Actions

Work Header

The Bey, the Fae, and the Journey Across the Threshold

Chapter Text

[Moscow, summer 2012]

The old woman sitting on the bench in the VDNH park did not fit in with her surroundings. It was not for her appearance, even if her worn out overcoat clashed spectacularly with the crisp summer outfits that the other park visitors were eager to sport on this radiant afternoon. It wasn’t her rural upbringing either, for she had spent plenty of years living in big cities and mixing with high society to know how to hold herself in these circles. And it wasn’t as if babushkas were a rare sight in Russia in any day and age.

Fae, on the other hand, were a dying breed and rarely fit in with humans these days.

But the woman would not have to worry about that for much longer. If she and her companion could manage to make their plan work, they could finally leave Chelmir. As much as she had been involved in human affairs for the past few centuries, she had had to bitterly admit over the past decade that it could not be her top priority at the moment.
In the meantime, it was fortunate that humans, blind as newborn mice, did not - could not - see her.

A few of the really special ones could, although they had been few and far between during the Soviet regime and were truly rare these days.

And of course, other Fae still certainly could.

"Greetings, Svetlana."

"Greetings, Behemoth. What news do you bring for me today?"

A black cat sauntered in front of the bench, flicking his tail in agitation, a slight tremor running down his sleek black spine.

"Nothing. Yet."

The old woman narrowed her eyes at the Fae feline.

"Yet?"

"Someone has crossed over the Threshold."

"What?" The woman gasped, eyes opening wide, even squaring up her shoulders at the news. "Where? When?"

"I found broken threads used to weave the Gate at the top of the North-Eastern Okrug, but when precisely it had been opened…" the cat trailed off.

"You could not tell?"

Behemoth scoffed. "My pride is hurt even more than you can imagine. But you know as well as me, this human world isn't doing us any favors. Regardless,” he sighed dramatically. “The Fae’s magic was embarrassingly sloppy, and I am stunned they even made it through to this side. They certainly were not crossing with the intention of going back."

"Can you at least tell who crossed over?"

"No, although judging by the revolting mess that was their thread work, it was certainly not a Tsarevna."

"How strange," the old woman pondered. "Could it be that they were fleeing from something? Or someone?"

"Very possible. Hard to tell without knowing who opened the Gate."

"Behemoth, we have to find them," Svetlana said, a fire in her eyes. "Whether they intend to go back or not, they can tell us of the happenings in Fae. And they can tell us how to open a Gate to go back."

"If they even know how to do that,” The cat scoffed again. “But I'll keep looking. Will you search as well?"

"Yes," she replied. "I can manage today. This park is also in the North-Eastern Okrug, they must be close by."

"Be careful, Svetlana. It has been over a century - there may be even more foes than friends in Faemir now."

"I am aware, Behemoth." Svetlana looked at her companion with a resolute expression. "But going back right now is the only chance I have. Then maybe I can come back and keep looking for them."

"Very well. I will come to you as soon as I find something. And you know how to call me."

"Yes. Until then."

"Until then."

With a graceful twirl and flick of the tail, the black cat was gone.

Svetlana leaned back on the bench, mulling over their conversation. A throng of pigeons flew in the bright blue sky overhead. She sighed wistfully. Finally, they had a chance. Someone, for the first time in almost a century, had opened a Gate from Fae to the Human world. Not a Tsarevna, although that may have been for the best - fine Fae, their lot, talented at various forms of magic, but the interactions she had had with a few of them were not her best memories. She wondered who otherwise would have had enough power to do so - aside from the obvious, unspeakable guesses, who preferred not to get involved in mortal affairs anyway. For even Behemoth had not been able to craft a Gate in all these decades despite that being his magical specialty. The two of them suspected the answer for this lay on the other side, in Fae. If only they could find the one who had opened the Gate, they could ask--

"Excuse me," a young man's voice startled her out of her thoughts.

Svetlana looked down to see a young man, looking directly at her.

The woman blinked several times, not responding.

Impossible.

"Good afternoon," the man greeted her.

She turned to look behind her but found nothing but some well-trimmed hedges. She looked back at the young man, who still insisted looking at her. He smiled tentatively and ran a hand through his thick red hair.


The VDNH plaza was even more crowded than Yuriy had anticipated but he couldn't help but smile to himself at the sight of so many people out enjoying themselves. With all the trouble that Russia has gone through in the past two decades, everything from quality of life to general mood really seemed to be on the upswing. A pair of excited kids rushed by him as their parents called after them. A group of students was enjoying their ice creams by the edge of the fountain, the clear water spraying its guests with a refreshing mist. A guide was leading a group of interested tourists down the alley. The park radiated with positive energy and one couldn’t help but be infected by it.

“Yura, hurry up!”

Yuriy broke out of his daydream to the sound of Boris yelling after him. He searched the crowd for the familiar tall, lanky figure. His teammate waved to him from some twenty meters away before dashing off into the crowd, Ivan close behind him. The captain’s eyes flitted to Sergey, the broad-shouldered man an easy spot among the people. The two exchanged a knowing glance, and as Sergey rolled his eyes, walking off in the same direction as the other two boys, Yuriy couldn’t help but chuckle. They may have been a messy family, but they were a family he wouldn’t trade for anyone else.

As Yuriy started to walk after his friends, still people-watching, his gaze stopped on an old woman sitting alone on a bench. The woman was dressed in an old, shabby coat that was meant for colder weather, her head wrapped in a headscarf - as all babushkas do. Even from a distance, her frail, marked hands and deeply wrinkled face betrayed her age to be at least in the seventies. She wasn't really paying attention to anyone around her, conversing instead with a black cat standing by her bench. The people around her didn't seem to be taking much notice of the woman either. Compared to everyone else around, to their bright countenances, to the warm feel of summer that encircled everyone, she looked like a lonely messenger of winter.

For some reason, something about the woman reminded Yuriy of a time long ago - perhaps the winters that Boris and he had spent on the streets of Severodvinsk, or even the few friendly babushkas they had met who had spared a loaf of bread for them when they themselves did not have much to eat. Perhaps it was just the loneliness of having no one in whom to confide. He was conscious of not wanting to bother the woman, himself preferring to avoid useless conversations whenever possible, but this time, it somehow seemed wrong to him to just ignore someone who had taken to talking to cats for companionship.

Yuriy looked ahead - he could still make out Sergey in the distance, even though Boris and Ivan had disappeared from sight - and figured he had a few moments to spare. He approached the woman, who was leaning back on the bench, watching the sky, pensive, the cat having run off somewhere else.

"Excuse me," he grabbed her attention once he got closer.

She looked at him, eyes wide in surprise.

He had not considered that his well-intentioned gesture may come off as rude or suspicious. Better try to come off as friendly as possible.

"Good afternoon," he continued.

The woman didn't respond, instead whipping around to look behind her.

Does she think I’m talking to someone else?

As the woman turned back, her expression still incredulous, Yuriy smiled, running his hand awkwardly through his hair.

"Excuse me, would you mind if I sit next to you?"

The woman was watching him intently, never breaking eye contact.

"You can sit," she answered quietly, hesitantly, gesturing to the wide open bench beside her. Yuriy took a spot beside her, consciously leaving a good meter of space between him and the babushka.

"Wonderful weather we are having today," he started, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees.

"I suppose."

"Did you come for the festival today?"

"No."

"For one of the exhibits?"

"No."

"Do you come to VDNH often?"

"No." The woman answered curtly, her eyes still narrowed suspiciously at him.

"Oh?" This is not really working, is it. "Is it your first time here?"

"No, I've been here before." Her expression softened slightly as she paused, remembering. "But the last time was in 1943."

"19--". Wow okay. This woman was even older than he had expected, if she had been around during the Second World War. "It must have looked... very different."

"It did. Everything was on fire."

Yuriy nodded. The conversation was not really going how he had anticipated, and he wasn't entirely sure this was a good direction he should pursue, but veterans were always keen to share their experiences, weren't they?

"Were you a child back then in Moscow?"

"HA!" Yuriy jumped as the woman craned her neck back and barked out a raw laugh. "Far from it. I was a soldier fighting in the War."

"You were?" Yuriy did another mental adjustment of his companion's age. If she was a conscript in the Army, she had to be at least ninety. "How long were you in the army?"

"I fought from 1941 to 1945. Protected the home front until the very end."

"That's incredible. You must have achieved very high rank. At least General," he half-joked.

The woman smiled, but there was a hint of near viciousness in her smirk. "They didn't give titles of General to those like me."

To.... women??

"What division did you serve in?"

"Infantry."

"And what rank?"

"Private."

Yuriy did a double take.

"But honors certainly?"

Another wry chuckle. "None."

That didn't seem right. Someone who had served for four years during the Great War could not have done so without achieving at least some distinction.

Then it clicked.

"Oh no, no, that's not it! Please don't think that I am trying to scam you out of your medals or anything like that!" He realized why the woman may have been concerned that a stranger had approached her to strike up conversation. Older people getting scammed of their possessions had, unfortunately, become all too common of an occurrence in Russia after the fall of the USSR.

He was hoping the woman had not become too upset with him.

Instead, her reply was a hearty laugh, more genuine than the reactions he had received before.

"That is a wonderful joke, dobry molodets. I assure you, though," she gave him a wink. "No one has been able to steal anything from me my entire life."

Yuriy was relieved. Although at the address of "dobry molodets" he wondered if he should adjust the woman's age to several centuries rather than decades.

"That's good, I was afraid to make a bad impression," he smiled. "Although I am sorry to bother you. You seemed to be quite lonely sitting by yourself so I thought perhaps you may want some company."

"That is unusually kind of you, young man," the grandmother, now genuinely, smiled back at him. "Especially in this day and age. But it will serve you well. Kind deeds are always rewarded three times their worth."

"Not at all, really! I figured, conversation with a person might be a bit more interesting than with a cat--"

Her expression turned to stone.

Yuriy's breath caught in his throat.

"What did you say," she whispered.

"I-- said-- talking with a person might be nicer--" he trailed off.

"Than?" She prompted him, quietly but forcefully.

"--with a cat?"

He recoiled as the woman closed the space between them and clutched his hands in his.

"You saw the cat?"

This was a terrible idea.

"Yes--"

"How did you see the cat?" Her eyes were manic and her speech frantic. "Was it you? Did you open the Gate? Who--"

She paused as she looked deep into his eyes, searching for something, then her own eyes widening as if in recognition.

"You..." The grip on his hands tightened, and a warm, hot sensation tugged at something deep inside his chest, as if trying to pry something out. He felt sick to his stomach. Fuck rudeness, he had to get himself out of this situation.

"I am sorry, I have to go," he got up, almost ripping his hands free. The woman lost some of her balance, catching herself on the bench before she could fall to the ground.

"It was really nice to talk to you, have a wonderful day!" Yuriy shouted as he sped walked away from her. He had no idea what had set her off and was hoping that she would not follow after him. At least, thankfully - remarkably - no one around them had seemed to notice the bizarre scene that had just unfolded.

After a few minutes of searching, still frazzled, he managed to catch up with Boris and the rest of the team.


Svetlana stared after the young man in disbelief. It was fact that even in this modern world, some humans still had the ability to spot commonplace Fae like domovoi, leshiy, or rusalka. It took a truly rare human to see a Fae of her rank, though those still existed as well.

But only another Fae could perceive someone like Behemoth. And she knew this Fae only too well. One of the three for whom she had been searching for decades.

As the man disappeared in the crowd, Svetlana clutched at her chest, finally managing to breathe out a single name.

"Morozko."


 

“Yuriy, what the fuck took you so long? You’re moving slower than an amateur’s beyblade,” Boris scoffed as his friend made his way through the crowd to them.

“Whoa, Yura, you okay?” Sergey asked. Ivan raised an eyebrow in confusion.

“I’m— yeah—” Yuriy struggled to catch his breath and cleared his throat to collect himself. “Yeah, it’s okay.”

“Are you… sure about that?” Sergey crossed his arms, not buying Yuriy’s bullshit attempt at a cover-up.

“Yeah, I just— some weird babushka ran into me on the way--”

"Yura,” Boris was now sizing up the red-haired man. “Did she run into you or did you run into her?”

Yuriy let out a loud sigh. “I stopped to talk to a babushka—”

“—and she turned out to be fucking crazy, got it,” Boris finished for him, groaning in exasperation. “The fuck you always have to do that?”

“Do what?” Yuriy’s eyes snapped to meet Boris’s gaze.

“Not mind your own fucking business, is what.”

“She was sitting by herself on a bench and looked lonely, so I just went over to talk to her.”

“Did you crash from a fucking oak? There is usually a reason why old people like that are sitting by themselves, and you should leave them to sit by themselves.”

“That’s a shitty argument and you know it.”

“I’ve never been chased by any crazy old babushkas and I plan to keep it that way.”

“Well if it means I get to help someone, maybe it’s worth getting chased by a few crazy ones in the meantime.”

“Why do you have to be such a fucking martyr?”

“Why do you have to be such a fucking asshole?”

Cut it out, knuckleheads!” Sergey’s voice boomed, and several passersby in the team’s vicinity stopped dead in their tracks, terrified. Boris and Yuriy didn’t look at their older friend, still glaring at each other. Sergey walked over to the two of them.

“If you two don’t mind,” he put a hand on each of the men, purposefully squeezing their shoulders and pulling them apart, forcing them to look at him. “I actually came to the park to have a good time, so save your arguing for a shittier day than this, okay?”

“Fine, whatever,” Boris brushed off Sergey’s hand and walked off without sparing Yuriy another glance. Yuriy glared after his teammate but seemed willing enough to drop the issue, which was good enough for Sergey.

“Alright,” Sergey let out a sigh of relief. “Vanya, what’s on the docket?”

“Aye aye!” Ivan gave Sergey a mock salute. “Well, first we should check out—”

A loud boom rang out near one of the exhibit halls. A heavy silence descended on the plaza.

Then, the acrid smell of fire and gas filled the air. People screamed.

“What the—” Boris muttered.

Ivan jumped on top of a bench next to them, peering in the direction of the sound as people started to rush past them. Soon enough, black plumes of smoke began to rise up into the air.

“It’s an explosion!” Ivan yelled, his voice not entirely devoid of giddiness at some non-traditional excitement.

“Terrorists?” Yuriy exchanged a glance with Sergey.

“I don’t—” another loud crack cut off Sergey. The explosion came from the same spot, two exhibit halls over from them. More people were screaming and running away from the attack.

Yuriy sprinted in the direction of the explosion.

“Yura, wait!” Sergey yelled after him but the captain didn’t turn around. Whether an accident or a deliberate attack, there were people in trouble. And he had to help them if he could.

“Why do you have to be such a fucking martyr?” Boris’s voice rang in his head but he only pushed himself to run faster, just barely dodging the people running in the opposite direction, letting the air that ripped through his lungs cut through those mocking words as well. The irony was not lost on him, for there was a time when he wouldn’t have cared less about these strangers rushing past him, choosing to put not even his team but himself above everything else.

But over the years, whether because of his friends, himself, or just time, his worldview had changed.

When exactly the pivot had happened didn’t really matter though, since at the end of the day, he still couldn’t be a martyr: to achieve such a status required there being people to grieve for you after you died, people who could take up a cause in your name after you passed. No one but his teammates would give a shit if he kicked the bucket, whether today or tomorrow or in twenty years. But if he died, then by the power of Wolborg, regardless if anyone else picked up the mantle after him, he would die fighting for something he believed in.

Yuriy finally broke past the crowds and was about to round the corner on the target exhibit hall when a third explosion sounded. The ground shook and an ear-piercing screech filled the air. The beyblader stopped in his tracks, clamping his hands to his ears in a futile attempt. A crash right in front of him threatened to throw him off-balance as a wall of hot putrid air hit him head on. Yuriy took a few steps back but managed to remain standing. Suddenly, things around him turned darker, cast in shadow. He snapped up his head to see a giant black serpent towering over him, its horned head blocking out the sun.

It reared its grotesque mouth open, baring razor sharp teeth and four enormous fangs. The serpent struck.

Had Yuriy blinked, he certainly would have missed it, the beast’s motion as fast as lighting. He managed to jump out of the way just in time as the serpent’s head crashed deep into the pavement where he had stood some flitting moments earlier. As the serpent screeched and tried to pull its head out of the ground, Yuriy dashed away to give him some space. He turned around just as the serpent freed itself and was shaking off its missed attempt, getting ready for another strike.

“Yura!” Boris, Sergey, and Ivan caught up to their captain.

“Shit, is that a bitbeast?” Ivan gasped. “It kind of looks like Wyborg…”

Yuriy sized up the gigantic serpent in front of them. Ivan was right: although the beast in front of them shone in metallic hues of violet and black, its shape was reminiscent of Ivan’s bitbeast—

The thing in front of them had to be a bitbeast, right?

Of course it’s a bitbeast damn it what else can it be. The frantic flurry of reassurances somehow did not seem to reassure Yuriy at all. With no enemy beyblade or beyblader in sight, it was impossible to pinpoint the source of the attack. Still, there was only one thing they could reasonably do right now.

With a well-practiced, fluid motion, Yuriy drew his launcher and set his rip cord and Wolborg ready to go. Three more synchronized clicks let him know that his teammates did the same. 

“One!”

“Two!”

“Three!”

“LET IT RIP!”

Four beyblades struck the ground and hurled themselves toward the serpent in a V formation. The giant snake reared its head, uncurling even more of its twisted coils to rise up even higher in the air. The sky grew overcast as angry thunderclouds bloomed. The serpent screeched, the piercing sound cutting down to the bone as the men scrambled to cover up their ears. On their own volition, the four beyblades took a sharp turn, Wolborg and Wyborg to the left, Falborg and Seaborg to the right, and circled back about halfway. As the serpent pulled back, the beyblades settled down, with Wolborg drawing agitated circles in a small area, Seaborg spinning determinedly nearby, and Falborg haphazardly darting side to side not too far behind. Out in front, undeterred, unafraid, was Wyborg, itching to prove to this lesser serpent who was the dominant one around here.

And still no fifth beyblade emerged to challenge them.

“Ugh, what are we supposed to do with this?” Boris asked the question that was on everyone’s mind.

“Forget the beyblade, just take out the bitbeast!” Ivan yelled, a reckless grin plastered on his face. “Wyborg, let’s go!”

Wyborg charged ahead at the beast in front. “Vanya, wait!” Yuriy tried to warn too little too late as a bright flash illuminated the park and lightning struck, aiming for the purple beyblade barreling ahead. Yuriy shut his eyes at the deafening crack of thunder that reverberated through his entire body as if he had just been struck by a semi. As the impact dissipated, he realized that, miraculously, the bolt of lightning had missed its target and Wyborg continued on ahead.

“That’s it, Wyborg! Show him what you’ve got!”

A flash of light began to emanate from the beyblade as Wyborg heard its beyblader’s call. The black serpent reared again and another bolt struck the ground, but Wyborg easily maneuvered out of the way, never losing its target ahead. Ivan’s beyblade had never moved with such speed and precision before.

“Wyborg, now!” Ivan yelled, right as a third bolt struck down. This one was way off target though, far behind Wyborg—

—all Yuriy caught was a bright flash in his peripheral vision and an intense wave of hot air as the lightning strike exploded near his friend.

“Vanya!” Sergey screamed as their youngest teammate was knocked a good distance back. Through the heavy smoke it was clear that the strike did not miss, but already the young man was trying to pick himself back up.

“Wyborg!” Ivan yelled as he managed to sit up, but that moment of broken connection had been just the opening their enemy needed. The beyblade had faltered and skidded to a halt, realizing its beyblader had been hurt, and was about to head back when the serpent struck at it. The entire team held their breaths. Then, as the serpent reemerged with another mouthful of dirt and stone tile, there was a glint of metal of something spinning out of its mouth and away from the beast.

“Wyb—!” Ivan failed to stand up, clutching his side in pain. There was no way he could reach his beyblade to catch it. But as if reading his mind and seeking him out, as his beyblade hit the ground, although wobbling, it managed to spin toward him before losing all of its rotational speed and tumbling to a rest by his hand. The young man gaped at his beyblade in defeat.

“You son of a—” Boris swore as the serpent shook its head side to side before zeroing in its deadly orange eyes square on the young man. It opened its mouth halfway, but instead of charging straight at him or emitting another soul-twisting screech, it merely issued a low predatory hiss, its split tongue shaking in a challenge.

“I’ll fucking show you!” Boris ran ahead of his two standing teammates, charging right into battle. “Falborg, let’s go!”

At his command, the beyblade stopped its erratic milling and charged straight for the serpent.

“Boris, you idiot!” Sergey shouted after him and scrambled to cover his hotheaded friend. “Seaborg, go!”

Falborg was already barreling ahead though, not waiting for any support from his teammate. A flash of light formed around the beyblade’s bitchip, rising into the air and morphing into a giant blue falcon. The bitbeast beat its powerful wings and screeched, challenging the serpent. The metallic snake trained its eyes on the raptor in front, roaring back, angry bile spraying everywhere. Falborg reared above the serpent’s head, sharp talons out and ready to sink into his prey. He struck. The serpent was faster.

Falborg’s talons merely glanced off the slithering metallic body as the beast dashed toward its real target.

The serpent’s open mouth gaped in front of Boris, the acrid smell of decay pulsing from its throat and rows of fangs spelling out the young man’s fate. There was no time to move out of the way. Fifteen meters, seven, three, one. Boris’s mind went blank.

A huge solid wave washed over the serpent, making direct contact and knocking it off course. But it was still too late. As the serpent’s head whiplashed, a piercing and tearing sensation cut through Boris’s abdomen. Something caught on his rib cage and he felt himself propelled through the air. He tried to turn for the landing but everything was spinning too fast for him to regain his bearings in time. Something in his right leg snapped as he struck the ground and rolled through the clouds of dust. He tried to cry out in pain, but the sound came out ragged as he struggled to take a full breath of air. Pain rang out in a chorus all through his body and his mind went numb, desperate to shut it all out.

Borya!!” Sergey screamed and dashed to his teammate, completely forgetting the serpent, which had shaken off Seaborg’s strike and was back with a vengeance. It hissed and reared for its next attack, aiming at the running man.

Not so fast, you bastard.

“Wolborg, Novae Rogue!” Yuriy summoned his bitbeast and the air cooled as a light emitted from the captain’s beyblade. A wall of ice hit the serpent square in the face and it recoiled to the side, screeching in pain. So they could hurt it after all. Good.

“Don’t let up now, again!” He commanded as Wolborg had now materialized more fully out of the beyblade and was roaring menacingly at the serpent. The giant snake shook off the previous attack and snapped its head back to glare at the formidable challenger in front. Wolborg bared her fangs, her body as solid and imposing as a house, and leaped, sheets of daggered ice forming in the wake of her charge. The serpent slithered its head deftly out of the way but the white wolf still made firm contact with the middle of its body, slamming into it at full speed. The serpent’s heavy corpus buckled, but moving with the impact it whipped its head around, circling around Wolborg’s back, and sunk its fangs into her shoulder. The white wolf howled in pain.

Wolborg, no!!” Yuriy screamed bloody murder at the sight of his companion, fear and rage bursting forth from him. Just then, one, two, three spears of ice sprung forth around Wolborg, one striking solidly against the serpent’s face, forcing it to release its grip. Wolborg arched her body, headbutting the giant snake right off her back before spinning around, her sharp teeth bared for the next attack.

“That’s it!” Yuriy yelled in triumph, but too soon. Instead of getting colder as it did before, the air suddenly grew heavy and sticky hot. The putrid smell of the serpent only got stronger as it pointed its frothing gaping mouth at Wolborg and hit her with a wall of fire.

The blaze was unbelievable in its power and intensity and even despite the distance Yuriy had to duck and bury his face in his arms, to shield himself from the overwhelming heat. The air was still burning when Yuriy felt the ground shake from something heavy striking the ground. He peered cautiously only to be greeted by the horrifying sight of Wolborg, her flank charred and bloodied, laying on the ground breathing raggedly and unable to get up. She opened her eyes slowly, painfully, and the man and beast locked eyes.

Forgive me, Morozko.

Yuriy heard the words loud and clear in his mind. “Wolborg…” he could only mouth the wolf’s name in response.

The white she-wolf closed her eyes, her body becoming more translucent, as the serpent recollected itself and poised itself for another attack. “Wolborg!” Not again. Yuriy snapped out of his stupor and dashed to his bitbeast’s side, somehow managing to maneuver around the debris without even thinking about it, his bitbeast the only thing on his mind. As he closed in on his companion Wolborg’s body transformed into a bright flash of light and returned to her beyblade, which had already stopped spinning. Yuriy scooped her up in his hands and clutched the beyblade to his chest. “Please be okay,” he breathed.

A deep rumbling hiss brought him back to reality. The serpent was directly in front of Yuriy, its hungry predator eyes fixed on the young man. It opened its mouth and inhaled, readying to spout another plume of unforgiving fire from the black void that was its throat.

There was no time and no place to run.

In his last stand-off, Yuriy sprung to his feet and held Wolborg even closer, determined to die in defiance.

The ball of fire formed in the serpent’s mouth and even at this distance Yuriy could feel the temperature rise around him.

Goodbye, everyone.

The serpent exhaled and the plume of fire pummeled toward Yuriy. He shut his eyes.

Yuriy struggled to breathe as a violent gust of cool wind struck him in the stomach and tossed him around like a rag doll. It was impossible to orient himself until he hit the ground, the last of whatever air that was in his lungs expelled on impact. He took a desperate inhale against the wave of nausea, opening his eyes and searching the world around him for clues.

If the sharp pain in his right leg and arm alone was any indication, he was still alive and not burned to a crisp.

Gradually his surroundings slowed their maddening spinning and the park came back into focus. He hadn’t just been knocked back a few meters by the wind - he was sprawled out a good third of the way back from where they had run to face off against the beast, as if he had been teleported. The serpent was still where it had been before, spewing out a violent beam of fire at the spot where Yuriy had stood just a moment prior.

Where someone else was now standing in his place.

“Made it just in time!” A deep, velvet voice purred next to him with satisfaction. Yuriy froze, his mouth agape and eyes wide, as he pinpointed speaker.

A lanky black cat walked up to him on his hind legs, standing just a few centimeters shy of Sergey’s towering height. There was a devilish grin plastered on its face, dark and sinister as midnight. As Yuriy stared, mind blank for words, the cat winked at him and turned his attention back to the main event.

“Svetlana, let’s get to it!” the feline’s voice boomed over the sound of the battle.

The wall of fire began to morph as it spun around the person at the center of the blast, rising up in a twister before exploding and dissipating into the air around. The serpent screeched in anger as the challenger stood their ground, unharmed.

Yuriy’s breath caught in his throat as, even at this distance, he recognized the shabby coat and bright headscarf immediately. Facing off against the gargantuan serpent was the tiny babushka he had met earlier at the park.

The serpent struck forward, intent on swallowing the old woman whole in one bite. Just before impact, the ground below the woman glowed red and she shifted rapidly to the side without even moving her legs. Unlike the first two times, the serpent maneuvered before plunging its head into the ground to attack again. This time, an iridescent red ornate circle appeared in the air next to the woman. As she stuck her hand into the center, the circle rose through the air, pulling the babushka up with her, just in time to avoid the serpent’s strike. The serpent turned its head and its gaping mouth followed her direction. As the serpent grazed the bottom of her feet, the circle at the woman’s hand disappeared and she landed on the edge of its bottom front teeth.

“Watch out!” Yuriy yelled.

As the serpent clamped down its powerful jaws, the grandmother grabbed on to one of its fangs to push off and spin out of the way. They were fairly far up in the air now, but Yuriy managed to make out the same red glowing circle pattern at the woman’s feet as before.

“Pipe down, you’re distracting.”

Yuriy turned around at the cat’s admonition, but the feline wasn’t even looking at him. His eyes were fixed on the sky battle, his paws moving deftly in front of him as if rearranging some invisible mosaic pieces into a pattern familiar only to him. Right then a loud boom echoed and Yuriy whipped back around to follow the sound. A plume of red smoke was rising from the serpent’s head as it shut its eyes in pain and faltered in its stance, tipping backwards. The babushka was hovering just above it. Her headscarf had flown off her head, her hair waving behind her in two short braids.

The angle of the circle shifted abruptly to point downward at a forty five degree angle. There was a bright flash of light near the woman’s head as she pushed off and landed squarely on the serpent’s face, unphased by the smoke. The light transfered from her head to her hand and changed shape. Yuriy realized she was holding a shortsword.

The serpent’s eyes snapped open and it threatened to jerk its head backwards to throw off the woman. The angle of its head changed slightly and the babushka seemed to be on the edge of losing her footing and plunging down to the ground.

Yuriy froze as the world around him went deathly silent. There was nothing but the woman and the serpent.

Another circle appeared at her shoulder and she pushed off of it, giving her enough leverage to drive her sword right into the serpent’s eye, blade and hilt, almost all the way up to her shoulder.

The serpent screeched like it had never screeched before. It writhed and twisted, indiscriminately spewing fire from its vile mouth. The babushka held fast to the serpent’s head, arm buried deep into its skull.

As the last of the sound escaped its putrid lung cavities, the serpent went silent. A light breeze swooshed peacefully through the air as it toppled. The ground thundered as the serpent made impact, pieces of tile, bench, statues, and other debris flying in all different directions. Giant clouds of dust blew everywhere and Yuriy shielded himself as he was hit with a gross gust of wind, sand and dirt pummeling him and scraping at his hands and face.

As the wind died down and Yuriy chanced to survey the surroundings, he saw the serpent’s body laying on the ground, unmoving. Thankfully it had not landed on the grandmother when it fell, and the old woman was now carefully trying to stand up, extricating her bloodied arm from the serpent’s eye socket.

It was dead. The serpent was dead. They did it, they survived, they—

Yuriy dashed off to where he last thought his teammates must have been, in the direction where the serpent had flung Boris and Sergey had run after him. He passed by the place where Ivan had been knocked back by the lightning strike but the young man was no longer there. Sure enough, Yuriy saw him up ahead, sitting on the ground with Sergey and Boris.

No, Ivan was sitting, and so was Sergey. Boris was lying on the ground.

Something wasn’t right.

Even as he caught up to them, for a few moments Yuriy still couldn’t understand what was happening. The scene in front of him didn’t make sense in any preconceived notion of this world. Sergey was on the ground, holding Boris in his arms and pressing his hand to a gaping wound in the other man’s stomach. The effort was in good faith but futile as the gash ran all along Boris’s abdomen and halfway up his chest. The entire front of his clothes was soaked in blood and a thin stream of it was trickling out the side of the man’s mouth. There was so much red, hot and sticky and messy, everywhere, that the wrong angle of Boris’s right leg barely even registered with Yuriy.

“What the fuck— Borya, Borya!” Yuriy collapsed on the ground by Boris’s legs, unable to take any more steps toward his friend. He snapped to look at Sergey. “Call an ambulance!”

“We tried,” Ivan pleaded, his voice cracking. “The fucking phones aren’t working!”

“What do you—” Yuriy pulled out his own phone, dialed “03” and pressed the call button before the foreboding sound of white noise erupted in the receiver.

No. No no no no no

He frantically pressed his hand to Boris’s stomach, just below where Sergey’s hand was desperately trying to do something. His stomach churned as he felt his best friend’s blood pulse against his hand.

“Fuck, Borya, don’t do this, don’t—” his voice cracked as tears burned his eyes, but the bleeding youth was no longer registering the words being said to him. His movements had slowed down and his breathing was getting shallower. Yuriy felt Sergey tighten his grip on the man’s wound, which just continued to gush blood.

So much blood why was there so much blood—

“You remember the water wouldn't bring this one back, right?” A distinct voice mewled near him. That cat. The tall humanoid black cat. Except in that moment it didn’t matter if the voice belonged to a cat, a human, or a three-headed dragon. Nothing fucking mattered right then. God why why was this happening they couldn’t lose Boris why—

“I am well aware, Behemoth.” Yuriy was only somewhat aware of the woman coming to kneel beside him to examine his teammate. Everything seemed like it was happening to another person, like he was watching some twisted movie that couldn’t possibly be real life. “I just want to get a closer look.”

Yuriy just kept staring at Boris’s face, which was getting paler by the second. The wet pulsating sensation against his hand was almost hypnotizing.

“Borya, hang in there!” Ivan barely choked out the plea.

“Shit, Borya, don’t you fucking dare, you hear?” Yuriy grabbed Boris’s collar with his free hand, but there was barely any strength in his grip. But maybe, just maybe, if he could only physically hold on to his best friend, there was no way he could leave them. He aggressively willed himself to ignore the obvious word clawing at the edge of his mind.

A wrinkled hand, its sleeve soaked in something white and orange all the way up to the elbow, moved his own out of the way. He wanted to protest but his entire body was going numb. The old woman cupped Boris’s face in her hands and turned it toward her. Boris’s eyes fluttered as he struggled to keep them open.

“Borya, come on, stay with me, come on, please,” Sergey begged, his voice breaking, barely more audible than a whisper.

The group fell silent in anticipation. The babushka had gone deathly still.

“Svetlana?” The cat asked expectantly.

“Behemoth,” Svetlana’s voice cut through like a knife, sharp and exact. “Get the water ready.”

“What?” The cat gaped. “Which one—”

“Just have it ready.”

The cat, still standing upright, fumbled in his pockets to produce a tiny unassuming vial. The woman let go of Boris’s face, letting his head rest on Sergey’s arm again. He was barely managing to keep his eyes open. Come on, Borya, you asshole, don’t you fucking do this to me you hear don’t leave, don’t fucking die on me you bastard—

Yuriy felt a rough rug at the collar of his jacket. Svetlana gripped it with her right hand as she produced a small glass jar out of her coat with the other. Inside was a viscous liquid so dark red it was almost black.

"You - hold down his legs,” she yanked him in the appropriate direction. “You,” letting go of Yuriy, she grabbed Sergey’s blood-soaked hand from Boris’s wound and threw it back at him. Blood poured more freely from the gash on Boris’s stomach. The woman seemed to startle and catch her breath, but then focused again: “Hold his shoulders."

"Hey wait—!"

“Do as I say or your friend dies here and now,” she commanded, letting them know conversation was over.
Yuriy exchanged an apprehensive glance with Sergey and Ivan. He had no idea what was about to happen, but he took hold of Boris’s legs as instructed. Sergey readjusted to sit behind Boris, the wounded man’s head resting on the other’s chest. Yuriy gulped as he steeled himself, trying not to think that this was their last chance to save their friend.

The woman took Boris by the chin and made him look straight at her.

"Finist. Finist,” she gently called to him. Yuriy heard the cat gasp behind him. What did she just call Borya? Miraculously, Boris managed to open his eyes to look at the woman. Yuriy watched her intently. Something in her steely expression softened just for a moment as she spoke. “It's going to burn like hell. Endure it."

“It’s what—” Yuriy did not have time to protest as the woman took the lid off of the jar and poured a healthy dose of the contents right into the middle of Boris’s wound. A smell akin to that of rotting meat hit Yuriy’s nose almost immediately. He felt an urge to gag but resisted, and simply watched, dumbfounded by the spectacle. The woman covered the jar. Nothing happened as the liquid just seeped into the deep gash.

Are you serious what the fuck is she—

A few sparks seemed to rise from Boris’s body. Then, a black fire burst in the middle of the wound. Boris screamed.

“Borya!” Yuriy yelled, moving to squash out the flame on instinct, but a powerful hand stopped him. He glared at the woman, who returned the gesture.

“The fuck are you doing!” It wasn’t even a question.

“Stop, it’s healing him!”

Yuriy scowled, Boris’s blood-curdling screams evidence to the contrary, but looked again, all the while trying to hold on to his friend’s legs as he thrashed in pain. Ivan gasped. The flame only looked like it was eating its way into the wound, but instead it was only burning away the clothes near the gash as the flesh instead pulled and stitched itself together.

“Keep holding him!” The woman commanded to Yuriy and Sergey. Boris’s screams had become muffled as Sergey put his hand in the man’s mouth, letting him bite down on it through the pain to keep him from biting his own tongue. Yuriy smelled the same rotting meat stench. The old woman had uncovered the jar again and poised it over a deep cut on Boris’s arm. Ivan steadied it so she had a better shot. Another black flame erupted as the liquid made its way into the wound but there too the flesh worked to put itself together into one piece. She turned to Boris’s leg. Yuriy did his best to brace them while leaving enough room for the fire he knew would erupt at the wound.

As the jar passed close to his face he thought he would vomit right there and then. He made a gagging noise and stopped breathing, squinting his eyes against the putrid liquid.

