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Prologue
  • Ambyssin

    "No need to quiver, dear."
    Pronouns
    he/him

    Welcome to the world of Etherium... where pokémon run free!
    To mark the upcoming signing of a momentous peace treaty, the dragon-led Aeon Kingdom agrees to send its budding princess to the neighboring Kingdom of Radiance's prestigious Horizon Academy as an exchange student. But her plans for a quiet year biding her time go up in flames when she's forced to compete for the Crowne Cup on a team with a rebellious toxtricity and a grumpy grovyle who keeps things close to his vest. Can she rise to the challenge or will the pressures of the school — and dangerous attacks from mask-wearing phantoms — make her crack?

    Info: Like Guiding Light did for Gen VII, I am looking to craft a PMD story that focuses on ideas and pokémon from Gen VIII. No knowledge of Guiding Light is required to read this fic.

    Content Advisory: This fic is rated Teen for use of coarse language, crude humor, alcohol, violence, and character deaths. Additionally, this fic will contain unmarked spoilers for Pokémon Sword and Shield, including the (currently unreleased at the time of first posting) DLC. If you intend to play either of these games blind, skip this fic for now.

    Update Schedule: Chapters will be out when I can manage to get them out. Parts will be shorter and posted less-frequently than with my previous fic, so if you got too overwhelmed with it, then this is the fic for you.

    XxX​

    Talons grazed cool, green, neatly-trimmed grass. Articuno Shiva stretched her wings out as she walked a straight line across the field. She stared blankly at a gray, ornate stone wall and accompanying marble pillars. Together, they made up the manor surrounding the courtyard. Soft moonlight from the sky above her bathed two circular beds of roses in a pale white glow. She turned her head to the side and sighed, producing a cloud of frost.

    "How much longer do we need to be here, Quetzal?" Shiva looked left at a zapdos standing squarely in the middle of a dirt path leading to the stairs that would take them back inside the manor. He had his wings tucked into his sides and seemed to be nodding off. However, at Shiva's question, Quetzal jerked stiff. He adjusted the silver uniform draped over his torso. The pink ribbons adorning his breast jingled softly.

    "The standing orders from Her Eminence said we're to keep guard of the Needle until dawn." Quetzal gestured in front of him. There, planted in the middle of the garden, was a purple needle standing a head taller than Shiva and Quetzal. A red gem, carved to look like an eye, sat atop it. No matter what angle Shiva stared at it, it always looked like the gem glared at her. It made her feathers puff up slightly underneath her uniform. She pivoted to preen her neck.

    "Yeah, but was it really necessary to send all three of us for this assignment? Any one of us could do this job with no trouble," a moltres huffed, stomping around from the other side of the needle and casting an orange glow onto the southern part of the courtyard. He stopped to straighten out the wrinkles in his uniform, looking exasperated. "Not that we don't appreciate the hospitality, Lord Douglas. It's just… this is such a strange assignment for Her Eminence to spring on us with so little warning."

    "Do not fret, Captain Ifrit, I understand your hesitation."

    Shiva winced and resisted the urge to throw a wing up over her face. Even though she'd spent plenty of time around him, seeing Lord Weezing Douglas speaking through two mouths always unsettled her. As did the fact that his gaseous beards would fizzle like soda pop as he spoke. It had forced her to abandon her once-favorite drink. Shiva wished that they could've been assigned somewhere else, but knew she had to carry out this job with the grace and professionalism nobles like Lord Douglas had come to expect from the Radiant Guard.

    "But I'm not one to question Queen Isola's decisions. She has the best interests of all Crowne Ministers at heart," Douglas continued. His two, hat-like appendages spurted bits of pink gas.

    "It's not Her Eminence's judgement I'm concerned with." Ifrit shook his head. "It's the fact that she came to this decision after consulting with that advisor of hers." He folded his wings and stared squarely at the needle. "She sent us out here specifically at his request… because of some premonition? I don't like it."

    "That's… a fair point." Shiva had thought much the same, but didn't want to say anything for fear of upsetting Lord Douglas. She didn't want to give off the impression that she thought the good Minister was beneath her and her fellow officers.

    "Except we're not the only ranking guardsmon being stationed at these Needles," Quetzal pointed out. "Something in Demerzel's premonition must've spooked Queen Isola."

    "I still don't like it," Ifrit huffed. "The guy comes out of nowhere and climbs into Her Eminence's good graces within the span of half a year. Now he's sitting pretty in the royal court and influencing policy."

    "Careful, Captain, lest you sound like some of those haggard beggars proclaiming the end of days are upon us." Douglas chuckled, releasing more vapors from his head. Shiva thought back to the previous week, when she had threatened some wretched, rag-covered, helmet-wearing mishmash of a homeless mutt with arrest for parading around the town square of Horizon Gardens with a poorly-drawn sign around his neck.

    "Here, here!" Quetzal's eyes lit up. "Demerzel's been instrumental in fast-tracking the completion of the treaty with the Aeon Kingdom. Perhaps with the extra resources, we'll finally have a solution to this blasted mystery dungeon problem."

    "Bah! As if we need to stoop so low as to associate with dragons." Ifrit spat a tiny ember out, then snuffed it out with his talons before it could burn any grass. "I can't believe they're letting the Aeon princess attend Horizon. They're sullying our beautiful academy!" He draped a wing over his face and shook his head.

    "Maybe you ought to see what the princess is like before rushing to conclusions?" Shiva suggested. The look Ifrit gave her quickly made her regret opening her beak. "S-Sorry, Iffy."

    "It's easy for you to feel at ease. Your ice attacks can make quick work of any duplicitous dragons," Ifrit said. "But what about me? They live amongst the flames! My best strikes will barely pierce their scales." He paced furiously in front of the needle. "I'll just have to intensify my training. That way, if the princess slips up, I'll—"

    A sudden blast from the south wall of the manor silenced the remainder of Ifrit's threat. Shiva didn't even have the time to turn around and register the blast's source before she was splayed out in the grass. Heat spread from her breast out to her wings, spiking her heart rate. She looked up at Ifrit, who stood over with his wings spread wide and a pained winced sprawled on his face. Purple and black flames buffeted his backside, scorching his uniform.

    "I-Iffy!" Shiva squawked, trying unsuccessfully to squirm out from under him.

    "We're under attack! It's a Phantom!" Quetzal squawked from Shiva's right. She caught a glance of electricity arcing out from his wings. Ifrit turned around and hopped into the air. Shiva's belly spasmed when she sat up, but she mustered the strength to send a gust of wind in the direction of Quetzal's attack.

    What she found, however, was a cloud of black shadows surrounding a black, crystalline plague mask. Its red, gemstone eyes were a perfect match to the top of the needle. Shiva's attack died down. A frog caught in her throat. She'd faced down Phantoms plenty of times on rescue missions, but this one was huge. And the mask… that was very different.

    "Take cover, Minister!" Ifrit ordered, rolling away from a spectral arm and spitting a fireball at the Phantom. Its shadows contorted and the fireball merely burnt a hole in the grass.

    "I don't understand." Douglas' gaseous beards shriveled. "Polaris assured me that the distortion was well-controlled on the outskirts of the city! How can a Phantom be here?" He glanced toward the stairs, but saw the Phantom had blocked them. He quickly floated behind the needle, heads venting a pink smokescreen.

    "Spreader Rockfall," a distorted voice said. The flat tone sent a chill down Shiva's spine in spite of her ice-typing. Four wraithy arms popped out of the Phantom, each surrounded by rock-shaped glyphs.

    "N… no, this can't be!" Quetzal charged up more lightning in his wings. "Phantoms can't use Dyna-Force. It's impossible!" He clapped his wings together, discharging an electric dome. Ifrit and Shiva added streams of fire and ice.

    But all three attacks struck up against a wall of solid rock that burst forth from the ground, flinging sand in all directions. Shiva's eyes bugged out. She ceased her attack and took to the air, shouting, "Fly!" to Quetzal. However, the Phantom shoved the giant rock and it toppled over. Shiva realized all too light she hadn't gotten the necessary altitude to dodge.

    The rock wall crushed her into the ground. Her wings shattered on impact, as did at least two ribs. Stars and tears filled her vision. She tried to get up. To flee. To do anything. But her body wouldn't respond. Garbled squawks told her that her colleagues had suffered the same fate. The pain in her chest muffled her sobs. She couldn't die. Not like this. Not from some cheap trick.

    It had to be the dragons. They used that treaty to get the kingdom to lower its guard. And now they were making their move. But Shiva would never get to deliver that message. All she could do was lie there, wondering whether she'd succumb to the pain before the Phantom could deliver the killing blow.

    Bursts of pink steam shot over her. "S… stay back, you demon!" Lord Douglas cried, hovering by the needle. But the steam met purple globs from two of the Phantom's arms. Shiva tried to beg Douglas to leave, but she couldn't even get her beak open.

    "Pathetic nobility," the Phantom snarled. Spectral arms shot out and grabbed Douglas by his mouths and head appendages. His muffled screams rang out in Shiva's ear frills. "True strength does not course through your being," the Phantom continued. "And yet you dare to strike me?"

    Her vision was too blurry to see what the Phantom did, but the moment an ear-splitting screech rang out across the manor and abruptly cut out, she knew exactly what had happened. The green and purple fluids that splattered on the sand-covered ground in front of her painted an even clearer picture. "N… no…"

    Shadows swirled in front of Shiva and the Phantom's mask lowered to eye level. "Ah, good. You survived."

    Shiva squealed. The Phantom… was happy she was alive? Did it plan to torture her? Fresh tears welled in Shiva's eyes. Her legs twitched unresponsively.

    "I have plans for the three of you," the Phantom declared. Shadows crawled up Shiva's legs. She was in too much pain to scream, however. "You will exist to give me strength."

    As the shadows climbed up her body, they ripped off her uniform. Her feathers darkened. Her bones shifted and realigned. Shiva finally found her voice… and screeched in agony. Her fellow officers echoed her cries.

    "Consider it an honor… to serve such a noble cause."

    The shadows finally reached her face and… nothing. The pain had completely ceased. Shiva looked up, but recoiled in horror upon seeing that her once-pristine, blue-and-white feathers were now tainted with black and shades of dark gray. She managed to catch her reflection in a shard of broken glass and noticed a black, curved mask sitting over her eyes. Shiva threw her wings up, trying to pull it off, but a sharp pain tore through her shoulders. Clearly, she couldn't raise her wings as high as she used to.

    "W… what did you do to us?!" Quetzal squawked. Shiva got to her feet and found an orange bird with lightning-bolt markings on his shrunken wings kicking at the ground with his newly-elongated legs. Like Shiva, Quetzal had a black mask over his eyes.

    "I have bathed you in glorious distortion." The Phantom's mask pivoted in Quetzal's direction. "Do you not appreciate my gift?"

    "Not in the slightest!" Ifrit huffed, his now-curved beak muffling some of his speech. The violet-magenta flames on his wings flared up.

    A deep laugh rumbled and the Phantom's shadowy body rippled. Shiva glared at it. "Do not worry." A wraith shot out, grabbed hold of the needle, and yanked it. The needle promptly shattered and a bright purple beam shot into the air. Shiva's beak fell open. How could it destroy a Needle so effortlessly? All her life she'd heard horror stories of what had happened to pokémon who tried to pull out a Needle.

    "I don't intend to let you three voice any more objections."

    The Phantom's gemstone eyes glowed bright purple. Before Shiva could react, darkness swallowed her world.

    XxX​

    "Gah!"

    Dreepy Yuna shot up in her bed, arms tightly gripping her silk blanket. She doubled over in pain, squealing until her throat burned. Several tense minutes passed before Yuna finally settled down. She stared at her blanket, barely making out the red heart woven into the fabric using what little moonlight trickled in through the slits of her bedroom shades.

    "M… maybe it was just a nightmare?" she squeaked, rolling the held part of the blanket between her arms. Yuna looked right and squinted, begging her night-vision to trigger. An outline of a bookshelf slowly formed. Pristine, unopened schoolbooks sat next to worn pieces of fiction Yuna had brought from home.

    She flopped onto her back. The foam pillow fwoomped when her head struck it. Yuna sighed and rubbed her eyes. She gathered as much of her blanket as she could and tried to wrap it around her body… as if she could replicate the time she rode around in her mother's horn. Yuna closed her eyes and imagined her mother shooting her out of a horn, across the castle courtyard and into a pile of cushions dutifully put together by one of her attendants.

    But the happy memory wasn't enough to lull her back to sleep. Yuna rolled onto her stomach. She considered floating down the hall and talking to that rhydon security guard, but she didn't seem like much for conversation. And it's not like she could go knocking on any of the other girls' rooms. It was well past curfew and she didn't need to get in trouble before her time at this foreign school even started.

    Besides… who wants to saddle up to a dragon in a kingdom run by fairies, anyway? Yuna thought, body deflating. Odds are… I'm only gonna get Baraz and Noctum to talk to me. And that'll just be more embarrassing. She imagined faceless silhouettes surrounding her, ridiculing her for needing servants because she has no friends.

    Why did she agree to this? Yuna had left her friends— no, her life behind. And for what?

    "For a chance to emblazon your name in the history books for all eternity! Remember the family creed, Yunavresca: seize the day by the horns!"

    Her father's deep voice rumbled in the back of her head. She pictured the duraludon throwing his metal head back in a hearty laugh, his gold-trimmed robes clinking in the process.

    Yuna groaned. She was never going to get back to sleep with this many thoughts weighing her head down. Yuna lifted her head up and crawled across her bed until a small wooden nightstand was within reach. She slid the drawer open and felt around until her arm brushed against paper. Yuna lifted the paper from the drawer, unfolded it, and set it down next to her.

    Again, she channeled her night-vision. Her head throbbed. Yuna traced the nubby tip of her arm around the picture of her younger self nestled in one of her mother's horns. She held a brooch with a star-shaped insignia carved into the gem. Yuna let her arm wander toward the stained-glass window in the background of the photo. She pressed down, covering up the golden, four-winged dragon depicted in the window.

    "Bahamut, give me strength," she whispered. "Help me find some friends… or at least survive until I can return home." Yuna wrapped the paper up in a hug, only to stop when it crinkled. She gingerly folded it back up and returned it to the drawer. She then pulled out a small seed.

    A sleep seed. One of a handful that she'd gotten from Baraz. Yuna hesitated. Was she that desperate for a good night's sleep?

    Yes. Yes, she was. Besides, the school handbook said it was contraband in student rooms, anyway. It was better to use it now, else she risked getting caught with it and punished.

    Down the hatch it goes. Yuna swallowed the seed with a wince. The effects were almost instantaneous. Her vision grew hazy. Her breathing slowed. Yuna's arms stiffened. A yawn escaped her mouth.

    She had just enough strength to lie back on her pillow before drifting away into a dreamless slumber.
     
    Chapter 1
  • Ambyssin

    "No need to quiver, dear."
    Pronouns
    he/him
    I'm curious as to whether this story falls in the same universe, going off the name of the continent being Horizon? And the name Radiance pops up in the description. I recall reading somewhere that it's not a sequel, though?
    Not a sequel. The names are just Easter eggs, in the same way that Deltarune reuses the name 'Home' for Kris' town from Undertale's capital city.
    I couldn't place what pokemon the Phantom was, if it was one at all?
    The Phantom is not a pokémon. Hence why the narration mentions Phantoms don't usually have any identifying features.
    (I'm a huge fairy-type fan, so I'm excited to see what pokemon we meet here, too!)
    It's not entirely fairies. The kingdom is just, y'know, run by them. XP
    Given the Galar influence, I'm going to hazard a guess Eternatus has something to do with the dragon hatred going on here, but it's early days yet, and I'm only tossing ideas around like a salad at the moment.
    It's a possibility.
    Hang on... is that...?
    Yes, it is.
    That synopsis is the most anime thing I've read in quite some time. Lmao
    ANIME IS REAAAAAAAAAL
    I know you said this is inspired by Final Fantasy, but establishing a potentially post-war setup works well for a British parallel. It also lets you tackle ideas such as being the 'other' in a foreign land. Lots of narrative potentials there.
    I'll take it! :V
    I'm suspicious of Demerzel, considering his premonition resulted in their capture and transformation.
    Good. That was the intention. :P
    What if... they seized the means of production... haha just kidding... unless?
    I guess we'll see.
    The way you packed a lot of information into the opening prologue was nice. The political conflict between the two nations, the mystery dungeons, the mystery of the Needle, Phantoms--it mostly feels natural and gives you a strong springboard into the ending portion with Yuna
    I tried though, as some of your other comments point out, it wasn't one-hundred percent successful.
    The structure of Yuna attending a foreign school is ripe with narrative potential.
    Here's hoping I can actually make use of some of that potential. ^^;
    My scattered predictions involve growing up from a sheltered upbringing as well as adjusting as a stranger in a strange land.
    That's totally understandable. I think it's good insight!

    XxX

    Chapter 1: Uh, It's My First Day
    It took far more of Yuna's strength than she cared to admit just to float down the hallway. Her gaze remained fixed on the marble floor and, every so often, she bobbed closer to it before jerking back up.

    "Apologies, Princess. Had I known you were going to use one of the sleep seeds, I'd have brought a heal seed with me."

    Heavy, thudding footsteps punctuated her attendant's lisping claim. Yuna glanced right and saw a green, comically-oversized dinosaur foot stomp down beside her. She groaned and rubbed the wing-like edges of her head. As if it wasn't bad enough that she was going to show up to the opening assembly late, she was going to do so accompanied by a dracozolt. Something none of her classmates had ever seen and were sure to be put off by.

    Just another thing working against me besides my dragon-typing, she thought.

    "Why the long face?" the dracozolt poked his tiny, yellow head into Yuna's field of vision. "Are you nervous? It's perfectly normal to be nervous when starting any new endeavor. God knows how terrified I was of coming to work for your family."

    "Y-Yeah. Nervous," Yuna mumbled, rubbing her hands together. "Baraz, do you think I'll be able to make any friends here?"

    He paused mid-step. Baraz's beady eyes blinked rapidly. "Of course you will. Once people see how kindhearted you are, they'll surely come to view you as someone they can trust." He resumed walking. "Now, come. If we don't hurry, I fear they'll take away all the breakfast. It's the most important meal of the day, after all."

    "Right." She found no relief from Baraz's words, but still floated after him. What was stopping Noctum from grabbing food for her to eat later, anyway?

    "Gigigi!"

    The slamming of a metal grate jolted Yuna to attention. Her ectoplasmic tail crinkled. Ahead of her, an air vent plate lay on the floor beside a stone column. And next to it was one of those tiny, gray sludge things with the hex-nut heads. What were they called again… meltin? It didn't matter, because the real problem— or, rather, problems emerged from the exposed air vent.

