Katabasis, Part IX



Also Featuring:

berlin_icon.gif eve6_icon.gif eilean_icon.gif richard3_icon.gif

Scene Title Katabasis, Part IX
Synopsis Conclusion.

"We mounted up, he first and I the second,
Till I beheld through a round aperture
Some of the beauteous things that Heaven doth bear;
Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars"
― Dante Alighieri, Inferno

It is snowing.

Nathalie LeRoux is staring up at a slate gray sky, laying flat on her back in thick, powdery snow. Headstones rise up around her, a different shade of gray, like skeletal fingers reaching for heaven. A statue of an angel looks down on her, wings mottled with lichen and weathering.

Eilean crouches down over Nathalie’s form, her head tilted to the side and one brow raised. “What a curious creature you are,” she says of her, without recognition. But they’d met. Spoken, even.

But then it dawns on Nathalie. This isn’t her Eilean.

This is the other side of the coin.

The graveyard is familiar, yet foreign. Eilean also. It's a sensation that Nathalie has been getting increasingly comfortable with. She lays there in the snow for a long moment before looking over at the other woman.

"Hi, Eilean," she says, as if they're friends, as if they've ever seen one another before. She sits up, not bothering to shake the snow out of her hair or off her clothes. Instead she simply gets to her feet and holds a hand out toward Eilean. "I'm Nathalie." She glances around the graveyard, the state of the snow and the sky, checking to see if this one is as broken as hers. A mad thought passes through her mind— Nathalie LeRoux, Afterlife Inspector— and she pushes it away with a shake of her head.

She knows what happened, or thinks she knows. She and Nanaja stepped into the place between, where Ninbanda— the entity, the dragon— was banished to. She jumped from one branch to another, found another her, and when she left that body, ended up in that branch's graveyard instead of her own. A less scientific way to go from one string to another, but effective. Ish. She can't recommend the dying part of her travel plans.

And Richard was there, her Richard. In another Place. She had been ready, welcoming even, of a peaceful end. The rest and the quiet that a graveyard normally promises for the dead. But that one moment, that little interaction, it has her curious. Interested.

Something, she supposes, is very wrong.

"Eilean," she says, coming out of her own mind and back into the moment, "they're in trouble out there. And we're in trouble in here."

Raising a brow, Eilean circles Nathalie, looking her up and down. “Out there’s phantoms,” she says thoughtfully, “echoes and voices, no more real to us than we are to them.” She tilts her chin to the side, gives Nathalie a piercing look, then narrows her eyes.

“You’re from the tangle.” Eilean calls it. What Eileen Ruskin did, colliding interdimensional spaces together by crossing from one reality to another, twisting this place into a knot—A Moebius strip. Eilean steps over to Nathalie, then glances over at someone standing nearby. Someone Nathalie has seen in other faces, in other guises, in other names.


“You’ve chosen a poor time to poke your head in here,” Kazimir says with a rich, flinty, old voice. He is as sleek as an ink shadow, gray hair curled at the nape of his neck, blue eyes piercing and yet at the same time tired. “Out there is death right now.”

And Nathalie can hear it, an echo, a hiss—gunfire. Screams.

Tangle. A decent enough word for it, although having seen it, Nathalie thinks it falls short of the immensity of it, the tragedy of it, the horror of it. But then, all language would struggle to express that place accurately.

"Yes," she says, "I am." She would say more but she follows Eilean's gaze, turns, and sees him standing there. Where he's sleek, she's tattered like a wild thing, hair untamed, shoes missing— a witch from the woods.

"That's your specialty, isn't it?" Nat steps back a little, guarded, "Death?" She knows her Kazimir went through something of a renewal, and while she's not sure how one redeems themselves from a history like his, she knows he did shift. This one, she has no idea about. Her head tilts at the noises from the other side, anxious energy running up her spine, urging her to go go go. "You two are just waiting to see how it plays out? They're not phantoms, they're alive. They're us."

“Our current host can’t hear us, see us…” Kazimir says, raising a hand as the graveyard fades away like smoke. In its place Natalie sees the inside of a school bus stopped in the middle of a desolate street. The gunfire and screaming is so much clearer here. There, laying beside where Kazimir stands, is a woman unmistakable to Nat as Gillian Childs, though subtle features are different. She has been shot in the stomach, is bleeding out.

Eve is here, holding a young boy who kicks and screams for his mother. So many faces, so much confusion, gunfire.