“Zmei blood is not the most pleasant, is it?” she chuckled.

Yuriy allowed himself a deep breath of sweet nontoxic air once she capped the jar, doing another visual examination of Boris’s body. The flames, thankfully exuding no smell, continued to purge their way across the wounds, doing a thorough job of putting the man’s body back together. Boris’s movements had lessened as he either got used to the pain or just kept passing out from it. His breathing evened out and was not as ragged as before. Finally, the last of the black plumes withered away. Boris, too, had gone still.

Yuriy loosened his grip on his legs, then did a double take.

“Boris?” he called.

“Behemoth, the water!” Svetlana held out her hand and the cat, gingerly but definitively, put the vial into her open palm. She grabbed Sergey’s wrist, glaring at the man. “Move your hand!”

Sergey did not respond right away, as if in a daze, but removed his hand anyway. It only took him another moment to fully register that Boris’s chest had stopped moving completely.

Svetlana forced Boris’s mouth open with her left hand as she uncorked the vial with her right. Precisely, she poured one drop of a crystal clear liquid inside.

The three men waited, holding their breaths. One second. Two seconds. Three seconds that felt like eternity.

Boris’s eyes shot wide open as he took a sharp inhale, like a man coming up for air from a lake. He coughed violently, his breathing eventually returning to a normal rhythm typical for the living. He lay in Sergey’s lap, staring at the sky, eyes unfocused but blinking.

“Borya?” Yuriy called out to him again, his voice quiet and raspy.

Silence. Then—

“What the fuck,” Boris breathed out, his eyes finally focusing on Sergey.

The three others let out a collective sigh of relief.

“Dear god, Boris, the fuck you scare us like that,” Ivan all but collapsed on the ground, propping himself up on his elbows and knees.

“Boris, you fucking idiot,” Yuriy weakly slapped the side of his friend’s leg, breaking the man’s attention away from Sergey. The older man was silent, rubbing something from his face with the back of his hand.

“Hey, don’t give me that! You fucking ran here first you dip—!” Boris was about to sit up, but seemed to get dizzy and fell right back on their teammate.

“Borya, Borya, are you okay?”

“Try not to move too much,” Svetlana interjected into the conversation. The boys jumped. The babushka was still very obviously sitting right next to them, with Behemoth standing behind her, but somehow in their relief they had managed to become completely oblivious to their presence.

“Your wounds are perfectly healed, internally and externally, but you’ll still need some time to recover,” she moved to cup Boris’s chin in her hand again but he swatted her away.

"Get away from me!"

"What a charming young man," the old woman smirked wryly.

"Borya, she just saved you," Yuriy gaped at his ill-mannered friend.

"Whatever, I don't need some Baba Ya--"

The woman clamped her hand over Boris's mouth with such speed and force, Yuriy was afraid she might actually crush his jaw in her hand. All four of them fell silent.

"Quiet!" She hissed. "Don't call her name if you don't intend to summon her."

"Who?” Sergey looked at the woman incredulously.

Her,” was all she replied.

“You mean Baba—" Yuriy started but was cut off with a sharp look from Svetlana. He could tell by the way his hair stood on end that the black cat was glaring viciously at him as well.

"I am only going to say this once so listen carefully. Do not summon Her unless you are ready to pay Her price for whatever service you ask," she slowly lowered her hand from Boris's face, measuring everyone with a forceful glare. "And I'll make this one easy for you four: no one can afford the price She charges."

“Okay, noted,” Yuriy nodded slowly as the warning - whatever it really meant - sunk in. A million questions buzzed in his head but he settled for asking the most pressing one. “So then,” he glanced back over his shoulder at the giant serpent corpse and the destroyed park. “What do we do now?”

“Well, this is certainly one hell of a mess,” the cat chuckled, but held his front paws up defensively as Svetlana rewarded his attitude with a reproachful look. “Well, it is, isn’t it?”

“It’s not a mess, it’s the apocalypse,” Svetlana croaked as she slowly stood up, wincing at the pain in her knees and back. Yuriy marveled at how this was the same person who not even ten minutes ago had been riding atop a giant snake and had managed to stab it lethally in the eye. As she tried to straighten up, Yuriy scrambled to his feet to help her stand upright. She looked at him with mild surprise but then acknowledged the gesture with a small nod of approval.

“Don’t you think you’re being a little too dramatic?” The cat arched an eyebrow at her.

“Did you forget what the last time we had to deal with the Zmei was like?”

“That was different - that was an invading army. And it’s not like we are dealing with Gorynych again,” he started to walk toward the corpse and Svetlana followed, not bothering to check if Yuriy and the rest of the team were keeping up behind them. “This was just one Zmei with one head. Easy pickings for you, certainly.”

“Have you been eating too much of that processed cat food again?”

“First of all, rude. Second of all…” as their voices trailed off, Yuriy turned back to his friends. Boris had managed to stand up, albeit he was mostly leaning against Sergey for support. Ivan hovered nearby to catch him - or more likely, break his friend’s fall - if need be. They all exchanged a long, silent look.

Sergey coughed.

“So,” Ivan started.

“Yeah…” Boris offered half-heartedly.

“You know,” Ivan rubbed the back of his head as he squinted at the dead beast behind them. “I don’t know about you guys, but I am not really sure if that thing is a bitbeast.”

“Wow no fucking kidding,” Boris glared at the shorter man. “You ever seen a bitbeast rail anyone like he did me?”

“Well sorry for stating the obvious,” Ivan retorted back, raising his hands up in annoyance. “But seemed to me that when this started, we were all pretty convinced that was a bitbeast.”

“Vanya is right,” Yuriy cut in before his teammates could start a fight. “We all assumed wrong and it almost cost us, big time. But now we have to figure out what that thing is and how it got here.”

“Don’t forget about those two,” Sergey nodded in the direction of the old woman and the giant black cat. “Since we are just going ahead and stating the obvious, we’ve got a ninja grandmother with magical blood and water and a giant talking black cat who just killed a fifty-meter serpent with some magic nonsense right out of Harry Potter.”

“That was no Harry Potter shit, man,” Ivan corrected. “In Harry Potter they use wands. I am pretty sure that babushka straight up turned her hair into a dagger to stab that thing.”

“Wait, she fucking what?” Boris gaped at him.

“They seem to be on our side,” Yuriy spoke up, choosing to gloss over the comment Ivan had just made. “We should talk to them about what happened.”

“You think we can trust them?” Sergey quirked an eyebrow at their captain.

There was a sharp crack somewhere behind Yuriy and the four startled, readying for another encounter to start. A bright red flame had erupted over the head of the serpent and was slowly but surely spreading over the rest of its body. The smoke curled up into the sky, pluming blood red and shimmering in the rays of sunlight that were finally breaking through the clouds. Svetlana was standing in front of the corpse, leaning over slightly, her hands resting on her knees. She straightened up as Behemoth approached her, cradling something swathed in cloth in his paws. Yuriy exhaled slowly to calm his frantically beating heart.

The captain knew where Sergey’s apprehension was coming from. Life had taught them to be cautious with where they placed their trust, and resting their lives with someone they had just met, even if that someone had already managed to save their lives in more ways than one, would have been the epitome of foolishness as far as their experiences were concerned. As he considered their options, Yuriy’s mind flashed back to when he was sitting next to the woman on the bench. As she had held his hands, there was a flicker of recognition in her eyes, one as if it was obvious that the two should know each other. He did not understand why that should be the case.

And yet, somehow, deep in his gut, he also knew that to be true. That this wasn’t someone whom he had only just met today. The earlier encounter with the babushka had been unsettling, and the entire afternoon had nearly turned into a living nightmare, but he wanted - no, needed - to get to the bottom of what was happening. It was probably foolish, but he was willing to go with his gut and put his trust in these magical strangers. 

“Yes,” he turned back to his team. “We can trust them.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Yes,” Yuriy replied, turning back to them. “We can trust them.”

Although obviously one of the possible options, Sergey found his captain’s quick answer to be rather perplexing. Without a doubt he was also thankful that the old woman and the cat had both slain the serpent and saved Boris, damn his reckless ass, but certainly they had to know more before just blindly trusting the two.

“What makes you say that?” Sergey asked.

Yuriy looked squarely at him. “I know this is going to sound stupid, but I have a feeling that we can,” he paused. “That woman is the grandmother I stopped to talk to before catching up with you guys.”

That was the crazy babushka?!” Boris yelled, then, becoming aware of the volume of his voice and that the woman might hear them, settled for hissing angrily. “I fucking told you there was a reason she was sitting by herself!”

“Listen, if I didn’t go to talk to her, maybe she wouldn’t have bothered to come save our asses ten minutes ago!” Yuriy retorted. “The conversation only turned weird when I mentioned that I saw her talking to a black cat, and she freaked out that I was able to see him in the first place. And you know, if my friend was a crazy demonic familiar straight out of a Bulgakov novel,” he pointed in Behemoth’s direction. “I would be pretty fucking surprised if anyone could see him, too.”

Boris kept scowling, not entirely satisfied with that reply, but didn’t say anything back.

“I don’t know if I totally trust them yet. But,” Ivan spoke up. The other three looked at him. “I honestly don’t know what better choice we have right now.” He looked back at his teammates. “The way they are acting and talking, it sure seems like they’ve dealt with this sort of thing before - and more than once. I think we should at least try to find out as much as we can about what that thing really is and what’s going on here.”

“I agree,” Sergey nodded in support. “But I think we should be careful about what we tell them in return.”

“What do you mean?” Yuriy asked.

“I mean in general, but especially,” he looked right at Ivan. “Regardless of whether that serpent was a bit-beast or not, we should wait to tell them about Wyborg. I’m sure they’ve already seen our bit-beasts, so it’s pointless for us to try to lie about them, but it’s a good thing you didn’t have time to summon yours during the battle.”

It took Ivan another moment to catch on.

“Wait, you mean because Wyborg is also a serpent? What the fuck are you implying?”

“Vanya, that's not what I meant,” Sergey quickly reassured his friend. “Obviously we know there is nothing wrong with Wyborg. But they don’t. And by the way that that babushka referred to this as the “apocalypse”, it sounds like they are not particularly fond of giant snakes.”

Ivan shoved his hands into his pockets and kicked the ground, clearly upset. Sergey wondered if he should have kept his mouth shut.

“Sergey is right,” Yuriy stepped in. “We at least want to make sure they still trust us enough to give us the information that we need. Vanya, don’t worry, we know Wyborg is on our side.”

“You guys better,” Ivan muttered under his breath. Sergey and Yuriy exchanged a quick worried glance before going back to surveying the situation. The old woman and the cat were still examining something in front of the serpent corpse, the babushka having taken a seat on some slabs of concrete that were jutting out of the ground. A silent mutual agreement passing between them, the team made their way over to the two.

“…I wonder if Ekaterina would have known something about this,” the woman’s words drifted to them as they got closer.

“Maybe, maybe not,” the cat replied. “But this doesn’t seem like the usual way the Khan’s clans would have raised their children.”

“Who could have done something like this? And how?”

“Suppose they could have roosted the eggs differently?”

“Something so simple? No, that’s absolutely impossible.”

“You never know,” Behemoth held up his paws in defense. “In other places, if a rooster nests a serpent’s egg, black magic happens when that baby snake hatches.”

“Behemoth, this isn’t Western Europe and this wasn’t a bloody basilisk. Thank heavens for that at least.”

“Still, doesn’t mean an avian wasn’t involved in this. Maybe here the zmei just don’t get the Medusa eyes if they are carried to term by a bird, is all.”

“Small miracles,” the woman rolled her eyes, then paused, suddenly becoming aware of the team’s presence. “Oh yes, of course, you four,” she said, her tone almost tender and grandmotherly. “How are you all?”

Sergey traded a puzzled glance with Boris, struck by the unexpected warmth in the woman’s voice that his teammate easily picked up on as well. What a bizarre situation. The four of them would end up with an adopted babushka capable of slaying dragons though.

“We’re fine,” Yuriy replied. “We just wanted to talk to you about… this.” He gestured to the burning corpse and the destroyed park.

“Yes yes. I am sure you have a lot of questions about this - and yourselves.” She nodded in the direction of the mess, and then in their direction. Sergey paused. What does she mean by that?

“Yes, it would be great if we could talk to you about everything,” Yuriy spoke, somehow clearly aware what it was that the woman was referencing. Then, Sergey remembered. In his panicked grief it hadn’t registered with him in the moment, but now he recalled the passing look of recognition on the woman’s face before she administered the whatever potions she was using on Boris - as well as the strange name by which she called the young man. Finist.

It sounded familiar but Sergey couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

“I would be happy to talk - but not right now,” the woman’s expression soured. “We’ve got more important things to deal with immediately.”

“Such as?” Boris asked wryly.

“Tracking down whoever brought the zmei here - and making sure they don’t have any more with them.”

“Okay, wait, let’s start there,” Yuriy cut in. “You seem to know about this zmei. What is it? Where did it come from?”

The woman and the cat exchanged a glance. The cat shrugged, looking away bored at the now much smaller smoldering serpent carcass, and the woman sighed in resignation.

“I am afraid this will only bring up more questions, for which we don’t have time—”

“Just give us something.”

A pause as she looked the four of them over.

“Very well. The zmei did not come here on its own. Someone - we don’t know who - brought its egg and hatched it here,” she revealed the contents of the bundle she was holding. Inside were pieces of egg shell, sharp as glass, shining in metallic purple and black to match the dead zmei’s scales, covered in some sort of dried residue. The original egg must have been the size of Sergey’s torso, larger than anything that could have been laid by any animals the man knew to be capable of laying eggs. And yet, how could a snake so gargantuan have come out of something so tiny? Exactly how long had it lived hidden at the park without anyone noticing its presence?

“How long has that thing been here?” Clearly thinking along the same lines as Sergey, Yuriy asked.

“We don’t know how long the egg has been here,” the woman’s expression was grave. “But the zmei hatched within the last hour.”

“What?” Yuriy’s shock matched that of his teammates. “That’s impossible. How could something so huge have come out of an egg like that?”

“Zmei are more than capable of growing to that size,” she explained. “But the problem is that normally it takes months, or even years, for them to reach maturity. We don’t know how it could have grown so large so quickly. This is why we want to catch the folk who brought it here as soon as possible.”

“But where did he get this thing in the first place?”

“Well, obviously they brought it here from the Fae World.”

Yuriy stumbled over his next question and went silent. The rest of the men also did a double take.

“Come again?” They all spoke at once.

She sighed. “I said, they brought it from the Fae world.”

“I am sorry, and you two are?”

“We are Fae,” Svetlana and Behemoth replied in unison.

Fae.

As in, Fae of Russian fairy tales.

Sergey studied the petite old woman, dressed in an old Soviet-style overcoat and bright headscarf wrapped around her head, one arm soaked halfway in what could only be giant serpent eye fluid, and the towering naked humanoid black cat standing next to her.

Neither of them looked like any Fae he had ever read about.

The young man recalled the few Russian fairy tales that he did know, tales of daring but not quite bright protagonists, most of them named Ivan, grey wolves and other familiars that came to one’s aid during difficult trials, bright firebirds, princesses beautiful and wise but never both, greedy kings, dangerous forests, wicked warlocks, and more. The only cat he remembered was one that lived in an oak tree and knew a lot of things, and the only old woman was the one whose name they had been instructed not to speak. He gathered that the two characters in front of them were neither of these.

Then, something else in his mind clicked. An otherwise unrelated memory save for one thing. It was a night in from two years ago: Sergey and the rest of the team had just gotten done with a particularly grueling practice, and since the winter weather outside was miserable even by Yuriy’s standards, the four boys for once allowed themselves an evening off to catch up on some things that they missed out on doing as kids. Like building pillow forts, playing board games, and watching old Soviet cartoons and movies - including a fairy tale about a prince who turned into a bird. Finist the Bright Falcon.

“Sergey, what’s wrong?” Boris, who was still leaning on Sergey for support, asked him quietly so as to not disturb the main conversation between Yuriy and the female Fae, which was becoming more and more animated. Sergey came back from his daydream, and realized that he was holding Boris a little too tightly.

“Oh, sorry, man, it’s nothing,” he responded, offering a weak smile and loosening his grip a bit. The back of his neck was burning.
Boris smirked, albeit warmly. “Don’t sweat it man, you must be tired. I got this.” He took his arm off of Sergey’s shoulders and made an attempt to stand on his own, which was thankfully - although to Sergey’s chagrin - successful. Sergey forced himself to shift his attention back to Yuriy.

“—okay, slow down. So let me get this straight,” Yuriy evidently tried to recap. “There are two worlds - the Fae World and the Human World - that used to coexist just fine, until something happened and the barrier between them - the Threshold - became impassible in 1918. That’s when the two of you became trapped on this side. You know of no one who has been able to cross between the worlds in that time, until very recently, maybe even today, when someone opened a Gate from Fae to the Human world, came over with the zmei egg, and hatched it. You don’t know how the Fae crossed over or why they came with the egg, except that it can't be anything good. And you don’t know what else they may have done to the egg either because zmei aren’t supposed to mature this quickly.”

“Precisely,” the woman furrowed her brow, deep in thought.

Sergey tried to keep up with all the information. He stole another glance at the smoldering serpent carcass. He supposed he could suspend his disbelief about the existence of magical Fae creatures for the purposes of this discussion.

“If you want my opinion,” the black cat, who had sauntered off, now rejoined the conversation. “Looks to me like we are dealing with an amateur.”

This is the work of an amateur?” Boris scoffed. “I’d hate to see what a professional looks like.”

“But isn’t it obvious?” Behemoth arched a thick eyebrow at the young man before turning to address Svetlana. “This Fae are lousy at crafting Gates and even lousier at controlling zmei. I wouldn’t be surprised if the zmei just hatched on its own and went rogue.”

“Behemoth, it may be a zmei but… going rogue in a place like this? On such a nice day?” Svetlana balked. The questions seemed strange but Sergey could tell the woman wasn’t being facetious. “There is barely any magic for it to feed on at all, let alone the kind that would turn it so vile.”

“Svetlana, please - you know as well as I do that this entire city stands, if not thrives, on blood and bones. No sunny afternoon is going to erase its true history. Besides,” he narrowed his eyes, looking over at Sergey and the rest of them. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are just enough Fae here to wet a zmei’s appetite for battle.”

Something shifted uncomfortably in Sergey’s chest at the devilish feline’s comment.

“Hmm,” Svetlana didn’t seem entirely convinced but pondered Behemoth’s point. “Well no matter. We’ll just keep grinding gears if we keep sitting here. Let’s get going.”

“Uh, yeah, maybe we should get out of here,” Ivan cut in, looking over in the direction of the park entrance. Bright red lights of patrol cars, ambulances, and fire trucks were flashing in the distance. “I don’t know why they aren’t over here yet but something tells me we don’t have a ton of time.”

Boris cackled. “Are the police officially giving zero fucks about the state of the country?” He griped.

“No, they just can’t see us right now,” Svetlana replied, paying no attention to his tone. When he just looked at her in confusion, she sighed and clarified. “It’s a misimpression spell.”

Okay, that was super clear.

“A whatcha thing?”

“A misimpression spell. A temporary charm that forces any humans, particularly those who wish to approach here, to ignore this area and leave. The spell will wear off very soon, but that should be enough time for this corpse to fully burn away and for all of us to get out of here.”

“Then I say let’s do that.”

“Hold on, Boris,” Yuriy turned to Svetlana. “So where are you going? And what exactly are we supposed to do? You barely answered any of our questions!”

“Ooo, a feisty one this time. Good luck, Svetlana!” Behemoth giggled coyly.

The woman glared daggers at her companion. “Go get rid of these before the fire burns out.” She tossed the wrapped egg shells at the cat, who gave her a parting wink before prancing off. She turned back to Yuriy. “Behemoth and I will follow the errant Fae’s trail. They escaped through another Gate, but this one is thankfully between two points in the Human world. It should be no problem for Behemoth to follow the trail of threads they left behind.”

“Can we go with you?”

“No, it’s too dangerous. You are too inexperienced with your powers to not get in the way.”

“What's that supposed to—” Ivan protested but Yuriy held up his hand to silence him.

Powers? Does she mean beyblading?

“So we just wait for you?” Yuriy clearly wasn’t pleased with the turn of events.

“That’s exactly what you should do. Go home, get some rest - especially you.” She looked at Boris. “It’s a miracle you are even standing after taking in so much raw zmei blood.”

“What the fuck?” Boris gaped, but Svetlana was already ignoring their protests, instead getting up and walking away in the same direction as Behemoth.

“Hey wait, we’re not done here—” Yuriy called back after the woman, when she doubled over, clutching her side. Sergey’s stomach dropped in surprise. He followed Yuriy as the other man ran over to help the woman.

“Svetlana!” Behemoth materialized out of thin air right next to the frail babushka, holding her up and helping her find a new seat on the overturned debris.

“I’m fine—” she spoke, her breaths ragged.

Behemoth furrowed his brow in concern. “You need rest. You haven’t fought like this since the forties.”

“I don’t need rest, I need to be there if we find more zmei.”

“You can’t fight in your condition.”

Svetlana moved to get up in protest. “Yes I can—” she clutched her side again, wincing in pain, and sat back down in resignation.

“Svetlana,” Behemoth paused. “That’s enough.”

“No,” the old woman whispered back after taking a few deep breaths to get the pain in her side under control. “I can’t just sit and wait.”

“We are not going to sit and wait. I am going to look for the rampant Fae. And you must rest in the meantime.” He straightened up, putting his paws on his hips. “If there is another zmei and we have to fight it, you will need all of the strength you can manage.”

It was another few moments, but finally Svetlana acquiesced with a small nod.

“Can we help?” Yuriy stepped in.

Can you?” Behemoth laughed sharply. “I sure hope so.” When Yuriy just glared back instead of responding, the cat rolled his eyes but replied.

“Like I said, you need to go somewhere to rest. All five of you. I don’t suppose you live somewhere close to here, do you?”

Sergey and his teammates looked at each other.

“Well, not really,” Yuriy continued. “Our place is about an hour away on the metro—”

“No good,” Behemoth cut him off sharply. “Also that’s too far and you - especially you,” another glare directed at Boris. “Stand out too much right now. Any place you can go that’s closer?”

“Oh! What if we go to SevStad?” Ivan offered.

Behemoth arched an eyebrow. “To the what?”

Severnyi Stadion, the North-Eastern Okrug Stadium,” Ivan explained. “It’s the beyblade stadium nearby, we go there all the time for practice.”

“It’s the weekend, isn’t it going to be closed?” Boris asked.

“Nah, we’ll be fine,” Ivan grinned. “Old man Denis Fyodorovich gave me a key in case I wanted to get in for practice.”

“You got a key to the stadium?” Yuriy smirked, punching Ivan in the shoulder. “How come you never mentioned that before?”

Ivan shrugged. “I guess it just wasn’t relevant.”

“Great, we’ll go there then,” Yuriy turned back to Behemoth. “It’s about fifteen minutes by metro—”

“Again with this metro of yours!” Behemoth exclaimed. “How many times do I have to say it?”

“Huh?” Yuriy looked taken aback. “I thought before—”

“Less thinking, more doing,” Behemoth clapped his paws demonstratively. “But fine, I’ll spell it out for the slow ones. No metro, no underground tunnels of any kind.”

“What about buses?” Sergey offered before Yuriy could belabor the point, trying to help his friend out.

“Buses are fine. But do you really want to ride the bus like this,” it wasn’t even a question and Sergey knew that Behemoth’s statement was self-evident. Even without being as well-known as they were in Russia, they would attract far too much attention the state they were in. But what other choice did they have?

“Behemoth, can you craft a Gate from here to the stadium?” Svetlana asked, still sitting down. “It doesn’t sound like it’s too far away.”

“Not for all five of you, I certainly can’t.”

“Can you take us there one by one?”

The feline shook his head. “That would take too long. Besides,” he looked up, as if doing some mental calculation. “Finding that many strong threads to craft that many Gates will spend too much of my magic. And I still need to track the Fae we’re after.”

Whatever all those words meant exactly, Sergey gathered that it was not an option to make their escape.

“Ugh, well we can’t just sit here!” Boris groaned. “Fuck it, if I am the issue, I really don’t care, I can go on the bus for twenty minutes, no big deal.”

“Boris, you’re not the only one worth considering here,” Yuriy grumbled, rubbing the back of his neck in frustration. “We’ll get recognized right away and we’ll never make it out of here with all the cops and medics. Besides, the traffic around is going to be awful. It’s going to take us five times as long to get to the stadium.”

“Isn’t there anything we can do?” Ivan asked in resignation.

Behemoth and Svetlana looked at each other, understanding passing between them without words. As if on cue, they turned to each of the men in turn, studying them carefully. They started with Ivan, examining him for quite some time, then seemingly moving on, only to look back at him again. Ivan flinched.

“What the fuck do you guys want?”

“No good,” Behemoth finally declared. Ivan tried to protest but they had already moved on to Yuriy. The captain looked from the cat to the woman back to the cat in confusion but said nothing. The two didn’t say a word and simultaneously looked to the next one.

“Nope,” they both declared almost the instant they looked at Boris.

“Hey!” Boris exclaimed but Sergey put a steadying hand on his shoulder.

“Easy there.”

“But they—”

“Just drop it, Borya.” Sergey’s tone seemed to do the trick as Boris backed off and resigned himself to just simmering on his hurt pride. 

He turned his attention back to the two only to find them looking him over with very perplexed glances.

“Y—yes?”

Without saying a word Svetlana got up, steadying herself on the debris.

“Whoa there, my fleeting fire canary, where are you going?” Behemoth moved to catch Svetlana as she stumbled. She held her hand out to protest.

“I’m fine, just let me do it.”

Slowly but surely she walked over to Sergey. The top of the babushka’s head barely reached the bottom of Sergey’s chest, but even despite her exhausted look, in this proximity, Sergey could feel the intense energy radiating from her.

Something akin to the energy of their bit-beasts.

Before Sergey could protest, Svetlana took his right hand - the one less covered in Boris’s blood - and held it between her palms. A low burning, but not painful, sensation spread up his arm and through his body like a tiny flame. The woman looked him right in the eyes. Sergey flinched but held her gaze. Two eyes like embers, with a fire burning somewhere deep behind them. Calling to him, no, not to him, something - someone - deep within him.

Who are you? A clear voice, not raspy or worn with age, asked. Perhaps what Svetlana would have sounded like decades (centuries) ago.

Petrov Sergey Antonovich.

He didn’t notice how the surroundings around him seemed to fade away as he was only paying attention to the Fae in front of him. Not even to her physical presence, as the impression of her body and the contours of her face melted away into the haze. The only thing remaining were the two flickering flames and a single voice calling to him as he sunk deeper and deeper into the ocean within him.

Who are you? The voice demanded again.

Sergey, he replied, more simply. This deep, last names and patronymics no longer mattered. No one belonged to anyone. Everyone was their own being, and they only ceased to be so when devoured by the creatures lurking at those depths.

The ocean held many horrors. But why was he not afraid to sink even deeper? Everything had grown dark and even the ember flames did not penetrate this deep into his subconsciousness. So why did he feel even more at home in this solitary place?

And then, he wasn’t alone.

The connection was fleeting but unmistakable, as the lurking entity from within reached out and resonated with his very being. The iron grip of a hand beaten with storm winds and salt water that seized him and demanded to be pulled to the surface.

Sergey recoiled and exploded out of his trance, gasping for air. He doubled over, breathing heavily as sweat beaded at his brow.

“Seryi!” As the broken tile and other battle debris came back into focus, Sergey heard Boris and the others stumble over to him. “What did you do to him?” Boris yelled at Svetlana as he put his arm on his friend’s back for support.

“Chernomor.”

Sergey caught his breath.

The name of the being with the iron grip.

His name.

He looked up at Svetlana. The woman offered him a weak but kind smile.

Sergey still didn’t quite know what the hell was going on, but he reckoned this was probably on the list of good things that had happened today.

He smiled and nodded back.

“Somebody mind explaining what the hell is happening,” Boris probably would have complained more but shut up abruptly as, Sergey guessed, Yuriy shot him a dirty look. Sergey haphazardly wiped the sweat off his brow and straightened up with a light grunt.

“Well, well, well, quite a full guest list, I see,” Behemoth mewled as he came over to them, studying the tall man intently. “An Ivan, Morozko, Finist, and now Captain Chernomor himself graces us with his presence.”

Captain Chernomor? That’s you?” Yuriy asked, quirking an eyebrow.

“I guess so,” Sergey replied sheepishly, although he was relieved to see that his friend was asking more in curiosity rather than in irritation at having his title usurped.

“Is this the same Chernomor as in Pushkin’s fairy tales?” Yuriy now directed his question to Svetlana.

“Sasha’s tales?” Svetlana looked at him with a serious expression. “Well of course it is.”

“You’re kidding? The Chernomor who comes out of the sea at the head of an army or something like that?”

“Yes, that one.”

“That’s— hold on a sec—”

“Sea? Army? Seryi, what is this nonsense—”

“Hey wait, how did you know my name—”

“A-HA!” Behemoth threw his paws up in the air and everyone fell silent, even Svetlana jumping back at the outburst.

“God, why are you scaring everyone like that?”

“I’ve got it!” Behemoth beamed, his fangs glinting mischievously. He was staring intently at something far away. “Say, does this SevStad have a pool by any chance?”

“A pool? Yeah, actually, it does,” Ivan replied.

“Would it still have water even though the stadium is closed?”

“Water… I mean, I guess so…” Ivan hesitated.

“Yes, it would,” Sergey confirmed, albeit as confused as his teammate. “They only drain it for cleaning it at the beginning of the summer and winter seasons.”

“Okay, so the pool has water,” Yuriy looked to the cat. “Now what?”

Behemoth grinned mischievously. “Now I craft a Gate for you.”

“I thought you said you couldn’t?”

“Oh, mon cheri, but I can.” He winked at Sergey. “With your help, of course.”

“With mine?” Sergey balked.

“Yes indeed. But there is no time to waste, the misimpression spell is already starting to unravel. Let’s go,” and with those words, the cat led the way toward the entrance of the park. An array of concentric circles glowed into form beneath Svetlana, and as it moved after Behemoth the woman floated after her feline companion. Sergey realized that this must have been part of Behemoth’s magic all this time. The team rushed to keep up.

The cat took them all the way to a fountain, which still gushed water despite the ruin that lay around it.

“Get in,” Behemoth commanded.

“Are you kidding me right now?” Svetlana objected, even beating Boris to the punch.

“If I was, I’d be pulling your goat,” Behemoth retorted. “Come on, it’s the fastest way I can get you all out of here.”

Svetlana resigned herself with a sigh and walked up to the edge of the fountain. Behemoth turned back to the team.

“That goes for you as well.”

“So how exactly is this supposed to work?” Sergey asked, completely lost as to what his role was in all of this. Okay, he liked water well enough, it fit his theme, but did they intend him to do some sort of magic?

“The way that Gates work is quite intuitive,” Behemoth explained as the others slowly stepped inside the fountain. “A user must use the threads of magic - which naturally permeate the fabric of the Human and Fae worlds - to weave together, if you may, two Doors, one on each side of your location and your destination, and a Pathway, to walk between them.”

Threads. Doors. Weaving. Paths. Intuitive. Of course.

“And what exactly am I supposed to do?” Sergey inquired nervously even as he got into the fountain after his teammates and Svetlana.

“Don’t worry, you don’t actually need to know how to weave anything,” as if reading his mind and anxiety, Behemoth reassured him with a surprisingly sincere tone. “Chernomor’s power lies in commanding the high seas - any water, really. And he - you - can use that power to connect the threads between any two bodies of water to craft a Gate.”

“I am afraid I am not sure how to do that,” Sergey offered hesitantly, now on top of everything feeling ridiculous as the five of them crowded in the one cramped spot where the water wasn’t pouring on them directly.

“Like I said, don’t worry. I will be doing the difficult part of crafting the Gate. But you see, opening the Doors of the Gate is trivial for me at any time - what is not, at least at this time in the Human World, is finding threads strong enough to craft a Pathway that can send multiple folk like yourselves over it.”

“So that’s what you want my help with? Finding some threads that only I can summon by… connecting to the water at SevStad so you can… weave the Pathway?” Sergey tested out the new terminology.

To some mild satisfaction in a sea of apprehension, Behemoth nodded in approval. “I’ll start by opening the Door on this end. You think of the pool in the stadium. Call to it. I’ll be able to follow the thread and weave the Pathway all the way to the other end, open the second Door, and push you five through.”

“Okay… suppose I can do that…” Sergey felt himself start to get nauseous trying to figure out what he had to do. “But how long do I have to keep “calling” to the water? What if I lose concentration? Are we just going to fall out into some parallel plain or—”

“Sergey, calm down,” Yuriy cut in. Sergey took a deep breath and looked at their captain. “Don’t think about failing. Because you’re not going to. Just concentrate, like he told you.”

“Yeah, man, you’ve got this,” Ivan added reassuringly. “We trust you to do it!”

Boris just nodded in agreement.

Sergey shivered against the cool mist rising from the fountain and took a deep breath, steeling himself. Still, he felt his stomach churn more violently than a storm on the high seas. He could expand his worldview to accept the existence of giant demonic serpents, and even believe that Fae were real too, but coming to terms with the idea that he was capable of doing magic—

“Sergey.” At the sound of his name, the man turned to look at Svetlana. “Just dive deep.” You can do this, her eyes said with certainty.

Dive deep. The sensation of the descent of just a few minutes ago crept back into his memory, both mental and physical. But instead of disorienting and terrifying, it now felt familiar.

Not entirely confident but determined, he nodded to Behemoth.

“Excellent!” the giant cat exclaimed. “Everyone, hold on tight to your captain! Until next time!”

The water below them illuminated with an ominous red glow as a large rune circle, much like the ones before, inscribed itself at the bottom of the fountain. Sergey forced himself to pay attention neither to its mesmerizing lights, nor to the grips of his companions on his arms and shoulders. Instead, he imagined the stadium, and in that stadium the pool in which he swam so many times to cool down after practice, to be alone with his thoughts. To be in a place where he could think freely about everything, to not be beholden to anyone else. To be in his own element. To be himself.

The drop down was much faster this time but he welcomed the rapid descent. The same formidable presence he had felt just minutes before made himself known almost immediately, but this time he didn’t try to seize the young man. He waited for what he would do.

Sergey called for the water.

Loud and clear and excited, it responded.

The gust of wind that hit them was faster than any normal gale he had experienced, and his teammates held on to him tightly. Still, he forced himself to keep concentrating, to keep up the connection. He couldn’t let go, couldn’t come up for air just yet, he had to—

Water rushed into Sergey’s lungs. He snapped his eyes open, vision obscured by churning waves. He forced himself not to panic, and as the water began to settle he could make out the painted lanes at the bottom of the pool. He pushed himself in the opposite direction and broke the surface, coughing violently, replacing the chlorinated water with much needed air.

“Sery—” a voice next to him also erupted in a violent fit of coughing and the young man gradually became aware to the cacophony of sounds around him. Floating a lane away was Boris, the water around him coloring a light pink as the blood on his clothes seeped off into the pool. Ivan and Yuriy were not too far behind, already making their way to the edge of the pool, helping Svetlana swim along.

“Holy shit,” Sergey muttered under his breath as he coughed again, running a hand through his wet hair. “We fucking made it.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Holy shit,” Sergey muttered under his breath as he coughed again, running a hand through his wet hair. “We fucking made it.”

Only the auxiliary lights were on as the pool and the rest of the stadium were closed for the day, illuminating the water with a haunting glow from beneath the surface. The air was hot and humid but wonderfully familiar.

“Hey, you gonna stay in there or what?” Boris called back to him, having already swum halfway to the edge. With another amazed look at their surroundings, Sergey followed his teammates’ lead.

Once Sergey climbed out, the five sat on the edge of the pool, simply watching the water as it settled back down and tinted pink with the trail of blood that ended with Boris. All of them were winded and the men a bit disconcerted, but all reveled in the moment of peace that had finally been afforded to them.

“What are you laughing about?” Boris, who’d noticed the smirk on Yuriy’s face, asked their captain.

Yuriy shook his head. “No, I just remembered…”

“Remembered what?”

“That time we were at the tournament in Munich, and we threw Vanya into the hotel pool.”

The entire team, Ivan included, erupted in a fit of laughter.

“Oh my god, I totally forgot about that!” Boris sobbed. “I still can’t believe we managed to trick him into coming down to the pool at night.”

