The Rest is Riddles

Chapter 24: Tested



Someone was screaming, a cry so full of fury and anguish and shock, it was almost unrecognizable. It was a moment before Jane realized the scream came from her own lips.

Olesya kicked their wyvern, urging the beast forward. The wyvern dove, plunging toward the alley where Casimir had disappeared. But it was a chaos of sudok—there were too many, and the light was too dim to make out anything meaningful. Jane saw nothing below, not even the shadow of a corpse.

A sudok leaped toward them.

Olesya shouted, and their wyvern darted up again. But the sudok was too close. Before Jane could cry out, the creature caught her wrist in its chalk-awful grasp and yanked.

She started to fall and scrabbled for purchase—but the sudok’s grip was too strong—

“Jane!” Olesya cried.

She was falling.

She was falling just like Casimir. She was falling, and she didn’t care; she’d failed Casimir, perhaps she deserved this—Jane squeezed her eyes shut and waited for the cruel clamp of jaws around her neck, or for her impact with the ground—whichever came first.

Claws sank into her abdomen and pain shot through her middle. Jane screamed. So I am to die by sudok, she thought wildly. I hope it snaps my neck soon, I’d rather go quick than lie on a battlefield with my guts ripped out.

Her back connected with something solid. Jane tensed, awaiting the sudok’s death blow.

But it never came.

Instead, a hand grabbed her wrist, pulling her upright. Jane’s eyes flew open.

“Hello,” Zakhar said coolly.

Jane looked down at her still-intact tunic, then back up at him. Oh. What she’d thought were sudok claws must have been the hooks of Zakhar’s magic, dragging her toward him and slowing the thrust of her fall.

She tried to push away from Zakhar, but he tightened his grip on her arm. In the distance, she heard Olesya shout her name. Jane tried to call back to her, but before she could manage more than a muffled “Frrrrgh!” Zakhar teleported them away.

It was the oddest teleportation Jane had ever experienced. Zakhar seemed to be aiming them away from the palace, but the spell was fighting him, forcing him to veer progressively more off course. He and Jane ricocheted back and forth in nauseating zigzags. Colors swam before Jane’s eyes—on one side, silver, on the other side, a gold mist… As the teleportation continued, the gold light grew stronger, surrounding everything, bathing her eyes in a buttery glow.

Abruptly, the zig-zagging stopped, and they landed—blissfully, mercifully—on solid ground.

Jane leaned forward and retched. She felt better almost immediately—both from the alleviated nausea, and also because her puking had just coated Zakhar’s boots in slime.

She looked up. They were in the tower where she’d done her second godstest. The room was as Jane remembered it, down to the pentagrams and the massive oak desk lined with parchment. The oval mirror on the north side of the tower now showed the battle outside the palace. She watched Olesya dip into a daring dive, a sudok in pursuit.

“This is not where I meant to take us.” Zakhar’s eyes narrowed. “Do you know why we landed here? Some mischief of the Somitan battle-mages, perhaps?”

Jane said nothing.

“No matter,” said Zakhar. “It should be easy enough to teleport away from this place. There are no spells binding us.”

He stepped forward, but before he could reach her, a soft chime echoed through the room. As Jane searched for the source of the noise, a piece of parchment materialized in her hand.

She stared at the page with bemusement.

It was another set of rules, much like the first one, written in the same elegant script as her last Godstest, each point carefully numbered.

1. Your goal is to defeat Zakhar.

2. You have 20 minutes.

3. Your powers are 10 times weaker than his.

4. There are 150 Somitan battle mages outside and 100 wyverns.

5. An average battle mage has powers a third as strong as his, and can hold him for 50 seconds.

6. Zakhar can be killed by a dragon or fire from five wyverns. They can fly but cannot teleport.

At the very bottom of the parchment, someone had scrawled a line in a much messier hand. Jane couldn’t make out the words, no matter how she stared.

Think, Jane told herself. Think. But nothing came to her. Her mind was still blank with the horror of Casimir’s death.

Zakhar tore the paper from her grasp and snorted. “What sorcery is this?” he snarled, tossing the paper to the ground. Jane scrambled for it, but Zakhar intercepted her. “We’re going, Avtorka.”

“Wait.”

What was she supposed to do? Summon battle mages from outside? Call a wyvern into the tower?

What did the gods want from her?

Jane scrambled backward as he made a grab for her arm.

How was she supposed to summon battle mages in from outside? Could she reach out the window and call a wyvern? What had that last sentence been again?

Zakhar advanced on her, malevolence in his eyes.

And Jane’s life flashed before her as she realized.

It didn’t matter what the paper said or if she could work out the puzzle. If she didn’t do something, Zakhar would grab her. They would teleport away, and she could say a firm goodbye to ever being happy again.

