Chapter 16: To Break the Cycle

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"I can't believe that worked," said Jane. Every inch of her shook with triumph. "Reverse psychology's amazing."

She shook out her arms, reveling in her newfound ability to move. She was free again—gloriously, wondrously free. Nikolay's presence no longer lurked in her mind like a storm cloud.

She looked up. Nikolay was watching her from the other side of the podium, a few paces away from the Book of Truths. His face betrayed little, but there was definitely shock in his dark eyes.

"Explain," he said, in a cold, deadly voice.

Jane met his gaze, her expression going equally cold.

"You think you're so incredibly smart," she said. "You've spent your entire life convinced that your powers made you better, put you above everyone around you. Well, guess what? You've just been outsmarted. You wished to be a god. But ordinary gods can't Write in the Book of Truths, and they can't influence what an avtorka writes either. Which means you can't stop me from doing what I'm about to do next."

Jane picked up the pen again.

"Wait!" Nikolay lunged around the podium. His hand closed around her wrist.

Dimly, Jane registered the flaw in her plan. True, Nikolay could no longer control her mind or force her to write in the Book of Truths for him, but he was now a god. He could still use his powers to prevent her from Writing anything else.

"Stop!" cried a familiar voice. "Get away from my sister!"

Power exploded from the front of the temple, shooting toward Nikolay like an arrow.

"Phillip!" said Jane.

Nikolay spun to face the threat. He blocked the attack almost languidly, with a flick of his fingers, and sent it soaring back toward Phillip. It missed Phillip's head by inches and struck one of the marble columns that lined the front of the temple, sending a rain of debris crashing down upon the tiles.

"Not a step closer," Nikolay warned.

Phillip held his hands up in surrender, his face pale. "I know you hate me." His voice was unnaturally calm, the sort of voice one might use trying to pacify a rabid tiger. "You have no reason to trust me, but listen. I'm only here to help. I only want to make sure this process is fair, and ensure useful Writings get Written—"

"As if you have any notion of what constitutes good Writings," Nikolay hissed. "You don't belong in this world—you will never belong here—"

Jane, all this time, had been edging the quill toward its pot of ink, trying to take advantage of Nikolay's distraction. Before she could dip it in the inkwell, Nikolay's head swiveled toward her. "Don't move," he said icily. "If you do..."

But before he could finish his sentence, a loud BANG! shook the temple, and Sidor, Divna, and Avdotya materialized in the entrance.

Sidor had seen better days. His gold hair was ragged, his normally-bright armor spattered with mud, and his eyes held a wildness Jane had never seen. If he was still under the influence of Nikolay's sleeping spell, he showed no sign of it. Divna and Avdotya stood on either side of him, grasping his arm; it looked like they'd been in the middle of trying to subdue him when they'd teleported.

As Jane watched, heart in her throat, Sidor wrenched himself free of Divna's grasp (Avdotya let go of his other arm hurriedly). "You!" he snarled at Nikolay. "What do you think you're playing at?"

"We all felt the Writing." That was Avdotya. A familiar peevish whine laced her tone, and the ruffles on her layer-cake dress shook with rage. "How dare you style yourself a god, you miserable mortal?"

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