The Chronicles of the Elders Malefisterium

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Volume 1. The Ordeal of Freya

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Vkontakte: https://vk.com/andrewognev

Email: gabrielsylargray@yandex.ru

Pen name: Andrew Ognev.

Kazikin, Andrey Vladimirovich was born in Magnitogorsk on June 1, 1992. He started writing fantasy at the age of 13. After finishing Magnitogorsk State Technical University in 2014, he took up and completed postgraduate study. He defended his dissertation in 2018 and, in the same year, he was admitted to the International Union of Writers.

The Chronicles of the Elders book series includes:

Book 1. Malefisterium

Volume 1. The Ordeal of Freya

Volume 2. The Samhain Games

Volume 3. The Prisoner of Psychameron

Volume 4. The Price of Sorrow

Coming soon:

Book 2. Thanatos’s Hand

Volume 1. Magekillers


Revelation 1

Creation of the Universe

At the dawn of time, there lived omnipotent beings in the dark cosmos. They were called Enuma Elish, or the Elders. There were lots of them, in innumerable multitudes. And they settled down in the Great Darkness of Origin. There were the Six who stood out among them and who were endowed with a special power. They were called Demiurges.

Once an argument arose among those nebula-wrapped Six as to which of them was the most skillful. There was no end to this argument. Finally, they found the solution: Each of them should create something miraculous.

The first Demiurge, named Riakas, took the surrounding darkness, turned it into a flaming ball composed of myriads of bright particles, and blew it up. And the fire pieces scattered around, the bright stars lit up, glittering and sparkling, all around the black void.

The second Demiurge, named Garod, created ten different planets around the nearest star, which was called the Sun, and they began to orbit it.

The next Demiurge, named Tiron, created life-giving air on the third planet from the Sun, and it was named the Earth.

And then the fourth Demiurge, named Aramun, created water. Rivers flowed all over the giant globe, filling the hollows big and small. Seas and oceans covered Planet Earth, heralding its special mission. Bright sunlight heated the water, and the clouds poured down life-giving rain.

The fifth Demiurge, named Naakan, created animals and plants. And he filled the land, water and air with them. The planet woke up, full of sounds, motion and voices.

The sixth Demiurge, named Oradir, thought long and hard, and finally, created Man in his own image and after his own likeness. Oradir said, “This planet was created for you! Be fruitful, and multiply!”

Revelation 2

Epiphany of the Seventh

And so the Elders were puffed up with pride, for Man was the apex of Creation. Warmed by the merciful Sun, Planet Earth became an oasis in the endless Universe. And they rejoiced and praised the Great Six for the miracle that was made possible by their mastery and gave the meaning to the existence of the infinite cosmos. And then the other Elders, called the Luminaries, forged crowns from stellar cores and brought them with the full honors to the Great. One by one, the supernovas flared up, celebrating the authors of life.

And there was great joy.

The Laurels of the Great clouded the Elders’ judgement, and they began to wonder whose creation was the best. Each of them said that the work of his hands was the greatest. And they started arguing and quarrelling. No one noticed when the Seventh appeared among them. He was old and wise, his face hidden in the shadow of the drooping hood. He himself seemed to be made of primordial Darkness.

And he spoke to the Great, “O you who created whole worlds with nothing but your will! Are you, who gave the Universe the reason for being, now arguing about who is the best?”

“We are!” the Elders replied proudly.

“To settle your dispute, come to the One, who made you, and listen to Her, for you would not exist without Her mercy and Her love.”

The Great paid no heed to his words.

“Keep out! Go your way, old man!”

“You were made of the Darkness,” the Seventh persisted. “You took the Darkness and created everything around. But what you created is only a form of matter.”

“Are you teaching us?” Oradir frowned. “How about you? What are you good at? Show it to us!”

“And if it measures up to our work,” Naakan said, “we will acknowledge your contribution and appreciate it!”

“What I create is invisible to the eye.”

“Since it is invisible, then you create nothing!” Riakas laughed.

“You have forgotten everything long ago, being this old.”

“You don’t belong among us!”

“Don’t I?” the Seventh smiled ironically. “Behold the power of the invisible!”

He turned to the planet created by the Elders, and with one hand he sent Darkness upon it, and with the other he sent Cold. Darkness and Cold spread over, fiercely and pervasively.

And hatred flared up among the living creatures.

Animals and fish started killing and eating each other, people became imbued with hatred for their own kind.

“Why did you do this? What prompted you to do this?” the Great asked the Seventh.

“It is the Darkness that gave birth to all of us.”

“What does it need it for?”

“That is the way of the world…”

“But it is we who created it!” the Six cried out, almost in the same breath.

The Seventh raised his arms high above his head and spoke in a voice of thunder:

“No matter what we say or do, the Sun will rise and set…”

“I rule all the stars around!” Riakas said.

“…Mighty as you are, you cannot change it,” the Seventh continued, paying no heed to the objections.

“We are the most skillful Elders, no one possesses a greater power than we do!” the Elders tried to reason with the old man.

“…Of course, one might tempt fortune and intrude into the natural course of events…”

“We are the ones who create the events, we are the beginning of all beginnings!”

“The beginning of all beginnings is the beginning of the end. Your world will very soon find itself on the verge of death. To avoid this, you have to get to know it in all its diversity, both material and spiritual, to explore it to its core,” the Seventh said and vanished into the interstellar space.

Revelation 3

Dawn of the Demiurges

“What we created was created by our design and was meant to obey us,” the Six concluded and attempted to cleanse the world of evil.

They encountered volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and earthquakes. And the people rebelled, for, having been created in the image of the Elders, they possessed the same will.

“Why do our creations go against us?” the Six pondered. “Everything we do is for their good.”

Then, the Elders remembered the words of the Seventh, and Riakas, first among equals, said, “What we create shall no longer be ruled by the Darkness!”

“Aren’t we its lords?” the other asked.

“What was begotten by us shall not vanquish us!”

And a war started between the Demiurges and the humans who were led by the Darkness.

Their minds were full of the Darkness. It was the origin of all. Everyone, who ceased it and beheld its might, inherited its power and followed the path unknown to the others. Once intact and integral, the Darkness, which was the soul of the Universe, broke into many pieces and hid in the things of existence.

And the Demiurges reeled, but held the ground.

Revelation 4

Birth of Dragons

And there came the Luminaries who could not let the Six wreck and destroy everything they had created. They comprehended the intentions of the Seventh and took on the burden of the Primordial Darkness. There were skilled craftsmen among them. They made weapons for the dreadful war and took the side of humans.

Loki the Sorcerer taught magic to people and elves. Thanatos brought the dead back to life and haunted their souls. Samael, Prince of the Blood, summoned an army of the human race, turning them into the first vampires. Vanadis created valkyries. And Heliel, the most powerful Luminary, created dragons.

And the Demiurges were banished from the Earth, which they had created. But the desired peace did not come. A war broke out between the vanquishers.

Revelation 5


And a new battle began. And the Earth was shaking, besprent with spilled blood.

The Darkness brought people power and ability to make choices. They did not wish to be under the sway of the Elders, and they rose against the dragons and against all the Luminaries.

For the sake of salvation, people kept the gods in elaborate traps, which offered no escape.

And the magic passed into oblivion, for the sons of men renounced it. Only the chosen ones kept the memory of it.

Revelation 6

The Age of Man

As the ancient arts sank into obscurity, the protection weakened. The Luminaries returned from captivity, but not for long, since they were taken captive again, now by the Four Founders.

And the age of the Elders ended.

But nothing disappears forever.

Staying unnoticeable, the Demiurges watched the goings-on. They saw that the Earth was free again: The darkness moved into people and was no longer a threat to the Elders.

They chose to return to the Earth to bring it back under their control. For this purpose, they created an Avatar, an emissary who could make the Earth suitable for them.

And yet there was the invisible mind of the Seventh in their new creation; the mind that turned the emissary into a servant of Darkness rather than a servant of the Demiurges. And the Avatar saved the Earth from misery and agony, as was prophesied by the Seventh.

Revelation 7

The End

The age of Man was over, the Elders fell, and the power, accumulated over many years and now neglected, burst into the world. And the world, time, and space were collapsing, everything was turning into cold and emptiness.

The Seventh watched the death of the Universe from the distant outer space. It was he who revealed the formula for the inevitable end of the world. And now he regretted that no one had been able to prevent it.

Chapter One. Sent by the Light

At the very beginning of the twentieth century, a mysterious explosion thundered in the heart of Siberia.

It all started when a glowing comet appeared high in the sky. As soon as it went out of sight, a flash of light lit up the horizon, and, at the same instant, everyone around was dazzled by it. The ground was shaking, and an earthquake (something that had never occurred here before) rolled underfoot, causing commotion and panic among all the living things for thousands of kilometers around. In no time the air became dry and hot. It was difficult to breathe, like in a hot sauna.

