Father Taras Pasternak suppressed a fearful jump when, as he swept the faces of the congregation with his gaze, he locked onto the two gleaming gold irises set on black sclera. She was here again. Standing in the southern corner of the narthex away from the rest of the congregation. The narthex was traditionally where the unbaptized attended. She was a mystery who had been associated with this church for longer than Father Pasternak had been serving here, or anyone in the clergy or any of their predecessors.
She was some sort of infernal pokegirl with blue skin. She possessed very fine clothing, she always attended wearing a full length dress sewn from richly patterned fabric with an intricate sweater over her shoulders and a shawl trimmed with white lace covering her hair but allowing her horns to stand freely. She was a very petite pokegirl, if it weren’t for the fact that all of the other churchgoers avoided her proximity she’d be lost among them from her lack of height. She gave off a menacing aura though, so on the rare occasions she was in attendance there was always a void of bodies around her chosen spot.
Father Pasternak blinked. Someone was standing with her today though. A young man in a clean and loose white button up shirt and black dress slacks. He was well over half a meter taller than the infernal pokegirl he was accompanying and his body language was calm, at least in regards to her. He seemed more avoidant of the human church-goers. He had shaggy light brown hair and a scar on his forehead.
This was an unheard of development. The church’s repetent devil-woman had never been in the company of someone else before. Not for the decades she’d haunted this particular house of worship.
It was always difficult to administer the sermon with her in attendance. She always possessed such an intense glare. Silent and unblinking. Father Pasternak had to force his eyes away from her to be able to focus. As always, as soon as the service was concluded the infernal pokegirl vanished in a swirl of dark mist but the young man remained, loitering with apparentent intention.
Father Pasternak bustled past anyone else in attendance, driven by a hunger for answers he hoped this young man could provide. He was stopped a few times by those insistent on receiving his blessing but the young man waited. When Father Pasternak approached the young man did not react with the traditional clasping of his hands and bow. He had a hesitancy about him now that he was being interacted with directly. Father Pasternak set aside his prideful offense at the young man not greeting him properly, it was rather clear he hadn’t grown up in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
They were outside of the nave though so it was more acceptable for lax etiquette. Father Pasternak touched the index and middle fingers of his right hand to his thumb and made the Sign of the Cross, touching his right shoulder before his left as he did. “Lord bless you, child. Might I have your name and know what brings you to us today?”
“Isaac Markiyan,” the young man responded after a brief moment’s hesitation. “Astoreth wanted me to attend with her.”
“Astoreth,” it wasn’t quite the name of the figure from Christian demonology nor the Canaanite goddess from ancient history, “I am assuming that is the name of your pokegirl companion? She has never spoken to anyone as far as I am aware and she does not attend regularly. We know so little about her, only that she must be long lived.”
Isaac nodded. “All she told me was that this is something she does to atone.”
“Atonement requires confession.”
The young man, Isaac, made an unhappy face. “She doesn’t think so.” He looked unfocused for a second and ever so slightly tipped his head towards where the infernal pokegirl had been. “She’s not interested in joining the church but she just knows that she has to demonstrate remorse for the lives she takes somehow.”
The clergyman bowed his head and deflated with very expressive grief. “Oh, we’ve always been afraid it was something like that. I took on the mantle of head priest ten years ago. This was after the previous head priest requested to be transferred to a new congregation after she was in attendance for every gathering over the course of six weeks. She absolutely refuses to speak with anyone when she is here and simply steps through the walls or vanishes if anyone is insistent. At least this is only the sixth time I’ve seen her since taking over. I was hoping you would be able to tell me more about her.”
“I could tell you more but she just wanted me to stay to give you her tithe.” Isaac handed the flabbergasted holyman an envelope and then stretched out his hand before vanishing in the same swirl of black vapor.
Astoreth teleported the two of them onto the roof just under the dome capping the cupola they’d been underneath before she ended her invisibility effect. She was still and remained deeply pensive. “I can’t stand them.” She muttered. She’d been consumed by bitter introspection through the entire service.
“Anyone there. It’s all so pompous and insincere. A performance so they can all feel better about their miserable lives. If the man they know as Jesus was among them he’d mock them for their vanity.”
“Then why do you go?”
