Radost Extreme Security Prison, somewhere along the Arctic Border of Siberia
A few months ago
Radost prison was widely considered to be the least joyful place on Earth, even more so than the infamous Nporpecc towns that had dotted the Siberian districts for over almost two decades. Abuse, mutilation and brutal deaths had merely been a near-certainty in those, not an absolute one, like in Radost.
Radost was, after all, not merely a prison, even if that was in its name. Yes, it was primarily one, and one meant for the worst of the worst. It was where the Red Council sent those captured metahumans whom they were unable to break and indoctrinate into their purpose, yet were too valuable (or too difficult) to simply execute.
That alone, however, was not the only reason it was so reviled a place, nor why it was more heavily defended than the seat of the American President himself. An entire army battalion was stationed here on permanent duty, at triple rationing both for the soldiers themselves and their families back home, to keep the men happy in spite of the horrible weather, the depressing, often horrifying duty and the constant danger of both prisoners breaking out and people from the outside trying to break in. The ground level of the prison was fully equipped to serve as a major military base.
The battalion was one of the best-equipped in all of the Sovjet Union, including the newest advances in military technology – even some precious gadgets, up to and including a half-strength company using power armour – and an entire company of metahumans. Rather than the proper command structure, there was an actual general in charge of the base, aided by two members of the Politbüro, allowing him to call in reinforcements as needed, without having need to explain himself before the fact, up to and including airstrikes and even, in the most extreme situations, a tactical nuclear strike.
There were, in fact, three nuclear warheads stored on site, spread throughout the underground complex beneath the military base, to act as a fail-safe in case of the outer defenses being defeated, or an irrecoverable uprising of the captives.
Radost had not always been so heavily defended; much of its security, including the option of said nuclear strike, had been added in during the late nineties, after a certain metahuman came to national attention. In fact, much of the paranoia surrounding the prison there was one particular person that they had feared would eventually try to break in, considering the bounty waiting inside.
Another reason was that it was also one of the biggest sites for human experimentation in the world, the men and women working in its laboratories having been charged by the Red Council to unravel the mysteries of metahumanity, so that it may be fully twisted to the council’s purpose. Though a truly daunting task, it was well-aided by their blanket permission to experiment upon the captives of Radost at will.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these scientists were mostly in favour of triggering the fail-safe in case their victims ever broke out.
Even less surprising was the fact that General Vlasiy Lagounov, who’d been in charge of this god-forsaken place for the last five years, did not relish being the first of its wardens to fail so thoroughly that it would become necessary to do so. Putting aside the fact that it’d almost certainly ruin his career, which he’d planned out many years ago and which involved working his way up the command chain of the military until he could land a cushy job in the Ministry of War, he was also spectacularly unlikely to survive it, seeing how he was just a normal human – no nepravil’nyy narod was allowed to hold the rank of even the lowest of commissioned officers, much less a full general – so he’d always planned to defeat any assault upon Radost, in case it ever happened (it never had, before), by way of overwhelming force, superior tactics and the plain fact that no one who could bring as many metahumans to bear in a battle as he did could penetrate so deeply into SU space without causing all their espers to go crazy and see it coming a week away at the least.
Of course, there was the matter of said one threat that had originally caused the security arrangements to become so insanely enhanced…
“Ba-ba, babababaaa-ba, ba-ba-baba,” a sweet voice sang, barely audible through the heavily re-inforced tungsten doors.
That she was audible at all was already a reason to panic, and Vlasiy had to use all of his self-control not to start shaking all over, as he ordered his remaining men to draw up a defensive line.
Half an hour, he thought bitterly, disbelieving, as he watched his remaining men – three of the folk, thirty-three proper warriors and two of the researchers – draw up a line, taking cover behind hastily errected walls, formed out of the very tungsten that the entirety of the room was made of via one of the metahuman asset’s power.
They’d been forced to retreat into the deepest, darkest portion of Radost, which was named, appropriately enough, Koschei’s Chest. The entire section, an underground building as large as the Kreml, was made out of a single, solid piece of tungsten, shaped via powers, to hold Radost’s most dangerous prisoners. It hung, suspended by magnetic engines, in the centre of a vast underground cavern, the walls of the cave dotted with countless weapons that faced inwards, as well as one of the fail-safe’s nukes, dedicated solely to the task of, not destroying the chest, but collapsing the cavern on top of it, in the hopes of burying those held within. Currently, only two of the eight available cells were occupied, one holding an American prisoner of war, and the other…
Vlasiy shuddered, preferring not to think about the other one. He hoped that the rebels would at least show enough sense to not set that one free.
Just being there, in the hub room that lead to all of the cells, made him shudder, even though he tried his very best not to look towards the solid wall of heavy metal beyond which he was sealed away (there were no doors into the cells of the chest, one needed to have access to the right kind of superpowers to access them, if they could even disable all the defenses installed to prevent just that).
“Baaaaa-ba, baba-baa, ba, ba, baba, baaaaaa-ba…”
The singing – if it could be called that – became louder, coming closer, making the men shudder and raise their weapons – all of them, enhanced, weapons built by one of the three assets still with him, rifles with special ammunition, each shot capable of punching through a tank’s armor and out the other side, front to back. Weapons that, even with their near-limitless resources, they could only have a score of at hand at any time, due to the effort that their creator had to invest in maintaining them and producing the proper ammunition. The ones who didn’t have such weapons had lesser gadgets to use.
Fat load of good it did us so far, Vlasiy thought as he stood in the third row of tungsten cover, behind two rows of soldiers and assets, holding his own gun – made by one of the assets, as well, to his distaste – in one tightly clenched hand, while the other held a cylindrical object, a detonator to set off the fail-safe, which he’d already armed, as per regulation, when the attack on the base above had begun – though he kept its cap on for now, not that that would slow him down much, it could be flipped open with a twitch of his thumb to reach the button underneath. He was gripping it so tight his knuckles had turned white.
As there was nothing more he could do, for now, but wait and see what she would do next, he looked at his assets, feeling ill at ease – the rebellion was led by more of the wrong folk and only one of the three had been properly conditioned, the others being ostensibly loyal enough to the Union to be stationed even here.
The one who’d built his gun was a woman, a slight one, one of the Joyous Folk. Thin, with pale skin that rarely saw the sun and short, stringy blonde hair. She stood there in a simple smock that reached down to her shins, her feet bare underneath, stained with grease and who knew what else, as were her bare hands up to her elbows. Her only other item of clothing was a metallic collar around her thin neck. She held her head lowered, her brown eyes focused on a spot somewhere on the ground. Number two-four-four-nine, she’d broken under the strain of the conditioning and needed commands even for such basic actions as swallowing the food she’d just chewed, showing only the barest amount of initiative where the use of her power was concerned, building ever new weapons that were either used in Radost or shipped out to be used in other places. Of the three Folk, she was the only one he didn’t worry about. A single command of his was all it would take to make her choke herself to unconsciousness (he’d had her do it before, both to test her conditioning and to amuse himself), or pick up a gun and shoot herself in the head.
The other two were more problematic, being still in command of their own will, an absurdity, if a necessary one, as broken dolls made for horrible soldiers. Sergeant Petrov, a tall, broad-shouldered man with blonde hair and muddy blue eyes, wearing a proper uniform with a black armband bearing the crest of the wrong folk who served in the military, a simple red circle with a black hammer and circle in it. He was the one who’d reshaped the walls and floor into cover, as well as reinforced the door keeping (hopefully) their adversary out by merging it and the wall and floor into one solid piece. Unfortunately, his power only had a rather short range and so he couldn’t act outside of this room any more than anyone else in here could.
Vlasiy always felt a measure of regret when thinking about Petrov (which wasn’t even the man’s real name), as the man would have made an amazing soldier, had he only not become one of the folk. Upstanding, steadfast, loyal, efficient. He didn’t just look like the model soldier, he acted it. Still, he was folk and so Vlasiy did not trust him, as regretful as he felt about it.
