Katabasis, Part III



Scene Title Katabasis, Part III
Synopsis This is now.

“What a tale he's told, what a bitter bowl of war he's drunk to the dregs.”

― Virgil, The Aeneid

The sound of an explosion shocks Nathalie LeRoux awake. Her world is confusingly darkness and damp, shockingly cold. As her limbs convulse, as up becomes a clear concept, she pushes herself up out of a shallow field of mud. Her breath comes in steaming gasps against the prickling cold of winter’s dawn.

The ground shakes and the cloudy sky thunders as the muddy field in front of her erupts into a shower of earth and debris that sends her flying back from the shockwave. Her ears are ringing, vision spinning, and the whistling cry of artillery rounds fill the air. Righting herself again, one knee in the mud, Nathalie is moving more on instinct than thought. The next time she looks at the horizon she sees it for what it is: a field of blasted, branchless trees sticking up out of a muddy field like grave markers.

Another shell hits a few hundred feet away, sending a plume of debris into the air. It is sleeting and a cold rime of watery ice collects on the too-thin fabric of her hooded jacket and olive drab trousers. There is a bayoneted rifle pressed into the mud near to where she woke up. Gunfire cracks in the distance, and as her ears stop ringing she picks up the concussive drum beat of dozens of shells striking even further away.

Then, she sees it, on a distant hill. Fort Douaumont.

She knows where she is.

When she is.

Northeastern France

December 15th


When another shell hits slightly closer than the next, panic and disorientation turn to confusion. Her guide, Maes, is nowhere to be seen. Sensibly, there is no one else out on the open field. But behind her she can see the dark line of a trench cut into the earth and its wooden supports poking out. Sandbags, barbed wire. The French line.

Freezing fingers wrap around the rifle, pulling it out of the mud as Nathalie straightens and turns to make a run for the trenches behind her. Worn boots stick in the mud, further churning together earth and blood. She knows this battlefield, she knows the number of lives it claimed, the months it stretched over, the poems written by those who survive. For every body she passes by as she runs, for every youthful face buried in the mud, she mentally recites another fact, another figure. Hell cannot be so terrible, one soldier later wrote.

Nathalie finds it a difficult sentiment to disagree with.

Her path is panicked and clumsy, her clothes and the skin beneath catch on barbed wire as she attempts to pass between its coils. There is no thought of being careful, of picking her way through, only to get off the field and into the dubious protection of the trenches. She knows they drive men mad, especially here, but tomorrow is a luxury soldiers cannot afford to consider. She feels the barbs tear into her as she yanks herself free, tumbling to her knees for a moment before she scrambles back to her feet. Nathalie cannot help but see pain as an old friend, a comfort, the reassurance that she is— at this moment— still alive.

She'll consider the metaphysical ramifications later, should she survive long enough to partake of the luxury of tomorrow.

There are soldiers in the trenches when she lands, a pair of French boys younger than she is. Both of them are sitting with their backs against the trench walls, eyes to the sky and rifles cradled to their chests as they hyperventilate, gasping out breathless prayer to a God who has abandoned them.

The drum beat of shelling creates a tempo for their panic, a rhythm of death that draws closer and closer with each aspiration. Neither of the boys look at Nathalie, nor do the only marginally older soldiers several feet down, sitting between mud-caked crates glistening with a rime of frost.

Somewhere on the other side of this battlefield, a young Kazimir Volken is learning to feed a beast within himself as dark as this war. But those memories feel so distant to Nathalie now. For the first time, Kazimir’s shadow feels so remote as to be forgotten.

Leaning back against the wall of the trench, Nathalie takes a moment to breathe. Her limbs shake and she slides down into the mud at their feet. Everything has been mud here for months, so much she doesn't bother to try to clean it off her face and hands. She looks over at the boys, watching their gasping breaths. These boys, the men nearby, she wonders if any of them will see anything but mud ever again. Mud and death.

She moves, sliding over to put a hand on each of their arms. "«Breathe like I do,»" she says, slipping into her French— Francois' French. She takes in a slow, obvious breath and lets it out just as slowly. Her hands grip tightly, trying to cut through the cold and the fear. They aren't likely to live through this, but they can only make it to the next moment if they make it through this one.