Jane reached into her pocket. The curve of a vial met her hand. Jane uncorked it in a fluid motion, brought her hand up and hurled it towards Zakhar with all her strength.

The dragon’s egg potion splattered against Zakhar’s face, dripping down his cheeks in silvery rivulets.

Jane closed her eyes and reached out.

It was hard, so much harder than controlling the sudok had been. She was exhausted, and unlike the sudok, Zakhar’s mind was slippery as an eel. She tried to catch hold of it, but it slid out from beneath her grasp, drawing her deeper and deeper into a well of darkness. As she made a lunging, desperate grasp for it, it struck back at her, lashing straight into her with targeted precision. Crippling, tearing spikes of pain lanced through her forehead. Jane yelped. Her eyes flew open.

“The avtorka has claws, I see,” Zakhar wiped the potion from his face, scowling. “But I am no weak-willed sudok!”

He waved a hand and Jane felt the beginnings of the summoning take hold in her stomach.

No!

She was sick of being pulled and pushed and yanked around like a rag doll. She threw every ounce of magic she possessed into resisting Zakhar.

Perhaps her mental control still influenced him. Perhaps he still suffered under the earlier effects of the azdaja’s venom. Whatever the reason, he let her go. Jane scrambled backwards. As she did so, her foot collided with the candle that marked the nearest pentagram, the one Jane had used to send her first letter to Lanskoye during her godstest.

Heart pounding with newfound hope, Jane backed up, first one step, then another. “What do you want with me, anyway?” she asked distractedly. “I could understand if I hadn’t failed my godstests—someone who can Write in the Book of Truths is valuable. But I’m useless to you now.”

“You still have your gift of tongues, and avtorka’s magic.” He watched her coldly. “And avtorkas have a habit of causing problems when they are not kept track of.”

“Problems—what sort of problems?” Jane backed up further until she was past the pentagrams. Her back landed against the wall. She stared, wide-eyed, at Zakhar.

“All sorts, Avtorka—the kinds of problems only an otherworlder could cause.” He stalked toward her, black eyes snapping with rage. “You’re an abhorrence. A freak of nature that shouldn’t even exist—and yet, here you are—come to muck about, destroy the natural order as all the others before you have done—”

You’re the abhorrence!” Jane cried. Come towards me,  come closer… “I know all about you. You summoned monsters and killed a whole city, and you’re pretending to be the voice of a god when really, you’re just working for yourself!

“You dare—” Zakhar’s eyes narrowed. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, all otherworlders are alike—I shall enjoy teaching you your place, just like I taught Eloise—”

He reached for her neck, his face a mask of righteous fury; his eyes were on Jane’s face, unheeding of where his feet tread, and in that moment, that one blessed moment, his right foot landed in the seventh pentagram.

The last pentagram.

The one Jane hadn’t used during her godstest.

“KANACH!” Jane screamed.

The outrage in Zakhar’s eyes turned to terror, in the instant before he vanished in the flash of gold. Only Zakhar’s left boot—which had been outside the seventh pentagram—stayed behind. The stump of his foot oozed blood upon the tiles.

“Well,” said Jane, swallowing, “That’s not disgusting at all.”

She sank to her knees. Every muscle in her body trembled. Her skin was sticky with mud and blood and sweat, and the residual pulse of adrenaline still surged through her. She tried not to think about how mad Zakhar would be when he finally made it to Kanach… assuming he survived the trip.

Casimir, she thought, and horror and guilt turned her thoughts blank. Casimir

She stumbled to the window. Wyverns and Riders still flitted on the castle outskirts, but Jane saw only a few sudok. Did that mean the battle was almost over? Had they won?

Her hands trembled against the window ledge. She stared at the ground. It was littered with corpses, but she was too far up to make out which body might be Casimir’s.

A chime filled the air. Jane turned.

“Well done,” said the golden form of Divna.

She glittered into existence in the center of the tower, glowing hair streaming across her thin shoulders. As Jane stared at her, feeling utterly lost, the goddess extended an arm and placed a scroll in Jane’s hand.

Jane unrolled it. Blankly, she stared at the words on the parchment, trying to make sense of them.

Updated Evaluation for Jane Constance Huang’s Second Godstest

Score 90/100

Verdict: PASS

“W-what?”

“Well done,” Divna said again. Her voice was like brooks and waterfalls and wind chimes by the sea. “You have made me proud, my dear.”

Jane continued to stare at the parchment, barely seeing it. Every inch of her trembled with weariness. The paper shook in her hands, and her eyes could barely focus on the words.

“Do you have nothing else to say?” Divna prompted.

The thread of impatience in the goddess’ voice roused Jane from her stupor. She let the parchment roll up again and met Divna’s eyes.

