Chapter VI [Bad Spirits]
“I see you remember now,” Timmo said very calmly.
Ilya looked around – left, right, up, down – anywhere and everywhere but Timmo’s placid face. “You,” he said slowly, but his brain was muddled and murky; he had nothing more than that.
He rolled over and stared up at Timmo. “That …”
His gaze dropped to the still-bleeding wound, a gunshot wound.
“I wasn’t lying when I said that I’d been stripped of my duties, that I was a wanted man in Norcross.”
“You shot at Ville.”
Timmo grinned, as though the memory were pleasant.
“You saved me,” Ilya said.
“Ha!” Timmo shook his head. “No. I let you go.”
Ilya stared at him a moment longer. “Why?” he asked at last in a slow, careful voice. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
Timmo tilted his head, opened his mouth a touch. He inhaled and Ilya glimpsed his tongue working, clicking between his teeth, as though tapping out a message. Finally, Timmo looked at him.
“Your life is mine.”
“You,” Ilya spat. “You could have killed me there! You could have taken me hostage, prisoner, you could have shot me dead, you could have –”
“Let you go and hunted you down like the dog you are,” Timmo replied, gripping his wrists, fixing him with a half-mad look, the firelight glinting in his eyes. “Which is exactly what I did.”
“You could have killed me there,” Ilya snarled, shaking him off, scrambling to his feet. “You should have killed me there.”
“What’s the fun in that?” the Nord asked him. All negative emotion had evaporated from his voice; he was placidly happy, soft and calm and sweet.
Ilya panicked. His heart tripped and trembled through his veins; his breath came faster. Something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong with this whole situation and he needed to get out. He felt sick.
“You should have killed me and proved that you were still loyal. You got caught with me, you got caught with me and the Queen’s body was right there, and they had no idea which one of us killed her and –”
“I was dead the second I let you touch me,” Timmo said. “Mathilda never was very good at sharing.”
Ilya took a moment to process. He sucked in a sharp breath. “Then why. Why’d you let me do it?”
“Why?” Timmo asked. “Because I wanted to.”
“That’s it?” Ilya asked, feeling incredulous. It couldn’t have been that simple. There must have been something more to it.
Timmo shrugged. “Mathilda took what she wanted. I had no say in the matter. She was the Queen, I was a stupid sixteen-year-old, a rookie in her special ops, her prize, her pet.” He snarled the words.
He looked up at Ilya, eyes blazing. “Who can argue with that? Who am I to argue with the Queen?”
Ilya couldn’t fathom what he was saying. “Why didn’t you just kill her?” he asked, dumbfounded. He’d never felt so helplessly stupid in his life.
“And what?” Timmo sneered. “Be hanged for treason? Usurp the throne and crown myself king?”
He sighed and kicked back, reclining, tucking his arms behind his head in one fluid motion. He let his eyes slip shut and Ilya was released from their spell. “So much easier to let you do it for me.”
“You could have killed her years ago –”
“And to what purpose? I told you, if I did that, my options were hang or take the throne. I care for neither.”
Ilya pursed his lips. “So you waited.”
Timmo said nothing.
Ilya glanced around at the white, white walls of their little snow cave, flickering and glinting like a hundred thousand diamonds in the firelight. He glanced about, but saw no exit. They were buried deep in the snow, tucked away from all who might try to find them. Timmo had hidden them well.
He was trapped.
He went on watching Timmo, staring at his long, fluid lines; the silent, subtle power of his form; his quiet, almost painful, beauty.
“You were convenient,” he said. “An excuse.”
“Right,” Ilya nodded. That was all he’d ever been, to anybody. A scapegoat, a reason. An excuse.
Timmo opened his eyes and watched him back.
“So,” Ilya said, fixating on a point above Timmo’s head, “you waited until I came along and allowed me to kill the Queen in your stead.”
The Nord was silent. Ilya swallowed. “And then you got caught by your comrades and allowed me to escape by committing treason against them, by allowing them to think you’d betrayed everyone and helped me murder the Queen, so that you could come after me like a dog … for what purpose, exactly?”
“Oh,” Timmo said easily, “that wasn’t really part of the plan. I always intended to let you kill Mathilda.”
“Then what was your plan?”
Timmo snorted. “Why, to take Frejya and run off into the wilderness, live like beasts. You know, six kids, barely scraping a living together.”
His eyes glinted.
“Not funny,” Ilya told him sourly.
The blond sat up and crossed his legs with a sigh. “I wanted out,” he said, refusing to meet Ilya’s gaze. “I thought I’d let you kill her, then slip off into the chaos.”
He pursed his lips. “There were a lot of things I didn’t intend.”
“Like the sack of Norcross?”
“Like the sack of Norcross. I didn’t exactly intend to ignite a war. I didn’t realize Rus was right on our doorstep. I knew you were a spy, but Rus had sent spies before. I … caught on too late.”
He glowered at Ilya. “My vision was clouded. I didn’t see the situation clearly.”
“Rus had always sent spies. One after another. They were entertaining, at best. They were always so obvious. We were always so amused. We just let them go, letting them believe that they’d managed to trick us, that we actually believed them, until they crossed the line …”
He glanced up. “And then we killed them. Horrifying, gruesome murders, and they spent their last moments finding out that every clever move they’d thought they’d made had been known to us, every dirty little secret – we were master puppeteers and their last realization was just how expertly they’d been used.”
