The Girl with No Name
by EC

Part 2

Chapter Five – "The Bloody One"

Map of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia

There was an interruption of Danka's studies from the end of September until the end of October. The Church staff, like everyone else in the country, had to put forth all of their energy into harvesting and preserving food for the winter. The men hauled bushels of firewood and charcoal, along with fruit, vegetables, and vinegar to the women's residence throughout the month. The women toiled to convert fruit into preserves and pickle as many vegetables as possible. Danka was familiar with the fall harvest routine, but it was nice to have a large well-supplied kitchen as a workspace and decent food and seasonings as ingredients.

In the middle of October, Danka received a nickname from the Temple's top Clergywoman.

Among the students and penitents, she was the only one that had no qualms about slaughtering animals. Danka's lack of sympathy towards livestock served her well in a household of squeamish companions: every time someone showed up with an animal the others were very happy to turn over the task of killing it to the newcomer. Chickens, rabbits, sheep, didn't matter. The young peasant was quick with the knife or the cleaver and the animal was dead before it had a chance to realize what was happening.

Danka received her nickname on an occasion when the Senior Priestess visited the residence, immediately after she had killed and gutted three pigs. The penitent was a savage sight at the moment, standing with a large knife and her body and face completely covered with blood. She immediately knelt, but the Priestess was so amused that she ordered her to stand up and return to work.

From that moment, Danka was known as "the bloody one" instead of "the new visitor". Receiving an identity from the Senior Priestess was an important accomplishment, because it demonstrated that the Clergy members had fully accepted the new penitent as a member of their community. She was not "new" anymore. The danger of anyone questioning her Public Penance had long passed.

The coming winter became more of a hardship for the penitents as November passed and the weather became increasingly colder. The seminary students put on their dresses, but the penitents did not have that option. No matter how cold it was outside, they were prohibited from wearing any clothing. In theory the restriction included shoes, but in reality none of the Clergy were so cold-hearted that they would force penitents to walk around in the snow with no protection for their feet. Danka still had her boots and for the first time in four months was allowed to put them on.

Danka's world shrunk considerably after the first snowstorm. She and the other penitents spent as much time as possible in the kitchen, the only warm spot in their residence. The only other place to go was the study room, which had a fireplace. So... when she was not working, Danka read the books that the seminary student had assigned.

"The bloody one's" lessons resumed after the fall food-preserving rush had ended. The seminary student was as determined to teach as the penitent was to learn. She had mastered basic reading, so now it was time to move on to calligraphy, arithmetic, and the use of the abacus. During December, the penitent's mornings were split between the three topics. She enjoyed arithmetic and learning the abacus, but hated calligraphy. Her clumsy hands rebelled against the art of fine writing, so the penitent decided to ignore writing and concentrate on math. By the end of the year Danka had mastered adding and subtracting.

The seminary student was not pleased. She was determined to force the penitent to learn how to write cursive, because Danubians did not consider a person was truly literate without having that skill. She came up with a plan to force Danka, on her own, to want to switch over from writing block-letters to formal script. The winter solstice and new year were approaching, along with Christmas. (The Old Believers were not enthusiastic about celebrating Christmas, but there also were True Believers living in Starívktaki Móskt, so the Temple included Christmas in the December celebrations to keep everyone happy.) The multiple celebrations meant that lots of hymns and announcements had to be written on parchment and passed around. The seminary student volunteered to write out a portion of the announcements and tasked "the bloody one" to assist. Danka was directed to write page after page of lyrics. For several days she struggled to keep up writing in her usual block letters. Certainly her ability and comfort writing block letters increased with all that practice, but she was unable to keep pace with anyone else. She regretted not having learned calligraphy as she watched the seminary student and her companions write out page after page with relative ease. As Danka labored in frustration, the trainee glanced at her with an expression that clearly stated: "Now you can see why knowing how to write is important. This time, I'm not going to offer to teach you. When you are ready, you will have to ask."

Finally Danka did break down and asked to restart the calligraphy instruction. While the change of attitude was too late to help her during the preparation for the December festivities, she was determined that the following year she would not have to go through the embarrassment again.

She paused. The following year... was she planning to still be with the Temple that far into the future? So... what would the following year bring for "the bloody one"... the girl with the knife... the outcast... the former peasant? Where would her Path in Life take her?

* * *

The new year festivities came and went. The final round of religious festivities was followed by several feasts that offered "the bloody one" the chance to try several foods she had never tasted before, including imported nuts, dates and figs. There was endless singing, poetry readings, and listening to music. For the first time in her life, Danka actually had fun during the end-of-the-year holidays.

Considering her alternatives, she began the new year under seemingly ideal circumstances: she was well-fed, living in a safe place, and rapidly making up for her deficient upbringing. The final task of learning how to write cursive was daunting and hugely frustrating, but she forced herself to push forward, knowing that her mentor had gone through great effort to obtain paper and ink for her practices. The winter passed with her sequestered in the reading room, painfully writing over paper that already was covered many times over with letters from previous practices, or working on the new mathematical topics of multiplication and division.

When she was not practicing, Danka was reading. She now had the ability to read directly from the holy books of the Danubian Church. She memorized some Psalms from the Christian Old Testament, as well as key passages from the Book of the Ancients and the Book of the True Path. She could read the text from hymns, which helped her during the Temple's singing practices. In March, Danka's mentor handed her a book that described all of the important places in the Duchy, including areas in Lower Danubia that had been lost to the Ottoman Empire. Danka didn't have a clue what the Ottoman Empire was, so the apprentice handed her another book about Danubia's history. Now, this truly was amazing, being able to learn about different times and different places without actually going there.

The descriptions of cities like Danúbikt Móskt, Sumy Ris, and Rika Chorna made "the bloody one" anxious to see them. They sounded like fascinating places, with all those people and stuff to look at.

* * *

"The bloody one" didn't think about how quickly nine months had gone by until her mentor started talking about the upcoming celebration of the March equinox. She tasked the penitent with producing copies of the Senior Priest's sermon, along with hymns and various announcements related to the day's events. Danka was reluctant to assume such an important task with her writing skills still not completely developed, but the student responded: "You will serve the Creator as I have instructed, I will be satisfied with your work, and that's the end of it. Why learn if you're not planning to use your skills to serve the Creator?"

So, for several days, Danka slowly and laboriously copied the text as instructed. She didn't produce her copies at a fast pace, but that was not a concern for her mentor. When she finished, the student looked over the sheets and congratulated Danka.

"You are now literate. You can read and write. Your Path in Life will demand that you work on your skills and improve, but my part is finished." Then she added: "We will go before the Senior Priest. I want to show him that you have completed this portion of your Path in Life."

A few minutes later, Danka nervously knelt beside her mentor in front of several Clergy members. When the two women knelt upright, the student handed her ward's papers to the Senior Priest. After examining them, he addressed "the bloody one".

"You declare before the Creator these papers are the product of your efforts?"

"Yes, Senior Priest. It is my handwriting."

The Priest handed the penitent a copy of the Book of the True Path and instructed her to read several paragraphs he chose at random. Danka complied and read aloud. He directed his attention to his student.

"You have done well, Apprentice. Your student is indeed literate and you have pleased the Creator and the Church with this tasking. You may consider it completed."

"Thank you, Senior Priest."

"The bloody one" now understood the trainee's motive for teaching her was not completely altruistic. As part of the requirements for taking vows, all Danubian Clergy apprentices were required to teach at least one completely illiterate person how to read and write.

When they left the Temple, the apprentice noted Danka's disillusioned expression. She understood why the penitent would be upset, upon realizing it was not out of friendship that she had spent so much time teaching her. The apprentice also knew how, as a future Priestess, she needed to respond.

"Penitent, you will understand that whatever emotion you felt for me was displaced. I am not the one who gave you the opportunity to read. That opportunity came from the Creator. I was merely the Creator's instrument to fulfill the Divine Purpose in your Path in Life. If you wish to express gratitude, you should go into the Temple and give thanks to the Creator."

* * *

The equinox celebrations included the annual Blessing of the Crop Seed, in which all of the nearby farmers brought in a portion of the seed they wanted to plant for an official blessing from the Senior Priest. The event also was an opportunity for the Church to pass out experimental seeds, both for plants which had been cross-bred and for imported plants that were entirely new. The Church maintained several experimental farms around the Duchy where penitents and apprentices worked with plant-breeders to find better crops and farming techniques for the country's farmers.

The experiments incorporated an important part of the Old Believers' theology. The Creator had prepared the Earth for humans long before giving life to the Ancients, who were the ancestors of humanity. The Ancients were all-knowing, but their descendents rebelled against them and the Destroyer forced the younger generation to forget everything they had learned from their parents. The Creator recalled all of the Ancients to the Realm of the Afterlife. The Creator then commanded it would be up to the humans left on the planet to recover that lost knowledge, to learn how the Earth worked and how best to live in it. As a result, the Danubian Church was much more open to scientific discovery than its counterparts in the rest of Europe. To the Danubian Church, every new understanding of how a scientific process worked brought humanity closer to the Knowledge of the Ancients and ultimate redemption. Crop experimentations that resulted in better food were especially important for recovering what was lost in "humanity's great rebellion".

The return of warm weather also meant the return of the male penitents, most of whom had wintered with their families. Leading them was a very handsome, and very pompous, young man dressed in new clothing and riding a horse. Danka noted the apprentice's disapproving look when the young man knelt in front of the Senior Priest. More shocking was a very faint hiss, so quiet that only Danka could hear it. It was very obvious the trainee did not like him.

The apprentice later explained the young man was the son of the Senior Priest and that his name was Bagatúrckt. "He's traveled all over... Vienna, Warsaw, Florence, Berlin... and in one of those foreign cities the Destroyer broke his soul. That man is lustful, proud, and greedy. He's everything we are not supposed to be. The Senior Priest is a fine man, but the Destroyer blinds him every time he is around Bagatúrckt."

"Bagatúrckt didn't study for the Priesthood?"

"He can't. The children of Clergy members cannot become Clergy themselves. That protects us from the vices of the nobility and keeps the Church open for everyone, not just a few favored families. When you behold a dishonored tool of the Destroyer like Bagatúrckt, you can understand that policy is wise, very wise indeed. Bagatúrckt would bring the Destroyer into the heart of the Temple if he could take vows."

"You... you really hate him, Apprentice?"

"I do. We are not supposed to hate, but I hope the Creator understands that my hatred of Bagatúrckt is quite justified."

* * *

As the weather became warmer, the apprentices put away their dresses and resumed their summer-time lives of constant nudity. The exception was Danka's mentor. Her dress was in sorrowful condition, but she kept wearing it. The same was true for her fiancé: his robe was threadbare and torn, but he did not seem worried about preserving it for another winter.

The reason became obvious when the apprentice cheerfully announced that she and her fiancé were getting married on the last day of April. The very next day Danka's mentor and her husband would be ordained as Clergy members. (May 1st was the traditional day that the Danubian Church ordained Priests and Priestesses, while June 21st was the traditional day new apprentices entered seminary studies.)

The wedding was simple and humble, as demanded by Danubian Church protocol. The only people present were the Senior Priest and his wife. The couple was married in their apprentice outfits: there was no special dress for the apprentice. The only other person present was Danka, who the apprentice had selected to hold a bouquet of flowers and her wedding jewelry. The couple exchanged vows on their knees. They stood up and Danka handed the traditional Danubian marriage jewelry to the groom: a silver ring, a silver necklace, and a silver hairpiece. The new husband took the items one-by-one and placed them on his wife and clergy partner. The entire affair was over in less than half an hour. The couple disappeared for the rest of the day to consummate their marriage.

The induction into the Priesthood on the following day was much more elaborate. The families of both the new Priest and the new Priestess were present, along with the Temple's entire staff and several town officials. Danka and the other Temple women sang while the new Clergy members knelt naked for the last time in their lives. They handed over their tattered apprentice robes for the ritual burning. Once the old clothing was reduced to ashes, they received a final the blessing of the Senior Priest. Then, the Temple's other Priests and Priestesses brought out new clothing, a long black robe with golden embroidery for the new Priest, and a black dress with red trim for the new Priestess. The clothing totally changed their appearance and how the rest of the world would see them.

There were several other gifts for the new Clergy members, including new copies of the Church's holy books, staffs, and ritual cleansing bowls. The couple would take the items to their new home, but they would the remain property of the Church. Danubian Priests and Priestesses did not own anything. They were committed to a life free of material possessions and lived off the generosity of their parishioners.

Immediately after ordainment the new Priest and Priestess would travel to a provincial village and take over a church from a Priest and Priestess who were old and whose health was failing. A squad of city guards showed up with two spare horses and a pack mule to escort the couple to their new home. "The bloody one" was the last person in the Temple to say goodbye to the new Priestess. According to protocol, she now had to kneel, just like she would with any other member of the Clergy. When the Priestess told her to stand up, Danka couldn't think of what to say. Finally the Priestess spoke:

"Penitent, the Creator cares much more about you than you realize. And... I too, am blessed for having known you. Your friendship was a gift that will stay with me."

The young Priestess did something not common among the Clergy, she kissed the penitent's hands. She then joined her husband and the guards as they mounted their horses and disappeared from the penitent's life.

Danka knew that she should have been happy for her mentor, but she was not. The apprentice had been her only friend in the Temple. The others had accepted her, but treated her with indifference. She knew that, with the apprentice out of her life, she'd have to assume the silent and isolated lifestyle of the other female penitents. She didn't want to live like that.

Many of the Temple staff noted the special goodbye given by the new Priestess to "the bloody one" and the penitent's teary expression as the entourage left the Temple. Among them was Bagatúrckt, the Senior Priest's flamboyant son. He noted how pretty the young penitent was, how she stood out among the drab women of the Temple. She was the perfect image of naked innocence, a young woman who clearly had no experience with men. He wondered if she was a virgin. She certainly looked like one.

Bagatúrckt's weakness was women. They fascinated him and he wanted to experience being with as many as possible. He wanted them, desired them, and momentarily loved each one he had been with. There had been countless Danubians, along with Poles, Prussians, Florentines, Austrians, Magyars... all of them lovely... each worthy of a poem or a song. He collected experiences with women in the same way other men collect books or antiquities. And from each woman he learned something, details about the feminine sex that assisted him with his next conquest. Yes, there had been so many, all of them beautiful, each in her own way. And now, looking at the naked little penitent kneeling in0 his father's Temple, Bagatúrckt knew who was destined to be the next object of his desires.

Before moving on an intended lover, Bagatúrckt observed her and people surrounding her to gather as much information as he could. His initial observations already had provided a lot of information on "the bloody one". Her nickname and how she got it indicated that she came from a lower-class background, because the daughters of nobility and guild members almost never killed farm animals. The girl's behavior during the departure of the new Priestess was that of a person who had lost her only friend. (Too bad it had to be with that particular apprentice, because that might complicate things. However, Bagatúrckt knew the "the bloody one's" mentor did not like to talk about herself, so it was unlikely she had divulged much information about their time together.) It seemed the penitent did not talk much with anyone else in the Temple and was totally intimidated by the ordained Clergy members.

As he led the male penitents to the Temple gardens and conversed with them, Bagatúrckt picked up more information about "the bloody one". The new penitent had shown up the previous summer after walking into town from the west, carrying a bucket with a few apples. Whoever collared her had not given her any instruction about Church protocol. She was so ignorant that initially the Clergy were suspicious, but immediately she arrived, the apprentice took responsibility for the newcomer and prevented anyone else from the Temple from interacting with her. Whenever the apprentice went anywhere, she took "the bloody one" with her. It seemed she enjoyed going out and getting away from the Temple. She spent the winter learning how to read, write, do arithmetic, and sing. Prior to showing up at the Temple she was completely illiterate.

