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

 

Chapter VII [Bad Spirits]

Chapter VII [Bad Spirits]

The tundra was empty, the wicked wind sweeping across it, shrieking in their ears. None of them spoke as they floundered through the snow drifts, heading toward the western edge of the world. The sun went before them, teasing them, dipping down beneath the horizon and engulfing the world in unending darkness. The wind howled through that lonely space, the only thing that told them they existed still.

“How far to Rus?” Ville asked at last, his voice trembling with the cold.

“From here?” Freja’s voice lilted. “I have no idea.”

They struggled on, snow cascading into their boots. The world kept turning, they supposed, even as the darkness deepened and the shadows began to twist and contort. Snow whipped into their faces.

“Should we set up camp for tonight?” Ville broke the silence again.

“And what, die of exposure?” Freja sneered. Their voices bounced over Ilya’s head, an aerial assault volleying back and forth and back and forth. He could see nothing.

“We could burrow into a snow bank,” Ville suggested.

“And let Timmo drown us in our sleep, hm, yes, good plan.”

“He can drown us here,” Ilya murmured. It mattered not where they were, so long as they were surrounded by snow and water and ice. Timmo could drown them any time he saw fit.

“I doubt Timmo even knows where we are.”

“Oh, he knows.” A hand between Ilya’s shoulder blades, shoving him forward. “We have this one. He knows.”

Gradually, the auroras came out to play, dancing through the sky, weaving about and slowly illuminating the landscape.

“Thank gods,” Ville murmured, relief flooding his face.

The stars dotted the sky one by one, and they saw now the trees, the strange eyes peering out of the night, reflecting the lights of the sky like mirrors.

The light glinted through a pair of green eyes in the midst of their path. The trio slowly ground to a halt, snow crunching under their feet. Freja reached for her gun. Ville took a step back.

Ilya stared at her for a moment, then felt his face contort in relief. He moved forward, arms stretched wide and welcoming. “Oh thank god,” he breathed, “Marina!”

She did not move. He ran toward her, relief flooding through his veins. Someone had sent her to get him. They’d sent her to rescue him from Timmo. They couldn’t risk losing him; maybe they wanted him to kill Timmo.

She could take him back to Rus. She could get him clearance to access the documents he needed to see. She could get him a gun, a helicopter, whatever he needed to get back out here and kill Timmo.

“Marina!” he cried, dashing up to her, his hands lighting on her shoulders. Sure, she’d tried to kill them before, but that was probably because she was under orders, and she’d been with a whole team, and he’d been with Timmo and –

She looked up at him; her eyes reflected the light, but there was nothing in them. Her lips were blood red as ever, but the rest of her was colorless and cold.

“Marina?” he asked, hesitating. He wanted to step back. Instead, he dug his fingers into her shoulders. “Are … are you okay?”

Her silence raged on, deafening, drowning out even the wind. He studied her face, trying to read her, but there was nothing, nothing at all.

“Say something,” he begged. “Please. Marina. Say something to me. Anything.”

“Hello, Ilya,” purred a familiar voice and he felt his heart drop into his toes.

Marina glanced over her shoulder at Timmo. “Stay out of this,” she said, her voice rough and grating.

Ilya let his hands fall as he stared at Timmo, who stood there, leaned up against a tree just to the left of them, grinning wildly. The light refracted in his eyes; it seemed more and more that the auroras were a result of his eyes than anything else.

“Getting other people to do your dirty work?” Ilya sneered at him. “That’s hardly like you, Timmo.”

The blond shrugged. “What can I say?” he asked, holding his hands askance, the picture of guilty innocence. “We have common aims.”

“What?” Ilya asked, turning back to Marina.

She studied him for a moment, then said very softly, “I loved you, Ilya.”

He shook his head. “Marina,” he said, “I don’t understand. I love you –”

“Do you?” Timmo asked, his words like a wedge between them. Ilya jumped back, as though he’d been stung. Timmo uncurled, pushing away from the tree. “Do you really love her, Ilyushka? Can you say that, from the bottom of your heart?”

Freja and Ville shared a concerned glance. Timmo advanced on them, his gaze locked with Ilya’s. “Is your heart so sure?” he asked, and Ilya felt as though he were being stabbed, then lacerated by silent accusations.

“I.” His mouth was open, but there was no more sound to be heard; his voice had been stripped away.

“Shit,” Freja snapped, firing her gun.

