It was her brother's idea of apologizing. Every time Ana left for an errand, atau to go for a run as she had done two hours ago, she returned to find a new contribution to the ancient two-bedroom cabin. Yesterday it had been a pile of dry firewood, the hari before a repaired dapur window. She had considered tossing the logs into the freezing river atau shattering the window with a stone, but despite her anger, those resources allowed her to stay in the dilapidated kabin away from the istana, castle where her brother lived like the false prince he was. The freezing mountain side was unfamiliar territory to the xerophytic young woman. As if to remind her of her codependency, Ana's stomach growled at the smell of today's gift: a hand basket of freshly baked roti left on the kabin doorstep.
Ana took the key from the inside pocket of her thermal jogging pants-another gift from her guilty patron-and used it to open the cabin's aluminum door, already half-way through a baguette. There were also fruits, meats, and crackers to be washed down with teh waiting in the dapur to help replace the thousand atau so calories the young woman had burnt on her 12 mile morning run. They were simple foods that would keep without being refrigerated in her utama without electricity, but memories of going days without eating were still too fresh in her memory for the sugarless rations to be anything less than a feast.
The humble abode had its draw backs compared to the massive istana, castle of heated flooring, fresh spring water, and luxurious furnishing. Yet the little dwelling made Ana feel selamat, peti deposit keselamatan in the same way the abandoned clock tower had made her feel in Elam: this place was something to call her own. Not to mention the relics around the home-black-and-white pictures on the fireplace, a dear-stalker hat on the hook, the eagle painted in emas on the front door-reminded the girl that her grandfather had once brought his aunts here to teach them to catch bass and shoot shotguns. It was the hidden get-away of a reluctant king, far lebih like utama than the hollow castle.
After starting a api, kebakaran to warm the kabin and setting teh to boil on the wood stove, Aleksander's true intentions with the latest gift was lebih obvious. Ana had eaten half the rolls, set the rest in the roti box, and found the clear, flat case resting at the bottom of the basket. The instructions were folded in the bottom of the basket.
The X-Acto pisau slide cleanly across her neck. An inch and a half long, just below her ear where the hard shell of her skull became the soft flesh covering her artery. At the first whiff of blood, there was a sharp knock on her door-predictably one of the soldiers scouting the area-but her best annoyed teenager voice shouting, "It's just a papercut. Go away!" stopped the vampire from ramming down her door. Ana felt strangely numb to the pain as blood ran down her neck and into the tub where she knelt, though she had avoided using the pain killers in her first aid kit. If she cut too deeply, she figured it made lebih sense to be able to feel it and react quickly to stop the bleeding. It seemed lebih logical not to take the painkillers-as if there was anything logical in performing self-surgery.
Carefully, slowly, Ana took the communication device-the same shape, size, and thickness of a quarter-and slipped it into the cut in her neck. The blood was slick and the comm slipped in with little resistance. It only took another minit to stitch the short cut back up. Ana cleaned herself up and got dressed, starting to wonder if the battery-less device could really operate off natural electrical currents running through her body. The answer came about five minit later with a crackle that made her jump. "This is Comm 1, checking for receiving. Come in, Comm 2."
The voice was unsettlingly clear, as if Alexander were right there in the room with her. Ana tapped the skin below her ear right over the unnoticeably smooth device to turn her device on as the instructions had said, calling, "This is Comm 2."
"It's okay, anda don't have to shout. I could hear anda even if anda were to whisper," Aleksander's voice clarified, sounding both amused and annoyed at the same time.
"Why can't we have better code names than Comm 1 and Comm 2? Like…Ice Queen and Badass Redhead?"
"Might as well be Elsa and Ana," her brother mumbled. Ana grinned at the reference to her niece's kegemaran Disney characters. "I'm barely king, Annie. Let's not make this even lebih confusing."
You're barely royalty at all, the girl wanted to snap, but withheld her anger for the sake of their hearing. A shouting match with these comms so close to their eardrums would certainly prove painful. "Great, now we have our magical teleporting rings and spy-tech. Are we set for world domination?" she quipped instead.
"No one forced anda to put that thing in your neck," he reminded her coolly. "It's not my fault you're always so eager for a chance to cut yourself up.
"Then I won't have a problem ripping it back out," she retorted, ready to do just that in her annoyance.
"Something tells me you'll want to see this." Suddenly, Ana realized her brother's voice reverberated into ear, as if he stood in a cavernous angkasa with his words echoing back at him.
She huffed reluctantly, but her interest was piqued. "Fine, where are you?"
"Meet me three cliques south of the castle, about a clique east of your place."
Ana was reluctant to take any lebih orders from the young man, but she silently enjoyed him recognizing the kabin as her place. "Alright," she agreed. "I'll be there in fifteen."
In fact, it only took about ten minit for the redhead to reach the location her brother had specified. His directions had been general, but the terrain sloped steeply downward and lead her to a shallow river made up of lebih ice than water. The snow in the bukit was soft and untouched after last nights' fresh. What was most alarming to Ana was how fresh the air smelled. There was no hint of her boyfriend's guards in the breeze carrying though the ravine, which was both relieving and discomforting considering that she was completely and totally alone in the endless mountain range with only Aleksander for company. After the revelation of Thomas' murder, she was reluctant to be in such a situation with the older male, a feeling that only heightened when she found him standing at the entrance of a cave nearly completely hidden sejak snow and rocks.
