The caged sun beat mercilessly down on the travelers.
“It’s beautiful, in an ironic way, isn’t it?” Liliana said to her companion, who was, for all intents and purposes, a zombie.
Liliana Vess was being carried piggyback across a metallic countryside by a corpse.
Still too wounded to ‘walk, Liliana waited for her wounds to heal while she learned more of this new plane. She kicked her heels into her zombie and chattered on, pointing at things she found interesting (like the wrecked angels that screamed incoherently at her from shining cliffs).
“Wow, they’re super bitchy, aren’t they?” she mused, taking note of their aggression and power level. The zombie didn’t answer. He trudged forward reliably, breathing in and out of his ruined nasal cavity in a way that somehow made Liliana sure he held her in utter disdain.
“You know, a lot of men would sacrifice whole worlds to have me draped across their back,” she informed her mount. There was a pause, then an exhale that could have been a derisive snort. Liliana was sure she heard it; then sure she was just imagining things. There was something comforting about the rocking motion of being carried by this minion, something relaxing in its leading-thrusting stride, and she found herself getting drowsy. The sun was getting low in the sky, casting scathing darts of brilliance across this metallic world, like knives reaching for them, two shattered vagabonds…
“If anything happens, justwakeme…jussstwake…me, up, wouldya?” Liliana mumbled into the zombie’s shoulder. Then she was dead asleep, her dark hair falling over her face to shield her eyes from the harsh gleaming sunset.
The caged sun and its attendants, blue, white, green, red, black…eventually were so deeply seated in the horizon that only a murky rainbow stretched across the shining land and darkness ruled in the expansive sky. Shrieks and explosions reverberated through the atmosphere, symptoms of god-knows-what horrors going on in all corners of Mirrodin.
Venser sighed audibly now, but his new mistress was snoring too prodigiously to hear him. He couldn’t be sure since his skin was mostly rotten and all his nerve endings had been chewed off by maggots, but Venser thought he felt a little drool on his neck. As if hearing what he was thinking, Liliana snorted and adjusted her position—now her arms were wrapped so tightly around his neck he would have asphyxiated (if he needed air) and her chin rested on his forehead so her luxurious mane obscured half his vision. Then the snoring began with renewed gusto. Venser checked yet another sigh.
How did all of our sacrifices come to this? We gave so much. Elspeth, Koth, Karn, me…we gave everything we had. And they still won. I will never be rid of them. They crippled Urborg; then Koth brought me here, as if I could help—ha! As if I knew something they didn’t. What a poor solution. Bring Venser to answer the Phyrexians. Bring a child to stop a genocide. Bring an idiot to stop hel’s advance. Nice work, Koth. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more, Elspeth…
A great tree suddenly appeared over a rise directly in front of them; Venser guessed it was north based on the suns’ position. The crown of the tree was visible first, then the rest revealed itself as he trudged dogged platinum footstep after another. It was extremely tall, and regal at first glance but twisted after the second look. Emeraldine needles sprouted from torqued branches and its bark shone like bloodied tiger’s eye.
At least it’s alive. Maybe there’s a resistance. Maybe there are folk who avoided the oil. Maybe I’m an optimistic, naïve fool.
Venser carried his strange burden closer and closer to the monolithic tree.
All I ever do on this cursed plane is walk. Koth and Elspeth and I walked and walked for days. And here I am again, walking along to nothing. Too bad I can’t smell…this Liliana Vess’s hair looks like it would smell good.
Venser shook his cadaverous head, realizing what he’d been thinking. He grinned to himself, causing some crows that perched in the tree ahead of them to eye him very suspiciously. One crowed a reprimand, as if to say, “No joy here! No lascivious thoughts! No nothing!” Venser walked up to the edge of the tree’s shadow and stopped. The setting suns’ colors all mottled to grayish brown shadows, and the stars sparkled like diamonds (they probably were, given which plane they were on) in a deeply black-blue vista that radiated like velvet.
Jhoira’s hair used to shine like that, during long nights on Shiv. Wonder if she and Teferi ever got together…or maybe it was that Jodah she favored. Yeah, he was tall and blond. Had that Archmage smirk. Blue eyes—what did she say? They were ageless. So they were alike. That was her excuse. Sure. Excuse me if I didn’t drink the magic water. Well, I guess I did drink magic water, but not their kind.
Venser was so startled for a moment, even in zombie form, that his eye socket flared blue and he froze, waiting for the attack that didn’t come.
The deathmage had rolled over so she was on her side, arms and breasts and hair and face draped over the right side of his back. The gas she emitted must have been awful—the crows flew away with a cacophony of protest. Venser felt recalcitrant about his earlier thoughts on ruined nasal passages and thanked Whoever that he had been deprived a nose given this turn of events.
Okay, you, just relax. But don’t relax too much…we don’t want our enemies to smell us coming…
Venser reached his left hand up and grasped Liliana’s shoulder, supporting her head on his forearm, he shrugged her body off his back and gently lowered her to the ground in the shadow of the strange tree.
