Varanim comes by the dojo to collect Spring late one evening, having already pestered Verbena out of her comfortable apartments in the city. She's wearing her best rumpled traveling clothes, and carrying her usual bag of unmentionables plus the steel-shod staff that has been gathering dust in a corner of her room for a while.
Spring is sitting cross-legged, meditating upon an odd golden flower, which he swallows as Varanim appears, and looks up.
Spring "Hello, Varanim. Who is your friend?"
Varanim "Verbena, Spring. Spring, Verbena. You're both clever people, you should either get along or hate each other pretty fast. C'mon, let's get our Twilights on."
Spring "Ah. She, too, is a Twilight, then?" Spring regards her with some interest. "And what do you study?"
Verbena waves to Spring. "Hiya."
Varanim "Dragon lines!" Varanim beams. "She's my treehouse architect."
Verbena "Ahem. I study the geospatial occultic arts, with a primary focus on the cosmo-geomantic arrangements of planar space." She decides that Spring can ask about her minor if he really wants to know.
Spring "In which of those fields did they teach you to talk like that?"
Verbena glares at Spring. "The one in which I slept with your mother," she grumbles, quietly and under her breath.
Varanim coughs, possibly hiding a laugh. "All right, kids, I packed cookies and everything. Whether it works or not, I expect to be really entertained by this whole thing." She's practically bouncing on her heels waiting to set off.
Spring "You need not blame me for your lamentable lack of clarity in speech."
Spring "Yes, Varanim, let us be off at once."
Verbena "What kind of Twilight are you that don't talk all fancy?" she says, as they get up to depart.
Varanim "If you think that's unnerving, you should see what he does with his belly."
Spring "The kind that prefers to be understood. One of the flaws of tactics is that you generally need to speak with people who do not understand tactics."
Verbena 's outfit today is a little more practical, though her hair is still in an improbable formation: she's got on simple leather travelling clothes (dyed in occultic swirls of black and white), as well as a rucksack. "So how are we travelling today?"
Varanim looks at Spring. "Do you need to commune with your tree? If not, we just need to head for the nearest Shadowland, and I'll pick up the rest of the ride."
Spring "I can speak with it at any time."
Varanim After reaching the Shadowland, Varanim kneels and says, "Hold on, this will be neat." She spreads her left hand and rests the fingertips lightly on the ground, then rotates her wrist in a slow circle.
Varanim She hums a few notes quietly, head tilted to one side, and then suddenly flattens her hand, palm slamming against the ground with a muffled tolling that fades away deeper, deeper... and then comes back, echoing off the vast rising bulk of the Uulashtor that surfaces to swallow them all and bear them to their destination in the Labyrinth.
Verbena looks down at the ground with a slight look of concern. "What."
Varanim "What, I ride demon wasps for you people, don't be such GIRLS."
Verbena As if to punctuate Varanim's sentence, the Uulashtor -- the vast, pallid, rotting worm-snakes that make their way through the Labyrinth -- bursts from the ground, its four rows of vicious teeth opening wide and dripping with putrid saliva as it swallows the group whole.
Spring "So that is what that feels like."
Varanim "And THAT is why only pretentious dork necromancers wear nice clothes to work." Varanim is bright-eyed and almost girlishly light in step, now that the journey is started.
Verbena is visibly pleased with her decision to dress down today, and visibly working out aspects of their trip on her fingers as they walk. "It shouldn't actually be able to move that fast, you realize."
Varanim "Right!" she says happily to Verbena. Then to Spring, "See, let other people worry about boring old gravity. Oh, uh, and welcome to the Labyrinth, if you haven't been before."
Verbena The walls have helpfully chosen to be made of black granite with little tiny blue stones embedded in it today, instead of something horrible like phlegm or bile.
Spring "I may have been. I am not sure where in Netheos I have actually been. It is more inhospitable than most planes when you have no eyes."
