Excerpt for Faithless by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

FAITHLESS

by Graveyard Greg

SMASHWORDS EDITION

Faithless

Copyright 2017 by Graveyard Greg

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Special thanks to Duke for the cover and Joshuwain for the edits!

And as always, my love to that certain boyfriend of mine.

Other books by Graveyard Greg:


Carpe Mortis: You Only Live Once

Deathless

The Gryphon's Goal

Lifeless

Love of the Colossi

The Species of Blessing Avenue

Welcome to Cappuccinos

PROLOGUE

1


<There,> Baba Yaga said, sliding the rolled up parchment across the table and towards the slender snow leopard. <Take this map. It shall lead you towards the treasure you seek.>

He took the map with trembling hands, putting it in the inside pocket of his coat. <Thank you, Honored Grandmother.>

<I need no thanks, young Gregor, but you are welcome nonetheless.>

Gregor kept his head bowed in respect, but his eyes darted up to meet hers, then quickly looked back down to the table. <If I may begin my quest, I would like to do so, Honored Grandmother.>

Baba Yaga raised a hand, the lit candle behind her casting a shadow across the young snow leopard’s face. <You have a newborn cub.>

Gregor raised his head and stared at her. <Y-yes,> he said, averting his eyes once he recovered from the momentary surprise. <He was born a month ago.>

<And should you find this treasure, it will ensure you will be able to provide for your family,> Baba Yaga said, her features curling into a smile. <Your devotion to your family is touching, though some may question your methods.> She lowered her hand. <Though none shall question your bravery.>

<Some have called me a fool, Honored Grandmother.>

<Those who do not believe in the old stories might think you a fool, yes.> She paused for a lengthy moment before asking, <But you do not think yourself a fool, young Gregor.>

He shook his head. <No, Honored Grandmother.>

<Tell me why you do not think yourself as one.>

Gregor raised his head once again, and his lips were set in a thin line. <I am still talking to you, Honored Grandmother,> he said. <You do not suffer fools in your own hut.>

Baba Yaga nodded, her smile widening far more than should have been natural. The sight of her iron fangs made Gregor look away. <But those who might be too brave could suffer the same fate, young Gregor.>

<I will remember this, Honored Grandmother,> Gregor murmured.

<Very good, for I hope you will serve me for many years. Perhaps the next time you arrive, you will bring your newly-born son, Ivan.>

To his credit, Gregor did not flinch at the use of his newborn son’s name, the name he never uttered in front of Baba Yaga. <If you so desire,> he said, a note of fear creeping into his voice.

<I swear to you, young Gregor, that your child has nothing to fear from me. The old days are done, and I have lost my taste for the flesh of a young one.> She sighed, and the sound was melancholy, almost wistful.

A shiver went through Gregor’s body upon hearing the sigh. <Thank you again, Honored Grandmother, for giving me this opportunity.>

Baba Yaga smirked. The young snow leopard wanted so badly to leave. <Then embark on your journey, young Gregor, and may fortune favor you. Remember what you will encounter when you open the chest. Quick reflexes will earn you a treasure beyond your wildest dreams.>

Gregor stood up, and bowed deeply to her. <I will not fail you, Honored Grandmother,> he said, then exited the hut quickly.

I hope you do not fail, she thought. Because if you do, you will not live to see your son grow up.

The map she had given him was false, and would never lead him to the egg of Koschei the Deathless. Instead she was testing him, to see if he was, indeed, a Finder. Her instincts told her she would not be disappointed, but she had been wrong before.

If she were wrong, young Gregor would find himself face to face with the owner of the egg, and then he would be dead.


2


She was pleased at her instincts being correct about Gregor’s nature – he was a Finder. The snow leopard would on occasion go out and find things at her request, and she would reward him for his success. He had no inkling about his nature, but he was not one to complain. She did her best to keep him out of the more dangerous findings, and surreptitiously grant assistance when he found himself in such findings.

Then, a few years and two decades later, Gregor was dead. Murdered. At the hands of Koschei the Deathless.

