Over a week earlier, the royal castle of Sistina was abuzz with a plan of its own. After Queen Katalina successfully created a set of portals that allowed for quick travel between Faulkner and Fort Valga, it was time to visit Sanshiro and Macali in an act of diplomacy and install entryways there as well.
Ludmila and Jayce embarked for Sanshiro. Pietro and Dengel, the impromptu heads of Faulkner, went to Macali. Given the unstable situation of Claude and the dangers of what Purnesia possessed, it was more pertinent than ever to align everyone on the future of this world.
Among the fleet of carriages carrying delicate equipment eastward, the one in the front was inhabited by a scrawny scientist in a lab coat and a young, blond girl in a frilly outfit. All through the trip, a heavy atmosphere clung in the air, mainly coming from the girl. Every so often, a light sigh escaped from her lips as she stared out the window.
The scientist, Jayce, simply clammed up. While he knew the reason for her melancholy, there wasn’t anything he could do about it. Simply placed in this awkward situation with the young girl made him uncomfortable. But for the sake of his Queen, the genius that took him under her wing, he had to continue with his mission.
He didn’t have to cheer up the girl named Ludmila in front of him, but she was his bodyguard. If something happened and she didn’t have the motivation for it, then he would be troubled with unnecessary things. Granted, he could take out some monsters with his ‘railgun shots’, a term coined by the Chancellor. But he was a coward by nature. One that wouldn’t hesitate to get his butt out of there even when a girl nearly half his age fought in his stead.
Therefore, it was better for him to exercise his brain now. Perhaps, a little chat, no matter how awkward it would be, could lighten up the mood.
“H-How do you think the others are faring?” Jayce asked randomly, trying hard to make it sound natural.
“Ludmila knows Pietro is fine. He is strong. He kick Macali king butt, just like big sis.”
“I-Is that so?” Jayce replied with a nervous laugh. He had only got the gist of it from hearsay, but she was referring to when the Queen used her portals to make the powerful king submit. “I guess you can chalk one victory up for science! But… Sir Pietro, he is a mere swordsman!”
Jayce placed his arm over his chest, an attempt to make himself look proud. Surely, science was quickly overwhelming the traditional arts of fighting. Ludmila continued to stare at him blankly, which made him slowly retreat. Had he offended her somehow? That poker face she always had made it difficult to tell what she was thinking.
Even when she stepped out of the carriage to slay some random monsters in the way, her expression never changed. She dispatched the lot of them with the same stony expression before waltzing back to her seat, an untouchable blur the instant before each of her strikes. Jayce couldn’t help but wonder that he would’ve had no chance if the girl had competed in the tournament herself. But instead, she acted as the referee.
‘So much for the superiority of science…’
That awkwardness clung for the past few days, as they traveled across the border, through the mountain pass, and finally, to the town of Haneman at the edge of Sanshiro. The sight of the town caused Ludmila to visibly relax. The familiarity of a place she lived in for months likely brought her some comfort. Still, the girl looked almost the same as before to Jayce. Only, he could breathe again without the nagging feeling of her eyes sizing him up the entire time.
Soon, they rolled up to a large home, which looked like it had been freshly remodeled. The sounds of people grunting as they practiced their martial arts rang methodically in the air. Opening the carriage door and stepping out, Ludmila trotted eagerly toward a group of people, who each gave her a big hug.
Among them were the Kinkou family elders and a pair of young children. They were important figures who took care of the Queen in her absence from Sistina. To show proper respect, Jayce stepped out and bowed to them, a sign of appreciation and welcome in this nation.
“I heard the news from the little Missy, oops, I mean the Queen from Lady Kaguya’s briefings. Allow me to guide you to Yakuman where she awaits. The name’s Lau Ki Young, Electi of Dexterity.”
As one would expect from a man of legendary fighting prowess, the elderly gentleman in a long, regal martial arts robe exuded an aura of dominance. Jayce had recalled the man’s stunning abilities in the tournament. Truly, a monster among men. He was thankful to have Lady Kaguya’s head advisor as his guide.
“Alright, you young’uns go have fun catching up on stuff. This old man has his responsibilities.” Lau turned to the trio of children, particularly eyeing Chrysanthemum. “Show her your new skills, prophet-in-training. Might ease her mind.”
Without another word, Lau drew an arm around Jayce’s shoulders and scooted him back into the carriage. The fleet of carriages rolled forward, continuing toward Yakuman to set up the portal there. Ludmila stared as they gradually moved out of sight.
A pair of hands took up each of her own. She looked back at the pair, Chrysanthemum and Yi Long, who now looked quite different than before. More mature and battle ready. The young elf girl now wore a slimmer outfit than her previous robes, following a design that Katalina once chose to accompany her gunslinger style. As expected, a magic gun was holstered at her side, a gift to her from the Queen. Yi Long wore a rather unique attire which mixed the accents of a magic knight and a Sanshiro warrior. It had the patterns and flare of a suit of armor but embroidered onto a martial arts gi.
Despite sporting new gear that was more suitable for fighting, the biggest change was how they presented themselves. There was a confidence that exuded from their movements. Likely, they developed after Lau pushed their limits during monster hunting in the remote regions. Giving off a similar cheekiness after her own training with Carina, she could tell that the pair had become much stronger.