    A greedent belly-flopped onto the floor, scattering dust across the pristine tiles. He quickly held his hands up to catch an equally-dusty nickit. "Gotcha, boss." Greedent lowered the small fox to the ground.

    "Nyek nyek! What'd I tell ya, Rookie? The air vents would be our ticket into this hoity-toity place." Nickit turned and grinned at his apparent partner. "Now all we've gotta do is find us something worth nicking! And then the whole kingdom will know of the terror that is the Crimson Zephyr!"

    "Hey, you two! What do you think you're doing?" Baraz squawked, thumping his massive tail against the floor. Both crooks hopped up in surprise, then looked at one another.

    "B-Boss… I thought you said everyone was gonna be in some kinda meeting," Rookie said, clutching his rotund belly.

    "I did say that. But I guess we didn't account for a couple of butt-ugly janitors wandering around the place." The Crimson Zephyr swished his broom-like tail in Yuna's direction. "Buon giorno. If you two lugs know what's good for ya… you'll walk away and forget you ever saw us. Otherwise, you'll face the wrath of the one and only Nickit Carpaccio!"

    "Uh, boss, is it really such a good idea to tell them your name? They can tell the police who you are, can't they?" Rookie pointed out. Nickit's eyes bugged out and he thwacked Rookie with his tail.

    "Why didn't you pipe up earlier, nut-for-brains?" Carpaccio huffed, his tail releasing a shadowy plume.

    Yuna flinched the moment she saw dark energy crackling around Carpaccio's tail. "M-Maybe we should listen to them. We're already running late."

    "You would dare to threaten the Aeon Princess and one of her attendants? Have you no shame?" Baraz asked, ignoring Yuna's words.

    "We just crawled through a filthy air vent," Carpaccio retorted, smirking. "A master thief ain't above anything… including cheap shots." And, with a flick of his tail, a seed shot in Baraz's direction. He spat up a ball of dragonfire, incinerating the seed before it could burst apart. "Now, Rookie!" Carpaccio called.

    Rookie curled up into a ball and a metallic sheen overtook him. Carpaccio Tail Slapped him, sending him bowling toward Baraz. Yuna's eyes widened. Without thinking, she shot toward Rookie with a burst of speed. But the large size different resulted in her ending up sprawled out on the ground with the entire room spinning.

    "Nyek nyek nyek! And here I thought bright 'mons went to this school," Carpaccio taunted, dark energy gathering around his mouth. Yuna looked up in horror and braced for more pain, only for a tan, brown, and yellow blur to strike a squealing Carpaccio. When she righted herself, she found Rookie lying on top of Carpaccio. Both twitched from lingering static electricity.

    "B-Baraz?" Yuna looked at her attendant.

    A large, beak-shaped lightning bolt dissipated around his tiny upper half. "Goodness me. It's… been a while since these old bones have had to resort to that attack." Baraz stretched out his arms. "Well now… even if you're going to be late, showing up with a couple of bandits in tow should win you a few favors, don't you think?"

    Yuna's cheeks burned.

    XxX​

    The oak doors creaked when Baraz threw them open with his tail. Yuna hoped the chatter of her peers would drown out the noise, but was horrified to find the dining hall dead silent. She floated next to Baraz, looking at the twelve columns of white, neatly-arranged glass tables containing a wide assortment of pokémon. Yuna never had so many sets of eyes on her before, not even at the functions her parents made her attend back home. At that moment, the chandelier hanging from the glass-domed ceiling became the most interesting thing in the room. She looked at the many crystal bulbs seated on tiny metal hooks, silently begging everyone to ignore her.

    "Ah, h-hello there! Sorry to barge in on you all like this." Baraz chuckled. Carpaccio and Rookie sat tied up beside him, still conked out from the Bolt Beak collision.

    That's when the whispers started. Though Yuna tried her best to filter them out, some of the comments slipped through her mental cracks.

    "Eww! What in heaven's name is that thing?"

    "Its upper and lower halves don't even match!"

    "God, I heard dragons were ugly, but that makes me want to vomit!"

    "We have to go to class with him?"

    "He better just be hired help."

    "Hey, I think that's the Aeon Princess next to him."

    Yuna shrank back, hiding behind Baraz's tail. She wanted to climb back into bed and forget this all happened. Yuna was a joltik in a room full of tyranitar and there were figurative feet ready to squish her. "I… I…" Her tail shriveled up. "Baraz, can we leave now?"

    "What's all this commotion, then?"

    Wingbeats drew a sharp "Eep!" from Yuna. She floated out from her hiding spot the moment a charizard landed in front of her and tucked in his blue-green wings. Yuna brought an arm up to her mouth to stifle her gasp. Why are his scales orange? Shouldn't his scales be black like Noctum's?

    "Ah, Chancellor Vortex, my sincere apologies." Baraz awkwardly bowed, which didn't help his lisp. Some chuckles rose up from students in the distance.

    "You're seven minutes and thirty-two seconds late," a gardevoir declared, teleporting in next to Vortex and nudging up the glasses resting on her face. "The Chancellor made it very clear you were to arrive at eight sharp to be introduced to the student body. He is a very busy 'mon and cannot afford to idle about."

    "Easy, Arianna." Vortex held the golden cane in his right hand up to Arianna's waist. The corviknight figurine atop it sparkled under the chandelier's light. "Let's hear them out, first."

    "Yuna here ran a bit late because she found these two scoundrels trying to break in through an air duct." Baraz gestured to the thieves beside him. "She recognized the disadvantageous match-up and called for help right away. As I was in the vicinity to check up on her, I leapt to her aid and, together, we gave these brutes the once-over." He jabbed the air with his tiny elbows.

    Yuna gulped, knowing that was far from the truth. Arianna tugged at a sleeve on her red-and-white suit. Her expression hadn't wavered from the icy, skeptical look she'd popped in with. Vortex, however, raised an amused brow. He adjusted his white cravat, tucked the cane under his elbow, and threw his head back in a hearty laugh while issuing applause.

    "Marvelous! Splendid! Quite a way to make an entrance," he declared, drawing surprised gasps from the students. "I daresay you won't have any trouble settling in with that kind of ingenuity, Princess." Vortex winked at Yuna, whose cheeks immediately flushed. She had to resist the urge to hide behind Baraz's tail again.

    Vortex turned to the crowd of students, the edges of his charcoal-gray suit jacket fluttering against his hips. "Now then… I'd like to take the opportunity to introduce all of you to the special new student I had mentioned earlier."

    Arianna locked eyes with Yuna. She nudged her glasses up and, next thing Yuna knew, an unseen force had dragged her up beside Chancellor Vortex. He motioned to her with his cane. "This is Princess Dreepy Yunavresca. She is here as an exchange student. Part of a goodwill gesture by the Aeon Kingdom to show their commitment to the peace treaty that's due to be signed.

    "She'll be joining the third-year class, but I expect all of you treat her with respect and dignity. You are all Horizon Academy students, after all!" Vortex thrust both arms to the side, flinging tiny embers around him that popped like small fireworks. Yuna's tail shriveled. He was certainly more… animated than the charizard she was used to.

    Murmurs rose up from the students once again. Yuna couldn't help but look around. A ponyta garbed in a scarlet robe looked at her intently. When her gaze crossed his, he turned with a huff, shielding his face with his pink, puffy mane. Whispers drew her attention to the Chancellor. Arianna was whispering something to him. Vortex nodded and the two promptly teleported to the other end of the dining hall.

    Yuna floated upward and saw Vortex standing on a raised platform behind a lectern. Arianna stood at his side, looking straight down at the planner in her right arm. "There's one last matter to discuss and I'm sure it's something you third-years are salivating at the bit over." Vortex tapped the top of his snout. "I'm talking, of course, about the annual Crowne Cup!" He threw his arms upward, creating more embers. A banner then unfurled on the wall behind him, unveiling a crimson tapestry with a golden sword and shield woven into it. Yuna focused on the crown positioned on the sword's hilt. It was a nice design.

    "Your official team assignments will be given out at the opening banquet," Vortex explained. "This year, however, we'll be holding a preliminary challenge." He pointed his cane at the student tables while they gasped and whispered to one another. Yuna frowned. There was already going to be some sort of test? She wasn't ready for anything like that.

    "The meltan have distributed a list of approved supplies to each of your mailboxes. You'll have the rest of the day to head into town and get any items on the list… assuming you want to, of course." Vortex chuckled.

    He leaned over so Arianna could whisper to him again. Vortex nodded. "Right then. That's it for now. I hope to see you all at this evening's banquet." He threw his head back and laughed while Arianna grabbed his shoulder. The two disappeared in a blue blink.

    "Uh, does that mean breakfast is over?" Baraz frowned. "And what about these tw—"

    "I've got 'em," a burly voice announced. Yuna squealed and turned around. A conkeldurr in a purple security uniform held the thieves up in one hand. He threw them over his shoulder and sauntered off, whistling a jaunty tune while his key ring jingled on his utility belt.

    By the time Yuna collected herself, the dining hall had burst into a flurry of activity with students chattering excitedly. Yuna's ectoplasm rippled and it was a matter of seconds before she brought her arms up to her head. "Nngh. T-Too loud," she said. "Baraz… m-maybe we can go get something in town later when I go to get supplies?" Yuna looked around the room nervously. Again, several sets of eyes were on her. The ponyta from earlier looked right at her. His tiara twinkled under the sunlight.

    … wait, why did he have a tiara?

    "Princess?" Baraz waved an arm in front of her face. "You're looking a bit pale."

    "I—" Yuna shook her head. "Sorry. Having trouble focusing with… with…"

    Torn paper echoed from the hall behind Yuna. Her tail crinkled. She whirled around and her face went even paler when she found a toxtricity balling up paper between her hands. She caught Yuna's eye and glared at her.

    "What are you looking at, Tiny?" Toxtricity held up her hand and dissolved the paper in a few globs of purple acid. "I'm just doing my part to keep the halls of our fine school clean. Got a problem with that?"

    "N-No. Of course not!" Yuna squeaked, eyes drawn to Toxtricity's leather jacket. She floated close to Baraz, who turned around.

    "Oh, hello! Are you one of Princess Yuna's new classmates?" He stepped toward her and extended an arm. "I'm Dracozolt Baraz, one of her attendants."

    "Dracowhatnow? Look, I don't really care." Toxtricity turned away, shrugging. "Just tell Princess Tiny not to look at me funny. Otherwise, we're gonna have problems." She adjusted the coat's collar and walked off, shoving her hands into her pockets. Yuna stared at the obstagoon graffiti scrawled on the back of the coat in confusion.

    "Um… I think we should head to town now," Yuna whispered, rubbing her arms together nervously.

    XxX​

    Thank God I don't have any neck muscles. I would've tweaked 'em for sure by now, Yuna glumly thought. She'd spent the whole morning looking at the school floor and now she couldn't take her eyes off the cobblestone streets of Horizon Gardens. Sure, she could brush this latest episode off as a product of all the gemstone-laded buildings reflecting sunlight. But in the back of her mind she could hear her father scolding her meek posture.

    Fortunately for Yuna, crackling embers and squeaky wagon wheels kept her from receding too far into her own thoughts. The charizard walking beside her had a certain bounce to his step and his tail-flame was larger than usual. "Okay, Noctum, I know you want to say something. Go ahead." Yuna waved her right arm toward his black tail.

    "With how that gardevoir described the town, I wasn't expecting there to be much here. But I was wrong." Eyes sparkling, Noctum held up the book pressed to his cream-colored chest. "Look! A dozen new stamps for my collection." He opened it and pointed to a stamp in the top-right corner of the page. "See the wooloo? Isn't it cute? I'll bet it's soft and snuggly… and won't shock me when I try to hug it like the mareep back home."

    Yuna sighed. Do I really need to remind him that we walked through the town to get to the school from the rail station? Or that the mareep back home have Static? She had her mouth open, but shut it when she saw Noctum smiling at the newly-completed page in his stamp book.

    "I'll have to be careful while we're here. Can't go blowing all my salary on stamps." Chuckling, Noctum closed the book and put it back into his satchel. "By the way, something wrong, Princess? You've been awfully quiet until now."

    "Uh…" Yuna squeezed her arms together. "It's been a confusing day. I've only met one other student… briefly. But there's going to be this big banquet in a few hours. I'm not sure what to do." She clasped the pendant around her neck nervously. There was also the looming threat of the introductory Crowne Cup test Chancellor Vortex had mentioned. Even with no idea what it was, it still terrified Yuna. Because if it involved any battling…

    "You have to put your best foot forward." Noctum stomped his right foot down on the path. "Figuratively speaking, of course."

    "Meaning?" Yuna tilted her head.

    "Well, you are the Aeon Princess, but you can't expect that to impress your classmates," Noctum replied. "They're nobility, too. So, you might have to try and strike up a friendly conversation."

    Easier said than done. Yuna fidgeted with her pendant. "You're personable. How about a suggestion?"

    "That's easy. Smile!" Noctum puffed out his chest. "People like warmth and friendliness. Nothing conveys that like a smile. Watch." He turned to his right, grinning, and waved at a passing ice darumaka. "Hello! Lovely weather we're having, isn't it?"

    The darumaka froze mid-step. Her eyes fixed on Noctum's toothy maw. "Ahh! Don't eat me, mister! I don't taste good!" She turned tail and ran off before Noctum could even retort. Yuna floated over and pet Noctum's back while his tail flame dimmed.

    It flared right back up, however. "Okay, new idea!" Noctum clapped his hands together. "That bookshop we were in had this book called Fire & Fighting: 151 Fun, Simple Ice-Breakers. Let's go buy it… and you can take it with you to the banquet." He set the handle of the wagon down. "Actually, I'll get it since I'm faster. Wait right here."

    "H-Hang on, Noctum, I—"

    Noctum zoomed away and Yuna threw an arm up over her face. "Never mind," she whispered, brushing dust off her pendant. Yuna couldn't knock his enthusiasm. She just wished it could rub off on her. Yuna floated over to the wagon Noctum was pulling. She lay on a tarp covering the box of supplies she'd purchased.

    I've never even used some of these things before. Wands, gravelrocks, iron thorns… Yuna fiddled with the tarp. The items' names were apt enough just based on what she'd seen in the store. Yet she couldn't help but worry how she'd manage to hold onto them with her nubby arms. Surely, these things were built for pokémon with fingers? Something that would continue to be a problem for her until she could reach her final evolution.

    "Wish I knew how to do that," she mumbled, tracing a circle through the tarp fabric. "At least I won't have to listen to Mother saying 'Respect your body and it'll respect you back,' whenever I ask about evolution."

    "Help! Somebody help me!"

    "You aren't deserving of help, sinner!"

    Yuna's head shot up. The shouts — one nasally and one deep, guttural, and distorted — came from behind the bakery next to Yuna. The shouts had made the furfrou and stoutland across the street from Yuna stop. "H-Hello! Um, how do we call the police?" Yuna asked. "I think someone's in trouble." She gestured toward the bakery.

    "If it's coming from the shop, then let the staff handle it," Stoutland said. He walked off with his furfrou partner following him. Yuna again turned back to the store and squealed when she heard a loud slam.

    "You smell of ether. You must repent! Kneel before Natus and beg forgiveness!"

    An orbeetle flew out in front of Yuna's wagon, panic strewn across his face. "I have no idea what you're talking about. Leave me alone," he shouted. "Help! Police!" Before he had the chance to float away, three energy balls struck the back of his head. He skipped along the ground like a playground ball. His bag fell several feet away from him. Hand-written notes lay strewn about the middle of the path.

    Yuna's reflex was to try and dive under the tarp, but it wouldn't budge. Heavy, thudding footsteps made her torso wither. Oh, Noctum, where are you? We've got a big problem! She gasped when a large, four-legged beast in a big stone mask and black, shredded robes lumbered out from beside the bakery. Broken chains clattered around its ankles with each step it took.

    "Lies! Yet more sins to weigh down your soul," the beast hissed. "You work for the school. You are a slave to the ether! Natus has judged you guilty. You must beg forgiveness or the Dark Omen, Xeromus, will cleanse this world of your sins."

    A crude sign of rusted metal clanged against Xeromus' robed chest. In unown, it read, "Repent! The Darkest Day is nigh!"

    "I… I only just started working at the school last month." The orbeetle looked despondently at his notes. He glanced at his bag, then raised his hands up. "If it's money you want, I don't have much. T-Truly! I've only received one pay check and my savings are tied up in loan payments!" The spots on his head turned pink. His bag quivered as a pink glow surrounded it.

    Xeromus caught sight of this. He slammed a foreleg on the ground. That was enough to get the orbeetle to cancel his telekinesis and resume screaming for help. "Cease your prattling. I am your help. You see… but you are blind! And I am the eyewear that will restore your true vision!"

    At last, Yuna had gotten the tarp open. Though she wanted to hide — God, Xeromus was huge — she wound up grabbing hold of a seed with tiny star-shaped patterns on it. She silently hovered up. Xeromus raised a glowing foreleg to strike at Orbeetle. Yuna hurled the seed forward. It hit the top of Xeromus' helmet and shattered. His leg slammed down to Orbeetle's right. Xermous staggered about, growling.

    He looked away from Orbeetle and shouted, "Yes, yes I'm doing what you asked. What you want. It takes time… it takes time…"

    Okay, so that confused him. Yuna tried to signal to Orbeetle to run, but he was still fixated on Xeromus. Fear had paralyzed him as it almost did to Yuna. She decided now was as good a time as any to make her presence known. "H-Hey! Leave him alone, you big oaf!"

    "Alone? No, he is not alone. There are too many sinners." Xeromus snarled. He looked around, blinking his beady, yellow eyes rapidly. It shocked Yuna that Xeromus wouldn't face her. Did confusion mess with his senses that much?

    "How is he sinning, huh? You're the one attacking him for no reason." Yuna floated up, a determined look on her face. "And that's going to get your behind thrown in jail."

    "Jail? I am no villain. I'm the hero!" Xeromus smacked a foreleg on the ground. "The hero who will save you all from the sin of ether, so Natus doesn't smite you into oblivion." Loud snorts rang out across the street. "And you… you reek of Natus, whoever you are!"

    Are you sure that's not your own musk you're smelling? Yuna thought, reeling from Xeromus' nauseating stench. She had to keep him talking, though. Surely someone saw this and was calling the police. "You're a hero?"

    "Not a hero… the hero!" Xeromus huffed. His sign clanked against the base of his helmet.

    "What kind of hero calls himself the Dark Omen, huh?" Yuna narrowed her eyes at him.

