Varanim directed them to the Shadowland when the sun was still fading, wearing her work clothes which were mostly indistinguishable from her slouching clothes, staff slung over her shoulder. "We're looking for chthonic architecture," she says as the last of the sunset ebbs away. "Much like pornography, you know it when you see it. If we're lucky, it'll have a hole."
Verbena "And what do you want me to do when I do see it, exactly?"
Varanim "Do I look like a geomancer? Do whatever Essence squinting you do, I'll do mine, and we'll see how far it takes us. And, uh, try not to get separated."
Verbena nods. "Of course," she says, and walks fearlessly over the border, into the death-tainted region. "Do you always do a lot of field work like this?" she says as she walks.
Varanim considers the question, hands in her pockets and rope sandals scuffing on the tainted ground. "Most stuff is boring--fix salt line here, point out obvious murderer to quiet whiny ghost there. For the questions worth asking, I'm mostly making it up as I go every time."
Varanim She grins over-broadly at Verbena. "Keeps things fresh, you know?"
Verbena "Mmhmm," she says, a little distractedly. She begins poking through the various trees and shrubs, looking for signs of the unusual. "So how did you wind up here?"
Varanim lets her eyes roam over the landscape, inspecting Essence flows as well as physical objects, casting a glance at the stars too--it never pays to forget to look up. "Oh, I lost a bet."
Varanim "Also, needed more research backing."
Verbena raises an eyebrow. "What would you have gotten if you'd won?"
Varanim "Some widget looted from a First Age tomb that Yven never could get to work. I tried to tell him I am a great and powerful sorceress now, but he never listens to me." The great and powerful Varanim scratches under one arm, then looks at Verbena curiously. "Are you getting what you expected from the Sunlands?"
Verbena "That's a good question," she says. She looks at a nearby thicket with irritation, squinting one eye at it. "If you had to guess, what was I expecting?"
Varanim shrugs, considering the question. "Typically, prestige or protection. But there are better libraries, so you're looking for something specific to the Sunlands. If it was to bask in the munificent glow of Solar company, I imagine you'd have woken up and left already."
Verbena "Oh, really?," she says. Finally convinced that the bushes are not going to move themselves, she effortlessly slides something out of one of her sleeves: a tiny puzzle cube, assembled of distinct colors of jade. She slides half of it over the other half, and as if to match her gesture a great wind briefly kicks up, flattening the offending shrubbery.
Varanim Varanim, who was about roll her staff out of the shoulders to push at the offending growth, looks over at Verbena sardonically. "Cerin is a figment, Zahara is a monarch, Imrama's living some epic in his head, Lucent's a loon, and Phoenix... well, maybe she's a role model. But you don't really talk like a great cause-joiner."
Verbena "No," she says, tucking her cube back into her outfit. "I am not." She looks at the remnants of the underbrush she has just so artlessly cleared. "This heaving mass of bluish-black necrotic rockflesh, spiralling down into the depths of the earth. Is this what you were looking for?"
Varanim brightens. "Oh, I bet." She ambles forward to inspect the site, humming tunelessly. "But," she adds over her shoulder, "it won't be necessary to do that thing where you answer personal questions with attempts to analyze me. It's much faster to be snappish and unfriendly, although I'll grant it lacks the intellectual gloss."
Verbena What lies beneath the bushes is much as she suggested: a yawning, necrotic chasm into the abyss. (...)
Verbena "Oh, if I decide to analyze you, I doubt I'll broadcast it." She looks over Varanim, one eye scrunched up very slightly. "Analysis is a tool for serious study."
Varanim "Trust me, I won't bear much of that. I'm boring." Varanim skirts the edge of the chasm, eyeballing its ease of climbing. "How deep does it seem to go? I suspect the accuracy goes to hell somewhere, but it's good to know what lies we're starting from."
Verbena looks down it carefully. "Maybe 1000 feet? It looks like it curves off after a certain point, and it's hard to be certain after that."
Varanim rocks back and forth on her heels; on a less habitually grumpy person, it might resemble bouncing with excitement. "In the Labyrinth, I fell into a hole somewhere under the northern wastes and woke up in the South with absolutely no idea how I'd gotten there. Do you have any idea how rare that is?" She looks for a good descent point.
Verbena The walls head more or less straight down, but are not sheer by any means; any decent climber should be able to work their way down without too much difficulty. (...)
Verbena draws a few figures on the air in golden chalk, quickly. "How long was it before you woke up?"
Varanim "From the state of the dried plasm and the stars, about three days. Ish."
