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SparklingEspeon

Insquisitabilitating
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
espurr
~Review of Chapters 1 – 8~

Why hello there

I’m here for the Blec Review Awards, and originally wanted to make this on the 31st, but that didn’t happen so this is a few days late. Sorry :unownf:

I know you’ve been working on this for a while, and now that it has enough chapters for me to get a good grip on everything happening I think I have a good idea of what this fic’s all about! Which starts with all the Final Fantasy references, because there’s a lot.

I think it mostly comes down to names—Yuna, Cid, Seifer, and Bahamut are all FF characters/running names, and I’m iffy on whether Noctum is a port of Noctis or if he’s just that way because his scales are black. And also the legendary birds are named after Guardian Summons. Some components of the plot may also be FF references—You are probably never going to convince me that Horizon Academy bears no relation to Balamb Garden, and I’m pretty sure Polaris/Ether can be equated to Shinra Corp and Mako (Or maybe that globe city thing from FFXIII?). The Aeons could also be an Al Bhed parallel, although that one I’m kind of iffy on. I’m also interested to see if you’ll be borrowing any components from the FF plots to make up this one – does Horizon Academy have a built in defense system like Balamb Garden? The Phantom has clear ties to the Ether—maybe his backstory is similar to, say, Sephiroth’s? I’m like 90% sure those legendary birds the Phantom took over are going to be used like the guardian summons they’re named after later on—will we see something similar from Yuna’s side of the equation, especially considering the character she’s named after?

Also, Nickit Carpaccio and Greedent could have been Biggs and Wench. Big missed opportunity tbh

But past all the obvious references and the fact that Vegna’s class is clearly taken straight from Ace Attorney, the real vibes I get from Path of Valor are Harry Potter. More specifically the Goblet of Fire—rising darkness in the background, foreign transfer students arriving at a magical academy, and a school-wide tournament are all components that this fic and that book share, and IMO the tone’s a bit more on par with GoF than it is with FF… if you ignore that it’s clearly high fantasy with fictional creatures in a world where this is the norm, but the vibe isn’t really FF to me is my point. Probably didn’t help matters that when we got to the opening event of the Crowne Cup, it was a maze just like the finale of the Triwzard Tournament. Granted, a much less eldritch maze, but even so

But tbh I think the Hogwarts vibe really works for Horizon Academy. I’d like to see all the ways a pokemon-run magic academy would differ from ours—more creative classes like Vegna’s, more petty dragon VS fairies rivalry, more interactions with other students like Yuna and Shimmer, etc. I’d also be interested in seeing more named students. Even if they’re one-note and don’t really do much outside of exist (like the ones in Harry Potter), it’d go a long way in making the academy seem lived in. Since right now what we have is pretty much Yuna, Chiaki, and Nikki VS Shimmer, Xander, and that other flunky I can’t remember the name of now. We need set extras!

If there was one thing I had to ding Path of Valor for, it’s that I’m very much more interested in one plot than I am the other. It’s like reading two separate books: On one side we have this small school drama thing where it’s Dragons VS Fairies and the stakes are winning or losing a sports competition, and on the other hand we have this epic plot with distortions, ether, political unrest in the Fairy parliament, and a mysterious Phantom wreaking havoc on the borders of both kingdoms. The school plot is mostly what I’m here for—Partly because it’s the A plot, but also because it has all the interesting characters and a conflict that I can attach to. Yuna is a fish (dragon?) out of water in a place she isn’t wanted, and there are kinds of personalities around to coax out the conflict surrounding that, as well as worldbuilding tidbits and plain fun scenes. The phantom plot is filled with assholes like Seifer, mysterious enigmas like Chancellor Vortex, and the Phantom and his flunkies haven’t done enough here for me to take an interest in his apparent villainy yet. It also clashes a bit in that we can jump from Noctum and Baraz being discriminated against and then having to fight off a distortion monster to Yuna and Shimmer being paired together for a cartoony ace-attorney class assignment. That’s not to say that they’re completely distilled, though—there’s very clearly larger darkness floating around in the schoolyard plot, and everything that’s going on in the Phantom plot is directly related to Horizon Academy, so it’s clear that you’re planning to merge the two soon. I just think that they should be blended together a bit more smoothly going forward/merge somewhat soon.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t address the Crowne Cup! To be completely honest, for something that’s been built up as a big thing, I felt like the first event came pretty quickly and then was a bit of a letdown. I’m also not really clear on the details—how many events are there going to be? How many teams are there competing? I do hope it’s not completely out of the picture or regulated to the background, even if Yuna’s team was disqualified from the first event. Probably going a bit overboard with the HP comparisons here, but I’d like to see more exotic events with big buildup over the course of the cup’s duration, like the Triwizard Tournament had. Not to mention that these are pokemon we’re talking here, not boring old humans—IMO you should throw the most exotic/far out there stuff you have for future events. Take us on field trips to locations outside Horizon Academy, rearrange the school for challenges, maybe even try more unique challenges like an art/song/dance competition or a battle royale! Even if it looks like the Crowne Cup is a front for the real plot, I’d be disappointed if it fell to the wayside or went on in the background.

Wow, looks like Shimmer isn’t nearly as nice as his stage name suggests… I have no doubt he’s cheating tbh; it fits with his lackadaisical personality and would explain both why he didn’t know about the badge and why he’s so confident about winning the trial in a week. However, he does seem to know some stuff about the court, so I feel like ‘he’s a dirty cheat’ isn’t all there is to it.

Also, what is it with this fic and nasty horses? First Seifer, and now Shimmer…

Not sure what’s up with Dermerzel, tbh. He’s portrayed as Definitely The Villain and cunning in the prologue, and even though he’s perfectly kind here and the only one to treat Noctum and Baraz with any kind of respect when they meet I still get the impression that he’s not entirely what he appears—especially since he chose to read Vortex’s mind when they conversed. That tells me that at the very least, he doesn’t trust Vortex. Which doesn’t say too much to his allegiance, considering that Vortex is pretty darn shady and also a posh douche, but clearly he’s not patriotic to Horizon, even if he holds a top position there.

