Day six. Varanim hasn't seen the Mask since he packed her off, on the day of her agreement... and she hasn't had a good night's sleep, either. (Nothing, however, specifically suggests that these two facts are related.) (...)
Today, she wakes up, not in a room of dogs on fire or at the bottom of a five-hundred-foot deep shaft of icy rock or buried neck-deep in sand, but in what seems to be an elegantly -- if conservatively -- appointed bedchamber in the Blight of Aeons, in one of the innumerable towers hundreds of feet above the earth. (...)
Besides the remarkably confortable four-post bed in which she wakes up, there are several items waiting for her: an elaborate breakfast of pastries, eggs, meats, and fruit, paired with juice, coffee, and tea, on a silver tray; (...)
a set of five magical tools, elegantly rendered in jade of the five colors and arrayed into a carefully prepared cloth carrying case: a thin knife of red, a looking-glass of blue, a bell of black, a candlestick of white, and a cup of green; (...)
and, hung carefully upon the back of the room's door, what looks to be an elegant, almost gorgeous black funerary gown, complete with a veil, quite clearly tailored to Varanim's exact measurements, and tacked to it, a small scrap of paper reading, "Wear this."
Varanim Varanim, who does still remember what do with breakfast that doesn't come in a bottle, takes her time eating, then contemplates the gown with folded arms for a long minute before shrugging and dressing. Whistling a jaunty wake song off-key, she reaches out to take up the case of tools, then pauses briefly and looks it over more thoroughly to determine the latest owner.
Varanim She also thinks really hard about what happened on day three.
There is no mistake: the last owner of these tools was Larquen Quen -- and probably the last time they were used was well before his death. (...)
The memory of her third day, when the incessant tests had began, was almost too unpleasant to bear further thought.
Varanim "Hm," says Varanim, then shrugs and scoops up the tools to head out and see what's happening.
There's a curved stairway at the end of the hallway, leading downwards; and the smell of burning incense wafts up from it.
Varanim gives a professional sniff as she goes, trying to place the smell in her excellent memory.
Varanim is quite certain that she's never smelled this particular blend before, but an arbitrary and meaningless construct of Essence patterns associated with her feels differently, and fires rapid images at her:
smelling the incense while reading the black book; smelling it while gazing out a window while in an adobe hut, somewhere in the distant south, as workers outside excavate the red sands; smelling it while sitting in repose in a temple to the Sun, other figures spread about similarly, one of whom she can't help but recognize, even from just the back of his shaggy head....
Varanim stands still for a moment, processing the succession of images, then shakes her head as if to clear it. She focuses on the familiar figure in the vision as she continues toward the stairs, trying to pin down the memory.
The figure in the vision turns around for a quick moment, away from the sight of whoever is droning on at the front of the room, and the oddly youthful face of Lucent winks disconcertingly at someone that Varanim (she still stridently believes) never was.
Varanim Varanim, possibly a little slow to recognize features she's been avoiding thinking of for some days now, smooths out her expression and strides briskly down the stairs.
At the bottom of the stairs is a rather long room, its outer walls open to the air, with only black stone pillars holding up the roof; and past the six braziers in which the thick incense burns, a huge oak table, spread with fragments of cloth and paper, stacked with strange crystals and golden and black implements... and behind it, finally, her benefactor sits.
MaskOfWinters "Good morning, Varanim. Did you enjoy your breakfast?"
Varanim looks as if the question had never occurred to her, then shrugs. "It was... cozy?" Then she hefts the case of tools a bit to indicate it. "This is a long callback for a hospitality gift."
MaskOfWinters "Please sit," he says. "Those," he says, gesturing to the tools, "are simple magical foci, as given to every student of sorcery at the Everlight Academy." He shrugs. "They may prove useful at some time."
Varanim "Might," Varanim agrees after a moment of consideration, and sits. "The thing with the crane was cute, I'll admit."
MaskOfWinters "It is important to pare back the inhibitions of the self, when one seeks to unlock the ultimate knowledge," he says, looking at her with that maddeningly unrevealing visage. "Trust. Faith. Kindness. These things are illusory." (...)
