Ural Mountains, Russian Empire
As the high-pitched shriek reverberated against the walls of the copper mine, Maxim Nikolaev felt an unusual pinch deep in his skull.
The big man set down his pickax and wiped his brow just as the painful sensation subsided. He took in a deep breath, flooding his already-infested lungs with more toxic dust. He didn’t even notice or care anymore. Right then, the mid-morning break was all he was thinking of, given that his working day had started at five.
As the last echoes of the whistle died out around him and with the army of pickaxes now at rest, Maxim heard the distant sound of the Miass River, out by the mouth of the open mine. It reminded him of when he was a boy, when his uncle often took him swimming at a secluded spot on the outskirts of Ozyorsk, away from the thick, putrid smoke that belched out of the smelting plant twenty-four hours a day.
He remembered the smell of the pine trees, so tall they seemed to touch the sky. He missed the tranquility of the place.
He missed the open sky and the clean air even more.
A voice rang out from farther down the tunnel. “Hey, Mamo, get your ass over here. We’re playing for a go on Pyotr’s daughter.”
Maxim wanted to roll his eyes at Vasily, partly for the diminutive, which he hated, and partly for the man’s general stupidity, but the wiry bastard took offense at the slightest provocation, so Maxim smiled at the group of men instead, hefted his pickax onto a broad, muscle-bound shoulder, and sauntered over to where the three other mudaks were already at their regular seats.
He sat down next to the unfortunate Pyotr and set his tool against the wall beside him. Maxim had laid eyes on the man’s daughter only once, and though she was indeed strikingly beautiful, he had no doubt that she could certainly do a lot better than any of the pathetic losers around him toiling deep in the bowels of the earth for a less-than-meager wage.
Maxim fished out a small flask—a punishable offense—and took a long swig, then wiped his mouth with a grimy sleeve. “Let’s play, then,” he told Vasily. He might as well try to win some money from the leering idiot if he could.
Stanislav, the most pathetic of the foursome, went first, followed by Pyotr, then Maxim. Then Vasily’s turn came around. He slammed his fist down onto a just-turned Queen of Hearts, rattling the half-broken wooden table around which the four men sat, then leaned back with a smug smile on his face.
Maxim didn’t flinch. His mind was already drifting away. He felt another odd tingling in his head, like a little tickle really, deep in his brain. For some reason, he thought of how much he hated Ochko. Everyone pretended it was about skill when really luck was all you needed. He much preferred Durak, a game that seemed to be about luck, but was really about skill. He had never once been the last to hold cards in twenty-seven years of playing that game. It was probably why that leech Vasily refused to play the game with him.
Vasily’s croaky voice broke through his curdled thoughts. “Come on, Mamo, deal yourself a card before we all turn to stone.”
Maxim looked down and realized he had turned over his first two cards without even looking at them.
Stanislav turned a Seven of Clubs, unsurprisingly cutting him out of the game after three cards. Pyotr turned a Two of Spades, giving himself nineteen. He looked nervously at Vasily, whose expression didn’t change. The bastard was leading with eighteen. That, and he was a very bad loser. Vasily gestured at Maxim to hurry up and take his turn, presumably so he could turn a Three and win the small pile of coins sitting in the middle of the table.
Maxim really didn’t want to let him win. Not that day. Not there, not then. And as he was about to turn his card, he felt a piercing sensation worm its way through the back of his skull. It didn’t last for more than a breath. He shook his head, shut his eyes, then opened them again. Whatever it was, it had gone.
He peeked at his card, then looked up at Vasily. The wiry creep was leering at him and right then, Maxim knew that the man was cheating. He didn’t know why, but he was dead sure of it.
Not only cheating, but looking at him like—like he hated him.
More than hated. Loathed. Despised.
Like he wanted to kill him.
And right then, Maxim realized that he loathed Vasily even more. His veins throbbing angrily against his skull, he managed to turn over his card. He watched as Vasily dropped his eyes to take it in.
It was a Five of Diamonds. Maxim was also out. Vasily smirked at him and turned his own card. A Four of Hearts. Too many. He had won.
“That’s us, moi lyubimye,” Vasily said, all smug and reaching out to gather his winnings. “Four hearts, beating as one.”
Maxim’s hand shot out to block Vasily, but just as he did, Stanislav turned away from the table and convulsed before throwing up, spewing the contents of his belly onto the cheat’s boots.
“Fuu! Stanislav, you son of a whore—” Vasily lurched back from the retching man, then a pained look spread across his face and he fell off the wooden crate on which he had been sitting and hit the ground, clutching his head, knocking over the table and sending the cards flying off.
Pyotr shot to his feet too, flaring with indignation. “Four? What four? I didn’t see a four. You filthy cheat.”
Maxim swung his gaze back at Stanislav, whose eyes were bloodshot, as if the force of his retching had blown all the blood vessels in his face, and Maxim knew, knew for sure, that Stanislav had also been cheating. They all had, the swine. They were going to fleece him—then they were going to hurt him.
As if to confirm it, Vasily started to laugh. Not just a laugh, a demonic, deep-rooted laugh that gushed with contempt and mockery and—Maxim was sure of it—hatred.
Maxim stared at him, rooted to the mine’s soil, feeling the sweat seep out of him, unsure of what to do—
He saw Vasily take a step in his direction—he really didn’t look at all well—then the cheat’s eyes went wild and the man stopped in his tracks.
Pyotr had just embedded Maxim’s hack into the side of Vasily’s head.
