Venser cautiously turned his head to ease a crick in his neck and calculated that the number of times he’d nearly died must be approaching double digits. Fortunately the number of times he’d actually died was still at one.
Not moving the rest of his body for fear of aggravating one injury or another, the artificer slowly stretched out his hand until it touched someone else’s. A smile flickered across Venser’s pale face and he gently wrapped his fingers around Liliana’s wrist. She had a pulse. Venser exhaled with relief, then carefully slid his hand back before the necromancer awoke. His smile faded but his eyes gleamed with satisfaction. Liliana was fine. Venser thought back fondly to the moment he’d seen his own toothbrush become a deadly weapon in Liliana’s hands, exploding out of Ashiok’s forehead. Remembering the Weaver’s screams of pain and outrage, the artificer’s grin returned. The garish Theran skyscape he was staring up into didn’t even seem that offensive.
“Ugggh.” A throaty and petulant groan startled Venser from his reverie and he turned toward the sound too fast, setting off a painful spasm in his neck. He swore and let out a groan of his own, bringing his hand up to desperately massage the troublesome spot.
“Vense? Is that you?” Liliana’s voice was hoarse from screaming. Not surprising, since that was mostly all she’d done from the moment Ashiok had gotten into her head. “Vense?” she said again, her usual bossy and self-assured tones supplanted by a weak whisper.
“Yeah. I’m here,” he said, and before he could stop himself he’d reached out and put his hand over hers again. There was a silence. Realizing his mistake, Venser closed his eyes and waited for the rebuke. But none came. Liliana’s hand stayed under his, and she wasn’t snarking at him. They stayed that way for a moment.
Then Venser felt Liliana’s hand slowly but surely slide away from his own.
“Why am I so thirsty?” she snapped. “You could at least offer me a drink, you know. After everything I suffered for you.”
“I think I hurt my neck. I can’t move very well, so… Wait—after you suffered? You’re not the only one who—”
“Shoulda just left you here. What’s it to me what happens to you and Miss White Knight, anyway? As if either of you are worth getting mind-railed over.” Liliana snorted.
“I didn’t leave you, either. He was in my head too, and—”
“Look, what do you want, Vense? A pat on the back?”
“DON’T CALL ME THAT,” Liliana shrieked. Before Venser could move a muscle she was on him, pinning him down, eyes blazing purple and hands smoking black. She dug her fingers into the flesh of his jaw, baring her teeth like a banshee.
“Don’t. Call. Me. That!”
Venser gasped. “Hey,” he croaked out. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry! I don’t know why I always… Look, Liliana, it just slips out. It seems natural. And… I call you ‘Lil’—”
Expecting to be obliterated, Venser flinched as he finished softly, “...not ‘Lili.’”
Liliana stared down at him. As suddenly as they’d erupted the black and violet flames vanished, and the heat surrounding Liliana was doused. The black mage slouched as if all her energy had whooshed out of her body and she let her herself roll off of Venser into a languid heap on the stone tiles. She flung an arm over her face and, after muttering something about how she’d rather smell Ravnican rat shit over Theran goat shit any day, the sorceress went quiet.
Venser let out a tense breath. The soft rushing sound of the backwards-flowing waterfalls at the end of the Path of Phenax surrounded them. The stone tiles were cool on the circular island where they lay. Venser continued to stare up into the sky that was a view of the Theros overworld. He wondered where Elspeth had landed after Liliana threw her into the center waterfall. He had no idea how the teleportation worked from the end of the Path back to topside Theros. I should examine this place before we leave… he mused, his scientific curiosity getting the better of everything else jumbling around in his head.
“So how much of that did you see?” Liliana demanded abruptly.
Venser cringed at the tone in her voice and hesitated. “All of it,” he said after a moment, figuring honesty was the best policy with Liliana. She’d know the truth, anyway.
Liliana sighed with disgust and rolled over, away from him. Venser scratched his head. The movement hurt his neck and he realized how tired he was. Dog tired. Tired to the marrow of his bones. But what if there wasn’t marrow in his bones, anymore? The Phyrexian restoration process might have done something entirely different… another interesting thought. Venser blinked his eyes. His mind was wandering from fatigue and Liliana was not speaking to him. They lay there in silence for a long time. Long enough for Venser to wonder if Liliana had fallen asleep. He started to feel drowsy, but the memory of what had happened last time he felt drowsy stabbed into his mind and startled him wide awake.
He scrambled into a sitting position, determined not to fall asleep. He glanced over at Liliana. Her eyes were closed, but that didn’t mean anything. She was as good at feigning sleep as she was at faking everything else. Venser sneered at himself. He wanted to say something to her, but was too afraid of her reaction. Maybe she didn’t want to talk. After all, the Weaver had just put her through hell. If I’m tired, she must be exhausted… Venser watched her even breathing for a second longer, then turned away to stare at the waterfalls. He propped his head on his hands. I’ll just keep watch until Lil is ready to go, Venser thought, adamant about staying awake.
A minute later the artificer’s snoring was in happy harmony with the waterfalls’ gentle roar.
In his dreams, Venser recounted the events of the last few hours.
Or had it been days… or weeks?
He’d just topped the last rise of Phenax’s path, Elspeth by his side, when a sudden drowsiness descended on him. Writing it off to the arduous slog through the five realms of the Underworld, and ignoring the nagging feeling of familiarity, Venser kept walking. Getting Elspeth to the path’s exit was firmly foremost in his mind; the prospect of reuniting with Liliana, omnipresent.
When he surprised himself by lifting Elspeth into his arms, and saw the silver thread dart across his field of vision, Venser knew he was in trouble.
And he knew exactly who to blame for the troublemaking. But it was too late.
Too late to do anything except watch.
The last thing Venser remembered doing of his own free will was thinking a very explicit welcome message to the uninvited guest in his head.
I know you’re in there, il-Dal. Go fuck yourself.
An answering cackle reverberated in Venser’s head, bouncing between his temples like a rubber ball. Then the Weaver King answered, Since I’m in your head, that would involve you fucking yourself, right, Venser dear? Not a bad idea, could be lots of fun!
The constant self-congratulatory giggling was the worst part.
Venser had watched as the Weaver King got the jump on Elspeth, materializing in a physical form the artificer didn’t recognize—all pasty white skin and black cloth, topped by a vaporous head. Frozen in place as he was, all Venser could do was quietly store his rage for the moment the Weaver made a mistake. And he would make a mistake, Venser was sure of it. Il-Dal’s cockiness always got the better of him. It was how Venser had managed to get close to him last time, before blinking away with half of a powerstone and leaving the other half to explode in il-Dal’s face and blast his essence into functional nonexistence.
He should’ve never been able to put himself back together. Unless he had help. At that moment Venser saw Liliana appear in the grotto. Thank the Legacy Venser thought, trying to smile.
Quiet in there! the Weaver King hissed, his reprimand a scalding spear of pain that stabbed into Venser’s frontal lobe. Venser couldn’t groan, of course, but if he could have, he would’ve screamed.
