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Frontier Town Founder's Square

The cat shrugged expressively. "Tell ya what, exactly? It's a big place, and I sure ain't ever been there."

Sonora's body language was still on-edge, ears pricking and tail twitching. She'd been more relaxed at Nina's Place, and even in the battle at the gala. Now she was here, and not in danger, she seemed to be looking for it every few seconds.

"Sorry, forgot you're brand-new to the whole darn planet. Uh, I guess there are some Commonwealth settlements out there, but they're so damn isolated I doubt they even count as part of the territory. Of course there's plenty of natives, too – I hear they're a confederation of tribes, each independent but ready to band together in times of need. Sounds real decent, if it's true an' it works. Don't know much about 'em, save that apparently the ranger chief is one of 'em, at least originally. An' if you're headed that way, best you try t'find the monastery atop the peaks. The Obstinea range is a hell of a trek, but the monks up there'll look after ya."

The Floragato's head shot a look sidelong at nothing again, and she skewed her mouth.

"Guess if I don't gotta scarper, I can afford t'sample another bite or two," she muttered.
Rodion listened as Sonora explained, occasionally nodding along.

"Sounds like it could be an interesting place. Definitely different than Frontier Town," he murmured. "And a monastery, huh? Will be sure to keep that in mind."

The Buizel briefly looked in the same direction as Sonora to see what she was looking at, but continued speaking when he saw there was nothing there.

"I’ve been thinking about exploring Forlas a bit more. It's a brand new world after all, so it'd be a waste to spend all my time here in just this town," Rodion said. "Maybe I'll start by travelling to that place west of the mountains. Gotta start somewhere anyway, and at least it's away from Blaguarro and whatever the hell is going on over there."

Rodion noticed that Sonora still seemed to be fidgeting restlessly and cagey of her surroundings, though perhaps he should've been less surprised by it. She'd spent years as a wanted 'mon without any true haven to call her own like he had with Rosequartz Town. Of course she wouldn't be used to a more normal life after all that.

Maybe time would help smooth things over, though then again... maybe having a friend to help out would as well. He supposed time would tell either way, but for now, they had other things to worry about:

There was an Autumn Crossing to enjoy before it ended.

"Anyway, more food sounds good to me," he said, cracking a toothy smile. "Let's make the most of this holiday."

[Ch03] Getting on the Same Page
The trek back from the Industrial Park had been mercifully quiet. Steven had assumed at least one of their group would have a few choice words for him, given what transpired in their meeting with Nolan, but they all had held their tongue. That didn't mean he couldn't still feel their gazes on his back.

Once they were within Frontier Town's limits, the group began to disperse. Despite that, there was still one set of eyes on him, and he couldn't bear it any longer. He slowed to a stop and glanced to the side, catching the silver gaze of the wispy zorua fixed straight at him. Bellatrix, if he recalled.

"Something on your mind?" It was barely a question.
Before she answered, Bellatrix looked around to see if anyone else had lingered though it seemed that everyone else from the meeting had gone their separate ways, leaving only her and the beldum behind.

She tilted her head at the steel-type's question, then, a single nod. "I cannot say that settling on that agreement will be a popular decision among the rest of the group but I don't wish to make assumptions about whatever it is you might be planning," she began, keeping her voice low. "But I cannot keep myself from wondering what exactly you have in mind regarding this. Perhaps, if you don't mind, you could tell me."
Steven's claw had been pinched tight, expecting some kind of verbal lashing from the zorua, but it never came. A civil conversation was one he could handle right now. He relaxed a little, mentally chastising himself for taking that feisty rockruff's attitude too much to heart.

"I... realize that," he said gingerly, his eye drifted down and away from Bellatrix, belying his distaste of the outcome. "And, I don't mind. It's not like I could explain more with Nolan present."

He drifted up and down once, collecting his thoughts. "I don't plan to hand the mayor's notebook over to him just like that. I meant what I said; we work on it together, in the same room at the same time. He never leaves our sight with that book. We need information on these shadow pokemon just as much as him, that much is clear. Laura and I... We combed over that notebook and only got so far--"

Steven's voice hitched for a second, his eye flicking down in what could have been any number of emotions. But it was gone in an instant as he made eye contact with Bellatrix again with a shake of his head.