Timmo was gone, melting into the landscape. His laughter echoed through the nighttime world. He materialized a moment later, arm resting on Marina’s shoulder. Freja gritted her teeth and took aim again, her eyes narrowing.

“Do you really think that will work?” he asked.

“I have to try,” she replied.

“Pity,” he said, “that your gun is jammed then.”

“Huh?” She looked down, pulling on the trigger. The gun didn’t fire. She stared at it for a moment, then glowered at him. “You bastard.”

“He has dominion over words now?” Ville asked, his voice tinged with fear.

“Seems that way,” Freja said, tossing the gun aside and clapping her hands together. “But magic can always fight magic.”

“Your magic is useless here,” Timmo said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I’ve already told you that.”

“It’s not,” Ilya croaked, and everyone turned to face him. He shook his head. “It’s not dominion of words.”

Timmo quirked a brow. Ilya gritted his teeth. “It’s an illusion,” he said, ensuring his gaze stayed locked with Timmo’s.

The blond grinned. “Well,” he said, “I might have guessed the word-user would figure it out first.”

“An … illusion?” Freja asked, and Ville snatched up her discarded gun and emptied the clip.

“That doesn’t mean that will work, though,” Timmo said, raising a hand as the bullets sped toward him. A wall of water sloshed up into the air, freezing instantly, and the bullets embedded themselves deep in the ice, doing little more than cracking the pristine surface.

Ilya gritted his teeth, then looked to the Rus girl. “Marina!” he called.

She returned his gaze with those dull, dead eyes. “Marina! Please! I don’t care what he’s told you, I love –”

“Him,” she finished, lifting her head imperiously. “You love him, Ilya.”

He stared at her, shock congealing his blood. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s not true.”

“Isn’t it?” Timmo asked. The ice wall melted back to the ground. “Don’t you love me, Ilya?”

Ilya shook his head. “No –”

“Your mouth says no,” Marina said, “but your heart begs to differ.”

Ilya looked to the ground, as though he could find the answers in the snow beneath his feet. His breath was labored; the cold pressed in on him from all sides. “I …”

“But that doesn’t matter,” Marina said, pursing her lips together. “I don’t care who you love.”

He turned toward her. “What –”

Her hands rested against Timmo’s chest; his arms snaked about her waist, drawing her close.

“Don’t!” Ilya yelled, leaping forward, hand outstretched. “Marina, get away! He’s dangerous –”

“Am I really more dangerous than you?” Timmo asked, smiling innocently. “After all, you killed me. Started a war.”

Freja turned to Ilya. “You …”

“Metaphorically,” Ilya shot back.

“You killed him and took away my only chance for revenge,” Marina said from the safety of Timmo’s embrace.

Ilya’s brow furrowed. “Revenge?” he asked. “What are you talking about –”

Timmo’s grin turned wicked. The aurora flickered and wheeled wildly in the sky, casting strange shadows across his face. He looked inhuman, monstrous. “I killed her father.” He simpered.

Ilya felt the blood drain from his face. “You …”

Timmo was all teeth as he clutched Marina closer. “I butchered him. I remember it well. I was eighteen. Riesgaard sent me out …”

The air seemed to ripple, vibrating around them, and suddenly, they were watching the scene play out before their very eyes. They watched, transfixed, as the palace in Norcross came into view, as the ageless Mathilda sat upon her throne, her handmaidens slowly combing out her tresses. It was near the midnight hour; the air was hot and sticky, a humid summer’s eve. The crickets chirped loudly, and that was all it took to drown them in the memory.

 

*

“I have told you, time and time again,” Riesgaard hissed, glaring first at Mathilda, then at Timmo. “This is highly inappropriate, for both of you.”

Mathilda pursed her lips. Timmo glanced at her. Riesgaard all but jumped on him, grabbing him by the lapels, shaking him. “You think you can just waltz in here, just walk all over everyone –”

“Risegaard,” Mathilda snapped.

He dropped Timmo and whirled on her. “He,” the old man spat, “is hardly suited to be king. He is hardly fit for the guard, never mind …”

His lip curled in disgust. “We’re sending him to Rus,” he said, very calmly.

“I refuse,” Mathilda said. “Timmo will not be sent to Rus.”

Timmo glanced between the two of them, frowning. He hated Riesgaard, and he didn’t really want to go to Rus. But then he glanced to Mathilda, her long fingers, her shining tresses, and his stomach churned, a vortex of black emotions running through him.