Bagatúrckt volunteered to escort the female penitents on their outings to the Temple gardens. The men did the heavy work, but the women were tasked with maintaining the flowerbeds and collecting the flowers that decorated the Temple during the summer. He observed "the bloody one" as she moved among the plants. She seemed sullen and lost in thought. Obviously she needed some cheering up.

He started slowly, asking "the bloody one" about her work in the garden and what she thought of it. Unwittingly Danka gave him a lot of information by responding that Temple work was very light compared with what she had been used to before leaving home.

"Your home is to the west of here?"

"Yes, Master."

"So... how do you find your life here? Not in the Temple, but in Starívktaki Móskt? Does the city please you?"

"Yes, Master."

"Starívktaki Móskt is a nice city, but I find it small and a bit restrictive. I've seen other places... had dinner at the Duke's castle, and visited the lands beyond... to the west."

Bagatúrckt noted the curious look in the penitent's eyes.

"I understand that you find strange places interesting as well, is that not so?"

"Yes, Master... but I've just read about them. I... I haven't traveled much."

"That's a pity, because a young person ought to travel. There are so many things to see. It's sad to see a beautiful young woman like you pass her life away picking flowers in a garden."

Danka blushed at the thought of being called beautiful by someone as handsome and sophisticated as the son of the Senior Priest.

"You are beautiful, you know. I hope people have told you that, because it is true."

The penitent blushed again, because no... no one had told her she was beautiful. Whether or not it was true, people just didn't say things like that at the Temple.

"You... you really think so, Master?"

"I truly do. And please... I am not your master. It would greatly please me if you use my proper name, Bagatúrckt."

"Yes... Bagatúrckt."

"You are a rose in a field of dandelions and daisies. You are a swan among the ducks. You are a cathedral among the cottages. Yes, that is the nature of your beauty."

Danka was dumbstruck. Never before had she heard anyone talk like that, and certainly not to her. Bagatúrckt took note of the girl's expression and continued:"You are a gift the Creator has bestowed upon the world, and woe will come to those who fail to appreciate the Creator's blessing."

The penitent totally forgot about her mentor's hostile reaction when she first saw Bagatúrckt. In her eyes the man was the nicest one she had ever met. He certainly knew how to make an ordinary girl feel special. Who else in Danka's life had ever bothered to do that for her? Before leaving, he kissed her hand and departed with a promise: "I will write a poem for you tonight and bring you a present tomorrow."

Bagatúrckt would indeed write a poem for the penitent, although it was more accurate to say he would plagiarize one for her. The young man had studied poetry in his spare time and had a supply of poems stored in his memory that he could use on his conquest of the moment. It didn't take much to write out someone else's poem on a sheet of parchment with a couple of name replacements and hand it to some unsuspecting woman or girl. That night he grabbed 30 sheets of parchment from his father's study and wrote out 30 different poems that clearly referenced the penitent. He had not bothered to ask her name, nor did he need to know it for his intentions. Not knowing her name made the poems sound more mysterious anyway.

During his time at his father's temple, Bagatúrckt became "the bloody one's" world. True to his words, he had a poem for her each time he saw her. And there were presents as well: dates, salted almonds, Turkish delight. Increasingly he touched her, starting with her hands, then moving to her arms, shoulders, and back. Danka was so enamored with him that she never thought of resisting or trying to slow him down.

Bagatúrckt had a specific plan for the penitent. Because she was a virgin, he wanted to take her somewhere he could truly enjoy the experience of deflowering her. He did not want a quick tryst on a hillside or hidden in the woods: he wanted to save the penitent for a truly special round of sex. He would open her, as a present to himself. He would be the first man to enjoy her body and was determined that he would enjoy everything she had to offer. He would indulge his desires and take away every bit of her innocence. Then, he'd dispose of her, either by returning her to the Temple or finding some other relatively safe place to leave her. It wouldn't be the first time he had done that.

Bagatúrckt did not see anything wrong with what he was doing. In his mind he showed every woman he had been with what it was to have true sexual pleasure. When he tired of them, always made sure they were left in a safe place. He knew the apprentice totally hated him, but he couldn't understand why. They had a good time while it lasted and he made sure that she was safely brought back to the Temple before moving on.

(Bagatúrckt considered himself a man of the Enlightenment, but in reality he was a dilettante. He dabbled in pseudo-scientific projects and belonged to various groups of like-minded men around central Europe, which was an important reason he was traveling so much. During the summer of 1751 he wanted to travel into the mountains at the northern edge of the Duchy to explore and search for some special alchemy ingredients. Specifically he wanted to find and bring back samples of a rare mushroom that only grew along a single streambed in northern Danubia. The plant was known as the "the joy of the Ancients" and it was a unique species of hallucinogenic psilocybin mushroom. By the mid eighteenth century it already was rare, and botanists believe it later went extinct around 1820. Bagatúrckt's friends in Vienna doubted the existence of "the joy of the Ancients", so he wagered a purse of gold that he could find, preserve, and deliver samples of the unique hallucinogen).

Bagatúrckt wanted a trustworthy companion who was used to living outside and dealing with harsh conditions, so his best option was to find a peasant girl to accompany him on the trip. It was obvious that among the women of Starívktaki Móskt, there couldn't have been a better candidate than "the bloody one". She was pretty (which mattered the most), but she also understood outdoor life and could do things like cook over an open fire and handle dead animals. She wasn't close to anyone in the Temple and it seemed no one in the Temple would greatly miss her if she left. Also, she admired him (which was only natural and appropriate) and was willing to do what he told her to do.

After securing two horses, Bagatúrckt's next concern was getting "the bloody one" out of the Temple. For that, all he needed was the permission of his father. The Senior Priest acquiesced, as he always did whenever his son wanted something. 'Sure... you can take her. Probably will do her some good to move about... she seems a bit restless anyway'.

Bagatúrckt approached the penitent with the happy news; that she'd have the chance to travel with him and see one of the most beautiful areas of the Duchy. They would travel to the northern provincial capitol of Sevérckt nad Gorádki and then keep going, into the highlands and the very edge of the country. He talked about the towering mountains and waterfalls, thick forests and ancient trees... about a land of mystery and magic. And she was going to see it.

So, on the first day of June the Senior Priest's son, accompanied by his favorite Temple penitent, departed Starívktaki Móskt. They were riding horses with special Church markings to ward off the Destroyer and potential attackers. Besides, Danka was still wearing her penance collar and remained naked, which further discouraged anyone from bothering her and Bagatúrckt. Danka's collar was another reason Bagatúrckt found her useful as a traveling companion. Because she didn't know if she'd be returning to the Temple, Danka took her bucket, along with a copy of the Book of the Ancients and the items Tuko Orsktackt had given her.

Traveling by horse, Bagatúrckt and his companion embarked on a two-day journey northward. They traveled through numerous villages and traversed countless farms and orchards. Bagatúrckt talked endlessly about his travels, rightfully assuming his companion was eager to hear more about the outside world and the experiences of a bold adventurer. When they stopped, he indulged himself kissing her and caressing her body. She was eager to be touched and eager to give herself to him. She shivered with pleasure when he fondled her breasts and touched her thighs.

They stopped for lunch and she listened to another poem he had dedicated to her. She cuddled in his arms and enjoyed the feeling of protection. As he held her, she imagined being married to the fine man, serving him and being everything a good wife should be. She'd go with him to all of those foreign places and do everything to make his life wonderful. She would strive to be the best wife she could be.

Now she knew why she had to endure so much suffering. The Creator was testing her and preparing her for the best man a woman could possibly have. She no longer feared the future. She was happy, and she knew that there would be many more years of happiness with her beloved Bagatúrckt.

Historian's Note "The Bloody One" sounds more awkward in English than it does in Danubian. The Danubian word for blood is "grobáckt". The name "Dekgrobáckta" would literally translate to "the woman covered in blood". "Dek" is an affirmative prefix that is widely used in Danubian and converts many nouns into adjectives. The "a" at the end of an adjective often converts it to a nickname that describes a woman or girl.

- Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna -

Chapter Six – The Graveyard of Virtue

The architecture of Sevérckt nad Gorádki was similar to the northwestern section of Danka's hometown of Rika Héckt-nemát, where the city's wealthier families lived. However its setting was completely different. Instead of sitting in a flat river valley, Sevérckt nad Gorádki was built on a hill and surrounded by steep hills and mountains. The only fields were located along the road approaching from the south: the forests began immediately on the north side of the town. The city's inhabitants were mostly wealthy, because apart from working as a house servant, there was nothing in the area for poor people to do.

Bagatúrckt took his companion to a friend's house, which was one of the largest in the city. The friend was absent on a hunting trip, but he had left instructions with the servants to let Bagatúrckt stay overnight and use the guest suite. The servants led the travelers to the nicest room Danka had ever seen. For the first time in her life she saw vases that had been imported from China and rugs imported from Persia. There was a huge fluffy bed with the covers turned down.

Bagatúrckt ordered the servants to bathe his woman, re-braid her hair, and make sure she had something to eat. The experience turned out to be very strange and unsettling, because the servants told the penitent that she was to keep her hands at her sides and let them wash her and fix her hair. She stood quietly as the women soaped and lathered her body, paying special attention to her vulva and bottom. They volunteered only one observation: "Everything must be perfect for the Master." Even after eating, Danka was not allowed to clean her own teeth. One of the servants held her wrists while the other carefully rubbed fine salt mixed with mint extract around her teeth and gums.

In the meantime, he retired to the bathhouse and got cleaned up as well. He did not bother to get dressed. Oddly enough, even though they had just spent two days traveling together, she had not yet seen him unclothed. In a few moments that would change.

When Danka entered the room, she was a bit shocked to see her love naked, even though she fully expected to surrender her virginity that day. She was excited... she was about to find out what it was to quit being a girl and start being a woman... and with the best man she possibly could have.

Bagatúrckt started out tenderly. He wanted to make sure she was aroused and relaxed to make the session as pleasurable for him as possible. Virgins didn't come along very often, so he was careful to take full advantage of one whenever he had the opportunity. He moved her hand to his stiffening penis.

"Grab it. Not too tight. Move your hand up and down, slowly."

When Danka complied, he went completely erect within seconds. He moved his fingertips to her vulva, gently tracing the opening to make sure she was wet. Yes, she was. He touched her clitoris and teased her. Good. The girl was ready.

"Lie on the bed. Spread your legs. You will understand the first time will hurt, but that pain is the Creator's way of letting you know you are fulfilling your duty to me. Your suffering is a blessing in the eyes of the Creator. You would be wise to remember that and obey what I tell you."

The mood of the room immediately changed as soon as Bagatúrckt got on the bed. He pushed the penitent's thighs upward so he could get in better. He rammed into her as hard as he could. She felt the tissue inside tearing apart and was shocked at the pain. She cried out and tried to push him back, but he grabbed her hands and pinned her to the bed. He grunted and thrust as hard as he could... over and over. After-all, for a woman to understand her place with him, it was important to make the first time as painful as possible.

Danka cried out again, from both pain and terror. She felt like she was being completely torn apart.

"Bagatúrckt! Please! Hurt!"

He slapped her hard across the face.

"Of course it hurts! It's what you deserve!"

She felt his penis pulsating as he climaxed and unloaded his first round of sperm. He pulled out of her and she instinctively covered her injured vagina. Blood was coming out. Her upper thighs were covered in red. It seeped through her fingers and soaked her pubic hair.

Bagatúrckt didn't give her the chance to worry about her injuries. He dug his fingers into her hair and yanked her off the bed. Danka was crying as he positioned her in front of him.

"Put my penis in your mouth. Lick it off and suck until I'm hard again. I'll break your neck if you dare bite down on me."

Danka gagged on the taste of semen and blood, but she was terrified and desperate to obey. In a few minutes he was hard again, ready for another round.

"Get on the bed. On your knees. Just like you would at the Temple. Kneel before the Creator, Penitent."

Danka complied, even though she was shocked at the blasphemy. She spread her knees, arched her back, and extended her arms in front, lewdly exposing her bloody crotch. She was crying and trembling with fear. Bagatúrckt was totally aroused at the sight of blood trickling down her thighs and the girl's submissive posture. Her trembling body and quiet sobs added to the erotic spectacle.

"Stay in position. Do not move. If you want, you can cry out, but do not dare move."

Bagatúrckt picked up a heavy strap and struck hard at the girl's upturned bottom. She screamed and he hit her several more times. She was sobbing loudly and her whole body was shaking. Lovely... the blood, the welts, the crying, the fear... this was what made fucking a virgin so great. It was what made spending several weeks patiently seducing her worth it.

Bagatúrckt was more than ready for a second round. His penis was as hard as before, ready to pump another batch of semen into her. He moved behind her and, as roughly as he could, pushed inside. He was determined that nothing would remain of the girl's virginity when he finished with her. He was rewarded with more crying and more blood, although not nearly as much as the first time.

Bagatúrckt left the room to get cleaned up. Danka remained on the bed, lying on her side with her hands between her legs. The pillow beneath her face was soaked with tears, and the sheet beneath her body was soaked with sweat and blood. She couldn't believe how much it hurt. She was in shock, because she had not expected sex to be so... awful. She certainly hadn't expected her lover to be so... awful.

Danka dozed off. She woke up when Bagatúrckt re-entered the room. He was still naked and had yet another erection. She noticed that he had a shiny glob of pig-fat on his fingertips.

"Lie face-down on the bed. Take that pillow and put it under your hips."

Danka was bewildered at the command. When she moved too slowly, Bagatúrckt picked up the strap. The penitent quickly moved to get the pillow under her and position herself as directed. It didn't do her any good. She screamed when he laid two cruel blows across her naked backside.

"You will learn to obey me, girl. You're mine now... until I say otherwise. I expect complete obedience."

"Yes... yes, Bagatúrckt."

"...until I say otherwise..." Those words were another severe blow to Danka's illusions, but she had other things to worry about. Bagatúrckt got on the bed and spread his lover's bottom-cheeks. He dabbed the pig lard around the girl's anus and put some on the tip of his penis. He pushed down, using his bodyweight to force himself completely inside. Danka's sphincter and intestines immediately protested in pain. She struggled, but he pinned her arms to the bed and held her tight. Once again, he wanted the experience to be as painful as possible so she would remember it for the rest of her life. When he finished, he hit her with the strap again and left the room.

Danka curled up into a fetal position and resumed crying. She would not be able to get back to sleep. The raw pain in her violated sphincter and the deep ache in her intestines added to the burning coming from her vagina and the welts from the strap. Besides... what other horrible things was that awful man going to do to her?

Just hours before she had been full of love and was giving thanks to the Creator, but now that love and gratitude were gone. She hated the Creator. She hated herself. She most certainly hated Bagatúrckt.

She remembered the words of her the young Priestess, spoken just a couple of weeks before: "...we are not supposed to hate, but I hope the Creator understands that my hatred of Bagatúrckt is quite justified."

Yes, Priestess, your hatred of him is justified... very justified. So... you couldn't have warned me?

But Danka knew the answer to her own question. The Priestess did try to warn her, but was trying to avoid being too obvious. Anyhow, even had the Priestess been more direct about the warning, she wouldn't have listened.

* * *

The house servants entered the room at sunrise and ordered Danka to accompany them to the bath house. She struggled to get out of bed while they watched with indifferent expressions. Danka blushed upon seeing all the dried blood, semen, sweat, tears, and smeared feces on the bed sheet. The servants didn't react, apart from pulling off the bedding as soon as she was on her feet. She tried to cover herself, but two women ordered her to put out her hands. They grabbed her wrists and led her out of the room.

A warm bath already was awaiting Danka when she entered the bath house. An older servant placed a chamber pot in the corner and ordered the guest to relieve herself before getting in the tub.

