zahara The weather may be chill, but the Summer Palace in Chaya is grand and inviting to the gathered Solars. Zahara walks slowly around the gardens inspecting the slowly browning edges of the foliage. "So briefly do they bring us joy." She smiles slightly.
Lucent "They will flourish again. Everything does." Lucent watches them, plucking one of the leaves. "But not before they have to pass through the harrowing of winter. Thankfully OUR winter is just past..."
zahara "Are you sure it has passed already? Some days I think this is but a thaw."
Lucent "I can hope, at least."
zahara chuckles, and looks over at the boy - the man. "Your specialty."
Lucent bows. "Thank you, Empress. I try."
Imrama brushes his hands over the leaves. "Where I grew up, the seasons never changed - we had only fifteen different types of Winter. I cannot, therefore, understand the dependence that most of the world has on the metaphor of Winter."
Lucent "Nobody likes the cold."
zahara "It is a simple thing to see, Imrama. The plants flourish, then die - or seem to - during winter. Life is harsher in the cold months. Surely some of your fifteen types of winters were easier than others?"
Somewhere down the road, a Chayan, his head bleeding, his eyes no longer opening, hunches forward on the back of an almost equally wounded horse which nonetheless slowly but surely picks its way down the path, towards the summer palace -- but as Cerin has ducked out for the time being, the Solars are as yet unaware of it.
Imrama thinks for a moment. "More wind, or less. More snow, or less. A few hours to die of exposure, or a few minutes. Easier? I would not say."
Lucent "What is it now, then, to live on places where the elements do not drive you away?" Lucent asks, looking into the leaf. "I never understood that... there was no winter or autumn as they understand here in the desert, but we were always after our personal springs... the oasis from which life sprung."
At that, there is a noise from the front, like something heavy sliding forward and striking the door with a loud THUMP.
zahara "The Desert is equally harsh, is it not?"
zahara looks up sharply, hand going to the hilt of her daiklave. "Who calls?"
There is no answer.
Lucent "I never lived in the north to compare... to say so may disparage northerners such as Imrama. But it was also a place without clear seasons, where the both night and day found different ways of kil..." He stops. "We expecting anyone? Is Birds..." No, she'd fly in, "Thirteen? Oh please not Thirteen."
zahara snorts, and signals for a servant to answer the door.
A servant dutifully progresses towards the door, opens it, and leaps backward in predictable shock as a dead body thunks upon the floor in front of her, then begins emitting what seems to be an illogically large quantity of blood.
zahara approaches cautiously, to see if she can discern how he died
As Zahara looks at the body, blood continues to gush forth in quantities far exceeding those typically contained within a human body. Switching her senses to the ephemeral realm, she pretty quickly determines something else rather drastically abnormal about the corpse: the character "Ne," burned through his chest in jet-black Essence.
zahara "Ne.." she says aloud, then looks about
zahara "There is some sorcery at work."
Imrama kneels down, doing his best to maintain an appropriate respect while surveying the body. "Who were you, my friend? What plucked your blossom from the world?"
LucentHaze runs towards him, somewhat shocked... "Is he... dead? Zahara? Is there nothing you can do?"
zahara "My knowledge of the human body is not that of one who seeks to ease pain, Lucent," she replies drily.
The body is emitting enough blood now that the room is really starting to get a little messy.
zahara drags the body outside where it can water the plants
zahara drags the body off the path where it can water the plants and soak into the ground... and she notes whether the plants have any reaction to such
Imrama looks carefully at the body -- there are no signs of explicit ensorcellment or any form of recent exposure to significant quantities of Essence. The blood that flows out has faint traces of necrotic Essence, but not much, and it fades quickly as the blood cools. (...)
His glasses helpfully inform him that the gentleman's name was Jiris Ara-Zhan, and a little basic investigation shows a few personal items strewn about the corpse: a small, leather-wrapped book, a chain with a small emblem on the end, a fragment of northeastern pottery, and a small quantity of money.
The emblem is a small symbol: a knife, crossed by a feather, surrounded by a hexagon. The money is coined by several different nations in the north-east corridor, though the lion's share appears to be from the Haltan region.
zahara picks up the book, inspects it briefly for magic, and then flips it open to read
Imrama "From Halta, perhaps? Zahara; do you recognize this symbol?"
It looks very vaguely familiar to Zahara, but she can't seem to place it.
zahara shakes her head. "I think I may have seen it before, but I don't fully recognize it."
