Danka and her fellow initiates eagerly awaited the Fall Equinox, when they would give up the title of “Initiate” and become fully accepted members of the Cult of the Ancients. To mark the change in their status, they would wear the Cult of the Ancients’ skull on their formal outfits. They handed over their dresses and tunics to the group’s most experienced seamstress, who carefully embroidered the skull that would tell the world that the wearer was a fully-accepted Follower.
Equally important was the skull-staff. Following the sacrifice of the five fortune-hunters, one of the elders cut off their heads and took them to a secret chamber under the Altar of Blood-Nourishment. He spent several days cleaning the skulls before soaking them in a special solution to harden the bone. He drilled holes at the base that would allow the skulls to be mounted on staffs. Finally, he coated the skulls with a special sealant that would prevent them from getting stained and make them as sturdy as a hard piece of wood.
The skull-staff issued to a new Follower was nothing more than a simple wooden pole, but most Followers learned wood-carving and eventually carved designs or pictures into their staffs during their free time. One way for a Christian to tell how long a cult-member had been a Follower was to look at their staff. The most elaborately carved staffs belonged to Followers with the most experience.
However, the season did not give the Initiates much time to think about what life would be like after they became fully accepted Followers. The first three weeks of September were an extremely busy period for everyone in Babackt Yaga’s settlement. It was the last opportunity to bring in food, harvest a final batch of alchemy ingredients, and haul wagonloads of mysterious cave-charcoal.
The final cave-charcoal trip took more than a week and was the most unpleasant event in September: the roads already were muddy, the wagon wheels were constantly getting stuck, and the loads were unbelievably heavy. Kaloyankt reminded Danka that as bad as lugging the black rocks might be, the trip would save the Followers from having to spend the winter chopping wood for fires.
The activity in the kitchen was frenetic, the final chance to preserve food that would allow the Followers to survive the winter. The kitchen had been in an open building all summer, but just before the cave-charcoal trip, the settlers enclosed the structure with a set of ingenuously-made wooden panels. The building would become a warm refuge from the bitter weather outside: not just a place for cooking and eating, but also a place for study and singing practice.
The trip to the Altar of Blood-Nourishment was an unpleasant slog along muddy trails passing through endless groves of trees obscured in cold fog and mist. It was hard to believe that just a few weeks before the area had been so green and pleasant. Danka and the other initiates were hugely relieved when the Altar finally came into view. The Followers went through the secret door and into the underground labyrinth to rest and change into dry clothing.
The ceremony took place at midnight. The Followers were arranged just like they were during the sacrifice: the men immediately around the altar and the women standing around them in a circle, holding their staffs and chanting. Everyone, with the exception of Babackt Yaga and the five initiates, was dressed in their formal black clothing. Babackt Yaga was covered in her black and white ceremonial paint, while the initiates were naked. The newest members trembled as they waited in the cold night air, but the equally-naked alchemist didn’t seem bothered by the temperature in the least.
Danka expected Babackt Yaga to spend a long time shouting prayers and incantations, given her normal penchant for ceremonial flare and drama. However, on that night Babackt Yaga seemed very humble and subdued. One by one the initiates knelt in front of her while she took their hands and silently prayed.
Danka was the first of her group to pray with her mentor. As soon as she knelt and took the old woman’s hands, her world went black. The large hostile eyes from the forest re-emerged. As always, the eyes took over her world and were only thing she could see.
“I have returned, Danka Siluckt. You see, I didn’t forget you.”
“Of course you didn’t forget about me. I never thought you would. Now I know you won’t leave me in peace. But I’ve accepted it.”
“Perhaps, Danka Siluckt, perhaps you have accepted my presence. But that doesn’t mean your Path in Life will ever be any easier. Learning brings knowledge, and knowledge brings despair. I have blessed your Mistress with much knowledge, more than any other living mortal. And yet, she is no happier for it. I granted her many extra years of life, but those years have brought her no joy. Like your Mistress, you will be blessed.”
“I wouldn’t call anything from you a blessing. And my Path in Life is my own, not yours or anyone else’s. Now, I call upon the Ancients to cast you out.”
The eyes slowly faded and vanished. Danka knew that it was nothing more than a reprieve. The Profane One would return, of that she could be sure, but at least now she knew it was possible to fight back.
When her consciousness returned to the Realm of the Living, her eyes met those of Babackt Yaga. The old woman’s expression did not change, but it seemed that she was fully aware of what had just happened in her initiate’s inner world. Somehow, she knew.