The other, Sergeant Utkin, was a study in contrasts with Petrov; short, hairy, slender, he barely filled out his uniform. His face had heavy jowls, a hooked nose and thin lips and his personality was as unpleasant to deal with as he was unpleasant to look at. But he was powerful, having the ability to repel any other folk’s power, potentially even reversing it back upon themselves. Such an ability should have made him a prime candidate for the Foremen, but he’d been deemed too unsightly and too unreliable in combat, being often too slow and too cowardly to serve well. Thus his posting in Radost, where all of the inmates had powers of their own, and where he could serve well. Frankly, he disgusted Vlasiy more than almost any other folk he’d ever met, but he couldn’t deny the man’s usefulness, especially now, in the wake of the enemy approaching.
His eyes moved on, over the rows of proper soldiers he had with him. They were good men, well-trained men, loyal men, loyal to him, to the army, to the Council.
“Baaaaaaaaa-ba, ba-ba, ba, ba… ba-ba, yaaaaaaa…”
There was almost no way it would be enough, not facing one of the worst internal enemies the Sovjet Union had ever had to deal with.
But he’d be damned if he was going to be the first warden of Radost to fail.
“General,” Petrov spoke up calmly, suddenly, turning to face Vlasiy. “With all due respect, perhaps we should entertain the-“
Vlasiy barely had time to cry out as something shot through the solid former door, ignoring the reinforced material and the further protections installed in order to discourage just that.
He saw something akin to a ghost, a vaguely humanoid outline, transparent, silvery-grey, rush forward, trailed by a stream of after-images, moving faster than he could even hope to raise his gun, running straight through the hailstorm of bullets, lasers and plasma that his men unleashed, through their cover, through his men.
Everyone it, she, passed through collapsed with a scream, only to scream more as they hit the ground. What Vlasiy could see of their bare skin was horribly disfigured by a network of grotesque swelling, an effect he recognised instantly – it was one of her known powers, taken from the Wraith of Screams, one of the cursed children of Orenburg, causing the nerves of any it passed through to grow massively, making the slightest stimulus a source of incredible pain.
The wraith finished its charge through the ranks of his men, coming to a halt inbetween him and his subordinate folk, growing more and more solid as its after-images caught up with it, until she stood there, looking at him with a demented grin.
She’s wearing clothes, was the first thought that came to mind. For twenty years now she’d been out there and never not once had she put on any clothes before, to his knowledge. He knew a lot of soldiers kept images of her, hidden, against orders, because of her beauty and how uncaring she’d been about being seen like that, and even Vlasiy had to admit, it wasn’t unwarranted, as distasteful as it was.
The young woman looking at him could have been at home in a propaganda video of the Ministry of Education, advertising the wonderful life and opportunities that awaited young men if they joined the army, or the agricultural corps, save for the fact that she had eyes as red as bloody rubies and the rest of her body was a purer shade of white than fresh snow, though even her Albinoism didn’t detract from her almost adorable facial features.
Her hair had been cut, compared to the images he knew from her file, though it was still tied in a braid, now reaching to her knees rather than being several times the length of her body. Her torso was covered, barely, by a slashed black t-shirt sporting the logo of some American music band, the straps and sides of her red bra showing through, stark against her skin. It stopped a few centimetre above her belly button, only to be followed, further below, by a multitude of skirts layered atop one another, all of varying lengths, with the shortest ones – starting at the length of a miniskirt – furthest outside and a long, ankle-length skirt as the base; most of the skirts were slashed similarly to her shirt, while others were basically just a miltitude of ribbons attached to a waistband. Her feet were still as bare as ever, though he thought he saw something metallic flash on her left ankle, before his eyes snapped up again, along with his pistol.
He knew it was most likely pointless, but he still pulled the trigger, firing a sphere of super-heated plasma straight through her head.
Her form shifted into a multitude of after-images, each leaning a different way, making her body as insubstantial as air, the shot passing through harmlessly. Behind her, a pillar of tungsten rose up, catching the blast before it could kill Two-four-four-nine.
She reformed, and opened her mouth. “If you mess with Baba Yaga, you’ve got to be gaaaaa-ga!”
Three more voices joined in on her that chant, causing him, and his men, to look at the sealed door as they actually managed to be heard over the screaming of his afflicted men; though considering how they’d been heard all throughout the entirety of Radost since the very start of the attack, that wasn’t surprising at all.
The whole door had melted away, gone without a trace, opening up the way to the metal walkway that lead to Koschei’s Chest.
Three young women, identical to the one standing next to him, stood at the entrance. The middle and left one were holding hands, while the right one had her wrists touching, fingers splayed forward and moving like a spider’s legs, apparently being the one coordinating a curtain of plate-sized octagonal force-fields that flew around in front of them, deflecting any shot his men sent their way. Perhaps due to a quirk of the power, or perhaps out of sheer arrogance, she actually went around blocking every single shot individually, rather than just create a single, solid curtain around them.
The middle woman – was she the real one? Or a decoy? Was there even a real one? – wagged a finger at him, grinning like a loon.
More men fell down screaming as the wraith passed through them, even as others went still, some passing out, some flat-out dying as either their brains, their hearts, or both, gave out due to the massive shock of such intense sensations.
“Utkin, what the hell are you doing!?” Viasiy shouted, turning around to look at the one asset he still had to throw against her – only to find him on the ground, unconscious and bleeding of a head wound. The ceiling above had extended into a dull spike, blood dripping from its rounded tip. “W-what the hell are you doing, Sergeant Petrov? Traitor!” he shouted at Petrov, who stood next to the their fallen trump card, one hand holding onto Two-four-four-nine’s hand, almost protectively.
“I’m sorry, General,” the man spoke with a firm, calm voice. “But I’m hereby tending my resignation.” And he ripped his armband and hat off. “As is my comrade here.” He nodded towards Two-four-four-nine and used two fingers of the same hand that was holding onto his armband and hat to grab a hold of her collar, using his power to tear it off without harming her.
Vlasiy opened his mouth, red-faced, to shout the empty woman’s termination code, but Petrov was faster, flinging his left hand out at him, sending the armband, the hat and the collar flying.
The three objects melted as they flew, into a single, grey-black mass, and slapped onto his lower face, spreading out, wrapping around his head, thoroughly gagging his mouth and nearly doing the same to his nose.
He tried to raise his gun, to at least shoot and kill one of them, but only felt something close around it, locking it in place. Looking down, he saw a stalagmite of tungsten reach up, wrapping around his hand and gun. If he pulled the trigger, it’d just destroy his hand.
No, no, fuck no, not to a traitor! he thought furiously, hatred evident in his eyes as he glared at the Devil’s Bride and at the two traitors, using his thumb to flip the fail-safe’s switch open – but he never got to bring his thumb down on it, as another stalagmite rose up and encased it, securing the transmitter.
“Imbecile,” Petrov snarled. “I had several minutes’ worth of time to let my power seep into the entire room. And my name is not Petrov, that’s a slavename.”
The threat so neutralised, he turned aside to address his former adversary, only to give a start as he realised that the Devil’s Bride was standing right in front of him now, on her tip-toes, looking curiously at his face.
The tall folk gulped, taking a step back. “Ah… apologies,” he said, his eyes tracing the rest of the room. All of the soldiers were on the ground, either dead or passed out, except for those who’d been caught in their own deflected shots – those were definitely dead. “I would, ah, I mean, we,” he looked at the dead-eyed woman whose hand he still held. “We would like to, to join the revolutionary army, ma’am.”
“Not ma’am,” the Devil’s Bride said, tilting her head to the side as she made an annoyed clucking sound. Her voice had a very odd accent, musical, but definitely not Russian. Unlike any those in the room had ever heard before. “Baba Yaga. Name is, Baba Yaga.”
The man paled a bit more, sweat appearing on his brow, but he seemed to compose himself. “As you wish, B-baba Yaga.”
Her annoyed pout turned into a stark, white-toothed grin, her pale pink lips stretching wider than one would have expected, and she reached up, making the folk flinch back – but all she did was pat him on the head.
“You is good boy,” she spoke. “Baba Yaga like good boys. Tell name to Baba Yaga!”
Is she a simpleton?, Vlasiy thought, stunned. Was that it? Had the boogeywoman of the Sovjet Union been a mere simpleton the whole time?
“Pytor, ma- I mean, Baba Yaga. My name is Pytor,” the man replied.
“Good. People need name,” Baba Yaga said in a sing-song, putting emphasis on the word again. “What hers?” She pointed at Two-four-four-nine.
