The days off had done the artificer some good—at least superficially.
Glancing into the full-length mirror at Beatrix’s, Venser estimated he’d gained about five pounds (probably all fat from the exclusively deep-fried Schmazzgordios Guild diet, but still progress), and he figured he didn’t look quite as pale as usual. Urza—was that even a bit of tanned glow on his face? Looking at himself so long made Venser feel strange and he quickly turned away and threw his cloak over the mirror. Then he pushed open the bedroom door and headed for Beatrix’s kitchen.
The smell of fried moa eggs and slightly burned bread greeted him—the same breakfast he’d enjoyed every morning for the last five days. Venser smiled to himself.
Beatrix spun around as soon as she heard his footstep on the kitchen tile. Her high-voltage ivory grin was in place. “Good morning, slacker!” she chirped, waving a spatula and flicking hot oil everywhere. Venser dodged and ran his fingers through his hair. He offered up a grin to the Izzet mage, noticing how crookedly her apron was tied on over her gear. Beatrix saw him looking and blushed lightly, turning away to flip the eggs on the stove—though they were already twice as crispy as they should have been.
Venser slid into a seat at the kitchen table. He had a strange flutter of deja vu as he did so… and it felt like the shadow of some winged thing passing over his heart. Well, I have been here for nearly a week… it is getting repetitive he reasoned.
“All right, eats’re on!” Beatrix bounced over and clattered a plate down onto her place at the table, then tried to set Venser’s more gracefully in front of him. An egg slid off and landed with a wet plop on the smooth wood. Beatrix gasped in horror and bit her lip, reaching for the egg.
“Don’t worry about it,” Venser said, staying her hand. He plucked the fried monstrosity up in his fingers and put it directly into his mouth. “It’s delicious,” he said through a mouthful of egg whites so crispy it felt like his gums were being stabbed. Beatrix blushed again and looked away.
A few seconds later pint glasses full of orange juice crashed down next to each of their plates. Venser swallowed the egg painfully and reached eagerly for his beverage. His throat was grateful for the fresh juice that slid coolly down.
“So,” Beatrix was saying. “It’s been great, but I have like a million messages from Ral about work. Pretty much used up all my time off this week… not that it wasn’t time well spent,” she added, more softly. Venser drank more juice.
A million messages from Ral. Venser resisted the urge to grin maniacally into his cup.
“I definitely have to go in today,” Beatrix said, like it was the end of the world. She stabbed apathetically at her food, chewing it with robotic dedication.
“That’s my cue to leave, isn’t it,” Venser said. He nodded matter-of-factly as he wrestled with some charred bread. He wondered how many people Liliana had killed since he’d been gone.
“No, no, that’s not what I was saying—not necessarily…” Beatrix dropped her gaze and covered her latest blush with gulps of orange juice.
Some hairs stood up on the back of Venser’s neck.
“I mean, you could stay, if you wanted to,” Beatrix continued. She put her game face on and smiled directly at him, meeting Venser’s gray eyes with her own electric blue ones. “I like having you around, Luke.”
Venser ran his hand through his hair. This was not in the plan. Beatrix was like—twenty? Or whatever Ravnica’s equivalent for that was. Weren’t guildmages her age supposed to be out for fun and romps? And I have certainly not checked those boxes while I’ve stayed with her Venser reassured himself. I’m just old buzzkill Venser, doing nothing and disappointing everyone. So if that was true, why was Beatrix looking at him like that?
Phyrexian cocks. Venser took a long drink of juice.
When he set the glass down, he felt completely calm. “Beatrix,” he finally said. “I kind of like living alone.”
Beatrix looked perplexed. “But you don’t live alone. Ral told me you have an Orzhov roommate.”
Venser felt white-hot flames of rage shoot up in his gullet. His face didn’t change. “So… you discussed me… with your boss?” Venser raised an eyebrow at the fluxmage. Beatrix looked away guiltily. Venser felt guilty, too, but this was his only out. “I like my privacy, you know.”
Beatrix nodded. “Sorry,” she murmured. Venser stood up, feeling extremely nauseated. He’d never seen the Izzet look so de-energized and deflated. He reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. She looked up, her bright blue eyes shining and open and trustworthy and honest. And hopeful.
“Look, Beatrix. Living with my… housemate is basically like living alone. Orzhov are the deadest living people on the plane, right?” Venser was grateful to see Beatrix giggle. “I’m still getting used to this… Azorius thing, you know. Work. I’m not a social butterfly like your… other friends. And I mean that in the best way. The last few days have been great. It’s just… not me. Does that make any sense? Probably not, and even if not... Is it alright with you if we part on good terms?”
As Beatrix considered his words, Venser used the moments of quiet to memorize a few facets of her face. The dimple in her lower left cheek. The beauty mark above her right eye. The length of her dark lashes.
