Katabasis, Part VII



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inanna_icon.gif nanaja_icon.gif ninbanda_icon.gif shara_icon.gif

Scene Title Katabasis, Part VII
Synopsis Nathalie journeys to where it all began…

The night sky is a million, millions stars wrapped in a blanket of blue and green auroral lights.

Nanaja rises with a startle from the ground, her fingers digging into the soft batting of a bedroll at her back. She gasps, inhaling crisp and cool night air that contrasts with the warmth a crackling fire at her side provides. Her heart is racing, eyes fixed on the full moon staring down at her.

“«Wake up for seconds?»” A woman says in a language Nathalie has no knowledge of and yet feels as though it is in her blood. She sits across the fire from Nanaja, legs crossed and prodding the flames with a crooked stick. The horizon at her back is shrouded in auroras, the land flat and sandy.

(Somewhere Outside Ur)

(Sumer, Mesopotamia)

2608 BCE

There is a smell of food in the air. Something sizzling, bubbling fat, blackened skin. Nearby to Nanaja, a dark-haired man sits on his side, peeling flaky white meat away from a serpent coiled around a fire-blackened stick. He smiles to Nanaja with the warmest and most welcoming smile she has ever seen. His pale blue eyes are familiar. Nathalie has seen them in Abby’s face, Francois’ face, Maes’ face.

“«I told you one wasn’t enough,»” he jokes with a smile. Nathalie knows his name, as Nanaja does: Shara.

“«Don’t be a jerk,»” comes another voice from someone seated closer to Nanaja with short, curly dark hair and a copper torc around their neck. They looks at Nanaja with dark eyes and a warm smile, offering a motion of their chin to her. “«If you are hungry though, I saved you some.»” She motions to a rectangular wooden plate at her feet with a skewer on it. This one has some of the snake, but also fire-blackened fruit.

And that is Inanna. They are family. They are all family. Which means…

“«Alright, everyone be kind to Nanaja. It was hard for all of you at first.»”The woman across the fire says as she stands up and walks over to Nanaja’s side. It is only then that Nathalie notices the color of her eyes. Gold.

This is Ninbanda.




Nathalie is confused. Like waking up from a too-real dream and trying to process what's real and what isn't. The moon is the same moon she knows, but the stars around it are so many, so bright. Not her sky. The voices, a language she both knows and doesn't know. People she knows and doesn't. A family. She's not even sure she understands family at all and yet—

They help her sink in. The familiarity, the warmth. The teasing. She sits up properly, loosening her grip on the bedroll and pushing her hands through her hair.

"«What happened?»" she asks, glancing from them to the plate in front of her. She is hungry. A hunger with roots digging into her, making her limbs weak and her head swim. The kind that comes when you push too hard, she knows. The kind that tells her she's not dead, not for now. The skewer is in her hand almost as soon as she sees it, but before she can take a bite—

She looks up into gold eyes. She watches her move closer. The woman looks like a goddess, to be loved and feared in equal measure. The fear, she knows, is from her. The love from Nanaja. But they swirl together, tangling in one another. She hopes, for Nanaja's sake, that the fear leaves with her when she goes. But she knows her actions, her thoughts… they leave their impacts behind.

"«Mother.»" It comes from her mouth before she can think. How powerful is The Entity right now. Can she tell there's someone else behind these eyes? Does she know? "«What happened?»" she repeats. It seems like a safe question.

Everyone except Ninbanda bursts out laughing. Shara and Inanna practically have tears in their eyes as one of them whoops out a croaking, “«Mother!»” while the other looks up at Ninbanda with a pleading, teary-eyed expression of overwhelmed humor. Ninbanda gently slaps Shara in the side of his head and gives Inanna a quick look.

“«Do not mock her.»” Ninbanda says with a sigh, moving around the fire to kneel by Nanaja’s side. “«But also don’t call me that again,»” she says with a crooked smile and a wrinkle of her nose, smoothing Nanaja’s hair back with one hand.

“«Just know that you are safe,»” Ninbanda says, briefly glancing at the other two to make sure they’re behaving.

Shara sits forward and folds his legs under himself. “«We rescued you from the slavers,»” he explains, “«but there was, uh…»” He looks at Inanna who gives him a long, silent stare. Then, with a sigh, turns to look at Nanaja.

“«An accident.»” Inanna says awkwardly.

