The Last Dance
"Don't ever touch me," she spat. "It is never going to happen again, you hear, never. Don't . . . don't even think about it. Are you even listening to me?" Kroenen sat at his desk writing, but at Ilsa's last attack he set down his pen carefully. He took notes in an unearthly script, and the page swam before Ilsa's eyes when she looked at it. "I'm sure everyone in the building can hear you," he replied without looking up. "I will do nothing against your will." He looked up, and Ilsa gasped as his eyes met hers. "You made a creditable impression of a woman enjoying herself, but looks can be deceiving." Ilsa opened her mouth to frame some rebuttal, but then closed it again and settled instead for flouncing out of the room and slamming the door. Kroenen smiled to himself after she left. This was the dance she liked to dance.
The speech this time was a verbatim repetition of the one she gave him three years ago. She would avoid him for a time, then find excuses to come back into his presence, and finally do something drastic to get his attention. Twice she killed one of his slaves. Once she destroyed an experiment (he changed the locks on his laboratory after that). Twice she seduced one of his political contacts, and once arranged for Kroenen to walk in on them. Then he would bow to the inevitable, and take her to bed and the bloody dance would begin again. The muscle in his left thigh burned now as it knitted itself back together, the wound a souvenir from their most recent tryst. He would get many things accomplished over the next weeks without her presence. He planned to let her do her research in peace, not to call on the link between them. He wondered idly if she knew he could sense every new lover she took, every time she tried to blot out the memories that way. Ilsa shook with anger as she slammed the door, but then it left, and she her composure dissolved into giggles. Thank goodness for the soundproof door on his study--his gibe that the whole house could hear her was empty, and now he couldn't hear her laughing. Each time she insisted "never again" she looked more ridiculous than the one before, but this was the pattern she had chosen to walk. She still felt a certain amount of disgust in those long moments, during what she could only think of as After. After, when her hands were covered with his blood and he grew soft inside her--she shuddered to think of it--but she craved the Before. She walked back to the library and as she did the image of her incubus rose up in her mind. These days he seemed to sit by her side continually, his image visible in her peripheral vision, but gone when she turned her head. She knew so much about him now; she read his diaries, his histories, even traveled to Moscow and spoke with those who remembered him. His name had ceased to seem ridiculous to her and had become instead a mantra: Rasputin. She though she could feel his breath on her neck when she opened the newest book, a present from an old lady she had met in Moscow.
At first she thought the woman was crazy--she sat in a bucket and pretended to row herself along with a long stick--but this book was the real thing. Ilsa could feel the blood in the ink calling out to her and she had nearly snatched it out of the woman's hands. Ilsa already knew the rituals she would need to summon Rasputin back for his second life, but she lacked some vital artifact, some remnant of his former life that would draw him back to the world of the living. It was, in fact, his blood that formed the letters of this book, but that wasn't enough. His murderers had written this account of his death in hopes to bind him from returning, but they inadvertently revealed something. All of him has slipped below the ice, save this grisly token, which Piotr wanted to keep as a memento. The item has some mystical power of defense. He has fled West with it, escaping those demon spirits bent on revenge. Ilsa read. She knew the rest of the story, how all of Rasputin's murderers died grisly deaths in the uprising that followed, but she had not heard of this Piotr. She wondered what part of Rasputin's body Piotr had escaped with, then clapped her hands to her mouth to stifle her laughter. Rasputin's killers had castrated him--perhaps that was the flesh they meant. She told herself sternly to be serious; anyway, Rasputin had promised her in dreams that he would come back whole. Ilsa read the whole testimony as quickly as she could. If the identity of this Piotr could be ascertained, and he were alive he might solve two problems at once. One of the key ingredients of Rasputin's resurrection ritual was the life's blood of three minor Russian nobles. Underground in the library Ilsa could not see light failing, but she felt the turning tide of darkness covering the streets of Berlin and she became more alert. It was her hunting time. She finished the last page and closed the volume. The information she had garnered told her this Piotr was likely Piotr Illyavich, one of the friends of tsar Nicholas's oldest son. She had heard of this Piotr cutting a swath through Paris actresses ten years ago, but if he was still there, his exploits no longer filtered through the gossip channels back to Berlin. Perhaps Karl would know. She stood up from her couch and went into the office where she had left him. Usually she would knock, but she was still too annoyed at him and herself for the previous night's escapade, so she barged in. He sat tinkering with one of his masks. He had been altering them over the years so they suggested the lines of a death's head more and more. When he wore the latest incarnation of the mask with the uniform of the SS--his own design--he looked like Death personified--or some kind of SS mascot.
