The new year comes with so much promise. New beginnings born of the darkest of times. The days have only recently started to grow longer, but the night still dominates the day. Nine hours of light have been given to you and fifteen hours of darkness have been given to Them.
During the last hour of light, Warren is in Frankie's apartment above Daily Grind. The snow is thick and coming down in flakes so fat and heavy that they make sounds like raindrops when they hit the windows. The apartment is thick with heat and the leftover moisture of showers, and Warren is getting dressed for spelunking. Tough brown pants and boots already donned, he pulls a soft sweater of dark, bloody burgundy over his head while still talking.
"...even found a new gate, though it seems really unstable. Sometimes it is there, and sometimes it isn't, and I haven't figured out why," he's telling Frankie as he gets dressed.
Frankie pulls on a long-sleeved shirt and swishes her still-damp hair free. She better put a hat on. "That is pretty weird," she tells Warren. "Maybe that's part of the key? Like it's a certain time or something, or another set of particular conditions? I've never run into that before." She's already wriggled into a pair of jeans that used to be black but have faded to gray. On goes her fleece, and the leather jacket overtop that. She should really get an actual winter coat.
Norbert waits on the end of the bed, immaterial for the moment. "Caw," he tells them. Impatient? Hurry your human butts up?
She should. Warren bundles in his, an old hooded peacoat, and then scoops the leather satchel up. Inside, he keeps his journal and offrendas, as well as any other number of tools to keep him alive. Mostly water and a little bit of food.
"It might be," Warren agrees, having spent some time watching Frankie get dressed and ready. "I'll tell you about it on the way. I'll drive," Warren offers. Why shouldn't he? He knows the way and his vehicle has all wheel drive in case they get stuck in the snowbank. From downstairs there's a clatter as someone drops a tray and Warren snickers. "Well, somebody is in trouble."
"Probably Sean," Frankie says irritably, because she thinks Sean is terrible. She slings her own satchel over her shoulder and heads out of the apartment, keys in hand to lock up behind them. Why shouldn't they take his car? It won't take as much effort to get it started and it's a lot more comfortable a ride, too. Norbert flaps through the outside wall and sails down to Warren's car to let himself in.
It was Sean. Frankie is right.
Warren scrapes the snow off the car while it runs, letting it warm up while Frankie is inside. It doesn't take long, and then they're off on their way through the snow at a leisurely pace. The plows are keeping up with the main streets as best they can, but it isn't long before Warren takes Frankie off toward the marina and the neighborhoods near that sketchy part of town that had, for ages, been a place of tinderbox houses and warehouses full of oil and whale carcasses.
"I was down here looking to see if I could find new ways into the Underworld," Warren says smoothly, looking from one side of the street to the other as they crunch along through the middle of an unplowed street. There's absolutely no one around and the daylight has faded to a dullness that causes the streetlights to flicker on and off uncertainly. "Remember what you said to me about the ocean?" The one she promised to take him to... some day.
Frankie takes a moment to try to remember this thing with the ocean. Her immediate thought is the actual ocean, which seems unlikely, because it probably involves a beach visit and Frankie doesn't do bathing suits in public. So which...? "Oh, the Ocean of Fragments?" Frankie realizes.
"Caw," agrees Norbert.
"Mmhmm," says Warren meditatively. "But without SCUBA equipment, I don't think I could find anything down there. I thought, you know, maybe a shipwreck." It is perhaps not an innovative idea, and it's likely many a Sin Eater has thought of it before. Frankie can be certain that none of them told Warren about the idea. Without regular contact with others, he was frequently forced into epiphanies that simply reinvented the wheel.
"So then I saw this..."
Warren pulls the SUV into what is probably a parking space, but perhaps a sidewalk. It's impossible to tell for all the snow. In front of them is a strange, triangle shaped building that occupies the acute corner of a trapezoid segment where a pair of roads cross at an uncomfortable angle. The building itself is stone, very likely native stone, and the windows are boarded up and painted black with another layer of graffiti over that.
Frankie can feel it from inside the car. Death. A lot of it, but very old. A wrongness that people so often claim means a place is haunted. They're often right.
"Can you feel it?"
"Nooo, you don't want to SCUBA in the Ocean of Fragments," Frankie says, shaking her head. "Unless you want to lose memories." Which she seems to feel isn't worth it to find shipwrecks or anything. But then they arrive, and Frankie stiffens in her seat.
"I can feel it," she verifies. It's hard to miss. "This place feels really wrong. Did you go inside?"
Norbert huddles down on the back seat, ruffling his feathers. No me gusta.
Warren turns off the engine and kills the headlights. They're all left in the half-light while the street lights sluggishly decide to turn on and cast their copper-colored light across the snow. Suddenly, it's as if they're in a sandstorm of reddish-orange flakes swirling around.
"Yeah. It gets me past the first river if I go this way, and we can almost park right next to it. No more waiting for business hours to get to the top of the tower, or trying to sneak into the basement of some old businesses," Warren agrees. He pulls on the handle of the door, cracking the seal and letting cold air into the car with the whistling howl of a lost soul. He's so excited to show something new to Frankie. Can she say no?
