Reconnaissance Agent Beru moved slowly underneath the shadows of the trees, cautiously keeping her eyes scanning on the expansive sky above and out towards the horizon. Her pursuers lacked her advanced optical camouflage but one need not become effectively invisible to hide from detection. They could still alter the color of their armor to match the sky they hunted her from and the Zeromer also couldn’t rely on her infrared vision to detect them because of their semi-endothermic bodies.
She would be torn apart in an open engagement with the pair of GunValkyries the Office of Security had sent on her trail. Maybe she could overcome one if she could enter close quarters combat but the OffSec hunter-killer team knew this as well. Just the fact that the pair were hunting her from the air made the proposition nearly impossible. Agent Beru would have to drop her stealth in order to reach them with her own flight systems and the seconds it would take to close the distance would see her torn apart by conjoined fire.
A Reconnaissance Agent hadn’t been active in this region of Terra for over fifty years before the coup, meaning Beru’s intelligence on human settlements was nearly a lifetime out of date and the community she had set out to investigate had fallen and been claimed by an Elfqueen. Chatter she picked up indicated the founding Elfqueen had been overthrown in recent history so she avoided contact with the destabilized pokegirl settlement. Now she was moving East by South towards a larger settlement of humans she hoped remained.
The Zeromer dropped down deeper into the shadows when she spotted the twisting stream of warm air. She followed the contrail and was finally able to spot the airborne GunValkyrie currently taking on the role of the hunter. At least the heat exhaust from her plasma converter and anti-grav flight extensions. Beru was at the edge of the trees and crossing open ground risked the hunting tech pokegirl spotting the light distortions caused by the Zeromer’s superior camouflage.
While she hunkered down and waited out the GunValkyrie’s operational flight time her thoughts wandered to the greater conflict she found herself caught up in. The data packets installed on her atmospheric entry pod only painted the broadest picture and her release on Terra had been the first breath of living air Beru experienced. She did not actually know herself what was happening on the distant red planet that had been imprinted on her mind as home. It must have been terrible to pit so many children of Mars against one another when the ethos of the colony was focused so heavily on community cohesion and putting aside individual satisfaction for the sake of the whole settlement.
The Office of Science and Office of Public Works were united in the belief that cooperation with their estranged kin on Terra was the key to resolving the crisis though. That meant they needed intelligence and intelligence gathering was the sole purpose Beru’s breed had been developed for in the first place. The mission.
The mission was more important than her personal well being, the lives of everyone back on Mars depended on her fulfilling her task. However, production of a new Zeromer was time and resource intensive and deploying one to Terra was even more so. Time and resources the colony was already running dangerously low on. She had to preserve her operational capacity to the greatest extent she could in order to maximize the return on the investment that had produced her in the first place.
The Zeromer pulled out a rock she had collected earlier on a whim. It was a sedimentary rock and had split along the layers multiple times. It gave her a small sense of satisfaction to place the fragments back together and see the lump of minerals as a temporary whole. It was strangely soothing given how simple of a task it was but Beru was currently relying on that curious influence as she waited out her aerial stalkers.
A cheer came up and echoed off the cylindrical walls of the well. Chandrakanta was too large to be down there digging so she peered over the edge from where she was operating the pulley for raising and lowering buckets. The two Goblina at the bottom were splashing around in the silty pool of water that was just beginning to form. Then the prospect of only having a meter or less more to dig and the softening effect of the moisture on the hard clay invigorated their efforts.
The village’s old well had been collapsed by a feral Beshemoth that came down from the mountains during a storm. She’d been after the grapes, dates, apricots, and other fruit the villagers grew and dried to sell to the larger settlements. It left the tiny community in dire peril as the emergency relief sent by the league was both insufficient and tardy, barely enough to prevent dehydration let alone irrigate the crops.
