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Dusk in Kalevia: Chapter 9

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #015 back issue.

It took a long time for Demyan to awaken. He stretched languidly on his back in the darkened room, the sheet twined around him like a shroud, as he wavered in and out of strange, bright dreams. A nagging sense of urgency persisted in the backwaters of his consciousness, but he clung to sleep, rejecting morning’s rationality in favor of the pleasurable warmth and light of the incoherent visions.

He felt drugged, pressed down into the mattress like an iron statue of a man, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad sensation. He wondered if this was what it was like to be ill, as he had yet to enjoy that particular human experience. He decided that he was feeling too little discomfort to qualify as sick. Every part of him felt relatively agreeable, except for the ghost of an ache in his chest.

That’s right, he thought, opening his eyes. That’s where a bullet went through my lung.

With great force of will, he lifted his hand, struggled to free it from the sheets, and brought it to his face. He ran his palm slowly down his cheek and across his lips, feeling the skin smooth and whole once more, and then slid it down his neck, across his ribs. The wounds had vanished, a lingering tenderness the only evidence that they’d ever been there at all. As he massaged a spot below his clavicle where the newly knit bone was completing its repairs, he wondered if Toivo had already gone.

He thought of last night–the delicate threads of Zophiel’s spirit shooting through the pain and murk of him like a subterranean gold vein, twining around his mind, full of promise. His interactions with enemy angels typically played out along arrow shafts and rifle sights, limiting him to an occasional hint of their brilliance, but now he knew that it was everything he’d imagined it to be. Within them lay not the paltry candle flicker of humans, but a self-sustaining blaze that poured into the dark vessel of his soul, pulling him to the brink of rapture.

Demyan missed Toivo’s presence; rather than curing his hunger, this taste of power had just heightened it. He prepared to send his shadows out to seek the man, but then heard the whistling of the teakettle beyond the bedroom door.

Demyan extricated himself from his tangled bedclothes, giddy with dehydration and relief, and stood weak-kneed in his shorts on the chilly floor. Feeling mildly ashamed at his state of undress, he tried wrapping the sheet around himself, but tossed it away in disgust when he realized that it was stiff with patches of dried blood. He reasoned that it was preferable to be seen in his undergarments than walking about the place in the guise of a vengeful wraith.

He opened the door, squinting as his pupils contracted in the brightness. He walked to the doorway of the kitchen, where Toivo, dressed in a borrowed bathrobe, was busying himself with the preparation of breakfast. As Toivo spooned the instant granules that passed for Kalevian coffee into a pair of mugs, Demyan watched him with a kind of wonder, charmed by the surreal domesticity of the scene.

In his centuries on Earth, this was not the first time he had woken up to another person in his home. To live among the humans was to imitate them, and Demyan was no stranger to seeking companionship in his lonelier moments. This, however, was so far removed from those instances as to make him question reality. This was the agent he had so mercilessly pursued–who had the very day before attacked Demyan with every ounce of his strength in a dingy interrogation cell, who had weighed his life with a pistol in his hands. Demyan’s immortal enemy of a thousand lifetimes stood in front of his kitchen range, stirring something that smelled like oatmeal.

Demyan smirked. “What’s for breakfast?” he asked.

Toivo started, nearly spilling scalding water across the Formica countertop.

“Y-you’re up?” Toivo stuttered, trying to cover his alarm. “Are you all right?”

Demyan saw Toivo’s eyes flit up and down his scarless body, scanning him for signs of trauma. He spread his arms and grinned.

“More or less.”

“I wasn’t sure how long… I’m just surprised it only took one night.”

“You and me both. Last time I got shot, I coughed up a bullet a month later.” Seeing the horrified look on Toivo’s face, Demyan clapped him on the back. “Calm down–I’m kidding.”

Toivo reddened. After a moment’s hesitation, he pressed a steaming mug into Demyan’s hands.

“Coffee?”

Demyan felt a poignant reversal of the day before, when he’d pushed a cold gun into Toivo’s hands. He wrapped his fingers around the harmless porcelain handle.

“Thank you.” Demyan took a sip and shuddered at the familiar burnt bitterness of the local instant blend. “For…yesterday.”

