When Layla took the final step through the labyrinth, she thought she was saving the ones she loved.
She couldn’t have been more wrong.
The unwitting victims of a grudge seething for eons, Layla and the other survivors now find themselves in a war for our world. With vampires lurking and shapechangers plotting vengeance, if mankind has any hope of survival, Layla must decide whom to trust: the carnie girl? The quiet doctor? The tarot reader? The stranger with alluring gold eyes? Or the man she loves? And then there are the voices. What does it forewarn if the dead can speak?
When the world burns, mankind’s shadow side rises. Do we deserve to survive?
About the Author:
Melanie Karsak is the author of the Amazon best-selling steampunk series The Airship Racing Chronicles and the award-winning The Harvesting Series. Melanie grew up in rural northwestern Pennsylvania and earned a Master’s degree in English from Gannon University. A steampunk connoisseur, white elephant collector, and zombie whisperer, the author currently lives in Florida with her husband and two children. She is an Instructor of English at Eastern Florida State College.
Vasilisa had walked down same path from her family’s farm to town every day for as long as she could remember. She was barely strong enough to carry the packs of freshly harvested roots and herbs when her mother had tasked her with the job. But Vasilisa had never complained. What was the use? Now that she was a young woman, her daily routine seemed as automated as breathing: wake, wash her face, dress, feed her younger siblings, comb out the tattered mess her restless sleep had made out of her wheat colored tresses, then harvest herbs to take to the distillery. Only now she could carry more. Only now her mother was dead.
Vasilisa walked eyes on the pebbly path below her feet, from her farm, through the field, and into the woods. In ten minutes, she would meet the modern road. If she was lucky, someone would give her a ride to town. If she wasn’t, it would take thirty minutes to walk there. If she was really lucky, Sasha Petrovich would drive by in his rusted truck and give her a ride. Vasilisa’s heart picked up a pace when she thought of it.
In the forest, the sunlight shining through the canopy of green, Vasilisa stopped beside the old spring and took off her packs. Long ago someone had shifted the rocks to make a natural basin. She dipped her hands in the water and took a drink. The fresh spring water had a sharp, metallic taste. Vasilisa splashed water onto her face. That year the Soviets had sent a satellite into space, yet Vasilisa walked the same path her ancestors had followed for hundreds of years. She performed the same work they did in the exact same way. She knew this because they told her so. The spirits, sometimes clustered around her so closely in the family home that she felt claustrophobic, were a noisy bunch. Vasilisa’s grandmother, the stubborn matriarch who’d passed on her psychic gift to Vasilisa, was always the loudest. Sometimes Vasilisa felt like she was lost in time. And as she dug in her pack to leave three cubes of sugar at the side of the spring, a gift for the forest spirits, she felt the crush of the her discordant world: ancient and modern in one jumbled mess.
She picked up her packs and headed back toward the road. To her luck, a truck was passing just as she emerged from the woods. But it was not Sasha. Vasilisa waved, and the truck slowed. With a nod to the driver, she crawled into the back of the pick-up and sat with the family dog. She dangled her feet off the back of the truck, smelling the exhaust, as the truck rumbled toward town. It didn’t take long to get to get there.
Vasilisa hopped off the back of the truck as the driver slowed to let her out. She waved in thanks as the truck sped away. Vasilisa turned toward town square but first stopped, dug into her pocket, and pulled out the only tube of lipstick she owned; it was cherry red. She twisted the gold casing, carefully applied the lipstick, then trudged to the distillery.
The distillery was on the far end of the market square. The square was bustling in its grim, drab way. There were no longer any breadlines, that was a thing of the past, but the townspeople still looked miserable. They carried their baskets and sacks of produce, their faces blank, their feet scurrying.
The sign above the distillery door squeaked as it rocked in the wind. Its sound carried on the wind. Vasilisa pushed the door open. As usual, Yuri was in the front office laboring hard over heaps of papers, the room a blue haze of cigarette smoke. Crates of vodka bottles were stacked to the ceiling. The clear glass bottles twinkled in the morning light.
“Good morning,” Vasilisa said.
“Good morning,” Yuri replied absently. He didn’t even look up. Why would he? The routine had become mundane.
