Ludmila stared in shock at the scene before her. Even though it was a fragment of her past, the horrific brutality of seeing her sibling ripped from her mother had not dulled in the slightest. It made her gag. It filled her with a sense of utter hatred and despair. It threatened to destroy her very soul.
And it might very well have done just that last time, as she could never remember past this point. The dreams that haunted her always stopped here, bringing her back to a bitter reality. But she could get through the day, knowing that it was a different world. A different life than the one already ended.
Still, she couldn’t get over the trauma of her past. It was rooted in her core, so much that the very sound of gunfire triggered her delirium. That was why, she had to face it. The feelings of doubt gnawed at her always. Dread for the future accumulated as the ones she loved were slowly lost in a war against the neighboring empire.
She couldn’t stand still for much longer. She hated herself for feeling so useless. But now, she could not help but be a spectator once again. Watching the last moments of her life to understand who she truly was.
The only thing that kept her insanity intact was the vague feeling of another girl embracing her as she faced this, the priestess in training that faced tragedy before in a previous life.
A dark figure walked up to her, mocking her grief. She couldn’t see his face at all. It was like her memory had decided to paint over his existence. Yet, his words entered her ears, loud and clear.
“Poor, poor, girl. You must accept this reality. This world is Hell. And we are all just inhabitants of it.”
The voice left her crying and wailing on the ground, arms still clutching onto the bloody lump that would’ve been her sibling. Ludmila wanted to smash her head into the ground, to end it all so that she wouldn’t see any more.
But try as she might, a gentle resistance pushed back with each impact, telling her that she was not finished yet. Her life was not ready to be snuffed out. The rage within her still needed to be quelled. And the only way to do that was to seek revenge. Simple, bloody revenge against those who were responsible.
After all her tears had dried up and her soul became hollow, Ludmila thought she heard a voice from somewhere. By that time, the skies had fully darkened. The campsite was only lit by the dim lamps placed around the area.
Ludmila turned her head, scanning around with her eyes. Everyone was asleep. The scent of dried blood still clung to her nose, likely from the blackened mass that was still held against her chest.
Slowly, she let go of it before crawling her way forward. A fire sprung from her eyes as that voice continued to spur her, telling her to fight on. The hunter that she was raised as revived from the fresh scent of blood. It bided its time in the back of her mind, but now, it was ready to take action.
She dragged her pitiful excuse of a body across the grass. Since she was robbed of her legs, the despicable men had written her off as an invalid. Not bound by chains and uncaged, Ludmila was free to crawl her way forward. The weeks of acting like a lump of meat had left them complacent.
This was the only chance she would get.
Even with no feet, her approach was silent and low to the ground as she hobbled on the remaining stumps. Seeing the door to the main cabin open, she crawled quickly up to it. The sound of snores filtered out. Immediately, Ludmila could distinguish four different rhythms. They were not important people as they shared a sleeping room, but still, she needed to get rid of them first. For that, she needed a weapon.
Eyeing the vague shapes in the darkness, her gaze stopped upon a glint that shone conspicuously from within. A few stealthy crawls later, her hand grabbed the shining object. The familiar weight and feel of a handle and the distinct swish of a blade cutting through the air emboldened her.
Even among the darkness, her instincts told her what to do. Too dark to see anything, she let the loud, rhythmic snoring guide her to the nearest person. And with a quick thrust and a hand over the mouth, one melody was abruptly cut off. One by one, Ludmila stabbed the knife into the necks of the evil men, those who had mocked her this entire time.
She only remembered them by the insults they slung and the games that they played with everyone’s lives. But now, she put an end to that. She spared no further thought upon their existences.
With the cabin now silent, Ludmila could finally look around for what she was aiming for. Approaching a table in the middle, she picked up a set of metal objects that jangled lightly against each other. They were the keys to the cages where her family was locked up. She had listened carefully in her weeks of silence for that distinct sound, making sure that the poachers carelessly left them in plain sight.
She had waited for this moment the whole time. Suffering through the deaths of her family had left her virtually hollow, but somehow, the man whose face was painted black still watched her like a hawk. That sharp gaze of his, much like her own, was that of an experienced hunter. But his eyes saw people in a single way – prey to line his pockets and satisfy his hunger.
Not until she had lost her closest family, did those eyes finally give up on her. That man no longer saw her as a cornered animal that could still bite back, but a living corpse gasping for her last breaths. She had deceived him into believing that a lethal strike struck her heart.
That would’ve been the case if she were a normal hunter.
But she was the daughter of Tygda and Kudecha. The wills of a long line of hunters coursed through her veins. The care and attention of a wise and strong mentor sparked within her every movement. She didn’t have time to regret her actions now that she was on the move, no matter how painful they were. She would carry them to her final rest after she was done.
