Katabasis, Part I


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Scene Title Katabasis, Part I
Synopsis In a place where time has no meaning, the journey of a thousand miles begins.

“The seeds of life - fiery is their force, divine their birth,
but they are weighed down by the bodies' ills or dulled
by limbs and flesh that's born for death. That is the
source of all men's fears and longings, joys and sorrows,
nor can they see the heaven's light, shut up in the body's
tomb, a prison dark and deep.”

― Virgil, The Aeneid

The world is a labyrinth, a tomb, a cemetery, and a forest. This much, Nathalie Leroux knows.

Time is a malleable thing here, too, as is identity. The ability to be oneself is as ephemeral as the moment oneself exists in. It has taken an instant and forever for Nathalie to manifest a corporeal form, her self. It was in that moment that he found her — the Virgil to her Dante.

Gabriel Gray.

“This place is a crossroads.” Gabriel explains, with the light of his lantern a beacon by which Nathalie can perceive the cemetery beyond the gloom. The ground is cold, but soft and yielding for the several inches of snow that has fallen. “It used to be light here, once… but everything’s changed.”

Stopping between two crooked headstones crusted with lichen and dusted with snow, Gabriel lowers the lantern and looks back to Nathalie. “You shouldn’t be here.”

Bare feet sink into the snow as Nathalie follows next to Gabriel, her hands clutching onto one another, pressing into her chest like she might be trying to test just how corporeal she is. Her arms shake, from the cold or from her own fear an uncertainty— it's hard for her to say which. She narrows her eyes to peer through the gloom, to be able to side step the graves as they pass through them. She can't stop herself reading the names, these people that are— were— a part of her for so long.

She stops when he does, turning her head to look at him, head tilted like she might be needed to replay his words in her head before she responds. "I— I'm not— I didn't mean to be here." She looks back to the headstones, a hand reaching out to brush over the stone. "What changed?"

“That’s hard to say,” Gabriel suggests as he leads Nathalie through the garden of headstones. “You, but, I think I’m not suited for that conversation. This place… was changed by Eileen.” Stopping in the middle of a long row of snow-covered headstones, Gabriel lifts his lantern up toward the sky. It does nothing to illuminate the suffocating field of black above.

“It used to be daytime here. Cloudy, snowing, a winter’s day. It’s been getting darker ever since she first arrived here, in some places the snow is different. In others…” Gabriel stops and lowers the lantern, setting it in the snow. He takes one knee beside a headstone where there is a tiny copper bell in an iron frame staked into the ground, with a thin chain that goes straight down into the snow.

Nathalie had read about old bells like this. They were installed in the turn of the 19th century when fear of being buried alive was commonplace due to poor medical diagnoses. The idea was the chain would go down into a grave and loop into a coffin. If you woke up buried alive, you’d pull the chain and

Ding, ding, ding.

Gabriel rings the bell.

"Is it balance? Two of one side, but not of the other?" Eileen brought something with her that the other travelers didn't, after all. Nathalie stops next to him when he kneels, glancing over the grave and the bell before she moves to dust the snow off the headstone, to see which name is there.

She jumps at the sound of the bell before realizing that Gabriel rang it himself. Still, she takes a step back, in case this bell works in reverse, signalling the resident to rise.

"I'm not sure I understand," she says, running her hair between finger and thumb, over her palm. "I don't understand what I did." She had known for a long time that a part of her would survive beyond her, but she imagined it as… a fragment. Not something she would be aware of. Not her, walking on two feet, feeling the cold and the stone. She was ash and dust, dirtying an empty hallway. For a moment, she could still feel all those millions of pieces of herself, falling apart, crumbling away.

"I need to know what's happening," comes out a little more strained than she means it to, and she folds her arms to grip onto herself.

“I can’t help you with that.” Gabriel says without looking up at her, ringing the grave bell again. Though as he turns dark eyes up to her, there’s a coy smile spread across his lips. “But I know someone who can.”

As if summoned by the bell, there is a silhouette in the fog. It moves with a smooth grace, snow crunching underfoot until a familiar woman comes into view, chin held high and eyes fixed on Nathalie as though she were a rare animal that had wandered into a back yard.