With a slight tug of her hands, Babackt Yaga silently ordered Danka to stand up. An elder brought her the black dress, now complete with a finely-stitched image of a skull.
“You will dress. You now have earned your rightful place among the Followers of the Ancients. The Ancients will bless you with knowledge, and burden you with responsibility.”
Danka was extremely grateful to get dressed and finally cover her body against the chilly wind whipping around the open meadow. Babackt Yaga picked up a newly-crafted staff, complete with a real skull, the skull of a man who had been alive, just three weeks before. The skull contained a finely crafted oil lamp, which was vented through the eye sockets and designed to be resistant to being blown out unintentionally. An elder lit the lamp. The alchemist held out the staff.
“In much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain. This staff brings burden and responsibility into your life, not peace and happiness. Perhaps the Ancients will allow you a few moments of happiness as you progress through your days in the Realm of the Living, but happiness is a gift, and a very fleeting one at that. Do you accept that the Path of Your Life is not the blind pursuit of pleasure?”
“I accept that, Babackt Yaga. The blind pursuit of pleasure is not my Path in Life.”
“Then you will take up this burden. Everyday, for the rest of your time among the living, you must earn the right to carry it. Learning is never finished. Acquiring knowledge is never finished. And the struggle to serve will never be finished.”
Babackt Yaga handed the staff to Danka. The women let out a long wail. When the eerie mournful noise finally died down, Danka left the altar and took her place among the Followers. She waited for her fellow initiates to receive their outfits and staffs. As each of her companions took up their burden, she celebrated by wailing along with the others.
The Followers spent the night sleeping in the underground passages before closing them up for the year. The next day they took precautions to hide the entrance and to clean the holy site to remove all evidence of their most recent visit.
As soon as they returned to Babackt Yaga’s settlement, most of Danka’s companions prepared to leave the mountains for the entire winter. Within days they departed, taking with them pack loads of alchemy ingredients and medical equipment. The majority of the Followers took up residence in the houses of wealthy provincial citizens instead of constantly making the arduous trek up and down snow-covered mountain trails. No matter where they went, the Followers could always rely on a patron to provide free room and board, which was a small price to pay for having a doctor readily accessible to their families and friends. Hosting a Follower also provided honor and prestige within the community, because the Followers attended the medical needs of anyone nearby who needed their services.
Winter came earlier, stayed longer, and was much harsher in the northern highlands than in the cities in the Duchy’s western valley. As the nights grew colder and a storm of sleet hit the compound, Danka realized that she would miss the comparatively mild climate of Starivktaki Moskt. While the valley-dwellers still enjoyed the gentle sunshine of the early fall, in the mountains the tree leaves already had turned with the cold frosty weather.
The colder climate forced the Followers to give up their habit of not wearing clothing in the settlement and while wandering in the nearby mountains and streambeds. However, even during the winter the Followers sought to set themselves apart from conventional society. They didn’t wear their formal Cult clothing, but instead wore fur-lined leather shirts and boots. If the temperature outside remained above freezing, they wore nothing else, which meant they remained naked between their knees and their waists. Danka thought the cult members looked very odd, their bare thighs and bottoms contrasting with their fur-covered feet and torsos. Even in the coldest weather the settlers rarely wore any type of trousers, but instead protected their bodies with outer robes that were black and similar in appearance to the hooded prayer robes used by worshipers in the Danubian Church.
Babackt Yaga’s settlement was quiet after her doctors departed for the winter. The only people remaining were the ones who most recently had joined the Cult and still needed training, and a few older members who had retired from traveling. The older members spent their days educating the younger ones, making sure their knowledge and skills were passed on before their Paths in Life ended.
The medical training over the winter was intense and often depressing. The camp kept a supply of preserved headless bodies from sacrificial victims for the young Followers to practice on and dissect. The young members also practiced on live animals such as pigs, which had to be deliberately injured. Sometimes the senior Followers cut the pigs with swords or daggers, and sometimes they pushed an animal off a platform onto rocks to break its bones. Then it was up to the younger Followers to anesthetize the struggling and squealing subject to evaluate and treat its injuries. Any animal about to be butchered for meat was injured and operated on several times before finally being killed. It was cruel and unpleasant work, but at the time there really was no other training method available. Babackt Yaga could not afford to place her group’s reputation in jeopardy by having her newest students train on human patients and risk making a mistake.