Vasilisa took her packs to the scale on the other side of the room. She set the packs down, noted the weight, and picked up the empty bags from yesterday’s delivery. The unbleached cotton bags still smelled like the anise, mint, lavender, and basil they’d carried.
“Five and a half kilos,” she told Yuri.
Yuri never looked at Vasilisa but turned to the till and started counting bills.
As he worked, Vasilisa noticed she was there again. She stood beside Yuri, watching him work. The spirit of Yuri’s sister often came around him, but she rarely spoke. Vasilisa saw her and saw through her all at once. It seemed to Vasilisa her shade seemed cloudier today, her facial figures less distinct than they had been on other days.
The shade turned at looked at Vasilisa. “Tell him to stop smoking,” she said then began to dissipate back into the ether, her cloudy, spiritual form slowly fading until she was there no more.
With a nod, Yuri handed Vasilisa her pay. He was about to go back to his work when Vasilisa asked, “Can I have a cigarette?”
He shrugged. “Sure,” he said, and quickly rolled a cigarette for her. His tin and papers had been sitting open on his desk.
“I think you smoke too much,” Vasilisa told him as she set the cigarette between her lips.
Yuri leaned in and lit the cigarette for her.
“You’re probably right,” he replied with a nod. “Drink?” he asked then, looking Vasilisa over as he was sometimes did when he stopped long enough to pay attention to her.
Vasilisa waved her hand. “Tu-tu-tu, it’s early.”
“It’s never too early.”
She shrugged. “See you tomorrow.”
Yuri nodded and turned back to his work.
Vasilisa crossed the street to the grocer. In the small, cramped shop, she went to the metal cooler and pulled out a chilled Coca-Cola. The cold glass bottle made her hands throb with chill. She popped the metal lid off the bottle, dropped some coins on the counter, then headed outside. She leaned against the building. Tapping her heal into the ground, she smoked and waited. After thirty minutes, Sasha still had not come. Maybe he had gone to the city. Vasilisa sighed. It was time to go back. She knew the little ones would be waiting; her father would already be working in the field. She left the town center and headed back to the road.
She’d been walking for ten minutes when she heard the familiar purr of Sasha’s truck. She grinned involuntarily. As the truck pulled alongside her, she dropped her smile and tried to look serious.
“I’m late. I know,” Sasha said as he leaned across the truck’s cab and opened the door.
Vasilisa gave him a serious look.
“Come on, beauty. I’m sorry. The truck would not start.”
Vasilisa sighed and got in, pulling the truck door behind her with a heave. She slid across the seat and nestled under Sasha’s arm.
“I thought maybe your mother had you visiting Irina again.”
“My mother knows I only have eyes for Vasilisa.”
“That doesn’t mean she cares.”
Sasha shrugged. They road in silence, soaking in each other’s presence, until Sasha pulled the truck into the small alcove at the forest path leading back to Vasilisa’s farm.
“Your father should clear a road. I could drive you all the way to the house.”
Vasilisa shrugged. “We prefer it like this.”
Sasha looked closely at Vasilisa. He reached out and touched her pouty lips, the lipstick now faded. He stared deeply into her green eyes. “Well, it does provide privacy, doesn’t it?”
Vasilisa smiled knowingly then turned and slid onto Sasha’s lap. They kissed with desperation. Their time together could only be brief. Most of their moments were stolen. Vasilisa slid her hands around Sasha’s neck and kissed him desperately. His lips were warm and his mouth tasted like raw sugar. The sharp scent of milled soap perfumed his freshly washed skin. She nestled her head into the crook of his neck, inhaling deeply, then sighed.
“I won’t be late tomorrow, my love,” he whispered in her ear.
“Good. Don’t be,” she said with mock firmness then kissed him quickly. She slid off his lap into the seat. She smoothed her hair and checked her reflection. Wordlessly, Vasilisa kissed Sasha one more time then got out of the truck.
Sasha sighed heavily. “Be careful,” he called, gazing back toward the forest.
Vasilisa laughed, waved, then turned toward home. As she receded into the forest, she heard Sasha’s truck maneuver onto the road. She listened for the truck until she couldn’t hear it anymore. She was left alone with only the sound of the forest and the taste of her lover’s mouth still ripe on her lips.
