The last weeks of autumn had settled upon Ivgorod, and the first breath of winter had crept into the air. As night fell and the sun dipped below the horizon, I was all too grateful to take refuge in a tavern. As I entered, I noted a certain tension in the room. Despite the hour, it was not busy, with only scattered, small groups huddled at the tables around the edges of the room. The benches at the center of the room were empty except for one man.
The man seemed ignorant of the cold. He was dressed like a beggar, wearing little more than an orange sheet wound around his body, leaving half of his chest exposed. A garland of large wooden beads hung around his thick neck. His head was completely shaved, with the exception of a wild bushy beard. Then, recognition struck me: upon his forehead he had a tattoo of two red dots, one larger than the other. As any informed student of the peoples and cultures of this world must also realize, this man was one of the monks of Ivgorod, the secretive and reclusive holy warriors of the country.
I had heard countless fantastic stories about the monks, tales that were surely the beneficiary of significant embellishment. The monks’ skin, the accounts said, was as hard as iron, impenetrable by the blade of any sword or by the point of any arrow, and their fists could break stone as easily as you or I would snap a twig. Though the unassuming man before me seemed miles away from what I had heard and read of the monks, I approached cautiously, sliding down onto the bench across from him, eager to take his measure. He beckoned me forward with a small wave of his hand.
"Ah, a soul brave enough to sit with me. Come, friend."
Food was placed before me, but I had little hunger for it, focusing instead on recording the details of the monk's life. He told me of his belief in the existence of a thousand and one gods, gods he believed could be found in all things: the fire in the hearth, the water in the river and the air that we breathed. Pretty enough for a story, perhaps. But any reasoned individual must surely, as I did, scoff at such a view of the world as little more than superstition. He went on to describe his intense mental and physical training, his unending quest to hone his mind and body into an instrument of divine justice. Though I do wonder for what need his thousand gods would require a mortal man to implement their will. When I asked him why he did not carry a sword or, indeed, any weapon at all, he simply replied, "My body is my weapon." Then raising his hand and tapping his forehead, he added, "As is my mind."
Most unexpectedly, I would be treated to a display of this mastery.
A group of men approached our table, knocking my book to the floor and shoving me out of the way, producing knives and other weapons as they advanced. They were focused only on the solitary figure of the monk seated across from me. I scrabbled beneath the table, having an inkling of what was to come. I watched as at some unseen signal, they attacked.
Without rising from his seat, the monk met the first man's lunging slash, grabbing his wrist and tossing him carelessly over his shoulder, throwing him into a table with a loud crash. The suddenness of the monk's attack momentarily stunned the men, and as they stood there, he rose.
That was when chaos broke out.
The monk was a fluid mass of restrained energy, meeting every attack with hardly a moment's distress. He fought with hands and feet in a way I had never seen before. In my days, I have witnessed my share of drunken bar brawls, but this was something else altogether. The sound of bones crunching with each of his strikes mixed with something I could not quite believe: the monk was laughing as he fought. One by one, he dispatched his foes until only one remained.
That one picked up a chair and hurled it toward the monk. The monk swung his arm forward and struck the incoming projectile, meeting the solid oak of the chair with his closed fist. The wood broke apart, splinters filling the air as the shattered pieces of the stool fell harmlessly to the ground around him.
"You don't fool me, demon," the monk spat. He pulled his arms back to his sides, then extended his hands before him and began to chant. A nimbus of white light appeared around his head, growing larger and more intense until it completely encompassed the monk’s body. He roared, and the light blew outward. As it washed over the other man, his skin peeled away, revealing a red-skinned demon beneath and threw the creature through the front doors of the tavern.
The monk hurtled forward, but his individual movements were too fast for my eyes to track. It seemed as though there were seven of him raining blows upon the demon from every side. Staggered, the demon stumbled. The monk grabbed the demon by the neck, grinning as he pulled his free arm back, crackling energy glowing on his open hand. He shoved his palm forward, and when it struck the demon, its body exploded: muscle, skin and bones tore apart, and the smell of burning flesh filled the air.
I would not have believed it if I had not seen it with my own two eyes. It seems the stories of these peerless warriors might not have been as exaggerated as I first thought.