The Doomsday Plan
...but suddenly jerked about as a quartet of shots rang out. With a loud groan, he toppled sideways and landed in a heap, the reliquary rolling from his fingers. The flames immediately died down. Anastasia desperately crawled over to her father's open arms. "Oh thank God!" he breathed a tremendous sigh of relief through tears of joy, embracing her hard, "I thought I'd lost you, my dear! Did he hurt you!?"
"No, but I'm sorry I was afraid!" she whimpered through her own tears, "I know you said not to be scared...!"
"Don't be sad about that; anyone would be scared facing down someone like him," the tsar gestured at Rasputin's now motionless body, "You were so brave anyway; you saved Alexei's life, and for that I can't thank you enough, my precious little Anastasia. Now who shot...?"
He turned back. Behind him, Yusupov was holding his now smoking pistol towards where Rasputin had been standing. "Felix," he shook the prince's hand firmly, "That was excellent shooting; it looks like you've finished him, and just in time."
"All in a day's work, your Majesty," Yusupov said confidently, pocketing the gun. "Well," he picked up the Golden Orb where it had fallen and handed it back to the tsar, then strode confidently towards the fallen Rasputin, "So ends the career of the nefarious Rasputin. For all the bravado and the dark magic power, he went down with barely a..."
Suddenly Rasputin's eyes flew wide open. With an unnatural roar, he rose up and started strangling the prince. "FELIX FELIXOVICH!" he snarled right in his shooter's face, "YOU DARE THINK YOU CAN STOP THE GREAT RASPUTIN!?"
"SHOOT HIM, SHOOT HIM!" a terrified Yusupov screamed to the other soldiers, who did so, but shockingly, the bullets seemed to have no effect. "FOOLS!" Rasputin roared, "DID YOU THINK I'D LET BULLETS STOP ME AFTER YOU SHOT MY MASTER TO DEATH!?"
He seized hold of the reliquary. "LOOK OUT!" Nicholas seized his children and smothered them just as the sharp green blast zoomed in his direction, smashing the shingles right where he would have been standing. "I shall return, Nikolasha!" Rasputin bellowed at him, seizing Bartok in his free hand, "And when I do, your blood and your entire family's blood shall flow in rivers!"
Flames leaped from the bottom of the reliquary as he rocketed high into the sky, laughing maniacally at the top of his lungs as he flew out of sight. "Send out the word, I want a full-on dragnet for him!" Nicholas ordered the soldiers with him, "Let no one with the police and army rest until he's in our custody! And take the rest of the Khlysts to the Fortress immediately!"
He held up his hand at Rodanko, making him stay while the others ran off. "My God!" Alexandra glanced numbly at the sky, "To think I put my trust in him...knowing he's done all this...what he almost did...!"
"It's over now, Alix; he can't escape a country-wide search," her husband put an arm around her, "I'm just glad to have you back to normal again."
"He had you under some kind of spell, Mama," Anastasia told her, hugging her as well, "He made you hit me; I knew you'd never willingly..."
"He did what!?" the tsarina went pale, "Oh my God...what else did he make me do!? I really don't remember much about the last few months...!"
"Whatever he did, we'll reverse it as soon as possible, my dear," Nicholas gave her a kiss, "And don't listen to anyone who calls for your head, because you are the woman I love with all my heart, and nothing can change that."
There came the sound of footsteps running up the stairs. "Anastasia!" came the dowager's terrified cry. She breathed a huge sigh of relief to see the girl largely unharmed. "Don't EVER scare me like that again!" she cried, sweeping her into an embrace, "If we'd lost you...!"
"We'd've lost Alexei if it wasn't for her," her son finished the statement for her. "Are you OK, my boy?" he hugged his son again.
"I am now, Papa," Alexei nodded; indeed, the blood was starting to vanish again now that he was out of the reliquary's control, "I'm just so glad you finally came back."
"So am I, and thank you so much for making that call, Mother," he hugged her next. "And to you, and all the other men who heeded my call for help," he turned to Rodanko, grateful, "well, words can never express my gratitude. Tell the others back in the hospital that survived that they can expect a hefty reward from me for their services, yourself very much included."
"It was an honor, your Majesty," Rodanko bowed humbly, "After all, such kind-hearted children as these," he gestured at Anastasia and Alexei, "deserve to be saved if needed."
