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At last, part of this week was starting to look up. (...)

After some careful adjustments to keep her arm under wraps, as it were, and some conversations with relatively friendly, yet suspicious and deeply uninformed villagers, Varanim walks down the narrow, unused path towards the lone tower hanging over the vast split in the mountains. (...)

The path swings through tiny outcroppings and eventually ends with a thirty foot stretch in which a meter-wide rock path lurches awkwardly out across the chasm itself before curving sharply back around to deposit her on a small cliff outcropping, vast double doors of whitest ivory inlaid with gold filigree standing before her.

Varanim "Excessive, and hell on groceries," Varanim grumbles as she steps onto the final outcropping. But it must keep away visitors nicely, and she supposes the doors are all right. Calling it a zero sum in the end, she tries the door.

There is no lock, or even a noticeable catch -- the right half of the door glides open easily.

Varanim Taking that as an invitation, Varanim pokes her head in, then follows with the rest of her.

Oddly enough, the cold, biting wind outside gives way almost instantaneously to a pleasant warmth as she steps in, like that of a nice fire after a long day outside. (...)

The room she enters is a rather grand entranceway, floored in white marble and walled in (clearly imported) oak; three thin-iron staircases wind up from various points on the floor to doors and mezzanines placed at every conceivable point along the hundred feet the walls rise up, while a veranda reaches out from the far wall and two sets of wooden double doors break the side walls. (...)

Blue jade torches burn unattended upon the walls, while the characters of Old Realm are once again set into the walls in bas relief by many of the doors -- but the topics are rather more specific this time: Mote Theory, Quintessence, Spiritual Structures, Attunable Materials, Cosmology, Astrology, Ectology, Cryptozoology, Exaltation.

Varanim After a long look around the room followed by a brief, suspicious scan for a "Torture Room" label, Varanim is momentarily paralyzed by choice. Then, since it has always worked so swimmingly in the past, she pauses and opens her senses for interesting sounds or essence threads.

Even a quick glance makes it abundantly clear: the entire building is swarming with Essence; every floor panel, wall strip, and staircase is carefully designed to channel it and refine it, upwards and outwards -- apparently towards some spot near the seventh floor. (...)

More immediately, there is also a more localized source of air Essence that appears to be moving towards her location.

Varanim blinks at first, mentally overlaying what she can see of the architecture over the Essence flows to select a staircase for climbing... then refocuses, as another point seems to demand her attention first. She looks for the source, resting her meat hand on the knife now somewhat awkwardly stuck in her belt.

It's coming from the door on the right. As it draws nearer she starts to hear something, like a slight rocky/metallic clattering underlaid by gusts of wind.

Varanim Deciding there's no point in pretending to be subtle--why start now?--Varanim goes to the right-hand doors and throws them open.

Behind the doors are a short hallway decorated in dark woods and reddish-white stone, with a grand blue and green carpet running down its length and doorways to other stairways and side rooms. (...)

There is also some sort of odd creature -- like a variety of blue jade plates assembled haphazardly (albeit symmetrically) into the shape of a pudgy, headless person -- barrelling down towards the door in an awkward trot, which -- once it sees the armed and dangerous Exalt pass through the door --

panics, attempts to reverse direction (thereby causiing the rug to skid), slips, and falls backwards to the floor with an incredibly loud clatterbang.

Varanim Varanim, who wasn't FEELING above-average snarly, blinks at the reaction. "Come for your gymnastics lesson?" she offers, walking in its direction and eying the odd pile.

The pile, after a moment, manages to pull itself back up to its feet, brush itself off, pause for a moment, lean down to fuss with the rug, stand back up again, and finally turn to address Varanim. She notes as it moves the tiny whirlwinds that animate its arms and legs, and the voice (oddly genial and unthreatening, to match its external appearance) seems to emanate on such winds from within: (...)

"Oh, I'm very sorry, madam -- or do you have another title that you would prefer? -- I wasn't expecting you for another four days and I'm afraid you startled me."

