“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”
– Titus Aurelius the ‘Philosopher King’, Imperator Augustus of the Inner Sea Imperium
On the evening after their first practical exercise, Luna sat atop a half-log around a campfire with a bowl of boar, barley, and bean pottage in hand. The stew was hearty but somewhat bland, as seasonings like salt were an expensive commodity when cooking for a thousand men.
It was early evening and she had just finished her medical lesson for the day. Half her trainees were still gathered nearby as they listened to Drazhan perform. The young druzhina wore a bright green outfit today as he played a wheeled lyre with both hands, his voice singing a surprisingly-smooth, baritone voice.
Apparently Captain Anton was the one who first initially ordered Drazhan to perform at dinner. It was to be the only way to stop the young man from wolfing down three times his share of food before the rest of the camp. However since then, the nightly solos had become a tradition, and they were also one of the few sources of entertainment the recruits could look forward to after a day’s hard drilling.
The crowd had swelled to over a hundred today, and Luna felt distinctly uncomfortable as she sat near the center of it all. Not that she would trade her position away — music was the song of the soul, and she would gladly bask in it even if her spot made her a bit twitchy.
The tale that Drazhan sang wasn’t new to her. It was a famous Hyperborean ballad localized to Polisian from the Dragon-Demon Wars that had raged over a thousand years ago. The story began during the height of the dragonlords’ power. The dragonkind had discovered a trove of magicyte in the southern continent. In their voracious demand for the rare mineral they excavated without restraint, until an incident accidentally opened a portal to ‘Hell’.
Tidal waves of demons surged into the world as a result, beginning centuries of the calamitous ‘Dragon-Demon Wars’.
Drazhan’s song told the story of how it was then, during the darkest days of the Demonic Invasion, that the first hero of humanity rose to fame. As his tribe fled before the terror of the advancing demon hordes, a young man named Sigurd bore witness to a titanic clash between a demon lord and the storm dragon that protected his homeland. Unwilling to just stand by and watch, Sigurd seized up a shard of dragon claw that had been shattered during the fight and plunged it into the demon’s heel. His action created an opening for the dragon to eviscerate their foe, only to succumb afterwards as its wounds were already mortal.
The druzhina’s tune then fell to a somber melancholy as the fearless Sigurd stepped up to the enormous, sprawling dragon, hoping to express his gratitude for the god-like guardian who had watched over the tribes of the North Sea Coast. Yet, in a final act and in recognition of his bravery, the dying dragon offered the young man its blessing — to drink its blood and bath himself in its power.
Sigurd was hesitant at first, but he nevertheless agreed to the dragon’s dying wish. After hugging the dragon’s open wounds and covering himself in fresh blood, he then gathered dragon blood in his hands and drank by the mouthfuls. As the light faded from the dragon’s content gaze, Sigurd pulled close the huge eyes that were as wide as his shoulders. He finally bid farewell to the guardian who not only died in defense of his people, but whom he would owe his entire future to.
Thus, Sigurd became the first true-blooded human to gain the gift of magic. He then earned everlasting fame by assembling the first human contingent to fight on the side of the dragonlords.
What surprised and enticed Luna to the music was Drazhan’s interpretation of the whole piece. The song was normally played as a heroic ballad, with high tones praising the indomitable courage of Sigurd that propelled him to divinity. After all, today the hero Sigurd was also named ‘Perun’ in common Polisian tongue, or ‘Perkunas’ by their western neighbors, or ‘Taranis’ by the Lotharins further west, or even ‘Pajoon’ by the northern tribes in the arctic.
In other words, Sigurd was the mortal man who ascended to become the undisputed ‘Stormlord’ whom almost every northern culture revered. Yet, in Drazhan’s hands both the lyrics and its tune put emphasis on Sigurd’s benefactor — the unnamed storm dragon whose sacrifice created the divine hero.
It’s so unlike Drazhan too, Luna thought as she eyed the man who performed with his eyes closed. The dandy druzhina always seemed so impetuous and eager for recognition, yet his music revealed a nostalgic soul who revered gratitude and heritage.
There was often a belief amongst Samarans that while behavior could be falsified, an artist’s work could never hide their true self. And if that were the case, Luna thought, then Drazhan too has never forgotten the loss of a benefactor dearest to him.
Unfortunately, the ballad’s finale was disrupted for Luna when a chorus of muffled cries came from a hundred paces out. Men shouted from a nearby steam house as one unclothed recruit opened the wooden door and began yelling vulgarities:
“Which overfed whoreson just cast a cold water burst into our bath!? You better watch your back that I don’t shove an icicle up your ass!”
He then shivered and shut the door. The air outside was barely above freezing — far too cold to be exposed to naked.
The men outside soon overcame their shock and began to laugh. Meanwhile it didn’t take long for Luna to notice the culprit. Anton made his way up to the crowd just as the song ended. His grin was unusually smug as he walked over with his own bowl of pottage and sat down not far from the young girl. His spare hand dropped an expended runic pebble into the dirt before his off-colored eyes met Luna’s gaze. And with a subtle tap of a thick finger on his twisted lips, he silently mouthed the words ‘always be vigilant’.
