Monday, March 31, 2014

Retribution in Ravnica: Prologue (Part 1 of 2)


The building looked like one gigantic multi-story eyesore of a concrete block. Part of the south face had crumbled away to reveal rusty iron latticework beneath, and many other sections of the building were being aggressively strangled by plaits of invasive ivy. 

From the outside, it was just another run-down post-guildwars structure on the edge of the Izzet industrial district.

Above the building, like faded old lace over dark velour, the ghost city of Agyrem obscured the true sky of Ravnica. A perfect reflection of the real city, Agyrem floated upside-down above the plane linked with Ravnica only at New Prahvand thus creating a sort of hourglass of urbanism that was half-stone and half-spectral. Ever since the angels’ citadel had crashed into Old Prahv, Agyrem had refused to stay still. For a time it layered itself over flesh-and-blood Ravnica like a shadow, then it had flipped and taken its current hovering position in the sky.

Nobody understood what in the name of the Guildpact it was doing, or indeed, what it actually was. Some Orzhov priests had published a widely laughed-at handbill postulating the ghost town was waiting for all Ravnicans to become enlightened enough to ascend into it, at which point the spectral city would turn into a time-traveling ball of light and shuttle all to a new existence on some distant, paradise-like world. Ravnicans could, of course, become “enlightened” by paying the Orzhov Syndicate a nominal fee.

The Boros maintained Agyrem was a manifestation of evil and existed solely to shelter criminal activities, thus the Legion lobbied for increased military defense monies and pledged publicly to purge the abomination from the skies. The golden skyknights and the new angels had, however, made zero progress on that front so far.

The Azorius Senate simply pretended it wasn’t there.

The Gruul worshipped Agyrem as a new type of sky god. The Selesnya Conclave disliked it because it threw copious shade over their beloved Vitu-Ghazi guild tree, but hadn’t taken action against the ghost townyet. The Undercity-focused Golgari hadn’t noticed it at all. The Rakdos, being too high to have any idea what they were looking at, mistook it for a massive cloud of hash-smoke and had rioted for three weeks looking for the “source” of the burn. 

Alas, no titanic stash of drugs was ever found and millions of Cultists went home disappointed, sleep-deprived, and worst of all, stone-cold sober.

The Simic and Izzet conducted tests. The Simic concluded the ghost city was a non-sentient entity of particles bound together by similar sub-atomic harmonics. The Izzet concluded it was a sentient entity of souls bound to the plane by intergenerational familial guilt.

The Dimir decided to live there. And the guildless muttered it was just another plague delivered upon them by the guildsmeanwhile, they’d keep on keepin’ on as the only gainfully employed people on the plane, scratching out an honest existence a hair’s breadth above the poverty line.

Agyrem, a hazy mystery, continued to float unimpressed above Ravnica, City of Guilds. Ravnica, the plane known throughout the multiverse to be entirely covered by urban development. And now, one could say even Ravnica’s sky had been citified. The moon had adjusted herself to the intrusion and began to circle the plane sideways instead of over-and-under. 

Children would often claim to their mothers they could see lost toys and baby stomphowlers alike walking upside-down above them in Agyrem’s spectral shadowy streets.

This night Agyrem floated in a dark sky the color of nightshade.

Below the ghost city, in one corner of the industrial district, there was an ugly concrete building.

And within the building, there was a girl.

Well, she looked a girl. The soft fringe of hair around her face was flaxen-blonde and baby-fine. Her face was thin and vulpine, her skin a geistly shade of baby’s breath. Her eyes were the color of frosted jadeite, and she wore a formal gown of white satin that conservatively covered her arms, neck, and ankles but clung provocatively to her reedy waist. The dress was decorated with only a jet-black sun insignia, stitched perfectly in black pearl and onyx beads upon the bodice.

An ornate hat, also black, fanned out from the girl’s head as she looked slowly from one picture frame to the next out of the many that hung along the walls of the sumptuous scarlet-walled corridor. Her dainty feet clicked along a floor of solid black marble. A chandelier of rubies and flame lit the corridor in flickers of blush, and the lustful light glinted off the picture frames of gold. At the end of the corridor the ceiling rose in staggered arches, and upon a dais was a pedestal and upon the pedestal was a book. The young woman perused the pictures on the wall slowly, musing, taking her time.

A figure appeared on the dais. An old woman with ornately braided hair the color of steel, she was dressed entirely in black. Turning towards the young lady shopping the corridor, the matron gave a deep bow before addressing her.

