At dawn, a satisfied kite was returning from a hunt. His day had begun extremely well: some heedless old man, God knew why, had tied all his chickens to the biggest hen. It would’ve been really stupid of the kite not to steal them away from the yard. The old man yelled some angry words at the kite’s retreating back and then quickly escaped to do some fishing while his wife was still at the market.
A boy and a girl came out of the forest, holding the baskets in their hands. The kite knew that their parents had died six years ago during the epidemic and that the children were now living alone, somewhere on the outskirts of the city. At the age of seventeen, Alena was doing an excellent job of keeping their house clean and raising her younger brother, who had just turned eleven. The old blacksmith Sarek, who went by the name Babak and lived on the other end of the village, helped her out with those tasks she couldn’t do herself.
There was nothing unusual about this because after the plague that had been ravaging this area, many houses stood empty and abandoned. In the attempts to prevent the epidemic from spreading, people tended to simply burn the deserted villages down, but some of them remained untouched. In less than six years, the villagers managed to recover from all the tragedies, and now only a cemetery filled with gravestones reminded everyone of what had occurred.
The boy became thirsty, and every now and then, he would rush to the closest puddle for a drink. Luckily, his sister managed to pull him away each time. Firstly, people just didn’t do things like that, and secondly, at the center of every puddle, there was an imprint of a hoof, a secret warning sign of Yaga herself. According to the unwritten rule of professional warlocks, each person had the right to a small clue that could help them avoid getting into trouble. The boy, unlike his wary sister, could care less about caution.
The kite was listening carefully to their conversation. During his long life, he had learned to decipher human speech. The boy once again crawled away from his sister and bent over a large puddle.
“Don’t drink that, Ivan, or else you’ll turn into a goat!” his sister cried out belatedly, but Ivan quickly took a few sips and stuck out his tongue at her. For a brief moment, he was engulfed by black smoke. Once it dissipated, the boy was gone, and a small goat was left standing by the puddle. The kite’s beak fell open in astonishment. Only now did he realize why Baba Yaga was working on each puddle so diligently.
“Oh!” Alena exclaimed, pressing her hands to her chest. “You goat! I warned you, didn’t I?”
The kite couldn’t help but wonder how he could steal the potion from Yaga. The drops she mixed into the water were amazing. He wouldn’t have to hunt for fat prey. He could just catch a mouse, throw it in the water, and the next second, a well-fed, fat goat would appear. This was a gift from the heavens!
Alena picked up the goat and ran to the local healer for help.
The kite was lost in his daydreams about turning a brood of mice into a herd of sheep. He was torn from his stupor only after noticing the faint black dot on the horizon with the corner of his eye. He shuddered. Now was not the time to daydream! The kite turned around abruptly and flew away in fear.
The castle that stood high and lonely was barely visible from the distance. It belonged to Kashchey the Immortal. Nobody, not even the most psychotic of psychos ever risked crossing paths with him. Kashchey always came up with ideas so vile that even the worst of the vermin acknowledged him as the ultimate evil. Luckily for every living being on this planet, Kashchey rarely flew into extreme fits of rage, but sometimes boredom drove him up the wall and he would pit evil forces against one another. The echoes of their battles terrified humanity and caused a strong headache among the evil forces themselves. At such times, those who knew what’s good for them had to find a new place for the living, somewhere as far from the battlefield as possible. Preferably, at the other end of the world.
However, Kashchey’s plans for today were surprisingly peaceful and concerned Princess Maria, the daughter of the local King Nicodemus, who was often depicted on various portraits. Exactly three weeks ago, Kashchey had taken a trip on his ghostly horse in search of troubles he could put someone in.
Fortune smiled on him when he saw a caravan of travelers from the distant kingdom. Kashchey joined the main carriage in all the glory of his fighting armor. He wore a black hauberk made of metal, which gleamed whenever he moved, a black raincoat, and a gilded helmet. Politely, he asked how far the much-respected travelers intended to go and whether they wanted to continue traveling at full health and strength.
If the travelers were uncertain whether it was in fact Kashchey standing before them, the sight of the legendary magical sword Kladenets eliminated all their doubts. In unison, the travelers pulled out purses with gold coins and were very surprised when Kashchey did not even look at them. Instead, he was interested in the portrait of Princess Maria. Kashchey had managed to overhear the caravan discussing how King Nicodemus called his daughter Maria “My golden treasure”, and so he headed to the leader of the caravan for details. And for the portrait itself.