“That’s fine, Luke. Take care, will you?” Beatrix reached out and took his hand, squeezed it once.
“Thank you,” Venser said, sliding out of her grip. He bowed his head to her. “If I’ve somehow imposed—”
“No, you’ve been nothing but a perfect gentleman,” Beatrix said with a sigh. “Though to be honest, some nights I was wishing you weren’t…”
Venser raised his head and looked at her. “You know how it is with constructs,” he said, smiling weakly. “You can animate them, but it doesn’t mean they’re alive.”
Beatrix grinned ruefully and nodded. “Get outta here,” she said with a laugh and a wave of her hand. Venser did.
But a half hour later when he’d gotten dressed, gathered his things, and stood outside in the street in front of Beatrix’s apartment, he glanced in her window and noticed the fluxmage still sat where he’d left her, in front of a cold breakfast.
“Godsdamnit, Bolas, that was my favorite toenail!” The demon lord writhed in agony upon a barbed wire rack somewhere in the bowels of Grixis, upon the plane of Alara.
“Such a drama king,” Nicol Bolas chastised. “You have seven more.”
“Stop, stop!” Nefarox shrieked as Bolas raised the red-hot tongs once again.
“Yes?” the Elder Dragon paused, fixing the demon lord with one huge green eye.
“Alright, alright, if I tell you something, will you leave off?” Nefarox panted.
“If it’s something useful, yes,” Bolas replied.
Nefarox rolled his eyes. “Okay. Here’s what I know: She was big into investigating spectral phenomenon right before she vanished from Dominaria. She ran experiments, recruited demons to try stuff out, even tried to bring back some characters… I think the names I heard from Crosis were like ‘the Weaver’ or something and ‘Freyalice.”
“And your understanding of the purpose of her experiments and investigations…?”
“Seemed like she wanted to crack the secret of creating phantasmal infrastructure.”
Kos stumbled through the wall of Tajic’s office and sat down to wait. His memories of human physics were getting the best of him. He’d used the last of his imagination to walk through that wall, and now there was no way he could levitate. The ghost of the old man slouched heavily against the smooth stones of Sunhome, the Boros compound where he’d spent much of his previous life. He relaxed back into the shadow of a large file cabinet, and berated himself into staying awake.
Agrus Kos, ex-wojek and current bigwig spectral investigator, was tired. And drunk.
The office of the Blade of the Legion was immaculate and, in Kos’s humble opinion, quite a bit too ornate for a military man. The over-the-hill inspector eyed the gilded vases on Tajic’s desk with a distasteful squint.
“Maybethat’swhy... he’s got the jones for Teysa,” Kos slurred to himself. “Trying to get hishands on… allofthose fancy Orzhov interiorthings...”
A door in an exterior hallway clanged and Kos got more alert. The Red Moon banquet should have just ended, and the legion would be heading to bed or heading out to get into mischief. Kos stared stoically at Tajic’s office door. He was here to find out one thing only, and he knew the legionnaire had to stop by the office to key the final security code for the night. The sound of uneven, heavy footsteps got closer. Kos counted two people from the pattern of footfalls.
“Interesssssting. Kinda late for an officers’ meeting.” Kos flicked his bam-stick out from habit. Of course, this was a spectral model and only stunned, instead of incinerating. But it still made him feel better to have it pointed at the door.
The gold-inlaid door creaked open and Kos saw the familiar lights of the halls of Sunhome glint off of impeccably sculpted armor. The sexy silhouette of Tajic, Blade of the Legion pushed open the door and fell back into his own office. A young soldier appeared to have his or her arms wrapped around Tajic’s neck.
Kos smirked and yawned. Yep, kinda late for an officers’ meeting.
“Did you hear something?” Tajic’s companion said, sticking its head up over the legionnaire’s shoulder and peering into the office.
Well fuck Szadek in the ear… Kos shook his head in the shadows. If it isn’t Wenslauv Junior.
“I heard nothing. Perhaps you’re just nervous,” Tajic said, as he soothingly stroked Junior’s long auburn ponytail. The leggy skyjek frowned and pushed her way past Tajic into the dark office.
“No. I’m sure I heard something,” she said. Tajic shrugged and touched a small, ornate lantern near the door. It flared to an orange brightness. “I felt a presence,” Junior insisted.
Good. Sticking to your guns. Following your instincts. Your mother would be proud… Kos watched Junior’s wary eyes, the prodigal roc-rider ignoring Tajic’s very patronizing, amused stare as he tracked the movements of her body with patient, deeply earth-colored eyes.
Wenslauv Jr. put her hands on her hips and pursed her lips at the office in general when she failed to find anything unusual. Kos’s cloaking spell had melded him completely with the file cabinet’s shadow, so she’d looked right past him. The old wojek chuckled to himself. Still a lot for these young’uns to learn.
