In her dreams, Jane was back in the stone temple atop Mount Naridnya. The needles of Nikolay’s magic pressed on her mind, caging her thoughts, threatening to break her.
Nikolay turned toward her—smiling, crazed. She met his eyes, awaiting her next command.
“Kill your brother,” he said.
She awoke drenched in sweat, her heart pounding.
It was still dark. The clock on her dresser read 11 PM.
Someone had placed slippers beside her bed while she slept. She put them on and padded to the door.
Sandra was sitting at the kitchen table when Jane entered. She seemed hard at work at some phone game or other, but at the sound of Jane’s footsteps, she looked up, surprised. “You’re awake!” she said. “I thought you’d sleep all night.”
“Where is everyone?”
“Still at the hospital. Mom flew in earlier. She came here first to check on you, but then she decided to let you sleep. She’s with Phillip now.”
The house was eerily quiet. Jane felt suddenly uneasy. “How is Phillip?” she asked, rummaging around in the cupboard for a granola bar.
“He’s all right. He might need minor surgery. Mom didn’t seem concerned.” Sandra crossed her arms. “Now that you’ve gotten some sleep, I have a lot of questions—”
“Has anyone checked on Nikolay?” Jane interrupted.
Annoyance flickered in Sandra’s eyes. “Phillip told me not to go upstairs until they got back. And speaking of Nikolay… when are we going to tell mom and Uncle Bauer there’s a homicidal lunatic in our house?”
Jane pressed her lips together. She abandoned the kitchen cupboards, which were irritatingly bare, and opened the refrigerator.
“There’s pizza,” Sandra offered. “They’re yesterday’s leftovers, but they should still be good.”
“Can I borrow your phone?” The pizza went onto a plate, next to a glass of water. Briefly, Jane thought about microwaving the plate, then snorted. Cold pizza was more than Nikolay deserved.
She tucked Sandra’s phone into her back pocket and grabbed a frying pan in her other hand. “If you don’t hear anything in ten minutes, call the cops.”
At the attic door, Jane set down the plate, suddenly having second thoughts. They had tied Nikolay up with rope, but that meant very little. The man had managed to escape from the highest-security pit cell in Sengilach. She doubted a few bungee cords and attic locks were enough to contain him. The bastard was fiendishly resourceful, and she wouldn’t put it past him to ambush her the moment she stepped inside.
If he was even still in the attic at all.
Jane raised the frying pan. Then, deciding she might as well get this over with, she kicked the door open.
The attic was a shambles. Boxes were torn open, their contents scattered around the room. In the far corner, a file cabinet had been upended. Jane hadn’t seen so much chaos since a raccoon had ransacked their parents’ bedroom when she was five.
Jane gritted her teeth and waded into the mess.
Nikolay lay on the futon, his eyes closed. He’d somehow managed to get his hands unbound. On the floor beside the futon lay a pile of old photographs. The top photo showed a young woman with golden hair. She was decked out in graduation regalia and holding a high school diploma, smiling the same sort of cheeky, open-mouthed smile Jane had often seen Sandra make when posing for the camera. Next to her stood Uncle Bauer, beaming with fatherly pride.
Jane looked from the photo to Nikolay and back again. The resemblance was there if she looked hard enough. Not in the hair, but in the structure of his face and the set of his jaw.
She glanced down at the rest of the pile. It was all photographs—old ones from the nineties. Eloise as a young girl, dressed as a witch for Halloween, trying to sweep a cat with her broomstick. Middle-school-aged Eloise in a diner, glaring at the camera, one hand outstretched as though to block the camera. An older Eloise on the beach, posing with a group of her friends.
As Jane leaned down to pick up a photo, Nikolay’s eyes opened. He stared at her blankly, but it was not the vitriolic, hate-filled stare she had come to expect. He looked… lost. Like the ground had dropped out from beneath him.
Jane hesitated. Then she put down the frying pan and opened the translator app on Sandra’s phone.