Verbena "Interesting," she says, and wipes out her calculations with a flick of her wrist. "Well? Are we going down?"
Varanim "Remember," says Varanim cheerfully as she starts the descent, "if we meet any Deathlords, just say no!"
Verbena rolls her eyes and descends after her.
Varanim "Kids these days, always sassing their elders' advice." Varanim hums as she goes, but her senses are sharp and she keeps half an eye on Verbena's progress.
Verbena It is, indeed, quite close to 1000 feet before the Labyrinth passageway slopes out to a walkable grade, its walls beginning to shift into an unidentifiable blackish-brown substance. "Well, here we are."
Varanim "Ah," Varanim says, poking one finger against the strange walls as they walk. "That's more like it. What do the dragon lines or twinkle-pools or whatever look like down here?"
Verbena "Essence doesn't really... flow here," she says, running her hands over the surface, a far-off look in her eyes. (...)
Verbena "The tunnels here are tiny pieces of Netheos geography, held together in a medium created from Primordial quintessence... like an evil tapioca."
Varanim grunts thoughtfully. "I know there are people who can stir the tapioca, but I'm not one of them." A little yet hangs like a silent 'e' at the end of the sentence. "What about the tunnels--small or large pearls?"
Varanim She begins to ponder attempting an artificial Essence flow as a tracer, although some sort of medium would be required.
Verbena "These are the smaller pieces," she says. "You can actually spot the seams, if you look closely." She nods towards an area a little ways down the hall.
Varanim goes to investigate, looking for a visible transition.
Verbena It's quite subtle, almost impossible to see, for there is no Essence signature there -- only the very slightest misalignment of the motes present at the transition border -- but after a moment, Varanim is finally able to find the thin, almost invisible transition point.
Varanim "Cute," Varanim says with grudging appreciation. "I wonder how deep the discontinuity goes?" She brings her right hand to her left wrist, scratching at the soulsteel skin until a bit juts up--then she pulls a long strip away like so much apple peel, winding it off her arm along the contours of the faint writing there. (...)
Varanim Using her staff to pin down the trailing end, she takes a step back, the long ribbon of skin still attached to her arm, bridging the gap between the two sections.
Verbena There's something a little funny about it. The transition between the two portions of the tunnel definitely... functions, but there's a minor discontinuity in the Essence flow through the ribbon of soulsteel, not unlike that found in the walls.
Varanim "That feels weird," she says, though it's not completely clear whether she means her slightly disassembled arm or just the Essence trickle she's feeding through it. As she wraps her skin back on carefully, she says, "But if that's all there was to it, someone would have mapped the thing centuries ago, spectres or no. What about signs of shifting?"
Verbena "That's an excellent question," she says. "If we knew the answer, we'd probably be all set."
Varanim "I'm supposed to be the snippy one," Varanim complains as she walks further on. "Well, if things are laterally jumbled, there may still be a preferred vertical direction. Can you tell if any of these sections have more..." she trails off for a second, waving her hand as she seeks the right word. "Voidiness \to them?"
Verbena "Well, you know more about the Labyrinth than I do. I'm just here for the geospatial topology." She looks around for a moment. "Off the top of my head, though, it seems like the level of motonic necrosis is gradiant over each individual piece. Here." (...)
Verbena She points out the opposite end of the same individual hallway chunk, perhaps six feet away, and her suggestion does indeed appear to be accurate: the presence of void energies are slightly lower at the end closer to the surface entrance.
Varanim "Hm, maybe it re-equilibrates, then. Too bad. Say," she says, another thought striking her, "what would it take to build a Manse down here?"
Verbena "Hmmm. Well, let me see." She takes the chalk out and starts sketching again. (...)
Verbena "First, you'd need a sufficiently large piece of geospatially-contiguous real estate. One that hadn't already been... settled." She shudders dramatically, for emphasis.
Verbena "Then, building materials that resonated with the local flows. Probably have to import them." (...)
Verbena "Thirdly, you'd need to work out the inputs. You'd need to work out the range of possible essence shift values that could occur at each entrance point, then build miniature structures that could compensate for that variance by storing void energy when it rose too high and then providing it back into the system when it fell." (...)
Verbena "If you did all that... in a location with a high enough basic Essence presence, utilizing geometry from the Ji Negation school of architecture, and a sufficiently creepy hearthstone design in mind... it should be possible."
Varanim "Gosh," says Varanim with a feverish gleam kindling in her eyes, "that all sounds just next door to impossible." She stalks off down the hallway, adding to her mental map for resampling at a later date.