Venser eavesdropped on il-Dal’s exchange with Liliana, learning that apparently the Weaver King had a new identity in these parts called “Ashiok.” There was a lot of swearing. Then the blasting started.
With the Weaver in his head Venser heard everything as if it was far away, or partially muffled. So the sounds of battle weren’t very intimidating, but Liliana’s face was. She looked ten times as pissed off as when she’d fought Tezzeret on Mirrodin, and there she’d been pissed. Venser gleefully celebrated the fact that her rage was directed at someone other than himself. His fingers tingled with his desire to join in and fight beside her. He watched with amazement as she conjured up offensive spell after offensive spell—she was in full-on battle mage mode, and Venser had to admit the warlocking looked good on her. Suddenly she called forth a rain of flaming projectiles that a pyromancer would have envied, and Venser’s scientific interest was piqued. How did she manage that? That was no black spell, or he was a Kird ape’s uncle.
The Weaver King-slash-Ashiok was smoking in several places from the assault, but the battle raged on, each mage turning to tactics to try and gain the upper hand. Liliana at one point came to stand close to Venser, and even though his body was immobilized he felt his heart jump at her touch.
“Can’t we just… leave?” she said, her voice tired, and then Venser had known she didn’t favor herself in this battle.
“You’d hate me forever,” Liliana was saying, and Venser wanted more than anything to shake his head and just yell at her to ‘walk away.
At the end, the Weaver King let himself get into a disadvantaged position. Liliana was exhausted from keeping both Venser and Elspeth safe and keeping up a steady offense, but still she’d cast one last devastating spell that had appeared to rip il-Dal’s flesh from his bones.
Venser watched helplessly as Liliana crumpled to her knees at the other side of the battlefield.
Then, to his horror, he felt his eyelids blink. He felt his own feet move.
No, no! Gods damn you, Weaver! Venser shouted vainly in his own head as, against his will, he walked toward Liliana. There was no answer, but Venser felt—more than heard—a self-satisfied giggle somewhere near his amygdala.
Venser focused all his energy, trying to remember things Karn had taught him about evading mind control. He channeled his rage into slivers of blue mana, tried to wedge them between the Weaver King’s silver threads that bound his faculties. When that failed, Venser meditated quickly on the scorching expanse of the Glimmervoid, and pictured his mind as a slick, uninterruptable maze of gleaming, polished gears—gears incorruptible enough to snap those silver strings, loosen the Weaver’s foothold, and toss him out on his ass.
Nothing. It didn’t work.
Venser felt his body continuing to approach Liliana—albeit in a somewhat stilted manner. He watched the necromancer hopefully to see if she’d read his awkward movements as a red flag… but her smile was only one of exhausted relief.
The spell release didn’t work because part of me wants to go to her, Venser realized with sudden clarity. I wasn’t fully committed to the control-break—not committed enough. This is my fault—
Bingo! The Weaver’s giggle was intolerable.
Feeling like his heart would explode, Venser watched his hands reach down to lift Liliana into his embrace. He’d never seen her expression so gentle, angelic, trusting…
“Hey! Did you just touch my boob? Opportunist!” Liliana was smiling, laughing…
Inwardly, Venser seethed, but he carefully bound up his white-hot rage for later use, winding it into braided, disciplined coils of white and blue.
What? You should be thanking me for finally getting you a little action! Il-Dal’s voice rattled gleefully
Don’t worry, I’ll thank you.
A snicker. Is that a threat or a promise?
A certainty, Venser thought, as he watched Liliana’s eyes blink sleepily.
“Would’ve been hella funny to stab Ashiok with your toothbrush,” Liliana murmured, eyes closing.
“What toothbrush?” Venser heard himself say. A dead giveaway. But it was too late… Liliana was already asleep.
Being sucked into Liliana’s dream was a lot like planeswalking, only it felt more like drowning than flying. His consciousness clutched in the Weaver’s death grip, Venser was dragged along for the ride. A pulsating black vortex spun them down and down and down amidst plumes of violet light, and when everything stopped spinning Venser found himself looking at a sunset.
From behind an invisible force shield.
Venser saw a young woman run into the swamp scene, and recognized Liliana immediately. She was much younger and dressed in white, but her features were unmistakable. Venser shouted her name and pounded his fist against the barrier experimentally, but Liliana made no sign of hearing him and all he got was bruised knuckles for his efforts.
Keeping watch on the action on the other side of the force shield out of the corner of his eye, Venser began examining his situation. The rational thing to do, in his way of thinking, was first to figure out the physics of this dreamwalking thing and then to come up with a plan to stop the Weaver messing with Liliana’s head. Whatever il-Dal’s—or Ashiok’s, as Liliana had called him—intentions were, Venser was only sure that they could not be good.
Turning, Venser saw that everything around him was completely gray. It had no texture, and no depth. It was not like fog, had no movement, and could be described most closely as staring at a piece of gray construction paper that you somehow knew was alive. The grayness surrounded the force shield. The force shield itself was dome-shaped, like a faerie terrarium, and inside of it was where all the action was.
“So… out there, the rest of Lil’s mind. Here, the dream center.” Venser laid his palm flat against the invisible barrier. It felt like glass. “Not her mind’s true physicality,” he murmured to himself, “But how il-Dal chooses to structure the dreamwalk spell.”
Venser closed his eyes, and teleported to the other side of the terrarium. It worked. Now he could see the same swamp scene, but from the opposite compass direction. A young man with the same coloring as Liliana had ridden up on a white horse. Venser examined him cursorily, and reasoned it must be the brother she was always screaming about when she had bad dreams—dreams that Liliana had no idea Venser sat awake through night after night while they were on Mirrodin. Yes, most likely the brother. The familial resemblance was strong enough.
Peering around the grayness outside the dream-dome, Venser wondered if he was alone. Would the Weaver make his mischief remotely, or did he need to be inside the bubble to influence the dream? Teleporting to a few more points outside the terrarium, Venser concluded that he was the only one out here. That meant il-Dal must be within.
Venser blinked to his original location and turned his attention back to the scene inside the dome. The stars had come out over the swampy inlet, and things between Liliana and her brother seemed cordial enough. Suddenly Liliana took off her dress, and Venser’s eyebrows shot up. He almost turned away, but then told himself he needed to keep an eye out for the Weaver.
Liliana had on a blue dress now. Venser sighed. No sign of trouble yet, he thought distractedly, enchanted instead by how the light of the moon kissed Liliana’s dark hair. Then Venser felt a tingle at the back of his neck, as if one of the silver threads of mind control had trembled. Venser squinted into the dome, focusing all his energy on the thread and muttering a minor amplification spell that should help him locate the essence of the Weaver King wherever he was hiding in Liliana’s dream.
