Astoreth had finally gotten her wish. It’d been a frozen mass of angst surfacing in his dreamscape. A cold, flat, and hateful concrete slab with a crown of welded metal, thumping speakers, and blinding lights. It had drawn him in with its dazzling display and upbeat rhythm and dancing masses. He could belong in there, the delusion had informed him. There were so many people, he could finally disappear and not be singled out. He could enjoy the music and dance.
But when he stood at the opening to the beast’s gullet he could see the lie. There was no love and unity within the maw, only the same clusters and cliques as before; condensed and even more self-deluded. The crowds twisted and loomed, the dancers transforming into ghouls and wraiths more and more with every bump and jostle as Isaac continued lying to himself that he could be a part of this. This was a dangerous place to be, surrounded by unthinking souls surrendering themselves to the mob.
Such a simple lie could never hold such complex creatures as humans together in cohesion. At least according to Isaac’s worldview, the ape who believed himself harmless was the most dangerous ape of them all. It was a miserable and lonely world view but Isaac refused to allow himself to be hurt believing in that childish dream again. In the inherent goodness of man and that all evil was a foreign influence that could be eradicated if only power was applied against the right people.
His thoughts were becoming so much nastier since the night of the attack, particularly when Isaac was confronted with concentrated masses of people.
Muster had been delayed by up-to an hour for the beginning of the third trimester of the 2358 cohort. The Sapphire League refused the use of the After Sukebe calendar. They’d been overrun by pokegirl warlords when the Planetary League Council issued that particular proclamation. Subtracting two thousand and two from the AD year wasn’t that difficult of a conversion when they had to deal with outsiders anyway.
Isaac was pleased on a level he didn’t really understand that they still used the AD label for the time period. He remembered historians shying away from the two little letters in favor of the ‘common era.’ If one wanted to have the reckoning of time acknowledged as something else then maybe the historians of Isaac’s time should have put in the work to make a more accurate calendar, like the Romans did when they declared year zero to belong to their Lord.
Isaac jumped and his third eye flared dangerously when he heard Ostap shout, “Vardan you bastard!” It’d be foolish to leave when Lieutenant Sobolvich was expected to arrive as soon as she was released from debriefing. So the cadets were doing the only thing they could to pass the time, mingle. “You really sent Pa six Iliescu Elves over break?” The Iliescu family was one of the most overlooked ruling families in the Sapphire League. No one noticed where their food came from until there wasn’t any left at the markets. “The hell gives you the right?!”
“I said I’d buy you a belt of Elves so I bought you a belt of Elves.” The older cadet kept his voice even and his expression neutral. He stated his reasoning matter-of-factly. “You made your father seem rather desperate for more hands, was he as upset as you are?”
Isaac could hear Ostap’s teeth grinding. “No, Pa was thrilled to sell the Elves I got him-”
“YOU SOLD MY-?!” Ivka swept the legs out from the tiny shrieking Elf who had suddenly adopted a fighting posture while focused on Ivka’s master. As the plant type fell the Amazon snatched Neasa’s bow in her grip and snapped the arms in two with a wooden crunch. The ruined weapon was tossed over the Elf’s back as Ivka fluidly finished her takedown to pin Neasa to the ground. The scrawny and wild sylvan pokegirl whipped out a grass blade and contorted herself enough to drive it through the Amazon’s thigh and then the little savage was literally climbing the fighting type’s body to get a better position to attack.
Neasa was plucked to thrash and dangle in the air as she was held by Oleksandra’s armored and outstretched arms, the Elf hissing and spitting and still searching for Ivka with her weaponized shoot of grass. Ivka was stopped from charging by Ostap. Reacting to the sudden bedlam was Isaac and Ostap, the two tamers, as well as Vardan who was habituated towards managing his younger friends, and multiple sergeants who descended swiftly to reestablish order.
A familiar, commanding woman’s voice thundered over the small bedlam. “THERE IS TO BE NO POKEGIRL COMBAT ON THE MUSTER GROUNDS, CADETS!” Lieutenant Sobolvich stalked forward. Her uniform was uncharacteristically less than perfect, mostly on account of the Vorona Corps Nurse Joy who was still fussing with the Mongoosed’s arm in a sling. “Forgive my state of dress, but debriefing wasn’t long enough for Sergeant Rapha to finish her work and a healing cycle would only cause further delay. Markiyan, Borisov, two weeks remedial courses. Now get your girls and any bleeding under control and form up!”