Varanim "No title," Varanim snaps automatically. "Who told you to expect me?" She cranes her neck around, looking at the construct from the side, curious whether its insides are hollow.

"What do you mean? It's been marked on the calendar, of course." He shoves one hand in between some of his plates and rummages around for a moment, pulling out a sheaf of scrolls, one of which is clearly a calendar of the current year with "New master arrives!" marked in red on the date four days from today.

Varanim opens her mouth to point out that she's probably not the expected new master, then shuts it. She says instead, after a moment, "I've been traveling fast. So, what's needed to formalize possession?"

The pudgy creature seems to think for just a moment. "Oh! Well, we must bring you to attune, of course. But... there is... the Book. And... the Present. Of course. First things first, after all."

Varanim is pretty sure she knows what the creature means by attunement, and she nods knowledgeably regardless. "Indeed, let's start this first thing... ah, what's your name?"

"Oh, of course. Elish Eran, madam." He executes an awkward bow briefly before leading on. (...)

He leads upwards at a steady pace, through odd hallways, vast reading rooms (whose ceilings are filled with diamond-glass, to better let in the light), and musty (yet oddly dignified) stacks, before finally reaching a rather central chamber. (...)

Tall shelves of books delineate the outskirts of the area, while the central portion is empty -- in fact, it reminds her, a little uncomfortably, of the First and Forsaken Lion's library. (...)

Near the center, seven short tables lie in a geometric arrangement around a tall, elegantly carven wooden podium. Only two objects of note sit within the confines of this area: a vast black book, open to pages of black upon which words of black are scrawled in a vicious hand, sitting centrally located on the podium; and on one of the tables, a small box, elegantly wrapped in green paper and tied with a green bow.

Varanim regards the book, and the room at large, with the guarded optimism of a confirmed drunk seeing a strange new source of alcohol. "The Book and... the Present. You do like your flowery names, Elish Eran."

"The notes left for me on the matter emphasized the capitalization, madam."

Varanim moves to pick up the Present and open it, figuring Elish will stop her if that's not the right order of things.

The paper glides easily off of the simple wooden box within, which itself has a fliptop lid that easily opens. (...)

Inside, there is a single item: a scarf, black as the night, but which shines like ghostly satin where the light falls upon it, woven of metal so thin as to feel like the thinnest fabric; at on each end, knotted tassels, each as black as the scarf save two: on one end, one of gold, and on the other, one of green.

Varanim "Isn't wool traditional?" Varanim says to Elish, fingering the weave in spite of herself.

"You do not strike me as a person of tradition, with all the deepest respect, madam."

Varanim "Hmm." Varanim casts a look of reappraisal at her jade companion, then lifts the scarf and casts it around her neck with a twirl. Then she goes to the book, of course.

ElishEran "I'll be taking my leave, then, madam. I expect I shall see you when you are done with the book." He bows awkwardly once more and sidles away as Varanim takes in the contents of the black tome. (...)

ElishEran Almost at once, she finds her attention gripped to it, the scrawled words speaking in a cruel yet utterly compelling voice, darting to and fro across subjects like a thief leaping from building to building to evade his pursuers, then delving into others in the irrational detail of a crazed man dissecting rats in the vain search for unholy truths. (...)

ElishEran The book speaks of Netheos, the realm of the dead, and of Pluto, the Incarna that ruled over it; of the cycle of rebirth, and the emergence of the dark horror known as the Void; of the Shroud between life and death, and the true nature of those Exalts that cross it. (...)

ElishEran In one section, the book speaks in detail of the cultures of the dead; in another, of the horrors of the Seven Sisters, the ghosts of demons who lure the living into a hellish prison of half-life. (...)

ElishEran And then, it speaks of the Malfeans, and in between the half-described characters of the Shadowed Unlife Equation and chicken-scratch diagrams of the dark, sinuous tendrils of What Lies Beneath, is the symbol Varanim remembers, affixed to the name of the very first Malfean: a creature known in death only as the Dragon of Salt and Bone. (...)

