righteous are those who seek the truth around them Who: Alice, Rafe, & Isobel. What: Rafe and Isobel check on their friend following the fourth floor's transformation, and decide to do some exploring. Secrets are discovered. Where: Pax Letale, fourth floor. When: Oct. 8, shortly after Isobel and Rafe are notified by Alice that something is amiss on her floor.
Isobel stepped off of the elevator, and was instantly taken aback by the sight of the keys hovering overhead. It felt like something out of Harry Potter; Hogwarts could have easily had such a room or hall bristling with options, hanging less by ribbons (though some of the things holding the keys aloft looked less than welcoming, just from a spare glance) and more by the magic of the building's history and abilities.
She took a few steps forward, reaching out for a key that looked like it was made of wood. It was shaped like a hatchet; Isobel didn't touch it, not quite, but there was something decidedly familiar about it. It made her shudder, all the same; some dark thing that had been done in the name of a person she had once known. Isobel knew this was not her thought, but she brushed it aside, turning as she heard the elevator door open once more.
"Rafe," she said, her voice light. She looked relieved to no longer be on the floor alone. "I was just about to go check on Alice."
Rafael nodded, but the sight that greeted him took from him whatever he had intended to say. He moved to her side, staring up at the ceiling and its countless adornments. He reached up, one index finger outstretched to touch the tip of one key. It swayed on its string, the feathers that adorned it catching the air and making it spin. "Eight didn't change," he said. "Did yours?"
Isobel shook her head; she could have commented on both the first floor or the Deluxe, but kept those thoughts to herself. "It looks like it's just this floor? Which...that's a new one, for the building."
As they walked to Alice's door Rafael could not keep his eyes from the ceiling. In spite of all the changes they had seen, this still impressed him; the time and effort it had to have taken to do such things unnoticed, overnight, never failed to inspire a little awe in him. Still, he hoped this change would go better for him than others had.
Isobel stepped in front of Rafe, rapping her knuckles against Alice's door in quick succession.
"Alice? It's me and Rafe." She looked back at the other man, a hand going to the phone in her pocket. "Maybe it would be better to text her..."
After a moment of silence, the door crept open and a bright green eye peeked out. “Oh,” a sigh of relief as Alice pulled the door open and revealed herself and Molly held in her arms. She smiled weakly, her eyes darting nervously over her friends’ heads at the keys overhead. “You both came,” she said as she held the door open. “Come in, come in.”
Rafael gestured for Isobel to enter; he followed close at her heels, pausing just inside the room. He reached out and gently petted Molly's head. "Our floors haven't changed," he said. "Whatever this is, I think it's just the fourth." He slipped his hands into his shorts pockets, smiling softly at their friend. "Lucky you."
Isobel put a comforting hand on Alice's arm. "It's not in your apartment, though? So that's a win?" She pulled her touch away, folding her arms loosely over her stomach as she came to a stop just before Alice's living room, turning on her heel so they were in a loose triangle before the front door.
"Have you gone into the hallway at all? Or... I don't know, looked at the keys? Whoever did this... It's definitely on the same level as April, and, well, everything else that's been happening." Her shoulders lifted and fell as her gaze flicked between her two friends.
“I looked in the hallway and that was all,” Alice replied, eyes darting to her closed door and back to her friends. “I didn’t hear anything last night. No, like, activity in the halls. Molly didn’t seem to suspect anything was going on; she likes to sit by the door when people are moving around out there. And then this morning… keys.” She frowned and hugged Molly more closely, the cat looking a tad more patiently uncomfortable but not squirming away. She glanced at Rafael, knowing well he would understand and had heard this fear already, then to Isobel to explain further. “It’s just one weird thing after another here and every time something strange happens I get scared I’ll be a pile of rice and blown away, and Uke Mochi won’t be able to put me back together, and no one will know where I’ve gone.”