Neasa lingered over her ruined composite bow and locked her entire body up tight to deny the tears. Ivka glanced once over her shoulder, casting a remorseful look towards the aggrieved Elf.
“That’s thirteen fewer pushups than your first visit with us, Markiyan. Too many pancakes at Dnipro?” Cosmina’s green eyes glittered with amusement as she squatted next to the exhausted freshman cadet. “I’m sure it has nothing to do with you shooting up like a bean pole over just a month and a half. That must have been one painful growth spurt.”
“Yeah… It was something.” Isaac said before rising to his feet and getting a drink of water. He knew what was expected and since he’d exhausted his arms doing push ups now it was back to jogging to exhaust the legs. There weren’t too many cadets sentenced to remedial courses because there just shouldn’t have been that much trouble to get into on the first day.
“I love your eye though, the red contrast against your two blues…” There was something strange about the way she had spoken about his eyes, particularly the dreamy way she stretched out the sounds in the name of the colors. Cosmina started to jog alongside him. Since Isaac was accepting of his punishment there wasn’t much of a reason for hard domination tactics, so using her prerogative as the lead disciplinarian Cosmina had decided to talk with Isaac about his troubled and troublesome girls. “So how come you went through two-thirds of the year without adding a single girl to your harem only to come back with two additions? Everyone knows that’s a recipe for trouble even with good little ranch girls.”
“They were in more trouble.” Isaac answered matter of factly. It was a rare, totally natural comment that he made without any of his usual reiterative thinking.
Cosmina made a strange noise with her breath. Isaac had no idea what it could have meant. “Well, Neasa looks incredibly cute with that collar. The craftsmanship is excellent as well.” She had asked for a collar that was pretty so when Chandrakanta put Isaac into contact with a leatherworker from the Mountain League he’d collaborated to come up with something minimal in design while still evoking the forest with its shapes and colors. A leaf shaped buckle and earthen dye. The female senior cadet pressed her lips together and then licked them while issuing a small moan. “I would love to play with her. Maybe I could teach you to, she could react well to some control.”
Isaac wasn’t sure about that. She’d looked ready to fight him when he was buckling the band of leather in place. He also wasn’t sure he liked Cosmina thinking of doing whatever it was to the Elf. His Elf. Otherwise he wouldn’t be held responsible for her outbursts. “Or she could react horribly. I don’t think she’d enjoy it.”
“You’d be surprised what pokegirls enjoy, but the tricky thing is you really need to pay attention while exploring. She’ll tell you if she likes it or not without saying anything and once you start speaking that language is when the fun really starts.”
Isaac was feeling uncomfortable with the topic and for once his typical canned phrase he used as an eject button was perfectly valid. “I don’t know.”
Cosmina smiled. “Well, if you do decide you want to play with her and want some more advice let me know. I love teaching people the game.” She slapped him on the back playfully. “Keep it up Markiyan, only two more hours to go!”
Neasa shoved the stew around in her tin dish. It was from the camp mess. Something about it tasted wrong. Like everything that was in it was dead many times over. There was also an out of place flavor, someone had added some harsh plant extract or other chemical in the tiniest amount. She wanted to hunt and forage but these humans and indentured pokegirls stayed far too busy with their training. That sort of method could never feed this great of a concentration of people.
Not that she could hunt well without her bow.
Neasa swept her gaze around the other camps for the Amazon that did it. Destroyed her weapon. Left her helpless. It ate at the Elf because she knew it was her fault, her mistake that caused the destruction. She’d have reacted the same way to protect Isaac. She fought with the muscles in her face as she examined that thought so she returned to the previous one. The warrior girl. Where was she?
There she was. A little tall, brown head of hair and eyes, the same sort of physique as Neasa but longer and taller. She was stronger too, faster as well. Her breed just naturally knew how to fight. Neasa glared at the foe who had robbed her of her precious bow. Why not take her arm? That at least could be healed with the humans’ machines. Her bow was a work of art, the art of steppes warfare.
