Going Under, the first book in the Something in the Water series, arrives Tuesday, September 5!

 

Chapter IV [Bad Spirits]

Chapter IV [Bad Spirits]

“Agent Valor.”

She paused, glancing over her shoulder at the man as he darted down the marble steps that led into the Ministry building. She flipped down her sunglasses, as if to acknowledge that she was speaking to a superior. “Sir?”

“We’ve had a very interesting report.” The wind whipped his tie up, whisking it to the side. It fluttered in the breeze, like some kind of pennant. The tails of his jacket flowed out behind him.

“About?”

A slow smirk spread across his face; she was aware of every single wrinkle, every freckle on his pale skin.

She shoved her glasses back into place. “Well,” she said, but she was unable to go further than that, unable to move. She stood there, frozen in the chill wind, her curls fluttering around her face.

He moved at last, taking the last two steps to close the gap between them. She admired the easy way his lanky limbs moved, as though everything were effortless. He clapped a hand heavily on her shoulder, passing her by.

“Why don’t you come with me?” he asked. She could just see the glint of his irises behind his darkened lenses and she knew he was looking directly at her.

The hand on her shoulder was insistent, turning her toward the bottom of the steps, and she walked, as though compelled by the will of the universe. Their shoes clicked, echoing against the cold stones.

A car pulled up to the curb and she had to admit what she’d known all along: he’d been planning this. He’d planned this from the moment he’d received the wire transmission report; he’d planned this very moment from the second he saw her in the boardroom meeting.

His grip on her arm tightened. “We can talk things over at length.”

“I don’t know what there is to talk about.” He slammed the car door shut behind her. She sat ramrod straight, staring at the driver, her hands firmly on her clutch.

“Oh,” he said as he slid into the seat beside her, “we have plenty to talk about.”

He pulled his shades off, folding them up neatly, then tucking them away in his pocket as he leaned back. That grin was still plastered to his infuriating face.

“Marina.”

She deigned not to reply as the car jerked into gear and pulled away from the curb, onto the open road.

 

*

“I see,” Ville said, studying the dirt, the broken twigs. “A wave, you say.”

The dour-faced old man just stared at them with his bulging eyes. Ville was pretty sure he could see every popped vein in them.

“Thank you,” he said with a curt nod, turning away.

Freja was standing a few feet away, studying the marks on the ground. There wasn’t much left; it was just as their informant had said—it was like a wave had rolled through and washed everything away.

“What did he say?” she asked without lifting her head. There were some dead leaves, a few broken twigs, and a couple of deep prints that looked like maybe a bear had passed through. Ville couldn’t tell though; the flood had taken away too much dirt, essentially erased any evidence they might have otherwise had.

“Said it was like a giant wave ripping through here. They heard the wolves barking and gunshots, so they headed back up the path to see what was going on. He said one second, everything was normal; the next second, there was a shadow that blocked out the moon and sky, and a wall of water heading straight for ‘em.”

“Hmmm.” Her frown deepened. He studied the wrinkles between her brows. They didn’t suit her face at all, he thought; she’d grown much older since the war had started. They all had.

“Sounds like our man to me,” he concluded, glancing over his shoulder. The Rus peasant was still standing there, still staring at him, as though he might make Ville burst into flames if he simply concentrated hard enough. Ville sincerely doubted that any idiot Rus would have enough mental capacity to ever accomplish such a feat.

Freja stood up straight and glared upward, at the moon, as though it was the source of all her problems. “He’s gotten more powerful,” she stated stiffly, then turned away.

“Huh?” Ville asked, following her. “Whaddya mean? How can you tell that?”

She stalked along the path, her stride firm and assured. She kept her head up and she stared straight ahead; he began to wonder if she saw anything at all around her. It wasn’t like Frejya to be oblivious to her surroundings, but she hardly seemed to notice anything at all.

“He couldn’t do that when he left,” she said. She didn’t even look at him. Her voice was mechanical, just as cold as the guns they were toting.

“What do you mean? He’s always been a water-user—”

“I mean that the magic’s become stronger. Same spell, stronger result.”

He snorted. “That’s impossible, right?”

She didn’t reply. He darted after her. “I mean, we’re in Rus. They sucked all the magic out of their land ages ago. Magic users like us don’t get any stronger in a dead land. If anything, the magic should get weaker.”

Her lips remained tightly pressed together.

“There’s gotta be another explanation—it was raining here a lot, so maybe it’s just that there was a lot of water for him to call on—”

He trailed off, unable to find more words to hurl at her wall of despondent, angry silence. He glanced left and right, but could think of nothing else to say, so he fell in step behind her, kicking at loose stones as they continued along the washed-out path.

“Do you think it’s him?” he asked at last, letting his gaze flicker up to her for half a second, before he went back to staring at his mud-caked shoes. He curled his lip.

“Of course it’s him,” she scoffed. “Do you think any other Nord in their right mind would come all the way out here?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know,” he spit at last. He was being churlish, and he knew it.

He hated that she’d dragged him all the way out here though; they were in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of enemy territory, surrounded by Nord-hating Rus. The land around them was dead; they couldn’t use their magic. And yet she continued to relentlessly pursue the asshole lieutenant that had cruelly abandoned them in their moment of need.

Sure, Timmo was a deserter and a war criminal. Ville could easily agree to that, and he knew Norcross wanted his head for his hand in the assassination of Queen Mathilda. But that didn’t justify chasing Timmo nearly eight thousand miles, deep into enemy territory. That didn’t justify stalking him to the ends of the earth; that didn’t justify chasing after him even after he’d killed Kyosti, even after they’d lost one of their own.

