The streets of Manhattan rang with the clamor of metro trains and honking cars, the hiss of pipes exposed by construction zones.
A young man climbed out of the nondescript yellow taxi and glanced around at the tall skyline stretching above him. The driver eyed the erstwhile passenger, noting the blank-black slacks and generic collared dress shirt, far outstripped in quality by the custom-cobbled luxury Italian leather shoes. The fare appeared on the screen at the driver's elbow, and he saw the flashing platinum card as the young man swiped without even checking the price. He stepped away, picking his way across the dingy pavement. The cabbie shrugged and moved on.
The expensive shoes strode down the sidewalk in a controlled haste. He glanced at the corner of every block till he found the street he wanted, then watched the building numbers carefully, counting under his breath till he found the one he sought. Ducking through the rusty iron gate, he slithered his way down the crowded, hazy alley, stepping around puddles and over people completely addled either by drugs or alcohol. Only one man sat serene and aloof against the wall near the back of the alley. A rat nibbled a piece of refuse at his foot.
The man crouched before him respectfully to deliver his message.
"She is here."
The man's eyes flicked up. "Are you certain?" He spoke with a thick Eastern European accent, that a few dozen decades of life outside his home country could not erase.
The man held his gaze. "You instructed me not to attempt contacting you until I was certain."
The weird, beady eyes fixed on him. "And you swore it would be so."
The messenger nodded. "I am a man of my word, Lord Rasputin."
The man scowled and his eyes flared. "Idiot! I told you never to call me by name! I should have cast a spell over you as Lutia has."
The man tipped his head at the unfamiliar name. "As whom, my lord?"
Rasputin waved his hand. "Never mind! I accept her terms and I will meet her at daybreak tomorrow, upon the Manhattan Bridge."
The young man gaped in surprise, as he had just been thinking about those very same arrangements but he couldn't comprehend them. Now the time and place of the meeting—and the existence of two very powerful wizards in the city of New York—vanished from his mind, and he was once again Nick Anderson, a cubicle grunt from upstate who had no business in the Bronx—so what was he doing here? He stumbled out of the grungy alleyway to hail a cab to take him home.
Alone and shrouded by his secrets, Rasputin mulled over the impending meeting. Lutia had been one of his best and brightest pupils, coming to him nightly for lessons in his craft. But he had seen too much ambition and jealousy in her, so he sent her away, and did not contact her again.
Rasputin chortled in vindictive mirth as the old wound in his chest stung at the memory. That fool Yusupov had plied him with poisons and shot him at point-blank range, but he should have known the most powerful sorcerer in the world would have a contingency plan for this: a cursed crown so powerful, a single touch and its magic would not fade. It did not heal scars, of course, or prevent diseases, but Grigori Rasputin literally could not die. He merely woke up again a few hours later and continued with his life. He had thought to live out the rest of his days in the seclusion of filth and decay in America, but the arrival of the messenger changed all that.
"Lutia," he mused. "What are you planning?"
She could not know about the crown. Rasputin himself did not know anything was amiss until he had startled awake in a ditch on the edge of an abandoned field, riddled with the scars of bullet wounds, but otherwise unharmed. She might have been bitter about the "payment" he had demanded for her lessons—but to seek him out when the world thought he had been dead for one hundred years? She had to know something.
"Lutia," he murmured, "what are you doing, my pet?"
The next dawn broke over the New York skyline, and two figures stood opposite each other on a bridge shrouded by fog. Rasputin could barely distinguish his former protege on the other side. Her long black gown and straight dark hair gave her the appearance of an angel of death. He smiled and raised a hand in greeting.
"Well met, my young apprentice. Why have you desired to meet me here? Have you come for more lessons?"
Lutia raised but one hand, and all of the fog gathered behind her, billowing in a black cloud.
"I have all the knowledge I need!" She fired back. "Now you will pay as you have not paid ever before!"
Rasputin took a step nearer to her.
"Look closely, Lutia," he replied. "I have lived one hundred years. Men have tried to kill me—Nature herself raised all manner of illness and storm against me," he pointed a finger at himself. "And yet I live!"
Lutia grinned darkly from under the lengthy tresses. "But no man can cheat death completely. You have lived thus far, my mentor, but there is still only one thing that can kill you."
Rasputin felt the cold chill of horror wash over him as she reached into the folds of her dress and withdrew an object, which she aimed at him.
He relaxed and laughed long and derisively.
"A gun?" He crowed. "Need I remind you, witch, that I have been shot before!" He bared his chest. "No bullet can harm me!" He marched toward the middle of the bridge.
Lutia swept forward as well, keeping the weapon trained on his heart. "You are destined to live, by the cursed crown, till the Sword of Might be lifted against you," she intoned softly.
Rasputin stopped; curses! She knew about the crown! He fought to hide the fact that he had not heard the last part of the prophecy.
"Sword of might, you say?" He echoed. "Then we both know that gun won't kill me."
Lutia never wavered. She glared at him. "It will if the bullets are formed of the melted blade." She pulled the trigger.
Rasputin heard the report, staggered backwards as the old familiar ache spread and raged in his chest. He had been shot before. He knew what it felt like.
This time it was different. Rasputin coughed, writhed upon the ground, the embodiment of his own psyche scrambling to regain the lifeline that had been all but molded to its hands, now severed suddenly, for the first time.
Lutia stood over him, a leering vulture surveying a fresh new corpse.
"Here at the last," she mimicked his final words to her all those years ago, "the spirits make clear who is the master and who is the pupil." She leaned in and whispered into his ear as the world faded far more slowly than it ever had. "Begone, I have no more use for you."
Single Posts:#26 "The Tides of Battle"