Neasa’s hatred grew when she recognized what that Amazon was carrying. It was a bow. A composite recurve bow just like the one she’d robbed Neasa of. Was she coming over to gloat?
Neasa started to panic and fought not to scramble away when the Amazon belonging to Ostap, the aggressive farm boy, made it clear that she was coming over towards the Elf. The only thing stopping her was the Amazon’s expression. Ivka’s face was… sad. She made direct eye contact with Neasa and showed that she was sad. So Neasa let herself be approached to see what the fighting type pokegirl was up to.
The Amazon made a tiny bow. “Master Ostap says your name is Neasa?” Neasa nodded. “He named me Ivka. He wanted me to give you this.” She held the unstrung bow in its envelope towards the Elf. “I do better with ki blasts anyway and he says you are a warrior like me. I shouldn’t have done that to your bow. If I was back in the tribe I would have to serve you for one season for destroying it when I could have kept hold of it and given it back when you were calm. I’m sorry.”
Neasa reached out to take the offered weapon. It was a little longer in the arms than what hers had been, and the wood was thicker. Stronger. The draw weight was obviously much more than what hers had been. That made sense, Ivka was a stronger pokegirl. It didn’t seem too strong though. Neasa delicately liberated the bow from the cloth wrapping and experimentally strung it. It was difficult, but not impossible.
Ivka smiled. “I knew you were strong for an Elf. Would you like to spar with me? I think we could learn a lot from each other.”
Neasa found a bundle of six arrows in the cloth as well. The shafts were thicker than hers had been, they would have needed to be to withstand the greater force of the bow flexing back to form when she fired. She would need to dismantle her old arrows and make new shafts. Still, these six were whole, straight, and properly fletched. Finally Neasa focused on the face of the Amazon. It was starting to fill with a little apprehension with her attempt to make amends hanging so long. “I think we could too…”
Ivka grinned and bounced on her heels a bit at Neasa’s answer. “That’s great. Awesome. Oh, Master Ostap, he also said he feels bad about his father selling your retainers but the neighbors they were sold to own an orchard and Master Ostap says they were always kinder to their pokegirls than his father is. He’s not very good at teaching so the Iliescu Elves already knowing how to work on a human farm worked much better. Master Ostap’s father, that is.” She frowned a little. “I wish I could do more on the farm. I can’t grow things. I’m only good at fighting.”
“I wish I was better at fighting. What good is growing things if you can’t protect them?” Ivka looked thoughtful in response to Neasa’s question, then the Amazon laughed.
“I guess we pokegirls are never happy with the powers we’re born with. Maybe you can teach me to grow plants and I can teach you some of my tribe’s fighting arts.” Ivka was becoming happier and happier as the conversation went on and it was having an impact on Neasa as well. It was nice to make someone else happy.
“I guess so.”
Isaac was working with Neasa and Jin moving camp supplies while Oleksandra was nearby assisting a G-Pointdexter with another crate. They were not working very well together, both seemed to have their own idea of how things should be done and neither was yielding to the other’s methods. Oleksandra wasn’t projecting her voice so Isaac wasn’t picking out the specifics, just that it was as wordy as was typical. The G-Pointdexter reacted poorly. Something about Oleksandra being so smart while dropping her half of the crate and aggressively moving towards the Battle Battle Angel.
“Your behavior indicates impending hostility.” The G-Pointdexter froze as she found herself facing a fully armored Oleksandra with her right tri-barrel leveled at center mass and already spun up.
“LEKSYA NO!” Isaac dropped what he was doing and sprinted faster than he ever could have willed himself to if there wasn’t any real danger. The tri-barrel shifted to the side under her wrist and snapped up to point in the air.
Metal plated rabbit ears oriented in Isaac’s direction. “She demonstrated an unacceptable level of aggression. I neutralized her aggression. This is the same process used by the sergeants.”
“You’re not a sergeant and you don’t respond to yelling with threat of lethal force. She’s an unarmed G-Pointdexter, she couldn’t do anything to you anyway.” Isaac ignored the indignant reaction of the pokegirl in question.