“You guys were such dicks!” Ivan tried to chastise his friends, completely forgetting all decorum in Svetlana’s presence, but the impact was lost as he had to force the words through in-between guffaws of laughter. “As soon as I came down, you and Yura just ambushed me and chucked me into the damn water!”

“Vanya, it was your own damn fault, you totally knew something was up!” Boris retorted. “You didn’t even bring a bathing suit down to the pool!”

“Besides, it’s not like you were the only one who ended up in the pool by the end,” Yuriy chuckled, looking knowingly at their oldest teammate. “After we threw Vanya in, Sergey snuck up behind us and pushed us into the pool right after him.”

“Oh yeah!” Boris exclaimed, turning to Sergey as well. “You did push us in, you traitor!”

Sergey, who had just managed to get his own fit barely under control, couldn’t help but burst out laughing again. “If you don’t like other people ending your fights, then don’t start one in the first place.”

“No, I just have to be the one to end them first,” Boris waved him off. “You cheated back then, and now this is the second time we’ve ended up in a pool because of—”

Boris swallowed the rest of his sentence along with a mouthful of water as Sergey unceremoniously shoved him into the pool. Yuriy and Ivan doubled over with laughter, Ivan nearly falling into the pool again himself. Even Svetlana chuckled as she observed the entire scene.

“Third time,” Sergey grinned mischievously as Boris glared up at him.

“You just wait, Petrov!” Boris sputtered as he pointed his finger at Sergey, swimming back to the edge. “I’m gonna get you back good for this!”

“Sure you will, Boris,” Yuriy jabbed at their friend as he and Sergey helped him climb back out.

“But seriously, Seryi” Boris coughed, water cascading off his doubly soaked clothes. “How did you do that?”

“Do what? Push you into the water?” Sergey quirked an eyebrow at his teammate. “I can show you again—” He placed one firm hand on Boris’s back, the other on his upper arm in preparation for another demo.

“No, no, I’m not talking about that,” despite the grin on his face, Boris raised his arms up in defense, and Sergey willingly backed off. “I mean— how the fuck did you teleport us to SevStad?”

That, unfortunately, Sergey could not show again - and he was not so sure he’d be able to explain it very well either.

The teammates all exchanged a silent glance before, as if on cue, all turning to look at Svetlana.

The old Fae recoiled at their attention.

“What are you all looking at me for?” She bristled. “Don’t ask me how water magic works, I can’t even swim! Ask the one who did it.” She nodded with her head toward Sergey. “Chernomor is the only one who can explain how Chernomor’s powers work.”

“Okay, why do you keep calling him that weird name?” Boris narrowed his eyes at Svetlana.

“Because that “weird name” is his Fae name,” Svetlana retorted, an unimpressed look on her face.

Boris raised a dubious eyebrow. “Sergey Petrov translates to “Chernomor” in Fae?”

Svetlana exhaled loudly. “No, it’s literally his Fae name. Aside from their human names, Fae beings also have their proper Fae names.”

“What the fuck do you mean, Fae beings have Fae names?” Boris repeated, either completely oblivious or just refusing to acknowledge what was already so plainly obvious to the rest of the group.

“Boris, she means that Sergey is Fae,” Yuriy clarified.

Boris blinked at their captain. “Get out of town.” He whipped around to gape at Sergey, his expression sincerely radiating betrayal. “You didn’t tell us?”

“God, Boris!” Sergey couldn’t help but exclaim. “I literally found this out like twenty minutes ago!”

“He is not the only Fae here besides me, you know,” Svetlana cut in before Boris could go on another tirade. “Boris, you are also Fae - as is Yuriy.”

“What? The three of us are Fae? Is that why your cat friend called us those really weird names? What was it, Chernomor, Morozko, and—”

“And Finist,” Sergey finished for him.

“Yeah, Finist, that’s the one!” Boris clapped his fist against his open hand in affirmation. “I don’t even know what that means, but that was definitely the one!”

“Svetlana, so these Fae that we supposedly are,” Yuriy addressed the woman. “Can you tell us more about—”

There was a loud bang as the door to the pool slammed open.

"Who's there?! Show yourselves!" A raspy, cranky voice echoed through the space.

Chainikov Denis Fyodorovich, the stadium's janitor, had burst into the room through a door on their side and was surveying the pool, looking for intruders. The team went still, but although he wasn't looking in their direction yet, there was no use trying to hide in the wide open space.

"Denis Fyodorovich!" Ivan waved to the old man to get his attention, getting up off the floor. The others followed his lead. "It's us, Vanya and the team!"

Sergey quickly stood up and moved to hide Svetlana behind him. If they could quickly convince the janitor that nothing was wrong and they were just messing around, hopefully he would leave without asking too many questions and inquiring about the babushka with them.

"Ivan!" Denis Fyodorovich, having taken a while to spot them with his terrible eyesight, raised both of his arms in surprise. He hobbled over in their direction. "What are you lot doing here? The stadium is closed today!"

"Ohh, we were just— sorry, we just wanted to come in for practice today for a bit. Everything is fine, no need to worry!" Ivan spoke quickly, laughing nervously.

"Well you know that's fine, but why are you in the pool room instead of— did you all go swimming?" As he drew closer he realized that the entire team was wearing their regular street clothes but was soaking wet.

"Oh, yeah, this? Sorry, we just—" Ivan stammered. Sergey wanted to help out but was at a loss for a plausible explanation as well. Yuriy and Boris, who’d also gotten up, didn’t know what to say either.

"Ivan, what is— Boris, my god!" The janitor had spotted the young man, who was hovering just behind Yuriy. "What happened to you? Yuriy, Sergey? Explain what’s—" he paused and squinted, trying to peer around Sergey's towering form. Shit.

"Denis Fyodorovich, we are really sorry about the mess, but we can help clean up," Yuriy cut in. "Let us just shower really quickly and we'll be right ba—"

"No, no, you wait right there." The janitor’s tone was surprisingly serious. Although Yuriy was intent on blocking his path, the old man maneuvered rather agilely around the captain. Even if Yuriy could have easily pushed him back, none of them would have felt right using force against this kindly, albeit persistent, old man who had been nothing but nice and accommodating to them throughout the years.

As there was no use hiding any longer, Svetlana voluntarily stepped out from behind Sergey. The two old folks stopped, scrutinizing each other in a strange silent ritual. The two looked to be about the same age - although in reality, to Sergey, anyone over the age of seventy, or who at least appeared to be that way anyway - just started to look the same. Both looked to be concentrating very hard on each other, in a fashion similar to when, Sergey realized, Svetlana and Behemoth were visually examining him and the rest of the team at VDNH before pinpointing him as Chernomor. Then, the janitor's expression went from apprehension to confusion to—

"Oh God" —recognition. "Svetlana? Is— is that really you?"

Svetlana's eyes widened in understanding only a split second later. "Chainikov?"

"Y—you remembered!" He choked out, tears forming in his eyes. He dashed toward the old woman and fell to the ground on his knees, clasping her hands and bowing into them.

"Do they know each other?" Boris whispered loudly to the rest of the team.

"This land be blessed," Chainikov uttered through his sobs, and Sergey had to do a double take. While the janitor was still clearly speaking Russian, he had lapsed into some strange accent that did not sound familiar to the young man. "Brightest Svetlana, no one had seen you since the fall of ninety six! Everyone had thought that you died!” He said, looking up at the woman.

"No need for such gloomy talk, Chainikov," Svetlana offered the man the kind of smile that one affords a long-lost friend. "I am still alive and well."

"Holy shit, does this mean Denis Fyodorovich is also Fae?" Ivan guessed. Sergey looked at his friend in shock, then back at the janitor. Giant snakes in exhibit pavilions, talking cats in parks, magic babushkas in pools, and now this. Exactly how many secrets of a second world had been hidden away from them in plain sight all this time?

“Svetlana, does this mean that you know our boys then?” Denis Fyodorovich asked as he stood up, turning to look at the team as he hastily wiped away his tears. “But how?”

“I see that your eyesight has gotten to be as bad as mine, Chainikov,” Svetlana offered sympathetically. “But I assure you, you will be able to recognize them if you look close enough.”

The Fae janitor followed her instructions and approached the team, starting with Sergey. Only a step between them, the janitor stared up at the young man’s face, eyes narrowed in concentration. Sergey was starting to catch on that Fae vision - or at least perception - somehow allowed one to tell humans and Fae apart - and more. Chainikov seemed to be able to do that much at least, but not tell exactly which Fae Sergey was. Unsatisfied with his efforts, he finally grabbed the young man’s hand. If Sergey had not known what to expect, he certainly would have missed the light tug at something within him. It was not as strong as when Svetlana called to Chernomor, but, he felt, good enough to reveal his identity.

Denis Fyodorovich gasped, his eyes wide. "Captain Chernomor!"

Sergey merely nodded, not entirely surprised but impressed nonetheless. He wondered if that was a trick that he and the rest of the team could learn eventually.

Meanwhile, the janitor had let go of Sergey's hand and run over to Boris. This time, the old man did not hesitate and reached for the youth’s hands immediately.

"Prince Sokolinsky," he said after a few brief moments, with even more adulation than before, which Sergey had doubted was possible. The name was different than the one Svetlana had used to call Boris, but the root for "falcon" was still the same. Sergey stifled a laugh as Boris's expression soured at being called a “prince”.

Finally, the old man had moved on to Yuriy. He held on to the captain’s hands for much longer than the others’, furrowing his brow as he struggled to place him. Suddenly, he let go as if he had been burned, taking a quick step back.

"Father Morozko." He breathed out with trepidation. The janitor backed up another two steps, with a small sheepish bow of his head.

For a brief second, which could have been a trick of his eyes, Sergey thought he saw something shift in Yuriy’s expression.

Denis Fyodorovich finally seemed snap out of his stupor as he surveyed the three men one more time. He cast a glance over his shoulder at Svetlana, who nodded at him reassuringly. The tension seemed to ease out of his body as he turned back around and bowed deeply, brushing the floor in front of him with his hand in a wide-sweeping arc.

Sergey balked.

"Denis Fyodorovich, please get up!" He rushed to the man's side to get him to stand upright. Out of the corner of his eye, the tall blond just caught Yuriy hesitate to do the same. "We assure you, there is no need for any of that. But," he paused, aware that one person had been missing from this entire conversation about Fae. "Svetlana, Denis Fyodorovich. What about Ivan?"

All eyes turned to the youngest member of the team. Ivan was standing not too far behind the other three men, staring out at the water, clearly not pleased at having been ignored for so long.

“Whatever,” he deadpanned.

The janitor stared at Sergey with an honestly confused expression. "What about Ivan?”

“Well—” Sergey stammered. “You keep saying that the three of us are Fae and have Fae abilities of sorts. Does Ivan have any sort of powers?”

Ivan pouted as if anticipating the answer.

Denis Fyodorovich, on his end, balked at the question. “But, he is an Ivan. What other kind of powers could he possibly have need for?”

Then, as if remembering something, he dashed past Sergey to the youngest team member. Ivan yelped in surprise as the janitor grabbed his arm and dragged him forward, showing him off to Svetlana.

"Brightest Svetlana, you don't have to worry!" He explained rapidly, almost like a proud grandfather. "Our Ivan is a very hardworking, considerate, responsible—"

"Do not worry, Chainikov," Svetlana chuckled, stopping the man before he could go on a tirade. She clearly did not seem to be troubled with the same concerns as him. "I can see very clearly that this is, indeed, a good Ivan."

The young man scowled. "Why would you think I was a bad Ivan?”

Svetlana closed the space between them, eyes sparking menacingly when she finally spoke. "Because plenty of them are."

Despite being a bit taller than the old woman, Ivan visibly shivered and recoiled at her words.

"Yes, but don't worry," the janitor spoke up with a wide grin on his face, patting Ivan heartily on his shoulder. "You are most certainly one of the fine ones—"

"Denis Fyodorovich," Yuriy interrupted, expression unreadable. "We really need to get changed."

"Oh, oh, yes, yes, of course, that's—" the old man went on but Yuriy was no longer paying attention as he headed toward the exit without a parting word to any of them.

"I'm going to follow him, because obviously," Boris gestured to the fine mess that were his clothes and, waving goodbye, caught up to Yuriy.

"Yeah, we really should be going to get cleaned up. Thanks, Denis Fyodorovich!" Ivan extricated himself from the two old folks and ran after his two teammates.

Sergey huffed loudly.

"Denis Fyodorovich," he turned to the elderly man, or, as he figured would probably be more appropriate, Fae. "I am so sorry about the mess we made with the pool. If we can help clean up—"

"No need to worry yourselves about it!" The janitor smiled jovially. "I’ve cleaned up much worse messes than this! You all go wash up and relax, clearly you need it." He hobbled off to the other side of the pool to get some cleaning equipment and get to work, humming some jolly tune under his nose.

Once he was gone, Svetlana approached Sergey.

"Sergey," She spoke in a low voice. "Could I ask you to keep an eye on Yuriy?" Svetlana had also picked up on something earlier, so Sergey hadn’t just imagined it. What more, he suspected that the Fae understood the implications of the earlier interaction much better than he did. He decided to ask about it later, acquiescing to the request for now.

"Thank you," Svetlana smiled, relieved. "You did very well today."

"Oh, uh... thanks," he said. He wasn't sure whether he had much room to be boasting, seeing as Behemoth had done most of the work, but he supposed he did help to get them to the stadium.

"Alright, now go,” Svetlana reached up to pat him on his arm. “Catch up to your friends and get cleaned up. I'll see you all when you are done."

"Wait, where are you going?"

"Me? Also to clean up," the woman craned her neck in a way a bird might. "I know things are different than they were in the Soviet Union, but I hadn’t realized they had co-ed changing rooms in stadiums now?"

"Erm, that's not—" Sergey shuddered, his face heating up at how awkward his earlier question must have sounded. "No they don't! But what I meant was— do you know where—"

"I am only teasing,” Svetlana reassured him with two more pats. “Do not worry about me, I will ask Chainikov. I would like to catch up with him first anyway." She nodded in the direction of the exit. "You go! Before they use all the hot water!"

And with a parting nod and wave to Svetlana, Sergey followed in his teammates' direction.

Once he got to the locker room, Yuriy had already jumped in the shower. Ivan was getting ready to go in, and Boris was examining his naked stomach and chest in the giant locker room mirror.

"Seryi, fucking look at this, there is not even a scar left or anything!" Boris yelled to his friend as he walked in.

Sergey took a quick glance, just long enough to satisfy Boris's request, but a quick glance was all he could stomach at the moment. He tried not to think too much about how just some half an hour ago that same body was in his arms spouting blood like one of the VDNH fountains.

"You are lucky to be alive, Boris. Don't forget to actually thank Svetlana later," he replied.

"Yeah yeah, I will," Boris replied, before stripping completely naked and heading off to the showers.

Sergey opened his designated locker, which, thankfully, had a spare change of clothes - a full set of everything. He wondered if the others had managed to find something to change into as well, doubting if Ivan and Boris would have been so prepared, but he supposed that’s something he could check after he got out.

The hot shower was a blessing and for a long time Sergey just stood underneath the calming water, letting it wash away the tension in his muscles and the grime on his body. He tried closing his eyes to meditate, but every time he did all he could see was Boris, barely conscious and dying, cradled in his arms. So he stopped trying to meditate and resolved to make sense of all of the other things that had happened that afternoon.

He had already come to terms with the concept of two worlds - Human and Fae - that had coexisted but then at some point were separated. He and his teammates had often wondered about the origin of their bit-beasts, and that they should come from some other parallel, or rather neighboring, world where magic and spirits were real was fairly believable. Svetlana hadn't explained that much, but given that her Fae energy read very much like that of a bit-beast - or would it be vice versa? - he was sure there was a connection.

What was perplexing to him was that this was power to harness which one did not necessarily need a beyblade. Svetlana and Behemoth were perfectly capable of using magic on their own terms, and even Sergey had been able to do the Pathway opening trick without summoning his bit-beast. The other Fae - wait, when did they become "the other Fae" from my perspective? - did have to conjure up those mysterious rune circles though, and Behemoth had spoken of the “threads of magic” that permeate both the Human and Fae Worlds. Perhaps the rune circles were merely a tool which allowed one to use the threads, much like Sergey and the others used their beyblades to call out to their bit-beasts. But then, how were the entity he had found within him - Chernomor - and Seaborg connected? Although Sergey couldn’t be sure, he felt like they had some sort of a master-familiar relationship. Perhaps if he tried to summon Seaborg and call on Chernomor at the same time, he would be able to figure it out.

As he took comfort in the steady, soothing beats of the water coming out of the shower, the young man tried to remember how much he knew of this Chernomor from fairy tales. The only mention that came to mind however was the same reference that Yuriy had made at VDNH. Pushkin, one of the most famous Russian writers, in one of his many fairy tales made mention of a bogatyr Chernomor who, with his battalion of thirty three warriors, served Tsar Gvidon, the son of Tsar Saltan, on the enchanted island of Buyan. But there was no stand-alone story that detailed Chernomor's adventures or history, or at least one of which he knew. As frustrating as it was, it wouldn’t be too useful for Sergey to try to come up with more information on his own.

Instead, he turned to parsing out what he could about the rest of his teammates. The identity of the power within Boris was fairly straightforward - Finist the Bright Falcon, a magical prince one of whose many powers was the ability to turn into the bird of the same name. Again he smiled to himself at the thought of the brash, uncultured, untamable Boris as potential royalty. Sergey wondered how much of the rest of the fairy tale - the prince taking interest in some girl he found by crashing through her window, almost dying after his betrothed left to visit her family and failed to return after three days, and then being saved by his love’s kiss and living happily ever after - was also true or could turn out to be true.

As with the vivid images of Boris’s mangled, bleeding body, Sergey decided not to dwell too much on this train of thought for the time being.

With a deep sigh, he instead recalled the downright crushed demeanor of their youngest teammate. None of the Fae had made a particularly compelling statement about Ivan, instead vaguely insinuating that he was special just because he was an “Ivan”, albeit without any sort of Fae powers of his own. It was true that all of the fairy tale protagonists were named Ivan and were lauded as being the ones most capable of finding princesses, seeking out help from forest dwellers, and slaying terrifying enemies. Sergey was not sure that there was quite a demand for any of those skills in their world. But, little credit as their friend gave himself, Sergey knew that Ivan was capable of accomplishing great feats if he just put his mind to it. He would just have to make sure that Ivan didn’t get left behind in all of this novel Fae excitement.

And then, finally, there was Yuriy, whom the Fae called Morozko. Morozko’s modern day iteration, Grandfather Frost, allegedly resided in northern Russia and was the ruler of winter who at New Year brought presents to children all around the country. The fairy tale Morozko however, while quick to reward those who were good of heart, was also quick to punish the rude and the lazy and those who dared to disrespect him - mostly with cold snaps, but also with death.

While Behemoth and Svetlana, perhaps as more powerful Fae, had no qualms with Morozko and were perhaps even eager to see him, the same clearly could not be said about Denis Fyodorovich. Sergey’s heart ached at the recollection of the janitor’s reaction to Yuriy. It is true that, according to stories, Morozko’s powers were formidable, and anyone who had lived in Russia and was familiar with the brutality of winter that could descend on the land was wise to treat the ruler of the season with respect. But he still could not reconcile that image with Yuriy. Even if their captain did have these terrifying powers, he was still their Yura, a man who at the end of the day did not hesitate to try to cheer up lonely babushkas or to run into the midst of danger to save innocent people. Sure he had his brutal and sadistic history - god, they all did - but to lump him in the same category as something deadly and unforgiving was not right by any stretch of the imagination.

This was no doubt something that would deeply bother Yuriy, who had tried so hard, both for himself and for all of them, to mend his ways after leaving the Abbey. Svetlana was right to ask Sergey to check in on Yuriy so he was going to do just that. After a quick rinse, the young man turned off the water and stepped out of the shower, his head still abuzz but now feeling much more energized. Back in the main area of the locker room, the others were already getting dressed - at least Boris and Ivan were.

"Where's Yura?" Sergey asked.

“He left a while ago,” Boris replied noncommittally.

“You know where he went?”

Boris shrugged. "Dunno, but he seemed kind of moody, as per usual."

Sergey cursed himself for taking too long in the shower as he quickly got changed and dashed off to catch up with their captain. Thankfully, the others had miraculously opted to get ready in silence and didn't try to hold him up with conversation before he left.

Sergey jogged down the hallway, trying to figure out where Yuriy would have gone off to. As he went through the list of the different rooms in the stadium, not paying close attention to the things right in front of him, just as he rounded a corner he collided with something very solid. Stumbling backward from the impact he would have landed right on his ass if not for a small, wrinkled hand of a babushka that grabbed at the front of his shirt and held him up with ease before he could fall. A brief pause, and Svetlana pulled him up to stand upright again.

"Excuse me, Sergey," the old woman offered an apologetic smile. "I should have stepped out of the way when I heard you running."

Sergey just stared at the Fae, dumbfounded. Whoever had come up with the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” might as well have known Svetlana personally. Even if not for her frail elderly appearance, her outfit did not befit someone who seemed to be a hardy battle-seasoned warrior either. She was still wearing her colorful headscarf, which she had managed to dry somehow - probably with magic - and although she had changed out of her other worn out clothes, the new ones, more modern, did not fit the palette either.

“Those new?” Sergey gave it a weak attempt to start conversation.

“These? Yes, Chainikov got them out from the lost-and-found, said they’re from years back,” she grimaced. “Not exactly my style, but at least I’m finally out of those darn Soviet army fatigues.”

Geez, and I thought I was always behind the latest fashion trends.

"I see,” Sergey said instead, then finally seemed to snap out of shock. “So wait, how— how exactly did you do that?" He asked, gesturing between the woman and the general area where he had been about to wipe out. Surely any Russian babushka was a force to be reckoned with, and the earlier encounter in the park had made that clear, but this was a bit much.

“What, being sturdy like an oak tree?” Svetlana croaked. “Don’t mind that, that’s just my innate stubbornness.”

“That’s it? Stubbornness?” Sergey looked at her dubiously. “Boris and Yuriy are also pretty damn stubborn, but not to that extent.”

Svetlana laughed. “What I mean is, when folk become Fae, their intrinsic human qualities manifest themselves in various ways as Fae abilities. Whatever it was for me became this.”

She demonstratively pushed Sergey in the chest with an open hand, and the youth was forced to take a good step back to steady himself. But instead of being satisfied with proving her point, the elderly folk just sighed deeply. “But that power too is waining. I am just not the young girl I used to be anymore.”

“That must have been… quite some time ago?” The young man offered.

“Not as long as you might think - by Fae standards,” Svetlana corrected with vigor. “Those bloody communists were a plague on everyone. Granted, the Threshold becoming impassible did not help anyone on this side, but even between just Lenin and Stalin, those upyr’ did more than enough damage, sucking everyone in this land dry!”

Sergey had very few reference points for what the communists were like, having only caught the tail end of the Soviet Union after he was born, but he did know that the aftermath was anything but pleasant. He could only imagine what the fallout of the Russian Revolution, when Lenin and then Stalin took over, was like. Svetlana may have spoken in generalities, but Sergey suspected she had direct experiences with the leaders of old.

The man was torn. He was fairly eager to stay to talk to Svetlana, maybe ask some questions about the Fae world, but he also remembered her request and would feel guilty if he didn’t find Yuriy soon.

Svetlana seemed to catch on to his dilemma.

“I am sorry, Sergey, look at me, just babbling on about some stories of long ago. You were on your way somewhere? May I walk with you, perhaps?”

Sergey didn’t see a problem with that. Seeing how quickly Svetlana could read a room, she’d probably leave once they found Yuriy and allow them to talk with each other.

As they continued down the hallway along Sergey’s route, the young man remembered the Fae’s comment that had caught his attention. “Svetlana, you said that when folk become Fae, their human qualities manifest in different ways as Fae powers. Did you actually mean that Fae start out as humans?”

“Yes, although not absolutely,” she answered. “I started out as human. You as well, of course, started out as one. But not all Fae do.”

“So there are different types of Fae?”

“Oh yes! Many, many different types. Just as the simplest example, there are Born Fae, like Chainikov, and Gifted Fae, like you and me. Born Fae are spawned from the union of place, circumstance, and nature. Like rusalka, who are born when women drown themselves in tragic circumstances, or domovoy, who are born of love in the hearths of well-kept homes."

Sergey gasped, the realization suddenly dawning on him. "Is Chainikov a domovoy?"

"Yes, very good!" Svetlana nodded in approval. "Originally, he was the domovoy in charge of a row of houses that were built here in the 1750's. Miraculously, they all survived the Revolution, and a third even managed to survive the Second World War, so he was doing fine for himself, even if a little worse for wear. Better than most domovoy in these parts for certain. During the Great War was, incidentally, when I met and last saw him. As he tells it, in the fifties the houses were deemed to be beyond repair and demolished completely. Thankfully for him, it wasn't too long before they built the stadium here so he just tied himself to this place."

"Do the domovoy always have to be connected to a specific place?"

"Absolutely. Their entire life's purpose revolves around keeping homes safe and in order - and to nudge tenants who are not doing the best job with upkeep to be more careful. If the domovoy don't have a place where to live and which to protect, they simply cease to exist."

Sergey tried to image Denis Fyodorovich just disintegrating into thin air - a more peaceful way to die, most likely - and shuddered at the thought of other possibilities.

"What about these Gifted Fae?" He asked as he opened the door to the main stadium arena. There was a high chance that Yuriy, a fan of brooding in open deserted places, might be here. Still, he continued to listen to Svetlana's explanations.

"Gifted Fae are born as humans but at some point in their lives are bestowed upon Fae powers by the land."

"At some point? Bestowed upon? What does that mean?"

"The land - literally, the land of Rus’ - judges the folk who inhabit it to find those who are the most worthy, who possess the resolve and the potential to make the best use of the powerful magic that resides within its mountains, forests, and rivers, its flesh and veins. It then grants these folk Fae abilities," Svetlana said, following Sergey as they walked around the periphery of the stadium seating. Yuriy did not seem to be anywhere in the arena, so Sergey aimed to check the other half of the building.

"Now, it may be that some folk are born with the potential to become Fae,” Svetlana continued. “But there is nothing that says that one's character cannot mature into it. All it takes is one life experience to tip the balance and to turn one on the path of Fae. As for timing, there is no specific point by which one must become a Fae if they are to be one. There is not such thing as “Fae puberty”. One becomes a Fae when they are ready, whenever that is, if ever."

Sergey continued to walk in silence, thinking. Svetlana peered at him, craning her neck in that same peculiar bird-like fashion again, her eyes wide in anticipation.

"Do you have a question?"

"Yes, but… I am not sure if it’s an appropriate thing to ask..." he hesitated.

Svetlana chuckled. "Try it."

"How did you become Fae?"

"Ah yes," she smiled. "A very good question."

Once again the talking ceased, and Sergey wondered if the woman would actually answer. Then:

“Tell me, Sergey, how well do they teach the history of Rus’ in schools these days?”

“Uhh…” Sergey hesitated. Given that he and the rest of the team didn’t have the most traditional of childhoods and had to play intense catch-up with their schooling after getting out of the Abbey, he wasn’t sure he could give a satisfactory answer. “I don’t know about the schools, but I guess I’ve read a few books on it, if that’s what you wanted to know.”
Svetlana studied him with a funny expression but decided not to pry further into it. “Then, of what you read, did you ever learn about the Golden Horde?”

“The Golden Horde? Like, the Mongols that invaded Russia in the thirteenth century? Yeah, I’ve read about them,” Sergey answered, unsure where the old woman was going with this. She couldn’t possibly imply that—

“You asked me if I used to be human,” she spoke, her voice a bit more distant now. “And I was, a very long time ago. My family and I were peasants in a small village along the Klyazma River. We led a very ordinary life, keeping with the seasons and traditions, possessing just enough to be free from want but not so much as to make our neighbors jealous. By those measures, there was really no reason for me to turn Fae. Something truly extraordinary had to happen in order to spark my transformation.”

She turned to look at Sergey, her eyes glinting with memories dark and ancient. “Whatever they may teach in books nowadays, words can never convey just how out of the ordinary the invading Mongol hordes were.”

Sergey simply waited for her to continue, unsure of when they had stopped walking.

“Back then, those snakes razed entire princedoms to the ground, with no regard for any life," Svetlana spat, her tone venomous. "My village was just one of many that lay in their path of destruction, a speck of dust to be brushed away on the way to conquer and pillage these territories. When the horde’s soldiers came, my sisters and I stowed away in the crawlspace underneath our house. We managed to stay silent and hidden even when they came in to slaughter our parents. But when they had set fire to everything, there wasn’t much else that we could do.”

Svetlana took a seat at the edge of the last row, exhaustion etched into the wrinkles of her face. She looked out at the empty arena, remembering. Sergey perched on the back of the seats, staring at the wall, thinking what it must have been like to keep such a raw memory so vivid for almost eight hundred years.

"What happened then?" Sergey chanced the question after a few silent minutes had passed.

"I was the only one to make it out alive. Of our entire village,” Svetlana answered. “I was… what you would expect: devastated, heartbroken, barely alive… but I wanted to survive. I wanted to keep fighting. I wanted to stop the Khan’s army, even if not all of it, then even just one of his soldiers, to make sure there was one less monster out there to inflict the kind of pain and grief that I had suffered. And it was then that, as if hearing my wishes, from the fire of my village into the grey ashen sky rose a beautiful magical bird made of flames. It shared my love for the folk of this land, my compassion for those less fortunate - and my seething rage. And as our natures resonated with each other, it bestowed upon me powers that I had never dreamed of in all of my life.” Finally, Svetlana turned to look at Sergey, offering a weak smile. “And so I have been Fae ever since.”

Sergey stared back, finally realizing which Fae had rescued them. "You're… Firebird."

"Pleased to meet you," Svetlana greeted the young man.

"Huh, that's funny," Sergey looked back at the wall. "I had never thought of firebirds as zmei slayers of sorts.”

“Well, that practice, incidentally, also goes back to the Mongol invasion.”

“It does?”

“Yes,” Svetlana nodded. “But perhaps, more on that another time…”

Sergey nodded in agreement. The babushka looked like she could use some rest, and here instead he had been tiring her out with exercise and heavy conversation. Perhaps there was a slightly more positive topic they could discuss than destructive medieval invaders. He wracked his brain for more things he knew about firebirds from fairy tales.

“I guess there are not many standalone stories about firebirds, are there?”

“No, unfortunately,” the woman sighed, sinking deeper into her seat. “Many tales are lost to time, especially when victors are ones who choose the tales that we hear.”

Sergey nodded, deep in thought. “Yeah, the way the stories portray firebirds aren’t what I would call good press. The only things I remember is that they sit around in golden cages and occasionally gorge themselves on apples they’ve stolen from some fancy gardens,” the man chuckled, but his laugh got caught in his throat when he saw the expression on Svetlana's face. Something on the spectrum between tepid rage and outright murder.

"Yes, those stories are also true," she said curtly. A shiver went down Sergey’s spine. He had crossed some line unknown to him but wasn't sure how to go back.

He didn’t have much time to think about it when Svetlana got up. "We should go find the others. Chainikov said he would go out to get groceries. I think we could all use some food right now."

She finally made eye contact with Sergey and smiled, but the cheer did not reach her eyes.

"Yes," Sergey hesitated, trying to think of a way to salvage the conversation, but came up short with anything but guilt. "By the way, I am— I’m sorry I haven't had a chance to check in on Yuriy yet. I have been trying to find him but seems he doesn’t really want to be found at the moment…"

"Oh, that's quite alright," the woman's expression softened a bit at his concern. "I talked to him earlier so he should be alright for now."

"You did? When?"

"Just before I ran into you. He is understandably worried, but he will be fine." They started walking towards the exit. "But still, if you could keep an eye on him going forward, I would be very grateful to you for that."

"Sure, that's no problem. I was already planning on doing it," he reassured her.

"Thank you, Sergey," she replied warmly. "You know, Chernomor's power has always been passed on to the most dependable and reliable. I am not surprised to see that you have not changed."

Her phrasing had a funny ring to it. "Oh?" the young man pondered her words. "I guess I wouldn't have thought to describe myself that way."

She chuckled. "Why is that so surprising? After all, only the sturdiest mountain can withstand the raging sea storm."

He didn't like to dwell on his own qualities too much, but her description did seem pretty accurate. "I suppose I do watch out for the others to make sure they stay out of trouble. Mostly Boris, really, but still.”

"Speaking of which," Svetlana stopped right before they reached the door out of the arena. The look on her face wasn't so much that of concern but rather curiosity. "You haven't told him yet, have you?"

"Huh?"

"Boris. You haven't told him how you feel yet." She craned her neck to the side, waiting.

Heat ran up the back of Sergey's neck as he tried to remember how to breathe. "How did you know..." he whispered.

"No one remembers anymore why strangers shake hands when they meet each other," she looked down on her own hand. "But as you may have noticed, there is little that can be hidden through this kind of tactile contact - even with Fae magic. And your hands were soaked in his blood." The man felt himself shrink under the intensity of Svetlana’s gaze as he recalled Boris, his dear, precious Boris dying, dead, in his arms. "You were very afraid of losing him."

"I—" Sergey turned away, his face burning, embarrassed. He hadn't told anyone about how he felt. He had never intended to tell anyone about it - least of all Boris.

“I am sorry,” the elder Fae said gingerly, as if talking to a spooked animal. “It was not my intent to bring up something that upset you.”

“No, it’s okay,” he choked out a reply, his hands balling into fists to keep himself together. “But, please don’t tell anyone about it. Especially him.”

“I understand,” she nodded. “But you should know that this is nothing of which you should be ashamed.”

He barked a laugh, crossing his arms in front of him. "I don't know if you’ve noticed, but relationships like this aren't exactly well-received in Russia these days."

“So? That’s what other people with their prejudices say. Let them believe their nonsense. That doesn’t invalidate what you feel or make it any less wholesome.”

He studied her with a wry smile.

"Sergey, I've been around for centuries. I don’t have any false illusions about how homosexuality is received in Russia these days. For what it’s worth, I am happy to tell you that, despite their own set of prejudices, the Fae lot tend to be much more open-minded about issues of gender and sexuality."

"You think that's still the case in the Fae world even after all this time?" He entertained the question.

“For God’s sake, Sergey, half of us turn into birds, mammals, and amphibians, do you think this is something we would have an issue with?” Svetlana rolled her eyes, then continued more calmly. "I may have been gone for one hundred years, but Fae, whether Born or Gifted or otherwise, have never really cared for the Human construct of gender - although we have certainly borrowed some of their words and concepts. And the land certainly doesn’t care for it either. Firebird need not to have chosen a woman, and the next Chernomor could have as well been nonbinary. The essence of Fae magic resonates with human emotion. And we are all beings who feel."

"Huh," Sergey chuckled. "Seems like the world of Fae might not be such a bad fit for me after all.”

"Wouldn’t have expected it to be any other way," Svetlana reassured him. "But I would like you to think about this again. Are you really set on not telling him? These things are always better said than not."

"I don’t know," the man shuffled on his feet. “It’s just… there are a lot of reasons.”

“I know, trust me,” she sighed. “A long, long time ago, I once delayed telling someone I loved about how I felt. Then,” she paused. “…something happened, and I couldn’t see him for an entire century. When I came back, he refused to speak to me, and the separation had almost ruined our relationship.”

“How did it turn out?”

“Well, we had a terrible fight, but he realized his mistake, and we made up. Things ended well enough, all things considered. But,” her expression turned melancholy so suddenly that Sergey was afraid she would burst into tears. “Because neither of us was willing to speak their mind, we had lost nearly one hundred years of happiness together.”

They both stood in silence for a moment as Sergey allowed her a moment to collect herself.

“Do you understand what I mean?” she finally asked.

He nodded slowly.

"You don't have to do it right now. But know that if you keep putting it off until tomorrow, you'll never do it." She walked right up to him, peering into his face. Etched into her wrinkles and skin marks were centuries of tumultuous experiences Sergey couldn’t even begin to unravel.

"Just think about it. And remember.” With her finger she gingerly tapped the spot on Sergey's chest right over his heart. This time, he barely felt her touch. "Out of the many types of magic that exist in Fae, this one has always been the most powerful. Whatever happens, never let this one go."

Chapter Text

“Holy shit, there’s food!” Ivan yelled when he saw the groceries laid out in the back room kitchen. Blinchiki, two different types of Russian salads, at least three varieties of cold cuts, bread, cheese, chocolate, and other delicious offerings had been prepared on a table set for six. It hadn’t hit him until now but Ivan was absolutely famished.

