VII. Madness's Wake
For a brief yet terrifying moment, Sirius believed that he really was on trial.
The cavernous elliptical space looming before him held several rows of seats lining the single curved wall, all intricately sculpted from glittering marble. A thousand bleached-white chairs, all facing his direction yet as empty as the still air between them … Somehow that mere skeletal formation seemed more ominous than an audience glaring down at him in disdain. In the dim light of the room, which seemed to permeate everything within rather than shine from a single source, they sprawled before him in a twisted parody of life, stooping like undead beasts.
Four broad stone columns interrupted the otherwise unbroken pattern within the seating, connecting the arched ceiling to the shallow curve of the floor. Each boasted a collage of utterly bizarre creatures – a vast collection of dragons, fairies, and monsters, all staring silently into space with the same smooth blank eyes. And partway up each column rested a fairly simple throne, embellished only with a shining array precious stones, and carved as naturally from the stone as the twisting beasts above and below. Something seemed to sit upon them, peering down from the shadows of those cold recesses.
It took an irritated sigh from the serpent beside him to jolt him out of his gaping daze; he stepped cautiously past the double doors biting back a whimper.
As he drew nervously into the courtroom – or was it a throne room? It was fairly impossible to tell – he thought he could make out the beings who sat in those thrones above him. In the leftmost throne, in which rubies glinted sharply, crouched a massive beast cloaked in a thick mat of fiery fur … beside it, in the throne of topaz, stood a stout creature with gleaming claws and beady eyes … in the throne of sapphires, a proud scythe-wielding figure roosted, feathers rustling softly.
At the far right, the throne of emeralds was empty.
Sirius's ears perked automatically as he heard the doors swing quietly closed behind him, defying their massive size as the room was plunged into near total darkness. Yet he could see the eyes of those who sat in the thrones, glittering softly in the mysterious faint light.
"Pilgrim Sirius!" boomed the beast in the throne of rubies. "We are pleased to receive you. Step forward."
The beast's jovial tone was surprising, but it did little to soothe Sirius's anxiety. Swallowing hard, he padded to the center of the room where the floor was at its lowest. He stared up at those creatures as they followed him with their eyes, imagining that the sound of his claws clicking were their own claws drumming impatiently against stone.
He had just begun to wonder what was supposed to happen now when he serpent slithered past him, swiftly reaching the base of the empty column. Without missing a beat the serpent pulled himself up the stone, winding around in nine tight coils before sliding easily into the throne of emeralds, his eyes burning down into Sirius's hide.
But … but if the snake could sit up there … then did that mean he was—?
"We have been informed that you first appeared in Eversive Fields," said the bird in the throne of sapphires, in a voice sharp and clear. "Is this correct?"
"Y-yes." The Houndour licked his lips; his mouth suddenly felt dry. "Inside the … the third barrier, I think."
For a moment the silence was broken only by a light scratching sound. Sirius resisted the urge to paw at the floor, and hoped that his claws hadn't marked it up too much already.
"Do you have any memories of your life before?" asked the creature in the throne of topaz. She sounded surprisingly soft, not at all the way her massive claws would suggest. "Any history, family, friends, talents, fears, dreams, religion or lack thereof … anything?"
Sirius could feel his heart sink at the question as he shook his head. "No, nothing," he said quietly. "All I remember is falling through something dark and cold … somebody was calling for me, but I was alone. That's all I know." His voice trembled slightly as he spoke.
"Do you know who was calling for you?" The bird in the throne of sapphires sounded unconcerned.
"It … it felt like I should have known him. Or her. I just didn't."
scratch scratch scratch
The beast in the throne of rubies cleared his throat, pulling Sirius away from the gloomy angst he had been drifting towards. "So for your side there was nothing? I see, I see … does the name Zekrom mean anything to you? Or perhaps Reshiram?"
"W-what?" He blinked rapidly, feeling puzzlement twist something in his gut. Hadn't they summoned him here to ask about him?
"Have you heard of Zekrom or Reshiram?" was the patient reply. Then, in a faintly disdainful afterthought: "… Or Kyurem, I suppose."
Sirius considered this as he attempted to push his indignation to the side. "I don't think so, no."
scratch scratch scratch
"Belarus, then? Or Adam? Ganymede?"
Someone else chimed in. "Pilate? Selwyn? Isolde? Darkrai?"
