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

 

Chapter V [Bad Spirits]

Chapter V [Bad Spirits]

It had been difficult to get a message off, much more difficult than Ilya had anticipated. He’d been hoping that, after three months in Norcross, he’d be given much more freedom than he had been. He couldn’t guarantee his mail wasn’t being read before it left Norcross. There were no phones, no telegrams, no wires. He’d been reduced to sending smoke signals, but he couldn’t do that within the city limits, and it was impossible for him to get outside the city walls without someone—usually Timmo—trailing him. Everywhere he went, so went one of the Nords. It was more than clear to him that they didn’t trust him, not even after three long months in their midst. It was starting to drive him mad, and not even because of how it was interfering with his mission.

Of course, he mused, it wasn’t all bad, not by a long stretch. Since he was constantly in their company, he often trailed them to places others would have been barred: the audience chamber, the parliament, the Queen’s own chambers; nothing was off-limits. And for people who didn’t trust him very much, they certainly spoke about a lot of sensitive information: the unrest in the North, the Rus closing in, the diplomats that Ilya had seen and watched—Rus diplomats who had no idea who he was or why he was here or what he was doing to further their cause. And he, for his part, was entirely silent about his complacency in Rus’s schemes.

They spoke of their military: quite weak, ill-funded, backwards, and understaffed, as far as Ilya gathered. They spoke of their border protection and their own spies in Rus territory, the reports of their spies in Rus’s capital. They spoke of their plans and their battles and debated when to put their troops into action. And, perhaps most importantly of all, they spoke of their magic.

Ilya hadn’t believed in magic before he came to Norcross, not since he was a very small child. But here, he could see it now, in everything: in the way the Queen moved, in the flickering starfaeries in the night, in Timmo’s wall of water summoned in the streets. And, though he didn’t understand it at all, he saw it and he reported it back to the intelligence officers in Rus. They could figure out what to do about it.

Because that was the secret, apparently; that was how the Nords had beaten the Rus back time and time again: with their magic. The Rus simply hadn’t understood it. The few had triumphed against the mighty, even with their backwards methods and weapons, and they had triumphed because they had this secret weapon that the enemy had never been able to quite wrap their heads around.

But now Ilya knew and, maybe he didn’t understand, and maybe he didn’t want to understand, but he saw and heard and he understood well enough what he saw and what was said.

The only problem was trying to get the damn information back to Rus.

He’d been reduced to sneaking outside the city walls in the middle of the night, deep into the woods. Once he was in the woods, he was almost scot-free; if he could get outside the walls, the forest offered cover. And the forest was never very far; it encroached on the ancient stones of the walls, carressing the aged rock with brambles and branches and creeping vines, as though it were a lover holding the crumbling wall together. The forest had been allowed to grow in deep and dense, and once Ilya passed by the barrier, he was almost certain he could shake off any tails. There were trees to climb, holes to hide in, a stream or two to cross, and, of course, the mountain and all kinds of crags and impossible passes and caves. One could easily get lost, especially if one wanted to be.

Thus far, Ilya had managed to get out twice, sneaking like a shadow, sticking to deserted paths and keeping away from the prying eyes of the Nords. He’d delivered a monthly report to the officials in Rus.

Tonight was the night for his third monthly report, and, as on the night of the two previous reports, he’d been left to his own devices. The castle was deserted. There were no guards. Riesgaard was nowhere to be found. Timmo, if he was around, was doing a spectacular job of concealing himself. Ilya crept out into the courtyard in the dying rays of the daylight. He stole across the grounds, through the growing darkness, just as dark and sinister as the shadows themselves. And then he passed the castle walls and entered the dusty streets of Norcross. He nodded and smiled at a couple of the Nords, who merely regarded him and then hurried on their way. They thought nothing of him; they didn’t know him.

He followed the path to the edge of town. The sounds of the night became louder: the crickets, the cicadaes. He heard a wolf howl on far, somewhere on the barren craigs of the mountain overshadowing Norcross’s peaceful valley, and then a chorus echoed from the lonely rocks. The moon was rising, round and full, shedding pale light across the objects below. Ilya passed the last of the houses and entered the woods.

The path soon disappeared into the density of the woods. The moonlight was swallowed up; only the light of the starfaeries buzzing here and there lit his path. He knew his way well enough and he crawled through the brambles and the thickets. An owl called into the night. Further off, he could hear the babbling of the stream. He climbed higher; he felt the ground lift under his feet as he began his ascent.

