Field Studies

Down the Rabbit Hole

07 Mar 2011 20:32  |  by Jean Kavanaugh
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Min stepped into the unusual chamber ahead of her. As Jean cleared the entry and moved away from the gap in the wall a rough scraping noise caused her to glance back over her shoulder. The metal sheet Min had initially drawn open slid back into place, revealing nothing more than the same red brick that comprised the rest of the curving interior wall. She glanced up. The ceiling was high enough that she could stand upright, though Min had to hunch his shoulders some. Outside, she was sure it hadn't looked that high. A single, caged halogen bulb hung down about a hand's length from the centre of the conical apex of the chamber.

“Told you it was ace,” Min said smugly, stepping down on to the first metal step, fingers brushing the brick wall.

Jean stepped over to the edge to peer through the metal grating, down the twist of stairs. “Where's it lead?”

“Down,” Min replied — entirely unhelpfully, as far as Jean was concerned, but it was a typical response. As she snirked, he smirked. “I ain't been down the whole way. But, there's doors every so often. I peeked in one. Leads off into some old brickworks, 'cept it looks like somethin' outta some Victorian horror novel — all gas lamps and weird gears and such. I woulda gone in further, but I heard voices below. Smelt somethin' kinda funny.” He flashed her a wide grin. “So, you know, I figured I'd wait until I could bring back-up.” He wiggled his fingers at her as he said it.

She rolled her eyes and flipped a hand to gesture about the odd little chamber. “You know this isn't natural, right? You know just by steppin' in here, we're dealing with magic neither of us has any clue about, right? That we could — quite literally — be getting into somethin' way over our heads.” A beat. “And you realise that if Corrie has to call the family to come bail our arses outta touble she'll castrate you and lock me away for the next five years, right?”

“Nah, ” Min quipped, barking a quick laugh. “She loves me. You, she'll kill. Light you up and burn y'to dust so's you can't come back as a zombie to harass her. But, me? She'll mount me furry head on a wall an' use it as spell target practice for the next fifty years. C'mon, then. Time's a-wastin'.”

Jean laughed at that. “Just so's we're clear, 's all.”

“Crystal.” Min eased his way down the stairs with an almost careless grace. The wolf in him showed in the forward tilt of his head and the occasional moment he'd pause to sniff at the air.

Jean, on the other hand, ran through a litany of her strongest spells in her head. It occurred to her, as she did, that, really, she didn't have a whole lot of offensive options: A fireball spell she'd cribbed off of Rosie — one Mum didn't know about; and a wind spell she'd discovered the final components to earlier in the autumn — though she was still perfecting it. But, providing they didn't run across more than a couple of… well, whoever it was that inhabited this place, they'd probably be fine with the hold, toss, and cover spells she knew like the back of her hand.

Both of them tried to step lightly. Their boots were soft-soled, sure enough, but the edge of the rubber still made a light tick with each step unless they eased very carefully from one step to another. It made for slow progress, really. But that suited Jean just fine; it gave her a chance to examine the impossible tower as they went.

There were caged lights at regular intervals, affixed to the walls. The bulbs, however, changed as they descended. First they were the halogen of the top level. Eventually, however, they became incandescents — and even those changed to earlier and earlier sorts of bulbs, the deeper they went. As Min had said, doors appeared on landings at irregular intervals. Like the bulbs, they changed styles the deeper they went. Modern steel gave way to heavier iron, which looked remarkably like the strapped and riveted blast doors on old steam ship boiler rooms.

“How far down did you say you went the last time?”

“Oh, I dunno. Somewhere 'round here, I s'pose. Doors looked like that. Smelt like a coal factory, though.”

“And this one doesn't?” To Jean's unsophisticated nose, the whole place smelt manky. Perhaps not like a coal factory, no. But, then she'd never been up close and personal with a coal factory.

“Well, no. Not exactly.”

“How far down do you think it goes?”

“Pretty far.”

Jean peered down the centre once more. Gradually, the tower had been widening. The stairs were still just as narrow, but the gap between the walls was now several yards. She'd come to realize that the change in lights happened with the change in doors. More than that, the lights were becoming spaced further and further apart, too. She suspected that, soon, the only place there might be a light was where there was a door, too. The stairs would become treacherous before much longer.

“Yeah, well I don't know that I want to go all the way to the bottom,” she decided. She moved to the door on the landing upon which they'd paused and placed her ear against it. “Hear anything?” His hearing was vastly better than hers.

“No. But, that don't mean nuffin. It's a pretty heavy door.”

“Does it open?”

“I dunno.”

Again, Jean rolled her eyes. “'Course you don't. Move, then.” She wrapped her hands around the latch handle and pressed down on it. She had to use quite a bit of strength — not to mention body weight — to lever it down. With a protesting groan and a thump, it shifted, and the door began swinging towards her. She moved away from it and peered around the edge as it swung open. An empty arched hallway stretched beyond it, though not for more than a couple of hundred feet. It was lit with bare bulbs hung from the ceiling, their model very early in terms of light bulb design. “Smell anything?”

