The geography that made up Elena’s property was full of rocks, trees, and hills. The reason for this was simple. Hundreds of years ago during the Sapphire League’s Ritual of Tectonic Retardation the crust of the earth formed a large crease at this location from the impact with the landmass that had contained the nation of Turkey. For a brief moment the solid ground folded into itself to make a raised seam and then over the years the soft soil eroded away to expose glacial stones before new trees grew up to trap the dirt and moisture in place. Elena had guided them to the base of a particularly high pinched point of this wrinkle in the topography as the location of their ambush for the hunter-killer team. Presumably they were still on the trail of Oleksandra.
A large pebble tumbled down a particularly steep face of the hill under whose shadow they were setting up. Oleksandra’s ears snapped to orient towards the sound and her entire body tensed up to run. Isaac noticed her reaction and stepped closer to inquire regarding her sudden fearful response. “What is it?”
“The stones startled me. When the GunValkyrie performed their carpet bombardment I was caught up in the resulting landslide. I couldn’t break free until the dark cloud, her nanites bonded with me. I would have died. Buried.”
Elena looked up from where she was concentrating on preparing another ritual. “I planted the trees here because I kept getting mudslides from the first rainstorm every Spring. A GunValkyrie would need to really dig to knock them loose, and if she’s spending that much plasma on the landscape she’s not spraying it at us. That’s assuming they can penetrate Chandrakanta’s wards.”
Oleksandra’s ears relaxed enough for the tips to fall away from each other as they returned to a more rested position. “She is an adept warder?”
The tall and exotic Megami was also nearby working so she answered for herself. “I don’t like violence so I’ve focused most of my combat training on healing and protection. I’ve been studying warding magic for over three hundred years and every time Nell or Star develop a new destructive spell they want to test it out against my strongest barriers. I consider myself modestly adept.”
Oleksandra’s eyes seemed to become very large and round as she gazed on the Eastern celestial with awe. “And you will be with me?”
“I will be right there, protecting you, Isaac, and Jin.” Chandrakanta had put aside her usual traditional Indian attire for a tough cotton blouse and trousers. They had set up Isaac’s yurt in the elevated clearing to make it look as if he was camping there during a hunt. They were trying to make it appear as if Isaac was a tamer traveling with two pokegirls when he happened upon Oleksandra and captured her. Chandrakanta was playing the role of Isaac’s girl besides Jin so that she would be in position to protect their male; the most vulnerable among them.
Elena had returned her attention to her ritual. She was kneeling on the ground in front of a fairy ring growing on the forest floor. The circle of richly nourished vegetation hadn’t occurred naturally. It was the result of Elena pouring so much of her sylvan magic into that location as she adjusted her entire web of sensor plants to focus on this theater of operation. She brushed the soil from her hands and stood by pushing herself up with her living staff. “There,” she stated with satisfaction before frowning.
“What is it?” Jin asked her. The Witch had been sitting entranced by the spellcraft she was witnessing.
“Nothing, I was letting myself be distracted. Just some feral hunting to do when things are safer. Let’s get into position.”
They split into three clusters. Isaac, Jin, Chandrakanta, and Oleksandra at the decoy camp with everyone but Chandrakanta inside of the yurt. The Megami had lined the temporary dwelling with enough varied and redundant magical barriers to turn it into a bomb shelter. She would be assuming the role of the pokegirl on watch outside. Neasa was standing with her bow strung next to Elena. They would be out in the woods where their Elf magic was strongest, using the intelligence gathered by Elena’s network of sensor plants to, ideally, intercept one or both GunValkyrie. Their role changed little if they failed to catch the hunter-killers, only that they would hit them from behind rather than the side. Astoreth was on her own as the only aerial combatant. She would be hunting from the skies.