Rafael nodded. It was a familiar concern, and she knew his feelings on it well. Granted this was somewhat more disconcerting than the masks they had received; none of them could really say there was nothing threatening about those keys, or whatever places they might lead.
"We can check one or two out together," he suggested. "All three of us. Molly too, if you like, just to see what they keys do. I'd at least like to know if they can open our apartments. I really don't want anyone getting into mine. Again."
Isobel nodded as her eyes widened in concern, Rafe's worry new to her ears. She hadn't considered the idea that the keys might make their locks and seemingly-safe walls moot.
"Does that sound all right? It can just be for a few minutes, or if you'd rather wait here... That's completely fine, too."
Alice chewed on the inside of her cheek and looked between her friends and then to Molly who looked up at her, still patiently waiting to be put down. “I’ll go with you guys. Let’s leave Molly here, just in case the keys make monsters or something appear. We...we can try on one of the empty apartments in the hall, or maybe my own.” She sat Molly down on the ground gently and looked back at Isobel and Rafael, feigning confidence but trying all the same. “I feel like we should be preparing for some expedition, like when the floors changed.”
Isobel smiled, her hand coming out to brush Alice's elbow again. "Hopefully not. We can just... We'll just try one out and see how things go. Then maybe order out and have dinner back at one of our places? I vote Rafe's, since it's the biggest." The suggestion was more to get Alice out of her apartment and away from the strange floor shift. Rafael nodded, agreeing without a second thought.
She moved them back toward the door, opening Alice's apartment's entry to reveal the strange keys hanging from every inch of the level's ceiling; the brief wind made by the door caused some of the keys to knock together, though only a few made the expected tinkling sound brought on by metal. Isobel stepped over the threshold and back into the hall, glancing behind her for the rest of the trio as she stepped into the direct center of the floor. Her eyes went back above them, looking over the keys as she started to wonder which to begin with.
"Rafe, can you reach them? I think we might need a stepstool otherwise..." She commented, trying to add some levity to the already too weird situation. Alice followed close behind, casting an uneasy glance toward Molly before she grabbed her apartment keys and closed her apartment door behind them. She stepped beside Isobel and crossed her arms as she quietly watched Rafael.
"I think so…" To test this theory Rafael merely reached up, grasping at the first key to hand. He wrinkled his nose at the sensation that greeted him: chitinous flesh, small, bristly hairs, and an overwhelming, unutterable wrongness. He pulled it down from the ceiling and brought it down to eye level. His fingers moved to the delicate beadwork that made its small bow. He held it up where the women could see. "Is this OK to start?" he asked. "I can grab another if you'd rather. This one is…" He worked to suppress a shudder.
Alice leaned forward and wrinkled her nose at the key, goosebumps spreading over her bare arms. “None of the keys are very normal, are they?” Alice murmured before looking at Isobel. “Your call if you’d like to try that one, I’m along for the ride.”
Isobel shrugged. "Maybe it's meant to be scary to deter people, because there's actually something really good inside?" She laughed drily; Rafael twitched a thin and quickly-gone smile. "I don't believe it either, but it was worth consideration, don't you think? But, yeah, let's try it. Is it OK if we use your apartment, Alice?" She motioned toward the closed door they'd just come through.
Alice gave one worried look at the apartment, thinking of her kitten inside, but stood a little straighter before nodding and dangling her keys in her hand, “Yeah, go ahead. I locked the door so it should be all set.”
Rafael moved around them, his thumb still toying with the beadwork on the key's small handle. That part, at least, felt warm to the touch, and slightly less distressing than the hair-lined limb that made up the rest. Without realizing he was doing so, he drew a breath and held it. The key slipped into Alice's lock without the slightest difficulty. It turned just as easily. Then he pushed open the door and peered out into something wholly unexpected.
It was a room, of a sort, though the walls were made of smooth, soft cloth. Leather, Rafael thought, once he moved deeper inside. A fire blazed in the center of the room. Atop it rested a large iron pot, from which sweet and savory smells issued forth. Alice took in a deep breath and made a faint sound from behind. Rafe's stomach churned. He felt himself drawn deeper into the room, and still he felt a wariness he could not shake. He looked behind him, worry in his eyes, and hoped his friends would follow close behind.
