Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Return to Argentum: 10

The Furnace Level was stifling at best, fatally hot at worst. Melira couldn’t remember when she’d last seen the cool green of the forest. Her skin felt dry to the touch, and she could feel the dark circles deepening beneath her eyes. She wasn’t sure if she was imagining it or not, but she thought her skin had a strange saffron tint.

Karn had settled into a routine, thank the Suns. He’d wake up, play chess, eat, play chess, check on the Praetors, play chess, eat, exercise by throwing around metal in the goblins’ scrapyard, play chess, and then orate near a lacunus entrance of his choice. His oration was mostly nonsense, but some of the refugees had started to sit and listen to him regularly. Melira didn’t careas long as her people found some kind of hope and peace to sustain themselves, they could worship Negator guano for all she cared.

The numbers of sick were finally waning. With no active war, Melira had only to see to those previously afflicted. If she kept up her daily quota of healing, she would soon have no patients left. All the Praetors were confined, and the outside world of New Phyrexia seemed to be hushed, as though waiting for something. There were no disturbances, no attacks, not even any tremors from the center of the furnace. It was as if the plane was crouched, afraid to move or even breathe. The heat increased daily, and the Suns set for less and less time.

“Jor will be pleased with the refugees’ progress,” Melira said to Karn/Slobad one afternoon while they attended to the Praetor’s cages. Karn turned his bulbous metallic head towards her and stared with his disturbingly shiny eyes.

“It is more important that you are pleased with whatever progress you feel has been made.” The golem scratched at his chest and mumbled, turning back to the Praetors. Melira flushed. The golem was clearly mad, but she was certain she’d heard a chastising tone in his statement.

“No worry, green-red girl. White mystic surely be fine!” Slobad’s hand raised its index finger and wagged itself at her reassuringly. Melira smiled. The hand scurried up from Karn’s shoulder to rattle the lock on Sheoldred’s cage. “Secure as ever!” the hand declared triumphantly.

The Praetors were confined to cages swinging from the stalactites of the Furnace Level ceiling. The cages were made from crude rusty iron salvaged from the scrapyard, but had been finely wrought using Karn’s strange affinity for metal. As a result the cages were rather luxurious and artistic. Sheoldred’s resembled an ornate hamster wheel, while Jin-Gitaxias/Memnarch’s called to mind an hourglass. There were three more nondescript cages hanging at the ready. Urabrask had been resistant to capture, while Vorinclex would be received imminently with Liliana’s return.

The Praetors had submitted easily with Karn present. The Phyrexian horde that had attended them was put to work in the mines, under goblin supervision. 

“I-I-I w-w-would t-t-take some bread,” Sheoldred hissed as Melira passed beneath her cage. The ebony Praetor clung to the side of the cage with both hands, her leech-like tail writhing slowly up and down the bars. She was diminutive without her bold carapace. Melira looked up at her.

“We’re working on that, Sheoldred. Grain is extremely scarce. The Suns are not setting as they should, burning away all the crops on the surface.” Melira watched as Sheoldred nodded and clasped her hands together, then unclasped them and steepled her fingers. The Praetor couldn’t seem to stay still a moment. Melira felt sorry for her, but not too much so. Sheoldred’s minions had murdered countless Auriok and Sylvok. Melira took small comfort knowing that later Slobad/Karn would engage Sheoldred in a game of chess, as was their custom before bed, and that would take the larval Praetor’s mind off of her beloved carbohydrates.

“Click-brrrz-gak-vhhhht,” said Jin-Gitaxias.

“No one can understand you!” Melira sighed impatiently. She looked over to see Karn staring sorrowfully at the blue Praetor, tears running down his metallic face. The golem slowly looked down at his own hands, then he clutched his temples and started running in circles.

“URZA,” the golem bellowed. Slobad’s hand jumped from Karn to Melira as the blubbering golem ran past her. Melira felt close to weeping herself. When would Jor and Liliana return?

“Goblin saying: ‘Crazy is what crazy loves.’” Slobad’s hand smoothed her hair.