He’d found a ledge, a small plateau, quite a piece up. It was clear enough that he could build a fire —there was lots of brush around—but it was surrounded by trees, tall pines, and a small overhang. When the wind blew just right, the smoke from his fire lifted over the mountain, but no one would be able to source the fire.

And, of course, he kicked the fire out as quickly as he could; brevity was something to be cherished. The longer he was out, the longer he was gone, the more suspect it would become. The greater the danger of being caught.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before he’d get caught, and he knew it. Timmo wasn’t exactly one to let his guard down; it was a miracle Ilya had escaped him twice before. He expected the Nord, but it still caught him offguard to see him standing there by the makeshift firepit, by the ashes of old fires, the moonlight glinting in his bright, bright eyes. The rum light made his teeth seem so much whiter, blindingly, painfully white bared as they were in that sick grin.

He turned to Ilya slowly, smirk still playing on his lips, and for the first time, Ilya felt the tide of hatred swelling within him. He balled his hands into fists; his nails dug into his palms, biting the skin, almost like teeth themselves. He tried to hold perfectly still, but the rage was rising; his muscles twitched with it as Timmo drawled, “Hello, Alexius.”

“Hello,” Ilya replied through gritted teeth, grating out the word. They were waiting for his message in Rus. There was no way he could send it now, though, not with Timmo here. Timmo could read smoke signals.

“Lovely night for a hike.”

“Sure,” Ilya said and flopped down on the ground. He pulled some flint out of his knapsack. He might as well light a fire. He’d come all this way, after all. He bashed the rocks together, watching the spark, but it didn’t quell his anger, not in the slightest.

“I see you’ve been up here before,” Timmo said, toeing at the ashes of the previous fires.

“Yes,” Ilya said.

“Kind of a strange thing to do,” Timmo observed, slowly rolling up acacia in a piece of paper. “Not many people come up here.”

“I like it,” Ilya replied. “It’s nice to get away. Nice to be alone.”

Timmo lit his cigarette, puffed on it a couple of times. “Mmhmm,” he said contemplatively, then knocked the flint out of Ilya’s hands. It went skittering down the side of the mountain.

“Hey,” he snapped.

“Did you know this is a sacred forest?” Timmo asked, tipping his head. “Nobody comes up here because it’s illegal. You’re trespassing.”

“Sorry,” Ilya offered, somewhat belatedly. “I … I didn’t realize. I don’t know these things. I’m not from here.”

“We know,” Timmo responded quietly. There was an edge in his voice and Ilya felt as though he were being flayed alive. “Want to tell me what you’re really doing up here, Alexius?”

“I told you,” Ilya snapped back. “I wanted to be alone.”

Timmo smirked and looked away. “Okay,” he said. “Well, this just tells me you need more supervision. This is a sacred place; it’s illegal to trespass.”

“You said that,” Ilya grunted. Timmo showed no signs of moving. Ilya was going to have to abort the mission. He wasn’t sure when he’d be able to get back out; wasn’t sure when he’d be able to get a message out to them. They’d be waiting, but there was nothing he could do. He couldn’t send a message if Timmo insisted on being here, on watching him. He couldn’t even send a message to tell them he couldn’t send a message.

“Shall we head back?” Timmo asked. “Before we do any more irrepairable damage to the starfaeries’ breeding grounds?”

“Faeries again!” Ilya snapped. “It’s bullshit—don’t tell me you buy into all that magic bullshit too.”

He gave Timmo a pleading look. Timmo’s face fell a bit. “It’s not bullshit,” he said flatly. “After what you saw in the marketplace, frankly, I don’t know how you can say that. Magic is real, very real.”

Ilya fell silent, contemplating what had happened in the market square. The huge wall of water. The glowing lights the night he’d arrived. Freja disappearing in a cloud of snow.

“You know what’s wrong with you?” Timmo huffed. “You’re a magic user and you don’t even believe in magic.”

“I don’t have any magic,” Ilya sneered. “I never have. I don’t know how to use it—”

“And that’s the biggest shame,” Timmo said, “that right there. You’re a Nord, you’ve got Nord blood. Every Nord has magic. And you have it and you don’t even know how to use it … ”

“I don’t—”

“Yes, you do. You’ve got power over words, Alexius. Maybe you’ve never noticed it, but I saw it that day at the marketplace. You said don’t shoot, and I couldn’t. I had my finger on the trigger, and I couldn’t shoot the man.”

Ilya was silent. “He got away,” he said at last.

“Yes,” Timmo snarled. “Because you have no idea about anything here and because you have no idea what you’re doing.”

“I,” Ilya started.

