The Girl with No Name
by EC

Part 9

Map of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia

Chapter Twenty-Seven – Three Familiar Faces

Danka and Isauria spent several days traveling northwest through the forest along paths that were barely visible to anyone not accustomed to navigating the backcountry. Danka walked in front of the mule while Isauria held her new crossbow and watched for potential trouble. Danka enjoyed those days of walking, of exploring the forest while not having to carry anything, of feeling the cool breezes blowing against her exposed body. She was able to clear her mind and enjoy the moment, knowing that troubles and responsibilities would catch up with her soon enough. But for now, to just casually walk through the forest, with her belongings on the mule and her former servant watching over her with her crossbow, that was enough for Danka to momentarily feel at peace with the Realm of the Living.

The travelers were silent when they were moving, but chatted about many things when they were resting. Danka continued with Isauria's education, teaching her about rock formations and explaining how flowing streams had shaped the land they were passing through. They exchanged stories about their lives in Malénkta-Gordnáckta and their troubled relationships with the family of Alexándrekt Buláshckt. Danka later talked about the towns and villages in the western valley she had seen when she was a member of the Followers of the Ancients.

When Danka described Sebérnekt Ris and the university, Isauria seemed especially interested. The more Danka told her companion about her experiences there, the more the girl wanted to see the city herself. Every detail fascinated her, the waterfall, the cliffs full of Royal Guards and cannons, the hills, the strange foreign country to the north, and especially the details of student life. Danka found Isauria's interest in the university surprising, because she was not an intellectual. She seemed much more suited for running around with a sword or a crossbow than sitting at a desk with a quill in her hand. But, maybe there was a hidden side of Isauria, because the teenager kept asking questions and returning to the topic of Danka's university time.

"I'd like to do that... I mean, what you did when you came back from the Kingdom. You wrote all about the war in Aksheriri Ris. Because of that, people won't forget. They'll always know who was there, and what happened. You told everyone's story with your report. I think that's really wonderful. Because... there wasn't anyone to tell the story of my village. The Lord of the Blue Moon's men came in, they killed most of us, and then they left. Now no one remembers and no one cares. You saw it for yourself when you went through, didn't you?"

"It was abandoned. You're right about that."

There was a long pause. Then Isauria asked: "When you were there, at the university, did you see any foreigners?"

"Oh yes. Many foreigners. Including people from the Kingdom of the Moon."

"Do you think the university would accept someone like me?"

"I have no idea, Isauria. No idea at all if they'd take you. I think they would if you had a recommendation from a Priest or a town elder, and if you could show up with writing samples, maybe give them an idea of what kinds of research you'd be able to do and what topics interest you."

Danka thought about the thick packets of parchment in her bucket, all those heavy papers that made it unpleasant to carry. They had a lot of information that perhaps would be useful to future generations, so there was no way Danka could part with all that work. All that writing and research... she didn't have time to develop it, but she'd gladly turn it over to someone who could appreciate it, who'd work with it and could put it into a publishable format and share it with others...

She caught her breath... Isauria... why not give the papers to Isauria and enroll her in the university? She could spend the next four years of her life working with all that material and adding it to the university's historical archives. Yes... that was a solution to two problems. Isauria wouldn't have to come up with any research topics: she had everything she needed in those packages. Being from the Kingdom of the Moon, she could look at the wars of 1754 and 1758 from a unique perspective. She didn't want to make any promises to the teenager about the university, but there wasn't any reason they couldn't at least go there and look at the town.

"Then we have a place to go. I need to return to the capital anyway. Sebérnekt Ris is just to the north and I can give you the chance to see it."

* * *

Their path led well to the north of the three villages and the now-empty garrison. Danka had hoped to find a trail that would lead back in the direction of Hórkustk Ris province, but it turned out there was no such path. Instead, a mountain loomed ahead and the trail veered to the right, which meant Danka and Isauria were heading almost straight north. Danka recognized the mountain, because it also was visible from Starívktaki Móskt, the town where Danka had spent her first year away from home living in the Old Believers' seminary. Danka looked towards their destination with anxiety: she did not want to return to Starívktaki Móskt and risk running into the High Priest or anyone else associated with the Temple.

As the women descended the foothills, sure enough, there it was, Starívktaki Móskt. Fortunately there was a fork in the trail that veered to the right and would emerge into open farmland to the north of the old provincial town, which meant that Danka and Isauria could bypass it. Isauria was clearly disappointed about not having the chance to see Starívktaki Móskt, because from a distance it looked like a really nice place.

Danka responded, "I'm a fugitive in that city. I'm sure they'd welcome me back, but only so they could put five arrows into my chest."

They emerged near the Rika Chorna river and took a ferry across. They passed the road going northeast towards the Vice Duchy of Rika Chorna, went over a low hill, and emerged onto the main road going north to Sevérckt nad Gorádki. Danka felt a lot of personal pain as she entered the familiar stretch of countryside, thinking about her trip with Bagatúrckt seven years before and how she was so naively in love with him.

The women traveled along the main road until sunset, making a very strange sight. Danka was still naked and wearing her penance collar, as she walked accompanied by a very young-looking maiden with black hair, wearing a trader's outfit, and sitting with a crossbow on top of an over-loaded mule. Isauria's wide eyes took in all the sights, because now she was in the western valley, the very heart of the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia.

Danka thought about the best route to take towards Sebérnekt Ris. There were two options: go directly northwest between the towns of Nagorónkti-Serífkti and Dagurúckt-Tók (avoiding going into both places if at all possible), or go first to Sevérckt nad Gorádki and try to use the old forest trail built by the Followers of the Ancients. Sevérckt nad Gorádki had an advantage and a disadvantage: her former lover Káloyankt. There was no question he would help Isauria, but did Danka really want to see him again? What would she tell him about her life since she last saw him? How would she feel, looking at his elegant wife, knowing he'd probably leave her in a heartbeat if she gave him any indication she loved him? She could face enemies with a crossbow, but was she strong enough to face a man she mistreated? No. She was not strong enough to do that, not even for Isauria. She couldn't return to Sevérckt nad Gorádki. She'd have to take the diagonal route across the farming country of the western valley.

It was getting dark, so the travelers had to stop for the night. Setting up a campfire and sleeping in the forest was no longer an option. They'd have to find a Church and Danka would have to use her status as a Public Penitent to request safe lodging. Fortunately there was a small town called Gordnáckt Suyástenckt just a short distance to the west of the main road. They entered the town, approached the Church, and Danka looked for a Priest or Priestess. Following protocol, she knelt and stretched her hands on the ground in front of her while the attendant summoned the ordained Clergy members. It was very strange for Isauria to see her former mentor in that position, kneeling with her hands on the ground, her legs spread, and her back arched to expose herself in absolute humility. Well, it was what she had to do. Danka and Isauria needed a place to sleep and a decent meal, which meant following Church protocol. Danka whispered to Isauria that she needed to kneel as well, but to remain upright and not to put her hands on the ground or spread her knees.

The Priestess came out and told the penitent to kneel upright. When Danka looked into the face of the Clergywoman, she felt her heart stop, because she was looking into the face of her former mentor from the Seminary, the student who first taught her how to read and exposed her mind to the world of education. As a Priestess, the woman had aged, but very clearly she was Danka's old mentor, with the same haughty expression and strict demeanor she had eight years before.

"You look very young, Penitent. Obviously the passage of time has been kinder to you than it's been to me."

"Thank you, Priestess."

The Priestess ordered Isauria to stand up, take the mule to a nearby stable and unsaddle him, then to report to the Church bath house so she could clean up for the evening meal and prayers. That left Danka alone with the Priestess. Danka's knees quivered, because had she known her old mentor was the Priestess of Gordnáckt Suyástenckt, there was no way she would have wanted to stop there. The Priestess took her visitor into the study that she shared with her husband and shut the door. Danka, not knowing what else to do, assumed the kneeling position.

"Stand up, Penitent. Stand up and face me."

When Danka stood up, the Priestess continued: "I prayed that I'd have this moment. I prayed for seven years I'd have you standing in front of me. The Creator answered my prayer by delivering you into my hands, so you can answer my question."

"What question is that, Priestess?"

"As though you wouldn't know? What do you think my question would be? I want to know how you defeated the High Priest's son. How did you manage to kill him?"

"I didn't kill him, Priestess. The Destroyer killed him. I was with him, however, and I did see what happened."

Danka spent the next hour describing in detail how Bagatúrckt took her into "the Graveyard of Virtue", how the house servant comforted her afterwards and gave her advice, the ill-fated trip into the forest to hunt for "the Joy of the Ancients", and finally how Bagatúrckt ended up hanging on a branch. She also explained how it was Babáckt Yaga who drove a stake in the back of the corpse and put out the sign. She concluded with: "I wish I had more to do with his death, because I hated him as much as you did, and for the same reason. But no, I was just a bystander. A mere witness."

"That is the strangest story I've ever heard. People in Starívktaki Móskt have made up plenty of weird stories about you and what happened to Bagatúrckt, but no one ever came up with anything as bizarre as that." The Priestess smiled, the first time Danka had ever seen her smile. "Well, I can say hearing all that was worth the seven-year wait."

"So... I was right to stay away from Starívktaki Móskt?"

"Oh, very much so. You're quite the villain at the Seminary. And now I have the vicious seducer and cruel murderer of poor dear pious Bagatúrckt, the son of the High Priest, standing right in front of me. You're still wanted. The new High Priest keeps a couple of old fugitive posters inside the Temple, just in case anyone happens to see you. If I wanted to turn you in, I'd probably receive a promotion and most certainly a blessing from the entire Temple." The Priestess smiled again. "Not that my turning you in is likely to happen."

The Priestess interrupted the conversation so they could join the rest of the Church staff and penitents for dinner at a dining hall owned by the town's most wealthy landlord. Danka and Isauria saw the Priestess's husband sitting at the head of the table. He seemed shocked to see her, but his wife silenced him by quickly drawing her fist across her chest to warn him not to say anything until she had a chance to explain to him what was going on with their fugitive guest. At dinner Danka could see why the Priestess had aged: she had three children. Also seated at the table were three penitents and an apprentice.

Danka cleaned up in the bath house and made sure Isauria was settled in bed before seeking out the Priestess. Just a few hours before, she would have done anything possible to avoid seeing anyone from her past, but it seemed the woman could be trusted and had nothing against her. Danka was comforted at the thought of seeing and talking to someone familiar.

The Priestess took her back to the study and closed the door. For a while the Clergywoman did most of the talking, updating Danka on events in Starívktaki Móskt and the surrounding region and also giving some details about her own life and family. The conversation lasted well into the night, as the Priestess updated Danka on events throughout the western valley. Danka found out some details about Sevérckt nad Gorádki and how her former lover Káloyankt had used his family's influence to consolidate control over the town for the Grand Duke and the Old Believers' faction of the Church. The Old Believers also took over the parish in Nagorónkti-Serífkti following the very public display of madness and evil by the leading priest of the True Believers. Danka explained her part in the incident, but added that she never found out what happened to the priest after she and her companions fled the town. Now she knew how much her Lilith ploy really did change the course of Nagorónkti-Serífkti's history.