“Lady Treakoff. It is a blessing, once again, to serve you. Do you see anything you like? Just say the word. Whether it be pledge or mark tonight, we are so honored to accommodate you.” The matron folded her hands in the sleeves of her robes and gazed attentively but unobtrusively at the youthful guest, who gave no sign of having heard the greeting at all.

Raising a delicate hand, the girl traced lightly over one of the portraitsa young man, well-groomed, in Boros colors.

“He’s new, who’s this?” she demanded of the old woman.

“Ah, of course! Lieutenant Carislav is the gentleman’s name. It’s his first night here. He’s a favorite of the Boros legionnaire, but has many ties to Orzhov, which is of course how he was referred to us.”

“Mmmm,” the girl said, but walked past the lieutenant’s picture and didn’t look back. Next she stopped at a very large painting that took up nearly four times the wall space the lieutenant’s did.

“Really, does Amodus ever do any work at all? Every time I’m in here there he islooking smug and taking up more real estate than he deserves. How does he even function in his day job?”

“I’m told the Senate is very generous with paid vacation.” The old woman said this with a raised eyebrow, and Lady Treakoff laughed. The two women smiled at each other with a quiet camaraderie. Then the girl sighed, flouncing up to the dais.

“I’m bored, Lupe. There’s no one interesting here.” She laid her head petulantly down upon the pedestal. “It’s been awhile…”

“About three weeks, I’d guess from your mien.”

“You clever hag, you!”

“You’re tired, dear, been up to things I don’t want to know about, there’s no doubt about it. Let me set you up a mark tonight, and you can just go up to the suite and relax.”

“Alright.” Opal Treakoff kept her head resting on the pedestal, closed her eyes and listened to the old woman scratch some notations into the guest book. Then she heard her move over to the wall and chant a few whispery words. There was a sound like harp strings being strummed, and then a whoosh.

“There. Now don’t worry about a thing, dear. Lupe will take care of it.”

Opal opened her eyes and allowed the old woman to take her hand and help her down from the dais to an imposing ebony door at the end of the hall. Glancing back, Opal saw that a new portrait had appeared in the foremost place on the red walls: it was a picture of her, framed in dully glowing gold, her hands folded primly in a lap of white satinbut with pale green eyes aglint with deviance and desire.

The two women passed through the black doors and the Hall of Marks at the Matchmaker’s was empty once again.
________


Liliana Vess glared at the obscenely thick rug. She mashed her toe into the deep pile, purposefully squashing and defiling the skull-and-nightshade pattern. Seeing the edge of her boot obliterate the symbol of death gave her a perverse pleasurelike self-mutilation, but without the mess.

Maybe she was immature for her age. So what. Hel, after over a hundred years on the run, she’d flayin’ earned it. She listened for footsteps or the fffffwwwooom of a portal door opening, but the only sounds were the muffled cracklings from dual fireplaces at opposite sides of the gigantic hexagonal room. Yawning, she flopped back on the chaise lounge and sank into the arms of a half-dozen velvet pillows. The domed ceiling was covered in an annoyingly precise pattern of tiny gold and black rhomboids that somehow reminded her of her roommate’s tedious personality.

Venser had caught her looking at his journal last week. She’d had her nose buried in the diary, which was little more than sheets of paper with a darksteel staple to hold them together. She’d been enjoying the doodles in the margins as she looked for information Nicol Bolas might find interesting. Apparently she’d been so engrossed with deciphering a sketch labeled “map of human idiocy” (that looked suspiciously like a mashup of genitalia) that she hadn’t heard Venser enter at all. There was a sigh, and when she jerked her head up in surprise, he was leaning against the doorframe wearing his normal facial expression of martyred elitist misanthropy.

“When you signed the demon pact,” he’d said, “Did they tell you it would hamper your emotional maturation as well as prevent you from experiencing the physical effects of aging?”

She’d stuck her tongue out at him.

“It’s obvious that me bringing you back to life has done nothing to rectify you having the personality of a cadaver,” she’d said. Venser had rolled his eyes, then laid down to take a nap. With his back to her. Without even bothering to confiscate the sheaf of notes. So she’d propped her feet up on his desk and finished reading his personal papers at her leisure, to the mood music of Venser’s snoring, and they’d had a peaceful remainder of the evening.