It's only then, trying to help two boys too young for war remember to breathe, that she thinks about Maes. Virgil's guided tour through hell, indeed. She looks to the faces around her, seeing if he's slipped in among them, but she doesn't leave the young soldiers. If he left her here, perhaps this is a battle she needs to see. Not in memories distorted by time, not in books with their clinical, distant view, but here with the blood on her hands.

The shelling continues to draw closer with each bombardment, but there is yet time. The young men sitting with Nathalie focus on her, because it is helpful. They breathe in deeply, then exhale a breath visible in the cold December air. They are crying, too, blurting out half-formed prayers between their patient breaths.

Maes!” Bellows a voice from behind Nathalie, and when she jerks her attention toward the wood-framed tunnel at her back she spies a barrel-chested, middle-aged French officer looking directly at her. “«Maes, where the fuck have you been? Stop wasting your time and come with me before the Germans scatter us across the fucking field.»”

It’s only then that Nathalie notices the incongruent reflection in the stagnant puddle of water she’s standing in. Not a young woman at all, but a man. Maes hadn’t left her anywhere.

He was here all along.

Seeing Maes in her reflection gives Nathalie a sense of relief. She's not alone here. Odd, though, for someone used to being the one holding the gestalt in her head to be the one embodying another.

Something to get used to for the future. Should they manage to repair their afterlife.

"«Yes Sir,»" Nathalie says, rather than trying to explain where she was. In her experience, that question tends to be a rebuke, rather than a genuine curiosity and it's best to get on with obeying orders. She squeezes the younger soldiers' arm, gives them a reassuring nod, then gets to her feet to join the officer. "«Any word on reinforcements, Sir?»" She may not know exactly where they are in this specific battle, but she knows that they were always in need of more help.

“«We have what we have,»” the officer says with labored breath as he marches up the trench away from the sound of shelling. The blast of French artillery in the distance and more remote explosions signals a turning point in the battle, a riposte of sorts from the French military. “«The Germans are on the heel, scouts reported back an hour ago and estimate that they’ve overinflated the appearance of their full contingent by swelling the front ranks.»”

For all that the French officer seems content to inform Maes of these details, it doesn’t feel like a briefing, it doesn’t have the urgency of something Maes should know. “«We think they may only have two… maybe three thousand in total. We captured a German observation point an hour ago, some two hundred men in it surrendered…»” The officer almost sounds amused.

Their path winds through the trench, past soldiers running in the opposite direction toward the front and the sounds of approaching shelling. Eventually, as the trench winds through the blown-out cellar hole of a four story brick building, the officer continues his assessment.

“«With the snow coming in, the Germans cut off, we might just make it out of this.»” It’s not a field report, it’s casual conversation. Something to take the officer’s mind off of the real problem. He heads for a staircase that is—miraculously—still intact in the ruined basement, leading Nathalie-come-Maes onto the ground level where he keeps his head down, weaving between buildings, leading Maes away from the front.

"«Welcome news,»" Nathalie says, but her voice holds no small amount of apprehension. She does what she can to sound stoic about it, but she cannot match the officer's casual tone. And definitely not the amusement. She watches the soldiers pass by them, trying to take in their faces, to remember them later if they're not among those who make it out of this.

Nat is pulled out of her thoughts when her feet hit the stairs, and she furrows her brow in confusion as they make their way further from the fighting. "«Sir,»" she says, trying not to draw too much attention to them, seeing as he is trying to keep his head down, "«What's wrong?»"

“«It’s Charles,»” the officer says as if that name means something to them both. “«We were coming up from the west, it was quiet—before the morning shelling began.»” Spoken of as if it were the rain. He motions in a westerly direction, moving further away from the front.

“«We weren’t paying attention. I didn’t even hear the gunshot, I just saw the birds scattering from the far trees and Charles collapsed into the mud.»” The officer says, looking back to Maes. “«He’s alive. But not for long.»”

It’s become clear now that this officer is leading Maes away from the battle and toward one of the nearest triage areas located just on the other side of the bombed-out village. From here there’s a clear line of sight to the four brick walls of a collapsed building and the tents erected in it.

