The Hopak was a traditional Ukrainian dance an individual from Isaac’s place and time may not recognize by name, but there was a good chance they knew of its most famous motions. It was a lively folk dance that originated among the Cossacks and traditionally involved the dancing men squatting down low to the ground and kicking their legs or hopping into the air with a shout. It was a social dance that came about in the 16th century from the region that held the city of Zaporizhzhia. It was very energetic and a horrible idea to attempt to learn after eating such a large and heavy meal. It still managed to be a fun event for Isaac, Jin, Neasa, and Oleksandra as they learned from Gabi.
After giving their best effort at jumping and kicking they resigned themselves to joining those that remained upright and paired off to take the hands of another dancer and spin and twirl while swinging their arms together. Either at random or according to cues in the music Isaac couldn’t identify, everyone would separate from their partners and join hands with a new person. Traditionally it would have been boys dancing with girls but the gender imbalances present in pokegirl society had seen this tradition discarded. Isaac of course was sought out by all of the pokegirls associated with him. Jin even threw off the entire local exchange of dance partners by returning to Isaac too soon multiple times. Somehow Isaac also wound up paired with Gabi but the boy who was a pokegirl just laughed it off and the two of them traded with a pair of girls after a couple of spins.
The next beat everyone traded partners saw Isaac get grabbed by an older girl. She could have been the perfect example of a Slavic maiden in her beautifully embroidered sarafan dress. The only quirk of her character was that her eyes were rich green and her hair, which was tied into a single long braid with tiny white field flowers interwoven, was vibrant red instead of blonde. “Cadet Markiyan,” she sang joyfully as they spun together. She laughed when Isaac responded with noises of confusion. “Here, maybe this will help.” She pulled the braid up away from her shoulder and pulled her hair back tighter. At the same time she scowled intensely.
“You’re from the disciplinarians,” Isaac said as he recognized the girl. “Uh, I’m Isaac.
“Cosmina Kravchevna. My Domina, Marharyta, was picking on your cute little Witch. I don’t think I actually apologized. I took on way too big of a load last trimester and Marharyta’s really sensitive and acts out when I’m stressed. Sorry she caused you trouble.”
“Oh, it wasn’t,” No, it kind of was a big deal or at least it could have been, “It all turned out alright.”
“Yeah, but that’s because you responded correctly. I was impressed. Are you here with anyone? Where’s your pokegirl?”
“Oh, they’re somewhere…” Isaac craned his neck as they danced to try to locate the two.
“They? You got another girl?”
“Yeah,” Isaac replied as he spotted Jin’s wispy black, high ponytail whipping through the air. “There’s Jin and my new girl, Oleksandra is,” Isaac scanned around some more. He couldn’t spot Oleksandra and her creamy orange rabbit ears should be easily visible above everyone else’s head. He finally spotted the bright fur and fiery red hair off towards the boundary of the clearing where all the dancing was taking place. Maybe he looked that way based on an impulse he felt from Chandrakanta, he wasn’t really paying attention to that.
Oleksandra was looking around fearfully, her ears pulled flat back against her scalp, and fighting against some man pulling on her hand to lead her further away. “‘EY!” Isaac shouted out the primal noise challenging the potential abductor as he broke free from his dance partner and made his way towards the Battle Angel.
Oleksandra wasn’t quite to the point of resisting with violence but she was taking on a sort of dangerous, wide-eyed expression that reminded Isaac of when she’d struggled with herself to open fire on the feral Ninsect she had obliterated. Having her vaporize a human would be catastrophic. He needed to get her attention and let her know he was coming to help at least. Her full name was too long to call out effectively. “Leksy!”
Her ears popped up and Oleksandra’s eyes and ears oriented towards his location. She tugged her hand free and bounded to the side of Isaac just as he broke through the last approximate ring of dancers. “The hell are you doing?!” Isaac asked the man that had just lost his hold on the Battle Angel. He was probably the right age to be in Isaac’s class, maybe a little older. The young man was built incredibly stocky and broad with a mean air about his character. His eyes were challenging in spite of the confrontation and he leaned aggressively in every direction he was moving.
