Varanim has a terrible dream.
At first it's not all bad, really: she's at a party, you see, in a ludicrously fine gown, albeit one in a black and gold color scheme she would /probably/ not have selected herself, and hundreds of people are dancing around her, to beautiful music, like a single living organism. So she starts to cross the dance floor. (...)
She knows that she's looking for someone -- the yellow man -- and so she keeps looking over everyone's shoulder, pushing past... "Excuse me! I just need to.. get over here..."
She keeps pushing past, but, somehow, no matter how many people she pushes past, she can't make any progress, and the leering makeup of the party guests -- oh, was this a costume party? -- skeletons, monsters, grinning animals -- all seems to be glaring at her... (...)
And over and over, a woman with a green star painted on her cheek swings by, each time on the arm of a different lord or lady, and grins a vicious, toothy grin. (...)
She keeps pushing, more anxiously, unhappily now, and finally something seems to click and she pushes through, to the edge of the ballroom -- but as she does, the walls crumble away, and the jealous stars and dark red sun above shine down into the room. But at least her quarry is there: (...)
A man made entirely of yellow, surrounded by tiny yellow spiders and birds whose arms and legs and wings creak and buzz like rusty old clockwork. She's about to speak to him when two voices in unison behind her speak: "This way," they say. (...)
She turns around, and the dancefloor caves in, and hundreds of beautifully dressed lords and ladies fall grinning and silent into the abyss below... and across the room, on another platform, stand the woman with the green star, now aside a a man white with death's pallor, whose head bleeds profusely into the pit. (...)
A great staircase of bones begins to spiral up out of the pit, and on each step walks another person, an identical shade in a black cape, performing gestures of submission, until the last step halts just before Varanim, and its servant bows down to offer up what he holds to her: a jet-black mask, so that she might be properly clad for the party too. (...)
She takes it gingerly, and dons it, and turns around -- and the man in yellow is gone now, in his place a man of black, and tiny skeletal dogs and cats and bulls dance at his feet. She starts to speak, to ask where the man in yellow had gone --
then she feels it -- a stabbing pain, in her left hand -- and when she turns around, another Varanim, in the same mask, is there, pulling back a bloody, black dagger and readying it for another strike.
Then -- she wakes up, and knows exactly two things: she can't see ANYTHING, and her left hand is KILLLING her.
Varanim tries blinking, because she really wants to see what's wrong with her hand.
There's still nothing -- her field of vision is totally blank. (...)
"Try not to move your head or spine," a low, thick voice says from somewhere off in the hazy distance.
Varanim "Why?" Varanim's tone is distinctly peevish.
"Because your neck will snap," the voice says, "and then I'll fix it in a way you won't like." As her senses return to her, she feels the cold press of steel against her ankles and wrists, the hardness of a board underneath her back, the sickly humidity and warmth of the room.
Varanim "Why... oh." Memory trickles back unpleasantly.
Varanim "What are you doing?"
"Measuring," the voice says. "Or, rather, I was measuring. Now I am looking at your hand."
Varanim "Why does it hurt so much?" Varanim is proud of the steadiness of her voice, all things considered.
"Are you familiar with the circles of Spiritual Diseases?" the voice asks congenially.
Varanim "Noooo." Varanim's response is distracted as she racks her memory, finding nothing.
"Well, you seem to have contracted the Creeping Black Sun Sickness, which -- as spiritual diseases go -- is something of a doozy. You wouldn't happen to know how you contracted such a thing, would you?"
Varanim Varanim dislikes that line of questioning. "Hm. Who are you?"
"I am," the voice says with a practiced flourish, "Bloodletting Physician of Peerless Caliber. But I prefer my patients to simply call me Doctor."
Varanim "I used to be a doctor. You were telling me about my hand...?" Just in time, Varanim remembers not tilt her head invitingly.
"Yes. You seem to have contracted a disease that, previously speaking, only seventeen distinct individuals have ever had. At the moment, it is ravaging your hand and proceeding up your arm. I'm afraid we will have to put off the Conversion until it can be properly addressed." He makes a "tsk tsk" noise, and Varanim hears the sounds of metal implements being picked up.