Pytor’s face changed to one of deep sadness. “I don’t know, m- Baba Yaga. They took her name, along with everything else. All she has is a number. Two-four-four-nine.” He spoke the numbers as if they were the worst of blasphemies, his face twisting in disgust.
Baba Yaga’s grin disappeared. “Is no good,” she said. “Is, no good. People need name.”
Suddenly, her form seemed to shudder, as if a pair of after-images were trying to lean out of her, briefly. Then they stepped out of her entirely, solidifying into two perfect copies of herself, both of them facing the way out. One jumped into the arms of the other, and they disappeared in a streak of neon light, racing towards the elevator shaft.
Baba Yaga leaned back on her heels, her toes rising off the cold metal ground, clasping her hands behind the small of her back as she looked alternatively at him and at the dead-eyed woman.
“You two, together?” she asked, grinning like a nosy teenage girl.
It was clear that Pytor had not expected that question, which likely explained his hesitation before he replied, “No, we’re not. I just, someone’s got to take care of her.”
The albino woman grinned, swaying back and forth on her heels, as if she had not a single care in the world. It was intensily unsettling.
Before Pytor could speak up again to ask what was going to happen, the streak of neon-lights returned, depositing both copies of the Baba Yaga, as well as a man in a heavy brown-red overcoat, a mining hat and with a multitude of shovels, picks and other earthworking equipment strapped ot his various belts and buckles, his broad, scarred, rather unattractive face looking a little green.
“Brother Kopatel!” Pytor exclaimed, recognising him easily from innumerable propaganda posters and news spots, as Baba Yaga reabsorbed all of her copies, leaving only the (ostensible) original, who immediately cuddled up to Kopatel, wrapping her arms around his left elbow to hug it tight to her chest as she looked up at him with an adoring expression.
Both Vlasiy and Pytor stared, unable to parse the sight as the man ignored having the most powerful woman in the entire Union hanging off his arm, focusing instead on the former sergeant in front of himself.
“You must be Pytor, correct?” the revolution’s unlikely-looking leader asked as the nausea faded from his broad face. “Baba Yaga tells me you want to join us, and that you’re honest about it.”
Pytor blinked, briefly surprised, before he all but visibly berated himself for it. Of course there’d be something to tell whether he was telling the truth or not among the multitude of powers she’d gathered by that point.
Vlasiy, meanwhile, was quietly despairing, knowing that his fate was now completely in the hands of his enemies including, if he was truly cursed, those very prisoners he’d helped keep imprisoned so as to be experimented upon. Tears leaked from his eyes, even as he couldn’t help but notice how unlikely these two men made the situation seem – Pytor, the tall, broad-shouldered, blonde-haired and blue-eyed statue of a man, cowering, deferring to the short, stocky and at best plain if not ugly Kopatel. It would have been hilarious were it not something he’d have to witness like this.
“That, is correct, Br- Sir,” Pytor replied. “Me and, well, actually, I’m not at all sure what she wants, but, I’m sure she wouldn’t want to stay with the Union, if she was still able to choose.” He looked at the dead-eyed young woman.
Kopatel’s eyes softened as he looked at the broken young woman – a girl, really, young enough she could have been his daughter, perhaps even granddaughter. If she was a day over twenty, he’d be very surprised.
As usual when he met one of the so-called Joyous Folk – something which was happening more and more, now that he was actively fighting the Red Council – he felt both a crushing shame and a near mind-rending rage.
Shame, because he had, however unwittingly, been complicit in doing this to people. Rage against the men and women who’d abuse other humans so, who’d used the ideals that’d driven him and Ludmilla to perform such monstrous actions.
“Do you remember your name, young one?” he asked the girl, his rough voice as soft as he could make it, stepping closer.
It was a stupid question, a foolish one. Their name was one of the first things the Ministry of Harmony took from its victims, followed by their dignity, their memories, their will and, finally, their very mind. But maybe, somehow, he’d get lucky and this one would remember something. It had happened before, some folk were able to recover from anything the ministry could do to them, if slowly, incompletely. Usually this was dealt with regular re-conditioning, or outright execution, if they were judged not worth the trouble, but gadgeteers were always worth the trouble, in his experience.
The girl shook her head, never raising her gaze for even a moment, and his heart broke a little more.
She looks so worn out, he thought, as he reached up with a calloused hand, taking off the glove he wore on it to gently brush a few strands of thin, barely cared-for hair behind her ear. There were dark bags under her eyes, her cheeks were nearly corpse-like in paleness and her lips barely rated that description, having the same colour as the skin aroudn them. She hasn’t been treated kindly, even for one of the ‘Joyous Folk’.
“I try to take care of her, when I can,” Pytor said, looking away in shame. “But there’s only so much I’ve been able to do. If she’s not in her workshop, she’s usually…” He screwed his eyes shut. “Well, there’s… there’s not many women around this place, and it’s not like she could say no, even if she wanted to…”
“I understand,” Kopatel said, throwing a murderous glare at the entrapped general, who stared back in fear. “I’m glad at least one person was looking out for her.” He took a deep breath to calm himself, when he felt a tug on his arm.
He looked down at Milena who, for once, looked completely serious. “Give name,” she spoke softly, her accent so familiar by now it didn’t even strike him as odd anymore. “Give her name. Teacher and Baba Yaga can help, but she needs name.”
Kopatel noticed Pytor’s head turning, focusing on Baba Yaga when she spoke of helping her, looking as shocked as Kopatel would have, back when he first got to know the scary, strange young woman that currently clung to his arm, but he’d long since figured out that ‘the Devil’s Bride’ was far more complex a person than her reputation made her out to be.
“Perhaps it should be Pytor who gives her a name, he’s the one who’s been taking care of her so far, after all,” he replied gently.
“No. You give. You gave Baba Yaga, two of them! Give her, too! Give name!” she said, insistently, squeezing his arm much harder than her frame would suggest she could do. Not that that meant anything anymore, these days. “Teacher can teach and heal, Baba Yaga can protect, but you give name.” She looked at him, her red eyes reflecting the light in odd ways, almost like a cat’s. It was a hypnotic look, completely apart from her powers, even when she wasn’t so intent on something.
Of course, by this point, he had plenty of experience resisting her wiles and managing her moods. “Alright, I’ll name her,” he gave in, not that he really had any problem with it. Looking at Pytor, he got a nod, and so turned to the broken girl.
He looked her up and down, noting the stains of grease and other fluids on her arms, some on her bare feet – he frowned at that, that was just petty cruelty, not to give her shoes in a place like this – and in her hair, on her smock.
She kind of reminds me of Ludmilla, he thought, remembering the way his big sister used to look after a day of working on their father’s car, or the tractor. She’d always been handy with mechanical things – if he’d known then what he knew now, he’d have expected her to become a gadgeteer, not get the powers that’d made her the Sovjet Union’s beloved Red Star. Better that she didn’t, he thought, realising that she’d probably have been taken to the Ministry of Harmony, if she’d had such a power.
Like this one was, he continued to think, feeling the weight of it all on his shoulders, as so often lately. But at least I can still save you, little one. Or try to, at least, but Svetlana can probably help, and Milena will certainly try… though honestly, she might just as well make things worse… no, it can’t really get worse, can it? Another sigh. So much to consider, and he really had so much else to do besides, but he couldn’t just ignore this.
At least he knew what name to give to her. “I need some water,” he said, turning his head aside, only to see a sphere of water floating there, wobbling softly. Of course, she already has some, he thought as he scooped up a handful of water – it felt more like jelly, staying in his palm rather than flowing out – and stepped forward, his arm sliding out of Milena’s embrace.
“Ludmilla,” he said, just saying the name causing a pang in his heart – but he was used to that, anyway – and tilted his hand over her head, letting the water run over her hair and face, loosing its jelly-like consistency as it left his hand. “Your name shall be Ludmilla, from now on, until you find the one you had before, if you can, or choose another.” Finally, he dipped his fingers in the sphere of water, which had turned into scented oil, and drew a simple cross on her forehead with it, using his thumb. Far from sufficient, but he found that religion could be quite soothing, and the rites existed for good reasons, after all.
Briefly, the newly christened Ludmilla’s eyes flickered upwards, before she looked down at the ground again, showing no other reaction at all.
