Varanim "I'm just going to assume you'll have some sort of man-hangup about me touching your sword, so I suggest you attend to the door yourself," Varanim says to Tyrian. "Who works for people he thinks will sell him this far down the river?"
Varanim It's not entirely clear whether she's addressing Tyrian, Jena, or the patiently rhetorical air.
Tyrian grunts, takes out his blade, and neatly cuts through a part of the door, allowing him to push the remainder easily open.
Varanim wastes no time investigating the other side--after all, squee, it's a real Deathlord's fortress.
The hallway on the other side is a vast, gothic affair, executed in cooled magma dredged out of the lifeless earth itself by the shadewrights and apprentice necromancers of the First and Forsaken Lion; vast, tattered red and gold banners hang at regular intervals, and heavy wrought-iron-and-wood doors block out the sight of almost innumerable rooms down each end of the hall. (...)
At each side it eventually bends around corners and disappears; there are no other windows here.
Varanim stands for a moment, taking in the shape of the place with her senses, letting them sharpen and extend to seek hints of sound or smell that will suggest the most interesting direction.
Hints of particularly strong necrotic Essence well up from the left hand side, though whether that makes the direction more "interesting" is an open question.
Tyrian and Jena, not waiting for Varanim's senses to do their magic, each confidently pick a direction and move towards it; unfortunately, each of them picks a different direction.
Varanim "Ooh," says Varanim, picking the necrotic direction and hissing "boring" at whoever has gone the other way.
Tyrian turns around with a grunt. "That direction leads towards the war pits, the unholy chapel, and the soulsteel forge." He gestures behind him. "We can get out more easily this way, I think." (...)
Jena, still looking a littlle wan (presumably from the blood loss), turns and looks at him. "You seem pretty knowledgeable about this fortress," she says, warily.
Varanim "Makes you wonder, doesn't it?" Varanim remarks to her.
Varanim "But then, you also seemed to know where you were going."
"You can tell where I was dragged in from," she says, pointing: and indeed, there are traces of minor bloodstains along spots of the floor.
"That's foolishness," Tyrian says. "I'm fairly certain I can lead us out of here." He looks back and forth. "We need to move quickly."
Varanim rolls her eyes and pushes back her hair irritably, caste mark glinting. "You may lack all curiosity about how I got from the depths of the north to here, but not everyone is so afflicted. And Jena here is... why ARE you here, Jena?"
Jena looks at Varanim. "I live, not far... above here, I guess. We've had a lot of problems with the undead -- more and more, the last few months. I had gone to deal with an attack, when..." She shudders. "Too many at once, I guess. I'm not sure why they dragged me down here instead of..." She trails off.
Varanim "Yes, why bother collecting living people here is a fine question, I'm glad you mentioned it." Swiveling her head back to Tyrian, "And why I'm going this way. I've got a tingly feeling says it's more interesting."
Tyrian seems to weigh the possibility of quicker escape against the likelihood of gruesome death going alone, and grudgingly joins the ladies in their quest leftwards.
"Do you understand exactly how many dangerous things are down this hallway?" he asks.
Varanim "If I knew THAT, there'd be no point in looking, would there? But feel free to fill in, or give us the name of your previous tour guide. Does it start with 'First and...'?"
As they walk down the hallway, Tyrian irritatedly answers. "No, actually. It was a very nice Abyssal Exalt named Blood of the Innocent, who wore a necklace made out of baby fingers. You know what an Abyssal Exalt is, right?" Jena gulps audibly already at Abyssal Exalted, enough that she doesn't seem to have anything left to swallow for the necklace.
Varanim "No," Varanim says with every evidence of continued interest and lack of appropriate self-preservation instincts.
They round a corner and find themselves at the head of a vast, downward-curving staircase, whose ultimate destination is obscure. Tyrian continues as they descend. "Well, they're like Solars dipped in ink. Evil, deathly, no names. Not typically friendly."
