Jane and her sister Sandra were different in almost every way, but they had a few things in common. One of these was a phobia of clowns. Another was that they had never stopped missing their brother, and they both possessed an unwavering belief that of the three of them, Phillip had been—was still—the best.
Said brother lay unconscious on the floor of Uncle Bauer’s study. His arm, which had been struck by a fragment of metal during the earlier melee, bled briskly. Jane crouched beside Phillip, trying to stem the bleeding with a towel. Beside Jane, Sandra sat shaking, both hands pressed against her mouth, her eyes brimming with tears of shock and joy.
“You’re back. Both of you. I still can’t believe—oh my God, I mean… it’s really… him…”
Jane secured the towel and dragged her hair out of her eyes. Grime from the temple clung to her face, clothes, and fingers. She desperately needed a shower.
“We should call 911,” she said. “Uncle Bauer’s not here, and Phillip needs to go to the hospital. I don’t know how bad his injuries are. Can I borrow your cell phone? I left mine in Mir.”
But before Sandra could do more than fumble in her pocket, Phillip’s eyes fluttered open. With a groan, he struggled upright.
“Phillip!” Sandra started to launch herself at him, then paused, as though suddenly realizing throwing herself at someone with a serious injury might not be the smartest move.
Jane nudged her out of the way. “Don’t sit up just yet.” She put a hand on Phillip’s shoulder. “You’re injured.”
Phillip shook his head. “Need to get up… need to figure out how bad it is…”
Worriedly, Jane helped him sit. Phillip flexed his fingers one by one, wincing, and then moved his wrist back and forth. “No nerve damage,” he said.
Jane was hardly reassured by this. A bruise was purpling above her brother’s temple, and blood from the gash in his arm was starting to seep through the towel they’d used as a makeshift bandage.
“I’ll need stitches,” said Phillip, glancing down at his arm, “but we can probably wait until Uncle Bauer returns with his car. Seriously, Jane, don’t call 911—an ambulance costs thousands of dollars, and unless US health insurance changed dramatically while I was away, it’s not worth it.”
“Phillip,” said Sandra, hugging him.
Jane wanted to hug her brother, too. Tears sprang to her eyes again. He was really back. A part of her had thought she would never see him again—that he might remain in a coma forever…
Phillip smiled. “It’s good to see you, too. Help me stand up and get to a sofa, and then—”
His eyes landed on Nikolay, who still sat in the corner where Jane had left him. Nikolay’s back was ramrod straight, his hands clenched, his eyes narrowed with barely-concealed malevolence. Sandra, who had been too preoccupied with Jane’s and Phillip’s arrival to notice the presence of their guest, gasped.
“I think,” said Phillip, “we have some matters to discuss.”
Nikolay was numb.
Perhaps he was in shock.
Thoughts skittered through his head, barely pausing to land before others replaced them.
His powers were gone.
Not just dampened, but gone.
He had never experienced this before. Even in the pit cell back in Sengilach, when his magic had been dampened by the manacles, he’d felt his powers at the edges of his consciousness, caged but still simmering under the surface. But now, there was nothing. He reached for his powers and found only a void: bleak and yawning and empty. His entire body ached.
His eyes found the Oath-scar that still marred his forearm. Strangely—perhaps because he’d just passed between worlds—it was no longer burning. That was scant relief. He knew the Oath-spell was still in effect. Becoming a god hadn’t released him from its chains, and the moment he returned to Mir it would be back, and hungering for his blood.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Fear gripped him in its teeth. He was supposed to use the remaining Writings and his newfound powers to destroy the other gods, destroy Kanach, ensure his brother’s safety, break his Oath-spell…
So many things. It had only been a question of which to accomplish first.
Now, none of it would happen.
The Writings were gone.
The three Writings were gone, and his powers were gone. He had—
No powers left, none at all.
Panic set in. Dimly, he noticed his hands were shaking. It was cold in this new world… so cold. The bareness of the room with its odd machinery, the soft yellow lighting with its steady glow, all seemed suddenly sinister. Alien.
He had no magic, and he was in an unfamiliar land, an unfamiliar world, and he was surrounded by people who most likely wanted him dead.
He stared ahead, barely processing anything the others were saying in their strange tongue, until out of the corner of his eye, he saw the avtorka helping Phillip to his feet. A sudden spike of hatred made him dizzy.
This was her fault.
She had done this.