Still, it was some reaction. Kopatel smiled, nodding at Pytor. “We’ll take good care of her. We have some people, who do nothing but try to help those who fell victim to the Ministry of Harmony,” he told the taller man.
“Will I be able to visit?” Pytor asked, almost shyly. “I’ve, uh, grown rather fond of her, and I would like to make sure she’s, she’s doing well,” he tried to explain.
“Of course you will,” Kopatel said, almost feeling himself grin. “I’m sure it’ll help her, to have someone familiar, too.”
Then he sighed, and turned serious again. There were still so many things to take care of. “Baba Yaga,” he spoke. “Please take Ludmilla to Svetlana, explain the situation to her.”
Milena grinned, her teeth shiny, and gave him a playful salute, before she created two duplicates again – likely with the same two powers she’d used to bring him here. He winced, slightly, as they picked her up, one under each shoulder, and disappeared in a streak of neon light.
The original Milena of course remained there, and wrapped herself around his arm again, purring happily like the cat he sometimes thought she might have been before her awakening.
He turned to Pytor again. “Alright. Let’s get to business,” he began, wishing for a moment that Milena wasn’t clinging to him like that – he couldn’t clasp his hands behind his back like this, or cross them, and so that left his right arm with nothing to do, really. “This is the man formerly in charge of Radost?” He nodded towards the trapped general.
Pytor stepped up to stand next to him – making sure that Kopatel was inbetween him and Milena, he noticed – and looked at the trapped man with distaste. “Vlasiy Lagunov, yes. He’s been in charge for a few years now. Dunno how he got promoted – he’s not smart enough to be put on a front, but loyal enough to be trusted with this place,” he explained, making Vlasiy glare at him in anger.
“Sounds familiar,” Kopatel sighed. “The Ministry of Protection cares more for loyalty than actual skill, as usual.”
“Make things easier… for us, right?” Milena asked with a smile, looking up at him.
He looked back, smiling at her and giving her a pat on the head, causing her to beam like a little girl who’d just been given a new doll.
It was sad, and scary, how needy for affection she was… nevermind that she’d latched onto him for it.
Think about that later, old man, he thought to himself, focusing on the outraged-looking general again. “Is there any particular reason why he’s gagged and restrained like that?”
Pytor shrugged. “He has a gun in his right hand, and the detonator for the fail-safe in the other, so I restrained him from using them. And I gagged him so he wouldn’t be able to speak… Ludmilla’s kill phrase,” he explained coldly, never averting his glare from the general.
“Hm. No need to worry about the fail-safe, we disabled that before the attack even began,” Kopatel explained, savouring the shocked expression on the general’s face as he did so. “Ludmilla is out of his reach, now, and Baba Yaga could do over a hundred horrible things to him before he’d ever manage to pull the trigger, so he’s going to behave, right?” He added his glare to Pytor’s own.
The general began to sweat and went pale, his gaze flickering over to the albino girl on Kopatel’s arm, before he nodded frantically.
Pytor twitched his hand and his restraints literally melted away, merging with the floor below them, as the general fell on his ass.
“W-what are you, you going to, to do with me?” he asked, his voice trembling, looking up at the three folk in fear. Particularly at Milena, at that.
“I’m not going to feed you to Baba Yaga, if that’s what you fear,” Kopatel said with no sympathy or mercy. “She doesn’t eat people anymore.”
“Much. Baba Yaga doesn’t eat them much anymore,” she corrected him, wagging a slender finger at his face. “Baba Yaga still needs a little bit to get their powers… but this one doesn’t have powers, anyway, so Baba Yaga wouldn’t eat him anyways.” Before the general could relax, she turned to look at him, smiling a beatific smile. “Besides, Baba Yaga can do way worse than just eat someone.” The man went even more pale, and Kopatel was pretty sure he was just seconds away from wetting himself.
“That won’t be necessary, I think,” he told her, and the general. “I’m sure he’ll be cooperative, so we can just put him into prison – a real prison, not a torture house like this.”
Milena shrugged. “Ok. Now Baba Yaga wants to know!” she pointed at a nearby door. “Who there? He’s strong, strong power!”
It didn’t escape his notice that both the general and Pytor went a little pale when she pointed at said door, which told him all he needed to know. There was a reason this place was called Koschei’s Chest, after all.
“Koschei’s in there, isn’t he?” he asked, a sinking feeling in his gut. Of course they didn’t kill him. Just said they did. Of bloody course.
Pytor nodded. “Yes, he is. The original inmate,” he spoke with a hushed voice. “The Endbringer himself.” He shuddered. “They tried to kill him, but never figured out how, so they put him in there.”
“Never did?” Kopatel looked at him, surprised. “Did anyone try nullifying his power, perhaps?”
“We’re not idiots,” Vlasiy threw in, suddenly, finding his voice again and even managing some indignation. “We have four joyous folk with power nullification in there, nearly half of all in the Union, hooked up to life support, using their power on him twenty-four-seven, but…” He fell silent again, losing his nerve as Milena focused on him.
Kopatel looked at Pytor to continue the general’s sentence, and he wasn’t disappointed.
“They can’t turn it off,” he explained, looking at the door. “Power nullification, it prevents him from using his power, but it can’t turn it off it seems. He might be powerless to harm anyone, or break out, but he’s as immortal as ever.” He frowned, looking disgusted and regretful at once. “I wish we could, we could get them out of there, they… they deserve better than spending their lifes in there watching over a monster, but if Koschei were to break out…”
Kopatel shook his head. “I know how you feel, Pytor, I feel the same way. But we really can’t risk him breaking out. That door will have to remain sealed, I’m afraid, and we’ll keep maintaining Koschei’s Chest, for this.”
Both the general, Pytor and even Kopatel himself relaxed a bit, after that declaration. He’d seen the carnage, after all, back then when Koschei had rampaged through the Union. Over three million people dead, most in horrible, painful ways, in less than a month. And it had only taken him so long to do because he’d lingered, played with his victims and the towns – later cities – he took, rather than immediately move on to the next one.
Since the Tyrant had died, until the Blazing Calamity appeared, no one had even gotten close to rival Koschei’s murderous reign of terror. It was a miracle really, that the Union had managed to keep his existence a secret from the world at large, or at least, a secret from the population at large. The Ministry of Discourse was efficient, if nothing else.
“Problem is easy!” Milena spoke up, interrupting his morbid thoughts. “Baba Yaga take his power, then kill him e-“
“NO!!!” all three men shouted in horror at the mere thought, making her give a shocked start.
Kopatel took a deep breath. Damn it, I can’t afford to lash out like that around her, he thought, pinching the bridge of his nose. Then he looked her again, noting how she was looking at him almost in fear.
“I’m sorry, but no,” he said, speaking gently as he reached out with his free hand to cup her cheek. “We absolutely can’t risk him breaking out, under any circumstances – or worse, if you ate even a piece of him, he might be able to hurt you, maybe even kill you. I won’t allow that.” There was also the unspoken truth that, as much as he’d found himself caring for her, he didn’t trust her yet to have such a vast power – and he may never do. Koschei’s power should never have existed to begin with.
She relaxed, smiling up at him, making him almost feel guilty for distrusting her so. “If you say so, Baba Yaga doesn’t mind.” She hugged his arm again, clinging tightly, rubbing her cheek against his shoulder.
He sighed, disaster averted, and turned towards Pytor again. “Who else is locked up in here?” he asked.
“Just one more,” Pytor said, pointing towards the door opposite of Koschei’s. “An American, that they caught back during the Afghanistan War. They tried to re-educate him, but it failed, and he kept breaking out again and again, killing the folk and army troops they sent after him, so they finally just gave up and locked him in there, since they still wanted to study him.”
“He strong,” Milena supplied. “Strong power, very strong. Not as strong as Baba Yaga or Koschei, but strong. Stronger than both of you, and him,” she pointed at the unconscious folk lying tied up nearby, “all together.”
“I see. Sounds like it’s past time to release him,” Kopatel spoke firmly, even though he knew it might not be the smartest thing to do – if the man was even still sane, he may still lash out against them, once freed, and though he didn’t doubt that Milena would be able to defeat him, but she might not be able to protect them all. And even so, it’d be a rotten thing to release the man, only to have to kill him. “Baba Yaga, please stand ready to subdue do him – non-lethally – if need be.”
