Elesh Norn was not impressed.
The Auriok, the zombie thing, and the morally compromised ether-traveller stood before her in all their disheveled glory.
She shuddered inwardly at their ugliness and their fleshiness.
But, outwardly composed, she smiled politely with her perfect, pointy ceramic teeth.
“Let me understand, yes. You want this one--” she gestured vaguely at Venser with her long, perfectly manicured, ceramic-tipped index finger. “To be made of meat again, yes?”
“Yes,” said Liliana, “That is correct. I have given him animation, but I cannot restore his living flesh. I would like him to be whole again.”
“Yet, I see no reason for this. It appears perfectly fine to me as is, yes?” Elesh Norn appraised Venser and nodded affirmingly. “The lack of flesh is to be seen as an improvement,” the ivory-and-crimson Praetor stated, leaning back in her throne of bones.
Venser was disgusted by the whole place and the Praetor herself, so when he felt a pleasant surge of pride at her words, he was appalled. He swung his dismembered arm and slapped himself in the face. How can I have become so degenerate that a monster telling me I look good as a zombie gets me going?
“Why does it do that?” Elesh Norn demanded, alarmed.
“Do what?” Liliana was having a hard time keeping the edge from her voice. This whole trip, this conversation, the entirety of her time on this godsforsaken plane had been nothing but infuriating.
“He strikes himself with his own appendage!” Elesh Norn whispered loudly, poorly concealing her words behind a theatrically raised, elegant hand. Venser slapped himself again, just to see the Praetor’s reaction. Elesh gasped. “See that! See that, yes? Why does it do that?”
“Because he’s--it’s an idiot,” Liliana said tiredly.
Jor-el sighed and addressed the Praetor in his most courtly tone.
“Praetor Elesh, the fleshless state is unnatural for this one. He was not compleated in holy ritual, he merely rotted away after an unnatural death. Thus his spirit argues with his physical reality, constantly. Creating a state of “idiocy” as my lady Liliana so colorfully explained.”
Liliana rolled her eyes, but as Jor-el elbowed her she flashed him an appreciative grin. Venser tried to insert the fingers of his disembodied hand into his eye sockets, but found he wasn’t dexterous enough.
“Ah, this makes sense, yes?” Elesh exclaimed. “Holy compleation is the only path to enlightened contentment. This poor creature has had the chance for spiritual peace taken from him.”
“I’m glad you two speak the same language,” Liliana hissed to Jor-el. She smiled ingratiatingly at Elesh Norn and said loudly, “I beg your grace to restore him, so that he may be compleated later, in full ritual. He has become...dear to me,” Liliana looked at her hands, as though embarrassed.
“Another affliction of the flesh, yes?” Elesh said, but she tilted her head in something approximating pity. “But how will compleation better your predicament?”
“As a Phyrexian, he will not suffer the effects of old age.”
“The aging of flesh--horrible! Yes, yes!” Elesh Norn shuddered and nodded vigorously, nearly knocking over her attendants with the span of her huge headdress. They hurried to rearrange her train and shawls into pools of crimson perfection.
“And he is very powerful,” Liliana added. “He might prove useful to your...cause. But he cannot wield his powers in his current state, so marginalized.”
Elesh Norn regarded Liliana in silence for a moment.
“We shall consider your request over supper.” With a graceful sweep of her emaciated arm, she ended the audience. Jor-el and Liliana took their leave respectfully, bowing low. Venser haltingly followed them, giving himself one last smack with his arm as he passed the dais. He was rewarded as Elesh snapped her head around towards him, sucking air through her teeth and gripping her train as though he were a rat that might run under and scurry over her feet.
Venser whooshed a low giggle that was cut short when a tendril of black mana wrapped around his windpipe.
“Do that again, and I will permanently remove your head so that you can always get that stunning angle on my ass,” Liliana hissed in his ear canal.
“Ttttemphhhhting,” he puffed quietly, but shrugged at her in acquiescence. Liliana nodded and the mana tendril removed itself from his throat and eased itself back to her fingertips. She blew him a kiss before skipping back up to Jor-el and wrapping her arms around the crook of his elbow, leaning in close and resting her head on his shoulder. She said something that made him laugh. The three of them were led by a thrull through increasingly large archways whose shadows grew darker and darker the deeper they went into the sanctified grounds of the Machine Orthodoxy.
