zee "Hmmm." She makes a show of looking thoughtful. "So you want to see the shadowlands within the Sunlands?"
Varanim "Yep." Varanim is dressed for serious business: relatively unshabby clothing in hard-to-stain colors, arm all wrapped up neatly, staff slung over her shoulders.
Varanim "Of course, I can go on my own, but it'll take me a few months to do the walk..."
zee smiles a bit. "Indeed. But flying is more fun, don't you think?" She walks out into the courtyard and gives two sharp whistles. Soon enough, two creatures appear. One, a fearsome manticore with a human face, lion's body and barbed tail has great golden wings, feathered like those of an eagle. The other, an achingly beautiful, yet utterly alien wasp creature, has gossamer wings that flutter too fast to see until they land. She pu
zee She pulls herself astride the mantacore. "This is Tantamount. I never asked what yours calls itself."
Varanim "Given what I drink, let's hope she calls herself Steady." Varanim climbs aboard.
Varanim She leans down by the wasp's head to add reassuringly, "Don't worry, I rarely vomit on the first date."
zee chuckles, and the two set off for the nearest shadowland, Zee pointing out interesting landmarks such as the place where she slayed the wyld flower, etc.
The wasp clicks and purrs in an alien fashion that seems to express vague disapproval, but in a ludicrously beautiful fashion, yet gracefully allows Varamin to mount nonetheless.
Varanim would never admit it, but she enjoys the flight. As they get close to the Shadowland, though, she puts her work senses on.
The nearby shadowland stretches out, a tiny section of the largely uninhabited forest, marked by the bones of creatures not quite human jutting from the earth, the causeof their death likely never to be known. It covers less than a square mile -- not big by any stretch, and the local barbarians have easily learned to bypass it in their daily travels.
Varanim "No structural extrusions, at least," Varanim calls over to Zahara. "Do you know the history on this one?"
zee "This one was here before I built the Sunlands." She shrugs a little, "The bones are intriguing though, don't you think?"
Varanim grunts agreement, scowling down thoughtfully and nudging her wasp lower.
zee "I thought perhaps they were Wyld twisted, but I hadn't really studied them up close; I had other things on my mind."
Varanim "Yes, I hear being an empress is boring that way," Varanim says without a trace of irony as she finishes circling lower and hops lightly off to land on the ground. She starts humming to herself as she steps through the tainted area, using her staff to measure bone size and distance, tasting residue from the ground, sniffing the breeze, and generally looking as happy as a pig in shit.
zee watches her with a tinge of amusement
Within moments, some of the facts about the zone become clear: the bones belong to at least five distinct species, some probably more sentient than others; a large battle took place on the spot, but it's unlikely that that actually led to the creation of the Shadowland --
because all the bones of four species are quite old, while all the bones of the fifth are less than a thousand years old, and they seem to be carefully arranged to fit seamlessly into the accidental ordering of the older bones.
zee "It does get tiresome, sometimes."
Varanim "Huh. Now why would someone want to make the bones of bachelor number five"--she points her staff at one of the newer skeletons accusingly--"fit in with a party that ended long before they arrived?"
zee blinks, and moves over to where she's pointing, looking at the bones with her essence sight. "Perhaps to work some sorcery?"
Varanim "Or to finish a pattern that was started? Might be the same thing, of course." While Zahara scans the normal essence flows, Varanim nicks one of her fingertips and drips blood into one eye to check the other side of the Shroud.
In a rather unusual turn of events for the Underworld, the Netheos side of matters appears to be rather more settled: a large portion of the nether-forest has been cleared out just nearby, and a hut built of bones and skins (those of species #1 and #3, by the looks of it) sits off to one side, a recently-lit ghostflame lantern glowing balefully to one side.
Varanim "Beware the fearsome... uh, housekeeper ghost?" Varanim glances over at Zahara. "What's it look like on the live side?"
zee shrugs, "Looks pretty normal, really. Just shadowland energies."
Varanim cocks an eye at the sun. "Not long 'til dark. C'mon, it'll be fun."
Zahara hangs out patiently til nightfal
The sun of Creation dips below the hills and is extinguished for the evening, and the chill blanket of night washes over the land.
Varanim stands as the embers of daylight die. "All right. Trust me, these things always end well." She heads for the bone hut.
Zahara "Ah, yes, of course. And that's why you've still got all your limbs intact." She nonetheless follows 'nim
The door of the hut, around the far side, is a single tanned hide, split down the middle into two flaps, and decorated at the edge with approximately seventeen skulls of various and sundry denominations.
Varanim "It isn't nice to make fun of cripples," Varanim says over her shoulder to Zahara as she appraises the skulls, then pokes her head in the door.
Zahara checks out the skulls curiously as she waits to see if varanim's head emerges unscathed
Zahara "oh, does that mean you think I'm nice?"