    "This kind!" Xeromus jerked his head left, then right. His helmet and chains rattled. "You are drinking the champagne of lying aristocrats! Dark and light isn't binary. Good and evil is not so black and white. It is a gray street of many directions!" Xeromus doubled over in a coughing fit. Yuna looked to Orbeetle, who had finally collected his wits and floated away into a nearby greenery. The timing was perfect, too, as Xeromus had stopped swaying about. He locked eyes with Yuna and stomped toward her.

    "You walk a straight path because that is what the ether tells you to do," Xeromus growled. The color drained from Yuna's face. She dove back into the supply crate to look for another one of those seeds. "But Natus' fumes cling to your body. You have the power to break free… to pick your own actions! Rise against these ether-users or you will become like the rest of them… and your 'choices' won't matter at— ngarrgh!"

    The temperature spiked around Yuna. She poked her head up from the crate and found Noctum backing away from Xeromus. Smoke billowed out from his nostrils. "Don't you dare lay a grubby claw on her!" he snarled.

    "Fool! I'm trying to save her, but the ether has blinded you to that," Xeromus spat. Red, blue, and yellow energy balls surrounded him. He launched them at Noctum. Yuna recognized the Tri-Attack and darted out from the box straight into the attack's line. The energy balls fizzled out against her head.

    "What?" Xeromus froze in place. "You weren't supposed to jump in like that." He threw his head back and laughed. "So, you are resisting the ether. But clinging to these ether-users will erode your choices." Xeromus held his head high. "Stand aside. I must see to it that this 'mon is—"

    Xeromus tensed up, then hopped to his right. Ice Shards whizzed past him. He growled and shook his helmeted head. "It seems we'll have to resume this discussion at a later date." Xeromus' sign glowed with silver energy. A rainbow beam surrounded him and whisked him off into the sky seconds before more Ice Shards came flying in. Yuna squealed and flopped to the ground. Noctum's briefly gasped, but regained his composure and shot out three fireballs. The Ice Shards melted.

    "You folks okay?" an abomasnow security officer asked, stomping over to their location. "Got a call from the greenery about a commotion. What was that thing?" He scratched his head.

    Yuna picked herself up off the ground, breathing heavily as she processed what had just happened. "I… I have no idea. That thing was nuts. Spoke in nothing but riddles." She clutched the sides of her head and shivered.

    Noctum put a hand on Yuna's back. "Princess, you shouldn't have put yourself at risk like that." He frowned. "But I shouldn't have left you alone like that. I'm terribly sorry."

    "It's fine, Noctum." Yuna waved him off. "Neither of us could've expected something like that." They looked silently at one another, until the faint buzzing of wings drew their attention left. Orbeetle floated over to them, clutching his bag and beaming.

    "Oh, goodness me. Thank you so much, m'dear." Orbeetle bowed his bulbous head in Yuna's direction repeatedly. "I was heading back to the school when that horrid beast ambushed me out of nowhere. He took one look at some of my research notes and flew into a rage." He shrank back from Yuna, shivering. "I don't know what I would've done if you hadn't stepped in."

    "I… it was nothing," Yuna said, though she was still in shock that she did step in against Xeromus. She wanted to change the subject quickly. "So, you're a teacher at the school, then?"

    "Yes." He adjusted his grip on his bag. "Where are my manners? Professor Orbeetle Cid." He extended a hand to Yuna. "I'm, err, new to Horizon Academy. I teach history."

    Yuna took his hand and shook it. "Nice to meet you. I'm—"

    "This is Princess Dreepy Yunavresca of the Aeon Kingdom," Noctum butted in, presenting her with an extended left wing.

    "Ah, of course. Forgive me, I've never seen a dragon in person before." Cid bowed his head once again. "A pleasure, Your Majesty. And a shame we couldn't meet under better circumstances."

    "It's really not a big deal," Yuna whispered, cheeks burning. She wanted to snap at Noctum, but knew he meant well.

    "Actually, I think you're in my block three history class, so we'll be working together this year," Cid explained, smiling.

    "Oh, really? Guess I can look forward to that, then." Yuna returned the smile, relieved she'd at least know someone going into the start of classes. Even if the circumstances behind their meeting were a bit… odd.

    "Hate to break up this little pow-wow… but I've gotta get you all back to the academy," Abomasnow said, attaching a strange crystal to a Velcro strap on his vest. "Just finished reporting this incident and Chancellor Vortex says he needs you three in his office right away." He faced Yuna. "Said something about your parents wanting to speak with you."

    Yuna gulped. As if this day couldn't get any worse.
     
    Chapter 2
  • Ambyssin

    "No need to quiver, dear."
    Pronouns
    he/him
    I can't help but wonder what happened to that meltan. Was he just... left there?
    Pretty much. Though, if you couldn't tell, it's kind of like a house elf in Harry Potter.
    Nickit is one of my favourite designs from Gen 8 and it certainly fits the part of a thief. His character stood out to me, and I feel he and his friend would make a great comedy duo!
    I think we might see them again sometime. :P
    I wasn't expecting a villainous Type: Null to appear either! He was super creepy.
    I'm not gonna exclude my favorite species. Even if I'm going in a very different direction with this one.
    I'm definitely hooked and looking forward to seeing where this goes, and what further twists you throw on the PMD setting =D
    Hopefully I can satiate those interests for you. Thanks for reviewing!

    XxX

    Chapter 2: I Don't Know How That Got in There
    "Take your shot already, Robin," a ponyta huffed, forelegs braced against the side of a red billiards table with blue felt. "I can see cobwebs growing near me."

    Across from him, a sirfetch'd stood with his leek carefully positioned behind the cue ball and threaded between two of his left wing-digits. "Patience, Shimmer. A skilled bank shot like this takes time and focus." Robin slowly moved the leek forward and back.

    "It's been three minutes! My mane's going to gray at this rate." Shimmer flicked his cotton candy hair over his right shoulder, then brushed dust off his scarlet vest's gold trimmings.

    With a smirk, Robin struck the cue ball. It rolled to the wall on his right, then banked off at a ninety-degree angle and struck the seven ball, knocking it into the center-left cup. Robin stood up straight and held his leek triumphantly. "Now all that's left is the eight ball and I win." He gestured to the black ball in question. "And I'm lined up perfectly for it."

    Shimmer rolled his eyes. "Only because you took longer with each of your shots than the meltan do with my laundry." He pushed off the table and landed on all fours. His hooves plinked against the marble floor. "Billiards is supposed to be relaxing. Yet every time I play you, I can feel my blood pressure going up." Shimmer sniffed at the puffy lining of his vest and cringed. "Ugh. Good thing I didn't change into my gown for the banquet yet. It'd be lined with sweat."

    "Make all the excuses you want." Robin positioned himself on the edge of the table and lined his leek up to strike the cue ball straight at the eight ball. "This game is still mine. Eight ball, corner pock—"

    The oak door to the boys' dorm lounge swung open and a sylveon charged in. "Guys, you're not gonna believe this!"

    "Gah!" Robin jumped the moment he struck the cue ball, causing it to spin out to his left and drop into the corner pocket closest to Shimmer. The ponyta stole Robin's confident smirk.

    "A scratch on the eight ball. Looks like I win." Shimmer flicked his head to his right. "As if there was ever any doubt."

    Robin raised his right wing to slam his leek on the table, but managed to contain his anger. Instead, he whirled on the sylveon. "What's the big idea, Xander? You cost me the game!"

    "Yeah, seriously." Shimmer tilted his head. "Where have you been? We finished getting our supplies hours ago." He noticed pit stains on Xander's pink lace robes. "Were you at the gym… in that outfit?"

    "No." Xander stood hunched over, catching his breath. He tilted his head back for a few seconds, then squared up his stance. "I was out in the courtyard helping the art club with the last sign for tonight and you're not gonna believe what I saw!"

    "Look, if you caught another pair of first-years in a make-out session, then take it up with someone else," Shimmer dismissed with a tap of his right forehoof. "We have more important things to—"

    Xander shook his head. "Wasn't that, Your Highness. It was the new girl— the little wyrm thingy." He wiggled his ribbons around. "I saw her getting walked up to Chancellor Vortex's office with a filthy-looking charizard and an orbeetle."

    "So? I'm not her babysitter," Xander sneered. "You gonna tear up the school halls every time she sneezes?"

    "That's not it. Not too long before that, I saw her parents go into the Chancellor's office." Xander grinned. "I bet she's in trouble."

    Shimmer quirked a brow. "Or maybe her parents got cold feet and are pulling her out? Dragons are all cold-blooded, icy-hearted brutes anyway. They probably took one look at the school's curriculum and realized their daughter would fail."

    "I don't know." Robin picked up his shield, carefully built from the base of his leek. "Is it really that bad if she's here? What about Chiaki? He's reptilian, too, and there's that gabite body guard that's always skulking along with him."

    "He may be reptilian, but he's not a true dragon," Xander said. "As long as the gabite isn't around, he's perfectly reasonable company."

    "Reasonable is an understatement," Shimmer scoffed. "He's tolerable at best."

    "Okay." Robin's shoulders sagged. "But that's all irrelevant. Doesn't Her Eminence want you to befriend the new girl? Our kingdoms are trying to get along, remember?"

    "Tch. I suppose." Shimmer brushed his mane out of his face. "But we shouldn't have to lower ourselves to the dragons' backwards standards. I hear they still live in shacks made of mud and rocks."

    "Well, one thing's for sure, we're looking at another problem kid." Xander rubbed his snout with a ribbon. "She's bound to be trouble… just like Nikki."

    "Oh god, don't remind me of her." Shimmer rolled his eyes. "I feel so bad for whoever gets stuck on her Crowne Cup team. They're guaranteed to be eliminated in the first leg… and that shame will stick with them the rest of their lives."

    "So, should we try to see if we can find out more about our 'esteemed' exchange student?" Robin wondered.

    Shimmer shook his head. "No. Let the Chancellor handle her. We should prepare for tonight." His eyes sparkled. "After all, as glee club president, I get the honor of introducing Starlene!"

    "Aww man, you're gonna get me an autograph, right?" Xander said, batting his eyelids at Shimmer.

    The ponyta walked by him. "I'll think about it." Shimmer hip-checked Xander.

    XxX​

    "This is an outrage!" A duraludon slammed his silver fist down on a pristine, white oak desk. Papers scattered and folders opened. Spittle doused the papers closest to him. "We bring Yunavresca here as a gesture of goodwill and on her first day she's assaulted twice in the span of hours!"

    Doing her best to hide between Noctum's right leg and the side of a black leather couch, Yuna wasn't sure what she found scarier: one of her dad's rare outbursts or the fact that, throughout it, Chancellor Vortex kept the same enthusiastic grin he had on in the dining hall.

    "King Calcifer, I understand your frustrations," Vortex said, producing a handkerchief from his jacket's inner pocket and wiping the saliva off his desk. "But I would ask that you please not take them out on my desk. It is one of a kind, you see. Utterly irreplaceable."

    The dragapult floating beside Calcifer put a hand on his gold-plated shoulder bangle. "Deep breaths, dear." Her serene expression quickly shifted, however. "I should think we have every right to be frustrated, sir. Queen Calliope told us that Horizon Gardens was the safest place in the entire kingdom. So, how do you explain these transgressions?"

    Vortex clasped his hands together. "Why, they're nothing more than a pair of unfortunate coincidences. What can I say, Queen Yiazmat? These things happen."

    Yiazmat wasn't convinced. "No. If it happens once, it's a coincidence. If it happens twice… it's a pattern." Her expression darkened further. Normally, Yuna would expect one of her twin brothers to pipe up and lighten the mood, but they weren't in the dragapult's horns.

    "Y-Your Majesty, please… I'm at fault here." Noctum put a hand on his chest. "If I hadn't left Princess Yuna—"

    "Save your breath, Noctum," Yiazmat said, hand raised to silence him. "Our daughter should not need round-the-clock monitoring to safely attend this institution. Especially if it's located in the same community as the base for this kingdom's army."

    "Yes, well, I'm afraid the Radiant Guard are a bit preoccupied at the moment." Vortex leaned over to rest his elbows on his desk. "So, we have fewer of them here than usual."

    "Preoccupied… because of the mystery dungeons that appeared across your kingdom overnight?" Yiazmat raised a brow. Yuna's tail crinkled up. She hadn't heard anything about that. A quick glance at Noctum suggested he was equally clueless. The only thing tipping her off that her mother wasn't bluffing was the momentary lapse in Vortex's cheery expression.

    "I don't know what you're talking about." He preoccupied himself rearranging the papers Calcifer scattered. Yuna wasn't buying it. She poked her head out from behind the couch to get a better look at her mother's cross expression.

    "Don't lie to me." Yiazmat crossed her arms. "I had some of my best fliers do a survey of the kingdom early this morning. There are distortion pillars rising up within your cities."

    "It was also the cover story in the Radiant Beacon," Calcifer added. "I take it this is why neither of the queens are here? Because I would think that they would want to do their best to make their esteemed guests feel welcome and safe."

    Vortex sighed and rubbed his horns. "Ah, forgive me. I was under the impression that a visiting delegation would refrain from conducting surveillance in a foreign territory." He pivoted his office chair slightly to look out the full-scale window behind him. "Especially a delegation seeking a treaty with said territory."

    "Don't try to deflect the matter," Yiazmat growled. Shadows flared inside her horns. "The treaty hasn't been signed and we still remember the past icy receptions your nobility has given us."

    "My apologies. I mean no ill-will." Vortex raised his hands and laughed innocently. "I'm sorry. The past twenty-four hours have been… stressful, to say the least."

    Yuna gulped. It was true, then. Mystery dungeons were popping up within cities. Did that mean Horizon Gardens was vulnerable to the distortion, too? Could the school be swallowed up? If Yuna got trapped in a dungeon, she wouldn't stand a chance of escaping unharmed.

    She looked around the room, desperate for any signs Vortex knew how to protect the school. All she got were some framed paintings of the charizard. Magazine covers labeling him "Person of the Year" or ribbon cutting ceremonies where he stood proudly with his gardevoir assistant. The shelves in the room didn't reassure her, either. There were small statues, glass figurines, a couple of antique snow globes, and collections of books about economics.

    "Hey, is everything all right?" Noctum bent over. "You look a bit pale."

    "You heard them. M-Mystery dungeons," Yuna squeaked. "What if… what if we get swallowed into a dungeon, Noctum?"

    The black charizard gave her a quick side-hug with his right arm. "Baraz and I won't let that happen to you."

    Yuna wished she found that reassuring, but kept thinking of the strange, helmeted beast that attacked her earlier. Why did it seem so interested in her? Was it trying to spread distortion into Horizon Gardens?

    "Really? An accidental explosion?" Yiazmat drew Yuna's attention back to Vortex's desk.

    Vortex sighed. "I'm afraid so. One of our Crowne Ministers was working with some guards in his estate when they accidentally set off several blast seeds in succession." He shook his head. "The explosion triggered what I believe are magical self-defense systems within the Needles. They generated the distortion pillars, creating the mystery dungeons in question."

    "But Chancellor Vortex, how is that even possible?" Cid piped up. Yuna was surprised the orbeetle was still there. It seemed she wasn't the only one who could make her presence small. "The barriers Polaris developed are supposed to protect us from distortion."

    "The barriers are designed to stop distortion with known, analyzed wavelengths," Vortex explained, gazing out his window at rolling green hills with train tracks wedged between them. "The Needles must've produced distortion fields with unique wavelengths."

    "Then doesn't that mean your cities are going to be swallowed up by distortion?" Calcifer shot Yiazmat a worried look. Yuna's tail crinkled up again. The dreepy wanted to go back to her room and forget this day had ever happened.

    "That remains to be seen. So far, there's been no spread," Vortex replied. "Perhaps the barriers are having an effect in that regard."

    "We could offer you assistance," Yiazmat said. "The whole reason you want this treaty is because we can reduce distortion levels in your kingdom."

    "Though I appreciate the thought, it's not my call." Vortex brushed off his jacket. "I defer to the queens and their advisors."

    "And they are… where, exactly?" Calcifer asked. The duraludon tapped his right foot.

    "Quelling fears within Parliament." Vortex walked back to his desk and resumed collecting scattered papers. "I would've gone there myself, but after I heard about what happened to your daughter, I thought it best to speak with you in-person."

    "I see." Yiazmat crossed her arms. "So, rather than having one of them spare time to tend to their would-be allies, they offered us a glorified messenger lizard with a cane and a fancy suit." She glanced at the cane in question. The corviknight figurine sparkled from the afternoon sunlight.

    "The cane is for show. A status symbol," Vortex retorted. "And make no mistake, Queen Yiazmat," he adjusted the lapels of his suit jacket, "unlike some charizard… I'm not content to kowtow to others."

    It was quick, but Yuna spotted the sideways glance Vortex gave Noctum. He did, too, since he grabbed his shoulder belt while his tail flame shrank. "A-Again, Your Majesties, I'm really sorry about what happened," Noctum whispered, squeezing the belt straps.

    "You're fine, Noctum." Yiazmat waved him off. "Well then, Chancellor, answer me this… knowing the community is at risk, do you still intend to hold this Crowne Cup event you railed about the other day?"

    Vortex didn't hesitate with his response. "Absolutely." He held an index finger up. "I see that doubtful look in your eyes. But, dignitaries or not, I can't expect foreigners to understand and appreciate just what the Crowne Cup means to the kingdom and its people." Vortex stepped away from the desk and paced in front of the window. "It is more than a simple game or test… it is the foundation upon which our students build their futures!

    "They get to see and experience the inner workings of important businesses throughout the kingdom. And the challenges the Ministers create pass their leadership skills to the next generation… all while the citizens watch and see their future leaders in action." He stopped and pointed at Yuna. "This journey… it will give you the keys to unlock a brighter tomorrow and spread hope to every corner of the world."

    Vortex threw his arms apart, his coattails fluttering. "That is what the Crowne Cup is truly about: cultivating hope." A broad smile spread across his face. "Hope invigorates. Hope inspires. Hope brings people together. If we want a prosperous future, then we need hope."

    He stopped to catch his breath, then looked back at Yuna's parents. "And that, Your Majesties, is why I won't cancel the Crowne Cup."

    Yuna went slack-jawed. While Vortex's enthusiasm had previously unnerved her, the passion behind his impromptu speech made something stir inside her ectoplasm. She knew what this was. Her mother described it as her race's equivalent of a racing heart. The question is… am I excited or scared? She honestly wasn't sure.

    "A moving speech." Yiazmat slowly applauded. "I daresay, were you among Aeons, you'd have numerous folks belting flames and dragonfire toward the sky in celebration."

    Vortex's smile slowly receded. "I'm hearing… hesitation."

    Yiazmat floated over to Yuna, who promptly tensed. "Cultivating hope sounds noble on paper. But it is something you can do without risking the safety of our daughter." The dragapult put her hands on the sides of Yuna's triangular head. "We'll let Princess Yunavresca stay… provided you withdraw her from the Crowne Cup."

