I stepped towards Sophia and examined her. Neither of us spoke; she glared at me through tears of fear and frustration and I ran my eyes lingeringly over her body. She was beautiful, and helpless. I felt my blood grow hot within my veins, a throbbing pulse that forced my breath to ragged gasps. My every muscle tensed in pure anticipation. Slowly, like a beast of prey about to throw its body forward in a violent, deadly pounce, I crept towards her. I could hear the cadence of her breath, a panicked, shallow rhythm born of terror at her utter inability to sway her fate, and as I leaned my body over hers and let my hand caress the smooth, soft skin above her breast, I heard her gasp in pleasure and surprise.
Her composure seemed at once to leave her as I slid my left arm behind her and my right to her own wrist, drawing her into a tight embrace. She fought me, and I unlocked the cuff, pinning her wrist to the table. She struggled, and I chastised her.
“Remember that what I do not do to you I will do to your sister.”
The struggles ceased, though I could see from her eyes that she repressed the urge to fight me by a monumental effort.
“Now hold me, and kiss me like you mean it,” I instructed.
I let her arm go and she wrapped it around me, allowing me to kiss her and returning it spectacularly. I switched hands and raised myself away from her enough to break the kiss. I could hear the anguish in her ragged, panting breath, hot and fast and bordering on sobs. I knew she was about to break, and was fighting it in order to protect her sister.
“Don’t hit me, okay?” I said, and freed her right hand. She wrapped the arm around me and drew herself tightly to my chest, on the verge of tears. I held her firmly, and took a step (bringing her off the table) so that I could unbind her ankles. She dropped her legs to the ground and stood, leaning into me. Her shoulders shook, and I realized she was crying. I caressed her back, running my hand over her exposed shoulder blades.
“There, there,” I said. “It’ll be okay.” She pushed against me and started to pull her dress down over her shoulders. I stopped her.
“It’s okay, Sophia. I’m not hell-bent on raping you.”
She fought against me, desperate to give me what she had convinced herself was the only thing she could that would make me spare her sister. I pressed her body firmly against my own, preventing her and only tightening my grip as she tried wildly to pull away. She was sobbing violently now, and as I had to tighten my grip further she cried out in pain. I did not relinquish.
“Sophia, I will not trade Maria’s welfare for your cunt.” I felt her taught, straining muscles suddenly go limp in exhaustion, and she was like a vulnerable ragdoll in my arms. I was sorely tempted to take advantage of her weakness, of her helplessness. My blood sang, and I pressed her chest against my own, feeling her firm, tight, perfect breasts against my body. I held her tightly, and as I did so I could feel the sobs that racked her.
“It’s okay, Sophie. I’m not going to hurt your sister. Come here.”
I pulled her over to where Maria was still cuffed to the bed. By the time I had released her twin, Sophia’s sobs had wholly abated, and she stood upright on her own. The girls embraced. Maria hugged me.
“Thank you, John.” She kissed me on the cheek. “You’re a good man.”
Sophia looked at me with suspicion.
“You turned on us,” she said.
“Not the way I could have,” I replied.
“Sophie, he could have raped us and he chose not to,” Maria interjected.
“I told you if you ever touched my sister again I would kill you.”
Maria moved in front of me.
“Sophie, what are you doing?”
“I won’t be used and manipulated by a power-hungry pervert. It’s time for him and the doctor both to get what’s coming to them.”
“Sophie, he released us. He could have sided with the doctor, but he chose to help us out.”
“He did side with the doctor. He threatened you and made me talk because of it.”
“And if he hadn’t then the doctor would have done far worse,” Maria countered. I put a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s okay, Maria. Your sister’s right about me.”
I stood there and met Sophia’s gaze.
“The doctor said he wanted me to lead a mission for him. Giving you two to me was a gesture designed no doubt to win me over. I’ll remind you, Sophia, that I could have easily taken advantage of you. With your sister at my mercy you were prepared to offer me anything I wanted. I declined that offer and freed her because it was the right thing to do.”
Sophia said nothing. I could see she still distrusted me.