One of the clear themes here is discrimination, and we see it here with no punches pulled—on a schoolyard level, with Yuna and all her non-fairy students characterized as weak, villainous, and a bother to keep around, and on a background level with it being shown that the Aeons were driven into the mountains and don’t have access to the advanced Ether tech that the Horizon inhabitants do, and on a serious level with Noctum and Baraz being thrown around like they’re worthless and the overall elitist attitude of the fairies. Looking at it, pretty much every non-fairy in this fic is either cast in an unglamourous light or in a servant’s position (except for Seifer, but I guess he has exempt status or something?) Chiaki and the Radiant Beacon are unpopular and likely have assassins or hoodlums on their tail, Nikki is seen as the resident trouble student, Carpaccio and Greedent are beggars who turned to thieving and are trying to look cool (if the Phantom is to be believed), and anyone from Aeon is immediately hated. Meanwhile the fairies kind of just get free rides everywhere—as shown by Shimmer apparently cheating and getting away with it. I think it illustrates what societal discrimination looks like pretty well, and does an even better job of putting us in the shoes of those being discriminated against—what Yuna goes through isn’t necessarily pleasant, but watching Noctum and Baraz get shoved around and treated like trash breaks my heart ;-;

I also wonder what was going on with the song that made Yuna spazz out—I’m going to assume that had something to do with the Ether? Either that, or receiving a vision of Bahamut, which I could see, but I don’t get how a song composed by a nation that is actively Anti-Bahamut would trigger that. And speaking of visions, not sure what the five-headed dragon in Phantom’s visions is—outside of it presumably being "Natus", the only multi-headed dragon/dragon-like pokemon I can think of is Hydreigon, and that’s only got three heads. Also, no clue what's up with that weird pokemon that I'm pretty sure is either Null or Silvally at this point.

As for the characters… The kids/teens I don’t have much to say about currently. The ones I’m most interested in are Yuna and Shimmer, and seeing how they’ll work together, but it would be cool if Chiaki and Nikki stuck around and took a Ron + Hermione position to Yuna. Yuna herself reminds me a lot of Harry Potter—there’s not too much there right now, but that’s okay because she’s out of her element and she’ll grow and learn as we do. Shimmer gives me Malfoy vibes, all the way down to the rich backing, the snobbish attitude, and that he seems to have his own personal Crabbe and Goyle following him around, although I hope he’s a bit less villainous than Malfoy turned out to be. I think the HP comparisons end with the students, though—Chancellor Vortex is no Dumbledore and Prof Vegna has a shady backstory but isn’t mean enough to be Snape. I guess Cid is comparable to Flitwick? Kinda? IDK tbh

Wonder what Nikki’s hiding, especially since she has those one-of-a-kind goggles and is here on a government official’s payroll >.> Must be something big, since I don’t think she’s the bratty type to be a trouble student at an academy few get the privilege to attend for no reason.

Great, so the trespasser what a nutjob.
This didn't quite make sense to me?

"Oh no." Yuna's neck and chest constricted. Of course she'd get paired with that girl. At this point, Bahamut was probably rolling around the skies, roaring with laughter.
If this is the same Bahamut as the one in BLC, I’d imagine his last reaction would be to laugh :V

Grovyle groaned. "Lemme guess… nobody ever told you how the Crown Cup works."
Pretty sure this is supposed to be “Crowne Cup”

Overall, this is a really well-written and entertaining romp so far! It drew me in pretty quickly and I never really felt too confused even though there’s a thousand things flying around at any given time. I also really like the dark Harry Potter vibe this fic has going, along with an in-depth look at how those that are perceived as “lesser” for whatever reason are treated. I’m looking forward to watching Yuna and co. grow as the fic progresses, and seeing what the Crowne Cup has to offer—as well as seeing more Horizon curriculum, which—if Vegna is anything to go by—is actually pretty hands-on and cool, and eventually finding out what the Phantom’s all about when he finally makes a move and reveals more about himself.

Thanks for the read, and I can tell you’re putting a lot of effort into this!

~SparklingEspeon

Listening to: JoJo
 

zion of arcadia

too much of my own quietness is with me
Pronouns
she/her
Partner
marowak-alola
I was hoping to post this on your b-day, but sadly got caught up in holiday shenanigans of my own. Still, happy belated birthday and here’s a toast to the new year.

Noctum and Baraz continue to be best boys. They’re just so sweet and supportive. Noctum being all excited to show Yuna the quiches and sweet roles put a big smile on my face. There’s also this moment of understated privilege where, instead of helping Baraz and Noctum, Yuna helps herself to the food, wandering off to brood over her loner status.

And we meet Chiaki. What an edgelord haha. I like how both him and Nikki lean into the punk aesthetic we see from Team Yell. It does feel superficial however, also similar to Team Yell. How familiar are you with the British punk scene? There’s actually a lot of neat articles out there on it, and the complicated relationship it had with racism, misogyny, xenophobia, facism, etc., etc. But I digress.

Chiaki almost comes across as a mediary presence despite his standoffishness. He bridges the gap between Yuna and Nikki’s very different worlds. Right now he’s shrouded in a lot of mystery, but I enjoy how each chapter peels back a layer. This is jumping ahead a little, but in many ways he reminds me of a less nefarious Demerzel. Chiaki definitely seems privy to secrets that’ll feed more into the Phantom side of the plot.

Okay, technically she was spineless, but it was a metaphor.
I do find these little asides a touch cheesy at times. And this was one such example. I mean I get it, you want to highlight biological differences among species, but it’s a bit too knowing of a wink at the audience, if that makes sense. It pulls me out of the narrative.

