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Frontier Town Sun Stone Saloon

He tried to nod to Isadora. The reflex was starting to fade when he just pinched himself every time he tried, but it seemed he was feeling particularly formal right now... "Sounds like scouting to me, too. We're getting scouted and if their 'recruitment process' is anything vaguely like what our contact seems to think, that's bad fucking news for everyone involved. We should, for the humans it's still possible for, try to leave everyone's individual humanities at least ambiguous, if not outright lie about them." (Which, honestly, he wanted to do anyways,)

The thought of people trying to infiltrate the group made him wince. "This isn't some kind of espionage thriller. Even if they don't actually have a way to drag people who give them an inch into the group, the fact our actual allies think that means if we try to play both sides, we're liable to lose our shot at an actual support network... and anyone who gets caught doing it. It's not like cults are known to be super free-associative. They're gonna have some kind of hazing and if they call our bluff anyone involved is going to be in a bad spot."
Isidora's claws flexed. She tried her best to not let Odette's condescension get to her. "Sounds like this Nolan's about as subtle as a brick," she admitted. "But even if he is, Gladion's right. You'd be playing risky, and for what? Do we even need the Coven, for anything? Just as far as Shadow 'Mon are concerned, we already know where Terminal Two is. And who's to say they'll even tell you anything useful?" Hell, we still technically don't know why we're here yet.
“Well, what’s better,” Odette said, trying to hide her growing aggravation. “We kiss up to these racist fuckheads and get as much information out of them as we can, because gods know we know next to nothing about the why’s here, since everything so far can only be backed by ‘he said, she said’ and very little tangible factual evidence…” She paused to catch her breath, and her own brain from spiraling into anger. “…or we denounce them, whether it’s gradually or abruptly, and have yet another looming threat running up our backs? That’s not to say they will never not be a threat, but at least the former option keeps them at bay for a while and gives us another means of collecting information.”
Nova did give Tarahn a little scritch behind the head as a thanks for the introduction. "Nova," he muttered back, not trying to disrupt the little guy's attention.

the way I see it isn’t it a good thing for the shady organization to think we might be willing to cooperate with them? That’d give us an opportunity to infiltrate, which we wouldn’t be able to do if they just brand us all as enemies right from the start

"Yeah, see. Infiltration sure sounds all fine and dandy on paper," he said. "But considering what apparently happened the last time a chunk of you guys took a big risk like that, I think you're better off chewing on it for longer. Considering if alternatives exist. And/or taking several days to come up with a plan." He shrugged his shoulders. "Did anyone get this Nolan guy to let slip of anything this magical mystery covenant has access to? Y'know, resources, equipment, technology, laboratories... that kind of stuff."

The lattermost, of course, being Nova's primary interest.
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Odette could feel her heartbeat in her ears. Why was she getting riled up so quickly?

“Let’s be fucking real here. That plan was half-baked at best, with maybe a quarter of our group of thirty-something in on it. With everyone on the same page, more time to think, and better timing hopefully, we can do whatever we can to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again.”

Another breath. “He mentioned a thing or two about having the means to test Shadow ‘mon, if I understood correctly. I offered him a pin from the Pin Missile attack that got me, and he said something about needing a whole ‘mon to test, as attack residue can bring no results. Implying they’ve done that sort of test in the past. But anyone who was there with me is welcome to correct me or back me up,” she said, gesturing to some of the others who’d been at the meeting. “But again. No concrete evidence on that front.”
So, there were facilities of some sort? Nova made a mental note.

"In other words, they want one of these shadows captured?"
Bellatrix sighed, "We're getting ahead of ourselves," she muttered. "There's nothing fundamentally wrong with wanting to plan an infiltration," she began. "What matters is that you know your enemy and to plan contingencies ahead of time in case any step of said infiltration goes wrong." Her paws drummed against the side of her seat. She was starting to feel bad for Laura and Steven at this point with how much the wagon plan's failure was brought up, though most of it was reserved for Steven.

"I also believe that deciding to put a halt or significantly slowing down any opportunity for proactivity because that plan failed is swinging too far in the opposite direction. We would not have found Terminal Two, otherwise," she then said. "Here, we have a far better idea of what we're contending with and an open door to approach, given that Nolan appears more than happy to cooperate at the moment. Steven and Odette have done a good enough job in accomplishing that. We just need to be careful in what we decide to give away to him."
We just need to be careful in what we decide to give away to him."

