Venser. Wake up.
The words echoed around the vastness of the plain. A low, swirling mist hung over the fields. Venser reached down and plucked a strand of grain, held it in his palm, up to the light of a dimming sun. The stalk was gray and diseased. He rolled the plant between his thumb and forefinger. Gray mold chalked off onto his skin and the plant disintegrated and blew away in a chill gust that came from behind him.
A glint of silver caught his eye. Again, he reached down into the field of grain and this time, his hand retrieved a talisman. Its pure surface reflected what little light there was and it hovered above his palm unscratched, undimmed. He looked up. Who was calling his name? A figure stood on the horizon, framed by a sky ripe with darkening clouds. The figure was hooded and cloaked in white, she held a staff high. It was tipped in blood.
Suddenly Venser’s head exploded with frigid pain. The fields were flooded. Clutching his dripping face, Venser shook his head, trying to clear his vision, trying to wade towards the white warrior. A roaring wave crashed over him. He looked up through the dark tide, and saw through stinging eyes a storm that turned everything black...
Venser squinted upwards into damnable consciousness. The light was so bright it felt like someone was stabbing away the remainder of his intelligence.
“Finally! I th—”
Venser groaned and threw up his hands to block the… the sky? what happened to the ceiling? What in the Tangle was going on? A figure loomed down over him, partially blocking the light. Startled, Venser reached up and grabbed the shadow’s arm. Assassin? Demon? Zombie?
“Ugh, let go.” Strong fingers curled around his wrist, and Venser felt something akin to a snakebite sting his arm. He yelped and let go in a hurry, and in his slumber-blurred sight he saw a hideous sight materialize: that hat-crown-veil thing Liliana had been wearing lately.
Venser sighed and collapsed back down in bed, closing his eyes to block out the aesthetic affront to his senses.
“Sleepyhead, I brought you a present! Are you ill?” Liliana had leaned closer to inspect him. Venser could smell her perfume. And the liquor on her breath.
“Can’t you take that damn thing off,” he mumbled, rolling over.
“The Horzo… Orohff… guild headdress thing or whatever you said it was.” Venser yawned and tried to put himself back to sleep, hopefully to dream about something other than the black and white monstrosity that was intruding on his personal right to sleep until he felt like waking up.
“You don’t like it?” Liliana said, and even in his daze Venser heard the edge in her voice that meant trouble. He sighed and rolled over.
“It’s just… really big. It’s not my style.”
“Because, you know, I put it on to please your comatose ass—not, of course, to provide a believable disguise and keep both our identities safe!”
“Lil, I said—”
“I told you not to call me that. Ever.”
“I’m barely awake. What—”
“Move, or you’re going to be crushed by your new bed.” Liliana’s footsteps retreated, and Venser sat up quickly and rubbed his eyes, blinking. He looked up. He hadn’t been mistaken earlier. The roof of their apartment was gone.
“Bring ‘er in, brother!” a harsh, authoritative voice crashed into the airspace above the studio. A crane swung into view, also harsh against the wispy hints of Agyrem and creamy clouds of a Ravnica dawn. On the end of the crane’s chain swung something big. Something big, black, and heavy from the way the crane was squealing in protest. It stopped directly above Venser and started lowering. Rapidly.
Venser, perhaps the most brilliant artificer in the multiverse, leapt from his bed in his underwear. The crane creaked and shuddered. A cathedral bell started going off and a murder of crows flew over the flat, adding their caws of indignation to the ludicrous scene. He shivered in the early morning air and tugged up his shorts when he realized they were nearly falling off. He scratched his bare chest absently, remembering vaguely he’d had some kind of nightmare… and had thrown off his shirt at some point during the night. He ran his hand through his hair and cocked an eyebrow. What a spectacle… his gaze settled on Liliana. She was smirking at him from across the room, giving him the once-over.
Venser crossed his arms over his chest and tried to look disinterested by running his finger along the window frame and studiously examining the manner in which it was attached to the wall. Not only did he dislike her scrutinizing him like he was one of her necro-lab-rats, he hated looking at that fake face. Just the thought of “Opal” and the narrow, ghastly features and bleached hair gave him a migraine.