    "What?" Cid and Yuna exclaimed in unison. They looked in bewilderment at each other, before focusing on Yiazmat.

    "You heard me, Yunavresca. I don't want you taking part in this ritual." Yiazmat leaned over. "You have far too much at stake."

    "B-But, Mom—"

    "This isn't open for negotiation."

    Yuna's gaze fell toward the ground. Her mother was giving her an out. There'd be no worrying about a preliminary test or trying to work with complete strangers. Strangers who'd probably give her the cold shoulder because of her dragon-typing. She wouldn't have to battle, either. Yuna could keep her head down, focus on her school work, graduate, and return to her friends.

    So why was this giving her pause? The longer the dreepy reflected on it, the less okay she felt about accepting it without a fight.

    Vortex's footsteps broke the tense silence. He returned to his office chair and flipped through papers. "I see. I suppose I could arrange that. She wouldn't be the only one." He paused and pulled over yellow folder. "A few students always opt out for various reasons. But they have the luxury of doing so earlier… before the teams are set."

    "Meaning what?" Calcifer asked.

    "If I pull your daughter out… I'll also have to sideline the two students the committee partnered her with." Vortex held up the yellow folder. "And, well, I'm not too sure they'd take it well. To say nothing of how their parents would respond."

    That was it. The reason Yuna was so unsure of it. She'd already gotten off to an awkward start with her peers. The last thing she wanted was to make things even worse by sitting out such a big, important event. That would isolate her from the rest of the school for sure.

    "Are you serious?" Yiazmat's spectral tail lashed at the air. "You, an educator, would use peer pressure to try and get to our daughter? The nerve!"

    Yuna looked at her mom. She had to say something. But the words were trapped in her mouth.

    "Peer pressure?" Vortex raised his hands innocently. "I'm doing nothing of the sort. I'm only trying to give you the full picture."

    "Mom, I—"

    "We demand to speak to Queen Isola this instant," Calcifer said, ready to slam his fist on the desk again.

    "Stop it!" Yuna finally yelled. She flinched at her shrill voice and shrank back when her parents looked at her.

    "What's wrong, Yuna?" Calcifer took a step toward her. Yuna hovered higher.

    "I… I don't want to sit out."

    Yiazmat briefly glared at Vortex, before putting on a calmer expression to face her daughter with. "Yuna, sweetie, I understand how you feel, but—"

    "No, you don't. C-Chancellor Vortex is right, Mom." Yuna squeezed the sides of her head. "I can't sit by while everyone else takes part in the Crowne Cup. It's just going to make the other students hate me." Her arms sagged. "They were already looking at me and Baraz funny this morning. I don't want to make it worse."

    "That's no reason to put yourself in harm's way," Yiazmat said. "Just tell us who was making you uncomfortable. We'll talk with the queens and—"

    "It won't work, Mom. You can't force people to like me," Yuna growled, only to throw her hands over her mouth. She waited until her trembling died down before continuing. "You and Dad always make a point of how you won't be around forever… and, once I'm queen, I'm going to have to look after myself and make my own decisions." Yuna squeezed her eyes shut. "W-Well, if I can't make decisions for myself in school… how can I expect to be a good queen for the kingdom?"

    She poked an eye open. Noctum looked at her blankly, as did her parents. Cid focused on one of Vortex's lavender vases. The orange charizard, however, vigorously applauded her. "Well said, Princess!" He put his hands on his hips. "I was right in my assessment at the dining hall… you're going to do quite well here with that attitude."

    Yuna blanched. "I, uh— thanks, sir." She curtly bowed.

    Her parents, however, still looked concerned. "Yuna… we're worried about your safety," Calcifer said. "If we return home and something happens to you—"

    "Isn't that why Noctum and Baraz are here?" Yuna gestured at the black charizard. "And what about Captain Dimitry?"

    Vortex clasped his hands together. "If you're concerned for the Princess' safety, I can ask Her Eminence to loan Radiant Guardsmon. They can serve as escorts for her if she travels away from Horizon Gardens."

    Yuna's parents exchanged frowns. For a moment, Yuna was worried she hadn't convinced them. But her spirits lifted when their postures eased up. "Very well. I suppose that she can take part… provided she receives that escort." Yiazmat looked down. "I'd rather surround her with my own troops, but we'll take what we can get in this situation."

    "I assure you, I'll provide her with the most capable officers we have," Vortex said. He walked around his desk to make for the door. "Now then, how about I let Princess Yuna return to her room so she can prepare for the—"

    "Chancellor."

    Arianna appeared in front of the office door in a flash of blue light. Yuna tensed upon seeing the toxtricity she'd encountered earlier ensnared in the gardevoir's psychic grasp.

    Vortex's tail flame briefly sparked. "Arianna. Your timing is… well, it could be better." He cleared his throat and gestured to Yuna's parents.

    "Apologies. I assumed this meeting had already concluded." Arianna nudged her glasses up to hide her expression. Though Yuna imagined it was still stoic.

    "It's not a problem. We were just about to take our leave." Yiazmat floated toward the door. Noctum scrambled forward to open it for her. "Come, Yuna. We'll take you back to your room."

    "O-Okay." Yuna floated toward her mom. She quickened her pace when she passed Toxtricity.

    Cid tried to follow after them, but Vortex held up his right hand. "Don't leave yet. We have business to discuss after I tend to this."

    Tensing further, Cid held up his right arm. His telekinesis shut the office door. As he back away from Arianna, Vortex turned to her.

    "So, what seems to be the problem? Is our dear, sweet Nicolette causing trouble again?"

    "There's no problem. And it's Nikki." She tried to pull herself away from Arianna, but the gardevoir's ESP was too strong.

    "I caught this scoundrel defacing the posters of Starlene that the art club put together for tonight's banquet." Arianna flicked her left arm. A rolled-up poster appeared next to her and unfurled. Nikki had spray-painted cartoonish dragon fangs and horns over a sparkle-filled drawing depicting a meloetta. Cid had to stop himself from laughing.

    "I wasn't defacing 'em. I was adding my own artistic flair," Nikki grunted. Her struggling against Arianna had weakened.

    Vortex sighed and rubbed his temples. "While I admire your passion, Nicolette, I can't have you channeling it against your peers." He took the poster, held it up to his snout, and snorted out tufts of fire. The poster burned to cinders that Vortex caught in his hands. He took them to a trash bin beside his desk. "Why don't you join the art club? That way you can channel this passion of yours in a way that will uplift students' spirits and grow their hope."

    "The art club can kiss my ass. They're stuffier than a room full of weezing."

    Arianna's eyes flickered blue. "Don't you talk down about your peers like that," she snapped.

    Vortex chuckled and raised a hand. "Easy, Arianna. We don't want to quash Nicolette's spirit. It's part of what makes her unique." He sat on the edge of his desk, careful to keep his tail flame safely above the papers. "That uniqueness needs to be nurtured… in a way that's productive. So, this graffiti of yours simply won't do."

    Nikki snorted. "Agree to disagree, Chancellor." She crossed her arms and looked away. "So, what now? You gonna make me miss the banquet? That's fine by me."

    "That would be a proper punishment in this situation," Arianna said, looking down at her notebook.

    "Proper? Perhaps. But would it be productive?" Vortex tapped a claw on his desk. He looked to Cid. "What do you think, Professor? Should Miss Nicolette be barred from the banquet?"

    Cid tensed up. He intended to remain silent through this conversation. Heck, he was tuning the other three out until Vortex put him on the spot. "Y-Yes. Madame Vice-Chancellor is right, sir. If she's defacing banners for the banquet… won't she cause trouble at the actual event if we let her attend?"

    "Indeed. A good deduction." Vortex crossed his arms and grinned pleasantly. "However, it's not a productive one."

    Arianna quirked a brow. "Sir?"

    "Chrome Dome's telling the truth, though. What if I take my artistic vision to the banquet itself?" Nikki smirked and tugged at the sides of her leather jacket.

    Vortex's smile widened. "That's exactly what I want you to do."

    "Eh?"

    "Like I said… your passion needs direction." Vortex crossed one leg over another. "Excluding you from the banquet does nothing to achieve that. But if I, say, assign you to work with the stage crew from now until the end of the banquet—"

    Nikki's smirk vanished. "What? I'm not working on the stage crew. I'll blow out the lights with a Boomburst. I'll— ow!"

    A psychic force tugged on her right horn. "Don't interrupt the Chancellor," Arianna scolded.

    "Working on the stage crew is a great way to teach you to channel your passion in a productive manner." Vortex smiled warmly. "Once you see how much the students appreciate your work, I'm sure it will fill you with hope. Hope that will energize you in your studies."

    Nikki wanted to retort, but Vortex held up his hand. "And, of course, I'll have Professor Monokuma supervise you… just to make sure everything goes smoothly."

    The color drained from Nikki's face. A brief image of a hulking bewear flashed through Cid's mind. He hovered back, fidgeting nervously. The poor girl. If she stepped out of line, she'd probably get one of his awful hugs.

    "Now then… Arianna, be a dear and escort Miss Nicolette to the gym." Vortex waved the two ladies off. Arianna nodded, then placed a hand on Nikki's shoulder. The toxtricity was about to blurt something out, but the two vanished as fast as they had appeared. Once they did, Cid exhaled deeply.

    "I don't know how you can stay so calm dealing with that," Cid said, gesturing toward the marble floor where Arianna previously stood.

    "I've had years of experience." Vortex chuckled as he walked toward the shelves opposite Cid. He opened a drawer and produced a bottle of bourbon along with two small glasses. "Would you like one?"

    The orbeetle's spots flashed blue. "I'll, uh, pass, sir." He looked away while Vortex prepared his drink. "What did you want me to stay for?"

    Sipping the bourbon, Vortex walked back to his desk. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to make some last-minute changes to the Crowne Cup team you're supervising."

    "Y… you…" His spots flickered erratically. This had to be because of the meeting. "I see. So, you're moving the princess to a new team?"

    "Oh no. You'll still be her advisor." Vortex set his drink down and opened up a folder. "But I'll be giving her two new teammates." He held up two photos. Cid immediately recognized Nikki sticking her tongue out and holding up her hand to form an L on her forehead. But the other photo — a scowling grovyle with black, triangular markings under his eyes and a black pokébase cap on his head — drew a complete blank.

    "Sir, if I may? I'm not sure this is a good idea." Cid poked two fingers together nervously. "Nikki is quite the firebrand. Any team she's on will struggle to pass the first leg."

    "That's the point."

    The cheerfulness in Vortex's voice gave Cid pause. "I— e-excuse me?"

    "Princess Yuna wants to compete in the Crowne Cup." Vortex held up his right hand. "Her parents don't." He held up his left hand. "Thus, the best way to approach this problem is to place her on a dysfunctional team that will likely fall at the first hurdle. She'll be able to compete, but will be eliminated early… dispelling her parents worries about travelling outside of Horizon Gardens." He clasped his hands together and squeezed tight.

    Cid frowned. Hadn't Vortex mentioned a committee choosing the teams? Was he going to supersede that whole process on a whim? Still, Cid had to admit, it wasn't a bad plan. He just wished it wasn't his team that had to be the proverbial sacrifice in this situation. He didn't want his first impression with the other faculty to be that of a loser whose team got bounced from the Crowne Cup in the first leg.

    "You're new to this, Cid." Vortex lifted his bourbon glass and held it by his snout. "You have yet to learn that diplomacy has just as much of a place in the classroom as it does in Parliament. Those who can make both sides happy go far in this profession."

    He swallowed the rest of the bourbon in one swig and set the glass down. "If you can't drill that into your head… then the next time we meet, you'll be handing me your letter of resignation." Vortex frowned. "And I would hate to see your brilliant mind go to waste when it has such a great potential for cultivating hope."

    Cid stared at the empty glass, then Vortex, then the glass again. Of course the Chancellor had high hopes for him. He wouldn't have hired him otherwise… right? "How, uh—" He swallowed hard. "How many professors have failed to, y'know, drill that into their heads?"

    "In my time as Chancellor… I've had half a dozen resignations pass my desk." The charizard looked out the window pensively. "All young and bright-eyed like you."

    "I see."

    "But I have faith in your abilities." Vortex turned back around. "If you're ever struggling, I suggest you speak to Professor Vegna. He can help."

    "Vegna?"

    "Dusknoir Vegna."

    Cid gulped. Hadn't he heard that name before? "Wait… like Inquisitor Vegna?

    "The very same."

    Cid's heart pounded in his chest. "R-Right." He buzzed toward the door. "I should get going. Thank you for your time, Chancellor."

    Vortex smiled. "Anytime. I'll be seeing you at the banquet for the team unveiling, yes?"

    "Of course, sir." Cid bobbed his head, then hurriedly flew out the door.
     
    Chapter 3
  • Ambyssin

    "No need to quiver, dear."
    Pronouns
    he/him
    Chapter 3: Banquet While You're Ahead
    Yuna expected the dining hall to be the largest place on campus. However, she quickly realized the gymnasium dwarfed it. She figured her parents could fit three— maybe even four of their hundred-meter throne rooms across the polished wooden floor. It sparkled under the light of the moon and stars shining through the glass dome.

    It also didn't take Yuna long to realize how overwhelming the banquet was. Sure, she'd been to dinner parties with her parents before. But they were, at most, a couple of dozen people. Not hundreds of pokémon of all different shapes and sizes mingling. After floating by the entry doors and staring at the large, T-shaped stage set up on the opposite end, she hovered toward the corner on her right.

    At first, she did it to try and make the room seem smaller, but the smell of oven-cooked goodies made her mouth water. The dreepy zipped for the nearest table, only to slow up when she realized Noctum stood behind it. Yuna's attempts to duck behind a torkoal's shell failed when Noctum called out, "Ah, Princess, you made it. Come here and check this out."

    Sighing, Yuna floated over to the table, trying to ignore Noctum's cheerful grin. His black scales clashed with the pink apron around his belly. "Hey, Noctum." She rubbed her neck. "Guess they've got you helping with the food?"

    "I volunteered." Noctum puffed his chest out. "And I'm so glad I did. Otherwise, I never would've discovered these marvels!" He held up a serving tray full of what Yuna thought were shrunken quiches. "Look at them. I didn't think it was possible for a quiche to be this small." The charizard laughed. "You could tell me a bunch of joltik cooked them and I'd believe you."

    "That's… nice." Yuna rubbed her arms together. "But I should really—"

    "And that's not all." Noctum pointed to a tray on his right. There were doughy rolls with bits of vegetables sticking out. "Apparently they call these things 'spring rolls.' I'm not sure why, though. Perhaps it's the veggies?"

    "Noctum, we need to bring out another tray of onion rings!"

    "Ah!" The charizard's tail sparked blue. "Coming, Baraz!" He glanced at Yuna. "Sorry I can't stay and help you get acquainted with anyone, Princess. Cheers." Noctum spread his wings out and glided toward the staff door, leaving Yuna look over the spring rolls.

    Well, if she was going to be alone, she could at least help herself to some good food. Yuna grabbed a plate then took a couple of mini-quiches and some onion rings. It occurred to her, however, that she'd need somewhere to set the plate down to eat properly. Fortunately, a quick glance right revealed some glass tables lined up against a plastic, segmented wall. Yuna found the wall strange, but didn't want to think too much on it. Otherwise, someone would swoop the lone empty table.

    She floated over to it and set her plate down, sighing again. The dreepy raised a mini-quiche like she was about to make a toast. "Here's to… to…" Yuna looked around. Most of the students were conversing with one another. Some — including the tiara-wearing ponyta from breakfast — were on a raised dance floor in front of the stage. Ponyta basked under the glow of blue and violet stage lights.

    "Here's to surviving the next month," Yuna whispered. She shoved the quiche in her mouth. The taste of egg, fresh feta cheese, and steak bits washed away her melancholy. Yuna grabbed another mini-quiche and scarfed it down. Wow. These chefs really know their stuff.

    "Dreepy Yuna, I take it?"

    The unfamiliar voice caught her mid-bite. Yuna spat the bit of quiche out onto her plate and coughed loudly. Even though she didn't have lungs, the food must've gotten tangled within a stretch of her inner ectoplasm.

    "Easily startled, ain't ya?"

    Yuna pivoted to her left, but failed to identify the source of the voice.

    "On your right."

    "Eh?" She turned back and screamed. A grovyle now stood opposite her, leaning against the wall. "W-What— can I help you?"

    "Clearly not." Grovyle nudged the brim of his pokébase cap down to cover his eyes. "If you can't even keep a good eye on your surroundings, how can you expect to focus on what lies ahead?"

    Yuna blinked. "I… beg your pardon? Do I know you?"

    Grovyle took his mint sprig twig out of his mouth and flicked it away. "No."

    "But you know me."

    "I make it a point to know who I have to keep an eye on," Grovyle said, stepping closer to the table. His pitch-black, button down shirt and crimson tie unnerved Yuna. There was a black dragon skull pattern woven into the tie.

    "So, you're a student here, too?" She spotted the school's rose insignia on his cap.

    "Correct." Grovyle didn't make eye contact. He loosened the knot on his tie and tapped a claw on the table. "Those symbols. The ones on your crown and pendant." Grovyle rested his elbow on the table and perched his chin on his hand. "They're His emblem, aren't they?"

    Yuna was in no mood to play the pronoun game. "Can you stop talking in riddles?"

    "Aeons worship a divine light dragon called Bahamut," Grovyle continued, rolling back against the wall. He pulled another toothpick out of his breast pocket and stuck it in his mouth. "Around here… we're taught He's nothing but a figment of dragons' wild imaginations."

    Her brows raised. Yuna wasn't expecting this guy to bring Bahamut up so casually, let alone recognize His emblem out of the blue. "Wait. Are you a believer?" She leaned in eagerly.

    "Don't get any ideas." Grovyle crossed his arms and tucked his head against his chest. "Like I said… I make it a point to know what I can about people I have to keep an eye on."

    "Okay, but why do you need to keep an eye on me?" Yuna puffed out her cheeks. She couldn't let this guy unnerve her so easily. He was her classmate, right? "Did someone from my kingdom cause you or your family grief? You can't possibly expect me to account for every dragon around the world."

    "It's because we're teammates."

    "Teammates?" Yuna stared at Grovyle blankly.

    "Sheesh. This is like pulling teeth." Grovyle rubbed his temples. "You. Me. Crowne Cup team. Together." He finally looked Yuna in the eyes. The black, triangular markings under his eyes were barely visible with the gym's mood lighting.

    "Oh. Okay."

