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Chapter Seventeen - Das Vadanya

Chapter Seventeen

Те же могилы

This time Natalya brings a gun. Nothing can go wrong today, she will make absolute sure of it. The weak light slipping between the gaps in the curtains comforts her. It’s a silly thought, that she’s safe in the light, but she keeps that feeling in her chest. This time she doesn’t hesitate.

The creature on the cot shields his face from the sudden brightness as Natalya wrenches open the door. Nothing will go wrong. Nothing can stop her. She takes purposeful, broad strides across the small room, each tap of her boots pushing her fear further and further down. “Whaza…?” Jack can only mumble nonsense against the light he has not properly seen for two years, and blinks blearily at Natalya’s silhouette. “It’s time, Jack,” is all she says, grabbing at the cuffs that chain him to the bed with clumsy fingers.

For once, the Volk is silent. It is only Jack that stares at her with an indescribable expression. He doesn’t fight her as she wrenches the chain from his leg. But when she reaches for his arm, he doesn’t stand. Instead, an odd smile breaks out across his face, and without warning, the room is filled with the echoing cacophony of maddening laughter. “Y… ha ha… you’re really going to do it?” he asks in between fits. “You know you’re not going to succeed, right? I know what you did with my ear, you bitch.”

Natalya had things prepared to say if this ever happened, if Jack became even remotely lucid again, but she didn’t expect it to happen now, of all times. She opens her mouth, then closes it again. She’s sorry.

She really is. For the creature, the thing less than man than she’s forced him to become. But she can’t apologize. Not now. The Volk will take advantage of any emotion she has, twist it into something evil.

But Natalya has to say something. “I had to.” “….No, you didn’t.” “You may think whatever you like of me, but I’m doing this for my family. Ivan and Maria shouldn’t have to bare the burden of our father’s madness.” “Bullshite.”

She doesn’t know how to respond. “I have a sister you know. Had, now, most likely.” his orb-like eyes never leave hers, don’t even blink. “You helped me send her money, remember? Or have you already forgotten?” “I—”For the first time in two years, Jack’s voice is steady. He seems utterly, terrifyingly sane. “What makes your family more important than mine?”

Or maybe she’s even more far gone than he is. “I can’t change what I’ve already done,” she states plainly. “All I can do is continue down the path I’ve chosen.”

He closes his eyes, as if he can’t even stand to look at her. “Whore,” he mumbles.

Even if this is only Jack speaking to her, the Volk has changed him. It doesn’t matter. It can’t be fixed. She made her choice. “Call me whatever you like. Scream at me, call me a whore. I don’t care, but you will come with me right now.” She doesn’t take her gun out of her pocket, but the click of the safety releasing should be enough to convince him, she’s sure. Not just any whore,” despite his eyes being closed, Jack’s expression has changed. “The Great Babylon Herself, defiler of men and spreader of corruption. Your family only suffers from your ‘choices.’”

Perhaps Jack has changed the Volk as well.

Natalya masks her face, forces herself to stay calm. “Maybe they do now, but the good I will bring will be far greater than the evil I cause.” We will see,” is all the Volk says, leaving Jack dazed and confused.

Natalya is no longer thinking at all. She grabs his arm again and forces him to his feet. He doesn’t resist, simply holds a hand up to his face to shield it from the weak light that is almost certainly like a spotlight to him. In that light, he appears less terrifying. Scraggly, cut up, in desperate need of a bath, but also small, fragile. Perhaps he can yet be saved.

There’s one more stop she has to make before she reaches her destination. In any sane world, she would have grabbed the brat before the potentially murderous psychopath, but Natalya would rather spend more time with him. Besides, she can use him.

Katya’s room is in a little, forgotten corner of the manor, which is how both the sisters prefer it. Luckily, she doesn’t have to go all the way in, as just as she’s about to turn the corner, the demon herself scurries around it from the other side and directly into her.

At first, Natalya is simply surprised, but her eyes narrow as she sees the small trunk the girl is dragging behind her. “What are you doing, Katyusha?” She grabs onto the child’s shoulder. “I… I,” her voice is almost lost, but Katya rallies and raises her gaze to meet Natalya. “I’m leaving this house,” she states boldly. “I’m not going to help you anymore.”

Though she is briefly stunned by the sheer audacity of the girl, Natalya quickly recovers, and starts laughing. “And just where do you think you are going to go?” “I’ll go to St. Petersburg, and go to a real school, like monsieur Borozov.”

Utterly ridiculous. How would she even get there? On foot? But Natalya doesn’t have time to correct her delusions, as she’s not going anywhere. “But why would you go all the way to St. Petersburg, when you have a perfectly good tutor right here?” She pushes Jack forward, out from behind her back, where he’d been skulking.

