Danka felt very restless and ill-at-ease after Kaloyankt departed Daguruckt-Tok with his new wife. It was strange to consider how different the girl’s life would be from that of Danka… almost completely opposite. Her parents were keen on marrying her off as soon as her hair was braided, and her very first suitor became her husband. She would never find out what falling in love with more than one man would be like, nor would she ever experience the traveling, hardships, and various adventures that had been Danka’s Path in Life over the past two years. She would never be humiliated or have to run away from anything. The only hardship she’d ever have to endure would be childbirth, which was a hardship common to all women. Danka wondered if Kaloyankt might become bored with his wife, but she knew him well enough to understand that if he was bored with her, he’d keep those emotions hidden.
The other Followers did not know that Danka had set up her lover’s new relationship precisely to get rid of him. Initially most of her companions thought it was Kaloyankt who had left Danka, to take advantage of replacing her with a girl who was closer to his social class. By the standards of Danubian society such a move would have made sense for a young man in Kaloyankt’s situation. Danka figured it would be best to let people believe whatever they wanted to believe. If anyone asked her about her lover, she simply responded: “What happened was between me and him. It was the will of the Creator that forced us to separate. If you must know, consult with the Ancients, and perhaps you will receive your answer.” Her attitude was misinterpreted by her companions and the townsfolk as typical peasant’s stoicism.
Ermin vaguely hoped that now, with his rival out of the way, he might convince Danka to become more committed to him. She did consider him as her primary lover, but she had no intention of limiting with whom she would have sex. She made herself available to the town’s most important men, starting with Kaloyankt’s father-in-law. Since she had introduced his daughter to her future husband, the Priest allowed Danka to use a secret hidden outdoor courtyard to rinse off after finishing her operations for the day. Danka knew the Priest was probably watching her, but she didn’t mind because the courtyard was secluded and a nice quiet spot to gather her thoughts. Now that Kaloyankt was gone, she wanted to see if the Clergyman was indeed watching her, and if so, would it be possible to seduce him. She spent longer periods of time in the courtyard, alternating between bathing and sunning herself while reading. She read in languid seductive positions, spreading her legs and casually running her hand over her thighs or massaging her vulva. She paid attention to the Priest whenever she talked to him, noticing he was increasingly nervous. She casually commented:
“It’s really nice in the courtyard in the afternoon, Priest. I wish to thank you for letting me use it. It seems such a pity you couldn’t enjoy it as well.”
The next day Danka passed through the church instead of entering the courtyard from the back. She gave the Priest a seductive smile and proceeded to her bath. Overcome with desire, he looked around to make sure no one was watching at that moment, and then followed her. She entered the courtyard, leaving the door ajar and quickly undressed. She knew the Priest was watching. She approached a stone bench and placed her hands on it, with her bottom facing the door and her audience.
The Priest had gone too far to back away. The young Follower knew he had been watching her. She knew he wanted her. The man’s desire took over and he entered the courtyard, shutting the door behind him. She looked over her shoulder to give him a seductive smile. He placed his hand on her bottom, massaged her backside for a moment, and pulled off his robe and hat. Already he was hard. He fondled the girl’s labia and touched her clitoris. She was wet and ready. He entered her and thrust, letting out a series of strange-sounding grunts. Danka had a hard time suppressing a laugh.
She spent the night making love to Ermin, but her mind was on what she would do with the Priest the following day. Now that she had succeeded in seducing the Clergyman, her next step was to take away the illusion that he was in charge of what was happening. She figured that he’d come into the courtyard as soon as she had her dress off and that it would not be necessary to assume the submissive position. She was right about that. The moment she was naked, there he was. She did not give him a chance to take off his robe, but instead hugged him and lifted it off. His hat fell to the ground and rolled across the tiles. She hugged him and caressed his hardening penis. Holding and controlling him by his erection, she guided him to the stone bench and pushed him onto his back. She massaged his chest to keep him from trying to get up. Then she mounted him and positioned herself so he’d enter her. Again he made those weird grunting noises, but Danka was too caught up in her own fantasies to notice or care.
I am in control. This man is doing what I want, copulating in the way I have chosen. This is what Lilith did, and this is my Path in Life. I will become Lilith. I will seduce the self-righteous and strip them of their illusion of piety.
Danka never bathed in the courtyard again. She was done with the Priest and was ready to move on to her next target, a town councilman. He was followed by the director of the local builder’s guild, two other councilmen, and the town’s largest land-owner. Danka’s pattern was always the same. She initially seduced her target by finding an excuse to take off her dress and assume the submissive position. During the second love-making session she silently insisted, through caresses and positioning her lover onto his back, on being on top. She became hungry for more lovers, more experiences, and finding the most powerful men.
All men are weak. It doesn’t matter how pious or important they might be, they’re all weak. They can’t resist the vagina. I will control them. I will have power.
Ermin was aware of Danka’s actions, but he failed to do anything about the situation. He was involved in his own extra affair, with the widow of a local landowner. Just like Danka, he had illusions of greatness through sex. He was hoping to assume control of the woman’s estate, from which he would create a safe-haven for Cult members in the heart of the Western Valley. He let Danka have her adventures, figuring there would be no harm in allowing her to have some fun.