Sirius found himself shaking his head almost constantly from the onslaught of names; the room spun around him menacingly, with voices questioning him from all angles. Why would he know any of these people? He had only been in this place for a couple of days, and at any rate he barely knew himself. It was almost as if they suspected him of some grievous crime.
After several long minutes that stretched like hours, the Overlords fell silent. Sirius's brain raced in anticipation as he kept his eyes drifting across the shadows of the empty seats, trying to avoid their judging stares.
scratch scratch scratch
Finally the serpent in the throne of emeralds sighed, sounding almost disappointed. "Very well. You may go."
What? That was it?
He glanced up at them again, certain that he had misheard somehow, but they had turned their attention away from him and towards each other, speaking in clipped tones. They were supposed to ask more about where he had come from, not simply brush him aside after asking about random people. Wasn't that the point of this? Wasn't he a person?
Then again … hadn't they been doing this for a thousand years? Sending for the ones with no past or memory, a hundred thousand faces and a million inane questions blurring together into a meaningless montage … There was no reason for him to stand out. For a Pilgrim, he was simply average, just a footnote in an expansive study.
But the serpent had seemed almost interested in him before …
Biting back a sharp question, he turned and climbed up the shallow slope towards the door. They didn't seem to need him there anymore, and he wasn't sure he wanted to stay in this gloomy place any longer than necessary. The room itself felt mocking and accusatory, like a massive goblin leering at his retreating back. He fought the urge to toss a glare over his shoulder.
To his surprise, the massive doors fell open at his tentative push. Squinting in the sudden evening brilliance of the marble hall, he stepped out into the light and let the shadows and whispers pass behind him. He wouldn't be going back there if he could help it.
"Sirius? Hey, Sirius!"
His tail wagged and his nose twitched in recognition as he noticed Lucian and Blair standing just outside the corridor he had entered through. Neither seemed particularly awed by the majesty before them; Blair was even leaning against a broad marble column with his arms folded in a cool manner, though he stood up straight as he beckoned Sirius over. Feeling his spirits a little, the Houndour broke into a trot, letting the hall slide past him.
"So how'd it go?" Blair asked as Sirius drew near. "Was it fun?"
"Er … not exactly—"
"Yeah, it was pretty boring for me. Ah, I should've warned you not to fall asleep before! Too late now, I guess."
"Yes, these meetings are typically quite uneventful," Lucian agreed, and his statement would have seemed a lot more believable if he didn't sound so relieved. "But come now: I had best help to escort the two of you out. I believe that the Overlords are expecting to meet with a delegation from the Treasure Provinces soon, and the farther away we get from that the better, if you'll pardon my bluntness."
"No, it's all good," Blair said with a dismissive wave. "Nobody likes those guys. Hey Sirius, I bet if we hurry we can get to the cafeteria just before dinner starts. First food is best food, I always say."
As they headed back down the corridor, Sirius did his best to smile and nod and laugh as Blair launched into some long-winded anecdote about some hostile creature called an Exeggutor and how he had managed to make it back off with just a frying pan. But the laughter seemed to sink into the thick carpet and wooden walls, fading into nothingness around them as they walked. He simply couldn't make himself forget the sense of having failed somehow, no matter how hard he tried.
Naturally, they didn't get to the cafeteria before anyone else.
"I told you to come and see me when you came back," Nurse Charity sighed, ignoring Blair's whimpers of pain as she pulled a thick bandage off of his arm. "The poultice needs to be removed six hours after application, not eight. If you ask me, I say you're lucky I caught you when I did."
"If you ask me, I say it hurts!" Blair retorted, only to suddenly squeak as more fur was yanked out.
Stifling a chuckle at the scene they were making, Sirius sat down on his hospital cot to examine the green gemstone that the girl had dropped earlier. For now that he had time to really look at it, he could clearly see that it was a gemstone – not an emerald, the color wasn't quite deep enough for that, but most likely valuable anyway. It twinkled mischievously, wedged in between two of his furry toes; he pulled it out with his teeth, resisting the urge to wince. Carrying it in his paw hadn't exactly been comfortable, but it was either that or his mouth, and he hadn't wanted to risk swallowing it.
Now that he thought about it, the girl probably wasn't supposed to be sneaking gems out of the castle. Maybe he could go back and tell someone about it … but no, that wasn't a good idea. With his luck he'd probably end up facing the Overlords again. The only other option he could see was confronting the girl himself, but he had no clue how he was supposed to go about finding her.