Something I noticed on re-read that I appreciate somewhat is how Vortex puts a lot of effort into turning the Crowne Cup into a spectacle, and then the narrative continuously finds ways to undercut and even ridicule the spectacle of it all. Like the scene where teams are revealed, for example: we already know who Yuna is going to be teamed with. We even know who her coach will be, even though Yuna doesn’t.

So it’s like we’re just going through the motions. Arguably that could be considered a negative, but considering the way the next Crowne Cup event is written, part of me wonders if that’s intentional. It feeds into the idea that the Crowne Cup is a bunch of railroaded pomp and circumstance with a predetermined conclusion from the powers-that-be.

It occurred to Yuna that her parents had never brought up the fact that the queens had a son. Then again, neither of the queens had, either. It was odd. Wouldn't they want her to make nice with the future king?
Interesting. I wonder if this is some sort of foreshadowing. Like maybe the queens are ashamed of Shimmer? Or it might just be justification to explain Yuna’s ignorance. Hmmm. Hopefully something more in the vein of the former than the latter, as that would feed into Shimmer’s character (I quite like Shimmer. He’s very unlikable but in a strangely compelling, charismatic manner). Also, given that he’s in Glee club, he would totally be Rachel Berry haha.

I also enjoy how backhanded and passive aggressive his bullying is. The whole introducing Yuna to the crowd and humiliating her, while framing it as an act of generosity, is a great example of this. It again plays into how a lot of Shimmer’s actions have a feminine dynamic to them. Which, considering I’m always fascinated by gender dynamics, is a plus for me. I wonder if that’s specific to Shimmer or something you plan to explore with fairies in general, since most of them are coded feminine.

Path of Valor
Aha. Title drop. Let’s dissect this song and see what we can get from it.

Even the darkest of storms,
Will falter in the face of,
Everlasting hope and valor!"
We start off with a reference to the darkest day, I see. Valor is essentially an act of bravery. It’s interesting, too, that our main protagonist is meek at heart. Reminds me of this GRRM quote: “'Can a man still be brave if he's afraid?' 'That is the only time a man can be brave,'”

The song also touches on themes of working together and uniting to overcome hardship. Given the exaggerated spectacle, the way Yuna reacts (arguably this can be put down to dragon’s being weak to fairies; personally I find that interpretation boring so I’m going to discredit it, at least for now), the generic platitudes, and how Vortex’s speeches about hope are often undercut with cynicism, I have a pet theory: this is a modified version of a different song. It would play into something SWSH emphasized as well, the idea of ‘real’ history/legends being obscured and changed as time passed.

I also liked the contrast as Yuna gets physically ill from Starlene’s song, while everyone grows all the more raucous. It does a great job creating a sense of rising dread, culminating in her vision followed by a fainting spell. The pokemon she sees in her vision has to be rayquaza, right? That’s what makes the most sense for now, anyway.

I wonder if Seifer would’ve been a Glastrier/Spectrier if this had been written after the release of Crown Tundra. I don’t know why but I found that funny. I’ll have to echo some of the complaints others have made, in that Seifer’s segment feels really disconnected from everything happening at Horizon Academy. His section does merge with the Horizon plotline fairly quickly, and I’m sure the foreshadowing will prove important down the line, but still, it feels a little tedious to read through so early on, especially since we have no idea when the payoff will happen.

Xeromus (it is Xeromus, right?) feels very tonally different from his first introduction with Yuna. He straddled this weird line between comic relief and serious threat there, while here he’s entirely serious. I wonder if something happened to him after he vanished, if it’s because he’s being viewed through Seifer’s POV and therefore taken more seriously, or if it’s just slight tonal inconsistency.

The Dyna-Fist felt like it mixed dynamax, max moves, and z-move crystals together. I wonder if Xeromus hatred of ether could be read as a hatred for technology. He wants to go back to a ‘pure’ civilization, although this fails to take into account all the good technology has brought to the world. Oh god, is… is Xeromus an anti-vaxxer? LOL.

Fun chapter! Thanks for sharing! :D
 

Adamhuarts

Mew specialist
Pronouns
He/Him
Partner
mew
So, I just finished reading the 'sixth' chapter of this story and it's been a while since I last read it. The funny thing is that I'd already read like a quarter of this chapter over a month ago, but completely forgot to read the rest of it. With exams on my mind, it's not hard to see why. I've probably forgotten a few plot details at this point and might need to skim through the previous chapters to have a better picture of everything that's going on, but I'll try to give as much feedback as I can about this chapter itself.

To start off, I was surprised we didn't get to see Yuna at all in this chapter, however I think doing this was actually good. It's always refreshing to have different perspectives across chapters in stories to avoid audience fatigue in following the same character's eyes all the time. That being said, I enjoyed seeing more of Noctum and Baraz in this chapter.

The contrast between Noctum and Vortex is further highlighted in this chapter both in terms of their mannerisms and background. Vortex seems to hold an odd pride about his being a Charizard in a different way than Noctum does. We even saw some of that in his comment about how it's unbecoming of a Charizard to fawn over flowers, which is strange because Noctum should have a better idea about the Charizard lifestyle having grown up in what's basically dragonville. However, I think there's more to it than that. I do hope the story eventually sheds some light into Vortex's past as I'm interested in learning more about him.

The reintroducing of Seifer and Demerzel's first appearance was cool to see. I'm not too surprised at all to see a Calyrex in this story as gen8 is more or less it's overarching world thematic. Demerzel strikes me as the cunning type, which makes sense as one would need to at least be cunning to some degree to be a royal advisor. I wonder if his willingness to have a chat over tea with Noctum and Baraz being presented as possibly suspicious is a misdirection or if we're to take it at face value. Maybe Demerzel is just a surprisingly chill guy, but it's hard to say at this point. He does have some knowledge about the Aeon kind's customs and beliefs, so there's definitely more to him than meets the eye.

