The Rest is Riddles

Chapter 10: Nikolay's Return

Jane’s heart thundered. The only sound she could hear was a distant drip, drip, drip, echoing from somewhere high above. She looked around wildly, seeking out something, anything in the blackness. Her eyes found nothing—not even the faintest glimmer of light to temper the oppressive darkness.

For a moment, Jane wondered if Sidor had decided to make her blind for her third godstest. Then her brain settled on the likelier explanation: she had been teleported into a cave.

She closed her eyes and called up her magic. Stalactites burst into view, cast into sharp relief by her magefire. Jane doubled down on the spell, threading more magic into the working, and was rewarded when the ring of light expanded to illuminate the tallest, most elaborate cavern she had ever seen.


It was like looking at one of the seven wonders of the world. All around her hung columns of limestone, fanning out in elaborate cones and curves and sheets. Farther into the cavern, her magefire glittered off nests of crystals that dotted the walls, the ceilings, and the floor.

She was definitely beneath Dalnushka. Probably quite far down.

Past the place that had caved in?


Was this her godstest? To fix the broken defensive spells on Dalnushka and protect the castle from the Kanachskiy invaders?

Not very imaginative, Jane thought. Then again, Sidor hadn’t struck her as a particularly creative type.

The Pool of Dreams was also supposed to be down here, Jane remembered. Did Sidor want her to find the pool and look into it? Or did he want her to fix the spell on Dalnushka?

Perhaps both?

As she searched the labyrinth of stalagmites for a clear path through the cave, footsteps crunched behind her. Jane—already on edge with nerves and fear—jumped and whirled around. In her haste, she tripped on a stalagmite and pitched forward, dropping the ball of magefire, which landed in a pool of water and extinguished with a hiss.


Her squeak of pain echoed through the cavern. Behind her, someone cursed. Jane froze, trying to ignore the stalagmites scraping her skin. A second later, a burst of magefire illuminated the cavern to reveal none other than Nikolay, glaring down at her.

Nikolay had seen better days. Shadows lurked beneath his eyes, his hair was ragged, and one sleeve of his cloak looked as though it had gotten into a battle with a mud puddle and lost. Given how magically spotless he usually kept his clothes, this last part was telling indeed. Nonetheless, Jane reflected bitterly, he still looked more put together than she did at the moment. For one thing, he was standing upright, and for another, his clothes were not impaled on a half a dozen stalagmites.

“Avtorka,” he said, and she was satisfied to hear at least a modicum of shock in his voice. “What in Hell’s name are you doing in Dalnushka’s Maze?”

“In Dalnushka’s what?” Jane scrambled to her feet, cradling her smarting hands. “I think the more important question here is what are you doing in my Godstest?”

“This is your Godstest?” The surprise in Nikolay’s eyes made Jane want to sew her mouth shut. “I suppose I should have known.”

Jane backed up, trying to put as much distance between herself and Nikolay, but he seemed to have no intention of approaching her. He dimmed his magefire so it was no longer in danger of blinding them and said, with no small amount of hauteur: “I hope you have been looking after my azdaja as you promised.”

“She’s fine.” Jane’s voice was stiff. “I hope the same can be said for everyone at the palace. How many guards did you kill to break out of prison?”

“Just one or two.”

But Nikolay seemed to be losing interest in her. Magic glimmered in his hand. For a brief instant, Jane had an impression of a phantom compass, before it vanished into the ether. “Ah,” he said, more to himself than to her—and then he began walking, quickly and purposefully, past the part of the cave where the crystals were thickest.

Jane hurried after him. Anything was preferable to being underground alone, even if it meant enduring the company of someone she found truly odious. “Where are you going?” she said. “Why are you here? How did you get here through the cave-in?”

“That”—Nikolay’s words echoed eerily as he tossed them over his shoulder—”is none of your business, I’m afraid.”

“It is very much my business, since I’m still trying to figure out why my Godstest plopped me down in this cave while Olesya’s forces are dueling it out with Kanachskiy sorcerers and sudok above us—”

Nikolay stilled. “Sudok? Here?

“You didn’t know?”

“Flattering as it is that you consider me all-knowing, I’m afraid omniscience is a gift only granted to the gods, Avtorka.”

Despite his cavalier words, Nikolay looked unsettled. He began to walk faster, and Jane had to speed up to follow him. “Extrapolating from previous godstests,” she huffed, “I’m pretty sure that I have to defeat the sudok and save Dalnushka somehow. Any ideas?”

“I believe this is supposed to be your Godstest, not mine.”

But Jane wasn’t going to take that from him, not after everything he’d put her through. “You’re part of the reason Dalnushka’s in this mess, in case you’d forgotten. Kir betrayed Somita to save you from your Oath spell. If you had even a hint of a conscience, you would—”

“You forget,” he said lightly. “I don’t have a conscience, Avtorka. You ought to try not caring sometime; it’s wonderfully liberating.”