“You look… good,” Liliana said lamely. It was a lie, of course. Venser knew he’d lost weight, to the point that his normally lean frame was getting bony around the ribs and hips. There was food all over the apartment—good food—but he just never had an appetite these days. He was tired, and he wanted to sleep. Venser felt her still looking at him and swiveled his head to return her gaze coolly.
“You going to move that?” he said, nodding to the old bed. The new one was just crossing the tops of the walls down into the room. Liliana shrugged. Venser gave the bed a look. It vanished. Several blocks away, in a poorer neighborhood, a family of turnip-merchants looked agape at the fine wrought-iron bed and firm mattress that appeared in their hut. In seconds there was a passel of half-goblin kids jumping on the new furniture.
“Not even going to ask where that went,” Liliana said, sashaying delicately toward the liquor cabinet. The monolithic new bed was inches from the floor. Venser winced, bracing himself for a damaging thud, but the crane miraculously set the piece down with such gentle accuracy there was barely a sound.
“Nice,” Venser admitted, impressed. The bed was positioned exactly where the old one had been, directly across the room from Liliana’s canopied extravaganza that nearly touched the ceiling. She never slept in it. Over the last two weeks Venser had awakened many times in the middle of the night to find Liliana had come home at some point and crashed on the couch.
“You should know by now I only hire the best.” Liliana had found whatever it was she was looking for and kept herself occupied for a few moments with unceremoniously dumping expensive-looking amber liquid into a tin beer mug. Satisfied when the bottle was half empty and her mug was full, she re-corked the bottle and shoved it in the cabinet with a crash.
A goblin wearing pink overalls and diamond-studded goggles slid down the chain of the crane with ease. In less than a minute she had undone the elaborate harness from the bed. She tugged on the chain twice to indicate it was free, then hopped up on the hook as the chain ascended its way out of the room, flowing smoothly backwards over the crane’s pulley. The goblin gave Liliana a salute on her way up, which Liliana acknowledged with a blown kiss. Venser watched as Liliana took a five-second swig from the tin mug. Then, terrifyingly, she turned to him with a sugary smile.
“I have another surprise!” she said. Venser raised both his eyebrows. He had a smart remark ready to fly from his lips… when he noticed the dress she was wearing wasn’t the one she’d gone out in last night. He distinctly remembered her leaving in something white. This one was black. Venser was, admittedly, no expert on female clothing (of any species), and generally had no opinion on attire (unless it was something mechanically unsound, like that foul Offrov hat), but he was sure that was not the same dress and it bothered him.
He forcibly twisted his face into an expression slightly less than dire, but “Oh yeah?” was all the verbal enthusiasm he could manage in response to the threat of a “surprise.” Liliana was nodding, her eyes sparkling violet with mischief and her mouth curved like a cat that had just swallowed all the rats. For a moment she held her breath, shoulders bunched up like a schoolgirl keeping a secret. Venser felt a real smile tug at the corner of his mouth.
Liliana extended her arms in glee. “This building is ours. The entire thing. I bought it!” she exclaimed, spinning around and miraculously not spilling any of the contents of her mug.
Venser’s near-smile was wiped off his face by genuine shock. “You bought... the building? But I thought we moved into this studio because it was all you could afford.” He frowned. Seeing his look of consternation, Liliana stopped mid-twirl and threw up her hands. This time a plump slosh of whiskey or whatever it was escaped and splattered on the floor. At least she’s human Venser thought with satisfaction. Well, technically. Aside from the demons and the killing and the being older than my grandmother stuff.
Liliana ignored the spill, jamming the tin mug menacingly at her offending roommate.
“Ox balls, can’t you ever just be excited—maybe slightly less than mummified? If I were you I’d depress myself to death.” The awful hat made Liliana’s glower extremely amusing. Venser kept his face carefully stoic and suspicious.
Liliana swore with exasperation. “Look—I had some luck last night. Came on—came upon—ran into something unexpected. This is what I could afford when we got here. Now I can afford the building. What about you? What can you afford, Venser? O great-and-mighty master artificer? Care to chip in for groceries this week? Or even better, booze.” Liliana put the mug to her mouth.