Madeline Rouen’s smile is nearly smug. “I had half a mind to chastise you for ringing that damnable thing,” she says to Gabriel without taking her eyes off Nathalie. Gabriel’s dark brows rise in a mock apology as he stands.

“I suppose I could have sent a letter,” Gabriel jabs, eliciting a pointed look from Rouen. “I can’t spend anymore time with this,” he says with a brief motion to Nathalie. “She’s here, I know it.”

Rouen’s expression sags as the humor leaves her eyes. She nods wordlessly toward the fog, an implicit permission that Gabriel doesn’t need to leave, but what Rouen thinks might make him feel better.

Nathalie looks toward the figure in the fog, staying tense until she sees who it is. Someone she knows to be practical and forthright. She makes herself breathe, trying to stop herself from trembling.

"Doctor Rouen," she says, dipping her head a little, "It's good to see you." Casual words, said over and over by endless voices, but she means it. It's a challenge not to feel stung by Gabriel's dismissal of her. This is not a flattering thing to be called under the best of circumstances. But she straightens her shoulders, easing her hold on herself. She debates telling him about Eileen, about how she survived, merged, but part of her wonders if having something to hope for here is more of a boon than the truth. And perhaps there is some version of Eileen here. She can hardly call herself an expert on what happens when one person takes over another's body. She's spent her life preventing that exact thing from happening.

“Go chase your ghosts,” Rouen says of Gabriel, who retrieves his lantern and lays a silent but firm look at Nathalie, before turning back toward the fog without so much as a word. He departs into the mist, following his own obsessions and Rouen watches him become little more than a silhouette, then a bloom of light, then nothing.

“I suppose everyone is haunted by their own demons,” Rouen admits with a quick of her brows. She blinks a dark-eyed look over to Nathalie, inclining her head and setting her jaw askew as she considers what she’s seeing.

After a moment she sighs through her nose and asks Nathalie the same question Gabriel had not wanted to. “What are you doing here?”

Plenty of ghosts here to find. Nathalie watches Gabriel disappear into the fog, back to his personal, bespoke hell of endless searching. Maybe this is hers, to exist in a place she should not be, to never know why or what she is.

Had she been a monster after all, to deserve such a fate?

Eyebrows twitch— a single outward show of inward fears— but she pulls her gaze away from the fog and back toward Rouen. "I'm not entirely sure. I… died." Yes, that happened. "And then I was here. I don't think I was quite myself for— at first." That elusive concept of time, every moment an eternity. "I don't seem to belong here," she adds, half statement, half question.

“Maybe.” Rouen says with a quick look back to Nathalie, “But when has supposed to ever deterred you from your choices in life?” There’s a knowing smile as she turns back around, choosing to walk between the headstones as if she has a destination in the cemetery in mind.

“You never let the fact that you were so young deter you from joining Wolfhound. No.” Rouen squints at the fog. “You lifted your chin, squared your shoulders, and you did the work. Your peers saw it, your father saw it, and they accepted you.” Rouen lifts one hand in the air. “Should you have been there?” She angles her head to the side. “Perhaps not. Maybe you would be somewhere other than here if you hadn’t.” Then she lifts her other hand. “Did you live your life true to yourself? Absolutely.”

Rouen stops by a tall stone monument; a statue of a woman weaving, cloth by hand. Rouen motions to the faded nameplate at the foot which reads "Saint Catherine of Alexandria." Below that, the name, "Madeline Rouen" and the date "1754."

“That is what this place thinks of me.” Rouen says with a rise of her brows. “I am a footnote in a history of violence, a monument to my death on a pyre two hundred years before you were born.” She narrows her eyes. “Fuck this place and its notion of what belongs.”

Nathalie tilts her head, perhaps to reflect on the shoulds of her life. She spent a lot of time reflecting on the internal, her relationship with the external wasn't something she examined too often. A bit of armor, that always was. But the recounting of how she lived her short life… she can only shake her head. "I survived. For as long as I could. I knew this power would eat me one day. Or someone would eat me for it."

A brutal truth she was too young to know when she learned it. But it is what it is.