Silence stretched between them for a long, painful moment.
“I didn’t expect Rus on our doorstep,” Timmo reiterated. “They’d never done it before. Hell, we were pretty sure they didn’t have a lock on where Norcross was. The signs were all there …”
He pursed his lips. “I was distracted. If I’d been looking, then I would have seen the signs. It was all there, right in front of me.”
“What would you have done then, if I’d killed the Queen?”
“We would have invaded Rus,” Timmo replied readily. “You idiots never would have seen it coming. It’d be Rus that was sacked, all of your technological prowess no match for our secret weapon. We would have toppled you, after all this time. Centuries of advancement, swept away in but a moment. As though we’d simply been there, tolerating you and your lofty ideas, until you’d grown too full of yourselves and we unleashed our wrath, angry gods to wipe the earth clean again.”
Ilya snorted. “There is no god.”
“Just like there’s no magic, right?”
They were silent again.
“What got in your way?”
“You.” Timmo didn’t even hesitate; it was blunt, it was immediate, and … it was flattering.
Their eyes met. “The Rus had never sent anyone like you before. I knew you were a spy from the start, but … you were Nord. You are Nord.”
“I’m Rus,” Ilya countered.
Timmo shook his head. “You still don’t get it. You’re Nord. Fuck, we’re all Nord. Nord, Rus, it doesn’t matter. We’re human. Human beings, all made up out of the same core materials.”
He paused. “The Nord and the Rus used to be the same. The Rus were magic users too, once. That was a long time ago. I thought that there might still be some left, deep in the countryside, the remotest areas, practicing their traditions, their centuries-old knowledge. But I guess that was naïve.”
Ilya thought now that Timmo was naïve, incredibly naïve, but kept his mouth shut when the blond sighed, “You’ve destroyed the land. There’s no magic left here, not even this far from the capital. Not even this far north. The faeries are gone; the earth is dead and silent.
“I had hoped there was some magic left, something. I had hoped we could bring you back, make you see what you used to be. Realize that all this technology, all this … progress is nothing but a lie.”
“It’s not a lie,” Ilya said.
Timmo looked at him with doubtful eyes, and he shut his mouth with a click. Timmo had seen the poorest of the poor; Timmo had seen the toil and struggle of the countryside now. Norcross was nothing like that.
Maybe he was right. Maybe they had forgotten something crucial along the way. Maybe they had become so wrapped up in their ideas of progress and advancement and making things better that they’d forgotten something very, very important.
They were all equal. They were all the same.
“There’s nothing left, though,” Timmo said. “We have no choice but to purge the Rus.”
Ilya laughed. “How are you going to do that?”
Timmo grinned. “We’ll find a way,” he said.
“Norcross is destroyed, the Nord are scattered. We have your secret; we can overcome anything.” Confidence swelled anew in Ilya’s chest. He’d never been proud to be Rus before, but now he felt it. They were superior. They had tricked the Nord. They had destroyed them. Magic and nature were no match for progress, for technology, for the ingenuity of mankind.
“If the Nords can’t do it,” Timmo said very slowly, “then the Rus will destroy themselves. The planet will purge you.”
“How?” Ilya snorted. “You’re all gone, we have the technology. We’re masters of the earth. We can do whatever we want.”
Timmo’s turn to laugh. “It’s exactly that confidence that will get you killed. You’ll outstrip the planet, destroy it along with yourselves. War, disease, famine, disaster … there’s not much human beings can do in the face of the overwhelming forces stacked against them. It’s hard to fight an enemy that lives within you.”
Ilya shook his head. “That’ll take decades. Centuries. Eons. You won’t live to see it.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. Nords live a long time. Longer than you Rus at any rate.”
Ilya sneered. “You still won’t see it. You can’t live that long. You’ll be dead before that ever comes to pass.”
Timmo couldn’t seem to help the grin that graced his face. He snorted a couple of times, then grinned and shook his head. He bit his lip; the skin around his eyes creased with ill-contained glee.
“What?” Ilya asked in exasperation when he’d waited long enough and Timmo hadn’t stopped laughing yet.
Timmo looked at him, eyes dancing with amusement. The firelight flickered in them. “I am dead,” he said with a cheery grin, another little snicker.
Ilya stared at him, then grinned as well. “Metaphorically,” he said, “you’re a dead man. The people in Norcross want you dead. You can’t go back there, you’re a dead man. We’re both dead.”
Timmo didn’t stop smiling, but he shook his head. Ilya’s smile fell away. He heaved a huge breath and reared back, eyes flicking down to the open, oozing wound in Timmo’s side. “That’s where Frejya shot you,” he said.
“Yup,” Timmo agreed readily.
“Eight months ago,” Ilya gasped.
“Eight months ago.”
“You should be dead,” Ilya said.
“I am dead,” Timmo reiterated.
Ilya shook his head furiously. “How?” he implored, desperation clawing his tone.
Timmo finally stopped grinning. He shrugged. “It kind of happens,” he said, “when they hit something vital and you can’t stop the bleeding.”
“No,” Ilya hissed. “How are you here, how are you …”
He sat back on his haunches. “You can’t be here. Corpses don’t move.”
“Oh,” Timmo said nonchalantly, “that. That’s easy enough.”
Ilya forced himself to exhale. Timmo grinned again. “I’m a näck.”