During the final week of August, Danka was working on the leader of the town council, the most important man in Daguruckt-Tok and the oldest man she had ever tried to seduce. She entered his study and flattered him into thinking that she considered him attractive. In his case she did not even bother with letting him first take her in the submissive position. He was too old to achieve a spontaneous erection, so she laid him on his back and massaged his penis until he finally managed to get hard. She mounted him and placed her hands on his chest. He smiled and grunted. She felt his penis weakly pumping into her vagina. Then her world went black, and a pair of cruel yellow eyes took over her vision. The Destroyer laughed, and faded away.
The old man suddenly jerked, let out a gurgling gasp, and went limp. His arms fell to his sides and his eyes stared blankly into space. Danka felt her heart jump into her throat when she realized her lover was not breathing. She pushed his chest and tried forcing air into his mouth. Nothing. She jumped up, realizing the councilman’s soul had just separated from his body. Terror welled up inside her. She tried to revive the official several more times, but he remained inert. He was definitely dead. Danka frantically put on her Follower’s outfit and dressed the corpse. The body seemed unbelievably heavy as she rolled it around and pulled on the clothes. Sweat poured down the girl’s panicky face as she tried to remove all evidence of what had just happened.
Danka’s mind was blank from terror. She no longer felt like the all-powerful Lilith. She ran outside, holding her head with her hands, trying to think of what to do. Ermin, she’d have to tell Ermin what happened and see if he could think of something. She ran around the town asking for him and finally found out that he was setting the broken arm of a guard who had fallen off a ladder. He handed off the operation to his assistant and followed the girl outside.
Danka frantically told Ermin about the official’s death. She was so frightened that she did not try to hide any details from him. She knew that she was in deep trouble and that her only hope was to rely on him to come up with a solution. He didn’t say anything to admonish her, because that would have to come later. His only response was to tell her they needed to return to the council building and confront the town’s leaders with the truth.
The town’s clergy, guild leaders, and council staff already were gathered outside the city hall. Several assistants angrily pointed at Danka as soon as she was in their sight. They had seen her running from the building just before they found their leader dead. The guards ran up to the Followers with their crossbows drawn, but Ermin calmly held up his hand.
“You will listen to me! We are returning, are we not? If we wished to flee as common murderers, would we be here, of all places? Would we not be running away from this city as fast as we could? We are delivering ourselves into your hands. Your elders will listen to us before you release your bolts!”
Ermin led Danka into the main council chamber. The city’s leaders were sitting at their chairs, minus their senior chief. Danka trembled, partly because she had seduced the majority of the men sitting at that table. Ermin suggested they order the guards out of the room and close the doors. Fortunately the elders acquiesced.
Ermin told Danka to explain what happened. With tears in her eyes and a trembling voice she described the heart attack and her efforts to revive the councilman. The experience was unnerving and humiliating, because she had made love to several of her listeners in the exact same manner. None of the councilmen had known that she had seduced any of the others. The looked at each other and realized they all were implicated in Danka’s behavior. Ermin broke the silence:
“The Senior Councilman’s soul did indeed separate from his body because of a heart attack, my Lords. That is the truth: it was a simple heart attack. I deeply regret our failure as doctors, but he was 65 years old, and his time in the Realm of the Living had to end. This girl exhausted her knowledge doing what she could to revive him. When her efforts failed, she ran to advise me so I could determine if anything more could be done for the gentleman. I regret to say that nothing more can be done, that the man’s soul separated from his body. I therefore request your permission to remove my subordinate from your city. It is best that we deal with her, which we will.”
The council sat quietly for a moment. Finally the first member Danka had seduced spoke:
“Yes, it is best that you leave, Follower, as soon as you can pack your belongings. Be gone by sunset. Get that dishonored girl out of our sight and don’t let her talk to anyone on your way out. You will understand that she is never to return to this city. We don’t want you back either. Someone else in your group will take charge. Stay quiet about this and get out.”
Ermin gave Danka an angry look, because now his own ambitions had been disrupted. He couldn’t work on seducing the widow if he wasn’t allowed in the town. He saluted the council members and left the chamber. Danka said nothing as she followed him. The Followers loaded and mounted two mules (which they had to purchase) and rode out of Daguruckt-Tok. They were away from the town and headed north within an hour of leaving the city hall. Danka said nothing, but was terrified as she wondered how the Followers disciplined a member who had brought dishonor to the Cult.
Ermin was indeed angry at Danka. He could not fault her for having sex with other men if he was doing exactly the same thing with other women, but her behavior had been totally reckless. The Followers were extremely lucky the scandal had happened in Daguruckt-Tok, where there was enough goodwill that the entire Cult would not be judged by the actions of a single member. Had the incident happened anywhere else, it was very likely the group, or at least Danka and Ermin, would have ended up tied to posts in the city square with five arrows sticking out of their chests. Ironically, it was also fortunate that Danka had seduced so many of the council members, men who did not want their own humiliating involvement with their guest to get out.
