~Jaffna, Sri Lanka~
~Demyanov Summer Home~
~July 26, 2054~
Surveying the burnt remains, the skeletal frame of the family's summer home, a scant few miles from Jaffna, Sri Lanka, along the coast of the picturesque island, Faine Demyanov narrowed his gaze, eyes burning, stinging, from the ash and debris that still lingered, suspended in the air. The understated brilliance of the coastal property brought a deeper sense of horror, of unspeakable atrocity, to the already strange sense of understanding that was just settling over him as he put together the things he knew.
The early morning phone call that hadn't made much sense: the trill of the ringtone that cut through the silence, broke through his sleep as he blinked and pushed himself up on his elbow, eyes bleary, head sluggish and thick . . . He'd stayed up too late the night before, spending the evening, cramming for the final exam of the summer philosophy course at the university that was scheduled to start promptly at nine a.m. . . .
'What . . .?'
"H-Hello?" he mumbled, struggling for a semblance of coherence that he simply wasn't able to grasp as he clumsily, almost stupidly, fumbled with the cell phone and brought it to his ear. Glancing at the clock on the nightstand in the small and rather barren room, he frowned. 'Two a.m. . . . What . . .?'
"Faine . . . This is your father," Alexei Demyanov's voice came through the connection. Alexei was also the only person who actually used his given name. Everyone else called him the shortened version, Fai. There was something entirely clinical about his tone, something almost . . . "There's been an accident on the island . . ."
"An . . . accident . . .? Mother . . .?"
Alexei grunted in answer. "I've already booked a flight for you. It leaves at four a.m. your time, so get to the airport now. They're expecting you, so they'll rush you through security. I . . . I cannot fly out until later this morning, so . . . So, do what you can when you get there—and see to your brother."
He bit back a sigh as the memory faded—the rushed trip to the airport—the irritation that no one seemed to know what was going on—the anger that every call to his mother ended up, redirected straight to voicemail . . .
The Sri Lankan consulate had been there to greet him when he stepped off the plane, but it wasn't until he'd stepped out of his rental car when he'd reached the place where the family's summer house had once been that he'd understood.
An accident, they'd called it . . .?
'It . . . It burned to the ground . . .'
The fire had burned itself out as dawn had broken over the horizon—over the beautiful sea—and now, hours later, smoke still issued from the decrepit timbers, the stone pillars, the metal supports that stood in silent defiance. In some places, the flames had been so hot that the metal frame had melted, warped, bending into twisted and macabre shapes . . . They said that it was too soon to tell, just what had happened during the wee hours of the morning when the fire had broken out. They weren't sure what had sparked the blaze, but it had ripped through the bright and airy structure at lightning-speed, with the devil's determination . . .
They couldn't find Faina Demyanova. That's what they'd said. When the firefighters had arrived on the scene, the structure was already completely engulfed in flames. They'd found two-year-old Yerik, laying in the grass, face down, sobbing as he clung to his stuffed teddy bear, calling out piteously for his mama—a mama that they couldn't find. A couple of the men had expressed the hope that she might have escaped the flames, that she was scared, maybe, hiding somewhere nearby. "Maybe," one of the smudged and dirty and tired men had said, managing to garner the wherewithal to offer Fai a grimacing smile. "I've seen it before . . . The brain can do strange things when faced with such a terrible . . ." Trailing off, his expression lost hold of the hope that he was trying so desperately to offer Fai, leaving behind the absolute truth in his unspoken belief—a belief that enraged Fai despite the blankness of his overall face. They hoped that Faina had escaped the flames, too, but . . .
He knew better. He knew his mother better than that. No matter what, he knew that she never would have left Yerik alone, would she? For some reason, she had remained inside the house, but she'd managed to get the toddler out. She hadn't been able to escape the flames, and he knew it: knew it somewhere deep down—a realization that turned his stomach, that ripped and clawed at his very guts, trying to escape. The fear—he could almost feel it—the overwhelming despair—and she'd known, hadn't she? She'd . . . She'd known . . . Those last few moments of her life—a life given to gentleness and smiles and love . . . The flash of bright, golden hair, as fine as the silk of her many, many beautiful gowns, of warm hazel eyes—eyes like melted chocolate with flecks of gold and green that always sparkled when she smiled . . . They weren't going to find her because youkai . . .
'She didn't leave her body behind to be found . . .'
And even if he didn't want to believe that—to accept the hurtful knowledge that his own mother was gone—all the proof he needed . . .
Alexei Demyanov stood near the cliff, little more than a wizened form in the distance. Whether he was staring at the remains of the once-picturesque home or out, over the water, Fai didn't know—couldn't tell. Alexei had been called away to take care of something in Xi'an, China—a whisper of a potential challenge, or so he had been told. He'd tried to get a flight back to Sri Lanka yesterday, but hadn't been able to find an available seat any earlier than today. Even so, would it really have mattered? Or would Alexei, like Faina, have ended up, nothing more than a victim, as well?