The travelers had no desire to give up the precious cargo, but they also didn’t want to try their luck by fighting the Kladenets sword with their weapons. Life was something they all valued much more than the things they were carrying. After some loud but brief protests, the travelers quickly agreed that Kashchey needed the portrait more than they did. They turned out to be so kind that they presented him with a cart to carry the portrait in and asked for as little as their own lives in exchange. After mutual consent was achieved, the travelers rushed off into the sunset.
A small portrait occupied the area of only two meters wide and three meters tall in a folded state, and, upon closer examination, it turned out to be hand-made embroidery. Kashchey, after hanging this unique tapestry on the wall of the main hall of his castle, respectfully removed the crown that he wore specifically for such an occasion from his head.
And then the troubles began. For a long time after that, Kashchey stared intently at the image of the princess, frowning, trying to figure out which parts of her body consisted of gold. Eventually, he was forced to come to the conclusion that he simply couldn’t answer this question on his own. Kashchey couldn’t even imagine that the king called his daughter “his golden treasure” because of her personality. All his life, Kashchey preferred real gold, not the figurative one, so he failed to comprehend the psychological subtleties of his favorite word.
In the portrait, the princess was smiling mysteriously and nicely, and that irritated him the most. When Kashchey got tired of guessing, he decided it was time to find the answers in person. He would fly to the capital, ask the princess what it was all about, and return home. Just in case, Kashchey had prudently prepared a few surprises for the residents of the capital. After jumping on his ghostly horse, he rushed off to Slavnograd, to return his luck to its rightful place.
The clock on the main square struck six when he landed in front of the city gates, which were decorated with precious stones. The time was still young, but the gates were closed, and the gloomy sentries were guarding the city. Kashchey was amused that they had managed to miss his appearance. Strange sounds were coming from behind the walls, reminiscent of the convulsive sobs of a gusli that was being tortured by an inept guslar.
“You’re having a celebration!” Kashchey realized. He was delighted. “I arrived right on time, then!”
He jumped off the horse and banged against the gates. With a crackling sound, the heavy oak bolts were pushed from their hinges. The gates opened easily and without any squeak. They crashed into the wall loudly, forcing the numerous guards to tear themselves from their meaningless chatter and curse angrily at the manners of the sassy stranger, already promising him a painful future. It didn’t last long.
“Howdy, fellas!” Kashchey greeted them happily. The cheerfulness on the guards’ faces didn’t get brighter. “Don’t you see who has come to you for a visit? Don’t you recognize me? It’s me, Mister Good Sinister!”
The guards stared at him wide-eyed, then woke up from the stupor and seized their weapons.
“Straight to the fun?” Kashchey was surprised. “Without even enjoying a pint of beer to celebrate our meeting? As you wish!”
He snatched his magic sword from the scabbard and ran right at the pikes and spears in front of him. The guards turned out to be quite brave as it took no less than a minute before he managed to turn them to flight, urging those who lagged behind to run faster by swinging his sword and yelling like a madman.
The watchmen on the walls gazed helplessly at the turmoil below. Not only had they shamelessly missed the appearance of the unplanned guest, but they also couldn’t shoot as there was a risk of hitting their mates. After some delay, two-thirds of the guards finally did descend and rushed at “Mister Good Sinister.” The double pursuit continued until the guards who were moving through the narrow lanes crashed into each other, leaving Kashchey far behind. He studied the pile of fallen guards and then rushed to attack them, swinging his sword in a frenzied excitement.
When the guards who he kept goading sprinted past the royal stables and sped off in an unknown direction, Kashchey stopped. A huge cluster of carriages decorated with emblems drew his attention. It became clear why there were so many guards around and where the travelers had wanted to deliver the portrait of the princess. Monarchs and princes of all kinds had arrived for the annual ball. They were arranged every year in different states to introduce princes to princesses, develop diplomatic relations, and settle some personal scores. The appearance of Kashchey could bring a lot of confusion and surprises to the traditional routine of the high society, so he decided to take advantage of that. He would paint the town red!
