Sunday, November 3, 2013

Return to Argentum: 11

“She got you good,” laughed Doc.
“Consider it an intermission. I know where she’s headed next.” Tezzeret wiped pig shit from his etherium arm.
“You smell funny,” said Doc. “And she’s not the primary objective.”
“Don’t I know it,” said Tezzeret. “She’s sideshow entertainment.”
“Where we going?”
“Going back to Ravni.”
“Man, that place smells ten times worse than… wait, where are we now?”
“Theros. Look at all the sparkly bits on that pig’s a—”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Doc made arbitrary obscene sound effects as Tezzeret unzipped the Aether in the middle of the sty. Their departure was heralded by raucous oinking.

Glissa looked at her new troops. It was an ugly group: there were her compleated Viridians that had made the journey to the Furnace with her, a contradictory new addition of unnaturally shiny-gold Auriok, and some Sheoldred and Jin-Gitaxias cast-offs that ranged from slimy and mutated to disjointedly asexual.
Glissa coolly informed her unit of their mission: they were to secure the location where the necromancer and the artificer would launch the new Sun. Glissa even more coolly announced that Vorinclex was no longer fit to perform marshall duties and thus had been relieved by his Captain, as was appropriate under Tangle law.
Here, only the strong may lead. It was Vorinclex who’d first told her that, when she woke up screaming from her compleation ceremony so many years ago.
Vorinclex had sent a note via the healer. He had written that he would like to see Glissa before she left for the mission, but that he guessed she would not grant him this.
He was right. Glissa marched at the head of her unit through the jaws of the Furnace entrance. Mirrodin’s surface was a discordant mix of color. Like my troops. No going back. The sky was darker than ever, last week’s ochre now a green-tinged brown. Razor grass and darksteel-laced rock no longer glinted under the light of five Suns… everything was muted, hazy. From the direction of the Quicksilver Sea, Glissa saw lightning striking downward. But even the lightning was strange, the branches resembling skeletal, palsied fingers that wavered on the horizon. There was no energy to the strikes, there was no vibrance anywhere.
As the diverse group made its way toward the craters, Glissa forced everything from her mind except the mission. She was a good soldier. She would see the new Sun raised and lead her people into a secured, if challenging, future upon a healed world. She was ready to do the work.
Glissa reached into her pouch for her water-tin, and screamed.
A goblin hand clung to her wrist. Glissa shook her arm reflexly, trying to get it off, cursing violently. Then she stopped, realizing her troops had turned to stare. As if in a dream, slowly Glissa also realized she was hearing a familiar voice scold her—and that the voice was coming from the hand.
“Crazy elf!” It crept up her forearm and wiggled its index finger at her menacingly. “Why you try to kill poor Slobad the first time you see him in years?”
Glissa passed out.