Training for operations and attending injuries was only a small part of Babackt Yaga’s education for her newest subordinates. She left the physical training to the elders. For her, understanding alchemy was much more important than being a good field surgeon. She already had introduced the newcomers to creating basic medicines. Now that they had their skulls and were fully accepted in the Cult, they could be trusted with preparing more sophisticated medicines and working with the most expensive and hard-to-obtain ingredients. One of the first recipes that the three women learned was preparing the Followers’ much-coveted birth-control paste.
“No matter where you go, with this knowledge every woman, from harlot to baroness, will seek your favor and friendship.”
As the snow fell and the cold wind whipped around the settlement, Babackt Yaga gathered the five newest members of her group into her laboratory and library. Over the years she had collected a copy of every book on medicine and alchemy known at the time, including ancient texts written in Arab, Greek, and Latin. She had inherited part of the collection, but during her life had greatly expanded it. She also had translated many of the Greek and Latin texts into Danubian and wrote commentaries on the effectiveness of the medical procedures and how to improve upon them. Whenever she finished a translation, she had a Follower make a copy and had it sent to an associate who maintained a library and printing press in Sebernekt Ris.
As an example of her work with translations, Babackt Yaga directed her students’ attention to a couple of old books lying on her study table. The titles were in a foreign language: Historia Plantarum and De artificiosis extractionibus liber. The books were in horrible condition: very worn and with the pages covered with annotations handwritten in Danubian.
“Two hundred years ago a young man called Valerius Cordus conducted research on plants and their medicinal uses. He wrote extensively and recovered much of the knowledge that was lost during Humanity’s Great Rebellion against the Ancients. My Path in Life included translating these works into the language of the Duchy to ensure his knowledge is available to our people. The Paths of the Followers’ Lives calls upon us to expand upon what people like Valerius Cordus discovered. I say expand, because there are many plants unique to the Duchy that Valerius Cordus did not know about. So, we’ve studied his experiments and applied them to Danubian plants. Also, we’ve imported and cultivated the most useful foreign plants described in his works and refined his medical research. Year after year the Followers have built upon his knowledge, and in doing so, we are acting in defiance of the Profane One. The day will come when the Profane One will tire of my efforts and end my Path in Life, but until that day comes, I will continue my work to recover what has been lost, and your Path in Life is to assist me in that effort.”
So, during her first winter as a Follower, Danka’s duties included copying translations that would be sent to Sebernekt Ris, where they would be printed for further distribution. She perfected her penmanship and continued to expand on her vocabulary. Strange to think, just two years before she had been completely illiterate, and now she was transcribing complicated medical studies.
An important arrangement that the settlement’s remaining residents had to make for the winter was sleeping. There were three sleeping houses, but at any given time only two were occupied. Every month the houses were rotated so that one could be left “fallow”. That meant the structure was evacuated, swept out, and the windows left open to freeze any insects or rodents that had taken up residence inside. The Followers took clean bedding, bathed, and set up in the house that had previously been unoccupied.
Danka learned why Babackt Yaga took such extreme precautions. In a country where fleas, lice, and bedbugs were still extremely common, the alchemist was determined to keep such vermin to a minimum in her settlement. She was convinced that blood-sucking insects carried many of the “Profane One’s” curses; most notably bubonic plague.
By the mid-1700’s the Danubians had figured out that bubonic plague was associated with rats, hence they started calling the sickness “the rat plague” and began measures to reduce the number of rats in their settlements. After decades of observations and reading, Babackt Yaga suspected that it was not the rats that directly brought the plague to humans. She had figured out that both rats and humans were affected by the same disease, and looked for a possible common cause. Finally, through a series of experiments with groups of sick and healthy rats, she determined that the rat plague was caused by a blood-poison that was transmitted by fleas, not the rats themselves. Ridding an area of rats certainly helped control the plague, but what really mattered was ridding an area of fleas.
She researched other blood-poisoning curses of the Profane One, and had decided that insects, especially fleas and mosquitoes, were the Profane One’s messengers that carried blood poison from one person to the next. Thus, the way to stop the Profane One from poisoning blood involved minimizing the number of blood-sucking insects.
Each sleeping house was heated with a metal stove for cave-charcoal. However, the heating was inadequate: during the coldest months it was just enough to keep the rooms’ temperature from falling below freezing. The beds helped, because they were enclosed with thick covers on top and around the sides. All of the beds were large enough to fit two people comfortably, so to conserve warmth each Follower slept with another person, either their closest friend or a lover. So… a final detail that Danka needed to arrange was finding a person to share her assigned bed.
