin bath."

Quetzal puffed out his feathers. "What?" He whirled on Seifer. "Her Eminence fired you?!"

Utter horror spread across Seifer's face. "I, uh—"

"Oh." Gene scratched his head. "You didn't tell him? Whoopsie-doopsie. I thought everyone here knew already." He laughed nervously.

Valkyrie glared at Gene. "Seriously? How callous can you be?"

"Doth we tell her about the outburst we just witnessed?" Rayquaza whispered. "Tis worrying how quickly he snapped back to his joking self."

No.
Yuna already had enough of a headache. Plus there was something… alarming about how the mewtwo reacted to the brief flare up of her weird shadowy powers. Or was it the egg's doing?

"Well, aha ha, how about this, gang?" Gene wrang his hands together. "We get all the skorps and trapped crew members squared away, then we can have us a big ol' team talky fun time." The big smile on his face was anything but sincere. "I'll make us a campfire… oh! And we can have s'mores!"

"S'mores!" Jade hopped in front of Gene. "Where do I sign? I'll take ten! No, twenty! No, thirty!"

"Whoa, whoa, time out." Nikki held her hands up in a T. "Who's the oversized pelipper with the bad salazzle costume?"

"Hey!" Reshiram snorted out dragonfire. "That's my wife you're talking about!"

Whistling, the toxtricity looked back and forth between Jade and Reshiram. "Damn, dude. What's your secret? Cuz she's way outside your league if you ask me!"

Reshiram's response was a cross between a squeal and a balloon forcibly deflating.

Yuna groaned. "Look, can we just do what Gene says for now? I'm tired. I want out of this swamp. And standing around taking pot-shots isn't going to…" Her voice trailed off upon realizing half the group wasn't listening to her. "Seriously, guys?!"

Noctum's face was ripe with worry. Yuna didn't have to ask what the problem was, because the black charizard spoke up first.

"Your egg's hatching."

"Bwuh?" Yuna blinked a few times. No, the drakloak hadn't misheard that. Noctum called it her egg. "No, no. You've got it all wrong. This is Lugia's—"

The salugia raised her right wing. "Jade."

Yuna rolled her eyes. "Okay, fine, this is Jade's egg. She was holding it while she was trapped in the barrier!"

"I was?" Jade pointed at her face. "Huh. Maybe that's why it showed up in my nightmare." She tapped her tail against her right hip repeatedly. "No idea what its deal is, though. Besides, it's clearly reacting to you, not me. Look at it glowing all white like my beau's new, fuzzy pelt!"

Reshiram squeaked again while white light crept into Yuna's vision. A white glow had, indeed, swallowed up the egg… and was creeping up Yuna's arms. Out of an abundance of caution, the drakloak set the egg down on the grass.

Four small, gold-tipped, dark blue hooves emerged from the light. The deep blue spread upward to a slender neck, then a head with a long, wispy mane resembling a starry sky. Then the rest of the light faded to reveal a dark blue torso with faint a faint red glow in the middle and tiny, blue dots. Almost like a miniature solar system. It had a small tail that, like its mane, ended in a wispy star cloud.

Yuna stared at her reflection in the weird, yellow wheel around the hatchling's torso. It didn't take long, however, for the hatchling to open its blue and yellow eyes on its black, mouthless face.

"Hi, Mom!" he chirped. His star cloud tail wagged.

"M-Mom?!" Yuna's arms trembled. "N-No, I think you're mistaken."

"You hatched me, though." The cosmic… pontya-like thingy tilted his head. "So, you're my mom!" He wagged his tail his tail again. How was a literal newborn so articulate? "Do I get a name? Huh? Huh? Huh? Do I?"

"Uh… uhhhhh…" Yuna looked at the others, but they were equally confused. Except Gene, who turned away from them.

"Wait, hang on! Something came to me." Despite not having a mouth, his sparkling eyes gave off a joy Yuna could barely describe.

"And that is?"

"Leo! Call me Leo!"

Yuna's head pounded. She opened her mouth to respond, but her vision went fuzzy and, next thing she knew, she was out like a light.

XxX

~Il Paradigma, Canto I: Exodes~
The Matriarch brought forth the Great Union when Space embraced Time and forged the singularity. Though the Union shattered, the Matriarch ensured remnants of that eternal bliss survived as our Benefactor. Now He seeks to restore the Matriarch's Great Union. Only those who fail to grasp His enlightenment would oppose such a glorious vision.
 

Spiteful Murkrow

Early Game Encounter
Alright, and since I'm tired of torturing myself with avoiding spoilers, let's pick up right where things left off last time and see what Yuna's up to with that sweet new bod of hers in…

Chapter 36

The needs of the many. The needs of the few. They matter not before the Benefactor. ~Qliphoth Proverb

Wait a minute. The Qliphoth as a whole has a 'Benefactor'? As in someone that all of the Qliphoth is dependent on?' I... have no idea what on earth could cause that, but guess we're finding out one way or another.

Though I see you've been getting into chapter opening teasers yourself in recent chapters. It's a nice style, really. And a handy opportunity to show off bits and pieces of how your world(s) work that aren't necessarily in scope of the direct events of the chapter.

Yuna was falling.

The barrier was gone. Soft, golden light fizzled out around her. There were no more poisonous tendrils. The aerodactyl voodoo doll was gone, too. Somehow, she had done it, but God was it exhausting.

She was so tired. Yuna didn't think this kind of fatigue was possible for ghost-types. Yet even as damp, musty air rippled through her ectoplasm, all Yuna wanted was to curl up for a nice, long nap.

I take it that Yuna's never gotten her tail kicked in a fight, huh? Since you'd think it wouldn't be that hard for a Ghost-type to feel winded.

Yuna had just enough energy left to hope her crash landing was a soft one before her eyelids fluttered shut.

:fearfullaugh~1:


That sounds like a good reason to call for help from Gallian with your mind slave powers right about now, just saying.

Green fields gave way to rocky crags with small brooks weaving between them. Chiron flapped her wings, frowning. She could sense Lugia nearby. So, the Sage hadn't moved from where Bahamut had detected her.

Lugia ignored his summons. Bahamut was very clear; his summons required prompt response. No Sage could disregard one longer than ten minutes. Lugia had broken that rule. And after she had a string of cancelled sermons in defiance of Bahamut, Chiron could tell his temper was bubbling to the surface. She had suggested he take some time to meditate and leave Lugia to her. But she was quite surprised at how quickly and precisely Bahamut located Lugia.

... Did they have Connection Orbs back then? Otherwise how would one get out a response in that timeframe if one were on like the other side of Etherium?

Also, that gives serious 'Overbearing Boss' vibes for Bahamut there. Since expectation and that reaction doesn't exactly sound healthy there.

Chiron descended further into a brown valley, trying to push that thought aside. The brooks grew larger, joining together and running into a crescent lake. The familiar shape brought a smile to the lunala's face. She hadn't seen this one before. Perhaps Chiron would ask Bahamut about it later.


Aw, how cute. Bahamut lazored a valley into existence in honor of his missus. I mean, he might've caused some mass death in the process, but it's the thought that counts!

Her smile quickly faded when she found Lugia on the lake's eastern bank, lying in the mud with her tail lazily dangling in the water. Dirt and grime caked her once-pristine, white feathers.

Chiron didn't have time to consider a proper greeting because Lugia locked eyes with her. "Come to lecture me? Then go on." Lugia lazily raised her left wing and flicked it, flinging mud into the water with splashes and brown rings. "Tell me I'm a screw up. A freeloader. Or whatever colorful language Bahamut was using back at his base."

Chiron: "Wait, how on earth did you-?"
:fearfullaugh~1:

Jade: "I'm Psychic, just like you, Chiron." >v>;
Chiron: "... Right, that's a thing."

The lunala bit her lip. So, Lugia's strategy was guilt tripping. A firm approach wasn't going to work. Chiron would attempt a soft touch, instead. "He's worried about you." She folded her right wing over her chest. "We're all worried about you. You haven't been yourself lately."

Chiron: "I mean, Bahamut might have been expressing that worry in a very loud and angry manner. But he is worried about you." ^^;

Silence. Then a bitter laugh. Lugia rolled on her back, burying herself deeper in the muck. "Ha! Worried about me? That's a good one." She smacked the muddy ground with her right wing. Chiron drifted back to avoid mud splatter.

Chiron clutched the Soul Dew around her neck with her wing claws. It was one thing for Lugia to play hooky, but it was another to belittle Bahamut and his work. Sure, Chiron had only been here a few months, yet it was long enough to conclude the golden dragon truly cared about the world.

Image


Oh, so Bahamut is Yuna's Seymour, huh? Except she actually loved him once upon a time. At least if Exodes is to be believed about her being one and the same as Chiron.

"That attitude isn't helping your case." The lunala's words were firmer. "We are concerned, because this behavior is… unbecoming of someone in your position."

"My behavior?" Lugia sat up. Chiron had gotten through to her. "That is rich!" She scooped up a ball of mud with her right wing and hurled it at Chiron. Rolling her eyes, Chiron teleported to her right, then watched the mud sail into the lake with a brown splash.

So, Lugia wanted to act like a hatchling? Fine then. Chiron could treat her like one. Her third eye flared to life. A purple glow surrounded a squawking Lugia's wings and pinned them to her side.

Not that Jade isn't being a bit childish here, but you should really get to the bottom of what's eating her, Chiron. Since... yeah, the fact that she brought up 'My behavior' in that fashion implies that she's seen something wrong with Bahamut's.

"You have a responsibility to this planet and its people," Chiron exclaimed. "I may not understand all your customs, but I know you were trained to be better this. Do we not teach commoners to talk out their differences? To use words and not claws and fangs?"

She stared Lugia down. The silence lingered long enough for Chiron to wonder if Lugia was opting for the silent treatment.

Oh, so that's how civilization was born on this world, huh?

"… this isn't what I signed up for." Lugia turned away, plopping her head down in the mud. "It's not fair. We speak of things we're not allowed." She put her left wing on her neck. "I wanted to help people, but as the years go by, it feels less like helping and more like sacrificing my life and my freedom!"

Chiron's third eye faded into her forehead. She folded her wings over her torso, unsure what to even make of that. "Explain."

"What does it matter to you?" Lugia swung her tail back and forth, sloshing around more muck. "Our rules don't apply to you. You didn't even bond with your Soul Dew, did you?"

"I… didn't." Chiron traced her folded wing across the gem. She needed to get Lugia to open up more, but she couldn't tell the truth. None of the Sages could know the lunala had fled Eternatus. It was too dangerous. For her and for them.

Well that's totally a healthy dynamic to have for a religion/philosophical system... not.

"You all… have a long apprenticeship period before you accept Bahamut's light, right?" Chiron tightened her wings around her torso. "It doesn't feel right for me to accept such power after only a few months here."

And there's no telling how his light might react with my Malice.

Why do I get the feeling that we're going to find out how on earth that combination went down at some point in the future and it's going to turn out to be something absolutely horrifying?

Lugia laughed at that, however. "Well, congratu-freaking-lations." She flung more mud with her tail. "Then you're free of his control."

Chiron narrowed her eyes. "Excuse me?"

Lugia sat up. There was a faint rainbow glimmer underneath the layers of mud on her belly. "See this?" She pointed to the glimmer, muck dripping off her outstretched wing digit. "Why do you think you were able to find me so fast? The Soul Dew binds us to Bahamut. So long as I have his light, he'll always know where I am."

:uhhh:


Well, that's not creepy and unsettling at all. Guess Exodes really wasn't wrong about the nature of Yuna's power was.

The lunala's wing claws twitched.

He'll always know where I am.

He'll always know…

Always…

"There's nothing you can hide from me, child."


Chiron squeezed her eyes shut and blinked rapidly. That nagging presence quickly faded from her mind.

I... take it that that last line wasn't from Bahamut there.
:fearfullaugh~1:


"And even if that wasn't the case, Zygarde can keep tabs on everything with that whole 'I can split myself into tiny invisible cells' thing," Lugia continued, thankfully unaware that Chiron had zoned out for a moment.

Oh, so you have a Keeper of Balance in this story too, huh? It'll certainly be interesting to see what s/he's like.

Somehow, Chiron must've opened some sort of floodgate, because Lugia wasn't stopping. "And, y'know, maybe I'd be okay with it… if commoners actually liked what I had to offer. But my sermons have some of the poorest attendance of the Luminous Sages!" She raised her filthy wings and smacked them into the muck. "People just don't get what the Sage of Harmony is. Heck, sometimes I'm not sure what it means."

Are you really surprised that creatures with a fighting nature would find 'Harmony' overrated?
:loltias:


Bits of mud trickled off Lugia's body. Wait, were those tears carrying the mud away?

"I just—" Lugia sniffled loudly. "I gave up my love for this. I gave up the chance for a family for this." She lay back down with an unceremonious splat. "How is it fair that we have to teach about things we're not allowed to have? Especially when Bahamut can have them."

Image


I mean, 'do as I say and not as I do' definitely sounds unhealthy and unsustainable for a belief system / philosophy. Which even before casual RP spoilers elsewhere on the net is more or less a giant klaxon blaring that something is seriously wrong with Bahamut and his entire order in this story.

Chiron relaxed her wings a bit. "Bahamut told me… those things would make it harder to protect the planet." She looked down at her wavy reflection in the lake.

"Didn't your predecessor warn you of this?" "I thought he was overexaggerating!" Lugia threw her wings up and smacked them against her flabby belly. "The rules sounded comically strict. But I guess they don't apply to him, because I've seen the way he looks at you. How you two will sneak off to the mountains in the north or the Armour Archipelago. How you'll cuddle together to the point where you practically melt into one another!"

She pointed her tail at Chiron. "Don't deny it, I've seen it! I didn't even know Bahamut could glow that shade of red!"

I don't see a whole lot that changed between here and the preview version that you shared a while back, but boy is this exchange brutal in context.
:lucrya:


The lunala's forehead and ethereal wings reddened. "I… that's…"

Lugia rolled onto her belly and crawled through the mud. She got up to her wings and knees. "I want what you two have with Cece. I want it so, so badly. You have no idea how touch-starved I'm— waugh!"

She slipped off the bank and into the lake with a large splash. Chiron teleported back several meters, watching with a frown as brown expanded around the splash zone and a wet feather odor permeated the air.

... Chiron, I'm pretty sure that this is your sign to tell your hubby to allow Jade to relinquish her duties and go home. Since this isn't exactly going to result in a healthy working environment for anyone.

Her gut tightened. Chiron had always been under the impression that the Sages loved their jobs. She never thought that any of them might've had regrets. Might have—

"He's unsatisfied, is he? Then you'll dispose of him. Permanently."

... Oh, so that's why Chiron bailed from Eternatus.
:fearfullaugh~1:


Rippling water snapped Chiron back to attention. Lugia surfaced, brown water cascading down her wet, dirty feathers. "Who am I kidding?" She sighed. "Maybe if I beg and plead enough, Bahamut will let me find a replacement."

Chiron drifted down toward her.

"C… Can I ask you something?"

"Whatever."

The lunala flinched. "Who's Cece?"

... Guessing that wasn't something that Jade was supposed to blurt out loud, huh?

Lugia blinked. Her cheeks flushed despite the soggy feathers. "Reshiram. His name was Cecil when he was a commoner. He was a hydreigon and I was a salazzle. My apothecary used the courier group he worked for. I met him when he crashed into my shop and… we fell so hard for each other. Then we both got scouted for Sage apprenticeships."

Oh, so that's who those two used to be, though an Apothecary!Salazzle is at once a casting that is really fitting but non-obvious, since the difference between a medicine and a poison is usually just a matter of dosage. That said, I never pictured Cecil once upon a time taking after the Gates!VoL, but you can't say there's not precedent for that depiction. Though turning a Salazzle into a bird just feels cruel and like it'd be an invitation for things to go horribly wrong due to bodily dysphoria. Should've rolled something like a Wingull for that.

She bit her lip. "I… shouldn't tell you this. But the truth is that… Bahamut wanted us to end our personal relationship." Lugia pushed and pulled the water around her with her wings. "I couldn't stand the thought of it. Neither could Cecil. So, right before our christenings, we eloped."

I'm pretty sure that the humane thing to do in that circumstance would've been to flatly reject the two thanks to conflicts of interest if the job really required 'mons who could make good on a Vow of Celibacy. Like it's better to have tears up front over rejection than... well, this.

Chiron's crescent tail twitched. "Does… does Bahamut know?"

"I'm not sure." Lugia stared at her muddled reflection. "But throughout our time as Sages, we've rarely had the opportunity to work together. Sometimes I wonder if he does know, and is punishing me for it."

Narrator: "He totally knew and was punishing her for it."

Chiron's heart sank. A part of her didn't want to believe it. Bahamut was nothing but patient and caring with her since her crash landing. But the things Lugia said reminded her so much of…

She had to do something. She had to make it right.

"… take a week off." Lugia looked up. "Bwuh?"

"Take a week off… to be with Reshiram," Chiron repeated, firmer this time. "I know a nice private grotto by the Crownelands' southeast coast."

... Not that this isn't cute and touching right now, but Chiron, what are you doing?

Lugia still looked unconvinced. "You really think Bahamut will let that fly?"

"Leave him to me." The lunala winked at Lugia. "If he looks at me the way you think he does, he'll come around."

:sceptical~1:


More silence. Then, Lugia shot out of the water faster than Chiron thought possible for a massive bird. This time, there was no escaping a surprise shower… or the wet, slimy hug that followed.

"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!" Lugia buried her head in the crook of Chiron's neck. "I'll make it up to you, I swear!"

"You can… start by… not squeezing… so tight," Chiron wheezed.

The moment Lugia released her, everything went white.

D'aww... I mean, sure you were breaking the rules of your faith left and right right there and teeing up massive issues with "Why does Jade get a pass from the rules but not me?" from the ranks, but it's still cute.

It was times like these that made Chiron wish her wing structure was more flexible like Lugia's. The best she could do while seated in the special chair that Bahamut had carved for her was rigidly have her wings pointed in front of her, so she could gingerly hold the tiny, sleeping star cloud in her claws.

Motherhood. Chiron still found it so surreal because it shouldn't have been possible. Neither she nor Bahamut were meant to procreate. And yet, here she was. With this little bundle of joy that could teleport around and "Pew!" his delight at everyone's confusion.

Oh, so that egg is a Cosmog. Wonder if Junior is someone that Yuna can summon in the present day.

"So, you got a name for the tyke yet or what?"

Chiron looked up from her son. Lugia sat opposite her on an absurdly large recliner, tossing a green grape into her open mouth.

"We do, actually." Chiron smiled warmly. "Leo."

Well, that's certainly on-the-nose for a name there. Though I see that you're going with the anime's gender map for that species.
:hoodLUL:


Lugia paused in the midst of pulling a grape out of the ceramic bowl in her lap. "Leo?" She blinked. "Huh. I was expecting something more… mystical."

The lunala giggled. "Leo is a constellation of stars from the Milky Way. It was Bahamut's favorite constellation when he lived on Earth." She lifted her head a bit higher to look at the doorway behind Lugia, which was filled with golden light. "Isn't that right, dear?"

Also it means "lion" and Leo there would've become a lion had he developed normally, so...

Rainbow, pupilless eyes looked back at her. "You told me that, in time, he would turn into something resembling a pyroar. And Leo was named for a mythical creature that resembled a pyroar. It seemed logical to me."

Chiron resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Of course he'd brush that off. Heaven forbid Bahamut admit he liked anything about Earth.

Oh, just spelling it out in the open there. Though, yeah. Helps if you have plausible deniability behind your naming choices that happen to align with your feelings of your once-home that you're in denial about.

"Fair enough." Lugia resumed tossing grapes into her mouth. "So, why'd you call me here?"

"I have a request for you." Chiron leaned over and nuzzled Leo, who cooed happily in his sleep. "We would like you and Reshiram to be Leo's aunt and uncle, in a manner of speaking. Help us raise him and, if something were to happen to both of us, parent him in our stead."

Well, I suppose that explains the egg with Jade there last chapter.

Lugia's eyes widened. She misjudged the arc of her grape toss and it bounced off the tip of her snout. A psychic force caught the grape before it could hit the floor, then threw it out an open window.

"I just cleaned these floors," Bahamut growled. The light behind Lugia rippled.

"S-Sorry." Lugia grinned sheepishly. "But, like, are you sure about that? I mean—"

"… tch. You're the one who bemoaned your inability to have a family," Bahamut cut in. The gold light in the doorway dimmed. "Consider it a… concession, on my part."

... Oh, so Chiron did sweettalk Bahamut into cutting Jade a break. Color me impressed there.

Chiron frowned at him. They had discussed how they were going to explain things, but Bahamut decided to go off script. "What he means to say is that you're my friend, Lugia. I know how much family means to you, so I want you to be part of Leo's life."

In a blink of light, Bahamut was at Lugia's side. She almost tossed the bowl of grapes up in surprise when his gold light spilled over her. "But make no mistake. Your responsibilities as Sage of Harmony still come first." He pointed his right upper wing at her. "We are trusting you because we believe in you. Understand?"

Chiron: "Dear, we talked about this." >_>;
Bahamut: "Look, as long as she wields my power, I'm allowed to set some ground rules, alright?" >:|

"Y-Yessir!" Lugia saluted with her right wing. "I'll be the best, least-embarrassing fake aunt in the world."

While Chiron giggled again, a groaning Bahamut smacked his face with an upper wing. His golden glow brightened even further, and everything faded to white.

... Auspicious start there. :V

"Oh, my aching head."

Yuna's vision came back to her quicker than her previous dreams. Though she wanted to fester over why she saw two this time, the soft feathers and scales brushing against her ectoplasm calmed her nerves.

What had she been doing again?

… Oh, right. Qliphoth. Poison swamp. Reshiram flying off the handle because his wife, Lugia, was trapped in some daemonic barrier with an egg. Then she freed Lugia.

Yuna: "... Wait a minute, feathers and scales. But if I awoke Lugia-" .-.
Jade: "Multiscale is a thing. But... yeah, just take a look for yourself."

Hadn't she been falling?

Whatever. Yuna was comfy now. And less tired. That was all that mattered.

Maybe five more minutes with this feather blanket…

Jade: "You know, if you would just open your eyes for five seconds-" >v>;
Yuna: "Nrgh... I meant it about the five more minutes..."

When Yuna blinked the last stars from her vision, however, she found herself clutching the egg Lugia previously held and staring at a blue belly with pink flame patterns that immediately brought salazzle to mind.

But salazzle don't have feathers.

Then Lugia's head popped in, only there were flame marks on the blue spikes that were supposed to surround her eyes.

Jade: "See, told ya."

"Hello!" she chirped.

"AAAAAAAAAH!"

"AAAAAAAAAH!" Lugia tossed Yuna into the air and flared out her wings. "Why are we yelling?! Is that how this planet thanks people who save its inhabitants from plummeting out of the sky?"

I see that Yuna does not take well to seeing fusions in the flesh.

Yuna steadied herself in midair, making sure she held onto the egg, and looked in abject horror at the scaly flaps fluttering on either side of Lugia's tail.

This was wrong. Very, very wrong. And yet, Lugia seemed blissfully unaware, tilting her head at Yuna. "Although, I guess you broke me out of that crazy nightmare I was in." She gave a thumbs up. "So, I suppose we're even, Drakloak."

"But I— wait, drakloak?!" Yuna looked around in a panic. She soon found her elongated tail and two nubby feet that hadn't been there before. "Ohmygod I'm a drakloak!" Yuna pressed her hands — there were little ridges in her ectoplasm denoting the beginnings of fingers — firmly against the egg. "When? How? Why?"

Jade: "... Shouldn't you be over the moon that you have more options for attacking than being someone else's living missile right about now?"
:what:

Yuna: "Not like this!" O.O

"Thine efforts in dispelling that foul barrier did the trick, Princess."

Rayquaza drifted down to Yuna's side, applauding with his tiny hands. Lugia looked at him, eyes sparkling. "Oh, wow! A chocolate noodle! And it talks!" Her tail wagged. "Is this a chocolate planet? Can I eat the ground?" She bent over and sniffed the mud, only to recoil. "Nope. Definitely not chocolate. Bummer."

... Yup, this definitely feels like Cecil's wife.
:LULgia:



Yuna's shoulders sagged, though she remained vigilant of the egg. I think I see how she and Reshiram fell for each other.

I see that the text concurs with me. :V

Yet the way Lugia acted was… quite different from the visions Yuna had. And Lugia still hadn't acknowledged her salazzle features.

"Wha—" Rayquaza flinched. "Dame Lugia, dost thou not remember thine comrade at arms? I'm Sir Rayquaza!"

Yuna: "... Rayquaza?! How are you just okay with this?!"
:grohno~1:


"Lugia? Rayquaza?" She frowned. "I think you're mistaken, choco-noodle." Lugia pointed her right wing at Rayquaza. "Rayquaza's green and I only just got scouted to apprentice Lugia. The name's Jade and I… I…" Her eyes slowly widened.

Yuna's shoulders sagged further. She'd seen this routine before. Cue the freakout in three… two… one…

Jade flailed her wings about. "Why do I have wings?! Salazzle don't have wings!" She ran— well, waddled awkwardly back and forth in a panic. "And why are they white? What happened to my gray sca— ack!"

... Didn't see that one coming. Though can't tell if that's a side effect of the Qliphoth such that Jade has memory loss or if that's from Exodes' tampering.

She slipped on a patch of mud and faceplanted into the muck. Jade quickly lifted herself up and looked at her muddy wing, blinking rapidly. "Well, that's a slight improvement. But I can't take mud baths forever! It'll ruin my complexion!"

All Yuna could do was stare at the… lugia? Salazzle?

"Salugia?"

Reshiram!
Yuna winced. This entire time, she'd forgotten about him. He wasn't even lurking in her mind. Though once Yuna recalled what had happened before the barrier went down, a mixture of guilt and trepidation crept through her.

Cecil: "Also 'Ennugia', 'Malamangia', and 'Amfgia'-"
Yuna: "Reshiram! Knock it off already!" >.<

Still, she was his wife. Maybe he could help?

Sighing, Yuna recalled Rayquaza and summoned Reshiram. He stood opposite the muddy salugia, poking his claws together.

"Jady?" he whispered.

There was a glimmer of recognition in Jade's yellow eyes. "C… Cece? Is that… you?"

Reshiram slowly nodded. "I go by Reshiram now, but yeah." He slowly smiled. "It's me."

... Not sure how Jade is going to react to that last line there, but guess we'll find out really, really fast.

They stood staring silently for a moment. Then Jade flung herself at Reshiram, wrapping her wings around his torso and burying her face in his chest ruff. "Oh em gee, look how big and fluffy you are!" She rubbed her face while Reshiram raised his wings, face and tail engine turning deep red.

"J… Jady?" His eyes darted around in a panic.

"Ah, if I died and wound up in marshmallow hell, then I accept my fate!" she chirped.

Yup, that is definitely Cecil's wife there. :V

"Hang on." Reshiram squirmed a bit. "Ma… ybe we oughta… have a chat first?"

Yuna was conflicted whether to intervene or not. It sounded like Jade didn't have her memories of her time as Lugia which, if true, would make explaining things much harder.

... Considering how Jade's time as a sage went, I'm not sure her having her memories would be easier here.
:fearfullaugh~1:


She was about to fly down when she caught a glimpse of a silver streak. Then she heard hollers in the distance. Yuna saw Nikki hightailing it away from the capsized ship with Artemis in hot pursuit. A silver geyser had erupted from atop the ship, splattering silver fluid everywhere.

"Princess, look! The poison in the swamp is disappearing!"

Yuna glanced behind her, trying to ignore Jade somehow overpowering Reshiram and belly flopping into the mud with him. The glowing purple fluid in the swamp dissolved away, leaving dark green water. Pink lily pads and gray reeds popped out of the water as if the poison was smothering them. It still stunk, but it was closer to mildew than rotten eggs.

Huh. So Polaris' antivenom actually did work there. I'll be.

Unfortunately, it wasn't just the poisonous veil that lifted. Dozens of pained cries rang out in unison. Yuna's tail crinkled. She tightened her grip on the egg.

Ah… the skorps! The drakloak looked around and found their burnt, mangled bodies in a cluster by a small hole in the ground. Probably the spot where the broken Needle was.

Cecil: "... Uh... right, they're a thing and didn't go anywhere."
:uhhh:

Jade: "... Cece, why are you looking like that right now?" .^.

"Well, erm, if thous art screaming, then thous art not Phantoms. Tis a good thing, yes?" Rayquaza laughed nervously.

Except I have no way of healing them! Yuna countered.

Cecil: "I'm... just gonna take my leave and go on a nice flight far, far away from the mutant Skorupi wailing in pain right about now-"
:fearfullaugh~1:


And Yuna wasn't the only one aware of the skorps' cries. A thunderous bang sounded by the silver geyser. Within a matter of seconds, a large pink sphere surged toward her, until it slammed into the ground right by Jade and Reshiram. The force sent both tumbling through the mud and into the swamp behind them.

The pink sphere faded to a more modest glow, revealing Gene. Gone was his usual, lackadaisical smirk. In its place was an intense glare with eyes that were blue and hollow. The Malice Crystal in his shoulder crackled with black electricity.

He turned and took one look at the skorps. "Who did this?"

Yuna + Cecil: "..."
:uhhh:

Jade: "Okay, seriously, Cece. What is going on right now?" OvO;

Yuna's ectoplasm quivered. His voice had dropped several octaves to a chilling baritone. The sort of guttural growl Yuna might expect from an enraged salamence.

Gene raised his right hand. All three fingers crackled with dark energy. "Who did this?"

Yuna: "... Boy what I'd give for Noctum to show up with that freaky warping ability he has right about now."
:ScaredCabot:


Yuna almost lost her grip on the egg, but curled her tail around it. "Reshiram! I'm sorry, I couldn't control him! His wife was hurt and—"

"Silence," Gene hissed. Yuna squeaked. The mewtwo lowered his arm and turned to the skorps. He raised both arms, then shot out short bursts of soft, pink light. They washed over the skorps, taking their burns with them.

"Heal Pulse?" Rayquaza gasped. "This entire time, he's known Heal Pulse?"

Maternal instincts in action there, I see. And yeah, chalk this up as another notch that makes me
:absus:
at Gene, since... yeah, not a fan of how he seemingly jerks around everyone he comes into contact with about who he is, what his goals are, and the like.

Gene lowered his arms, then Phantom Warped past Yuna. He thrust his right arm into the air. The swamp water rippled and out popped a soggy Reshiram with a pink glow around him.

"How dare you," Gene snarled. "They were innocents. You had no right to attack them."

Reshiram went bug-eyed. "Wait! Th… this is all a misunderstanding! Please, I—"

Cecil: "Boy would now be a good time to be a Hydreiram..."
:eltyscared:

Gene: "I know Aura Sphere, you worthless waste of air!"
:seviAAAAAAAAAAA:

Cecil: "... Okay, never mind. I was just screwed no matter what. Uh... Y-Yuna? That Soul Dew would work on me getting me out of here right about now r-right?"
:uhhh:


Dark energy crackled around Gene's left arm. It was time for Yuna to take action. She darted toward the mewtwo. "Hang on! We need to talk this out before anyone does anything else rash!"

Glare intensifying, Gene raised his left hand. "… weapons don't talk. They act."

Staring down some sort of Malice-induced attack, Yuna held up the egg. Black shadows brushed her arms and tail. "We are not your enemies. Stand down. Now."

I mean, not that what Cecil did last chapter wasn't incredibly messed up, but you'd think that having saved the Skorps from daemonization would be grounds enough to let Yuna just recall him and sort him out on her own later, Gene.

The glow in Gene's eyes faded. There was a flicker of recognition, then he hastily stepped back, lowering both hands. A loud splash drew a flinch from Yuna. She turned around to find Jade climbing into the grass and Reshiram surfacing after a second splashdown. His wet hair obscured his face, but Yuna swore he was trembling.

"Yeah."

Yuna barely heard Gene's whispers. She looked back at the mewtwo, who crossed his arms tight. His black, yellow-tipped tail lashed at the air. "I guess… there's a lot to talk about." Gene blinked slowly. "In more ways than one."
Cecil: "N-No there's not! We were just leaving right now-!" O_O;
Gene: "Nice try, buddy. But if you're expecting us to share screentime in the future, you're definitely not just gonna sweep that one under the rug!" >:|
Yuna: "Uh, yeah, honestly that was really, really messed up, Reshiram." >_>;
Cecil: "... C-Can't we not do this in front of my wife? P-Please?"
:uhhh:


He turned away from her just as Noctum dropped off Quetzal a few meters away. Seifer, Nikki, Valkyrie, and Artemis weren't far behind him.

"Oh, thank goodness!" Skorp hopped off Noctum's back and skittered toward the other skorps. "You're all okay, eh! You had me worried plum sick!"

"Princess!" Noctum's violet flame grew, then shrank. He was covered in silver fluid from head to toe. "Are you okay? What's with the egg?" He shook his head. "No, wait, dumb questions. Look at you!" He thrust his arms apart. "Congratulations!"

Nikki lacked Noctum's enthusiasm. "That's your evolution?" She tried forming a square with her hands. "Dunno what's up with the spacy egg, but I could eat a fancy dinner with a side salad off that block you call a head!"

Yuna: "... Can we kick her back to Vegna right about now? I don't need to deal with this." >_>;

"Hey, come on, show her some respect." Artemis jabbed Nikki's side with a ribbon. "Those spikes on your head look like PV antennae, but you don't see me teasing you over it."

Nikki scowled. "Well, they're cool antennae," she grumbled.

Artie in for the save there.

Yuna ignored Nikki. Though as much as drakloak wanted to accept Noctum's hug offer, she took one look at his soggy apron and frowned. "What happened to you?"

"Oh, this? It's okay." Noctum waved her off. "We were under attack from a mutated garbodor, but Gene blew the top off the ship and tossed Exodes into a vat of antitoxin."

"Which blew her up along with the tank," Seifer grumbled, trying to shake the silver out of his sopping hair. "Garbodor turned back to normal."

On one level, I get that you've kinda gotten burnt out on battle sequences, but this really would've been something that would've been nice to see in at least a couple of short cuts showing at least snippets of this happening.

Oh well, authorial fiat and all that.

"So did the swamps." Valkyrie scanned the water surrounding the island. "Somehow."

"Yeah, sure. Just look at me!" Seifer lowered his head. "I've never been so humiliated."

Valkyrie: "Are you seriously comparing this unfavorably to how you came into the Qliphoth and promptly got your horn messed up?" >:|
Seifer: "Look, at least I wasn't covered in this nasty goop for that!" >.<

"Really?" Gene spun around, a brow raised. "You'd think losing your cushy military job is way more humiliating than a little antitoxin bath."

Quetzal puffed out his feathers. "What?" He whirled on Seifer. "Her Eminence fired you?!"

Utter horror spread across Seifer's face. "I, uh—"

Gene does this on purpose, doesn't he?

"Oh." Gene scratched his head. "You didn't tell him? Whoopsie-doopsie. I thought everyone here knew already." He laughed nervously.

Valkyrie glared at Gene. "Seriously? How callous can you be?"

Are you seriously asking that when this is the same 'mon actively blackmailing you right now?
:joltyshrug~1:


"Doth we tell her about the outburst we just witnessed?" Rayquaza whispered. "Tis worrying how quickly he snapped back to his joking self."

No.
Yuna already had enough of a headache. Plus there was something… alarming about how the mewtwo reacted to the brief flare up of her weird shadowy powers. Or was it the egg's doing?

... Wait a minute, so that weapon comment earlier was directed at Yuna? I mean, it would be fitting from a FF perspective considering how the term 'Chiron' is used in that series, but I didn't pick up on that until just now.

"Well, aha ha, how about this, gang?" Gene wrang his hands together. "We get all the skorps and trapped crew members squared away, then we can have us a big ol' team talky fun time." The big smile on his face was anything but sincere. "I'll make us a campfire… oh! And we can have s'mores!"

I do not trust this 'mon. I am not convinced at all that's how he truly feels at the moment after he was like 10 seconds away from brutally murdering Cecil like two minutes ago.
:absus:


"S'mores!" Jade hopped in front of Gene. "Where do I sign? I'll take ten! No, twenty! No, thirty!"

"Whoa, whoa, time out." Nikki held her hands up in a T. "Who's the oversized pelipper with the bad salazzle costume?"

"Hey!" Reshiram snorted out dragonfire. "That's my wife you're talking about!"

Yuna: "Reshiram, I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to say that out loud." >.<

Whistling, the toxtricity looked back and forth between Jade and Reshiram. "Damn, dude. What's your secret? Cuz she's way outside your league if you ask me!"

Reshiram's response was a cross between a squeal and a balloon forcibly deflating.

I'd say "be tough and imposing when you're first dating", but I'm not convinced that Cecil wasn't also a giant dork as a Hydreigon back in the day.