"And how we do it. Whoever's getting mixed up in this needs to be able to resist whatever temptation Nolan's organization is going to undoubtedly use to try to recruit them, while still being someone Nolan's willing to work with."
Isidora started tapping the tabletop, eyes closed in thought processing the points everyone had made. "I'm just saying that their info might be shit," she finally said. "We don't know anything, that's why we can't let the Coven be the ones to tell us. Because they want you to work for them, and I bet they have their own shady reasons for wanting to get involved in this shadow business in the first place. Who's to say they actually have any idea why we're here, and won't just say whatever self-serving crap they need to put us on the same side?"
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No, that didn’t make any sense. Corey wouldn’t’ve just given up like that. The Cloud was either mistaken or lying or both. Dammit. What had happened? Surely someone must know something? Why was everyone acting like they weren’t missing people, here? Corey wasn’t the only one he wasn’t seeing hide or hair of. He stepped closer to Tarahn, suddenly worried that if he didn’t keep an eye on the Toxel, he might be the next to vanish.

"I don't know how either of you are familiar with shadow pokemon outside of what's going on here, but... maybe the process here is more refined compared to what you're used to? If they're trying to make shadows that can be controlled..."

… Kimiko was saying something in his direction. He’d have to put Corey on the back burner, just for a little bit. “No, we think there’s more to it than just control. If they just wanted something they can control, then they could experiment on any old feral. There has to be something about the Shadow Pokemon being thinking Pokemon like us that makes them valuable as subjects. Otherwise, why risk people noticing the disappearances, like the Rangers already have?”
"Hey, Voice," Kimiko started, quiet enough (she hoped) to not disrupt the ongoing chatter. "Do you have a name? What should we call you? 'Voice' just sounds so... informal."

Hello, Kimiko!

I do not have a name, in any real sense. I am certainly called things, but I am... nameless. I think the monikers I have been given are descriptive epithets, rather than truly a name.

Perhaps someone could give me a name.

Laura blew air in a long, voiceless sigh, and flexed and unflexed her free paw repeatedly. No matter how tense the meeting got, she'd stay calm. It would be alright.

"Voice, are you able to verify or discount any of this information?" she asked under her breath, bracing herself for a disappointing answer.

I am sorry, Laura, but I do not think I can be of very much help in that regard...

I find that on subjective matters, I do not know how to judge what is sound, and any opinion I might have is not informed by lived experience. With this in mind, I dare not offer my own perspectives...

I can at least verify the appearance of the Shadow charmeleon is accurately described, as best as I could perceive it myself!
"Gotcha. Thanks, anyway."

Oh, well. Worth a shot.

"I was at Bedaurejo Castle with Gladion, Isidora, and others," she said, trying to project her voice without raising it. "We met – and battled – Gallade Valere and Noivern Farin, members of a group called the 'Vanguard' who are fighting a resistance effort against the Coven. It sounds like the Coven are one and the same as this 'Covenant'... unless there are two extremely similar groups, with excessively similar names."

Maybe that would get a dry chuckle, maybe it wouldn't. Her sense of humour was getting increasingly dry.

"I didn't get the impression that they use mind control," she ventured. "It sounded like they're not exactly comic book villains, but have a whole ideology they're practiced at spreading to even slightly-suggestible candidates."

She gestured meekly to Isidora.

"Which is why I think Isidora has a good point. Any intelligence we get from them is suspect. Maybe there are benefits to getting double agents in their ranks – like access to their laboratories – but it'd be risky, and I wouldn't trust their opinions on anything."

Wow, they'd veered right away from the Shadow topic, huh. And on that note...

"If I understand this right, the Covenant – who seem insidious rather than tyrants we can simply go beat the hell out of – are opposed to whoever's behind Terminal Two, and even think they're the good guys in the conflict. I've seen that kind of thing before."

Suddenly, what Valere had told her made a lot more sense.

"...Valere said the Covenant have been around long enough to have influenced the culture and governance of Forlasan countries. Apparently their ideas of 'progress' don't align with local ways of life. So, if they're going around trying to recruit every impressionable human they can, then the ways in which they're fucked up are probably subtle enough that would-be do-gooders don't even see it, until they're in too deep. That could be us."

Or, if you flipped it...

"Or it could be that for every Nolan in their ranks, there's someone who joined because they wanted to do the right thing and bought the propaganda. Every cult is made up of victims, right? Maybe we could get some to defect."
That could be us. Could it? Leaf pinned her ears back, scuffed quietly but agitatedly at the floor with a hoof. They were supposed to be here to help. Everyone knew that, right? ...Right? She'd been quite happy with the understanding that the heroes who'd gone along with the mayor's orders hadn't really agreed with what he'd wanted to do to Sonora. Doing just fantastic, thanks. The idea that someone might get hoodwinked into drinking this newer and fancier flavor of Kool-Aid wasn't one she was super thrilled to entertain. So she'd just have to... not entertain it. They'd be fine. Everyone would be fine.