The room was silent a moment except for the metallic rasping of the crane above and the rattling and shouting of vendors setting up down on the street. Venser let the sting of her words pass before he replied, keeping his tone as measured as if he were weighing grams of precious ore.
“I’m not from here. You knew I had nothing when you brought me.” He watched as Liliana put her hand to her head. She set the empty mug on the cabinet. “You’ve been drinking all night,” he added. The necromancer bit her lip.
“You didn’t have to come. I gave you the choice,” Liliana said, staring at the bottles. Venser rolled his eyes. And if I had chosen differently, I wonder what then Venser thought, figuring he’d never ask her. He didn’t want to know the answer.
He changed the subject by walking over to the new bed.
It was twice the size of the old one, with a solid rectangular base that would easily accommodate his height. It was satiny black, and looked to be carved from one huge piece of ebony. It was obviously expensive. “Thanks,” he felt compelled to say as he touched the beautiful headboard. It was smooth and unadorned, curved in a crescent.
“I didn’t get any linens yet,” Liliana said. “They have to be custom made since it’s an irregular size.” The sun was starting to peek through the clouds, touching everything with gold. Liliana finally took off the hat. She threw it on her bed unceremoniously, before coming over to stand at the foot of his. Looking up into Venser’s wincing expression at her Opal Treakoff face, Liliana dropped the glamour.
“Better?” she asked, as her amethyst-colored eyes and dark tresses phased back into being.
“Thanks,” Venser said again, not sure what to do. He rubbed his unshaven chin.
Liliana absently reached out to stroke the footboard. “I figured we could build a kitchen on the first floor, put in a wine cellar.” Venser rolled his eyes again. Liliana caught him this time and giggled. “Don’t worry, nothing of Jor’s Mirrodin vintage.” She winked at him.
“Isn’t this going to attract a lot of attention?” Venser asked. “I was under the impression you had a lot of secret low-profile things to—”
Liliana sighed and rubbed her eyes. “Look. It would be abnormal for an Orzhov, no matter how modest the caste of her family name, to not be obsessed with improving her holdings.” She leaned forward on the footboard, as if exhausted, and for some reason Venser felt intensely guilty. “This plane is constantly under construction. And I thought it might be good to have a workshop for you, and a library. I don’t know how long my business here is going to take.”
At “workshop” everything else fled from Venser’s mind. He suddenly remembered things he’d jotted down in his temporary journal, things he wanted to try, questions he wanted to investigate with regards to this plane. He grinned down at Liliana. She turned and walked back to the liquor cabinet.
This time she chose a bottle of port. Venser recognized that one, because he’d snuck some himself the previous night. The necromancer exactingly poured a conservative amount into a delicate, thin-stemmed coup. Rubbing goosebumps on his bare arm, Venser was suddenly struck with an idea. He’d felt so cramped and claustrophobic lately, and his worst habits were always on display sharing a space...
“Does this mean I can have my own room?” he asked.
Liliana’s hand paused over the glass of port. Then she grabbed the bottle and the glass and walked over to stand in front of him, smiling up sweetly. She handed the coup to him.
“Of course you can have your own room,” she purred, raising her hand in a toast.
Venser was relieved, and excited. He’d have space to stretch out, and wouldn’t be cramping Lil’s style anymore. She could have some privacy, if she wanted, and wouldn’t have to deal with his many idiosyncrasies.
Venser took a sip from the fine glass, let the smooth libation roll around on his tongue. It was delicious, laden with berry flavors and spicy caramel. Maybe this plane won’t be so bad. Urza’s ass, it could hardly get any worse than Mirrodin, after all… Venser closed his eyes to savor the moment, and the port.
He didn’t see Liliana take her own toast straight from the bottle.
Nicol Bolas was in a rage.
A puff of steam slightly larger usual emanated from his left nostril. He squinted his great emerald-colored eyes and sank a bit lower into the Pools of Becoming.