The official story was that the city elder had a heart attack and young Follower had been summoned to save him. She failed and the council members were angry at that failure. The locals were skeptical. Now, why would the town council be angry at a doctor who couldn’t save an old man who died from natural causes typical of a person that age? Wasn’t that unreasonable?
The sexual portion of the story came out, mostly as guesses and rumors. Several conflicting versions of the councilman’s death at the hands of the young temptress circulated around the town. The young Follower’s sexual appetite and abilities were greatly exaggerated, especially when various men who had never met her falsely claimed to have been her lovers. She became the girl-demon of Daguruckt-Tok, the cruel seductress of the valley. Eventually the tales became totally fanciful and Danka became a semi-supernatural being, in many ways similar to her heroine Lilith.
Ermin and his assistant rode north for three days. He was very worried that two lightly-armed civilians, sitting on a pair of slow-moving pack mules, could be easy targets for brigands. When possible, he and Danka traveled with groups of traders or anyone else who happened to be going in the same direction. The practical concern of traveling delayed anything he wanted to say concerning her behavior in Daguruckt-Tok. Danka was extremely grateful for the respite, but all too soon the two Followers passed the final village and the wooded mountains loomed ahead. Following custom, as soon as they were out of sight from the open fields, Danka and Ermin stripped off their clothing. They rode a short distance into the trees before stopping to give the mules a chance to drink from a nearby stream. Danka, now naked and feeling very vulnerable, waited for her companion to say something. He glanced at her and commented:
“Do you remember our conversation last April, when we talked about the birch grove?”
“Yes, I remember that.”
“I’m sure you’d agree it’s time we pay that location a visit, don’t you think?”
Danka felt a shiver running through her body. So, they would spend the promised afternoon in the grove, but it would not be an afternoon of erotic play. It was obvious Ermin planned to inflict real punishment. She understood, under the circumstances, that she deserved a whipping. She was actually relieved; if Ermin punished her, then it was less likely she’d have to endure punishment from Babackt Yaga. She suspected chastisement from her Mistress would be infinitely worse than anything Ermin could inflict on her.
After a few moments of silence, she desolately looked at her companion.
“When you’re finished, do you think you can forgive me?”
“I’ll try, Danka. That’s all I can promise right now. I’ll try to forgive you. I’m well-aware that harboring anger won’t serve either of us.”
The nearest birch grove was about an hour’s ride further into the forest. It was an idyllic clearing, a rare spot where the sun’s light and warmth reached through the leaves and illuminated the ground. The Followers would be making camp in that location. It already was mid-day and Ermin knew that by the time he finished, there would be no point in loading up the mules only to have to unload them a couple of hours later. After the animals were unsaddled and the camp was set up, Danka quietly and sadly looked at her mentor, awaiting further instructions. He handed her a small sharp knife.
“You’ll need to select 10 good rods and prepare them. Cut the pieces about a half-fathom in length, peel off the bark, and leave them in the stream to soak. Make sure there are no sharp points sticking out. That’s very important, no sharp points. I don’t want to cut you.”
While Ermin set up a cooking fire, Danka proceeded to the willows. She searched around and found the first four suitable-looking candidates. She followed her companion’s instructions by making sure the switches were properly cut on both ends. She peeled off the bark and trimmed the bumps. The implements were not heavy, but she knew the force of the blows would be concentrated along a thin line and the pain would be very sharp.
She put the prepared switches in the cold water and looked for the remaining six. As she found and cleaned additional implements, she thought about the saying “pride is greatest before the fall”. She was humiliated, not by the fact a man who she cared for felt justified in switching her, but by her belief that she did deserve to be punished. She did not feel that she had done anything immoral, but she jeopardized the Followers’ good standing in a friendly town through reckless behavior, which was much worse.
As her stomach churned and her bottom tingled in fear, Danka thought about her past. She had not been punished since the day she was arrested, but as an adolescent, she was used to whippings. Both her parents punished her for the slightest infraction, real or imagined. However, they never used switches. The nemesis of her backside had been a heavy leather strap that her father used to haul bundles of firewood. The loud crack of the leather and the screams of the older Siluckt daughter were a familiar sound around the day-laborers’ settlement during the years prior to her departure.
After cutting the final switch, she pulled the others out of the water and carried them to the campsite. She had wondered what a whipping from birch rods would feel like. Well, she was about to find out. She approached Ermin. Near the edge of the clearing there was a thick log lying on the ground, from the remains of a large tree that had toppled over a few weeks before. Ermin was standing next to the log, indicating that was where he planned to punish his companion.
“I’d prefer not to have to tie you. If you can obey my instructions, that would be best for both of us.”
Danka responded by holding out the switches. Ermin took them and gave each one a test swipe through the air. The girl flinched at the swishing sound. He tossed one switch aside because it was too thick, but was satisfied with the others. He was pleased the girl had not attempted to choose implements that would be too light. All of the rods would hurt when applied to her unprotected body.
Ermin took the first switch and tapped Danka’s hands. He used the rod to point at the log, indicating he expected the girl to firmly place her hands on the top. With a couple more taps between her legs he motioned that she needed to spread her feet. She stood quietly, trembling slightly, but otherwise was motionless. The elder touched the switch to her base of her bottom and gently rubbed it on her bare skin.