What was in the epicenter?

Three circles were formed in the boundless taiga. The first circle, the inner one, had trees lying with their tops toward the center, as if they had been carefully arranged by someone in strict compliance with the laws of geometry; in the second circle there were naked pointed tree trunks without boughs, branches and leaves; the third circle was a windthrow area extending for hundreds of kilometers from the explosion epicenter. However, there were no craters and no huge clamps of soil.

On a cool June morning, shortly after the explosion, there were observed some unusual natural phenomena. There was a strange, truly dead silence. Birds chirping, rustling leaves in the wind and other sounds of the taiga were gone. The clear sky grew dark, and everything around, including the leaves and grass, turned yellow, then orange, red and finally burgundy-colored.

There was something unusual about this explosion: Despite the tremendous explosive force, no significant damage was done to the nature or people.

Thousands of people around the world wondered what it was.

“A meteorite,” scientists said.

“A manufactured object sent by mysterious aliens!” idealistic dreamers insisted.

If it was a meteorite, why did it explode before it reached the ground? And where is the impact crater, or at least the place of its landing?

Those who believed that it was an alien spaceship-wreck that crash landed in the area were disappointed, since not a single piece, not a single part of the alien spacecraft was found.

There were also those who believed that it was a shot from a much-talked-about, huge Tesla cannon. But no plausible evidence was found.

The strange consequences of the collision between the Earth and an unidentified space object did not end there. A day after the catastrophe, the Earth’s atmosphere and night clouds were glowing eerily. The noctilucent clouds reflected the rays of the sunlight, thereby creating the effect of polar nights even in the areas where they had never occurred before.

The strange phenomena continued for a few days; then, they vanished as suddenly as they appeared. And immediately people stopped feeling the impact of the event.

A month later, no one was talking about the mysterious event. Occasionally, a new theory would spring in scientific circles to trigger a low-key discussion.

It took the nature half a century to heal its wounds. A new forest grew around. The only evidence of the alien object was the ball of fire, which was seen by many people in a radius of several thousand kilometers, along with burned and fallen trees.

The event was soon erased from the human memory. And only smoldering remains of once magnificent cedars and pines exposed the site where the alarming event had taken place.

Scientists declared this phenomenon an unfathomable mystery and gave it a name, the Tunguska Event. The humanity accepted the explanation.

However, there were those who knew everything ahead of time, waited patiently and never lost hope. Down the ages, down the millennia, the elves passed on an ancient prophecy. Their hearts and minds were able to see much more both in the future and in the past. They divined the true meaning of the Sign and were genuinely delighted at the arrival of the messenger.

There was also someone on the Earth who waited for this in the same way the elves did, but he cherished his own selfish plans.

So who will get Him first?


Almost a hundred years later, Molyobka village, the house of the village priest

Father Konstantin, the senior priest of the local church, and Mark, both a cleric and a bell-ringer, were sitting at a big round table and drinking tea from a pot-bellied samovar. A spicy fragrance of forest herbs was coming from the steaming hot cups of tea.

“God has not forsaken this place,” Father Konstantin chuckled happily after taking another sip of tea and lifted up his eyes to the sky. “To my great joy, more and more children are being born here. Five children have already been christened this summer.”

“There are many of those who come to the parish, answering the call of the heart. Which gives just as much joy,” the bell-ringer chimed in. “They not only work hard in the land of God, but also turn their thoughts toward him, toward our Father.”

“Fair enough,” the priest agreed.

They crossed themselves and praised the Lord. For a few minutes one could only hear the gurgle of water poured from the samovar and loud slurping of boiling-hot tea from the saucers.

“Just imagine, Father,” the bell-ringer said dreamily, with his mouth wide open and his eyes glued to the ceiling, “what if there were not four hundred, but four thousand people in our parish!”

“You don’t say so, Mark!” Father Konstantin cooled his enthusiasm. “We would not even have enough land for them all. And no jobs for such a horde. Otherwise, how would they earn their living?”

“God created our Earth for living creatures, and it can support them, regardless of their number,” the bell-ringer waved his finger.

“And that is exactly why they live where there is place for them to live.”

“But what if…!” the bell-ringer kept persisting.

“What a dreamer you are!” Father Konstantin smiled. “Don’t let dreams and idle talk make your tea cold.”

“Then I will have another cup of tea!” the cleric replied ardently, patting the round copper belly of the samovar.

“Watch out! You can burn your hand!” the priest grabbed the bell-ringer’s arm.

The restless bell-ringer gave Father Konstantin a reverent look, nodded twice and instantly changed the subject.

“Do you know what Fedotya Andreevna did the other day?”

“What?” the priest moved his cup aside.

“She had a celebration!” Mark threw up his hands.

“How’s that? On a weekday?”

“That’s right! She made pies and invited so many people that there was hardly any room for them,” the bell-ringer was bubbling with excitement. “So she had to set the table in the yard.”

“And was there any reason for such a celebration?” the priest asked.

“She does not need one,” Mark drawled meaningfully and narrowed his eyes slyly.

“It’s hardly surprising,” Father Konstantin smiled. “However, there must be a reason… What does she say?”

“She says she received some good news,” the bell-ringer vouchsafed an explanation, “some welcome news, as she says. The news that affects many people! That is that!”

“Well, her celebration makes us happy!” the priest crossed himself. “She brought an onion-and-egg pie for us. This is the second evening we have been eating it.”

They sipped the tea noisily from their saucers and got lost in their thoughts.

“Don’t you find our old Fedotya… a bit strange?” the bell-ringer asked, scratching the back of his head.

“No, why? Did she do anything wrong?” Every sip of tea and every piece of the pie infused the priest with good humor. “She is an ordinary old woman of faith, wearing a headscarf on her head and a warm shawl on her shoulders. She is always at home, doing chores around the house. And she never misses important events in our church.”

“It may very well be true,” the bell-ringer explored his thought. “But I say, she is somewhat funny. Take this celebration of hers. She declared a random day a red-letter date out of the blue, according to the calendar existing in her imagination, and threw a feast.”

“Well, what is wrong with that?” Nothing was going to put Father Konstantin out of his humor. “A person feels good and wants to share their joy with others. The way I see it, it is a charitable deed.”

“Of course, it is,” the bell-ringer nodded. “It is for sure willed by God…”

His face clouded with concern, and it did not escape the priest’s notice.

“You seem to have something against the old lady. Do you?” he asked, searching the bell-ringer’s face.

“For pity’s sake, Father!” the bell-ringer crossed himself. “I have nothing against her! How can I? Her food tastes so good.”

“She is good at filling your belly with delicious food,” Father Konstantin said, “and she is also good at filling your head with nonsense.”

“How’s that?”

“She is spinning yarns without stopping.”

“You are right about it, Father,” Mark perked up. “She is doing it so well that I wish I could write her stories down!”

“So why don’t you?”

“Yeah, right, as soon as I learn writing!”

They both laughed.

Suddenly, the church bell rang loudly and violently from the bell tower.

The men stopped laughing and gave each other a puzzled look.

“Who is playing pranks there?” Father Konstantin asked, frowning.

“Well, the door is locked! Here is the key!” the bell-ringer apologetically pulled a big copper key out of his pocket and showed it to the senior priest as a proof of his non-involvement in the discipline violation.

“Maybe these are boys who sneaked in there?” Father Konstantin assumed.

“Those boys, they could!” Mark agreed quickly, putting his cup under the samovar faucet.

“Won’t you… well…”

“What?” the bell-ringer looked at the priest blankly, but then caught his demanding gaze and began to hurry. “Sure, sure… I will go and have a look!”

The bell-ringer stood up, leaning on the table. The senior priest rose to his feet too.

“I will go with you!”

They went out to the tall front porch and looked at the bell tower, with their hands shielding their eyes.

The bell kept ringing.

“It is odd,” Father Konstantin broke the silence. “I don’t see anyone there.”

“I don’t see anyone either,” the bell-ringer echoed and in the next breath collected himself and exclaimed: “I’ll be right back, Father!”

He trotted down the stairs and ran to the bell tower. Every here and there onlookers gazed out of their windows at the bell ringing.

“What’s happened?”

Ringing bells at an odd hour heralded a trouble or big news. A handful of children ran out onto the street, but their angry parents brought them back home.

Hardly had the bell-ringer put the key into the lock, the bell stopped ringing. Anyway, the bell-ringer climbed up the steps to find out what was going on.

The northern lights lit up the sky above the bell tower. Shimmering with rainbow colors, they were swirling and glistening. Little by little, they filled out the crevice between the mountains surrounding the village, lit up the tops of the trees and colored the skyline with their dazzling glow.