Varanim Several relevant questions pile up in Varanim's head. What comes out: "That's not a bowl of warm water with some mild herbs, is it."
Doctor laughs, a laugh altogether too genial and friendly. "No. No it is not."
Varanim "I'm about to become Varanim the Right-Handed, aren't I."
Doctor A noise like a blade being sharpened on a whetstone fills the air. "If it makes you feel better," shouts the Doctor's voice over the grinding noise, "once we reach the Conversion you will not be Varanim anymore either!"
Varanim Raising her own voice with some urgency, Varanim says, "I'd like some more details on that procedure, and possibly a second opinion!"
Doctor "First we have to construct a Monstrance for you to be placed within -- which is why I needed your measurements, of course -- then you will be lowered to the lip of the Abyss, in the glare of the Malfeans." He stops his sharpening, and begins to place a variety of items -- pans and a tarp, it sounds like -- out on Varanim's left side. (...)
Doctor "I don't know what happens after that! It isn't really within my purview." He pauses, presumably to ensure that he has properly achieved /mise en place/. "My purpose here is simply to ensure that when you sacrifice your name in the service of the destruction of all that lives, you do so in the shape most suitable to your new eternal bond of servitude."
Varanim "Ah, I think there's been a mixup. You see, I really like my name."
Varanim As an afterthought, "Shape, too." No comment on all that lives.
Doctor "Ah, yes. I was rather fond of my own, once upon a time. But we all make sacrifices to get ahead in our careers, don't we?" She imagines that he probably winked at the end of that sentence, even. "Would you like to be awake for the procedure?"
Varanim "But I'm a lousy servant. I mean, you would be amazed."
Doctor audibly grits his teeth. "As you wish," he says. "You may wish to bite your lip before I reach one. Five.... four...."
Varanim "I warned you." Varanim locks her jaw.
Doctor "Three... two..." The doctor only waits for two. (4/30/2008 12:00:24 AM) Day changed to 30 Apr 2008
Doctor There is a great deal of pain, and the sickly smell of iron and water. Varanim almost passes out, despite herself; her head swims, her body twitches against the cold iron shackles. (...)
Doctor It seems like forever before a new feeling kicks in: intense burning heat, and then, numbness... and then, improbably, she can feel... if not exactly /her/ arm, then... SOMETHING, attached to her left shoulder and hanging free.
Doctor "There you go! I do think that this is quite excellent work, honestly. I'm sure you'll make good use of it for many years to come." He puts away the tools and empties the now-full basins noisily. "It'll just be a few minutes while your Essence patterns align," he says. "I'll be right back and we can check out your neuromotonic responses." (...)
Doctor The footfalls tell her that the doctor has left the room, and the only sound is the slow dripping of a water spigot. Then, improbably: she feels the unambiguous "click" of four metal clasps, clicking open.
Varanim Varanim, who has spent the last eternity wandering entirely new countries of regret, now finds herself on the other side in a landscape she's not sure she recognizes. Naturally, she tries to sit up.
Doctor The bonds that hold her, including the rounded iron mask that was clamped down over her face, give way easily now, and she sits up on the table. (...)
Doctor The room Varanim looks upon is a small, crowded chamber, its walls lined with every manner of bizarre surgical implement, jars of strange ectoplasmic beings and various body parts preserved in brine, and bones from an almost imaginably broad selection of creatures. (...)
Doctor On one side, the dripping spigot sits over a large sink basin, fresh crimson blood streaked atop sides long since stained dull brown with old. The basin from the floor sits in it, draining. On the other, the surgical table, all the tools carefully arrayed once again after the Doctor's departure, and the door stands, very slightly ajar, just to one side. (...)
Doctor It is when she looks over to this side that Varanim first notices what is now attached to her shoulder: the smooth, unimaginably black metal, the strangely muscled physique, the odd lightness of a hand that had never been hers -- and was now indelibly fused to her very being. (...)
Doctor Of her old arm, at least, there is no sign.
Varanim blinks at the new arm, twice, then experimentally flexes. Then she sets to the reasonable business of climbing off the table, selecting the knife she likes best, and investigating the possibilities of the door.