Chandrakanta had learned of the situation from the next village over where she had spent the winter months dealing with a particularly virulent outbreak of influenza. She’d learned of that local epidemic while helping a third community with training up a new village healer after the old medicine woman passed away suddenly. The lack of any local medical aid was brought to her attention by a customer of a stall where she was working temporarily while the owners were away on honeymoon. She had been helping them because she had lived with the groom’s cousin for a few months. If they closed down completely the business wouldn’t survive but they had many family members who couldn’t attend the wedding. This had been well before Elena had discovered Isaac over a year ago.
She never really stopped to consider why she was doing these things. To her it was just natural to help people in need when all of the larger institutions overlooked them. It also fulfilled the need all Megami possess for community and appreciation. The joy and gratitude of humble rural people was rich nourishment to the empathic celestial pokegirl. Chandrakanta was completely oblivious to the folk hero status she’d cultivated over the hundreds of months and thousands of kilometers she’d wandered, but throughout the graveyard of ancient empires people shared stories about how their parents or grandparents had met the tall, motherly, gemstone-eyed goddess pokegirl.
One of the Goblina was riding the bucket of dirt up and offered a cup of silty water to the Megami turning the pulley lever. It was cool and clean so long as she sipped from the top. “Chandrakanta,” the digging pokegirl started to ask, “will you stay for dinner tonight?”
“Apologies, Farzana, but I will not. I think my man has taken a new pokegirl and I would like to go meet her, so I will be leaving for the Sapphire League as soon as Gul returns from the fields.” Gul was the village's strongest pokegirl, a Dao born as an Earthmaiden. It had been Gul who had driven off the Beshemoth in the first place and she had also been responsible for most of the digging in spite of her other responsibilities. Gul, Farzana, and Firouzeh, who was the other Goblina still digging at the bottom of the well, all belonged to the elder’s oldest son who would take over leading the tiny community once his father stepped down.
The Goblina, who was of a freshly marriageable age, gasped in delight. “No one knew you had a man, Chandrakanta. I will tell my husband’s brothers next time they are rude to me.”
Chandrakanta laughed. “Please don’t use my relationships to wound them too deeply.” The Megami peered down the path and spotted a pokegirl approaching them. “There is Gul. Farewell, Farzana.” The Goblina hugged the much taller pokegirls hips.
“Khoda hafez,” Farzana said in return, using a traditional Dari phrase.
Chandrakanta teleported from the remote village in Northwest Blood League to the end of the path leading to Elena’s home in the middle of Sapphire. She pulled off the heavier robe and head covering she wore in observation of the former region’s sense of modesty, leaving her in her usual Indian apparel. She blinked in surprise when she noticed a set of eyes focused upon her and heard the pull of a bowstring.
A deeply unhappy Elf was glaring at her from behind a knocked arrow. The anguish pouring from her soul was enough to make Chandrakanta feel as if she was being smothered. The Megami fought an impulse to rush over and pick up the small plant type and cradle her for eternity if that was how long it took for the grief in her heart to go away. Chandrakanta lifted her hands in a display of nonaggression instead. “Greetings. I am Chandrakanta and I am here to visit Elena and Isaac.”
The Elf relaxed her draw, replaced the arrow in its quiver and slung the bow over her shoulder. “You are Elena’s friend.”
Chandrakanta smiled warmly. “That I am. Would you happen to be Neasa?”
The Elf nodded with an affirmative grunt.
“I AM NOT HIS POKEGIRL!”
Elena looked up from where she was examining the two ruined halves of the wooden tablet that had been destroyed back when she tested Isaac’s magical potential. She’d finished its replacement months ago but the conservatory wanted proof of the original’s destruction; before she could claim financial compensation for the time and labor she and Isaac had invested in making the new enchanted object. That meant she had to ensure there were no traces of the magic that’d run rampant way back when. That would need to wait though because judging by her outburst something had greatly angered Neasa outside
The Elf was disgusted with how much time the other three spent indoors. She wouldn’t even sleep enclosed within the walls of the home, preferring to rest in the shadow of the old greenhouse where she’d been discovered hiding in the first place. Elena had surmised that it was only a matter of time, then, before Neasa was the one to greet a visitor and the Grandelf had been anticipating a social dilemma arising from the situation.