Shaking his head, he slipped the gem under the thin mattress. He'd have to come back to the problem later.
"And done!" Nurse Charity stepped back proudly, having applied a slick swab of something slimy to Blair's arm. "That should help cool that burn down once and for all. It should wash off eventually, but don't you dare consider licking it off. It's not chocolate-flavored, you know."
"Is it coconut, then?" Blair asked hopefully, glancing down at the opaque white paste.
The nurse almost bent double trying to pinch the bridge of her nonexistent nose.
Blair sighed dramatically. "I was afraid not."
Sirius had just begun trotting over to rejoin them when his ears perked, picking up several tense voices. They were too far away to hear properly, but his hackles lifted at their collective tone. He was fairly sure he didn't want to be around if they brought their argument this way.
"You can sleep here for a couple of days, dear, but I'm afraid no longer than that," the Nurse told him kindly, patting his head. To his own amazement, he felt absolutely no indignation at this. "I can never tell when some poor soul is going to need it more than you. But we can try to get you settled somewhere nice, how about that? There's probably a really nice place somewhere for you to stay …"
The two males exchanged glances at this. Something flashed in the Dewott's normally cheerful eyes: if you're going to say something, you'd better say it now. Now or never. Are you going to stay?
Sirius's breath caught. Stay here, at Team Phoenix headquarters? If he was honest with himself, he hadn't considered the matter very much at all, being too caught up in his past to realize just how near the future was. Everyone he knew was here – James, Blair, Lenora, the nurse – but he couldn't help but wonder … would it be worth it? They went through so much just to earn their keep here; the images of the Veel and the Archangel were still burned into his mind.
He opened his mouth, not really sure what he was going to say—
The door smashed rather violently into the wall, forming an ear-shattering noise of booming crash and strident squeal of hinges. Nurse Charity hooted in alarm, swiveling her egg-shaped body around so violently that Blair had to leap aside in order to avoid getting pushed against the far wall.
Every thought of the future – where he would live, what he would do, how he would live with the mystery of himself – all of that vanished from Sirius's mind when he saw who stood there in the door, breathing so heavily that it was a wonder there weren't tendrils of smoke streaming from his nostrils to catch his scarf on fire.
"Yeah, and – oof!"
Sirius couldn't help himself. He could see James standing there, really alive and breathing, which was better than any second-hand report from Blair any day. But now, from clean out of the blue, he suddenly felt the need to assure himself that this wasn't just some phantom that would vanish into thin air upon contact. He still wasn't sure he could trust himself not to hallucinate.
Which was why he barreled clean into the Deerling, sending them both tumbling through the doorway and onto the stone floor out in the hall. With a relieved bark-like laugh, Sirius pinned the other down with his forepaws, tail wagging furiously like a celebratory flag.
"Oh hell," James stated flatly, rolling his eyes while Sirius gazed down at him happily. "Suddenly I remember how stupid it was of me to actively go looking for you."
The Houndour instinctively tilted his head to the side. "You … were you looking for me?"
"Is today 'Repeat Everything James Says' Day? Get off of me already, you're making them consider asking us weird questions."
Wondering who exactly "them" were supposed to be, Sirius glanced curiously over his shoulder. He was rewarded by the gaping astonishment of two more deer-like creatures, both far larger than James. One of them was a stout fellow with antlers curved like eyes and a bulbous tail. The other, half as tall again as her mate, matched James's body shape more closely, though her fur was a deep brown instead; she sported a pair of antlers that – here Sirius had to blink very hard to make sure his eyes were deceiving him – her antlers were growing thick masses of leaves like trees.
A moment of awkward silence ensued.
"… Oh, hi," Sirius finally said. He dropped back onto all fours again, hoping that he looked properly abashed. "Are these your parents then, James?"
"Indeed they are," James replied shortly, wasting no time in rolling back up onto his hooves. "Well, those two are. Ariana there isn't, though, I'm almost sad to say."
Sirius felt the question die on his lips when he realized that there was in fact a third creature standing there with James, so still and silent that there was little wonder he hadn't noticed her there before. His eyes traveled up her yellow and red legs, past her wiry arms with their thin-clawed hands, before resting on her crested head. Bright golden eyes peeked down at his through her long hair-like feathers.