And yet, she continued to pursue him. Norcross hadn’t given orders to follow him this deep into Rus territory; Norcross hadn’t even given orders to kill him or to pursue him. The government had bigger problems on their hands: shelling, bombing, the complete and utter take over of the city by Rus forces. All because of that little snitch, Alexius—

He gritted his teeth, clenched his fists. This was absolutely insane. Even if Norcross had given the orders in the first place, they would have told them to peel off once Timmo had worked his way beyond the capital. They would have recalled them after Kyosti had died.

At first, he’d believed that Norcross had given them direct orders to hunt Timmo down and kill him. But when the recall didn’t come, not even after Kyosti had been shot through the head, he realized that Norcross had no idea where they were. Norcross had never given them the order; it had all been Frejya’s vociferous need to chase down one sick man, and that made her just as sick as he was.

He glanced at the pistol, stared into the dark of the barrel. Frejya’s face was deceptively placid as she pulled the trigger a little tighter. “You want to leave?” she asked. Her voice was rough around the edges, fraying as the last of her sanity gave way.

It wasn’t the first time she’d pulled the gun on him. “Of course not,” he replied evenly. “The only reason I’d want to leave would be if I wanted to be dead.”

She eyed him for a moment more, then slowly lowered the gun. Her gaze lingered on him before she turned away at last, slowly holstering the pistol. “We’ve come this far,” she murmured. “Do you really want to let that sick fuck get away now?”

Her lips, her arms trembled. “I can’t let him get away,” she croaked. “I can’t let him go.”

“I know,” he murmured, clapping a hand on her shoulder. The moonlight made her more fragile somehow. “I know.”

He took two strides deeper into the night, his resolve becoming stronger with every step. He would end this.

 

*

Dawn streaked across the sky, letting color bleed into a previously bland world. Ilya groaned as he hauled himself into a sitting position, feeling his back crack and his shoulders pop with the motion.

He glanced down at Timmo, who was still lying in the mud, eyes on the sky. His skin was washed pale, almost white. He looked like hell.

“You sound like the living dead,” he snorted, but his voice was weak, hoarse. It lacked his usual invective and Ilya frowned.

“You look like the living dead,” he replied, pulling his shoes out of the mud. He rolled his shoulders from side to side, listening to the birds calling out to each other, from tree to tree.

Timmo sat up, stiffly, holding a hand against his side. His stolen shirt was stiff and red with blood.

“We’ve got to move,” Ilya said, glancing about. They weren’t too far from the path; no doubt someone would pass by and report them. To whom, he didn’t want to know.

“Mm,” Timmo replied, more concerned with the blood on his fingers.

“There’s a town not far from here.”

“Like the last one?” The question was guarded.

“You’re in Rus,” Ilya told him at last, watching as the sun’s rays struck color into his sheeted shirt, his skin. “They’re all like that.”

A bloodless smile. “I suppose you’re right.”

He got to his feet. “How far?”

Ilya shook his head. “Not too far.”

“And how far is that?” And then there was color in his smile, light in his eyes, and he stared at Ilya for a moment, before he murmured, “Do you remember the last time you said that to me?” and there was fondness in every syllable and it made Ilya’s stomach twist.

He didn’t want to remember the last time he said those words. He didn’t want to remember anything he’d ever said to Timmo; he didn’t want to remember anything about Timmo.

“No,” he lied.

“You were—”

“Let’s go,” he huffed, stalking toward the path, leaving the Nord standing in the muddy farmer’s field, the sun rising blood red behind him, the world turning crimson in its wrath, as though everything were burning up. Ilya gritted his teeth and tried to forget the silhouettes, the shadows, the ghosts it brought to mind.

Better to forget everything.

Timmo barely kept pace with him; each step brought new awareness of how much he was being affected by blood loss. His limbs were clumsy, uncoordinated, as though he were a marionette all slung up on strings and the puppeteer was but an amateur.

They didn’t speak, not until Timmo caught his wrist and his fingers were clutching, possessive, but they were skeletal fingers, cold and clammy, and Ilya shuddered at the touch. “Slow down,” the blond murmured when he glanced back at him, and Timmo had told him that once before, too.

Ilya stared at him for a moment, stared at the icy shallows of his eyes—a frozen sea that had broken up before his very eyes a millennium before—and remembered everything he didn’t want to remember but couldn’t forget.

“Let’s go,” he managed, and they ambled down the path together in the light of the rising sun, keeping step now, fingertips occasionally brushing, as if to assure each other of the other’s physicality, of their realness. That was the only thing that was real between them: touch. Words, actions, names, faces, places, stories—lies, all of it. Their nerve endings couldn’t lie, though, couldn’t deny electric shock and feeling.

The sun was only a little higher in the sky when they passed the first run-down houses on the outskirts of town. Timmo pulled his hat over his head, pulled it low so that the shadows obscured his eyes. Even in the darkness, though, his eyes were too bright, luminescent; even in the bright, burning sunlight of the new day, they seemed to glow.

They passed a few of the day laborers and farm-hands on their way out of their rented quarters, along the path toward the places of their toil. Ilya nodded to them as they passed, shepherding Timmo along in front of him. The Nord kept his head bowed, oblivious to the suspicious gazes of the passers-by.

The inn seemed almost warm in the bright glow of the sunrise. “A room, please,” he almost croaked; he wasn’t aware of how dry his voice had become. After all that rain, he hadn’t thought it possible to become arid again so quickly.