They chatted all night. Sunrise already had passed when Danka and the her former mentor finished talking. It was obvious she and Isauria would not be departing that day, because it was raining heavily and traveling would be unpleasant. More importantly, the visitor and her former mentor wanted to continue exchanging experiences and information. Danka rested while Isauria took care of the mule and cleaned up and organized their equipment. That night the Church apprentice asked the teenager to entertain him and the penitents by describing her travels through the mountains and Hórkustk Ris province.

While Isauria was occupied with the Church staff, Danka resumed the conversation with the Clergywoman. Now it was her turn to talk. She needed to describe her life, to confess, to make sense out of all the weird things that had happened to her over the past eight years. The Priestess listened to the torrent of information, trying to comprehend how all those strange and unpleasant experiences could have happened to a single person. And yet, she believed everything Danka told her. Even if there was something she didn't believe, Danka had all those notes and writings in her bucket to prove she was telling the truth. Had the Priestess questioned anything, chances were her doubts could have been resolved by reading her papers.

So over a two-day period Danka unburdened all of the secrets she had kept to herself for eight years, from her sentence on the pillory for petty theft to her departure from the Defenders' winter encampment with Isauria. The only detail she did not share was the fact her Public Penance collar was not a real one issued by the Church. At the beginning of her travels she had promised Farmer Tuko Orsktackt she'd never divulge that secret and she would stay loyal to that promise. When the Priestess asked about her collar, she presented the certificate with the alias Vesna Rogúskt given to her by the Defenders' Priest. The Priestess decided not to pursue that issue. The certificate was issued by an ordained Priest, even if he was a renegade militia cleric, and it did look authentic. Given Danka's situation, it was better that she was traveling under an alias anyway.

The most difficult episode for Danka was describing her two years with the Grand Duke and the ongoing humiliation of being a pleasure slave and having dozens of the ruler's household staff seeing her every day with her hair loosened. When the Priestess responded that Danka shouldn't be ashamed of something she had no control over, the visitor countered:

"But it was my fault. More than anything else I ever did, my internment in His Majesty's castle was my fault. My mind was full of hubris, I had evil thoughts of using the Church to pursue my own fantasies, and the Ancients punished me for that hubris."

Danka held back tears as she described the circumstances under which she left the university and the thoughts going on in her head the moment the Grand Duke and his entourage spotted her in the Plaza of the Ancients. The Priestess responded, "So let's consider what happened. It was your knowledge of the Followers' explosives that helped His Majesty win two, not one, but two battles in Hórkustk Ris. It was because of you he withdrew the Royal Guards from Sumy Ris, just in time to avoid a disastrous defeat. You comforted your companions and because of you many of them became better women. In those two years you accomplished more than all of His Majesty's ministers together. Because of you, the Duchy is safe and strong. The Creator blessed the Duchy and protected it during those difficult years, through you. It was your Path in Life to provide wisdom to His Majesty so he could carry out his Path in Life as a competent ruler. So, it was not your fault you ended up in the Royal Household. It was your Path in Life. And when your usefulness to the Duchy as a concubine ended, the Creator allowed you to leave and serve the Duchy elsewhere. Yes, you committed the sin of hubris, but that sin was necessary for you to fulfill your purpose."

Danka knelt forward and placed her hands on the ground. She had confessed to the person who would have been the one most likely to judge her harshly, but there was no such harsh judgment. Instead, the Priestess encouraged her to look at herself in a more forgiving manner, and to understand that her suffering and humiliation were part of the Creator's larger plan to protect the Danubian people in a time of extreme danger.

The Priestess stood up and told Danka to kneel upright and hold onto her hands. She gripped them very tightly and her arms trembled as she prayed. When she finished, she ordered Danka to stand up.

"I saw your future. The Path in Life the Creator has placed in front of you will include another act of redemption, a very significant act of redemption, not just for you, but for many others. But that lies in the future. This summer you'll still have to travel. If you're going to the capital, you'll need to continue your journey."

Danka had one outstanding issue to ask about before leaving; if it would be possible to write a recommendation for Isauria to enter the university in Sebérnekt Ris.

"I will, but any such document would be for next year, not this year. I can't write a letter of recommendation unless I know her and can say that, in the eyes of the Creator, she'd make a good scholar. You've done an admirable job teaching her certain skills, but you couldn't do everything and the girl's knowledge needs refinement. Also, she's 14. She shouldn't enroll until she's at least 15. I don't want to write a lie on her letter about her age."

"But, what can I do? I don't think she should stay with me."

"No. She shouldn't. You've been an excellent mentor for her, but I know your Paths in Life must separate. I also know you would be doing her a great disservice simply taking her to Sebérnekt Ris and thinking that she could withstand being separated from you, precisely at the time she's starting new studies with a bunch of people she doesn't know. She would be lost, quit within a month, go looking for you, and probably risk being captured by brigands and re-enslaved. She needs a period of transition, to prepare mentally and spiritually before she goes to Sebérnekt Ris."

"Do you think you could provide her with that transition?"

"I could. I'd spend the winter helping her prepare the notes you're planning to give her, so when she goes to the university those reports would already be prepared for publishing. She'd know the material, so that it would be hers as much as yours. I can do that for you... for both of you. Then, next summer she'll go to Sebérnekt Ris, and I will be proud to send her off with my recommendation and my blessing."

Danka separated the papers that she'd leave behind, the packages that would provide Isauria with the work she'd need to attend the university and enter Danubian society as an educated adult. She also took Isauria's slavery and emancipation certificates to hand over to the Priestess. She wanted to make sure the Danubian Church had, in its possession, proof Isauria was not a slave and hadn't been for a couple of years. Danka re-packed her bucket with her medicines, recipes, her two collaring certificates, her supply of salt, the brush and thread to keep her teeth clean, and the silver coin given to her by Tuko Orsktackt. There were other coins, but she'd leave those behind so Isauria could buy herself a nice dress before going to the university.

Isauria was not happy when she found out about Danka's plans to leave her behind. It took a full day for both Danka and the Priestess to reason with her, explaining that if she wanted to attend the university, she had to spend the next year getting ready and only the Priestess could help her prepare. Also, now that Isauria was about to become a ward of the Church, she would be much less likely to ever be re-enslaved, in spite of her dark hair and foreign appearance. The Priestess explained the need for Isauria to spend several months converting Danka's writings into real reports and that only through correctly-written works could either Danka or Isauria complete their obligations to "bear witness" to all the events they had witnessed over the past several years. When Isauria's determination to leave with Danka finally started to weaken, Danka took her to the Church garden.

"There is something else you need to know about me. I carry with me the Destroyer's curse. Everyone I've ever loved, even remotely, has had their soul separated from their body, and I had to bear witness to that separation. There is only one person I loved who ever escaped, and that is because she was lucky enough to be separated from me before my curse caught up with her. You have no idea how much it meant to me that she survived, that one person I loved, when all the others died. It was always my fear that you'd fall victim to my curse as well. Had that happened, I would have hated myself even more than I do now. Isauria, you have the chance to get away from me before it's too late. It would mean a lot to me to see that happen, to leave you behind and know that you will prosper and lead a Path in Life that serves the Creator, that you won't fall victim to whatever the Destroyer has planned for my future. If you love me as much as you say you do, if you care for me as much as I care for you, you won't put me through having to witness your soul separate from your body."

Danka put her head in her hands. Leaving Isauria turned out to be harder than she realized. The girl was both a daughter and a younger sister to her, but like all children, the time was coming when she'd have to pursue her own Path in Life. The Priestess would train and mentor her, just as she had mentored Danka eight years before, and then she'd be ready to travel to Sebérnekt Ris and hopefully be more successful as a student than Danka had been. Isauria was crying, but finally she agreed to stay behind and accept the life offered to her by the Priestess. She changed her merchant's outfit for a Church apprentice robe and knelt before her new mentor, accepting that her Path in Life had changed and that she was now officially under the jurisdiction of the local Old Believers' parish.

Besides transcribing Danka's notes and turning them into reports, Isauria was left with another task. Danka wrote two letters to the sisters-in-law she never met, informing them about her marriage to Ilmátarkt, the final months of his life, and the circumstances under which his soul separated from his body. Danka couldn't go into Starívktaki Móskt to deliver them in person, but Isauria, escorted by the Priestess, would deliver them the following week.

* * *

As soon as she was convinced Isauria would not change her mind and try to follow her, Danka lost no time getting out of Gordnáckt Suyástenckt. She donated the mule to the Church and went out on foot as a penitent, wearing nothing but the same collar and same boots she had set out wearing when her journey began in 1750. She could have bought new boots, but instead chose to wear the ones her father had given her nearly a decade before. They had been repaired so many times that almost none of the leather was original They looked hideous with all the patches, and yet Danka had kept them, not understanding why.

For the moment she wanted to rid herself of all the trappings from the previous eight years. She would carry no weapons, no clothing, and no money. She would start over, place her faith in the Creator, rely on the charity of the parishes along her way, and return to the capital as a penitent. She still had her recipes, medicines, and supply of blue powder, but anything that couldn't fit in her bucket would not accompany her on the trip.

She walked naked along country roads in the heat of July, trying to avoid passing through towns where people would be likely to recognize her from her service with the Followers of the Ancients. Whenever possible she slept in isolated chapels or the houses of clergy members. She stayed a single night and moved on as soon as she had breakfast the following day. Along the way she stopped to take snacks from farms, but was careful to adhere to the protocol of taking only one piece of food from any place she stopped. Still, she traveled well-fed, eating breakfast and dinner with whoever hosted her for the night and munching on fruit and raw vegetables throughout the day as she walked.

In spite of choosing a route to minimize the chances of running into someone who'd remember her from her days with the Followers of the Ancients, she did pass through plenty of villages she had visited with Ermin, Káloyankt, or other companions from the Cult. She even saw people she had vaccinated but, because she was not wearing her Followers' dress, no one recognized her. To the locals she was just a wandering penitent, worth looking at because she was attractive, but otherwise not noteworthy.

As Danka traveled westward, she was able to clear her mind of a lot of the memories that had burdened her up to that point. During the trip she used her new identity Vesna Rogúskt and tried to remember not to refer to herself as Danka. She had no past and was nothing more than a uncovered traveler moving with the protection of the Church. She was not Follower Danka, nor Jadranka the student, nor Silvítya the concubine, nor Defender Danka the wife of Doctor Ilmátarkt. She had no responsibilities apart from trying to find out what happened to her former squad leader Oana. Perhaps Oana didn't even survive the evacuation from Aksheriri Ris and if that were true, then she didn't have any other concerns or responsibilities. But, if she didn't have any responsibilities, then her life really had no purpose. She pushed that thought aside. Better to enjoy the moment while it lasted, because she was sure that responsibility and duty would crowd into her life soon enough.

After spending July walking at a leisurely pace across the entire western valley, Danka finally arrived in the capital on August 2. The area outside the walls had changed dramatically over the past four years. Instead of military encampments and rows of squalid refugee tents, the zone immediately outside the walls was covered with new, nicely-built houses and shops, which had been built from the huge piles of lumber, stone, and bricks that were stockpiled in anticipation of expanding the city wall. The buildings were much roomier than the cramped wooden structures of the old capital because there was plenty of space for the builders to spread out. Many of the newer structures had gardens or courtyards, and all of them had tile roofs because thatch was prohibited as a fire hazard. Danka realized that the capital's inhabitants must have learned their lesson about fire, because the new houses were built from much less wood and flammable materials than the older structures that burned in 1755. Most of the old wall and its watchtowers were still standing, but they were barely visible behind all those new buildings.