Luna giggled as she shook her head with both disbelief and amusement. Konstantin had been right, she thought. This old man really is an incorrigible child deep inside.
However, before Anton took more than a few bites, Luna spotted trouble return in the form of a frantic Father Mikhail. He rode fast into the camp from the north entrance, and he didn’t stop until he was a few paces shy of trampling the gathered audience.
“Captains!” the priest shouted out as he leaped off his mount. “We need to talk, now!”
“How many?” Luna watched an alarmed Konstantin inquire. The brooding mood that had occupied him for much of the day had vanished completely.
“Sixty at least. Almost all the men of fighting age in the village!” Mikhail answered as the leaders of the camp stood on an isolated patch of grass. “They gathered whatever weapons they had before taking the road early-afternoon. I tried to stop them, but they’ve stopped listening to me.”
“How could this happen?” Anton asked next, while Katsiaryna and Drazhan wore equally incredulous faces. “Didn’t you say that relations with the village were coming along nicely?”
“That was before their granary burned down last night,” Mikhail explained. “Someone said they saw a group of men led by a flamboyantly dressed leader,” the priest glanced towards Drazhan, who had visited the village of Lysiivka in the past. “The thieves tried to steal the grains and, when they were caught, they set fire to the granary to cover their escape. Since we brought grains from them a month ago, and when I asked for more they refused to sell, they concluded that it must be us.”
“Of course they’re angry then,” Anton sympathized. “They just lost their seed for next year and maybe even their winter stock.”
“Never thought being remote would bite us in this manner,” Konstantin reflected as he rubbed his chin with his thumb. “Nor could I have ever imagined that they would be the first to find us.”
“They?” Drazhan and Father Mikhail asked at the same time.
“The Eastlings,” Konstantin declared. “This form of sabotage matches their pattern. Destroy key assets and incite distrust or superstition among the locals. One of their deep scouting groups must have discovered our attempts to raise an army. Sachka –that is, Aleksandr Tuchkov– did tell me that enemy scouts have been sighted as far west as the city of Velikaya.”
“That’s only a hop away from the North Sea coast and our western border!” Drazhan exclaimed in disbelief.
Omniscient intelligence, lightning speed, and superb tactics, Luna thought as she reflected upon everything she had heard from Konstantin about the Eastlings. These nomads truly have a well-oiled military machine.
“How can you be sure it’s not just some local bandits?” Anton countered.
“My confidence that if there were bandits anywhere near here, your scouts would have discovered them by now,” Konstantin stated, much to the Captain’s gruff approval.
“Does it matter who’s responsible now? The angry mob coming this way is still convinced that we did it,” Katsiaryna remarked. “That being said, sixty peasants wielding pitchforks is hardly a threat to us.”
“This close to the Dead Mountains, the villagers will have some fighting experience from the monsters that occasionally venture from the mists,” Anton highlighted. “Nevertheless, I agree that sixty militia don’t pose a threat to us — they’re probably still under the impression we’re a simple logging camp.”
“I did overhear a few villagers claiming they were going to contact some ‘guardian’,” Father Mikhail added with an uncertain look. “Maybe there’s a retired adventurer or witch who lives nearby?”
“One or two good fighters won’t change the overall balance,” Konstantin declared. “What I’m more worried about is — if the men have to kill innocent Polisians before we encounter even a single Eastling invader, then morale will surely plummet to rock bottom.”
He then met Anton’s gaze as the veteran nodded in agreement:
“We cannot afford this fight.”
“Anton, you organize the bulk of the men to take shelter in the forest. The last thing we want the villagers to discover is our true numbers,” Konstantin ordered. “Drazhan, Katya, Father Mikhail, and I will meet the villagers outside the camp, along with no more than fifty of our numbers and, at most, ten of us armored.”
“Why won’t we use our full force to awe them?” Katsiaryna asked in confusion.
“Because while we could scare them off with ease, we’ll only convince them that it was us who stole their grain.” Konstantin highlighted. “Who knows where kind of harassment such enmity will develop into, not to mention potentially drawing attention from the local authorities and ultimately, Count Nikola?”
The young lord then shook his head with a deep exhale before declaring:
“No. We won’t intimidate them. But we do need to show them that we’re evenly matched and they cannot hope to win without significant bloodshed. Hopefully, that’ll give them pause long enough to hear me out.”
“You plan to talk down an angry mob?” Katsiaryna raised an eyebrow.
“Of course,” Konstantin smirked. “I’m an Apraksin, remember? Diplomacy always comes first.”
Luna stood behind Konstantin as those assembled stood at the outer camp’s northern entrance. The night’s shroud had fallen upon the landscape, and they could see their own breaths as the temperature also dipped below freezing. However, while clear visibility was limited to the camp’s perimeter from the light of its torches and fires, the cloudless sky did allow the guardian moon Juno to illuminate the countryside.
Looking up into the night sky, Luna could see her namesake — the silvery orb that currently resided between Juno and their world. Nevertheless, the smaller moon was but a tiny sphere against the backdrop of the gaseous, indigo giant. The crowd of flickering flames in the distance felt distinctively eerie under this blue-tinged night light.
