If humanity would name its greatest enemy other than itself, it would be nature.
Before humans roamed the Earth, nature had always been the progenitor of life. It could survive and flourish on its own, but humans would perish without it. Humanity had progressed to its current state because of nature, but it could also disappear with the latter’s wrath.
Nature had always had the absolute power over humans, but humanity could not seem to accept that. Envy. That was the only thing humans had that nature did not. Perhaps that was also the reason why some civilizations personified its terrifying glory into gods—the so-called superior beings who could harness the power of nature.
But there were also people who feared the real nature much more than the gods and the goddesses the civilizations had prayed to, because they knew firsthand how impartial it could be. Whether you prayed or not, whether you believe at those unseen beings, nature would not discriminate. It could save or kill you whenever, wherever, . . . however.
The adversarial relationship between man and nature had been the cause of several destructions, even almost extinctions, on both sides, but what drove both to stay around was their abilities to quickly adapt. Life would always evolve to ensure survival.
And perhaps the only ones who could be saved from nature’s wrath were those who chose to surrender themselves to its power. People who dearly loved and feared it that they developed special affinity to it. People who evolved with it. The change might be unnoticeable for centuries, and might be gradual over multiple generations, but once it finally manifested, society, environment, and even the power struggle between those who had evolved, would surely change . . . and sometimes, in the most unpredictable ways.
During the Renaissance, along the mountainous and extreme coastal regions between Norden and Rusnia, there lived several ethnic groups who had hidden themselves from civilizations for generations. After the emergence of urban settlements, these people were forced to retreat to the mountain ranges and other terrains that were too harsh for normal ones. Here, they knew they would be protected by nature and the strange abilities passed to them through a long line of ancestors.
Yllka was from a tribe that worshipped the rivers and waterfalls bordering their village. Her parents told her that their predecessors had formed an affinity with bodies of water. They had protected them from centuries, and these natural elements defended them and their territories in return.
“One day, Yllka,” her mother, Yndria, would always say before she goes to sleep. “One day, the great powers of the natural elements will be passed onto those who are worthy, as what our great ancestor Czeslav has foreknown.”
That was an old tale the elders would always tell the kids. The people of the tribe had an affinity for water for centuries. They could predict the weather, any natural disasters, and even sense the people around them through observing the movement of water bodies. However, there was never one who could control the element.
Yllka respected the tales, but she found them hard to believe, especially after what the rivers and waterfalls turned into.
She marched up the sloped terrain of the mountain as their village were located near one of the highest peaks. Yllka stared at the frozen waterfall in front of her. One of the reasons why she found a little credence to their narratives was that the same waters they told her about were frozen for centuries.
Winter was especially harsh at high altitudes. She only saw the waterfall alive during summer, which would only last for a month. That would also be the only time adults could get water for the village without going down the mountains.
“We should have worshipped ice instead of water then,” she muttered as she got up. Yllka brushed the soil and ice on her clothes.
She needed to get back to the village or else her mother and the elders would scold her again since kids weren’t allowed to roam the higher altitudes by themselves. One could only go if they had successfully secured their first kill in a hunt, or an adult was with them. She was upset because girls weren’t allowed to participate even though she knew she could do that, too.
Her father would take her here when she was younger, telling the same stories she had heard a hundred times from her mother. The higher peaks had become her place of solace, especially after her father passed away. Whenever she was upset or mad, she would secretly go here even if it was forbidden.
She heaved a sigh upon remembering him. “I must go home now.”
Just as when she was about to head back, she heard some rustling around her. She stopped on her tracks and tried to find the source of the sounds. She was hoping it was just a mountain hare or a roe deer, but her blood ran cold when a terrifying predator emerged from the coniferous trees and growled at her.
Several gray wolves appeared, and she froze in terror. Now she realized why the elders forbade them from entering the unguarded territory—it was a den of threatening predators.
Yllka slowly stepped back, but she realized she was still on the edge of the frozen waterfall basin that was connected to a river system a few meters below. The wolves growled louder the moment she moved. She knew they were highly territorial and the wolf fur that her father gave her years ago was making things worse.
“S-stay away,” she stammered as she pulled a few steps back.
Her mind reeled in panic. She could never outrun a pack of wolves nor defend herself from them. It was as if her only fate was death.
Yllka drew a deep, shaky breath. She maintained her eye contact with the largest wolf, which was almost twice her size, and hoped that it would back away . . . but the opposite happened. Out of desperation, she screamed while running toward the frozen basin. She could hear the wolves dashing behind her and one tackled her hard that her vision went black for a second. The wolf’s face came into her view, with its saliva dripping on her face.
Her heart was about to burst in fear. All she could think of was that she would die, and her mother would be left alone. She prayed desperately, hoping that the spirits of water that had protected their village for centuries would listen to her, but at the last moment, she knew she only had herself to figure things out.
She was not sure if it was because of the adrenaline, or her instincts just took over. The only thing she could remember that moment was hopelessly screaming while pushing the wolf’s mouth out of her face.