She cast a spell to send Koschei’s Egg to America, where it would appear in the apartment of Gregor’s son. She had been watching the son all of his young life to see if there were any signs of him being a Finder, and so far there had been none.

Perhaps a life threatening situation would be a better test for the young snow leopard. The Deathless would be certain to locate the Egg – after all, it housed his soul – and he would be equally certain to threaten Ivan’s life.

Hours later the chase was on, and Ivan was running for his life from the forces of Koschei the Deathless.

It interested her to see how the young snow leopard would survive. She soon found out Ivan followed his instincts and ran to the young rabbit named Tank. Could it be Ivan’s Finder nature at work, or was it coincidence? The department store he ran past had been closed. Would he have found sanctuary there if it had been open?

She found no evidence of Ivan’s hidden gift when they went to a soup kitchen run by twins who shared one soul. Could the gift have failed to pass down from father to son?

From the soup kitchen the snow leopard, the rabbit, and the twins fled to where their final allies hid. She recognized the giant panda and his mountain lion friend, though they had never met her. The lion was new to her, but she could sense the connection he shared with the panda.

Still, it would not be enough to protect the snow leopard. She would have to expedite matters and perhaps be rid of Koschei the Deathless.

When Ivan had succumbed to sleep, she contacted the panda through nothing more than modern day technology – an instant messenger program – with a touch of magical influence. Then, she gave them her ultimatum:

Send Ivan back to Koschei the Deathless or Tank would die.

She was no stranger to ruthlessness, but she was certain Ivan could defeat the Deathless if pushed into doing it.

She was not disappointed, though she did have to contact the snow leopard herself and advise him on what to do. But the results were the same – Ivan broke the egg and Koschei was the Deathless no more.

One less rival in Baba Yaga’s sphere of influence.

She did pay the snow leopard a personal visit through a simulacrum. She knew the kitten would have questions, so she made herself the special tea that would allow Ivan to ask them without aging her.

She owed Ivan’s father a debt. She knew sending him to fetch the egg of Koschei the Deathless would eventually lead to his death. Had he not been so careless, though, he might have lived to a ripe old age.

Did she feel guilt for sending the father down that dark path? Perhaps a touch, but nothing more. She was an immortal, and was used to watching mortals die.

CHAPTER ONE


The older snow leopard looked up at Ivan, a warm smile on his face. <Hello, Ivan,> his father said. The Russian language reminded Ivan of better, happier times. He recalled, fondly, his father teaching him how to fish, how to build a snowcat, and how not to be hung over the next day after several drinks of vodka.

Ivan thought he'd never learn anything else after hearing of his father's death. So how was he here, alive and well?

<I understand your confusion, son. I was...murdered, and yet I am here, standing before you.>

<How is this possible?> Ivan reached out, but pulled back. Was this really his father, or was it some terrible plot to cause him and his family harm?

<I was sent here by...> his father paused, looking over his shoulder. He turned back to look at his son. <May I come in, Ivan? I think privacy would serve us better.>

<I need... reassurance,> Ivan said, his broad, bulky frame blocked the door. <Tell me something only you would know. If you are truly my papa, you will have no end of embarrassing stories.>

<When you were a cub, you came into the bedroom where your mother and I were having sex, and you started crying.>

Ivan's jaw dropped. <B-because I thought you were hurting Mama.> He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, and was unsurprised the fur was damp. <Papa? Are you really here?>

His father reached out, and Ivan flinched when he felt the warm pawpads of his papa's hand. <I am really here, Ivan, but my time is short. May I enter?>

Ivan stepped aside, and the older snow leopard entered the room. As Ivan shut the door, his father smiled. <You look larger, Ivan. You have your mother's genes. I have always envied those siberian tigers.>

<I have the best of both worlds, Papa. A snow leopard's fur and the size and strength of a tiger.>

Ivan's father nodded his head. <It is good to see you, Ivan. I thought I would never see you again.>

<How is it I am seeing you, Papa? This is impossible.>

Ivan's father's expression slowly turned dour. <I have been sent here to warn you of a terrible danger to your immortal soul.>