The girl at the desk looked worried by the blood on Timmo’s shirt, and by the blood on his fingertips, and Ilya thought they should be thankful that it was just Timmo’s and Timmo’s alone; she’d scream if she could see the amount of blood those hands had worn over the years. His skin should have been stained red, dripping permanently. Was it possible to wash out that much dye, to let blood bleed away?

They headed up quiet, carpeted stairs, and the feeling of warmth increased. Ilya thought they must have half-froze to death last night; all his fingers were numb, but he didn’t care. In fact, he thought it might be a good idea to undress. He glanced at Timmo, who smiled back lazily. Ilya frowned.

His muscles, stiff and sore, welcomed the thought of a soft bed, and he couldn’t resist the thought of sleep. The warmth was nice; it was putting him to sleep.

His fingers slipped off the door knob and he stared at the door for a moment. Something was wrong.

“Hurry up,” Timmo slurred, yanking on his wrist.

“Right. Sorry.” He pushed open the door.

They stepped into the room, shutting the door after themselves, locking it. They padded about the entryway, taking off muddy shoes, stripping out of their damp, mud-caked clothing.

“It’s been a while since we’ve done this,” Timmo said, letting one of his shoes drop to the floor. Mud splattered all over the carpet.

“We’ve never done this,” Ilya grunted, unbuttoning his own shirt, tossing it by the wayside. They hadn’t.

Timmo snorted. “Okay,” he drawled. “It’s been a while since one of us was naked in a hotel room with the other.”

Ilya deigned not to reply and wriggled his way out of his pants instead. He longed for a hot soak in the tub, to soothe aching muscles and cold, stiff flesh.

“Mm,” Timmo mumbled, glancing over his shoulder, “you know, it’s no fun if you won’t play the game too … ”

He trailed off, bracing himself on the table.

“What?” Ilya asked.

“Oh, nothing,” he replied. “It’s beautiful. That’s all. The sunrise, I mean. The sky.”

Ilya took a step toward him, to see what the moron was on about, when the blond just crumpled up and collapsed to the floor.

Ilya stared at the body for a moment, prone on the floor, before panic forced its way into his sleep-slogged veins. But he couldn’t feel himself move; he saw his body move; he heard his voice calling out; he felt his fingers touching Timmo’s shoulder. But it was like watching from afar.

And then he looked up and saw her.

The fog lifted. The warmth evaporated. He sat back on his heels and watched her as she got up out of the chair and stepped toward him. She was always so graceful; it was like watching liquid art. Her curls bounced just right; she swayed just perfectly.

“Hello, Ilya,” she said, and her voice was perfect, just as it always has been, just as he’d imagined it before he knew her. Smooth and luscious, sweet and bitter, everything all rolled into one.

“We’ve been looking for you,” she told him, and her glasses slid down her nose. Her eyes were so bright, such a vivid and snapping green against the foreground of her dark lenses.

“Marina.”

Her lips parted in a smile. “You were very bad,” she admonished, coy and kittenish, “running away from us like that.”

He tensed. The noise of her high heels was swallowed by the plush carpet, which sank down under the spikes. She kicked at Timmo’s head. “Oh. You brought us a present?”

Ilya didn’t know what to say. There was nothing to say. Once, he’d wanted to say so many things to her; once he’d snuck into the ballet and watched her, never imagining that her cool composure and graceful poise allowed her to be anything but the most mesmerizing of dancers. Once, he’d been full-up of things to say to her, so full he’d nearly burst, but he’d choked on all of them and swallowed them, let them dissolve in stomach acid and now, he was empty. There was nothing on his tongue; there was nothing in his heart for her. The only thing he felt was a kind of creeping dread that clawed its way up his back, black and inky, like death. There was no way out of this one.

Her smile was sickly sweet, deadly and dangerous. He wondered how he’d ever fallen in love with her; he wondered when he’d stopped loving that pretty face.

Her lacquered nails slid under his chin. She leaned in close, her eyes half-lidded, her lips in a tender smile, self-satisfaction and hope and lust and love and warmth and a hundred million other things inside her smile. “You can come home now, Ilya,” she murmured. “Come home with me. I will make all of this disappear—okay?”

Click.

Ilya stared at the barrel of the pistol pressed up against her temple. He had to give her credit; her eyes didn’t widen, her face didn’t fall. The only thing that gave away her surprise was a sudden rush of breath through her nose.

“Ilya,” Timmo said, and Ilya thought he sounded stern, “is not going anywhere with you.”

It was strange, how much he wanted to hear those words.

Marina turned her head to the side, just a little, and she looked Timmo up and down. “You were awake the entire time,” she murmured. “I am impressed.”

Timmo knew better than to reply. Instead, he cocked the gun. “Listen,” he hissed, “you call off your little dogs, you let us walk out of here, and you get to live. You can disappear back to wherever you came from, and you’ll never hear of us again.”

Marina turned back to Ilya, still smiling. “He’s a Nord,” she said and her smile got even wider. Ilya shuddered; she was beautiful, pin-up picture perfect, like one of the girls from the old films, but there was something cold and cruel about her perfection.

She snapped her fingers and the glass shattered out of the window, a hail of bullets raining in on them.

“Shit!” Timmo spat, ducking back, behind the wall. Ilya covered his head and rolled out of the way.

Marina stood up, very slowly; the edges of her long, white coat were spattered with blood. Ilya gritted his teeth and glanced at Timmo, who was clutching as his side again.

She turned and walked back toward the shattered window, her heels crunching over the shards of glass strewn about the floor. She paused by the frame, then turned back, her gloved hand pressed to her cherry red lips. “My,” she said, “what a mess you two boys have made. Now you’ll have to clean it up.”