Tajic came up behind Junior and put his hands on her armored hips, leaning down slightly to brush his lips against her cheek.
The young skyknight raised a hand to hold him off. “Johann told me never to trust a trustworthy-looking room,” she said.
Tajic paused. His face visibly darkened in aspect and Kos felt a pang of empathy for the commander. “I have thought of Johann every day since the Vraska incident,” Tajic said, his voice low with emotion, “But let’s not speak of him just now…”
Wenslauv Jr. nodded. She began to ungird herself with the same speed her mother used to fling grenades. Kos felt his heart constrict. He missed Wenslauv Sr. as his partner, as his friend, and as a person that made life seem more hopeful.
A breastplate and gauntlet clattered to the floor. Junior’s skin was a dull ivory in the low light of Tajic’s office. The commander reached out and removed Junior’s helm from her head. A cascade of red hair fell down upon her angular shoulders.
The young skyjek turned where she stood, presenting her half-naked body to her commanding officer. Tajic looked down at her appreciatively. His fingers slid across Junior’s fair shoulders, his lips touched her forehead.
“Excuse me, Legionnaire,” Kos said, materializing into sight.
“Gods have mercy!” Tajic shouted, jumping back. Kos enjoyed the fleeting terrified expression on Tajic’s face immensely, but to his credit the commander had recovered and had a dagger in each hand half a breath later. Wenslauv Jr. spun towards the sound of Kos’s voice and already had her sword drawn. Kos winced as he noticed how perky Junior’s small breasts looked in the low lamplight. The old wojek put up a reassuring hand and turned his gaze away, making sure to put on his “sober voice.”
“Junior, it’s me, Kos. Do you mind, um—”
“Uncle Kos?!” Wenslauv Jr. screeched, dropping her sword and throwing her arms over her exposed chest. “For Razia’s sake—what in the bloody gobber ass are you doing here!” The young skyknight was glaring at Kos furiously, he could see that much as he peeked through his fingers. Tajic looked shocked at Junior’s outburst, which made Kos chuckle again.
Swearing like merchant’s bastard. Her mother wouldn’t approve, but I’m proud.
“I’m sorry for my bad timing,” Kos said. Junior had snatched one of Tajic’s spare cloaks off the wall and jerked it on to cover her nakedness. It was presumptuous of the skyjek to touch the commander’s clothes without his permission, and from that Kos knew this wasn’t their first tryst.
“Like hells you’re sorry,” Junior was muttering. She crossed her arms and sulked at him. Now Tajic’s placid, charming smile was back and he chuckled too as he sheathed his daggers. With the grace of a panther Tajic pulled out his desk chair for Junior and motioned her to make herself comfortable. Then the Blade of the Legion grinned up at Kos.
“Chief Inspector. To what do we owe this pleasant surprise?”
How does he keep his teeth that white? It’s unnatural. Kos realized he was squinting at the commander and cleared his throat. “I have a question for you, Legionnaire.”
“You have permission to ask me anything, Kos. You know that.”
“Do you know where Feather is?” Kos felt a surge of adrenaline flood his body as he spoke the name, and it felt good. He wouldn’t have to fake being clear-headed, now.
Tajic blinked carefully. His dark gaze fell to the bam-stick in Kos’s hand. Then the commander put a hand on Wenslauv Jr.’s shoulder. “Regina, you should go.”
“I think I should stay,” Junior said, turning her glare from Kos to Tajic.
The commander casually clasped both hands behind his back. “Soldier, you are relieved for the evening. Return to the garrison,” Tajic ordered, his voice notably cool. Wenslauv Jr.’s jaw dropped.
She stood, nearly as tall as the commander, and raised her chin defiantly. “I cannot believe th—”
“And take an extra cleaning shift at the roc stalls in the morning.”
“Three shifts. Was there anything else, soldier?” Tajic looked pointedly and dispassionately at Junior. Kos would have felt bad for her, but it was just too funny. Plus, she was asking for it with all the insubordinance.
Junior finally shut her mouth. She gave a stiff, perfect salute. But as she did so she made sure to let the cloak fall away from her body, basically thrusting her breasts in Tajic’s face. The commander’s cheeks darkened as he set his mouth in a firm line and turned his full attention to Kos. Wenslauv Jr. stalked out of the room like a queen, still wearing Tajic’s cloak and letting her armor dangle in her hand. She shut the door just slightly too hard. After her footsteps receded down the hall, both men exhaled a little.
“You okay with her going out like that? Your cloak is pretty recognizable,” Kos said.
Tajic shrugged. “I’ve never understood why soldiers have to so devoutly hide who their lovers are.”
Kos raised his eyebrows. “You’re quite the romantic.”