“She’s only had this power a short time, she may never see us.” Kazimir explains. “I saw Eilean, once, when I had this ability for over a decade, then none again. We aren’t all willing to open ourselves to the impossible. Not even my little bird.”

The bus is puzzling, but Nat doesn't wonder over it for more than a heartbeat. Because there is Gillian. Dying. She's seen it before, not this Gillian and not this place. But it's close enough to freeze her in place for a long moment. She even has a child here with her. Parallels that Nat would be happier without.

She glances up at Eve, her frown deepening. Once, her Eve told Nat that she needed to do just that, open herself up to the impossible. Let all these spirits and souls through the door. Silently, she hopes Eve never finds out about all this. She would be so smug about it.

She turns back to Eilean and Kazimir, letting out a sigh. "None of us understand how this works and it is very frustrating." And she knows that right now, Gillian is most dangerous to those closest to her. Which unfortunately includes her son at the moment. And several others she can sense but not quite see. Nat cannot watch Gillian Childs die, not again. She kneels down next to her, hands reaching for her face. Gillian might be new at this, but Nathalie is an old hand. She spent her life controlling and harnessing this very power. On holding the reins tight. She closes her eyes and focuses on what Gillian can feel, what the power can feel through her. She steers it away from the boy, reaching for other bodies, healthy bodies, to take just a little from each. Enough to pull Gillian back from the brink. Enough to keep the Conduit from draining someone else completely to save her.

Enough to—


A strange groan falls from between Stef's lips, something barely human. The passengers left in the bus feel a drain, pulling at their energy, their lives. An alarming feeling.

Stef stirs.

Her body moves, straightening chest first as if she has an invisible puppet string attached to her ribs. Her head falls back as she rises, only lifting once she's upright. She should not be on her feet, and the movement of her puppet-body seems to agree. She shuffles down the aisle of the bus in odd pops and drags of her limbs, heading— quite obviously— for the door to the outside. Toward the enemy.

The drain ends in moments, perhaps mercifully, and Stef's steps become more steady, more sure. Just in time for her to step out onto the ground. Her head tilts at the cry of snipers and she looks up at the rooftop. She lets out a thoughtful sigh. She can't see the snipers, not exactly. She can sense them, though. Feel them. Their hearts beating. Their lungs filling and emptying.

And then she takes one.

The rifle clatters to the roof as its owner shrivels to ash and blows away on the wind, leaving nothing but the odd bone and a promise that this is only the first. The beginning.

It’s easier here. Within and without the conduit to manipulate its abilities, detached from the distractions of fear, emotion, and rational thought. Nathalie is not so much Stef as she is the power that Stefanie Childs is channeling. It moves through her unconscious body, flows like water, guides like a current. All the other sources of life here are just pressurized bags of protein and electrolytes, ambulatory biomes of bacteria and electrical impulses blowing air out of meat-pipes over fat, writhing muscle and bone knives meant to gnash gristle.

It is so easy to lose any sense of the human condition like this. Nathalie can feel herself slipping away like a sand castle eroding on a stormy beach. The longer she stays the worse it becomes, the more of her sloughs off into the sea.

That feeling is so dangerous. There's a comfort in its simplicity. An allure to boiling everything down to flesh and blood. And further, to cells and simply energy. Food. Oh, how simple it would be to just… let go.

Stef doesn't seem to acknowledge much of what occurs around her. Her head tilts as the collection of trapped scavengers get torn apart, not looking at them but quite obviously paying attention to them all the same. What pulls her out of this… reverie is the reappearance of Eve.

Or, rather, the feeling of something alive coming close to her. She stills like a predator watching prey come into a trap, eyes wide and alert. Eve can feel it once Stef has decided that the trap is successful. Her life, too, starts to drain away, even as she speaks. Which might be answer enough to her question.

In her mind's eye, she can see how it will go. How the Conduit will drain everything out of Eve— even Eve and leave a dried out husk. If that. If Eve can't get herself away in a cloud of mist.

And it's that thought that brings Nathalie back to the moment. This is her Eve, a friend if an odd one. In letting herself slip, just this one time, just this one moment, she lost her ability to tell friend from foe.

It's the nightmare she always feared.

Stef's expression snaps, and she stumbles and collapses to the asphalt, pulling her power back into herself and away from Eve. She seems suddenly present in a way she wasn't moments before, and she struggles to catch her breath as if she had just been running for her life instead of standing still outside of a bus. Her attention snaps back to Eve and she looks both confused and apologetic. She puts a hand to her gut, where her wound had been, and seems troubled to find it healed.