“No. But, maybe hear somethin'. Sounds like a bunch of people.”

“Let's go take a look.”

They walked the corridor as quietly as they'd descended the stairs, though they were able to move a little more swiftly here. Coming to the end, they found the corridor spilled out to the left into a junction. The sounds of people became much more evident, here. Jean stepped out into the crossing and listened. The sounds came from the right, down a corridor that stretched off in the same direction they'd been travelling down the first.

She whispered a soft spell and sent a wispy ball of light — a predecessor to Rosie's fireball spell — floating down the dark corridor straight ahead of them. From what she could see, it ended about a hundred feet down in a fall of bricks and mortar. She did the same with the corridor to the left. It stretched an impossible distance along, a distance that very well should have run straight through the center of the tower… but apparently didn't. It also, however, appeared largely empty.

“Right,” she decided, straightening determinedly. She flashed Min a grin. “Let's go see where the people are.”

Min gave her a reciprocal grin and led the way down the corridor. Jean learned a long time ago that he preferred to 'take point', whenever they were going into new places — even before he was bitten. Fact is, he likely wouldn't have been bitten, were it not for that tendency. It likely would've been her, instead. But that experience hadn't changed anything… except, possibly, make him more determined than ever to keep ahead of her that way.

They emerged from the corridor onto a metal catwalk. That was something of a surprise. But, it was nothing to the noise that assaulted them once they passed through the stone archway onto the bridge. The sound of a veritable marketplace drifted up from below. Jean stepped up to the rail and looked over.

In fact, it was a market… set into an impossible cavern that arched high above them. Stalactites hung from the ceiling, though none were closer than several hundred feet above. In places, stalagmites created natural obelisks around which strings of coloured lights were wrapped. Occasionally, stalactites and stalagmites blended into full floor-to-ceiling buttresses that gave the the cavern an almost cathedral-like quality, save for the hawking, barking, and babble of voices that belied any illusion of sacredness.

They descended the twisted, metal stairs down onto the market floor. Scents that were mere suggestions above became stronger at ground level. They caused Min's eyes to water, and even set Jean to blinking a little at the acridity. A light haze of yellowish fog or perhaps smoke — the kind Victorian Londoners used to call 'pea soup' — gave an indistinct quality to anything further away than about fifty feet. Between the buttresses were makeshift shanties housing shops of all sorts, their wares displayed on jury-rigged trestles and shelves, in baskets, and even on rough mats and blankets. Further strings of lights, barrels of oddly coloured fire, gas lamps, and lanterns lit the pathways between the shops.

The costumes on passers-by ranged from vintage chic to grubby rags, and seemed to span any number of time periods. For the most part, they looked human. But, there were a couple of moments when Jean just wasn't so sure. “What is this place?”

Min blinked owlishly at her. “Beats the hell outta me…” Still, his grin returned quickly enough. “Let's go ask someone.”

Off the Beaten Path

06 Mar 2011 00:08  |  by Jean Kavanaugh
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Their bikes had been stashed behind a couple of bins beneath the rusting escape stairs, out of direct view of the street. The wards Jean had set upon them would likely be more than sufficient to protect them, which was good, since there was no convenient place to lock them and, in any case, Min wasn't all that keen on immobilising the wheels. “Just in case…” he'd said.

He'd had to do a bit of a wall-run jump to reach the base of the escape ladder that hung only a rung below the lowest of the catwalk landings, which was still more than half-a-storey up. Lacking his preternatural strength and speed, it had taken Jean three tries to accomplish the same thing, and the only reason she'd managed it at all on the last try is because he'd hung down low enough to actually catch her hands as she'd made the leap. His strength then came in handy for pulling her up the rest of the way, whereupon, of course, he made the usual mutters about teaching her the fine art of parkour, so that he wouldn't always be having to play the monkey to get her into the places he could so easily go on his own. Then, she could play the monkey herself.

“Yeahyeahyeah,” she replied, as they climbed the metal staircase to the low-rise rooftop, “Promises, promises.” She was already taking self-defence classes at his insistence — and had been for the last couple of years. Privately, she'd admit she really enjoyed them, but she didn't see a big need to add yet more lessons to her already full curriculum. Full-time studies and two part-time jobs kept her busier than almost anyone else she knew.

It was overcast, the late-afternoon clouds threatening rain overhead. At only a couple of degrees above freezing, it promised to get right miserable if the threat turned into reality. “Remind me again why I agreed to this?” Jean grumbled, turning up the collar of her vintage peacoat against the sudden skiff of wind that cut across her cheek and blew her long red hair flat against the heavy wool.

