Ever since the fearful behemoth that once made his home in Denandsor was driven underground, the industrious citizens of the Sunlands have worked tirelessly to restore the city to some small portion of its former glory. (...)
Today, after almost a year of tireless work, the factory-cathedral at the city's heart is restored and ready for inspection by the Empress. A team of Dragon-Blood citizens who had been put to the task await the Solars near the city's entrance, while the military escorts those civilians who have begun to slowly resettle the city itself back and forth between "safe zones" within Denandsor.
z looks out over the city, and mutters to her companions, "Remind me what's so important here that I have to be here right now?"
Imrama takes in the complex with his neck constantly craning about, marveling at the beauty of a mighty past restored. The Essence jets, the empyreal foundry, the cooling vats of liquid ice from the outer North - all of them magnificent. "We're here to see what wonders have been restored to the world. Also, its as good a place as any to discuss our current problems."
z "Ah." she says solemnly. "Yes."
Varanim stirs from a nap. "Well, not so much OUR problems."
In the world of Netheos, Denandsor is altogether a more unpleasant place: the forms humans and demons alike, cast in eternal plaster; the stains of red blood and black ichor; the fire-blasted walls and Essence-cracked edifices -- so it is with an unconscious shiver that recently deceased (and, to most living eyes, therefore invisible) Jiris stands slightly behind the Solars.
Varanim "Hmm." Varanim's eyes--a bloody haze clouding the left one--roam blearily around the view. "What were you people playing at here, anyway? Place is a mess."
Jiris "I've never even been to Denandsor before."
Imrama "So, Empress. If someone or something has targeted your family line for destruction, is it possible that there could be more at work here than just a vendetta against you? That is, could it be that the family Zhan as a whole have done something to attract the ire of this malevolent force?"
Lucent comes back from wandering into one of the older, most delapidated buildings. "So much lost."
Varanim "If I thought YOU'd done it, we'd be having this conversation in an entirely different venue, trust me." Varanim rolls her eyes at Jiris and then turns her attention back to the living just in time to catch Imrama's comment.
Zahara "Well, now that you're with me, you can visit all sorts of interesting places. Denandsor. Rathess. The Blessed Isle, The Isles of Ash..." She vaguely pats the air in Jiris' direction. She looks tiredly at Imrama, "I have thought about it, but I do not know. I will have to learn more about them."
Varanim "I'm rested enough to call up a few of your other dead relatives, if you want to ask them," Varanim throws in.
Imrama turns to Zahara. "There is a starting place I might suggest, if we are to find out more about the family Zhan. Past the old border of Creation, in the North East - it is called Tara Zhan Keep."
Zahara looks at him with an odd expression. "Ah, and where did you find out about this?"
Imrama "I remember it from my father's map room."
Lucent "Never heard of it..."
Varanim "And I thought I was bad at keeping touch with my family. I should have Imrama send them holiday cards for me."
Zahara "My family died before I was seven," she snaps irritably. "If I'd known there were people who survived I would have looked for them."
Imrama turns around to Varanim. "As a simple matter of etiquette, I believe there are a few more things we ought to do before you take me home to meet your mother." Imrama turns back to Zahara, wiggling his butt slightly.
Varanim "Come by some night, I'll show you my diagrams," Varanim leers appreciatively at Imrama before looking to Zahara. "Head northeast, then? With the names, I can grab your relatives from anywhere."
Zahara "Right..." She looks thoughtfully at Varanim for a second at her offer, and then turns away from. "Jiris should know some names."
Jiris Jiris nods in the umbral world. "I can name every person I spoke to and their recently departed kin, at least."
Imrama Reveling in the rare joy of a long distance trip threw a mundane sky, the Fable tills the clouds on the way from the middle of the Sunlands to the outer bounds of Arcadia.
Jiris The vessel swoops and glides across the face of Creation, past where the borders of the world lay ever so recently ago...
Jiris Finally, at the border where the evergreen trees finally give way to the frozen tundra of the far north, their destination rises up beneath them: Tara Zhan Keep. (...)
Jiris A product of the Dragon-Blooded Shogunate at its height, the Keep rises up, a vast hexagonal fortress with six concentric walls, the outermost rising up almost one hundred feet and each within rising once again that much higher; each ring is cast in stone of a different decorative nature, all rendered impermeable by Earth-aspected Dragon-Blood magics. (...)