    It took a few seconds before Yuna truly processed what Grovyle told her. Once his words set in, her eyes widened. "Wait… what?!" She hovered closer to him. "How do you know that? The teams are supposed to be re—"

    Grovyle shut Yuna's mouth with his right hand. "Quiet. I don't want to draw any unnecessary attention to us." He quickly glanced up, then looked back at Yuna. "If I let go, are you gonna scream again?"

    Silently, Yuna shook her head. Grovyle was fast. Too fast for her to do anything about him. And Noctum and Baraz were still tending to the banquet's food, so she couldn't expect one of them to bail her out again. Still, her ectoplasm quivered. If first impressions were important, Grovyle wasn't endearing himself to her. Though she figured the reverse held true.

    "Fine." He let go and stepped back. "Fact is… I got a quick look at the lineups backstage." He jerked his head toward the stage. More specifically, a large screen hanging over center it, surrounded by stage lights. "The Vice-Chancellor was scanning our pictures in to project onto that screen."

    Yuna gasped. "How did you manage to do that without getting caught?"

    "None of your business," Grovyle growled. He pivoted away from her. "Honestly, when I saw your photo, I thought it was a mistake."

    "That you got teamed up with a princess?"

    "No. That you'd yet to evolve."

    Yuna winced. That one stung. "I, uh—" She clutched her pendant. "Dreepy already take a while to evolve. But when I was young, I got really sick. Mom told me it set my development back a few y—"

    Grovyle held his left hand up. "Didn't ask. Didn't need the sob story."

    "O-Oh…" Yuna's gaze fell. Wounded, her pride screamed at her to get a shot in. "Well, why aren't you a sceptile yet, huh?"

    "None of your business why." Grovyle glared at her. Yuna shrank back. "Did I ask you why you're still a dreepy? No." He shook his head. "Don't assume. Miscommunications can get a 'mon killed in your line of work."

    Yuna's fidgeting intensified. She somehow felt worse than she did a few minutes ago. If this was some sort of test, Yuna wanted out. "We're teammates, though," she whispered. "We should, y'know, talk about this stuff. It'll help us—"

    Grovyle drew the bridge of his cap over his eyes again. "I'm not here to play nice and make friends with you. Especially when our other teammate is Nikki the Nuisance."

    The dreepy mouthed the name to herself. "Who is—"

    "A troublemaking toxtricity."

    "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.

    "Yeah, I don't like it either. But at least Nikki's strong." Grovyle clicked his tongue. "Maybe we won't get bounced in the first leg."

    "What does that mean?"

    Grovyle groaned. "Lemme guess… nobody ever told you how the Crown Cup works." The distinct lack of a questioning tone in his voice drew a meek nod from Yuna. He took the toothpick out of his mouth and sighed. "Well then, keep your ears open because they'll be explaining the rules later." He pushed himself off the wall.

    "Wait, aren't you going to tell me? Don't you want your teammate to know?"

    "I don't really care. Like I said… I'm not here to make friends." Grovyle tipped his cap down again. "And I don't care about winning or going far in the Cup."

    He began to walk away when Yuna floated in front of him. "Hang on. I—" She paused. "Even if you're not going to open up or anything… I at least deserve to know your name." Yuna crossed her arms. "So, I'm not letting you go until you tell it to me."

    "Tch." Still gripping his cap, Grovyle looked right. "Chiaki."

    Good, she got something out of him. "And what's your claim to fame?"

    The grovyle glared at her. "Excuse me?"

    "This is a school for nobility, isn't it?" Yuna said. "So, you must be pretty important."

    Chiaki rolles his eyes. "If you must know… I'm next in line to inherit my family's business."

    "Which is?" When Yuna didn't get a response, she said, "Lemme guess. It's—"

    "None of your business." Chiaki sidestepped her. "Oh, and let me make one thing clear to you, Princess." He locked eyes with Yuna. "So long as we're working together, you need to learn to watch your back."

    The moment he said that, something jabbed Yuna's right flank. Squealing, she turned around, only to find a trail of dust illuminated by a stage light. "Hey! What's the big idea?"

    But Chiaki had already vanished, leaving Yuna floating above red and purple streamers that had fallen to the ground. The dreepy looked around in a panic. She knew he was fast, but how could he have fled without her hearing anything? The music wasn't that loud. After another quick survey of the area, she floated back to the table. Yuna grabbed the white tablecloth and brushed her side, sighing.

    Looks like the Crowne Cup is already off to a riveting start, she thought, glowering at her half-eaten plate of hors d'oeuvres. Apparently, her appetite chose to abscond with Chiaki. She poked at the plate — fresh china, of course — then lowered herself down to rest her head on the table.

    A part of Yuna thought it wasn't worth it to feel sorry for herself. However, a louder voice told her she should have listened to her parents wishes. Was this some sort of lesson from Bahamut? Something about respecting her elders or facing the consequences of not doing so? No, that was too on-the-nose. Maybe the selection committee Vortex had mentioned was biased against her because she was a dragon? Yuna wanted that to be false, but with all these icy receptions, she got the distinct feeling she wasn't wanted at Horizon Academy.

    Well, if they're trying to scare me off, it won't work, Yuna told herself. After all, it's not like she'd please everyone once she became queen. If all it took was a few unpleasant classmates to send her back home, she'd be a spineless ruler.

    Okay, technically she was spineless, but it was a metaphor.

    Yuna clasped her hands together and placed them against the amulet around her neck. O' Luminous Creator, hear my prayers. Mighty Bahamut, please—

    "Good evening, my lovely students!"

    Feedback sounded from the large square speakers flanking the stage. Squealing, Yuna threw the tablecloth over her. That was a sound she wasn't remotely used to. When she noticed the music and distant conversations had stopped, she poked her head out. Chancellor Vortex stood under a pale blue spotlight. He'd swapped his earlier suit out for a ruby-encrusted tuxedo and a bowtie sporting flame patterns. Even with her limited wardrobe, Yuna found it tacky.

    "I'm glad to see you all here, excited and healthy, as we get ready to kick off another year of the Crowne Cup!" Vortex spoke into a silver rod that Yuna had never seen before. Whatever it was managed to amplify his voice through the speakers.

    It's not Hyper Voice or Uproar. Otherwise most of the room would be flinching in pain, right? She made a mental note to ask Noctum if charizard could learn sound-based attacks.

    Arianna leaned into the spotlight and whispered to Vortex. He nodded and his posture slouched a bit. "While I'm not usually one to dampen the atmosphere, I do want to take a moment to address a concern I'm sure many of you have." Vortex clutched the talking rod tight. "Yesterday night, our beloved Crowne Minister, Lord Douglas, passed away in an unfortunate accident."

    Murmurs rose up, but Yuna couldn't tell who was saying what. The gym had darkened to the point where all she only saw outlines. And using her night vision would be fruitless with so many pokémon packed into the gym. She assumed the other students were talking about the accident. Yuna remembered hearing it in Vortex's office. But seeing as she didn't even know what a Crowne Minister was, she wasn't really sure how to react.

    "Now, now." Vortex raised his free hand. "I'd like to assure you all this will not impact the start of the Crowne Cup. The kingdom is looking forward to seeing you all in action." He leaned over so Arianna could whisper to him again. "However, before we start the festivities, let us have a moment of silence to honor Lord Douglas and his service to the kingdom."

    The spotlight dimmed. Vortex lowered his hands and tucked his chin into his chest. Yuna saw the silhouettes near her shift around in the dark. They must've been doing the same thing. Rather than bow her head, however, Yuna looked above the stage. The large screen Chiaki mentioned had powered up, casting a blue glow across the stage and the dance floor in front of it.

    "All right." Vortex stood up straight. "Now then… this is normally the part where I'd talk your ears off with a grand speech about what an honor it is to participate in the Crowne Cup. But, as anyone who isn't a first-year could tell you, nobody likes my long-winded speeches. So, this year, we're going to cut right to the chase."

    He spread his arms and wings out. His tail flared up. "Presenting… this year's Crowne Cup teams and their faculty coaches!"

    Different-colored spotlights swirled around the screen while student pictures lined up in groups of three. For a brief moment, Yuna wondered if Chiaki lied to her. But he was quickly proven right when Yuna found his photo next to hers… along with the toxtricity she'd seen earlier. Nikki the Nuisance.

    What she wasn't prepared for, however, was a familiar orbeetle's picture next to Nikki's. That explains the outburst when my parents wanted to pull me from the Cup. It was relieving to see that, even if her teammates would be problematic, Yuna's coach was someone she was friendly with.

    The other students' excited chatter quickly died down and the screen darkened once more. "Again, I did have some more presentations planned," Vortex said, adjusting his bowtie. "But I don't think we want to keep our special guest waiting, do we?"

    Enthusiastic cheers rose up from the students. In the middle of the crowd, a copperajah trunk raised up, tossing what Yuna assumed was confetti around.

    "Ho ho! I thought as much." Vortex tapped his pudgy belly. "Then, without further ado, I'll turn things over to our glee club president, Prince Shimmer. Take it away!"

    The spotlight on Vortex darkened. A second later, another stage light shined on the tiara-wearing ponyta. He stood atop wavy, red and white music bars with sapphire eight notes spread across them.

    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?

    "Good evening, Horizon Academy!" Shimmer spoke into a headset gently fitted around his diamond tiara. "Are you ready to party?"

    "Yeah!" the crowd responded.

    "Heh." Shimmer swished his sparkling mane over his left shoulder. It brushed against the white feathers lining his silver gown. "That's what I like to hear! I'm sure I speak for Chancellor Vortex, my parents, and everyone in Parliament when I say I'm looking forward to seeing you give it your all in the Crowne Cup."

    He smirked. "I'm especially keen on seeing what the Aeon Princess is capable of. Aren't you?"

    A beat passed, then it dawned on Yuna that Shimmer was talking about her. That moment, a light shined on her from above. Squealing, Yuna threw her arms over her head. She faintly made out a sylveon's outline up in the rafters, clutching a portable light in its ribbons.

    "How about we give it up for the first dragon to attend to our academy?" Shimmer declared. Yuna's face paled as a tepid smattering of applause greeted her. She wanted to shrivel up or hide under the table. But what kind of message would that send?

    She had to focus on her breathing. In. Out. Straighten up. Another breath.

    Yuna lifted her right hand and waved to the crowd. "Thanks," she said, though her voice didn't carry far. The dreepy sighed in relief when her spotlight went out.

    "How adorable." Shimmer chuckled and the crowd laughed with him. Yuna's heart sank. "Anyway, onto what you've been waiting for!" The ponyta cleared his throat. "As glee club president and Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Radiance, it gives me great pride to introduce our special guest performer for the evening."

    He gestured down to the stage with his right foreleg. "You know her. You love her. You shake your money makers when you hear her. Opening up with her debut hit, 'Path of Valor,' it's the one and only Radiant Diva herself. Give a warm Horizon Academy welcome to… Starlene!"

    Roaring applause made Yuna wonder if she'd feel the ground shaking were she not floating. Shimmer's light switched off while the spotlight on center stage turned back on. A pink smokescreen filled up the stage area. Yuna hovered higher to get a better look. Where was this Starlene lady? Shouldn't she have walked on stage by now?

    A keyboard rift sounded. The haze lifted, revealing a pokémon Yuna had never seen before. Like Shimmer, she had some sort of crystalline headset on. But her hair seemed made of music bars and notes. She twirled around — puffy pink skirt fluttering — and beamed for the crowd.

    "Even the darkest of storms,
    Will falter in the face of,
    Everlasting hope and valor!"


    The stage fully lit up, revealing a primarina sitting behind a keyboard set, a rillaboom pounding away at luminescent drums, and a lopunny strumming away at an electric guitar. Four diamond wings unfurled from Starlene's outfit as she pirouetted into the air and glided toward the edge of the stage.

    "Together we'll work toward the future.
    We'll spread peace, love, and smiles!"


    The screen projected a close up of Starlene dancing, forming a heart with her hands and flashing her pearly whites in the center of the heart. The crowd thundered with delight.

    "There's nothing we can't put our minds to!
    Change won't start until we try!"


    Though everyone clearly seemed to be enjoying themselves, the baubles on Yuna's head shriveled up. Her headed pounded. Her eyes throbbed in their ectoplasmic sockets. Something was wrong.

    "It won't be easy.
    There will be struggles.
    You may want to pack it in."


    Was it the volume? No. Yuna had been around roaring dragons her whole life. What then? Why did it feel like something was trying to burst out of her forehead? She grabbed the tablecloth again and squeezed it tight.

    "But don't despair.
    Hold your heads high.
    And keep on grasping hope!"


    "Keep on grasping hope!" the crowd chanted back. Were their screams of delight getting louder or was Yuna losing it?

    "Everyone… all together now!" Starlene said, thrusting her arms to the sides and levitating into the air while fairy dust swirled around her.

    "We'll walk it. The Path.
    The Path of Valor.
    To a future filled with hope!

    There's nothing that can stop us.
    When we're united.
    Raising our voices as one!"


    Yuna's vision flashed. Starlene blurred together with the flashing lights into a sea of swirling colors. Her lyrics faded into nothing but distant noises. Yuna vigorously rubbed her eyes, but her sight only grew hazier. She squeezed her eyes shut, silently willing her headache to stop.

    Purple smoke drift in from all around her. Her breath caught in her throat. Yuna's eyes forced themselves open. A sea of purple and black smoke spread in front of her. However, something stirred in the fog.

    Long. Slender. A serpent. And it was looking right at her with piercing red eyes.

    "Wh… what—" Yuna tried to shut her eyes, but couldn't. Golden lines and rings flashed on the serpent's body. Then a large maw opened… and the serpent lunged right for Yuna.

    She heard herself scream for all of a second before her world fell to darkness.

    XxX​

    Hooves struck cobblestone with each step a keldeo took along the road leading up to the top of a grassy hill. His crimson and scarlet uniform brushed against his fur. Rose and sword-shaped medals and badges clinked against his chest. The keldeo kept his eyes fixed on the grounds, annoyed at having to walk when a trolley could've gotten him to the top of the hill far faster.

    "Remind me, Sergeant… erm…"

    The cofagrigus floating beside him rifled off a salute. "Rune! S-Sergeant Rune! And I m-must say, Commander S-Seifer, it is an honor to—"

    Seifer stepped in Rune's path. His armored horn sparked with red energy. "Lower your voice. Were you not the one who insisted we walk in order to keep a low profile?"

    Rune shrank back, tucking his four arms into the red gauntlets on his torso. "A-Apologies, sir. Won't happen again."

    "Now then… tell me why you explicitly requested me to come out here?" Seifer turned away from Rune and focused on the top of the hill. A large, stationary, purple cyclone towered over the Radiant Guardsmon. Shards of metal lay scattered about the grassy fields on either side of the road. Remnants of a fence that once surrounded a beloved park.

    "S-Someone broke curfew and charged through our barricade, sir," Rune reported. "I thought he might be trying to breach the mystery dungeon."

    "And? Why not tell that to your unit captain?" Seifer snorted. "This is why I stationed you all in the city." He lifted his nose up. "I'll bet you didn't even get a good look at the bugger responsible. Probably some low-life thievul thinking the mystery dungeon holds untold riches."

    "That's just it, sir." Rune poked his index fingers together. "I did get a good look at the person responsible. And when I told the captain, he said to find you right away because it matched the description of the 'mon who attacked the Aeon Princess this afternoon."

    Seifer's horn flashed bright blue. "Why didn't you lead with that? To hell with keeping a low profile!" He galloped toward the edge of the distortion, only to slow up when he saw a black silhouette against the purple wind. "You there! This is a restricted area. And you're breaking the curfew set by Her Eminence, Queen Isola. Step forward and identify yourself immediately."

    He stood there, waiting for the shadow to move. But aside from the howls of the distortion field, he got no response. The shadow remained still. Seifer lowered his horn. Red aura concentrated toward the tip. "This is your final warning. Step forward and identify yourself or I will use force," he declared.

    "Kheh heh…"

    Shabby, green talons scraped against the cobblestone. Seifer's ears folded in pain. Rune conjured toxins between his hands. "This is why I wanted to keep a low profile, sir."

    "Not now," Seifer hissed in a whisper. "Okay, that's half the battle. Now… a name, please."

    "What does it matter?" Another set of talons appeared, wrapped in rusted chains. Then a black, torn cloak draped over a broad torso. And finally, a stone mask, chipped enough to show beady gray eyes. "I am nothing but an omen. You don't need to know the name of a nobody like me. Once I save you from the ether's false hope… I won't matter at all."

    Seifer rolled his eyes. Great, so the trespasser what a nutjob. Which just begged the question of how they could get all the way here from Horizon Gardens so quickly. He doubted this lug could stow away on train without being caught. "Whatever tea you're drinking… you can tell us all about it down at lockup." The keldeo lowered his glowing horn again. "Now, hold still, so we can restrain you."

    "Hee hee."

    "Something funny, punk? You're in a lot of trouble!" Rune floating forward, having finally found his voice. Poison dripped from his hands.

    "Sergeant, wai—"

    But before Seifer could finish his warning, a spectral hand appeared beneath Rune and grabbed hold of him. Whinnying in surprise, Seifer shot an Aura Sphere from the tip of his horn. It sailed harmlessly through the disembodied arm, all while Rune screamed.

    Then came the laughter. Quiet at first, but steadily building in intensity. Seifer looked at the trespasser. His gray eyes had otherworldly layers to them. They looked more like targets than proper eyes. What was this thing?

    "Stop this at once!" Seifer slashed the air with his horn. A red crescent flew toward the trespasser, but he just stood there.

    "Aha ha ha ha…" A sharp wheeze punctuated his laughter. "Aha ha ha ha haaaaa! Your words… you're both past the point of salvation!"

    A black tendril emerged from the distortion behind the monster, snuffing out Seifer's Secret Sword a foot away from his opponent.

    "Commander… run! Run and— bwaah!"

    The giant hand tossed the screaming, flailing cofagrigus right into the cyclone. The distortion swallowed him up instantly. His wails echoed across the hill like a booming thunderclap. Seifer's Aura Sphere petered out on the tip of his horn before it fully formed.

    "I mean… it's not like I expected a simple omen could guide everyone to salvation," the helmeted beast continued. "Still, to falter at this first hurdle. Aha ha. Aha ha ha!" He slammed a chained foreleg on the ground repeatedly. "To think there's such a huge gap between me and Him. Oh well… it can't be helped."

    "Stand down, cretin!" Keeping his distance, Seifer slashed the air three times. But the Secret Sword crescents were countered by a small wall of distortion that popped up in front of the beast. Seifer stepped back, eyes wide.

    The beast lumbered toward him. "But it's okay. Even if I'm useless… I can deliver you to Natus. So that you can accept His loving embrace." He stopped and descended into a coughing fit. "Only then… can we blot this false hope blanketing your being. The false hope of the ether!"