Father Konstantin gazed at the wonderful scene with admiration.

“There is no one in here, Father!” he heard from the top of the bell tower. “It’s just the wind, blast it! It must have untangled the ropes and caused a mess. I will secure the ropes.”

Out of the corner of his eye, the priest saw something moving on his right. Something was glowing white behind an old rowan shrub. Father Konstantin turned his whole body toward the fence.

Clusters of green berries were swaying as if someone invisible was shaking the shrub.

The priest walked down the porch and cautiously moved towards the rowan shrub. Father Konstantin came closer and walked around to find out that the mysterious light spot had taken the shape of a child, a barefoot fair-haired boy of around three years old. He was wearing loose white clothes and a chain around his neck with a small sacred charm.

“Oh!” the priest gave a cry of surprise and stood motionless. “Who are you?”

“Oh!” the boy echoed in a monotonic robot voice. “Who are you?”

He was neither embarrassed nor afraid of a grown man, and was perfectly calm.

“Where did you come from?” Father Konstantin asked, good-humoredly, and got down on his haunches.

“Where did you come from?” the boy echoed and then, after a pause, he added, this time skipping the interrogative intonation: “Where I came from.”

He seemed to savor the words, tasting, chewing and swallowing them.

“What is your name?” the priest asked and gave him a friendly smile.

“What is your name?” the boy repeated the question, deliberately putting an emphasis on the third word.

“My name,” the priest tapped his finger on his chest and said clearly and distinctly, “is Father Konstantin.” He waited for a minute, giving the boy time to memorize the words. He could see him moving his lips. And then he asked the question again, clearly and making pauses: “And what is your name?”

“And my name…” the boy mirrored the priest’s gesture and tapped his finger on his chest, “is… Vlad!”

“Vlad… It’s a good name,” the priest said approvingly.

“Your name is good too,” the little boy said. “A significant one!”

“Whose are you?” Father Konstantin held out his hand to the boy.

“Yours,” Vlad said, standing up.

Hand in hand, they went home, a grown man and a little boy.


9 years later, Molyobka village

June was slowly coming to an end in the small village of a hundred households. The intense summer sun was shining and its light was refracting and dispersing in raindrops sparkling on emerald green leaves after the morning thunderstorm.

The church was the main attraction of the village. Made of logs, designed as an Old Russian tower house, it was the spiritual center for the congregation of the whole village, filling the surroundings with the silvery clamor of bells.

This time Father Konstantin was conducting the morning service, and the parishioners were praying for their nearest and dearest, begging for forgiveness for the mistakes they made, crossing themselves and bowing. Some of them were standing and reading the prayer in front of the icons, others were silently sitting on the benches along the wall near the door.

Turning his face to the congregation and blessing the people, the father cast a casual glance at the church choir, which was led by a boy of about twelve years old. There was nothing special about the boy: He was lean-bodied, with greyish blue eyes and neatly combed fair hair. His young age seemed to be no problem for the young choirmaster.

High-pitched and clear children’s voices filled the church with the crystal-clear sound. The harmoniously intertwined voices flowed freely over the church, reaching the ears and passionate hearts of each and every grateful listener. It seemed impossible that a child could lead the choir of regular village boys with such confidence. Smooth, but expressive movements of his hands led the church choir, as if he and the choirboys were a single whole. The melody was flowing, giving a sense of peace to everyone in the church and filling their hearts with light.

When the sermon was over and the congregation left the church, the priest disappeared behind the holy doors. Meanwhile the choirboys came down from the balcony. Most of them immediately changed into their casual clothes and hastened home. The young choirmaster did not leave and settled down to the usual novitiate work: He put away the burnt-out candles, fixed a crooked icon, and added fresh oil to the altar lamp.

Vladislav Viggin

“Vlad!” the priest called him. “Breakfast is on the table! Hurry up, son!”

“Alright, father!” Vlad replied.

He closed the psalter, reverently ran his hand over the artfully embossed leather binding, and went to the refectory at a leisurely pace.

Father Konstantin and Mark, the bell-ringer, were sitting at the table and talking quietly. The cook named Anna was putting the steaming porridge into plates.

The boy took his place and Father Konstantin began saying grace. The cook, standing by the table, and the bell-ringer closed their eyes, folded their arms on the chest and moved their lips while silently praying. Vlad was looking at Father Konstantin and echoing him, saying the prayer he knew by heart.

“Our merciful Lord, bless this food before us so that our souls could soar to you, our Lord, in their universal love! Amen!”

“Amen,” everyone repeated after him.

Mark was eating loudly and hastily. Father Konstantin and Vlad were eating tidily and without any haste. Anna was modestly standing by the table, taking some porridge with the tip of the spoon, and meditatively putting it in her mouth.

“What a singing it was today!” the bell-ringer exclaimed, unable to hold back his emotions. “But wait. It couldn’t be otherwise!”

Vlad gave a shy smile, but did not say a word.

“It used to be different. Many years ago, there weren’t even any choirboys,” Father Konstantin pointed out.

“Except for those two vociferous cockerels,” Mark said with a sniff.

The priest gave him a steady look.

“Don’t get me wrong, Father!” Mark crossed himself. “But you do remember how they used to wheeze, don’t you? I even spared a thought whether it was time to cast out demons from them!”

Father Konstantin only shook his head at this.

“There is no denying the truth, Father,” Anna said in a rather muffled voice. “It wasn’t very long ago that things started looking up, by the grace of God. The church is growing in numbers, and it is clean and tidy. The people seem to be more open-hearted.”

“And all the thanks should go to the boy!” Mark gave Vlad a wink, and the boy blushed all over.

“Uncle Mark, I don’t…”

“No, no, no, I won’t listen to it!” the bell-ringer covered his face with his hand in a dramatic gesture.

“He is right, my dear,” Anna cast him a smile and stroked his hair. “You are doing a lot for all of us. For the church and for the villagers.”

“Yeah, ‘at’s wha’ I’m ‘alking a’ou’! ” the bell-ringer made encouraging noises with his mouth full. “One canno’ coun’ i’ on ‘e fin’ers of one ghan’!”

“They are right,” Father Konstantin gave Vlad a sharp look. “You are humble, and it is very commendable. But people can see you doing your best. We have never had a church choir before. You turned regular village boys into choirboys, whose voices would be duly appreciated even in privileged circles. I lend my ears to the people who come here in my line of work. And guess what they say? They come not so much for the prayer, as for the choir. Your choir, Vlad.”

“But why?” the boy asked.

“You may not notice it, but when I stay there, downstairs, I marvel at the incredible concord of voices. These voices make people happier and kinder.”

Though they spoke highly of him, Vlad was sitting with his head low, as if they were chastising him.

“Not to mention this clear head full of knowledge. Father Konstantin, do you know many teachers who could teach reading and writing, the Bible, mathematics and other sciences at a parish school at this age?” Mark kept harping on the same old theme.

Vlad shrugged his shoulders in embarrassment. He genuinely struggled to understand what he had done to deserve such praise. He had been doing all of this without effort; moreover, he felt he was wasting time.

From his first day in the house of Father Konstantin, he was very passionate about every book he got hold of. Within a short time, he learnt the art of reading and writing, and read all the books in the local library. He read everything and anything, ecclesiastical writing, theology and philosophy books, geographic atlases, and periodicals. He had an amazing memory and could remember the texts by heart almost word for word. But when he was retelling these books to his peers, he didn’t do it parrot-fashion; he was able to explain the main idea, conveying it in simple words, which could be understood even by a bell-ringer or a cook. No one asked him to do anything, but very soon he was the center of attention of village boys and girls. They did not come to him for fun and play. They came to listen to his never-ending stories. That is how he became their teacher. Father Konstantin was happy to entrust him with the keys from the classroom.

“Talking about the studies! What classes do you have today?” Anna looked at the boy with respect.

“Hmm…” Vlad hurried to swallow a bite. “Astronomy. We are going to learn more about the solar system.”

“I’d be glad to join,” the cook said and dabbed away tears with a handkerchief, “but I will make a sight of myself, uneducated old woman!”

They finished their meal. Father Konstantin addressed his children with words of encouragement:

“You both have things to do. Go in peace. And you, Vlad, should go to your pupils. I want to have a serious talk with you after that.”

Vlad’s heart gave a leap at these words, but he didn’t give himself away.

The small church school was attached to the church building. Vlad told the other children about the composition of the solar system in plain language he got used to. He told them about the huge and hot Sun, explained why it was shining, and what planets revolved around it. He chalked the planets as circles of different sizes and their orbits, and told a fascinating story.

“And where do we live?” the children asked him.

“It’s the third planet from the Sun,” Vlad showed them.