Danka made her way towards an opening in the wall. An entire section between two watchtowers on the eastern side was missing, leaving a gap that was four blocks wide. She freely walked through and was greeted by a truly bizarre sight. The entire city was a huge construction zone, with the ground covered by the foundations of stately ministry buildings that were part of the Grand Duke's plans for a renovated capital. The narrow winding streets of the old city were gone, replaced by straight boulevards. From her location Danka could see all the way to the opposite side of the old walled area, because in most places only the new buildings' foundations were in place. To the southwest she could see the hill containing the Grand Duke's castle and the military buildings at its base. To the northwest the Great Temple and a couple of ancient stone buildings loomed in the distance. A few older stone buildings, most notably the Christian cathedral and another Roman Christian church, remained standing. Straight ahead there was an old fortress-like garrison standing next to the cathedral that had survived the fire, which would become the future headquarters of a national police force.

Danka looked around at the wall. To the south the Merchants Gate, through which she and Alexándrekt Buláshckt had escaped during the Great Fire, was still intact, although its wooden doors had never been replaced. To the north there were two other large gaps between watchtowers, openings through which new streets could pass. Danka noticed the cannons had been taken down and the towers were mostly unoccupied. It was clear the Grand Duke had completely dismissed the old city wall as no longer being a useful part of Danúbikt Móskt's defenses, although he left the majority of it in place to demarcate the new government district.

It was much easier to move about Danúbikt Móskt than it had been three years earlier, in spite of all the construction. Danka's goal was the Great Temple of the Ancients, so she simply walked along a wide boulevard until she arrived at the western side of the city, then turned north and followed another wide street for two blocks until reaching her destination. The area near the Temple was much more "normal" than the rest of the capital, because the old stone buildings around the Plaza of the Ancients remained standing and the rebuilding of some adjacent blocks to the north had proceeded faster than elsewhere. Near the Temple there were businesses offering services and food to its visitors.

Danka approached the Plaza of the Ancients and for the second time in her life looked at the front of the Great Temple. At least that hadn't changed. Five years had gone by since she stood in that spot, wearing the same penance collar and boots, and carrying the same bucket. However, during her second visit she had no illusions about the Danubian Church nor any desire to seek greatness for herself. Her purpose was very straightforward: to see if she could find out what happened to her fellow militia members and whether or not Defender Oana had survived the battle.

The crowd in the Plaza suddenly fell silent and was stepping to the sides of the plaza. She heard a series of very loud whistles and then the shout:

“Doc-doc Danube!”

The crowd roared its response and snapped to attention. Fortunately, Danka was paying attention and managed to slip behind some standing spectators and avoid drawing attention to herself. She knelt upright, her heart pounding. The Grand Duke was passing through the plaza. Four foot-soldiers preceded the nation’s ruler, loudly whistling to announce their presence. The Grand Duke followed, along with four Royal Guards and two of his ministers, all on horseback. The Royal entourage rode past the crowd, placing their fists against their chests to return the public’s salute. Danka was scared out of her wits, wondering if bad fortune had followed her and the ruler would somehow notice her. She had enough time to imagine the Royal Guards returning her to the castle in chains to face the hard judgment of an imperious man who undoubtedly would think she betrayed him by escaping. Still, she couldn't resist the urge to peek through a gap of the people standing in front of her and catch a fleeting glimpse of her former Master. He seemed not to have changed at all, as he scanned the crowd for attractive young women. He was unaware that just three fathoms from his entourage his favorite former concubine was kneeling and shaking badly.

The crowd dissipated and resumed walking as soon as the Sovereign left the plaza. The Grand Duke and his men turned south before turning east to move along the same partially constructed boulevard through which Danka had entered. When she realized where they were going, she was sickened by that narrow miss. Had the Royal entourage passed that way while she was coming in, her naked body would have been visible from a distance and there was no way she would have been able to hide. Protocol dictated she would have had to kneel immediately and remain stationary until the Sovereign came up to her... and recognized her.

Danka knew her dead husband would have told her it was lack of caution and bad luck that made her fall into the hands of the Grand Duke in 1753, and that five years later she avoided falling into his hands because she moved out of the way in time and her luck was better. Danka's religious mind would never accept such a casual dismissal of the deities and their impact on her life. In 1753 the Ancients chose to punish her for her hubris, but in 1758 she interpreted her narrow escape as a sign she needed to proceed with her plan to enter the Temple and find out the fates of the surviving militia members. She also was curious to see the inside of the Temple building. Previously she only had a fleeting glimpse of the entrance while she struggled to remove and hide her fake Church penance collar, but this time there was no impatient Royal Guard waiting for her outside. Apart from having to remember to properly kneel whenever she was near a Clergy member, she could examine the Great Temple at her leisure. Meanwhile, she worked up the courage to select an approachable-looking Cleric and ask how she could find out what happened to the Defenders' militia.

It turned out, she didn't even need a Priest or Priestess to answer her question. She went all the way to the back of the Temple and explored an ancient stone platform that contained a row of deep fire pits. Several naked penitents were cleaning out the ashes and stockpiling cave-charcoal for the next round of religious ceremonies. Danka recognized one of the men as a fellow militia member from the Defenders. He was older than most of his companions and had a resigned expression on his face. She hadn't known him well because he was with a squad of musketeers, but she remembered his name as Marksman Tanélickt. When she approached him and he recognized her, his expression changed from resignation to shock.

Tanélickt excused himself from his fellow penitents. He motioned Danka to kneel and wait for him so he could request permission from a Priest to take a break from his duties. When he returned, he had two charcoal circles drawn on his left shoulder to indicate he had requested and been granted consent to leave the main building. He motioned with his fingertips for Danka to stand up and follow him.

The former Defenders exited the back of the Temple and made their way to the forested shore of the East Danube River. They looked across the wide stretch of water and the distant steep cliffs on the other side. It was a very peaceful setting on a lazy hot August afternoon that gave the two survivors the opportunity to collect their thoughts. Finally Danka broke the silence and asked what happened during the evacuation from Aksheriri Ris. Before he responded, she added, "As you can guess, I missed it. I missed the evacuation. I'll explain why in a few minutes."

Tanélickt spent the next hour giving Danka a detailed description of the evacuation and how he and his surviving companions managed to escape from the Kingdom of the Moon. In doing so he gave his visitor more insight into the personalities of both the Grand Duke and Commander Sáupeckt. Although the Grand Duke provided material support to the Defenders, it turned out from the beginning he was very skeptical of the militia's chances of being able to capture and hold onto Sumy Ris. Suspecting the Defenders' operation was likely to end in disaster, he organized a column of Royal Guards who had trained to fight in open terrain, stationed them at the fort in Iyóshnyakt-Krepóckt, and waited to see what happened to the south. When he received the message that the Defenders had conquered Aksheriri Ris and were "waiting to assist the Royal Army in the glorious re-claiming of Sumy Ris for the Duchy", the Grand Duke fully understood the Defenders were not ready to re-claim anything: they were cornered and needed to be rescued. The Sovereign personally led 4000 Danubian Royal Guards to extract the Defenders. He was correct about the need for a rescue, but the militia's condition was much more dire than he had anticipated. His scouts observed enough to give him a summary of the situation: the Defenders were mostly fighting against the Red Moon faction among the houses, while the Blue Moon faction occupied the area outside and was mostly fighting the Red Moon faction at the east gate to get in.

As his army approached Aksheriri Ris, the Grand Duke sent a messenger to the commander of the Blue Moon Army asking for a temporary truce, pointing out the Danubians' desire to extract their fighters and the Blue Moon Army's desire to seize control of the town were compatible. A truce would allow both the Danubian Royal Army and the Blue Moon Army to concentrate their efforts against the Lord of the Red Moon's men. The Blue Moon commander responded that he would agree to a truce as long as the Danubian Royal Army stayed to the north and did not send anyone into the city. The Blue Moon troops would concentrate their fighting on the east gate and not interfere with any Danubian militia fighters trying to get out through the north gate.

When the Royal Army secured the area between the north gate and the outer wall of the demolished Ottoman garrison, the surviving Defenders had about 40 minutes to flee through the two escape routes, while having to withdraw under fire. During those 40 minutes, 534 Defenders managed to escape and bring out the bodies of 97 fallen companions. The Lord of the Red Moon's Army tried as much as possible to prevent the break-out, but they were occupied with the advancing Blue Moon units and thus unable to stop any Danubian who made it past the open marketplace square. The Danubian Royal Army provided cover fire for the Defenders as they scrambled down the hill, but took shots themselves and lost a total of 43 men. The Grand Duke later pulled his Guards out of range of the city's cannons to re-group and to give a few extra minutes to any remaining militia members who might have missed the main break-out. Thirteen stragglers managed to join the Royal Army before it started moving northward. Tanélickt was one of those lucky stragglers, and he claimed that he owed his life to the militia's commander.

"We were the last ones to make it to the outer wall of the garrison before the Red Moon soldiers closed in on us. We were with Commander Sáupeckt. The hole was small and only one of us could fit through at a time. There was a platoon of Red Moon troops chasing us. They were getting their muskets ready to fire all at once, and it would have been an execution against a wall, pure and simple. But the commander grabbed two crossbows and ran back at them, screaming. He shot a crossbow, then the other. The Red Moon troops emptied their muskets into him instead of us and they had to reload before coming after us. There were sixteen of us, and thirteen managed to run down the hill to join His Majesty's army. The other three didn't make it. A Royal commander asked if anyone else was coming out. I told him what happened to Commander Sáupeckt and that I thought we were the last ones to get through the garrison ruins. So, we all left. 547 Defenders and a hundred recovered bodies. And 43 dead Royal Guards. And to think... we started out with 2500 fighters and 600 assistants. All those people, and only a sixth of us made it out, and even that was only because of His Majesty's rescue. What a disaster. We should have stayed in the forest." Tanélickt paused for a moment before concluding: "Commander Sáupeckt and the Priest told us to place our faith in the power of the Destroyer. Well, we did place our faith in the Destroyer, didn't we? And we were the ones who were destroyed."

Danka nodded. "We shouldn't have been surprised. My old Mistress from the Followers told me, "the Destroyer helps no one. The Destroyer won't help you". We should have known better than to think relying on the Destroyer wouldn't end badly. So, what happened when you returned to the Duchy?"

"Well, the march back wasn't pleasant, not pleasant at all. No one from the Royal Guards spoke to us, except to give instructions and orders. They let us know they were very angry at our folly and they had every reason to be, because they lost 43 of their own men trying to save us. As soon as we passed the fortress in Iyóshnyakt-Krepóckt, most of the Guards went back to their garrisons, but His Majesty and about a thousand of his men escorted us to the capital. When they took away our weapons, we realized we were prisoners. We didn't know what was going to happen to us, but rumors started circulating, saying the Danubian Church wanted to collar us as heretics. And we were right, the Prophets did want to collar us. We were brought to the Plaza of the Ancients and ordered to strip. They took all our clothes and burned them. We were not a pretty sight, if you can imagine 500 dirty, starving, exhausted militia fighters, many of us with injuries, having to huddle naked in the plaza over there. They had execution stakes set up and we were wondering if we had been rescued only to have our souls separated from our bodies in the capital. Then the Guards separated us into groups and the Priests started calling us forward, one by one. They wrote our names, asked what unit we were with, and demanded to know who we saw killed in combat and under what circumstances. Then each of us had to stand on the steps of the Temple and in a loud voice publicly rebuke the Destroyer. You can imagine how hard that was for many of us, to deliberately insult the Destroyer and claim the Destroyer has no power over the Creator or the Ancients. There were 19 militia members who couldn't do it, couldn't insult the Destroyer, and they ended up tied to the execution posts with five arrows embedded in their chests. The rest of us did as we were told."