Isaac was at war with himself over finding the correct words to send Astoreth off with. He had to say something, that much was not up for debate but he was struggling with picking the specific phrase. He was worried for her because she would be alone but realistically Astoreth was the least burdened of the three veterans thanks to her flying solo. While not everyone was happy to admit it, there were no illusions what the contributions of the younger pokegirls and sole human would be in this engagement. He could also feel the growing glee within her at the idea of life or death combat so, given her pride, would something like ‘stay safe’ be the best choice? ‘Have fun’ was too macabre. ‘Good luck’ felt too flippant.
He felt a pulse of amusement from across his telepathic bond with her as she waited with the faintest quirk to the corner of her mouth. “Be careful,” Isaac finally said.
She leaned in close to him and sealed her mouth over his. “Don’t worry,” she said after breaking away to step back towards the night’s shadows. Her voice was laced with a throaty chuckle, “I do my best work in the dark.” Her form seemed to dissolve into inky black smoke as she went invisible. Only a few leaves tumbling gave away her parting wingbeats.
“You be careful too,” Elena stepped forward to say to Isaac. She kissed his cheeks and let the contact linger as she had before. Then she turned her attention to Jin. “Remember, you are saving your magic for barriers if Chandrakanta’s wards should fail. If you feel you need to get involved, use the wand she gave you.” The wand was enchanted to reproduce a spell the Megami used to magically paint targets for the other two. Jin wasn’t told what it did specifically, only that it was the best way for her to help and if she did it right she’d get to see some master class wizardry.
The Witch would figure out that it was purely a supporting tool after the first cast, but according to Oleksandra’s knowledge inherited from the late agent Beru, Martians had no practical experience with magic. One cast from either Elena or Astoreth against a target with no precautions against spellcraft meant that part of the fight would be over.
Regarding Oleksandra, Elena was more concerned about her fleeing rather than chaotically entering the battle. That was fine for tonight and they could work on helping her realise she wasn’t a helpless Bunnygirl later. That left Neasa. She would be under Elena’s wing.
Since the young Elf hadn’t seen fit to offer Isaac a parting token of affection, they were making their way into the woods towards their general position. Neasa claimed to have fought alongside Queen Vershnyk’s huntresses but Elena knew they wouldn’t have tolerated how distracted Neasa currently was. “I’m counting on you to focus, princess.”
Neasa’s attention jerked to Elena’s face and she scowled. “Mother never instituted any ranks besides queen. I’m not a princess.” She marched a few paces, nearly twice as many as Elena had to take covering the same ground, before the scrunched bundle of stress in her face relaxed. “I’m sorry, I’m distracted by your staff. I’ve never seen a living weapon.”
Elena turned to focus on her companion and finally slowed her pace. “That’s right, I never did manage to connect with someone able to instruct your mother.”
“How do you have your own if you don’t know how to call one forth?”
“I do know how I called this one forth, but summoning my living weapon was a part of verifying I had integrated all of my implanted memories successfully. I’ve managed not to lose mine so I only have that one, very early experience to analyze to try to formulate a lesson. Then there is the matter of…”
“You being the Deaf One,” Neasa offered with a questioning inflection when Elena trailed off.
“Precisely. Part of that comes from never learning the culture that developed in the fighting Elves. I was with the Archmages until the war was over. It’s not that I don’t ‘hear’ the magic you do. However, I was left to my own interpretations of it all and that’s a gap in understanding I have yet to bridge.”
Neasa’s eyes were still being drawn to the living staff in the hands of Elena. “Would you look for someone who could teach me to call out to one?”
Elena stopped and turned. “I never halted my research, but your mother had me focusing my efforts towards the gentler arts of our kind. I’d put a lot more effort into my investigation if you were using this living weapon to fight for Isaac.”
Neasa choked down the fury that rose until she could keep her voice down. “If you’re making me offering myself to-”
“I am not,” Elena said sternly. “I will help you either way, but if it was also helping to protect Isaac then it would be a project I would dedicate much more of my time towards accomplishing. That is all I am saying.”
“You’re still manipulating me.”
“And you’re free to not do what I want. We can resume this discussion after tonight, we’re here and I’m done collecting the power I need.” There was nothing to distinguish ‘here’ from anywhere else in the forest except that it was located where the effects of the magic Elena was about to work would cover the most tactically relevant area.