“Tell her I am not your pokegirl,” Neasa demanded of Isaac as Elena stepped outside. He was between Neasa and Chandrakanta, who Elena could tell from the decades upon decades of knowing her that the Megami was fighting intensely against her nurturing impulses. Jin was right next to Isaac and appeared to be struggling with less than nurturing inclinations of her own. The Witch was struggling to remain civil with Neasa’s extremely uncivilized behavior.
“Candi, Neasa’s just staying with Elena and needed my help. She’s not joining me and Jin.”
Chandrakanta looked from the human to the Elf and finally set her gaze on Elena. Elena shook her head in a gesture she hoped wouldn’t be picked up by Neasa. The Megami’s eyebrows lifted in an expression of dawning comprehension and she bowed low towards the Elf she was in a standoff with. “My apologies, it was wrong of me to assume.”
Neasa had unslung her bow again during her outburst and put it back over her shoulder for a second time. “Do humans not find it rude to drop in unannounced? If this was my domain I would have shot you for intruding.”
“Thank you for not shooting my friend.” Elena stepped up so her shoulders were on the same rough line as Neasa’s. “Neasa, this is Chandrakanta and she has been one of my closest friends for over two centuries now. She’s always welcome here so that is why she’s used to dropping in unexpectedly. She is also bonded with Isaac so it would be wrong for me to restrict her access to my home because Isaac is living with me.”
“Oh,” Neasa’s expression shifted from active aggression to passive standoffishness. She watched as the tall and full bodied Megami greeted and hugged everyone and all of the other warm and loving little interactions and felt an ugly, sinking sensation in her gut. It was being weighed down by longing nostalgia and grief from all of the little ways that this Chandrakanta reminded Neasa of her late mother. They didn’t look that similar but it was the same sort of unrestrained kindness demonstrated by both of them that was drawing forth the subconscious comparisons. She slunk away from the scene that was reminding her of her loss and filling her with envy.
Isaac always felt a little worried watching Neasa retreat into the trees but he doubted she would respond well to his base urges to shelter the small and upset girl. It was also Elena’s woods and Neasa was an Elf so there was minimal logical reason to worry. He could feel similar feelings originating from Chandrakanta as well though and while they weren’t comparable, Elena also was remaining attentive towards the much younger Elf-type pokegirl. Jin was the only one apparently not concerned with Neasa’s well being and with the Elf, and her disruption, out of the picture Jin insisted she and Isaac resume their studying together.
Elena and Chandrakanta went around to the other side of the house to sit at a small set of patio chairs. It was also overlooking the treeline Neasa had vanished across. Again. “That poor girl…” Chandrakanta said, staring off into the woods.
“How much did you manage to learn from her?” Elena was never sure what sort of insights the Megami gleaned from whatever supernatural energies she was always perceiving in others. She only knew that it provided more information than she should have been able to interpret.
“Not very much. Only that she’s very troubled.” Chandrakanta sighed. “She became quite upset when I suggested she was with Isaac.”
Elena leaned back in her chair and watched the tree branches sway in the wind as she considered what she had the right to share. “She’s the daughter of an Elfqueen who was slain last year. Queen Vershnyk, I told you a little about her. She was a Bimbo seized by the league, then they slapped a leaf stone on her and sent her off in a rush for another resettlement effort along the river. It failed because of some man-eater they never caught and the Elves were all left as a sacrificial rearguard while the surviving humans fled back to Dnipro. When the league returned, they found Queen Vershnyk’s court had grown up where they were expecting ruins. They worked things out so that Queen Vershnyk and her subjects would be left in peace in return for allowing a waystation to be built for the rangers, which was the goal of the resettlement effort in the first place.” Elena sighed and her lean became a slouch. “I hate being right.”
“What were you right about, Nell?”
“I always expected something like this to happen. For some other Elfqueen to come along and usurp Queen Vershnyk or for the league to renege on its deal with her. She was too gentle of a queen for her court to survive. Even still,” Elena stopped talking as her attention drifted off towards the North.