<My... soul?>

<You have done great, impossible things, Ivan. You have killed an immortal – Koschei the Deathless – which attracted the attention of more than a few powers. Then you completed the improbable task of finding the Holy Grail.> His father's expression lightened a bit, his eyes glancing towards Ivan's room. <Which you are hiding in your closet.>

<I know of no other place to put it, Papa.>

<It would resist being too far away from you anyway.>

<How do you know all this?>

<Because where my soul found itself, I have learned everything there is to know. And that is why I am here, Ivan.>

Ivan’s throat went dry. <Because I am in danger.>

Ivan's father nodded. <There is a power which desires the Grail, my son. You cannot let him acquire it.>

Ivan felt cold, but it was a cold that had nothing to do with the temperature. <Who is coming for it, Papa?>

<Lucifer. Satan. The Devil himself.>

Ivan stared down at his father. He must have misunderstood him. He didn’t just hear the Devil was coming for the Grail. <P-papa? The Devil? You said the Devil is coming for it?>

His father looked up at him with sad eyes. <Yes, but he is coming for its caretaker first. Not even Satan can simply take the Grail. It needs to be given freely, so I must warn you. Do not trust anything he says. Everything he says is a lie.>

Ivan hoped the answer to his next question would be a simple one. <If I tell him no, will he leave me be?>

His father shattered his hopes with a shake of his head. <I am afraid he will use every lie to gain your trust, and he will attempt to trick you into giving him the Grail.> His father grabbed both of Ivan’s hands. <You must steel yourself, Ivan. You cannot let the Grail fall into Satan’s clutches.>

Ivan tried to take a step back, but his father, never a light snow leopard, stood firm. <W-what can I do, Papa? How can I stand against such evil?> He hated how his voice sounded so fearful, but this was the Devil. He was just a simple exchange student who, through sheer luck, defeated Koschei the Deathless and found the Holy Grail through a power he neither could control nor understand.

<You are a Finder, Ivan. You have the ability to find the way to beat Satan, and keep the Grail away from him.>

Ivan looked away, and tried to pull his hands out of his father’s grip. <Papa, what if he tries to use my friends to get the Grail? What if he tries to hurt the ones I love?>

<You must not allow your personal feelings to get in the way of your task, Ivan.> his father said, squeezing his son’s hands tighter. Ivan looked down at them, marveling at the strength even as he winced. <You must not allow the Devil to have the Grail.>

<I… I will do my best, Papa.>

His father nodded, then released Ivan’s hands. <I must go now, Ivan. I cannot stay any longer.>

<Where will you go, Papa?> His father was an atheist. Wasn’t Heaven denied him? Somehow he doubted Hell would allow his father to come warn him. So where did he come from? How was he here, able to touch him?

His father bowed his head. <I am afraid I cannot say, Ivan.> He looked back up into his son’s eyes. <Goodbye, and be strong.>

Ivan stared at the empty space where his father once stood, wishing he had the conviction his father had in him. <Goodbye, Papa.>

Before he could process all the information the ghost of his father gave him, the soft clapping from behind him alerted him to the fact he was still not alone. He turned around to see a lean fox, dressed in a sharp business suit the color of caramel, seated on the sofa. <That was honestly touching,> the fox said in perfect Russian.

Ivan stepped away from the fox, his heart racing. <You are…>

The fox stood up, adjusted his jacket, and extended a hand. <The Devil, yes. And you have something I desire.>

Ivan stared at the hand, his whiskers and thick tail twitching. He fought the urge to gather it up in his paws. The Devil. Here. In his apartment.

The Devil looked at Ivan, then at his unshaken hand. <I understand,> he said with a mirthful chuckle, letting his hand fall to his side. <Trust me when I say I do not blame you for being cautious. When dealing with entities such as myself, it’s better to be safe than sorry.>

Ivan glanced over at his room. Could the Devil just go and take it without his consent? His father said the Devil would try and trick him into giving it away, but what if his father was wrong?