Danka knew that she needed to take Kaloyankt as her sleeping partner. After having spent the previous winter enjoying a bed to herself at the Church Temple, she was not thrilled at having to return to sharing one. Unfortunately, the cold did not give her or anyone else a choice in the matter. She had to have another person to keep her warm while sleeping, and Kaloyankt was the logical choice. It was what he expected and what everyone else expected. Rather than risk hurting his feelings and spurring possible gossip among her companions, Danka announced that she would pass the winter with Kaloyankt.
Kaloyankt was, of course, elated. Now that she officially shared his bed, he considered her as “his woman”. During the long winter nights he was guaranteed sex whenever he wanted it, because Danka acquiesced anytime he touched her and sought to arouse her. Danka and Kaloyankt were young, vigorous, and in excellent health. Under their dark canopy they practiced every sexual position imaginable many times over.
Kaloyankt was under the impression that sharing a bed and having sex with Danka would solidify their relationship, with the end result being marriage whenever they were ready to leave Babackt Yaga’s settlement and venture forth into the world. Danka fully understood her lover’s expectations, but the more time she spent with him, the more her doubts about the relationship increased. She couldn’t understand why, because Kaloyankt was the type of man she was looking for. He was educated, intelligent, and the son of nobility. He was a good sexual partner and a vigorous lover. He respected her and did not seem to hold her peasant upbringing against her.
And yet, and yet, Danka spent many sleepless nights troubled by her own illogical emotions, even as she lay in her lover’s arms and felt his breath on her body. She couldn’t imagine staying with him past the spring. He was a part of her present, but if she couldn’t force herself to love him, how could he be part of her future?
The daily routine of studying chemistry and medicine, learning new alchemy formulas, preparing potions, practicing surgery on cadavers and injured pigs, spending several hours copying translations, and practicing hymns and chants in archaic Danubian left Danka’s companions mentally exhausted at the end of each day. Apart from learning, the Followers had to attend to their physical needs in a hostile environment. They had to prepare meals, care for their livestock, and keep their living area clean. There were time-consuming setbacks, such as the day four pigs escaped and only two were re-captured, and the night an extreme cold snap killed a third of the settlement’s hens and burst a cistern. Even in a well-run settlement, winter was a time of hardship.
As the months went by and the winter solstice approached and passed, Babackt Yaga noted the progress of the newest Followers. If they became tired or discouraged, she eased their training or shifted their responsibilities. She did not expect the same results for everyone, knowing that different people learned at different paces and had different strengths and weaknesses.
The alchemist was most impressed by Danka. She seemed to be the most promising recruit to enter the Cult of the Ancients… ever. The peasant girl was used to physical hardship, so the challenges of winter life did not trouble her in the least. She did not flinch or hesitate when confronted with an injured animal: she calmly sedated the subject and set about sewing up wounds or splinting broken limbs. She could evaluate internal injuries and tell if there were wounds that were untreatable.
The girl was extremely smart. By the beginning of 1752 her vocabulary matched that of many people who had years of formal education. During those darkest months, the young Follower transformed into a different person. She was determined to erase her identity as a “peasant girl”. Her Pagan beliefs and newly-acquired knowledge gave her confidence in her own abilities, which pushed her to pursue increasingly challenging subjects in her studies. Babackt Yaga calculated that, at the rate she was progressing, within just a year Danka would fully understand all of the subjects needed to be an alchemist; including botany, chemistry, and working with mathematical formulas.
The detail of Danka that impressed Babackt Yaga the most, however, was her desire to learn for the sake of learning. She never tired of spending time alone with Danka because she saw so much of her own personality as a young woman in the new recruit. Whenever Danka showed up under the alchemist’s laboratory, she could count on the ladder dropping and receiving a call to climb up. She was desperate to learn and Babackt Yaga was eager to teach.
After her companions had gone to bed for the night, Danka visited her mentor to receive instruction in archaic Danubian. She didn’t just want to sing in archaic Danubian; she wanted to be completely fluent in the dialect of the Ancients. She also wanted to learn Latin and German. She became interested in maps and in learning about the countries surrounding the Duchy. She wanted to know about history and understand why times changed from generation to generation. Babackt Yaga, whose memories went back a century, appreciated the opportunity to share stories of a forgotten lifetime with a person whose journey in the Realm of the Living was just beginning.