Varanim considers that. "On the balance side, you get to avoid seeing a lot of really unpleasant things that way." Then she looks over at Verbena. "Where do we start, missy?"
Verbena keeps walking until the tunnel opens out onto the location in question: a vast, domed space, its roof like polished knives of obsidian, its floor like a vast grey magma flow that dried into the shape of an evil mandala, and she grins. "We start in the middle."
Varanim "Ooh." Varanim leans on her staff, staring at the room with narrowed and thoughtful eyes, then she tears herself away to look back at Verbena. "Lead on."
Spring follows, looking around with great interest.
Verbena walks to the center of the room and immediately whips out the golden chalk, drawing out the foundational structure in some detail. She works directly with the mandala pattern already ingrained in he floor, in some places adding vast looping whorls that fall in line with its igneous flows, in other carefully cross-cutting it with counter-essence. (...)
Verbena "We'll need to start building here, just about three inches of construction, right away -- this will allow us to lock in the fundaments of our intended structure." She points to a wider circular area, which she dots a circle around. "The tree's roots will extend out to here, going both over and under our initial construction, in order to lock the living and inanimate structures together at the lowest level."
Varanim watches Verbena, her eyes wandering aside to scan the room during the process as she tries to envision the final construction. "Should I get my hands dirty and start digging, or is it all more fancy and Essence-y than that?"
Verbena "The pattern and materials are what's important, in this case, not the method of construction. Grab a shovel, enslave a demon, pay your neighbor: it's all the same to me."
Varanim "Oh, it's one of those symbolic things, isn't it? I love those." Varanim, in fact, brought a shovel.
Spring spits one up.
Verbena , conversely, opens up a small white jade urn that she carried in her rucksack, and sprinkles the dust within on the ground. Almost immediately, four thick, burly earth elementals of vaguely humanoid shape spring up and begin the process of digging and construction.
Varanim scores her shovel along the ground, tracing her share of the pattern indicated by Verbena. She hums to herself as she goes, keeping her head tilted to one side as if catching a faraway echo. At the end of the line--barely a scratch--she suddenly lifts her shovel and slams it down with a terse word.
Varanim All along the path, the long-entombed arms of the dead rip through the stone floor, shattering rock and leaving a broken furrow neatly following the indicated line.
Spring calmly digs a small hole in the center of the marked area, then removes his mini-tree from his stomach and places it carefully in the hole.
Verbena guides her elementals carefully, not paying much attention to the behavior of the other two Solars, except to stay out of the specific areas they're working in.
Spring stares calmly at the tree. After a few minutes, it begins to shudder, and the ground along the lines Verbena has indicated begins to roil and break, as the enormous roots of the tiny Wasirranu dig the ground out from below.
Verbena wanders over. "Hmmm, that's pretty impressive. Is this going to be the anchor?"
Varanim does the same, shouldering her shovel. "What does it need to grow here?"
Spring "No." Spring reaches carefully into the blossoms of the Wasirru and removes a tiny seed. "This will be the anchor."
Spring "It will require soil, light, and time, unless Verbena can supply us with an alternative."
Verbena "Ah," she says, watching the seed with one eye as the roots, their work done, recede elegantly back into the plant. "So you didn't actually have a plan for germinating that."
Varanim spreads her hands. "Growing things not so much my specialty, except the old-fashioned way."
Spring "I did have a plan. The plan was to ask you."
Verbena "Figures," she says. "Alright. Get out of the way. Scoot scoot," shooing the other two away from the center space.
Varanim "It seems to have worked," Varanim says to Spring as she scoots.
Spring "Well, it was perfect."
Verbena turns her back to the other two Solars and pulls a small vial of brilliant green liquid from somewhere within her backpack. "I will forewarn you," she says as she uncorks the stopper and prepares to pour it over the seed, "this may be loud." (...)
Varanim leans on her shovel to watch with a fascinated expression, sticking her fingers in her ears after a thoughtful moment.