The inside of the hut is -- at least currently -- empty of inhabitants, though a variety of objects fill it out quite effectively instead. A shocking variety of objects clearly taken from various nearby Sunlands cities crowd busted shelves, in between stacks and stacks of hastily-piled ghost paper and empty pots of ink.
Zahara "Anything interesting in there?"
Varanim "Oh, wow, there's a really scary ghost in here. You'd better stay outside where it's safe," Varanim says, ducking inside and taking six precise steps around the room, picking out objects of significance to touch that will tell her about the person who left them.
Zahara "You sound absolutely terrified," she says drily
The picture of what sort of deranged mind would take all these objects begins to form for Varanim: someone dead (clearly), perhaps a little unhinged from the experience; (...)
some of the objects are clearly here because some odd aspect, some tiny irrelevant part dredged up a memory or sparked a half-thought rendered incomplete by death. But most of them have a more clear purpose: (...)
Zahara paces around outside the hut, looking for... suspicious...activity
they were clearly taken by a person looking to gain information about the culture of the Sunlands and its state of activity. (...)
The notes complete the picture, for in them is scrawled, in a childish, crazed hand, elaborate and extensive reports on the comings and goings of individuals from Solaria, presumably noted down by the ghost who dwelt in this hut -- (...)
and those notes date back over a year, and include frequent (if incomplete) mentions of the whereabouts of the Solars.
Varanim "This is amazing!" she calls out. "I think you have... a fan!"
Zahara "What sort of fan?" She pokes her head into the tent, now somewhat bored with the grey landscape
Varanim "The kind with sticky fingers and terrible handwriting." She holds an example page out to Zahara.
Zahara peruses the piece
Varanim Picking up another one, she turns her eye for pattern from the general to the specific, constructing in her mind a picture of the writer and a sense of how far away they might be.
Varanim can feel it: the owner of this hut is less than a mile, but more than 1/10th of a mile, away.
Zahara absently folds the note into a paper crane
Varanim "Hm. Close, but not right outside," Varanim says a little obscurely, looking over at Zahara. "How good is this record of the Circle's business?"
The record is not the work of a spymaster, certainly, but the ability of a ghost to wander undetected has been put to good use: it has a quite thorough record of anything that might have been any form of public record within the Sunlands, and quite a few events that were subject to at least a certain amount of obfuscation.
Zahara "It's not too shabby. I should suggest ghostly spies to Cerin, he'd probably be interested. Or eat their souls. One or the other."
Varanim "You know, you people should take vacations a little more often," Varanim says, putting down a piece of pottery. "Tonight, though, I want to see who comes back."
Zahara "I was just contemplating a vacation, actually. If only the world would stop for a bit."
Varanim "It never does, you know," says Varanim. "You have to learn to walk away." She settles down to sift through the room more carefully, with seemingly endless patience.
Zahara "I cannot simply abdicate responsibility for my lands." She sighs. "Though It'd be interesting to see what happened if I left bertie to do it for a month."
Varanim snorts and keeps reading.
Zahara leaves the hut again, pacing and looking about the shadowland uneasily
The two pour through the evidence for a while before Varanim's owner-related senses give her a heads up: the denizen of the cottage is returning her way.
Varanim ambles outside to wait, looking up at the stars with rather more evidence of contentment than Zahara usually sees on her in the living world.
Zahara absently makes a few chairs and a table out of aether.
After a short while, the "person" who dwells within the hut ambles up the road -- an emaciatedly-thin ghost of transplanted southern heritage, wearing a set of animal-fur robes, all held together at his neck with a rather impressive looking cast-iron broach -- in the shape of a lion's head. (...)
He's dragging a sack of some kind behind him, down the road
Varanim Varanim, slouched against the side of the hut with her staff leaning next to her, says "Hi."
The ghost, noticing his "visitor" for the first time, practically jumps out of his ectoplasmic skin, then does the only sensible thing for someone to do in this situation -- he bolts.
Varanim "I'm going to be annoyed if I have to catch you!" Varanim calls after him.
Zahara sends her bell skimming along the ground, an eerily echoing peal rumbling along the ground, riiight about at shin-height.
The ghost falls to the ground with a lightweight, papery "thud."
zahara sniffs a little. "Ah, see, now you don't have to be annoyed."
Varanim lopes toward the ghost, planting the tip of her staff firmly on the lion's head at his neck. "How does it go?" she muses for a moment, then her face flashes 'aha' and reshapes itself into an exaggerated scowl. "Only guilty people run."
zahara strolls over, letting Varanim do all the proper threatening.
Anselin The ghost looks worried, but Varanim's taunt does not seem to particularly worry him more. "I have done nothing!," he says, in a papery, ruffled voice.