Venser’s eye was drawn to a patch of darkness that was just slightly darker than the rest of the night. It nestled in the branches of a tree that overhung where Liliana and her brother were talking… and drinking. Il-Dal. Venser smirked. He was right. The Weaver had to be present in the dream himself in order to meddle, and, being the voyeur and hedonist he was, il-Dal was predictably close to the action. Now that he’d found it, and given their long history of mental sparring that lead to an unfortunate level of familiarity, Venser was sure he’d be able to trace his old nemesis’ essence anywhere in the nightmare.
The next step was to see if il-Dal could do the same, and key in on Venser’s actions outside of the dream. Venser whispered a word of conjuring, and a glowing blue sphere appeared in his hand. He waved it at the people in the dream-bubble, then waited. No reaction. Then Venser took a deep breath, and screamed a torrent of slurs about the Weaver King into the placid grayness around him. Nothing.
Either il-Dal didn’t care what was going on outside the dream proper, or he couldn’t keep track of it. “He must have brought my consciousness along for a reason,” Venser reasoned aloud, turning everything over in his mind to see if he’d forgotten to assess some risk or another. “Ah—right. He wants me to see whatever he plans to do to Lil. And this limbo area was probably the most secure place to keep me. He didn’t want me getting control of my body back, and somehow interfering topside. Like waking her.” Venser scratched his chin. He pondered for another minute, weighing options and looking for angles. Inside the dome, it looked like Liliana’s brother had just tried to kiss her.
Venser raised an eyebrow. “And I bet it’s only going to get worse from here,” he murmured, watching the dream waver, turn fuzzy, and begin to fade into something else.
Liliana took a bath, which wasn’t bad at all. But then it got worse.
I was right, Venser congratulated himself. After an infuriatingly long flashback to some kind of knightly tournament, Liliana’s brother and father went at it and the public drama culminated with the brother on his ass and Liliana being hauled off to hang out with the king and prince. Venser had found out that if he pressed his ear directly to the invisible barrier, he could hear what was being said inside. The sound quality was awful, though, all muffled and echo-y at once, and he could only hear from Liliana’s perspective. So most of the tournament dream was a mishmash of hard-to-hear dialogue and annoying ambient sounds like hoofbeats and clanging steel and gossipy whispers.
At least I still have a bead on the Weaver. Il-Dal had been hiding out in the nanny’s body for most of the tournament.
As Liliana curtseyed to the gray-haired prince, receiving a light kiss on the cheek in return, the dream began to dissolve.
“About time,” Venser muttered. Liliana had clearly been in distress for the entirety of the tournament, and that bothered the artificer, but to his outsider’s eyes it just looked like she was surrounded by idiots—an entitled, drunk of a brother; a patronizing, insensitive father; worthless, fearful, and scheming nobles.
The dream faded to black, and a new scene unfurled from the center of the terrarium.
Steam rose from terrain that was a mix of shrubs, dark earth, and rocks. There was fog, too, and it swirled around Liliana astride a horse at the center of the dream-bubble.
Then it got much worse.
The horse was a zombie, or headed for the glue factory, and began to fall apart in Liliana’s hands. It shed chunks of flesh onto the moist ground, Liliana screamed, and Venser felt queasy. Pressing his ear to the bubble to avoid having to look at the horse, Venser heard someone calling for Liliana.
“Lili? Is that you? Sister. Come join me.”
A heavy feeling settled into Venser’s stomach, and something told him this was the much, much, much worse part and that he needed to do something. Now.
But what? Venser doubted he could take the Weaver on his own turf, not without some gimmick like the powerstone trick. Brainstorming, Venser watched Liliana run to the hot springs. Her brother was there. Naked. Of course.
“If I get close, at least I can try to wake Lil up inside the dream,” Venser mumbled, dissatisfied with the idea but unable to think of a better one. Decided, he closed his eyes to teleport to the mucky bank of the hot springs. He went…
...and was thrown back, landing on his butt at the exact location he’d been standing on outside the dream-bubble. Stunned, Venser tried again and was repelled again.
“Of course. That’s the safeguard. Why il-Dal wasn’t worried about leaving me out here. He knew I wouldn’t teleport away and abandon Lil, and knew I wouldn’t be able to teleport in to help her.” Venser gritted his teeth, the feeling of foreboding getting stronger. He had to come up with a different plan. Liliana was taking off her clothes, getting into the water.
“Why in the hell would you do that?” he shouted at her through the barrier, slamming his hand against its smooth surface. “Think, Venser, think,” he ordered himself, his habit of speaking aloud blossoming with his anxiety.
Raking his hand through his hair, Venser watched as Liliana’s brother got close to her, touched her. Where was the Weaver? There—in the zombie horse. What remained of it. The beast was standing off in the fog, nearly invisible. Think. Sweat rolled down Venser’s neck as he glanced back at the pool. Things were progressing way too quickly and he still couldn’t think of a way to—
“Hey! That’s not a brotherly kiss!” Venser shouted at the invisible barrier, slamming his palms against it again. Venser watched in shock as Josu punched Liliana in the stomach. Your brother… As Liliana’s naked form crumpled into the water, Venser’s guts turned to ice and he felt bile rise in his throat. Without realizing it, his hand too clenched into a fist that he smashed over and over into the force shield, harder and harder as he watched Josu move to stand over Liliana, helplessly floating in the dark water.
“Stop!” Venser screamed raggedly, and a stab of pain caused him to look over at his own hand. Through the haze of his enraged vision Venser saw that blood ran from his knuckles, down and over his wrist until it dripped off his forearm. The dark lines of blood reminded him of something—a glimmer, deep within his flailing fury—Teferi’s hands. The veins of Teferi’s hands, folded calmly, palms pressed together, fingertips just brushing the time mage’s chin…
“We define the boundaries of reality; they don’t define us.”
The memory of Teferi’s cool and collected voice breezed through Venser’s mind, a calming wind carrying the words of a master.
Venser looked back into the terrarium. Liliana, in a dead man’s float on writhing water, caught in the embrace of darkness and hundreds of snakes. Josu stood over her, a sneer on his face. And now, within Josu’s body—the Weaver. “Josu” reached out a trembling hand toward his sister.
You think you’re master of this reality, il-Dal, and in your reality I’m weak and impotent. Venser’s eyes began to glow a fulgent blue. But this is not your reality. It’s mine—and Liliana’s.
A blinding flash carried Venser to his destination. He reached out a hand, and his fingers clawed wet flesh. Ferocious. Think like an animal. Like a warrior. Venser brought to mind Radha’s fighting style. Channeling mana into his physical self, he tore forward, ripping and rending. Wonder if this is what being born feels like…
Hurry. With a final grasping rip, Venser felt air on his fingertips. A sodden plop, and he found himself free of the zombie horse’s carcass and sitting hip-deep in muck on the bank of the hot springs. I was right. The dreamwalk itself had defenses against interference, but the dreams-within-the-dreamwalk did not. And I made good time, too—0.57 seconds or so.
Venser stood, his buttocks wet with peat. He lifted a triumphant hand toward where Weaver-Josu menaced Liliana in the hot springs.
“Let’s see how you like snakes, asshole.”
“Venser. Venser! Vense. Vense. Hey, gearhead! Wake up.”