Jiris The great signal fires that burn upon the fortress -- each at a different corner of a different wall -- still seem to be lit, though the hundreds of manned outposts, garrisons, installations of war machines, and other shows of military might also set upon those walls seem to be abandoned, and no one visibly stirs within its walls.
Varanim eyeballs it from the deck, slouching against the railing. "Maybe I should have you look for some of MY extra relatives."
Zahara looks out across the great walls, searching for any sign of recognition, subconsciously remembered stories... anything. It is so grand, and yet...
Jiris , currently materialized on the deck of the ship, looks down on the citadel with an odd expression. "I guess this is the Zhan inheritance," he says. "It's too bad I missed it."
Varanim "If it helps," Varanim says to Jiris, "people who live in castles like that average only mediocre happiness."
Jiris Zahara, so used to casting her mind inwards, towards the store of infuriatingly fragmented memories stored in the shard that bridges her upper and lower souls, now does something she's tried to avoid doing for years: think back to her mortal childhood. (...)
Jiris It's hard work, and painful, but at least something comes out of it: the memory of a song her mother had sung, sometimes: "Jinanna and the Castle on the Ice." (...)
Jiris The song was quite long and detailed, and Zahara is quite certain she never knew how the whole thing went, but the last line of the chorus is clear in her mind: "And to pin the hopes of all the world on one cast of the dice/ they say that is the tragedy, of the Castle on the Ice."
Zahara murmurs that last fragment through her irritatingly dry throat and drags her thoughts forcefully back to the present.
Varanim looks sharply sideways at Zahara, then over at Lucent and Imrama to see what they're making of all this.
Imrama tugs on the dragline in his left hand. "Should we land and inspect the castle?"
Zahara is slightly paler than normal, but her expression is impassive. "Indeed." She glances briefly at the others, searching their faces and then turns back to the castle, leaping off the bow of the ship to plummet down towards the wall, her fall unchecked until the last moment.
Jiris Zahara falls towards the innermost ring, a vast tower carved of the finest black marble, and with a carefully practiced motion stops herself just above the ramparts. It does not appear that anyone has been here for some time, though the fortress appears to be kept in fine condition. (...)
Jiris A set of staircases lead from the wall into the heart of the tower, where the true heart of the citadel lies.
Imrama Ever ready for adventure, Imrama strolls down out of the sky to follow Zahara into the keep.
Varanim follows, saying to Lucent, "At times like this, just follow the black sticky Essence... oh, wait."
Imrama Behind him the Fable glides to a smooth stop just above the innermost wall.
Jiris The staircase, like six others from the other corners of the keep, winds down perhaps seventy feet to a smaller, internal tower, where it ends at a large set of marble double-doors, which appear to be sealed tightly.
Jiris follows the Solars with curiosity, then stands dumbfounded in front of the door.
Zahara eyes the doorway speculatively, and gives it a push, just in case
Jiris It is, indeed, sealed.
Zahara looks it over with essence sight, looking for a lock, or perhaps a trap
Jiris The door is indeed sealed shut with a rather powerful Essence lock.
Zahara "Mmmm. And of course, Cerin isn't here." She turns to Varanim, "I don't suppose you pick locks in addition to mucking about with undead things?"
Varanim looks offended. "I stick to petty thefts. What kind of girl do you think I am?"
Varanim As is becoming the normal way of these things, though, Varanim checks the other side of the Shroud.
Lucent shrugs, then pokes the Eclipsing Crescent on his Caste Mark. "The sort who loves to follow black sticky essence?"
Lucent "Maybe the shattering of Adamant can break it, Zahara?"
Jiris Varanim shifts her sight into the world of the dead, where she gets quite an interesting look: (...)
Jiris on the one hand, the door in front of the party is cracked and broken, as are many of the other parts of the fortress... but on the other hand, the interior that she glimpses through that gap is literally crawling with distended, blackened ghosts -- almost assuredly spectres.
Zahara tests the lock with some of her own essence, wondering vaguely if doing such is a bad idea
Varanim whistles. "On the other hand, are you SURE there's anything in there you want?"
Lucent "What did you see, Varanim?"
Zahara "Why do you ask?"
Varanim "Either your relatives turned into a whole shit-ton of spectres, or someone else has set up housekeeping. Um, hold on. Let me try something."
Zahara "Apparently there was some sort of last stand here. That didn't quite work out."