The ‘welcoming party’ that Konstantin gathered numbered a total of forty-five, including Luna herself. They waited near several campfires lit by the front entrance, offering a clear signal that the camp’s inhabitants would meet the locals in the open.
Twenty more minutes passed before the villagers marched close enough to see their countenance. Somewhere between sixty to seventy able bodied men fanned out in a loose crescent. Their faces still bore signs of anger even after a long hike in the cold, while their hands clenched boar spears, lumber axes, blacksmith hammers, and even two arming swords.
None of the villagers wore anything heavier than a leather or fur coat, while eight of the camp’s defenders wore armor ranging from chainmail to light plate. As the lead negotiator, Konstantin himself had refused to don anything more threatening than his fur-lined cashmere coat. However, Drazhan stood next to him in splendid, velvet-lined leather brigantine and a kettle helmet. Meanwhile Lady Katsiaryna flanked the other side with a cuirass breastplate enclosing her torso above the waist, plus disjointed steel plates for spaulders, bracers, and greaves, in what they called a set of ‘light plate’.
Katsiaryna’s dress now sported two slits down the sides of its front panel, one over each leg above her knee-high leather boots. The laces that once enclosed these gaps and hid them behind frills had been undone. The lady’s extraordinarily long hair was also bundled under a silver hair net again.
Stepping out in front of two neat ranks, Konstantin called out to the villagers roughly fifty paces away in a calm and clear voice:
“My good folk of Lysiivka! My name is Kostadin Alexandrovich Arkhipov, and I am the business backer of this logging venture. I have heard of the tragedy that befell your village last night. I understand that you are angry at those whom you believe are the culprits. But before you allow such anger to brew into violence, would you please spare me a moment and listen to my side?”
“What more is there to hear!?” Someone shouted back.
“We have heard the lies of your foreign priest!”
“No other strangers have visited our village for over a half-year. Who else would covet our supplies if not your men!?”
“Perhaps none else have openly visited your village, but we are certainly not the only newcomers to these lands!” Konstantin shouted in reply. “Our own people have encountered strange men who lurk in the woods! Just a few weeks ago, I was ambushed in the forest by brutes while returning from a delivery to Bohopil. We even managed to capture one and gave him to the authorities to deal with: a young man short in stock, with a stubby nose and flat cheeks just like the eastern nomads!”
A few villagers visibly turned to look at one another, before Konstantin finished his timely pause and asked:
“Surely, even your humble village has heard of the Eastling Invasion?”
Luna heard the villagers’ murmur as the first doubts began to seed. Konstantin always said that no man could truly persuade another to change their opinion. Instead, ‘real persuasion’ relied upon enticing the other side to change their own minds. Therefore, the trick was not to openly clash the other side’s views, which only made people dig into a defensive stance and entrench their opinions. Instead, one must engage with the other side by questioning their certainty of claims, all while showing good will and offering alternatives best presented with a touch of personal experience.
It didn’t matter how many times Luna watched Konstantin work, she always felt amazed — and more than a little disturbed — at how easily he could spin real facts together into a convincing lie. He was ambushed in the forest weeks ago, and he did capture a young assassin of Eastern appearance. But while that had nothing to do with Eastling subterfuge, it did present an account far more plausible than simply proclaiming ‘the Eastlings did it!’
“We’ve heard from a passing merchant,” one of the villagers replied. “But the Eastlings are still thousands of kilopaces to the east. What interest is our tiny village to them?”
“I cannot answer that, because I am not them,” Konstantin answered. “I only know that there is more than we know happening in these lands! I can also promise you that, to the best of my knowledge, none of my men have returned from your direction with a loaded wagon last night.”
“How do we know you weren’t the one who ordered the theft and arson!” Another challenge came back.
“We are a logging business. We make periodic deliveries to the trading city of Boh.” Konstantin continued in an even voice, as though he was simply having a conversation at range. “Tell me — why would we take such risks to rob you, when we could use our own goods to trade at the city’s marketplace? Sure, we prefer your grains as they’re cheaper than those sold in the city. But has the Priest Mikhail ever pestered or insisted after you denied him?”
The scattered conversations between the villagers grew. And while Luna could not make out the details, she could feel the atmosphere shift as their accusations wavered in the face of Konstantin’s steady tone. However, before further rounds of engagements could bring the two sides to a better understanding, a bright purple streak across the night air drew everyone’s attention skyward.
It was far too low to be a shooting star, and it was headed straight for them. Luna could hardly believe her eyes as she saw the silhouette of a mythical witch almost crash into the ground between the two groups.
“Well Father Mikhail, your ‘guardian’ sure knows how to make an entrance,” she heard Drazhan mutter in astonishment.
The rider turned out to be a young girl. She spun in midair just before impact and instead landed with her leather boots in a slide. The ‘broomstick’ that she had been riding turned out to be a staff, except with the glint of steely tips on both ends. The new girl then spun this bladed staff around her waist and arms, before holding it against her back in the elegant stance of a master spearman.
It was difficult to tell in the shadowy light, but the girl seemed average in height and no older than twenty by human standards. However, she had long, mint-green hair that flowed as though a breeze billowed outward from her body. Her eyes were a bright lavender, which glowed for a brief second before fading into the dim night. The girl wore a simple dress with a windswept skirt that reached just past her knees, but otherwise she had no armor to speak of.