They’d told her, they’d told her he was too young, but she’d insisted. Her wheedling tone and how could he refuse? She was the Queen, she was everything. “Come here,” she whispered, smiling so sickly sweet, and the scent of her perfume lingered on him forever after. The thought of it still made him sick.

She was the Queen; what could he do?

Certainly not refuse, not when her elegant fingers scrabbled at him, not when she whispered, “Come here, my pretty boy, come here,” in the wee hours of the night. No, there was nothing he could do.

He wanted to tell Riesgaard that no, it wasn’t him. It wasn’t him; he did nothing to earn her attention, except for exist. But he could not, and Riesgaard would never believe him anyway.

So he glanced between Mathilda and Riesgaard, then said, “I’ll go.”

“No,” Mathilda snapped, turning sharply toward him.

He grinned winningly. “Of course,” he said, “it wouldn’t be fitting for the future captain of the guard not to participate in a few assassinations.”

Riesgaard riled. “And what makes you think you’ll be captain of the guard?” he snarled.

“His father was captain of the guard,” Mathilda said churlishly.

“This is not a nepotistic empire,” Riesgaard barked at her, “and your parents are rolling in their graves, listening to you –”

“I forbid you taking on any foreign missions,” Mathilda said, turning to Timmo. “You are to remain in Norcross at all times.”

“I am not your pet,” he sneered, and she backhanded him, the slap echoing through the room.

“Learn your place,” she said, her voice low like thunder. “I am your Queen; you will do as I say.”

He put a hand gingerly to his cheek, curling his lip at her. She turned to Riesgaard. “He is not going.”

“You can’t promote him,” Riesgaard said, “if he’s never killed a man in his life.”

“I will do whatever I see fit,” she snarled, rising to her feet. “This meeting is adjourned. Timmo.”

He hesitated a moment. “Timmo!” she snapped, and he followed her, deeper into her chambers, glancing back at the seething Riesgaard as they went. The door slammed shut behind them, and he was assaulted by the sickly sweet scent of her perfume lying heavily on the air.

“You won’t go,” she said to him later, when they were wrapped in silk. She exhaled smoke into the heavy air, and he watched it drift around the room, wondering how long she intended to keep him like this. It seemed so long already, so long since his first day, so long since he’d first lain beneath these sheets, her regal form pressed to him.

“I must go,” he said.

“No,” she said.

“Yes.”

He sat up, the sheets falling from him. “Tell Riesgaard.”

“Timmo.”

“No,” he said whirling on her. “Everyone disrespects me. They see me as nothing more than a pampered little pet, who’s sat in the lap of luxury – my father was captain of the guard before me, now minister of foreign affairs, and you do not hide this from them. They all know what happens in your chambers.”

He squared his shoulders. “I’m going to Rus.”

“Timmo,” she said, but he shook his head, dragged on his clothes, and walked out on her.

 

*

Killing a man was satisfying, he thought. Rus was full of pollution, choked with smog, but the air was somehow less foul than the air that choked him in Mathilda’s chambers, so fragrant with perfumes and flowers, so fresh and natural.

He could smell rot and sewers, chemicals and acid here, but that was a welcome reprieve, and he inhaled deeply, hoping that the poison might settle in his bones and turn into cancer, cause his body to rot away.

It was good to be lonely, he thought as he crept through the slums, then stalked through the better parts of the city, like a shadow, avoiding cars and people alike. In Norcross, he was rarely lonely. In Norcross, there were names and words for him.

Here, nobody knew him.

He crept along the roof, stole along the window sill, and slipped into the house. It was a big house, in a nice neighborhood. The family had two cars, and the house was two stories, bricked in, with a yard and three bathrooms. Timmo gathered that was a bit of a luxury here in Rus.

He landed on the plush carpet, crept across it.

He’d only been sixteen when he’d joined the guard. His father had been deployed years ago; he hadn’t seen the man since, but he’d always known his trajectory. He’d always known that he had to do his heritage proud. He had to become captain of the guard.

He crept into the hall, peering this way and that, silent as the shadows still. He stole down the corridor, pressing himself to the darkness.

He’d been training to be captain of the guard since the day he was born. His father had been captain of the guard, until he’d been deployed to Rus on diplomatic missions. But really, Väino had been sent there to coordinate their foreign operatives, to organize their spies and order executions. It was only appropriate, after all, for the head spy to be located where they needed to do their spying.

Timmo had fully expected to follow his father’s footsteps, becoming first captain of the guard, and later, minister of foreign affairs.

But that was before Mathilda had taken a shine to him, before she’d showered him with attention and affection, before she’d seduced him with whispers and invited him into her bed, and then in further, twixt silk and satin.

