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Frontier Town Frontier Town Outskirts

A nod at his first question then a thoughtful thrum of her claws at the following comments. "If Seth did not have the capabilities of bestowing the power of Shadow then clearly, that power must have come from somewhere else. We've fought Shadows before, feral ones yes, but nothing like what you've described happened there."

She brushed her mane to the side when the wind blew a few stray strands across her face. "Guilt, shame, fear of being caught - all plausible reasons to hide something," she then said. "It is all just conjecture at this moment, of course, but it pays to hold confidence. Do you think it impossible for some of the more reckless members of this team to do such a thing?"
Wes’s frown deepened. Bellatrix had been quick to dismiss his Seth theory, but Wes had definitely felt something in that moment, something that had pushed him over the edge into a Shadowed frenzy. But it seemed Bellatrix was thinking of something…different? More permanent, even…?

“Alex and Xander.” Suddenly Wes remembered the dream of the night before, the memory of it slamming into him like a freight train. “They mentioned—in the dream—someone brought up those names, and Powehi referred to them as a tool…but I don’t know who the hell they are.” He narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, trying and failing to remember who had brought up the names—but someone definitely had, or else Powehi wouldn’t have responded. “You think…someone has met them? And is hiding it? But then why would they bring it up in the dream, in front of all of us?”

She seemed to already have a suspect or two in mind, somehow, and wanted Wes to put the pieces together himself. Someone particularly reckless…well, Wes could name more than a few who matched that description, including himself. Leaf. Maybe Odette. Archie. Ridley. …Koa.

Oh, gods. Wes curled his lip. No…no, as stupid and reckless as Koa was—as any of them might be—Wes couldn’t imagine any of them keeping a secret from the team. Definitely not Archie or Odette. Ridley didn’t seem the secretive type—the opposite, really. But Leaf and Koa were young…maybe if they thought they’d be in trouble, somehow…?

But—no. Bellatrix could ask him to point fingers all she wanted, but Wes had no proof yet, only her theories. “I have some guesses,” he finally admitted. “But I don’t know enough to make such an accusation of anybody.” He frowned at her again. “But you sure seem to. What exactly do you know that has you so sure someone’s hiding something?”
"The zweilous?" Bellatrix asked flicking an ear. "I met him once before in Blaguarro when we were trying to investigate Terminal Two's location. He was there when we found the..." A flash of terror arose on the zoroark's features the moment the implication clicked. "And you're certain that he is bad news? And what dream? I haven't slept since I evolved, I needed to ensure that I wasted no second in getting used to this new body—"

Her words grew faster, more incomprehensible as her mind flew into a fit of panic. Normally, it would be easy to suppress this beneath an aloof veneer but the idea that she had so brazenly handed off the keys to the proverbial kingdom off to on someone who may have had nothing but ill-intent in mind horrified her. She couldn't have overlooked something this pertinent. She wasn't a fool, she wasn't allowed to make these mistakes because what if, what if, what if—

Bellatrix took a breath, trying to steady herself, trying to focus on Wes and his following question. "Just a theory, one of several," she finally said. "And a desire to find explanation amidst the happenings and what we already know."
Wes flinched at Bellatrix’s sudden—panic. Had he ever seen her like this before? And she wasn’t in the dream? “Wait—you know this guy?” Or—guys? Powehi made it seem like it was two people from the way he spoke, but maybe he’d misunderstood the name. “Someone definitely mentioned an Alexander…” He closed his eyes and tried to remember. “It was…Mhynt, I think. Yeah, Mhynt. And she asked…she asked…oh, gods.” He opened his eyes into a scowl. “She asked if we could kill him. What in the hell…”

He gave Bellatrix an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, that’s all I know about him. And that he’s associated with Shadow somehow, most likely, if Powehi claims he’s been his ‘tool.’ When did you meet him?” Clearly it was a shock to hear the guy was shady. But Bellatrix was normally a sharp judge of character, from what Wes had seen; just how smooth was this guy, then, if she hadn’t suspected him much before?