Clearly, Konstantin couldn’t believe what he was seeing either. He rubbed his eyes as the otherworldly girl landed, before taking several steps back and asking quietly:
“Are my eyes deceiving me, or is she… a Vila?”
Luna sucked in a breath as her brain sought out a corner of her memories. The Vila were supposed to exist only in folk tales and legends!
“More likely a Vilinichna,” Katsiaryna stated in awe from his side before clarifying: “Battleborn.”
“Sorry but some of us are a bit dumb,” Drazhan added from the other side. “Could someone please explain?”
Meanwhile Luna could see that the villagers were too in awe before the young girl’s presence. Some of them even bowed down in reverence while others called out as though beckoning a goddess:
“I’ve heard your woes from Elder Kresimir,” the young girl declared. “Leave this to me!”
“Legends have it that a civilization of otherworldly beings once invaded our world thousands of years ago, long before the dragonlords first made landfall,” Konstantin spoke in a hushed voice. “They conquered much of the continent, and the ‘Vila’ were believed to be the frontline soldiers of their empire: graceful maidens bred exclusively for battle and war.”
“It’s no legend,” Katsiaryna declared. “I’ve been to the western reaches of the Lotharingie Plains. I’ve seen the great stone rings that remain as their legacy. The Lotharins even have a history detailing it: they call it the Book of Invasions. The fae, as they called the invaders, may have long since retreated through the old portals. But there are still human descendants who carry their blood — those whom the Lotharins called the ‘faekissed’…”
“My name is Rayna Lysiivkova Eraviscii, though some also know me as Vesna!” the newcomer shouted in a clear voice that seemed to echo by itself. “I am the guardian spirit of the village whom you have aggrieved, and I come to seek justice!”
Lysiivkova, Luna thought of the name that took the spot of where Polisians honored their fathers with a patronymic. It was too similar to the village’s name of Lysiivka to be a coincidence.
The girl then spun her bladed staff and pointed its longer tip towards the camp’s defenders. Standing far ahead of the other villagers, she faced odds of more than forty-to-one. Yet she stood confident in a martial stance as though there was no doubt that she would win.
“I ask that the foul criminals responsible to step forth and receive my challenge! Do not be a coward and condemn the blameless by your own wretched and gutless impudence!”
“Vesna…” Mikhail muttered from just a few steps away.
“You’ve heard of her?” Konstantin immediately asked.
“Yes, the Lady of Spring. There’s a hilltop altar to her southwest of the village, right on the edge of the Dead Mountains’ mist. But I thought she was just a local superstition. I didn’t think she was actually real!”
“Mythical or not, she has challenged my honor in their false accusations. As a warrior who seeks afterlife in the Golden Halls, I cannot rightly refuse,” Drazhan declared before he stepped out from the line and advanced towards the otherworldly girl.
“Be careful!” Konstantin hissed as Drazhan walked past. “Vilinichna are battle fanatics!”
“There he is!” A shout came from the other side. “See those clothes? He has to be the man who burned down the granary!”
Drazhan marched up until he was a mere ten paces away from Rayna. He loosened his stance and re-gripped his weapons: arming sword in his left hand and throwing axe in his right.
“I am Drazhan Ivanovich Samoylov, and I am not the man whom you seek to blame! Nevertheless, since you believe I am guilty, I shall accept your challenge and clear my name through conviction and courage!”
Luna swallowed. It was an old tradition that the Polisian aristocracy brought from their Hyperborean homeland. The belief was that any man courageous enough to face his own death has no need to lie. Therefore, if he was willing to fight for his life, then he must be speaking the truth, and his name would be exonerated and honored even if he died.
“Very well, Drazhan. Let’s dance.”
Rayna offered no more words of warning as she struck without holding back. Dashing forward at gale-speed, she thrusted the tip of her two-and-half pace long bladestaff like one would use a spear. The first stab went straight for Drazhan’s heart, and it forced the druzhina onto the defensive before he could even bring her into his reach. He parried with a swing of his sword, but Rayna withdrew her spear almost the moment their weapons made contact.
Without even pausing for an eye’s blink, Rayna stabbed again and this time at his face. Drazhan tried to sidestep the attack but evidently could not move faster than the bladestaff’s correction. He barely had time to parry with the axe in his right hand. Once again the staff withdrew immediately after contact and chained straight into a third pierce towards the trachea to his lungs. The furious assault came with such relentless pressure and precision that Drazhan couldn’t even recover the swing of his weapons. He was forced to bring both in at an awkward angle, knocking the attack off target and missing his neck by mere hairs’ breadth.
“Freyja’s mercy, that girl is ruthless,” the druzhina named Kazimir commented. “Every strike is aimed at a vital, every blow seeking to kill.”
Barely a dozen seconds have passed and Drazhan was already forced to take hasty steps back. His two weapons parried as fast as his arms could swing them. There wasn’t even an opportunity for him to advance for counterattack.
“She’s going to kill him!” Katsiaryna voiced before she drew something from her belt pouch. Meanwhile another druzhina –Dalibor, if Luna remembered correctly– notched an arrow and began drawing his composite recurve bow.
