Commandant Schukov addressed the cadets as was his wont, like a general at a review with arms clasped at ninety-degree angles.

“What’s he got to say this time?” Viktor whispered to Pyotr. “Perhaps he’ll unclench and finally let that rifle he’s had up his ass go.”

“More likely a list of floggings,” Pyotr said. “I hear Feodor got it good for daring to talk back to old Lebedev in artillery class.”

“Cadets!” barked Schukov. “As I have said before this time, despite being from some of the finest families in this oblast, you are maggots unfit for service in the Emperor’s glorious army. The strong, proud soldiers of his great-grandfather the late Emperor, they who turned back Napoleon, are rolling in their graves at such a speed it’s a wonder they haven’t been harnessed to generate electricity.”

Pyotr snickered at this. Schukov would as soon beat the freckles off you as look at you, but he did have a colorful way with words.

“Nonetheless, it was my great misfortune to recieve this morning a direct order, which I hereby obey. And that order is direct from Stavka, and thus may as well have been written in the Emperor’s own hand. To free up men who are desperately needed at the front near Riga, effective immediately the Academy’s cadets are to take up anti-bandit patrol duties.”

An excited murmur rippled through the crowd. “Holy shit in an outhouse,” breathed Viktor. “They’re putting us into action!”

“Silence!” bellowed Schukov. “Total silence!” He waited until the hubbub had died to an acceptable level in his one good ear before proceeding. “You will be armed and equipped at government expense, to do something about the deserters that have been causing chaos in the oblast.”

The old commandant thumped a step to the right on his wooden leg and puffed out his chest. “I do not expect that you will be able to perform effectively in this task, but as we have taught you, obedience is key. You will be deployed, and the good men that you free up will serve the Emperor on the front.”

“Real weapons! Real patrols! We’re not even old enough to enlist, and look at us!” Viktor bubbled. “Like real soldiers!”

“TOTAL SILENCE!” screamed Schukov, loud enough to rattle the rafters. He brushed the resulting dust off his white epaulettes. Then, in an affect more akin to his normal bellow: “I requested reinforcements to ensure that you laggards aren’t all killed, as dealing with your angry parents would be more burden that int’s worth. And, as has long been evident to me, I have been put on this earth only to endure the trials of maggots and weasels. As such, allow me to introduce to you your reinforcements…”

“Maybe a Guards unit,” Pyotr whispered. “Or veterans from the front!”

“…the Women’s Battalion of Death, Reserve Youth Auxiliary Division,” Schukov continued, spitting out the title like a bitter peachpit. “Your next instructions, AS ORDERED, will be from its local coordinator.”

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The trek across the taiga had been a bruising one. Paved roads had run out a few hours north of Yakutsk, and the dirt tracks some hours north of that. John had prepared as best he could for this eventuality, but even with all his groundwork he found himself making the last part of the journey on foot, across game trails cut by reindeer across the lower reaches of the Verkhoyansk Range, the coldest place ever permanently inhabited by man.

By the time John had arrived in a small valley carved fromt he Range by an unnamed river, he was suffering from frostbite, saddle sores, and bites from the stinging insects that swarmed eagerly around him, desperate for blood in the short quasi-summer that was their lives. Deep within the valley, visible only from the place indicated on the map, was an old ostrog–a single-tower fortress within a mouldering palisade, erected by the earliest Russian explorers.

When he was nearer, the unmistakable resonance of Tuvan throat singing could be heard echoring through the forgotten valley. This was the place.

John found the Porok at the highest floor of the okrug, at a window that had once served as a lookout post, projecting the eerie sound into the world through dead lungs. The Porok was rotted and embalmed, like a badly preserved mummy with just enough flesh and sinew to hold together its bones and support the worn finery it sported.

“It’s beautiful,” said John. “The singing.”

The Porok did not turn to him. “It is the only sound that I can make that one might think came from something young,” it said. Its voice was raspy and choked with dust, the death rattle of an old general cut down in single combat. “And it serves as a beacon to those who, like you, have made the long trek north from Yakutsk.”

John was susprised that the Porok’s English was so intelligible, as he had extensively practiced his rusty Russian and Latin. “So I am not the first,” he said.

“Nor will you be the last.” The Porok now approached John. Its face was eyeless, its lips and gaping nasal cavity devoid of all but the most base of flesh. “To those who would seek the Porok out, the long trek is a welcome…filter. The cool climate also agrees with me, as you may imagine.”