“I failed to conduct a proper risk assessment.” Oleksandra’s ears fell to the sides as her armor collapsed back to wherever it went on or in her body. “My behavior was inappropriate.”
This was the point where Isaac was least sure of how to handle things. Where did one go from the point of realizing they made a mistake and admitting it? “We’re all still learning, Leksya. From now on, if you do feel threatened by a girl belonging to one of the other cadets, bring out your melee weapon instead if she’s not likely to cause serious harm.”
A mechanical gauntlet appeared over Oleksandra’s right hand and forearm and the haft of her close quarters implement shot from her palm. It resembled a larger, meaner version of Elena’s tenderizing mallet once formed. “Understood.”
“Leksya, you’re not being threatened right now, are you?”
The weapon and armor vanished. “...Understood.”
Isaac sighed once his attention left his pokegirl and moved on to the reactions of all of the onlooking sergeants and cadets. Oleksandra had just revealed that, on top of possessing novel physical features in the form of her bunny tail and ears, she also possessed a template valued more than all of Elena’s property total. Her Battle template didn’t scan unless some of her armor systems were manifested but the secret was out now.
“So that’s why she’s such a brainy bunny…” Cosmina was hovering nearby with her arms crossed. Based on her general affect she seemed to be defrosting. “Isaac, bring Leksya,” Isaac and Oleksandra both made a face. There was something presumptuous about the young woman using the diminutive version. “Let’s go have a chat.” The disciplinarian team had a few tents set up where they could dress down cadets and their pokegirls in private. Once inside Cosmina began just that. “This is the second incident involving your Battle Angel, well, Battle Battle Angel,” Isaac barely caught the flicker of amusement that violated the senior cadet’s otherwise stone cold expression, “in only three days of the trimester starting. Both Fedot’s G-Point today and Eduard’s Harpy. Granted, it was the other girl aggressing both times but I have to wonder now if Leksya’s antagonizing them somehow.”
“Her name’s Oleksandra.” Cosmina’s expression flickered and she mouthed a silent vowel sound at Isaac’s correction. “And she’s not trying to pick a fight. They just assume she is for some reason.”
Cosmina’s attention turned towards the Battle Angel. “What did you say to Flaviya that made her angry?”
“She was failing to balance the load properly. I was suggesting that if she widen the space between her hands and straighten her back more then she-”
Cosmina pinched the bridge of her nose. “Okay, that’s enough. I know exactly why she got angry. Flaviya’s caused some trouble before because she’s sensitive about pokegirls picking on her for the way she used to talk, which is a lot like the way you speak. She probably assumed you were doing the same.”
Oleksandra’s ears fell down so they were just barely standing above the plain that ran through her head. “I only desire to avoid conflict arising from communication errors. I have observed that providing insufficient context is the root cause of over seventy percent of the disputes between Jin and Neasa.”
Cosmina pinched the bridge of her nose harder and sighed. “And now I know why Mathilde got angry as well. Eduard doesn’t stop his alpha from picking on her by talking circles around the poor girl. She’s only been tamed for a few weeks and doesn’t have the vocabulary necessary to not get tricked by word games. Again, she probably assumed you were doing the same thing...”
Oleksandra’s ears lost more and more standing strength and fell all the way to their lowest position by the time she finished speaking. “Insufficient communication results in errors. Excessive communication results in errors. A viable middle ground requires further social experimentation to discover but the compounding errors indicate it may be advisable to avoid contact outside of Isaac’s harem instead…”
Cosmina dropped her stern posture and came over to put a reassuring hand on Oleksandra’s shoulder. “Hey, you don’t have to do that. Isaac can bring you over to chat with my girls. Marharyta will behave and Nerses and Sona never cause trouble. Vardan, Symon, and Ostap all have good girls who would help you out too. Right Isaac?”
Isaac was amazed by how good Cosmina was with people. His imagination was captivated by the image of her caring for a child the same way. It was a fleeting, beautiful, abstract vision. She caught his stare and quirked an eyebrow inquisitively. “Oh, yeah, that’s a great idea.”