"Saint Catherine the great martyr," Nathalie says with a gesture at the statue, her tone dry. It's not a flattering monument, it's a condemnation of all of them who weren't her. "I prefer Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte. A protector. A guide. Open arms to the outcast, the other." Of course, no good Catholic graveyard would have a statue of that particular figure, certainly not in the same space as Saint Catherine. Nat turns to look back to her companion. "You are a woman of skill, intelligence and power. Violence is the only death they'll allow you. Even still." She looks around, a hand moving to her hip. "Don't you ever want to tear it all down?"

“Of course.” Rouen says without any hesitation. “But who are we to entreat Hades and demand it change?” Motioning with her head, Rouen indicates for Nathalie to join her as she turns away from the monument and steps off the grass onto a snow-dusted cobblestone trail between the headstones.

“I wasn’t martyred, I was murdered.” Rouen clarifies. “Tied to a stake and burned alive for the crime of bringing science and illumination to an uneducated group of miscreants who tried to pray smallpox away in Parisian villages. I have spent an untold measure of time since my body was consigned to smoke in this place, a prisoner-in-memoriam bound to forever walk the purgatorial roads of those who came before me and those who would come after.”

As Rouen leads Nathalie through the headstones, other monuments come into view. Moss-encrusted statues and listing obelisks pointing toward the void of the sky. Rouen seems as disinterested in them as the dead are with these two women. “I want you to see something, though. Because you are a bright woman, and because I believe there is opportunity in your presence here, rather than memorial.”

"The people who have to live in it," Nathalie says with a shake of her head. Did they all deserve to be cursed with this place? An accident of inheritance and they're all doomed to roam their own graveyard forever? That sort of injustice sits wrong in her gut. Hades could use a lot of improvement from where she's standing.

Her shoulder rolls in discomfort and she forces her attention back onto Rouen as they walk on, thoughts of outrage and rebellion brewing darkly in the back of her mind. She had been hoping for peace, a gentle sort of nothingness she could disappear into and finally— finally— rest. Not another world and the same her, struggling endlessly against rules and roles forced upon her.

It's that word, opportunity, that parts the storm clouds and allows the promise of the sun through.

Nathalie raises an eyebrow and her head tilts.

"Show me."

Rouen’s thin lips curl into a demure smile at that request. Her eyes uplift to the monument to her memory, giving it a baleful look, before she turns her back to it and walks once more among the headstones of forgotten lives. Dead leaves crunch under Rouen’s feet as she walks, the hem of her dress rustling them and creating a path that reveals the dead grass and dry ground beneath.

“Some time ago, this place underwent a catastrophic upheaval,” Rouen says without looking back to her charge. “All of us within the fog felt it, and it rippled like an earthquake through this place, twisting the landscape and irrevocably changing what had been discrete and distinct for centuries.” As they walk, the snow takes on a gray quality. It takes a moment for Nathalie to realize that eventually it isn’t snow at all, but thick flakes of ash falling from the sky, collecting on their clothes and in their hair.

“Eileen Gray caused this. A collision I do not understand, from a conduit-bearer not immortalized in this cemetery.” Rouen passes by cracked and ancient monuments, old gray obelisks coated in lichen, wrapped in dead and leafless ivy and caked in ash. “But what she did… was create something that has never existed before.”

It’s then that Rouen stops, finally looking back to Nathalie, and then motioning to the sky. Here, there the ashes fall like snow, there is a hole in the lightless black of the sky, through which an inverted landscape can be seen. Another cemetery, curving as if it exists on the inside of a sphere, as if MC Escher had been given a paintbrush and told to make a mockery of creation.

Around the opening in the sky is a shimmering field of light, greenish-blue in coloration, like a ring of luminescent fabric that tapers to shades of pink at the hem; a ruffled collar of light around the stump of a neck, gilding the throat of dimensions unknown.

“It is my focus of study,” Rouen explains. “A window or a door to somewhere else, forever out of reach.” She turns slowly, looking to Nathalie. “But that is a topic of a different nature. I bring you here, because it is a wound, and as you know there are some things that are drawn to injuries. The natural healing response of the body, propagated by cells.” Her brows rise and she looks over Nathalie’s shoulder. “There’s one now.” Rouen says.