<You are right to be nervous, Ivan.> the Devil said, sitting back down on the sofa. <But believe me when I say there are protocols which much be followed.> He smiled, and the expression promised great deeds of wickedness to the snow leopard. <Now, should you choose to give me the Grail, which you hide in your closet, then all this unpleasantness can be avoided.>

Ivan closed his eyes as he took a deep breath to steady himself. His father’s words echoing inside his head:

You must not allow the Devil to have the Grail.

<I cannot,> Ivan said, opening his eyes into slits, baring his fangs at the fox. <I will not!>

The Devil narrowed his eyes into slits as well, and for a split second Ivan feared he would spontaneously combust. When nothing happened, Ivan felt a glimmer of hope blossom inside his chest.

<You cannot directly harm me, can you?> Ivan asked.

<Normally I could,> the Devil replied, <but I will not lie, I cannot at this very moment.>

The hope grew in size. <The Grail protects me.>

The Devil chuckled again. <Keep on believing that, little snow leopard.> He crossed his legs at the thigh. <I will ask you to give me the Grail.>

Ivan shook his head. <No.>

<I will ask you a second time. Give me the Grail.>

Ivan swallowed down the lump forming in his throat. <No!>

<A third time. Give. Me. The. Grail.>

Ivan forced himself to stare the Devil right in the eyes. His throat was suddenly dry, and it took him a second to speak. <No!>

The Devil met Ivan's gaze with steadfast eyes, then smiled. <Three times I have asked,> he said. <Three times you have refused. I will be honest, I am impressed. Most would be shitting their pants right now, but not you.>

Ivan's ears twitched nervously. <Please go away.>

The Devil shook his head. <It's not going to be that easy. For the first time in a very long time, I have the opportunity to take the Grail.> He met Ivan's eyes, and the snow leopard felt light headed as terror gripped his heart with icy talons. <I will have it, and you will not be able to stop me.>

Ivan fought the urge to look away, and bared his fangs again in what he hoped was a fierce scowl. <Go away. Now.>

The Devil’s eyes grew wide with surprise. <The kitten has claws, eh?> He chuckled, and Ivan could feel the malice in it. <Very well, but trust me when I say this isn’t over.>

As suddenly as the Devil appeared, he vanished just as quickly.

Ivan collapsed to his knees, his legs no longer able to support his weight.

"Dude? Dude, why are you sitting on the floor?"

The question, in English, caught Ivan off-guard. He looked up at his hyena roommate, who had an uncharacteristically concerned look. For once, he didn't have the ever present beer can in his hand.  "I... I felt like sitting, Darryl."

"Dude, you're a terrible liar." Darryl crouched in front of Ivan. "What's wrong, man? You look like the doctor told you you got forty-eight hours to live, and he's been trying to reach you since yesterday."

Ivan looked away, his fingers finding the yin-yang pendant around his neck. A nervous habit he developed since living in America, and it had gotten worse since he discovered monsters--and worse-- were real. "You vould not understand, Darryl."

Darryl grinned. "Try me."

Ivan closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and exhaled it slowly. "I am in possession of the Holy Grail, and the Devil vants to take it from me." When he opened his eyes, he wasn't surprised to see Darryl frowning.

"Dude..."

Ivan nodded. "I told you you vould not understand me."

"Dude, the Devil was here? And I missed him?" Darryl tilted his head. "The Devil is a dude, right?" He tilted his head the other way. "And is that what you got hiding in your underwear drawer? The fuckin' Holy Grail?"

Ivan's eyes widened, unable to respond immediately. "You... you believe me?"

Darryl nodded. "Of course I do, dude! You're a terrible liar, remember? If you told me the sky was grass and the grass was the sky, I would totally believe you."

Ivan swallowed the lump in his throat. "Th-thank you, Darryl. Vhen I am no longer feeling terrified, I vill be forced to ask vhy you are going through my undervear."

Darryl shrugged. "Dude, I needed a clean pair, and Hopper's butt is too skinny for my ass. Yours are almost too tight for me, too."