Neasa settled in to watch the Grandelf work her craft. It didn’t seem any different than the magic her mother’s people used when helping the farmers. Little green shoots started to poke through the forest detritus and reach up for the dark sky above. The stalks didn’t produce any leaves, only a single heavy bud at the tip of the stem. They were only a few centimeters high when the freshly grown plants withered and died.
Neasa was about to ask what the purpose of Elena’s ritual was but a second pulse of floral energy radiated out from the Grandelf and more little plants began to grow further away from them. They formed a ring, a concentric circle, around the first patch of little growths. These too only experienced minimal growth before drying out and leaving a seedpod on the end of a husk.
The cycle of energy dispersal, growth, and decay repeated in a slow rhythm, more than a ten count by Neasa’s estimation. Each time the growth occurred further and further away from where Elena guided the energies in quiet contemplation. Finally the magic stopped. Neasa squatted to inspect the closest specimen. The pod cracked open from the faintest touch. Inside were thin black seeds with white tufts to catch the wind. “These are sensor seeds.” Neasa’s tone was thick with disbelief. This many instances of the technique would be too much information for any of her late mother’s magi to interpret.
“They are.” Elena responded cooly. A thin and wispy covering of fog settled as far as the trees allowed Neasa to see. Every little sensor plant besides the one she had disturbed opened its pod and the seeds started to bob and swirl on top of the mist. They were all carried skyward when the ground hugging cloud wafted upwards as a sheet of frigid air. Elena’s staff began to produce a low thrumming sound to the Elf’s ears and Neasa could intuit an invisible connection between its life force, that of its wielder, and the tiny bit of vital energy leant to the seeds now ascending into the night sky.
Still unsure of what all of this magic had accomplished, Neasa finally did ask, “What was the purpose of this?”
“We’re expecting our enemy to come from the sky.”
“Yes,” Neasa responded hoping Elena would be more forthcoming with an explanation. The Grandelf turned to focus her attention on the Elf. Her icy blue eyes appeared to be traced in evergreen colored, animated lines of magic. The magic of the living forest.
“Well, now I will see them coming.”
Juno suppressed a childish leap of joy in her gut when she spotted the mass of white specs she and her sister were about to descend into. The Martian GunValkyrie had thought for a moment she was going to be able to witness snow. Her glee became confusion as she dropped altitude and was able to identify that the miniscule objects bobbing in the air currents were some sort of seeds floating on parachute like tufts. They made her skin tingle wherever they came into contact with her armor and to the mechanical pokegirl it felt like the air between each transient plant embryo held a static charge. “Is it natural for there to be a seed dispersal like this, sister?”
Hera responded over the communicator. She was distant and only their tactical equipment allowed the two to keep track of one another. “Irrelevant. Focus on the mission.”
Juno accepted the reprimand professionally and pushed the questionable plant behavior out of her mind. They had picked up their target’s signal earlier, within the hour, and as they closed in the target had moved further away from the village the two interdiction agents worried could jeopardize the covert nature of their mission. Juno thought this made them lucky but Hera was skeptical of luck and ordered they approach cautiously. Juno obeyed her older and more experienced sibling.
The plan was similar to when they had first thought they neutralized the reconnaissance agent. Juno would set up to snipe while Hera would close in to flush the target after identifying her. Any Terran witnesses were also to be eliminated. Juno hoped there weren’t any. Uncharacteristically for the GunValkyrie breed, Juno and Hera’s love of violence had been conditioned out of them and replaced with a focus on resolving conflicts swiftly and precisely.
“I see a campsite.” Hera’s voice came over the communicator. “Verifying the source of the signal. Get into position.”
“Acknowledged,” was Juno’s only reply. The geography here was superficially similar to when they had cornered the Zeromer and nearly destroyed her entirely. However, the greater slope of the ground and the increased height and robustness of the trees meant Juno didn’t have anywhere to land while still in line of sight of the presumed target. She would need to hover. She’d be firing from a less stable platform and wouldn’t be able to invest as much energy into the shot as if she were grounded.