He went by himself? How far did he go in? Frankie is frowning a little, but it's true - he's excited, and she can't say no. She realizes she's frowning, and instead opts to give Warren a little smile as she unbuckles her seatbelt. "As long as it's around. Are you going to monitor it to try to figure out exactly when it shows up?" She opens up her door, too, and climbs on out. Norbert stays in the car for a few more moments, then takes up his spot on Frankie's shoulder.
"I think so," Warren says thoughtfully. He slips out, slings his satchel, and locks up. The wind is biting, but he hustles over to the building. In the lee of the wind, he waves Frankie to a narrow chainlink fence gate set into a gap between the building and the next. A fat padlock hangs from it, crusted with ice and rust, but Warren puts his shoulder into the gate and clasp that holds the Y shaped latch rotates--never unlocking the gate, just defeating its ability to stay closed.
The gap between the buildings is so dark that the street lights can't defeat its shadows, and the overhang of the roof above keeps it dry. Despite the shelter from the wind and snow and the privacy it affords, there's no sign of anyone else. No homeless bedding, no barrel of burnt offerings, nor even any graffiti. The sense of death is too strong. Nobody would sleep well here.
"I haven't figured it out yet, but you can tell when it is here and when it isn't. It's so strong," Warren says with a little bit of wonder. He hasn't gone for a light, but instead puts his hand on the wall and walks deeper into the darkness, a black shadow against slightly less black shadows.
Frankie pulls her flashlight out of her bag and turns it on; she sweeps the beam, staying behind him for the moment. He knows his way better than her. The urge to get ahead of him is strong, though. To shield him from anything inside. It feels dangerous enough for her to flex her fingers and summon up a little plasm to coat herself, armoring her and fortifying her against ghostly Numina. Just in case.
Warren shivers at the channeling of plasm, sensing it the way he sometimes does. He looks back at Frankie over a shoulder, eyes wide but pupils narrowing to pin pricks as he looks into the bright light of your flashlight. "Come on, it's this way," Warren says with a little smile of mystery.
The backdoor isn't even locked, though it's so maligned to its frame that it might as well be, so Warren has to put his shoulder into it. He slams against it once, twice, and then on the third knock of his body against the door, it shifts open by a couple feet. It's just enough that they can slither through and into the darkness of the building. The smell of old fire and mildew is strong here, and the arc of light Frankie brought into the darkness shows the charred remains of walls. The whole building burned down but for the stone walls. It must have been hastily roofed and boarded up to keep out the elements.
"I think this used to be a boarding house," Warren says. In the dark, even his whisper is quiet. "Why do the gateways usually happen where people die horribly? Why not something more peaceful?"
"Peaceful would be the Gates that happen in graveyards, where death energy accumulates slowly and naturally," Frankie tells him, biting her bottom lip when he looks back at her like that. She's not sure why. "Horrible death makes more of an imprint. A faster one. A rip or a tear instead of a gentler opening?" Norbert removes himself from her shoulder and, instead, goes to perch on Warren's.
What is the darkness to a creature that can see into the Twilight? Norbert sees all of this as it is, and can see the entropy of death that stains this place. It seeps into the walls. The rocks. The scorched timbers. Warren, meanwhile, listens to Frankie's explanation. She's right, of course, but some of it is just Warren's soul being abused by the violence of the place. He needs to talk about it a little.
Warren leads, taking Frankie around one wall that's no more than a foot high, to reveal a door that simply wasn't there from the other side. It hangs in space, plain wood in the style of cheap doors from 100 years ago, and waits to be opened.
"Isn't that cool?" asks Warren, who has never seen anything like that before. A door that isn't there unless you walk the right path through the building, following the ruins of hallways instead of taking the easier path of stepping over them.
"That's cool," Frankie says slowly, shining the beam of her flashlight on it. "In an ominous, foreboding kind of way." Can't let that go without qualifying it. "I wonder what the key actually is." He's a Gatekeeper; he doesn't follow the normal rules. It's easy for him. As far as she knows, it's a thing he can still do. Norbert remains hunkered. Whether this place bothers him or he's picking up on Frankie's feelings is difficult to say. Probably picking up on her. He's a psychopomp; this is kind of his deal.
Perhaps it is something that Warren does, or perhaps it is simply respecting the rules of the ancient building by following its floorplan instead of walking through walls that are no longer there, but Warren reaches out and opens the door. The pale blue light of faint moonlight streams from the gap in reality in ghostly lines. Blood dripping from a wound as a scab is peeled back. Warren, heedless of the special effects, steps up and into the gap the way one might take stairs two at a time, without letting go of the knob.
Through the open doorway, Frankie can a pale night sky where no star looks like it might on earth. The ground is muddy, a ruin of footprints having slogged ankle deep through it until it froths and turns with every strep.
Cobwebs brush the back of her neck. Or maybe it's just her hair. It's a tickle. A goad to move.
Frankie reaches back to sweep her hand over the back of her neck. She's not above reacting to subtle shit like that. Norbert flies back to her, landing on her shoulder again. Frankie follows Warren through the door, glancing behind herself to see what it looks like from this side. Looking up at the foreign stars, which disturb her rather than enchanting her. Looking down at the footprints in the muck. Old ones? New ones? "Slow down," she cautions Warren.
It looks like a nothing. No. That's not quite true. From just the right angle, the starlight refracts, as if it were a piece of glass just hanging there. If the other door had looked like that in the boarding house, then it had been too dark and the light of her flashlight too direct to get the subtle shift.