    "Y… you're mad!" Seifer held his ground. If his strongest normal techniques wouldn't work, then he'd have to dig deep. He'd have to call on his Dyna-Force. There was no time to get help. Seifer was all that stood between this creep and the people of the slumbering city.

    "You can call me whatever names you feel like." The beast swayed left and right. Shadows gathered around his talons. "That is just the ether talking. I'll lovingly accept all of its hatred… so that you too can welcome Natus with purity in your heart!"

    Seifer held his horn high. Red light shot into the air; a beacon against the night sky. The ground trembled. Seifer dug his hooves in. A giant, ethereal fist descended from the heavens.

    "What?" The beast looked up moments before the fist collided with him. Seifer shielded his eyes from the ensuing red geyser. When the light faded, the beast was staggering back toward the distortion. And yet his eyes… sparkled? Seifer couldn't deny it. Even though his Dyna-Fist had struck home, the monster looked happy to have been hit.

    "Aha ha." He wheezed and sputtered. "So this… is the depths of your false hope? You would take His love and twist it into something so… toxic." More laughter rumbled in his throat. "And yet… it is so interesting! The ether has its thorny tendrils dug right into you, but you're too blind to see it!" His right hind leg slid into the distortion. "Ha… aha ha. A lowly omen… bested by a slave of the ether yet again. How humiliating. But even this… this humiliation. I'll endure it all… so this world can rise to even greater heights."

    Seifer didn't make any effort to stop the beast from slinking off into the distortion. He was too tired. But his work wasn't done. He had to get back to the command post and report that Rune had been lost to the distortion.

    No, he had to get to Radiant Palace. The queens needed to know of this 'omen.'

    XxX
    Starlene's song is (very loosely) sung to the tune of Mayu Mineda's "Luminous Promise" from Gunvolt Chronicles: Luminous Avenger iX. The more you know, right? See you next time.
     
    Chapter 4
  • Ambyssin

    "No need to quiver, dear."
    Pronouns
    he/him
    Chapter 4: Rules Not Made to be Broken
    Sighing, Vortex rested his head against his right hand and drummed his left fingers against his desk. "You're blowing this out of proportion," he said, eyes fixed on a blue, triangular gemstone in front of him. "This was nothing but an isolated incident. She probably suffered some degree of sensory overload."

    The gem bristled with light and a gravelly male responded, "A likely story. It's a coincidence in the same way the attempted assault she suffered was a coincidence." Silence followed, then, "I've worked too long and too hard on forging this treaty to see things fall apart because of your flights of fancy.

    That got the charizard's tail flame crackling. In the corner of the room, Arianna glanced up from her notebook, but Vortex held his hand up. When he was sure she'd relaxed, he tented his fingers together in front of his snout. "You forget, Demerzel, that I've been working with Her Eminence far longer than you have."

    "Then tell me… why was I the one standing at Queen Isola's side while she was quelling fears in Parliament?" The gem dimmed, then abruptly lit up. "The Ministers aren't dumb like those meltan servants of yours. I could tell none of them were buying the story that Douglas died in an accident."

    Vortex wanted to issue a snide remark about whether that was Demerzel's ESP or intuition talking, but shoved that thought aside. "Well, you already erased the memories of those who saw Douglas' assailant, right?"

    A long silence followed. "I did."

    "Then there's nothing to worry about." Even though he tried to sound cheerful, Vortex's voice was strained. The Aeon Princess was turning into a trouble magnet and he did not need that on his plate.

    "Au contraire, monsieur," Demerzel scoffed. "There is plenty to worry about… even if we sidestep your asinine decision to hold the Crowne Cup despite—"

    Again, Vortex's tail flared. "As I've told you multiple times, the Crowne Cup is essential to morale throughout the Kingdom. Without it—"

    "Yes, yes, the people will lose hope and all that happy nonsense."

    "You could try saying that less mockingly."

    "I'm not calling to debate the semantics of your glorified reality show," Demerzel said. "I'm calling because of the Diva Project. As I understand it, you pitched it to Her Eminence. Parliament approved the funding. And now it could jeopardize this essential treaty. So, how do we fix it? You're running the project. I demand answers."

    "Isolated. Incident."

    "I don't buy that for a second," Demerzel huffed. "I read through the documents you gave Queen Isola. Starlene's songs are supposed to pacify anyone who listens while strengthening their spirit so they can work harder. The Aeon Princess had the exact opposite reaction: pain and a loss of consciousness." He paused. "You can't really call that a coincidence."

    Demerzel had a point, but Vortex refused to acknowledge that. Clearly, he'd have to do some digging. As memory served him, no one else had ever had such a reaction to Starlene's music. Which meant the problem lay with Princess Yuna, not Starlene. He wished Yuna's parents were still here, but they'd already departed. So, he couldn't test Starlene's music on them to see if they had the same reaction.

    "Well… are you going to say something? I don't have all night."

    "The treaty won't matter if our kingdom falls into an energy crisis." Vortex rose from his seat. "Why didn't Parliament approve the budget extensions for Icarus? I only have enough funding to last the next month or two and it won't be ready by then."

    A sneer echoed through Vortex's office. "Don't patronize me. Your manufactured energy crisis is small potatoes when there's distortion threatening to overrun the kingdom and make it one giant mystery dungeon."

    Vortex slammed his hands on his table. God was Demerzel annoying. Again, Arianna looked up and again he waved his assistant off. Deep breaths. Steady hands were needed. Anger wouldn't get him anywhere.

    "Icarus can put a stop to that, too. I just need proper funding for it. All the Ministers were on board last time I spoke to them, so what gives?"

    "It's the MPs. They're skeptical. They think you're playing things too close to your vest," Demerzel replied. From his tone, Vortex assumed Demerzel agreed with them. "They want details… like what this energy source you claim Icarus can tap into is."

    Before he could dig his claws into his expensive desk, Vortex raised his hands and balled them into fists. "I see."

    "So, what are you going to do about the Diva Project?"

    Vortex was not in the mood to continue this conversation. "I've got it under control."

    "Are you kidding? Do you really expect—"

    "I do." The charizard picked up the crystal and twisted the bottom. The glow subsided and Demerzel was cut off mid-sentence. Groaning, Vortex slumped back in his chair and undid his bowtie. Snapping his claws, he croaked, "Gin and tonic."

    Arianna flicked her right hand. A desk drawer opened to Vortex's right and out came two bottles and a glass. Arianna telekinetically prepared the drink and set it down on a coaster beside Vortex. The charizard swallowed the glass' contents in a single gulp.

    "What's the plan here, sir?"

    Vortex put the glass on the coaster. "We intercept any and all mail to or from Yuna and her entourage."

    Arianna quirked a brow.

    "We can't give Yuna's parents the impression that she's having anything less than the time of her life here," Vortex continued. "Because we have to keep them as far away from Horizon Gardens as possible. If they think she's enjoying the school, they won't be inclined to visit and she can't tell them about what happened during Starlene's performance."

    "And what if the parents get suspicious?"

    "That's where you come in." Vortex flicked a hand in Arianna's direction. "I've seen all of these dragons' penmanship. It's… crude. I have no doubt you can mimic it perfectly."

    "You want me… to forge correspondence between Princess Yuna and her family?" Arianna's expression remained as stoic as ever.

    "Not just them… between all the Aeons at this school and their counterparts back home." Vortex rested his elbows on his chair's armrests and clasped his hands together. "Will that be a problem?"

    Arianna nudged her glasses. "Not at all, sir."

    "Good. Now, go check on Starlene. I can't have her feeling glum over Yuna's fainting spell when she has another concert tomorrow."

    XxX​

    When Yuna finally pried her eyes open, she wasn't staring up at the gym's rafters and glass dome. Instead, a blue tile ceiling hung above her. A long, cylindrical light cast a red and orange glow all around her. She found it odd. While not used to the electric lights the school had access to, all the other ones she'd seen until now were much brighter.

    "What happened?" Her voice cracked. Yuna's throat burned. It was as if she hadn't had a drop of water in ages. She blinked a few more times. Her bearings returned to her. With them came the gentle touch of soft linens against her head and back.

    Yuna knew she wasn't in her bed. Her room had a higher and darker ceiling. However, Yuna's attempts to float up left her dizzy. Her head thumped back against the pillow. It was then that she noticed a blue curtain beside a set of metal shelves.

    "Am I… in a hospital?" she wondered, spotting a small stand on top of the metal shelves holding a bag of clear fluid. She followed a rubber tube from the back to her hand.

    "If, by hospital, you mean the school's clinic, then yes."

    The dreepy was too tired to be startled by another unfamiliar voice. Her gills tensed briefly, but relaxed while she rolled to her left to see who was talking to her. However, like with Starlene, she'd never seen the pokémon standing beside her bed before. His black-furred hands held a clipboard and a pen, which he looked down at with his large, red-and-yellow eyes while he scribbled away.

    Yuna squinted, then blinked a few times. Was this some sort of Radiant-native evolution for Shiftry? It was the only explanation she could think of.

    "What's with the look?" Her visitor looked up from his clipboard. "Let me guess… first time seeing a zarude?" He chuckled. "I'm used to getting that same curious stare from all the new students."

    "Zarude?"

    "That's my species." He ran his claws through the black tufts of fur on his forehead. "We're native to the Armour Archipelago, but I immigrated here to practice medicine." He paused. "Ah, sorry. You're not interested in that. Where are my manners? I'm Doctor Rafique." He pivoted to show off his name stitched into his white coat. "I run the student health center."

    Yuna again tried to sit up, but to no avail. Not that it would've done her any good, since she was surrounded by the blue curtain. "I was… at the Crowne Cup Ball. How did I get here?"

    "It seems you fainted in the middle of Miss Starlene's performance." Rafique looked down at his clipboard. "Professor Vegna brought you here. He was… concerned, I think? It's hard to tell with him sometimes." A beat. "Okay, all of the time. But don't tell him I said that."

    Yuna opted not to press Rafique further on who Professor Vegna was. "So, how long have I been out?"

    "It's nine in the morning."

    "Nine in the morning?!" Her gills shriveled. "But that means classes are st—"

    "No, classes start tomorrow. Chancellor pushed them back for this new preliminary Crowne Cup round he invented."

    "Oh, okay." Yuna's relieved sigh quickly gave way to another frightened gasp. "But wait… if I'm here, how can I participate? Is my team gonna have to forfeit?"

    "You'll be ready to compete this afternoon." Rafique walked over to Yuna's right. "As far as I can tell, there isn't anything wrong with you other than a touch of dehydration, so I've been giving you some fluids." He tapped the tray atop the metal shelf that, on closer inspection, was actually a cart on four wheels. "I'll be clearing you for discharge soon. My only recommendation is not to try and turn yourself intangible for the next day or two. It might cause you to pass out again."

    "R-Right."

    With that out of the way, Yuna looked down at her wispy torso. Why had she immediately gravitated toward her classes and the Crowne Cup when there were more pressing matters to attend to? Like…

    "What about my parents? Do they know what happened?"

    At that, the curtains opened opposite her bed and Noctum poked his black-scaled head in. "I'm sorry, Princess, but we weren't able to reach them before they boarded the Intercontinental Express to return home."

    Sighing, Rafique rubbed his temples. "I thought I told you to wait until I gave the okay to come and see her."

    Noctum flinched. "Apologies. I heard her voice and assumed it was okay."

    "It's fine." Rafique waved him off while Yuna tried to sit up in her bed.

    "So, um, what's going to happen? Are we going to send notice to them?" she asked.

    "Baraz and I think that's best." Noctum looked at Rafique. "We thought a doctor's note would be most helpful in assuring them everything's okay."

    "I can arrange that." Rafique stepped toward the curtain. "Give me a moment to fetch my letterhead." He pulled the curtain back. "In the meantime, you have some other visitors."

    Other visitors? Yuna figured it was Baraz and Dimitry, so she was surprised to see Cid hovering behind Noctum on the other side of the curtain. Chiaki was also there, standing with his back against a wall and watching the toxtricity seated opposite him intently.

    "O-Oh. Hi." Yuna blinked slowly. "I wasn't expecting to see you guys."

    "I saw Professor Vegna carry you off. Wanted to see if it was anything serious," Chiaki said, tipping the bridge of his cap over his eyes. "Professor Cid brought her." He gestured to Nikki, who glanced at Yuna's bed, then yawned and shifted her position so she was sitting sideways in the chair.

    Hearing that from Chiaki was surprising. After their introduction, Yuna assumed the grovyle wanted nothing to do with her. Chiaki seemed to pick up on her line of thought as he gave her a side-eyed look and said, "Don't get any ideas. I just want to make sure we don't have to forfeit this preliminary round."

    "Right." Yuna sighed. "Well, the doctor said I'm okay to compete this afternoon." She wanted to move around more, but figured doing so would disrupt the tubing giving her fluids.

    "… heh." Nikki rubbed the bridge of her nose. "It's not like we need your help or anything, but the rules are all 'You've got to have a full team of three for this round.'"

    "I see." Yuna's gills constricted.

    "Now, Nikki, that's no way to talk to your teammate," Cid scolded, hovering in front of the toxtricity to show off his disapproving look.

    "What? I'm just being honest." Nikki shrugged. "She looks as frail as a sunkern. And, like, dragons don't get a lot of decent attacks in their base forms. Ain't that right, Twiggy?"

    "That's… correct." A vein bulged out of Chiaki's head. He wasn't a fan of Nikki's nickname.

    "Yes, it's true." Yuna couldn't rub her hands together without knocking the tubing loose and her pendant had been removed, so she had nothing to fidget with. She settled for clutching her blanked with her free hand. "But I bought a bunch of wands and stuff. So, like, I can disrupt everyone. Since, y'know, this is a race. And we need to make sure we don't come in last place." She laughed nervously.

    "I appreciate the sentiment, Princess, but it won't be necessary." Nikki smirked and crossed her legs. Yuna frowned. She didn't need to read auras to tell Nikki wasn't calling her "Princess" endearingly.

    The toxtricity hopped out of her chair and looked at Chiaki. "You got a means to avoid attacks? Y'know, like Protect or something?"

    "Of course I do." Chiaki tipped his cap up. "People like me need Protect at their disposal."

    Nikki laughed and clapped Chiaki's shoulder. "Then we've got this in the bag, Twiggy!"

    Scowling, Chiaki stepped away from Nikki. "Forgive me if I don't share your confidence."

    "Yeah. How can you be so sure about this?" Yuna hadn't even met the other competitors beyond Shimmer and had no idea what kinds of techniques they had at their disposals.

    "Trust me." Nikki strummed the purple, gelatinous gills on her chest. "If Twiggy throws up a Protect the moment the starting bell sounds, then we'll be golden. We may even have a chance to take first place."

    Yuna raised a skeptical brow. That sounded way too good to be true. She remembered Chiaki saying that Nikki was strong, but there's no way she could put the team in a position to win the race instantly… right? "Um… how exactly will we be golden?" she asked.

    "Ah, ah." Nikki wagged an index finger. "Trade secret."

    Cid's spots flickered pink. "Nikki, we're a team, remember? If you have a strategy, then you should key your teammates in so they can support you."

    "I don't need their support." The toxtricity continued strumming away at her gills. "Once it's go time… I'm going to blow the other teams away. Then we can waltz through the labyrinth and avoid the punishment for finishing last." She smirked. "Since we can't use revivers for this race, if I knock those dolts out, they won't even have a chance to enter the labyrinth."

    Yuna gasped. "Knock them all out? You can do that?"

    "Leave the finer points to me, Princess." Nikki tapped the side of her head. "Trust me… it'll all work out."

    Yuna wished she found that reassuring. "Oh, wait. I don't know Protect. Should I be worried?"

    "Nope. You're a ghost. My plan won't affect you."

    Chiaki poked his cap up a bit further. "And what about the other ghosts in our year?"

    "They won't be able to do much with their teammates KO'd." Nikki flashed a toothy grin. "The rules say all three team members have to cross the finish line."

    "I'm surprised you actually read them," Chiaki said, leaning back against the wall.

    "Well, I wanted to be sure my plan would work." Nikki rubbed her hands together. "Any other questions?"

    "I have one, actually." Yuna raised her free hand. "What's our team name gonna be? We're supposed to come up with one, right?"

    "We did. We're Team Bastion," Chiaki replied.

    "I came up with it," Cid chirped. "See, a bastion is a part of a fortress' design. It allows you to spread defensive fire in all directions." He pivoted to look at all three students. "Since you all come from very different walks of life… I thought the name fit."

    Wouldn't something like 'Team Diversity' make more sense, then? Yuna kept the thought to herself. Frankly, it was better than anything she could imagine her teammates coming up with.

    "I helped with the name, too." Noctum's tail flame burned bright. "And your teammates liked it."

    "Okay. So, Team Bastion." Yuna looked at Nikki. Though she still wasn't sure what the toxtricity had planned, she had to admit that the thought of the preliminary round going smoothly sent an excited chill down her backside. "Yeah, I can get behind it."

    She offered the group a smile. "Let's… let's give it our all this afternoon, okay?"

    Noctum puffed out his chest. "That's the spirit, Princess!"

    Chiaki crossed his arms and looked away. "Whatever. I just hope this plan of yours works, Nikki."

    "Trust me. Those clods won't know what hit 'em."

    XxX​

    Yuna wasn't sure what she found more surprising: the fact that the gym had been cleaned following the banquet so quickly or that the glass ceiling and plastic walls could retract into the ground and give way to a wide-open field. She hovered next to Cid, staring at the crystal walls jutting out of the floor to form the labyrinth her teammates had mentioned.

    "Why are you still wearing that eyesore of a jacket?" Chiaki asked, drawing Yuna's attention over to Nikki. "It's going to weigh you down." The grovyle still had his pokébase cap on, but was wearing a black jumpsuit.

    Nikki waved him off. "Why are you still wearing that emo hat, huh?"

    Chiaki briefly drew his lips back in a snarl. "That's…" He pulled the cap down over his eyes. "It's personal."

    "Guys, can we ease up on the bickering?" Yuna still couldn't fidget with her pendant. She'd given it to Baraz for safekeeping. "I know you said you had a plan, Nikki, but I don't think this is going to help us."

    "Agreed." Cid hovered toward the chalk starting line. The other teams were grouped up on either side of Team Bastion. Most were in huddles. "Remember… the labyrinth walls will shift every few minutes. And the Crowne Committee placed traps throughout the maze. Anything can happen."

    "Psshaw. You worry too much, Chrome Dome." Nikki stuck her right hand into her jacket pocket and pulled out a pair of camo goggles.

    Yuna tilted her head. "Wait, what are those?" She didn't remember seeing any eyewear on the list of approved items.

    "My good luck safety googles." Nikki slid the strap over her head. Yuna marveled at the band phasing through Nikki's mohawk. It must've been pure electricity.