“Eloise Bauer was my adopted uncle’s daughter,” she said into the phone. “She got trapped in your world before I was born. My uncle never saw her again. This is his house.”
It took a while for the translator to turn the words into something she hoped was comprehensible Russian. Jane deposited the pizza next to Nikolay and waited for a response. But he said nothing.
“There are good people here,” said Jane into the translator. “If you lay a finger on any of them, I will make sure you go to prison. You’ll probably die there. Your best option is to cooperate.”
Nikolay’s hand moved toward the photograph. He touched Uncle Bauer’s face. “He… lives here?”
So Eloise had taught him a bit of English after all. She remembered when he’d first encountered her algorithms textbook, how he’d been able to sound some words out. She wondered how much of her conversations with Sandra he’d understood.
“His health is bad,” said Jane. “He doesn’t know who you are.” She sucked in a breath. “And now you’ve destroyed his attic. If you want us to help you, you can start by cleaning up the mess you’ve made.”
He shook his head, muttered something in Somitan that the translator app did not catch, and sat up unsteadily. Frowning, Jane put a head to his forehead.
That wasn’t good.
Surely the Oath spell couldn’t be bothering him here, Jane thought. Magic wasn’t supposed to work on Earth.
Then again, strange portals weren’t supposed to open up in the middle of your uncle’s study, either. Perhaps the boundary between worlds was weaker here and some ill effects from the Oath spell were still managing to sneak through.
Jane scrutinized Nikolay’s face. He certainly looked ill. His eyes were glassy, and sweat beaded his brow. She couldn’t have cared less about his health, but she had a bad feeling that if he died here, in Uncle Bauer’s attic, they would have considerable trouble disposing of the body. There might even be a police investigation.
“I’ll be back,” she said. “Uncle Bauer must have an NSAID somewhere.”
If it is the Oath spell that’s hurting him and he dies, it’s because of a choice you made, said the sly little whisper at the back of her head as she closed the attic door. He’s responsible, but so are you.
“Can we talk?”
Jane nearly jumped out of her skin. Sandra was leaning against the wall of the stairwell, her face shrouded in shadow, her arms crossed.
“What the hell,” Jane managed, when her heart had finally stopped trying to claw its way out of her chest. Her eyes narrowed. “What were you doing, lurking in the dark?”
“Well, excuse me, but eavesdropping seems like the only way I’m going to find anything out around here, since no one is telling me anything at all.” Sandra crossed her arms. “So. Lemme get this straight. The hot assassin-guy is related to us?”
“Related to you and Uncle Bauer.” Jane was related to… tsars of Somita, apparently. “It’s not important, Sandra.”
“Um, yes it is. I can’t exactly ogle a relative.”
Jane turned away.
“Good grief, what’s up with you? You never really laughed at my jokes before, but at least you would smile and roll your eyes. Now you act like I’m the most annoying person on earth.” Sandra blew a tuft of hair out of her eyes. “So… Hot Stuff is Uncle Bauer’s grandson and my… first cousin? Once removed? And you don’t wanna tell Uncle Bauer because Hot Stuff is a psycho who tried to kill you. Is his brother any better? The one Phillip said was a prince?”
“Yes,” said Jane. “At least he has a conscience.”
Poor Kir. He hadn’t asked for any of this. He hadn’t asked to be controlled by the gods, or to be forced into falling in love with her.
Had the gods known they were distantly related?
“We’ll have to tell Uncle Bauer eventually,” Sandra said. “I mean, Hot Stuff can’t just live in the attic forever, and it’s gonna be awhile before Phillip figures out how to get to the other world. Uncle Bauer told me he’s been trying to get there all his life, ever since his daughter left.”
“We’ll tell Uncle Bauer we have a prisoner,” said Jane. “He doesn’t need to know they’re related. It would just upset him.”
“Isn’t that a bit paternalistic?” said Sandra.
Something inside Jane snapped. She’d been walking a tightrope from the moment she came home, and now the tightrope had twisted, spinning her into a free-fall.
And once you started falling, it was so difficult to stop.