Yeah, up to the part where it lands you in prison.

Jane pressed her lips into a line. She thought about turning and stomping away, abandoning him to solve the Godstest on her own. Except she had no idea where she was going, and she didn’t even know for sure what the Godstest wanted from her. Whereas Nikolay most certainly did know where he was going and why he was here. Even if he was pursuing his own agenda, he could probably lead her someplace useful in this maze of tunnels.

Also, the thought of wandering all alone in a cavernous labyrinth gave her the willies.

What if there were bats?

That thought spurred her onward, and she hurried after Nikolay—up a set of stone steps, through a narrow archway, and down a winding corridor lined with geodes.

He said nothing, to her relief, and she took great pains to keep as much distance between them as possible. She still remembered with vivid clarity how he had stolen her magic a few weeks earlier and used it to frame her. If he didn’t have some nefarious use for her now, he would probably come up with one soon. Especially if this maze was anything like the third test in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, or, God forbid, the labyrinth in that absurd movie with David Bowie…

Their surroundings certainly seemed more and more like a labyrinth the farther they walked. Stalagmites gave way to a series of mazelike passages lined by flat stone walls, clearly man-made, without an identifiable ceiling. Here and there, parts of the walls had crumbled, leaving massive gaps that could easily have fit both of them. Nikolay ignored the gaps. He pressed onward, deeper into the belly of maze.

At last, just when Jane was about to break the uncomfortable silence to ask if he was sure he knew where he was going, they rounded a corner and found themselves in an open space, about the size of Jane’s bedroom back on Earth. At its center, stabbing up toward the cave’s lofty ceiling, stood a massive obelisk, more than three times Jane’s height, with runes engraved across its surface. Jane craned her neck to get a better look and almost collided with Nikolay, who was studying it with great interest. Hurriedly, she backed away.

She tried to decipher the writing but soon gave up. It seemed that the Avtorka’s gift of tongues was very hit or miss when it came to translating runes. “What’s it say?” she asked Nikolay.

“These walls are ancient.” He traced the outline of the nearest rune, almost as if he was afraid to touch it. She has the distinct sense that he was actually… impressed. “These runes make up the ancient wards guarding Dalnushka. See how they’re scuffed out here?”

He pointed lower down on the obelisk, to a swath of runes that were black and moldering. The stone crumbled to dust beneath his fingertips.

“When the Kanachskiy broke the spell safeguarding Dalnushka, it destroyed these runes and the spell they contained.”

“If—if they could be repaired somehow, would Dalnushka be protected from the sudok again?”

“It would be fruitless. The Kanachskiy have the key to these wards now. They would shatter them again, just as easily as they did the first time.”

“Could we rebuild them stronger, in such a way that the Kanachskiy couldn’t break through them?”

Nikolay’s expression of awe slipped away, to be replaced with a look of faint annoyance. “You seem to be operating under the delusion that we are both after the same goal, so allow me to put an end to such wishful fantasy. You are welcome to try rebuilding Dalnushka’s wards yourself, without my assistance.” He gestured towards the scuffed out runes with a mocking flourish. “I wish you the very best of luck.”

He proceeded to ignore her again.

Jane stood for a moment, fuming, before her rational side reasserted itself. Nikolay’s earlier words danced once more through her head, mocking her with their insincerity. I don’t have a conscience… You ought to try not caring sometime…

The longer she thought about it, the more annoyed she grew. It was BS, plain and simple. He didn’t care what became of her—of that, she was certain—and he probably didn’t care what became of Dalnushka. But he did care about Prince Kir—enough to save his brother from being accused of treason—enough, even, to get himself imprisoned in Kir’s place…

Nikolay was moving again, albeit slowly, still studying the obelisk with academic fascination. Taking a steadying breath, Jane closed the distance between them.

“All right,” she said. “You’re not going to help me; I get it. I won’t waste any more of your time.”

He eyed her sidelong, with a sudden, newfound wariness. He was paying attention now, she noticed irritably. That always seemed to happen when she did something he didn’t expect.

“I’m afraid I’d be more inclined to believe that,” he said, still in that awful, insincere tone, “if you weren’t currently chasing me through this labyrinth.”

Jane smiled. “Before I go off to pursue the rest of my godstest, I do need to know why you’re down here—so that when I’m done with this godstest and get transported back up to the ramparts where I left Prince Kir, I’ll be able to tell your brother exactly what you were—”

“Kir is here?”

It was almost worth all the mud and stubbed toes and stalagmites, just to be able to revel in the shock on Nikolay’s face.

“You didn’t know?” Her words were light, innocent, entirely at odds with the cool satisfaction she felt. “He snuck out of the palace to follow us. We all told him to go back to Sengilach, but he didn’t listen; I left him with the azdaja when Sidor transported me into this cave.”