She hadn’t known the artificer that long. Months ago, when she’d arrived injured and desperate on the plane of Mirrodin, she’d revived a convenient nearby corpse to assist her. That corpse had turned out to be Venser. Luck would have it that he possessed a talent in artifice, which had fit into her plans perfectly. So they’d been forced to spend a lot of time together in the recent past.

But I would never have sought out someone like him. They’d completed work on Mirrodin, and he chose wisely to accompany her here, to Ravnica, for her next assignment.

Liliana grinned at the ceiling. Venser hadn’t looked afraid of her in the slightest when he’d walked in and found her violating his privacy. He’d looked amused. There was something very reliable and familiar about the artificer, she’d admit that much. They’d rented out a cheap flat in the Orzhov business district and had been sharing a room since it was only a studio. A bit awkward, since we haven’t fucked. Liliana recalled another recent evening, when Venser had actually rolled out of his bed during a dream, and had stayed asleep even after he hit the floor. Liliana had drawn a mustache and beard on him with her red lipstick, and laughed relentlessly when he woke the next morning cranky, sore, and ruddily hirsute.

The diamond-shaped tiles of the ceiling swirled up to a fake skylight. It was enchanted to show a lovely Ravnican moon (pre-Agyrem), but in reality it was a lid of heavy iron and the room was totally soundproof. Liliana’s grin faded as a thought came to her. Would I call Venser a friend? Liliana was a necromancer, a black mage of immense power and reputation. She charmed men, she used them, she allowed herself to be used by them when it suited her, and she’d done so for over a hundred years. She kept business associates, not friends.

Yet, back on Mirrodin… He was basically my indentured servant. But he'd independently chosen to help her defeat Tezzeret. He could have let the other planeswalker kill her. And in another instance, she’d watched as he'd even attacked an old friend, a golem, to protect their interests...

Well, he’d probably just wanted to keep his artifact from being destroyed, after all the work he’d put into it. Liliana got up and walked to the minibar.

It wasn’t really a minibar. It was a full-size, fully outfitted bar made of polished bone. She poured a hefty four fingers’ worth of expensive peated whisky into a heavy glass and stared out one of the floor-to-ceiling windowswindows enchanted to allow a one-way view out only. Anyone looking at the building from the outside would see only ugly pitted cement, nothing to pique curiosity. In fact, the view looking out was also an enchantment. For Liliana, it showed the sea.

The deep blue reminded her of a particular cloak. That last time she’d been on this plane she could put her hands on that cloak anytime she wanted. She could lean her head on the shoulder of the wearer, and kiss the lips that so often hid within the deep shadows of the hood.

Liliana shot the contents of the glass.

The Matchmaker’s was a unique establishment in Ravnica. Not exactly a brothel, but not exactly a dating service, the business provided high-risk patrons (assassins, planeswalkers, politicians, extremely large non-humanoids, highly volatile elementals, and more) with a safe space to get it onall backed by Orzhov contracts which were backed by other Orzhov contracts which were backed by other various Orzhov failsafes. Privacy and security were guaranteed.

The Hall of Marks was where important or powerful people could shop for a discreet hookup. The Hall resembled a museum room, only it was curated to display pictures of those looking for an intimate encountercalled marks. The shoppers, termed pledges, basically browsed the walls of the hall until they found someone that interested them. While one knew others were using the Matchmaker’s, one never saw them. Through enchantment or other magic, you were always alone in the Hall of Marks. And afterwards, you never remembered the Hall... or the marks that you did not choose. 

Marks and pledges had to be vetted ahead of time, of course. When a pledge found a mark of interest, the Matchmaker would officially record the corresponding Gift in the guest book. The Matchmaker would then take the offer to the mark, and it would either be accepted or rejected.

It had been three weeks. Three weeks. On Mirrodin, Liliana had sacrificed her lover for the greater good, and then had been kept so busy exterminating the Phyrexians she hadn’t had the chance to find a replacement. The only “eligible” personas in not a disembodied goblin’s hand, not a golem with a smoothie (for all she cared to know), not an underage ginger, not a skinless soulless monster, not a maniac with a metal arm who wanted to kill her or a maniac with a flaming rock-fist who wanted to kill herwho’d been around was good ole buzzkill Venser. 

Sure, he had his charming moments, but it was more than a little likely that the only tools he knew how to use were the ones he’d dropped into Mirrodin’s core when Koth attacked them.