Tanélickt paused to collect his thoughts. Danka stayed silent until he continued:

"The Prophets wanted to collar everyone from the militia and have us spend the rest of our lives performing Public Penance, but the Grand Duke wanted to take us as experienced fighters for his army. So, he and the Prophets reached an agreement over what to do with us. We are sinners, worshipers of the Destroyer, and renegades, so we deserved to be collared. It is the Path in Life of each of us to be collared and spend the rest of our time in the Realm of the Living serving the Church and performing Public Penance. But the Grand Duke issued a reprieve for those of us willing to serve him first. If we join the Royal Guards, we can delay wearing a Church collar until our enlistment ends. I'm sure you can guess which choice, the collar or Royal service, was more popular. And the arrangement makes sense for both the Grand Duke and us. As long as we stay with the Royal Guards, we can avoid wearing the collar, but we must report to the Temple and turn ourselves in for Public Penance the moment we leave His Majesty's service. Not much incentive to leave the Guards and return to civilian life, is it?"

Danka smiled slightly. "No... I suppose not. I guess I'm different, because I really don't mind wearing a collar. I enjoy being naked, and in some ways I feel I have more freedom with a collar than without. Very well, I have a question. I was wondering if you know what happened to Defender Oana, the Nymph who..."

"Oh yes. Her. She fled the city through the north gate with the first group of survivors. It was strange, because she was the only Nymph from the two squads of women serving directly under Commander Sáupeckt to survive. Plenty of Nymphs from other companies escaped, but no women from the commander's group. Just Oana... and you, of course."

"From Defender Dalibora's squad... no one got out?"


"Nor from Oana's group of recruits, no one?"

"No one."

"Oana left completely by herself? She didn't bring anyone else out?"

"No, and I found that very strange. She was the only commander who didn't come out with at least some of her troops."

"What did she say about that?"

"She said it was simple luck. All of her Nymphs were killed on the rooftops, except for four who were injured. She helped them get into a stone house and went to get help, but when she returned, the door was kicked open, the four women had been bayoneted, and the house was set on fire. She managed to kill one of the men who set the fire, but then had to flee because she didn't have time to reload her crossbow. Then she saw the Defenders had started to evacuate, so she joined the others. That was the story she told. So... now... I'd imagine what she said wasn't the truth. If it was the truth, you wouldn't be sitting here, would you?"

"I was one of those four Nymphs she was talking about. I wasn't injured, but I was taking care of the others. My squad leader, Defender Dalibora, had a bad leg wound and was with me, along with a couple of Oana's women. When she last saw us, we were very much alive. She left us and never came back."

"...and you think she left you on purpose?"


"But why would she do that?"

Danka explained the circumstances surrounding Oana's squad being taken away from her for poor leadership and the commander's effort to soften the blow by having her recruit a new squad of Nymphs. Then she described what Oana told her and the others in the house, not to look outside until she came back. Finally, she repeated Dalibora's suspicions about her fellow squad leader.

"But, you think she was so bitter that she'd abandon injured Nymphs, women from her own squad, to the enemy? I've never heard of that. I always thought Nymphs went to extremes to make sure other Nymphs were never captured."

"Oana went to extremes, but in our case to do the opposite. She wanted to abandon us and make sure no one found us, except Kingdom of the Moon troops."

"So... are you planning to do anything about it?"

"Well, the main reason I came here was to find out if she was still alive. Dalibora was still my commander when she issued her final order: for me to poison her so she wouldn't be captured, and then I was to sneak out of Aksheriri Ris. The reason she wanted me to get away was so I could find Oana and deal with her. The Ancients helped me escape. Now that I've returned, I'm sworn to carry out my squad leader's final order. Do you have any idea where Oana went?"

"The last I heard, she went east to a town called Novo Sókukt Tók, which is located in the Vice Duchy, to the south."

Danka sighed. "I just came from that direction. Now I have to go back."

"Then you'll have to hurry, if you want to get to the pass before the weather gets cold. I suppose I can learn more about her from my supervising Priest, if you'd like, and make sure your trip is not wasted."

Danka nodded, but she was curious about her companion's decision to stay at the Temple. "What about you? How did you end up here, performing Public Penance at the Temple? Why didn't you join the Royal Guards?"

"I prayed about it. I wanted to join, but I received a very strong feeling I needed to accept the collar and stay behind, that there was something important I needed to do. I suspect I just did it."

"Telling me about Oana?"

"Yes. If it's true she deliberately abandoned you to the enemy, then Oana is the very definition of dishonor. As Defenders, it is our duty to remove such a person from the Realm of the Living."

Danka wondered about Tanélickt's words "our duty". Was he planning to help her seek vengeance against Oana?

The two penitents sought out and knelt in front of the Priest responsible for supervising Tanélickt's duties in the Temple. Danka recognized the Priest: he had been one of the younger Followers in Babáckt Yaga's encampment and had enrolled in the Old Believers' seminary with the Alchemist's encouragement. He was shocked upon seeing her, but quickly regained his composure.

Danka and Tanélickt explained the situation and Oana's reprehensible actions in combat. The worst part of her behavior was not that she acted from mere cowardice, but from pure malice. She deliberately left four subordinates behind, fully expecting the enemy to capture and torture them. On the topic of retribution, the Priest was a Follower of the Ancients first, and a Clergy member of the Church second. Yes, he agreed it was very important that Danka and Tanélickt find and exact revenge against Oana. However, he added the two ex-Defenders would have to figure out how to avenge Dalibora and the other Nymphs without actually killing the former squad leader.

"Killing is very easy. You militia fighters know that better than anyone else. So, let me lay a challenge at your feet. How can you achieve vengeance without killing? It can be done and it's what I expect from you. So, you will leave this Temple, both of you, with my permission and my blessing, provided you don't shed her blood. Think it over, and we'll talk tomorrow."

Danka and Tanélickt were too tired to further discuss Oana that day. Instead, they exited the back of the Temple to walk through the woods and bathe in the East Danube River. When they emerged from the water, she noticed him looking at her with a longing expression. It was obvious he wanted her. She saw nothing wrong with that: she was a widow and he already had endured several months without having sex. She took his hand, placed against it her chest, and allowed him to explore her body. She expertly teased him until he was hard, before pushing him to the ground. She straddled him and pushed his penis deep inside. For a moment her old fantasy of being Lilith returned as she climaxed. It was the first time she had enjoyed an orgasm since the beginning of April, the last time she made love to her husband.

When they both finished, she bent down to kiss him. Then she put her finger on his lips. "Until we're finished with Oana and we part ways, you can have me whenever you want. My only request is that we always make love this way. I can't explain it, but it's what I need. Give me that, and I'll give you what you need."

Tanélickt agreed. As a penitent, he didn't have any opportunities to have sex, so Danka's condition for love-making was a very small sacrifice for a man in his situation.

* * *

When Danka and Tanélickt returned to the Priest the next day, he handed them letters instructing any Clergy member in Novo Sókukt Tók to remove the penitents' collars when asked, and also to provide lodging. He gave Tanélickt another letter granting him permission to join the Royal Guards as soon as he completed his tasking with Danka. The ex-Defender was very grateful for the second letter. When, against his wishes, he chose the collar over the Royal Guards, he had assumed the choice was final, that he'd have to endure the rest of his time in the Realm of the Living as a penitent.

The Priest took Danka aside, away from Tanélickt.

"Do you remember the True Believers' Priest in Nagorónkti-Serífkti?"

Danka smiled. "Of course I remember him. That was one of the most fun things I ever did in my life."

"That will give you something to think about when you go looking for Oana. Think about how you'd set up something like that. And most important, think about what you'd want to say to her."

Danka's heart raced at the suggestion. Of course. It was so obvious. Oana would receive a visitor... from the Realm of the Afterlife.

Chapter Twenty-Eight – The Avenging Stranger

Tanélickt and Danka departed from the Great Temple before sunrise on August 6, only four days after Danka first entered the city. The two penitents had very little time to spare if they were going to cross the entire western valley, go into the mountains, cross the pass near Novo Sumy Ris, and navigate the hilly country along the road that lead to their destination in Novo Sókukt Tók before the weather became too cold to travel. The real problem was the pass dividing the western valley from the eastern valley: it could receive snow as early as the first week in September, which was not good news for two people having to travel as naked penitents.

Danka carried her bucket, while Tanélickt carried a sack containing some wrapped packages the Priest had given him, along with flint and tinder for lighting campfires, string to set snares, a small knife for cleaning game and preparing food, a sling, and fishhooks in case they camped by a stream. They'd be able to stay in churches and chapels until they passed Starívktaki Móskt, but then they would have to camp in the forest until reaching the pass. He would have preferred to carry the sack over his shoulder, but was prohibited from covering his body and therefore had to carry it in his hand, in the same way Danka had to carry her bucket.

Danka wondered why Oana would be stationed with guards at the other side of the Duchy and in territory only nominally loyal to the Royal House. Tanélickt explained there were two reasons: Oana had some friends serving in the Vice Duke's Provincial Guards, and also she needed to stay away from other former Defenders. Tanélickt was not the only member of the militia who had serious doubts about Oana's performance in the battle. The Grand Duke would not have had time to worry about a single ex-Nymph, given that his commanders had to find places in the Royal Army for nearly 500 new recruits. If the Vice Duke wanted Oana for an assignment in the eastern valley, he could have her.

Danka enjoyed the walk to the east much less than she enjoyed the walk from Gordnáckt Suyástenckt to Danúbikt Móskt. The pace which she and her companion traveled was nearly twice as fast as the leisurely speed she had walked in the month before. Tanélickt was used to walking with a quick marching shuffle that was just short of running, Danka was hard-pressed to keep up with him, but she dared not complain. Tanélickt knew the pass well enough to understand they absolutely had to arrive before September 1. They had to go on foot and they only had three weeks to reach it. If they did not get over the pass before the first snow, they'd be stuck for eight months waiting for the area to clear. Danka was too exhausted at the end of each day to want sex, but she had promised her companion he could have sex with her when he wanted, and he did want sex every night. They made love, fell asleep, and within a few hours Tanélickt was tapping her on the shoulder so they could have breakfast and head out. Tanélickt even considered stopping to collect food along the route as a waste of time.

Danka had to credit Tanélickt for his self-discipline and efficient traveling on the day they passed to the north of Gordnáckt Suyástenckt, less than two weeks after departing the capital. Because it was the middle of the afternoon, Tanélickt had no desire to stop there, to Danka's relief. The last thing she wanted was run into Isauria. She had said goodbye and that farewell needed to be final. It would not do to part with her former ward only to show up a month-and-a-half later and have to say goodbye all over again.