“«We freed all the other slaves, but you were… gravely injured.»” As Ninbanda says that, a memory blossoms in the chaos of Nanaja’s mind. Running, sand, flowing red cloth on banners. A sudden sharp pain in the side of her neck. A glimpse of a man with a bow on horseback. “«But I saved you. Pulled you back.»” There’s a tension in Ninbanda’s voice as she says that, though, a tension in the corners of her eyes and the lines of her neck. The tension that comes with an unspoken, but.

"«Forgive me,»" Nathalie says, after the laughter has subsided, "«I feel… confused.»" She tries very hard not to lean into the touch to her hair, but her eyes close all the same and she lets out a gentle sigh. Her eyes open again when the others try to explain what happened, and her fingers twitch when the memory flickers in. The man with a bow shifts into a man with a gun— her own moment of death tangling with Nanaja's. What's the difference between an arrow and a bullet when it's the thing that kills you? She wonders if that will linger in the woman's mind when she's gone. If she'll dream of faceless figures storming into her home with weapons from a far off time.

But something else mingles, waking up and knowing that you're Different. She was meant to be dead, and now she was alive again, but different. She turns to look at Ninbanda, her expression curious. She understood suddenly why creator and mother felt appropriate. She looks over to Shara and Inanna, that curiosity taking them in, too. And then, back to Ninbanda, who gave a piece of herself to save her. "«Thank you. All of you. For freeing me. For my life. But… Why? Why me? I can't be the only one they tried to kill rather than let go free.»"

She doesn't ask about the silent but. She knows what it is already. Her hand lifts, she looks at her fingers as they curl and uncurl in the firelight. The power is both familiar and foreign, but the source of it had made it more wondrous and more terrifying at once.

Shara and Ninbanda share a meaningful look before he speaks up. “«You’d be surprised.»” He looks down to the bare earth below him, then back up. “«You were the only casualty.»”

“«I was able to save the rest.»” Inanna says with a hand to their chest. “«But you were too far gone. Ninbanda, however, is blessed with far greater magic. To bring life to the dead.»”

Ninbanda closes her eyes and smiles, then steps away from Nanaja. “«The pain is past,»” Ninbanda says thoughtfully. “«What remains now is life, and a chance for a fresh start. But it does not come without some… transformation. Inanna and Shara were, like you, saved.»” She looks over her shoulder to Nanaja, then settles down by the fire again. “«And each time I do so, I give a piece of myself to make that miracle. A piece of who and what I am. Body, mind, and spirit.»”

“«You may find yourself remembering things you never experienced,»” Shara explains, folding his hands in his lap. “«Those are Ninbanda’s memories.»”

“«Or the memories of What Was Before,»” Ninbanda notes with a hand raised. “«All life is cyclical.»”

Shara nods in acknowledgement and understanding. It wasn’t that he forgot that point, it was a teaching moment from Ninbanda.

“«But that doesn’t answer your question,»” Ninbanda says to Nanaja with a warm smile. “«The why was not because you were dying. The why is because…»” she spreads her hands slowly, “«I saw it happen before it did. A vision of time yet unspoken. And so…»” Ninbanda gestures to Nanaja. “«I did as instructed.»”

Nathalie rubs her hand against her forehead as if fighting off a sudden headache. It isn't that, it's just that she understands most of what they're explaining already and she's trying to remind herself that Nanaja doesn't. Bringing the dead back to life, remembering memories that don't belong to you, saving lives… it all feels old hat to Nathalie. She isn't sure how to pretend it doesn't. So she hopes her troubled expression and tense body language convey confusion and discomfort for her.

But then, the last words. She looks up at Ninbanda, then over at Inanna and Shara. "«You see the future? You saw yourself saving me and Inanna and Shara before it happened and fulfilled that vision. You're… cutting yourself into pieces. Because of visions?»" She lets out a shaky breath, steadying herself before she looks back over at Ninbanda. "«I am grateful, but… it doesn't seem fair to you. How much of yourself will you give away before there's nothing left of Ninbanda at all?»" It's a rhetorical question, one born from a lifetime of weighing action versus sacrifice. She knows sometimes it's worth it. Sometimes necessary. But this seems cruel to her. She knows in the future the woman before her becomes something quite different, but she can't help but wonder if it's because of endless lifetimes of ripping herself apart. She wonders if the Entity in her time feels like nothing but little pieces. A shattered mirror pasted back together.

Nathalie knows that feeling herself.

“«As much as is asked of me,»” Ninbanda says with certainty. “«We are, all of us, instruments of powers higher than ourselves. I have lived my life by this flow, and if I am to take a piece of myself until I am no more, then that is my destiny.»”