"It'll hurt and you won't want to do it, but you have no choice. You'll heal faster if you get all the piss and shit out of you now. It might feel like your Path in Life has ended, but it hasn't. All the virgin lasses go through this and all of them survived. You'll survive as well. You're no different than any of the others."

"The others? How many others?"

"Many. Every time the Master or one of his friends finds a virgin lass, they take her up to that room. They even gave a nickname to it: the 'Graveyard of Virtue'.

"...and Master Bagatúrckt?"

"He doesn't come here as often as the Master's other friends, but Master Bagatúrckt's Path in Life has taken him to the foreign lands, where he indulges himself, to be sure."

"...but... he's come here with other girls... virgins?"

"Yes, but today is the first time we've seen him in two years."

"Two years? And... the last time... did he have a girl with him?"

"Oh, yes he did. And that one was special. A seminary student from the Temple in Starívktaki Móskt. I heard him tell the Master of the house it took him months to convince her to come up here. He was quite proud of himself, proud that he indulged his desires with a virtuous woman of the Church."

As she sat on the chamber-pot, wincing while she painfully emptied her intestines, Danka thought about what else she should ask. The servant attending her seemed chatty and she needed to take advantage of that. The penitent was still devastated and traumatized, but she knew feeling sorry for herself wouldn't help her. She needed to extract herself from the grasp of Bagatúrckt, but she was in a strange town and couldn't do anything without more information. She decided to ask some more questions about the seminary student as soon as she finished and got into the bathtub.

"I... I'm curious... how did he... convince a Temple apprentice to come up here? And, how did he get her out of the Temple?"

"The same way he convinced you to come up here, I'd imagine. Poetry... love talk... gifts..." The servant thought for a moment. "Yes... and with the seminary student Master Bagatúrckt talked about the Lord-Creator and the forest... yes, that's it... he used the name of the Lord-Creator to seduce her. He talked about the forest and how she'd see the best and most beautiful place the Lord-Creator had given to the Realm of the Living. And he did take her there, but I'd imagine, after what the Masters did to her, she no longer cared."

"Masters? As in... more than one?"

"Oh yes. Master Bagatúrckt humiliated that student as much as he could. After he deflowered her, he wouldn't let her bathe until he took her before our Master and two others who were visiting at the time. He made her show herself to them and then asked her what she thought the Lord-Creator would say about her virtue, now that the only memory of it was the dry blood running down her thighs. She cried and the men made fun of her. Finally, he did let her bathe. He indulged himself with her again. On the third day he took her to the chambers of the my Master and then presented her to the others. On the fourth day, as promised, he took her to see the forest."

"But... I don't understand... why? Why would he do that... to a seminary student? Why humiliate her like that? What did she ever do to him to make him hate her so much? And... what did I ever do?"

"That question is easily answered. Master Bagatúrckt hates virtue. More than anything, he hates women who consider themselves virtuous. Everywhere he sees virtue, he tries to destroy it. My Master and the others feel the same way about virtuous women, although perhaps not as strongly as Master Bagatúrckt."

There was a pause and the servant continued: "Master Bagatúrckt did not hate the seminary student and he doesn't hate you. He hates no one. But he hated your virtue, which is why he brought you to this house. Now... let me ask you something. Did you go through the door into that bedroom willingly, or did he force you?"

"I... I guess I went in there willingly."

"You guess, or did you enter that room according to your own wishes?"

"I went in there because I... I thought he loved me. I wanted to give myself to him."

"Which is indeed what you did. You willingly went through that door, and you willingly presented your body for him to enjoy. That is the way it has been with all of you. There is not a single woman who ever was forced into that room. Each one of you walked in there willingly."

"But it was because we were tricked..."

"No, not because you were tricked. You went in there because you only saw what you wanted to see. The only deception was the deception you inflicted upon yourself."

"But... I did it out of love..."

"Yes, just like all the others, you did it out of love. That is a problem, isn't it? Love is very dangerous. Love can be a blessing from the Lord-Creator, or a curse from Beelzebub the Destroyer. Of the two, which do you think is the most common?"

"I guess... for me it would be the curse."

"Not just for you. For most people it would be the curse. That is the lesson you will take away from this house. Love is a curse much more often than it is a blessing."

"So... what should I do now? Can you help me escape?"

"There's no need for you to escape. Master Bagatúrckt already took from you what he wanted. He'll keep you for a month or so, and then he'll find a place to leave you. I advise you to stay with him until that time comes, because he will want to be assured you are safe."

"Safe? How can I be safe? He just ruined my life!"

"Remember what I said earlier. He hates virtue and wants to destroy it. If there's no virtue left in you, you'll be more than safe with him. He'll want you to stay alive and pass that lesson to others."

"I don't want to stay with him for a month. I don't want to see him... ever. I'd rather..."

"Yes, you'd rather die, I know. All of you say the same thing. And if you die, what good would that do? Do you really want to hold up your mirror to the Lord-Creator with your Path in Life as it is now? I wouldn't. When the month passes and you are left to make your own decisions again, you can fix most of what was broken in that room. Not all of it, obviously, but you'll be surprised how much the simple passing of time can repair your soul. And if Master Bagatúrckt wishes to take you into the forest, you should go. It has places that are worth seeing and knowledge you'll never obtain in the city."

When Danka did not reply, the servant added: "There is something I can do for you to make sure you pass the next month without having your life disrupted any more than it is already."

The servant pointed at a set of shelves near the door. Mostly they contained soaps and perfumes, but there was one shelf containing some small brown ceramic jars.

"Take a couple of those jars on your way out and put them with your other belongings. As soon as your insides heal from 'the loss of your virtue', you need to take a finger-full of that paste and rub it completely around your womanhood. You need to rub it on the inside, as deep as you can. Do that once each day and if you can, right before sex. Do it right, and that paste will prevent you from getting pregnant."

"Paste? That actually works?"

"I don't know how it works, but it does. You might have noticed on the way in, this town does not have nearly as many children as most places around the Duchy. The only children who live here are the ones that were actually wanted by their mothers. If a woman doesn't want a baby, she uses Babáckt Yaga's paste, and the moon passes her by."

"Babáckt Yaga? Who's that?"

"She's an alchemist who lives up in the mountains. She's been there as long as I can remember, and I'm not young. Her alchemy is something to behold, because her potions can heal many of the curses Beelzebub the Destroyer has inflicted on us. Her potions can't heal everything, and she'll tell you that herself. But many evil things can be healed... or simply prevented, including an undesired baby. I'd imagine you don't want to carry Master Bagatúrckt's child?"


"That's how I can help you. Take two of those jars. You will need to wait until your injuries heal, or that paste will burn your insides. But once you've healed, you should be able to use it with no problem."

Danka stood up and reluctantly took two jars.

"I will take you back the 'graveyard of virtue'. I know the masters, and I can tell you something important about all of them. They become bored very quickly. Do what Master Bagatúrckt says. Don't resist him. Don't challenge him. Don't let him see your suffering. Follow that advice and he'll probably return you to the Temple before the next moon."

As she accompanied the servant to the guest room, Danka pondered the advice. She had no reason to mistrust the servant: if anything the servant had placed considerable trust in her by giving her those jars of Babáckt Yaga's paste. She'd follow the advice concerning Bagatúrckt. She'd hide her emotions, put up with his depravity, hope Babáckt Yaga's birth-control paste actually worked, and wait for him to dispose of her.

Bagatúrckt returned to the 'graveyard of virtue' a few hours later, after Danka had the chance to eat, rest, and accustom herself to her unpleasant circumstances. He ordered her to get on her elbows and knees on the edge of the bed and hold that position. He roughly fondled her sore vulva and shoved his fingers into her vagina. She bit her lip and closed her eyes, but stayed quiet.

"Hmmm... not much blood. Looks like you've healed."

"Yes, Master Bagatúrckt."

In a flash of inspiration, Danka decided to call her lover "Master Bagatúrckt" instead of "Bagatúrckt". She would distance herself as much as she could every time she had to talk to him. She would address him with the formal form of "you" instead of the familiar form, once again, as a means of establishing social distance. She would be obedient in the same way a servant had to be obedient, but she would be cold and indifferent around him. She would consider herself his servant, not his lover.

He took off his clothes and roughly took her from behind. The experience was painful for Danka, because she was not aroused and still was recovering from losing her virginity the night before. However, except for a few grunts, she did not make any noise. Frustrated by the lack of emotion, he grabbed the strap and hit her across her upturned bottom. She cried out each time she was hit, but struggled to keep still and keep her crying to a minimum.

"So you enjoy the strap, my little slut?"

"I am here to please you, Master Bagatúrckt. My body is for you to enjoy. What I want doesn't matter, does it?"

Bagatúrckt was at a loss how to proceed. He had wanted to further humiliate the penitent, and then drag her before his friends, to break her and make her cry even more. The seminary student had been a lot of fun... crying, praying... insisting that she loved him... and totally incredulous over everything he did to her. It seemed the peasant girl wasn't falling for any of that. She would not resist anything he wanted to do to her, but she would obey him as a mistreated servant, not as a hurt lover. Her attitude about having sex with him would be exactly the same as if she were ordered to sweep the floor or gut a chicken.

He ordered her to lick his penis. She obeyed and managed to get an erection out of him. He pushed her to the bed and entered her. She lay quietly, neither cooperating nor resisting, as she waited for him to finish. She thought to herself - I just have to get through this... just get through it... a month... the house servant told me it'll be a month... I hope it's not any more than that...

Bagatúrckt was completely disappointed. He left the room and did not return until sunrise the next day. He went out drinking with his friends and did not mention the peasant girl he had deflowered and who was still locked up in the guest bedroom. With her quiet sullen obedience, it was very possible the others would have made fun of him had he attempted to pass her around.

* * *

Bagatúrckt decided to head into the mountains a couple of days sooner than he had originally planned. Breaking the peasant girl had turned out to not be nearly as much fun as he anticipated. However, as much as he wanted to get rid of her, he still needed an assistant to accompany him into the mountains, to attend to things such as cooking and grooming the horses while he searched for his mysterious mushrooms.

The couple rode into the hills overlooking Sevérckt nad Gorádki. The view was exciting: rolling sheep pastures rising higher and higher, leading up to the dark forest beyond. The day was beautiful and clear, allowing Danka to look south and observe the entire central region of the Duchy. She could see portions of the Rika Chorna River in the distance and, if she had a telescope with her, she would have been able to make out Rika Héckt-nemát and Starívktaki Móskt. It was fascinating to be able to see so much at once. For a few moments she enjoyed herself as she managed to ignore the fact she was traveling with a man she loathed.

As they entered the forest, Danka's attention was turned to keeping up with Bagatúrckt and trying to maintain control of a horse without knowing anything about riding. The spectacular view vanished: now there was nothing to look at except huge trees and her companion's back. They traveled slowly, because Bagatúrckt frequently stopped to look at a compass, consult a map, or write some comments in a journal. The terrain became much steeper as the afternoon wore on. Finally, just as the sun was setting, they arrived at clearing with a small altar and a campsite where they would spend their first night.

"Get us enough firewood to make it through sunrise. You are responsible for maintaining it. Also, start a pot of water to boil and fix us a portion of the dry meat in my saddlebag."

"Yes, Master Bagatúrckt."

Bagatúrckt gave Danka an irritated look but said nothing more.

After they ate and Danka washed their utensils, Bagatúrckt went to sleep. Danka looked at the sleeping man with complete disdain and hatred. Her acting and the effort to hide her emotions had been perfect, but still she was devastated by what he had done to her and by what he had planned to do to her. Now he was silent and helpless. It was nice to not have to hear his voice or deal with his stupid ideas.

Although her nemesis now was asleep, Danka never contemplated seeking revenge by attacking him. She still considered herself inferior to most of the people surrounding her. She may have become literate over the past year, but she remained an impoverished unmarried young woman with no title, living in a culture dominated by married men who owned property. Regardless of what he had done to her, Bagatúrckt remained a "Master" who was socially superior to her. After-all, he was the son of a Senior Priest. It was safe to assume that if she killed him and was caught, she'd face execution regardless of the motives or circumstances. Besides, she could not imagine the Creator was pleased with her, living a life of lies under a fake collar. Maybe what had happened was the Creator's way of punishing her for all the lies she had told over the past year. Certainly a murder would not improve her prospects in the Afterlife.

Another issue weighing on Danka was the reality that she had little experience dealing with men or boys. What she had witnessed during her childhood would not have persuaded her that women had any rights. She was used to seeing her father routinely beat her mother and many of her neighbors doing the same to their wives and daughters. She had no way of knowing whether Bagatúrckt's treatment of her was acceptable in the view of Danubian society. She suspected that it was not, but her past experiences gave her no guidance.

As she tended the fire, the main question in Danka's mind did not concern Bagatúrckt at all. She was more worried about whether or not she should return to the Temple in Starívktaki Móskt. Apart from a safe place to sleep, there was nothing waiting for her there. The seminary student who had mentored her was gone and she had no other close friends. She certainly would never have any respect for the Senior Priest or Senior Priestess, considering they had raised a son who was so depraved and whose soul was so broken. She didn't want to study for the Priesthood, nor end up like those two older women who had spent most of their lives in the same place and doing the same thing, year after year.

She understood that it would be better not to go back... but if she didn't, then what should she do?

* * *

The following day the couple continued their journey, passing through a forested valley and crossing in front of some spectacular waterfalls. Their trek took them northwest and towards several streambeds. Bagatúrckt began searching in earnest for his mushrooms, following maps and copies of journals. A couple of times that day he ordered the peasant girl to get on her hands and knees. He'd take off his pants, enter her, and mercifully was finished within a few minutes. Neither he nor the girl considered it making love. For him it was little more than stress relief, for her it was nothing more than one of her obligations as his servant.

At the end of the second day they made camp in a clearing near a stream. It was an idyllic spot, worthy of a poem. Bagatúrckt scribbled one into his journal while the peasant girl collected firewood. As he watched her, he admired her naked body. He decided to include a few lines about her as well, even though he no longer was very interested in her. Still, she could be the source of fantasy and go well into a poem...

Danka started the fire, cooked, and ate a silent meal with Bagatúrckt. When he dozed off, she took the utensils to the stream to wash them. She decided to jump in and rinse off. It was a lovely evening, with a moon that was almost full and fireflies dancing in the woods all around her. An occasional bat or swallow passed overhead.

A much larger shape passed over, completely silent. Danka's heart stopped, because it was way too large to be a bat or swallow. She must have been imagining things. The shape passed over again, this time very close. It looked like a bird, but incredibly large. She tried to figure out where it went as it vanished into the black forest. The bird flew over a third time and landed on a branch near the river. Danka couldn't run: it seemed the streambed held her feet tight. Whatever that bird was, she'd have to face it or chase it off.

"Hello? Bird? Is that..."

A pair of huge eyes, illuminated by the moonlight, suddenly emerged into the peasant's view. She was so scared that her knees shook and her breathing became difficult. She felt very cold.

From a distance she heard the hooting of an owl. Then the one close to her answered with a loud hoot that shot straight into the girl's bones. The eyes, which seemed suspended in the darkness, did not budge. They became the only thing she was able to see. Nothing more than a pair of large hostile eyes.

Then the owl spoke to her. He did not speak through hoots or by making any other sound. He spoke to her soul. "You know your true Master, Danka Síluckt. It is I."

"No. I don't. I don't know you."

"Ahhh, but you do, Danka Síluckt. Remember what the scripture says: ' The Destroyer enters the Realm of the Living through the mouth of the liar'. You will not escape from me, liar."

Danka said nothing, but the cold terror completely filled her soul. The voice continued: "You tried to ignore the warning last year. You convinced yourself it was just your imagination. Thought I would just go away. Why would I do that, Danka Síluckt? Why would I just go away and leave you in peace? Why?... Why?... Why?..."

