Sadja shook her head. The mere thought that what Verna was saying could be true tainted her down to her very soul.
“No. No, it’s not… that’s not what happened. That wasn’t you.”
The Augur sighed and patted her head, still treating her like a misbehaving child who needs her lesson taught again.
“Didn’t the Hunter decide to let you go free in the end?” She asked with a tired note in her voice. “And didn’t Cloria reach out from the shadows to spirit you away the moment that happened? The Erepeople used to play this game with tiles, Sadja. They’d put them in a line, standing on their narrow end, and then knock them over one by one, in a neat succession of tiles falling right into their proper place. This has all been nothing more than a game.” She clicked her tongue. “The only thing I was not sure about was how much time Cloria would take to anger her men enough, but I guess that happened earlier than I hoped.”
“No… there must be something you didn’t predict. Something you didn’t put in line! You’re not…”
“There isn’t.” Verna’s smile withdrew as her patience was quickly running out. “We are flying back to Belacqua, to complete the other steps of the plan. I gave you this chance to escape because I wanted you to experience there is no running away from me.”
“No. No no no that’s not true.”
“Everything you experienced, from your little run-in with those tainted villagers to the escapade with the Hunter, to your fight with Lenora… it all happened thanks to me.”
Sadja blinked away tears. There must be a way out… something she didn’t predict. Something she didn’t put in place in her game of knocking tiles over.
“Is dead. Cloria got him good. He was useful to me, only to fail his most important task right at the end.” She sighed, piqued. “A waste of a good Venator. A bleeding heart has been his doom, as it happened to Lenora. We are called to higher things than a little romp behind the Temple, Sadja. We are supposed to give this world hope. To kill the Heart of the Woods once and for all… and you are our best chance, dear. Now do you understand why I need you?” Her fingers played with the scars still peppering her arms. “All this was for a higher purpose. I did not enjoy it, and I would love nothing more for you to help me willingly. At the end of your journey, do you understand, my dear? How there is no path other than the one I made for you, and it would be all the much easier for everyone if you were to just go down it without throwing such tantrums?”
Her voice pleaded with her, and the hooks that she had spent years worming into her mind pulled taut. But not the kind that required her memories or will to be rewired – this was the gently-reproachful tone of a tired mother who’s gently scolding her child and begging her to grow up.
To achieve her higher purpose.
Beyond the silly notion of freedom.
“We can be a family once again,” she said rubbing her finger over her cheek.
The only thing needed was for her to just lay her head low.
Sadja tried to push in, and she felt the invisible force lay low. Verna embraced her and she let herself be smothered by that warmth.
She had wanted nothing more.
For as far as she could remember.
Nothing different than that hug.
She’s just have to disappear.
“I have wanted this for so long,” Sadja mumbled against Verna’s breast.
She held onto this moment. Like she used to do in her home in the woods, laying under the blankets for just a couple minutes, savoring their warmth and the now-familiar pressure of the moth-girl next to her, her first friend. Or when she slept in the temple covered in bones, munching on a strip of salted meat, the first time she held an actual conversation with the Hunter, the first time the light of hope had come back into her heart.
She wanted it to last forever.
Sadja nest her head against Verna’s neck. The Augur’s hand reached for her hair, stroking them gently.
But not at this price.
I will not disappear.
She opened her mouth and pushed her teeth hard against Verna’s flesh.
The Hunter looked at the glider. They had missed Verna by just few minutes.
He fell on one knee, pointing the cannon up in the air. Not aiming straight at the aircraft, just a little higher. He wouldn’t be the one to make the shot, anyway.
He closed his eyes.
The roar of his blood rose to meet him. It rose to fill his ears.
“Spirits,” he prayed.
If you did not let me have Lenora, let me have this.
“It’s leaving! Shoot, Hunter!” Even Cloria’s protest seemed far away, too small to care.
He had put his trust in his blood since Old Man Salix gave him his first knife, taught him the way of the Venator.
It had been shaken when Belacqua had been overrun. When everything he cared about got lost.
In a flash, Salix’s face as he pushed him away from a giant Eerie flashed once again before his inner eye.
And then Lenora’s screams as the Tide called her onto it.
That had shaken his faith.
But he could be save another life, now. If only they’d allow him to.
And maybe, just maybe, somewhere in the Old Country the Queen of Thorns would look the other way when he used a weapon of the ancients in Her domain.
He pulled the trigger.
The cannon hummed like his sled used to do. Its surface creaked rattled as the ancients mechanisms came back to life.
A jet of flame rushed out of its lower end, melting the snow into a column of steam. And from its mouth a leash of purple light cleaved the day in two, like a soundless thunder.
The world exploded.
The Hunter lost his grip as a giant hand pushed him downhill, rolling onto the snow, without a purchase.
It felt like she bit on glass. Her attempted bite stopped just millimeters away from her skin.
Verna let out a sigh.
“Disappointing. I suppose I’ll just to turn every light in your brain off.”
The invisible force bashed her against the wall. Sadja fought for air, snarling, but once again she was powerless before Verna.
“Let’s start with-”
And she stopped.
Sadja knew the tangy, spiky smell of fear. It wasn’t fear what she was picking up from her, but it was surprise, and more than a bit. Like looking back at her steps and noticing a new set that had been following her until that moment, unseen.
“What…” the force relented, but only just enough to let her slide a bit against the wall.
Verna picked up something else. She turned to her right, held out a hand.
Just about at the right moment for something blindingly purple to cut through metal as if it wasn’t even there. Sadja’s ears popped, her body trashed against mangled metal, and then she was falling.
Pic by Helix-MagnusAuthor’s Notes: aaah, yet another fun chapter. I love these moments, when the confident, all-seeing villain starts to understand she has fucked up. I hope you’ll find the rest of the chapters just as interesting. And thanks for reading, as always.