Timmo fired blindly at her, but no sooner had he peeled off one shot than there were bullets raining in on them again. He whipped about the wall again, hugging it close. “Fuck.”

When silence reigned once more, there was only the scent of gun powder on the air, and they stared at each other.

“We have to leave,” Ilya said.

Footsteps were thundering up the stairs. Timmo gritted his teeth. “Who was that crazy bitch?”

Ilya glared at him. “She’s not a crazy bitc—”

“Sure seemed crazy,” Timmo fired back, then stared at Ilya. “She’s that slut from the photos—”

“Shut up!” Ilya snapped.

“Sirs, is everything all right in there?! We heard gunfire—”

When the door slammed into the wall, all the clerks found was shattered glass and tattered curtains waving in the breeze.

 

*

“What are you looking at?”

Ilya flinched so hard, he practically crumpled the paper in hand. He tried to school his face, then slowly peered over the edge of the photograph at Timmo. He gritted his teeth; he hadn’t even heard the Nord come in.

Better yet, he had no idea how the Nord had even got into his room without his knowledge. No one else had the key, the window was locked, and he’d been sitting there the entire time.

“A picture.”

A finger on the edge of it, flipping it backward. “A ballerina?” Timmo asked, raising an eyebrow.

Ilya snatched it back, then stuffed the photos in the bedside drawer. The table rocked as he slammed it shut again. “None of your business,” he growled.

“You like her?” It was a little strange, Ilya thought, to hear a grown man say “like” as though it meant something like love.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“You love her.”

Ilya could feel the heat in his cheeks. “I just said—”

“Do you know her?”

Why the hell was he so curious? “I met her once,” Ilya said carefully. He had met Marina once. “At a performance. She’s a wonderful dancer.”

That was a lie. He’d seen Marina perform once, but that had been long before he met her.

“Nn,” Timmo said. “I hadn’t figured you were one for something like the ballet.”

Ilya ignored the jab. “I don’t,” he said. “I like the girl.”

A slow smile spread across Timmo’s face. “I see,” he replied, then glanced down. “It was taken a long time ago, right?”

“A few years, yeah.”

“The ballet couldn’t afford color printing then?”

“No. They just—I guess they thought it was more artistic.”

“Mm.”

He let his eyes flicker up to meet Ilya’s gaze. Ilya didn’t know why, but he couldn’t help thinking of the Nord’s invisible fingerprints all over the glossy paper in the drawer, as permanent as if he’d written his name somewhere on the photo.

He was even less sure of why he felt warm; a sudden sensation burning out from his middle, sliding through his veins, all the way down into the very tips of his fingers and toes.

Timmo looked away first.

“Why are you even here?” Ilya asked, noticing how close their hands were on the bedspread.

“Somebody has to keep an eye on you.”

“Why?” Ilya asked, exasperation flooding the simple question. “You’ve been following me for days. I don’t do anything, except read and walk around.”

The Nord’s smile was terse. “You’re Rus,” he replied evenly. “There has never, in the history of human kind, been one trustworthy Rus. You’re all backstabbing, mother-fucking, psychopathic freaks.”

Ilya sneered at him, lips curling back in an animalistic snarl. “We are not—”

“Name one Rus that has ever not lied.”

“Name one Nord who has never lied.”

Timmo was silent for a second, before he said, “I mean big lies, huge lies: denying magic, denying faeries, lying about killing people, lying about what you’re doing in the North, lying—”

“A lie is a lie. What does it matter what we lie about? You lie just the same—you’re not so different from us.”

The Nord sobered, then turned away. “Tell that to the goddamn Rus,” he growled and Ilya stared at him for a moment.

“Look, why are you still here? We’ve established that I’m not doing anything, you just hate me because I come from Rus—”

“I don’t hate you,” Timmo snapped. “I just don’t trust you. There’s a difference.”

“But you hate everyone else from Rus, and mistrust is only a step away from hate.”

“I don’t hate you.” His voice was quieter, shaking somehow, as though he were becoming less and less convinced of his convictions.

“She’s ugly, you know.”

He stared at the Nord for the longest time, unable and unwilling to comprehend what he’d just said. “Ugly?” he asked at last. How could anyone think Marina was ..?

“No Nord woman would be caught dead looking like that.”

Ilya pursed his lips, then said, “She’s Rus.”

“And ugly.”

“She’s not—”

“Oh, not in her face so much, but … There’s something about her that’s hideous. Like she can smile while plunging a knife through an infant.”

Ilya cringed at the image. He leaned back on his hands. “And how would you know?”

“Just a feeling.” It was non-chalant, off-hand. His face was neutral; he was staring out the window now, at the sun going down.

“Takes one to know one?” Ilya asked, and he couldn’t quite help the thrill that went through him when the Nord’s lips twisted into something like a smile.

“Something like that.”

He slid off the bed, resting his arms on it, pulling them above his head as he sank down to the floor.

“You’re doing a very bad job of keeping an eye on me.”

“Mm. More of a job than anyone else is doing.”

“Tell me something,” Ilya asked, letting his fingers curl in the sheets instead of sliding them through blond hair that looked temptingly soft.

“Depends on what you want to know.”

“When don’t you watch me?”

Timmo tipped his head back, and the smirk was full-blown now, nestling in his eyes, and Ilya couldn’t help himself, couldn’t help but lean forward a little bit. He felt magnetic.

“When wouldn’t I watch you?”

Ilya snorted. “You’re such a creep.”

“No. I’m dedicated to my job.”