An hour or so later, a different thrull led them from their apartments to the supper hall. Venser had been given his own room so he had no idea what had transpired between Liliana and Jor-el, but her hair was a bit mussed and they looked closer than ever, so the zombie ex-artificer figured he could venture an educated guess, had anyone asked him.
As they approached the hall, Venser noticed large firepits lighting their way at intervals. The ornately designed and modular pits seemed to be burning human remains. Venser wondered if he could be quick enough to push Jor-el into one before they got to dinner. The zombie glanced ahead at his companions; it was no good, Liliana was holding the Auriok mystic too close to herself, his cloak nearly swishing in the same rhythm as her hips.
Venser consoled himself with the thought that there would likely be many opportunities during the meal and the night’s entertainment to do bad things to Jor-el.
Yet it turned out that supper was so bizarre that all of thoughts of delivering violence upon the ivory-cloaked Auriok slipped from Venser’s mind, replaced by incredulous fascination with the ways of the Machine Orthodoxy and Phyrexians in general.
The Phyrexians of the Machine Orthodoxy believed that flesh was evil and had stripped themselves of as much of it as possible. They didn’t need to eat or drink, so all the plates, serving trays, decanters and goblets were empty. Yet, thrulls went through the motions of serving and pouring, and the guests went through the motions of enjoying a great feast--picking through empty air on their plates, delicately lifting morsels of air to their mouths between pinched fingers, taking huge gulps of air from bereft vessels to wash down the imaginary things they had just pretended to swallow.
Venser was too interested to be perturbed. He was even kind of enjoying the spectacle as he mused on its anthropological meanings. But then he looked over at Liliana. The necromancer was in, literally, a black rage. Venser remembered then that she was always hungry. Back home at the Furnace Level she constantly had something in her hand--usually a goblet of wine, sometimes a bit of strange Mirrodin fruit, and lately, she’d snacked on a lot of bread. But her preference, when she had a choice, was red meat.
He’d watched her cut into roast Oxidda beast many a time with a fervent need that turned to ecstasy when she put it in her mouth. Venser, who’d been raised on the lean offerings of Urborg swamps, had begun to think of food as much more interesting after watching Liliana consume a few good meals.
Now, while Jor-el smiled politely and chatted with their Phyrexian hosts, Liliana was tapping her fingers on the empty porcelain in front of her as her dark gaze followed every new vessel that arrived at table with a sort of desperate hope that made Venser almost feel sorry for his domineering mistress. When no more thrulls emerged from the kitchen area, Liliana set her lips in a furious line and turned to Jor-el. Venser thought, for a moment, that she might just bite him to satiate her hunger.
At that moment Elesh Norn decided it was time for prayers, so all the Phyrexians bent their heads and put their hands upon each others’ shoulders. Venser leaned in from his place behind Liliana so he could hear her hiss angrily at Jor-el.
“You’re not, and to consume food here would be to recognize our flesh. We cannot put the needs of our bodies above the customs of the Orthodoxy, or we risk alienating them. It would be a direct affront to Elesh Norn’s hospitality to eat anything here,” he whispered back.
“There’s no such thing as hospitality if there’s no food! I can’t not eat for this entire night--”
“Pray. It diminishes the appetite.”
Just then the Phyrexians finished their chanting prayer and proceeded to applaud themselves by rapping their fingertips lightly on their porcelain goblets, making a wave of tinkling sound. Liliana cut herself off and Jor-el joined in with the strange custom. Liliana turned her head away from Jor-el and rested her cheek on her hand. The shadows beneath her eyes looked much darker lately, and Venser felt sorry for her again. Almost.
Another hour passed with Jor and Elesh refereeing a spirited religious discussion with the other notable guests. Finally, Elesh stood and addressed Liliana.
“It is customary for the guest of honor to provide light entertainment for the supper,” the Praetor gestured silkily towards a tiled stage at the head of the table. “You will grant us this small indulgence, yes?”
Given her state of mind (and stomach), Venser braced himself for some kind of Liliana explosion that involved smashing smallwares and cursing like a Keld berserker. He was mildly shocked when she held it together and rose from her seat with aristocratic elegance, speaking to Elesh as though they were debutantes at a fete.