The owl's final words faded into hoots. The bird took off and flew over her head, so close that she felt the brush of air from his wings.

* * *

The couple traveled deeper and deeper into the mountains, checking streambed after streambed. Bagatúrckt collected samples of rare mushrooms, but for several days "The Joy of the Ancients" eluded him. He did not despair, because he knew the mushroom would be hard to find. His Vienna friends would not have wagered a purse of gold had they suspected searching for "The Joy of the Ancients" would be easy. He had all summer to locate his elusive treasure and a girl to make his life comfortable during the search. He liked the forest, at least during the summer, and enjoyed writing in his journal.

Danka, meanwhile, lived in mortal fear. At dusk, everywhere she looked, she saw owls. Usually they were ordinary owls, but every so often, she'd see that owl, the one that carried the Destroyer's messages.

She knew the Destroyer was watching her and waiting... but waiting for what? Was her own death approaching? Danka thought about the separation of her soul from her body, as she followed Bagatúrckt from streambed to streambed. If her death was about to happen, was that necessarily a bad thing? Was there any joy in life that she'd be leaving behind? Anyone she cared about or who cared about her? Did she really have anything to live for at all?

Two nights later, Danka stood in another streambed after cleaning up the remnants of dinner. A large black bird approached in the darkness, flew over her, and landed in a branch near the water. The cold feeling returned. When she tried to move her feet, the ground tightly held her ankles. The bird looked at her. Once again the moonlight illuminated his eyes.

"Danka Síluckt. Our Paths in Life merge again."

"Yes, Owl. You're... you're planning to separate my soul from my body?"

"Not yours. At least not yet. Someone else's, perhaps. Maybe I'll grant you another wish."

"Another wish? You haven't granted me any wishes. My only wish is for you to go away."

"Liar. Of course I granted you a wish, liar."

Danka momentarily saw her mother, uncontrollably sobbing and cradling a body. It was her sister, Katrínckta. Danka's sibling had her hair braided and was wearing a white dress, but she was no longer pretty. Her face was horribly swollen, with darkened features and an agonized appearance. Danka saw her mother's expression in detail. She was shrieking and mad with grief.

The illuminated eyes reappeared.

"So you see, Danka Síluckt, I do grant wishes."

The owl took off and flew over Danka's head. A cold gust of wind swept by as the bird passed. The ground released Danka's feet.

She fell on her hands and knees and threw up. She drank some water and tried to clean her teeth. She returned to the campfire and contemplated Bagatúrckt's sleeping body.

That reminded her... Babáckt Yaga's paste... she hadn't the chance to put it in that day. She went to her bucket and retrieved a jar. Once she finished she returned to tend the fire. It seemed that eyes were staring at her, but she knew that nothing would approach her in the presence of Bagatúrckt.

A wish... well, I wouldn't mind seeing this man dead...

That thought was answered with a sensation of extreme cold sweeping through her body.

* * *

The next day Bagatúrckt took his companion past a waterfall, the highest they had seen so far. He decided to leave the horses tied near the stream and find a way past the cascading water, to see what was above it upstream. They spent the entire morning climbing a steep slope, but by noon they had made their way into to a picturesque valley with vegetation Danka had never seen before. She looked at the mountain beyond, and noted that its top was covered with grass and moss, not trees. She would have been curious to go that way... see why there were no trees, but she figured Bagatúrckt would not be interested in exploring in that direction.

Bagatúrckt took off his pants and ordered her to get on her hands and knees. As always, she complied, but she was irritated he had to spoil her memory of the lovely place by wanting sex at that very moment. He finished within a few minutes and pulled his clothing back on.

Danka rinsed off in the frigid water. When she glanced around at the nearby rocks, she noticed a strange sight among all those strange plants; mushrooms totally different from any she had ever seen. They were metallic bluish-green in color and perfectly round. They were one of the strangest things she had ever seen in nature: they really did not look like something a person would expect to see in the Realm of the Living.

She wondered if she had found what Bagatúrckt was looking for. She was not thrilled about helping him, nor did she want to see him destroy those beautiful mushrooms, but she did want her outing with him to end and to have him depart from her life.

"Master Bagatúrckt. I found something. Some weird mushrooms. Maybe it's what you're looking for, Master?"

Bagatúrckt approached. As soon as he saw the mushrooms his expression changed. Danka was frightened, because his look was one of unrestrained evil glee.

"Yes. This is it. This is what I wanted. And they doubted me. All Vienna will know me now. The purse... it's mine... all mine... the gold... mine."

Bagatúrckt ordered his companion to stay with the first batch of mushrooms while he wandered up and down the stream looking for more. He returned with a cloth sack half full of specimens. He then proceeded to pick all of the mushrooms where Danka was sitting. She looked at him with disgust. If his purpose was merely to prove the existence of "The Joy of the Ancients" then, why not just take a few samples and leave the rest? Why did he have to clean out the entire streambed?

"All mine...'The Joy of the Ancients'... belongs to me... yes..."

Of course, there was not a single word of thanks to Danka, the person who actually discovered the mushrooms. After-all, she was nothing more than a servant and not worthy of sharing any credit.

The return trip was difficult. The slope was very steep, there was no marked trail, and both the man and the woman were weighted down. He had the bag of mushrooms that he had to be careful not to bump, and she was weighted down with everything that he had carried up. It was dark by the time they returned to the horses.

Bagatúrckt laid the mushrooms out on a cloth while Danka stumbled around looking for firewood. As soon as she had a fire going, the master pulled the cloth close to the heat to begin the process of drying the fungi. He and the servant spent the entire night carefully brushing off the dirt and separating the stems from the tops. The next day was hot and sunny, so Bagatúrckt decided to stay in the clearing and try to dry his loot as much as possible before returning to Sevérckt nad Gorádki.

They stayed two days. Except when she had to pick berries or collect firewood, Danka finally had the chance to sleep. She was exhausted from having spent days riding all day and tending fires all night. She also found it hard to close her eyes in the dark after being totally traumatized by her nighttime visions. During the day everything seemed different, which allowed her to rest.

Bagatúrckt was too worried about his mushrooms to worry about his companion. He built a stick platform in the sun, where he laid the cloth to allow the air to circulate underneath. He carefully counted the specimens and drew pictures of some of them. Danka knew that if she tried to take any samples or even touch them without permission her master would kill her. Not touching "The Joy of the Ancients" was fine with her. She suspected the mushrooms were cursed by the Destroyer the moment they were picked and had no desire to be anywhere near them.

On the third morning after harvesting the mushrooms, Bagatúrckt announced that he was ready to return to Sevérckt nad Gorádki. The mushrooms were dry enough to transport. The master carefully rolled up the cloth with the mushrooms tucked inside and looked around for a good container. He spotted Danka's bucket. Without asking her permission, he grabbed it and pushed in the rolled cloth. He took no notice of Danka's other belongings lying at the bottom. He mounted his horse and tied the bucket to his saddle. Danka despaired at the thought of those evil mushrooms being kept in her bucket and her bucket being take away from her, but she said nothing. All she could hope for would be that she'd have her possessions returned to her as soon as they returned to Sevérckt nad Gorádki.

They moved quickly in the direction from which they came, covering in a single day the same distance that had taken them four days coming out. Darkness fell and Bagatúrckt reluctantly dismounted. They already had covered more than half the distance towards Sevérckt nad Gorádki, but the rest of the trip would have to wait until the next day. They couldn't go any further in the dark.

Danka was not thrilled about stopping. She could feel the Destroyer's presence, a premonition confirmed by the occasional dark shape flying overhead. She heard the twittering of bats... but it was not the bats that scared her. It was the owl... that owl... the one that was waiting for her.

Fortunately they stopped at one of their previous campsites where there was some spare wood left over from their last fire. Danka gladly lit it and started dinner. While the peasant girl was cooking, the master examined some of the mushrooms, to make sure they were still dry and fresh. He decided to keep three tops and three stems in his hand before putting the others back into the bucket. He set the bucket next to his bedroll and contemplated the magic he held in his hands.

"'The Joy of the Ancients' is mine now. I am worthy of it, and it is worthy of me. My Path in Life is to deny myself nothing, to experience every pleasure the Realm of the Living has to offer. This is it: the joy that the Ancients left behind, the joy that transcends mere mortality. I found it, and I will share it, but before I do, I will not be denied. I will indulge... experience... it is my Path in Life."

Danka watched as, one piece at a time, he placed the mushrooms in his mouth and thoughtfully chewed them. For a while nothing happened, apart from Bagatúrckt staring blankly into the fire. His gaze eventually grew more vacant, but apart from that he seemed very relaxed. His mouth started to move, as though he were speaking silently. The fire was starting to die, but Danka was terrified at the thought of wandering into the darkness to find more firewood. She was as immobilized by fear as he was by his trance... or by whatever it was that was happening to him.

"Honor and greatness are mine... honor and greatness are what I deserve... my Path in Life... lead the Enlightenment.... my honor..."

An owl... that owl... landed on a branch overlooking the clearing.


"What? Girl, what did you say?"

"I didn't say anything, Master Bagatúrckt."


Bagatúrckt angrily looked around: "Who said that!? Who's questioning me?"

Shaking with fear, Danka pointed at the dark shape sitting above them.


"Ha! Beelzebub! You! You came to take what is mine? That won't happen, pathetic spirit! You're nothing! A bird! A fucking owl! You can't do any better than become a dishonored bird, you loathsome, tiny, puny, helpless, pathetic apparition?"


Bagatúrckt ran to his horse and unsheathed his sword.

"You won't mock me, pathetic apparition! I'm so much more than you! I am the Creator! I'm more than the Creator, I'm the God of Rome! I'll strike you down and eat you for breakfast, pathetic Beelzebub!"


"How dare you! Now I will chase you! Now I will kill you, Beelzebub!"

Bagatúrckt mounted his horse. It was obvious that he was completely insane, believing he had transformed into either the Creator or the Roman God. However, he was more than simply a madman riding around on a horse. It seemed there really was something much larger in him, struggling to get out. And, why not? After-all, he had defiantly eaten food reserved for the Ancients. Perhaps that food was far more than a human body could withstand.

Mocking Bagatúrckt, the owl flew from one side of the clearing to the other, passing immediately in front of the master's face. He chased the bird, but the owl took off again and flew towards the stream.

"Why? Why?"

"How dare you! How dare you defy me! I will cut you, Beelzebub! I will cut you!"

Bagatúrckt led his panicked horse into the stream, but the owl changed course and flew back towards the camp. It landed on Danka's horse. The animal shrieked in panic and tore itself loose. Danka screamed as her horse galloped along the path and disappeared into the darkness. Bagatúrckt was wild with rage. He crashed around in the woods as the owl flew ahead of him, barely keeping out of his sword's reach. He was howling like a mad wolf. The sounds coming out of his mouth were no longer those of a human.

Danka stood helplessly as her master rode through the dark woods around the camp, screaming and cursing. The owl re-emerged into the clearing, with a man savagely swinging his sword in pursuit. The horse nearly trampled the penitent. The owl flew directly towards Bagatúrckt and openly challenged him. The man backed his horse directly into the fading campfire. The horse shrieked upon feeling the embers' heat and became as uncontrollable as his rider. He charged back into the trees. Suddenly in the distance there was a tremendous crash of breaking branches and thrashing leaves. The horse whinnied and re-emerged into the clearing, riderless. He did not stop. He ran towards the path and, like Danka's mount, galloped along the trail that led to back to Sevérckt nad Gorádki. The sound of hoofs became fainter and fainter.

Danka was left standing in total silence. As much as she hated Bagatúrckt, she was hoping to hear his voice, even if it was nothing more than a moan or a call for help. For a long time she listened, but the only sounds reaching her ears were the normal sounds of the nighttime forest. No. He was not going to call out to her. She'd have to investigate, go in the direction of that crash, and see what happened. With every bit of courage she could summon, she carefully picked her way through the trees and brush, feeling her way through the darkness.

She touched countess tree trunks, but eventually her hand landed on something at eye level that was not a tree. It was a large object that was not fixed to the ground, but hanging. She explored with her hand and realized she was touching a boot. Yes, and there was the other one. She felt upwards and touched a pair of legs clothed in thick trousers. She tugged at the corpse, but apart from swinging it a bit more, she was not able to budge it. And a corpse it indeed was; there was no question she was touching a body that had been separated from its soul. She let out a shriek as pulled back her hand. The sinister cold feeling swept through her body. She couldn't breathe.

Calm... calm... breathe... must breathe... calm... go back... wait...

She immediately realized how bad her situation had become. Yes, she had hoped to see Bagatúrckt as a corpse, but not like this. Now she was alone, in a pitch-black forest, with no weapon except a dagger that was not even with her, no food, no supplies, and no horse. She didn't even have a fire, because she had neglected to keep it burning. Instinctually she groped her way towards the clearing, although really there was no point, because without a fire the clearing was no safer than anywhere else. The worst detail was that she couldn't see anything. The leaves completely blocked the sky and all source of light. She continued stumbling around, but she had lost all sense of direction. She was so panicked that she forgot about the first rule of being alone in the forest: to be a quiet as possible and listen for anything or anyone approaching.

Finally Danka did see light. It was a strange orange color. She was so desperate to see something, anything, that she instinctually stumbled towards it, without thinking it was very likely that light would be leading her towards, and not away from, danger. She continued pushing through the brush. To see... just to see. The light moved down and vanished. Danka despaired, because now she was hopelessly lost. She couldn't control her breathing and was letting out panicked gasps. She tried to hold her breath. To her horror she could hear the sounds of movement all around her.

The orange light reappeared, much closer. She screamed when she saw what it was, an illuminated skull. When she turned around, there was another orange skull behind her. There were two more on either side.

"Beelzebub... Leave me alone! What did I do? What did I do, for you to torment me like this?"

An old woman's voice answered back.

"Trespasser, don't you dare speak the name of the profane one in this forest!"

"You''re not Beelzebub?"

"I told you not to speak that name! And no, I am not!"

"Who are you?"

"And who are you, trespasser?"

"I... I'm a penitent... from the Temple...i n Starívktaki Móskt."

"You're lying, trespasser. You're not from there. They don't use the Christian name for the profane one at that Temple. So, tell me who you are, trespasser, and where you're from. If I have to call you 'trespasser' again, it will be the last time anyone will call you anything."

"I... I'm Danka Síluckt. I'm from Rika Héckt-nemát, originally. But I was at the Temple. I'm not lying about that, Mistress."

"Very well, Danka Síluckt. Are there any other names in your life? Other things people might have called you?"

"No, Mistress... well... at the Temple they did call me 'the bloody one', because I was the only penitent that butchered animals... the others didn't like doing it."

"Very well, Danka Síluckt, 'the bloody one'. You will now explain to me why you are in these woods... what brought you here."

"I came here with my master."

"Who is your master, Danka Síluckt, 'the bloody one'? What was his business in this forest?"

"He's... his name is Bagatúrckt. He's from..."

"I know Bagatúrckt. And I know where he's from. And I know who he serves. Do you know?"

"Yes, Mistress. I know who he serves."

"Which is why you were calling out to the profane one..."

"No, Mistress. That wasn't the reason. It's... I was being chased. I wanted to be left alone."

"So, Danka Síluckt, 'the bloody one', where is your master now? Can you lead me to him?"

"I think he's dead, Mistress. And it was... the... profane one... who killed him."

Danka explained the circumstances of Bagatúrckt's death and the escaped horses.

"We saw the horses. They ran by us as we were coming up the trail. Now, we will return to your campsite and find your master, or his body. If Bagatúrckt is dead, that would be good news for the Duchy, but bad news for me, because I wasn't able to kill him myself."

