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Belladonna Day nine.

Belladonna Varanim wakes up bright and early after a long and extremely restful sleep.

Varanim "Time to go put the 'fun' in 'funeral'," she observes cheerfully as she rises to set to breakfast and dressing.

Belladonna The breakfast today, in contrast to previous days, is quite simple and hearty: eggs wrapped in a thin bread roll, with carrot juice and a slab of beef.

Varanim eats only lightly--as she prepares to go back into the world, old habits reassert, like her basic distrust of facing the average day on a full stomach.

Varanim Then she gathers her things and heads out of her room to see what's interesting.

Belladonna This time, the Mask does not await her below, only a simple ghost, his form distorted to the point that it only resembles a human now in the vaguest of outline form. "Please follow me," it says.

Varanim looks at the ghost for a long, speculative moment, as if contemplating what she herself might be able to do to his form now, then she shrugs and follows in silence.

The ghost leads on, down, through the halls of the Blight, onwards, until finally reaching the front of the castle, the great polished terrace she saw when she entered, and upon which the Mask of Winters waits for her in a large black chair, clearly moved here just for the occasion.

Varanim looks him over thoughtfully. "Come down to say a warm goodbye?"

"Not quite, Varanim, not quite." He rises up from his chair and surveys the whole horizon: the ruined city of Lookshy, the Blessed Isle far in the distance, the Sunlands off to the south... "Your training is not yet quite complete."

Varanim "Funny, I feel pretty complete--I mean, as gaping new acknowledgments of the inner Void go." Her look turns distinctly skeptical, and she rakes the horizon with her eyes before returning them to him with lifted brows.

"The conclusion of all instruction is not in knowledge," he says, staring out in the direction of Solaria. "It is in execution."

Varanim "Yes," she agrees, "I generally don't just sit around thinking positive, and on occasion I've been known to flex the ol' Essence. Are you through with your morning cryptic calisthenics, or just warmed up?"

"Now that you have learned the ways of the Void Circle," he says, "it is time for you to use them." He turns and looks straight at her, a little disconcertingly. "It is only when you have quenched yourself in the Void that you can truly say you are its master."

Varanim Varanim, who has barely been undisconcerted since arriving, folds her hands and looks up at him with a scowl covering the knot in her gut. "We both know that I've have large a list of uses for the Void Circle for years. So what specifically are you proposing?"

Varanim (er, "I've had a large list")

"There is a beast," he says. "The Thrice-Entombed Self." Varanim's seen the name before, though scant little detail on the matter. "I want you to bring it here."

Varanim "Why?"

"Because it is going to do something for each of us," he says, "and because I am not certain that you will follow through on testing your newfound power without... a helpful push."

Varanim "Since you're not an idiot, I'll assume that last bit was sarcasm." Varanim sighs, looking briefly very vexed, then her expression clears and she shrugs in assent. "I'll see what I can do." (1232008 12:00:03 AM) Day changed to 03 Dec 2008

The Mask grins -- as it always does. He claps his hands together twice, loudly. "Bring the cage," he shouts, and within moments, five ghostly servitors march over from a previously-hidden gateway bearing an elaborately wrought soulsteel cage with a central dividing wall, in its two halves a withered and translucent ghost and a thin, scruffy, unshaven man, respectively.

Varanim Varanim's eyes play over the cage and its occupants, and her mind--which works very fast indeed--quickly delivers a verdict. She looks sharply up at the Mask. "Funny story, I'm not interested in killing anyone."

The Mask looks over at her with his head tilted, an infuriating mixture of concern and condescension. "You are not interested?" he says. "I thought you would have passed this particular barrier when you still wrestled with the Iron Circle."

"Is death not, in the end, merely a transition from one state to another? And are there not many in this world who have done things deserving of far worse a punishment than mere annihilation?"

Varanim "Oh, come on," Varanim snaps, nervousness or genuine insult (or more likely both) sharpening her voice. "That bullshit sophistry may work on your nieces and nephews, but you could at least try a little when you're talking to me. I gave up on the punishment game years ago. And death is a transition, but so is the last moment between a good drunk and a lousy hangover."

Varanim "You're talking in abstractions, but you're after a tangible effect here--which, since you're perfectly capable of summoning your own aborted dreams of the Neverborn, means that this is specifically about humbling me. That's fine and all, but I'm not in the habit of washing my hands in blood for the sake of anyone's hilarity but my own."

The Mask leans in a little closer to Varanim. "Indeed," he says, walking over to the cage and gently running one hand over the top of it. "And if I did this to mock you, to play games in glorifying you with the power of the ultimate necromancy only to debase you in humiliation, you would be right to resist. But," he adds, standing next to the cage, "I am not Lucent."

"The truth is that you are a necromancer. You had the vast, unpainted canvas of Exaltation spread before you, and of all the possibilities, you chose this: the work of life and death."

"If you truly seek to stamp your mark upon the world, if you came this far to use the power, as you have done all your life until this day, you know that you will be called upon to make choices. Choices far more difficult than this. And if your answer is 'I won't kill someone,'" he says, looking down at the pathetic figures huddled in the cage, "many of those answers will be wrong."

He leans down and taps on the cage. "Go ahead, show her the mark of your quality," he says, and slowly, surely, something begins to appear on the man's face, around his left eye: the tattoo of the Broken Suns.

Varanim looks away for a moment when he mentions Lucent, then back with a sharp gleam in her smile that acknowledges a well-planned strike. She watches, then, as the tattoo fades into visibility, before turning a flat and weary gaze back up to the Mask. "It was never about putting my mark on the world."

Varanim "I'll kill--but like everything else, when I've decided it's the best way forward. I have no stirrings of temper against this man, just because he's taken up arms against people who might have been my friends. I'd be disgusted to be thought so petty, if I hadn't gone to some effort over the years to further that impression."

Varanim She spreads her hands slightly, looking up at him. "I'm not saying 'no,' I'm saying 'why?' No matter how wild the flame in my heart to test this power--and I'm sure you recall that burning--I yet require an answer."

"Because the Thrice-Entombed Self will help you with what you seek," he says. "For I and you alike know that there will be no healing the wounds that rive apart your companions until the underlying sickness is healed."

"Otherwise, why would such a tight-knit circle turn with violence upon themselves?" He shakes his head sadly.

Varanim Varanim, about to retort with more annoyance, stops and tilts her head. "What?"

"Oh," he says. "Of course, you wouldn't know." He tilts his head to the other side. "All that it took was your departure for Cerin and Lucent to pummel one another to within an inch of their respective lives. It's quite unfortunate, really, but all the more reason to do what you can to see it never happens again...."

Varanim looks down for a moment with a tiny shake of her head. "If it's to be done," she says quietly, "at least no more wasting time about it." She reaches for the mask which is never far from her now, and slips it on with a ragged exhalation.

Varanim Then she steps forward and plunges her hands into the chests of the prisoners, soulsteel into the living and flesh into the dead. When she pulls them out, plasm and blood spatter wildly, in great loops and whorls that lay an interlocking diagram on the courtyard in an instant.

Varanim As her anima lights above her, sunset beauty blossoming on the Blight, she kneels and slams her soulsteel hand into the keystone of the diagram. The ringing seems to go on and on, shivering stone, resonating in the blood, roiling away the air--and then in the moment of profound and awful silence that follows, she whispers a secret name and the presence of the Thrice-Entombed Self is upon them.

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