Varanim "Oh, is there a type of Exalted known for their friendliness? I must have missed them in my travels so far. And your job can't be that nice if it puts you on a not-a-name basis with them, either."
Varanim Varanim continues to rake the architecture with her eyes as they walk, not seeming to devote too much attention to the needling.
The staircase seems to have the bas-relief forms of skeletons -- most of them for improbable creatures the likes of which Varanim has never seen before -- arranged across the walls and ceilings; a black carpet fringed with crimson flows down them like a waterfall of blood and ash. (...)
"I never claimed to be nice," Tyrian says. "But I do generally expect professional courtesy, like not throwing someone who's come for diplomatic purposes into the stocks."
They arrive at the bottom of the stairs, in a large junction hallway, where flying buttresses of obsidian ridged with silver crisscross the ceiling and the great idiomatic characters of Old Realm are carved into slabs of red jade, to describe the various pathways. (...)
Jena looks over them, and squints as she reads them off. "Forge. Chapel. Torture Chamber. Pits. Library. Barracks. Another Torture Chamber. A different symbol that also means Pits. Stables. Armory."
Varanim checks the flow of essence again, then stiffens as if jerked by an invisible thread. "Liiiiiibrary," she says, rolling it off her tongue lovingly.
"Are you CRAZY?" Tyrian whispers loudly through clenched teeth, though follows her anyway.
Varanim "Big talk from the man with baby-finger-wearing friends."
Varanim "Besides, we're just going to peek."
Varanim pushes open the great double doors and is greeted by a truly wonderous sight. (...)
Vast shelves filled with all manner of books -- ancient, yet visibly held in utterly perfect condition by powerful magics -- rise up from the ground and stretch off into the sky, their tops only barely visible in the dim light, and their footprints forming the base of a vast, intricate labyrinth, only the tiniest piece of which she can see now. (...)
As other shelves stretch off into the distance, she can see that many are filled with other objects: strangely perfect crystals, oddly intricate metal baubles and tiny autonomous devices, skulls, scrolls, jars of disturbingly undulating liquid, and more.
Tyrian lets out a tiny whistle, despite himself.
Varanim blinks the misty wonderment from her eyes and looks around, reasoning that if you only have time and space to steal one thing, it might as well be the most interesting one.
Varanim's senses seem to lead her around first one corner then another, unfailingly taking her deeper and deeper into the maze, where increasingly odd things -- dioramas of eleven gemstones held together by gossamer thread, tiny spots of light that roam erratically around tiny glass cages, and more -- dot the shelves.
Varanim sighs, but is not ultimately deluded about her ability to stay here and exhaust the whole trove, so she keeps moving.
Tyrian seems occupied by the sights for the moment, so Jena speaks up. "So... what are you going to do next? You know... when we get out of here."
Tyrian answers rather curtly, clearly rapt by the odd articles on display. "Cause a little trouble on the way out. Tell my bosses this Lion guy is a nut. Not volunteer for shit like this again."
Varanim "Go on a long damn walk all the way back north, to find out if the White Moon Elk ghosts ever made it home." A shadow passes over Varanim's face briefly, knowing those odds as she does. "I suppose you're going to make another go at noble self-sacrifice for your people?"
"They need my help," she says, a little sadly.
Varanim "It won't be enough," Varanim says, although a bit less caustically than usual.
"Why not?" she says. Tyrian picks up a box of soulsteel that appears to have an eyeball floating in its center and looks into it.
Varanim "Because undead problems don't generally get better all on their own, and you weren't strong enough to deal with things as bad as they are now. If you don't even know the root of the problem, you're just a talkative form of already dead."
Varanim says it without particular malice, giving a sharp glance to Tyrian's box and then deciding it's not her target.
Varanim notices that the deathly energy seems to be growing much more intense just ahead -- it practically radiates around the upcoming corner.
Varanim holds up a hand to the others, frowning just slightly in consideration, and steps around the corner to see.
Around the corner, the library opens up into what one might describe as a little sanctum or reading room, at the very heart of the Labyrinth. (...)