“That’s your power, Alexius, power over words. And you don’t even  ..,” Timmo trailed off. “It’s no use,” he muttered after a moment. “We could teach you, but only if you wanted to learn. We can’t teach you a goddamn thing until you want us to.”

“I don’t need you to teach me anything,” Ilya snarled.

Timmo laughed, that cruel, painful sound. “Well,” he said, “that’s the problem right there. Your attitude.”

He shrugged. “Have it your way, though. You don’t want us to teach you anything; well, nothing I can do about that.”

He smirked that infuriating smirk, and he looked at Ilya with his eyes bright, full of mischief and moonlight.

Ilya thought he was going to punch him; he really did. But he kissed him instead, full-on, tongue and all, and he dragged the Nord back on himself, surprised by how pliable Timmo was, how easily he complied with this. Fuck, he even kissed right back, hand suddenly under Ilya’s jaw, clamped there, and his teeth nipping at Ilya.

Ilya clawed at him, trying to get a decent grip on him, and fuck, he was heavy, so Ilya dumped him to the ground, which Timmo didn’t seem to mind at all, and they tore at each other, rabid animals. Timmo bit him, he tore the Nord’s shirt right off his back.

They rolled in the dirt and rutted. It was short, it was filthy, it was nasty. Even before they finished, Timmo had bruises coming up, crawling up his spine.

In the end, they laid there in the cool night air, spent and sated. Ilya forgot about the fire.

 

*

That was the filthy start of things. It was sordid, it was dirty, it was everything that Ilya was doing personified, embodied in Timmo, and Ilya shivered every time he thought of him. A furtive glance at a soiree, a stolen kiss in the hallway, a quick fuck in an alleyway, even though Timmo was supposed to be on duty and he wasn’t much use to anyone when he was pinned to a wall, gagged with his own belt to prevent him from mewling like a kitten while Ilya fingered him.

They fucked, once or twice, in Ilya’s chambers, when Timmo was supposed to be watching, when Timmo was on guard. They got completely blitzed one night, and they were lying on someone’s rooftop, staring at the stars, and they fucked there too, loudly, until there was a ruckus down below and they took off into the bushes and laughed madly at how ridiculous they were.

And Ilya had never felt anything quite like it before, the thrill, the electricity of Timmo’s gaze, his touch. It jolted through him, burned him out and left him craving more and more and more. And Ilya wasn’t sure how much Timmo suspected or how much Timmo knew—it hurt, it stung, every time—every time, Timmo called someone else’s name. A lie. He cried out and Ilya cringed at the syllables in “Alexius,” because that wasn’t his name, not at all.

And it wasn’t long before he felt the eyes on him, not just Timmo’s now, but everyone’s. Timmo’s gaze didn’t change; his attitude didn’t change. He was still Timmo. He didn’t smile softly or caress Ilya or stare longingly after him. His gaze was still hard and cold, calculating and full of confidence. His touches were rough and angry, sparing and applied only when necessary. And Ilya didn’t think he’d changed either.

But they all knew; somehow, they all knew. Freja stared at them now, hatred smoldering in her bright eyes, cold fire intent on burning Ilya up. And Riesgaard curled his lip in disgust whenever they passed, and that wasn’t really anything new, but it was directed at Ilya now, not at Timmo.

And Queen Mathilda, perhaps she was the worst. She smiled serenely and her gaze met his and he knew she knew all. She stripped him bare in but a second, and her eyes were cold and hard. Her eyes told him she knew everything and she wanted him to know that she knew. And yet, her lips still smiled, so softly, so serenely. It wasn’t even cold, it wasn’t angry. It was just a smile, so soft and sincere. Every time Ilya saw her, his heart raced a little more because she knew, she knew.

She was just playing with him now. She knew everything, absolutely everything, and she was waiting for him—daring him—to make a move.

So he made one.

It had taken months—far too long, really—but Ilya was realizing that, much as he didn’t see the change, didn’t feel the change, there had been one.

Timmo had let his guard down.

It was subtle, but to someone who was supposed to be looking for the details, scrutinizing even the minutest of behavior, it was plain as day. Timmo hardly stalked him now; he walked with him in the open. His voice was still harsh, his eyes were still stern; anyone who dreamt of romance wouldn’t see any in Timmo’s behavior.

But there was something missing. The suspicion, the anger, the mistrust, the hatred had all but seemingly evaporated. In its place was a sense of pseudo-camraderie, a sense of acceptance.

