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Chapter Fourteen - Das Vadanya


Chapter Fourteen

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After staying in bed all morning—on top of the excitement of the afternoon—Maria finds herself having difficulty sleeping. Late in the evening, after tossing and turning for several hours, she throws off the covers and stumbles blearily from the bedroom. Her head seems to feel fine for the time being at least, but for once, pain is not the thing keeping her awake.

Her mind keeps going back, over and over, to the strange dream she had had. Maria has always guessed that those dark indentations in her dreamscape are the thin points between her mind and the minds of those around her. She has no idea how this happens, or why she of all people seems capable of it. But that’s just how it’s always been. Nothing like what she experienced earlier today, however, has ever happened before so vividly. It always felt… taboo, somehow, to peer into the thoughts of others.

It’s all a jumble of sounds and colors, but she thinks she’s beginning to draw the lines between where one person’s mind ends, and another begins. In all honesty, part of her thinks she should just forget all of it entirely. But some of the things she saw. How to explain them? And yet somehow, the things she felt had been much, much worse.

Maybe she should have brought a light with her. Though she’s lived in this house all her life, she still feels like something monstrous and unknowable might be lurking in that deep darkness.

Maria is quite a ways away from her bedroom now, having walked aimlessly through the darkened halls all the while she’s been thinking. She shivers a little in her nighty. She’s never going to puzzle through this dream all by herself in the middle of the night, so perhaps she should go back to her room and try to fall asleep one more time.

But then she sees something around the corner: a flickering light coming from the dining room. Who could possibly be awake at this time of night? Alright, perhaps that is a ridiculous question, given the nature of this house’s residents, but she still wonders. So Maria approaches the door and gently pushes it open.

She must admit that she’s surprised when she finds Natalya siting at the table, a small glass in one hand and a distant look in her eyes. Natalya never stays up late, unless she’s attending a party, let alone drinking by herself. Of course, this is nothing like the inebriated Ivan she stumbled upon in the library yesterday. Natalya is sipping on her beverage slowly, thoughtfully, watering it down with ice and a bit of tonic, and she sits entirely stock straight in her chair, only her long neck tilted a bit to the side.

Really, the only sign that she may not be entirely sober is how long it takes her to notice Maria in the doorway. When she finally does, her neck straightens in surprise, but that is all.

“Oh, Marie, it’s just you,” she appears relieved, and gestures her in. A little hesitantly, Maria steps into the light of the single candle placed in the center of the table—already burned quite low.

“I’m not… disturbing you, am I?” she whispers, then finally sits down as Natalya shakes her head.

“I was just… thinking, is all,” Natalya shrugs. “I actually wanted to thank you, for helping Ivan in his… well, state yesterday. I haven’t gotten a chance to.”

Maria grimaces a little. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him that drunk before, and in the middle of the day. Did something happen?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Natalya replies, letting out a long sigh. “He’s been like that for… quite a while. I think he’s somewhat embarrassed, and didn’t want to worry you.” At Maria’s skeptical expression, she continues. “It’s the war, I’m afraid. I know a little, but I can’t even begin to tell you the things he lived through in Manchuria…”

But she doesn’t have to. Maria remembers the mud and sweat, the smell of cooking flesh, the cold steel of the rifle in her shaking hands. She remembers all too well that moment in her dream. Though she suspected that thought might belong to Ivan, she had thought that it seems to be an awful long time ago now, but if it is something that is still on his mind…

“Please, don’t tell him I said anything,” Natalya asks. “He really doesn’t want to bother you with it.”

“I think it’s silly that he still treats my sensibilities as delicate even though that’s the least of what’s ailing me at the moment, but I won’t.”

“That reminds me: how are you feeling? Any better?”

Maria frowns. “My headache is gone, though who knows for how long.”

There is silence for a moment as Natalya rests her hand on Maria’s. “I’m sorry,” she whispers finally.

“For what? It’s not like my health is your fault,” Maria mutters, somewhat bitterly.

Natalya looks away. “Perhaps not entirely, but it seems to have gotten much worse after… well, after father died. But more importantly, I’m sorry for using it so selfishly. I’ve gotten you involved in terrible things.”

Maria immediately thinks of that small, dark room in the north wing. Of the dirty, flea-ridden thing that used to be a man locked inside. Of the bandages she wraps around the gashes along his arms that she no longer asks him about, and of the foul things he says to her when he is not himself. Her head suddenly hurts again, thinking of those slats over his windows that exactly resemble that coffin from her dream, and she rests it on the table.

“At least I’m not entirely useless.”

That last word echoes dismally in the cold room.