Oleksandra’s ears came back up to a neutral position. “Agreed. Your proposal is ideal.”
Jin’s eyes narrowed towards Neasa’s outstretched grass blade. The Witch hadn’t been doing anything different which meant to her she hadn’t done anything wrong, and yet Neasa, a Catgirl with her tail in a twist, brandished her claws at her? Jin reached up to pull out her ponytail before gathering the hair up again and putting it into a top knot. “Isaac!” She shouted loudly, “I need your knife!”
Isaac did not offer the requested tool. “Why do you need a knife Jin?” Isaac knew why Jin wanted the knife.
“She drew her blade, she challenged me. Knife fight, first blood, one round.”
Isaac wanted to put a stop to this, Jin wasn’t living with all of Astoreth’s underage infernal rescues anymore but Neasa answered the challenge first. “You’re on.” Isaac sighed. If he forbade them now the sparks would just keep flying until they found the next opportunity to snap and snarl.
There was only one thing to do now, and that was make sure this fight at least played out properly. “Senior disciplinarian cadet Kravchevna,” Cosmina’s face glowed with vain satisfaction upon hearing Isaac defer to her with her full title. “Requesting use of one of the combat fields for conflict resolution and oversight for the same reason.”
“Request granted,” the older cadet purred. “Combat field seven.” Neasa shot a venomous stare at Jin before the Elf dashed to the indicated field.
Isaac was very confident Jin hadn’t thought this through, so he went to ask a pertinent question. “Jin, you know she has a huge advantage right?”
“No way, I’m just as quick as she is.”
“Yes, you both have the same speed and agility but she’s twice as strong as you are and has much better senses. Plus I’m sure she’s been in way more fights than you. She did survive out in the wild for two weeks while protecting two other Elves who were becoming feral.”
Jin made a choking sound and she looked up at Isaac with panic in her eyes. Then a spark in them ignited as she discovered a solution. “Cast a strength enchantment on me!”
Isaac might be able to do that, he had the theoretical knowledge now but he hadn’t practiced and none of his enchants lasted long enough to be practical in the field. “I’m not playing favorites Jin and that would be playing favorites.” Jin clenched her teeth and whined aggressively. “In fact, I’m restricting you to meditative state casting only.”
“No, no Isaac. You started this-”
“She pulled a knife on me!”
Isaac sighed, Jin was right but maybe also wrong. Isaac couldn't tell, as usual. “She asked you to stop three times and moved to avoid you. You escalated things to a fight and she won’t be using her bow. You don’t get to fight at full force either. Besides, you could look up a strength enchantment and use it on yourself. You learn everything faster than I do.”
“Isaac! I just listen to you explain things back to Elena and take all of your diagrams from the scratch paper bin!”
‘So that’s how…’ Isaac thought to himself. “Too late to admit that now,” he said as he offered the Witch his survival knife. Jin made a sound that started as the infantile cry of ‘muh’ or ‘ma’ but turned it into an enraged growl before she stomped to her starting point on the field.
With both combatants situated, Cosmina turned to Nerses, her Dominatrix and alpha. “Officiate.”
“Yes, mistress.” A bullwhip lashed through the air and made a supersonic crack. Everyone within earshot jumped in response to the sound whether they were paying attention to the unfolding spectacle or not. “Elf, are you ready?” Neasa nodded, never taking her eyes off of Jin. “Witch, are you ready?” Jin nodded, never taking her eyes off of Neasa. “You may begin on the crack of my whip.”
Isaac could see the anticipation in the muscles of both of his pokegirls as Nerses’ whip snaked through the air like a ribbon. Both pokegirls were watching the Dominatrix out of the corners of their eyes and both recognized the sudden jerk of her arm that would produce the next loud *CRACK!*
Neasa lunged first, her one disadvantage was reach so she targeted the fingers holding Jin’s blade. Jin pulled her hand back but dropped her guard in doing so. Neasa darted into the opening and swung again, Jin barely having enough time to jump away. The Elf stayed in close and pushed Jin back with unyielding aggression. Jin was kept on her back foot trying to avoid Neasa’s blade while also trying to angle hers in to strike. Attempting to take advantage of her greater strength Neasa reached with her offhand to grab while twisting her otherside away from Jin’s wilder swing. The Elf failed to catch a hold of the Witch but she did get Jin’s shirt. That was enough to pull her in for a winning strike.