There's not much to say about the fight scene halfway through the chapter. Though it has a few highlights. We got to meet the Garchomp supposedly affiliated with Chiaki, we're reminded that the distortion can infiltrate even beyond what the characters originally thought and we now know that the Aeon folks have a technique used to undo dynamax/Gigamax transformations. It remains to be seen what the limitations or possible side effects of this ability are, and also what will happen now that it's out of the bag. After all, Noctum and Baraz must've been told not to use it in Fairyville for a reason. What repercussions might result from this? We'll have to wait and see.

Finally, we got to see Carpaccio and Rookie again after having not seen them since the first chapter. I was starting to think they were just a one off duo, but it's nice seeing them coming back into the fold. Fraud and shadowy figure still remain cool and imposing. I'm curious to see what their next plan will be and how the rest of the cast will react to it. So far Yuna's plotline and this other one remain fairly disconnected, and I hope we get to see more connecting threads between them in the future. As it stands, it feels like we're reading two different stories simply taking place in a shared universe. A sporting event does feel insignificant in the grand scheme of things compared to an encroaching existential disaster.

Anyway, those were my thoughts on this chapter. I hope to read more in the future.
 
Chapter 9 New

Ambyssin

am i spoopy?
Location
Etherium
Pronouns
he/him
Partner
silvally-dragon
Chapter 9: Dude, What a Trip!

Vortex stood between two of the many cracks and splinters running through the ruined center of the courtyard. Broken fragments of the fountain lay scattered around the area which, thanks to the hasty work of some Polaris laborers, had a metal dome placed around it before any students could see the damage. That was, of course, the easy part. The hard part was getting to the bottom of this mess and making sure it didn't happen again.

"Please tell me you were able to make some headway with Chef Tarte." Vortex picked up a piece of rubble at his feet and tossed it to himself.

Opposite the charizard, Seifer pressed a forehoof against an upended stone slab. "I'm afraid his story hasn't changed. The chef said he'd gone to fetch condiments from the pantry. He was accosted by a Mr. Rime wearing a mask. After that… it all goes blank."

"And the pantry was investigated?"

Vortex turned toward the destroyed fountain. Arianna stood there, holding a handheld satellite device up above her head and looking down at a black cube by her feet. "Thoroughly. There were no traces of anything suspicious. The guards have all been questioned and the security footage reviewed. We found no evidence of the Mr. Rime that Tarte speaks of."

"Then how the hell did this happen?" Vortex pinched his brow with his free hand.

"I told you, sir, Dynaforce was involved." Seifer gestured to the ground with his left forehoof. "He leveled the courtyard with a Dynaquake."

"But that shouldn't be possible." Vortex clenched the fist holding the rubble. His claws made cracks in the rock, which shattered when he then dropped it. "The barrier—"

"It failed, of course."

Vortex turned right to glare at Demerzel, who was watching Arianna operate her scanner. "Is this not what happened at the late Minister Douglas' estate? A Phantom eluded the protective shield and struck with Dynaforce." He crossed his long, slender legs. "Perhaps you could've written the first attack off as a coincidence, but now that there's been a second… it suggests a pattern."

Demerzel rested a paw on his necklace. "Face it. Polaris' barriers are no longer sufficient to protect the kingdom's remaining cities. Which is why I would, again, like to emphasize stronger cooperation with the Aeons."

Of course Demerzel would sound like the Aeon Queen. After all, how many months had he spent cozying up to the dragons for his precious treaty? "No, what this means is that I need to move Icarus forward," Vortex countered. "What's the hold up with Parliament?"

Demerzel facepalmed. "Nothing's changed since I told you they needed more details."

Vortex scowled. Details, details. Ridiculous. As if he wasn't trying to act in the kingdom's best interest. His company was bringing the kingdom into a new age. A golden age of science and technological marvel. And there was just one last hurdle to clear: the energy shortage. He'd found this wonderful energy source, but he couldn't fully tap into it yet.

"What more is there to say?" the charizard asked. "Our available ether refineries will run dry. And if that happens, the kingdom's grid goes down… including the barriers vital to our security. The preliminary funding Her Eminence granted allowed me to identify a seemingly unlimited source of proto-ether. I just need sufficient funding to finish constructing Icarus and the energy and distortion problems will be solved in one fell swoop!"

Demerzel levitated a piece of debris up and rotated it around with a curious look on his face. Vortex looked to the mutant for a response, then cleared his throat. When Demerzel still kept silent, he growled, "Well?"

"We've already been over this." Demerzel dropped the rubble. It rolled into a small crevice. "You have to answer specific questions. What is the proto-ether source? How is it connected to the distortion? And what will Icarus do to access this source? If you can't answer those with concrete details, you're going to keep getting stonewalled."

Vortex looked down at his feet and their immaculately polished claws. "The schematics are highly sensitive and I don't just want to drag them out into the open for no good reason."

Demerzel quirked a brow. "Is that so? Or, perhaps, is it because you know the answer to one of my questions contains information that may be damaging to the kingdom's pride?"

The charizard met Demerzel's eyes briefly and saw them glowing. "You—" He stopped himself and looked at Arianna and Seifer. The former was still focused on her device while the latter had a brow raised.

"What's he talking about, Chancellor?" the keldeo said.

Accursed psychics. Now there was no sidestepping the issue. "The source… might be tied to the Darkest Day," Vortex conceded.

Seifer stumbled. He quickly corrected himself. "What? But Her Benevolence defeated World Ender. We've taught that in our schools since before my grandmother was a filly!"

Vortex jammed his right hand in his pocket and bit his lip. "It's only a theory. I don't have definitive evidence."

Demerzel shook his head. "And yet even the very notion that the government has been pushing lies for centuries could undermine the public's confidence in it… and, by association, projects like Icarus. It could even give the Aeons leverage to gain concessions from the treaty."

"Well, we— I— that is…" Seifer's voice trailed off and he looked at the remains of Queen Calliope's statue. "Could we not just hold a secret session of Parliament?"