“The doctor’s plan is to hold Maria hostage until I bring back whatever it is he’s looking for. If you don’t want to help me, I can understand that, but I suggest we put our differences aside until we can ensure Maria’s safety.”
Sophia’s gaze never wavered. Her voice was cold.
“We are not friends, Naissance. You appear to have won Maria’s blessing, so for the time being I will help you. As soon as we have the chance to go our separate ways, I intend to leave and take my sister with me.”
“Understood,” I said. “I hope that I might change your mind eventually, but for now your cooperation will suffice.”
I looked at her for several seconds. Then I turned and started searching the room. I found none of our gear, but I did find plenty of tools. Remembering my previous encounter with the doctor, I decided it would be best to wait for him rather than trying to break out. I at least wanted to hear what he had to say, and I’d promised him my cooperation in exchange for Maria’s safety. Perhaps I could maneuver for her freedom also.
We sat in silence for fifteen minutes before the doctor returned. Maria assumed a Lotus position and appeared to be meditating. Sophia sat uneasily on one of the beds. I paced.
When the door opened, I turned in time to see Sophia standing. Maria’s eyes flicked open, but she did not move. All three of us watched the doctor and Ivan as they entered.
“Have you succeeded in securing their loyalty, then, Mr. Naissance?” the doctor inquired.
“I chose to release them, didn’t I?”
“Very well, then,” he responded. “I shall determine for myself if what you say is true. Girls, kneel before Mr. Naissance.”
Ivan stepped forward menacingly. Maria’s eyes flicked toward him, then met my own. I held my hand out, and she unfolded from the counter, taking it and touching one knee to the ground. I drew her up and guided her to my right-hand side. She stood just slightly behind me. Then I met Sophia’s eyes. She strode to my left side and knelt before standing on her own. The doctor smiled.
“Most impressive.” He motioned, and Ivan stepped towards Maria. I blocked him.
“I’m not leaving her here. I don’t trust you.”
“Believe me, Mr. Naissance, I will take good care of her,” the doctor said. “I wouldn’t want to lose your loyalty, now would I?”
I heard an amused undertone in his voice, and I let my own become iron.
“If you want my loyalty you will have to do better than that.”
“Very well, then. I give you my word as a gentleman.”
I just glared at him. Ivan moved forward, and I threw a punch. He caught my hand effortlessly in his own and redirected me right past him in the manner of a skilled martial artist. I fell forward on my side and tried to sweep his legs out from under him. I might as well have tried the maneuver on a telephone pole. He picked me up and threw me bodily against the wall. Pain exploded through my body, and I stayed down.
“Be careful not to damage him, Ivan. I need him fit for travel.” The doctor’s voice was cold and calculating. I spat blood onto the rough wooden boards of the floor, pushing myself to rise up and stand against him like a man. My arms gave out, and I collapsed. Slowly, resolutely, I drew my hands back under me and pushed myself back up again, and this time, I pushed through the pain and through the weakness and through the spasms, pulling myself upright with the last vestiges of my strength. The room, or rather what blurry remnant of it remained perceptible to my vision after Ivan’s blow, was swaying as it spun, and I clutched desperately at the desk to stabilize myself. Somehow, I remained upright. The room spun, and then it settled. I realized the doctor was saying something, but the words dissolved into a miasma of sound and color and light before they reached me, whatever meaning they had carried lost in my perception. Ivan laughed, and I seized upon some implement that lay beneath my hand, hurling it towards the source of the sound. I heard a startled cry of pain and then the doctor’s lancing voice, commanding Ivan to restrain himself. I scrabbled for another weapon, and felt a hand close around my wrist as I found one. The doctor’s face loomed in front of me.
“That will be quite enough, Mr. Naissance. You’ve demonstrated admirable strength; however, I believe that it is time for you to give up before I allow Ivan to do something unpleasant to your friends.”
I released my grip on the pliers, and the doctor let my wrist go as my vision refocused. I saw that Ivan was developing a nice goose egg on his shaved scalp and smiled. He didn’t respond.
