Katabasis, Part V



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boulle_icon.gif maes_icon.gif rouen_icon.gif

Scene Title Katabasis, Part V
Synopsis Therein lies the truth: Whatever happened, happened.

Glass shatters on a scuffed wood floor, the scent of mint and sage smoke fills the air.

Raised voices fill the small space of a stone-walled cottage nestled within a dark forest. At dusk the sky visible out the cottage windows is a sheet of dark blue and the branches of stickbare trees like grasping, skeletal hands clawing at it. But inside, firelight from a hearth and dozens of candles cast two figures in the warm light of anger.

A darkly-dressed woman in her late forties stands with her back to a wood block table, braced against it. Broken glass is scattered at her feet, glittering in the firelight. Her pale blue eyes stare wide and terrified into mirrors of her own from a man head and shoulders taller than her. His hair is long and dark, falling well past his shoulders like sheets of straight silk. His face is angular, his jaw long, his eyes full of rage.

Tu es une misérable salope!” The dark-haired man yells, sweeping his arm across a stone countertop to knock rows of carefully arranged vials and jars down to the floor. They shatter, sending dried herbs and ground powders across the wood at his feet. Heedless, he treads through the broken glass on booted feet. “Où est mon fils? Où est Baptiste?!

The dark-haired woman stares wide-eyed at this towering man as he closes in on her. She tenses as he winds thick fingers in spidery fabric of her shawl, tearing it off of her. Linked beads on a decorative chain snap apart, scattering at his feet as he grabs her face with his other hand.

Où est—

Nord, France

October 17th

Nathalie LeRoux feels a tightness in her knuckles, an anger not her own burning deep in her breast. The woman who looks back at her from across the short distance between them is not a stranger, but the spirit who Gabriel Gray led her to in the purgatorial realm beyond this one. She is Madeline Rouen, a bearer of the black conduit.

And if that is she, then that means…

Rouen's face registers alongside that foreign feeling of someone else's anger. She remembers the man's name, the one Rouen once told her was a monster. Antoine Boulle. A man of supposed faith. Exemplar of the fact that the person makes the conduit, not the other way around.

Nathalie releases Rouen, lifting her hands and stepping back in an attempt to deescalate. "Madeline Rouen," she says, switching with ease into French, "I'm not him. He's not in control. For the moment." She knows it's not an easy sell, but it's not an easy thing to explain, either. She calms her breathing— his breathing— letting the anger drain away, at least while she's here.

There is no recognition in Rouen’s eyes as she stares into Antoine’s eyes. Fear changes to apprehension, to confusion. “In control?” She whispers. The question winds up rhetorical, and Nathalie can see Rouen searching her eyes, stepping forward even as she steps back in Boulle’s body.

Rouen’s lips part, a question she dare not ask lingering on them. But the inflection of Boulle’s words are so different, the person she perceives in his eyes so strange.

“Impossible,” Rouen rasps. “Explain,” she demands.

"I was like you. And him. I had what you two carry. I died, but I still linger. We all do. Will." Nathalie lets out a sigh, moving to lean against the table. "I've been moving through others like us living at different times. It's confusing." She lifts up her hands to look at them, curling and uncurling her fingers, feeling very much like a puppeteer.

Her arms drop again.

"I think I could learn to find the right person, aim myself better. I had a guide, but— " She hasn't quite figured out where he is, or if he's even along for the ride at all. "It feels more like I'm being tossed around with the waves." 2010 to 1812 is not the direction she would have picked. She clicks back into the moment, though, and focuses back on Rouen. "You need to find a way to stay far away from him. This guy," she says with a wave at herself. "He's not going to stop until he kills you."

Rouen’s eyes flick to the door to her cabin, then back to the eyes that are Boulle’s but not Boulle’s.

Linger?” Rouen whispers, taking another step closer to Nathalie. She starts to raise a hand as if to touch her cheek, but withdraws and reconsiders. “No, no this… this is the fever talking. You have Baptiste’s fever. You—you’re delirious.” Now she raises a hand, a wrist to her forehead and then Nathalie’s.

Rouen feels no fever. Her confusion sinks deeper. Her eyes track from side to side in disbelief, searching for an answer in her recollection of the musty tomes stacked in low shelves at her back. In the sciences and philosophies she has taught herself. In the medicine and alchemy of the coming era.