ElishEran It speaks below of a race of creatures, the Ija: in life, beings of joyous water and infinitely subtle emotion -- but in death, only too familiar to the Twilight. (...)

ElishEran And at the halfway point of the book, the tone suddenly changes dramatically: for suddenly, it begins to speak of the Black Magic, the arcane power of the dead and the spiritual realms, and of the power its Three Initiations might bring to a practitioner. (...)

ElishEran "The workings of the Black Magic begin with sacrifice, but not willing sacrifice: the knowledge that what once was yours was stripped from you, without your consent, and that even vengeance can fill the now-empty space with only the darkest, coldest comfort." And as she reads the words, Varanim's missing arm throbs a little.

Varanim "Oh, shut up," Varanim mutters at her absent arm--it should have stuck around, if it wanted a vote. She keeps reading.

ElishEran The book speaks of the Five Characters, letters that combine to draw upon the dead spirits of the doomed Primordials by evoking a word that no longer finds purchase amongst the living, and their role in the casting of spells; of the Umbral Veins, the pathways of darkness that run up and down the body of every Exalt, carrying away

ElishEran the death that would otherwise befall their flesh and casting it off, and how the student of the Black Magic might draw upon them; (...)

ElishEran of the most basic castings of spiritual magic, the summoning of a departed life, and the banishment of the same away again; and as she reads, Varanim slowly but unquestionably begins to understand more and more, as if the book were written for her alone.

Varanim Varanim reads with fierce concentration, finally finding tools suited to the work she's been clumsily pursuing for years. She sits back eventually, realizing she should hunt down writing materials before she continues much further, and absently wondering how much time has passed. Something about attunement, to settle her squatter's rights.

ElishEran is waiting patiently outside the door for her. "I see the calendar was not quite mistaken after all, madam," he says. "This way, please?"

Varanim "Of course," Varanim says serenely, then takes a surreptitious sniff at herself once she's following him. Four days?

ElishEran (Now that she stops to think about it, maybe that's her eyelids trying to fall closed and not just the room's lights mysteriously flashing on and off.)

Varanim makes a mental note that she does not, in fact, need to tell Elish Eran to fix the lights.

Varanim "We're going to the stone?" she says, just to establish that she still knows what's going on.

ElishEran The servant leads on through the hallways once again, through narrow halls and strangely oriented back rooms, until finally reaching a single room that stands at the top of one of the subsidiary towers: the wind whistles sweet, melodic notes through the various circular holes carved into the outer walls, and at the center, on a tiny pedestal, sits a stone, clear with only the hints of color, like a soap bubble.

ElishEran gestures to it, as if suggesting that Varanim pick it up.

Varanim follows, noting the unconventional but strangely appealing choices of angles and turnings, too tired now to do more than add it to the growing list for possible future interest.

Varanim She pauses at the threshold of the room, takes a long, clean breath, then strides forward to cup the stone with both hands.

ElishEran It feels smooth and cool in her hands, pleasant and light; and as she holds it, she can feel the Essence locks within it unfolding, the flows of the entire building turning and shifting in place towards the locus of the stone, then gently, like a cool refreshing rain, dripping bit by bit into her fingers, her arm, and flowing onwards to the heart of her soul. (...)

ElishEran It is just a moment, but it feels like far longer -- the reverse of her experience with the book. As the Essence flows into her, she becomes slowly aware of the whole of the building -- all the books that are misshelved, the observatory and lab carefully tended by Elish Eran in the long period of emptiness... and the "basement" entrance, which she realizes with a start is currently being knocked on by company.

Varanim lets out a breath at the thousand tiny adjustments of Essence, feeling like a dislocated joint--somehow previously unnoticed--has been slipped back into place. Blinking to clear her eyes, she turns to Elish Eran. "Does the calendar introduce our company downstairs?"

