Not a moment too soon, Sadja gave a light pull on the ropes.
They still held fast, but they were getting thinner and thinner. If she ever came to the end of this, she did not want to see a rope ever again. At the very least, she was becoming quite apt at getting out of bindings.
They had underestimated her. She had played the good obedient prisoner for the past few hours, looking demure and shy and broken. Her gaze never reached that of her kidnappers. She tried to appear as weak and pathetic as she could.
And it was working.
They put her down against a tree. One of the men stayed up a while to keep guard on her, but he soon grew bored and turned to address the others.
“Oi! The damn Hag is taking her time!”
“Don’t speak like that!” The other one hissed. “She’ll curse you! She’s the High Seer, praised be the spirits.” He signed himself and looked around, as if Verna could jump down from the heavens in a blaze of light to eat his heart out.
“She’s not far,” their chief said, sitting on a rock and drawing out a long tired breath. “Don’t you understand? Everything that happened so far did so under her vision, her plan. When I asked Cloria if she saw Eerie in our future she was right, and you know what? The High Seer is as far removed from that wench as a grain of sand if from the Mont Blanc! She’s coming. No doubt about that.”
“Well, she’s still taking her damn time,” the first one replied, shivering in the freezing atmosphere, even more so that they were not standing more or less still. The curve of the river allowed them to take a better look at their surroundings, but an ambush could happen at any time.
All that was for the better. They were tired, nervous, and bickering.
Bit by bit, sadja rubbed the ropes against the tree’s bark. If she twisted her wrists this way and that, she could even make it quicker. Another little trick she had learned in the past few days. Too bad there wasn’t one of those monsters nearby. Those teeth were sharp.
Still, as the nervous trio paced back and forth, their footsteps covered the soft creaking of the ropes.
And they thought her domesticated and ripe for the picking.
No, no, no.
I will not disappear.
She felt the rope start to give in, but she left a tiny sliver still connecting her wrists. Which proved a good idea when one of the men walked back to check on her.
“Hmm. And what do you think, happy to meet your old friend? She’s gonna spirit you away to the high life, for sure. Hey, why do you think she wants this girl?”
“Who cares. She’s far too feral for my tastes.”
“Feral?” The man pulled her face up from her chin and she had to struggle to keep her muscles limp. “She’s a little puppy. Come on, look at her.”
“Stop it,” the boss hissed. “She’s not normal. You don’t even know what she is. She’ll probably give you lint if you keep touching her.”
“Whatever,” he rolled his eyes and patted her on the head. “That’s a good pet.” He snickered and left her as they started bickering once more.
They sat in a circle, taking out some dice and laying down a towel.
This was it.
I will not disappear!
She pulled on the ropes.
The sound of the snap lasted just a tiny moment. But her hands were finally free. Pretending she was still tied up, Sadja balled her fists a few times. It helped her fingers feel more alive.
The men had started playing. Two gave her their back, the third was looking down at the dices.
When it was his turn to throw, Sadja took in a quick breath and tugged on the ropes holding her legs. She began to undo the knot. Each movement stretching into an hour: the feeling of the rope against her abused skin, her muscles not working properly, her strength regained, but only to a point. She gave one quick look at the trio.
She pulled on the final string and they fell from her legs. Now for the back.
She undid the final knot.
One of the men shouted something at another and gave him a slap on the shoulder… and that was when their gazes met.
“Hey! Hey!” He shouted, pointing at her.
She jumped to the right, towards the woods.
“After her!” She heard them fumble for their pistols, but they couldn’t fire at her, could they? Verna wanted her alive. And unspoiled.
A bang shattered the silence and her ears and body winced. Maybe they could.
Just like the other time.
It was just like the other time.
She was far more tired now. Worn-out. But she knew the woods a little better. She jumped between the trunks, the foliage brushing against her skin and her clothes. And yet, just like the first time, it seemed to be holding back her pursuers far more than her.
They stumbled on roots, fell into small pits, had to push through crimson branches and past columns of red goop.
When she looked back they were already a few paces behind her.
Her heart thumping in her chest, and for the first time in a long while with the heat of hope, she picked up her pace even more, even as every breath felt like hooks raking against her chest.
She would go ever deeper into the forest.
Maybe meet with her moth-friends again.
If she was lucky, she might even find the Hunter again. He doubted he could protect her against Verna, but maybe that Elissa person he told her about… could.
She ran and ran and ran, even as the pistol shots came ever closer.
“Stop!” Came the weak, far-off call, more of a plight than anything.
The woods began to slowly open up again.
Amidst the trees came the familiar shapes of the forest’s creatures, but they kept their distance. Maybe they had learned they did not like their blood.