“Blame it on your insatiable curiosity,” Min replied, scraping his rakish blond hair out if his eyes before shoving his own hands into his overcoat and starting to walk across the rooftop. His coat was lighter than hers, and as usual, he didn't have the muffler she'd given him. Didn't need it, he'd claimed. Being a werewolf had its perks — a body that ran hotter than most everyone else's was one of them.

“You said you had something ace to show me. All I'm seeing is a lot of rain-gutter and roofing tar.”

"Yeah," he said shortly, beckoning her onward. “We need to cross over here, yet.”

“Cross over?” Jean trotted towards him, to the far corner, hidden behind the roof access door. An old, rusty, aluminium extension ladder was tied between the rooftop they stood upon and the one next to it. “You've got t'be kidding me. And there's a reason we couldn't have just climbed up the side of that building, rather than this one?”

“Yeah. No fire escape.”


“You know you love me.”

“'S only reason you're still alive.”

“True. Now, c'mon. I won't let you fall.”

“It's not the falling I'm worried about,” Jean replied dryly. She stepped lightly onto the ladder. It creaked ominously. She stepped quickly off. “Right. Sod this.”

“It's the only way, Jean.”

“Yeahyeahyeah. I got that. Hang on bleedin' sec, would you?” She crouched down beside it and peered along its length. Pushing on it, she heard it creak again. She glanced up at him, a flat expression on her face. “You're bleedin' daft, y'know. What do you do when I'm not around? Purposely think up ways to get us killed?”

“It's perfectly safe. I promise. I've crossed it lots of times.”

“Which just proves you're daft. Right, then. Lemme at least try a spell or something on it. I'm not crossing anything that sounds like that.”

He laughed at that. “Suit yourself,” he replied, a big, broad grin on his face that would have confirmed Jean's supposition, if she didn't already know that his actual problem was not thinking about dangers rather than consciously pursuing them. Not, mind, that she hadn't been known to do the same thing on occasion. But, usually, when they were together, it was her job to be the responsible one.

Truthfully, heights didn't particularly bother her — not if they were high enough that she'd be able to cast a levitation spell before she hit bottom, anyway. Ladder-heights, they bothered her. Sometimes. But, six storeys up? Not such a problem. However, that didn't mean she was going to be stupid about it. She touched the edge of the ladder, and the wire that tied it onto the roof. After a moment's thought, she started muttering in Latin. The whisper of magic eased its way out of her, shimmering across the soft metal and crystallising the instant she finished the chant. She examined it for a moment, as the lattice faded to invisibility, and gave a sharp, satisfied nod.

“Done, then?” Min asked, moving forward. He stepped heedlessly around her, skipping lightly to the middle of the makeshift bridge, where he paused briefly to bounce daringly, turn about, and grin at her once more. “C'mon, then, dawdler. You fixed it. Time's a-wasting.”

Jean let out a snort that was half-amusement, half-exasperation. “You're a right git, you know that, wolfboy?” He laughed at her again and held out a playful hand. “A right patronising git,” she retorted. “Shove off, then.” Setting foot on the first rung once more, she tested it. Despite Min's bouncing, the only sound was the rough shifting of the metal against concrete, not the protesting groan of worn metal ready to give way. Moving swiftly, she danced her own way lightly across the span, giving him a light shove as she hit centre to encourage him to complete the crossing. He laughed and stumbled theatrically onward, leaping carelessly onto the edge of the far roof before turning back to assist her.

As she reached the edge the rooftop herself, he caught at her hand and pulled her fully onto its solid surface. She didn't particularly need the help, but she accepted it, nonetheless. “So, exactly what is this place you're taking me to, anyway?”

“I told you. You'll see when we get there.”


“Jean…” He mimicked her tone, mocking her lightly. Laughing, she gave up. He flashed her a boyish grin and gestured toward the long row of grated hvac units that stretched across the middle of the rooftop. “It's just there.”

“The a/c units? What's so special about that?”

“You'll see.”

He led her to a round unit about halfway down the line. Slipping between it and its neighbour, he ran his fingers lightly along the edge of one riveted panel. It slid aside to reveal the interior of the unit…

…which looked nothing like what the interior of an hvac unit should look like.

In the first place, it was hollow, not filled with the machinery that appeared to be there on the outside. In the second, the curved walls weren't sheet-metal. They were smooth red brick, like the interior of some sort of tower. A set of metal, circular stairs started halfway around the far side and descended into depths unseen from Jean's peering vantage point.

“What the bloody hell is this?”

“Brilliant, innit?” Min's face held excitement and a certain roguish challenge lit his bright blue eyes. “Wanna check it out wi' me?”

Jean stared at him for a long moment, her jaw hanging slack. She peered into the strange little chamber again, and then looked back at him. A slow, lopsided grin spread its way across her lips.

“Let's go.”


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