As she approaches the door, it creaks open; drawing nearer, she sees the emaciated ghosts who stand at the ready to work the door when a visitor approaches. (...)
Within, Varanim finds herself in a vast, immaculately appointed entrance hall. The floor is tiled in small hexagons of black, white, and 50% gray, stretching back for hundreds of feet, and two huge sweeping staircases of black and white roll down from a balcony above. (...)
Objects d'art of every description line the hall on thin black pillars, and on the back wall is something that Varanim guesses is the Mask's prize possession in this collection: a vast canvas, nearly seventy-five feet wide, depicting the entirety of Creation wracked by conflict, all executed in a twisted, surreal style, with the sun and moon each sitting half above the horizon on opposite sides of the world.
Varanim gives an absentminded mocking finger-wave to the door ghosts as she walks past them, crossing the hall slowly but without breaking stride as she takes in the stark elegance of the interior. Along the way she contemplates her odds of living to see the others again, finds them displeasing, and tries to set aside that problem for later.
Varanim At the base of the stairs she stops to consider the painting for a longer moment, expression unreadable. Then finally and with some effort one corner of her mouth quirks up in a smirk as if to say tacky, and she heads up the stairs.
Varanim's companion walks up to the top of the stairs via the alternate route, and indicates a specific smaller hallway -- one dressed with numerous white curtains, while the grey tiles in the floor disappear, giving way to individual white tiles surrounded by seas of black. (...)
"The Mask will meet you," she says, and gestures down the hall.
Varanim barely nods in acknowledgment, setting off down the indicated hall and extending her senses in grudging but intense curiosity about what is to come.
The hallway is quite long, and Varanim notes two things as she walks down it: that the white tiles become fewer and fewer as she proceeds down it... and that, as the singular black door finally appears to her at one end, that the power of Essence behind it is so bright as to shine brilliantly through even the thick walls.
Varanim Varanim, who after all has had a very tiring week, stops perhaps two thirds of the way down the hall to get a racking coughing fit out of her system, then briskly wipes the dots of blood from her hand and proceeds the rest of the way to the door to push on it without knocking.
The door pushes open smoothly, and she sees the small chamber behind it. On the floor, tiles of entirely black hexagons meet with walls of brilliant white; in the back of the room, a balcony stretches out, looking out at Lookshy from over the rotting side of Juggernaut. (...)
And in the room itself are four things: a statue, cast in black, of a nude woman, long hair flowing down to her feet and her hands raised up above her head -- though whether in joy or terror is hard to say; a small table, with two tiny orbs placed on it with tiny stands, one of solid gold and one of smoky-black crystal; (...)
a large desk, upon which a black book sits, closed; and the Mask of Winters, his icy face -- smiling, now -- peering out from his black cloak, but his Essence so bright that Varanim cannot look directly at it for even a second as long as she maintains her Essence sight.
Varanim has difficulty maintaining her equilibrium when she can't engage in proper glaring, so she releases the Essence sight with a slight wince. After a glance about the room that takes in everything, she returns her eyes to the Mask of Winters. With hands tucked in pockets to hide their slight shaking, she takes a deep breath and surrenders to inevitable cliche. "I thought you'd be taller."
MaskOfWinters stands up, his large form towering over Varanim by a significant margin. He looks at her in silence for an uncomfortably long moment, with that unmoving icy face making it almost impossible to read what purpose he looks with, and then finally, he speaks: "So it is you."
Varanim looks up, narrowing her eyes a bit as the seconds tick by, shoulders tensing almost imperceptibly when he finally speaks. "I do hope that you didn't send two days north just to say that."
MaskOfWinters "Please... sit," he says, his long hand gesturing expressively to a small chair seated before the desk. His voice is distant and raspy, somehow a little unnerving, but at the same time... almost welcoming.
Varanim looks back at him suspiciously for a moment longer, then sits. After a brief pause in which she considers several conversational options, she finally says, "What do you want?"
MaskOfWinters seants himself in his own, rather more cavernous and impressive chair, and leans back, his arms stretched over his head. "What... do you want?"
Varanim Sinking a bit into her customary slouch, Varanim gives him a profoundly skeptical look. "A fairly cursory inspection of my life will show that I mostly want to be left alone to do my work. However, this point seems to escape a startlingly large and growing number of people." She folds her hands in her lap as she gives the partially truthful answer.
MaskOfWinters "And yet," the ominous figure announces, swivelling his chair slightly around and drumming his fingers together as he does so, "you did not remain in your arctic refuge; you came here." He leans forward. "I can recognize ambition even when it is cloaked in the gauze of false indifference, you know."
Varanim Varanim's eyes flash with annoyance, and her tone becomes more normal. "That's not ambition, it's resignation. If you just wanted to talk necromancy--in which I'll admit some hobbyist interest--sending a letter is easy. I'm here because, presumably, you attach some vain significance to shard inheritance, and it seemed more efficient in the long run to tell you directly to piss off."
Varanim Then she winces a bit. "Actually, I wasn't planning to say it that way exactly, but I got a little carried away there."
" 'Some hobbyist interest,' " he says, as his hands eerily double-joint backwards to retrieve a bottle and set of two glasses from behind where he sits. "I am not the only one here" -- and she could swear that somehow his icy face is smiling even more -- "who wears a mask, I see."