The memories were bitter on his tongue. He had no desire to be king; he had no desire to be kept as a pet, no desire to follow her about like a puppy. He was meant for more than that. He was meant for blood and violence, for secrets and shadows.

He crept by the bedroom of Ivanov’s daughter, pausing for only a moment to ponder the girl, who was abed. Her door was slightly ajar; the moonlight streamed in through her window, splashing across her bed, then cascading across the floor like a river, leading to his very feet.

She was dead to the world, sound asleep. Her ballet shoes had been discarded on the floor, and now she dreamed dreams of sugar plum fairies and fanciful dances.

He snorted. Very soon, her world would explode; her dreams would shatter.

He pulled the door closed, then continued down the hall.

He pushed open the door to the master bedroom. Ivanov was in bed, snoring loudly. Timmo crawled across the floor, then hovered over the bed, holding the knife aloft.

Ivanov must have sensed him, must have seen the shadows flickering above his eyes, for he snorted and then stared up at Timmo.

He started. “You –”

“Hello,” Timmo said softly. “Your little girl is very beautiful.”

He stabbed the knife through Ivanov’s hand, pinning him to the bed with it. He yelled, stared at the blood seeping through the sheets and the mattress. His face convulsed with pain. Timmo pulled out another knife, thrusting it through the man’s other hand. Ivanov screamed.

“Shhh,” Timmo said, pressing a finger to his lips. “You wouldn’t want to wake your sleeping angel, would you? I don’t think you’d want her to see this.”

He felt the curling sensation of a smirk coiling beneath his finger. Ivanov stared up at him, eyes wild, terrified. “Who are you?” the man managed after a moment.

“You can call me Timmo,” he said.

Ivanov thought for a moment, staring deeply into Timmo’s eyes. “You …”

Timmo leaned in, slowly unholstering his gun. “Do you know a man called Väino?” he asked.

Ivanov’s eyes narrowed. “Nord,” he snarled. “Who sent you?”

Timmo fired a shot into the man’s kneecap. “I’m asking the questions,” he said coolly, blowing smoke from the barrel. “Now. Answer me. Do you know Väino?”

He paused. “Or … did you know Väino?”

Ivanov bit his lip; his breathing was labored. “Yeah,” he managed at last, “I knew him.”

Timmo smiled. “And … did you know he’d been killed?”

“Terrible, tragic accident,” Ivanov said.

Timmo put the barrel of the gun up to the man’s temple. “I wouldn’t lie, if I were you,” he said. “We both know what happened to Väino wasn’t an accident.”

Ivanov panted for a moment, then said, “Why did Norcross send you?”

Timmo shook his head. “Oh, I think you misunderstand,” he said lightly. “Norcross didn’t send me.”

He paused, studying Ivanov for a moment. “Väino was my father,” he said.

Ivanov paled, then started to laugh. “You’re here for revenge?” he asked, grinning broadly.

Timmo grinned back, then frowned and shot him in the stomach. Ivanov bellowed in pain, then crumpled up as best he could. Timmo approached the bed, swinging the gun from his fingers.

“It wasn’t me,” Ivanov pleaded, looking up at him. “It wasn’t me, I swear, it wasn’t –”

“You gave the order,” Timmo said, grabbing the pistol up, aiming it point blank at the man’s head.

Ivanov looked scared now. “It wasn’t me,” he said.

Timmo changed his aim, sending a bullet clean through the man’s right ankle. Ivanov screamed again. Blood spurted everywhere.

“I already told you. No lies.”

Ivanov gritted his teeth, hissing pain, then lifted his head. “Fine,” he gasped, “it was me. I gave the order. But I never laid a hand on him.”

“I know,” Timmo said.

Ivanov hissed with pain again; his eyes glittered with agony. “I already got the bastards that hacked him up,” Timmo said lightly. “You should be glad you didn’t touch him. What I’m going to do to you is a mercy compared to what I did to them.”

“You call this mercy?” the man spat back at him.

“I do,” Timmo said, “because your hands are just as fucking filthy as theirs.”

“Väino deserved it,” Ivanov spat, “fucking little rat, sending all our secrets back to your filthy government, you disgusting elvish bastards –”

Bang!

He slumped over, bullet firmly embedded in his brain, blood spattered across the headboard and the wall behind him. Timmo pulled the knives up, out of his hands.

“Daddy?”