The book's pages are partially stained with blood, but enough is legible to make out a certain amount of the man's story: a traveller who recorded his journeys in his diary, he was shocked to discover one day that when he gazed upon himself in the mirror, the character "Ne" had appeared, outlined in white, upon his chest -- but no one else could see it. (...)
zahara reads the story aloud, for the benefit of her companions
As time passed, it slowly darkened, and his health degraded: he began coughing up blood, being unable to sleep, and suffering in other ways. As he journeyed further, seeking answers and a cure, he began to see others with the same symbol, at differing stages of darkness -- and although others could not see it, all of them could. (...)
None of those he encountered knew the origin of the symbol, but several had met others with it -- only to see the symbols blacken and their bearers die in agony. It was at this point that he set out to locate someone who might be able to tell him more about it and (he had tragically hoped) stave off his imminent demise.
Varanim lurches in, soaked in sweat, eyes glazed. "I didn't know you could FIT that many bodies in a dream," she says, and vomits into a delicate white flowerbed.
The memory of Varanim's dream fills her head, as real as any waking experience: (...)
LucentHaze startles, almost jumping as he hears the newcomer... "Varanim? What... what is going on?"
the pyramids of bodies, each thousands of stories high, with uncountable bloodless corpses entwined at the bottom and two figures (glorious and shining yet emotionless and blank) standing atop, all woven together by a sinuous white snake; (...)
zahara takes this moment to check her chest surreptitiously
the rivers of black and red effluvia pouring from the couples' mouths, searing like acid the flesh of the mountains beneath them; the dark pits around them, from which dark vapors and invisible hordes rise up to blot out the sun... (...)
And at the end, that voice, emenating from those green lips: "Their time is up."
Varanim stays hunched over for several seconds, hands braced on shaking knees, then spits out a last bit of bile and straightens. "S'okay, just the usual," she's starting to say, then her eyes light on the blood-pooled corpse. "...but that's not."
Imrama "Hello Varanim. Poor Jiris seems to have suffered just long enough to reach our doorstep before expiring. Any insight you can offer into his condition would be welcome." Imrama thinks for a moment. "Zahara, this man's surname was Ara-Zhan. Could he possibly be a relation of yours?"
Varanim wipes her mouth on her sleeve, stumps over to the body, and drops a little clumsily to her knees to examine it. "He's dead," she pronounces helpfully, but her heart isn't in the sarcasm.
zahara blinks at Imrama, taken aback.
Varanim "Also," she adds, looking up with an undirected scowl, "who in you people's tangled and incestuous history has green lips?"
zahara "There's the green sun..."
LucentHaze "Quen's old flame, too..."
Varanim "Stacks of bodies, white snake, crushed on necromancers...?" Varanim adds semi-helpfully, only half her attention on that as she probes the body with various senses.
As Varanim shifts her senses, she sees the rather more active events in the Underworld: the brilliant glowing "Ne" character upon the corpse, the maelstrom of spiritual energy that seems to be spinning at an intense rate directly above it (and growing rapidly) -- and the upper soul of the poor unfortunate, clinging to the ghostly form of the garden wall, to avoid being swept away.
Varanim "Dammit! Hold on." Varanim starts hissing words in a dead language and rips her soulsteel fingers across the palm of her other hand, opening a wide gash. She slashes that hand four times in the air, marking a rough vertical rectangle and spattering blood around.
zahara crouches down next to the body, and searches his face, not sure if she wants to recognize him or not.
Zahara sees features that, while not directly familiar, certainly COULD easily be those of a relative.
zahara "He was coming to find me...?"
With a quick breeze of stenchful air (and a corresponding spray of blood from the puddles on the ground) the world around the Solars ripples and changes, and after a moment they find themselves standing in the Underworld, feeling the pull of the hellish maelstrom that emanates from the corpse-symbol at their feet.
zahara "..the Fuck?" Her sword leaps to her hand, practically of its own volition
zahara is torn between glaring at Varanim for the unannounced portal to hell, and saving her possible relative from being dragged off somewhere even less savory. She opts for the latter. Glaring can wait.
LucentHaze "... Varanim, did you do this?"
The ghost of her long-lost cousin does not look like he has any immediate plans to let go of the wall he's latched himself onto, and it doesn't seem like he's noticed that Zahara is even there yet. (...)
Imrama draws arms and grins at Lucent. "Who else, Lucent? Who else?" He steps up into the air to survey the area and cover Zahara as she attempts to rescue the ghost.