Finally, Natalya sighs. “I should have done this a long time ago. Not that it’s much consolation.” She places something in front of Maria’s nose. It takes a second for her bleary eyes to recognize it, but once she does she sits stock straight up in her chair.

“The… the gold-fleck vodka. You’ve never let me have any before.”

“Because it is only for those who need it,” Natalya nods with a certain heaviness. “And I think you’ve more than earned it.”

Maria ducks her head as Natalya pours her a glass. “Thank you,” she mumbles. “If you really think I have.”

“You’ve let yourself be more vulnerable in the face of madness than I ever could.” She chuckles bitterly. “Hell, you’ve even slept in front of it.”

“It’s not like there’s much else I can do.”

Taking the glass in hand, Maria holds it up to the candlelight and swirls it around. Of course, the gold flecks as too small to actually look at, but she thinks she sees a faint shimmer in the liquid anyway. Crinkling her nose in anticipation, she finally raises the glass to her lips. She doesn’t like vodka, but just this one time, she thinks that she must drink it.

It tastes like acid, and burns like it too going down her throat, and she can’t help but cough. Natalya chuckles.

“Welcome to the world of the broken. Though I think your arrival might be a little belated.”

Maria doesn’t respond right away, however, because she’s suddenly reminded of something Natalya just said a moment ago. Sleeping, her dreams. Maybe it’s the vodka talking, but there’s something she wanted to ask her.

“About my dreams…” she begins, and Natalya tilts her head slightly. “I had a rather strange one earlier today. I… saw things, places and people I’d never seen before. I don’t… well, I don’t think they were my dreams.”

Natalya’s face falls. She seems to understand. “And what did you see in these ‘dreams?’” A hint of hesitation creeps into her features.

“Too… too many things. Some I know, and some I didn’t. Muddy battlefields, the inside of a coffin. I’m still trying to piece together where they all come from.” She stops, and runs her finger around the slightly sticky rim of her now empty glass. Natalya remains silent.

“In one of them, the last thing I saw, I recognized someone’s voice, so I think I know whose dream it is, but… what I saw there…”

“The cold stone ground…” Natalya mutters. “The laughing, snarling face of it leering down at you. Claws digging into your shoulders…”

Maria grips the glass tightly. “So it was you.”

“It was inevitable, really. That’s what I see every night, after all.”

“What is it? That terrible thing?”

For a solid minute, Natalya stares straight at her, her gaze firm and steady. Just when Maria realizes she hasn’t been breathing, her sister’s gaze falls to the table again. “I’m afraid it’s something you’re all too familiar with.”

Maria waits patiently for her to continue.

“That is something… I’ve never told anyone before. Not even Ivan. I think I expected to take that night to the grave with me. But you’ve already seen it now, I suppose. You’ve been wondering why I’ve done everything I have, to Jack, and all the other tutors, I know you have.”

Maria doesn’t say anything, but it’s not a lie.

“This is all almost over anyway.” She quickly downs another glass of vodka, not even bothering to put ice in it. “It’s a strange story to believe, but I think you of all people may be able to understand…”

~~ o ~~

A few days after Natalya’s fourteenth birthday, Ivan and their father went hunting. Normally, Ivan was not one for the great outdoors, but he had been so surprised when their father suggested it that he became filled with excitement regardless of his normal predispositions. It was the first time their father had wanted to do anything with him in a very long time.

Natalya was relieved, of course, that there would be a reprieve from the long nights in the musty cellar, but she couldn’t help feeling a modicum of trepidation. The man was obsessed with that thing he kept under a sheet down there, so why the sudden change of pace now? But she didn’t want to ruin Ivan’s mood, so she kept her mouth shut.

All she did was wave them off at the door, and call after him to stay safe. They were just words, of course, but saying them made her feel better. They were like a prayer or a spell, and she of all people knew that sometimes, those actually worked, for better or for worse.

She still worried throughout most of the evening, even with Maria telling her over and over again that Ivan would be fine. Maybe she should have begged to go with them, that might have made her feel better. But she couldn’t. The doctor told her no heavy movement, or her leg wouldn’t heal right. And she desperately wanted it to heal. She missed dancing more than anything in the world. At least she didn’t need the crutches anymore, but she still had a long ways to go. There’s no way she could have taken her cane in the snow.

So Natalya whiled away most of the evening reading and fretting, and eventually went to bed far later than she should have. Finally, right around the next afternoon she heard a great commotion out in the courtyard, and she hurried out as fast as the cane would allow.