She would pay—
The blonde girl shrieked as Nikolay lunged toward them, drawing the knife concealed in his boot. The avtorka was faster. She pushed Phillip out of the way, grabbed a book off the nearest shelf, and raised it in warning. Phillip yanked the blonde out of the way, just as Nikolay jerked the book out of Jane’s hand and pressed the dagger to her throat.
They stood like that for a few seconds, paralyzed, unmoving. He was close enough to see how wide her eyes were, how the pulse flickered in her neck. She stood ramrod-still, and the thought flashed through his mind, of how easy it would be, to press the knife deeper, to end the life that had just destroyed his own through sheer carelessness.
“I would have fixed it,” he hissed, knowing she didn’t understand a word, and hating her even more for it. “I would have fixed everything, but you just had to step in and ruin all of it, didn’t you?”
“Let her go,” said her brother, in broken Somitan.
Nikolay spun around, holding Jane before him like a hostage, the dagger still firmly in place at her neck.
“Why should I?” he said. “She destroyed my life. Isn’t it only fair I do the same?”
For all the venom in his words, he knew they were a lie. He’d known, the moment he pressed the dagger to her neck, that he could not go through with it. Partly because it would guarantee his death in this unfamiliar world, but also for the same reason he would never be able to kill the tsar, or Olesya, or even Phillip in cold blood. There were lines, lines he drew in his head around people he knew, people who were not Kanachskiy. And maybe you could justify stealing magic, and even mind control, if it led to something greater.
But death… Death was final. The very end.
And when you killed the ones you knew, you never forgot it.
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t use the situation to his advantage, since they didn’t know what he would or wouldn’t do. The avtorka was frozen in his grip, her breaths quick and shallow. On the other side of the machinery, Phillip had gone very still.
“Think carefully,” Phillip said.
Nikolay might have laughed, if he hadn’t been so coldly furious. “‘Think carefully’,” he mocked. “Like you did, you mean? When you saved Casimir, leaving hundreds to die?”
Phillip flinched. The avtorka flinched too—she recognized Casimir’s name, if nothing else. Her body shook with the effort of keeping as far from the blade as possible.
“Killing her fixes nothing,” said Phillip. “Spare her, and I promise you food, protection.”
“A way back to Mir, then. If there’s a way back, I will help you find it.”
Nikolay grit his teeth against a surge of despair. His head was pounding, his vision oddly blurry. He didn’t belong here. He had to go back. But with the Oath-spell still in place and the tsar near his deathbed, he would die if he returned to Mir.
Phillip was studying him keenly. Nikolay had the unsettling impression that Jane’s brother was following along with his train of thought, perhaps even anticipating where his mind would go next. He was disgustingly perceptive, Nikolay remembered from their few interactions in the past. It was one reason he’d been sent to Kanach as a spy.
“You don’t want to go back just to die,” said Phillip quietly. “That’s fair enough. How about this? Stay here a little while, and meet your family. Don’t you want to know where you come from, Nikolay? Where your mother, Queen Eloise, came from?”
Into the stunned silence that followed, the avtorka spoke quickly, a rush of words aimed at Phillip.
Phillip nodded, then turned back to Nikolay. “My sister says you have a potion that could cure an Oath-spell, but it’s poisoned. The Pool of Truths didn’t tell you how to purify the potion, but I have gotten information from the Pool of Truths before. I can do it again. If you cooperate, I will help you return to Mir and find a way to break your Oath-spell. You have my word.”
“Swear it,” said Nikolay.
“I swear it on Casimir’s memory and my sister’s life.”
Nikolay turned the words over in his head, fighting against the headache that was hammering against his skull. The room spun.
He pushed the avtorka away. She stumbled, catching herself before she collapsed, and darted across the room until she was as far from him as possible.
Good. He wanted nothing to do with her.
Phillip held out a hand for the knife, but Nikolay ignored him. He shoved the knife back in his boot. He wasn’t going to wander this new world utterly defenseless, particularly not in the company of people who despised him.
His head ached fiercely, his hands were like ice, and it was all he could do not to sink back against the wall. Fortunately, everyone else seemed as exhausted as he was. Phillip staggered, and the avtorka grabbed his arm. She said something to him and he nodded.
“We’ll show you to the room where you’ll be staying,” said Phillip, in terrible Somitan.
The avtorka nodded. She jerked her chin toward the door through narrowed eyes, a gesture that clearly said, ‘You first’.
Nikolay gritted his teeth. With a sneer, he stalked through the doorway—
Only to go down in a heap as a metal object collided with his skull.
“Oh my God! Hoooooo my God! I did it! I just took out an actual bad guy!”