"Après la vie, la mort," she says in a small voice to no one in particular, "après la mort, la vie nouveau."

Nathalie LeRoux rears back from Stefanie Childs in a desperate scramble. She reaches for purchase in the snow of the graveyard, the concept of it as well as it in reality. She reaches for her sense of self, fragile as it is, making herself picture her friends, her sister, her father. All the things that make her distinct from the myriad of souls linked by the conduits.

There is a tether reaching out for her, a desperate hand clinging to her own, pulling her back from that brink. Eilean. The gaelic woman stares wide-eyed at Nathalie, shaking her head. It isn’t clear what the warning was, but given how deeply Nathalie felt like she owned Stef’s body, she can only begin to imagine the kind of rabbit hole she had been tumbling down.

Waking back in the graveyard is, perhaps, a mercy. There’s birdsong in the trees, an unusual occurrence, there is not normally life in the woods that pen in these headstones. Eilean instead tugs Nathalie’s hand, and then points with her other toward something in the distance. Through the fog between the headstones, a ghost lays ethereal and half-realized in the snow.

A girl, gasping, crying. Dying.


Clinging onto Eilean, Nathalie feels her anchoring her back in the graveyard. Not lost to the endless souls, the hungry darkness. She doesn't let go even when she's feeling herself again, afraid that without that connection she'll slip again.

And she might have remained there, a heap at Eilean's feet. But the tug gets her attention and she looks into the distance. She lets out a sigh, the sound of bone-deep fatigue. And yet, she pulls herself up to her feet and starts over toward Nathalie. She looks down, pity in her expression.

"Poor girl," she says, her voice barely more than a whisper, "death follows you wherever you go." A lament for herself as well.

Her hands reach out, brushing against her hair as if she might be able to comfort her. She knows without the conduits, she can't make her heal herself the way she could for Gillian. And it's very likely that she hasn't learned her lesson about not trying such a thing. She can't leave it alone, and while that has caused her no small amount of trouble and pain it is still very much true.

What she does, though, is try to share that pain and fear so her counterpart doesn't have to suffer quite so much.

Eilean takes a knee beside both Nathalies, maintaining her fast grip on the hand of the Nathalie that lingers on this side of the graveyard. That’s when the graveyard starts to fade away like grease parting in the presence of a droplet of soap. It recedes away from the bloody asphalt, from the wrecked vehicle, from Elliot Hitchens, from Richard Ray kneeling over Nathalie’s body much as she had his what feels like an eternity ago.


In the Bastion there is a photograph that Avi Epstein keeps in a drawer. Of a teenager in a football jersey kneeling on his High School field, smiling. It is the last photograph Avi has of Taylor Epstein, and the lantern-jawed man kneeling beside Nathalie, holding her cheeks and crying. The man whispering, “We’re all here,” is unquestionably him.


From this proximity, Natahlie can feel a current moving through the air. A breeze that does not impact flesh and bone, but spirit. It howls through the graveyard and brings with it a scent of fresh cut grass and old wood, of new growth and wet soil.

"Come on, cousin," Nathalie says, her voice breaking, "this isn't how it's supposed to go. You're always supposed to have a way out."

It carries with it memory.

There is a way out. Of course there is.

Her breath is shaky as she sets the cane aside and shifts to sit, pulling Richard into her arms. It makes it harder for her to move, but then, that's the point. She can't let herself get scared and run away. She can't let herself think about the sister she's still getting to know or the boyfriend that never asked for anything like this, or her father— or the last conversation she had with her father.

"Okay okay," she says to herself, her hands holding onto Richard's face. "It's gonna be okay. Don't feel bad. It's been borrowed time anyway." Even she isn't sure if she's talking to him or to herself. But she knows that there's only the two of them here and there's only one place that all this energy can come from. "Just promise me you'll go out there and do something amazing. Just one more time. For me."

Eilean Ni Chuilleanain does not understand what she’s witnessing, but the man who has placed a hand on Nathalie’s shoulder does.


Nathalie can’t tell from just the look in her eyes if this is her Maes, or the Maes of this side of the coin. She can’t tell if there’s even a difference. What she can tell is that this is what he’d been guiding her to the entire time. This was the end of Virgil’s journey, and she his Dante.