“And who told you that you need to watch me?”

“I’ve been in this business a long time, kiddo. Longer than you have.”

“What business?”

He snorted, smirked and turned away. “If you don’t know, I’m not telling you.”

Ilya slid off the bed to join him on the floor. He had to make nice with Timmo. If he could get the Nord to stop suspecting him, then he’d be in the clear. He knew it; once the head of the special ops laid off, everyone else would relax around him.

“Is it different in Rus?” Timmo asked.

Ilya frowned. “Huh?” He turned to face the blond, but Timmo was passive again, facing the window. The sun had turned the sky a brilliant medley of colors. Gold crept in through the window panes, framing this second, searing it into his memory. There would probably come a day when he would look back on it and smile.

Timmo, he thought, was even more beautiful than Marina. There was something hard about him though, something angry and edgy, something that Ilya almost tasted in the air, and he closed his eyes and tried to remember every other moment that infiltrated his mind like this one—every other memory of some distant past—

“Yeah,” he breathed at last. “It’s different. A lot different. We have electricity, not candles, and movies, and music on discs, and running water and—”

Timmo laughed at him, bowed his head. He closed his eyes, and his smile was genuine. “Not what I meant,” he murmured, putting a hand on Ilya’s shoulder. It was the closest thing to camaraderie Ilya had ever felt, and it shuddered through him, shocking his system.

“Oh,” he said, because that’s all there was to say.

 

*

“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!” Timmo clutched at his shoulder, then collapsed onto the ground, breathing hard. The brick of the wall bit into his back and he stared at the ground for a good, long while, slowly grinding his teeth together.

Ilya didn’t know what to say to him. He knew they should move; the shadows of the barrels and crates were getting shorter, warning them of noonday’s impending arrival. He knew that would mean a flurry of people in the streets, and with the sun shining brightly, devouring all the shadows, they were as good as exposed.

But there was blood seeping out of the Nord’s shoulder now too and Ilya knew this was his fault. They really ought to stop and see a doctor, but he couldn’t take Timmo anywhere. Any Rus doctor would fix him up good; six feet of earth on top of him would do him a world of good, in any good doctor’s estimation.

But he was going to bleed to death if they couldn’t get those gashes stopped up somehow. He just kept bleeding and bleeding, though, and Ilya gritted his teeth, closed his eyes and hated how the darkness conjured up images better left to rot in between the synapses of his mind, untouched. Glassy blue eyes, waxy skin, blond, blond hair turning red, matted with drying clumps of blood …

He wanted to throw up. It had to be the heat; he could feel it rising out of the very ground as the sun threatened to bake them to death. Warmth wavered on the air, making the world wriggle back and forth. Timmo faded in and out of focus and for a moment, he felt like he was the one bleeding to death, he was the one bleeding out all over the ground.

Timmo caught his gaze. Sweat was beading on his forehead; his hair was matted again, but this time, there was no trace of red. His lips were tight and cracked; his voice was raw when he snapped, “What the hell are you thinking about?” His fingers dug into his shoulder more; Ilya watched the knuckles turn white, watched him tremble with the effort.

“Nothing,” he mumbled in reply, then glanced back to the dusty street, tasted the sweat above his lip. Salt tingled on his tongue and he heaved a sigh.

“We have to keep moving.” His voice was stronger, more firm. Like a man who knew what he was doing, what he wanted.

“You think I don’t know that?”

Bile rose into his throat when he glanced at the Nord, who was now getting to his feet, leaning heavily against the smoothness of the concrete wall behind him. “You can’t be treated here. We’ll have to go to Norcross.”

“No.”

The response was instantaneous, and Ilya watched the blond warily, watched the way he glanced toward the street, watched the nervous twitch of those long fingers.

“I’m being followed, remember?”

Ilya snorted derisively. “Like hell you are. If anybody’s being tailed, it’s me.”

“Yeah, and tell your psychotic bitch of a girlfriend to fuck off. Shit, that hurt.” He clutched harder at his shoulder, like that would make the pain better.

Ilya rolled his eyes. “She’s not psychotic.”

Timmo just glanced at him and he deflated. “Well,” he huffed, looking away, “she’s not. Just …”

“A cold-blooded killer.”

“And you’re any different?”

His response was to close his eyes. The skin between his eyebrows creased and he looked older, so much older than he actually was and Ilya regretted this whole fucking escapade. He regretted the last eight months of his life, regretted ever going to the bar that night, regretted glancing at Marina, then staring because he knew her, he knew her, and he regretted the light in her eyes, the way she smiled at him. She smiled and everything spiraled out of his hands, like she was a puppeteer and he was nothing more than a marionette, a plaything for her amusement.

He knew she wasn’t the one in charge; he knew she wasn’t the one who gave the orders, but she was there and she’d smiled and it was her fault, her fault, her fault, all of this was her fault—

Timmo decked him and he clutched at his bloody nose, stared at him in shock. “Sorry,” the Nord said. “I got tired of being the only one bleeding.”

Timmo flung blood off his fingers. “Sonuvabitch,” he growled, then pushed away from the wall. “Let’s go.”

“Where?” Ilya asked, despair in his voice. There was nowhere to go. They couldn’t go back; there were hands everywhere, waiting to curl their fingers around their tracheas. They couldn’t go forward; there was nowhere that was sacred. There was no future for men like them. They were dead men.

“Away,” Timmo said.

“Where?”

Timmo didn’t reply immediately. He seemed hazy, Ilya thought, like a mirage. Something imaginary, hallucinatory.

