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Varanim leaves the Cascade without fuss, pack and staff done up like usual. She walks for a couple of hours, stopping at a glade she likes and eating her lunch. When she's done, she takes the Doctor's knife from her bag, unwraps it, and cradles it in her hands, turning it over and examining every detail of the blade, the way light strikes it, the weight of it. (...)

Varanim When she can visualize it perfectly in her head--it takes about twenty minutes until she's satisfied--she closes her eyes, ceases to move her hands, and rebuilds it entirely in her mind, exact in every detail. And when that reconstruction pleases her, she bends her will upon its history.

Every moment of the knife's history floods into Varanim's mind, from the moment the Doctor forged it in a basin of blood on the side of a mountain in the deep South, to his first "surgery" upon a barbarian who wandered from the flock, to his bearing it to his secretive manse in the foothills near Paragon, all the way to his trip to the Thousand to operate on Varanim.

Several ghostly servants who seem to be bound to the Doctor's manse figure prominently in the knife's history, including Herebec, who appears to be the Doctor's usual head ghost-nurse, and Ten Fingers, who manages the household ghosts and other domestic services.

Varanim After the flood of the knife's history, Varanim takes care of the normal business, like washing the taste of vomit out of her mouth with cheap booze. Then she hikes for a while longer, until sunset finds her on a burnt rock outcrop by a lightning-blasted tree. She starts with the customary slashed palm, dripping a stream of blood in an unbroken circle over the charred ground. (...)

Varanim Then she sits and begins the hour-long ritual, a circle of words and ideas to match the blood offering marked on the ground. She stares at the circle and thinks; every thirty or sixty seconds, she speaks a word. They wander across language and nuance, circling the concept of the chosen name in ever closer spirals. The noose around his name ends with her final words on the stroke of the...

Varanim ...hour--"Ten Fingers"--as she channels her Essence out across the night.

Within the circle, the flows shift and churn, the Essence of beings long dead twisting and turning amidst that of those that have died since the last sunrise, until finally the flows coalesce into Varanim's target: the ghostly butler named Ten Fingers, an abnormally tall and stern looking gaunt gentlemen in a blood-red ectoplasmic tuxedo.

Varanim "Hi," says the seated Varanim, pushing her hair back from her forehead and her now-gleaming caste mark. "I need to talk to your boss."

TenFingers is a little taken aback at this astonishing turn of events. "Whooooo are yoooooou?"

Varanim beams. "I'm his favorite patient, and I left without my lollipop. Plus, he has my arm." On that subject, the Essence expenditure of the day's magic seems to have triggered some kind of low-grade writhing under the bandages, though not enough to tear them yet.

TenFingers recoils in seeming mock-horror. "Ohhhh deeeeeear," he says. "Whaaat doooo you neeeeeeeed to tellllll the Doooooctor?"

Varanim "I need to ask him about my disease," says Varanim, feeling proprietary about her number 18. "Now, there's a couple of ways we can do it. I can give you a nice letter, and bring you up again after a while for an answer. Or I can call direct, which I have on good authority will hurt rather a lot. What are the odds of you trying to screw with me on this, Ten Fingers?"

TenFingers gives Varanim the stinkeye for a moment as he warily considers her question. He does not answer, because unfortunately for him, he has cone to the conclusion that the odds of him trying to screw her on it are pretty darn high.

Varanim "Yeah, that's what I thought," Varanim says after a heavy moment of silence. "Hold still a minute."

Varanim She carves her left hand through the air, between igniting shreds of violet and ruddy-gold anima, in a twisty disquieting gesture that ends with the hand palm-up in front of her eyes. She inspects him across the miniature stage of shivering soulsteel, watching his Passions and Fetters play across it in brief visions.

TenFingers The petty animating forces behind Ten Fingers' unlife are barely worth Varanim's time but for their utility in her larger goal; nonetheless, the knowledge of his failure in life at his service professions, his desire to once again possess his lost sailing vessel, and his irrational attachment to the living tribe who mirror the Manse's location are hers now to manipulate.

Varanim "You've been a peach, Ten Fingers," Varanim says after a moment. "I'll call soon. Give the Doctor a kiss for me. Now scoot, unless you have something interesting to say."

TenFingers "The Doooooctooooor is nooooooot a man of strooooooooooong generoooooosity," he says, and attempts to look snootily down his nose at Varanim as she banishes him away.

Varanim "Who is?" Varanim waves a hand dismissively, then climbs to her feet and begins scuffing out the circle.

Varanim finishes obliterating the blood circle and takes another drink, leaning back against the blackened tree stump and staring up at the night sky. She begins whispering then, matching cadence with the most unsettling rhythms of her nightmares, finding the secret route that carries her words into distant corridors of the night.

Varanim She casts her mind loose, hunting Ten Fingers with the thread she has set into him.