Was she being kept waiting on purpose? Perhaps it was a premeditated ploy to make her impatient enough to accept whatever boring pledge Lupe had available. The last time it had been an Azorius justiciar who thought missionary was a legal designation. The time before that it was a Rakdos showman who actually spontaneously combusted during the act. 

At least I didn’t have to pay for that visit. Liliana smiled. She was genuinely fond of the Matchmaker. Much more so than she was of her own biological mother.

“Clever hag,” Liliana muttered at the bar. The Matchmaker was a businesswoman like herself, after all. She knew her trade. She knew her clientele. She had to squeeze every last dollar out of this bitch just like any other entrepreneur on Ravnica.

Liliana refilled her glass and tugged on her disguise. The white satin gown was a bit restrictive, and the long sleeves pinched her in the armpits. She couldn’t wait to take itand the formal sunburst hat and cowl that went with itoff. It was bad enough she had to maintain a glamour that completely altered her appearance. This was her own precaution. Since arriving on Ravnica she’d made sure she and Venser both took on false identities. Hers was a standbyan Orzhov ingenue with flaxen hair and pale, sharp featuresquite different than the dark-haired, full-lipped, decadently curved Liliana known as a dangerous necromancer and seductress across the multiverse.

Liliana always used this room. Suite 7, like all of the Matchmaker’s accommodations, was heavily enchanted to adapt itself to the preferences of the users. It must be an incredibly mana-intensive spell; perhaps that was why the Matchmaker had built this place directly above an underground Izzet refinery. The Matchmaker was probably just siphoning free energy off the experiment-crazed “guild of nerdwankers” as Liliana liked to call them. 

Today, the room’s furnishings were heavy, sturdyof good quality, but not so fancy that you’d think twice about mussing them. Sprawling leather pieces were interspersed with more “feminine” velvet ones, all upholstered in shades of black cherry. An ottoman big enough to be a Masque Street pocket stage especially caught Liliana’s eye. Its fanciful clawfeet were pure, masterfully carved ebony, while its smooth top mischievously reflected the firelight. The ottoman was an inviting surface. 

Adding to the feel of casual luxury were exotic furs and skins strewn about like there’d been an after-plague sale. Liliana recognized brushstrider over the back of an armchair, caracal on a bar stool, watchwolf in front of one fireplace, and a heads-on hellsteed taxidermy above the other. Perhaps the pledge was a Gruul. That’d be refreshingly unique, though probably smelly.

She drank more whisky and smushed another death’s head in the carpet, wondering if any item at all in the room was static.

“I’m not really in a deathly mood, you know,” Liliana said aloud to the rug. “How about some tentacles and booze? You could do it artistically. You know, a classical kraken twining its arms around an abstract holy grail. It needn’t be obvious.”

The rug didn’t answer.

Just then a door materialized in one of the fireplaces and the old woman stepped briskly out of the inky portal. Liliana almost cheered in relief. Let’s get it on. She turned toward the old woman with anticipatioin.

“Lady Treakoff.” Lupe the Matchmaker bobbed her gray-cornrowed head and bowed again.

Liliana inclined her head. She appreciated the use of her alias, but suspected the old woman knew her real identity since she’d been introduced to this service by a childhood friend. Of course, she had so much dirt on that particular friend that her privacy here was ironclad. And on a superficial level, no one would think twice of a “young” woman of one of the lesser houses of Orzhov patronizing a place like this. The Guild of Deals was so overrun with wealthy fetishers and sex addicts it was abnormal for an Orzhov not to have some kind of extremely dirty secret.

“Who is the pledge?” Liliana said in her nasally lilting Opal Treakoff voice, adjusting the deep folds of her full white skirt and raising a hand to lift her black veil. The matchmaker beamed at her with what seemed like true affection.

“Dear, we have something very special for you this evening, if you are so inclined.” The Matchmaker was nearly gigglingshe couldn’t contain herself. “A very unique guest has pledged your mark. He sent this as a Gift.” Lupe snapped her fingers. 

Two greyish-skinned thrulls appeared, pulling and shoving a statue through the magical door. The Matchmaker clasped her hands and looked at Liliana expectantly. Liliana snorted before she remembered she was supposed to be in character as someone else.

The statue was a satyr and nymph, engaged in very… flexible carnal relations. It was carved from garnetnot pieces fused, but one whole stonea stone the size of a horse.