Jin’s mind raced. She didn’t have any combat spells she could use at meditative state, the most she could pull off was a low powered, spell version of ignite without mastering how to shield herself from the flames. The hem of her shirt caught the small of her back and she felt her body being pulled towards Neasa’s grass blade, which was coming right for her. Jin hadn’t corrected the momentum of the swing that left her open to begin with and she wouldn’t have enough time to bring her knife around to fend off the coming cut. So she used the ignite spell.
Jin dropped her shoulder and twisted free of the suddenly burning cotton threads. Neasa’s eyes went wide and her focus left her opponent to stare at the flames licking the rag she had in her hand before releasing it reflexively. A flash of steel and line of red. Jin scored a cut on Neasa’s outstretched hand.
A fence wall of Rune Chains shot between the two combatants, originating from Nerses. “First blood, the match is over. The Witch wins.”
Isaac jogged out onto the field as the Rune Chains crumbled into ether. Jin had some minor burns while Neasa had those and a cut. He started with the Elf. “I lost,” she said as she glowered.
“This time,” Isaac responded. “Jin surprised you but that’s the only spell she can use at a meditative level right now. Next time you two fight, you can use razor leaf.”
“Why did you tell her that?!” Jin protested. “I just proved I’m better!”
“Elena has been working on trying to teach you the right way to project your spells for months now. She asked me to try to get you to learn properly but I didn’t have any luck either. So we asked Astoreth what to do.” Jin made a sound like she had been stabbed in the gut with the knife she was still holding, but she accepted the wound with reluctant grace. Jin knew what Astoreth’s method for correcting bad habits was. She would secretly coach Jin’s sparring opponents on how to exploit them before their next match.
At least Isaac let her go into the next fight forewarned.
Neasa’s breaths were short and shallow and she twitched away from Isaac’s touch every time his hands came into contact with her bare skin. They’d made it through the two weeks of remedial fitness courses she’d earned them and the whip bitch, Cosmina, had managed to convince them to give what she called ‘the game’ a try. So Isaac borrowed a light set of restraints and had just finished putting Neasa’s left wrist in the manacles. The Elf pulled against the shackle and her anxiety only grew. She was being entrapped. First a collar, now restraints. Was it all a ruse? Was Isaac only waiting for her to lower her guard?
Isaac slowed down even more. He could tell Neasa was struggling but he had hoped he made it clear to her that she could call for him to stop at any time. Any clear expression of that desire. She was still fighting with herself right now. So he even more delicately took her right hand and started guiding it to the restraint. She made a pleading moan before jerking her hand free and quietly shouting, “No. No more.” Isaac let go of the wrist. “I’m done I want to be done.” She started to violently tug on her entrapped left hand.
“Neasa, wait, wait. I need to,” Isaac shot his hand out and flipped the quick release. The Elf shot out from under him and sat up rubbing her left hand. Isaac sighed. He shouldn’t have given into Cosmina’s pressure. He knew Neasa wouldn’t like this. He dejectedly started to pack the restraints away.
Neasa stopped nursing the chafed skin on her left forearm and reached up to touch her collar. Her everstone. The one Isaac got for her even though she’d be a better, stronger pokegirl for him if she did evolve. He could make her evolve, if he really wanted to. He could have left her in the restraints and ignored her, or gagged her so he didn’t need to.
Neasa liked that. She liked that he didn’t do those things. That he relinquished control. She wanted to reward Isaac for it.
“Sorry Neasa,” Isaac didn’t hear her breathing become heavier as he began apologizing without turning to look at the pokegirl he was speaking to. “I won’t-” Neasa gasped, a deep, longing, languid gasp with a confident, laughing inflection rising at the end. He turned to look at her and saw her stare fixed on him, a curious angle to her eyebrows and her mouth dropped open in a predatory smile to match her catlike crouch. Isaac had just enough time to realize what was going on with her before she pounced.
(-[|]-) End 10.2 (-[|]-)