At the very least, Leaf herself had absolutely no interest in even pretending to work with people like those. Going undercover might've been cool, could be important, could help save others who'd already fallen for it!, but full disclosure she was gonna be even worse at resisting the urge to smash something than she had been with Mayor Idiot's fine crystal. Let the better actors put up with their bullshit, then. Even if the Coven of Lies or whatever did have useful info, there were still plenty of other angles to investigate at the same time, right? Of course there were. And that option sounded way more tolerable and also less boring than having to tiptoe around kissing these guys' asses.

"When we met with the rangers, the chief said that even though they know about the 'witching beasts', they don't have enough people on hand to really investigate what's going on. But they're willing to work with us—some of us're gonna meet with them again soon, I think—and then we'll be able to put what we have together with all their resources and experience, too. That'll give us a lot more options on top of what we hear from those guys, yeah? Find things the Coven can't, help people they're not bothering with, tear down anything they're lying about with proof from outside."
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Jade sank slightly into her seat, ears flattened. “That’s not what I… I didn’t mean we should listen to their opinions. I just meant it’d be useful to have an in to look around their offices without being chased out, that’s all.” Why was everyone acting like that didn’t make sense?

Everything would be less risky if they could see firsthand what this ‘Coven’ was up to without looking like an intruder. Things had been so much harder ever since losing access to Team Rocket’s headquarters back home, so she actually knew what she was talking about here. This wasn’t her being naive, dammit.
"Well, seems some of you are already being offered an in road," Nova said, streeeetching out his forelegs until the knees cracked. "Not to mention..." He jerked his head in Gladion's direction. "Science abominations. I don't know if that Dakota guy is a scouter or not. But he saw me. If he's buds with this Nolan guy, he might've passed on word about me. Someone there's bound to know a thing about this 'species' and blow a proverbial gasket.

"If you're dead set on getting into their good graces, it sounds like this Nolan guy wants a shadow captured." He tapped a claw against the floor in thought. "Maybe there's one out there that isn't quite the hurdle that a charmeleon is."
Steven floated up a bit higher to make himself heard above the murmuring of the room. He chimed lightly, almost like he was clearing his throat.

"Bellatrix is correct. I made an agreement with Nolan to share the mayor's notebook with him to assist in his audit. I also made it very clear that any deal between us was in regards to uncovering who is behind Terminal Two, and who was funding Ignatius in exchange for delivering prisoners to their secret hideout. Shadow pokemon are affecting every person in Forlas, regardless of origin. As a verbal agreement, we are cooperating in assisting the Commonwealth government, not joining the Covenant of Light."

He swept his eye across the room. "We can gauge Nolan's trustworthiness on the veracity of his information. We know several pieces of information he does not, though he clearly knows something about this operation; he was able to glean everything we found out thus far without the mayor's ledger." He scowled at the floor. "His attitude may be reprehensible, but there's no doubt he has access to information that we don't."

He shook his head, then leveled his gaze to the rest of the room. "Just because we are working towards a common goal doesn't mean we subscribe to the Covenant's-- or Nolan's-- ideology, if he even speaks for the Covenant as a whole."

Steven turned to those who had encountered the two Vanguard combatants. "The Vanguard has shared a warning about the Covenant, but what have they offered in ways of support in investigating the shadow pokemon?"
Odette’s expression became increasingly more perturbed the longer Laura spoke. The more everyone spoke about infiltrating being a bad idea.

Was nobody fucking listening to the points she was making?

“There’s a lot of speculation happening here over, again, blatant ‘he said, she said.’ And pardon me for saying this, but if we’re planning to rest everything we’re doing here on fucking word of mouth and no facts, then we’re the worst bunch of ‘saviors,’” she put up air quotes around the word, “the Cloud could have picked out.”

Now she was rubbing her forehead. “Nobody here was saying we were going to accept their ideologies. Nobody here was even insisting we needed to take what they said as fact. What, you think because I choose to start playing double-agent for the anti-Pokemon cult, I’m suddenly going to think of Pokemon as lesser than me? Fucking please. Get a grip.

“We need to be thorough. We have no idea why the fuck we’re actually here, so we need figure it out by any means we can swing. We need to see these things for ourselves, because that’s the only way we’re going to get ahold of the truth.”

She gestured to the galarian ponyta—who also sounded like a child, for fucks sake. “Rangers wanna help? Sick. They have access to info the Coven may not? Sick. But who’s the say the reverse isn’t true? What if the Coven knows shit nobody else does? And if they’re spouting bullshit, we can cross reference it with whoever else wants to help us. Really help weed out what’s cult propaganda and actual truth. And see all this shit with our own fucking eyes.”
Perhaps someone could give me a name.

"Why don't you pick one out yourself?" Kimiko offered. "A name is a special thing, and many people don't get to pick theirs. You can, though! So I think you should choose what you want others to call you."

She shrugged, then realized she had no way of knowing if the Voice could see it or know what it meant... oh well. "Or we could pick something if you'd really prefer that, but you should get the option to decide for yourself first, at least."