Varanim "I don't believe you," says Varanim, "but it's nothing personal, since there isn't a person born--let alone died--who isn't a filthy liar." She breathes over her soulsteel palm, watching as her breath mists and shapes itself into forms of his fetters and passions.
zahara glances over her shoulder and Tantamount pads over. She leans against his broad shoulder and watches Varanim's essence as she works her magics, "She makes an excellent point."
Anselin The things tying this particular ghost to the world are all rather conventional -- family troubles, a farm, that sort of thing -- but what's particularly notable about them in this case is that in the vision, they seem to be held in the grip of a very familiar-looking iron gauntlet.
Varanim doesn't sigh, but the gleam of curiosity in her eye transmutes to a more familar one of weary cynicism. "He must have known I'd find you," she says to the ghost. "How many others are watching?"
Anselin "...there are two others," he says. "That I know of."
zahara steps away from the manticore and plucks the bag from the ground. "You don't mind if I open this, do you?"
Anselin The man tries to signal his dislike of this plan, although it's clear that he does not particularly have any leverage to achieve his goal here.
Varanim "Besides watching and being kneecapped by wandering aristocrats, what are your instructions?" A little absently, she remembers that she now has a group decoder ring. ::The Lion is mighty interested in the Sunlands. Have you been advertising for tourists?::
zahara "Was that a yes? Oh good." She nudges the bag open slightly, making sure nothing horrible is going to hop out at her or some such, before opening it fully. ::Actually, before You came... we had not had many dealings with him.:: then, reflectively, ::Lucent is from the south though. And there was that Shadowed Unlife Equation thing. And Kai.::
zahara cocks her head to one side. :: And he killed me once.::
Anselin looks up with uncertainty at the two Solars. "I am supposed to collect things, sometimes." (...)
Anselin As if to punctuate that, Zahara looks inside the sack, where there are a variety of objects: three sets of Sunlands Army uniforms (of various ranks), some ceremonial items from the standard Faith Ecliptic altar setup, a few lumps of jade and stacks of Sunlands paper currency -- and six recently severed hands.
zahara holds up a hand, pointing it at the ghost. "Are any of these yours?"
Anselin "No," he says, a little sullenly.
zahara "Let me guess, they were just lying around."
Anselin "You could say that," he says.
zahara "It's a shame when people aren't using their hands. Varanim here knows all about that."
Varanim "Oh," Varanim says, brightening a moment, "nice cripple humor."
Varanim She fishes a small prism out of one pocket and holds it up before her caste mark. Ruddy flecks of light flicker around the hands for a moment.
Anselin Varanim looks at the hands closely. They seem to be from six different individuals, all Sunlanders; they seem to be people from reasonably significant positions -- a high-ranking acolyte in the Faith Ecliptic, a regional police chief, and so on.
zahara arrays the hands on the ground in a sort of Hexagon on the ground, brushing Tanty away when he sniffs them. Then she pulls out one of the uniforms, brushing the wrinkles out, and looking for errant bloodstains. "I wonder if Bertrand would like this."
Varanim "Now," Varanim says, glancing back to the ghost, "if I were to go looking for this particular chief--which would be a funny thing for me to do, considering my criminal record, but bear with me--what would I find?"
Anselin "....you would have to look pretty carefully."
Varanim "Pretend I am much more responsible than I dress, and that I look very carefully."
Anselin "Some... remains? Some."
zahara "IF you could skip the attempting to hide things from us that would save you quite a bit of trouble."
Varanim "What are the hands for?" Varanim has any number of speculations--it's sort of like a finger food buffet.
Anselin "They are for... access."
Zahara sighs. "I was afraid you were going to say that." She regards him. "And, how long have you been collecting hands and uniforms and such?"
Varanim ::Access to what?::
Anselin "I just started these last week," he says. "This was a new order."
Zahara ::I imagine, to the places that these people used to have access to before they were turned into very small pieces::
Zahara "How many do they have already?"
Anselin "What I know is how many hands I have. Which," he looks at the bag, "you now also know."
Varanim "Does your boss have similar spies in other places, or is he just extra-special annoyed at the Sunlands? I mean, I could sort of understand, but I think if he gave the empress a chance he'd find that she's tolerable."
Zahara smirks, "Why thank you, Varanim. You're simply too kind."
Anselin` "I don't know what my boss does elsewhere. I just do what I'm asked," he says, "that's what they pay me for." And he starts giggling in a rather unnerving fashion.
Zahara "Is something amusing?"
Varanim ::Do you have any important questions left for him?::
Zahara ::Mhmmm... regarding his boss' interest in my family line.::
Anselin` continues laughing harder and harder, something clearly having caught his "interest."
Zahara very slowly closes her hand around his throat until the laughter is choked off.