Chandrakanta watched the slow swirl of morose currents in her Grandelf companion. It was a familiar pattern of particular loneliness, guilt, and grudge that was stirred up every time Elena thought about Elves and courts. “Were you friends with Queen Vershnyk?”
“I think we could have been, but no. It’s just that, I didn’t feel so horribly out of place when I was in her court. She may have been the only Elfqueen I ever met who didn’t treat me like a threat to her crown. Now she’s gone.”
“What about Neasa? Her daughter.”
Elena sat forward to press her forehead into her palms while supporting the weight with her elbows. “I don’t know what to do about her. She’s so hurt and angry. Everything in her world seems to have been reduced to undiluted power dynamics and she blames everyone for her mother’s death. I just hope it’s a phase.”
“We should get Star to talk with her.” Chandrakanta said with audacious confidence.
“You think Astoreth can help her with her emotional issues? Our Star?”
The Megami’s surety was unwavering as she nodded. “Star can help her.”
Elena was unconvinced and her ears were ever so slightly angling towards the Megami as if to better hear an argument to support her belief. “Well, I haven’t seen or heard from Star since Isaac’s birthday. She hasn’t sent him a message either.”
“Oh Star…” Chandrakanta sighed theatrically and stared off into the clouds. “Hmm, it’d be better if you talked to her.”
“You think I can help Star with her emotional issues? Candi, did you take a blow to the head before you got here?”
“Trust me Nell.” Chandrakanta said as she smiled mysteriously.
“Alright, I’ll go talk to Star. What are you going to do?”
The Megami hummed thoughtfully and positioned herself to elegantly tap her finger against her lips as she supported her chin with a hand. “I think I should take Isaac somewhere fun. It’s harvest festival. Are they doing anything in Slov’yanka this year?”
Elena’s ears and eyebrows went skewed as she tried to follow Chandrakanta’s unspoken line of reasoning. “Not in town, no. But with Grigory taking over managing the ranch they’re holding a bit of a celebration there this evening, like Mr. Borisov used to always put on. The sheriff’s brother is coming in a couple days with his wagon to take people into Dnipro for the weekend as well.”
Chandrakanta beamed with delight as she partially laced her steepled fingers together. “Excellent. Good luck with Star, Nell.”
Astoreth’s home in Svyatlysche had once been the private residence of a soviet government official. Then it had been taken by a pokegirl warlord during the period of crisis that was known as James Scott’s Revenge War and the destabilized period after. Finally it had been left partially abandoned during the rebuilding efforts and a syndicate of infernal pokegirls moved in. Astoreth claimed the palace from them by right of conquest, and her ownership had been recognized by the league as payment for the relatively pro-social infernal neutralizing the far less cooperative members of her kind. It was Astoreth’s most prized possession and she obsessed over its restoration for decades and it reflected the infernal veteran’s love of precision and orderly detail.
Elena wasn’t particularly fond of the size of the building, she preferred a much smaller home so that more space could be devoted to gardening and arboricultural pursuits. Her disagreement with Astoreth over the qualities of an ideal home had been the inciting factor in their second fight as friends. To this day they had to be cautious when discussing residential preferences if they didn’t have the time for a considerable sparring session.
“Good day, Elena.” The voice belonged to a girl speaking with a lot of vocal fry, the low, creaky tone produced by speaking with less air than usual. She was a Cardian named Yevheniya and had been one of Astoreth’s former wards now hired as her personal, live-in gardener. She had moss colored skin, blood red eyes, and possessed a tangle of thorny vines in place of hair. Each vine ended in a hinged pair of barbed leaves that vaguely resembled the head of a viper. These false mouths would snap up any pests the Cardian encountered and slowly dissolve them with digestive enzymes.
