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Frontier Town Frontier Town Outskirts

Steven was apologizing? Koa made an unconvincing noise of acknowledge in response to Steven. The only price he'd paid was the one he deserved. "You're fine," he mumbled. "You shouldn't blame yourself." It wasn't his fault.

He nodded wearily. "And yeah, you're right. That's enough training. I'm sorry I hit you, I.... It was an accident. Thanks for trying to help me train." The words tumbled out awkwardly. He backed off a few steps, ducking his head. Great. First proper sparring partner out here and he messed it up. Maybe he was even less cut out for this than he thought.
Steven saw the way Koa cowed under his own words. He felt a pang in his chest that had nothing to do with the bolt of lighting that hit him.

"It wouldn't feel right to not apologize for my part in this. But please, don't beat yourself up. Well, more than you already are." He chuckled lightly, nodding at Koa's limping gait. "It was a good training session. You helped me test a new technique, and you spent quality time working on your aim in challenging fashion. I think it was worthwhile, despite pushing yourself in your current condition..."

"You've got a strong attack, and before you say anything--" Steven held up a single claw to silence any protesting from Koa," -- I volunteered to be your target. There's nothing to apologize for."

"Besides," he continued, "like you, this 'being a pokemon' thing is new to me. I've never been hit by an attack like this. I'm glad the first one was from a friend rather than a foe." He smiled appreciatively at Koa, and it was genuine.

Silence fell between the pair for a beat. The lights of Frontier Town were growing closer, but there was still time before they were back in town. Steven finally broke the quiet, eye furrowed in thought.

"Speaking of, you said the wagon party was attacked by a beast? Was it a fully evolved pokemon? What sort of creature are we talking about here?"
A thousand crowded thoughts came to his mind as he followed Steven slowly back towards town. All the same mistakes all over again. He'd come here thinking he could be make a difference but... You're the same. You haven't learned anything. He tensed, unease churning inside him, mentally bracing himself to get berated or interrogated or pitied.... Like he deserved.

"It wouldn't feel right to not apologize for my part in this. But please, don't beat yourself up. Well, more than you already are." Steven chuckled, nodding at Koa's limping gait. "It was a good training session. You helped me test a new technique, and you spent quality time working on your aim in challenging fashion. I think it was worthwhile, despite pushing yourself in your current condition..."

"You've got a strong attack, and before you say anything--" Steven held up a single claw to silence any protesting from Koa," -- I volunteered to be your target. There's nothing to apologize for."
Still Steven insisted on apologizing... He wanted to tell him it wasn't his fault again, but the words felt pointless.

The knot in his chest loosened slightly as Steven continued. Maybe their training did pay off at least a little. And Steven had volunteered... Koa didn't want to undermine that. At least his redirection idea could maybe come in handy down the line.
I'm glad the first one was from a friend rather than a foe."
Steven considered him...a friend? A slight smile returned to his face. "Well... I'm glad I could help a friend," he said softly.

"Speaking of, you said the wagon party was attacked by a beast? Was it a fully evolved pokemon? What sort of creature are we talking about here?"
Koa started off at the horizon, away from Frontier Town. It was still out there somewhere. Would they be ready next time? Would the crew going to Blaguarro be safe? "It was like Charmeleon but..." he trailed off. "Not." He shuddered unconsciously. "Like it was completely unthinking. Just a beast. It had a shadowy tail-flame and these eyes that were just. Vacant."

He turned back to Steven. He continued, his voice grave. "We didn't stand a chance. It was so strong. If we don't train, if there's more of them... We were helpless."
Steven found himself following Koa's gaze, back out into the desert they just came from.

"A shadowy charmeleon?" he repeated, half disbelieving, half horrified. "What on earth?"

But Koa's agitation was real. As was his determination to be out here training with his body in the shape that it was. Whatever this thing was, it was dangerous, that much was clear.

Steven began to move towards town again, but hesitated. "Wait, more of them? You think this wasn't just a random encounter?"
"I don't know," he said, an edge to his voice. None of them knew anything more than when they started it felt like. They knew scraps, sure, but nothing concrete. "It felt... It didn't seem like the only one. I can't explain it. Like it was... corrupted? Tainted? And if something can do that, I don't think there's just one out there on this entire world." And if it had been tainted, then what had done it? Something accidental or... on purpose?

His stomach churned. The memory of that other voice resurfaced. "Have you had any strange dreams in the last day or two? Like hearing something weird?"
"I believe you," said Steven, his gaze drifting back out towards the expanse of darkness. "Trusting your gut is important when there's precious little information, and there's a lot about this world we don't know."

A small frown overtook Steven's expression.