“Why are you saying that Jupiter is the biggest planet which is three hundred times as massive as Earth, if we can’t even see it? The Moon is small, but we can see it.”

Vlad brought the children to a hill behind the church fence.

“Can you see the hen?” he pointed at a crested hen shuffling its legs back and forth in the dust on the road.

“Yes, we can,” the children nodded.

“And can you see the cow there, on the grass beyond the river?” he looked into the distance.

“Where? Where?”

“I can see! It’s like a tiny dot!”

“What is bigger, a cow or a hen?” Vlad asked.

“Of course, a cow!”

“But you see it as a tiny dot. Do you know why?”

“Because it is far away!”

“That’s right! The same goes for Jupiter and the Moon. The Moon is right there, close to us, it goes around the Earth. And as for Jupiter, a lifetime won’t be enough to reach it, even if you go there by car.”

“And we will run out of gasoline,” the children laughed.

They were standing in circle a while longer and talking of this and that. Their classes always ended this way.

Vlad saw the children off and got back to the church. Father Konstantin walked out from the refectory to meet him and greeted him with a smile.

“Are you done?”

“Yes, father.”

“Very well,” Father Konstantin said approvingly. He drew Vlad to him and held him tight.

“There is something you want to talk about, isn’t there?” Vlad looked up.

“I have a task for you, son,” Father Konstantin was hiding his face. “We’ve got a batch of church candles, and I need you to take them to the old Fedotya. I can never understand why she needs so many.”

“She probably prays a lot,” the boy suggested.

“I wish it was true,” the priest smiled. “Vlad…” he brushed the boy aside and looked into his fair face. “When you come back from her, I won’t be here,” there was a touch of sadness in his voice.

“Are you going to the city?”

“No… it’s just something that I need to do for the church… here, in the village,” the Father assured Vlad. “The candles are on the table in the refectory.”

“I got it, father!”

“When you come back from Fedotya…”

“You won’t be here,” Vlad repeated.

“No, it’s not that… there will be a present waiting for you in the refectory.”

“A present?”

Father Konstantin gave him a warm smile.

“Happy birthday, son!”

Vlad couldn’t even say anything in reply. He just gave the priest a hug.

“There, there,” the priest pushed the boy aside somewhat nervously and hid his face again, “hurry up.”

“Alright, father. It won’t take long.”

Father Konstantin left the church without a backward glance. Vlad went to the refectory. There was a bunch of church candles on the table, just like the priest had told him.

Chapter Two. A hard choice

Vlad knew the village well, so he chose the shortest way to the house of old Fedotya. On his way, he turned off into a few alleys and streets, scared off a gaggle of geese that burst out squawking and cackling in indignation. Vlad jumped over a low fence, leaving an old mongrel bewildered with his agility, and knocked on the hand-carved door.

The old lady answered the door almost immediately: She had seen the boy in the window. The boy smelled fresh baked pastries through the open door.

“Come in, honey!” old Fedotya greeted him warmly. “You are just in time, I have just milked the cow and now I am baking griddle cakes.”

The thought of cakes made Vlad’s mouth water (Fedotya’s treats were hard to resist), but he replied in a voice, crisp after the recent running:

“Thank you, but I won’t stay long.”

“Of course, you won’t,” the old lady nodded and let the boy in.

The door closed by itself.

As soon as Vlad stepped over the threshold, he got a feeling he had hopped into another dimension. The air was thick and redolent. He felt like being immersed in warm water; the warmth soaked in, relaxing his body and mind. His train of thoughts slowed down, and his brisk movements acquired smoothness. The need for haste had gone away. With the old woman, Vlad always felt like her well-behaved grandson, mesmerized by her deep throaty voice and loving kindness.

A wide reader, he always gave a good deal of thought to everything and could easily explain such transformations. No magic was involved. The wood stove in Fedotya’s house was always burning hot, even in summertime, and the windows were always closed; no wonder that the air was stuffy. As for the smells, the house was full of dry forest herbs tied in bundles hanging on the walls, fresh spruce branches and clusters of rowan berries.

“I brought you candles from Father Konstantin,” Vlad remembered the purpose of his visit.

“Oh, how nice of him!” the old woman took the candles happily. “I almost gave up thoughts of coming to see you. It’s quite a long walk for my old legs!”

“It is,” Vlad agreed.

“I can still do some chores around the house and milk the cow,” she flung her hands up and turned back to the oven. “My cakes! They are going to burn!”

Vlad helped Fedotya rescue the last of the cakes from the hot hugs of the oven. They smelled wonderful.

“Here you are!” the old woman pushed a hot griddle cake into the boy’s hand. “Go and sit at the table!”

Vlad took a bite of the cake and let out a moan of delight. It tasted even better than it smelled. He was slowly taking one bite after another, and before he knew it, the cake was gone.

“You are a magician!” he thanked the old woman ardently.

“Of course, I am!” she laughed, trying to look guileless.

“Humans can’t cook like that,” the boy reconfirmed, emphasizing every word.

“What are you trying to say?” the old woman turned sharply and fastened her eyes on his face.

“I’m not trying to say anything,” Vlad held her stare. “I’m just stating a fact.”

“So many years of practicing the magic of cooking!” the old woman began to prattle, trying to get off the slippery ground. “Anyone can become a magician after that!” she gave him a glass of freshly drawn milk and moved a plate with cakes closer to him. “Have another one!”

“I can’t stay long!” Vlad tried to refuse, unable to resist the temptation and reaching out for the plate. “Father Konstantin gave me a task.”

“I know,” the old woman nodded. “I know about the task and about many other things. Come on, eat all you can, and I’ll tell you a little tale.”

Vlad knew firsthand that the old woman had a lot of different stories. And each was more fanciful than the previous. He would be happy to listen to her stories, but he had no time: A present was waiting for him at home!

“I don’t have much time,” Vlad said stubbornly, but his actions did not meet words. He wanted to stand up, but instead, he made himself even more comfortable on the bench and was ready to listen.

“I won’t take much of your time,” the old woman assured him. “I’ll be done before you eat your cake…

Once upon a time there lived two brothers. They possessed a great wisdom and a considerable power.

The elder brother, known as the White Sun, had control over fire to burn down the evil and over the light of the sun to enlighten the righteous path. The younger brother was the Great Craftsman. He created all kinds of things for his brother and for common people.

But the Dark Evil came to their land and threatened the human race. The endless power, which was awakened by the Evil, was ensnaring the Earth in its web. The two brothers stood up for the people, but the forces were unequal. And they called for help, and two young maidens lent them a willing hand, the Witch of the Moon and the Maiden of Darkness, and the forces were equal again.

And the Ancient Evil, that held sway over the dead, fell. When the evil spirits were defeated, they became a close-knit family.

And they raised their city up into the sky with their power, to their own glory.

And they lived happily there ever after.”

Old Fedotya stopped to catch her breath.

Vlad took the opportunity to bid goodbye. A basket with cakes had already been waiting for him.

“Oh, no, thank you!” Vlad tried to refuse.

“Well, that’s not for you, my dear child!” the old lady said disarmingly. “That’s for the Father! As a thank-you for the candles.”

“Thank you, Fedotya Andreevna!” Vlad said. “I must go now.”

He took only a few steps from the porch, when he heard old Fedotya talking.

“The city in the clouds… lit up by the sunset and first streaks of dawn…” the old lady closed her eyes and was muttering under her breath.“I can see you in that city!”

Vlad looked over his shoulder, surprised, and gazed at her pale face.

“Ah? What?” the old lady came to herself.

“Are you all right?” the boy asked anxiously.

“Ah? Pay no attention to the old woman,” she waved away. “Oh, wait! Wait! You forgot the milk!

She rushed into the room as fast as legs could carry her and came back with a large bottle.

The boy was holding the basket with cakes in one hand and the milk in the other.

“Fedotya Andreevna,” he asked, “why have you told me this tale?”

“Don’t you know it?” the old lady looked at him with cunning, half-closed eyes.


“This is not the place where you should be.”


Vlad was coming back from old Fedotya, perplexed and dismayed.

He had heard a lot of her tales since he was a child. She used to tell them when he stayed at her place once a week or when she came to the church, almost every other day.

Vlad was quite sure that she had come so often to see him, to watch him grow up, to check up on his education, and to tell him another story. She seemed to have known or have felt what was going to happen to him in the days to come and was preparing him for that change with her stories and tales. She always asked him how he was doing, and never was contented with the casual answer “I’m fine”, keeping on questioning, delving into every detail. And he would tell her about his swift-flowing days, hour by hour, eagerly and openly. She seemed to be watching him throughout his whole life.

Vlad remembered the old woman having occasionally a quiet word with Father Konstantin. After their conversations, the priest used to look morose and pensive for a long time.