“Now then, if you are done being unpleasant, I will tell you once more that Maria will be safe with me. I will take good care of her; you have my word. I know that you may not respect that, but I do.” He retrieved the key from my pocket and put it in his own. “Complete the mission, and you can have it back,” he said. Then he turned and strode through the door into his office. I followed, and so did Sophie. Ivan took Maria into a side room. I met Sophia’s eyes and saw only malice. The girl hated me, and I supposed she had good reason. I let my shoulders sag as we stepped into the study. This day had been a long one already.
The doctor had already fetched a book and opened it to show us hand-drawn sketches of some kind of crystal. I raised an eyebrow.
“You want us to find a gem?”
“Not just any gem, Mr. Naissance. A very special gem. It is called the Heart of Winter, and it resides in the Verkhoyansk mountains, within a very inaccessible system of caverns that stretches deeper than even I have ever been. I first saw the gem some twenty years ago and since then it has become important to me that I acquire it. If you can bring it back here I will release Maria and you can go on your way as though you never heard of me. Does that sound like a fair deal?”
I looked at him suspiciously.
“Why didn’t you bring it back with you the first time that you saw it?” I inquired.
“I was otherwise occupied at the time with a number of geode specimens and some heavy metals which were of greater immediate value. Now, however, the gem’s value has gone up. It’s quite valuable in and of itself, but I want it for other reasons which I feel no need to explain to you. All you need to know is the terms of my offer: the gem for the girl, and you never hear from me again unless you want to.”
“I think I can handle that, believe me. Do you have a map of these caverns?”
“Only a partial one.” He handed me a small, leather-bound book. “I expect you to keep a journal of your experiences during the expedition, as it will take several days of spelunking and should give you a chance to map a very minimally explored cave system beneath the Verkhoyansks. I expect a good map along with detailed scientific observations; I understand you’re something of a geologist, are you not?”
“As a hobby,” I replied, leafing through the book. I found a sketchy map that clearly marked a number of caverns and seemed to suggest several others.
“I cannot stress the importance of the geological data enough. I must know what is going on near that tectonic rift, and readings and observations from that deep within the earth are difficult to come by. If you bring me a well-kept journal I will make it worth your while financially, no strings attached.”
“Very generous, I’m sure. I’ll find your gem, doctor, and keep a journal, besides, if you can promise me one thing: in the event that I do not return, you must release Maria.”
“Of course, my boy, of course, but you will return no matter what you say. I have faith in you. I’d never have chosen you otherwise.”
I looked at the doctor, sitting there in his chair with a pipe, and in that moment I found it somehow impossible to hate him. Somehow, there was a disconnect between the man he was now and the man he had been earlier.
This Victorian gentleman, renowned for his adventures and research, could not be the same Nazi sociopath who had tortured Maria not two hours ago. His appearance and demeanor had wholly transformed. No doubt, the visage was the same, but the man who wore it seemed to switch roles like an actor. I wondered which was the true Mordred Phain. Probably both, I decided. People have a way of denying their own inconsistencies that enables them to act as they wish in any situation. I decided to play my final card.
“Doctor, you seem a reasonable man. I think it’s clear that Maria is more loyal to me than Sophia, and that she and I will work together better. On top of that, Sophia’s injured, and she needs time to rest. Might I suggest that you keep her and allow her sister to go with me?”
The doctor was already shaking his head.
“I’m afraid that simply isn’t possible, John. I can’t explain all of my reasons to you at the moment, but you’ll have to trust me when I say that you and Sophia will just have to manage.”
I nodded my head, never really having expected that the doctor would agree. It had been a long shot.
“Was there anything else?”
“No. That’s it.”
“Then I’ll have Ivan give you back your weapons, and you can get on your way. Good luck, Mr. Naissance. You’ll need it.”
I left the doctor’s office with fresh supplies, plenty of cash, and two one-way tickets to Moscow. Sophia agreed to meet me at the airport in the morning. That night, I slept fitfully, troubled by the last words he had spoken. Good luck, he’d wished me. I wondered if I’d need it.