Behind Nathalie stands a tall, thin man with a long face and somewhat hawkish features. His clothes are of a military nature, from the cut of his greatcoat to the uniform worn beneath. But this isn’t a man who fought in any contemporary war, but rather what was once simply known as The Great War, the first world war. He is a cipher to Nathalie, an unknown figure among the monuments of the dead. At this soldier’s feet, the grass has come alive and sprouted up through the ash.

“Nathalie,” he says in a smooth British accent, “it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Nathalie first notices when ash falls on her face and her fingers move to brush it away, only to smear it over her cheek instead. She blinks, holding a hand out to catch some and rub it between her fingers. Who were you, I wonder is nearly spoken aloud, but she keeps it to her thoughts in the end. It's a quest she could ask of every speck falling from the sky, every one smudging her clothes and hair.

She looks up at the wound, the cemetery beyond it with its impossible geometry, the ring of color around it. She makes a noise deep in her throat. There are some wounds even the most reluctant healer can't ignore. "Is there anything to do about it? My conduits, they moved to— someone else. But, is there a way?"

She doubts Richard will thank her, really, for cursing him with this for an afterlife.

But maybe, if she can fix it…

Maybe it wouldn't be such a bad fate.

She blinks, pulling her attention away from the sight and back over to Doctor Rouen. She nods, understanding the correlation between this and the human body. But when Rouen looks beyond her, Nathalie turns—

She hadn't really expected it to be a person, but when she sees him, the grass at his feet, she understands.

As a student of history, it's easy for her to place him in time, but she can't conjure his face of demeanor from the memories shared with her through the centuries. "You know my name," she says, her tone curious and wary, "But I don't know yours." She nods to the grass, then back up at him. "You held the other one. The White. Or… are you like me?" It's almost desperate, the plea that someone else might have held both, held both back.

Rouen remains quiet, watching Nathalie side-long with her hands folded in front of herself. The stranger, however, is not as passive. He closes the distance to Nathalie and the graveyard comes alive with each footfall, snowdrop flowers punching up through the ash and snow before wilting and dying the moment his feet move away.


“Lukas Maes,” he introduces himself with a gesture to his chest, “I’ve crossed impossible boundaries and come a long way to find you, Miss Nathalie.” Maes regards Rouen with a modicum of uncertainty, then looks back to Nathalie. “You aren’t mistaken about being able to do something about what you’ve seen here, but the what of it isn’t as you assume.”

“Your presence here is changing things,” Rouen chimes in, lifting her chin up. “Mr. Maes isn’t a part of this place, he’s from… somewhere else. Like you call it, the White. He showed up when you did, but he’s more adept at these sorts of transgressions, which means he’s also… as it works… been here longer than you.”

“It is complicated, but I promise to explain as best as I can,” Maes says with a raise of one gloved hand out for Nathalie, as if he were inviting her to participate in a formal dance. “Have you read the Divine Comedy, Miss Nathalie?”

Nathalie tilts her head to watch the flowers grow and wither away in Lukas' steps, only straightening again when he says his name. She responds with a dip of her head. That's as close as she gets to pleasantries here in this place.

"To find me," she repeats, quizzical and yet… she had spent most of her life feeling pursued, hunted. Her worst moments coming with being found. Here, she isn't sure how wary she should be, but there's a thread of hope winding its way around her heart. And she knows that sometimes hope can cut as much as it can uplift. So she falls silent, listening as the pair try to explain. Her gaze falls on Lukas, though, at his offered hand.

"I have. Are you going to be my Virgil? A guide through hell and into paradise?" She looks up at his face as she reaches out to take his hand. "I think you'll find me an attentive listener, Mr. Maes. These sorts of transgressions," she quotes with a slight smile in Rouen's direction, "seem to be a skill worth learning."

“Virgil,” Maes agrees with an incline of his head, “an apt analogy, one I’m particularly fond of, and appreciate your literacy. Though I suppose, with who you are, that isn’t surprising.” There’s a look in Maes’ eyes, a crease of his brow and a knowing smile. “I know the Divine Comedy, so…” he lets the implication hang unsaid.

“I cannot follow where you are going, Nathalie.” Rouen explains, folding her hands in front of herself. “But your journey there will be one fraught with peril. So I have but one piece of advice with which to arm you…”

Rouen lifts her chin, expression growing dreadfully serious.

“Beware the Devil of this story.”

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