When Vlad was a little boy, she often looked after him, especially when Father Konstantin or bell-ringer Mark was busy. And she repeatedly told the boy that he was special, not like all the other. Vlad never dared to ask what she meant to imply.

The boy himself didn’t consider himself special. He felt embarrassed and even annoyed when he was praised or admired. For Vlad judged himself by other standards. What he had not done yet was more important for him than what he had already done. And what he had not learnt yet was more important than what he had already learnt.

And then was that strange tale…

Just another story, nothing else. The old woman was very good at telling stories and knew a great deal of them. Yet, that very story stroke a chord with him. Disquieting thoughts crept into his mind. Her last words, “This is not the place where you should be”, got him totally confused.

Is he going to be exiled from the village? But why? What has he done? What is the reason he didn’t fit it? Maybe, it’s better to go back? To ask her?

Uncertainty, and not Fedotya’s words, was what disturbed him most. Vlad understood it clearly. Several times he stopped and nearly went back to old Fedotya to get answers to all the questions preying on his mind, but his legs wouldn’t obey him and kept carrying him home.

“So be it!” he said aloud, as if showing his obedience to an invisible fellow traveler.

Vlad would be glad to talk with Father Konstantin, but he remembered, disappointedly, that the priest would not be at home.

At home, he put the basket with cakes and a bottle of milk on the dining table. A small parcel was lying on a clean rag.

“A present!” he brightened up.

He unwrapped it.

Inside there was a silver chain with a dark-purple diamond-shaped crystal pendant. Vlad touched the crystal and it lit up with soft light, vibrating.

Startled, the boy screamed and dropped the present. Instead of smashing on the floor, the crystal hovered in the air and then slowly went up to Vlad’s face, as if looking into his eyes.

The boy backed up, astounded. The glare around the crystal was growing until it took the shape of a human figure, a figure of a woman. The woman was tall and slender; she was wearing a long embroidered gown flowing down to the floor.

The woman’s body was the same color as the glaring crystal, which was pulsating close to her heart.

She spoke in a pleasant melodious voice:

“How do you do, Mister Viggin?”

At first, Vlad didn’t understand who the woman was talking to, and kept looking at her in astonishment.

“Do you know me?” he asked after a long pause.

“Of course,” the woman replied with a smile.

“May I ask who you are?” the boy asked timidly.

“My name is Freya Altos,” the woman introduced herself. However, she could see by Vlad’s face that her name didn’t ring any bells. Quite the opposite, his face displayed even greater bewilderment. “I am a Master of the Academy of Magical Arts, Malefisterium,” she added.

“The Academy?” Vlad asked, “of Magical Arts? I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s time you learn more about it,” Freya came one step closer to Vlad. “The Academy is the place where kids like you live and gain insight into mysteries of the world.”

“Why do they need that?” Vlad asked. He believed (and he was taught) that mysteries must stay uncovered. Otherwise, what kind of mystery it would be, if it was known to many? It would be no mystery any longer; rather, it would be a piece of common knowledge!

“To learn how to change the world for the better.”

“Is it not good enough?”

“No matter how good this world is, there is always room for improvement. You practice to sing better. You read books to learn more.”

“Do we grasp mysteries by doing that?”

“The mystery of a new melody… is the mystery of new knowledge.”

“I see.” Vlad put his mind at ease. “You’ve said there are kinds like me” the boy reminded her. “Where do I come into this?”

“You belong to our world by birth,” Freya said solemnly.

“Your world? What world are you talking about?”

“The magic world.”

Silence hung in the air.

“I don’t think I am allowed,” the boy spoke hesitantly, “to get in touch with the magic world. I was brought up in the Christian faith, which disapproves magic.”


“Magic is a sin!”

“The world is multidimensional,” Freya was not a bit embarrassed. With her answers quick and ready, she seemed to know all the arguments Vlad was going to offer. “It is not split into evil and good, black and white. Looking from above, you will get a full picture.”

“What are you talking about?” Vlad flushed with indignation. “You want to say that the Scripture is a lie?”

“It is a part of the truth,” Freya assured him. “A piece of the jigsaw puzzle.”

“What puzzle?”

“A puzzle called the Universe,” Freya spread her arms, showing its infinity. “Both magic and the Christian faith are just two examples out of many clues to the mystery of Creation. To the knowledge of the meaning of existence and non-existence.

“It means… you are saying that magic is in agreement with religion?”

“More than that,” Freya was happy to see that the boy was interested, “it expands and complements it.”

“But then why does the Scripture argue that magic is evil?”

“The Scripture, which you mention so often, is a book that has been revised and altered many times over the centuries, depending on the education, mindset and needs of those who benefit from it,” Freya explained. “A lot of things that people fail to learn and explain are in no time marked down as evil.”

“But what about magic?” Vlad was confused, but kept questioning.

“Magic is the oldest science that studies the underlying origins of the existence.”

“Even black magic?”

“Depends on what you mean by it.”

“Jinxes, hexes, love spells.”

Freya interrupted him gently.

“It’s a misconception, Vlad. Magic itself is harmless. It doesn’t comprise evil or good. It entirely depends on who practices it and what their intentions are. What you’ve named has a negative effect. But magic goes beyond this list. First of all, it opens up new horizons for understanding the world, both outer and inner.”

Vlad remained silent.

“I can see you still doubt,” the woman gave a wave of her hand to change the setting. “Well… let me give you an example. Imagine that you and your friends are in a thick forest. It is winter, snow is lying all around.”

The wind rose suddenly, and white flakes of snow were dancing in the air.

The boy gave a little shiver at the word “snow.” It brought back unpleasant memories.

“It’s getting dark. You cannot find shelter, and the night is falling fast. There are a few fallen trees around, but you have no matches to make a fire. However, you can use magic instead. But you are a firm supporter of strict dogmas that say: ‘Magic is evil!’ So, all of you will freeze to death before morning. Or you can choose the other option: You start a fire by using magic, and you live through the night. As a result, you will save your life and the lives of your friends with the help of magic.”

Vlad made another feeble attempt to hold the ground.

“But what made you think I belong to you?” the thoughts were whirling around in Vlad’s head. “I am just an ordinary village boy.”

Freya made a gesture with her hand.

Vlad checked himself.

A scene from his past life was brought back to him, the one he had been trying to forget for many years, though with no success.

A forest road, a sledge with firewood, and the three of them: Vlad and Stepa, eight-year-old boys, and bell-ringer Mark as a coachman.

The tired bell-ringer was leading the horse by the bridle, with his head low. Vlad was dragging behind. They had been working hard: Mark chopped firewood, Vlad and Stepa laid it onto the sledge. Once or twice, they had to push the heavy loaded sledge uphill, helping the poor old horse. Stepa seemed to be hit by a giggling fit, he was kidding around, giving Vlad a push or throwing a snowball at him.

“Stepa, stop it!” Vlad asked

“I won’t!” Stepa laughed.

“I’ll get you!”

“Catch me first!”

A deeply rutted narrow road, a stiff slope. And Stepa, running away from Vlad. The feet of the mischievous boy slipped down the ice-covered slope.

Vlad watched his friend fall and slip down under the runners of the firewood sledge; it was all like a slow-motion movie. A cry escaped his lips, and he thrust his arm out as if he wanted to keep the boy from falling.

Something clenched inside of him and then broke forth.

The sledge turned over.

It’s too late.

The boy was lying still, crushed by the heavy sledge.

The sledge burst into silver blue flame, soaring to the sky…

Vlad shook his head, banishing the horrible scene from his mind.

“I was late,” Vlad whispered with tears in his eyes. “Just a second late.”

Vlad and Freya

“You tried to save your friend,” Freya consoled him. “What you did was not black magic, was it? That is why you need the Academy: So that you are not late next time. Freya placed an emphasis on the last words.

Vlad failed to find objections. Hating the defeat, he had to admit that Freya made a very compelling argument.

He was overwhelmed by conflicting feelings. Joy and excitement were mixed with anxiety and confusion. What awaits him? Will he like the new place? Is he going to find himself? And what about his friends? His choir? What will they do without him?

“Life is a book,” Freya said as if she was able to read his mind. “It’s time for you to turn the page over and get to a new chapter.”

They both relapsed into silence for a while. The boy was watching the play of the purple energy in the woman’s gown. The chain of events of the day was falling into place little by little: The strange words of Father Konstantin, the tale of old Fedotya. Did they know? Were they preparing him for this? He drew a sigh, closed his eyes, and whispered hollowly:

“When should I get going?”

“Today,” she gave a ruthless reply.

“Today?” Vlad looked around the priest’s house that had become his home, his heart sank. “But I must say goodbye to Father Konstantin.”

“He knows about you,” the master said, preventing further questions. “But you can write him a letter.”

