I couldn’t bring myself to fault Ludmila after facing off against her. The girl had always been a follower, unwilling to think for herself. And despite the blade coming towards me, I almost felt happy.
Happy that she had decided to finally seek her own path. The burning eyes of determination, different from the blank stare that she often gave me, finally felt like her true self. At that point, I no longer knew what to think anymore. The only fires that burned in me were seeking revenge – chasing after the villain that stole Eryn from me.
Perhaps, Ludmila could see how that had twisted my mind.
‘No, the others probably knew it already, but how could they fight against someone like me?’
It took a young girl with unbridled resolve and confidence in her own abilities to snap me out of it. And all I could think about as I found a blade in my chest was realizing that my powers had led me astray. My immediate impulse was to lash out in anger, not in response to my opponent but in pure frustration. But I was able to force myself to destroy the knife in time.
No matter what, I couldn’t bring myself to harm Ludmila. Just like how she saw the people around her, I considered her family. The little sister that I never had in the previous life. Perhaps, watching tons of anime had romanticized that kind of relationship in my heart, but regardless, it made me wish the world for her.
That was why I was surprised to wake up to her unconscious body in Saki’s arms. I winced as the wound in my chest was still in the middle of healing. Someone had already bandaged it and cast a recovery spell, but the area was still fresh. The nerves and tissue had reconnected, but pain swelled around it. I hobbled to my feet and walked up to Saki and her.
“Just exhausted, I suppose.” Saki reassured me. None of us had realized that Ludmila raced all the way here from Sanshiro on her own two legs. Her mana supply was simply at a low point. It didn’t take long before Katalina arrived. She, too, had dashed immediately here when she found out.
‘What an irresponsible Queen,’ I jokingly thought, but I knew that I would have done the same. We quickly retreated to an infirmary tent that was set up.
Quite the surprise came when Ludmila awoke. She felt like a completely different person. Her speech no longer held a dull ring of uninterest, her face no longer stony. It seemed like a person reborn, or perhaps, she had simply become the lively girl that she told me about in her previous life.
Moreover, there was something strange about her aura, which I checked as she slept. I was worried that the miasma had done something to her, but strangely, there wasn’t even a single bit of purple. My head was still groggy, so maybe, my eyes felt a bit off.
Either way, I was greeted with a warm hug and the most surprising of confessions.
“I love you, Master. Truly, from the bottom of my heart.”
I half expected her to finish off the job. Somewhere in my mind, I thought that maybe she blamed me for leaving her behind or for letting our friends die. But that had simply been my own paranoia.
“Whoa, you’re making no sense here. First, you stab me… I assume that you have a good explanation for that… and now, you confess to me? I’m not following your line of thinking.”
I tried to play it off, but her heartfelt feelings, completely different from any of the other times she spoke kind words to me, struck me hard. It was funny how much more impact it had on me when her voice didn’t sound monotone.
Thankfully, Katalina tore her away before my heart could pound so fast that it would re-tear the wound. She had probably found something after scanning her body with that weird eyepiece of hers. I signaled for her to check, just in case.
But Katalina’s verdict made everyone in the room freeze. The miasma within Ludmila had completely disappeared, and not only that, her core was now a brilliant, pure white. Unlike the core of an Electi that was purplish, unlike those of the bluish people of this world, it was a solid, blinding white that felt almost painful to look at. Yet, we could only gawk at it in awe, like something had descended from the heavens.
We immediately bombarded Ludmilla with questions, asking her to fill us in as to what happened in her absence. She stepped through her story, all the way up to the dream she just had.
“Two existences becoming one?” Katalina wondered aloud.
“What, is that something significant? I mean, sure it has to be important, because it’s like forgiving your past self, but does that actually trigger something? Like a test from the Gods?”