Jane stepped past Sandra, who was still brandishing the frying pan, practically bouncing up and down with glee.
“I guess now we tie him up and take his knife,” Sandra babbled, “and then call the police—”
Jane wasn’t sure why the word came out so fast. It was a reasonable suggestion. Make the police deal with Nikolay. The world would certainly be safer if he was locked up in a cell.
But worry nagged her. He had no identification, no records, nothing—what did they do for people like that? Would they assume he was Russian and deport him?
Would the Oath-spell kill him first?
Did the Oath-spell even exist here? Jane was pretty sure her own magic was gone, and it stood to reason the Oath-spell wouldn’t work either. But Nikolay still looked ill. She had felt him shaking when he’d put the knife to her throat, and she knew him well enough by now to recognize the signs. He must be in a bad way, if he hadn’t even noticed Sandra leave, or anticipated her ambush with the frying pan.
“Jane’s right,” said Phillip. “Involving the police will only complicate matters.”
“When did you learn Russian?” Jane asked distractedly. Nikolay was stirring slightly. Sandra shrieked and made to hit him over the head again; Phillip caught her arm. “Somitan is basically Russian, right?”
“A linguistical offshoot. My guess is the languages diverged a couple hundred years ago. One annoyance about the Gift of Tongues is that it’s tough to learn a language when it gets magically translated for you. Luckily, I took two years of Russian during high school.” Phillip frowned. “Is Uncle Bauer’s old climbing gear still in the toolshed? There should be some rope in there that we can use to tie him up.”
It took some effort, but the three of them managed to tie up Nikolay’s arms and legs with a series of firm knots. Jane and Sandra dragged his still-unconscious form into the living room, and Sandra tugged the dagger out of his boot.
“Dayummmm,” she said, turning it over. “This is legit.”
“Don’t touch the blade,” Jane warned. “I wouldn’t put it past Nikolay to have poisoned it.” She rubbed her throat. Her nerves still sang with how close she had come to death. The look in Nikolay’s eyes earlier…
Her hands shook. Every part of her ached, and tears prickled at the corners of her eyes again. It had all been so much. In the last twenty-four hours, Dalnushka had been attacked, she’d undergone a grueling third godstest, and she’d been kidnapped, mind-controlled, and threatened.
She wanted nothing more than to curl up in her bed and sleep for days.
“Can I keep it?” said Sandra, her eyes still on the dagger. “After I wash it off?”
“Put it upstairs for now.” Phillip sank onto the sofa. “Somewhere out of sight.”
“This is fun.” Sandra beamed. “Is this what you spent your time doing when you were in the other world? Apprehending criminals?”
Jane glanced at Phillip, who had his head in his hands. His eyes were closed, and his expression was pained.
“S-sorry,” said Sandra.
Jane sank onto the lounge-chair across from the sofa, biting her lip.
What had Nikolay said to him, during their earlier exchange? She’d heard Casimir’s name mentioned, but that was all she’d understood. Had he told Phillip about the role she’d played in Casimir’s death?
Either way, Jane knew they had to have this conversation sometime, and it might as well be now, before Nikolay had a chance to drive a wedge between the two of them.
If he hadn’t already.
She drew a breath. “I’m… so, so sorry about Casimir. Believe me, if I could have gotten to him sooner… it keeps me awake at night, that we weren’t able to go fast enough on the wyvern—”
Sandra opened her mouth, eyes wide with questions, then closed it hurriedly as Jane frowned at her.
“I know,” said Phillip.
Jane tried to imagine what that was like. Waking up from a weeks-long coma after months of torture, to find out that your dearest person, the person you relied on, wasn’t there anymore…
“I hope you understand why I have to go back,” said Phillip. “It will be hard, but I believe it is possible. Others have found a way from Earth onto Mir in the past, not just the avtorkas who were summoned by the gods. If they could find a way to Mir, I can too.”
Jane’s stomach sank. Phillip was staring at his palms, but his eyes were very far away. It had only been a few days since he’d woken from his coma.
“Surely you can rest here for awhile and heal,” she said tentatively. “Wouldn’t it be better to stay, to turn over a new leaf, with us, with your family, now that Casimir’s—”
The silence hung over them, heavy.
Into the silence, Phillip shook his head.
“You don’t understand. But how could you? I couldn’t tell you before. I was in a coma.”
Phillip met her eyes, and the look in them was so bleak, so utterly haunted, that Jane had to stop herself from flinching. When he spoke, the words seemed to freeze in the air, sending shivers down her spine.
“Casimir may not be entirely gone.”