"Do you really trust everything would stay secret?" Vortex growled. There had been leaks before of much smaller natures. And while they always managed to find the responsible party, it was never quick enough to prevent some degree of fallout. The charizard doubted he could erase such damage with a few Starlene songs this time.

Demerzel turned to the dome's curved wall and chuckled into his paw. "My guess is that the good Chancellor was already aware of this conundrum. And he wanted to start from the top and work his way down… in a manner of speaking."

"Beg your pardon?" Seifer tilted his head.

"Orbeetle Cid." Demerzel pressed a hand to his temple. "You just hired him recently, no?"

Vortex's tail flame shrank. "Where are you going with this?"

"I read his thesis." Demerzel smiled at Vortex. "He's a Darkest Day skeptic."

Vortex had to bite the urge to reflexively scratch his head. If Demerzel had peered into his memories again, he'd done such a good job that, even with Arianna's teachings, Vortex couldn't tell.

"I thought people like that were charlatans who went to work for trash outlets like the Beacon," Seifer said, snout turned up.

Demerzel shrugged. "If I had to guess, Vortex hired him to introduce the students to the idea that, perhaps, our kingdom's version of the Darkest Day isn't the truth." He levitated up a jagged piece of rubble and pointed it at Seifer. "After all, the Aeon Kingdom tells a much different story. And now their princess is a student here."

He leaned forward to rest his hand on his paws. "If these elite students can accept an alternative narrative for the Darkest Day, then perhaps the commoners can as well? That's what you're thinking, isn't it, Chancellor?"

Vortex wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of an answer. "Well, Arianna? Have you got anything?"

Arianna knelt and grabbed a small sheet of paper that emerged from the top of the black cube. "Multiple unrecognized distortion frequencies, sir."

"Then get Minister Tessa on the phone and tell his team they're crunching until the barriers can work against these frequencies," Vortex said, small embers leaping from his tail flame and scorching the ground around him.

Arianna folded the satellite up and placed it into a small briefcase along with the device it was attached to. She walked up to Vortex and whispered to him, "What should he do about overtime payments?"

The charizard had to fight to hide another scowl, especially with Demerzel and Seifer eyeing him. "Pull the funds from the recycling division's budget. They don't need the money."

"Understood." Arianna nudged up her glasses and headed for a door carved into the metal dome.

"So, you're ignoring me." Sighing, Demerzel lay the rubble back on the ground. "At least answer me this: do you still intend to keep the Crowne Cup going with this very real threat present?"

"Of course," Vortex growled. He was insulted Demerzel would even suggest that. "These students are our hope for the future. A future of unlimited prosperity bolstered by an infinite supply of proto-ether. The kingdom deserves to see them at their best. Cancelling the Cup would be tantamount to conceding to the distortion. That will not happen on my watch."

Frowning, Demerzel slipped his paws under the robe draped over his torso. "If these students are truly that important… your priority should be protecting them."

"They will be protected."

"Not when the Phantoms can reach them at this academy," Demerzel countered.

"As soon as the barriers get updated, everything will be fine." Vortex turned toward the door Arianna had gone through.

"I respectfully—"

Vortex raised his right hand. "This is not open for further discussion. Stay in your lane, Counselor. You were hired to orchestrate the treaty. Focus on that."

Before he could hear a retort, he glided toward the door and threw it open. Crisp evening air filled his lungs. Vortex shut the door behind him and rubbed the bags under his eyes. He reached into his coat's breast pocket and produced a blue gemstone. The charizard touched it to his head and closed his eyes.

"Rare Candy Escorts. This is Chanelle."

"Chanelle, it's Hurricane. Tell me… is that incineroar available? You know, the one with the pink stripes on his tail?" Vortex pulled the gem away and looked at it. It pulsated while emitting soft clicking noises.

"He's open."

A relieved smile. "Wonderful. Have him meet me at Horizon Rail Station in thirty minutes."

"Very good, sir."

Vortex clicked a notch in the gem. He pocketed it the moment it stopped glowing. With a giddiness in his step, he loosened his tie and slowly flew away from the courtyard. It was time to put the day's unpleasantness behind him.

XxX​

"Princess? Time to wake up."

Noctum's voice made Yuna aware of warm, scaly arms wrapped around her. "Mmrgh." She kept her eyes shut and squeezed her hands against her face. "F… five more minutes, Mom."

"Sorry, Princess, but you have to get up. I already let you sleep through the train and omnibus rides."

Somehow, Yuna managed to process Noctum's statement. Her eyes shot open and her arms fell to her sides. She found herself staring at a pouch on Noctum's utility belt. "Eep!" She pushed against his belly and rolled out of his arms. The dreepy shook herself out and looked around. Seifer stood on her right, looking ahead with a sharp, stern expression.

"I… I slept through the whole trip?" Yuna rubbed her eyes and blinked rapidly. Though she didn't have to worry about eye gunk like her servants, sudden sunlight still irritated her inner ectoplasm. She tried to remember if she'd taken another sleep seed, but couldn't. Yuna hoped Noctum hadn't carried her all this way. That would be beyond embarrassing.

"To be fair, Radiance's railway system is really fast." Noctum smiled at her. "It only took, like, twenty minutes to get to Herbrides. The fields were moving by so fast it reminded me of joy flights I used to take back home." His tail flame crackled excitedly. "Well, minus all the sulfur plumes and lava rivers, of course."

Seifer rolled his eyes. "Can we keep up with the group, please? I'd rather have you closer to the crowd."

Yuna turned around and saw the rest of her class up a pebble-covered road by a cast-iron gate. Cid floated beside a wooden security kiosk with a bored pangoro leaning out a windowsill that barely seemed to accommodate her size. Unsurprisingly, her teammates sat on separate rocks lining the right side of the road. Nikki absentmindedly strummed her gills. Chiaki scribbled notes on a notepad, glancing up at Cid every so often.