They crossed the hills overlooking the town and descended towards the road that went into the mountains and eventually to the Vice Duchy. The landscape was mostly forested, with some small pastures in a few areas flat enough for livestock. The road climbed above the Rika Chorna River, which flowed rapidly through a canyon that was increasingly deep and narrow. Tanélickt kept up his frenetic pace, but as the elevation rose and the nighttime temperatures dropped and they cuddled each other for warmth, Danka fully understood they would be in deep trouble if they didn't get over the pass within a few days.

When the road veered from northeast to east, they passed a series of rapids and waterfalls. Then the road moved away from the river. The road continued along the hillsides, but the river flowed through a large valley, the middle of which was completely flat and covered with thick dark vegetation. Tanélickt commented they were passing the Great Swamp of Misery.

"It's definitely not a place for humans. The land is cursed and will actually eat you if you try to cross it. At night sometimes you can see illuminated ghosts deep in the marshes. There are wolves and every kind of blood-sucking insect you can imagine."

"So, no one goes in there, even to hunt?"

"No. Why would anyone go in there? It's too dangerous. You'll just have to believe me. You told me you spent three weeks walking across the Kingdom of the Moon with nothing more than the protection of the Ancients and I believe you. You'll have to believe me when I tell you that ground eats humans."

The shivering penitents arrived at the pass on September 2. There was a small shrine and an inn run by the Old Believers' faction of the Danubian Church. The resident Priest and Priestess were in their eighties and had been working in the same location for six decades. Danka recognized them: she had once seen them visiting Babáckt Yaga's settlement. Tanélickt handed over a sealed letter from his supervising Priest at the Great Temple. The old man read the letter and smiled mischievously. He handed the document to a much younger attendant, who immediately mounted a donkey and rode off to the east.

Tanélickt relaxed slightly, knowing the most risky part of the trip was finished. They still had to spend a couple of days descending the eastern slope, but from that point the threat from the weather would lessen the further they progressed. The travelers sat by a fireplace while Tanélickt updated the Priest on the aftermath of the Defenders' disastrous campaign and what he saw as he and Danka crossed the western valley. As she lay on a thick wool blanket, Danka promptly fell asleep, completely exhausted from nearly four weeks of frantic walking.

* * *

Tanélickt and Danka woke up early the next morning and continued their trip. The pace remained the same, but most of the traveling was downhill and for the first time Danka was able to enjoy some panoramic views of the Vice Duchy of Rika Chorna. She was curious about the name, given that at no point did the Rika Chorna River actually flow anywhere through the Vice-Duchy. Her companion explained that when the refugees from Lower Danubia first entered the area in 1512, they harbored resentment against King Vladik for not having defended their homeland against the invading Ottomans. Therefore they wanted to claim for themselves as much territory in the eastern half of Upper Danubia as possible, which included the Great Swamp of Misery and the headwaters of the Rika Chorna River. According to the Vice Duke, the border between the Grand Duke's realm and the Vice Duchy was located at the entrance of the canyon they had just passed through. According to the Grand Duke, the boundary was the pass itself.

"So far,” Tanélickt said, “neither side has formally challenged each other's claims about where the Grand Duke's control ends and the Vice-Duke's control begins. Of course, the Grand Duke says the border question is irrelevant because the Vice Duchy is part of the Grand Duchy. The Vice-Duke has different thoughts on the matter. I'm not sure how, short of a war, that'll be resolved."

Danka said nothing, then thought to herself: 'I do know how it'll be resolved. The Grand Duke will send his illegitimate daughters, dozens of them, to marry into the leading families. That's what he's planning to do with all those girls. He'll conquer this place without firing a single shot. And, of course, the girls will have no say in the matter.'

Three days after crossing the pass, the two penitents entered Novo Sumy Ris, the first town in the Vice Duchy. The town itself was not big, but it boasted an over-sized church that was an exact replica of the one in the original Sumy Ris. Danka couldn't resist the urge to go in. She was greeted by a black-robed Priest who angrily chased her out, hitting her several times with his staff. When the penitents knelt on the steps, several True Believer Clergy-members, all men, kicked their upturned bottoms and hurled insults at them. A group of city guards, wearing uniforms that were different from the ones worn in the western valley and Hórkustk Ris province, grabbed the visitors and forced them to leave the town. Both Danka and Tanélickt were shocked at the treatment. Penitents were respected in the western half of the Duchy, but in the Vice-Duchy, which was still under the control of the True Believers' faction, it turned out True Believer priests had very little respect for collared penitents. Church rules forbade Old Believer penitents from entering churches and local Clergy members were free to mistreat them. As they were forced to move towards the crossroads at the entrance of the town, Danka and Tanélickt passed the market square and a young man who was chained to a pillory. Apart from the petty criminal, Danka and Tanélickt were the only naked people in the entire town.

The guards kicked Danka and Tanélickt in their backsides and thighs before pushing them to the ground. The penitents were not sure what more the watchmen would have done had to them had not the apprentice from the chapel at the pass not reappeared. When he whistled loudly for them to step away, the guards bowed their heads as he took charge of the two visitors. As soon as the guards left, he apologized about not getting back in time to prevent Danka and Tanélickt from entering Novo Sumy Ris. He offered to tie their belongings to his saddle, but did not say much more after ordering the naked couple to follow him. It turned out they would have to be escorted for the rest of their trip. They exited the main road to continue east for a day before turning south again to finish their journey along back roads and farming paths. Villagers and field workers stared at the two penitents, but didn't say anything because they were being escorted by a Church Apprentice.

The trip between Novo Sumy Ris and Novo Sókukt Tók was much longer than Danka had expected. They spent almost all of the remainder of September on the final portion of their journey. Danka had not realized that Novo Sumy Ris was as far from Novo Sókukt Tók as it was from Starívktaki Móskt, and they were not going along the most direct route. The final week of the trip was the worst. The autumn rains started and the penitents spent several miserable days walking in chilly drizzle along muddy paths. On the last day of the month, finally... finally... finally... Novo Sókukt Tók's rooftops and church steeples came into view through the rainy mist. The apprentice handed back his companions' belongings and escorted them to a farmhouse owned by the family of one of the town's Priests. As soon as his guests were at the door, the apprentice departed.

When Danka and Tanélickt entered, they were greeted by a young man she had studied with at the university, and who had been one of her many lovers during her year of studying. She remembered his name as Ernockt, which was fortunate because she had so many lovers at the university that she had forgotten most of their names or never knew them in the first place. Ernockt was considerably more talkative than the apprentice had been, asking Danka and Tanélickt to talk about their trip while an assistant prepared a hot bath for both. While the two penitents were cleaning up, the assistant unpacked their belongings and laid them out to dry near the fireplace, along with their soggy boots. A farmer's wife came in and served a meal of deep-fried vegetables and blackberry bread, both of which were specialties of the Vice Duchy. Tanélickt exited his bath first. Ernockt produced a key and unlocked his penance collar, then told him to put on a new set of worker's clothing. Danka noticed a peasant's dress hanging on the wall and realized she'd be wearing it as soon as she exited her bath. When no one was looking, she unlatched and removed her collar. The others would realize she was wearing a fake collar, but all she could do was hope they'd understand it was a secret that needed to be safeguarded. The two men were surprised to see her with her collar already removed when she exited the tub to put on the dress, but neither said anything.

As they ate, Ernockt explained what was going on. He was officially a scribe for the city council, but he also was part of a secret network of Old Believers and ex-Followers who were working in the Vice-Duchy to undermine the authority of the True Believers and the Vice-Duke. The group wanted the Duchy to be united under a single independent Church and a single Royal Household. The secret society viewed the True Believers as traitors to the Duchy's culture because of their ties with the Roman Church. They collected information about the various True Believer parishes, identified sympathetic Clergy members who would be likely to work with the rival faction if it took control of a town, and laid out plans to eventually seize Churches. The conspirators' plans sounded far-fetched, but it was precisely through a well-timed conspiracy and the good luck of friendly council members that the Old Believers seized control of the parish in Sevérckt nad Gorádki. That coup essentially drove the True Believers out of their last stronghold in the western valley and cut the eastern parishes off from their contacts in Rome. Ernockt's position was especially important, because as a scribe he had access to all of the records of the town councilmen and the True Believers' parish. The Prophets in the Great Temple knew, in detail, everything that was happening in Novo Sókukt Tók. Considering the way they were treated in Novo Sumy Ris, neither Danka nor Tanélickt had any misgivings about working with a man whose Path in Life it was to undermine the True Believers.

Dressed in their workers' disguises, Danka and Tanélickt followed the scribe into town. They entered a small but very clean residence that Ernockt's group used as a safe-house. The host pointed out the window at a fortress-like building just a few doors away. It was a True Believers' convent, the only one in the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia operating at that time. Danka commented that she had heard of convents in other countries, but was surprised to find out there was one in the Duchy. The idea of a bunch of women isolating themselves from society and spending their entire lives in celibacy struck Danka as totally odd. She had no clue why anyone would want to live like that.

Ernockt responded, "The lifestyle has its attractions, especially if you're a woman in the Vice Duchy and don't want to marry."

The purpose of the visit was to talk about Oana, not the convent. It turned out the former squad leader had used her connections to find a comfortable position as the leader of a group of female guards protecting the Convent. Her set-up was quite nice. The leader of the convent had issued Oana a small house, adjacent to both the main gate and the barracks where the other female guards were staying. She lived alone, but usually there were city watchmen milling about. Ernockt handed a shawl to Danka and a hat to Tanélickt. It was raining outside, which would allow the former Defenders to cover themselves and avoid being recognized, even if they did come within sight of their target. Before doing anything else, they needed to become completely familiar with the streets and buildings near the convent and the main church. Danka and Tanélickt examined alleyways, doors, windows, and walls to consider how they would access and escape from Oana's house. After eating dinner and resting, the couple went back out to see how the town looked at night and consider how darkness would influence their selection of hiding places and escape routes.

At midnight Danka told Ernockt and Tanélickt to wait a block away from Oana's house. She couldn't resist the urge to see her. Like the ghost she would pretend to be, she silently slipped past a city watchman and snuck around the house. The windows were closed, but one in the back had a gap wide enough to allow her to see most of the house's interior. Danka looked in. Sure enough, there she was, and Oana was not alone. A much younger male guard was with her. They both were naked, and Oana was bent over in the submissive position. Apparently she liked having sex that way. Danka tightened her lips. If Oana entertained men in her house every night, obviously getting to her when she was alone would be difficult. But somehow she'd have to do it.

She could not simply go in and kill her or kidnap her. Just as she promised Dalibora she'd find and punish Oana, she had promised the Priest in the Great Temple she'd not spill Oana's blood. There was nothing more for her to do for the moment than try to memorize the interior of the residence and the arrangement of the furniture. Danka realized it would be a good idea to re-create the entire layout of Oana's residence and practice moving about in the dark. As best she could, she tried to memorize the size and distance between each piece of furniture within her range of vision. When Oana's lover departed and she extinguished her lantern, only the dim light from the stove was visible. Good. Now Danka knew what the house interior looked like when only the stove was lit. Still, the detail that Oana's house had a cast-iron stove for burning cave-charcoal irritated her. Danka had introduced the stove to comfort her companions in the Defenders' base camp, but it was the woman who had betrayed the others who was benefiting.

When she was ready to leave, Danka had to time her movement to slip past the city watchman milling about the house. That was another problem, what to do about that watchman. She rejoined her companions and they returned to the nearby safe-house. Danka described what she saw and sketched the layout of Oana's living quarters. Over the next few days she'd go back to verify the size and placement of the furnishings, assemble a replica in the basement of the farmhouse, and practice moving about in total darkness. Also, she needed to figure out what she wanted to say to Oana when she confronted her.

