On the large, slightly uneven door before you lies a sign you were looking for. Room 2006. This is it.
This is it. This is…
What is this?
You’re unsure of the motive behind your actions. Even just a week ago, you couldn’t find yourself putting your nose in the business of others even if your life depended on it. There should only be one thing on your mind. Growing your horizons, exploring, seeing what the world at large has to offer. That was your promise.
Instead, you were staying put, planted in a rural town, letting roots grow and burrow ever deeper. You were calcifying. It’s as if some otherworldly force was controlling you, forcing you to stay put. Maybe the town itself was getting to you, forcing you to join its motionless scenery.
You’re changing. That much is obvious. It doesn’t look like this change is for the better either.
But awareness alone isn’t enough. The door is beckoning you, and its pull is too hard to resist.
You take a deep breath and knock. One second. Three seconds. Ten seconds.
Creaking, the door opens, revealing a pale freckled woman. You’re at the right place.
“Hi, who’s th–”
Her brow furrows. Not the reaction you were expecting. You recognize her, but there is no reason for her to recognize you. Right?
You start with a simple enough ice breaker. “...Hey. Are you Alba?”
Huh, that sounded more disinterested than you expected. Maybe the old you is still kicking in there. Your interlocutor still appears concerned. “Sorry, who’s this?”
That answers your question, then. She doesn’t know who you are. Who knows, then, what you’ve done to tick her off. “I’m Mélodie. I uh… I’m staying at the Storyteller’s for a bit.”
“Ah”, is all she answers at first. Just when you expect her to be all frowned-out, she figures out how to squeeze out a few extra wrinkles. “Not the most welcoming place to stay the night, is it?”
“Guess not. It’s not that bad either though”. You catch yourself smiling, just a little. Maybe it will ease the tension you’ve felt since your arrival? “It’s kinda… homey.”
“Is that so…”, she trails off again. You both stand there, waiting for the other to say anything.
Ultimately, it’s another woman’s voice, further back, that sets time in motion again. “Aaalba, what’s taking so long? Leave me hanging here and I will empty your fridge!”
“Uugh.” Alba squeezes her nose bridge between her fingers, her features finally relaxing. “What am I going to do with her? Well…, I guess I can’t leave you hanging any longer. You’re at the right place. Come on in.“
Though she says that, it takes her a few additional excruciating seconds to move out of the way. Almost provocatively, you hurry on in.
An overbearing smell, dusty yet burnt, assaults your nostrils. It’s hard to pinpoint where the stench is coming from. It’s as if it was pouring from the very walls. This is new. The Ortus always kept everything artificially pristine. Any other place you’ve been to had different levels of aging and care. But this was… a dead end. The feeling you’d had when you first entered this building, fossilization of the soul, taken to its logical conclusion. A place abandoned by history, rejecting it in kind.
“I don’t know what business the Institut have with me”, your host says, bringing you back to earth. “If they’re trying to recruit me they better be prepared to pay an unreasonable salary. Anything under 12 digits and they can shove it.”
Ah. Is this what’s going on?
“I’m not with the Ortus”, you reply curtly.
“Okay…”, she begins. She does not sound convinced. “Then what are you? What’s that shirt about”? A brief pause. “What’s your relationship with them? You know their name, so don’t try telling me you found this on the ground or something”. She’s pointing straight at the rising sun logo, half-hidden by your coat.
You’re about to say something, but stop yourself at the last second. You know almost nothing about this woman. You’re not even sure why you were looking for her in the first place. And now you were about to tell this complete stranger your life’s story. In their home.
It’s undeniable: coming here was a mistake. That’s just not something normal people do.
You silently turn around, but just when you’re about to retrace your steps and leave, you feel a hand on your shoulder.
“You…”, Alba says, less harshly than before. “You keep your cards close to your chest too, right? Don’t worry, I’m not a bad guy.”
You turn around and see Alba smiling right at you. It doesn’t look quite right. Like she’s trying to follow a script from too long ago, and the muscle memory isn’t there. But against all odds, it is still a comforting sight. You find yourself sighing. That line of questioning was probably gone, at least. For the time being.
You follow her to the living room, where an energetic-looking woman is twirling a pen between her fingers while sipping on a dodgy-looking beer can. As soon as you arrive, her eyes open wide.
“Waaaait a minute. Alba!”, she exclaims, almost cartoonishly. “What is it with you and bringing young women to your lodgings? The neighbors are going to start talking!”
Alba is unphased. “Tsk tsk. Don’t flatter yourself, you’re not that young.”
“Gah, have I already been replaced? The wheel of time can be so cruel!”
What are these two talking about?
Unsure what to do with yourself, you find yourself glancing at the nameless woman before you. She certainly looks healthier than the homeowner. Straight back, colored cheeks, the whole shebang. You don’t think you’ve seen her before, yet something about her feels familiar. Maybe she was at the convenience store earlier? Or in a portrait somewhere?
Alba’s voice shifts as she turns towards you, making you snap out of it. “Anyway, not to interrupt your period of existential crisis or anything, but this is Mélodie. It’s hard to learn anything else about her. Marie, Mélodie, Mélodie, Marie.” Alba then slumps into the nearest chair. The beer lady gives her a glare as if to say “wow, even our names are similar?”, but then she turns to you.
“Hey, I’m Marie”, she says with a wave. “Long time friend of the hermit over there, future teacher, and noted Babst disrespecter. And if you’re wondering what this is,” she says pointing at the can in her hand, “that’s just you catching me at a time of weakness, that’s all.”
She lays on the theatrics a bit too much for your taste, but she seems friendly. “Got it. I’m Mélodie. I’m uhh… living at the storyteller’s for a bit.”
“The storyteller, eh? Well, not to alarm you or anything, but I heard he’s bad news”. From the sounds of things, he’s managed to get quite the reputation in this town.
Cracking herself a cold one to call her own, Alba interrupts. “I told her that already!”
“Ah, well, nevertheless”, Marie says, stumbling. Looks like she expected more conversational material to work with. “What is it that you do, if you don’t mind me asking?“
“Uhm. Not much. I walk around.”
Alba barges in again, apparently having some fun with this. “I just told you about her being a mystery, Miss teach. And guess what, that symbol on her shirt is the Institut Ortus.”
This was starting to give you a headache. You’ve never been a fan of group conversations, and you feel like this one started off the wrong foot multiple times in a row.
“I’m not with the Ortus, though”, you find yourself repeating.
“I see…”, Marie replies. She seems more open to the idea, at least. “The storyteller and a symbol of the Institut. Sounds like bad omens all the way down. Would it be better if I leave you two to it, then”? She turns to Alba. “Didn’t you just tell me your heroism days were behind you, by the way?”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”, says the freckled woman. “So, Mélodie, now that we’re all acquainted and all… Mind telling me why you’re here?”
This isn’t good. Is simple curiosity an acceptable answer here? Digging around the entourage of an acquaintance is a bad look, right? It’s way beyond run-of-the-mill parasocial relationships, right?
But then if you don’t tell the truth, what other option is there? Lie and feed into the ties she appears to have with the Ortus, maybe? What would Rose do in this situation? Well, she probably wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.
As two pairs of eyes dig into you, you realize you have to come up with an answer. Immediately. So, with all the courage you can muster, you say the first thing that comes to mind.
“I want to see you bench press a train!”