But he was solid and real and warm beneath Ilya’s fingers, and he dragged his fingertips down the crook of his elbow and wondered how a corpse could seem so lively.

Timmo’s eyes were full of his own regrets, mirroring every guilt back at him. They didn’t speak; they choked under the weight of their own sins, silenced by the lack of breath in their lungs.

They both died a long time ago.

Ilya didn’t think being a corpse would hurt so goddamn much.

“Just … anywhere.” Timmo sounded exhausted. His voice had worn thin, wobbling on the air and disappearing into the sepia-toned memory of some other time, some other place. Ilya shut his eyes.

“Anywhere. Anywhere but here.”

Once, Ilya could imagine blue skies and rolling green fields and a kind of forever, where they never got old, never got tired, but the acrid tang of blood on the dusty air and the sun beating down on them burnt it up, burnt it all up and there was nothing left for them.

He covered his face, pressed against his eyesockets until colors exploded in front of him. He gritted his teeth.

He just wanted to live his goddamn life.

“Let’s go,” Timmo said again.

“Okay,” Ilya murmured.

 

*

He met Marina under the blacklight of the bar, sipping a martini. The light refracted off the crystal and shattered into a thousand rainbows that dazzled Ilya as he sat down next to her. He was drawn in, like a fly to light, an insect to honey, by the warmth of her lipstick, a burning shade of red.

She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and crossed her ankles. “I saw you watching me,” she said, leaning in a little bit.

“Uh, I’m sorry,” he stuttered. “I just—I thought I recognized you … ”

“You have beautiful eyes,” she said and he could only stare into hers, which were soft and doelike, and surrounded by feathery black lashes.

“Thank you?”

“They’re very bright,” she said. “Almost like they glow. It’s gorgeous.”

He should have been on guard after that; his hackles should have risen a mile high. Anybody remarking on his eyes was immediately suspicious. What do they know, who do they know, what are they getting at? So what if his eyes seem different?

But she rolled her “g”s like smoke off a cigarette, like brandy on the tip of the tongue, and he was gone.

“Aren’t you drinking?” she asked.

“Uh—oh, no.” He shook his head. He was here on business and besides, he couldn’t afford a drink. “I’m—I’m working.”

She smiled at him. Her fingers curled lovingly about the stem of her glass. “So am I,” she purred, leaning forward. “Let me get you something.”

His smile pulled taut across his features. “That’s all right,” he said, “I—”

“Don’t worry,” she said, glancing down, “we have the same employer. I’m sure he won’t mind.”

She flagged the barkeep. “A rye and ginger for our boy here?” She smiled winningly.

“Of course,” he said and strode away. Marina turned back to Ilya, still simpering.

“Do you mind?” she asked, pulling a cigarette out of a long case.

“Of course not,” he replied, watching as she pressed the slender roll to her lips. Sparks flew, lit up her face, and then she exhaled a cloud of smoke. “You know who I am?” she asked, settling over the bar.

He nodded numbly. Of course he did. He’d seen her before, plastered on every pamphlet. He’d spied her once before, in the floodlights of the stage, graceful and poised.

Her smile was venomous. “I know you too,” she purred and slid off the barstool. “C’mon.”

She took three steps across the floor, then paused. She glanced back over her shoulder at him. He pointed toward the barkeep. “Shouldn’t we … ”

“He knows where to send it,” she said, then turned away again and sashayed across the bar floor. He swallowed, then followed her.

Up a winding staircase, deeper into the shadows. She paused by a heavy, oaken door, looked him over once, then pushed past the door.

“Welcome, Ilya.” The man’s rich timbre rolled through the room. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

Ilya stood up a little straighter. Marina’s hand landed on his arm, at once reassuring and arresting. “This is Valya,” she said.

“How do you know my name?” Ilya asked, lifting his head a little higher. The man was huge, towering over both Ilya and Marina, a hulking shadow. His eyes glinted in the rum light of the room. He smirked.

“We’ve been watching you,” he said. “And I have a proposition for you, Ilyushka.”

Ilya frowned. “Now,” Marina said, “Valya’s a good man.” She patted his arm.

Valya lit a cigar, then shook out the match. He gestured to the rich armchairs. “I can make you a very rich man,” he said as they took up their seats, “a very powerful man. Would you like that, Ilyushka?”

“Valya works for the government,” Marina told him softly.

Ilya wished the man would stop using that pet name; no one had called him Ilyushka, not since his mother had died. To hear it roll from the tip of this man’s tongue made him bristle. He said nothing, however.

Marina leaned over the arm of her chair. “Maybe you’ve heard of Glace Enterprises?”

Ilya shook his head. Valya smiled. “We’re one of the premiere water extraction companies in the world. We operate in about fifty different countries, extracting water from the land’s natural resources. Lakes, rivers, springs, underground deposits, mountain tops, glaciers—you name it.”

“And then they supply water to draught-ridden areas, like deserts. It’s a great cause.” Marina smiled.

Valya stubbed out his cigar. “We provided valuable drinking water to the world’s people. And for industry.”

He leaned forward, folding his hands. “There’s a problem, though,” he said.

“And what’s that?”

“Most of the world’s water is salt water. It’s extremely expensive to turn it into water suitable for consumption, and most businesses can’t use it either, because the salt content ruins machines.”

Ilya narrowed his eyes. “Uh-huh.”

Marina crossed her legs. Valya laced his fingers together. “And there’s only so much fresh water to go around. We’ve tapped almost all the fresh water reserves.”

Ilya frowned. He had no idea how this affected him. At all. He turned to look at Marina, who tossed her curls over her shoulder. “There’s lots of snow and ice in the north,” she said. “And you know what snow and ice are made of.”