She nodded as she waved a hand, causing the solid piece of tungten that was the door to melt down into the ground, revealing… darkness beyond, as the stark white fluorescent lighting didn’t reach far into the room beyond, illuminating only a small half-circle at the front.
Milena’s grip on his arm tightened, hard. “Baba Yaga will get him out!” she half shouted, charging into the cell, startling him and the other two men.
Kopatel gulped – he couldn’t see what she had, but if it freaked her out, it had to be horrible – and followed her, with Pytor hot on his heels.
Light filled the cell, as they entered it, from a miniature sun that Milena created, floating up above.
He stopped, gasping at the sight of how they’d restrained the American folk.
He was lying on his back, arms and legs spread wide, wearing only a ragged, torn pair of jeans. Beyond that, Kopatel couldn’t see much of him, because of all the stakes.
Huge stakes, each as thick as Milena’s forearm, a dozen of them, stabbing through his joints, his limbs, his chest and his stomach, transfixing him to the ground. Each extending up to the ceiling, fusing into it, and fused to the floor below him, the whole thing a part of the very cell. The stakes that ran through his limbs further split into forks just above where they pierced his flesh, so he wouldn’t be able to slide upwards and putting further weight onto him.
And yet, he was still alive, his power evident in its use, forming shadow patches of fur that covered him in places, mostly concentrated around the wounds the stakes had caused. For a moment, Kopatel thought that the man’s head was also covered by his power, until he realised that he had wildly grown hair and a matching full beard, both even darker than the fur his power created.
Milena stood in front of the grisly scene, looking down at her feet… where, Kopatel could see, there was a drain to which several groves led, draining the blood that kept flowing freely out of the man’s emaciated body.
He joined her, putting a hand on her shoulder, though he wasn’t sure whether it was for her sake, or his – he hadn’t ever seen someone be imprisoned like this.
“Why?” he asked, no one in particular.
“He broke out of almost a hundred different holding facilities,” Pytor replied, his voice hushed. “Kept breaking out other prisoners, too. This is the only way anyone could find to lock him up with, that didn’t require dedicated power nullifiers – and those are all in the other cell, keeping Koschei.”
Before Kopatel could reply, there was a strange, rough sound, making them all give a start. Looking around, he saw no source, until it sounded again – coming from the prisoner himself.
“Wa… ter…” he spoke, his voice rough and weak, speaking Russian without any accent Kopatel could make out.
He didn’t hesitate, circling the man and kneeling down next to his head, pulling his own water flask from his belt to gently, carefully, drip some of its contents into his mouth.
The man drank it up, slowly, with surprising restraint. “Thank… you,” he said, his voice stronger now. “Mind… helping me… out? Haven’t… had a chance… to stretch my legs… in years.” He grinned, dark purple eyes twinkling with humour.
Kopatel didn’t know how to respond to that, and instead focused on just one detail. “Years?”
“He’s been like this for four years now,” Pytor spoke, his own voice awed – and more than a little ashamed. “No one wanted to risk him breaking out, so they just… kept him here. Didn’t even try to study him, even though that was the whole reason he was locked up in here.”
“We have to get him out,” Kopatel said. “Now.” He glared at the general, making the man shrink back, even though it wasn’t even really his fault.
Pytor nodded. “We’ll need to support the ceiling somehow – it’s basically one thick slab, disconnected from the rest of the cell. If we break the stakes, it’ll drop down, impale him again or crush him. And us, with him.”
“That no problem,” Milena spoke coldly, as she spread her arms wide. Shafts of light, looking a lot like the force-fields she’d used to defend against assaults earlier, appeared out of nowhere, forming pillars that lead from floor to ceiling, humming with power.
Nodding to her, Kopatel stood up and drew his heaviest shovel, a rough, practical one, that could be a lethal weapon even without his power’s help. Pytor stepped closer as well, raising both hands, ready for chopping motions.
“You can’t do this!” Vlasiy threw in, his voice high-pitched. “He’s American, he’ll try to kill us as soon as he’s free to move!”
No one paid him any attention as Kopatel and Pytor went to work, chopping through the stakes that held the man transfixed to the ground. At first, there was a groaning sound from above, as the ceiling shifted slightly, but Milena’s force-field pillars proved capable of holding it up, and so they soon cut through the last stake.
With a pained groan, the prisoner shifted on the ground, relaxing almost imperceptibly, as the stakes began to slide out of his body, slowly, his power trying to eject them. Kopatel lent a hand, as did Pytor, pulling them out – which wouldn’t be a smart thing to do, normally, but the man was clearly hardier than any normal person, than most folk, even, and would likely not die to this, after all this time.
Once the last stake had been removed, the man gave a sigh, closing his eyes in relief. “Ahhhhh…” His wounds were healing, visibly, his power gathering around them more intensily now.
“Come, friend,” Kopatel said, grabbing one of the man’s arms and pulling it over his shoulder. “Let’s get you out of this hell-hole and up under the sky.”
“Sky,” the man whispered, groaning in pain but not putting up any resistance as Kopatel hauled him onto his feet. He was lighter than Milena. “Sky sounds good.” He leaned against Kopatel, his bushy hair scratching his cheek, but he didn’t mind, as he helped him walk out of his cell, both of them utterly ignoring the general.
Milena joined them, giving the prisoner odd looks, though she stayed quiet. Pytor followed behind, as more of Kopatel’s compatriots came in, men and women in military uniforms, most of them unpowered, but led by two winter soldiers.
He briefly gave them orders to sort out the corpses for burial, and take the captured folk up for questioning. He also told them to lock the general up, who didn’t put up any resistance – just watching with wide, unbelieving eyes, like he still couldn’t quite grasp what had happened.
You’ll get what’s coming to you, just like everyone else, Kopatel thought quietly, taking the elevator up this time – Milena was always eager to ferry him around at the speed of sound, but it didn’t do his stomach any good, nor did the prisoner seem to be in any state to take that kind of stress.
Their small group moved through Radost, ever upwards, and then through the military base above. Men and women, both folk and not, saluted them, but gave a wide berth, though whether that was out of respect for him, as their leader, or fear of Milena, he didn’t know – and frankly, he didn’t want to know the answer. Neither was something he’d be all too happy about.
The base itself was in rather bad shape – he and his troops had fought here, not Milena, who’d directly invaded Radost itself to prevent the use of the fail-safe, and that any harm be done to the prisoners.
It did not escape anyone’s notice that the Baba Yaga had had an easier time taking down Radost’s greater defenses than the entire rest of their force had had taking down just the military base – and even there, she’d helped indirectly, as most of the enemy folk had been in Radost itself, standing guard, rather than up above.
Kopatel put that thought aside as they reached the main exit of the base. Outside, the sun shone, a rare day without snow or clouds above even so far up North. There were others, prisoners, test subjects, who’d gathered there, looking up at the sun for the first time in years, in many cases. Men, women, old and young, even, to his disgust, some children, who were looking up at the sky as if seeing it for the first time.
He really, really, really hoped it wasn’t the first time, that they hadn’t been kept in there for so long as to not remember the sky, or worse, been born in that hellhole, but he knew those hopes to be in vain.
Still, he felt at least a little pride as he saw his people taking care of the prisoners, giving them clothes, food and comfort. The Frozen Family was ahead of everyone else there, in spite of their monstrous appearances, they were the most gentle, dedicated to helping the victims of the Union recover, especially the children. Even Matryoshka, whom had been called one of Russia’s worst serial killers, was there, handing food out to the children of Radost, along with blankets, being perfectly gentle. The fact that the clones she was using had been made out of a local soldier, well, Kopatel couldn’t even feel disgust over her power right now, not in this situation.
“Still as pretty… as ever,” the prisoner he’d been helping up whispered, drawing Kopatel’s attention back to him. He was looking up at the sky, his purple eyes brighter now, standing out starkly against his dark hair and beard, and the pale skin visible. Then he said something in English, too quickly for Kopatel to understand it.
“What’s your name, my friend?” he asked, feeling quite curious about this strange, hardy man, a man who still seemed sane after such monstrous treatment – nevermind his achievements.
The man opened his mouth to respond, then closed it again, briefly averting his eyes. Kopatel started to worry that he might have been deprived of his name, in spite of his other resistance, but then he looked at him again.
