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Chapter Nineteen - Das Vadanya

Chapter Nineteen Приди, сладкая смерть “I suppose you have questions,” Natalya breaks the pained silence abruptly. There she is in the center of the room, perched on the edge of a small stool next to whatever if under the sheet. Up until now, she’s sat quietly, delicately sewing Mishka’s finger onto something that look alarmingly like a limp, human hand. It’s only a pinky, there are many worse things that she could have cut off, but it still hurts like a son of a bitch. Only the cold stone wall at his back and Maria’s warmth at his side has kept him from losing consciousness entirely. Natalya has given up on trying to keep them apart, and so it is Maria—even though she herself seems to be in a great deal of pain—who has wrapped what remains of his finger in an impromptu bandage. She’s applying pressure with one hand while holding his with the other, and they’re both shaking. He wants to comfort her, but he thinks that if he moves his already tentative consciousness will simply recede. So instead he turns to Natalya, and though it takes him far longer than it should to figure out what exactly it was she just said, he tries to respond. “Of course I have questions,” his voice comes out quieter than he imagined it would. “And I did promise you I would answer them,” she admits. “So go on, we have time.” Mishka opens his mouth, but doesn’t say anything. Where can he even begin? “W...why?” he gets out finally. “Why do all of… this?” Her sewing needle stops as Natalya thinks. “There is a… thing in this house. An… anomaly, something that comes from an Other place. It was my father who first let it in. Foolishly he believed its whisperings, imagined it could grant his wishes. And now it will not leave. So it falls to me to put an end to it all myself.” “A… thing?” Mishka asks, unsure if he heard her correctly through the pain and blood loss. “What do you mean by that?” “There is really little else that can describe it. In this reality it has no form. It is more like a concept than a person or an animal. A being of pure want. To it, nothing else matters but fulfilling its self-serving whims.” She looks irritated when he still doesn’t understand. “I do not know much more than that. It calls itself the Volk. It’s in the room with us right now, you know.” Mishka’s eyes dart around the room, looking for anything odd or abnormal. There’s only one thing it can be, one thing that changed since he entered the room. Before, the man who is presumably Jack Steel had been crouched in the corner, rocking back and forth and humming to himself. Now, he is standing, leaning against the wall, watching the scene with an almost… hungry look in his eyes. Once she sees where he’s looking, Natalya sighs. “Like I said, in this world He has no form. He was just here, in the very bones of this rotting mansion. To exist properly He requires a vessel, and this one is… imperfect. There is only one perfect vessel for the Volk, a convergence that will not end in boredom for Him and madness for His host.” The man in the corner—Jack, the Volk, whoever he is—has not taken his eyes off Natalya the entire time she’s been speaking. She herself looks downward, back to her sewing needle. “It’s you, isn’t it?” Mishka asks her, and though she doesn’t really make a gesture one way or another, it’s not a denial. “So, I have come up with another solution,” Natalya cuts her thread and dusts herself off. “Hopefully one that will satisfy everyone.” Standing, Natalya grips the white sheet firmly, and rips it away. Mishka doesn’t know what else he expected. It is, of course, a body, but there’s so many lines of neat and tidy black stitches that Mishka can’t tell whose it is. Every bit of skin is a different shade, all the sections are different sizes, the hair and eyebrows are completely different colors. But, nevertheless, there’s something almost… elegant about it. If it was a painting he’d be impressed instead of horrified. As it stands, all he can do is gulp as shivers run down his spine and ask: “Who…?” “That’s the beauty of it, isn’t it?” Natalya mutters grimly. “Have you ever heard of the Ship of Theseus?” Nodding, Mishka unsticks his tongue, nearly unable to believe this question, this entire situation. “Say you have a ship,” he begins. “But you have it so long that you end up replacing every last bit of it. If every part is new, is it still the same ship?” “That’s the idea, yes,” Natalya nods. “If all these… parts are from different tutors, than which tutor’s body is it?” Mishka nearly vomits. Natalya is simply mad, she has to be. Yet as he glances over at Maria, she only stares back, and Mishka is shocked. She believes in this as well. “So if this body belongs to no one, then it should be a purely empty vessel, one that can manage to contain him.” From the corner, the man—the Volk—lets out a short, barking laugh. It’s the first sound He’s made this entire time.