“«I’m not a fool, Maes.»” The officer says, coming to a brief stop. “«I’ve… I’ve heard the rumors. I need to know if you can help him.»”

Nathalie listens without comment. She doesn't know the man, but she can pick up on the clues well enough. She just hopes the concern in her face— his face— reads well enough to fit the situation. Her expression only breaks when the officer stops. When he reveals what he knows. What he thinks he knows.

"«Sir?»" she asks with a blink she hopes registers as confusion. Not surprise, though. She knows too well the weight on Maes' shoulders. How much it must be compounded here in this war, in this battle, among his friends and fellow soldiers. She was able to fight her own temptation to protect herself, but in these circumstances… it would be an impossible feat. It's hard to even convince herself to reach out for that power— for fear of not having it open to her, for fear of having it again and knowing how much she has missed it. "«Let me see him. I can only try, Sir,»" she says, gravely, "«in this war, I can make no better promise than that.»"

It's only then that she tests the waters, dipping her fingers in to see if she holds now what Maes holds.

And she feels it, like an old friend, coiling within her limbs: the conduit. But in this state it feels different, less than. What is there feels familiar, but there is a part of it like a phantom limb that Nathalie feels the absence of with profound clarity. It is twain, and she only possesses the white conduit—such as it was called.

The officer gives a reluctant nod to Maes before continuing to the triage encampment. Soldiers salute both he and Maes as they enter, and they make a straight shot for the largest of the triage tents, mercifully one not overflowing with the groaning cries of the wounded.

Inside the tent, Maes spots the Charles the officer was speaking of. A stout, broad-faced man with a thick mustache and short-cropped hair. He is a familiar figure from the pages of history, Charles “the Butcher” Mangin, a notoriously aggressive and infamous French general. One who, notably, survived the battle of Verdun.

General Mangin is sitting up on a cot, swatting away a pair of distressed nurses trying to tend to a weeping wound bandaged on his bare chest. His breathing is labored, wheezing, and heavy. The round undoubtedly punctured the General’s lung. He breaks into a fit of bloody coughing after trying to push the nurses away.

The officer who had retrieved Maes gives him a stern look, then nods toward the general who looks on with a mixture of uncertainty and trepidation. He has not the breath for a greeting or a curse, whichever he was planning.

The feeling makes her eyes sting with tears, both in relief and in sorrow. She pushes them back, though, covering churning emotion with a stony expression. It's familiar, feeling one thing and projecting another. And in that familiarity, she finds the confidence to move. And the confidence to keep moving, even when they pass through the maze of wounded and dying— their pain grabs for her, tearing and pulling as she passes them all by.

She keeps her gaze on the General once she spots him. Once she recognizes him. Not as the man Maes knows, but as the one Natalie knows from stories and retellings from all sides. She feels the temptation immediately, let a vicious commander die for all the lives lost for his choices. It's the part of the white that she has always feared— not just the power to decide who lives and who dies, but the desire to do so. Knowing you can withhold the blessing, if you decide to.

Stepping toward Mangin's bed, she shakes off the darker urges the conduit awakens in her and greets him with a nod. Pulling a small stool over, she sits silently at his side, taking a moment to assess just how bad it is. How close to death. He survives, she knows. And now, she knows it was her all along.

A part of her absolutely hates that.

Even so, she puts a gentle hand on the man's shoulder and starts to make sure he doesn't die. At least not here. She can get him to a more stable condition without arousing too much suspicion for Maes and without needing more energy than they have to give. And perhaps to indulge a little in divine punishment, in making him live with at least some of his injuries.

Plus, she'll need to hold some back for the other soldiers here.

The officer at Maes’ back watches, brows furrowed intently. Mangin looks up into Nathalie’s eyes, and as he feels the flow of the conduit moving through him, as he feels the warm tingling sensation of that life force flowing into him, she sees understanding of a sort dawning in his eyes.

Nathalie sees that understanding reflected back in her own eyes. She understands what Maes was trying to show her.

This isn’t a vision.

This is now.

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