Liliana’s touch had gone from gentle caress (before she realized it was a gentle caress, and when she had the unwanted thought that the new wrinkle-line near Venser’s mouth looked good on him) to impatient poke, to firm shake, to violent shake, before culminating in what was now a fully agitated slap.
The necromancer’s hand cracked across the artificer’s pallor with perfect aim. Venser yelped.
“Ouch!” He bolted upright into a sitting position, one hand on his face and the other extended to ward her off. Liliana snickered.
“Don’t worry, I’m not attacking you. I just needed to wake you up.”
“I was asleep?”
“Like a dead man.”
“Damn. I told myself I’d stay up and keep watch.”
“Total and utter failure on that front, darling.”
Venser cautiously eyed Liliana as he rubbed his stinging cheek. “Are you feeling better?” His gaze skimmed her countenance.
“Why wouldn’t I be feeling fine?” she snapped, standing abruptly. “You’re the one who was snoring like a moose and curled up in a fetal position.” She turned away from him and started combing her fingers through her hair.
“Well, I just… Nevermind. Glad you’re alright.” Venser almost sighed, stopped himself, and instead made the effort to stand. He did, slowly, feeling all the aftereffects of sparring with the Weaver. His hamstrings and shoulders burned, and his head pounded. He teetered, almost falling, but managed to stay upright with a groan. A sharp pain at the base of his skull had him wondering if il-Dal was truly gone, and he pressed his fingers to his temple to do a quick check.
“Everything okay?” Liliana said. Venser started, she was speaking from right next to him. He hadn’t noticed her getting so close.
“Yeah, think so,” he muttered, distracted by Liliana’s scent. To him, she always smelled like a risky decision—black currants he wasn’t sure were safe to eat or not in Urborg, coriander in the unfamiliar foods of Shiv, bark and moss on trees that might get up and attack any minute in Yavimaya, and a touch of honey and ginger like the poisonous drinks were laced with in Madara. And then there was the part that was lush and romantic, which made no sense at all, like outbreaks of violets growing in the shadows of Otaria.
Looking down at her, Venser saw a line of irritation between Liliana’s brows. But her hand was curled around his upper arm, partially supporting him. Her other hand pressed into his lower back, also offering assistance. Venser swallowed, slowly, and tried not to let his shock register on his face. Keeping his expression neutral, he shrugged—carefully, so as not to dislodge her grip—and spoke in his usual disinterested monotone.
“I’m fine, just tired.” Venser tried to give her a half-smile without any warmth in it, but he must have failed because her eyes suddenly narrowed and, apparently noticing where her hands had got to, she snatched them back away from his body. Venser felt the loss of her touch as a cold wind in a dark void… sort of like staring into Bolas’ eyeballs.
Liliana stalked toward the backwards-flowing waterfalls. “You’re fine. Good. Let’s get out of here,” she said brusquely. Glancing up at the living Theran fresco above them, she gestured at him to follow her. Venser obeyed the unspoken order, his longer stride easily catching up to hers.
“So we just pick one and jump in?” Liliana said dubiously, scowling at the bracing-looking water that was eagerly rushing upside-down. There were five waterfalls. Venser shrugged. He extended his palms on either side of him and they glowed an eerie white.
“It feels like they all lead out of this underworld,” he said after a moment. “But I can’t say exactly where without taking the time to do more research.”
“I hate research anyway,” said Liliana. “Let’s jump.” Venser waited for her to pick a waterfall and take the plunge, but she hesitated.
“Can you swim?” he asked to break the silence.
“Of course! Can you?” she said hotly.
“Sort of,” he admitted. When Liliana still didn’t move, he edged closer to her.
Liliana turned and glared at him, then turned back to the waterfalls and glared at them.
“I don’t like to… get wet.” Liliana said finally. Venser felt his mind wandering and looked away, scratching his head.
She wasn’t fooled. “Not like that, you moron!” Liliana shouted, punching him in the chest.
“Sorry, sorry,” Venser said, holding up his hands in apology.
Liliana gave him an evil eye. Then she looked up at the rushing waterfalls and sighed. “I just… I don’t like being in deep water. Getting soaked. You know. It makes me…” she glanced at him again, violet gaze steely, challenging. Venser only looked concerned, though, which somehow made Liliana eager to get the conversation over with.
“When my head’s under or I can’t touch bottom, I feel helpless.” She spoke quickly, but firmly.
Venser nodded. “I can take care of that,” he said, fingertips already starting to glow with pale blue luminescence. Liliana looked skeptical.
“Blue. The color of tedium.”
“The color of solutions.”
Venser touched the tips of his fingers together, murmured something and then spread his hands about a foot apart. A bluish-white web twinkled between them.
Without looking away from the spell he said, “I’ll need you to stand close to me.”
Liliana snorted. “I knew there was a catch.” But she stepped in next to him, so near he could smell her again. “Close enough?” she tweaked an eyebrow at him.
“Closer,” Venser said seriously. Liliana harumphed, sidestepping so her shoulder mashed into his.
“Close enough? And don’t you dare say, ‘closer’!” she laughed.
“Almost.” Venser rotated toward Liliana, lifting the circle of his arms over her head and bringing it back down until it enclosed her body protectively, the web of light still shining between his fingers.
“Knew there was a catch,” Liliana muttered, but her eyes glittered beneath her glower. “Though if you tell me to get closer now, I’ll have no choice but to kill you.”
“Close enough,” Venser said with a near-smile. “Hold still.” Liliana did, looking up through her lashes to watch his lips move soundlessly. Striations of pale blue shot from the web between his hands, extending and weaving around them until they were encased in an egg-shaped shield of fine azure filaments.
“Which waterfall?” Venser asked, his body tensing. Liliana assumed he meant to levitate the egg shield, with them inside, over into the rushing water. She figured it was smartest to enter the same waterfall she’d thrown Elspeth into, in case the streams were indeed calibrated to different locations on Theros’ topside. At least that way they’d have the best chance of materializing near an ally.
“The center one.”
“Right. Oh, and Liliana—”
“Closer.” Venser’s arms collapsed from their respectful distance around her, crushing her into a giant bear hug that pressed her entire body against his. She opened her mouth in protest but found her voice was muffled against the artificer’s chest, and all she got was a tongueful of bloody cotton tunic. Furious, Liliana considered kneeing her companion in the balls, but then the teleportation happened and the thought was jarred from her mind.
When they reappeared in the waterfall a moment later, the sudden roar of water crashing down around them made Liliana cringe at first. But then she opened an eye and, peeking over the rumpled terrain of Venser’s shirt, she saw the twinkling lights of the sky-colored force shield standing between her and the water, keeping her totally and completely dry.
“Did you hear that?”
“No. But I’ve smelled something approaching for about the last twenty minutes.”
“Why didn’t you say something?! It could be Heliod assassins, or Ashiok’s people, or—”
“The scent is nonthreatening. I didn’t want to disturb your meal. Finish your kabob.”