“Alright, I am ready to eat!” Boris declared, rolling up the sleeves of his shirt in preparation. The two had hung back in the locker room after Yuriy and Sergey left but decided it was probably time to rejoin the others.

“Wait for orders to eat.” The two men jumped as Yuriy’s cold tone clamped down on their excitement.

“Ugh, don’t be such a party pooper,” Boris, ever keen to mess around with their captain, slung his arm around Yuriy’s shoulders and pulled him in for a rough hug. “We’re celebrating being alive, why wait to start?”

“We’ll start when everyone gets here,” the redhead lightly punched the taller man in the stomach to get him to release his grip. Boris grimaced, sticking his tongue out.

“Fine, but they better get here soon,” Ivan took a seat at the table and put his head down near his plate, letting his arms spread out like a starfish. “I want food and answers. But more importantly, food.”

Boris grabbed a seat opposite Ivan and leaned back to balance his chair on its back legs. “Where is Sergey anyway?”

“Don’t worry, he is right here,” a woman’s voice croaked and Svetlana walked into the kitchen, Sergey following right behind.

“And where are you two coming from?” Boris jumped right into an interrogation.

“He took a lonely babushka on a lovely walk around the stadium,” Svetlana didn’t miss a beat. “Not something you’d know much about.” As she walked behind Boris to the other side of the table she tipped his chair just slightly backwards, almost sending the man toppling to the ground.

“Hey, watch it!” Boris yelled, his chair landing on all four legs with a dull thud. Ivan stifled a laugh. He still hadn’t exactly made up his mind about the grandma, but anyone who refused to take shit from Boris and on top of that dished out their own was sure to get points in his book.

He noticed Yuriy and Sergey were of a similar opinion, the tall blond discretely covering his mouth with his hand and the captain actually smirking openly.

“Okay, are we ready to eat now?” Ivan asked, hopeful, and trying to shift the conversation before Boris could start something.

Sergey looked around. “Where’s Denis Fyodorovich?”

“Here I am!”

Without so much as a sound, the old man materialized out of thin air behind the empty chair next to Ivan, startling the four teammates. There was a flurry of excitement as everyone gasped and yelped, with Yuriy backing into some furniture, Boris hitting the bottom of the table with his leg, rattling the silverware, and Ivan falling out of his chair altogether.

Amid the commotion, Svetlana calmly took a seat at the table next to Boris.

“Jesus Christ, Denis Fyodorovich,” Yuriy groaned as he perched on the back of the solitary couch in the room. Next to him, Sergey was crouching down, head lowered, as if someone had punched him in the gut. “Please don’t do that without warning.”

“Huh?” The Fae janitor was completely oblivious to what had just happened, going straight to checking up on the boiling tea kettle on the stove. “Oh, so sorry lads, I thought you would be used to that by now.”

“I am afraid they are not quite familiar with domovoy customs and habits as of yet,” Svetlana offered as she held out her tea cup for hot water. “Or Fae knowledge in general.”

“Whoa, wait, you’re a domovoy?” Ivan piped up from his spot on the floor. “But I thought all domovoy looked like tiny hobbits or something?”

“In our Fae state, we sure do!” Denis Fyodorovich answered matter-of-factly, one hand on his hip as he poured water for Svetlana with the other. The rest of the team took this as a cue to gather at the table and start eating. “But how do you expect us to get on along in Chelmir if we looked like that all the time?”

Chelmir?” Yuriy asked.

“The shorthand for ‘Human World’,” Svetlana explained, as the domovoy busied himself with preparing more food at the counter. “The Fae world is then, naturally, referred to as Faemir.”

“You hadn’t called it that before,” Boris jabbed, piling food onto his plate.

“I was trying to make sure you followed.”

Boris shot her a dirty glare, sending Svetlana into a fit of barking laughter. “Oh Finist, you are as easy to rouse as ever.”

“Okay, there, let’s talk about that,” Boris pointed his fork with a skewered dumpling at Svetlana. “I want to know more about these weird Fae names that everyone keeps referring to us by.” He gestured to Yuriy and Sergey with the dumpling. He pointed to Ivan, but then the dumpling wavered. “Well, I guess you’re just ‘Vanya’.”

“Doesn’t mean I don’t want to know what the fuck is happening around here,” Ivan retorted with a mouthful of sandwich.

“Well, whatever.” The dumpling pointed to the ceiling. “I want to get to the bottom of this ‘you are Fae’ business. So let’s start with him,” Boris pointed at Yuriy as he addressed Svetlana. “What’s the deal with Dedushka Moroz?”

Svetlana took a sip of her tea. “It’s Morozko, not Grandfather Frost,” she corrected him. “And whatever you want to know, you can just ask your friend about it.”

Boris whipped around, glaring at Yuriy with suspicion. “What’s that supposed to mean? Did you know something about this beforehand?”

“What? No!” Yuriy put up his hands in defense. “Relax, man. I found out same time as you did that we had these… Fae powers.” He turned to the older Fae.

“Svetlana, I know we talked earlier, but I am afraid I still don’t quite understand enough—”

Ohhhh,” Boris cut him off, rolling his eyes. “So you two talked earlier. Fine, I’ll ask someone who is not in love with the babushka,” Boris said. Yuriy scowled in response and Svetlana choked on her tea, doubtless startled by Boris’s excessive crudeness.

The young man ignored them both as he turned to Sergey, silently demanding an answer.

“Borya, we went over this back in the pool room,” Sergey huffed, arms crossed. “None of us saw this coming. Yes, Yura and I might be catching on to things a little quicker because he talked to Svetlana and I had to use Chernomor’s powers to get us to SevStad. But we are all in the same boat as far as general knowledge, and we are all going to figure this out together.”

As Yuriy nodded in agreement, Boris seemed to be placated enough to cede the floor to the oldest of the team. Meanwhile, Ivan aggressively fought to ignore the tiny waves of jealousy that were beginning to churn yet again in the pit of his stomach. He just hoped they would be able to get more information from Svetlana about the zmei so he could put everyone’s doubts about Wyborg to rest once and for all.

“So, Svetlana,” Sergey spoke. “You mentioned when we talked that there are Born Fae - Fae who are born from the combination of time, place and circumstance - and Gifted Fae - Fae who start out as human but are given their powers at some point in their life. Just to be clear, we are—”

“—Gifted Fae, of course,” Svetlana replied, nodding her head slightly.

“Hold up, what do you mean we were given these powers?” Boris cut in again. “Given by whom? And when? Was it today when we fought that zmei?”

“As I already explained to Sergey,” Svetlana answered, albeit without any hint of sarcasm to her tone. “The Russian Land, Rus’ as it was known back in the day, is the magical entity that grants Fae powers to those the Land deems the most worthy.”

“The ‘land’?” Boris quirked an eyebrow. “You mean a clump of dirt I might have sat on one time decided that I should be given some fancy magical powers?”

Denis Fyodorovich gasped quietly from his spot by the counter as Svetlana just sighed. Ivan grimaced. The female Fae looked genuinely exhausted.

“I realize that the concept of ‘the Land’ as an entity may seem amorphous and vague to you, particularly in this day and age,” she said as she rested the teacup on its saucer on the table. “But since the dawn of time, folk have had to rely on the Land for shelter, food, and comfort. Throughout history, the Land has given us everything - including these gifts, for those who had been deemed to be extraordinary folk, who were seen as having the potential to put these Fae powers to good use.”

She looked up, still twirling the teacup with one hand. “It is true that Chelmir and Faemir have now been apart for a very long time and the threads of magic that had extended from the other world into this one have become frayed and destroyed with time. I am not surprised that most humans do not have the same appreciation for the old relationship with the Land that folk used to have. But that doesn’t mean that the connection still isn’t there.”

“Svetlana,” Yuriy spoke tentatively. “So from the way you describe it, it sounds like we didn’t get these powers just today. We must have had them for a long time, but they just— weren’t apparent until today.”

“Yes, I think that is right,” Svetlana nodded.

“But then… why us?” As Yuriy’s question settled in the room, everyone paused their eating. “You say that humans who are given these gifts of Fae powers have the potential to put them to good use. What kind of ‘good use’? What exactly are we meant to use these Fae powers for?”

Everyone looked to Svetlana with anticipation - and a hint of trepidation.

The old woman, on her end, regarded them with an expression tinged with pity.

“I know you wish to have more concrete answers, but it is not my place to know these things,” she pulled her teacup in close, studying her reflection in the murky leaf water. “The Land works in mysterious ways. Some believe the Land chooses folk strategically, anticipating how they will act once given these powers, in an effort to achieve some goal. But if you ask me, I think that for all the omnipotence, even the Land may not be able to predict how folk will change once they become Fae, what events will happen, and how history will propel the world forward. Naturally certain Fae have control over specific domains or may be required to conduct certain tasks, but in the end we all choose for ourselves the road that we take. So the best that the Land can do is to find those who are capable of handling these powers and who will not let them go to waste.” She gave each of the men a measured look. “Those who show themselves to be catalysts for change.”

The word hung in the kitchen with an ominous air.

“I guess we just never thought of ourselves as special, is all,” Sergey spoke in a hushed voice, echoing what all four of the men were thinking. “It just seems odd that of the millions of people in this country, who live on this land, our group would be picked out like that.”

“Whatever the end result might be, you need to understand that there are no mistakes or flukes in this process,” Svetlana put special emphasis on her words. She looked the men over with concern. “Why do you all doubt yourselves so much? Have there truly been no trials in your life that you have had to overcome? No experiences that would have allowed you to show your strength of character? No obstacles that seemed insurmountable but that you were able to conquer through hard work and perseverance?”

The teammates all exchanged a knowing glance.

“You could say there was a thing or two,” Boris scratched the back of his head.

“Then that must have been enough,” Svetlana declared as she finally took another sip of her tea.

There was a lull in the conversation as the men all considered her answer, only the sounds of Denis Fyodorovich’s chopping and of water boiling in a pot filling the kitchen. Ivan stared at his plate, poking at a piece of food with his fork. “Gifted Fae”, who were “gifted” powers by the land of Rus'. Sure sounded nice and fancy. But only nice and fancy for three of them, as Ivan had, once again, been overlooked.

It's not like this sort of thing was unusual. Having had to take time off from traveling with the Blitzkrieg Boys before rejoining them years ago, Ivan had gotten used to the fact that, despite their shared time at the Abbey and an otherwise tight bond, Yuriy and the others had just a few more inside jokes, a handful more shared life experiences, a bunch more things with which they could confide in each other but not in him. Still, getting used to that didn’t mean that it didn’t sting on occasion - and, as much as he put on a tough front, having this be yet another thing out of which he found himself left out hurt. Hurt like a bitch.

Fairy tale protagonist or not, in comparison to his stunning, shining teammates, he was dull and uninteresting and would forever remain who he had always been - just an Ivan.

Pretty miffed about the whole situation, Ivan was content to just sit back and let his teammates steer the conversation.

“Alright, so the Land gave us these powers - so now we are Fae,” Sergey stated, clearing his throat. “Then, could you tell us how our bit-beasts play into this? It seems like they are somehow related to Fae, but they… weren’t exactly given to us by the Land.”

For a brief moment, the entire team’s mood soured in unison. Ivan gagged. Vladimir Balkov was zero percent land and one hundred percent a piece of shit. It was only a small consolation, but at least they had managed to land him in jail for a life-sentence after the incident with BEGA.

Still, Ivan couldn’t help but get excited. Finally the questions were getting closer to the stuff that mattered.

On her end, Svetlana merely responded to Sergey’s inquiry with a puzzled look as she craned her neck to the side: “I am not so sure what you mean by… ‘bit-beasts’?”

“Brightest Svetlana, it’s some fancy little things that are part of their beyblades!” Denis Fyodorovich offered cheerfully, although not very helpfully, as he set a few more plates of food on the table and finally took his own seat to drink his tea.

“Bit-beasts are animal spirits that live within the chips of our beyblades - these spinning tops,” Yuriy explained more thoroughly as he took out Wolborg and held her across the table, bit-chip pointed in the old woman’s direction. “When we launch our beyblades to battle each other - for recreational sport - we can summon these bit-beasts. We also summoned them earlier when we were fighting the zmei, and they seemed to be able to do real damage to it.”

As Svetlana peered at the beyblade, she let out a small gasp. “So it was you…” She whispered. She looked up at Yuriy. “May I take a closer look?”

Yuriy nodded, handing the beyblade over to Svetlana. Ivan gaped at how easily Yuriy, who had always been so protective of Wolborg, especially after the BEGA crisis, just handed her over without a second thought. To her credit though, Svetlana handled the beyblade with great care as she turned it over and studied it intently.

Still, as a point of warning - or maybe just pettiness - Ivan picked the lone piece of baloney off of Yuriy’s plate while the young man was distracted.

“Spinning tops, of course,” Svetlana smirked wryly at some inside joke as she examined the object in her hands. “And combining it with a familiar’s binding spell. How clever,” She handed Wolborg back to Yuriy. “Belaya has always been rather resourceful.”

Belaya? White?” Yuriy clarified. “Is that this bit-beast’s— this Fae’s real name?” He held up the beyblade.

Svetlana nodded.

“Do you know her?” Yuriy continued, his eyes shining in wonder.

Svetlana blinked slowly, eyes wide. “We’ve met.” She took another sip of her tea as her expression returned to normal. “I’ve always been much closer friends with her younger brother though.”

“Huh? Wolborg has a brother?” Yuriy looked to his teammates.

“Wonder if it’s a bit-beast of anyone we know,” Sergey offered.

“I doubt it,” Svetlana said rather definitively. “Grey was in Faemir when the Threshold was sealed. He wouldn’t have had need to bind himself to a beyblade.”

“Seryi? Not this Seryi, right?” Boris pointed to Sergey.

“I am assuming not, Borya,” the older man raised his eyebrows at the other.

“Of course not. I am talking about the Grey Wolf of Space. The one who always comes to save the Ivan,” Svetlana looked at Ivan knowingly. The young man squirmed in his seat at the attention.

“…oh,” was all he managed to answer under the Fae’s piercing gaze.

“So what exactly are these binding spells?” Sergey, thankfully, diverted the attention away again. “Is it something anyone can use?”

“Not exactly,” the old Fae answered him. “While some spells can be learned by anyone, Fae usually have an affinity toward different types of magic. Some Fae are very good at potions and poisons, some at teleportation and travel spells, some at creating magical clothing by literally weaving magic threads into fabric, and so on. There are certain Fae, most commonly familiars but also others, who have the ability to bind themselves to various items. Typically these will be small and portable things such that their masters are able to carry them around.”

“Like a beyblade.”

“Like a beyblade.”

“But why a beyblade?” Yuriy now asked.

“A very good question,” Svetlana smiled widely. “While Fae are capable of working the magic threads with their own hands to cast most spells, for powerful high-level magic one needs conduits to aid them. This is especially true in the magic-starved Chelmir. Too often the magic threads are too brittle to be handled with crude hands, so other tools are necessary to work the threads.”

Ivan rubbed the side of his face. One second he felt like he was keeping up with the conversation, then the next it was all becoming way too abstract for him again.

“Okay wait,” Yuriy rested his forehead on his head, and Ivan was relieved to see he was not the only one feeling a bit lost. “So again, why beyblades?”

“You recall the rune circles you saw this afternoon?”

The captain nodded.

These are the standard conduits for magic. Stationary runes circles that can anchor threads are used for travel spells. Rotating rune circles that can wind the threads are used for attack spells. Beyblades then naturally—”

“Of course!” Sergey exclaimed, almost spitting out whatever he had been eating.

“Of course what?” Boris startled next to him.

Sergey hastily pulled out Seaborg. “The rune circles are like spinning wheels. That’s how they work the magic threads into spells. And our beyblades are able to mimic these rotating rune circles. Magic inscriptions and all.” He held out his beyblade, kitchen lights reflecting off the polished bit-chip. “It’s like these things were literally made by Fae for battles.”

“And that’s how we actually managed to deal damage to the zmei this afternoon,” Yuriy finished, just as giddy as Sergey at the revelation.

Svetlana looked pleased at how quickly the others were catching on. “Whether Fae were the ones who created the beyblades, that I cannot tell you. But I would not be surprised if it was one of our folk who, desperate and struggling to survive, came up with the concept.”

Ivan leaned back in his seat, considering this information. There were in fact a few competing theories as to who had invented beyblades first - some vehemently claimed that it was the Americans, others that it was the Japanese, and still a third group declared that it was the Russians during the reign of the communists. The only general consensus was that the prototypes had been designed some time prior to the Second World War. Still, Ivan had always thought of beyblades as recreational in nature, and the idea that they had been crafted with some other, much more serious and pressing purpose like survival in mind, kind of made his hair stand on end.

“Huh, okay, that’s kinda neat,” Boris conceded as he peered at Seaborg. “So is Sergey’s bit-beast also a familiar, like Wolborg?”

“Hmm, yes, now that you mention it, there were three of these that I saw earlier today,” Svetlana replied. “Sergey, may I see your beyblade?”

Sergey followed Yuriy’s example and handed his beyblade across to Svetlana. Ivan huffed quietly to himself.

It was almost a full minute before Svetlana returned the beyblade to the other blond with a resigned expression. “I am sorry, Sergey. I am afraid I cannot tell what the spirit inside your beyblade is. They clearly have a connection to Chernomor. But all sea creatures were keen to come to Chernomor’s aid should he have had need for them, and I do not recall a specific one who always served at his side.”

“That’s alright,” Sergey reassured the old woman. “It’s a bit unfair for us to expect you to have all the answers for us.”

“Well, I should know most of these things, given my age,” Svetlana sighed deeply. “But I suppose I am no Learned Cat.”

Sergey, Yuriy, and Denis Fyodorovich all laughed at her comment, leaving Boris and Ivan to stare at each other in confusion.

“Hold on, babushka,” Boris narrowed his eyes in suspicion at Svetlana. “So you are no Learned Cat. But who are you exactly?”

Svetlana’s smile evaporated in an instant as she just stared at Boris, deadpan. Everyone else quieted in response. Boris looked like he was considering his options to bolt out of his seat.

“Finist,” Svetlana spoke quietly, voice full of reproach. “Don’t tell me you don’t recognize your sister?”

Boris blinked twice in shock. “…excuse me?”

Svetlana gasped dramatically, bringing one of her hands to her chest and with the other grabbing onto Boris. The young man, after a short moment of hesitation, attempted to jerk his hand free, but Svetlana held on fast with a steely grip.

Brother Finist,” Svetlana leaned in closer, still whispering. “I know it has been many years, but surely you must recognize me?”

Ivan was starting to catch on and looked to Yuriy for confirmation. The redhead made eye contact just as he was trying to - unsuccessfully - keep the wide grin that was plastered across his face hidden behind his hand. Sergey on his end was struggling to keep himself from just bursting out laughing.

“Listen, I don’t really know what’s happening here, but this is kind of making me feel uncomfortable,” Boris was really making an effort to scoot away as far as possible in his seat but Svetlana just kept closing the gap, still keeping his hand pinned to the table.

“You don’t need to be afraid, Finist, it’s me,” the old woman stared Boris right in the eyes.

Boris gulped. “You who?”

“Firebird,” Svetlana breathed out.

Ivan choked on his laugh and just stared at the old woman. Wait, does she mean the Firebird?

Boris was of a similar opinion. “Firebird? You don’t look like a bird to me.”

Yuriy snickered, clearly privy to some information to which the rest weren’t. “You don’t look like a bird either, Prince Sokolinsky.” At the title, Sergey and Ivan both chuckled and Boris whipped around to glare at Yuriy.

“Hey, wise guy! Don’t you have some presents to get ready for the children?”

“Yeah, maybe in October, once you fly south to the Black Sea for the winter,” Yuriy retorted.

“Okay, no, but seriously,” Boris looked back at Svetlana, almost pleading. “Am I actually some kind of bird prince?” He side-eyed their hands on the table. “And are we actually related?”

“Don’t worry, you are not my brother,” Svetlana demonstratively let go of Boris’s hand. “But you are one of the Nine Knyaz’ of Faemir.”

Boris grimaced. “A what?”

“A Prince.”

“Of Faemir?”

“Of Faemir.”

“One of nine?”

“Am I speaking in old Slavonic?”

“Ugh, listen, lady, I haven’t exactly been groomed to become nobility over the last twenty six years. And you three, shut the fuck up!” Boris growled at Ivan and the others as they giggled and snickered at the scene.

“Sorry, Boris,” Yuriy forced out the words. “The idea of you in some royal robes and a crown is just too good to be true.”

Sergey and Ivan howled with laughter.

Boris was about to chuck his fork directly at the redhead when Sergey caught his arm just in time.

“Borya, don’t take it personally,” he tried to clam the younger man down, still chuckling himself. “But have you ever considered becoming a Prince?”

“Well, no,” Boris pouted. “But doesn’t mean I can’t be one if I wanted to.” He sheepishly looked to Svetlana as he lowered the hand armed with the cutlery. “So am I allowed to ask anything about this Prince stuff?”

“Yes, of course,” Svetlana offered an apologetic smile. “I am sorry, Boris, you are right, I am being quite unfair to you. Let me explain this a bit more clearly. Finist the Bright Falcon, or Prince Sokolinsky as was the more recent title that your predecessor had adopted, is one of the nine Avian Princes who rules over one of the Nine Kingdoms of Faemir. These of course aren’t the only, how would you say it, independent states in Faemir, but they are by far the biggest and most well-known ones. Many centuries ago, the Princes used to be in a constant state of war with each other, but eventually, an invasion from foreign lands made them realize that they stood a far better chance at survival if they forged an alliance.”

“Were these invaders the Mongol Hordes by any chance?” Sergey hazarded a guess.

For a split second, Svetlana’s grin bordered on maniacal. “Very good. Yes, they were.” Before anyone could question how Sergey had known this, she continued with her explanation. “The Kingdoms remain nominally separate, with a Prince ruling over their own territories, but every seven years a Prince is chosen, in a predetermined order, to preside over them as the Grand Prince. The Grand Prince does not necessarily dictate how other Princes should govern as much as set the tone for the alliance and deal with outsiders.”

“That sounds kind of serious,” Boris furrowed his brow as he seemed to shrink in his seat.

“Being a Prince is a serious responsibility. But Sokolinsky’s kingdom has always been a prosperous and stable one. Even if it has been almost one hundred years, I highly doubt you would be coming back to some apocalyptic disaster.”

Boris chuckled nervously, just staring at his plate. “Yeah, okay…”

“If nothing else, your falcon familiar will take good care of you,” Svetlana offered, clearly sensing the man’s uneasiness. Despite his own feelings of bitterness and jealousy, Ivan also couldn’t help but feel bad for Boris. If this Prince nonsense was real, he knew that this was possibly the last job that Boris would have wanted to undertake.

“So what about you?”

“Huh?” Ivan broke out of his daydream as he realized Svetlana was once again looking at him with that same drilling, fiery gaze. “What about me?”

“You said before at the pool that you also have one of these beyblades. Do you also have a bit-beast?”

A wave of nausea hit Ivan.

“Who? Me? Uh, well,” Ivan scrambled to collect himself under everyone’s stares. “Haha, well—” he remembered their earlier conversation at VDNH. “—no, actually. Didn’t luck out like the rest of the team, I guess.” He scratched the back of his head nervously.

“Hmm,” Svetlana’s gaze lingered on the young man for longer than he would have liked. Ivan hoped to gods that his ridiculous response didn’t seem too suspicious.

“I suppose that’s just as well,” she finally spoke, turning instead to put some food on her plate. “With only a couple of exceptions, Grey and other Fae who would normally aid an Ivan on their quests are all still in Faemir.” She paused, giving the young man a warm, reassuring smile. “But don’t worry. There are plenty of Fae on the other side who are always happy to meet an Ivan.”

Ivan didn’t quite know how to reply to that, but for the first time that afternoon, he felt some fleeting genuine excitement about this Fae business. Like there was a place for him there after all.

On her end, Svetlana, visibly spent from all the explanations, turned back to the food, searching the contents of the table for something. “Chainikov, did you happen to buy those wheat cookies you mentioned?”

“Oh, of course!” Denis Fyodorovich smacked his forehead with his hand. “They’re on the kitchen counter!” He made a movement to get up but Ivan beat him to it.

“It’s okay, Denis Fyodorovich, I’ll get them!” Surprised at his own burst of energy but eager to help, Ivan stood up quickly to grab the box in question. But, forever graceful as a baby elephant, en route he banged into the table, knocking some of his silverware to the ground.

“Oops, sorry about that,” flustered, he bent down to pick up the fork that had fallen down. “Denis Fyodorovich, are there any extra— forks… around…”

His question fizzled out at the sight of shock on the faces of the two elderly Fae. He looked back to his teammates, but all were equally silent as him in their confusion. Boris offered a shrug.

Svetlana and Chainikov exchanged a glance.

“Are you expecting someone?” She asked, her tone unexpectedly serious. The domovoy shook his head slowly. She turned to the rest of the team, expression grave, silently posing the same question. The rest of them responded just like the janitor. Svetlana put down her fork, placing it squarely in the middle of her plate, and got up.

“Where are you going?” Yuriy followed suit.

“Outside,” Svetlana declared, heading for the door. “We have a guest.”

Yuriy followed closely behind as Svetlana made her way through the hallways to the front entrance of the stadium, Sergey and Boris a few paces behind, Ivan scrambling to keep up with them.

“What was that about, Vanya?” Boris asked quietly as they walked. “Did you summon something bad?”

Ivan bristled at the question. He was getting pretty fed up with all the baseless accusations, first about Wyborg, and now aimed at him, even though clearly neither of them had done anything wrong. “I did no such thing!” He hissed back angrily.

“Borya, don’t you know that superstition?” Sergey cut in.

“Huh? What superstition?”

“When you drop things in the kitchen: if you drop a knife, it means you’ll have a male guest at your house. If you drop a fork, you’ll have a female guest.”

“What if you drop a spoon? What kind of guest will come then?” Boris jabbed.

“It means a fist will come to punch you in the mouth,” Sergey glared at his teammate and Boris pouted in return. Ivan rolled his eyes as the two got back into their old married couple routine, but was glad that Sergey at least deflected the attention away from him.

As the five neared the entrance all talking hushed, including the low conversation Yuriy and Svetlana were having. Svetlana peered through the glass doors of the stadium. The main alleyway of the park was unusually deserted, and it reminded Ivan of the way the VDNH area had been eerily cleared by the misimpression spell Svetlana and Behemoth had cast. A chill ran down Ivan’s spine’s as he realized there was one person - a woman - standing about twenty meters away from the stadium, watching the front doors intently.

Svetlana exited. Yuriy reached for the door but Sergey put a hand on his shoulder.

“Is that a good idea?” He whispered.

“What other choice do we have? It’s better if there are more of us.” Sergey considered his response, then nodded in agreement. The two exited after the old woman.

“Tch, ever feel like they are on a totally different wavelength?” Boris griped before going out as well. Ivan brought up the end.

A chilly breeze hit him as soon as he stepped out, a fluke of summer weather and aerodynamics. He caught up to the rest of his teammates and Svetlana. The other woman, who looked to be in her early thirties max, had also taken a few steps toward them, her open summer jacket and thick braided auburn hair fluttering in the wind. Her face was carefully contoured, high cheek bones and other features accented by well-executed makeup, even by Russian women’s standards. Her clothes were fairly ordinary but extremely well-tailored, a thing that even Ivan, who had no sense for these sorts of things, could tell. He guessed that this woman is what people would generally call beautiful (conventionally or unconventionally, he didn’t care to know the difference), but one word in particular came to mind to describe the woman in front of them: regal.

The woman took one final, tentative step toward them, giddiness, anticipation, and something else Ivan couldn’t read playing out in her eyes.

“It has been many years, Firebird,” she spoke, her voice also befitting someone of royal status.

“More than a century, Tsarevna Vaselisa,” the old woman returned the greeting.

That totally makes sense, she does look like a princess…

Svetlana extended her hands to the other woman and the tsarevna closed the few remaining steps between them, catching her in an embrace. Svetlana returned the hug. The younger woman was the first to break away after a few seconds, grabbing the babushka by the shoulders to hold her in one place to examine her from head to toe.

“Goodness, Firebird, what has happened to you?” She asked, her tone full of pity and regret.

“It’s quite a long story.”

“Was it those rotten communists who took charge during the revolution?” She scowled, shaking her head. “Well, doesn’t matter who it was. What they did was horrible and we’ll do our best to fix this. But for now…” she turned towards the four men. “Old friends! How good it is to see you again as well!”

Before any of the teammates could respond, the tsarevna had let go of Svetlana and eagerly approached Yuriy.

“Morozko,” she smiled warmly at their captain. Yuriy nodded, taken aback. Next she turned to Boris.

“Prince Sokolinsky, how wonderful to see you are well!” She approached Sergey, moving to put a hand on his upper arm. “And Captain Chernomor himself!” Sergey reached up to meet the tsarevna’s hand with his, but she had just noticed Ivan and moved out of the way.

As the woman came closer, towering over him as much as Boris did, Ivan realized another reason why he liked having Svetlana around. The old woman was the only one who, at ten centimeters below his height, was actually shorter than him.

“And of course,” as she got close, the woman’s face beamed even more now than when she had spoken to the other three. “Ivan. A tsarevich, I can only assume?”

She leaned down to examine him even closer, her hands clasped in front of her as if Ivan were the most endearing thing she had ever seen. Her brown eyes glinted, brilliant but sharp, in the high summer sun.

Ivan flinched back at her proximity, another uncomfortable chill cutting right down to his bones. “I am… afraid not,” he managed to croak out.

“Hmm?” Confusion read on her face. “But surely you cannot be Ivan the Fool?”

“Oh no, we assure you, he can,” Boris offered.

“Hey, pipe down!” Ivan yelled. “No one asked your opinion, bird brain!”

“Watch it, pipsqueak! That’s Prince Bird Brain to you!”

“If you wouldn’t mind,” Svetlana interrupted the argument, her voice level and cool. “Perhaps we can continue this discussion inside, over some tea? We have much to talk about.”

Chapter Text

“If you wouldn’t mind,” Svetlana interrupted the argument, her voice level and cool. “Perhaps we can continue this discussion inside, over some tea? We have much to talk about.”

“A marvelous idea!” Tsarevna Vaselisa beamed with delight. Svetlana smiled in return and escorted the newly arrived Fae inside. The team followed, Ivan and Boris exchanging a heated glance and almost literally butting heads before Sergey pushed both of them to move forward.

“What interesting architecture!” Vaselisa exclaimed as they moved through the hallways, looking ever which way around her in amazement.

“You call this interesting? Wow your life must be boring,” Boris muttered under his breath, earning himself a sharp jab in the ribs from Yuriy.

“I suspect the architecture has not evolved in quite the same way in Faemir as it has here - if it did at all,” Svetlana said to her companion.

“Not much has changed back in Faemir, for better or for worse,” Vaselisa mused. “Although certainly it has been a different atmosphere without all of you there.” She spared a glance and a dignified smile at the men walking behind her.

“I am sure it has been,” Svetlana said, with what Ivan could only interpret as irritation in her voice. They had finally reached the kitchen. In their absence Denis Fyodorovich had set up an extra spot at the table between his and Svetlana’s seats. The janitor was standing in front of the table, worrying a napkin in his hands.

“Shining Tsarevna Vaselisa,” the old woman introduced the princess. “This is the domovoy of this stadium, Chainikov.”

The domovoy’s expression exuded wonder as he bowed deeply, sweeping his arm in an arc to touch the floor, much in the same manner that he had attempted to greet the team - well, really only the other three guys - earlier at the pool. The tsarevna merely nodded in return, albeit with a smile.

“Your hospitality is most gracious,” she said in the way of a greeting.

“We are humbled to receive Tsarevna Vaselisa in these quarters,” the domovoy motioned to the table, still partially bent over. “Please, be seated.”

Once the ritual was over, everyone, with the exception of Denis Fyodorovich who remained standing by the counter, took their seats at the table. Vaselisa marveled at the otherwise typical spread on the table.

“How peculiar!” She giggled. “The Chelmir foods never cease to amuse me!”

“It is simple, but please, enjoy whatever you like,” Svetlana started. “But pray, tell us of the happenings in Faemir. If I am not mistaken, you had returned to your kingdom well before the October tumult, so you must have been there when the Threshold became impassible. How ever were you able to make it back to Chelmir? Has the seal finally been broken?”

Svetlana remained sitting, but the wild glint in her eyes betrayed that she was all but ready to leap at the tsarevna and physically pull the answers out of her if it meant getting to them faster.

Vaselisa had gone to reach for food but, hesitating, resolved to put down her fork instead. Everything that the tsarevna did, even in-so-much as moving cutlery, was done with a certain dignified manner that Ivan had never seen in anyone before. All four men were rapt at attention, listening intently.

“Firebird,” Vaselisa spoke wistfully. “I am sorry to tell you that the Threshold is still as impassible as ever. What we had thought to be an unseverable bond between Chelmir and Faemir has become more and more brittle. But,” she paused. “That does not mean that there does not remain one way to cross from one side to the other.”

The tsarevna reached into the leather purse that was still slung over her shoulder and pulled out a ball of green yarn.

Ivan exchanged a dubious look with Boris across the table.

“A ball of yarn, how clever - and rare no less. It makes sense that no one has been able to cross for all this time.” Svetlana nodded with approval, evidently seeing something beyond the ball’s wooly exterior. But she was not placated for long: “But this means that one can still easily walk across the Threshold. Then what has been preventing everyone from weaving the Pathways to go between the worlds?”

Vaselisa blinked at the older Fae in confusion. “Why, the Forest, Firebird.”

Svetlana merely gaped in response.

Vaselisa seemed equally puzzled. “Had you not realized that it was the Forest all this time?”

“The Forest? Growing over the Threshold?” Svetlana asked, flabbergasted. “That had not… I could not tell from this side that that was the case. How?”

“Svetlana,” Yuriy interrupted the conversation. “Can you—”

“The Deep Forest stands at the proverbial ‘center’ of Faemir, and is said to be the point from which all threads of magic originate.” Svetlana explained mechanically as she stared down at the table, simultaneously mulling over her own thoughts. “The Forest is the heart of Iav', the World of the Living. It is the main point of contact with the Land but also the home to many Fae creatures: Learned Cat, Cat Bayun, your typical rusalka and leshiy… Her…”

For a moment Ivan just looked vacantly into space, wondering to whom Svetlana could be referring. Then he remembered a swift hand moving to shut Boris's mouth at VDNH as he was about to utter a simple name: Baba Yaga.

"While the Forest has a primeval location, it is for all intents and purposes ubiquitous - it can exist anywhere," Svetlana spoke rapidly, looking back up to lock eyes with Yuriy. "Anywhere, that is, except two places - at the barrier between Iav' and Nav', the World of the Dead, and at the Threshold. The liminal space of the Threshold is somewhere the Forest had never grown. Where we thought it could not grow."

She turned to Vaselisa. "But you are saying that that is precisely what's keeping the Threshold impassible."

“Indeed,” Vaselisa nodded. “What has been keeping it impassible ever since the Revolution.”

“Why though?” Svetlana kept on pressing. “Certainly this does not seem natural to you, Vaselisa?”

“Well, perhaps not…” Vaselisa slowly rolled the ball of yarn from hand to hand. “But I suppose at that time the Forest was just doing what it had to do to defend itself.”

“To defend itself?” Svetlana scoffed. “From whom?”

Vaselisa stared back, incredulous. “Why, the communists, Firebird.”

Svetlana barked a rough laugh. “The communists? You are telling me the Forest was so afraid of the communists it chose to just abandon the rest of us in Chelmir?”

“I know the last century must have been hard for you, Firebird,” Vaselisa’s tone was soothing but firm. "But surely you of all folk understand how heinous the communists' crimes truly were." She looked directly at Yuriy. "Something Morozko, Finist, and Chernomor must also understand personally all too well."

A pause.

"Uh, lady," Boris cut in. "Can you back up and explain that for a hot second?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, I've heard the communists could be a rotten bunch, but the worst they ever did to me was fuck up their stupid regime and screw over my parents into a life of poverty," Boris shot back. "Are you telling me I am supposed to have some other beef with them besides that?"

For a few moments Vaselisa just stared at Boris, before giving Sergey and Yuriy a measured look. "Do you not remember either?"

"Remember what?" Sergey asked with apprehension in his voice.

“They don’t know?” Vaselisa looked to Svetlana for an explanation. “You haven’t told them?”