Meanwhile, the exact nature of the spinning storm becomes a little clearer, viewed up close: the torn shards of the man's lower soul are vibrating and spinning with dizzying intensity, while some feral core of the po's awareness -- fed by the Essence streaming out of the glowing letter -- seems to direct the storm from within.
zahara walks against the pull of the disturbing malestrom, and flicks the ends of her silvery scarves out to wrap around him securely, so that he is not swept away.
The ghost offers little, if any, meaningful resistance to Zahara's efforts. The ghost-storm, however, seeing his rescue, spins with renewed effort and begins to slide through the air towards Zahara.
zahara shifts so she is standing between the storm and the ghost, sliding her sword through the defensive arcs, as her other weapon surround her
zahara strikes the Bell, as she does so, "Begone."
The bell's low peal strikes through the storm like a sharp gust of wind, tearing pieces of soul apart and pushing others back away, giving a significant breather -- though the energy from the symbol on the ground seems to be regenerating the storm not too far past the point where it is wounded.....
Varanim "Someone please cover my ass," Varanim growls, then--with no time to move from kneeling by the corpse--she starts speaking again. Her anima blossoms in a tower of sunset-hued eyes, incense wreathing out from her in circles as the skin of her soulsteel arm peels back in razored whiplashes. The filthiest abjurations pour from her lips, an undercurrent of mocking laughter below it all, as her...
Varanim ...Essence slashes at the link between storm and spirit.
Varanim's spell interposes itself like a vicious, razor net, directly amidst the flow of Essence from the sigil to the hungry ghost -- and within moments, the great storm begins to halt, the pieces of lower soul begin to crack and blow away on a gentle breeze that kicks up from the East... in a moment, all is once again relatively calm.
zahara looks up at Varanim, and gives her a tight smile. "Thanks."
Varanim "Anytime," coughs Varanim, lying back on the dead grass with a little whumph.
zahara looks at the ghost, cocks her head to one side, and says, consideringly. "Hi."
Jiris The ghost looks up at Zahara with a weathered, worn-down expression, and waits a long, long moment before responding: "...hello."
zahara tries out several sentences in her head, and then just looks at the others for a second. "So... " She clears her throat, unused to this feeling of akwardness. "You came to find us?"
Varanim rolls her head sideways in the grass to look at the pair of them with mild interest, muscles and tendons of her soulsteel arm writhing their way back to quiescence. "But hey, if he's related, at least you don't have to worry about him asking for a piece of the empire."
Jiris "I did," he says. "I did."
zahara "Heh. Are you?" she asks. "Related?"
Jiris "That was one question I sought the answer to," he says. "Are you truly of the Zhan line?"
zahara draws herself up, and nods. "I am."
zahara shakes her head for a second, "I am Zahara Zhan, and the one who saved you is known as Varanim the Last. Imrama Stormfound and Lucent Copper Haze also join us."
Jiris "Of the north-eastern Zhans?" He nods to each of the others in turn as they are introduced.
Varanim lifts a hand to wave at Jiris, then remembers the blood and starts bandaging it.
LucentHaze bows to the ghost
zahara "Aye. And whose line are you of?""
Imrama holsters his weapons and inclines his head towards the departed fellow.
Jiris "I'm not rightly sure, except for what my name tells me and the little pendant my ma gave me. But," he says, and he affects a tone that perhaps might have had more gravitas when he still lived, "I ran into some other relatives, before I reached here."
Varanim rolls to a sitting position to look at Jiris, gaze sharpening. "Any of them sick?"
Jiris "All of them, actually."
Jiris He pauses a moment to think. "Well, that's not actually quite true." He considers for a moment. "Only the youngest."
zahara "...All of them?"
Jiris "The one set, the mother, she was fine, but the four daughters...."
Varanim bounces to her feet, stepping closer to narrow her eyes at his chest. "And now that you're dead, do you feel you need to be someplace, or do you want to stay right here with the darling empress?"
zahara winces, and starts to pace, silently cursing the raw feelings this is spurring. Last year, this wouldn't have touched her so. She siezes upon the distraction that Varanim so thoughtfully provides. "...Darling?"
Jiris thinks for a moment. "I... I don't know where I want to go, or what I want to do." He looks out over the barren, stricken wasteland of Netheos, lit by the harsh light of Abbadon, and shudders a little.
zahara "Then stay until you decide."