"So, the place we're going is on the other side of this gate?" Yuna floated between Noctum and Seifer as the trio caught up to the class. She hovered a bit higher for a better view. The pebble road continued and curved to the right. There was a large grassy hill in the distance, but trees left Yuna unable to make out further details.

"We've already climbed up a pretty large hill," Noctum explained.

"Herbrides is a valley community," Seifer elaborated. He turned his head right and threw open a saddlebag. The keldeo grabbed a map in his mouth and held it up to Yuna. There was a swathe of green encircled by neatly arranged brown mounds in its southwest corner. "While it's not surrounded by mountains, per se, there are large hills in every direction."

Hills that, if Yuna remembered her initial readings correctly, were used as farmland or livestock reserves. All things she missed by sleeping on the train and omnibus. Despite that, she couldn't imagine Herbrides' hills were steeper than the jagged passes back home. She recalled her father having to take multiple trips with the troops to carve out plateaus for commoners to use as potential farmland.

The creaking of the iron gates brought Yuna's attention away from the map and back to her classmates. Cid floated up to the head of the group. The orbeetle brandished a white baton with purple stripes. "All right. Everyone, stay together and follow me to the observation site."

Yuna did as instructed. Though a few aside glances from her classmates drove her to stay at the back.

"Finally awake, Princess?"

The dreepy sighed. What did Nikki want with her today? Bah, it didn't matter. Yuna was interested in this place. She wasn't about to let Nikki get under her ectoplasm. She could control the conversation. "Say, what's with that big stick Professor Cid's carrying?"

"Hmm?" Nikki moved in front of Yuna. "Oh, that's just some dumb thing they make tour group leaders carry." She stuck her hands in the pockets of her coat, yawning. "Don't think too much on it."

Yuna didn't respond. She silently followed the group along the road. Bits and pieces of conversations melded together with the crinkling of pebbles underneath her classmates' feet. After about ten minutes, the trees on either side of the path abruptly fell off. Yuna saw the road end in a large circle. A gray fence lined the outside of the viewing area, though it hardly looked like enough to keep someone from hopping over.

"Aww." Noctum nudged Yuna's side. "Look at that." He pointed to a stone structure with fake hills carved into it. There were circular holes punched out in multiple spots. "I bet you could stick your head in one of those and take a picture." The black charizard grinned at her. "Why don't we send a photo home to your parents?"

The dreepy's cheeks burned. "Let's not and say we did." Yuna hastily pivoted away from the kiddie attraction. "Besides, we're here to look at the… the…"

Her voice trailed off as she looked across the grassy valley to an equally tall hill opposite the viewing platform. Amidst the fresh, bright-green grass were scorched, charcoal-gray marks. A circle with five diamonds around it sitting over a bunch of circles and squiggles that felt haphazardly placed.

"World Ender," Yuna whispered. She had seen the same five-diamond sigil in countless books back home. However, it was always accompanied by the eight-pointed, compass-like star that represented Bahamut. None of the bits of scorched land looked anything like the symbol on her pendant. "Um, Seifer? Who made this, uh, monument?"

"I believe it was one of my clan's ancestors."

Yuna frowned. The keldeo didn't sound certain… or like he really cared. Yuna brushed her pendant with her right hand and looked between Noctum and Seifer. Her servant had mentioned being told not to discuss Bahamut. Was He some sort of taboo in this kingdom?

"I'm sure many of you have seen the Herbrides Lines multiple times throughout your lives," Cid said. The spots on his large orbeetle head glowed. Yuna figured he was using psychic power to bolster his voice. Otherwise, she doubted she'd hear him so clearly. "However, I would like to encourage you all to reframe your thinking."

Beside Yuna, Seifer stiffened. He looked away when she glanced at him. She wasn't sure if he was annoyed, bored, or some combination.

"Let's start with the basics," Cid continued. He floated higher and pointed the baton toward the other hill. "How did the Herbrides Lines come into existence?"

Hands, hooves, paws, and wings shot in the air. "Ah, wow. Aren't we all eager?" Cid chuckled. "How about—"

"Some of the earliest Radiant Guardsmon carved the drawings into the hill so the world would remember the Darkest Day," Shimmer declared. Yuna spotted the ponyta's puffy pink mane toward the front of the group. A few groans sounded around him. Before Cid could chastise him for calling out, he continued, "Our planet fell under the threat of the titanic daemon, World Ender. That big circle with the diamonds was its symbol, projected across the sky as it blotted out light from the heavens.

"The two canine-looking circles depict Etherium's saviors: Zacian Calliope and my ancestor, Rapidash Adelaide." Shimmer moved his outstretched forehoof from his left to his right as he spoke.

The ponyta's answer didn't sit well with Yuna. She frowned, torn between voicing a question and showing off her ignorance… or holding her tongue while the thought festered in her mind like the gross boil rash Noctum had gotten on his belly last year.

Ultimately, she swallowed her pride and raised her hand. "Excuse me, Professor Cid?"

"What is it, Yuna?" The orbeetle pointed to her with his baton. Dozens of pairs of eyes fell on Yuna. Her tail crinkled up.

"I understand why Zacian would be depicted as a canine." It was tough for Yuna to keep a steady voice. "But why would a rapidash be represented by one?"

The response was predictable. Some chuckles. An eyeroll from the sylveon that had joined Shimmer at lunch yesterday. The sirfetch'd beside him sighing and shaking his head. But the loudest one was, of course, Prince Shimmer. "Oh, come now. Surely you know that it's my family's crest?"

"No, I didn't. That's why I asked." Yuna glanced at Noctum, who offered a sympathetic shrug.

Sneering, Shimmer swished his mane over his right shoulder. "Please. The armored breast plate Mother wears has a canine's head carved into its central gemstone. Adelaide wore the armor into battle against World Ender. It's been passed down through the generations ever since."