"Strange dreams?" he shook his head no, eye furrowing in thought. "I don't recall any. The only weird thing I've heard is that Voice that speaks to us from time to time. They're polite enough, but I haven't heard from them since the night of the gala. Why do you ask?"
Somehow, hearing that Steven trusted Koa's instinct made him feel less on edge. "After we ran into that Thing I had a dream. And then something spoke to me. Like our Voice would except... Not. It sounded worse." Evil? Sort of... "Malicious? And I thought it was just me but Ridley, the Mimikyu, also heard it... Whatever it was, I'm sure it's tied to why we were called here." Something about that thing scared him even worse than the Charmeleon. It had been inside his head.

Koa shivered. How much did Steven know about the rest of the rumors? "I can't help but wonder now if the Thing we saw was connected to Terminal two somehow... " But how? Could someone have found out about Ignatius being taken down? Or anticipated they'd try such a plan? Had they walked into a trap?
"A malicious version of our Voice?" Steven echoed. He was doing an awful lot of that lately, but this whole ordeal was getting stranger and more ominous the more Koa explained.

Part of him didn't want to ask, but part of him had to know. "What... what did it say?"
Koa's pace slowed. "It said..." He paused. The whole thing unnerved him deeply. Their Voice he trusted, but this thing was something else. Just how much could it see? How much did it sense? What did it want? He stopped walking.

"It said 'You don't belong here.' Like it was in my head. But only us. Or at least, me and Ridley. Maybe the others from the wagon too."
Steven's eye widened in shock. What kind of message was that? A threat?

He could see why Koa was so shaken. There was another entity that knew who they were, and who could reach out to them just like the Voice. And this entity wanted them gone. But why just Koa and the wagon party? Why didn't it threaten their whole group?

Suddenly, a horrible possibility creeped into his mind. Something told him that the random attack on the wagon wasn't so random after all...

The haunted look in Koa's eyes told Steven he wasn't the only one to have come to such a conclusion.

"I'm sorry," he said, shakily. "I shouldn't have pushed the subject. Let's... We can talk about this another time. After we're both more rested. There's... there's a lot to think about."

He offered Koa a small smile, trying to lighten the mood. "And resting is part of training, too, you know."
"Better that you know, so you can be prepared," Koa said simply.

Even so he felt relieved when Steven offered to discuss it another time. As much as a part of him wanted to figure everything out tonight (somehow), Steven had a point, theorizing would be harder if they were too tired. Besides, the rest of him hated thinking about that voice or that Thing. It wasn't like back home with just him...

A silence lapsed between them for a moment. "Thanks for tonight," he said after a bit. "It was nice to train with someone else." And to make a friend. The longer he was here the more the absence of his team weighed on him, and Kitto or even Avis.
Steven honored the silence until they were almost back to town. The now-familiar lantern lights felt warmer than usual, somehow. He nodded. "It was nice to train with you as well. Perhaps we can make a habit out of this," he mused.

They turned down main street, heading towards the Haus for the night, when Steven paused and turned to face Koa. "Whatever's going on, we'll get to the bottom of it. Together."

His conviction grew as he spoke. "Any threat against one of us is a threat against all of us. Koamaru, you won't have to face this alone."
Koa grinned. "If we do, you'll have to be ready to train with me at full strength," he said, half teasingly, though a glimmer of excitement entered his eyes. Regardless it would be nice to have someone to actually spar properly with here. He wanted to try that redirection technique again, and maybe see if Steven could perhaps teach him something similar...

"But yeah, you're right about the resting... I'll try to keep that in mind." As strong as his pokemon body was, he still needed to rest better. How many times had he given his own team that advice? Now he knew how they felt.

You won't have to face this alone.

In the midst of everything, it was comforting to remember. They weren't beat yet, and at least next time they'd be more prepared.

Koa started towards the Haus then paused, turning to face Steven. "I'll see you tomorrow, Steven. And you can call me Koa." It felt good to make another friend, for however long he was here.

Ch02: New Arrival
Just before the first light of dawn had struck Frontier Town, a noivern swooped from above, landing not too far from the town.

She adjusted her scarf with her wing-claws, wincing as she did so, prepared to walk the rest of the way. Moments before she took her first steps, her mind and tail lashed with worry. Just a simple scouting mission, she assured herself. A group so large was unprecedented and felt like a freak accident to end all freak accidents. If anyone from the group had gotten out into the wrong hands, then all of them would be compromised.

A deep breath.

There was still time, she was certain. And she was sure to arrive as quickly as possible. She just hoped they hadn't gotten to this group first.

[Ch02] Like a caged feral...
The thumps were loud. Rhythmic. If the noise wasn't enough to scare off anyone who wandered into the general vicinity, the shadows cast by the large null against the setting sun's backdrop certainly would.