Verbena There is a short pause, complete silence, and then, with a deafening thunderclap, a tree zooms upwards, its branches unfolding and popping out like children's holiday streamers, its roots entwining through the newly-laid foundation and digging into the soil below, its trunk expanding to an enormous girth... (...)
Verbena A breath of cool breeze, a sharp contrast to the oddly warm and stale Labyrinth air, rolls over them for just a moment as the life force of the tree fully unfurls.
Varanim blinks and then smirks slowly, eyes traveling over the new tree. "Huh," she says softly as she takes her fingers from her ears.
Spring "Very impressive, Verbena."
Verbena "Obviously," she says.
Varanim "It's really disorienting, not being the smuggest person in the room."
Spring "I actually find it somewhat relaxing."
Sisters Verbena turns around and looks at the other two. "I made your tree grow for you."
Spring "Such was my expectation. I am pleased you were able to fulfill it."
Verbena: "It looks like the foundation's done, then." She turns to Varanim. "What were you thinking in terms of actual building structure, exactly?"
Varanim tears her eyes away from the tree to look at Verbena. "At this point, it would be silly for it to not be a treehouse. If I understand correctly, there's also some anchor work to do to fix the elemental correspondences and tie together the stellar regulation."
Varanim ::Spring, it's vaguely possible the rest of this won't go well. There are a few things I didn't mention when we were talking the other day about my dreams.::
Spring ::Now might be a good time to begin to mention them.::
Verbena: "Tell me what you were thinking about this anchor work," she says, chalk at the ready.
Varanim "I wrote you a note on the subject, and since I couldn't hear your derisive laughter all the way from the Cascade, I spent some time preparing five foci. However, I'm pretty sure you know much more than I do about where and when to place them, how to match the curtains, and all that."
Varanim ::I'm fairly certain that the Green Lady is the person who directed me on the trail of the Ija spectres that first led me into the Labyrinth. She also gave me the book from which I learned necromancy.::
Varanim ::That's all.::
Verbena nods. "Of course I do," she says. "That would be here... here... here... here..." she leaps over a particularly large root in getting to her last spot. "And here."
Spring gets one of those patented mental twinges that foretell that, generally speaking, something less than entirely desirable is about to occur.
Spring "Excuse me. I suspect we are about to have guests." Spring flexes his hands idly and walks out to the edge of the construction, looking around for the no-doubt approaching horde.
Spring ::Do you suspect she will send someone to pay us a visit?::
Varanim ::I don't know. But I've been reflecting that tacticians require good information, so it seemed like a good time to mention it if things get busy later.::
Varanim "Right," Varanim says briskly to Verbena. "Horrible secret necrotic rites about to ensue, might want to avert your eyes, etc."
"Oh, fine." Verbena turns her head over to look by where Spring has positioned himself, and she looks surprised as she sees exactly what Spring has been waiting for: the first spectres pouring in through the tunnel. "Errrr...."
Spring "Please. Continue your work."
Spring extends an inviting hand to the approaching monsters.
Varanim "Don't worry, he's a big boy," Varanim says to Verbena after a backward glance, then returns her entire attention to the tree and reaches for her bag.
Verbena looks over at Spring, then back at the tree, and shrugs her shoulders. "Whatever you say."
Over at the entrance to the tunnel, Spring is confronted with the shapes of the forms that come through: humanlike, but... attenuated and drawn out, with pieces that should not be there; their edges frayed and torn, like holes torn into the very fabric of reality; and on each one's forehead, the sigil of the divided circle triskelion. (...)
Varanim, of course, is intimately familiar with them.
Spring ::Friends of yours?::
Varanim ::Funny story, must share later. They came from the Ija.::
Spring ::I will hold you to that offer.::
Varanim takes a breath, straightening from her perpetual slouch and approaching the first of the anchor points. She rolls something in her hand with a dry clicking sound as she kneels by a knothole in the new-grown tree.