That meant… that meant she was getting out of there!
Verna was not there to catch her! She had missed her chance, and she’d never get her again!
She’d find her friend, and together with them, she’s get a new chance at a new life.
One where they did not run needles through her skin anymore.
Her ears perked up and she let out a laughter that rose up to the clouds.
And she kept running, slowing down her pace a bit now that she was getting away. Turning, she did not see a trace of her pursuers.
In fact, she did not recognize where she was anymore.
It did not matter. Seen one crimson-oozing grey pine, seen all of them.
With the fresh snow welcoming each of her steps, Sadja looked around for a place where she could hide, recover her strength. Maybe she’d be extra lucky and find more of those cans-of-food… what did the Hunter say? Spirits. She’d pray to the spirits.
Whoever they may be.
At the corner of her vision, she caught something that made her lose a step. She stumbled forward, turned back to check.
For a moment… for a moment she was sure she had seen something between the trees. A tall figure, not black like those monsters, but… still unsightly. Dressed the colors of skin and bone and freshly-spilled blood. Her eyes focused on her. She couldn’t remember what color they had been. But her expression… pensive. Almost as if she was asking for forgiveness.
She looked around.
But nobody was there.
Maybe she really needed to find something to eat.
And for some reason, the dream she had some time ago bloomed onto her memories.
When the time comes, remember this feeling.
“I do not want to disappear,” she whispered.
The hair on the back of her neck bristled.
She looked around.
Her surroundings did not change. But there was something… something she that…
Looking up, her ears twitching, she caught a strange noise. It reminded her of the Hunter’s sled. A whine tearing through the wind.
A cold grip seized her heart.
Maybe it was intuition. Maybe her instinct. Maybe the hooks biting deep deep into her soul, gnawing at her memories.
No no no.
She ran back to the cover of the trees.
A huge triangular shadow appeared over her. Some sort of machine, humming its descent.
No no no.
“Help,” she screamed at the silent woods.
When the time comes, said the voice from her dream.
Remember this feeling.
“I don’t want. I don’t want to disappear.”
The aircraft’s shadow ate through her, surrounding her with its mass. And her legs gave out.
Sadja yelped and fell onto the snow, face-first.
Hold on to it.
She tried to stand up, but she couldn’t.
Something held her onto the ground. Invisible. Like chains of air.
If she tried to move her arms, to struggle out of it, she always came back to the starting position. It wasn’t like the rope. It was… as if no matter what movement she tried, she couldn’t be in any other position than this.
This is your test.
“I don’t want to disappear,” she choked.
The aircraft stopped, looming right over her. So small and lost, a mote of silver dust, dancing between the arms of a golden spiderweb.
From the glider’s side a door yawned open. And out came a tall, blonde woman, her face covered by a metal mask.
As always, she was grinning.
Sadja’s heart seized.
And that pressure, that numbing force that had coated her thoughts for so long came back, plunging her as if underwater. Noises, smells, the weight of her own body: everything turned dull.
Like a dream.
A dream she wouldn’t wake up from, this time.
“It’s been too long,” said her voice. So sweet. Falsely! Sweet. Dripping through her mind from one ear to the other, massaging her brain, keeping her docile even if she wanted to run away. Run away from her, forever.
Verna stepped down to the level of the ground, walking on air. The same invisible force that pushed her against the snow held her upright.
She reached her and leaned forward, caressing her feverish skin.
“You must be so very tired.”
She was. But not…
Not like this.
She did not want to…
“Come with me. I missed you so much.” She pulled her up and held her against her body. The same warmth, the same strength.
She hated herself for the part of her that wanted to lean into that warmth and never let go.
Since the day she had seen her… from the capsule. The first day she had opened her eyes.
The same woman.
Always and forever.
Hold on to it.
Hold on to what…? It was something important.
She couldn’t… really remember.
She opened her mouth, but a kiss to her forehead stopped.
Yes. She was indeed.
A good girl.
“Now let’s go back inside,” said that sweet, sweet voice. A voice of gears and oil and dripping molten gold. A golden dawn that turned everything into a twisted reflection of itself. And amidst those reflections, Sadja didn’t recognize her own anymore. “Let’s go back home.”
Pic by stefanstan95Author’s Notes: another of those very important chapters you always want to reach. And I’m also really pumped up as this is the 75th chapter and we are three quarters of the way into this mad challenge! As always, a deep thank to everyone who kept following and reading. Thanks so much. I hope you liked this chapter even if it is one of the saddest ones. Poor Sadja just can’t catch a breath. Let’s all hope she gets away from this pinch sooner or later. She’s doing her damn best.
Thanks for reading.