Yet, there was something about his father's stance that he understood—a finality that he could feel despite the distance between them . . . As much as some small part of him wished that he could believe that maybe, that somehow, Faina had managed to escape, he knew . . . He knew because . . . because his father knew it, too . . .
A quiet whimper broke him from his reverie. Glancing down, he blinked, frowned as the tiny, chubby hand closed around a fistful of his slacks. Fingers, dirty and smudged with soot, his little arm seeming all the smaller where it stuck out of the oversized adult, safety-orange windbreaker, Yerik heaved a tumultuous sigh, as though he realized, even at his young age, that it was shameful to cry. Bright green eyes staring up at him, golden hair tousled in the acrid breeze, Yerik gazed at him, his eyes strangely blank, as though he simply didn't quite grasp, just what was happening, and, though the toddler didn't say anything, Fai understood.
Letting out a deep breath, he caught the boy under the arms, picked him up to settle against his hip. "Mama . . .?" Yerik said, words burbled by the fist he chewed on. "Mama . . ."
"Yerik, Mama . . ." Trailing off, Fai winced inwardly, gritted his teeth, ground them together so hard that his jaw ached. "Mama's . . . gone . . ."
Yerik choked on a sob, but he bit it back admirably—horrifyingly.
Arms tightening a little more around the child, he felt the hand of someone in passing—a show of compassion, he supposed. He didn't acknowledge it. He didn't think he could, even if he wanted to. The voices of many had blended together, creating little more than the annoying buzz, not unlike the sound of flies, lingering over a forgotten corpse.
Gaze lighting on the frangipani trees that still stood beside the now ruined edifice, he blinked. The once-frosted, almost silvery looking bark of the delicate branches were charred on the side closest to the house, leaves withered and curled—singed, scarred . . . Flowers that should have been a beautiful pink, a pristine white . . . They were half-browned, a strange juxtaposition between pristine blooms and shriveled and ruined blossoms . . . There was a sinister kind of poeticism about it that did not escape his notice, even as he felt the distinct shiver that raced down his spine, leaving behind a sense of cold that went bone-deep . . .
There was no solace to be had, not here. There was nothing but death and destruction and ugly, ugly truth . . .
Fai Demyanov let his gaze sweep over the mass destruction for a last, long, lingering moment before turning away and striding toward the rental car, ignoring the looks, the voices that called out to him. The dazed sense of emptiness that had carried him along the greatest portion of the day since that terrible phone call so early in the morning still held him, still buffered him, and yet, he could feel the first inevitable fractures, even as he glanced down at his brother to bolster his faltering sense of purpose.
"It'll be . . . be fine, Yerik," he heard himself say, his voice a little thinner, a little raspier than usual as he blinked his grainy, stinging eyes, as he held the child, who retained the lingering scent of Faina Demyanova, just a little closer. "We . . . We'll be fine . . ."
He didn't have a car seat for Yerik, but, at the moment, he also didn't much care. Neither he nor Yerik needed to remain here any longer, and no good would ever come of lingering here, anyway. Too close to the loss, too devastating, too real . . . No, he figured that the best thing that he could do, both for himself as well as for his young brother, was to get the both of them out of Sri Lanka and back home as soon as he possibly could . . .
~August 30, 2054~
It was late. Fai didn't know how late it was, but as he stared up at the low-hanging stars that lingered above the Demyanov estate just outside of Novosibirsk in the oblast of the same name. No one bothered him out here, not that any of the household servants would dare, and Yerik slept nearby in a net-covered, antique wooden daybed that had been occupied, at one time or another, by every Demyanov child ever born, even though the terrace was screened and had been well fumigated earlier.
It had been thirty-five days since that early morning phone call that had changed everything, had proven yet again that life was not something that could be governed or reasoned, and Fai . . .
Raking a hand through his collar-length, chestnut brown hair, he glanced over at his sleeping brother with a quiet sigh. He'd gotten into the habit of sleeping in the same room as the boy, who had a tendency to wake up, screaming, shrieking, haunted by demons that Fai couldn't see, but the child could and did, and whatever he saw or remembered terrified him, too . . .
Somehow, he didn't have the heart to leave the toddler alone to wrestle with those things that he so clearly did not understand. Bad enough, the whimpering cries for a mother who could not comfort him any longer, there were moments when Fai had to leave the pup alone with his nanny—a new woman who had been hired after a few rushed interviews upon their arrival back home. She was entirely unfamiliar to Yerik, and, as such, he had not adapted well to her presence, especially at moments when he wanted his mother. Tonight, however, was a milder than normal night, not quite as hot, not nearly as muggy, and the fresh air was a welcome change from the silent castle that they called home, which was why they were out here, on the terrace, instead of in Yerik's room—or Fai's.
The official report that had arrived a few days ago had listed the cause of the fire as electrical in deviation. One of the solar panels on the roof had been struck by lightning in just the right—or wrong—place, and the electricity had sparked, overloading the batteries that were already fully charged. Something about a flaw in the design—a reaction that was a fluke, at best, and a tragedy by all other accounts.