Ilya didn’t go back to the sacred forest. Instead, he wrote a letter—sloppily, messily—in heavily coded Rus and he took it to Timmo. “I need to send this,” he announced, handing the parchment to the head spy.

It was a bold move.

He stood there, sweating, as the blond unrolled the worn paper and studied the spidery black writing. He frowned and Ilya knew. He couldn’t read it.

Timmo furled it back up. “What for?” he asked, waving a hand airily. The letter was crushed in his fist.

“There’s a group of us in Rus,” Ilya said.

Timmo quirked a brow. “Us?” he asked.

Ilya cleared his throat. “Nords. Half-breeds. I guess … spies and dignitaries, defectors, and … forbidden children.” He gave Timmo the most sorrowful look he could muster. “We are treated like shit by the Rus. It is impossible; they murder any Nord they find.”

It wasn’t even a lie, he thought. There probably was a group of super-elite Nords: the missionaries, the spies, the dignitaries, and all the dissenting subjects of the Rus empire that carried with them the taint of Nord blood in their veins.

Timmo looked back at the letter. “What do you need to send them a letter for?” he asked, slowly, thickly.

“I wish to tell them that I have made it out safely, that I am in the counsel of the Queen.”

Timmo’s frown twisted downward; fret lines appeared near his eyes and he was suddenly older, much older than Ilya had seen him before. He’d been in this business far too long. He looked at Ilya, then bit his tongue, tilted his head. “Why on earth,” he said after a long moment, “would they need to know that?”

“I am going to ply Her Majesty for aid.”

Timmo snorted.

“She will wish to help her dignitaries, no?”

Timmo pursed his lips. “I suppose,” he admitted. “But I don’t see what kind of help she can offer—”

“Bomb threats. Negotiations. Whatever she wants. She might even smuggle them out.”

Timmo shook his head. “I’m not political,” he said, and there, there it was, the confession, the admission, the truth. “I don’t much understand what Her Majesty does.”

Weakness. Ilya’s palms slipped together.

That piercing gaze pinned on him. “But it’s dangerous,” he said, “to send a letter deep into enemy territory. It could be seized. What then?”

“It is coded.”

“It’s Rus—”

“It is not,” Ilya huffed. “Do you really take us for fools? We know we cannot speak of these things openly. It is somewhere between Nord and Rus, and coded beyond that. No one in Rus reads Nord. They’ll never break it.”

“Never say never,” Timmo muttered, but turned away, then gestured for Ilya to follow him.

Their footsteps echoed through the hallowed halls, their boots clattering over the pristine white marble as Timmo led him through the palace. Birds flitted in and out of the windows lining the corridor; the afternoon sunshine cascaded in across the floor, bright, almost blinding. The air was balmy, the scent of spring lying thick upon it. Bird song lilted through the air, such a sharp contrast to their heavy, clumsy steps.

The ceiling vaulted suddenly, shockingly, the structured gothic archways giving way to a cathedral ceiling. Sunshine spilled into the room from the round skylight, a perfect circle of light in the middle of what might have been a lush forest. The floor gave way to dirt and grass. Trees sprang up here and there, mingled with flowers and other plants. Insects buzzed lazily through the air, strange apparitions in the bleaching light.

Ilya followed Timmo through the room, doing his level best not to crank his head to either side. The room had once been a ballroom, he fancied, or perhaps the imperial throne room. Now, it was merely abandoned, a ruin. The stone work was starting to crumble and vines crept up the remainder of the walls, curtaining the stone from the outside world. This part of the palace had been abandoned.

Except that it hadn’t been. Here and there, there was evidence of human hands – the trees placed in neat rows, the flowers arranged willfully by color. This was not the work of some nature goddess, reclaiming what the humans had stolen from her.

They strolled through an archway, into another room lined with gilded cages. Birds flapped ther wings against the wire, cooing, fluttering. The room was alive with the rustle and bustle of doves.

“Welcome to the aviary,” Timmo said, glancing back at him, then leaning down and opening one of the cages. A small, white dove hopped out onto his finger.

“What,” Ilya asked, then watched as Timmo shoved the paper into a metal container attached to the bird’s frail leg.

Ilya stared. He’d only seen this sort of thing in the movies.

Timmo turned to him. The dove cocked its head, blinked its big, red eyes. Its talons were curled lovingly around Timmo’s index finger.

“What?” the blond asked.

Ilya shook his head. “Don’t you … don’t you guys think you could at least upgrade to telegraphs or telegrams or something?”

“Why?” Timmo asked, brushing by him, heading back into the indoor forest. “The doves fly fast and true. Nature has given us something perfect; why should we seek to build our own means, imperfect, uglier, less suited to this world than what nature has already created?”