Nova slammed his helmeted head into a rock once. Twice. Thrice. Over and over. Only pausing to look around. For brown, stony debris at his feet.

Yet there was nothing. He tried harder. Struck with more force. There was pressure in Nova's head, sure, but nothing to suggest this was breaking. If anything, the rock was worse off. Tiny little cracks that glistened from shiny specks deeper inside it.

No. No, no, no.

"Off! Off!" Nova dropped down, dragging his head against the dirt. Clawing furiously at the mask to no avail.

Why why why? The mask shouldn't be here. It wasn't natural. Even if someone or something replicated him, the mask wasn't part of the base designed. The Affirmer forced it on him with that damn Red Chain.

At the very least, it couldn't have been nearly as sturdy as real one. So, why? Why couldn't he get it off?

The clawing produced a grating, grinding noise that made Nova's fur prickle. Reminded him of a grotesque Metal Sound. Right, he'd learned that at... some point during his construction work.

Nova bolted to his feet and went back to striking the rock, pausing only to look up as if the group's summoner was up in the thick gray clouds.

Why? Smack. Why would you do this to me? Smack. Didn't you see it? Smack. How uncomfortable I was in the Nexus? Smack. How can I live, smack, as me, smack, when I'm stuck with a reminder of what I'm not?!

Still no pieces. Or even flecks of brown dust. Nothing. Useless. He couldn't break it. Why couldn't he break it?

Snarling, Nova struck one again, putting whatever he could into it. This time something gave way, but it wasn't the mask. Part of the rock splintered and a yelping Nova fell over on his side. Limbs briefly flailed in a panic. Bits of red vapor faded around him.

His heart seized in his throat. He recognized that from the gala. The other null had done it: Body Press. That wasn't natural for him. He shouldn't know it. Nova couldn't know it.

Panicking, Nova scrambled up. No. This has to stop! He knew that voice only showed up in battles or dungeons, so he was barking at the proverbial choir. I can't-- I can't fight. Not like this! I'll... I'll...

He shook himself out. The mask rattled around. Squeezed his face. His beak.

Nova backed away from the rock and dashed away. No one had to know about this. As long as he just kept his distance.

... Which was fine. He'd been doing that for ages anyway.

It was instinctive. Routine.

It was all he had.

Ch03 - Late Night Philosophy [Kimiko & Silver]
The sky was quickly darkening as Kimiko arrived at her usual secluded spot on the outskirts of town. She liked this spot in particular; more than once she'd spotted other somewhat familiar pokemon in the area training or whatever, but this spot was shielded enough that she was very rarely disturbed, regardless of whether she was training or singing. It was a cozy little spot to simply get away from the sounds of town if she wanted to just settle down and think.

And as was usual recently, she had a lot on her mind. The Blaguarro trip was prime among them, still an open wound for numerous reasons. But right now, the one that stood out was the battle with the Vanguard she'd just returned from.

Truthfully, there were a lot of positives to take from the encounter. They'd seemingly, finally discovered why the off-worlders had all been summoned. That was a big deal. There was supposed to be a team meeting to discuss it. On a more personal note, Kimiko (and the squad as a whole) had obviously improved their battle abilities a great deal in the short time they'd been here. Kimiko had taken to battling as a pokemon rather than with a pokemon much faster and easier than she'd originally anticipated.

But of course, the positives were not the things she was dwelling on. She couldn't help but feel somehow empty-handed after the battle. Like they'd failed at what they originally were meant to be doing. Even if they now had a common enemy, Farin and Valere didn't offer much in the way of future assistance or cooperation. Kimiko couldn't help but wonder if the team failed to adequately demonstrate the differences between the off-worlders and the group that the noivern and gallade were already wary of. She also wondered how much how of that had to do with Isidora's outburst, or how the post-battle discussion would have played out if the sneasel had kept it all to herself.

But now here she was, wallowing in how Isidora's reveal had made that encounter more difficult for the team, for her. The exact thing Valere had warned them about. Was that fair of her? Most definitely not, but at the moment, she didn't really care. Coming off the back of Odette and Ridley's ghost defense and the awkwardness that came out of Blaguarro, she'd been feeling rather defensive already and the revelation stung. But that all was half the reason she'd come out here - to clear her mind a bit.

Her side ached from taking that boomburst and the fall that followed, but Kimiko wasn't in the mood for training tonight, anyway. Another benefit of being so closed off from casual passerby was that her singing voice didn't carry as far, so she took the opportunity to practice some of the heavier songs she didn't get a chance to sing at work.

She hadn't expected anyone else to be arriving in the area at this point in the evening...
Despite feeling physically drained after the encounter with those members of the Vanguard, Silver didn’t really feel like mulling things over while enclosed between the four walls of his room, and he surely wasn’t in the right mood to deal with countless ‘mons potentially asking him questions about their (failed?) mission.

