“I can’t believe that worked,” said Jane. Every inch of her shook with triumph. “Reverse psychology’s amazing.”
She shook out her arms, reveling in her newfound ability to move. She was free again—gloriously, wondrously free. Nikolay’s presence no longer lurked in her mind like a storm cloud.
She looked up. Nikolay was watching her from the other side of the podium, a few paces away from the Book of Truths. His face betrayed little, but there was definitely shock in his dark eyes.
“Explain,” he said, in a cold, deadly voice.
Jane met his gaze, her expression going equally cold.
“You think you’re so incredibly smart,” she said. “You’ve spent your entire life convinced that your powers made you better, put you above everyone around you. Well, guess what? You’ve just been outsmarted. You wished to be a god. But ordinary gods can’t Write in the Book of Truths, and they can’t influence what an avtorka writes either. Which means you can’t stop me from doing what I’m about to do next.”
Jane picked up the pen again.
“Wait!” Nikolay lunged around the podium. His hand closed around her wrist.
Dimly, Jane registered the flaw in her plan. True, Nikolay could no longer control her mind or force her to write in the Book of Truths for him, but he was now a god. He could still use his powers to prevent her from Writing anything else.
“Stop!” cried a familiar voice. “Get away from my sister!”
Power exploded from the front of the temple, shooting toward Nikolay like an arrow.
“Phillip!” said Jane.
Nikolay spun to face the threat. He blocked the attack almost languidly, with a flick of his fingers, and sent it soaring back toward Phillip. It missed Phillip’s head by inches and struck one of the marble columns that lined the front of the temple, sending a rain of debris crashing down upon the tiles.
“Not a step closer,” Nikolay warned.
Phillip held his hands up in surrender, his face pale. “I know you hate me.” His voice was unnaturally calm, the sort of voice one might use trying to pacify a rabid tiger. “You have no reason to trust me, but listen. I’m only here to help. I only want to make sure this process is fair, and ensure useful Writings get Written—”
“As if you have any notion of what constitutes good Writings,” Nikolay hissed. “You don’t belong in this world—you will never belong here—”
Jane, all this time, had been edging the quill toward its pot of ink, trying to take advantage of Nikolay’s distraction. Before she could dip it in the inkwell, Nikolay’s head swiveled toward her. “Don’t move,” he said icily. “If you do…”
But before he could finish his sentence, a loud BANG! shook the temple, and Sidor, Divna, and Avdotya materialized in the entrance.
Sidor had seen better days. His gold hair was ragged, his normally-bright armor spattered with mud, and his eyes held a wildness Jane had never seen. If he was still under the influence of Nikolay’s sleeping spell, he showed no sign of it. Divna and Avdotya stood on either side of him, grasping his arm; it looked like they’d been in the middle of trying to subdue him when they’d teleported.
As Jane watched, heart in her throat, Sidor wrenched himself free of Divna’s grasp (Avdotya let go of his other arm hurriedly). “You!” he snarled at Nikolay. “What do you think you’re playing at?”
“We all felt the Writing.” That was Avdotya. A familiar peevish whine laced her tone, and the ruffles on her layer-cake dress shook with rage. “How dare you style yourself a god, you miserable mortal?”
“And you!” Sidor whirled toward Jane, who gulped. “You had the gall to send Divna and Avdotya to discipline me!”
Phillip slid himself between Sidor and Jane, his hands still upraised. “Perhaps we should calm down,” he said, in his smoothest, most reasonable voice.
“I agree,” said Divna, stepping forward. She placed a restraining hand on her brother’s arm. “I think we all need to discuss this like sensible—”
Sidor yanked his arm away. Before Jane could register what was happening, he struck Phillip across the face and started toward Jane, thunder in his eyes.
Behind him, Phillip crumpled to the ground and lay still.
“Phillip!” Jane shrieked. She would have run to her brother, except instinct told her that leaving the Book of Truths—her only hope of fixing this mess—would be a horrible mistake. Not that the Book of Truths was any immediate help. Sidor was bearing down on her, malice in his eyes, and for a moment she froze, her fingers clutching the quill pen—
A blast of gold magic slammed into Sidor’s side, sending him flying across the temple. As Sidor roared with pain, Nikolay advanced on him, his eyes alive with hatred. Another blast followed the first, and Sidor skittered out of the way, hissing with rage. Jane saw Nikolay ready himself for a third assault.
On the ground, Phillip stirred. He was directly in the line of fire, Jane noticed with dread. She had a sudden, horrified vision of him getting caught by one of Nikolay’s blasts of magic, or stomped on by Sidor…
“Stop,” she cried. “Stop—”
She might as well have been pleading with rocks, for all the attention they paid her. Divna had joined the battle and was launching attacks of her own on Sidor. Jane had an impression of an enormous golden cage coming to settle over the god, before Sidor slammed his way through it, scattering fragments across the temple floor. One of them slammed into Phillip’s arm, and he screamed.