Isobel did not linger in the hall, already on Rafe's heels the moment he'd opened the door to what should have been Alice's apartment. She grasped the redhead's hand, holding tight for some semblance of reassurance. What surprised her the most, though, was that she needed none; she felt more concern over keeping Rafe and Alice safe, even while a deep curiosity drove her forward.
The ground shifted beneath their feet; furs covered part of a dirt floor, making a loose ring around the fire. As they drew closer, Isobel realized there was a man inside the leather-walled room, using a poker to tend the fire. She stopped short and Alice almost collided into her.
"Uh, sorry," she said, loud enough she was certain she would be heard. "We didn't mean to interrupt—"
The man made no move to reprimand them for their uninvited entrance. Instead, he merely motioned to the furs at their feet.
Alice, wide-eyed, squeezed Isobel’s hand and stepped closer to her friend, her side pressing against Isobel’s arm. “I think we’re invited to sit,” she whispered, her eyes not moving away from the form of the man as a quiver went through her hands. This was supposed to be her apartment, Molly was supposed to be waiting on the other side--had Molly disappeared along with her apartment? Or were they simply through a different door entirely due to the key. She glanced at Rafael and reached for his hand with her free one, wanting the safety of both friends by her side. “We… we should take a seat.”
Rafe blinked down at the furs covering the floor, then back to his friend's outstretched hand. At some point the key had disappeared from his tight grasp. He flexed his hand, opening and closing it, reassuring himself that it was indeed gone. The he took Alice's hand, squeezing it tight, and folded his legs beneath him to sit by Alice's side. Isobel followed suit, assuming a seated Indian posture on Alice's far side.
The man nodded his approval as they found their places. Then he returned to his stewpot, carefully stirring its contents without another backward glance. After a few moments of silence, Rafael tried to lighten the mood.
"It kind of reminds me of the dream you and I had," he said, nodding to Alice. He lowered his voice, a small smile on his lips. "Uke Mochi's meal smelled better, though…" Alice let out a faint laugh, her eyes on the large steaming pot.
Isobel glanced sidelong at him, grinning. "It's definitely not Texas barbecue, that's for sure..." Her eyes drifted back to the pot, and she leaned to one side, trying to get a better glimpse of their host. She wondered how much of what they said he could understand. Leaning back toward Alice, she kept her voice low as she addressed both of her friends.
"Do you think... Should we try to talk to him? Or should we just wait..."
“It feels awkward not to talk to him,” Alice whispered, glancing between Rafael and Isobel. She looked up at the man and frowned, her discomfort obvious, but she cleared her throat and swallowed, sitting up a little straighter as she gathered her courage. “Thank you for having us,” she said to the man, trying to raise her voice loud enough to be heard but still being too soft. “Do...do you need us to help with anything?” She glanced at Isobel and made a small shrug, not certain if that was the type of question to be asking in this situation, or if the man even understood her.
The man said nothing in reply to Alice's question. Isobel studied the ground behind the man; there was a sack, and next to it, two swaddling bundles that lay unmoving. The sight of the small, cocoon-like things gave her pause, wondering if they were about to interrupt a family's meal.
Before she could open her mouth and suggest that they leave, two women entered the same doorway through which they had appeared. They looked the same as the man; coloring, hair, but their features were different. They took spots on either side of the three guests, acting as though they had not at all noticed their presence.
"We could not find the plums, Unktomi," one said mournfully, all but falling into her spot on the furs. The other nodded, taking her own seat with more grace.
"Worry not, sisters, for I brought meat with me, and cooked a fine soup with turnips and squash. Eat, and fill yourselves." The two women looked relieved, and accepted bowls from the man tending the pot. As he served them, he also served Rafe, Alice, and Isobel, in turn.