Varanim "Not so much, no." Varanim shrugs the wrapping off her arm, leans her staff against a wall, and slips an iron ring over one finger of her right hand. Then she claps her hands together three times, and the ringing sounds seem to wash over each other. Where they overlap and eddy, sunlit symbols coalesce to hang on the air around her, expanding quickly outward in a cylinder.
Jiris The door does not respond to Zahara's Essence in any meaningful way.
Zahara looks for open windows
Jiris In the darkened world, the sigils of the Brick-by-Brick Solitude spin out, driving the spectres back, away from the broken entrance on the Netheos side, until she can no longer see them -- but can still hear them, skittering across the keep's dead ruins.
Lucent "Not even trying my suggestion, Empress?" Lucent pouts
Varanim "Oh, do it. I can't stand when he makes that sad face." Varanim tilts her head to one side, listening. "Boy, normally you have to go into the Labyrinth to get this many spectres."
Imrama "I suppose I could give the doors a few rounds from the cannons. But countermagic does seem the less invasive option."
Zahara "Hmmm?" She frowns, "Ah... Yes, just a minute." She walks back down the air from her inspection of the walls until she stands in front of the door again. Clearing her mind, she focuses on the essence of the lock, makes a rapid series of complicated gestures, and hurls shattering essence at the lock
Jiris Zahara's spell strikes the door with intense force, tearing it off its very hinges and slamming it inwards at immense velocity, where it smashes to pieces that fly out at high speed from the impact on the far wall.
Zahara cocks her head to one side. "Well, I'm not sure about less invasive. I'm going to have to get that replaced now."
Lucent covers his ears. "Kaboom."
Jiris On the inside of the keep, the cause of its humanless appearance is rather more clear: huge, ancient bloodstains line the walls and ceiling of the hallway that curves around in two directions, while tiny flecks of bone dust the floor like crumbs beneath a dinner table.
Varanim "I'm pretty sure there's a joke in here about the size of her cannons versus yours," Varanim mutters to Imrama, "but she might execute me if I find it." Then she peeks inside with growing interest at the bloodstain patterns.
Lucent lets go of his ears and steps into the keep. "Hmmm. Not even enough left to burn..."
Imrama "Something horrible happened here, a long, long time ago."
Lucent "Maybe that is the reason? Tara Zhan keep... whatever happenned here may have been held as the responsibility of its leaders. Of the Zhan line."
Zahara scans the bloodstains without evident emotion. "Indeed," she says in response to both of them.
Jiris Varanim quickly zooms in on the relevant details. It appears as though many people died here -- she would guess that at least fifteen perished in the part of the hallway she can see alone. (...)
Jiris Necrotic Essence was clearly used in the killing, some of it of a flavor that she finds quite familiar: that of the Ija spectres she encountered in the north. (...)
Jiris Finally, it appears that the killing took place surprisingly "recently" -- it has the appearance of having occurred within the last ten years, though in likelihood that marks the amount of time between the massacre and when the Keep fell into the Wyld.
Jiris , though materialized, is visibly discomfitted by this entire situation. "You know, I've already died once. Dying again while already dead must be even worse."
Zahara "There are many things that are worse than death, Jiris."
Jiris "That makes me feel even worse, cousin Empress."
Varanim "It is," Varanim says to Jiris. Then she squats to taste a bit of old blood and looks up with a gleam in her eyes. "These guys!" She sounds almost happy.
Varanim "The whole place is sticky with gross dead Essence--even before all the Zhans were snuffed, that is. And I know who did it! Sort of." Varanim looks a little shifty. "How do you guys feel about the Labyrinth?"
Zahara "Oh, I've been meaning to go there with Lucent."
Varanim "Right, I forgot that he needs a chaperone around those sort of people."
Zahara "I can't say that I'm especially PLEASED that the whole place is "sticky with gross dead Essence."
Lucent "We keeeep postponing it." He sighs. "It is like Glimpse, I think, so I was there once? Technically."
Lucent "Also, I need no chaperones! I am just... you know. Gregarious."
Varanim "The place has Ija smears all over it. Which is great, because I have lots of questions to ask them, anyway." She snickers at Lucent.
Zahara "Do you happen to know of a way to cleanse it?"
Varanim "All at once? Just the hard way--improve the area around it, let the years wear away the poison. Other than that, I might be able to work on one of the locals to get some answers, if we can catch one."
Zahara "Hmmm.. I suppose I could just cleanse this like I did the shadowland. It may have to wait for another day though."