“You really need to find a mate, you know. Sire a bunch of cubs so you have some actual children to boss around…”
“If I pour you another thimble, will you drop that particular topic?”
“I’ll think about not mentioning it, for at least another twelve hours.”
“You bargain in a very unheroic manner.”
“Hmm. Maybe the Underworld rubbed off on me a bit.”
The neck of the ouzo bottle clinked softly against the lip of the porcelain thimble. Light from the campfire danced a sunset through the ornate deep blue patterns adorning the thimble’s sides. Ajani retracted the bottle, and Elspeth brought the thimble to her lips.
The fallen champion of Theros drained the aperitif in a long sip that sent anise-flavored fire coursing down her throat. The burn felt good. Ajani watched his dearest friend with his one good eye, feline amusement understated in its topaz depths. His whiskers twitched with emotion. Elspeth was enjoying her spirits with uncharacteristic gusto tonight, but what of it? It was just too good to have her back.
When I lifted her cloak in my claws up in Nyx, I imagined I would save it until the day came I could reclaim her soul from Erebos and return the cloak to her as her funeral shroud, uniting her body and spirit once more and laying them both to rest in peaceful, eternal slumber. But it was not so. Instead, I returned her cloak to her as a gift; wrapped it around living, breathing flesh; watched her face light up as she recognized its familiar weight. Watched her fingers stretch with life to touch the familiar fabric. Felt her arms embrace me in friendship—alive, strong, vital—as she has done so many times before. It was almost too much. The joy nearly broke my heart. Far too much for an old cat.
“You’re staring like I’ve sprouted a satyr’s tail!” Elspeth’s voice cut through the night, teasing.
Ajani’s eye crinkled at the corner as he grinned back. “No tail, but perhaps the shadow of some mischievous little horn-nubs float above your brow. I feel your latest journey has put all sorts of ideas into your head, most of which you’re not comfortable sharing with me. Yet.”
Elspeth reached back to massage her neck, a light blush blossoming on her cheeks as she dropped Ajani’s gaze and stared into the fire.
“Time is short. Time on earth, I mean. Time to live. Time… to love. That’s what my abyssal journey has taught me.”
“The abyss is a notably good teacher.”
“Spoken like a true mentor,” Elspeth replied, rolling her eyes. “So who approaches, O Great White Cat Who Sees—I mean Smells—All?”
Ajani chuckled. “Well, I think it’s a pair. One with the fragrance of death, in both the literal and the Shakespearean sense. The other…” he wrinkled his nose, testing the air. “For lack of a better word, the other one smells like a museum.”
“What kind of museum?”
“A museum of… clocks. And kitchen appliances.”
“That’s them!” Elspeth gasped, jumping to her feet. She pushed her hood off her head. “Which direction?”
“Northwest,” Ajani purred calmly.
Elspeth eagerly turned towards the dark treeline and waited. Within a few minutes she was rewarded by the crisp sound of a snapping branch.
“Venser?” The warrior called without hesitation. Slight rustling in the trees faded into momentary silence. Then it bloomed into the all-out crashing of humans hurrying through the heavy foliage of a heartily wooded area.
“Not ranger types, are they.” Ajani observed from where he still warmed himself by the fire, an amused quirk in his whiskered countenance.
Elspeth chuckled. “No, no they are not.” The crashing grew louder, punctuated by a few swear words that carried through the darkness, propelled by a low-toned woman’s voice. Elspeth walked toward the edge of the woods. “Liliana? Venser? Do you need help?”
There was a dim thud, more cursing, and some rustling. “No, it’s fine… we’re almost there anyway.” Liliana’s voice was forceful but fatigued.
A few seconds later the necromancer and the artificer emerged from the brush, firelight touching on tangled raven hair and darkly stained fabric.
“Thank Helio—eh, thank the uh… all gods,” Elspeth mumbled, rushing forward to assist Liliana as soon as she realized Venser was leaning heavily on the necromancer’s shoulder. Elspeth ducked her own shoulder beneath Venser’s other arm and without hesitation wrapped her arm around his waist, hefting his weight onto her own strong body. He grunted a greeting.
“What—what’s wrong with him?” Elspeth asked as she hurried forward to the campfire as fast as Venser’s condition would allow.
Liliana snorted in exasperation. “Everything.” The necromancer’s reply was tart as she shoved a lock of matted black hair back from her forehead. Liliana sounded fully annoyed, but Elspeth’s sharp soldier’s eyes noticed the sweat dripping down the other woman’s cheek and the way she tried to hide her labored breathing. She must have been supporting him a long way, Elspeth thought, frowning.
Venser’s steps were shuffling, sliding. His head nodded sleepily as Elspeth lowered him gently onto the ground near the fire, on top of a soft blanket Ajani had prepared as soon as he saw the man was injured. The cat sage and the warrior adjusted Venser’s position and fussed over him until he was situated comfortably, propped up on a blanket-covered log with his head resting on Ajani’s arm.
“It’s alright, you can lean on me, friend,” Ajani rumbled. “I won’t bite. Though I do hope you’re not allergic to cats.” Venser’s mouth flickered a smile but his eyes stayed closed. Elspeth nodded to Ajani and hurried to his pack to get the flask and a small pot for heating water. Ajani placed a huge furred hand on the artificer’s chest, a soft green light spreading from his palm. A shadow fell across them. Ajani looked up to find Liliana blocking the firelight as she stood over Venser, her arms crossed.
“Don’t worry, it’s just basic healing magic,” Ajani assured her.
“Who said I’m worried?” Liliana returned. Her eyes were hard as they flicked from Venser to Ajani and back again.
Ajani was nonplussed. “Ah. Perhaps you need some assistance too, then? Elspeth can—”
“I’m fine. I can heal my own wounds. But thanks anyway, Big Kitty.” Liliana spun on her heel and walked toward the edge of the firelight. “I’ll be over here, Ellie,” she called over her shoulder before disappearing into the dark where Ajani assumed she would make herself comfortable in the shadows.
“I’ll put some meat on for you,” Elspeth called back. There was no answer. Elspeth set the pot with the tea over the fire, then loaded up a skewer for Liliana with some fresh slices off the hares they’d caught earlier. The smell of roasting rabbit was soon in the air, and the tea was steaming.
Venser mumbled in his sleep, turning his head and snuggling against Ajani’s chest. Elspeth giggled. “I think he likes you!” she teased her old friend.
“I’m not getting my hopes up,” Ajani said. “I think he just called me, ‘Lily’?” The cat sage’s expression was bemused as he looked to Elspeth for explanation. Elspeth could only giggle harder. She shook her head and refused to elaborate. Ajani sighed. “Some color has returned to his face, has it not?”
“He looks much better,” Elspeth confirmed. She pulled the tea off the fire and poured two cups, handing one to Ajani to administer to Venser. Taking the other along with the rabbit skewer, Elspeth headed over to the shadowy area where Liliana was resting.
“Are you here?” The ex-champion blinked to adjust her eyes to the darkness between two cypress trees and a large juniper shrub. Elspeth caught a faint whiff of oleander.