Urabrask was steaming. His valves were constantly releasing pressure, and he was sweating. Praetors didn’t sweat. Phyrexians didn’t sweat. He crouched in the abandoned pipeworks that spanned the ceiling of the Furnace Level and silently raged. From his vantage point he watched the girl with the red hair go about her daily routine.
She bathed in a tent, from which he could only glimpse a blotchy shadow on the canvas. He had no idea why this interested him so much. She ate, surrounded by useless Auriok, at a low stone block near the caves. She would often eat two or three bites, and stop. Urabrask couldn’t figure why he was counting her bites of food. Then she would make the rounds of the refugee camp, tending to the sick and checking on the captive Praetors. She often played a game where she pushed small sculptured pieces around on a board covered in squares.
Urabrask was hanging upside down and staring at the red-haired girl picking something out of her shoe one morning when the filthy dark lady and her slave magician cornered him.
“Urabrask,” the dark one said, her tone that of a supplicant. She was levitating high up in the cavern, nearly at his level. Urabrask glanced down and saw her serf maintaining the spell, his hands upraised.
Urabrask nodded his acknowledgement of their existence. A valve on his back opened and let off steam with a high whistle. The sorceress cringed at the sound but turned her palms up in appeal. The gesture agreed with the Praetor.
“Great Urabrask, I am sure you have noticed the changes taking place in this world,” she said.
Urabrask thought back to the events of the last two weeks. Sheoldred, Jin-Gitaxias taken prisoner (he had no wish to free them, useless scrap-heaps that they were). Magical battles between humans of immense power. The heat. The tremors. The Suns never setting.
He nodded.
“Urabrask, Master of the Furnace, I have a solution to offer you.” The sorceress looked him in the eye, humbly but unafraid, which drew his approval. But he mistrusted her nevertheless. He’d watched her capture Vorinclex with deceit and win her battles with trickery.
He motioned with a claw for her to continue.
“Urabrask, this world is dying. You can sense it, I know. You have seen my power. I am but a messenger for a much greater power. My master, like me, has seen other worlds. There are other worlds. Phyrexia is anathema to life. Phyrexia kills every world it inhabits. You have felt the changes. You want to know what it is. It is death. Your imminent death.”
Urabrask, thinking she threatened him, leapt to a higher pipeline and menaced the sorceress with his claws. She bowed, baring her neck to him. Your imminent death.”
“You know I speak the truth. You are wise. You have felt it. The Phyrexian way destroys everything it touches. You will go mad, if you are not already.”
Urabrask struggled to maintain control. He wanted to eat this dark woman’s head and be done with the discussion. He wanted to kill everyone in his Furnace Level until there was only the red-haired girl. He wanted to… steam.
“I offer you an alternative to madness and starvation.”
Urabrask felt condensation all over his body.
“My master has a plan. We will create a New Sun. This Sun will contain all five old Suns. It will be balanced by the willpower of a representative of each color of mana. Each representative will be absorbed into the new Sun. Each representative will live forever. All other Phyrexians will cease to exist. It is my master’s wish that you be the Red in the New Sun.”
Urabrask leapt forward and grabbed the sorceress. She did not flinch, just looked at him as he squeezed her in his claws. His vents opened rhythmically, spouting moisture and heat. He pointed down to the cavern floor with one claw. The sorceress’s gaze followed his gesture. She was silent a moment.
“No,” she said, “You may not take her with you.”
Urabrask dropped the dark woman to her death. Or so he wished. Her slave’s magic caught her after she fell fifty feet and lowered her slowly to the ground. When she was standing on solid rock, she looked up at him.
“Then you have chosen your death, Great Urabrask.”
Urabrask answered by spouting a piss-stream of water directly at where she was standing.

The passage was dark. Karn stubbed his toe on something and the sound clanged like an alarm. They paused and Melira held her breath, listening for any reaction. Nothing.
“Keep going,” she hissed at the golem. He trudged forward again.
“Karn shall be more careful,” he intoned in a whisper that Melira was sure could be heard by every guard in the Furnace.
“Sssh!” she gently ushered him on with a poke where his ribs should be.
The path wound and narrowed, and Karn had to scrape by in several places. Melira thanked the Suns she had grown so accustomed to stifling environments during her time in the Furnace Level that the closeness of the passage didn’t bother her.
Finally, just as Karn’s fidgeting had gotten to the point that Melira was sure she’d have to stop for a mid-escape game of chess-in-the-dark, the path widened. The air seemed to smell less of iron and rust and more like pewter and copper.
“This is a strange path you’ve chosen,” Karn said, and Melira was almost sure he didn’t mean the physical path they walked.
“I’m no Auriok,” Melira sighed. “I did what I could there. And I’m no one’s bargaining piece!”
“Of course not,” Karn said, shouldering aside a boulder that partially blocked the egress. Twisting, razor-sharp branches cut a jagged skyline ahead of them. Melira picked out a few glints of emerald and sienna beneath what was left of the green sun that hung low, a faded mint disc distorted by haze. Tears of recognition pricked her eyes.
“The Tangle is my true home. I don’t trust Liliana. I know she killed Jor-el. I have to find my own way, Karn.”