Inanna smiles in agreement and turns their attention to Nanaja. “«Life is unfairness, padded by kindness.»” They say with the same certainty Ninbanda offered. “«The more kindness offered, the less the unfairness of life is felt. But there is no good in the world without some measure of sacrifice, so long as there are those who would abuse good hearts and intentions.»”

Shara seems in disagreement. “«Or,»” he offers with a hand raised to the air, “«the Gods are cruel by nature and we should live our lives as we see fit, not as they do.»”

“«Shara,»” Ninbanda says with a not this again tone in her voice. “«They led me to you all. What cruelty is there in that?»”

Shara lets his argument go, but not without adding, “«None, yet.»”

Ninbanda lets Shara’s final remark go, then returns her attention to Nanaja. “«Just as I am, you too are now a vessel for higher powers. They will communicate to you as they have to me, and what you do with that conduit is your choice. For even if the Gods are cruel, we are all still free to choose.»”

To that, Shara nods in agreement.

Destiny. Gods. Nathalie never much thought about either. She doesn't know if Nanaja is a believer or not, but she decided a long time ago that there were no gods at all, because if they exist and leave the world the way it is, then they're cruel gods indeed. "«You're guided by the stars»," she says, her tone grim, "«but what if they're just a reflection in the surface of a lake.»" One she's destined to drown in.

She may not understand gods and faith, but sacrifice is familiar. She looks over at Inanna, letting out a gentle sigh. "«I understand. And a little sacrifice is sometimes called for. I am only wary of when so much sacrifice is called for that a kind heart turns to a resentful one. A hateful one.»" Her attention moves to Ninbanda, fighting off a sorrowful expression. "«But. If kindness banishes unfairness, then for the gift of my life, I doubt I will ever be bothered by unfairness again. And if it's my choice, how this conduit is to be used, then I would choose to use it to protect my people. My family.»" Fiercely, by her tone.

At that moment it’s difficult to differentiate the line between she and Nanaja. The more Nathalie plumbs at the boundary between the two, tries to understand what Nanaja believes or feels, the less it feels like there is a difference between them at all. This connection, so much further removed in time than the ones she made with Maes, Deckard, and Abby, somehow feels all the more entangled and deep. It feels like an ocean that she is easily and calmly drowning in, as the edges of who and what she is bleeds further into the other.

Eilean’s voice is a distant echo in Nathalie’s mind from across time.

“She must show it to you.”

She struggles to recall what it is, and then in the depths surfaces a recollection:

“The way.”

If Nanaja was to show her something, tell her something, there is no way she can do that in the here and now inhabiting Nanaja. Especially not when the line between them all is blurring so. There must be another moment, another something to tether herself onto.

But when? How? What?

"«Forgive me,»" Nanaja says to the others as she shifts to lay back down, "«I awoke with dark thoughts.»" A believable enough statement, and not even a lie, although Nathalie is using it to cover her own churning thoughts and emotions. Hearing Eilean's voice pulls her back into her own mind, her own goals, and reminds her that this is not her awakening. It's a borrowed moment. A borrowed family. Borrowed memories.

And she must borrow a few more.

She closes her eyes and forces herself to focus. She has to hold the afterlife together, pull at its frayed edges and tie them back together. But the blending of her soul and Nanaja's lingers and when she thinks on holding things together— things that matter— she thinks on this little family. On fragile connections raggedly patched. On a moment when all might have been lost, but for her willpower, her spirit, her loyalty and love.

That's what she wants the conduits to be, what she wants her power to be, something that mends and protects.

The power to keep the things that matter.

(The City of Akkad)

(Sumer, Mesopotamia)

2279 BCE

Nathalie jolts with the sensation of waking from a dream, only to find herself in another.

A rush of noise assails her as her eyes adjust to the bright light of her surroundings. She is in a city, and the smell of flowers, sweat, spices, and animal musk fills the air. Her hands are not the delicate ones that belong to Nanaja, but rather the strong and rough hands of her adoptive brother Shara.

Nathalie is pushed by a rapidly moving crowd that swells around her, headed toward a high stone wall with a grand arched entrance. Beyond which looms the tapering crown of a mighty ziggurat. It takes a moment for Nathalie to recognize that she’s in an open-air market, one that is rapidly draining of pedestrians as they flood into the plaza beyond the wall.

“«What are you doing?»” Hisses a voice from over Shara’s shoulder. Nathalie recognizes it instinctually: Nanaja’s voice.

Nanaja slips up beside her brother, taking Shara by the arm. “«We have to get inside. Cover your face. Act natural.»”