“Yeah,” came Liliana’s low voice from near the trunk of the left cypress. Elspeth could make out her newest friend’s dark form and went to her.
Kneeling, Elspeth handed Liliana the tea cup. “Here.”
Liliana shook her head. “Give me the meat.”
“You can have that after you drink all the tea.”
“I said give me the—”
“Liliana!” Elspeth held a glowing white finger in front of the necromancer’s face. Liliana rolled her eyes and sulked but took the tea cup, draining it in three big gulps. “Good work,” Elspeth smiled, handing the sorceress the rabbit kabob.
“Thanks.” Liliana sank her perfect teeth into the skewered meat and tore off a huge bite. “Mmm. Tender. A bit bland maybe, but we are roughing it.”
Elspeth smiled in the dark, watching Liliana chew. “Venser’s fine, you know. Just really beat up. Ajani’ll have him fixed up before the end of the night.”
Liliana swallowed the bite. Her violet gaze slid over to Elspeth’s cerulean one. “Why are you telling me that?”
“Just making conversation,” Elspeth said with a shrug.
“Then why are you grinning like a king’s fool?”
“Am I?” Elspeth said innocently, grinning.
“Ellie, don’t push your luck. Don’t you have to go polish your armor or something?” Liliana took another bite of rabbit.
Elspeth looked down at her hands, a small smile on her lips. “Yeah, my armor is pretty tarnished… I’ll let you eat.” The warrior stood, then paused and looked back at the sorceress.
“Liliana. Thank you for everything. For getting me out of there. For um… negotiating with Erebos, you know… and protecting me from Ashiok.”
Liliana winked, mouth full of roast rabbit.
Elspeth nodded, then turned away and walked back to the campfire’s warm circle of light.
Liliana slept in, and when she woke the sun was already up and the smell of oleander was pissing her off.
A clatter of dishes or armor sounded from over in the vicinity of the main camp, and Liliana figured everyone else had been awake for a while.
Stretching and yawning, she flexed her limbs beneath her cloak and thought about nothing in particular.
The Theros sun seemed stifling and nosy in her opinion, so Liliana pulled her cloak over her head to get some privacy. She tried to organize her thoughts around her woefully untended Ravnica to-do list, but found her mind wandering to random things like whether she should have Teysa over for a bottle of wine, and that there were holes in the knees of Venser’s breeches and he would need new ones. And Ral’s smirking, good-humored face flitted around the edges of her consciousness, as did Bolas’ cold green stare.
The cry of a raven startled her, and Liliana jerked the cloak down to peer suspiciously at the cypress branches above her.
There was no raven.
Sighing, Liliana flung the cloak off herself and stood up, lifting her arms and arching her back in a shameless stretch. She shook foliage off the cloak and refastened it around her shoulders, the familiar moonsilver clasp clicking shut across her clavicle where it rested cold and reassuring on her skin.
Grumpy, Liliana shuffled out from behind the juniper and into the rays of the sun, making for the central campfire. She yawned as she took in the scene in front of her: Big Kitty and Venser hunched over something with their backs to her, locked deep in conversation. Elspeth seated across the fire pit from them, concentrating on darning a hole in one of her scarves.
Liliana swayed over, padding to a stop near the group. “Good morning. What’s for breakfast?” she demanded, peering around the camp.
Elspeth looked up with surprise. “Oh, you’re up! Breakfast? Don’t you mean dinner?”
“Huh?” Liliana frowned. She glanced at Venser. He was staring at her, his head propped on his hand so she couldn’t see his mouth. Just staring. Annoyed, she dropped her gaze to whatever it was he and the cat man were obsessing over. A gameboard. They were playing checkers.
“You slept through the entire day, my lady,” the cat man purred, rising to his feet. “And we were not properly introduced last night, my apologies. I was primarily concerned with the condition of your friend here. I am Ajani. Of Alara.” He put one furry white hand over his heart in greeting.
Liliana nodded curtly. “Liliana Vess. Formerly of Innistrad. Now, wherever my demons take me.”
Ajani smiled like it was a normal answer, and gestured for her to sit down. “You must be famished after such a long, well-earned rest. Please be at ease while I help Elspeth prepare a meal.”
Liliana hesitated, then nodded again and slid gingerly onto the seat vacated by Ajani, which was next to Venser. Not looking at the artificer, she flung her skirts across the log so they formed a rumpled silken barrier between her leg and Venser’s. Liliana kept her gaze on Elspeth peeling avocados, but in her peripheral vision she saw Venser’s eyes flick down to the fabric river between them.
“So what’s for… dinner?” Liliana asked. She saw movement out of the corner of her eye.
“Fish,” Elspeth chirped. Venser plopped down right next to Liliana. On top of her skirts, pinning her to the log. So close that the length of his thigh was touching her leg. Liliana’s teeth flashed briefly before her lips settled into an angry line.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she hissed to the artificer.
“Good morning,” Venser smiled. Liliana hesitated. He’d smiled at her before, hadn’t he? She couldn’t figure why this time it was so disarming. The low Theros sun forced him to squint a little to look at her, and brought out flecks of gold in the recesses of his usually gray eyes. The stubble on his face looked awful, and his hair was a disaster. The tilt of his brows was almost… wistful.
Liliana decided it was best to force herself to be angry with him. “Get off!” she ordered, yanking on her skirt. Venser just kept staring and smiling at her like an idiot. Liliana narrowed her eyes in warning, then balled her fist to focus some mana. A nearby shadow got up from the ground, walked over to Venser, and lifted him up like he weighed no more than a child.
“Hey—” the artificer cried in shock. Ajani and Elspeth, who’d been studiously ignoring the other two until this point, looked up in alarm.
“Ah… could you… be careful with him? We just fixed him up, after all,” Ajani said, giving Liliana a dour look.
“Oh don’t worry, I’m not going to break anything… this time!” Liliana snarled. She pointed, and the shadow carried a flailing Venser over to the log on the opposite side of the campfire and plunked him down ungently on its rough surface.
“Ow!” Venser cried as his tailbone hit the wood with a thud. The shadow stood towering over him, waiting for more orders from Liliana. The necromancer snapped her fingers and the shadow walked back to its origination point and lay back down, part of the Theran sunsetscape once more.
Elspeth and Ajani stared at the sorceress then looked at Venser, who shrugged with chagrin as he rubbed his posterior. They went back to making breakfast.
Satisfied, Liliana sat back down on her log, alone, and cast a cold stare at Venser over the flames that jumped up as Elspeth stoked the cooking fire. He returned her gaze impassively, elbows resting on his knees and his chin resting on his clasped hands. Liliana looked away first.
No one said anything until dinner was ready twenty minutes later.
“I hope you like snapper,” Ajani smiled as he handed Liliana a platter covered in herbs and tomatoes, topped with a sizzling fish.
“I think I’m about to,” Liliana said. “Thank you. This looks delicious.” Ajani nodded and gave similar plates to Elspeth and Venser. Then he took his own dish and sat down to eat.