A groan comes from somewhere else in the cabin, from beyond a partly open door off of this kitchen-come-apothecary’s lab. It is followed by a loud, dry cough and wheezing breaths. Rouen’s eyes dart to the door, then back to Nathalie’s. She is frozen in indecision, confusion, and most terrifying of all: intrigue.

"I'm sorry, I know it's strange. But you know that what we are is infinitely strange, don't you?" Nat doesn't really need an answer to that. She knows, Rouen knows, Boulle knows, whether or not they like it. "We're a conduit for time. The past to the future and back again. Experience flowing to where it's needed. There are no straight lines."

The noises from the other room get her attention, she glances that way, then back to Rouen. "Is that someone with this fever? Do they need help?" It's an offer, but one she is giving Rouen the right to say no to. Especially since she is acutely aware of the person she is inhabiting at the moment. These white conduit holders. Francois gave her a false idea of what they would all be like. Not many of them seem to be like him at all.

Conduit?” Rouen asks breathlessly, forgoing the topic of the coughing boy in the other room. She steps around Nathalie, looking her up and down. “What do you mean conduit—”

Rouen’s question is cut off by the cough worsening and the audible thump of someone hitting the floor. That is enough to jar Rouen from her confusion, twisting to look back over her shoulder at the door. She glances back at Nathalie, eyes wide and filled with concern before striding to the open door.

"Yes, that's what we end up calling them. Black conduit, white conduit. Take life, give life." Nathalie is more concerned with the boy in the next room than with finding a graceful explanation.

“Baptiste,” Rouen says as she steps into the other room. “Baptiste, you should not stand.” Inside the bedroom is a boy no older than thirteen dressed in a cream-colored smock. He is red-faced and fragile-looking, wispy blonde hair barely swept back from his face. Rouen helps Baptiste back up into the small bed he’d fallen out of, then lifts a scarf from around his neck that has been repurposed into a mask to cover his face.

Rouen looks back at Nathalie, silent in her concern and the conflict within her. She looks away, guiltily, to the young Baptiste as he breathes quietly. “He has a violent cough, no treatment I’ve prescribed has aided him. I—have done what I can to prolong his health,” she says as if ashamed of that somehow, “but he has not improved.”

Nathalie stands in the doorway as Rouen resettles him on the bed. She doesn't move closer until Rouen explains, which Nat takes to mean that she's accepted that Nat isn't here with bad intentions.

"I'm sorry. I know you do everything you can." Not just in this case, but throughout her life. Nathalie steps in, slowly approaching the bed and crouching next to it. "A different roll of the dice and a much better person would have ended up with his gift. I was reading philosophy in my time, trying to work out what I was and what I owed to the world, considering what I had been given. I never could figure out if the power could corrupt me or if I could corrupt it. But I learned that I was looking at it entirely wrong. Power doesn't corrupt. It reveals. Who you are when no one can challenge you, that's who you are. What you do with power when it's given to you, that's who you are."

She puts her hand on Baptiste's forehead, assessing what's wrong before she lets the power through to fix it.

Rouen looks visibly concerned as Nathalie rests her hand on Baptiste. “Antoine does not have a gift.” Rouen whispers. The fear in her voice is evident.

The moment after contact with Baptiste, Nathalie feels something stirring inside of herself. Not the warmth of healing light that once possessed Abigail Beauchamp and Francois Allegre, not even the ebb and flow of life’s tides that she once bore. But rather, something gluttonous and foul, a thing full to bursting with vivacity. She feels it insinuate itself against her will into Baptiste’s brow, drill like an ethereal worm through bone and flesh before she can recoil.

The sensation passes and whatever dark curse dwells within Antoine Boulle’s form throbs in the bones of his arm. Nathalie feels it like a dull ache, like a store muscle yearning to be stretched out.

“Antoine Boulle is cursed,” Rouen says with a quaver in her voice. Now Nathalie understands the alchemist’s fear and the duality of centuries past. The white conduit was not a source of healing in this time, but of destruction through over-abundance. And Rouen—alchemist, physician, healer—ironically wielded the black conduit to…

“I am the gifted one.” Rouen’s voice stirs Nathalie from her revelation. “The gardens around this house are dead because I have borrowed their life to mitigate Baptiste’s illness, but not enough. But I—I cannot explain how it works. There is no scientific rationale for what I can do.” She looks up at Nathalie, eyes wide and pleading. “Or for what we are.”