Five days after Danka saw Oana's new house for the first time, Ernockt showed up with a young woman who looked exactly like one of the recruits Oana had brought back with her the previous spring. At first Danka wondered if one of Oana's Nymphs had miraculously survived the battle and, like Danka, had managed to escape. The woman, whose name was Jeskéckta, was not the Nymph, but instead was her younger sister. She wanted to join the conspiracy against Oana. It turned out that Danka's group were not the only Nymphs Oana left behind. There were two additional injured Nymphs, one from Dalibora's squad and the woman from Oana's squad, who she had tricked into not joining the evacuation.

This surprising news came from a musketeer of another commander's company who Danka had never met. However, according to the story he told Jeskéckta's family, his circumstances in Aksheriri Ris were very similar to Danka's. He was watching over the injured Nymph from Dalibora's squad and trying to construct a sling from bed linens to carry her out, when Oana showed up with Jeskéckta's sister, who had broken her leg when falling off a rooftop. Oana ordered the musketeer to leave the house and accompany her. She ordered the two injured Nymphs to stay in the house and bolt the door. The Grand Duke's army was positioned outside and already the first Defenders were leaving. Oana ordered the musketeer to cover her as she ran towards the gate. To his horror, the man realized the squad leader was leaving with no intention of attempting to bring out the two injured Nymphs. He screamed at her that they needed to go back and help the injured women evacuate, but Oana ignored him and ran off. He ran back, having to evade a squad of Red Moon troops when he got near the house. When he returned, it was too late. A squad of Red Moon troops already had broken the door and decapitated the two Nymphs. They were holding up the heads as trophies and playing around with the Danubians' crossbows.

The musketeer was furious at Oana, because it was completely her fault those two women had been killed. Had they been helped to the north gate, there would have been enough Defenders to carry them down the hill. The musketeer couldn't do anything against the enemy soldiers, because there were at least 20 of them. He tried to return to the north gate, but the Red Moon troops had re-taken that section of the city and the only remaining escape route was through the ruins of the garrison building. The musketeer was determined to get out, but it was obvious he would not make it to the Grand Duke's evacuation. He remained hidden, hoping to survive until nightfall. Shortly after he found a promising hiding place, the Lord of the Blue Moon's soldiers launched an assault against their rivals. The Danubian survivor crawled through burning ruins as fighting raged all around him. By nightfall he had made it outside and was able to crawl through the partially-filled defense trenches to move away from the city and the fighting.

He spent several nights sneaking northward until he reached the Duchy. Upon returning, he did not go to the capital, because he did not know the evacuees had been taken there. Instead, he stole a horse and a set of clothing to set out for the Vice Duchy. He knew the names and the hometowns of the two dead Nymphs, so he decided to look for their families and tell them what happened. He found Jeskéckta's family first and told them what he knew about their dead family member and Oana's betrayal. He then departed to find the second Nymph's family and was not heard from again. From their description, Danka was able to confirm the identities of the two Nymphs. So... it turned out that Oana had left not four, but six Nymphs to be killed by the Kingdom of the Moon's troops. The only consolation was that the two other Nymphs were killed quickly. Danka could only guess they must have had their crossbows ready and forced the enemy troops to shoot them as soon as they pushed the door open.

* * *

During the month of October, Danka and her companions worked out the details of their revenge. They scouted the house several more times, making note of their target's schedule and the schedules of her various lovers. They bought furniture that matched Oana's furnishings, set up a replica of her living area, and practiced moving about in total darkness. They became completely familiar with the streets around the convent and how they would access the house and escape from it. Danka was happy to have Jeskéckta as part of the conspiracy, and even more happy that Jeskéckta looked exactly like her dead sister. For the ruse Danka was planning this stroke of luck was perfect. While Danka and Jeskéckta worked out the lines they would say to Oana, Ernockt and Tanélickt purchased oil lamps and a prepared a chemical mixture that made lantern oil burn an eerie bluish-green. They prepared special dye to blacken skin and assembled several sets of tightly-fitting black clothing and matching face masks.

October seemed to pass by very quickly. The four conspirators spent most of their days planning their trap for Oana, but there was time to relax, enjoy each others' company, and even explore the area around Novo Sókukt Tók. Jeskéckta took her companions to her village and talked about the days when she and her sister were children, before her father tried to force her into an arranged marriage. Fortunately for Jeskéckta, the father had since died and a brother was running the family farm. Jeskéckta would have to leave eventually, but she was not in a hurry and was determined to have more say over who she married than her sister had.

Within a few days of meeting Jeskéckta, Tanélickt lost interest in Danka. He quit approaching her for sex and shifted his attentions to the villager. He entertained her with tales of the Defenders' exploits and descriptions of what life was like for the Nymphs and musketeers. Not having seen anything apart from her farm and Novo Sókukt Tók (which she considered very cosmopolitan), Jeskéckta listened to the description of a fascinating world of adventure and danger. Danka noticed that Tanélickt exaggerated the bravery and performance of Jeskéckta's sister. In life she had not been an exceptional fighter, but her sister did not have to know that. Meanwhile, Tanélickt started asking about land and farming in the region and if there were available farms near Novo Sókukt Tók or homesteads further east. Jeskéckta promised to ask her brother the next time she saw him.

At first, Danka was glad to be free of Tanélickt's attentions. She liked him, but there was nothing intellectual about him and she would have been bored with him had they attempted to stay together. Being with Tanélickt, she realized she would be very hard-pressed to find someone as interesting as Ilmátarkt. Yes, her husband had a lot of strange ideas, but she was never bored talking to him and the conversations challenged her to think about the world in ways she had not previously imagined. Tanélickt was more a man of his era, competent with a musket or a plow, but not one to trouble his mind with things that did not directly affect his life. And yet, as Danka watched him and Jeskéckta flirt with each other, she felt a twinge of jealousy. It was the first time in her life a man who had been interested in her turned away to pursue another woman. Oh well. There was nothing for her to do other than wish them the best and finish her plot against Oana.

* * *

By the last week of October the rains in the eastern valley had stopped. The first snowfall was only a few weeks away, but in the meantime cold dry winds whipped the last of the leaves off the trees. Now that the rain and fog had cleared, Danka had the chance to look at the steep mountains immediately to the southwest of Novo Sókukt Tók. In the distance Danka could see jumbled peaks where the headwaters of the Rika Chorna River were located. Just a year before she had been on the other side of those mountains in the Defenders' encampment, wondering what the Vice Duchy was like and listening to stories of fellow Nymphs who were from places like Novo Sókukt Tók.

During the middle of the month, various friends of Ernockt snuck in with barrels of preserved food to lower through the floor and hide in a secret compartment under the house's basement. The Vice Duke's tax collectors were roaming around and typically barely left the farmers with enough food to make it through the winter. Danka and Jeskéckta helped Ernockt's friends with some of the cooking and preserving, which forced them to delay their plan to confront Oana. Finally, the farmers left at the beginning of the last week of October and Danka could resume her plot against Oana.

On October 26th, Guard Mistress Oana Adonckta, the head of the security of the True Believers' Convent in Novo Sókukt Tók, entertained one of the town's young male watchmen, as usual. She did the same thing every night, unsure herself why she gave sex away for free. When she reflected on the matter, the only explanation she could come up with was that she simply enjoyed having sex and young men did not entangle her in any commitments.

Oana had lived alone for many years. She once was married, but it turned out she was unable to have children and her husband left her. She took advantage of her childless status to have a series of lovers. Eventually she joined the Defenders, mostly out of boredom. The militia life gave her much of the life she wanted, until that nasty newcomer Danka started causing so many problems for her squad and Dalibora undercut her leadership. Well, she did get even with those two, didn't she? Many would have said that it was inexcusable for a Nymph to abandon another Nymph, but that was just too bad. Danka and Dalibora, and the others for that matter, had caused trouble for Oana, so their deaths at the hands of the soldiers of the Kingdom of the Moon was what they deserved. Besides, it was the Destroyer, not Oana, who ultimately determined their fates. Meanwhile, she had started a new life and was proving her value to the True Believers, so her future seemed bright, maybe even more so than in the militia.

However, after her lover departed, Oana felt strangely uneasy. Something was not right. She lay awake in the darkness, listening to the cold wind blow through the streets and rooftops of Novo Sókukt Tók. She could swear she could hear a ghostly whisper:

"Nymphs take care of each other. A Nymph never leaves her sister in the hands of the enemy. No Nymph ever faces the pain of defeat alone..."

She took a deep breath and threw off her bed covers. She needed to light a lantern and see what was causing that strange whispering noise. The problem was she couldn't move her arms. Something, or someone, was holding her hands and feet to the bed. Then, to her horror, a woman's face slowly came into view. As it became increasingly illuminated, she recognized who it was, the injured young recruit from a village near Novo Sókukt Tók she had left behind in Aksheriri Ris, just before she fled though the north gate. For a few moments the face said nothing. It was obvious it must be a ghost, given the sad expression and weird blue-green illumination that could only come from the Realm of the Afterlife.

Oana opened and closed her eyes several times, trying to make the apparition go away. Then she began to pray: "Destroyer I served you... Destroyer protect me... Destroyer I served you..."

The face spoke softly, "But squad-leader... Defender Oana... why do you call upon the Profane One? Didn't you renounce the Profane One in the Temple Plaza? Didn't you say the Profane One has no power over the Realm of the Living? Didn't you betray the one whose protection you now seek?"

Oana gave up praying. It was true. She had renounced the Destroyer. The Destroyer had no reason, none whatsoever, to protect her.

"What... what do you want?"

"We miss you, Defender Oana. We need you to lead us in the Realm of the Afterlife, just as you led us in the forest. We want you to be with us. Remember, a Nymph never leaves her sisters behind. We always go back. Isn't that what you taught us? So, we are coming for you."

"You're dead. I'm alive. You can't come back for me."

"Oh, but we can. We must. You see, Defender Oana, we betrayed you by leaving you behind in the Realm of the Living. It was wrong of us to do that, because we know you must miss us. You needed to go with us, to feel the pain of the soul's separation from the body, but sadly, it didn't happen. So... now the time has come for you to travel with us through the Realm of Darkness and Despair. Won't you join us?"

"No! Go away! You're dead!"

"Am I? Am I truly dead? Are you truly alive? How would you know that, Defender Oana? How would you know that? Am I the one who's dead? Are you the one who's alive? Or maybe... just maybe... it's the other way around..."

The face slowly faded into darkness. Then the whispering started up: "Nymphs take care of each other. A Nymph never leaves her sister in the hands of the enemy. No Nymph ever faces the pain of defeat alone..."

Suddenly Oana had the use of her arms and legs again. She frantically groped around the room for her lantern. She screamed when she thought she brushed up against something that moved. She knocked over the lantern and it fell on the floor with the sound of breaking glass. She screamed again and jumped out of bed to push her window open, letting in the frigid air. The cold didn't matter. She was desperate for light, any light, to prove to herself she was still in the Realm of the Living. She climbed out, tearing off her nightshirt as she clumsily fell on the ground. Her ruined nightclothes were hanging from her windowsill and she had some bad cuts and scrapes from her mishap. She stood outside her house shivering, not from the cold, but from mortal fear.