Her long ranged plasma rifle deployed from the pod on her back and extended its barrel. The crane-like mechanical arm pushed the butt into the small of her shoulder and she leaned her cheek against the stock to peer through the telescopic sights. There was a single shelter composed of fabric siding set up in the clearing with a single occupant sitting and tending some coals.
Juno had never seen a human or pokegirl with features like hers before. The Martian population lacked the genetic diversity present on Terra. She was too tall to be a natural female so Juno assumed a pokegirl but she didn’t know what breed. There were over seven hundred varieties of pokegirl found on the blue planet so it was foolish to attempt a guess, especially with an idle pokegirl whose only features betraying her nature were uncharacteristic human proportions.
Juno flinched away from the scope when the target she was studying suddenly was looking right at her, as if peering into her eyes. That was impossible though. The GunValkyrie assured herself that there was no way she’d been detected from over two thousand meters through camouflage. Still, the way the figure on the opposite end of the scope was staring in her direction was unnerving.
It was her eyes. They had been almost closed but now they were open and the colors seemed to be filling the image contained in Juno’s sights. The GunValkyrie shook her head so she’d be ready for Hera’s order to fire. She had to focus. She couldn’t be distracted by doubts or questions. She couldn’t dwell on the idea that this pokegirl she was lining up a lethal shot on was innocent. That she knew nothing about Mars or its conflict. That the Zeromer Juno had killed the same way was carrying out her given mission, the same as Hera and Juno. That the host of the nanites released on her death was equally guiltless. That she wasn’t even sure why the conflict had begun in the first place.
“Juno,” The GunValkyrie’s heart nearly burst from the relief that filled it when her sister’s voice pulled her attention away from the moral quandary that was consuming her. “Abort the mission.”
“Abort the mission. The operation failed due to parameters outside our control.”
“I don’t understand, what happened.”
“Meet me at rendezvous Charlie, I’ll explain there. Maintain radio silence from here on out.”
“Understood. Juno going dark.” It was a short flight to the rendezvous point. Juno had to wait for several minutes before her sister Hera arrived and when the older of the pair landed her younger sister could tell she was unhappy.
“It was all a diversion,” Hera said. “OffSci sent that Zeromer down here to draw our attention. The Terrans had already contacted an OffPub surveying team last month in the asteroid belt. Command just received intelligence that diplomatic envoys from the two parties returned to the point of contact and established official dialogue between Mars and the leagues.”
Juno’s emotions warred with themselves, her anger and frustration at having the mission fail and her relief that she wouldn’t have to fight through the incredibly intense reservations she was experiencing performing overwatch on the camp with the target. “They sent her down to die…”
“OffSci never cares about the human cost of their projects,” Hera said with the vaguest hint of anger distorting her otherwise cool demeanor.
“What about the host?”
Hera regarded her sister before relaxing her stance to mimic a soldier at ease. “No longer our concern, at least if she’s lucky.” Juno’s lips cracked into the tiniest of smiles and she went to stand at ease next to her sister. Now that the mission was over they’d be picked up by the Furia that deployed them and they’d fly off to a safehouse to wait for the moon to reach its perigee. Its closest point to the body it orbited. Then they would return home.
Astoreth hung in the air silently for the hour it took for the shuttlecraft pokegirl to arrive and pick up her cargo. The infernal had been tailing the GunValkyrie that appeared to be the leader of the hunter-killer pair. She could have launched her attack from a distance but had been cautiously maneuvering closer to take out the living gun platform in melee. It was the surest way to achieve a kill while minimizing risk.
They had received their orders to disengage though, and Astoreth was at odds with herself of what to do. She wanted to kill them and she had a legitimate reason to do so. They were a danger to her friends and her man. She also hadn’t engaged a foe as formidable as two military trained GunValkyrie in decades, at least not in real combat. It was a delicious opportunity.
She decided to adopt the ethos of her prey. They were no longer her concern. At least if they were lucky.
(-[|]-) End 7.2 (-[|]-)