“A farewell letter?” Vlad swallowed hard.

“Yes,” Freya nodded, “a farewell letter.”

She knew how he felt.

“When you leave the village,” Freya was giving him instructions, “find a solitary spot and squeeze this stone hard with your hand,” she pointed at the crystal on the chest of the womanlike hologram. “Don’t be afraid of anything, and don’t be surprised. You will not be alone on your way to the Academy.”

“Who is coming with me?”

“Someone who knows the right way! Good luck and see you soon!”

The lines of her body began to fade and, eventually, the woman disappeared. The remaining shapeless glow flowed into the crystal that slowly landed on the table.

Vlad went to his room. It was small but cozy. The daylight easily came through the only window with no curtains and kept the room light even in the early morning and during the evening hours.

There were two icons on a special shelf in the far corner of the room: The Virgin Mary and Nicholas the Wonderworker. There was also a bookshelf to the right from the God’s corner, filled with a dozen of various books. There were three more icons above the bed, including the icon of Saint Vladislav of Serbia, Vlad’s patron saint. A shabby Bible was lying on the bedside table.

Vlad looked around the place, where he had spent most of his life, for the last time.

There was nothing left to do but to write the letter. But how hard it was! Vlad felt such deep sadness that it made his heart shrink.

“All you have to do is say farewell,” the inner voice told him.

“I am scared,” Vlad admitted to himself and felt tears well up in his eyes.

“No wonder that you are scared,” he heard the encouraging inner voice. “And yet you have to do this.”

Vlad was about to ask himself what was going to happen when he left, but he didn’t dare. He felt that he already knew it.

“It will be hard. It will be really hard. But you can make it, Vladislav Viggin,” his inner voice whispered.

Vlad was still looking at a sheet of paper and a pencil in his hand. It all happened right here. The appearance of Freya, the invitation to the Academy, which wasn’t really an invitation, rather a statement of the fact. He realized he just didn’t have any choice, didn’t have any alternative. What was meant to happen would have happened regardless of what he felt or what he wanted.

Everything became clear.

“I don’t want to leave,” he whispered.

Tears flowed from his eyes, first slowly, and then plentifully.

He went on writing. He was writing in his neat handwriting, and the tears he failed to dash away were falling down on the paper.

He wished he could hug loving Father Konstantin, cheerful bell-ringer Mark, caring cook Anna, old Fedotya, and all his friends.

He had a gut feeling that they were going to disengage from his embrace, no matter how tight he would hold them.

“My dear Father Konstantin, I know that what I am going to do will please your heart, but my heart is breaking. Forgive me, father, and do not banish me from your heart, for I will see it as a bad sign discouraging from the journey.”

With his eyes cast down, Vlad walked along the village road unusually fast, almost running. He knew he would give it up and stay, if he spoke to a villager or even cast a glance back. He looked back only when he was outside the village.

Tears were still rolling down his face. But now, when he held the past tight in his heart, he could let it go.

Chapter Three. The Admission Trial

Words can hardly describe what Vlad felt when he was writing the farewell letter. You can try to understand the twelve-year-old boy who had to leave home, his warm bed, a hearty meal, and most importantly, his loving and caring family. If anyone asked him about the reason for his doubts, he would easily find an answer.

The boy was always obedient to the priest who was like a father to him. Father Konstantin and the church were his only home and his only family. But there was something deep at the core of his loving heart that made him dream of the place the woman from the magical crystal had invited him to. In an inexplicable way, Vlad knew that the new world was the place where he would find all the answers. Old Fedotya’s tales, the utterances like “This is not the place where you should be” and “You’d better leave”, which he had heard repeatedly, the words of the sorceress calling herself Freya, all of that encouraged him to make that step. After all, he was still a child and subconsciously longed for mysteries.

Vlad traveled light. He set his heart on this: Either he enters the new world with nothing that would remind him of the past or…

Longing for Father Konstantin and his home, he made it to a small bridge over the river before he even knew it. A dark forest stretched beyond the river.

Vlad was standing at the edge of a big forest. With a heavy heart, he looked back at his house, the village, and the church rising above it… The boy was on the verge of tears.

He drew the crystal, which called him for the road, out of his pocket, and squeezed it hard with his hand. To his surprise, the hard gem crumbled into sparkling purple dust and slipped through his fingers.

Vlad thought that he messed everything up. He must have missed something in Freya’s explanations, and now he had to go back, disgraced. The few minutes he was walking from his house to the forest brought a dramatic change in him. Now he saw his involuntary return as a retreat, an unfair punishment.

“Keep your head up!” he said to himself. “Freya told me not to be surprised at anything! I just have to wait; something is going to happen.”

Vlad slowly turned around on one foot.

The surrounding landscape was the same, except for fresh colors that brightened it up: The same river, the village far away, and the dense forest. The wind rose and was now shaking the tops of the trees.

“Look at you!” he heard a mocking voice behind his back.

Where did it come from? There had been no one there a moment ago! And no one could get there without being seen! Vlad turned abruptly.

“Are you really from Molyobka?”

A boy of approximately fourteen years old was leaning against a thick tree, with his arms crossed on his chest, grinning.

“Who are you?” Vlad asked, startled.

“When you summoned me, I thought it must be some kind of joke. We haven’t seen anyone from this godforsaken place for more than eight hundred years,” the boy kept grinning. He stepped out of the shadow of the tree, and Vlad could get a good look at him.

The boy was lean and devilishly handsome. That’s right, devilishly, for that was exactly the word for his arrogant face. He was wearing blue jeans and dark-green long-sleeve plaid shirt. His face was oval, with regular features. He had dark green eyes and a chin proudly turned up. His thick dark hair was slightly disheveled, his pale pink lips were twisted into a shadow of a wry smile. The appraising glance of his vulturous eyes was fixed piercingly on Vlad.

When he came closer, Vlad noticed that the boy was almost a half-head taller than he.

“You look somewhat different than I imagined,” the boy narrowed his eyes, still having the grin that began to irritate Vlad. “I thought you were older and taller.”

Despite the provocative behavior of the stranger, Vlad kept calm. He gave a guileless smile and held out his hand.

“Vladislav,” he introduced himself respectfully. “You can call me Vlad.”

But the boy ignored Vlad’s hand. Instead, he stepped back and slowly looked Vlad up and down once again. Vlad was not a bit embarrassed by that.

“You are from the Academy. They’ve sent you for me, haven’t they?” Vlad realized. A sly smile was creeping over his face.

The stranger parted his lips in a smile, showing his straight white teeth. He clapped his hands three times, making pauses.

“Bravo, young man, well done! Only forty seconds!”

“Forty seconds of what?” Vlad was confused.

“It took you only forty seconds to understand where I came from. Others start asking stupid questions like ‘who are you?’, ‘where do you come from?’, ‘you were sent for me, weren’t you?’. But most of the time, they say: ‘Get out of here!’ At this point some problems tend to arise, but not at my end!”

His eyes flashed as if he was up to no good. He was hovering about Vlad just like a predator, preparing to attack.

“I understood it as soon as you appeared,” Vlad said with a sneer. “But asking point-blank would be inappropriate. I thought you were going to introduce yourself first.”

He thought he had cut off the stranger’s arrogance. However, the stranger didn’t change his behavior. He stopped circling around and was now looking straight into Vlad’s eyes.

“Introduce myself? Who needs such formalities? What if you fail the trial?” the boy asked in a low voice.

“What trial? I don’t know anything about it!” Vlad’s throat became dry with fear, but his face remained calm.

“You were invited to the Academy not for your good looks,” the boy sneered. “You have to prove that you deserve studying there. For that, you need to be able to survive.”

“To survive?”

“Before I take you to the portal, I need to make sure that you are the kind of person we need,” the boy’s pupils dilated, turning into two black abysses with shining stars at the bottom.

Silence hung in the air.

“What do I have to do?” Vlad asked, without waiting for an explanation.

The stranger’s eyes glistened with excitement. He spread his arms wide to the sides as if he wanted to hug Vlad.

“Nothing difficult! All you have to do is to beat me in a fight.”

Vlad thought Peter was joking, and reflexively took a step back.

“You want me to fight with you?” he couldn’t believe his ears.

“These are the rules,” the stranger shrugged his shoulders. “I didn’t invent them! I just have to test you.”

“And what if I don’t want to?”

“Ha-ha-ha! Who cares?”

“Don’t I even get a say in your world?”

“You are not in our world yet,” the stranger said. “And, after all, haven’t you heard the saying ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’? We have our own rules. You must follow them. Otherwise, I will leave and you will miss your only chance.”

The stranger looked as if he did not care at all: He talked about a fight in an unengaging voice, as if Vlad was a plant or a bird. He even turned away, staring at a bush.

“So, I’ll be going now?” he asked without a backward glance.