“Kevin. Kevin Paterson,” he said, his voice low, but perfectly understandable.
“I’m Kopatel, in case you didn’t know,” he replied with a smile. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you home soon.”
The man chuckled dryly. “Home, yeah,” he said, turning his head away and looking into the distance. “Don’t have much of one… but I’d still like to go back to it.”
Soon enough, Radost had been emptied of both its staff and its victims – save for Koschei, of course – though people would remain, trying to sort out everything that had gone on, as well as to pack up the corpses. Not of the soldiers and scientists – those who’d been killed, rather than be taken prisoner – as those would simply be burned, but of those victims who’d already died, or else taken their own life as soon as they had the chance, rather than risk being captured again.
That last one, that haunted Kopatel more than almost anything else he’d seen there, apart from the children – at least Milena had harvested their powers from their corpses with minimal damage, was still harvesting, in fact, so they’d be able to help bring down those who consigned them to this fate.
Kevin had left, together with most of the others, and the surviving staff of the base and Radost was gone, as well. Kopatel stood at the entrance to what had once been the mess hall, in which they’d laid out the corpses of all the fallen folk, watching with heavy eyes as Milena went from corpse to corpse, taking their powers for herself while their bodies were still fresh enough for that to happen.
Pytor had joined him, at some point, along with several other members of his Novaya Armiya – Matryoshka from the Frozen Family, a woman whose body seemed to be made of ribbons of black and white, wrapped rightly around the body of an enemy, even now feeding on him; Sergeant Sergei of the Winter Soldiers in their troops’ customary outfit, a heavy white suit, so thick one couldn’t even tell she was a woman, her every feature hidden entirely (even now, she eyed Milena with both fear and annoyance, his whole group unable to completely bury their enmity for the young woman who’d defied them for so long) and Padeniye of the Overlords, a tall, slender man with bright pink hair, wearing a heavy winter jacket and tinted goggles, as well as broad, ever-present grin.
Together they watched as Milena went from body to body, using a thick syringe to draw blood, before wrapping her lips around it every time to drink. Every time she did so, she froze for a few moments, her eyes rolling up, eyelids fluttering as if in pleasure – though, she’d explained to Svetlana, and Svetlana to him, that pleasure was not what she felt at all – rather, every time she took in a new power, she briefly had to integrate it, which caused her all but lose all awareness of her surroundings as her brain locked up, then basically restarted, almost like a computer.
“I thought she had to eat folk to get their powers,” Pytor whispered, as if afraid of drawing her attention.
“We thought so, too,” Kopatel replied, not bothering to whisper. It wasn’t like Milena didn’t have over a dozen powers that enhanced her senses in some way, anyway. “Until it turned out that she only needs sufficient genetic material for her power to home in on the target. About a quarter of a litre of blood is sufficient for that, and the process isn’t even lethal, though, far from pleasant for the folk she uses it on.”
“I, I see,” Pytor spoke, looking pensively at Milena’s progress. “And she can take them from corpses, too. I never knew that.”
“They have to be relatively fresh, but yes, she can.” It’s monstrous, in some ways, but at least it means when we lose our people, their powers aren’t lost to the cause, he couldn’t help but think. The question of whether to allow Milena to take powers from fallen compatriots had kept him up for several nights, but in the end, there hadn’t really been a choice – the Union still had a vast advantage in terms of sheer numbers of powers, they needed every edge they could get, and all distrust towards Milena to the contrary, she’d more than kept her word of cooperation so far.
“Did she ever actually eat people?” Pytor asked, suddenly, drawing him back from his contemplation. “All the atrocities she is said to have committed, did they really happen? Or was that all just propaganda?”
Kopatel shook his head, looking uncomfortable. “I’m afraid it wasn’t, she really did use to eat people, and all the other things, she did most of those, as well,” he explained. “She didn’t know not to,” he felt the need to defend her, drawing a confused look from Pytor, while the others in their group stayed quiet, already aware of the story. “It turns out that, whatever happened during her awakening, it wiped out her mind. All her memories, her skills, gone – a newborn, really, in the body of a woman, with the power of a goddess. She just, she had nothing, but the instinct to gather powers, and so attacked any folk she found, mindlessly, for years. The fact that she kept being attacked by the Union’s troops…” Sergei flinched, growling quietly, “It only made things worse, as she responded in the same way. Wasn’t until she ate a power that allowed her to absorb skills from people, that she started to think again and… well, then she joined us and now she’s our big trump card.”
“Yeah, we’d have been toast if it wasn’t for our adorable little monster,” Padeniye spoke up, his voice mocking, yet oddly affectionate. “Turns out the Union even had plans in case the entire council was wiped out. If we hadn’t had Baba Yaga here, they’d have crushed us soon after we revealed ourselves.”
Kopatel nodded, not bothering to reprimand the villain for referring to her as a monster – in his case, it was a term of endearment, rather than an insult, and he was, in many ways, the one member of their group’s inner circle who was the most friendly with Milena, other than perhaps Matryoshka.
Pytor kept watching Milena, meanwhile, rubbing his chin in a contemplative manner. “You named her, right?” he asked. “I was wondering why she doesn’t go by Devil’s Bride anymore, but then again, I suppose she might never have known about that name in the first place?”
“Yeah, I figured, Baba Yaga was appropriate, considering how powerful she is,” he replied with a slight smile. “I also gave her a proper name – Milena – but she prefers to go by Baba Yaga.”
“She’s… not at all like what I expected,” Pytor admitted after a few moments.
Kopatel couldn’t help but snort. “You haven’t seen nothing yet.”
Saratov, a few hours before the Crocell Incident
Kopatel entered what had once been the Great Father Stalin Technical University of Saratov, now the unofficial headquarters of the Novaya Armiya, followed closely by Milena. The entrance hall, once a grand monument to Stalin, had largely been stripped bare, both to get rid of all the propaganda materials and for raw materials. People were hustling and bustling about, largely ignoring him and his companion, even when she sped up, rushing past him towards the stairs leading up, her bare feet slapping the cold, hard stone floor – getting her to wear anything at all had been one hell of a herculean task, as Svetlana would call it, but even her beloved teacher couldn’t get her to put on any shoes.
At least she wears underwear now, Kopatel thought, shuddering at the memory of the nude girl. There was no way he’d ever be comfortable remembering the state she’d been in when she’d first joined his cause, feral, barely human in many ways. She’d latched onto him, like a starving person latched onto someone with food, only what she’d wanted had been something much more simple, and so much rarer – affection. Understanding. Someone who’d treat her like a human being, even if she hadn’t know what that meant back then.
He followed her up the stairs, though at a more sedate pace, looking left and right. The University’s primary use was for taking care of former prisoners and victims of the Union’s love for ‘re-education’, especially those poor people who’d been turned into ‘Joyous Folk’.
Here, in this place, they did something which Kopatel could be unambigiously proud of, even if it was met with a lot of derision among his less scrupulous allies, who thought it was foolish to divert so many resources to rehabilitating these people, rather than waiting until after the war was won – and it was a war that they were waging, even if, at first, they’d thought it would be over quickly – or worse yet, use them against the Union.
Fortunately, he hadn’t been alone in crushing any ideas about actually using the Joyous Folk’s brainwashing to their advantage, to make them fight for the revolution – the few people who’d advocated it had either quickly changed their opinion or else been demoted heavily, if not expelled outright.
Now, he walked these hallways, looking into rooms where people of all ages were being treated, with kindness and patience. The program they used to de-program them had been invented by Svetlana – another of many things they owed her a great deal for – and seemed to be working, even if it necessitated that she spend most of her time here, to adjust it to the individual needs of every new arrival, meaning she couldn’t travel with him to help take care of Milena.
Still, it was more than worth it, if only to see such sights as Ludmilla, sitting at a table and quietly tinkering with what would likely be a gun at some point, a soft smile on her lips, while Pytor leaned against the wall and watched her with unconcealed affection in his eyes. She was far from being whole, would likely never recover the person she’d been before… but thanks to their efforts, thanks to Svetlana’s brilliance and Pytor’s love and, in no small part, his own efforts, she’d at least be able to find some happiness.