Alice smiled weakly at the man as she accepted her bowl but made no movement to eat from it, instead looking to Rafael and Isobel for direction as her stomach turned. Rafael seemed at a similar loss. He gazed down into his bowl, then back at each of his companions. The smell wafting up to him stirred as much hunger in him as something else; he felt his stomach lurch again, and he lowered the bowl briefly.
But as the two newcomers tucked into their meal, Rafael felt increasingly uncomfortable at his rejection of their hospitality. With a burgeoning sense of dread he raised the bowl to his lips, sipping at the thick broth within. A small bit of meat—or perhaps turnip or squash, he desperately hoped—bumped against his parted lips. His throat felt thick, as though it meant to close in mid-swallow. He took another small, brothy sip and lowered the bowl once more.
"Thank you," he said, nodding to their host. The man raised his own bowl in a cheerful toast, then returned it to his lips. He gulped down the contents with noisy slurps, scarcely taking an instant to breathe.
Watching the two women eat without hesitation from their bowls had encouraged Isobel to at least bring hers up toward her mouth; tentatively, she let some of the broth slip down her throat. That small taste sharpened her appetite, but the next thing that slithered—whole and slick, tasting like anything but a vegetable—into her mouth made her put the bowl down and reconsider coming into this room at all. She tried to lift the bowl to her lips once more, but her appetite was wholly gone.
Alice lifted her own bowl to her lips, mirroring the movements of her friends, but something smelt sickeningly off with the food and she couldn’t bring herself to swallow any of the broth. So as not to offend the host, she pressed her lips to the side of the bowl and tipped the soup up, letting it touch her lips but ensuring none got into her mouth. “Mmm,” she feigned as she lowered the bowl and wiped the soup off her lip, all the while giving a faint shake of her head to her friends. Don’t eat it, it doesn’t smell right, she tried to convey with a look, although the warning came too late.
Bile rose in Rafael's throat. He nodded, trying and failing to smile at the women who were, even now, finishing their soup. They smacked their lips too noisily; they looked far too gratified by their meal. The air in the tent felt close and hot. Gently he set his bowl down before him, careful to spill nothing of its contents.
Their cook finished his bowl in short order; the two women followed soon after. Each looked satisfied, content, at ease in the comfort of their home. One woman stretched out on the furs below her. The other rose after a moment, and padded across the soft floor to where one small bundle lay. She reached down to pick up the small bundle. The cloth crumpled in her hands, stuffed with no more than rags; a heavy thud sounded, and a child's head rolled across the floor, trailing blood in its wake.
Rafael pushed himself back from the fire, overturning the bowl with one badly-placed foot, a steady stream of Portuguese flowing from his lips. Alice, jumping initially from Rafael’s rushed movements, let out a small yelp when she saw the head and scrambled back, falling backwards into Rafael.
The head continued in its trail unobstructed, coming only to a stop as it brushed Isobel's knee. The still-warm bowl was in her hands, now trembling as she stared at the tiny, disembodied head; the man behind the bubbling pot laughed, a sound that denounced them all idiots for falling for such an obvious plan. Isobel upended her bowl, soup splashing down onto the motionless child's face as she hurled herself backward almost spider-like, twisting around to all fours as she brought a hand up to stop herself from throwing up the small contents of her meal until she reached at least the edge of the small circle inside the leather-bound room. The sound of her retching wound with the woman's screams, which were soon joined by her sister's at the sight of her own untimely loss.
“Oh my god, oh my god,” Alice was chanting, a hand on Rafael’s shoulder from when she had fallen backwards into him, her legs weak and her stomach twisted, and her gaze set on the tiny head. Her breathing was coming heavily with great breaths between each set of three words until she couldn’t say the words anymore and instead was left to gasping for breath as a panic attack began to catch hold of her. A small, frightened part of her mind tried to steer her attention to Isobel who needed her help but Alice’s panic was too great and her vision too narrowed onto the sight before her.