"Indeed," Alexandra told him, grateful herself. "And now that this is finally over," she hefted her children and started carrying them towards the stairs, "Let's go out and find your sisters; I'm sure they're worried stiff by now about the two of you."
"Indeed; we'd better make sure they're OK as well. Felix," the tsar waved the still shaken prince over, "Tell me exactly how this dark plot of Rasputin's came to our knowledge..."
"Dmitry Oldenstein, are you in there!? Dmitry Oldenstein, come on, it's your old friend Count Vladimir here!"
Dmitry's eyes slowly fluttered open. Vladimir was leaning over him, frowning. "Is it over!?" the boy asked him, "Is he...is she...!?"
"He got away; she's all right," Vladimir told him, "I was wondering where you'd gotten to after...now where are you going?"
Dmitry could hear the distant sound of the tsar's voice on the landing above him. He knew that a handsome reward awaited him once the tsar knew it had been he that sounded the alarm that had stopped Rasputin. And then he could finally leave the kitchen behind...and there'd be no way she wouldn't be impressed enough to want to be with him and him alone...
He paused at the topmost step, waiting for the sovereign to come by. Then he heard another voice-Yusupov's. "...out looking for Vladimir," the prince was saying, "I stopped to look in an alley, and I heard Rasputin laying out the plan to the other Khlysts. So I ran for the nearest phone and called for everyone I could find. And then, as luck would have it, I remembered about the servant's entrance just in time and let you know about it before the worst could happen to your children."
"Well I commend you from the bottom of my heart, Felix," Nicholas said warmly, "You can expect a rich payment for my gratitude and an elevation in title. I'll make this public at the tricentennial celebration. Now I'd like to go check on the rest of my daughters. You can go on home now, Felix."
Dmitry's heart crashed. How could the prince do that to him!? He lunged out, but the tsar had already walked out of sight. "It was me!" he cried to Yusupov, "You KNOW it was me who...!"
"Yeah, but who do you think his Majesty's going to believe!?" Yusupov told him haughtily, "Now why don't you run on back to the kitchens where you belong!?"
He skipped off merrily, whistling. Dmitry completely lost control. He found himself rushing blindly down the halls, through the servants' doors, back to the sleeping quarters, where the rest of the underage staff was still sleeping soundly. He threw himself onto his bunk and broke down. It wasn't fair; it just wasn't fair at all. Every time it looked like he had a chance to win her heart, it was coldly snatched away from him, and all because no one saw him as anything but a lowly servant...
"Why are you crying, my son?" came Feofan's concerned voice from the doorway, "As I see it you have little to be sad about."
"It was all for nothing!" Dmitry sobbed, "He got away, I know he'll be back, and she'll never...!"
"For nothing?" the bishop walked towards him, "If it hadn't been for you, Dmitry Oldenstein, the entire royal family would be dead, the Princess Anastasia included, and we'd all be suffering under the thumb of Khlyst tyranny."
"But she won't know it!" the boy wailed, "Prince Yusupov took all the credit! He's just like the rest of them, treating me like trash because I'm a servant!" his fists clenched and a determined look crossed his face. "But some day I'll show them all. Somehow, some day, I'm going to be the richest man in Russia. And then they'll never treat me as disposable again."
"Tell me, why is it so important that you get a material reward for such a good deed?" Feofan posed to him, "Isn't knowing the breadth of what you managed to accomplish reward enough?"
Dmitry shook his head firmly. "I see," Feofan mused, "I fear, then, you may be setting your heart in the wrong place, Dmitry Oldenstein. A word of caution, my son," he leaned right down into Dmitry's face, frowning, "He who makes accumulating money the prime aim of his life shall in the end only hurt those he cares for. I've seen it happen every time. Remember my words, child. You have shown yourself to be good of heart this evening; if you squander that for the purpose of amassing earthly riches, then one day you may very well lose for good that which you and I know you desire the most."
"How, if she won't even know I exist!?" Dmitry countered. "But like I said, what difference does it make!?" he rued sadly, "Rasputin'll be back, and he won't stop until he kills her and the whole royal family! If only someone had killed him tonight...!"
"Well, sadly, if the devil didn't win sometimes, he wouldn't be the terrible foe he is," the bishop conceded, "And unfortunately, that may just happen, horrible as it is to contemplate. But if you weren't attentive enough to hear of his plot, he would have triumphed sooner. You should be proud of that, even if he does win in the end. A good deed is never an empty one. And besides, even if it manages a terrible victory every now and then, evil cannot win for good. Eventually, good men will say that enough is enough, and evil will be vanquished when they do something about it."