I tried to work it out in my mind. I had a past life that I wasn’t too keen about, and it seemed like Saki was plagued by a tragic past too. I couldn’t help but wonder if the source of our miasma wasn’t some kind of hero’s trial. Like those given to the protagonist in some RPG to face one’s own evil. I gave myself a whack in the head as that seemed a bit unrealistic.
“No, I’ve heard of something like it in the past. Fairy tales merely, nothing concrete in the archives.”
Of course, Katalina, the voice of this world’s intellect, made it clear that nothing was impossible.
“It talked of heroes of old, stepping before the Gods and seeing mirrors of themselves… but those stories merely spoke of tragedies. Self-proclaimed heroes who had to face the realities of their actions. They were fables that warned people not to be too proud of their abilities, lest the Gods punish them for it.”
“Punish them, how exactly?” I chuckled nervously.
“Oh, the usual. Madness, corruption, becoming your own worst fears – the normal sins.”
“And that’s not related to demons?”
Katalina’s mouth opened and hung there, like a fish gasping for air. The gears in her head were grinding so hard that I thought I could hear them. After a few awkward seconds, it seemed like everything was back in order. Even geniuses had off days apparently when it wasn’t something that directly involved what they were working on.
“Those texts, nothing of Electi were mentioned in them, but that doesn’t preclude them from being relevant. Perhaps, that is worth understanding, but now is certainly not the time. We’re at war after all. Still, the concept of Ludmila having passed a sort of trial might be the best theory. We should keep an eye on her status.”
“I guess so. What do you think, ‘Ludmila Ascended’?” I joked, feeling the need to give her some fancy title for the transformation.
But being the girl who seemed to love being of help to people, she simply crawled out of the bed she was in. Bowing with the practiced grace of a servant, Ludmila once again reaffirmed her loyalty.
“I, Ludmila Dikiy, swear to fight by Master’s side. To be the wind that carries his goals to victory, for I have seen the resolve of the one I choose to follow… And I won’t take no for an answer.” She looked up at the end, her gaze sharp like a predator.
Up until that last statement, it was the same Ludmila I knew. But the emotion and independence behind the last part was totally new. It told me that I had no choice but to accept her, because she had chosen for herself the path she wanted to walk upon. The pillar she once clung to was nowhere in sight.
I reached out and offered her my hand. Somehow, I could tell that nothing would stand in her way. Even the sounds of gunfire no longer seemed to bother her, as she had apparently been watching me fight from the shadows. I had no reason to keep her away either. The girl before me, though only 13, was undoubtedly standing with the presence of a warrior. Her bravery far exceeded mine.
For the time being, Ludmila was assigned to be my bodyguard, as I was still in the process of recovering. Also, she was likely the only one that could really fight by my side in battle. Saki was leading another wing, and her powerful smashing attacks clashed with my own. Not to mention, whenever she unleashed her ‘Aura de Gigante’ skill, no one wanted to be anywhere close to her. It treated everyone, friend or foe, to its horrors.
However, Ludmila’s speed was quite useful on a large battlefield filled with gunfire. A speeding arrow whizzed through the hail of projectiles. That form she took was a perfect fit to watch my back as I charged forward. Picking off stray fighters that circled around my blind side gave Katalina a sense of relief.
And after the battle, she would then come up to me, requesting for praise. It took a little while to get used to this new side of Ludmila, her true self. But I couldn’t help but do it with a smile. Finally, she wanted something for herself, rewards of recognition. Nothing big, but I could tell that this made all the difference now.
Out here on the battlefield, all I could think of was to make a tasty treat. I scratched my head as I hadn’t thought about cooking since Eryn’s death, but this was a good enough reason for it as any. Diving into my Item Box for some ideas, I took out some starch and sugar, among other simple ingredients stored there. Using a bit of Fire magic, I went about mixing a doughy concoction while adding a bit of honey to sweeten the flavor.
It was likely strange to see a man in full armor pulling and stretching dough like he was playing with putty. Ludmilla anxiously awaited, peering over my shoulder at times for her treat. Finally, when the mixture felt uniform, I rolled up a batch and placed it in her hands. She cocked her head as she stretched the gooey stuff between her fingers.