Luckily, she was worried over nothing. There Ivan stood in his large overcoat, beaming with pride over his catch: an enormous, black wolf.

Natalya was astonished at the sight. They were the Volkovs, after all—children of wolves. Wouldn’t it be bad luck to kill one of their own? She looked over at their father, and though he certainly wasn’t smiling, he didn’t seem angry in the slightest. He even gave Ivan a single pat on the head.

And Ivan was so thrilled. As soon as he saw her he sprinted up to his sister and began regaling her with the tale of how he took the wolf down, gesturing wildly. Their father motioned for them to head inside, and the two complied, Ivan jabbering all the way. But still, Natalya took another glance back at the corpse in the courtyard, fixated on its glassy eyes and lolling tongue, and shivered. It seemed to her a bad omen.

It didn’t bother her for too long, however, because there were certainly more pressing issues on her mind. Now that they were back, it was only a matter of time before she had to make the lonely descent into the cellar once more. Natalya waited on edge all throughout the afternoon, as the three older siblings were tutored in the library, and all evening as well. The children ate dinner alone, as usual, with only a maid to feed baby Katya. Natalya hated the ear-splitting sounds of her crying, and the disgusting mix of spittle and mashed gruel that were now sticking to her lower lip.

But regardless of how long she waited, her father never called for her. She went to bed full of unease. He rarely worked this long without calling for her to fetch something or do an odd task for him down there. More than anything, Natalya just hated the silence.

It was shortly after she’d finally fallen asleep that she was summoned. It took a minute for consciousness to return fully and to come to terms with the fact that she was being shaken. But return it did, and she stared blearily up at her father, who met her gaze with a wide-eyed, nearly crazed stare.

He was smiling. Her father almost never smiled. Now he was wearing a grin that stretched nearly ear to ear. The sight sent a chill straight down Natalya’s spine.

“It’s finished, my dear. It’s finally finished. Come see what I’ve created.”

It was a command, not a request. Rubbing her eyes, Natalya sat up. “Can I get dressed?” She glanced down at her white nightgown.

“No time,” he shook his head. “Cellar. Now.”

Though her every fiber was filled with trepidation, she obeyed, following him out of her room and through the empty hallways. The fall chill made her teeth chatter as they crossed the courtyard in silence, with only the waxing moon to light their way to the cellar doors.

Her father wrenched the heavy wood open, and lit a lantern as they began the long descent downwards.

The stone stairs were so worn the edges were nearly rounded off, and she tried to focus on that in an effort to avoid thinking about what was down at the bottom. She had seen the numerous books, of course, with all their blasphemous and gruesome content, watched him construct diagrams and outlines and chalk circles on the floor, but she had no idea what he was actually working on. He would never tell her, and she had long since stopped wanting to know.

But now he was going to show her, and that scared Natalya more. Something had been wrong with him, ever since her mother died, and she was so afraid that he had gone mad.

The passage widened in front of them, into a large chamber, lit only by a small, dusty skylight that was useless in the middle of the night anyway. There was something there, in the middle of the room, but though she squinted, she couldn’t make out what it was through the suffocating darkness.

“Stand over there, and watch,” her father instructed, pointing to the far side of the room. “He wants you here.”

Was someone else in the room? Natalya’s heart rose in her throat, but she dare not speak, so she did as she was told.

Meanwhile, her father had set the lantern down on his rickety work table and was fiddling with a box of matches. He knelt down to the floor, and Natalya realized that there were candles placed at set intervals all around it, forming a rough circle, with a pattern that Natalya herself had helped draw in chalk just the other day.

But as the floor was slowly lit she was met with a nasty shock. The circle was still there, but it was no longer drawn in chalk. Dark blood glistened from the glow of the candles, still fresh. Though they surrounded that something in the middle of the room, however, they only helped a little in making out what it was.

Natalya nearly vomited. She could make out a pair of shoeless feet, maybe some legs, but that was all. It was not moving.

With seemingly no reaction to the horrific scene he had constructed, her father knelt at the edge of the circle and placed his forehead directly onto its slick, red surface. She couldn’t make out the words, but he seemed to be mumbling something, chanting it over and over again. As if in response to his words, a strange wind whipped up around them, pulling at Natalya’s dress and hair.

Natalya huddled in the corner as her father’s chanting grew louder and louder to combat the wind. She gasped as the circle itself starting glowing in ominous synchronicity to her father’s words. She wanted desperately to look away, but she found her eyes transfixed on this scene straight from hell. And then, her unflinching vision caught it: one of the legs of the strange figure in the middle of the circle twitched, just once. And then it all stopped. The wind and glowing suddenly ceased to be, and the only thing that could be heard in the silence was the heavy breathing of Natalya’s father.