Another reason why they had to win, no matter the cost, so as to safeguard these people. A thought that wasn’t just his own, as it had driven Pytor into near fanatical dedication to the cause, causing him to rise in the ranks until he was now, effectively, Kopatel’s right-hand man.
How fast everything moves, Kopatel thought, moving on to catch up to Milena, who was entering the door at the very end of the hallway. Sometimes, I feel like I should be too old to keep up.
“Teacher!” he heard Milena’s shout from inside, followed by a grunt and a laugh. When he entered, he saw Milena hanging onto the woman who’d been working inside, apparently doing some paperwork.
In many ways, recruiting Svetlana Mikhailov – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that she’d recruited herself for their cause – had saved the revolution. The slender, attractive woman in her late thirties, with the long brown hair in a severe knot and the slim glasses on her small nose was a genius, plain and simple. She was the one who’d helped Milena make the step from a feral almost-monster to the bright, if still volatile, young woman she was now. She’d devised the means by which they helped victims of the Union’s many re-education methods to break free and recover from their brainwashing, and she’d also been responsible for actually forcing him and the other members of the inner circle to actually sit down and write out a charter for their group. Such a simple idea, and yet they’d never even considered how much it’d help to have a clear idea of what they actually intended to do, and how to do it, it’d helped keep the group together even after the Union turned out to not be nearly as broken as they’d thought it was.
Being a folk herself, if not a particularly powerful one – her power merely allowed her to harden her own body, becoming nearly invulnerable, without the super-strength that often came along with such powers – she’d had no problem working with all of them on various tasks, though she focused primarily on keeping the revolution sane and civilised.
Her biggest project, though, beyond all of that, beyond even her work rehabilitating the Joyous Folk, was Milena. She’d taken the child-like woman under her wing, teaching her everything from proper speech (still a work in progress) to not horribly murdering anyone who annoyed her even slightly (also a work in progress).
Milena had taken to her almost as much as she had to Kopatel himself, making Svetlana one of maybe three people in the world who could manage her at all.
There’d been some voices of concern, at letting a woman who’d come out of nowhere have so much influence over their most powerful asset, but they’d been dissuaded both by the fact that they needed someone who could handle Milena, even an unknown like Svetlana, and the woman’s own skill at persuasion.
“Good afternoon, Pavel,” she greeted him with a smile, even as she affectionately rubbed Milena’s head. “I trust that your mission was successful?”
“Very much so, Svetlana,” he replied in the familiar term, at her request. “We’ve secured Volgograd, thanks to, in large part, the efforts of your student.” He nodded towards Milena, who was literally hanging off of Svetlana’s arms, held up only by their mutual grip on each other.
“Which student? I have many of them?” she asked mischievously.
“Your favourite!” Milena exclaimed, grinning.
“And who’d that be?” Svetlana pressed on, looking down at the girl with a soft smile.
“Baba Yaga! Baba Yaga!” Milena continued, pouting up at her now.
Svetlana responded by letting go of her, dropping her on the ground. “Are you now? If so, then surely you can tell me all what the binomial theorem is about, right?”
“Bah, numbers! Baba Yaga doesn’t like numbers!” the albino girl replied, looking up indignantly from her position on her knees, in front of the older woman (though they weren’t that far apart in terms of age, if one only went by biological age). “Doesn’t need them! Baba Yaga has powers for that, anyway!”
Svetlana’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Am I to understand, then, that you haven’t rehearsed your formulas?”
Milena blushed, looking away as she mumbled a confirmation.
Her teacher sighed, throwing him an annoyed look that made him cringe – technically, he’d kind of promised to make sure Milena would do her homework, while they were busy, but it’d had fallen by the wayside in all the fighting that went on. She didn’t comment further on that, though, instead walking to one of the heavily ladden bookshelves that filled her office and pulled one particular book out, laying it down onto a circular table near her desk.
“Sit,” she ordered Milena in a firm voice, pointing at a chair in front of the book.
Milena puffed her cheeks up in indignation, but obeyed, getting up and sitting down on the chair, the silver chain she’d wrapped around her left ankle – a present from Kopatel – flashing in the light, while a collection of small bells she’d attached to it – each taken from a different shop, and one even looted from an enemy’s corpse – jingled softly.
“Now read that and memorise all the formulas,” Svetlana told the girl, giving her a pen and some graph paper. “Write them down here.”
“No! Baba Yaga doesn’t need them!” the girl replied, glaring at her teacher, her red eyes flashing with anger.
Svetlana didn’t even flinch, looking back calmly, her expression hewn out of ice. “Yes, you do. And yes, you will.”
Milena kept glaring.
The student went to work, grumbling under her breath.
How in God’s name does she keep doing that? Kopatel asked himself. He’d suspected some form of mind control, at first, but even if that kind of power would work on Milena – it didn’t, she had too many powers to counter it with – no one had detected anything like that, not even the Winter Soldier’s power analysts. I wish I could be half as commanding. It’d certainly help leading this madhouse.
“Well, Pavel, how are you doing?” she asked him, smiling again as she stepped away from the quietly working Milena, her long brown skirt swaying with every step. “You look a little tired and… hungry.” Her eyes narrowed, instantly making him feel like he was in trouble with his mother. “When’s the last time you ate?”
He gulped. How did she manage to make him feel like a schoolboy, every damn time? “Uh, I had a, I mean, yesterday…” He didn’t even try to lie, it never worked.
“I thought so. Sit down then, I’ll get you some food,” she stated simply, walking towards the door.
“That’s really not necessary, I’m used to going without food for a while,” he raised his arms, trying to get out of it. “Besides, I still need to talk to the Overlords and organise the garrison we’ll install in Volgograd, and-“
She pointed at a chair at the table that Milena was working at. “Sit.”
She left, then soon came back with a plate full of steaming hot potatoes, a little meat and way too many vegetables, putting it down in front of him along with some cutlery.
“You really have to take better care of yourself, Pavel,” she lectured him as she watched over his meal, and Milena’s lesson, waging a slender finger at him. “You’re too important to risk your health, for any reason, especially one as silly as this, understood?”
He just nodded, quietly, so she wouldn’t also lecture him about talking with his mouth full. That had been too embarrassing the last time it happened, he’d rather not repeat that. Ever.
Milena snorted in amusement.
Someone shook Kopatel awake, roughly.
Blinking, he sat up, reaching for the one-handed shovel he kept on his nightstand, but stopped when he recognised Pytor.
“Wake up, Kopatel!” the man urged him. “We need your help.”
“Wh-what’s going on?” he asked, both worried and annoyed. He’d just laid down to rest, after Svetlana had forced him to eat a proper meal. Just a nap, and – he looked at his clock – it had only gone on for a few hours, anyway.
“One of the girls we brought back from Volgograd, she’s freaking out in a bad way,” Pytor replied, referring to the group of girls they’d liberated from the harem of Volgograd’s mayor – a disgusting man, who’d abused his power to take in any girl that caught his fancy, among many other horrible things – and brought here to give them some psychological treatment. “I was hoping you might be able to talk her down, she’s upsetting the others, as well, badly.”
He got up, quickly, looking around for his clothes – he was down to his underwear at the moment. Finding them discarded on the ground, he began to dress in his full uniform – it was important to keep up the image, he couldn’t just show up in mundane clothes. “What about Svetlana? She’s way better at this than me.”
“She left,” Pytor replied. “Got a phone call and said she had something private to take care of.”
Kopatel grunted as he pulled on his heavy boots. That was another thing about Svetlana, something even he couldn’t ignore lightly. She’d often disappear, sometimes after getting a mysterious phone call, sometimes out of nowhere, and come back whenever, never telling anyone where she’d gone or what she’d done – and sometimes, she’d go missing for days, even a week, one time. It didn’t help make the more distrustful parts of the Novaya Armiya like her any more, though he was willing to overlook it, seeing how much she’d helped them and continued to.
“I’ll see what I can do. Where’s Milena?” He put on his jacket, and started strapping on all his various earthworking tools, through which he usually channelled his power.
“The last time I saw her, she was at the playground building a sand castle,” Pytor told him calmly. “I don’t know whether she’s still there.”
“Alright, let’s go see what can be done about this.”
They left the bedroom, Pytor first, guiding him down several flights of stairs until they got to the ground level. Kopatel could hear the commotion already, hysterical screams, sobs and hushed whispering.