Zahara steps over some rubble and heads in further
Lucent smiles. "Finally. Did you hear about the Curse, Varanim? Well, or Disease. Or..."
Lucent "... whatever! The... THING!"
Varanim boggles a little at Lucent, then looks over at Imrama for help. "What is he talking about?"
Jiris The Keep is a quite elaborate war fortress, and traversing the halls makes it increasingly clear just how remarkable it is that it fell. Throughout, the signs of death are present in a panoply of different ways: grand armories with skeletons impaled on the weapons, still held in their holding racks; blackened skeleton patterns amidst vast fields of carbon showing where fire took the lives of hundreds of soliders.... (...)
Jiris Though close inspecton shows the traces of ghostly dissipation -- it is clear that thousands of spectres were destroyed utterly here, too -- the battle was not entirely one-sided. (...)
Lucent "Well, me and Imrama were talking... and we theorized that the events surrounding our fall before were... odd. They did not quite line up to what we should be, or what those people were. I met them, you know. I knew them all too well, and yet those stories are no lies. So we figured there was an outside factor to it... which Glimpse kind of... gave away."
Jiris The pathways continue to lead down, past all these chambers of horrors, towards the command station: the central room to which all the fortress' defenses and sensory apparata are tied. It is here that the powerful Essence emenating from within said chamber starts to be noticeable: cold, icy Essence, of what must be incredible power.
Zahara pokes her head into the chamber
Varanim Varanim's expression assumes an increasingly cynical cast as the group descends through the tower. She listens to Lucent's explanation, sorting out the pronouns and then saying, "So what was the outside factor?"
Zahara is disappointed to realize she is still 3 floors too high, and makes her way downward
Varanim "Keeping in mind this is all theory for me, since I'm not one of you crazy people," she adds absently, tracing a design on the wall with her finger.
Lucent "We have not gone to the Labyrinth yet. We know that we were set up, however. And Glimpse seemed quite upset that we managed to work this out. A Malfean held his breath when we came to this conclusion." He nods. "That is why we wished to go to the Labyrinth before."
Jiris As they travel down to the command room, the group starts to feel the Essence even with their mundane senses -- the frigid ice begins to coat the edges within the hallways and turn white the Solars' breath. (...)
Jiris When they finally reach the doors of the command room, they are frozen utterly solid, with ice at least a foot thick covering the massive marble doors from floor to ceiling.
Varanim "I know this is one of those crazy questions, but why does it matter who was set up? I mean, what present-day happiness do you hope to bring about with this knowledge from the depths of the Labyrinth?" Varanim looks profoundly irritated at her surroundings, but her question is neutral in tone.
Lucent "Because we still are. All of us, we have... acted oddly, at times. It is like it is influencing our behavior, I mean, I mean... just... look at YOU!"
Zahara contemplates Magma Kraken vs. Icy Door.
Varanim looks askance at Lucent. "I have no idea what you're talking about, except for the part where you don't want to believe that a bunch of your dead demigod friends deserved an ass-beating and it actually happened, which is the really startling part. No, it's surely MUCH more logical that Malfeans conspired to make you wrong about them."
Imrama "Allow me, Empress." Imrama draws down, and subjects the frozen portals to a bath of liquid fire.
Imrama Still spraying the doors with flame, Imrama turns his head momentarily to respond to Varanim. "Both explanations can be true simultaneously."
Jiris The barrage of fire from Imrama's pistols melts away the concealing ice and soon, the vast double doors stand clear, sopping wet but unencumbered by any icy barrier.
Lucent "We are the Chosen of the Sun, we are not supposed to act like madmen! Yet it happenned time and time again... damn it, even our Circle was nearly shattered! Birds-of-Trinity discarded her life! Markuran the Bear and Zahara were at each other's throats... it is still here. What made them deserve their beatings..."
Varanim "Right! It's almost as if being Chosen of the Sun"--the capital letters are practically visible, six inches high and dripping sarcasm--"is not actually as mutually exclusive with acting like madmen as you'd like to think." Varanim bites off her finish to eyeball the flame-gouted doors and Imrama, a little warily.
Zahara decides the kraken would have done too much structural damage, and Imrama's rather nice flames are probably better overall. She looks up from her contemplation of the door to the discussion of heresy, and just listens.