Ivan blinked, and was surprised to find himself throwing back his head with laughter. Darryl was almost a foot and a half shorter than him, and his underwear barely fit the hyena?

Darryl stood up, holding out a hand. "See? Long as you can laugh, we got a chance."

Ivan took the paw, surprised at the hyena's strength as he helped him to his paws. "You... you are going to help me?"

Darryl smile turned into a grim line of determination as he nodded up to the snow leopard. "Dude, you're, like, one of the best roommates I've ever had. If something happened to you, and I knew I could've at least tried to help? I couldn't live with myself."

Ivan's eyes welled up for the second time that night. "You may not survive."

"Dude, I grew up in a huge-ass family. If I can survive that, I can survive anything."

Ivan's cell phone began to chime, and when he saw the number, it was Tank's. His heart almost leapt out of his chest with happiness. He was back from his vacation! "Hello?"

The impossibly deep voice of Tank's father responded. "Ivan, it is Julius."

"Mister Anthony? Vhere is Angus?" Angus was Tank's real name, a fact Ivan was surprised to remember.

"My wife is coming over to pick you up. Something has happened to my son."

CHAPTER TWO


Ivan always hated how hospitals didn't smell of anything. Even the cafeteria with the food it served seemed bland and antiseptic. He sat across from Tank’s father: a huge bull who would have dwarfed Jolly, a giant panda who towered over Ivan by several feet.

"Thank you for coming, Ivan," Tank’s father had his usual stoic tone to his voice. Even though the bull’s features betrayed no emotion, Ivan thought he could see the beginnings of exhaustion in his eyes.

"Vhat happened, sir?"

Tank’s father looked at his wife, a slim white lapin, for a moment then turned his gaze back to Ivan. "He was struck by a car." The exhaustion was now replaced with a nascent anger. "The driver kept on going."

"Hit and run? May I see him?" Tank’s mother had been silent throughout the drive and he didn't wish to upset her.

The anger blossomed into a red hot heat. "He is in a coma."

Ivan quailed at the thought. "Vill he be all right?"

"The doctors say he should not even be in a coma. We suspect… we suspect something else is going on. A mere collision with a car should not have incapacitated him so easily."

This explained why Tank’s extended family wasn't in the empty cafeteria with them, and Ivan’s mind raced with possibilities. Was this his fault? Was this the Devil’s handiwork? Did he put Tank in a coma to force him to relinquish the Grail?

"Ivan?"

The snow leopard blinked as Tank’s mother spoke. "D-da?"

"You know something, don’t you?"

"Da. Much has happened since your family has gone on vacation." He told them of the circumstances leading up to his becoming the Grail's keeper. Then, the told them about the ghostly visit from his father followed by that of the Devil. "But I do not know if this is coincidence or conspiracy."

Tank’s father lost all the anger in his eyes and it was replaced with pride. "You bring honor to your family, Ivan."

"I do not feel it, sir. All I feel is fear for everyone I care about."

Tank’s father nodded. "True heroism is going through the difficulty despite the fear. I do not know how to help you. Though, if you are a Finder, you will – no pun intended – find the solution in your own way."

Ivan’s heart sank like a rock in water. "You cannot help me?"

"My son needs me and my wife must keep her family safe from harm. I assume Jolly and Robey are still out of town?"

"Da, but I vill try to contact Arthur, Scowl, and twins Brooks and Brent."

"I hope they will be able to help you, but this is the Devil. He has had millennia at practicing his deceptive craft. He can quote Bible scripture when the need suits him."

"I am afraid, sir. How do I keep him from getting vhat he vants?"

Tank’s father reached over and squeezed Ivan’s shoulder. "By resisting temptation. Be strong, son. We have faith in you."

Ivan was filled with new found determination at those words, but a tiny part of him questioned if it would be enough. "May I see him?"

"Visiting hours are over but I politely requested for the staff to allow you a few minutes."

Ivan wondered if the bull’s great size had anything to do with convincing them to grant his request. Most likely, if the staff knew what was good for them. "Thank you, sir."