He looked up at her for a moment then bent his attention back to the mask. He shone a penlight into the eye sockets and made minor adjustment to the system of mirrors that gave him 360-degree vision when he wore it. Ilsa watched his attenuated fingers making their subtle adjustments for a moment before speaking. Three years of association with him had taught her that he would not ask her business; he would simply ignore her until she spoke, and continue to ignore her if she said nothing useful. "I have the last piece," she announced. He looked up at her, and under his piercing gaze she had to amend her statement. "Well, I know where the last piece is. If we find it, we can complete the ritual at the next new moon." "Come here," he said. "I need to make sure." Sometimes Kroenen could tell when she had uncovered a major secret simply from the change in energy around her; sometimes he had to touch her skin to skin to be sure. It annoyed him that there was no rhyme or reason to these shifts, merely the whim of the elder gods, but he consoled himself that it was because she female. Ilsa walked over, every step telegraphing defiance, and held out her hand as if Kroenen were about to put a slug on it. He touched his fingers to her pulse lightly--not that it mattered where, but he liked to feel her heart jump slightly at the contact. He did not feel that reaction this time, instead a vision of Ilsa in the arms of a fur robed barbarian with a nimbus of otherworldly light around him filled Kroenen's vision. He withdrew quickly, his heart hammering. "Yes," he said when he was sure his voice would be steady, "you have found the last piece. What is it?" "I need to find Piotr Illyavich. He has some piece of The Master's flesh, which will serve to call him to us during the ritual. Can you get, uh, your people, to find him?" Kroenen put his fingers to his lips and smiled slightly. "No need. Piotr Illyavich is number 168 of my homemade army. He is in one of the tanks." Ilsa looked about wildly. "I need to talk to him," she demanded. "Their speech faculties do not survive the transition. What is it you need of him? I might get it from his mind yet," Kroenen said. "He had a piece of Rasputin's flesh with him. According to my research he would have carried it with him everywhere. Did you save his effects?" She advanced on Kroenen as if to shake the information from him. "I remember. It was a pickled bit of, ah, reproductive tissue. I didn't sense anything mystical about it, but I saved it somewhere, I'm sure." Kroenen's face took on the distant look it got when he was communing with one of his servants, then his attention focused back on Ilsa. "It's at the castle in Bavaria. Otto will go fetch it." Ilsa started pacing the room. "The new moon is in five days. I can get the other sacrifices. Be ready." Before Kroenen could say anything else she left the room. He was unaccustomed to taking orders, but could find no fault in anything she had said. The Master was vital to their work and the gods demanded his return.
There was no reason to delay, and yet, Kroenen felt a dim sense of foreboding fill him with the growing dark. Ilsa slept not at all in the five days leading up to the ritual. She barely spoke or thought and felt as if some alien force moved through her--she watched herself making all the preparations as a spectator. With ruthless practicality, she found the three Russian men she needed for the sacrifice, and chained them up in the house's dungeons. Otto retrieved Rasputin's reliquary, a small jar of liquid that contained his embalmed member. Ilsa shuddered looking at it, and some deeply buried part of her cried out to stop this tide of occult madness, but she had been silencing that part of herself for three years, and would not falter now. She composed a document of her reconstruction of the ritual and left it on Kroenen's desk while he was out looking over the latest SS recruits. One hour before the appointed time she barged into his office again with a black velvet robe. "You need to wear this." Kroenen looked at it with disgust. "Must I? It smacks of cheap theater." "I don't want anything to go wrong. Just wear it." She frowned as if her attention were elsewhere. "What are you wearing?" he asked. "Nothing," she said, exasperated. "Didn't you read my instructions?" She rolled her eyes. "Just be ready." The zenith of moon dark found them in the rough-hewn chamber in the deepest recesses of the catacombs that Kroenen used for a temple when such things were necessary. He used it but rarely; the trappings of ritual magic seemed silly and superstitious to him and he avoided them whenever possible. He wore the robe with distaste, but the severe black did in fact suit him. He would have worn his mask, too, had Ilsa not specifically forbidden it. When Kroenen entered the chamber, the sacrifices were already strung up by their wrists at three of the points of the pentangle on the floor. Tall candles in ornate iron candleholders stood at the other points. The first part of the ritual called for the Norse blood eagle to be performed on these men. It was a gruesome death usually reserved for traitors and oath breakers. Appropriate perhaps, thought Kroenen, if the Russian Magus viewed these men as one with his murderers. The blood eagle sacrifice involved cutting between the victim's ribs and pulling the lungs out of his back so they resembled wings. Sometimes it took the victims a few days to die while their lungs dried out, but often they died immediately of shock.