“You’re not having any?” Liliana asked, noting the cat man’s plate was a mix of tomatoes and avocado.
“I’m vegetarian,” Ajani rumbled, stabbing a knife into a large chunk of avocado and popping it into his mouth. Liliana blinked, grinned, then returned her attention to her own plate.
The Theros sun hovered over the horizon, casting streamers of orange and red across the verdant landscape. The cypress trees’ shadows were long and lean, stretching their ribbons of black across rich brown earth, chunks of old ruins, juniper and rosemary. Liliana peered at Venser from beneath her lashes, noting that he ate with gusto for once. The knuckles of his right hand were heavily bandaged, but it didn’t seem to be bothering him. Had that happened in the battle? She couldn’t remember. Everything seemed so jumbled up these days.
“It’ll be dark in a couple hours,” Elspeth was saying. “Maybe we should… talk about things.”
“Do you always have these long romantic sunsets on Theros?” Liliana asked, smirking as she savored another bite of snapper.
“Yes,” Elspeth smiled. “Though I’d say they’re long and bloody just as often as they are romantic.” The warrior shrugged almost apologetically. Ajani nodded in agreement.
“A warlike plane,” he said. “With high passions.” Elspeth was staring into the sunset. Venser was eating tomatoes with his fingers. Liliana cocked an eyebrow, setting aside her plate. Ajani grunted in approval at the fish skeleton picked entirely clean—as if it had been scoured by waves or sucked of its flesh by a ravenous sea monster. The bones gleamed white-saffron in the late light.
“What is it we need to talk about?” Liliana asked pointedly. She dabbed her lips with a handkerchief that appeared out of nowhere. Venser thought he saw the initials SM embroidered on the edge, but he couldn’t be sure.
“Well…” Elspeth began, then stopped and looked to Ajani. Liliana flicked her wrist and the handkerchief disappeared as suspiciously as it had appeared. Venser ate his last tomato.
“We cannot begin to express our gratitude for what you’ve already done,” Ajani said, mainly addressing Liliana but also nodding at Venser. “It seems your combined skillset was particularly suited to retrieving Elspeth from Erebos’ realm. Not to mention you also put both yourselves at risk on her behalf when Ashiok entered the picture.”
“Get to the point,” Liliana said.
“No need to be rude about it,” Venser interjected. The answering death stare Liliana levelled at the artificer made Elspeth and Ajani exchange glances. Elspeth cleared her throat.
“It’s alright, Venser. Liliana has other places to be, I know. I overheard you two talking about Ravnica back in the Underworld. This has been a long detour.” The warrior turned to Liliana. “And you already gave me your… professional… opinion about, ah… Daxos.” Venser saw Liliana’s expression soften just slightly. No one else would ever know the difference, he thought.
“Yes?” Liliana prodded.
“We wouldn’t mind your help.” Elspeth blurted. “No—we’d like your help. Ajani and I would love to have you and Venser stay here and help us with what’s next.”
“No.” Liliana stood up and brushed invisible debris off her skirt.
“Lil!” Venser jumped to his feet and glared at the sorceress.
“Call me that again and—”
“Enough!” Ajani held his palms out towards both of them. Chartreuse whorls of light danced across the white fur. Venser gritted his teeth and sat back down. Liliana remained standing and raised her chin defiantly, but when she spoke it was in civil tones.
“You’ve been very kind,” she said, turning her violet gaze on Ajani. “But I’m afraid that further help just isn’t possible.”
Ajani seemed to accept this, nodding. “But do you also speak for Venser?” he added in a low purr.
Liliana opened her mouth.
“No, she doesn’t,” Venser said. Liliana raised a graceful hand to cover her yawn. She shrugged at Ajani and Elspeth.
“As he said. Of course I don’t. If you’ll all excuse me, I’m still a bit fatigued, and I must make some preparations for my journey back to Ravnica.” Liliana politely inclined her head to her hosts, then turned and walked away, retreating to her dark enclave in the shrubbery.
Elspeth shook her head. “I’m sorry, Venser. We didn’t mean to offend her,” she said in a low voice.
“It’s fine. She’s always offended,” Venser gritted.
“Please, friend, do as you must,” Ajani said. “We only meant to say we would certainly not turn down the assistance should it work out for you to give it.” The cat sage chuckled and clapped his large hand down on Venser’s shoulder reassuringly.
“What’s the threat?” Venser asked even as his inner voice told him to shut up and not ask.
Elspeth spoke reluctantly. “Ajani… thinks the unrest here is far deeper and more advanced than it looks. After Xenagos’ stunt, others might get it in their heads to become gods. And after Heliod’s actions against me in Nyx… other gods might not support his position any more.”
“If many have figured out that power here is predicated on mass belief, things could get very chaotic very quickly.” Ajani said. “My sight tells me more conflict is coming.”
Venser sighed and ducked his head down into his hands, twisting his fingers in his hair.
“Ajani calls it the War of the Gods,” Elspeth said softly.
“And what about Daxos?” Venser asked, his voice a muffled grunt.
Elspeth sighed. “I’ll find him. He’s not far, I think. I’ll find him.” Her voice turned steely. “And if he’s compromised, then I’ll go back to Erebos or Phenax or whoever it takes and I will make them make him whole again.”
Venser grunted into his hands.
“We’d love to have you with us,” Ajani purred.
“We would,” Elspeth added quietly.
Venser nodded, lifting his head from his hands. “Thank you. I’ve always counted you, Elspeth, as one of my true friends. And now you, Ajani…” the artificer smiled. His eyes were clear and calm as a gray dawn. “This is the first time in a long time I’ve felt comfortable.”
Liliana walked through the dimly lit forest. The trees were thinning; she was almost there. It would be the perfect place for a planeswalk… last rays of sun over the sea, fresh ocean air, a nice temperate breeze. Impending twilight made her heart beat faster. For some reason, this time of day always feels like… Liliana twisted her head, certain she’d heard something. A raven? The path behind her was empty. Why am I so jumpy? I can take care of anything this backwards plane can throw at me. It’s just the damn twilight.
At least the goodbye hadn’t been much to speak of.
I hate goodbyes.
Venser had appeared behind her juniper shrub after dinner, a moronic look on his face that some might call regret or sadness, but that Liliana called a waste of time.
“So you’ll be staying here,” Liliana had said. A statement, not a question.
Venser had answered with silence. His eyes had flicked back and forth across her face as if he was looking for something.
She raised an eyebrow at him. “It’s a good decision. You’d most likely have died back on Ravnica.”
“Thanks for looking out for me,” Venser said drily.
“Anytime,” Liliana returned.
“How much of that nightmare was real?”
Liliana had stopped mid-comb, shocked by his question. Then she resumed working out the tangle.
“All of it,” she replied simply.
She enjoyed seeing Venser’s eyebrows nearly shoot off the top of his face.
“All of it?” he repeated.
Liliana sighed in exasperation, tossing the silver comb into her pack. She cinched the bag shut, checked the clasps of her garters. Hesitated.