He positioned himself, drew back, and delivered a sharp blow to the girl’s naked bottom. Danka tensed up and held her breath as the pain mounted, but did her best not to move. Ermin watched as the welt from the first stroke rose and darkened on her skin, to gauge how hard he needed to hit. Satisfied by the first weal, he tapped her bottom and struck hard a second time. Tears welled up in Danka’s eyes, but she didn’t cry out or try to move. She was stoic and used to suffering, so she was able to stay quiet through blows that would have sent a city girl running and begging for mercy.
After the first 10 strokes Ermin tossed aside the first switch because it was beginning to show signs of wear. He massaged the rising welts on his companion’s trembling bottom. She was covered with sweat and tears were running down her cheeks, but she had not cried out or made any noise. He went very slowly delivering the next ten blows; striking hard, waiting for the welt to appear, tracing it with his fingertips, positioning himself, and delivering the next stroke. It was clear from Danka’s heavy breathing, sweat, tears, and trembling that she was suffering, but she was determined to face her punishment with as much bravery as she could.
Ermin was completely aroused by the time he tossed aside the second switch and picked up the third. Danka was the perfect image of submission, with the cruel welts accentuating her very sexy position. He struck hard and slowly through an additional ten blows, before tossing aside the third switch. Danka’s bottom was badly marked up from 30 hard strokes, but her thighs and shoulders were still uninjured and ready for additional discipline. However, Ermin couldn’t continue. He was too aroused by the sight of the girl in front of him. He ran his hand down her back and fondled her welt-covered bottom. Then he slipped his hand between her legs and explored her sweaty vulva. Danka surprised both him and herself by becoming wet and aroused. She stood up and spent a long time kissing Ermin and holding him tight while he fondled and squeezed her sore backside. He bent her over the log again and ordered her to spread her legs, but it was to enter her, not to continue punishing her. The sex was rough, hard, and painful, but both partners gasped and groaned with an exquisite orgasm.
So, that was Danka’s punishment for causing such a huge scandal: a mere 30 blows from a birch rod. The remaining switches went unused and Danka’s shoulders and thighs were spared. Ermin knew that he was letting the girl off way too easily, but he couldn’t help himself. She was just too sexy for him to resist. As he climaxed and pumped semen into her, his resentment exited his body through his penis. The girl had caused all kinds of trouble with her behavior, but he just couldn’t stay angry at her.
Ermin and Danka spent the next two days working their way towards Babackt Yaga’s settlement. Danka walked most of the way, not keen on having to sit in a saddle with her entire weight pressing on her welts. Ermin followed, happy to watch his partner’s attractive naked body as she walked along the path.
During the trip they stopped several times to rest the mules and have sex. Danka carefully observed her mentor and submitted to his desires whenever there was a hint that he would want to make love. She wanted to make sure his anger had passed and that he’d forgive her. Also, they still had to explain to their Mistress why they had to return a few weeks early from their summer assignment. Danka needed Ermin to be as supportive as possible when that moment had to be faced.
By the second day it was apparent that Ermin had indeed forgiven Danka. He deeply cared for her, even though their relationship was nowhere close to anything considered “normal”, even among the Followers. At their final stop before reaching the settlement, he took her in his arms and held her. He didn’t say anything; he just needed to hold her.
When they entered the familiar streambeds in which the Followers had planted so many of their alchemy ingredients, Danka noticed that Ermin seemed very worried. His concerns had nothing to do with the scandal in Daguruckt-Tok. He could feel that something wasn’t right.
As they came closer to the settlement, Danka smelled a whiff of smoke. It was not the familiar smell coming from the kitchen’s cave-charcoal, but smoke from wood instead. When she shared her observation with her mentor, he responded by digging into his saddlebag and unpacking two sets of brigand disguises. He loaded a crossbow while Danka got dressed. He then took out a wooden box and a sling. He handed the box to Danka and told her to open it, but to be very careful handling the contents. The box contained four hollowed-out goose eggs. Two of the eggs had a yellow stripe painted on their shells and the other two were marked with a red stripe.
“When I tell you, you’ll need to hand me an egg. I’ll let you know which color. Do NOT bump them and keep them upright. When I toss it, put your face to the ground and cover your eyes.”
They left the mules behind and cautiously made their way towards the settlement. The smell of smoke became stronger. They heard men’s voices, mixed with an occasional bang or crash and the whinnying of horses. Ermin motioned for Danka to wait while he crept ahead to see what was going on. Danka spent the longest moments of her life waiting for him to return. When he came back his face was ashen and his eyes wide with terror. However, he was not about to retreat. He slung his crossbow over his back and prepared his sling. He whispered to the girl to follow him and reminded her to be very careful handling the box of eggs.
The voices grew louder and the smoke grew thicker as the two Followers approached the settlement. Danka peeked through the bushes and observed three burning roofs, from the sleeping quarters that had been set on fire. There were several corpses on the ground and five more hanging from the large tree that was closest to Babackt Yaga’s study. She also made out a crudely-built cross that appeared to have a body hanging on it, although she couldn’t be sure because the cross was facing the other direction.