Astoreth collected underage individuals of infernal and what could be considered infernal-adjacent breeds whose parents, guardians, or legal owners were deemed no longer qualified to care for a pokegirl minor. Many came with criminal backgrounds or antisocial predispositions and Astoreth hammered behavioral standards into them ruthlessly through the years they were under her care. It seemed cruel and overbearing to outsiders but even Astoreth’s iron fist was a gentler treatment than the league’s velvet glove. She had a much better record of producing reformed individuals as well.
“Good day, Yevheniya. How are the roses doing?”
“They are doing well, even with the beetles.” Elena nodded politely to the infernal plant type. She’d never been much of a conversationalist and only briefly spoke with Elena over matters of horticulture. The Cardian spotted one of the hated insects and a thinner vine tendril shot out to seize it in its false jaws. Elena continued through the beautiful but foreboding front garden and up the dark marble steps to the entrance of the home. A nubile Succubus in a maid outfit opened the door.
“Good day, Elena. Shall I let the lady know you are here?”
“Yes, Nadya, thank you.”
The Succubus, whose full name was Nadezhda, dipped in an impeccable curtsy before sweeping an arm across the doorway. “Please, come in and be seated.” Elena did as she was asked and lounged on a velvet sofa that was part of the set of furniture arranged for waiting guests. Nadya went up the curved stairway to the second level that held Astoreth’s office along with the master and guest bedrooms. Nadya returned a few minutes later with a rigidly neutral expression. “Lady Astoreth doesn’t wish to be seen.”
“I see. Thank you Nadya.” Elena rose from the sofa and began marching up the stairs. Nadezhda watched her impassively.
“You’re going to see her in spite of her wishes?” Elena responded with little more than an affirmative pair of grunts. Nadya’s smile was subtle but approving.
The Grandelf pushed the double doors to Astoreth’s office wide open in a dramatic fashion and was appalled by the sight and smell from inside. Astoreth’s unwashed body odor filled the air of the room. Every flat surface from the top of a shelf to the bare floor had a pile of waste. Plates with traces of food dried and stuck to the surface. Wadded up articles of clothing or other laundry. Papers in folders or loose leafs, some of them Astoreth’s precious and secret fantasiagraphy photos. The worst of it was cluttered around the great handmade oak desk in the center of the room. The colossal piece of furniture was normally backlit by a bay window that spanned the central third of the wall. Right now the curtains were drawn tightly closed and resting her head on the only clean area of the desktop was Astoreth.
She was shrunken down to her passive form and glared at the trespassing Grandelf through bloodshot eyes hidden behind a mess of unmanaged black curls. “Go’way…”
Elena dropped herself into one of the antique chairs in front of the desk Astoreth was resting miserably on top of. “Isaac is starting to miss you Star. At least call him.”
Astoreth groaned out a high pitched, whining sound and her shoulders slipped out of view behind the desktop as she curled her legs even further under herself. “I lost control. Isaac isn’t safe around me.”
Elena wracked her brain for what the infernal could be talking about but she couldn’t think of anything that seemed like her friend losing control over herself in recent history. “What are you talking about, Star?”
“His birthday. I transformed without meaning to. I lost control.”
Elena blinked slowly and her ears twitched. She was familiar with Astoreth’s behavioral idiosyncrasies but this was something else entirely. The Grandelf remembered the incident but everyone else had laughed it off and she had assumed there was nothing to resolve. “Astoreth… You changed forms to be closer to him, it’s not that big of a deal.”
“It’ll be a big deal when I kill him next time.”
“Star, how would you kill him when you made yourself less dangerous?”
The infernal’s golden eyes gleamed as they fixed themselves on Elena’s face. Astoreth was studying the Grandelf intently and Elena was imagining all of the tiny brass cogs that were turning inside her blue-skinned friend’s mind. “Bu- I- wha-”
Something dawned on Elena and she almost couldn’t believe what she was about to ask but knowing Astoreth as she did, knowing how fiercely proud and independent the infernal was and seeing how she was struggling to understand her own recent actions... It was the only thing that made sense. “Star, is this the first time you’ve formed an alpha bond with someone?”