Ilya snorted and trailed the blond back through the forest, until they were standing directly beneath the skylight, sun beaming down on them. It was warm, so much warmer, and Ilya shuddered. Timmo let his head fall back, raised his gaze, raised his arm toward the sun. The dove spread its wings, then took flight, spiraling up through the skylight, out into the empty blue of the sky.

Ilya’s heart skipped a beat.

Incrementally, Timmo lowered his hand again. He stood there for a moment, watching the sky, before he slowly dropped his head. He stood there in the sunshine, bright and light and right, and he said, “Nature has given us what we need. That’s the one thing the Rus will never understand about the Nords. The magic. It’s natural. We’re all born with it, a power, an element buried in our veins, and if we open our hearts to it, then we become one with it.”

He flicked his fingers; Ilya screwed his eyes shut and crinkled his nose as water fresh as the rain splattered across his face. He heard Timmo pass by him, heard his footsteps, dull and heavy on the earth.

“I don’t understand,” he said, opening his eyes again.

“Of course you don’t,” Timmo sneered. “The Rus never could. We’re all made of natural materials, Alexius. The elements are there in us; you can flow like water, howl like the wind, burn like a fire, because you are all those things. Everything nature made is constructed from the same materials.”

“But,” Ilya said, turning to face him at last.

Timmo held his hands askance. “And then you let it flow through you. You breathe air; you are water.”

“It makes no sense,” Ilya snapped. “It’s different formats, different arrangements of molecules and atoms, different ions and charges—”

“But we’re all the same in the end,” Timmo said. “We’re all carbon-based lifeforms. We’re all constructed of the same basic principles. Sure, we’re different shapes, but if we’re all the same at some base level, at the core, then … we have to become those shapes. And we can unbecome those shapes, become different shapes as well.”

Ilya pursed his lips. Timmo sighed in exasperation. “I should have known an idiot Rus would never understand. Think of it this way; maybe you’ll understand. When you die, your body rots. What does it become?”

“I don’t know.”

“Soil. Our bodies turn into dirt. So does a tree, so do other plants. So an earth-user is like a dead body; they allow the body to collapse into that natural state.”

“An … earth-user?” Ilya asked.

“Some one who practices earth magic,” Timmo supplied. “I’m a water-user.”

Ilya creased his brow. “So … you just … concentrate?”

“Basically,” Timmo said. “You have to be in sync, in tune with the element you want to tap into. Riding the same wavelength, if you will.”

“What happens if you’re not?”

Timmo grinned wolfishly. “You can figure that one out on your own,” he said.

Ilya pursed his lips. “What happens if you fight someone using a different element?”

“Depends. Each element has strengths and weaknesses. Water is strong against fire, but weak against rock. Fire is strong against wood, but weak against metal.”

Ilya paused, then followed Timmo out of the hall. “I … you said I had power over words. What does that make me?”

“Fire. Fire governs speech.”

Ilya slowed to a stop. Timmo turned his head. He aspirated on his exhalation and Ilya imagined his lip curling up in distaste as a short, bald figure approached them. “Riesgaard,” Timmo muttered.

“Timmo!” the man barked. “Timmo, come along at once! Your presence is requested by Her Majesty!”

“Oh?” the blond asked, striding to meet the older man. “Her Majesty sent for me and you came running to fetch me?” His tone was snide.

“Don’t be an ass,” Riesgaard snapped. “I don’t object to you meeting Her Majesty on official business. I object to your midnight soirees in her chambers.”

“I would hardly call them soirees,” Timmo shot back.

“Will you hurry up?” Riesgaard grunted. “This is urgent, the Queen requested your presence immediately. The Rus are —”

He paused and looked up at Ilya, as though he had only just caught sight of him. Timmo glanced over his shoulder. “Let’s go,” he said, then took Riesgaard’s elbow and led him away. Their footsteps echoed in the empty hall, slowly fading away to nothingness.

Ilya stood there for a moment, appreciating the silence. For the first time since he’d entered Norcross, he was well and truly alone.

 

*

Timmo had made possibly the biggest mistake of his career that day, Ilya thought ruefully as he’d stroked out another message to his superiors. It was barely coded, even more sloppily written than the one before it had been before; his hand had been shaking so badly, with fright, with excitement.

He knew the Nords’ secret now. He knew their weapons, he knew how to stop them.