He looked her over again and took note of the tiredness in her eyes. “Can’t say I have much experience with evolution or anything, but it doesn’t sound like going without sleep is the best plan,” he said carefully, but not unkindly. He didn’t want to sound judgmental, but he didn’t want her to think he was pitying her, either. “Sounds like it’s time to arrange another team meeting or something, right?”

Because the last one went so well, he through dryly. Still, the communication was necessary. Even if it was a jumbled mess most of the time.
A small nod. "We met briefly when investigating Blaguarro's abandoned district although he appeared to lack the knowledge of what was happening around him so I had dismissed him as a fool and did not care to dissuade him from following as a result," she said quietly, bitterly. "But if he is a tool of Powehi then he may have been the one to bestow the power of Shadow upon someone - assuming my theory is correct, of course."

Bellatrix raised a brow at the mention of Mhynt. "An indication of a shared history between the two? If that's the case..." She rubbed a temple, composure steadily returning. "I will rest when I must," she then added though her tone indicated some form of reluctance. "Anyway, Betel mentioned something about a 'communication network' when our meeting with the Escarpa was drawing to a close. Perhaps that will make the ease of learning information that much simpler. We could use it to our advantage."
“He was in Blaguarro,” Wes murmured, furrowing his brow. Well, that sure lined up with all of their other suspicions, didn’t it. And had she said “zweilous”? That was one of the species they’d been warned to look out for during their last Blaguarro visit. Yeah, this guy was shady as all hell. If someone had received some weird and fishy power from him, then the rest of the team better damn well know about it.

He curled his lip at the thought. If someone was hiding such crucial information from the group, that was not going to sit right with him. “I don’t know who other than you may have spoken with him, since I haven’t seen the guy around town myself.”

Wes perked up at the mention of communications, though. “That’s some good news. About time we had a reliable way to get word around.” He paused. “But if someone has chatted with Alexander and still hasn’t said so, then they better speak up soon if they want to keep our trust,” he growled. And if one of them happened to be that damn Electrike kid, he swore to scorching sands…
A couple nods of agreement followed. "I cannot say I know either," she replied. "But all will be revealed in due time, I am certain. How easy or difficult it is remains to be seen, however."

Bellatrix looked back to Wes. "I will ask the moment these communications open if only for the peace of mind." The greatest relief, she thought, would be learning that her thoughts veered more towards paranoia. Surely, the Wayfarers could not do something so blatantly ill-conceived or, for lack of a better term, foolish.
“As good a plan as any,” Wes said. He cast one more look around the place; no signs of anything being disturbed here, other than Bellatrix’s training. He supposed if some sort of network really was on its way to them soon, it would be easier—and safer—to keep an eye on this place with team-organized patrols. Smarter than coming out here alone, anyway.

With a sigh, he stood and gestured back to town with his head. “How about we head back to town together? It’s probably not the best idea for anybody to hang out around here alone, even in the middle of the day.” Blaguarro hadn’t been safe in broad daylight either, come to think of it.

To his mild surprise, she agreed—maybe she was finally ready to get some sleep despite her earlier reluctance—and she fell in step beside Wes as they headed back to town.

Ch04: Muscle Memory
From the depths of her bedding, Astrid rose again with a concealed scowl. She hadn't bothered to visit Drungfield this time. Even if it made her feel more at home, whatever that even meant, her feet worked fine and that was enough for now after a dream like that. Her directionless trek through town was colored by thoughts that lingered under the beating sun, and only when she'd made it way out in the extended city limits did she take a moment to breathe in and force herself to appreciate the steppe's untouched expansion.

Thud. She fired bullets of ice at nature's inanimate objects and thought about how different it felt from before, as a Vulpix. Thought about a lot of things, really. Thud. And it all blended together into that same daydream that left her feeling numb the more she gave it credit. So stupid. But it beat talking to herself about it, didn't it? Thud.

