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Varanim Carrying nothing but the clothes on her back, leaving the various illusions of the world behind, Varanim walks away from Solaria. Her path tends east and north, with no destination in mind but isolation.

Varanim Once she's left the city behind, she steps off the road to find a quiet grove, and a few moments later a cold gust of wind is the only trace of her left in the sunlight. In Netheos, she calls up one of the great Labyrinth worms to carry her for a time, adding enough distance to avoid accidental meetings with the others when she resumes walking.

The Ulashtorim tears through the bowels of the Labyrinth at incredible speed, burrowing through the twisted echo of the Underways it once called its home in another age, while its kind still brimmed with life... (...)

Undirected, its purpose unguided by she who summoned it, the beast goes far afield, taking her away from the prying eyes of the Sunlands Solars. When it finally chooses to deposit her once again, she finds herself in a land quite distant from where she began: (...)

the distant north, past even the White Sea, in the lands where the harsh white ice holds in it the faces of a thousand souls, who perished in the cold; where even the shades of long-extinct predators hide under rocks at night, to hunt only during the day; where the bite of the cold winds bypasses the body entirely and tears directly into the soul.

Varanim looks on the broken expanse of the ice fields, barren of both people and hospitality, and finds them acceptable. She sets about looking for shelter, the cold bite of the ring on her finger reminding her to take it off.

The plain is large, empty, and bitterly cold, and finding shelter upon it is easier said than done. (...)

Eventually, Varanim manages to locate a place where the ice has frozen over a rocky outcropping, forming something almost like an imprompteau igloo, with just enough room for one person to fit within -- though the icy faces seem particularly prominent here, and her igloo audibly moans and wails, even at a distance.

Varanim Normally even with survival pressing, Varanim would stop to make a comment about overly melodramatic wind effects. Today she's still far from her usual mood, and she simply tucks herself into the small space to listen to the shrieking of the air and contemplate the vanities of existence.

The desolace of the empty plains is in fact a perfect match for Varanim's mood, and in communion with one another the two spend quite some time. Varanim's meditations are intense, and the world seems to slip away from her vision... which is why she is so surprised when her reverie is interruped by sudden slap to the face.

Varanim Startled, Varanim blinks several times to clear her cold-gummed eyes and look at her visitor.

Surprisingly enough, it is not anyone that Varanim has ever seen before who kneels over her, but someone utterly unfamiliar: a thin woman, clad in robes of burgundy fading into dark purple and blue, her deep red hair hanging forward to obscure most of her lily-white face. (...)

"Good, you are awake," she says.

Varanim "Passably," agrees Varanim in a slightly rusty voice. "What do you want?"

"I want the two days of travel I required to reach your irritatingly chosen retreat place back, that they might be put to better use. However, your return with me as requested will suffice."

Varanim considers that for a moment. "Why?"

"Because my master has requested your presence, and it is in both our better interests if his desires are met."

Varanim thinks about that for another moment--or perhaps the signals reaching her brain are just sluggish in the cold--and finally shrugs in acceptance and begins the business of getting to her feet.

The wind has picked up as Varanim steps out of the igloo, and snow is falling; as the wind lifts the robes from around the woman's legs, Varanim can see the vicious black dagger she wears strapped there.

Varanim As she waits for the woman to indicate a direction for travel, Varanim briefly considers her sense of time, gauging the woman's two days of travel against her stay in the igloo. "What does your master want?"

Varanim's sense of time isn't always the very sharpest (legacy of a long relationship with the bottle) but she is still pretty certain that she hasn't been in the hut for two days. (...)

"You will have to ask him," she says.

Varanim shrugs as if she was expecting the answer, and questions no further.

Some time later, Varanim and her mysterious companion emerge someplace quite a bit closer to "home": on the outskirts of the fallen city of Lookshy. (...)

Darkness now hangs over the land, and the portion of the Yanaze that flows around the city's back end churns with an unsettled ferocity. The Lookshy Wall, the vast defensive curtain that splits the lands of the Lookshy peninsula from its neighbors, lies in ruins, the work of giant hands; (...)

and past it, in what were once fertile and bountiful farmlands, the great rotting corpse of Juggernaut lies mournfully before the gates of Lookshy itself, the beautifully twisted fortress known as the Blight of Aeons rising proudly up from its back and declaring for all to see the Mask of Winters' utter dominion over this land.

