The sounds of combat echoed through the forest – the crunching of fresh snow from muffled footsteps, the occasional clink of metal as blades met, the puffs of white breath from two bodies exerting themselves – Ludmila and I were currently engaged in a practice spar in the woods outside of town.
The first coating of snow had fallen for the season, and Ludmila expressed the desire to go outside. The tranquil scenery of a world blanketed in white brought fresh memories of her home world, where snow covered the land for a significant part of the year.
I asked Katsys if she wanted to go, but it seemed like she was bad with the cold. Even inside, her hands felt like they would suck all the heat from me if I held them. In fact, she engineered a modified fire stone into a hand warmer after I had thrown out that idea to her.
However, Lau decided to tag along as he didn’t have anything to do. After I passed his test, Lau began to show me numerous mana techniques, guiding me on how to form and weave my mana into a proper attack and defense.
With a clear enough mental picture and lots of practice, mana manipulation would allow one to do amazing things.
“Like casually tossing a dragon?” I couldn’t help asking.
“Well…maybe…but part of that is likely my high Dex stat.” Lau scratched his head. Apparently, his specialty in dexterity allowed him to catch objects just right without even trying. His hands seemed to find the balance point almost automatically if he was anywhere close, like his close-quarter combat had auto-aim controls. It would be a simple matter to apply his mana manipulation on top of that to obtain the desired effect.
For now, I was in the middle of learning how to carve through mana-generated barriers just like how I could cut through physical objects. It took some time, but I started being able to trace the mana flow as it moved through the air. The flow of mana also seemed to contain weak points, where insertion of your own mana would create a big enough perturbation that it would cause the flow to collapse.
After Lau watched Ludmila and I play in the snow outside of town for a spell, he suddenly called out to us.
“How about you kids put what you’ve learned so far into practice, eh?” Lau started making some funny fighting stances to indicate that we should spar.
I looked at Ludmila, who sheepishly looked down, and gave her a smile.
“No holding back on me now, okay?”
Ludmila nodded gently in response.
If only I hadn’t been so confident.
As Ludmila zoomed through the forest, my eyes could barely keep up with her. Her form whizzed between the trees and circled around to my back before I had time to blink twice. I felt her approach my back, so I focused my mana to shield there, not having the time to turn around. With a rough impact, the blow from her dagger met my shield and pushed me forward.
I patted my back to check for any damage. Luckily, the shield held up, if only barely. I started to regret asking her to not go lightly on me. Even though it was a spar that would end when one person drew blood, one moment of hesitation, and her dagger would sink into my back.
However, that was only if I hadn’t been practicing my mana manipulation skills. At this point, I was proficient enough not to let simple blows penetrate, and Ludmila probably could sense that. Conversely, my ‘all or nothing’ way of cutting could now be controlled to deliver shallower cuts by consciously limiting my mana from being projected through the Mana Grain.
Interestingly, Ludmila’s senses seemed to be very keen for a girl her age, especially out here in the wilderness. As her initial attacks failed to take me down, her movements started getting more creative.
Ludmila leapt upward and flew towards a tree. Kicking off its trunk, she pushed herself towards the next one, and then the next, ricocheting between the trees like she was an agile inhabitant of the forest.
Now that her movements had become three-dimensional, it was like trying to follow a pinball that had escaped from its board and started chasing me through the arcade. I was straining my eyes to follow her.
However, my ability to feel the presence of her mana had saved me. Just before Ludmila launched an attack, the mana around her changed and shifted more to her dagger. Since she was flying through the air, I only had to react to the direction she was moving once I felt that signal.
Her speed still left me with scantily enough time to do so. I could feel the wind cut past me as I dodged. Reflexively, I swung my knife at the form passing by, which happened to catch her on the leg. The blow was too light and hasty as I saw my knife bounce off. I hadn’t injected enough mana to overcome her barrier.
Doubling back, Ludmila once again started her pinball assault. When I felt the signal once again, I ended up facing her head-on this time.
Huh? Why would she do that?
Thinking that she made a mistake, I injected the proper amount of mana into my knife as I side-stepped and aimed for her side. With my knife visually tearing through the layers of mana she had built up, I was confident of my victory at that moment.
Yet, I was still naïve.
The next moment, Ludmila seemingly did a front flip midair and ended up sailing over my head. While still upside down, her dagger shredded the nearly nonexistent barrier that I created in a panic before she thrust her palm out and impacted my shoulder blade.
Immediately, I felt a pulse tearing through my chest and knocking the wind out of me. My vision shook from the impact, and my legs sunk to the ground as my senses were too distorted to keep myself upright. I felt like throwing up, but my body had even lost the capability to do that.
So, this was what a mana strike felt like…
The moment of paralysis only lasted for a short time after I had crumpled to the ground.
“Yay, Ludmila got victory,” she said in a somewhat stoic tone.
“Yep. Got me alright.” I could move my lips, though getting up was still a struggle. “How were you…able to dodge me…in midair? There was nothing…for you to kick…off.”
“Oh? Ludmila’s special skill…”
She hopped up a few feet in the air. At the apex of her jump, instead of falling down, she suddenly kicked off and double jumped in the air. Landing softly in the light snow, Ludmila spun around before waving her arms like ‘Ta-da!’
My mind was still trying to wrap around how she had just defied physics. This was not a fighting game, you know? Did she also have a special triple jump in her back pocket by pressing up + B?
“She used mana to momentarily create an opposing force that launched her higher. I suppose it appeared to you that she jumped in mid-air.” Lau walked over and explained to me her secret.
“Eh…that’s quite something…but I guess if mana can force the trajectory of a dragon into the air, then lifting up a girl is minor. Oh, I can move again.”
Still, I was quite impressed by what she had learned so far.
“With enough training, the versatility of mana manipulation is endless. Though, one tends to learn tricks suitable for their abilities.” Lau helped me up off the ground.
The three of us headed back to the Kinkou residence.
Later that afternoon, I was sitting on the veranda-like engawa that looked out to a garden on the side of the house. The snow was starting to fall again, creating a serene landscape in front of me.
The sound of light footsteps approached me. I didn’t have to turn to know who it was.
“Master, a cup of tea.” Ludmilla extended it to me.
The two of us sat there for a few moments enjoying the scenery. Finally, I broke the silence.
“Say…why do you still call me ‘Master’?” I wondered aloud. “It’s not like you’re my servant or anything. I’m not really a nobleman, and I don’t come from a place where there are servants. It feels strange the more I think about it.”
“Master is referred to as such because he is deserving of it.” Ludmilla sipped her tea.
“Ha ha, says the girl that just kicked my butt in a fight. You’ve gotten stronger than me.”
Ludmila shook her head.
“Strength…it does not matter to Ludmila. In my homeland, ‘Master’ is the person who one follows. ‘Master’ is the one that watches over, who protects, who shares their love. He is the person who Ludmila’s eyes have chosen to follow.”
Her eyes stared deeply into mine. I couldn’t help but look away, a bit embarrassed.
“I’m really not that special, you know. Just a normal guy trying to get by, and who apparently gets caught in all sorts of messes.”
“Ludmilla knows…Ludmilla has been following all this time…”
“Frankly, I’m surprised that you saved me and followed me all this way to another country. I never did thank you for that.” I smiled at her.
“None necessary. Ludmila feels Master’s appreciation.”
Ludmila knew kindness when she saw it. Having grown up in a village that could hardly count as a civilization, she had been in tune with nature from a young age. Her family had been a group of hunters and gatherers, who lived off the land. She could sense the emotions from the creatures living in the wilderness. She could pick up the moment that fear came over them as others approached.
As a hunter, she had to learn how to pick up on those feelings while getting close enough to capture her prey. Finding ways to slip through the gaps in their defenses and lull them into a false sense of security was most of the battle when hunting. Sometimes, it required a long period of time for an animal to stop overreacting to her every movement, but with patience, she would get close enough for the fatal strike.
Though her master wasn’t her prey, the ability to read people also developed in this process. This was natural for the people that she once called family. Being able to understand one another was the key to harmony.
The one that set the example for the family and kept them together was deemed the ‘Master’.
From her viewpoint, things naturally spiraled around the chef named Claude Evers. However unintentional it may have been, he had indeed been the center of numerous important events ever since she had started watching him.
As if led by an invisible charge, people were swept into his flow and entangled themselves to him before they knew it. Just like the ‘Master’ of a family back home, things seemingly revolved around him. There was no other person in her mind that could currently fill in for that role. Thus, she would continue to call him such, until the day that she no longer felt his pull on her.
Ludmila smiled wistfully as she grabbed ahold of Claude’s arm. Moments like these, where she could snuggle against his arm and feel his gentle pulse, kept the bad memories away. She closed her eyes, letting the nostalgic feel of the cold and silence, coupled with their calm breathing, whisk her back to the times when she was home with her old family. A single tear beaded around her eyelashes; however, she held it back from falling.
Her tears were saved for the happy moments that would come. She would get stronger, much stronger, along with her Master. That was what she promised herself when she first saw that gentle expression, handing food to her.
Ludmila would pull out all the stops to keep others from taking away her family a second time.