Warren, only a single step beyond Frankie, tilts his head and waits. She wants to look around. He can bide his time. Spiders are very good at biding their time. So he waits, looking up at the sky and then down at the mud. It turns out the mud is because they're on the far bank of a river of steaming, clotted blood. The Qiq-ol-Mal flows not a dozen steps from where they entered, lapping at the muddy banks on both sides of the broad river. For someone without the ability to cross a river on their own, this is a tremendous shortcut.
The River of Blood. Not one of Frankie's favourites. She takes a step toward Warren to follow, having had her little investigation. Is her flashlight still working properly? It seems... wrong, here, somehow. The mud sucks gently at her boots as she moves. "You didn't go any further, did you?" she asks him. There's a tone to it that indicates there is a right answer and there is a wrong answer. It's the kind of thing that galls, if you're familiar with traveling in the Underworld. Like she doesn't think anyone who isn't a Sin-Eater is up to the task. Like he's going to get lost or have something horrible happen to him if she's not there, watching over him.
Wanting to protect him.
Warren is, for a moment, cross. His eyebrows knit together and he scowls at Frankie for asking such a stupid question. It takes that moment to realize she's asking from a place of love. That she is, however misguided, attempting to protect him from himself. "Of course I have," Warren says with the extra care he gives when talking to someone who is utterly resistant to doing what's best for them. Like taking their medicine.
Now he's not waiting any more, and he starts slogging out of the mud and up onto the broken chert regolith a little further removed from the river of blood. Boots, no matter how waterproof, are only going to last so long mired in that muck. Warren digs out his flashlight, a heavy silver monstrosity from the 1970s, and flicks on its yellow beam to test it, and then turns it off again. There's enough light here, especially with the flames of Frankie's flashlight-become-lantern.
Frankie eyes him when he scowls. It's a bit of friction. She is not used to friction from Warren. He is easy peasy. She holds up her lantern and purses her lips, quickening her pace to walk beside him. He's taller. He has a longer stride. Usually, he matches her. She did not like the answer to her question. "What else is around here?" Oh, just wait and see, Frankie.
"I'll show you," Warren says confidently, holding back a little secret. He'd told her he had something cool to show her, so wasn't this all a part of it? He'd never thought of Frankie as the particularly nervous type, but her caution was starting to chafe. So he walked a little faster than he needed to, since she was so impatient to find out.
Tiny pebbles cling to their boots, but as they get further from the river, the mud starts to dry and flake away, leaving a long and dark stain upon the landscape as they cross into pale gray powder and large hexagonal flakes of flat stones. They're deep, now. Well past the depths, which Warren has cheated his way past, and across a river he couldn't have crossed on his own.
Neglecting, of course, to consider that he'd cross the way he always does: making an offering.
They pass shattered ghosts, broken of life and carrying their burdens on their shoulders until they're stooped into question marks. The ground slowly slopes down, meaning their trek out will be an almost constant uphill stride. It's so much easier to come to the Underworld than to leave it. "Have you been here?" Warren asks curiously, indicating the huge valley they are approaching. It's a whirlpool that leads downward, and the closer they get, the deeper it appears to go.
Frankie quickens her pace, too, to keep up. Norbert takes off from her shoulder, sailing down toward the depression in the earth and rock, scouting ahead. "No, I've never been here," she says, taking out her compass and consulting it. It slows her down.
He has been somewhere she has not. "It does look pretty cool," she allows, offering him a faint little upward curve of her lips. She's curious as to what is down there.
Rivers are usually low points, but the sweep of the land puts it on a high border, and ghosts and pilgrims are forced to march downward and around the rim, over and over again, descending like a corkscrew. The scale is deceptive, because it appears to go down rapidly, but it may be dozens and dozens of miles if stretched into a straight line. Impoverished communities of ramshackle huts and wrecked skiffs that might have once belonged to ferrymen of rivers long ago dried up mark spots along the path. Everyone marches, forever, goaded by whatever they brought with them. For some it is the shade of real life, responsibilities and burdens given sharp knives to poke and prod. For others it is just the crushing weight of all they ever were, distorting them in ever more plastic ways. And the deeper they go, the brighter the light of realization as the hexagonal plates of salt crystals reflect the starlight over and over and over.
The air warms as they descend... though Warren doesn't take Frankie far before he indicates a cleft. "There's a way down over here," he tells her, indicating a black crack... with a relatively modern piton and rope driven into the stone.
Frankie nods, stepping over to the crack - ahead of him - and crouching down a little to examine the metal spike by lantern light. She takes up the rope attached to it, gives it a few jerks. Tries to wiggle the piton, testing how secure it is. She has a feeling she knows who put it there, and she looks over her shoulder at Warren. "Down there?" she asks. Norbert has landed beside the crack. "Caw," he says.
Caw. Yes. Down there.
"Yes," Warren says with a satisfied little smile. It's almost smug. Look at what he's done? "Would you like me to go first?" he offers. He could protect her, this once, go down in front of her. Light the way. Make sure she's safe.
She would not like him to go first, but it seems to be important to him, so she finally nods. "Sure. You know the way," she tells him. She is trying not to be unreasonable. Trying not to treat him like he's fragile.
Norbert doesn't wait for either of them; he flaps off the edge and disappears into the darkness. Frankie eyes her lantern, which is bulky and annoying now. She sets it down on the glittering ground by the piton.