“At least, that’s the theory we’re going to try to prove today. However, it still needs one last ingredient. Since the little cunt has failed me, I suppose I’ll have to do it myself. Marie,” she turns to her sister apologetically. “I may need your help.” He almost grabs her arm to stop her, but Mishka holds back. Despite the pain apparent on her face, Maria goes to her sister without hesitation, her shoes scraping against the scratched up floor in the middle of the room. She wants her to succeed. Hesitating just a little, Natalya grabs a strange-looking tool from the table. It looks almost like a pair of tongs, but the metal forms a sort of cold, round shape. Mishka only realizes what it is a second before she uses them, and by then it’s too late to look away. Natalya holds the device up to her face, and plunges it into her eye socket. She grunts in pain as it goes in, but is absolutely silent as she yanks it back out again with a horrible, wet noise, her eye attached. Maria stands beside her, horrified, but Natalya grabs her arm. “Handker—the handkerchief,” she wheezes, pointing to the table. Maria sprints, and hands it to her. Half-running, half-stumbling, gripping the side of her face with one hand while blood dribbles between her fingers, Natalya approaches the body. With all the force she can muster, she shoves her eye in its remaining empty socket. Then she collapses against Maria, who struggles to hold her weight up. On the other side of the room, the Volk watches the scene with an odd satisfaction. As Natalya catches her breath, He laughs. Mishka shivers, feeling that noise bouncing around the inside of his skull. I wasn’t sure you’d do it,” He admits. “You’ve ordered so much violence in your name, but I didn’t know if you’d be able to do it yourself. You must really want to get rid of me. She doesn’t grace Him with a response, though it’s very possible she might not have heard Him. Her face is as white as a sheet, and her remaining eye is lolling, unfocused. “Natalya, do you want to sit down?” Maria asks, but Natalya shakes her head, and seems to rally. She approaches the body in the middle of the room once more. “It’s done,” she says, her posture relaxing for the first time since Mishka has known her. Two years of sweat, tears, and murder,” the Volk stands. “I suppose we’ll see if it’s worth anything.” Mishka glances back and forth in confusion, for he feels a sudden gust of wind. Where could it be coming from this deep underground? Most likely there isn’t a real answer. Even Natalya is blown from the center of the room, as only the Volk is unaffected. He stands straight, one arm reaching out for the body. There is… something wrong with his eyes, something emerging from them. Long and sinuous and dark, but between the flickering candles and the wind tossing his hair about, Mishka doesn’t see much.

Huddled in the corner, terrified, in pain, Mishka nearly faints when the last candle goes out. There’s the sound of something dropping to the floor. Then all is silent. It’s so perfectly dark that he wonders if he actually has lost consciousness. But if that was the case, he wouldn’t be hearing his shaking, shallow breath, wouldn’t be feeling the throbbing in the place where his pinky used to be. And then comes the striking of a match. A candle flickers to life right in front of the body; Mishka’s skin crawls staring at the waxy visage. But after examining it, Natalya sets the candle down on the ground a short distance away. Then she lights another, and another. Gradually, the room gets brighter, even as the shadows grow deeper. No one speaks. No one moves, save for Natalya lighting candles. He doesn’t know how long they’ve stayed there before suddenly, with a sickening crack, the body moves. Its head tilts to the side, nearly tearing the seems on its neck, and another crack shakes Mishka to the core as it forces its head the other way. Natalya, seeming satisfied with the amount of candles, stands and stares at the body, but doesn’t speak. It glares at her, a twisted smile spreading over its bisected features as it licks its lips with a blue, bulbous tongue. And then it laughs. Cruelly, biting. “You were so confident,” it says, its voice coming out a hushed whisper as it screeches over long-dead vocal cords. “You were so confident that for a moment, I thought you might actually do it.” “And?” is all Natalya says. You should be proud,” the skin around its lips almost cracks as the mouth broadens into a smile. “It is a vast improvement from your father’s. It may even last a whole day.” Maria, who had been listening with trepidation, frowns, even as Natalya’s face stays still as a stone. But just like the one before, this is not a true vessel. It will crumble. It is as I’ve been telling you all along, my dearest. You are my only vessel. Any attempt to circumnavigate that fate will only end in failure. And you have failed, Natalya Volkovna.” Maria lets out a choked sob, but still, Natalya’s face doesn’t change. She stares the horror right in the eyes. All she says it one word. “No.” The Volk tilts His head, and one of the threads in the side of His neck snaps loudly. “What do you mean, ‘no?’ You lost, plain and simple.