Out of that silence, a voice, oddly garbled and awkward, unexpectedly boomed from no discernible location.

“Потомок,” it intoned. “Your summons promised me a proper vessel.” The coldness of it nearly froze Natalya in place.

Her father appeared to be having trouble speaking as well, but he finally managed to unstick his throat. “And I have provided one.”

“You have not,” said the voice from the darkness. “This thing will not contain me for more than ten minutes. You have failed, Valentine Volkov.”

Something in the center of the circle moved, and her father jumped backwards. “Then please, tell me what I must do. I will do anything to fulfill my desire.”

“In the entire cosmos there is only one vessel of the right essence to contain me.”

Clearly some sort of gesture was made and Natalya’s heart stopped as her father briefly glanced in her direction. “I…” he stuttered. “Isn’t there another way?”

“Not if you would like to see your sweet, dead wife again.” The voice clicked what must have presumably been its tongue. “We had a deal, remember?”

“I… very well,” her father simply looked downward, and backed away from the circle.

The thing, whatever it was, laughed at him and stood. “Then let us begin.”

She didn’t know why, but Natalya could feel its eyes on her, its hunger. Shakily, she got to her feet and turned to run. Yet before she could get anywhere, she felt herself acted upon by some strange, unknown force, like her body was one half of a very powerful magnet.

First with her toes, then with her fingers, Natalya gripped at the floor desperately before that force became too great and she found herself flying backwards through the air. She flailed about madly, until her momentum was finally put to rest in the center of the room. Unfortunately, it was by a large hand wrapped around her neck, and she gargled uncontrollably as she kicked her legs in desperation.

The smell was unbearable. Whatever this thing was, it had not been alive for a long time. It brought bile to her throat and tears to her eyes. And then the thing turned her around to look at her, and she screamed. Crudely sewn onto a very human body was the head of the black wolf that Ivan had killed just yesterday.

It still seemed dead. Its tongue lolled horrifically out of its mouth, and it stared at her with glossy, vacant eyes. Yet still somehow it was able to grin at her, and speak in a voice that stabbed at her every nerve. “Soon,” the Volk said to her. “I will ask you a question. But first, I will take the pleasure that is mine by contract.”

She was only given a single second to even question what that meant before it threw her roughly to the hard stone floor. Natalya couldn’t breathe, her lungs simply wouldn’t accept oxygen. But she had no time to recover before it was upon her.

Rough hands clawed and ripped her nightgown, even as she desperately kicked and squirmed. Try as she might, however, she couldn’t stop it from forcibly spreading her legs.

Natalya screamed. She screamed and cried and fought until her voice gave out entirely. Sharp, stabbing pain tore through her abdomen as the thing grunted and laughed. Spit sprayed down on her face as its perpetually open mouth wiggled with its thrusting.

“Natalya, Natalya, Natalya,” it repeated over and over again. “Let me in. Say you will. It will be a greater ecstasy than even this.”

“No. No! No!” She didn’t even know what it meant, but regardless of the pain, regardless of the fear, she would not give this thing anything it wanted.

Still it continued, on and on and on. Where was her father? Why wasn’t he stopping this? It was a vain thought, of course. Her own father had abandoned her to the whims of the Volk’s desires.

“Let me in, Natalya,” it growled, tearing into her shoulders with jagged fingernails. “Let me in.”

She didn’t even dignify it with a response. Instead, she tried to turn her head away from it, only to be met with the only thing that could have broken her more. The arm gripping her left shoulder was far more pale and slender than it should have been, and resting on its delicate fingers was a thick, golden band that glowed weakly in the candlelight. A very familiar ring.

Scream. One more time, please. From the very bottom of her soul she needed to. But her voice had nothing more to give, so all she could do was moan, and stare in abject horror at that ring she knew so well.

And as she did so, everything seemed to slow, and then abruptly, stop. The pain, the blood rushing through her ears. The Volk withdrew, leaving her filthy, unclean, her white nightgown stained with blood.

“My time in this imperfect creation is done,” it whispered gently, caressing her cheek with that same slender, soft hand. “But someday, you will let me in. I can promise you that.”

And without another word, the horrible amalgamate went limp, and fell directly on top of her, pinning her to the hard stone ground far below the earth.

The only thing that broke the silence were her hoarse sobs. For such a long time, she didn’t move. Maybe, she hoped beyond hope, that if she pretended hard enough, she could be just as dead as that thing had left her. A broken, bloody doll, buried deep below where no one would ever find her.

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