The one time Frankie couldn't read his sarcasm. Still, Warren gives a little shrug and clips his flashlight to one of the button holes of his coat. When he turns it on, it dangles, shining a crisp yellow beam of light upon their feet. He sits on the edge of the crevice, dangling his feet into it as he slips a belay belt on, then ties into the rope with two different descenders. Solo climbing can be dangerous as hell. Frankie brought her rappelling gear, didn't she?
"Did you bring yours?" Warren asks curiously. "If not, you can pull it back up when I get down. It's not a drop, it's just a steep slope."
Frankie's head bobs. "I did," she tells him, opening up her satchel and removing some gear and a harness of her own. She starts strapping in, glancing over at him from time to time as she starts setting up. He's better at this than she is, now. She's really just got things very basic, but eventually she's ready. Eventually. Time to head on down.
"One at a time," Warren says seriously. That she's roped in is a sort of secondary anchor for him, but really it's down to the piton and static rope. It can't take them both. "I'll call up when I'm down." Warren gives Frankie a reassuring smile and reaches for her. His hand is warm and reassuring on her cheek, and he smells wonderful as he leans in to kiss her lightly on the lips.
All too soon, he's gone. Warren disappears into the cleft in the stone, and within moments is just a bouncy light in the darkness. Then that too is gone. The line goes slack. Then taut then slack and Warren calls up for Frankie to descend.
It's a slope down broken stones, steep, but possibly climbable even free handed if one needed to do so badly enough. Dirt and pebbles cascade down as Frankie makes her way to the bottom and a large, flat stone landing at the top of a spiral staircase that leads down. Warren has been busy lighting torches made of petrified wood that somehow still ignite from the touch of an old sulfur match. It stinks like rotten eggs and gunpowder from the torches.
"Isn't this cool?" Warren asks, not as taken with excitement as he usually is. This a triumphant sort of smugness that says he was right. This is neat and he found it.
Frankie smiles a little when Warren brushes his lips against hers. While she waits for him to go down, she pulls out her journal and takes a few notes.
Norbert is there waiting at the bottom on the flat rock for Warren. No need to get too far ahead. The little psychopomp is watching Warren with his red glowing eyes. Steadily.
Once Warren okays it, Frankie carefully navigates down the rock. Sometimes it's the really basic stuff that somehow trips her up, but this seems to go pretty well. Once she's on the flat rock, she detaches from her climbing rope and nods. It stinks down here, but... it's the Underworld. "Very cool," she agrees. Norbert is still watching Warren.
Norbert is really too suspicious for his own good, at this point. Warren ignores him. Birds, who can tell?
Warren helps Frankie unclip, if she'll let him. If she needs it. He's not there to minimize, but he has a vested interest in getting her deeper and deeper into the Underworld... if that's even where they are now. Warren turns off his flashlight and takes a torch from the wall and looks at the stair that descends along the wall. Each step is a flat platform a foot on a side and extending six feet from the wall circumscribing a large cylinder. That means, somewhere below them, is the ground.
Warren bats some cobwebs dangling from the butt of the torch, but it just clings to his hand and the end of his sleeve. "This is as far as I've been," he admits. "I thought you might like to explore the rest with me." He's calm and collected, and certain this is the sort of thing a Delver like her might enjoy.
Her smile at that is easier. She reaches out to try to pick the cobweb off him, but it takes several tries. It just doesn't want to go. "Yeah. I like doing this kind of thing together," she tells him. She flicks her fingers free of cobweb and picks up a torch for herself, raising it up and walking to the edge of the first step. "Me first?" she ventures. He can protest. He can take the lead. Norbert finally eases up on the laser-eye and launches off the rock to make his own descent.
The silvery strands cling to Frankie's long red fingernails. The chipped polish means she'll have to repaint it soon, but for now, it's just the right color. She has to scrape with her other nails to get it to come away.
Warren gives Frankie a little shrug and lets her go first; she with her torch and he with a torch following behind her. Their shadows flicker on the wall like Plato's cave, and the shadows gutter and shift, sometimes showing their images on the wrong wall. Occasionally, it seems, they can see their shadows in front of them, half way around, and still descending toward the bottom.
Norbert Ghost-Crow wings off into the darkness, swirling down into the depths with caution. Crows are good at flying, but direct ascents and descents are not their forte. So even Norbert must circle down. Things grow hotter the deeper they get, unusual for the Underworld, but not singular. Frankie has marched through deserts beneath brutal suns. A hot cave is nothing and the beads of sweat that roll down her temples and down the back of her neck are just irritations.
Warren shifts his bag from side to side, likewise starting to shine from the heat. If he had long hair, he'd have put it up already, but it isn't that long. Just enough to fall into his eyes from time to time.
Frankie does have long hair. Longer, anyway, so she would very much like to stop and put her hair up right now. Unzip her leather jacket and the take off the fleece; the best she can do is unzip the jacket with one hand as she goes. Having a sweaty neck doesn't seem like a good enough reason to stop and ask Warren to hold her torch for her, so she presses on despite discomfort.
Norbert circles his way down, wings beating in the heated air, silent and swift.
With Norbert away, Warren reaches out behind Frankie, trailing a long streamer of spider silk from his fingertip. A spider, no larger than a BB, rides on the tip of his finger as he reaches out and brushes his fingers along Frankie's ear from behind.