The group's leader moved her skull-lamp in front so Danka could see her face. She was dressed in black clothing. She looked very old, but her eyes were still clear and powerful. Her hair was completely gray, but it was done up in braids just like the hair of every other Danubian woman.

"Danka Síluckt, I want you to understand that your fate is in my hands. I have not yet decided what your fate will be, because I haven't learned enough about you. I may spare you, and I may not. Either way, the decision will be difficult. If you can accept that I now control your destiny, I won't have to restrain your hands. But, restrained or not, you will understand that you'd have no chance of escaping."

"I... yes Mistress... I know that."

Oddly, the old woman's words calmed Danka considerably, even though she had just spoken of the possibility of killing her. The terrible cold feeling that tormented her over the past several days had vanished.


The old woman's three companions led Danka though the forest. Even though she knew that her life was still in danger, she felt at peace, partly because she was grateful not to be stumbling around in total darkness. It also was a relief to know she was traveling with people who had declared themselves enemies of both Bagatúrckt and Beelzebub the Destroyer.

The skull-bearers and their captive made their way to the path. They turned left and walked several minutes before arriving at the dark campsite. Danka looked up and noticed the sky was beginning to lighten.

Light... sun... oh yes... so happy not to be in the dark...

"From this place, can you tell me in which direction you think Bagatúrckt was riding, when his soul separated from his body?"

Danka pointed in several directions as she spoke: "He started fighting with the owl here... then rode in that direction... then that way into the stream... then he came back... was over there... and then he went that way... and that's where I heard the crash... and his horse came out there... and ran off in that direction..."

"When we have the benefit of light, we will investigate your claims. Meanwhile, you will state your business with Bagatúrckt."

"He was looking for mushrooms, Mistress. A special kind he called..."

"...The Joy of the Ancients."

"Yes, Mistress."

"I trust you were unsuccessful in your quest?"

"No... Mistress. That's not true. He did find a place with a bunch of those mushrooms. He got enough to fill a bucket."

"A bucket? That's impossible. There's only one place that has so many... and there's no way you would have found it."

"There was, Mistress. A stream, in a pretty place... with a lot of strange plants. It was above a waterfall, really high up."

Danka could tell, even in the faint pre-dawn light, that her captor was dismayed upon hearing her last words.

"Show me your bucket, Danka Síluckt"

"It's over there, where Bagatúrckt set up his bedroll."

The old woman signaled to one of her followers to retrieve the bucket. She was horrified when she opened the cloth and looked inside.

"Mercy of the Ancients... by the mercy of the Ancients... what have you done?"

"I... I was thinking he shouldn't have taken so many, Mistress, but..."

"Taken so many? Do you realize... have any idea... what you just destroyed?"

"Not really, Mistress. I just know that Bagatúrckt wagered a purse of gold in a foreign city... I think it was called Vienna... that he'd find some of those mushrooms. And when he found them... he wanted to take as many as he could."

"You don't have anything else to say for yourself?"

Danka realized that she had participated in something terrible. She also understood that she probably was only a few minutes away from meeting the Creator in the After-life. And yet, she was strangely calm. She'd tell her captor what happened, find out what was so important about those mushrooms, and then face judgment.

In detail, she described her trip with Bagatúrckt. She described his obsessions and "the graveyard of virtue". She talked about her conversations with the house servant in Sevérckt nad Gorádki and the trip into the forest. She talked, not to plead for her life, but to explain the facts. She concluded: "I didn't want anything to do with those mushrooms, Mistress. I always thought they were evil, from the moment they were pulled from the ground. When I watched Bagatúrckt eat them and saw what happened, I realized I was right."

By the time Danka finished, it was light enough to see through the trees. The old woman again asked where Bagatúrckt had been when Danka last saw him. The trespasser led the others towards the spot she thought he had been killed. After looking around for several minutes, she saw him. His body was hanging, with his neck wedged in the fork of a low tree branch.

The old woman's companions struggled to take down the corpse. It was not a pretty sight, because the neck was distended and the face bloodied and deformed from the blow. Danka noticed the dead man's sword lying in the brush. She picked it up, and without understanding why, held it out for her captor to take. The old woman seemed surprised, but she accepted the sword.

The assistants dragged the body to the campsite. They stripped off Bagatúrckt's fine clothing (which they would sell), turned the body over, and drove a stake into his back. One of the assistants left for a few minutes and returned with a large square piece of wood and an inkwell. The old woman wrote:

The love of money is the root of all evil.

Because I loved money, I stole from the Ancients and destroyed what can never be replaced. I showed my evil face in their presence and received what was rightfully mine. Do not mourn for me, because I was a tool of the Destroyer, and this is where my service to the Destroyer led me. I am now safely in the Destroyer's arms, enduring the Hell-Fire.

The old woman turned to Danka.

"You are ignorant about the mushrooms. Later I'll explain their significance. I will trust that your were a mere witness, nothing more, to your former master's depravity. As angry as I might be, I cannot condemn a bystander. I will ask you a question. If I spare you, do you think you can atone for what your master did to the Ancients?"

"I don't know, Mistress. I'll try, if you tell me what to do."

"Then we'll start by having you address me properly. I'm not a 'Mistress'. The people of these woods call me Babáckt Yaga."

"Yes, Babáckt Yaga."

"The next thing you will do is take off that counterfeit penance collar. I'll let you keep it for the future, but for the time you are in my service, you are not to wear it or show it in my presence."

Danka was shocked that Babáckt Yaga knew right away her collar wasn't real. It had fooled everyone else, but not the old woman. Reluctantly she took it off.

Babáckt Yaga picked up the bucket and handed her skull staff to Danka. Her followers gathered the other items scattered around the campsite and emerged onto the trail.

As she carried one of Babáckt Yaga's staffs and walked behind her followers, Danka realized that her Path in Life had changed. She would not be returning to central Danubia, at least not any time soon.

The staff she carried symbolized that she now was committed to staying in the mountains and serving Babáckt Yaga.

* * *

The two Temple horses were captured by the townsfolk near Sevérckt nad Gorádki. A junior Priest from the town's cathedral took the horses south to Starívktaki Móskt. The Temple's Senior Priest read through his son's correspondence and found a stack of poems. They were all dedicated to "the bloody one". He must have loved her dearly to have written all those beautiful poems.

Leaving Bagatúrckt's writings at the Temple, the Senior Priest frantically returned with the messenger to Sevérckt nad Gorádki. A group of Clergy members left the town to search the trail for the unfortunate Bagatúrckt, and also for the penitent who was the subject of his admiration. They finally found his badly decomposed body, at a campsite with a stake wedged in his back and a wooden sign with a very sinister message next to his head. Obviously poor Bagatúrckt had been horribly betrayed and murdered by that evil penitent.

Yes, from the first day he saw that peasant girl, the Senior Priest had known that something wasn't right about her. Unfortunately, he failed to act on that suspicion. That failure to confront true evil had cost him dearly: the life of his favorite son.

Bagatúrckt was buried with honors at the cathedral in Sevérckt nad Gorádki. When the Senior Priest finally returned to the Temple in Starívktaki Móskt, the place was full of hushed gossip about the evil penitent girl who had destroyed the life of a fine young man. More rumors came in from the west, from Rika Héckt-nemát, which recently had lost almost its entire population to the plague. There had been an evil peasant girl there too, the one who set off the sickness by calling out to Beelzebub the Destroyer when the city guards tried to execute her.

The rumors speculated that the peasant girl who killed Rika Héckt-nemát's people and the penitent who killed the Senior Priest's son must have been the same person, a true servant of Beelzebub the Destroyer.

Historian's Note Most likely the owls Danka saw were greater highland owls, a species of owl that inhabit old-growth forests and currently are protected under Danubian law. The Danubian word for "why" is "somú". Traditional Danubian folklore associates the hooting of the greater highland owl with the origins of "somú", which was one of the first questions given to humans during the Epoch of the Ancients.

- Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna -

Chapter Seven – The Initiate

Babáckt Yaga and her followers walked in silence throughout most of the morning. At the beginning there were only three companions, two young men and a middle-aged woman. Eventually they were joined by a young couple armed with longbows and carrying four dead hares and a sack of roots. Another older man later joined the group, lugging several fish.

All of Babáckt Yaga's companions were dressed alike. The women wore black long-sleeved dresses with dark red aprons, while the men wore black robes. The women's aprons and the men's robes were embroidered with a red skull. Everyone carried a real skull mounted on a long staff. Even in daylight, the group had a very sinister appearance.

Danka nervously followed the others, very self-conscious about being the only naked person in the group and not wearing a Church collar to give legitimacy to her nudity. She continued to be scared, traveling with the strange group and unsure if Babáckt Yaga really was planning to spare her life. However, she had no choice but to follow. She knew that she could never hope to escape from a group of people who undoubtedly knew the woods as well as they knew the insides of their homes. Also, even if she had been presented with the choice, Danka really did not have much desire to escape. Mentally and spiritually, she was exhausted from the traumatic events of the past two weeks. The more she thought over her situation, the more she realized that she had nowhere to go. Even if she could return to Sevérckt nad Gorádki, what would she do there? The first thing people would ask her was what had happened to her master Bagatúrckt. The thought crossed her mind that, if the horses had been re-captured, she might already be considered a fugitive.

The group traveled along the main trail for a while, heading back in the direction towards Sevérckt nad Gorádki, before turning onto a side path that led north. As soon as the alchemists were out of sight from the main trail, they stripped off their clothing, consolidated everything into a cloth bag, and handed it to Danka to carry. As they ascended into increasingly steep terrain, the naked alchemists made frequent stops to collect berries, herbs, and roots, which they carried in sacks that grew heavier as the morning wore on.

At midday the terrain flattened out and the group emerged into a cleared area. There were several well-kept gardens surrounding the strangest house Danka had ever seen. The structure was round instead of square, but what made it truly bizarre was that it was four fathoms above the ground, perched on top of three large tree trunks. The roots of the trees extended above the ground, reminding Danka of enormous birds' feet. Suddenly Danka remembered... as a child she had heard stories... of a witch who lived in a house in the forest that stood on huge chicken feet.

Babáckt Yaga did not give the newcomer a chance to rest. She collected the hares and fish from her followers and ordered the captive to accompany her to an open shed that contained a kiln and an outdoor kitchen. Danka was perplexed that she did not see any firewood: instead she noticed a large pile of black rocks. Babáckt Yaga directed her attention to a stone table.

"Very well, 'bloody one', I wish to see for myself if your Temple nickname was justified. Clean these animals so we may eat."

Danka expertly skinned and gutted the hares before preparing the fish. Babáckt Yaga carefully observed the newcomer and seemed satisfied that Danka had told her the truth, at least as far as handling meat was concerned. The next detail the alchemist wanted to know was how well Danka could cook. Babáckt Yaga called over one of her female followers and ordered her to start cooking, with the newcomer to assist. She ordered the captive to assist the woman normally assigned to prepare meals. The cook questioned her and figured out that Danka knew some recipes and seasoning techniques that were unique to the Danubian Church, thus verifying another portion of the newcomer’s claims.

The cook ordered Danka to pick up some of the black rocks and move them to the stove. The rocks were unlike anything she had ever seen: heavy, totally black, and powdery. The cook then shocked her assistant by throwing the rocks into the oven and setting them on fire.

“A secret of the Ancients. We call it cave-charcoal. It’s special charcoal the Creator placed in the ground for us, and it burns much better than anything we’d get from trees. When the winter darkness descends upon us and the cold blows off the mountains, you will give thanks many times over to the Creator for this present we have taken from the ground.”

Hearing those words helped calm Danka’s nerves, not because cave-charcoal was going to keep her warm over the winter, but because the cook apparently took it for granted she would be with the group (and thus still alive) at the end of the year.

* * *

While her captive was busy with dinner, Babáckt Yaga sadly spread the mushrooms on a drying rack to make sure they were completely dry. Later she would take other measures to ensure they would be preserved indefinitely, until she needed them for medicines and potions. Given the scarcity of the species, the supply was enormous, but it also represented the destruction of a large percentage of the world’s remaining living specimens. Babáckt Yaga’s only consolation was that at least she recovered the mushrooms and had them for her own use; that they had not been taken to Vienna. However, they were irreplaceable. There would be no new mushrooms sprouting up the following year to replace the ones that accursed fortune-seeker had destroyed.

A purse of gold… how absurd… a purse of gold… if only that ignorant dilettante had known… “The Joy of the Ancients” was worth far more than any amount of gold.

Even though he was dead, anger against Bagatúrckt and his loathsome pseudo-scientific friends in Vienna welled up inside the alchemist.

A purse of gold indeed…

* * *

Danka did not have her midday meal with the others. She was not yet an accepted member of the group and thus did not have permission to share their table. She ate alone, sitting at the base of one of the trees that held up that strange suspended house Babáckt Yaga called home. She noted the drying mushrooms and wondered about her bucket. She had seen the alchemist taking it up into the house with Bagatúrckt’s items, so presumably it was still there.

After the midday meal, three followers stayed behind to clean up, while the others departed the compound. (Later Danka would learn that Babáckt Yaga had planted rare herbs and fungi all around the area surrounding the settlement, and it was up to her followers to check on the plants to make sure they were healthy until it was time to harvest their ingredients.) The compound was completely empty, apart from three people in the kitchen area. Babáckt Yaga approached the newcomer and ordered her to follow her inside the raised house. She pulled a rope and a ladder came down automatically.

The interior of the building was very carefully laid out, to take advantage of every bit of space and still provide a comfortable work and research area. The furnishings were simple, but were made from fine materials and expertly crafted. One wall was completely covered by bookshelves filled with books written in various western European languages. Another wall was completely covered by shelves containing jars and expensive-looking vases full of alchemy ingredients. There was a writing desk and a table filled with very strange-looking glassware. There were assorted storage trunks. Babáckt Yaga directed Danka’s attention to neatly folded stacks of black and dark red linen.

"You will take one red cloth and one black cloth. Your first duty to me will be to prepare a dress for yourself. In the forest we live uncovered, as we have been created. Among the non-believers we show ourselves in the cloth of our forebearers."

Danka took her cloth and looked at Babáckt Yaga, waiting for further instructions.

"You will understand, as long as you do not speak to me as a liar, the Ancients have called upon me to spare you. They do not want your blood, because the blood of the ignorant and the blood of the bystander is unacceptable for the nourishment of the earth. Do you understand me so far?"

Danka was frightened and bewildered by the alchemist's talk of blood, but she managed to respond that she understood. Babáckt Yaga knew that her captive was not truthful; that she really had not understood.

“You just lied to me, Danka Síluckt. You are trying my patience. Answer honestly. Did you understand what I just said?”

“I… I guess… I mean… not really… Babáckt Yaga…”

“That’s better… somewhat, Danka Síluckt. An important rule for seeking knowledge is to never falsely claim you understand something when actually you don’t. You didn’t understand what I just said because there is no way you could understand, given your ignorance. You don’t comprehend the ways of the Ancients, so how could you comprehend my words?”

“Yes, Babáckt Yaga.”

“Very well, I will give you your first lesson about the ways of the Ancients. I said that you were ignorant and a bystander. I did not say you were innocent. You participated in the destruction of something precious, something that cannot be replaced. Your actions were under duress and characterized by ignorance, but those facts do not change the outcome of what happened. In your case, punishment is not appropriate, but the Ancients will call on you to atone for what you did. You will understand that punishment and atonement are different?”

“Yes, Babáckt Yaga. That’s one of the things the Priests taught me at the Temple.”

“Good. Now, to enlighten you about ‘The Joy of the Ancients’. The name humans gave to those mushrooms is unfortunate and erroneous. Those mushrooms don’t bring joy; they provide something much more important. When properly prepared with other ingredients, they provide restoration. Those mushrooms actually have regenerative powers. I will give you an example: myself. Would you like to guess how old I am? Try, Danka Síluckt. Guess how old I am.”

