The door to Jor-el’s study crashed open with inhuman force.
Calmly, the Auriok mystic reached out a hand to steady the glass of wine that had trembled at the disruption. The liquid in the goblet showed good legs when agitated, its blood-red color set off by the many candles on his desk.
A holographic image flickered and vanished as the apparition in the doorway stared at Jor-el with a cold, baleful gaze. The hologram had been pounding her fist into the other hand and strutting across the desk. She had dark greenish black hair and a big butt. Venser had not missed that detail.
“You,” Jor said simply, leaning back in his ornately carved and upholstered chair.
Where does he get this crap? thought Venser as he took a step into the room.
“You—what do you want?” Jor-el’s tone was pitying, confident. Venser felt hate course up and down his zombie spine, pricking him, goading him. He shrugged.
“Yyyyyyyyou. Dhhhhhhead.” Venser suddenlty felt a great empowerment in his desecrated body. He had no need to explain himself, to second-guess his motives or behave rationally.
I am a goddamned zombie.
As Venser whoosed out the last syllable, Jor-el’s hand snaked beneath his writing desk with practiced quickness. Venser lurched to one side just in time to avoid a tragic collision with a metal disk that slammed into the stone wall, creating an ugly crack that ran up and down from its point of impact.
“Misssssssed,” Venser whooshed gleefully as he lurched toward Jor, his skeletal hands itching to grab fistfuls of the mystic’s hair—“soft as a minx’s ass” according to Liliana’s unwanted elaborations on the subject—and slam his mystical face down on the gleaming writing desk. Yes, and spill that bloody wine all over the scene.
To Venser’s dismay, Jor pushed back from his desk calmly, grabbing the wine goblet and quaffing the remainder of the glass even as he rose and drew a sword from another hidden place in the desk. The Auriok tossed the beautiful glassware casually over his shoulder and it shattered on the floor.
Waste, thought Venser irritably.
“Luxury,” said Jor cavalierly.
Venser growled and made a seemingly clumsy charge. Jor sidestepped and whispered an arcane word. The sword sprang to life in a blinding glow of white and red fire. Venser threw his arm across his eyes and made a show of falling, smited by the light…
But he ripped off the arm that had been shielding his own face, and using it as a long-range bludgeon, smacked Jor across the backs of both knees. Swearing in a most unholy manner, the Auriok fell as his sword cut went awry over the zombie’s head.
Venser writhed across the floor in a heartbeat, feeling bloodlust like never before. He wanted to crunch bone in his teeth. Jor’s bone…Wait, not like that, but still—
“Aaargh!” Jor spat as Venser, prodigous artificer and friend of Karn the pacificist, sank his jaws into the mystic’s white-leather-clad ankle.
Sheoldred watched in dismay as they killed her body. Well, the lower half anyway. It had been such a serviceable, willing body, too. Jin-Gitaxias’s blue minions with their stupid glowing heads and chittering voices sank her lower half into a pool of blue goo, and eventually it stopped thrashing.
“I guess I won’t have such bad bread cravings,” she muttered to herself. “I was getting a bit of a bubble butt back there, anyway.”
“DID. THE PRISONER. SPEAK.” Clicked Jin-Gitaxias. His mind-to-mind words were smooth and lovely, but speaking aloud he was barely intelligible.
Sheoldred shook her head. What did they want with her, anyway? Jin-Gitaxias fluttered his crayfish bits and turned his attention to the back of the Vault of Whispers. A gazillion skites started digging where he pointed.
The hand tapped all its fingers on the chrome forehead upon which it perched like an angry bird.
“Hurry up, you. No time to waste. Friends in trouble.”
“I have no friends.”
“Stop moaning, big silver dodo! You just forget friends who need you.”
“You are not my friend. You’re a disembodied goblin hand that is tormenting me.”
“No, Slobad your jockey. Now, move.”
The dark of the Tangle was too warm and viscous as pond water. Nights now were filled with a lazy fog that refused to move aside for anything. The moisture suppressed mana and usage of mana, and twisted the light of the stars and the moon into terrifying spectral shapes. It was as though the spirit of Mirrodin was rising in the ghastly fog, rising and dying a little more each night as its mana and essence ran dry.
In the dank puce light, Vorinclex watched Glissa sleep. The eerie light caressed her metallic form, glinting on the angular points of shoulders and toes, pooling in the recesses of waist and behind her knees, softly highlighting the swell of her breathing and the curvature of her hips.
They had decided to trade their maps for the girl. Melira, the healer, might be able to stop the plague that was consuming their warriors.