Astoreth’s eyes opened wider and her mouth dropped open a tiny crack. “Isaac misses me?”
“Yes Star, I’m pretty sure Isaac misses you. I think Candi is planning on taking him to some harvest festival celebrations tonight.
Elena listened to the imaginary gears spinning in Astoreth’s head for another minute. Then the infernal shot up to her statuesque height as she jumped up from the desk. “I need a shower,” was all she declared before boldly striding out of her office. Nadezhda and two younger Youma were waiting with a laundry and kitchen trolley as well as an armload of dusters and cleaning rags. They got to work cleaning out the artifacts of their patroness’ depression as soon as Elena stepped through the doorway back into the hall.
A peculiar thing had happened while Elena was away rousing Astoreth from her melancholy. Just as Chandrakanta, Isaac, and Jin were securing Elena’s home to leave for the party at the ranch Neasa returned from her tantrum in the woods and demanded to know where they were going. The Megami expertly spurred the Elf’s curiosity about what a human festival might entail so she wound up following along behind them.
Neasa had scoffed at the carnival games that had been set up for the pokekits. Jin then obstinately chose to engage in the very game Neasa had been deriding. It was a basic ring toss game and after landing three of the five provided rings the spitfire Witch handed Neasa a set of rings along with a goading challenge.
Neasa had scored three out of five.
Because neither of them felt satisfied declaring a draw the competition was extended only for another tied score. After the third game with an inconclusive score the two pokegirls decided a new game was in order. They chose one that involved kicking a ball through different targets. Jin won this deciding match but gloated that she played something similar all throughout her childhood. Neasa protested on the grounds that she’d never played before and Jin dismissed her concerns by claiming it didn’t matter if Neasa picked the game herself. The better pokegirl would always win.
Jin hadn’t been aware that there was a booth set up for archery.
Now having suffered one humiliation a piece, the struggle had truly begun and the energy of the budding rivalry took over the entire game area. No one else was playing as residents and ranch girls rallied behind their champion.
Many pokegirls from the ranch picked Jin because they knew she was one of them, even if only for a couple seasons. Many of the townspeople who came down picked Jin because they’d overheard her defending the fun and games earlier. Other people simply picked Jin because they thought she was the cuter of the two.
Many pokegirls from the ranch picked Neasa because they held a grudge from having interacted with her opponent on the sparring fields. Many of the townspeople picked Neasa because they’d overheard Jin gloating after her victory in kickball and wanted to see the bully get her comeuppance. Other people simply picked Neasa because they thought she was the cuter of the two.
The result was something that took on a spirit of its own as every soul in the ranch at least had their attention drawn to the spectacle while standing about, dancing, or walking across the lawn. Every game was tried but it was the ring toss they returned to because it was the better ring tosser that was yet to be determined. Another game booth had been broken down and moved out of the way to give the competitors more distance to open up to increase the challenge.
They were tossing the rings over their heads with their backs turned to the targets when the ranch staff finally were insistent that it was time for the pokekits to be herded off to their beds. That disruption signaled the end of the competition to everyone present and Jin and Neasa both rushed over to where Isaac and Chandrakanta had been spectating. “Who won? What’s the score,” they practically asked in unison.
“Oh, were we supposed to be keeping score?” Chandrakanta turned to ask the question of Isaac with mock worry.
Isaac picked up on a playful impulse across his delta bond with Chandrakanta. He was slow with improvisation but tried his hand anyway, “Oh, uh… I don’t know.” It was technically true, he’d stopped counting when the Witch and Elf transitioned to showing off for all of the younger pokegirls rather than exercise precise throwing form. It seemed like they had stopped caring about the competition.
“Isaac!” Jin shouted in protest. Neasa made a noise of disgust and stomped away, but while her attention had been absorbed by her feud with Jin she displayed a new emotion for the first time. To Isaac anyway, she looked like she was having fun.
(-[|]-) End 6.2 (-[|]-)
Khoda Hafiz (خداحافظ) - “May God protect you” Dari Persian