From a nearby hiding place, Danka coldly watched as the bewildered guards, nuns, and night watchmen gathered around Oana to see why, on a cold night, she was standing naked outside her open window and acting so strange. It was as though she had received a visit from someone from the Realm of the Afterlife, from a ghost she was mortally afraid of encountering.

Danka knew she'd have to congratulate Jeskéckta: her part in the plot had been perfect, her performance flawless.

* * *

The group waited a week, to give Oana enough time to try to convince herself the ghost incident was nothing but a bad dream. Ernockt collected information from his various informants among the city night watchmen confirming Oana had been totally traumatized by her "nightmare" and was completely spooked. She barely slept and spent the nighttime with her lantern on pacing around her house. During the day she was very irritable and jumpy. The majority of the night watchmen were avoiding her because it was obvious something was very wrong. Maybe Beelzebub the Destroyer had something to do with her erratic behavior. If that was true, then she'd be dangerous to be around.

As the days went by, Oana became increasingly withdrawn and isolated. Her fear fed upon itself because there was no one she could talk to about its cause. Danka almost felt sorry for her, but not enough to change her plans. Oana had betrayed her most basic responsibility as a Nymph and now she would have to suffer for it. Danka divided her time between rehearsing movements with the others for the second part of the ruse and observing her former squad leader to determine when would be the best time to strike.

On November 5th, Oana had a male visitor, the first one since her 'nightmare'. Her behavior during their sex was desperate, as though she could drive out her fear if she exhausted herself enough. Yes, she'd exhaust herself alright, and in doing so played right into Danka's plans. For the first time in over a week she'd sleep soundly, only to have a horrible awakening.

When the city watchman came out and talked to his counterpart on the street, Ernockt was hiding nearby. He overheard the men discussing the evening's sex and found out that Oana was soundly asleep when the man left her. Yes, her behavior had been extremely suspicious and erratic over the past eight days, but maybe that had passed. The watchman on the street commented that he wasn't feeling good at all and needed to warm up. The two men left together, leaving the house unguarded. Ernockt couldn't believe his good fortune. He returned to the safe house to summon the others. Less than a minute later they were inside Oana's residence.

Danka's target was too soundly asleep to feel the bedcovers being pulled back and her nightshirt being cut off her body. She did not notice that her new lantern, which she had kept burning continuously over the past week, had been put out. She lay naked and uncovered on her bed as Danka took off her own black gown, placed it near the door, and lay next to her. Oana curled up from the cold. She started stirring as she sleepily reached for her blanket. When she rolled on her back, Danka straddled her. Suddenly Oana's hands and feet were pinned to the mattress. Her eyes went open, wide with panic mere words couldn't even begin to describe. Danka's face, illuminated by the eerie blue-green light, filled Oana's entire range of vision. Danka's eyes appeared wild and completely black in the strange light, as though they were not the eyes of a person still alive. She was smiling seductively and with her hands held Oana's head firmly in place, her thumbs stroking the older woman's cheeks.

"Defender Oana... Defender Oana... answer me please..."

Oana was so petrified with fear she couldn't answer or struggle. Instead she started violently shaking.

"Don't be afraid. It's me, Danka. Don't you remember me? Don't you remember the first day we saw each other? In the logging camp? Don't you remember that?"

"I... I... please... be gone..."

"Oh don't worry about that. I won't be gone. Don't you worry about me leaving you again. It's true I left you in the Realm of the Living, when my soul separated from my body. I left you alone. We all did. But we felt bad about that, and it was always our intention to come back for you."

Danka gently kissed Oana's gaping mouth, in a shocking violation of Danubian protocol. Then she sensuously moved her naked body against Oana's. The older woman suddenly realized with horror that she was naked and Danka's naked ghost was violating her. Danka continued:

"I do love you. I will prove it. I will make you remember me. I will always be with you, watching over you. A Nymph never leaves her sisters behind, isn't that so? Do you really think I'd leave you suffering in the Realm of the Living when you could be with us in the Realm of the Destroyer? We love you, Oana. We want you with us. We're returning for you, Oana, just for you. We'll all pay you a midnight visit, each of us, here in this very house, every time you go to sleep in this bed. And then, we'll take you with us. Isn't that wonderful? And when you join us, we'll remember how kindly you treated us. We will repay your kindness, love, sacrifice, and loyalty, many times over. You'll be with us, always and forever."

The light began to dim and Danka's smiling, leering face faded into darkness. In a well-practiced move, she quickly lifted up and flipped backwards, her fall caught by Tanélickt. At the same instant, Ernockt and Jeskéckta let go of Oana's hands and backed away from the bed. As Oana frantically flailed about in the darkness, they silently scrambled out the door. Danka grabbed her gown on the way out and slipped it on in a single rehearsed motion. The moment they exited the house, they heard the crash of broken glass and knew that Oana had broken another lantern in the dark. The conspirators scurried along an alley as they heard their victim desperately banging against her window, trying to break through shutters she had re-enforced just a few days before. They disappeared into the safe house as Oana finally caught her breath and let out an unearthly scream of terror.

Danka and her companions hurriedly changed out of their black camouflage outfits and put on ordinary workers' clothing. The women put on scarves and the men wore loose-fitting hats that concealed their faces. Given that it was cold and windy outside, there was nothing unusual about their attire, nothing to draw anyone's attention. They would be simple bystanders, like dozens of others watching Oana's inexplicable descent into madness.

They went back out just in time to see Oana run down the street. She had not bothered to get dressed and was bleeding from her efforts to break out of her house. The house itself had been set on fire, so the night watchmen and the female convent guards were occupied trying to put out the flames. The conspirators weren't sure whether Oana had deliberately set the fire or if it had been set off by accident, but as soon as the flames reached the roof the house was doomed. The guards were forced to run out and concentrate their efforts on preventing flying sparks from igniting the nearby barracks bunkhouse. The burning thatch collapsed into Oana's residence and destroyed everything inside. The nuns peered at the blaze from the windows of the convent, commenting that the soul of their leading guard must have been possessed by Beelzebub the Destroyer. After that hideous scream and the inferno that followed, the nuns were desperately afraid of the woman and hoped never to see her again. No one could blame them. So, Oana had just lost her home, all of her possessions, and her job.

The watchmen caught up with the possessed woman, captured her, tied her up, and took her to a warehouse for storing grain collected as taxes from farmers. Not wanting her to escape and not knowing what else to do with her, they chained her to a support beam. The prisoner's condition was not good at all. She was so spooked she was unable to speak coherently and her body was covered with painful-looking cuts and scrapes. Whatever else might be wrong with her, the guards did not want to leave her injuries unattended, so they summoned a town medical practitioner. Unfortunately for Oana, Ernockt knew all the practitioners in Novo Sókukt Tók and was a competent healer himself. So, when the guards asked a healer to leave his house, Ernockt, who just happened to be walking by, volunteered to go in the place of his friend. The practitioner, more than happy to be spared having to get dressed and go out on that raw, unpleasant night, handed over his medical kit. Ernockt passed the kit to the guards and told them to wait while he summoned his assistant.

The conspirators were ready to finalize their mission to avenge the betrayed Nymphs. Ernockt returned to the safe house to summon Jeskéckta, who already had changed into a medical apprentice dress. In the Vice Duchy, injured and sick women could only be treated by female medical healers: protocol prohibited male practitioners from touching female patients. So, there was nothing suspicious about Ernockt bringing Jeskéckta with him to treat Oana's injuries. Besides her guild dress, Jeskéckta wore a loose-fitting shawl that partially covered her face. When the moment was right, she'd push it back.

Ernockt and Jeskéckta entered the dark storeroom where Oana was being kept. She had calmed down enough to be aware of her surroundings, but was still horribly spooked. Also, she was shaking from the cold and would need a blanket. For several minutes Jeskéckta left the shawl hanging over her face as she dressed Oana's cuts with an herbal paste solution to sterilize them and stop the bleeding.

Several curious guards quietly stepped inside to see what had happened to the Beelzebub-possessed woman, but they stood against the wall and were barely visible in the dark room. Now that she had witnesses, the moment had come for Jeskéckta to strike. As Ernockt held up the lantern, she lifted up her head to allow Oana to get a partial view of her face. Oana screamed and pulled hard against her chains, desperately trying to move away. Jeskéckta smiled and held up a dab of medical paste.

"Get her away! In the name of the Destroyer, get her away from me! She has no right to be here! Get her away from me!"

Jeskéckta spoke in quiet soothing voice, so softly the onlookers couldn't hear what she was saying, They simply assumed she was trying to comfort the mad-woman.

"But why, Defender Oana? Why are you yelling at me? I just want to help you. You don't remember who I am?"

"Get away from me! I'm not coming with you! You're dead!"

"Dead? How could I be dead? What would make you think such a thing?"

"I'm not coming with you! I don't care what happened in the Kingdom! It's not my concern! I'm not coming with you!"

"But... how can you say that? You really don't know who I am?"

"You're a dead Nymph! You're dead! Yes, I left you to die, but so what? You're dead! You're dead! You're dead! Now get away from me!"

"But a Nymph would never do that. So I couldn't be dead, could I? You'd never leave me... you were our squad leader, and we knew you'd come back for us. We knew..."

"Well I didn't! I didn't go back for you, and because of it you got what you deserved! All of you!"

Ernockt quietly extinguished the lantern. The next light was a faint eerie blue-green light that illuminated Danka's face. She and Tanélickt had slipped in while Oana was screaming at Jeskéckta. When Danka's face lit up Oana desperately struggled against her chains.

Danka slowly approached. "Defender Oana, you do need to join us. But why? Why did you do it?"

"Because I hated you! I hated all of you! I wanted rid my life of all of you ungrateful, disrespectful, whoring, slut-bitches! I wanted you dead! I didn't want to see you again, so that's why I did it! And I hope you suffered! I hope the Blue Moons stuck you good!"

The city watchmen, who had until that moment been silently watching the spectacle, gasped is disbelief. They had know Oana had been a Defender and was recommended as a competent fighter, which was why the town council contracted her to lead the convent security detail. They also knew that she had survived the battle of Aksheriri Ris, so they understood what all the screaming was about. Oana, in her own words, had just admitted to the most heinous crime that any member of the Danubian military, especially a commander, could possibly commit against others in their unit or under their command.

* * *

The next day the city guards convened a military trial for former Defender and squad leader Oana Adonckta. The charges were six instances of dishonorable abandonment. The witnesses included Tanélickt and Jeskéckta, but their testimony was hearsay, so it had to backed up by a first-hand witness. That witness was Danka. Oana was shocked, horrified, and infuriated that Danka was not a ghost at all: she was very much alive. Standing only a fathom away from her nemesis, Danka described in detail what happened in Aksheriri Ris. The experience of her and her three injured companions verified that if Oana could deliberately leave behind a fellow squad leader and three Nymphs, there was no reason she couldn't have done the same thing to Jeskéckta's sister and the other woman. When a skeptical guard asked Danka to detail how she escaped from the city, Danka openly admitted to poisoning her injured squad-leader to prevent her capture and walking out of the city at night.

