Day seven. Varanim wakes up once again in her comfortable, well appointed room, with breakfast once again awaiting her on a silver platter....
But this morning, despite a long, deep sleep in a comfortable bed, with -- for once -- no nightmares, Varanim is still a little unsettled -- for today is the day she will cast her sacrifice to the Void in iron, the day from which there is no going back.
Varanim lies awake for a few minutes, rolling around the nearly-forgotten feeling of being rested, and tries to recall how one is supposed to feel at times like this. In the end, she decides, unsettled is a reasonable if not terribly helpful response, and she accepts it and gets up to eat breakfast. (11262008 12:00:29 AM) Day changed to 26 Nov 2008
The breakfast, as it was the day before, is delicious.
Varanim Still a little skeptical on the virtues of eating rather than drinking breakfast, Varanim nevertheless garbs herself for the day and sets forth. Before leaving the room she contemplates the message ring for a moment, then gives a little shrug and tucks it away again.
The Mask is waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs again, but this time, he's brought a few things: Varanim's mask, a black orb (of unknown purpose and origin), a small knife, and a basket of fruit.
Varanim looks him over for a moment as she approaches. "Hm. Picnic lunch at the Void? I'm pretty sure you brought half of those things just to mess with me."
MaskOfWinters "There is a reason behind every action," he says. "Come. Bring the objects on the table."
Varanim "I know that," she sniffs. "I also know that sometimes the reason is so you can snicker behind your mask at the new student." She gathers up the items without more than that cursory complaint, however.
MaskOfWinters "I do not snicker," he says, as he leads her down, down, down, into the depths of the Blight.
MaskOfWinters Eventually, she is certain, the sets of stairs and passageways they have taken have led them down further than the first floor at which she entered, and they have passed into the portion of the castle that is actually built within Juggernaut's horrific corpse. And soon, the reddening light makes it clear that just such a thing is what has occurred.
Varanim "Do you... get used to that, ever?" Varanim asks, examining the walls and the changing nature of the light with disgusted fascination.
MaskOfWinters "In time, the soul can become used to... almost anything," he says, even as it becomes increasingly clear that some unknown source is, in fact, shining red light in through vast picture windows that has been filtered through Juggernaut's sluggishly pumped blood.
MaskOfWinters They continue downwards until finally they have reached a small room, one with a small black altar, bedecked with candles and burnt offerings; on one of the back walls, a black iron door lies, locked in four distinct ways.
Varanim "Where does that go?" asks Varanim about the door, with a sort of grim set to her expression.
MaskOfWinters "You will see shortly," he says. He gestures to the knife, and to the bowl of fruit. "Take those, please, and step to the altar."
Varanim takes up knife and the bowl, and moves over to the altar.
MaskOfWinters "Take the knife to your palm," he says, "as you consider what loss, what sacrifice you will sanctify to the void."
Varanim As Varanim places the edge of the knife against her palm, she catalogs the various choices that have brought her to this hour, this place. It is not the first time she has made such a review, but this time she follows it the rest of the way to a conclusion she has long avoided. "In all things, look to the beginning," she says quietly, as she draws the blade sharply along her skin.
Varanim She frames in mind and heart the memories of her family, often revisited but never completely resigned, and their part in setting her on this road. Finally she considers the impossibility of ever resuming that brief happiness, or another like it. Her fist clenches convulsively around the knife as she exhales that hope, and with it the last remnant of where she came from.
MaskOfWinters "Good," he says. "Now carve open an apple, and drip your heart's blood into it."
Varanim Varanim's eyes are distant, as if fixed on some far and still receding object. Without looking she reaches down for an apple, cuts a slice--her bloody hand slips briefly, then recovers--and finally holds a fist over the exposed flesh of the fruit, blood pattering down in a steady trickle.
MaskOfWinters "You can put the knife down now," he says. "Are you ready to see what is behind the door?"
Varanim sets the knife down gently. "I didn't come this far not to open it," she says, her voice ragged around the edges.
MaskOfWinters The Mask carefully and slowly begins to meticulously unlock each of the locks keeping the great iron door shut. "You must don your mask," he says, "and remember that there is no Varanim while you wear it."
Varanim recalls the first time she wore it, and what followed after, and the trace of a bitter smile crosses her face before vanishing under flame and crystal.
MaskOfWinters Just as she dons the mask, the Mask finishes the last lock, and gently touches the handle.
MaskOfWinters Almost immediately, the door is flung wide open by a violent gust of dark, bitterly cold wind, and Varanim can see what lies beyond:
MaskOfWinters Far across from Varanim, a chiseled, grey-black stone wall, with thin walkways spiralling up, and set into the walls, vast chambers, eldritch mausoleums and sarcophagi larger than an entire nation, all static yet somehow twisted and almost impossible to look upon; and below,
MaskOfWinters dropping down, forever, an empty blackness, far more empty and far more black than any other she has ever seen before:
MaskOfWinters For this door does not lead to the space coterminous to its entrance. No; it leads down, through the twisting corridors of the Labyrinth, even further, further: to the tombs of the Malfeans and the Mouth of the Void itself.
Varanim sways forward and stares for what feels like a very long time, as the immensity of the scale jostles in her brain and attempts to find purchase, and finally she lets out a breath she didn't realize she was holding. Her face turns to the Mask in silent inquiry: she is to descend?
MaskOfWinters "Look into it," he says. "Gaze into the Void, until you are sure of what you are about to do." He walks up to stand next to her at the doorway. "And then..." He looks down to her hand, still holding the apple, and gestures with his face from it, into the Void itself.
Varanim curls her hand around the apple, and looks into the chasm with neither delight nor remorse--only a distant but meticulous interest. Her eyes trace over the terrible contours of its walls, the depths without sounding, and she finds nothing to weaken the conviction that carried her to the edge.
Varanim She doesn't even bother to toss the apple, merely loosens her fingers and lets it slip silently into the dark.
MaskOfWinters It's an eternity down to the bottom of the Mouth, but somehow Varanim nonetheless feels a visceral stab as the apple is consumed by the Void.
MaskOfWinters For a moment, she feels only an emptiness and chill as the pain radiates out through her whole body, and then, suddenly, it all comes rushing back to her:
MaskOfWinters Unsteady, boyish hands, the one awkwardly slicing the other; the blood, flowing downwards into another apple, just like this one, as thoughts not her own flash across the remembered mind: goodbye to the light, the thoughts go, and goodbye to all those wretched things it feeds...
MaskOfWinters The toss, with as much force as those arms could put into it, and as it falls to the bottom, bursting out into horrible, hideous laughter....
MaskOfWinters And then, memories of a different kind: sigils, symbols, unholy words and dark secrets, hateful patterns of necrotic Essence begin to swim about in her head, faster, faster, until it blurs together so fast that her head is wracked with vicious pain....
Varanim grits her teeth and sways a bit, soulsteel arm flashing out to firmly catch the edge of the door and push her back from the edge. She stumbles back a step, reflexively trying to cling to her sense of self, finding no purchase, and distantly recalling the key--use the mask as anchor, for her self cannot exist here.
MaskOfWinters She feels the unholy knowledge rattle through her brain, bouncing, tearing, forcing its way through where it is not wanted, but slowly but surely, she feels it begin to settle, to lock into place, until finally, in a single brilliant moment, it all lines up in cold geometric beauty and she knows, now, with utter certainty: I am a master of the Void Circle.
Varanim Slowly, Varanim straightens, flicking her right hand to toss free the lingering bits of blood. She considers the new state of her mind--or some possible configuration of her mind that wears the mask--and its reordering.