“No,” Ilya replied.

“Water,” Valya said. “Snow and ice are made of water. And there’s plenty of it up north. If we were extracting from the glaciers and polar caps, then there’d be more than enough water to go around. We’d never have to worry about water again.”

“So why aren’t you extracting from them then?” Ilya asked, shrugging.

“The Nords,” Marina said quietly and Ilya stilled.

Valya shook his head. “We’ve been bargaining with them for years. It would be a friendly operation; we’ve offered them everything from compensation, to profits, to shares in the company, and they won’t budge.”

He strode across the room. Ilya watched him, wondering what he knew. Marina’s face soured. “Bunch of fucking hippies,” she spat.

“Marina,” Valya snapped.

She pressed her lips together tightly. Valya uncorked a decanter. Ilya’s eyes had adjusted to the dimness now, and he could see the silhouette of the fireplace, the mantle the decanter was placed upon. “We’ve been bargaining with them forever. Their government won’t budge.”

Marina caught Ilya’s eye. “They’re worried about disturbing the ‘land spirits’ or something.” She sneered. “Really. They’re so backwards.”

“I don’t see what any of this has to do with me,” Ilya huffed at last. “It’s not like I’m in with the Nord government or … ”

“But you’re part Nord,” Marina said and Ilya sat up straight. “Oh,” she said, and glanced at Valya, who grunted and resumed his seat. Caramel-colored cognac sloshed in his glass.

“Listen,” he said, “we need a plant. Someone who can go in there and convince them from the inside out. We’ve been at this for fifteen years. The water supply is dwindling, and demand’s higher than ever. We can’t wait any longer.”

Ilya held up his hands. “I’m not your guy,” he said. “Find someone else to do it.”

“You don’t understand,” Marina said, shaking her head. “No Rus can walk into Nord territory. Only another Nord—”

“I’m not Nord, dammit!” Ilya snapped. “I’m Rus!”

“You’re a half-breed,” Valya said. “Close enough.”

Ilya tossed his hands in the air. “Why me? I’m not the only half-breed in Rus.”

“You’re the only one who looks Nord enough to pass,” Valya said. “Trust me. We’ve been watching you, Ilya. You’ll fit in.”

“I—”

Marina’s hand closed over his, and he stared at her, her large doe-eyes, her perfect painted lips. “You’re the only one, Ilyushka,” she whispered, “you’re the only one who can pull this off.”

Her grip tightened a bit. “You’ll help us, won’t you? There are people dying, Ilya … ”

He shook her off. “The hell do I care,” he sneered. That was the absolute wrong tack to take with him. He’d been watching people die for so long. He’d lost his capacity to care; if other people suffered, then he was happy. He had suffered, he had known death and he had suffered it. It was only fair to share the misery.

Marina’s face fell. Valya coughed. “Of course,” he said, “you’ll be well-compensated. We take care of our people, Ilyushka.”

Ilya watched his lips twist into something more feral than a grin; it wasn’t a snarl, too bounded by civilized mannerisms and social convention was it. But his lips curled and his teeth were ragged, jutting up from blackened gums, primal and fierce. And Ilya knew he would see those teeth in his nightmares, tearing through the fabric of the dreamscape, ripping apart his psyche, tearing him down from the inside out.

“What do you want me to do,” he asked, oiled and slick, like one of the robots from the factories—metal grinding on metal, nothing organic at all, but perfectly engineered by the hands of man to function exactly in this manner, exactly as he planned.

Valya glanced at Marina. She looked to Ilya from under lowered lids, the feathery veil of her lashes hiding her eyes, locking him out of her mind. “Isn’t it late?” she asked, almost petulantly. “We can discuss all this in the morning, can’t we?”

“Of course,” Valya said. “Won’t you show him out, dear?”

“Of course,” she replied and rose to her feet. Her hand trailed across the back of Ilya’s chair; he glanced at red, red nails, sharpened claws stained with blood.

And he was wrong; it wasn’t Valya’s twisted grin that remained in his nightmares, it was her wicked, wicked mouth, with her lush lips all painted red, red with blood and anger and hate.

And her eyes bored into his, bright with moonlight because they’d forgotten to draw the drapes, and there was nothing there, just emptiness and a strange kind of coldness, like this was all part of her job—she’d been engineered this way too, constructed, cast in a mold by the clever hands of clever men.

And then her eyes were bright, bright blue, almost glowing in the moonbeams, and her dark curls weren’t splashed across the pillow like some kind of inky wave, and instead of her soft, red mouth, Timmo smirked at him, then leaned across the way and his lips were rough and chapped and—

Ilya woke up with a start and stared at the sky for a long, long time, eyes wide. Beside him, Timmo touched a hand to his mouth, bit at his nails, contemplatively.

 

*

They turned northward in the morning. Timmo lagged behind; the north wind seemed to strip his breath away, sucking the last of his strength away from him. He clutched harder at his side, and more than once, Ilya turned back, the corners of his mouth tugging downward with impatience as he watched the Nord, bent almost double, hobbling across the path. “You move slower than an old man,” Ilya pronounced at last, when the weak, wintry sun had only half-risen in the sky. Clouds marred the horizon; the sunlight was murky and strange, enveloping the world in a hazy half-light.

Ilya didn’t exactly believe in signs, but the light made him uneasy; it was as though someone had dragged a blindfold over his eyes and he could no longer see. There was something, some larger picture he was missing. He gritted his teeth.