ElishEran 's chest plates seem to shift and scrape across each other in a gesture she realizes after a moment is his equivalent of a frown. "No. 'I won't have mentioned her Present when I saw her, but be sure she gets it'; 'Be certain that she takes the time to read the Book'; 'Clean the house exceedingly well.' Nothing about additional guests, madam."

Varanim "Mmm." Varanim sets off to wind her way down through the tower, no longer needing to follow in his wake. "Who exactly left all those thoughtful notes?"

ElishEran "Your benefactor," he says as they wander downwards towards the entrance in question, "or as I might suggest were I possessed of a penchant for humor, your 'Secret Admirer.'" (...)

ElishEran Varanim can feel the Essence shifting as she descends the iron staircase into the basement, where the great red and black door stands; she knows without checking that the other side leads on, eventually, to the Underworld. A polite knocking sounds.

Varanim "Keep working on it," she grunts in response to Elish Eran's developing humor pneumatics. Reaching the door, she calls out, "Not buying anything!" Then she opens, anyway. I mean, who WOULDN'T check out their basement door to hell?

ElishEran Standing at the door is a single person: a ghost -- Varanim can tell because she can see right through him! -- of a rather worn looking man, in archaic workman's clothes and bearing two decorations upon his face: a thin but respectable beard, and a single calligraphic mark emblazoned in brilliant red upon his forehead.

Varanim "Lost?" she inquires, somewhat reasonably given the circumstances.

ElishEran The man, seeing Varanim, drops to a single knee, and speaks, in a voice which sounds as if it is finally achieving some manner of release against a long-held burden, intones "Master, holder of my calling-shard, I hereby swear my eternal service to you."

ElishEran Now, as Varanim thinks about it for a moment, she realizes that she saw the same mark written at the front of the book she was reading....

Varanim opens her mouth, closes it, raises her hand as if to make some great clarifying gesture, then lets it drop with a helpless shrug. "That's... that's great."

ElishEran The man nods, and rises up. "I am glad. You shall have forever the service of I, Black Mastodon. And that of my family," he says, and turns to gesture -- and in the downward-bending cave behind him, Varanim suddenly sees them: hundreds of ghosts, maybe thousands, all crowded tightly together -- and each of their foreheads glowing with the same blood-red sigil.

Varanim Leaning her forehead against the doorjamb, so that one beady eye stares out at the Mastodon family horde, Varanim contemplates them for long seconds. "Lish," she says finally, "we might have to fix up the basement until I can sort this out."

ElishEran "I suppose cleaning the house was not an empty request," he says, and sighs. "I'll put them up in the empty basement storage rooms. They shouldn't take up too much room, since they're not alive."

Varanim "Great," Varanim says, in a tone that suggest otherwise. "I'm not a damn aristocrat," she says darkly to the ghosts outside. "You're just here until I figure out the puzzle. Oh, and don't give Elish Eran here any lip. He and I are like this." She holds up two crossed fingers.

ElishEran Black Mastodon nods. "Your every wish is our command," he says, and begins to direct his countless throngs of deceased descendants into the basement.

Varanim "Yeah, I thought you might say that," Varanim says, softly. For a moment her eyes are very far away, and tired.

ElishEran And at that moment, Varanim has another series of memories, flashing back like lightning across her tired brain:

ElishEran A gloved finger, burning the sigil into the forehead of a still-living Black Mastodon; (...)

ElishEran A building of darkest black, its circular shape surrounded by five jagged spines, and its entrance blocked by elaborate iron lattice; a mahogany writing desk, a white feather quill sitting atop it, next to a sheet of black paper; (...)

ElishEran a tug on the neck, as someone pulls a scarf from behind, playfully; those viridian lips, and their taste, sweet and ethereal, like a warm breeze at the very end of summer; (...)

ElishEran a glance out a window at a vast city of lost splendor and glory, a single golden temple rising out of it like a beacon of light, and then back within, where a pale man waits with an angry look upon his face for Varanim to speak....

ElishEran And then, once again, the present.

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