Tajic smiled and looked at Kos quizzically. “Aren’t you, Inspector?”
The street opened up to the frontage of 111 Sterling and Venser felt a strange sensation as he grasped the handle of the door; spoke the recognition words. It was a settling feeling, a calm that fell over him and seemed to make his mind sensitive to everything familiar about his surroundings. The wisteria trellis seemed to nod at him as he pushed the door open; the scent of new rugs and stained wood felt like it pulled him inward. Even the antagonistic quartet of crows that raked his ears with insults were like old friends welcoming him home. He stepped across the threshold of the building and shut the door behind him.
“Master Venser!” Doorkeeper’s sincere voice brought a smile to the artificer’s face. He looked up at the indefatigable homunculus that kept vigil over their front door.
“I’m back,” Venser said simply. Doorkeeper nodded happily, his mouth wide in a sharp-toothed, drooly grin.
“Coffee?” the homunculus said, and it gave Venser pause—something about the tone, the brevity. Did Doorkeeper just imply… did he just crack a joke?... Venser eyed the door warden. Doorkeeper looked neutral and attentive and transparent as ever, blinking his one huge oceanic eye.
The artificer shrugged. “Sure, coffee would be great.”
The homunculus had a good brew going in seconds, and the fragrant burbling made the settling feeling even stronger. Venser furrowed his brow—it was a strange and foreign feeling. Even when he’d returned to Urborg after all the escapades with Jhoira… the main sensation he’d felt when he set foot on the swampland of his birthplace was mild disappointment.
“Doorkeeper, want to bring up a bottle of wine from the cellar, too? We should celebrate.”
“Which bottle would the Lord prefer?” Doorkeeper asked with a quirk of his eye.
“Dealer’s choice,” Venser said. The homunculus disappeared with short quick steps down the wine cellar stairs.
Venser cocked his ear upwards, listening for any sign of his housemate. He imagined her coming down from her floor at any moment, grilling him about where he’d been and berating him for whatever imaginary wrongs he’d done during his vacation.
Beatrix might have been hurt, and Liliana might have slept with Ral, but it didn’t matter. Venser was home, and it was a good feeling.
Doorkeeper popped up with a serious bottle, and Venser opened it with giddily shameful bad form—shreds of foil and bits of cork littered the counter by the time he was done.
“Jor is rolling in his grave,” Venser murmured to himself, his glee sharpened, thinking of all the times he’d had to watch the cleric pour wine for Liliana with perfect precision. “Ah, I guess he’s not dead, so he’s… rolling in the Mirrodin sun, where we put him! Anyway, he’d twist if he saw us now,” Venser said to himself, still smiling. Doorkeeper got three goblets, grinning at the artificer even though he had no idea who Jor was or what in the Abyss the Master was talking about.
Venser splashed blood-red wine into the trio of glasses and toasted Doorkeeper.
“To being back,” he said. The homunculus clinked stemware with him and they tasted the fine wine with mutual grins on their faces.
“Is Lil—I mean, Liliana—here?” Venser asked Doorkeeper. The homunculus nodded.
“The Lady hasn’t left the building yet, today, Master.”
“Oh good, I should take her up some of this.”
“Yes, my Lord.” Doorkeeper bowed before jumping back up to his vigil.
Venser raised his glass at the homunculus again. “Thanks, Doorkeeper. Good to see you. Good to be back.” Then the artificer went up the stairs.
“Lil…” Venser turned the knob and pushed open the door to his roommate’s part of the building, hoping to get her opinion on the wine he’d brought up to share with her.
Venser blinked. Liliana was finally using her egregiously ornate bed, it seemed. And It appeared as though she was hanging from the infrastructure of the canopy. She wasn’t wearing any clothes. And standing behind her, also unclothed, was—
“Oh, hey. You must be Venser. I’m Ral.” A buck-naked mage had one hand raised in greeting, the forearm decorated with a faded dragon tattoo. The other hand was holding… some kind of caliper.
Venser’s housemate craned her head around from its lofty position above the mattress.
“Get out!” Liliana hissed at him venomously. The Izzet mage reached up and rapped her on the thigh with the metal tool.
“Calm down. Don’t you guys lock your doors?” Ral was saying to her nonchalantly. “It’s not his fault.”
Liliana ignored Ral and narrowed her eyes at Venser. “What are you doing here?”
“As cliched as it sounds, I was just leaving,” Venser said.
“Good,” Liliana spat.
“Looks like it,” Venser returned.
“Nice to meet you,” Ral said.
Venser shut the door. He hadn’t meant to slam it, but the sound reverberated throughout the hall for a second or two.
...to be continued in Chapter 13: Over the Mountain
Retribution in Ravnica
an original Magic: The Gathering fan fiction