At the beginning of February Babackt Yaga began the process of preparing a new batch of longevity potion from her supply of dried mushrooms. The first step in that process was deciding how much of the potion to make.
For the first time in her life, alchemist had a huge supply of specimens from “The Joy of the Ancients”. Although the stock of the potion’s key ingredient was enormous, it was destined to be the final harvest. Because of the way the mushrooms grew, the species was unlikely to ever recover from the previous summer’s slaughter.
There was another consideration. The potency of preserved specimens of “the Joy of the Ancients” peaked about six months after they were dried, but then gradually weakened. Babackt Yaga was not sure how long finished potion would last, because she had never tried keeping it in storage for more than a year. Well, she would just have to take that risk. She decided to convert most of her mushrooms into longevity potion.
The next decision she would have to make was determining who would be given the potion over the following year. When taken properly, the potion’s effect on a subject was to slow down the normal aging process by three/fourths. That meant a person taking the treatment over a four-year period would only age one year. If the patient stopped, the aging process resumed at a normal rate. Over the years she had administered the potion to herself and others, Babackt Yaga had not noticed any negative side-effects.
She would continue giving the potion to herself, of course. There were a couple of elders working on medical research who also would receive the potion, to give them time to finish their work. There were some researchers in Sebernekt Ris, and her old friend Fitoreckt, who was the Followers’ leading alchemist in the northwestern part of the Duchy, who also would continue with the treatment.
After giving the matter some thought, Babackt Yaga decided to add her student Danka Siluckt to the list. The girl had her faults, but those faults were the result of her having to come to terms with the conflict between her talent and the limitations she was facing. Of all the young people who had passed through the settlement over the years, Danka Siluckt showed the most potential, by far. With her gifted mind and hunger for learning, it made sense to give her some extra time to develop herself. Maybe, maybe Danka Siluckt could even take over the settlement some day. Even with the longevity potion, Babackt Yaga wasn’t getting any younger. She had been able to delay the inevitable, but death would come to her, potion or no potion. She had to think about a successor. Maybe the peasant girl was that person, the one who would guide the Followers into their uncertain future.
On the night of February 14, Danka ascended the ladder to receive her extra hours of instruction from her patron. As usual, she brought with her a kettle of boiling water, expecting to serve tea to the alchemist and to herself. Instead of the normal mint and herb mixture, Babackt Yaga ordered the student to open a ceramic jar and remove two very small spoonfuls of blue powder. She mixed the powder with hot water and some other dried herbs, and then handed a cup to Danka. The concoction tasted bitter, but left a pleasant sensation that would last several days. After finishing their drink, Babackt Yaga commented:
“The Realm of the Living is changing, Danka Siluckt. For many years I have pondered where our Path in Life is leading us, and I asked for a sign to illuminate the future. I did not request the illumination because I harbor any illusions that I can benefit by seeing what will be. I am old and my Path in Life will end shortly. I asked for illumination so I could understand in what direction to point those who will come after me. I received my answer last summer, with my failure to protect ‘the Joy of the Ancients’. The Realm of the Living’s connection to the Old World is fading, disappearing little by little. That process has been going on for many centuries, but I am convinced you are the one who will live to see its completion. The Ancients have decided to no longer speak to the Realm of the Living through the Followers. They will continue to speak, but it will be through others, not us.”
“Do you have any idea who ‘the others’ might be, Babackt Yaga?”
“Yes. You might think I am discouraged by the passing of the Old World, but really I am not. I think the Ancients will eventually speak through the Danubian Church, or through the Old Believers, to be more precise. Many Christians are looking at us, the people who represent the Old World, and are taking interest in what we have to say. They don’t want our rituals, but they do want our knowledge. So, when the final Follower puts down his skull for the very last time, and the Blood of Life Nourishment flows no more, we will continue to contribute. The riddle is how to make that transition.”
Danka pondered how to respond. At the moment she intensely disliked the Danubian Church. Now that she had experienced the relative freedom that came with living as a Pagan, she was disgusted by the restrictive lifestyle of the Christians, even if they were Old Believers. However, deep down she knew the real reason of her dislike of the Church stemmed from her memory of Bagaturckt and his father’s failure to control him. Did she really have the right to judge the entire Church based on a single traumatic event in her life? Her thoughts jumped to a strange question:
“Do you think that maybe, the Followers would join the Church?”