Timmo was on his hands and knees, crawling toward him. He didn’t leave prints in the snow, as though he had no weight at all. Ilya reared back, curling away from him as he advanced.
This couldn’t be right. He’d been right there. Timmo was there, he was solid and real and corporeal, and –
“A näck. They say that näcks are water-users who die with unfinished business.”
Ilya’s back hit the wall. The snow started to melt against him, dripping down onto him. He shuddered.
“What the hell do you want?” he hissed.
“Really,” Timmo scoffed. “I told you all of that and you can’t figure it out yourself? I’m actually insulted that you got me killed.”
“I didn’t kill you, if you want to blame someone, Frejya’s the one who fired the shot –”
“You were the death of me, Ilya,” Timmo said, drawing right up against him, doing his best to look put upon. “If it wasn’t for you, I would have noticed the Rus surrounding the city, I would never have let you kill the Queen, I would have shot you dead the second you did. Frejya wouldn’t have had a chance.”
He drew a cold finger in a line down Ilya’s chest, over his heart. “Anyway you look at it, Ilya, it’s your fault. Frejya fired the shot, but you were the catalyst.”
Ilya pressed back into the snow; it was warmer than Timmo’s hands. “You’re a murderer,” Timmo continued, softly now. “You killed me, man. How does it feel?”
Ilya scoffed. “There’s no blood on my hands.”
“Really?” Timmo asked. “You ignited a war, thousands are dead because of you – even if you didn’t give the bomb order, even if you didn’t pull the trigger.”
Ilya laughed. “You started the war,” he snarled. “You said as much, you would have had me kill the Queen and then started a war with Rus anyway. You’re the murderer. You’re just as guilty as I am!”
“That may be,” Timmo replied, “but things didn’t pan out that way, did they?”
“You’re just as bad as I am,” Ilya snarled. “You’ve got no right to seek revenge.”
“Don’t play innocent now,” Timmo retorted. “You’re not. We’re cut from the same cloth.”
Ilya shoved him away. “This can’t be real,” he said. “People die. They don’t move. They don’t turn into something else.”
“Sure they do,” Timmo said. “I told you, we turn into dirt when we decay.”
“You don’t – you don’t go on living!” Ilya snapped.
“Oh, I’m hardly alive,” Timmo said, his eyes wide. “I don’t breathe. My heart doesn’t beat. I’m cold and stiff, and I feel precisely nothing.”
“Bullshit,” Ilya spat. “You feel that.” He pointed at the wound. “You bleed. You wince, you feel pain!”
The blond pressed his fingers to his side. “Hm, well, yes. You have a point there. I do feel this wound. I feel it constantly. It drives me mad. It aches in the deepest, darkest hours of the night, throbbing down to the core of my matter, and I’m constantly aware of it. It grinds my bones, it seeps, raw at the edges, and I feel it, this gaping hole in the side of me, my missing fiber.”
He pulled his fingers away, contemplated the blood. “And it aches into my brain. I don’t sleep. I don’t eat. It consumes me, like a ravenous animal gnawing on me, devouring every inch of me, until I’ve become something else entirely. There is only one thing that will stop the ache.”
Ilya dug his fingers into the snow; they sank up to the third knuckle. His breath hitched. “What’s that?” he asked.
“Your life,” Timmo hissed.
“You want to kill me,” Ilya surmised.
Timmo laughed. “I told you that,” he said, “right at the beginning, when I showed up on your doorstep. I told you, your life is mine.”
Ilya clenched his fist, then tossed snow into Timmo’s face. The Nord – no, the näck, whatever the hell he was now – squealed inhumanly, dropping back. Ilya scrabbled around the fire, grabbed a burning furl, then kicked the rest of it into Timmo’s face, earning himself another hiss. He jammed the fire deep into the snow, hoping it melted just enough of the exit tunnel to make it easy to get out.
Timmo scrubbed at his eyes, then snarled viciously and Ilya glanced just long enough, with just enough light, to catch sight of horrifying fangs inside the creature’s mouth. His heart thumped in his chest. That wasn’t Timmo.
He started to dig at the tunnel, frantically, tossing out handfuls of snow even as his fingers burned with cold.
“Idiot!” Timmo snapped. “What the fuck do you think snow is?!”
Ilya stood back as the wall of white before him dissolved into a puddle, sinking to the floor. The roof splish-splashed down into the rising water; Ilya swished his ankles through it.
“This is my domain,” Timmo declared boldly.
Of course, Ilya thought bitterly. Why else would Timmo drag him out here, deep onto the tundra, where they were surrounded by nothing but millions of acres of snow and ice – frozen water.
Timmo was in his element. Ilya cursed. He was fire; there was nothing he could do here, nothing he could do to escape. He might have had some power over Timmo in a dry environment, but there was just too much damn water here; he’d be doused, he’d be drowned.
The water kept rising. He glanced over his shoulder, but Timmo was nowhere to be seen.
Ilya could hear him, though. He was laughing, the bastard. “Drown, drown, drown!” he chanted gleefully.
Ilya sloshed forward, water slapping against his thighs. It was freezing. Daylight streamed into the cavern now, through the caved-in roof, glinting off the polar water. Ilya started to shiver. If he escaped – if there were any escape – it would be into a wintry vortex and the gray half-light of the arctic day, where he would freeze.