After getting Tank’s room number, he quietly made his way into the depths of the hospital. There was no one in the elevator, save for himself and his rampant thoughts. The cab ascended to Tank's floor. He took out his cell phone and tried to call Arthur: the once and future king of Camelot.

Static.

Ivan checked the signal, which turned out to be very weak. Still, there was a signal, so why would there be static? He decided to try Scowl’s number.

Static.

The twins.

Static.

While this could be explained, Ivan’s mind conceived a sinister reason: interference of the supernatural kind. The Devil did not want him finding assistance. King Arthur, from his centuries of life, would almost certainly know of a way to beat the infernal being. And while Scowl did not have such a long life, he would prove himself to be stubborn enough to beat the Devil at his own game. The twins? They shared a soul, and perhaps their special connection to each other would make a difference.

Of course, perhaps none of them could help him against the Devil, but somehow the lack of a cell phone connection gave him hope.

Perhaps the static was a sign: a sign that Ivan could win this challenge.

Or perhaps this was a tactic to make him overconfident.

Worry clouded his thoughts now; so much so he almost passed Tank’s room. He carefully opened the door, then realized he was silly for doing so. If he could wake his boyfriend by opening the door, he could have the large rabbit’s strength and iron will at his side.

He laid his eyes on Tank's unconscious form, dressed only in a hospital gown. His heart sank. Tank looked so helpless: so unlike the towering pillar of strength Ivan was used to seeing. As he approached the lapin, the realization struck him like lightning.

Ivan couldn't depend on Tank against this threat.

He was alone.

"Ivan?"

The snow leopard turned and saw Tank’s cousin and his other roommate, Brady, or – as he liked to be called – Hopper. "Bra – Hopper. I did not hear you come in."

Hopper approached the hospital bed. "I don’t blame you, dude. Seeing my cousin like this…" He fell silent for a moment, then continued: "I can’t believe Tank’s in a coma. I thought if he ever got hit by a car, the car would be more damaged than him." He looked up at Ivan, his eyes welling up with tears. "We were having such a fun time, Ivan. We were on a cruise ship. I got to scuba dive. I almost saw Uncle B smile." He looked back at Tank’s unconscious form. "But now he looks so sad."

Ivan squeezed Hopper’s shoulder, and the gesture opened up the floodgates of tears from the smaller lapin. He wrapped his arms around Ivan’s waist, crying against his chest. "Promise me you’ll find the bastard who did this."

Ivan froze. "M-me? Vhat can I do?"

Hopper looked up at the snow leopard with red-rimmed eyes. "I don’t know," he said, "but I just got a gut feeling you can do more than most."

Ivan was momentarily speechless. When he finally found his voice, he hugged Hopper tightly against his frame. "I promise, Hopper. I vill try."

He hoped his promise didn’t just damn himself to failure … or worse.

"You know," Hopper said in a hushed tone, "I still have nightmares about that night my pet lizard attacked me."

Ivan stiffened. He remembered that night all too well. Hopper’s pet lizard Cannon had died, but was reanimated by Koschei the Deathless. He made it attack Hopper, and had been able to possess him through means still unknown to the snow leopard.

"I still don’t know how I lost several hours of time. One minute I’m screaming at you to get Cannon off my face, and the next thing I remember is being sprawled out on the ground, completely unharmed and no sign of my pet lizard." He touched his cheek, the one previously ripped apart by the lizard, then magically healed by Koschei the Deathless. "I didn’t even have a scratch. I never asked what happened because I didn’t want to know, and I still don’t."

Ivan swallowed away the lump that formed in his throat. "Then vhy… vhy bring this up?"

Hopper slowly rubbed his cheek, as if expecting it to be scarred. "Because I have a feeling you were involved and that you know what happened." He dropped his hand to his side and looked up at Ivan. "I’m still here because you did something, and I think you can do something to help Tank."

Ivan fought the frown that tried to form on his features. "I have already said I vill try. Vhat more can I promise?"