“Some already have. Two years ago I sent two young men to the Seminary in Starivktaki Moskt, and last year, just before my Path in Life crossed with yours, I sent a young woman to the Great Temple in Danubikt Moskt. I will send another one of your companions to the Great Temple in the spring. So… we are trying to make the transition.”
“You, are you telling me, that maybe I should study for the Christian Priesthood?”
“Not at all. You’d never make a good Christian. You have the heart of the Old World beating in your chest. But in your lifetime, you will experience the transformation that is coming among our people. You belong to the new era, but the Ancients will grant you a glimpse of the old. You must bear witness to everything you see and teach anyone who wishes to learn. You must remember everything the Ancients choose to show you and acquire the skills needed to serve the Duchy. However, your Path in Life is not to just stand around learning, watching, and remembering. You have the Power to heal. You, Danka Siluckt. Your Path in Life will be to fix what seems broken beyond repair; to restore what no man thinks can be restored. You will carry the knowledge of the Old World with you so you can re-build part of the new one. That is why I have started giving you the blue tea. I need to hold back the Profane One and buy you some extra time to learn as much as you can. When you have learned what you need to learn, you will leave this settlement and fulfill your Path in Life.”
“Among the Christians?”
“Yes, among the Christians, but not as a Priestess.”
“Babackt Yaga, I don’t want to live among the Christians. I’m really happier here. I like being a Follower.”
“Who said anything about your happiness? It’s not your Path in Life to seek happiness. As long as you pursue happiness, it will evade you.”
As long as I pursue happiness, it will evade me.
Yes, that was indeed the reality of Danka’s life. She thought about those harsh words as she returned to the sleeping house. She made love to Kaloyankt, before spending yet another sleepless night in his arms.
I’d be happy with this man. He loves me and would give me the life I always wanted. I really want to love him. I want to stay with him, and yet, I can’t. I know I’ll never love him, because the Ancients wouldn’t allow it to happen. I know I could be happy with him, but it is not my Path in Life to be happy. Instead of bringing him joy, I’d be destined to bring the Destroyer into his life, to make him miserable.
Danka had only one consolation: she had no reason to break up with her lover for several more months. She’d have to wait until the summer, when they’d be sleeping in separate beds. Then she’d follow her Path in Life and disengage herself from a relationship that offered her the life she had so desperately sought just two years before.
The days were getting longer. The sun came out occasionally, giving Babackt Yaga’s settlement a welcome break from the dreary mist and snowstorms of winter. Patches of bare ground appeared and the snow disappeared from the trees. The nights were still cold, but they were not so long, so heating became much less of a problem. Shortly the trails would start to clear and the Followers’ isolation from the outside world would come to an end.
Whenever she had time, Danka continued her studies. By the early spring she became interested in learning what she could about religion and mythology. As a Follower, her first priority was understanding her own religious heritage. She became familiar with all of the stories of the Ancients and could recite them from memory. She was able to read and understand archaic Danubian, but was determined to master speaking it and writing it as well. She wanted that connection with the Old World, to know that had she lived thousands of years before, she would have had the skills to fit into the ancient culture.
She also became interested in the faiths of the modern world. She finished the studies she had started the previous year in Starivktaki Moskt by memorizing the texts of the Danubian Church, and fully understood the theological differences between True Believers and Old Believers. She examined the information that Babackt Yaga had on other religions such as the faith of the Ottoman Empire, which the Danubians referred to as “the Followers of Mohammed”. Danka began forming opinions on the various religions and assessed their strengths and weaknesses.
Danka even became interested in the mythology of non-Danubian people. She already was familiar with the Danubian Church texts including the Christian Bible, the Book of the Ancients, and the Book of the Correct Path, but now she had the opportunity to learn some more about Pagan times throughout Europe. She read Babackt Yaga’s translations of Norse sagas, Slavic folk-tales, and the mythology of the ancient Greeks. The Greek stories didn’t impress her, because it seemed the Greek gods were nothing more than ordinary men gifted with extraordinary powers they didn’t know how to use properly. But then… Danka did come across a mythical figure that caught her attention: the Hebrew demon Lilith.
Noting her student’s intense interest in Lilith, Babackt Yaga directed her attention to the sources and references she had available on that topic. The direct mention of Lilith in the Old Testament book of Isaiah was frustratingly brief, but there were other sources in Kabbalistic writings such as the Zohar that provided additional information. For a woman to have that level of cosmic power, to terrorize pious men and actively defy and confront the Christian God, made Lilith into an object of admiration and fantasy for Danka.