Varanim ::Then ask now.::
Zahara glances behind herself just in case, then turns back to him and says coldly, "Tell me about Ne."
Anselin` "I..." He attempts to squeeze out words between Zahara's harshly gripping fingers. "I... don't... what is... that"
Zahara eases up enough on his throat so he can speak, then traces the character onto his chest with a razor-edged blade she pulls from the air and smooths into being. "Like this. Is he involved in this?"
Varanim narrows her eyes at the cutting. "Is he interested in Zahara specifically, or not?"
Anselin` "I have... four people I'm... supposed to watch for specifically," he says. "I have to... record everything... I can about them."
Zahara "Which four"
Anselin` "Za...hara, Kai, Imram....a, and Varanim."
Zahara "Varanim already?"
Varanim waves her hand in annoyance. "Some people can't handle rejection."
Varanim "One more question," she says to the ghost, "and I encourage you to think carefully before answering. Do you want to keep working for your boss?"
Anselin` gets pretty quiet.
Varanim simply waits, with every indication that she doesn't care how long it takes for him to answer.
Zahara shakes him a little. "I advise you to answer truthfully"
Varanim "Ssh," Varanim says mildly without even looking around.
Zahara eyes Varanim for a second, then drops the ghost and steps back, crossing her arms.
Iallu Anselin: "I.... I'm..." he trails off.
Varanim "Mm. CAN you answer that question? Speaking mystically now, not existentially."
Iallu Anselin begins laughing again.
Varanim looks at him reflectively for a moment, then she tilts her face back and whispers one of the secret names of the sign of the Spiral. Her breath coalesces on the air in a fist-sized nimbus of misty light. She reaches up to cup it in between her palms, and the glow transfers itself to her hands.
Iallu Anselin begins to laugh harder and harder, and lines of stress begin to write themselves across his face. It's starting to look painful now.
Varanim There is a tiny hissing sound from Varanim's arm, as if a hundred alloyed souls breathed a wistful sigh at once, and a halo of ruddy Essence streamers blossoms around her head as she reaches out her hands to touch the sides of Anselin's head.
Iallu Her hands touch the side of the ghost's head, and ghostly smoke begins to rise up from where she's touched him. (...)
Iallu After a moment, his laughter shifts into a pained scream, but the warm light from Varanim's hands then begins to spread over his body, calming both the laughter and the pain, and he begins to relax into the soothing call of Lethe.
Zee eyes the ghost's transformation skeptically. "What is it with you people and your leniency" she grates, staring through the ghost at Varanim
Varanim Varanim's eyes are calm and faraway, then she refocuses her gaze on Zahara and scowls in a more familiar expression. "I'm not sure that sentence makes any sense either together or in pieces. 'You people'?"
Iallu After a moment, the ectoplasmic form of Anselin vanishes into emptiness, leaving behind the faint scent of rose and cardamom.
Zee "If it makes it easier for you to think about, pretend I stopped at 'you' " She begins to pace out the edge of the shadowland, finding its shape.
Varanim "That's all right, I'm comfortable thinking about difficult things, like how they get the filling in pork buns without leaving a dimple." Varanim straightens, looping her staff behind her shoulders and using it to crack her joints noisily.
Varanim "You said 'you people,' which means you're lumping me in with some group--my guess is the Circle, which is sort of hilarious already but I'll let that pass."
Zee "Just stop talking."
Zee continues her pacing, dragging a pointed stick behind her and inscribing various runes
Varanim "But rhetorical questions are my favorites," Varanim sighs. She walks toward the hut of bones, a swirl of rose and cardamom clinging to her anima, and pulls a piece of charcoal from a pocket to draw a rune of her own on the door.
Varanim It looks suspiciously like a stylized lion head with little x's for eyes.
Zee 's runes look suspiciously like the sort that let ghosts in, but not back out. They are not particularly well disguised.
Varanim disappears into the hut for a minute, coming out with some papers, and scoops up the pin as well. "What disgusting things have you seen?" she asks it in a 'talking to a cute baby' tone, then drops it in a pocket.
Zee idly ponders how well the Lion pays
Varanim "Can I ask if you're finished, or are we still fighting?" Varanim eyes Zahara's markings with professional curiosity.
Zee "I'm not finished." She eyes the shadowland balefully, glances up at the sky, and kicks a rock aside before she begins circling it again, chanting in a liquid tongue. Golden light trails in her wake, perhaps flashier than it really needs to be.
Varanim happily (or at least quietly) inspects bones while Zahara works, possibly fighting imaginary dinosaur-battles in her head.
Zee 's ritual is not complex, but it lays the foundation for later works. And it is perhaps an enormous golden sign saying Zahara Was Here. Just in case he didn't notice.
Varanim "Tacky," Varanim sniffs, without apparent irony.
Zee does not favor the necromancer with a reply.