The optic filament wires—a relatively new innovation that should have allowed more electric flow inside the house—were super-charged due to the batteries' need to release the overcharge, which had led to the explosion when a light switch was flipped on. Somehow, they were able to tell that the fire itself had originated near Yerik's nursery. Apparently the frame damage was worse in that area, the metal more warped and twisted than in other areas of the structure. The general consensus was that Faina was able to breach the nursery, and she'd been able to drop the toddler out of the window onto a cloth awning that had then rolled Yerik into the springy moss under a cluster of small frangipani trees. From there, however, there weren't any real answers, as to what had happened to Faina, though, according to best guess statements, the house had gone up in flames fast enough that it was entirely possible that she was either overcome by smoke inhalation or that she had just not had enough time to escape, too. Official records stated that her body was incinerated in the uninhibited blaze by the time that the firemen had been able to get it under control.
And if there had been any kind of hope, lingering in Fai's heart, even after he'd seen the carnage from the fire, it was all but dead, given the steady, but obvious, decline in their father's health. Though he said nothing, he didn't have to. Every day, it seemed, Alexei was a little gaunter in the face, a little shakier in body. In the course of thirty-five days, the strong, sturdy frame his father normally embodied had withered, wasted away.
Maybe things would be simpler if Alexei spoke at all. He didn't. He hadn't, as far as Fai knew—not since the phone call. Holing himself up in his office for hours and hours on end, from early in the morning until late, late at night—sometimes he didn't come out at all—he didn't take meals, refused to allow any of the household staff into the room, either. Even the few times Fai had knocked, he'd been summarily ignored, as well. At times like that, he had to remind himself that it wasn't really that unusual. Alexei had never really been a very warm person. As far as Fai knew, the only person Alexei had ever really talked to, opened up to, was Faina.
The sliding glass doors behind him scraped quietly against the frame. Fai didn't turn to look. He didn't need to. He knew the youki—such as it was, and he gritted his teeth at the thinness of it as it brushed over his. He did sit up straight, however, leaning forward to grasp the thick crystal glass of Faina Crystal Label vodka off the metal and glass table.
"I am leaving," Alexei said without preamble as he drew up beside his son's chair. His voice was already thin, reedy, more of a wheeze than an actual tone. Fai winced inwardly. Outwardly, he remained stoic, impassive.
Fai shot his father a questioning look, slowly standing up, turning to face him. Alexei's normally bright green eyes were dull, almost faded, eyes sunken so deeply in their sockets that they had taken on a garish sort of glow that was nothing more than pinpoints of light—no sparkle, no life—as he pushed a scraggly strand of dulled chestnut hair out of his face, somehow drawing notice to the diminished cheeks, the too-prominent bones just below the slightly yellowed skin.
Alexei didn't respond right away. Instead, he slowly lifted a spindly hand, shuffling forward a couple of steps to close the distance between them. Then he took Fai's hand, palm up, and dropped his signet ring into it. "This is yours now, Fai. From this moment forward, you are the Asian tai-youkai. Serve your people well."
"Father . . . Wait . . ." he blurted, an unreasonable sense of panic that was almost shameful, surging past his carefully controlled façade. "Father, I . . ."
"I leave it all to you, Faine," he said. For the briefest of moments, he tried to force a smile. When it didn't work, he gave up and shook his head.
Staring at the ring in his hand—the thick and solid gold: the Demyanov family seal so delicately carved into the face of it, Fai clenched his jaw so tightly that it ached. He'd known this moment was inevitable. Even so . . .
"Will you . . .?" He cleared his throat, his words stopping Alexei when he started to turn away. "Will you say goodbye to Yerik?"
A thousand emotions flickered over his father's face, but every one of them faded too quickly for Fai to discern. His eyes shifted to the child, sleeping in the daybed, before returning to lock with Fai's once more, and this time, the expression was inscrutable, though, if Fai were forced to put a name to it, he might have said that Alexei almost looked . . . angry . . .?
"It's better if he doesn't remember me," Alexei murmured. "Protect him, Faine. Protect your brother." If it weren't for his inu-youkai hearing, he might have missed the words entirely. Then, he turned and walked away, and as much as Fai wanted to stop him—wanted to call him back—wanted to ask him just what he was supposed to do now—he didn't—couldn't . . .
'Father . . .'
'Remember this moment, Fai . . . Remember the last time you'll ever see him . . .'
He grimaced, but his father didn't see it, and for that alone, he was grateful.
Alexei stopped in the doorway, turned his head just enough to gaze back at Fai, who still stood beside the chair with the signet ring in one hand, a glass of vodka in the other, and he . . . He smiled, just a little. Fai tried to return the sentiment, but the muscles in his face didn't want to cooperate, and, in the end, it probably looked more like a grimace than a smile.
Alexei's parting words drifted back to him, lingered in the air, long after Alexei himself disappeared from sight, long after the feel of his youki faded away to nothing.
"Be strong, my sons," Alexei had said. "Live strong."