Ludmila crawled back toward the cages, silently unlocking all of them. When the last one swung open, she let out a low set of animal-like howls. Immediately, the eyes of the women in the cages popped open. To the untrained, the howls blended with the noises in the woods. But for her family, the distinct rhythm was an ingrained melody that everyone knew by heart.
It was a tune to gather. To prepare. To fight.
Even in her pitiful state, Ludmila had the will to rally everyone. For those that still had their legs, it felt shameful if they didn’t at least try to fight along with her. But their faces darkened as another presence crept up to them. They couldn’t fight as long as one person stood in their way. They simply couldn’t resist.
Ludmila felt herself hoisted up roughly, her body spun around until she faced a pitch-black darkness. The evil leader of the poachers. The one who caused everything. Now, she stared straight into the abyss of his soul, a demon that turned everything to Hell.
“And I had just thought you would make a nice doll on my trophy rack. But seeing that fire still in you strangely makes me excited. I certainly raised an interesting daughter, now didn’t I?”
As soon as those words sank in, his voice was no longer garbled. The darkness that covered his face also lifted, revealing the last person that she wanted to see – her mentor, Urkan. Now, everything made sense.
When she first saw him striding alongside the poachers, she couldn’t believe her eyes. When he ordered for the men to slay her family, HIS FAMILY, she thought that he wasn’t anything but an imposter. Her mind subconsciously blotted him out. But through the weeks, Ludmila could finally tell. Urkan was an evil man. He had played the entire village for fools. He had seen all of them as nothing more than puppets for his own gain.
Even in her doubts, the weeks in captivity gave her time to paint the correct picture of Urkan, over the kind and gifted mentor that she once knew. Every tidbit of gossip and interaction was just another stroke of black paint to cover the man she loved. And at this point, the dark veil that she had imposed upon her own eyes was blown away. The pieces fell into place.
Urkan had returned, not to impart the knowledge he gained to the village, but for his own desires. He was a greedy man, constantly looking for riches and pleasures, which he thought would come naturally for him in the civilized world, just as it had in the wild.
Having failed to succeed, he thought to exploit his former ties instead. It was easy to fool his own people. They held a certain level of trust that made him snicker. At first, sending a few slaves and sacrifices to the rich seemed like the easy route forward. However, the unexpected death of his friend Tygda had set him off onto a more sinister path.
It had been an accident. He didn’t expect Tygda to be shot. His sorrow was real, even if it was only for that moment. The secret conspirators saw Urkan’s anger, swearing never to slip up again. But the damage was done. That hasty plan had killed one of his few remaining affections for the village, breaking open the walls of compassion that held back his cruelty.
Urkan no longer cared for anyone after that. Every act of leadership, of compassion, of guidance – they were all just ploys to gain the trust of his former people. They were games to pass the time and see how far people could follow an immoral man, even as he played with their lives. As long as he kept them thinking that he was their great leader, he had free reign of this small world.
But an innocent declaration by a young girl shattered even that.
“I want to be like my father was. To be your strength. To be the ‘Tygda’ that supports you in these times.”
The very thought horrified Urkan. The last thing he wanted to remember was how he ‘betrayed’ Tygda. How he sacrificed him for his own greed. He needed no Tygda to support him. He didn’t deserve it.
Rather, he felt an intense urge to wipe the man from his mind. And the only way to truly do that was to get rid of everyone that remembered him. The entire village, his self-made paradise. He no longer needed it. He would crush it with his own hands, just to run away from the reality of how truly vile he was.
And that man now stood before Ludmila, eyes gleaming with nothing but how he should deal with the one child that made his last straw snap. Ludmila had been his grandest prize, the most devout follower that believed in him. And that warranted the greatest sense of amusement to see how she would reject everything that she knew.
Urkan wanted to know how his lovely pet would reconsider all the years that he had spent with her, knowing that it had all been one big lie. He wanted to display her like a trophy, remembering the sweet memory of it every time he saw her hollow gaze. He looked over at the others, who were absolutely petrified by his presence. The sheer dominance he had over them was astounding.
As he had become the village’s pillar, even proud warriors were left weak in the knees. The tall, strong figure of the invincible Urkan was like a deity that they couldn’t help but submit to, even when it brought their downfall. Their quick submission to their horrible fate was primarily due to that.
But then, there was one outlier among them. The young girl that he personally cared for, Tygda’s daughter. Her eyes refused to die, even in the most extreme of torture. Even with that frail, broken body, a flame existed that countered his own cold self. And Urkan desperately wanted to know what she would do with it. That was why he kept her alive for so long.
Somehow, she had tricked him. But of course, she had learned from the best. Urkan dangled her body from his extended hand, savoring the last bit of fight she had.
And in response to that, Ludmila did the only thing she could do. She swung her hunting knife, straight for his damned heart.