The elevator ride down to the vaults was an uncomfortable affair to say the least.
Wind sat, folded in between Leshy’s bulk and Vodianoi’s bones, and contemplated the surroundings with academic interest even as the drop threatened to introduce his insides to those around him. The elevator cabin was a relic of some long-gone administrator’s passion for Russian history, modeled on the royal carriages used by Peter the Great and those of his court – virginal white paneling, gilded leaf carvings that spun both its interior and exterior, plush maroon cushions that somewhat dulled the effect of the eventual stop – and a center of more than a few scandals and accusations of bourgeois tendencies during the communist times. The control panel, on which one could choose the floor and desired speed of descent, was the only sign of modernity. It wasn’t so much the design, which showed signs of age and disrepair – the gold chipped in more places than not, the cushions worn-through and patched with careless, mismatching colours, several of the plastic buttons of the control panel melted into black nubs by lighters, and rude, three-letter words etched into the white wood by caring hands – but their escort that intrigued Wind.
Svarog, the ancient god of fire and blacksmithing, once the main deity of the pagan Slav tribes, was an imposing and majestic figure, especially when framed by six Mrakobeses, demons of darkness and degeneration with modified Kalshnikov rifles resting between their knees. The old god, his long white hair and beard pleated into numerous tails each bound with a cast-iron ring, and his retinue regarded the three friends with thinly veiled hate. The Mrakobeses, Wind knew, despised anyone and everything without prejudice, such was their nature, but Svarog’s dislike was a far more interesting occurrence. Wind had heard somewhere that the old deity was the first non-human being to seek professional help from the Institute’s psychologist, who, until then, killed his boredom with vodka and, after, made a head-spinning career in the field of parapsychology. Svarog, it was said, resented deeply his new life of servitude as Chief Security Officer and High Machinist at the Institute.
The cabin came to an abrupt and screeching halt, Wind’s head smashed squarely into the ceiling and the fire god spat ‘Out!’ through gritted teeth. They had arrived at the lowest levels of the Institute, a place seldom visited and the subject of much rumours and unbelievable tales.
Wind trooped out behind Leshy into the gloom, feeling the butt of a Kalashnikov hurrying him along. Svarog, his mighty hammer at his hip, was already well ahead of them, leading the party down the rough concrete without as much as a glance back, the Mrakobes detail bringing up the rear. Unlike the rest of the Institute, which paid some dues to comfort and flirted with the notions of spacious and modern architecture, the Machine levels seemed to be torn out of medieval times, with a healthy dose of Gulag added for extra atmosphere. All light came from eternal torches that hung on the walls, spitting and hissing, chains drooped from the darkness of the ceiling and ugly iron gates hid the passages, streaming off left and right for kilometers.
As they walked, their footsteps echoed and each sneeze, brought on by the general dampness of the place, reverberated through the eerie silence of the tunnels. Once, back in the golden era of atomic research, this place teemed with activity. Dwarves and gnomes, headhunted from the Caucus and Ural mountains and generously paid, toiled here, under Svarog’s leadership, on the designs and projects sent down from above by mages and engineers, crafting never before seen instruments and apparatuses. The first ever supercollider, the grandfather of the Large Hadron, for example, the hulking device of coils and tubes that smashed atoms together, splitting them and allowing for study of their fragments, was built right here, heralding a new age of atomic research. Now, the corpses of these machines littered the passageway, often causing the party to clamber over their skeletons, and the hammers and forges, which drew their heat directly from the Earth’s core, lay silent. Perhaps, Wind thought, this was another reason for Svarog’s sour disposition.
As he regarded the fire god’s broad back, Wind couldn’t help but pity him. When Christianity was brought to old Rus from Constantinople and slowly started gaining a foothold among the pagan population of the Russian kingdoms, Svarog and his Pantheon, fought a bitter war against the Christian spirits and saints. A war that drowned Slav mythology is blood and fire had ended with the defeat of the pagan gods who lost most of their believers to more benevolent deities, casting them, crippled, off their pedestals and into the realm of common demons. Svarog and his ilk wandered aimlessly for centuries, finding refuge in the Siberian woods and in the remote villages that still practiced old beliefs. It wasn’t until the foundation of the Institute, where he was asked to assume the post of High Machinist, that anyone had any reason to even think of the old god. Svarog accepted the position, bowing his head grudgingly to this new, atomic magic. Under his guidance the forges of the Institute blossomed with first-rate production, putting Western companies to utter shame, and Svarog reveled in newfound power, only to watch it wither and die as communism fell and funds vanished. It must have been an even harder blow to have to take on the demeaning office of Chief Security Officer than to see his idols and totems burnt and thrown into rivers during the Christianization of Rus.
They had, by then, crossed out of the realm of dead production and into the dungeons that hid the Institute’s multitude of vaults. Svarog led them wordlessly past countless circular doors, gleaming with titanium and enchantments, each guarded by a pair of Maxwell demons, tall creations in ill-fitting camouflage, dwarfing even the hulking Mrakobeses, whose existence’s sole purpose was to allow or deny entry. Some of the Maxwell demons nodded solemnly to Leshij, with whom they were on friendly terms, and all of them followed Svarog and the Mrakobeses with glares of disdain.
“No love shared in the security business,” remarked Wind under his breath.
“They don’t like the new team. Cruel and evil they are, not worthy of the uniform they are. That’s what the Maxwells say anyway, and they aren’t the only ones…” Leshy was about to expand the thought, but the Mrakobes behind him shoved the forest demon with his rifle and Leshy tumbled to the ground in a mess of muscles and beard. He collected himself, cursing all the while, and was about to unleash some of that old Slav fury when Svarog’s voice put an end to the squabble:
“Quiet! We’re here.”