“There’s always a way out,” Maes says with certainty.

Grateful for that grip, Nathalie tips her head at Eilean in thanks. Her focus, though, is on the scene playing out in the living world. On the faces that have come to sit with Nathalie as she spends her final moments on the Earth. Elliot's is a bit of a puzzle, something scratching at the back of her mind. But then, a distraction. Tay, a man she knows only as a shadow hanging over Avi, as a name none of them are supposed to say, as a memory never spoken.

It breaks her heart to see him, and to see that he, too, is plagued by shadows.

There is a brief moment of relief when Richard appears, because she knows he would be able to help. But the breeze drifts across her— through her— and a memory stirs along with it.

The relief doesn't last.

She looks up at Maes when his hand touches her shoulder, and she shakes her head. "I was his way out. What are we? Stuck in a cycle of sacrifice, his life for mine, mine for his?" And both of them for the Graveyard itself, to heal it.

“I have a different calculus in mind,” Maes says firmly, squeezing Nathalie’s hand and then laying his other upon Richard’s shoulder. There is a moment of silence that passes as the current within the graveyard grows, as that ethereal wind picks up to a gale.

Eilean watches this exchange, head tilted to the side and pale eyes darting between Maes and Nathalie. Both strangers in the cemetery, and yet both familiar with its currents as much as a long-time resident such as herself.

“I’m going to need you to pay close attention,” Maes says down to Richard. “I’m going to need you to think about Nathalie. Your Nathalie.” He squeezes Richard’s shoulder. “Your most powerful positive memory of her. I need you to keep that in the front of your mind, and I need you to listen to it.”

"I hope so, because it won't be long until there's nothing left of either of us." Nathalie falls silent with the rest of the graveyard, giving Eilean an apologetic look. She isn't sure how to explain what these two strangers are doing in her home. Of course, Nat isn't entirely sure how to explain it to herself. But she knows she has work to do, and she knows she can't put out the fire from inside the house.

She blinks at Maes when he starts speaking to Richard, a shaky breath leaving her with a puff of fog that has no reason to be there except that she expects it to be. Not yet used to not being living, especially not with her visits to other lives on her journey through hell.

Once, she asked Rouen what they were conduits for, what they were meant to be carrying and where they were meant to bring it. It occurs to her that right now, Maes is trying to convince Richard to be a conduit for her. Her spirit, her soul. She wonders if he'll be stuck, like she often is, on their last memory together. It was not a positive one, exactly.

"Maes…" she says, uncertainty coloring her tone.

Maes’ eyes convey understanding and acceptance. He had taken her as far as he could.

'That sweet fruit, that mortal anxiety goes in search of, on so many branches…” Maes says softly, lifting his hand from Nathalie’s shoulder.

…will give your hunger peace today.


"It's a different sort of feeling," Nat says with a nod. "I'm not exactly upset about who I've hurt, for the most part. But how it happens sometimes settles… wrong with me." That's how she decides to explain that. But she's pretty sure he'll get it. It isn't long, though, before she's on her feet and coming around the desk to take his hands in hers. One thing she knows she needed when people have found out about how destructive she can be is proof that they weren't afraid. And even though he certainly can do some damage, she knows he won't. And she proves it as concretely as possible.

"You're still you. And it's still yours. You get to decide how you use it. And, you know, it's still a utility. I mean, if it can do this to a face and a mug, then probably not much can hold up if you don't want it to. It means you still get to do what you always do. Save people. Stop bad guys." Her hands tighten on his, like she might be able to make her point through the gesture. "If that's what you want to do."

There’s no fear or hesitation in Richard’s acceptance of her hands, fingers squeezing against hers lightly as he offers her a faint, rueful smile. “There isn’t anything that’s going to make me stop that, cuz,” he admits, “We can rest when we’re done. Someone needs to be the failsafe contingency for this whole bullshit world of ours…”

“Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil,” he quotes, then modifies in half-joking tones, “For I guess I am that fucking shadow.”

"It isn't gonna look after itself, that's for sure." Trouble always seems to be lurking. Put one down, two more pop up like a hydra of villains. "Just remember you don't have to do it all alone." That is as much a reminder for herself as it is for him. But a moment later, Nat can't help but laugh a little. "I guess you are. I figure whatever evil we might be scared of, it's gotta be scared of us, too."

“Same,” Richard says firmly, bringing both brows upwards, “We can do all this shit…”


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