PiercingIvory Varanim and her ghostly companion have followed the trail of the spirit-stealing spectres through the Northern wastes of Netheos, until finally the trail seems to have stopped in another Shadowland, one that Piercing Ivory helpfully identifies as "the Thrice-Damned Sinkhole." (...)
PiercingIvory Here, the death-copied remnants of a once-populous village sit in stark whiteness upon a sheet of black ice, and circling the structure which gives the Shadowland its name: a vast, menacing hole that leads downwards almost immediately into inky blackness.
PiercingIvory walks over slightly towards the hole, looks down warily, and immediately backs away again.
Varanim "Let me guess: there's something horrible down there." Varanim, naturally, goes to look herself.
PiercingIvory Up close, Varanim still can't see very far down. What she can see, though, is the rock walls of the passageway giving way to eerily polished black obsidian that glints with a wan light as light falls upon it: a surefire indicator that this hole leads into the Labyrinth.
Varanim glares at it.
Varanim "You know what the really annoying thing about being smart is? It's boring, being right all the time."
PiercingIvory chuckles nervously.
Varanim cranes her head over her shoulder to look back at Piercing Ivory, fighting the urge to step back herself.
Varanim "Just how attached is your tribe to its sacred dead, anyway?"
PiercingIvory "The dead of the tribe are the foundation and anchor of the living. As we hunt the living elk on the plains above, our dead receive our gifts below so that they might eventually pass on to a more superior reincarnation." It is clera from how he delivers it that he's gone through this schpiel quite a few times.
Varanim "Right, but it's not like you can't make more of them."
Varanim already knows she's going down the hole, but she's curious whether Piercing Ivory has the drive to follow--and why.
PiercingIvory hangs his mouth open. "I would not want to be abandoned to have my soul torn into little pieces when I d--" He catches himself, and frowns. (...)
PiercingIvory "Those warriors are people that I knew. Comrades, uncles. The reverence, and eventual rebirth, they experience in the afterlife is their reward for their dedication to the tribe's welfare above all things in life. I cannot abandon them." Then he gulps, in visible terror.
Varanim Varanim is quiet for a moment, looking like she almost wants to smile. Then she says, "Look at it this way: we only really have to worry about half of the trip, because on the way back we'll be surrounded by strapping Northern lads and lasses."
PiercingIvory nods warily.
Varanim nods decisively and starts looking for the best way down.
PiercingIvory The sides of the sinkhole are sheer, but with a little anima light she can see it's not too far of a drop before they move from vertical to bending at a shallow downward slope; she could probably scoot down with only a slight loss of dignity (though getting back out again will be slightly more difficult.)
Varanim After peering in vain for a nice wide staircase, or even a set of cunningly-placed handholds with a little sign saying 'trespassers enter here,' Varanim looks over at Piercing Ivory. "Just think of it as a magical adventure ride into hell," she says, sitting on the edge and preparing to push off.
PiercingIvory makes an elaborate tribal gesture of good luck and sits down himself.
Varanim "Hm," she says thoughtfully, extending one end of her staff to him. "Let's try to delay the inevitable separation into isolated reaches of inky vastness, shall we?" Then she's away.
PiercingIvory Varanim slides down the sheer wall of the Labyrinth entrance like a children's slide, Piercing Ivory clinging desperately to her staff behind. Though the wall slopes up, it does not do so at any rate quick enough to make it possible to easily stop sliding, so the two find themselves careening downward some distance, as the walls pulse with an eerie and bizarre light. (...)
PiercingIvory Eventually, far below the surface of the dead earth, the Solar and the ghost slide to a stop just as the narrow passageway opens up onto a vast, blackened cavern: (...)
PiercingIvory The chamber itself towers up what seems like it must be nearly a mile, its jagged walls curving out from the floor before arcing back to the center again, far overhead. Carved from those very walls are vast, intricate buildings, (...)
PiercingIvory geometric windows and elaborate patterns that seem to cloud the mind by their very shape are carved into the black stone, and no paths run up to meet them -- for these are the homes of the damned, the twisted buildings of an amphiskopolis. (...)
PiercingIvory At the center of the clearing is the only building here not carved directly from the cavern walls: a great circular building, a dome atop it and three curved walls stretching out from its sides, built of the same black stone, and quite likely resembling the sigil that Piercing Ivory described earlier, if seen from above.... (...)