Vasilisa walked happily through the woods, planning her chores for the day, savoring her memories of Sasha. She stopped once more at the spring. She took her time, washing her face, drinking the clear water. Vasilisa was so lost in her thoughts that when hear ears started to buzz, her head ring, she felt surprised. Usually she was more aware of her surroundings. Usually she was more aware of the others who might be watching, especially in the forest. Dreaming of Sasha, she had not even heard the other person join her at the spring, not as if they ever made any noise. Vasilisa stiffened and looked up. An old woman stood at one side of the spring and was looking intently at Vasilisa. Her clothing, no more than tattered black rags, brushed the ground. Her hair was long, gray, and matted. Her face, however, hinted that she had once been beautiful, even though she was now very old. Her sharp, dark blue eyes studied Vasilisa.
Vasilisa knew she was in trouble. This was not one of the departed. She was one of those from the otherworld. The woman had crossed the planes to join Vasilisa. Cautiously, Vasilisa leaned toward the spring and lifted the copper cup that dangled there. She dipped the cup into the water and offered the drink to the stranger.
“This spring is older than your town,” the woman commented wryly, taking the cup from Vasilisa’s hand. “But the water is still fresh—unlike the rest of your world.”
Using her peripheral vision, Vasilisa eyed the old woman over. This was no common forest spirit, rusalka, leshi, or vodiovoi. Though she wore the clothes of a beggar, the woman’s stern authority, power, and presence made her identity obvious. There was not one child in Russia who didn’t know the name of the wise woman of the forest, the name of the powerful and terrible Baba Yaga. And Vasilisa knew, without a doubt, that it was this ancient matriarch who was staring at her. At once, Vasilisa was both feared and awed. What would the ancient one want from her? How many lusty leshi men had Vasilisa turned aside since her grandmother had taught her to recognize the others in our world. But Baba Yaga was something different, something rare and powerful.
The old woman took a sip then handed the cup back to Vasilisa.
“You must leave Mother Russia and go to America,” Baba Yaga said then.
The randomness of the directive startled Vasilisa so much that she stared Baba Yaga in the face. The woman’s words shocked and confused her, but the ancient matriarch’s hard gaze told her that this was not a debate, it was a command.
“Why?” Vasilisa asked.
The old woman laughed.
Vasilisa’s cheeks reddened. The moment the word left her mouth she knew she should have taken a more respectful tone. But the United States? Sure, she and Sasha had talked about going to America, about starting a new life there, but to leave Soviet Russia was difficult and relations between the United States and the Soviets were not good. She also had her family to consider.
“Because you must,” Baba Yaga said seriously.
“Because you said so?”
“You question me?” Baba Yaga replied, her tone precariously balanced somewhere between warning and amusement.
Vasilisa tried to smile softly. “One should never follow blindly.”
Baba Yaga seemed to like this answer. “If you value life, if you value the heart that beats within you, the blood in your veins, then you will go. You will be needed, and you must go to America to fulfill your role.”
Every hair on the back of Vasilisa’s neck has risen, and her skin chilled. “But I have a life here . . . Sasha . . .”
Baba Yaga shrugged. “What matters is that you go to America.”
“For my important role,” Vasilisa replied smartly, but this time she saw that Baba Yaga was losing her patience.
The old woman’s lips curled. “No more questions. If you can really see, you will know I am right.”
Behind them, a group of crow’s cawed, fighting one another over the remains of an animal carcass lying on the forest floor. Vasilisa turned to look. When she turned back, Baba Yaga was gone.
Vasilisa sat down on the ground beside the spring. She rested her head on the cool stones. Her heart was beating wildly. Could she trust the word of the ancient matriarch? Could she trust the witch in the forest they had all grown up to fear? Surely Baba Yaga had taken pains to cross the border between the worlds, but why? And why Vasilisa? What could Vasilisa possibly do that would be so important?
She turned again to the cawing crows. They pecked and danced as they fought over the bloody corpse. Their battle looked more like ballet than argument, but their caws rung loud and long and filled the forest with their clarion call.
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