He whirled to find the girl lingering near the doorway, her green eyes glinting in the rum light of the room. Her face was still childish, innocent, even though he could clearly see she was on the cusp of adulthood.

Their eyes met. He considered her for a second, then cleaned the blades and resheathed them. He holstered the gun. Then he looked back at her.

She looked at him, then at her father’s corpse, at the blood. Fear filtered into her eyes; her mouth fell open just a touch.

“Why …”

“Sh,” he said. “Kid, it doesn’t matter.”

“You killed him,” she said.

“I did,” Timmo said. “So clean up here, and come after me. Hunt me down and kill me.”

She stared at him, her eyes wide, pained. “Why?” she asked again.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, and the words echoed inside him. It didn’t matter. It hadn’t mattered why Ivanov killed Väino. All that had mattered was that his father was dead, that Ivanov had given the order to have him killed. Why didn’t factor in. There was no reason good enough.

She shut her eyes, tears overflowing, running down her cheeks. He paused, then swiped at her cheek, flicking those tears away. He smeared blood across her porcelain cheek.

“This is reality,” he said.

“You’re a monster,” she whispered.

“This is reality, so harden your heart and learn to hate. Come kill me when you’re ready.”

She bit her lip and stared at him and he saw anger in her eyes, anger and deep, deep pain, pain she couldn’t even begin to process. And he knew that pain, knew it intimately, and he leaned in and tasted it on her tongue, quickly, fleetingly, and then he fled. He ran down the stairs, through the foyer, into the street. He ran through the streets of Rus, his feet pounding into the pavement. He ran all the way back to Norcross, and even then, he couldn’t run far enough.

He spent the next night in Mathilda’s arms, dreaming of someone else’s lips on his skin.

 

*

Marina touched her hand to the bubble, watching it ripple under her fingers. “Now what?” she asked, turning to Timmo.

“Hm,” he said, smirking. He sat up straighter on the throne. “What do you think?”

She turned back to the bubble, where their captives were watching Timmo’s memories play out before them, like some sort of horror film in the center of Rus. “I think we should kill them,” she said at last.

Timmo chuckled. “You are too kind,” he said, grinning. “Killing them now is a mercy.”

He rose and meandered over the to the bubble. He peered into the watery prison, admiring the faces of his captives. “No,” he breathed, “I want them to suffer a little longer.”

He turned to her, the light of the memories washing across his face, illuminating his eyes. He grinned at Marina.

He dragged his hand down the wall of water, allowing it to dissolve. Her face fell. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“What fun are toys if you never play with them?” he asked.

Ilya, Freja, and Ville tumbled to the floor, smacking into it. They winced and groaned, slowly recovering from the tumble back into reality, after being dragged away from the horrifying dreamworld of Timmo’s memories that had held them mesmerized for so long.

Ilya sat up slowly, glaring at them. Freja panted, trying to catch her breath. Ville tested his gun, then tossed it away.

“Welcome to Chez Näck,” Timmo said, throwing his arms wide. “I hope you all have a pleasant stay.”

Ilya glared at him for a moment, then glanced to Marina. Her face was expressionless still.

“You disgust me,” he snarled. “He murdered your father and yet you’d sleep with him? You’d join him, you’d side with him, play into his little scheme?”

“You can’t shame me,” she said. “You forsook me for him, and you took away the only chance I had at revenge. The least you can do is allow me to murder you for that transgression.”

“You never loved me,” Ilya said darkly.

“That’s very true,” she replied coolly. Timmo glanced at her, a frown marring his face. “But you loved me, with all your heart, until you met him.”

She set her teeth on edge. “I had you wrapped around my little finger, Ilyushka,” she snarled, “until he was on the scene.”

“You played your part well,” Ilya replied. He smirked. He started to laugh. “You played it well. I always knew better. I always knew a stuck-up bitch like you could never fall in love with a guy like me!”

“And yet,” she said, simpering, “you wanted it. You wanted it so badly, you’d believe anything …”

He shook his head. “I fell for it,” he said, his shoulders shaking with laughter. “I fell for it, every little smile, every little laugh, every doe-eyed look. And yet, I always knew better. I always knew that you, you were so far above me …”

He paused, his shoulders falling a little. “I knew I could never have you. I watched you at the ballet that time, I watched you dance with such grace, such cold precision. And I knew I’d never have you.”

He sank back. “You played me.”

“Just like Valya told me to,” she replied. “I played you both, took what I wanted. I did what Valya told me to, took his orders, enlisted you. I used him to get what I needed.”