It takes Katya a few seconds to recognize him. His appearance has changed quite a bit, after all. His hair is long and tangled, his face dirty with dried blood. But once she does, Katya takes a single step backwards. “M-M-M,” is all she can get out. “Don’t stutter,” Natalya instructs. “I’m sure monsieur Steel is disappointed that he didn’t teach you better than that.” “You didn’t kill him!” she gasps out. “But I thought… all the others…”

Natalya, though loathe to do so, puts a hand gently on the child’s shoulder. “As you can see, he’s not doing so well. But you can help him. All I need you to do is one more thing for me…” “Monsieur Borozov…” “That’s right.”

Shifting from foot to foot, Katya seems to struggle. But after a moment, her eyes focus. “I’ll come with you…” she says, still somewhat hesitant.

The corner of Natalya’s mouth twitches as she takes note that Katya did not actually agree to help her. But she knows that in the end, the spawn will do the right thing. If she doesn’t, there will be consequences.

And so down they go: the girl, the Madam, and the madman, down on a little trip. Back where it all began. For all of them. Back to the cellar.

~~ o ~~

Mishka is racing. His feet are racing in a mad tear down the labyrinthine corridors of the manor. He needs to make it to his room as quickly as possible. If Maria reaches Ivan before he does, then his life may very well be forfeit.

More importantly though, his mind is racing. How did she know? How could Maria know in such vivid detail the exact specifics of that day, when Ivan himself didn’t? Unless that was a lie. It all seems so convenient. Maybe the entire family is in on it. Maybe they’ve lured him here and now plan to finish him off, the final loose end to Ivan’s crimes tied in a neat little bow.

But she seemed so innocent, so surprised when he panicked. And all those little moments: the ball, listening to her play the piano, are those all lies as well? Yet even if they are, why does he care this much?

He can’t think! His mind is being pulled a hundred different ways. Mishka can’t afford this now. It doesn’t matter. Right now, he has to focus entirely on the task at hand: retrieving his pistol from his trunk and killing Ivan. Any grand plans of perfect revenge are out the window. If he doesn’t do it now, he will never get another shot.

He doesn’t even notice Ada standing in front of his room until he nearly runs into her. Even when he does, he just pushes her aside and yanks the door open. “Mikhail,” she says, following him inside. “We need to talk.” “There’s no time,” he responds automatically, tearing into the bedroom.

But it seems like she either hasn’t heard him, or doesn’t care, for she continues speaking anyway. “The Volkovs are planning something, and it’s happening today.”

Mishka flings open his trunk and begins throwing things out left and right. Why now of all times can he not find that pistol? “Yes,” he says, not really paying attention. “I know.” “Wait.” She pauses. “You do?”

There it is! Fully loaded and ready to complete its mission. Finally, he looks back at Ada. “They’re going to kill me, of course.” “What?” She looks utterly flabbergasted. “They’ve known who I am the whole time, so they lured me here so that no one will know about the dirty past of the precious nobility.”He stands again, and walks out of the room, calmer now. “But, hold on, that makes no sense,” Ada trails after him. “If that was their plan, why wait so long? Plus, I heard Natalya and Maria talking last night, something about Jack—”

She can’t keep following him, she’ll get hurt. So Mishka turns on his heel to face her. “I’m going to end all of this now,” he says. “Once I’m done, I’ll help you and your brother get out of here. Go to the north wing. I’ll meet you there.”

It’s just an excuse to get her to leave. He has no idea whether he’ll even be alive to help her after he’s done. But regardless of if she believes him or not, Ada nods and runs off. Mishka has no idea what he could do to help her, but he’ll figure that out when he gets to it. Somehow, he doubts he’ll have to.

He has his own problems to deal with. No doubt Ivan is waiting for him somewhere. He’s not the type to try to take him by surprise. He’ll probably even give him a free shot. So where does that leave him? Waiting somewhere big, no doubt, and open, so that Mishka has no hope of finding any sort of cover. The same will be true for Ivan, of course, but no doubt he’s confident in his aim.The ballroom, he thinks. That might just be it. Especially if he shares the predisposition for the dramatic that the rest of the family has. It’s large, open, and Ivan will have the advantage of range. Mishka knows that he can’t aim for shit. Ivan probably knows it too. “Mikhail.”

Mishka barely hears her voice. He’s so focused on his goal, and she speaks so softly that he nearly misses it. But waiting just around the corner, right outside his destination, is Maria. She looks small, scared, clutching her arms to her chest. “Mikhail,” she repeats, taking one small step towards him. “What are you doing with that gun?”