Svetlana shut her eyes tightly, resting her elbows on the table and burrowing her face into her hands. The seconds dragged agonizingly as everyone at the table, even Boris, sat in silence. Whatever Svetlana was thinking, it was clear that it was not pleasant.

“I have not had a chance to yet, no,” she finally gritted the words out through her teeth.

“Oh dear,” Vaselisa covered her mouth with her hand. The suspense was killing Ivan. Could they just spit it out already? He looked to Denis Fyodorovich for assistance, but somewhere along the conversation the domovoy had disappeared from the room.

“Can someone explain?” Yuriy prompted, growing impatient.

"Morozko, Prince Sokolinsky, Chernomor," Vaselisa addressed the three new Fae. "Do you remember at all how in the years leading up to the Revolution, you all served at the Russian Imperial Court?"

"What exactly do you mean by 'remember'?" Boris demanded, suspicious. "I don't remember being anywhere before I was born into this sack of meat and bones - and even then I barely remember what I’ve had for breakfast."

"Along with one's powers, Gifted Fae receive the memories of their lifetimes past," Vaselisa clarified patiently. "Maybe not perfect recollection, but most of them."

Ivan gulped. He wasn't sure why, but there was a churning feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach. Fae powers sounded cool and all, but even he had to admit that he would prefer to skip them if they came with someone else’s baggage.

And this particular baggage sounded like it was full of skeletons.

"We really only found out about our Fae powers today, Vaselisa," Sergey spoke up. "So we don't really remember much, if anything at all. But you say the three of us - the folk who had our Fae powers before us - all used to serve at the Imperial Court?"

Vaselisa nodded, continuing: "Yes, the three of you, along with Firebird and a handful of other Fae, spent much time at the Imperial Court, especially during the time of Tsar Nikolai. It was then that—" she hesitated, her brow furrowed and her lips a thin taught line. "I can only assume that you know something of the history of this country? What happened in 1917 and the beginning of 1918? Unless that history has been erased from the books…"

"It’s convoluted, but well-known. There is the October Revolution, of course," Sergey offered. "The fight between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. The removal of the tsar from power and the takeover by Lenin and the communists."

"Yes," Vaselisa nodded. "It was at that time that the three of you—"

"The three of you were murdered by the communists."

Svetlana's words settled over the room, the only thing echoing in the silence. Now, there were no sounds of chopping or boiling water to fill the lull in the talk. The flow of the conversation slowed and grew heavy, like wading through molasses.

"We were murdered?" Sergey finally said.

"It's possible to kill Fae like... like us?" Yuriy asked. It’s not that any of them suddenly had any grand notions of immortality, but surely the Fae of legends could not be so easily dispatched by mere humans?

“There were five of us in the Imperial family’s White Guard. The three of you - Morozko, Finist, and Chernomor - myself, and another Fae, Ekaterina,” as Svetlana spoke, there was a crack to her voice, but she forced the words to come out anyway. “The events at the end of 1917 had left us all harrowed, but we accepted that perhaps it was time for the control of the country to be ceded to the people for some time. That this was the will of the Land. After all, the Imperial family was still safe. They had been sent away east, past the Ural mountains. Ekaterina and I went with them while you three stayed back in Moscow to oversee the transition.”

Ivan’s legs were starting to shake from the tension in his muscles.

“It was April 1918 when we formed a plan to try to get Tsar Nikolai and the Grand Duchess out of the country. Ekaterina stayed in Tobolsk with the children, while I escorted the tsar and the tsaritsa. That was when everything went wrong.” Svetlana put her hands down on the table. “The communists intercepted us in Ekaterinburg, fully prepared to put me out of commission so I could not protect Their Majesties. I was sent away to prison in Moscow, unable to get word out about what had happened. The Imperial couple, meanwhile, was sent back to Tobolsk. I can only assume that something had happened to Ekaterina because she was not there to help the Imperial family.” She paused, smiling wistfully at Yuriy. “But despite the confusion, Morozko could tell that something had gone wrong. That all was not right with me. So the three of you set out to try to reconnect with us and to figure out what had happened.”

Her expression fell. “It was on your journey east when the communists ambushed and murdered you.”

As Svetlana concluded her tale, the entire table sat still, mulling over her words. After some time, it was Yuriy who spoke first:

“Do you know how they were able to kill— us?”

Svetlana shook her head. “That I do not know. But that it was not a peaceful and natural death, of that I am certain.”

“Not going to lie, it’s really hard to think about this as something that happened to us.” Yuriy leaned back in his chair, expression grim.

“But at the same time, I guess it’s not that hard to believe in general,” Sergey said. “I mean, the communists certainly have a lot of blood on their hands, what with the Revolution and the execution of the Romanov family—”

“The what?” Vaselisa yelled, rising up from her seat. She whipped around to shout at Svetlana. “Firebird! The Imperial family was executed?”

“Every last one of them,” Svetlana replied, head lowered into her hands.

“The communists indiscriminately murdered Fae, your lifelong friends, and the Romanov family, and you question why the Forest has grown over the Threshold to sever the two worlds?!”

“I know exactly what the communists have done!” Svetlana slammed her hands on the table as she stood abruptly to stare down Vaselisa, the tsarevna flinching at the pushback. “I am the one who has had to live it for all these years! Just shy of ninety four years and three months, to be exact, but I am certainly not counting!”

Svetlana’s hands were visibly shaking and her lips quivered. Her voice sounded so broken, Ivan thought it was a miracle that she wasn’t just outright sobbing at the table. This whole thing sounded like a mess, but he couldn’t help but feel bad for the babushka.

Meanwhile, Svetlana, having calmed down, turned back to Ivan’s teammates.

“While our time has been short still, I must confess that I did not intend to tell you about how your previous lives had ended. It was my wish to spare you the gruesome memories a while longer, but I see now that those events may have catalyzed the very situation in which the two worlds are in now.” She slowly sat back down, her joints creaking with age. “It was inevitable that you should find out about this eventually. I should have realized that it was not my place to shield you from the truth.”

Ivan exhaled deeply as he sunk in his chair. As for his teammates, Boris’s expression was flat and unreadable, meaning that he was probably some shade of livid, Sergey stared at the table in loss and confusion, and Yuriy was desperately trying to come up with something to say to reassure Svetlana, but was stuck between needing to support his team and consoling the babushka. Thankfully, Vaselisa, shaken as she looked also, stepped up to the plate.

“There, there, dearest Firebird.” Sitting back down as well, the tsarevna placed a gentle hand on Firebird’s back, rubbing small smoothing circles on her shoulders. “I am sure you did all that you could to save them all.”

Svetlana brought her hands back up to her face and retreated somewhere into her memories. When she did not respond, the tsarevna continued. “I am terribly sorry to ask but… you say you do not know what’s happened to Ekaterina? No one has seen her in Faemir since the Threshold closed so I assumed she must still be on this side.”

Again this Ekaterina. Ivan wondered what kind of Fae she was, as everyone seemed to be eager to seek her wisdom and to find out what had ultimately happened to her.

“She just disappeared,” Svetlana answered simply. “I have been looking for her for the past two decades, but have not been able to track her down. Although I have long hoped otherwise… given her condition and the state of Chelmir, I doubt that she would have managed to survive this long on her own.”

“I see… Well,” Vaselisa offered a weak smile. “What’s passed is in the past. The important thing is that Morozko, Finist and Chernomor are now all alive and well. We will need all the allies we can find as now there are much more pressing things to worry about.”

“Such as…?” Svetlana looked to her.

“I am afraid I have terrible news,” Vaselisa announced, her expression turning dark. “Firebird, someone has brought a zmei egg to Chelmir.”

Boris gasped, breaking out of his stupor. “You know about the egg?”

“You also know of it?” Vaselisa mirrored his surprise.

“Yeah, a little too well,” Boris scowled.

But we could stand to find out a little more. Ivan’s heart leaped at the topic of the zmei finally coming up. Maybe they could finally get some answers about the nature of those beasts. Vaselisa seemed to also have some knowledge on the matter so her presence was going to turn out to be useful after all. Now hopefully whatever came up in conversation would help to put to rest everyone else’s doubts about Wyborg.

“We battled the zmei earlier this afternoon,” Yuriy explained succinctly. “Or rather, we tried to battle it, unsuccessfully, when Svetlana stepped in to save us.”

“Oh, thank goodness that Firebird was there,” Vaselisa exhaled in relief. “But… if you fought the zmei, it means that it had hatched?”

“Yes,” Svetlana nodded. “And it grew to size far too quickly, not even by hours but by minutes or even seconds.”

“That… doesn’t sound right.”

“No, it is not. But before we can figure that out, we need to find out who brought the egg. Vaselisa, do you know who did it? Is that why you came to Chelmir - you were following them?”

The tsarevna nodded. “There had been a rumor around Faemir that someone was planning to cross over the Threshold, to take advantage of Chelmir’s magic-less state and unleash the wrath of the zmei on it. No one took the rumor seriously, saying that it would be foolish for someone to attempt it, but I knew that I could not rest easy if I had not confirmed the falseness of these talks myself. And sure enough, the rumors turned out to be true. Although I could not track the Fae directly and do not know who they are, I was able to untangle some of the threads they used to cast various spells in both worlds to track them. I was just following their trail to some warehouses in an industrial area not too far north from here when—”

“Wait, industrial area not too far north?” Yuriy rubbed his face, remembering. “The only close one I can think of is the one by the Babushkinskaya metro station.”

“Yes, that’s exactly the one,” Vaselisa nodded. “Just one kilometer out from Babushkinskaya is a series of warehouses where I suspect this Fae is hiding. I was on my way there when I sensed your presence, Firebird. Happy with my luck, I decided that it would be better to find you first.”

“Well, thankfully I was able to slay the zmei earlier today so we will not need to worry about that. Now we just need to capture this Fae and find out what they were planning.”

“Firebird,” Vaselisa said hesitantly. “I do not think it will be so simple.”

“Why not?” Svetlana asked.

Vaselisa paused, steeling herself. “I fear that they did not have only one egg in their possession when they crossed the Threshold.”

“Wait, you mean there could be more of those things here?” Sergey gasped.

“I am afraid so,” Vaselisa answered. “And they may be hiding them in these warehouses.”

“Awesome!” Boris griped, throwing his arms up in defeat. “Even if we could deal with another zmei, if there are even just two more eggs, how are we ever going to be able to beat them?”

“Vaselisa, if you were going after them, did you have a plan for how to stop them?” Yuriy pressed.

Vaselisa paused, her expression going entirely blank for a second. She quickly lowered her head, hiding her face from everyone. Taking a deep breath, she slowly looked up, an apologetic smile directed first at the four men at the table, then at Svetlana.

“I know you probably think me foolish for trying to do this alone,” she spoke, a slight tremor to her voice. “Especially since it is incredibly difficult to cross over the Threshold at this time and there was no way for me to be certain that I could even return to Faemir—alive. But…” she paused, determination now etched into her every feature. “I had to try. Even if no one else believed the rumors or wanted to try to save Chelmir, even if the Grand Prince did not want to get involved in this, I had to do all that I could. I have had to deal with zmei before, I know exactly what they are capable of, and—”

“It’s alright, Vaselisa,” Svetlana stopped her with a soft motion of her hand. She reached for a bar of chocolate, opening it and breaking off some smaller pieces to offer to the tsarevna. “You don’t need to explain to us your reasons. I know them full well and that is enough.”

The tsarevna didn’t accept the chocolate but, slowly calming down, nodded her head in thanks, both for the food and for the pass from Svetlana. Whatever her reasons were, they seemed viscerally personal, and she looked only too happy not to have to explain them to a set of strangers.

Svetlana smiled in return, but then her expression quickly soured. “Do tell, Vaselisa dearest, what is this about the Grand Prince not wishing to be involved in this? Of all the Fae, if there are any rumors of zmei possibly reeking havoc on the two mir, they should be the first to handle this. How is it that they did not send anyone with you? Who is the Grand Prince now anyway? I recall Orlovsky held the title when the Threshold closed...”

Vaselisa hesitated before answering. When she spoke, her voice was barely above a whisper.

“Orlovsky doesn't hold the title now. The Grand Prince is… Korshun.”

What!” Svetlana yelled, slamming the chocolate on the table. The stove flame suddenly flared up, enveloping the tea kettle completely. Everyone jumped, Vaselisa letting out a yelp and cowering in her spot, her entire countenance shrinking. Sergey scrambled from his seat to turn the kettle off just as Chainikov, materializing once again out of thin air, beat him to it. The tea kettle wheezed sadly as everyone remained suspended in their positions.

But Ivan wasn’t sure if he was entirely comfortable breathing a sigh of relief just yet. Svetlana looked pissed.

“What in the world is Korshun thinking?” Svetlana fumed. “She, of all the princes, should know better.”

“I wish I could tell you,” Vaselisa offered up meekly. She had mostly regained her composure and was again carrying on in her dignified manner. “Prince Korshun’s views may have gotten more extreme than you might remember though—”

“Unbelievable!” Svetlana picked up her fork off the plate. “Her grandfather fought in the Great Battle to purge the zmei! Has she no respect for his legacy?!”

“Firebird, I under—” Vaselisa jumped again as Firebird stabbed the chocolate bar with her fork.

“And her father! Fought in the Napoleonic Wars! Slew dozens of zmei himself!” Svetlana continued to carve the fork into the chocolate repeatedly. “Her family, so devout to the land! Putting their lives on the line! And how does she repay their memory?!” More emphatic stabbing. “By sitting idly by as the zmei ravage the land that bore her forefathers and bestowed upon her her own powers. Unbelievable! Lazy! Privileged! Stuck-up! Kite!”

She tossed the fork into the middle of the table. It cluttered against the plates, ushering in an uneasy silence, broken only by the sustained dying wheezes of the tea kettle.

Svetlana let out a final groan as she haphazardly covered up the chocolate and slid it into the middle of the table. She crossed her arms and sat back violently in her chair. No one dared to speak up lest they end up in the middle of another bout of Svetlana’s rage. Ivan legitimately wondered if smoke might start coming out of her ears.

“Vaselisa,” she finally said curtly.

“Yes, Firebird?” the tsarevna asked, a hint of trepidation in her tone.

“We are going back to Faemir.”

“Huh?”

“Hold up!” Yuriy interjected. He was always a reckless idiot, Ivan sighed. “Why are you going back to Faemir?”

“Don’t worry, I don’t expect to be able to talk sense into Korshun,” Svetlana replied, her tone still heated. “But I need to restore my magic to full power if we are to take out the zmei once and for all.”

Her line did not sit well with Ivan at all. His legs tensed and his hands felt clammy.

“But what if more zmei hatch while you are away?”

Ivan tried to concentrate on his breathing without attracting to much attention to it from the others.

“That’s why we must leave right away. There is no time to waste,” Svetlana looked to Vaselisa. “Will you be able to open a Gate back to Faemir from here?” She nodded to the ball of yarn still sitting in Vaselisa’s lap. “Will it be able to lead us back?”

Vaselisa looked a bit lost, then recollected herself. “Y—yes, I think so…”

On their own accord, Ivan’s fingers brushed against the pocket in which Wyborg sat safely tucked away. It eased some of his tension, but just barely.

“Good, then let’s get going,” she stood up.

Yuriy followed suit. “Wait, but what about—”

“There is no time!” Svetlana slammed her hands on the table, glaring daggers across the table. Ivan’s breath hitched. Yuriy wasn’t backing down but neither was the old woman.

“You four stay here and wait until I return,” she instructed, a bit more calmly but still with force backing up her words.

“How do you expect us to just stay here?” Now Sergey got up. There were too many people standing and shouting and it was making the pit-like feeling in Ivan’s gut even worse. “Are we supposed to just sit and wait until you get back?”

“That is precisely what you are supposed to do,” Svetlana straightened up. “Get some rest and wait.”

“That’s it? Just sit idly by?” Yuriy waved his arms around in dismay.

Too. Much. Movement.

“Yuriy. If for some reason we cannot cross the Threshold to come back, it will be up to you to stop the zmei.”

As the words dropped, the air pressure in the room did as well. It will be up to us to stop them. Ivan’s face was a blank expression, but he couldn’t help but laugh maniacally on the inside. Given how well their earlier encounter had gone, he wasn’t so sure any of them were up to the task.

But the air around him constricted even more when Svetlana looked straight at him.

“I am sure you will figure something out.”

And with that, she walked toward the exit, Vaselisa right on her heels. No one else followed after they left, remaining frozen in position, not making eye contact. Ivan only vaguely realized that sometime between the tea kettle fiasco and now Chainikov had, once again, disappeared from the kitchen. The man himself felt like he was going to vomit.

Finally, Yuriy slammed his fist on the table, the silverware and plates clanking in a dissonant chorus.

“Fuck,” he exhaled as he leaned over the table, running a hand through his hair.

“Yuriy, what should—” Sergey’s question was left hanging as Yuriy bolted from his spot and dashed after Svetlana and Vaselisa.

His eye roll the only indication of what he thought of that, Sergey followed right behind their captain.

Ivan looked to Boris to see what the last teammate would do. Boris merely shrugged.

“Well, I guess that’s that.” He skewered the last dumpling on the main plate and shoved it in his mouth.

Ivan’s mind was reeling, not even from the entire conversation but just Svetlana’s last words. You will figure something out. What exactly were they supposed to figure out? How to deal with the zmei? They certainly didn’t figure that out fast enough the first time, and they never got a chance to ask more about that now. Was he supposed to figure something out as an Ivan? But he still didn’t know how Wyborg came into all of this. Of course he knew that Wyborg could not be one of these dangerous, vicious, evil zmei that they were supposed to eradicate, but he just wanted to make sure the others knew it too. Because he was sure of that and they had to be too. And he was sure of it… wasn’t he?

Ivan didn’t remember when he had gotten up and dashed out the door, but suddenly he was racing down the hallway, with the hope that he might be able to catch up to the others before Svetlana and Vaselisa crossed through the Gate.

He ran out the main entrance just as Vaselisa, standing off to the side and moving her arms through the air as if she was weaving a tapestry, was crafting a Gate. He ran up to Svetlana and the others, winded, desperate to ask something, anything, just to know, but at a complete loss for words.

Sergey acknowledged him with a nod but the other two were carefully watching Vaselisa work. Finally, a glowing, see-through doorway, similar in essence to the rune circles conjured up earlier by Behemoth, began to form. Unlike the feline’s magic though, this Gate had more heft to it, the doorway three-dimensional instead of flat. Just looking at it one could almost feel the wooden texture of the frame and the cool metal of the door handle.

But even more compelling than its ephemeral presence was the ghostly pull of whatever lay on the other side. It beckoned one to step through, to explore the distant lands, to hunt for the mythical treasures, to slay the legendary beasts. Ivan could already feel the gentle breeze rolling through the lush green plains, smell the exotic spices and roasted meats of the rich halls of the tsar’s kingdom, hear the mysterious howling of the forest—

“—Vanya!”

Ivan felt like he was jerked awake from a dream by Yuriy’s voice. He blinked back at the captain, trying to figure out if he had missed an important conversation.

“You alright?” Yuriy furrowed his brow in concern.

“Yeah, man, it’s cool,” Ivan laughed it off nervously. He looked away, fearing that making direct eye contact with the redhead would give away that something was wrong, if he hadn’t noticed already - although what exactly was wrong, even Ivan was not sure. Vaselisa had already finished crafting the Gate and nodded to Svetlana that they were ready to go. He didn’t have much time left to ask—

“Stay out of trouble, you lot,” Svetlana instructed the three of them. “Especially the bird prince.”

Sergey snickered. “Don’t worry, I think he learned his lesson today.” Svetlana smiled in response.

This was it, the lull in the conversation, when Ivan could—

“Svetlana,” Yuriy spoke up. The old woman craned her neck at the team captain. “Are you sure you don’t want any of us to go with you?”

She nodded. “It will be easier this way.”

Maybe now was a good time—

“But what if something happens? Here, or in Faemir? Will we have a way to reach you?”

“No, that won’t be possible,” Svetlana shook her head, then smiled reassuringly. “You don’t need to worry about it. Just take care here.” She held out her hands to Yuriy, who accepted the parting handshake. Then she turned to Sergey, who likewise accepted the gesture.

Ivan started to panic. Svetlana was going to come over any second so he could finally ask her whatever question he wanted. Should he be vague when asking about the zmei? But would that make him appear too stupid? What if he asked a more direct question? But that wasn’t any good either, because then he would have to tell Svetlana about Wyborg and what if that didn’t turn out well and she was already angry with that Grand Prince in Faemir and—

“Ivan.” Svetlana was in front of him and holding her hands out in a parting gesture. Forcing himself to stay in one piece, he tentatively held out his right hand. She took it in both of hers.

Almost instantly a wave of calm washed over him. A gentle wave, like a grandmother’s touch—

—he didn’t know when he had sat down but they were outside of his babushka’s dacha, he and his grandmother, a portly woman with hair that had once matched his shade of violet, drinking tea and eating the salad of freshly picked vegetables off of blue checkered plates, and although the plates were old and the dacha was really only a tiny shack in the middle of the giant field that was split between the many families in their small town, the shack and the plates were theirs as were the nights filled with her folk tales of times long ago, and how many times did he wonder in years after why or how it was fair that the folk tales endured but his grandmother had not and now there was no more dacha or plates or stories left to tell—

—the memory faded, leaving in its wake a serene but lonely feeling of nostalgia.

“Don’t go getting yourself into trouble, you hear me?” Svetlana’s voice was stern but her expression was not without kindness. “I know you Ivans have a knack for doing just that sort of thing.”

“I— I won’t,” Ivan managed a response.

“Good,” Svetlana smiled, letting go of his hand. “Then I’ll be off.” With that, she turned and started to walk away.

Halfway to the Gate. Five more meters. Almost there.

“Svetlana, wait!”

She turned back around as Ivan ran up to her and Vaselisa.

Now or never.

“What should we do if we find more zmei?”

“Find more zmei?” Svetlana looked at him in shock. “You shouldn’t be finding more of anything! Stay put until I return, you hear me?”

“But what I mean is… suppose that we just happened to find one. Or it found us. What should— would it— how would we know that it was evil?”

The two Fae exchanged a concerned glance.

“Ivan, that sort of thing isn’t a matter of knowing,” Svetlana said, not without a hint of reproach in her voice. “It’s a matter of being. Of course the zmei are evil.”

Vaselisa nodded in agreement. “If you see a zmei, whatever you do, you must kill it. Nothing good can come from them.”

Ivan’s heart sank.

“If a zmei comes for you, there are several ways to kill one, but the surest is to cut off its head,” Svetlana explained just in case. “But again, this is not something about which you should worry. And whatever you do, do not go after the Fae. Wait until we return.”

With those words, Svetlana turned to Vaselisa, who motioned with her arms to open the Gate. The heavy doors swung open, the echo stunningly loud for an object so translucent.

The air pressure in the park dropped and Ivan’s ears popped. Beyond the frame of the Door stretched a glowing pathway that faded away into the darkness, with no obvious Door on the other side. And yet, despite the unknown that lay before him, Ivan felt an unmistakeable compulsion to step forward. Even on this side of the Threshold, the heaviness of the magic of the Fae world was palpable and enticing.

Vaselisa took the ball of yarn out of her purse and dropped it on the ground. At first the ball just sat there, but then began to rock back and forth on its own and soon enough it was rolling excitedly around Vaselisa’s feet.

“Lead us to Faemir,” Vaselisa commanded, and the ball rolled eagerly through the Gate and into the darkness. Svetlana and Vaselisa stepped through after it, moving forward with certainty that something would be waiting for them on the opposite end.

On their own accord, the doors of the Gate slowly swung closed. For a split second, Ivan wanted to take the alluring step forward, to run through before the doors fully shut, to see what was calling him to the other side, who may have been waiting there—

“Ivan.”

An unfamiliar voice, perhaps something that had drifted over from the other side, snapped Ivan to alertness just as the doors closed with a disappointed sigh. The Gate stood as it was for several more moments before its outline became even more ghostly, finally fading into nothingness.

Ivan stood rooted to his spot, dumbstruck. Svetlana and Vaselisa’s words played over and over in his head. “If you see a zmei, you must kill it. Nothing good can come from them.” They were resolute, unwavering in their statement, not a trace of doubt in their eyes.

Ivan didn’t believe them.

He opened his jacket and took Wyborg out of the inner pocket. The purple and orange snake glinted back at him in the fire of the setting sun.

“Break the seal.”

Ivan startled as the same voice whispered to him, almost dropping Wyborg. He stared at the beyblade one moment longer before shoving it back inside his jacket. That… couldn’t have been Wyborg, was it?

Trying to figure out what to do, he shuffled back to his teammates. Boris never came out to join them. Sergey’s expression and posture was unreadable but Yuriy was very obviously agitated with the situation.

“What did they tell you?” The redhead asked once Ivan approached them.

“They said… they told us not to look for the zmei,” Ivan chewed on the inside of his mouth. He couldn't bring himself to relay all that the two Fae had said. Not when he refused to accept it as the truth.

“Vanya,” Yuriy however, perceptive as ever, could clearly see through his facade. “What else did they say?”

Ivan didn’t reply.

“Vanya?” Now Sergey prompted.

“They said that if we did encounter more zmei that we had to kill them. That the surest way was to cut off their heads,” Ivan spat the words out like they were bile, his hands balled into fists at his side. His stomach churned and the air was closing in around him again, the feeling of calmness he had experienced just minutes ago completely gone. He stared at the ground to try to root himself to something.

“Vanya, I am sure when they talk about the zmei they don’t actually mean Wyborg,” Yuriy tried to reassure him.

“Obviously they don’t!” Ivan glared at both of them. “Why the fuck would they? Do you think Wyborg is one of the evil zmei we are supposed to kill?”

“Of course we don't,” Sergey raised his hands up defensively, but although his words said one thing, Ivan could tell their intent did not quite reach the taller man’s eyes. Next to him, Yuriy didn’t respond at all.

He couldn’t handle this. He wanted to believe that they trusted him, that they wouldn’t just throw him out because of his bitbeast, but in the back of his mind he knew that he was always the expendable one in the group. Everything hurt and he couldn’t take looking at his teammates any more than he had to. He had to get away and cool off.

“I am going for a walk,” he declared before spinning around and walking off away from the stadium.

“Vanya, wait! Where are you going?” Yuriy called after him.

Ivan didn’t stop or turn around. “I need to think,” he replied, forcing the words to come through despite the lump at the back of his throat. He didn’t say anything more and, as expected, they didn’t follow after him.



Yuriy exhaled heavily, somehow managing to calmly resign himself to things spiraling out of his control for the time being. He watched as Ivan rounded a corner in the park and headed to whatever his destination was.

“I guess now we wait,” Sergey sighed, looking up at the sky but not searching for anything in particular.

“I guess,” Yuriy stood with his hands on his hips. What a mess. Ivan was upset as hell, clearly unhappy that they weren’t able to get any specific answers from Svetlana. He himself felt bad about not doing anything to ask the necessary questions, but Vaselisa’s appearance had certainly thrown him off. He supposed it was good that a friendly Fae had shown up, albeit unexpectedly. He was still trying to figure out why Svetlana had not wanted to wait for Behemoth to come back, as the old woman had specifically instructed him on their way to meet Vaselisa not to bring up the feline. The whole idea of letting Svetlana go off by herself did not sit well with him, but he supposed he just had to trust her to judge the situation better than him.

“Come on, man,” Sergey patted him twice on the shoulder. “No use ruminating on this. He’ll be fine.” As if reading his mind, the older man reassured him. “And Svetlana can take care of herself too.”

“I know you’re right. Still though, I wish we could have gone with her. Just to make sure.”

“Well, I guess we’ve got to hold down the fort here, in case something does happen.”

“Yeah…” Yuriy trailed off, instead opting to examine the object in his hand.

Sergey followed his gaze. “What have you got there?”

“Svetlana gave this to me before she left.” Yuriy showed off the ornate silver square cross laying in the palm of his hand.

“A Maltese cross?” Sergey looked over the item, surprised.

“You know what this is?”

“I haven't seen this particular one before, but there are tons like it in museums. These were commonly used by royal families for their crests or awarded by them as marks of distinction.”

Yuriy turned over the cross, scrutinizing it closely. The token, scratched but pristine and a bright shining silver, glinted back at him warmly. “So that means what Svetlana said was true. About serving at the Imperial Court of the tsar.”

Sergey just nodded slowly before giving his captain a final pat on the shoulder. “Come on, let’s get inside. You didn’t eat a single thing.”

“Yeah, ‘cause Vanya ate all of the food off my plate,” Yuriy chuckled.

“And if we don’t hurry up, Borya is going to eat all that’s left,” Sergey smirked and the two men headed inside.



Ivan wasn’t walking with any set direction in mind, letting his legs and whatever outside force that directed the movement of the cosmos carry him wherever they pleased. His mind was still reeling but at least he no longer felt like he was going to vomit up the contents of his afternoon meal. He was trying to process all that they had learned about the Fae: the Fae powers that Yuriy, Sergey, and Boris held, how their bitbeasts played into it, what had happened the last time Svetlana saw these Fae alive, Vaselisa’s attempts to track down the escaping Fae when no one else in Faemir would, the story of the Nine Princes and how the current Grand Prince, whom Svetlana evidently did not like, refused to do anything about the zmei, how the zmei were evil—

As he tried to piece everything together his mind would always halt to a stop at the last thought. Sure, the zmei that they had encountered earlier at VDNH was very much evil, no doubt about that. But despite it looking so shockingly similar to Wyborg, he refused to believe that they were even remotely related.

The thing they saw earlier today was grotesque, violent, and unhinged. Wyborg was anything but that.

“Hey, watch out!” A rushing passerby, heading home on their late evening commute, ran into and past Ivan. Oblivious to his surroundings and only paying attention to the ground right in front of his feet, the man suddenly found himself outside the Sviblovo metro station. All the way on the other end of the park from the stadium, he must have been walking for at least twenty minutes if he had gotten himself all the way over here.

For lack of anything better to do, he walked inside. Another train had just arrived and the commuters were spilling out of the station, on their way to their next transfer or, otherwise, home. Standing off to the side to avoid the mad dash of the tired Moscow residents, Ivan stared up at the giant lit-up display of the subway map. He contemplated going home, taking the Kaluzhsko-Rizhskaya line down to the Kol’tsevaya and then making another transfer to Zamoskvoretskaya. But even if he would be able to lose himself in the crowd, mindlessly riding the subway home, the thought of being stuck among all these people who couldn’t have cared less was somehow worse. He was restless for something to do.

As his eyes darted over the map, they stopped on the stop one north from Sviblovo. Babushkinskaya. The station that Vaselisa had mentioned as the area to where she was tracking the Fae. He knew the industrial area that the tsarevna had been talking about. Although they had never actually gone there for obvious reasons, the team had spent a lot of their time at Sviblovo and SevStad and the surrounding stations, so he could picture exactly the spot that the tsarevna described.

So close. Just one station. Six minutes on the train.

With a fleeting glance to the train schedule - “Northbound train arriving” - Ivan dashed toward the turnstiles. He leaped over the barrier and bolted down the escalator into the station.

“Young man, stop right there!” Came the station attendant’s admonition, but Ivan was already all the way at the bottom, bee lining for the open doors of the train that had just pulled in. He continued to maneuver his way down the car until the doors closed. He breathed out a sigh of relief as he knew no one would follow him now.

Ivan didn’t bother to sit down. He was giddy with both apprehension and excitement.

If no one else was going to give him answers, he would just have to find them himself.



“I'm telling you, there is just something off about this entire thing,” Sergey stressed his point as the three men walked into the kitchen. It had been some time since Svetlana and Vaselisa had left, but try as they might to rest, there was still something nagging at the backs of their minds. At least for Sergey and Yuriy.

“Seryi, you’re just being paranoid, as usual,” Boris said as he headed straight for the fridge where Denis Fyodorovich had put away all of the food.

“I agree with Sergey,” Yuriy sat on the back of the couch. Sergey took a spot at the table as Boris rummaged through the contents of the fridge. “Something just doesn’t seem right about this.”

“It’s just too convenient that no one had been able - or chosen, for that matter - to cross over from Faemir, and suddenly this Tsarevna shows up out of nowhere to save the day,” Sergey continued.

“I mean, she said it herself, she was chasing this evil Fae with the zmei egg, and then happened to find Svetlana on the way. Something something magical Fae nonsense. We live in a progressive world, Seryi, tsarevnas are allowed to save themselves,” Boris closed the fridge door with his foot, balancing three plates of plastic-wrapped food and a bar of chocolate on top in one hand, a pickle jar in the other.

“Nice diet. You pregnant?” Yuriy judged Boris’s menu selection.

“Can it, wolf boy.” Boris plumped himself down in the chair next to Sergey, letting the food spill out in front of him. He turned back to Sergey: “You’re overreacting. What makes you not trust Vaselisa over Svetlana anyway?”

“Did you notice how she didn’t touch hands with anyone at all?” Sergey pointed out.

“Actually,” Yuriy pondered as he went over their earlier encounter with Vaselisa. “Yeah, now that you mention it…”

“Huh?” Boris asked mid-unwrapping the bar of chocolate. “What does that have to do with anything? Didn’t you notice how she flinched at shit? She’s clearly got reasons for not touching people.”

“I noticed, but… Svetlana said that hand contact is the surest way to tell something about a person, and specifically to tell you the identity of a Fae,” Sergey explained patiently. “That even Fae magic wouldn’t be able to hide that sort of thing.”

“Okay, first of all, that sounds really perverted for some reason,” Boris grimaced. “But second, just because she didn’t touch hands with anyone now means that she is evil or something? I feel like you guys are just taking Svetlana’s word for everything. How do we know she is not lying to us?”

“Why would she lie to us?” Yuriy bristled.

“I don’t know,” Boris shrugged. “But she didn’t tell us about how our last Fae versions died, which I feel should have been one of the first things that we found out.”

“Borya, clearly it’s not a good memory for her,” Sergey cut in. “If she hadn’t seen these Fae come back in over a century and had been friends with them before, I imagine our deaths would not be the first things she would want to bring up.”

“Whatever, good memories or bad, she should have said something. I am just finding the whole story of how she was the only one of the White Guard to conveniently survive rather suspicious. Besides,” Boris leaned back in his chair. “She claimed to not know what a beyblade is. These things have been around for decades. How could she have never seen one? Has she been hibernating until today?”

“Technically beyblade-type objects have been around for centuries in places like China,” Sergey muttered reluctantly.

“Right, see?” Boris pointed to his teammate, stressing his point to Yuriy. “I think she’s purposefully trying to hide something from us.”

“That’s impossible,” Yuriy stated definitively.

“No, it’s not,” Boris glared back. “And you can’t know that either.”

“Yes, I do.”

Boris scoffed. “How? Did you—” he gasped dramatically. “Hold hands with her?

“Fuck. Off,” Yuriy spat back.

Boris was about to say something when Sergey kicked him in the shins.

“—Hey! What gives?” He spat the words at the taller man.

“Don’t,” Sergey glared at his friend, preempting what the latter was going to retort to their captain.

“Fine, fine,” Boris grumbled. He turned back to the chocolate on top of his food pile. “All I am saying is, Svetlana can just as well be feeding us some bullshit that—oh, see, and then there’s shit like this.”

Boris tossed the open chocolate bar that Svetlana had been stabbing earlier on the table between him and Sergey. “See? Clearly anger issues. Who does that to their food?”

Yuriy looked at his teammate incredulously. “Boris, you have anger issues. We all have fucking anger issues. Also, you play with your food all the damn time.”

“Yeah, but at least I eat all of my food. I don’t leave it like some eviscerated animal or—” he waved noncommittally over the food. “—ancient Mesopotamian message for other people to find later,” he paused, about to turn instead to one of the plates of cold cuts, when he caught Sergey staring at him as if he had just said something profound. “The fuck do you want?”

“No, Borya, that’s it.”

“What’s it?”

“Wait—” Sergey grabbed the chocolate and got up to dash out of the kitchen, then reconsidered. “Denis Fyodorovich!” He called into the empty space.

“Here!” The old man appeared in his usual spot by the stove. Though a bit more prepared, the three men were still caught by surprise at the janitor’s appearance.

“Fuck, I’ll never get used to that,” Boris slumped in his chair as his heart beat frantically.

“What can I do for you, my lads?” The man smiled jovially, still completely oblivious.

“Denis Fyodorovich,” Sergey turned to the domovoy. “This might sound weird but… does this say anything in like a… Fae script or anything like that?” He slid the bar of chocolate across the table toward the janitor. The old man hobbled over to pick it up.