    "Don't tell me that's your big plan." Chiaki crossed his arms. "A superstitious trinket won't help us out in the slightest."

    Yuna glanced down the line of teams to her right. Shimmer stood at the very end of the starting line next to a sylveon and a sirfetch'd. The former adjusted his lavender workout shirt with a ribbon.

    "Yo, Princess, you still with us?" Nikki reached her hand into Yuna's line of sight and snapped her fingers.

    "Yes. Just… checking out the competition, I guess." Yuna squinted. Was the sylveon with Shimmer the same one who had shined that light on her last night? If they were friends, Yuna wondered if Shimmer had gotten some sort of preferential treatment with team selection. He was the Crown Prince, after all.

    "Curious. Professor Vegna isn't with his team." Cid floated up to Yuna's side and scratched his chin. "Maybe he got stuck answering questions about your fainting spell last night."

    "Erm… what kind of person is Professor Vegna, anyway?" Yuna asked.

    "Pfbt. You haven't heard?" Nikki had to contain her laughter.

    "Heard what?"

    "Vegna's nickname: 'The Grim Reaper.'"

    The dreepy's tail scrunched up. "What kind of nickname is that? Do lots of people fail his classes?" She recalled seeing his name on her schedule.

    Chiaki shook his head. "Nah. It's because of his other job. He's an inquisitor for the Ministry of Justice." The grovyle spat his toothpick out of his mouth. "But that's got nothing to do with this race. Drop the subject."

    Yuna eagerly nodded. Sure, people made jokes about death when it came to ghost-types. But that nickname didn't sound like friendly teasing. She turned to Nikki. "So, are you gonna tell us your plan now?"

    She expected Nikki to answer with a snide retort, but instead Yuna heard the crackling of speakers. It didn't startle her as badly as last night. However, she had some ringing in her frills as she turned toward the stone stage. She expected to see Vortex and was surprised when it was Arianna who stood clutching one of those magical talking rods.

    "Good afternoon, students." The gardevoir nudged up her glasses. "Chancellor Vortex apologizes, but he's unable to join us for this preliminary round."

    "Huh. Wonder what's got ol' Flamey's panties in a bunch?" Nikki scratched her right horn. "He eats, sleeps, and breaths this Crowne Cup baloney. Must be something big if he's missing the start."

    Yuna frowned. "I… didn't need that mental image." She shivered.

    Nikki smirked. "I'm surprised you'd even know about that kind of clothing, Princess. I thought you dragons liked doing things au naturel."

    The dreepy's cheeks burned.

    Arianna cleared her throat. "With the Chancellor busy, I asked for some assistance to introduce the Crowne Cup. Presenting last year's winners… Team Striker."

    The gardevoir blinked away seconds before clouds of smoke and confetti shot up onto center stage. "Are you all ready to have crowning good time?"

    Behind the stage, bleachers of students erupted in applause. Yuna and her fellow competitors stayed quiet. Evidently, she wasn't the only one gripped by nerves.

    The smoke faded away to show a cinderace standing at center stage, right arm thrusted upward. His checkered, gold and silver shirt sparkled under the afternoon sun. An inteleon and lucario in matching uniforms stood on either side of him, hands drawn up to point at the participants with fingerguns.

    "That's what I like to hear," the cinderace whooped, breaking his pose and striding across the stage. A fiery-orange cape fluttered behind him. Yuna couldn't believe there was a student dressing flashier than Vortex, yet here one was.

    "Welcome to the brand-spanking-new start of the Crowne Cup." Cinderace bowed to the competitors. "I'm Cinderace Reno."

    The lucario thumped his chest. "I'm Rufus!"

    "And I'm Vincent." The inteleon ran his fingers through his head frill and winked at the bleachers. A few girls shouted their approval.

    "Together… we're Team Striker! Ch-yeah!" Reno posed with his right arm up again while the students in the bleachers cheered. Yuna raised an eyebrow. Aside from them winning the Crowne Cup last year, what made these three so special? She supposed it didn't matter. Like Chiaki had said, dwelling on it wouldn't help the team do well in the race.

    "Now then, I'm sure y'all are eager to get this thing underway." Reno rubbed his hands together. "But we've gotta lay out a few ground rules."

    "It's especially important since we have some esteemed new blood in our midst." Vincent snapped his fingers and pointed right at Yuna. She rolled her eyes. Everyone already knew her situation. What good was drawing attention to it?

    They're trying to throw me off. She took a deep breath. Yuna glanced toward Shimmer's team. Could the ponyta have put Vincent up to this? She hoped not. He was supposed to be a prince. Unsportsmonlike behavior wouldn't suit royalty.

    "So, let's bring out good ol' Rotom Tutor to give us a hand." Reno held his hands up and clapped. A smatter of applause followed.

    Yuna drifted back toward Cid as a large screen floated up behind Team Striker. It had a striking orange glow to it save for the white eyes and big white grin. "That's… a rotom?" Yuna glanced at Cid. "The only ones I've seen are these tiny little bolt-shaped ghosts."

    "Rotom can inhabit energy-powered machines like that screen," Cid explained.

    "Energy-powered." Yuna crossed her arms, trying to think if there was anything like that back home.

    "Shh." Chiaki put a claw to his lips. "Pipe down and listen. This is mostly for your benefit."

    "Greetings, competitors. It is I, Rotom Tutor, here for a lovely rules explanation." Pixelated party poppers shot pixelated confetti on either side of Tutor's face. "The Crowne Cup is a year-long competition divided into two phases." Tutor's face disappeared to show two images: one of a sprinting falinks formation and one of a podium with rotom hovering by each place. "The first phase is the 'Cup Chase.' It is divided into the preliminary round and ten competition legs."

    A blue background spread across Tutor to display the number eleven. It quickly disappeared and gave rise to eleven boxes. "In the competition legs, you will all compete against one another in challenges devised by the Crowne Ministers. Every challenge is partially based on the typing the Minister represents." Ten of the boxes flashed, then started bumping into one another. "In each leg, the team that performs the worst will be eliminated from the Crowne Cup. When the Cup Chase concludes, eight teams will remain."

    One by one, the boxes broke apart until the one in the top left corner remained. It expanded into a pink window with eight sylveon figurines. "Next, we move into the Group Play phase. There will be eight challenges that the eight remaining teams can choose whether or not to take part in." As Tutor spoke, the figures hopped across a pixelated track and jumped over pixelated hurdles. "Depending on how you perform in the challenges, your team will earn points used to determine your seeds for the finale: the Crowne Cup Tournament!"

    The eight figurines split apart, branching out to form a tournament bracket. "Nothing complicated here. Just old-fashioned, three-on-three battles where the winning team moves on to the next round." Figurines slid along the bracket until one reached the center. "Aim high, work hard, and you'll come out on top!" Pixelated streamers and confetti fell on the screen and Tutor's face returned.

    "And that's the gist of the Crowne Cup!" Tutor chirped. "Any questions? Well, I don't care! My function's explaining, not answering. Heh heh. Good luck!"

    Yuna watched Tutor retreat back under the stage. The explanation made enough sense, though it left an uneasy feeling in her gut. "Hey, uh, Chiaki? What happens if your team gets eliminated in the Cup Chase?"

    Chiaki scowled and pulled his cap down. "You're stuck doing remedial lessons during Cup challenges for the rest of the year."

    "And if you're one of the teams bounced super early, you're pretty much the laughing stock of the school," Nikki added, strumming her chest-gills. She looked Yuna in the eye, and when the dreepy's gaze fell, slapped her knee and laughed. "Kidding, Princess! Cripes, you're nervous. But you don't got nothing to be scared of. I told you… we got this."

    "Now then… let's talk about this new preliminary round," Reno said. "As you can see, there's a big labyrinth set up behind you all." He pointed forward. Yuna turned to size up the handful of purple, crystalline walls jutting up from what used to be the gym floor. "The goal's simple: get your whole team to the end."

    "But if it was really that simple, it wouldn't be any fun!" Rufus cut in, suppressing a chuckle. "So, to spice things up, every few minutes the walls of the labyrinth are gonna shuffle like a gang of ludicolo." When Yuna turned back around, she found the lucario shimmying left and right and rolled her eyes.

    Vincent nodded "And there are traps set up inside the labyrinth, too." He held his right index finger up. "Stay vigilant."

    "Well said, you two." Reno nodded approvingly. "And remember… all you've got to do is not finish in last place." He paused, then held up his left hand. "I can already see it in your eyes. 'Reno, you dashing cinderace, what happens if we do come in last?'" He smirked. "Well, first off, thank you for the compliment. And second… the team that comes in last will have to start the first leg with a five-minute time penalty!" Reno spun around and struck his raised-arm pose. "It's a Crowning way to ramp up the stakes, don't you think?"

    Yuna gulped. She did not want any extra disadvantages for the first leg. Nikki needed to be right about her plan. She looked at the toxtricity for any sign of nervousness, but Nikki's expression hadn't changed. She did catch Yuna eyeing her, however. "You still getting worked up about this?" Nikki strummed a chest-gill. "We'll be fine, Princess."

    "I sure hope you're right," Yuna whispered.

    "Oh, by the way, don't think of trying to climb or fly over the labyrinth, either," Cid said. "There are rotom drones up there that'll disqualify you the moment they catch you." The orbeetle looked at Nikki, who raised her hands innocently.

    "It ain't my plan, Chrome Dome."

    "Now then… let's get this Crowning good show started!" Reno cheered. "Get in position, teams!"

    "That's our cue." Chiaki approached the starting line with Yuna floating beside him. "Whatever you're doing… it better be good."

    Nikki stood at Chiaki's side and pulled her goggles over his eyes. "Remember, Twiggy, throw up a Protect shield right away."

    "On your marks…"

    Yuna did one last check of her bag, making sure the items were in place.

    "… get set…"

    Bahamut, if you can hear me, please let Nikki's plan work.

    "… and go!"

    Nikki smacked her chest gills as hard as she could. Loud, off-key electrical cords blared, drowning out Yuna and Chiaki's screams.
     
    Chapter 5 New
  • Ambyssin

    "No need to quiver, dear."
    Pronouns
    he/him
    Seeing weezing's smokestacks referred to as "hat like appendages feels a bit cursed, ngl. I'm not gonna get that image out of my head, am I?
    Probably not. :V
    I really like the way you chose to interpret and incorporate the galar version of the birds
    Thanks. There was a bit of an element to some promotional material related to the Galar birbs in it.
    And I didn't miss that little reference to Necrozma. I'm curious to see how her beliefs surrounding Bahamut pan out, as I get the idea it'll be pretty important down the road.
    Who can say? :P
    Judging by the inspirations from gen 8, I guess dynamax might be a thing here
    It's a possibility...
    I found the pacing in Chapter One very well done and easy to follow, and I'm hoping that trend will continue to follow.
    You and me both.
    She also threw herself into the line of fire when Xeromus threw the tri attack. I wonder if it's an instinctual trait
    Or she knows ghosts are immune to normal-type attacks. XD
    I do wonder if Vortex is supposed to resemble a Mega Char Y, since it was implied that Noctum has black scales. Though I'm a bit confused regarding Noctum too since he's described to have a cream colored belly even though I'd assumed earlier that you retconned megas to just be regular evolutions
    You're a bit off the mark, there. Noctum is not supposed to resemble Zard X. He resembles a shiny charizard:
    Neutral Noctum.png
    I was a bit surprised that Yuna's parents showed up in the school this quickly. Had the impression that the two kingdoms were relatively far from each other.
    They weren't coming from their home. They traveled with her to help her move in to the school. It's... something most families do with boarding school and college in America.
    I honestly can't read that name without thinking of the Chiaki girl from Danganronpa lol.
    May or may not be intentional.
    She mentioned a twin brother in the previous chapter, so I wonder if he's already become a dragcloak
    Nah, she has younger twin brothers. So, they smol wyrms, too.
    It honestly feels like Starlene had a hand in Yuna suddenly feeling nauseous during the concert, though that could be a misdirect on your part
    It's a mysteryyyyyy... dungeon.
    Also he should stop being mean to Yuna. Everyone should stop being mean to wyrm thingy
    I cannot promise this.
    I wonder when we'll get her backstory and learn what inspired her rebellious and problem causing personality.
    Me too. Someone should really take that up with the author...

    XxX

    Chapter 5: Here Comes the Boomburst

    A small partition appeared in the dark, circular swirls of distortion, like an open flap from a pitched tent. From his position atop a pile of moss-covered rubble cobbled together to look like a throne, the Phantom watched a Mr. Rime stroll across the field of gray, dead foliage and thorn-covered vegetation. He swung his icy cane around his thumb and whistled jauntily as he crushed black, rotted rose petals beneath his clog-like shoes. He stopped before the throne and nudged up the noctowl mask on his face.

    "Speak, Fraud," the Phantom ordered, his shadows pulsating and bubbling around his plague mask.

    "It's just as you predicted. Seems we've been dealt a wild card." Fraud held up his free hand and several cards with plague mask emblems materialized. Resting his cane on his right shoulder, Fraud shuffled the cards. "There are indeed fresh bouts of distortion that spawned where you said the remaining Needles are." He plucked the top card from the pile and turned it over to reveal a regal nidoking surrounded by clubs. "Just trying to get close to one of them caused a tearing pain to shoot through my whole body."

    The card vanished in a flash of light. "I imagine that entire mystery dungeons have encased the Needles."

    There was silence, then a shadowy tendril struck a rotten branch protruding from the distortion. Soggy splinters showered the area next to Shiva and Quetzal. They remained as motionless as statues. "Wonderful." The gems in the Phantom's mask flickered ominously. "Even with the power I have… trying to warp into one of those dungeons would exhaust me enough to put me in another stasis."

    "And simply approaching them out in the open is not a wise option." Fraud held up a card. It then split into three separate cards. "Since your 'performance' at Minister Douglas' manor, the queens have decided to play their hands." The three cards split into six. "They've mobilized the Radiant Guard and stationed them around all the new dungeons. If you approach, then things will turn ugly."

    Shadowy claws dug into the arms on the Phantom's throne. "I need power. More power." He slammed a fist against the stone. The hand evaporated and returned to his pool of shadows. "I don't understand it. Why didn't this happen with any of the other Needles?" The Phantom grabbed his mask and squeezed the nose. "I was getting closer. Closer to freeing them. To undoing my mistakes."

    "Who's to say?" Fraud resumed shuffling his deck. "Perhaps there's a trick at play here? Some sleight-of-hand that not even you could foresee?" He tossed the entire deck up, whereupon the cards transformed into a string of handkerchiefs that the Mr. Rime caught and stuffed into the glove over his left hand. "Whatever the case, it seems your hand is no longer as good as you thought it was. So, what will you do, oh mighty Phantom Despair? Do you take this as a bluff and check the Needles or fold and see if fate can deal you a better hand?"

    A growl rumbled from within Despair's pool of shadows. He knew he could silence Fraud as he did those stuffy noble birds. But it would be a waste of precious energy. He needed at least one person who could think for themselves. Someone who wouldn't just be a mindless machine to send out and keep watch over the Needles. Especially now that they were hidden within dungeons.

    If Fraud had felt pain, then the distortion the Needles had made was a type that Despair couldn't properly harness. Sending any of them into one of those dungeons would mean losing control of them completely. The time and power and pooled into them would go to waste.

    But what could he do? What should he do? Every moment he sat around doing nothing, the pathetic nobles would continue to make a mockery of the world. To use that awful ether and spread more and more of His distortion all around.

    Despair's tendrils constricted. An icy chill spread across him. Images flickered through his head.

    A circle with five diamonds around it.

    Five moon-sized dragon heads bearing down on him from the heavens.

    A black, crystalline arm reaching toward a wall of fire.

    That awful chant. Nos vera Natus. Nos vera Natus.

    How long had he been hearing it for? He couldn't even remember. Only that it wouldn't leave his head no matter what he did.

    "Sire?"

    "What?" Despair's gemstone eyes blazed. He glanced at the three birds, who were still standing motionless atop an overturned pillar. Groaning, he turned to Fraud.

    "You seemed positively lost in thought." Fraud turned the ten of spades over in his hand. "Might I offer a suggestion?"

    He doubted it would be any good, but what did he have to lose? "Go on."

    "If you can't strike directly at the Needles, perhaps you can establish a little side-pot." Fraud tossed the ten of spades up. It morphed into a casino chip. The chip froze the moment Fraud caught it. "Rather than risk losing the energy you always mumble about… why not damage the Kingdom of Radiance in a different way?"

    "You know exactly why," Despair growled. Fraud was clearly full of it. There was a reason he assigned the Mr. Rime that name.

    "True. But if you can't achieve one of your goals…" Fraud held up the two of spades. He turned it over and it became the ace of spades. "… then you ought to get yourself an ace for some insurance."

    "Enough bloody analogies. Get to the point."

    "The Polaris Group." Fraud flicked the ace of spades toward Ifrit, who spat a fireball at it. The card dissolved away before the flames connected. "You keep saying that the use of ether has led Radiance's citizens to forget how to be true pokémon. Polaris holds a complete monopoly over ether distribution. And many of the nobles have stakes in its operations. If you strike at the conglomerate, you can harm Radiance's nobility."

    A long silence followed. Fraud leaned against his cane. "Well, what do you think?"

    Despair had to admit that it was a decent idea. If he were in his prime, perhaps he would've thought of it himself. But this was why he had wanted allies in the first place. Maybe he shouldn't have stripped the birds of their thoughts after all. Oh well, he couldn't change that now. The only way to go was forward.

    "I'm afraid I don't know that much about the Polaris Group." Several shadowy tendrils extended out from Despair, each spawning a hand. "But I do know that it's tied to an educational institution that brainwashes the future nobility. So, if we're going to start anywhere, it's there."

    He pointed three hands toward the distortion behind Fraud. "Go. Let the so-called hope of Radiance's future know of our presence. Show them that their gilded lifestyles will crumble under the might of the Phantom Sins."

    Fraud bowed. "As you wish, sir."

    XxX​

    The bright flash and distorted twang threw Yuna off. But she realized what Nikki had done the moment waves pushed against her ectoplasm, making them quiver like a goodra's gelatinous belly when it walked. It was Boomburst, a move she'd seen used by high-ranking kommo-o and flygon soldiers serving the Aeon Kingdom.

    Still, for someone as scrawny as Nikki to pull that move off — and at such a young age, too — Yuna couldn't help but wonder just how much more to the toxtricity there was than her scruffy appearance let on. Chiaki had said she was strong, but Yuna hadn't expected something of this caliber.

    Indeed, when the light faded, Nikki stood tall, adjusting the lapels of her leather jacket. All around her, the other teams lay strewn in the grass. Tangled knots of limbs and bodies. Groans and moans made Yuna's gills curl up. Chiaki's jaw slackened and his toothpick dropped onto the grass.