Rafe was still muttering to himself, but Alice's jostling him seemed to have at least roused him to action. He took her hand and rose on unsteady legs. The women still screamed, the man still laughed, but Rafe and Alice only had eyes for their friend. He did not let go of Alice's hand even as they bent over Isobel's shuddering form. His free hand gingerly touched her shoulder, making his presence known.
"We need to leave," he whispered. "Please, Isobel, we need to go…"
Isobel brought the back of one hand to her mouth, her mind immediately prioritizing the needs of others over her own. She nodded, reeling herself back into some semblance of sanity, and pushed herself up.
"The door," she said, words making her re-taste the acrid bile currently coating her mouth. She pointed in the direction they had come, urging both Rafe and Alice out. As they moved, she cast one final look over her shoulder, at the two crying women—the man was gone, and something small and black crawled across the floor, toward a small hole in the other end of the leatherbound room.
Alice reached for Isobel’s hand, ensuring she was the tie between her friends and no one was left behind as they rushed to the exit. They left the way they came and were spit into the hallway. Alice turned and found her apartment door behind her and no semblance of the other world in sight. Even the key that Rafael had been holding was back to its place on the ceiling.
Trying to calm her rapid breathing and even quicker heart, Alice looked at Rafael. “Are you okay? Are you okay?” She looked at Isobel and squeezed her hand. Isobel tried to nod, but tears were streaming down her face; a hand came up to her mouth, which still tasted disgusting, as she started sobbing outrightly. At once Rafael moved to hold her, his arms sliding around her shoulders as he drew her in close.
"It's OK," he whispered. "It wasn't real. Right? It wasn't real. Just another dream or hallucination or something. OK?" He squeezed her tight, then drew away, taking Alice's hand again. He lingered close to Isobel all the while, his shoulder gently brushing hers. "It wasn't real," he said again, determined to convince them all.
Alice nodded, although there was a strain in her eyes. She touched Isobel’s shoulder with her free hand, glad her panic attack finally calmed, and whispered softly. “Isobel, let’s try and go back into my apartment. Molly can cuddle with you and I can pull out that bottle of rum I never drink and get you tissues. I… I don’t think any of us should be alone for a little bit.” She looked wearily from Isobel to Rafael, then back to Isobel again.
"No, it's..." She stopped, her hand just in front of her mouth; her eyes were red-rimmed already, gaze cast down to the floor but interrupted by Rafe and Alice's forms. Finally, she nodded.
"Yeah, let's please go inside, and can I have... I need a glass of water." She turned them all back toward Alice's apartment, which made her wonder if they'd permanently changed the innards, or if the interior would retain its original form.
“Of course,” Alice replied, her voice calm and light despite the panic she felt. She could do this, focus on another’s needs and ignore her own fright. Pulling her key from her pocket, she approached the door to unlock it and paused, hand on the knob and fear quivering through her body. What if they just went back into the other room? What if her apartment--Molly--were lost to the weird workings of the building. She glanced at Rafael, allowing her fear to show on her face as she silently begged him with only a look to be by her side when she opened the door.
Rafael nodded and promptly took up his place beside her. He looked down to the knob and the key in her hand; all seemed perfectly ordinary, nothing out of the norm. As she turned the handle he pressed a hand to the door, opening it right along with her. When the door swung fully open, he breathed an audible sigh of relief.
"Hi, Molly," he said, a grin breaking over his face. "Did you miss us?"
The kitten made a small mew and danced by Rafael’s feet. He moved inside with the women, immediately heading for the kitchen as if it were still his home as well. He returned with two short glasses in one hand, a bottle of rum in the other, and a bottle of water held between his arm and his ribs.
Alice took Isobel’s hand and led her promptly to the living room where they had spent many moments together sharing secrets or tears. She sat her friend down and took a seat directly next to her. Molly jumped onto the couch and put a tentative paw on Isobel’s leg, gazing up at the woman with big eyes. “Isobel, are you sure you’re alright?”