Timmo drew a sharp breath and slumped to his knees. His grin was pained, tainted as he ground his fingers into the wound, as though wringing himself dry would stymie the bleeding at last. “Sorry,” he wheezed.

Ilya waited. The breeze drifted by, whisking away dull, dead blades of grass with it. Summer had reached its end here; they were trekking into the land of the midnight sun, but the sun had gone and soon the moon would reign supreme.

“This was your idea,” Ilya offered at last and Timmo laughed—actually laughed, tossed back his head and laughed, long and loud and painfully, and Ilya’s heart twisted, as though someone had driven a knife through his chest and cleaved it clean in two.

Timmo shuddered and hunched over, clutching at his side harder than ever before. “Fuck,” he spat.

Ilya shifted nervously. “Let’s go,” he said. “You’re wasting time.”

Timmo stared off at the horizon for a moment or two longer. Then he heaved a huge sigh and pushed himself to his feet again. He staggered forward.

“Walk straight. You look like a drunk.”

That wrathful smirk again. “Do you remember,” the Nord rasped, and for a moment, Ilya believed he really was drunk—the heavy-lidded eyes, the half-gone smile—“do you remember, when we—”

“Shut up, shut up!” Ilya barked. “Stop talking; walk!”

Timmo did stop talking, but he didn’t walk. Instead, he pulled his hand away from the wound, contemplated the blood dripping from his fingertips. “Strange,” he mused.

“Quit being contemplative. Have you forgotten that you’re enemy territory, that we’re being tailed, that the government’s after us, and—”

“’m so used to it being someone else’s,” Timmo murmured, rubbing his fingertips together. “I’d forgotten I could bleed.”

“You’re not invincible,” Ilya snarled and tried to forget, tried to shove down the memory of the stark white sheets and the red, red blood …

“Mm,” Timmo said. He stood up straighter. He did an about face and scanned the horizon.

“What?” Ilya all but snapped. They didn’t have time for this.

“Did you hear that?”

“You’re hallucinating,” Ilya said. “I heard nothing. It’s the blood loss, you’ve—”

“Get down!” Timmo snapped, and tackled him to the ground. They toppled and landed in a dusty heap on the desolate path.

“Too late,” sing-songed a familiar voice from the treeline. Ilya’s eyes widened; he shoved Timmo off him, sitting up bolt right.

“Frejya?!” he called and the world went horribly, blindingly white.

“You fucking fool!” Timmo barked at him, but there was nothing but white. The voice was small and strange, nothing but an echo on the howling wind.

Ilya reached out into the blankness, groping feebly at something, anything. “Hello?!” he called. “Timmo!”

A pair of bright blue eyes. He reached out to them, to their light.

His fingers trembled; his breath stuck. The blood was warm between his lips. It splattered across the blankness spread beneath him, three bold red splashes, some avante garde art.

“Gotcha,” Frejya said, smiling sweetly. For a moment, she looked like Timmo: demented, sadistic, disgusting.

She wrenched the knife out from between his ribs. His mouth fell wide open; he coughed, his innards clenching around the agony. More blood spattered across the snow.

She drew back her arm. “This one’s for Norcross,” she hissed. Ilya shut his eyes tight. “Oh, Alexius,” she sneered, “open your pretty eyes and look at me. You lying piece of shit—”

Drip-drip-drip said the wind; pitta-pat-pitta-pat said the emptiness of the snow around them. Frejya paused, her brow furrowed.

Ilya opened his eyes, stared at the puddles forming beneath his hands. The water soaked through his gloves; the ground turned to mud and the snow melted away.

Frejya turned about. “Where are you?!” she cried, holding the knife aloft; it glinted in the rum light.

“Did you forget,” Timmo said softly, very softly.

A dull roar pulsed through Ilya’s ears, into his skull. Timmo’s voice rolled on it, a wave, rising and crashing and pulling them under.

“Did you forget?!” he thundered. “All your power—all your magic—is nothing compared to mine! Your snow is just frozen water; I win every time!”

“Fuck!” Frejya cried as the wave crashed down over them, sweeping them both away, rushing onward to the already gorged river, sloshing through mud and field and trees, rolling on and on. Ilya coughed and spluttered and floundered for the surface, but the water was there, forcing him under again, a steady pressure forcing him down …

Just like—

He gasped in shock; water flooded into his lungs, choking him, drowning him. The wave slammed into the river, forcing him deeper; his back hit the river’s roiling surface. He tried to cough, but there was just water, more and more water, gushing in, drowning, drowning, drowning—

Fingers wrapped around his wrist with bruising force, just as crushing as the water, dragging him out of his flooded grave. Water poured out of his mouth; for a moment, he couldn’t even cough.

Then his lungs remembered and he choked up water, just as violently as it had been poured down his throat. Timmo collapsed onto the muddy bank, and Ilya rolled onto his side, coughing and vomiting and breathing—gods, desperately inhaling. His head throbbed.

Timmo kicked him in the back and he stopped coughing, finally, and just drew breath, shaking, terrified, heaving breaths that wracked his whole frame.

“Fuck,” he spluttered at last.

“She’ll be back,” Timmo grunted.

Ilya pushed himself to his hands and knees. “She’s dead!” he snapped. “She has to be!”

Timmo glared at him for a moment. Then he turned away, shaking his head. “Think what you want,” he grumbled. “She’s not dead and she’s not going to give up either.”

He got to his feet. “Let’s go.” And just like that, he turned his back on Ilya and walked away. Ilya stared after him for a moment, uncomprehending.

“Oh, fuck you!” he bellowed, scrambling to his feet, his voice echoing through the empty morning air.


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