With his missive, he trotted back into the aviary. He fumbled with the lock, and when he pried the door free, sixteen birds shot up into the air above him, a whirring of wings and white feathers. They perched on ledges and peered down at him, eyes wide and wondering.

He held out his hand.

Not a feather stirred.

“Come on,” he said. “One of you come here.”

A couple of them hopped back; others spread their wings. He stepped closer. “Please,” he said imploringly. “One of you must carry this message. It’s very important.”

The birds stilled again. Then, one brave soul leapt from the ledge and swooped at him. Ilya cringed as those talons came at him. He screwed his eyes shut, trying not to remember the horror stories he’d heard about birds ripping eyeballs from sockets.

Gently, the bird plucked his note from his hand. It landed on his finger, then tucked the note into the tiny cannister strapped to its leg. The bird looked at him, as though asking him where it needed to go.

“Rus,” he said, “fly to Rus. Go quickly, go silently. Do not be seen.”

The dove bobbed its head once, then took to the air, flapping into the forest and ascending through the skylight. Ilya drew a sharp breath, shaded his eyes, and watched as it disappeared into the vaulting azure canopy of midday.

 

*

Sunset brought Timmo to his chambers, lurking like a shadow, creeping in much the same as one, brought about by the fading light, by the promise of darkness. He locked the door and the sun sank deeper in the west.

“So?” Ilya said.

Timmo paused midway through toeing off his shoes, considered him with narrowed eyes. “So what?” he asked, closing his eyes imperiously and kicking off his boots.

“What was that about?”

“Nothing of your concern,” the blond replied haughtily, then crawled into bed like a cat, grace, silence, stealth. Ilya twisted away from him.

“Do the Rus know I’m here?” he asked, hoping nervousness rang true in his voice.

“Of course,” Timmo replied breezily and Ilya’s breath caught. The blond looked at him, eyes glinting in the fading light. “They’ve been watching you since you entered the city. They know you’re here.”

Ilya swallowed nervously. “But … ”

“They’re probably trying to figure out what you’re up to, why you came running back here.”

He finished rolling his cigarette and lit it. Acacia smoke billowed into the room, swaying, sashaying on the evening breeze. The light turned gold. Timmo exhaled. “We caught two of them at the border.”

“Oh god,” Ilya breathed.

Timmo sat on the edge of the bed, smoke dangling between his lips, staring out at the sunset. Eternity ticked by; Ilya was reminded, briefly, of the long, dragging afternoons of his youth, endless sunshine, endless minutes, stretching on before him forever.

Life seemed so short these days, except right then and there, in that moment, with Timmo glowing orange and bronze and red and gold in the dusky light. The sky faded to purple.

Timmo unfurled at last, stubbed out his cigarette. “It’s nothing to do with you,” he said, but he wouldn’t meet Ilya’s gaze.

He tossed his pistol on the bedside table, pitched his beret on the floor. He kicked up his feet, lay back on the bed. “It’s happened before,” he said. “The Rus will either leave them for dead or buy ‘em off.” He shrugged. “It’s how things go.”

“What happens if they leave them?” Ilya asked, straddling Timmo’s prone form.

“We shoot ‘em.”

“And if they go back?”

A wicked grin. “Rus shoots ‘em.” He was almost laughing, the bastard.

Things devolved from there, back into the ludicrous, filthy madness that they’d descended into over the past week. They were insane, Ilya reasoned, to be twisted in the sheets, entangled in each other, to be so impervious and imperious to keep doing this, time and time again.

Timmo left claw marks down his back, curled around him, breathing harsh and hard, panting, “Remember how I said we all had magic, the elements, the same basic structure?”

Ilya gripped his hips harder, watched his head fall back.

“We’re all the same, we’re all interconnected, part of each other, deep down, we’re all one, and—”

He clawed at Ilya’s wrists, forced him to hold still a moment. “We’re all the same,” he managed, “Rus, Nord. We’re all the fucking same.”

“Shut up,” Ilya snapped, gritting his teeth. He wasn’t. He’d been told all his life that he was different, that he was strange. An outcast. He didn’t fit here, he didn’t fit there. He wasn’t Rus. He wasn’t Nord. He was nothing.

“It’s true,” Timmo panted, then twined their fingers hard, nearly snapped Ilya’s fingers back.

Something unlocked; something deep inside Ilya untwisted, unraveled and furled out, long and raw and radiating out of him. It hurt; it dragged its way through him, ripping at his insides before it crashed to the surface, breaking his skin. It burst, like a dam, overflowing, and everything soaked through.