“We cannot interfere…” Konstantin was still speaking as Katsiaryna took off through the air. “Katya wait–!”
The runestone she activated hurled her through the air and straight into the battle. She arrived just in time as well as Drazhan dropped his axe. His attempt to parry the latest stab had stopped it from piercing his heart. But a graze from the bladed tip nevertheless cut through his leather glove and left a gash that almost severed his thumb.
“Fall back. I’ll take her!” Katsiaryna declared as she batted aside the following strike with her buckler. With a kick on the ground she launched herself forward, straight into the dead zone of Rayna’s long staff while she readied her shortsword to stab.
Rayna took advantage of her reach with one last attack, but it bounced off Katsiaryna’s shield. The sideways angle of the deflection would have knocked the weapon off balance for almost anyone else, but Rayna transformed the new vector into a spin for her bladed staff. Her grip then changed as she brought both ends forward for use, before rotating the staff twice and double slashing towards Katsiaryna.
The young noblewoman shielded herself at the last moment before the blades could have sliced into her upper chest. The perpendicular block stopped the twin blows but also knocked her back. The two young girls stopped their attacks for a moment as they sized up each others’ next moves. Katsiaryna readied her shortsword in the shadow of her shield while Rayna’s bladed staff began to glow with purple mana from both of its ends.
Without a word from either the fighters or the onlookers, the two resumed combat as both danced around the other at speeds almost too fast for Luna to follow. Yet, even with the bladed staff used as a double weapon, Rayna still had an edge in her weapon’s reach. The girl’s swings came with such intensity that Katsiaryna could not parry the way she preferred. Sparks flew as the staff’s bladed tips clashed against Katsiaryna’s shield again and again, each time knocking her back just enough that noblewoman could never close the range for her short blade.
“Stormlord’s thunder, what a vicious fight,” Luna heard Kazimir the druzhina remark in awe.
“They’re just girls too…”
“It’s like watching two storms collide.”
Even an amateur like Luna could tell that both sides were straining themselves with every bit of concentration they could muster. In such a battle, a single mistake could, would cost them their life. A split second’s opening was all it took for Rayna to slash into Katsiaryna’s chest, or for Katsiaryna to close in for a killing stab. Sure, it was possible that Katsiaryna’s armor could protect her against a glancing hit. But with an unknown magic charging the tips of that bladed staff, it was doubtful she would want to gamble with her life.
It was then that Luna noticed something unusual. The tips of Rayna’s staff weren’t only charged with magic. They left behind glowing trails of purple as she spun them in her deadly battle dance. Soon it became clear that in addition to her relentless attacks, she also somehow managed to draw a sigil in the air. The fading mana lines then ignited and the air around them began to waver.
“GET AWAY!” Konstantin suddenly shouted.
It was the first time Luna had heard his voice so blatantly overwhelmed by fear.
Katsiaryna blocked one last time before leaping backwards in retreat. The earth she stood on mere seconds ago was soon skewered by a rain of several dozen icy spines. Not satisfied with their failed attempt to impale her, the frozen spikes dislodged from the ground and flew into the air. There, they sharpened themselves once again as they began to spin like a cloud of elongated drill heads.
“I’ve never seen spells cast like that,” Konstantin commented as he breathed an air of relief.
“Nor I,” Father Mikhail echoed as his attention was similarly held spellbound.
With a flick of her gloved wrist, Katsiaryna flung out a set of her own rune-stored spells. Her turquoise mana activated and two barriers — one translucent and one transparent — emerged into existence. A volley of ice spears splashed against her double barrier but all of them shattered upon contact with the second layer. It was as though the first barrier did something to turn every icicle brittle before they smashed into pieces upon the second.
However, only half the icicles had been released on the first barrage. For a second the otherworldly girl spun in place as though dancing, using the ends of her bladed staff to draw yet another glowing-purple sigil in midair. The spell promptly activated to send out a blast of white anti-magic, crashing through the dual barriers Kayta had raised and shattering it into glimmering particles — remnants of the spells’ refined mana which quickly dissolved back into the environment as ether.
Rayna then launched the rest of her ice spears in the wake of the anti-magic blast. Katsiaryna barely had time to crouch down as she covered as much of her vitals as her steel buckler could. It looked as though she was sacrificing her lower body to be skewered by this second barrage, when the icicles smashed into an invisible barrier and caused it to flare. It was a shallow dome that projected outwards from the glowing runes that ringed the enchanted buckler shield. Held at an incline with a width of three paces, it was more than large enough to allow Katsiaryna to hunker beneath.
“That magic is far more adaptable in battle than our runes,” Konstantin immediately grasped the implications with a mixture of concern and envy.
“Lady Vesna!” Two of the villagers cried out before they tossed their arming swords at her. The blades flew across the air until their tips touched Rayna’s outward flowing hair. Then, as though the swords now answered to her will, they stopped and rotated in midair until their tips pointed at Katsiaryna. Two more spears from the villagers soon joined the floating arsenal, a total of four weapons hovering in protective formation around her.