“Then we all are, aren’t we?” Melira patted the hand, walked toward Karn and pulled out a rook from the drawstring bag at her waist.


Venser was on his knees, staring at a necromancer’s crotch from point-blank range.

Did I die? he thought wistfully, a second before the analytic pessimism set in. And if I did, is this heaven... or hell?

“If I see even a flick of tongue or hear anything remotely lewd out of you, it’s over,” Liliana said. She put the five fingers of her left hand on top of his skull and chanted bleak words over him.

“I was just wondering if I was in hell,” Venser said. He was shocked to hear his own voice—not a hollow, whooshing montone. “W-w-wait, did I just say that—?”

“Shut up and calm down,” Liliana snapped, smacking him across the temple and turning away from him. Venser lurched to the side, raising his hand to his face. Hand... I have a hand. He pressed each digit to his cheek and then to his eyes, feeling tears well over his fingertips to run down to his lips. He flicked his tongue, tasting salt and wetness. Overwhelmed, Venser crouched , trembling as he wept. A nightmare, and then I wokea man, again... There’s no rattle to my bones. There’s no air whistling through my skull. I can feel. I can feel.

“I can’t. Breathe,” Venser said, the realization of his form sinking in and crushing the air from his throat. He suddenly felt his flesh as a cage, as a suffocating space to trap a soul. He gasped, falling forward to brace himself, and felt hot stones beneath his palms.

“What a time to get claustrophobic.” Liliana returned to him, holding a goblet. “Really not a very nice homecoming for yourself, Venser. Here.” She shoved the vessel into his hand. “Drink.”

Venser did. And gagged. “This tastes like shit,” he spat onto the floor. “This feels like shit.”

“You can thank me later,” Liliana purred, then kicked him in the jaw. Venser sprawled backwards into the darkness with a grunt. The goblet clattered to the ground. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a haze of purple boots come to stand next to him. She squatted down, a blur of murkiness. Violet-gloved fingers retrieved the goblet and set it upright on the rocks with a soft clink. He heard the splash of liquid.

“Drink,” she ordered again, pushing the glass towards him from the shadows. “Drink it down, my darling. Let’s see more swallowing, less spitting. In fact, no more spitting at all. Make a mess on the floor of my tree-house again and I’ll end your days.”

Venser propped himself up on one elbow. Shivering, he brought the foul cup to his lips. A scent of nightshade and blood roiled up into his senses.

He swallowed.


“I can’t believe I’m setting foot on this festering eyesore again.” Tezzeret closed the gap in the Aether behind him without a thought. He scanned the alabaster territory of the Machine Orthodoxy casually, then looked up at the sky. He frowned. “This’s a real piece.”

“I dig it,” said Doc, the voice implanted in his head by Nicol Bolas. The leechlike consciousness served as a tracing device for the Elder Dragon, and a general annoyance for Tezzeret.

“Of course you do. It’s a giant, metallic floating turd. What’s not to like?” Tezzeret strode toward an archway. Raggedy looking drakes and angels circled listlessly in the puce clouds above.

“You’re a metallic turd, and I hate your guts.” Doc snickered and mentally tickled Tezzeret somewhere deep in his amygdala.

“Doc, I appreciate the thought, but I’m not in the mood for foreplay. Just don’t zap my brain while I’m trying to work, ok? This could be a battle.”

“I guess this plane having five moons means you’re going to be five times as emotional as usual. Ba-da-BAH!”

“Shut up, Doc.”

The lone figure was starkly dark against the pallor of Elesh Norn’s compound. Tezzeret’s lithe metal-enhanced body cast a long shank of shadow across the ivory tiles. His twisted iron-gray locks swirled around his shoulders with a life of their own. One arm appeared completely mechanical. Just beneath his altered skin, motes of pure mana zipped along in shades of black, blue, and violet. His eyes, framed in a coldly handsome face, were a sheer gray.