Danka noticed that Ermin was trembling. Doing everything he could to stay calm; he checked his sling and stuck out his free hand.
“Yellow egg. Cover your face when I throw. Then get a red one ready. With the red, cover your ears.”
When Danka handed Ermin the egg, he placed it in his sling and stood up. He swung the sling several times before releasing his projectile towards the camp. Danka put her face down and covered her eyes just in time protect her sight from the brightest flash she had ever seen. Immediately the compound was filled with screaming. As soon as the flash subsided, Danka remembered her instructions to hand over a red-striped egg. Ermin took it, stood up, twirled the sling, and released it. The flash was much less, but there was a tremendous bang that made Danka’s ears ring.
Ermin shouted: “Yellow egg!” Danka’s hands shook as she managed to extract the second yellow egg from the box, nearly dropping it. Again Ermin stood up and swung his sling. A couple of arrows flew in his direction, but he managed to release the egg and duck in time to avoid the flash.
“Red egg, then the crossbow satchel!” Ermin released the final egg and threw himself onto the ground. Danka knew she needed to cover her ears against the bang, which seemed to rattle the earth and sent the men and horses in the camp screaming. Ermin took the crossbow bolts and pulled the weapon off his shoulders. He was not a good shot, so he had to get close to the edge of the camp to aim at a target. He picked a man who seemed to still be able to fight and aimed at him. He missed the man’s chest, but managed to hit his thigh.
The assailants were still alive, but after two blinding flashes and two explosions they were in no condition to fight effectively. Danka was so scared that she had pissed herself, but she knew that she could not keep hiding while Ermin struggled with his crossbow. She noticed that two nearby men were screaming with their eyes covered and that one of them had dropped his sword. She ran out of the bushes, grabbed the weapon, and clumsily hacked at their necks. Ermin managed to get off another shot and nailed a man in the stomach. Danka saw three blinded horses crazily running towards her and barely had time to get out of their way. The panicked animals charged into the woods with a series of tremendous crashes as they ran into trees and bushes they couldn’t see.
Words could not describe the chaos in the settlement at that moment. Half of the buildings were on fire, the blinded assailants and their horses were staggering around, and dozens of escaped farm animals were running in every direction.
Danka saw Ermin frantically trying to reload his weapon. She held out her sword to him and screamed: “Forget the crossbow, use this!” Ermin took the sword and proceeded to attack three assailants who had started to recover from the explosions. Danka grabbed another sword and frantically hacked at two more men who were crawling around on the ground.
The fight was over within minutes. Ermin and Danka ran around the compound together and hacked eight more men to death. They looked up at the corpses in the trees, all of them Cult elders. The corpses of a few more Followers were on the ground. Then their attention turned towards the cross. The person tied to it was Babackt Yaga. She was still somewhat alive, but her hands had darkened from lack of circulation and her shoulders were horribly extended.
Ermin and Danka knew they were still in extreme danger. Undoubtedly the only reason they had re-taken the settlement with relatively little effort was because the majority of the camp’s assailants were scouring the woods looking for more Cult members. Still, there was no way they could leave their leader hanging on a cross while they made their escape. With great care and effort they managed to untie her hands and take her down. They took her into the wrecked kitchen, where Ermin managed to administer some opium to lessen her pain. It was clear she would not survive, but Ermin hoped that she might be able to tell him what happened and who was responsible for the attack before her soul separated from her body. When she had recovered enough to realize she no longer was hanging on the cross, she opened her eyes and tried to figure out who was with her.
“Pain… such pain… release… ”
“Alchemist. We are here, Ermin and Danka. Do you understand? Ermin and Danka. We took you down. They crucified you.”
“Yes… crucified… like Roman Son of Man… ironic… ha… ”
“Who did this? What happened?”
“Don’t know… find out… ”
Ermin was about to ask something else, but Babackt Yaga gasped and struggled to speak.
“Instructions… my study… hidden… third board left of window… hollow… take them… go… get out… escape… ”
Babackt Yaga tried to speak some more, but it was obvious she had spent what little energy she had issuing her final statement. Ermin ordered Danka to run to the lab and find out what was in those instructions. She climbed into the room, for the first time going up there alone. The place was completely ransacked with everything broken and lying on the floor. The collection of books, representing centuries of hard, careful research, lay torn apart and discarded. The barrels and jars of alchemy ingredients had been broken open and the room smelled toxic. Danka used a metal spoon to pry at the boards to the left of the window. One of them opened up, and a set of folded letters fell out.
Danka was just about to leave when she noticed her bucket lying under a pile of discarded linen. Next to the bucket were her other belongings: the letter from Tuko Orsktackt, the forged Church letter, the silver coin and dagger he had given her, and most important of all, the counterfeit penance collar. After tearing up the study so badly, how was it possible those idiots could have missed an item as valuable as that collar? There was another precious item remaining in the room, worth far more than even a counterfeit penance collar. Tossed under a broken chair, but still intact, were jars of mysterious blue powder. Danka suspected the assailants must have assumed their contents was paint or dye and thus not worth taking at the moment. She replaced the lids and put the jars in her bucket. The other valuable ingredients, such as the imported ephedrine and opium, were missing and the jars containing them smashed.