It was that room again.
Liliana stepped forward and found herself surrounded by four white walls. The floor and ceiling were black, but not black in colorthey were made of glass, and looked down onto and up out to blackness. The void. The abyss. Nothing.
Two cards floated towards her and stopped in the middle of the room, end to end. Their backs were decorated with lilies, painted in blood. The cards flipped over, and revealed two visages: hers, and Nicol Bolas’s.
“I could just use Tezzeret,” Bolas boomed in his draconic monotone. “Your little artificer isn’t on our side.”
“Venser’s creations have practical applications. They’re not just part of some bizarre masochistic self-augmentation ritual.” Liliana wondered why her words came out so heated. What was it to her which metal manipulator they employed? But, this was a dream… nothing made sense.
“As long as the job gets done. But you’ll see.” Bolas’s face blurred in the card, then vanished, leaving a blank card face. Liliana watched as the cards flipped back over. She could never determine if these conversations were real, or just herself talking to herself in her head, or vague linkages through dream-to-dream amongst ’walkers.
The room vanished, replaced by a hot, sticky Mirrodin cavern. Liliana was sitting on a rock, in her underwear, holding a goblet.
“So that’s the plan,” she said. “Whatdoyouthink.” She drained her glass, then waved her hand. A carafe of garnet-colored liquid floated over to her.
Venser lay on his back, head propped up on a myr carcass. “Sounds like genocide.”
“Pfff! Semantics,” Liliana laughed, drinking from the goblet and dribbling some down her chin.
“As much as I hate the Phyrexians, they do seem to be a unique life form with manifestation rights the same as any of us. They have culture, albeit fragmented, they have distinguishing physical characteristics, though sometimes mistaken for random tertiary formations… “
“Shut. Up.”
“Can I have more wine?” Venser’s eyes were still as sunken as when he was a zombie. Though Elesh Norn’s vats had replaced his flesh, he looked barely alive. Liliana’s gaze traveled from his unkempt hair to his contrary nose to his skeptical, pessimistic lips.
“No. I drank it all. If you want to call it genocide, so be it. I call it Mirrodin’s salvation.”
The cavern dissolved, and Liliana found herself staring at four black walls as she rotated in the air. It was the same room as before, without the white. Two cards floated to the center of the room, their backs decorated with swords, painted in blood.
The card flipped over.
One showed an elf’s heart-shaped face, awash in peachy tones. Her hair rippled in soft-spun waves of gold and platinum. Her eyes were triton topaz. She looked fresh as the dawn.
The other card showed a pale, thoughtful face. His eyes were downcast and blue as the deepest sea. His dark hair shifted uncomfortably in the Aether winds.
“Jace?” Liliana said, lifting her hand. The eyes in the card swiveled around the room, as if seeking. But then they settled on the card opposite: the Elven girl. Liliana heard the voice as if it whispered next to her ear…
“Emmara,” said Jace, “It was always you.”
The room sundered with a deafening roar, and burned away into the Aether. Liliana heard herself shouting into the void, and the elements responded, swirling, shifting…
Liliana stood on a precipice overlooking the Quicksilver Sea. Venser was throwing up over the edge of the rock. The wretched sky’s miasma of clouds hung low over the greasy, gray waves.
“Well Vense, that was a pretty damn cool trick. So that’s what you do, huh? Talented bastard.”
Venser finally finished gagging and wiped his mouth on his forearm. “That’s the first time I’ve teleported another person without the aid of a device,” he said. “And next time, can you just ask me instead of assaulting me?”
“I pride myself on being many men’s first. And you really don’t listen when I just ask you, hence the beating.”
“I’ll need stuff.” Venser managed to stand, shakily. Liliana held out her hand to steady him, but he flinched away from her.
“I’ll get you the stuff,” Liliana turned away and looked at the murky horizon. “So you’ll do it?”
“I owe people.”
Liliana laughed. “People?” she sneered at Venser. He shrugged, and stared at her until she had to look away from his tired, pathetic face. Predictable, sentimental fools. It was always some female that drove men to absurd decisions.
“Works for me,” she said, lifting her hand. She called down a dragon to give them a lift back…
Liliana floated in the black void.
She felt the air being squeezed from her lungs, inch by inch. Her torso was numb. A coldness crept toward her heart. She knew that when the constricting sensation reached her throat, it would all be over. She looked to the left. Black. Distant specks of light were other lives, other chances, other choices. Things she’d never see or do. She looked to the right. Aether veils were gray streaks across the blackness. She saw sparks and flares of many colorsother Planeswalkers, traveling. She wondered where they were going.
Liliana looked up. She saw a beautiful moon shining down on her. She couldn’t breathe. Her chest felt like it was too small for her heart, which had become so swollen its beating was a deafening echo pounding in her ears. The argent light was blinding. The moon grew larger, and larger, and settled down over her like a shroud.
“Lily,” said a woman’s soft voice. “Why can’t you just behave?”