Nathalie feels the strange effect of Boulle's power and pulls back, though it feels like stopping a freight train with a rope. She settles back on her heels, lifting her hands to look at them again. Staring, confused and yet, intrigued.


She shakes it off and looks back at Rouen again. "Yes. You use it mathematically," she says, repeating the woman's words back to her, perhaps feeding them to her now to be used later. "So did they shift over time? Or does Boulle hold something else altogether? I'm here, so whatever he has, it is still connected to the rest." She pauses there, seeing the pleading look on the woman's face. "There is a scientific rationale, although you'll have to forgive me that I'm still working it out. I'm not sure how much we're aware, in this time, about the abilities some people have that seem beyond human. However, in my time, those are understood as genetic and biological. They're found in the body. What we have, it stretches back. So far back that the origin is shrouded in myth and legend. It's difficult to dig the truth out from the stories, but what we know is that the ability you have is able to transfer from one person to another and it very literally changed you on a biological level. It carries memories of the people who have carried it. It's not a possession, it isn't magic. You aren't a witch." Whatever people will shout at her when they kill her. "It is, in my opinion, the very essence of survival instinct. One to save lives," she says with a gesture to Rouen, and then to herself, "and one to save itself."

Rouen stares at Nathalie with wide eyes full of fascination. Concepts wash over her entirely while others take deep root in her consciousness. They whisper answers to questions she didn’t even know to ask, tell her things about the nature of herself, the universe, and humanity’s place in it. When Rouen turns to look at Baptiste, she no longer sees the victim of germs alone, but a puzzle to be solved.

Biology,” Rouen parrots the word back. “Karl Friedrich Burdach—a physiologist—used this word very recently. The holistic union of physical and psychological study of the human experience,” she paraphrases the definition. Her stare remains fixed on Baptiste, even as she feels personally gravitated towards Nathalie.

“And this,” Rouen says as she pulls her gaze away from the boy, “you, it is all connected. Monsieur Boulle’s curse, my talent, these are… memories incarnate, living on in our flesh.” Her eyes track from side to side. “Evidence of the soul,” Rouen says in a whisper, as if she dare not suggest it.

Metaphysics seem to go hand in hand with what they all carry, so Nat doesn't argue with the idea of a soul. What else is a soul, anyway, if not the culmination of memory and choice. "Science always has the answer, whether or not we humans can find it. It's there, with or without us, our observation or approval. Or belief." She doesn't know if Rouen saves the boy or not, but she does know that she will find whatever answers she can manage.

Rising from the edge of the bed, Rouen looks at Nathalie, then back to Baptiste. “You are from… somewhen else.” She says with hushed certainty. “Like in L'An 2440, rêve s'il en fut jamais,” she says, quoting an obscure work of French science fiction from her era involving time travel. “A dream, if ever there were one,” Rouen reiterates, citing the book’s subtitle more as fact.

“What is it like?” Rouen asks, breathlessly. “The future?”

Nathalie's expression turns bittersweet at the question and she considers— for a moment— giving Rouen a pretty lie. But she finds it difficult to do so to a person who she shares this link with, who is a part of her. "Troubled," she says, eventually. "Wonderful and terrible. Humanity can learn to improve, but every inch of progress is fought for. But, we do get better. Your work is a part of that, leaning us toward knowledge and easing our dependence on myth."

Nathalie feels a flutter in her chest. A skip of her heart, not of any emotional or physical response of her own, but that of her vessel. Much like what happened when she was in Maes, Nathalie feels herself pull in a direction not of her choosing. In this moment, she feels apart from Antoine Boulle, so much like—



Three pillars are all that stand at the back of the church.

Three pillars, a crumbling facade of broken stone, blown-out windows, and countless trees stripped of their branches. Snow covers the ground on the hill where the church once stood, headstones rise up from the snowy landscape, sitting at crooked angles like teeth in a broken jaw.

“It was you.” Lukas Maes stands at one of the graves, hand on the headstone, looking at Nathalie on the opposite side of the headstone from him. “I’m not sure if you put it together yet,” he says to her with a crease of his brows. “The sequence of events.”