She frowned as she watched the rest of the group chatter. "We could deal with this later if you'd like, too," she added.

"The Vanguard has shared a warning about the Covenant, but what have they offered in ways of support in investigating the shadow pokemon?"

"They offered to let us live," Kimiko replied sarcastically. "Their warning was just about all we got out of them. They're just as wary of us as they are of the Covenant, fearing that we're similar, and I'm not sure we did much to improve our standing." She resisted the urge to focus on Isidora.
"If you're dead set on getting into their good graces, it sounds like this Nolan guy wants a shadow captured." He tapped a claw against the floor in thought. "Maybe there's one out there that isn't quite the hurdle that a charmeleon is."
Wes had been content to simply sit and listen quietly. He was never one for these kinds of big group meetings, and plenty others were more than happy to share whatever info he’d learned. But when the other chimera—what was his name again?—spoke up, Wes suddenly found himself chiming in.

“He’s particularly interested in the Wolf guy. The one he suspects may be a former human.” He paused, thinking to himself. “He gave Nolan a hell of a fight, by his own admission, but Nolan was still able to escape. There’s a possibility that we can apprehend this Wolf and take him down together if we team up with Nolan’s forces.”

Wes shook his head. “I can’t stand the guy and I trust him about as much as the rest of you. But…this Coven gang, they have tech. Labs. They might be our only key to finding out what’s behind these Shadows. And besides, if we work together on this thing, it might be a good start to getting into their good graces. Get a foot in the door for infiltration.” He nodded to Odette as he made his last statement.
Ugh! Silver remembered what was the worst thing about team meetings and why he always avoided them: Too many people, too much chatter, too much input! Fighting the urge of leaving the room, he sat quietly by Rodion’ and Lyle’s side, slowly sipping a glass of sarsaparilla while filtering the shared information. But then, the focus shifted…

Steven turned to those who had encountered the two Vanguard combatants. "The Vanguard has shared a warning about the Covenant, but what have they offered in ways of support in investigating the shadow pokemon?"
"They offered to let us live," Kimiko replied sarcastically. "Their warning was just about all we got out of them. They're just as wary of us as they are of the Covenant, fearing that we're similar, and I'm not sure we did much to improve our standing."

So, Steven wanted to know what his team found out? Alright, then. Silver quickly drank the rest of his beverage and stared hard at the Beldum, wishing to lend his support to his castle companions.

“Hmph, yeah! That Valere guy mostly wanted to test our hearts or whatever with a fight, and so we battled. But even after doing that, he neither offered nor accepted help. I guess having humans in the team was too much of a dealbreaker or something.”

He shrugged nonchalantly. “And I dunno about y’all, but while there’s some merit in gathering intel from the Coven, that also sounds like a sure way to either end up in the blacklist of entitled arseholes or to piss off an entire organization of anti-human ‘mons, if not both. Not saying we shouldn’t do that, but we gotta be extra careful with how we play our cards.”
Isidora found herself genuinely impressed by Laura's summation. She was worried she'd end up arguing at the wall all day, but someone actually got her point.

And then she mentioned redemption. She's kidding, right?

The exasperated sneasel leaned her forehead into one claw and threw the other in the air. "Y'know what? Whatever. You all can go and enact your crazy plan to become best friends with the Coven and like, fix them or something. And it'll all go magically okay because you're all 'incorruptible pure good guys' who could never, let a cult made entirely of others exactly like you put a single idea in your head." She beat a claw against the gem on her chest. "I think Leaf has the right idea. We have a ton of options that don't involve getting cozy with an organization that hates half of us," she said with hard emphasis and a snarl on the last part. "In case you forgot."

She turned a softer, less combative glare towards the metal guy (she had no idea on his species). "The Vanguard never mentioned shadow beasts, and they haven't offered any support yet because they're waiting to see if we can be trusted to work with them first. But it's important to keep in mind that we don't know yet how much the shadow situation connects to why we're here in the first place, and trusting Nolan to tell us how much it does is playing into his hand." She tapped her head. "Don't forget he wants to control you."

And then she turned to Odette with a much harsher one. "And-!" Isidora bit her tongue and winced from the pain. You're full of both shit and yourself. She had been this close to saying that out loud.

A sigh instead. "...Don't pretend like you're not making assumptions too. The entire premise of your justification to infiltrate them is a massive assumption bundled with a buncha vague hopes. We have no leverage over these guys and their entire mode of operation revolves around getting humans to work with them exactly like you're all planning." She gestured around the room. "If you want to try it anyway off the hope you'll see through their heads and figure out their intentions, then go ahead, but I'm not going to be a part of that."

Isidora slumped back in her seat and growled to herself. And if they end up getting to you...
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