She turned to Timmo, smiling wickedly. “I needed the information,” she said, her eyes blazing. “Who was Väino, who was his son, what were the Nords. I was searching when Valya came to me. They knew what I was doing, going through all those records, paying for all the research, making copies of the clippings in the newspapers. They watched me. They’d watched me since Daddy died.”

“What a good little girl,” Timmo said, shaking his head. “Doing exactly as I told you to.”

“Hardening my heart, letting go of silly childhood dreams. I danced because it made me stronger. I danced because it was the perfect guise. Nobody suspected the ballerina, perfect, graceful, dainty little ballerina, spinning around like a top.”

“No,” Timmo said, “nobody would expect the ballerina to lift a gun.”

“So I followed the leads. I followed the trail. I trained to become a killer, just like you.”

“We’re all cut from the same cloth in the end,” Ilya murmured.

“And while I was looking,” she said, “they watched me. They knew what I was looking for. They knew I had it in for the Nords. They knew I was after you – and they knew you were in Norcross, eating out of the Queen’s palm.”

She paused, her eyes taking on a dangerous glint. “Or should I say, eating her out?”

Timmo’s face darkened. Frejya took a sharp breath. Timmo tossed her a dirty look. “You knew,” he said.

“I’d heard rumors,” she replied. “But I didn’t …”

“Everyone knew,” Ville said, almost sorrowfully.

“Mathilda wanted me,” Timmo said. “Because my magic was stronger than most. The royal family’s magic had waned over years and years of inbreeding. My magic manifested early – I was a prodigy. Nobody else has joined the guard at sixteen.”

Freja pursed her lips. He grinned at her. “She knew the Rus were after the north, after the water. She knew war was coming. She knew the only hope was to drown the Rus with what they wanted most.”

Freja opened her mouth. Timmo’s eyes were dark, almost black, finally showing the true color of his heart, his soul.

“She wanted an heir,” he said, and Freja looked as though she’d been struck. She shook her head.

Timmo nodded. “Oh yes,” he said, “and this wasn’t the first time.”

“No,” Freja said, crumpling up. Her eyes glimmered with unshed tears. Her breath hitched. “You …”

He turned to Ilya. “Why do you think I wanted her dead?” he asked, bluntly. “That was my future in Norcross; it was predetermined for me. I had no choice in the matter.”

Ilya didn’t reply, just looked the Nord up and down. Timmo shook his head. Ville glanced at Ilya as well, but said nothing.

Timmo shrugged. “Doesn’t matter though. Mathilda’s dead, I’m dead. It all worked out in the end.”

“Did it?” Marina asked, holding the gun to the blond’s head.

He froze. Everyone stared at her. Her expression didn’t change. “Did it all work out in the end?” she asked. “Did you play everyone so well?”

He smirked, then lifted his hands, slowly straightening up. “I see you’re very good at this game,” he said.

“I told you,” she said sharply, “I played everyone. I played Valya to get to you. I played Ilya to get to you. And now I played you.”

She pulled her finger on the trigger.

“Or did you?” Timmo asked, straightening up.

The gun stuck. Marina’s eyes widened. She pulled the trigger once, twice, thrice. Nothing happened.

“As if I’d ever trust a Rus,” Timmo sneered at her. “You think I didn’t see through your little game when you came all the way out here? You think I didn’t know what you were up to, that I bought your bullshit about coming to bargain with me?”

He shook his head. “No,” he said. “Don’t ever underestimate the teacher. You’re still that terrified little girl who watched her father be murdered.”

He almost grinned. “God, that was ten years ago. Look at you now. Look at how stupid you still are.”

“Am I?” she asked. “Do you really think I haven’t grown up at all, that I’ve learned nothing?”

She smirked, at last. “Do you really think you’re such a poor teacher?”

There was a slight pause, and then she breathed into the heavy air a single word. “Lumi.”

Timmo stiffened; his eyes widened. “You –”

She started to laugh. “Did you really think I’d give up my quest to kill you? Even if you’re no longer alive, you are still here – and you can still be destroyed, näck.”

He wrapped his hands around her throat. “You lying little bitch,” he snarled, pressing bruises into her neck.

She went on laughing, wrapped her hands around his wrists, as though she could pry him off. He lifted her clear off the floor.

“Marina!” Ilya cried.

She turned her head as much as she could; her eyes strained toward him. “That’s his name!” she choked out. “Lumi is his first name!”

“What?” Freja cried.