“No,” she repeats. “I haven’t failed. And I haven’t lost this little game. Not yet.” I don’t understand.” Without warning, Natalya’s stony features crumble into laughter. You have only copied your father’s work, nothing more. How can you still expect to prevail?” Leaning in, Natalya stares the beast right in the face. “Did you really think that this was my entire plan? To follow in my bastard father’s footsteps and hope that I could do better? You are not a god of want, you are a slave to it, seeing as it’s blinded you so. You couldn’t even fathom that I would rather slit my own throat right now then repeat my father’s mistakes.” Then tell me,” He leans towards her as well, baring his teeth, though He can’t get any farther than the straps on the arms of the chair will allow. “What is your plan? “Why would I tell you?” she sneers. “That would ruin the surprise. You’ll just have to watch as I show you.” Looking down at the floor, she positions herself at a location a few steps backwards. “This body you’re in was never meant to be a vessel. It’s a prison.” Before He can say anything, she grabs a knife from the table and runs it across her forearm. It dribbles quickly to the floor, and Mishka’s eyes widen. Those aren’t just scratches on the floor. They’re a circle. A very complicated circle chiseled into the floor itself. As her blood fills the channels, the whole floor glows an eerie red, and an odd roaring reaches Mishka’s ears. What did you do?” The Volk growls, twisting desperately in the chair. “Maria,” Natalya ignores Him, turning instead to her sister, who is now firmly clutching her head in pain. “I know it hurts, but I need your help. We cannot let Him escape that body. Find your garden and keep Him there as long as you can!” “I—” she winces. “I’m not strong enough. He’ll tear me apart with a thought!” “I only need one minute. I believe in you. You are the strongest person I’ve ever known.” Mishka can’t stay quiet anymore. He can barely stand, barely speak, but he tries anyway. “Leave her alone,” he shouts over the rumbling of the room around him. “After every life you’ve wasted, are you so willing to sacrifice your own sister as well?” She’s already in so much pain, this thing is causing it, he’s sure of that. “Stay quiet,” Natalya hisses, “you don’t have anything to do with this. Maria, please, I need you to trust me.” Maria stares into her sister’s remaining eye, searching it for a moment. “I’m sorry, Mishka,” she says finally. “But what has all my pain been for it I can’t use it for what it was intended?” She stretches a hand towards the Volk, and Mishka gasps as her eyes roll back into her skull, exposing bloodshot whites. The Volk’s writhing stops, and instead He begins convulsing rapidly. Whatever Maria’s doing to Him, He’s trying to fight it. Though He can’t seem to really see her anymore, He turns to Natalya, and simply growls. “It’s true that I can’t kill you,” Natalya says. “But I can demolish you. I can take from you whatever I please. Of all the pieces of myself I could have used in my creation, why do you think I used my eye? With it, I can see every bit of you. It is a perfect window into your very soul. I can claim your godhood as easily as I can breathe. All I have to do is reach out and take it.” You would dethrone me? A being merely a small step from being a true deity?” Despite the convulsing, the Volk’s voice is strong and even. Mishka is confused, until he realizes that His voice isn’t coming from the vessel’s mouth at all. “How dare you even deign yourself worthy to try. Though I suppose it’s not a surprise, seeing how many souls you’ve already played god with. “You misunderstand my intentions,” she replies. “I do not have any such aspirations, but to save my family—myself—from you, I would even shoulder the burdens of godhood.” Then show me you’re worthy of taking it.” Natalya suddenly clutches at her empty eye socket, her face twisted in pain. She doesn’t make a sound, at least not one that isn’t lost in the rumbling of the very stones around them. She simply grits her teeth, and runs back towards Him. Her eyes begins rolling wildly about in the vessel’s head. Yet before she can make it to him, Natalya is stopped dead in her tracks. For Maria lets loose a terrible, hysterical scream. Her whole body is covered in sweat, beat read, and shaking. “What is it?” Natalya yells. “M…” she struggles. “My garden. It’s burning!” Mishka has no idea what is happening. He feels like at some point he must have fallen into some terrible nightmare. And just like a nightmare, he can’t think at all. But one thing makes it through the noise and fear. He is hurting her. That thing has been hurting her all along. His feet spring into action, quite of their own accord. He needs to reach her. He needs to grab her and carry her as far away from this madness as he can. And so he runs, even as the shaking floor and blood-loss threaten to topple him. But it’s not either of those things that get him in the end. Just before he’s closed the distance between them, Natalya yells: “Don’t touch her!” And pushes him out of the way.