“Look’s like everyone’s at the party, just like she said they’d be,” Doc whispered. Distant, muffled laughter carried over the white stones as Tezzeret rounded the corner of the Annex. He moved with honed efficiency, his step that of a practiced thief, his speed that of a hunter. He did not wish to be engaged in battle until he found was he was looking for.

“This’ll do,” said Tezzeret. They’d reached the Compleation grounds of the compound. Rows of vats of varying sizes marched toward the horizon. Neat stacks of bones and armor ringed the vats. Poles of bone held up long lines above the vats. The lines were hung with flayed skin in various colors and shapes.

“Do it,” said Doc. Tezzeret held up his fist. Discarded armaments of diverse types of metal answered his call. They danced to life, sprouting limbs and then sentience. Scuttling eagerly, they jumped from the junk piles to the feet of their master, supplicating themselves appropriately. In minutes, useless crap had come to life as Tezzeret’s personal army.

“ELESH NORN,” Tezzeret screamed to the lifeless air, his voice pitched as to be heard far and wide across the compound.

“Wow, that was totally corny,” said Doc. Tezzeret shrugged. He’d never had any talent for theatrics. He adjusted the sensors on his false skin with the coolness of a seasoned warrioror the intrepid calm of a homeless person.

And then the angels descended.


Vorinclex’s health seemed to be deteriorating. Glissa noticed him staring off into the distance when he should be thinking about war strategy. She heard him walking around at night when he should be sleeping. She’d turn her head during conversation to find his eyes unfocused and his jaw slack, just looking at her. And then he’d look away quickly, and start talking about something completely unrelated to the discussion at hand. Or he’d scratch himself and fidget, trying to be discreet and failing. Glissa didn’t know what to think of her Praetor’s condition.

She rubbed her metal temples with clawed fingers as they crossed under the coppery archway that marked the entrance to the Furnace Level. She hadn’t been feeling so great herself latelyher appetite had vanished and her plating seemed to be leaking oil. She experienced a burning sensation whenever the oil touched what was left of her skin, and that had never been the case before.

The dark lady’s words had been convincing. Glissa wanted more than anything to set right her world by exterminating threats like Elesh Norn and unifying the more natural Phyrexians under her and Vorinclex’s leadership. The necromancer had promised Elesh’s demise and had delivered, which impressed Glissa greatly. The Praetor of the Machine Orthodoxy had seemed invulnerable behind her priests and angels and unnatural white magics. Glissa wondered to herself how the dark lady had managed to depose the Praetor without ever leaving the Tangle… and never, it seemed, even lifting a finger to do anything much besides attempt to seduce that fool Ezuri.

Glissa shook her head. Whatever this Liliana human had done, it had definitely been Elesh Norn’s hat that the golem had delivered. The Praetor had to be dead; she never went anywhere without the godawful thing.

“Glissa.” Vorinclex’s voice was timid and soft, another cause of concern and another extreme irritation to the Phyrexian captain.

“Yes, sir?” Glissa didn’t try hard to hide the bite in her voice.

“I… can’t feel my right leg,” Vorinclex whispered. “Am I walking strangely?” Glissa looked around in a panic to see if anyone had overheard him. She moved close and observed his next steps—yes, his gait was off. He was hiding it well, though.

“No one would notice but me, Vorinclex. Here, we’re descending on the path, and it’s dark. Lean on me.”

“Thank you,” Vorinclex said, resting his forearm across Glissa’s rigid shoulder. Glissa strode even taller to compensate. They made it down to the level floor without incident. Ahead, she saw Liliana and her indentured artificer step into the tangerine glow of the furnace hall. Another human ran forward to greet them—a girl with red hair—but then she stopped, and collapsed to her knees. Glissa realized the girl wept, and the warrior’s mouth twisted in disapproval.

“Human drama,” she scoffed to Vorinclex. Once, he would have laughed with her.

“Perhaps she lost someone,” was all he said. Glissa gritted her teeth. Just then Liliana turned back to look at them. She motioned Glissa forward with a graceful sweep of her hand, at the same time she gracefully motioned her artificer to escort the sobbing girl out of the way.