Jane shook with terror. Now that she was confronted with the actual possibility of writing in the Book of Truths of her own volition, she felt as torn with indecision as Nikolay had been. She wanted more time—time to think, time to ponder, time to read the guidebook at the front of the room. But there was no time; if there was a moment she absolutely had to act, it was now. It was now, in this temple, surrounded by the wrath of four gods who seemed hell-bent on mutual destruction, heedless of the effect it was having on the mortals they happened to crush along the way…
Would the war between Kanach and Somita even have happened if not for the gods? Had they manufactured the entire war, solely for the purpose of amusement? Jane could Write Somita and Kanach at peace again, like she was supposed to, but how long would it be before the gods started a war again and found a new avtorka to torment?
The cycle would repeat, over and over and over, one avtorka after another, one war after another, never ending—
You know what you have to do, whispered Velos’ voice, as though he’d read the thoughts that spiraled through her mind. Divna’s at fault for this. She’s the one who dreamed the godstest into existence, under the guise of trying to help people. Stop her, strip her of her powers, and you’ll stop the godstests from happening ever again.
Jane shivered. “No,” she whispered.
Jane watched Sidor snarling, darting over her brother like he didn’t matter, like he was just another lowly human life; and Nikolay was no better—he’d be just as bad as Sidor if he won—
“No,” she repeated. “It’s not just Divna. It’s everyone.”
Her hand clenched on the pen. Sidor’s cruelty, Divna’s self-satisfied look as she smiled at Jane at the end of the third godstest, Casimir falling—all of it condensed at once into a terrible fury in her mind, until her hand shook with the force of it.
She had to end it.
She had to make sure the gods never interfered in this world again.
Jane lowered her pen to the Book of Truths.
There’s an alternate world in the multiverse. A world where Jane wrote the sure thing. The safe thing.
“Somita and Kanach are at peace,” she might have written. Or, “No one else will die in the war.”
You are welcome to believe our story ends this way. Happily ever after, with two countries resolving their differences and cohabiting peacefully side by side.
You can stop reading now if you want.
Ensconce yourself in that ending.
What’s that, you say? No?
You want the real story?
But I warn you, it’ll be messy.
A terrible silence filled the temple, broken only by the sound of wind whistling over stone.
Nikolay rocked back on his heels. He could feel his powers dissipating, as though an invisible hand had reached inside and stripped him of his essence. His newfound godly powers went first, followed by the shielding spells he’d draped around him like a cloak. The magics dampening the pain of Oath spell were next—he almost doubled over—and finally, his hidden reserves of power, the magical stores that he kept for emergencies, buried so deeply he’d almost forgot they were there. All of it flooded out, like blood from an artery, impossible to staunch, impossible to control. He tried to stop it anyway, reaching for scant ribbons of magic as they deserted him, but they slipped through his fingers like ghosts.
Across the temple, Sidor screamed. He had shed his previous form—a gold-glowing armored monstrosity—and was lying on the floor: confused, crouched low. There was no trace of godly power about him anymore; he looked utterly human. Nikolay might have screamed too, but he was too dazed; he stared with horror at his hands, trying to call some magic to them. Nothing came. He was empty of magic—empty of everything that made him who he was—
“What did you do?” Divna’s voice lashed out, no longer full and strong and musical; it sounded harsh and withered. “What did you write?”
A creak tore through the temple. Chunks of stone plummeted from the ceiling, filling the air with dust. Divna shrieked. Nikolay threw himself backward, toward the Book of Truths and the relative safety of the wall. His eyes whipped to Jane. She crouched over the Book of Truths, pen still scribbling frantically.
Terror filled him, terror and fury. He strode toward her.
Her hand flew across the page, pen scratching against the parchment as though she was scribbling for dear life, and he had a sudden, horrible realization as to what she was writing…
His hand closed on her wrist. He would hold her in place, keep her here, she had no right to leave after what she’d just done.
But it was too late. Before he could yank her away, she had scribbled the last word in the Book of Rules, and he had just time enough to read the words return to Earth before a howling wind rose up around them.
Still he clung, grimly, furiously, tighter than he had ever clung to anything in his life, ignoring how she twisted and struggled. The world around them blurred, becoming black, and then white. There was a sense of distance, of time and of space.
Jane struggled to free herself. In response, the viselike grip on her wrist tightened further. It was bruising, and she couldn’t shake it, no matter how she tried.
Nikolay was shouting—furious words laced with terror, but whatever he was saying was completely unintelligible to Jane. For a moment, Jane wondered if she’d had a stroke.
Then she realized.
Russian. He was speaking Russian—or a language close to Russian. And she didn’t understand a word of it.
The Avtorka’s Gift of Tongues was gone.
And that meant…
“Shut up,” Jane snapped. It might have been shock, or the sudden realization of the language barrier—but Nikolay broke off, his eyes wide.
Jane wrenched her hand from his grip and looked around. The familiar white walls of Uncle Bauer’s study met her eyes, cluttered remains of old computer processors, dying spider plants in the window, and she could not remember ever seeing anything so beautiful in her entire life. A few feet away lay Phillip, pale but still breathing, a faint sheen of dust coating his hair.
Jane heaved a shuddering breath. Her eyes welled with tears.
She had done it.
She was home.