There came the sound of more footsteps from the doorway. "A good deed's never empty, huh?" rued Vladimir. "Don't feel bad, my boy," he told Dmitry, "Felix gave me the brush-off too. Gave me this for my troubles," he held up a bag, "Five thousand rubles that he calls my share of the reward. Hush money to keep me quiet so he gets all the credit is more like it, I say."
He sighed in frustration. "But, I always say, never let free money go to waste," he remarked, "So, might as well make good use of it for another trip-my own little victory tour, you might say."
"Where are you going?" Dmitry brightened up a little bit.
"Africa-or at least part of Africa where one of the war's sideshows isn't raging," Vladimir told him, "Ethiopia, I think; I always did want to go big game hunting. I can catch a train to India and then a boat to Ethiopia. Shame I'd have to miss the three hundredth anniversary festivities, but this is a lifelong passion, so might as well do it while I'm still young. Which is why I came, my young friend; you're more than welcome to come along with me, regardless of what Mr. Loudmouth says."
"I, I really appreciate that, Mr. Vlad," Dmitry was impressed at the offer, "But actually, I think I'll stay here this time...if Rasputin does come back, I...I'd just like to make sure he doesn't hurt her again."
"Oh I understand," Vladimir accepted this, "But once you come of full age, my friend, you're more than welcome to be my full partner in whatever enterprise I undertake from then on; you're definitely more trustworthy than Mikhail was, and I think the two of us together can amass a fortune that would make most of the aristocracy very, very jealous."
"Count Vladimir, I am trying to drive into this boy's head the folly of a life of material wealth," Feofan reprimanded him, "I will not let you undermine my arguments."
"I always did think you were too uptight, Bishop," Vladimir shrugged. "But before I forget," he dug a fistful of rubles out of his bag and tossed them in Dmitry's direction, "Your fair share, partner. Keep them away from Mr. Loudmouth and get your princess something good for the celebration. Till we meet again, Dmitry Oldenstein."
He saluted the boy as he left. "Enjoy your trip, Mr. Vlad," Dmitry waved him farewell. "It's no wonder they ostracize him," Feofan muttered under his breath, "At least his heart IS mostly in the right place, his insatiable quest for money aside..."
He turned back to Dmitry. "You don't need money to impress the princess, trust me on that," he told him in parting, "The only thing keeping you apart is your antiquated view of class structure. All you need to do is go up to her and tell her the truth that it was you that saved her life tonight, and she'll accept you with no questions asked. Chasing money will make you far less honest than you should be, and that can never come to any good. Remember this always, I pray to you." Then he smiled. "And thank you again for all you've done. I won't forget, and neither will our shared God. Good luck, my son, and stray not from the path you've taken this evening If you don't, then you and the princess are meant for each other regardless of what anyone may say."
He walked out the door. Dmitry lay his head on his pillow and mulled over everything he'd been told. Was the bishop right in that the Princess Anastasia would take his word for everything that had happened at face value if he walked right up and told her that, and how he felt about her? Part of him was saying she would; she had too sunny a personality not to. Then again, he couldn't dismiss the image of her laughing him off; his heart couldn't take that if it happened.
"Well, I'll try," he reasoned with himself, "During the tricentennial ball, I'll give it a try when she's reasonably alone. I just hope he's right. Still, it couldn't hurt to be rich some day either. There's nothing that says for sure I'd get corrupted like everyone else he's seen. Maybe I'll turn out differently..."
ONE MONTH LATER...
"This one'll be a seven for sure," Marie theorized.
"He hardly even got the chance to do anything before Rasputin's scheme collapsed; I don't think it'll be as high as a seven," Tatiana countered.
"But he would have unleashed the police against the people to ensure they wouldn't rise up; that's at least a seven maybe more," was Olga's assessment. "Want to get a better view?" she asked Alexei gently.
"It would be nice," he nodded. His oldest sister lifted him up onto her shoulders. In front of them, Anastasia cracked a smile. Olga had been so much nicer to Alexei ever since their near-death experience, probably since she now respected how well he'd largely kept his composure in taking the brunt of Rasputin's malice without cracking, scared though he'd understandably been. And besides, she reasoned, coming close to death herself had probably made Olga see things differently about life anyway.