MaskOfWinters "Did you think, when you read the note, that you would be saved?"
Varanim smirks briefly. "Of course. I have basically low expectations of people, but it'd take someone frostier than me to not feel hope there."
MaskOfWinters "What about when you plunged through the clouds and saw the field of jagged metal that lay beneath it?"
Varanim "Oh, that was a pretty good laugh, but I had to stop because it was about to turn into hysterical screaming," she answers promptly. "Then the fear made the hope both sharper and less rational."
MaskOfWinters "And when you finally snapped, and wrenched the dead across the Shroud to cushion your fall, to save yourself where others could not... what did you think then?"
Varanim folds her hands and looks at him directly, with a 'where exactly is this going?' expression. "Relief strong enough to turn into nausea, some regular old nausea at the plasm soaking, and a renewed conviction that there is basically no one to count on but myself, in this life or later."
MaskOfWinters The Mask's face remains unchanged, but she can almost tell that he's grinning at her statement. "I think you are ready," he says, flipping open the book that lies before him, "to learn the greatest of the dark arts."
Varanim looks at him a moment longer, as if trying to read or imagine his hidden expression, then leans forward to bend her sharp gaze on the book.
MaskOfWinters The pages are full of pseudomathematical formulae, all revolving around arbitrary constants clearly defined earlier in the work, and as a result they are largely meaningless to her -- though she gets the sense that they are, in some way, descriptive of the process she is about to undergo. (...)
MaskOfWinters "You are a practiced necromancer, so tell me," he says. "What have you given up, to make your way this far?"
Varanim After a quick scan, she looks up to raise her brows at him. "I'll give you a hint, this isn't my original arm." Then she shrugs. "Skipping tedious details, I've forfeited both wholeness of my body and most forms of restful sleep."
Varanim "What about you?"
MaskOfWinters leans backwards slightly. "I gave up... many things," he says, and a look at his bizarre form seems to suggest that the statement is true. (...)
MaskOfWinters "With what... you are now, you are not properly equipped to channel the Void Circle. Beyond your sacrifice, we will need to... ready you further," he says. "Do you have a focus that you have used? Something that amplifies and intensifies the energies of the dead?"
Varanim "Several, starting with my arm, which is very convenient being as it's so hard to drop. Or do you mean something more external? Also, feel free to elaborate on my lack of equipment."
MaskOfWinters "More external, yes," he says. "The Vessel is powerful, but... for better or worse, it is a part of you now." He looks at Varanim. "You have met many of my... nieces and nephews, I suppose? I believe you refer to them as 'Abyssals.'"
Varanim "That's what all the other shiny kids call them, so I try to fit in," she agrees to the last point. About the question of foci, she thinks a moment. "Most recently: a knife, a set of ritual clothing, and occasionally a very pretty scarf that I'm told was yours."
MaskOfWinters He doesn't seem to blink at the mention of the scarf. "Nothing... bigger?," he says.
Varanim looks down briefly as if swallowing a laugh or hiding a grimace, then looks back up with only the faintest traces of a smirk in her eyes. "I do have a very pretty mask."
MaskOfWinters "Aaaaah, yes," he says. And smoothly, he joins the two lines of conversation: "I, myself, and those Abyssals -- our souls are wrapped in the power of the Abyss. Necromancy comes naturally to us, and the void is never far distant from our thoughts. But you..." (...)
MaskOfWinters "You are sworn to the Sun, and the mastery of death is an awkward fit. It was thought by others who followed in my footsteps that the Labyrinth was the greatest mastery a Solar could achieve, but... I knew otherwise," he says. (...)
MaskOfWinters "If you wish for the power of the Void not to consume you, you must distance yourself... force the Essence through at arm's reach..." He has that odd aura again, the one that makes it seem like he's smiling. "If only for a moment, when the Void is upon you, you must not be Varanim the Last. Which is where your mask comes in...."
Varanim thinks about that for a minute, then nods. "I think I see the principle. This should be fun."