Vess’s intelligence from her “reconnaissance” with Crosis was enlightening. How fortunate we are that the necromancer is so afflicted with these human impulses. The Elder Dragon had been following rumors of The Circle of the Artificial Spark (TCAS, as it was being called) for months, and yet it was Vess, with her endearing horniness, who had uncovered concrete evidence during a fortuitous tryst.
Crosis would. Bolas mused in wonder at the willingness of some beings to throw everything out the door to satisfy their physical desire. Bolas wasn’t too surprised—Crosis had always been a loose canon. And, in fact, he was grateful to the primeval dragon’s proclivities. If he hadn’t been so anxious to bed Vess while in demon form, the Artificial Spark would still be just gossip.
Bolas’s rage stemmed from the fact that, knowing TCAS was real, he could guess who was the mastermind behind the brotherhood. And he knew what her motivation was, and what she would do or had already done after accessing its power. Nicol Bolas was in a rage because this was quickly becoming a personal problem.
One of our great successes has been avoiding such. A puff of steam rose from the right nostril.
The first order of business was to find out where she was hiding. He would set one of his other agents on that task—Tezzie, perhaps—Vess already had her hands full (literally) with work. The other thing that must be done was to see that Sparky had not been contacted (and therefore corrupted) by her yet. Bolas would increase security in the area, and instruct Vess to relay any rumors of strange happenings to him with utmost immediacy.
His rage somewhat diminished, Bolas tried to relax. The battalion of Kird apes he’d eaten for lunch was giving him indigestion, unfortunately. The Elder Dragon closed his eyes completely, sinking deeper and deeper into the pools until he was completely submerged.
A few minutes later a huge bubble the size of a mastodon burst through the still, pristine reflections on the surface of the Pools of Becoming. A bomb of dragon gas reverberated through the atmosphere.
Luckily, nothing lived at the pools except for Bolas. The most dominant planeswalker in the multiverse—the great dragon whose influence and machinations spanned planes, centuries, and threads of existence—dozed beneath the water, his stomach feeling much better.
Mirko Vosk hated going up to Agyrem. The journey didn’t seem to bother his boss Lazav, the Guildmaster of House Dimir, but even though Mirko could fly and had never felt queasy of heights before, something about the ghost quarter made him feel ill.
“Hurry up, Vosk!” Lazav had turned back to glare his vampire bodyguard. Mirko thought he saw the flicker of a slimy forked tongue dart out of Lazav’s deep hood. That was the tongue—or whatever—that Lazav had used to eat Kavin’s brain and take over his identity. Mirko swallowed, feeling sicker, but quickly stepped through the secret door in the wall of New Prahv and into the spectral flue that mysteriously connected Agyrem to Ravnica. Down below, Mirko could see the queue of permit-toting travelers headed to the ghost quarter waiting patiently in line for the Boros officer in charge to check their paperwork.
Mirko and Lazav, of course, were traveling strictly off-record. House Dimir never did anything by the book.
A rush of cold air engulfed the vampire and his shapeshifter master. Mirko felt as if he was turning slowly, weightlessly, in a colorless void… and when the movement stopped, he was standing right-side up in the courtyard of Agyrem’s New Prahv—which everyone had started calling Ghoul Prahv.
Being a vampire, Mirko usually felt detached, cool, and invulnerable amongst humans. But here, amongst ghosts, Mirko felt hot-blooded, sweaty, and boorishly slow and soft. And fat.
Lazav motioned at a shadow behind a pillar and the shadow moved to meet them. It was the contact from Szadek. The specter looked like a “she” though Mirko never took anything for granted these days, especially up in Agyrem. The specter circled them in her long dress of shadow, hissed something unintelligible, traced a rune in the air, and they were whisked into the audience hall of the true master of the Dimir.
“My Lord,” Lazav said immediately, dropping to one knee and bowing his head. Being of lower rank, Mirko was on two knees and had his head pressed to the floor.
“Up, dogs,” a voice thick with chill and disdain rippled from the dais in the center of the room. Lazav rose, Mirko doing the same only after the shapeshifter was completely standing.