She turned her gaze back through the curtains in the back of the throne room. Over the course of the last month, Rasputin's henchmen and puppets had been brought forth one at a time to face the tsar's judgment; as such, the five of them had long since taken to watching the proceedings under cover and betting, on a scale of one to ten, how furious their father would be with each of them. Not surprisingly, those who'd actually tried to kill his children seemed to be getting the largest force of his wrath; most of them were going to rot away the rest of their lives in solitary confinement in the Peter & Paul Fortress, or suffer hard labor in Siberia until the day they died. A few had struck deals to name names of other Khlysts that hadn't participated in the attack on the palace for lesser sentences, although they'd been too frightened of reprisal from Rasputin to give any hints as to where he may have fled to. With most of the Khlysts now taken care of, the officials who'd sold out to Rasputin were now getting their due, and it was now once again ex-Department of Police Chief Beletsky that was being dragged into the throne room in shackles to face judgment. "Stepan Beletsky, it has been proven you agreed to serve the traitor Rasputin in exchange for your former post back," Nicholas glared him down furiously, "Have you anything to say for yourself!?"
Guilty, Beletsky lowered his head and said nothing. "Very well. It is my decision that you be exiled to Siberia for the next forty years, with ten years of hard labor for attempted treason against the Russian state," was Nicholas's judgment, "Remove him," he ordered the guards, "Bring in the prince next."
"He'll be at least a nine," Marie smiled knowingly.
"Only a nine!? You've got to be kidding; he rates a full ten; he was going to take Father's place if Rasputin's plan had worked," Olga countered.
"In that case, is it possible he could be higher than a ten?" Alexei inquired, making his sisters chuckle. They all watched a shaking Andronikov, also shackled, be dragged into the throne room next. "I swear it's not my fault, your Majesty!" he pathetically begged the tsar, "Rasputin hypnotized me to do it! And he favored Count Vladimir to really...!"
"Silence!" Alexandra glared him down, furious herself, "We have investigated your claims, and it is clear Count Vladimir is entirely innocent of Rasputin's traitorous plot. You, on the other hand, are guilty as sin, Andronikov; you willfully sold out our entire family to further your own career! For that crime, the sovereign and I shall have you punished as severely as possible!"
"Indeed," a very livid Nicholas rose to his feet, "For your crimes against us, Mikhail Andronikov, you are hereby stripped of all your titles and privileges..." he reached down and personally ripped off Andronikov's epaulets and medals, "...are disowned from the Romanov family, and shall be banished from Russia till the end of your days."
"No, please, anything but that!" Andronikov started bawling like a baby, "I beg you, please, don't...!"
"My children begged the people you sold out to not to kill them, and your partners in crime didn't listen to them, so we shall show you the same!" the tsarina fumed. "Get him out of our sight!" she ordered the guards, who strained to drag a still squirming and sobbing Andronikov away.
"Well, he's really taking that well," remarked a woman's voice from behind the children. "Papa says that's how cowards always take being exposed, Aunt Natalia," Alexei smiled at the attractive woman his uncle had fallen for, "I guess you'll be next, right?"
"I suppose so, Alexei," Michael appeared at her side and glanced out towards his brother, who gave him a nod, "Although she's not actually your aunt just yet; once your father takes care of a few things in a minute or two, though, we should be able to be married very soon."
"Good, because we've always wanted cousins," Anastasia told her future aunt, "Not to pressure you or anything..."
"Oh no, on the contrary, I've always wanted children. Unfortunately having been put into an arranged marriage that was out of my hands to a man not interested in them, it's taken longer than I've hoped," Natalia admitted, "But yes, I'm sure some will come eventually if everything works out; I've been thinking George if it's a boy, and..."
"I'm ready if you are," Nicholas called to her. Natalia took a deep breath and walked over to the thrones. "Send him in," the tsar called to the footmen, who opened the throne room door. An eager Colonel Wulfert all but bounded in. "Ah, so you finally found my wife," he told the sovereign, not giving him the pleasure of a bow, "Took you long enough, I must say. Tell me you've punished the grand duke for his thieving ways!?"
"No, and I don't think that will be in the cards, Colonel. In fact, your wife will not be going home with you, because from this point forward, she is no longer your wife," Nicholas rose up again, scowling, "I know the truth of how you mistreated her now, and the fact that you would dare to lie to me, tsar of all Russia, to slander the grand duke out of petty revenge says all I need to know about your character, Colonel. Therefore, I will not deliver this woman back to you to be abused any further."