“Hmm? Well, truth be told I’ve never really seen written Fae before, what with it being a very ancient language and all…” He peered closely at the bar anyway. “Oh, but this looks like just regular Morse code! Hehe, certainly brings me back to when we used it during the war—” he cut off as his face went pale, eyes darting back and forth over the food in his hands. He backed up, running into the counter and reaching out to hold on to it.

“Denis Fyodorovich?” Yuriy bolted from the couch. Sergey and Boris followed, crowding around the small man. “What is it?”

When the domovoy looked up at them, only fear was readable in his expression.

“Lads… we have made a terrible mistake.”

“What are you talking about?” Yuriy asked. “Did Svetlana write that?”

“That wasn’t Tsarevna Vaselisa,” the man gulped, steeling himself to utter the words. “It was Tsarevna Elena.”

“Huh? What does it matter which tsarevna it was?” Boris scratched the back of his head. “Aren’t they all the same?”

“You don’t understand!” The janitor snapped back. “Tsarevna Elena and Firebird do not get along. Tsarevna Elena would never want to help Firebird return to Faemir to regain her strength.”

“Wait, but,” Yuriy scrambled frantically to piece everything together. “Svetlana left with Elena willingly. If she left that message, she must have known exactly who it was.”

“Then she must have had reasons to try to get her away from here,” Sergey reasoned. “To get her away from us.”

“Shit,” Yuriy cursed. “Svetlana is in danger, we’ve got to help her.”

“Fuck, man, again the same tune,” Boris rolled his eyes. “What are we supposed to do? It’s not like we have a way to follow them to the Fae world!”

“Why do you suppose Svetlana was trying to get Elena away from here, anyway?” Sergey asked as Yuriy grew more and more agitated.

“Well, what would have happened if she had stayed?” Boris asked back.

“We would have all gone to that industrial area by Babushkinskaya to track down the errant Fae with the zmei eggs, most likely.”

“Maybe that was just a set-up,” Yuriy offered, tapping his foot. “Maybe there was no other Fae and it was all a trap.”

Boris scoffed. “I don’t know what kind of a trap it was supposed to be, but doubt it would have worked on all of us. And even if there is a trap there, no way it’s going to work now. It’s not like any of us would be stupid enough to go there alone—”

No sooner did the words leave his mouth that his expression fell and he slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand. The three teammates exchanged a single panicked look.

“Vanya!!”



The ghostly ornate doors of the Gate swung open in a forest clearing. Vaselisa and Firebird stepped out, before them laying a narrow dirt path that up ahead split up into a crossroads. The new crescent moon dimly illuminated the road but all around them lay dense, dark woods where the weak light failed to penetrate through the tangled tree branches.

Once they had passed through, the Gate behind them swung shut, the slit between the doors sealing closed before the entire thing dissipated into thin air. Still following behind the ball of yarn, Vaselisa led the way, only stopping short when she realized Firebird wasn’t walking after her. The young tsarevna turned around to see the other woman standing with her eyes closed, inhaling deeply the scents and essence of the Forest, acclimating to the pressure and to the world that she had missed for so long.

Almost one hundred years. Firebird could feel the magical threads of Faemir permeating the air, her own magic resonating with the nature around her. Finally, I have returned.

“It has been a long time, hasn’t it,” Vaselisa broke Firebird out of her meditation.

“Far too long,” Firebird replied, opening her eyes. They must have crossed the Threshold near the periphery of the Forest because the woods around them were alive not only with living energy that permeated its entire being, but with the sounds of owls and night critters and other living things. Sounds of ordinary animals.

“We should keep going. We have a long road ahead of us,” Vaselisa prompted her.

“Yes, you are right,” Firebird nodded and started walking slowly behind the tsarevna, keeping a solid ten meters between them. Although not yet used to the dense air around, she could tell the Forest tingled with excitement at welcoming back a friend who had not been seen in a long time. “I am so happy that you were able to cross the Threshold and find me in Chelmir.”

“Yes, it is very fortunate that I was able to find you so quickly. Who knows what would have happened if someone else from Faemir had gotten to you first.”

As clouds glided over the night sky to cover the moon, the path went dark and the Forest hushed in anticipation.

“Yes, who knows,” Firebird mused. “But even just being able to reminisce with someone about Faemir was a delight. And I am sure you of all folk were eager to see how much Chelmir has changed.”

“Yes, it certainly has grown quite different from what I remember.”

Firebird nodded to herself. “Do you remember when we heard of the so-called subway lines opening up in England at the end of the 20th century?”

“The subway in England?” The woman broke step, sounding genuinely puzzled, but kept moving forward. “Well, it has been a while, but certainly… it was big news, even with the verging turmoil in Russia—”

“Then you can imagine our excitement when they started building our own subway system in Moscow. Well, maybe excitement for the ordinary Muscovites, but not so much for the folk they put to work on it,” Firebird grinned wryly, laughing at a joke that was known only to her. “That was grueling, back-breaking labor where they starved us half to death… I myself was forced to work on many of the stations that were first to open, on the Sokol’nicheskaya line, the Kol’tsevaya, the Kaluzhsko-Rizhskaya… That’s, incidentally, the line that the Babushkinskaya station that you were looking for is located on.”

“I… see…” the woman replied, a slight hesitation in her voice. “That must have been very hard work.”

“It was,” Firebird answered, her tone flat. “For better or for worse, I could no longer do the hard labor they required by the 60’s, so they just left me to rot in prison until the death of communism… But keep building the subway system they did, even though I myself never got far enough on the line to work on the Babushkinskaya station.”

“Thankfully the hard labor is fast behind you and you can rest now,” Vaselisa spoke. “And once this is all over, I would very much like to go back to see this Moscow subway.”

“Oh?” Firebird stopped walking. “It certainly sounded to me like you already had.”

Vaselisa stopped abruptly but did not turn around. “What do you mean, Firebird? Of course I haven’t yet. Once I crossed over I followed the Fae’s trail up until I found you—”

“Babushkinskaya station was opened in the 1970’s, Vaselisa. And even so, the plans for the entire Moscow underground did not exist until after the Revolution. If this was the first time that you - or anyone, really - had crossed over to Chelmir in one hundred years… how could you have possibly known exactly where this station was located when you were tracking the Fae? Or for that matter, how the layout of the city looked around any given station?”

No answer came from the other woman.

“Hmm?” Firebird prompted. “What’s this? Silence? Did I happen to stump you with a particularly difficult question, Tsarevna Elena the Wise?”

Svetlana let the words hang in the charged silence between them. The Forest waited with bated breath.

Then, the young woman began to laugh, a high-pitched maniacal laughter that penetrated even the densely overgrown Forest, setting the roosting birds flying in alarm. As the younger Fae turned around, the sharp-boned features of her face changed shape into rounder contours, her height shrunk some twenty centimeters, and the color of her brightly shining eyes churned from a warm brown into a cold green. Her hair writhed like snakes as it changed from a single long auburn braid to two braids of dark brown, each itself woven from many smaller braids. But despite the change in appearance, she still carried herself with all the gravity befitting royalty - now perhaps even more so.

“You have always been far too perceptive for your own good, Firebird,” Elena’s voice was cool and unwelcoming. “And here I was being so careful not to reveal myself to you. Pray, teach the wise - was it just my words that told you the truth of who I am?”

“They confirmed for me that I should be wary to trust the Fae in front of me. But I have no need to hear you speak to know you, Elena,” Svetlana answered, her tone equally hostile. “Your stench of blood and betrayal is enough for me to recognize you anywhere.”

“HA!” Elena barked a single, grotesque laugh. “Still hung up on that one time, huh? Little do you know about what I’ve really done.”

“What are you plotting?” Svetlana hissed out angrily.

“As if I’d tell you,” Elena scoffed. “Besides, don’t you know, dearest Firebird? Meddling in other folk’s business is sure to shorten your lifespan.”

“And I always heard that children shouldn’t play with fire,” Firebird retorted back.

“Ugh,” Elena rolled her eyes in exasperation. “I grow tired of this reunion. It’s time to end this - for good this time.”

“Regretting that you didn’t kill me back when you tried to kill your husband Ivan?” Svetlana smirked.

“No, although I certainly regret not getting rid of Grey back then. What we should have done with you is make sure the communists took you out, like we did with Sokolinsky and the rest of them.”

Svetlana gasped. “What did you—”

“Don’t worry, you won’t have to concern yourself with these matters much longer.” the tsarevna pulled two small braids loose from her hair. They glowed emerald and changed shape, transforming into two long needles the length of the woman’s forearms, one deadly weapon for each hand.

“I always knew that if you wanted anything done right, you need to do it yourself.” Elena smiled deviously. “So allow me the pleasure of slaying Firebird!”

Chapter Text

“Hurry, hurry, we don’t have any time to lose!” Denis Fyodorovich led the way as the domovoy and the three men descended into the basement of SevStad. The expansive room was nothing more than a glorified storage area, with boxes, sports equipment, and other miscellaneous clutter scattered everywhere. The domovoy deftly maneuvered the space between the objects in a practiced manner, leaving Yuriy and the others struggling to keep up. Finally, Denis Fyodorovich stopped before some boxes standing by a wall, which he pushed out of the way to reveal a door. The door was plain and unassuming, just reaching up to domovoy’s waist.

Denis Fyodorovich fumbled through his pockets, finally producing some rope and dried flowers, and began to weave them together into a wreath. The men watched him work, as his hands darted at a speed they could barely perceive, not daring to distract him. He was done in but a minute and hung the finished creation on the door.

“This should get you through to the other side.” He turned to the men, flashing them his typical jovial smile.

“To the other side where?” Boris asked.

“To the warehouses,” Denis Fyodorovich rubbed his chin. “Well, I suppose technically not the warehouses. But there is a domovoy acquaintance who lives in that area by Babushkinskaya. You will come out in her place, and from there, it will be a quick jog to the industrial area where Ivan went.”

“The domovoy can just cross between their homes like that?” Yuriy was stunned.

“Oh no, by far not all of them. That would be chaos!” The old janitor threw his hands up in the air for emphasis. “But there are many of us who know each other and allow other domovoy to visit should they need anything. One just needs to know which door to knock on,” he pointed to the wreath hanging on the door.

Yuriy ran his hand through his hair, not really sure what to make of this, but compared to everything else they had learned today, he supposed this was by far one of the easier concepts to accept.

“Alright, lads,” Denis Fyodovorich snapped out of his storytelling mode. “No time to lose! Go find Ivan and bring him back!”

He turned to the door and gently knocked three times. A few moments passed as the janitor stood still and silent, and Yuriy wasn’t sure if the trick had worked when there was a click in the lock. The janitor exclaimed in joy.

“Dear Skatierkina, three distinguished guests sent over by Chainikov,” he called as he opened the door. “Please welcome them kindly.”

Beyond the door frame there was nothing but pitch black darkness. Still, the domovoy held the door open for them, waiting. Yuriy turned to the others.

"Alright, ready then?”

“Ready!” Sergey and Boris responded in unison. He could tell taking the step into the unknown was unsettling for them as well, but they had no other choice. They had to go find Ivan before something happened to him.

Yuriy bent down low and stepped through the doorway. He expected to need to walk through a darkened hallway for at least a few steps but instead, he found himself stepping out right through another door, upright, and into another room. He almost stopped dead in his tracks but had to maneuver out of the way as Sergey and Boris followed right behind him.

The three men found themselves in an apartment bedroom. Even just by the shape of this one room, Yuriy could tell that they were inside one of the typical high-rise buildings erected during the Stalin era, although the place had certainly been renovated recently. Sky blue wallpaper and simple, bright pictures, evidently drawn by a child, decorated the walls, books and stuffed animals sat on the two bookshelves, and various toys were strewn about the floor and the small desk.

Wherever they were, this apartment was very much lived in. Shit—

“Welcome, dear Fae guests!” A high-pitched voice greeted them from the spot by their feet. Yuriy, Boris, and Sergey all startled at the sight of a real domovoy, barely reaching up to their knees in height, the tiny Fae’s hair unkempt but tied together with some strange ribbons, wearing an outfit that looked like it had been stitched together from various kinds of tablecloths.

“Um— thank you,” Yuriy stammered out and bowed slightly. Sergey and Boris, shocked as they were, managed small bows as well.

“Dimochka, I am going to shower, go clean up your room before bed, okay?” The men froze as they heard a woman’s voice from behind the closed door of the bedroom.

“Oh, the house dwellers! Hide!” The domovoy instructed before disappearing into thin air. The three teammates scrambled in panic.

“What the fuck does she mean, 'hide'?” Boris hissed out angrily as they heard shuffling footsteps and a door slamming shut somewhere else in the apartment. The men searched in a futile attempt to find suitable hiding places but there were none.

The bedroom door swung open. A young boy of ten or so entered the room, lingering at the threshold when he noticed the uninvited guests in his room. All four stopped dead in their tracks and stared at the other party. The boy’s eyes darted from each of the men to the next. Then his eyes went wide as the scene began to register.

Yuriy’s mind raced for what to do, calculating whether he would have enough time to cross the room to keep the boy from screaming for help. Just then—

“Whoa!!!!” The boy let out an excited yell, his face spreading out into a wide grin.

“Dima, what is it?” A woman’s voice came from behind the bathroom’s closed door.

The boy looked back at the team, who all frantically made shushing motions for him to be quiet. The boy clamped his hand to his mouth, then turned back to shout: “Nothing, mom! I just… found a beyblade I thought I lost!”

“See, I told you to clean your room more often! You never listen to me!” His mother’s chastising drifted back to them as the boy turned back to the team, all excited. Yuriy had only now registered the slew of random beyblade parts cluttering the kid’s desk. The boy rushed into the room and shut the door behind him.

“Wow, you guys are the Blitzkrieg Boys!” the boy exclaimed, still a bit too loud for their liking.

“Yes, that sure is us.” Yuriy replied hesitantly in a low voice, hoping the boy would catch on.

“You guys are the coolest!” The boy proclaimed, still enthused although this time much quieter, his body vibrating with giddiness

Yuriy relaxed a little. He had to admit, the fact that there was no fear but instead one hundred percent adulation in the boy’s eyes was pretty endearing.

Yuriy took a few steps toward the boy and crouched down in front of him. “Sorry to disturb you, but can you let us out of your apartment?”

“Aww, you guys are leaving already?” The boy pouted, his expression turning sad in a sincere way that only a child’s can.

“Sorry, we have to,” Yuriy said, his voice empathetic. “We are on an important mission to find our friend. But we’ll come visit again soon.”

The boy scanned the rest of the Blitzkrieg Boys occupying his room. “Are you guys looking for Ivan?” He asked, looking back at Yuriy.

“Yes, we are, actually,” Yuriy nodded.

“Hmmmm,” the boy furrowed his brow in deep thought. “Yeah, that’s pretty important.” He nodded, approving their mission. “Do you guys need any spare beyblade parts before you go? I have some extras that you can take.”

Yuriy chuckled. “That’s okay,” he ruffled the boy’s hair. “You keep them and build a really strong beyblade of your own, so you can blade with us next time we visit, alright?”

The kid looked like he was on the verge of tears, but, taking a deep breath, steeled himself in front of his idols. He nodded emphatically.

“Alright then, can you show us out without your mom or anyone else seeing us?” Yuriy asked in a conspiratorial whisper.

“Sure,” the boy said. “But… can’t you just leave however you came in?”

“That won’t really work, unfortunately,” Sergey had come over and bent down, hands resting on his knees. “Can you open the front door for us?”

The boy thought about it carefully. “I could… but they are doing some work on the lights in the landing, I think either the workers or our neighbor Aunt Valya might see you.”

“That’s no good then,” Boris muttered, then noticed something outside the window. “Hey, what floor is this?”

“Second.”

Boris turned back to the kid. “You got a balcony?”

“Yeah, we do…” suddenly the boy beamed. “There are some trees right outside, too! Maybe you can jump to the tree branches?”

Yuriy looked to his teammates. Boris motioned with his head to get going. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the only option they had.

“Alright, can you show us where your balcony is?”

The boy nodded vigorously and led them out of the room, putting his finger to his lips before peering out dramatically and tiptoeing down the hallway. The boy went into the living room where the TV was turned up halfway, but thankfully no one else seemed to be home except for the boy and his mom. The boy opened the door to the balcony and maneuvered around the stock of glass containers of vegetables and fruits of various sizes to open one of the balcony windows. A cool breeze blew inside. It had already gotten dark, so despite it being summer, between that and the unseasonably cold weather, there were bound to be few, if any, neighbors milling about outside.

As the boy had said, there was a tall oak growing right outside. The branches weren’t exactly scratching at the window, but Yuriy judged that they would be able to leap the distance. The captain turned to the young boy.

“Hey, what’s your name?”

“Dmitriy!” The boy said. “Vorobyev Dmitriy Vladimirovich!”

Yuriy held out his hand. “Dmitriy Vladimirovich, thank you very much.” He smiled as the boy shook it, his expression all awe. “Til next time.” The captain hoisted himself up on the window frame and leaped out, grabbing onto one of the branches. It shook, but held. As quickly as he could, Yuriy maneuvered his way down the tree and onto solid ground. Sergey ended up beside him just a few moments later. Finally Boris landed next to them as well.

“You’re slow,” Yuriy pointed out. “Afraid of heights?”

“No, I just got a present,” Boris showed the attack ring in his hand before tucking it away in one of his jacket pockets. He turned back to the balcony, the others following suit. The boy was still waiting there, breath bated, but waved discretely when he saw the team looking up. The three men on the ground all waved back to him.

“Hehe, cute kid,” Boris grinned amicably.

“Did he say something to you?” Yuriy asked.

“No, but I told him not to do shit like this until he’s at least sixteen. And to listen to his mom.”

Yuriy smirked but answered with genuine praise. “Well done.”

“Alright, let’s get going,” Sergey gestured for them to get out before anyone saw them and the three took off. As they ran, snippets of conversation from up above drifted their way through the open window.

“Dima! What are you doing on the balcony? Are you looking at the birds again?!”

“Sorry mom, I just wanted to get some jam for tea!”

“Close the window and come inside right this instant! You’re going to catch a cold!”

Back on the ground, as the team oriented themselves mid-jog, they dashed out of the yard, down the road, and toward the industrial yard where they knew they would find Ivan.



Ivan had spent the last twenty minutes poking around the warehouses but without any luck. He hadn’t seen any guards lurking around and suspected he would not see any on a summer weekend in this part of town, but worked to speed up his search anyway.

He climbed the boxes lined up outside the fifth warehouse on his route to peer inside its grimy windows. Crates, various machinery and equipment, and random car parts littered the building. Most of the warehouses were locked up and he hadn’t tried breaking inside any of them yet, but with a sinking feeling in his stomach realized that he might have to start doing that soon. His cursory examination of the buildings wasn’t particularly fruitful and besides, how was he supposed to find a bunch of eggs that were probably hidden anyway if the insides of the buildings were so cluttered—

A bright flash of light inside the warehouse startled him and he quickly ducked down, eyes still peering over the edge of the window. The dirt on the glass made it hard to see, but the eerie glowing dark violet shape of concentric circles and markings that was floating in mid-air was unmistakably similar to the kind that Behemoth had managed to conjure up earlier than day. A dark hooded figure clad in all black entered inside it and disappeared, the magical circle vanishing but a second after.

Ivan’s anxious heart raced with excitement as he jumped down from the boxes and looked for a way inside the warehouse. He couldn’t believe his timing. That must have been the Fae that Vaselisa was hunting, the one who had set the zmei loose at VDNH. If they were hanging out inside the warehouse, that must mean that that was where they hid the zmei eggs. He’d have to work fast. There was no telling where the Fae went or how quickly they would return. He had to find the eggs before the Fae found him.

As expected, the main gates to the warehouse were locked with a padlock - as expected, but not impressive. Ivan fished a piece of wire out of his pocket and inserted it inside the key hole. After less than ten seconds of gentle fiddling, the lock gave way to Ivan’s quick hands.

“And the chest opened so easily,” Ivan grinned, the common saying flying off his tongue.

Once inside, he jogged as fast as he could through the cluttered warehouse, trying to figure out where the Fae may have hidden the eggs. Probably not inside any of the boxes that might get taken away by accident, the young man reasoned. But maybe in one of the cars? Or in the piles of blankets? He continued to search underneath piles of cloth, inside random boxes, wondering if zmei eggs needed to be kept a certain way and if that might give him a hint for where they would be hidden.

As he plunged farther and farther into the depths of the warehouse, the cavernous feeling inside his stomach was getting bigger and bigger. Sweat beaded his brow as he rushed past the spot where the magical portal had opened, trying to put as much distance between him and the area as he could. It could not have been more than fifteen minutes since the Fae had escaped, and yet Ivan could not be sure that the next second would not be the one when they appeared. He was not entirely sure what he would do then. Having seen not only the destructive power of the zmei but the handiness with which Svetlana had dispatched one despite her age, he was wary of meeting a Fae that was younger and more agile on their feet. Still, he continued to search, meanwhile mentally preparing himself for a fight if it came down to that. He had to do this for Wyborg. He would not back down.

A forklift up ahead, with a pile of blankets and some clothes haphazardly strewn across the seat of the open cabin, looked promising. Ivan had climbed inside and was rummaging through when he heard a low humming noise behind him. He ducked down, throwing a blanket over himself in desperation as a chill ran down his spine. He slowly turned in the direction of the sound. The same dark violet circle hung in the same spot as before. Ivan waited with bated breath for a figure to step out.

But to his dismay, while no figure stepped out, the outline of a dark hooded person materialized out of thin air in the space across from the Fae Gate, rising up from the floor in black airy wisps of smoke. Once the figure looked more opaque, it marched confidently toward the gate before stepping into it and disappearing. The gate was gone just a short second after.

Ivan slowly emerged from his hiding spot. “What the—”

Hopping out of the forklift cabin, he doubled back to the area where the Gate had opened. The air was palpably heavier the closer he got. Once, he stopped, nervously surveying the area around. He had a creeping feeling on the back of his neck like someone was watching him. Avoiding any sudden movements, he took out his launcher and set Wyborg ready to go. He kept walking closer, his legs feeling like lead. Closer, one more step, two, three—

The ground below him lit up as a violet rune circle appeared on the floor. The air felt charged and Ivan’s hair stood up on ends, just like before a thunderstorm. The circle began to spin, faster, faster, picking up rotational speed.

“Shit!—” Ivan dove out of the way just in time as the circle exploded.

He barely had time to recover before the floor lit up again right in the spot where he had landed. Again he dodged as the circle spun and exploded, but a little slower this time. Ivan winced in pain as his back struck a crate, but he managed not to get knocked over prone.

Then a third circle appeared, this one larger than the previous two, humming menacingly.

The explosion knocked Ivan back a good ten meters, sending him flying through a pile of cardboard boxes. His shoulder and hip cried out in pain as he landed but, with a small wave of relief, he realized that he had at least succeeded in shielding Wyborg both from the burst and the impact. He scrambled to pick himself back up when he smelled burning. To his horror, the smell wasn’t coming from his singed clothes. He easily spotted the piles of blankets near the explosion area that had caught fire, the bright flames spreading to the easily flammable junk strewn around with unnatural speed.

I have to get out. Now.



“Ugh, how are we supposed to find a tiny guy like him in a huge area like this?” Boris complained loudly as the three men raced through the industrial area. “He could be in any of these damn warehouses!”

“Let’s split up,” Yuriy said. “We’ll be able to cover more ground that way.”

“Okay, I’ll go—” Sergey’s words were cut off by the muffled sound of an explosion somewhere off in the distance.

The three exchanged a troubled look.

“Do you think—”

“That’s abso-fucking-lutely Vanya.”

Another explosion, this one still far away but a bit louder.

“Let’s go!”

They raced down the road in the direction of the sound.



If trying to maneuver through the warehouse had been a challenge before, now it had turned into a straight up mine field.

Three more rune circles had exploded as Ivan struggled to make his way toward the exit, and although he had somehow managed to avoid getting struck directly, the explosions had wrecked the terrain of the building. Pieces of crates and equipment blocked his path, and the fire was quickly spreading to engulf everything around him. Black smoke rose up from the flames, forcing him to crouch down as he picked his path, and the heat was getting more and more oppressive with each passing second.

At least he had managed to tuck Wyborg away into the inner pocket of his jacket and keep his beyblade safe.

A metal beam came toppling from the ceiling right in front of him, sending sparks flying in all directions. Ivan shielded his face. His eyes stung and lungs burned. He desperately looked for another escape route. He spotted the tiny windows of the warehouse. Too far up, he thought with a sinking feeling in his stomach. He’d never be able to reach any of them in time.

“Vanya!”

Yuriy’s voice cut through the roar of the flames. Ivan’s heart leaped as he saw his three teammates running through the warehouse toward him.

“Hang on!” The captain yelled as he pulled out Wolborg and set her ready to launch. Just then, a violet rune circle materialized on the ground below him and began to spin.

“Yura, watch out!” Ivan screamed in desperation.

Yuriy just stared at the circle, caught completely off-guard. Thankfully, Sergey was faster and leaped to push the redhead out of the way just as it exploded. As they rolled to a stop, some stack of burning crates toppled and blazing wood fell toward them. 

Sergey fell on top of Yuriy to cover him, bracing for impact. But the hit and fire never came, a loud crack of splitting wood sounding just above their heads instead as Boris sailed through the air and kicked the crate off its path. He landed deftly next to them as Sergey and Yuriy were already rushing to get up.

Another circle appeared underneath Boris and began its maddening spin almost immediately. Ivan, watching his friends intently, just barely caught sight of the violent violet glow beneath his own feet.

Sergey yanked Boris out of the way just as Ivan scrambled to jump back. The combined blast of the two circles sent everything into chaos as even more crates and equipment toppled. Several more beams crumbled from the ceiling as the warehouse structure was becoming more and more unstable by the minute.

“Yu—” Ivan broke out in a fit of coughing. Everything hurt. He couldn’t think straight.

The world around threatened to go dark.



“Vanya! Vanya, get up!” Sergey called out. He searched for a way to get to his teammate. Yuriy’s plan to summon Wolborg would have been ideal but it was no longer safe for them to launch their beyblades in here.

The explosion that paired with theirs had knocked Ivan back a good distance, as a precarious pile of equipment collapsed to block the path between them.

“Shit, we have to do something!” Boris yelled, looking around frantically. He took a good five steps back. Sergey read his intentions immediately, jumping in his way before Boris could break into his running start.

“Borya, don’t!”

“You got any other fucking ideas?”

The entire warehouse around them was ablaze, bathed in a blind, unforgiving light. Sergey almost missed the violet glow of the circle that appeared on the ground, large enough to cover the area underneath all three men.

The circle began to spin.

“Run!” Yuriy screamed over the roar of the fire.

The three of them dashed toward the exit, their only escape route, just as another beam crashed to the ground in front, blocking their path. Sergey managed to break just in time, yanking Boris back by his jacket before he plunged face first into the flood of sparks that erupted from the beam’s impact with the floor. The circle was spinning so fast its markings were no longer discernible.

There was no way to escape. Sergey clung to Boris’s jacket, as the other man grabbed onto his arm. The taller man reached out his other arm to Yuriy, who seized his shoulder in a firm grip.
Sergey shut his eyes.

The firm, warm body that collided with Sergey in that moment knocked the air out of him completely. His eyes opened on reflex but still he could not discern anything around him except for red whirling gusts of air. He would have thought that the fire had engulfed them completely if not for the fact that he did not feel his skin melting off or the flames eating through his flesh.

It felt like the drop through the Pathway to SevStad earlier that day.

His back collided with something solid and rough, small jagged things scraping at his exposed arms and face as he rolled to a stop. Yuriy and Boris, who had been clinging on to him the entire time, broke off and had also come to a stop on the ground next to him. Coughing but finally able to breathe again, Sergey picked himself up as quickly as possible on his elbows. They were some one hundred meters away from the burning warehouse, its flames blazing through the windows and the top. The heat was palpable even from this distance. The main gate had been blown open, possibly by the giant blast that Sergey and the others had just managed to escape. And Sergey now saw how. Standing right in front of them, gloriously haloed by the flames like the devil’s messenger, was the cat Behemoth.

He glared at the three men. In the pitch black darkness that was his body, his bright green eyes shone ominously.

Behemoth turned back around, readying his paws to summon another rune circle, when another explosion sent the middle section of the warehouse roof crashing down. The three men screamed in panic.

“Vanya!!!”



Ivan could not see through the smoke and flames of the giant blast that had knocked even him back a good few meters, sending him toppling through some more burning rubble. His head spinning, his surroundings starting to blur as the noxious smells were filling up his lungs, he tried to figure out what happened to his friends. But he just couldn’t concentrate. Everything ached and there was a burning pain running up his arm—

He frantically tore off his jacket as the licks of flames ran up one of his sleeves and tossed it away indiscriminately. There was an irony to doing so in a warehouse that was about to burn down to the ground anyway. But if he was going to burn, it would be on his terms, and as quick as—

It was as his jacket sailed through the smoke-filled air that Ivan realized his grave mistake.

Wyborg.

His leap over the burning crates was done without thinking, and as he stretched out his arm to grab at the jacket there was no way he should have been able to catch it. But catch it he did, and as he rolled on the hot ground through the acrid smoke, he ripped Wyborg out of his inner pocket with one arm and threw away the burning jacket for good with the other in one fluid motion. Ivan clutched the beyblade to his chest.

Fuck fuck fuck that was too close we’ve got to get out of here

He was about to run back when he realized there was no way to jump. The flames that he had somehow cleared to save Wyborg now rose to his shoulders. He was surrounded by fire on all sides.

His eyes darted frantically to where his teammates had been. Neither Yuriy, nor Sergey, nor Boris could be seen anywhere. Whether they had gotten trapped themselves or they escaped, saving their own lives, Ivan was left alone. With a sinking gnawing feeling in his stomach that overwhelmed him, he realized that this, truly, was the end of the line for him.

As if to confirm the ugly truth that blazed all around him, a violet rune circle etched itself on the ground right below him, as big as the one that had hit his friends just moments ago. His friends. Ivan swallowed the lump at the back of his throat as tears flowed down his soot-covered cheeks.

The circle began to spin.

Even if they couldn’t save him, at least they had come for him.

The circle spun faster.

Even if he was, had always been, the odd one out, they had come for him.

Even faster.

And for that, he was grateful.

The circle was a glowing blur that illuminated Ivan from beneath in a terrifying light.

“This is it, Wyborg.” As he collapsed to his knees, unable to stand and fight any longer, Ivan clutched his bitbeast tight to his chest. He wondered if it could hear him.

“Thanks for always being there for me.”

An explosion engulfed Ivan from head to toe.



Yuriy only realized what he was doing when he had already set Wolborg ready to launch. No, we can’t be late, not again please not again—

A giant black paw grabbed his launcher.

“Oh hell maggots—” Behemoth muttered under his breath without turning around.

“Hey— Let go—”

Yuriy broke off as a bolt of lightning struck right into the middle of the warehouse, thunder booming deafeningly across the neighborhood. A gale of wind picked up around them. Behemoth released his grip, shielding his face from the violent gusts. The sky illuminated with more lightning. Yuriy gaped at the black angry clouds that had formed, so solid he would have thought they were a beast flying over the city. The wind grew stronger, flinging the random junk strewn around the industrial yard through the air.

“What’s happening?” Boris tried to make himself heard over the howling.

The inside of the warehouse erupted in a bright flash of light, distinct from the flames that rages through the interior. The light seemed to hover into the air, slowly rising higher and higher out of the gaping hole in the roof. Suddenly, it stretched and transformed until it was long and thin and seemed to reach all the way into the dark storm clouds overhead.

Yuriy shielded his eyes from the blinding flash of light as multiple lightning bolts struck it at the same time.

For a few moments there was silence, as the world was suspended, waiting. Then, a deafening screech, a war cry rallying for battle, broke through the air, louder and far more imposing than even those of the zmei they had fought earlier. As the sound echoed all around, the light morphed into the unmistakable shape of a white and violet serpent, a silver streak sailing through the dark clouds up above.

Yuriy, his mouth open, watched the familiar serpent twist and twirl in the sky right above them. But, if Wyborg made it out, what about Ivan—

The redhead wanted to dart back to the warehouse when suddenly, Wyborg was no longer sailing smoothly through the skies but nosedived to the ground. Its speed living up to the nature of its element, there was no way the three men could react in time.

The serpent struck the ground some thirty meters in front of them, the ground and the air all exploding simultaneously. The blast knocked Yuriy off his feet and sent him flying back. As he landed, painfully, his head spun and he couldn’t make out anything through the ringing in his ears. His vision was blurry, but he was sure that he could both feel something hot and sticky running down the side of his face and taste the blood in his mouth, as dirt and debris rained down on him.

Thankfully, nothing seemed to come at him to attack, so he slowly rolled to the side once the world around started to behave again. Sergey and Boris had been knocked back with him, but, coughing and bleeding though they were, they were alive and coming to just like him. Behemoth was nowhere to be seen, no doubt having managed to call up one of his rune circles just in time to dodge. As the smoke and dust began to settle, the periphery of a huge crater where Wyborg had made impact came into view. And, just out in front of it, Yuriy could make out another familiar shape, this one of a young man, stirring on the ground.

Oh thank god—

“Vanya!” Boris beat Yuriy to it, scrambling to his feet, Sergey not too far behind. Yuriy followed suit, hot tears already running down his face.



Am I dead?

In his dizzying stupor, Ivan wondered if death was supposed to be as bright as flashes of lightning, as disorienting as the vertigo of hurdling through a stormy sky, and as gross-tasting as dirt.

The experience had been pretty exhilarating for about a minute but now everything just hurt.

Slowly, tentatively, he tried to pick himself up on his elbows.

“Vanya!!!”

His teammates’ voices rang in his head.

No, impossible, Ivan’s heart beat faster— was he supposed to still have a heart beat?? Did they die too?

He barely managed to lift up his head when something - someone - collided into him on the ground. His body ached even more as he got a mouthful of a fur collar in his face.

“Van’ka, you’re alive!” Boris screamed right into his ear, hugging the smaller man tightly.

Ivan felt more weight pile up on top of him as Sergey and Yuriy caught up as well, sliding to the ground and wrapping their arms around Ivan and Boris both. Ivan thought he felt some stray rain drops on his face.

“Vanya, we thought you were a goner!” Sergey managed the words despite the crack in his voice.

His body ached all over, he felt like he was going to vomit, and the last ten minutes had been the most terrifying whirlwind that he had ever experienced, but as he felt his teammates’ arms wrapped protectively around him, he was sure of two things: he was alive and he was not alone.

Something inside Ivan broke as ugly sobs bubbled to the surface and tears streamed freely down his face.

“You guys…” he choked out the words as the four started to separate a bit. Yuriy was furiously rubbing his cheeks with the palm of his hand, Sergey’s expression was all a warm smile of relief as his eyes brimmed with tears, and even Boris’s grimace screamed fuck I’m glad this is over and you’re still here. “I can’t believe you came after me…”

“Of course we did, you idiot,” Yuriy stared at him. “As if we could just leave you—”

The captain broke off as he, too, must have felt the air around them grow heavy with a charge of electricity. The atmosphere cracked with the sound of static. Boris noticed the source of it first.

“Fuck, get up, get up!” He haphazardly pulled at Sergey, the closest to him, to get up, reaching out to Ivan next. Ivan whipped his head around to the spot where Boris trained his gaze.

Ivan vaguely remembered something akin to a strike of lightning when he had made impact. Now, in the center of the crater, a tall figure, taller even than Sergey, rose up from the smoke, sparks of electricity buzzing all around them. As they stepped forward and out of the crater, their silver chain mail shone brilliantly in the light of the blazing warehouse fires, the red hues complementing the bright orange of their tunic. Carrying her helmet in her hands, the woman’s long thick braid, a deep violet, swung behind her. She marched toward the four men, an imposing glint in her bright green snake eyes.

As she came closer, Ivan and the others scrambled backwards. When she stopped, they froze. No one dared to speak in her presence. Ivan had no idea who stood before them, but even he could tell that it was a Fae most ancient and powerful.

But also— The color of her dress and armor. Her hair. Her eyes. It can’t be—

“Who are you?” The question, no, the demand to know, rang through the air, the words tumbling out of his mouth before Ivan could stop them. He could sense the others tense around him. He gulped.

Hi I am Ivan and I have a death wish.

The woman glared at him, her chin raised high. Her expression did not soften, but at the very least her eyes did not scream murder either.

“I am Ekaterina,” her voice boomed like thunder across the clearing.