“Oh screw you,” Katsiaryna answered as she reached behind her head and tore off her silver hair net. Her touch activated several jewels embedded into her platinum hairband, while the extreme length of hair cascaded to behind her thighs. The light-caramel tresses began to glisten with a metallic shine. But more astounding was how the strands bundled together and reached upwards in defiance of gravity. It was as though they’ve developed muscles, nerves, and even a will of its own!
“Wha–?” Luna barely whispered before she closed her lips. She had heard about mages using magic to animate and control objects before. However this was the first time she had ever heard of anyone turning their own hair into an extra appendage… or two, as she watched the bundle of hair split and reach forward to screen her flanks.
“I told you Katya likes weird spells,” Konstantin noted. “She’d been learning to control her hair since we were kids. I lost count of how many times she had tripped me with it.”
Without a word of declaration, the two girls leaped off the ground and charged at one-another once more. Rayna launched the two spears that floated around her first, which Katsiaryna caught with her two limbs of hair. Her strands then used the spears’ velocity to slingshot them around her body before throwing them back, which prompted Rayna to dodge one and deflect the other with her staff. This brief act of defense cost Rayna the opportunity for a stab at her weapon’s full reach, and Katsiaryna took advantage of it as she dove into the opening.
Nevertheless, the otherworldly girl was anything but defenseless. Her bladed staff swung down while she simultaneously released the two floating swords. Katsiaryna managed to deflect both the staff and one flying sword with her buckler, but she could not dodge the remaining sword at the same time. The blade pierced into Katsiaryna’s right thigh and impaled her leg just above the knee guard. However this did not stop the leaping girl whose elongating hair reached out and wrapped around the legs of her opponent.
It only took one second, one well timed second for battle to be decided. The pull of hair made Rayna trip and fell backwards towards the ground. Katsiaryna then hastened the fall as she stabbed her shortsword straight into the other girl’s shoulder just above the left breast.
The two girls collapsed to the ground in a tangle. And for a minute afterwards, not a single person at the scene could move or speak.
Then, as a head of light-caramel hair raised from the ground, Katsiaryna broke the silence with a desperate cry:
Hearing her cue, the Samaran girl did not hesitate for a moment. She dashed forward with her small bag of poultices and potions.
What she encountered was a bloodied mess.
The two girls were still on the ground, one kneeling while the other lay twitching as though afflicted by seizures. Shards of ice and abandoned weapons lay all around them, with one arming sword still lodged through Katsiaryna’s left leg. The flow of blood from her leggings almost certainly spelled a cut artery. Meanwhile Katsiaryna’s face and chest were both marked a deep crimson-red, with more coming from Rayna’s shoulder where the shortsword had left.
Luna almost tripped over a broken icicle before she landed at a kneel at Katsiaryna’s bent and bloodied leg. She felt pain in her own knees as the landing must have torn through her dress, but she didn’t care as she reached for the lady’s injury. Yet, before she could examine the impaling wound, Katsiaryna stopped her with a pained and totally unexpected cry:
“Not me! Her!”
Luna looked up and, for a brief second, wore an utterly stunned face.
“Your arter…” Luna barely began before she was cut off.
“I can heal! She’s going to die!” Katsiaryna cried in pained desperation as she fumbled through her belt pouch. “I shouldn’t have stabbed her that deep! It’s already bad enough that the faekissed are allergic to steel. My sword also has a disruptor enchant. It burns the mana of anyone it bleeds, and as a Faekissed she has more magic than most mages!”
Luna looked down at the girl again. Suddenly, it made sense why Rayna’s body was twitching as though wracked by mild seizures. She crawled forward through the few paces between them. Her knees hurt; she definitely scraped it when she landed.
The Samaran girl peeled back Rayna’s eyelids and found those lavender orbs twitching as they rolled into her head. Luna had to hold down the arm as she examined the deep, stabbing wound. The only saving grace was that Katsiaryna’s shortsword had a thin, stiletto blade designed for penetrating gaps in armor. Had the blade been a standard issue Imperial gladius, the wound would have been ghastly.
But if the entire nervous system is burning, then the shock from such a deep wound is just adding to the mayhem, Luna concluded. She pulled the bag of medical supplies on her waist into her lap. Her hands began rummaging through it even as she snuck a glance at the other injured patient.
“I need help to cease the bleeding,” Luna stated.
A length of Katsiaryna’s hair reached over, presenting a trio of runestones even as the young noblewoman focused on using magic to patch her thigh. Knowing that First Aid runes were usually prepared with a touch trigger, Luna grabbed one of them as her other hand washed the wound with herbal tea from her waterskin. She then held the rune against the bleeding gap on Rayna’s shoulders. The first spell was enough to partially close the rupture and slow the flow of blood. That bought her some time to move onto the next step.
“They killed Lady Vesna!” Luna heard the villagers exclaim as they finally came out of their shock. She could feel the atmosphere change as the locals’ anger and desire for vengeance spread.
“No!” Luna stumbled up onto her legs. She bore the burning pain in her knees as she felt a trickle of blood drip down her lower leg. “She’s not dead! But if we don’t cease fighting THIS INSTANT, then she certainly will be!”
“A Samaran… healer?” One of the villagers exclaimed in surprise.
If there was one profession that the Samarans had a positive reputation for, it was their rare, wandering healers who traveled the countryside.