Nikolay’s eyes narrowed. He made a sudden movement, as though trying to teleport, then dropped his hand abruptly.

“Drazan said the Kanachskiy laid a curse on this place, so no one could teleport in or out,” said Jane. It was one of the first things she had asked him about when they were trying to fix the spells on Dalnushka.

“Of course they did,” said Nikolay. His voice was low and dangerous. He was angry, but it was not (she hoped) directed entirely at her.

“Why are you here, Nikolay?” She crossed her arms. “The Gods clearly didn’t bring you here to help me rebuild Dalnushka’s wards and save everyone, so what were you hoping to gain within Dalnushka’s caverns? Does it have something to do with that legendary pool that’s supposed to be somewhere in these caves?”

“The Pool of Dreams isn’t a legend,” Nikolay said distractedly. Magic glittered across his hands and then flitted away, up through the cave’s ceiling and out of sight. He turned back to her. “It reveals the essence of things to those who look upon it.”

His hand slid beneath his robe. For one wild moment, Jane wondered if he would pull out a weapon of some kind. But when his hand rose again, it contained only a glittering red vial. It took Jane a moment to recognize it as the vial that Nikolay had received in his dealings with Zakhar.

“Zakhar mixed a poison into this vial of Oath-Breaker potion,” said Nikolay. “It’s my hope that the pool will help me divine the antidote. Does that satisfy your incorrigible curiosity, Avtorka?”

Jane’s mind was racing. “Could the pool divine other things? Like—like what I’m supposed to do for my godstest?”

Nikolay shrugged, wholly unconcerned. “Why not?”

It dawned on Jane that Nikolay had never been here before. If he had, he wouldn’t have been eying their surroundings with such interest a few minutes earlier. He had no more idea what was down here than she did. This thought was hardly comforting. Even when Nikolay knowingly led her into danger, Jane usually barely escaped with her life.

“How do you get the pool to tell you the—er—essence of something?” said Jane.

“It’s really quite simple. Pass the pool’s tests—”


“The pool tests anyone who drinks its water with visions, truths from your past. Should the seeker fail the tests, the pool drowns them–or so it’s rumored.”

Jane’s insides lurched. Drazan and Phillip had conveniently omitted that slight detail. “Fantastic,” she managed.


His smile was cool and vicious. Jane wondered how he could smile so assuredly, how he could be so damn confident in his own success. Sure, he was the most powerful mage in Somita. He had fought as the tsar’s battle-mage, and had no doubt proved himself in dozens of battles.

But Jane thought about what Phillip had said about the pool, about how it exposed all the weaknesses that plagued you, and she wondered. What demons of Nikolay’s would be unleashed by staring into the pool? Was Nikolay so certain he’d withstand them?

For Nikolay had them. If Jane could be certain of anything, it was that.

Nikolay started back along the passage again, and Jane reluctantly followed him. She half-expected Nikolay to challenge her—they had not definitively established that he would be helping her after all—but to her relief, he said nothing. She suspected he was more rattled by Kir being in danger than he was letting on.

They were back in the labyrinth again, heading away from the obelisk and the runes that Jane was certain she was somehow supposed to fix. As they rounded another turn into a new corridor, the darkness ahead of them shifted. Nikolay must have seen it too, for he gave a thin-lipped smile. “Of course, even getting to the pool wouldn’t be easy.”

“What is—”

“Most likely an aridnyk. Savage cave-dwellers, sometimes enslaved as guardians to treasure.”

“Should we—”

“Just keep walking.”


Three things happened in quick succession. A pale form that appeared to be mostly claws detached itself from the wall and launched itself toward them. Jane gave a horrified shriek and flung herself backward. And Nikolay stepped forward and sent a wall of green fire directly through the creature.

The beast let out an agonized howl and began to writhe, twisting and snarling. Jane couldn’t even see it anymore through the fire, but she smelled burning flesh. Gradually the writhing slowed, and the howling faded to a low sizzle.

“Shall we?” Nikolay stepped over the creature’s charred remains and beckoning Jane forward. He sounded almost bored.


Jane edged past the burnt flesh. Close up, the beast had the appearance of a giant, pale bat, with clawed wings and fangs the size of bananas. “Do you think there are more of them?” she said.

Nikolay’s teeth flashed in a smile. “They are social animals. I suspect there will be ten or twenty waiting for us inside the next corridor.”


“What do you think, Avtorka?”

“You’re the one who has experience with—Look out!”

In front of Nikolay, a shadow detached itself from the wall. Jane grabbed for Nikolay’s arm, but her hands met empty air. The crack! of Nikolay’s teleportation—apparently the Kanachskiy curse hadn’t prevented teleporting within the cave—was masked by the roar of magefire. The flames were so close she could feel the heat scorch her arms. Jane stumbled backwards, tripped, and would have fallen had she not collided with Nikolay.