“Glissa, talk with me. Auriok, seize the Praetor and take him to the holding area.” Liliana smiled.

“What?” Glissa stormed forward. “Where are you taking him?”

“It’s a cage,” said Liliana. Two dozen heavily armed Auriok had already grabbed hold of Vorinclex. Glissa couldn’t believe she’d walked into this unprepared. What had she been thinking about?

“Glissa,” said Vorinclex. His tone was patronizing, calming, hushed—weak. Glissa turned away from him.

“Talk, witch,” Glissa said. She felt a burning sensation at the corners of her eyes, and then down her cheeks, and realized it must be the oil.


Nicol Bolas had an itch. He had an itch, and he couldn’t quite reach it. The thrulls couldn’t understand him well enough to take direction to reach it, and his own claws were too big and stiff-jointed to find the exact location of the discomfort.

“Getting too old for this shit,” the Elder Dragon mumbled to no one. His grumbling echoed around his lair in Grixis. His topaz eye swiveled back to the crystal sphere mounted on a dais of bone in front of him. He watched as little people moved around in the crystal, making little gestures and speaking little words. He yawned. A wurm crawled by and he ate it without thinking. Smacking his lips, Bolas intoned “Koth,” at the crystal.

A face appeared.

“Deal or no deal?” the Elder Dragon said, picking a bit of wurm from his tooth and flicking it across the cave.

The figure in the crystal looked down. His eyes burned with red energy. Then he looked up, straight through the sphere into Bolas’s gaze. His hands clenched.



A piece of the ceiling fell with a crunch. Bits of Furnace Level bounced and clattered. Melira, her face still tear-streaked, jumped from her stone seat next to Venser and shielded a young Auriok with her arms. Oh no, is it another earthquake? But there were no following crashes or tremors. The healer looked up to see a figure rising from the rubble. He swiveled his head towards them.

“You ravening bitch.” His voice was like steel scraping across ice.

Melira saw Liliana’s gaze flick up, though her expression didn’t change. She’d been looking over a map Glissa was holding open. Earlier, after Liliana’s announcement, a buzz of excitement from the refugees had filled the cavern—the hall had only started to quiet as people began their evening routines. Liliana and Glissa had been in deep discussion for hours. Luckily, the intruder had chosen to land in a refuse pile where no one was standing. Liliana’s back was to him. She straightened but didn’t turn. Melira saw Liliana’s lips move slightly as she made a subtle flex of her hand.

“A predictable entrance, and a demonstrated limited vocabulary highlighted by a misogynistic tone. The great Tezzeret must have decided to grace us with his presence,” Liliana said loudly, her back still facing him. At the mention of the name, Melira noticed Venser blanch—he stumbled backwards into shadow. 

“You’re the only one who knew I was here. You sent those things after me,” the intruder growled. Everyone except Liliana had turned to face “Tezzeret.” Liliana appeared unconcerned and pointed at the map.

“Here,” she said to Glissa. The Phyrexian captain nodded curtly and shut the map with a snap. Melira gasped as Tezzeret’s hands started to glow with writhing violet light. Liliana winked at her, then finally turned around.

“Watch yourself. You’re not the only agent here. Just the only one he uses as a chew toy.” The necromancer looked at ease, one hand on her hip and the other hanging free and relaxed.

“Well, who in the verse would want a mouthful of bitch?” Tezzeret smirked, looking into the shadows behind Liliana. He spotted Venser. “Maybe him.” Tezzeret chuckled, gesturing with his chin to where Venser hid. “I recall that one having abominable taste in annoying women.”

“I believe it. I think his taste got him killed, in fact. Irreparably compromised, shall we say. Oh, Tezzie! Is Doc still with you? At least then I’ll have someone interesting to talk to during this visit.” Liliana’s finger twitched. Tezzeret saw and responded. 

