alsoquin She should have realized this would be a mistake.
alsoquin The White Moon Elk tribe had offered quite immense rewards for solving their troubles -- suspiciously large, really, for a nomadic tribe. With little more than a perfunctory escort and a brief salute, they had abandoned her here, at their burial grounds, saying only that they would return for her in two weeks. (...)
alsoquin So now here she stood, alone amidst crude stone cairns, amidst a great rocky valley coated by centuries of frost, and tasked with the unenviable task of determining why, exactly, their dead were not joining their tribemates in the Underworld as expected.
Varanim "Civilized people would have the answer tucked away in a library," Varanim mutters, shrugging to adjust the pack on her shoulders. "Nice warm one." She begins as usual, by letting her senses take in the general shape of the place, then looking for marks of recent disturbance.
alsoquin Superficially, the area appears to be much as the tribesmen described: the stone cairns in which tribesmen are laid during the burying season line this valley in innumerable rows, while the huts in which the death-guides dwell in winter sit unused to the side. (...)
alsoquin A closer inspection, however, shows the signs that something, at least, is definitely wrong: lines of faint necrotic Essence dot the ice in several spots and seem to run crossward, as if something from the dead realm itself is acting on this place.
Varanim "He-llo," she murmurs, boots crunching on the frosty ground as she threads between the cairns following the dark trails.
alsoquin The tribesmen had told her of the Ebon Passage -- a small Shadowland that lies where the two mountains draw especially near to one another in a jagged, narrow pass that must once have hosted a great battle -- and the trails seem to lead right up to it.
Varanim "Oh great and sagacious lady," she grumbles to herself as she goes, "We built our tribal burial ground next to a Shadowland, and now our dead won't stay quiet. Whatever could it be?"
Varanim Her footsteps sound simultaneously small and loud in her ears as she hikes up toward the pass.
alsoquin The space between the two mountains is visibly dark in comparison to the blinding light that reflects off of the snow around her, and the light seems to cut out entirely as she stands at the threshold of the pass, and as fresh snow gives way to slick black ice. (...)
alsoquin Despite many encounters with the dead, Varanim had yet to set foot in the Underworld, and the musty smell that emanated out of the gap surprised her with its unexpected familiarity.
Varanim pauses at the threshold, inhaling deeply and tightening her hand around her iron-capped staff--then takes the next step forward, her eyes glittering with curiosity.
alsoquin The path leads down between the mountains, and Varanim feels the unusual sensation of slow, subtle travel between worlds... until, finally, the path wraps around a corner and lets her out into a world quite distinct from the one she just left. (...)
alsoquin Abovehead, an ominous red sun hangs amidst swirling, aphotic clouds; below, black ice clings to jagged rocks bleached bone white, and the burial grounds she sought are not at all as they appear in the land above: where there should be orderly cairns are instead shattered rocks and the traces of past battle.
Varanim Inwardly conceding that maybe the problem is more interesting than just spreading salt in the right places, Varanim looks for a mirror of the death-guides' huts, wondering how extensive the symmetries are.
Varanim She steps carefully, not liking the feel of the ice.
alsoquin Such huts do exist, though the one nearest by has its roof staved in by what looks like a vigorous blow.
Varanim mentally estimates the size of the roof-staving fist, compares it with the size of her body, then gives a philosophical shrug--after all, they aren't here right NOW. She winds deeper, peering into huts and broken burial mounds and growing increasingly uneasy at the lack of company.
alsoquin The burial hut holds more than just a broken roof: within the hut lies the broken, decomposing body of a once-/living/ person, as well as something else: the quivering, yet still intact, ectoplasmic form of a ghost, huddling in one corner.
Varanim Looking from the ghost to the body and back, Varanim coughs and says, "Missing something?"