He expected blood when he opened his eyes; the skin of his fingers was raw, his whole body shaking and drained, but instead, the room was drowning in water. Timmo’s fingers were still locked with his, his gaze still pinned on Ilya.

“Exactly. The same,” he exhaled.

The door slammed open; water sloshed into the hallway, then rushed away. A steady drip-drip-drip filled the air.

Then the clicking of a pistol jammed in their ears.

Timmo grinned. Ilya stiffened.

“So,” Timmo drawled, “you’ve come to kill your rogue agent.”

Ilya was under him in a second, hands pinned behind him, gun pressed to his temple. He stared at the two Rus officers. One of them was shaking, trying desperately to keep his aim trained on Timmo.

“I’m impressed,” Timmo said, “that you managed to slip your guards.”

“Put the gun down,” one of the officers said.

Ilya could feel Timmo’s grin in his ear. “Oh? Does he mean something to you? Does his worthless little life actually matter to you?”

The safety clicked off; the weapon kissed Ilya’s temple. “What information does your little spy have?”

Ilya froze. Timmo had known then? Timmo had known all along then, that he was a spy. That he’d been sent in by the Rus to gather information, to send it back to Rus. He’d known and yet, he’d still told him about the magic? He’d still revealed everything, the Nords’ most sacred secret?

Or maybe he’d been lying. Maybe he’d made all of that up, maybe he’d planted false information and watched Ilya devour it, send shit back to Rus like it was the finest of delicacies. Ilya should have known better. Timmo was the master.

The muzzle of the gun stroked his skin lovingly. “Hm, hm, what information could this little maggot have that could possibly be so interesting to you?”

Shots fired. The Rus guards collapsed to the ground, one fountaining blood from his head, the other clutching his heart as blood dripped down his fingertips.

Timmo’s gun hadn’t moved.

“Your Majesty,” he said.

Ilya watched as she approached, the tiny peashooter clutched between both outstretched hands, smoking. She was shaking; her tresses were drenched in blood. She was paler than ever.

Timmo dropped his gun and let Ilya up. Ilya didn’t move; he stayed froze where he was, watching the mighty Queen of the Nords as she shuffled through the doorframe, her dress dragging through puddles.

“So this is how I find you,” she murmured, her voice straining with ill-kept emotion. “Betraying your country, betraying your own kind.”

“Mathilda,” Timmo said softly.

She laughed, bitterly, softly. Her face was ugly when she smirked like that. “Why would I expect anything less from you, my dearest Timmo?”

He didn’t answer her. She looked completely unhinged, idiotic smile plastered to her too-red lips, her eyes strained. She nodded once, then looked to Ilya. “And you … ”

Timmo tensed.

“Villain,” she snarled, training the gun on Ilya. “Infidel, liar. Snitch!” Her teeth were oh-so-white.

Her voice ricocheted off the marble walls, echoing through the vaulted halls. She drew a sharp breath.

“Highness,” Timmo said, awe infiltrating his tone.

“You told them!” she roared. “You told them, you told them!”

“Your Majesty!” Timmo barked. “You’re injured! Please— ”

“It doesn’t matter!” she screamed. Blood spattered across the floor. “He told them, they know!”

“Know what?!” Timmo cried.

An earth-shattering scream rent the air; a second later, the bells in the church tower rang out a cacophony, delirious, insane, as the spires came toppling down, rock and rubble crashing to the earth—the promised end of days, fire and brimstone.

“About the magic,” Mathilda breathed. “He told them about the magic.”

She straightened up. Blood gushed from her side. She held the gun up again, trained it on Ilya. “Norcross is doomed,” she sneered. “Your father’s people are damned. Look what you’ve wrought, you wretched—”

Another explosion rocked the palace floor. The roof groaned and collapsed into the hallway; clay tiles and mortar and plaster burst into dust, then gently floated to the marble floor. Waning sunlight streamed into the room.

Mathilda dropped the gun; it skidded across the floor. “Norcross will fall,” she said, pressing her hands together. “The Nords will perish, and the Rus will rule the earth. The Rus will destroy themselves.”

She drew a shaky breath. “But,” she said, “I’ll be damned if I let you live long enough to see it through.”

Her eyes began to glow, a bright, vibrant purple. A wind sprang up around her, dancing through her tresses, lifting her drenched dress.

“Mathilda!” Timmo barked, but she was lost to him, her eyes strange and pupilless, her lips numb, but moving in silent prayer.

Timmo gritted his teeth.

Ilya wrapped his hand around steely metal, lifted it, and said, “Die.”

