Prologue [Bad Spirits]
There are footprints in the deep snow, shattering the pristine illusion of an unspoiled world locked under layers of ice and frost. There are no trees; the wind blows wickedly across the empty plains, sweeping snow off the ground, whisking it high into the air. The howl is lonely, a kind of painful, disembodied shriek that hollows out your bones and reverberates through your whole body until you’re just as empty as the wind itself.
Marina has been silent the entire trip, her lips set in a bloodless line across her pale face. Her skin is a shade of gray best seen on corpses. She matches the sky as it billows above them, all clouds and empty threats. It’s too cold to snow today. She clutches her jacket closer about her; the leather of her gloves is stiff with the frigidity of this wasteland. The wind whips her hair about. The fur that lines her hood seems almost to have a life of its own, wavering to and fro in the gale.
She looks at him, then back at the ground. The snow is splattered with bright red, as though someone had thought to make the tundra their personal canvas. He crouches down, knees brushing the snow. It crunches but he barely hears it. He inspects the crimson splotches strewn alongside the footsteps. The prints themselves become less defined, more troubled – longer here, shorter there, as though the man who left them were drunk when he passed through.
He can’t feel the cold of the snow when he reaches out and touches the spots. He glances back up at Marina, but her expression is the same as before—deeply sorrowful, frozen like their surroundings.
Slowly, he stands. He glances at the woman again, then turns his attention to the prints. He follows them as they slide down the side of a hill. He can see the skittering marks left by tiny snowballs, racing ahead of his shoes like a miniature avalanche.
The snow gets deeper, coming up to his kneecaps. He struggles along through it, watches as the footprints tell him that his predecessor did exactly the same.
The red becomes more plentiful.
Further ahead, he can see another small snowdrift. The footprints lead directly to it, and beyond it, there are no prints. With a heavy heart, he glances back at Marina, then continues on toward the small lump buried in the snow. The wind tears at his cheeks and tears drop from his eyes. He bows his head and pushes on, pulling his hood around his face more tightly. He can’t feel the cold bite of the wind, nor can he feel the teardrops freezing on his face. His entire body has gone numb.
He crouches down beside the snowdrift and slowly begins brushing the snow away. He finds the frozen corpse of a man. He is dressed in a heavy black coat and tattered boots. His hood has been torn from his head by the wicked wind, but it’s fur-lined, and he strokes his glove-clad fingers over the fur, almost lovingly.
The man died with one hand clutched over his heart. The other hand lies outstretched toward the horizon, as though he were beseeching someone to come forward and help him. Ilya thinks on this for a moment, studies the blood that has soaked into the snow around him.
Very slowly, he turns the body over. He studies the man’s blue skin, his frozen features. His eyes are wide open, waxy and dull with death—they are empty, just as empty as the wasteland of snow that has swallowed him up. His mouth is open just a little bit, his lips frozen, swollen with death and cold and blood loss. His hair is unruly, but it’s fine, feathery, and a dark color that Ilya knows very well.
His nose is sharp, well-defined, as are his cheekbones. His eyes are small but Ilya knows they were bright in life. He knows the exact shade of those cheeks, those lips, in life. He knows every line of this face, twisted into a gruesome mask of agony.
He doesn’t hear the snow crunch as Marina approaches him. She stands over him for a moment, silent as the grave, as though to speak in the dead man’s presence would be to bring a curse down upon their heads. Ilya can barely feel the weight of the dead man’s hand in his own as he unfolds the frozen fingers, stiff with rigor mortis as much as with cold. The glove is blood-soaked, but it has long since frozen.
“Do you know him, Ilyushka?” Marina asks him. He doesn’t so much hear her speak as he feels her speak; it is as though her voice is inside his head. He doesn’t know if her lips moved when she asked the question. Her breath plumes up from her open mouth, like a cloud of cigarette smoke in the popular movies back home.
He nods in response. It doesn’t matter if she asked the question out loud or not; she asks it now with her eyes and even if she had asked no question at all, he knows that she wants to and the answer is yes. He knows this man. He knows him very well. Perhaps too well.
She glances around. The wind is picking up now, and she shudders. He closes his eyes and clutches at the hand.
“We should go back,” she says. Her voice is just as bloodless as her face.
He nods again and stands. His body is stiff and strange, almost as though there is an invisible weight pressing down upon him. He clenches his fists and refuses to look back at the body.
She braces her hands against his shoulders suddenly. She stares at him, gazes deep into his eyes. “Ilya,” she says.
He makes no reply.
She looks at the ground, at the corpse, at the blood in the snow. Her eyes are sorrowful when she looks at him again. Her lips peel back from her gums; it looks painful for her face to contort after being frozen into an apathetic mask for hours on end. “Ilya.”
Her voice breaks on the word, and he wishes it wouldn’t. Her pain makes this so much more unbearable.
He reaches out to wipe the tears away from her cheek before they can freeze.
“This is where you died, Ilya.” She drops her head, and his fingers pass right through her, as though he weren’t there at all. Her tears are frozen by the time they plummet into the snow.
“This is where you died.”
This makes sense, he thinks. The strange haziness of the world, the lack of feeling, the lack of hearing, the numbness of all his senses, and the strange stiffness of his body all make sense once he can see his corporeal self lying in the snow. He is no longer part of this world.
He tries to push her away, but his hands slide through her shoulders when he grabs them. She pulls her hands over her face, however, as though she’s trying to warm her frozen tears.
“No,” he says, “I didn’t die here.”
She goes on crying. He tries to brush her hair off her forehead. He pauses when his fingers don’t even make contact. “I didn’t die here,” he repeats. “I didn’t die here, Marina.”
He couldn’t have died here; he’s been far too numb for far too long.
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