None of them were alright, not after what they had witnessed, what the other two had eaten, but Alice couldn’t help but feel Isobel’s reaction was greater due to something else that was beyond Alice’s comprehension. Focusing on her friend allowed her to brush her own panic aside for a later moment, so she took to brushing Isobel’s hair back over her shoulder and rubbing her shoulder.
Isobel let herself be led, taking a grateful seat on the couch. The sudden laser-focused attention on her made her uncomfortable, and a migraine was forming between her eyes. She nodded, clenching her mouth closed for a moment to hold back unbidden tears. She hadn't told anyone else; it didn't seem important to share that information with anyone outside of Obed and herself, and the doctor. But it seemed the apartment complex wouldn't allow things to settle quietly.
"I got pregnant. With Obed." The confession was small in tone, and she kept her eyes cast down. "I lost the baby; it's why... Why we separated." The phrasing seemed to lessen some of the burden on her, even when she knew it for a lie. Her eyes turned up toward the ceiling, fingers sliding carefully along her eyes to dot back tears. "I mean, why I broke up with him. And that was...just really unnecessary."
Rafael exhaled a small sigh. He held the water bottle close to her, his own generous pour of rum forgotten where it sat on the coffee table. He shifted, and his knee gently brushed her own. Silence was inadequate, but he could not let the moment pass and say nothing; that terrible room had disturbed him enough, but he felt weak at the thought of how much greater his friend had suffered.
"Oh, Isobel. I'm so sorry." His gaze lowered as a thought occurred to him, one he badly wanted to dismiss out of hand. "Do you think… do you think someone sent us—you—to that room on purpose? Could they do that?"
“Who? The mysterious apartment owners?” Alice asked. “It couldn’t be the deities. I think… I think they love us, I think they want to protect us.”
Turning her attention to Isobel again, Alice slipped her arm around Isobel’s shoulders and pulled her close.. “No wonder Persephone made you forget everything. I’m so sorry, Isobel. You...you don’t think she’d do it again, do you? After everything we saw today?”
Isobel took the water bottle and all but ripped off the cap, swallowing down a quarter of it. When she pulled the mouth of it away from her lips, air rushed in to replace it and she focused on breathing for a moment before shaking her head.
"I don't want her to. I just... I remember everything, and I don't need to forget, not again. That was just...it was hard." She leaned forward, a hand pressing to her face. She wanted nothing more than to go back upstairs and crawl back into bed with Obed, but she forced herself to remain put. Isobel glanced at Rafe.
"Do you really think that wasn't real? Just... A hallucination?"
He considered this for a moment, though he already knew the answer he wanted to be true. It had looked and smelled and felt entirely real, but it was impossible; the room was gone now, and with it, all the terrible things that had lurked inside.
"It had to be," he said. "We'd be on top of the place right now, and it doesn't feel like we are. I don't… I can't explain what did happen, but it can't have been real."
Alice frowned and glanced at Rafael. She didn’t feel like it had been made up or a hallucination, but she wasn’t about to tell Isobel as much. After swallowing, she gave a slow nod. “Rafael has a point. We’re in my apartment now, not there. It’s like the other times weird things have happened here, it never messed up our own apartments, we never really left the building, it was all just… made up.” She rubbed Isobel’s back in small circles. “And maybe… if you talk to Persephone directly she’ll hear you, that you don’t want to lose your memories again. I think she’d be willing to hear you out.”
Isobel's mouth was set in a grim line; her mouth still tasted faintly of the broth, and she could still feel the furs under her knees. It was almost like the dreams she'd shared across others' minds; the here and not here, the idea that they were living someone else's lives. She didn't think it was a hallucination, nor did she believe Persephone would rise to wipe her mind clean again. The goddess had done it for one purposeful reason, and that reason was settled.
She put the water bottle down, and held her hand out for the bottle of rum Rafe had brought over.
"Well, let's at least make remembering hurt a little less."