Danka looked around the study, knowing it was the last time she or anyone else from the Cult would have a chance to see it. She pushed some torn books out of the way and saw a brass portrait holder. There were two small portraits inside, of a young man and a young woman that had been painted in the style of the previous century. She assumed the woman must have been her Mistress at a younger age. She wondered about the man. Well, she’d have time to pursue that mystery later. She dropped the portraits into her bucket and continued looking around. There was nothing else of value that had not either been destroyed or looted.
She climbed down the ladder and ran back to the kitchen. Ermin was calmly sitting next to Babackt Yaga’s corpse. While Danka was absent he had given the alchemist a final strong dose of opium to allow her soul to separate from her body in peace. When Danka handed over Babackt Yaga’s letters, Ermin briefly glanced through them. He thought over what to do next. After a few seconds, he glanced at Danka’s bucket, remembering it was the same bucket she had been carrying when he had first seen her at the beginning of the previous summer. The bucket reminded him of the girl’s fake penance collar.
“Did you find your Church collar, by any chance?”
“Then you need to return to the mules, put it on, and go back down the mountain. I need you to take these letters to Alchemist Fitoreckt. You need to leave immediately. May the Ancients bless and protect you.”
“But, what about you?”
“My Path in Life is to remain here and exact our Mistress’s vengeance on our assailants. These men were not here alone. I suspect there are others, and they’re coming back as we speak because of the noise we just made. I’ll destroy the settlement when they return. Those are my final instructions from our Mistress. So you need to go.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
“Yes, you are. Alchemist Fitoreckt needs to know what happened here. You are the only one who can carry that message. You can’t do anything for Alchemist Babackt Yaga, or for me. But you can safeguard the future of the Followers. Only you can save the others. So you have to go. Those are your orders.”
Danka hesistated. Ermin raised his hand in the Followers’ benediction salute.
“In the name of the Ancients, I am ordering you to go to Alchemist Fitoreckt. You are sworn to obey. Now go!”
Danka took a deep breath and reluctantly returned his salute. Ermin had given her the strongest and most direct order an elder could give to a Follower. She had taken the oath, so she had to ignore her desire to stay with Ermin and die by his side. Already he had turned away from her and had broken into a hollowed-out a section of the kitchen’s wall. He was connecting some pieces of stiff string that had been soaked in a special flammable wax. He ran outside to the alchemist’s study, opened a hollowed out section of a supporting tree trunk, and fiddled with more pieces of string. Danka took a final look at Babackt Yaga’s agonized face and contorted body. She grabbed her bucket and ran out of the settlement.
She ran through the woods with new resolve. She had to avenge her companions, but to avenge them she had to survive long enough to complete the journey to Sebernekt Ris. She owed it to the others to live, because sacrificing her life would accomplish nothing. She understood that Ermin did want to save her, but he was much more interested in making sure the surviving Cult members knew what had happened to Babackt Yaga’s settlement so they could protect themselves and avenge their dead.
Danka jumped along the stones and ducked under logs as she made her way back towards the mules. She knew the area extremely well and was experienced at moving quickly through the forest. When she got to the animals, she needed to make a decision. She had to continue moving as fast as possible, but realized she couldn’t if she was riding one mule and trying to lead the other. She pulled Ermin’s belongings off his animal. She discarded his saddle but kept the saddlebag. She untied the spare mule and tossed aside the bridle and reins. She could only hope the animal would wander off and perhaps serve as a distraction.
She remembered Ermin’s order about the collar. She also remembered that her clothing was covered in blood and her trousers were soaked with urine. It would never do to have anyone see her in an outfit splattered by blood and reeking of piss. She pulled off her soiled clothes and threw them next to the abandoned saddle. For the first time in more than a year she put on her Church collar and assumed the disguise of a naked penitent.
She covered her bucket, tied it to her saddle, and led the remaining mule down the hill. The Ancients blessed her by making the animal cooperative. Danka had been moving downhill for a half an hour when she heard a series of explosions coming from the direction of Babackt Yaga’s settlement. The mule was unnerved by the noise, but fortunately did not panic or buck. Danka suddenly felt very sick. It was obvious that Ermin’s Path in Life had just ended and the settlement, which had been the center of her world for the past 15 months, had become nothing more than piles of burnt wreckage.
She calmed the mule and kept going. She needed to continue moving through the rugged terrain as quickly and inconspicuously as possible. She was frustrated by having to lead an animal that was slowing her down, but she knew the mule was necessary to transport her items and would greatly assist her as soon as she got to a decent road.
Danka only stopped when it became too dark to continue. She knew better than to start a campfire; she still was too close to the Follower’s settlement and anyone who might have survived Ermin’s explosions. Instead, she lit an oil lamp to have just enough light to reorganize the saddlebags. She disassembled the skull staffs and secured the skulls inside her luggage. She also had to hide her Follower’s dress and Ermin’s robe. She knew it would be better to discard Ermin’s items altogether, but was not sure whether such a precaution was allowed.
