Annar departs to retrieve the anvil he buried, while the rest of the team plan the fetching of Katarina – the bride who is to wait on Baba Yaga. Annar’s agreement with the Hegumen regarding provisioning the village with Plamenka’s grain will have to wait – the band doesn’t have access to the granary, anyway, because Raskel took the magical tools that open it with him, and his whereabouts are unknown. Chonkorchuk doesn’t share the contents of the racy vision regarding Katarina with the rest of the group, but he is struck by an idea: Baba Yaga never specified exactly what ‘waiting on her’ entails, and the hermit considers whether the meaning was more metaphorical than literal. He has long thought about abandoning his self-imposed isolation, and starting a coven, which would augment his magical powers. So perhaps bringing Katarina to Baba Yaga actually means getting her to accept the Crone’s patronage, and not coincidentally, joining forces with Chonkorchuk himself. Given her adventurous spirit, she seems to be an ideal candidate.
Chonkorchuk questions Druvvaldis, who is more expert in the subject of magical lore, about how arcane initiations usually take place – his own took place long ago, and was perhaps idiosyncratic. The Galind relates that he has observed in his travels that initiations in this part of the world generally take place in bathhouses, where steam, a generous consumption of psychoactives, public nudity, and blood sacrifice can, under the right conditions, invite powers from the Otherworld to share their gifts with mortals. That seems to explain the vision, at least in part, and the trio begins their search for a suitable location, as well as the necessary materials for the ceremony.
Chonkorchuk sends the fefila into the village invisibly to look in on Katarina, and find out what is happening in her hut ever since she sent out the bun to converse with his band. Katarina is playing with the bun, but her mother is keeping very close watch on her, and questioning her about who the strangers that came looking for her earlier were. She mentions that Zhitko instructed the whole family to keep Katarina under very careful watch, and to report any strange visitors who might show up. Soon, the smith himself shows up, and begins asking about what happened earlier in the day. At this, the fefila (which had worked its way onto Katarina’s lap) escapes out the open window, and rolls back to the warren. Chonkorchuk and his companions proceed openly to the village, and confront Zhitko near the smithy. They must perform a ceremony of initiation for Katarina, the hermit explains, if they are to get access to the Otherworld, and hence, the Alatyr Stone. Zhitko is hesitant, but agrees. He says that the family has its own bathhouse by the river, and on the very edge of Lazarevo, so the initiation, which he will participate in, will commence at midnight. In the meantime, Chonkorchuk and Druvvaldis go to hunt hares, which will play a key role in the blood sacrifice, while Plamen goes to (once again) raid the stores in Plamenka’s room, for he is sure that she kept hemp for just such an occasion in one of her storage jars.
|Katarina prepares for initiation|
At midnight, the three approach the bathhouse. Its chimney is already smoking, and the air is thick with steam. Zhitko informs anyone with a crucifix to leave it outside, but as everyone is a heathen anyway, they simply disrobe, and walk inside. Zhitko is in possession of a hairbrush that gives off a protective magical energy that binds the maiden to Zhitko. After inspecting it with their spirit sight, Druvvaldis tells Chonkorchuk that it will bleed if anything happens to Katarina, letting its holder know that she is in danger. Both are also aware of a bond of enchantment between the two of them. Zhitko himself radiates wild, transmutative magic. Katarina enters the bathhouse as if in a trance. The whole place seems to radiate magic, and it is hard to concentrate on particular effects for long.
The initiation begins. Zhitko throws some water on the hot stones in the stove, and then begins to whip everyone present with birch switches. Plamen throws his hemp on the stones, and permeates the air with its intoxicating, sweet stench. Druvvaldis begins to pound out a driving rhythm on his drum as everyone sways in time with it. Finally, as the pounding reaches a crescendo, Chonkorchuk recites his dedication, invokes the Crone to accept a new follower, and opens a gateway by sprinkling Katarina’s body with the blood of the freshly-killed hare.
Suddenly, the maiden looks alert, stands up, and purposefully, walks out of the bathhouse, and heads toward the frozen river. The men all run after her, but when she fails to stop, Zhitko grabs her, and begins to drag her back toward the bathhouse. After imploring him to release her, Plamen casts a spell to paralyze Zhitko, and then, with some effort, he and Druvvaldis manage to pry the girl from the smith’s stiff, but powerful arms. She immediately heads back to the river without saying a word. Chonkorchuk runs after her with handfuls of clothes, while Plamen remains behind to keep an eye on Zhitko in the eventuality that the spell loses its hold over him. Druvvaldis stays behind as well, and throws Katarina’s brush on the fire inside the bathhouse.
|The flame serpent in pursuit|
Soon, the paralysis does lift, and a furious Zhitko, after demanding to know where Chonkorchuk is taking Katarina, begins to transform into an elongated, scaled, glowing shape. Before anyone can stop him, the flaming serpent soars into the air in pursuit of the girl and the hermit. Chokorchuk sees him coming, and turns Katarina invisible. As Druvvaldis and Plamen desperately run to catch up to save their companions, the serpent reaches Chonkorchuk, and towering above him, demands to know where Katarina is. After the hermit responds that she has gone to join their mistress, the serpent belches forth a column of flame at him. Able to avoid the worst of it, and to jump away before the ice he is standing on turns liquid, Chonkorchuk sees his spell on Katarina lifted by the strength of the serpent’s fire, so he decides to try to flee by making himself invisible. As the serpent prepares to take off after Katarina, suddenly, another shape appears, as if form nowhere, out on the ice. As it approaches, it becomes clear that it is Hegumen Yaakov, perhaps come from his nearby island abbey, alerted by all the noise. Yaakov holds his crucifix aloft toward the serpent, and demands in an unearthly voice for it to begone in Gaal’s name. At this, the serpent turns, and flies off, over Plamen and Druvvaldis, back toward the land. Yaakov then turns to Chonkorchuk and the rest, and tells them to flee as fast as their feet will carry them. Surprised at this unexpected aid, they obey, and soon, they lose sight of the monk in the darkness.
By the time they reach the other bank of the river, the nude bathers have managed to get some of their clothes on. They are very cold by now, but Katarina shows little sign of freezing. When they are able to get her to speak, she simply expresses a desire to reach the Otherworld as soon as possible. The four jog through the woods in wet clothes, and when they reach the vicinity of the old hermitage, they meet the crone, standing by a large and deep hole in the ground that definitely was not there before, though Chonkorchuk is starting to remember it from many years back. Next to the hole is a tree, with a rainbow-colored string of yarn tied around it, and dangling of into the hole, and into darkness. The hag bids the band to descend down the string, as this is what they came for. Katarina goes in first, and the men follow.The string proves surprisingly strong, though after beginning to climb, everyone loses the sense of where the sides of the crevice are, and feels a sensation of falling through a thick, soft fog. Finally, they all land softly, but in complete darkness. Druvvaldis’ companion lights the area in the form of a fire beetle, and they all espy a small ladder leading up to a trap door in a cellar. They all climb out into daylight, in the middle of a heathen sanctuary. Standing stones representing various Old Gods stand in an enclosure of a large, multicolored wooden temple. Chained to the closest standing stone is Vasya Toptygin, and next to him, stands Chonkorchuk’s camping cauldron, filled with silver