“No! Wait! I will fight!”

“Oh, thank you!” the stranger took a bow, pretentiously. “To make it less frustrating for you, consider this fight your entrance test.”

“Are you serious?!”

“I’m dead serious. You heard me – I didn’t invent the rules! If you pass, you belong to us. And if you don’t…” the palm of his right hand burst into flame.

The orange glow of fire lit the stranger’s face and eyes.

The next instant, a ball of fire was swooshing toward Vlad. He barely dodged it, but his shirt caught fire. Vlad tore it off, the buttons fell down to the ground. Bare-chested, the boy ran into the forest. Hardly had he reached the trees when a wall of fire rose in front of him. He was taken off the ground and thrown right at the stranger’s feet. The fire was still blazing in the stranger’s hand. Hitting the ground, Vlad got the wind knocked out of him. The stranger leaned over him and smiled wryly.

“It looks like there’s been a mistake at Malefisterium,” he shook his head sorrowfully. “Apparently, you are an ordinary human being. But,” the tone of his voice changed, “I like you. I’d like to teach you something myself, but alas!”

He threw his hand up in the air: Time seemed to slow down. A fiery tail flashed through the air. Vlad snapped his eyes shut and thrust his hand out, protecting himself. He knew he couldn’t stop the ball of fire, but was reflexively trying to keep the fire away from his face.

The fight

A flash of blue light.

The flame in the stranger’s hand burst and threw him off.

Vlad opened his eyes.

His opponent was lying nearby, smoke coming from his hand and the right side of his face. Vlad came up to him, staggering, and knelt down. The skin on the stranger’s hand and face got burnt and was smoking. Some of his hair, the right eyebrow and the sleeve of the shirt were gone.

Vlad realized that the boy was not going to live through such injuries.

The tears came to his eyes.

“So many events on one day, and now a murder,” he lamented. “That’s a fine kettle of fish… It’s a good thing that Father Konstantin is not around. He would never forgive me… What have I done? But I didn’t know! How am I going to get to their world now?”

Vlad bit his lip and passed his hand gently over the healthy hand of the stranger.

The next instant he felt he was suffocating. And immediately he realized he was hanging in the air, and his throat was held by the scorched hand of his opponent. He had sprung to his feet swiftly and now clearly intended to break Vlad’s neck.

“You know, I could have easily burned you to ashes,” the stranger hissed out, though without confidence, “and scatter your ashes to the wind. Then, I would say in the Academy that the crystal responded the wrong way.”

Lilac-colored mist began to flow over the scorched arm of the stranger. It covered the shoulder and the injured half of his face. The boy waggled his head, shaking off the heavy mist.

Vlad opened his eyes wide with astonishment: No trace of injuries could be seen, and the skin didn’t have any burn marks. All the traces of fire vanished from the shirt. The stranger loosened his grip, and Vlad felt the ground under his feet. He fell heavily onto the grass.

“I have to give you credit,” the stranger said in a calm voice. “You managed to surprise me. And it means that you’ve passed.”

Vlad was sitting on the grass and rubbing his neck. He looked at the stranger distrustfully. Though he didn’t seem to attack again, Vlad decided that it would not be wise to provoke him.

The stranger held his hand out, offering help.

Vlad took his hand and felt his feet stand firmly on the ground. The stranger was a boy of uncommon strength, though he clearly didn’t look like an athlete.

“Peter Ravenwood!” the boy introduced himself ceremoniously.

“Vladislav Viggin!” Vlad offered his full name too. “Why couldn’t we have started with this?”

“Because very few people know my name outside the Academy. And those who know it say it with a lot of respect,” there was undisguised arrogance in the voice and gaze of Peter Ravenwood.

“And what is Mister… Ravenwood so famous for?” Vlad asked, with a shade of irony in his voice.

Peter’s eyes flashed.

“Don’t push it,” he patted Vlad’s shoulder. “I was given the order to bring you to the Academy. But masters never specified in what condition. So please, be respectful. I am one of the best students of the Academy, and that is all you need to know for now.”

Vlad bowed his head, hiding a smile. When he raised his head again, there was a serious look on his face.

“Now what?”

“Now,” Peter said with an air of importance, “I need to explain some of our rules to you. You will live on the Academy premises until the end of your education. Of course, if you are lucky to stay alive. Don’t look at me that way! Many of those who were as good as you became crippled or lost their lives. Magic is not about fairies, magic wands, and a happy ending.”

“I already got it,” Vlad mumbled, but Peter turned a deaf ear to him.

“Each newcomer has a mentor from among the senior students,” Peter made a wry face. “Mentors look after their mentees, answer their questions and help them with their studies. But they are neither babysitters nor bodyguards. If you think that your mentor is going to watch every step you take and dance attendance on you, you might want to think twice.”

“So, are you my mentor?”

“I need you like a hole in the head!” Peter brushed the question off. “The Council of Malefisterium will appoint your mentor.”

“Anything else?” Vlad asked dryly.

“Twice a year there is an evaluation of students’ progress.”

“Is it some kind of exam?”

“Yeah, though it is administered by the mentor. Trust me, what has happened here is child’s play comparing with the progress evaluation,” Peter summed up.

Ravenwood walked up to Vlad’s burnt shirt lying on the ground, picked it up and threw it to the boy. The shirt was undamaged.

“Get dressed,” he held out his hand again. “Of course, if you didn’t change your mind and don’t want to go back home.”

“I can’t go back home now,” Vlad said quietly.

Peter nodded knowingly. They joined hands and silently vanished into thin air.

Chapter Four. The Sacred Wood

When observed from the outside, teleportation looks like a person’s disappearance at the place of origin and his immediate reappearance at another place. This process affects people in different ways: Some people get sick to their stomach, some feel dizzy, and others feel like walking up a few steps, being used to teleportation.

Vlad turned out to be quite good at teleportation. At first, he lingered a bit and, instead of grasping Peter’s hand, he gazed perplexedly around. In the very nick of time, when Peter had already lost his footing, he seized Vlad by his finger. That was the only difficulty. Except that Vlad slipped a little to one side and would have fallen when landing, if Peter didn’t catch him with his strong hands.

“Thank you,” Vlad said.

His companion remained silent and only gave him a patronizing look of his dark green eyes.

They found themselves in a strange forest. At first glimpse, the trees looked quite normal with their trunks, branches, and crowns. But there was something weird. Vlad shook his head, looked closer and saw it. The leaves! They were unusually iridescent: In the sunlight, their color ranged from turquoise to ultramarine blue.

“Oh wow!” he emitted a cry of admiration. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“No reason to be happy!” Peter said coldly. “This place is as dangerous as it is beautiful.”

There was a shade of alarm in his voice. Every now and again, he looked around warily as if looking out for someone.

“I thought we were going straight to Malu… Mala…” Vlad tried to get his tongue around the name.

“Ma-le-fis-te-ri-um!” Peter said. “You should know the name of your own school backwards and forwards! As for the place of our destination… You are right, it should have been the Academy.”

“Did anything go wrong?” Vlad took his words in his own way.

“It’s your fault!” Peter suddenly reproached him.

“My fault?” the boy was genuinely surprised. “How so?”

“Your moment’s hesitation was enough to land ourselves in the soup instead of the right place.”

“Can you explain?”

“You’d been dallying way too long before you trusted me,” Peter replied. “I had to spend some of my energy on getting over your stubbornness. As a result, we missed the target.”

“And how are we going to get ourselves out of it?” Peter’s anxiety was contagious. “Are we going to be teleported again?”

“No way!” Peter made a helpless gesture. “I am not powerful enough to hop around the space back and forth! No attempts are available. Now we are going to walk.”

“Is it a long way?”

“A wrong question!” Peter brushed him off. He never stopped looking out for something in the dense forest.

“Stop grumbling!” Vlad said in an apologetic tone. “Explain it to me in a normal way, I will try to understand.”

“We are not far away from the portal to the Academy…”

“What’s the problem? Let’s go!” the boy took the first step with determination.

“…but we are at a very bad place,” Peter said, and Vlad’s ardor was immediately tamed. “We have to get to the hill over there,” Peter pointed to the hill. “Can you see the fog there?”

“Is the Academy there?”

“There is the entrance to the cave there.”

“Is the Academy inside the cave?”

“Stop repeating over and over again: ‘The Academy, the Academy’! ” There is the portal, right over the hill.”

“Got it! We are going to get to the Academy through the portal.”

“Follow me,” Peter said, finding nothing suspicious. “No time to argue!”

Peter walked with quiet, light steps. From time to time, Vlad had to break into a trot to keep up with him.

The forest was old, deep and impenetrable. The path was littered with dead and wind-fallen trees blocking the way. The boys had to crawl under or climb over them, or even walk around. At first sight, the hill was not far, only within a half an hour walk, but they were approaching it very slowly.