Ilsa sat naked on the altar and looked at him expectantly. Kroenen took his boning knife out of his robe and began the night's grisly work. The men's screams would not penetrate beyond the rock of the chamber, but they were distracting. Still, Kroenen could not risk the small spell to quiet them; Ilsa's instructions had been strict on that point, so he felt rather than heard the growing power of her chants behind him. Unlike his usual delicate work, this required brute strength with no finesse. His arms grew tired as he wrestled with the pink flesh and his hands grew slippery with blood. Finally the sacrifice was finished, and the men made into hideous parodies of birds whimpered on the edges of the circle. Kroenen could feel the power the ritual had gathered already, and it was time for the next step. With the blood of the victims on his hands he started painting the runes and symbols on Ilsa's body. When he was finished she extended the daggers at her wrists and cut the robes from him. Then, continuing to chant her spells beneath her breath, she carved those same symbols onto his body as she climbed up astride him on top of the altar. As usual the pain aroused him and he started to pull her to him in rhythm, but she spoke a spell to paralyze him. She took up Piotr's jar, held it high above her head, and smashed it down in the center of the pentangle. Then she release Kroenen from her spell, and rode back and forth on him. Kroenen felt her on top of him and the blood from a dozen cuts covering the slick stone of the altar. His hands on her hips left bloody prints. He wanted to cover her with his blood, mark her forever, but her instructions and her will held him fast. The symbols painted on her must not be marred. As their movements grew more frenzied a breeze began to flow through the room. The victims, now silent, started to sway in their bindings and the candle flames to flicker. The wind reached gale force as they orgasmed, and Ilsa looked up to see the naked figure of a man standing where the smashed jar had been. His body was covered with the blood of the sacrifices but he was the man from her dreams, her goal for the past three years: Grigori Rasputin. Kroenen saw him too, this blood covered apparition. Rasputin took one step over to where Ilsa still sat astride Kroenen, clasped her face in his hands, and kissed her deeply. If Ilsa had been watching Kroenen's face for some sign of feeling as she had every day before she would have seen his face contract in pain, but she was not. Rasputin drew her up and off of Kroenen and into his bloody arms. Her white skin became smeared with red as they embraced violently. "My love," he said in a thick Russian accent. "I am yours, Grigori. Forever," said Ilsa.
"You no longer need these," said Grigori, and with a fingertip severed the leather binding her knives to her wrists. They fell to the floor with a clatter. Without looking back at Kroenen, they left the temple, left him still naked and bleeding on the altar. He sat up slowly, and now the cuts were pure pain. Gritting his teeth, he willed them to turn pleasurable again, but they would not. The wounds stung and ached and he felt bereft and confused like a child of ten again, with a skinned knee. He picked up the knives he had given Ilsa from where they lay on the floor. They were too small for him, sized as they were for her, but they could be altered. The room was empty of power now; merely a dark and bloody theater, and the victims hanging in their fetters were dead. Kroenen wrapped himself in the discarded robe and went up to his laboratory. Bloody footprints showed the path Ilsa and Grigori had taken through the house, but when Kroenen reached out through his tie to her, he found it severed, like the leather straps of her knife. Grimly he picked up a needle and thread and started to sew himself back together
* * *