Without their wild armies, they would be crushed between Elesh Norn to the east and Jin-Gitaxias to the north. Vorinclex shivered at the thought of Glissa in their possession. The High Priestess of the Machine Orthodoxy would surely declare the compleated elf an abomination, and strip the remaining flesh from her, repurpose her as some mindless courtesan. Jin-Gitaxias, ever the scientist, would likely subject Glissa to experiment after experiment, in an effort to find out from where her strange powers originated. Vorinclex felt physically ill as his imagination ran amok with dire thoughts of his captain in the clutches of his enemies.
“Never,” he whispered to himself.
Glissa rolled over in her sleep, her face turning toward the praetor as she mumbled something and clutched her hand as though seeking a weapon. Her eyes rolled, and she fell back into a dark slumber. Vorinclex raised a hand, and the moss beneath her head bloomed and fluffed until it cradled her more comfortably. He lifted a finger and the thick carpet of vines along Glissa’s bed tangled itself into a tighter weave and grew up and over her body, shielding her from the rusting mist.
Jor-el, formerly Jor Kadeen, champion and spiritual leader of the Auriok, was pinned against the wall with both feet three feet off the ground. He had his hands jammed in the mouth of a zombie, the zombie being, of course, what was left of Venser the Sojourner, once a promising young artificer of note, once befriended by some of the most powerful beings in the Multiverse.
“Please, stop!” said another feminine voice, this one sodden and on the verge of tears. The first voice spoke again.
“I said stop, and since, unlike my companion here, I don’t have the good breeding to know I should make a request of such fine men as you are, it must mean I’m giving you fine men AN ORDER.”
Jor and Venser swiveled their heads toward the door—what was left of it. The entrance to Jor’s study was now more of an abstract hole in the wall. Two women were there, one lanky and fair with fox-red hair who twisted her hands together in concern, and the other a dark silhouette of curving, glowering domination who stamped her foot in anger.
Venser lowered Jor to the ground. Jor stepped back, taking Venser’s lower jaw with him. The mystic looked down at his hand, surprised. Venser shrugged at him.
“Didnnnnn’t neeeeedit,” Venser whooshed through his nose.
“My apologies,” Jor looked embarrassed nonetheless, and set the jaw delicately on the remains of his gorgeous writing desk, now a jarring cacophany of scratched-up, finely glazed dark wood.
“Let’s straighten things out,” purred Liliana as she stalked into the room, surveying the wreckage of the study. She crossed her arms over her chest, which had the side effect of pushing her breasts up. Jor’s brown eyes and Venser’s unnatural flaring blue one flicked down for half a second.
“Oh, come on!” Liliana snapped, and their gazes did likewise, coming to rest on her face. “Better,” she muttered. “Now, what’s this about? Jor, you’ve damaged my property!” she nodded toward the zombie and the jaw on the desk.
“Well—“ Jor began, then wavered from fatigue, stumbling to the side. A tiny cry escaped Melira’s ashen lips, and in a heartbeat she was across the room and assisting Jor in sitting down on the remains of his chair. He waved her aside as he sat, and Liliana noticed the hurt expression that flashed across Melira’s face before she composed herself.
“Well, your—he…it attacked me, unprovoked, while I was here, working,” Jor said.
“Trrrraitor,” Venser hissed.
“What was that, you?” Liliana demanded. He eyed her, his glowing blue eye flaring into hers that were deep purple with annoyance.
“Uuuuuuse mhyyyy naaaaaaaaaaaaame.”
“Your name?” Liliana snorted. “What does that matter? You’re my minion, that’s all the identity you need.”
“Vvvvvvensssser,” Venser forced the air through his nasal cavity with all the effort he could muster. Liliana shifted her stance beneath his gaze.
“Spencer? Great. Fine. Let’s move on. Okay, Spencer, why did you attack—“
“VVVVVENNNSSSSSSER,” he repeated, leaning forward on the broken desk and staring at Liliana. She rolled her eyes.
“Fencer. What kind of name is that? Did you teach swordsmanship? Or did you actually build fences? Anyway, so, Fencer, why—“
Liliana fumed. She hated being interrupted. Her eyes narrowed at him, gleaming dangerously.
Venser. Did you just luckily finally whoosh your name with great clarity, or did you say that in my head?
I don’t know. How could I be in your head?
How, indeed. Now, shut up before you blow our whole hand.
“His name is Venser,” Liliana declared aloud. “Jor, you owe me a jaw. Time to talk.”
Raising her hands, Liliana mouthed harsh, guttural words of dark magic. Blackness spread from the shadows of the room and crept across the walls, the ceiling, the floor. Melira gave a small scream as the walls of reality faded to grey and a feeling of claustrophobia crept over her.