Bored, she started strafing around, pretending to--

"Ow! Fucker." Astrid winced and got down on her elbows so she could pick a rather nasty sticker out of one forepaw with the other.
"Agility only lasts as long as your attention to ground before and beneath your feet," called a nearby voice. If Astrid were to look, she would spot, sitting on a rock was Bellatrix. The breeze blew her mane into her face, though she didn't let it bother her beyond occasionally brushing it away. A straight stick leaned on the side of her impromptu seat. Bellatrix herself appeared interested in the ninetales' technique, perhaps seeing some similarity with her own, although the way Astrid (she believed?) was expressing her moves...

"Nor is it exactly the most ideal time to train for an ice-type," she observed bluntly. "Then again, resistance is best built by exposure," she further mused. "Do you mind the audience?"
Astrid's tongue pushed against the roof of her mouth as if to prompt her brain. "...Bbbbeeeella... trix." When she wasn't corrected, she took it to be true with a relieved smile. "Okay, whew, glad I remembered that. Ugh, I think I've met everyone at this point, but remembering all the names is whole 'nother deal. All from different cultures, and... um, yeah. I don't mind."

A deep sigh. She finally yanked the sticker out and did her best to ignore the sting as she stood up. "Just trying to get comfortable in my body, especially after evolving. It's all sunk in now, why we're here and what'll happen to us, I guess. Most of it has."

She eyed the Zoroark. Eyed the way she let the wind caress her mane. Now here was someone who looked comfortable in their skin...
Bellatrix replied with a nod at her name and the approval. "It is more often than not, one of the first things I try to do," she said, "though that's largely besides the point." Her ear flicked at Astrid's following words. "It took me a bit of time too, going from four legs to two is a rather substantial shift, though I like it far more." It was how she was always supposed to be, after all. She had been stuck on all-fours for far too long.

"How are you finding it so far?" she then asked. "Beyond the cumbersomeness of getting used to the new form?" Normally, she wasn't one for such small-talk but the form was an important thing while training, if she were to spectate, there was no harm in trying to watch and figure out how her teammates fought more closely.
"Center of gravity's the biggest change," Astrid admitted. "I guess I’m a li'l off balance. Feels like I need to pivot harder off my hind legs more now that most of my weight is back there."

She paused for a moment. Blinked. "Um, that sounds weird now that I say it out loud, ahah. But no, yeah, it’s mostly positive. The sheer increase in power is nice. And being bigger, it makes me feel less… like a child? I know that’s not how it works here, but…"

Astrid cleared her throat. "I'm finding it… about as well as I ever could've taken it, I hope." She looked away. "…I don't know. I really always thought I’d die somewhere far away from home. Would have to be some kind of maniac to do what I do and not think that. I just… I guess I thought I'd die on my world. Not here. And there isn't a soul native to this world I can talk to about it, so I don't… I dunno."

A deeper sigh. No respite. Did all that really just spill out?

"Sorry. Did you want to train together or something? We could, um…"
Bellatrix listened to Astrid's explanations intently, however her ears flicked forwards at the mention of evolution somehow being related to dying, she didn't even attempt to hide her curiosity there. "Hold on, could you clarify what you meant by that? How does death and evolution correlate?" Was it just a common belief on Astrid's world?

She eyed the stick she'd propped up by the rock she was sitting on, answering her question with a nod. "We can talk as we train if that makes you more comfortable," she offered, grabbing the stick and placing it across her lap. "After all, it concentrates the thoughts."
Astrid looked confused too, before something dawned in her eyes. "Oh, um, I thought you were asking about--" she gestured with her paw and tails at some of the nearby fauna and then the sky. "--all this. Being here, I mean."

Thunk went another shard off an innocent rock. "Betel said our worlds sit at a standstill while we do our job here. And that's all great and makes sense, but... I don't think I'll--I don't think the original me will ever know that I existed."