Varanim She steps in closer, looking at the wounds of the body.
alsoquin They seem to be great scratchmarks, like one might expect to see from a particularly humongous lion.
alsoquin The ghost, its face quite unsurprisingly matching that of the dead body almost precisely, looks up at Varanim in surprise and horror. "Stay back!" it shouts, and attempts without much success to scoot further away from her.
Varanim "Evisceration isn't contagious," Varanim points out, but doesn't move closer yet. "Who are you?"
alsoquin After a second passes and the ghost realizes that Varanim poses no threat, it seems to relax just a tiny bit and speaks, at first haltingly, to her.
alsoquin "I... am Piercing Ivory." He looks around the hut. "I... was to guard the tombs, and help our tribesmen onwards," he says, "but... something... bad came!"
Varanim "Could you be a little more specific?" Varanim asks with what she considers admirable restraint of sarcasm. "Whatever it was has cleaned out every ghost around for miles."
PiercingIvory gulps, then stands up, a little uncertain of his new ephemeral body. "I...it was like a rampaging horde of-- who are you?" he says, suddenly realizing he is talking to a bizarre stranger from far, far away.
Varanim "I'm Varanim, which apparently means 'mining canary' in the local dialect. Tell me, is your tribe rich?"
Varanim "And please, do go on about that rampaging horde," she adds, peering back out through the doorway at the color-inverted valley.
PiercingIvory blinks. "We... we ride with the greatest elk herds of all the north."
PiercingIvory He continues on with his original point. "They rode in, like... shapes of darkness edged in light, like a man but more indistinct, atop great beasts of much the same sort. They seemed almost frayed and tattered around the edges, and I could make out no detail in their face, besides... a strange sigil." He gulps. (...)
PiercingIvory "They rode in, they destroyed... everything! I was but one warrior" -- telling this story seems to have brought a little "life" back to Ivory -- "against a horde of foes!"
Varanim "I'm sure you were *very* brave," Varanim says firmly, since they always seem to want that. "Since you got a good look at that symbol, why don't you draw it for me."
PiercingIvory The ghost nods and, picking up a half-burnt stick from the ground, draws out the symbol in question: a circle, divided in twain by a line, and with three half-circles arcing off of its exterior.
Varanim grunts thoughtfully, considering the symbol. "Are they also the ones who rearranged the local scenery?" she asks, nodding to the broken cairns outside.
Varanim "And how long ago was the last burial?"
PiercingIvory nods. "Perhaps... two months ago? They must have come before, and then come back to ensure that no one repaired the damage they had wrought."
Varanim "The White Moon Elks should find a new burial ground and pretend they don't remember what happened to the old one."
PiercingIvory looks confused and a little uncertain. "Is... is there nothing that can be done?"
Varanim "Well, I said that was the smart thing. I sort of assume people aren't going to do that one, and only mention it as a formality."
Varanim She straightens and starts to pace around the small hut.
Varanim "Any sudden changes in the tribe leadership lately? Pacts with darkness you forgot to mention? Because otherwise we're going to have to keep walking to find some answers, and they'll probably be worse."
PiercingIvory "I... I don't think so. The chief of the tribe has been Bent Antler for over thirty years."
Varanim "Bad luck for Bent Antler then, because it looks like someone wants his turf. If the tribe hasn't done anything different recently, the answer is on this side. Are you up for the hunt?" Her eyes glitter with interest, and she looks like she's forgotten that only one of them belongs here.
PiercingIvory nods warily. "...what... do we need to do to get ready?"
Varanim "First you tell me if anything needs doing to your body before we set out," Varanim says. "Then we look to see if these raiders, or your dead, left behind anything that knows it belongs to them."
PiercingIvory suddenly remembers that he doesn't have a body anymore, and begins to whimper silently.
PiercingIvory After a moment, he composes himself. "We... should move it into one of the cairns."
Varanim looks away from his distress, then nods and sees to the slightly gruesome task.
PiercingIvory The body buried, the two are now set to head off into the wastes of the Underworld!