“You bitch,” Timmo spat, “you selfish, unforgiving cu –”

She strained back, struggling to breathe. “Say it!” she barked. “It’s the only way to kill him!”

“How do you know that?!” Timmo screeched, and the castle dissolved; the world disintegrated into darkness, the wind howling around them, snow swirling up into miniature tornadoes, whirling around and around, gathering speed.

She pried his fingers loose for a second, spat in his face. “I told you,” she snarled, “I do research.”

He seethed. “And,” she continued, her voice breaking over the words, rasping through everyone’s ears, “you said it yourself – I never stopped believing in magic.”

“Ilya!” Ville cried.

“Say it!” Freja echoed, twisting between the two of them, watching as Timmo’s form began to expand, the monster finally shedding his human guise. It tore him apart; he screeched and wailed inhumanly, his voice shrill as the wind and just as bone-shattering. He dropped Marina; she collapsed into the snow.

The wind picked up speed; the twisters melded together, spinning faster and faster, until there was a horrendous boom and snow exploded into the sky, creating a blinding sheet of white. Freja was knocked to the ground. Ville shielded his eyes with his arm.

“Marina!” Ilya yelled into the blizzard.

The snow cleared. There was silence. And then, laughter.

It was deep, thunderous laughter, tinged with mania. It started in low, and then it started grow, rolling deep, some sleeping giant now woken unto their realm.

The monster revealed his true form at last, stepping out of the shadows, one claw-tipped hand at a time.

It was vaguely human, but enormous and covered in scales and fins. The snow beneath its feet began to melt. It opened its mouth and hissed.

There was something about the eyes, though. They were slitted and strange, reflecting light like a thousand mirrors, but there was something … still.

So vaguely human about that gaze.

“Say his name!” Marina barked from where she lay on the snow. She started to push herself up to her knees. Her voice was shattered.

The beast’s tail shot out, swatted her like a fly. She careened through the darkness, limp like a ragdoll, then crashed into a snowbank with a whump, snow exploding everywhere.

“Marina!” Ilya cried.

“His name!” Ville hissed.

He whirled on the monster as it approached them, tongue lolling out of its mouth. He stared up at it as it loomed over them, and somewhere in there, he saw the human being it used to be, terrified and small and screaming, screaming –

“Timmo,” Ilya rasped.

“No!” Ville barked, then got sideswiped by that wicked tail, tossed unceremoniously out of the way, just like Marina had been.

“Lumi!” Freja barked. “Lumi, Lumi –”

“Enough,” the creature roared, its voice distorted and strange. It plucked her from the ground, crushing her in its grasp.

She struggled for a moment, screaming, and the last thing Ilya saw of her was her face contorted in agony as all her ribs were crushed, unforgivingly, and then, she was liquefied.

Blood dripped between the creature’s claws. Ilya stared up at it, horrified.

“She loved you,” he said when he finally found his tongue.

“And she was overcome,” the beast said.

Ilya stared into its eyes for a moment, then said, softly, “Lumi.”

Nothing happened. Then the beast chuckled at him. “You really think I told her my real name?”

Ilya waited expectantly. “What fools you are!” it roared. “What fools! I have played this game longer than you; I am the master!”

Ilya stared at him a moment longer then said, very softly, “Väino.”

The beast paused. “What.”

Ilya shook his head slightly. “You were named after your father, but everyone called you by your middle name, so as not to confuse the two of you –”

He met the creature’s gaze. “Your first name is Väino.”

“Close,” the creature said. “But not quite.”

Ilya thought frantically for a moment, then said, “Väinomonen.”

The creature bellowed as some invisible force struck it, knocking it back. Its face twisted in agony. “How did you –”

It started to shrink again, fins and scales receding, those strange eyes becoming more and more human with every passing second. An explosion of snow followed, then a hiss, and then Timmo was there, twisting around on the ground like a fish on a hook. He gasped and shoved himself to hands and knees, then vomited up blood.

Ilya stood over him for a moment, almost pityingly. Timmo ducked his head, struggled for air, then turned back to him, eyes wide and wild. “You –”

“I don’t know,” Ilya said. “Something … maybe I read it somewhere. Väino’s a short form for Väinomonen.”

Timmo collapsed to the ground again, rolling around, clutching at himself. “You –”

He paused, panting. He stared up at Ilya, eyes searching, begging for something more.

Ilya wasn’t sure what he felt – remorse, pity, forgiveness, hatred? Nothing seemed to fit. There was a sort of emptiness inside him, and he realized, perhaps belatedly, that Timmo was leaving him – for good this time. He was leaving this plane; he would be no more. He would cease to exist as body, as spirit. Timmo would be nothing but a memory.