Meaning Shimmer would eventually get it from Isola. Yuna found it ridiculous that a rapidash would choose to weigh themselves down in battle. Even scaleless Aeons like her and her mother didn't bolster their defenses like that. In addition, there was never any mention of any rapidash with armor in her homeland's version of the events. The more tidbits were dropped about Radiance, the more confused Yuna got. But it wasn't like she could raise an objection over it. She was supposed to be a goodwill ambassador.

"Everything okay, Princess?" Noctum asked.

She wanted to say no, but nodded before the words could form in her mouth. However, she was caught off guard when Cid cleared his throat and said, "Actually, I'm glad you asked that question, Princess."

Yuna blinked once. Twice. Yeah, she wasn't imagining that. "Excuse me?"

"It's a curious sight, don't you think?" Cid stroked his chin with his free hand. "When you think of fairy-types, canines don't spring to mind outside of Queen Calliope. And, depending on who you ask, swirlix and slurpuff."

"Hey!" One of Sylveon's ribbons shot into the air. "I'm a canine! Maybe Shimmy's clan was founded by a sylveon?"

"Pfbt. You're as much of a canine as Shimmer is a fairy-type." A klefki jingled their keys in Sylveon's general direction.

A sudden gust of wind made both fairy-types gasp and look to their right. Yuna followed them and spotted the corviknight that had interrupted Vegna's class yesterday. "Shut your pieholes. Your disses are weaker than magikarp using Splash."

"No, no, it's all right." Cid hovered closer to the group. "This is good, healthy discourse. I encourage this kind of thinking."

"Pah. What's there to think about?" Shimmer huffed.

Cid pointed his baton toward the Lines' bottom left corner. "These symbols." He also pointed to the bottom right of the hill. "Can anyone recognize them?"

Those were the ones that made no sense to Yuna. As far as she was concerned, they were nothing but a bunch of random squiggles. She waited for a classmate to offer an answer, but they were all silent, too.

Then the weavile that Nikki had a spat with raised a hand. "Maybe they're words?"

Cid smiled. "Wonderful guess."

Sylveon huffed. "If they're words, then what do they say?"

"Well, that's where things get complicated." Cid laughed nervously. Yuna spotted a few unamused looks. "See, though our characters have changed slightly over the last millennium, the Kingdom of Radiance has always written in Unown."

Yuna examined the scorched marks littering the grass. Try as she might, she couldn't piece any Unown letters together from what was there. "How would you know they're words, then?"

"Over time, pokémon that have been rescued from mystery dungeons have reported seeing these exact same rune patterns." Cid gestured to the hill.

"Ridiculous!" Shimmer's horn and mane lit up bright pink. "Are you implying the Lines predate the Darkest Day?"

Cid turned around. "According to rescued pokémon, the phrase on the left is 'Nos vera Natus' while the one on the right is 'Qliphoth.' While there's been debate what these actually mean, Qliphoth is always used in conjunction with 'dungeon' or 'mystery dungeon.'"

Yuna suddenly sucked in a sharp breath and gasped out a, "Qli… photh?"

Noctum put a wing in front of Yuna. "Everything all right, Princess?"

A pressure squeezed on her head, like how Noctum wrung out oranges to make fresh juice in the morning. White floaters crept in from her periphery. "Gnnh." Yuna pressed her hands to her horns, but that did little good. She looked at the hill. Her vision flashed purple. A mound of red, chitinous branches under a purple sky replaced the grassy hill. She squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed her horns. The hill went back to normal when Yuna opened her eyes again.

"Princess?"

Warm scales touched her shoulder. Yuna was about to scream, but followed the hand to Noctum's shoulder. "I'm… lightheaded. Can we step off to the side?"

Noctum looked past Yuna. "Very well." Seifer appeared at Yuna's side. "Let's go over by that photo spot."

Seifer led them toward the fake rock structure. Yuna wrapped her hands around Noctum's arm. Her head didn't hurt as much, but the pressure was still there. And before she could try for a calming breath, a pair of familiar voices rattled around in her head.

"Just stop skulking around and rejoin the group. I don't need you causing any problems here."

"What does it matter, Twiggy? It's only a problem because you hopped the fence to tail me."

Yuna suppressed a groan while Seifer quickened his pace. "Oi, you two! What are you doing away from the group?" he barked. The keldeo shot jets of water from his hooves to clear the barrier fence. He dropped down next to a large oak tree. When Noctum and Yuna made it over, they found Chiaki leveling his right claws at Nikki's chest while his left claws held a can of fluorescent-yellow spray paint.

Seifer looked over his shoulder. "Go back to the photo spot, Princess. You don't have to get involved."

He was technically right. Especially since neither of Yuna's teammates cared that much for her. Still, they were her teammates. Maybe she could resolve this if she spoke up? "Um, what's the matter, you two?"

"I caught Nikki breaking off from the group and followed her." Chiaki held up the spray paint. "She was looking to tag the trees."

Nikki flinched, then jammed her hands in her pockets and leaned back against the tree trunk. "That's your interpretation."

"Well, what was I supposed to make of it?" Chiaki rolled his eyes.

"I wanted to get away from Shimmer's swell head. I found that bottle on the ground." Nikki pointed to a patch of dirt a meter to her right.

Yuna wasn't buying it. "What would a can of spray paint be doing in the middle of a forest?" She was going to gesture to the trees going downhill, but her pounding head made her lower her arms. "Nrrgh. My head."

Noctum leaned over and whispered. "Princess, perhaps it's best we let Sir Seifer deal with this?"

"What's going on here? Why did you break off from the group, Yuna?"

Nikki pinched her brow. "Oh boy, the square's here. Now it's a party."

Yuna blinked stars out of her vision. Cid floated behind Noctum, a concerned look on his chitinous face. "It's nothing, Professor," Seifer replied. "The princess needed some space and I found these hoodlums causing trouble."