“That’s what I want. To do what Lilith did. I want the power to terrorize the pious.”
“That is not your Path in Life, Danka Siluckt. I know what you seek. You would seek pleasure through vengeance against those who dishonored you. And just how do you expect to do that? The man who most dishonored you is already dead. As for the others, you have no way of knowing whether they continue to live, or if they have already held up their mirrors before the Creator. You have no way of knowing. Since you fancy yourself following a being who defied the Roman God, then I will quote passage from the Roman Bible:
“So I turned to consider wisdom, madness and folly; for what will the man do who will come after the king except what has already been done? And I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. The wise man’s eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I know that one fate befalls them both. Then I said to myself, “As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?” So I said to myself, “This too is vanity.” For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten. And how the wise man and the fool alike die! So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind.”
“I recite this to you, Danka Siluckt, for a simple reason. Nearly two years have passed since you left Rika Heckt-nemat. What news have you received since your departure? How would you know if anything in that city remains as you remember it? How would you know if anyone there remembers you? And, whether or not anyone does remember you, what difference does it make?”
Danka wasn’t sure how to respond. She thought about saying that she understood and would give up on her thoughts of revenge, but to do so would entail lying. She had learned never to lie to Babackt Yaga. Finally the old woman broke the silence.
“You have done well, not to speak the deception that is in your heart. You ponder seeking power over the pious so you can seek revenge. I fear, eventually you will take action. I can see that very clearly. I cannot dissuade you: only you can dissuade yourself. However, remember my words, the day you act on your fantasies, your life as you know it will be ruined. Your Path in Life will change, and you will have to begin anew. Remember my words when that happens.”
Historian’s Note 01: During my research I came across seven manuscripts that I believe were handwritten by Danka Siluckt. There are two journals in the medical school in Rika Heckt-nemat that are directly attributed to the founder Vesna Roguskt-Orsktacktna. I also found two translations in the Church library in Sebernekt Ris and three more translations in the Royal archives, that appear to have been written by the same hand. I had my theory verified by handwriting experts, who studied handwriting samples from all seven books and confirmed they were scripted by the same individual. The manuscripts show a clear progression in the author’s penmanship, with the works in Rika Heckt-nemat being the most recent and with the best handwriting.
– Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna –
Historian’s Note 02: The final known samples of “the Joy of the Ancients” (amanita danuvius-caeruleum) were harvested by scientists working at the university in Sebernekt Ris in 1811. Along with six specimens of “the Joy of the Ancients”, scientists collected many other fungi, including numerous samples of the highland green moon-cap (amanita danuvius-viridis), which is “the Joy of the Ancients'” closest living relative. Because of their appearance, the two species were mis-classified at the time and have yet to be re-named. In reality they are not closely related to any other species of mushroom. Both species grew and reproduced extremely slowly, but unlike its extinct relative, the highland green moon-cap has the good fortune to be poisonous and to not possess any medicinal value.
The last alleged sighting of a specimen of the “the Joy of the Ancients'” living in the wild was in 1820. It is hard to say whether the 1811 scientific expedition contributed to its extinction. I doubt it, because only six specimens were collected and amateur fortune-hunters were hunting for the mushrooms as well.
In 1935 the Danubian government ordered the transfer of the remaining dried specimens to the National Museum of Natural History for better preservation. More recently, the Danubian Ministry of Science sent the samples to geneticists in Germany to see if the plant’s genetic code can be reconstructed. There are some DNA fragments that do not appear in any other plant, including the highland green moon-cap. It appears some genetic information has been permanently lost, even from the best-preserved specimens. Efforts to fully decode the genetic make-up of “the Joy of the Ancients” have proven unsuccessful.
It is hard to over-emphasize the tragic loss resulting from this extinction. I did not go into details in the main narrative, but prior to the late eighteenth century, the Followers of the Ancients conducted extensive research on various medicinal properties of “the Joy of the Ancients”. The plant had other benefits to humans apart from longevity. For example, the Followers used a mixture of spores combined with ether to cure several severe cases of tuberculosis. One of Babackt Yaga’s journal entries also claimed one of her elders had been able to reverse cancer development. Unfortunately, the Followers’ research was held back by the dwindling supply of dried mushrooms, which became completely unavailable after 1800.
– Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna –