As Ludmila told me the chilling past of her previous world, tears welled up in my eyes and my throat went dry. The heaviness of her trauma was much worse than I could have ever imagined. And yet, the girl who had recalled it all, who experienced every bit of it, calmly spoke with the same tone as she always carried.
The only difference was a quiet fury that built up as she neared the end of the tale. Presumably, she died shortly after that point, but she could not recall anymore. I couldn’t blame her. That was more than enough. My ears felt like they should have been bleeding, my hands gripped her sheets into a tight ball, and a dull ache came from the teeth that I had been grinding in anger.
Eventually, Ludmilla wrapped her arms around me to give me assurance that it was all in the past. That there was nothing for me to be upset over.
Yet, I could feel something still off about her. But who wouldn’t be after remembering such sadness? To have everything she knew slowly stripped away and watch helplessly on the sidelines – the fact that she hadn’t completely shattered was miraculous.
Yet… that was likely why she turned out the way she did. The girl in her story was cheerful and hopeful, clinging onto her dreams. That part of her had died along with her family, leaving behind a stoic girl who desperately clung to a ‘Master’.
Finding someone to look up to when she had nothing else was her pillar for survival. That feeling remained in her small body even when all else had been lost. And to keep from losing that single guiding hand, she desperately fought. No fear was greater than the possibility of being alone once again.
And that scared me to no end.
I suddenly realized why she never hesitated to provide me with support. Death, in her eyes, was preferable to seeing her ‘family’ killed. Her subconscious pushed her forward, dauntless toward any dangers. If I ordered her to, it was possible that she would march straight to her death.
Ludmila fell asleep in my arms, exhausted from the long story. On this final night before heading off to the battlefield, I stayed there with her for the entire night. Sleep was the farthest thing from my mind. The thoughts of how to act afterwards plagued it.
But one thing was for sure. I wouldn’t let her fight in this. She didn’t need to fall any further. I wouldn’t let her use this as an excuse. There was no ‘getting used to violence or brutality’. She had paid for it with her emotions and dreams. Continuing down this path would only break her further.
When the sun broke into the room and I felt her stir, I sat up in bed and watched as she slowly crawled to consciousness. With a heavy heart, I waited for her to turn to me before I made the decision to tell her, something that would undoubtedly be cruel to her feelings.
“Ludmilla, listen to me. For the first time ever, I have an order for you.”
Ludmila’s eyes flew open. She anxiously popped up and eagerly awaited what I would say.
I bit my lip as I mustered up the resolve to spit it out.
“You are not to step foot on the battleground. You will not follow me. You will not protect me. From this point on, I no longer need your help. Instead, Katalina will be your new Master. That is my final and sole order.”
I watched as her face dropped in shock at my words that rang so hollow in her. She tried to mouth something, but her eyes only looked down to hide the tears building up silently.
“I am not abandoning you. But you cannot cling onto me as your sole hope. I am not strong nor wise like your previous Master. And because of that, you cannot follow. You should not waste the life given to you. Not for me. But use it for yourself.”
I stood up from the bed and started walking away, only to hear a small voice, barely audible even in the silent room.
“Is Ludmila not worthy to stand by Master? Does Master still treat Ludmilla like a child?”
I stopped in my tracks, unsure of how to answer her. After a few moments, I thought of something that made me want to punch myself.
“Yeah, that’s right. I can’t focus properly if I have you weighing on my mind. Leave this to the adults. You have no reason to stand next to me if something like gunfire will cause you to hesitate.”
With that, I quickly left the room before she could reply. I didn’t want us to part in such a manner, but kindness would only cause her to leap to my side. Any hesitation on my part would cause her to follow along secretly, like I often caught her doing at times.
I couldn’t risk that. Not in a battle where both sides were struggling. The slain corpses that I had already seen weighed heavily on my mind. And I knew that if I were to lose one ounce of focus, my own could be one of those joining them.
Or worse, Ludmila would no doubt leap forward with her incredible speed, putting herself into harm’s way. That was why I couldn’t let Ludmila anywhere near the battlefield.
For my sake! Why? That isn’t something worth risking!
My heart wasn’t strong at all like hers. I couldn’t bear to see her end up as another casualty. Eryn and Cornelius, and all the other knights and soldiers in this kingdom, had resolved themselves to their fate if they happened to meet a tragic end. However, Ludmila was doing it purely to keep me safe, and that proved to be a guilt that I couldn’t bear to carry. Not for a coward like me.
Soon after, I gathered my gear and made my way to the band of wagons that was carrying the first batch of mana-enhanced rations. Hopefully, this would be enough to break the deadlock around Minsk. That was best left to the actual war strategists, like Cornelius.
My destination was the encampment directly north, where Eryn and the others were holding the line. I suddenly questioned myself as to whether I had any right to criticize Ludmila, as I was fighting for Eryn’s sake rather than for myself. The only difference was that she wanted me to be there to serve as her strength, to simply watch her back as she fearlessly charged forward. She possessed the courage to smash through the fear, allowing me to follow.