She didn’t wake up. He studied her for a moment. The murky light was somehow becoming to her—though it showed all of the lines of fatigue in her face, it gave her a bit of color and human softness, tempering the ‘walker aggression and hard angles of near death.
The suns set and the deep cold dark that was unique to Mirrodin set over the plane. The zombie folded his long legs and sat, knees up, next to his mistress. Liliana breathed peacefully in the dark. Nothing around them stirred—it was like they were the only beings left on the plane. Besides crows, of course. And they didn’t count, since they cawed at and pooped on anything in their path, indiscriminately.
Just like Phyrexians.
Venser went to scratch himself, then remembered it wasn’t necessary. That was all muscle memory—humanity, a thing of the past. He glanced at ‘Liliana Vess,’ the latest in ‘walkers who commandeered his life and time and volition for their own ends.
I could just kill her. Well, she’d probably kill me if I tried. She’s pretty damn powerful.
The silence surrounded Venser. Shadows from the tree’s branches danced about them, ringing ‘round like an honor guard of wraiths. Liliana’s hands twitched in her sleep. The wound in her side was dark and ugly, red and swollen around the edges. As she breathed, Venser found himself wondering if it hurt her. Her ribs showed beneath her flimsy garments, all of which were torn anyway.
I should definitely kill her.
Venser pulled off the tattered remnants of his cloak with skeletal hands, and laid it over the strange woman next to him. Then he set his eyes on the horizon to the east, and waited for sunrise, knowing he would not sleep.
Sheoldred put the latest Auriok head on the one vacant spike amongst the fourteen that surrounded her throne. She rearranged the golden hair so it fanned over the neck and drew more attention to the staring eyes. Then she plucked out the eyeballs with slender black fingers and threw them to the Ashmouth Hound that followed everywhere in her wake.
“Melira, do you have to slobber like that when you eat?” she chided in a sibilant whisper.
The dog’s name was Melira, to remind Sheoldred of what would become of the renegade healer once she was caught. It also served as motivation—reminding Sheoldred of her biggest failure to date and the one that Lumengrid would punish her for if it was not rectified very soon.
Just today another skite arrived bearing another long-winded, passive-aggressive message from Jin-Gitaxias. Alone in her chambers deep within the metal-stone of Mirrodin, Sheoldred had sat through the mind-meld clenching her fists in fury and tapping all her scorpion legs in annoyance. Then she’d crushed the sentience from the skite with her fingers and turned it into a bread bowl.
Jin-Gitaxias had intimated he would soon be withdrawing his support if she could not deliver Melira to him. Sheoldred hissed in frustration. This would be disatrous—only with help from Lumengrid had she been able to eliminate four of the other six Steel Thanes—and she needed continued support to finally deal with that idiot Geth who insisted on squatting in front of the Vault of Whispers like he was taking a hundred-year shit. Vraan, the other remaining Thane, could be dealt with at leisure since he was just a puny bloodsucker posing no immediate inconvenience.
The Vanishing of the Father of Machines, or the Rise of Karn—as some were calling the emptying of the throne—had thrown all into turmoil. Elesh Norn had to find a way to spin it. Vorinclex had recalled Glissa to his side and the two were plotting endlessly night after night, no doubt. Sheoldred had used the chaos to off Kraynox, Thrissik, Roxith, and Azax-Azog. Sheoldred’s partnership with Jin-Gitaxias had benefitted them both, but Sheoldred daily regretted being unable to talk to the strange etherium-altered Planeswalker that had been lurking about before the Vanishing. Now he had vanished too, as had the renegade Volshok and the white-mana wielding warrior who had helped him. Sheoldred instinctually felt that this was bad news for New Phyrexia, and blamed idiots like Geth and Glissa with having botched the whole thing. It would have gone differently had the Whispering One been at the Battle of the Throne.
“The etherium-Planeswalker was here as the emissary of one greater,” Sheoldred muttered, not knowing how she knew this, but she did know it, with visceral certainty. “I could have made common cause with him and his Lord.” She smashed her right fist into her left palm, cursing the lost opportunity.
A discreet tap roused Sheoldred from her dark thoughts. At her whispered command an invisible door at the back of her apartments slid open. A blind deafmute homunculus shuffled in with a basket wrapped in thick black cloth. Sheoldred patted the servant on the head fondly as it passed by her to place the delivery on the elegant, ornate table in the center of the room. Carved from pure obsidian, the table reflected the strange ghostly lights that flickered in the recesses of the room.
Melira licked the servant’s hand before it shuffled back out. The hidden door slid back in place, leaving no seam in the wall or any clue whatsoever that a passage existed.
“Sit,” Sheoldred whispered at the Hound, and Melira did immediately. The weekly tithe from the Furnace Level was Sheoldred’s most precious secret. She scuttled toward the table eagerly, her huge arachnoid legs clicking on cold stone and metal.