Astoreth was quiet for a long time. Isaac could feel her start to form words but then abandon whatever she was going to say several times. “To show that I want to live among them. That I accept them as my people. If I only killed then they would assume I was still as I was during the war. The war…
“I mean, you see what they portray us as?” Astoreth’s face fell completely slack before she continued speaking. She was totally rigid in her posture. Her voice was completely flat and there was no reverberating undertone. The delta bond burned hellishly with contempt. “It’s so cartoonish, so simple. They don’t even dare commit the truth to their memory. What we did… It was worse than what I did to those Elves. Samodiva’s hunters were the aggressors. They had somewhere to flee…
“They’ll never understand. They should never have to.” She simmered for a few seconds. “I’m being merciful in dying with my sins unspoken.” Astoreth’s emotions were so subtle as she shared this. All Isaac could really discern was the intense internal struggle she was experiencing. Isaac hugged her and her soul returned to her body with a shudder before she hugged back fiercely.
She would return to her typical self soon enough. She would stand 244 centimeters tall again. She would dress in sharp and bold business suits again. She would command the respect and fear of nearly anyone she encountered again. But for a few more minutes she remained small, passive, modest, and humble.
It was the only thing she knew to do.
The Elfqueen Samodiva shivered violently as she poured more of her plant magic into the hot tomato vines that were climbing every tree and lining every footpath in her court. The sudden winter storm had been relentlessly bludgeoning her and her Elves with sleet and hail for three days now. This task was beneath her. Growing the vines during the winter was work for the lowliest in the court but the weaklings and cowards had fled and died. Those that remained were weak and cowardly too. Muttering to themselves when they thought she couldn’t hear. Pathetic superstitions that this storm was retribution for her ordering the attacks on the humans. Divine retribution; the land was angry with them, they said. The land was nothing but dirt and mindless plants and would obey her just like the Elves would obey her. She ruled. She was in power.
“My queen,” it was the apprentice of the former chief magus of the Dumb Queen. She was rather worthless as a mage, she hadn’t completed her training before Samodiva took over. She was still the most knowledgeable in the court now that Samodiva had dealt with her treasonous teacher. “The scouts have returned and they’ve confirmed my suspicion. This storm isn’t affecting the lands of the humans and it is not moving with the winds. I suspect this was conjured by your enemies, my queen.”
Samodiva trembled from the oppressive cold again. “Then break it.”
The Elf, who was named Anfisa, stared helplessly. She couldn’t end this storm, she couldn’t even identify how it was being maintained. This would have been beyond Golloriell’s abilities with Anfisa and all of the other apprentices assisting her. Anfisa of course couldn’t tell her queen this. Queen Samodiva did not accept excuses, even if what she called an excuse was a simple statement of reality. “I will consult the scrolls, my queen.”
Samodiva cursed these pathetic Elves in her mind. Weak Elves followed weak Elfqueens. That’s why they had been broken by school children and farmers. The cowards that made it back to her court had been spreading lies about what they faced. This nonsense about night demons and Deaf Ones. Even Lele had been afraid.
Lele… Samodiva wanted her back. She was her first follower, her blood sister. They were supposed to avenge themselves against the humans together. It was unthinkable that she fell. Yet she hadn’t returned and the only thing that would keep Samodiva’s captain of the hunt away was death or imprisonment. She’d sworn it.
Then she went to lead the attack on the human village and failed to return.
The chatter of Samodiva’s teeth brought her back to the hot tomato vines. These pitiful vines. She pushed their growth even harder and for a moment the Elfqueen felt the warmth finally break through this awful cold. She closed her eyes and soaked up the radiance for a brief moment but then saw the life flowing through the plant flicker and die. Another vine had reached its limits. At this rate they would run out of seeds.
“My queen!” Samodiva nearly lashed out to strike the acting captain of her huntresses, an Elf named Virag. Her urgency meant that she was only bringing another problem to Samodiva’s attention. Couldn’t these pathetic Elves do anything? Samodiva’s heart jumped when the acting captain continued addressing her. “My queen, an intruder! She is a Grandelf. She has requested an audience.”
A Grandelf. She must have heard Samodiva’s call. She could replace her worthless current magus. “Bring her to me.”
Virag hesitated. She looked frightened, which was fine. All of Samodiva’s subjects should fear her. Virag wasn’t afraid of her though. “My queen, she refuses. She gave her name, Elena. My queen, she is the one to the South, the Deaf One, and she says this storm is her work.”
Samodiva remembered Lele reporting her encounter with this Grandelf. She spoke about the power of the Deaf One. Her living staff and the cold winds that came with the Grandelf’s cold stare. Perhaps this Elena could cow a High Elf, even one as loyal and courageous as her Lele, but not an Elfqueen. “Fetch me my bow.” Virag dashed across the frozen ground to do as she was ordered. If this storm was the work of this defiant Grandelf then all Samodiva needed to do was kill her, and this unnatural blizzard would be ended.