Ekaterina.

“I wonder if Ekaterina would have known something about this.”

“She just disappeared… given her condition and the state of Chelmir, I doubt that she would have managed to survive this long on her own.”

Ivan gasped. “You’re that Fae everyone keeps talking about!” His mind raced. “But wait… why do you look just like Wyborg…”

“Greetings, Tsarevna Zmeia,” a familiar feline voice mewled right next to them as Behemoth emerged out of thin air. The cat bowed like a French courtier, extending a back paw forward as he did so. “Cat Behemoth welcomes your return.”

Ivan stood rooted to his spot. Tsarevna Zmeia. He couldn’t believe his ears, but if Behemoth was right, then Ekaterina, the Fae in front of them… Wyborg… was the princess of the zmei.

“Gentle Fae folk and Ivan,” the cat addressed the men as he placed himself in the space between them and Ekaterina. The tsarevna stood tall, an amazonian warrior born for battle, barely sparing a glance toward Behemoth as she kept her steely gaze trained on Ivan. “Allow me to introduce to you Her Well Born Ekaterina Velikaya, Tsarevna Zmeia and the twelfth daughter of Zmei Gorynych.”

Chapter Text

“Allow me to introduce to you Her Well Born Ekaterina Velikaya, Tsarevna Zmeia and the twelfth daughter of Zmei Gorynych.”

Despite the blazing heat, Ivan broke out into a cold sweat. Zmei Gorynych. One of the most feared, reviled villains of Russian folktales, rivaled only by Koschey the Deathless. The three-headed serpent who scorched Russia’s lands and devoured its people with no hesitation or remorse.

And Wyborg - and there was no doubt in his mind, in his gut, that the Fae before them was indeed Wyborg - turned out to be one of its children.

Did this mean his bitbeast was evil after all?

No, impossible. I know Wyborg isn’t.

“If you intend to do introductions, I suggest you do them properly, Hellspawn Behemoth.” The woman shot the other Fae a look of disdain, her braid fluttering, no, writhing like a snake behind her. Her voiced no longer boomed like thunder across the yard but she still spoke with a deep, terse tenor. “My father’s line is anything but well-born, and if your memory has not rotted away completely in Iav’, my rank is equal to that of the Faemir Princes.”

Ekaterina looked squarely at Boris. The young man tensed even more, if that was even possible.

“Yes, of course, my mistake! It will not happen again,” Behemoth bowed once more but did not sound terribly sincere with his words.

Then, his head turned sharply and he greeted the beyblading team with a piercing glare.

“You four!” The feline’s outline shimmered like smoke and suddenly he was standing at his full height right before them. “What are you doing here? Did I not tell you to remain at SevStad?”

“We were there, but we had to come here to rescue Vanya,” Yuriy spoke up, sounding out of breath. “Listen, Behemoth, we need your help—”

“Where is Svetlana?”

Behemoth stared down the team captain. Yuriy licked his lips nervously. “That’s what we need your help with. Svetlana… went back to Faemir.”

Ivan did a double take. Wait, was that… a bad thing?

The side of Behemoth’s face twitched as he squared his jaw. “Explain,” he gritted through his teeth.

“Earlier, a tsarevna - Tsarevna Vaselisa - showed up at SevStad,” Yuriy explained hurriedly. “She said she had been looking for the Fae who escaped Faemir with the zmei eggs. It sounded like Svetlana knew her so when Svetlana said that she and Vaselisa should go back to Faemir we thought it was fine, except— then we found out that it wasn’t really Vaselisa—”

“It was Elena,” Behemoth finished, face contorted into a scowl.

Huh? Who is Elena?

Beside him, Yuriy froze in shock. “How did you—”

His words cut off as Behemoth grabbed him by the collar and hoisted him up in the air with one powerful arm. His other paw remained free, sharp claws out and glinting menacingly in the light of the warehouse fire.

The other three men made a move to aid their captain, but stopped dead in their tracks as black smoke swirled in front of them and forced them back. Behemoth didn’t spare them a single glance, his green eyes instead trained on the young man in his hold.

“You let her go with Elena alone?” The feline growled.

“We didn’t find out it was Elena until they were already gone!” Yuriy had to force the words through the tight grip around his throat. “Svetlana was the one who left the note for us and she said she was going to be fine on her own—”

“Of course she would say she was going to be fine! Bloody hell!”

“What else were we supposed to do?” Yuriy pleaded.

“Go with her, damn it!” The cat’s fangs flashed in rage, eyes pure hellfire. “I can’t believe this! Fourth time around, and you’re still nothing but a burden! I should have left you to melt inside that warehouse!”

He tossed the young man back at his team. Yuriy landed painfully on the ground, coughing for air, as Ivan and the others rushed to check that he was okay.

"Behemoth," Ekaterina spoke calmly. "Cease this unseemly behavior."

"You keep quiet!" The feline pointed one sharp claw in her direction.

Ekaterina’s steely expression broke out in shock. She hissed: "How dare you—"

"No, how dare you! What have you been doing? Hibernating for the past damn century? What business do you have emerging so rejuvenated after all this time? Do you know what special kind of hell the rest of us have been through?” Behemoth’s voice rose in a crescendo, resonating in a lower and lower bass as it grew louder. “You haven't had to watch Svetlana wither away in a rotten prison cell, the communists rebuilding this city on her back, curse them all to hell!"

"Behemoth!"

"Don’t waste your breath on summoning me. I am done with you! All of you!" He glared at the team. "At this rate, it's going to take another century for you four to get it together, and we don't have that kind of time."

Reaching inside his pockets, Behemoth produced a ball of red yarn.

The four men gasped in unison.

“Where did you get that?” Yuriy demanded.

Instead of a reply, Behemoth waved his free paw in the air. Red threads of magic shot up from the ground, rapidly weaving themselves together into a heavy Gate in but a few moments.

Before the others could stop him, Yuriy scrambled to his feet and bolted toward the feline. But as the doors swung violently open, a heavy gust of wing sent him flying back and kept everyone else at bay as they tried to shield themselves from the burst. Ivan felt the same pulling, enticing sensation from within the Gate as before, but he couldn't have made it in if he tried.

“Behemoth, stop!” Yuriy yelled over the howling wind. “Let us help!”

“No. You’re useless to me,” Behemoth stated, not shouting but still audible to all. “I am taking matters into my own paws. Farewell!”

Deftly, the Fae stepped inside the Gate, the doors swinging closed behind him just as quickly as when they had opened. As the doors slammed shut, the threads unraveled on impact and disintegrated into thin air. The wind stopped instantaneously. All was still, save for the crackling of the blaze and the creaking and groaning of the collapsing warehouse structure.

Well then.

Everything that could have was turning into an all-out shit show and Ivan was not on board with it.

As he stood up and dusted himself off, Ivan frantically digested all of the new information. He wasn’t about to try to figure out how Behemoth had come into possession of one of the magical balls of yarn or how long he’d had it. Of more concern to Ivan was the SevStad tsarevna. So Vaselisa turned out to be not Vaselisa at all but actually Tsarevna Elena. Ivan didn’t understand exactly what that implied, but judging by Behemoth’s reaction and Yuriy’s concern, Elena was not a good tsarevna with whom to cross paths. Suddenly all the odd, uncomfortable feelings from being in her proximity made sense to him - at least to the extent that they were a Sign of a Bad Thing. Svetlana too must have recognized Elena, if she had left a message for the team to find. So why did Svetlana leave regardless? Was their babushka alright on the other side of the Threshold?

And of course, there was also the matter of—

“You,” a formidable voice summoned Ivan out of his thoughts.

The young man whipped around to see Ekaterina looming above him. For someone so large and clad in armor, she moved with surprising grace and silence. Ivan had to crane his neck up to meet her gaze, the bogatyr-like Fae towering over him easily by more than half a meter.

“Wha—what about me?” Ivan stammered and took a step back, but tried to stand tall as best as he could. His teammates merely looked on. Much as Ivan would have loved for them to give him a hand, he wasn’t so sure they would be able to.

Ekaterina rested her helmet on her hip. Her stern expression did not change, and as she held her free hand over her chest— she bowed.

Ivan stood rooted to the ground, absolutely still.

“You have done me a great deed, having carried me for seven years and then served me another seven more,” Ekaterina spoke, her deep tone almost melodic, as if reciting some sort of incantation.

“You have allowed me to recover my strength and to cast off the binding spell that has let me rest for the last fourteen years. For your service, I thank you, Ivan the Soldier.”

“Soldier?” Ivan repeated quietly, not with any sort of amazement or excitement but more understanding.

Ekaterina nodded.

So neither Fool nor Tsarevich. Given his history, perhaps Soldier was the most fitting title for him after all.

Ekaterina was about to turn away, but Ivan decided that he wasn’t quite done pushing his luck that day.

“Tsarevna Ekaterina! I mean— Zmeia Velikaya— Your Well Born— ugh, you!”

Ivan finally bit his tongue to not make a bigger fool out of himself, but the smirk on Ekaterina’s face reassured him that he had already accomplished the task with high marks.

“Yes, Ivan the Soldier?”

“You need to explain who you are!”

“I need to?”

Ivan aggressively pretended as if Ekaterina did not look like she was about to devour him whole.

“Yes, you need to!” Ivan demanded, also aggressively ignoring the silent motions from his friends to kindly shut the fuck up. “You say I served you for a whopping fourteen years! Don’t you think you owe me some explanation as to who you are?”

Ekaterina raised an eyebrow in devious amusement. “By the land, maybe you are a fool, if you are so quick to forget who has been fighting by your side all these years.”

“So then it’s true!” Ivan exclaimed triumphantly, ignoring the jab. “You are Wyborg! You are the bit-beast who has been bound to my beyblade all these years!”

“Indeed it is so,” Ekaterina nodded. “Crude human inventions, these beyblades, but it did its job just fine.”

“What job is that?” Ivan asked.

“Allowing me - and other Fae trapped in Chelmir - to survive for all these years.”

“But Svetlana and Behemoth never bound themselves to beyblades…” Ivan trailed off. Then again, Ivan realized, Svetlana and Behemoth were also much worse for wear compared to the powerhouse of a Fae standing before him.

“Firebird is a Fae of a different nature - and that hellspawn is not of this plane of existence altogether,” Ekaterina stated. “What they can and cannot do to survive the deterioration of the worlds is governed by different laws than mine.”

“That’s the difference between Gifted Fae and Born Fae that she must be talking about—” Yuriy whispered to Sergey but quickly cut off once Ekaterina turned to him.

The serpent Fae sized the man up and down with a dubious expression. Yuriy just stared back but then, snapping out of his trance, bowed deeply at the waist.

Ekaterina erupted into a fit of booming laughter. She marched over to Yuriy, yanking him off the ground by the back of his jacket. The captain yelped in surprise.

“Morozko, it really doesn’t suit you to supplicate before anyone,” Ekaterina addressed him as she held him up eye-to-eye with her. She set him down on his feet, albeit more gingerly this time. “But especially before an old friend.”

“The White Guard,” Yuriy said, catching his breath, also staring up at the Fae in awe. “We were part of the White Guard together, right?”

“So we were. It is good to finally see all of you back and together,” Ekaterina confirmed, also in turn smiling at Sergey, who responded in kind, and Boris, who merely nodded back, disgruntled. “I see that you have regained some memories of that time.”

“Actually, none,” Yuriy exchanged a look with Sergey, who for the first time that evening looked like he was not concerned about his friends dying any second. Boris was standing off on his own some distance away, not approaching any closer, only vaguely paying attention to the unfolding action. “We only know what Svetlana told us before she left.”

“Hmm,” Ekaterina studied the young man carefully. “Surely you must have reclaimed some of your memories. Starved as Chelmir is for magic, I would be shocked if you could have lived for fourteen years as Gifted Fae and not remembered anything.”

“Fourteen years?” Yuriy exclaimed. “But that’s—”

“—right when all of us were at the Abbey,” Sergey finished his sentence.

“And the same time Ekaterina was bound to my beyblade as Wyborg,” Ivan continued eagerly as he ran up to his two teammates and his former bit-beast. “Is that right?”

“No,” Ekaterina replied bluntly. “It is true that you have been in possession of your beyblade for fourteen years. But I had been bound to it many years prior.”

“By whom?”

“By me,” Ekaterina scoffed. “But unfortunately, the human to whom I had entrusted the possession of our beyblades turned out to be a filthy traitor. Instead of keeping us safe, he sold both of us out.”

“Both?” Yuriy questioned.

“Myself and Belaya,” Ekaterina trained her eyes on the belt pouch where Yuriy’s Wolborg must have been hidden away.

“Do you… do you know who it was to whom you were sold?” But even as Yuriy asked, Ivan and the others already had a guess for the most obvious answer.

“I don’t,” Ekaterina replied resolutely, contrary to their expectations. “That is not something that I could tell while I was bound to this thing.” Ekaterina tapped the beyblade in Ivan’s hand. “All I could ever say for certain about the matter was that the Ivan who was supposed to serve me for fourteen years didn’t - because at the end of the expected term, I still could not cast off the binding spell.”

She furrowed her brow, then pointed at the Ivan who was present. “You, on the other hand, did very well.”

“Uhh—” Ivan wriggled under the steely gaze. “Tha—thank you.” So the tsarevna specifically needed an Ivan to serve her. He could only guess how many different Ivans Ekaterina had probably known over the centuries. But she also did not seem like the kind of Fae who threw her words around lightly. So even if the young man was still unclear as to what exactly he had done beyond keeping his beyblade in top shape throughout the years, he was inexplicably proud of the words of approval.

Still basking in the praise, Ivan looked to Yuriy for what the captain would ask next - but was surprised to see the redhead, along with Sergey, looking expectantly at him. Yuriy gave his youngest teammate a barely perceptible nod. What was—

Of course. There was only one possible question that could come next. But the others knew that it wasn’t their place to ask it, to question their friend’s - and his companion’s - loyalty. They trusted Ivan to make the call.

He took a deep breath.

“Ekaterina.” Ivan peered up at the serpent Fae. “There is one thing that we still don’t understand. If you are the tsarevna of the zmei, how is it that you were friends with Svetlana and the others, even though the Fae seem to hate the zmei so vehemently? Did they—” a thought occurred to Ivan. “Did they not know that you are also a zmei?”

Ekaterina laughed. “Oh no, they know full well of my lineage. But I cast off ties to my clan long ago.”

“But then why did Svetlana sound so resolute about us needing to kill any zmei that we encounter? Clearly you don't fit that description,” Ivan demanded, not without bitterness in his voice.

“Any other zmei like the one earlier today need to be treated as invaders to this Land and dealt with as such,” Ekaterina answered. “So Svetlana wasn’t lying, merely generalizing. It was easier for her to tell you to avoid all zmei rather than to try to explain about me.”

Ekaterina shifted her weight as she stood, scratching her chin as she assessed the situation. Her braid was no longer writhing in agitation but instead coiled leisurely against the pull of gravity behind her. “And if what you and the hellspawn say about encountering Elena is true, it would have made it easier for Svetlana to lead the tsarevna away if Elena thought you weren’t privy to all the information about me.”

“How come?” Yuriy chimed in.

“Because I know Svetlana and Elena well enough to deduce that that is how they would play out this encounter. Although,” Ekaterina studied Yuriy’s wary expression. “I understand why you may be reluctant to take me at my word.”

Without saying anything else, she held her hand out to Ivan for a handshake. The man looked at the offered hand, then up at the Fae, genuinely puzzled by the gesture.

“Vanya, handshakes are a means by which Fae can tell things about each other, such as their identity,” Sergey jumped in, catching on to his teammate’s confusion. “It’s a powerful enough method that Svetlana and Denis Fyodorovich were able to tell who we were even though their Fae powers are waning. And it’s why Elena avoided touching hands with anyone else earlier at SevStad. Apparently, there is very little that can be hidden from tactile contact like that.”

“Wait, so—” Ivan turned back to Ekaterina. “You want me to confirm that you are not lying to us or something like that?”

“Exactly,” Ekaterina replied. “Although slightly different from trying to tell someone’s Fae nature, this is also a means to read one’s intentions, if the folk are sufficiently close.”

Ivan studied Ekaterina’s hand: undoubtedly strong enough to crush a man’s skull but with long fingers that seemed equally capable of weaving the most delicate embroidery. The hand was pointed toward him, waiting. To Ivan, the answering gesture was obvious.

The team’s youngest carefully put his hands on the Fae’s wrist and turned her hand back toward her. Everyone stared at him in surprise, most of all Ekaterina. Ivan rushed to clarify.

“Please don’t misunderstand! It’s not that I don’t want to or am scared to shake your hand or something silly like that!” He stammered. “I just— I don’t need to shake your hand to know you’re on our side.” He had always known it was true, but being able to say it out loud brought him genuine happiness and so he beamed with joy, grinning like a fool. “I’ve trusted you to have my back for all these years and that’s not about to change just because you used to be related to some gross three-headed worm back in the day.”

At the colorful description of Zmei Gorynych, Ekaterina threw her head back in thunderous laughter. Ivan jumped, startled, but was relieved when Ekaterina, still grinning, nodded in approval. Ivan was elated. He had never doubted Wyborg - now Ekaterina - for a second, and he didn’t need some formal ritual to confirm it. And just as Ekaterina’s life had rested in his hands for the past fourteen years, so he was ready to entrust himself and the others to her wisdom. To him, Ekaterina was and would always remain part of their team.


The earlier encounter with Behemoth had been a complete and utter disaster, but Yuriy was thankful that Ekaterina seemed to be a much more amenable Fae with whom to deal. A terrifying and powerful one, but amenable and knowledgeable - and from the sounds of it, firmly on their side.

And having squared away that matter, Yuriy felt like it was time to deal with other pending crises.

“Ekaterina,” he addressed the Fae. “It sounded like you could tell earlier when we were at VDNH that there was another zmei around?” Yuriy now recalled the unnatural speed and agility with which Ivan’s beyblade had charged into battle at the park.

“I do not know what this VDNH is, but yes. Even when resting under a binding spell, I can smell the blood of Gorynych’s brood anywhere.” Ekaterina grinned maniacally. “Though it is a shame I did not have a chance to devour it myself before Svetlana killed it.”

Yuriy shivered uncomfortably but kept going.

“So can you tell whether more zmei eggs have been brought to Chelmir? Elena implied as much, but for all we know everything she’d told us earlier was a lie.”

“I would need to search closer to know whether there are more eggs in Moscow or else close to the city,” Ekaterina replied. “But I can tell you for certain there are no more eggs in this area - and have not been in any recent memory.”

Yuriy looked at Sergey. “I guess that confirms that this was intended as a trap—”

“—but not one set by Elena.”

The man snapped back to Ekaterina. “What?”

“The magic threads in there,” the Fae nodded toward the warehouse. “Had been woven in a way completely uncharacteristic of a tsarevna. The fire has wiped out most of them by now, but even so it was painfully clear that it was not a work done by Elena’s hand.”

“So she must be working with someone else,” Sergey concluded.

“And high chance those Fae are still out in our world,” Yuriy added. “It would be good to track them down to make sure they don’t actually have more zmei eggs or anything worse in their possession. But first,” he turned expectantly to Ekaterina. “We need to make sure Svetlana is okay.”

Ekaterina nodded resolutely. “I agree. The optimal course of action would be to find Svetlana, then track down the Fae conspiring with Elena. Whoever they are, I suspect we will need all the help we can get to deal with them. However,” her expression turned grim. “The Threshold is still impassible for all save those who have the means to cross over it. And for all of my restored powers, I do not have the means to do it.”

“You either?” Yuriy grumbled, disappointed. “Are the balls of yarn really the only way to cross over to Faemir?”

“How did Elena do it?”

“When she was going back, she also used a ball of yarn, although it was a green one.”

Ekaterina furrowed her brow. “It’s quite rare for two of such items to be out in use at the same time… Regardless, if even that hellspawn Behemoth had to resort to it, it must be the only way.”

“I wonder how long he even had it for,” Sergey pondered. “Did he just come across it in the last few hours or has he been keeping it hidden from Svetlana all this time?”

“It’s no use trying to guess that now,” Yuriy said as he ran his hands through his hair. “Ekaterina, can’t we at least try to cross over? Maybe… maybe the Threshold is less impassible now than the last time you tried?”

Instead of replying, Ekaterina stepped away from the group, her braid flicking behind her in annoyance. She raised her arms, her helmet unraveling and dissipating into thin air, as instead white and blue threads, like the ones Elena had summoned, rose from the ground and wove together into a familiar outline of a Gate. This time, the Chelmir Door was decorated with two horizontal panels, one at the bottom and one at the top, with three equally sized vertical panels set between them. Once the Door was fully formed, all of the panels glowed white with ornate geometric patterns.

The serpent Fae pushed at the air in front of her, motioning for the Door to open. It swung inside, the air pressure around them dropping again in a familiar sensation. Beyond the door frame lay a dimly glowing pathway that disappeared into pitch black darkness.

Ekaterina looked squarely at Yuriy, green eyes slitted in a challenge. “After you, Morozko.”

Yuriy swallowed the lump at the back of his throat. He was anxious to find Svetlana, but even he had enough clarity left to know that to step into that void would be suicide.

“I’m sorry. I understand that the Threshold has been impassible for the past century,” Yuriy apologized as Ekaterina let the Door close slowly, the air pressure returning to normal. “But isn’t there some way that we could reach Svetlana? Earlier, Sergey was able to open a Gate between a broken fountain and a gym pool. Could he try to create a Pathway between a body of water here and one in Faemir?”

“This would just run into the same problem as before,” Ekaterina let out a heavy sigh. “The reason why no one has been able to weave a Pathway between the two worlds is because the Forest has grown over the Threshold. It simply severs most of the magic threads, and those that are not become hopelessly tangled.” She paused. “Did Svetlana have a chance to explain to you about the Forest?”

“Very briefly,” Sergey replied. “It was actually Elena who told us about the Forest growing over the Threshold. Svetlana was very shocked at this, but I suppose Elena was actually telling the truth for once…”

“So she must have been.”

“But how did you know about it?” Ivan asked. “Svetlana and Behemoth didn’t seem to have figured it out in all this time.”

“It was not something that I figured out on my own either,” Ekaterina clarified. “Reading the magic emanating from the Threshold has been a challenge - like trying to hear a melody while listening to white noise. Belaya, on the other hand, eventually parsed it out. As one of the Three Wolves she has a much deeper connection to the Forest, and when we had found each other years earlier, before both of us were forced to go under the binding spells, she explained to me what was happening. But up to now even she has not been able to find a way to get past the Forest.”

“Can we break the seal on her beyblade and let her out?” Yuriy suggested hopefully. “Maybe she’ll be able to help us figure this out faster?”

“I wouldn’t be too quick about it,” Ekaterina cautioned.

“Why not?”

“She was injured in the battle with the zmei, was she not?”

Yuriy caught his breath. The image of the charred, bleeding Wolborg was only too clear in his mind.

“The binding spell allows her to conserve her energy and to heal faster than she would otherwise.” Ekaterina pointed to Yuriy’s pouch with the beyblade. “At this point, she will let you know on her own accord when it’s time to break the seal.”

“Alright.” Yuriy rested his hand over the beyblade, still hidden away. Sorry I couldn’t keep you safe. Get better soon.

“What’s in your other pocket?”

“Huh?” Yuriy startled at Ekaterina’s sudden sharp tone. “Which one—”

He followed her gaze to his right jacket pocket, where Svetlana’s Maltese cross was tucked away.

“I think it’s Svetlana’s White Gua—”

“Give it to me.” Ekaterina forcefully stuck out her hand, palm up, waiting. Her hair writhed briskly.

There was no point in trying to conceal it, but Yuriy couldn’t understand the urgency. He reached inside, his fingers brushing against icy cold metal as he pulled out the relic. Ekaterina must have recognized it by its magic aura but Yuriy wasn’t so sure about just handing over Svetlana’s—

His heart skipped a beat as he looked at the regalia in his hand. One half of the cross still shone pristine silver, but the other had turned pitch black.

“What happened to it?” Sergey asked as Yuriy, at a loss for words, just gaped at the object. The redhead tried to rub off the black spot, but the tarnish was not dirt from his pocket. It was as if the metal itself had corrupted from silver to something more ominous.

“I don’t get it.” He looked up to Ekaterina for answers, his voice barely even, as he reluctantly handed over the cross. “It was all silver hours ago when she gave it to me.”

Ekaterina gently handled the cross, regarding it with a heavy expression. “For centuries, when folk had set out on long, arduous journeys, they would leave silver keepsakes with their family and friends, to inform them of their health along the way.”

Yuriy swallowed nervously. “So what are you saying.”

“This means that Svetlana is dying.”

Yuriy’s knees felt like they would buckle any moment under the weight of the revelation. But despite the wave of panic creeping over him, he forced himself to not shut down completely and to keep looking for a solution.

“She might be dying, but she is not dead yet.” He took a deep breath. “It just means we need to get to her faster.”

“You are not listening to me,” Ekaterina chastised. “We cannot get to her if we cannot cross over the Threshold.”

“Ugh, I know that!” Yuriy grumbled, not bothering to modulate either the volume or the tone of his voice. “But there has to be a way! Couldn't— isn’t there a way to draw a magic thread between an object and its owner or something like that?”

“Under normal circumstances, a silver keepsake such as this may have been enough to get perhaps one of us over the Threshold,” Ekaterina attempted to explain calmly, although the agitated motion of her braid revealed that her calmness was nothing but feigned. “Assuming that the Forest does not sever or tangle that thread as well. But this.” She held up the cross, its black half pointing up. “Has been touched by Viy’s magic, which means that we can no longer use it.”

“Okay, so we can’t use an object-owner connection.” Yuriy slowly started to pace around. “What about using a thread that connects two folks?”

“That— is possible.” Ekaterina answered hesitantly. “But it is a thread that the people with an incredibly close connection need to draw themselves.” She paused. “I thought you said you had not regained any of your memories as Morozko.”

“Huh? I— haven’t?” Now it was Yuriy’s turn to be confused. “What I meant was, since you and Svetlana had actually been in the White Guard together…”

“I see,” Ekaterina said, her eyes still trained suspiciously on Yuriy. “Unfortunately for the situation, for all the years that I have known Svetlana, the connection that we share is… not the type that can be used to weave a thread strong enough for our needs.”

Yuriy’s expression darkened even more as he continued to pace. In his fretting, he completely missed the baffled look Sergey gave him before the oldest of the team searched out Boris, who was still sulking off on his own from the rest of the group.

“If we want to cross over the Threshold, we have to find a way that avoids the possibility of the Forest either tangling or severing the threads…” Yuriy contemplated. “I don’t suppose we can find a clearing or break anywhere in the Forest?”

“Highly unlikely,” Ekaterina hissed, shaking her head. “No matter how many different places we tried opening the Pathway throughout the century, we have not been able to find such a place. To the best of our knowledge, the Forest is, as it has always been, ubiquitous.”

“What about me?” Ivan jumped in.

“What about you?” Ekaterina asked without taking her eyes off of the pacing Fae.

“So, whenever anyone has opened the Gate today, I could always…” Ivan hesitated, picking his words carefully. “I could always feel some sort of pull to the other side. I don’t suppose that’s indicative of a thread that we could follow?”

“What you feel is quite natural for all Ivans. The Forest beckons for you to enter. It is summoning you on a quest - to find a tsarevna, to slay a zmei, or other some ridiculous errand. But it will only lead us astray into the depths of the Forest within the bounds of the Threshold, not actually to the other side to Faemir. It would be dangerous for us to follow that thread.”

“Huh… well, in that case, could we just fly over the Forest?”

For the second time that night, Ekaterina, Sergey, and Yuriy all stared at Ivan.

“Fly over the Forest?” Sergey repeated.

“Yeah! If the issue is that the Forest tangles any of the threads we try to lay, I am assuming, on the ground, and it essentially goes on forever along the border between the worlds, why not try to lay a Pathway over the Forest? It has to have an end somewhere on the other side since people can still walk across it. And then both you and Falborg could fly us over,” Ivan addressed Ekaterina before pointing at Boris.

Everyone turned to look at remaining Blitzkrieg Boy. Boris, suddenly aware of the four pairs of eyes trained on him, startled and took a tentative step back, his eyes shifting suspiciously between all of them.

"What?" He grimaced.

“Of course! How could I be so foolish!” Ekaterina exclaimed, slapping her hand against her forehead. “Finist, you still have claim to your lands in Faemir. All of the Princes have an unbreakable bond with their lands. The threads that connect you to your kingdom will be more than enough to get all of us over the Threshold.” She looked at Ivan. “Especially if we lay the Pathway over the Forest.”

Ivan grinned, giving Ekaterina a thumbs up.

Yuriy was ecstatic, his skin crawling with excitement. "Boris, this is great! This means we can cross over to Faemir to help Svetlana and—"

"Yuriy, I can't do it," Boris interrupted the captain with a stern voice, tentatively approaching the group.

Yuriy was taken aback. When things got tough, Boris was usually the last one to back down from the fight. That he should believe that he wouldn't be able to use Fae magic, no matter how novel to all of them, was uncharacteristic to say the least.

"Borya, you don't have to worry about it. Sergey didn't know how to do it either and he opened the Pathway just fine. I am sure with his and—"

"No, Yura, you don't get it!" Boris shouted, startling Yuriy into silence. "I don't care whether I can do it or not because I won't do it!"

"What do you mean 'you won't'?"

"I mean just what I said!" Boris gave every one of his teammates a measured look, eyes finally settling back on Yuriy. "I am not going to the Fae world and I am not opening any sort of portal for you either."

"But why?" Yuriy's insides were a churning mess yet again.

"Because it's none of our business, Yura!" Boris's cheeks were flushed. "Mine or yours! And we shouldn't go meddling in it!"

"What the fuck do you mean, it's none of our business?" Yuriy's mind was reeling. He didn't want to shout at his best friend, not again, but there he was doing just that, and he didn't know how to deescalate yet another fight breaking out between them that day. "Boris, there are Fae in our human world! We are Fae, for god's sake! If this doesn't concern us, then what does?"

"Stop acting like you know what you're getting into! Because you have no idea! None of us do!" He waved at Sergey and Ivan, who were watching the fight helplessly from the sidelines. "We didn't know until this afternoon that we were Fae, and honestly, to me, it makes no difference. Because human or Fae, this suck-ass world of humans never gave two shits about me. And you know what? I am not about to risk my neck for a second one that probably won't care either!"

"So what if the Fae world doesn't care? At least do this to help Svetlana!"

"No, Yuriy!"

"She saved you!"

"I know she did! But four lives aren't worth one! Especially one that we barely know!" Boris spat out. "I am not about to risk my life or the lives of my friends for someone I just met today!"

"How fucking heartless are you?"

"How fucking brainless are—"

Boris didn't get to finish as Yuriy lunged at him, his fist making contact with the grey-haired man's face. Boris whipped around from the impact but remained on his feet. He ran his hand across his cheek and mouth and his fingers came away bloody.

"We are going to open a Gate to Faemir," Yuriy spoke quietly, precisely, measuring every word, as he fought through the rage to calm his frantically beating heart. "And we are going to cross the Threshold. I am telling you this as your captain. Do you understand?"

Instead of an answer, Boris just laughed like a madman.

"As my captain? That's fucking rich. Well excuse me, captain," Boris's eyes flashed murder. "But I am going to have to stage a mutiny."

Boris sprang forward, wrapping his arms around Yuriy's waist and tackling him to the ground. Yuriy landed squarely on his back, scraping against the rough dirt and gravel, the other man landing on top of him. Yuriy had just enough time to square himself before Boris returned a fist to his jaw. Yuriy's head started to spin but before Boris could place another punch, Yuriy bucked his hips to throw Boris off. The two tossed and rolled on the ground, trading kicks and punches. When Boris managed to get on top of Yuriy again the redhead braced for impact, but suddenly the weight disappeared off of him.

Yuriy sat up to see Sergey joining the fray, his arms hooked underneath Boris's shoulders and fighting to hold him back.

"Let go of me, you traitor!" Boris screamed, his tone downright venomous. "Are you on his fucking side?"

"I am on the side of you two not killing each other!" Sergey shouted back as he nearly avoided getting kicked in the shins by Boris. "Boris, calm down!"

Yuriy scrambled to his feet and was about to lunge at Boris again but Ivan stepped in front of him.

"Yura, no! Stop it!"

Yuriy scowled but didn't take any more steps forward. "Why do you never think of anyone but yourself?" Yuriy yelled over his teammate's head instead.

For a second the struggle went out of Boris as he forgot about Sergey and stared at Yuriy in shocked disbelief. Then, his expression was once again pure rage. "Don't think of anyone but me? You little shithead, I am thinking about you right now! I've always thought about you! I've always thought about this entire team!" Somewhere along the line Boris's voice cracked and Yuriy felt something crack inside of him too.

"Ivan almost died today," Boris continued, as if pleading. "I did fucking die today! How can you be willing to put any of us in more danger? What kind of a captain does that make you?"

The something inside Yuriy gave another crack and shattered.

"I said, let go!" Boris jerked free of Sergey's grasp, shooting the teammate behind him a hurtful look. The older man didn't protest, embarrassed and apologetic.

Boris lumbered away from the group.

"Borya, where are you going?" Sergey called after him. Yuriy was glad, because he didn't have any more fight or conviction left in him to call after his friend.

"I am going back to SevStad," Boris yelled over his shoulder. "Don't follow me! Go home before the cops show up. And give up on this Fae nonsense!"

And with that, he was gone, leaving his three teammates and the serpent Fae standing in a cloud of dirt and dust, bathed in the red light of the dying warehouse fire.


The single candle flame flickered weakly, but the tiny basement chamber had not been designed with more illumination in mind anyway. The low ceiling and walls had at one time been painted white but now stood grey, aged, and charred, not having seen any upkeep in almost a century. The room was bare aside from a simple bed and a bedside table, on which stood the candle and a basin with water.

Another small light emanated from the bed. Svetlana lay facing the wall, her coat and handkerchief set aside at the foot of the bed. Her sides rose up and down in sync to her ragged breathing as a fresh wound gaped in her right shoulder. The long needle had long been removed from the Fae’s flesh but the poison from the weapon had spread steadily from her shoulder to much of her right side. Svetlana’s hair shimmered dully in the darkness, barely brighter than the candle flame.

The door to the chamber opened and a man walked in, carrying himself with purpose and urgency. The young man’s dark clothing was worn with travel and battle but looked sturdy enough to withstand many more skirmishes. He set a plate with a knife and three apples on the table, standing over the Fae.

“Firebird,” he called, quietly but sternly. “I need you to turn around.”

Svetlana shifted uneasily in the bed.

“I have brought the apples,” he said.

Firebird managed to turn around just enough to face the younger-looking Fae. “You were always… the best at finding things, Grey,” she smiled meekly, sweat beading her brow, exhausted from having to complete any action.

“This is not the time for adulation, Firebird,” Grey replied as he leaned over the Fae, his long dirty blond ponytail falling over his shoulder. “You need to eat the apples.”

Firebird listed, threatening to slump back into her previous position. “I am afraid I no longer… have the strength to eat anything…”

Grey studied her for a few moments, his expression dark. Without a word, he took a bite out of one of the apples on the plate. As he chewed, he gently picked up the much smaller Fae underneath her arms and set her up to sit on the bed. Svetlana winced at the pain in her wound but did not protest.

The woman’s head slumped against the wall, eyes shut against the light and the wave of nausea that washed over her now that she was not longer lying down. Grey sat down on the bed next to her, still chewing. Once ready, he took the mushy bits of apple from his mouth and offered them up to Svetlana. Recognizing the familiar sweet scent, with her eyes still shut, she opened her mouth. Grey put the soft food into the old woman’s mouth. Satisfied that Svetlana was chewing and swallowing, he took another bite out of the apple to repeat the procedure.

Some thirty minutes later, nothing was left of the apple but the core, which now lay by the two remaining apples. Yet still, Svetlana’s breathing had not eased and the wound was still raw, showing no signs of healing. Grey’s expression only grew more grave, his piercing yellow eyes trained on Firebird.

“Grey,” Svetlana had managed to open her eyes and was looking at her Fae companion. “You’ve done enough. Let me sleep.”

Grey searched Firebird’s expression for another few moments, then gently took the old Fae’s wrinkled hand into his own scarred, weather-beaten ones. Svetlana smiled warmly.

“I regret that this is the way we had to meet each other again after one hundred years. And poor Kosaya, and Buryi—”

“This is not the time to dwell on regrets, old friend,” Grey replied, as gently as he was capable of replying. “If you must think of times gone by, think only of the warmest memories that you have. There is enough darkness out there. Make your path a light one.”