“My dear, I certainly will indulge you. What an honor. But why ‘light entertainment’? Why not something a bit darker?” she winked salaciously at the Praetor, who, to Venser’s serious shock this time, giggled wildly and clapped her hands together like a child.
Liliana took it all in stride and, taking her place on the patterned tiles, she raised her hands with arcane grace and began to breathe sibilant, disturbing words of black magic into the muggy evening air.
Metal of all kinds fell in glittering showers around the refugee encampment within Mirrodin’s Furnace Level. The sad mishmash of tents served as the new home for many types of creatures, all who’d fled their conquerors’ insatiable appetite. The Phyrexians never tired of violence (an everyday necessity), torture (scientific research) and acquisition (what’s yours is better off as mine, as they say). Months had passed since any kind of Phyrexian had given the refugees any hassle, and many of the tent kingdom’s inhabitants had started to think this could be their new beginning.
Now, the ground trembled and pipes burst. Steam vented screaming into the huge cavern, and ore-laced rock crumbled down. A girl with fox-red hair cowered beneath a goblin ladder. The goblins, luckless free labor working-class of the Phyrexians, were cursing and squealing as they abandoned their tools and darted for the safety of their bolt-holes and hidden caves. The girl had been out tending the sick when the quake started. There were reinforced caves to shelter in around the perimeter, but the tents were more exposed. She heard cries of pain echo across the cavern from the refugee shantytown.
“Please, please bring Jor-el back,” she prayed to herself. He would know what to do--she looked around, hoping to see his white cloak flash in the falling rubble. She would be brave, then, she’d run to him, the Auriok mystic that had brought so much hope to the refugees after he’d renounced their old ways and founded the new religion...True, he might have traded her to Glissa for maps to the world’s Core, but only to save their--his--people. At least, the dark lady had said that was his intention, to trade her. But it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he was right, and steadfast, and good.
A swarm of dark black and blue skittered down from the tunnels leading to the surface. It was a writhing horde of bulbous eyes, scythelike arms, and metallic carapaces. They moved with clicking, squishing sounds audible above even the the din of falling rock. The girl choked back a horrified scream.
Phyrexians--from Lumengrid and the Dross. Here. Her tongue went dry and her temples throbbed. It must be a nightmare. She thought of the dark lady and her zombie, and Jor...
“Have they abandoned us?” Melira whispered.
If the Phyrexians were here, they would wipe out the refugees. Melira had seen it all before. Suddenly, she found herself running across the Furnace Level, jumping over fallen boulders and shielding her head from metal shards with her arms. She saw the blue and black insectoid army halt, hesitating at the edge of the cavern, apparently confused by the chaos of hot vapors and falling stone. She would reach the tent city first.
I will lead them away.
Melira burst through someone’s abandoned cooking fire into the refugee camp proper. Many of the Auriok refugees were soldiers, and had already started to try and organize in small groups. Melira, visible with her red hair shining, grabbed a young soldier as he passed.
“Shields! You soldiers must protect the others. Arm yourself with shields and use them as cover--I can heal wounds, but not smashed skulls!” the youth nodded and ran off, yelling the directive to his comrades.
Children were screaming and wailing, a sound Melira could not abide. She ran to the centermost tents, where it was the worst. The infirmary was there, and it was also furthest from the safety of the reinforced caves at the edge of the cavern. She pushed open the tent flap and burst in on a scene of terrified patients and caregivers putting out incidental fires.
“Nurses, carry only the smallest and weakest--everyone else, you must run! Follow me and stay close. And stop crying! There are Phyrexians out there, they mustn’t hear us!”
Melira ran outside, not looking back to see if they’d obeyed. But she could tell by the patter of feet and the stifling of sobs a moment later that they had.
“Soldier!” she gasped at another Auriok, a senior military female who was pulling an old shaman out of the way of a falling stalactite. “M’am, please, there are Dross Phyrexians out there--I saw them--take your best--there! I will lead the helpless to the caves.”
The Auriok lieutenant nodded. Then she was gone, but Melira heard their familiar battle cry as the Auriok changed tact from rescue and salvage to combat.
Melira and the refugees, beneath the cover of Auriok shields that could be spared, made for the caves that were latticed with darksteel at the edge of the Furnace Level.
Behind them, Melira imagined she heard the nightmarish sounds of war...
To be continued.