Virag returned with Samodiva’s bow, taken from the lifeless hand of the Dumb Queen after her victory. It was a well crafted weapon and was wasted in the possession of the passive Elfqueen Samodiva had overthrown. “Take me to this Grandelf fool.”
Virag led her queen to the Dumb Queen’s trinket tree. Of course, now, instead of worthless, pretty baubles, Samodiva had hung up traitors. The advisors to Queen Vershnyk who refused to kneel. The High Elf Luljeta, Vershnyk’s captain of the hunt. The Grandelf Golloriell, Vershnyk’s chief magus and shamaness. The Avariel Deryn, who was just a simple songstress. They weren’t dead. No. Samodiva could make a better example of them than by killing them. They were tied to the tree while aware, crucifixion style, and allowed to be taken by the Nothing. They’d remain there as an eternal reminder of what it meant to question Samodiva’s rule.
The Grandelf trespasser was staring up into the branches with a look of pure contempt. The hate in her eyes transferred to Samodiva. She made a strange noise, a clicking sound with her tongue. Something an obnoxious child would do. She didn’t say anything, only stared through messy bangs falling in front of her eyes. Piercing, icy eyes.
“My captain says you claim responsibility for this blizzard-” Samodiva was going to continue, saying ‘If this is true then end it immediately,’ but the Grandelf made that clicking sound again and it enraged the Elfqueen.
“This storm is your doing.”
“What nonsense! You told my captain-”
“I enacted the ritual, yes. But you, you are the one that called this down upon you and your court. I have been watching you closely, Samodiva. I have seen you before. Shall I tell you your story?
“You were a Bimbo.” Samodiva moved away from the Grandelf with a start. “You were bought, used, and sold. Bought, used and sold. Eventually though they always became tired of you. They only appreciated your body for so long. So finally, you were sold to a different sort of human. One representing a great, unfeeling, unliving machine. Your bliss, your ignorance, was robbed from you with no more than the touch of a green stone in a factory. Your mind was awakened to the world of nature in the most unnatural place imaginable. And then that machine, through total and complete violation, turned you into what you are now. Then you were sold again, this time to a farm. You hate the humans for what they did to you.
“And they were wrong to do so. You are right to hate them. But you stupid girl, you attacked the wrong humans. In your fear and your haste you lashed out against the greatest enemies of your hated foe. You aren’t in the realms of those who made you anymore, these people would have welcomed you and rallied to your side if you had reached out to them. These are people who love the land and their liberty, not money and machines. You sit on the throne of your own sister, slain by your hand. She was just like you. Unwanted, exploited, discarded.” The Deaf One sighed, shook her head, and clicked her tongue.
“Do you know how difficult it is for one such as I to find somewhere to belong? I thought… I thought maybe I had found that here, with her. I thought… maybe I could advise her, that through her compassion and my counsel we could finally grow something truly beautiful.” The Grandelf stopped speaking and stared up at the falling snow. It had calmed drastically.
“Join me! Counsel me! Aid me! I want the same thing! I want freedom from the humans, I want a place where we can live in peace! End this storm and we can grow my queendom into one that rivals the Vesna lands to the West!”
The Grandelf tipped her head back and let out a peel of laughter. “Why would I help you? After what you’ve done, after what has been done on your orders? I want nothing more than to see you dead. Perhaps, perhaps if you had come to me rather than indulge in wanton murder but now? Now if it were up to me I would maintain this storm for as long as it takes for the frost to claim you. I’ve done it once before. There is no fear you can inspire, no brutality you can enact, to quell the rage of the cold and starving. And it would still be a mercy compared to the fate the humans have in store for you.”
“Then I should slay you now and ready my forces for their attack!” Samodiva moved to raise her bow and reach for an arrow but froze from the look in the Deaf One’s eyes. She wanted Samodiva to attack. She was looking forward to it, baiting it.
When Samodiva withheld her violence the Grandelf’s expression changed to one of disappointment. “No. No I have ultimately come to tell you what you should do. What your greatest hope is. Tonight, you will have another visitor. An Elfqueen from a distant land. The lands of the Vesna High Queendom. She and her retinue will be guests of your court and ensure you take part in no further treachery until the spring.”
“The spring… Why would I host a foreign queen?”
The Deaf One grinned, a cold, joyless grin. “Because you invited them. You invoked their laws, and they will come to fulfill them. You see, your life isn’t mine to take. It is not the league’s to take. The one who will be your end… you know who she is. You made her. You failed to cage her. Now we have her, we shield her from you, and we will see her grow as tall and strong as she can so that, come the spring, she can have her vengeance. And you will wait for that day because it is still your best hope of survival. You will die with honor in single combat rather than ingloriously crushed under the heel of the humans.