Doctor Clearly the best knife is a double-curved number with a fine soulsteel hilt and two points: one for scarification, and one (connected via a tiny channel to a vessel in the base) for tattooing -- or poisoning, I suppose. (...)
Doctor The door itself is nothing more than a thick wooden door, with an elaborate lock that, now, is just slightly ajar, as if just asking her to use it.
Varanim Taking up the knife in her right hand, Varanim stops at the door and listens, taking a moment leaning against the wall to let some of the shudders run out of her legs. Then, if she hears nothing, she'll flip open the door and slide through.
Doctor The other side of the door is, surprisingly, silent.
Varanim prods the door open to go through, not liking much that's happened but possessing a specific sense of bone-grating unease for her inexplicable release.
Doctor The room lets out onto a hallway, smoothly carved of reddish-brown rock, with several side doors that go off into other rooms. Varanim can hear the Doctor in one of them, whistling as he rummages through various objects. (...)
Doctor At the end of the hallway, there is a wide-open door through which shines rough, red light, broken into fragments by a criss-crossing structure of black beams.
Varanim considers for just a moment, rocking up on her feet lightly, then goes for the red-lit door.
Doctor As Varanim steps out the door, she finds that it leads out to a wide, cylindrical shaft, its center filled by the elaborate latticework; along the edges, there is only a tiny, thin ramp running up and down to connect these doors to many others. (...)
Doctor The red sun shines in from above, but escape does not appear to be available that way -- the shaft rises up what looks like nearly half a mile beyond the highest door, and below her it merely drops down nigh-forever until it is swallowed by darkness. (...)
Doctor Around the ramp, she can see quite a few doorways labelled with various intricate descriptions of the forms of ectoplasmic surgery and horrific necromancy practiced within, as well as one that seems to lead into a junction with the Labyrinth.
Varanim grimaces at the whole edifice, saving an especially sharp and haggard glare for the mocking distant un-sun, then makes for the Labyrinth joining. She notes the door labels as she goes, muttering internally to spare her raw throat.
Doctor The Labyrinth-marked hallway rather quickly transitions from the red rock into the irregular black substance of the labyrinth, and from there into a sort of translucent, jellyish substance through which tiny will-o'-wisps float through aimlessly, only slightly illuminating the indigo depths beyond.
Varanim As she goes, Varanim extends her senses again, considering how short a span of time is required to transfigure the Labyrinth into a welcome escape route. She keeps the knife in her right hand and runs the left along the wall, experimentally.
Doctor The wall is cool and clammy to the touch, and gives way slightly -- disturbing the wisps within -- like a paraffined sack filled with water.
Doctor As the first bends and twists and forks begin to appear, Varanim sharpens her senses -- possibly clarified by the dull throbbing in her shoulder -- and, this time, ensures that she turns /away/ from the regions of greatest necrotic Essence. (...)
Doctor She bends and turns through the Labyrinth, as the wisps give way to strange fish, then the translucent jelly to blood, then the rough walls to fractal glass cubes... until, finally, the passageway emerges into a cave -- a /real/ cave.
Varanim Suspicious, Varanim continues into the cavern, expecting the rocks to turn into charred flesh or interlocked bone or something quite shortly.
Doctor Varanim follows the walls of the cave along, and -- a short while after the pile of refuse that indicates that, at one time, a bear lived here -- she finds something else: the entrance, where the cave opens up onto a bright, chill mountain crag.
Varanim blinks, eyes streaming in the brilliance, and savors the view for a long minute. She looks back at the tunnel and croaks, "Incomplete." Then she takes the knife and scratches the characters for her name in the wall by the entrance, replacing her old mark for 'the younger' with 'the last.'
Doctor The stone breaks easily under her blade.
Varanim Baring her teeth in a smile at the marker, Varanim begins the business of descending down into the real world again.
Doctor Varanim walks out of the cave, over the nearest ridge -- and is greeted by quite a sight: the line of mountains here is split in twain, as if by a great force... and on the near side, almost completely hidden from most vantage points besides where the Solar stands now, a single, elegant tower spirals up towards the sky like Varanim's own ascent from the depths of hell.