“Oh, sorry. Is she your Bunnygirl? I thought she was lost so I was just taking her to the pokecenter-”
“There isn’t a pokecenter that way.” Cosmina had followed Isaac and was coldly staring at the transgressor with her arms folded tightly across her chest. She more resembled herself when Isaac had first encountered her.
“And she’s not a Bunnygirl. She’s a Battle Angel.” As he spoke Isaac’s eyes fell onto the pokedex in the young man’s other hand. In response to having it noticed he held it closer against his thigh to move it out of view.
“Oh, no way. I just assumed because of the rabbit ears… But now that you’ve pointed it out, my uncle owns a ranch and he’d pay you double the going rate for a-”
“No.” Isaac cut him off. Jin had spotted the commotion and made her way to back up Isaac which had in turn notified Neasa, Chandrakanta, Gabi, and Mandy. All four of them were on their way too and it was doubtless if things continued more and more attention would be drawn.
“Come on man, alright. You can keep partial ownership. Me and my uncle do the work and you get a piece of every ‘kit sale. A Battle Angel with novel features would make a fortune.”
“Not everything is for sale, Sewick!” Gabi spat venomously as soon as he was close enough. The brutish youth scowled at the newcomer.
“Oh, and how do you know I’m a Sewick, huh?”
“Because you’ve got the face, your mouth and forehead in particular.”
The young man the Vorona corps Titto accused of being aligned with the most profit driven of Sapphire’s ruling families spat. “Whatever, Wronski. We’re going to own this league eventually.” The crook retreated from the gathered opposition.
Gabi popped up on his toes to shout at the tamer’s back, “Okay Sewick! Your family’s only been saying that for three hundred years!” Gabi turned back to the two cadets and several pokegirls. “Ugh, Sewicks! So much for being left alone to enjoy ourselves!”
Isaac couldn’t disagree. He’d been functioning well enough submerged in the noise and motion while a part of the social dance but now it seemed foreboding. It was too difficult to pay attention to everything going on in such confusion and Isaac had received a fresh reminder of his general distrust of people. “Yeah, I think we’re going to head back to the tent. It was nice meeting you, Cosmina.”
Cosmina leaned in to quickly peck his cheeks with her lips. “It was nice meeting you, Isaac. You can always sneak out at night once the academy starts back up if you want to see me again. Maybe I’ll give you some special attention.” She winked at him and then danced back into the mob.
Isaac turned to Gabi, who was smiling at him in a weird way again. “Well Gabi, Mandy. Thanks for showing us around. Have fun with the rest of the day today.”
Gabi dramatically leaned his posture away from Isaac and tilted his head wildly. “What are you talking about? We’re not going to stay behind, we’re together. I don’t mind going back early, I'm too mad to dance already.”
“Oh, well,” Isaac slowly turned around in place to get his bearings. All of the dancing had shaken up his sense of direction too much.
“We came from that way,” Gabi pointed with a wide smile and then started to lead everyone back towards the correct fields. “So Isaac,” he started again once they were far enough away from the commotion of the celebration to speak normally. “We, the Vorona kits at the farms, that is, we’re rehearsing for a play tomorrow. It’s short but I was thinking it’d be cool if you brought Jin and Neasa and everyone to come see. It’ll be great, we’ve been practicing after dark for five weeks. It’s Vasilisa the Beautiful.”
The title of the story or play revealed nothing to Isaac but watching a play could be fun. “I mean, yeah I’ll come but why don’t you invite them?”
Gabi’s nearly persistent smile intensified in response to Isaac’s answer. “Yeah! I will.”
Isaac carefully peered through the crack in the doorway to Astoreth’s yurt. Astoreth and Elena were still inside together when the rest of their party arrived. Isaac or Chandrakanta were the two most reasonable choices to check on the occupants and the Megami told Isaac it should be him. Slender and graceful fingers shot out from the darkness and pulled him by the shirt collar deeper inside.
Elena’s naked flesh pressed him against the inner face of the door paneling and his breath was stolen away by her kiss. Both hands combed through the sides of his hair as she refused to part her lips from him. Finally when they were both turning a second unnatural shade she broke away to look down at him through savagely unmanaged bangs. There was a storm held in her eyes, one that Isaac would not be able to sail through without coming out the other side changed.