On a throne of bones and writhing geists sat Szadek—well, the essence of Szadek—the Lord of Secrets and real parun of House Dimir. The ghastly throne wavered and shuddered with the souls trapped and bound to the bones that constructed it, and Mirko caught himself wondering how Szadek could sit on such a wriggly chair and be comfortable.
Quickly Mirko pushed the thought from his mind, as he tried not to think of anything when in Szadek’s presence. The parun had a reputation well-earned as a “psychic vampire” that used minds like his personal playgrounds. Mirko glanced at Szadek as the parun mind-melded with Lazav, imparting some information Mirko was not allowed to hear. Szadek’s “eyes” were black holes, his face and body shifting vapors of fog. Mirko always felt like something moved within Szadek’s eyes, like tentacles in a sea of ink. It was the creepiest thing Mirko, a vampire, had seen in his lifetime, and so he tried to avoid looking at Szadek, too.
The problem was that there was nothing in Szadek’s hall of audience that was less than disturbing to rest one’s eyes upon. Fanned out around and behind the writhing throne were the ghosts of angels, each stripped to the waist and bound to the floor by a chain around the midsection. The angels flapped their spectral wings listlessly, trying, by instinct, to flee the hall. The geist-chains, varying in length from about ten feet to forty, kept the ghastly host bound to Szadek’s throne like so many animated, but lifeless, hood ornaments.
Mirko had no love lost on angels, but something about the conceit seemed wrong—as if it were against nature, and gratuitous. The angels’ vacuous stares searched the heavens hopelessly, their vacant faces anchored by slack jaws and open mouths that never changed expression. Mirko had fought a good number of angels in his lifetime, and he purposefully looked on the bound host only as a group—quickly and uncarefully—for fear he’d recognize a former foe amongst their pitiful midst.
And why a man made of fog and tar-pit eyes would need to keep the imprisoned angels half-naked was beyond Mirko’s simple, linear thinking. Certainly if a vampire lord had a harem from which he (or she) regularly chose partners and victims, having the group in a state of undress made sense, from an efficiency standpoint. As far as Mirko knew, Szadek couldn’t do anything but occupy brains, so the angels’ bared breasts served no practical purpose. On top of that, Mirko had heard an intriguing rumor from a very reliable source that Szadek had, in fact, never bedded anyone even while alive, and was only interested in the most obscure, arcane, ancient types of self—
“Vosk!” Lazav’s whip-like reprimand raked across Mirko’s consciousness. The sensation was like barbed wire being wrapped around, and then ripped from, one’s tongue.
“Y-yes, master,” Mirko said, falling to a knee and bowing, trying to collect himself.
“Go pick up the parun’s gift.” Lazav kicked Mirko in the shoulder, urging him toward the throne. Mirko blanched.
“Of course, master.” Standing, Mirko headed across the hall of audience. He kept his gaze studiously fixed on the base of the throne so he wouldn’t see any writhing eyes nor any debased angels. A softly glowing object sat on the floor right in front of Szadek.
As Mirko bent to pick up the artifact, he felt the caress of Szadek’s attention along the back of his neck. The sensation ran up over his head and down his face, dancing around his throat. Mirko swallowed nervously. He kept his mind humble and clutched the object to his chest, marching like a good soldier back to his shapeshifting master. Lazav was glaring at him and Mirko figured he was probably in for a beating later.
As Lazav and Mirko exited the hall of audience at Agyrem’s Dinrova, the entrance rippled and reformed into shadow, as if it had never been. The same specter greeted them and began to perform the transportation rite.
Mirko thought of something as the shade whisked them away.
I’m topless, too. Just like those angels. I should ask Lazav what that’s all about—
But then they were in the cold vortex of the Ravnica-Agyrem flue, and Mirko became distracted. When his feet touched down in New Prahv, Mirko knew he’d had an interesting idea, but couldn’t recall it.
Well, I’ve never been a thinking vamp he consoled himself, as he followed Lazav through secret routes, back toward the guildgate of House Dimir.
...To be continued next week in Chapter 3: The Hotstepper
Retribution in Ravnica