He stops walking as the tremor in her voice sends a needle into his chest. “Shouldn’t you know?” he grits his teeth, choking down the pain. “Since it seems you know so much about me.” “I only know what I saw,” she insists, eyes watering up. “Please just put the gun down and we’ll talk.” “You said you saw all that in a dream?” Mishka shakes his head. “That’s not possible.” “But that’s what happened! I don’t know what else to tell you.”

She’s crying now. He wants her to stop. He wants her to be a bad person, so that he can kill her brother with no regrets. But each sob tugs a thought at the back of his mind forward. Maybe she’s not. Maybe she’s just a sick girl. “Here’s what I think.” He can’t back down now. The gun is already warming in his hand. “That you’ve all been working together from the beginning. That you lured me here to kill me.” “What? That’s… absurd...” “So if I open this door, then Ivan will not be waiting for me on the other side?” “Well, I—” she struggles, then falls silent.

For some reason, Mishka can’t help but feel a little disappointed. “That’s what I thought.” He takes a step towards the door, raising the gun in a shaking hand. “Please!” Maria rushes towards him, despite the danger. “Please, don’t kill him! Don’t kill my brother!”

She tries to cling to him, but Mishka throws her off. There’s no room for heartache, no room for hesitation. He flings open the door, and locks it firmly behind him with a loud boom that echoes across the hall.He can still hear her sobbing on the other side.

Most of the large windows of the ballroom are drawn shut with heavy, red curtains. But all the way at the end, there is a single window that has been opened. It casts a striking silhouette on the man in the center of the room.Ivan has been waiting for him. “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting.” Mishka’s voice echoes oddly in the wide, empty space. “Actually, you have,” Ivan chuckles. “I’ve been here most of the morning. But I am quite surprised. How did you know I was here? Kapov shouldn’t be telling you I’m waiting for another twenty minutes.”

Mishka glances briefly back at the door, which Maria continues to weakly pound at. So she hadn’t cornered him on purpose? “It’s… a long story,” is all he says in response. “I see you came prepared.” Ivan raises his own gun, and the sunlight flashes off its polished barrel. “Are you going to shoot me?” Mishka feels his face growing hot with anger at just how bemused he sounds. “Yes.” As he grips the gun tighter, so tight that his knuckles turn white, Mishka takes a few steps forward.

Ivan looks back at him lazily, not even bothering to aim. The way he looks, one would think that Mishka has just challenged him to a friendly game of cards, or chess. “You know,” he says conversationally. “I thought you seemed familiar, from the very first day you arrived. I thought: ‘Maybe he was a soldier as well,’ since you pinned me so quickly, but that didn’t seem right. You are far too young.”

Mishka’s chest feels like it’s going to explode. He wants to move, wants to fire his pistol right between Ivan’s cold, blue eyes. But for some reason, he can’t will himself to move. “I just couldn’t figure it out.” Ivan taps the barrel of his gun on his temple. “But now…” he pauses, and straightens suddenly. “Now I see that look in your eyes, and I remember. You’ve changed quite a bit in three years, or maybe it’s just the whole world that has. I guess I didn’t recognize you without all that blood on your face.” “Then tell me,” Mishka finally unsticks his tongue. “What exactly do you remember?” He wants to hear him say it, to admit with his own words what he did to Vasily.

But Ivan just shrugs. “Not much, I’m sorry to admit. It was snowing, I remember that. And the gunshots sounded louder without the added artillery. I was supposed to be discharged already, so I suppose I just blocked it all out. But I remember you. Not much more than a child, sitting besides a corpse.” “Don’t talk like you have nothing to do with it! You’re the one who killed him!” Mishka spits. “An innocent boy! Why?” he demands, his emotions running away with him. “Why did you do it?” “I wish I could tell you,” Ivan’s face falls an inch. “But there isn’t a reason, really. The Tsar told us to shoot, so I shot. Someone drew a gun on me. Soldier or not, it didn’t matter. If I didn’t shoot him, he was going to shoot me. I was too far gone to even think about it.” “He wasn’t going to shoot you!” Mishka shouts. “He only had it to protect us from people like you!” “Do you think that mattered to me?” Ivan is not angry, not yet, but a cold malice has crept into his voice that once again freezes Mishka where he stands. “You only saw that one awful day. You had not been in the fields of Manchuria, hearing the moans of your comrades dying around you, every minute for days on end, for three years. There, they hand you a gun, and if you don’t pull that trigger, then you’ll be the one full of holes.”

Ivan looks down at the pistol in his hands, as if wondering how it got there. “And so you do.” He grips it tightly, and gestures wildly around the room. “Bang. Bang. Bang. And that is all there is. No human lives, no remorse. Just you, and the gun.”