He stepped forward. He slipped. His feet came up, his head went down, plunging beneath the icy watery. His breath left him. His hand trailed after him, reaching for the daylight, now so very far away from him. He stared at it, watched it grow tinier and tinier, til it was nothing more than a mere speck, a dot. Then the water rippled far above him.
He opened his eyes into a world filled with sunshine and the sweet scent of flowers. The sunlight was strong on his face, the warmth of high summer. A couple of larks rushed by overhead, their wings beating strongly as they rocketed across the pure blue sky.
Very slowly, he sat up. He turned his head incrementally, stared at the sprawling, empty meadow. He was entirely alone.
It was just him and the empty sky.
He sank back down, deep into the sweet summer grass, nestling back into the darkness of the dream.
When he woke again, Mathilda was standing before him, washed out as the rest of the pastel landscape. Her two handmaids flanked her, just as they had in life, holding her gleaming tresses.
She was out of place here, too pale. She belonged to a more wintry landscape.
“This is a dream” he said, and she nodded once, minutely, her red lips smiling serenely at him.
“What is this place?” he asked, looking around.
“Death,” Mathilda said softly, unperturbed.
Ilya stared at his calm, peaceful surroundings, then looked back at her for confirmation.
“Our consciounesses are separate from our bodies,” she explained, patiently. “The two are constructed from different materials. In life, they are fused together as one. In death, they separate.”
She sat down in the grass with him. “That is why we die,” she continued. “If the two did not separate, then we would never die.”
She smiled. “Death is a mercy,” she said. “Otherwise, we would be trapped in our physical selves as we rotted away. We cannot make the body live indefinitely; it must decompose.”
He watched her pluck flowers from the meadow and drop them into her lap, then nodded, as though he understood.
“We are no longer beings of the physical world,” she said as she began weaving the flowers together. “If we were to travel back to that plane, we would not sense the same; we would not touch, feel, smell, taste, nor see, the same as we had when we lived. We require vessels for that. That is why the two must be twined when we exist on that plane.”
“We’re … spirits?” he asked.
Her lips quirked up in a smile and she contemplated her work. “You might call us that,” she said after a moment or two. She stood, then held out her hand.
She laughed. “Please,” she said. “Let us let the past be the past. This is death. The things that drove us when we were alive cannot drive us here – there are no storms to weather, no hunger, no poverty. In fact, there is nothingness. There is only calm and existence. There is only pleasure to be taken in each other’s company.”
Ilya stared at her for a moment. “Then,” he asked, “what’s the point of it?”
She laughed again. “There is no point,” she replied. “It simply is. It is the most basic state of all beings – simply being. We need nothing, we want nothing, we feel nothing, we sense nothing.”
“Then what are we?”
“Outside of this realm?” she asked. “We are nothing.”
Then she licked her lips, glanced down. The color of her lipstick didn’t transfer. “There are times,” she said, “when one of us crosses into the other plane. Or perhaps when we don’t leave the other plane.”
He waited patiently; he knew who she was talking about.
She looked up; her eyes were bright, brighter than they had been in life. It was as though he were staring into her soul – and then he realized that was exactly what was happening. That was all there was to look at; it wasn’t hidden beneath a corporeal form, locked away in a body. He was staring straight at her soul, laid bare before him.
“For most, they cannot interact with that plane of existence. Others are more powerful; they are what people call ghosts. They cause disturbances. Mostly, they don’t mean to, but … sometimes …”
She sighed heavily. “And then there’s Timmo.”
Ilya shuffled his feet. The grass remained untrampled. So very strange. Everything here was strange.
“What about Timmo?”
“When an emotion – a very powerful emotion, an all-consuming feeling, goes unsettled before death, then the spirit does not want to leave. It can linger.”
“So Timmo’s dead.”
“Timmo has been consumed by passion, by a desire for revenge. It drives him. He died in the physical sense; he shed his corporeal body. But he merely took on a new form. Revenge twisted him, and he has become something else entirely.”
“A näck,” Ilya supplied.
“A vengeful water sprite, seeking to drown those who wronged him, hoping it will quell his rage.”
“I don’t believe it,” Ilya snapped. “When you die, you die. End of story. There’s nothing else beyond it.”
Mathilda frowned at him. “We’re here, aren’t we?” she asked.
He stared at her for a moment or two, mouth working, brain completely short-circuited.
“Am I dead?” he asked her, trembling. This was death. He’d died.
“Not … quite,” Mathilda replied cautiously. “You are nine-tenths of the way there. I’ve pulled you here, though.”
“Why?” Ilya asked.
“You were very close to death; it was easier to separate you from your physical self.”
“I asked why, not how.”
“I was getting there.” She cleared her throat. “Timmo must be stopped.”
Ilya frowned as she began to pace. She pulled her arms behind her. “He believes that, by taking your life, his rage will be quelled. But it won’t be.”
He could imagine the imperious, worried tone her words would have carried in life; the weight of her words would have been undeniable. But here, they carried no more weight – they were as light and airy as everything else she’d said, as though this were no more worrisome than what she’d had for lunch.
Her expression wasn’t pinched or pained; it was that same kind of placid half-smile she’d had since he’d laid eyes on her here in this sprawling meadow. “He won’t be satisfied. The hatred will only grow.”
“You must stop him,” she said.
“How?” he asked.
“Call his name.”
Ilya snorted. “I’ve been calling him Timmo for the last … however many miles, god, how many days has it been?”