“It’s taffy. A kind of candy. Go ahead and have some.”
As soon as the word ‘candy’ hit her ears, half of the stretched-out taffy entered her mouth. Her lips instantly curled into a grin at the sweetness. Needless to say, I decided to make a bunch more as one of the few rewards that I could offer her. That made me feel less guilty about needing her help from time to time.
Despite my injuries causing me to advance slowly and more carefully, her extra help made up for it and then some. Especially when we got near the Capital City of Bryansk, the concentration of gunfire increased. A majority of Purnesia’s people had retreated to this area, the final bastion of resistance. If we took over this last city, then that would be it. The war would be won, and all of us would hopefully return to peaceful times. Back to some form of normality.
Still, there was some distance to travel. The gunfire didn’t make it easy to proceed, as only our best fighters stood a chance to make ground. But between me using Eryn’s beloved weapon to cut through the ranks, Saki’s mallets destroying the landscape, and Ludmila’s speedy backup, we continued, one step at a time.
I kept looking out on the horizon, watching, waiting for those two in the super sentai outfits to return. They had been Purnesia’s trump card, the newest one of several. That was the one thing that still stood in our way. I couldn’t cut them for some reason, and it unnerved me to no end.
Hopefully, the combined power of everyone would be enough to take them down. It had gotten us this far already. I looked behind me at the small collection of magically-crafted buildings that dotted the area, a makeshift base for us to hole up in.
‘Ack, can’t forget about that Golabki dual wielder too. He was a bit tough to handle. I only won due to trickery last time…’
I turned back to the battlefield, unsure of when the trio would make their next appearance. Once again, the Purnesian army had temporarily retreated, our victory yielding us another short stretch of land. But each engagement wore on everyone. The sun was setting on another day of battle. What tricks would Lamps Magellan employ next? That was the thing that kept me up at night.
“Staring off into space, Chancellor?” Saki walked up to me, her armor a bit battered like usual, but it was nothing that our best blacksmith couldn’t repair.
“Yeah, just nervous. I know they are out there somewhere. It feels like a pop quiz waiting to spring on us.”
Saki chortled. She found it funny that I compared such a life-threatening battle to such a mundane thing as an exam. I saw her hand reaching up to give me a playful whack before suddenly giving up.
“At least, the look on your face is a little softer now. I’ve been worried about you. After our last fight, it didn’t seem like I could do anything to help what you’re going through.”
“Saki, despiser of men, actually holding feelings for me? I should be honored,” I said, laughing. Though it was meant to be a joke, I really appreciated it. We had both lost the one person very dear to us.. Maybe that was why it hurt her to see me like this. The pain we felt was similar.
“Come on. Let’s turn in for the evening. It wouldn’t do to be unprepared for this ‘pop quiz’ when the time comes. We need to be at ‘Full Power!’ and ‘Full Burst!’ when the time comes.”
The way that Saki said that last line made me recall a magical girl anime.
“Hey, something I can agree on! And maybe I should take you out on a date afterwards as thanks, Japanese Waifu Character-san.”
That really did earn me a smack. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground.
“Can it, Claude. I don’t need flags to be raised. I’d rather it not all lead to doom because of one stupid comment.” Saki looked away with a pout and arms crossed. I could tell that she was putting on an act.
“Aw, come on. At least, it’ll be fun for a change.”
Saki peeked over as I sat up and brushed the dirt off. Casually, she walked over and extended a hand, which I took. Just when I expected for her to let go, my steps forward were abruptly halted by a firm grip of resistance.
“Let’s go, Claude. I still need to watch over you. For Eryn’s sake. I promised her.”
Literally dragged forward by Saki, I wondered what she meant by that. However, it didn’t take long at all for me to find out. I next awoke to find her body pressing up against mine, which was all it took for me to go into ‘red alert’.