They drank in silence for a bit, choking down the acrid brew.

“You wouldn’t have died,” Toivo burst out. “Not unless I was the one who shot you. Unless I’m…forgetting something, and humans can kill us?”

“They can’t. It’s just extremely unpleasant.” Demyan shifted his feet on the linoleum floor, suddenly uncomfortable. “Listen–you helped me out back there. I kinda owe you for that.”

“I still can’t quite wrap my head around this…”

“Well, as they say, ‘War makes strange bedfellows.’ ” Demyan regretted the flippant remark as soon as it left his mouth.

He returned to his coffee, and no more was said on the matter. Toivo started to dish out the oatmeal.

As they ate quietly at the counter, Demyan couldn’t help but steal a surreptitious glance at Toivo’s profile. Of all the manifestations of hope he had ever played nemesis to, Zophiel had something about him that made him hurt to look at–something that caused a pang in Demyan’s chest distinct from the remnants of his injuries. He had chalked up his regrets about his past with Zophiel to a series of particularly unfortunate deaths, but war was always messy, even when this particular foe was not involved. No, it was more than that; every time he found himself paired with a new incarnation of Zophiel, he was faced with a being that never seemed to lose his innocent altruism–a pure thing struggling in a blood-soiled world. Every time, it hurt to kill him.

While Demyan digested this revelation, he realized that Toivo was peering back at him with a wary look. Lost in thought, he had neglected to control his stare; it had been fixed on Toivo for at least a minute.

“What?” Toivo asked.

“Nothing.” The answer did nothing to ease the suspicion in Toivo’s face, so Demyan continued. “I’m just surprised you’re still here.”

Toivo rolled his eyes and made a show of straightening the bathrobe collar. “I’m not really dressed for the weather.”

“So…does this mean you’re in?” Demyan asked with the hint of a smile.

Toivo sighed. “I thought a lot about what you said last night,” he murmured. “About what happened to the boy. I don’t know the details of this prediction of yours, but I was never keen on the idea of the kidnapping. I’m not sure I’m capable of cleaning up this mess on my own, at this point.” Toivo nodded. “So. Yes. I’m in.”

“Finally!”

“Don’t get me wrong–this doesn’t mean that I trust you. I just don’t have many options right now.” Toivo spun to face Demyan, suddenly all business. “What do we need?”

“You were in contact with members of the Forest Clan, enough to know about this whole operation. I need to know where they’re hiding Vesa.”

Toivo hesitated. “And what would you do with that information if I told you?”

“Go get him back.” He held up his hand at the icy glare that descended over Toivo’s face. “Easy there. You don’t really think I’m going to call this one in to headquarters, do you? We don’t have to shoot anybody to get our way. I want to handle this as quietly as possible–no troops, no security forces. Just you and me, in our element.”

Toivo studied him with narrowed eyes, then looked away, his face falling. He shrugged his shoulders. “Honestly, I’d tell you if I knew.”

“Come on!”

“No, really, I have no idea. I only met them once, and I couldn’t be sure of the route; I rode there shut up in the back of a farm truck.”

“We need a lead! Look, we don’t have time to spare–the army’s probably already been mobilized, and if we want to–” Demyan paused and looked around, vexed by an intermittent tapping noise. “What is that?

“Oh!” Toivo reached up to the window over the sink, where Demyan finally noticed a dove, sharpening its beak against the pane. The little white bird hopped in from the cold and nestled itself against Toivo’s shoulder.

“One of yours?”

Toivo nodded. “I sent it out yesterday afternoon, after you were asleep. They come when I call them.”

“Indeed. Useful to have friends like that.”

Demyan caught what he could of their conversation, since he only heard ordinary bird noises in reply to Toivo’s whispered questions. It was a strange experience for him; after centuries of using his own informants, it irked him to be the one locked out of the cipher.

“So?” Demyan asked as the two seemed to wrap up their conference.

“We have something.”

“A tip?”