The setting hits her like a brick. The sun overhead, the ziggurat in view, the smells and sights of a marketplace— even one that seems to be disappearing around her. Her eyes widen, trying to take it all in. Trying to commit it to memory. Something new. She— he— turns at the voice, looking over Nanaja like he's never seen her before. But Nathalie remembers to nod. She pulls a hood further over her face, knowing that Shara's eyes are likely to draw the kind of attention she knows they need to avoid. That is true no matter the time or place she might find herself in.

"«I am acting natural»," she says— even though Nat knows she is certainly not acting natural. "«I'll follow you.»" Brother steps behind sister, not just because Nathalie doesn't know where to go, but also to gauge how she should be behaving. She watches Nanaja, yes, but also the other people around. And tries not to get too distracted by everything around her that she has never, ever seen before.

The longer Nathalie is here the more it feels familiar, more lived-in, more like home. There’s an aspect of naturalization that she’s come to notice is a part of these jumps through time in the conduit. She first experienced it with Maes, but the first world war was such a familiar touchstone as to feel normal to her. The same was true of her time in Deckard and Abby’s personal timelines, those moments were close to home. This, though, there is no analog for this.

As Nathalie is led with the flow of the crowd beyond the gates of Akkad and into the massive courtyard at the base of the city’s ziggurat, she feels the warmth of the sun on her face, the brush of bodies against her, and even Shara’s physical form starts to feel more like home than her own flesh. Long enough here, in this time, Nathale isn’t sure if she’d even be herself anymore, or if she’d dilute like ink in a cup of water. There, but dissolute.

The presence of armed guards draws Nathalie’s attention again. Spear-wielding protectors of the sovereign of this city, Sargon of Akkad. She knows this, intuitively, as pieces of Shara bleed into pieces of her.

“«There!»” Nanaja hisses, restraining herself from rushing to the head of the crowd as she draws Nathalie’s attention to the first landing at the top of the ziggurat’s stairs. There, a collection of guards in brightly colored reed, cloth, and leather armor encircle a chained woman dressed in red.


Horror twists in the pit of Nathalie’s stomach, conflicting emotions both hers and Shara’s threaten to suck her under like a rapidly rising tide. She knows, in some way, that Ninbanda is prisoner here, that she—that Shara—is free because Ninbanda chose bondage to Sargon of Akkad. One execution had already happened, a headless body laid out on the bloodied slab, likely a thief or a beggar, someone that need not be a spectacle. But this, this would be intended to be spectacle.

It is guilt that twists her stomach, horrible, twisted guilt.

Guilt is familiar. Another avenue she can bleed into Shara. It's an easy emotion to fall into— bottomless. Shara reaches over to put a hand on Nanaja's arm, just in case she needs extra help to keep from charging in. What Nathalie can give to Shara is training. Tactics. Situational awareness.

He looks at the guards, first those surrounding Ninbanda, then those dotted elsewhere in the crowd. He looks for escape roots, exits, places for them to run once they have her. He tries not to think about how likely it is to go wrong. It's already wrong. How many times will she sacrifice herself for them? And what will be left of her when they're done taking from her?

"«I can reach her guards.»" The gift he has can easily be turned to the stuff of nightmares. Twisting flesh until it's barely human anymore— he knows and Nathalie knows. "«I think we could disappear into the crowd, if we can get her down.»" It's just a matter of hiding her face, her dress, and becoming one of the many in the chaos he plans to encite.

“«Fucking Inanna,»” Nanaja curses, trembling beneath Shara’s hand. But the why of Nanaja’s anger isn’t clear. She doesn’t disagree with Shara’s suggestion, however. All they have to do is get to the top of the steps, get her free.

The crowd around them isn’t one that looks excited to be here. Many of the people who were already gathered before the market cleared out are kneeling, many are crying. Some are holding beaded necklaces bearing pendants marked with an eight-pointed star on them. Others are averting their eyes from the first landing of the ziggurat. Even more have their heads bowed, praying.

Soon, a figure steps out onto the ziggurat, a broad-shouldered and barrel-chested man with bronzed skin dressed in loose white robes, scale armor of layered leather, and a conical headdress topped with an orb of engraved gold. Silken fabric trails down the back of his neck, precious metals cap the braids of his thick, black beard. He carries in his hand a wickedly curved sword weighted toward the tip, a khopesh. A limb-taker.

As he arrives the crowd grows silent and soon another figure is brought out onto the landing, a young man unfamiliar to Shara or Nanaja, hands bound behind his back, bruises and cuts on his face. The man with the conical headdress shouts from the ziggurat’s landing.