“I’d guess… maybe… you’d look around 60… maybe 65… Babáckt Yaga.”

“That is the age people guess, for the most part… except that my vision is still clear and my hearing is that of a lass. The truth is that I was born in the year 1642. I am 109 years old. I am growing older as the years pass, but the regenerative powers of the mushrooms have slowed the aging process in my body. I’ve calculated that I age one year for every four years a normal person ages. To understand the mushrooms, you must understand that what is a blessing for me, and a few other select Followers, is a curse for the mushrooms. The mushrooms live many decades and mature very slowly. That also means they reproduce very slowly. When we harvest a mushroom, we have to prepare for its replacement. We know how to replace the mushrooms, but the process is difficult and not always successful, so we are very sparing in our harvesting. It would be tempting for all Followers to receive the longevity potion, but we understand such a thing is not possible. I was granted that privilege because of my research, my ability to perform medical operations, my knowledge of foreign languages, my work as a translator, and my potion-making skills. My Path in Life is to pass as much of that knowledge as I can to my apprentices. People come into my life, they learn skills to fight the Profane One’s curses, most of them eventually depart, and living among the Christians they apply those skills.”

“You’d… maybe… you’d teach me some things… Babáckt Yaga?”

“It’s possible. First, you will be called upon to atone for your offense against the Ancients. Once you have demonstrated your willingness to protect the remnants of the Old World and have proven your ability to learn, there is knowledge you can take away from here that would help you combat the Profane One. Now. To return to the topic of the mushrooms. Every passing year there are fewer and fewer of them, because fortune hunters plague these forests. They seek the mushrooms for pleasure, which is a great tragedy. We were hoping to speed up the reproduction of the mushrooms to prevent their extinction. I am convinced such a thing is possible, and then the restorative powers would be available to more people. Bagatúrckt's actions set back that goal, possibly forever. That streambed was the only place that I know of where the mushrooms were reproducing on their own.”

Danka felt sick. She took a breath, struggling with the feeling that she needed to add a grim detail about her outing with Bagatúrckt.

“You are troubled, girl. Speak your mind.”

“I hate to say this, but I was the one who spotted the first mushroom. Bagatúrckt had just entered me, and I wanted to wash his filth out of my body… so I went into the stream… and saw… I don’t know, Babáckt Yaga… maybe he would’ve found them anyway… but it was I… I who spotted the mushrooms… I wasn’t sure if it was what he was looking for… but I pointed them out… and his whole face changed… like he was possessed.”

There was an uncomfortable pause in the conversation. Babáckt Yaga broke the silence. “Had you known what I just told you… and what Bagatúrckt did to the streambed, what would you have done?”

“I would have thrown some leaves over them, Babáckt Yaga, and kept quiet. But I didn’t. Something you should know, I guess.”

“What you said confirms what I thought about you. You were a bystander. You were ignorant. You’re not guilty, but you’re not exactly innocent, either. You do not deserve punishment, but you do need to atone for your part in what happened.”

“Yes, Babáckt Yaga.”

“As of today, you will begin preparation for atonement. I will tell you what you need to do when the moment comes. I will call upon you to perform some duties that will seem strange, and appear to contradict some of what you learned at the Temple. I am not saying that anything taught at the Temple is wrong, but you will need additional knowledge for your life in the forest. The ways of the Ancients, the knowledge of pre-Christian times, are things that cannot be taught by those who do not follow the Ancients: not by the True Believers, nor by the Old Believers.”

Danka thought about the numerous pieces of knowledge she had learned during her year living as a penitent. She wondered… not only about what she had learned so far, but about the people who had taught her. She had questions. However, at that moment she was unable to articulate them. Babáckt Yaga noted her captive’s pensive expression.

“Perhaps you’d like to know what I think of the Senior Priest at the Temple in Starívktaki Móskt. Perhaps that is as good a starting point as any.”

“Yes, Babáckt Yaga.”

“His character is flawed, which partly explains Bagatúrckt, both how he was raised and his father’s blindness to his greed and depravity. And yet, as flawed as the Senior Priest is as person, he does wish to understand the Ultimate Truth. Unlike many Christians, he respects the Ancients and has never deliberately acted against them. He wants the Danubian Church to represent our people and our traditions, so he has formally renounced the teachings of the Roman Church. Those are my observations. He is a flawed man who seeks direction from the Creator. That’s the best answer I can give you.”

“Yes, Babáckt Yaga.”

There was another uncomfortable pause, with the alchemist seemingly lost in thought.

"As for his son, it is a pity... that the Profane One decided to separate his soul from his body and deny me that privilege. Bagatúrckt's blood would have made a fine gift, a fine gift indeed, for the Ancients."

Danka looked at Babáckt Yaga with a totally bewildered expression, unsure if she understood correctly. Would she have offered Bagatúrckt's blood to the Ancients?

“The time will come when you understand what I meant by my last comment, when you are closer to atoning for your actions.”

Babáckt Yaga changed the subject. “Your Path in Life has led you here, because it is the wish of the Ancients. Your first duty will be to prepare your dress. Your second duty will be to learn how to sing as the Ancients sang, in what the Christians call ‘archaic Danubian’. You will leave my alchemy lab and seek out Jasnáckta, our best seamstress. She will guide you through the steps needed to prepare your dress.”

* * *

Danka spent the following two weeks putting together her outfit. She already knew how to sew and repair poor-quality clothing, but her previous experience was useless for preparing a dress suitable for the Followers of the Ancients. The uniform had to be made with care and respect. So… for two weeks Jasnáckta patiently guided the newcomer, cut-by-cut, measurement-by-measurement, and stitch-by-stitch as she prepared the clothing that would become her identity anytime she left the forest and appeared in public. Later there would be other duties, such as gardening, food gathering, cleaning, and repairs, but all of that would wait until her dress was ready.

Danka started with another duty the day after arriving: singing. Every night after dark she joined the other women among the Followers practicing hymns that were thousands of years old. The hymns were different from the songs she had learned at the Temple in Starívktaki Móskt: very mysterious and with a pagan sound that was almost sinister. Among the songs she learned was an ancient calling of seduction used in pre-Christian temples:

Man’s first woman had fruit in her garden…
Sweet fruit no man would resist…
She knelt and offered her very best…
He came to her to indulge…
Sweetness beyond what he had known…
Man and woman joined…

I have fruit in my garden…
Sweet fruit no man will resist…
I kneel to you and offer my very best…
Come to me and indulge…
Sweetness beyond what you have known…
Man and woman joined…

During the time she worked on her dress, Danka continued to live completely naked. After having spent a year wearing a penance collar, she was used to not wearing anything made from cloth. However, in the camp of the Followers of the Ancients she did not even have her collar or her boots. Both items were locked up with her bucket. As she walked around in the woods or performing her duties, completely devoid of any human-made object on her body and her bare feet in constant contact with the ground, she learned what it was to live in a true state of nature.

The black dress and dark red apron felt very strange when Danka tried them on for the first time. In the warm summer weather the items were hot, uncomfortable, and felt unnatural. However, the outfit would become an important part of Danka’s life, giving her identity and marking her as a member of a group most people would not dare to offend or cross.

As she held the finished outfit and ran her fingers over its tight stitching, Danka saw irony in her Path in Life. Twelve months earlier, her journey had started because she wanted a fine dress that would attract young men to her. Now, for her trips to Sevérckt nad Gorádki and the surrounding villages she did have a fine dress, but its purpose was totally the opposite of what she had sought. No eligible young man would dare approach her or flirt with her while she was wearing a uniform that identified her as a Follower of the Ancients. She would be marked as a member of a cult that maintained itself aloof from average Danubians.

* * *

Two days before the summer solstice, Babáckt Yaga and most of her followers traveled to a secret location to conduct celebrations and sacrifices. The only members of the group who did not travel to the holy site were the uninitiated apprentices. There were five young people in circumstances similar to Danka: they had their outfits but had not yet earned the embroidered skull logo or staff. For the uninitiated, the days around the solstice were a time for relaxing, to go berry picking and fishing, to wander about, or just to sleep.

Among the uninitiated was a reserved young man called Káloyankt. He was from the town of Sevérckt nad Gorádki and spoke with an educated accent. Danka had caught his attention from the moment she entered the settlement. Now, with the others gone and little to distract the newcomer, he decided to invite her fishing.

Danka accompanied him, out of boredom more than anything else. Her feelings about going with Káloyankt were mixed. It wasn’t hard to figure out what he wanted, but still, the idea of having a friendship with another follower greatly appealed to her. With several weeks now separating her from the year she had spent at the Temple, she wondered how she tolerated living that entire time with just one person to talk to. Also, she was curious to see what being with an upper-class young man would be like, compared with the wretched impoverished men of her youth and the self-centered dilettante Bagatúrckt. Káloyankt seemed relatively trustworthy and if things with him went badly, she could talk to Babáckt Yaga.

Danka followed Káloyankt along several trails to a pond that she already had visited a couple of times. Both Danka and Káloyankt were completely naked: even their feet were uncovered. They strolled in absolute silence, listening for any changes or possible dangers in their environment. When they arrived at the pond, they went swimming before sunning themselves on some rocks and preparing their fishing lines.

It turned out that Káloyankt had invited Danka on the outing because he needed to talk. He started by asking her about the house she had visited in Sevérckt nad Gorádki. Danka was evasive with her answer, but she gave away enough information for Káloyankt to understand that she had indeed been there. Then he surprised her: “You know… that fortune hunter you were with… that ‘master’ Bagatúrckt … he was a friend of my father. When I was a teenager, I saw him… several times… at my father’s house.”

“Your father... it’s your father who owns that house?”


“…and set up that room? … and hired the servants?”


“So… then… you know… you know what happened to me with Bagatúrckt?”

“Yes. I don’t need to ask you about the details, because I already know. I saw what went on in that room many times when I was a boy. I watched… never spoke up about it… never tried to warn any of the women. I watched my father and his friends… never did anything, but I always felt guilty about it. Then, last fall during the equinox… the Creator spoke to me… told me I needed to get out of the house…. renounce my father and his fortune…. go to the woods, and confront my Path in Life.”

“Which brought you here?”

“Yes. Just like you… well, in some ways the same and in some ways different. I came here on my own, but I didn’t know what I was looking for. I got lost, and Babáckt Yaga found me… just like she found you. And… serving the Ancients became my Path in Life.”

“But you don’t have your skull.”

“No. I haven’t atoned for my father’s actions, so I don’t have my skull.”

“But really, what do you have to atone for? You didn’t do anything…”

“…and did you? What did you do? You were a bystander who watched a dishonorable act and did nothing. You are neither guilty nor innocent. I am the same as you. A bystander. A witness. Neither guilty nor innocent.”

The conversation was interrupted by a catch, a fine large perch that would feed them both. They landed the fish and returned to the settlement to cook and share a meal.

The next day was the day of the solstice. Danka had agreed to go with Káloyankt for a second outing. She wasn’t interested in talking about Káloyankt’s father, but she wanted to share some of her experiences at the Temple and get another person’s perspective. Also, noting his interest in her, she figured she’d make love to him if he asked. She administered herself a dose of birth-control paste… just in case.

She followed him to the pond, admiring his naked backside as he walked. She resisted the urge to touch him as she realized that she was aroused and wanted him to take her. He seemed different from Bagatúrckt: hopefully sex with him would be different as well. They picked enough berries for a snack before going to the pond. They swam, frolicking with each other before returning to the rocks to dry off in the sun.

Káloyankt couldn’t keep his eyes off Danka. She truly was a lovely sight: a woman at the very beginning of her youth, her body fit from her constant movement and evenly tanned from long hours outside, and fine delicate features that were so different from the usual drab appearance of a peasant girl. Káloyankt found everything about Danka desirable, even her rough unrefined rural accent. She was a girl of nature, totally different from the sheltered indoor women inhabiting the fine houses of Sevérckt nad Gorádki.

Danka was not sure what to expect, but she was looking forward to having sex with Káloyankt. He was precisely the type of man she had been hoping to attract the year before. She sat quietly, waiting for him to begin. She had not yet discovered that women can initiate love-making just as easily as men.

Káloyankt began by running his hands over Danka’s body. He kissed her, starting with her neck, then moved to her lips. He was hard by the time he kissed her breasts and sucked her nipples. She responded by running her hands over his back. From the beginning his bottom had excited her, so her hands moved to that part of her lover. She actively explored him, which was something she had never tried with her first lover. Káloyankt ran his fingers between the girl’s thighs and over her vulva. She was wet and gasped with pleasure as he touched her.

Danka lay on her back as Káloyankt entered her. He thrust hard, over and over. His love-making was rough and vigorous, but that was what Danka expected. So far she had not experienced tender sex. She gasped with delight as pleasure overwhelmed her. For the first time in her life, she experienced an orgasm.

A few minutes later the couple was rinsing off in the water. They still had to catch their next meal, so the romantic moment of love-making transitioned to the practical task of sitting quietly and waiting for a fish. During the wait, they talked.

Danka talked about her year at the Temple and her lessons with the seminary student. Káloyankt was very impressed when she told him that in less than a year she had learned to read, write, do simple arithmetic, use the abacus, obtain a fundamental understanding of music, and memorize numerous hymns.

“If you could do all that in just a year, I think you’ll learn alchemy very quickly. I know that as soon as she returns, Babáckt Yaga will start teaching you some of the recipes. You’ll have to start learning the plants and formulas. She’ll test you to see how well you can remember things. If your memory is good, you’ll become responsible for tasks that are much more complicated.”

Danka Síluckt was beginning to understand that she was blessed with an exceptional memory and the capacity to grasp new ideas and concepts very quickly. During her year at the Temple she had been held back by having to direct all of her efforts into learning how to read. Having mastered that basic skill, during her service under Babáckt Yaga there was nothing to interfere with her ability to learn a wider variety of subjects. She could remember simple recipes after having seen them just once, so within a few days Babáckt Yaga had her studying recipes that were more complicated. She received instructions on how to measure temperatures, weigh ingredients, calculate time, and work with fractions. Babáckt Yaga watched as Danka prepared medicines, with no guidance apart from following a recipe book. She understood the importance of identifying plants: when tasked to go out into the forest and find ingredients, she always returned with exactly what was needed.

Working the gardens was not a challenge for Danka at all. Her previous experience as both a peasant and seeing to the experimental Church gardens in Starívktaki Móskt prepared her for working the gardens in Babáckt Yaga’s settlement. She already had a basic understanding of plant selection, so new ideas such as cross pollination and breeding plants for specific traits were easy for her to grasp.

Danka took pride in her work and her learning. She fully understood the importance of mastering potion-making and taking great care with the details of every recipe. She remembered the servant’s words about her instructor: “…her alchemy is something to behold, because her potions can heal many of the curses Beelzebub the Destroyer has inflicted on us… many evil things can be healed... or simply prevented…” She was excited to think that the mystery behind those potions had vanished; that she now knew how they worked and even how to prepare some of them.

* * *

In the middle of July, Danka and Káloyankt left the forest with Babáckt Yaga and four fully initiated Followers. It was the first time since her arrival that Danka would leave the woods or see anyone other than a Follower. The group walked directly south, taking several steep and perilous shortcuts to hasten their trip. Before exiting the forest they put on their uniforms. As soon as they emerged into the open, they mounted a wagon driven by two guards who were waiting for them. The Followers rode the rest of the distance to a small town called Nagorónkti-Serífkti and their destination, the settlement’s church.

The Priest explained that an apprentice and three hired workmen had been on the roof making repairs, unaware that the beams were not strong enough to support the weight of four men. They fell through and sustained injuries ranging from broken bones to severe lacerations. The men were lying on cots in the main chapel because the Clergy had been afraid to move them.