She spent as much time as possible on her packing, because she knew that as soon as she closed her eyes, the Destroyer would be paying her a visit with the usual visions and taunting. The memories of that horrid day would torment her dreams for years. She would remember the suspended corpses of people who had educated her and with whom she had lived. There were the memories of Babackt Yaga hanging on the cross and her deformed body when she was taken down. There were the faces and gaping wounds of the men she had killed. Yes, that was another detail to torment Danka’s soul: she had killed or participated in the killing of a dozen men. Not only had she seen death; she had inflicted it. She hadn’t much time to think about killing while it was going on: she was too scared and the situation was too chaotic for her to have any moral reservations about swinging her sword. Well, now she did have time to think about it.
“I’m alone,” Danka muttered to herself: “Alone with myself. I hate being alone.”
Danka looked up. An owl, that owl, had settled onto a branch overlooking the clearing. She stood up.
The ground grabbed Danka’s feet and the large yellow eyes emerged from the sitting owl, filling her vision and blocking out everything else.
“Why? Why, Danka Siluckt? Why are you such a hypocrite and a liar?”
“I don’t understand. Thanks to you, I’m now a murderer, but why are you calling me a hypocrite and a liar?”
“Stop pretending you don’t understand. First you tell me to be gone, that you want to be left alone. Then… sitting by yourself with your little oil lamp, you tell the world that you hate being alone. So, which is it? Do you want companionship, or do you not want companionship?”
“I, I do, but from the Realm of the Living.”
“Oh really? From the Realm of the Living? I can send you companions from the Realm of the Living, if you so desire.”
“No. I don’t want anything from you.”
“So what I say about you is true, isn’t it? You are a liar and a hypocrite. You cry about being alone, but then you reject companionship.”
“Why would I want anything from you? What kind of companions would you send? The ones who killed my Mistress? Why would I want that? Why? Why? Why?” Danka had become angry from the taunting. “Why don’t you just end my Path in Life, if that’s what you’re planning to do? Why wait? Why? Why? Why?”
Danka realized she was shouting into the dark. The owl had vanished and the ground had released her feet. She was exhausted and actually managed to sleep for a couple of hours before daylight returned and she was able to continue her journey.
She descended along the same path that she had followed with Ervin just a couple of days before. She even passed the birch grove where he had switched her. It was strange to think the scandal on their minds at that moment was totally irrelevant now. However, seeing the birch grove was a relief, because it meant that she only had an hour of traveling ahead of her before she emerged onto an open farm road and could mount her mule.
The pace of her trip picked up as soon as she emerged into the cleared area of the western valley. She avoided Nagoronkti-Serifkti, not wanting anyone to know what had happened to Babackt Yaga before she had the chance to deliver the news to Fitoreckt. She received numerous curious stares, because a person performing Public Penance normally did not ride animals. Several people even asked her what she was doing. She responded that she had been tasked with delivering the mule to its owner in Sebernekt Ris and was riding the animal to hasten her journey. Whenever she passed a member of the Danubian Clergy she had to dismount and kneel, something she had to force herself to remember to do, given that the Danubian Church had not had any claim of authority over her for the past 15 months.
Danka rode the entire day and only stopped after dark. She stayed at a village church, where she rested and stabled her mule. The animal needed a break and a decent meal of hay. Danka slept in a room with a couple of other penitents. She spent the next day traveling non-stop and, for the sake of the mule, had to spend the night at another church. She hated having to disguise herself: she would have preferred traveling openly as a Follower. However, pretending to be a Church penitent had its advantages. She had free food and lodging along with the protection granted by her collar. Also, she enjoyed journeying openly in the nude, with the warm late summer sun shining on her body and the breezes caressing her bare skin.
She arrived at her destination in Sebernekt Ris mid-afternoon, after three days of traveling. Just outside the town she remembered to duck behind a barn, take off the penance collar, and put on her Follower’s dress. She re-assembled her skull staff and led her mule through the city gate and into the university compound.
When she found Alchemist Fitoreckt, he was clearly distressed, but did not seem surprised by the news.
“So, this is it. This is the year the Old World vanishes. Your Mistress was correct about that.”
“Alchemist? She was correct about what?”
“I’ll explain later. Go to the head seamstress, turn in your Follower’s gown and tell her to give you a normal dress. You will hand over your staff and Ermin’s items as well. Get cleaned up and find yourself a bed-chamber in the student dormitory. After you’ve done all that, report to the library and speak with the senior transcriber. I want you to describe, in as much detail as you can remember, exactly what happened at Babackt Yaga’s settlement. I need description: who you saw, where the bodies were positioned, the outfits of your assailants, what everyone looked like, and what happened moment by moment from the time you entered until the time you left. He’s trained to extract memories and details, so he’ll be asking you questions.”
While Danka was getting cleaned up, Fitoreckt called his messengers. They were to travel to all of the sites where Followers were working to warn them to avoid going in the direction of the forest settlement. Instead, as soon as they could tactfully break away from their assignments, they were to disguise themselves and travel to Sebernekt Ris.