Liliana calculated the statue to be worth approximately the value of all of New Prahv. Or one of Niv-Mizzet’s scales. Quite a gift, indeed. No wonder the Matchmaker was ecstatic: the host was entitled to a percentage of the Gifts pledged. If sheOpal Treakoffaccepted the offer, the Matchmaker would score about a mil in zinos. Then Liliana noticed the pinkish fissure just slightly visible in the left side of the nymph’s derriere. The walker’s eyes narrowed.

“But that’s not garnet.” Liliana spoke her surprised thoughts aloud. “That’s sangrite.”

The old woman’s jaw dropped. She pulled a monocle the thickness of a sea slug from her pocket and held it to her eye, motioning the thrulls to stand back. She honed in on the statue, while Liliana mused for both of their benefit.

“Lupe, that tacky statue is worth the monetary value of this entire city.” A little less on Shandalar, a little more on Kamigawa, Liliana added to herself.  “There are only a handful of beings who can command that amount of sangrite. When were you going to tell me that my pledge is most certainly not a human, and likely a demon or other

Lupe’s head snapped up. “Don’t get all high-and-mighty on me, missy,” she said, as she put the monocle back in her robes and regarded Liliana with a formidable stare the color of petrified newts. “Keep your corset on. I know all about you and yourpersonal problems.” Liliana had to smile at the old woman’s absolute fearlessness.

The Matchmaker continued. “I was mistaken, I admit it. The old eyes aren’t as sharp as they used to be… and I was staring at the satyr’s snuffpipe, not the nymph’s badonka, if you must know.” The old woman jerked a thumb towards the parlor. “The pledged has himself all done up in a dandy’s glamour out there. I knew he wasn’t human, but I didn’t know he was a demon.”

“Okay,” said Liliana. She stood up, considering. With the statue, she’d never have to work another job. She and Venser could walk somewhere else, buy an entire plane, never answer to anyone again. Liliana blinked. Then she frowned.

The necromancer put her hands to her head, massaging her temples viciously.

She felt relieved as a flood of less surprising thoughts flowed into her mind. This gift will make me the most powerful woman on this plane. She could bribe all the officials in Ravnica, deprive Jace of any effective power as the Living Guildpact, oust him that way. It was enough to pay for other spies to do her recon work involving Niv-Mizzet, more than enough to buy infinite Dimir hits to take care of that “Emmara” elvish problem… Perhaps it was enough to procure some ancient artifact she could trade to the old gods for her brother’s soul. Maybe she could flip it into something even Bolas would value, and finally convince him to help free her from her obligations.

Or.

Demon. It could be a demon baiting her, knowing her tendencies and weaknesses, perhaps a descendant of Kothophed or the other soul-suckers holding the contract on her essence. It could be a trap. How they might have tracked her to this obscure and closely-guarded place she didn’t know, but it was a possibility. They could have, if they took their horned heads out of their bungs long enough to think rationally and do their research. They might have. Liliana felt herself breaking into a cold sweat.

“Lady Treakoff, if I mayI did verity circle him, my lady.” The Matchmaker was wringing her hands, no doubt thinking of the zinos falling through her gnarled grasp if this pledge went awry. “He affirmed he has no ill intentions.”

Liliana was stone still. She admitted to herself the level of her temptation. There were maybe one or two exceptions, but on the whole she was rarely satisfied. Her eyes blazed at the thought of having one of the infernal as a sparring partner. I make them all want me. They lose themselves, grovel at my feet. Liliana knew she had to have the notch in her belt. She knew her answer to the Matchmaker. And if it’s a trap, and he tries to kill me, I’ll kill him first. Liliana briefly remembered the paralyzing fear even the mention of demons stirred in her when she was in her 120s. She smirked inwardly. The 130s were a whole new game. Power. When they’re lost, I’m free. 

“There must have been other times when you felt free,” Venser said. Had said. On Mirrodin.

Liliana scowled. The Matchmaker quailed and raised her hands as if in prayer. Praying I accept this deal, you greedy sag-bag. Liliana laughed and stepped forward, placing her fingers reassuringly on the old woman’s shoulder. She beamed down at Lupe.

“Let’s do it.” Opal Treakoff said, in a distinctly Liliana way. “Bring the bad boy in.” 

The Matchmaker sighed heavenward with orgasmic relief and was only too happy to oblige.
_________________


...to be continued in Prologue: Part 2

Retribution in Ravnica
an original Magic: The Gathering fan fiction
#RIRfic 

2 comments:

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