Entirely caught off guard, he stumbles. But though Mishka almost regains his footing, he takes one more step for balance and trips over something that sends him crashing to the floor. As soon as the ringing in his ears stops threatening to pull him under entirely, he flips around, only to scurry away when he sees just what it is he tripped over. Jack is lying there on the ground. His eyes, though open, blankly stare at nothing as all as his hand rhythmically scratches at the hole where his ear used to be, tearing at it with such force that fresh blood coats his fingernails. Mishka skitters backwards, and is just about to make another run at Maria when something latches onto his arm. Katya is sobbing, shaking, and she buries her face in his shoulder. That’s right, she’s been alone in this corner all this time. And Maria is not the only person he’s supposed to protect. Unsure if he can even get up again anyway, he clutches Katya’s head to his chest and rubs her hair. She doesn’t even seem to care that his wound is leaking blood all over it. “Natalya!” Maria cries out. “It hurts! Help me! I’m burning!” “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’m going to end this now.” With a roar fit to shake the very heavens themselves, Natalya runs at the Volk, and wraps her hands around His neck. Even squeezing as hard as she can, the Volk wheezes between her fingers. Laughing, laughing, always laughing. She screams as loud as she can to drown him out, and squeezes even tighter. The stones that make up the ceiling are beginning to crumble, and crash down all around them. The engraved circle on the floor glows brighter and brighter, its hum drowning everything else out. Mishka closes his eyes against the sudden brightness. And then, just when it can’t get any louder, any brighter, it all just… stops. The room goes dark, and when Mishka opens his eyes, he gasps. Natalya is gone. ~~ o ~~ Ivan has many regrets, as he lays bleeding out in the muddy snow. Not about how he’s been killed, of course. An unceremonious, violent death is exactly what he deserves. Of all people, he’d never expected it to be the sullen serving girl. Ada had stopped breathing quite a while ago, and so here he lay, having just enough time to think about all the things he should have done before it’s time to go. He wishes that he didn’t have to leave yet. With him gone, who would be there to give Katya the time of day? Who would listen to Maria’s piano? And take care of her when she’s ill? He laughs bitterly, even as it agitates the wound that he’d long since thought had gone numb. He has an answer. It’s obvious. Mikhail Borozov is already doing all of these things better than Ivan ever had. In just a few weeks he had connected with the two of them in a way that Ivan could never quite manage. A pity, then, that he won’t be alive after Natalya is done with him. They couldn’t very well leave the tutors alive after what each of them had seen in that cellar. What Natalya is showing Mishka at this very moment. And that right there gets to the root of the issue, doesn’t it? Natalya lies at the very center of his tangled knot of regrets. For all those many years he’d watched her soul taken apart piece by piece by their father, and he’d done nothing. The one time he finally did, and he didn’t follow through. In sacrificing himself he’d left Natalya to deal with him alone. The blood on her hands is really his. Failing all that, he just wishes that he’d stopped her. All the innocent men that are now dead, sacrificed as pawns for Natalya’s grand game. They didn’t deserve that. Mishka especially. But above all else, he did nothing to protect his sister’s soul. Ivan knows he is going to hell. He can feel the burning grasp of the pit right now as his consciousness slowly slips away. He’s a lost cause, but she didn’t have to be. Before he left for Manchuria, she was spotless, innocent. Not her list of sins is almost as long as his own. As further damning as it is, he loves her. And he should have saved her from an eternity alongside him down below. Yet, in his very final moments on this earth, with his last breath entering his lungs, he feels almost as if by thinking of her, he’s conjured her up. Ivan squints into the clouds overhead, and at first, he thinks he’s only seeing things. But no, the more he stares, the more he’s sure he is. Natalya is there, in the clouds. Tears blur his fading vision. She has failed. Natalya is dead. But there she is, ascending heavenwards. God has heard his prayers. He saved Natalya. He has not abandoned them, after all. There are still regrets, so many that crowd his dying brain. But now, even the most tenacious demons won’t break him. Because he has seen his sister become an angel. Ivan reaches up a hand, taking in his last look at beauty, at the divine. If only he could go with her… ~~ o ~~ Natalya opens Her eyes. For a little while, She thought She was dead. But She is alive, so very much more alive than She ever was before. She is a god. She always wondered how it would feel if She got this far. Would it be elation? Exhilaration? Would She go mad with power and burn the entire world to the ground?