“He’s had a good family all his life,” she said savagely. “He has a brother, and—and a father, who isn’t related to him, but loved him nonetheless, and he was still so self-absorbed, did horrible things—hurtful things—killed so many people. He doesn’t deserve to know his real family—he doesn’t deserve to be accepted here—”
To her embarrassment, Jane began to sob. She sank down against the attic door, head in her hands. Tears ran down her face, ugly tears that dripped past her palms to make dark spots on the floor. She was so confused, so hurt and angry. She had thought when she got home, all her troubles would be over, but instead they seemed to be amplified tenfold. She wanted nothing more than to hate someone, to wallow in vitriol and grief, but didn’t know who she hated more: Nikolay or herself.
Distantly, she felt Sandra crouch beside her and put an arm around her back.
“I never asked how mom is doing,” Jane sobbed. “It’s been almost twelve hours since I got home, and I was too self-absorbed to ask.”
“Um,” said Sandra, with the bewilderment of one who is completely lost but trying frantically to put the pieces together. “I mean, she’s good? Happy you’re back? She’d be here right now if she wasn’t in the hospital with Phillip.”
“She has cancer,” Jane wailed.
“I saw it—hic!—in the pool, you and her, together in the hospital, she was getting—hic!—a test—”
“Oh, that. How did you see—eh, whatever. She had a lump in one of her boobs, but the biopsy was fine. It was just a bit of a scare, that’s all. That was months ago.”
Sandra patted her awkwardly on the back. “Um,” she said. “Not that I don’t love you, but you’re getting snot all over my Zac Efron t-shirt, and it’s kinda gross. Can we go get a tissue please?”
Jane stood shakily, rubbing at her eyes with the back of her hand. She felt like a towel wrung out to dry. Her insides were hollow.
“I don’t deserve you,” she mumbled.
“Okay, now you’re scaring me.”
“I screwed up,” said Jane. “Sandra, I messed up. I think I messed up really, really badly—”
“So, fix it,” said Sandra. “I mess up all the time. I mean, pretty much everyone does, you’re just less used to it, ’cause you’re—y’know, you. It’s okay.”
“I don’t think it can be fixed. It—it affects a lot of people—and the worst part is, I thought I was being so clever.”
“You always overthink things,” said Sandra. “Come on. Let’s go back to bed. It’ll look better in the morning. I promise.”
On the other side of the door, Nikolay stared down at the pile of pictures. His earlier anger had dissipated, leaving a lurching deadness in its wake.
The nearest picture sat by his hand, taunting him with its vivacity. The woman in the photograph was laughing, surrounded by a bevy of people Nikolay assumed were her friends.
His mother had never looked like that in Somita.
Like her mind was entirely whole.
The mother he’d known was not whole. She’d put on a good act—laughing and smiling and chattering gaily. It was good enough to fool his toddler brother and almost good enough to fool the tsar and certainly good enough to fool most of the idiots at court who didn’t know any better.
Alone, in the privacy of the family quarters, she’d dropped the visage. She’d often wept, or retreated to the bedroom, where she might sleep for hours, and there were moments where she didn’t make sense at all. She’d refused to use magic, even when the situation called for it. And when Nikolay had used his powers in front of her, to call up illusions or show off what he’d learned, her eyes had always held a guilty sheen of fear.
And she was right, wasn’t she? whispered the treacherous voice in the back of his mind. She was right to be terrified.
Right to be scared of the monster that KILLED HER—
He slammed the door on that line of thought before it could go further.
Instead, he focused on breathing. Breathing shouldn’t be this hard, but it was. His forehead pounded, and the room around him spun. His sickness was not due to the Oath spell for once—the arm that housed the Oath-scar felt eerily normal, better than it had in years. No—if Nikolay had to guess, it was the sudden absence of magic that was hurting him. Magic was like oxygen; the body grew accustomed to a certain amount, and when that amount was cut off too quickly—by climbing too high or, in this case, by traveling to a non-magical world—there were consequences.
Consequences which, in his case, manifested as a high fever and a headache that put even the worst hangover to shame.