Danka spent the late afternoon reliving those awful minutes in the settlement as she described in minute detail everything she had witnessed, done, or experienced. When the transcriber was satisfied there was nothing more he could extract from her disjointed memories, he dismissed her and told her to return to Fitoreckt’s study. She was surprised to see him dressed in a civilian’s tunic. He told her to close the door and to take a seat. Instead of asking her how she was doing or trying to exchange any pleasantries, he got to the point.
“You remember the details of our conversation in the spring, correct?”
“I wanted to make sure you understood the reality the Followers were facing and the impending demise of the remnants of the Old World. I told you what I believed you needed to know at the time, but there is an important detail I chose not to share with you. I felt it would have done you no good to burden you with that knowledge, even though it was knowledge concerning your Path in Life.”
Danka wasn’t sure how to respond, so she waited for Fitoreckt to continue.
“During my time in the Realm of the Living, I have known a single person who was able to predict the future. Knowing the future is a curse I would not wish on any soul, that I can assure you. Your Mistress was the one cursed that ability. When she made a prediction, she never made a mistake. Of course, she was sparing with what she shared, even with me. She understood that knowing the future is something not to be desired by anyone. Anyhow, she told me some things about you; predictions that turned out to be completely accurate.”
“… of things that have already happened, Alchemist?”
“Yes. For many years she had suspected that she was the final guardian of the remnants of the Old World. She also knew that a single person would bear witness to both her death and the destruction of the realm she represented. From the moment she first saw you, she knew the Ancients had designated you to be that person. In your face she saw her own death. So, over the past year, she and I have been preparing for the end. What happened in your Mistress’s settlement came as no surprise to me at all.”
“But, the men, who were they?”
“Mercenaries, hired by the Priest of Nagoronkti-Serifkti. He’s a True Believer, you know.”
“But, I thought he always treated us well.”
“Yes, he did. A perfect ruse, wasn’t it? He found out everything he needed to know about us and our habits and, when the moment came, he sent his people to destroy the settlement.”
“Hubris. He wants to become the Arch Bishop of the True Believers. If he can extend his control into the forest and seize control of our holy sites and destroy them, think of what that would do for his reputation, not just among the True Believers, but for the Roman Church. I understand he’s been in contact with them. He fancies himself as the Christian leader of the entire Duchy, and as such, feels that it is his Path in Life to annihilate the Cult of the Ancients. He plotted this for many years.”
“So what do we do?”
“First, we safeguard our people. The True Believers are planning to move against any Follower they can lay their hands on, but we are popular in most places and they’d have to capture or kill us in secret. That gives us a few days. Also, Ermin (and you) complicated their plans by killing so many of their mercenaries. Those men will take a few weeks to replace. Meanwhile, we send out our messengers, disguise our members, and bring them to Sebernekt Ris. We will assume new identities and go back out, but not as Followers. So, the Cult of the Ancients won’t survive, but its people will.”
“After 5000 years? You’re giving up after 5000 years?”
“It is our Path in Life. It’s what the Ancients desire. The Old World is no more: it died with Babackt Yaga, its final guardian. But no, we are not giving up. We will exact revenge on our worldly opponents and we will safeguard the Duchy’s future. We can only accomplish that by first safeguarding ourselves, starting with you.”
Fitoreckt handed Danka several documents. One was a forged identity certificate from the Senior Priest in Starivktaki Moskt confirming that she had braided her hair with the blessing of the Danubian Church under the name Jadranka. Another paper, which she’d have to take to the local cathedral for a signature and a stamp, would confirm her enrollment in the local university under that name.
“I am very pleased to have you with us, Student Jadranka. Go ask the Priest for his blessing, then report to the professors to receive your class assignments.”
Danka dumbly looked at the papers, then at Fitoreckt.
“Do you have a question, Student Jadranka?”
“I, I guess not, Director Fitoreckt.”
“Then run along and finish your registration. You’ve already missed a week of classes and you have some catching up to do. I always thought the people of Starivktaki Moskt had a reputation for punctuality. You’re setting a poor example for your city by showing up a week late. Under normal circumstances I’d not let you finish enrolling, but I understand you encountered problems during your journey here, so I will make an exception for you.”
“I, thank you, Director Fitoreckt.”
“Now, run along. Obtain the signature and report to your professors. I don’t have the patience of Job.”
Danka reluctantly left her dean’s study and made her way to the cathedral. She no longer was Danka the Follower of the Ancients. In an instant she had become a totally new person, Jadranka the university student from Starivktaki Moskt.
The Cult of the Ancients mysteriously vanished from the Realm of the Living during the first week of September, 1752. Throughout the Duchy, Followers quietly left their assignments and were never heard from again. By the middle of the month, the familiar black uniforms and skull staffs that identified the Duchy’s leading medical practitioners had completely vanished. In most places where they had worked, the Followers left very little evidence they ever existed at all.
The fate of the Cult of the Ancients became a favorite enigma of Danubian society and lore. The Followers always lived in mystery and, after 5000 years, they vanished in mystery.
“So, what happened to the Followers of the Ancients?”
“Well, what happens to a breath of air, after the words which it carried have been spoken?”