Yuna groaned. "Look, can we just do what Gene says for now? I'm tired. I want out of this swamp. And standing around taking pot-shots isn't going to…" Her voice trailed off upon realizing half the group wasn't listening to her. "Seriously, guys?!"

Noctum's face was ripe with worry. Yuna didn't have to ask what the problem was, because the black charizard spoke up first.

"Your egg's hatching."

Yuna: "W-Wait, what?!" O_O;

"Bwuh?" Yuna blinked a few times. No, the drakloak hadn't misheard that. Noctum called it her egg. "No, no. You've got it all wrong. This is Lugia's—"

The salugia raised her right wing.

"Jade." Yuna rolled her eyes. "Okay, fine, this is Jade's egg. She was holding it while she was trapped in the barrier!"

Noctum: "But Princess Yuna, you were literally curled up on it and-"
Yuna: "That doesn't mean anything, okay?!" >_>;

"I was?" Jade pointed at her face. "Huh. Maybe that's why it showed up in my nightmare." She tapped her tail against her right hip repeatedly. "No idea what its deal is, though. Besides, it's clearly reacting to you, not me. Look at it glowing all white like my beau's new, fuzzy pelt!"

Reshiram squeaked again while white light crept into Yuna's vision. A white glow had, indeed, swallowed up the egg… and was creeping up Yuna's arms. Out of an abundance of caution, the drakloak set the egg down on the grass.

Four small, gold-tipped, dark blue hooves emerged from the light. The deep blue spread upward to a slender neck, then a head with a long, wispy mane resembling a starry sky. Then the rest of the light faded to reveal a dark blue torso with faint a faint red glow in the middle and tiny, blue dots. Almost like a miniature solar system. It had a small tail that, like its mane, ended in a wispy star cloud.

... Wait, what on earth am I looking at here? Since I'm pretty sure that this isn't a canonical 'mon design.

Yuna stared at her reflection in the weird, yellow wheel around the hatchling's torso. It didn't take long, however, for the hatchling to open its blue and yellow eyes on its black, mouthless face.

"Hi, Mom!" he chirped. His star cloud tail wagged.

"M-Mom?!" Yuna's arms trembled. "N-No, I think you're mistaken."

"You hatched me, though." The cosmic… pontya-like thingy tilted his head. "So, you're my mom!" He wagged his tail his tail again. How was a literal newborn so articulate? "Do I get a name? Huh? Huh? Huh? Do I?"

... At first I thought this was that Rapidash fusion you commissioned, but I the color scheme is all wrong. This is certainly new.

And thus Path of Valor became a story all about teenage parenthood.

"Uh… uhhhhh…" Yuna looked at the others, but they were equally confused. Except Gene, who turned away from them.

"Wait, hang on! Something came to me." Despite not having a mouth, his sparkling eyes gave off a joy Yuna could barely describe.

"And that is?"

"Leo! Call me Leo!"

Image


I mean, I figured from the color scheme, but I have so many questions as to how on earth he became... this. Unless if this is what Leo was originally made from as a host in the same way that Jade was fashioned from a Salazzle.

Yuna's head pounded. She opened her mouth to respond, but her vision went fuzzy and, next thing she knew, she was out like a light.

Yuna: "..." X_X
Leo: "... Uh...? Mom? Are you okay?" .-.

~Il Paradigma, Canto I: Exodes~
The Matriarch brought forth the Great Union when Space embraced Time and forged the singularity. Though the Union shattered, the Matriarch ensured remnants of that eternal bliss survived as our Benefactor. Now He seeks to restore the Matriarch's Great Union. Only those who fail to grasp His enlightenment would oppose such a glorious vision.

>Great Union of space and time
>that one trippy vision scene in the Ahsen sequence had the timespace dragons and Lake Fairies gathered trapped by a Red Chain
>... as a Giratina descended on them
>Yuna has been very consistently wielding Giratina's powers

... I might be going crazy, but is Yuna the Matriarch? The same one who's being spoken of there in that entry? I mean, I don't know how I'd reconcile it with being Chiron and her present status, but... .-.

Also:
>opens the Leo artwork on the TR version of this chapter

... Okay, that helps a lot for visualizing him. I... didn't pick up on the Arceus features at all from the description. I blame it on missing the mention of the wheel at first.

Alright, trying to organize my thoughts for the postmortem since my head is still spinning:

I had quite a bit of fun with the chapter, it's nice to have another Sage added to the roster, Yuna getting to celebrate Mother's Day in a certain manner of speaking, and it felt that we learned a lot about the characters this chapter. Some of it cute, some of it really, really concerning. And I'm still trying to wrap my head full around some of the implications of what just got dropped this chapter at the moment. One thing's for sure, no matter what becomes of Venish, things really aren't going back to the way they are after this. It's literally impossible from multiple definitions of the term.

As for things that I was less a fan of. I know you've nailed your colors to the mast for short chapters with a cut-down amount of battle sequences, though the way that Exodes was handled honestly did smack to me of being a bit anticlimactic when something as simple as as a couple short cuts doing things like showing Exodes catching up and then a couple blows being traded before dealing with her feels like it would've been a bit more exciting to see while what we got was very "tell and not show". But eh, you've made your feelings clear on that front, so I won't harp on too much about it.

Though all-in-all, I really enjoyed this chapter @Ambyssin , and I'm eagerly awaiting the mess that awaits the gang back in Venish. Since from what you've shown off in teasers, the gang isn't out of the woods yet by a long shot.

Cheers, and see you again in a couple weeks. ^^
 
Top