It didn’t help that he was dehydrated and famished from not having eaten since yesterday.
Hunger, at least, was a thing he could fix. Nikolay tamped down his dizziness long enough to glower at the plate next to him. The lifeless triangle looked like some sort of food, though nothing remotely like food in Somita. And the avtorka hadn’t even had the decency to give him a knife or fork. Did she expect him to eat this… whatever-it-was… with his hands like a common serf?
He wouldn’t put it past her to have poisoned it.
He had just broken off a tiny corner and was tentatively raising it to his mouth when the door burst open and the blonde stormed in. With an angry flourish, she pulled out the weird rectangular device and spoke into it. Words emerged in monotone Russian.
“What did you do to my sister.”
He looked away.
“Tell me,” said the pink rectangle. “She’s all messed up, and I’m pretty sure you know why. No one else is telling me anything.”
Nikolay raised his eyebrows at her. Very deliberately, he leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes.
Something hit him on the nose. Nikolay flinched. But it was just a bottle—though it was the strangest bottle he had ever seen. It was white with red lettering and far lighter than expected. It rattled as though full of rocks.
“Your medicine,” said Sandra, via the pink rectangle. “Jane said you had a fever. Oh, give me that.” She snatched the bottle from his hands as he tried, unsuccessfully, to pry off the lid. “Stupid childproofing.”
Dully, Nikolay eyed the tablets at the bottom of the bottle. They looked suspiciously like poison, but he was almost beyond caring. He raised the bottle to his mouth and tipped it back.
The blonde dove toward him and wrenched the bottle away. She pulled out a single round tablet, shoved it in his palm, and mimed eating it. “Idiot!” she said.
He recognized that word at least. His mother had called the tsar that sometimes when he was younger; he’d caught her muttering it under her breath when she was annoyed.
He swallowed the pill.
Nikolay glowered at the blonde, his eyes narrowing.
“Does medicine work right away where you’re from? This takes about an hour.”
He leaned back against the wall. “Fine.”
“No. Not fine. Tell me what you did to Jane.”
Nikolay grit his teeth and said nothing. The obvious reply (‘Perhaps you should ask what your precious sister did to me’) would not go down well—if the bizarre device that passed for magic in this hellish world could even translate it properly.
You’re not entirely innocent, whispered the voice in the back of his head. Good thing her mind didn’t shatter, hmm? Good thing her mind didn’t break. Or maybe it did break, but subtly, and you haven’t quite seen the effects yet. You know that potion was illegal for a reason.
“Tell me this, then,” the blonde girl snapped. She was clearly at the end of her (disgustingly limited) supply of patience. “Phillip’s been texting me. He wants to know if you have any dragon’s blood hidden away somewhere, because he says, and I quote, ‘it’s the fastest way to get back to your world’—”
Nikolay’s stomach twisted with dread. “No,” he said, his voice almost a hiss. “And he’d do well to never make that suggestion again.”
Dragon’s blood was a recipe for disaster. Only idiots thought they could master it.
A truth he knew better than anyone.
The blonde tapped frantically on the pink rectangle with her thumbs. Ignoring her, Nikolay lifted a fragment of Earth-food to his lips. It was greasy and cold, but far from the worst thing he’d ever tasted. You grew used to questionable foodstuff during wartime, and Somitan meals were not what you’d call flavorful, even at the best of times. The Riders often joked that one of the avtorka’s writings in the Book of Truths should be for food that didn’t chip your teeth if you bit it too hard.
He had finished the middle of the triangle and was just about to start on the crust when a roar shook the house.
It rattled the walls and windows, shivered the air around them, pierced at his eardrums until he could barely hear anything else. Nikolay could feel the floorboards trembling.
“LITTLE HUMAN!” screamed a voice.
There was only one creature in the universe that could make a sound like that.
He scrambled to his feet. Spots danced briefly before his vision, but his head was not pounding as badly as before, and he could stand without support. The blonde took a step backward, her eyes wide, but he brushed past her and hurried down the steps.