But She feels none of that. All that stirs Natalya’s breast is a deep sense of melancholy. Because She can see now, through Her missing eye she finally understands that the truth of the cosmos is rather… disappointing. Perhaps it’s because She can truly see just how small She was. There they are below, in their own little bubble, each trying in vain to wrap their narrow minds around their encounter with the infinite. The body in the middle of the room sits motionless, smoking slightly. It takes Mishka far too long to stop staring at it and turn to Maria, who though still standing on her feet, also has acrid black smoke emerging from her ears. Easing Katya up, he approaches her. Mishka hesitates to touch her, as her eyes are still rolled into the back of her head, arm still outstretched towards the husk in the center of the room. But then he sees the tears running down her face, and wraps his arms around her. She remains stiff for another moment, before sharply inhaling and blinking blearily, as if he had just woken her from a deep sleep. “Mishka,” she mutters, nearly collapsing into his arms. “What… happened?” He tries desperately to explain, at the very least convey what he thought he saw. Meanwhile, Katya breaks away, and noticing Jack’s body, squats over it. She pokes him once, twice, then leans her ear next to his mouth. She gasps. “Monsieur Borozov!” she shouts over to him. “Monsieur Steel is still alive!” Mishka glances between the tutor and the girl in his arms. Maria is still largely being kept on her feet by his grip. “See if you can get him sitting,” he tells her, before guiding Maria over to a chair. He makes sure she’s alright for the moment before rushing over to help Katya. For a minute, Maria sits in a daze, eyes half-focused. But gradually, she frowns as she looks around. “Wait,” she asks, “Where’s Natalya?” “Vanished into thin air,” Mishka shakes his head, still not quite able to believe it himself. “I don’t know whether she succeeded or failed.” They all jump at the sudden noise of Jack coughing. He isn’t conscious yet, not really. His head lolls back and forth despite being propped against the wall. Though he’s certainly retained something from their conversation, as he seems to shake his head. “No…” his words slur together severely. “She’s… still here.” Mishka and Katya glance around, to which he wheezes out a sort of laugh. “You won’t find her that way.” “Than what do you mean, she’s still here?” Mishka huffs. He has no idea whether Jack’s words are the truth or just delusions. “He’s not wrong,” Natalya interjects. She doesn’t move Her mouth as she speaks—She’s not sure if She even has one anymore—but rather, Her voice is everywhere. It reverberates through the air, echoes in their minds, resonates with the very stone of the manor. Though momentarily struck by this odd phenomenon, they each disregard it immediately. Their minds won’t let them ponder the truth of the matter. She will have to make them see. “Natalya,” Maria asks, as Katya grips Mishka’s arm, shaking slightly, “Where are you?” “I am in everything, and yet outside it.” The four can only stare at each other in confusion. “Here, I can help you to understand.” Natalya lazily swipes away the remaining roof of the cellar. There’s no crumbling rocks or debris; it’s just simply… gone. Like it was never there at all. Mishka and Katya shade their eyes from the sudden brightness. Maria swoons a little, while Jack nearly recoils in shock. “H… how…?” Mishka’s eyes dart back and forth across the hazy sky where the roof used to be. Jack shakes his head, an indescribably odd smile plastered over his features. “She’s done it,” is all he says. “The crazy cunt’s done it.” “Indeed I have.” “Done what?” Maria asks the sky, unsure of where else to address her question. “The Volk intended to devour me, mind, body, and soul. I have simply devoured him instead. Simply put, I have obtained Godhood.” “Is that why we can’t see you?” Natalya laughs, and the vibrations nearly send them all to their knees. “No,” she says. “You can’t see me because I am no longer a part of your world. I exist outside, in an Other place.” Inhaling suddenly, Maria puts a hand over her mouth, but Mishka and Katya only express varying levels of confusion. “Allow me to show you. Let me remove the haze from your eyes.” Mishka and the others watch with trepidation as the grey clouds, the hazy mist, even the very sky itself fade away like they were never there at all. The truth is that ultimately, they never were. Natalya stares down at them all, holding the bubble of their very small reality in her hands, a delicate terrarium whose ecosystem can only foster misery and despair. Beyond the translucent boundary, the little manor sits like a dollhouse atop a hill that falls away into nothing. The tiny dolls crawl out of the cellar. The massive walls around the manor have collapsed, and the cracked and broken stones cover the courtyard. So as they look past where those walls had been, the dolls gasp as they see the edge of their reality. “What did you do?” Mishka shouts. “Where’s everything else?” “I didn’t do anything. It simply doesn’t exist anymore,” Natalya says. “The countryside, St. Petersburg, Birmingham. None of these things need exist now that you are all at the manor. So they don’t.” They have been so distracted by