Svetlana nodded, then closed her eyes again, breathing slowly. Grey let go of her hand and stood up to lay Firebird back down on the bed, careful to cause her as little pain as possible. As he left the room, he lingered at the doorway, casting one more glance that could have been his parting one to his friend. He wasn't sure, but the flame in the candle seemed to be burning a bit more brightly than before. He quietly shut the door.

In his life, but more so over the past century, Grey had learned that it was foolish to trust in hope, and that any change that one hoped for had to come from doing. But here, there was nothing more that he could do. So hope he would.

Chapter Text

Boris didn’t have spare keys to the stadium like Ivan did, but he did know where the back staff entrance was and how to break door locks.

The stadium was still, the auxiliary lights humming dully on their night shift. Boris figured Denis Fyodorovich was probably lurking somewhere, since they now knew that he did not “return” home at the end of the workday, the stadium being his literal home. He didn’t care much to run into the domovoy at that moment, and hoped that the old man would catch the hint and not try to sneak up on him out of nowhere like he had been doing. Boris was wound up just enough to be liable to kill someone.

His body moved on autopilot as he maneuvered the familiar backstage hallways to enter the main stadium. The main lights weren’t up here either but the secondary ones would do just fine. He couldn’t be bothered to try to fiddle with the switches. He just needed to blade.

Before long he was in front of the beydish, launcher at the ready, snapping his beyblade into place. Ripcord drawn, launcher aimed, and with a vigorous pull Falborg was off. The beyblade spun into the dish but wobbled, his first attempt sloppy by anyone's standards. He watched Falborg spin, waiting for it to stop. And while he waited, he raged like a summer storm.

First of all, fuck Yuriy. Fuck his self-righteousness, his constant guilt trips, his ever-present desire to reform and become a goody two-shoes. As far as Boris saw it, their captain had become obsessed with doing good deeds, even to his own detriment. It wasn’t so much that Boris made it a life policy to be a dick to everyone: he realized that such an MO generally did not get you far in life, and that there did exist, far and few though they were, genuinely nice people out there who shouldn’t have to be made to put up with shit like that. But his life credo was to put himself and his family, his team, first. Even if that meant that others who fell outside of that circle had to be left behind. Even if doing so put him at odds with the very same teammates whom he was trying to protect.

Falborg fell to a stop as the speed in the first shoddy spin ran out. Boris retrieved his beyblade and launched again, this time a little better, though still clearly affected by his unbridled anger.

He supposed he could have just been having a bad day. A really bad day. Dying was bound to put anyone in a foul mood, right? Didn't matter if he had been revived afterward or not, the amount of pain that he had experienced that afternoon was more than he had cared to know. As much hurt as he had to endure at the Abbey or in the first World Championship when they took on the Bladebreakers, that afternoon had been leagues beyond that. The searing wounds, which then literally burned after Svetlana poured whatever vile liquid - didn’t she say it was fucking zmei blood?? - on his flesh, and then, for a few split seconds, darkness. But not complete darkness. It was like what one would imagine an early foggy morning to look like, as the sun still lurked below the horizon. Perpetual pre-dawn. And in that foggy murkiness, he could have sworn that he could just make out a distorted figure, a shapeless body with long arms and eyelids drooping to the floor, waiting for him to come just close enough.

He had never been afraid of the dark, but today he saw what lurked at its edges, and hate as he did to admit it, that shit was terrifying. And fuck if anyone was going to force him to do anything and go save people he didn’t even know or care about just to chance being put through that again.

A second time Falborg fell to a stop as the speed in the second, slightly better spin ran out. Boris once again retrieved his beyblade and launched it a third time, this time much more in line with how he usually performed in the beydish.

Although not as pissed off as he was at Yuriy, he was also pretty mad at Ivan and Sergey. To some extent, he couldn’t be angry with Ivan when they were trying to rescue him, since he probably would have done the same thing had it been a flock of death falcons that attacked them at VDNH rather than a serpent. But once they had figured out that Wyborg - in practice, at least - didn’t pose a threat and that Ekaterina was one of the good zmei, that should have been the end of it. Ivan and his bitbeast weren’t the harbingers of death and, as far as he was concerned, the team should have been satisfied with that. No need to try to save a world that hadn't done them any favors on top of that.

Falborg kept up its steady spin, drawing circles around the periphery of the beydish. As the beyblade scratched at the metallic surface, the repetitive motions and the steady buzzing soothed the raging storm.

Sergey was probably the hardest for Boris to get mad at, if only because whenever the two had had any disagreement, no matter how much Boris tended to resist his teammate’s opinion or advice in the beginning, ninety nine percent of the time Sergey turned out to be correct in his judgment. Boris had been right a handful of times - he couldn’t remember when but, statistically, he had to have been (boy was he terrible at math though) - and yet he couldn’t deny that he was not the rational, clear-minded of the pair. And contrary to what his fiery personality might imply, surprisingly, that was okay by him. Usually, he actually wanted to defer to Sergey with difficult decisions, had gotten used to this bizarre routine of theirs, and, given his unstoppable impulse to wreck shit and cause mayhem, he really enjoyed, even craved, this bit of stability in his life. But yet despite that, this time he just could not agree with Sergey, who was clearly of the same opinion as Yuriy.

Falborg had picked up the pace and was drawing faster and smaller circles as the beyblade spiraled into the middle of the dish.

All three of them, as far as he was concerned, were trying to get involved in something that did not concern them. And even if it did, they owed nothing to these people for whom they would be risking their necks. Life was built on quid pro quo, and if they could not guarantee that the other parties they were trying to rescue could be counted on to do the same later on, there was no use for them to waste their time and energy on this.

Faster, faster, faster.

He would be damned if he ever went to the Fae world.

A bright flash of light emanating from the beyblade startled Boris out of his inner tirade as Falborg spun dead in the center of the beydish. The young man shielded his face against the gust of wind that was swiftly turning into a full-force gale.

“Hey! Falborg, what’s the big idea!” Boris yelled, trying to make himself heard over the howling wind and to figure out when and how he had actually called to summon Falborg. And yet, as the winds raged, the flash of light grew and transformed into the familiar outline of the metallic blue falcon. At the same time, a series of blue and grey concentric circles rippled out from the beyblade, spreading beyond the beydish, underneath Boris’s feet, and almost to the edge of the arena. The winds picked up to hurricane speed and Boris’s attempts to brace himself were futile as his legs were uprooted to the ground.

He tossed and turned in the winds, the stadium fading into nothingness as the world spun around him. Boris struggled to breathe as the winds beat against his chest, reminiscent of when he had struggled for air earlier that day, his chest torn and lungs out for the world to see. He tucked in his limbs to brace against the impact that he knew would come at any moment - he had to hit something eventually - and to shield his corpus from the wind, easing the struggle to breathe, but only by so much.

For a brief moment, even though he was still sailing through the air, the howling of the wind stopped.

Feeling suspended in midair, he tentatively opened his eyes when his back struck something hard and he rolled on a rough surface, before coming to a full stop flat on his face. His body ached from the impact but at least nothing seemed to be broken. He slowly picked himself up on his elbows, coughing and sneezing at the big cloud of dust, his nose tickling at the musty smell all around him.

It took a good minute for his eyes to adjust to his surroundings, the bleak light of the new moon just barely affording enough illumination through the one set of open curtains into an otherwise unlit space. The room that he was in was massive. The ceiling rose up at least four stories, huge windows on opposite sides of the room almost reaching up all the way from floor to ceiling. Heavy curtains were drawn on all of them, save the one in the middle which was open to let the night breeze in. Even in the poor light, Boris could tell that the walls were richly decorated with ornate designs. There were many framed paintings but all of them were covered with cloth. There were no chairs except for what looked to be a throne at one end of the room, which sat on top of a small dais. The throne, like the paintings, was also wrapped in cloth. If not for the beautiful windows and wall decorations, Boris would have thought this was a storage area.

As Boris got up and took a few tentative steps around the room, he had the strangest feeling of deja vu. He wondered when he would have possibly been in a place as fancy as this. It must have been the one time Yuriy took them out on a museum excursion, somehow managing to drag a peeved Boris with them as well. He hadn’t enjoyed himself at all but the impression of the tsar’s palaces and the gaudy chambers certainly stuck. That must have been it. It was the only reasonable explanation for the nagging feeling deep inside him.

He wondered where he was exactly. The wind storm that had swept him up was evidently Falborg’s doing, but what exactly his bitbeast had in mind, the man could only guess. But if he was stuck here regardless, Boris might as well collect some clues.

The man decided to first check out the throne. As he approached the dais he aggressively ignored the growing intensity of the deja vu. Just something I ate earlier, maybe shouldn’t have had those pickles after all, Boris attempted to reassure himself as he grabbed at the bottom of the gray cloth and ripped it off brusquely. He was rewarded with a huge cloud of dust that covered him from head to toe. Boris went into another violent coughing fit, his attempt to shield his face futile. As the dust settled, he turned back to the throne. The plush blue velvet seat looked like it had just been newly stuffed and the silver frame, studded with sapphires, though not pristine, also had the look like it had been polished regularly. Boris marveled at the rich decoration and intricate designs on the throne, the frame on the back carved into what looked like wings. Two stunning, metallic wings.

Wanting to get a closer look, Boris leaned over the chair. He put a steadying hand on one of the arms.

“Welcome, distinguished guests, from this Kingdom and far beyond! Welcome!”

Boris recoiled at the jovial, booming voice that echoed across the chamber. He looked around, panicked, but couldn’t find anyone who would have uttered the greeting. The chamber stood as silent as before. Boris wondered if the voice had only echoed in his head.

No, that would be insane. And I am not insane.

He cast a dubious glance at the throne before haphazardly tossing the cloth back over it and following the running blue carpet laid out in the center of the floor to the exit on the opposite side of the room.

The doors were massive but swung open without much difficulty. The long hallway outside was just as dark and deserted as the other chamber. Boris kept walking, the windows on either side alternating with paintings, all of them also covered with cloth. Alongside the walls stood occasional tables and vases, each object meticulously wrapped or covered to protect it from aging. Boris wondered which castle in which kingdom this was exactly, not that he knew enough about them to be able to tell from the interior alone. He walked over to one of the windows, drawing back the curtains.

He gasped. Expecting to be greeted with the cite of familiar hills or woods of the Moscow countryside, he was stunned to see that the castle sat on top of a mountain. The building he was in must have been one of the higher ones as below he could make out other parts of the castle, sitting on the lower mountains in the range. Open aerial bridges with arched columns connected the different buildings. Beyond the mountains, some few kilometers down, the earth outstretched into a plain. If not for a few lazy lights that indicated that it was a town, he would have thought there was only forest.

I don’t think I'm in Moscow anymore, Boris thought, sweat beading his brow. He aggressively refused to consider the obvious option for where Falborg might have taken him although deep, deep inside he knew - remembered - exactly where he was.

He jogged down the hallway until the next giant door, this one also opening effortlessly into a spacious vestibule. The ceiling on top was glass, the crescent moon’s light shining softly through to illuminate the entire space. A pair of winding staircases lead to the floor below, the rails likewise draped with cloth. Boris ran down the stairs, sprinting down another hallway, taking a left turn, then another turn, down another hallway, past more covered up paintings, vases, chairs, and divans, all whispering to him from a time long ago. He was running on muscle memory, when he burst loudly through another set of doors, and down one half of a twin pair of staircases, to skid to a halt on a landing in front of a giant painting. It too was covered as all the others but for some reason he knew that this one was a portrait. A portrait of someone very important. Boris was sweating from his mad dash, his breathing heavy, but whether from his run or nervous anticipation, he wasn’t sure anymore.

On autopilot, the silence ringing in his ears, he pried loose one corner of the cloth, then ran over to do so to the other as well. He shook the fabric before ripping it off the painting in its entirely.

As the heavy cloth fell to the floor with a giant thud, Boris stepped back almost to the edge of the landing to take in the entire painting. Here too the ceiling was a glass dome and he did not need any other light to help him see. Depicted on the portrait was a middle-aged man, tall, lean but muscular, wearing what reminded Boris of imperial officer uniforms he had seen in a Russian historical movie once. Underneath the painted man’s mustache his mouth was spread in an incredibly charismatic smile, the radiance of which reached up all the way to his eyes. The crow’s feet and the other slight wrinkles on his face betrayed not age but wisdom. But instead of looking at the audience, the man was instead conversing with a metallic blue falcon that sat perched on his outstretched right arm. Several more falcons, more natural in color, circled around and behind the man.

Staring up at the painting in awe, Boris forgot how to breathe.

“Hey, you there!” An authoritative voice screamed at him from the floor below. “Who are you?”

Boris whipped around to see someone in a dark grey uniform running toward him, a floating ball of light following them as they approached.

“I said, who are you?” the person, a woman, stopped at the bottom of the staircase. She held her arms out by her sides, palms splayed open, as small glowing blue and gray circles appeared by her hands. “I am not joking around, name yourself!”

“I— I am Boris!” Boris stumbled for an answer.

“Are you bloody kidding me?” The young woman didn’t seem to be placated at all, her reaction startling Boris even more. “What kind of an answer is that? What the bloody hell are you doing here? Get away from that portrait!”

“No, listen, I’m not here to cause trouble—”

“Like hell you are!” She yelled and the circles at her palms began to spin, a gale of wind picking up around them. “No intruders are permitted in Knyaz’ Sokolinsky’s castle!”

Boris tried to calculate if he could make a run for it when a sharp screech echoed through the chamber. The woman seemed to startle when a blue falcon, the size of a regular bird, dove in from the ceiling. It flew by the woman, nicking her with its wing. Her concentration on the spells broken, the circles dissipated into thin air. As the wind died down, the falcon flew up and made a circle around the painting before slowing down over Boris. Although not the same form to which he was accustomed, the young man easily recognized his bitbeast.

“Falborg!” Boris yelled, almost triumphantly, holding out his right arm for the falcon to land on. The raptor gladly took the offered place, screeching and flapping its wings happily to greet Boris. He bent down to try to nuzzle the man’s face.

“Hey, cut that out!” Boris laughed, momentarily forgetting his fear of a few moments prior.

Falborg stopped as instructed, turning its attention back to the other Fae in the room. Boris followed, taking a good step back once he realized the woman had already come up halfway up the stairs.

“Hey, you stay away from me!” Boris yelled. “I am not here to cause trouble, you hear?”

As soon as Boris had retreated, the young woman stopped her approach. The ball of light floating near her was mimicking her movement, moving and stopping when she did. In its light, Boris could see her expression perfectly, which had turned from belligerence to disbelief.

“Knyaz’ Sokolinsky?” She asked hesitantly.

Boris swallowed the lump in his throat. He loathed to admit it, but even he couldn't ignore the stirring sensation deep inside him forever.

“Yeah, that might be me.”

The woman covered the remaining steps in just two jumps, deftly flying over five steps at a time. Boris attempted to retreat but his heels knocked into the cloth splayed out on the floor, sending him toppling backwards. Falborg startled and took off, and Boris would have wiped out on his back if not for the woman grabbing his arms and pulling him back up right. Standing only some five centimeters short of his own height, she stared at him excitedly, the short dark curls bouncing around her face.

“Knyaz’ Sokolisnky, you have returned!” She said, not without surprise in her voice, studying his face intently. In the light of the orb Boris could tell that the woman was about his age.

“Uhh, and you are—?” Boris wasn’t entirely comfortable at this sudden proximity with a random person who was probably going to kill him without hesitation just a few minutes ago.

“Oh! Oh!” The woman caught herself, realization and shock dawning on her face. She quickly let go of Boris’s arms, taking a good step back and bowing. As she bowed, she touched some emblem on the chest of her uniform with her right hand, and a ghostly blue and silver wing appeared over and behind her left shoulder. “Evelina Perova, the First Falconry Keeper of the Sokol Kingdom.” She straightened up, her face beaming in a wide grin. “It is an honor to welcome you back, Your Serene Highness.”

“It is… an honor to be back?” Boris replied, his voice rising as he did. Falborg, who had settled on top of one of the railing decorations to observe the two, squawked and craned its head to the side.

“Argh, this is excellent news!” Evelina clapped her hands and paced in a few short circles around the landing. “Krylov will be so thrilled to have you back! And papa and mama, and everyone else—” she stopped in her tracks, looking directly at Boris again. The young man wasn’t one to be intimidated by others, but the intensity with which the woman looked at him was… a bit unsettling.

The falconer approached him again, standing but a step apart.

“Knyaz’ Sokolinsky, I will go to wake up everyone in the castle. Will you please wait here?”

Boris’s stomach dropped. The last thing he needed was more people to deal with.

“Okay, first of all, please just call me Boris,” he put his hands on Evelina’s shoulders and pushed her back one step, giving himself a bit more space.

“Uh, o—kay, Boris,” Evelina tried out the name, then chuckled, one eyebrow raised. “I am not sure Krylov will be too happy if I do that publicly, but I’ll keep that in mind.”

“And this Krylov is…?”

“Ah, of course, Your High—I mean, Boris,” she smirked at the informal address, clearly aware that she was breaking protocol but happy to do it. “I suppose you may not remember everything yet. Krylov is the court archivist and the steward of this castle. He was one of the main advisors to the late Knyaz’ - and will now be your main advisor. He will be able to catch you up on all of the things that you need to know.”

“Hold up hold up,” Boris put some light pressure on the Fae’s shoulders to keep her in place, as she looked liable to flutter away in all of her excitement. “What exactly do I need to know? And more importantly, why?”

“Well, I guess everything from the history of the kingdom to current politics to your magic to… everything else you’ll need to run the kingdom,” she laughed to hide her confusion at the somewhat strange question. “So will you wait here while I go wake them up?”

This is bad, Boris thought, his palms feeling clammy and his nerves rattling. He had to find a way to get himself out. “Listen, why wake everyone up in the middle of the night though? Let’s just wait until morning, make sure everyone has a good night’s sleep?”

“Oh no, that’s not what I meant!” Evelina hit her forehead with her palm. “By the devil, of course you wouldn’t know about this, now would you?”

“Know about what?”

“The sleep schedule that Krylov came up with!” She looked at Boris with a serious expression, but her excited energy couldn’t help but seep through. “All of us servants and advisers - well, those who survived the Revolution, at least - are on a rotating schedule of volson, magically induced sleep. Normally we sleep under its spell for years at a time, but at any given point, some folks are awake to take care of the castle. This was to ensure that everyone didn’t just die off while the Threshold was still sealed, before you could come back—” Her eyes widened in realization. “Wait, so if you’re back, does this mean the Threshold is finally passable again? Has the Forest withdrawn?”

“I am afraid not,” Although Boris wasn’t sure about the mechanics of it all, he supposed that Falborg had gotten him over by ways of that “unbreakable bond with his lands” that Ekaterina had mentioned. “I got a free ride here on the Falborg express but the general transit lines are still closed.”

“I see,” despite his strange metaphors, Evelina understood his meaning. “It’s hard to believe the two worlds have been cut off from each other for so long. I’ve always wished I had gotten the chance to see Chelmir while the Threshold was still passable.”

“You— wait, what?” Boris balked. “You mean you were around when it was still open? Before the Revolution?”

“Well, yes. I was only a child then, but—” Evelina replied, then nodded in understanding. “Ah, yes, of course. You must be confused by my appearance.” She chuckled. “Well, normally Fae age much slower than regular Humans anyway, but this is also the effect and the point of volson. It suspends us in time and keeps us from aging.”

Boris simply nodded.

“Ah, but look at me, prattling away,” Evelina caught herself, waving her hands in front of her. “I am terribly sorry to keep you with these dull explanations, Your Serene Highness— Boris. Allow me to fetch everyone else and you can—”

“Let’s just slow that down, okay?” Boris chuckled uncomfortably as he once again put his hands on her shoulders. “If they’ve been in magical sleep for years, what’s another couple of hours going to do?

At least they’ll wake up at the natural cycle.”

“But Boris—Knyaz’ Sokolinsky. Do you not want to see everyone?” She looked at Falborg with a furrowed brow, the falcon craning its neck to the other side in response. “I realize that you may not remember everyone but… if your falcon brought you here, I can only assume you have come ready to take back your Kingdom?”

Boris flinched as she looked back at him expectantly, almost demanding a response, a flicker of rage lingering somewhere at the edge. He couldn’t understand why he was all of a sudden so self-conscious and skittish around this woman and it was starting to annoy the hell out of him. Still, if she kept on insisting on waking up the other servants, he might as well be blunt about the whole affair.

“Actually, that’s not why I came here,” he said.

“You didn’t come here to take back your throne?” She asked, the tone of her voice flat.

“No,” he replied, shaking his head. “This guy.” He pointed to Falborg, who screeched as if in protest at being so rudely pointed out. “Brought me here as his idea of a joke. I have no intent to actually stay here to do any ruling and whatnot.”

“Huh,” the woman clicked her tongue, arms set on her hips.

“Yep,” Boris replied, his arms crossed in front of him.

They stared at each other for a few moments.

"Okay, well, that's great then,” Evelina broke eye contact first as she pivoted on the heels of her boots. “Thanks for visiting then, goodbye now."

"Hey wait!” Boris reeled at the abrupt change of attitude. “You're being kinda rude."

"Excuse me?” She turned back, incredulous. “And why should I be nice?"

"Uhh, because I am the Prince?"

She snorted. "Didn’t you just say you didn’t want to stay to be the Knyaz’?”

“I said, I didn’t want to stay, but while I am here, I'm still the Prince.”

A heartier laugh this time. “Okay, Your Serene Highness. Allow me to introduce you to your dilapidated castle and the cast of sleeping servants.” She gestured wildly to the giant empty room before them. “Sure is real impressive."

"Well you’re awake and in the service of the Prince,” Boris gestured to Evelina. “Shouldn't you at least be polite to me right now?"

"Why should I?” She narrowed her eyes at him. “What have you done for me?"

Boris stopped short. That wasn’t actually how he’d heard prince-vassal relationships were supposed to work. "Come again?"

"You are the new Knyaz’ Sokolinsky, and yet when you show up here you tell me that you do not intend to stay. So what have you actually done to earn my respect? Nothing."

"You get to live in my castle, don't you?"

"HA!" She barked a laugh. "Some life this is. If your castle is so great, why aren't you here?"

"Well, that's—” Boris stammered. “I have other matters to attend to in the human world.”

Evelina rolled her eyes. “Ah, yes. See, because you are the knyaz’, you have the privilege to just hide away in some far away land, while all I get is to live my life stuck in this stupid castle, asleep for three years at a time, awake for a year, just to make sure mice don't eat through the upholstery or shit on the counters in the kitchens. That's a real great life, thanks for that, I guess!"

“Are you unable to leave?" Boris asked.

"No, I can leave if I wanted,” the woman shrugged.

"Then why don't you? Or do you like feeling sorry for yourself?”

"Because my family are all here,” she bristled at first, then seemed to cool as she continued. "Even if I hate this place, they don't. I was only four when the last Knyaz’ Sokolinsky was killed, so it’s not like I am attached to this castle life, but they spent their entire lives serving him.” She looked up at the painting behind Boris. “The stories they tell of him, even if I never actually got to know the Knyaz’ very well, I understand why everyone was so devastated when they found out about his death. I understand why they would want to stay here to wait for him to come back.”

She looked back at Boris. “Even if the Knyaz’ never came back, this castle is all they have to remember him by. They would never leave it. So I won't either."

"I didn't realize..."

"Of course you didn't. How could you? I see you are perfectly content with your life in Chelmir.”

“Yeah, but, I can still decide to stay here if I wanted—”

"Don't bother,” Evelina waved him off. “We don’t need your charity. Your kind of attitude won’t be helpful to us at all. Besides, we are only going to have this castle and these memories for so much longer. It will all be over soon anyway."

Boris paused. “What will be over soon?”

"The Nine Kingdoms aren’t going to exist as separate lands for much longer. Pretty soon they’re all going to be united under the Velikiy Knyaz’.”

“The—”

“The Grand Prince.”

“Did the Princes all agree to do that or something?”

Evelina scoffed. “As if. The Sokol Kingdom still remains independent, but three of the other nine knyaz’ have died over the last century and the Velikiy Knyaz’ has taken control over their territories. As soon as the next knyaz’ dies, which is probably not too far off by the looks of it, he'll get their lands too and be able to claim unilateral control over all of the Nine Kingdoms. Then we will all become servants to the ‘Reverent Ruler’ Orlovsky." She muttered something obscene under her breath.

“Wait, Orlovsky?” Boris was suddenly scrambling as he wracked his brain for the names that Svetlana had mentioned in their conversation some hours ago. “That’s the guy who was the Grand Prince back when the Threshold closed, right?”

“Yep, he’s the one. Same one ever since,” Evelina clicked her tongue in annoyance.

“What do you mean, same one? Isn’t Korshun the Grand Prince right now?” That’s what Vaselisa said, right? Or rather, Elena di— shit.

“Knyaz’ Korshun?” Evelina laughed wryly. “I wish. Don’t we all wish that. Knyaz’ Korshun has been trying her damn hardest to make sure that Orlovsky at least doesn’t just wipe out the remaining Princes from Faemir for good. But much good that’s going to do in the long run.”

“How come?” Boris asked, his breath hitching as an uneasy, cavernous feeling formed in the pit of his stomach.

“Because in the end she can only slow him down. She can’t just usurp the title of Velikiy Knyaz’ from him without starting a war, and at this point there is very little chance of our side winning. Then the only way for the title to pass on from Orlovsky peacefully is for the next knyaz’ in line to lay claim to it, as per the Treaty of Nine Kingdoms” Evelina looked at him straight on, but for a brief moment her gaze was not just pure fury. Just for a second, she simply looked exhausted. “This means that the only one who can truly stop him is the next knyaz’ in line for the title.”

And that’s—

“That’s you, Knyaz’ Sokolinsky.”

Before Boris could respond, a violent gale picked up, and in the next second, the Fae, the castle, and the entire world was a spiraling whirlwind, Boris just an insignificant speck trapped in the middle of it. As he spun and spun and spun around, thinking he might never stop, he found himself in the eye of the hurricane. A piercing screech from above commanded his attention. Falborg, its blue metallic body and silver talons glinting, hovered in midair, its powerful wings spread to their full breadth. The man and the bird locked eyes.

The decision is yours, Finist the Bright Falcon.

The words rang in his head clear as day before the wind swept Boris back into its wake. Boris struggled to breathe, everything in his world once again becoming a jumbled mess, when he landed on something solid with a dull thud, rolling with the momentum. He winced at the pain in his side, rolling over to rest on his back. He managed to inhale, the air once again amicable rather than violence incarnate. He slowly opened his eyes. The empty, uncaring ceiling of SevStad stared back at him.

After taking a few minutes to recover, he got up, willing himself to move through the protestations in his muscles, and climbed up the steps to the beydish. Falborg’s beyblade laid unmoving in the center, the last of its energy having been expended to bring him back and give him a good pummeling against the ground. The man climbed in to retrieve his bitbeast companion. Standing in the middle of the dish, Boris examined the bitchip on his beyblade. Falborg’s familiar metallic blue reflected back at him. The way the light caught the beyblade, for a split second, Boris thought he caught a glint in his bitbeast’s eye - watching him. Waiting.

Boris gave his beyblade a reassuring squeeze before putting it away in its proper pocket. The pain in his side had subsided to a dull roar so he deftly jumped out of the dish and off the platform and dashed up the stairs.

There were things he needed to get done.


Yuriy breathed out a rare sigh of relief as his body finally hit the bed.

“Thank god, a horizontal surface that’s not asphalt.”

His body may have been ready to finally get its sweet rest, but his mind would not acquiesce to do the same. As he stared at the ceiling, unblinking, his insides raged like a winter storm.

Yuriy startled as his phone rang.

He leaned over to his bedside table to grab it, grimacing as Boris’s nickname flashed across the locked screen. Yuriy took a deep breath and pressed the green button.

“Hey,” he answered.

“Hey man, you awake?” Boris sounded winded, like he was running.

Yuriy rolled his eyes and was about to state the obvious but bit his tongue before he could spark another confrontation. He had felt terrible about the things he said to Boris and was intent on watching his mouth. “Just barely, I was about to pass out.”

“Liar,” he could almost hear Boris grin wryly on the other end. “You were just going to lie awake ruminating on shit.”

Yuriy couldn’t help but chuckle. As much of a shithead as Boris was, he was a shithead who, after more than fifteen years together, knew him better than anyone else. “You caught me, Kuznetsov.”

In place of Boris’s response, Yuriy heard the melody of a registered metro card and the sound of turning turnstiles.

“Where are you, man?”

“I am heading back home,” Boris replied. “Hey, I am going underground so I might lose service pretty soon, but— I changed my mind.”

“Huh?” The redhead bolted upright on his bed. “Changed your mind about what?”

“Crossing over to—over the Threshold,” Boris stated. “Let’s do it.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah, man. Let’s fucking do this Fae shit.”

“What—” Yuriy didn’t want to press it too much for fear of swaying Boris the other way again, but he just had to know. Considering how set the other man sounded on the other end. “What made you change your mind?”

Boris chuckled. “Long story. I’ll tell you guys when I get back, but… apparently this Fae shit’s crazier than we thought, and I decided that we need to fix it.”

“What are you talking about?” Yuriy asked, concerned. “How do you know? Did you run into more Fae?”

“Something like that. Listen, I am getting on at SevStad. I’ll be back in like an hour and then we can all talk.”

“Alright,” Yuriy exhaled in resignation. “See you when you get here.” He paused. “Borya?”

“Yeah?”

“Be careful.”

Boris scoffed. “What, you worried some asshole is going to rough up my pretty face?”

Even through the phone, Yuriy felt the punch to the gut. A well-aimed and well-deserved punch. “That too,” he spoke quietly. “But also in general. Today’s been rough and… I really don’t want to see you get hurt.”

Silence on the other end and Yuriy wondered if Boris had lost service already.

“Don’t worry, man,” finally came the reply, unusually quiet. “I’ll take care. You get some rest in the meantime.”

“Okay,” Yuriy smiled, relief rolling through him. “See you when you get here.”

“Later.” Boris hung up.

Yuriy fell back on the bed, puzzling over what else Boris had found out that convinced him to go through with this after all. Was it something about the errant Fae? The Threshold? The Avian Knyaz’? The man knew it was no use to try to figure it out now, but Boris had been right: while his body was exhausted, his mind was racing with the events of the day anyway. He couldn’t have fallen asleep if he had tried. The zmei, the teleportation to SevStad, finding out Denis Fyodorovich was Fae, rescuing Ivan, finding out about the nature of their bitbeasts - and their own powers - and so much more. One memory crowded onto another, overwhelming him.

But above all else, the image of the main stadium bathed in a soft golden glow, stepped in certainty and tranquility, stood out to him.

He sat back up, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed onto the cold floor as he buried his head in his hands. He knew that he should have never let Svetlana go off on her own, but he also had to admit that, as much as he wanted to help, he really would not have been of any use to her. None of them would have been. If Elena was set on dealing damage to all of them, his presence would not have deterred a confrontation. Him being there, not knowing how to use his powers, would have been a liability to Svetlana and would have probably gotten them both killed instantly. Things having happened the way they did, perhaps there was still a way to get to Svetlana. Perhaps there was still time.

He grabbed Svetlana’s cross off the bedside table. His stomach dropped at the sight of the keepsake, the black tint now having taken over more than two thirds of the metal.

Yuriy wrapped his fingers around the cross, leaning his forehead against his hands. Why, why couldn’t he do more.

“Fourth time around, and you’re still nothing but a burden!” Behemoth’s venomous words twisted inside his head. Even though the feline had not said it out loud, Yuriy understood perfectly in that moment that what Behemoth had really intended to say was “nothing but a burden on her”.

Despite feeling really fucking useless at this time, Yuriy did not quite feel like a burden, or at least did not know why he should.

Fourth time around… fourth time? Yuriy paused. Counted back. There were really only two instances when Yuriy could have been more helpful, could have reasonably eased things for Svetlana: the confrontation with the zmei and the encounter with Elena. It did not make sense to include Boris’s resurrection and the teleportation to SevStad. What the hell did Behemoth mean by “fourth time”?

“Morozko and I have been close friends for a long time.” Svetlana’s aged but soothing voice drifted up, replacing Behemoth’s sharp mewl.

“There were five of us in the Imperial family’s White Guard.” The Morozko of the White Guard. His predecessor. One predecessor of how many—

“Of course!” Yuriy couldn’t help but shout at the revelation. Behemoth hadn’t been referring to his individual deeds but instead to all of the different Morozko whom Svetlana had known. The different incarnations of the winter Fae. He was the fourth. The White Guard Morozko was the last one before him. And then there were two more at some point prior. All of them, Svetlana had known in their own time. Years, decades, centuries together.

And, if he understood what Behemoth had implied, all those Morozko had somehow been a burden on the bright shining Firebird.

For the countless time that day, Yuriy’s mind played over his interactions with Svetlana. Her warm parting handshake and the keepsake entrusted to Yuriy. Her careful explanations to the team and the surreptitious message to warn them about Elena. The reassuring words and the secret shared with him in the arena. The look of disbelief and trepidation and— hope when she first recognized him at VDNH.

Yuriy did not have the entire story or the memories to piece it together, but burden or not, Firebird had been anything but unhappy about finally meeting this new Morozko. And that certainly meant something.

The young man gingerly returned the cross to its spot by his bed and lay back down. He sent a message to their team’s group chat, letting the other two know that Boris was heading home, with news. If Sergey and Ivan were awake, they’d see the message. If they were asleep, he meant to let them sleep. As reluctant as they’d all been to return, they all needed rest. Badly. After they had made their get-away from Babushkinskaya - in a no less dramatic way than how they had gotten there - Ekaterina, disguising her appearance with some tsarevna spell, went off into the city on her own. She said that looking for Elena’s conspirator would be like looking for a frog in murky water, but her newly restored senses were more than enough to determine whether there were more zmei anywhere in the city. They were all reluctant to let her go on her own, for obvious reasons, but even if not for their exhaustion, it was difficult to argue with someone who had just quite literally carried out the three of them through a Gate when the cops finally showed up at the industrial area.

So Ekaterina left on her own, although not before setting some anchor in Ivan’s beyblade. Just as she had crafted a Gate to some unremarkable but very specific place from Babushkinskaya, so too she would be able to follow a Pathway from anywhere in the city to him. And should they need her help in the meantime, Ivan could always summon her through the beyblade.

That was, at least, what she had said. They had not seen the spell in action, but Yuriy believed that it would work.

He was far too tired to be able to do anything else.

As he set the alarm on his phone for a short nap, his mind wandered back to Behemoth’s comment. He wondered what all of the other Morozko had been like. Were they kind and benevolent, like the nurturing winter that Svetlana had described? Or were they cruel and merciless, like the other winter whose presence Firebird did not deny either? How did they find out that they had these abilities? Was there ever a woman who had been gifted those powers?

Three other folks, who, just like him, started out as Humans, and who suddenly, upon proving themselves, showing themselves worthy, distinguishing themselves as catalysts for change, became Fae. Just like him. Three other folk. Now long gone.

Long gone.

Dead.

Yuriy stilled, phone still emitting a solitary eerie glow on his face.

Three other Morozko, all of whom Svetlana had known. All of whom she had outlived. All of whom she had known to die.

It was the obvious conclusion, an outcome of simple math, but the realization was still unsettling. What would that experience do to you, watching your friend die over and over, knowing that they would return eventually but not what kind of person they would be. Not knowing if you would even be friends again.

Yuriy felt overwhelmed as he remembered Boris, dead at VDNH, and Ivan, almost lost to them in that warehouse fire. He haphazardly put the phone on the table as he pulled the pillow from underneath his head to his chest and wrapped his arms tightly around it. He buried his face in it as he breathed slowly, methodically, putting his wracked nerves back at ease.

Things were bad, but they could have been so much worse today. They had escaped by the skin of their teeth, surviving on the benevolence of older, wiser, more powerful Fae than them. But if they wanted to get through this in one piece, to make it out alive, they would have to learn how to survive on their own. This was not something new to them. They had done it on the rough streets of Russia, they had done it at the Abbey, they had done it despite BEGA, and they had done it after that still. Time and time again, the Blitzkrieg Boys had proven themselves to be survivors, and they would prove it again. The stakes had never been so high before, but there was no other path for them to take.

Many trials and tribulations still lay ahead of the new Morozko and his friends.

But for now, Yuriy slept.