“Big sis, Ludmila. Let us show you what we are capable of!” The two of them bubbled with excitement, ready to test their skills. That made Ludmila crack the slightest of smiles for the first time in weeks. Ever since Claude tossed her aside.
Several bolts of lightning crackled upon the ground around Ludmila, who dodged each one like they were telegraphed beforehand. She wouldn’t be caught with such slow attacks. Though they seemed that way to her, only the swiftest of fighters could dodge with such ease.
Her form blipped right next to the opposing pair, Chrysanthemum riding upon the shoulders of Yi Long. Over the past weeks, they had taken Claude’s suggestion to fight as a duo to complement each other’s abilities.
Yi Long was able to ride the wind of his magic, sailing through the air like he sprouted wings. That counteracted Chrys’s inability to move quickly. Conversely, by riding upon Yi Long’s shoulders, the two easily dodged any incoming attacks within detection. The combination of high mobility, long-range magic, and auto dodge allowed the pair to topple the strongest of monsters, several tens of levels higher than them. Now, they were sitting at a hearty Level 50. For children at their age, that was essentially unthinkable.
But that was the same for Ludmila, who was a little higher level and older than them. But her raw speed gave her the edge. She danced around Yi Long’s magic that blanketed the area. Even Chrysanthemum’s lucky shots that never missed couldn’t keep up with Ludmila. They homed in on her, only for the speed demon to move at a trajectory that couldn’t be followed. Apparently, bending reality had its limits.
Ludmila smirked as another one of her palm strikes whizzed right by the pair, who simply floated away from the attack. But she noticed that the near-misses to avoid her strikes were growing more erratic. With each passing minute, Chrys’s eyes were growing more strained to keep up with the high-speed movements, causing her to react that much slower. Dodges became more abrupt and hasty, a sign that they were slowly losing the ability to track her.
And eventually, Ludmila found a blind spot, their eyes spinning to recover from the attack before. She plucked Chrysanthemum off Yi Long’s shoulders and wrapped her arms around her ‘younger sister.’ A loving embrace was not a bad way to end a duel, as Chrysanthemum giggled while yelling out her surrender.
Having lost his partner, Yi Long skidded to a stop before sighing.
“Little ones lack battle experience and spirit still,” Ludmila said flatly. Unlike her, the pair sought combat with a juvenile mind. But that would gradually change. They had barely scratched the surface of their training with Lau.
Walking back home, Chrys and Yi Long chatted about the adventures they went on and the monsters that they defeated. Ludmila listened to them with her normal expression – blank, emotionless, almost like a doll. But that wasn’t out of the ordinary.
As the trio stepped through the gates of the Kinkou family home, Ludmila suddenly felt a shift in the air. Her senses felt a sharp glare upon her back. Her eyes darted to the side, looking at the elven girl who had stopped suddenly. What she saw was a gaze that was unmistakably more mature than the body that housed it.
“Big Sis,” Chrys spoke, lacking her normal childish tone, “I feel a darkness within you. One that embroils conflict… but now that I notice it, the shadow also tries to cover the light. A light that is screaming to come forth.”
Ludmila was stumped by her words. While she understood the darkness that was hidden deep within her, that of her tragic past, she felt skeptical about this light. She saw herself as a hollow person, only able to follow the will of others. Just like how she clung to Claude for support, she was now clinging to the others in hopes of being useful. Without them, she was nothing. Just a shell with no purpose. It was almost laughable for her to possess some self-worth.
Though, it was not like she could truly laugh in the first place. Her true self had died long ago, left among the corpses of her family. Only this tragic shadow of herself had been sent to this world.
But Chrys refused to believe that. She stepped right up to Ludmila and took her by the hands. She stared deep into those brown eyes of hers and reassured her.
“Big Sis, let me dive into your mind. Perhaps, we can find the true you. The one that has been hiding all this time. Beyond the fears and beyond the masks. I wish to know the face of the true Ludmila.”
Ludmila knew that she was the one being tested. Having only told Claude about her tragic past, he must have let the others know. Of how different she had been before this life. Of the jubilant, naïve girl that caused the death of her family.
She found it pointless to try to dig up such a foolish person. It was better that she was empty. That way, she could protect those that touched her new life. She could strike without mercy, all for the sake of…
Her mind blanked at that statement. Claude, her Master, had rejected her. He was the one she had chosen to follow in this life. Her replacement for Urkan. But was that all? Did their forms overlap so much that she had to follow Claude?
Suddenly, Ludmila was no longer sure of herself. ‘Who is Claude to me? If anyone could simply replace Urkan, then why him? Why does my heart hurt so much when I think about it?’
A small hand drew up to her face, brushing the tears that had suddenly leaked out. That caught Ludmila by surprise. When had she started crying? The lingering darkness once again felt like it was trying to invade her, as soon as she tried to feel once again.
“Let’s go, Bis Sis. Allow me to perform the ceremony. Together, let’s find the real you. Let’s find the answers together.” Chrys’s words were like honey attracting her forwards.
For once, Ludmila wanted to step forward. Rather than running away. Her past had caught up to her.