The tiny passenger leaps, landing on her earlobe, and with barely a tickle, it clambers up across milky skin. The whirl of her ear is not unlike the cavern they're descending, and like them, it slips into the opening and crawls deep into Frankie's ear. She can't feel it at all once it slips inside.
Warren aims a rueful and weary smile at Frankie, holding up the cobwebs dangling from his hand as if he'd pulled them from her hair. "They're kind of everywhere," he tells her.
Frankie looks back at him and swipes a hand through her hair. Did she feel something? She makes a face. "Thanks."
Spiderwebs. They call to instinct, and that instinct is get it off. "They really are everywhere down here," she tells Warren. "I wonder when the last time someone was down here. I feel like it's a long, long time, but... that's not unusual, I guess." She brushes her hand through her hair again, glad to get it off her neck for a few moments, but continues down. "There better not be a giant spider down here."
Warren snorts. No kidding.
The small spider has a lot to contend with, given the thin sheen of ectoplasm covering Frankie's flesh. It's armor, and deep armor at that, so it begins to scratch and flex tiny red mandibles. It is a figment, just a fraction of the demon's power focused into a point. If the plasm is armor, this is a longbow driven arrow meant to pierce at one particular point: her mind. The longer it works the more Ariadne can fray her way through the armor. The flesh is hers to rule.
That means every step into the darkness is a step into madness. Not fear. Ariadne is a demon of lust. Curiosity and a need to go further mounts with every footstep. Even against one's better judgement.
Norbert circles about and finally finds the bottom. It is black, black, even to his eyes, but there's something down there. Old chains. Torches. Candelabras. Furniture of some sort. They're maybe half down.
Norbert doesn't tire, but he does appreciate a change of pace now and again. So he struts about at the bottom, investigating. Giving things thoughtful pecks. It's not as interesting as he might have hoped, so he starts back up to rejoin the others.
Even a boosted resistance can eventually be whittled away, and it's a long walk down. Frankie keeps going, one foot ahead of the other, digging out her compass again to have another curious glance at it.
The chains jangle when Norbert pecks them, which is a creepy sound coming from below in the blackness and kind of fun to do. If not for his empathetic connection with Frankie, and the small spike of fear that it causes to be creepy like that, it might have been fun to continue investigating the chains.
It's dark, and the flames of their torches gutter. Frankie probably doesn't notice how her nails are no longer chipped in polish. The flesh obeys, even a fragment, and the tiny spider burrows deeper into the ectoplasm. Nearing her thoughts. It's a crowded soul, but perhaps if Ariadne can just get her spidery legs in there she can make enough room so she can infect this woman's soul instead. She's so perfect for this. Perfect except for the way she shuns her own needs and hides from her own gifts.
"What does it say?" Warren asks curiously, peering over Frankie's shoulder as she consults the compass. It spins this way and that, occasionally locking on to north, but then slowly veering away for a few seconds before it finds its way again. Go home compass, you're drunk. Then again, it could be the veins of dark metal growing through the stone, becoming more and more common as they descend and pale grey rock gives way to wine red metal.
"It's being extra loopy," Frankie reports, resisting the urge to shake it. That never makes the compass work better. The keystone compass is a miracle anyway, what with functioning in the Underworld. Slowly. Lots of spinning. "I can't imagine being down here without it," she says, kind of absently. It's been with her for years, now. "Still works. Even if it's slow." She pockets the thing again, or tucks it away, anyway. Norbert is still flying up; Frankie is still trudging down. "It's not bottomless, at least." Info from Norbert?
They're past the halfway point, or will be if they keep walking. Furniture down there. Weird chain things. A table. Chair. Really tall candle holders, whatever those are called. It sounds like somebody's study. At the very least, furniture alone is weird in the Underworld. Finding a lot of it clumped together is interesting. Signs of civilization.
Aren't you curious, Frankie?
The thought itches in the forefront of her mind, something she can't quite scratch except to descend. Warren is apparently aware of none of this, but he nods to Frankie when she explains the compass for him. The firelight flickers on his features, and his dark eyes are intent on her. He almost glows with the thin layer of sweat warming his features. He pauses and does what she could have; he takes off his coat and slings it over his satchel to relieve himself of the heat. The sweater is enough. "Cool. I dropped something in it the first time I came, but I didn't hear it hit the ground. Maybe we can find it."
Frankie is sweaty. Her armpits are stewing by now. She hates taking the jacket off when she's down here, though. That one little extra bit of protection. The memento lining. "Norbert's on his way up again. What did you drop?" she asks. Idle conversation passes time. She tries to remain alert, glancing up from time to time. Wingbeats from below.
Warren steps onto the same step as Frankie. Norbert can take his time. The step is only twelve inches by six feet, so they have to stand feet together, and he chooses to stand close to Frankie. He reaches up and cups her cheek affectionately. The palm of his hand is warm, but it feels cool against her skin. It must really be getting warm in here.
Warren sweeps his thumb across Frankie's temple, wiping away the sweat of her skin... then he brings his thumb back to his mouth and sucks the wetness free of it. It could be gross, but he's tasted the sweat of her before, and his dark eyes smolder as he pulls the digit free of his mouth.
The spider burrows a little deeper, lust forming a new crack in the armor.