“Hold on!” Peter said in a hushed voice and froze.

Vlad stood still and pricked up his ears.

“I can’t see anything,” he whispered.

“We are not alone,” Peter said. “Let’s change the route.”

“You make it sound like we have to split up.”

Vlad began to worry in earnest, but Peter had already stopped listening. He was anxiously peering at every bush, every tree, as if he was looking for something dangerous hiding there. Only when he made sure that nothing posed a threat to them, Peter gave a signal, and they moved on.

Vlad felt the waves of fear and anxiety coming from Peter and was reflexively hiding behind his back. Anyway, Peter was at home, or rather close to his home, in the place he knew, though only by hearsay. As for Vlad, it was his first time in this forest, and he had no experience or knowledge about anything of the kind.

His companion was right: After spending a few minutes in this wondrous forest, the excitement he felt at first oozed away. Now he was in no mood for marveling at splendors of nature: He could savor his memories about the place later. Right now, he had to get out of there, safe and sound.

Vlad was about to ask another question, but Peter hushed him up. He turned his head and put a finger to his lips so slowly, as if the movement could make noise.

It was something like a blast of wind, short and whistling.

The next instant the forest grew gloomy. The sky became dark with clouds; it was suddenly dreary and cold. The forest, dispiritingly silent just a moment ago, was now filled with mysterious sounds and alarming noises. Birds and wild animals were first to sense impending danger, warning out the rest of the forest inhabitants.

“With dangers awaiting you at every turn, I should have stayed at home,” Vlad said to himself.

Peter, as if responding to Vlad’s thoughts, stopped so suddenly that Vlad bumped into him. Vlad wanted to walk him around and took a step to the side, but Peter grabbed him by the arm.

“Stand still, don’t move,” he ordered, and suddenly there was a hint of steel in his voice.

“What’s happened?” Vlad was taken aback.

Peter pushed him down.

“Be quiet!”

They crawled several meters forward and hid behind a big snag.

“What’s going on?..” Vlad tried to peep out, but Peter put his hand over Vlad’s mouth and put a finger to his lips again.

Vlad sensed rather than heard the earth tremble rhythmically, as if it was struck with an enormous hammer. The boys peeped out warily from behind their cover.

Next moment Vlad saw it.

A giant was moving through the trees, towards them. It was of the four-story building height.

“Don’t move and be quiet,” Peter said, sounding quivery and strained.

“How long?” Vlad asked beneath his breath.

“Until it goes away.”

“Are you sure it will go away?” Vlad asked worryingly.

“It is hunting, stalking its prey,” Peter assured him. “It has other things to worry about rather than us.”

He was right, the giant was not strolling leisurely through the forest. It was walking slowly, watching its step closely, and constantly sniffing and blowing heavily through its nostrils.

“What does it prey on?” Vlad asked.

“Everything that runs, crawls, and flies!” the reply wasn’t comforting.

“Does it mean we can also be its prey?” Vlad opened his eyes wide, disconcerted.

“Yes, it does, a big game!”

Suddenly a bird flew up, squawking, from the branch above their heads.

The boys froze.

The giant turned towards the sudden noise, and only then Vlad saw that it had two heads. One head was male, with a shiny bald pate and an underhung lower jaw. The other was female, with greasy long black hair and big hungry eyes. Both faces were disgusting.

The monster took a whiff and took a few uncertain steps towards the boys’ hiding place.

Peter and Vlad pressed themselves to the ground and held their breath. However, their position was untenable: The wind was blowing right into the giant’s faces, and it must have already smelled the prey. Both pairs of its nostrils flared like a blacksmith’s bellows, and its feet smashed bushes and fallen trees.

The giant came up so close that the boys could smell its stinky breath. All it had to do was look behind the snag, pull apart the old roots over the boys’ heads and get them. But the stupid monster didn’t have the wit to do it. What was wrong? The smell of the prey was inches away, tickling both noses and making both mouths water, but there was nothing to be seen!

The giant roared with disappointment, shook its heads and flapped its arms. It was beating its chest and tramping its feet. The earth was quaking. Eventually, it kicked the old snag that was hiding the boys, and went its own way.

A cloud of dust and clods of earth were kicked up. The saving snag landed far away in the forest, as if it was featherlight.

Having no cover, the boys were paralyzed with fear, being aware of their vulnerability, but then they realized that the giant was going away. Their joy didn’t last long though. One of the four eyes of the giant noticed the prey. Both gruesome faces broke into a broad hungry grin of delight, and the giant began to turn back.

“Run!” Peter cried out.

The boys ran as fast as they could.

The earth was trembling underfoot. The monster rushed after them, anticipating a hearty meal. The boys could hear its roar and its breath, heavy of running. It could run them down any time now.

“Let’s break up!” Vlad came up with the idea.

The boys went their own separate ways.

The giant was mechanically running straight for a while. One head was watching Peter, and the other was watching Vlad. But even though the giant had two heads, it had only two legs. Its heads being in disagreement were of little help: One head insisted on turning left and the other wanted to go right. The giant couldn’t be everywhere at once. Neither could it resolve the problem: Which head was right? And that was why the giant stopped in uncertainty, turning a huge pile of dirt upside down with its horned feet.

The male head was looking toward Vlad and smacking lips; the female head was looking toward Peter and drooling over. Not knowing who to choose, the giant was twitching from side to side.

“Let’s get the shorty! He has tender meat!” the male head uttered, gnashing its teeth.

“No! Let’s get the one who’s taller!” the female head objected.

“He’s nothing but skin and bones!” the male head protested. “No meat at all!”

The giant took a few steps in Vlad’s direction but then stopped again.

“We’ll do as I say!” the female head barked out. “I am the boss!”

“Since when are you the boss?” the male head was offended and surprised.

“Since I began to cook for you, glutton.”

“To cook what?”


“When was it?”

The female head thought about it for a moment. Shooting from the hip is one thing, and standing by your words is another.

“Do you… do you remember…” the female head rattled on. “That’s it! Do you remember I caught a sysun last week?”

“So what?”

“I was so generous to divide it between the two of us!”

The example clearly displeased the male head.

“You call it generous?” it fastened its tiny eyes on the cocky neighbor.

“I do!” the female head wasn’t in the slightest bit embarrassed.

“I got the skin, rack and hoofs, and you got all the rest!” the male head listed out.

“And you… and you…” the female head changed the subject. “You had a meal yesterday, here you go! And I haven’t had a morsel of food, except for a dead sparrow, for three days!”

“But then, last week you secretly got so stuffed while I was asleep that we couldn’t rise to our feet for two days.”

“But you were asleep!”

“Couldn’t you wake me up?”

“Wake you up? No way!” the female head giggled.

She shouldn’t have said that. It was enough to try the patience of a saint.

“Watch your language, girlie! I don’t care that you are a female!”

The female head realized she had been overdoing and back-pedaled:

“I tell you what! What difference does it make which of us will eat whom? We have only one stomach anyway!”

“Yeah, right!” the male head didn’t mean to give up. “What difference! And no work for my teeth!”

“Do you think I don’t want to taste something nice?”

“In this case, come on, give it all to me. We have only one stomach anyway!”

There was no end to the argument, and meanwhile the prey was getting farther and farther away. The boys were no longer going their separate ways. They had changed their route and were running forward, their shirts flitting among the trees.

“Either we’re getting the tall one or you will feed me for the rest of your life!” the female head set an ultimatum.

Finally, she had her way.

The male head snorted spitefully, yielding ground, and the giant hurried after Peter.

The advantage the boys took during the heads’ argument was quickly dwindling. One giant’s step was equal to ten steps of Peter. To make it worse, the boy had to overcome obstacles, crawl, jump and even make a detour. By contrast, the giant was taking a shortcut. Neither thickets of thorny bushes nor heaps of rotten trees made it change his course.

Vlad saw that the giant got off his back to chase after Peter, but he was not happy at that. Clear as daylight, after it was done with one of them, it would catch the other.

The distance between the giant and Peter shortened to only ten giant’s steps. Half a minute later Peter’s fate would be sealed. He would be lucky if he was swallowed fast.

Something had to be done. But what?

Fitful thoughts, fitful movements.

Vlad noticed a stone under his feet and even though he knew such a weapon was of little help, he picked it up in despair and threw at one of the giant’s heads.

And, just fancy!

The stone flew like a cannonball. Whooshing! Vlad heard the sound of cracking bones of the enormous skull. The giant raised a howl of pain, stumbled against its own foot and crashed to the ground.

“Hey! Hurry up!” Peter was calling Vlad with energetic gestures.

The boys got to the hill. There it was, the entrance to the cave of refuge!

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