And, Ilya realized, he was taking his heart with him. The strange numbness that overcame him now only meant that he’d lost the capacity to feel; his heart had been stolen.

He watched Timmo and struggled for something to say to him. This was it. This was goodbye. This was the end.

This was the end to what they’d started in Norcross, this was the end of their war. Here, on the blank slate of the tundra, in the disputed territory, the Nords and the Rus met their symbolic end. Nature overtook them both, consumed them all from the inside out. They would never win.

“I …”

“Don’t,” Timmo hissed. “Don’t say anything.”

Ilya’s mouth remained open. There was so much he wanted to say, and yet the words would not come.

The color drained out of Timmo’s face. His breathing became labored.

Ilya stared at him. “I forgive you,” he said. And then he turned away, turning to the snowscape, looking for Marina.

The gunshot resounded throughout, peeling apart his flesh, singing through his ears. He stood perfectly still, eyes wide and terrified.

Then he looked down. He saw the red, spreading slowly through his coat, spattered on the ground. He felt it in his mouth, copper-tinged, sharp and rich. It dribbled down his chin, warm and comforting, unlike the rest of this landscape.

He turned back to Timmo, one hand to his heart, blood gushing through his fingertips, caking on the glove. Timmo heaved, inhaling and exhaling. He stood on shaking limbs, the gun clutched in his hand, the barrel still smoking. His eyes blazed out, glimmering in the bright of the coming day. The sun was just beginning to rise.

Ilya buckled, falling to his knees. Then he collapsed to his side. It was so very difficult, he thought, to go on standing. To go on kneeling or sitting. To go on feeling. To go on thinking. To go on breathing.

To go on being.

“Fuck you,” Timmo managed, his knees hitting the snow, he too buckling under the weight of existing. The gun hit the ground, clattered across ice and snow. He keeled over, and they lay there in the snow, staring at each other, gasping their dying breaths in the sunrise. The sky was streaked bloody red; the clouds turned pink and the tundra all but glowed with various rose hues.

“I don’t need forgiveness,” Timmo managed, his eyes slipping shut.

Ilya spluttered blood; it was pouring down his throat. “Fine,” he managed, his voice choked. Blood sprayed across the snow. “I love you.”

Timmo cringed and shuddered, his face screwing up like he was in agony. His fingers twitched.

Ilya stretched out his hand, reaching his fingertips toward him. He started to convulse with agony.

“Timmo,” he managed to splutter, and Timmo cried out, then evaporated as sunshine, strong and bright, spilled across the landscape, the sun breaking free of her cage and ascending into the sky.

Ilya choked a couple of times, then heaved a breath, shuddered, and —

Expired.

 

*

The wind howled, whipping her hair around, slipping up her skirt. The Nord crept toward her, unsure. She pulled her collar in closer and glanced at him.

“Ville, was it?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said, then crept a touch closer to the body.

She looked down at Ilya again. “Did you find the other two?”

“No,” he said, with a shake of his head. “No.”

The sound of a helicopter chopping through the frigid arctic air reached them. Marina lifted her gaze to the horizon.

“I guess,” she said, “that’s the end.”

The gale gusted by them as the chopper landed, setting down lightly on the fragile bed of ice. The sun glinted off its rotor blades. Valya leaned out of the machine, staring at them. “Marina!” he called.

She pursed her lips, staring at the horizon for a moment more. She blinked, then turned back to her boss. “Valya.”

He hopped down onto the ice. “Marina,” he said, “what happened?”

“Ilyushka is dead,” she said softly.

He put his hands on her shoulders, glimpsed the body. “The Nord?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No sign of him,” she said. “Disappeared.”

She looked over her shoulder at Ville. She tilted her head toward the chopper. “We’re not bringing him,” Valya sneered.

She frowned at the older man. “He’s alive,” she said. “Unless you’d prefer to bring the corpse.”

He glanced down at Ilya’s body again, then shuddered and shook his head. He drew a sharp breath, then looked at Ville. “Come along!” he bellowed. “Let’s get the fuck out of this godforsaken place.”

They climbed aboard the chopper. The blades began to whir again, and moments later, they were lifting off the ground, then high into the sky. The vehicle whirled a bit, then headed west to Rus. Marina watched the ground below, watched the snow whisking across the empty terrain and knew, that in only a matter of time, Ilya would be well and truly buried.


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