“Point is, I’ve been saying his damn name.”
Still, she said nothing. He opened his mouth again, then clicked it shut. “It’s not his name,” he said.
Mathilda dipped her head. “Not … quite,” she said. “It’s not his legal name.”
Ilya glowered at her. “It’s not his name. If it were his name, it would kill him.”
She licked her lips. “It’s his middle name,” she said. “But you must call him by his first name.”
“Why me?” Ilya snapped. “Why not Frejya or Ville or … why not someone else?!”
“How easily you forget!” she cried; her voice rang out, thunderous and terrifying, echoing across the empty meadow.
Ilya sucked in a breath, sat down on the ground.
“You have power over words,” she reprimanded. “Frejya or Ville would need to call his name more than once – just a single utterance from you will do.”
They stared at each other for a terse moment. That was how Ilya knew he wasn’t dead yet; he still hated her. He wasn’t ready to let go of the past yet.
“All right,” he said at last, taking a deep breath. “Then all I need is his name.”
He waited for a moment, watching her. She watched back, still smiling serenely. His lips twitched.
“So?” he snapped.
“What’s his name!”
She let her head loll back, almost wistfully. “Oh,” she sighed, “that is something I hardly needed to know in life, never mind now. I don’t remember.”
Ilya nodded. “You don’t remember,” he almost laughed. “You don’t remember his real name.” He glared at her. “Weren’t you two lovers?”
“Lovers is hardly the term for it,” she retorted. “He was mine, and that is all there was to it.”
Ilya felt the tug of a nasty smirk, one he’d seen on another face, worn by a blond man with terrifying eyes. It was a nasty smirk, a painful grimace more so than it could ever be said to be a smile, even though the motion bespoke of happiness.
She didn’t even have the decency to look repentant. “You’ll have to find out on your own,” she said.
“How?!” he cried. “He won’t tell me, I can’t just walk up to him and say, ‘Hey, Timmo, what’s your actual name?’ And you don’t know! Norcross is sacked; all the papers are gone. Riesgaard’s dead, you’re dead … who the hell else knows?”
Mathilda pondered for a moment or two, then said, “Your government probably has records. He wasn’t always detailed at home.”
Ilya sneered. He wanted to deck her, punch that stupid smile right down her throat. “And how am I going to get those records?” he asked.
“I’m sure you have connections.”
“Connections that are trying to kill me. I’m on the lam.”
She snorted derisively. “You have a lot to learn about spying.”
He waited, impatiently this time, for more.
“You might ask Frejya or Ville. They should know.”
“Oh, and, what, get killed?”
Mathilda shook her head. “You still don’t understand the entire situation, I don’t think. You think this has to do with you and him. It doesn’t. Not at all.”
“Look, just ‘cause you want your boy toy to come here and play with you in fields of green –”
“That is not it at all, Ilya,” she hissed, her face finally contorting from its peaceful mask, turning into something terrifying. She towered over him, tall and dark and twisted, a monster in porcelain skin.
He cringed; the shadows lifted. The sun came back out. Mathilda smiled again. “Think about what Rus wants from the Nords.”
“The north,” he responded, “the territory in the north.”
“And why?” she asked lightly, lifting her head just a touch. Pedantic bitch. He gritted his teeth; his fists shook with rage.
“For the snow and the ice.”
He paused. He let his hands loose; his fingers felt numb. “Water,” he said, his shoulders sinking with the realization.
Valya’s breath ghosted over her ear, sending shudders down her back. She sat up straighter, lifted her head. “Yes?”
“The Nord,” he said.
A white-gloved hand traced the rim of her drink. “The one Ilyushka was traveling with.”
“What about him?”
“What did he look like?”
“Mmm,” she said softly, cocking her head to the side as Valya’s fingers landed underneath her chin. She lifted her gaze and looked back at him. His eyes were piercing in the rum light. “About average for a Nord. Blond. Those terrifying blue eyes. Smirky little bastard.”
“Do you think he’s the same as our dear Ilyushka’s Norcross tail?”
“Of course,” she huffed, “they were fucking in Norcross. Of course he’s one and the same.”
Valya nodded. “Very good. You know that he was part of the Queen’s private detail? Lieutenant, actually.”
“So?” she asked, turning her eyes back to her drink, stirring it with a stick.
“Goes by the name Timmo. Her Majesty was very fond of him.”
Marina shrugged, her dark curls bouncing off her shoulders. “I don’t see how that’s relevant now; the bitch is dead and Norcross is ours.”
“We still don’t have the north,” Valya said and Marina shut her mouth with a click. “Our work is not finished, so don’t get smart with me.”
His fingers pulled away. He tucked his arms behind his back and began to pace. She watched him, feeling her pupils contract, much like a cat watching a mouse. Valya paused. “He goes by another name. I think you’d know him well. He murdered your father.”
The glass fell from her nerveless hand and shattered on the floor, much like her careful composure. She stared at Valya. “What,” she gasped, “that’s him? That’s the bastard?!”
She crunched her hands together, ground her teeth. She whipped about, grabbed up her gun. “Do we still have a lock on them? I’m going to –”
“Get a hold of yourself,” Valya said in a very calm, steady voice. “And you will wait for your orders.”
She took a deep breath. “He murdered my father, Valya. I don’t think you understand.”