"I don't particularly like the man, but with Nolan's auditing expertise, he would see things in there that we never could."
"Yes, I believe you would of had to wrestle with some of the more temperamental before you had any chance of handing the journal off with no plan or caveat. He's difficult to trust, I cannot say that I am able to after my admission but we do need all the information we can get, it's been... frustratingly limited at the current moment. Perhaps we could also get the help of someone else in town with watching so that he can't cause a scene when working with us," she suggested. "We can't be certain what tricks he has up his sleeve but threatening his public image would more than likely put a stop to whatever foul play he may intend."

Her mane billowed in the breeze. There was a pause the moment he mentioned Laura's name. "That's right, you were the other one who'd helped with that wagon plan," she said plainly. Bellatrix took a deep breath. She had words. Many, many words regarding that plan and how it ended up but the time to yell and cause a scene had long passed. Fracturing relations internally wasn't going to help anyone, especially after what they found in Blaguarro. If the past could be changed, they wouldn't be here right now. They could only keep moving forward.

"I'm very sorry that it turned out so poorly, nobody could have expected the attack, but..." Bellatrix paused to look around. She seemed particularly focused on the rooftops, but when she saw nothing, she continued, "we found out many things about the facility during our investigations in Blaguarro. There was no time to say anything before the meeting with Nolan, and I said nothing during the meeting as I lacked any trust in him but now..."
In the moment, a frown came over Steven's expression. "At this point I'm trusting his desire for information is strong enough to override any desire to cause trouble. I pray it's not too thin of a hope... Your idea of a a third party keeping watch is a good one, though," he said with a nod.

He lapsed into silence and the frown melted away, leaving him looking tired. "I'm sorry," he said, softly, "for the way he spoke to you. I doubt there's anything we can do to change his mind, but please know his mindset is not shared by all humans."

But when she mentioned the wagon, all traces of fatigue vanished, buried in shock and fear and guilt. She knew. She knew what transpired with the plan, how it had gone so horribly wrong. Because they had known nothing, made a plan based such limited information, and that had gotten people hurt. Of course she knew--

"Wait," Steven said with a surprised blink. "You went back to Blaguarro?"

Had she said 'facility'?

"You found it? Terminal Two?!"
"I would have noticed by now if it was," Bellatrix replied, hiding a smirk. "I believe I will just need to keep any further involvement with him limited to secondhand information."

She then nodded at his next question. "Yes, where did you think Odette got the pin from? Jaak presented an opportunity with the train and given the limited amount of information, I thought it would be worth to hear what the locals might have known. Little risk of being attacked in a populated area in broad daylight was my reasoning," she explained. At Steven's next question, she made a 'so-so' gesture with a paw. "Not quite, but close. We found an entrance to an underground tunnel system in the basement of an abandoned slaughterhouse that leads to it. At least, that's what all the evidence points towards, given that that is where the wagons were hidden, and having blindfolds scattered about where I imagine the prisoners were unloaded."

A beat. "We did not dare to go further," she added quietly.
"Ah, right. During the daytime," Steven said with a nervous chuckle and a sheepish eye-smile. Of course they wouldn't have gone back at night. He felt a bit silly assuming as much.

But all signs of his embarrassment disappeared when Bellatrix explained what they'd found. Admittedly, he hadn't thought twice about the pin missile Odette had shown Nolan. It all made sense now, but then wait-- they had encountered more shadow pokemon even when taking extra precaution.

"That has to be it," he said, deadly serious. Underground tunnels, the wagons, blindfolds. The tension returned to his body, his claws closing together with a short click. "But what do we do about it?"

He stared hard at the ground as the fountain in the square splashed a merry tune in the background. "I'd thought Nolan might be the key in tracking the wagons, but..." Steven trailed off and shook his head in frustration. Was the deal he'd made with the inteleon worthless now?

"No," he said, mostly to himself and probably confusing Bellatrix in the process. "You've solved the 'where', Nolan can still help in finding out the 'who'. But we're still stuck on the 'how'. Even if we find all pieces to this puzzle, we still don't know how to stop these shadows."
"I'm not sure," Bellatrix answered honestly. "Between the charmeleon and the skorupi, these shadows appear to be well out of our league and there are bound to be more lurking beneath the town given that they seem to have an aversion to light if Odette's recount is to be believed. There's also the matter that it seems that whoever's responsible is doing their best to keep themselves and Terminal Two hidden by any means necessary." For Steven's sake, she decided to not bring up the fact that if the wagon hadn't been stopped on the way, those who went were most likely to not be seen again before they became shadows themselves. He could probably extrapolate that on his own, anyway.