Varanim "Well, you would be cute if you'd wiggle your hips more when you pace." Varanim says it absently, leaning closer to Jiris and cracking her knuckles. "Any history of this sort of thing in your family, or did it start with your generation?"
Jiris "It didn't happen to my parents, certainly."
Imrama notes Varanim's stated preference for butt-wiggling.
zahara "I'm not sure if I should be offended or flattered." she mutters
Varanim "So," Varanim says, starting to pace herself. "There's a spell that enslaves a family, lo unto the umpty-umpth generation, and it leaves a mark on all the claimed ghosts--like that one, but not exactly. I have a set of them in my basment."
Jiris visibly scoots back at least two feet from Varanim.
zahara "You cursed a family?"
LucentHaze blinks. "... why do you have cursed ghosts in your basement?"
Varanim "Oh, please. I didn't PUT them there." Varanim rolls her eyes. "I'm not even capable of casting that spell." She tilts her head, then waves a hand to banish the almost-visible yet hanging in the air.
zahara "Then the question is... who IS?"
Varanim thinks about mentioning that one of her past selves apparently could do it, then decides that's not relevant.
LucentHaze "Which Necromancer would wish to destroy your family line?" Lucent shrugs. "We know one answer, but what would he benefit from it? Making you angrier?"
zahara "Why did they not cast it on me directly? I have no contact with my line anymore... until now."
Imrama "They would seem to make a poor means of causing you harm or anguish. Unless there is some facet of the spell which is yet to reveal itself."
zahara cracks her knuckles alarmingly
Varanim "Hrm." Varanim opens her mouth to say something, then closes it, looking grumpy.
zahara resumes her pacing, though there is a slightly noticeable swaying of her hips this time. "If you can't cast the spell, you probably can't counter it..." again with the agitated muttering.
Varanim Folding her hands behind her head and looking skyward, Varanim says, "I am about to break a solemn vow I made to myself never to begin a sentence with the words 'in my dream...'"
zahara "Well, you can always end the sentence with it." she gestures for her to go on, somewhat impatiently
Varanim looks briefly almost uneasy at the prospect of removing the spell, then scowls. "In my dream--oh, for the heady promises of youth--the green-lipped woman said 'their time is up.' There were, I should add, a staggeringly large number of bodies involved. How populous is your clan in the northeast?"
zahara spreads her hands, "I remember little of them. I was very young when I left for Halta."
Varanim Whipping back to stare at Jiris, Varanim says, "What brought you here, of all places?"
Jiris "I thought that perhaps if there were anyone who might have already found the salve to this contagion...." He casts a sidelong glance at the Empress, for just a moment.
Varanim throws an inquisitive look at Lucent and Imrama. "Do people come to her often for healing?"
zahara "This is the first I have heard of it."
Imrama "I'm not sure I've been here long enough to say. But there are certain maladies that only a doctor may cure. And there are others that require rather the antithesis."
Varanim Cocking her head, Varanim says, "Did you actually just say that she's bitchy enough to scare people well?"
Imrama "Oh, I think I was alluding to her prodigious skills has a torturer, a talent much in demand in certain circles. But she's very effective at just scaring people too, yes." Imrama gives Zahara a convivial, congratulatory pat on the back.
LucentHaze "Well, they ask her to stop hurting, yes, so in a way... it can be." Lucent nods.
zahara "I used to have demons for the healing part."
LucentHaze "They betrayed us and tried to snap her bones, though."
Varanim "People with as many Netheos enemies as you make a habit of torturing people? That's... brave.
zahara "something like that, yes."
Varanim Turning back to Jiris, Varanim says, "How close were your relatives? And were any of them were less sick than you?"
Jiris "I met... sixteen people with the sickness, when I was travelling." He thinks for a moment. "Those four daughters, but neither of their parents. Three other solitary Zhans, all unknown to one another. And then nine others who didn't seem to be relatives. Most were less sick than me, three were more -- four of them told me that they'd known other people who'd died, or seen others succumb before I met them."
zahara "This must end." Her words come out quietly, yet with a layer of frost that even Imrama would describe as the coldest of the fifteen forms of winter.
Imrama moves over and leans down to whisper to Varanim. "I see what you meant about scaring people well."
Varanim quirks the corner of her mouth up at Imrama and whispers back, "I AM the smartest person I know."
Varanim Then her face goes a little distant and bleak, as she considers certain facets of the problem.
zahara "First we're going to find out who did this. And then I'm going to thoroughly instruct him on what exactly the term "bad idea" means."