“Do you… often give second chances like this?”

Divna shook her head gently. “You misunderstand, dear child. You have been taking your second godstest since the day you first entered this room, a week ago. It only just ended.”

“Since the day I first entered…”

Divna sighed. “The godstests are supposed to test your greatest weaknesses. What do you imagine your weaknesses are?”

“I…”

Jane tried to bludgeon her stupefied mind into thinking. She wanted to sleep so badly, to sleep and forget about Casimir—

“I… I just stuck with the rules you gave me… I didn’t think outside the box. If I had thought a bit harder, I could’ve sent a message to Olesya, or the tsar, or anyone else in the palace. If I’d just worked out the dragon’s egg potion sooner, we could’ve sent that to Dalnushka through the portal… Instead I just tried to solve everything on my own…”

“You would have failed, regardless. Don’t you see, my dear?” The goddess’ voice grew softer, gentler. “What you feared above all else was failure. It was holding you back. You thought you would never be as good as your brother. You cheated on exams even though you didn’t need to because you were so afraid of what would happen if you didn’t do well. This test addressed your fear of failure and forced you to move past it. You had to fail, in order to succeed. And you had to think about the bigger picture, instead of all those silly puzzles.” A trace of smugness lit Divna’s eyes. “I do feel rather proud for thinking of it.”

Jane’s fingers traced the windowsill. Tiredness and horror warred in her mind. Couldn’t they have this conversation later? She didn’t know if Olesya and Drazan had survived the attack. They could be dead out there, just like Casimir…

She felt sick, hollow, bewildered, empty.

Casimir hadn’t deserved to die. Casimir was better than that, better than all the others in the palace…

She looked back at Divna. Divna, golden and glowing, exuding an air of cool satisfaction at a job well done. Anger pricked Jane’s insides.

“Was it necessary to kill people?” She stood up straighter, clutching the scroll. “I understand the point you were trying to prove, but I could have learned the same lesson without anyone having to die.”

“I am sorry for your friend,” the goddess said gently. “But people die in war. There are certain… random elements to the Godstest that are beyond even the gods’ control. Your friend who died was a good man. He would not want you to be sad…”

“Why—”

“Why what, dear?”

“Why am I here? Why bring me, or Eloise, or Phillip or any of us to Mir to do these godstests?”

Silence filled the room—a sticky, dense silence. Jane could hear her heart thudding in her ears.

The goddess hesitated. “You are very special, Jane. The gods choose all avtorkas with care. You had certain qualities—your intelligence, your perseverance—that made us want to bring you to Mir and give you this chance.”

“Wouldn’t someone like Olesya or Casimir have had these same qualities?”

“Bringing in an outsider is a priceless opportunity for you and for Mir, a mutually beneficial arrangement. You confront your fears and your weaknesses, and the people of Mir get to fix their problems through you: an unbiased observer from another world.”

It’s not a beneficial arrangement, Jane thought, if people have to die!

Jane swallowed. She stared at Divna’s face, stared past the kind smile, into the goddess’ eyes. A sick feeling crawled up the back of her throat. She’s a goddessshe’s seen millions live and die. Human lives are about as trifling to her as they are to Nikolay… we’re like ants under her feet.

Jane felt like a veil had lifted from her vision. It was like staring at a curtain, thinking you saw sunlight on the other side, but when the curtain was pulled back, you realized the light was all dragon-flame and battle-fire…

She kept her face blank as possible, hoping Divna might mistake her expression for sadness and not anger. “When I write in the Book of Truths,” she said, “could I bring Casimir back to life?”

“My dear…” Divna hesitated. “You will learn when you reach the Book of Truths that there are some things that are too dangerous to Write…”

“Of course,” said Jane. “You can’t bring people back from the dead. I should have realized. How silly of me.”

A pause.

“You are tired.” Divna’s voice was patronizing, and Jane hated her suddenly—hated her with a fierce, righteous anger that simmered like wildfire beneath her skin. “Your last godstest will be with my brother Sidor in a few weeks’ time. Should you succeed, you will gain the ability to place three Writings in the Book of Truths.” She hesitated. “My brother—” she began, and then she broke off, and said briskly, “With hard work and courage, you will do well on your next godstest.”

Jane watched Divna fade, until all that was left of her was a faint golden glow, and then even that was gone, and the tower was lit only by dying rays of sunlight. She stared blankly at the place the goddess had vacated. She could not remember feeling so tired in her life.

She glanced down, past the scroll in her hand. A short distance away on the floor, scuffed by Zakhar’s bootprints, was the parchment from earlier, with its list of rules and strange scribbles. Jane thought about tearing it to pieces along with the scroll, about setting it on fire and stomping on it.

Instead, she picked it up.


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