The ball was in full swing when an old peasant with a long beard entered the hall and stopped near the balcony where the orchestra was playing a cheerful melody.
“Hey-ho!” he shouted so loudly that the couples closest to him went temporarily deaf, and the music turned into a blood-curdling cacophony before stopping. The dances of the monarchs of the world turned into a Brownian movement of particles and ended as well. Those present focused on the noisy stranger in disbelief.
“I don’t hear anything!” the old man yelled. “What the hell is happening?”
He put his finger in his ear and after a few twists, pulled out a small white ball.
“Guards! Get this idiot out of here!” a cheeky-looking prince shouted, his strong accent distorting his voice.
“Argh, they’ve pushed this damn cotton wool in my ears again!” the old man rumbled angrily and threw a piece of cotton at the disgruntled prince. Then he smirked, enjoying the way everyone was palpably shocked by his manners. Then he spat out the pebbles that made him lisp, tore off the country clothes he had worn over his battle suit, and pulled off his beard. “And here is me, The Great and All-Mighty, standing before you with all my modest strength and minor capabilities!”
The crowd blinked, puzzled. Kashchey spat out the last pebble and coughed, breaking the dead silence.
“Don’t you recognize me?” he addressed the confused king. “Me, the Great, the All-Mighty, the Evil Kashchey the Immortal? Well, what do they say? If one is not recognized, one is going to be rich!”
The crowd began to back away.
“Or you do recognize me?” Kashchey added. “Where are you going? You’re going to make me poor again! Wait! I’m not poisonous!”
The area around him was becoming increasingly free of people.
“And what about dancing ‘til you drop?” Kashchey appealed to them. No volunteers stepped forward.
“Who wants to dance with the greatest villain of the universe? Be reasonable, don’t make me choose my own partner!” Kashchey threatened. It seemed that his urging had been noted because a moment later, a significantly magnified number of armed guards ran into the ballroom.
“I don’t dance with men!” he protested, putting down his sword and drawing a circle around him with it. The guards obviously liked dancing with their sabers. Just give them the opportunity and they’d be up for it. “Whoever crosses this line will abruptly increase in quantity and decrease in quality!”
The guards did not heed the advice and stupidly rushed forward to attack him. Loud screams ranging from “Hurray!” to “Save yourselves while you still can!” rocked the walls of the palace.
“Haven’t they told you that attacking all together is bad for one’s health?” Kashchey exclaimed, eagerly chopping the spears and axes of his opponents who kept rushing into the battle, colliding with one another. Nothing but tiny pieces of metal were left afterward. Upon seeing it, the guards went berserk, but as they lost their weapons, too, they backed away, reigning in their fury. The guests fled to the corners, all but several crazy princes who rushed to help the guard. It took a while before Kashchey realized that he was fighting not only just the guards. Only after noticing that some of them had uniforms of strangely peaceful colors did he understand that civilians liked to fight, too.
“I wasn’t expecting that!” he called out, feeling genuinely surprised, so much so that he punched some annoying offspring of a monarch away from himself. “How about a fair one-on-one battle?”
“You have an unfair advantage!” the offspring parried.
“Well, yes,” Kashchey agreed. “But what would you have me do? Search for an immortal opponent? I’d die before I found one!”
Kashchey looked around the room, hoping to see the princess. She was peeking from behind the throne and seemed tremendously unhappy with the situation. It was useless to ask her questions at this time. Clearly, he wouldn’t get a straight answer. He’d have to go the hard way, then.
“Don’t I always?” Kashchey muttered. He was momentarily distracted from the fight and almost missed the blow. This infuriated him, so with one powerful swing of the sword, he destroyed the opponents’ tiny weapons. Then he rushed towards Maria like a hurricane, scattering the guards and the guests as if they were bowling pins. The space around the bewildered princess emptied instantly. Prince Yaroslav was the only person who remained nearby. He stepped in front of Maria and raised his sword in defense. Still running, Kashchey threw several bomb-spheres around him, and the hall was shrouded in a sleeping purple gas. Kashchey knocked the sword out of the prince’s hands. Yaroslav attacked with his fist, but Kashchey ducked and the punch whistled over his head. Using the brief pause, Kashchey picked up the now-sleeping princess and rushed towards the window.