Mathilda hit the ground before he even fired the shot, but the room reeked of gunpowder and blood. Timmo stared at the body of the Queen, twisted on the floor, and then he slowly turned to stare at Ilya. Ilya, very slowly, lowered the gun.

“You killed her,” Timmo breathed.

The world was very, very silent.

Ilya’s shoulders relaxed for what felt like the first time in months.

“She’s dead,” he said, unable to believe it. Yet there she was, crumpled on the floor, testament to reality.

The footsteps in the hall were muted, distorted by his removal from that moment, muddied by his divorce from reality and time and space. They were rushing along the corridor, coming to find the Queen, and when they arrived, they would find her dead. They would arrive any second. But in that second, eternity stretched out forever.

“You—  ”

He whirled, turned the gun on Timmo, who reared back. “I’ll kill you,” he said, panicked, trembling. He hoped Timmo didn’t call his bluff.

He saw fear in Timmo’s eyes for the first time; he’d seen exhaustion and age and cynicism before, but now he saw pure, unadulterated terror engulfing the other man.

That lasted only a second before another, more familiar emotion surfaced in those blue orbs: rage.

It wasn’t explosive, not like the detonations outside, the catastrophic booms and screaming that made the very earth shake, that made buildings implode on themselves with trembling fear. It was nothing like Rus’s demented wrath, their overzealous glee at finally destroying their most hated enemy.

It was far more terrifying.

His eyes danced for a moment. Then he dropped his head. The laughter started softly, low, and then it started to grow, mounting, reverberating through his frame, malicious, jagged and raw, until it wracked him through. He tossed his head back, his mouth wide open, his lips peeled back painfully from his gums, that wretched noise pouring forth in breathy, halting starts and stops, his entire body convulsing with it.

“You fucking killed her,” he laughed. His eyes were shot, contracted like a cat’s, as though becoming smaller could possibly filter out the reality.

“You fucking killed her.” The corners of his mouth dropped. He shook as he wrapped his hands around Ilya’s neck, fingers twitching, pressing into soft skin, harder and harder and harder—

Ilya coughed, felt his trachea compressing, collapsing in on itself. He was deaf to the rockets and missiles; he heard nothing except the pounding of blood in his ears. Speaking was impossible now. His stomach churned.

“You fucking bastard,” Timmo said, his voice ricocheting around in Ilya’s skull, hardly real, more of a phantom. Ilya shut an eye, kept the other trained on Timmo, even as the Nord pressed down.

He butted the pistol up against Timmo’s ribcage. He was shaking just as violently. The blond constricted his grip; Ilya tightened his own trembling finger on the trigger.

It was cold, so goddamn cold. The world turned dark at the edges, the shadows finally overtaking them, devouring the last of the day. The sun disappeared below the horizon, leaving them in the grips of the night.

The hammer clicked into place.

Timmo’s lip curled; his brow furrowed in concentration. Ilya shut both his eyes tight.

Gunshots rang out, louder than death knells; a breeze whistled through the room, tinted with gunpowder and gunmetal. Ilya tasted blood on his tongue.

They sprang free of each other, Ilya clutching the gun, coughing, choking still, as he skidded across the slick marble floor toward the window. Timmo clutched at the sheets, fumbled back, slammed into the wall.

“You!” Freja roared.

“Freja!” Ville screamed.

Timmo scrabbled at the bedside drawer. Ilya trained the gun on Freja. Her eyes were mad, more insane than Timmo’s had been merre seconds ago. She pointed the gun at Ilya; she shifted her gaze to Timmo. She drew a sharp breath.

Timmo slammed the drawer shut again, extended his arm, clicked the safety off the pistol. “Drop it,” he instructed, his voice low like distant thunder. “Now.”

Freja hesitated; her arms twitched with a practiced reaction to her commanding officer, but she rebelled, held the pistol aloft for an undecided moment.

“Now,” he repeated, louder, voice rising like the tide.

She lowered the gun, relaxed her stance. Timmo took a deep breath. Ilya glanced between them, calculating, unsure. They were both armed. He wasn’t sure which of them was more dangerous.

A bullet lodged itself into the wall to his left; another dinged off the doorframe, escaping through the gaping window into the melee outside. Ville clicked the barrel back into place, then fired off another salvo.

“Knock it off!” Timmo barked, hardly audible over the rapid-fire bang-bang-bang of his own weapon. Ville dropped his pistol, shaking his hands; the gun clattered to the floor.

“Timmo!” Freja snapped, and the last thing Ilya saw as he flipped out the window was Timmo slumping over, spitting blood into his hand.


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