Jane was in the hallway. Her red-rimmed eyes were panicked.
“My cloak,” he snapped. “Where is it?”
She stared blankly. He cursed and mimed a cloak as best he could. He must have looked ridiculous, but she raced into one of the side rooms and returned with the cloak in her hands.
A thud shook the house, followed by another roar. It was coming from the room where they had first arrived.
“YOU THINK YOU CAN STEAL MY EGG AND SUFFER NO CONSEQUENCE? COME OUT FILTHY HUMAN. COME OUT, OR I BURN THIS WHOLE WORLD TO THE GROUND!”
“Stop!” Nikolay snapped, but the avtorka ignored him. The idiot ran toward the study, still holding his cloak in her hands. He almost didn’t follow—it wasn’t worth his life—but then he remembered the Oath-Breaker potion was still inside.
Nikolay cursed and followed her.
The dragon’s head took up half the room. Her body was on the other side of a portal, which shimmered and glittered with an eerie red glow. She had squeezed one of her scaly claws through the portal and seemed to be struggling to squeeze even more of herself through. He could see every line of her scales, crimson with rage.
Nikolay felt dizzy. There was a reason he’d always approached dragons with stealth. He’d never been a match for a dragon, even when he had magic. Now he had no magic, none at all, and they had no hope of standing up to this creature. They had to flee.
He swiped a hand toward Jane and the cloak, but she was out of reach. She said something to the dragon, in a language that he didn’t understand, but the dragon apparently did; the dragon roared until the windows shattered.
The avtorka reached into his cloak. Before he could stop her, the idiot took a vial of dragon’s egg and launched it at the dragon’s eyes. It missed and smashed against the wall.
Stupid, he thought. Stupid, stupid, stupid. She would never manage to control… that. Her mind would break if she tried.
Perhaps the portal was widening; perhaps the dragon’s immense bulk was stretching it thinner, for the dragon had managed to free herself slightly. A clawed paw shot out, smashing straight through the wall. A shriek resounded, and the next moment, the paw retracted, and the limp form of the blonde girl became visible.
The avtorka’s face was white.
“Is this your friend?” the dragon hissed. Flames licked between her teeth, and her smoke filled the room, burning and acrid. “I will make sure she suffers slowly as you watch, in payment for what you did to me—”
A blaring, hideous note echoed through the house: a wailing alarm the likes of which Nikolay had never heard. The next second, water began dousing them in spurts. The dragon hissed and roared, bashing its head against the narrow walls of the study, and Nikolay remembered, Dragons have very sensitive hearing…
Jane reached into the cloak and pulled out his second-to-last vial of Dragonsleep. She yelled something at him that sounded like a question and jabbed at the vial. Nikolay snatched the vial from her hand, uncorked it, and hurled it at the dragon’s right nostril. The room filled with acrid yellow smoke.
They both coughed, dazed and sick. Yellow filled Nikolay’s vision; his eyes stung from the smoke. The dragon was hissing, coughing out flames; a thread of fire singed Nikolay’s side, and he stumbled sideways. Disoriented, he grabbed blindly, and his hand closed over the avtorka’s wrist.
“Sandra!” yelled the avtorka, fighting his grasp. “Sandra! Sandra!”
She was still trying to get to the dragon. Nikolay dug in his heels and dragged her backward, toward the doorway that led to the staircase. They needed to get out, needed fresh air. At this rate, they would both sleep longer than the dragon—
Claws closed around Nikolay’s body.
The air left his lungs in a whoosh.
A second later he was dragged backward, toward the portal, and his hand was still around the avtorka’s arm, because she bore some responsibility for the mess they were in, and he was damned if he would let her live a happy, peaceful life after what she had done. They were both being dragged slowly and inexorably toward the portal, but the clawed grip around them was loosening.
The dragon was falling asleep.
With a last, desperate movement, Nikolay wrenched his body free of the dragon’s slackening grip—
Just as they cleared the border where the portal joined their worlds—
And they fell into oblivion.