"Ariana the Blaziken, Leader of Team Phoenix," James explained, smirking at Sirius's astonishment. "She doesn't talk much, which is okay because honestly you talk enough for two people. Ariana, this is the idiot I was talking about, Sirius. That one Pilgrim."
For a few long seconds Ariana was still, simply examining the Houndour. He felt the urge to blurt something random start to overwhelm him, but fortunately it was at that moment that she nodded sagely at him, feathers rustling and eyes twinkling.
"… What's going on exactly?" Sirius asked nobody in particular.
"Well, I graduated from the team the other day," James stated casually. "So I can start my own. Even though a certain pair of overprotective weirdoes thought it was a bad idea." He threw a not-so-subtle look at his parents, who were denied the chance to speak up as he pressed on. "But I need two people to start a team, and apparently putting two hundred percent into everything doesn't count as being two people, so …"
He trailed off.
Sirius tried to answer, but his jaw seemed to be forsaking his face in favor of gravity.
"So I was wondering …" James fell silent again, glaring off to the side with a prideful glint in his eye.
With some effort, the Houndour managed to pick his jaw up off of the floor. "Are … are you asking me to be part of your team?"
James nodded mutely.
"But … but I …" Sirius shook his head in disbelief. A team … with James? How could that possibly work out? He didn't even know what these teams were supposed to do. Mind reeling with questions, he plucked one at random to keep himself from babbling idiotically at this new development. "But wouldn't I need to graduate or whatever?"
"Nah. Only the leader needs to be a graduate, technically," James said smugly. "It'll give me even more reason to boss you around."
So there was no reason he couldn't do it. But that didn't change the fact that he hadn't been in this strange land for even a week; how was he supposed to cope with its dangers? … Although he supposed that was also a good reason to join, considering that it would probably be more treacherous to simply live on his own … But how could he be sure he wouldn't just be dead weight? He didn't know how to do anything yet; he couldn't even be sure if he could last out a mystery dungeon if he somehow got separated … Then again, these creatures apparently had a lot of endurance as well as ridiculous powers, so perhaps over time he could grow strong like that as well … But what if he died?…
But what if he lived?
He didn't know. He simply didn't know.
James would probably better off without him, being more experienced and cool in the face of danger … But seeing him right now, wearing what might possibly be a hopeful grin … Could he let him down? But he needed somebody else on his team, didn't he? Maybe if there could be a compromise, or—
"James dear, I think you're remembering it wrong," Nurse Charity called out from the hospital wing. "Policy says a team needs two members in addition to the leader. So you're going to need to pick someone else if you really want to have your own—"
"Oh hey!" exclaimed Blair as he bounded out into the hall, swinging his arms so wildly that he inadvertently smeared some paste onto James's mother, much to her dismay. "It is quite the lucky coincidence that I happened to be within listening distance of this crucial conversation, isn't it?"
Everyone stared at him. "You have got to be joking," James said flatly.
"Oh James, if I were joking we would all be laughing and generally making merry," Blair replied happily.
Sirius's eyes nervously bounced between the two. Blair on the team … would that be safe?
"There aren't going to be any more solo trial for at least a month," Nurse Charity added helpfully. "I guess if you were really desperate you could go put up a notice for someone from another team to join, but from what I've seen the competition's been pretty vicious lately and this isn't the best time of year to be treating knife wounds—"
"Okay, fine!" James growled. "You're on the team then. Both of you. But you'd better remember that this is going to be my team, and any protests are going to get the protestant kicked off in favor of the first Weedle we come across. Are we absolutely clear on that?"
"Crystal, captain!" Blair practically shouted, saluting.
Off to the side, Ariana nodded her approval of this arrangement.
"And don't either of you two start about how I shouldn't be throwing the family business away over a random cliff or anything," the Deerling said fiercely to his parents, who looked as though they had been about to object to his words again. "I'm an adult now. Practically. I can make my own decisions, and I trust myself to keep myself safe through every bloody problem I come across out there. Yes, I said 'bloody,' don't look so shocked about it! I can swear if I want to, I don't have to follow your house rules anymore, damn it! Damn it damn it damn it damn it damn it damn it damn it — wait, where are you going in such a hurry? Stop crying, Dad!"
Sirius stared blankly into the confusion. What had he gotten himself into?