The Pontic Steppe was home to some of the oldest human settlements in Europe, so like much of the rest of the continent it contained many old roads. The ancient Silk Road, the trade route from East Asia to the Mediterranean and other parts of Europe, ran through the region as did many routes of less monumentally historic relevance. Even after the upheaval during the dawn of pokegirls, many of the roads remained. The road the stagecoach bustled down was possibly one of these ancient roads. Or maybe it had been built after the war and destruction to reconnect the shattered civilization. Whatever its origin, it would take them to Dnipro and the greater celebration there.
Dnipro was further away than Zaporzhzhia as the Ravage flew but the difference was nearly equalized when traveling by road. Slov’Yanka also had closer community ties with Dnipro because the tiny village fell within the Dnipropetrovsk oblast, an administrative designation preserved from the time of the Soviet Union. So Dnipro was where farmers sent their excess grain and produce. If that’s where the crops went, that’s where the farmers went to celebrate.
The team of Ponytaur pulling the stagecoach were an autonomous team since the company owned pokegirls were capable of navigating the way themselves, so Astoreth had claimed the driver’s box for herself. Elena took a seat inside the carriage next to the window and was asleep leaning her head against the empty frame. Isaac was leaning into her and Oleksandra was leaning into him. Both of them were asleep as well. Jin had been willing to sacrifice the spot next to Isaac to lay down on the bench Chandrakanta occupied and rest in the Megami’s lap. Neasa was riding on top of the luggage rack watching the road roll away behind them.
Elena was far more used to operating without sleep and was well versed in the art of the power nap. She came awake after they pulled over to refresh the pulling team for the first time. Astoreth had ordered the fastest and smoothest pulling wagon available but they were still going to be riding throughout the rest of the day. The world had reclaimed its vastness with the downfall of the automobile.
Chandrakanta made eye contact with the Grandelf and her telepathic voice was projected into the auditory portion of Elena’s brain. “How did Oleksandra fair? You all seemed rather taken aback.”
“She interprets things very literally. I told her to hit the bug as hard as she could and she expended all of her energy in one shot. She was completely powerless afterwards, she wouldn’t have been able to fire her main cannon until after I healed her, and she even suffered some burns near the conduits in her armor. Her target popped.”
Elena felt and heard a dark and low chuckle in her mind. Astoreth was telepathically listening in as well. Chandrakanta was less amused. “Oh dear…”
“Yeah. I’m worried about how skittish she is with that kind of firepower. We need to train her out of thinking like a Bunnygirl before she’s going to be a useful fighter.”
Chandrakanta lifted a finger to tap her chin. “We’ve never trained a tech girl before. Do you know anything about what she’s capable of?”
“I don’t. Star?”
“I’m not familiar with the Zeromer or Battle template but in their entries both make comparisons to the GunValkyrie. They could have been more infamous than us, if they had kept their heads down better during the war.” ‘Us’ did not refer to the ‘big sisters’ of the group that congealed around Isaac. Astoreth was referencing her role during the war as part of the pokegirl shock and terror troops. “The league raises and trains GunValkyrie for the RRASF but we don’t want to involve the league. Do you know anyone in the Voronas, Elena?”
“Not personally, no. I’ll have to ask around but they do work very closely with the league. I’m not sure going to them would be much different in the long term.”
The two pokegirls in the cabin could hear the wood flexing as Astoreth shifted her weight outside. “We’ve already sent Isaac to the Voronas. Maybe she can be trained up through the academy.”
Elena stared out the window thoughtfully as she watched currents of air push the grass around like waves on the sea. “Isaac will need to inquire about that now that he’s recognized as an adult. I do believe they have advisers on staff if a cadet should acquire a novel breed though.”
Chandrkanta’s eyes completely vanished behind her smile. “Well, she is certainly novel. What about Neasa? She still seems hesitant.”