Varanim Varanim dozed along the way and is possibly thawing a bit. "My better interests have yet to manifest."

Varanim She examines the domain with a sort of distant interest, hands tucked in pockets and a sort of mild frown on her face at the possibility she'll need to use Essence soon.

"You have not yet fully considered the alternatives had you decided otherwise." Varanim's guide leads her across the ruined farmlands at a slow walk; from the direction of their approach it is clear that they move not towards the fallen city, but towards the great undead beast.

Varanim "That's... unlikely, but I suppose possible." Varanim sniffs curiously as they approach, fairly certain this is a corpse of unique quality.

Juggernaut is, if anything, even bigger up close than it is from afar. As they near the great beast's corpse, the smell appears, first subtle, but growing in intensity: the stench of rot is there, of course, and powerful, but there are other scents as well: spicy smells, and earthy, with a hint of sour-sweetness. (...)

The overall effect is intoxicating; repulsive beyond imagining, and at the same time, deeply compelling, with a force that seems to draw all the senses away from all competing sources and onto the vast, toppled majesty of the dead being. (...)

Varanim can see, as they draw nearer, the method by which the great fortress is reached: for thin pathways of spiralling stairs, looking as fragile as spun-sugar compared to Juggernaut's bulk, run from the black courtyards of the Blight and down to the earth below, still faintly glowing with animating Essence as if to make it clear that these stairs have appeared only because the Mask is expecting visitors.

Varanim "Some of your travel time could have been spared by a less grandiose door. Have you considered raising the point with your master?" Varanim inquires as they approach.

"I do not spend my time engaging in matters of landscape design," she says. They walk up nearer to the hekatonkheire, and the sensory experience of it grows even stronger as Varanim begins to make out every torn and rotting shred of its flesh, every ripple as maggots larger than a human burrow through its muscles,

even the slow motion of the creature's torso as it slowly seeks to remember a time when once it still breathed.

Varanim "Yes," Varanim says as the great rotting bulk fills her entire field of vision, "I can see that."

Varanim She frowns, as if a distant noise is starting to wake her from sleep before she'd quite finished having an important dream. "I find that, having arrived, I don't think I should have come. That's unfortunate."

"Perhaps it is, for it is far too late for you to turn back now." She walks right up to the bottom of the precarious-looking spiral staircase, which is slowly moving up and down by as much as several inches in response to almost imperceptible shifts in Juggernaut's position. "Please follow me."

Varanim Varanim, who agrees entirely with that assessment, hesitates for a moment at the base of the staircase before setting foot on it to follow.

The process of walking on the staircase -- moving as it does in response to the beast's motions -- is a nauseating experience; the complete lack of any sort of railing separating one from a plunge to the corrupted earth far below does not help,

nor does the great open wound they pass halfway up, through which Varanim can see the languid flow of black ichor through the creature's necrotic veins and the surprisingly swift motion of the monstrous maggots. (...)

Finally, though, they crest the top of the staircase, and step out onto the vast polished-glass courtyard that lies before the castle, and the air grows almost immediately sharper, lighter, and much, much colder. (...)

Throughout the courtyard are obsidian statues, executed in sharp, abstract lines, that Varanim finds upsettingly familiar -- creatures she has read of often in the Black Treatise, whose earthly life has long been over; and interspersed between them are little resting places and seating areas which somehow manage to make the courtyard seem even more desolate. (...)

At the far end rises the Blight of Aeons itself, a vast pipe-organ of a castle, with hundreds upon hundreds of thin, fluted towers rising up from nine concentric walled hexagonal rings, each higher than the last;

strange ridged tubes and odd patterns run across the few areas of flat wall on the castle, and nine sets of serpentine mouldings surround the incredibly tall -- yet perhaps only ten feet wide -- doorway that serves as the castle's only entrance.

Varanim pauses about halfway up with a thoughtful frown on her face, then abruptly kneels and vomits over the side of the steps--or rather heaves, since her recent diet has been sparse. The benefit of her normal grooming style is that by the time she reaches the top, she looks roughly as presentable as she ever does.

Varanim Her eyes have regained the slightly feverish gleam they normally hold at the beginning of some particularly stupid but interesting venture. She stands for a long moment to fill her eyes with the edifice ahead, swaying just slightly on her feet, and then she strides toward the door without even a glance at her guide.

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