Shoulders sagging, Cid sighed. "I'm afraid it's not nothing when it involves my whole Crowne Cup team."

"Look, you're all making a big deal over nothing," Nikki growled. "Just give me my space. I'm not looking to cause any trouble."

Chiaki took a step closer. "I would hope so. Because for someone who claims to want to do well in the Crowne Cup, you're doing everything possible to shoot yourself in the foot."

Nikki tried to step back, but hit the oak tree instead. "I… well…" She tugged at her jacket collar.

Yuna's head continued to pound. She couldn't stomach listening to this anymore. "Okay, Noctum, let's—"

"Keh heh…"

Chiaki stiffened. "Did you guys hear that?"

Yuna's head rang too much to know what Chiaki was talking about. However, the alarmed looks on Cid and Seifer's faces sent a chill racing down her back.

"Keh heh heh… keh ha haaaaa!"

Now Yuna heard it. And the rasping wheezes that followed brought to mind an image of a cloaked, helmeted creature that she was hoping to forget. She tugged on Noctum's arm. "Noctum, we have to—"

However, Yuna quickly realized she wasn't grasping Noctum's warm scales anymore. She looked up and, instead of a black-scaled charizard, found herself clutching a frayed edge of Xeromus' tattered cloak. Despite her aching head, Yuna managed to scream and float away from him. She expected some sort of attack, but Xeromus remained standing there.

"You!" Seifer's horn sparked to Yuna's right. "You're the one who assaulted one of my men!" He let loose a crescent of red energy.

"Yes, wonderful!" Xeromus hopped to his right, closer to Yuna. She hastily retreated behind Seifer. "No hesitation behind attacking a worthless omen like me. The depths of your false convictions are to be commended."

"The hell is this thing?" Chiaki had his left hand on the brim of his cap.

"Me? I'm just a worthless nobody." Xeromus shook his head, racked by coughs and shudders. "But I still appreciate that you were willing to accept my summons."

His gray, beady eyes met Yuna's. Now, it wasn't just her head hurting. Her tiny torso was warm. And not the pleasant warmth she got from curling up against Noctum's belly, either. "Wh… what did you do to Noctum?"

"Your charizard friend? He's probably nursing a lump on his head somewhere in that general direction." Xeromus stretched his left hind leg back. "But this isn't about him. It's about you."

Seifer reared up and shot scalding hot water from his forehooves. This time, however, Xeromus dodged left. When Seifer readied another Scald, a pair of shadowy arms emerged from Xeromus' cloak and grabbed hold of a still dumbfounded Nikki.

"What the— aggh!"

"Drop her!"

Over at the tree, Chiaki lunged for Nikki, right arm grabbing her leather jacket. Xeromus yanked her back with a startling amount of force. An audible crack rippled through the air. Yuna's gills shriveled up. Though her vision was blurry, she still managed to see Chiaki's right arm separate at the level of his elbow and drop to the ground in front of him. The grovyle's eyes widened, but the pained expression Yuna expected didn't appear. There wasn't any blood or sap or whatever it was grovyle had inside them.

Xeromus dragged Nikki in front of him. The toxtricity kicked helplessly at the air. "Lemme go… you dick!"

"Ahh, look at this defiance! It's simply beautiful. Marvelous. Lovely." Xeromus panted heavily. His sign rattled against his chest. "And your friend… leaping into action. The length the ether drives him to…"

A slimy tendril burst out of one of the oak tree's roots and shattered the detached part of Chiaki's arm. "No!" He turned his scornful gaze on Xeromus. "Bastard! You have any idea how much that cost?"

"Such an interesting contradiction. Speaking of cost like a noble, but dropping foul language like a fellow nobody." Xeromus took several sharp breaths. "There is so much to love about you all… and yet you let the ether nibble away at your individuality."

"R… release my student!" Cid finally found his voice. His spots glowed with psychic power.

Xeromus swung Nikki in Cid's line of sight. "Now, now. Don't share any of your false bravado with your friend. I would hate for Natus to lose such a wonderful follower."

This was bad. Yuna had to do something. But Noctum had her belongings. All she had was her pendant resting against her burning chest.

No, wait. That wasn't right. Was it her chest burning… or was the pendant burning her chest? She looked down. The gem sparked with red light.

"You see it, don't you?" Xeromus' voice oozed a perverted glee. "The ether is trying to latch its tendrils into you. Make you a puppet to yank whichever direction it feels. But you will refuse it. You will accept Natus' love… and the world will grow into something bigger!"

"Don't listen to this loon," Chiaki called. "He makes the craziest beggars sound reasonable!" He brought his remaining hand up to his face. "Hey! Hey! Somebody help us!"

Xeromus' eyes lost some of their luster. "… right. Figures. A lowly omen like me can't get Natus' love across properly. You need the Qliphoth to see how He nurtures His followers."

An unseen force pounded Yuna's head. That word again. Now she saw luminescent, thorn-covered vines on the edges of her vision.

"In case it wasn't clear," Xeromus' eyes darkened, "the choices you make don't really matter."

Before Yuna could even attempt to make sense of that, Xeromus leaped into the air. He landed several meters deeper into the forest. "But I can still try to steer you to Natus' love!" Xeromus sprinted away while Nikki screamed for help.

Yuna looked at Seifer. Then Chiaki. Then Cid. All dumbfounded. Frozen in uncertainty. And her head. And her chest. Oh, god, her chest hurt so bad. She just had to… had to…

… had to scream.

"Put Nikki down!"

The moment the last word left Yuna's mouth, the heat around her chest exploded outward, accompanied by a flurry of red and purple light. Yuna's own screams drowned out those of her colleagues, until an intense pressure hammered her from above and made her whole world go dark.

XxX​

Path of Valor Almanac
In the Hebrew mysticism practice of Kabbalah, "Qliphoth" is a term that serves as a representation for wicked or impure spiritual forces that stand in opposition to "Sefirot," or holiness.
 
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