Elena shook her head gently enough to not disturb Isaac’s rest, so she didn’t need to push any hair back in place like usual. “That’s an understatement. She might be warming up to Isaac but if she doesn’t bite the bullet soon he’ll be off to school again and then who knows what she’ll decide. Samodiva did a lot of damage to her ability to trust anyone.”
“I think she’s healing faster than you’ve noticed. If it’s meant to happen it will happen.” The frame of the carriage groaned more. Elena thought she could see Astoreth, through the wall, turning to look at Chandrakanta. Probably with a look of incredulity. The timbers quietly complained again as the infernal sent a mental shrug across the telepathic conversation and turned to face forwards once more.
They rode in silence for a while after that, each of them withdrawing into her own internal matters. The sensation of hearing Chandrakanta’s voice entered into Elena’s and Astoreth’s attentions once again, accompanied by the suggestion of a gentle tap on their shoulder. “Oh, I was finally able to track down my contact in Sanctuary.”
“Did you get any information out of her?” Both recipients of the telepathic message had the same essential response.
“Not very much. She only told me why she refused to say anything regarding so-called ‘authors.’ One of them has been blamed for the destruction of the capital building and much of the surrounding city. Afterwards, what wasn’t destroyed was overrun by animated dead.”
Isaac came awake from the growing apprehension he felt across two thirds of the delta bonds he shared. Elena petted his hair after whispering an apologetic, “Sorry.”
“Animated dead? Zombabes?”
“Supposedly not, although that was all I could find besides deathly ghost types. Eyewitnesses who managed to flee claim there was some other sort of unknown, undead pokegirls attacking right after the capital was obliterated. The same author they blame for that attack also killed Jenova and sent her head to the council. This author appears to have died along with all of the council members during the attack.”
“Sanctuary’s High Council, Jenova, and Hild. That’s quite the pile of bodies.” Astoreth’s thoughts were loaded with grim amusement.
“And only what we’ve discovered so far. Candi, are we out of our league here?” Elena peered deeply into the eyes of the Megami so she could perceive through the veil. She didn’t expect her friend to lie but the matter demanded Elena focus to ascertain how confident Chandrakanta was with her answer.
“I do not know, Nell, but some of us assuredly are.” She dropped a hand down to brush a strand of hair that had become stuck to Jin’s lips away from her mouth.
“They can be stronger, each one of them. It’s our job to get them there safely.” There was a wordless sensation of agreement with Elena’s sentiment from the other two.
“What are you three talking about?” Isaac asked as he lifted himself up from leaning against Elena. Oleksandra’s head fell too far forward to stay balanced on his shoulder and so she slid down his front to sprawl across his thighs. “I can feel the back and forth.”
Chandrakanta and Elena quickly exchanged glances but Astoreth projected her mental voice to answer without consulting the others. “Candi had been investigating some events that could be related to you. Other humans from outside of the universe were supposedly active ten years ago with some abilities like yours. Things seem to have been quite exciting.” The last word was laced with dry humor.
Elena sighed and picked up to continue Astoreth’s thought. “So we were just starting to consider how we might help your pokegirls become stronger in case that excitement finds us.”
“Oh,” Isaac gently lifted Oleksandra’s shoulder and repositioned it so the bones weren’t jamming quite so firmly into his hip. “Well, you won’t have any trouble convincing Jin to train more if it’s magic and you’ve already explained to Oleksandra.”
“What about Neasa?”
“Neasa’s not my pokegirl.” Isaac’s thought was sent quickly but there was some internal conflict in the mental message. “She hasn’t said she wants to be, anyway.”
“Well, even if she’s not, we still might be able to get her to fight with us.” Chandrakanta reached under her seat and pulled out a small picnic basket. She hadn’t stowed one underneath there when they boarded. “Snacks,” she asked out loud?
Jin popped upright immediately. “Yes please.”
From Isaac’s lap Oleksandra’s nose twitched and she swung her body upright as well. “Food?”
Oleksandra pulled out a number of meat and vegetable stuffed pastry rolls. “One or two,” she asked the eagerly watching Battle Battle Angel.