“Better. It says that when it flew north, the wood pigeons told it there were humans in the forest, living in a hole in the ground. Following their lead, it saw a group of men walking single file through the brush, carrying someone…”

Demyan clapped his hands. “Brilliant! That’s it! Zophiel, you and…bird…over there, you’ve aced it.”

The dove on Toivo’s shoulder puffed up and snuggled down, obviously proud of its role in the Very Important Happening.

“Yes, you did great.” Toivo scratched the bird’s chin before reaching into the oatmeal canister on the counter. “Here, want some?”

“And it can lead us there?”

Toivo conferred with the bird again. “Should be able to.” He raised a skeptical eyebrow at Demyan. “Are you sure you’re up to it?”

“Never better. Come on, get dressed and let’s go!”

“I…can’t.” Toivo held up a hand to halt the imminent argument. “I don’t have any reasonable clothes. They’re in a disgusting bundle, covered in blood…”

“Does it matter?”

“Yes…no… I don’t know. I don’t know how I’m going to do any of this.” Toivo sighed and rubbed his forehead as though pained by the thought. “They’ve seen my face before; they’ll recognize me as soon as I let my guard down.”

A flash of inspiration lit up Demyan’s mind.

“Wait a minute–I have something.”

He went to his closet and rummaged through his suits, finally pulling out a coat and trousers colored the familiar dark gray of a winter evening sky.

“Here. My State Security uniform.” He thrust the hanger at Toivo, holding the suit up against Toivo’s chest. “I’m usually a plainclothes man, but when I need something with a bit more authority… May be a little big on you, but it’ll work.”

“How is a government uniform going to help?” Toivo argued. “They’ll think I betrayed them!”

“No, see, you’ll play it like you’re a double agent–like you’ve infiltrated the ranks of Kalevian intelligence. You’re still on their side, coming to warn them of an approaching threat…and if we run into any of my friends, it will save us a lot of explaining.”

Toivo held the uniform out at arm’s length and regarded it as one might regard an explosive device. The dramatics irked Demyan, who was anxious to commence the rescue. He reached over and pulled at Toivo’s bathrobe, exposing one pale shoulder.

“Just put it on already…!”

“Leave off!” cried Toivo, clutching the robe together. “I’ll do it!”

Toivo vanished into the bathroom, red-faced and indignant.

Demyan smirked as he selected a suit from among the layers of black wool hanging in his closet. This was his own preferred uniform–a simple, streamlined look that clung to him like a shadow and drew hard, masculine lines up and down his body. He knew a private seamstress in Leningrad who took commissions, and while others might settle for the frumpy constructivist clothing styles straight off the factory floor, he needed something more reflective of him. At first glance, he was a man in a plain black suit, but upon closer inspection, he was an elegant enigma. Svelte. Sharp. Dangerous.

He had been dressed for a while, and was sitting on the couch enjoying another cup of coffee when Toivo poked his head around the doorway.

“It fits fine,” Toivo said, stepping out into the living room. He paled. “It just…feels wrong.”

Demyan tried to hide the smile twitching at the corner of his lips. The effect was perfect–virtue dressed in power, a sheep in wolf’s clothing. There was something perverse about taking his golden opposite and uniting him with this dark symbol of his own cruel republic, but Demyan found the contradiction fascinating.

The glitter of the star insignia on the red collar band, the way the belt cinched Toivo’s slender waist, the awkwardly rigid posture… It excited Demyan. The morning’s dreams persisted in his consciousness–indistinct and radiant, pulling him into taut distraction. The hunger at his center suddenly tore at him like never before, and he found himself recalling against his will every indecent thought he’d ever had about men in uniform.

“My car’s parked downstairs.” Demyan grabbed his long overcoat from a hook by the door, hoping that Toivo’s empathetic talents would not grant access to his unsettled mind.  “We’ll drive after the bird.”

What’s come over me? he thought. He pressed his hand to the door to destroy the portal, restless with the treacherous craving. Damn you, Solas, focus!

“Let’s go.”

Toivo picked up the informant, which had been eating stray oats off the countertop, and followed Demyan out the door.

Demyan noted with chagrin that this unprecedented joint mission of agents of Light and Shadow had gotten off to a rather awkward start.

Proceed to Chapter 9, page 2–>