Koth knew this would be the fight of his life, and so he prepared.
He knew one opponent well; a former friend who was a pretty decent guy, although infuriatingly reluctant to get his hands dirty or make a decision. The memory caused Koth to chuckle as he strapped on the swords the Dragon had given him.
The other opponent he knew only by reputation—vague gossip, more like—and what the Dragon had specifically warned him about.
Koth didn’t worry. He didn’t feel fear. He had the calm anticipation of a true, seasoned warrior. He would put an end to this crazy scheme of the necromancer’s; and the Dragon would lift the Vulshok’s homeland from this corrupt plane, inserting it in a cleansed state on another world.
Koth coughed. He pulled a scrap of cloth from his belt and dabbed the corner of his mouth. The cloth came away stained black, and Koth hurriedly shoved the fabric back into its place alongside his weapons.
Standing on the high ground above his people’s territory, Koth watched the red sun waver in the sky.
“Probably the last time I’ll see home,” he said aloud. The mountains didn’t answer. A slight tremor ran under the ground, though, scattering some loose gravel down the incline. Koth smiled, imagining the tremor as a shrug from his beloved land.
“Yep, I am expendable,” he laughed, before turning away and walking into the gloom towards the crater the Dragon had described in detail.

“No. Not you,” Elspeth said. She had a hand on his arm. The room smelled of burning fat and stomach acid and congealed blood and death. Her other hand clutched the talisman he’d given her. The smooth edges cut into her calloused fingers as she held it in a white-knuckled grip near her heart.
Venser looked at her. He looked at Karn on the throne. He held up his own shaking hands so Elspeth could see them tremble in the eerie Phyrexian light.
“Time to go,” he’d said.
I thought of Karn back in the old days. All that insane shit with Jhoira and the Weaver and Jodah and the fucking Panther God and Freyalise and my ambulator and Teferi and Shiv. Then I thought of a rift… a rift in Karn’s body, and I thought of my heart abandoning me for a better place. I thought, “Well, where in the hell am I going to put Karn’s heart—”
Then I died.
Venser woke up looking into the face of death. But it wasn’t a skull. And it wasn’t the Weaver King. It wasn’t a guy in a dark cloak holding a scythe. It wasn’t disease, or a nebulous smoky apparition, or a Phyrexian killing machine. It wasn’t a god.
It was a youthful face, an oval face, a face of adventure and abandon. Its eyes were dark, nearly black in the shadowed light, but when the face smiled he caught a glimpse of purple in the irises. The smile was ivory and bright, bound by lips that curved like a crossbow. Death’s nose had an upturned slope that made Venser imagine sliding down it and blissfully luge-ing off the end into the gleeful mouth, right between those heathered lips.
“It’s about time you woke up! Do you know how hungry I am?” Death said as it pulled him to his feet and climbed onto his back. “We’ve got to find something to eat. Go go go.”
I looked at my hands. I could see bones through rotting flesh. After one-hundred-and-eleven steps, it sunk in that I was a zombie. But I kept walking.
Venser woke in his bed in Urborg. The familiar smell of artifacts, metal, and swamp surrounded him. He sat up in a cold sweathe was supposed to do something today. He’d forgotten something important… what was it? He jumped out of bed and his feet sank into the floora pool of blood. He looked up. A body lay face down in the red liquid. He recognized the embroidery of his mother’s tunic. Venser saw his father through the round pane in their home’s one window. He was walking away over the dark peated hillocks.
The talisman spun in the fog. Fog over the sand. Venser heard Jhoira laugh from a distance. He heard Jodah laugh. Venser wanted to blink the talisman’s cutting edge into the Archmage’s forehead to shut him up. He focused, but the talisman only flickered, mockingly, in front of him.
He heard Jodah laugh again. A pause. Then Jhoira’s sigh.
Venser snatched the talisman from the air. With a twist of his wrist, he slammed it edge-first into his own left temple, burying its sheen deep in his head.
Then I died.

The priest stood motionless on the ridge, looking down at the circular impurity in Mirrodin’s surface. Uncompleated myr scurried and hurried along its edges and within its recesses, barely visible in the moons’ dim, muddy light.
Lifting a delicate white hand, the priest motioned to the Phyrexian cleric behind him.
“Make a note that this infestation of myr must be brought into the Orthodoxy.”
The cleric inclined its head and, extending one scythelike finger, inscribed the note on the inside of its arm.
“I shall wait here until the time is at hand. That time such as the Dragon described. Tell our escort to array themselves to best secure our position,” ordered the Priest.
The cleric lifted its palm and an orb ascended from it, subtle runes spinning across its surface. The signal was visible from a distance, and the leonin took their orders and began to move.
The priest began his vigil, and only fleetingly mused on his brief, hollow craving for wine.