Hopper shook his head. "That’s more than enough," he said. "If there’s anything I can do to help, though…"

Ivan placed both hands on Hopper’s shoulders. "Stay vith family. Tank’s father is a strong man, but not very fast."

Hopper smirked up at Ivan. "That’s what you think, dude."

"Oh." He released Hopper’s shoulders but, then, had another thought: to keep the lapin close to Tank’s father where he stood a greater chance at being safe. "Vell … he might need second pair of hands. You have hands, da? You can help to best of your ability."

Hopper nodded in agreement. "Yeah, I get what you’re saying." He looked back at Tank. "I better go back down with Uncle B. And you better get some sleep. You look worn out."

Ivan rubbed the bridge of his muzzle. "It has been night of trying."

Hopper reached up to pat Ivan’s broad shoulder. "I think you mean it’s been a trying night."

Ivan nodded wearily. "Da. It has been trying night." More so than Hopper would ever believe.

"Go home and get some sleep. I’ll show up when things are better for Tank."

They walked in silence out of the room and entered the elevator down the hall. As the cab descended back to the main floor, Hopper said "And Ivan? One day I’m gonna want to know what happened to me. You think you’ll be able to tell me?"

Ivan stared straight ahead, afraid to look Hopper in the eye. "I do not know, Hopper."

"Yeah, but don’t worry. That answer tells me I don’t want to know for a long time."

They entered the cafeteria. Hopper sat down next to his aunt while Tank’s father turned his attention to Ivan. "Are you ready to go home?"

"Da, though I feel guilty for not staying."

Tank’s father stood up from the floor and Ivan was reminded of just how large the bull was. Tank was a good foot taller than him. Jolly, Tank’s step-brother, was at least three feet taller than him. Their father was about two feet shy of being twice Ivan’s height.

"You are exhausted, and you have important things that have your concern." He tilted his head towards the exit. "Walk with me."

As they left the cafeteria and exited the hospital, Ivan looked up at the giant bull. "Are you certain you cannot help me, sir?" He winced at how desperate he sounded, but the Devil had him in his sights. How could he not sound desperate?

Tank’s father reached down and gripped Ivan’s shoulders. "My not inconsiderable strength will be of no use to you. You will triumph over this."

"I am vorried I vill fail."

Tank’s father slowly shook his head. "You will not. There is a strength in you. You have survived two immortal entities. You will survive this one."

Ivan stood a bit straighter. "I vill not allow the Grail to fail into the wrong hands."

Tank’s father nodded his head, and there was a hint of a smile on his normally stoic expression. "I have faith you will keep that promise." He looked into the distance. "We have arranged for transportation to your apartment. You can trust him."

"Spaceba, sir. I vill call you vhen I vake up."

Tank’s father released Ivan’s shoulders then stifled a yawn. "Perhaps I shall rest as well. Your ride will arrive soon, Ivan. Be careful."

Five minutes after the bull reentered the hospital, a cherry red sports car pulled up alongside Ivan, and the driver’s side window whirred down to reveal a Doberman with snow white fur. "Hey, you must be Ivan," he said. "Mister Anthony said you needed a ride somewhere?"

Ivan was taken aback, having never seen a white doberman in his life. "D-da, I am needing ride to apartment."

"Name’s Kilo--yeah, like a kilo of cocaine. My parents even told me that’s why they gave me the name, they were horrible people. Hop on in!"

Ivan went around and entered the car. Kilo gave him a lingering look, long enough to make Ivan feel very uncomfortable. "V-vhat is matter?"

"Sorry, but I’ve never seen a snow leopard as big as you. You gonna be okay? You look kind of cramped."

Ivan shook his head. "Is all right. I have been in tinier cars. May ve please go?"

Kilo chuckled and started maneuvering the car onto the road and towards Ivan’s apartment. "Sure thing, champ. I’m not gonna lie, I’m one hell of a driver. We’ll be there in no time."

Ivan knew it was the truth as the car went from a snail’s pace to the speed limit in two seconds. "I-I do not mind if you take time to get there."