"You can't do this!" Wulfert was livid himself, "You promised me...!"
"I promised you nothing, you lying lowlife!" Nicholas thundered, "Therefore, as titular head of the Russian church, I hereby declare your marriage to Natalia Sergeyevna dissolved, and you are henceforth to stay away from her, or you shall be banished to Siberia and sentenced to hard labor for life. Now leave this palace at once."
"You put him up to it, didn't you!?" Wulfert roared furiously at his now ex-wife, "This is all your fault as usual! When I get my hands on you next time...!"
"If you even lay one hand on her from here on, you'll go straight to the gallows," Michael walked out and put an arm around his fiancé, "Now you heard the tsar; get out."
Wulfert sputtered in rage as the footmen took him by the arms and led him away. "You haven't heard the last of me!" he shouted back at the happy couple, "I'll join the revolutionaries if I have to, but I'll get back at you, all of you, one way or...!"
The doors were slammed shut behind him, cutting off his rant. The tsar turned knowing to the curtains. "You think I did good?" he asked with a grin.
"Really good, Father, both with him and everyone," Olga said, leading the others out.
"But there's still one thing you can do, if you can do it," Alexei climbed up onto his father's lap, "If you can get the Germans to agree to stop fighting, I think that would be better for everyone. Too many people have been separated and hurt after all this time; it shouldn't have to go on much longer than this. I know you promised the Allies you'd keep fighting and everything, but..."
"He does have a point, Nicholas," Michael nodded in agreement, "Having been on the front lines the last two years, I can tell you with absolute certainty the troops are getting restless. They don't see a point in continuing the conflict, and given that neither we nor the Central Powers have anything really worthwhile to gain from this point forward..."
"Well, tell you all what, right after we finish with the three hundredth anniversary festivities, I'll call King George and President Poincaire and see if they'd be willing to at least consider approaching old Wilhelm with a proposal about winding this all down," Nicholas told his family, "I can't guarantee you all that anything will come of it in the end-both they and Wilhelm are still pretty bent on fighting on to the bitter end, and I don't know what might convince them otherwise..."
"Maybe if we have everyone on the front lines celebrate Christmas openly this year, that'll make the Germans stop fighting for a little while," Tatiana proposed, "I've heard that's what happened two Christmases ago in France."
"That's my girl, away thinking of the ingenious way," her father rubbed her hair, "Well, maybe we could see if they'd be willing to try that. But right now," he paused to hear the grandfather clocks in the hall ringing the hour, "we're not going to worry about the war. In fact, all of you better start getting ready, because we'll be formally celebrating three hundred years of Romanov rule in a few hours with the biggest party we've ever had-not to mention announcing a special engagement," he winked at his brother and his fiancé, "So all of you go get ready; we want to look good when everyone else shows up."
He smiled warmly at his wife and gave her a deep, passionate kiss before she and the rest of his family bustled off to get ready for the celebration. One figure, however, hung behind. "So what's bothering you this time, Anastasia?" he asked her, mildly concerned.
"Well, it's just...I wish Grandmama didn't have to go to Paris," she confessed, leaning against her mother's throne, "When you were away at the front, she was there to comfort me when I needed it. It's just a little hard to get used to her not being here, even if it's only for a few months. And if something goes wrong on the Western Front and the Germans start moving towards Paris..."
"Your grandmother will be just fine; if she could stand up to the Khlysts like she did with your sisters, a Central Powers attack is nothing, my dear," Nicholas assured her, a strange smile on his face that the girl couldn't quite figure out. "And she'll be back home before you know it, so I wouldn't worry too much about her. Besides, you shouldn't feel sad; after all, you've got that new dog coming right after Christmas. Have you figured out a name yet?"
"Well," Anastasia thought hard, "I always did like the name Pooka; it just sounds right."
"Pooka it'll be then. Is anything else on your mind? It looks like there is."
"Well, have you had any luck finding the boy Alexei said tried to stop Rasputin? Since he said the boy seemed to like me, and that he stopped Rasputin's magic long enough so we could win the battle, I really want to thank him in person for it."
"We're still looking, my dear. I've had the heads of the staff asking around to see if he's with us and is willing to come forward. You do understand, though, that with so many servants working for us, it's going to take a while to get around to everyone. But we'll find him soon enough, and you can congratulate and reward him any way you want; anyone who'd help save you or your brother and sisters should be rewarded as far as I see it. Anything else? You still look a little worried."