“Get away from me!”
She heard the wolf yelped followed by a crashing sound, and when she opened her eyes, her jaw dropped in surprise and terror. The wolf’s body was sprawled lifeless on the ice . . . and its head was missing. What she just saw were fragments of ice scattered near its body.
The rest of the pack turned quiet upon witnessing the death of their leader. Yllka was just as confused as them, but before she could even realize what happened, the wolves started running away. Moments later, she heard footsteps coming from the descent.
Her mother’s figure appeared along with two more adults. They rushed toward her direction, but a variety of expressions registered on their faces upon seeing the dead wolf’s body beside her.
“What happened . . .”
One of the guys asked, but his voice trailed off after realizing the predator was missing its head. His gaze shifted to Yllka, who was hugged tightly by her mother, shivering in terror. The adults exchanged nervous looks. She was barely a teenager and there was no way a kid could take on a full-grown beast . . . unless there was an unknown factor.
“Yllka,” her mother softly called, cupping her face. “Look at me. Are you hurt?” She shook her head. “No . . .” “Can you tell me what happened?” Yllka frowned, still dazed from everything that happened. “I don’t know.”
Yndria carefully inspected her body but both of them flinched when her mother touched her hands. They were freezing cold and ice crystals were forming on her fingertips. She was confused and terrified of what she just had seen.
The adults looked at each other, awe and fear reflecting in their eyes. Because they knew that that moment, nature had already bestowed its power to one of them.
Her strange condition spread like wildfire within the village and the neighboring tribes. Some even turned it into outrageous rumors. One said she had become an ice statue after berating the spirits in the waterfall, while others concluded that she must have had a peculiar contagious disease that could turn one into ice fragments.
The elders had no choice but to confine her at home. She could not go outside anyway because people would always look at her curiously.
“Am I a monster?” she remembered asking her mother after being locked up inside their house for several weeks. “No, Yllka, you are not,” Yndria said as she pulled her daughter into a hug, but Yllka stopped her.
After what happened to the wolves, she avoided touching anyone, afraid that she’d turn them into ice. The ancient tales that the elders had always said weighed on her chest. She thought having the power of nature, or any natural elements, was practically impossible and those stories were just created to force every generation to protect their territories, but here she was, a living proof of that terrifying forewarning.
It turned out every village was hiding their own breed of “monsters,” with some manifesting it years ago. They just kept it within their respective communities because having the ability to channel nature’s powers had its own risks.
Several months had passed but Yllka was still scared to face people. The elders also moved her mother out because she might be a threat to her safety. Yndria vehemently refused, but Yllka agreed with their decision. She did not want her mother to be with her at the moment because she did not even know the extent of her bizarre ability.
With nothing to do inside her confinement space, she used that time to understand her power. She wanted to control it so that she would not hurt people unintentionally.
She noticed that her body was also developing some cold resistance. Despite living in the wintry mountains, people could still feel the harsh and prickling sensation of the glacial temperature, but as months passed by, she could tell that her body had already acclimatized to the freezing weather, without needing layers of clothes and furs to make her warm.
What surprised her the most was that she could not only freeze things, but also disintegrate them into a pile of snow. That horrified her because she knew she could also do that to humans, and not even a single bone would be left behind.
It took her half a year to step outside without fear overwhelming her whole being. The village still looked the same, but she learned from an elder that the people viewed her differently now.
For some reasons, they started treating her like a god.
Adults treated her with reverence while kids her age were either too scared to talk to her or would rather look at her from afar. She was suddenly thrown to a position that had never been occupied from the start.
Do I deserve this? she mused after spending time with the people of her village.
Days later, she was declared as the protector of their territories. Perhaps it was because of her pride that she accepted it despite the grave responsibilities it would entail. She wanted to be a person whom they could depend on, even though she was just a young girl. Any authority or leadership roles had always been handed to adult men and she wanted to prove that she was also worthy of their trust.
“Hold it firmly!” a guy yelled as he showed her how to use a short sword.
Their best hunters and fighters started training her. She was not sure if it was because they believe in her, or they weren’t confident in her skills. Nevertheless, she accepted it. She knew she was still lacking in strength and judgment, and to fully utilize her power, she needed to improve those.
She was hoping nothing would go wrong until she was ready in every aspect, but a series of incidents forced her to fight.
“What happened?” asked Yllka after a commotion transpired outside the village. “Fjahr just came back from the borough below,” one of them responded. “He said he heard the soldiers preparing for a conquest.” Her brows furrowed. “A war with other countries?” The guy shook his head. “No, they want to conquer out lands.”
They had already lost half of their domain after the emergence of Renaissance. The extravagant structures built during its early era forced their previous generations to live in the less habitable regions in the mountains. Due to the rapid increase of the urban settlers’ population and the scale of their architectures, those people must have wanted to expand their dominion.
Their ancestors survived because they used nature against them—they knew the terrain well enough, and they lived here long enough to know how to use it to their advantage. However, with the sheer size of the urban settler’s army, the chances of seizing the expansive ranges this time would be a piece of cake . . .