Nathalie tries to warn Rouen, but in the end, has to hope that the shift of her expression, the flutter of alarm, was enough for someone as smart as her to see the shift coming when she leaves Boulle. Her hands brace on the headstone, landing either side of Maes'. She lets out a shuddering breath. Regret.

She should have done more for Rouen.

When she looks up, she's not surprised to find Maes there, but she doesn't respond right away. It takes her longer to shake this last visitation off than the others. A fondness for Rouen, and admiration.

"I'm not sure I've put anything together at all," she says, straightening up to push her hair back from her face. "What did I do?"

“Madeline Rouen was partly right,” Maes says as he steps around the headstone, “Antoine Boulle was cursed. But not for the reasons she—or he—imagined. For a long time, that conduit wasn’t used to heal. It was a killer. Their roles shifted around over centuries as the experiences of others colored their use. Vladimir and Kazimir Volken drove one half of the ability into a life-leeching weapon. But in Boulle’s age it was… kinder. Wielded by kinder people. But his ability…”

Maes comes to stop beside Nathalie, frowning softly. “His touch was cancerous. Your touch, when you checked the boy’s forehead, was all it took. Boulle blamed Rouen, of course. He had no recollection of touching his son since becoming cursed as he was, and he had always believed her a…” Maes shrugs. “Witch.”

“So, what happened, happened.” Maes says, looking intently at Nathalie. “It was always going to happen, always did. Because that’s what we—this—is.” He adds with a gesture around the somber ruins.

"She dies because of me," Nathalie says, only half asking, as she turns away from him. "Because I killed his son." Her head shakes, but not in denial. Disappointment, more like. In herself.

"We were supposed to be helping, weren't we? Mending things here? What was the point of all of this if all we're going to do is make things worse. Try to help, set up a woman to be killed. Don't try, leave a man to fall into an evil organization." She doesn't know that she could have shifted Darren Stevens' path, but she doesn't know that she couldn't, either. She turns back around to look at Maes. "You're supposed to be my guide, my Virgil. What am I supposed to do? Can't I go back again, try to do it right?"

“Were it that simple,” Maes says with a shake of his head.

“But we are going to be helping people. I think it was just important for you to understand the full scope of what this place is, what power you have, and what that means. I’ve… spent a long time thinking about our predicament, about how no matter how hard any of us try to change events in our own pasts, it never matters.”

Maes removes his hand from the headstone and sets it on Nathalie’s shoulder. “But everything changed when you came into being..” He lets his hand slip away at the same moment he steps away from Nathalie and begins walking toward an open doorway set in the ruined wall of the church.

“We exist here, stretched across time, as a part of something beyond human understanding,” Maes says, making slow progress toward the arch. “But up until Eileen crossed over from… somewhere else, every road in this forest was a linear one, part of the same circle.”

Maes stops at the threshold and looks back to Nathalie. “I posit that our opportunity to make change, to improve things, lies beyond this endless loop we’re doomed to walk. That through coincidence or fate things have changed here for the first time in eternity.”

“If I am your Virgil, then I would take you to see the Devil and walk straight into his mouth in order to do what none of us have ever been able to…” Now Maes raises his hand in offering for Nathalie to take. “Change the world.”

"When I came into being," Nathalie says, a sad chuckle following her words. "Born a mistake, unwanted by the people who were supposed to love me, hunted by the people who wanted to hurt me. Saved by chance. Dead by design." She lets herself feel that old wound for a long moment, teetering on the knife edge of nihilism and not for the first time. When she knelt next to Richard, she thought the next step would be peaceful emptiness and she didn't fear welcoming it.

She looks over at Maes, watching him walk, listening to his words, feeling the knife edge urging her toward a choice. Not the first time, and apparently not the last.

Stepping forward, she reaches out to take his hand, gripping it tightly. Too tightly. "Promise me one thing. Just one. Promise me we're going to do something good. I need to do something good."

After all, it isn't the devil she fears or has ever feared. Only herself.

Maes squeezes Nathalie’s hand tightly in return. The old soldier looks back to the archway, then squares his shoulders and steels himself for the journey ahead.

I promise.

And they step through the archway together.

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