"Oh, it's just...when we do catch Rasputin, we are going to make him take his curse off Alexei before we throw him in jail for the rest of his life, aren't we? I'd hate for him to have to live the rest of his life like that if Rasputin refuses."
"Oh believe me, he'll take that curse off if I have to put a pistol to his head, don't you worry about that. That's why I hope we can take him alive. But right now, I wouldn't worry about anything if I were you," he scooped her up and "flew" her around again, "After all, for helping to save your brother from him, you're going to be the star of our celebration tonight, so why don't we get you ready for it? In the years to come, you'll be able to tell your kids how great our three hundredth anniversary was; who knows, maybe if fate's in your favor, you'll live to see our four hundredth anniversary some day too."
"Will this be to your liking, Madame?" the curio shop owner asked the dowager, setting a music box before her. He turned a crank, and a pair of bears skated across an icy pond to the music.
"I specifically want something that plays 'Once Upon a December,'" Maria Feodorovna told him.
"Well, I'm not sure if we have that, but I'll take a good hard look," the merchant trudged into the back room. "I'll say again that I don't think what you have in mind is that good an idea, your Highness," her chief butler spoke up next to her.
"And why not, Andrei? Nicholas and I agree that Anastasia deserves a reward for saving Alexei," she argued, "His is the dog he's going to buy her, and this will be mine."
"But to take her into an active war zone..."
"President Poincaire's offer of safe passage is still in place," she reminded him, "I'll go first to make absolutely sure it's safe, then a few weeks later send for her. The Central Powers will know nothing; this is highly top secret."
"And the tsar does approve of this?"
"It took some convincing, but he was swayed knowing she's always wanted to see Paris, and he trusts me wholly now," she said with a satisfied smile, "And it'll just be for a couple of months; if the Western Front changes for the worst, we can always flee into Spain or Portugal, catch a boat to India, and come back into Russia that way; there are no U-boats operating in the Indian Ocean the last time I checked."
"Here you are, Madame, just as you requested. This is the last one I had in stock," the store owner came back clutching a rather well-crafted and colorful music box. The dowager turned it on, and indeed it did play "Once Upon a December" as two noble figures danced. "This will do just fine," she nodded, "Before I buy it, though, I'd like you to engrave on it the words, 'Together in Paris.'"
"As you request," the owner took the box back into the back room. "You see, Andrei, this music box will keep her happy knowing I'm still thinking about her until I give the OK for her to come to Paris," she told the butler, "Our favorite song always perks her up when she's down. And we'll have a wonderful time together in Paris, war or no war; Sophie's been eager to meet her ever since she was born."
"All done, your Highness," the owner came back rather quickly with the now engraved music box.
"I thank you most deeply, kind sir," Maria Feodorovna handed him the money for the box as the clocks in the shop struck the hour. "Oh," she exclaimed, "I almost forgot what time it was. I've got to get back to Anichkov and get dressed for the celebration. Here, Andrei," she handed him the now wrapped music box, "Don't break this; this music box is of the utmost importance." She breathed a deep sigh of relief as they stepped out into the snowy December evening. All seemed right with the world again, at least for the immediate moment. "For a while, Andrei, I wasn't sure we'd make it to the tricentennial," she confided with him as they climbed into her carriage, "But it looks like this will be a memorable celebration after all. And," she snorted firmly out the carriage window at a wanted poster for Rasputin on the nearest telephone pole-one of hundreds that over the last month had been strung all over the capital, "with a fifty million ruble price on his head, HE wouldn't dare show up and try anything..."
"Sir," Bartok peered through the keyhole into Rasputin's innermost sanctum in the citadel, "You sure you don't want to eat anything? It has been about a week now, you know."
Only the rustling of book pages and a low murmuring of "Filthy Romanov dog...!" came as an answer. "OK, have it your way," the bat shrugged, fluttering up to the overhead light. Rasputin had, after disabling the magical passage from his now ex-office in St. Petersburg so the authorities couldn't use it to hunt him down, largely barricaded himself in the inner sanctum since they'd fled back to Ipatiev Mountain following their failed takeover attempt. He'd been searching intently through the old Khlyst spell books for something, although he hadn't let his sidekick in on whatever it was. Due to the massive Khlyst dragnet now in effect, the reliquary, sitting idly on the spell book stand, kept flashing images of Khlysts being captured all over the country (Rasputin had in a rage, sworn to disavow them all, that he didn't want their help and could take over the country himself from now on); one of the few that had made it to Ipatiev Mountain had been carrying a communique from a furious Lenin, who lambasted the Khlysts for their "bungling shortcomings" and other choice phrases, and declared he could start the revolution without their help after all. So for everything they'd accomplished in the last few years, he and Rasputin were now for all intents and purposes right back at square one.