TenFingers Varanim feels her senses shift, her perceptions rocket through the torn Shroud between worlds, her eyes settle behind Ten Fingers' dead sockets. Through a reddish haze, she sees that he is, unsurprisingly, tearing through the Manse to report this encounter to his boss. (...)

TenFingers A few moments later, he comes face to face with a person she assumes must be the Doctor: broad-shouldered and utterly bald, with an olive complexion tainted by a deathly pall; his casually handsome features sit atop a neat black suit, while his surprisingly delicate hands bear several ruby and pearl rings.

TenFingers begins to talk rapidly and incoherently to the Doctor.

Varanim On the hillside, Varanim's anima is now visible from far away: an immense, symmetric tower of eyes in matched pairs of sunset hues, the spaces between them filled with unreadable script of indigo and smoky violet. Far away and across the Shroud, some of that glory still resonates in her voice as she takes Ten Fingers' mouth.

Varanim "Is this thing on?" Then again, Varanim was never much given to glory.

Doctor leans back and examines the ghost. "Hmmmmmm. The voice is familiar," he says, rubbing his chin.

Varanim "Do the words 'aargh, aargh, my arm' refresh your memory?" Varanim prompts helpfully.

Doctor pauses for a moment, then smiles. "Varanim!" He gestures broadly with his hands. "I'd been wondering what happened to you."

Varanim "Mostly boring things. But recently I was discussing a horrible disease, and thought of you." Varanim can be a bit of a flirt.

Doctor smiles charmingly with about the right 60% of his mouth, and his eyebrows fluff subtly but noticeably. "I'm glad I was able to leave such a mark in our short time together."

Varanim "Several marks, even. But small talk aside, I need to talk to you about Creeping Black Sun Sickness."

Doctor "Ah, yes," he says. He pulls up a chair and seats himself. "One of the more poorly understood Third Circle Spiritual Diseases. Very little casework. Not many documented cases."

Varanim "How does it manifest?" Varanim has found some scribbled references to catching the disease--which do not rule out Lucien as a patient--but few other details.

Doctor "In seven cases, after interactions with emenations of the Abyss. In one case, as a result of direct exposure to the Malfeans. In two, after an inauspicious death during a full Solar eclipse. In three, after being within a Shadowland when it descended into Netheos. In the other cases, there is no noted cause." (...)

Doctor "The disease begins manifestation as a mark of a seven-pointed sun at the extremity of the affected body part, and begins to expand from there, sendin tendrils of darkness slowly towards the center of the body, while the afflicted extremity withers." (...)

Doctor "During that time, the initial sun mark becomes luminescent and shines with its own dark illumination, which causes its own, lesser withering effects on flora and fauna; its light grows stronger as the remainder of the victim is infected, until eventually it absorbs the remainder of their person and flies off to permanently affix itself in the heavens of Netheos."

Varanim "Is there a known case of infection in the Essence pattern, rather than a specific body part?"

Doctor "Hrrmm." He strokes his chin and thinks for a moment. "I don't believe there's any specific examples of that." He pauses again. "Why do you ask?"

Varanim "I'm thinking of telling someone I know that he either has Essence acne or is dying of something horrible, and seeing which explanation he goes for. I'm betting on the disease--it's way sexier."

Varanim "Plus, he apparently let a Malfean touch him in his head place. So it seemed relevant."

Doctor "A....ha." He shifts in his seat a little. "Well, I am always taking referrals of interesting cases," he says, with a grin that bares teeth a little sharper than they perhaps should be. (...)

Doctor Returning to a more composed state almost immediately: "It'll be easy to tell if your friend has the Creeping Black Sun Sickness, however; the onset is relatively rapid. Do you see images of black suns raking across the landscape and scouring all life from existence when you look at his Essence pattern?"

Varanim "Hm, no, I think I'd have noticed that," Varanim says, a little vexed. Then, brightening, "I bet there's some great exploratory surgery I can do, now that I don't have to figure out how to amputate his spiritual bits."

Varanim "By the way, what did you do with the arm?"

Doctor chuckles. "I also offer introductory courses in necrosurgery, at a discount if you can provide your own experimental patients."

Doctor "Oh, the arm? I froze it for later study."

Varanim is silent for a moment in a distinctly thoughtful manner, as if perhaps considering how difficult it might be to rearrange her schedule for academic study. "I'm actually a worse student than an employee. And... oh, your butler seems to be melting a bit. That probably means I should go soon."

Doctor nods. "Probably. If you need more details, there's a book you should be able to dig up... The Pathology of Spiritual Ailments, I think there's a copy in the library at Juche." He pauses, and begins to become wobbly as the spell's duration fades out. "Oh, and Varanim?"

Varanim "Eh?"

Doctor "I'm still looking forward to seeing your Conversion completed," he says, and the dangerous, toothy grin is the last thing she sees before her consciousness shoots back across the boundary between living and dead and into her body once again.

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