As expected, Bellatrix shot Steven a confused look at his ensuing ramble but she nodded along for now. "I believe that this 'Wolf' is our biggest clue in regards to who the perpetrator may be if Nolan is right about his suspicions. But if he's human - as Nolan insinuated - that mean's he's also incredibly dangerous, so we may need the lizard's help in subduing him after all. Perhaps more things will become clear by then."
Steven was beginning to fear he would be wearing a permanent frown for this conversation. 'A great first impression,' he mused with a frustrated sound.

"Do we even know how to being searching for the Wolf? Has anyone other than Nolan seen him? I doubt we'd want to try approaching him ourselves, either, if he's that dangerous." Steven's hovering wobbled a bit, almost like a shudder. "There has to be another angle that doesn't go through the Wolf..."

He was fidgeting with his claws now, too deep in thought to care about appearances. "He can't be working alone. This operation is too elaborate to be the work of one person. Maybe... Maybe we can uncover another lead from Nolan's review of the mayor's ledger."

As soon as he said it he shot an apologetic look at Bellatrix. "Sorry, I keep bringing this back to him. I just don't relish the idea of sending anyone to meet a shadow without learning something else first."

He was very conscious of the fact that he left the word 'again' out of his last sentence."
"There is a rather sizable bounty on his head," Bellatrix replied, "so I expect that the local law enforcement would receive reports of any recent sightings. Perhaps we may also receive a general idea of what his activity looks like without the need for a direct confrontation."

She sighed. "I don't blame you, I and any other reasonable person feel the same way. There is no need to apologise, but regarding the Wolf, he absolutely isn't working alone if he is part of this operation. There are pokémon stationed in Blaguarro who seem to be directly disappearing the residents, believed to be an excadrill and sandslash - likely by abducting them through the use of Dig. Those who have seen them have reported sensing a powerful aura about them. I don't doubt that Nolan may be able to uncover more but any mention of them anywhere within that ledger?" she asked, her head once again taking a curious tilt.
"A sandslash and an excadrill?" Steven thought for a moment, then shook his head. "No, I can't recall seeing anything about either of them in the mayor's ledger."

The disappointment was clear in his tone. He hung his head with a heavy sigh. What had he accomplished with reading that ledger, then? He thought he'd been helping, and yet...

He gave his claws another, sharp flick. No room for that kind of thinking. What would Metagross say to him in this instance? He could do better.

"Perhaps," he began, "If they're the ones who are abducting people, they might not be in the ledger. I doubt any of the muscle would show up on the books. Less of a paper trail that way."

His eye furrowed in thought.

"Based on everything we know, though, with powerful auras like that, it sounds like they could be humans as well... Does that mean there's another whole faction of humans outside of the Covenant?"
"It seems likely if Nolan was being honest," Bellatrix answered with a nod. "Though they seem to be a relatively new development. Either that or they remained hidden until they were ready to show their work to the rest of Forlas. The Covenant seem incredibly fascinated when it comes to the topic of humans. Recruitment is the obvious reason although if a human or a group of them was causing trouble, they would almost certainly want to sort that out lest they make a bad impression."

She hummed in thought as she continued to trot down the street. "Hm, then it might be easier for you to tell me what you found and for me to try and find any connection in what we found in Blaguarro," she then said. Bellatrix paused to think of something, though she didn't say what it was, instead scouring the rooftops again.
Steven's eye scrunched in disgust at Bellatrix's emphasis on 'work.' "Work that the good mayor was more than happy to sponsor," he said with a sour tone. "And cover up. For years."

A flicker of sadness crossed his expression as he thought of Lucien. He'd known of his father's ledger, but did he truly know what was within it? What his father had been doing all these years? The true depths of the horrible things Ignatius had done?

Steven broke from his thoughts as Bellatrix pulled ahead of him as she walked down the street. He sped up to catch up, and then followed along with her more leisurely pace.

"I'll keep you appraised of everything we learn from Nolan's review of the mayor's records. Any little thing could end up being a big clue depending on what you know from your own investigation."