Abruptly, though, there came a laugh from inside the inner sanctum. It slowly grew louder and louder till it reached a level of pure insanity. "What, what, you've got something?" Bartok flew back to the keyhole, "What's...?"
The door flew open unexpectedly, slamming the bat into the wall. "This is it!" ecstasy shaded Rasputin's face as he strode out, holding one particular spell book high, "This is exactly what we've...!"
He looked around for his sidekick. The door swung shut again, sending a thoroughly dazed Bartok reeling to the floor. "Ah, there you are," Rasputin picked him up and held him in front of the book, "This will solve all our problems right here!"
He pointed at one particular passage written in an old form of Cyrillic. Bartok squinted at the drawing underneath, of a group of shrieking green winged demons with soulless yellow eyes. "What about them, sir?" he asked, "We're going to find these little guys and tell them to destroy the tsar...?"
"My own private army!" Rasputin crowed, "They'll obey orders without question and can do the job more effectively than a human can! But what they can do best of all," he pulled the bat close to his face, "They can take over the minds of the stupid people once I enact the Curse of Total Death as prescribed in here. With the curse in effect, the people will become bent on destroying the tsar and his entire family-especially after my minions destroy everything edible in the entire country to make them as angry as possible-and they won't stop hunting for them until every single solitary Romanov is dead! Why risk my own neck when they can do the dirty work for me!?"
"Hmm," Bartok squirmed out and stared at the old writing, "Now let's see, if my Uncle Amadeus taught me old Cyrillic right, this would mean...uh, sir, are you sure you want to take this trail?" he asked with a frown, "If I'm reading this right, this is pretty industrial strength evil stuff they're talking about in here; to get these little guys, you're going to have to sell your soul to the Dark Forces; is that really what...?"
"WHATEVER IT TAKES!" Rasputin roared in the bat's face. He collected himself and repeated somewhat more calmly, "Whatever I have to do to ensure the death of each and every Romanov, Bartok, so be it! And if you'll read the fine print," he shoved his colleague right into the book, "You notice that by making this large a bargain, I will gain incredible powers when the curse is fulfilled in full! I'll be completely impervious to death in any form, and I'll take on powers that no mortal has yet obtained! And once all the Romanovs have perished, and Russia is entirely mine, I think I'll take up Josef Whatever His Last Name's Going to Be's advice and go for the rest of Europe; what's there to stand in my way if I can't be stopped...and then from Europe, yes, I dare dream it...the entire world! All of humanity under the Khlysts' rule; Makary was a fool never to dream that big...!"
"Um, there seems to be more fine print here," Bartok squinted at the text, "Sir, it looks like your very existence will become dependent on your thingamajig; if it breaks..."
But Rasputin wasn't listening anymore. "The time is now to strike the fatal blow!" he almost sang, seizing the reliquary, out of which an image of all the Romanovs traveling to the Winter Palace for the tricentennial celebration emerged, "For the curse to work, you need to declare it directly to the person you intend to curse, and conveniently, all the Romanovs will be at the Winter Palace celebrating their blasted anniversary tonight! So let us go join them, my little friend," he seized Bartok in his palm and carried him up the stairs to the citadel's roof, "Since Nikolasha crashed my party last month, I am within my rights to crash his!"
He threw open the door to the roof. "Oh, I'm going to enjoy seeing the looks of terror on their faces when the people come after them screaming for their blood!" he gloated, pulling his hood up, "But most of all, I'll take pleasure in personally watching the demise of that wretched Anastasia; I want to see her broken, bleeding, suffering beyond words for ruining everything when I had her precious brother literally dead to rights! Yes, she will die, and hers will be the most enjoyable death of all, no matter if it takes me years to make sure of it! Beware, Anastasia, and all Romanovs, your time is now up!"
He let out another insane laugh as the reliquary rocketed him over the Urals towards St. Petersburg and his destiny-a laugh that would continue to echo loudly around Russia for decades to come as those who believed in his principles acted them out with terrible results...