“And to that end, I will lift this storm. Accept your doom with grace, Queen Samodiva.” The Grandelf teleported away, and with her exit the clouds overhead broke and the warmth of the sun, as little as it was in these cold months, shined down on the court of the late Queen Vershnyk.
In a way, Isaac was grateful for the militaristic attitudes of the Vorona corps. It made witnessing their grief easier, when they all focused on maintaining discipline during a crisis. It made him feel less alone, less alien, to see that others processed things similar to the way he did.
It also kept the ceremony short and to the point. The point was to honor the service and sacrifice of the fallen. There hadn’t been as many cadets in attendance as Isaac thought there would be. Did they not understand? Did they understand, and couldn’t face it? The sergeants and the other pokegirls had died for them. The humans. Human children. Young adults. The future of the Vorona Corps. Of this part of the league.
Lieutenant Sobolvich had spoken with him briefly. She approached every cadet she saw in attendance. She was still thinking about them and their educations. What to do with their learning suspended. She didn’t seem able to muster the bold confidence that gave her such a commanding presence, but she was still performing her role. Now Isaac was sitting alone, thinking about the advice he received.
They were still certain of it, he had the sort of mind that belonged in academia. Their vision for him was to transfer to the Sapfirova Konservatoriya Chaklunstva through their partnership with the Voronas. They wanted him to go to Kyiv to learn. If Isaac then resumed his enrollment at the academy they would be beyond thrilled to have him, but they were certain that the halls of the Sapphire Conservatory of Witchcraft were where he belonged.
Isaac wasn’t sure. He found that the discussion about his future only brought forth doubts and anxiety born from doubt. His only goal was to fulfill the procedure and be rewarded with a legal identity. He hadn’t been thinking at all about what to do beyond that. What he wanted to do beyond that. What the people, the pokegirls, whose lives were tied to him needed him to do. He was the tamer though, he needed a plan. So he wrestled with the doubts and anxiety, so far to no avail.
Someone sat down next to him. They weren’t Jin, or Neasa, or Oleksandra. Isaac was a little surprised to see him here, in Zaporizhzhya, but that’s where the Vorona cemetery was and Gabriel Titto Vorona was one of them. He looked sharp in the dress uniform but his expression was dulled by grief. Mandi, Gabi’s Oddtits companion, was nowhere to be seen.
The Titto didn’t speak, didn’t really acknowledge Isaac beyond initial eye contact and a weak, forced smile. He just stared out at the horizon for a stretch of minutes. “She was in the house when I was adopted into the Vorona. Arya…”
Isaac had seen Gabi clench his fists and shift his weight before speaking, so he wasn’t surprised by the sudden words. He didn’t know what their significance was, though, or why they were shared with him. “Arya?”
“Oh, right. You probably only heard her referred to as Sergeant Skvirtitiyi. Arethusa Skvirtitiyi Vorona. She was one of my big sisters. They all were. They’d all come back to the house during leave, the sergeants…
“We always teased her about her name. Said she should change it because she evolved to a Whoretortle. She kept it. She said she’d be a Blasttits named Skvirtitiyi to remind us all… how far we could go.” Gabi lifted his shoulders to dab both eyes against them. “I didn’t want to go anywhere. I just wanted everyone to stay together on the farm. You forget it sometimes. The Vorona are good, good enough that we don’t lose people very often but… We’re not that good.
“Captain Elefkveen’s taken command of the grounds outside of Dnipro. Anyone else would have had to cut down the Aunts’ woods. Everything looks like a battlefield. It’s really scaring Mandi. I had to leave her home, too.” Gabi scrunched up his face in order to suppress whatever was coming to the surface. It was done with such effort Isaac thought the Titto had used his shape changing powers as part of the expression. Gabi finally looked Isaac in the eyes again. The inner ring of his irises had turned from teal to pale amber, but the outer ring remained the same. “Isaac, can I be upfront with you, for a little while?”
Isaac preferred people speaking candidly rather than obscucating their intent, as a general principle anyway. “Sure.”
Gabi smiled. Not his exaggerated, clownish smiles. A weak, grateful smile. As he did, the tone of his skin faded, then rings of pigment bloomed eyespots all over as the form of his muscles and bones slimmed up. Gabi had, except for when Isaac first met him, always been a bit effeminate in his appearance but now he crossed over into uncanny androgyny. Isaac found it very captivating, a sort of generalized human beauty that was outside of the bounds of the norm of either sex. The kaleidoscope of colors faded and Gabi was left with almost transparent white skin, shocking white hair that fell down longer than he usually kept it, and his eyes had shifted to almost completely golden like Astoreth’s but with a teal outer ring and natural, white sclera. Gabi noticed something about Isaac’s expression and smiled again. “Surprised?” His voice was softer. Gentler. Lacking the bold annunciation of an actor on the stage.