He noticed her gaze flitting up toward the nearby buildings, but decided not to question it. Instead he turned his attention back to the group of humans they did know about. "Truthfully, it's not surprising we've attracted the attention of this Covenant. Given what everyone has been saying about the appearance of humans in this land, it'd be akin to a whole host of legendary pokemon suddenly appearing in one of our worlds. You can't blame them for taking an interest in us. Or wanting us to join their cause."

"Nolan's viewpoint may be skewed... severely," he added, "but if the mission statement of the Covenant is what he says, it's good to want to band the humans in Folas together to help, not hurt. Not like whoever is creating these shadow pokemon."
"Mhm. I believe that he was also rather upset about not being acknowledged by a certain group, it wouldn't surprise me if said group was the Covenant and he elected to side and sponsor with this other group out of spite," mused Bellatrix. "If that's the case, that would imply that the two groups are not working with each other and may even be opposed."

Her attention turned back on Steven, "Yes, hard to be subtle in such circumstances," she said. "I'm more surprised that we hadn't received more attention sooner, then again, we did land out in the middle of nowhere." Her tail twitched. "It sounds noble, doesn't it? Use the immense power you are blessed with to help those who are unable to help themselves however... Why have such an adverse reaction to those who you are meant to help?" she asked. "Nolan looked more than happy to look down on pokémon as he rested on his laurels of human ancestry. Perhaps there are many others like him within the Covenant, perhaps he just made a bad first impression. Still, at this point, we aren't in much of a position to decline his help. We just need to be careful to not be ensnared by such rhetoric."

She then gave Steven a grateful nod at his offer. "I would appreciate that," she said. "We need to play our cards right to gather as much as possible without giving ourselves away too much until Nolan proves himself trustworthy."
Steven's gaze fell to the dirt. He chewed over Bellatrix's words for a moment, painfully aware of the ones she chose in recalling Nolan's opinions. "Do you think anyone in our group answered the call to come here for the promise of power?" he asked, finally. "If what Nolan said was true, wouldn't the Voice have only brought humans to this world for help?"

"Only Nolan can explain why he feels the way he does, and while I doubt anything we say is going to change his mind, everything in my experience as a human tells me he's wrong." He fixed her with an earnest stare. "Without pokemon as my partners, I doubt I'd even be here now to be having this conversation with you. I owe everything to them, not the other way around."

"Whether there's more in the Covenant who feel the same as Nolan or not, as long as we don't lose sight of why we came to Forlas, we can find others who share our ideals; a desire to help whoever needs it."
Bellatrix paused for a moment to consider the beldum's questions. "We were summoned here for a purpose," she began. "And I hope the same; that nobody will lose sight of it. I can't speak for everyone regarding the reasons for accepting the Voice's call but from what I've seen, power doesn't appear to be much of a priority, though I wonder. If the Covenant was to ask each person in this group to join them, what would they answer?" she asked.

She chuckled a little at his next comment. "It's such a fascinating bond," she said. "One that seems important in many, many worlds." She kept her gaze on Steven even. "When Nolan says that pokémon drain the power of their human companions on Forlas, weakening their immense power, I will be blunt and say that I do not believe it. To me, it sounds like a tactic to dissuade attachment from any new arrivals. This Covenant seems more than happy take and keep all the humans to themselves.

"Of course, this is all just extrapolation on my end," she added. "And it should not distract from the main goal of this agreement. It's just... frustrating that the best we can do at the moment is fragile agreements or be left to aimlessly wander at the mercy of this other organisation and their shadows."
"You almost make it sound like the Covenant is collecting humans," Steven said, his tone light with amusement.

He regarded Bellatrix with curiosity. "As I told Nolan, it's premature to be joining anything at this point. We hardly know a thing about the organization, and it's not as if that inteleon was a glowing spokesperson for them."

Steven tilted his head to the side. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't at all curious what some of their other members are like, but I have no plans to join any kind of group at the moment."

"Besides," he said, eye winking into a half-moon, "I'd like to think I'm already part of a united group, anyway."
A small smile pulled at the corners of Bellatrix's mouth, though her expression remained largely aloof. "Then we best remain prepared," she replied with a tone equally light. Her tone then returned to its evenness as she continued. "I am pleased to hear that," she then said. "Ensuring unity among this group has been one of my biggest priorities since our arrival. We cannot even hope to accomplish anything with a disorganised front."

She sighed and took a couple extra steps forwards. "Even if that requires me to be harsh at times. I can accept being unpopular if it means that others aren't willfully throwing themselves in harm's way."
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