"Sorry, cat. I’m not a patient pup."

CHAPTER THREE


Ivan's eyes fluttered open in the darkness. He lifted his head from the cold concrete floor and a spike of pain ran through his temples. He laid his head back down with a quiet groan. What had happened? The last thing he remembered was being in the car with the doberman… what was his name? Kyrro? Kibo? No, it was Kilo!

As if on cue, he heard the doberman’s voice somewhere in the dark. "Ivan? Are you okay?" Kilo’s voice sounded as bad as Ivan felt.

"I...I do not know. It hurts to lift my head." He tried again to sit up and, while the pain was still very much present, it was almost manageable. He peered around into the darkness. "Are you hurt?"

"My head hurts like hell. What happened? I don’t remember."

A flash of memory increased the pain behind his eyes. They were on the way to his apartment, when Kilo swerved to avoid an obstacle on the road. One that hadn’t been there moments before. A robed figure.

And then: nothing. Until now.

"There vas someone on the road," Ivan said.

"Yeah...I swerved to avoid her."

Ivan rubbed the back of his neck. "Her? How do you know it vas female?"

"Everyone’s a woman on the Internet, right? Same thing can apply to real life. if there’s any doubt."

Ivan cracked a smile. "You are remarkably humorous given situation."

"Better than panicking and letting them have the advantage."

He had a point. "So, vhere are ve?"

"No clue. Our voices aren’t echoing, so it’s a small room, maybe? Night vision isn’t working. No light sources to speak of."

Ivan slowly got to his feet and stretched his arms out in front of him, finding nothing but air. He stood still, not wanting to trip over hidden obstacles. "I am sorry, Kilo."

"Sorry? For what?"

The robed figure had to be from the Devil. And now they were caught. "I fear I have involved you in my troubles."

"The kind of troubles that require hostages? Well, you do live an interesting life, huh?"

"You have no idea, sir."

"Try me." Even under the circumstances his voice contained a hint of amusement.

"I do not vish to involve you too much."

"It’s a bit too late for that, isn’t it? I seem to be very involved in whatever’s going on."

"Still, the less you know may keep you safe."

"And the less I know might get me in deeper trouble."

Ivan tried to think of a proper rebuttal but couldn’t come up with anything. "The Devil desires something I have."

"You’re kidding me. The Devil? Really?"

"I am serious."

"Okay, so what is it you have?"

"I have Holy Grail."

Silence, then: "I’m being punked, aren’t I? No, wait, the potential whiplash I got means I’m not. You really have the Holy Grail? The cup Christ drank from? How the hell did that happen?"

"It is long story."

"That’s not a problem right now. We might be here a while."

Fear gripped Ivan’s heart. Kilo had a point. There was no way of knowing how long they would be imprisoned. So he told Kilo everything. His first encounter with the supernatural in the form of Koschei the Deathless. His forced quest for the Holy Grail. And then his meeting with the Devil himself.

"Damn, Ivan, you’ve met legends. I mean, King Arthur? Seriously?"

Kilo reminded Ivan of Daryl. He seemed to fully accept what was going on without hesitation. Something Ivan had difficulty with, even when presented with proof. He still found it hard to believe the Grail even existed, and it was hidden in his underwear drawer. "I never asked to meet these legends. All I ever vanted vas a simple existence."

"If you had a simple existence, then you’d probably never hooked up with your rabbit boyfriend."

Ivan closed his eyes. It wasn’t as if he could see in the darkness anyway. "I vorry about him alvays. Vhy does he have to fight monsters?"

"If he’s anything like his dad, he’s probably very qualified."

"I still vorry. There are things out there. Like the Devil."

"And there are people out there like you. That’s why he fights. For you."

Ivan grew silent. Kilo had a point yet again.

Encouraged by the silence, Kilo continued. "I’m not going to lie to you, Ivan. I don’t know what it’s like to have someone who loves you so much he’s willing to fight for it. Sure, it’s dangerous, but he’s doing it for you."


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