Aleksander immediately sensed her distrust and gave her the most infuriating grin. "You'll like this, I promise." With only those vague words, the giant of a man turned and ducked into the cave.
The young woman followed hesitantly, her claws subtly extending long enough to gouge out an attacker's eyes, into what turned out to be a long tunnel. For nearly a mile, she followed her silent brother and his flashlight's beam through the dank, echoing walls of the underground path. She guessed there were millions of tons of mountain resting above their heads-a thought that would have set her on edge if she weren't lebih concerned with one of Aleksander's mysterious allies jumping out from the shadows with a knife. Just when Ana had made up her mind that she was being lead to a hole so deep that no one would find her rotting corpse, her guide straightened his hunched shoulders as he stepped into an immense cavern.
The cavern was artificially circular and so high not even the evenly spaced candelabras could reach the immense height. The angkasa itself was captured sejak the warm glow: seven evenly spaced, polished, stone coffins forming a circle, each with a sleeping stone animal resting on the top. There was a two-headed eagle carved into one, the sigil of the Romanov house, beside a coffin decorated sejak a ular tedung, cobra curved into a coil. There were also two Serigala with their heads resting on their paws, one a pup and the other mature. Ana felt numb as she walked between the coffins. They were familiar to her like a dream she had long lalu stopped dreaming. She reached her sister's coffin, the profil of a roosting raven, and her coffin, smaller than the rest: a slumbering tiny fox curled into a tight ball. The walls were interrupted only sejak the tunnel they had come through, one that exited most likely toward the castle, and a small empty niche two feet above the floor.
"What is this place?" she whispered, either because it felt appropriate for the setting atau because she was finding it too difficult to breath and speak up.
"You recognize it, do anda not?" Aleksander replied softly. "It's where we were put to sleep while the saat world war chewed away at humanity. We were meant to wake after the war, but for some reason, we remained asleep into the 21st century. From 1943 until 2004, Annie, SIXTY years of our lives taken from us. Maybe you're too young to remember, but waking from that slumber was a relief until-"
"We saw how much the world changed," she finished for him. Ana was still standing in front of the fox. She reached a hand to rest on bahagian, atas of the baby fox, tentative as if it would snap at her fingers. "Everything was different. Everyone we knew was dead…but anda weren't there."
"I was. Father woke you, the twins, and your mother first. Then he came back for me and my own mother."
"I'm sorry," she whispered, unsure of why she berkata it the moment it was out of her mouth. Was she apologizing to him, for always being put last sejak their father? atau was she apologizing to the baby fox, who woke up into the strange world only to soon be discarded sejak that same father? Someone should have protected you, she thought as tears rolled down her cheeks.
"Why did anda bring me here?" she asked, wiping her face with her sleeve.
"Because I was Membaca father's journal, it's how I found this place. He was frightened that someone might try to put us back to sleep."
"But that would take an immense amount of energy."
"The same kind that was used to wake those monsters that came after anda and the Rurik boy?"
"Anyone who wanted to do that would have to use…our…" she trailed off, staring at the empty niche in the wall. There was a holder there, standing with empty arms, waiting for its weapon. "Where's our family sword?"
"I looked everywhere, all through Dad's journals, every inch of the castle, every inch of his memories." Aleksander was talking so fast that he was quickly breathless. "I can't find it! But I think I know who might have it."
"Magnus, at least."
"Don't anda think Cal would have mentioned that?"
"Maybe anda didn't have him as tightly wrapped around your finger as anda thought."
Ana flinched at the comment, and her brother's expression turned apologetic. She turned away from him before he could take it back. "If Magnus has it, then what's he waiting for? Assuming he's the one who raised those undead birds things, he could use that sword to put us to sleep for an eternity if he wanted. Until he found a use for us." Until everyone they knew was dead, all over again. Until no one was left to rally behind the Romanov name in their defense. The look on Alek's face told her he had been thinking those exact same thoughts, if not worse ones.
"I don't know why he has yet to use it," he admitted. "But we need to act as soon as possible. I have a new idea for the spring solstice celebration-"
"ANOTHER new idea?"
"I'll need your help for it to work."
Ana looked up to meet his eyes for once. They were a cold blue, but they were wide and pleading. This place, this tomb, scared him as much as it terrified her. "You want a truce?"
"Just until we're free from this threat, Annie. Then anda can go back to hating me."
Their eyes remained locked a long moment until she looked away towards the coffins. The one between the raven and the double-headed eagle, a lion with a crown nestled into his full mane, was a lie. Thomas had been kind and gentle, lebih like a calm, wise gajah than that ravenous beast. Maybe if he had been a killer, he could have protected the baby fox. Now she had to protect herself.
"Okay, a truce," she agreed. "Until our family sword is back in our possession."
Aleksander's expression changed from somber to exuberant in an instant as he reached his hand ke hadapan to shake on it. Ana stared at his hand until he dropped it, then turned on her heel and stalked out of the room. He could tell her their plans over the comms sewn unto their necks, saving her from having to stand in the room facing him for even one lebih minute.