Elena leaned her forehead against Isaac’s and let just a little of the weight rest on the point of skin to skin contact. He leaned into it and she spoke with a voice as small as the distance between them. “Next time you do that to me, I won’t accept Astoreth offering herself up as a sacrifice.” She lifted her head, even more hair had fallen out of place. She meticulously parted the strands at the precise location as always and combed everything into its proper place. “And we will have to face any and all consequences of our indiscretion together.”
Isaac tried to show humility and confusion with the small apologetic smile he offered her. “Okay, but I still don’t really know what I did.”
Elena sighed from deep in her chest. “Astoreth sent you a sort of fantasy with her message that you copied, right? Her whispering into your ear, very intimately?”
Isaac affirmed her question. “Right.”
“You sent the same sort of mental image to me and Candi, but with you being the one whispering.” She was peering into his gaze searching for a sign of understanding. She could tell he was thinking about it but his assumptions were all wrong. He was asking himself, ‘did I startle her,’ or ‘did I offend her?’ She focused on the stimulation she was trying to lead him to understanding. Finally his eyes moved to the right part of her face and she consciously jigged her ears to the tiny extent she was capable.
“Oh, your ears.” Isaac always felt dumb when he missed something obvious.
“Yes,” Elena responded. “My ears. Now, I think Astoreth could use a pick me up, minor healing and an anti-exhaustion enchantment should do the trick.” Isaac looked to where the infernal was melting into a puddle of contentment on her colossal camping cot. She was shrunken down to her passive state.
Isaac put a hand on her mineral grey-blue skin and Astoreth smiled stupidly at him. “I hate losing, but with her, like this… it’s an exception.” Elena felt Isaac’s eyes on her back as she stepped into her ankle length skirt and she turned to smile at him as she pushed a lock of hair back behind her ear. Putting on her blouse let the clump of strands fall out of alignment.
The story of Vasilisa the Beautiful turned out to cover a lot of the same broad narrative steps as another fairy tale that Isaac did know, Cinderella. A young, beautiful girl whose father married a wicked woman with wicked daughters. All three new women in her life mistreated her while the father was away but the beautiful young girl gets by with supernatural aid. In the specific case of Vasilisa it was a magical doll given to her by her mother from the mother’s death bed. However, this was an unvarnished traditional fairy tale so Vasilisa had to face far more hardships than merely cruelty from others. She was sent to fetch a light from Baba Yaga, the infamous cannibalistic hag witch of Slavic myth. Vasilisa survives the ordeal though and her stepmother and stepsisters suffer a horrible and rather inexplicable fate, leaving them out of Vasilisa’s way to go on to marry a Tsarevich, a Russian prince.
What was most interesting to Isaac as he watched the full, uncostumed rehearsal was how the play incorporated controlled and non-combative uses of the techniques the old pokekits and young pokegirls were beginning to discover as they matured. The fiery death of Vasilisa’s wicked relatives was accomplished by having the role played by three pokegirls capable of using a low powered version of ignite, allowing the actresses to wreath themselves in actual flame without any harm. There was very little in the way of a set or props though, except for Gabi.
Gabi, it turned out, was actually a part of the stage crew as well as performers for this Vorona youth theater production. He turned himself into cartoonish, living versions of significant items throughout the story. He was a gate made from men’s leg bones and a hut on giant chicken legs and a bewitched flying mortar that served as Baba Yaga’s steed. He assumed simplified and abstracted forms representing these things and was able to give them the same enchanted life they had in the story through his shapeshifting. It worked much better, at least for Isaac particularly, than another element of the set design. Isaac had to be informed by the others that psychic illusions were also being practiced. His immunity to telepathic intrusion left him completely unaware. This was an unacceptable issue for Gabi and his fellows in the acting troupe, especially the Kitsune who had been creating the illusions.
“We didn’t even think about Dark types or blood traits! It’s not going to be the same experience if the audience can’t perceive my illusions! Gabi! What are we going to do?”
Gabi could only put his hands up and laugh in answer. “I don’t know, I’m the practical effects guy.”