“I don’t think you understand,” he retorted. “Think about some of the strange stories out of the south lately. The impenetrable rain for days on end, the flooding – the wall of water in the woods.”
“Those are stories,” she said.
Valya’s eyes were very bright. “He’s a water-user.”
Her breath hitched; her shoulders tensed, then slid back. She watched Valya for a moment, words on the tip of her tongue; her mouth dropped open slightly.
She holstered the gun. “Not dead then, I take it,” she said.
“Alive,” Valya hissed.
Valya snorted. “Do what you will with him, but bring me the Nord alive. There are other ways to make someone pay for murder – giving them sweet death is hardly vengeance, Marina. It’s mercy, compared to what he did to your father.”
Ilya woke, coughing and spluttering. Very slowly, he opened his eyes, peering at the ceiling. He laid there for a long moment, staring, feeling the air deep in his lungs, burning into his flesh, bringing him back from the dead.
“Well, there’s a surprise,” said a rather familiar voice.
Ilya let his eyes drift shut again.
Ville prodded at him with his foot. Ilya groaned. “Leave him be,” Freja instructed, her voice harsh on his ears.
“Hm,” Ville said, then turned away. “Have we found Timmo yet?”
“Oh,” Freja said airily, “we don’t want to find him.”
“But,” Ville said.
She turned. “Besides,” she said, “he’ll find us.” She locked eyes with Ilya. “We have what he wants.”
Ville followed her gaze and, for a tense moment, the three of them stared at each other, wary creatures circling each other in a dance, the steps of which were unknown, faltering and shaking – and one false move meant death.
“Are you using me as bait?” Ilya asked at last.
“Yes,” Freja said. “He wants your life. He’ll come after you.”
“We kill him,” she replied. “But not before we let him kill you.” Her upper lip curled into a sneer.
Ilya wanted to snap back something witty, something cruel, but he had nothing. Instead, he said, “I met Mathilda.”
“What?” Ville snapped.
“Shut up,” Freja cried.
“I met her,” Ilya blathered, unable to stop himself now, “when I was unconscious, after I fought Timmo, when I was drowning. I met her, she dragged me to death.”
“To death!” Ville cried.
“—and she dragged me there, to that pleasant meadow, where all souls go when they die, and she told me that Timmo’s dead, he’s a näck, and he’ll take my life. She told me I have to stop him; taking my life won’t stop him. I have to kill him.”
Freja sneered. “We can do just fine!”
“No,” Ilya said, “we have to call his name.”
“Easy enough,” she sneered. “We’ll call his name –”
“No,” Ilya said. “His real name. Not Timmo. Mathilda said you knew …”
The two assassins glanced at each other, then shook their heads. “No,” Ville said, “no other name.”
“He’s … always been Timmo.”
“Mathilda said –”
“Enough!” Ville snapped. “Mathilda is dead, you didn’t meet her, she’s dead!”
“I met her!” Ilya cried and Ville backhanded him. Ilya’s head snapped to the side; he spit blood.
Ville towered over him, heaving.
“Why would Mathilda choose you, of all people?” Freja sneered.
Very slowly, Ilya turned to face her. “We have to call his name,” he said.
“We’re quite capable of speech,” Freja said, lifting her head higher.
“I have power over words,” he said.
They stared at him for a moment or two, then glanced at each other.
The silence dragged on for what felt like an eternity. Ilya cleared his throat. “Do … either of you know his first name?”
“No,” Freja said.
“I always thought Timmo was his name,” Ville murmured.
Ilya drew a quick breath through his nose. “All right,” he said softly, “all right. We need to know his name … He cannot be killed if we don’t know it.”
“Norcross is no more,” Ville lamented.
“If there were somewhere we’d find his name – a record of some sort – it would be there.”
“The papers were all destroyed.”
“There’s another place,” Ilya said.
Two pairs of unnatural eyes, like gems, fixated on him. He waited a moment, then said, “Rus.”
Marina’s boots crunched over the snow. She considered herself lucky that the hoarfrost had come and turned the snow into a sheet of impenetrable ice. Otherwise, she would have been sinking knee-deep with every step; the depth of the her footprints told her so.
Of course, it didn’t help that she was lugging along fifty or so pounds of artillery with her; her greater mass pushed her deeper into the snow.
She crested the drift and stared out at the endless tundra, rolling and undulating like the sea. The shadows of clouds raced across the barren landscape, changing the relief of the drifts as they scudded by. The wind howled past her, gusting, whisking away tiny snowflake fellows, dancing down the side of the dune, whirling away.
Marina skidded down the other side of the dune, sliding to a stop, snow piling up near her soles, and wondering why Valya hadn’t provided her with skis or snowshoes.
She straightened up and stared out at the endless expanse, her eyes widening.
It was an ocean. A glittering ocean, wide as any she’d ever seen. The white edges of the snow-covered land edged around it, creeping away, but the water rushed right up to it, seductive, whispering to what was left of the land, “Come with me, come with me, and I will show you what you truly are.”
Marina glanced down at her feet, and the snow drifting away from the sheet of ice beneath her, the spiderwebbed cracks racing off in every direction. Her reflection stared back at her, nervous, pallid, almost as colorless as the world itself.
She swallowed thickly, then edged along the ice, not daring to lift her feet, inching her way along the shattered floor.