. . . unless all the villages would work together.
The tribes within and at the foot of the mountains weren’t exactly enemies but weren’t friends either. However, they had no choice but to work with each other because this realm was their home. And this time, they had a common enemy.
The harjas, or those who were bestowed with the powers of nature, of the villages as well as their most skilled fighters were summoned to discuss and plot their tactics. As the youngest participant, Yllka could only listen, but she was in awe at how calm these people were. It was an honor for her to be here, learning everything about fighting and strategies.
“Scared?” Casmir, a guy from the lowlands who could summon fire, sneered.
They were stationed at the foot of the mountain after days of planning. Being the ones who could stop them, they were at the front lines, and all the villages were hoping they could stop the attack. Even without saying, she knew that her comrades think she was the weakest, especially since she was a girl.
She choked back the fear that was creeping in her throat. “No.”
Besides predators, Yllka had yet to try her powers against humans. She was the youngest fighter here, too, which burdened her more. She didn’t want to be the one who would be left behind.
She almost jumped in surprise when someone tapped her shoulder. Turning around, she saw the only person whom she felt comfortable with.
“Breathe,” Ivankov said.
He was from a village even nearer from the summit. Just like her, he had a unique affinity to ice. However, instead of the intrinsic property of ice, he could modify it into weapons.
“They’re marching here! Be ready!”
Her attention shifted to Krudj, who looked like he was catapulted from several meters away up to here. He landed perfectly in front of them and ran toward his designated position. Krudj could control the wind and he could use it for flying and navigation, something almost all of them were silently envious of.
She breathed deeply and readied herself. At the signal of Casmir, who was also their group’s commander, they engaged with a hundred soldiers.
Their ambush was successful as the soldiers broke their formation as soon as they entered their homeland. Krudj used the wind to send her comrades to strategic places and battle the enemies. Those who could control trees, water, and ground entered the fight, too.
Meanwhile, the three remained still. As much as possible, they did not want to use their powers because it might destroy the forest irreversibly. But something they did not expect happened.
Several of their fighters suddenly went down. Instead of the usual wooden or metal weapons, their enemies were using something else that they didn’t know—gunpowder. Because they closed off their home to any urban influences, they did not know how to counter it, especially since the soldiers could fire it from a long distance.
“Retreat! Now!” Casmir ordered but they were already getting outnumbered.
And it got worse when fiery arrows came raining down on them. The forest started burning and seeing the havoc sent their group in panic.
“Douse the fire!” Ivankov ordered, but several water harjas were either injured or dead.
Casmir returned the attack by alighting broken twigs and firing it back to them. Yllka was horrified upon seeing that and ran toward him.
“Stop that!” she said. “You’re going to burn the forest, too!” His jaw clenched in frustration. “Then what do you want me to do?! Your ice will just melt and my fire makes it worse! There aren’t any water harjas left!”
Yllka’s head reeled. It was as if the noise around her started fading away. All she could hear was her shallow breathing. She wanted to drive out the invaders. This was their home and it would be destroyed if they couldn’t do anything the in the next few minutes.
If only we could live in peace, free from outside interferences, she thought.
She felt a tug in her stomach, as if her anger and worry were coursing through her veins. The moment she opened her eyes, she saw an arrow flying toward her, but it froze midair, ice crystals slowly enveloping the fire at its tip. She channeled her power through a vehement scream and comrades and enemies alike watched in horror as a colossal wall of ice arose from the ground, stopping the parade of lighted arrows and projectiles from weapons with gunpowder. But what frightened them to death was when everything in her path slowly turned into snow.
Terror-stricken, their enemies scampered away, but Casmir lunged at them and finished what they started. Seething with wrath, the remaining force turned into ashes.
Yllka’s vision became hazy, but she could see the pale blur of Ivankov’s face running toward her.
“Yllka!” he called as her body collapsed on the ground.
She just used her power for a few seconds, but she couldn’t move anymore. Every part of her body was sore and her head felt like it would explode in any minute.
“W-what . . .” Ivankov lightly gasped upon seeing her face. “Your eyes,” he murmured. “They’ve become lighter in color.” “Wh—"
Her throat was so hoarse she couldn’t even finish her sentence. Before her consciousness seeped away, Casmir’s figure appeared in front of her, his hand extended.
“Well done, Yllka,” he said. For the first time, he acknowledged her name.
Everything started fading away, but she was happy that she did her part. That time, she thought everything would be okay as long as the villages continued working together to protect their home.
Returning to the mountains, they declared their victory. After what they had been through, every harja thought it would be better if the villages would amalgamate each other to further strengthen their power. The elders of each tribe were hesitant with that, citing the differences of their beliefs and practices, but those who engaged in the battle insisted.
Years later, villages formed a single community. Harjas were then renamed as Huntres, the strongest hunters and fighters with innate power of nature in them.
But little did she know, the same unity that they had shown despite living separately for a long time, would be the root of their own destruction.