“Graceful as ever, Avtorka,” he said, pulling her upright.

She whirled toward him, fuming, but he was already turning to deal with the next aridnyk. Nikolay hadn’t been exaggerating. There were a lot of them. Jane threw up a shield, and not a moment too soon; a second later, claws glanced off her shield, and her newest opponent let out a vicious hiss. Jane shied away from its dripping fangs.

Behind her, Nikolay laughed. There was a deafening noise like several thousand air horns being blown simultaneously, and the entire corridor was doused in light. The aridnyk nearest Jane screamed and shrank backward. At first, Jane thought it had been blinded, but then she realized that the explosion must have deafened it, for it was clutching its membranous ears, which oozed blood. Nikolay laughed again and sent fire shooting from his hand. The remaining aridnyk fled, burning.

Jane heaved a relieved sigh, clutching the wall. Green flames still blazed through the passage. Nikolay watched them with satisfaction; he seemed to have no intention of putting them out.

Jane shook her head. “If you’re quite finished indulging your inner pyromaniac,” she said, “where are we?”

“I honestly have no idea.” Nikolay started to walk again.

“Right,” said Jane. “Well that’s just—”

“Be quiet.”

Jane looked around, expecting another aridnyk. When a few minutes passed, and no threat appeared, her eyes narrowed. “Did you just order me to be quiet because you’re sick of hearing me talk?”


I give up.

She just had to get through this challenge, Jane reminded herself. If she could finish her third godstest and get out of the maze, she could return to Earth, and once she was home, she would never have to interact with this miserable excuse for a human being again.

The passage morphed into a flight of stairs, which carried them higher and higher. The third flight of stairs opened up onto a narrow shelf, almost like a balcony, which looked out across the high cavern they had just traversed. Jane peered over the edge and gasped.

“Look!” she said.

From the balcony, the labyrinthine passages they had just traversed were thrown into sharp relief. It was abruptly clear that they had not been walking a maze, as Jane had previously thought. The walls through which they had passed had been strategically placed, so as to form a series of interconnected runes, with the obelisk at their center.

Some of the runes seemed to have partially crumbled away, leaving gaps in the otherwise pristine structure. They had seen some of those gaps down below, when they were walking toward the obelisk.

“Fascinating,” said Nikolay, for once not sounding sarcastic in the slightest. “It appears to be a locking rune.”

“A what?”

“A locking rune,” said Nikolay, enunciating slowly and clearly. Jane must have still looked mystified, for he let out an irritated sigh. “A locking rune locks“—he stressed the last word with a sneer—”whatever spell you want to protect, making it impervious to damage, until the locking rune decays. By the looks of things, this one probably decayed years ago by natural forces, and none of the new battle mages understood enough to realize that they ought to repair it.”


“Imagine a treasure chest, placed inside a containing box. You need both the key to the treasure chest and the key to the outer box to steal the treasure.”

“So Dalnushka’s locking rune in this analogy is the outer box…” Jane fumbled for the missing piece. “And the treasure chest is…?”

“The treasure chest”— Nikolay gestured toward the obelisk— “is the spell that protects Dalnushka.”

Jane blinked.

“So,” she said slowly. “If we were to fix the spell on Dalnushka, and also to fix the locking rune—”

“Then the spell on Dalnushka would be rendered unbreakable until the Kanachskiy broke the locking rune,” said Nikolay impatiently. “Also, must I remind you that there is no ‘we’ here? Fixing Dalnushka’s wards is your  Godstest, which I frankly want no part in. I am here to find the Pool of Truths in order to distill my Oathbreaker potion, preferably as fast as possible so I can leave and safeguard my miserable brother—”

“I think I have to look in the pool, too,” Jane interrupted. “I don’t know how to fix the original spell on Dalnushka, the one the Kanachskiy broke. Maybe the pool will be able to tell me that.”

Nikolay was already walking away. Jane hurried after him. “This locking rune,” she said. “If I just levitated the ruined walls back into place—”

“Yes, that would probably suffice.” Nikolay sounded bored. “It appears the walls have collapsed naturally over time.”

Jane smiled. She had a plan now, and that always made things ten times better. Even the fact that she was trapped in a cavern with no one but Nikolay and some hella creepy giant bat creatures for company couldn’t dampen the suddenly buoyant swell in her chest.

She didn’t have long to bask in her relief. They had only been walking another five minutes before they rounded a corner and Nikolay stopped dead in front of her.

“Nikolay?” said Jane.

“We’re here,” he said.

Jane looked around him, ahead to where watery blackness sparkled.

She started to shiver.

Tip: You can use left, right, A and D keyboard keys to browse between chapters.