"A hammer," Warren tells Frankie, one finger sliding into her belay belt so he can pull her a little closer to him. "It didn't seem like a big deal, but if I can get it back..."
"Getting it back would be better than leaving it, yeah," Frankie says, the tip of her tongue coming out to nudge her lower lip. He's got his bedroom eyes going on here. "Hammers don't grow on trees, after all." It's a bit of a silly thing to say, but whatever.
Norbert makes a reappearance, landing on a step instead of on a shoulder. "Caw," he prods.
Norbert gets ignored. Warren takes a half step closer. "They don't," he agrees, giving a little nod that says she's right. A nod that never takes his eyes from hers and he smells so good right now. This is not what they should be doing in the Underworld, but nobody is here watching them. They haven't so much as felt the presence of a ghost since they descended. Well, except Norbert.
They're used to paying him no mind when it comes to doing the kinds of things living people like to do.
Warren comes close and brushes his lips against Frankie's. The taste of her is still on his lips. Then it's on hers too, just where her tongue had nudged her lower lip, as he lightly kisses Frankie in the torchlight.
Norbert opens his beak to caw again. Don't they realize there's stuff down there? Stuff to see? He shuts his beak, though, and turns to hop down around the bend. This is how things get thrown at him, if he stays and watches. He knows this.
Warren does smell good. So good, and it reeks down here, so she doesn't mind getting closer. She lowers her torch and angles it back so she doesn't set them on fire. Breathes him in. Her hand comes to rest on his chest, on the deeply red sweater.
How pretty. Her fingernails match his sweater, and it's so soft that it's impossible to resist the urge not to flex and dig in to the material. It's just so satisfying to dig her fingernails in while she can feel the pounding of his heart beneath her palm. That thought doesn't occur, it just... is.
Warren's lips part, and he flicks the tip of his tongue against Frankie's lips. Let me in.
This definitely counts as getting distracted. Not being alert. But Frankie is being nudged again, even if she can't feel it. Even if she doesn't notice her nails. Her lips part, allow him access to her warm, wet mouth. She curls the hand on his sweater into a fist, tugging on the material. "Mmmmn."
The kiss is a good one. Warren slips past her parted lips, the tip of his tongue flicking against her teeth as he seeks her tongue. So too does the tiny spider accept the invitation, because when she welcomes him through her armor, it opens for that mite sized fragment of the demon as well. It parts that last barrier and touches Frankie's mind at the last.
There's more than just her in here. There's the link to the ghost that follows her around and the swarm of blackness that has laid claim to her soul already. Ariadne leaves her mind and her soul alone, and fixates on the body instead. Lust. Excitement from doing something she knows better than to do, allow herself a moment with Warren instead of living in endless paranoia while in the Underworld. Life reaffirming activities have so much power here. Food. Water. Light.
A warmth low in her belly starts to spread. There are other life affirming behaviors, but she should stop. At least they can get to the bottom.
Frankie presses up against Warren, engaging in the kiss with enthusiasm. She doesn't know what's tweaking her. She doesn't know it comes from a demon. She keeps kissing him, enjoying how he tastes. How he smells.
"CAW." It's pointed. Frankie releases her grip on his shirt and sweeps her free hand through her hair. "Right. So. Down." She starts moving again. Norbert, you ruiner.
Norbert is the ruiner of good things. It's like Warren never feeds him illicit slices of pizza or anything.
Warren gives the bird the stink eye for ruining a perfectly good kiss, and rubs his fingers over lips still warm from shared heat. "Right," Warren agrees at the last. Every step down is warmer by a degree. Every moment is another distracted thought buzzing inside Frankie. Ariadne is busy, tending to thoughts and connections, looking for whatever it is that bonds these two dead things to this girl's soul.
When they reach the bottom, Warren uses his torch to light ancient candles in candelabras, adding to the helix of torches they had set ablaze on their way down. The darkness is a spiral of light above them, and they stand on a stone platform with an almost black hematite table shining sickly in the center. An altar, maybe.
It is getting harder and harder to think, distractions and sensory input coming with urgency at least equal to the caution Frankie usually feels. It's like being drunk or exhausted. Strange, but not inherently dangerous. In fact, the ascent in this state may be far more dangerous than just staying.
Frankie walks over to the table, attracted by the smooth, shiny table. She places her hand on it, trails it over the sleek surface. "I'd've expected more dust," she remarks, glancing over at Warren. It feels nice to pet the table. There are cobwebs stuck to it, though, and she plucks at a thin strand linking the table to one of the chains on the floor. "Weird, though. Furniture."
Norbert follows her on the floor, little talons clicking against the stone. He rustles his wings.
The thing with Frankie isn't something separate; they've merged. There's nowhere to get her hooks in; Ariadne can't tell where one ends and the other begins. No seams. No cracks. How disappointing.
The cobwebs stick to Frankie's nails, fluttering behind until she plucks it off. The chains are bolted to the floor and run up through holes in the altar, each terminating with a manacle of some sort. They don't seem to be suited for a person, and there are far too many for them to belong one to a limb. The furniture includes a lectern for holding a book, and a chair. There's a bucket and some other broken and ancient tools. A fairly modern hammer has cracked the floor, and the handle juts straight upward from the cleft it makes.