the absence of their world that they hadn’t seen beyond it. Now the four of them, huddled together, gaze outside the bounds of sanity, and behold a world of green and purple. A place of nothing, of everything, a place dotted with the twinkling lights of countless other worlds, just like their own. It is a sight that Mishka and Katya have never known, and one that Jack and Maria have glimpsed only in hallucinations and dreams. Mishka shakes, even as he holds Maria in his arms. It is beautiful in construction, but terrible in implication. Their own world is so small, so inconsequential in comparison. “This is the Other,” Natalya states, “the land between realities. It has a drive to create, and a will to destroy it all.” Katya cries out suddenly, and points upwards. The others follow her gaze, and they finally lay eyes on the thing that was once Natalya Vokovna. She too is both beautiful and terrible, a new creation of this strange Other. Her skin, though always pale, is now pure alabaster, and cracked, a series of fissures making artful curls from the jagged hole where Her second eye once was. Her hair has turned white as well, and free from its severe bondage flows freely behind Her, tossed about by currents of water that do not exist. As She caresses the boundary of their reality, they see Her fingers—long, needle-like, ball-jointed. Her mouth—a pale, perfect red—does not move when she talks, but they hear her regardless. “This is the truth that I have been seeking: a way out of this endless cycle of despair.” Mishka thinks to himself that these terrifying vistas are hardly an escape at all. Even if the words never left his mouth, Natalya responds anyway. “This world was already dying. Had I not intervened, its ending would have been far more tragic.” “But what of you?” Maria asks, speaking suddenly. “What have you done to yourself to achieve this?” “I did the only thing I could do.” She tilts Her head, wondering how this isn’t obvious to them. “The Volk was an Anomaly, a creature of the Other. In a way, he was little more than a desire, no, want itself, given a will to act. I stole that concept from him. I am want given purpose. The Volk is no more. I am the Vol.” The word sends a shiver down Mishka’s spine as his mind once more returns to soldiers, shouting, and snow falling. It she is a War, than he wants no part of it. “We do not have much time.” Though Her face is frozen in a placid expression, Her eye reveals a certain amount of urgency as it rolls around in Her head. “We have reached the final chapter of this world’s existence. It will soon collapse entirely.” She seems to be speaking the truth. All around them, in the barrier as thin as a soap bubble, small fissures are starting to form. “Just at the Volk could not exist in your world, mortals cannot exist in the Other,” Natalya continues. “So I will send you off, to a different reality.” Mishka and Katya are both near petrified with confusion, but Maria breaks away from his grip and looks upwards. “Are you not coming with us?” Natalya just stares mournfully down at them for a moment, then shakes her head. “I cannot. I am no longer of your world, of any world. I am not as the Volk was. I will not covet something that is not mine to have.” “But…” tears run down Maria’s cheeks. “But that’s not fair! Of all of us, you suffered the most! Why do you have to be alone?” “Don’t cry, Maria,” Natalya says. “I will miss you dearly. But this is what I wished for, to give you and Vanya a life you deserve. And I finally have. Whatever awaits me now, know that I have no regrets.” “I… I don’t want to leave you behind…” “And yet you must.” Her gaze shifts over to Mishka, who jumps, just a little. “Mikhail,” She intones. “It’s up to you now. Keep my sister safe.” Slowly, he nods, and grabs Maria’s hand. “I will.” Then he pulls Katya to him as well. “Both of them.” “Good.” With a singular, smooth motion, she turns her head back up towards the chaos of that Other place. “Then it is time for you to go.” The ground shakes and the stones from the wall jump and rumble. Natalya is lifting their entire, small reality with open palms. “I will pray that the next world you find is one with a better ending.” Natalya watches as everything She’s ever known drifts away from Her, off into the unknown. Her heart, and Her thoughts, drift along with it. She lied to Maria before. Natalya does have one, single regret. She didn’t get to say farewell to Ivan, though Her hopes for him are the strongest.

Without the manor, without his title or his past to hold him back, without Her, maybe he can find some sort of peace, maybe they all can. Maybe he will grow another field of sunflowers. “Ivan, Maria… Katya, farewell.” She doesn’t know what hope there is for Herself, if there is any at all. Her sins are far too great to have a hope for the future. But in the end, they served a purpose after all. Those few lives She has saved are more precious to Her than any ever will be. Natalya drifts gently in the currents of the green-purple fog, amidst the ruins of countless dead realities, and for the first time in her entire twenty-five years, she is at peace. She has broken the cycle that She Herself has regrettably helped to perpetuate. Maybe this will make up for it. Natalya is finally free.

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