“Two is more.” Oleksandra took one dumpling in each hand and blissfully alternated taking a bite from one and then the other.
Jin helped herself and Elena and Isaac both asked for one. The Megami fished out three more and twisted to offer two out of the front window. A large blue woman’s hand took them and Astoreth’s voice muttered a thanks. “Isaac, could you give this one to Neasa? I can’t reach from here.” Chandrakanta had the sort of polite and considerate affect that it felt unreasonable not to respond in kind.
It was more of a reach to try to get the food item to the Elf riding on the roof. For one thing, both participants in the exchange had much shorter arms than the two tallest passengers. So Isaac was having to lean precariously and Elena was keeping her hand on Isaac out of concern for his balance. The front wheel under the side of the wagon Isaac was half hanging out of hit a stone and since the stone couldn’t be pushed much further into the ground the wagon had to be pushed up to resolve the exchange of forces. So the wagon bucked upwards and Isaac was thrown towards the carriage. He fought against the motion just in time for the wheel to drop and the wagon rocked the opposite direction. Isaac’s attempts to stay on board now acted to throw him further.
Isaac’s conscious mind receded and he acted on primal instinct. The spike in adrenaline set his senses into overdrive and he got to watch the compressed dirt top of the road rising to meet his face in slow motion. All he could do was throw his arms in front of him and hope.
Astoreth vaulted from the driver’s box, compressing the front suspension of the wagon to its limits. The violent motion couldn’t be ignored by the team of Ponytaur and the leader signaled for them to stop and pull off to the side of the road. Everyone poured out of the wagon to go to where Isaac had hit the ground. Isaac and one other.
Neasa was underneath Isaac and cradling his head in her arms. She’d cushioned his fall after leaping from on top of the carriage to catch him. Astoreth was kneeling next to them and was checking the two for injuries while warring against a curious grin invading her face. She focused on Chandrakanta and Elena and sent a simple telepathic phrase. “If it’s meant to happen, it will happen? Megami…”
Chandrakanta made her defense against the unspoken accusation with a desperate and whining tone. “What? No, I didn’t- Star I didn’t do this or I didn’t mean to- I don’t manipulate people!”
Astoreth discreetly placed a standard league credit banknote in the palm of the Ponytaur team leader as the two shook hands before the conclusion of their business would see them parted. Isaac couldn’t tell what the monetary value of the bill minted in the Sapphire League was, but the enthusiasm with which the centaur pokegirl trotted back to the wagon made him suspect the gratuity had been a generous one.
They’d reached the outskirts of Dnipro where all of the fields that had been cut bare during harvest were opened up for guests to the celebration. The sun had dipped below the horizon but some of its rays were still casting the landscape into waning, fiery twilight. Bundles of straw tied with warmly dyed ribbons were set along the boundaries of the fields. Baskets of fruits and vegetables were placed at the base of each sheaf. This particular celebration traced its origins back to a holiday that was known as Dozhinki in Ukraine but went by many names throughout the parts of Europe that were home to ethnically Slavic people. Its pagan roots were mostly forgotten and even the Christianized elements weren’t practiced as much, but it was still a part of the culture of the land. It was a time to celebrate the bounty of the harvest and a time for wealthy landowners to honor field workers and their families.
They were all going to sleep in Astoreth’s yurt to save space since there were already a great number of tents clustered here and there. Jin and Oleksandra were inside tying up the cover with Elena and Chandrakanta while Astoreth was heating a pot of stew that had been prepared ahead of time. They had brought a privacy screen for Neasa to put up between her bedroll and where the rest of them would be sleeping since she seemed to prefer solitude. Isaac made his way over to where the Elf was squatting on her haunches and watching all of the human activity with a much greater sense of calm than Isaac would have expected. With how many people were around he would have thought Neasa would be consumed by her distrust. The Elf stood up and eyed him warily as he approached.