He needed to stay away. Far away from the crowd and the buzzes of the city and the prying gazes. Keeping a low profile was stressful enough before the encounter with those anti-human defenders, and now there was an entire society of humans who wanted to impose their ideals on other creatures. Oh, and probably they were considering adding the humans of the team to their twisted organization, too!

Just… What kinda mess did he get himself into by agreeing to help that world? They weren’t there to help with that messy political situation… were they?

Silver breathed deeply, enjoying the fresh air of the outskirts that filled his fatigued lungs and ruffled his dark pelt. Indeed, his ermine phase had vanished as soon as he left the dungeon. A very curious detail about mountain Sneasel, he had to admit.

Then, something got his attention: a song. Someone was singing nearby. Silver blinked in curiosity and swiveled his lone ear, trying to track down the origin of those notes, before walking in their direction. It didn’t take long to find the ‘culprit’: a Snivy with reversed colors, someone he was familiar with.

Silver tilted his head, wondering whether to approach her or not. With a shrug, he dismissed his worries and got closer. Getting to know the team better was something he needed to do, anyway.

“Hey there. That’s a cool song,” he said when he got within earshot, flashing a tiny smile. “You’ve got a nice voice.”
Kimiko visibly jumped at the sound of the voice, her head turning sharply towards the speaker. She spotted one of the sneasel from the Vanguard battle - not Isidora, the other one with the poncho - standing there, watching her. She felt the familiar sensation of her face heating up in sudden embarrassment; she never did learn to accept compliments gracefully.

She'd stopped singing the second she realized she was being watched. "Oh, erm, sorry, I didn't think there was anyone around. Uh, but... thank you. I'm a performer at the the Sun Stone Saloon in town." She nodded her head in the direction of Frontier Town. "The song is... something from my... home world." Gods, that sounded awkward, like this was some science fiction show and she was talking to an alien.

Regardless, this sneasel was one of the off-worlders too, that much she was sure of (she was also pretty confident this was the same sneasel from the battle against the mansion security, in fact), so she felt safe enough mentioning her origins in passing. Plus, the way he'd carried himself in that fight, it was easy to recognize that he'd either had a trainer before coming here, or, like her, had been one himself.

Or maybe that was her weird new problem of discounting abilities of the native pokemon of this world rearing it's ugly face? Was she prejudiced? When had that become an issue? She hadn't felt like she'd been thinking less of any former or current 'mon, but after that fight, she just wasn't sure anymore...

Kimiko scowled to herself and shook her head, realizing she was zoning out. Not the time. Putting on her saloon face, she turned back to her guest. "Sorry, got a lot on my mind after that fight in the castle. 'Name's Kimiko." She extended a vine out to shake.
Silver mentally winced when he saw the embarrassed expression on the Snivy. Perhaps it would have been better to be less direct… even if sneaking and waiting for her to realize he was there would have been worse. Who likes sneaky folks, after all?

He stared at the outstretched vine for a moment, before reaching out for it. With a quick flick, his claws retracted, allowing him to take share the paw-to-vine shake without worries. He smirked, aiming to look more amiable.

“Ah. Pleased to officially know your name. Mine’s Silver,” he answered back, before he scratched the back of his head with his free paw, clearly embarrassed himself. “Huh. Sorry for startling ya. I was just curious about that song, and… well,” he chuckled sheepishly, “I guess I’m still not that good at approaching people.” I definitely gotta work more on my social skills…

Once he was done shaking the vibe, he crossed his arms and stared at Kimiko curiously, his head tilting slightly.

“Got lotsa thoughts in your mind, huh? If it helps, you aren’t alone.” He sighed and looked away. “So much stuff happened recently. Kinda hard to wrap your head around everything, what with shadows and stuff.” Then, he focused again on Kimiko. “D’you… wanna talk ‘bout what’s worrying you? Maybe it’ll help to have some listening ear and vent with someone.”
"Oh, no no no, you're fine!" Kimiko backpedaled. "I just wasn't expecting anyone to be out here at this time of night and you started me, that's all." Which was true, even if it were only half-truth. Her awkwardness at the compliment might have been obvious on her face, but no reason to confirm it. Especially since Silver looked a bit perturbed as well.

Might as well try to lighten the mood. "Yeah, I can't really sing everything I'd like to at the saloon - I don't think it would go over well with that crowd - so I like to come out here where I'm not disturbing anyone. Usually."

Her hand went subconsciously to her necklace. She didn't have Alex or Lillia or Kirsten or even any of her team to talk to here... maybe it was okay to just vent with a fellow off-worlder, just this once.

It was her turn to break eye contact now, but she replied to him anyway. "Mmm.... What was your impression of this last mission?"
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