Maxim lurched back as Vasily hit the ground at his feet, a fountain of blood gushing out of the man’s skull. Then he was aware that the pain in the back of his head was back, sharper than before. An intense fear washed over him. He would be next. He was sure of it.
They were going to kill him unless he killed them first.
He’d never been as sure of anything in his entire life.
Angry yells erupted from other recesses of the mine as he launched himself at Pyotr, blocking his arm while grabbing the hack and fighting the murderous cheat for it. In the dim light of the lone grimy lantern, he glimpsed Stanislav, back on his feet, going for his pickax too. Everything turned into a blur of claws and swings and shouts and punches until Maxim felt something warm in his hands, something he was absolutely compelled to squeeze until his hands met each other in the middle, and when clarity returned to his eyes, he saw poor Pyotr’s eyeless, bloodied face turn a livid purple as he snapped the man’s neck.
All around him, the air was suddenly full of screaming and the sound of steel cleaving through flesh and bone.
Maxim smiled and sucked in a big lungful of air. He had never heard anything so beautiful—then something flashed in the corner of his vision.
He leaned backward as the ax came swinging toward his neck and felt the displaced air blow across his face. He jabbed a fist into his attacker’s ribs, then another. Something crunched. He stepped behind the groaning man, swung an arm around his throat—it was Popov, the shift manager, who had never even raised his voice the whole time that Maxim had worked there—and began to choke him.
Popov dropped to the ground like a sack of beetroot.
Maxim grabbed the ax from the dead man’s hand and immediately buried it in the face of Stanislav, who already had the hack he was holding halfway through an arc toward Maxim’s chest. Maxim tried to duck out of its path, but the hack still connected and gouged a large chunk out of his side.
Stanislav toppled backward and fell to the ground, the ax embedded in his face.
Maxim dropped to his knees, then keeled over, grabbing his torn flesh with both hands, trying to push the two sides of the wound back together.
He lay there, writhing on the ground, pain shooting through him, his hands bathed in his own blood, and glanced down the mineshaft. He could barely make out the dimly lit silhouettes of other mudaks up and down the tunnels, hacking away at one another furiously.
He looked down to the wound in his side. His blood was rippling through his fingers and cascading onto the thick grime of the mine floor. He kept staring at it as the death cries echoed around him and the minutes slipped by, his mind numb, his thoughts adrift in a maelstrom of confusion—then a powerful explosion ripped through the air behind him.
The walls shook, and dust and rock shards rained down on him.
Three other explosions followed, knocking the lanterns off their mounts and plunging the already-dark tunnels of the mine into total darkness.
Everything went deathly silent for a brief moment—then came a cool breeze and an urgent, rushing sound.
A rush that turned into a roar.
Maxim stared into the darkness. He never saw the solid wall of water that plowed into him with the force of an anvil and whisked him away. But in those seconds of consciousness, in those last moments before the water overpowered his lungs and the force of the torrent slammed him against the tunnel wall, Maxim Nikolaev’s final thoughts were of his boyhood and of how peaceful it would be to return to the river of his youth.
Standing by the detonator at the mouth of the tunnel, the man of
science listened until all silence returned to the mountain. He was shaking visibly, though not from the cold. His companion, on the other hand, was unnaturally calm and serene. Which made the scientist shake even more.
They had made the long journey together, from the distant isolation of the Siberian monastery to this equally forsaken place.
A journey that had started many years ago with the promise of great things, but that had since veered into savage, criminal territory. The man of science couldn’t quite put his finger on how they’d reached this point of no return, how it had all degenerated into mass murder. And as he stared at his companion, he feared there would be more to come.
“What have we done?” he muttered, fearful even as the words snuck past his lips.
His companion turned to face him. For a man of such power and influence, a man who had become an intimate friend and confidant of the tsar and tsarina, he was unusually dressed. An old, greasy jacket, tattered around the cuffs. Baggy trousers that hung low at the back, like the serouals worn by the Turks. A farmer’s oiled boots. Then there was the wild, tangled beard, and the greasy hair, parted down the middle like that of a tavern waiter. The scientist knew it was all artifice, of course, all part of a calculated look. A craftily honed image for a grand master plan, one in which the man of science had become an enabler and an accomplice. A costume designed to convey the humbleness and humility of a true man of God. An outfit so basic it also couldn’t possibly detract from its wearer’s hypnotic, gray-blue gaze.
The gaze of a demon.
“What have we done?” his companion replied in his odd, simple, almost primordial manner of speech. “I’ll tell you what we’ve done, my friend. You and me . . . we’ve just ensured the salvation of our people.”
As always happened in the other’s company, the man of science felt a numbing weakness overcome him. All he could do was stand there and nod. But as he began to digest what they had just done, a stifling darkness descended upon him and he wondered about what horrors lay ahead, horrors he would have never imagined possible back in that secluded monastery, where he’d first met the mysterious peasant. Where the man had brought him back from the edge, shown him the wonder of his gift, and talked to him about his wanderings among the hidden cloisters deep in the forests and the beliefs he had learned there. Where the mystic with the piercing eyes had first told him about the advent of “true tsar,” a fair ruler, a redeemer of the people born of the common folk. A savior of Holy Rus.
For the briefest moment, the man of science wondered if he’d ever be able to extricate himself from his mentor’s hold and avoid the madness that surely lay ahead. But as quickly as the thought had surfaced, it was gone, snuffed out before it could even begin to take shape.
He’d never seen anyone refuse anything of Grigory Efimovich Rasputin.
And he knew, with crippling certainty, that his will was far from strong enough for him to be the first.