"I acted under orders then, and I'm acting under orders now. Defender Dalibora's last words to me were to find Defender Oana and avenge what she did to us. So, that's what I did. As for my escape, I am a Follower of the Ancients and it was the Ancients who guided me out of the Kingdom of the Moon. Not the Lord-Creator and not Beelzebub the Destroyer. If that makes me a heretic, then so be it. But that's how I got out. The Ancients showed me where to go, and I simply followed their guidance."

The tribunal asked the defendant if she had anything to say in her own defense. Oana, still shocked by the fact Danka was not killed in Aksheriri Ris and by the complicated trickery she had used to entrap her, couldn't think of anything. She sullenly responded she had nothing to say to anyone and no need to justify anything she had done.

Danka expected the guards to execute Oana, but her punishment would be much more horrible than the simple separation of her soul from her body. Instead of tying her to a stake and shooting five arrows into her, the guards brought a large male pig into the hearing room. The pig was cleaned up and happily grunting as the guards led him to a bowl of left-overs. While the pig munched on his meal, the leading member of the city council signed a certificate making him a citizen of the Duchy, and another certificate reclassifying Oana as property belonging to the pig. She knelt quietly as a nun loosened her hair and put a collar around her neck and shackles on her arms and legs. From that point forward Oana no longer was human. She was less than an animal. The pig officially owned her, and for the rest of her time in the Realm of the Living it would be her Path in Life to live among the convent's swine and pay special attention to her new "master's" needs.

The commanders grabbed Oana's chains and kicked her as they dragged her outside. They tapped the pig to move him out the door as well. A crowd of spectators started chanting:

"The Pig is your Master! Serve him well!... The Pig is your Master! Serve him well!..."

The guards forced Oana to crawl to the convent's pigsty while they continued kicking her and hitting her back with sticks. The spectators continued to chant:

"The Pig is your Master! Serve him well!... The Pig is your Master! Serve him well!..."

Danka sadly watched the spectacle. Her mission to avenge Dalibora and the other Nymphs was completed. She had fulfilled her squad leader's final orders. She knew that she should have felt triumph, but all she could feel was disgust with everyone and everything in Novo Sókukt Tók. More than anything else, she was disgusted with herself.

* * *

The following day was a happy occasion for Tanélickt and Jeskéckta. He proposed to her and she accepted. Ernockt gave him two gifts: new identification papers and the money he needed to buy a set of engagement jewelry. Former Defender Tanélickt disappeared from the Realm of the Living. Under a new identity he would travel with his fiancé to her village, join her brother's guild, and eventually purchase a plot of land so he could marry her. He would never return to the capital, never serve in the Grand Duke's Army, and never again see the Great Temple. The couple departed from Novo Sókukt Tók in the middle of the night, given they did not want anyone from the Grand Duke's Army or the Old Believers' faction of the Danubian Church to know where Tanélickt had gone or what became of him.

Danka was left alone with Ernockt. She spent a couple of days with some farmers' wives, helping them prepare preserves and dress a couple of slaughtered pigs. The sight of the pigs tormented her, reminding her of Oana, condemned to spend the rest of her life chained inside a pigsty. When the farmers' wives departed and their food was safely hidden from the tax collectors, Danka decided it was time for her to leave as well. She had completed her squad leader's final command, her traveling companion was starting a new life, and she had seen what she wanted to see of Novo Sókukt Tók. Ernockt was skeptical, pointing out there was no way she could return to the western valley until springtime.

"I know I can't go over the pass. I know that. But I don't want to stay here either. I guess I'll go to Rika Chorna, to see the city of the Vice-Duke. I'll stay there, wait for spring, and see what happens. I don't know what else to do with myself. But I can't stay in this town."

For the first time, Danka felt her life had no purpose. She was adrift. She had no one she cared about, no responsibilities, and no goals. Perhaps if it were summer she'd feel better, because at least she'd have the option of putting on her collar and exploring a new place. In the Vice-Duchy she didn't have that option. A penance collar did not give her protected status and even if it did, winter was starting and there was no way she could move about, clothed or unclothed. She still had time to go as far as Rika Chorna, but there she would be stranded for several months.

She lay awake, wondering what to do. Oana's situation came back to haunt her. She knew that she couldn't walk away and leave Oana in her current condition. If Oana had been executed she would have felt justice had been served. However, the thought of her, or any person, no matter how heinous, chained up among pigs, eating their food and covered in their excrement, robbed Danka of her sleep. She had no desire to rescue Oana, but she did want to put a stop to her misery.

Danka shared her concern with her host: She needed to end Oana's suffering before departing from Novo Sókukt Tók. Surprisingly, he understood and agreed to assist, first to resolve Oana's situation and then to help his guest leave Novo Sókukt Tók.

The next day Ernockt escorted Danka into town. In the safe house, Danka put on a nun's dress. The nuns would be in their mid-day prayers and the female guards would be eating lunch. Ernockt was friends with the city watchman who was posted outside the convent's gate, so he engaged him in conversation. Meanwhile Danka, disguised as a nun, slipped in to do what she had to do.

When Danka saw her former squad leader, she was shocked by how much she had deteriorated. Oana was shivering among the pigs, her hair was filthy and disheveled, and her body was covered with foul-smelling mud. She looked very old, as though she had aged two decades during the week she had been living in her horrible circumstances. No, this couldn't continue. However evil Oana might be, this can't go on, thought Danka to herself.

Danka entered the compound and pushed back her hat. Oana sullenly glared at her.

"Defender, I've done what I came to do, what I was ordered to do by my squad leader. I'm leaving this town, and I'm never coming back. Before I go, I've brought you something, to let you escape from your misery. Drink this, and your soul will separate from your body. It's the same drink I gave Dalibora so the enemy wouldn't capture her. You can make your peace with the Creator, or the Destroyer, and then you can depart the Realm of the Living."

Danka left a small jar on the ground and stepped back. Dragging her chains behind her, Oana crawled over to pick it up.

"But why are you doing this? I thought the whole purpose of your trickery was to make me live in dishonor."

"No. The purpose of my trickery was to avenge Dalibora and the others. That's now completed. We've taken our revenge against you. But, now that I'm done, I don't see what good it will bring to the Realm of the Living to prolong your suffering. So... if you wish, you can end it... at the moment of your choosing."

"I don't know what to say. I ought to thank you, but I can't. I hate you more than ever: I'd break your neck if I could reach you. But I will use this escape you've given me. I guess I can say I appreciate having it. And I have something to ask of you."

"Go ahead, ask."

"I want you to leave before I take this and stay away. I don't want to give you the satisfaction of seeing my corpse."

"I'm leaving anyway. I'm not worried about seeing your corpse."

Danka made her way past the pigs, trying to avoid stepping in slop, mud, and manure. She turned to face her defeated nemesis to say goodbye. Instead, the words that came out of her mouth were as follows:

"You know... there's irony in our situation. When we met, I was a wandering vagabond. Now that we're parting ways, my Path in Life is still to be a wandering vagabond."

Tightly gripping the jar, Oana let out a loud hiss, an insult in traditional Danubian society. Her damaged soul cared nothing about ironies, nor about anything else apart from the unyielding hatred that had consumed it.

Following their midday prayers, the nuns returned to their daily routine. When the church bell struck three, a younger nun decided to check on the pigs and make sure the pigs' servant had properly fed the animals and cleaned up their pigsty. It turned out the criminal was nowhere to be found. When the nun further investigated, she realized the criminal's soul had separated from her body and she was lying dead in the mud. The nuns dragged out the corpse and buried her in an unmarked grave. The woman's death was a mystery, but rumors later circulated that a mysterious nun, or at least someone in a nun's outfit, had been seen entering and leaving the convent. That was odd, because all of the nuns were present at the mid-day prayers.

The townsfolk of Novo Sókukt Tók spent many idle hours during the final weeks of 1758 talking about the strange possessed woman who briefly led the convent's security detachment and the even stranger group of former militia members who testified against her. As soon as the possessed woman died, the others disappeared without a trace. They must have been servants of Beelzebub the Destroyer, because somehow they knew they needed to escape. It turned out the Senior Priest of the town had been planning to arrest Danka and put her on trial for heresy, given that she openly admitted to being a Follower of the Ancients. For a True Believer, being a Follower of the Ancients was infinitely worse than paying homage to Beelzebub the Destroyer. But the young woman disappeared the day before she would have been arrested and no one had a clue where she went. The other Nymph (or sister of the Nymph, depending on who one believed) and the Defenders' musketeer had vanished without a trace as well.

The captain of the city guard kept transcripts of Oana's trial, but when the witnesses vanished, the records were not where the commander remembered having left them. Without the documents, he could not compile a final report to send to the Vice-Duke. Faced with a situation that made him look incompetent, he decided not to file a report at all and pretend the trial never happened. Everyone directly involved was either dead or vanished, so it would be best to forget the entire incident.

The nuns, the female convent guards, and the city watchmen debated their own memories of Oana and the avenging ghost-woman who destroyed her. After several months, most people forgot there had been two women at the trial and they combined the identities of Danka and Jeskéckta. There was confusion over the name of the mysterious avenger and disagreement over what she actually did. Everyone, including the nuns, agreed the nameless visitor was the most beautiful woman they had ever laid eyes on. They also agreed the stranger possessed supernatural powers, but there were as many variations concerning what those powers actually were as there were people telling the story. Everyone did agree Oana's house burned down, but there were conflicting versions over how the fire started and why. Because Oana was buried in an unmarked grave, some witnesses doubted she was actually dead. Some people even speculated the possessed guard-woman and the avenging stranger were the same person, with the Lord-Creator and Beelzebub the Destroyer battling over her soul.

* * *

Meanwhile, Jeskéckta had her own interpretation of what happened to Oana and how she managed to avenge her sister. Because Danka had completely vanished, Jeskéckta claimed complete credit for uncovering the former squad-leader's treachery and tricking her into confessing. It certainly sounded better to the grieving family members and the village's other young women, to have such a heroine living among them, the loyal sister who had so stealthily brought her sibling's betrayer to justice.

Her fiancé said nothing. He didn't want to impress anyone, he just wanted to conceal his previous identity, evade his obligation to the Royal Guards, work his land, be a respected citizen of the village, and raise responsible children. More importantly, he had no desire to offend anyone from the family he was planning to marry into. So, he let his fiancé (and later his wife) spin whatever tales she wanted to spin. Whatever stories swirled around the village made no difference, not when he had a field to plow and a harvest to bring in.

Historian's Note: The Great Swamp of Misery contained numerous bogs and quicksand traps, which resulted in the Danubian belief the land was cursed and ate humans. It was also true that large populations of mosquitoes, midges, and biting gnats made any effort to enter the area during the summer nearly impossible. For thousands of years the swamp was universally hated throughout the Duchy. In the 1920s the Danubian Parliament approved plans to construct a hydroelectric dam where the Rika Chorna exits from the swamp's former location into the canyon. The dam project was deliberately over-sized because the engineers wanted to completely flood the area and destroy all traces of the swamp. The project was completed in the 1930s and the Rika Chorna Reservoir remains one of the largest artificial lakes in Europe today.

Due to a recent flooding scare, the Danubian Ministry of Natural Resources concluded the Rika Chorna Reservoir is too big and its surface area should be reduced by a third to lower the danger of potential flooding downstream. Engineers have increased the water flow through the spillway and the water-level is now kept 6 meters below where it was kept throughout the late 20th Century. The Ministry is attempting to restore some of the original wetlands around the edges of the reduced lake.

End of part 9

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