Varanim makes a slightly funny face when his hands turn backward, cracking her own knuckles nervously with a slightly metallic sound and then sighing. "Oh hell with it, I'll just ask. Are you going to cut off my other arm or anything? Because my last talk with--excuse me, near--a Deathlord ended pretty badly, and this conversation would be a lot easier for me if I knew."
MaskOfWinters inclines his head to one side, as if slightly confused. "Now... why would I go and do a thing like that?" He looks over at the arm, running his eyes up and down it with visible interest. "The Vessel is quite powerful, of course, but it would serve you better if you wielded it... willingly."
Varanim narrows her eyes. "I was going to ask you why your ex-girlfriend has been sending me flowers, but that was a pretty good divert with the arm thing," she says grudgingly.
MaskOfWinters pauses for a long moment, as if in introspection. Finally, he reaches his arms out in front and places the bottle and glasses carefully on the desk. "We should be beyond this," he says, as he pours out the bottle's contents -- an inky-black liquid, which he tops in each glass with a tiny shaving of gold. (...)
MaskOfWinters "There need be no deception, no verbal feinting here. We are two people who think very much alike, I think, for we are both scholars of the same... forbidden study." He lifts one glass to offer it to her.
Varanim "Technically I'm not sure it counts as forbidden to YOU, these days." She takes the glass and tilts her head thoughtfully, then speaks after a moment. "I'm interested in a great number of things--sounding the Labyrinth, fixing Neverborn, and so on--that I have no strong reason to think you'd want done."
Varanim "There's also this thing where you want to stand astride the conquered world, atop shuddering monstrosities vomited from the mistaken depths of the Void."
Varanim spreads her hands in a little shrug and drinks.
MaskOfWinters The liquid has an earthy, broad flavor to it, though it swallows with quite a kick, and leaves behind a flavor that Varanim is not entirely sure she is comfortable with. (...)
MaskOfWinters The Mask leans back once again, zipping his fingers together and stretching his arms above his head. "My desires for conquest are overstated," he says. "Why conquer when one can diplome?" (...)
MaskOfWinters He looks at Varanim expectantly. "I do not think there is truly anything stopping us from aiding one another, and I know that I" -- his arms come back to down, and he leans forward again -- "have something that you want."
Varanim "Well, I don't do the conquest thing, but you can tell by how I don't have any fiefdoms or armies or anything," Varanim objects, then she grimaces slightly when he finishes. "What's that, so long as we're not feinting?"
MaskOfWinters snaps his fingers, and the black book swings open of its own accord, flipping and flipping to a familiar page, one Varanim has read many, many times, but still not yet understood: for this page speaks of the most forbidden art, the practice of Void Circle Necromancy.
Varanim Varanim's eyes rest on the page for a long moment, then she exhales quietly and drags her eyes up with a crooked smile. "That's on the short list, I admit. But there are some problems I haven't worked out."
MaskOfWinters "Tell me," he says, and tips his own glass back to his frozen visage -- though how his icy mask can drink is a mystery Varanim does not know the answer to.
Varanim "Basically, I like working for myself, and it's not at all clear to me that inviting a big--sorry, bigger--chunk of the death of the universe into my head is the best way to keep doing that."
Varanim "Also, I lead the life of a sage, free of encumbrances. No more sacrifices." She smirks.
MaskOfWinters "Aaah, I see the problem," he says, in a grave -- or, perhaps, mock-grave -- voice; "You do not yet understand the nature of the Onyx Circle." He pours out a second set of glasses in one smooth motion, then puts the bottle away again. (...)
MaskOfWinters "I am not going to ask whether you wish to understand, because you sit here before me now." He looks at the book, at Varanim's arm, and only then turns to look her in the eyes with a heretofore unseen intensity. "So I will ask instead if you are willing to understand." (...)
MaskOfWinters He leans back, suddenly less intense again. "Or, if you wish, you may, for the first time in your life, choose to spurn knowlege for the sake of empty rhetorical morality and the nattering objections of those who think they know what is best for you."
Varanim looks down at the glass cradled in her hands, soulsteel and flesh. "That's very good," she says quietly after a long pause, with a strange half-smile. "Appealing to both my huge ego and my loathing of approval-seeking behavior. It just might work."
Varanim She looks back up, tilting her chin to stare in the direction of his hidden eyes. "But I don't believe in the warm inherent altruism of my fellow beings. What do you get out of the deal that makes it worth your time?"
MaskOfWinters looks her over from head to toe once more, as if doublechecking the value of his investment. "A willing student is reward enough, wouldn't you say?" But then, his icy face seems to look more stern as he sits up straighter. (...)
MaskOfWinters "I would rather that, when they come back to finish... that," he says, gesturing at her arm and from there upwards to her remaining fleshly body, "that they find the powerful master of life and death you have become, and not the weak and ready victim they first found." (...)
MaskOfWinters As before, though, his serious mood seems to be but a fleeting fancy, and his voice quickly takes the congenial tone once more. "And if in the process, you should happen to aid me in some of my ongoing research, then that would be... a bonus."
Varanim looks very small and shabby to any reasonable assessment, sitting in the grand room and talking to her imposing host. She doesn't seem to notice as she withdraws into herself for a long minute, rerunning the calculations done so often before of capabilities and costs.
Varanim Finally the set of her shoulders changes almost imperceptibly, marking the decision made. An odd echo threads the air: Lucent's voice, saying "I will take you back" from an argument that ended in his promise, now triggered.
Varanim She lifts her head to face the Mask, a sad half-smile twisting her mouth up as she waves away the old words with a soulsteel hand. "Let's do some work, then."