    "What the— what the hell did you just do?"

    "My word! Nikki the Nuisance just pulled some secret technique out of nowhere!" Reno's voice crackled through speakers that Yuna couldn't see.

    "I've never seen a move like that before. Is that even legal?!" Rufus gawked.

    "One thing's for sure, it's knocked nearly all of her opponents out cold," Vincent exclaimed.

    "Heh. Told you I had a plan, Twiggy." Nikki thumped her chest. "Now we're free to take all the time we need." She lazily rested her hands behind her head and casually strolled toward the labyrinth entrance. Blinking slowly, Yuna turned to follow Nikki when she noticed a flash of bright-blue in the corner of her right eye.

    "Nikki, behind you!" Yuna cried, before Ice Shards whizzed right past her.

    "Eh?" Nikki spun around, then dropped to her knees with a loud, "Whoa!" She sprang back up, lips curled into a frown. "What's with the sneak attack, Perci? Your mates are already KO'd."

    Yuna looked right to find a weavile staggering out from behind a fainted mudsdale. "Well, I sure ain't letting you waltz through that maze unscathed." Ice swirled around her claws as she prepared for another attack. However, Perci only succeeded in half-forming another Ice Shard when a glowing green blade clubbed her in the back of the head. Perci gasped and her eyes rolled back in her head.

    Chiaki sprang out from behind Perci the moment her body hit the ground. Holding his hat down with his right hand, he pointed toward the maze. "Let's go before someone else tries to do one of us in."

    "Pfbt, sure. But what's the rush?" Nikki walked after Chiaki, shrugging. "It's impossible for us to come in last now."

    Yuna hovered after her teammates, gills still tensed from the crowd's boos. Clearly, they weren't pleased with Nikki singlehandedly wrecking the brand-new preliminary round. "Do you really think that was such a good idea?" she asked Nikki. "Won't this make our team a huge target in the Cup Chase?"

    "Ha! It ain't gonna matter. I'll just keep blowing 'em all away!" Nikki strummed her chest gills. She paused next to a crystal wall, turned to the crowd, and pulled down her left lower eyelid. "Kiss my ass, nerds! Nobody cares if you don't get to see a— yipe!"

    Chiaki dragged Nikki into the maze by the collar of her jacket. "Jeez, what's the big idea, Twiggy?" the toxtricity growled as she pulled herself free.

    Walking ahead of the group, Chiaki kept swiveling his head back and forth. "You never answered my question. What was that attack?"

    Nikki raised a brow. "Hang on… you don't actually know?"

    "Does it sound like I know?"

    In no mood to listen to another argument, Yuna opted to butt in. "It's Boomburst. An attack that unleashes really vicious sound waves." She poked her nubs together. "I used to think that only elite dragons could learn it, but I guess I was wrong."

    "I see." Chiaki tapped his chin in thought. "Then all toxtricity can learn it?"

    Nikki shrugged. "Beats me, Twiggy. Never met another tox' that knows it."

    How many toxtricity could she have possibly met? Yuna wondered. Nikki didn't look like the well-traveled type.

    "Then how do you know it?"

    "Heh. Trade secret." Nikki rubbed her upper lip. "What does it matter, anyway? I—"

    Chiaki held up his right arm. Yuna abruptly stopped floating. "What's the matter?"

    "I heard a caw."

    Nikki rolled her eyes. "Seriously? That's nothing to be concerned about."

    "It might be a trap," Yuna said. Though she couldn't imagine a trap involving birds.

    "Nah. Traps are things, not people." Nikki stepped toward Chiaki and pushed him to her right. "Stand aside, Twiggy. I can—"

    The temperature in the area suddenly spiked and the purple walls on either side of the team turned a bright, dazzling orange. Yuna's eyes widened and she hastily floated back seconds before flames rained down from above the team. "Guys? Guys, are you okay?" she called. Yuna looked up to try and find the source of the fire, but smoke obscured her view.

    Seconds later, Chiaki grabbed her and took off sprinting through the maze. "What's going on? Did we trigger a trap?" Yuna asked.

    "You can't suspend a trap in midair," Chiaki growled. "Someone attacked us directly."

    "But how?" Yuna was flailing behind Chiaki as he rounded a corner. She couldn't struggle out of his grip. "Those announcer guys said it'd be impossible for teams to go up and over the maze."

    "I know that." Chiaki glanced up briefly, then pressed his cap firmly against his head with his free hand. "Hang on!"

    "But you're the one holding me!" Yuna squealed and her last words were stretched out as Chiaki lunged forward. He kicked off the wall to his left and launched himself to the opposite wall. The grovyle leaped from wall to wall, all while keeping his grip on Yuna. Her flailing and flopping about let her see the problem: Air Slash crescents raining down from the cloud of smoke.

    "What the hell? Are we under attack?!" Nikki stumbled along behind Yuna, clumsily sidestepping a wind blade. She spun around and hurled a lightning bolt like a javelin toward the cloud. It pierced right through, revealing nothing inside. "Why aren't they stopping the event? This clearly ain't supposed to be part of it!"

    "Oh, look at that spectacular strike from Sirfetch'd Robin! Such crowning mastery of his leek-wielding prowess!" Reno said.

    "Indeed. But let's give Prince Shimmer credit for that well-timed shield against the blast trap," Vincent added.

    Yuna gasped. "Wait… Shimmer's team is still up?"

    Nikki frowned. "Well, they were the furthest ones away from us. Guess they avoided the brunt of my Boomburst." She caught up to her teammates. "Still, why aren't those bozos saying anything about us? We're in trouble here, aren't we?"

    Still in Chiaki's grasp, Yuna pointed her right arm up. "I see something up there. It looks like… some sort of bird?" She blinked in confusion. That early thought about birds was meant to be a joke. Why was a bird actually attacking them? And why did no one in the crowd seem to care?

    "If it's a bird, then I'll fry it!" Nikki thumped her chest. Sparks gathered around her gills. But when she stepped forward to launch her attack, the ground rumbled. Nikki stumbled forward and thrust her arms apart to steady herself. "Damn it… are the walls really shifting now?"

    "I see flames." Yuna pried herself free of Chiaki's grip and grabbed one of the orbs in her satchel. She smashed it to pieces on the ground. Blue, sparkling barriers surrounded the trio. The flames splashed against Nikki harmlessly. She glanced at Yuna, then fired a burst of lightning upward. Unfortunately, it sailed into empty air.

    "Did you see where it went?" Chiaki scanned the sky. A scowl spread across his face.

    "N-No, sorry. I was too focused on activating my all-protect orb." Yuna slouched over slightly.

    "… tch. Well, we've still got some power left in these shields." Chiaki turned to his right, where a new path forward had been revealed by the shifting walls. "Let's make whatever progress we can."

    Nodding, Yuna hovered behind Chiaki while he dashed across the grass. She kept her eyes on the sky, looking for any sign of the shadowy bird. The team rounded two more bends before the walls shifted on them a second time. No more attacks struck them from above, but Yuna knew better than to open her mouth. Too many of her favorite bedtime stories had the heroes fall into that trap.

    "Any sign of the end yet?" Chiaki stood on his tiptoes.

    "Pfbt. Like that's really gonna do anything when there's a wall ten meters ahead." Nikki flicked her right arm in the direction Chiaki was looking. Yuna couldn't explain why, but there was an uneasy feeling stewing inside her. A sense that she was being watched. One that the strange rotom above the labyrinth couldn't explain.

    "Well, I'm not gonna scale the wall if there's something hitting us from above." Chiaki tipped his hat down and resumed running.

    "Wait, stop!" Yuna called, reaching an arm out toward him.

    "What for? I—"

    Black and red blobs materialized on each wall. Spectral fists immediately shot out from the walls and slammed into Chiaki from each side. "Agh!" Despite his shield taking the blow, the pressure still sent some wind rushing out of him and he stumbled to a stop.

    "Stay back." Nikki stepped in front of Yuna and slammed her hands against her gills. A fresh, off-key Boomburst rang out. To Nikki's horror, however, it failed to do a thing to the disembodied hands. Instead, they turned their attention on the toxtricity. She slouched over. "Aw, shit."

    Nikki tried to jump out of the way, but one of the hands swatted her against the wall. She struck it with an audible "Oomph!" and her shield's glow faded away. Yuna tried to float over and help Nikki up, but the other hand shot in front of her. Squealing, Yuna sucked in her body and halted herself centimeters away from the hand. She threw her satchel open, fearing some sort of attack.

    But nothing happened. The dreepy simply stared into the hand's distorted palm. She could even see Nikki on the other side of it. Did that mean the hands were the work of a ghost-type? Yuna wracked her brain to think of ghost-type birds.

    Oh, there were decidueye! But, last she checked, they didn't spit fire.

    "Ngaaagrgh!"

    Nikki's screams snapped Yuna out of her thoughts. Thinking quickly, she stuck a nubby arm into her satchel and pulled out a bright-orange luminous orb. Yuna slapped the top of the orb and it lit up like the chandeliers in the dining hall. The spectral hand in front of her quickly disappeared, revealing Nikki floating in the air, legs flailing. She held her goggles, which were squeezing themselves tighter and tighter against her face while a sickly purple aura surrounded them.

    "D… on't… just… float there," Nikki wheezed. "Help me!"

    Yuna blinked a few times, then smacked her cheeks. She'd seen this before. Her parents had taught her about this. A special move certain ghosts could use. They'd take control of items to harm opponents. "Nikki, we have to get those goggles off!"

    "What?!" Judging by her anger, that bothered Nikki even more than the attack. "No way! They're… they're my good luck char— rrrgh!"

    The goggles squeezed even tighter against her. Yuna was about to say something when Chiaki dashed in, Leaf Blades at the ready. He whipped his right arm around, effortlessly slicing through the strap on Nikki's goggles. They fell to the ground along with Nikki. Yuna sighed in relief when the purple aura vanished.

    "You idiot! Those were one of a kind!" Nikki fumed.

    "Forget them. Someone used Poltergeist on them." Chiaki kicked the goggles further back in the maze. "We're not safe here. Let's move." The grovyle yanked Nikki forward by her right arm. Frowning, Yuna followed.

    Now she was sure there was a ghost-type after the team. But why? And did they have some sort of bird colleague? Surely the rotom were capturing footage of this. So, why wasn't anyone saying anything? The more she thought it over, the more it didn't sit right with her.

    "I see light. Just a bit further," Chiaki said, practically dragging Nikki behind him.

    "L-Let go of me! My goggles… we need—"

    "And we have our first — and most likely the only — team to cross the finish line! It's Prince Shimmer and Team Excel!" Reno declared as the sounds of thunderous applause reached Yuna's ear-frills moments before she emerged from the maze.

    She managed to catch a brief glimpse of Shimmer and his sylveon and sirfetch'd teammates jumping around victoriously before a black shadow loomed over her.

    "Gah!" Chiaki fell back, bumping Yuna. She turned around and her face paled at the sight of a dusknoir's single red eye glaring down at her and her teammates. After Dusknoir adjusted the crimson, skull-shaped bangles on his shoulders, a black cape unfurled behind him.

    "Wh… who…" Yuna struggled to find her voice.

    "Oh, what's this?" Rufus' voice crackled through the speakers "It looks like Team Bastion is out of the maze… but Professor Vegna has stopped them right in front of the finish line!"

    Yuna swallowed hard while a dark fog enshrouded Vegna. An all-encompassing sense of dread washed over her. True to the title her teammates had given him, Vegna gave off a menacing aura the likes of which Yuna had never seen before.

    "What's the big idea, you clod?" Nikki growled, dusting herself off.

    Vegna's torso split apart at the yellow, zigzagging stripe. The haze thickened around him, drawing angry growls from Chiaki and Nikki. Yuna saw through the ghostly apparition, however, and watched Vegna produce… a book?

    With a flick of his left index finger, the book opened and the pages turned themselves. Vegna kept his eye fixed on Team Bastion. "A loan sharpedo I met in the gaol once told me, 'Those who seek to con their fellow liars sign their tickets to the Twilight Realm.'" He paused. "This was said, of course, as I dragged him to the executioner's table."

    Yuna tilted her head. What sort of a platitude was that? None of the sayings she knew from back home were remotely as morbid. This guy was supposed to be a professor here, so why was he spouting something so dark?

    Vegna snapped his fingers and a loud, shrieking caw sounded from above. Gills quivering, Yuna looked up in time to see a talonflame descend toward the group, wings flapping frantically. "The hell?" Nikki ducked and swatted at the air, but Talonflame landed on Vegna's right gauntlet. He stuck out a foot to reveal Nikki's broken goggles. Vegna took it in his free hand and looked at it for all of a second before slamming his book shut. It disappeared in a plume of shadowfire.

    "… disqualified."

    "I beg your pardon?" Yuna looked at Vegna in confusion, only to get doused in spittle as Talonflame angrily squawked at her. "Meep!" She drifted back, throwing her arms over her face.

    Vegna raised his left hand and scratched at the side of Talonflame's face. He settled down and leaned into Vegna's hand. "For the impudence of my feral compatriot causing a scene, I beg your forgiveness." He pulled his hand back and bowed to Yuna. Talonflame mimicked Vegna as best he could while staying perched on the dusknoir's shoulder bangle.

    Yuna frowned. What kind of apology was that supposed to be? There wasn't an ounce of remorse in his tone and he spoke like he read the thesaurus for fun. And what was he thinking keeping a feral talonflame around him?

    "Oi! What was that you were saying before?" Nikki crossed her arms. She looked to sidestep Vegna, but Talonflame hopped off his shoulder and shrieked at her. Nikki glared back at Talonflame. "Wait a sec… this mangy bird was attacking us in the maze!" She pointed accusingly at Talonflame. "I smell a rattata! Explain yourself."

    Vegna snapped his fingers. Talonflame dutifully flew back to his shoulder. Vegna again summoned a book from the shadows. Holding up Nikki's goggles, he said, "Section five of the Crowne Cup rules states as follows: 'The use of performance-enhancing equipment is prohibited. Should a competitor be found to be using such equipment, their team can be immediately removed from the current challenge by an authorized faculty member."

    Yuna was about to ask a question when she noticed Nikki's defiant expression melt away like a bowl of ice cream left out in the sun. Chiaki was quick to point out the change. "Nikki… what's he saying? Did you—"

    "Boomburst is a damaging attack, yes. But to knock out dozens of students with a single shot?" Vegna shook his head. "Well, the only way one could do something like that is by bolstering the move's power… say, with a pair of Polaris-brand wise glasses." Black energy crackled around Nikki's goggles. The coloration dissolved away, revealing a yellow band with a compass emblem stitched into it.

    Chiaki's eyes widened and he whirled on Nikki. "You blithering idiot! Why the hell would you bring a pair of wise glasses?"

    Nikki staggered backward, eyes darting around in a panic. "I… I…"

    Yuna's jaw slackened in disbelief. That plan Nikki was so confident in… was to cheat? And she really thought she was going to get away with it?

    Whinnying laughter echoed across the field. Though Vegna's large frame blocked Yuna's view, she was sure that voice belonged to Prince Shimmer. "Unbelievable. To think the meek little dragon was so afraid of her lack of skill, she got Nikki the Nuisance to cheat for her! Oh ho ho… I haven't had a laugh like this since the 'Dark-ish' season finale."

    "What?" Yuna's cheeks burned. "I had nothing to do with any of this!"

    "Be silent, boy," Vegna hissed, red eye smoldering. Talonflame looked behind Vegna and puffed out his feathers in annoyance. "As a former teacher in the gaol once told me, 'Those who speak out of turn do so because they have nothing of value to contribute.'"

    Yuna fixed her bewildered look on Vegna, but he seemed done with Shimmer's outburst. He closed his hand around the broken choice specs. Purple flames enveloped the goggles.

    "Now then… given your background, Miss Nicolette, I'm not the slightest bit surprised you would attempt such a stunt." Vegna opened his hand and flicked the destroyed specs' ashes onto Nikki. She fell onto her butt, eyes squeezed shut and coughing profusely.

    "Nikki… why?" was all Yuna could manage. They just needed to avoid coming in last. It wasn't that hard a proposition. Nikki couldn't have been that afraid of coming in last. Which meant there was another reason. One the toxtricity had no intention of saying, from the look of things.

    Vegna pointed a sparking finger at Nikki. "However, given your compatriots' reactions, it seems you not only cheated, but also callously lied about it." He brought his right hand back by his side. Crimson energy raced from his shoulder down to his hand. Squawking in fright, Talonflame took the air. "I should cast you into the depths of the Twilight Realm for such distasteful sins."

    "W-What? Hang on… this is just a sporting event!" Yuna threw her arms up in disbelief. Everything Vegna was doing certainly befit his title as the Grim Reaper… but that was hardly how a professor should carry themselves. What was Vortex thinking hiring someone like this?

    To her surprise, Vegna straightened himself back up. Talonflame didn't return to his shoulder, however. "Of course, I jest. But your soul and those of your teammates can still languish on this mortal coil… in the hellish pits of detention." The way his voice deepened with the final word sent a fresh chill down Yuna's backside. If this was his idea of a joke, his material needed work. Decades of work.

    "Like hell are you holding me responsible." Chiaki stepped in front of Nikki, nudging up his cap to look Vegna in the eye. "You said it yourself… this was all Nikki."

    "That's enough, Sir Vegna."

    Arianna teleported in between the grovyle and dusknoir. She pivoted to Chiaki, glasses nudged up. "This conversation will have to wait until later."

    "Huh?" Yuna blinked. She didn't like the look on the gardevoir's face. "What's the matter?"

    Arianna didn't answer her. She turned to Vegna, leaned over, and whispered to him. Vegna's red eye darkened. "You're sure of this?" he said.

    "I'm afraid so."

    Vegna crossed his arms and bowed his head. "Very well, Vice Chancellor." He pointed to Nikki once more. "But know this… my ruling still stands. Your team is disqualified. Therefore, in addition to detention, you will incur the penalty for the first Cup Chase leg… and attend mandatory remedial lessons."

    Chiaki opened his mouth to yell at Nikki, but a pink glow surrounded his head. His lips smacked shut. Arianna stepped to his side and rested a hand on his shoulder. "Now is not the time."

    "Are you going to tell us what's wrong or not?" Yuna asked.

    Pressing her glasses against her face, Arianna took a deep breath. "There's been a situation, Princess. Your attendants and Mister Chiaki's servant were attacked by a Phantom."

    XxX​

    Apologies for the delay in getting this chapter up. I've just been left exhausted by hospital rotations, so it's been tough to find the energy to write. Hopefully you enjoyed this chapter. I'd appreciate any comments you have.
     
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