PiercingIvory At its feet lie rather more mundane (and much tinier) containers: soulsteel cages, perhaps the size of small huts, in which human ghosts are visibly enclosed. No other spirits seem to be visible anywhere else in the nearby area.
Varanim takes her time looking around after they skid to a stop, crossing her legs as she mentally catalogs the riddled walls, the vastness of the central building, and the odds of anyone approaching the cages unnoticed. All in all, she supposes, there is no reason for things to turn optimistic now.
PiercingIvory One of the ghosts in the cages looks over to the new arrivals and, recognizing Piercing Ivory, begins shaking his arms and making audible noises -- much to Piercing Ivory's chagrin.
Varanim "Now THAT," she murmurs appreciatively, "is how you do 'a little TOO quiet'."
Varanim "Well, it was."
Varanim Climbing to her feet, she starts to head toward the cages.
PiercingIvory As they approach, more of the imprisoned ghosts leap up to greet the arrivals, though one particularly old and grizzled one tries to get everyone else to quiet down with a desperate, crazy look in his eye.
Varanim "Shut up," Varanim snaps to the group, once she's close enough to do it without shouting. "Who's he?" she asks aside to Piercing Ivory, indicating the sensible grizzled one with a jut of her chin.
PiercingIvory "He's Jagged Rock. He was one of our more successful hunters," he says, and exchanges a nod with the grizzled elder ghost as the others quiet down.
Varanim "What's the situation here?" Varanim directs the question to Jagged Rock as she starts inspecting the cage, keeping it between her and the citadel just in case someone inside is being kindly unobservant.
JaggedRock The old man grunts and answers in a voice even more worn than his face. "Those creatures have been dragging us off here. There were 23 of us originally... but every once in a while they come out, drag one of us into the Citadel, and never bring him back out." He lowers his head. "There are 19 now."
Varanim "How often, and how many of them?" Varanim sizes up the group, though her eyes keep straying thoughtfully to the looming citadel.
JaggedRock "Generally about ten of them. They don't look like the other ghosts I've seen, even the spectres. They speak in a language that isn't human and that I don't think I could speak if I tried. And they bring those... hounds." One of the others beside him nearly faints at the mention, and several others shiver. "It's hard to track the time here. It's days? Weeks, maybe? between their visits."
Varanim "Mm," Varanim says helpfully, completing her scan of the outside. "Unless you're secretly also the Great Climbing Elks, we're going to be finding another way out of the cavern."
JaggedRock The cages are each held fast with a soulsteel chain, a great lock set upon it that looks to accept a single, rather sizeable skeleton key.
Varanim shrugs philosophically, hefts her staff, and smashes the iron-tipped end against the lock, three times.
JaggedRock With the third rap, the lock splits open and the chain falls to the ground with a clang that sounds almost like a baby screaming, and then the cage's door slides open. The warriors waste no time moving out of the cage and into freedom (or the first stage thereof, at least.)
Varanim "Tell me if any particular gaping hole looks like it leads good grazing land, or whatever omens you people use," Varanim says, nodding to the cavern wall and checking the citadel over her shoulder as they get ready to move out.
JaggedRock , after a moment of conversing with Piercing Ivory, points towards one of the many giant holes that leads into the cavern -- this one seeming to lead into a passageway with a bit less of a steep upward bend to it.
Varanim "I think all my sarcasm is freezing and falling to the ground," Varanim grumbles, but she leads in the direction indicated with only slight wistfulness for the mystery left behind.
JaggedRock "I think this way--" He interrupts himself, as he begins to hear a sound from somewhere behind: a sound like hundreds of thousands of iron bars being drawn against one another, underscored by a bubbling, churning, strangely organic murmur.
Varanim "Think faster, and in a tight but backward-watching formation," Varanim suggests. She starts to fall to the rear as the group moves, not really expecting them to make the cavern wall before they run out of time."
JaggedRock From all around the tainted city, shapes of darkness begin to peek out from the buildings. Their shapes are humanesque, but drawn out, attenuated, often with extra pieces that should not be -- an extra limb or head here, a pair of tattered wings there -- (...)
JaggedRock and the edges of each shape are torn and frayed, as if their existence is wrought in violence against the world they occupy. They have no visible faces -- and on those nearest to her own group, Varanim can see the mark of the sigil that Piercing Ivory described. (...)
JaggedRock When they move, they do so with an unnaturally fluid, inappropriate fashion -- and every one of them that spots the Solar begins to move in her direction.