“«Glorious Sargon is dead!»” Cries the man with the sword. This proclamation causes many members of the crowd to drop to their knees, weeping, while those who were praying seem hopeful. “«The blood of Glorious Sargon lays on the hands of this servant, whose poison bled the life from our resplendent king!»”

Nanaja narrows her eyes, smiling. “«This is better than I thought.»” She whispers to Shara, squeezing his hand.

The young man is kicked down to his knees and laid upon the stone. “«For this crime, the guilty will die in the memory of Glorious Sargon! So He wills!»” And in an instant the armored man swings his sword down and lops off the boy’s head in a single stroke, sending it rolling down the steps of the ziggurat.

Cries of anguish spread in the crowd and Nanaja shakes her head. “«No, no, no,»” she whispers, eyes wide. “«Damnit, damnit!»” Nanaja starts to move forward, “«We have to get closer!»”

Shara grips onto Nanaja tighter and starts to weave through the crowd. With her behind him, she can move easily in his wake while he finds them a path closer to the steps. Nathalie pushes their power outward, feeling for all those lives and beating hearts nearer to Ninbanda. She knows from the Obelisk file and from her moments in Boulle's body that either conduit can be deadly. And, indeed, to her they never felt all that different from one another. Two hungry wolves with one scared girl holding their leashes.

But she isn't one scared girl now. She's Shara and Maes and Boulle and Nanaja— all of them that will be or have been in the circles of time. And she's not holding back the wolves. She is the wolf.

And she's not interested in leashes just now.

Shara's power grips onto the guards, clutching at flesh and blood and twisting it, curdling it until legs seize up from too much tissue, too much muscle… too much blood pumping too quickly. Shara keeps his head down, looking much like the others here bent in prayer and sorrow. But for him, it's simply to keep the unnatural blue of his eyes from catching anyone's attention.

The guards scream, buckling under the power of Shara’s ability as their muscles bulge and knot beneath their skin, as tumorous growths erupt from their mouths and their eyes erupt in their sockets. Their bodies expand like swollen ticks on a dog’s hide and the crowd breaks into screams of terror and horror. Nanaja is breathless at the sight, stunned in place by the horrible expression of Shara’s gift until the voice in the back of her mind screaming no urges her forward.

“Come, come!” Nanaja urges, taking a hold of the fabric at Shara’s shoulder to urge him to stand so that they can take opportunity of the chaos. But already Nanaja can feel something wrong. Something inside of her that squirms like snakes and bites like flies. Her heart flutters, and she looks to Shara as if suspecting it were him, but it is not. A voice in the back of her mind pleads, look up. She does.

A scalding sun burns in a cloudless blue sky, paired side by side with a full moon.

Thousands of screaming, crying masses stand at the foot of the stone platform upon which the execution is taking place, and the bright sunlight gleams off of the whitewashed stone decorated with trimming in turquoise and carnelian.

The sky begins to darken. Shara feels it now too, Nathalie feels it. Her heart clenching, her hands prickling with numbness. She knows this feeling, it feels like dying. As she tries to stand, Shara’s legs do not permit the movement.

Up on the daid, the executioner presses his foot to Ninbanda’s back to lay her head down on the blood-soaked stone slab. Tears well up in her eyes. She is begging for her life.

The moon and sun align. An eclipse.

They are powerless.

“«The verdict!»” The bearded executioner calls out, before lopping Ninbanda’s head off in a single stroke with the sword. “«False god!»” He cries, brandishing the blood-soaked blade. He kicks the head into the crowd, people continue to scream.

The soldier picks up the freshly-beheaded body by its arms and drags it down the stone steps. While the bearded executioner continues to shout at the crowd, he fails to notice a faint discharge of light between his the soldier’s hand and where he holds the corpse, a colorless light that slides under his skin and illuminates his veins before fading. The soldier staggers, for a moment, pauses, and then continues walking none the wiser.
It is only in this moment that the executioner sees the dead within the crowd, the guards filled to bursting with their own flesh. His eyes track side to side in confused disorientation. He looks up to the eclipse, then back to the crowd with mouth agape.

Nathalie looks back at him from the crowd, but not just from Shara’s body, but as if from without as well. She feels disembodied, separate, detached from Shara like a true ghost. But at the same time she feels warm tears on her cheeks and a strange fear in her heart that is not hers. She feels a terror not her own, a rage not her own, and most horrifyingly…

…she feels powerless.

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