“Yes, she is!” Konstantin’s voice resounded as he closed in from behind Luna. “Please, good folk of Lysiivka! This whole unfortunate episode tonight was the result of a misunderstanding! Please lower your weapons so that we may speak in good faith! That is the only chance we have of saving your Lady Vesna as well!”
Trusting Konstantin to manage the brewing tension, Luna knelt back down and focused her attention on the unconscious girl. She straightened out Rayna’s body first, so the latter could at least lie flat without added pressure on any part. She then pulled out a poultice of her best wound-healing remedy: honey, yarrow, nettle, goldenrod, marigold, and usnea. The whole mixture had synergistic properties and would accelerate the clotting of blood while preventing infection. Luna generously spread the poultice onto the wound before pressing another First Aid rune into the exposed flesh. The herbal mix would help stop internal bleeding and aid the body in the healing process, while the curative spells patched up the worst exterior damage.
However, all of this would be for naught if the otherworldly girl could not at least survive the shock to her overall system. The seizures that still made the girl twitch were weakening by the minute, but it wasn’t good enough. Luna bit down on her lips as she found herself helpless once more. She knew only generalities on how the nerve pathways functioned. Only mages ever dared to conduct serious research in that field.
“Your Ladyship,” Luna had an idea. “Do you have any spells that might soothe pains on the body or relax the muscles?”
“I have several,” Katsiaryna remarked as she shuffled forward on the ground. She then pulled out multiple runes before activating all of them on Rayna. “This won’t be very effective though,” she then added. “I’m not a trained healer who can synchronize curative spells with the patient. Every mage’s mana is different, and native mana always repel foreign mana. Therefore it’s extremely difficult for one caster to directly affect another mage’s body or mind.”
“It’s better than nothing,” Luna could only reply before a bloodied leg caught her attention.
It appears Lady Katsiaryna managed to pull out the blade impaling her own thigh. But while the leg wasn’t bleeding heavily, the deep wound also wasn’t healed.
Just what magic did she use?
It wasn’t until later that Luna discovered mages were capable of putting an extremity into temporary stasis.
—— * * * ——
“I’ll stay with her tonight,” Luna heard Katsiaryna’s tired voice as the young noblewoman continued to cast a healing spell over the Vilinichna.
After Konstantin managed to calm the villagers down, they moved Rayna to a more comfortable bed to aid the recovery process. Katsiaryna volunteered her own in an instant, and she would not listen to anyone who voiced disagreement.
“Katya,” Konstantin placed a hand on her shoulder. “You’re physically exhausted and your body needs time to recover. Adding magical exhaustion to that will only make it worse!”
Luna nodded in agreement. Sure, the curative spells had patched up Katsiaryna’s wounds. However, magical healing wasn’t the same as physical healing. There was always soreness and aching as the tissues often weren’t mended in quite the right way. Only time and bodily nourishment could fix everything and return it to the way it was. Magic could accelerate the process but it was no substitute.
“No,” Katsiaryna declared. “I’ll watch over her tonight.”
Konstantin sighed in exasperation. “Why are you so adamant about this? In case you forgot, she tried to kill you! She almost killed Drazhan!”
“She fought because she believed that it was her duty to protect the village, and because her sense of justice demanded it.” Katsiaryna replied as she continued to concentrate on her ritual spellcrafting. “If I were in her shoes, I would have done the exact same thing.”
Luna watched as Konstantin’s fingers reached out and brushed against a simple, leather-bound book that rested on the bedside table with no bookmark. It bore only a single word each for both its title and author: Reflections by Aurelius. However, its placement –Luna remembered it here the other day as well– and Konstantin’s nostalgic gaze left a clear understanding that this book held a deep significance for both of them.
With a long exhale, Konstantin pulled several runestones from his pockets.
“Here, these are the only Rejuvenation runes I have. Use them on her and take a break yourself,” he said. “I need to go check on the villagers and tell them that Rayna… their Lady Vesna, is stabilizing and recovering. I think the rest can be resolved if we simply shared some food with them, maybe in exchange for services from their blacksmith.”
“I’ll stay,” Luna announced before looking at her master. “Just in case. I’ll take shifts with Her Ladyship tonight.”
Konstantin nodded in appreciation before he opened the door and stepped out from Katsiaryna’s portable cabin.
“Thank you.” Luna heard Katsiaryna utter with a whisper.
“I can tell this means a lot to you,” the Samaran girl smiled as she pulled up a chair and sat down next to the lady.
As Katsiaryna nodded and finished her latest spell, Luna picked up the slack by activating one of Konstantin’s runes and holding it over the unconscious girl.
“Three years as a Mantis Blade, I have never killed anyone who didn’t need killing,” the young lady spoke with a sigh. “Yet tonight, I almost killed someone who only did what I’ve always wanted to do: to protect my people and country, just like the rest of my family.”
She isn’t just a mercenary after all. Luna thought before asking with hestitation: “Was that why Your Ladyship left home to travel the Inner Sea?”
At first Katsiaryna did not reply, leaving Luna to wonder if she said too much. Despite the lady’s unusually indulgent attitude towards her, she was still just a servant.