But for me, I would simply worry endlessly if Ludmila was on the battlefield. In my mind, she was still a child, one that was given a second chance to build a proper life for herself. Even if her customs treated her as an adult starting at age 12, my own set of values would force me to keep looking back. No matter how mature she acted, her hands felt so small compared to mine.
As I hoisted the last of the supplies into the wagons, an exasperated queen, who had a wild tuft of bedhead, dashed up to me.
“Claude! Didn’t I tell you to find me before heading off?” Katalina said, slightly out of breath. It appeared that she dashed all the way here once she heard that I was about to leave.
“Ah… sorry. I forgot all about it…”
Adjusting her glasses as she glared at me, she poked me in the chest with her finger.
“I get that you didn’t want Ludmila going with you, but couldn’t you have been… more sensitive? You just abandoned the poor girl.”
“What choice did I have? You know how loyal she is. The last thing that I want is for her to suddenly appear out of nowhere or sneak around defending me in the shadows,” I said, looking away from Katalina’s accusatory glare.
“Then, say that. She’s far more mature than she appears. And she will listen if you truly mean it.” Katalina paused for a moment. “But for just this time, I agree with you. After seeing her traumatized by Purnesia’s weapons, I cannot let her be exposed any further until she overcomes that which haunts her.”
I reached over and gave Katalina a hug. “Thanks, for understanding. Take care of her.”
“Of course. As she claims, Ludmila is family. Family take care of each other, no matter what.”
I let go and tried to move back, but Katalina grabbed me firmly by the shirt.
“And that goes the same for you, Claude. You are family to me, and to her as well. Don’t think that we won’t be chasing after you if you get in trouble.”
“Then, I better do a good job at meeting your expectations so that you won’t have to, Your Majesty.” I smiled with a formal bow to her. I felt a light smack on my head for the theatrics.
Paying that no heed, I moved to get into the wagon, but once again, Katalina tugged on my shirt. I turned back, wondering what was on her mind now.
“You didn’t let me finish. Did you think I would send you off to battle without a little gift?” Katalina gave me a wink as she opened her Item Box and fished around for something.
After several moments, she dug out a strange object. It was a flat slate that had buttons and knobs on the left and right sides, with a large pad in the center. As she handed me the flat device, I examined it all around, expecting there to be a power switch or cartridge slot on the side. Even though it was impossible, she couldn’t blame me for thinking that it looked almost like a game console of sorts.
Blame my mind for craving handheld entertainment still, even after nearly two years.
“Take this with you. I’ve been working on it as a countermeasure. Hopefully, it will work as planned on the battlefield like it did for my small-scale pilot run.”
I got a sudden chill as a warning flag was raised.
“Uhhhh, that means that you… haven’t made sure it works in full?”
“Didn’t have time to. Maybe if I had the entire ten days that you initially estimated to prepare, it would have been verified. But no, you get the honors of testing it on maximum output.
I laughed nervously at her statement. However, I trusted her enough that she wouldn’t simply hand over something without having some confidence in it.
I just have to believe… and make sure I hold it away from my face when using it!
“Thanks, but how do I even use this? Not even sure what the thing does, but is there even time to properly explain?” I scratched my head as I gingerly tucked it away in my Item Box.
With a grin, Katalina pulled out a thick notebook and plopped it in my hands.
“This is?” Somehow, I knew the answer, but I asked anyway.
“An instruction manual.”
“I have to read it?”
“Mhm. Every word there is lovingly penned, just for you.” Katalina bent over and planted a kiss on my cheek. The last parting gift before I headed to battle.
Thirty minutes later, the wagons had left the Faulkner domain and were steadily rolling north. I watched from the back of the covered wagon as the city grew smaller and smaller. Currently, I was wedged in between boxes of pizza buns, fried noodle buns, and roast boar buns. Luckily, the scent of the fillings was trapped in their edible bindings, and not driving me into a feral hunger.
The instruction manual in my hand was open, but I had barely made it past ten pages. One reason being that it was littered with ‘Caution’ notes as to what to avoid when in use. Seeing those first pages, my enthusiasm to use the contraption took a nosedive.
But with little else to do before arriving, I had no excuses not to read through it. Turning my eyes back to the notebook while trying not to get wagonsick, I skimmed through the next several pages. When I finally got to the explanation of what she had handed me, I couldn’t believe my eyes. An awestruck smile crept onto my lips.
The genius of Katsys the Inventor had managed to astound me again. I knew exactly what she had created, and that it would turn the tide of the war more than anything that I could have thought possible.
With my attention span suddenly reinvigorated, I made sure not to miss a single explanation in the pages. While they were filled with scribbles and blemished signs of erasing, there was a certain charm to how it connected back to all the memories she shared with me. Of conversations about various fantasies and desires from my home world. That no doubt lingered in her mind for quite some time before such a thing could be made real.
My fingers were itching to test out the shiny new toy, a collaboration of magic and otherworld fantasy.