Lucent "Excuse ME." Lucent points out, appearing as royal and noble in the worst possible senses as it could be possible. "I knew Alawhi and Wei Dan, Ymir and Talmuda, and something very WRONG happenned with them as time went on. That was not them. Rosada... I cannot see how he could be the Lion, now. Something twisted him." He does not, however, mention Quen. That one made far too much sense.
Imrama catches Varanim's gaze and returns it, raising an eyebrow. "The argument is not that something is amiss because no Solar should ever go horribly, destructively insane. It is that, in the ancient past, the Solars went horribly, destructively insane in numbers disproportionate to their percentage of the human population. Something was making them less prone to virtue than the average person."
Varanim "You're excused," Varanim says to Lucent. To Zahara, she says, "Might as well try the door; if I have to argue all of history with Imrama, we'll need the faculty and some comfy chairs." She looks like she was on the verge of a tirade, but then... let it go.
Zahara shrugs a little and tests the door with one finger, then gives it a shove
Lucent "Not only before, Imrama, it is still HERE! Our tensions, Varanim's.. choices!"
Zahara "Which choices are those?"
Varanim turns pivots on one heel to face Lucent, tilting her head. "What did you say?" she asks quietly.
Jiris The door -- quite heavy, really -- begins to creak ever-so-slowly open upon Zahara's forceful push.
Lucent looks evenly... up at her. "Why DID a Chosen of the Sun choose... this?" He makes a wide gesture as if to mention the death all around them!
Jiris The door finally slides into its fully-opened niches with a loud crunch, revealing the room within. (...)
Imrama 's eyes widen in a mixture of surprise and exasperation. He prepares to step between Varanim and Lucent if necessary.
Zahara "A fascinating question, really."
Jiris The many magical marble tables at which the fortress' magical defenses were controlled are still there, as are the remnants of regalia and the rime-tinged charnel stack of still-preserved corpses, from those who once barricated themselves in this room in a failed effort to survive. But those are not the subjects that draw one's attention. (...)
Jiris For in the center of the room is a vast tower of ice, pulsing with its own internal Essence. And within it is a woman: tall, with platinum-blonde hair to her feet; lightweight blue jade armor and green robes; a jade swallow with the name "Last Horizon" written upon it in the characters of Old Realm. (...)
Zahara "Ah... hello?"
Jiris On her beauteous -- and quite familar -- face, its eyes clossed tightly, is but a single mark, across her left eye: a black mark that goes from her forehead down onto her cheek. At her feet, frozen along with her, are two things: a singular, particularly powerful-looking example of the Ija spectres, and a six-sided soulsteel box. (...)
Jiris Yes, as she gazes upon her relative, Zahara suddenly remembers who she is, from the childhood song: this is Jinanna Zhan, the Air Elementalist general of of Tara Zhan Keep, frozen solid deep within the ice.
Varanim looks back at Lucent, one corner of her mouth twisting up slightly. "You can do better than that, Lucent. Specificity is key to a good insult. Are you accusing me of killing all these people?" She glances into the room. "Because apparently I missed one."
Lucent "Spectres attacked this place." Lucent blinks. "So this was not the Contagion."
Jiris looks at the frozen woman with a certain amount of admiration. "So this is our great-great-great-aunt, I take it."
Zahara "Jinanna Zhan, Air Elementalist general of Tara Zhan Keep." She stares at the familiar face. "Mmm. I could try another counterspell, but I do not want her to explode."
Jiris The Essence of both the frozen spectre, and the frozen general, is quite immense. The room almost seems to hum due to all the energy focused on this tiny spot.
Lucent "If we free her, we will have to deal with the Spectre, as well. Not that it will be a problem, but she is merely a Dragoness, it may kill her before we kill it."
Varanim looks at the Ija with the affection of a drunk for a long-lost bottle, scrutinizing it with bright eyes and forgetting the argument of the moment before.
Zahara "Hmm true."
Jiris The spectre is much like those of the same species Varanim has seen before, only... moreso -- its watery form more fluid and rippled, its Essence more powerfully concentrated, its lust for annihilation more powerfully overwhelming. The fetters and passions that tie a spirit to the world are inverted and tied off, wrapped back around to serve only the cause of Oblivion; (...)
Jiris the very existence that it holds, the fundamentally lively nature of its living soul is so infused with the Essence of the Void that it is a walking contradiction, a thing that should not be.
Varanim makes a little face and then flicks her soulsteel hand as if throwing water droplets off of it, leaning on her staff and looking back at the others. "This is going to be great, guys. So how do we open it?"