Mishka becomes acutely aware of the hunk of metal in his own hands. It’s become warm, almost slippery from the grip of his sweaty palms. And he realizes that he has no idea what Ivan is talking about. This thing, this life-taker, feels so other, so alien to him. Mishka holds it gingerly, like it might just suddenly go off if he jostles it at all.

Ivan examines the expression on Mishka’s face, and smiles sadly. “Maybe that makes me weak. Maybe just laying down and dying right there would have been more noble. Though I suppose all the men I killed would have probably been killed by someone else anyway.”

Mishka shudders at Ivan’s cold, indifferent chuckle.

Then, he pauses briefly, looking up towards the ceiling. “Perhaps I am still just as weak.” He seems to come to some sort of decision, because when his gaze falls back down to Mishka his eyes are filled with something like steel, or ice. Something that Mishka hasn’t seen in three years.

He points the gun directly at Mishka’s chest. “I could shoot you. Right now. It would be easy. All I have to do is go back to that place. To blood-soaked Manchuria. I never left, really. I’m still there, deep down, just waiting for the next target to enter my sights.”

Mishka doesn’t know what to do. Ivan is pointing a gun at him. Snow is falling. There’s a hole in his blood-stained glove. Ivan is pointing a gun at him. “Go on,” Ivan whispers, and Mishka realizes what’s happening. “Hold that gun in your hands. Feel the metal burn…”He’s going to give him a single chance. “...And shoot me. Before I shoot you.”

He can’t believe his luck. After all the planning, all the preparation, and Ivan is just going to let him do it. Adjusting his grip, Mishka aims, readies himself… and stops. “What are you waiting for?” Ivan barks.

On the other side of the door, Maria is still crying.

He cried just like that, after he’d stumbled into that little room that he and Vasily had shared, alone and covered in blood. It was a cry that only a person in the utmost despair can produce. Visceral, guttural, straight from the soul with no care for oneself or the people around them. “Go on! Do it!”

The gun shakes violently in Mishka’s hands. He can’t have doubts now, this is what he came here to do. But he does, he does. One pull of that trigger and Ivan will be dead. It will be painful, both for him and the people around him. The light will leave his eyes and it will never return. That will be Mishka’s doing, that blood will be on his hands. “Shoot, dammit, shoot, you son of a bitch!”

But Vasily, Vasily, think of Vasily. If he fails now, his death will be in vain. A pointless, stupid death. But Vasily didn’t leave him all that money for revenge. “Please!” Maria thumps on the door, even louder and more desperate than before. “Mishka! Please, don’t hurt him!”

That’s the first time she’s called him that.

This will hurt her. This will hurt her like it hurt him. She will never be the same, and it will be his fault. Despite his best efforts, despite everything, he truly does care for her. Out there, beyond that door, might as well be worlds away, a girl that he loves is crying. He made her cry. “What are you doing?” Ivan’s face is bone white, and the arm holding his gun aloft is shaking in fury.

What is he doing? What is this act other than a perpetuation of that heinous cycle of hatred and despair? It’s not something that Maria wants, nor—he realizes finally—is it something that Vasily would have wanted. He hates Ivan for what he did, more than a soul writhing in the blackest pits of the abyss hates the heavens above.

But he can’t do it. His gun clatters to the ground, and as his knees give out, he follows it.There is silence in the ballroom for a long time as the two men stare at each other. Ivan doesn’t look surprised, or even confused. Just… sad. “I see.” His words, whispered as they are, seem to fill the entire room. “I guess I was the weak one after all.”

Mishka closes his eyes, knowing that at any second, Ivan’s gun will fire and that will be that. But it doesn’t come. Instead, when he finally opens them, Ivan is standing over him, no gun in sight.

His eyes have lost that steel. He doesn’t look like a soldier anymore, like a killer. He just looks empty. Like in proving himself correct he’s lost something. But he doesn’t say anything. Not for a good long while. Finally, he takes a deep breath, shaking his head. “I wish we had more time,” he says. “If I could, I would offer you a drink, maybe we could discuss what happened back then. You know, like civilized people. But alas, I have a promise to keep. We can’t keep Natalya waiting.”

Mishka blinks. “What are you—?”

Oh, there’s where his gun went. It’s now pressed firmly against Mishka’s chest. “Stand up.”

Mishka obeys numbly, having absolutely no clue what’s happening. Ivan pushes him towards the door, and he complies.

Kneeling just on the opposite side, Maria looks absolutely flabbergasted to see both men emerging alive. She stands, only to gasp when she sees the gun now pointed at Mishka’s back. “Ivan,” she says. “Please, isn’t there something we can—?” “Not now,” he interrupts her. “Right now, children, I truly apologize for this, be we are, all of us, going to take a nice little trip down to the cellar...”

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