This entire place was made of ice, made solid and real only by the dropping temperature – and by the Nord who so controlled it. The ocean here was his doing; it was his black magic, she knew, that allowed the water to remain unfrozen, the waves lapping gently at the shore, even as the subzero breeze tore at Marina, tangling through her hair.
She spied the castle from afar. It was unnatural, jutting up high above the dunes. It was white and pure, just as drained and dead as the rest of the landscape – he was working with what nature had given him – but the way it glittered and sparkled spoke of angles rough cut by the hands of men, not by nature’s gentle touch. It was mechanical, technological.
It was Rus.
She skated her way across the frozen sea to the castle, going to visit the Ice King in his abode. She knew she’d find him there.
The drawbridge was down; the door was open. He was expecting her. And true, he’d probably seen her coming from a mile away, a black dot, black like all of Rus, black like metal and weapons and death, a plague upon this pristine landscape in the frozen wasteland of his domain. He’d probably sensed her even before that.
She skated into the palace, creeping into the silent place, peering around corners. She was an intruder, even if she was expected; the animosity hung thickly in the air and told her so, very loudly, very clearly.
“Welcome,” he said as she stepped into the throne room, her footsteps echoing through the room. “We are pleased to have you.”
He was lounging on the icy chair, sprawled across it, hands behind his head, feet kicked into the air. His eyes were closed. A crooked crown sat up his head, frozen and melting all at once. Marina stepped into the room, then stopped, not daring to approach further.
Silence reigned for a moment. Very slowly, he peeled open an eye, turning his gaze toward her.
Her chest constricted; her heart stopped. Her breath froze over her lips, all the way down into her lungs.
He closed his eye again, but in that split-second of contact, she’d seen it. She’d seen deep down into his ugly soul; he was no longer of this realm.
Marina hadn’t believed in magic for a very long time. She’d realized the day her father had died that the monsters did not lurk in shadows or dreams; they lived and walked amongst them, in human guise, with human minds and human hearts beating just the same as hers. The darkness had come inside her; the shadows had come home to roost and she had welcomed them.
She had always been a monster, she reasoned, just the same as any of them. She had always been made of the same shadows and bones, blood and blackness.
So she had stopped believing in magic, stopped believing in nightmares and the unholy terrors of the midnight hours; she had become one, in the flesh, something that words could not describe.
But in that moment, in that hair fraction of time, she had seen something that moved and stirred and existed beyond the pale of her imagination. He was the monster, he was the shadows. He was the nightmare, real and terrifying, and something so ancient, evolved from the darkness that had existed before the first light. He was old, so much older than she; he was deathless.
She could not kill this monster, and that magic dwelt in him was undeniable. He was inhuman. He was something otherworldly, something that she now realized existed only in dreams not because they were only fictions of fevered minds, but because they existed on a wholly separate plane.
She learned to breathe again and he smirked, then uncoiled, sinuously, gracefully. “I see you understand,” he said, fixing that unnatural gaze on her.
She glanced down, but made no reply. His grin grew wider. He swung his feet to the floor; his boots clattered on the ice. “This is but a recent transformation,” he said, “but you can see it now – I am alive, but dead, both young and old, new and ancient. I am become something more.”
“You’ve always been a monster,” she said, finally flicking her gaze up to his face.
He laughed and tilted his head. “I see you think you know me,” he said.
Her gaze followed him as he paced the room. “You killed my father,” she said at last, then pressed her lips together, feeling them stick against each other.
“No,” he said, “Timmo did that.”
“You’re Timmo,” she countered.
He paused, a strange smirk twisting round his lips. “I suppose you could call me that,” he said, then whirled about to face her. “I’m sure you didn’t trek all the way out here just for that, though.”
She considered the floor again, before slowly lifting her gaze to meet his. She kept her face calm, neutral, even though she could hear her pulse, her heartbeat, thundering through her veins. “We’ve come to negotiate,” she said softly.
His grin nearly cracked his face in two. “Of course,” he said, “of course. Always the business woman, I see.”
He leaned in, and she was surprised to find that he all but towered over her, even in her heels. His touch was gentle, but cold, icy. He had no heartbeat; she should have felt it, pulsing out of sync against her own as he tilted her chin up.
“We are one and the same,” he breathed, his exhalation frigid, but no more frigid than her heart as she steeled herself against him. “I told Ilya that you looked the part, that there was something wrong with you.”
Her lips fell apart.
He contemplated her for a moment. His eyes were bright, unnaturally so, glinting in the tepid arctic sunshine. The clouds outside were clearing and the sun broke through well and truly, dazzling the whole world.
“I told Ilya,” he whispered, “that you had a black look about you. That you had no heart. That you could smile as you ran an infant through with a sword.”
She shut her eyes; his fingers left her, ghosting across her skin. “You have that look about you,” he said. “I could see it in you. Yours is a darker magic.”
“I don’t believe in magic,” she said sternly, opening her eyes again.
“Don’t you?” he asked, smiling knowingly. “Deny it all you like, but you know it. You’ve known it, even in that black heart of yours, that magic exists. You could feel it in your bones, deep down; you lived it in your nightmares.”
“There is no magic,” she said.
“None in Rus, maybe. But there is magic yet. You feel it. You know it. You see it here and now, before you.”
“You’re hardly what I call magic,” she said.
“What would you call me then?”
“Nord,” she answered without hesitation.
That same cruel grin twisted up his features. “Oh,” he said lightly. “Then I was mistaken. You haven’t seen. You don’t yet understand.”