It was only after a prolonged pause when Katsiaryna nodded back.
“My parents and Grandpa taught me everything I knew. However what they couldn’t offer me was a direction in life to follow. All my brothers joined the army at age fifteen, yet I wasn’t allowed because I was born a girl. Therefore I had to leave and search for a path on my own…”
As Katsiaryna stopped speaking, Luna glanced over and found her looking perplexed at their patient.
“That’s weird. Kostya’s runes are working much better than my own. You just gave her complexion more color in the last three minutes than I did in the last half hour! But… he has even less aptitude in healing than me. At least I’m used to casting bio-spells.”
Katsiaryna’s suspicious stare soon turned from the stone in Luna’s hand to the girl herself. However Luna could only return a bewildered look.
How does this have anything to do with me? I’ve no magic aptitude.
“How many First Aid runes did you use to close the wound again?” Katsiaryna asked.
“Uh, two?” Luna replied.
She didn’t understand why, but her answer only made the young lady’s watchful scrutiny increase that night.
It wasn’t until the next evening when Luna had an opportunity to ask Konstantin:
“Is there something special about that book Lady Katsiaryna keeps?”
“Huh?” Konstantin looked at her with a blank stare at first. He’d been strangely distracted ever since he woke up. It was clear to Luna that something deeply troubling occupied his mind.
“Oh, Reflections,” he said after a moment’s pause. “It’s a book of self-guidance written by Titus Aurelius the ‘Philosopher King’, the 12th Imperator Augustus of the Inner Sea Imperium. It’s… difficult to summarize in a few words. I do recommend that you read it for yourself sometime. But the core messages I took away were the importance of a simple and moral life, always relying on personal judgment, and the avoidance of extravagance, posturing, and popular trends.”
Konstantin gave a half-hearted chuckle as though he found the thought admirable, if entirely unrealistic. Then, as his distracted gaze shifted towards Luna for a brief moment, he added:
“In fact, I think its author would have approved of you.”
Luna’s eyes widened as she was taken aback. An Emperor of the Inner Sea Imperium was the last person she thought she would share any commonality with.
“But what does that have to do with you and Lady Katsiaryna?” She then asked.
“Because Marshal Tuchkov is a devoted advocate of its philosophy,” Konstantin explained. “He tried to instill its teachings in all the Tuchkov children, and me and my sister as well, to varying degrees of success. Sachka was definitely his best pupil, and in turn his favorite out of all the Tuchkovs. Katya’s not far off, if she only didn’t develop a complex about appearances.”
“Pot calling kettle,” Luna retorted with a knowing gaze. “Still — Her Ladyship is beautiful. Why would she have a complex?”
“Katya is a prodigy in bio-transmutation spells,” Konstantin spoke with a shadow of guilt as he pulled out a runestone from his pocket. “That almond face of hers isn’t natural. She was born with the same round Tuchkov face as her brothers, which is fine on a boy but makes a girl like her look boorish and fat. I guess I teased her one too many times as a kid, so she used her magic to mold her cheeks and chin as she grew to the way it is now.”
For a brief moment, Luna stood with a blank expression, uncertain of how to react. While she has heard of mages making tweaks to their image, to fundamentally alter one’s appearance during adolescence was a much bigger deal! Yet, even as Luna thought this, she couldn’t help feel sympathy and a sense of similarity.
Was I any different? Considering what I as Alexei had wished for in my last life?
In the end, we were all subject to the whims of society’s expectations.
Having talked about one childhood friend, Konstantin’s mind seemed to turn to another as a tide of worries filled his gaze. He began channeling magic from the rune in his hand. Uncertain of what was happening, Luna stood by his side and watched for a near minute, as Konstantin focused on the rune held against his chest as though his life depended on it.
Yet, when his eyes opened again, there was only crushing dread and despair in his emerald gaze.
“Why I can’t reach Sachka,” he whispered faintly as though he refused to accept it.
- Wheeled Lyre: Literal translation of ‘kolyosnaya lira’. It is known in Western Medieval Europe as a Hurdy-Gurdy.
- Sigurd: Based on Siegfried/Sigurd from the Nibelungenlied. He is the hero of German mythology who killed the dragon Fafnir, bathed in its blood, and in turn received near-invulnerability.
- Stormlord: many Indo-European religions share a god of thunder with common ancestry and many similar traits. The names used in this chapter include Perun (Slavic religion), Perkunas (Baltic/Romuva religion), Taranis (Celtic religion), Pajonn (Sami religion).
- Vila: A southern slavic (Balkan) fairy that’s something of a cross between a Greek nymph and a Norse valkyrie. Vilas are portrayed as beautiful women who like horses, hunting, dancing, and strong men. They’re commonplace in heroic epics, where they often aid heroes through their fondness for combat and supernatural powers.
- Book of Invasions: Known in Irish as the Lebor Gabála Érenn. It is a collection of poems and prose narratives that claims to be the history of Ireland from the creation of the world to the Middle Ages. According to the book, Ireland had been settled/seized six times by six groups of people. The first four eventually abandoned the Island, the fifth –known as Tuatha dé Danann— became the land’s pagan gods, and the sixth stayed to become the Irish Gaels.
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