Thud. "At first I thought I'd won the coin toss. My world is pretty awful no matter where you're from, truth be told. But it's all happening so fast, and... I liken being sent back home to dying. The 'me' still back there gets to live. But I'll never be her again."

She stopped herself just short of another Ice Shard to look at Bellatrix with tired, conflicted eyes. "Evolving just made a lot of those feelings resurface, I guess. Would you like to spar a little?"
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"Fascinating, so you liken yourself to a copy as opposed to the self you were before?" In acceptance of Astrid's offer, Bellatrix stood up, now brandishing her stick like a sword. Of course it didn't have the same sensation, it was just a stick after all, but there was a certain rightness in her stance and that feeling imparted a cool confidence. "Is it the inevitable loss of memory, of the experience, that makes you feel that way? As I may know a thing or two in that regard."

She kept her stance, giving Astrid the invitation to take the first strike with a nod. "When you're ready."
Astrid nodded back, to the spar but even more to the question. "Yeah. Yep. It’s pretty fucked up the more you think about it, and you know, we got a job to do, so. No point getting stuck too hard on it when there’s still lives at stake."

And time to investigate. To find alternatives, gain leverage…

She started slow--not pulling punches, but nowhere near combat speed in her Ice Shards or any evasions she followed with, seeking instead to build a comfortable rhythm with Bellatrix.

Between motions, Astrid sought eye contact. "What, you been thinking about this too? Or are you talking about before you came here?"
A shrug, then a parry, she was sticking to Normal-moves for now. "I have had a recent experience with amnesia, yes," Bellatrix answered. "The memory may fade but it won't change the experience you may have gained." She raised her stick and made a swift gesture towards it with her head. "Take this as an example. As far as my memory tells me, this is the first time I have held anything similar to a sword and yet -" Bellatrix jabbed the stick forwards, her feet following a rhythm that allowed her to deftly move where she needed to be "- I move as if I have used one all my life.

"What makes this so different?"
"My world," Astrid insisted, finding a rhythm and letting inertia take over. "My... body, I guess. Like, I've no reason to believe I'll ever be able to tap into this experience once it's over. That the-- the neurons or whatever in my brain will someday grasp out of thin air that I had this conversation with you."

She broke rhythm. One of Bellatrix's shots smacked her in the nose without any guard up. And Astrid... let it happen, let herself taste the brief sting. It, too, would be forgotten. And then back into their dance she went as if it had never happened.

"I struggled for years just to exist. Lost, um-- a lot. Long story, don't worry about it, but I just finally thought I had something. And now... now I'm here."

Astrid actually laughed. "Y'know, this place really isn't so bad. And maybe-- maybe somehow those 'experiences' don't go away forever. But I still wanna live. Grow old. And... 'I' will never be able to if I'm taken 'back home'. When that happens, the way Betel laid it out, my consciousness should hit a dead end. And so will yours. I'm trying to make the best of it by bottling it up and it's... I don't know. I'm rambling. Nobody else seems bothered by it." She sighed. Then again, she certainly hadn't gone around prying for insight about such a topic.
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Bellatrix eyed the ninetales carefully, stepping out of the way of one of her attacks but accidentally stumbling into another. Her ear flicked in irritation at that; a reminder that though she could make similar motions now that she was on two legs again it wasn't exactly the same.

"I don't believe it is something the others like to think about either," Bellatrix said flatly. "So they don't, hence why the appear unbothered. My ambivalence to the inevitability is more an exception given my prior experience." She tried to swipe Astrid from the side as she attempted to circle around the other fox. "I cannot say I know the life-stories of anyone here, but I can guess that some were pulled from circumstances that were worse than others and I can imagine the inevitable return to that looms over them like a great shadow."

Pull back, surge forward. Pull back, surge forward. "What I mean to say is, I doubt that you are alone in this regard." Although something Astrid said stood out to her, "What was it you had?" she asked.
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