PiercingIvory and Varanim trudge across the frozen wastes of the Underworld. The recently dead barbarian looks to Varanim for direction.
Varanim doesn't make small talk so much as low-grade interrogate, with long periods of silence interspersed with questions about the local death customs, tribal legends, and the weather in seemingly random arrangement. Every once in a while she'll trail off mid-sentence to crouch and inspect a branch point in the trail, always picking the least auspicious direction to follow.
Varanim "The really interesting question," she muses at the latest of those points, "is who wants a smallish army of warrior ghosts."
PiercingIvory "That's... a good question," he says. "I... don't know?"
PiercingIvory Meanwhile, the trail leads on: (...)
PiercingIvory Beyond the mountains, the rime-coated ground grows a little flatter, but no less cold and dead. Varanim passes a number of strange ectoplasmic creatures and odd local phenomena, but the trail yet leads on. (...)
PiercingIvory Eventually, it takes her to a small "clearing," where the signs of battle -- torn earth, plasm spilled on the ground, smoke marks -- are still fresh from quite recent fighting.
Varanim takes in the scene in one long glance, with an eye for the numbers involved and the direction of departure. "I think that tingly feeling is my sense of self-preservation," she remarks.
PiercingIvory sighs. "I wish I'd had one of those."
PiercingIvory looks around the scene. "It looks like there were probably... twenty ghosts here, at one point," he says. "That's quite a few more than I saw."
Varanim "Good thought, but your timing's a little slow," Varanim says absently, picking her way across the battlefield and inspecting the wreckage as she goes. She nods at his estimate. "Your tribe got drafted, but who's the other side?"
PiercingIvory shakes his head. "I don't know, but... whenever I had glimpsed the dead of our tribe, they looked much as they had in life. Those who killed me were like dark clouds, barely even in the shape of humans. The more I think about it, the more it worries me."
PiercingIvory From somewhere off in the distance -- but sufficiently loud and with great clarity, a low, confident woman's voice speaks, to Piercing Ivory's great astonishment: "You should be worried."
Varanim sighs. "Try to avoid straight lines like that in the future, if you can," she mutters to Piercing Ivory.
Varanim "Hello!" she calls a little louder. "Is this the way to the Blessed Isle?"
PiercingIvory The voice is nearer when it speaks again, though still no source is visible. "You'd have quite a ways to go, to reach there."
PiercingIvory seems a little concerned about the strange, disembodied voice.
Varanim "I always forget whether you turn left or right at Lookshy." Varanim's eyes sweep the area. "Got a map we can borrow?"
PiercingIvory "Why would you be going to the Blessed Isle," the voice says, from even closer -- and this time, to the left -- "when you are investigating the disappearance of tribal ghosts here in the North? I wonder."
Varanim "I have to spend my fabulous reward somewhere, and I hear they have nice beaches there."
Varanim "What *I* wonder is, why are you asking questions when you already know the answers?"
Varanim Tense, Varanim tries to listen for the approach she knows is happening.
PiercingIvory Even with ears pricked, Varanim hears nothing, until Piercing Ivory -- who is spinning around quite urgently trying to spot the voice -- suddenly bugs out his eyes, and she hears the voice again from right behind her:
PiercingIvory "Every question has many answers, deathspeaker. I generally wish to know them all." (...)
Varanim A ripple passes through Varanim's muscles, but she resists the urge to spin around. "Would you like to trade answers, or are you one of those selfish types?" she asks, still without turning.
MysteriousVoice "If you have a more relevant question than how to reach the nearest vacation hotspot, at least."
Varanim "How about this one?" Varanim scratches the strange circle symbol into the frost with the tip of her staff.
MysteriousVoice "That is a better question," she says. (Piercing Ivory, sensing Varanim's unwillingness to turn around, has settled on simply watching this process unfold without interruption.)
MysteriousVoice "Tell me. How versed are you in the accountings of the Malfeans?"
Varanim "Mostly, not."
MysteriousVoice "Then the answer I can give you is this: the ghosts you are seeking are sworn to the service of one of the dead Primordials. And there is a purpose to their attacks."
Varanim "Generally people don't collect either living or dead hill nomads for their decorative value," Varanim agrees.
Varanim "I don't suppose the White Moon Elks will be returned at the end, happy and unmolested, to continue decomposition?"
MysteriousVoice "It does not seem likely, no."
Varanim leans on her staff and broods down at the symbol. "My vacation plans recede precipitously."
MysteriousVoice "If you do not fear the consequences, I would suggest you begin to ready yourself for the coming battle with the spectres. They will not give their prizes back easily." The owner of the voice begins to step audibly, slowly, backwards.
Varanim "Thank you for the advice."
MysteriousVoice "Of course," the voice says, as it slips backwards yet further. "After all, we did... know each other, once." (...)
MysteriousVoice At those words, a sudden rush of recognition flows over Varanim and overwhelms her perception for just a moment, and she remembers....
MysteriousVoice The sounds of a party, a throng of celebrants packed from wall to wall, and her eye searching, glancing across...
MysteriousVoice Suddenly, a gap opens, and she sees through to a face, waiting to be seen, perfectly stunning, the red flush of its full cheeks set off against the brilliant viridian lipstick.
MysteriousVoice It starts to mouth words... and then Varanim is back in the snow, amongst the dead.
Varanim finally turns around, mouth opening to speak to the vision that's gone before she can remember what she meant to say.
MysteriousVoice There is only empty, swirling ashen snow, and a still-astonished Piercing Ivory.