The whole place is surrounded by mystery, but Frankie can imagine how it would go. The metal of the altar is cool, and just touching it is reassuring. She'd never stretch out on it, but she can imagine it. The soothing metal sucking away the feverish heat. Stretched out. Manacles safely on the floor. They're not for her.
The whole thing makes her queasy in her stomach, but it's easy enough to /imagine/, anyway.
Ariadne is frustrated. The corpus callosum is easier to untangle than this. Sure, she could take this body for now. She just can't have it for her own. Rage is not her vice, but she can feel it. Perhaps she can just force the issue. It doesn't have to be a clean separation... just bisect her mind and fuse with the half that most resembles her.
It would be really nice to lay down for a minute and cool off.
While the demon focuses on Frankie, Warren wanders. Finds the hammer. Hefts it with a malicious grin hidden from view.
Frankie sets her torch aside somewhere safe, wedging it upright. There's lots of wispy things down here that would burn, though only for moments. Frankie tugs the elastic from her wrist and reaches up to pull her hair into a messy bun. That feels better. Much better. She should poke around further, but the table would be nice and cool. Frankie decides to compromise. Hauls herself up to sit on the edge. Without looking back at Warren, she calls, "Did you find the hammer?"
Norbert rattles some chains, but it's distracted.
The hematite reflects Frankie as through a dark mirror, and cold hands come up to meet her hot palms as she rests her flesh against the altar. That feels so much better, and so does putting her hair up in a bun. Sweat trickles down the side of her neck, running with the drop of blood that has oozed from her ear and down the side of her throat. It wanders out, becoming bright red on the edges as it works its way slowly downward.
"I did," Warren says. "I thought I'd lost it. I don't think I can take any more loss." He turns slowly and puts the hammer into his satchel. Warren comes closer. His dark eyes are so intense.
"Do you know how much I've lost?" he asks, voice taut with suppressed grief. "The chances. A normal family. Friends. A love life..." Warren's eyebrows raise plaintively. "I love you, and you're the first woman to ever love me back." He comes to a stop in front of Frankie, hips almost touching her knees.
"Your family loves you," Frankie tells Warren, reaching out toward Warren's face to cup it. She reaches out, but her hands never make it to his skin. She's spotted the red nails. Frankie's nails are short, and the black polish on them is chipping. She frowns for a moment.
Bring her back.
"And I love you. What's normal, anyway?" Her tone is gentle. Her smile is gentle. Her hands come to rest on his shoulders. She wants to lie down. She wants to lie down on the cool, smooth table.
Norbert, the little bastard, flaps up to land on the corner of the table, eyeing the two of them again.
"What's normal?" Warren asks. There's real anguish in his voice. "You had normal, didn't you? You chose something else when normal wasn't good enough. When normal was going to get you killed. But you started there." His dark eyes are liquid and wet, not quite on the verge of tears. Tears for her. Tears for himself that he can't come to spend.
The red peeks out from beneath the black, the same color as the red metal in the walls. The same color as Warren's sweater. The same color as the blood roiling in the river somewhere above their head. Is it under her nail, or is it not? Lying down would be nice. It's hot. Things are weird. If she could get cool, then she could figure it all out again.
Frankie's heart pounds in her chest and she can feel blood rushing through her veins. Too hard. Too fast.
"I just want... I want you, Frankie. I want us to be together forever. You're the only one who understands and I can't keep being alone." Warren looks down, breaking eye contact.
"I had normal," Frankie says, frowning at him. This is all weird. "And then I would have had nothing. I'm... not sure what to... nobody lives forever, Warren." Unless they're a vampire, but that's not quite living and she's not going to suggest that to him anyway. "But you're not alone. I'm here." She brings her other leg up. "Let's just lie down," she suggests. "Norbert, can you shoo?"
Norbert levels a baleful gaze at them both and steps, very deliberately, to the center of the table.
Warren nods at Frankie's suggestion, but the words aren't sitting well with him. "But... won't you live forever?" he asks. "With your-" Ariadne quickly rifles through Warren's mind like a filing cabinet and finds the word. "-Geist?"
Warren slides his hand back along the altar, sweeping through where Norbert's feet are. The bird is material here, as this is the Underworld. Move or be swept along, bird. And if Norbert does, then Warren does it again, a little higher. Nudging the black bird out of the way no matter if he pecks.
It makes it easier for Frankie to lay back. Just recline on the cool surface and stretch out. It's over 40 degrees celsius here, and she's wearing a coat. The altar is what, 10 C? Laying down would be just the best thing, and Warren is bending over as if he were going to climb on with her.
"I want you to be with me," Warren whispers. "Always."
"I won't live forever, no," Frankie tells Warren. This is such a weird conversation. Norbert is swept away, which makes him even pissier. He squawks. Frankie lies down on the altar, stretching her legs out. Much cooler. "I wouldn't want to. I just wanted more time than I got..."
Nobody is paying attention to Norbert and his scolding. Warren isn't, anyway. So Norbert lands by Frankie's head and gives her a peck right by her ear. That's when he notices the blood, which alarms him. "CAW!"
"What the fuck, Norbert?" Frankie demands, reaching up to touch her face where he pecked. Distracted from Warren. Touching sticky blood.
Warren lashes out at Norbert when Frankie pulls her hand away with blood. Carefully premeditated by the calculating spider, it looks almost completely natural for him to strike the spectral crow for attacking Frankie. For 'drawing blood.'