It led John downstairs, throught the main room decorated with trinkets that others had brought in supplication. The pretty things, tapestries and china, were heaped in a corner. It was the utilitarian things that occupied a place of honor: a wind-up short-wave radio, a shake-flashlight, a water filter.

“I know why you have come,” said the Porok. “All is known to me, always, forever. It is my curse and my gift. However, I long ago made a pact with myself, and with the Ancients measured against whom I am but a zygote. I only act on that which people say, rather than what they think or what they are.”

“Very well,” said John. “I will give you your gift and tell you now, if it please you.”

“Do so,” croaked the Porok. “But be warned: once you speak, your lost is cast, words set forever in stone. You may leave now, safely, or stay an evening to fortify yourself. But once you speak, you will face the consequences. Your request may be granted, yes. Or I may tear out your throat for your insolence. In asking, you accept this. Do you understand?”

“I do.” John set his jaw. “I will proceed.”

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“In the matter of Feodor Pushkov, also known as Feodor Serpov or Feodor Oruzheynik, it is the decision of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution, Profiteering and Corruption that he be stripped of his title and rank and executed.” Lebedev, the head of the troika, peered at Feodor over his glasses and under the sky-blue cap of a Chekist.

Feodor, still wearing his uniform but with the insignia newly torn off, sat in a rude wooden chair in front of the three Cheka members, the most senior of whom was in charge of the entire region. His shoulders were sagged, and he nervously played with worry beads in his hands. “There was a time,” he said wearily, “when you all reported to me as your commissar. Does that mean nothing to you? Does all that I have done for the party and the state mean nothing to you?”

“It has been established to the satisfaction of this extraordinary committee that your actions were undertaken in the context of your role as informer and spy for the Black Army and foreign interventionists,” replied Lebedev, sounding bored. “You yourself said that traitors must be shot without mercy and that terror is the cost of a new utopian state. At least conduct yourself with dignity and hold true to those words.”

“What of Tatyana?” Feodor said. “What of Pyotr?”

Lebedev rolled his eyes. “It has been established to the satisfaction of this extraordinary committee that the woman Tatyana Alexandrovna is under no suspicion. As for the aristocrat Pyotr you mention, the extraordinary committee has sentenced him to death in absentia. But you know as well as I do that there has been no sign of him since the…incident…and that he is presumed dead. We will not waste the bullet to execute a dead man.”

“Very well,” whispered Feodor. “If that is to be my punishment for my sins, so be it.”

He was led away to the execution cells, and the Chekists of the Troika chatted amongst themselves for a time. Lebedev had just been promoted to Feodor’s old post as commissar, and the others were eager to gain his favor and avoid being added to the ever-lengthening execution rolls. Once they left, he turned to the window and his features blurred, revealing the scaly visage and deep-set red slit eyes of Peklenc, the Old God of judgment and the underground.

“Even with so many of us dead, we can make this work,” he said in a soft and serrated voice. “We can use this new order to ensue that those who remain have their fill of blood.”

His gaze wavered, though, as he spied a figure in a window across the courtyard. There, peering silently at him from behind the glass, was Pyotr.

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“It was wiped clean in the space of a few short decades, that which we had spent generations, centuries, millennia, in building. Perun and Veles were cast down, and without the strength of the peoples’ beliefs to sustain them they were unable to respond. Those of us who survived were forced to mime the hateful rituals of the Enemy.” Boris–or was it Triglav?–advanced on Pyotr, his three goat heads leering over the tattered remains of his uniform.

“I don’t understand!” Pyotr cried, brandishing his Obrez pistol. “Why try to make things worse?”

“This is an opportunity. In chaos are always opportunities. When people lose faith, we of the old gods suddenly find our playing field leveled. When people who believe in nothing are in power, we grow stronger.”

“And Feodor…?”

“We need intermediaries as we always have,” said Triglav offhandedly. “Now, since you have proven yourself adaptable, will you join him? The Germans are fleeing, the Bolsheviks are weak and tottering in Petrograd, and we are well-placed to sow chaos and misery and death among those that remain. If you assist us, you will be spared.”

“What kind of god would want to sow misery and death among its own people?”

“Beyond punishment of the people of this land? Simple. We are spirits of this place, and our thirst can only be slaked with blood. For too long have we had to content ourselves with a trickle, and a pious trickle at that. We have worked for many years to undermine the new faith and its defenders, and our efforts are finally about to bear fruit. We haven’t been closer to our return, our rebirth, in a hundred years.”