Liliana was bored.
The sultry necromancer tapped her foot on Mirrodin’s hot surface. She adjusted her outfit, which was cut strangely high on one leg and pinched in the sternum region. Fabric was so scarce she’d had to cut up Jor-el’s blinkmoth sheets for material. She’d given them to a goblin seamstress to sew, and the resulting dress was not only objectionably reddish but also tribal in style. Plus, the deep claret color and familiar texture of the fabric reminded her of her affair with Jor and all the following unpleasantries.
“I need one of those indestructible flasks Sorin’s always toting around,” she grumbled to herself. “Only ten times bigger.” Liliana pouted, and paced. She kept a languid eye out for anything that might disturb the work at hand, but it was a remote, desolate area she’d chosen and she doubted there was anything alive around.
“At least I don’t smell like Praetor piss anymore,” she said under her breath. She rummaged in her bag. Her fingers closed around a cold convex of metal, recently acquired from the artificer who was her charge. She held the bauble up to the light. It spun above her palm, pristine and mesmerizing. She decided to take out her boredom on her companion.
“I think, back at those abominable volcanic swamps, that you just gave me our first piece of jewelry. Venser, how endearing.”
The artificer was only half-listening to his necromantic companion and shrugged, adjusting something on the gigantic etherium cage that sat sullenly in front of him.
“Had to get rid of that monster.”
“It really was very sweet.”
“Well, first time for everything,” he mumbled, then swore at a bit that came loose from the lattice.
Liliana chuckled, then paused. “Wait, what? Did you say ‘first’?”
“Hmm?” Venser frowned deeply at a part of the metal cage that was more angle than parabola. He dug around in his belt and produced a slender implement of silver that he inserted, then spun.
“‘First’ as in this is the first time you’ve given a girl jewelry?” Liliana tossed her hair over her shoulder and smiled so the dimple in her left cheek manifested. Venser exchanged the first tool for a second. Liliana cleared her throat. “Well?”
“You’re not really a girl.” The artificer spoke words of magic under his breath, and the part of the lattice he worked on began to glow. Liliana’s eyes widened then narrowed in rage, her cheeks flushing. But Venser hadn’t looked up, so he didn’t notice. Liliana bit her lip.
“Fair enough. And you’ve only got eyes for screws, it seems.”
“Uh huh.” A focused beam of blue mana shot from Venser’s index finger to some crevice on the cage Liliana couldn’t see and didn’t care about.
“Few men exist who’ll ignore me saying the word ‘screw.’ You’re a unique one, artificer.”
“How’d the ‘girls’ on Urborg take to your charms?”
“No girls on Urborg.”
“So this really is the first time you’ve given a gir—uh, given a female—jewelry?”
“Ever given guys jewelry?”
“Nevermind. Well, I’m satisfied simply to be one of your firsts, Venser darling.”
A curving piece of etherium settled into place on the cage, finding its proper seat and emitting a musical chime of rightness, and the artificer smiled to himself. Liliana stared at him, intrigued. He wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention to her, his mind focused on his work. His eyes were glowing with a soft inner light that reminded her of dying candles. He had a look of satisfaction on his face that brought a modest, comfortable curve to his lips and a relaxation to his brow that was never there at any other time. Liliana cocked her head, then stepped forward and made as if to touch the delicately wrought cage that would hold a sun—er, suns.
“Don’t touch it!” Venser’s head snapped up and his eyes suddenly looked like a falcon’s, sharp, dark, and bottomless. Liliana held up both hands innocently and amicably. She grinned.
“I was just trying to get your attention. You’re so intense.”
“Oh, right. I’m sorry. What were you saying?”
“I said I was happy to be the first female you’ve gifted a metal trinket.” She held up the talisman, eyes wide. She blinked once, deliberately. It demonstrated—to normal males—vulnerability and trust. Venser stared at the artifact rather than her. Liliana felt her hackles rising, but she couldn’t tell if it was in anger or pleasure. Maybe both.
“Well, there are a lot of things I’ve never done,” Venser finally said. Liliana eyed him shrewdly.
“Expound on ‘a lot of things,’” she ordered, her gaze falling to the tool in his hand.

To be concluded in Return to Argentum: 12...

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