Danka would later learn that the Priest had to make a difficult decision to request assistance from the Followers. Nagorónkti-Serífkti was settled by True Believers, the faction of the Danubian Church that least got along with the Followers of the Ancients. However, the Priest needed to help his men if at all possible and only the Followers had the medical knowledge to do anything for them.

Between the four men there were two broken legs, three broken arms, several broken fingers, and some serious lacerations. Babáckt Yaga was relieved, because all of the injuries could be fixed. She directed her followers’ attention to the man who was bleeding the most, knowing that he needed attention first.

Danka watched as Babáckt Yaga set up some glassware and mixed several ingredients. Her assistants poured alcohol into a bowl and demanded boiling water and clean linen be brought to the operating site. The alchemist directed Danka to hold a mask to the injured man’s face. He became sleepy, which would help keep him calm while his injuries could be sewn up. For the first time in her life, Danka watched an operation that actually closed an open wound.

The Followers, including Káloyankt, moved to setting the broken bones. Babáckt Yaga administered a drug she called opium to ease the pain and then applied her chemical mask. It was a difficult and grim task to stretch out the limbs and set them in wooden frames, but Babáckt Yaga seemed satisfied that the limbs would all heal, which was not always the case, depending on the nature of the fracture.

Danka was present just to observe, but she marveled at what she was witnessing, the actual repair of injuries. She had seen neighbors die from similar mishaps in her parents’ settlement. It was a shock to find out those deaths could have been prevented had anyone among the day-laborers possessed the equipment and knowledge the Followers of the Ancients were using.

After making sure the patients had woken up, Babáckt Yaga issued some more opium and instructions for caring for the injuries. When the Priest asked her about payment, the alchemist responded:

“You know my payment, Priest. It’s the same as always. The Ancients demand the blood of the desecrater. When desecraters pass through this town, you will send them in my direction and you will advise me.”

“As you wish, Alchemist.”

“I have another demand, Priest. It has been two years since I cut the children here. I trust you have not had any cases of the pox?”

“No, Alchemist, we have not.”

“I brought my pox potion. At sunset I want you to ring your bell and gather all the people of Nagorónkti-Serífkti. I will cut any children or youth that were not cut two years ago.”

The townsfolk gathered in the church square as the daylight faded. Danka noted that many of the older people were marked with smallpox scars, but none of the younger people had suffered the affliction. The last smallpox epidemic in Nagorónkti-Serífkti had passed two decades before. As the townsfolk pushed their terrified children towards the church, Káloyankt explained to Danka that Babáckt Yaga had spent many years studying diseases and had learned some interesting details about smallpox. It turned out that cattle had a similar version of the sickness and that Babáckt Yaga had figured out it was possible to create an antidote for the human smallpox from the cow version. She did not dare tell anyone the antidote came from sick cows, because no one would have accepted vaccination. The public would be vaccinated, but in a way that was acceptable to the thinking at the time.

The Priest conducted a brief service and issued a series of prayers while the Followers prepared the vaccination knives and the solution. The residents needed reassurance that the Lord-Creator had approved what was about to happen to their children, so the event had to be preceded with religious fanfare. The unvaccinated children were marched in single file towards the alchemist and her assistants, accompanied by hymn-singing and holy fires.

Danka had expected to be a mere observer, or perhaps assist in a minor way. However, Babáckt Yaga ordered both her and Káloyankt to step forward, strip off their clothing, and kneel in front of the long line of children. She uncovered a small metal rod with a saw-tooth end, dipped it in a jar of ointment and placed it against Danka’s left shoulder. Then she looked towards the sky and screamed:

“Beelzebub! The Lord-Creator and the Son of Man cast out your vile presence! Never shall you touch this lass with your evil pox!”

Danka winced as the knife tore into her skin, leaving a small bleeding cut. Babáckt Yaga whispered:

“Now you wear the mark that will protect you from the pox. Do not touch your shoulder. Stand behind me, with your left side facing the people so they can see your injury. Do not move until I give you permission.”

Babáckt Yaga cut Káloyankt’s shoulder in the same manner, and screamed the same chant to the Roman Christian God and his son. The naked initiates quietly stood behind their mistress, as proof she was not about to do anything to the local youth that she would not do to her own followers.

For the rest of the night, Babáckt Yaga cut the shoulders of children and shouted: “Beelzebub! The Lord-Creator and the Son of Man cast out your vile presence! Never shall you touch this child with your evil pox!”

The accompanying pain from the procedure and screaming of each patient were interpreted as confirmation of the casting out of a curse, not as a simple medical procedure.

As she watched the proceedings and resisted the urge to touch her throbbing shoulder, Danka was able to look upon religious ceremonies and spiritual fanfare from a totally new perspective. Babáckt Yaga spent the entire night lying. Her Pagan beliefs did not accept in the divinity of the Roman Son of Man, and for her using the Roman name Beelzebub to refer to the Destroyer was an insult to the Danubian cosmos. She didn’t believe in her own theatrics, but she had to perform for the people so they could accept what she was doing to their offspring. Babáckt Yaga had her own faith and her own world-view, but that view was not accepted by the True Believers. Faced with a practical task that she needed to accomplish, she hid her beliefs and put on a performance that met the spiritual needs of a town of Christians.

* * *

By the end of the summer Danka had embraced her Path in Life as an initiate of the Follower of the Ancients. She remained intimidated by Babáckt Yaga but at the same time deeply admired her. The old woman’s knowledge of the world seemed limitless. She was anxious to share with others, and Danka had become her favorite student. The girl learned fast and her ability to remember new ideas and information was exceptional. So, Danka’s daily life became one of constant learning, mostly of things that were practical and could help people in the real world. She started reading Babáckt Yaga’s translations of foreign scientific works and frequently used a dictionary to look up and learn complicated words she did not understand. Whenever she came across any strange word or concept, she wrote it down and memorized it.

Danka spent some of her time alone reflecting on what had happened between her and Bagatúrckt. The trauma from her ordeal with him was fading, but she came out of the experience changed. The best comparison she could think of was her hometown Rika Héckt-nemát and the flood that took place decades before. The town, the people, and the Rika Chorna river were there before the flood and remained after the flood, but when the river changed course, the area was not the same after the waters receded. Eventually life went back to “normal”, but “normal” preceding the flood differed from “normal” following the flood.

So… how was Danka different after her own flood, the one that swept away her virginity and much of her naivety? Her ideas about love, trust, and finding happiness through another person certainly changed. Before Bagatúrckt she had believed that her happiness depended on finding it through another person. She also had been convinced love and sex went together. By the end of her first summer in the forest her emotions were hardening, making her less vulnerable to the whims of the men in her life. She also understood that love and sex could be separated: in fact often the two had nothing to do with each other. She took that lesson to her relationship with Káloyankt, that she could have sex with him without necessarily being in love with him.

She spent the summer making love to Káloyankt whenever they had a few minutes to spare. She enjoyed her time with him, but as the summer progressed she realized her feelings towards him were ambiguous. She couldn’t figure out why that would be, because she admired him and knew that had she met him just a year earlier, she would have been desperate to marry him. However, in the settlement of Babáckt Yaga, marriage was not a priority for any of the Followers or the initiates. They had a multitude of other worries and just didn’t think about such things, so neither did Danka. It was clear that Káloyankt was deeply in love with her, but he too adhered to the unspoken custom of the Followers; that as long as he was working in the forest, marriage was not a priority or something to be discussed.

Still, Danka did enjoy the sex. Babáckt Yaga showed her a book from a place called India that had pictures of different sexual positions. She was eager to try them during her escapades with her lover. He obliged, happy to be with a woman that constantly had new ideas and wanted to try new things. However, the constant experimenting with new positions planted a subversive idea in Danka’s thoughts. Káloyankt was not the only man in the world. What would having sex with other men be like? Did different men have different styles of making love? Was there any difference between making love to a young man and an older one? Between a noble and a farmhand?

By the end of the summer Danka realized something about herself that would have shocked her just a few months before: that if the opportunity presented itself, she’d be willing to have sex with someone other than her current lover. Not just willing, but it was something she actually wanted. She looked around at the other men in the settlement, noting the differences in their physiques and wondering how they might differ from Káloyankt if she had the opportunity to offer herself to them.

* * *

During the last week of August, Babáckt Yaga ordered Káloyankt, Danka, and three other initiates; a young man and two young women, to her study. Two older men also were present; the two Followers who had been with Babáckt Yaga the longest and enjoyed their leader’s full trust. The initiates knelt as the alchemist made an important announcement:

“The Priest from Nagorónkti-Serífkti contacted me with some interesting news. A group of fortune-seekers is coming up into the forest today. They are traveling to the ancient Alter of the Equinox, because they are planning to raid relics stored in the cave. The Priest gave them a map to the site, which is the same map I gave him the day we cut the children. With your assistance, we will intercept the fortune-seekers and capture them. If we are successful and their blood is pleasing to the Ancients, you will have the opportunity to atone for your offenses. That includes you, Danka Síluckt, especially you. Perhaps you will be pleased to know the men we are planning to capture are from Vienna. They are friends of your former Master. Therefore, you will assume the most important role in bringing them under our control. Have you memorized the Temple Song of Seduction?”

“Yes, Babáckt Yaga.”

“Let’s hear you.”

In archaic Danubian Danka sang:

Man’s first woman had fruit in her garden…
Sweet fruit no man would resist…
She knelt and offered her very best…
He came to her to indulge…
Sweetness beyond what he had known…
Man and woman joined…

“Excellent. You’ve learned well, Danka Síluckt.” Babáckt Yaga address the other two women. “I want to hear you sing with her. Follow her. Merge your voices as much as you can. Sing, as though you were one.”

Danka led as her companions sang along, carefully following her voice. They adapted their voices to the pitch of Danka’s voice in a technique Babáckt Yaga called “spiritual merging”. The effect was music that sounded supernatural, which was exactly what would be needed for the Followers’ plans.

“All three of you have pleased me with your efforts and your learning. If the Ancients bless us, tonight you will atone for your actions and tomorrow you will earn your skulls.”

Babáckt Yaga ordered Káloyankt to leave the house. She unbraided Danka’s hair, handed her a scarf to hide it under, and a comb that she would use later that night.

The members of Babáckt Yaga’s settlement dressed in their dark clothing. The Cult members carried their skull-staffs and other items needed for the night’s outing, while the two other female initiates walked out carrying small lamps and a supply of special lamp-oil. The only item Danka carried was her comb.

Káloyankt, his fellow initiate, and two other men assigned to serve as lookouts already had departed. They went out disguised as brigands, wearing light brown clothing and soft shoes that had been chemically treated to confuse sniffing dogs. They quietly observed their prey: three heavily-armed Austrians on horseback guarded by two Danubian mercenaries and accompanied by a servant leading two heavily-loaded mules. The group had four large hounds with them. Word of Bagatúrckt’s fate had reached Vienna by the middle of July, so this group was not about to take any chances. Káloyankt later commented that a better way for those men not to take any chances would have been to stay in Vienna.

The first challenge to resolve was neutralizing the hounds. The scouts laid out pieces of drugged meat in places the dogs would find them, but where their masters would be unlikely to see. The meat was in small amounts and hidden inside the skins of squirrels. The purpose of the ruse was not to poison the canines, but to drug them so they would continue walking with the group, but not be alert enough to respond to noise or sniff out any danger.

The next part of the capture would depend on calculating exactly where the group would be when dusk fell and they would stop for the night. There were three clearings the mercenaries could choose from as likely locations to set up a camp. By late afternoon it appeared they would be approaching the second one just as it was starting to get dark. Babáckt Yaga scouted a location where Danka and the other two women could set up after sunset, a small cleared area on a hill overlooking the camp that would be visible, but difficult to access quickly in the dark.

Followed by their now-listless dogs, the group set up camp while the mercenaries looked around the woods to search for possible danger. They found nothing… certainly the dogs did not sense anything out of the ordinary, so the group tied their horses and lit a fire.

Meanwhile, Danka and her companions snuck onto the hillside and placed their oil lamps in a circle. The oil had been chemically treated to cast pale green light on Danka’s body. Following Babáckt Yaga’s previous instructions, Danka took off her dress and knelt in the middle of the circle of lamps. She uncovered her hair and started combing it in the dark. After her accomplices lit the lamps and retreated into the darkness, she began to sing:

Man’s first woman had fruit in her garden…
Sweet fruit no man would resist…
She knelt and offered her very best…
He came to her to indulge…
Sweetness beyond what he had known…
Man and woman joined…

After the first stanza, the other women accompanied her to add mystery to the ancient song of seduction. Danka continued to comb her hair and proceeded with the next verse.

I have fruit in my garden…
Sweet fruit no man will resist…
I kneel to you and offer my very best…
Come to me and indulge…
Sweetness beyond what you have known…
Man and woman joined…

The Danubian guides had been prepared for just about anything, but they had not been prepared to see a naked forest nymph singing a pagan tune on a hillside. It was an illusion, it just had to be: there was no way that weird green light illuminating the girl could be natural. And the singing… was it one voice or several? Danka continued, in an ancient language none of the trespassers could understand:

I keep my garden under water…
With sweet fruit you will not resist…
I reach my arms to the surface…
I will pull you to the depths…
Deeper and deeper into my garden of pleasure…
From which no man ever returns…

In the dim light Danka could faintly make out the bewildered faces of the five men as they approached through the thick brush, each with a sword or crossbow in his hand. One of the Austrians pointed a large musket at her. A black cloth slipped over the face of the man farthest to the rear and he disappeared from view. The next face to vanish belonged to the man carrying the firearm. As he passed out, a Follower quickly grabbed the weapon to prevent it from being fired. In quick succession each of the remaining faces vanished behind black cloths.

The captives remained unconscious while the Followers immobilized their hands and feet. Another group of Babáckt Yaga’s assistants captured the mule-handler and took control of the horses. The operation went perfectly. With no struggle whatsoever, five heavily armed fighting men, an assistant, numerous weapons, fine horses, four hunting hounds, and expedition supplies had been seized by the Followers. Danka and her companions continued to sing, until Babáckt Yaga realized that she needed to tell them to stop. The other initiates extinguished and collected the lamps while Danka got dressed.

Within minutes the Followers had the campsite cleaned up and were moving north, carrying their unconscious prisoners on stretchers. The captives had to be carefully monitored during the journey, to make sure they stayed alive but without regaining consciousness. The group spent a night of non-stop walking and climbing, passing through groves of thick trees and finally emerging into a large open meadow. Standing alone on a small hill was their goal, the Altar of Blood-nourishment. They arrived at the holy site shortly after sunrise.

Above ground the holy site was little more than the altar itself, built under a small stone roof supported by pillars. However, the ground underneath was filled with an ancient labyrinth of tunnels, chambers, and passages. The underground complex was enormous, comparable in size to the catacombs of Rome. And yet, it was a secret that only a few dozen living souls knew about. The captives were taken into separate cells where Babáckt Yaga would interview them. She spoke fluent German, so she would be able to talk to the Austrians with no problem. Although she was convinced all the treasure hunters were worthy of being sacrificed, she needed to be absolutely sure.

While she waited for the captives to wake up, Babáckt Yaga called together the five initiates who had participated in the capture. She told Káloyankt and the three others they had earned their skulls and would become full members of the Cult, an event that would be celebrated on the day of the fall equinox. She answered Danka’s question before she had a chance to ask.

“As for you… not yet. I have another tasking for you.” She dismissed Danka’s companions and continued: “Today, you must determine the fate of a man. Will he go on the altar and bleed with the others, or will he leave the forest? You will make that determination.”

Danka wasn’t sure how to react. Having such a huge responsibility thrust upon her was not something she could have anticipated. It certainly was not something she wanted.