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“It’s…good to see you again,” said the Baron. “You’ve been fighting, I hear. Avoiding the family name, the family lands.”

“It was the only way to clear my mind of what happened,” Pyotr replied.

The Baron nodded. “Feodor and Arkady, yes. A tragedy at the hands of those animals, the Socialist Revolutionaries. Arkady died a soldier’s death, and I saw to it he had a soldier’s burial, in the family plot.”

“That was kind of you,” Pyotr said. “A pity you couldn’t be more kind to him in life.”

“I suppose I deserve that,” said the Baron. “Though I hoped that, in the midst of all this madness, that you might understand.”

“What of the family lands? What of Feodor?” Pyotr asked.

“The lands are still ours. I’ve pledged to support the Provisional Government and promised the tenants what they need to get by. The Czar was weak, a weak fool, to let them come to power, but they’re better than the alternative. A bulwark against the Socialist Revolutionaries coming to power.”

“And Feodor?”

“Last I heard he took to the hills with about half of your old State Militia detachment. Joined the SRs, I imagine, though they say that his men took out a German patrol. So they haven’t forgotten their patriotism at least, and are still serving their betters even if they themselves do not yet understand it.”

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“You don’t get it, do you?” snarled Feodor. “I did what I had to do to protect the Baron. He is a noble, he is an important member of His Majesty’s imperial government, and his death would have thrown this oblast into chaos! Those are the kind of decisions a leader has to make.”

“Not with lives,” sobbed Viktor. “Not with human lives, not with people that we love. We fought together, Zinoviy. I would have died for you, and this is how you’ve repaid me? Look at what you’ve done!” He was on his knees, ignoring the still-burning fires from the destroyed automobile, the dead body of his younger brother clutched desperately to his chest.

Pyotr, stunned, could only watch. Rifles cracked all around them as Feodor’s detachment cut the assassins to ribbons. The Baron’s car and the remainder of the motorcade had sped off down the road, not knowing or not caring that his son was still at the site of the ambush with his companions in the State Militia.

Feodor approached Viktor. “I am sorry that he had to die,” he continued in a slightly milder tone. “Truly I am. But the only way to finally squash the Socialist Revolutionaries was to spring their trap, and placing him and the others in the Baron’s car in the motorcade was the only way to do it without endangering the Baron’s life.”

With the speed of a madly uncoiling spring, Feodor leapt to his feet, dropping his brother’s cooling body to the ground. He drew his bayonet–the same cruciform bayonet in the British style that he had made in his father’s shop–and held it to Feodor’s throat. “That’s not true,” he growled. “You could have sat in that car yourself.”

A hue and cry went up, and many of the remaining State Militia trained their weapons. Some aimed at Feodor, others at Viktor, while some like Pyotr simply held their weapons in stunned readiness.

“You wanted to lick the Baron’s boots,” Feodor continued, his words dripping with poison and pain. “Hoping to get him as a patron to better yourself. You used us, all of us, for your own selfishness. Especially him. Especially Arkady.”

“Think about what you’re doing,” said Viktor darkly. “By taking up arms against the State Militia you’re casting your lot in with those that just killed Arkady.”

“No,” spat Feodor. “You killed him. The SRs were simply to trying to wipe his filth off this earth. And you know what? Maybe they’re right.”

With a smooth motion, he drew the blade across Viktor’s throat. Gurgling and spurting crimson, the latter sank to his knees, whimpering as he bled out. Without so much as a glance at his corpse, or at Pyotr, Feodor turned to the militiamen.

“You all saw what happened here, comrades,” he said. “Who will join with me in deserting this rat’s nest and stomping them out, and who will put themselves in the service of those who butcher children for their own advancement?”

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What do many words using Y and W instead of proper vowels have in common? They’re Welsh, of course. Wales was systematically looted of its vowels after its conquest to feed the English hunger for unnecessary vowelery after the French fashion. That’s right, the “u” in “colour” doesn’t just make its natural pronunciation “coh-lure,” it’s also a blood vowel stolen from a people so vowel-poor that they had to scrape by with Y and W.

Yes, the vowel-mines of Wales were long the envy of English monarchs, as England itself exhausted its own vowel reserves during the ongoing and debilitating Shouting Wars against France. The Welsh at first were able to simply sell their vowels to an England anxious to be able to match French words like “eau” or “nouveau.” English looting and purchase of vowels was so prevalent that even the last leader of Wales, Llywelyn, was forced to make do with a single vowel in his name while his English conqueror, Edward, has two.