Isaac was thinking. Illusion magic should have at least been primed in any girls capable of making use of it, at least based on his understanding of how the Vorona’s taught their own. “What about magic instead of psychic?”
The Kitsune focused on Isaac and then her eyes went up to something distant in the sky as she thought. “My understudy uses magic illusion and we had some others sign up that might be able to learn. It’ll be a lot to practice in just a couple of weeks though.”
“It’s not that big of a deal, I might be the only one it doesn’t work on.” The Kitsune looked like she still disagreed. Isaac admired the passion she was putting into her role at least.
“I’ll go let the director know and see what she thinks.” After the Kitsune sprang off and Gabi still had an audience he wanted to show them the costumes that were being worked on. The most impressive were the three for the white, red, and black riders, who were all going to be played by the same Dullburro. They used bright colors to contrast against the black backdrop that would be present on stage and black fabric to hide parts of the wearer that suggested her donkey traits.
“Cadet Markiyan, what brings you here? Missing academy already?” The voice was a woman’s except for a tinny, electronic timbre. Isaac’s ears were also suggesting the speaker was massive, even larger than Astoreth. It was unmistakably Sergeant Letitia the Mecha Musume before anyone even turned to look at the huge, transforming machine woman who’d been in charge of camp security for the spring trimester.
“Sergeant,” Isaac’s posture became more rigid out of habit. “Gabi was showing me the work on the costumes after we all watched the public rehearsal. Why are you here, Sergeant Letitia?”
“I direct the Vorona youth theater production every autumn. I have for eleven years now.” The Mecha Musume scanned all of the pokegirls accompanying Isaac. “Cadet… have you added to your harem recently?”
Isaac felt a psychic nudge from Elena. She was directing his attention towards Oleksandra and the sergeant from the Vorona corps. “Yes ma’am, but only Oleksandra here. The rest, we just traveled together.” Like a lot of other people, Sergeant Letitia didn’t seem convinced. “Although, there is something I was hoping to contact someone from the academy about. None of us really know anything about training a tech pokegirl.”
“Oh, that shouldn’t be a problem. A GunBunny, right?”
Isaac quickly corrected the incorrect assumption, but in a very quiet voice. “No, she’s a Battle Angel with the Battle template.”
“My gears and axles, a Battle template.” the Mecha Musume said under her breath. “I’m not sure if we have any tactical primers for the rarer templates but I can look once things are wrapped up here. Either way, as a pokegirl of mechanical persuasion myself I should be able to give her some pointers. I could work with you and her tomorrow if you don’t mind missing out on some of the festivities. Do you know where the pit is?”
Isaac felt the need to scratch his head, “The pit?” He wasn’t worried about not attending some of the celebration activities. He lacked the social fortitude to engage in all of them.
Gabi answered. “It’s a sinkhole that started opening up so they collapsed it with an earthquake technique a long time ago. Now we use it to dump garbage and practice techniques. I can show him where it is, Sergeant Titty.”
Tiny red lights like LEDs embedded like an array of freckles on Sergeant Letitia’s cheeks blinked once. “Cadet Markiyan, I would just like to make it clear now that my nickname among the theater crew is not to be used in any other context, understood?” Isaac nodded quickly.
(-[|]-) End 8.3 (-[|]-)
Everyone gathered at the pit the next day was focused on a point in the air about twice as high off the ground as Sergeant Letitia’s head. The data the sergeant had been able to scrounge up was very thin. It still offered more than the codex entry civilians could access on the Battle template so they were running through the list of what capabilities Oleksandra should be able to demonstrate. She summoned her armor without issue and the test of her capacity to engage her gravitational flight systems also proved fruitful. It was disengaging them where they encountered the first complication.
Oleksandra’s ears were the only part of her obeying the law of gravity. The Battle Battle Angel was staring longingly at the ground underneath her and stretching her legs to their absolute limit trying to bring feet into contact with the surface. She clawed at the air with her hands and even resorted to paddling like she was in the water for a few strokes. Nothing liberated her from her gentle and persistent hover and she slumped in defeat and looked to her tamer with a pitiful plea for guidance in her eyes.
Everyone, but it seemed Isaac and Oleksandra in particular, had a lot of learning to do before the harvest break ended.