Isaac was going to let Neasa know that things were ready for her to set up where she’d be sleeping, and he also wanted to express one other thing. “Hey, thanks for breaking my fall earlier. I wasn’t expecting you to-”
“I did it for Elena,” Neasa blurted out in a rush. “But… you’re welcome. Even if your head is really hard. And heavy.”
She wasn’t the first person to make that observation. “Well, the yurts all set up if you want to pick out a spot to sleep.”
Neasa looked towards the tent briefly but shrugged and her attention drifted back to the grid of fields that stretched out over the plains. “I don’t really care where, just away from the door is fine.” The diminutive plant type was uncharacteristically pensive but Isaac didn’t think she’d provide an answer if he asked her. He was surprised when she offered up an explanation on her own accord. “It’s funny that I’m here again this year…”
“The farmlands. This is where Queen Vershnyk came from, before the league abandoned her in the wilderness. She loved these fields, these people. And they loved her. If she was still alive we’d be out in the woods over there,” she gestured to distant trees, “waiting for everyone to be sleeping so we could collect the offerings they left. Silly little trinkets but she was always so happy…”
“What will happen now that she’s gone?”
“Samodiva was still sending Elves out to aid the farmers. She was trying to avoid the attention of the leagues, so that meant maintaining the charade. Now that I’ve ruined her secret… I don’t know.” She took two tentative steps towards the field across the little farm road that divided them all. “I want to go for a walk. Clear my head.”
Isaac unclipped his pokedex device from his belt and handed it to her. She didn’t accept it right away and instead stared at it like it was a distasteful mass he was trying to trick her into taking. “Here, take this with you.”
“It will make people think you have a tamer, so they’ll be more likely to leave you alone. Tamers will have their pokegirls carry their ‘dex when doing errands.”
Neasa was skeptical but if the small machine would act as a charm against unwanted human attention she wouldn’t refuse it. She kept her back straight and eyes forward as she walked, hiding her apprehension so she wouldn’t seem like prey. She wanted to visit the shrines.
The first circular clearing she reached was more laden with gifts than she could ever remember witnessing. Every branch that could be reached from the ground was decorated with a ribbon or wreath. Every stone was covered with offerings of sweet cakes or wine and beer. There were pieces of paper with human writing on them. Neasa stared at the symbols and sounded them out in her head. She’d picked up knowledge of the Cyrilic alphabet from her mother’s huntresses.
Two words were repeated over and over. ‘Queen Vershnyk.’ In memory of Queen Vershnyk. Thank you Queen Vershnyk. Rest in Peace Queen Vershnyk. It was a memorial. For the late queen. For Neasa’s mother. Neasa continued wandering in amazement. When she reached the next shrine it was the same thing. And the next one, and the next one.
The fifth shrine Neasa visited held more than gifts and memorials. There were two figures, a pokegirl and a young man. He was probably younger than Isaac. He was dressed like a farmer, wearing plain and sturdy clothes sewn from hand woven cloth. His hair was dusty blonde and Neasa couldn’t see what color his eyes were from where she stood. The pokegirl was an Oddtits with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders. Neasa was going to avoid this shrine because it was already occupied but the Oddtits spotted the Elf and notified the human she was guarding.
The young man stared at her in wonder for a moment and then scowled. “If you’re here for the new Elfqueen, I’ll have Mandy run you off. She’s not getting anything we’ve left out for Queen Vershnyk, I’m making sure of it.” The boy’s voice was tense, cracking. As if he’d been fighting back tears.
Neasa put her hands up. “I’m not. I’m… here with a tamer. I just… I just wanted to see these one more time.”
The young man’s anger subsided and then all of a sudden his eyes sparked with wonder. “You are from the court though!”
Neasa nearly sprinted back towards the camp with Isaac from the sudden enthusiasm. “I- Yes. I escaped after Samodiva took over but I used to come out here every year with the late queen.”
The boy jumped up from the stone he’d been hunched on top of and bounced up to grab Neasa’s hands. “What was she like? Did she ever talk about us? I always wanted to meet you.”
“Me?!” Neasa tugged her hands free and warred with her urge to flee more.