England is not alone in the exploitative harvesting of vowels. French and Italian vowels mines, long the most productive in the world, had all but run out by the 1700s, forcing them to look elsewhere. For a time the French were able to import vowels taken from North America by force or trade, but with the cession of their vowel-rich territory of Quebec, they were forced to look elsewhere. That somewhere was Poland, which was rich in vowel mines but had been undergoing a language crisis since looting the Ottoman camp at the Siege of Vienna, as Ottoman Turkish was at the time written without vowels altogether.

As a result, Poland was partitioned, with the lion’s share of the territory going to the Russian Empire. With no need for Poland’s Latin vowels, having their own Cyrillic vowel mines deep in the Urals, the Russians instead exploited Polish vowels for export, selling them to the French and Italians. Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia to guarantee his vowel supply, as he needed eight vowels to say his own name alone, and a steady supply of Polish blood vowels were guaranteed in the later French-Russian alliance. All the while, Poland was so looted of vowels that they had to make do with words like “wszystko” and “cześć.” The downtrodden Polish made creative use of diacritics to make up for their looted syllabary, but their vowel mines were ultimately entirely depleted.

Of course, Americans are not blameless. The constant insertion of British-style blood vowels into words to make them seem sophisticated is a constant bane, and many of the blood vowels so used now come from Africa, where once vowel-rich places like Ouagadougou are now exploited for foreign sale by warlords.

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Irene Keruk Qikiqtagruk was seated in a rocking chair, wrapped in a shawl and threadbare quilts. She smiled at the guests, bright eyes shining behind thick glasses seeming to belong to a woman much younger than 101.

“I’ll put some tea on,” her granddaughter said. “Give you a moment alone. But like I told you, she doesn’t speak much anymore. And never of the…unpleasantness.”

Adrienne sat down on the couch nearby and gestured for the others to find seats. “That’s a lovely quilt you’ve got there,” she said, gesturing to Irene’s wrappings. “Did you make that?”

“It is kind of you to pretend to care about my old sewing.” Irene’s voice was soft but surprisingly deep, issuing from some great well in her weak frame. “You hope to get me talking and turn things to the unpleasantness. It is the way of all the more considerate people who come to visit.”

The reporter’s face fell. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I suppose there’s not much I can say to change your mind, is there?”

Irene’s expression turned thoughtful. “When I walked however many miles it was over the ice, after everyone had died, I promised myself that I would never speak of what had happened as long as I lived.” She laughed. “I did not expect it to be so long. It’s been almost ten years since the last person came to ask, and somehow I do not think I will last another ten. Tell me what you know, and I will think about filling in some of the blank spots.”

“You, your parents, and your uncle were recruited by a Canadian man to participate in the Imperial Arctic Expedition of 1914,” Adrienne said carefully. “Your ship was trapped in ice, drifted into Russian waters, and crushed. There was…unpleasantness…among the expedition members, and you and your parents followed a group to Kellett Island while the others made for Tikegen Island. You walked nearly fifty miles to Tikegen, alone, nearly a year later to find the others just before they were rescued by an American icebreaker, and you refused to discuss what had happened.”

Irene laughed. “You are too kind in leaving out the juiciest part,” she said over the whistle of a teakettle in the kitchen. “When they searched Kellett Island, they found what was left of the people who I had departed with. All dead, even though they had shelter and supplies enough to last a whole year.”

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“This is Vasily Albanov, a Russian as you might expect and the best forger in the city,” said Sedena. “He once crafted me a visa that let me cut through North Korea and Iran on the same trip.”

“To be fair, the Iranian border guard’s eyesight wasn’t so good,” laughed Albanov.

“And this is Constantine Retewo, our scrounger,” continued Sedena. “He’s a Lesbian and a veteran of just about every Middle Eastern conflict you can imagine. Scrounged for Hezbollah and the IDF in the same conflict.”

“I’m sorry…what did you just say?” Peter said delicately. “He’s a …lesbian?”

“Yes,” Retewo growled. “I was born on the isle of Lesbos. Do you have a problem with that?”

“I…well, it’s just that…it seemed…”

“Oh, I know,” said Retewo. “I know just what you thought. Those goddamn girly-girlies have stolen the good name of my island, and I have to hear the same damn jokes every time I am introduced! It is a good Orthodox island and a good Orthodox name!”

Peter drew back, startled.

“I love it when he does that,” Sedena said to Peter with a low-key smile. “Why do you think I don’t introduce him as a Greek?”