"What the hell, Norbert?" Warren rages almost in unison, likely earning him the bird's ire for quite some time. Not only are both of the people acting weird, but now he's getting attacked. Things are not right in psychopomp-ville.
It feels so much better to just lie down. It's like running in the heat and being offered just a moment to rest in the air conditioning. Norbert is being weird, and now she's bleeding. Just a little. Something that, in reality, stopped a long time ago.
It's a cool touch that goes deeper than her skin. It soothes the confusion of her thoughts. Replaces it with the languor of impending sleep. It would be nice to just rest for a moment, and then she can figure out what has Norbert so mad and then probably yell at Warren for attacking Norbert, even if he was just defending her.
That's it. Norbert's up and fighting now, red eyes aglow, talons extended, wings flapping at Warren's face, and screeching bloody murder. Frankie starts to sit up, the lull of the altar overtaken by her concern for Warren and for the psychopomp that's been with her through so much. Norbert wouldn't hurt her. Warren wouldn't hurt Norbert.
As the psychopomp wings after Warren, attacking the medium immediately after attacking Frankie, the whole idea of what is right and what is wrong in Frankie's world tries to stand on its head. This is actual insanity right here. A winged blur flaps at Warren, talons slicing into Warren's hand and arm even as he grabs the featherweight ghost by its legs and pivots sharply at the hips, tossing Norbert quite some distance through the air and far from the altar.
Frankie's blood has dripped on the altar, aided by the struggling and flapping, and now Warren's blood joins it as he puts his wounded hand on the cold metal. The chains levitate from the floor, eight of them curving and arcing back like the stinger of a scorpion. No, the legs of a spider. The metal altar is more than that, revealing itself to be the belly of a great metal arachnid. The ends reach for Frankie, trying to clap around her biceps and thighs, wrists and ankles.
"No!" screams Warren at Norbert. He turns his attention to Frankie. "We are going to be together. Forever." The sensation of knives slowly slip between Frankie's ribs. Talons reaching into her and picking at her soul, searching for purchase as Warren looks on with madness in his eyes and a triumphant smile on his face.
Well that's fucked up. Frankie sits up completely and starts to lunge off the table, but a manacle clasps around her leg. Another snaps down around her forearm as she pulls her fist back for... a punch? What the fuck is going on?
Norbert careens away, losing a couple of feathers in the process, and then he bamfs back to his anchor's side, flapping at the chains, swooping and diving at them, scolding.
"Warren, we have to get out of here," Frankie says, testing her might against the chains. She can think of two ways out of this. Three, maybe. But something is wrong, and Warren needs to come with her, and ---- the knives. That awful feeling, like something is tearing her from Murder.
It's not possible. It just really, really feels like it's happening, and Frankie panics and thrashes against the chains. She needs to get out. NOW.
The chains clatter with the bright sound of metal on metal as the one around her wrist pulls her arm down to the altar with stunning force. The next around her thigh, slithering through the gap in the altar like pouring pennies down a pipe until it slaps her thigh hard into the metal. It smarts. Tingles.
It's nothing compared to the sensation of being pulled apart. It's like being in a plane crash for your soul. There's burning and terror and the sensation that you're being pulled apart from what you are. And it's not an even divide. One part of her is aware that she's being pulled, as if she could be drawn away from Murder. Another part of her is aware that it's not that clean. It's like taking two handfuls of mashed potatoes and hoping to separate all the gravy from all the potatoes.
Even more terrifying, for a moment, Frankie is aware that there's a second consciousness starting to arise in her that is also her.
She needs to get out of there. Right now. Because more chains are coming for her unbound arm and leg, trying hard to restrain her and keep her pinned to the belly of that metal spider.
Frankie screams. Loudly. In Warren's face, essentially, and then she risks ripping herself further apart by doing so physically. Plasm is spent, and Frankie's body dissolves abruptly into a flurry of black wings and beaks and feathers. The chains abruptly clutch nothing; a murder of crows breaks free and wheels up away from the table. Away from Warren. Norbert flaps madly after, joining the murder in their rushing pillar of escape. Frankie keeps screaming, and all the birds are CAWing in cacophony as they spill upward.
The chains are much longer than they appear to be, and they race up into the air after the murder of crows. Each of the manacles, more pincers than handcuff, snap like the mouth of a hungry creature. Some clap on to the ephemeral crows, but a part is not the whole, and one can easily vanish to make another. It's all but impossible to do damage or restrain a swarm.
Below, Warren looks up at the retreating shadow of ominous wings and cries out in pain and rage, "WE WERE SUPPOSED TO BE TOGETHER FOREVER!"
And then Frankie is out of the stairwell and battering her way up the slope of ruined rock and out into the reflective field of salt plates. Behind her, the ground rumbles, as if perhaps that giant spider was going to work its way out of the ground and pursue her.
Which is worse, the grief that she left Warren behind or the relief she feels when the hole collapses in on itself?
The relief is worse. The grief is bad, but the relief is in spite of the grief for leaving him behind. What just happened? Frankie's thoughts are disjointed; she can hold the murder together and fly, and that's about it. Fly. Fast. Now. Norbert caws out warning. Make haste! Fly!
Frankie soars up out of the depths, adrenaline pumping through a flock of small bodies. She will have time to be heartbroken later. Now, she's just scared. Now, she has to fly.