Varanim She considers the anti-heroic cycle of the dead stars, the downward spiral that must be twisted without breaking its structure. Then she summons to mind the first of the meditations, on the House of Enmities: Hatred of others or of the self binds the soul and fools the heart. We believe something precious will be lost if we discard it, but this, too, is vanity.
Varanim As she fixes the structure in her mind, she tucks the first key in the knothole: the bones of a ring finger, each etched with the character "Forgetfulness."
Meanwhile, the first five spectres to pour through the entryway and immediately surround Spring. One of them lunges out swiftly at him with its tenebrous hand, any fingers that might exist upon it lost in the sea of distortion and tearing that form the borders of its very existence.
Spring steps neatly into the strike, interlocking his fingers with the formless claws and wrapping the spectre's aura of dissipation around him, where it dissolves into pearly light, surprising the second spectre just long enough for Spring to nudge its Essence flows slightly out of alignment, and so on and so forth.
Spring The fourth spectre tries to turn and head for the other Twilights, only to find it cannot leave Spring's side...and Spring smiles to himself.
Varanim As Spring flows into motion behind her, Varanim summons the meditation on the House of Devourings: Sins and inadequacies of the past can never fully chain the future, as long as there is willingness to make a light in the darkness and move forward.
Varanim From her bag she takes a small pot the size of a fist, removes the stopper, and pours pyreflame into her left hand. As the hungry radiance coils around soulsteel fingers without burning them, she lifts her arm and traces the second key on the air: the line of the horizon and the first brilliant point of sunrise after a night of bleak despair.
The torrent of spectres grows thicker as more and more abyss-tainted ghosts pour out to confront Spring. Though the Ija lead the vanguard, simple, twisted ghosts of humans now follow as the rank and file of this assault.
Varanim The third meditation belongs to Graves, ruling the dull and bitter finality of the end of alll stories in Netheos. In death you are neither alone nor forgotten, because none can live without shaping the world around them, nor resist passing in the end.
Varanim Varanim, with anima gradually unfurling, kneels and moves aside a bit of crumbled earth. She places the third key among the roots of the tree: a small tablet of death jade, carved with the beginning of a traditional funeral mark, "Rest now the beloved spirit of..." but the name has been rubbed away by time.
Spring wanders idly over to watch the proceedings. He is accompanied by a ravening, numberless, but extremely exhausted horde of spectres, who seem upset about their incapacity to leave him alone. Some periodically attempt to claw at him, or the other Twilights, but collapse dustily before their strikes can cause any danger.
Spring "How is the construction going?"
Varanim "Good question! Are we dead yet?" Varanim approaches the next-to-last anchor, shaking from the strain of balancing her Essence flows. She forms the meditation on Maelstroms: For every sorrow, no matter how great, there is a matching measure of unburdenedness which is only a breath away. Recall beauty, and wake.
Varanim Reaching up one hand, she snatches a coil of incense-laden air from her anima and exhales it with the whispered fourth key: a poem written by the Small Whirlwind about a flight of white birds over a windswept field.
Spring "I doubt we shall be tonight." Spring idly swats a spectre's hand paternally away.
Varanim "Neat! Almost done here, I think." At the end of the retwisted cycle lies the meditation on Beginnings: Though our deaths are important to us, eschew hubris; each, living or dead, is one drop in a river flowing out to the sea.
Varanim Kneeling at the final anchor point, Varanim carves the character "Unity" on the flesh of her forearm with one soulsteel finger. Blood wells up, trickles to pool in her palm, then patters down softly to water the roots of the new tree.
With that last moment, Varanim seals in the cycle that she knows, now, will properly drive the Essence collection of her new manse. (...)
Meanwhile, Spring's battle seems to have largely concluded itself. The spectres -- nothing but a warning shot, it would seem, given how quickly the stream ceased once more -- are entirely without motive force.
Verbena "Well, I think we're more or less ready here," she says, flicking her eyes back and forth between the willess ghosts and the newly-implanted necromantic foci. "Let's build us a treehouse."