A small mob of people, both patients and therapists, as well as some guards, had gathered around the entrance to the former mess hall. Kopatel ignored them, forcing his way through.
Inside, people had mostly formed a large half-circle around a young woman who was crouched with her back to the wall, holding a large kitchen knife as she looked around, staring at everyone with wild, blood-shot eyes. She was a pretty thing, and young, barely an adult, with curly blonde hair and a heart-shaped face that was twisted by fear and despair. She was holding another girl, younger by at least half a decade, but with similar enough features that they had to be sisters, or otherwise very closely related, with one arm around her neck, holding the knife to her throat with the other. The younger girl was just crying, and not struggling at all as she stared down at the large knife.
Several other women and girls, near her age and of similar beauty, were huddled up nearby, some hugging each other, some standing apart, screaming, sobbing or just softly crying.
“Back! Back, please!” the young woman with the knife shouted, swinging it left and right, as if trying to point it at everyone at once. “Y-y-you mustn’t stop me!” she begged them, her voice high and shrill.
“What’s going on here?” Kopatel asked one of the soldiers who stood closest to the woman.
The young man looked at him, looking upset. “I, I don’t know, Sir. She just, she started freaking out, threatening to kill her own sister! I have, I have no idea what’s going on!”
Kopatel nodded, patting the man on the shoulder. “Alright, I’ll take over from here,” he said, moving past the young soldier and into the half-circle.
“Stay back!” the woman screamed at him, tightening her grip on her sister. “Don’t come closer!”
“Shsh,” he hushed her, raising his hands as he stopped approaching. “I’m not going to do anything to you, I promise,” he spoke in as soothing a voice as he could. “My name is Kopatel. What’s yours, young lady?”
She stared back at him, her lip quivering. “M-motya. My name is Motya,” she said. “Y-you’re not, not going to stop me, either. No one is. I have to do this!” she cried, pushing the knife closer to her sister’s throat, making the younger girl flinch in fear.
“Why do you have to kill her?” he asked, softly, slowly sitting down to seem less threatening, though he also palmed a tiny shovel, really just the blade of one, ready to use his power at the earliest opportunity.
“B-because it’s the only way to save her! I’ve got to, it’s the only way to make sure he won’t take her again!” she shouted, sobbing.
“You mean, the man who took you two? And them?” He nodded towards the sobbing young women – all of them near Motya’s age, though none nearly as young as her little sister.
She nodded, shuddering. “He’s still alive. He escaped your people, and he’ll come for us. I can’t, can’t let him get her again, I have to, to protect her!”
His eyes moved from her to the younger girl, growing heavy with sadness and no small amount of anger. She was a gorgeous girl, even prettier than her older sister, and there was a fiery look in her green eyes, in spite of her fearful expression.
“We’ll keep you safe,” he said, not sure what else to do. This wasn’t something he was really any good at. “I promise, we’ll keep you all safe, so you don’t, you absolutely don’t need to do this, do you understand me?”
She shook her head, gasping for air. “I, I have to make sure! I can’t protect her any other way, I have to, I have to do it!”
“Why not?” a new voice asked, from just behind Kopatel, nearly making him jump up in surprise. “Why not protect, with other way?”
The source of the voice moved up next to Kopatel – Milena, on all fours, her long braid dragging over the ground as she looked at the sisters, wearing one of her favourite outfits – her customary collection of slashed skirts and a belly-free shirt, this one white with three back circles evoking the outline of a mouse’s cartoonish head on her chest.
“I, I can’t!” the young woman wailed. “He’s so strong… and they have so many of the folk… I’m powerless, I was powerless before and he’ll just, just take us all again! But not her! Even if I have to kill her myself!”
Kopatel frowned, not sure how to respond to that – though he probably didn’t need to. Milena had more than enough powers that’d allow her to disarm the woman, without risking any harm to either of the poor women. Provided she actually wanted to save the younger girl, that is.
“Then you must be stronger,” Milena said simply, without any hint of gentleness in her voice, crawling forward. “Be stronger and protect, like Baba Yaga.”
“I’m not, nothing like you,” the woman replied, her eyes transfixed by Milena’s gaze. “I’m weak, I’m not even folk, certainly not, not as strong as, as you.” Her grip on the knife tightened, holding it so hard her knuckles turned white.
“Not as strong as Baba Yaga,” Milena said, stopping to pick up a chipped mug from the floor, shaking it out without averting her eyes from Motya’s own. “Don’t need to be as strong as Baba Yaga, only need to be strong, and protect!” She moved closer by a few steps, holding the mug in one hand.
“H-how?” Motya asked, trembling from head to toe, her eyes filled with fear as the infamous folk moved closer to her.
“Baba Yaga will make you strong,” she replied, putting the mug down between them.
Then she used the nails of her left hand to slive her right forearm open, making several people cry out and Kopatel jump to his feet, as her blood spurted into the mug for a moment, before the wound closed, drawing in the blood around it, but leaving what she’d put into the mug – aimed expertly, not a drop wasted.
Everyone stared in confusion as she gestured towards the side, without looking, and a bottle of water flew over into her waiting hand, with which she filled the mug, mixing it into her own blood.
The resulting fluid was glowing ever so softly, in the same colour as her eyes.
She pushed the mug, causing it to slide over to Motya, until it stopped right by her side, within easy reach.
“Drink,” Milena commanded the older-looking woman. “Do as Baba Yaga tells you to. Drink.”
The knife fell from Motya’s trembling hand, clattering onto her sister’s lap, as her hand went for the mug, as if against her will, picking up the mug.
“Motya, don’t!” her sister shouted, even as she scrambled away from her, but it was too late – she lifted the mug to her lips and drank the watered-down, glowing blood, with eveyone in the hall staring, fascinated by the whole scene.
She put it all down in one go and, as the last drop slid past her lips, her hand went slack, letting go of the mug to have it tumble down onto the hard-wood floor, shattering completely – but no one heard it, as Motya bent over screaming, screaming so loudly it actually hurt Kopatel’s ears, making him take a step back.
Milena remained in place, unperturbed as she watched the girl bend over so far her forehead pressed onto the wooden floor, hugging her own stomach as she screamed in pain.
Kopatel thought he saw her shudder, then, just a bit – though he could only see her from behind, so he wasn’t quite sure; shudder much like how she did when she took a new power, as if in pleasure.
Motya screamed again, and then her clothes turned green, and solid, and then erupted into jagged growths of crystal, spearing outward in every direction, into the ground, the ceiling, through the wall behind her, towards the rapidly retreating crowd, towards her own sister, thrusting at Milena as well, though they were repelled by an invisible force-field around her.
Kopatel thrust his shovel into the ground, channeling his power into it through it, and raised a half-circular wall between her and himself, and the crowd, and her sister, encircling her and Milena.
It almost wasn’t enough, as shards of green crystal punched through the rock, concrete and earth he’d drawn up from below, but fortunately, they didn’t extend much further than a metre or so past his wall, failing to cause harm to anyone.
That, that’s Vismut’s power! he thought, shocked, remembering the powerful former Foreman, a comrade of his when he’d still fought for the Union, but had died… died to Milena, when she’d still been the Devil’s Bride…
When the crystals failed to continue to grow, he lowered the wall again, to see what was going on. It crumbled apart, as the sound of breaking crystals filled the otherwise completely silent mess hall, the jagged growths of crystal falling apart into thousands of tiny shards, leaving behind the utterly destroyed wall and floor around Motya, stripped bare of the material she’d inadvertantly converted into those crystals.
The young woman was on all fours, staring down at her hands, naked as the day she was born, while Milena was facing her, in a similar position, on all fours atop the only patch of ground within the circle which hadn’t been transmuted into crystal.
She grinned as she watched Motya raise her hands from the ground, leaving behind crystalline handprints. More crystals were growing out of the earth, where her legs were touching it, slowly spreading over her body. Her face was stunned, utterly stunned.
“Now you strong,” the Baba Yaga said with no small amount of smugness. “Now you protect properly, like Baba Yaga said.”
She looked over her shoulder at Kopatel, grinning proudly at him.
All he felt was a cold chill run down his spine, a single thought dominating his thoughts.
By God, how many wars am I going to have to fight, to keep her safe from the world?