“A little,” Isaac answered. “You look… good, though.”
“Thanks. This is me, I guess. Me when I let go of what I think I should be, anyway.” Gabi pulled his bulky, old portable computer out of his pocket and brought up a photo gallery with a few pokes and swipes. “I have to take a photo every week to remember what face I’m wearing. Otherwise, when they notice I’m changing… Unless I’m playing anyway they get worried. The rest of the Vorona.” The Titto handed the device over to Isaac. There was image after image, all arranged in a grid, of Gabi’s face from straight on. There was a slow transition when viewed in sequence. Features drifting and transforming.
“It was a pokeball, a dud pokeball in a batch we bought refurbished from some damned, cheapskate Sewick. No corner left uncut for the sake of profits. My old family, human family… They owned a supply store. Still do. We thought I’d gotten lucky. I got caught in the capture field but it didn’t… didn’t store me. It shorted out before so I was unaffected. That’s what we thought, anyway. It wasn’t for almost two years before I first shapeshifted away from what I thought I was. When I found out I wasn’t a boy anymore.
“The Vorona took me in and were really supportive. They didn’t have any problem with me staying a boy. At least, wearing the shape of one. I started to wonder if that’s really who I was but they’d notice and would get so worried that I was falling back into the depression of when they adopted me. So I just kept… kept playing the part of the happy-go-lucky farm boy so they wouldn’t worry about me.”
Gabi gripped the fabric of his dress slacks. His? Her? Gabi’s. “I’m not going to be a pokekit anymore next year. Mandi’s probably going… too. I’d be fine if it was just me but I was an idiot and went out and… and… I’m not even as worried about me because I just don’t know what’s going to happen to Mandi. She trusts me and I can’t- I can’t. I can be anyone but who she needs me to be and I’m not even sure she understands that. What am I going to do?” Gabi’s eyes seemed to get larger as they locked onto Isaac and pleaded for an answer. “I was so stupid. Just… caught up in the lie I kept telling everyone. ‘I could still be a boy, watch, I’ll go get myself a pokegirl and prove it.’ I’ll be able to use the human support network but Mandi… she’s not really one of us. Not officially. And I-”
Gabi rocked forward, clutched at the sides of his head, and then tipped his neck back as if he was about to shout at the sky. He was silent until he sat upright again and kept speaking in a low voice. “I’m more afraid that she’ll decide to leave me for a real man than… than her going feral. Why would she stay with me? I need to take care of her though because she… she’s my pokegirl. She’s mine. My responsibility. So…
“Isaac… will you please take Mandi? She’s a really good girl. She’s integrated all of the English, Ukrainian, and Russian T2s. She can do laundry, and cook, and she learns cleaning really quickly. She knows how to fight some and I think you could teach her a lot more. She’s… she’s a really good girl.” The conflict on Gabi’s face made it clear he really didn’t want to be making this request. “She’s… really… I’m sorry, you don’t need to, this isn’t your, it’s my problem and you already have three pokegirls.” He suddenly aborted the topic and jumped up to leave.
“Gabi,” Isaac called out to stop the Titto from fleeing. “You don’t need to give her to me. But… why me?”
“Arya. Sergeant Skvirtitiyi. All of the sergeants. They watch all of the cadets. We thought maybe Vardan but his fiance… because Vardan was okay with me as a boy she said that meant he saw me as another human so… she didn’t approve. But Arya knew you two were dating for a while so that’s why she suggested I… you. Just taking Mandi would be fine though. Why would you want me? I don’t even know what I am.” Gabi slumped back down in defeat, squatting on his heels.
“I don’t know what I want.” Isaac offered up as a counter. Gabi’s attention snapped up to focus on him. “I like you though, Gabi. So maybe we’d make a good pair.” That was true, even though usually it took so much more exposure to trust someone enough for Isaac to feel confident in liking them. “I like Mandi too. And I like seeing you two together. You’re right, she is your pokegirl. So no matter what, and without you giving her to me… I’ll help you.”
Gabi blinked, choked on a sob, blinked a couple more times and then smiled and laughed. A genuine, uncontrolled, unrefined laugh that sounded funny and didn’t follow any real tempo. A burst of raw emotion channeled through the voice. The laughter of intense relief.
(-[|]-) End 12.2 (-[|]-)