Near the center, a tiny, heatless ghostflame burns, and around it are what seem almost like fine, comfortable chairs -- albeit wrought in iron, and their non-seating portions covered in jagged spikes. A reading table sits at the side of each, though only one currently holds a tome. (...)
The shelves themselves are filled with what are clearly the jewels of the collection: tomes dating back to the earliest days of the First Age (and some, even further); army uniforms and fighting automata from ages past; blades and staves and ancient marks of office. (...)
And standing at one of the shelves, his back to the entrants, is the source of the necrotic energy: nine feet of jagged and scarred soulsteel armor, seven chains upon which hang seven spectral skulls, a cloak of deep wine-red that ends at his neck in a thick lionsfur mane of white, and a jet-black helm. He appears to be casually paging through a book. (...)
At his side, obediently, is perhaps the most terrifying dog Varanim has ever seen: for its edges shimmer and bend in jagged, ectoplasmic spurts, and its form seems to be boiled down to the most horrific phantasmagoria of a hound: blood-red eyes, jagged teeth, and lean muscle watered on the blood of children.
After staring at the new arrivals for just a second, it howls, and Tyrian drops his box with an audible clang.
Varanim is not actually possessed of outstanding courage, merely an unusual degree of focus that in this case has brought her to an unfortunate pass. As the hound stares, she wastes a second to close her eyes and feel her guts turn to water, murmuring "/Run/" in an emphatic whisper the instant before the howl splits the air.
Varanim Then some bizarre form of last-ditch pride (or perhaps merely a sense of futility) seizes her, and she lights her caste mark with a thought and stands her ground.
FirstAndForsakenLion seems to notice the shining light from behind him, and he places his book -- /Reflections on the Nature of Rebirth/, Varanim has time to note -- back on the shelf before slowly turning around and surveying his visitors.
FirstAndForsakenLion Tyrian is definitely in shock, but it's clear that he doesn't think he'd have any better chance by running, so he too stands his ground. Jena seems to be possessed of a strange, confused fear and uncertainty.
Varanim "I hadn't really intended to thank you for your hospitality in person," Varanim hears herself say. "But it was a nice cell, as they go."
Varanim "Um. This is awkward."
FirstAndForsakenLion laughs, a deep, cruel laugh that in no way makes Varanim feel better.
Varanim "Ah... shall we just show ourselves out, then?"
FirstAndForsakenLion makes a quick gesture with his hand, and like a bolt of lightning the dog leaps, almost too fast for the eye to see, to position himself behind the prisoners, thoroughly blocking the exit.
Varanim "Hell with it," Varanim mutters almost inaudibly. Sighing, she folds her hands in front of her and looks him straight in the helmet. "Why did you bring us here? Those chains would barely hold a child, so you can't have expected we'd stay."
FirstAndForsakenLion In answer, the Deathlord turns and gestures expressively, opening his hand in a way that draws everyone's attention to Jena.
Varanim Obligingly, Varanim turns as well, giving Jena a look /fraught/ with expectation.
FirstAndForsakenLion Her demeanor shifts a little: still nervous, but now also... perhaps slightly relieved. "She's got potential," she says. "Tyrian is worthless; he can go to the pits." (...)
FirstAndForsakenLion "You bi--" he starts to shout, but his obscenity is drowned out by the scream that follows the dog tackling him and then contentedly dragging him by one leg out of the room -- a scream that echos and fades away slowly in the cavernous room.
Varanim A small shudder runs through Varanim, then she turns back to look at Jena, turning her bandaged hand palm-up in a "what now?" gesture.
FirstAndForsakenLion As she does, she hears a distinct *clang* behind her, and two of the armor suits, suddenly inhabited by nemessaries, step forward and grasp her arms. (...)
FirstAndForsakenLion As they do so, Jena glances at her with a sad look in her eyes. "You were right, you know," she says. "It wouldn't have been enough." And then the ghosts drag Varanim away.