The alchemist continued: “I am convinced five men in that group have offended the Ancients many times over. Unless one of them has a huge surprise for me, at midnight I will drive my knife into five bodies. The sixth man, the mule driver, is the one I don’t know about. He might be a willing party to the fortune-hunters, or he may be like you, an ignorant bystander. You will talk to him, determine what is in his heart, and then you will decide what to do with him. I will honor any decision you make, even if I think it is incorrect. However, I will expect you to explain, in a clear detail, why you made the decision you made, what specific facet of his Path in Life he shared with you that made you decide whether he is worth sparing or not sparing. Before you run off and spare him with no consideration, you will need to remember that he must be kept silent concerning what happened here. So think about it. If you spare that man, how will you ensure he will not talk about us or seek to avenge his companions? If you condemn him, how will you justify your decision when you hold your mirror before the Creator? So, that is your dilemma, Danka Síluckt, the riddle I place at your feet. Answer it correctly, and you will atone for your offense against the Ancients and earn your skull.”

“Yes, Babáckt Yaga.”

Danka accompanied a Cult elder to the underground passageway, full of resentment that while the others were going to receive their skulls with no further effort, she was going to have to pass an extra and extremely difficult test of character. Later she would realize Babáckt Yaga had a very good reason to put her through the ordeal of deciding the mule-handler’s fate. It was true the others were going to be initiated with no further tests, but they had been serving Babáckt Yaga for nearly a year and already had proven themselves. Danka had been with Babáckt Yaga a mere three months, so the alchemist was convinced an additional tasking was necessary to determine if the newcomer was ready to join with her companions. Babáckt Yaga was very impressed with Danka’s ability to learn quickly, comprehend new concepts, and memorize everything from hymns to plant species to alchemy formulas. She was a gifted girl, so the Cult leader wanted to bring her into her closest circle of confidants as quickly as possible. However, she couldn’t justify doing so unless the newcomer could prove she was capable of gathering enough information to make a difficult decision.

Carrying an oil lantern, the elder led Danka through several dark passageways to a small cell. He opened the door and ordered a very frightened young man to come out. Danka knew that before she talked to him, she needed to establish her superiority. With her rough lower-class accent, that might be a problem if the mule-handler was a guild-member. On a flash of inspiration she ordered him to strip. That should take care of it, thought Danka. Guild-member or not, if he’s naked and I’m wearing my dress, I’m the one in control here.

Danka’s idea worked. The man cowered in terror as soon as he finished undressing. Danka announced that she wanted to take him outside for a while to talk. The elder tied his hands behind his back and blindfolded him so that he would not know how to navigate the passageways. Upon exiting, Danka requested the elder to take off the blindfold and untie his hands. The initiate ordered her captive to kneel.

“You are not free. You need to understand that. You will do whatever I tell you. If you take a look at those woods, you will see they go on for a long way in every direction. We know the trails and you don’t. So, you are no closer to escaping than when you were locked in that cell. Do you understand?”

“Yes Mistress.”

“My title is ‘Initiate’. I am an initiate of the Followers of the Ancients.” Danka was thrilled at the thought of referring to herself with a title. She realized she actually had a title. She was an initiate of the Cult of the Ancients, and if she completed her current assignment, after the equinox her title would be “Follower of the Ancients”. She’d no longer be a peasant or a laborer; she’d be a woman with a title and an assigned place in society.

“Yes, Initiate.”

“That’s better. Now, who are you?”

“My name is Tihomirikt… I’m from the borderlands south of Hórkustk Ris… but… I don’t live there anymore. I had to leave…”


“Foreigners came up from the south … from the other side of the border… they drove everyone out of our town… killed my father… my uncle… and so we went north… my mother… my aunt… cousins… my younger brother… and we're staying outside Danúbikt Móskt.”

“So, what brought you here? Why are you working for Austrian fortune-seekers?”

“When we camped outside the capital, the Grand Duke’s men gave us some food, but they told us we’d have to leave if we couldn’t find work. They asked if any of us were guild members. My father was, and I was an apprentice… we belonged to the Horse-Trainers’ Guild… but my father was dead… and I hadn’t completed my final tasking to become a member… and all of the men who could vouch for me were killed, so the only proof I had was my word.”

“Very well, you claim you have training as an apprentice with the Horse-Trainers’ Guild, but you have no way to prove it. You did not answer my question. Why are you working for foreign fortune-hunters?”

“The guards told me that traders’ caravans in Sebérnekt Ris were looking for horse handlers. So, I left my family and went north to see if that was true. It wasn’t, but there were some people who wanted a worker to handle their pack-mules. I decided to take the position. I hated it. I dishonored the memory of my father and the Horse-Trainer’s Guild by accepting a mule-handler’s job, but I wanted to make sure my family didn’t have to move again. So, the two guides from the Duchy, the ones who are working for the foreign fortune-hunters, hired me to lead their pack-mules and care for their horses.”

Interesting story, thought Danka, assuming it’s true. In just a few sentences Tihomirikt provided her with a lot of information that she would have to verify. She didn’t know much about the situation along the Duchy’s southern border, but she had heard rumors that many Danubians had fled their homes over the past year because of an invasion from a foreign monarch who called himself the Lord of the Red Moon.

She ordered Tihomirikt to stand up and follow her to the edge of the meadow. She glanced at a gully with a small stream that flowed into a rocky pool. She noted that her captive smelled as bad as his mules and his stench irritated her. She ordered him to bathe, while she watched. When he finished, she ordered him to kneel in front of her while he shivered and the water dripped off his body. She was totally fascinated by what she was doing. For the first time in her life she was giving orders to a man who was obeying her. There was no hint of resistance or resentment coming from Tihomirikt, because he understood that he was very likely to die unless he pleased his captors.

Danka’s thoughts were in turmoil. She knew that she had to verify Tihomirikt’s story, without knowing much about the Horse-Trainers’ Guild and without having seen any of the places he had mentioned as part of his travels. She had no way of knowing whether he really had a family, or whether or not they were refugees living outside Danúbikt Móskt. She pondered how to question him, but realized that the best way to proceed would be to use his experiences to satisfy her own curiosity about the cities of western Danubia. She’d simply encourage him to talk about his life and give descriptions of all those new places. Then she’d make him talk about the Horse-Trainer’s Guild and how they educated their apprentices. Finally, after she had gained his trust, she’d find out about the fortune-hunters and figure out how much he knew about their plans.

It turned out Tihomirikt badly needed someone to talk to. His life was ruined and his employers had insulted and mistreated him. He moved back and forth in his narrative, talking about his father and his lost town, talking about the fine horses he had trained with, talking about the fearful flight northward and refugee life in the capital, and his fear of the unfamiliar mountains of northern Danubia. It turned out he was nothing more than a hired-hand of the fortune-hunters. He didn’t know what they were seeking, nor did he really care. He just wanted the experience to be finished, to receive his pay, and return to his family. So… in Danka’s mind, one question was answered. Tihomirikt would not make a suitable sacrifice on the Altar of Blood-nourishment. He would have to be released. Her dilemma now was to figure out how to ensure he did not pose a threat to the Followers after he was freed.

As she pondered how Tihomirikt should be released, she admired his body. She was curious to touch him. Since he was her prisoner and forced to do whatever she wanted, she knew she could satisfy her curiosity without fear of him forcing himself on her or rejecting her. She was in charge.

She ordered him to lie on his back on a flat rock, close his eyes, and extend his hands over his head. She traced his chest and thighs with her fingertips. He became erect immediately. Curious, she touched his penis and ran her fingers over his testicles.

“Have you ever been with a woman, Tihomirikt?”

“No, Initiate. I haven’t.”

“I’d imagine it’s something you dream about, isn’t it?”

“Yes, initiate.”

“Life is full of strange dreams, Tihomirikt. If you knew me… you’d know that is true, in my life especially.”

“Yes, Initiate.”

Danka took off her apron and laid it over her captive’s face. Then she took off her dress and tossed it aside. Finally, she returned to massaging his already-hard penis.

“You are dreaming now, Tihomirikt. You will not dare wake up until I give you permission. Do not move your hands and do not uncover your face. Remember, dreams can become reality and reality can become dreams.”

Danka was about to satisfy something that she had been curious about for several weeks. She wanted to know what it would be like to make love to a man by straddling him, by being on top instead of having to assume a submissive posture. Making sure he was hard enough to push completely inside, she lowered herself over his erect member. She rocked back and forth, completely enjoying a new sensation, not just how his penis felt inside her, but also the feeling of being in control during sex. For the first time, Danka was in completely in charge of her love-making. The tremendous psychological rush pushed her to have the best orgasm she had enjoyed since losing her virginity.

He moaned and she felt his semen pumping into her. When he finished, she ordered him not to move while she rinsed off in the pool. She then put on her dress and retrieved her apron. When she finally allowed him to open his eyes and sit up, he looked totally bewildered, as though he was unsure if he really had entered her or if he had been dreaming.

Without saying anything more, she ordered the captive to return with her to the tunnel entrance. He was terrified when he realized that he was about to be blindfolded and taken back to his cell. As soon as her prisoner was locked up, Danka devised a plan for disposing of him in a way that ensured he would never pose a threat. The Followers of the Ancients would have to give up some of the booty they had captured from the fortune-hunters, but Danka knew that would be of little concern to Babáckt Yaga. Sure enough, when she shared her plan with the alchemist, she could tell Babáckt Yaga was very pleased with her judgment.

“Your plan is as good as anything I could have concocted. Your scheme balances wisdom, mercy, and caution. As soon as we can tranquilize him and collect what we need, I’ll have him taken out of here.”

“Am I going with him, Babáckt Yaga?”

“No. If it were any other night, I’d hold you responsible for escorting your prisoner. However, tonight you will have to bear witness to the appeasement of the Ancients, so the Great Spirits demand that you stay with us at the Altar.”

Tihomirikt’s masters would not be so lucky. Their conversations with Babáckt Yaga confirmed they were nothing more than grave-robbers. They had education and titles and were pursuing their loot in the name of “knowledge”, but they remained grave-robbers. Their Paths in Life were offensive to the Followers of the Ancients. Only the flow of their blood could atone for what they were planning to do.

Danka took her place among the other women shortly before midnight. The female followers stood in a circle around the Altar, dressed in their black outfits and wearing hoods to obscure their faces. Each woman held her skull-staff, which cast off a sinister orange light. The altar area was illuminated by oil lamps with oil treated to burn red. The lighting was designed to highlight the terror of the sacrificial victim: the dim red altar surrounded by a circle of orange skulls, accompanied by a chant that had not changed in 5000 years.

The women’s role was to recite the ancient Blood Hymn while the male Followers brought out and restrained the subjects. Like the women, the men were dressed in black and their faces obscured by hoods. The group’s leader was completely naked, but her body was covered with white chalk highlighted with charcoal dust. The make-up was similar to the body-paint used by penitents during the Day of the Dead, but more elaborate and thus more scary-looking.

Danka sang with the others, holding a staff she had borrowed from one of the male Followers. In spite of the grim event she was about to witness, the main thought running her mind was the satisfaction that she was about to have her own staff, with its unique skull, crafted in her honor. The staff would show the world and the Ancients that she was a fully-accepted “Follower”. She was excited and proud, and also without much pity for the sacrificial captives. If she felt any sympathy at all, she whispered “Bagatúrckt”. Her former master’s name became her personal chant. Whenever she was called upon to neutralize pity, the memory of the tormentor who had taken away her innocence was all she needed.

The victims were brought out and sacrificed one by one. The men brought out the first fortune-hunter. He screamed and viciously struggled when he realized where he was being taken and what was about to happen to him. The screaming and the struggle were part of the sacrificial ritual. With difficulty the men managed to position their subject on the altar and chain his wrists and ankles. They cut open the victim’s shirt and marked a spot near the heart where Babáckt Yaga would plunge her knife. The leader showed up, carrying a large and very crudely-made bronze dagger. Danka vaguely wondered how many victims that dagger had entered over the centuries.

Babáckt Yaga’s most trusted elders helped her get on the altar and straddle the fortune-hunter. He was screaming maniacally. Perfect. In archaic Danubian, the old woman shouted:

“The dirty blood of the vile offender will cleanse the earth! Ancient ones, we implore you to accept this red river of life, a gift for the nourishment of the world!”

The leader expertly plunged the knife into the exact spot marked by her assistants. The screaming suddenly stopped. She plunged the knife a second time into the victim’s neck, severing the artery and producing the flow of red river needed to sustain the cosmos of the Cult of the Ancients.

The stench of fresh blood hit Danka’s nose. It didn’t bother her in the least. It was the same smell she experienced every time she had to butcher an animal for dinner. Like her companions, she continued to chant as the body was taken away and the next screaming victim brought to the altar.

Bagatúrckt... Bagatúrckt... Bagatúrckt

* * *

The next morning Tihomirikt woke up in an unfamiliar village, sleeping under a tree next to the local Priest’s house. His head ached in a very strange manner and it took him a long time to completely come to his senses. He realized he was lying on a comfortable bedroll and dressed in elegant clothing. A sword and an expensive Austrian musket lay at his side. He looked around for his employers, but didn’t see anything except a fine horse… like the ones his father used to train.

Where was he? Was he dreaming? Or had he been dreaming and just woken up? Did he have employers to whom that horse belonged, or was the horse his? Was the musket his? How could he be wearing expensive clothing, if the clothing wasn’t his? What about the mules? Had there been mules? He looked around. No mules… just the horse…

There had been a girl… a completely naked green nymph singing on a hillside … or was she the cult member wearing a black dress? The nymph and the girl looked alike… but no… there were no such thing as nymphs… or… were there? Had he made love to a nymph? … or the girl in the black dress? Both? Neither?

His thoughts returned to his outfit, his musket, and his horse. What a strange dream. I need to get my bearings… figure out where I am…

He looked in his saddlebag. It contained a stock of dried food and three pieces of gold. Gold... my family… I must go back and make sure they are well…

Before Tihomirikt left the village, he stopped at the city square to purchase sheets of parchment and an ink-well. The girl in the forest… the one of his dreams… he’d have to write about her so he wouldn’t forget.

Historian's Note: At this point in my narrative, as a researcher I must insert a comment about the Cult of the Ancients and the popular distortion of history. Nineteenth-century romanticists and historians tried to obscure the reality that human sacrifice was an integral part of the Followers’ beliefs, a practice that dated back five thousand years.

When the Cult of the Ancients formed, human sacrifice was common throughout Europe. The ancient Danubians conducted human sacrifices as well. The children’s storybooks, poems, and songs that romanticize the Followers, as well as commercial tour-guides who lead excursions into the North Mountain National Park, fail to mention that reality. However, one cannot understand the Followers of the Ancients without accepting the fact they obtained the skulls they carried on their staffs from sacrificial victims. It is also important to remember that the Followers were much more sparing with their sacrifices than most pre-Christian cults. An average peasant or villager had nothing to fear from the Followers, which partly explains why human sacrifice in the forests of northern Danubia was tolerated and continued centuries after the practice had died out everywhere else.

Finding and capturing suitable sacrificial subjects was challenging, because only the blood of those who directly offended the Great Spirits was acceptable. The blood had to be from an able-bodied adult who, through his own decisions and deliberate actions, had physically harmed a Follower or who had desecrated or intended to desecrate a Holy Site. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, fortune hunters, especially foreigners who did not respect ancient Danubian lore, were the main source of victims for the Altar of Blood-nourishment. The challenge for the Followers was that usually fortune hunters were aggressive, well-armed, and traveled in groups. Identifying, luring, and subduing such victims was difficult and dangerous, but was also an important part of the sacrificial ritual. It had to be that way, because the blood of a person who was helpless, weak, or innocent would bring a curse to the Ancients instead of nourishing the Earth’s life-cycle.

- Maritza Ortskt-Dukovna -

End of part 2

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