“All of it up until the snakes appeared,” she clarified, shivering involuntarily. Venser took a step toward her. Liliana took a step back. “What does it matter?” she said peevishly, holding the pack between them.
“All of it,” Venser murmured, “Till he hit you. Is that when your spark ignited?”
Liliana laughed. “No. That happened later, when I tried to cure him of poison and accidentally turned him into a lich instead.”
She enjoyed watching Venser’s jaw drop open. He looked like such a fool. She blinked her eyes and turned away, pulling the hood of her cloak over her head.
Venser’s hand was on her arm. “You tried to cure him, even after all that in the hot springs?”
Liliana paused. “Of course. He’s—he was—my brother.” Glancing over her shoulder, Liliana saw that Venser was thoroughly confused. She chuckled.
“Was?” Venser wouldn’t let go of her arm. Liliana pried his fingers off one by one.
“Yes. After he became a lich, we battled, and I killed him. That was when my spark ignited. He’s gone. Unless, of course, he waits for me in the afterlife, as he said he would when he cursed me with his dying breath.” Extricating herself from Venser’s grasp, Liliana started to walk away.
“Lil—I mean, Liliana—”
Sighing, the necromancer turned around once more. She eyed the man before her shrewdly. His cloak was askew on his tall frame and he was wearing a sleeping tunic he’d borrowed from Ajani. It was too baggy, even though he’d belted it up like a shirt. He’d cut the ruined knees off his pants so now they were too short to tuck into his boots. He had his vest on over the ensemble but it wasn’t fastened properly. His soft brown hair stuck out in twelve directions. The wrinkle next to his mouth had gotten slightly more pronounced, and deep within his gray eyes there was something fascinating going on, but she was too damn tired to figure out what.
“I need to leave,” she heard herself say.
“So your brother—Josu—didn’t… he didn’t…” Venser scratched his chin, then his head.
Liliana had frowned severely at this point. “Didn’t wha—? Didn’t… Vense! IS THAT WHAT THIS IS ALL ABOUT?! Griseldamn it all to hell, Vense! Unbelievable. Unbelievable.”
Venser shrugged. “I just want to know everything about you, Lil.” A shit-eating grin. Liliana had looked at him in disbelief, her eyebrows nearly in her hairline. Then she’d started laughing. A giggle, a chuckle, a guffaw.
“You ass’s ass. Look—no. I was lying in the water, about to pass out, when I heard a bunch of hoofbeats. Josu jumped out of his skin and I looked over and this herd of elk was stampeding into the hot spring. Like a serious moggfuck of elks. I have no idea why. They came bellowing and clomping into the water, nearly running Josu over. I remember hearing him squeal. We got separated, I grabbed onto an elk and rode it home. Told Nanny I’d been out skinnydipping with the middle son from the Heron family.” Liliana smirked. “Nanny called me a slut, of course.”
Venser took another step toward her. Liliana edged out of reach. “After that, I just kind of avoided Josu. Until that night he came back from the war, wounded, and—well, I already told you what happened next.” She shrugged as he had, an easy grin lighting her features.
“I haven’t talked about that in a long time. Goodbye, Venser. Godspeed.”
“May the elk be with you.” He immediately flinched at his own joke, but Liliana got it. She winked, then dropped into a formal curtsy from her past life. When she straightened, Venser’s brow was slightly furrowed, his eyes darker than usual. Storm clouds in a studious face. He put a hand over his heart in the same salute Ajani had used. Then suddenly he opened his mouth to speak, but Liliana shook her head, turning quickly away. A whisper flew from her lips; the words to an enchantment that bent the forest behind her, preventing pursuit. Then she strode away on the backs of shadows.
The forest came to an end, and before her the Theros sea stretched unhindered, miles and miles of deep blue and purple. Liliana took a step forward. The ground was sandier. The high bluff jutted out over the beach. Sea grass and pebbles stirred in the maritime wind. The sun was lying languidly upon the horizon, the sky rich in gold and citrine and blood-red.
“I guess this is where we say goodnight,” Jace had said.
“This is where we say good morning.” My reply. One of my best lines ever. But the memory brought no smile to Liliana’s lips.
There had been no formal farewell with Jace at all. She’d just waited. Waited and waited, in the control room of Tezzeret’s sanctum, until it became clear Jace wasn’t coming back for her and she was too hungry to last any longer anyway.
"Join me, Lili," he said. "All the torment of the Void will be ours to share forever."
Josu. Always you, brother. In my nightmares, my questions, my regrets. No, we shall not share anything, ever again.
Liliana stepped to the edge of the bluff, raising her arms and letting the mana ripple down into her fingertips. She bathed in the glow of the dying sun as her power coalesced.
She thought of Ravnica. The empty apartment. Doorkeeper waiting. Venser’s study that would go unused. Maybe I’ll turn it into a spa. I’ll have extra room, now. Or I could let Ral move in. Liliana mused idly as the darkness gathered in her hands and tingled in her blood. I probably have a hundred messages from Pivlic about the vineyard.
Liliana’s hair swirled around her as she spoke aloud, letting the wind carry her words away. “I may end up in the Void, brother, but not with you. Alone. And free.”
“You really should kill me first, then.” The voice came from behind her. Liliana jumped, narrowly avoiding the edge of the cliff, a hurtful spell on her lips—then recognition sank in. “Or wait… if you kill me, does that put me in the Void too, so I’d see you anyway? Perhaps it’s exile that’s correct then—or does that also go to the Void?”
Liliana bit her lip to keep from swearing. Or laughing. She couldn’t tell which.
Slowly she turned her head, looking back over her shoulder.
Venser stood at the beginning of the bluff. A portal was fading from sight just behind him, at the edge of the forest.
“Lil! Wait for me,” he called, walking towards her.
Retribution in Ravnica
an original Magic: The Gathering fan fiction
this concludes Book I and A Theran Interlude
Thank you to everyone has stopped by and read even a paragraph or two. When I began this fic I thought: “If just one person finds pleasure in these words, I will be satisfied.” Thanks to all of you readers I am more than satisfied. It is personal catharsis for me to tell the stories of this pantheon of MTG characters, and it has brought me great joy to share this experience with the community. At this time I am finding that my real-life family obligations are quickly superseding my “extracurricular” work, and I can’t say when I will be able to put up more chapters. It may just be at a very slow pace, or it may never happen. The entire story is already mapped in my mind, and for those of you who are vested in Viliana like I am, I will divulge that they get beaten up a lot more on Ravnica before charging headlong at their destinies on Shandalar. Again, thank you for going on the journey with me thus far, and with any luck we’ll meet on another planeswalk again sometime.
A special thank you to James Arnold for his original art -“The Fated Pair” - featured above.
Many thanks to author AE Marling for his recurring encouraging comments since back on Argentum.
Heartfelt gratitude to Andrey, for translating my works, featuring them on his lovely site, and offering his undying support, feedback, sharp eyes and laughing at Vedalken multi-arm jokes.
Till next time.