A host of insects screamed down from the upper recesses of the cavern, swooping for Tezzeret’s head, but a spherical bomb levitated from the ankle-deep junk where Tezzeret stood. He snapped his fingers and the bomb exploded—the buzzing skirges vanishing along with it.

“Everyone get the Hel out of my way!” Liliana shouted, rising into the air on a storm of shadow. Refugees ran for the caves and Melira ushered the youngster to follow. She turned back to the battle, but a glare from Liliana convinced the healer to retreat along with her people. Melira cast a long look at Venser where he crouched behind a stalagmite, but as she caught his eye he shook his head just slightly. The gesture was tiny but irreproachable. Melira ran for the caves.

Tezzeret had surrounded himself with his own horde of insects, their heads clicking eagerly at the sorceress, but Liliana floated out of reach.

“Pathetic,” she sneered, raising a fist. A black cloud of destruction roiled down to consume the swarm, but at the same time Tezzeret turned his palm upwards and out. As the insects exploded in whorls, bits and pieces of their bodies changed direction and shot directly at Liliana. Obsidian-like slivers of carapace impacted her forearm with wet ssshinks as she covered her face. More splinters of metal stuck in her thighs and abdomen, and she floated down to the floor.

“Ouch! That smarts, dammit,” she cursed at Tezzeret, picking shards from her person.

“Pathetic,” he smiled.

Tezzeret lifted his arms and a huge golem appeared, then another, and other. The metal men were five times the size of Liliana and all three advanced on her compromised position. She shrugged and waggled her finger. A rending, ripping sound reverberated through the chamber as a slash of Aether opened up across the lead golem. It was like someone unzipped its existence. All three golems were sucked into the void, before it zipped back up like nothing had happened.

Tezzeret leapt through the vanishing golems and smashed into Liliana. She deflected the impact with a kick and rolled to the side, but Tezzeret maintained contact and lifted a rudely pointed artifact into the air above her.

“Why does it always have to be phallic?” she pouted, as she placed both hands over his throat. Tezzeret’s eyes bulged as he felt life being sucked from his veins and into hers. “Ugh, you taste awful,” Liliana was saying. Tezzeret struggled to focus his energy. He hadn’t expected the necromancer to be so physically resilient. He choked out a word, waved the needle in the air.

It vanished. In its place, a triangular, crude-looking artifact fit snugly in his palm.

“Close,” he coughed hoarsely as Liliana’s grip tightened. “But not enough.” He turned the artifact and Liliana’s grip froze. Her eyes flicked back and forth in panic as she realized she couldn’t move her limbs. Tezzeret snapped his fingers again and the triangular artifact disappeared, replaced, to Liliana’s horror, by a huge sword that glowed with a sickly green and black foxfire.

Tezzeret chuckled as he removed Liliana’s fingers one by one, unhurriedly, from his neck. Her arm fell, useless, to the ground. Tezzeret climbed on top of her with excruciating, tacky deliberateness.

Liliana rolled her eyes. “Yes, yes, we all understand the implications here. In all the years I’ve known you, it’s amazing how you never cease to not surprise me."

Tezzeret smirked. “I’m just trying to speak your language,” he said.

“Admirable, but I’ve heard it’s hard for apes to pick up the nuances of human speech.”

“We both know I’m more than human.”

“Oh! Did you enhance your cock, too? C’mon, just give me a peek before you kill me.” Liliana smiled up from beneath Tezzeret’s unbreakable mount. “Avacyn’s balls, look at the definition in your thighs—”

“I can’t wait to shut you up.” Tezzeret channeled energy into his etherium arm. Liliana saw Venser step out of the shadows behind Tezzeret. She grinned broadly, causing Tezzeret to pause with concern. She whispered the word to a minor cantrip, which Tezzeret countered on instinct. Liliana’s laughter bubbled up and echoed through the cavern.

“Tezzie, how long has it been since you took a vacation?”


In the blink of an eye, Tezzeret was gone.

1 comment:

  1. "If you mess up my house, I will end you." -- Liliana

    All must fear the wrath of Liliana's offended aesthetics. Thank you for writing.