As she reached out her petite hand toward the table she paused, glancing around to make sure no one was watching. Ludicrous. Of course no one was watching, this was her private sanctuary! Her apartments were guarded by horrible Phyrexian traps and arcane wardings of black magic that the other Praetors didn’t even know she knew how to cast. She was alone, and had the right to relax! Yet, every time…the penalty, if she was ever caught with this delivery, would be fatal…the risk was great and Sheoldred couldn’t help but notice the chill that ran up her back. She hesitated one last second, then snatched away the black cloth from the basket.
Three fragrant loaves of fresh-baked bread glowed in the eerie light.
With a small cry Sheoldred grabbed one and tore it in half. Its warm scent wafted up to her in a bloom of steam that engulfed her face. She sighed as she sunk her sharp teeth into a soft, yielding bite. This loaf was dark and rich, speckled with bits of grain and nuts, perhaps some lavender. She could taste honey on her tongue, and lychee, a bit of sea salt, sweet cream…
She’d had bread like this every day in another life.
Who had she been?
The memories made no sense. Scenes melded incongruously into a gray writhing mass. Faces blurred, congealing into nothing. It was as though she looked into a deep fog, and within the fog were real things, colorful things, that had happened to her, but when she reached for them, her hands always emerged covered with meaningless gray muck.
There was no help for it, and it didn’t matter. Sheoldred only thought of it when she was tired, anyway, and that was rare. Usually too busy to be tired, the Praetor had ten million other things to fill the corners of her mind besides useless bits of discarded lives.
But at least there was bread. Melira whined, and Sheoldred tossed her a chunk before reaching for the next loaf.
Melira the human healer wiped sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. It was so hot. So hot.
“Bless you,” her patient whispered, as Melira laid her hands upon the warrior’s ruined arm, riddled with rot and Phyrexian infection. Closing her eyes, Melira murmured words of powerful green magic.
The infection wavered, then subsided, falling back like autumn leaves before the wind. But it did not vanish. Melira knew her patient would never fully be healed, but at least she would be protected from further infection.
The warrior’s color returned to her cheeks; she breathed deeply and sat up.
“You are a goddess,” she said, clasping Melira’s hand and regarding her with tearful gratitude. Melira slowly slipped her hand from the woman’s grasp and shook her head.
“No, no…just the bearer of a gift.”
The warrior smiled and patted Melira’s retreating hand. Her amber eyes flickered with understanding.
“Yes, of course—humility is the mark of the true warrior. You have my eternal thanks.”
Melira nodded, her throat parched. She waited patiently for the healed warrior to depart. As her patient’s footsteps rang out through the Furnace Level, Melira tried to waver to her feet.
“Such a gift,” she murmured, before she fainted.
“Get up,” the necromancer’s words cracked like a whip across Venser’s consciousness. He raised his head, feeling his vertebrae grind and click.
“Get up,” her command was irrefutable, burning, cruel. Venser felt his one good zombie eye flare to life and saw, to his horror, that they were surrounded by blonde, bronzed assailants.
“How could you let this happen?” Liliana was murmuring, “Aren’t you from here?” her eyes were blazing with dark energy and shadows swirled around her flexed fingers.
“Auriok,” hissed Venser, and shrugged by way of explanation. His mistress gave him a look that would have killed him dead if he wasn’t dead already.
“Alright, you…you exceptional specimens,” Liliana said, “We aren’t from around here. We don’t know what’s going on, and we aren’t on anyone’s side. We’re hungry, tired. Please…” Venser turned his head as his mistress had delivered this last word with a heartbreaking crack in her melodic voice.
Liliana eyeballed him and her pursed lips said be silent.
A rather plain-looking Auriok stepped forward. His hair wasn’t shining blond, but only mouse-brown and cropped shorter than the others’. He had a pious look about him that Venser disliked itensely.
Venser had learned long ago that science was the only rational answer to all serious questions—this Auriok had a mystical aura that foreshadowed proseletyzing and faith-based conclusions.
“Pfff,” Venser snorted, before he realized what he was doing.
The Auriok stopped mid-bow, with Liliana’s hand in his. Liliana had turned toward Venser and was shooting him an expression that would have withered etherium. Venser silenced himself and looked toward the horizon.
“We are grateful for your hospitality,” Liliana was saying. “I was wounded in a magical battle, and found myself here. Perhaps it was destiny…” her voice trailed off suggestively. Venser risked a glance at the Auriok mystic. He was regarding the dark planeswalker with bright eyes and unabashed interest. Some of the other Auriok were shuffling and glancing at each other uneasily. The mystic made a gesture with his hand and all fell silent.
Power, Venser thought. She’ll like that.
“Thank you,” Liliana said, so warmly that it made the heat of the caged sun seem a frigid squall.
“You are welcome, my lady. I am Jor-el Galesun, and these are my brothers and sisters in arms, my congregation and my army of hope.”
Gods help us, Venser rolled his eyes, but when Liliana snapped her fingers, he followed her anyway—being preoccupied with charming their new host, Liliana paid Venser little mind. So only the crows saw that the zombie’s shadow kept veering east, before correcting itself.
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