“Well, no, not you specifically but just, one of the Elves. More than anything, I wanted to say thanks.”
“I don’t understand.” Neasa staggered half a step away.
The Oddtits came up to the boy and put a hand on his shoulder. “Master, she is shy.”
The boy looked back and forth and then burst out laughing. “Oh, sorry sorry. I get a little too excited. I grew up here, my family owns a lot of farmland in the area. Everyone knows the story of Queen Vershnyk a little, how she was abandoned by the Kamianske settlers and yet she still fought to protect her home. Then she came back here to help with the fields. She just seemed so nice.”
Neasa walked over to a graphite portrait drawing. The paper was tattered and stained and the marks smudged but it was still recognizable as Neasa’s late mother. “She was. She was very kind… What else? What was she like?” Neasa stared up at the brightest stars that were starting to shine in the deep blue twilight sky. “She would talk about the farms and the farmers. She was happy when she lived here. She dreamed about coexisting peacefully with the humans. ‘Everything would be so much better if we all worked to help one another,’ that’s what she was always saying.
“Well,” Neasa’s mouth lifted in a smile in spite of the weight of the pain. “That’s what she said to everyone. ‘I can’t believe my daughter is such a wild child,’ that’s what she was always saying to me.”
The boy gasped loudly. “You’re an Elf princess?!”
Neasa jumped and bristled and was about to explain how her mother never established any noble ranks but she stopped herself. “I guess I was sort of a princess,” she admitted with a small chuckle. “Not anymore. Now I’m just Neasa, even if I don’t know what that means…”
The boy laughed again. “Haha, I don’t know what being Gabi means either. That’s me,” he touched his chest as he spoke. “I’m Gabi. Hey, what if we met up for the festival tomorrow? I want to show you everything, your tamer too!”
“He’s not my tamer.” Neasa muttered darkly.
“Oh.” Gabi paused and looked to the Oddtits beside him. “Well, this is Mandy and I’m not really her tamer either, but that’s a long story. But what do you say?”
Neasa studied the pair of faces for an uncomfortably long time. She couldn’t detect any sign that she was being deceived and either Gabi was an incredibly honest person or a deviously competent liar. “Y-yeah. Yeah I think I’d like that. I’d rather spend time with a farmer than a tamer.”
Gabi burst out laughing again. “Tell me about it. Tamers are the worst. They’re always causing so much trouble around here. One year when I was eleven we had one of them chase a Catgirl onto our property and his Charmanda caught our grain silo on fire! We nearly lost everything!”
“They set the forest on fire all the time too! They never pay attention to anything!” Neasa and Gabi sat down on nearby boulders to exchange their grievances with the Sapphire League’s lowest caste well beyond the full descent of darkness. Finally Neasa rose when her hand bumped against the compact machine Isaac had lent her. “Well, I should get back. I don’t want the idiot I’m traveling with to worry. That would be annoying.”
“Neasa, wait.” Gabi reached deep into a pocket and fished out a small shiny chain. He let it dangle from his hand to display the small leaf shaped charm on the end. It was made out of viridified bronze, giving it a blue-green hue instead of the coppery-tan of the unoxidized metal. “Before we heard the news about Queen Vershnyk… We already bought this to leave for her this year. Do you… do you think she would have liked it?”
Neasa stretched out her hand to take the humble necklace. Her mother appreciated all of the gifts of jewelry that were left the most. She had a tree growing in the middle of her court that she would drape all of the chains and charms from when she wasn’t wearing them. “She would have loved this, Gabi.” She offered it back but the boy put up his hands in rejection.
“You keep it. I don’t need a necklace and she was your mother.” Neasa didn’t think she needed a necklace either but something about this encounter had moved her deeply even if she didn’t understand how and the little bronze charm somehow was beginning to embody the experience in her mind.
Neasa tied the little bronze chain into the knot holding her quiver. “Thank you. Gabi…”
(-[|]-) End 8.1 (-[|]-)