“I’ve been sent here,” she said, “on behalf of the Rus. We wish to negotiate with you. We could use you.”
“Oh, yes,” he hissed. “You could use me, I’m sure. You could use me and abuse me, use me all up, clap me in chains and wear me out, exhaust me to the point of death. But, my dear, I’ve no interest in negotiating with you or your ilk. You’re all sadly mistaken if you think I have any interest in the affairs of this realm any longer.”
“You’re a water-user,” she pressed.
“Was,” he corrected, his tone edging on annoyance. “Was a water-user. Was Nord, was Timmo, was alive. Now what am I? None of those things.”
She watched him, listened to his slow, purposeful steps echoing around the chamber. “What are you then?”
“Everything,” he said, “and nothing all at once.”
“An enigma, then,” she surmised. She waited a beat, then said, “Will you negotiate or not?”
He sighed heavily. “My, my, you are boring, unimaginative. Very well. Let’s hear you out. What do you want from me?”
“We wish you to convert the tundra to water, as you’ve done. We wish for you to turn the snow and ice into its liquid form – water – to melt the arctic, and to then relinquish the water to us for use in –”
“No,” he thundered and she actually cowered.
The sunlight faded; clouds rolled back across the sky. The glitter died away. “No?” she asked, her voice faltering.
“I did not ask what they want. I did not ask what Rus wants.”
He was beside her suddenly, as though he’d risen out of the floor beside her. “I asked you what you want.”
She trembled, suddenly overwrought with a tidal wave of emotion – hatred, fear, anger, jealously, all the blackest feelings she’d ever felt, that she’d buried so long ago, the emotions that had followed her since the day her father died. The feelings she’d used to become a monster herself. They erupted from within the pit of her heart now, storming through her system, threatening to tear her to pieces.
She turned to him very, very slowly. “Me? I want your head,” she snarled. “I want your head on a silver platter. I want you dead, I want to run you through, slowly, agonizingly, killing you bit by bit, draining you of every drop of blood, drop by drop, wringing every last breath from your lungs. I want revenge.”
Her eyes blazed; her lips trembled. And yet he smirked at her.
Very slowly, he peeled his hand away from his side; she saw the blood on his fingertips, dripping from the gaping hole in his body. He smeared his fingers across her lips; she tried to twist away, crinkling her nose at the acrid scent of rotted blood, fetid and foul. He forced her lips apart, smearing his blood inside her mouth, across her tongue, and she gagged on the taste, and she knew that taste, knew what so fouled him.
Her own blood would taste much the same, laced with hatred and the desire for revenge.
He pulled his hand away and she spat viciously on the floor. “What would you say,” he said very slowly, “if I told you that I was already dead?”
“Bastard,” she sneered.
“Oh,” he said, “but I am. I am very dead. I died eight months ago.”
“Then how do you stand before me?”
“I told you,” he said, “you believe in monsters and magic still. And thus I stand before you.” He waved an arm as a flourish.
She sucked in a sharp breath.
“You’re already dead,” she said.
“Yes,” he said easily, breezily. “I’m afraid you can’t kill me; you missed your chance.”
“If it’s any comfort at all,” he said, his face pinched with mock concern, “I died incrementally, agonizing bit by agonizing bit.”
He touched the wound again, contemplated the blood. “That’s how I’m here. You have your precious Ilyushka to thank for that.”
She turned to face him again. “What do you want from Ilyushka?” she snarled, almost breathlessly.
“The same thing you want from me,” he replied. “His life. Revenge.”
“Yessss.” His voice curled around the word, like a serpent. “He killed me, you see. He was the death of me, and I want revenge.”
He tilted her head. Her eyes strained to follow him. “I won’t let you have it,” she said.
“Hm-hm,” he hummed, “won’t you now? Why not? Certainly, you can understand my feeling – you know revenge all too well.”
“He stole it from me,” she breathed, rocking up on her toes as his hands trailed down her sides. “He stole my revenge from me.”
The hands paused. He laughed into the hollow of her throat. “I see,” he purred, “that is so very like you, Marina.”
His hands tightened on her, squeezing, pushing into her flesh, bruising her. “But,” he said, breath ghosting against her skin, “I can’t let you have that. Ilya is mine and mine alone.”
He pulled back, holding her there. She struggled not to wince, held his gaze, steadied her breathing as she stared him down.
“Make me your queen,” she said. “Together, we will destroy him.” She brought a hand to his face, her fingers lingering there, warm against his frigid skin.
She leaned up on her tiptoes and kissed those frozen lips, lips that had once touched Ilyushka’s skin, lips that now bore the stain of that sin. She kissed them now, smearing them bloody red.
She pulled back, watched those lips quirk into a smirk. “Oh?” he asked.
“Yes,” she whispered, surrendering into his grip. His hands tightened as she let herself collapse, becoming nothing more than a puppet in his arms. “Please. Use me, allow me to be an instrument in your revenge …”
She curled a hand in his hair. “One thing,” she murmured.
He leaned in further, following the faint sound of her voice to where it rested in the hollow of her throat. “What’s that?” he asked, his voice reverberating against her skin. She shuddered.
“Tell me what name I give my king.”
She gazed up at him reverently, watched some kind of uncertainty play out in his eyes. “You,” he said, “may call me Lumi.”
Don’t want to wait for the next chapter? Download a free copy of the book!